Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for the "National Journal"
Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today"
Chris Cillizza, "The Fix" blogger for "The Washington Post"
Diane Rehm: I always think of the day after Labor Day as being New Year's Day because a whole new season begins and this year it really is a new season! I wonder, Alexis, how you would characterize the coming fall election season?
Alexis Simendinger: Make or break! Absolutely! The President and his supporters know that. This could be, in some ways, the end of the Bush presidency, the beginning of the lame-duck status after November The White House and the President know that and his supporters even talk about that. This is the difference between a six-year presidency and an eight-year presidency in their mind. So he and his supporters are doing everything they can to raise money. They're being very tolerant. When candidates say they don't want to see the president, that's fine with them. They'll raise money -- they''ll do what those individual races and candidates think they need. They're providing advice from behind the scenes. It has 100% of their attention.
DR: Chris -- how do you see it?
Chris Cilliza: I think Alexis is exactly right. What's interesting is if you look at George Bush's political career beginning in Texas and continuing to Washington he's never really lost. In 1994, he beat Ann Richards. In 1998 he had a very non-competitive election race against a guy named Gary Mauro. In 2000 he was elected president. In 2002, he oversaw gains in the House and the Senate. In 2004, he was reelected with more gains in the House and Senate. So this is really foreign territory for the president. This is someone who has experienced universal success in his political career. It's very rare that you see someone... you usually see someone like Richard Nixon, for example, who had his share of wins and losses certainly. But the President has had this unmitigated record of success throughout his political career. I think this kind of adversity is a little bit foreign to them. They're very used to being able to flip the switch and make things work, pick up seats, use national security, use whatever means at their disposal to win elections. So I think Alexis is exactly right. This is make or break for them. The unfortunate thing is that people remember your last act, not necessarily your whole career. People remember Bill Buckner from the Boston Red Sox for the ball that went between this legs not necessarily for the fact that he had 3,000 hits. Remember, if the President loses this one, he's the president where the House and Senate get taken over by Democrats. Lots of people are going to remember that as his legacy.
DR: Susan, both Chris and Alexis are focusing on the President himself. Is that how you see it?
Susan Page: I think it certainly has great consequences for the President and big consequences for Congress as an institution as well. The Democrats lost the House with such thunder in 1994 and they haven't had a reliable majority in the Senate though they've had control of the Senate off and on. One of the effects, if the Democrats manage to win back even one house, is a reassertion of Congressional prerogative that we've seen eroded in the past six years of the Bush presidency. So that's another consequence. About once a decade we have Congressional elections that have a big impact. We had the Watergate election in the 1970's. We had the Reagan landslide in 1980. We had that terrible night for Democrats in 1994 when they lost control of the House and Senate. I think the question now is, is this the watershed Congressional election for this decade? And I think at the moment, it looks like it will be.
DR: Chris, what do you see as the top issues that the voters have on their minds?
CC: You know, I think can look at any one poll and there are two that are going to pop up. Iraq is obviously one of them. The other on is the economy. A colleague of mine wrote about this today in the Post. The economy is an interesting one because it's something of a puzzle. You'll get national indicators -- and the President, the Bush administration and the surrogates certainly are out there touting the fact that the economy is growing and things are going well. But you drill down a level below that... I was in Kentucky a few weeks ago and I talked with a bunch of people in Kentucky's 4th District, a competitive race, and they say is that they don't see it. The problem is they're getting squeezed. Their wages are increasing slightly but their debts are increasing -- whether it's credit card debt, whether it's the mortgage -- they're increasing even more quickly. There's a pinch there. One woman said to me, We have all these dreams of what we want in our lives but we can't get there right now.
DR: I thought it was interesting. This morning's Washington Post piece on "mortgage moms."
CC: Exactly. There are a lot of people out there like that. These folks -- most people said to me, We're not in dire economic straits. But what they said is, We're one step away from being in dire economic straits. It's that level of unease that could be very potent for Democrats if they'd tap into it.
