Politically Savvy Friends

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Four Weeks to Go

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

As “Week Four” begins in Pennsylvania – the four week countdown to Primary Election Day -- most analysts seem to think that only an incredible gaffe by Hillary Clinton can cost her the Pennsylvania Primary on April 22. Depending on the poll you prefer, she leads Barack Obama from anywhere from 12 points (Quinnipiac Poll) to 16 points (Keystone Poll) to 19 points (SurveyUSA). Call me whacky, but I’m one of the few political analysts who think Obama can win Pennsylvania, if he plays it right, knowing that Clinton won’t make it easy for him. In this Politically Savvy Friends e-newsletter, let me share a few thoughts after covering this campaign in PA over the last couple of weeks. By the way, if you want to see my video stories or interviews with the candidates, just look for the “Recent News Stories” in the right column on this blog page.

Kicking Off in PA:

On March 11, Obama began his PA campaign in the suburbs of Philadelphia at the Gamesa wind turbine plant, once a U.S. Steel facility, in Bucks County. Unlike his traditional events where he attracts thousands and delivers a rousing, if repetitive, address to the faithful, this “town hall” kick-off was short on rhetoric and long on thoughtful answers to questions from the 150 Gamesa employees. Having seen the “other” Obama at rallies in neighboring Ohio, this Q&A format revealed a highly intelligent, empathetic politician who wasn’t afraid to challenge the assumptions of his questioners. I was impressed. That, of course, was the intended result, as the Obama campaign has felt the need to counteract the Clinton assertion that Obama is all speech and no substance. Town meetings allow Obama to prove otherwise.

While western PA hates when candidates start their campaigns in the east, Obama must win big in southeastern PA to win the state. Right now, all the polls suggest this is the region where he is doing the best, and it makes sense to go to your base of strength for a kick-off event. But an event closed to his supporters probably missed an early opportunity to gin up the faithful.

Clinton chose to start her campaign with a three-prong attack on the northeast, southeast, and southwest. Immediately after the Ohio and Texas victories, Chelsea did a Q&A visit with students at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, with Hillary hitting Scranton the following Monday, March 10, and President Clinton speaking in southwestern PA on Tuesday, the same day as Obama’s event back east. That same Tuesday, Hillary hit Philadelphia for an evening rally, vying with Obama for media coverage in the important Philadelphia media market.

The choice of Scranton for Hillary’s kick-off might strike some as odd, but Clinton has roots in this part of the state where her father grew up and where she visited her grandparents as a child. By the end of this primary campaign, all Pennsylvanians are likely to hear about her favorite ice cream place, along with tales of her father driving across the state from Chicago to Scranton, detouring to show the family important sites in PA.

Heading Westward:

As I opined in an earlier PSF, while PA campaigns often begin in the Philadelphia region, they don’t end there. Indeed, only one-third of the Democrats live in southeastern PA, which means a smart candidate better look elsewhere for votes in a tight contest. Some 25 percent of the Dems live in the Greater Pittsburgh area, with the remaining 40 percent scattered across hundreds of miles of mountains and valleys in this state. The candidate who thinks Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are all that counts will surely lose. Nonetheless, southwestern PA is important, and right now the general perception is that Clinton cares a lot more about this region than Obama.

In truth, Obama was scheduled to hit Pittsburgh before Clinton on March 13, but Senate votes on the budget required all three presidential contenders to be in Washington and Obama canceled his Pittsburgh trip. That allowed Clinton to capitalize. She scheduled a two-day swing in Pittsburgh on Friday, March 14, with first a press conference at a gas station in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh to decry high gasoline prices and then held a rally at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial where some 2,000 supporters cheered her enthusiastically as she delivered her typical stump speech. Gov. Ed Rendell, her biggest cheerleader, was at her side (as he seems to be everywhere in PA), along with two new supporters, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Clinton spent the night in Pittsburgh so she could march the next morning in the nation’s second largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, where she walked the route shaking lots of hands to a reportedly positive response from the quarter million residents in attendance, after which she flew out in time to march in a smaller parade in Scranton.

