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Transcript of a politics chat with Globe reporter Susan Milligan

Susan Milligan: Hi, folks. Welcome to the Globe's political chat. I'm the Globe's national political correspondent, based in Washington, and I'm happy to take questions on the presidential campaign, the immigration bill, and other topics. I'm going to start by answering a few questions left over from the last chat, with my editor Jim Smith.

tiger2: With so many candidates in the "races" for both the Republican and Democratic nomination, and with these races starting so early, what is the Globe doing to ensure fair and equal coverage for all the candidates?

Susan Milligan: We're committed to covering all the candidates, although the stories will reflect the realities of the race for some of the lesser-known candidates. I spent a couple of days with Chris Dodd in New Hampshire, and led a story on healthcare and the presidential race with proposals by GOP contender Mike Huckabee. A lot could happen in this race -- it's still very early -- and while I would not give some of the lesser-known candidates a strong chance of winning the nomination, I think they still deserve to be heard.

annie: How about running articles featuring the thoughts of a specific subset of voters ... for example, an article on how women might vote, trying to find a broad range of women: moms, left, right, rich, poor, etc. Or run an article about how the working poor might vote, or what the very wealthy think about the candidates.

Susan Milligan: We will be doing that (and we did just run a lengthy piece on the youth vote). My personal view is that the media has focused too much on the campaigns themselves in recent years -- the fund-raising, the polls, the endorsements -- and has largely ignored the electorate. Voters are, as the president might say, the deciders, so we intend to cover them.

Jimbo: Hi, Susan. What do you expect from the candidates in the upcoming New Hampshire debates on June 3 and 5?

Susan Milligan: With the fields still so large on both sides (and likely to grow, I think -- especially on the GOP side, I think you'll see the so-called front-runners try to look presidential and avoid making mistakes, and you'll see the lower-tier candidates try to distinguish themselves from the pack.

asbach: Susan, I believe that America is going in the wrong direction. I feel we lost our pride and it's not because of the president; it's the people. Everyone is looking out for themselves instead of helping their neighbor. Politicians don't see what the average Joe is going through with the increase of food, gas, increase in taxes, no jobs available, and the cost of living just skyrocketing. If we don't act in the interest of protecting America and its people, we will be a a week nation. How do you feel about this?

Susan Milligan: Well, that's an interesting view. I have indeed witnessed astonishingly bad manners by the public, but then again, I am often heartened by the acts of charity and selflessness I see among other people. The Bush administration took a lot of heat for its handling of the Katrina crisis, but look at how many Americans donated their time, money, and skills to help complete strangers made homeless from the storm. So I have reasons to hope.

Happy_Pants: Who is the cutest member of the congressional delegation?

Susan Milligan: Now, why is it that I think this question was actually posted by a member of the congressional delegation? Sorry, can't choose.

Jimbo: What is your favorite part and least favorite part about covering presidential elections?

Susan Milligan: I hate the schedules. Bill Clinton was the worst, in this regard. We'd get to a hotel at maybe 2 or 3 a.m., and he would insist on shaking every hand before he went up to his room. Then we would have ``baggage call'' -- the time when you have to bring your bags down to be sniffed by the Secret Service dogs -- at 4:30 or 5. I'm still catching up on sleep from the '92 campaign. What I love is traveling all over the country, meeting local people and listening to what they have to say. It's a great opportunity to get to know the country.

tj: Do all of these candidates honestly think they are competitive candidates with more than a slim chance of becoming our next president?

Susan Milligan: I think there are lots of people who don't appear to have much of a chance but will nonetheless sit on the edge of their beds in the morning and think, ``I could be president.'' You need to have a somewhat expanded ego to run for any office, I suppose. But that being said, I don't think that the ability to win should be a prerequisite for running. Some people want to be heard, or to raise issues that otherwise might not get raised. I think that can be very productive for the country and the other candidates. If it hadn't been for Ross Perot, a third-party candidate who pulled out of the race in '92, I doubt the federal deficit and national debt would have become campaign issues. But they did, and both Congress and the new president were forced to deal with them.

Maineiac: What about choosing a different voter each week, interviewing him/her in depth about specific concerns, and then taking those questions to the various campaigns?

Susan Milligan: That's a very interesting idea. I'll pass it on.

Michelle21: I would not like to see increased coverage on one candidate because they are local. We had four years to see what Mitt Romney was all about and we at least have something to base a decision on about him, whereas I looked at the however many Republican candidates who debated the other night and realized I didn't know half of them -- and I am pretty informed! I would like to see more -- unbiased, fair -- information about these national candidates that we don't know so well.

