With fresh polls showing Hillary Clinton’s huge lead over Barack Obama shrinking in the Pennsylvania primary, it was time to pick the politically savvy brain of Pittsburgh native Howard Fineman. The veteran Newsweek senior political correspondent/columnist and NBC analyst happened to be in New York City when I talked to him by telephone April 3. But he's been busy studying Pennsylvania's latest poll results, talking to party insiders in Pittsburgh and Philly and interviewing likely Democrat voters:
Q: With Obama making up so much ground here, is the Democrats' primary effectively over for Hillary Clinton?
A: The chances are dwindling. I wouldn’t say they are over. Especially in politics, you are always reluctant to say “never” and to write a full conclusion on things. But it’s fading rapidly unless she can pull off a big victory in Pennsylvania -- and the “big” part of it is looking less likely.
Q: New polls today show Obama actually leading. Do you have a sense of what’s happening?
A: First of all, Obama is on the air -- both paid and free -- more than Hillary is. Certainly in terms of paid media, the estimates are he’s outspending her 4-to-1 in ads. But he’s also getting a tremendous amount of coverage and a lot of it is very positive coverage, now that the Jeremiah Wright thing -- perhaps temporarily -- is pretty much behind him. He’s in there smiling and ... even though he was bowling gutter balls, at least he was bowling. That kind of stuff is helping.
The other thing is I think the Democrats -- and even Democrat voters out there who are not strategists or superdelegates, but just voters -- may be beginning to worry about the length of the campaign, may be beginning to worry about the attacks back and forth. In Pennsylvania, the voters have the privilege -- if they want to -- of making the final decision: Do you want the thing to end now, or do you want it to go on? It’s ironic but Pennsylvania has that role in this campaign; Pennsylvania voters could be the bookends for Iowa and New Hampshire.
Q: Is there anything Hillary can do on the ground or with her message?
A: Well, it’s pretty hard at this point. She’s spent a lot of time in recent weeks saying both publicly -- and her aides saying privately -- why Obama can’t win, why people shouldn’t vote for Obama, as much as she herself has said why she is the better choice. She is making her case out there. She’s talking about economic matters, and she’s talking about them with a great deal of knowledge and maybe even convincingly. But I’m not sure there is enough difference between what she is saying and what Obama is saying, whether it’s on the economy or foreign policy, to make that much of a difference.
So it comes down to a question of character and capacity to lead. She has made the argument that she has more experience than Obama and the polls show that people accept that about her. But on the question of judgment, and on the question of likability, on the question of leadership qualities, the more Democrat voters get to see Obama, for the most part the more they like him.
Q: Both candidates are politically and ideologically pretty close. There aren’t any major distinctions between them.
A: None. Virtually none. Q: Obama is really starting to sound like the Senate’s most liberal member. He’s talking about oil windfall profits and jobs being outsourced and NAFTA. What’s the danger of him going too far left and scaring off independents he’ll need in November?
A: Well, this happens every four years with leading contenders who do what they need to do to secure the nomination. They sort of think, “I’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.” So that’s one part of it. Obama wants to finish this thing off and he knows that if he can win Pennsylvania or make it a close race there, it will effectively be over. So he’s not desperate but he’s certainly determined to outrun expectations in Pennsylvania. So he’s going to appeal to those very voters whom Hillary has gotten in earlier places like Ohio -- like a lot of union workers, like a lot of white middle-class and working-class people -- and he’s going to try to win them over.
I do think there’s a danger because he’s not running the way Bill Clinton ran in 1992. In 1992, Bill Clinton made some very dramatic moves to the middle in the primaries and in the race. He took on race-identity politics in the party. He went deliberately to the AFL-CIO convention in Detroit, I think it was, and gave a free-trade speech in front of the unions at that event. This was done deliberately, and it was done to try to prove that he, Bill Clinton, was not in thrall to all the interest groups of the Democratic Party. I don’t see Barack Obama doing that kind of thing at all. As a matter of fact, he seems delighted to be seen as in thrall to them at this point.
I think he has the confidence that based on where he started out in the race, which was in caucus states like Iowa, reaching across the aisle to Republicans and independents, that he will somehow be able to do that in the general election. If he’s the nominee, that’s going to be a big part of the conversation in the contest. Whether (John) McCain and the Republicans can say, “No. This guy’s really a hopeless, closed-minded liberal,” the problem they are going to have is that Obama -- despite what he has to say on some of these issues -- doesn’t come across as a closed-minded guy.
Q: Unlike Hillary, who thinks she knows the answers to everything already and has everything figured out, Obama is vague enough so that you aren’t sure whether he might not favor semi-privatization of Social Security or something.
A: If you happened to watch Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” interview from West Chester University with Obama (Wednesday), he came across, as always, as the sort of soul of reasonableness and open-mindedness. He sells himself as an open-minded adjudicator, if you will. I think there are different kinds of presidencies and presidential candidates.
There are the crusader types -- and Hilary would fall into that category. There are the adjudicator types. And the third category would be the custodians, if you will -- the people running for re-election or to follow somebody else’s legacy. Obama is presenting himself as a wise judge. He is a lawyer and he was a law professor and he’s coming across as an open-minded guy. That’s what he’s trying to sell himself as. It will be the task of the Republicans to say, “Uh, uh. You aren’t really that. What you really are is a doctrinaire liberal and look at your voting record and look at what you said.” So that will be a lot of what the election is about -- if he’s the nominee.
Q: Who do you think Obama would pick as vice president?
A: Well, if he’s the nominee -- we keep having to stress that -- he’s not going to pick Hillary. Hillary wouldn’t want it, I don’t think, and he’s not going to pick her. My gut instinct says he needs the anti-Cheney -- or he might think that he needs that. He needs somebody with a military background, a foreign policy background, to help advise him on the world. That’s what the general category would be. ...
I don’t think he necessarily needs to pick a woman. Although some would argue that, I don’t think that’s the case. Unfortunately for him, there aren’t many women who fit in the category of knowledgeable world-leader types. For women, the only one who comes to mind right now is Madeleine Albright and I don’t think he’s going to pick her as vice president. So I don’t know. Strictly a long shot? Somebody like (former South Dakota senator) Tom Daschle, who has been his big adviser and who knows the inside, knows the Senate and knows Washington but who sort of left in a huff, if you will, after being defeated by the Republicans. Just a wild guess.
Q: Any good guesses or wild guesses for McCain’s VP pick?
A: He’s going to be under a lot of pressure to pick (Mitt) Romney. I’m not convinced that he will. But he’s got to pick somebody vigorous. He’s got to pick somebody who knows the economy. He’s got to pick somebody who’s willing to go with the flow with McCain’s management style, which can, shall we say, be idiosyncratic.
Q: If Hillary loses or barely wins Pennsylvania, will it all be over?
A: I can’t make a definitive pronouncement, I’m sorry. But it’s got to be pretty nearly so.