A Look Ahead To The Maine And Nevada Caucuses

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Mitt Romney bounced back from his second place South Carolina finish and won the Florida GOP primary Tuesday. NPR's Ken Rudin discusses those results. Maine Public Broadcasting's Jay Field and the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Steve Sebelius preview the caucuses that begin Saturday in those states.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Romney recovers to romp back to the front of the pack while Newt succumbs to a barrage of negative ads. It's Wednesday and time for a...

NEWT GINGRICH: Carpet bomb...

CONAN: 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: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSON: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

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

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops

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

CONAN: Every Wednesday, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. The Florida fallout leads, for sure, but Democrats celebrate a special election. Indiana Republican Dan Burton will retire from the House. Democratic Governor Bev Perdue will not run again in North Carolina. We'll look ahead to this weekend's caucuses in Maine and Nevada.

Joe Biden admits he advised against the bin Laden raid. Later in the program, Governor Christine Gregoire on the debate over gay marriage in Washington state, plus a special guest star. But first political junkie Ken Rudin joins us back in Studio 3A this week, after our visit to Orlando. And we begin, as always, with a trivia question. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, Neal, and again thank you WMFP for hosting us in Orlando. That was lovely. We had a great time there. OK, trivia question, another convoluted trivia question.

CONAN: Oh no.

RUDIN: Yeah, I'm sorry. OK, the thought of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich being together on the presidential ticket does seem far-fetched, although we have seen people who battled each other for the nomination before, and they've run together in the general election. So that's not new.

But if it turned out to be Romney and Gingrich, it would pit someone who served as governor with someone who served as a member of the House. OK, ready for the convoluted part?

CONAN: Yes, I (unintelligible).

RUDIN: OK, are you sitting? You are, you're right in front of me. When was the last time such a ticket, compromised of someone who served as governor and someone who served as a House member, lost? And we're talking about a major-party ticket.

CONAN: OK, so we know that, for example, Clinton and Gore won.

RUDIN: Right.

CONAN: So that's the opposite. So the last time someone who was a governor and someone who was a member of Congress...

RUDIN: Of the House.

CONAN: The House - ran on the same ticket and lost. So give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And of course the winner gets a fabulous Political Junkie no-prize T-shirt.

RUDIN: And for the record, this is somebody who either the current governor or former governor, current House member, former House member, just to make it even less clear.

CONAN: Even less clear than it was before. And speaking of clear, Ken, hard to believe a week ago, we thought the Florida primary was going to be a toss-up.

RUDIN: Well, not only that, I thought - and I think we talked about it last week in Orlando - I thought that Newt Gingrich having a big victory in South Carolina had the momentum, had the great debate performances to go into Florida and perhaps win it. And yet we saw the Romney - new focus of Romney, better debate performances, a weak, I thought, performance, by Gingrich in the debates.

As Newt Gingrich said in the beginning of this show, carpet bombing, and Mitt Romney won, you know - all that momentum of South Carolina eroded, and Romney won a very comfortable 14-point victory, yesterday, in Florida.

CONAN: You mentioned one of the factors in the debate, and one of the factors in Gingrich's big win the week before in South Carolina, was the revelations about the - about the - excuse me, the revelations about the income tax and Bain and losing jobs and that sort of thing. You mentioned Mitt Romney doing a much better job in the Florida debate.

MITT ROMNEY: But have you checked your own investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CONAN: And Newt Gingrich, not as sprightly, not as adept, not as agile as he was in the South Carolina debate.

RUDIN: Absolutely not, and the look on - I mean, the thing we just heard about Mitt Romney, it came following Newt Gingrich attacking him on investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, you know, that's the illegitimate child. And yet Romney with opposition research just came back at Gingrich, and Gingrich was just confounded, had no response, looked like he just lost his mojo, and really, for the rest of the debate, he just seemed more on the defensive.

And the talk about moon colonies and things like that, he seemed to lose his way in Florida.

CONAN: And 99.99 percent of the ads that were run by the Romney campaign and by the super PAC supporting him were negative. There was one ad, I think, in Spanish on the radio, that was positive for Romney. But other than that, it was a barrage of negative ads. And as you say, Newt Gingrich, well, sounded very defensive.

GINGRICH: Lincoln once said if a man won't agree that two plus two equals four, you'll never win the argument because facts don't matter. Romney's the first candidate I've seen who fits the Lincoln description.

