Ensign's Resignation Complicates Senate Race

Guests

Mara Liasson, national political correspondent, NPR
Jon Ralston, columnist, Las Vegas Sun

In Nevada, Republican Sen. John Ensign is resigning in the midst of a Senate ethics investigation. His departure sets off a string of moves in the Silver State that complicate the race for Congressional seats heading into the 2012 election.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Haley Barbour bows out of the nomination sweepstakes, John Ensign tries to get out of the Senate on time, and our long national nightmare is over: The president is an American citizen. It's Wednesday and time for a...

President BARACK OBAMA: Carnival barkers...

CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Former Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, Im reminded of that ad. Wheres the beef?

Former Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Former Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, youre no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You dont have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Former Republican Governor, Alaska): Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But Im the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

CONAN: Political junkie Ken Rudin can't be with us today. So national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us to recap the week in politics.

Haley Barbour leaves a GOP field he never quite entered, but Ron Paul is back. While Romney and Huck lead in South Carolina, Senator Scott Brown gets an opponent in the Bay State and mirror images of the unruly town halls of two years ago.

In a few minutes, we'll speak with Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston about Senator John Ensign's resignation and its domino effect in the politics of the Silver State.

But first, guest junkie Mara Liasson joins us here in Studio 3A. Mara, always nice to have you with us on the program.

MARA LIASSON: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And at the White House this morning, the president produced his birth certificate and donned the mantle of the political grownup.

Pres. OBAMA: We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.

CONAN: And Mara Liasson, was this birther issue helping the president or hurting him? A lot of people said it made the Republicans look pretty bad.

LIASSON: Well, that's a really good question. This birther issue has been kind of like, you know, Frankenstein monster. It just won't die, even though it's one of the falsest and kind of most awful political lies that I've ever witnessed.

However, the Republican Party was in a tight spot here. The establishment Republicans thought this was a bad issue for them, made it seem like the, you know, the fringe of the Republican Party, you could call it the lunatic fringe in some of their words, was wagging the dog, and they didn't want to talk about it.

On the other hand, polls show that 47 percent of Republicans believe the president was not born in the United States. So it clearly was a widespread view among Republican grassroots. They didn't want to diss those people.

I went to a breakfast this week with Reince Priebus, the RNC chair, who was asked a lot about Donald Trump's comments about the president's birth, and he kept on saying: Well, the candidates can say whatever they want. I'm focused on building the party.

So, you know, there was the thought that it was actually diminishing the Republican Party, making them look unserious. On the other hand, this is insidious. To have 47 percent of the Republican Party and some - I've seen polls up to a quarter of Americans in general thinking that the president was illegitimate, in other words, you know, he was unconstitutionally elected because he wasn't born in the United States, a false charge, was really insidious.

And I think the president finally decided once and for all to petition the state of Hawaii to get his long-form birth certificate out there. It's now out there. Hopefully, this'll end it.

CONAN: Hopefully, but Donald Trump speaking before the president spoke this morning, Donald Trump at the same time he took credit had some questions.

Mr. DONALD TRUMP (Businessman): We have to look at it. We have to see: Is it real? Is it proper? What's on it? But I hope it checks out beautifully. I am really proud. I am really honored.

CONAN: And does this - the president, when he mentioned sideshows and carnival barkers did not mention Donald Trump's name, but he might have.

LIASSON: Donald Trump being out there is one of the best things that could happen to Democrats, I think. Donald Trump, you know, considers this his shining moment. He started talking about it a lot. He injected it back into the mainstream media bloodstream, and you know, it had - he claims credit for forcing the White House's hand on this.

I don't think the White House did anything that was difficult for them. They did have to petition the state of Hawaii. The thing that is now in the Internet, in addition to the computerized form that has always been released by the Obama administration or the campaign since 2008 is what has been in the bound volumes of the state of Hawaii.

Various Hawaiian officials have looked at it, have pronounced it correct, all in order, legitimate, shows he was born in the hospital he said he was, and now I think, you know, Donald Trump has a choice, and Republicans have a choice.

They can say - I guess they can say that the state of Hawaii in 1961 conspired with the hospital and two newspapers who contemporaneously posted these birth announcements, you know, that it was all a fake, or that somebody made this thing just two years ago.

