Archive for September, 2008

The Debate on my Blackberry
September 27, 2008

  My Blackberry began buzzing 28 minutes into the debate.  By the time midnight rolled around, the tally of “spin” e-mails looked like this–

Mario Diaz (SE Regional Communications Dir. for the McCain Campaign)–15

Obama Campaign (sent from Chicago HQ)– 13

National Security Network (Obama-Supporting Interest Group)– 2

Republican Party of Florida– 1

  Mario Diaz (McCain) struck first, with a missive mysteriously entitled “Debate Fact #2” (I must have missed #1).  It was not his best effort, making the claim “Barack Obama said that he, too, supports cutting taxes for corporations”, though both of the quotes in the e-mail said only that Obama was “considering” or “studying” the idea.

  Within 10 minutes, though, the McCain folks had pretty good quotes from several commentators who feel Obama budget math doesn’t add up very convincingly, and by the end of the evening, had provided a tally of the number of times Obama had said McCain was right on something during the debate (8, according to Fox News).

  Obama folks were also keeping count– noting that McCain only mentioned “change” once, and never uttered the phrase “middle class”. And they claimed McCain– despite expressing support for alternative fuels- had voted against funding renewable energy investments 23 times.

  Both sides sent me emails proclaiming victory: Obama campaign manager David Plouffe called it a “clear victory” for his guy– a shocker, every bit as surprising as McCain campaign spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker opining that her guy was “presidential” while Obama was “political”  For the record, FL GOP Chair Jim Greer lauded McCain, while the National Security Network (run by Democratic foreign-policy advisors) thought Obama won the night.

  When the campaigns quote journalists’ opinions, it pays to read carefully.  For instance, both sides cited Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder in their “What They’re Saying” emails.  Ambinder, saying McCain showed a “solid understanding of the region (Afghanistan)” at one point, but also observed “McCain sounds angry and passionate.  Obama sounds cool.” 

  Both could point to outside commentators who thought their guy carried the evening, though Obama also highlighted a couple of insta-polls showing the Illinois Senator impressed average folks.  A CBS/Knowledge Networks poll showed 40% of uncommitted voters who watched thought Obama was the winner, with 28% thinking McCain had the upper hand, and 38% judging the evening a draw. Obama folks also crowed about a CNN insta-poll favoring Obama, 51-38%.


History Reverses Itself?
September 19, 2008

  The CNN/Time poll of this week had a slightly startling bottom line– Obama and McCain tied in Florida in a head-to-head matchup, 48%-48%.  Most other polls still show McCain with a lead in the state.

  A less-publicized result caught my eye– when minor party candidates Ralph Nader, Bob Barr, and Cynthia McKinney are added into the mix, CNN/Time reports the result as Obama 48%, Mccain 44%, Others 6%. 

  I couild find no breakdown of the relative strength of those “third-party” contenders, but the result seems counter-intuitive– you’d figure that Nader (running on the Ecology Party line in FL) and McKinney (ex-Georgia congresswoman who’s the Green Party candidate) would take more votes from Obama.  Barr (Libertarian Party standard-bearer, ex-Congressman from Georgia) might attract conservatives uncomfortable with McCain’s “maverick” (moderate) Republican past.

  If the poll accurately gauges FL voter sentiment, and third-party candidates wind up turning Florida blue this fall, the irony’s obvious.  After all, plenty of Democrats still blame Ralph Nader’s candidacy for the George Bush presidency.  He drew 97,000 votes as Green Party candidate when George W. Bush famously won Florida by 537 votes.

September 16, 2008

  Just returning from a one-on-one interview with John McCain, I thought I’d provide a little behind-the-scenes as to how these things work.

  Campaigns love ’em, of course.  Stations play up their one-on-one opportunities, promote them heavily, and a candidate can easily knock off 4-5 of them in a half-hour’s time, earning loads of valuable “free media”.

  We traveled seven hours for our five minutes with John McCain, driving to Orlando at 7 AM, and back to So FL at 7 PM (I’m blogging from the front seat).  I fielded 10-12 phone calls with McCain advance men over the weekend (every time they called, they wanted me there earlier–asking, at one point, that I arrive no later than 10:45 AM for a 2 PM interview).