CONAN: And whining about your opponent outspending you five to one, well, that was the fact, but you're not going to win a lot of elections that way.

RUDIN: True, but money doesn't always win elections, as President Phil Gramm would say or, you know, the people who have poured in tons and tons of money. So just to blame it on money is not a sufficient answer for why Gingrich lost so badly.

And, you know, Gingrich, to say that Romney's a liar, and, you know, facts are facts, and he's distorting the facts, but look, Newt Gingrich did have investments in Freddie and Fannie, he did resign from the speakership in somewhat of a disgrace. So all the things that Romney said - many of the things Romney said about Gingrich were absolutely true.

CONAN: And they will go on to Nevada and Maine and then on elsewhere. We'll be focusing on that later. Meantime, there still are two other Republicans in the race, and essentially Rick Santorum and Ron Paul decided hey, let's skip it.

RUDIN: Well, why not because Florida - violating party rules, Florida was a winner-take-all primary. So in other words, unlike most of the other early states, like we saw in New Hampshire, like we saw in South Carolina, you win a percentage of the vote, you get a percentage of the delegates. In Florida, it was winner-take-all. All 50 delegates go the winner.

So if you're Rick Santorum or Ron Paul, don't have a lot of money, don't have the greatest organization, you're not going to finish first, let alone second, why compete in such an expensive state?

CONAN: We'll see how they do in caucus states, which divide their delegates proportionally, when we get to this weekend and talk more about that. In the meantime, Mitt Romney has sometimes been, well, criticized for being out of touch, the $10,000 bet, that sort of thing. This morning on CNN, he did not do himself any favors in an interview with Soledad O'Brien.

ROMNEY: I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich. They're doing just fine.

CONAN: And of course he meant to say he's fighting for the middle class, but - I'm not concerned about the very poor?

RUDIN: Well, he did say after that, my real focus is the middle class. But again to say that I'm not focused on the very poor is again one of those class/wealth problems that Mitt Romney seems to always stick his foot in.

CONAN: In the meantime, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question.

RUDIN: We also have a result in Oregon. We want to quick talk about that later?

CONAN: We'll get to that, just a minute.

RUDIN: OK, I'm just nervous, I'm nervous.

CONAN: We know you're nervous. All right, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is the last presidential - major-party presidential ticket - with a former governor and former member of the House...

RUDIN: Or present.

CONAN: ...who lost the grand election in November. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Scout(ph), and Scout's on the line from Rochester, Minnesota.

SCOUT: Yes, I think it was Nelson Rockefeller.

CONAN: And?

SCOUT: And Gerald Ford.

RUDIN: Well, Nelson - well, we're talking about the...

SCOUT: Or Gerald Ford and Rockefeller.

RUDIN: Well, they didn't run together. I mean, we're talking about an election. They ran, and of course Gerald Ford dumped Nelson Rockefeller as his running mate and picked Bob Dole in '76. Rockefeller never ran for vice president.

CONAN: And did not win, anyway, so...

SCOUT: I understood the question to be who served. Tom Dewey, then.

RUDIN: No, we don't...

CONAN: One answer to a customer.

SCOUT: Oh, well...

RUDIN: This is new rule that we started in 2006.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next - this is Nancy(ph), Nancy with us from Hartford.

NANCY: Hi, is it Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas from Massachusetts?

RUDIN: Well, no, I'm looking for the ticket, the presidential ticket that ran in November. There was not a Dukakis-Tsongas ticket.

CONAN: Thanks, Nancy.

NANCY: OK.

CONAN: Let's see, go next to - this is Ruth(ph), Ruth with us from Marietta, Ohio.

RUTH: Carter and Mondale.

RUDIN: Well, Carter was governor, but Mondale was never a member of the House.

CONAN: Of Georgia. He was a member of the Senate.

RUDIN: Now of course they won and lost, so you could say they won or lost, but Mondale was never a member of the House.

CONAN: Nice guess, though. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Sherry(ph), Sherry with us from Carolina Beach in North Carolina.

SHERRY: Hey, I'm so glad y'all are going to talk about Bev Perdue because I'm curious to hear what y'all say.

CONAN: We will.

SHERRY: And (unintelligible) hour-long political junkie. My guess is Dukakis-Bentsen.

RUDIN: Well, that is the correct answer.

SHERRY: (Unintelligible).

