Post Politics Hour

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Dan Balz
Washington Post Chief Political Reporter
Monday, February 5, 2007; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post chief political reporter Dan Balz was online Monday, Feb 5, at 11 a.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

Political analysis from Post reporters and interviews with top newsmakers. Listen live on Washington Post Radio or subscribe to a podcast of the show.

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Dan Balz: Hello to everyone on a cold morning in Washington -- although not as cold as our friends in the Midwest. A big week here as the Senate moves toward debating the Iraq war, President Bush sends up his new budget and Sen. Barack Obama gets ready to launch his candidacy in Springfield, Ill., on Saturday. Thanks for joining.

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Richmond, Va.: I was thoroughly impressed with John Edwards' appearance yesterday on Meet the Press. He was articulate, clearly knowledgeable and thoughtful about issues and came across as genuine and honest. What will he have to do to break away from the other Dem front-runners? Or does he need either Obama or Clinton to stumble?

Dan Balz: John Edwards had a very good weekend. His speech at the DNC was quite well-received and his appearance on Meet The Press was well-reviewed, based on comments I've been hearing. He obviously has to answer for his vote on the war but he certainly is prepared to do that. But he begins his second campaign as a credible and serious candidate who should not be overlooked given all the attention going to Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama.

Having said that, we're a long way from anybody -- including Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama or anybody else -- being able to really break from the pack in the Democratic race. His goal obviously is to stay in the mix for now and do his politics smartly in the states with early contests next year.

Edwards starts with a very good base in Iowa -- he has been leading in many of the polls, and while I picked up some surprising reservations about him during a conversation with a dozen or so Democratic activists in Iowa a week ago, he seems well positioned there right now. He has support in Nevada, which right now is the second state on the calendar. New Hampshire was not a good state for him in 2004 but South Carolina was (he won the primary there last time). If he's able to win a couple of those contests he'll be in a strong position to compete for the nomination.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good morning! Do you think that if -- to pick one example -- John Sununu joins the anti-surge forces, that will inoculate him for 2008? Or do you think voters consider this a Republican war, so he's stuck with it no matter what he does? Is the identification of this war with the GOP more pronounced in certain areas of the country, or is it a general nationwide phenomenon? How big is the phenomenon?

Dan Balz: I don't know. I would say at this point that Americans see this as President Bush's war. That fact cost Republicans dearly in the 2006 midterm elections. What we're now seeing is Republican elected officials weighing their own futures against loyalty to the president. What nobody can predict is how things will look in 2008.

As for you question about the geography of all this, certainly the Northeast is a problem area for the Republicans. When you look at what happened in New Hampshire last November -- the Democrats essentially won everything, including control of the state legislature -- you can understand why someone like Sen. Sununu is nervous.

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Louisburg, NC: First of all, I don't think Joe Biden is a racist. On the other hand, most of the folks I hear saying that his remarks were no big deal are mostly white Anglo-Saxon protestants. As a Jew I find it abhorrent when someone says "I Jewed him down." They will say when called out on it that "it's only an expression." Like hell it is! It is a "little murder" portraying the Jew as Shylock -- just ask Mel Gibson.

Dan Balz: I agree with you in that I don't believe Sen. Biden is a racist and I agree with you that those who say his comments were no big deal were wrong. Even Biden quickly realized they were a big deal, which is why he spent several days apologizing for them.

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Claverack, N.Y.: I'm finding it hard to judge the lay of the land for 2008 GOP, what with a large chunk of the poll voting going to Rudy, a candidate no one knows for sure is running -- or if those poll responders will translate to actual GOP primary votes. If Giuliani doesn't get in, where do his supporters go? Whom does it help?

Dan Balz: This is a very good question. One reason everyone is having difficulty making real sense of the Republican race is because the field seems to be lacking a true Reagan conservative. Certainly it isn't Mayor Giuliani. It isn't really John McCain, although he has a more conservative voting record on social issues than Giuliani. Gov. Romney is trying to fill that slot -- working very hard at it in fact -- but his transformation from pro-choice advocate in 1994 to pro-life advocate in 2007 raises questions about who he really is.

At this point it looks like Giuliani is going to run. Everything he's doing right now is geared toward getting into the race, not staying out.

