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Political Junkie: In Connecticut, Race On


It's Wednesday, and time for the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ich bin ein Berliner.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

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

Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): Aaaaaagh!

CONAN: Another incumbent gets the boot. Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski comes in third in the Republican primary. We'll also take a look at results from the rest of Tuesday's primary races. In a few minutes, a chat with Alan Schlesinger, the candidate for the Connecticut seat - the guy you haven't heard from.

We begin this segment a little earlier today. We'll continue to do so as we get closer to November. As always, we want to hear your two cents. What's your reaction to Tuesday's elections? If you're in Alaska or Wyoming, how did you vote yesterday and why? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Back from another weeklong hiatus - why does he get all this vacation time - is Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, author of the weekly Political Junkie column, which is on NPR's Web site at npr.org. He's with us in Studio 3A.

Ken, let's start with Alaska. Frank Murkowski, longtime Republican Senator from Alaska, went back, was handily elected governor.

KEN RUDIN reporting:

Well, that's right. Four years ago he was. I mean he was a powerful four-term Senator in Alaska. Went back home because that's where the real power is in Alaska. Alaska governors is very powerful. And yet from the outset, from the moment he was elected, I mean he was in trouble.

The first thing he did of course, as everybody knows, was he appointed his daughter to succeed him in his Senate. That didn't go over well, even though Lisa Murkowski is a pretty popular senator. I mean she's done a good job. But they just didn't like the fact.

He also purchased a jet plane for himself. The oil revenues were not...

CONAN: Presumably for the governor's office, not himself.

RUDIN: Well, no, for himself. There was an arrogance, and the thing about Frank Murkowski that people just didn't like - I mean there are things that - a lot of things with Joe Lieberman. There was personality problems and ideological issues. With Murkowski it seemed to be really just the gruffness of his personality. And the voters look - not only did he lose, as you say, but he finished third.

CONAN: He's the fourth incumbent to lose this election cycle, the third Republican. Coincidence?

RUDIN: Well, you know, a lot of people are talking about a possible upheaval of incumbents in November, and that very well may happen. But if you look at the individuals who lost - Murkowski was just personally disliked, Joe Lieberman had his own problems in addition to the war. He had problems with his fellow Democrats. Cynthia McKinney, perhaps if she didn't clobber a member of the Capitol Hill Police force with a cell phone she'd still be in Congress today. And then there was a guy, Joe Schwartz from Michigan, who was defeated because he wasn't sufficiently conservative.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. Emily's with us. Emily calling from Anchorage.

EMILY (Caller): Hello.


EMILY: Lovely show today.

CONAN: Thanks.

EMILY: The primary here was very, very interesting because, well, Governor Murkowski had offended probably everyone it's possible to offend in Alaska both among his constituents and otherwise. He was extremely unpopular in the weeks leading up to the election. But the winner, Sarah Palin - and I'm a Democrat personally - but Sarah Palin is running a campaign effectively of nice politics.

And it was incredibly popular, and people were very shocked at just how well she withstood the sort of the bombshells coming at her from every direction, the other party and her own.

And Tony Knowles, the Democrat victor, is also just renowned for being very much a people person, not a mudslinger. And it's going to be an interesting race with two - frankly, two very nice politicians.

CONAN: So we're not going to hear anything, Ken, from Alaska for another three months.

EMILY: Of course not, no.

RUDIN: You know, it's interesting. When you think of the folks from Alaska, you think of Frank Murkowski, the gruff personality. Ted Stevens, the senior Senator for Alaska, who is really just, you know, a tremendous temper. And yet you have these two nice guys - well one woman and one guy - running a civil race in Alaska - be pretty fun to see.

CONAN: And, of course, Alaska has a lot of oil money to distribute in that state since prices went up. Makes it an interesting place. Emily, thanks very much for the call.

EMILY: Thank you.

CONAN: More from the Political Junkie. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News.

The Bush administration says Iran's offer to hold negotiations on its nuclear program but not halt its uranium enrichment falls short of U.N. demands. Tehran faces sanctions if it fails to suspend uranium enrichment by the end of this month.

