IS IT MCCAIN OR HUCKABEE?

January 14, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

There is no clear Republican leader, but there may be an emerging two-man race for the party’s presidential nomination. The caucus and primary victories of Mike Huckabee in Iowa and John McCain in New Hampshire have set the stage for a face-off in the South Carolina primary on Saturday as the survivors for the long road still ahead.

Of course, Mitt Romney could alter the equation by winning Michigan’s primary on Tuesday. If that happens, delete this story and wait for further developments while we change the crystals in our crystal ball.

There’s no question McCain has been on the big bounce post-New Hampshire. He’s gained ground in both Michigan and South Carolina. Huckabee would be satisfied with a respectable third place in Michigan, but thinks he can win South Carolina.

When I chatted with Huckabee after his Saturday night rally in Columbia, he was quite happy with the premise that a two-man McCain-Huckabee race was evolving. Just call it Huckabee-McCain, he suggested.

Funny thing, politics. Only a couple of months ago, McCain’s campaign was foundering. Huckabee’s campaign had not yet found its footing. Both were operating on shoe strings, McCain having squandered sizeable resources and Huckabee still searching for the key to turn on the funding taps. Winning even a single early state can lead to a change of fortune.

Romney, the first to run campaign ads in South Carolina months ahead of his opponents, is off the air here and concentrated in Michigan. His campaign says it did not “pull” its television ads, but just didn’t renew the ad buy. That’s hair-splitting that may not matter after Tuesday. Or the Romney campaign could be scrambling Wednesday to find whatever air-time is unsold.

Television stations across the state are inundated with political ads. Even Ron Paul is on the air—and in the air with a blimp, or is that just a YouTube illusion?

This past week’s Republican debate in Myrtle Beach highlighted two battles going on among the candidates. Huckabee and Fred Thompson are wrestling for the evangelical vote. McCain and Romney pointedly talked about Michigan as well as South Carolina.

A Fox focus group seemed to think Thompson had won the debate. Huckabee aides say Thompson only beat low expectations.

Rudy Giuliani is gambling there will still be a race for him to contest beyond South Carolina. There likely will be in Florida and the 22-state mega vote on February 5th. But Giuliani will be coming off the starting blocks when the survivors of the earlier primaries have rolling momentum.

The nature of the primary season changes dramatically beyond South Carolina. Multiple states are in play at once. Big states, such as California and New York, where the cost of television ad time is dramatically higher. Western states where McCain, an Arizonan, would expect to do well. More Southern states where Huckabee, an Arkansan, hopes for strong support.

The Democrats, for all practical purposes, seem to already be in a two-candidate race, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. John Edwards won South Carolina in 2004, but against a cool New Englander, not the likes of Obama and Clinton.

McCain, in contrast, would welcome a reversal of his previous experience in this state. In 2000, McCain lost South Carolina after a malicious campaign of falsehoods launched by supporters of George Bush.

The State newspaper on Sunday endorsed McCain, an endorsement the paper’s editors said they should have made eight years ago. Who knows how many South Carolina voters might also think McCain deserves a better shake than they gave him in 2000.

The primary here won’t resolve the Republican race, but it will narrow it, perhaps to just two candidates for the long haul. Pick two? Today, Huckabee and McCain. But check back on Sunday.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000.  He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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NOW IT’S OUR TURN!

January 11, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

The presidential campaigns arrived in South Carolina this week in a muddle and a hurry. Thank you Iowa and New Hampshire.

It would have been a shame had those two idiosyncratic states pushed a pair of snowballing races our way with any notion of inevitability in deciding the two candidates who will face off for the presidency in November. Fortunately, our votes will matter. As will Florida’s and those cast in more than 20 states on Super Duper Tuesday, as we are now calling February 5.

Quirky Iowa surprised us with victories by Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Barack Obama. Crusty New Hampshire turned nearly conventional with wins for the once putative front-runners John McCain and Hillary Clinton. Good thing.

