Time For 'Brass Tacks' In Presidential Campaign

The presidential election is less than three weeks away, and Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain had their final debate Wednesday. Democratic strategist Mark Mellman and conservative columnist David Frum talk with Steve Inskeep about the final stretch of the campaign.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

I'm Steve Inskeep. And of all the questions we have this morning for our Democratic and Republican political analysts, one stands above all others. The analysts are Democratic strategist Mark Mellman joining us once again. Good morning.

Mr. MARK MELLMAN (Democratic Strategist): Good morning. How are you?

INSKEEP: And conservative columnist, David Frum, good morning again to you.

Mr. DAVID FRUM (Conservative Columnist): Good morning.

INSKEEP: And the question first to you Mr. Frum is if you still see a way for John McCain to win the presidential race?

Mr. FRUM: Oh absolutely for sure. All he has to do is raise the Dow Jones average by 5,000 points in the next two weeks and raise housing prices by 20 percent and the job is his.

INSKEEP: OK, that's easy. But is there a serious way, a serious way that he could turn this conversation around?

Mr. FRUM: It has been true from the beginning for John McCain that his hopes rested on mistakes by his opponent. This was a natural challenger's year. The election is going to be a referendum on the challenger. The challenger had to prove himself unacceptable. That's the reason why negative advertising has had such a big place. What you're really counting on the challenger to do - make a slip or do something on his own, to give you an opportunity to expose him and that's unacceptable.

INSKEEP: And this is the candidate Barack Obama who has avoided mistakes in high-profile occasions like debates.

Mr. FRUM: Exactly. And that's why the debates have been so boring. His job is just to go there and snooze through them and be acceptable. That's all he has to be.

INSKEEP: Now let's bring in Mark Mellman now, Democratic strategist and a regular guest in this program. And let me put the same question to you, Mark. Isn't it a situation even though Obama is ahead in the polls? Isn't it a situation where McCain just has to win most of the states that President Bush carried in 2004 and he can still pull this out?

Mr. MELLMAN: Well, that's right. But that's a huge task. I mean I grew up in Ohio where the state motto is With God all things are possible and that's definitely true. But we're about at the stage where we'll take either divine intervention for McCain to win or complacency on the part of Democrats and I don't see either of those likely to happen. The fact is Senator Obama is maintaining a very consistent lead in the National popular vote and that's translating into significant leads in a whole lot of states that George Bush won four years ago.

INSKEEP: Are there still a lot of undecided voters, gentlemen?

Mr. MELLMAN: There are a lot of undecided voters and the way those undecided voters break could close that margin. But it's just very unlikely that Senator McCain's going to be able to pull this out without a fundamental change in the dynamic of the race. And let's be honest, he's had three chances in these debates with tens of millions of Americans watching to change the dynamic and he's failed each of those times - having failed when the eyes of the country are upon him, having failed to change the dynamic. Hard to imagine what he's going to do in the next couple of weeks that he couldn't do during the debate.

INSKEEP: David Frum, is there any chance that undecided voters could break for McCain at the very end the way that they broke for Al Gore and almost got him the election in 2000?

Mr. FRUM: It's possible and it's certainly true that undecided voters are low-information voters, probably more conservative-minded. But I think on the whole or probably not - I mean undecided voters typically break for the challenger. Undecided voters tend to be more female than male, tend to be more young than old and those are not good demographics for John McCain. And look, if I was running the Republican party right now, I would be putting my investment not into trying to round up these undecided voters but into trying to hold on to Senate seats and there's a real risk that a too big last minute monetary push into John McCain may leave candidates like Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina in trouble. And I think Republicans will feel a lot better losing the presidential race 53-47 but ending with 43 or 44 Senate seats than losing at 51-49 and having 40 Senate seats.

INSKEEP: Oh, because they could get down to - if Democrats have 60, they have veto or that's a filibuster-proof majority in the United States Senate. Gentlemen, thanks very much. I appreciate it.

Mr. FRUM: Thank you.

Mr. MELLMAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: David Frum is a conservative columnist and Mark Mellman is a Democratic strategist; both regular guests on this program helping us to analyze the election.

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