Borg: Trading charges. As the campaigns near November's general election candidates are highlighting the issues and each other's personalities. We discuss the 2008 campaigns with political insiders, Democrat Jerry Crawford and Republican Mike Mahaffey on this edition of Iowa Press.
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On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, September 12th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.
Borg: The presidential campaigns have changed considerably in just the last two weeks. Major polls now showing a virtual dead heat as the McCain-Palin campaign is making up gaps between them and the Obama-Biden ticket. Today we're getting comments from two political insiders and two political journalists. Mike Mahaffey is a Republican from Montezuma, former GOP state chair and former candidate for the U.S. Congress too. And Des Moines Democrat Jerry Crawford, former Polk County Democratic Chair and presidential candidate advisor in the last five elections. I don't think you're a candidate advisor this time though, are you Jerry?
Crawford: No, it's the first time in about a quarter of a century I find myself on the sidelines.
Borg: And we also welcome to the table David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register and Mike Glover of the Associated Press. Mike Mahaffey, what has to happen in the next less than 60 days for your man to win?
Mahaffey: More of the same from the last two weeks, Dean. I think there has been a little bit of momentum in the last couple of weeks on the McCain-Palin side but it is basically a dead heat and very honestly it's still a difficult political environment, not as difficult as it was a couple of months ago. John McCain has to convince people that there are different kinds of change and that there is going to be change in a McCain administration, it will be different than in an Obama administration but there will be change nonetheless because very honestly when you've got the right track, wrong track polling showing that people think we're on the wrong track by about 75% you've got to be able to talk about change. One of the things about the Palin selection was that it brought change kind of back to the floor and so I think if John McCain and Sarah Palin can convince the American voters that their change is the right kind of change for America he'll win.
Borg: Jerry, has the Obama campaign been thrown just a little bit off kilter?
Crawford: I think they have been thrown a little bit off kilter though I personally believe that it could be a God send in the long run. Mike is right, the McCain folks have had a good two weeks, Sarah Palin is the reason why although her interview this week on ABC not nearly the same level of performance that we saw certainly in her convention speech up in St. Paul. But I think two things. First, these polls are going to go sideways now until the debates begin and I think the debates are going to be a crucial factor. But the reason I think this period of time has been a benefit potentially to Barack Obama becoming president is because it's going to allow him now to sort of scrap back, it lowers expectations going into the debates. I think that humanizes him potentially and makes it easier for him to make the ultimate connection between now and Election Day.
Glover: I think what has to happen between now and the election for Michael's man to win is he has to find a way to scare the American people about Barack Obama. I think this election is eventually going to be about Obama and how Republicans are able to define him between now and November 4th. They've done a pretty good job over the last couple of weeks of scaring the American people about him and what his administration would mean to the American people. If they can continue that for the next six weeks they can win the election. The point being 24 hours in politics is an eternity and we've got six weeks and the environment in early November will be entirely different than right now.
Yepsen: Focusing closer to home here in Iowa I'm curious what you guys think of this race here. It seems to me that Obama is still comfortable ahead in Iowa and I don't see either campaign putting the A-team resources in here, it's almost as if both camps have sort of written this state off, that Obama has said I've got Iowa and McCain has said I can't get it. Mike, is that your sense of this?
Mahaffey: No, it isn't and I can understand why you say that, David. But all I would say is stay tuned the next couple of weeks. I think you will see more resources in Iowa in terms of the McCain campaign. I honestly believe -- I know the last poll that we had from Iowa is that Obama was up comfortably, 15 points, but that was taken right at the time of the Democratic Convention, right at the end of the Democratic Convention. I honestly believe right now in Iowa that Barack Obama is ahead but it is less than five. And I think Iowa is in play and I think you will see it be in play more in the next seven weeks, I really do.
Yepsen: Jerry, you were helping Hillary Clinton's campaign so you weren't up against this Obama organization. One of the things that is different about Iowa than other places is the caucus campaign and the leftovers. Barack Obama spent a lot of time, effort and money building infrastructure out here, won the state. John McCain bypassed the state. He make a few token appearances. So, my question, it seems to me anyway isn't that still paying a residual dividend to Barack Obama?
