Babs Chase serves as a Program Officer for the State Department's Foreign Press Center.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008 (Super Tuesday #2!)
For those who enjoy U.S. politics, there is nothing better than the excitement of an election or primary day, and an election like this one is a dream come true for political enthusiasts. Because of that, this was the perfect day for us to spend time with the political party representatives as you can feel the energy and passion in the room as their candidates race to the finish line. The excitement is catching for our journalists, and the questions flow with the representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties. One thing that I have learned in this position is that foreign media often know more about our political process than a lot of our own citizens.
Our day began at the Texas Capitol Building with Representative Mark Strama of Texas—a dynamic young leader in Texas politics with an easy-going, engaging demeanor. He has endorsed Senator Barack Obama and was able to talk frankly about his views on the primary. Official party leadership provides a great perspective in most instances, but during a primary they must remain neutral, so Representative Strama was a nice addition to the program. His passion for his candidate and unwavering belief in Obama’s ability to be the next President were impressive. He reminded the group that only four years ago, the leader of this “Movement for Change” was a mere State legislator—just like him. The group was amazed at how improbable Obama’s rise is and impressed that this could happen in the U.S., as a relative unknown would never rise that fast in their own countries.
We then had the privilege of meeting with local leadership of the Texas Republican Party -
Chairman Tina Benkiser and Hispanic Advisor Luis Saenz. Since we had no exposure to the Republican candidates, it was crucial for the journalists to get this perspective from the leadership. The primary was still in play, so they had to remain neutral; however, when asked, they expressed their thoughts that the party-conservatives and moderates will get behind Senator John McCain if he is the nominee and propel him to victory. The journalists seemed surprised that McCain could still be ahead in polls with less attention than Clinton and Obama, but the Chairman emphasized that the best indicator of how someone will act as president is how they have behaved in the past. According to Chairman Benkiser, Senator McCain has stayed strong and never taken the easy way out, a trait Benkiser said will serve him well in the general election.
We regrouped after lunch with Dr. Mary Dixson, Associate Director, Annette Strauss Institute of Civic Participation. Dr. Dixson is an impressive, accomplished woman leading a charge on the UT Austin campus to get younger generations-starting at high school- involved in making a difference in their communities. This election year has been a turning point for youth involvement, and the Institute could not be more thrilled. In many countries, riots and protests are the norm for youth wanting to express themselves. The dialogue from our briefing centered on the fact that it is time for the younger generation to realize they have a voice that will speak volumes louder than violence or protest. The journalists wanted to know if the involvement in this campaign is cyclical or a new movement, and, they learned that technology has changed the face of how they can engage and makes a long-term difference.
The most amazing thing the group discussed is that this new generation may never be able to imagine that an African-American or a woman has limitations. They have seen two African-American Secretaries of State in a row, and now they have seen an African-American and a woman in a fascinating race for the Presidency.
The group’s wish was granted, and we received the call from the Obama campaign that we would be able to attend the Primary Night rally in San Antonio. San Antonio is two hours from Austin, but we decided that a two-hour trip is nothing when you have traveled across the world to witness this election. It was a long night as the numbers trickled in and press was glued to the televisions in the filing room. As the gap grew, you could feel the disappointment spreading through the crowd. When Senator Obama took the stage, however, you would never know that he had not won…the crowd’s energy and support for their candidate were unwavering, and the journalists had a chance to see what they had heard.
The domestic press seems just as fascinated with the international attention to the primaries as the foreign press is with our process. Our foreign journalists have appeared on several local television and radio programs hopefully communicating to the U.S. viewing audiences that this election is more important than just the domestic issues--this is a world-wide fascination.
We talked afterwards about their overall impressions of the Primaries from their exposure this week. Our journalists’ analysis is that the continued contest between Senator Clinton and Senator Obama for the nomination will hurt the Democrats and strengthen the already decided Republican candidate John McCain.
Senator McCain’s candidacy intrigues a few of the journalists in that he has had a low media profile relative to the two Democratic candidates, but still remains ahead in the polls. All expressed thoughts that the Democrats will use the photos of President Bush’s endorsement against McCain, but also feel that some Republicans’ standoffish behavior towards him will continue to make him attractive to the moderates on both sides.
The bottom line is that the excitement of this race is catching and providing an amazing opportunity for America to highlight the great story of Democracy. We are giving these journalists a chance to witness the campaigns in action, and, by providing the access to the political leadership, giving them a chance to evaluate all angles of the process and communicate the “real campaign” to their audiences.
We will spend tomorrow morning beginning our aggressive look at the immigration debate then take off for Houston to focus on other key issues.