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Post Politics Hour

Peter Baker
Peter Baker

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Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Monday, January 28, 2008; 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.

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Washington Post White House reporter Peter Baker was online Monday, Jan. 28 at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Get the latest campaign news live on washingtonpost.com's The Trail, or subscribe to the daily Post Politics Podcast.

Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts

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Peter Baker: Let's see, the president is preparing to deliver his State of the Union tonight, the lines already are snaking out the door at Bender Arena at American University where Ted Kennedy will endorse Barack Obama, the Republicans are fighting it out in tomorrow's Florida primary, there are two presidential debates later this week, and a Democratic primary in South Carolina to still chew over. Nah, nothing much to chat about. But let's get started.

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Arlington, Va.: How likely is it that the Republican or Democratic nominee will not be decided by the end of Feb. 5? Is there a good chance Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. primaries actually will matter this year?

washingtonpost.com: Md., Va., D.C. Seek Strength in Numbers After Super Tuesday (Post, Jan. 28)

Peter Baker: Count me in the category of people who thought until recently that we would wake up Feb. 6 knowing the nominees of the two parties -- and count me among those who probably were wrong. It certainly looks now much more likely that we still will have an unsettled situation in at least one if not both of the parties -- and therefore, yes, the Battle of the Beltway on Feb. 12 could be much more important than we once thought. So make sure you're registered and ready to go.

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Washington: Peter, does a Kennedy endorsement really help Obama with his change message? This guy is an icon of the Democratic establishment. After all, Teddy Kennedy is the biggest bogeyman the GOP has for the Democrats outside of the Clintons.

washingtonpost.com: Kennedy Will Endorse Obama In Blow to Clinton (Post, Jan. 28)

Peter Baker: You're certainly right that Ted Kennedy isn't seen by much of the country as an outsider ready to storm the barricades of Washington. But Sen. Obama's message always has been a little more subtle than that -- he talks of changing Washington without necessarily rejecting it. So in that sense it may be less of a conflict to accept the endorsements of major establishment figures. Still, as you say, it further puts him in the camp with a lot of the party's most prominent liberals -- along with John Kerry who also has endorsed him, and some others. That's a powerful thing with the Democratic base -- and remember, Massachusetts is a Super Tuesday primary state -- but could become an issue in the fall should he get the nomination with moderate and conservative voters who, as you say, are less enamored of Kennedy.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Peter -- thanks for taking my question. I know this may be a hard question to answer, but as someone who's spent a lot of time covering the White House, what's your sense of the overall mood there, given that the clock is ticking? In particular, is there a sense that even though Bush can take some credit for his decisions about Iraq (the lack of political progress notwithstanding), it's the unhappy state of the economy that will be his legacy?

Peter Baker: Well, as my partner Mike Abramowitz wrote in this morning's paper, there's a certain conundrum there now. For years, they were upset they didn't get the credit they thought they deserved for a strong economy because Iraq had so soured the public mood. Now that things are going better in Iraq at least in terms of security, they don't get much credit and the public instead is upset about a deteriorating economy. But the mood is pretty steady at the moment. They feel they got some things done at the end of last year and the beginning of this one -- energy legislation and the stimulus package, to name a couple. And they have hopes that the Middle East diplomacy will yield something lasting.

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Washington: Today's front page story on the president's speech tonight states that this will be Bush's "seventh and probably final" State of the Union address. Is there a coup in the works, or is that an error?

washingtonpost.com: Economy, War To Dominate State of Union (Post, Jan. 28)

Peter Baker: Here's the story I was just mentioning. We say "probably final" because in the past, presidents used to give a lame-duck State of the Union address on their way out of office. That hasn't been common in the past few decades, but there's nothing to say he couldn't do that if he chose. We've asked the White House about this and they say they think it's probably his last one too, though they didn't rule anything out entirely.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Hate to distract from the bash-Clinton orgy that the press seems addicted to these days, but has any one else noticed that just about the same number of votes were cast for Democrats in the Blood-Red state of South Carolina as were cast for Republicans? Can you imagine what the headlines would read today if there were a Massachusetts primary where the same number of voters went GOP as went Democratic? Howard Dean would have been forced to resign the next day!

washingtonpost.com: The Trail: Crunching the South Carolina Numbers (washingtonpost.com, Jan. 28)

Peter Baker: Actually, more voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary in South Carolina than in the Republican primary, about 532,000 to about 446,000. The Democratic turnout was nearly double that in 2004, while the Republican turnout was nearly 120,000 off the 2000 total. The Democratic turnout has been higher than Republican turnout throughout the primary season, which is at least an indicator of enthusiasm and energy.