AS: One of the things that I think is interesting, looking at the national surveys, is that consistently America is saying... 29% or 30% are saying that the country is on the right track but the vast majority of Americans, no matter how prosperous they may be, no matter if they have a good job -- they're saying based on a whole bevy of issues that the country is going in the wrong direction. They're looking for some change in November, and maybe some better representation. Chris has highlighted this in talking about some of the races that he's covering. How many of these races where the voter is saying what they're looking for is someone who is going to better represent what's on their mind.
SP: It partly depends on where you go. I was in Connecticut for the primary vote. People there were talking about the Iraq war and Senator Lieberman's stance on the Iraq war. Last week I was in Ohio, one of the key states. It's got a good Senate race, a good governor's race and several competitive House races. People were talking about the economy. It wasn't just people on the edge but people in professional jobs, middle management jobs. An interesting survey came out this week that said between 2000 and 2004 workers with a BA saw their income erode by 5%. That is bad new for whoever they think is in charge!
DR: The question on Republicans' minds, however, is whether they can use security as the issue to override the economy.
SP: That's worked well for them since the 9/11 attacks. In 2002 and 2004, Republicans gained Congressional seats. That's historically very unusual and it makes Democrats a little cautious about claiming victory quite yet! Republicans have shown that using terrorism and using smart turnout tactics can work for them. After the arrest in London of the airline bombings conspirators...
DR: ... alleged...
SP: ...alleged, we saw, in the USA/Gallup poll a bump for Bush, a bump for Republicans on the terrorism issue. We don't think it's probably lasted. We'll see when we go out and poll again. But it does show that the issue continues to have a lot of power.
DR: Alexis, there was piece over the weekend in the New York Times about Karl Rove and his dwindling, perhaps, influence. How, if that's true, might that affect the approach of Republicans during this election campaign?
AS: My personal feeling about that, based on my reporting, is that the story was just a tad overwrought. The reason I say that is because Republicans understand, in talking to the White House or Mr. Rove or Ken Mehlman, that they have a wide latitude to construct their campaigns the best way they see fit. The White House and the Republican apparatus -- the Party committees -- are going to do whatever they can. One of the things that Mr. Rove and the White House tried to do very early -- and I was listening to this earlier in the year -- was to remind some of the candidates that they might have to really work for these races. They tried to do that early -- tried to warn them to get going. This was sort of unknown territory for some of these incumbents. They'd never really had to get out there and run scared. I think that the story was interesting but perhaps dialled up a little high.
SP: I had exactly the same reaction. We'd done a story on Karl Rove as a guy setting strategy for the GOP a couple of weeks ago. And we did not find what the New York Times found. We found people still very respectful of Karl Rove's ability to set strategy. When your president has an approval rating of about 40% people aren't flocking to the president like they used to. He did a Labor Day event yesterday without another Republican candidate at his side. I think many Republicans feel that it's only Karl Rove that can lead them through this thicket of tough races.
CC: I want to sound a note of agreement here. If you go back to January of this year, Karl Rove gave a speech at the Republican National Committee winter meeting at which he said ... he outlined basically what the strategy is. He said, What we're dealing with is a pre-9/11 party, the Democrats, vs. a post-9/11 party, the Republicans. If you look at the framework of how the Bush administration is talking about this election, how many candidates across the country are talking about this election, it's exactly that. Mitch McConnell said yesterday that Democrats want to "wave the white flag" on the "war on terror." So whether or not Karl Rove is necessarily out counseling candidates on a daily basis, he provided the essential framework Republicans are going to follow. So I'm not sure the Architect is done doing his blueprints just yet!
DR: So September 11 is going to be the big marker.
AS: Here we are today and this afternoon the President is going to give another address. This is the second in the third series on Iraq and what it means and what's happening and where we go from here. And the President hopes to follow today's address with a whole round of markers for 9/11, of course, and then conclude when he gets to New York September 19th at the UN. Today what we're going to hear him talk about is what terrorists say about us...
