Dramatic Events Bump Presidents' Approval Ratings

Guests

Ken Rudin, political editor, NPR
Ron Kaufman, adviser to former President George H.W. Bush

President Obama's enjoyed a slight bump in his approval ratings since authorizing the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. Most presidents in modern history who've served during dramatic events have enjoyed similar boosts in popularity.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

The president gambles and wins at the polls. Democrats and Republicans wager on redistricting, and it's all in the biggest little city in the world. Today is Wednesday and time for a...

President BARACK OBAMA: And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night...

KELLY: Edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Soundbite of scream)

KELLY: Every Wednesday, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. This week, the president brings the house down at the White House correspondents dinner, and we now know he had the impending bin Laden raid on his mind.

Republicans give credit to the president and to the last one, Mr. Bush, too. Nevada's governor sets a date for a special election for a recently opened seat. Dennis Kucinich says he's running for Congress again, perhaps in Washington, a state with a new congressional seat.

Meanwhile, the redistricting plan in Missouri gets nixed by Democratic Governor Jay Dixon, and back in federal court, Rod Blagojevich.

Later in the program, we'll speak with Ron Kaufman, a former senior advisor to the first President Bush, about presidential approval ratings and the boosts they get after dramatic events like the one this week. We'll also talk to him about the growing Republican field for president.

But first our resident Political Junkie, Ken Rudin, is here. And happily, Ken, we begin as we always do, with a trivia question. What have you got for us?

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Mary Louise, and happily is the correct word. Okay. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine is being challenged in the 2012 primary by a Tea Party candidate. We'll see how well that works. The Tea Party elected a governor in Maine in 2010.

So anyway, when was the last time a Republican senator was defeated for re-nomination in the primary, and the Democrats wound up winning the seat in November?

KELLY: Okay, so let me make sure I've got it: When was the last time a Republican senator was defeated for re-nomination in the primary, and then the Democrats wound up winning the seat in November?

RUDIN: I think I said those exact words.

KELLY: There we go. All right. Well, if you think you know the answer out there, give us a call. The number, 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And of course, as always, our winner will get a fabulous no-prize Political Junkie T-shirt. So there's your incentive.

Meanwhile, Ken, as we wait for the answers to flood in, let me ask you: President Obama, does he have a shot at a second career in stand-up comedy, do you think?

RUDIN: Well, what's so remarkable about it, I mean he did a great job at the correspondents dinner, the White House correspondents dinner on Saturday night. But at that time we were talking about birthers and birth certificates and Donald Trump. And that was the humor that we saw coming out from the president and from Seth Meyers on Saturday night. And yet that seems like a lifetime ago.

KELLY: Okay, well, let's hear a little bit of this, and then we can discuss further. This is at, as we said, the White House correspondents dinner, and the president took some pretty good shots at would-be campaign opponents.

President OBAMA: Michele Bachmann is here, though, I understand. And she is thinking about running for president, which is weird because I hear she was born in Canada.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: Yes, Michele, this is how it starts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: I mean, he had - you've got to say, he pulled it off.

RUDIN: The timing was excellent on that one, absolutely.

KELLY: One more here I want to play. This was another, perhaps, campaign opponent out there in the audience. This is - he's speaking to Donald Trump as just the person who might have the breadth of experience for the job.

President OBAMA: In an episode of "Celebrity Apprentice," at the steakhouse, the men's cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately you didn't blame Lil' Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: And of course, Ken, what makes that all the more funny now is that we now know he probably wasn't getting much sleep that night. It was - this was all happening on Saturday night. It was the next day that the raid against bin Laden was pulled off.

RUDIN: Exactly right, and what was so wonderful about that whole performance, if you look at the replays of it, Donald Trump is just -first of all, Donald Trump is sitting at the Washington Post table, you know, the Washington Post, a serious follower of serious journalism.

KELLY: So we're told.

