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Politics In The News: Democratic Debate


The Iowa caucus is just a few weeks away now, and the Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, will both be in that state this week. Over the weekend, they were on stage with Martin O'Malley engaging in the third debate of the primary season and the last presidential debate of the year. And here to talk about this with us Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and, as she does most Mondays, also joining us is Cokie Roberts. Good morning to you both.



GREENE: Cokie, let me just start with you. You were in New Hampshire for this debate. It seemed like there may as well have been a fourth candidate on the stage named Donald Trump because so much of the conversation was about him.

ROBERTS: (Laughter) Yes, his name apparently was mentioned nine times.


ROBERTS: But, look, it works for the Democrats to talk about Trump. First of all, it gets the Democratic base wound up by scaring them about Trump, and the more the Democrats attack Trump the more the Republicans like him. And that elevates him with the Republican base. And any one of the three Democrats on that stage thinks that he or she wants to run against Donald Trump. Now, that might be a case of be careful what you wish for, but that was, I think, the calculation there.

GREENE: Anna Greenberg, do Democratic voters who tune in for a debate to watch their candidates want to hear about Donald Trump?

GREENBERG: Well, I think they want to hear about the contrast between Democrats and Republicans. There are so few ideological differences among the folks on the stage. And, in fact, it's more about personality and delivery and coming to the stage late in a lot of ways than what they're actually saying because there are so few ideological differences. People are raring - Democrats are raring for the fight against whoever the Republicans nominate. And I think it's an incredibly important opportunity for Democrats to try to set the agenda, set the stage for what they want next November to be about.

GREENE: Let me just play some tape from the stage because Donald Trump is fighting back on - against one attack. And here's what Hillary Clinton said about his proposal to bar all Muslims from coming into the country.


HILLARY CLINTON: He is becoming ISIS's best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.

GREENE: Now, clearly a line that a lot of people in that audience liked, but Donald Trump is accusing Hillary Clinton now of being a liar, saying there's no such video. Cokie, could this amount to something?

ROBERTS: Well, the Clinton campaign says they're not referring to a specific video, that there's lots going on showing Trump on social media and that terrorism experts have talked about that. But the problem is that it comes in the context of a campaign where Trump has said he's seen video of people cheering after the twin towers went down on 9/11. And Carly Fiorina has said she's seen video about Planned Parenthood and fetal parts. And the Democrats have gone after them for their misstatements. So now the Republicans are going to go after her. And it plays into the whole question of her trustworthiness, which is why Trump talked about her being, quote, unquote, "a liar."

GREENE: How big a concern is trustworthiness if you're the Clinton campaign, Anna Greenberg?

GREENBERG: Well, I think it's a concern and it's something that they're going to have to try to build or rebuild with voters. But I think it goes back to Clinton Foundation donations, goes back to email scandal. This strikes me as a minor blip against a candidate who has his own problems around telling the truth (laughter) about what he's seen and experienced. So I don't think this particular issue was kind of the crux, but it definitely is a larger issue for her. And it's something she's going to have to deal with going into the general election.

GREENE: Let me ask you both this question. I mean, clearly Hillary Clinton on stage focusing on Donald Trump because she wants to be acting like the nominee as if (laughter) there's one else on stage with her. But you look at these polls - I mean, Bernie Sanders is doing very, very well in New Hampshire. I mean, he's still very strong. It seems like there are a lot of people supporting him. I mean, is this a risky move by Hillary Clinton to focus on Republicans and act like the nominee when she has, you know, a legitimate contender there?

GREENBERG: I - I don't think so...

GREENE: Go ahead, Anna.

GREENBERG: I don't think so. I mean, I think that she basically won this primary after the first debate and the Benghazi hearings. And I think she's smart to do some agenda setting for November. Bernie Sanders is doing well in New Hampshire, but actually his lead is now about two points according to the latest Boston Herald poll. So he has been on the decline even though he still in some places has some strength.

GREENE: Cokie, are you seeing Hillary Clinton truly emerge as the nominee here already?

ROBERTS: Well, you always have to be careful about that, and she has to win Iowa. She can't just do well in Iowa because Bernie Sanders is a threat in New Hampshire. But I think that she's probably got the right strategy to be going after the Republican - Republican Party and look to the general election not only in not attacking her Democratic opponents but also in the setting up the debate in such a way that the Republicans don't have as much room to attack her on both economic and foreign policy by being more to the middle on those issues, positioning herself for a general election. But, you know (laughter) we have learned in this process that you can never count anybody out, and we'll see how that goes.

GREENE: All right, Cokie Roberts, also joined by Anna Greenberg from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research talking politics just a few weeks away from the Iowa caucuses. Thank you both very much.

GREENBERG: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.