DR: Here's an email -- a question from Chellie. Chellie says, "What do you think about the Arizona Congressional race for Jim Colby's seat, particularly the Democratic race? What are the chances for Jeff Latas, antiwar veteran, who's become the Howard Dean of Tucson?"
CC: This is an interesting race. It's a southern Arizona district that, like many districts in the West, is absolutely huge. Jim Colby, a very moderate Republican, is retiring. On the Democratic side, Jeff Latas has done a good job of organizing on a grass roots level. What he's not done a great job of is fund-raising. Unfortunately, there are two Democrats in the field. One is a former state senator named Gabrielle Giffords; the other is a former TV anchor named Patty Weiss. Both of them have done a considerably better job of fundraising. The reality in these races, especially in these vast districts where you're talking about five and six hour drives between big cities is that TV and radio are the best ways to reach these people. Giffords is the front runner. She has a base in the district. Weiss is known because she's a TV personality in Tucson, which is the largest market in the district. But it's definitely a Democratic opportunity. The main reason is because Randy Graff, who's a very conservative former state legislator, is running for the Republican nomination. Looks like he's going to win it. Jim Colby, the current Congressman, has said he will not support Mr. Graff in the general election. He doesn't think Mr. Graff can win the general election. The interesting thing about Graff is that he's centered his entire campaign on illegal immigration. So Republicans are spending a lot of money trying to get anyone but Mr. Graff elected.
SP: I'd just like to praise Chris for knowing all those details for one Arizona House race! We might also want to mention the Arizona Senate race. That's important because the Republican incumbent, Jon Kyl, is favored. But it's one of a handful of races that could be competitive. If the Democrats are going to win back the Senate, they're going to need to win at least one of these slightly unlikely races. Arizona. Virginia. Or Tennessee. So people are looking closely at that race. He's running against Jim Pederson who's a former state chair...
DR: Let's talk about that Virginia race for just a moment.
SP: The Virginia race we didn't think was going to be that competitive. Then George Allen got a pretty good Democratic candidate against him -- James Webb -- and he had this incident where he to an Indian-American, who was working for his opponent, as a "macaca." I had no idea what a macaca is, but I knew it didn't sound like a flattering word. It has really reverberated in a way that has made that race much tighter than I think any of us would have predicted.
DR: And Rick Santorum's race in Pennsylvania. Alexis?
AS: It's an interesting race -- it's an interesting state, too -- because of the changing nature of Pennsylvania, the mix of conservative with much more left-leaning. Rick Santorum looks like he's really on the ropes. One of the interesting things too was to watch -- and Chris can talk about this more expertly -- whether he would move or shift his positions in any way to sound more moderate, to come across as more moderate on Iraq. But absolutely not. He has not wanted to open up any daylight between himself and the White House.
DR: I must say -- watching him Sunday on Tim Russert's program, "Meet the Press," up against his opponent, Bob Casey: no backing down, not one iota.
CC: I think Alexis is exactly right. Rick Santorum has decided that he's going to go down being Rick Santorum! He's rather lose running very true to his principles than win hedging his bets.
DR: There's a 14-point difference?
SP: We had a USA/Gallup poll there that came out last week that showed him down 18 points among likely voters, 14 points among all registered voters. I'll give you two numbers within those numbers that I thought were very significant. Rick Santorum is only getting about 1 out of 4 Independents in Pennsylvania. That is not enough to win a state-wide race in Pennsylvania. He is losing the support of about 1 in 4 Republicans. That's a heavy erosion among his own base. Some of those independent-minded Republicans, moderate suburban Republicans, are distressed by his position on Terry Schiavo, his very aggressive advocacy on some social issues, as well as his support of the war.
CC: I'd like to add that if you look at Rick Santorum's races. In 1994, he won his Senate seat. Remember, 1994 was an extremely good year for Republicans. In 2000, he ran against a Congressman named Ron Klink who raised absolutely no money and the race was not particularly competitive. It's funny because we're now... Rick Santorum has been in the Senate 12 years now but he hasn't really faced someone like Bob Casey, Jr. -- a well-funded, well-known name. Bob Casey's father was the governor of the state, extremely popular. Bob Casey has raised a ton of money. And he's the first really credible person we've seen against Senator Santorum. So it's not simply that he's too conservative for the state, it's that there's a Democrat who has the money to point that out to voters.
