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Terry Neal
Terry Neal
Talking Points
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Talking Points Live
With Terry Neal
washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent

Monday, May 5, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

Who are the winners and losers of Saturday's South Carolina debate between the Democratic presidential nominees? How has the war in Iraq affected Vermont governor Howard Dean's campaign? Can any of them topple Bush in 2004?

washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent Terry Neal brought his Talking Points column live to field questions and comments on the field of Democratic presidential contenders and the latest in political news.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Terry Neal: Hello everyone. It's good to be back chatting again. I haven't done this in a few weeks, and as always, I'm looking forward to it.

Olney, Md.: If I were Bush, I'd feel pretty confident, even though the economy is pretty stagnant. The Democrats repeat the line that the proposed tax break is aimed at the wealthy, but that line has been used long enough that it may be getting old (whether or not it is justified). I've heard no one -- Democratic hopeful or journalist -- break down exactly what the tax reduction would mean to each individual and what would have to be done to pay for it. I've heard no Democrat say how much each American will have to pay towards the $80 billion (just to start) bill to rebuild Iraq. And I've heard no Democrat respond to Bush's hugely successful P.R. stunt of landing on an aircraft carrier last week but bringing up the details of exactly what Bush did during Vietnam-- and why he chose that route (obviously some hesitated to do this in the last Presidential election since Clinton had also avoided going to Vietnam -- even though Gore had gone -- but what about now?). Even if Bush is not the sharpest tool in their shed, he obviously has good enough advisors that he has to be regarded as the favorite for 2004 (this time actually getting more votes than his opponent).

Terry Neal: Yes, he does have to be viewed as the favorite at this point. He's very popular, obviously. On the other hand, his approval rating (around 70 percent) coming out of the war is 20 percent lower than his father's was at this point, and we all know the outcome of that race in 1992. Having said that, the Bush team is overall better than his father's team, in terms of message disciple and strategy. And W. has something his father didn't--a blueprint from his father of what NOT to do if you want to win an election. To that extent, I believe the economy will be the battle ground, and the president will be vulnerable. I'm not predicting he will lose, I'm only saying he will be vulnerable. The polls--including some by conservative media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal--show less than half of Americans support the latest proposed tax cut, that few think it will spur the economy, and many are worried about the effect on deficits. So at this point, who knows what's going to happen more than a year and a half from now.

Alexandria, Va.: I really like Edwards early on because he seems both sincere and politically intelligent, despite not having as much political experience as the other candidates. How did you feel he fared in the debate? Do you think he has a chance?

Terry Neal: I wrote about how I thought Edwards and all of the other candidates did in my column today. Basically, I thought he did ok. Not great. Not horrible. Just all right. I think he's doing the right thing in emphasizing his humble roots. He's going to have to remind people he's more than a rich trial lawyer. But he's going to have to do more than that. At this point, he still seems a bit squishy on the big issues, like the war and the Bush tax cuts, trying to have it both ways to some extent, in playing to the party's more liberal base without turning off the broader, more moderate electorate. In other words, he's got to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack, particularly the first-tier candidates, all of whom have far more experience than he has. Now having said all that, the guy is clearly bright. He's a good speaker. He's nice looking. And some of the reports from the campaign trail have him connecting well with voters. That's a long way of saying, sure, he has a chance of capturing the nomination. But at this point, he's sitting there with at least three other candidates who have solid chances, themselves.

washingtonpost.com: Winners and Losers in the Democratic Warm-Up Game (washingtonpost.com, May 5)

Bloomington, Ind.: Is it possible for Lieberman to achieve enough success in the early (traditionally more left of center) primaries to eventually win the nomination?

Terry Neal: That's a great question. And another that I addressed in today's column. I think this is going to be a problem for Lieberman. But on the other hand, I think the party is starving for someone who can win. And to that extent, if Lieberman can convince the primary voters that he has the best chance to defeat Bush, perhaps some folks may him a try. Remember in 2000, Bush's primary opponents--Steve Forbes, Dan Quayle, Gary Bauer, etc.--were saying that he was too moderate. But the primary voters went with him anyway, in large part because they thought he could win. So I don't know. We'll see how this plays out.

Long Beach, Calif.: It has been noted that with the war now over there are still 18 months to go before the 2004 presidential election -- thus effectively putting boy Bush in the same position as per Bush in 1992. Would the analogy be complete with Hillary in 2004? And would the Republicans completely "lose it" if she ran?

Terry Neal: Again, good question. First of all, Sen. Clinton swears she's not running. She has promised to serve out her term. I think she'd catch a lot of flak from the media and some folks within the party if she broke that promise. Yet there's still some political observer types who think she'll throw her hat in. She would immediately be among the top of the field. While she's despised by the right, many on the left love her. But I don't think she'll run until 2008.

Washington, D.C.: Do you think a debate this early was a good idea or a bad one?

Terry Neal: I think it's a good idea. Not so much because there are a lot of people who want to see it. I mean, really. Most people would rather spend an evening at the dentist. But for the media, as well as the voters who are interested early on, these debates can be interesting, eye-opening experiences. To be honest with you, my expectations for Saturday night's debate were pretty low. But I thought it turned out to be pretty informative and interesting.

