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Transcript of a politics chat with Globe reporter Susan Milligan

Susan Milligan: Hi, folks, and welcome to the Globe's politics chat. I'm the national political correspondent, based in Washington, and I'm happy to take your questions about the presidential campaign and other related topics. Fire away.

Nancy: The candidates seemed to enjoy themselves a bit more last night than they have in other debates. Perhaps it was the personality in the YouTube questions, perhaps it was just a fresh format. What did you think?

Susan Milligan: I agree. The questions were terrific -- frank, unapologetic and direct. And so I think we got a bit more directness from the candidates themselves. Individual voters can ask questions that would sound biased from a reporter -- and here I'm thinking, for example, of the questioner who asked Obama if he was "authentically'' African-American or the Brooklyn women who asked the candidates if they could marry each other. But those kinds of questions can produce some pretty interesting answers. Also, I think the fact that the questioners were on video made it somehow more personal -- even though they weren't in the room.

Todd: I thought John Edwards's comment that he was a better candidate for women than Hillary Clinton was bogus. Imagine if a candidate had said they were better for the black population than Barack Obama. I think it was a dumb thing to say.

Susan Milligan: Well, clearly the mere existence of Clinton's and Obama's candidacies does something for women and African-Americans, respectively, because of the example it sets for equality of opportunity. But do you think someone has to be female to advocate for women's issues or black to do the same for African-Americans? Joe Biden, actually, has a strong record on women's issues in the Senate. And Ted Kennedy has certainly done his share for civil rights.

nitpick: I heard on the radio that Bush is going to Charleston today to plead for more time and patience on Iraq. Is it a coincidence that he's going to the site of the Democratic debate?

Susan Milligan: Maybe. He was invited by Senator Lindsey Graham. Charleston is a popular debate and campaign site, since its primary is early. But it's also a conservative state with a military college, which makes it a good place for Bush to push his Iraq policy.

nitpick: Were you at the debate? In general, what are some aspects that readers miss from watching the debate on TV?

Susan Milligan: I watched it from Washington. I have found that traveling to another city and sitting in a filing center, watching the debate on TV there, provides no more insight than watching it on TV from here. Because of deadlines -- the debate ended at 9 and I had to send my story to my editor by 9:30 -- it would be impossible to sit in the debate hall and then start writing when the debate was finished. Further, I think it's good to see the debate as America sees it -- which is on TV.

fromMA: I have to tell you that I liked the debate format. Many of the questions were better than we usually get, however the candidates still would go to their stump speech each time -- but all in all I liked the format.

Susan Milligan: Me, too. What was great was that this debate showed as much -- perhaps more -- about what the Democratic electorate is thinking as it did what the Democratic candidates are thinking. And the voters are the deciders, as Bush might say, after all.

political hack: any chance the Republicans will do a YouTube debate?

Susan Milligan: There are plans for one -- I believe in September.

cotter: Who will be the next candidate to drop out of the race after Jim Gilmore's exit last weekend?

Susan Milligan: Amazing, isn't it? Candidates are dropping out this cycle at an earlier time than candidates actually got into the race in previous election cycles. Bill Clinton didn't even announce until the fall of 1991. So who's the next one to go? Hard to say -- you can't assume that the least-funded candidate will drop out first. Sometimes, the shoestring-budget contenders stay in longer than those who had been running in second or third place in the polls or in the fund-raising competition. I like having them around -- I think issues get raised that ordinarily would not be addressed -- but it is tough, trying to keep track of 17 (and a half, if you include Fred Thompson) candidates.

Dauber: Hi, Susan. Thanks for taking my question! I have been thinking about this for a few weeks -- since the Globe did a piece on N.H. Secretary of State Bill Gardner. He said it's important to be neutral and objective with such an important position. With that in mind, was it appropriate for Katherine Harris to be co-chair of Bush's 2000 campaign in Florida as she was the state's secretary of state? I guess it's easy to look back and second-guess now, but is it really right for a person of such crucial importance (especially in a swing state) to be chairing a presidential campaign? Trying not to pick on Harris too much -- does that happen frequently?

Susan Milligan: Thanks for the question, and for drawing attention to the beautifully written piece on Gardner by my friend Brian Mooney. I can think of one other example of a secretary of state getting politically involved -- Ken Blackwell, who was an honorary co-chairman of George Bush's campaign in Ohio in 2004. That, of course, was a key state, and there were allegations of voter fraud. Blackwell (who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year) said at the time that his position as "co-chair'' was merely honorary and carried no real power.

fromMA: Could there be a Hillary-Obama ticket, or are the egos too large?

Susan Milligan: I can't predict it one way or the other, but I doubt that would happen. First of all, both are from Illinois, so such a ticket provides no regional advantage. And while I won't weigh in on whether the two senators' egos are "too large,'' I do think it's unusual to have a president and vice president who both are big attention-getters. Either one could upstage the other, and no president wants to be upstaged by his or her veep.

bill03909: Debate confirmed that I will never vote for Hillary.

Susan Milligan: Well, I guess the debate was useful for you, then. I do think debates don't tend to change people's minds -- they are more likely to do what this one did for you,which is to make you feel more confident about your choice.

Dauber: What about Fred Thompson? It seems to me he is entering the race because there is no heir apparent to the GOP nomination as usual. Do you think that's true or does Thompson have real convictions and beliefs in why he's running and what he stands for?

Susan Milligan: I don't think those two things are mutually exclusive. The GOP activists I've talked to in the past six months have made clear they are not happy with the current crop of Republican candidates -- and many said they like Thompson and see him as a genuine conservative. But voters' (and rivals') eyes tend to become more critical once someone is actually in the race.

Don't Reelect anyone: I am so disgusted by the process that we have in America. The Democrats run to the left in the primaries. The Republicans run to the right, and then they both run to the middle in the general election. Say anything and spend any amount to get elected. We get the government we deserve, I guess?

Susan Milligan: From the questions I heard last night, I'm not sure voters will let them get away with that this election cycle.

Don't Reelect anyone: I like divided government because I think it prevents each party from going to excess. Bush obviously cost the Republicans the House and Senate, but I fear that he has so badly damaged the Republicans that we're in for Democratic control of government for a while -- which will lead to their own forms of excess/corruption etc. Agree?

Susan Milligan: I agree that the Republicans are in danger of suffering the same fate as the Democrats did for the better part of six years. Democratic presidential candidates are attracting more donations and bigger crowds than the GOP candidates. And while both chambers of Congress are still closely divided, it's going to be tough for the GOP to take back control of either one, especially since there are more GOP senators up for reelection next year than Democrats. The Globe has written extensively about the dangers of one-party rule -- lack of tough oversight being one of them -- and we'll continue that coverage.

baldguy: Has Bill been keeping those paws down while he's on the campaign trail?

Susan Milligan: It sounds to me like you've already formed an impression, but if you're asking me if he's had extramarital affairs of late, I don't know. I've not heard anything of that sort.

Dauber: Thanks again for taking my questions! It's supposed to be a "change election" in '08, and you mentioned voters won't let candidates get away with not being genuine. What is different about the electorate in '08? And will voters truly reject a candidate who seems to be pandering just to get elected?

Susan Milligan: Let's start out with an acknowledgement that American voters have fewer real choices than voters in many other countries do, because we have a two-party system that makes it virtually impossible for a third-party candidate to be elected president. That being said, an active and demanding electorate can force candidates to give answers and offer solutions. What's different this year? A lot of voter disenchantment, coupled with a new sense of empowerment provided by the Internet. Young voters are already using the Internet extensively to organize, and last night's debate showed that people of all ages can become involved in the process.

Don't Reelect anyone: Nobody's talking about the Medicare tidal wave that is forming because there are no easy answers. Why is there no intelligent debate going on in the US government?

Susan Milligan: Medicare and Social Security are indeed topics of debate, but you're right in noting that both issues are often avoided by presidential candidates because they are so politically risky. The population is aging and people are living longer, putting financial pressure on both programs. But no one wants to tell older voters that their benefits might be cut or that the eligibility age might be raised.

a nick: Do you think Bill will be an asset for Hillary's campaign? Do you think he has the ability to pull some fence-sitters over to her, or does he just excite the faithful?

Susan Milligan: I covered Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, and I had never seen -- and have not seen since -- such a tireless and effective campaigner. He had this incredible ability to connect with people, even in big crowds, and no candidate I have seen since then -- including Senator Clinton -- comes close. She will need to be her own person in the campaign, or risk looking like a tag-along to her husband. But he can certainly help, even if it's just motivating the base. And exciting the party faithful is no small accomplishment -- turnout can make the difference in close elections.

new: Susan, do you think that the major Republican candidates are willing to stick with and sink with President Bush's Iraq policy through the election year? Where would they go otherwise?

Susan Milligan: Great question -- and the answer, I think, may determine the election next year. Right now, the GOP candidates (except Ron Paul, who voted against the Iraq war resolution and continues to be antiwar) are appealing to the base and sticking with Bush. But both Bush and the war are widely unpopular -- Bush in a recent poll ranked lower than Vice President Cheney, which I think is a first. If the war is still going on in the thick of the campaign next year, I think it's going to be hard for a pro-war GOP candidate to win. I think we may see some movement in September, when General Petraeus issues his report on progress in Iraq. That would give some of the Republicans an opportunity to say, hey, we gave to surge a chance to work and it did/didn't.

Susan Milligan: Well, that's the end of our hour together, folks. Thanks for your questions, and you can e-mail me at s_milligan@globe.com.

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