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Candidates Heavily Scrutinized on the Economy


I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a look inside the world of Christian fundamentalism. We'll speak with Brett Grainger about his new book "In The World, But Not Of It," about his family's radical faith. And the Barbershop Guys give their spin on the week's news.

But first, it's time for our weekly political chat. Presidential candidates John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton unveil their plans for improving the economy. Are voters warming to any one of them? And a new poll shows some Democrats say it's my way or the highway. Pick my nominee, or else.

Here to put the week's developments in context is Michael Steele. He's the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and the current chairman of GOPAC. It's a group that supports Republican candidates for state and local offices. Also with us, Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, president of the polling firm Lake Research Partners. Welcome to you both.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, GOPAC): Good to be with you.

Ms. CELINDA LAKE (President, Lake Research Partners): Hello.

MARTIN: Celinda, can we start with you? All of the candidates have been talking about the economy this week. Both Senator's Obama and Clinton want the government to intervene in the mortgage crisis. Both say the government needs to get more involved in the regulating these.

But John McCain cautions against the government interfering too deeply in the credit crisis. He says neither banks nor homeowners who made bad decisions should be bailed out. Clearly this is a top issue for voters. Have any of the candidates gotten any traction on the economy?

Ms. LAKE: Well, the Democrats tend to be rated a couple of points stronger than McCain on the economy. But that's already quite a bit of success for McCain, actually, because this is a man who already said, I don't understand the economy really, and voters overwhelmingly think that Democrats are better than the Republicans on the economy.

So it's interesting that the Democratic candidates are only getting a couple of points advantage over McCain and I think it speaks to the degree to which he's kind of developing an independent profile from the Republican brand and the Republican label and that's pretty dangerous if we want to beat them in the fall.

MARTIN: Michael?

Mr. STEELE: I think that's a good point. McCain has always been that way, that maverick within the GOP. But I think the other thing, you've got to keep this all in context. This economy started in recession under the Bush administration and it is ending in recession under the Bush administration.

But in between, there were six very good years of growth in jobs and growth in a number of sectors, particularly housing, where African-American and minority communities, for the first time in significant numbers, took home ownership. Yes, some of that is now coming back to roost because we see underlying all of that were some pretty bad practices in the housing market, particularly in the mortgage lending sector.

And I think that McCain has it right, a slow-go approach, with respect to exactly who was hurt, how they got hurt and what should be done by the government, is something that we need to look at carefully, because we are in recession. You don't want to cause this economy to jerk deeper into loss of jobs, loss of revenue, loss of opportunity.

MARTIN: But Celinda's point is interesting, that it's remarkable, given how bad this current situation is, that McCain is even nearly even with the Democratic candidates. I'm just curious, though, Michael, whether you are at all concerned, as a Republican, that he will appear indifferent to the very real suffering that many people are going through...


MARTIN: Forget - you talked about minorities. They are facing - blacks and Latino's are facing an historic loss of wealth as a result of the subprime crisis.

Mr. STEELE: I - with all due respect, that's a gross exaggeration, because you are projecting it across an entire population of people, and I just don't think that that's going to be born out or is being beared out by what's happening right now. And my point is you've got to keep this is perspective. The Democratic presidential candidates made it seem like every American in this country owned a subprime loan.

And that as a part of - the percentage of the market is a very, very small percentage of the market. And so, my point is, when you are talking about government intervention and government solution to what is a market crisis, you need to be more careful, and I think John McCain is going to have an appropriate approach.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm talking to former Republican lieutenant governor of Maryland, Michael Steele, and Democratic strategist Celinda Lake.

Some new polls out this week. One I'd like to run by you both, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows the Democrats are virtually tied, but there does seem to be some wear and tear on the candidates, Celinda, as a result of this campaign. Is this sort of normal stuff? Or a sort of sign of worry?

Ms. LAKE: I'm certainly worried and I think that most Democrats are pretty worried. I mean, on the one hand, I think it's hard to ask candidates to do anything but try to win their election. On the other hand, I think that there are two very disturbing trends. First of all, because we don't have a nominee, you have McCain out there virtually uncontested.

You don't have this race engaged, and that's allowing him to really develop this independent profile and kind of have it both ways. And I think many Democrats, myself included, would like to see us engage him more directly, and feel that if we are not going to have a nominee for a couple of months, we need our party, in general, to start to be much, much more aggressive vis-a-vis Senator McCain, and really outline the differences.