New York, N.Y.: Does Howard Dean have a real shot at winning the nomination, and, of all the candidates, who do you think will have the best shot of knocking off W? Thanks.

Terry Neal: Oh, I don't know. I mean, how many times have reporters gotten it wrong trying to predict 18 months before an election what was going to happen? I mean, Dean has really been impressing a lot of people. But I think he gambled with this war thing, and he lost. I mean, if the war had gone badly, then he would have been the guy to beat in the primary. But it didn't. Or at least so far it hasn't. And he staked so much on his opposition to it. Democrats are split evenly on the war, and maybe if he can energize those who opposed it, and siphon off a few others who like him for other reasons, he can have a shot. I tell you, I've seen him speak four times now, and his straight-ahead, forthright style is impressive. But I just don't know if he can convince primary voters, many of whom are obsessed this year with electability, that he can beat Bush in the fall. As for the second part of your question, I'll let my first answer stand. Hey, I still gotta cover these guys, and it wouldn't be helpful for me this early in the game to start picking favorites!

Independence, Mo.: Hi Terry, great topic.

If the Gephardt pitch for health care was meant to establish a benchmark or theme issue for his campaign, is it not perhaps risky given the fact that it would element the tax cuts and with the Bush deficits already soaring at record high? It would just seem this message is going to be hard to defend.

I for one have wanted to see something done about health care for years, and even I think this seems poor timing.

Terry Neal: Hello Independence. I hope the tornados did you no harm. (A quick aside, I grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and my brother still lives there. I talked to him last night and he said a tornado missed his home by about three blocks, where several other homes were seriously damaged. Whew!)...Anyway, it is strange for a candidate to come out with such a detailed, controversial proposal so far in advance of the start of primary season. I mean, he gives his opponents months worth of fodder. And believe me, for his rivals, it's going to be like target practice. On the other hand, he gets to claim the mantle for being the boldest of the bold, a guy with big ideas who isn't afraid to shoot for the moon, etc. As far as the impact on the deficit, it'll have much the same effect of Bush's tax cuts. One explodes the deficit on the spending side, the other on the cutting side. This is simple math, really. But the thing is, Republicans and Democrats alike know that people rarely base their votes on deficits. It'll be interesting to see if that changes at all this year, with many experts predicting record deficits over the next decade, and people like Alan Greenspan publicly fretting over the return of high interest rates.

Troy, Mich.: Do you think that Senator Kerry's performance will substantially hurt him in the early polls of South Carolina. I'm just assuming that coming out so strongly on the issue of gay rights will not play well with South Carolina voters.

Terry Neal: Well, I think most of the candidates are in or around the same place on the issue of gay rights. But Kerry, of course, went on and on talking about it longer than any of the others. Obviously, SC is quite conservative. But I'm being told that a lot of the party activists--the people who are going to vote in the primary--are quite liberal, or at least balanced mix of liberals and moderates.

Baltimore, Md.: Liberman seems to be running as a "lesser Republican." I think that approach has killed the Democratic Party. In fact, it's why I, a lifelong Democrat until last November, bolted and joined the Greens. Do you think he represents the future of the Democratic party? It would certainly grow our (Greens) ranks!

Terry Neal: Well, he's clearly trying to do what Clinton did in '92. Remember Clinton repudiated his own party on the crime, welfare and trade issues. Then he calculated the Sista Souljah moment to send the message that he would race pander. Similarly, Bush spent more time talking about education, housing and the environment as he did other traditionally Republican issues such as tax cuts and defense. He didn't abandon the latter subjects, he just mixed it up more.
Lieberman I think is trying to stake out a similar balance, but I'm not sure he's got just right yet. He spent more time Saturday criticizing his party than he did George Bush. And some of the activists down there weren't happy about it. But it's early. I'm sure he'll refine that message to make it more palatable to the primary voters the closer we get to next January. Remember: Bush started off in the summer of '99 talking very moderate. Then he moved to the right just before the primaries, and back closer to the middle for the election.

Bowling Green, Ohio: Is Rev. Al Sharpton the Pat Buchanon of the Democratic Party? I was really impressed with his humor, eloquence, and his unabashedly liberal views (especially on gun control). He didn't come across as the wacko I had always presumed he was. Can he get a decent showing among the African-American voters in South Carolina?

Terry Neal: I don't know. You know, Sharpton sees his campaign as similar to Jesse Jackson's campaigns in the 1980s. But Jackson, although controversial, was more uniformly beloved by blacks I think that Sharpton is today. I mean, there have been several polls that show Lieberman outpolling Sharpton among blacks. Some of this breaks down along class lines, with more middle- and upper-income blacks not so keen on the reverend. But I think a lot of people--I guess who were suspecting some sort of...who knows what--have been surprised how sane he sounds and what a good speaker he is. But the fact remains, he's got A LOT of baggage.
I can't profess at this point to know a lot about the kind of black voters who'll turn out in the SC primary, but my understanding is, many of them are fairly socially conservative. Relatively speaking, anyway. My guess is he won't be the force some predict he will be.

Terry Neal: Hey, everyone. I'm reel sorry, but I've got to run. I'm on MSNBC at 3, and they want me to get in my seat. It's been a pleasure. Bye!


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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