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Democratic Race Heats Up as Wisconsin Holds Deadlocked Primary

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John Nichols of The Nation magazine joins us from Wisconsin, where voters go to polls today in possibly the tightest contest in the Democratic race since Super Tuesday. Sen. Hillary Clinton is hoping to end Sen. Barack Obama’s string of eight straight victories over the past two weeks. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Voters head to the polls in Wisconsin and Hawaii today. Wisconsin is shaping up to be possibly the tightest contest in the Democratic race since Super Tuesday. Senator Hillary Clinton is hoping to end Senator Obama’s string of eight straight victories over the past two weeks.

The airwaves in Wisconsin have been filled with campaign ads. In this ad, Senator Clinton criticized Barack Obama for refusing to debate in Wisconsin.

    CLINTON CAMPAIGN AD: Both Democratic candidates were invited to a televised debate here in Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton said yes. Barack Obama hasn’t. Maybe he’d prefer to give speeches than have to answer questions, like why Hillary Clinton has the only healthcare plan that covers every American and the only economic plan that freezes foreclosures. Wisconsin deserves to hear both candidates debate the issues that matter, and that’s not debatable.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I’m Hillary Clinton, and I approve this message.

AMY GOODMAN: The Barack Obama campaign produced this ad as a rebuttal.

    OBAMA CAMPAIGN AD: After eighteen debates, with two more coming, Hillary says Barack Obama is ducking debates? It’s the same old politics of phony charges and false attacks. On healthcare, even Bill Clinton’s own labor secretary says Obama covers more people than Hillary and does more to cut costs, saving $2,500 for the typical family. Obama’s housing plan, it stems foreclosures and cracks down on crooked lenders. That’s change we can believe in.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols joins us now in Madison, Wisconsin, political writer for The Nation magazine, associate editor of the Capital Times newspaper in Madison.

Welcome, John Nichols. Can you talk about how the race is shaping up in Wisconsin?

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure, Amy. It’s good to be on with you. The race in Wisconsin was really defined right after the Potomac primaries of a week ago. Barack Obama came into the state immediately. He actually accepted his victories in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia at a huge rally in Madison with close to 20,000 people present on a very cold night. By the same token, Hillary Clinton didn’t come to Wisconsin immediately. She had her first rally on that Tuesday night in El Paso, Texas. And so, from the start, Obama has been far more aggressive in Wisconsin. He has spent the better part of five days campaigning around the state, going to not just the major cities, but to some midlevel and smaller cities. And the sense here is that Obama has sort of captured the moment, as has happened in a number of states since Super Tuesday.

But the most important thing to understand about what’s going on here is that both Obama and Clinton have dramatically evolved their messages. And the Obama campaign has focused an immense amount of energy on the issue of free trade. Obama went to a General Motors plant in Janesville and gave a lengthy speech of about — this was on last Wednesday. And in that speech, he really distanced himself from the Clinton administration’s trade policies and associated Hillary Clinton with those policies. Clinton has come back very hard, distancing herself as best she can from NAFTA, from China free trade and a host of other trade pacts. You would almost think, Amy, that these last few days in Wisconsin you were in Seattle in November of 1999.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does John Edwards fit into this picture?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, if he would actually leave his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and make a choice, he would fit in in a big sense, because Edwards had a lot of following in Wisconsin. He almost won the state four years ago in a last-minute bid to defeat or slow down the campaign of John Kerry. And Edwards had probably more state legislators backing him, more local officials, than any of the other candidates. He also had strong support from the steelworkers’ union, which has a good presence in Wisconsin and a lot of sympathy from the auto workers’ union, which is one of the bigger manufacturing units here. And so, if Edwards were to have endorsed — in fact, I’d be honest with you, even if he endorsed early this morning, I think it would help whoever he backed. But my sense is that he won’t be a factor in Wisconsin.

The one thing that is important to understand, though, is that in this state, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have sounded like John Edwards. They have picked up immense amounts of his economic populism. They’ve also both tried to humanize this campaign. They’ve both told a lot more stories about laid-off workers and people without healthcare, in much the same sense that Edwards did during the races in Iowa and New Hampshire.