RUDIN: Exactly, that was the rumor. Anyway, but he just stood there stone-faced throughout all of the comments, and it was not a good night for Donald Trump.

KELLY: There we go. All right, well, let me pivot to other people having a rough time in Washington and leaving Washington. I'm talking about Senator John Ensign, who departed the Senate this week. This, of course, follows one of the tawdrier episodes in recent political history.

And he, of course, had concluded a little while ago that he probably did not want to continue with his political career, that it was too damaged after the fallout from the affair he had with the wife of his chief of staff.

Now, let me play you a little bit. This is from his final speech, which he delivered on the Senate floor this week.

Former Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): Oftentimes the more power and prestige a person achieves, the more arrogant a person can become.

As easy it was for me to view this in other people, unfortunately I was blind to how arrogant and self-centered that I had become.

KELLY: So we do hear a little bit of remorse there.

RUDIN: Yeah, but we seem to hear that so many times. We seem to see an arrogance in certain elected officials, and they can do whatever they want, and they'll never caught. And when they get caught, they thank their wives, they're humble, they apologize, and you know, for somebody who was once talking about the White House, as John Ensign was, there was a tremendous decline.

You know, he announced the speech on the Senate floor on Monday. He took - he actually officially resigned on Tuesday. Wednesday, today, he was scheduled to testify under oath about the financial arrangements he had with the family of the woman who he had the affair with. So maybe that's why he announced his resignation the day before - or he resigned the day before. But a tremendous comedown from somebody who had such great height - great things in his future.

KELLY: Great things potentially he had. All right, now with Senator Ensign headed out of Washington, his seat, of course, has been filled by Nevada GOP Congressman Dean Heller.

That leaves a really interesting race unfolding in Nevada to figure out who is going to take over Dean Heller's seat. Tell us about that one.

RUDIN: Right. Heller is from the north part of the state, the least populated part of the state. He will be sworn in next Monday to replace Ensign in the Senate.

Dean Heller's House seat will now be filled by a special election on September 13, but what's interesting about this, the Democratic secretary of state announced that rather than have primaries or rather than have - allow these Democrats and Republicans to name its own nominees, it'll be a free-for-all. All the candidates can run on the same ballot, regardless of party, and whoever gets the most votes -there'll be no runoff - wins.

Now, for some people, a lot of people say that Sharron Angle, the Republican who ran against Harry Reid for the Senate in 2010, Sharron Angle's already announced for this seat, and she has a committed base of supporters, Tea Party supporters. But the establishment loathes her. They just feel that she cannot win the seat. So other Republicans will be getting in the race as well.

If that happens, and that's assuming that does happen, the Democrats do have a chance. If they rally behind one Democrat, they could win that seat in the special election on September 13.

KELLY: All right, rumors to ask you about here. This is Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Ohio Democrat - Ohio Democrat, I stress - but we hear he may bolt Ohio and throw his hat in the ring in another state entirely.

RUDIN: Well, what's happening is that Ohio will lose one seat in the new redistricting, and it looks like it'll be the 10th Congressional District of Cleveland, which is Dennis Kucinich's seat, that will be eliminated through redistricting.

He could run against another member of Congress from Ohio, but his press secretary says that people from 20 states, including Washington State, have urged him to run for Congress in their state.

Now, he hasn't ruled that out yet. But Washington State, expected to be around Olympia, Washington, they will have a new seat, a new - they will gain a seat in the new redistricting, and there's a rumor that Kucinich might even want to run in Washington State.

It sounds far-fetched. It probably is far-fetched. But after all, this is Dennis Kucinich.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: On that note, I'm going to bring some callers in to the conversation. The phones are lighting up with answers to the question. And just as a reminder, the question was: When was the last time a Republican senator was defeated for re-nomination in the primary and the Democrats wound up winning the seat in November?

Let's bring in - this is Scout(ph) on the line from Rochester, Minnesota. Hi, Scout.

SCOUT (Caller): Hello. This is Scout in Rochester, Minnesota. And I believe it was in Oregon.