Crawford: Absolutely and it's why Obama will win Iowa. I spent a full day with the people running the field operation in the Chicago office a couple of weeks ago and I'm very familiar with what Obama has on the ground in this state and it's the best presidential organization in the history of Iowa that they will field between now and November. Here's the other thing, though, and I think Mike is right, I think it's going to tighten some, I know that McCain is going to send, we've already heard, more resources to Iowa but it's because of Palin and the ability to fundraise and it's playing catch up. In 2004 when I was helping John Kerry, George Bush was already organizing at the precinct level in January of 2004 and they're getting ready to open offices in mid-September of 2008. You can't catch up.
Yepsen: Focus on the Democrats for a second. Are the Clinton people all on board? I'm getting e-mails from Clinton people who are making phone calls for John McCain. You got the Edwards people lined up behind Obama? Are your Hillary people lining up behind Obama?
Crawford: Yes, absolutely. And that came directly from the top. You saw Hillary Clinton's phenomenal speech.
Yepsen: I know what they're saying, I'm talking about what's really happening, what's on the ground. What do you sense, Mike?
Mahaffey: Anecdotally, true story. Within the last week I have had two people, one female and one male, both union members who have told me that for the first time in their lives they're going to vote for a Republican for president. I think that -- now that's anecdotally but they went out of their way to make sure to tell me that they were going to do that. I think that there is some drop off particularly among middle class working white women in the nation and here in the state. The next time a poll comes out I honestly believe it will show Barack Obama up but it will be less than five and when that happens he will start hearing footsteps in Iowa.
Glover: Let's turn to the one issue that nobody really wants to talk about but I think is a factor in this election and that’s race. We know from past elections that people will lie about their feelings about race in a poll. Is race going to be a factor in this election, Michael?
Mahaffey: It is not going to be a factor in terms of Senator McCain and Governor Palin.
Glover: Among voters.
Mahaffey: I know, I don't know the answer to that. I imagine to some extent there may be some of that. There will be some people, I've had a few say this to me too, that don't believe a younger woman with children still at home should be running for vice president. So, there's a little bit of that on both sides. I don't really know how to answer the question on the race factor. I don't know any of us do.
Crawford: It's a factor, there's no sense saying it isn't. There are going to be white voters who do not vote for Barack Obama because he's African-American and there are going to be a tremendous number of African-Americans who make the effort to get to the polls and vote who might otherwise not have done so.
Glover: Does it balance out? Does it have an impact one way or the other?
Crawford: I think at the end of the day it's going to create an energy that benefits Obama.
Borg: Dave, an opinion from you. Has Sarah Palin coming in made it an election more of personalities or was it already?
Yepsen: It was somewhat. Presidential races I think are always about the person, about their character, about how voters see their competence. I don't think voters go around with checklists of issues. But she really has elevated that. She's a celebrity, she is interesting, attractive and that has some appeal. It's gelled into this campaign. Mike is right, it took that McCain campaign and gave it a shot of oxygen that it desperately needed. Now, the question is can they sustain it? Will it fade? I think it's an insult to women voters to think that just because Sarah Palin is on the ticket they're going to vote for her.
Mahaffey: The McCain campaign doesn't think that. You're absolutely right, there's not a monolithic male vote or a monolithic women vote. Character is an interesting question though and one of the things that I think people are going to have to look at here in the next seven weeks, which ticket has exhibited the political courage to stand up to people in their own party whether it be at the state level in Alaska or in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.? Who has stuck up to people in their own party? And I'm going to say to you that if you look at the record it is John McCain and Sarah Palin and that will make a difference.
Glover: What about the argument that John McCain in order to get the nomination cow towed to the right wing of the Republican Party he stood up to when he ran in 2000? How do you answer that?
Mahaffey: I answer it this way. When John McCain was to the point where he was going to get the nomination if you went on talk radio, Laura Ingram's show, the Rush Limbaugh Show, they were all still fermenting rebellion against John McCain. If you go into the halls of power in the United States Senate how many United States Senators supported John McCain from the Republican Party? Very few. And why is that? Because he truly has been a person who has been independent in terms of some major issues and I think that's something that people are going to look at.
Glover: Jerry, in 2000 John McCain referred to the religious rights agents of intolerance. Suddenly he is embracing them and speaking at Liberty University. How do you explain the transition?
Crawford: The politics of convenience and of necessity. He had to do that to get the nomination out of the Republican Party and that's the direction he proceeded in. I do think, though, that's why it would have probably been wise for Obama to agree to these series of town hall forums. We'd be halfway through a very serious discussion about policy in America. We'd be halfway through an opportunity of Barack to look at John McCain and say, Senator, how do you explain that you used to believe this and now you believe that. The more serious the discussion gets the better Obama will do and, of course, he still has the debates to take advantage of that.