AMY GOODMAN: Obama went and visited — tried to make it a secret visit to the Edwards. Hillary Clinton had already done that, actually, soon after Edwards had pulled out; is that right?

JOHN NICHOLS: That’s exactly right. And there is a John Edwards primary going on. There’s a reason for this. Understand that on Super Tuesday, after he had quit his race, John Edwards got almost half-a-million votes. And in some states, like Oklahoma, he received ten percent of the vote. Now, that’s just a tip of the iceberg. And in Wisconsin today, it is an iceberg day; we have almost twenty-below-zero wind chills. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg on Edwards support. And it’s not that he could have won the nomination. That’s not the point. But there were an awful lot of people that were very, very sympathetic to his economic message, in particular.

And so, yes, Hillary Clinton has met with Edwards. Barack Obama took a break from the Wisconsin campaign to fly to Chapel Hill and meet with both John and Elizabeth Edwards. Also, I know that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton make regular phone calls checking in with the Edwardses. The reason for this, obviously, at this point is not Wisconsin, but because Wisconsin is, in many ways, the first battle of the rest of the race. This is a state that has been hard, hard hit by NAFTA, China free trade, a number of the other recent trade pacts. And so, it’s a big issue here, much bigger than in many of the states that have voted earlier. Well, it’s an even bigger issue in Ohio, which will vote on March 4th.

And so, these campaigns are doing everything they can to get John Edwards on their side, or I think, more in Hillary Clinton’s case, to just keep him out of the race, because the sense is that if he were to weigh in strongly and actually go out and do some campaigning on behalf of a candidate, two things would happen: first, that his credibility on some of these economic issues would help that candidate; but also, some of the unions that really worked hard for him, especially the steelworkers, would take a second look at that candidate.

AMY GOODMAN: And also Senator Feingold of Wisconsin, what role is he playing here? He hasn’t made an endorsement yet.

JOHN NICHOLS: He has not. Senator Feingold has played a fascinating role, and that is as sort of a tour guide of Wisconsin for the candidates. He did an interview with me before the race really came to Wisconsin, and he listed certain things that candidates should do. Fascinatingly enough, at the top of his list was start talking about trade in a serious way, no slogans, but deep, smart detailed discussions of how you’re going to change the US trade policies, which are currently written by Wall Street and very damaging to workers, farmers and the environment and consumers. That’s the first thing he said.

The second thing he said is, give the speech in Janesville, Wisconsin. Janesville is Senator Feingold’s hometown. It’s an old classic industrial town with a huge General Motors plant that still employs thousands of people. And the interesting thing is that last Wednesday morning, on his first full day in Wisconsin, Barack Obama went to Janesville and gave an extensive speech about trade. So, clearly, Obama listened to Feingold.

Now, Feingold is not making an endorsement. He has suggested that he will probably vote as a superdelegate the way that the state of Wisconsin does, although he has not said that absolutely. Many of the members of Congress from the state who have not endorsed — Ron Kind in the west, Steve Kagen in the north — have also not endorsed but said that they will vote the way that the state does. And so, interestingly enough, this primary in Wisconsin takes on even more significance, because it’s the first primary where a significant number of elected officials are saying that as superdelegates — these are folks who will go to the convention, not chosen by the voters, but chosen by virtue of their positions —- as superdelegates, they will keep faith with the electors in their state, with the voters of their state. And so, that’s where Feingold is at, at least at this point.

And frankly, both campaigns still talk about him constantly. In fact, I saw Hillary Clinton last night. She and Feingold have not historically been particularly close, and yet she went on and on about our great Senator Russ Feingold and how much she cherishes her working relationship with him.

AMY GOODMAN: Russ Feingold, the only senator in the US Senate to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act. John -—

JOHN NICHOLS: But also, Amy, if I could just add — oh, I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

JOHN NICHOLS: Also the first senator to come out for a timeline, a specific timeline for withdrawal from Iraq and the first senator to call for the censure of President Bush for warrantless wiretapping.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, you have blogged about this very interesting story, New York Times this weekend, Sam Roberts, the headline of that story, “Unofficial Tallies in City Understated Obama Vote.” This is about New York. Explain what happened.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, this is a huge story, Amy. And understand this: that this race for the presidency is still very, very close, the race for the Democratic nomination. Either of these candidates could, at the end of the day, prevail. In a situation like that, where the delegate split is quite narrow, each voting precinct or each voting district — in this case, congressional districts — becomes very, very important, because that’s how delegates are allotted. And at a close convention, it could matter. So we’re watching situations like this all over the country.