CONAN: Well, it's not going to go away, as the president acknowledged today. Meanwhile, Haley Barbour among those considering a run for the president, we hear one of the reasons he decided against it was because he's concerned that the Republican Party is dealing with unserious issues.

LIASSON: One thing, he decided against it. Well, one of the unserious issues that Haley Barbour's own campaign suggested would be hard for him to shake was the issue of race.

And Haley Barbour did everything that a candidate has to do who's testing the waters. He'd hired a campaign manager. He'd gone to the early primary states. He certainly was able to raise a ton of money. He could have positioned himself as the establishment, kind of business-community alternative to Mitt Romney...

CONAN: One of the most charming men in politics.

LIASSON: ...one of the most charming, funny men in politics.

But he had made a series of racially insensitive remarks. And his background, coming from Mississippi, that might have been judged by Barbour to be just too big an obstacle to overcome, especially when you're auditioning for the job of running against the first African-American president.

CONAN: And we do have, though, another candidate officially in the field, at least exploratory committee established, that's Ron Paul, who of course ran as the Libertarian Party candidate back in 1988 and then tried for the Republican nomination four years ago but got no more than - struggled to get out of double digits.

LIASSON: Yeah, 5.6 percent. Ron Paul is a very interesting entry into the race not because he's going to do anything electorally. I don't imagine he's going to do - get much more than he got before.

But he has a very energetic, loyal following of Libertarian-leaning, mostly young people. He also has the ability to raise tremendous amounts of money, millions of dollars in one day with these Internet money bombs, which is what he calls them, and he'll bring energy to the party.

He also - it's interesting. The GOP has caught up with Ron Paul. Ron Paul has always been about the debt and the deficit and spending and taxes, and now those happen to be the issues that are front and center for the Republican base.

CONAN: Except his positions on defense spending and his positions on foreign policy.

LIASSON: Well, defense spending is a debate inside the Republican Party.

CONAN: Not to the degree that Ron Paul...

LIASSON: Not to the degree Ron Paul wants to, but defense spending is all of the sudden on the table for many Republicans. But his isolationist views on foreign policy I think are not part of the mainstream.

But the fiscal issues, he's the godfather of the Tea Party, and the Republican Party is in a libertarian moment, and they are catching up with him.

CONAN: And then we have the issue of gas prices, which are hurting the president of the United States. He called for closing some of the tax loopholes, the depletion allowance, for example, and, well, for a moment or two, it looked like the speaker of the House agreed with him.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): I don't think the big oil companies need to have the oil depletion allowances. But for small independent oil and gas producers, if they didn't have this, there would be even less exploration in America than there is today.

We're at a time when the federal government is short on revenues. We need to control spending, but we need to have revenues to keep the government moving. They ought to be paying their fair share.

CONAN: And the speaker's aides later said those comments were misconstrued, that he was not pushing for an end to oil company tax breaks.

LIASSON: Gas prices are real tough for any president. They tend to spike up caused by things out of any president's control. This is the time of year that they do that.

The president has been going around the country trying to communicate two messages. One is: I feel your pain at the pump. I know how difficult this is. But there's no single silver bullet or simple silver bullet to do anything about it soon.

I think getting rid of tax subsidies for oil and gas companies also wouldn't necessarily bring prices down in the short term. It's an issue of fairness. And as John Boehner certainly knew when he instinctively knew that it wasn't a good idea to stand up for subsidies for companies that are making record profits, not a popular thing.

CONAN: Nevertheless, this is going to be - Democrats are going to try to force votes on this in an effort to make their colleagues look bad.

LIASSON: Sure.

CONAN: And in the meantime, we recall the raucous town hall meetings of a couple of summers ago, when the then-nascent Tea Partiers tried to make their opinions felt about health care. Well, there's been something of a mirror image, freshmen Republican back in their districts trying to sell some of the budget proposals. Here's a glimpse of what Florida Congress Daniel Webster faced at one town hall meeting.

Unidentified Man #1: Congressman, why did you vote for a budget that privatized Medicare, cut VA benefits and turn around and gave away tax cuts not to the corporations, to the highest personal rates? And that's the reason you don't worry - you're not caring about the deficits. You went and gave away all the tax cuts.

CONAN: And this is a scene from another town hall with another Floridian, Republican freshman Congressman Alan West.

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible).

Representative ALAN WEST (Republican, Florida): You're not going to intimidate me.

