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This Week in US Politics - 2004-03-01


Democrats running for president are campaigning ahead of next week’s “Super Tuesday” primaries and caucuses. Meanwhile, consumer advocate Ralph Nader announces he’ll run for president. And the national debate over homosexual marriages becomes a campaign issue. On Focus, VOA’s Victor Morales leads a roundtable discussion on the events making news this week in U.S. politics.

MR. MORALES: Although U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich and political activist Al Sharpton are campaigning to be the Democratic Party’s next presidential nominee, the focus now is on two U.S. Senators: John Kerry of Massachusetts and his closest challenger, John Edwards of North Carolina. But observers also are watching independent candidate Ralph Nader who many Democrats fear could be a spoiler in the November election.

Joining me to assess the U.S. political scene are: VOA’s Senior Political Analyst and Director of VOA English Programs, Neal Lavon; and our National Correspondent, Jim Malone.

Jim, let me begin with you. What’s the number one story in U.S. politics this week?

MR. MALONE: I think the “Super Tuesday” slate of primaries coming up on Tuesday, March 2nd, will dominate the political debate, at least as far as the Democrats running for president are concerned. Although technically there are four candidates left, it has really come down to a race between John Kerry and John Edwards. Senator Kerry has a very big lead and unless there is some sort of major collapse on his part, it looks as though he’s on track to win the Democratic nomination. But Senator Edwards is plugging away and you have to reserve the possibility of some surprises.

MR. MORALES: Jim, they call it “Super Tuesday.” Why is that?

MR. MALONE: Victor, ten states will be choosing delegates on March 2nd -- nine primaries and one caucus. Not only that, many of them are large states. You have New York and California, Ohio -- which could be a very important battleground state in the November election -- and Georgia. So it’s really kind of a ‘national primary’ or the closest thing we have to it.

MR. MORALES: Neal, John Edwards certainly has been coming up in the polls and is doing quite well out there, relatively speaking, is there any chance that he might do well on “Super Tuesday”?

MR. LAVON: I think that with this number of primaries and this number of delegates at stake, he certainly can pick and choose among them and do well in certain segments, at least enough to continue with his campaign. So with this many delegates at stake, yes, he can do well and then claim that his candidacy is still viable, given the results he gets.

MR. MALONE: And, of course, the problem there is that he does have to cherry pick a bit because he doesn’t have the money or the organization that Senator Kerry has in order to compete in all of the states. And by the way, the polls indicate that Senator Kerry has the lead in all of the states. So Senator Edwards probably will focus on Georgia, the only southern state competing on March 2nd, and maybe Ohio, which has been hit by the job losses we’ve talked about in the past. This seems to be a driving issue in the Democratic campaign.

MR. MORALES: There’s also talk that John Edwards might wind up being the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket. How do you see that?

MR. LAVON: I think that’s a very strong possibility. It hasn’t been uncommon before for the front runner to at some point anoint the second place finisher as a vice presidential candidate. Ronald Reagan did that in 1980 with President Bush’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush. And I think that in this case, many people in the Democratic Party are suggesting that this could be their strongest ticket.

MR. MALONE: That’s where this is coming from, Victor. I remember talking to voters in New Hampshire and a number of them wrote in John Edwards as the vice presidential selection, even though they voted for John Kerry for president. So that could be a real driving force. It’s always tricky though when you have former rivals trying to come together on a ticket. Sometimes there can be tensions, but I think a lot of Democrats are talking up this possibility.

MR. MORALES: Is there a feeling among Democrats that they better come out with a single candidate early in this campaign in order to defeat President Bush in November?

MR. LAVON: Yes, I think that has been the whole message. And I think that Jim will agree that from when the Democrats first voted back in the Iowa Caucuses, they were looking for someone -- anyone -- who would be a good candidate to defeat President Bush. John Kerry seems to be that person and that seems to be the overriding issue among Democrats according to exit polls.

MR. MALONE: Yes, I think that so far the script was sort of written in Iowa -- the very first contest -- and it has changed very little. The Democrats want to settle on someone who they think has the best chance of beating President Bush out of a second term.

MR. LAVON: Of course, that raises the question of how deep the support is for John Kerry. If someone else, say John Edwards, had been that person, would the support be there for Edwards? One wonders whether Democrats really like John Kerry and his policies or they just think this is the guy who can win, so they’ll go with him.

MR. MALONE: Senator Edwards has proven to be a very, very adept campaigner -- probably a better campaigner than Senator Kerry. But what you hear from a lot of voters is that they don’t think he’s ready for it (i.e., to be president). They don’t think it’s his time. They think he’s too young. And Senator Kerry’s experience seems to trump what Senator Edwards is offering.

MR. MORALES: Let’s look at consumer advocate Ralph Nader. He ran for president four years ago and this week announced that he’ll run again. But by most accounts, it’s unlikely he’ll win. Will he be a political spoiler, Jim, drawing votes away from the eventual Democratic candidate in what probably will be a tight race?

MR. MALONE: Democrats are worried that he could be a spoiler again. He won only less than 3% of the popular vote last time. But in states like New Hampshire and Florida that perhaps was the critical difference, throwing the election to now President Bush. Republicans probably have been celebrating a bit. They love the fact that Mr. Nader is in the race. It complicates things and sort of forces the Democrats to fight a rear guard action in some respects against him.

MR. LAVON: It also makes for effects that sometimes are not quite so clear. This week, several columnists have raised the possibility that if the rules for the nationally-televised presidential debates -- which have become a staple of presidential elections in America in recent years -- are changed, Ralph Nader might be on that panel. And it’s argued that would help the president by putting Ralph Nader on one end of the stage and John Kerry on the other. And then George Bush ends up looking pretty good.

MR. MALONE: I think that’s a good point. I think that the last thing the Democrats want, especially if Senator Kerry is the nominee, is to share a platform with Ralph Nader. Senator Kerry wants to go one-on-one with President Bush.

MR. MORALES: We have about a minute left. The issue of homosexual marriages came up this past week. Is President Bush seeking to shore up support among conservatives by supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriages or is this part of a broader political strategy? Neal?

MR. LAVON: Well, it certainly was played as though President Bush was shoring up his political base. They have been unhappy over some of the president’s recent political initiatives, so you could say, “Yes.” But also polls indicate that while Americans may be somewhat torn over how to do this, there doesn’t seem to be wide support for homosexual marriages in the U.S.

MR. MALONE: And this is one of those issues for which it can be hard to predict the fallout. I think that one of the reasons they held off so long at the White House on endorsing this constitutional amendment was the fear that they might be seen as somewhat intolerant toward homosexuals in an election year. But you know, the cardinal rule here is that you really have to shore up your political base as you go into the election and you have to make sure that your people are going to turnout at the polls. That’s something that President Bush’s father did not do in 1992, which contributed to his defeat.

MR. LAVON: I think it also puts the Democrats in a bit of a spot because, as we’ve heard Senator Kerry say, he opposes the constitutional amendment, but favors marriage between men and women. He’s beginning to get tied up in knots on this because the Democrats do have a large gay support base. So this affects him more than it actually affects the President.

MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we’ll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: VOA Senior Political Analyst and Director of VOA English Programs, Neal Lavon; and our National Correspondent, Jim Malone.

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