Post Politics Hour

Dan Balz
Washington Post Chief Political Reporter
Monday, March 13, 2006; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post chief political reporter Dan Balz was online Monday, March 13, at 11 a.m. ET.

Dan Balz, back from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference conclave in Memphis where a handful of presidential hopefuls spoke, answered your '08 election questions...

The transcript follows.


Dan Balz: Good morning to everyone out there. We've had a busy weekend of Republican political activity in Memphis, where many of the '08 wannabes were road-testing themes and ideas. Lots of good political handicapping and speculating and why not -- since it's only 2006. On to your questions.


Bethesda, Md.: John McCain (my favorite Republican) has been going the great lengths to support and compliment President Bush as a way to pander to the Republican base. Do you think he may be at risk of losing moderate Democrats and independent voters like me in the process?

Dan Balz: It looks like there are lots of questions this morning about John McCain and his prospective 2008 campaign. The McCain we're seeing in 2006 is trying not to be the same McCain we saw in 2000. Whether he can pull it off is the big question for the 2008 Republican nomination battle.

One big reason McCain lost to Bush in 2000 is that a lot of Republicans found him suspect. His decision to embrace Bush and campaign actively for him in 2004 has given him a way to make amends and he is working now to convert the respect he earned into support for a 2008 candidacy. But it's a tricky balancing act. Can he be both establishment and maverick? No one can say right now. His pal Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told us in Memphis that McCain ran for president in 2000 as the leader of a movement and that, if he runs in 2008, he'll run to be the leader of the Republican Party.


Blue State reality: I read your glowing report on McCain in Memphis in Sunday's paper where you declare him the 'one to get around' on the way to the GOP presidential nomination and cite his appeal to Republican and non-party members alike.

I then read Krugman's column on McCain where he reports that McCain has the third most conservative voting record in the Senate.

Krugman says, "The bottom line is that Mr. McCain isn't a moderate; he's a man of the hard right. How far right? A statistical analysis of Mr. McCain's recent voting record, available at, ranks him as the Senate's third most conservative member.

What about Mr. McCain's reputation as a maverick? This comes from the fact that every now and then he seems to declare his independence from the Bush administration, as he did in pushing through his anti-torture bill.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Guantanamo. President Bush, when signing the bill, appended a statement that in effect said that he was free to disregard the law whenever he chose. Mr. McCain protested, but there are apparently no hard feelings: at the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference he effusively praised Mr. Bush.

And I'm sorry to say that this is typical of Mr. McCain. Every once in a while he makes headlines by apparently defying Mr. Bush, but he always returns to the fold, even if the abuses he railed against continue unabated."

So, is McCain only different because he has managed to master the press corps? When will McCain's 'Straight Talk Express' road show be written up as just another advertising campaign without a reality to support it?

Dan Balz: Thanks, Blue State, for a good question. No question that McCain has very conservative views, not just on national security policy but also on social issues. His reputation as a maverick comes from two things. One, he has irritated many of his Republican colleagues over the years by cooperating with Democrats on things like campaign finance reform and by his attacks on pork barrel spending. Two, the press has often overlook some of the contractions between his rhetoric and his voting record. I remember in 2000 he used to complain about tax cuts even though he voted for many of them. All that said, McCain has shown streaks of independence from his party leadership.


Austin, Tex.: Bill Frist won the straw poll? Since the conference was held in his hometown, I guess he had an edge but I can't really buy it. Question: Who votes in the poll?

Dan Balz: Bill Frist did win the straw poll in Memphis. Straw polls at this point in a presidential cycle are essentially meaningless, this one more than some others because the place was stacked with Tennesseans. According to our friends at The Hotline, which ran the straw poll, 52 percent of the 1,427 ballots cast came from Tennessee delegates. They provided Frist with 82 percent of all his votes.


Washington, D.C.: What effect, if any, will Senator Feingold's censure resolution (which he may try to get considered on the floor today) re: Bush's use of wiretaps have? Is he just posturing for 2008? Thanks!

Dan Balz: We'll move to another subject temporarily before coming back to Memphis and the Republicans. Senator Feingold obviously will have difficulty getting any traction for this resolution because Republicans control the Senate and many of his Democratic colleagues will be reluctant to go along with him.


Tallahassee, Fla.: If troops in Iraq are not withdrawn by 2008, how do you think this will effect the campaigns and what do you think some of the candidates positions-plans will be? Thanks.