Susan Milligan: Well, there's a balance. I agree that we should not focus so much on candidates from the region that we ignore everyone else, but the Globe really needed to be the definitive expert on John Kerry, and we'll need to do the same for Mitt Romney.

asbach: Susan, do you see yourself as a fiscal conservative, moderate, or liberal reporter?

Susan Milligan: My personal views -- and I'm an Independent -- don't have anything to do with my reporting on a story. I think it's good to be aware of your own opinions, because then you will try harder to keep them out of your story. But the coverage is driven by the facts on the ground.

asbach: With so many candidates in the race, it's very hard to focus on the true issues. Do you think the Globe will host a debate to ask questions about domestic issues and not always talking about when our men and women in harm's way will return? I would like to see them come home, but they have a mission to protect innocent lives from terrorists. What do you think?

Susan Milligan: I don't know if the Globe will host a debate -- that's very far above my pay grade. As for domestic issues, I do think healthcare, gas prices, and certain environmental issues might have an impact on the campaign, and we'll be paying attention. But the Iraq war is paramount on the minds of voters, according to virtually every poll I've seen and interview I've done.

tj: How does the Christian Right/Coalition weigh their pro-life/anti-abortion stance with their support for the death penalty?

Susan Milligan: Well, you'd have to ask them, but the Catholic Bishops are also against the death penalty.

ErnestScribbler: The personal connection between reporters and candidates seems to have played an untoward role in how the candidate is portrayed in the media. Do you feel you have learned your collective lesson from the positive coverage of George W. Bush as someone you'd "like to have a beer with"?

Susan Milligan: I don't agree with your premise; I think people covering Bush in 2000 (and I didn't, much) found that a big part of his success was that voters found him personally engaging. Gore, meanwhile, was seen as stiff and formal, and that may have hurt him in the election -- but I don't think that was because reporters saw him that way. It was because voters saw him that way. Actually, if you sit down for a beer with Gore, he's very funny and self-deprecating -- something he didn't much show in public then.

asbach: Susan, Thank you for saying that you're Independent. I feel that some reporters put their own spin on the issue. Do you think that the presidential candidates are in touch with mainstream America?

Susan Milligan: I'm not copping out on this, really, but I wonder whether there is a ''mainstream America.'' I think we have a tendency to think that the truth always lies right in the middle, and I'm not sure it does. If you're asking -- as another chatter did -- whether the candidates are addressing the concerns of the middle class, well, that's a great question, and we'll see how that's answered as the campaign progresses. And by the way, I didn't register as an Independent because I'm a reporter. I just get frustrated with this massively oversimplified, red state-blue state view of the world, and I thought I would opt out of it by refusing to join either major party.

asbach: Susan, if the election was held today for president, "who do you think would be President?"

Susan Milligan: I honestly don't know. Hillary Clinton is, of course, leading in the polls, but a lot of that is name recognition at this point. And we don't elect presidents with a national vote; it's state by state. Then we'd have to figure out who the GOP candidate would be ... and different Democrats would fare differently among different Republicans.

They_are_all_bums: I know it's popular to blame the media, but the media should be asking tougher questions of the candidates -- and following up to make sure they answer the questions. Politicians are way too adept at not answering questions.

Susan Milligan: Well, yes, a big part of the job is trying to get an answer out of someone. That gets tough when the candidates are at very big events, and it's hard to physically get close enough to ask a question.

They_are_all_bums: The whole election process is way too long. Can't we shorten it to six weeks like in Britain?

Susan Milligan: My first response is that I would love to feel as though I would have my weekends free until six weeks before the election. But how can you enforce that? Even if there isn't an official "campaign,'' people in other offices (like senator or governor) still need to be watched, as what they do is a sign of what kind of president any of them would be. Also, if you only have six weeks, you don't have much time to vet a candidate. Arguably, we scrub candidates here until they're raw, but it serves a purpose.

asbach: Susan, I believe that we don't give other candidates a chance to talk about their views. The media always just focus on the Democrats and Republicans. Will you cover stories about other candidates running, maybe the Green Party, Libertarian, or Independent candidates?

Susan Milligan: I think we should, but we can't pretend that some of those candidates have the followings the others do. One thing that is very interesting is the move among voters to register as Independents. They are a plurality now in Colorado, for example. New Hampshire also has a growing Independent vote, although those voters can vote in one of either major party primary.

They_are_all_bums: The whole political process in the USA is spoiled by money. You don't see any poor, or average for that matter, candidates. That's no coincidence.

