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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, I'm Farai Chideya. For Monday, February 18th, this is News and Notes.

(Soundbite of Music)

CHIDEYA: From NPR News, This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. John McCain gets a presidential seal of approval - that is, today the first President Bush endorsed the Senator from Arizona.

President GEORGE BUSH: No one is better prepared to lead our nation at these trying times than Senator John McCain.

CHIDEYA: Plus with voting contests in Hawaii and Wisconsin tomorrow, could Senator Obama or Clinton clinch the Democratic nomination? NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving is with us now. Ron.

RON ELVING: Hello, Farai, how are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So on the Republican side, John McCain received Mitt Romney's endorsement late last week. And this morning, the first President Bush, H.W., endorsed McCain. So the former president had a few words for folks who'd been attacking McCain's record.

Pres. BUSH: If you've been around the track, you hear these criticisms. And I think they are grossly unfair. He's got a record that everybody can analyze in the Senate, a sound, conservative record. And yet he's not above reaching out to the other side. So I hear criticisms, and Barbara knows, I get a little bit annoyed about them, frankly.

CHIDEYA: President George H.W. Bush wasn't a favorite among conservative voters, Ron. So how much does this endorsement really help Senator McCain among that group of voters?

ELVING: It's not as though Ronald Reagan had returned from the dead to deliver his own endorsement of John McCain, but it's all good. It's Presidents' Day. You want to line up some people who have presidential credibility, and you want to say John McCain is going to be in the pantheon of Republican presidents. It's interesting that Jeb Bush, the other son of H.W. Bush has been mentioned as a someday presidential candidate, had already come out for John McCain. And I think we've heard enough support from George W. Bush, the current president, that we can pretty much assume that as soon as it's official and he has - John McCain has enough delegates to be nominated, the White House Bush current will also get on the band wagon.

CHIDEYA: Now, Mitt Romney said he's going to release his delegates to McCain. What does that mean, and how does that differentiate from him simply stepping aside?

ELVING: It means that he is no longer nursing any hopes or thinking that he's only suspended his campaign and might want to get back into it. He's willing to let his people go to John McCain, and some of them will. Some of them won't. Some of them will want to go to the convention uncommitted and wait for some miracle to produce a second Ronald Reagan, I guess. I don't think Mike Huckabee will stay in the race after March 4th, where we have Ohio and Texas voting in one day. As of March 4th, I feel certain John McCain will have amassed enough delegates - 1,191 - to be the presumptive nominee.

CHIDEYA: So on the Democratic side, the Wisconsin primaries are tomorrow. Let's listen to what the two candidates had to say this weekend.

Senator HILARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): There's a big difference between us: speeches versus solutions, talk versus action. You know, some people may think words are change. But you and I know better. Words are cheap. I know it takes work.

CHIDEYA: That was Senator Clinton. Let's listen to Senator Obama's response while in Wisconsin.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): It's true that speeches don't solve our problems. But what is also true is if we cannot inspire the country to believe again, then it doesn't matter how many policies and plans we have. And that is why I'm running for president of the United States of America, and that's why we just won eight election straight because the American people want to believe in change again. Don't tell me words don't matter.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

CHIDEYA: Don't tell me words don't matter. It is definitely a literal war of words, over what do words mean. I mean, when it comes to a time like this, you and I and plenty of other people are going to be looking at every nuance of the campaign. But when it comes to voters, are they looking at this issue of rhetoric versus promises? How do these concepts that are flying around the political world play out with voters?

ELVING: I think many voters look at Barack Obama and are enormously impressed and uplifted by what he has to say, and how he says it. They get caught up in the mood of his orations. And then many of them stop and ask, but what exactly did he say he was going to do?

You can look at his record in the Senate. He has a very liberal voting record in the Senate. One publication, National Journal, has adjudged him to be the most liberal senator by a point or two over a couple of others, including Hilary Clinton. So it's not as though he hasn't had positions. It's not as though his positions don't fit a pattern. But what exactly are his plans for withdrawal from Iraq? What are his plans for helping the housing industry? What would he do to deal with global trade as a challenge to U.S. prosperity? And they don't hear that much about those issues in his speeches.

CHIDEYA: Is that going to change? Is it a function of where we are in the campaign, or is it more a function of how his campaign works?

ELVING: I'm not at all under the impression that Barack Obama is less substantive than other candidates for president. I believe he has as many thoughts and as many ideas about what he would do, day one, as any other candidate for president. But he has found success at connecting with a broad variety of people, including in some cases Republicans, certainly many different kinds of Democrats and independents, largely by emphasizing the points that unite them. The more programmatic he would become in his speeches, the more he might divide them on the details of those programs. And that's what he's trying to avoid. He's emphasizing his strengths.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about upcoming scenarios. Senator Clinton is placing most of her eggs in three baskets: Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania. Are these must-win states for her?

ELVING: That seems to be the new conventional wisdom, that she has to win in all of those big states in order to blunt the rather small lead that Obama has built up right now in pledged delegates, overall voting in the country and in the opinion polls. All of those leads are rather small. For example, if she were to win tomorrow in Wisconsin - and that is a very close contest, just a few percentage points dividing the two. If Hilary Clinton surprises some people and wins Wisconsin, that will reassure the wobbly in Texas and Ohio who may not have been quite so certain of her chances there. And they will probably get back into line.

She will win Texas and Ohio in all likelihood if she wins Wisconsin tomorrow, and that would then set up Pennsylvania. And if she runs a table in that fashion, she will be the nominee of the Democratic party. That's what she needs to do. Now can she do it if she loses Wisconsin and loses either Texas or Ohio? Or if either Texas or Ohio is so close that it's a victory without any real payoff in delegates? That's a bigger and tougher question and that's probably a question that at some juncture the Democrats are going to wrestle with.

CHIDEYA: What about John Edwards? Senator Obama took a trip down to North Carolina to meet with him. Could Edwards still have a role to play in this race?

ELVING: Yes. I think if John Edwards were to decide to come out in a timely fashion in favor of either the two remaining Democratic candidates, that would sway some voters. There are still a lot of John Edwards fans out there, especially in the labor union movement. And in Wisconsin it would matter. In Ohio it would matter. In Pennsylvania it would matter. And in Texas it would matter, because there are a lot of people down there who liked John Edwards particular style and specific way of approaching the issues. So I think if John Edwards came out for either candidate right now or in the next couple of weeks, it could have quite an effect.

CHIDEYA: Ron, thanks again.

ELVING: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Ron Elving is NPR Senior Washington Editor and he spoke with us from Washington, D.C.

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