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Q&A: Michael Feldman & Kevin Madden Q&A: Michael Feldman & Kevin Madden

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Q&A: Michael Feldman & Kevin Madden

Democratic and Republican strategists discuss the race for the White House

Tammy Haddad spoke with Glover Park Group's Michael Feldman and Kevin Madden for the July 11 edition of "National Journal On Air." This is a transcript of their conversation.

Q: With us now is Michael Feldman and Kevin Madden, both of the Glover Park Group. Michael Feldman, best known for being a top adviser, longtime adviser, to many Democrats, including Vice President Al Gore; and Kevin Madden, who was recently off the Romney campaign, veteran Bushie. And both of these gentlemen have been on the front line of this election. Gentlemen, I have to start with all these gaffes this week. First, let's talk about Senator [Phil] Gramm's comments, "mental," I mean, words you never say. Kevin, can you defend the McCain campaign for me?


Madden: Well, look, I mean, I think the best way that the McCain campaign can defend this is with Senator [John] McCain going out there and offering his vision, his words, as the more definitive vision for where he wants to take this economy. I think the challenge here is that when you have an incumbent president who is of the Republican Party, that a lot of voters are going to hold the Republican Party and President Bush accountable for the economy, and any answer from Republicans or the McCain campaign that sounds like they're offering an eat-your-spinach economic advice -- that is going to be a problem. But the McCain campaign handled it very well, with Senator McCain going out there immediately disavowing those comments and talking about where he stands on the economy, and he did so with a number of economic events yesterday in important battleground states.

Q: Help me out here, Michael. Does Kevin want us actually to believe that the American people won't look at this and say the guy that McCain has had his arm around for the last three months and saying, "He's my pal, together we're going to do all this, together we're going to save this economy," just where he needs that help -- you think people won't get this?

Feldman: Well, look, I think there are two issues here. One is how people are going to receive this information in the context of an economy that is clearly -- people are clearly hurting out there, especially in some of these battleground states that these two candidates are campaigning in right now. And then, tactically, how both campaigns deal with it. On the substance, this was not a good afternoon for Senator McCain. It gives Senator [Barack] Obama a chance to show -- to wrap his chief economic adviser around the neck of the candidate and say, "These guys are out of touch, they don't understand that you're hurting." But I will say, tactically, Senator McCain did what he needed to do; he very quickly came out and distanced himself from the remarks, because he can't distance himself from Senator Gramm, he's a too high-profile part of his campaign. That said, I think Senator Obama did what he needed to do yesterday, which was, you know, to shine a light on the comment and continue to drive home the issue of the economy, which is working against Senator McCain so far in this election cycle. And I think you'll see Senator Obama continue to drive this home. You know, 80-plus percent of the American people think the country is headed in the wrong direction. That number is driven in large part by this economy, and the Republican candidate for president of the United States has just wrapped his arms around not only Phil Gramm but President Bush's economic policies. So that's the dynamic that Senator Obama needs to take advantage of.


Q: Mike, I was at Obama's rally yesterday and I have never seen him cooler and having a better time, very loose. You know, the Dr. Phil comment that you referenced, I mean he loved it. He was really, really loving it. Do you think that coming into the convention now, with all these plans in place, that he's ready to roll and has gotten some of the trouble of this transition behind him?

Feldman: Well, look, I think -- I will say, at the outset of this campaign, I was somewhat skeptical myself about how a newcomer to national politics, a newcomer even in terms of running for statewide office, how he would navigate the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign because, as Kevin will tell you and you know, Tammy, there's nothing like it. It's performance art, it is very difficult, it is very stressful, you need to be nimble, you need to be flexible, and you need to be focused. And this guy has just amazed me at every step of the way at how he's been able to navigate the contours of the campaign. He is relaxed, he is focused, he is confident, and he continues to perform very well, and at the end of the day -- and that's the phase of the campaign we're moving in right now -- it's not the individual incidents, OK? Unpredictable things are going to happen on the campaign trail and we've seen a week that is chock full of them. It's not the individual statement by a campaign supporter or surrogate. It's not the breaking news of the day; it's not the negative ad. It's how does the campaign and the candidate react to it. That is what this campaign, ultimately, tactically, becomes about. And what I've seen so far really impresses me of Senator Obama; I think he's more than capable of meeting those challenges.