Susan Milligan: You're right that candidates need a lot of money to run. And while we have had presidents from somewhat modest backgrounds -- Clinton is one -- we've really not had someone who has risen from dirt poverty to lead the country, like Lula in Brazil.

asbach: Susan, I believe that some politicians, not all, are out of touch with mainstream America. I believe in term limits -- serve two terms, move up the ladder, or move on. Politicians, whether they are state senator, member of Congress, right down to mayor and city councilor, should serve to terms. What is your take on term limits?

Susan Milligan: Mixed. I can see where serving just two terms could make someone less susceptible to political pressures, but on the other hand, you;d end up with a Congress with little experience and expertise. Also, compromise happens more often when the lawmakers have developed some kind of personal relationship and mutual respect. I hardly thought I'd see Ted Kennedy and Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl sit down with Bush administration officials to write an immigration bill, but they did it. Whether it will ultimately pass is another question, but it took experienced and mature senators to make the compromises they all did to get an agreement.

asbach: Susan, yes, it takes money to run for office, but the media only pay attention to the candidates who advertise with their paper and not interviewing the common Joe candidate. WHY?

Susan Milligan: I disagree. Candidates advertise in papers if they think they need the votes of that region's readers. And most of them focus on TV, anyway.

asbach: Susan, what about not having a party affiliation, just be an Independent person? I feel the candidate for office is owned by the party they represent.

Susan Milligan: I think we've seen some movement in the past few decades toward a third party, or third way (starting with John Anderson in 1980), but it's hard to mount a presidential campaign in a country this big without a big organization behind you.

asbach: Susan, term limits would keep politicians accountable and will have them focus on the true issues ... not sound bites to make you feel good!

Susan Milligan: Maybe. I get a lot of sound bites from first-termers on the Hill, so I hardly think term limits are a deterrent to grandstanding.

Seltzer: Is there a way to delve deeper into the issues and avoid the horse-race style coverage of so many media outlets?

Susan Milligan: It's something I'm absolutely committed to doing. The obsession with polls at this stage is absurd, and the only explanation I can give for it is that it's something concrete. The thing is, it's really not concrete; it's just an imperfect snapshot of one place at one time. And the national polls are the most meaningless, since presidents are determined by the electoral college, not a national vote.

Happy_Pants: Does Nikki Tsongas have a shot? Isn't there a viable candidate with a little less mileage?

Susan Milligan: I guess she's not your candidate for ''cutest'' member of the delegation. That's something for the fifth district voters to decide, not me.

oddjob60: Rather than personal life, what about personality? I just finished the profile of Obama in this week's New Yorker, which focused on how the search for compromise is a core part of Obama's political style, and perhaps a reason for his success. I found the insight useful because it helps me understand how a candidate might react to unexpected events.

Susan Milligan: I agree that someone's personality can be relevant and interesting, particularly as it goes to a candidate's decision-making process. But I also think we pay way too much attention to candidate's personal lives. I lived in Europe for five years, and was struck by the fact that there was almost no reference to candidates' families, never mind their own personal pasts. To the voters there, the president or prime minister wasn't someone they expected to be a role model in every area of their lives; it was just the person they hired to run the country.

asbach: Susan, I wish more people would look at the issues. Our problem is that people vote on a name, like you said Hillary has name recognition. She's not talking about the issues that the average Joe sees in their daily living to keep their family fed, working two to three jobs to survive. I think you should interview the common person and ask them what issues do they have to live in America and if they were president what they would do ... and then from that ask the candidates the same question and you'll have two different answers. Do you feel the same?

Susan Milligan: I think that's going to change as the campaign progresses. We have a couple of candidates with a kind of star power, and a lot of the attention they are getting is because of that. But you can't run on that between now and November '08. I have found that voters this year are in a very serious mood -- there are a lot of life-or-death issues at stake -- and I don't think voters will tolerate it if candidates don't address their issues.

asbach: Susan, do you think America is ready for a woman or minority president?

Susan Milligan: I'm always amused when this question comes up before the four white men who tend to appear on CNN in the afternoon, because I think it's a sugar-caoted way of asking whether there's still too much sexism or racism in the United States for a female, black, or Latino to become president. I guess we'll see. I do think the fact that we have a woman, a Mormon, a Latino, and an African-American in the race this year says something. And I don't think those candidates are defined -- at least not purely defined -- by those characteristics.

Susan Milligan: We're at the witching hour, folks, and I need to go back to my day job. Thanks for the chat, and if you want to follow up, you can e-mail me at milligan@globe.com

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