Monday, April 23, 2007

"Candidates hope ideas strike chords" (with video)

Voters getting an early dose of substance--Barack Obama is unleashing the fine print.

In the political hothouses of town meetings and union gatherings, the Democratic presidential candidate has shared his soothing style and intriguing background. He's talked about bringing people together, banishing cynicism, serving as "a vehicle for your hopes and your dreams," as he put it this month in Portsmouth, N.H.

Now his campaign is 10 weeks old. Enough with the niceties, the generalities, the story of his life. On Friday, the Illinois senator unveiled a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Today, he gives a speech on foreign policy. Next up, education and health care.

It may seem early, given that it's nearly nine months until the first nominating contest. Yet Obama is playing catch-up with rivals.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., has an energy plan. So does former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, along with proposals aimed at achieving universal health care, ending poverty and reviving depressed rural areas. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has a plan she says will make government more effective.

Still, it's not enough for Democrat Mario Cuomo (video, 1:09), the former New York governor.

"Let's face it, the candidates are all ducking the really hard issues," he said last week on WNBC-TV, then relented a little. "Edwards is the one who comes closest" to addressing them.

On the GOP side, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has a plan to cut taxes and spending. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says he would cut spending and simplify the tax code. Today in Washington, McCain lays out his ideas on energy security and the environment.

Back in 2000, candidate McCain promised a health care plan but managed to win New Hampshire and several other primaries without producing one. George W. Bush did offer a tax-cut plan, but not until Dec. 1, 1999.

"The demand for everything is coming faster for these candidates," says Democrat Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute.

He's among the impatient. "We are in the money primary," he says, referring to fundraising. "At some point, there really ought to be an ideas primary. There's a public demand for seriousness now."

Ray Dearin, an Iowa State University professor who served six years on the state Republican committee, says candidates need to have well- formed positions. Still, he says, Republican caucusgoers are unlikely to jump online to study position papers. "They will form their judgments by talking with other Republicans and listening in person when the candidates come through," he says.

New Hampshire voters are legendary for their level of engagement. "People care about the way government is conducted," says Jennifer Donahue, a political analyst at St. Anselm College in Manchester. Donahue says that's why McCain did well there in 2000. "It's probably the only state that would have given him an audience on campaign-finance reform."

Clinton seized on that mind-set in a speech at St. Anselm this month on how she would end cronyism, secrecy and other ills. She joked that she knew the details were boring, Donahue said, but "people were not bored. They were clapping. At the end, they were trying to get close to her."

While candidates are deep in the policy weeds by some measures, there is a void on health care. Romney was instrumental in passing a universal health plan in Massachusetts, but he hasn't highlighted it in speeches. Edwards so far is the only Democrat with a detailed plan.

On the trail, Clinton often refers to the "scars" she bears from her failed attempt at health care reform in 1993-94, when she was first lady. Both she and Obama promise to deliver universal health care as president, but both are in search of a grass-roots consensus that won't evaporate at the first negative ad by an insurance interest group.

"I'm trying to come up with a plan that will not only work really well for all of us but will be politically feasible," Clinton said in Davenport, Iowa.

At the health care meeting in Portsmouth, Obama asked whether people really meant it when they said they preferred a single-payer system to coverage at their job. "This is how you get into trouble when you're president," he said. "You start saying 'we're going full speed ahead,' you look behind, and nobody's behind you."

In his Chicago speech today, expect proposals to enlarge the military, rebuild alliances, curb nuclear weapons and use increased foreign aid to strengthen government and civil society in terrorist-ridden countries. Obama will not dwell on Iraq, says spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Most Democrats have proposals to wind down the war, and most Republicans are waiting to see how President Bush's policies play out. McCain has outlined many changes he would make to win in Iraq. The Iraq war is one of the hard issues that Cuomo said candidates are ducking: "How exactly do you get out of Iraq?"

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