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The Inner Workings Of The Romney Campaign


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Forty-seven percent, the Palestinians have no interest in peace, and it would be easier to get elected president as a Latino. It's Wednesday and time for a...

MITT ROMNEY: Not elegantly stated...

CONAN: Edition of the political junkie.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.


CONAN: Every Wednesday, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. And a dreadful week for Mitt Romney includes reports of disarray and dysfunction on the campaign staff, an attempt to reshape the message that was promptly buried by the Mother Jones tapes, and now a new Pew poll shows Romney losing ground.

Meanwhile, the president raises money and visits David Letterman. In a few minutes, we'll focus on the Romney campaign with Politico's editor-in-chief, John Harris. Later in the program, we'll talk about the upcoming Senate races this year. But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us, as usual, here in Studio 3A. And as usual, we begin with a trivia question. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, Neal. Well, you said Romney's had a bad week. I think he's had a bad month. It's been pretty amazing. But we'll talk about that in a bit. OK, a record number of women are running for the Senate this year, 18, which breaks the record of 14 that was set two years ago.

In three contests, California, New York and Hawaii, both major-party candidates are women. So the question is: Who was the first woman to win a Senate race in which her opponent was a fellow woman.

CONAN: Can you say fellow woman? Yeah, really good, Ken, that's...

RUDIN: Which nobody can deny.


CONAN: OK, if you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, the first woman to win a Senate race in which her opponent was also female, give us a call, 800-989-8255.

RUDIN: That was a better way of putting it.

CONAN: Email talk@npr.org. That's why you get paid the big bucks for that sort of thing.

RUDIN: As you should.

CONAN: In the meantime, the full Romney tapes came out yesterday, and boy this has not helped.

RUDIN: It hasn't, and, of course, it obscures the message that Romney is trying to give. Of course a lot of people don't know what that message is, but basically if you make the case that there is incoherent Obama foreign policy, as we've seen perhaps in the Mideast; if there is some - a lot of concerns and doubts about the economic stability, although there are some signs that there is some improvement, but still there's 8.1 percent out of work and a lot of people who've just stopped looking for work, you would think that Romney would have the case - at least a case to make against four more years for Barack Obama.

But if it's not the Clint Eastwood looking at - you know, debating the empty chair or speaking out too soon, Mitt Romney speaking out too soon...

CONAN: On Libya.

RUDIN: On Libya, right, the violence there. And now this video that was unearthed from I guess a May fundraiser, where he basically writes off half the population, says we don't have to worry about them, we're not concerned about this people. And to talk about the fact that, you know, forget about any kind of Mideast peace, which is not the kind of thing that a future president wants to say, it's not a good week.

CONAN: And the political effect of this at the very least costs him another week.

RUDIN: It does, exactly right, because as we saw, he had to come back with a press conference and try to explain saying, as you hear earlier, this was not an elegant way of describing it. But, you know, you need to be elegant with - it's not 47 days, we talk about 47 percent, but it's about 47, 48 days left until the election - and as you say, it's another week without making his case and more spent on backtracking and apologizing and explaining what he said.

CONAN: And here's what he said yesterday, as he made an appearance on - well, right into the lion's den on Fox News.

ROMNEY: This focuses a great deal of attention on whether or not we're going to have a government that becomes larger, that tells us what kind of health insurance we have to have, that under the president, he's indicated he wants to raise taxes, raising taxes on small business, about a million small businesses. That's going to kill jobs.

Look, look, the president is borrowing a trillion dollars more than we're taking in every year. It's a pathway that looks more European than American in my view.

CONAN: And that's the case he wants to make, but he continually gets questions about have you - have you - describing half the country as moochers.

RUDIN: Well, that's exactly the point. What you just heard him say on Fox made sense, and that's the argument he wants to do, but if he's not doing a sit-down interview and talking about how much he likes Snookie, whoever Snookie is - no, I know who Snookie is - and having to backtrack again. He just keeps doing this over and over again.

And we saw a little of those gaffes during the primaries, you know, corporations are people, things like that. He just has to - he just has this knack of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

CONAN: In the meantime, the Obama campaign was quick to capitalize. They sent out a Web commercial yesterday that had people looking at an iPad version of Romney's remarks, and then it had them reacting.



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I actually felt sick to my stomach.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I don't like it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It shows that he's out of touch, that if he thinks that half to the country is feel like - feeling like victims.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Victims? I wouldn't say so. I don't think that's part of the American fabric.

CONAN: And this is going to be a theme of political commercials between now and election day.

RUDIN: And in the last couple of days, the last two days, we had three Republican Senate candidate - Scott Brown, Dean Heller of Nevada and Linda McMahon in Connecticut - all expressing their displeasure with Romney's 47-percent comment or saying that they wouldn't have - they wouldn't have phrased it that way.

CONAN: And in the meantime, as you mentioned the Middle East, another issue that's come up is the prime minister of Israel, who's had disagreements, public disagreements now, with the president of the United States and appeared on the talk shows on Sunday to insist that he needs the president of the United States to draw a red line over which if Iran continues progress toward a nuclear weapon - which he believes they're building, many in the United States believe they're building one, too - it - the president needs to draw a red line. Pass that, it will trigger a U.S. military attack.