  The one-on-one-palooza was held in a social room at the Puerto Rican center in suburban Orlando, just upstairs from where McCain spoke to a crowd of about 250 folks (his crowds without Palin are a lot smaller– Democrats were crowing about how empty the 16,000-seat arena in Jacksonville looked this morning, with only 3-4,000 seats filled– see photo below).



Two quick notes about McCain’s Orlando event.  It was the first rally I’ve seen with Jeb Bush in attendance.  As you may recall, a lot of Jebolytes were active in the Mitt Romney campaign, back in January.  The ex-Gov himself stayed neutral until just after Florida’s primary, when he quietly wrote McCain a check.  McCain was fulsome in his praise of Jeb Bush’s reforms to Florida schools.

  Another point of interest—McCain stuck very closely to his notes when discussing the Market Meltdown and, afterward, I think I figured out why.  In the morning’s first event in Jacksonville, he had opined, despite the turmoil on Wall Street, that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” 

  It didn’t take the Obama campaign, the Democratic Party, and labor unions long to jump on that remark, presenting it as more evidence that the candidate who can’t remember how many homes he and his wife own doesn’t feel the average guy’s economic pain.

  The McCain folks had whipped up a clarification in time for his appearance in Orlando.  By “strong fundamentals”, McCain said he had been referring to the American worker and the country’s strong entrepreneurial class.  His main point, he said—Americans weren’t “to blame” for the trouble on Wall Street—white-collar nee’er-do-wells who treated the markets “like a casino” were at fault.

  As the Town Hall event wound down, we were herded back up to the interview room.  Photographers from Orlando’s NBC affiliate, WESH, had set up two cameras—one focused on Senator McCain, one aimed at “the talent” (yes, that is how they refer to reporters, not always accurately).  My photog, Mark Thompson, figured out how to record the output of those cameras in his camera and computer/editor—no mean technical feat, believe me.

  WESH’s main anchor was to have the first 5-minute window, then a reporter from Telemundo/Orlando, then me.  Once Senator McCain entered the room, I was asked to wait in the hallway– so I couldn’t steal the others’ good questions, I guess.

  The hallway outside is full of nervous security folk and aides, checking their watches and mumbling into their sleeves. When I entered Sen. McCain, who stays seated in the same chair as questioners troop in and out, greeted me.  We made small talk about football.  I bemoaned the Dolphins’ poor performance against his hometown Cardinals, while he mourned the upset loss suffered by Arizona State over the weekend. (Sports are such a good ice-breaker—as First Lady, Hillary Clinton warmed up immediately when I disclosed my status as a long-suffering Cubs fan.  That was before her suspicious conversion to the cause of the NY Yankees).

  As for the interview itself—it ran absolutely true to form.  I asked what I thought were pretty tough questions.  Senator McCain answered easier questions.

   Take question #1: I asked whether there was any validity to the Obama camp’s charge that deregulation of financial markets during the Bush years has caused Wall Street’s current troubles.

  McCain took me, once again, through what he meant by “strong fundamentals” of the American economy (remember, that’s only a roundabout compliment to the US labor force), and said the whole system of financial regs dated from the 30’s, and needs to be updated.

  Question 2: I asked, since he’d claimed during the campaign that Mayor Giuliani and Ex-Gov Romney would need “on the job training” to handle national security matters, whether his VP pick wouldn’t need the same, since Sarah Palin had served less time in smaller places than either Giuliani or Romney.  McCain’s answer was “no” because, he said, Palin was an expert on energy, and had been right about the troop surge in Iraq while Barack Obama had opposed it.

  Question 3: Should US restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba be eased, to allow Cuban-Americans to directly help relatives who suffered hurricane calamity?  McCain only said the Cuban government should stop refusing US government help.

  Next, I asked about Karl Rove’s contention that some McCain ads contain claims that are less than 100% true.  McCain stood by his ads.

  All the while, an aide hovered nearby, giving me subtle hand signals when my five minutes were up.  On “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation”, moderators have a chance to follow up, press for details (no one did it better than Russert).  Five minutes gives you little latitude.

