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Vol. LXII, No. 10
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
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NPR Reporter Liasson Looks Forward to a “Fabulous, Fabulous” Campaign

Ellen Gilbert

The room was packed and the speaker was late. Organizers of National Public Radio (NPR) reporter Mara Liasson’s talk on the 2008 Presidential race at the Woodrow Wilson School last week solved the first problem by relocating the unexpected throng to a larger auditorium. Ms. Liasson, who arrived a short while later, had an eminently appropriate excuse for being late: she was so engrossed in reading William F. Buckley’s obituary that she missed the Princeton Junction stop.

Starting with an amusing explanation of the word “politics” (“polis” means many, and “tics” are “blood-sucking creatures”), Ms. Liasson, who can be heard regularly on the NPR programs, All Things Considered and Morning Edition, spoke of the palpable excitement of the current campaign. Remarking more than once on how recent events have “overturned conventional wisdom,” she called the two Democratic Presidential aspirants “titans,” and commented on the remarkable length of a primary season that, in other years, is usually over by February. “This is what a primary season is supposed to be about,” she observed.

The Republican Story

While a woman and an African-American are making history as the Democratic contenders, the apparent Republican nominee, Senator John McCain “doesn’t fit the profile either,” a reflection, Ms. Liasson said, of the American people’s readiness for change. Breaking with Republicans “on issue after issue,” he has come out first in spite of conservative opposition, in the “most improbable comeback of this election cycle. Mr. McCain is nothing if not gritty and determined.”

Mr. McCain’s unexpected success was aided, she said, “by a lot of lucky breaks,” including “a broken field” of candidates and the inability of conservatives to coalesce around any one of them. Describing Rudy Giuliani’s Florida-focused strategy as “dumb and ineffective” ($48 million for one delegate), Ms. Liasson said she believed that Mitt Romney would have won the Republican primary in New Hampshire if Mr. Giuliani had not dropped out. The two Republican front-runners, Mr. McCain and Mike Huckabee, were, she wryly observed, completely out of character for Republicans in having the “least” money and the “best” senses of humor.

What is Mr. McCain’s charge now that he appears to have the nomination locked up? Ms. Liasson believes he needs to “solidify his base with the rank and file,” courting not just conservative voters but winning over “Sam’s Club Republicans,” members of the lower middle class who are attracted to Republican values but are hurting financially.

The immediate fallout from the recent New York Times article suggesting a possible impropriety in Mr. McCain’s past was actually helpful to the candidate, she said, explaining that conservatives “hate the New York Times more than they hate McCain.” She said that the possibility of similar revelations in the future and their potential impact is “unclear.”

The Democratic Dialectic

The competition between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton is not an ideological battle, noted Ms. Liasson. There is little difference between their policies, and Democrats like them both. She explained the downfall of the “Clinton juggernaut,” by saying that Democrats are “in the mood for change, freshness, and inspiration.” Bill Clinton fit the mold in 1992, she said, remembering the freshness of the Clinton-Gore bus tour of the nation. Now “Obama is the future,” and Bill and Hillary’s use of the phrase “back to the future” was, in point of fact, damaging rather than helpful.

Ms. Liasson is among the reporters who can say “I was there” when discussing Mrs. Clinton’s display of emotion in a New Hampshire coffee shop just before the primary election there. “It was real,” she says of the emotionally-charged moment, pointing out, however, that being a consummate politician, Mrs. Clinton recognized that “she had something there” as she managed to well up with tears and attack Mr. Obama at the same time.

“The general election has already begun,” Ms. Liasson observed, with Mr. Obama pointedly thanking Mr. McCain for his “half century of service,” and other strategic volleys being lobbed back and forth by both parties. The focus will change, however, she said, from primary campaign debates that have asked how the Iraq war came about, to discussions of what the nation should do about Iraq in the future. She thought that an Obama/McCain race would be characterized by “civil debate” and would be “much more complex” than one between Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton, who Republicans view as a very polarizing figure.

When asked about potential vice-presidential nominees, Ms. Liasson acknowledged that she “has a little list.” Her suggestion that Mr. Obama would need a seasoned, older running mate, “a Democratic version of Dick Cheney,” drew loud hisses from the audience. Senator Joseph Biden, Governor Bill Richardson, and Senator Bill Nelson were, she thought, good possibilities. A lot of democrats would like to see an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket, she said, though she wasn’t sure whether either candidate would be willing to be the other’s running mate.

Asked about her take on the current electorate, Ms. Liasson described it as “wholly different” from the recent past, with people voting who haven’t voted before, more young voters, and a real readiness “for something different.” People are “weary of war, nervous about the economy, and hate polarization,” she said.

As for wives “Cindy and Michelle,” Ms. Liasson described Mrs. McCain as a very traditional mother and wife, with two sons in the military, who will play a “very peripheral role” in her husband’s campaign. Mrs. Obama, on the other hand, she said, is an outspoken advocate for her husband and a potential liability if she doesn’t learn to be more careful and controlled in her comments. She repeated Mrs. Obama’s recent expression of concern about her “kids’ heads being screwed on straight” during this trying time for the family, and Ms. Liasson agreed: campaigns, she said, can be “a very warping thing.”

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