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Politics In The News: Democratic Presidential Debate


Now, let's turn now to the presidential race in this country. On the Democratic side, things seem to be getting tighter. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are pretty much tied in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, states that will vote in coming weeks. Those two candidates were on the debate stage in South Carolina last night, along with former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. Let's talk about the race with Cokie Roberts, who's on the line. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: And here in the studio with us is Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster from the firm Purple Strategies. Margie, good morning to you.

MARGIE OMERO: Good morning.

GREENE: And just so listeners know your various connections to the campaign, you - Margie, you're a pollster, but your husband also actually works for Bernie Sanders, is that right?

OMERO: Yes. He is one of the Sanders campaign media strategists, but I'm - I'm undecided. I'm neutral, and as a pollster I really look at this through the lens of what do voters think.

GREENE: Interesting conversations over the breakfast table with your husband I take it.

OMERO: (Laughter) Yes, exactly.

GREENE: Well, Cokie, let me just start with you. The debate last night - I mean, it seemed to be a different Hillary Clinton, as we heard from Mara Liasson elsewhere in the program. I mean, she had acted at times like she didn't really have an opponent. She really went after Bernie Sanders last night. What's happening?

ROBERTS: Well, even though in The Wall Street Journal polls she's up by 25 percent nationally over Bernie Sanders, she's, I think, seriously worried about losing both Iowa and New Hampshire, the two early states, where they are running neck and neck, and, in New Hampshire, Sanders is running ahead.

And, you know, Mrs. Clinton knows all too well that strange things can happen in political campaigns. And she thought she had learned her lesson in Iowa last time. So she's doing what the tradition says she was supposed to do, which is be in the state, organizing the locals, show up, talk to voters, but this is an anti-Washington, anti-politician year where lot's unpredictable. And we've certainly seen it on the Republican side. And on the Democratic side, the longtime pollster for The Des Moines Register says that 43 percent of the likely Democratic Iowa caucus-goers say they are socialists.

Now, she has tried to get to the left of Sanders on gun control. We heard a lot about that last night. But she can't get too far to the left of him and still expect to win a general election. So it puts her in a tough place.

GREENE: Now, we should say she was in a tough place in Iowa last time in talking about her losing to Barack Obama in that first caucus...


GREENE: ...Which we all remember. Margie Omero, what do you make of the tightening in these two states? You know, there hasn't been some big event. Hillary Clinton's been out there campaigning with her husband and daughter. I mean, what's changing here?

OMERO: Well, I think part of it is just the election getting closer, people paying a little bit closer attention and trying to make up their mind. I don't think - you're right, I don't think there's been a particular event. I think for a lot of voters they're learning about Sanders. Maybe they felt they already - they knew a lot about Clinton, but as election approaches, they're learning a little bit about Sanders. I think what was interesting about this debate, it was a very different tone obviously than the first debate, which was so much more friendly and they're shaking hands and they're smiling at each other. In this debate, I think still the outcome may be the same, which is Clinton shows her mastery of the material. Sanders perhaps has the advantage in the online sentiments and the engagement after the fact. That's what some of the early Twitter and online reports show. So I think that outcome is actually quite similar to what we saw after the first debate.

GREENE: Even though the tone was different.

OMERO: Yeah.

GREENE: Let me ask you about one issue, Cokie Roberts - health care. I mean, Senator Sanders has a plan for this sort of Medicare for all plan that would replace Obamacare. He came out with details on how he plans to pay for it. Does that put some of the doubts to rest about whether it's, you know, a solid policy proposal?

ROBERTS: Well, as Secretary Clinton over and over said last night, we don't want to go back to the drawing board, tear it all up, you know, or repeal Obamacare. So she really went after him on that. But what she - among other things, what she was doing was draping President Obama around her shoulders. And I think that was partly for the audience there in Charleston but also for the African-American voters in particular because President Obama remains very, very popular with them. and that's a place where Sanders is so far not doing well at all is among African-American voters. Sanders, on the other hand, kept talking about Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman in health care without mentioning that neither one of them was able to get health care enacted.

GREENE: Margie Omero, let me finish with you. Senator Sanders, I mean, keeps going back to the influence of Wall Street in American politics. I mean, clearly an issue near and dear to him. Does polling suggest that Americans want to hear that?

OMERO: Polling definitely suggests that people are worried that the American dream is slipping away, that they feel that it's harder and harder to get by, that there's someone always getting a better deal than them and that better deal usually goes to folks at the top. So I think that message does resonate across the board with Democrats and Republicans. What remains to be seen as how that works with primary voters and is he a candidate that folks respond well to.

GREENE: Democratic pollster Margie Omero, thanks a lot.

OMERO: Thank you.

GREENE: And, Cokie Roberts, thanks as always for joining us.

ROBERTS: Talk to you next week.

GREENE: All right. You hear her Monday mornings on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.