And he was asked about interfering in American politics.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I'm not going to be drawn into the American election. And what's guiding my statements is not the American political calendar, but the Iranian nuclear calendar.

CONAN: Nevertheless he is seen as interfering in American politics for his friend Mitt Romney.

RUDIN: Well, there's no - first of all, they do know each other from their years ago I guess in Boston. But there's no question that Netanyahu really prefers Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. And you don't know, you know, all the imponderables between now and election day on November 6th, you don't know what's going to happen.

Of course we have the debates coming up, and we have more economic numbers coming up. But we also have the volatile situation in the Mideast where something crazy, something insane could happen, and it could also affect the dynamics of the race.

CONAN: In the meantime, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, the first woman to be elected to the United States Senate when her opponent was also a female.

RUDIN: A fellow woman.

CONAN: A fellow woman, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. We'll start with Tony(ph), Tony with us from Louisville.

TONY: Yeah, Hillary Clinton?

RUDIN: Well, Hillary Clinton did run for the Senate twice in 2000 and 2006 but never against another woman.


CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.


CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to - this is Emily(ph), Emily with us from Durham, North Carolina.

EMILY: Kay Bailey Hutchison?

CONAN: In Texas.

RUDIN: Well, Kay Bailey Hutchison did run against, as you well remember, Barbara Ann Radnofsky in 2006.

CONAN: That was on the tip of my tongue.

RUDIN: But she was not the first woman to run against another woman.

CONAN: And win.

RUDIN: And win.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Emily. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Wayne(ph), Wayne with us from Clearwater in Florida.

WAYNE: Good day, gentleman. How about Olympia Snowe, second term?

RUDIN: Well, her second term she didn't run against a woman, but she did run against a woman in her third term, Jean Hay Bright in 2006. But again, she's not the first woman to defeat another woman.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

WAYNE: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'll go next to - this is Will(ph), and Will's with us from Charlotte.

WILL: Hi there. The answer is Kay Hagan beating Elizabeth Dole in 2008.

RUDIN: Right, that did happen, but again that's 2008. That's not the first time it's happened.

CONAN: We'll get some more people on the line. Let's see if we can go - thanks very much for that. Let's go to John(ph), John with us from Prescott, Arizona.

JOHN: Was it Barbara Mikulski and Linda Chavez in Maryland in the '80s?

RUDIN: That's a very good guess because that is the second time it happened.

CONAN: Ooh, ooh.

RUDIN: Barbara Mikulski beat Linda Chavez in 1986 for Mac Mathias' Senate seat, but that is the second time it happened, not the first.

CONAN: OK, we don't hand out silver political junkie no-prize T-shirts.

RUDIN: Or half-T-shirts, one sleeve.

CONAN: Let's go to Aaron(ph), Aaron's on the line from Salt Lake City.

AARON: Hi, is it Margaret Chase Smith in Maine?

RUDIN: Well, Margaret Chase Smith is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: As you well remember, 1960, Margaret Chase Smith against Lucia Cormier in Maine, I remember the Maine. The year was 1960, Margaret Chase Smith.

CONAN: And stay on the line, Aaron. We will collect your particulars. Congratulations, you have the promise of a political junkie no-prize T-shirt.

RUDIN: Coming very soon.

CONAN: Coming very soon, and a big surprise, as well. So we'll send that out to you as soon as it comes, but we have to take your particulars first, if I can figure out to put you on hold. In any case, there is some other news. We're going to be talking about Senate races later in the program, but plans announced for 2014?

RUDIN: Well, yeah, I mean, why - I mean, you know, we have such short attention spans here that who cares about 2012, but already there's some news about 2014. First of all, in South Dakota, the former governor, Republican Governor Mike Rounds has formed an exploratory committee for the Senate. That's when Tim Johnson is up for another term.

There's some questions about Tim Johnson's health, whether Tim Johnson will run again. So that'll be an interesting race. Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, we remember her, she's one of the - which candidate am I thinking of?

CONAN: The witch candidate.

RUDIN: The witch candidate, exactly. But, you know, she lost a couple years ago to Chris Coons. She announced that she's looking for a rematch in 2014. And also, you should be aware of what John Kerry - openly campaigning for secretary of state. Of course if President Clinton is - President Clinton. If President Obama is re-elected, and Hillary Clinton does leave as promised, or at least announced, John Kerry could be gone from the Senate in 2013.

CONAN: In the meantime, everybody's, of course, talking about the big debate that's coming up, and that's not the Obama - the Obama-Romney debate, it's the O'Reilly-Stewart debate.

RUDIN: Well, that could be the best one, Jon Stewart, Bill O'Reilly are having a debate October 6th at George Washington University here in Washington. The tickets are already sold out. But for $4.95, you can stream the debate live. It may be more entertaining than Obama versus Romney or maybe not.

CONAN: Maybe not. It comes a week after the first presidential debate, which everybody now sees as Romney's best and maybe last chance to reset the race.

RUDIN: We keep saying that - agree.

