Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Take on Las Vegas
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Later in the broadcast, we will visit with the leader of one of the country's largest Muslim congregations. He wants to help Americans see Islam through his eyes.
But first, Friday politics. If it happens in Vegas, does it stay in Vegas? Clearly not, as political pundits are busy today assessing the Democratic presidential candidates after their latest debate hosted by CNN in Las Vegas last night. With less than 50 days until primary voting begins, the candidates were primed through a fight over everything - from healthcare to immigration reform. And on the Republican side, presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo has a new ad on the air in Iowa that's causing a stir. It's about illegal immigration. And Senator John McCain is raising eyebrows about the way he reacted to a voter who used a less than polite term to describe Hillary Clinton.
Taking on the issues with me today are Tara Setmayer, a Republican commentator and political strategist. She joins me here in the studio in Washington. And Joe Garcia, the executive director of the Hispanic Strategy Center for the NDN, a Democratic-based Democratic think tank. Joe is at member station WLRN in Miami.
Welcome to both of you.
Ms. TARA SETMAYER (Commentator, Republican): Thank you, Michel.
Mr. JOE GARCIA (Executive Director, Hispanic Strategy Center, NDN): Pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: So let's start with last night's debate. Vegas is also known for its prized fights. I'm sorry I can't resist the fight metaphors. I wonder if the candidates were channeling that, especially among the top three leading in the poles, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. Joe, did anybody score any knockout blows.
Mr. GARCIA: No. And I think that's exactly the type of debate that CNN wanted to put on. It was like a got-you debate. You said this. You said that. Got you, you know? And I think, clearly, they went after Hillary. And I think her responses were correct. She was on her game. She looked good. And I think the top three looked good. But clearly, everybody shined. In fact, Richardson, who has been a bit - who hasn't found his footing on some of these debates was, I think, spectacular. You know, he was true to his form as a public order. And I think he did well too. So I think it was a good - it was a good showing for our side. It was kind of - they kept on the top three a little bit too much but it was enjoyable.
MARTIN: A lot of eyes were focused on Hillary Clinton last night. She had a couple of missteps in the last few weeks, especially after the October 30th debate. Many people felt she didn't come off that well. She seemed to equivocate on some things like whether illegal immigrants should be able to get driver's licenses. And then she seemed to be complaining when her rivals criticized her. Some accused her of playing the gender card. She was asked about a lot of that last night and she had this to say.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): And I understand very well that people are not attacking me because I'm a woman. They're attacking me because I'm ahead.
MARTIN: Tara, how do you think Senator Clinton did last night, setting aside the fact that you probably disagree with her about everything except the weather? But did she address the problems that surfaced in the last debate? Did she fix her problems?
Ms. SETMAYER: I think she did. It was - she was clearly in damage-control mode for the last few weeks, and rightfully so. And I found it interesting that she stay - she made sure that everyone knew this is what I believe in. She's had a problem with - of giving answers that are ambiguous often times - long answers that are - she's going in circles and you have no idea what - where do you stand on that. She's a good orator in way where you really don't know. But I can tell that her adviser said to her, you need to be unequivocal in your answers this time around so that there cannot be room for interpretation. You need to be poignant. You need to be succinct so people can understand this is where I stand. Now, whether she sticks to that, we'll see. I mean, whichever way the wind blows is how she seem to (audio gap). I mean, it's true.
Mr. GARCIA: Yup.
Ms. SETMAYER: I mean, that's some of the criticism that she's gotten, even by folks on the Democratic side that she - that's Barack Obama's biggest complaint with her. I think that the two candidates came out the best, which was Obama and Clinton. I don't think John Edwards necessarily performed all that greatly. He's very manufactured and often times his - he had a horrible joke. It fell like a dud when we said, well, is that a planted question. It was a poor attempt of humor. But I'd say that the second tier candidates actually were able to finally have a voice here. Often times, they've been, you know, fallen by the wayside, and this time they were funny. They said - Senator Biden had one of the funniest lines. And so did Richardson when he said, by the way, I'm Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico. I thought that was funny. But the sparks in this debate where really in the beginning, and it kind of tapered off toward the end.
MARTIN: The driver's license plan. The issue came up again. We were talking about that earlier. New York Governor Eliot Spitzer had to back down from a plan to allow illegal immigrants to get them in his state. And it was interesting because I didn't notice that eight other states already have this, sort of, in place. But that's kind of the context in which this discussion was being had, because it was so much a buzz saw in New York that this plan couldn't go forward despite the fact that he seems to be in a very strong position.
Barack Obama was also asked about this driver's license issue and this is what he said…
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Undocumented workers don't come here to drive. They don't go - they're not coming here to go to the In-N-Out Burger. That's not the reason they're here. They're here to work. And so, instead of being distracted by what has now become a wedge issue, let's focus on actually solving the problem that…
Mr. WOLF BLITZER (Debate Moderator): All right.
Sen. OBAMA: …this administration, the Bush administration…
Mr. BLITZER: Well…
Sen. OBAMA: …has done nothing about.
Mr. BLITZER: Well, let's go to…
MARTIN: So, Joe, Senator Obama called it a wedge issue. But now he's opened up a clear distinction between himself and Hillary Clinton. Senator Clinton came out and directly had said, you know, I don't support this issue after, as you said, there was ambiguity about her opposition. He was one of two candidates on the stage, actually only one of two candidates who supports the idea for licenses for illegal immigrants. So now, how does this play out now?
