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Interview With Stuart Rothenberg

Aired September 1, 2003 - 20:35   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Labor Day has traditionally been the kickoff of the political season. As we heard just a little bit earlier, rising jobless rates, as well as the continuing violence in Iraq, might possibly mean a tighter presidential race down the road than at least expected by some.
But are any Democrats out there gaining traction with the voters?

Joining us now from our Washington bureau, the political analyst Stewart Rothenberg.

Stu, thanks very much for joining us.

There is a new poll that's out, and we'll put it up on the screen. I want to show our viewers the CNN-"USA Today" Gallup poll, registered Democrats' choice for the nomination nationwide. Look at this, Lieberman, Joe Lieberman, with 23 percent. Dick Gephardt at 13, Howard Dean at 12, John Kerry at 10 percent. A plus or minus factor of 5 percent.

But does this mean that Lieberman is the front-runner right now?

STUART ROTHENBERG, POLITICAL ANALYST: No, I don't think so, not at all, Wolf. I think what this poll tells us is that not all national polls really are entirely useful at this point.

The Democrats are involved in a state-by-state fight. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, a handful of states. Lieberman still has name recognition over the other Democrats. So he's the alleged front runner in the national poll.

But this isn't a national race, and he's not the front runner.

BLITZER: And all the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two contests, clearly showing that Howard Dean well ahead of his Democratic rivals.

Another question we asked in our CNN-"USA Today" poll involved the war. Asked registered Democrats whether they want to the party to nominate a candidate who opposed or supported the war. Fifty-two percent, they want a candidate who opposed the war. That would be someone like Howard Dean. Forty-three percent say they want a candidate who supported the war, presumably someone like Gephardt or Joe Lieberman.

What do you make of that? ROTHENBERG: Well, I make it that this is one of the problems that John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman have. They basically supported the war. Some of them are waffling. Howard Dean was out there criticizing the president, criticizing the performance of the war, criticizing the president's argument for the war.

He, in fact, has shown some significant movement in the national poll. Now, earlier, I said, Look, let's not place too much attention on the national numbers. But it is interesting that Howard Dean has moved from 6 percent to 12 percent between April and now. And if you ask only those voters who say they're looking closely or somewhat closely at the Democratic race, you see, again, Dean showing some significant movement.

I would relate that to his position on the war.

BLITZER: And as much as national polls right now might not be all that significant in terms of the primaries, the early contests, they can have a politically important psychological effect, getting fund raising, for example, for candidates. If some people see Lieberman atop, there might be a better opportunity for him to raise some money.

But let's talk a little bit about...


BLITZER: ... unemployment, the economy. Right now, it's still a mess. But it potentially could be getting better over the months, if we just listen to what our guest from the chamber of commerce suggested. How important will unemployment and jobs, the overall economic situation, be?

ROTHENBERG: Well, I think what will be important is the public's sense of the economy, the direction of the economy, and the shape of the economy. Now, obviously economic numbers are important there.

If the American public senses that there is durable goods growth, that there is economic growth, even if unemployment has not taken off, even if there is not a drop in unemployment, even if that hasn't fundamentally changed, voters may sense that we have turned the corner and that the jobs picture will improve four months, six months down the road.

But it is absolutely critical for the president to convey a sense that we have turned the corner without, I might add, being so overly optimistic that the Democrats say he's out of touch, he doesn't understand how tough it is for people.

BLITZER: There are nine Democratic candidates. There might be 10 in the coming days if General Wesley Clark decides to throw his hat in the ring. Indications are he's likely to do that. What does that do to the contest, if he's a candidate?

ROTHENBERG: Well, the CNN-"USA Today" Gallup survey, I think, put him at 2 percent of the vote. His numbers are not bad, favorable, unfavorable, 32 percent of Democrats said they had a favorable opinion of him, only 10 percent an unfavorable. Lots of people don't know who he is. Most people don't know who he is.

I think his problem is, Wolf, when I look at the numbers, I see the other candidates in the race with some pretty good favorable numbers as well, whether it is Dean or Kerry or Gephardt or Lieberman. It is not as if there's a vacuum. It is not as if there are -- there's -- it's a huge percentage of Democrats saying, Give me another candidate.

So he starts very far behind financially and organizationally. He's got to get known. He'll get a couple days of terrific media attention if and when he announces. But after that, he has to build a campaign and explain why Democrats should support him, rather than somebody who has been a Democrat for many, many years.

I think it'll be a very, very tough road...

BLITZER: Five weeks...

ROTHENBERG: ... for Wesley Clark.

BLITZER: Five weeks from tomorrow, the California recall contest. Arnold Schwarzenegger saying he'll participate in only one of the debates. The other candidates say they'll participate in a lot of them. What does that mean, the fact that he'll only be in one debate?

ROTHENBERG: I think it means that the Schwarzenegger people have made a tactical decision here, that one or two things, either they have concluded that at the moment, he's not prepared to talk about some of the public policy questions.

Or, Wolf, or, possibly they've concluded that whatever he -- whatever support he would lose by avoiding this, he might, in fact, lose more if he was in a debate where five or six other candidates ganged up on him, whether it was Cruz Bustamante, the Democratic lieutenant governor, or Tom McClintock, the very conservative Republican state legislator.

It might well be that the other candidates in a debate would decide it was time to beat up Arnold, and the Schwarzenegger camp may decide, Look, we don't need that right now. Let's wait and see how this race develops, and see how the -- how well the candidate is prepared come the end of the month.

BLITZER: Stu Rothenberg, we always learn something from you. Thanks very much for joining us.

ROTHENBERG: Thanks, Wolf.


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