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The New Democratic Story

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talks with Democratic strategist Anita Dunn about the political landscape and her party's chances in 2008. Anita, by this time in the 2000 cycle, the Bush team had set a clear direction for the coming campaign using phrases like "compassionate conservative" and "the soft bigotry of low expectations," and "restoring honor and dignity to the White House." Have any of the candidates this year, in your view, come up with anything as memorable?

Anita Dunn: Well [Giuliani's] "12 Commitments" I don't think is quite akin go the Four Freedoms. You know, the invisible middle class, while it's a useful construct for [Hillary], I don't think it has the same resonance.

I mean, if you really wanted to look at it, you would have to say that nobody to date has come up with anything quite as defined as where Bush was in June of '99, which is when he officially announced his candidacy. Yeah, and "invisible middle class" sounds strangely like Bill Clinton's "forgotten middle class."

Anita Dunn: Slightly. But, you know, "people who work hard and play by the rules" has also made a comeback this year. You've seen Democrats fail to win two Presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2000 that many people believed were challenging but winnable. What are the key lessons you would draw from those two races that you think should be applied to 2008?

Anita Dunn: Well, they were two very different races, and in defense of the 2000 candidate and 2000 campaign, I would point out that we won the popular vote.

But it is difficult, even at a time of peace and relative economic prosperity, for a vice president to win following two terms of a president. Because, as I think Vice President Gore's campaign in 2000 illustrated painfully at times, a vice president has to move along a continuum from loyalty to leadership in the course of their campaign.

They can't be disloyal to the president they have served, but they need to establish their own leadership credentials. And I think especially given the challenges of the second Clinton term, the impeachment of the president, that that continuum proved to be a very difficult path, and that he never attained his own leadership the way he has since he lost the campaign.

And 2004 is very different. You know, it was arguably an election where the change element was very strong by then, the change element that ultimately, in 2006, we saw sweep the Republicans out.

I think one of the things that Republicans do in presidential campaigns is, rather than go at their opponents' weaknesses, they actually start by going at their opponents' strengths -- feeling if you can take away their strength, then all they're left with are their weaknesses. And I think that the decision by the Republicans to go frontally after a key rationale of the Kerry electability argument, which was his military service, was something the Democrats didn't expect.

So, I think there were a couple of lessons here.

One of the key dynamics you saw for both 2000 and 2004 was strong leadership, and at the end of the day, George Bush being seen as the strong leader, and the Democrat being seen as not as strong a leader for very different reasons. The second piece that I think is critical is the strength of your conviction piece. And Vice President Gore and Senator Kerry are people who have very strong convictions and very strong beliefs. Witness how strongly they've been advocates for those beliefs since they lost the Presidency.

We have the strongest field of Democratic candidates that we've had in my adult lifetime, and each one of them is running for a reason; and I think that communicating those reasons why they're running is a critical piece to victory. Speaking of convictions, the John Edwards campaign seems to believe that poverty is not only a policy area in which he'd like to make progress, but also a window, as it were, into his soul -- and into his personal strength and into his character.

Do you think that they're taking a risk by arguably moving so far on an issue that's perceived as kind of hard left, believing that the character that is revealed when he talks about poverty is more powerful than the ideology it may represent?

Anita Dunn: Well, I once had a candidate who was being attacked for being a single-issue candidate; and at the time, I said to her, "You know, better to have one issue than no issues," which is the way most candidates are perceived. Hey, if you're being attacked for being a single-issue candidate who cares about something a great deal, you're ahead of most people.

You know, the three Democratic candidates seen as being the top-tier candidates, are three extraordinarily different candidates who are taking three very different paths, and each one is the best path for them; and that's one of the reasons this race is so interesting.

You don't have a lot of "me-too-ism" when you get to the top three. They are very distinct candidacies. You know, I believe that the lesson that Senator Edwards clearly took out of 2003/2004, and he's talked about this, is to show people what you care about. Be honest with them; and that is the path he has chosen.

