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White House 2000: Connolly's take on the top contenders

GOP Hold on House Hazier (Washington Post, June 8)

Post Articles by Ceci Connolly


Direct Access With Ceci Connolly

Wednesday, July 29, 1998

Fresh from the campaign trail, Post political reporter Ceci Connolly was this week's guest on "Direct Access." From her desk in the Washington Post newsroom, she answered questions about this year's hot issues and early movements in the 2000 presidential race. Welcome to's "Direct Access" discussion on all topics political. Ceci Connolly joins us live now from her desk in the Washington Post newsroom.

Bethesda, Md.: Does Vice President Gore's staff believe his environmental views are a potential weakness in Campaign 2000 and, if so, do they plan to downplay those views?

Ceci Connolly: Gore's advisers, and the vice president himself, believe his environmental record is an asset and one they will continue to promote around the country, especially in states such as California where an increasing number of voters express concerns about the environment. At times, his activities on behalf of the environment can pose tensions with the business community, but the Gore camp thinks they can strike a balance between the two. Besides the environment, one of Gore's other hot-button issues seems to be technology. In a similar vein, how much blame can he expect to take if federal government runs into deep trouble dealing with the Year 2000 computer problem?

Ceci Connolly: Gore is walking a finer line with respect to the potential Y2000 problem. Because he is so clearly identified as the high-tech guru in the Clinton administration, and so eager to continue cultivating that powerful (and wealthy) network, Republicans are ready to pounce if he does not deliver on this issue. For his own part, the vice president says he is focused primarily on solutions for the government and it is largely up to the business community to handle its own problems.

Cinnaminson, N.J.: Having won the South Carolina straw poll, and getting great reviews in Nebraska, and apparently getting Ralph Reed's support, shouldn't Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft be considered the GOP frontrunner? Should [Republican governor of Texas, George] Bush Jr. sit it out?

Ceci Connolly: I had not known about Ralph Reed's support. My impression is that Reed, a hot GOP consultant, is still waiting to decide who to work for in 2000. That said, Ashcroft has done well developing support in the Christian right, an influential constituency in the Republican Party. I'm reluctant to give him frontrunner status for a few reasons: he does not have much money, has name ID of about 4 percent nationwide and the voting is a long way off. A lot of talk about potential Republican presidential candidates is focusing on governors. Are there Democratic governors out there who have presidential aspirations?

Ceci Connolly: Well, there aren't many Democratic governors out there right now. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean flirted with the idea, but quickly put that notion aside. We're kind of waiting to see the next generation of Democratic leaders emerge.

Washington, D.C.: How do you think Social Security reform will play out as an issue in the 98 races?

Ceci Connolly: President Clinton, by saying he wants to wait until 1999, may have bought his party some time on this issue. Still, more and more voters are beginning to pepper candidates with questions about where they stand on the issue, so it may still have an impact on the November election. The impact will very much have to do with the nature of each district and its demographics. I know that sounds imprecise, but it's still too early to see whether it rises to the top of the agenda. My guess is that education and health care will be higher on the list this year, but Social Security could well dominate the 2000 contests. Health care certainly seems to be a hot topic this year, too. And it's one that sort of sprang out of nowhere during the last two months. Where did it come from? Where is it going?

Ceci Connolly: Without sounding overly cynical, the health care issue, like most these days, came largely from pollsters. Democratic strategists have been noticing for months a growing unease and frustration out there with managed care. It is one of those rare issues that affects people in a very direct, personal way. You now see Republicans playing a bit of catch up, since their pollsters are also telling them Americans want some improvement in the system. The big question is whether Democrats will be willing to accept some sort of compromise legislation or would rather have a hot issue to run on in the fall. Watch to see whether President Clinton is willing to embrace the smaller-scale Republican bill.

Hartford, Conn.: The recent, terrible shootings at the Capitol have prompted a few lawmakers to jump into the fray with talk for or against tougher gun-control laws. Do you think this incident, coupled with the school shootings around the country, will push the issue into the forefront of this fall's campaign? Or do you think the issue will fade by Labor Day?