Obama’s campaign quickly rescheduled his visit to the Pittsburgh region, where this past Monday he spoke to about 1,800 people at the Community College of Beaver County in Monaca before flying to Scranton for dinner with the Society of Irish Ladies. Once again, this Pittsburgh area event was not a rally, but a town meeting, although Obama did give an abbreviated version of his stump speech, followed by six questions about health care, veterans, abortion, crime, and the like. The event was well-covered, aided by interest in the Reverend Jeremiah Wright story. The Obama visit to western PA was important even if his mind was on his growing pastor problem, an issue that ultimately forced him back to Philadelphia for one of his most compelling campaign speeches delivered last Tuesday.

Obama’s Pastor Problem:

I don’t know Jeremiah Wright, and probably never will, although I would love the chance to sit down with him. People whom I respect who do know him say he’s not like he’s being portrayed and that he is a good Christian who does not harbor racist, anti-white, anti-American feelings. But that’s certainly NOT the impression you get when you hear him preach on Youtube his version of the Gospel. This guy’s rants against whites, the government, and the Clintons were flawed and offensive and so contrary to the message of Barack Obama that you cannot help wonder what in the world Obama has in common with Wright.

And, fundamentally, that’s the problem. The disconnect. While Obama has tried to transcend race, bridging white and black (because he, himself, is both half-white and half-black), Wright appeared to use race as a wedge between whites and blacks. While Obama has preached personal responsibility (indeed, his life reflects that), Wright seemed to excuse bad behavior like drug abuse by blaming the government. While Obama’s very candidacy is the epitome of the potential of the American dream of racial inclusion, Wright’s sermons (as revealed in those selective tapes) reminded many voters of a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton diatribe where everything wrong in the black community is the fault of evil white people.

Given all that, how could Obama have anything to do with someone like Wright for twenty years and still claim to be the one candidate who can unify both the Democratic Party and the United States of America?

That was the question Obama had to answer in powerful and well-written speech last Tuesday. I watched and then re-read the speech carefully. It was an excellent address on race, always a difficult subject for Americans to imbibe. Sure, you can quibble with parts of it, but, fundamentally, Obama reasserted his own view that the America that Jeremiah Wright portrayed was not his own America. To me, the most significant part of the speech was where Obama decried Wright for being mired in the past, for not recognizing that even a member of his own congregation could reach the presidency. Here is my favorite passage: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

I don’t know whether Obama has fully answered the question of his connection to Wright to the satisfaction of Americans. His refusal, while understandable in his context, to “disown” Wright will no doubt be seen by many as unfortunate, a political compromise to keep the African American community on board his candidacy. Of course, had he disowned the pastor, others would have claimed he was just doing what a typical politician does in a time of crisis – toss someone overboard. It’s a no-win situation.

The real question is whether his speech allows him to move on, beyond racial issues to the other more resonating points of his campaign. To some extent, that will depend on Obama. His description the next day on radio of his grandmother as a “typical white” was very jarring and off-message. What is a typical white? What is a typical black? I suspect he regrets his choice of words, but it shows how deep within us we harbor racial stereotypes. There is not a black person or white person alive who doesn’t conjure something in the mind when we think of the “typical” member of another race. Beyond Obama’s own subsequent words, it remains to be seen whether race is going to be a “hot topic” for the remainder of the primary season. I doubt that “the speech” is going to change a whole lot of opinions of voters who have already made up their minds, but if it puts the Wright controversy behind, then it has clearly accomplished its intended purpose.

PA a Must-Win State for Whom?

