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OFF TO THE RACES

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There is a danger in writing three days later about Tim Russert's tragically premature passing on Friday. To quote the cliche that "everything has been said, but not everyone has said it" seems appropriate.

Of course, Tim deserves all the accolades that have been offered him. He was brilliant, with an incredibly creative and analytical mind. He worked like a fiend with a diligence and thoroughness that only the best role models possess.

 

He was the toughest questioner in the business but was very fair, equally aggressive with everyone and capable of asking a question that you hadn't thought about or in a different way than anyone else.

And he was also an incredibly decent, warm and caring person. The things that really matter in life mattered most to Tim. All this has been said by many so much more eloquently than I, and all are so true.

But there is something else. Tim Russert took television's coverage of politics and government to a level comparable to the very best in print journalism. Unfortunately, that is a rare achievement.

 

Too often, television's imprint on journalism, particularly on cable, is to political journalism what comic books are to literature. Superficial and overly simplistic, hyperbolic and occasionally demagogic, too often even the most basic standards of reporting and commentary are abandoned without a second thought.

But any show that Tim Russert was on was guaranteed to be of a standard that could be held up unapologetically to the best in print journalism.

Television had to make no apologies for "Meet the Press," or "The Tim Russert Show" on MSNBC, his segments on "Today" and the "NBC Nightly News" or his analyses on election nights and other major events.

Too often television doesn't even attempt to reach those lofty levels, but Russert surpassed it as his basic standard. NBC's daily political newsletter "First Read" on Monday introduced "WWRD," or "What Would Russert Do," a question that hopefully many political journalists, electronic and print, should ask themselves as they go about their jobs.

 

He simply took coverage of politics and government to a plane that television doesn't see very often, yet should always strive for.

On a personal note, I am very grateful to Tim for having brokered my contract with NBC News, for having brought me onto "Meet the Press" prior to the 1994 election for the first of more times than I deserved, and for many kindnesses over the years. I cannot claim that we were close friends, but we were friends and, more importantly, he was one of the ablest professionals I have ever worked with and a terrific person.

It didn't occur to me how many people Russert touched until Sunday morning. This weekend, a woman came up to me in North Carolina and, with her eyes glistening, said she understood that I did some work for NBC's political unit and knowing that I knew Tim, started telling me how much she was going to miss seeing and learning from him and to pass on to his family and colleagues how many people around the country felt exactly the same way.

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Meanwhile, back in politics, it appears that whatever edge Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., might have had over Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the wake of the departure of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., from the presidential race has dissipated.

In a just-completed Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll conducted last Thursday through Sunday among 880 registered voters, Obama had 44 percent and McCain 40 percent. The poll has a 3-point error margin.

More specifically, 30 percent strongly supported McCain, 5 percent were more moderate in their support and another 4 percent were initially undecided -- but when pushed they leaned toward McCain.

Obama had strong support among 34 percent of the voters, then had moderate support among 6 percent and had 4 percent that were undecided but leaned to him.

Another 16 percent were undecided and not leaning to either candidate.

Eighty-one percent of Republicans polled supported McCain, while 8 percent of GOP voters supported Obama. Among Democrats, 78 percent of those surveyed supported Obama and 11 percent supported McCain. Among independents, 41 percent supported Obama and 36 percent went with McCain.

Looking at the results of the April, May and June Cook Political Report/RT Strategies polls shows a race that is increasingly competitive and just too close to call.

One set of voters it will be instructive to keep an eye on are Hispanics. It is fair to say that the fallout of the immigration debate has damaged the Republican Party among many Hispanic voters.

But McCain has in the past sought out more of a middle ground on immigration, and that history -- combined with how poorly Obama fared against Clinton in the primaries with Hispanic voters -- calls into question how this voting bloc might trend in the general election.

In 2004, President Bush cut into the historically wide Democratic margins among Hispanics in his re-election bid against Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

This will be a key voting demographic to watch as the general election gets closer, as a large number of the battleground states are in the Southwest -- think Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado -- and have large Hispanic populations.

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