Presidential Campaigns Move Into High Gear

Guests

Ron Elving, senior Washington editor, NPR
Vin Weber, partner, Mercury Public Affairs
Anna Greenberg, senior vice president, Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research

With the Republican primary season completed, the presidential campaigns are buckling down for the months ahead. NPR's Ron Elving and political strategists Vin Weber and Anna Greenberg discuss the presidential race, key battleground states and what it will take for candidates Romney or Obama to win in November.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Rangel and Hatch hang on, Holder faces contempt, and Arizona's governor decodes the message from the Supreme Court. It's Wednesday and time for a...

GOVERNOR JAN BREWER: Drop dead.

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 BENTSEN: 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 BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, we recap the week in politics. At the last minute, Ken Rudin could not join us here in Aspen, so Ron Elving will pinch-hit from Washington as today's political junkie. The final Republican presidential primary is in the books, the president and the Republican candidate feel the pain from Red Sox nation. Both sides declare victory after the Supreme Court decision on immigration. Tomorrow, it's health care.

A new poll shows the presidential election too close to call. A little over four months out, we'll convene regulars Vin Weber and Anna Greenberg and ask what will decide this election. Later in the program, 100 investigations of possible Islamic radicals in the U.S. military. NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston will join us.

But first, NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us from Studio 3A in Washington. And Ron, welcome back.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Neal. We like to think of this as the Washington Ideas Festival.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We begin, as we always do, though, on Political Junkie, when we can, with actual votes. And why don't we start in New York, Ron, and that's in Harlem where it looks like Charlie Rangel's comfortable victory diminished a little bit, but it looks like he won anyway.

ELVING: For a congressman, winning by five percentage points, especially only having about 45 percent of the vote, is not what you would call comfortable, but Charlie Rangel had reached the point in his career where I think that he would have to say any victory is a pretty good victory.

That's because his district isn't just in Harlem anymore. It has expanded northward. It now takes in parts of The Bronx, and it is now not primarily an African-American district. In fact, Hispanic voters outnumber African-Americans in the district. And they had a candidate, they had a candidate who had a background in the Dominican Republic, and a lot of the voters there are Dominican, and his name is Adriano - excuse me - Espaillat.

And he is probably the up-and-comer in this particular district who is probably going to be a pretty tough candidate to beat down the road if Charlie Rangel should ever retire or become a little more beatable. And so we expect that this will be the beginning, perhaps, of the Espaillat era in this particular district.

The New York Democratic establishment, from Andrew Cuomo right on down, lined up behind Charlie Rangel at least one more time, and he won by about five points, with about 45 percent of the vote.

CONAN: In Queens, Gary Ackerman has retired, the veteran Democrat, and it looks as if New York will get its first Asian-American member of its congressional delegation, Grace Ming, but also a very interesting race in the district to replace Ed Towns, who retired.

ELVING: That's right, State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries was the winner there. It was a multiple-candidate field. And a lot of the attention there was kind of stolen, if you will, by a colorful member of the city council who has said a lot of incendiary things, said a lot of incendiary things about Israel.

In the end, Hakeem Jeffries won easily, with 75 percent of the vote, another endorsement, if you will, from the New York Democratic establishment, again from Cuomo on down. Clearly they preferred Hakeem Jeffries.

CONAN: Let's go now to Oklahoma and five-term Congressman John Sullivan ousted by a Tea Party insurgent. That's a bit of a surprise.

ELVING: Yeah, Jim Bridenstine had not run for office before. He's just 36 years old. He had been running an air and space museum there in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was also a Navy pilot in his military years. And he came out of nowhere, really, to beat John Sullivan. John Sullivan had been considered to be a perfect fit for this Tulsa district.

His conservative credentials were considered to be more or less impeccable, and his share of the vote had risen with every re-elect since he was first elected about a decade ago. Every time his re-election number went up until this primary. And one of the factors in this would have to be that not only had he been in Congress for a lot of years in which Congress became increasingly unpopular, but also he did check into the Betty Ford Clinic for treatment of alcoholism in 2009.