Also, new home sales figures released today show existing home sales falling in July to the lowest level in the two and a half years. The biggest declines are in the West and parts of the Midwest. The inventory of houses on the market but not yet sold is up sharply.

Details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, our occasional series on China continues with the look at the role of religion in that country. As many worshippers demand more freedom, the communist government hangs on to strict regulations. The tensions between religion and government in China tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Monday at this time, the diaspora of Hurricane Katrina. We'll hear from Gulf Coast residents who left, where they are now, what life has been like one year after Katrina came ashore. If you left the Gulf Coast area because of Hurricane Katrina, send us your story. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. Please put Katrina Diaspora in the subject line.

Today, it's an expanded edition of the Political Junkie segment. NPR political editor Ken Rudin is here. In a minute, we'll talk with Alan Schlesinger, Connecticut's forgotten candidate for Senate amongst all the controversy there.

If you have questions, if you'd like to join us 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And, Ken, before we get to Connecticut, in Wyoming, in that primary yesterday, Congresswoman Barbara Cubin won her bid in the Republican primaries. Democrats, though, seem to see an opening.

RUDIN: You know, it's interesting. I mean the headlines, of course, of yesterday's primaries is Murkowski's loss in Alaska. But I was very interested to see Barbara Cubin getting just about 60 percent against a basically unknown challenger in the Republican primary.

And what it makes me wonder whether there are a lot of Republican incumbents out there who have either drifted away from the party rank and file or the party rank and file have drifted away from the Republican Party. And if she's only getting 55-60 percent of the Republican - again, this is a state that Bush/Cheney won with 69 percent two years ago - if Barbara Cuban can only get about 60 percent of her Republican Party, and assuming a Democratic - a united Democratic opposition against her won, she could be in trouble in November and so could a lot of other Republicans incumbents.

CONAN: And this - the calculation begins come - if you're looking at who might control the House following the November elections, it begins with how many vulnerable seats there are. If there are, as the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee says, only about 30, that makes the odds very difficult for the Democrats. Some people are now saying 30, 32, 35, maybe 40.

RUDIN: We have an interactive map on the NPR Web site talking about state by state, what seats are perhaps up for grabs. And once upon a time we were talking about 15, 20 seats, and we're approaching 40 now. And it seems like every day there's another poll that comes out that shows a heretofore safe Republican or a Republican who should've been safe is certainly hearing footsteps in November.

CONAN: Now if Republicans are as a party in trouble, one big reason has got to be the war in Iraq.

A new CBS poll shows a majority of Americans no longer see a link between the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism, which is not good news for the president or his party.

RUDIN: Right. That was the Republican argument, that was the president's argument from day one, that the reason - that the war against terror and the war in Iraq are one in the same. And if more and more voters do not see that, there is going to be more and more fallout.

Look, the war is not popular to begin with, but the best that the Republicans could hope for is a solid Republican turnout. And if even Republicans are starting to say that there's really no connection between the war on terror and what's going on in Iraq, the GOP could be really in trouble.

CONAN: And the president said if he was running as a candidate, he'd say, well, first of all, the economy's doing well. And on national security, and if you think it's bad in Iraq now, just think about what would happen if we pulled out. That doesn't seem like a ringing slogan for a lot of Republicans to go out and campaign on.

RUDIN: No, and it seems like what the Republicans are saying but look, it could be worse if you had the Democrats. And we saw that with the Lamont victory in Connecticut. Vice President Dick Cheney basically said that Lamont victory was good news for al-Qaida. I mean he didn't say those exact words, but in effect he said that. And I think that rather than focus on their own record, it seems like Republicans are going after Democrats who may be vulnerable on this issue.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Tom(ph). Tom's calling us from Michigan.

TOM (Caller): Hello.


TOM: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, Tom.