RUDIN: And who was the senator?

SCOUT: The senator would - well, Slade Gordon, I think, was the man who was defeated in the primary.

RUDIN: That is incorrect. Slade Gordon was defeated twice for re-election but not in the primary.

SCOUT: Oh, okay.

KELLY: All right, thanks for your call. Let's give somebody else a shot. Let's head to California. Elizabeth from Berkeley, you're on the line.

ELIZABETH: Hi. Christine O'Donnell defeated Bill Roth in the primary in Delaware last fall, who was later defeated by Chris Coons.

RUDIN: Well, no. Actually, Bill Roth was a senator. He was defeated by Tom Carper in 2000. Christine O'Donnell defeated Mike Castle, who was a member of the House, but not an incumbent senator, in the primary in 2010.

ELIZABETH: So close.

KELLY: Good guess. Thanks for calling, Elizabeth. Let's give one more person a shot. Let's try - let's go to Tallahassee, Florida. Ed in Tallahassee, you're on the line.

ED (Caller): Yes, I believe - I lived in Washington, D.C., in the late '90s and up to like 2002, and George - Senator George Allen was my senator and also the governor. So I think it was George Allen in 2006.

RUDIN: No, actually, George Allen did not lose a Republican primary. He did lose his seat to Jim Webb in 2006, but he didn't lose the primary, and he didn't lose re-nomination in the primary.

ED: Okay, thank you.

KELLY: Well, so far we're striking out. I want one more - to ask you one more thing while we wait, while we wait for a correct answer to come in. We've got more answers coming in, but let me leave them in suspense for just a moment because I don't want...

RUDIN: Because I'm very excited about the answer.

KELLY: I don't want to run out of time to talk about Rod Blagojevich, who is back on trial in Chicago. Now, this is his second federal corruption trial. Why is he back in court?

RUDIN: Well, eight months ago he was basically - it was a hung jury on most of the charges. He was convicted on one: lying to the FBI agents. But the federal prosecutors feel that they have a much more solid case against Blagojevich.

Of course, he's being accused of trying to sell the Obama Senate seat to the highest bidder. And while he didn't personally benefit from it, he attempted to do so, and the prosecutors are saying that attempted extortion and bribery will be the main focus of the case. It doesn't have the attention it had last time. He still has the same hair as Donald Trump does, but...

KELLY: This is the important thing, yeah.

RUDIN: Exactly, but not the kind of attention that it had eight months ago.

KELLY: All right. Well, Ken, we have more calls coming in. I'm told so far nobody's got the right answer. You've completely stumped us. When was the last time a Republican senator lost re-nomination in the primary and the Democrats wound up winning the seat?

RUDIN: I'm not telling you. Okay, well, I'll tell you. It was 1978 in New Jersey. Clifford Case lost to Jeffrey Bell. The seat went to Bill Bradley, the Democrat, in November.

KELLY: Oh dear. Well, we'll keep the t-shirt for you for this week, or maybe next week's winner will get double. Thanks so much, Ken Rudin. And Ken Rudin is staying with us. Up next, we're going to be talking about President Obama's bin Laden bump in the polls and whether it will last. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Stay with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Today is Wednesday, and that means Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin is here, as always. You can read his blog, download his podcast, or take a shot at solving his ScuttleButton puzzle. That's all at npr.org.

Now, after the weekend raid that killed the world's most wanted terrorist, President Barack Obama is enjoying a big boost in his approval ratings.

A New York Times-CBS News poll shows 57 percent of Americans now approve of how the president is handling his job, and that is up nine points since last month.

Republicans are coming out to offer their support. Here's former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking on "The Today Show."

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Former Secretary of State): And it really is a tremendous victory for the two presidencies. I remember President Bush saying, you know, we will not tire, we will not falter, we will not fail. That was on behalf of the United States. And President Obama and his team are to be congratulated.