Q: Hey Kevin, Rush Limbaugh calls him the messiah. Do you think this is a good tack for the Republicans to take?

Madden: The tack of calling Obama the messiah, well, I don't know. I think what happens is that sounds almost like a positive reinforcement where we make it about the process of Obama getting good coverage, where we make it about the process of Obama inspiring a lot of people and offering very hopeful rhetoric and bringing in these large crowds; I think what we do is we reinforce to people that this is a movement candidate. And any time you have a movement candidate that meets a money candidate, like you have with Barack Obama, then what we do is keep portraying all of his positives. What we have to do, what the Republican candidates and the McCain campaign have to do, is constantly go out there and hammer away at Barack Obama's most negative attribute, and that is his inexperience. Every day, every single way, we have to go out there and say that Barack Obama is just not ready. He's just not ready on the national security level, he's just not ready to deal with the economy, he's just not ready to deal with the host of challenges that this country faces over the next 15 years.


Q: But see, I think that's why Gramm really hurts you so badly, because he came back and said, "I don't retract any of my statements."

Madden: Well, I think where Senator Gramm hurts us the most is that he doesn't put a vision for where you go forward. Instead what he offers is a diagnosis about this current economy rather than a solution. I think John McCain is very focused on -- this is where surrogates always get in trouble, any time a surrogate goes out and analyzes the race or analyzes the economy, they put the campaign in a bind. If they go out and serve as an advocate for John McCain and serve as an advocate for his economic vision, that's where surrogates always do their best and contribute to a campaign.

Q: Well then, the other part of it is that Carly Fiorina went out and was talking about Viagra -- which, by the way is just, other than Jesse Jackson's comments, you gotta love it, and then --

Madden: Now Michael's going to criticize us for saying that we're in the pockets of the pharmaceuticals.


Q: That's actually a good idea, Michael, you should pick that up.

Feldman: Look, we can talk about Carly Fiorina's comments all day long. I actually really enjoyed Senator McCain's reaction to the question that was thrown at him yesterday based on that on the campaign bus. I have never seen a "candidate caught in the headlights" look quite like that one before. But all kidding aside, look, these issues, these things come up, and again it just reinforces my prior point -- it's how you deal with them, it's how you navigate them, it's not always necessarily the substance of the issues. And if I were John McCain, I'd have people like Mitt Romney out there talking about the economy on my behalf, not necessarily Phil Gramm. And I don't think you're going to be hearing from Phil Gramm much on the campaign trail in the near future. I mean, you look at a guy like Governor Romney, who was very credible on the economy during the election cycle, during the primary cycle, I think his stock goes up every day as a potential vice presidential candidate -- and I don't want to put Kevin on the spot here.

Madden: Michael, yeah, I'm supposed to be the one that's flashing for Governor Romney.

Q: Yeah, it's Kevin and Karl Rove flacking for Romney, Michael Feldman, sign him up. Let's go to the VP stakes.


Madden: See the influence I've already had on him?

Q: Yeah, I'm sure Howard Wolfson's thrilled about that. But let's go over to the VP candidates and let's start with Romney, because there's various reports -- and let's help the listeners understand this, that they're being vetted, that no one's asked me for information. Kevin, you first, and then turn to Mike. Let's tell people how this process works and if the reporting really makes a difference or not.

Madden: Look, on every campaign and every vetting campaign, every vetting action, I think, takes place on different levels. And I think right now, this is at its genesis stage with how the campaigns look at various candidates and then begin background information searches. I think with Governor Romney there's less of a move towards asking him personally to turn over any records as part of any vetting process because essentially someone as high-profile as him who's run in this campaign has been vetted not only by other campaigns with oppo research, but by the voters and by the media, so there are probably different levels here. And I'd expect that at some point, that at stage two or three of this will be where there will be a personal interview with Senator McCain and his vetting team to meet individual candidates. I think at some point that may be Mitt Romney, but there are a whole host of other folks out there that the McCain campaign is looking at, and I think right now they are still at the beginning stages.