Dan Balz: My assumption is that, if we still have substantial numbers of troops in Iraq in 2008, it obviously will be a major issue and more candidates will be talking openly about getting them home.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: I read that the president is venturing forth with a series of speeches intended to explain his policies in Iraq. Once again the audiences will be hand-picked and presumably sympathetic to Mr. Bush. If he must continue to insulate himself from the American electorate, isn't his philosophy and his presidency quickly becoming irrelevant?

Dan Balz: The president is starting another offensive to explain his Iraq policy, something he has done two other times in the past eight months or so. White House officials know that, when he stops talking about Iraq, support for the mission drops. The president is isolated, although in this case I'm not sure that the audiences will affect the message.


Alexandria, Va.: Good Morning, Dan. Sandra Day O'Connor gave a speech at Georgetown University this past Friday in which she warned against Republican attacks on the judiciary, attacks which she said could lead to the establishment of a dictatorship in America. She singled out the actions of Texas Congressman Tom DeLay and Texas Sen. John Cornyn as being particularly threatening to both the court system and the physical safety of it's judges. A remarkable speech, but nary a peep out of the MSM on it. Did Justice O'Connor any media coverage at the Republican love-fest that you attended? Any thoughts on why The Washington Post found this story to be unworthy of coverage? Many thanks!-Not holding my breath for the truth in Alexandria

Dan Balz: I was down in Memphis on Friday and so did not know about her speech, and I don't know why it hasn't gotten more attention in the press. It sounds provocative.


Washington, D.C.: Didn't Sen. George Allen come in second to Frist? Where does that put McCain?

Dan Balz: Allen came in third behind Frist and Romney. Actually he tied for third with Bush (who was a write-in). McCain was next, followed by Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.


Lindenhurt, N.Y.: Are the Republicans really in deep in rebellion are the true conservatives?

Dan Balz: Republcans are certainly in trouble: a president with approval ratings of around 40 percent; rebellion over the ports issues; divisions over immigration; anger over spending; tensions between the various factions in the coalition. The chatter in Memphis was that they would be in even worse trouble if the Democrats were a more effective opposition. That said, there are clear worries about preserving the GOP's majority in the House and among the governorships and fears of lost seats in the Senate.


Steubenville, Ohio: Wasn't Frist under some sort of investigation regarding stock sales or something? I have not heard it was resolved (though perhaps it may have been resolved). I hope we have more to choose from than him.

Dan Balz: Frist is under investigation for possible insider trading after selling stock (from a supposed blind trust)in a family-owned business shortly before the stock price went down. He said he did nothing improper. The SEC is looking into this.


Vienna, Va.: I see that Romney finished second. Do you think he is making much headway among conservatives? How can he overcome evangelicals' disdain for Mormonism? In 2002, he ran for governor as a moderate; in 1994, he ran for Senate as a moderate -- does he think anybody will catch on to this?

Dan Balz: It's too early to say how much progress anyone is really making with this or that group. Romney is aggressively moving around the country and just as aggressively trying to deal with questions about his religion. And yes, there have been and will continue to be questions about his positions on certain issues, particularly abortion, and whether he has shifted to the right to seek the nomination.


Eastern Montana: "Dan Balz: Allen came in third behind Frist and Romney. Actually he tied for third with Bush (who was a write-in). McCain was next, followed by Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas."

Right. And the write-in was instigated by McCain to mask the fact he wasn't going to show so well. Yet with a thin third place finish, he's called the front-runner.

This sounds like more of the McCain-media lovefest. Your thoughts?

Dan Balz: I did a piece out of Memphis that said nobody stole the show at the conference but that McCain had managed to be both the most supportive of the president and the most critical of the party on spending and corruption. That said, this is a very, very wide open race. The key question is whether McCain can win the hearts and wallets of Bush loyalists, particularly Bush Rangers and Pioneers. That will be an early indication of how open this race will be. It's smart for McCain to pursue this strategy but we don't know yet whether it will work, given his maverick history. There is no heir apparent in this race, as is often the case.


Alexandria, Va.: It seems we've been hearing John McCain's name as part of the presidential sweepstakes for months. But nowhere can I find any articles that discuss where he stands on the issues. Instead of focusing so much on the horse race aspect of the early primaries, is it too much to ask the press to provide us with factual information so that we could actually have a basis on which to make an informed decision.

Dan Balz: Fair question, although there is much on the public record from the past five years or so on his positions. But he will be getting more scrutiny on this front as we get past the November elections -- more and tougher scrutiny than he got in 2000.