Much of his rhetoric and much of what he talks about has a great tradition, frankly, in Southern populism and Southern economics. That is the way Democrats still win down there, is with a very kind of populist argument

But there's no non-risky strategy out there. And I think his is informed by experience, and you have to respect that. He's a very smart politician. But do you personally believe that Democrats are sufficiently past getting tagged as too liberal, so that when Edwards talks about, reducing the deficit doesn't matter as much as increasing spending -- and casting himself as very willing to raise taxes and not just on the very wealthy -- isn't there a particular risk that the Democrats get burned in an area in which they've been burned so many times before?

Anita Dunn: Every election has its own dynamics, and it's played out against the context of where the country is at that time. So, this is not the 1990s. It's not the 1980s. It is 2007, 2008, and the country and the world are in very different places than they were in the past, and the American people will make that decision.

But having said that, the flip side of the risk, of course, is the honesty and the fact that he doesn't sound as though he's over-promising. And, you know, just as you say the Democrats are vulnerable to being seen as too liberal still, I will argue that the Republicans have far more of a vulnerability, I believe, in this election, to be too conservative, too rigid, too ideological, because of their definitional character in the White House.

People are going to be willing to take a look at Democrats, even Democrats who are saying some things that 20 years ago would've lost them elections, because they are so anxious for a change. The Washington Post poll this week indicated that the biggest reason Hillary Clinton has maintained her lead over the rest of the Democratic field is her support from women. Do you think that they're backing her just because she's a woman? Or is there something more to her persona that's creating an attraction there?

Anita Dunn: Well, I don't think they're backing her just because she's a woman anymore than I think men back male candidates just because they're a man. And, in fact, a lot of the history shows that the reverse is often true.

Anita Dunn: Yes. But I do think that Senator Clinton is running one of the smartest, most disciplined campaigns that we've seen in the Democratic party for a long time.

Second, she has a perspective that frankly none of the other candidates do because they're not women, that allows her to communicate to women that she actually gets what they're going through. Or, she can understand their issues in a way that perhaps they think a male politician can't.

This is true with women candidates across the board -- that they have a commonality of experience. When they talk about the stresses of having to balance work and family, a woman hearing a female candidate talk about that, knows that she knows what she's talking about, because she has walked in her shoes and lived it. That's not a reason to vote for them. But it's certainly a reason to believe that they will bring a different perspective. I think Senator Clinton who, prior to becoming First Lady, had been extremely active with women and children's issues, brings additional credibility to those arguments.

And she's also showing a healthy sense of humor about herself that I think surprises people, and I think is one of the candidates who has improved a great deal on the stump since the beginning of this campaign. She's more comfortable. But is their campaign consciously making an effort to reach out to women? Absolutely. They so happen to be the largest voting bloc in this party. What do you think Edwards or Obama could be doing or should be doing to grab more female votes?

Anita Dunn: Well, I think that Edwards in some of the issues, is empathizing, particularly around health care. He's doing a good job; and obviously, Elizabeth Edwards is a very compelling figure.

But by the same token, Obama -- whose overall message about wanting to turn the page, move past the politics of the past 20 years that's produced gridlock and no results, and looking to get results for people -- that's a very appealing message, not just to women but to all voters, but particularly to women who tend to be very results-oriented. They have to be; and obviously, Michelle Obama is going to be a good asset to him. I have yet to talk to a woman who's heard her speak who isn't blown away by Michelle. Speaking of Obama, there seemed to be a collective wisdom for awhile, rightly or wrongly, that Obama would catch up with Hillary in the polls, not just in fundraising. Do you think it's significant at all that that hasn't happened yet? Or are national surveys just not relevant before Iowa?

Anita Dunn: I've got to say, I think national surveys are totally irrelevant except as kind of an indicator of who's been in the news and who is commonly perceived to be doing better. I mean, it's June 2007, and national surveys actually reveal very little. Because most people in this country just aren't paying much attention.

The last CNN Democratic candidate debate has a record viewership of three million people, in a country of 300 million people.

I think that there are those of us who have been through these campaigns who truly have a sense that voters tend to get very serious about this stuff, particularly the early-state voters, around January 1 of the election year. Well, one of the things that is mostly accomplished the year before is fundraising, as you know.

