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Candidates Adopt 'Change' Mantra in N.H. Debates

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Transcript

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

NPR's David Folkenflik is following the rhetoric that's flying around during this campaign. And he's found many candidates were fighting last night during the debates over one word in particular.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Everybody was getting into the act.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Change.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Change.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Change.

(Soundbite of song "Changes")

FOLKENFLIK: Those Democratic candidates minus David Bowie were hawking at change during last night's debate hosted by ABC, WMUR-TV and the Facebook online social network. That theme helped catapult Barack Obama to victory in Iowa and has landed him neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire polls. In the debate, Obama made his case.

Sen. OBAMA: I think it's easy to be cynical and just say, you know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change. But, in fact, there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better. And I think we're in one of those moments right now.

FOLKENFLIK: Obama didn't even have to clear his throat to convey who he thinks would be a president who inspires. And John Edwards was clearly saying, hey, me too.

So when Hillary Clinton chimed in to defend him from criticism from Obama, Edwards refused her help.

Mr. EDWARDS: What will occur every time he speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack every single time.

FOLKENFLIK: Clinton sought to claim the mantle of change for herself.

Sen. CLINTON: I want to make change, but I've already made change. I will continue to make change.

FOLKENFLIK: And no, the good senator does not aspire to give you two fives for a ten anytime soon. She says she's not just running of president on a promise, but on a record of 35 years in public life.

Sen. CLINTON: I think it is clear that what we need is somebody who can deliver change, and we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered. The best way to know what change I will produce is to look at the changes that I've already made.

FOLKENFLIK: And the rhetorical pivot is one of the changes she's made after a third place finish in Iowa and the erosion of her strong lead in New Hampshire.

Dr. LARRY PRELLI (Chair, Department of Communications, University of New Hampshire): It's a common sense appeal if you're going to - to want to change things, then it would be good to have someone who can point to a track record, saying, well, I handled these issues.

Larry Prelli is a professor at the University of New Hampshire who studies rhetoric, propaganda and political persuasion. He says Clinton risks being seen as part of the politics of the past.

Dr. PRELLI: Then this is the problem that she's having, that her strength, the virtue of having experience can readily be painted into the vice of status quoism.

FOLKENFLIK: Clinton is following the path of then-Texas governor George W. Bush, who got clobbered in the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary. John McCain won there on a platform of reform, so Mr. Bush regrouped.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And I've got a record of reform with results, and the question is does my opponent?

FOLKENFLIK: And we all know how that one ended up. This time, with President Bush toxic for a lot of voters in both parties, the idea of change seeped into the Republican debate last night, too, from Mitt Romney who lost in Iowa and is now tied with McCain in New Hampshire.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate) For 25 years I brought at company after company. In the Olympics - it was in trouble - I brought change. In Massachusetts, I brought change. I have done it.

FOLKENFLIK: With both primaries going down to the wire, the one thing the candidates most want to change are the minds of the New Hampshire voters.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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