The founding fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution with the intent of ensuring that small states would not be obscured in the electoral process. But the framers of the Constitution could not have envisioned that by the time the neighborly voters of the 30th largest state had caucused and the bundled electorate of the 41st state in size had held its primary, that the pundits and pollsters would call the race and dismiss the rest of us. Hey, we’re the 25th largest state! Thank you Iowa and New Hampshire for your decisively indecisive handoff.

Of course, this does mean South Carolinians now have two weeks of bombardment by the candidates’ multimedia ads, two more televised debates, even more lawn signs and all those annoying campaign phone calls. But only two weeks. It will go quickly, and then we’ll likely not see another candidate the rest of the year.

I’ve started getting several calls a day from political reporters in other parts of the country or just across town. They ask how South Carolina’s African-Americans will vote. Will black women vote for Hillary or Obama? Will whites vote for Obama? They certainly did in Iowa and New Hampshire. Can John Edwards win his home state? Will religious conservatives vote for Huckabee, Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney? My answers range from “I don’t know” to “it depends.” Then we do nuance.

Nothing is as simple as black or white voters, red or blue states. South Carolina may be a red state in November, but in January it’s got two primary colors and a significant number of magenta independents who could be tempted by Obama to vote Democratic or lured by McCain or Rudy Giuliani to vote Republican. Independents will have to decide whether to vote on the 19th for a Republican or on the 26th for a Democrat. Let’s see, which day am I in town? We don’t make it convenient, do we?

Is an African-American woman more likely to vote for Clinton because she’s a woman or Obama because he’s black? Would it make a difference if the voter were a younger or older woman?

John Edwards won the South Carolina primary in 2004, but that’s no reason to think he will win in 2008. It’s a different cast of competitors, not the distant John Kerry of 2004, but the accessible Barack Obama and the familiar—thanks to Bill—Hillary Clinton. Edwards may have been born here, but he didn’t grow up here, didn’t make his millions here, didn’t get elected to the Senate here. How many votes is the coincidence of birth worth?

Republican candidates, in contrast, have courted religious and social conservatives. Last year we witnessed the paradox of the president of Bob Jones University endorsing Romney, even while denouncing Romney’s Mormon faith. Many conservatives held their breath waiting for Thompson to give up “Law and Order” for the campaign trail, then wondered why they hadn’t taken a deeper breath. Enter Baptist preacher Huckabee to a chorus of Hallelujahs. Who will get those votes on the 19th?

McCain, like Edwards, has been here before. Unlike Edwards, McCain was treated harshly and slanderously through Bush campaign dirty tricks in 2000. Might South Carolinians think they owe McCain a fairer shake?

The good news is we’ve still got choices. And now it’s our turn.
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Charles Bierbauer covered five presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 to 2000.
Some of them brought him to South Carolina. He is now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the opinions here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com

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THE EXPECTATIONS GAME

January 4, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

You don’t have to win the Iowa Caucuses, as presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee have just done. You just have to beat expectations.

Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Mitt Romney came up short. On to New Hampshire for a second, perhaps final, chance for trailing candidates. Time is short.  They have five days to change their fortunes.

An Iowa loss is not fatal, no more so than losing the first game of a football season. Ohio State and LSU both made it to this year’s NCAA championship with blemished records. In the past 32 years, only Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush won contested Iowa caucuses and then the presidency.

But losing in Iowa is painful when, like Clinton, you are expected and expecting to win. Or like Edwards, you have pretty much invested your energies and resources on the first roll of the dice, hoping that Iowa will push you to the head of the pack and replenish your bankroll. Or like Romney, you have outspent your opponents by a factor of 20 or 30 to one, but been outscored by a challenger (Huckabee) who was an asterisk in the polls only a couple months ago.

THE DEMOCRATS

Obama has shattered the expectation that an African-American candidate cannot win in a state where even the Democratic voters are 93% white. Obama neither mentions that, nor campaigns as an African-American. But TVs talking heads note his Iowa victory changes the expectations about a black candidate winning the white vote.

Donna Brazile, an African-American strategist who was Al Gore’s campaign manager, says Obama has “momentum for New Hampshire and beyond,” meaning South Carolina and its large proportion of African-American Democrats. CNN analyst Bill Schneider speculated that black voters may not want to block the first legitimate chance for a black candidate to gain his party’s nomination.