SP: And notable also that Democratic leaders insisted on Bob Casey as the Democratic candidate even though there were some alternatives. Controversial in the Party to some degree because Bob Casey opposed abortion rights. But that, as some of the Democratic leaders point out, creates problems for Santorum because he cannot draw that sharp bright line on abortion with his Democratic opponent.
DR: I want to go back to some of the issues that voters are going to be thinking about. It used to be said that all politics is local. But I wonder. What about immigration? What about voting fraud? Fairness? What about the "war on terrorism" and Iraq? To what extent are those issues going to play as well as the economy?
AS: In reading recent surveys and polls asking voters to what extent they've been paying attention, how are they planning to vote, and what issues are going to drive them, one of the easy things to detect is that Iraq and the economy, healthcare also interestingly enough. Terrorism? Sort of. There's a split about whether that's really a driver, whether it's really important to them...
DR: ...And "are you safer now than you were..."
AS: Exactly. Homeland security. That basket of things... Interestingly, Republicans hold a little bit of an edge for voters on that particular issue. Every other issue you look through -- domestic, immigration, whatever -- Democrats come out ahead. The sort of generic Democrat who you think is doing a better job. Of course that's making Republicans apoplectic. And the war is this ball and chain, as the President is now realizing with his series of speeches. Karl Rove is saying, Don't run from it! Hit it head on! And the President realizes he has to keep talking about it and talking about it and talking about it. And in this tenor of trying to dial up the fear meter a little bit, the President today is using his speech to talk very specifically about the tactics and the tenor of the rhetoric from terrorists to remind whatever voters are out there listening what kinds of concerns they should have.
CC: The other thing I wanted to add is that this idea that Iraq or immigration or healthcare or the economy is a national issue that won't play well in a local race -- well, I'm guessing that most people who live in these competitive Congressional districts at least know someone who's over in Iraq or has lost someone in Iraq. They know someone who's lost their job. They know someone who's having healthcare problems and not able to afford it. They know someone who can't afford their prescription drugs. So yes, it's true that if you run simply a national campaign -- Republicans believe they can win on local issues. But in many ways the war in Iraq is a local issue. If your friend's son is killed in Iraq and you go to his funeral, that's going to be on your mind. It's not necessarily a national issue. That gets closer to home than almost any other issue out there.
SP: One of the most important things we see in the national polling is how much more enthusiastic Democrats are than Republicans are about this race. Midterm elections usually have a pretty pathetic turnout. It's unusual when it's good in midterm races. So it's very important who chooses to vote. And in every poll that's been done this year -- every big poll -- you see Democrats saying they're much more likely to vote. That is a really important factor in a non-presidential year.
DR: Here's an email on that very subject from Spencer, who says: "As a lifelong Democrat I hope my party will do well this fall. But due to lack of political acumen and passion on the part of Democratic leaders, I have no faith than Democrats will make more than minor gains. The Democrats mantra should be 'incompetence -- Bush and Republican incompetence,' whether it's the war on terrorism, Iraq, the budget deficit, the environment, the 7 million additional people who have no health insurance, etc. But I rarely hear Democrats speak clearly and forcefully on Bush and Republican incompetence."
SP: A lot of criticism of Democrats for failing to oppose President Bush strongly enough especially until recently. Recently they ramped up some. And failing to have a consistent and coherent party message. That's especially true when it comes to the war in Iraq. You know what President Bush's position is on the war in Iraq -- we need to stay, we need to finish the job, whatever it takes, however long it takes. What is the Democratic position? Some Democrats want to withdraw now, some hold to the Bush position, some take an intermediate stand saying we ought to set a timetable. It's hard for a party that doesn't control the presidency to have a consistent position. But it would be helpful for Democrats if they had a little more of a consensus about what to do on that very important issue.