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Chicago: I was wondering if you were present for the speeches the Democratic candidates for president gave to the DNC this past Friday and Saturday and if so what you thought about them. I was really curious about what you thought given the comments of the Sunday morning pundits that several of the candidates spoke in sound bites "but Obama spoke in paragraphs" and that the crowd was hushed while Obama spoke. I have not seen any more than snippets of the speeches so I could not really gauge whether these comments were accurate.

Dan Balz: Yes, I was there for both days. Based on conversations with Democrats who were there in the audience, I think Sen. Edwards and Gov. Richardson did themselves the most good with the party insiders. Edwards was very well received and had a message that really resonated with the audience. Richardson surprised people with his speech -- I heard more than one person say they thought it had impressed with its mix of substance and humor and that played off his long resume.

Sen. Clinton got a good reception but I did not think she looked as comfortable speaking from behind the lectern as she had with a hand-held microphone in Iowa the previous weekend.

Sen. Obama gave a very good speech, but my sense was that he was pitching his message to an audience that was as much outside the hotel ballroom as inside -- less to party insiders than to people hungering for something new and different. Reaction to him was twofold: some thought he was very, very good. Others said they thought his speech bordered on lecturing the audience. It was inspirational but did not offer much in terms of specifics on policy.

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Baltimore: Do you see Sam Brownback becoming a major player for the GOP nomination?

Dan Balz: Sen. Brownback will need to do very, very well in the Iowa caucuses -- and perhaps before that in the Iowa straw poll that is scheduled for next August. If he does then he could force himself into the thick of the Republican race. Right now he's more of a long shot but he has an interesting profile, given his opposition to the president's troop surge and, of course, his strong pro-life credentials.

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Asheville, N.C.: Hi Dan. Any chance that John Edwards will make history by running for VP twice on different tickets [ed.: He would be at best the third Democrat to do it, after Thomas Andrews Hendricks and Adlai Ewing Stevenson]? Also, who among non-presidential candidates could be VP on the Democratic or Republican side?

Dan Balz: No chance that Edwards will be the Democratic vice presidential nominee again. As for who might be, the list would be very long right now -- on both sides.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Why is it that presidential campaigns are starting earlier and earlier? Is it simply that TV ads have gotten more expensive? George Bush Sr. announced his candidacy in November of 1987. Bill Clinton announced his candidacy in October of 1991. Now people are announcing in January.

Dan Balz: I'd like to offer a counterintuitive notion: Campaigns are not starting that much earlier, although the attention to them is more intense than in the past this time for some good reasons, which I'll explain in a minute.

You cite George H.W. Bush not announcing until November 1987, but the reality is that the 1988 campaign had a very, very early start, particularly among the Republicans. Michigan Republicans staged a contest in the summer of 1986 that got all the major candidates involved. The 1992 campaign got an unusually late start because the country was in a war at the beginning of 1991 and for months after, Bush 41 was extraordinarily high in the polls. The story of 1991 was the various prominent Democrats who decided to take a pass on the campaign. The 2004 campaign started very early. I remember being in Iowa in mid-January 2003 at an event where Sen. Kerry drew about 500 people and later that night three Democratic candidates appeared at a county Democratic fundraiser.

It seems early this time because some of the candidates -- Sen. Clinton, Sen. Obama, Sen. McCain, Mayor Giuliani -- are very, very well known and command more media attention. Also this is a very important election, which means more people are paying attention earlier. And as you suggest, the cost of campaigning has risen dramatically now that most serious candidates have decided not to abide by the spending limits set by the FEC. That means they have to raise far more money this year than most candidates have tried to do in the past.

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Dayton, Ohio: Good morning, Dan! You said that the Republican ticket in 2008 is unclear because there's no true Reagan conservative, and I agree. What do you think of Huckabee? I'm a lifelong Democrat and I absolutely love Huckabee. He's not an ideologue and I think Americans will find him refreshing. I also think that Hagel would be a formidable candidate, as he represents the anti-war sentiments of so many Americans and provides an alternative to Giuliani and McCain, neither of whom is willing to admit any reservations about this war. Thoughts?

Dan Balz: Gov. Huckabee is someone to watch. Reporters who pay attention to governors have been watching him for some time and he is an interesting mix of conservatism, folksiness and political smarts. Like some other candidates, one big question for him is fundraising. Against the likes of Sen. McCain, Gov. Romney and Mayor Giuliani, he may have trouble raising the kind of money needed to compete seriously. But people shouldn't underestimate him. After all, like Bill Clinton he's the man from Hope.