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Re: The Kennedys' endorsements: The pundits seem to agree that both Caroline's and Ted's endorsements are "biggies." But many of those same pundits often say endorsements are nice, but don't really made a difference. If that is true, why should these two be the exception?

Peter Baker: Let's agree again that most endorsements don't mean that much. But there have been pundits who have said that in the Democratic field, there were three this year that were most coveted -- John Kerry, Ted Kennedy and Al Gore. That's because of their distinctive stature with the party's liberal base. Obama now has two of the three, and Gore has remained on the sideline. What everyone will caution you to remember, of course, is that Gore endorsed Howard Dean in 2004, and Dean's campaign promptly imploded. Still, a Ted Kennedy endorsement lets Obama capitalize on this notion that he's somehow a new-generation Jack Kennedy -- and it signals to a lot of party regulars that Obama actually can win.

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Albany, N.Y.: So, who gave the State of the Union in 2001? It must have been Clinton, correct?

Peter Baker: Someone may prove me wrong here, but I don't believe President Clinton delivered a State of the Union address in 2001. President Bush did address a joint session of Congress in February 2001. They did not call it a State of the Union, though for all intents and purposes it was.

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Fairfax County, Va.: I know the conventional political wisdom is that endorsements don't matter, but I was pretty excited as an Obama supporter to see Ted and Caroline Kennedy come out in his favor -- and then today, Toni Morrison (who called Clinton the first black president). My sense is that these announcements are a good way of keeping the "bounce" going and also keeping up a steady series of positive (for Obama) new stories; if so, they could tip some primary results. But I still have enormous respect for the pundits and reporters like you, even after New Hampshire! So do endorsements matter? Why or why not?

washingtonpost.com: Morrison Endorses Obama for President (AP, Jan. 28)

Peter Baker: I think you put your finger on it, in the sense that really big-name endorsements can matter to the extent that they ratify momentum or a narrative. Toni Morrison sends a message to fellow African Americans when she goes with Sen. Obama. And if you expand endorsements to include editorial pages, you can think of endorsements that did matter -- the Des Moines Register in 2004 certainly helped Sen. Edwards in the Iowa caucuses that year, even if it didn't make the difference for Sen. Clinton in the caucuses this year. The other kind of endorsement that can matter is if a political leader with a proven organization throws it behind a candidate -- witness John Sununu helping to deliver New Hampshire for George H.W. Bush in 1988. So I guess the muddle-headed answer is "it depends."

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Mill Creek, Wash.: I am absolutely stunned at the coverage Sen. Obama has received from the media, including The Washington Post. I've read comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Lincoln in news stories -- it's way over the top in terms of political coverage for a senator who, despite immense political skills, has a relatively thin record of political accomplishment to date. I can appreciate the excitement of his supporters, but can you honestly say the coverage of Sen. Obama has been balanced? And do you feel that because of racial sensitivities, African Americans are not held to the same level of scrutiny in your political coverage?

Peter Baker: Thanks for the critique. I can appreciate your point of view. I think the coverage has reflected what our reporters have found in the field. Sen. Obama has managed to stir an enthusiasm that is different than many other candidates. At the same time, I think you're certainly right that his record, or lack thereof, is a reasonable subject of scrutiny. We've done a number of pieces looking at that, and I'm sure there will be more.

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Washington: Mr. Baker, how are delegates apportioned in the big Super Tuesday states like California and New York? Is it proportional to the total vote or is it based on congressional districts? Could we see a situation like Nevada, where a candidate doesn't win the popular vote but ends up with more delegates?

Peter Baker: Excellent question, and one that will get more attention as we move closer to Super Tuesday, because it will have a big say in candidate strategies. The answer is different depending on the party. The Democrats will award all delegates on a proportional system, which means it's in the interest of candidates to compete even in big states they don't expect to win, because they can bring home delegates. The Republicans will award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, either by state or by congressional district. New York, for instance, is winner-take-all by state. That means that if you don't expect to knock off former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani there, you may not have much incentive for campaigning there, because you'll come away with nothing if you lose. California, on the other hand, is winner-take-all by congressional district, so Republicans will pick targets for where they think they might score a win and take home all the delegates from particular districts. Very complicated -- a real political chess game.

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Rockville, Md.: A question about "superdelegates": If Obama entered the convention leading in both delegates and votes, would the party's elected officials dare to throw the nomination to Clinton on the strength of their own votes as "superdelegates," or do you think that by then the momentum would have shifted enough to the point that they would back the winner of the primaries?