KELLY: To be congratulated, but history shows these jumps in the polls usually don't last.

The president got his man. How important is that to you as you evaluate the president? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. That's npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Well, we begin now with Ron Kaufman. He was a senior advisor in George H.W. Bush's White House, the first President Bush, and he's now a lobbyist here in Washington. He's with us in Studio 3A. Welcome.

Mr. RON KAUFMAN (Former Presidential Advisor): Glad to be here.

KELLY: So let me start by asking you: When the first President Bush forced Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait - out of Kuwait - he saw his poll numbers surge, go right up. Did that last?

Mr. KAUFMAN: Well, we gained about 30 points in the polls, if you remember.

KELLY: Thirty points.

Mr. KAUFMAN: And President Bush 41 saw the fall of the Wall, the Berlin Wall, saw the fall of communism, had the most successful 100-day war in the history of our country, and went from 90 points in the polls to 37, when he lost to an unknown governor from Arkansas.

So I can tell you firsthand, these spikes in polls usually don't last.

KELLY: Don't last long enough to see through to re-election.

Mr. KAUFMAN: The election this time, like in '92, is about three things: jobs, homes, and cars. My job, my home and putting gas in my car. And that's what will decide the presidency in November of '12.

KELLY: We mentioned President Obama's poll numbers are up nine percent from last month. You mentioned a 30 percent spike. I mean, what it is that gives these really big jumps? That's a big difference.

Mr. KAUFMAN: Well, people in this country, I think, love to have their president be successful. And I think President Obama and former President Bush, both teams deserve huge credit for the diligence of bringing this man to justice, if you will. And I think Americans love their president to be successful.

But in the end it's about their life and how their life - if you go across the country today, people are really scared, not just for them but mostly for their kids and their grandkids.

They see the huge deficits. They see the price of gas out of control. They see their neighbors losing their house. They see their son-in-law not having a job. And that's, in the end, what they'll judge whether they should re-hire Barack Obama for four years more or not.

KELLY: Another example we could point to from more recent history, and that's the more recent President Bush, who of course saw his approval ratings jump when Saddam Hussein was captured, so an analogous situation there. And that bump only lasted about a month.

I mean, just a matter of weeks, is that really all the benefit of the doubt that these guys are going to get?

Mr. KAUFMAN: It really depends, Mary Louise, I think, on the climate it happens in. It depends what happens tomorrow and the next day. In the polling data I saw today, certainly he got a nine point jump on his overall job approval rating. He got like a 12 point jump on his handling of Afghanistan.

But the important number, how do they look at his handling of the economy, didn't move a muscle. It's still at 40. And in the end, I think he'd rather see that number go up than the other two numbers go up.

KELLY: If this - if events like this don't have the power to move public opinion on things - as you said, like jobs, like cars, like how much it costs to put gas in your car, does it at least give the president a little bit of political wiggle room? People may not be approving directly of his economic policies, but if overall they see things as going maybe in the right direction, that gives them a little bit of breathing space.

Mr. KAUFMAN: Sure. I'm a big believer, when the president does a job well, Republican or Democrat, it accrues to his best interest, or her best interest someday, hopefully.

So yes, it certainly helps him having done his job, and I give him great credit. And more importantly, I give the head of the CIA, Panetta...

KELLY: Leon Panetta.

Mr. KAUFMAN: ...great credit. A lot of pressure on them not to go to U.N. assets, not to put more resource than that. And he did a great job. And quite frankly, when he does a great job and his team does a great job, the president should get credit for it, and he does.

KELLY: It's fine line too, I imagine, with these type of events, wanting to claim credit, wanting to get credit for an operation that went off spectacularly successfully, on the other hand not wanting to appear to be boastful, arrogant, you know, take credit when he wasn't the one actually, you know, raiding the compound, obviously.

Mr. KAUFMAN: Mission accomplished type thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: That type thing. Yeah. Ken Rudin, you want to jump in?