CONAN: All right, Ken Rudin our political junkie will stay with us. When we come back, Politico's editor-in-chief will pull back the curtain on the Romney campaign, and we'll also talk about the effect of the Mother Jones tapes as they continue to reverberate through the electorate and a new Pew poll that shows Romney losing ground to President Obama. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday, political junkie day. Ken Rudin's with us, as usual, and no, these are not secret recordings of him, these are really his jokes. Ken, any ScuttleButton winners this week?

RUDIN: Actually we do. We had - the winner is Amy Budenny(ph) of Montclair, New Jersey, and the puzzle - let me see if I can remember what the puzzle was. It was - oh yes, the first button was a Ringo, I love Ringo button. But anyway, the answer was Starship Enterprise. And that's how we got that. Amy Budenny is the winner.

CONAN: Starship Enterprise was in the news...

RUDIN: Well, it was an anniversary.

CONAN: It was. Oh yeah, that's right, OK. The latest ScuttleButton puzzle and Ken's new column are both online. Go to npr.org/junkie. Later in the hour, we're going to be talking about upcoming Senate races. If there's a Senate race that's hot where you live, give us a call, report on what's happening, how it's playing out, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org.

As Ken said earlier, it's been a tough month for Mitt Romney. His campaign continues to try to shift the focus to the economy, something that's difficult to do when your candidate's forced to respond to a series of secret video recordings and other campaign stumbles.

The recent series of gaffes have reportedly led to some infighting within the Romney camp. John Harris is Politico's editor-in-chief. He oversaw their recent piece on the people and dynamics of the Romney campaign. He joins us by phone from their offices in Arlington, Virginia. Good to have you on the program.

JOHN HARRIS: Glad to be with you.

CONAN: And I don't know if you've had a chance to see the new Pew poll that is just out, but it shows President Obama gaining ground. He's up 51, I think, 51-42.

HARRIS: Yes, I heard that was coming. I have not seen that poll. So that's - thanks for the update on that. Do you know if that was with likely voters or just all voters?

CONAN: That's 51-43 is likely voters, 51-42 is registered voters.

HARRIS: Right, so that's a significant difference, and it's going to be just one more thing among a whole raft of things that is really giving Republicans heartburn. They - we're increasingly, you know, hearing privately from Republicans who will go so far as to say as to say, look, they just picked the wrong nominee, which is what happens when you have a candidate who's stumbling.

Now, nobody's saying that publicly, but I am struck by what people are saying publicly, that Romney - these are Republicans saying Romney's done a very poor job of responding to the - those remarks that got picked up from the fundraiser.

CONAN: Yeah, the Mother Jones tapes that were leaked earlier or published earlier this week, not leaked. But it's interesting, your piece, the reaction to the piece that ran in Politico is that these are the sort of swipes and back-stabbings that you see after you lose an election, not two months before it.


HARRIS: Well, the backstabbing takes place during the election. We usually find out about the backstabbing after the election, when we go back and sort of try to dissect what happened. The fact that we're getting this in real time reflects first off very good reporting by my colleague Mike Allen. But I think it also reflects a sense of some Republicans that, you know, you know those signs break glass in case of emergency, that's what they feel now, break glass in case of emergency.

And these people feel so strongly, some people within the campaign, some people around the campaign, that something dramatic needs to change that they're prepared to share their views pretty forthrightly.

CONAN: If anonymously.

HARRIS: In the middle of the campaign. Yes, on background. But I think it's notable that the Romney campaign did not dispute any of the details in that good piece the other day.


RUDIN: But John, we've heard these same hesitations, reservations about Mitt Romney during the primaries, when a lot of Republicans said he is not the right nominee. As you said, you know, maybe we should have had another nominee, although I don't know who that could have been.

I mean, I don't think Rick Santorum, any of the other Republicans would have run strongly, stronger against President Obama. But this is not new, the criticisms about Romney.

HARRIS: Well, Mitt Romney's strengths have been known for a long time. His weaknesses have been known for a long time. I think in moments like this it's easy to forget his strengths. But he won that nomination by being very well-organized, very persistent and disciplined in his message and with a number of very effective debate performances. So it's not as if Mitt Romney, you know, doesn't know how to play this game at all.

What's been a chronic weakness for, it was true in the primaries and remains true in the general election, is an inability to express himself forcefully and effectively in impromptu settings.

He's not a good interviewer, and I would say a larger inability to connect with voters and make it clear that he understands their aspirations and their dreams and their grievances and all the rest. You know, there's an enormous gap when you look at the polls on who understands the problems that you are facing. Obama has a big lead, 20-some points, in that category, even as the two are pretty close still in the overall horse race.

You know, that Pew poll we talked about is at one end of the spectrum. There's other polls that have it much...

CONAN: Wasn't there a Gallup poll just out the other day, one percent? So Ken?

RUDIN: John also, we said prior to the convention that if Mitt Romney has a great convention, that'll really change everything. And now we're saying if Mitt Romney has a great debate, that'll change everything. But is there any indication that that could happen?

I mean, of course we're not writing off Mitt Romney. A lot of these polls show it very close, as we just said about Gallup. But each day, as Neal said earlier, each day it gets closer and closer, and Romney is not making up any difference.