Mr. GARCIA: Well, look, I disagree that this is a wedge issue. I think the Republicans are trying to use it as a wedge issue for two cycles - for a cycle and a half. In other words, they used it in this last cycle. The 'O7 race is now in November, and they used it in '06. they spent millions of dollars on it, and they can't show me one election that they won on this issue. But I think what you've got here is that they are trying to set up a debate that's irrational that it feeds into the worst concerns without solving the problem. And I think Obama's, like Hillary's - first of all, I want to say I'm proud of Obama because what happens is when these tough issues come up, people run away from them. The truth is we have a serious problem with immigration. Everybody knows it, the Republicans want to demagogue it and make a scapegoat population. The Democrats are trying to solve it. The Republican administration had full control of the House, the Senate and the Presidency for six years. During that time almost three million people entered this country illegal. And in 2003, I believe, they had three prosecutions of employers for employing illegal people in the entire United States. So right now, they want run for president on whipping this issue up. I think most Americans - over 60 percent of them -agree that comprehensive immigration reform is the way to go. And I think Obama laid that out very clearly. And I think Hillary has laid that out. And I think Eliot Spitzer, the other day, when he backed off of this issue, said, look, tomorrow, today I'm walking away from this. Tomorrow, you know, hundreds of thousands of people are going to drive illegally because they're going to still do it. And what we need to do is find a national solution. Right now, unfortunately, what we've got is a lot of rhetoric on the right, and Democrats have a plan. Republicans have rhetoric.
MARTIN: Okay. Let's just pause there for just one minute to say that if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking politics on Friday. In the studio with me is Tara Setmayer, Republican political strategist. And in Miami is Joe Garcia. He's the executive director of the Hispanic Strategy Center for NDN. It's a Democratic think-tank.
Continuing on with the illegal immigration issue. A new ad by Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo is, I don't know, pretty provocative. I think it stirred up some strong feelings. Let's here that ad.
Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado): Hi, I'm Tom Tancredo and I approve this message because someone needs to say it.
Unidentified Man: There are consequences to open borders beyond the 20-million aliens who've come to take our jobs. Islamic terrorists now freely roam U.S. soil. Jihadists, who froth with hate, here to do as they have in London, Spain, Russia. The price we pay for spineless politicians who refuse to defend our borders against those who come to kill.
(Soundbite of explosion)
MARTIN: Now, I should explain the visual. There's a guy in a hoodie who's kind of - I can't really tell where he's going but you can't really see who this person is who's clearly planting, you know, a device some place. It's - I think it's meant to be like a public place, a schoolyard or a shopping mall.
Now, Joe, I'm guessing that this is going to be the kind of thing that you will consider Republican demagoguery. Tara, what do you think?
Ms. SETMAYER: Good for Tom Tancredo. People need to understand that just because we have a new immigration problem in this country does not excuse the fact that border security is insignificant problem. This isn't racist. This isn't demagoguery. This is a national security issue. Never in that ad that he say it's because of - it's Mexicans that are doing this. He is making the association that it's easy enough for 20 million illegals to come across our borders every year. What makes you think that it's not that? It is just as easy to smuggle weapon into this country to blow up a schoolyard, a mall.
I mean, there are something called OTMs - other than Mexicans, which is what -which are other illegals who crossover at the southern border that is a term Homeland Security uses. Homeland Security has released report after report of more OTMs coming across the border as part of the human smuggling range. They're are coming into Texas. They are assuming Hispanic surnames so that they can assimilate into our society and do goodness, God only knows what. So to deny that fact and try to take the issue to say that this is demagoguery or that is racist I think is completely unfair and naïve.
MARTIN: Okay. Joe?
Mr. GARCIA: Ms. Michel, I've got to jump in here.
MARTIN: Yeah, sure.
Ms. GARCIA: I mean this is part and partial of why things are so broken in Washington. You got a president in United States who's been given more money to spend on national security than any president in the history of our nation, and it's not - and it's a bigger percentage of our GDP than ever before, and yet they're still screaming. They're still trying to scare the bejesus out of the American public so that we give away more rights, so that we huddle in our homes and pray for our good president to take care of…
MARTIN: Okay. But what about the basic point, Joe, that soft border is a national security issue. Fair or unfair?
GARCIA: Agreed. And the question is they are in government. The executive of this country is George Bush. Why is it that they didn't solve the problem? We have held congress for less than 11 months and they held the government of United States for six years and they did nothing. And now, for some reason, now it's Democrats who are soft on immigration? What happened to enforcing our borders by this administration? Why is it that this administration has not gone after large employers? Why is it that suddenly Tom Tancredo, a coot and a racist, whom we should be embarrassed about having this conversation, why are we in this game? I don't argue with you that this is a problem. I don't argue with you, and no Hispanic in America, no one in America would argue that immigration is a disaster in this country.
MARTIN: Sir, we're going to have…
Mr. GARCIA: So, instead of demagoguing, we should try to fix it.
MARTIN: Okay, Joe, I'm sorry but I have to leave it there. I think we're going to have to ask Tom Tancredo for an opportunity to respond to that at some point. So, but thank you so much.
Joe Garcia is with the NDN. Tara Setmayer, a political analyst here with me in Washington, Joe Garcia in Miami. Thank you both so much for joining me today.
Mr. GARCIA: Pleasure.
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