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JOHN NICHOLS  - Wednesday, 27th August, 2008


Unless you don't own a television set, don't listen to radio or read newspapers, you've probably picked up that in Denver, Colorado, right now, excited Democrats - with all the usual hoopla and carry-on that go with America's national party conventions - are meeting to officially endorse Barack Obama as their man for the White House. Obama - who doesn't actually speak until later in the week – is now neck and neck with John McCain and will need to go way beyond his soaring oratory if he's to hold off the Republican challenge. Meanwhile, there are so many peeved Hillary Clinton supporters that it's far from clear just how united the Democrats are at the moment. But today, the former first lady gave Obama a rousing endorsement. John Nichols is political writer for 'The Nation' magazine in the US and George Negus spoke with him from the convention just after Hillary's speech.

GEORGE NEGUS: John we both just heard a rousing performance by Hillary Clinton – you in the flesh and unfortunately we could only see it by satellite, but was the white woman speaking with a fork tongue or is she still a much tougher opponent for Barack Obama than John McCain?

JOHN NICHOLS, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NATION: Well she might be a tougher opponent than John McCain but she realises that Barack Obama has the nomination and she does not want to be blamed for getting him defeated so the speech tonight was a very good speech for Obama – it was full of endorsements and full of praise - but it was also a very good speech for Hillary Clinton's long-term political viability. She needs to be seen as a loyal essential player in the Democratic Party and frankly I think that with this speech she has achieved that.

GEORGE NEGUS: John help me with this because almost one in five or 30% of Hillary's former supporters are saying that they won't necessarily vote for Barack Obama, now please explain that apparent display of political insanity to a simple Australian journalist, I mean do they want the enemy to win? And they so upset at her not getting the candidature that they can switch to voting for the Republicans – voting for McCain – what is all that about?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well I hate to tell you this but there are sometimes issues and realities that are stronger even than party bonds and party ties and in this year's election which has to do with questions of race and gender and a whole array of other factors including a stumbling US economy, voters are frankly taking it very seriously and, yes, there is a substantial number of Hillary Clinton voters who are likely to consider John McCain but Barack Obama can keep them if he delivers an economic message that is powerful enough. Similarly one thing that has not come across to Australians is last night at the Democratic National Convention one of the most prominent former Republican congressmen in the US got up on the podium and endorsed Obama, so the fact is that this is such a big election in America that you are going to see fluidity in both parties - Republicans going Democrat, Democrats going Republicans, cats mating with dogs - you name it.

GEORGE NEGUS: It sounds like it is getting curiosa and curiosa, I mean does it mean that ideology counts for nothing in US politics?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well unfortunately we have such personality based politics in the US right now that a party label means less and less. Every poll tells us that the average American thinks of himself more as an independent them as a Democrat or Republican and so what we know is what we don't like. Americans seem to really dislike George Bush and I'm going to be rather surprised if he gets mentioned a whole lot at next week's Republican convention but by the same token they don't know whether they particularly like John McCain or Barack Obama so these conventions are really more long commercials for each of these candidates and if we look at them in that way, tonight's speech by Hillary Clinton was probably the best commercial that Obama will get beside his own speech.

GEORGE NEGUS: One more question about Hillary before we move on to Obama himself. One of your commentators there in the convention hall said Hilary tonight was keeping the door open for a future bid for the White House, you inferred this yourself earlier. Do you think that maybe in 2016 at the latest, if not earlier, we could find ourselves confronted by Hillary Clinton again as a potential presidential candidate?

JOHN NICHOLS: I love the politeness of the Australians by inserting the word "may be". The reality is Hillary Clinton is absolutely a candidate for the presidency in 2012 if Barack Obama looses and in 2016 if Barack Obama wins. Here is an interesting fact - Joe Biden is older than Hillary Clinton so the likelihood is that Joe Biden will never run for President again but Hillary Clinton I think is going to work very very hard at suggesting that a feisty lady in her late sixties might still be able to serve as president.

GEORGE NEGUS: You mentioned Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s running mate of course, he has said that he does not believe that he is ready, only a year ago he said that. The presidency he said, is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training - that's not exactly a screaming endorsement from his running mate.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well if Joe Biden is smart when he gets up to give his speech he will say that obviously the experience of running against Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and beating them both gave Barack Obama just that last bit of background that he needed to be qualified. The reality is that in presidential politics the primary season is always the time in which embarrassing statements are made and have to be lived down by vice presidential candidates. I don't think Biden did himself any more damage or Obama any more damage than Mit Romney did to John McCain and remember that there is a very good chance that John McCain will choose Mit Romney as his running mate.

GEORGE NEGUS: John, let’s pull together a few things that people have said about Barack Obama himself. Why should Americans, one commentator said, be persuaded to hand over a struggling economy and a sagging international reputation and their security to this - an inexperience 47 year-old black African American long on rhetoric and short on substance? Is he too risky altogether and besides that he has a funny name.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well we gave it eight years ago to a white guy who had a pretty normal name and it didn't seem to work out so well so I think the theory is try the opposite and that may sound funny at the highest level but when we dig down into the politics of it I think there's a lot of that going on in America. There are a great many Americans who are looking for a radical change from what George Bush and Dick Cheney gave his country. The question is do they believe that Barack Obama can deliver that change? It is not so much whether he's experience or inexperienced, whether he's black or white, it is, can he do the job? Can he begin to deliver on some of the things he has promise to do? Obama’s task in the next 70 days is going to be to close the deal and the fact of the matter is it shouldn't be that hard for him. The Republicans polled very very badly right now. But if he blows it, if Barack Obama does not win the presidency in a year when the economy is stumbling, we have several rather unpleasant wars going on around the world and 80 per cent of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction. If Obama can't capitalise on that and win then he probably shouldn't be President. By the same token if John McCain can figure out a way to sell the Republicans at this point then, yes, he should be President.

GEORGE NEGUS: John, I keep hearing people say they haven't yet heard from the Democrats the battle cry. What message can Barack Obama deliver - and he's still as Bill Clinton to contend with tomorrow evening – what will his message be that will push people over the line and remove their doubts that they may still have about him, obviously a lot of Americans do.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes there is no question about that, polling shows the race is almost even. But at core, beyond a slogan, Barack Obama has to deliver an economic message to the American people. This country does struggle with issues of race, class, gender but one of the things that has always in our history, that has helped Democratic candidates to get beyond some of those divides is a strong populist Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman style economic message. And Obama will on Thursday night, need to deliver that message. If he fails to do so, if you just gives flowery rhetoric, then he will not be the President of the United States.

GEORGE NEGUS: Finally John, next week, Minneapolis, St Paul and the Republican attempt to top this hoopla, how can they possibly top the hoopla of the Democrats? Will they be able to and will a campaign from that point on become pretty dirty?

JOHN NICHOLS: Answer to your first question - probably not. I think it is going to be very very hard to top Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, they are dramatically better ordered than John McCain. The second part of your question - the Republican Convention will lay out the themes on which republicans will attempt to beat Barack Obama, not just in this race but out of politics altogether. This is going to be a vicious, ugly campaign. The Republicans are going to throw everything they have got at Barack Obama and frankly if Barack Obama wants to win he will probably have to throw everything he's got back at them.

GEORGE NEGUS: John thank you very much, appreciate your time, great talking to you.

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s a great pleasure and I'm glad Australia is paying attention to us.

GEORGE NEGUS: We are – closely.