That story got around a lot more in this particular re-elect primary than it had in his last one.

CONAN: And finally to Utah, where for a while it looked like a Tea Party favorite was going to pose a particular challenge to longtime incumbent Orrin Hatch, but in the end, that wasn't much of a contest.

ELVING: Yes, former State Senator Dan Liljenquist was considered to be a formidable Tea Party challenger here in more or less the mold of Mike Lee, who had knocked off Robert Bennett, another longtime incumbent in Utah, in the Tea Party election of 2010, in the primary there. Actually, it didn't even get to the primary because Mike Lee won it at the convention stage, and Robert Bennett didn't even make it to the primary.

Orrin Hatch took a lesson from this, that if he wanted a seventh six-year term in the Senate, he was going to have to get out there and really contest this. And he did it way back starting in 2010, even when he saw Robert Bennett get in trouble, made himself something of a hero to the Tea Party, raised his American Conservative Union rating from 89 lifetime to 100, a perfect 100 the last two years.

He tried to erase all memories of all that time he spent with Teddy Kennedy doing bills together, and really recast himself as a would-be Tea Party hero, was endorsed by Mitt Romney, which matters a lot in Utah, and also endorsed by Sarah Palin.

CONAN: And I guess the one word that will unify every one of those primaries that we talked about is the word tantamount.

ELVING: Yes because in each one that we've talked about, the primary is tantamount to election. I should mention also that Orrin Hatch was able to outspend his Tea Party opponent by about 10 to one. He had $10 million, and he knew he needed to spend it now and not in November, when he has no serious threat, as indeed Charlie Rangel and some of the other people we've been talking about will not have a serious threat in November.

CONAN: And let's go now to Arizona, where the Supreme Court decision earlier this week on immigration, four aspects of Arizona's immigration law were up by review by the Supreme Court. It struck down three and upheld the fourth one for now, as it put it, but nevertheless the governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, declared this was a victory.

BREWER: Today the state of Arizona and Senate Bill 1070 was vindicated, and the heart of the bill was upheld unanimously.

CONAN: And Ron, she's right, it was a unanimous decision, but it seems pretty clear that the Supreme Court was saying, well, for now.

ELVING: Yes so that even saying the word uphold, which we've all been using because what else do you say, is not exactly accurate because what they did was they let it stand. They didn't say it was OK. They said we've got to see this actually on the ground being enforced, which it hasn't been up to now. It's been stayed by an appeals court and by a district federal court.

So we have not actually seen this law enforced, and once it is enforced, there are going to be a great number of lawsuits, it's going to be a real flurry of court activity. It's probably going to make its way back to the Supreme Court in fairly short order, and at that point it may not be OK.

So what essentially they said was we'll let this go to see how it looks on the ground when it's enforced, and that's what we'll find out now.

CONAN: In the meantime, tomorrow the Supreme Court will rule, we all expect, on the health care reform. And at a campaign stop in Virginia, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney told supporters there that if it strikes down the - what he calls Obamacare, it's going to mean that the president's signature act will have been, well, for naught.

MITT ROMNEY: If Obamacare is not deemed constitutional, then the first three and a half years of this president's term will have been wasted on something that has not helped the American people.

(APPLAUSE)

CONAN: And Ron, this is - it's hard to understate how big this decision is going to be.

ELVING: It is not to put too fine a point on it, I think, to say this is the most important case the Supreme Court has handled in years, as important as many others that they've handled are. And they are really deciding whether or not this particular effort of the executive and legislative branches together, which really represents the fruition of many, many years, not just the last three and a half, but many, many years of ongoing negotiation and ongoing regulation and ongoing legislation to try to get arms around, in some sense or another, this process of health care and health care insurance, and that's really the focus is health care insurance.