CONAN: And Sherry, you're no Jack Kennedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: But what's interesting about that, people forget that, of course, Dukakis governor of Massachusetts, some people would like to forget that, but Lloyd Bentsen was a member of the House in the early 1950s, when he advocated bombing North Korea, nuclear weapons in North Korea, but that was Lloyd Bentsen.

CONAN: So stay on the line, Sherry, we will collect your particulars.

SHERRY: Thank you, thank you, I'm so excited.

CONAN: And congratulations, in exchange for your promise of a digital picture of yourself wearing the Political Junkie no-prize T-shirt. We will mail one out to you. So stay on the line...

SHERRY: (Unintelligible) my dog wearing it, because I hike with her every day when I listen to this.

CONAN: Then we can get rid of the one of the smalls, maybe.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Hang on.

RUDIN: That's funny, a lot of people have told me to hike during the show.

CONAN: Take a hike during the show. Anyway, somebody mentioned there's a political result, I think, in the state of Oregon.

RUDIN: There is. I'm glad we talked about that. This is the first congressional district. This is the one that David Wu resigned last August because of a sexual assault charge. The - this has been a Democratic district. The last Republican to win it was 1972. So they should have won it, and they did win it big. But they were nervous about the Anthony Weiner result in New York, where similar circumstances – well, not similar circumstances but the fact that the Democrats lost a safe Democratic district.

They won - Suzanne Bonamici won the seat pretty handily. Democrats put a lot of money tying the Republican nominee, pretty fairly, to the Tea Party. And so the Democratic seat stays Democratic.

CONAN: In the meantime, we also mentioned Bev Perdue, elected governor of North Carolina, decided not to run again.

RUDIN: Her numbers were abysmal. She had 32 percent approval ratings. The Republicans were really on the ascendancy in North Carolina. They won control of the House and Senate in North Carolina for the first time - in 2010 - for the first time since 1870.

The Republican's nominee is going to be Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, who narrowly lost to Bev Perdue four years ago. Democrats insist that the party is better off without Perdue. Obama's chances of carrying the state are better with Perdue gone, and lot of the Democrats are looking at Erskine Bowles, among others, as a possible Democratic nominee.

CONAN: Former bigwig in the Clinton...

RUDIN: Who ran for the Senate twice and lost.

CONAN: And in the meantime, we have Dan Burton, the longtime congressman from the state of Indiana, to retire. But we can't leave the segment without remembering the former mayor of Boston, Kevin White.

RUDIN: Kevin White was 82 years old. He died last Friday. He was the mayor of Boston for four terms. He also ran for governor, and his running mate was a guy named Michael Dukakis, by the way. Anyway, he was the mayor of Boston during the 1970s racial upheaval with bussing, a really tough time for the city of Boston and for Kevin White in the 1970s.

CONAN: So Kevin White, one of those who has passed away this past week. Stay with us, we're going to be focusing next on the competitions coming up this weekend in Maine and Nevada.

If you live in the Silver State, tell us: How have politics there changed since 2008? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Zap us an email, talk@npr.org. More in a minute. 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. I'm Neal Conan. With 50 delegates and vaunted swing state status, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney campaigned tirelessly throughout the Sunshine State. But two candidates, as we mentioned, gave Florida a pass.

Rick Santorum tended to a sick child. Ron Paul focused on the next two states, Maine and Nevada. They are smaller and carry fewer electoral votes. The caucus system, though, could play well for the Paul campaign.

Political Junkie Ken Rudin is our guest, as he is every Wednesday, and you can find his latest ScuttleButton puzzle at npr.org. Ken, did we have a winner last week?

RUDIN: Yes, we did, Neal. I'm glad you asked that question. The buttons were, there was a letter E, there was a (unintelligible) for clerk, and there was an Ing button from Senator Greening of Alaska. And when you add that up together, you get Eli Manning.

CONAN: Eli Manning.

RUDIN: By the way, there's something going on Sunday.

CONAN: In Indianapolis.

RUDIN: I'm so nervous. Anyway, the winner...

CONAN: Going to be a right to pass state.

RUDIN: I like that. Gary McAtee(ph) of Chickasha, Oklahoma, was the winner. So he gets a T-shirt.

CONAN: OK, by the way, we've had a couple of emails saying: Why was not Palin-McCain the right answer to this week's trivia question?

RUDIN: Because we talked about - well, well, OK...

CONAN: We talked about a former governor. She was serving governor.

RUDIN: No, no, no, no. I think I said – was the governor was at the head of the ticket, the House member was the vice president, and I don't know if I specified that.