AS: I want to make one addition to this discussion, and that is there are some political pundits who think that the Democrats' victory in the House could be their worst nightmare, in that the margin they might succeed in getting is so narrow that they have the majority but not the authority, not the power to effect the change that this gentleman is looking for.
CC: To be honest, the best Democratic slogan that I've heard heading into the 2006 election was uttered by none other than former House Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich. He said, "If I was a Democrat, our slogan should be 'Had enough?'" Have you had enough with the Bush administration. It's interesting that Newt Gingrich, of all people, suggested that. I think what it does is that it encapsulates the idea that people are fed up. There's a poll that came out yesterday, a CNN poll, that said 76% of people are angry about the direction the country is headed in. And that's a very potent thing that Democrats can tap into. Susan's right. Passionate voters vote.
DR: Chris -- I have to correct you on one thing. Some emailers say that George W. Bush lost a House race in 1978!
CC: Very true!
SP: Those are very alert viewers [sic].
CC: Midland, Texas. I've been there and I should have known that! Thank you!
SP: Charlie Cook, the independent political analyst who's often a guest on this show, has a great line about this year. He says, One party will gain a majority, but neither party will gain control. Because whoever gets control of the House and Senate, the majority is going to be very narrow. That doesn't mean it's not important. I think there are very few Democrats who think it would be their worst nightmare to win control. It would not make it possible, probably, to pass a Democratic agenda or Democratic legislation. But you can have hearings, you can launch investigations. There's a lot of pent-up energy that just having a one-seat majority in the House would unleash for Democrats.
DR: Susan... How likely is it that they're going to win the House?
SP: Most independent analysts think that if the election were today, Democrats would win the House and not win the Senate. Of course, the election is not today.
CC: I think we're at between 10 and 20 seats in the House right now. I think it can go either way. AS: I agree.
DR: ... Call from Ryan in Asheboro NC.
Ryan: I want to make a comment on the independent voter. Often overlooked when elections come up. Phone calls for Republicans, phone calls for Democrats. Independents never really get any political phone calls! ... [inaudible] Ten years as an Independent. I think it's very important that people understand the war in Iraq, Katrina, things like that... for the independent voter, those are failures of the Bush administration, a failure of the Republican Party. I'm not interested in Democrats or Republicans. What I'm interested in is a working government. And right now, I don't feel safer. My family doesn't feel safer. I don't feel like we're heading in the right direction.
CC: I think that speaks to the "had enough" message, I really do. You hear it from that caller, you hear this frustration. And I think what you see is the combination of the war in Iraq on the foreign front and hurricane Katrina on the domestic front, causing this confluence of bad news for President Bush. It shows a level of incompetence there. People worry about that. Last year when Democrats were saying "dangerous incompetence" as much as they possibly could, I would guess that will come up again. You may not like the President but he is dangerous to you. He is dangerous to your well-being. So you don't buy this idea that only Republican can keep you safe. They trotted this out in the 2002 election; they trotted in out in the 2004 election. Basically Democrats are trying to say, "Don't believe it! Look at what's happening in Iraq! Look at what happened with Katrina!" It's simply demonstrably false now.
DR: ... Caller in Warren, Michigan. Matthew...
Matthew: ...I teach political science at a community college here and of course one of the things I often stress is how important it is to vote. Which is often hard enough to get across! But one of the things that's striking me about my students this year is their awareness of things like "How do I know my vote will count?" "What about these electronic voting machines?" "What about these stories of disenfranchisement that we've heard?"
DR: Tomorrow we'll be focusing a full hour on voting machines and how secure they are.
Matthew: I will assign your show to my students!
DR: Good! I think that's a great idea! Matthew: Another issue, too... something that hasn't really been touched upon and I never really hear touched upon in the traditional media is the idea of incumbency. When you look at the polls and how upset Americans are with the direction of the country, the kinds of policies they want pursued, and that democratic deficit between what the citizens want and what their government is promoting -- with incumbency rates, do we have a system that in fact reflects or can handle what the citizens want?