Yepsen: Talk about the debates. Barack Obama's performance in the primary debates weren't all that great. He's a lawyer, kind of meanders around. John McCain, yes, no, clear, cogent. Isn't Barack Obama headed toward a bad time in those debates, Jerry?
Crawford: That's exactly why I said earlier that I think this rough period where he has been roughed up a little and is now going to have to scrap back I think that's an advantage to him and I think you're going to see a little more of that personality coming into the debates and I think that's going to be more effective than if we hadn't had this period and he was just sailing along.
Yepsen: And you have the vice presidential debate and you've got Joe Biden out there against Sarah Palin, male candidates can't get too aggressive against female candidates, it doesn't work. If Joe Biden goes out there and unloads and turns into a gas bag she's going to be the one that looks like a winner.
Mahaffey: And the other thing about Sarah Palin when she looks at Joe Biden she sees Frank Murkowski and Frank Murkowski was the United States Senator from Alaska, came home, ran for Governor, appointed his daughter to take his place. Four years later in debates she cleaned the floor with him and beat him in a Republican primary with 51% of the vote.
Glover: Every four years we hear the debates are going to settle the election, the debates are what we're waiting for and every four years the debates end up being meaningless. Why will it be different this time? We don't have clear winners and clear losers.
Mahaffey: I think David makes a good point, John McCain, it's just like the speech he gave last Thursday night, that was a very smart speech and it was directed to the independent voters, the people that were not there necessarily in the hall, to some extent it was, but those that were watching on TV. Here is the strength of John McCain. He is good at answering questions directly and I think in the debates that will be of great help to him. Speaking of 2000, Mike, this isn't 2000. The saddleback forum with Rick Warren, entirely different evangelical leader, was kind of the beginning of where people said, hmm, let's take a look at this again. John McCain performed very well in that setting. It wasn't a debate but the short answers made a difference. Barack Obama, very smart man, meandered around.
Glover: Jerry, same question to you. Every four years we say the debates are going to be the deciding factor and then the debates end up being pretty meaningless because people play it cautious, people play close to the vest and they play to not make mistakes.
Crawford: Three quick points. First, the vice presidential debate this time it might have an audience that exceeds the presidential debate. Wouldn't that be an amazing situation. Secondly, Barack Obama has the opportunity in the debates to return this to a discussion of issues, to return this to a discussion of how John McCain has supported George W. Bush lockstep in the last eight years. And finally, three weeks between October 15th, the final debate and Election Day I promise you this Obama organization is a juggernaut. Obama will do well in the debates. You're right, there will be some back and forth on it. And then the organization will take over.
Yepsen: I want to ask a question here about the caucuses. Neither party at the conventions guaranteed Iowa a first in the nation status in four years. On the Republican side you have to set those rules. Neither party punished Iowa. So, in each party where does that leave the future of the Iowa caucuses? Will we first in 2012?
Crawford: All people in Iowa have to do is vote for Barack Obama and I can promise you the caucuses will be in the lead off position for the next eight years. He is clearly, publicly on record supporting Iowa caucuses going first with the Iowa and New Hampshire calendar. Secondly, he will appoint, I suppose after the general election although no one has said definitively, a new chair of the Democratic National Committee if he is elected and that person will then appoint this commission and that will determine ...
Yepsen: Obama owes this state something but John McCain doesn't owe this state anything.
Mahaffey: But there are a lot more naysayers on the Democratic side about Iowa going first. Michigan is a good example. They are on the Republican side. I will make a prediction. Iowa will be first in the Republican side in 2012.
Borg: With John McCain's support?
Mahaffey: John McCain does not dislike Iowa. You've got to remember this about Iowa. He didn’t' spend as much time as some people here, he didn’t' spend a lot of money here but he survived here, Dean, he survived well enough to go into New Hampshire a week later and win. He doesn't dislike Iowa at all.
Crawford: Back to the politics of convenience, I'd be pretty surprised if we don't hear John McCain between now and November, based on what Mike is saying, say that he supports Iowa continuing to go first.
Glover: Is Jerry right? Does the outcome of the election have some impact on what happens here? You're right, Barack Obama won here, a surprising upset. Up until Iowa Hillary Clinton was the presumptive nominee so Iowa clearly gave him something, it clearly didn't give McCain something so is there some dependence on the outcome?