So when they decide tomorrow, and of course they could throw the whole thing out, or they could uphold the whole thing affirmatively, or they could pick and choose between elements of it, striking down the individual mandate but, say, keeping some of the changes to Medicaid.

We don't know what the court is going to do. I don't think anyone knows except the court itself. And so we're going to have a lot to chew on tomorrow night.

CONAN: In the meantime, it looks like there's going to be another important vote released tomorrow, and that's in the House of Representatives, who may hold the attorney general in contempt, if so the first Cabinet member ever to be held in contempt by Congress.

ELVING: That's right, and that of course would seem to have immediate and enormous consequences except that it doesn't, necessarily. This is largely about House politics, it's largely about election-year politics. It has to do with the Fast and Furious gun-running or gun-walking, if you will, operation that was botched a few years ago by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency.

This has been a burr under the saddle for some of the people in the House Republican majority, particularly for Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Reform and Government Oversight Committee. And he's really been trying to get every last document out of Attorney General Eric Holder that he possible can.

Holder's been resisting, saying a lot of these documents still relate to ongoing prosecutions, and so here we are at this impasse. We have thought for months that some sort of an accommodation would be worked out, but nothing has been. And lately, the politics of this have been ratcheted up a little bit by the NRA, which just decided to weigh in and say that the whole Fast and Furious operation was really a secret plot to bring back more gun control, particularly of assault weapons.

So the NRA has said that anybody who doesn't vote to hold Eric Holder in contempt will be essentially at odds with the NRA. And since a lot of members feel they have to have a perfect record with the National Rifle Association, including at least a handful of Democrats from rural districts in the South, Southern districts, and in the West, a lot of those Democrats are going to feel like they can't vote against the NRA, and they'll probably also figure it's not going to mean that much to Eric Holder because in the end, he's not going to be prosecuted.

There is a U.S. attorney who will look at this contempt citation and decide whether or not to further prosecute the attorney general. I don't think anyone expects that to happen.

CONAN: In the meantime, the president weighed into, well, the politics of baseball. At a fundraiser in Boston Monday night, the president teased the local fans, Red Sox Nation as they're known, about the White Sox acquisition of one of their most popular players.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And finally Boston, I just want to say thank you for Youkilis.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

OBAMA: I'm just saying he's going to have to change the color of his socks.

CONAN: And he got a triple in his last at-bat as a Red Sox and has now moved on to the South Side of Chicago. Was that a boo I heard, or was that a Youk?

ELVING: Well, it's a little of both, like the Bruce Springsteen concert. So it's a little bit of Youk, a little bit of booing, but it was, after all, a very high-ticket Obama fundraiser. So these are not people who are going to vote against Barack Obama based on this baseball rivalry between the Sox.

But in Boston, you know, they do not change the color of their socks.

CONAN: Guest political junkie Ron Elving will stay with us. Up next, we'll be talking with Vin Weber and Anna Greenberg. What's going to decide this election? Stay with us, this is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Ken Rudin's out today, but he did manage to pull together a new ScuttleButton Puzzle this week. You can find that and his latest political junkie column at npr.org/junkie.

Of course, the It's All Politics podcast, which he hosts along with NPR senior Washington editor, who is pinch-hitting for Ken today from our studios back in Washington, D.C. Yesterday's vote in Utah marked the end of the GOP presidential primaries. While Mitt Romney still needs to wait for the convention to make it official, he's the presumptive nominee in the meantime. Both campaigns effectively shifted in general election mode weeks ago.

Today we're focused on what it will take to win that election. We'll talk with Vin Weber and Anna Greenberg, two of our regulars, in a moment. Call and tell us what you think will decide the presidential election, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And here in Aspen, Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from the state of Minnesota, now special advisor to the Romney campaign, partner at Mercury Public Affairs, Vin, always nice to have you on the program.

