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Dem Pollster: Clinton More "Approachable"

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who shape American politics. This week, as the two Democratic candidates prepare for next Tuesday's critical contests in Indiana and North Carolina, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with John Edwards' campaign strategist and pollster, Harrison Hickman, about his former boss, about superdelegates, and about connecting with blue collar voters. What is the practical impact of Governor Easley's endorsement of Senator Clinton in North Carolina?

Harrison Hickman: Well, I think there are a couple of practical benefits for Senator Clinton. The first is she obviously picks up one superdelegate. In a race this close, that's nothing to be laughed at. Secondly, I think she has been starved for good news over the last couple of months. And it is a very good piece of news in a very important state. How much of an impact does he have with Democratic primary voters there?

Harrison Hickman: Governor Easley is certainly popular. He doesn't have a particularly deep political machine as some previous governors have had in North Carolina. But he's popular and for a lot of voters who like both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton, it's the kind of thing that can make a difference to them. The expectation in North Carolina is for an African American turnout of about 35 percent of the total vote. And if you assume Obama gets 90 percent of them, Clinton needs something like 70 percent of the white vote to have a shot at winning. Is that possible?

Harrison Hickman: Well, I don't think there's any question that Obama will win the state. He's won every state that has a black turnout of over 30 percent of the primary electorate. And he's also won every state that's less than 5 percent black. But I think this is about expectations.

In many ways, people set the wrong expectations for Pennsylvania, which would have been a great victory for Obama if it were close. I think it's the same in North Carolina. It would be a great victory for Senator Clinton if she were within ten points of Obama. Your former client, John Edwards, attracted many of the working class white voters who are now being fought over between Clinton and Obama. Why do you think Clinton is resonating so much more with them?

Harrison Hickman: Well, first of all, I think they see in her a life experience that is probably something they can identify with more. She is obviously a powerful person, and they are an economically successful family, at least since they left the White House. But she has been through some tough times, both in her political and her personal life, that are very well publicized. I think people can see that not everything has been a bed of roses for her.

And while she obviously went to Yale law school, she doesn't put out the aura of having an Ivy League attitude. I mean, I think she has much more of an approachable personality. What does Obama need to do to connect better with them?

Harrison Hickman: I don't know. The first thing these people normally pick up on is someone who's phony. And so, I think sort of trying to be something you're not, would be the worst approach.

I think one thing that would be helpful for him would be to talk in a little [different] language. These are not people who necessarily buy into a lot of rhetoric.

They tend to buy in much more to pragmatic programs, "This is what I'm gonna do, this is the problem, and this is how we're gonna fix it." As opposed to some of the more amorphous political language that politicians use--not just Senator Obama, but lots of people use it. And what is the effect of Reverend Wright's comments this week and Obama's response?

Harrison Hickman: I think as a short-term matter, he gave the press another chance to applaud Senator Obama. I think the long-term effect of it, though, is it raises more questions for him around the central issue that any newcomer faces, which is, do people know where you're coming from and know what you're all about.

People are trying to get a handle on who this guy is, and I think [Wright's speech] makes it harder to do that, since it's so alien to the experience of most of the swing voters in this country. Now, the New York Times reported this week that Elizabeth Edwards favors Senator Clinton. Can you confirm that?

Harrison Hickman: No. I've certainly heard her say myself that she thinks Senator Clinton's health care plan is superior to either Senator Obama's plan or Senator McCain's plan. But beyond that, I haven't heard her talk about it. Is there any sense of who John Edwards favors?

Harrison Hickman: Well, I don't know if they have a write-in slot on the North Carolina ballot. I imagine he still thinks he would be the best president, but as to who he's going to vote for, he hasn't shared that with me, and I can't imagine he's shared it with anybody else. I know him pretty well. Is he going to make that preference known before the North Carolina primary?

Harrison Hickman: I don't think so. He does not come from a background, you know, of giving and taking endorsements. He's not a career politician. And so that's not really his currency and trade. My impression from talking to him is he thinks this is a decision that voters can make. They know these candidates pretty well, on their own, and that he has a larger responsibility of trying to help pull the party together before the more important campaign, which is the one against John McCain. Senator Clinton obviously needs to win the vast majority of the remaining superdelegates to win the nomination. What do think turns the tide for them? Because up until now, they've come out even more for Obama than for Clinton.

Harrison Hickman: Well, I think that's a little bit unfair. I mean, she started with such a huge advantage in the race. I mean, if you start from the point where superdelegates began declaring, she's still ahead. Yes, but by a rapidly shrinking margin.

Harrison Hickman: Well, she was the known commodity. Our thought in the Edwards campaign was that anybody who emerged as the alternative to her would win the majority of remaining superdelegates. And so, I don't look at that necessarily as a particular failure of her campaign.

I think one thing that's overlooked is that neither candidate is going to go into Denver with the majority of delegates pledged to their candidacy. Because almost any of these people who are--quote--endorsing are free to vote for the other person, or for another candidate, once they get to the convention. So you're raising the possibility that a number of these superdelegates who have endorsed people could switch sides between now and when the nomination is decided in Denver?

Harrison Hickman: Right. These are PR events; they're not contracts. The superdelegates were created to be a critical mass of delegates who could change and get the nomination to a person who would be the best candidate. What have the results thus far told us about who would be the more electable Democratic candidate in the fall?

Harrison Hickman: I don't know that the primaries tell us a hell of a lot at all about who would be most electable candidate. I mean, you're dealing with two completely different universes of people. I don't know that these campaigns really tell. The nominating process has a spotty record at best of identifying the best general election candidate, whether it was Governor Dukakis, or Senator Kerry being the most recent example. And I remember in both of those cases--quite clearly--people arguing that those would be the best general election candidates.

By Brian Goldsmith