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WASHINGSTON INSIDERS INTERVIEW - Wednesday 7th March, 2007

GEORGE NEGUS: I wouldn't have thought I was coming here to talk to you about Australia's involvement in American politics but somehow or other our Prime Minister has got us well and truly involved in American domestic politics. How did you react to that moment?

MARTIN WALKER, EDITOR IN CHIEF, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL: I couldn't believe it. I thought he was drunk. I mean..

GEORGE NEGUS: He wasn't drunk, I can guarantee.

MARTIN WALKER: When I heard Prime Minister Howard sort of intervened, in a way, to say that a vote for Obama would be a vote for al-Qa'ida, I just couldn't believe my ears.

ELEANOR CLIFT, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, NEWSWEEK: President Bush has very few friends in the world and Prime Minister Howard is one of them. And most Americans discount most of what President Bush says so I don't think that they took Prime Minister Howard's comment as anything serious about the candidate.

GEORGE NEGUS: You can say that but would most Americans know that John Howard and George Bush were close? Would they know that Australian..

STEPHEN WAYNE, AUTHOR, THE ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE: Most Americans wouldn't know John Howard.

GEORGE NEGUS: Wouldn't?

STEPHEN WAYNE: Would not. Would not.

GEORGE NEGUS: You're a... watch the polls carefully, Steven. If you did a poll before the Obama stoush, what percentage of Americans do you think would know that John Howard was the Prime Minister of Australia?

STEPHEN WAYNE: Oh, maybe 0.005%

GEORGE NEGUS: That many?

LISA MCCORMACK, EDITOR, RISING TIDE: And how many after his comments?

GEORGE NEGUS: How many since then?

STEPHEN WAYNE: Maybe 1%.

GEORGE NEGUS: Only one.

MARTIN WALKER: Let's not forget the curse of George Bush. Every single ally of George Bush has been politically doomed. Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Aznar of Spain, they've all lost elections. Tony Blair is doomed. I think we're probably counting out John Howard as a result of this one. Any friend of George Bush's is on the way down.

GEORGE NEGUS: His line is that he is so absolutely convinced that what George Bush is doing is correct, he's going to support him to the political death.

MARTIN WALKER: Well, I'm not even sure Laura Bush is doing that.

LISA MCCORMACK: I want to know does Rove have Howard on his speed dial? I mean, do you think that someone in the White House asked Howard to.. I think it's a great push for Obama. I mean, if I were Obama's person it would be just absolutely gravy.

GEORGE NEGUS: It didn't get much coverage so why is it so useful to him?

LISA MCCORMACK: It's not so much that it didn't get much coverage, people just are not tuned in right now for the election.

MARTIN WALKER: The thing is that Barack Obama is the black candidate white America has been waiting for. This is black without fear, this is black who's Harvard Law School, this is black who's perfectly acceptable in any white community. This guy is a liberal's wet dream. That's why they love him. And what's dramatic is he's coming along he's coming along at the same time as we've got the first credible woman candidate as well.

GEORGE NEGUS: This is a black candidate you have when you're not having a black candidate. Does this mean that America's growing up?

STEPHEN WAYNE: I think America is growing up, both with a woman, Joe Lieberman as the vice-presidential candidate, and now Barack Obama. Yes, I think ..

MARTIN WALKER: Joe Lieberman as a Jew, you mean?

STEPHEN WAYNE: Yes, yes. I think each succeeding generation has a bit more tolerance for somebody who is a little bit different.

GEORGE NEGUS: Can he last the distance? It's a long way out at this point.

LISA MCCORMACK: I agree with you that he's the candidate of hope but one thing that he..

GEORGE NEGUS: And you're normally a Republican supporter.

LISA MCCORMACK: I am a Republican supporter.

GEORGE NEGUS: And you think he's the candidate of hope?

LISA MCCORMACK: What he really has to do is appeal to liberal Republicans - and, yes, there are liberal Republicans, conservative Democrats. He has to build this coalition which I don't think Hillary can.

ELEANOR CLIFT: He's post-partisan, he's post-race. He talks about turning the page. I mean, he was born at the end of the baby boom generation. He's post-Bush. He's post-Clinton, post-Bush. And, you know, and he very much excites young people who normally are not that interested.

GEORGE NEGUS: But is the danger, Eleanor, that he could become he could work so hard at becoming all things to all people he ends up being nothing to anybody?

ELEANOR CLIFT: I don't think that's who he is. He may not get the nomination, he may not be able to take a punch. We don't know that, I don't think he knows that. But the fact...the waters rarely part this way for a candidate the way they have for him. I think it's good for politics, good for the country. I mean, I think the excitement about him crosses party lines. It's genuine.

STEPHEN WAYNE: The other thing he has got going, is he's got the least connection to Washington of most of the Democratic candidates and - with the possible exception of Giuliani and Romney - of the Republican candidates.