HARRIS: Well, he didn't get the effective convention that they were hoping for. You know, I think it's just a fact that Republicans are not in the position that they'd hoped to be. When we talked to them at the beginning of the summer and said OK, tell us what Labor Day looks like, the scenario that the Romney sketched out for us was that several states, important states, would be off the table and locked down in the Romney column.

These are states like North Carolina. They'd hoped Virginia. They'd hoped Florida. And in no - none of those states and a bunch of others that they hoped to have locked down is that the case. The fact that that's not the case means that even though the sort of horse race polling is still close, the Electoral College pathway looks fairly narrow for Romney.

A bunch of things have to happen, and they have to happen in a coordinated way. Obama does have the luxury at the moment of you can envision half-dozen different ways that he gets to 270 Electoral College votes. So he's less dependent on kind of running the table, if you will.

CONAN: And you saw a Washington Post poll that showed President Obama with a substantial lead in Virginia, a state which he carried last time around but which was thought to be, well, trending a lot redder this time around but not really, and...

HARRIS: It was an interesting poll because we, I think, in 2008 thought that might have been somewhat of an anomaly, people caught up even in a conservative state like Virginia, sort of caught up in the moment, in the symbolism of Obama's candidacy, record high turnout among African-Americans and the youth vote.

And there was an expectation that maybe Virginia would revert to its historical norm, which is a very conservative state. I think what we're seeing is that that was not an anomaly. A number of states, and Virginia's the best example, that we think of as being traditionally conservative now probably have different political demographics that we're going to be living with for some time to come.

Virginia's now clearly a swing state, a mid-Atlantic state, not a conservative Southern state.

CONAN: And what - we also have to look at the news that the Romney camp, the campaign at least, has decided to pull its advertising out of Pennsylvania and Michigan.

HARRIS: Right, and those are the kind of strategic decisions that a campaign makes when it doesn't have that many options. Look, we just can't play in places that are long shots because we absolutely have to win a number of other must-win states.

You know, you mentioned the debates. I do think that's the next big milestone. We know that they're going to get a huge audience. We know that Romney's been pretty effective in the past in this format. And I think there are - there's an opportunity for him to change the dynamic, and by no means do I, as a reporter, sort of write off the possibility that this race could still be quite fluid. But we do know is that under its current trajectory, it does not look good for Romney.

I think it's notable, just we've been talking about polls, there - I believe it was the Gallup poll that said in the swing states, there's still on average 20 percent of voters who might change their mind.

So even though we know most of the country is kind of locked down, people have made up their minds and know which way they're going to vote, there are still swing voters out there, and they are in some of these key states.

CONAN: And the Pew poll confirms that. One in five, it says, might...

HARRIS: Yeah, I mean, I think the Pew poll is where I saw that.

CONAN: OK, and as you look ahead, the day I think after your piece or just shortly after your piece on the disarray inside the Romney camp came out, they brought out four reporters on a telephone conference. Ed Gillespie, the campaign, taking a new role and trying to reshape the message. Of course, that, as we mentioned earlier, got buried under the Mother Jones tapes that came out later that day.

HARRIS: Sure, that has kind of a familiar feel to it. I've been at this long enough now that when a campaign starts to feel like it doesn't have momentum the way Bob Dole didn't have momentum in 1996 or John Kerry was clearly struggling in the fall of 2004, you see that, the sort of veteran hands, the Washington operatives that come in riding to the rescue. The problem is if there's structural problems with the candidacy, either the way the campaign is organized or the strategy they've embraced or just the candidate's own attributes and skills, it's really hard to fix those structural problems after Labor Day.

RUDIN: John, a lot of people are also talking about that. Even though it may be close, maybe Obama has a slight lead, wait for Karl Rove and all that money to be coming in. Is that - could that possibly change at this stage of the game? Is there any time that hasn't been bought yet by the two candidates?

HARRIS: Well, people in swing states are awash in commercials, both paid for by the campaigns and the outside groups. And I personally think that there's a phenomenon of diminishing of returns with some of that money. I think if Romney isn't able to regain momentum, it won't be because of money. Or if he is able to regain momentum, it won't be because of money. Both sides are armed to the teeth with money. This race isn't going to be decided by money. It's going to be decided by message.

CONAN: And as the race continues, the - as you mentioned, how important is the campaign staff, the candidate himself seems to be far more important at this moment?

HARRIS: Well, we as political reporters love the intrigue of sort of looking at staffs and what aide or strategist is up and which one is down. But I think you're quite right. At the end of the day, campaigns are run by the candidates. The campaigns are in the image of the candidates. So if a candidate is sort of unclear on its strategy, that confusion is echoed in the campaign apparatus...

CONAN: Yet, one...

HARRIS: ...and the candidate gets the campaign he or she deserves, I think.

CONAN: I suspect you're right. But there are unforced errors, if you will. The failure to mention the troops or Afghanistan in the convention speech, for example.