SP: Incumbency is usually a big advantage. Incumbency may not be such a big advantage this year, and there's a good example of that in Michigan. Jennifer Granholm was elected governor there four years ago, considered a real Democratic star. The only reason she couldn't run for President was because she was born in Canada. Now she's in an extremely tight race against a Republican because the economy in Michigan is bad. They've suffered very serious job losses, second only to Louisiana.
DR: But she's regaining...
SP: But it's still a competitive race. If the economy weren't bad and if she weren't the incumbent being held responsible, that would be a safe race for her.
DR: Here's an email from Mary Frances. She says "Would you please address the 4th Kentucky Congressional District?"
CC: Having spent three days there in the very recent past, it's an interesting district. It's a district that was held by Ken Lucas, a Democrat, from 1998 till 2004. He retired and the seat was won by a Republican. Ken Lucas is now back running for his seat again. Apparently he missed Congress -- it's such a wonderful place to be! Ken Lucas is essentially the only Democrat who would be in a position to win this race. He's very conservative. He's pro-life. He's pro-gun. He's well known in the district. It's a fascinating district. It takes in northern Kentucky, but it runs from, in the east, Appalachia, west to the suburbs of Cincinnati in the central part of the district, to the rural and the exurbs of Louisville in the western part of the district.... But, again, President Bush won the district by 27 points in 2004. That's a lot of folks Ken Lucas needs to convince to vote with him.
DR: How close is that race now?
CC: He's ahead in polling that we've seen. It's going to get closer just because a lot of Republicans are going to come home and vote for Jeff Davis who's the current Congressman.
DR: One comment: I don't know what pro-life means anymore! One is either pro-abortion or anti-abortion. Just to clarify in my own mind.
SP: In favor of abortion rights or against abortion rights is another way of putting it. I tip my hat to Chris Cilliza about all these House races... remarkable! I'd like to talk about something we've seen happen broadly this year which is the number of competitive House races get higher and higher almost entirely at the expense of Republicans. In January Stuart Rothenberg, the political analyst who's also been a guest on this show, said there were 21 competitive House seats. In his newsletter which came out last week, he said there were 39 -- nearly double the number of competitive House seats. Of those, 35 are held by Republicans. That's what gives Democrats the hope that they can actually get the 15 seats they need to win back the House.
DR: An email from Tim in St. Louis, who says, "I don't understand these polls! Are they the same polls that predicted George Bush would be defeated by a landslide during the last election? It seems that they only pay attention to people on the northeast coast and California. There's lots of country between these two areas as was shown in the last election."
SP: Polls are not predictive. Polls are kind of a snapshot in time. What polls are useful for is to give you a kind of general sense of where the race is and whether there's a trend. So if you take a poll three or four times in a Congressional race and the trend is all in one direction, you can feel pretty confident that's where their base is going. But you can't take a poll and say, This is exactly how the election is going to go.
AS: I want to add to that, looking at some of the polls again, at least half of the people questioned are honest enough to say they're not playing that close attention. So you assume they haven't really dialed in yet. You assume that, if half of them are honest, maybe the numbers are a little higher than that...
DR: A call from Mary Louise in San Antonio, TX.
Mary Louise: ...I've lived here in Texas since 1966. I'm appalled that this Bush has done nothing at all that's good for the country. Head Start was started by Nixon and that has been defunded. The "war on terror" and the "war on drugs" will never end because too many people are making big profits. And grandstand plays like bringing a spina bifida kid here to the US to help him don't counteract the fact that we are killing thousands of them.
SP: I would say Mary Louise is a pretty safe Democratic voter. Sounds like that for the elections this year! Let me just mention the governor's race in Texas which is a really fun race. Rick Perry, the incumbent governor, is probably going to win. But he's not enormously popular. The Democrat almost certainly won't win -- Chris Bell, who's a former Congressman. But there are two independent candidates in the race that could have a big effect. One is Carol Keaton Strayhorn who tried unsuccessfully to get on the ballot as "Grandma" Strayhorn. She's the mother of Mark and Scott McClellan who've been big figures in the Bush administration. She's running as an independent. She's pretty popular. She's won statewide before. She's the State Comptroller. Then there's this guy named Kinky Friedman who's a country-western singer, and he's running on a slogan "How Hard Can It Be". He's getting some publicity, and for voters who are unhappy with all their choices, they just might vote for him.