CONAN: Oh, we might have to give away another T-shirt to an email.

RUDIN: No...

CONAN: All right, never mind. Political junkie Ken Rudin is our guest. He's hemming and hawing over there. And you can find that new ScuttleButton puzzle at npr.org. In a couple of minutes, Steve Sebelius from the Las Vegas Review-Journal about votes there this week and how the Latino vote will play out, not just in the primary but in - in the caucuses, rather, but in the general election come November.

So Silver Staters, we want to hear from you. How has Nevada changed politically since the last presidential contest? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

First, though, to Jay Field, a reporter with Maine Public Broadcasting Network, who's been covering the Paul campaign up there. He joins us from the Maine Statehouse Bureau in Augusta. Nice to have you on the program with us.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: Hey guys.

CONAN: And if there's a state Ron Paul can win, is it Maine?

FIELD: A lot of people seem to think it is Maine. You know, four years ago, Mitt Romney won 52 percent of the vote here, he won the caucus. John McCain came in second. But Ron Paul only finished, you know, a little over 150 votes behind John McCain.

And ever since then he's really tried to make some inroads in the state, and he was up here over the weekend, at five events Friday, Saturday, and I covered the first of those events at a church in Bangor, Maine. And it was just packed with people, I mean barely a place to stand.

And that was the story pretty much through his entire time in the state - large overflow rallies of these kinds of voters, these independent-minded Republicans up here who really like what he has to say on a whole variety of issues.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Jay, well, Maine has elected two independent governors the last couple of years. So maybe that appeals to the kind of electorate there. But I have a question about the Maine caucuses. Most of these events are one-day affairs. Maine's caucuses last a full week. Explain that to me.

FIELD: Yeah, they go on February 4th through the 11th, and in fact some towns even got going before the fourth. So - and it's, yeah, it's a rolling caucus. And, you know, four years ago, actually, that window there was even larger, and I believe the caucus ended up, finished up in March.

But, you know, it's a quirky process in the sense that there's sort of a beauty contest, sort of a straw poll vote at each caucus site that gives sort of a snapshot - and that's what we'll I think learn on Saturday, who is the likely winner of the Maine caucus.

But the delegates, the delegates do not get awarded until the state convention in May.

CONAN: So a little like Iowa, where we don't find out the real result for another month.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FIELD: Yeah, something like that, right.

CONAN: In the meantime, has anybody else been campaigning in Maine?

FIELD: No, no. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have taken a pass on the state. Mitt Romney has an office here. He has a presence here. You know, he has signs here and there, and he's certainly, I think, the favorite in the primary due to his tremendous, you know, resources, his organization.

But a lot of political observers around the state who follow elections closely here really do think that this time around Ron Paul has a real good chance to win.

CONAN: It's interesting, Ken, the signs at Gingrich headquarters yesterday said 46 states left to go. We've had, in other words, just four contests, three different winners and could end up a fourth one in Maine.

RUDIN: Right, and 46 to go, but since Newt Gingrich is not on the ballot in Missouri or...

CONAN: Virginia.

RUDIN: ...Virginia, that's really 44 states to go. But right, if Ron Paul wins Maine, he'll have his victory, and as Maine goes, well...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FIELD: Be careful.

CONAN: Jay Field, thanks very much for your time today, have a good time.

FIELD: My pleasure, thanks.

CONAN: Jay Field, a reporter with Maine Public Broadcasting, with us today from their statehouse bureau in Augusta. Now we turn to Steve Sebelius, who writes the Splash Politics blog for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and nice to have you with us today.

STEVE SEBELIUS: Well, it's great to be here.

CONAN: And he's with us by phone from Las Vegas. Like Maine and like Iowa, Nevada is a caucus state. That's really all they have in common, though, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEBELIUS: Yes, unfortunately we have no coastline, no lobsters, no - no L.L. Bean.

CONAN: So as we look ahead, a lot of people say the - Mitt Romney should have a big advantage in Nevada because there is a significant Mormon community there.

SEBELIUS: Well, as it turns out, the Mormon population is very small by percentage, it's only about seven percent of the population, but the turnout among the Mormon community is very, very high. It's estimated that fully a quarter of the 44,000 caucus-goers in 2008 were Mormons, and so with that type of political involvement and turnout, they're definitely going to be a factor.

CONAN: And as we look at the remainder of the field, again, Ron Paul has been very active there.