TOM: Yes. I just wondered how you feel about Hillary Clinton in the next presidential election. I'm a staunch Republican. I've voted Republican all my life. However, I was telling your answering person there that I'm starting to move, and I might even vote for her. I don't know. I just really think she's moved towards the center quite a bit, and, you know, as much as I did not used to agree with her, I've seen her and the way she's withstood a lot in her career. And you know what? She's an awful strong person and could be a leader, and by golly you're talking to a Republican that might vote Democrat next presidential election.

CONAN: Well, Ken Rudin, everybody says that Hillary Rodham Clinton has a lot of people who like her and a lot of people who absolutely cannot stand her.

RUDIN: And the latter group seems to include more and more Democrats. It was very interesting to get the call from Tom, who was a Republican, who says he could see himself voting for Hillary Clinton, where I'm getting tons of e-mail from Democrats saying either I don't trust her, I don't believe her move to the center, I think she has still made so many bad mistakes, starting with the vote on going to war in 2002, and a lot of liberal Democrats saying this is not what the Democratic Party should be standing for. There is a left wing opponent to her in the September 12th primary, Jonathan Tasini, who's trying to be the Ned Lamont of New York politics. Now it's not easy to do that when Hillary Clinton has $44 million and I think Tasini has about $2.75 to his campaign accounts.

CONAN: Of course, Ned Lamont, the insurgent Democrat who unseated Joe Lieberman as the Democratic candidate. Tom, thanks very much.

TOM: Oh, thank you so much. Great show. I listen to you every day on the radio while I'm traveling. And I love your shows.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for that.

Well, let's go full bore into Connecticut now, Ken. Earlier this week, reporters asked President Bush if he would be supporting Democrat -now independent - Joe Lieberman in his Senate campaign. Let's listen to what the president had to say.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm going to stay out of Connecticut.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) Mr. President, you were born there.

President BUSH: Shhh. I may be the only person - the only presidential candidate who never carried the state in which he was born.

CONAN: Well, that and a quick aside from the president, Ken, but he was wrong.

RUDIN: Well, about the last thing he was clearly wrong. As a matter of fact, the last president who did not win the state he was born in was his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, who was born in Milton, Massachusetts. And he lost the state twice, both to Dukakis and Bill Clinton.

But on the first thing, it was very interesting because Ned Lamont's goal is to really paint Joe Lieberman as a tool and an ally of President Bush. And, of course, Lieberman's trying to say, look, I'm a loyal Democrat, I'm a labor Democrat; I was the vice presidential nominee in 2000. I vote with the Democrats over 90 percent of the time, I just happen to have disagreements with my fellow Democrats about going to war in Iraq.

So Bush would be nuts - the Republican Party would be nuts to go into that state. Alan Schlesinger, the Republican nominee, is basically getting four percent in the polls - four or five percent. A recent poll came out like 75 percent-plus of the Republican Party supports Lieberman. There's no reason for the Republican Party and the Bush administration to get involved in Connecticut and give Ned Lamont more ammo.

CONAN: There is, of course, one candidate in the Connecticut Senate Race who would love to be identified as the ally of President Bush and the Republican Party, and that's the presidential - excuse me, the Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger. He's the other candidate in Connecticut's Senate race, and he's kind enough to join us now by phone from his campaign headquarters in Connecticut. And, Mr. Schlesinger, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. ALAN SCHLESINGER (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Connecticut): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And how about that ringing endorsement you got from the president the other day?

Mr. SCHLESINGER: Yeah, it was wonderful, wasn't it?

CONAN: Yeah. The leaders of the Republican Party keep saying well, you know, the Republican leaders in the state of Connecticut say just stay out of this race.

Mr. SCHLESINGER: Yeah, it's just not the way it's been - that's really just not the way it is, and it's unfortunate that basically I got myself into this tsunami of issues that have nothing to do with Connecticut or nothing to do with Connecticut voters. And here I am just trying to be there for the people, working 20 years on the state and local level, getting the unanimous endorsement of my party, and now find the election at least to this point hijacked by the media and by the White House to be a referendum on the left wing of the Democratic Party taking over and, according to the administration, to be rejected by the mainstream America with the proof of Lieberman getting elected.

