Post Politics Hour

Dan Balz
Washington Post chief political reporter Dan Balz. (Julia Ewan - Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
Dan Balz
Washington Post Chief Political Reporter
Wednesday, February 27, 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.

Washington Post chief political reporter Dan Balz was online Wednesday, Feb. 27 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

The transcript follows.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts


Dan Balz: Good morning to everyone. It's gray and cold in Cleveland, and the Democratic candidates have headed south to the center of the state for campaign events today. Sen. Obama will be off to Texas later today, and Sen. Clinton will spend the rest of the day in Ohio. I suspect there will be lots of interest in last night's debate and where the campaign goes from here. Good to have everyone involved.


Cambridge, Mass.: Good morning. Do you think last night's debate is likely to get Hillary Clinton the kind of sympathy that seems to work well for her, or do you think nothing essentially has changed in her favor? In a Crucial State, a Contentious Debate (Post, Feb. 27)

Dan Balz: I don't think last night's debate changed the race in any fundamental way. Both candidates did pretty well. Neither truly dominated the campaign. Each had some weaker moments. After 20 Democratic debates, it would take something special -- a real gaffe, which neither seems likely to commit; a terrible flash of temper (both came awfully close to that in the South Carolina debate); an overall meltdown. These are very skilled candidates by now, and while they're bone tired, they rise to the moment in these debates. Sen. Clinton is struggling, and yet she is clearly competitive in Texas and may have a slight edge still here in Ohio. But with the better part of a week of campaigning left before Tuesday's contests, Tuesday's debate quickly will fade, and performance, organization and message in the remaining days will make the difference.


Waterville, Maine: Hi Dan. Barack Obama's post-"Super Tuesday" wins have ranged from 17 points (Wisconsin) to more than 30 points (a number of states, including Virginia). Yet national polls (until very recently) have indicated a dead heat nationally. What do you think accounts for this discrepancy? Is it that Obama is a really good closer, or that his grassroots support consistently is underpolled? Do you see any indication this trend will continue on March 4? Thanks.

Dan Balz: I think what you're seeing in national polls is an important shift in the Democratic race. Some national polls show the race between Sen. Clinton and Senator Obama close, but a few now show Sen. Obama with a real lead -- 54-38 in the New York Times-CBS News poll that came out on Tuesday; 51-39 in the USA Today/Gallup that came out at the same time. The current national polls are a sharp reversal of what had been a clear advantage for Clinton through the early part of the year, so there is no question that public opinion among Democrats is moving toward Obama.

The question of why he has won some of these post-Super Tuesday states by even wider margins is related. Winning changes attitudes; voters tend to move toward a winning candidate. So the more contests Obama has won, the better he is likely to do in national polls. His big margins in some of these states will not be reflected nationally because the electorates in those states do not necessarily mirror the rest of the country. Some are relatively smaller states. Wisconsin certainly has been a general election battleground in the past two cycles, and presumably will be in theis one as well. I think Obama overwhelmed her there -- by a larger margin than many people anticipated -- in part because she ran less of a campaign there than he did. He outspent her heavily on television, for example, proving again that voters in the states are affected by what they see up-close. So there are a lot of reasons why the national numbers may not be identical to some of Obama's recent victories, but there's no question that the ground has shifted toward him nationally as he has racked up victory after victory.


Ferguson, Mo.: Here's a question you probably can dispose of in a word, maybe two. What are the chances Ralph Nader will gain more than the .3 percent he achieved in 2004? Are there any states where even that small figure could be a factor? Thanks for playing!

Dan Balz: Candidates who run repeatedly generally don't see their numbers rise, so it would very surprising to see Ralph Nader do well in this race.


Montgomery Village, Md.: Dan, what is John Edwards waiting for before announcing his endorsement -- or have he and his endorsement become irrelevant? I was sort of expecting an announcement before last night's debate, but that might have taken the spotlight away from the remaining candidates. Seems he would have some sway in Ohio. Your thoughts?

Dan Balz: My guess is he's frozen right now, although I have no current intelligence on his thinking. He genuinely has been torn about an endorsement. Although he often blistered Sen. Clinton for taking contributions from lobbyists and for representing the status quo, I suspect he believes she truly is qualified to be president and tough enough to do the job. I suspect that while he admires what Sen. Obama has been able to do in this campaign to attract such an energized group of supporters and to capture the desire for change so effectively, he may have questions about Obama's toughness and readiness. That make the choice difficult. If he were leaning toward Clinton, he may want more evidence that she's going to have a viable campaign after next Tuesday. He may have missed his moment, or may have decided this is one to sit out. But let's see if he makes a move between now and the weekend.