RUDIN: Ron, when I think of George H.W. Bush in 1991, his polls were at 90 percent after the Gulf War. And yet we do remember the economy was hurting, was failing. I vaguely remember him going to a supermarket and he didn't understand the checkout scanner, remember, at a supermarket. Did the administration - you were part of that administration - did you - did they know that this boost would not last, and they knew that the economy would be the issue?

Mr. KAUFMAN: I wish I could tell you we were absolutely sure of that, but no. I think that some of the folks in the administration got a little bit drunk on the numbers, if you will, and thought they could do no wrong. And we paid a price for that.

But the bottom line is what hurt George Herbert Walker Bush in '92 was the perception, and it was a perception, that the economy was going in the wrong direction.

And as I remember, the numbers were like 42 percent right direction and 60 percent wrong direction. And the same numbers are true today. And in the end, those are the numbers that matter come November of '12 more than any single good event.

And again, I give great credit to the president's team for this event. It's a very good thing. But that's not going to determine the election.

KELLY: We've got callers weighing in on some of these themes that we're raising. So let me bring some of them into the conversation.

First up, this is Glen(ph) in Manistee, Michigan. Glen, you're on the air.

GLEN (Caller): Good afternoon. How are you?

KELLY: Hey, we're great here. Thanks. How are you?

GLEN: Yeah, I think it's great. I mean, I'm an ex-military guy myself. In fact, I'm working on my graduate degree in counseling psychology and working with combat veterans with post-traumatic stress. And I think it's great that we got bin Laden.

But I do think that the president maybe is kind of trying to play this too much. And I think it could really backlash on him. I think he's really trying to take too much credit for it.

The fact is that the team that went in should get all the credit. They did it, and also the people in the CIA that had all the intelligence and whatnot. This has been going on for a while.

It's just - you know, so I think he's really taking more credit than he really deserves, and the other thing is if the economy doesn't get around, and if the fuel prices don't get back down again, I think that he's going to have a very hard time getting re-elected.

KELLY: Ron Kaufman, this speaks to a couple of the points that you were making, that you can have all the foreign policy successes you want, and they play very well in the media, but they don't - if they're not helping the average person who's trying to get a job, bring money in, pay for gas, it's not going to get you re-elected.

Mr. KAUFMAN: I think it's true, and I agree with the caller. The men and women involved in this task, whether it be here in the States or over in the Mideast, deserve huge credit. It was a risky, risky business, and they did a fabulous job.

KELLY: Ken.

RUDIN: But Ron, but does it take away - at least one of the Republican arguments, even though we will be talking about the economy full-swing in November, 2012, does it take away the Republican argument that the president is an ineffectual foreign policy leader?

Mr. KAUFMAN: With all due respect, Ken, I'm not sure that the taking of bin Laden has anything to do with overall foreign policy of our country. It's a great thing and a good thing, but I'm not sure it's a great foreign policy decision.

In fact, both President Bush and President Obama had the same policy here. So it isn't some unique foreign policy decision that was happening. It was a good tactical operation.

And again, I give the president credit for giving Panetta and his team the wherewithal to do what they had to do, but I don't think anyone thinks it's a huge foreign policy victory in any way, shape or form.

KELLY: Thanks very much for that call, Glen. We appreciate it.

GLEN: Thank you.

KELLY: And let me bring in another caller. This is Jerry(ph) on the line from North Haven, Connecticut. You have a somewhat different take on this, I gather.

JERRY (Caller): Yeah, I do. By the way, great show. I appreciate you guys putting me on the air. I was - I've been an Obama supporter, and I think he handled this very well. It amazes me how somebody can compartmentalize and play - give a press - a press dinner, be funny one night and knowing this decision is in the back of your mind. It just amazes me that a human being can actually do that. I would never want to play poker against President Obama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JERRY: But I do give him credit for the way he's handled this. And the other comment I have is that the - I think we need to grow up as a country. We got bin Laden. But everybody's celebrating like we just won the high school football game against across the cross-town rival. And everybody's partying in the streets.