Ceci Connolly: Every campaign year, particularly when the economy is good, crime is high on the agenda. This year, we expect to hear much more discussion about school safety because of the equally horrendous incidents at schools around the nation. On the question of gun control, I expect a group of candidates (probably more progressive challengers) to push that issue. It remains to be seen whether pro-gun lawmakers will feel compelled to change their position and potentially risk the wrath of the powerful National Rifle Association. When you're on the road covering candidates – presidential or otherwise – do you find many examples of "pack journalism," where reporters tend to write about the same things and cover mainly what the candidate wants them to see?

Ceci Connolly: Those are two major challenges for political reporters today, especially when covering presidential campaigns and we are in many respects captive of the candidate, traveling on his or her plane, staying in the same hotels, being carted around in buses from event to event. (It should be noted, the news organizations pay for all of this.) That said, most good reporters strive to put balance in their stories and find fresh angles on what can seem to be awfully repetitious days out there.

Chicago, Ill.: The campaign finance scandal was looking pretty hairy for Vice President Gore before the Lewinsky story broke. Now he's back to looking squeaky clean compared to President Clinton. Do you think Gore's scrapes with campaign finance laws will come back to haunt him by 2000, or will it be something his Republican opponents try to resurrect with no success?

Ceci Connolly: I'd say a little of both. Republicans are certainly eager to remind voters of Gore's own campaign finance violations and his poor handling of the controversy. That said, the Gore camp is extremely sensitive to even the possibility of appearing to break any rules this time around. So far, in the running of his PAC (political action committee) Gore's staff has taken pains to scrutinize each donation and donor.

Fort Worth, Tex.: Are there any politicians that you like personally, or at least believe are decent people who aren't working the system for their own benefit? Voters are awfully cynical, and often think that politicians in general have sleazy motives and shouldn't be trusted.

Ceci Connolly: There are actually plenty of politicians I like, of every stripe imaginable. I couldn't keep doing this if I believed they were all a bunch of worthless no-goods. Politicians are people like the rest of us with strengths and weaknesses. That doesn't mean we as reporters don't have to hold them to high standards – they do after all work for you. But they are human and just as likable as anyone else we encounter in our daily lives.

Alexandria, Va.: Could you please tell us which Senators or congressmen are worried about reelection. I am not asking who could lose, but who "really" may lose.

Ceci Connolly: Great question. This is of course subjective, but here are some of the names considered by a wide variety of sources to be vulnerable this year: Abercrombie, Hostettler, Reid, Rick White, Cook, Evans, Snowbarger, Strickland, Fox, Moseley-Braun, and Bond.

Lusaka, Zambia: Are there any racial problems in the U.S. congress?

Ceci Connolly: Not certain what you mean. Certainly there are fewer minorities in Congress and many say that makes it harder to get their issues out. On a personal level, I'm not aware of any particular tensions, though they certainly have a wide range of political views.

Columbia, Md.: In 1996, Republicans held on to the House thanks to a big money advantage, incumbency, and low voter turnout. Aren't all those forces likely to be even stronger this year, making Democratic hopes of retaking the House a pipe dream?

Ceci Connolly: All of those things do work in Republicans' favor and should hold this fall. Interestingly, a handful of Democratic House challengers have raised as much or more than their Republican opponents, which suggests Democrats may remain competitive in some of those seats. And of course, the GOP would point out that Democrats hope to get a financial boost from labor.

Washington, D.C.: What political news has presented you with the biggest recent surprise?

Ceci Connolly: There isn't a lot that shocks me about politics these days. We have a saying, the only thing for certain in politics is surprise. That said, the ongoing saga of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky remains a remarkable tale full of unlikely twists and turns.

