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Special Report

'Special Report' Panel on Battle Over Race in Democratic Presidential Contest

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume" from January 14, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: She made an ill-advised statement abou t Dr. King, and suggesting that Lyndon Johnson had more to do with the Civil Rights Act.

HILLARY CLINTON, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it is such an unfair and unwarranted attempt to misinterpret and mischaracterize what I said.

OBAMA: For them to somehow suggest that we're interjecting race as a consequence of a statement she made that we haven't commented on is pretty hard to figure out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIT HUME, HOST: Well, he's commented now, and that issue has become the centerpiece no w of the Democratic presidential race, at least for a few days, for the past few days.

Some thoughts on this now from Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, Mara Liasson, national political correspondent of National Public Radio, and Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call — FOX News contributors all.

Democrats fighting among themselves, it seems, over race — Mort, what is going on here?

MORT KONDRACKE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, ROLL CALL: They are fighting, and Hillary has been on the attack for a long time about anything that she can find in the Obama record to prove that he's not qualified to be president.

In New Hampshire, she was attacking on the ground that he was weak on abortion rights. And, obviously, he was not. So this has been going on for a long time.

HUME: What has that got to do with this?

KONDRACKE: This ought to be a tempest in a teapot, but it's blown out of the tea pot and it's now a real tempest.

The idea that Hillary Clinton devalues Martin Luther King is ridiculous. She did make an inartful comparison, which she should have said I made a mistake and what I meant was. . . and gotten over it.

But James Clyburn — and the Obama campaign did not pick up on this and start beating her over the head and accusing her of being racist — it was James Clyburn, a Democratic leader in South Carolina, who is neutral on this case, who raised the issue of whether she should have said this or not, and now it's been batting back and forth.

And today, late today, Obama said let's cut this out. Let's quit this now. Whether this is — I think he wants to take the high ground here, and I think that that will serve him well if he does.

HUME: Let's look at the average in the polling in South Carolina where there's a very large percentage of African-Americans in the Democratic voting population.

As you can see, that suggested Obama is enjoying a comfortable lead there, and with John Edwards, presumably, and Hillary Clinton fighting over the non-Obama vote.

But, Mara, is Obama calling it quits in a fight that was actually redounding to his own benefit?

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: I think the fight was redounding to his own benefit.

It is interesting — Clinton seems to be taking the approach that the best defense is a good offense, because even her campaign said exactly what Mort said, that this was an inartful way of making her point that she was ready to be president and he wasn't. He can give a good speech, but only she has the chops to get the stuff enacted, to get his dreams enacted.

After this basically burned up the airwaves on black radio — I mean, Obama wasn't the first one to come to this — and Jim Clyburn made his comments, only then she started saying, oh, this is Obama stirring this up, and somehow twisting my words.

HUME: He said he hadn't commented. I guess he later did. But at the time he wasn't commenting.

LIASSON: At the time he wasn't. But I think he has bent over backwards, actually, not to campaign as a black candidate but he can't, because the constraints on a black candidate are different than the constraints on a female candidate.

She can go out there in a full throated way and say I'm proud to be the first woman running for president. He does not going around contended I'm proud to be the first African-American campaigning for president —

HUME: There a good chance —

LIASSON: But I think —

HUME: And he doesn't do that because?

LIASSON: He doesn't do that because he perceives that that is not a good thing to do. And I think that —

HUME: In still racist America?

LIASSON: Yes. And I think there are different standards. I think he would be seen as an Al Sharpton if he did something like.

In any event, what is happening in South Carolina is he is way ahead. Those poll numbers you just put up on the board almost reflect the way that the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate is divided between almost 50 percent black, about 35 percent white women and about 15 percent white men, which, of course, you could say corresponds to the Edwards vote. I don't think that's exactly how it divides, but that's interesting.

And I think that, at some point, the Clintons have to decide what arguments are getting a purchase and what aren't. I don't think this race stuff is helping them, or comparing her to LBJ.

I think the general argument that he doesn't have experience, or where's the beef? — that is probably more fruitful for her.

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I don't think there's any race stuff here at all. I don't know what they're talking about.

Look, I mean, all Hillary Clinton said was something that is perfectly accurate and believable. She said, look, Martin Luther King was a great civil rights leader, but it took a powerful president, Lyndon Johnson, to get the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964.

No kidding — that's absolutely true. It is not dissing Martin Luther King to say that.

If bob Johnson gets up —

HUME: He's for Hillary. He's the guy that has founded black entertainment television and he has made a stupendous fortune. You see him around here a lot.

BARNES: Sure. And he may have made some comment that wasn't favorable to Obama, obviously referring to his use of marijuana and cocaine as a teenager — he denied it, but everybody knew it was.

But Obama wrote all of this in a book. Somehow is it out of bounds for him to mention that? This is a political campaign. These are adults, these are big people. Do we have to be so oversensitive to something in a book?

