The Race for 2008: A Look at the Presidential Playing Field

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Presidential hopefuls have participated in more than a dozen debates so far–and the primaries are still over four months away. What does the presidential playing field look like right now? Where do candidates from both sides of the aisle stand? And what is the current political landscape? We speak with John Nichols, political writer for The Nation. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to the 2008 battle for the White House. Last night, all eight Democratic presidential hopefuls took part in what is being described as the first-ever online-only debate. The so-called presidential “mashup” was sponsored by Yahoo!, The Huffington Post, and Slate magazine.

PBS host Charlie Rose linked up via satellite individually with each candidate from his studio in New York. He questioned them each for 12 minutes on three main topics: the Iraq war, healthcare and education. Many of the questions were submitted by readers online. The answers were not broadcast on television. Instead, their video responses will be broken into short video segments and posted on the three host websites later this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: The online forum is just the latest in the more than a dozen debates that have taken place so far. And the primaries are still over four months away. What does the presidential playing field look like right now? Where do candidates on both sides of the aisle stand? And what’s the current political landscape?

Well, John Nichols is the political writer for The Nation and the associate editor of Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, where he joins us now.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, John. Line them up.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, right now I think it’s safe to say that Hillary Clinton is still generally viewed as the leader in the race, but the reality is that nowhere in any of the early primary or caucus states do you see Hillary Clinton’s polling above the low- to mid-30s. And so you realize that more than two-thirds of Democrats are uncomfortable with her as their nominee or their potential nominee. The challenge, of course, is that John Edwards, Barack Obama and, to a lesser extent, Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich are dividing the votes of more liberal and more economic populist voters in a way that essentially keeps Hillary out front.

What is significant in what’s developed in the last few days is something of a surge — and I hate to use the word — for John Edwards, because of a number of labor endorsements. He has received the backing of the Carpenters Union, which is a very significant, very powerful force in the building trades across the country. He has also picked up the support of the steelworkers and the mine workers. And, of course, the big ticket comes next week when the Service Employees International Union, with close to two million members spread across the country, will begin a process that could very quickly lead to an endorsement. At this point the general feeling is that Edwards is in the lead in that process. But there is a real internal struggle there, perhaps one of the most intense internal struggles in any union with California unionists — California SEIU folks being very strong for Edwards, Illinois SEIU folks being very strong for Obama, and New Yorkers being very strong for Hillary Clinton.

JUAN GONZALEZ: John, in terms of the — other than the horse race of the polling, have any of the candidates, Democratic or Republican, been able to, on the major issue of the war, sort of distinguish themselves dramatically from their other primary opponents?

JOHN NICHOLS: There’s some really significant stuff going on, Juan. And if we had a media that actually covered the war as an issue rather than playing around it, this would be much better known.

The most significant action of the summer came from Bill Richardson of all people. Now, Richardson presents himself as the foreign policy expert, the most experienced candidate, and practically he is, a former Cabinet member, former member of Congress, representative at the U.N., diplomat in places all over the world. And what Richardson did during the summer was come out for essentially an immediate withdrawal, getting all U.S. troops, not just a substantial portion, but all U.S. troops out of Iraq in six months. This position actually did him a great deal of good in some of the early states. He moved into, if you will, a middle tier.

And it put a real scare into both Edwards and Obama, both of whom have now moved to much stronger antiwar positions. Obama gave a speech yesterday in, of all places, Clinton, Iowa, in which he laid out a very strong — or two days ago, I should say —- a very strong antiwar stance, very, very critical in saying the war cannot be won militarily, that the troops do need to leave. But still, I think the important thing to understand at this point is -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: But did he actually say that the troops — my understanding is that he still favored maintaining some U.S. troops in Iraq.

JOHN NICHOLS: Precisely right, Juan. Precisely right. And this is where it gets really troubling. You have to distinguish between the good-sounding rhetoric and the specifics of the plan. At this point, really there are only three candidates running who have come out for a specific and full withdrawal from Iraq. That’s Richardson — that’s the unexpected player in that regard — and Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.

Well, you’re going to have some tests coming up very soon that are going to be important, however. I think that the coming votes on war funding are going to be a really significant challenge for some of these candidates, because you’re going to see a lot of compromising, a lot of game playing with the White House. Chris Dodd has become something of a useful player in this regard. He has announced upfront that he is going to vote against continued war funding. That’s going to put pressure on Clinton and on Obama. Now, the last time we had a vote of this kind, Clinton and Obama played an ugly game. They refused to come out strongly until the eve of the vote, then quickly cast an appropriate vote against continuing war funding, but didn’t make a big deal about it. Dodd is trying very hard to turn up the rhetoric on this. Richardson and Edwards will, as well, and, of course, Kucinich. But the truth of the matter is that the only candidate who is anywhere near the first tier, who’s talking about a serious exit from Iraq, is Bill Richardson.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Fred Thompson, Republican, entering the race?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, Fred Thompson is very close to a complete media creation. And, of course, that makes sense. He’s a star of Law and Order, a guy who left politics to go into television, as opposed to Ronald Reagan leaving television to go into politics. But Thompson, at this point, is getting an immense amount of national media coverage, and as a result of that, in our celebrity culture, a lot of people turn up to see him as he campaigns.

What’s significant is that the polling in the early primary and caucus states does not suggest that there is all that much enthusiasm for Thompson. The interesting story really is that Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, appears to be drawing more support from the sort of base conservatives and moving up rather significantly in the polls than Thompson. That doesn’t mean that Thompson isn’t going to have a significant rise, but he’s going to need to have something more than just the press coverage that goes with his announcement. One of the big tests will come in the early debates. Thompson doesn’t need to just do well in the debates. He genuinely has to triumph. He has to have a Ronald Reagan-style dominant performance, as Reagan did in the key early debate in New Hampshire in 1980, to solidify the interest in him. At this point, though, he remains more of a media creation than a reality on the ground in the early states.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, very quickly, the significance of Larry Craig’s troubles, of John Warner, senator of Virginia, saying he’s stepping down, and Chuck Hagel, the antiwar Republican from Nebraska, saying he won’t run for president or for Senate again?

JOHN NICHOLS: If you were a Republican strategist who had been delegated to worry about maintaining a good position in the Senate or perhaps even improving it, you would be pulling your hair out at this point and thinking seriously of quitting. The fact is that the Republicans are in a very, very bad position as regards the Senate.

That’s a good thing, because, of course, the excuse up to this point for Democrats in the Senate has been, “Oh, our majority is very, very narrow. We have to rely on Joe Lieberman.” There is a very real possibility that in 2008, if patterns hold, you could see Democrats picking up three, four, even five Senate seats in states such as Minnesota. Maine, and now, yes, Virginia is a possibility. I don’t see Idaho swinging, but I do see some competitive races in the West, like Colorado.

And I will tell you this: The Larry Craig fight, especially Craig’s refusal to leave, is an extremely big deal for the Republicans, because much like the Mark Foley scandal of 2006, it reminds the Republicans’ fundamentalist Christian base that the party is rife with hypocrites and that they have been used. That sense did tremendous damage to the Republicans in 2006 with their base, and it could do very serious damage in 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, thanks very much for joining us, political writer for The Nation magazine and associate editor of Cap Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin.

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