And we still have a very active war on terror, and if we're going to act like leaders of the free world, we need to grow up and act like adults. And I don't think we're doing that.

KELLY: Ron Kaufman, what's your reaction?

Mr. KAUFMAN: Actually, I agree with Jerry on a couple of his points, although there's so much pent-up emotion over this man and the fact that we lost 3,000 souls. I can't blame people for celebrating somewhat on seeing justice take its place.

But we are the leaders of the world, and we do have to act like that, and sometimes, we don't. And I think we're in a dangerous position right now. I think the next couple of months are going to be very important. I think that the intelligence community is going to do a good job of making sure that there's no retaliation over these next few weeks.

RUDIN: Ron, Thursday night in South Carolina, some of the Republicans who are running for president, and that list seems to be much smaller than anybody expected, but they will appear - Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul; a lot of them will not be there. But how does the events of the last couple of days in Pakistan change the tone of that Republican - I mean, no longer are we talking about birth certificates and Donald Trump.

Mr. KAUFMAN: Well, that's probably a good thing for everyone, including the process. But the bottom line, I think, there will probably be more emphasis on foreign affairs, as it should be. And I think - my guess is everyone at that stage will say the right thing and be glad that this administration did the right thing, and that they were successful.

But in the end, the debate will drift into the economy and jobs and the environment and energy and those issues, and this will have a small part in the overall debate, I think, next Thursday night.

KELLY: OK. Thanks so much for your call, Jerry.

JERRY: Thank you.

KELLY: Email coming in from listeners as well. This is from Eugene writing from Miami, touching on some of these points. Eugene writes: The elimination of bin Laden has for the moment silenced opposition to the president, an opposition that has gone beyond normal ideological differences and borders on outright disrespect for the office of the President as well as the person occupying the office. How soon and in what form, he writes, do you think the opposition will resurface?

A silenced opposition? And when are we going to hear more?

Mr. KAUFMAN: I'm not sure it's silenced at all. I think there is a - the American public want their president to be successful. Whether that president will be a Republican or a Democrat, popular, unpopular, every American wants their president to be successful.

And every American should be proud today of this administration and the things they accomplished on Sunday.

Listen, presidents get more credit than they deserve and get more blame than they deserve. So I think this president deserves from all of us the credit for doing a great job.

KELLY: Let's go to Bryce on the line from Flint, Michigan.

Hi, Bryce.

BRYCE (Caller): Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call. As I said to your screener, I'm a Democrat who voted for Obama. I was never a part of the hope and change crowd. I saw him as another politician, smarter than most. But I have to say really since the beginning of the year with the deal that he made that saved unemployment benefits, the North Korean -or South Korean, you know, financial deal that he made that actually might create some American jobs, et cetera, and now with bin Laden. I have a much stronger and more confident view of this president, I really do.

KELLY: All right. Bryce, thanks very much for the call.

We're here with Ron Kaufman, former senior adviser in the first Bush White House, also with our political junkie, NPR's Ken Rudin, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Gentlemen - Ken, you have a quick point, then I want to shift the conversation a little bit.

RUDIN: You can shift it because I don't have a quick point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: It's a long point.

Mr. KAUFMAN: Can I add - let me speak.

KELLY: Sure. Please go ahead.

Mr. KAUFMAN: I pulled up a gas station yesterday.

KELLY: Yeah.

Mr. KAUFMAN: And this little sticky, the little yellow sticky on the gas handle - on the gas pump, and it said, how is that hope and future working out for you right now, you know? And someone is in the campaign and go, they put little stickies on using the president's slogan against him in a very subtle way. It's very impressive.

KELLY: Have you seen a bumper sticker that appeals to you, Ken?

RUDIN: I have, but let me just - the one quick thing that's not as quick as it should be, but 1991, going back to George H.W. Bush, I remember a Newsweek cover that said the Democrats might as well just forget about it because Bush's numbers are so outrageously high. Bill Clinton didn't get in the race until October of '91.