CONAN: And you could Congressman West, to applause there, saying: You're not going to intimidate me. It's not just Florida. Budget chairman Paul Ryan faced the same kind of scene in Wisconsin. Mara, this is right out of the Tea Party playbook.

LIASSON: Right out of the Tea Party playbook. The Democrats had a taste of this last August or two Augusts ago.

CONAN: Two Augusts ago.

LIASSON: Two Augusts ago. When they went home, there were a lot of angry town hall meetings about health care. Back then, of course, the Republicans were accusing the Democrats of cutting Medicare. And they benefited in 2010 among seniors at the polls because they raised the specter of Obamacare, as they called it, hurting Medicare because some - there were going to be Medicare cuts in order to pay for the health care bill.

Well, now they're turning around and offering quite a radical transformation of Medicare, and the Democrats see an opening here. There's no doubt that seniors are one of the most hard-fought constituencies.

Obama lost them in 2010. He needs to do better among seniors. There are many people in the Democratic Party who see the Medicare card and Social Security as kind of the way to do that.

On the other hand, we're about to embark on a very serious discussion about a real problem, which is the debt and the deficit. Something has to be done about Medicare to preserve it for the future.

Paul Ryan and the Republicans have their plan, which is to privatize it. The president has a different approach. But in the midst of this angry, politicized debate outside of Washington, inside of Washington, the two sides are going to have to sit down and negotiate something.

CONAN: We're going to see if that gets done in time to reach an agreement on the debt ceiling, which is going to be a subject for the Political Junkie for weeks to come, I'm afraid, well into June, maybe into July as that deadline is pushed.

It's Political Junkie day. Mara Liasson is with us, NPR national political correspondent. When we come back, we'll focus on Nevada and the drama in that state after Senator John Ensign announced his resignation.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan.

We have a guest political junkie today, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Ken Rudin, in the meantime, is out looking for his birth certificate.

For the rest of the time we have, we're going to focus on the political drama in the state of Nevada. The Republican governor there is expected to announce a replacement for Senator John Ensign soon, maybe as early as today, and if Governor Brian Sandoval choose Republican Congress Dean Heller, as he's expected to do, it leave another seat open in the House of Representatives, all of this after Ensign's surprise announcement that he will resign in the face of a Senate ethics investigation.

If you're a Nevada voter, how does Ensign's resignation affect politics in your state? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can also drop us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us to explain how this all shakes out in the Silver State is Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston. He also hosts the public affairs television program "Face to Face." Jon, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. JON RALSTON (Columnist, Las Vegas Sun): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And remind us: How did we get here in the first place? What happened to John Ensign?

Mr. RALSTON: Well, we have to go back to June 16, 2009, for that, and that's when he shocked the Nevada political world and maybe the nation by calling that press conference to announce that he had an affair.

His career was over at that moment, but he just appeared not to recognize that, and so he first, about a month and a half ago, announced that he was not going to run and then just last week announced he was resigning.

CONAN: In the meantime, there was an investigation of his conduct in the United States Senate. The Justice Department had already announced that it had looked into his conduct, and it would not be filing criminal charges, but the Senate was investigating, and that might have been the impetus to leave town.

Mr. RALSTON: Yeah, that almost certainly was the impetus. Now, to be clear here, the Department of Justice never really says we're done investigating you. But John Ensign's attorneys announced that they had been contacted by the Department of Justice, which would never confirm that, Neal.

But here's the situation. The Senate Ethics Committee clearly was moving forward, getting close to the second phase of their investigation. They had appointed an outside counsel, which is a very unusual step for the Ethics Committee, and there were going to be things resurrected, probably in public hearings, that may have actually gotten the Department of Justice's interest again.

And so I think Ensign decided he didn't want to sit through that. His testimony is scheduled for May 4. His resignation takes effect May 3.

CONAN: And in the meantime, that gives the newly elected Republican governor of Nevada, Brain Sandoval, a prime political plum.

Mr. RALSTON: Indeed it does. He is going to make that appointment, as you said, maybe this afternoon but certainly this week sometime. There's no mystery there. He is going to appoint Dean Heller, the congressman from the Second District here, who has already announced he's running for Ensign's seat. He announced he was going to run. He made it clear he was going to run even before Ensign left.