HARRIS: Right. And that was a reflection of some of the chaos. Chaos is a little strong, but last-minute improvisation that marked Romney's acceptance speech down there at the Republican convention in Tampa. That story that we mentioned on Politico Sunday night - Monday morning, went into this, went through multiple drafts. Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney's chief strategist, at one point had asked Pete Wehner, who's a veteran of the Bush administration, to write a draft, and they didn't like that, so not one word got used.

Then he asked a couple of other Bush aides. John McConnell and Matt Scully, you guys take a draft, and not much of that speech got used. So we're days out, and then Stevens and Romney end up writing the thing themselves. And in that process, that kind of the last-minute nature of the way the speech came together, they just simply neglected to mention Afghanistan.

CONAN: We're talking with John Harris, the editor in chief of Politico. He's with us on the line from their office in Arlington, Virginia. Thanks very much for your time.

HARRIS: I've enjoyed it. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking, of course, with Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie, as we do every Wednesday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Ken, it's interesting - running out of time - early voting gets underway in several states, I think, this weekend.

RUDIN: Yeah. And again, while we've talked about the Republican money advantage and going on the air, Democrats have said from the beginning that their money will be put to the kind of on-the-ground work that will get out the vote, and that could be significant as well.

CONAN: And you were pointing out to me earlier that while the campaign itself may pull it - pull ads from some of those states, the superPACs have not given up on those states yet.

RUDIN: Well, Pennsylvania may be a lost cause. I think most polls have Obama with a double-digit lead - 11, 12 points - and that's kind of a lot to make up. Michigan, while the Romney campaign may have pulled out, and, of course, that's one of his home states, having grown up there, born there, his father was governor there, there are independent groups that still say that Michigan is not a lost cause, and there's money going to that state as well.

CONAN: Interesting. That was the game breaker last time around with Sarah Palin furious with the McCain campaign for giving up on Michigan.

RUDIN: That's right. Michigan seems like a dream to me now.


CONAN: As you look, though, at those swing state polls, these are difficult races to make up ground. It seems like we keep saying we identify 20 percent as saying they could still switch their vote or haven't made up their mind. But opinion seems to be fairly locked in.

RUDIN: See, that's the difference. I mean, historically, we have seen opinions changed rapidly in the end. In 1968 - sorry - but in 1968, at the end of September, Richard Nixon had a 15-point lead over Hubert Humphrey. At the end of October, it was an eight-point lead, and ultimately, on Election Day, Nixon beat Humphrey by half a percent. But as we've seen during this campaign, there seems to be less and less movement even throughout all the gaffes and the debates and everything, and we'll see what October 3rd, once the presidential debates start, whether things move then.

CONAN: And there was so much talk about, gee, do the conventions matter anymore? We've seen the effect of one that was a little flat and one that was very well run.

RUDIN: Yeah. And we always said that it's the Republicans who have the enthusiasm. They are the ones who really want to get rid of Obama, whereas as the Democrats are mostly on the defensive. But, you know what? One thing we did see in the Pew poll that just came out, they said that most Democrats are excited about this race because they support Obama, and most Republicans are less excited about Romney and more - they just want to defeat the president. So there's less enthusiasm for their candidate, certainly on the Republican side.

CONAN: 'Cause there's less positive...

RUDIN: Yeah.

CONAN: ...enthusiasm. And the enthusiasm gap seems to have closed just as many Democrats or almost as many - I think it's one percentage point difference - say they are excited and plan to vote as Republicans in the past. And, well, that's a big factor.

RUDIN: But as we pointed earlier, look, Gallup yesterday had a one-point lead, and with all these terrible things that are going on with Romney and they've been going on - it's been a pretty horrendous 30 days - voters are still not willing to say, OK, let's have four more years. So it's still a winnable race. And I'm not saying this because as a Political Junkie I want this race to be exciting and competitive, but, look, if this were over, if Romney was going to lose this race big, we would have seen a bigger gap in the polls right now.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, we're going to be talking about Senate races around the country, but quickly, Ken, we neglected to mention one House seat, and that's Representative Richardson in an ethics retaliation.

RUDIN: Well, Laura Richardson is a member of Congress from California, a Democrat who's running against a fellow member of Congress, Janice Hahn, she's favored to lose. I don't know if you're favored to lose in November, but basically, she was pressuring - accused of pressuring her campaign staff, her congressional staff to work on her campaign. She denies the charges, but she was reprimanded by the full House in August. And that the ethics committee continues its investigation of Laura Richardson.

CONAN: It never helps in a race. Anyway...


CONAN: ...stay with us, Ken. When we come back, we're going to be talking, as I said, about Senate races around the country. If there's one underway where you are, call and give us a snapshot report. How is it playing out? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's Political Junkie day on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

It's Wednesday, Political Junkie day, a super-sized edition this week, and it will be an hour until Election Day, and after Election Day too, I suspect. There were a handful of states where serious races are underway for the United States Senate. If you're in one of those places, call and tell us how the race is going where you live. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And, Ken, we need to set the standard. There are 33 Senate races, Democrats defending 23 of those seats. They - Republicans need four to take over majority in the United States Senate.