Kansas City, Mo.: One of the points that seems to be lost in the discussion on public financing of the fall campaign is the advantage I believe it would provide McCain. Because the GOP convention is in early September and the Democratic convention is in August, McCain wouldn't have to start spending money at the same time. This hurt Kerry in 2004, although it was a larger time frame. Seems like candidates should have the option of either taking the money when they become the nominee, or at a set date.

Dan Balz: Actually this was a much bigger issue in 2004 than it is this year. There was a gap of about a month or five weeks between the Democratic convention and the Republican convention in 2004. This year they are back-to-back, so that really means just one week difference in the amount of time they would have to spread their money. So in effect it mostly is a moot point. The other is that it is difficult to spend the roughly $90 million intelligently during that final eight or nine weeks. That is a lot of money, and if you talk with strategists who have done these general election campaigns, they say that is plenty of money for both sides. However, your point that the starting line should be the same is a good one. Now that we're in an era where candidates opt out of public financing in the primaries, there is no longer a need to get that fall campaign money early to inject fresh funds into an operation that is essentially broke. Just one more area that needs a fresh look when this is over.


St. Paul, Minn.: Dan -- thank you for taking my question. I was wondering what your take was on McCain's apology for the remarks about "Barack Hussein Obama" that were made yesterday. He seems to be getting credit for getting out there early and denouncing it, but it seemed rather perfunctory to me (just my opinion). Assuming he's the nominee, and Obama's the nominee (or even if Sen. Clinton is), and given the presence of right-wingers like Cunningham who aren't afraid to go to extremes, does this have the potential to be a problem for McCain? How many times will he have to go out there and distance himself? McCain Supporter Ridicules Obama (Post, Feb. 27)

Dan Balz: I thought Sen. McCain handled it pretty well, and frankly think this is a problem both Sen. McCain and either Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton will face in the fall. Certainly Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama have said repeatedly they want to run civil campaigns, and Sen. Clinton certainly respects Sen. McCain and probably counts him as something of a "friend" in the Senate. Yet there are people and groups and forces on both sides of this race who will want to do what we saw in Cincinnati yesterday. Can these candidates effectively police their allies? It will be tough, and will be a test of character for them going forward.


Staunton, Va.: Hi Dan, I think that you are doing a great job "On the Trail." Last night the crowd really only cheered once that I can remember; that was when Obama "ceded" Clinton the point on rejecting and denouncing. I can't really figure out who the crowd was cheering for. Was the cheering for Hillary because she had gotten Obama to cede to her? Was it for Obama because he was above the fray and not willing to fight a semantic battle? Or was it because an extremist like Farrakhan had been rejected? I have to think that if Hillary had been asked to both reject and denounce someone, we could have had a lengthy diatribe on semantics and she never would have ceded the point. Thanks for your insight.

Dan Balz: Thanks for your kind words. I thought, ironically, that Sen. Clinton sort of bailed out Sen. Obama on that question. He handled it reasonably well, but meandered a bit. She felt the need to interject from her experience in New York, where frankly denouncing or rejecting anti-Semitism is not a big risk politically. In doing so, she gave Obama the opportunity to close the door on the question and I thought the laughter was a reflection of the audience's feeling that he had turned her criticism around and used it to get out of a tough and legitimate question.


Re: Clinton's tax returns: Was Clinton's answer in last night's debate (that she has no time to release her returns because she is campaigning) just plain silly? Doesn't she have tax and other administrative people who can do that for her? Seriously, what is behind her reluctance to release them? Would they show something nefarious?

Dan Balz: I frankly don't understand the Clinton campaign's position. You're correct -- this is not an issue of whether they can get the work done. For whatever reason, the Clintons don't want the distraction of their financial situation intruding on the campaign at this point -- or seemingly at an earlier point. I have no idea what the returns would show, but certainly they would open up a window on the post-White House finances of the Clintons and would give rise to much more reporting on that subject. At this point, with crucial primaries looming, she clearly doesn't want to be drawn into that discussion. She probably should have put them out much, much earlier.


New York: I have recently read a number of blog postings analyzing the actual breakdown -- i.e. Democrats, Republican and independent "crossover" voters -- of the voting in the Democratic primaries, and it appears that among registered Democrats Hillary Clinton has won more votes. This pattern has been apparent for some time, but I have not seen any major newspaper write about this.