And so Sandoval and Heller are friends. There are a lot of people who work for Brian Sandoval who have worked for Heller. So that part of it is a done deal. It's what happens to Heller's seat that is causing all the controversy out here in Nevada.

CONAN: And that's because a previous senatorial candidate looks primed to be running for that in a special election.

Mr. RALSTON: Yes, Sharron Angle. She never goes away. And she has already announced - she announced within 24 hours of Heller announcing he was going to run for Ensign's seat that she was going to run for Heller's seat.

But now there is going to be a special election within the next six months. Sandoval gets to decide the date of that, and he'll probably decide that next week.

But the laws here, this has never happened, Neal, and so the law here is a little bit unclear, and so we are not sure whether it's going to be an actual free-for-all, where essentially anyone can file, or the party committees are going to be able to choose nominees.

The secretary of state's going to say how the election is going to run maybe as early as next week. But someone who doesn't like the system is going to sue, and I think the state Supreme Court will eventually have to set the guidelines for that race.

CONAN: But that's to see whether there's going to be a primary or not. In the long run, whoever gets the Republican nomination would be heavily favored.

Mr. RALSTON: Unless it's a free-for-all. Generally, you're right. That seat was created in 1981. A Democrat has never held Congressional District Two. A couple have come close, but it is a solidly Republican seat.

But the Democrat thinking is that if it's a free-for-all, that is anybody can file, and 14 Republicans get in and one Democrat gets in, that there are enough Democratic votes to get what might be a small percentage that would actually win that special election.

Again, it's unclear if that's how it's going to happen, but if it happens that way, there's a big advantage to Sharron Angle because she has a core of support and the potential for a Democratic upset.

CONAN: In the meantime, the big loser here seems to be Nevada's other congressional representative, Shelley Berkley, a Democrat.

Mr. RALSTON: Yeah, Shelley Berkley, after months and months of - excuse me -agonizing over this, Neal, decided she was going to run, and very soon after that, it became clear Dean Heller was going to be able to run as a senator as opposed to a congressman.

And she seems undaunted. She said today in Las Vegas that she doesn't think it gives Dean Heller much of an advantage. I have to believe she's just putting the best face on it because he will be able to now set up an office in Las Vegas, where he is not really well-known, and then he can essentially run his campaign or a de facto campaign of outreach from that office for the next 18 months.

So it's an advantage. How much an advantage, I think that remains to be seen.

CONAN: And Mara Liasson, traditionally, being appointed to the remainder of a senator's term is a substantial advantage.

LIASSON: It can be a substantial advantage, although you have to run in your own right. I guess the real kiss of death is when a governor appoints themselves. That never works out too well. But yes, it's always better to be an incumbent.

CONAN: Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, for example, benefited from serving out the remainder of Hillary Clinton's term. She has the unfortunate timing to run in her own right in 2010 and then have to run again in 2012, but nevertheless.

LIASSON: But nevertheless, she's put herself in a strong position, and I think - look, incumbency has all sorts of advantages, even in anti-incumbent years. I mean, you see that on the presidential level. You know, the Republican race hasn't even started, and President Obama is socking away the cash and setting up the mechanics of his campaign and not facing a primary opponent. So incumbents have a lot of advantages.

CONAN: Jon Ralston, is it going to be less of an advantage, though, in a post-earmark era, where previously one of the advantages a representative or a senator could certainly do is bring home the bacon?

Mr. RALSTON: There's still ways to bring home the bacon, Neal, and I think that the Republican caucus in the Senate will do for Dean Heller what it did not do for John Ensign during the last two years. Ensign was essentially shunned and not given any attention.

I think they will try to get Heller a good committee appointment, and there will be an effort by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to make him seem like the greatest freshman senator in the history of senators. And to some extent, he'll get some benefit from that.

You know, it was interesting. Nate Silver, who - the numbers guru for the New York Times, did an historical look at this, and it turns out that only about half of the senators who have been appointed in this way have actually survived at succeeding election.

So it's by no means a lock, but I do think that as Mara said, being an incumbent just has tangible and intangible advantages that will help Heller in the race.

CONAN: And how is it transforming Nevada politics? Obviously accelerating this election cycle, but that special election for the House, well, whoever wins that, Sharron Angle possibly, is going to have to stand again come 2012, right?