Baton Rouge, La.: Given the Democrats' largely successful recent history in statewide races in Georgia and the fact that Sen. Coverdell does not seem to be extraordinarily popular, I would have thought that the Democrats would have put that race high on their priority list for the fall, but I've seen very little written about it. Does Michael Coles have a chance to win? Will this race be impacted by the gubernatorial race?

Ceci Connolly: I'm afraid I'm not the Post's expert on Georgia politics. My understanding is Coverdell, in part because of the benefits of incumbency, is expected to have the edge. But he's no shoo-in. The most likely impact of this gubernatorial race and others around the country revolves around turnout.

Washington, D.C.: Which do you find more influential: media image or actual viewpoints and ideas? (We have been reminded of the film "Network.")

Ceci Connolly: I'd say the whole package merges to form a politician's public persona. We as reporters, and I expect voters, too, look to see if the media image and viewpoints agree. In other words, does the candidate try to promote himself as one thing but then vote the other way?

Washington, D.C.: What issues are emerging as the top three for this year's congressional races? Any difference between incumbents and challengers?

Ceci Connolly: The most obvious differences between challengers and incumbents are timeless: an incumbent primarily attempts to run on his or her record, touting achievements, key votes, etc. Challengers must convince voters to fire the incumbent which is a two-step process: first they need to show why the incumbent shouldn't stay and then prove they are the most logical replacement. On the issue front, I expect health care to dominate the fall debate. Watch for candidates to also talk a good deal about education (vouchers, school construction, teacher testing), crime (especially juvenile crime) and taxes (should the expected federal surplus be used to reduce taxes and if so, which taxes to cut?) Since no major national theme has yet emerged, most congressional candidates are more likely to hit on local issues. You mentioned the question of turnout in a previous answer. How do you expect turnout to compare with 1994, not only in numbers but in the types of folks who are likely to go to the polls?

Ceci Connolly: Well, sadly, most of the experts expect turnout to be low once again. In non-presidential years, that is always the case, but with the economy so good and most Americans saying they are basically content, many experts project an even lower turnout this year. Republican analysts say they expect turnout to work in their favor for a couple reasons: a slew of popular Republican governors could help draw Republican voters to the polls and the segment of the population that is unhappy tends to be the more conservative voter who in particular expresses disgust with the seeming moral decline in America.

Arlington, Va.: How would you encourage younger members of the constituency to become more actively involved in political affairs?

Ceci Connolly: I try to point out to people who are not inclined to vote that it's their government and they pay for it and should take advantage of the opportunity to weigh in and say what/who they like and don't like. It is also worthwhile to note that government affects all of us – whether it's potholes or public schools or funding for the arts or medical research.

Greensboro, N.C.: What is your reaction to those who believe that Washington, D.C. should have Congressional representation?

Ceci Connolly: Tricky question, especially since I live in the District. Think I'll leave that to the opinion writers.

Falls Church, Va.: What's your view on who will emerge as the non-Ray Flynn candidate in the Massachusetts 8th District congressional election? Are there any national implications to this contest?

Ceci Connolly: There are plenty of non-Flynn candidates in the 10-way race to replace Rep. Joseph Kennedy II. Each comes from a slightly different take, whether it is Marjorie Clapprood who speaks a lot about bringing a female perspective to the all-male delegation or Chris Gabrielli, a wealthy businessman heavily favored by the centrists in the DLC.

Cincinnati, Ohio: The race here between Steve Chabot and Rozanne Qualls looks very interesting. How much involvement by the leadership on both the Republican and Democratic sides do you think there will be by the time November comes?

Ceci Connolly: Heavy involvement by both parties and probably various outside groups. This race is on everyone's target list and is considered too close to call.

Dalton, Ga.: Do you think Hillary Clinton has any political plans in the future? If so, what are they?

Ceci Connolly: There is much speculation as to what the first lady will do after 2000. Most of the reports I hear suggest that she is more likely to spend time writing books, serving on corporate boards, teaching and doing community service. Many close to Mrs. Clinton note it has not been easy living in the public eye and so it seems strange she would want to continue that life.