VIN WEBER: Great, I have to add one thing to my introduction, also a trustee of the Aspen Institute, and on behalf of the Institute, welcome to Aspen.

CONAN: Well, on behalf of NPR and TALK OF THE NATION, we're sorry we're besmirching your reputation.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Anna Greenberg is a Democratic campaign consultant and pollster. She's the senior vice president and principal at Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research, with us from our studios in Washington, and Anna, always nice to have you with us today.

ANNA GREENBERG: Thank you, I'm just wondering why I didn't get flown out to Aspen.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Next year, Anna, next year in Aspen.

WEBER: That is clearly the right question.

CONAN: But Anna and Vin and Ron, too, it seems to me that while we're still more than four months out from this election, obviously we know the candidates, we pretty much know the thrust, the main thrust of their messages, and we know the battleground states. Anna, would you agree?

GREENBERG: Yes, I would agree, and I think it's also interesting to note that things have been incredible stable for months and months and months, certainly since the, you know, the end of the Republican primary, so to speak, after Santorum dropped out but even prior to that.

The numbers on the presidential race, you know, the horse race and the ratings for the candidates, has really just not moved much at all.

CONAN: Vin?

WEBER: The Wall Street Journal poll out today really is very instructive and underscores just what Anna said. It shows that the race, nationwide, is very close, 47 to 44, the president ahead but within the margin of error. That's not a bad position for a challenger to be at.

Then you look a little more closely, and it shows that in the key battleground states, the president has a larger lead. So, you know, we're at a stage in this discussion already of where we'd usually be about the middle of October, where we're down to a half-a-dozen states, and the battle is being waged in those states, and the outcome is going to turn on how they end up.

That's usually a discussion you'd have well into the fall, and here we are in June already narrowing the race down to a handful of states.

CONAN: I have you say, Anna, it was curious, I was just watching the local news here in Aspen last night, to see campaign ads. This of course a very - very much a swing state, Colorado, but to see campaign ads for Romney and Obama on the local news.

GREENBERG: Well, not only are there ads for the presidential candidates coming from the campaigns themselves but also the independent expenditure groups. There are ads, you know, in Massachusetts for that Senate race. So it's not just at the level of president. You get to the level of Senate and gubernatorial and even, you know, some congressional, you're already seeing advertising. So people are going to be pretty fed up, I think, by November.

WEBER: It partly does speak also to a broader issue that we talk about occasionally, which is the polarization in America generally. One of the reasons we're focused on a small handful of states is because the rest of the country is pretty polarized.

Most of the blue states are bluer than ever; most of the red states are redder than ever. And we're down to just a small number that truly could go either way.

CONAN: Ron Elving, some people say six, some people say nine, some people say 11 states.

ELVING: Yes, and I've even seen one map in which they really try to push everybody into a camp, and they've got it down to just three states. They say it's just Michigan and Ohio and Florida. Well, I think there'd be something of a question over Michigan because most people still have that leaning, at least slightly, to Obama, but of course Mitt Romney's father was governor there, and he has a real claim to Michigan. So he's going to contest that state more than John McCain did four years ago. So maybe Michigan's in that list, too.

I think three is too few. I think probably 11 or 12 is pretty optimistic. I don't think North Carolina is really in play, even though Obama won it last time. I'd say the same about Indiana. I would say that Missouri, which was the closest win for John McCain, came the closest to going for Obama, is gone this time around and is not really contestable for Obama.

So we are narrowing the list of really contested states, as Vin was saying a moment ago, but I think you still have to say Florida is in there, Ohio is in there, Virginia is in there. Maybe we expand the list beyond Iowa in the Midwest to include Wisconsin, which has given some signs lately of giving a very serious listen to the Republican argument on a number of issues, even though the polls still favor the president in that state.

And then out West you've got Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. So I think you need to have that many at this juncture, or it's probably just wishful thinking.

WEBER: And one of the things I might add, just real briefly, it's also interesting in terms of the politics of this election to note that most of those states that we just were talking about also have the most highly contested Senate races in them.