Rolla, Mo.: Interesting opinion piece over the weekend by Dick Morris (albeit one of my least favorite commentators) noting the possibility of Al Gore running in '08. He specifically cites Gore's passion on the environment, and his steady anti-war position. I don't think the country was ready to hear/receive an environmental message up until now, but in the wake of Katrina and ever-strange violent weather, I wonder if this could rise up to a top tier issue?

Dan Balz: There is lots of talk in political circles -- admittedly pretty uninformed -- about whether Gore might run and what kind of candidate he would be. He has said pretty firmly that he is not likely to run, so we should start with that. But if he were to run, it would create a monumental battle within the Democratic Party, one between the Clintons and the non-Clintons. Gore has been his party's longest and most persistent critic of the Bush presidency. His passions on Iraq and the environment would gather a strong following within the party. But does he really have the appetite for another presidential campaign?


Seattle, Wash.: Any chance of a Frist/Santorum ticket? I've soured on McCain since 2004.

Dan Balz: Not if Santorum loses his Senate seat in November.


Centennial, Wyo.: Good Morning, you've talked about the people in Memphis, what about the issues they talked about in their speeches? Did you get any ideas, beyond Iraq, as to what we will be focused on in the 2008 race? Thank you.

Dan Balz: The prospective candidates all want to identify with core principles of Republican doctrine: less government, lower taxes, traditional values, a strong defense and vigorous prosecution of the campaign against terrorism. The GOP record under President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress has raised lots of questions about the gap between principle and performance.

My take on the speeches was that Huckabee, Brownback and Allen all, in one way or another, present a purer conservative message, particularly on cultural and social issues, but also were less forward-looking in their messages. Romney clearly tried to talk about the future more than some of the others. McCain, who did not have a prepared text, talked about Iraq, Iran, his support for Bush, spending, corruption, etc. -- all typical of what he's said in the past without much sense of what's new in his message. Frist's speech got mediocre reviews and perhaps I'm being generous.


Washington, D.C.: What's the significance of the SRLC? Who are its attendees? Are they any indication of grassroots support, or are they more of the RNC committee member types who sit around and talk politics all day?

Dan Balz: There were a lot of establishment GOP types in the audience in Memphis -- state chairs, national committeemen and women, many from GOP women's groups and obviously many, many from Tennessee who are probably party activists. It was probably broadly representative of southern Republican activists whose loyalty is more to party than to a particular issue.


Daytona Beach, Fla.: it seems to me that everyone is underestimating Frist. He did what he had to do to win the straw poll, because it would have been embarrassing for him to lose. But McCain didn't even try. He had all that help from Lott, Barbour and Graham and he was afraid to take on Frist head to head. Something doesn't add up.

Dan Balz: Here is one view of Senator Frist, posted without comment. A second to come in a minute.


Washington, D.C.: Why does anybody take Frist seriously? My brother is a doctor (and a Republican) and he lost all respect for Frist when he came forward and made a diagnosis of Terri Schiavo's condition via a scrap of four year old video tape. That's just scandalous -- no real doctor would ever do anything of the sort.

Dan Balz: Here is a second view of Senator Frist, posted without comment.


Rochester, N.Y.: So has Governor Pataki finally given up the presidential dream?

Dan Balz: No, Governor Pataki has been ill, in the hospital for 18 days or so, but out now and recuperating. Until he got sick, he had been making regular forays into Iowa.


Cambria, Calif.: Do you think McCain's age and his health will be issues in the race? Will any of his Republican opponents raise these issues?

Dan Balz: Yes they will be issues. None of his rivals will raise them for awhile.


San Francisco, Calif.: I think a previous questioner hit the issue on the head. This administration only talks to to true believers. It only goes on Fox and it never tries to reach out beyond it's supporters. No wonder Bush's poll numbers keep going down. He really only talks to half the country; maybe less than half these days.

Dan Balz: We'll end on this one. This is an interesting point and I think it could be turned around to ask whether we are now at a point in Bush's presidency where a sizeable portion of the country has stopped listening to him. We can see from the polling how polarized views of him are. At this point, his strong disapproval rating is about as high as his overall approval (strong and not-so-strong). The speeches on Iraq have helped in the short-term, but his presidency remains a prisoner of events there and elsewhere.

Thanks to everyone for sending in questions and as always I apologize for not being able to get to everyone. Have a great day.

Dan Balz


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