Feldman: Yeah, I'd agree with that. Look, there are two elements to this. There's the information-gathering phase and then there's a very difficult choice that each candidate has to make, probably the most important decision they're going to have to make during the course of the campaign cycle. And at the end of the day it comes down to the information provided by their vetting team and then a very personal and very important decision. And the fact is there is the public conversation about it, which we're participating in now, and the speculation about it and the banter about it that's driven by, you know, driven by the political-industrial complex. It's driven by the POTUS network, it's driven by cable TV -- I mean, let's face it, we need to have something to talk about.

Q: Hey, and radio! And the POTUS channel's pushing it.

Feldman: Hey, I just said, that's where this -- there's a huge conversation about it publicly and at the Palm on 19th Street, but at the end of the day there's very few people involved in the actual process and the actual decision. That is a very small group of people. And I think that the place where those two parts of the process intersect is, you know, do you let the speculation or the conversation, the public conversation about the process, infect the actual process? And those that do it well in the past, it's a little too early to tell how McCain and Obama are handling this, but those that do it well manage the public conversation in a way that allows a real carefully thought-through and methodical decision to be made on the merits. And the ones that get into trouble are where the public speculation and information leaked and other things that come out actually, you know, become a distraction from or infect the actual process. That can be a real problem that can end up happening.

Madden: Michael makes a good point. The best ones are always hermetically sealed off away from this conversation.

Q: Well, look, we've got so many gaffes and all these stories to talk about this week. Frankly, we don't even have that much time to talk about this VP stakes. This stuff is great! And also, you know, in all seriousness, we've got the possible collapse or government intervention with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. How much does that affect campaigns, guys? Kevin, you go first.

Madden: Well, I think obviously it affects their conversation with voters about the economy. The economy -- with every time a news headline like that pops up in the Washington Post and the New York Times, it's going beyond just Beltway chatter and it's showing up in places like the Columbus Dispatch and the Albuquerque Journal. So it's put the economy again front and center. Again, I think that creates a challenge for both campaigns on how they talk about these issues and whether or not they offer a solution, you know, a vision-oriented approach on the future with regards to what they're going to do on the economy versus just reacting to the headlines.

Q: Michael?

Feldman: Yeah, I'd agree with that. Look, there's no doubt that the economy is the number one issue that is driving the electorate, it will continue -- I can't imagine another issue overtaking that between now and the election -- and the test and really the outcome of this election is going to be determined by who voters think are focused on their issues and are ready to meet those challenges when they take over as president. And if you want to use yesterday as a microcosm, I would give yesterday to Senator Obama by virtue of the back and forth over Phil Gramm's comments, you had Senator McCain on the defensive again, trying to defend the fact that he's listening to voters and he cares about voters and he feels their pain, to borrow a phrase from the '90s. That's a hugely important dynamic as the election gets closer. And I think we haven't heard the last of the "whining" comments, I think that will come up over and over again because it goes right to the heart of the issue that's driving the electorate.

Madden: Someone's cutting an ad somewhere in an edit room on that one.

Feldman: Yeah.

Q: Is that Al Gore cutting that ad?


Q: Mike Feldman, what role will Vice President Gore play this fall?

Feldman: Well, you know, Tammy, Al Gore has been focused pretty intently over the last several years -- actually for many years, but he's had more time to focus on the issue of the climate crisis, and you know, I would pay very careful attention to him on that issue. And I think the good news is, none of us listening today or talking today would have predicted two or three years ago that the issue of climate change -- caught up very clearly in the issue of energy independence -- would be a major focus of this presidential election or that both major-party candidates would be somewhat more forward-leaning than the current administration on the issue.

Q: Where does he keep his Nobel Prize?

Feldman: I believe it is home in Nashville.

Q: Very nice. Thank you gentlemen, we're out of time. Mike Feldman, Kevin Madden over at Glover Park down there on K Street, thank you both.

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