GEORGE NEGUS: What's so bad about Washington?

STEPHEN WAYNE: George W. Bush.

GEORGE NEGUS: Are you saying, Stephen, that whether it's a Republican candidate or a Democratic candidate, the candidate that will win in November 2008 is the candidate who can distance themselves as far as possible from anything to do with George Bush?

STEPHEN WAYNE: I think that is true and I think that's why McCain is having some problems now.

ELEANOR CLIFT: If the politics of '08 are anything like they were in '06, it's a Democratic year.

MARTIN WALKER: The Democrats could run an oran-outang in 2008 and he'd have trouble losing.

GEORGE NEGUS: I will keep that in here. I'll remind you of that. An oran-outang? An oran-outang.

STEPHEN WAYNE: A lot depends on Iraq. If every day was like today and there was no bombs in Baghdad, then the Republicans would have a chance, but if we're still taking casualties in September and October of 2008, I don't think any Republican candidate can win.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is there a candidate or a likely candidate that's got an exit policy that Americans will believe?

STEPHEN WAYNE: I don't think Americans care about believing in the exit policy, they want out. Sooner rather than later.

GEORGE NEGUS: Peter, you're being uncharacteristically quiet. What do you think of all of this? Do you think the Republicans are in with a chance still?

PETER ROFF, POLITICAL STRATEGIST AND COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. But the Democrats now have control of Congress for the first time since 1994, and they have an opportunity to show a meaningful, characteristic difference on a whole series of issues. Iraq may be the most important.

GEORGE NEGUS: Let me stop you there, because explain again to an ignorant Australian how the Democrats can have the numbers and not stop George Bush from sending more troops to Iraq?

PETER ROFF: They have to have the courage to put that proposal on the table.

MARTIN WALKER: They have the numbers, they don't have the balls. They daren't vote to block the funds.

PETER ROFF: They haven't put the serious proposal on the table. Let them put a proposal on the table, they can get it through the House. Nancy Pelosi can put this on the floor any time she wants. She can put it to a vote and we can see where the Democrats are and where the Republicans are. I think the Democrats do not have the courage.

ELEANOR CLIFT: Let's not talk about courage of rhetoric. I mean, I think the Republicans certainly have lots of rhetoric out there, debilitating everybody else. The Democrats are not unified - excuse me The Democrats are not unified and so you're not going to get.. So what does that tell you? What does that tell you? It tells you that there are no good options in Iraq. We are choosing between... from bad to worse. And people do, believe it or not, want to be responsible. You can't just walk out of there tomorrow. And they are...all of this, you know, daring, Republicans daring

PETER ROFF: So any Democrat who stands up and says, "Bring them home now," is being irresponsible?

ELEANOR CLIFT: There are not enough of them, I'm saying.

GEORGE NEGUS: What I can't hear listening and watching in this country in a few days, I can't hear anybody talking about Whenever the withdrawal occurs and however the stages take place, do Americans care about what happens after that?

STEPHEN WAYNE: Umm. They care about the oil. They care about the perception of America's, how strong we are and how well we are received around the world.

GEORGE NEGUS: Let me try and find a segue from that to Hillary. Is she a perfect example of the Democrat dilemma over Iraq? I mean, she appeared to be a supporter of the American occupation of Iraq and now she doesn't know which way to jump, which is probably why Obama's got the jump on her.

ELEANOR CLIFT: Most Americans I mean, support for the war was like 82% cent, so just because you supported the war at the beginning doesn't necessarily mean you have to stick with it.

PETER ROFF: It's my concern I think part of the concern of some of the Republicans in town is that this is some sort of a proxy fight with Iran, with the mullahs in Tehran who want to establish a certain sort of Islamic hegemony of a certain type in the region, and that were we to disengage from Iraq, we're inviting that, and that's not a result anyone would like.

LISA MCCORMACK: One of the things that can possibly happen is if the Democrats are too forceful about "OK, wrap it up. We're out of here," and then something happens down the road, which this administration has said over and over again "it's not a matter of when, it's a matter it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when this country will be attacked again." I mean, look at it politically. Democrats come out really hard to "let's get the hell out of there, bring them all back," and they're forceful about it. You know, we cut and run and now we're viewed as weak by our enemies and our enemies have attacked inside our shore.

GEORGE NEGUS: You're convinced that America is going to be attacked again?

LISA MCCORMACK: We've been told over and over again. First of all, the President said over and over again from the get-go, within three months

STEPHEN WAYNE: Are you believing the credibility of this president after all the things he's said? Come on.

LISA MCCORMACK: I may be the only one of two people at this table, but, yes. I mean, he said it constantly - it's going to be a long haul. It's not going to be a short, you know. He could have declared victory within months of the whole thing.