Mahaffey: But it did give John McCain something. He survived here and my point is that I think that made a difference as they went on. I don't hear from the McCain campaign -- and I mean this very honestly -- I don't hear anything to the extent that well if he gets elected president it's time to get Iowa.
Glover: What do you hear from the campaign?
Mahaffey: Go up to the headquarters and talk to them, they'll talk to you, they'll be glad to do that. What I feel is this -- the last few weeks have been tremendous weeks in terms of fundraising, people are calling to volunteer, there is an energy there and there is a nervousness on part of the Democrats. Now, the Republicans have to be very careful to not get very cocky because they should not be in this election.
Borg: Can the energy, though, offset what Obama has in organization in Iowa?
Mahaffey: It can -- Jerry is right, the McCain campaign to some extent is playing catch up but there is an enthusiasm now about this ticket that maybe there wasn't a couple of months ago. There is an enthusiasm about chances in Iowa. Three months ago we were having this conversation, people were concerned that we were going to take a real bath in Iowa. That's not the concern any more.
Yepsen: Jerry, before we leave the caucus thing, if McCain wins the White House and Obama loses won't the National Democratic Party say enough of Iowa? The second time you've elevated a loser. You gave us John Kerry, he lost, Barack Obama, he lost. Is the National Democratic Party going to say it's time to take it some place else? Will you as a Clinton supporter say, we told you so, he couldn't win?
Crawford: Well, first of all, I'm not at all convinced the party would go in a different direction. They had the chance to go in a different direction this time and they didn't do that. They made changes that make the pre-window calendar, the early contests more representative and the fact that an African-American came into Iowa and won our caucuses says something about this being a level playing field.
Borg: Mike, why are you giving as Republicans Tom Harkin pretty much a pass in this election?
Mahaffey: That's a good question and I don't have a real good answer to it. Simply no one really that could raise the money and have the stature decided to run against him. I think part of it very honestly is that at the time that people were talking about that this looked to be a very, very difficult year in Iowa and I think that's part of the reason. And part of it is very honestly Tom Harkin is tough.
Crawford: On this, the weekend of the Harkin Steak Fry, I just want to say we appreciate it.
Glover: Let's turn to other races that are on the ballot. We've got some congressional contests out there, five of them. Any of those going to be competitive? Is there any reason for us to pay attention to any particular congressional election?
Crawford: The race that has created some attention is Becky Greenwald against Tom Latham, there has been a lot of energy around Becky's effort. That is a tough district hat has gotten better. It is certainly much better after the precinct caucuses than it was before. I think that will be a tough fight but I think one that she is very much in and it could definitely be impacted by national trends.
Glover: Same question to you, Michael. You're a former congressional candidate involved in a very tough congressional race. Do you see these things as being as tough as the one you fought?
Mahaffey: I wish I could say yes, I can, but I can't at this point. We have had -- in recent years we have had very competitive congressional races, sometimes three out of the five. I wouldn't say this year that I see this. Let me say one thing about the fourth district. Tom Latham is a little nervous but because he's a little nervous he's been out raising money, he's been out campaigning harder. I think when it comes right down to it he will win.
Borg: Will he stay in the shadow of Jim Leach?
Mahaffey: Well, it's a little different year but I think Congressman Latham does understand that that district, as Jerry says, has changed and I think the candidate against him is an attractive candidate. But if you look at the fundraising he's still way ahead.
Yepsen: Latham is awake, Jim Leach was asleep.
Mahaffey: And that was a good point.
Yepsen: In that race, though, isn't that an example of what we're talking about -- the Republicans are not fired up. Doesn't that really hurt Becky Greenwald's chances? If the Republican base had collapsed, the Democrats are pumped up she had a shot. Now doesn't Latham get the edge?
Crawford: They're pumped up for one reason and one reason only and that's Sarah Palin. They are not pumped up about John McCain. Sarah Palin has had an unprecedented rise to the public's attention. People who rise quickly often fall quickly. I think we don't know yet about Sarah Palin's final impact in this race on her ABC interview, not as good. We need to get to that debate, see how she performs then before we know what impact she's having.
Mahaffey: I think people are taking a second look at the ticket because of her but I must say this about John McCain. People respect John McCain. Maybe he's not the most loveable guy in the world, he certainly wasn't in the United States Senate but they respect him. They do love Sarah Palin. It's a very interesting mix.