SEBELIUS: Yes, very active. In fact, I just concluded an interview with him here in East Las Vegas. He's been campaigning to really raucous crowds. He's somebody who goes around talking about monetary policy, who's older than the average voter; he turns out young people who it's like they're at a concert or something - really excites people.

He did very well here. He came in second to Mitt Romney in 2008 and is looking to try to up those numbers.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Tyler(ph) in Nevada: I live in the state, and it seems like the economy is getting better here. I've only seen one ad for Mitt Romney and nothing else. I think Gingrich or Paul could do well here because while the state went blue in 2008, the red part is very red, also very rural outside the metro areas of Reno and Las Vegas. Would you agree with that, Steve?

SEBELIUS: Yeah, actually there's - people have talked about the two Nevadas. There's really kind of three. There's Las Vegas, where the majority of people live, that's the southern part of the state down here in Clark County. There's Washoe County, which has rural and urban in the same county, and then there's the rest, which is the vast rural parts of the state, which are very red.

Ron Paul is going to campaign up there, as some of the other candidates. So there's really kind of three Nevadas. But I think the emailer is right. The economy is starting to show signs of recovery. It's just very slow and very painful, and compared to the boom years prior to the recession, I don't think Nevada will ever see that kind of just absolutely mindboggling economic boom ever again.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Steve, we're talking a lot about horserace, and who's up and who's down. But Nevada is one of the states most seriously suffering from home foreclosures. Are the candidates even addressing this issue?

SEBELIUS: Yeah, they are. It's interesting because Nevada, as you mentioned, is the number one place in the nation for foreclosures. It's also number one in unemployment. But the Republican solution to that, on the front page of our newspaper we had a comparative analysis of the four candidates on Sunday.

Each of them said some version of the same thing, which is that tax cuts, lessening government regulation, is the way to go. I just asked Ron Paul specifically about our foreclosure crisis, and he said, look, we can't prop this up, we can't - you know, these programs are well-intentioned, but they don't achieve the results that they want to achieve. What we have to do is let the free market work.

That's essentially what Mitt Romney said. No one criticized him for that. It's one of the few things his competitors have not criticized him for, because I think essentially they all agree with that.

Meanwhile, President Obama in his State of the Union address talked about a program that would help refinance at lower interest rates. He's been out here talking about other programs to kind of keep people in their homes. Republicans are definitely divided and take the opposite view.

CONAN: Let's see if we get a caller in. This is Lee, and Lee's on the line with us from Reno.

LEE: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

LEE: You know, I'm actually just leaving Reno via a vehicle, but I'm not the driver. I have been living in Lion County, which is part of that great rural, I believe the red section of Nevada, but I don't know that it's really so red as it is more libertarian. And I think Ron Paul's going to do pretty well in the rural areas because Nevada's a state where people don't want to be told what to think, don't want to be told what to do, and some of the Republican interference in personal lives doesn't wash too well here. Overall, I think a lot of the people who pushed Nevada into the blue in the election four years ago, many of them have left. And I was working in a library in Lyon County, and my husband and I, we lost our home to foreclosure. Our business closed. And I had to leave my job at the library.

And the time I was working there I just saw people - I mean, the burden on social services in the rural parts of Nevada has just gone up, up, up, and the funding has gotten cut, cut, cut. And people are pretty angry. And, you know, I wouldn't be surprised to see Ron Paul do pretty well here. (Unintelligible)...

CONAN: Well, Steve Sebelius...

LEE: ...I'm voting for Obama.

CONAN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: All right. Lee, thanks very much. She's raised a couple of interesting points, Steve Sebelius, one about the - Ron Paul's prospects in the caucuses but then in - what's changed with the electorate as we look ahead to November?

SEBELIUS: Yeah. Absolutely. The rural parts of Nevada are very libertarian. Nevada is a very libertarian state. That's why a candidate such as Ron Paul is going to do fairly well. A candidate such as Rick Santorum whose appeal is with social conservatives or religious conservatives probably not going to find as much purchase in Nevada as someone such as Ron Paul will. But it is a very different state than it was four years ago. I mean, four years ago, Democrats had 100,000 voters advantage over Republicans.

That has dropped to 50,000, roughly half, of what it was. President Obama now has this economy and four years or three years of this economy to deal with. Recovery is slow. People are not finding jobs as much as they want. And so it's going to be a much more competitive state than it was four years ago where Obama won by 12 percent. I still give him a slight advantage, but certainly it's going to be a much closer race than it was four years ago because of those factors.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: You know, I agree, and I'm just wondering also the - we also have a Latino governor in Nevada. What's the Latino vote looking like, and are they involved in Republican politics there?