Hillary Clinton had expected to share the African-American vote with Obama, in part because she appeals to older women, in part because Bill Clinton is still the favorite politician of many blacks. Hillary’s organization and funds are deep enough to withstand a second loss and make an uphill climb. But no more third place finishes if she’s to do it.

Edwards may barely make it to South Carolina, so top heavy was his investment in Iowa that even a second place falls short of Edwards’ early expectations. And he cannot realistically expect to win the state he was born in with Obama and Clinton in the race.

THE REPUBLICANS

Huckabee, needless to say, has dramatically exceeded expectations. He has captured the vote of the so-called religious conservatives who had been searching the political wilderness for their candidate. He has captivated the media who have crowned him “frontrunner.” In an irony, Huckabee does not now need to win in New Hampshire. Indeed, he is not expected to.

Romney, on the other hand, really needs to win New Hampshire before the primary campaign swings to the South where Romney is not expected to do as well.

John McCain, largely ignoring Iowa except for a late flurry that put him in a virtual tie for third with Fred Thompson, could improve his overall chances by further weakening a wobbly Romney in New Hampshire. A rejuvenated McCain and a plucky Huckabee would then be expected to fight for the next surge here in South Carolina. (Frankly, I don’t know what to expect of Thompson, but I’m not alone.)

Rudy Giuliani wound up sixth among Republicans in Iowa, leading analyst David Gergen to opine on CNN that “Giuliani’s strategy worked.” You can’t lose Iowa if you don’t play. Giuliani was in Florida, noting he’d “paid attention to the states others haven’t paid attention to.” He’s gambling on getting past Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but it’s one way to beat the expectations game.

Note to candidates: If your name is not mentioned here, you’ve exhausted your expectations and may already be a former candidate.

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Charles Bierbauer followed the campaign trail from Iowa to New Hampshire and beyond as a CNN correspondent in elections from 1984 through 2000. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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OPRAHBAMA – THE EVENT

December 11, 2007

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by Charles Bierbauer

[The Video Report] 

Oprah Winfrey stepped out of her pew Sunday—out of her comfort zone–and into Williams-Brice Stadium. Oprah uncomfortable in front of a crowd? Hard to imagine.

“This is the first time I’m stepping out of my pew because I’ve been inspired,” the doyen of television talk show hosts told the sun-baked crowd that had come to see her–many just from their own church pews–and Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama. “In the past, I’ve been disappointed by politicians.” Pointedly, she said she rarely has politicians on her show, because “I only have an hour.”

Oprah spoke for 18 minutes on Obama’s behalf, warming up the crowd for the candidate’s nearly 40-minute expanded stump speech. Michelle Obama took four minutes to introduce Oprah. It all wrapped up in a neat TV hour.

Of course, there’s much more to it than that. The campaign event, once announced, quickly outgrew the University of South Carolina’s 18,000-seat Colonial Center and was shifted to the 80,000-seat football stadium. People came from all over South Carolina and neighboring states.

Obama called it “the biggest crowd in the campaign. Period. Of any candidate.”

It probably was. Campaign aides said there were 29,000 on hand, filling perhaps a third of the stadium. That defies an old political maxim that says a small room filled looks better than a large venue two-thirds empty. But that wasn’t the point for the Obama campaign’s Iowa-South Carolina-New Hampshire Oprah road show.

“What’s inspiring is not just the size of the crowd, but the makeup of the crowd,” Obama said. It was young and old, white and black (probably 75 percent African-American), and made up of “Democrats, independents and, yes, even some Republicans.”

Political crowds typically have three components: the committed who are there to reinforce their beliefs, the uncertain who are looking for a candidate and the merely curious who may or may not make up their minds by election day. Sunday’s gathering added the admittedly star-struck.

An undecided voter from Walterboro said Oprah’s presence “somewhat” influenced his decision to come because “people follow her.”