And just four years ago, John Edwards led in first-quarter fundraising with $7.4 million, which was considered a very impressive figure then. Now, Obama and Hillary each raised in excess of $25 million. Why do you think the cost of success has escalated so much in just four years?

Anita Dunn: Well, I think a huge part of it is the calendar has been compressed and moved up. I think that is first and foremost the reason. I think the second reason is this is the first time since 1952 we haven't had an incumbent in either party running, or a vice president, and there's a recognition on the part of the campaigns that the clutter and the expense in the early states will be so extraordinary.

Think about it. In 2004, you had five or six Democratic candidates on TV in Iowa. But you certainly didn't have any Republicans on TV there. And yet, if you think about it having cost Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, well north of $100 million to get reelected in California in 2006, no candidate is going to be able to raise and spend the kind of money that it would take to inundate the airwaves in any of these states, let alone all of them simultaneously.

Anita Dunn: No, absolutely not. But candidates will have enough money to compete very seriously. Or some candidates will have enough money to compete very seriously in the first four states, and then to pick the states that they want to make sure they win as you head into the next round, whether it's Florida and Michigan and then February fifth, or however the calendar shakes down.

The other thing that I would point out is the fact that you're going to see so much more money spent in those early states. If you look at Romney, he's already spent over $4 million on TV, and it's June which is about the time Howard Dean ran his first ad in the last campaign, which was seen as absurdly early.

The 2007 spending is going to be so much higher in terms of those states. But the reality is then, if you're looking at this calendar and you're one of the three front-runners in either party, you have to be on the air in all four of those early states for awhile, knowing that you're competing also with candidates from both parties for attention and for air time. You know that you're going to need to have some kind of infrastructure in the key, really delegate-rich states that follows shortly afterwards, if you're not going to be left basically naked. And obviously, some campaigns are starting to build those infrastructures, and that's very expensive.

The difference is, in 2000, after New Hampshire, it was six weeks until the next Democratic primary. Now it's six days. You worked for Evan Bayh before he decided to drop out this year. Do you think that with the absence of Bayh and Vilsack and Warner, the campaign is missing a kind of consensus-building governor's perspective? Bill Richardson is in, obviously. But do you think there's some kind of a hole in the field?

Anita Dunn: I think there would have been a place in this field for that kind of candidacy, absolutely; and I think that Vilsack, Warner, and certainly Senator Bayh would've had a very challenging six, seven, eight months while, you know, the Clinton-Obama-Edwards argument played out above them.

But I do think there is going to be a point in this race where there's going to be an opportunity for another candidate who can make a compelling case about themselves to enter the dialogue; and I think that somebody from that part of the party, I think certainly Senator Bayh would've been a very strong person to make an argument about the context of his record and where we go next.

But having said that, we have a very strong field. I don't know anybody who doesn't look at our field and say it's the strongest field we've had for years. But there's no argument that you look at our debates, and with the exception of just a very few people, you see a group of people who could be President; and you look at the Republican debates, and with the exception of a very, very small group of people, you see a bunch of people who probably couldn't be Undersecretary of State in most administrations. So, speaking of those Republicans whom you've just described, I know this is a tricky question. But in terms of how you assess their primary campaign thus far, which one do you think could be most formidable in a general election?

Anita Dunn: You know, when I was an intern working in 1980 for President Carter, I learned the lesson of not trying to predict that sort of thing. Yeah. "Let Ronald Reagan be the nominee. We can beat him easily."

Anita Dunn: Exactly. You know, it's like people who make the argument that one or more of our candidates is, quote, unelectable. I mean unelectable depends on who the other nominee is.

I would stay away from trying to predict who would be the most formidable. I think it is fair to say that all three of their top candidates right now -- since Thompson's not in, I'm not going to include him -- but that certainly McCain, Giuliani and Romney I think have all brought surprising strengths, and weaknesses, that some months ago conventional wisdom didn't see in their candidacy. So, I'm very hesitant to try to predict this stuff.

By Brian Goldsmith

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