MARTIN WALKER: He did.

LISA MCCORMACK: He did. He did.

MARTIN WALKER: He did. Mission accomplished. OK, that was wrong.

LISA MCCORMACK: OK, but the thing - I haven't finished my point – is that it was supposed to take a long time, we've been told repeatedly it's going to take a long time. And wake up and smell the coffee, it hasn't been just from the administration.

ELEANOR CLIFT: What is 'it'? What is 'it'? The war.

GEORGE NEGUS: Let's go back to Hillary because we're talking

LISA MCCORMACK: She's fascinating you.

GEORGE NEGUS: She's not fascinating me, she's fascinating the world. In the same way that it's fascinating there should be two George Bushes be president of the United States of America, it fascinates the rest of us that there might be two Clintons as president of the United States. But what about Hillary? Is Bill a factor, Eleanor? He's got to be a factor.

ELEANOR CLIFT: He's an enormous asset. He's now...his favourable ratings are very high. He's a terrific political strategist, he is beloved, basically, within the Democratic party.

MARTIN WALKER: There is a Hillary problem and the Hillary problem is that she has this reputation of having been hell on wheels. Well, if you look at the figures, her negatives are exactly, right now, where Ronald Reagan's were the year before he was elected president.

GEORGE NEGUS: Nobody cheated on him.

MARTIN WALKER: Well, he was the actor, remember? How could America seriously talk about electing a Hollywood actor as president? Well, they did.

LISA MCCORMACK: I think George Bush is going to lose the election for Hillary Clinton because it was

GEORGE NEGUS: George Bush will lose the election for Hillary Clinton?

LISA MCCORMACK: Yes, he will. Because here's why. Why would we want to have, we've already had part two of the Bush family and it has not worked out. Now with Clinton we had a lot of trouble and are we going to have the same sort of experience with Mrs Clinton? Don't we have any other families in America producing presidents than these two? And I think there are a lot of I think there are a lot of negatives about Hillary. A lot of woman wouldn't want to have a drink with Hillary. I want a woman president but maybe definitely not her.

GEORGE NEGUS: Right, OK. Is there a possibility of a dream team? Is there a possibility of a Clinton/Obama team and an Obama/Clinton team or an Edwards/Clinton team or an Edwards.

PETER ROFF: I think it is Clinton/Obama. I think she beats him in the primary and then to keep, particularly black America - which gives 8 or 9 out of every 10 votes to Democrats - in the coalition she picks him as the running mate. I think it's a foregone conclusion.

MARTIN WALKER: They've talked about this in the Clinton campaign and there is a real dispute between some who say it is the dream team and others who say, "No, no, we can't run two minorities - a woman and a black." And others who say, "Why do we need a black?"

ELEANOR CLIFT: Women are not a minority!

MARTIN WALKER: I know. And the others who say And the others who say, "Why do we need a black? We've got the black vote anyway because of Bill Clinton."

STEPHEN WAYNE: All those people who are running have huge egos. You can praise them to the hilt, you say one negative thing they'll never forget it. So, you know, I think Mrs Clinton would remember if they have debates and Obama makes some comments that the press plays up, I'm not sure she's going to be willing to take him on.

LISA MCCORMACK: She got back in bed with her husband. She seems a rather forgiving woman.

STEPHEN WAYNE: Well, maybe in that respect. Maybe the sex is less important than the politics for her.

GEORGE NEGUS: Eleanor, what do you think?

ELEANOR CLIFT: I think it's a very hard election to war game. I think the Republicans generally go with the establishment candidate and John McCain is the closest thing to 'the anointed one' next. So if you put a gun to my head, I would say McCain. And Hillary, you know, she's ahead.

GEORGE NEGUS: Martin?

MARTIN WALKER: Hillary. The race is not always to the swift and the battle is not always to the strong, but that's the way to bet. She's got the money, she's got the organisation, she's got the party machine, she's got the party elders. She's got..

GEORGE NEGUS: Bill.

MARTIN WALKER: And she's got Bill. It's going to take something dramatic for Obama to overcome it. He might just do it.

GEORGE NEGUS: Lisa?

LISA MCCORMACK: It's way too far out. I, as a devoted Republican, I want it to be Hillary Clinton, I really do. I can't wait. Put her in the White House!

GEORGE NEGUS: That's the line of the night.

LISA MCCORMACK: You put her in the White House and just let her do her thing and that will be the best thing that can happen to the Republican Party.

GEORGE NEGUS: Even though she's a Democrat?

LISA MCCORMACK: She's the best thing that can happen to the Republican Party having her as president.

GEORGE NEGUS: Thank you very much for your crystal ball gazing. Thank you. Cheers.

LISA MCCORMACK: Cheers. Way to go.