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Washington Post’s Dan Balz on gay marriage, the Romney Bain attack ad, and the state of the election

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HH: Dan Balz is the senior political correspondent for the Washington Post. Welcome back, Dan, it’s good to have you.

DB: Thank you, Hugh, always good to be with you.

HH: I want to ask you, in your years of covering campaigns, do you ever remember one getting into the clinch this early between the ultimate contenders?

DB: The only one I can think of is ’04, when the Bush campaign kind of did the same thing that the Obama campaign has done, which is immediately after John Kerry effectively wrapped up the nomination, they went on the air with a positive ad, and almost overnight, turned it into a negative attack on Kerry. And I think the Obama campaign has taken a page from that book, and they’ve done exactly the same thing in going after Romney.

HH: Now today, I’ve got to cover three things with you – the gay marriage issue, the question of the Bain attack, but also just the general lay of the land. Let’s start with the last first. The Obama people have been projecting a great air of confidence, but these numbers do not seem to back that up. Is that just what they have to do, Dan Balz, to make sure that everyone stays happy and optimistic?

DB: Well, I think that they do that in part to sort of keep everybody on the same page, that they’re going in the direction they want to go. But I don’t think they have any illusions as to how close this race may be, and that the president is clearly vulnerable, particularly depending on what happens with the economy. I mean, you know, if you talk to the Romney folks, they project an air of not overconfidence, but relative confidence also, that in a sense, that he’s kind of an undervalued stock among the political cognoscente, and that the people who are saying whether they’re Obama people or other Democrats, some pundits, that the president’s in pretty good to quite good shape, are underestimating kind of the pain and suffering that exists around the country, and the way that’s going to affect the vote.

HH: Now the ad that was launched by Team Obama today targets Mitt Romney’s Bain years. And Mark Halperin writing in Time Magazine this morning suggested that Romney has to fight back in a hurry against this sort of thing. I thought it was odd that they would lead with the jobs ad, you know, five days after the gay marriage announcement. What do you think, Dan Balz, because jobs is not really the president’s strong suit here.

DB: Jobs is not necessarily the president’s strong suit. That’s correct. But I think they believe that Governor Romney’s role at Bain, and the role of private equity, is a vulnerability for Romney, and I think they have believed that for a long, long time. I mean, even before the Republican primaries got underway, they were looking for ways to inject this topic into the conversation. They in fact didn’t think that the other Republicans were warming to it fast enough, and they tried to do things to get people to pay attention to it. And when the Bain ads went up around the time of the South Carolina primary, that were sponsored by Gingrich’s superPAC, they thought that that was likely to be an effective line of attack. And so in a sense, they’ve telegraphed this for some time, and I do think that they believe that it will have an influence on how people see Romney. I mean, I think that we’ve gone through a very high visibility Republican primary campaign, and I think we get fooled sometimes as to how much, you know, normal people are paying attention to all the ins and outs. So my guess is that there is a lot less about Mitt Romney that’s known by the great bulk of voters, and I think that the Obama campaign decided in the classic way, we’re going to try to define him before he can define himself.

HH: The so-called normal people, the ordinary voter, could not have missed the debate over gay marriage, though. And today, I could just run, I’ve got a stack of stuff here. The Wall Street Journal talking about how in 2008, voters chose traditional marriage in Arizona and Colorado, Florida, in the past eight years, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin have rejected gay marriage. I’ve got the New York Times, Laurie Goodstein, talking about how churches are split over gay marriage, and the Peter Baker and Rachel Swarns’ piece about Obama’s decision followed by a call to pastors, the Newsweek cover, which may be the most controversial cover in that franchise’s history. So Dan Balz, at the end of the day, are you surprised that now, having had such an explosive impact, Team Obama is not staying on that issue for another week? Or have they decided there is no more good to be gained here?

DB: Well, I don’t think they want to litigate this campaign on the issue of gay marriage. I mean, you have, in a sense, two parallel things going on, which are at odds with one another. I mean, the history you cite of whenever this has gone to a test on the ballot, voters have voted it down. And yet we also know that public opinion on this issue has changed pretty dramatically in a relatively short amount of time. So this is a fluid issue. But I don’t think it’s an issue that either the Obama campaign or the Romney campaign wants to put at the heart and soul of their effort to win the presidency. I mean, I was struck by the way Governor Romney dealt with it last week, which was quite tentatively, I thought. He didn’t jump in and really try to stir the Republican base on it. I think his feeling is that will take care of itself, to the extent that the Obama campaign can energize part of its base by having the president come out in favor of same sex marriage. I think they feel that that’s probably been done, and they’ll kind of let the combatants on either side go to work. But I think both the president and Governor Romney believe this campaign’s going to be fought out over economic issues, and to some extent, the kind of character of the two leaders.

HH: I’m talking with Dan Balz, senior political correspondent for the Washington Post. Dan, you’re as well-connected as anyone in Washington, D.C. So eight days ago, before Joe Biden goes on a Sunday show and starts the gay marriage train on the track, did you expect that the next eight days would be centered around same sex marriage? Did you have any indication that that was coming?

DB: No (laughing), no. I mean, if somebody did, they, you know, they’re a lot smarter than most of the rest of us. So no, I think it caught everyone by surprise, and I suspect it caught the White House by surprise.

HH: Now you also will recall the Bradley effect. You weren’t covering politics back when Tom Bradley lost to George Deukmejian, I suspect.

DB: Oh, yes, I was.

HH: Oh, you were? Okay.

DB: Oh, yes, I was.

HH: I was living here then, so I can remember it. But the Bradley effect, of course, people said they were going to vote for Tom Bradley. They didn’t. They didn’t want to be known as being racists. They weren’t actually racists in fact, but they didn’t wan to be…do you think there’s a Bradley effect in the same sex marriage, because no one saw the 60% plus vote coming in North Carolina, either.

DB: There may be some of that. I don’t know, that’s an interesting question, and I would be interested to see if there’s a way to try to test that. I think the one difference is that the choice between Romney and Obama is not necessarily going to be like having the issue of gay marriage on the ballot. And it’s different when you have somebody who is African-American, trying to become the first African-American governor in the history of California. People are voting, that issue is front and center, and in the minds of some people, who they might not want to say it to a pollster, but in the ballot box, decide they’re not going to vote for him because of that. I don’t know whether we have the same situation here on gay marriage. I mean, you know, I could see it potentially having an impact in a state like Ohio, where it clearly had an impact in 2004, but there was an issue on the ballot in 2004 that benefited George W. Bush in his ability to win that state then. It could have some, I would say, more marginal effect this time, just because of the change in public opinion, but it could have an effect on a state like that. And certainly is not insignificant.

HH: Dan Balz of the Washington Post, thanks for joining me.

End of interview.


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