On the second hand, the other disturbing development here is that you're starting to have, you know, 20 percent of the Obama voters and 28 percent of the Clinton voters who say they might not vote for the other candidate if they were the nominee. That's very different. There was a time when, you know, 86 percent of Democrats liked both these candidates and everyone said they were going to vote for both of them. So I think in the end, Democrats will be united, but that's disturbing, I think.

MARTIN: What do you make - do you buy that, though? Do you think that that's really true? That three out of 10 Clinton supporters say that they will vote for John McCain in the fall if Obama is the nominee and that 20 percent of Obama supporters say they will vote John McCain in the fall if she's the nominee? Do you think that's true? Or are they just mad right now?

Ms. LAKE: I think they are mad right now and I think that once they're reminded of the McCain record, Democrats will be united. But I think that it's not good to have this wear and tear and it's not good to have these ads against each other where we will see those scenes, we will see the red phone back again, in the general election.

MARTIN: So, Michael Steele, that John McCain is kind of using this time to kind of, you know, define himself, I think, maybe re-introduce himself to the voters, might be one way to sort of put it...

Mr. STEELE: Right.

MARTIN: He gave also, in addition to an economic address, gave a major foreign policy address this week. I think we have a short clip and let's play that now.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN: (Republican, Arizona): When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them.

MARTIN: Michael Steele, what do you make of the tone...

Mr. STEELE: It's the tone, isn't it?

MARTIN: Yes. Exactly. What do you think?

Mr. STEELE: He's using a different tone from what we've seen over the last seven years. This is a man who has - who knows war up close and personal, and knows the impact of making the decision to go into military engagement. I think he recognizes that in this modern era, you cannot, on a global stage, do this alone. You cannot do it without your allies and your partners.

And you cannot do it without making some new allies and new partners of countries that, you know, right now may be sitting on the sidelines or may, in fact, be against the United States. So I think you are going to see a different tone from both presidential nominees. Which I think is very important and I think it is very healthy and helpful to the United States, both at home and globally.

MARTIN: Celinda, what do you think?

Ms. LAKE: Oh, I think it is definitely a different tone and I think foreign policy is Senator McCain's strength, but he has some vulnerabilities there as well. I mean, saying that we are going to be in Iraq for 100 years, that is going to mean an expenditure of trillions of dollars that we desperately need back here at home. So again, unfortunately, I think we're in a period where McCain is able to establish this image and I think it's very dangerous if it takes root and it's uncontested and I think one way or the other, I think Democrats - if we are not going to have a nominee for a couple of months, we have to find a way to engage McCain and draw the distinction between our party, whoever we nominate, and him.

Mr. STEELE: Now I'm going to say, let's put this - your comment into context because the Dems love throwing that line around as a throw away. The reality of it is, 60 years after World War II, we are still there. Fifty years after Korea, we're still there and we - the U.S. in most, if not all of its military engagements, has subsequently spent a significant number of years in those countries, you know, doing what we're supposed to do to try to keep the peace. And I think what John McCain is saying, is to be realistic, particularly, in this region of the world, given the hostile territory that it is, you cannot think that you are going to walk away from the Middle East, that you are just going to walk away from Iraq and not have some type of presence - some presence there on the ground. I think it is just a realistic assessment of one of the things that the United States is going to have to make a judgment call about, and the American people will be a part of helping them make that judgment call this fall.

MARTIN: It sounds like a good topic for a fall debate between the two nominees. Finally, looking ahead to Pennsylvania. The next big contest that - of course, John McCain has sort of, already sown up his nomination. He is the presumptive nominee, but on the Democratic side, Celinda, do you think that Pennsylvania is going to be dispositive?

Ms. LAKE: No, I mean, if Senator Clinton lost Pennsylvania it would be dispositive, but she has a good lead there right now. She has governor Rendell really making a difference for her. It is a state whose demographics really favor her, it is much, much older electorate, a blue collar electorate, that is good for her. But don't forget, we have Indiana, we have North Carolina. We have a number of states out there and it may be my home state of Montana, the last to vote, that may have the best say.

MARTIN: OK. What about Puerto Rico?

Ms. LAKE: There you go.

Mr. STEELE: Puerto Rico.

MARTIN: What about Puerto Rico? We are all lobbying for that important Puerto Rico contest. We don't want - OK. Democratic strategist Celinda Lake is President of Lake Research Partners, a DC-based polling firm. She joined us on the phone from Seattle, Washington and Michael Steele, the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and current chairman of GOPAC, which supports Republican candidates for state and local offices, joined us on the phone from Washington. I thank you both.

Mr. STEELE: Thank you.

Ms. LAKE: Thank you.

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