DR: Here's an email from Marilyn in Arvada,CO. She says, "Right after he resigned following the 2004 election, Homeland Security Secretary Ridge gave an interview to USA Today in which he said many of the terror alerts issued during that campaign were questionable. The interview was front-page on USA Today that morning. About midday, a mysterious pilot flew a small plane into White House airspace and blew the Ridge story out of the headlines. Can Susan Page please recall the Page interview and how much will manipulation of terror alerts impact the coming election?
SP: I do indeed remember that Governor came in and did a newsmaker with our bureau and the bureau of Gannet News Service. He said that these were not his decisions. One of the big internal battles that did not get that much attention was who decides what color the terror alert was. It was not Tom Ridge as head of Homeland Security at that time, it was John Ashcroft, the Attorney General. And there has been criticism by Democrats that there's been manipulation. When you go to orange, when you go back to yellow -- about how those terror alerts have been used. Even now it's not up to Mr. Chertoff, the Homeland Security director. It's up to Alberto Gonzales, the Attorney General.
AS: One other thing, if callers are interested, you can go on the Homeland Security website and they actually post the dates the colors change. I was interested, when I looked, just before the bombing threat and suspects in London, that there had been a lot of changes, as the caller suggests, during 2004. Then two in 2005. And no adjustments in 2006 until the recent London threat occurred. There's an astute listener out there!
DR: Cold Spring, KY -- Paul.
Paul: I'm not one of those people who blames the media for everything including tooth decay. But earlier you mentioned that the Democrats don't have a unified message. I'm a little disappointed that the media keep looking for a unified message from the Democrats. I'd rather have individual messages from individual people running for office and hearing what they have to say, rather than something coming from somebody like Karl Rove who never ran for office to my knowledge, never achieved office. Those are the people who are setting the central command-and-control for that party and we never get a chance to vote on that. I'd rather hear individual messages from individual candidates rather than a unified message. We've already seen the failure of the unified message...
AS: This is a two-edged sword. A party is always trying very hard to communicate and communicate en masse. There are Democrats themselves who complain that they wish they had a party leadership that could communicate better with one cohesive message. I think what Susan was responding to is that the American public is divided on what to do about Iraq, let alone the candidates themselves. What the Democrats are struggling to do is not necessarily agree on the idea of exiting or exiting safely or even trying to achieve something which is worthwhile in Iraq. But what pollsters are saying is they're saying that they want an exit. They're not with Bush on "we have to win." They don't believe the "war on terrorism" he's describing is winnable and not in the near term. I'm always sympathetic to the idea that there should be nuanced messages. But Democrats themselves are trying very hard to have this bumper sticker...
CC: To Alexis' point -- I think what you see out of Democrats at the moment... when you talk to Democrats privately and you say "What is the message of the campaign?" they'll say it's "change vs. status quo." That's a broad, umbrella message. But they recognize that Ken Lucas in Kentucky has to run on a different message of change than does, say, Joe Courtney, who's running against Rob Simmons in the 2nd District of Connecticut where John Kerry won by 8 or 9 points. So I think you have an umbrella message. But they understand that micromanaging these races -- if you squeeze something too tight, you're likely to kill it. They understand that... But they want an overall message of change, and that gets back to that "Had enough?" "Aren't we ready for something different?"
AS: In Connecticut, voters certainly seized that opportunity to have disparate representation and the idea of Joe Lieberman splitting off and becoming an Independent.
DR: Here's an email from James. "Earlier this week ...Al Gore went on MTV's Video Music Awards to bring some consciousness to the younger generation about the state of the environment. Of course everyone cheered and applauded but I'm doubtful it really sunk in our minds how serious it is. What do you think it will take for people under 30 like myself, with all our H-3's and bling-bling, to wake up and realize that this is a problem we and our children will most likely be facing?"