  So the resulting interview (available elsewhere on NBC6-dot-net) is not wholly satisfying.  But, since Barack Obama will be in So Fla Friday, I already have my request in to do the same rhetorical “rope-a-dope” with him.



FEMA Ready?
September 5, 2008

Florida’s senior Senator, Bill Nelson, thinks FEMA– the agency that failed so badly after Katrina– is pretty much ready, if Ike hits Florida.  The Melbourne Democrat has high praise for FEMA Director David Paulison (former fire chief of Miami-Dade), saying Paulison’s cleaned out political deadwood that had accumulated in the agency.

The only big worry Nelson has– housing, if a Cat 4 or 5 hits south FL.  FEMA has 75,000 trailers at the ready, but they can’t use them because they have “formaldehyde problems”, unhealthy fumes in the interior.

Speaking to the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches, Nelson harkened back to the 1952 presidential campaign as he began his remarks– “I sure don’t like Ike.”

Palin– Big Payoff?
September 4, 2008

  I first heard of John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin returning to Miami from Denver, with a planeload of Florida Democratic delegates.  Most were deliriously happy about Palin, believing she was a “Hail Mary” choice and a clear pander to disaffected Hillary-ites who, the Dems believed, would want nothing to do with a right-wing, pro-life unknown from Alaska.  They thought their ticket had just gotten a big boost.

  The only person I talked to that day who thought Sarah Palin had much of an upside was a woman who worked for Emily’s List, the feminist PAC.  She agreed that Clinton partisans would not flock to McCain’s side because of Palin, but she theorized that a lot of undecided red-state women would be drawn to the GOP VP candidate.

  That was before the string of dubious news stories about Palin– the pregnant daughter, the probe into whether she tried to get her sister’s ex fired from his state trooper job, her hiring of a lobbyist to get Federal “earmark” appropriations for her city, and her “Bridge to Nowhere” change of mind (for it as a candidate, against once she was governor).

  But none of those stories made much of a dent in the thinking of my unscientific sampling of voters in Pembroke Pines today.   The thing they’d heard most about– the pregnant daughter– they thought was a private matter.  The public-corruption probe involving the trooper hasn’t registered.

  Lukewarm Mccain backer Jennifer Williams thought Palin made John McCain “more likable”, adding “she seems like a go-getter”.  Still-undecided Democrat David White thought, if Palin seemed like she knew her stuff on foreign affairs, he might go Republican: “I think the Vice Presidents (candidates) will play a big role in what my final decision will be.”

   Even a Democrat committed to Obama mentioned none of the stories about Palin that have kept 24-hour cable chattering non-stop.  “She doesn’t  have enough time in public service to run the country”, said Sidney Cooley.

   Watching her speech (and the rest of tonight’s GOP convention session), it seems clear that Sarah Palin’s on the ticket to keep red states red.  Over and over, the attack lines were about Democratic candidates who look down on small-town America like Wasilla, Alaska.  “I’m sorry Barack Obama doesn’t find it cosmopolitan enough”,  jabbed Rudy Giuliani.  Several speakers reprised Obama’s comments about folks who “cling to religion and guns” out of bitterness.

  There’s been a lot of speculation that Obama-Biden could win some Mountain Time Zone states that have been red a long time– Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, and even Alaska.  Palin should make that harder.

  Her speech was well-crafted and well-received.  The crowd was primed to love her, eager to cheer all the louder, as a rebuke to what they regarded as unfair media focus on Palin (every time I tuned to Fox News Channel, Sean Hannity was fulminating about the media’s campaign to destroy Palin).

  Perhaps she’ll close the “enthusiasm gap” Republicans have been laboring under.  Her speech certainly not only revved up the crowd with home-spun biography.  It also had plenty of stinging attack on Barack Obama (her job was a small-town mayor was a lot like his as a community organizer “except that you have actual responsibility”, was one of the better lines).

  But delivering a red-meat speech to a hall of partisans is one thing.  Sarah Palin will need to show grit under pressure, facility in debate (Palin vs. Biden will be fascinating), and show sure-footedness under the white-hot spotlight of this campaign.