What’s fascinating is, the situation in New York City, where Barack Obama actually carried a number of congressional districts right in the heart of what should be Hillary Clinton’s home turf and did very, very well, particularly in African American districts. This is not surprising. He’s been polling 80, even 90 percent of the African American votes in states around the country. And yet, in Harlem, in a district that has a very large African American population, as well as a significant white liberal population, Obama’s finish was quite weak. He lost to Hillary Clinton by a significant amount district-wide, and they found a number of precincts, local voting districts, local voting precincts, where Barack Obama received zero — and I want to repeat that: zero votes. And that never happens. It is an anomaly that made no sense. In fact, I believe there were roughly sixty voting precincts around New York City where Obama got zero votes. And this is not — it makes no sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, these were in some of the communities where there was an overwhelming African American population.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, more than that, Amy, these — where neighboring precincts — literally, the precinct, you know, a mile down the road or, you know, one subway stop up — had big, big votes for Obama. In fact, usually it’s situations where he won. And when you start to look at this, you realize that something went very, very wrong.

Nobody — I should say very few people at this point are making specific charges against anyone or saying, you know, this happened for this reason. What people are saying, and I think it’s the right thing to say at this point, is that we need to open up these machines, take a serious look at what happened in these precincts and get to the bottom of it, because, again, it’s such a close race. You cannot have this sort of disenfranchisement. If it was an intentional act, this is scandal of, you know, Florida levels. And if it was unintentional, then something needs to be done to make sure, first, that if the votes are there, that they are counted. Second, if somehow there was a mechanical glitch or a destruction of the record of these votes, then you do need to have revoting in those precincts. We cannot say to people in a race that is, again, this close that, well, you know, tough luck, we believe that you went to the polls to vote for Barack Obama, like a lot of people went to the polls in Florida to vote for Al Gore in 2000, but we’re not going to count them. This is a serious issue.

And it’s not the only one around the country. There are a number of places around the US where there have been concerns about challenges to problems with the voting in these primaries. And we tend to lose sight of that when you have this sort of rolling primary process that moves from state to state. We don’t go back and take a look at whether everything was done right every place. But the fact of the matter is that New Mexico, which just this week announced its Super Tuesday results, had some really problematic situations. And over on the Republican side, in Washington State, the state party chairman shut down the count of the vote in the — of the caucuses at a point where it looked like Mike Huckabee was going to overtake John McCain. We need to do some serious work to police this primary process and make sure that it is in fact a small-d democratic process and that states that organize and hold elections actually count every vote.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, finally, you’re associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, it’s just announced it will stop the daily newspaper, the printing of the daily newspaper, April 26th. What’s happened?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, that’s a really great question, Amy, and one we could probably devote a good portion of the show to. The Capital Times was founded in 1917 as a progressive daily newspaper. And the choice has been made to begin publishing all online with two weekly magazines, one a journal of opinion, one an entertainment journal associated with it.

And I was heartened at the start of your report today to hear that Fidel Castro made his announcement of the big changes in his tenure and his position online. It is our sense that there’s a great transition going on in America and that journalism will play out to a much greater extent digitally than in print. And we’ll still do some print in Madison, but increasingly, we will move our reporters, local and state, over to doing online work. It’s a great experiment. And I can’t promise you exactly where it’s going to go or how well every bit of it will work. But I do think that this is where you will see a lot of newspapers go. And it’s going to be a tough one. I’m very kind of personally, romantically, if you will, attached to the print page. And I also am concerned about, you know, all the aspects of this transition. But something tells me that it’s likely that most of us print journalists are going to retire working in a digital setting, and I am pleased that the Cap Times is actually kind of going there first and hopefully trying to do so in a way that produces some quality progressive journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, I want to thank you for being with us, associate editor of the Capital Times

, the daily newspaper — at least for now — in Madison, Wisconsin, also writes for The Nation. He was speaking to us from Madison, Wisconsin, where voters are going to the polls today.

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