RUDIN: Right. Or three if Mitt Romney wins and Paul Ryan breaks the tie. But just as President Obama seems to have some momentum, again, it's September, but some of the momentum in the presidential race we're seeing some momentum going the Democrats' way as well. And part of it is perhaps because of coattails. In Massachusetts, for example, where Obama is leading Romney by 33 points in the latest poll, Elizabeth Warren, who's thought to be floundering in her race and, you know, not appealing to independents, two new polls, one from Suffolk University, one from WBUR, had her up by a handful of points over Scott Brown.

Again, that's very fluid, but again, it just shows that perhaps as the Democrats' fortunes are increasing, improving for the White House, it may be for the Senate as well.

CONAN: And the situation in Maine where a Republican female senator who thought to have an easy path to re-election decided to retire, and that brought in an independent, Angus King, into the race, who was thought to be ready to caucus with the Democrats, and he looks like a walk.

RUDIN: He does, although the Republicans are still saying that it's winnable for Charlie Summers, the Republican secretary of state, but, oh, Charlie - but Angus King, former governor, who says he will vote for Obama even though he has not said where he will caucus, but most people do feel he's going to win - caucus with the Democrats. It seems like of all the states up, that seems like the most clear loss for the Republican Party.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Becky is on the line with us from St. Louis.

BECKY: Oh. Hi. I'm here in Missouri where the race between Claire McCaskill and Todd Akin continues despite the Republicans call to bring Todd Akin out of the race. And just this morning, he actually launched a new campaign to try to woo us women back into his support, which I doubt will have much an effect given that his remarks have really, you know, really hurt a lot of women, women's groups and just, you know, run-of-the-mill independent women here in Missouri. So it's been interesting to watch that back and forth, because, of course, Claire McCaskill doesn't want him to drop out because he's probably bound to say something else somewhat like this at some point, which only helps her case.

CONAN: There's one more deadline, Ken.

RUDIN: Yeah. That's September 25th. He can petition the court to get off the ballot, but as he says, he said, look, my faith and God are keeping me in the race, and it doesn't sound like he's going anywhere soon. And for all of Claire McCaskill kind of playing it soft because she wants him to stay in the race, we expect a big assault from McCaskill following that deadline.

CONAN: Here's an interesting just on your point, Becky. This email from Madonna in St. Louis: Todd Akin has recently gained notoriety through his comments on rape as actively courting the women's vote. On his website, he posted a photo of himself and a few female supporters, one of whom turned out to be a Claire McCaskill campaign worker who was at an Akin speech to report on what he was saying. Claire McCaskill reportedly responded by saying Akin was so desperate to show women support him that she borrowed one of hers.

RUDIN: Well, in fairness, I mean, Todd Akin in his several elections to the House has always gotten 60, 65 percent of the vote. He's very, very popular in his suburban St. Louis district, and he's very popular with Christian conservatives. And I assume a lot of them include women. So it's not that he's written off all women, but certainly, his comments just put him in such - his comments about legitimate rape and pregnancy and things like that, those comments have put him in such a defensive mode that all the Republican money, national money has been pulled out of Missouri. And whether he has a convincing case or not, it's hard to do it without money.

CONAN: Becky, thanks very much for the call.

BECKY: Sure. You're welcome.

CONAN: And let's see - we go next to - this is Larry. Larry with us from Afton, Virginia.

LARRY: Hello, Neal, and hello, Ken.



LARRY: We go from discussing Todd Akin and his bizarre comments to George "Macaca" Allen here in Virginia. I'm a pretty strong Kaine supporter. Things are going well here. The New York Times poll came out today and had Kaine up 51 to 44, I'm pretty sure. So we're pretty enthused, working hard and hoping to bury George Allen forever.

CONAN: Well, we mentioned The Washington Post poll earlier in Virginia that showed the president with a substantial lead over Mitt Romney. And, Ken, I wonder if this is a case of coattails.

RUDIN: Well, possibly, because The Washington Post poll also has Kaine over Allen - that's Tim Kaine, former governor, against George Allen, the former governor and former senator, 51-43. So both The Post and The New York Times have him up, but the Marist poll has it dead even. So I still think this is an even race. Both have a lot of negatives. Allen is trying to make the case that Kaine is an Obama clone, having been the DNC chair under President Obama. But of course, Allen, from the macaca moment, and of course you're referring to the 2006 comment which he made a disparaging remark and probably cost him the election six years ago.

CONAN: He lost then to Jim Webb, the Democrat who's retiring, and so this is one of the seats the Democrats are having to defend and a potential Republican pickup.

LARRY: Well, we're sure hoping that it's not.

CONAN: All right, Larry. Thanks very much for the phone call. Here's an email from Joshua in South Bend: We have a race for Dick Lugar's seat. What I found interesting about this race is that Senator Lugar refuses to say even the slightest nice thing about Republican candidate Mourdock. I'm not sure whether he generally has a disdain for Mourdock's positions or whether he's simply bitter that he lost his primary.

RUDIN: Well, the fact is is that Dick Lugar said just the other day that he will not campaign for Richard Mourdock, who trounced him in the May primary, and Joe Donnelly, the congressman, the Democratic nominee who's running kind of a moderate campaign now. We saw a moderate run in 2010 in Indiana, Brad Ellsworth, who got kind of beaten badly by Dan Coates, but this is a completely different year. Mourdock started the race by saying, I don't need to compromise. And again...