  If she falters, she may wind up as “Dan Quayle in a dress”,  the description  FL Democratic chair Karen Thurman laid on her hours after she was named to the ticket.

Mayor Manny Stays Home
September 2, 2008

  Miami’s Mayor, Manny Diaz, scrubbed his plans to attend the RNC “at the last minute, because of Hurricane Gustav”, according to his spokesperson.  “He felt he would be of more use to the mayors of the impacted cities if he stayed in Miami”, spokeswoman Helena Poleo tells us.

  Diaz, of course, spoke at the Democrats’ get-together last week, though his speech was delayed a couple of nights, for reasons discussed on an earlier blog.

  Diaz, President of the US Conference of Mayors, did not endorse Barack Obama in his speech, but did say change– the watchword of Obama’s campaign– is needed.  What’s needed, said Diaz, is “a nation where a 6-year-old, like Barack, Like Manuel, can have access to opportunity… the audacity of hope.” 

  Diaz had not been invited, in his Conf. of Mayors role, at the RNC, but now apparently won’t make the trip to St. Paul at all.

Crist for Cabinet?
September 2, 2008

  FL Gov. Crist gets a couple of mentions in an article about potential McCain cabinet members in the Capitol Hill bible– “Roll Call”.  Crist, touted for two positions he’s already held in FL– Attorney General, or Education Secretary– and EPA chief.  The paper does note “Crist has only been in office for only two years and may want to serve at least one full term.”

  One other Floridian mentioned by Roll Call– Phil Handy, the former chair of the State Board of Education and an advisor on education issues to the campaign.

GOP “Counter-Programming”
September 2, 2008

  Republicans had a brief first convention session on the Labor Day.  A missed opportunity?  More likely, Hurricane Gustav was a blessing.  Here are some of the reasons.

  First, the storm kept George W. Bush and Dick Cheney away.  Bush’s approval rating’s about 30%.  Cheney’s is lower.  A Presidential speech to conventioneers on the day a storm hits New Orleans could only remind voters of the botched reponse to Katrina.

  Gustav even gives President Bush a second chance at success, and gives John McCain a chane to share in his redemption.  McCain’s toured emergency response centers, assessing the situation, using the first-person plural: “We’ve got more resources ready to deploy…”

    Gustav is also giving the McCain campaign a chance to give one of its chief selling points a good workout– “Putting the country first.”  The candidate eschews normal campaigning to help pack relief supplies (attracting more cameras than the average rally, of course).

   This, in TV terms, is perfect Republican “counter-programming” to the Democrats’ convention.  The rap the GOP’s been trying to put on Barack Obama is that he’s a style-over-substance celebrity, willing to put electoral politics above the national good. 

   Well, the Democrats certainly staged a good convention show in Denver.  They got warmth from Michelle Obama and her daughters, tour-de-force speeches from the Clintons, and engineered a roll-call two-step that allowed Hillary Clinton to issue one last extra dramatic call for unity.

   Then, there was the stadium spectacular, 80-thousand-plus, voicing full-throated enthusiasm as Obama spoke, followed by fireworks.

   John McCain and the Republicans derided the Denver spectacle as “a mile high and an inch deep”, but truth is, they can’t compete with the energy level on display last week.  All the polls indicate Republicans are operating at an “enthusiasm deficit”.  At this convention, they don’t have the dramatic tension the Clintons provided and then resolved.  And they don’t have a candidate who orates well, to wrap it all up.

   Now, Gustav offers a chance to “counter-program”.  A more subdued, sober convention which will certainly aim sharp broadsides at the Democratic ticket soon (I’d predict Rudy Giuliani will be pretty scathing, on Tuesday night).

   Though convention managers predict McCain will be in the arena to accept his party’s nomination Thursday night, I won’t be surprised if he does so by satellite, from somewhere on the Gulf Coast.  Any arena speech would fall short in comparison to Obama’s.  Even diehard McCainiacs concede– their guy can’t speechify like his opponent.

   John McCain may try to impress with statecraft, rather than stagecraft, stress empathy rather than the energy that was so evident in Denver.