Oprah did not make the same assumption, or at least did not admit it. “I know the difference between a book club and this seminal moment,” she said, referring to her ability to catapult a book to best-seller status with her endorsement.

I don’t endorse candidates here. But as an educator, communicator and former foreign correspondent, I can applaud the concerns Oprah raises as her own and ours.
Education: “We shake our heads because we can’t believe the quality of our schools.”
Communication: “We have a global knowledge economy.”
Foreign policy: “Our estrangement from the rest of the world–it does matter what the rest of the world thinks of us.”

These are questions for any candidate to address, not just Obama. He may not have the answers. But if it takes Oprah to get us out of our comfortable pews on those issues, as she has gotten her viewers to engage on many other matters, then perhaps it’s good that she was stirred and inspired.

Oprah’s endorsement of Obama is still unquantified. But she certainly commandeered one weekend in December for him, from wintry Iowa and New Hampshire to balmy South Carolina. Of all the candidates running for president, only Hillary Clinton can bring along a celebrity to match Oprah’s popularity. Bill Clinton. Maybe.

We’re getting close to the measurements that count. Watch the political polls over the next week to see if there’s an Oprah effect. Watch the early primaries, now just a month away, with Obama probably needing to win in Iowa and here in South Carolina to stop Hillary. Watch Oprah’s ratings on the outside chance there’s a backlash. She may have put more at risk than anyone by stepping off her studio set and out of her pew.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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OPRAHBAMA!

December 1, 2007

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by Charles Bierbauer

I’ve booked a ticket for Oprah’s appearance in Columbia this coming Sunday.  I understand Barack Obama will be there, too.  I’ve seen and spoken with Senator Obama before, but this is different.

Oprah Winfrey is more than a phenomenon, having been around long enough to now be considered an institution and to have entered the ranks of celebrity where only a single name is required for instant recognition.  Elvis.  Tiger.  Oprah.

I don’t watch her television show.  I don’t read her magazine. I don’t buy the books she recommends.  I did see her in the movie “The Color Purple.”

Yet there is something that compels me to want to be there when Oprah comes to town.  It is, of course, the politics of it all.  Oprah endorsing Obama for president raised an eyebrow.  Oprah campaigning for Obama, as she plans to in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, pings the needle.

I’m not easily moved.  I’ve covered five presidential campaigns and seen lots of celebrities.  Ronald Reagan could trot out Charlton Heston and Fess Parker.  (That’s Moses and Davy Crockett, in case anyone under 50 is puzzled.)  The senior George Bush was partial to country stars—Loretta Lynn and the Oak Ridge Boys.  Half of Hollywood seemed to be on location at the Clinton White House—Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Richard Dreyfuss, Billy Crystal…I could go on.

I cannot imagine even a handful of Americans allowing that they voted for Clinton because Barbra Streisand did.  Or George Bush because they were fans of the Oak Ridge Boys.  Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan?  Maybe, but only because Heston fronted for the National Rifle Association and the word of Heston/Moses was good enough for them.

So the overarching question is does Oprah bring Obama more than attention and, presumably, campaign contributions?  Do these appearances bring the Oprah vote?
And how big is that?  It’s one thing to buy a $20 book because Oprah recommends it, but what’s her sway on a vote?

Those questions must make Hillary Clinton wince.  Clinton and Obama are battling for two significant Democratic constituencies—women and African-Americans—and one dynamic sub-category—African-American women.  Woe to any candidate who takes any of them for granted.

It’s a wonderful conundrum for the voter to have.  Obama is the first African-American candidate to have a credible chance of winning his party’s nomination and being elected.  Clinton is the first woman candidate to have a credible chance of winning her party’s nomination and being elected.  Hmmm.  Vote for Obama because he’s black.  Vote for Clinton because she’s a woman.

I’m not going to even begin to parse the internal conversation going on in the African-American woman voter’s mind.  I can’t.  She might be leaning toward Bill Richardson, for all I know.  But it is more than intriguing, and it could swing the balance in the volatile primaries.