CONAN: No, my idea of compromise is Democrats should come on to my side.6

RUDIN: Exactly. He was very, very - now he's trying to moderate that language in the last couple of weeks saying that, you know, I can work with Democrats, but Democrats seem to be very enthused. And private polls by the Democrats, by the Donnelly campaign shows him up slightly one or two points. This will be a very close watch. I still think the Republicans hold on to it, but a Democratic victory is not out of the question at all.

CONAN: Let's go to Mike, and Mike is on the line with us. Mike, you're calling from Beijing?

MIKE: I am. Longtime long-distance listener, first-time caller.

CONAN: This is the middle of the night in Beijing.

MIKE: Well, I work the night shift, so every now and again, I have a chance to listen in live and thought I'd give a call because I feel, watching from afar, first of all, American politics back home just seem like kids playing in the school yard compared to what's going on over here these days.

CONAN: Yeah, they don't have elections for the standing committee of the politburo, do they?

MIKE: No, they have shootouts so...


RUDIN: Or button. No button?

CONAN: No button? No campaign buttons. Anyway, Mike, what did you want to say?

MIKE: Well, I've been watching with great interest what's going on back in my home state in Massachusetts and I keep finding myself kind of wanting to find a reason to vote for Scott Brown. It's - you know, I'm kind of a lifelong Democratic voter, though I'm avowedly independent, but I just feel like he's got this scarlet letter wrapped around his neck. It's that R. And, you know, you start with a statement where he all but repudiated Mitt Romney but he can't quite do it. He's just - I feel like being dragged down by the national party, which, you know, if you notice the polls after the conventions is when Warren had started to move ahead pretty consistently. I think we're up to four polls in a row now.

And it's no mistake that it's after the conventions because the Republicans absolutely doubled down on some really hard right-wing positions. And, you know, up in the northeast, we just don't really chalk for that, you know? We are a little more reasonable and looking for compromise. And I feel like Scott Brown could do a lot more if he didn't have to be a Republican.

RUDIN: Yeah, you made a good point, but of course, look, President Obama is very unpopular in mid-states like Missouri and Montana, where the Democratic senators there are holding their own, so not everything's transfers down. But you're absolutely right, Scott Brown is trying to do - portray as an independent message. He's still leading with so-called independent voters. He remains very folksy. And Democrats, maybe 20 to 25 percent of the Democrats in the latest polls seem to still going with Scott Brown.

But you're right, Elizabeth Warren gave an effective speech at the convention. She's actually kind of running more and more anti-Brown ads. A lot of the Democrats were complaining about the direction of her campaign. And look, the Democrats don't want - they want to get Ted Kennedy's Senate seat back, and Elizabeth Warren is their candidate. But no - Massachusetts has never elected a woman to the Senate. And, you know, it could -it's going to be a very tough race.

MIKE: I'm just glad I don't have to see any of the political ads.


CONAN: You could watch the ones you want online, but there's that off button too. Thanks very much, Mike.

MIKE: Thank you, bye-bye.

RUDIN: Don't tell anybody about an off button because then we're in trouble.

CONAN: OK. Here's an email. This from Tamila(ph) in Columbus, Ohio. By the way, we're going to be in Columbus next month. But anyway, who will be the likely winner, poll numbers in the Brown versus Mandel Senate race in Ohio? The race is the clash of generations. Mandel, 34 years old, has a childlike face, so much that in the ads, he sponsors - his age appears.

RUDIN: Yeah, he looked very young. He is the state treasurer. He is running about five to seven points behind Sherrod Brown. It's an interesting race between a very conservative Republican, very liberal Democrat. I think perhaps if this were 2010, maybe it would be closer, but I think Sherrod Brown definitely holds on. Did I just say I think he definitely holds on?

CONAN: Yeah, yeah (unintelligible) fellow woman.

RUDIN: Definitely.

CONAN: Carol in Tucson emails: Ken, you said a few weeks ago, the Arizona Senate race was more or less a shoo-in for Jeff Flake. The polls seem to indicate otherwise.

RUDIN: Well, I still will say a shoo-in. Jeff Flake did have to spend a lot of money warding off Republican opponents in the primary. Richard Carmona, who's Hispanic, he's of Puerto Rican descent, is running stronger than most people expected. But Romney still - if we talk about coattails, Romney still has a sizeable lead in Arizona. I think Flake wins but it will be closer. And again, demographics will make a - demographics is making it as close as it is. So I think the Republicans do win it, but not a shoo-in.

CONAN: Political junkie Ken Rudin with us, as he usually is, on Wednesdays for the Political Junkie segment. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to John(ph), John with us from Ypsilanti.

JOHN: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

JOHN: Well, back last spring, it seemed like our senator, Debbie Stabenow, probably had a certain amount of vulnerability. And what I've seen - and this also seems to reflect on the presidential race here in Michigan - is that the problem with the Republicans is their candidates aren't coming across as very strong.