SP: I disagree with James. I think the issue of global warming and climate change -- the environmental issue of our time -- is beginning to sink in. I think Al Gore movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," has had a pretty big effect on a certain segment of the audience. You also see evangelical Christian leaders adopting this as a cause. Protection of God's creation. So I think there is an emerging consensus on global warming that's not going to see results until the next president
DR: Let's talk for a moment about which races out there are likely to tip the balance.
CC: I think you've got three in the Senate. I'm going to exclude Arizona from that one right now. I'm going to say Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia. In Missouri, Jim Talent is running for reelection. Of the five Republican incumbents in a lot of trouble in this election, Talent is the most likely to win. But that's not saying all that much. Polling has his opponent, State Auditor Clare McCaskill who ran for governor in 2004, neck and neck with Talent. He's a good candidate. He's smart. He has the money advantage. That's going to be a tough seat because Missouri, as we know when John Kerry decided not to spend money there in the general election in 2004, is trending redder and redder. The question is, can they move back to purple! Tennesee? Harold Ford, Jr., Democratic Congressman from Memphis, is running for the open seat of Bill Frist. He's running against the former mayor of Chattanooga named Bob Corker. Corker was the best candidate Republicans could get in the primaries. More of a moderate. The other two candidates were former members of Congress, now lobbyists. So that's sort of a double whammy against. So again it's Tennessee. The last two open Senate seats that Democrats have won were Bill Nelson in 2000 in Florida -- and Florida's questionably the south -- and Max Cleland in 1996. So during that time a number of seats have opened up and they've only won two. The other one is Virginia which we've talked about. Can Jim Webb raise the money to be competitive with George Allen who has about $7 million on hand.
DR: How do you answer that?
CC: I think that he can. Virginia's demographics are changing so rapidly in terms of the growth of northern Virginia, Loudon County, Fauquier County -- that it presents a real opportunity for Webb but he's got to have the money to advertise on Washington TV and that is not a cheap endeavor.
DR: The lobbying, the scandals -- to what extent are they going to play in voters' minds as they go to the polls?
SP: There are only a handful of races where they play a really important role. But those races are important ones. Ohio would probably be the best example. Huge scandals in Ohio. The governor -- Republican Governor Taft -- pleaded guilty. First governor in the history of the state to be found guilty on criminal charges -- pleaded no contest and was found guilty. Huge scandal involving a coin dealer who was a big contributor to Republicans. When I was in Ohio last week, Mike DeWine, Republican Senator, is getting hurt by that issue although he's not been part of the scandal. And that's also the place where Bob Ney's Congressional seat is. He's faced questions about the Jack Abramoff scandal. He's decided not to run again but the controversy has made his Congressional seat a competitive one.
DR: Brian in Indianapolis.
Brian: My comment is how surprisingly I have come to despise this administration. I usually hold the office of the presidency in the highest esteem. Right now I wish we had recall. I wish we could recall this president.
DR: Why do you think your feelings are so intense, Brian?
Brian: I think he has made an utter mess of the country and, of course, of the world. By his policies he has set us back many, many years. My other concern is the billions we have spent on Iraq. I always wonder how much universal healthcare that would have bought...
DR: He used the word "despise" which is a pretty strong word. I wonder... you all started out by talking about how this election is really about the president. And our last caller feels so strongly. Do you think that when voters go to the polls, that's what they're going to be thinking?
SP: You said earlier something about the old saw, "All politics is local." All politics is local until it's not! This may be one of those years when people are trying to send a broader message about the direction of the country when they vote in November.
AS: Absolutely. I think there's a desire for change, especially for a certain swatch of voter. I've even heard Republicans say they voted for George Bush twice and wish they could take those votes back.
CC: And if you look at history, this is the so-called six-year-itch election. The second midterm election of an 8-year presidency has seen large losses -- double digit losses in the House and losses in the Senate. So President Bush is not just fighting against folks like this caller who dislike him intensely, he's also fighting against the winds of history.