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Forget national polls, it’s Iowa

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" looks at the Democratic debate in Las Vegas and on toward the Iowa caucuses.
/ Source: NBC News

MSNBC: Tim, your name became a verb this past week. Somebody in the Clinton campaign was talking about Wolf Blitzer not pulling a “Russert” on her last night.

Tim Russert: You know that’s the kind of smoke the campaigns throw out on both sides now.  They wanted to distract people from the issues. Questions about immigration, Social Security, Iraq, Iran.  That’s what people want to hear about, that’s what I’m going to keep on asking.

We saw a different Hillary Clinton last night, she was on the offense, she realized two weeks ago this is not a coronation, that she has to get out there and fight for the nomination.

MSNBC: As you mentioned, in that last debate, Hillary Clinton stumbled and it seemed some of her challengers really picked themselves up and got back in the race.  Thursday night did she seem strong, and did it seem to you the audience felt her opponent’s opposition to her was too strident?

Russert: Well, it was quite striking.  The audience was allowed to participate in the debate last night, which I do think had a profound influence on it.

The first fifteen minutes there was a crisp exchange between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. When the audience began to voice their support for comments or displeasure with comments it seemed to influence behavior.

Senator Clinton, a couple of weeks ago in Philadelphia seemed somewhat stunned when some of the opposition began to criticize her position. Last night she was very much on the offense. She came prepared to criticize them for their positions and their views.

One thing that is clear is that there are differences between these candidates.  There are differences between Obama and Clinton on social security, on health care, on Iran, on Iraq, and I think that’s healthy for voters to hear.

MSNBC: Some are saying Joe Biden did pretty well Thursday night, but is it already too late for anybody other than Clinton, Obama, or Edwards?

Russert: Well he’s a long shot, there is no doubt about it, but we still have 47 days left before the caucuses. We saw, four years ago at this time, Howard Dean way in front, and suddenly John Kerry come out of nowhere and win the Iowa caucuses.

It looks like, today, it’s a three way dead heat – Clinton, Obama and Edwards.

I think the national polls are meaningless; Iowa is a huge importance to whoever wins, because if you win that on January 3rd, five days later you go to New Hampshire with momentum.

MSNBC: Toward the end of the debate, one of the questions that came from the audience was on the issue how, whoever wins, will lead the country when it is so divided.  Did anyone give a great answer to that?

Russert: it’s a huge challenge to the next president. The fact is, “solving” issues like Social Security, healthcare, Medicare, the war in Iraq, and the situation with Iran, really do require a united and galvanized country to deal with it.

You never solve these huge crises when its 50 or 51 votes. Generally, when you have a large solution, you build a wide bipartisan consensus, and that’s hard to come by in our polarized politics.

MSNBC: What do you have coming up on this weekend?

Russert: We are going to look at both Iowa and New Hampshire and the latest polls, the emerging differences on issues.

The national polls?  Forget them. I’ve never seen such a volatile race, a three way dead heat on the Democratic side, two or three candidates on the Republican side. It is the first time since 1952 where the incumbent president’s or vice president’s name hasn’t been on the ballot. Just get ready to strap yourself in; we’re going to put it into focus on Sunday, on .

We’ll also have a remarkable look back at the 60 year history of Meet the Press.