Conventional wisdom is that Pennsylvania is a must-win state for Clinton. It is. And she intends to win with a double digit popular vote that, the campaign hopes, will translate into a pick-up of delegates that closes the current gap with Obama. On April 22, 103 delegates will be elected in 19 congressional districts with some Democratic districts getting more delegates than others. Another 35 at-large delegates and 20 pledged party leaders and elected officials will be allocated to the Obama and Clinton campaign based on their percentage vote in the primary. That means 158 delegates are at stake on that Tuesday. [Just FYI, Pennsylvania has 30 unpledged super delegates].

Using CNN’s delegate count, Obama now has 1,622 delegates (which includes 209 super delegates), 403 delegates short of the nomination. Clinton has 1,485 delegates (which includes 243 super delegates), 540 delegates short of the nomination. Only 137 delegates separate the two candidates. Because of the proportionality rule that guarantees at least some delegates to the losing candidate, mathematical experts say that there is no way for either Obama or Clinton to win the nomination through delegates elected in Pennsylvania on April 21, Guam on May 3, Indiana and North Carolina on May 6, West Virginia on May 13, Kentucky and Oregon on May 20, Puerto Rico on June 1, and Montana and South Dakota on June 3.

In other words, both candidates have fallen short in winning the nomination through the elected delegate process. That means one of two things: either one of the two candidates is going to “drop out” of the race willingly or, ultimately, the votes of the super delegates will put one candidate over the top to the nomination.

As long as only 150 votes or so separate the candidates, I doubt very much that anyone will drop out, and why should they? After all, from the beginning, everyone knew the rules that super delegates (who are the Democratic members of Congress, Democratic governors, and elected members of the Democratic National Committee) would get a vote at the convention. There is nothing sinister about this. It’s been this way for decades. And the votes are public, not behind some closed doors. Both sides are trying to spin arguments to woo these super delegates. Obama supporters are saying super delegates should vote the candidate who has the most popular vote and/or the most elected delegates even if short of the majority. Clinton supporters are saying super delegates should vote for the candidate who has won the “must-win” states (like California, Ohio, Florida, etc.) important for victory in November and support the candidate who can beat John McCain. Both these arguments are credible, and allow both Clinton and Obama to soldier on until one of them gets the magic 2,025 delegates.

But if Obama really wants to secure the nomination quickly, then he ought to go all out to beat Clinton in Pennsylvania. If Clinton loses this state, her candidacy is over. So to avoid a protracted super delegate battle, I would argue that Pennsylvania is also a must-win state for Obama. By winning PA, he not only locks Clinton out of the nomination, but he also proves that he, too, can carry a must-win state. Perhaps he and his senior campaign advisors don’t see it this way, but to me it’s obvious. If he wants to unite the party and get on with the battle against McCain, he must defeat Clinton in the state that she has staked out as her own.

Yes, Obama Can Beat Clinton in Pennsylvania:

As I proffered at the beginning of this epistle, I am one of the few who believe Obama can win Pennsylvania. It will not be easy, and it will take more of a candidate commitment than he has given to Pennsylvania to date. I begin with the assumption that no matter how hard Hillary Clinton works this state – and, believe me, she is working PA very hard indeed (back in Philly and the Pittsburgh area this Monday and Tuesday), Obama is likely to get a minimum of 38 to 40 percent of the vote by doing hardly anything at all.

But to hit 50.1 percent, Obama must win Philadelphia and its suburbs big-time. Right now, most polls show him even or slightly ahead of Clinton in southeastern PA. That’s not enough. He must run up the numbers over 60 to 65 percent, all quite do-able in a nearly African American city and suburban counties with the kinds of white elites that have flocked to his campaign in other states. A big win in that region is essential but not sufficient. Obama must camp out in western PA, not only in Pittsburgh where he has the potential to win with the help of the universities here but also in the suburbs where, again, his kind of Dems reside. Finally, I would argue that the 40 percent of Dems who live outside the state’s two big regions are not automatically Hillary voters. PA has not been kind to women candidates, and race may trump gender as the lesser political “disability” in many quarters. While I wish voters would cast a ballot without regard to race and gender, I think it’s na├»ve to think otherwise. As I have written before, women candidates have a tougher time here than African American candidates.

