RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And as his presidential campaign goes on, Barack Obama has been moving steadily to the center. Obama was ranked the most liberal senator in Congress last year by the National Journal. Now it appears he's trying to moderate his image as he prepares for the general election. Joining us now is NPR's Mara Liasson. Good morning.
MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Just in the last few days, Mara, Senator Obama has staked out more centrist positions on three separate issues. Tell us what you're seeing.
LIASSON: Well, just yesterday, he reacted to the Supreme Court's decision overturning the D.C. handgun ban. He had once said he favored a handgun ban, but he's also campaigned saying that he believes the Constitution guarantees an individual's right to bear arms. He issued a statement that basically said he was fine with the Supreme Court decision overturning that ban. Also, the day before, he reacted to the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the death penalty for child rape. He positioned himself to the right of that decision, and here's what he said.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I disagree with the decision. I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes.
LIASSON: And, of course, he feels that child rape was one of those crimes. He had once filled out a questionnaire opposing the death penalty. He says now that his staff filled it out erroneously. He also this week decided to vote for the FISA surveillance bill that he had once opposed, although there he wasn't really breaking with the Democratic leadership in Congress. They gave him a lot of cover because they'd given up their battle with Bush on this issue. But he was breaking with civil libertarians in his own party.
MONTAGNE: Now what about trade? Obama has been harshly critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. What's he saying now?
LIASSON: Well, you know, during the primaries, he said it was devastating. He said it was a big mistake. But now he's given an interview to Fortune magazine where he said his rhetoric was overheated and he doesn't believe in re-negotiating NAFTA. On tax cuts, recently he told the Wall Street Journal that he would consider corporate tax cuts. He's also indicated he would back off his large capital gains tax hikes. He also, of course, reversed himself on public financing when he decided not to take it for the general election. He is making that time-worn trek to the political center. Primaries tend to push candidates to the extremes of their parties. General elections draw them back to the center. He's sending a message that he is pragmatic and non-ideological. And, of course, when you are so new, the way Barack Obama is, and so much of a blank slate, it's easier to do this.
MONTAGNE: One of the biggest issues, of course, Iraq. Is Obama still sticking to his promise to withdraw one to two combat brigades each month?
LIASSON: Yes, he is. His Web site says all combat brigades out in 16 months. But he recently talked to the Iraqi foreign minister, who said that he was reassured by Obama that troops wouldn't be removed if Obama was the president, so fast as to jeopardize Iraq's security.
MONTAGNE: Is Obama getting any flack from the left-wing base of his party?
LIASSON: He's getting some, not a lot. Clearly, some of the activist base doesn't like the fact that he's changed on campaign finance reform. Gun control groups aren't happy. Even civil libertarian groups and some fellow senators don't like how he voted on FISA. But he has the running room to do this. This is a party that is in a very partisan, not ideological frame of mind. They want to win. And his base is very enthusiastic about him.
The Democratic base is by two-to-one more enthusiastic about Obama than the Republican base is about McCain, and they're not going to begrudge him these rather small moves to the center. And, you know, compare that to Hillary Clinton, who started in the center and had to move to the left during the primaries. Her whole mindset was really the Bill Clinton mindset that Democrats can only win if they're centrists. Or compare it to John McCain, who has really been tied up in knots. He started out in the center, had to move right in the primaries, still hasn't been able to fire up the base of his own party, and that is the first requirement to being able to move to the center without flack.
MONTAGNE: Mara, nice to talk to you.
LIASSON: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.
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