So are you nervous or concern at all about the lack of attention that this Republican field seems to be giving this 2012 race, or is it do you think it's still too early?

Mr. KAUFMAN: It's too early.

RUDIN: Because it's unusually - four years ago, there were 20 candidates in the race by this time.

Mr. KAUFMAN: That's true, but every cycle is different. And this time four years ago, Mitt Romney had 12 people on the staff, ads running in Iowa and New Hampshire that announced the president in January of '07. It's a different cycle, and I think actually I'm - the difference is we don't have the White House now. They do, just like - this election is about one thing, should we rehire Barack Obama for four more years or not? And in the end, that's what's going to matter.

And Republicans, I believe, to a point, will nominate a serious adult who can beat Barack Obama and then run the country. And it's going to come down to two men who are pretty talented people - Barack Obama and whoever the Republicans nominate, and it will be a very interesting election.

KELLY: Ken Rudin, this is a big question. Whoever the Republicans nominate, we're obviously early in the process, but believe it or not, the first debate is scheduled for tomorrow. This is in South Carolina. Who's going to be there? And I guess, as importantly, who is not going to be debating tomorrow?

RUDIN: Well, the second question is more important, but those who will be there will be Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota. There will be Ron Paul, the congressman from Texas; Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania; Herman Cain, the former pizza magnate; and Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, who's running as kind of a libertarian; but no Mitt Romney, no Tim Pawlenty - I mean, no Mike Huckabee, no Mitch Daniels, no Sarah Palin. The question is Ron...

KELLY: No Newt Gingrich, no Donald Trump...

RUDIN: No Newt Gingrich, No Michele Bachmann...

KELLY: No Sarah Palin, right.

RUDIN: No Jon Huntsman. How big - I mean, maybe this field won't be as big as some people think it is.

Mr. KAUFMAN: Well, again, a little bit early. I think, three months from now, we'll have a better understanding of who's going to be in the race. But I think each of these men and women are setting their own agenda, and they're not being driven by someone wanted to do an early debate or an early cattle show or whatever. So I think they're all doing the right thing for themselves.

RUDIN: You buy the argument that some people say this is not a very good field, that there are better candidates sitting on the sidelines?

Mr. KAUFMAN: Well, being that I'm involved with politics since the second Lincoln administration or thereabouts, I can remember back in 1979, we had seven candidates for president, and they called them the seven dwarfs. There was that old guy Ronald Reagan and this wimp George Bush, et cetera, et cetera, and this is a terrible field. Out of that terrible field, they had two candidates for president and two successful candidates for president.

So, no, what will make a difference in this field, what will make someone very strong is when they win. And when someone starts winning, they'll be strong, and I'm a guy who is political director of the Bush White House who prayed that Bill Clinton will get the nomination because, boy, we surely could beat this unknown guy from Arkansas pretty easily.

RUDIN: Be careful what you wish for.

Mr. KAUFMAN: Yes, sir.

KELLY: What you wish for. And quickly, Ron Kaufman, are you willing to show your hand? Are you going to be working on any of the campaigns?

Mr. KAUFMAN: I am.

KELLY: And?

Mr. KAUFMAN: Governor Romney.

KELLY: Governor Romney. There you go. All right. Well, thanks so much to both of you. This has been a great segment. We've been speaking with Ron Kaufman. He was an adviser to former President George H.W. Bush and sounds like he will be advising Mitt Romney in the upcoming campaign should that come to pass. We've also been joined by political junkie Ken Rudin and...

RUDIN: I'll be advising Clifford Case in 1978.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: There you go. Thanks to you both for coming in.

Coming up, it's the 75th anniversary of "Gone With The Wind." If you read the book, what did it teach you about the South? We're at 800-989-8255. You can email us. We're at talk@npr.org. I'm Mary Louise Kelly, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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