SEBELIUS: Yes, they are. As a matter of fact, they have made a lot of efforts to reach out to Republicans. The only trouble is the issue of immigration. I attended a breakfast in which our senator, Dean Heller, who's a Republican running for election this year, was present. He outlined his economic ideas. He said there's so much we have in common - Republicans and Hispanics - with regard to faith, family, entrepreneurship, small business. But when it came to the issue of the DREAM Act specifically, he said, look, I'm against it.

And every Republican candidate is against it to - with varying degrees of intensity. And when it comes to that issue, that's a real problem in the Hispanic community. There was a Republican person there who stood up and said, look, I agree with you on every other issue you talked about. When it gets to this, I just can't agree with you. And what's the future of the Republican Party with our race, our people if we stumble on this one issue? So I think that's going to be a real stumbling block for Republicans trying to reach Hispanic voters here in this state.

CONAN: Steve Sebelius, thanks very much for your time.

SEBELIUS: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Steve Sebelius writes the SlashPolitics column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and joined us today by phone from Las Vegas. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And amid these primaries, we focused a lot on the Republican presidential field for obvious reasons. Last month, President Obama laid out some of the themes of his reelection campaign in the State of the Union, which he bookended with references to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Last week, Vice President Joe Biden gave us the most detailed account yet of the decision to send SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan and put it in a very political context. This is an excerpt from the vice president's remarks to a Democratic congressional retreat last Friday in Maryland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I just want to tell you, this guy's got a backbone like a ramrod. For about four weeks, only six of us knew the possibility of where bin Laden was. And we had to make a decision. The president, he went around the table with all the senior people, including the joint - the chiefs of staff, and he said I have to make a decision. What is your opinion? He started with the national security adviser, the secretary of state and he ended with me. Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta.

Leon said go. Everyone else said, 49, 51, this - until he got to me. He said, Joe, what do you think? And I said, you know, I didn't know we had so many economists around the table. I said we owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is don't go. We have to do two more things to see if he's there. He walked out and said I'll give you my decision.

The next morning, he came down to the diplomatic entrance, getting in a helicopter, I believe, to go to Michigan. I'm not positive about that. He turned to Tom Donilon and said go. And he knew what was at stake, not just the lives of those brave warriors, but literally the presidency. And he pulled the trigger. And that's clear to the American people.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGH)

BIDEN: It says less about bin Laden than it does about character, about this guy leading from behind. This guy doesn't lead from behind. He just leads.

CONAN: And, Ken, we heard a lot of comments from Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in the campaign in Florida about how weak a leader Barack Obama has been about his apologies for America. This is going to be a critical issue in the campaign, and that story is going to be a critical element of it.

RUDIN: Yeah. I think it's true. I think it's not so much surprising that the vice president will commend his commander in chief...

CONAN: Or this vice president would say, you know, hey, I'm the guy who voted against.

RUDIN: Well, but the - well, that's true, too. But the thing is also that - first of all, the Republicans have not acknowledged. They will not give Obama the credit that I think that anybody else would give him for not only toppling - getting bin Laden but Gadhafi and things like that. And so foreign policy, which is not going to be the main theme in the fall election, of course, it will be the economy. But when the Republicans talk about leadership and foreign policy, they're going to be up against some strong record - a strong record of the president.

CONAN: And quickly, Ken, an email from Anthony here in Washington: A lot of the press says Romney won all 50 delegates yesterday, saying Florida is winner take all. But Michael Steele, former head of the RNC, said delegates are distributed proportional to the vote totals. Who's right?

RUDIN: No. It's all - winner take all in Florida. That's why instead of getting 99 delegates, which was what Florida has, they would - they were penalized. They were cut in half, and they were only allowing 50 delegates because they violated the rules.

CONAN: Because if you vote before a certain date, then you have to be proportional - it all gets complicated. Somehow, the convention is going to be in Tampa. I'm willing to bet all 99 delegates get seated in Tampa.

RUDIN: Well, we don't know because - we'll see.

CONAN: Political junkie Ken Rudin is here with us. When we come back, outgoing Washington Governor Christine Gregoire will join us to talk about the gay marriage issue underway in her state legislature. We want to know what you think. Should gay marriage be decided in the legislature, in the voting booth or in the courts? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, e-mail talk@npr.org. Stay with us, special guest coming up. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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