As you just highlighted prior to my entrance here, Joe Lieberman is just as liberal as Ned Lamont. It's Tweedledee and Tweedledum, but they're basically -it's perception is the whole game in politics, as you know, and the perception that's being played is that Lieberman is pro-administration on Iraq, and I don't know what it's going to take for the administration to wake up and see that there's only one candidate that supports them on anything, and that's Alan Schlesinger.

Joe Lieberman continues to spit on George Bush every day, and George Bush stands there and tries to spin it that I guess he needed the rain.

CONAN: We've all heard, and it's true that politics ain't beanbag(ph), but it -nobody signed up for this kind of abuse. I mean, your own party.

Mr. SCHLESINGER: It's unbelievable. This is the chance of a lifetime for the Republicans to win the seat. The last time we won a Senate seat in Connecticut was the identical circumstances with the incumbent not getting the endorsement of his party, having to go independent. His name was Tom Dodd, Chris Dodd's father. A liberal Democrat got the Democratic nomination, and the Republican won that year pretty easily, which is the exact same scenario we have now.

Unfortunately, we have a Washington agenda that won't allow for a Republican to come in here and win the day. And the irony is that the top of the ticket, we have a popular Republican governor who's going to be right next to me. And we have machine voting in Connecticut; my lever is going to be right next to hers. All they have to do is support me and I'll be the next United States Senator. It's pathetic.

RUDIN: Mr. Schlesinger, it's Ken Rudin here. It was interesting to me to find that it seemed like the White House was almost rooting for a Lamont victory, because then they could point to the cut-and-run defeatist Democrats, which is what Vice President Cheney did right after it. But then it seemed interesting that they seemed to find an ally in Joe Lieberman, who as we've said before over and over again, who has voted with the Democratic Party over and over. Explain to us how the Republican Party and Republican Party voters see Joe Lieberman as the person to vote for in November.

Mr. SCHLESINGER: It's the perception that he's with the administration on Iraq. And every day, Mr. Lieberman moves farther and farther away from Bush's position. As a matter of fact on Sunday, he recommended the ouster of Donald Rumsfeld. Every day, he moves farther from Bush, and Bush just kind of like tries to hug him like a Sumo wrestler. And the administration tries to do this, whereas they have a supporter over here that all they have to do is embrace me and I'll win the race for them. And I'll be a guy who's here for Connecticut and here for solid Republican fiscally responsible principles.

It's not like I am an ogre. I'm a nice guy, I think. Most people think I'm a nice guy. I've been elected nine times by very large margins, as much as 81 percent of the vote. If Washington would allow me to get my message out, I'll win the election and they'll have a very nice Republican Senator who is level-headed, who has a financial background from the Wharton School of Finance who can do a lot of work on the federal budget, steering us away from a massive glacier that we're about to hit with the baby-boom retiring. And all they want to do is play politics and footsie on Iraq, and it's pathetic.

RUDIN: You know, you blame the Washington Republican establishment, but even when Joe Lieberman was considered a clear winner in November you had Republicans in Connecticut like Chris Shays who endorsed Lieberman even when you were already in the race and Lamont was just an asterisk.

Mr. SCHLESINGER: No, actually Chris Shays attempted to get Lieberman on the Republican line, and Lieberman…

CONAN: That's not an endorsement?

Mr. SCHLESINGER: No, that was before I was involved.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. SCHLESINGER: I wasn't even involved, so it had nothing to do with me. None of this has anything to do with me. That's what's so frustrating, is that this is all to do with Washington's spin about the future of the Democrat Party and the rejection of voters of the future of the Democrat Party rather than electing a Senator in Connecticut.

And you know, I've got to tell you that the average voter in Connecticut could care less about this stuff. Most of them aren't even focusing on the election. That's why I have a chance, because right now no one cares except for the pundits and all the people that are circling around these extraneous issues.