Just this week I read a submission on one of the political chats from someone who said he was a Republican who crossed over to vote for Obama but intended to vote for McCain in the general election. I also have not seen much reporting on the crossover voting and same-day non-id-producing voters who have packed the caucuses. This to me is a kind of fraud. Why do you think there has been so little coverage of this phenomenon? For this election what's done is done, but I think this will destroy the Democratic Party if it continues.

Dan Balz: I would not call it fraud. There may be some people who are Republicans who participated in the Democratic primaries with the intention of voting for their own nominee in the fall, but my guess is that is a very, very small percentage.

State parties decide whether they want their primaries open to all voters or just to members of their own party. Clinton has done better with Democrats, Obama with independents. Clinton supporters can say this shows she has more support among the party's base and therefore would have an energized cadre in the fall. Obama supporters can say he has greater ability to expand the Democrats' appeal and therefore would make a stronger general election candidate. Generally, the candidate who does best with his or her party's voters in the primaries wins the nomination, and Sen. Obama's chances of winning have been enhanced by his ability to gain more and more votes from Democrats in these primaries -- but he and Sen. Clinton are still competitive among Democrats.

As I said, I don't think this is an issue of fraud, rather one of how different candidates appeal to different kinds of voters. In the end, there is enough of a mix of open and closed primaries to make this a legitimate test for both candidates.


Rockville, Md.: I have been out of Texas for eight years now, and most of the time I was in Texas the politics were very different. However, I don't think many who are predicting the Hillary and Obama contest really appreciate how much support she will get in South Texas or how much East Texas is like the old South. At least that is my take. There aren't enough people in the North and West to make a difference, and I think Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth will decide the race. What do you think?

Dan Balz: I've been out of Texas for 20-plus years, and it's still a wonderfully rich political place. Sen. Clinton must and probably will do well in South Texas, given her longstanding ties there. East Texas is the old South, and Bill Clinton has spent time there hoping his Arkansas roots translate. Austin is overwhelmingly Obama country -- he drew 20,000 people last Friday night for a rally at the base of the state capitol building. In the city districts in Houston and Dallas, early voting was way up the first few days, and I suspect that's good for Obama. The Dallas and Houston districts that are predominantly Anglo rather than Hispanic or African American are harder for me to read at this point. Clinton began the Texas campaign with obvious advantages, but the sentiment has been moving Obama's way. One of his Texas supporters told me about 10 days ago that it would be a race against the clock. Could Obama make himself well-known enough fast enough to overcome her initial advantages?


Hand-wringing: Around this time of every presidency I've seen in the past 40 years the media focuses on hundreds of postmortems on what said president failed to accomplish, where he swung and missed and where some of the accomplishments had unexpected results. This time, no president has had a less enviable record than the current resident of 1600 ... yet there have been very few postmortems. Why?

Dan Balz: I disagree with you. There have been volumes written about this president and this presidency, and most have been harsh in their assessments. Most of those books have focused on Iraq, the single biggest part of the Bush presidency. Books by Washington Post authors alone make an impressive contribution to our knowledge of what happened in this presidency, and they're just part of the collection that has been built up -- books by journalists, by former administration insiders, by scholars ... and more are on the way. So there has been no shortage, and there will continue to be assessments of what happened, what went wrong, where Bush achieved something of note, where the jury is still out. And I assume newspapers and magazines will launch more the closer we get to the end of this administration.


Pacifica, Calif.: Can anyone check how much Internet funding is coming from outside the U.S. for Obama? Does he need to report this number, and why doesn't the news report this figure if is significant?

Dan Balz: Foreign nationals are banned from giving money to U.S. candidates, so there should be no funding going to Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton from foreigners. As to money coming from American citizens who live outside the U.S., that might be available by analyzing the FEC records, as contributors -- at least those above a certain amount -- have to list their addresses.


Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Thanks for taking questions. Has the Obama campaign, on or off the record, respond to Sen. McCain rebuking the conservative talk show host who kept referring to Barack Hussein Obama in Cincinnati yesterday at a McCain campaign event?

Dan Balz: The Obama campaign made clear they accepted Sen. McCain's word that he did not know in advance that this was going to be part of his introduction, and that he would try to prevent it from happening again. The McCain campaign then urged the Obama campaign to rein in the Democratic National Committee, which has been attacking Sen. McCain in some harsh language. We have not heard the last of all this, but the Obama campaign's first reaction was to let it go.


St. Francis, Ark.: Will we see Sen. McCain change his message on the economy because of the recent slump and Bernanke's bleak forecast?

Dan Balz: We've seen him talk more about the economy as the worries about recession gather force. This is not his favorite subject, but one that he will have to make central to his campaign in the coming months.

We're out of time, and so I thank everyone for tuning in today. Have a great week.


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