Peter Baker: Another good question. I think superdelegates have a way of backing a winner. Remember, they're politicians, and many of them face elections themselves. So if one candidate won most of the ordinary delegates, you could see some flux among the superdelegates. It might be especially hard for the Democrats, in particular, to give the nomination to someone who actually did not win the most popular votes in the primaries, given their continued grievance about the 2000 general election.

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Washington: John McCain has the endorsements of Gov. Crist and Sen. Martinez, plus he's coming off a win in South Carolina. Mitt Romney has the money and the economic issues playing to his favor. Rudy Giuliani has been hunkered down there for a month and has the folks who voted early before his campaign started finishing behind Ron Paul. So which campaign is in the best position?

Peter Baker: And boy, here's the multimillion-dollar question. You lay out the circumstances heading into tomorrow's vote as ably as possible. The one thing we all should have learned from the New Hampshire Democratic primary is not to make predictions -- and yet, with that notable and glaring exception, the polls this year actually have been pretty good at forecasting most of these elections. So what do the latest polls say about Florida? Dead heat between John McCain and Mitt Romney. McCain has a tiny, statistically insignificant lead in several polls, but keep in mind, this is the first closed primary, where only registered Republicans can vote -- not the independents who have helped him in previous contests. The polls have Rudy Giuliani way behind the two front-runners and absent another New Hampshire-type wave we don't detect, he could be in real trouble.

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Los Angeles: What about McCain saying over the weekend in Florida that the U.S. is facing more wars? Is this an example of the straight-shooter hitting himself in the foot by preferring to speak pessimistically about terrorism rather than optimistically about fixing the economy?

Peter Baker: I didn't see that statement, but Sen. McCain certainly has decided he has a better chance if he talks about national security and makes voters think about who they want to be in the Situation Room during the next crisis, whatever it might be. He's fighting the tide at the moment, though, in that the economy has surged to the top of voter concerns and certainly would seem to be more of a strength for Gov. Romney.

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Democratic Turnout: Call me cynical, but without Republicans at the polls to help check IDs and records, there's no telling how many voters were actual living Democrats who live in South Carolina. We'll see how the totals come out in November.

Peter Baker: Well, with all respect, I do think that may be a little cynical. Do you really think tens of thousands of people who don't live in South Carolina drove to the state and committed fraud? State officials do check records when people check in to vote. Having said that, I agree that one should be careful about projecting what it might mean for the fall. It indicates a certain energy level within a party, but a general election is a different beast -- it attracts a much wider electorate. And of course there are nine months between now and then when anything can happen.

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Asheville N.C.: The polls for New Hampshire badly underestimated Hillary's support. The polls for SC badly underestimated Obama's. Are the turn-outs just turning these polls on their heads, or are they just getting bad data from their samples? Also -- are the total Democratic votes versus total Republican votes comparisons causing any ulcers at GOP headquarters? I've never seen anything like it either way.

Peter Baker: Yes, you're right, I should amend my previous answer to say that the polls did not completely capture what was happening in the South Carolina primary. They've been pretty spot on in all the Republican contests, but have had more trouble on the Democratic side. One thing pollsters have a hard time measuring is turnout and last-minute deciders. If one candidate builds a certain momentum in the last hours and days of a campaign, it's harder to track that. At least that's my non-expert opinion.

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Lakewood, Colo.: The speech by Bush in 2001 was an Inaugural Address, not a State of the Union Speech. This is how it goes: off national election years, we have State of the Union by president. Election years, we have Inaugural Addresses by the new president, and the outgoing president does not give a State of the Union speech.

Peter Baker: Well, yes, he gave an inaugural address, but that was not a speech to a joint session of Congress. He later gave a speech to a joint session that was more the style of a State of the Union address.

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Rudy's Florida Endorsements: We Florida conservatives aren't too fond of Martinez, so that endorsement doesn't carry much weight around here. And Charlie Crist was the less conservative of the two serious GOP gubernatorial candidates, so even though we like the job he's doing, that endorsement doesn't mean much either. We're mostly voting on the property tax amendment, since we'll vote against the Hildebeast no matter whom our nominee is.

Peter Baker: Thanks for the feedback from the field. You raise a good point, too -- when other issues are on the ballot, such as a property tax amendment, it can tilt the field in terms of both what issues are on the table and who is most motivated to turn out to vote. That's one reason Mitt Romney has made such an issue out of John McCain's votes against the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts (though McCain now says he wants to make them permanent).