HUME: The question becomes why is Obama trying to call this off then if, as Mara suggested, it's probably helping him.

(CROSSTALK)

BARNES: Mort and I were talking about this earlier, and he corrected me. I said is he trying to call it off? And Mort made the distinction — no, he's taking the high road. That's not the same as calling it off. I agree, Mort.

HUME: Good point.

When we come back, we'll look at the Republican presidential race ahead of Tuesday's primary election in Michigan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Michigan's economic worries should be America's worries. Now, I don't know about the Washington politicians, but I can tell you this: if I am president, I will not rest until Michigan has come back.

JOHN MCCAIN, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will do everything I can to make sure the heartland of America, the state that saved the world during World War II, will again resume its rightful place in our economy and in our nation, and in the world.

ROMNEY: I say let's change the policy so we see them again, we see the jobs and we see the kind of families that can survive on them when we get them back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUME: Well, you wouldn't know it from that, but there has been a debate in Michigan, largely about who would do the most for Michigan, and, indeed, Romney has accused McCain of being pessimistic and saying that jobs will never come back. McCain seems to have gotten the idea that maybe he ought to say something else other than just saying it.

So if we look at the polls out there, the average of polls, anyway, you can see this race is a tie, at least as far as the polling can tell, with Romney and McCain basically the same — Mike Huckabee lagging, although there are people who think he has a real chance out there.

So, what's going on here, and how is this debate — who has made the right pitch to win this nomination, Fred? Can you tell?

BARNES: Oh, yes. I think it's pretty easy. It's clear that Romney wins the "do the most for Michigan" sweepstakes. He is promising to bring back the auto industry to the level it was 50 years ago, he is going to completely revive it.

But, I don't know, he is going to have to bomb some Toyota plants in order to do that, to bring market share —

HUME: As long as they're not plants in Michigan!

LIASSON: That's right. There are a lot there, too.

BARNES: It is funny to go to Michigan, particularly around Detroit where you don't see a lot of foreign cars. You don't see a lot of Toyotas.

LIASSON: Except coming off the assembly line.

BARNES: Yes.

But this is a state that Romney grew up in, and I think he's gotten the better of it so far, except for one thing: you just don't know, since Independents and Democrats can vote in this primary and they don't have any reason to vote on the Democratic side, and that why I don't know whether we can trust the polls or not because you don't know how many are going to show up and vote, and if they do it's probably for McCain.

HUME: Is it true that McCain made a mistake in emphasis if not in substance in the early days of this —

LIASSON: You mean too much straight talk about —

HUME: — too much about jobs that are not coming back when he was talking about certain kinds of jobs?

LIASSON: I'm not sure about that. I think what he said was the truth, that those jobs are not coming back.

He did have a plan, an economic dislocation plan to compensate people who lost their jobs. But I think the problem is that McCain hasn't had a strategy for Michigan. He had focused so much on New Hampshire he didn't have an organization. He didn't win there in 2000 — that was a lot of years ago.

And I do agree with Fred — he has to count on a huge influx of Independents and Democrats into that race to give him a win.

KONDRACKE: It's probably significant that McCain has dropped the lines in recent speeches that those jobs aren't coming back.

In fact, those jobs are not coming back, and everybody agrees that you have to have different jobs and better jobs, if you can possibly do it. But I would think that Democrats certainly don't want to hear that those jobs are never coming back.

Some independents might value the straight talk idea that McCain specializes in, but I thought that Romney's speech at the Detroit Economic Club today was pretty forceful, and it was "I'm going to get everybody together." That's his usual thing. "If I'm elected president, I'm going to get everybody together and we're going to figure out how to solve Michigan's problems."

But it was forceful and aggressive speech, and it may do him so good.

BARNES: They shouldn't act like it's America's fault that Michigan has this one-state recession —

HUME: Or Washington's.

BARNES: — or Washington's fault. It's not at all.

HUME: Is Romney pandering himself into being a non-conservative on these issues?

BARNES: Absolutely; of course he is.

LIASSON: That will be the interpretation.

BARNES: Well, it's my interpretation. I think that he's not taking a conservative approach. It's one that Washington will come out and bail you out, and you're such a great state. Michigan has done this largely to itself.

HUME: How?

BARNES: What has been the response recently of the further downturn in Michigan by the governor and by the legislature? They raised taxes. That's the dumbest idea I ever heard. They should be cutting taxes. They're driving people out of the state to go to sunbelt states where the economies are better.

It's been going on a long time, and it is still going on now. And it's Michigan's fault. It's not America's fault.

KONDRACKE: The idea of investing more in research is clearly a good idea.

HUME: If Romney wins, is he in the thick of it?

BARNES: Oh, yes. I never thought that Romney was out of it.

LIASSON: It's very important for both of them. Romney needs to win. I think he can go on as long as he wants. He has the money; neither of them have to drop out. But McCain has to show he can win somewhere other than New Hampshire.

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