The weakness of the field, whether it's Pete Hoekstra, who's running against her, or Mitt Romney running against Obama, their weakness is starting to fall to the - show through. And it looks like that Stabenow will be probably easily re-elected in this state, where they thought at one point she might have been vulnerable.

CONAN: What do you think, Ken?

RUDIN: Yeah, I agree with you. You can be a Republican in a very strong Democratic state and do well like Linda Lingle in Hawaii and Heather Wilson in New Mexico. These are cleared Obama states, but they're running stronger - certainly stronger than the top of the ticket, Mitt Romney.

But in Michigan, you're absolutely right. Pete Hoekstra has not run a good campaign. He had an embarrassing ad that goes back to the Super Bowl that is still being criticized. It's not an effective campaign, and Debbie Stabenow, I agree, wins pretty handily.

CONAN: John, thanks.

JOHN: Thanks.

CONAN: And let's go to Denise(ph), and Denise with us from Madison.

DENISE: Hi. I'm from Janesville. Don't hold that against me. We have Tammy Baldwin and former Governor Tommy Thompson running, and it looks like Tammy closed the gap this morning. I think, in some ways, that this race is probably going to reflect what happens in the presidential race.

Tammy has always had - her voters are - her supporters are highly enthusiastic. She's got a great ground team. And, yeah, we were true blue in the Senate for a long time until the 2010 backlash. Looks like she's closed the gap this morning, and I think that - I think it's going to be a - not a very close race, and in the end, I think that Tammy Baldwin will be our senator.

RUDIN: Well, there is a Marquette University poll that just came out that has Tammy Baldwin up 50 to 41 over Tommy Thompson. Now my gut tells me Thompson wins. I think Baldwin will be portrayed as too liberal for the state. She's great for Madison, but may not be good for Green Bay and places like that.

But having said that, look, she has a lot of money. And Tommy Thompson spent a lot of money in the primaries, got beaten up by the right. The conservatives are not excited about Tommy Thompson, and he seems to be spending more time trying to raise money than campaign. He still has, like, as I say, 47, 48 days to go, and I think he'll come back. But right now, she has the momentum and he does not.

CONAN: Hmm. Denise, thank you.


CONAN: And one race that we haven't gotten a call about is the race in Nevada, where the Democrats hope to pick up a seat.

RUDIN: Well, yes. And this is the one, of course, John Ensign, the scandal-ridden John Ensign resigned and Dean Heller, the congressman, was appointed. Shelley - as the Republican nominee - Shelley Berkley is a Democratic nominee. She also has tons and tons of money, is outraising Heller, but she also has...

CONAN: Ethics.

RUDIN: ...ethics questions, and Heller is not hesitant about mentioning that at all. But, again, you know, the Hispanic vote will be very significant in Nevada, as will the Mormon vote. There's a sizeable Mormon vote there. I think Heller holds on. But, again, this is one of the states that the Republicans have got to hold on to if they have any chance, any hope, of getting the majority.

CONAN: And at one point it seemed probable that the Republicans would be able to overtake the Democrats and gain control of the Senate. What's the - what are the stakes right now?

RUDIN: Well, right now, I have Republicans maybe winning a net gain of two or three. They could do it, but they have to run the table. They're underperforming in North Dakota. They're underperforming in Montana.

CONAN: Indiana is mentioned, yes.

RUDIN: Indiana, of course. Now they are going to win Nebraska. Bob Kerrey is the Democratic Senate seat for Ben Nelson's seat. I think Deb Fischer beats Bob Kerrey pretty handily there. I still think the Republicans pick up North Dakota, but then everything else is tough.

Massachusetts is tough. Florida is gone for the Republicans. They don't have a chance with Connie Mack. Maine is gone. So it's going to be very, very tough. But once upon a time, with the numbers that they're favorite, Republicans were convinced 2010 was going to be their year, and now maybe they're looking at 2014, as we were earlier in the show.

CONAN: And as you look ahead to these races, which do you think - Massachusetts? Is that the key race to look at?

RUDIN: Well, that's - I mean, certainly we'll be up all night. Both are very, very popular in the state, as the woman called - spoke earlier. Wisconsin is big because Wisconsin is really ground zero for political activism in 2011...

CONAN: Yeah, it was interesting. Somebody said everybody is - everybody knows where every voter lives and every position every voter has after the election that they've had in Wisconsin in the last couple of years.

RUDIN: And Paul Ryan makes it more interesting as well. The woman apologized for being from Janesville, of course that's where Paul Ryan is from.

CONAN: And Virginia, that's - that could be a tight one.

RUDIN: It is. Again, the latest polls - Washington Post, New York Times - show Kaine pulling away a slight lead even though they - most people had it even for the longest time. But that's one that'll keep us up late too.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, our political junkie, is going to be away next week, the Yom Kippur observance. So...

RUDIN: Wait. Is this 5773 already?

CONAN: Already, yes.

RUDIN: Oh, my God.

CONAN: Happy New Year, by the way.

RUDIN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: So we'll talk to you again in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, his latest column and the ScuttleButton puzzle are available. Just go to npr.org/junkie. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.