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Former First Lady's New Book Steals Spotlight; Democrats Struggle to Assert Identities - 2003-06-20

MR. MORALES: As President Bush enjoys high public approval ratings here at home, some opposition Democrats in congress are calling for a full-scale investigation into the President’s handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

Meanwhile, several Democrats are already on the campaign trail for next year’s presidential election. And former First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is enjoying a media blitz highlighting her new book on her years in the White House. Will she run for president?

And will the governor of California be removed from office?

Joining me to assess the U.S. political scene are: VOA’s Senior Political Analyst, Neal Lavon who is now Acting Chief of VOA News Now; and our National Correspondent, Jim Malone.

Jim, are these intelligence hearings on Capitol Hill the makings of a political scandal for the President or are they just political windage in advance of next year’s presidential election?

MR. MALONE: I think, Victor, it’s too early to know. It looks like it’s something that the public doesn’t care about right now, according to the public opinion polls, especially when you compare it to what’s going on in Britain with [Prime Minister] Tony Blair. He’s sort of emeshed in a scandal over there regarding the intelligence [assessments on Iraq]. But the Democrats seem determined to keep it alive. They want public hearings. The Republicans are resisting. It could drag on for the next several months. The longer it drags on, there is the potential that it could play into some sort of an issue.

MR. MORALES: Neal, let me get your take on that.

MR. LAVON: It also could backfire on the Democrats who, right now, don’t want to be seen as weak on national defense, while the Bush administration and the Republicans seem strong on national defense and national security. There are always two sides to everything, and there is a risk for the Democrats that they could appear to be as though they are not backing the defense policy of the administration and not backing the war in Iraq any more than they did. And I think that’s a danger for them [as we go into an election year].

MR. MALONE: And, of course, it has already become somewhat of an issue among the nine Democrats who are running for president. John Kerry, one of the Members of Congress who supported the President on Iraq, is already saying that he was misled by this [i.e., the Bush administration’s handling of intelligence on Iraq]. They’re going to try to make an issue out of it. The Democrats need to find some way to at least make a dent in George W. Bush’s record on national security and foreign policy. And maybe they think this is it.

MR. MORALES: We’re about 17 months away from a presidential election. It seems that the candidates out there are raising money. And you say, Jim, that there are nine Democrats now running?

MR. MALONE: Right.

MR. MORALES: I lose count. But we may be looking at former NATO Commander, retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark as perhaps running on the Democratic ticket?

MR. MALONE: Yes. He was asked about it just the other day. And he continues to say that he’s keeping his options open. He would be the 10th person to join the fray. Some Democrats are concerned, though, that too many people are running and that the message is getting muddled. They need to start focusing on President Bush, especially his handling of the economy. They haven’t been able to make much headway there.

MR. MORALES: Neal, could he be the Democratic Dwight Eisenhower?

MR. LAVON: I’m not sure I would go that far. The problem is that with anybody like that, the immediate questions pop up: What’s his position on abortion? What’s his position on affirmative action? These hot-button issues tend to obliterate these candidacies and “dream tickets” of people like Wesley Clark. I’m sure that he’s thinking very carefully about that. But those are some of the things that are going to be immediately asked of him.

MR. MALONE: I would just say that right now, Victor, we have a lot of candidates who are trying to make some headway. There is no clear front runner in the Democratic field right now, which allows the opportunity for a fresh face to emerge, which is something voters seem to like. But we need to talk about fund raising. The chief fundraiser right now is President Bush. He’s stockpiling a lot of cash for 2004 and looks to be in very strong shape, especially with conservative Republicans. They’re going to go out in force for him.

MR. LAVON: I think I would add that maybe two people have emerged as ones who have tended to get a little more ink [i.e., press coverage] than some of the other Democratic candidates. They are Howard Dean, the Governor of Vermont, who is said to really make Democratic hearts flutter. He was an early opponent of the war [in Iraq] and he seems to be an emotional choice [for Democrats]. Second would be John Kerry, the [U.S.] Senator from Massachusetts who seems to be an excellent number two choice, if Howard Dean doesn’t make it. And perhaps behind him is Richard Gephardt, the former Minority Leader in the [U.S.] House of Representatives. I think those three carry the most gravitas at the moment. And at least for now, those three seem to be getting the most publicity.

MR. MALONE: And adding spice to the mix is the fact that Mr. Dean and Mr. Kerry -- two New Englanders -- don’t like each another.

MR. LAVON: Oh, really?

MR. MALONE: And it has already gotten a little bit nasty. So stay tuned for that.

MR. MORALES: Former first Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has a new book out. It seems to be doing fairly well. It outlines her tumultuous years in the White House with her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Jim, is this a prelude to what might be Mrs. Clinton’s bid for the presidency?

MR. MALONE: Some people think so. In fact, a lot of Democrats hope so. But some of the questions include: for which year? Most people seem to think that she might be angling to make a run in 2008, figuring that President Bush is too strong to challenge in 2004. But one thing she has done with the release of this book is suck a bit of the oxygen out of the Democratic primary field. If they are polled, a lot of Democrats say they would prefer her, more than anyone else, to run [for president]. I think there will be a boomlet at some point for her to run in 2004, but she adamantly insists that she is not interested right now in running next year.

MR. LAVON: There are many indications that she’s looking at 2008. In fact, if you want to be a real cynic, you might say that it’s in her interest to see President Bush re-elected in 2004, although she would never say that. This book, though, does raise several questions as it clashes with other versions of events that have been written by other Democratic Party stalwarts like Sidney Bloomenthal and a few others who dispute the timeline of the events. This may raise some questions further down the line, but the First Lady’s proponents would say, “Here, she has answered everything. We’re not going to go through these questions again.” But if she does run in 2008, you can look for this book to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb.

MR. MALONE: We should point out, though, that in the wake of the initial release of the book, her public opinion poll ratings have gone up. And you know, the Clintons seem to have a knack of being able to capture publicity, even in the face of other pressures. For the people who like her, I think that this book will sort of reaffirm that. I think that for the people who have been her detractors, of which there are many, they’re going to seize on it. And don’t forget, I think that she could easily be considered one of the more polarizing political figures out there. So I think that it might be a long way for her to get to the White House.

MR. MORALES: We have just a few seconds left. Let’s look at Gray Davis, the Democratic Governor of California. Jim, a lot of people don’t like him. Why is that?

MR. MALONE: They don’t like him, in large part, because the California economy is in tatters. And he’s getting the blame for it. That’s the normal state of [political] affairs. But in California, there’s a [political] mechanism. You can recall the Governor if you don’t want him. And there’s a very strong effort now underway that is financed, in part, by a Republican congressman who would like to succeed Gray Davis, to recall Gray Davis as the Governor. At that point it would be wide open as to who the California voters would be allowed to choose, including such people, I may point out, as Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Terminator.”

MR. MORLAES: And Neal, the last word to you.

MR. LAVON: Many Republicans are somewhat leery of this because they figure, as Jim said, it would be wide open. [Democratic U.S.] Senator Dianne Feinstein might be tempted to make a run at the gubernatorial chair. And odds are she would win, once again frustrating Republicans in that area. So they’re approaching this with a bit of trepidation. But it seems to be taking on a lot of political momentum of its own.

MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, as always, thank you both for coming in. V-O-A’s Senior Political Analyst and Acting Chief of VOA News Now, Neal Lavon; and our National Correspondent, Jim Malone.