Mr. RALSTON: Yes, it's definitely created somewhat of a chaotic situation here because there are a lot of people who were thinking about running for that congressional seat but didn't think they had to make up their mind so quickly. They will have to do that now.

There are constitutional officers, there are legislators, and there are others who want to run for that seat. So it's shaken up to that extent.

I also think that nationally, this will be seen, whether rightly or wrongly, as a bellwether race because it is going to take place in advance of the 2012 real races. And so there will be a lot of import attached to it.

Whether that's deserved or not, I don't know, but also it creates a situation here with the Senate race where there's been a lot of talk about this, Neal, that Nevada and Virginia could be the seats that determine control of the Senate.

And certainly we remember the Harry Reid-Sharron Angle race being so important last time. So those of us who cover politics in Nevada are thrilled.

CONAN: It's going to be an exciting time in Nevada. In the meantime, are some Democrats angling to possibly replace Shelley Berkley in the Las Vegas seat?

Mr. RALSTON: What's interesting about Nevada is up until recently, it was the fastest-growing state in the country. So at one time, there was some speculation we were going to get two new congressional seats.

Now with the growth having slowed down a little bit, we're going to get one. So they have to create a new district, which will also be in southern Nevada and will affect Shelley Berkley's seat.

Shelley Berkley has one of the safest Democratic seats in the country, and so there are several Democrats who are interested in running there, but they're going to wait to see how the lines are redrawn, which should happen in the next month or so at the legislature, assuming that it doesn't get tied up in court.

Now, Dina Titus, who was the congresswoman from the Third Congressional District here and lost in 2010 to Joe Heck, is definitely looking at Shelley Berkley's seat. She will not run against Heck again, but I think she will run for Shelley Berkley's seat, and she would probably be considered the favorite.

Both of the Democratic legislative leaders up here in Carson City, the Senate majority leader Steven Horsford and the speaker John Oceguera, are also running for Congress. We have this - or are interested in running for Congress, excuse me.

We have this unprecedented situation here with three of these four seats are going to be open.

CONAN: And it's interesting. You've got a Democratic legislature and a Republican governor. Who gets to decide on whether those district lines are drawn in the redistricting process?

Mr. RALSTON: The governor, in his State of the State speech a few months ago, Neal, said he will not sign a redistricting plan that is not - and he used the word fair. And, of course, fairness is in the eye of the beholder in something like this, and what he means is if he doesn't think the Republicans are going to do well with the new maps, he is not going to sign it. But how far will he go?

The Democrats have a 60,000-voter edge in this state, so you would think that they should have an advantage in the maps. It's going to be very, very difficult when it comes down to it for Sandoval to argue that the Republicans should have two safe seats, which essentially is what some Republicans want him to draw the line on.

So there is some sense that he's going to veto it. There's going to be a deadlock, and then it will have to go court.

CONAN: Mara Liasson, it is not unusual for these kinds of - in states where these places are split for these decisions to end up being made in federal court.

LIASSON: No. And actually, Nevada is probably one of the nicer versions of redistricting because they're expanding rather than shrinking. You've got a lot of cannibalism going on when you're losing a seat, and you have to pit two longtime members of Congress against each other, for instance.

So Nevada is kind of in the position that every state would like to be having an extra seat. How the lines are drawn, of course, is going to be the subject of incredible partisan fighting. As a matter of fact, redistricting is the most purely partisan exercise there is because it has nothing to do with policy. It is just about drawing lines so that your team wins or has an advantage.

CONAN: Except with the possible exception of Iowa.

LIASSON: With the possible exception of Iowa who, true to their good government roots, divides up the state. A bipartisan commission - a nonpartisan commission does it. And when you look at the map of Iowa, it's just nice little squares. There's nothing gerrymandered about Iowa.

CONAN: And it's not likely to be that way in Nevada, is it, Jon Ralston?

Mr. RALSTON: Well, it's very interesting because Nevada essentially has three areas: the northern part of the state, the southern part of the state and then the rest is rural. And northern and southern are very urban areas. And most of the population, about three quarters of the state population, is in the south. So essentially, it should be that there are three districts in the south, and one would be a northern and rural district, which would be how the current Hellard(ph) District.

There are all kinds of crazy ideas floating around, Neal. In fact, the first actual redistricting maps are going to be introduced in the legislature tomorrow, and so we will get our first look. But I would assume that it's going to look something along what I just described, three southern seats and one northern, rural seat.