Yepsen: There's no easy way to segway from Sarah Palin into the Iowa House of Representatives so I'm just going to switch our gear here. What about the battle for the Iowa House? That's where the Democrats are going to hold the Senate and maybe expand the majority, everybody agrees to that? What about the battle for the Iowa House? Are Republicans feeling a little better?
Mahaffey: They are and Christopher Rants who grudgingly supported John McCain after he got the nomination should fall on his knees every night and thank God that John McCain is at the top of the ticket in Iowa. I hope Christopher is doing that because John McCain, very honestly, is the only Republican, people even those who don't particularly like him will say he's the only Republican that really had a chance this year to get elected with or without Sarah Palin. Now, to date she has helped quite a bit. Back to David's point -- there is going to be a lot of money that has been raised, more will be raised, the Iowa House is a battleground and there is a possibility -- I would not have said this three or four months ago -- there is a possibility Republicans could turn that.
Glover: Jerry, same question to you. Is there a battle at the statehouse for control?
Crawford: Well, the Republicans and Christopher Rants at least think there is. I've sensed some energy from them in the last week about their prospects. Having said that absolutely everything is in place for the Democrats to at least maintain their edge if not grow it. You've got not one as you usually have but two gifted leaders from the standpoint of fundraising and political waste management in Speaker Pat Murphy and Kevin McCarthy, the talented House majority leader. They are fully engaged and I think they are intent on growing the margin.
Yepsen: The Democratic Party right now between the Governor and the House of Labor over Chapter 20. Is that going to hurt the battle for the legislature?
Crawford: No, I don't think that it will hurt the battle for the legislature. Just even assuming, take your premise at face value the legislature passed the bill in question and so I have no reason to think that labor would do anything other than fully support.
Glover: He's not up this time but there's a lot of talk about Governor Chet Culver and his relatively mediocre standing in the polls. Who do you think has gotten in the wings?
Mahaffey: We'll concentrate on that more after November 4th of this year.
Glover: But anybody who is serious about running has got to be thinking about it.
Mahaffey: I think they are -- I think Representative Steve King is thinking about it. I'm not so sure that our colleague Doug Gross isn't thinking about it again. There's been some talk about Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. Bob VanderPlatts has talked about it. Chuck Larson has thought about it. There's going to be quite a few people. And Governor Culver's approval rating is less than stellar in terms of -- when people look at it they're going to say there may be a possibility.
Borg: What do you think are issues that could allow the Republicans to at least take the House?
Mahaffey: I think one of the issues is the question of fiscal management or mismanagement. When people sit at their tables and they try to figure out how to spend their hard earned dollars most of them are not getting eight or nine percent raises and if I remember correctly the state spending increase this year was in the range of nine to ten percent. That is not sustainable over a period of time. I think that's one of the issues that people look at. But remember this about legislative candidates, a lot of those things are local races and people have told me that the Republicans did a far better job in the House of recruiting candidates and have better candidates in the competitive races than we've had in the last few cycles.
Glover: You've got a sitting Governor, Chet Culver. What are his political problems and how does he get another term?
Crawford: First of all, people spent two years underestimating Chet Culver before he became our Governor and it be well to recall that because it's the best prediction of what will happen in 2010. Secondly, I think he is highly regarded by people all over Iowa. I think his leadership during the flood recovery effort has been strong. I think that while he's taken some controversial positions and clearly has some fences to mend the positions he has taken are more in sync with voters than they are at odds.
Yepsen: Is he more in sync with his legislature by vetoing and tinkering with Chapter 20?
Crawford: I think there is no doubt that the legislative leadership and Governor Culver need to get on the same page heading into the 2009 session and I would be very surprised if that didn't happen.
Borg: I'm sorry, gentlemen, we're out of time. Thanks so much for being with us. One last -- should he be calling a special session?
Crawford: I think not. I think they've got the ability to do what needs to be done without it and that is the definition of strong leadership.
Borg: Thanks so much. Thanks for your comments. On our next edition of Iowa Press we'll be focusing on higher education talking with two members of the Iowa Board of Regents, Board President David Miles and Regent Bonnie Campbell. They'll be here discussing the ongoing business of the three Regents' institutions, the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa State in Ames and the University of Northern Iowa, UNI in Cedar Falls. You'll see that program at our regular time, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.
Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association, for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals.