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Democrats Pulling No Punches At GOP Rivals


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The Democratic National Convention is underway in North Carolina. We'll speak with the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Philadelphia's Michael Nutter, about some of the local issues mayors are thinking about as they gather in Charlotte.

But first we want to talk about the message the Democrats are trying to send from the convention podium. Last night's keynote speaker was San Antonio's Mayor Julian Castro. He shared his American dream story.


MAYOR JULIAN CASTRO: My mother fought hard for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone.

MARTIN: And First Lady Michelle Obama made her best case for her husband's re-election. We wanted to get reviews of yesterday's opening night speeches. So we've called upon two trusted political thinkers. Joining us now from Charlotte are Maria Cardona. She's a Democratic strategist and a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee; and Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and a frequent guest on this program. Welcome back to you both. It's so good to talk to you again.

MARIA CARDONA: Thanks so much.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: So let me start with Michelle Obama's speech. Let me just play a brief clip of what she said.


MICHELLE OBAMA: For Barack, success isn't about how much money you make, it's about the difference you make in people's lives.

MARTIN: Maria Cardona, who was Michelle Obama speaking to, and how do you think she did?

CARDONA: I think she did fantastic. I think she knocked it out of the park with her speech last night, Michel. She was speaking to both swing voters last night, as well as to the base. And I think what she was trying to do for base voters, what she did an outstanding job of last night, was to really make sure that they were fired up, that she lit the enthusiasm fuse, which, you know, we've seen in some polls, that the Democratic enthusiasm has been lagging a little bit.

I don't think it's going to be lagging after last night. So I think that she absolutely did that in a critical way by going through from a personal standpoint and talking about her husband as a father, as her life partner, as a husband, even as a former suitor. But I also think she was talking to swing voters and pretty much doing the same thing but also doing something I think that was critical.

You know, a lot of people talk about the disenchantment and disillusionment of a lot of the voters who voted for Barack Obama, hoping for that hope and change and disappointed that it hasn't come fast enough. Well, regret is not the same as disillusionment. So I think she was talking to those voters who were perhaps disillusioned and saying, look, this is the same guy that you voted for four years ago. He has done a very good job, he's fighting for the middle class, he's fighting the working class, and he's fighting for all those who have been really hurt in this recession.

But you know what? The recession was so large and so big, he's going to need four more years to do it, and I'm here to tell you that he's going to continue to do that, and he's not going to fail.

MARTIN: Ruben, Maria gave us a lot to work with here. I just wanted to focus on one aspect of the base that she talked about. There was a big focus on women the whole night, the Democratic women of the House of Representatives took the stage, Nancy Keenan, head of an abortion rights group, NARAL; Lilly Ledbetter, who's the face of the Fair Pay Act.

Now, you're known for your independent view of things. I want to ask you whether you think this was a good strategic move, and how do you compare it with the Republicans, who also made an appeal to women last week?

NAVARRETTE: I think it was a good strategic move because you want to go at your opponent's weakness, and both parties play the same game about going after weakness. And clearly Mitt Romney and the Republican Party have a very definite weakness when it comes to women voters, and they did even before the Todd Akin remarks and certainly much more after that.

So this was a very smart idea. You know, maybe at the end the two campaigns sort of cancel each other out in terms of both making an open pitch to go after, to go after that women's vote. I think if both political parties, though, were honest, they would say that they'd have to do a lot more internally to advance women who have political careers and not necessarily block the path of certain women who want to ascend to the next rung on the political ladder.

Republicans do not a good job of that, but neither do Democrats. And so both parties need to be held accountable.

MARTIN: I'm joined by syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, that's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. We're catching up on last night's opening night of the Democratic National Convention. The Democrats are meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, of course.

And Julian Castro was the other big, you know, headliner last night, the mayor of San Antonio. He became the first Latino to keynote the DNC last night, of course he's certainly not the first Latino to give a high-profile speech, but he's the first person who's been sort of designated the keynote speaker.

Ruben, you wrote a very I would say flattering piece earlier this week about Mayor Castro for CNN. You said you would not be surprised if Mr. Obama's support among Latinos jumped five points overnight thanks to Mr. Castro. Really? Tell us a little bit more about that. And did he deliver?

NAVARRETTE: Well, it's kind of a low bar. I mean I've written ad nauseum about the fact that Barack Obama has had trouble energizing Latinos. Others have said the same thing about young voters and Latinos together. Charlie Cook just did a piece for National Journal that makes the same point about Latino enthusiasm lagging.

And the reason it's lagging is because of Obama's deportation record and his heavy-handed dealing with immigration as an issue. So the Julian Castro speech in that context was very important, and I think Julian Castro did Barack Obama a big favor last night by delivering a speech that energized Latinos.

Maria and I were watching it together in the CNN booth. I don't think she'll mind me saying that both of us, you know, got chills down our spine at various times. This was a speech that many of our family members, our community members around the country, 50 million Latinos in this country could relate to.

They saw themselves, and they heard themselves in this speech. This was very well put together, and it was about freaking time, Michel, because Latinos have delivered for Democrats in 13 presidential elections dating back to 1960. As they say, (Spanish spoken) - it was about time.

MARTIN: Maria?

CARDONA: Yeah, I couldn't agree more with Ruben in terms of how effective this speech was. I got chills. I cried in several instances in this speech. That line that you played on the air about the hard work of his mother and his grandmother so that he could be holding a microphone instead of holding a mop, that is a story that speaks not just to the 50 million, 50 million Latinos that are in the country, Michel, but that is the quintessential American story, whether you are an immigrant who just got here or whether your family came here and has been here for generations.

We are a country of immigrants. So I think in that respect, it really spoke to the kinds of stories that we have heard firsthand, secondhand, thirdhand, fourthhand. So I think in that, it was very effective.

I agree in terms of the enthusiasm, it will absolutely help, and certainly right now Obama is 30, sometimes 40 points, depending on the poll that you see, ahead in terms of support for Latino voters. But there is absolutely no question that in order to take advantage of that support, he's got to do everything that he can to again light that enthusiasm fuse, which is the same thing I said about Michelle with women, but last night with Julian Castro - he went a long way to lighting that fuse, which I think will go up until November.

MARTIN: Before we go, you know, we talked about Latino voters, we talked about women voters. You know, white voters still make up more than 75 percent of the electorate, at least they did in 2008. And I think you saw - two of the speeches that perhaps have not gotten as much attention today, but I wanted to ask you about the governors, Martin O'Malley of Maryland; and the former governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland.

And both of them made the argument that really took aim at Mitt Romney in some very strong terms, arguing that he's out of touch, that he's not in fact - I mean using the term not an economic patriot. And I'll just play a short clip of Ted Strickland's comments in saying that Romney's just out of touch with the average American. Here's a little of what he said.


TED STRICKLAND: If Mitt was Santa Claus, he would fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.

MARTIN: So who's chuckling there? Both of you are sort of chuckling. Ruben, I'll ask you this. You know, is that an effective message?

NAVARRETTE: I think it is - yes and no. In a state like Ohio, it is for those people who are wrapped up in the auto industry, who credit Barack Obama for saving that industry, who look at somebody like Mitt Romney, and they really can't relate to him, and they feel that he doesn't understand their problem and their pain.

But the reason Ohio is not in one category or the other, the reason it's the quintessential swing state and a battleground state is because there are plenty of Republicans in a state like Ohio as well, who feel completely differently about that economic issue. So you know, that's why this is an interesting game, because sure, we don't know - it bears out that - mentioning - that Strickland is no longer the governor of Ohio.

So I think that it's a very close race in those battleground states precisely because people do view these economic issues in really fundamentally different ways.

MARTIN: I think he was making the argument that the people in Ohio have buyer's remorse, I mean that they elected John Kasich and now this is what you've got. I think that was partly what he was there for. But Maria Cardona, you're the communications expert here. Do you think that that's an effective message? The polls show that this race is deadlocked.


MARTIN: And there's very little margin, you know, for error here and a very small margin will determine this.

CARDONA: That is absolutely right, Michel, and for that reason I do think it was an effective message because right now, we see that Barack Obama is winning the minority support by, like, 80 percent and he's got the white vote by, like, 40 percent. And in order to win - those are good margins in order for him to win, but he still has to maximize a little bit more of the white vote in order to make sure that he gets there in terms of the electoral votes that he needs, and Ohio is critical.

And so I think that that kind of message does speak to those disaffected voters, those folks that Ruben talked about that perhaps don't see Romney as somebody who really understands them. But I'll say this. Do you know who's going to be incredibly effective at doing that, Michel?

MARTIN: Who is that?

CARDONA: Is Bill Clinton, tonight because...

NAVARRETTE: Right. Oh, yeah.

CARDONA: ...because he is - yeah - he is the one that those voters really look to and they remember how he felt their pain, and so I think he will be critical to keeping that message, underscoring that continued message that Ted Strickland started last night.

MARTIN: OK. Final thought from you, Maria. Ruben, I gave - who did I give the first word to? Maria, I gave you the first word, so I'll give Ruben the final word here. Does it really matter? There were terrible ratings for the RNC last week. Gallup said that Mitt Romney got basically no bump from the convention and apparently there was, like, a cable show about a child, you know, pageant that got better ratings than the RNC on one of the key nights. So does it really matter, after all the time we spend talking about this?

NAVARRETTE: I think the conventions - maybe the conventions are waning in their importance overall. You'll never convince members of the media of that. You know, we live and die for these things, but I think for most Americans, they make up their mind about how they feel about Barack Obama not based on what Julian Castro said or Michelle Obama said or Rahm Emanuel said at the convention, but because of, you know, bread and butter issues and other issues.

So yeah. It's a part of our process. It's not - I guess it's not going anywhere, but it's good to sort of keep people in check and remind people that independent of whatever the talking chattering class thinks at a given moment about the importance of these conventions, what really matters is what's happening at the dinner table.

MARTIN: Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a frequent guest on this program. He was with us from Charlotte. Also with us, Maria Cardona, Democratic strategist and a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee. She was with us from Radio Row at the DNC in Charlotte.

Thank you both so much.

CARDONA: Thank you.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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