GOP Candidates Hit Campaign Trail

The latest on President Obama's campaign as well as those of his many GOP challengers, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. We call it summer recess; lawmakers call it the district work period. Whatever you want to call it, it's over. Congress is back in session this week, and coming up, we'll take a look at the legislative agenda. But first though, the presidential campaigns. There's been no rest for the Republican candidates this holiday weekend. Employment is the top issue for most of them, and the same goes for President Obama. He'll go to Capitol Hill this week to lay out his jobs agenda, which could be a factor in whether he keeps his own job. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us for a look at what to expect in presidential politics this week and beyond. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Audie.

CORNISH: So, the Republican candidates are crisscrossing the country this week; first, to South Carolina for a forum, then to California on Wednesday for a debate. The debate this past summer really shook things up. So, who's got the most to gain or lose going forward?

LIASSON: Audie, you're right. The next six weeks or so is a very important period for the Republican nominating battle. We're going to have a series of debates. As you mentioned, we're going to have one Wednesday at the Reagan Library. This will be the first time we'll see the new frontrunner in the race, Rick Perry, on stage with his rivals. And Perry has really vaulted to the top of the polls nationally and in key states. He's got support from voters all across the Republican primary spectrum. And so the Perry and Mitt Romney rivalry will be the main show at the Reagan Library debate and at the one shortly afterward in Florida, Nevada and New Hampshire. Somebody is probably going to take Perry on. We're going to have to see who it is. This does look like a two-man race right now. The next six weeks will confirm that.

CORNISH: So, I'm sure the Romney is cringing a little bit when you call Rick Perry the frontrunner. What does Mitt Romney have to do to regain what he hoped was his position, the frontrunner position?

LIASSON: Well, one of the things the Romney people will say is it's not too bad not to be the frontrunner at this point in the race. But you're right; Romney has to start acting like he's running against his fellow Republicans. So far, he's been running against the president. And that is a general election strategy that makes a lot of sense if you're the frontrunner, which right now he's not anymore. He is taking steps in that direction to change his strategy. For instance, he's going to a Republican candidates' forum in South Carolina put on by the influential conservative Senator Jim DeMint after earlier saying he wasn't going to go. South Carolina is a very important early primary state. He's also extending an olive branch to the Tea Party. He's going to attend a Tea Party rally today in New Hampshire. And last week, he made a trip to Perry's own backyard. He gave a speech to the VFW in Texas, where he emphasized his business background and contrasted it to Perry's decades in politics. Here's part of what he said:

MITT ROMNEY: Now, I'm a conservative businessman. I spent most of my life outside politics dealing with real problems in the real economy. Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don't know how to get us out.

LIASSON: So, it remains to be seen if voters will look at Perry as a career politician or not. But Romney really has a choice. He can sit back and hope Perry's brashness and the new scrutiny of Perry's record leads him to implode on his own, or take the fight to him, and I think he's doing a little bit of both.

CORNISH: Let's talk about the man. This is all about President Obama planning to deliver a speech to the joint session of Congress on Thursday. He alluded to jobs in his weekly radio address. We have a clip of that here:

President BARACK OBAMA: There's a lot of talk in Washington these days about creating jobs. But it doesn't help when those same folks turn around and risk losing hundreds of thousands of jobs just because of political gamesmanship. We need to pass this transportation bill and put people to work rebuilding America.

CORNISH: Not a whole lot of detail here, but what should we expect from the president going into this week?

LIASSON: Well, the backdrop for the big speech that he's going to give on Thursday are these dismal Labor Department jobs figures that were released on Friday - no job growth at all in August. That's why the Republicans are now calling him President Zero. But Obama is going to be coming to Congress on Thursday to give his big jobs speech at a time when he has few fiscal policy tools left. He can't propose a 2009-style stimulus package. He's also coming at a time when his own standing with the public, particularly on his handling of the economy, is at an all-time low. And the number of people who think he's a strong leader has also plummeted. So, there is a lot of pressure on the president to lay out something not necessarily that will get Republican votes - because that's probably not possible - but a plan that will strike most people as something that would help the unemployment picture if it is was enacted.

CORNISH: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie.

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