Washington, D.C.: Are you hearing an overwhelming amount of "fix the IRS" from people as you travel this campaign season? Is this an Al Gore top target?

Ceci Connolly: Any politician who talks about the IRS can always get a rise out of an audience. So far, I notice more Republicans really pushing that as a campaign issue this year. The GOP for instance, has several bills to abolish or replace the IRS as well as to totally revamp the current tax code. My recollection of Gore's activity on this front segues more with his reinventing government role of attempting to make the bureaucracy leaner and more customer friendly.

Rosslyn, Va.: Do you think we've seen the end of Mike McCurry's career in politics?

Ceci Connolly: Never say never in this business. But I expect McCurry to take a nice long, well-deserved break from politics. He's talking about teaching and hitting the lucrative speaking circuit. Following up on the Hillary Clinton question, how realistic is the talk about an Elizabeth Dole campaign in 2000?

Ceci Connolly: There is a small, but vocal minority of GOP insiders attempting to lure Mrs. Dole into the 2000 contest. She is extremely bright, disciplined and an effective speaker. If I had to make a wild guess today, I'd say she's more likely to be a contender for the number two spot.

Washington D.C.: How do you see the Gray Davis-Dan Lungren California gubernatorial race shaping up, and do you believe, as The Post implied, this race would be an indicator of how races will go nationwide?

Ceci Connolly: California is frequently a leading indicator of where the rest of the country is headed and purely because of its size, always important to watch politically. Whoever becomes the next California governor is automatically considered a very influential player in 2000 if not a vp prospect. I expect it to be a real dogfight this fall with outrageous sums of money being spent by both sides. Experts out there say the challenge for Davis is to highlight Lungren's more conservative views such as opposed to abortion, which may not sell too well in that state. The challenge for Davis is to excite and inspire audiences.

Washington, D.C.: Governors will be convening for their summer meeting shortly. The economy is pretty good. Are they still wrangling for more state control in the form of block grants? What's on their plate?

Ceci Connolly: The governors continue to fight for more of their share of the pie – we saw this most recently in the debate over anti-smoking legislation and who would get any new tax revenue. (That bill is all but dead this year.) Governors certainly see more of a role for themselves on the education front too. The Clinton scandals haven't seemed to slow down Democratic fund-raising, and it looks as though many congressional candidates welcome the presence of President and Mrs. Clinton stumping for them. Is this just a show of Democratic solidarity, or is it a sign that people really aren't all that concerned with the independent counsel's investigation? Or is it a pretty good reflection of Clinton's skill?

Ceci Connolly: That is a question we here on the political staff continue to try to interpret as this case unfolds. I'm not aware of any great drop in Democratic fundraising. Earlier this year, the indications were that the troops were rallying around Clinton and the party and sending in money, though that's something we will continue to monitor. So far, polls and individuals tell us they are not overly interested in prying into President Clinton's private life but they might be more alarmed if someone shows he committed perjury or enticed other people to commit perjury.

New York, N.Y.: What do you think Alfonse D'Amato's chances are for the national stage?

Ceci Connolly: By national stage, I'm assuming you mean going beyond the U.S. Senate. Although D'Amato is an impressive fund-raiser and constantly displays a knack for tapping into issues that voters care about, I have not seen any evidence he is thinking of a national run. One final question for you, Ceci: In 1996, Dole called his campaign Web site his "whatchamacallit" when talking with a group of school kids. In 1998 and 2000, how much influence will the Internet have on political campaigns?

Ceci Connolly: Well, I'm sure I don't have to tell the folks tuned in here today that the Internet continues to grow in influence, not just in politics, but all walks of life. More and more people look to Web sites to get information from and about the candidates. That said, one need only look at President Clinton's popularity to know that technology still can't replace the personal touch. Thanks for joining us, Ceci. There are tons of more questions coming in so we hope you can join us again sometime soon.

Ceci Connolly: Thanks for having me. This was a new and fun experience. If it hasn't been posted already, my address is I'm always interested in reports from the field.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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