Once people focus after Labor Day on the election and we have some debates, even though they basically made it very difficult for me to raise any money, if I can get my message out in the debates and then I can get some folks supporting me from all parts of the spectrum - Democrat, Republican and unaffiliated - I'll get my message out, we cut some great television spots, I think people are going to respond very comfortably to my message, and they'll say hey, why aren't they talking about Schlesinger. Already people - every time they hear me, people start donating to my campaign because I have a message basically that I'm just here for Connecticut voters. I'm not here for some political agenda.

CONAN: Alan Schlesinger, good luck to you. Thanks very much for joining us today.

Mr. SCHLESINGER: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Alan Schlesinger, Republican candidate for Senate in Connecticut. We spoke with Ned Lamont and with Joe Lieberman earlier on this program. You're listening to the Political Junkie segment on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an e-mail, Ken, that we got from Jen(ph) in Traverse City, Michigan.

Regarding the Democratic caucuses, primaries, and the changing of the order of them for the presidential primary, why can't we just have a national primary on the same day? It seems unfair for people in some states to have so much more influence than others in the selection of the presidential candidate. The long primary season really seems like an anachronism.

RUDIN: I think what Jen is talking about is that the Democratic Party - first of all, since 1972, the schedule started out with Iowa, followed by New Hampshire and then all the other states. The Democratic Party just inserted to more states: Nevada in between Iowa and New Hampshire, and South Carolina right after New Hampshire. Basically the point is that they want - first of all, Iowa and New Hampshire are lily-white states with very little union representation. Nevada and South Carolina bring the voters of color.

To have a national primary though - the lure of Iowa and New Hampshire has always been that, theoretically at least, a candidate without billions of dollars in his wallet or her wallet can go and meet the people, meet the people one on one and not have to have a national, multi-million-dollar media campaign and fat-cat consultants. You can reach the voters one on one.

If you have a national primary, you're going to have to have $100 million, $200 million even before the first vote is cast. So theoretically, the allure and the attractiveness of a small state like Iowa or New Hampshire, and now Nevada, is that you don't have to have tons of money to make yourself relevant.

CONAN: Here's another e-mail, this one from Jordan(ph) in Philadelphia.

I'm originally from Virginia. I've been following the Virginia Senate race between George Allen and Democratic challenger Jim Webb as closely as possible. Until very recently, Webb has been trailing Allen considerably. It seems that due to the so-called macaca incident, Webb is gaining - we talked about macaca last wee on the show - however, because of Webb's Reagan-friendly military background, I've been surprised that he didn't catch up to Allen sooner and for more substantial reasons. Can you give us a picture of the Senate race down there? Why does Webb seem unable to connect with voters like my dad who, though a life-long Republican, still finds Allen irksome?

RUDIN: Well, some people find Allen irksome. Some people find him very, very folksy. I mean he was a former Congressman, he's a former governor and a one-term Senator - beat Chuck Robb six years ago trying to win a second term. He's pretty popular in the state. The thing about the macaca incident where he basically singled out a Jim Webb supporter in his audience and called him - a person of color, I should say - and called him this (unintelligible) name, macaca, which I have no idea what it means, but…

CONAN: Wasn't that the pirate in The Pirate - no, no, that was Mococo, never mind.

RUDIN: That's right. (Unintelligible), I recall - but he also said welcome to America. And what he did by doing that was basically saying that perhaps a person of color may not be so welcome in the United States or in Virginia. Somebody who's planning to run for president in 2008, which George Allen clearly is, that's not the kind of smart thing you say.

Somebody called Allen the other day Bush Light. Now that's probably the ultimate of insults. But certainly whatever you make of it, the race has become a race. It was 19 points, 15 points a few weeks ago, and now it's 3 points.

CONAN: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. To read his latest Political Junkie column, go to our Web site at npr.org. And Political Junkie will be slightly larger on this program every Wednesday until Election Day.

RUDIN: As it should be.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Shut up, Ken. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of song, I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician)

THE BYRDS: (Singing) …and take over this beautiful land. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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