Ever Hopeful at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner Every Democratic state party holds an annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, but Iowa's is particularly special. The importance of the Iowa Caucuses attracts potential presidential candidates.
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Ever Hopeful at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner

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Ever Hopeful at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner

Ever Hopeful at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In less than four weeks, voters head to the polls for elections that will determine whether Republicans maintain their majorities in Congress. Last night, former President Bill Clinton tried to energize Democrats at a party dinner in Iowa. His presence in Iowa was no accident. Mr. Clinton's wife, the junior senator from New York, is the frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, and it's never too soon to campaign for support in Iowa's early caucuses.

Joining us to discuss all this is NPR's White House correspondent David Greene. He joins us from Des Moines, where he covered Mr. Clinton's speech last night.

So David, Mr. Clinton has been fired up lately, defending his presidential record in some recent television interviews. Is that what you saw last night?

DAVID GREENE: Yes and no, Liane. This was the classic Bill Clinton. He came up and started out with notes and then about half way through the speech just seemed to be totally winging it. He got going and got the crowd fired up, and really went after Republicans. He was giving advice to Democratic candidates for this midterm election year. And he tried - he tried to - it seemed like really tried to frame the debate, and he actually at one point said this is what the Republican message is. And I think we have some tape here. This is what he said.

President BILL CLINTON: Okay, so we're in a mess in Iraq and you haven't gotten a pay raise and I gave Bill Clinton five tax cuts. And we really messed up that Katrina thing to beat the band. And we put more cronies in power and we got more people regulating industries they came out of than ever before. And we got nine billion dollars we can't find in Iraq, and we can't throw money to special interests fast enough. You've still got to vote for us.

GREENE: So that's what Mr. Clinton said was the Republican message. He urged people in Iowa to keep focusing for three and half weeks on 2006, and not start thinking ahead to the 2008 presidential race.

HANSEN: How serious was he about that?

GREENE: Well, that's a very good question, since his wife is being talked about as one of the leading Democrats looking toward 2008. And a lot of Democrats I spoke with last night at the dinner said this was in many ways Mr. Clinton standing in for his wife. He even admitted at one point in the speech that he was, what he said, the chief caseworker for the junior senator from New York.

HANSEN: So where was Mrs. Clinton last night?

GREENE: She wasn't here. And actually, neither were most of the potential '08 nominees. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack did speak at the dinner, but others like Hillary Clinton, like Evan Bayh, he had a table set up, but no appearance by the candidate himself. John Edwards is being talked about as a potential nominee. He was actually in the state of Iowa campaigning but didn't show up for the dinner.

You know, the buzz at the dinner and among strategists in the party at the dinner was that when once Bill Clinton was named to keynote this dinner, that sealed the deal. Democrats thinking of coming said no way, they are not going to want to be on a stage with the former president, where they'd likely seem like the second fiddle. And you know, as much as '08 the headline last night, there's no doubt that Bill Clinton in part was here to rev up Democrats for the upcoming midterm elections. And no one in the Democratic Party can excite partisan Democrats like Bill Clinton can.

HANSEN: So who was the Republican answer?

GREENE: You know, it was a bit of a surprise. Really President Bush himself. It's important to keep in mind, you know, the president has poor poll numbers. There's talk about some Republican candidates not wanting him in their districts to raise money and to campaign with them. But you know, especially when the Republican Party targets the right races, there's no one like Mr. Bush who can really charge up a crowd of Republicans and turn out voters. And he has been out on the campaign trail. He spent a lot of the last few weeks going after Democrats, really attacking them on national security. And then in the last few days he started to go after them on domestic issues like tax cuts.

At a fundraiser this week in Georgia, he really went after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, kind of playing off a comment that Pelosi had made recently, saying she loves tax cuts. And here's what President Bush had to say about that.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: When we lowered the taxes for families with children, she voted against it. When we put the death tax on the road to extinction, she voted against it. Time and time again, she had an opportunity to show her love for tax cuts...

(Soundbite of laughter)

President BUSH: ...and she voted no. If this is a Democrat's idea of love...

(Soundbite of laughter)

President BUSH: ...I wouldn't want to see what hate looks like.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

HANSEN: David, I understand Mr. Bush's press secretary, Tony Snow, has been out campaigning and fundraising. Isn't that a little unusual?

GREENE: It really is, yeah. I mean you don't see press secretaries out there raising money for candidates that often. Tony Snow was actually in Iowa this weekend helping a Republican congressional candidate. And you know, he has acknowledged the kind of the bizarre nature of this. And he's even said that on days when there's major news, he might have to cancel a campaign stop and rush back to Washington to deal with it.

HANSEN: NPR White House correspondent David Greene in Des Moines, Iowa. Many thanks, David.

GREENE: My pleasure, Liane.

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