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Tenafly, N.J.: Hi Dan. Every time I hear Obama speak or read something he's written, that lawyer mindset keeps coming out: like "yes this way makes sense but we should also consider this other way too." Do you see that as an obstacle? I can't imagine a politician being successful with that kind of rhetoric -- but then again, I could be completely wrong.

Dan Balz: I post this because I think it goes to a central question about Sen. Obama, a question to which I don't have the answer. So far his style of writing and speaking has attracted enormous, positive attention from Democrats and others. But the campaign will provide a different kind of test for him. I refer you to the story my colleague Anne Kornblut wrote this morning about his campaign. Very insightful about the challenges he and his campaign team face.

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washingtonpost.com: Obama Confronts 'Outsider' Dilemma (Post, Feb. 5)

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Kensington, Md.: Given the establishment media's obsession with the Holy Triumvirates for 2008 (Clinton-Obama-Edwards and McCain-Romney-Giuliani), do the "lesser" candidates (who currently are tied with the "frontrunners" in delegates) essentially need to put their feet in their mouths like Joe Biden did to get the press to cover them? I guess I'm talking the likes of Chris Dodd, Duncan Hunter, Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, et al.

Dan Balz: Good question and one we wrestle with as we try to plan our coverage. Candidates like Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have been soaking up a lot of journalistic resources right now because they've been doing things that pretty much require coverage: Sen. Clinton's first trip to Iowa, for example, and this weekend, Sen. Obama's announcement and first trips as a candidate to Iowa and New Hampshire.

But all that attention gives a distorted picture to the race for the Democratic nomination -- and there is a similar problem on the Republican side as well. The other candidates will get attention, but you're correct in suggesting that the easiest way to get that attention is by doing something like Sen. Biden did.

The thing to remember is that we are a long way away from the first votes and there is a lot of campaigning, fundraising, debating and speechmaking ahead. John Edwards was in single digits for most of 2003 and had trouble getting attention, but got hot when it counted. For those who don't remember Sen. Gary Hart, he faced a similar situation through most of 1983. Vice President Mondale and Sen. John Glenn got all the attention on the Democratic side, but it was Hart who won New Hampshire and almost toppled the heavily favored Mondale for the nomination.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Dan, among the Democratic candidates there is debate about their stances on the Iraq war. Edwards says he was wrong to vote for it; Hillary says she was given misinformation, which is actually a claim all seem to be making to some extent. Please clarify to me what misinformation they were given -- the senate has concluded that Saddam was trying to obtain uranium, in contrast to Joe Wilson's report, and as for the WMD, it can't really be viewed as misinformation if the whole world accepted this point of view going into the conflict. It sounds a lot like posturing more than honesty to me.

Dan Balz: The "misinformation" they are pointing to was the intelligence that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Not to say he had nuclear capability but there was a widespread belief, based on intelligence reports, that he possessed chemical or biological weapons. Some politicians concluded that even if he possessed WMD he was not a direct threat to the security of the United States.

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Boston: Dayton may not think Huckabee is an ideologue but I and others might have to disagree, considering that he doesn't believe in evolution, outlawed same-sex marriage in Arkansas, supports displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools and supports "covenant marriages."

Dan Balz: No question that he has very conservative views. That could find a niche in the GOP race and his challenge will be trying to capture that constituency while demonstrating that he can appeal to a broader, general-election audience.

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Richmond, Va.: The Democrats, even after getting a majority of the voters' support for ending this war, are still frightened of being tagged as "soft on defense." How else to explain this hand-wringing over a non-binding resolution. Why are they so afraid to say what they really feel? They aren't going to get enough Republicans on board for their viewpoint, so why not be as harsh as they need to be?

Dan Balz: The view of many Democrats is that a non-binding resolution that wins only Democratic votes is a truly empty exercise, but that a non-binding resolution of disapproval, even one worded more mildly than they might prefer, is a clear rebuke to the president and that it could lead to harsher measures over the coming months. Sen. Clinton made the point at the DNC meeting that if these resolutions are so meaningless, why are the White House and their GOP allies in the Senate working so hard to stop them?

We're out of time but thanks again to everyone for sending in good questions this morning. Have a good day. Dan Balz.

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