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Bethesda, Md.: Maybe I'm just being cynical, but two things strike me about tonight's State of the Union address right away: One, with the president's popularity at record lows, I have to wonder if there'll be much of an audience for tonight's speech; and two, with his promise to veto so many earmarks, that sounds very much like a veiled assertion that he's going to stick it to Congress any way he can. Am I wrong in this, or am I just being cynical?

Peter Baker: Well, we're all a little cynical, aren't we? I share your curiosity to know how many people actually will tune in tonight for a lame-duck president's final (probably) State of the Union. Just left the White House about an hour ago and overheard the following on the street:

Man: "He's giving a speech tonight."

Other man: "Who?"

First man: "The president."

Other man: "Really?"

So let's say it doesn't seem to have everyone as interested and on the edge of their seats as those of us in the White House press corps are.

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Savannah, Ga.: What does it mean for Rudy that Florida is only getting half its delegates? Are there still enough to make Florida worthwhile, or will a victory there be Pyrrhic?

Peter Baker: Florida may be less about delegates and more about momentum. Mayor Giuliani had envisioned it as a springboard into Super Tuesday -- if he had a victory in Florida, the nation's fourth-biggest state, he could use that to sell his message across the board on Feb. 5. That doesn't seem to have come together quite the way he imagined. And when it comes to delegates, by the way, a lot of Republicans expect that the party ultimately will back down and seat them all, despite its current posture.

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Kensington, Md.: I just wanted to pass along my condolences. After pushing hard the idea of some kind of angry "race war" in South Carolina, the political editors at The Post must be downright depressed to read the exit polls. It turns out that whites would be happy with Obama as the nominee and African Americans would be fine if Clinton gets the nod. Any idea what the next socially-destructive gimmick to sell advertising might be? Maybe demonizing illegal immigrants? I hear that works well for Fox.

Peter Baker: Thanks for the comments. I wouldn't agree that we somehow were pushing a "race war." That's pretty laughable, actually. We were following the candidates and what they were saying and doing, which certainly skated along the racial divide in volatile ways. Ask any of the Democratic party elders here in Washington if they liked what they saw in South Carolina before the vote -- many if not most will tell you they were disturbed.

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Fact check:"I've read comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Lincoln in news stories -- it's way over the top in terms of political coverage for a senator who, despite immense political skills, has a relatively thin record of political accomplishment to date."

Er ... Obama has as much or more political accomplishment as either Kennedy brother or Lincoln did when they ran for President. What's your point?

Peter Baker: Well, if we're talking about experience at the national level, that's partly true. Abraham Lincoln only had served a single term in Congress when he won the presidency in 1860. Jack Kennedy, on the other hand, had served in the House for six years and the Senate for eight years. Sen. Obama, if he wins, will have been in the Senate for four years. (I think a lot of people, rightly or wrongly, don't really count his time in the state legislature in making comparisons.) For that matter, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. never served in office, nor did he run for president. I think the previous reader felt that Sen. Obama has gotten a lot of adulatory coverage without adequate scrutiny, and that's a reasonable question to ask.

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San Diego: I understand the delegates are committed only on the first ballot at the convention. Are there any reports about how many delegates might change sides if it goes beyond the first ballot?

Peter Baker: Way too soon to figure that out, as we only actually have awarded a tiny fraction of the delegates at this point. This presumes that the decision in either party would go to convention. Remember, there hasn't been a genuinely contested presidential nominating convention since 1976 -- when President Gerald Ford beat challenger Ronald Reagan -- and there hasn't been more than a single ballot at any convention since 1952, when the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson, or 1948, when the Republicans nominated Tom Dewey. But you have to say, it does look like there's a chance this might be the year that happens again, given the very fluid nature of the campaign, particularly on the Republican side. No predictions, but let's stay tuned.

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Northern Virginia: When Bill Clinton started running for President, he challenged Democratic orthodoxy on a number of key issues -- trade and defense, for example. Sen. Obama is the change agent of this election it seems, but is there anything in his policy views that suggests he departs from traditional liberal Democratic thinking?

Peter Baker: Not so much, no -- not in the ideological sense, at least that I can think of off the top of my head. There are probably exceptions. But from what I've seen at least, he hews to a pretty conventional liberal Democratic orthodoxy when it comes to issues such as trade, social issues, economics and the war. What he's selling, it seems, is the notion that despite all that, he's willing to reach out and work with the other side -- that he's not so partisan as the typical politicians in Washington. Conservatives, naturally, remain more than a little suspicious of this.

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Peter Baker: Too many good questions, not enough time. So it goes. But thanks so much for participating today. Stay tuned tonight for our State of the Union coverage and check in all day tomorrow as Florida goes to the polls. It should be exciting. Have a great day.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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