CONAN: We're talking with Jon Ralston, columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, host of the paper's political news program "Face to Face with Jon Ralston." Also with us, of course, is Mara Liasson, our guest political junkie this week. If you miss Ken Rudin, you can go to npr.org/junkie to download his podcast and solve his ScuttleButton puzzle. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Jon Ralston, as we look ahead to 2012, beyond this special election coming up for that one congressional seat there in Nevada, as we look ahead to 2012, a lot of Democrats are saying this is a natural blue state.

Mr. RALSTON: Well, Barack Obama won the state by 12 points in 2008, Neal, but that was an unusual result. For the previous four decades, only Bill Clinton had won the state for the Democrats, and he only won Nevada because of Ross Perot being on the ballot. So this is a new phenomenon here.

The Democratic machine, though, has completely changed in this state since the end of 2007 when Harry Reid used his position as Senate majority leader to get an early presidential caucus here, which revved up the Democrats and they managed to turn out more than a hundred thousand people for that caucus, registered a whole bunch of new people. And that's that registration edge that they have. So that Democratic machine, I think, still does give this state a slight edge to Barack Obama, although his numbers in this state are not good.

CONAN: Yet, you look at that last senatorial election and admittedly a strange election but a very badly politically damaged Harry Reid managed to squeak out a victory.

Mr. RALSTON: He squeaked out that victory really for two reasons. The first reason we've already talked about, and that's Sharron Angle. She was a fatally flawed candidate in many, many different ways. But almost anybody, including Sharron Angle, would have beaten Harry Reid if it were not for that machine that I mentioned that the Democrats had erected in this state. And that machine will be fully operational again in 2012 to help Barack Obama.

CONAN: And, Mara Liasson, as the national party looks at the electoral map and they're trying to map out how they're going to do, where do they put Nevada?

LIASSON: Nevada is a battleground state. I think that they are - the Democrats are certainly planning to fight hard for Nevada. When they look at the states that Barack Obama won last time, the only state that they say now is probably off limits for them is Indiana, and they're not saying that publicly. But all the rest, they think they're going to try again for North Carolina, try again...

CONAN: Virginia?

LIASSON: ...for Virginia. Yes. Now, that doesn't mean that they can get all of those states, but they are going to try for everything. They even talk - and I think this is a bit of bravado - expanding the map to Georgia, Texas, which seems absolutely insane, but Texas has experienced big growth of Hispanic population, which would make it a little bit more Democratic.

Georgia, I don't know if this will end up being on their target list, but what they also - when you do the map and you look at how many electoral votes Barack Obama won last time, 300 and something, big comfortable majority, they can afford to lose a lot of the states he won and still get to 270. They can lose Ohio and Virginia. Then, they have to get Pennsylvania and Florida. In other words, there are a lot of routes to 270 for Barack Obama.

CONAN: In the meantime, there in Nevada, I understand, Jon Ralston, that some are considering that the new governor, his name might be floated for his vice presidential timbre.

Mr. RALSTON: You know, I've seen that talked about, Neal. And Brian Sandoval has - whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, you have to admire his political skills, and he's a very telegenic fellow. And he has really outmaneuvered the Democratic legislature so far on the main budget issues.

You know, he is an Hispanic, which is, you know, the fastest growing demographic in the country, and so he's been - he's been talked about as - you know, he's a young guy, he's in his late 40s - as being a person who could be put on the national ticket. I frankly don't see it, Neal.

I mean, I think if they're looking for someone who fits that profile, Marco Rubio brings you a lot more potential electoral votes than our puny six here that we're about to have. And we're thrilled to have six because you used to have five, but Florida has five times as many or something. So I don't see it, although that floats up once and a while.

CONAN: Jon Ralston, thanks as always for your time.

Mr. RALSTON: All right, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Jon Ralston, columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, with us today from Carson City in Nevada. Again, we're expecting the announcement of a replacement for resigned Senator John Ensign today, maybe tomorrow. Stay with us for that.

And NPR News' Mara Liasson, thank you for your time.

LIASSON: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR's political junkie Ken Rudin will be back with us next Wednesday as he usually is.

Coming up, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan on what will soon be the world's newest country. What's the role of the U.S.? What's happening in Darfur, the future of Sudan? Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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