Political Corner: S.C. Debate and the Black Vote

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Michael Fauntroy, author of Republicans and the Black Vote, talk to Juan Williams about the upcoming presidential debate in South Carolina and how it might affect black voters.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this NEWS & NOTES.

NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams brings us this week's Political Corner.

JUAN WILLIAMS: I'm joined by Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000. Ms. Brazile now runs her own political consulting firm in Washington. Also with us, Michael Fauntroy. Mr. Fauntroy is a professor of political science at George Mason University. Mr. Fauntroy is the author of "Republicans and the Black Vote."

Donna, Michael, thanks for joining us this week on Political Corner.

Professor MICHAEL FAUNTROY (Political Science, George Mason University): It's good to be with you.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Managing Director, Brazile and Associates): Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: There's a big debate coming up among Democrats in South Carolina. According to the polls there, Hillary Clinton has some tremendous strength in the southern part of the United States. According to a poll, 33 percent of likely primary voters in the South support Hillary Clinton; Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, an African-American, has 26 percent; and a native of the South, South Carolinan John Edwards is third with 21 percent of the vote.

Now Edwards, as you know, won the South Carolina primary in 2004. Donna Brazile, why are the Democratic debates starting in South Carolina, and how important is it that in a Southern state with a large black electorate, especially among Democrats, Hillary Clinton is holding the lead?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, first of all, the Democratic National Committee voted last year to bring two more states into the fold - Nevada with five electoral votes, and South Carolina with eight electoral votes. So the road to the White House this year will not only go through Cedar Rapids and Nashua, but also through Columbia as well as Las Vegas.

So we're excited about the prospects of that in these two states. South Carolina is one of the reddest states in America. I don't believe Democrats have a chance of winning that state. But Hillary Clinton, as you well know, has shown some early support in the South. She's not only gaining support among African-Americans, she is running very strong with African-American voters, but she has a solid lead among women voters.

WILLIAMS: Donna, you said you don't think she can win South Carolina, in the Democratic primary or in the general elections?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, I was referring to the general election. I think in the primary - the primaries will be very competitive. I think, you know, at the moment she is leading, but I've seen polls that show Barack Obama in the lead. I've seen polls that show John Edwards, who won the state in 2004; after all, he was born in South Carolina. They know him quite well. I think South Carolina is still up for grabs.

WILLIAMS: Michael, what is it that you think the candidates, and let's just start with the top three - Clinton, Obama and Edwards - need to accomplish in this debate?

Prof. FAUNTROY: Well, let me start with Edwards. I think he is someone who has to be able to establish himself as someone who, despite his success in 2004 and being seen sort of as the third of the three top tier candidates this time, has to be shown as someone who can win, and someone who can be seen as a viable alternative to both Obama and to Mrs. Clinton.

Obama, in my opinion, has to continue to introduce himself to the voters and get folks comfortable with the idea of having someone with the limited amount of experience he has actually winning not just their primary, but the nomination and then the presidency.

And Hillary Clinton needs to remind people of what she's all about and the issues for which she is prepared to fight. You know, she's going to be really tested in this debate, I believe, with regard to Iraq and her unwillingness to say that her vote was a mistake. I'm sure John Edwards is going to jump on her about that.

WILLIAMS: Donna Brazile, two state senators in South Carolina made news earlier in the year when they declared that they were supporting Hillary Clinton because Barack Obama, the African-American, didn't have a chance to win. And if he was the Democratic Party's nominee, not only would the party lose the White House, they would lose the Senate, the Congress, governorships. Then it was revealed that these men were on Hillary Clinton's payroll. What impact is that having in the state of South Carolina as we approach the debate?

Ms. BRAZILE: Almost no impact whatsoever. Look, Barack Obama has been in the state numerous times. He just appointed a state director. He has broad support in the state. I think, again, this race is totally wide-open despite all of the early polls out there and what you're hearing from the pundits. Look, these candidates, especially the top-tier candidates, must go in there and try to set the stage for the rest of the summer.

I also believe this is an opportunity for what I call the second-tier candidates - Joe Biden of Delaware, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and of course Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico - to also make an opportunity to make a case for their candidacies and to really talk about the issues that they care about. Iraq will be a very important issue. But I also think health care - John Edwards is the only candidate running with a plan. Also, his plan includes raising taxes, especially on the wealthiest one percent of Americans.

And look for Dennis Kucinich - a wildcard in this race - to talk about impeaching Dick Cheney, which he just put forward this week as a legislative proposal. So this is going to be a very exciting debate, and the American people will have an opportunity to see the Democratic candidates address these important issues from Iraq to domestic issues as well.

WILLIAMS: Well, Michael, in fact, Donna mentioned Dennis Kucinich. What about some of these other candidates - Joe Biden, Chris Dodd? Do you expect any of them to suddenly make a statement, take a position in some way, do something that would allow them to gain some momentum coming out of this debate in South Carolina?

Prof. FAUNTROY: Well, they're going to have to, because if they don't they're going to end up as political road kill, quite frankly. Dennis Kucinich and his announcement that he's going to move to try to get the vice president impeached is, to me, a pretty savvy political move. He's not someone who can win this nomination, but he's raising an issue that's going to make the other candidates uncomfortable in a debate setting.

And for Dodd and Biden, these are people with tremendous amounts of experience but haven't been able to break through. And one or both of them will have to do that in this debate, or it's going to be difficult for them to continue.

WILLIAMS: All right. Michael Fauntroy is a professor of political science at George Mason University - he's the author of "Republicans and the Black Vote" -and Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000. She now runs her own political consulting firm in Washington, and is at the last days of her time as a professor - actually, just for this semester, is that right, Donna, at Georgetown University?

Ms. BRAZILE: That's correct. I'll be returning in the fall, but I enjoyed teaching at Georgetown. I know Michael enjoyed teaching as well, and as you know, we're preparing for finals. So, good luck to all of my students and Michael's students as well.

Prof. FAUNTROY: Thank you. They're going to need it.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

WILLIAMS: All right. Thank you, Donna. Thank you, Michael.

Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you, Juan.

Prof. FAUNTROY: Thanks.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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