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Breaking News: Pro-Clinton push poll erupts in California

February 3, 2008 |  1:27 am

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Ed Coghlan was just starting to prepare his dinner in the northern San Fernando Valley the other night when the phone rang. The caller was very friendly. He identified himself as a pollster who wanted to ask registered independents like Coghlan a few questions about the presidential race and all the candidates for Super Tuesday's California primary.

Ed, who's a former news director for a local TV station, was curious. He said, "Sure, go ahead."

But a few minutes into the conversation Ed says he noticed a strange pattern developing to the questions. First of all, the "pollster" was only asking about four candidates, three Democrats -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, who was still in the race at the time -- and one Republican -- John McCain.

Also, every question about Clinton was curiously positive, Coghlan recalls. The caller said things like, if you knew that Sen. Clinton believed the country had a serious home mortgage problem and had made proposals to....

freeze mortgage rates and save families from foreclosure, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for her?

Ed said, of course, more likely.

Every question about the other candidates was negative. If Ed knew, for instance, that as a state senator Obama had voted "present" 43 times instead of taking a yes or no stand "for what he believed," would Ed be more or less likely to vote for him?

"That's when I caught on," said Coghlan. He realized then that he was being push-polled. That malicious political virus that is designed not to elicit answers but to spread positive information about one candidate and negative information about all others under the guise of an honest poll had arrived in Southern California within days of the important election.

It could become an issue in the closing hours of the campaign.

Someone who obviously favors Hillary Clinton is paying an unidentified company to spread this material phone call by phone call among independent voters, who can, according to California party rules, opt to vote in the Democratic but not the Republican primary on Feb. 5, when nearly two dozen states will choose a large chunk of the delegates to the parties' national conventions next summer.

Coghlan said he was offended by such underhanded tactics and knew he was going to get out a warning about this dirty trick, but he said he played along for the full 20-minute "poll."

"The guy was very slick, very personable," Coghlan told the Ticket. "He never fell out of character as a pollster the entire time. He seemed interested in my answers and just kept going through his list of questions as if he was noting my answers. He was very good, very smooth."

For instance, the caller inquired, had Ed watched a recent Democratic debate? Ed said yes. And who did Ed think had won the debate? the pollster inquired.

Coghlan replied, honestly, that he thought Edwards had won because he was calmer and more reasoned didn't get involved in all the petty arguing and finger-pointing like the other two. Now, the pollster said, if Ed knew that most people believed John Edwards could not get elected in a general election, would Ed be more or less likely to vote for him?

Ed said, oh, well then, less, of course. And the caller appeared to make a note of that.

"He was not pushy at all," Coghlan said. "And at the end he thanked me for giving him my opinions."

Phil Singer, the spokesman for the Clinton campaign. was contacted by e-mail last night. He answered that he was there. He was asked if the Clinton campaign was behind the push-poll, knew who was behind it or had any other information on it. That was at 5:27 p.m. Pacific time Saturday. As of this item's posting time, exactly eight hours later, no reply had been received.

--Andrew Malcolm

Photo: Robyn Beck AFP/Getty Images

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