Politics is often about sub-texts.  Race and gender are only two.  Religion and geography are two others.  Age and experience.  Endorsements, though they are much sought, are typically very low in the consideration of voters.  Candidates are often happy to win the endorsement of some prominent figure simply so their opponents won’t get it.

Oprah’s appeal is so broad and her word is so persuasive among women of all races—white, stay-at-home moms are her core audience. She had not ventured into the political arena before on behalf of a candidate.  This is well beyond Fred Thompson announcing his candidacy on Jay Leno’s show.  Or Bill Clinton playing the sax on Arsenio Hall’s.  Or Al Gore smashing ash trays on Letterman.

Hillary Clinton also has substantial support among African-Americans, thanks in good measure to her husband Bill, a mega-celebrity among black Democrats.  Where Clinton is polarizing—people ove her or hate her—Oprah is, well, Oprah.

If the equation is Hillary + Bill = Obama + Oprah, it may be a wash.  What we don’t know, yet, is the value of the “O” factor.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000.
He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university.  Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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A NOT SO GREAT DEBATE

November 19, 2007

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by Charles Bierbauer

Diamonds or pearls? Is that the question?

I’m not exactly crushed that I missed this moment in television journalism. Amid the mountains of information and opinion heaped on us this political season, it is but a pebble. But I am dismayed with the back story of manipulation that has emerged since this past week’s debate in Las Vegas. It suggests it may be easier to draw to an inside straight in Las Vegas than to expect straight journalism.

If you missed it, too—hey, there are more debates this political season than there are episodes to a TV drama—a UNLV student sought to ask the Democratic candidates about nuclear waste but was persuaded by CNN producers to ask Sen. Hillary Clinton about her preference in jewelry. For the record, candidate Clinton equivocated—“I want both.”

Politically, this was trivial. Journalistically, it’s unforgivable. CNN has let its production values, in this case preferring a light-hearted question to end the debate, intrude on its journalistic reputation. How many times have we heard Wolf Blitzer proclaim the network has “the best political team on television”? Yes, I’m chagrined that this is my old network and that it is also under fire this week for not candidly identifying the political leanings of its “commentators,” as though we might mistake long-time Clinton advocate James Carville for non-partisan.

The diamonds or pearls decision was undoubtedly made by unseen producers who, having vetted all the questions that participants were required to submit in advance, decided to go for politics light. Residents of Nevada are inclined to worry about nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain. Network producers from New York or Washington seem more inclined to think about Tiffany’s.

In one sense, we’ve been here before. A high school student at a 1992 MTV forum asked Bill Clinton: “boxers or briefs?” Clinton, who equivocated on a lot of campaign questions, barely hesitated in answering “usually briefs.”

The fault today may lie in the hype and hyper nature of heavily televised campaigns. There are more networks clamoring for their share of the action and attention than existed when I first hit the campaign trail for CNN in 1984. There are more candidates clamoring for their share of network attention in a campaign that began a couple years ago and still has a year to run. (Candidates, ask yourselves if you don’t share the blame for extreme breadth and frequent lack of depth in the coverage.)

In journalism classes, we tell students that there are really no dumb questions, if they are trying to elicit a useful piece of information. I’ve certainly constructed a few that were less than eloquent or well informed. There is also no reason to think that journalists necessarily ask better questions than might the voting public. After all, we present ourselves as the public’s voice. So why try to muzzle that voice? No self-respecting journalist would let an official dictate which questions may be asked.

The political debate has been substantially tarted up by competing networks to keep viewer interest over the protracted series of events. A simple dialogue among journalists and candidates doesn’t cut it any more. Now the stage is all bespangled. The candidates and questioners are introduced like rock stars. I rather liked the YouTube gimmick CNN used earlier this year. True, the couple of dozen questions were culled from thousands of YouTube submissions.

So if this is the way televised debates are going to go, I’d like to pre-submit my questions for the next debate in South Carolina in the hope that we can bring the discussion back to substantive matters.

On gun control: Over/under or side-by-side?

On higher education: Clemson or Carolina?

On public health and nutrition: Mustard, tomato or pepper and vinegar?

I won’t want to miss that debate!
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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. He is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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