Having said all this, Clinton is campaigning in PA like this is the only state left on the ballot. Obama needs to demonstrate the same drive and desire for PA votes as she has. When his campaign suggests in a memo that PA is “only one of 10 contests” left, that is true but inapt. Minimizing PA publicly only adds to the perception that Obama doesn’t care about PA. I think he does care, but only he can show it. Absent his visible presence here, Clinton wins PA, just as the polls predict.

First Person Reflections:

I have had the pleasure of meeting both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during the first two weeks of the PA primary campaign, and I am looking forward to meeting John McCain (hopefully) when he comes to Pittsburgh in April. I say “pleasure” because I always enjoy meeting politicians of whatever stripes seeking whatever office. Call it an addiction, an affliction, a hang-up, but I like seeing them up close and personal (well, as personal as they allow). In the last 25 years and especially in the last 10, I have met hundreds of political leaders and candidates for public office. I try hard not to form snap judgments about them, and I am always open to modifying my perceptions based on subsequent meetings.

The Democrats are fortunate to have two very talented candidates for president. [I’ll hold comments on McCain until I meet him]. I’ve interviewed Obama twice in the last two weeks, and he is affable, sharp, intelligent, and engaging. In conversation, his speaking style is a bit deliberative, as he ponders his answers, not the oratorical flourishes that characterize his stump speeches. He has an incredible smile, and laughs easily. He is also all business, which may be why some people think he is a bit aloof or reserved. And he is so tightly scheduled that you don’t feel he is as relaxed as he could be. I would enjoy the chance to just sit down and talk policy with him sometime, as I sense that there’s a lot more expertise from this Harvard lawyer than gets revealed in a sound-bite. All in all, I found Obama to be absolutely genuine, not some phony politician taken with himself, but the real deal and someone I hope to get to know better in the weeks ahead.

The most surprising thing about Hillary Clinton is how nice she is in person. I don’t mean that disrespectfully. It’s just that the camera does not do her justice. On TV, Clinton sometimes comes across as argumentative, perhaps shrill, although clearly knowledgeable. In person, she laughs and jokes and seems to be having fun despite a grueling schedule. She comes across as someone you would enjoy being around more. Just as you expect from a Yale lawyer, she gives intelligent answers to questions and, like Obama, knows how to tailor answers to a PA audience. You also know she’s in charge, allowing me more time to chat with her than her campaign expected. So far, I’ve only interviewed Clinton once, so I want to be careful in drawing too many conclusions. But my first impressions were absolutely positive – again, like Obama, nothing struck me as phony or artificial about her. And, clearly, I hope to have more time to spend with her as the campaign unfolds.

Well, that’s enough for this PSF. As always, I welcome your personal, off-the-record comments. I am writing this over Easter weekend, so let me wish my Christian friends a very Happy & Blessed Easter! Despite the cold weather this early Easter, this is the season for renewal and rebirth. As we celebrate the Resurrection in our churches and our belief in life after death through faith, I am struck that it is faith that also drives our politics in America.

Politics requires constant affirmation, perhaps because our political leaders so often disappoint us. But most of us have faith that, for better or worse, this political system works better than most, and we keep coming back for more. Optimist that I am, I want to believe that every new generation of political leaders will be better than the ones they succeed and that can only mean good things for this country.

Happy Easter! Happy Spring! Happy Election Year!

Monday, March 17, 2008

One on One with the Candidates

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

This past week I had the opportunity to meet both Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton. While I had interviewed Obama last year and the year before, it was my first chance to talk to Clinton. Later this week, I hope to post some reflections on all this -- and where the PA campaign stands right now. In the meantime, I have posted on this page my TV interviews and stories written from these interviews. Take a look at them, and feel free to comment. I'll be back with more later. Right now, it's out the door to cover the Obama event in Beaver County!