So it may be that we're deciding both control of the United States Senate and the presidency in the same small handful of states.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. What's going to decide this very close, it looks like, presidential election? Philip's(ph) on the line with us from Oakland.

PHILIP: Hi there, thanks for taking my call. Yeah, once again I believe that the electorate is going to be very susceptible to just exactly what's happening in the economy one to two months before the election. And I myself am a Democrat and am very happy with what Obama has done with the economy, especially considering what he inherited.

And I would hope that the electorate would be a little more in-depth in their analysis instead of just taking the unemployment numbers, you know, right before the election, look at the two candidates and really evaluate who will be the best candidate. If they're voting for the economy, really decide which one is going to do it rather than just what the numbers are just before.

CONAN: And Anna Greenberg, considering how the numbers have stalled these last couple of months, a think a lot of Democrats hope that people will look more in-depth.

GREENBERG: Well, it's true some indicators have stalled, not all of them. So it's a bit of a mixed bag. But no doubt the economic news has been not as good lately as it had been, you know, a few months ago. I think what matters is less the current economic performance and more where do people think the economy is going.

It's still the case that a near majority or a close majority think the economy's getting better. There's been a real significant decline in the percentage of people saying the economy's getting worse, and also people have said their personal financial standing has gotten better.

That is really critical. You know, you can still have, you know, 8.2, 8.3 unemployment if people think things are getting better, and Obama can still win under those circumstances. If you start seeing, though, particularly because the news about the macroeconomy has a really important impact on public opinion, if there's a kind of unrelentingly negative coverage of the economy, that's going to depress people's sense of whether or not the economy is getting better or not, and that could really hurt Obama.

CONAN: Vin Weber, a lot of people also look at the situation in Europe and say boy, this isn't getting any better, and that's not going to help the U.S. economy no matter what's happening domestically.

WEBER: Well, ultimately it's not going to help the United States. In the short run, paradoxically, there are some ways in which it actually does help us, as money flees Europe and comes to the safest haven available, the United States. So it hasn't really hurt our economy yet.

But, you know, it's interesting we're talking about immigration this week, and we're talking about all sorts of other issues. Probably the most important - and the health care decision certainly coming down tomorrow. Neither one of those things is nearly as important as the jobs report for June, which I think comes out the end of next week.

I would only add one point to what we've been talking about here in terms of the economy. The caller was saying people look at the economic data the last two months of the election. There's a lot of academic evidence that says that people lock in their attitudes about the economy in an election year right about now, June or July.

You get past the middle of the summer, and it's very difficult to change people's underlying perceptions of whether the economy is doing well or not doing well.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Daniel(ph): Is there still talk of Ron Paul running as an independent? His thoughts make some sense. I think, Vin, it's fair to say Ron Paul has endorsed Mitt Romney, so that's unlikely.

WEBER: He is not going to run. He is going to the convention. I was not quite aware that he'd endorsed Mitt Romney yet...

CONAN: Excuse me, that may have been his son, I apologize.

WEBER: His son, his son has been very helpful. Ron is going to go to the convention, and he's going to try to make a stand there. Under the rules of the Republican Party, if he has a majority or plurality of five state delegations, his name can be placed in nomination, floor demonstrations, speeches and all those things.

I think he's sitting at four states right now, and they're engaged in a series of battles to see if he can get to five. But he's not going to run in the fall. He has, give him credit, been in this fight for a long time to advance his principles and his ideas, and he's advanced them further in this election than he ever did in the past, but he's not going to be on the ballot.

CONAN: Maybe...

GREENBERG: But Gary Johnson is going to be on the ballot.

WEBER: That's right.

GREENBERG: So there is going to be a third-party candidate I think in every state.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jerry(ph) and Jerry with us from O'Fallon, Missouri.

JERRY: Yes, I hate to be a cynic, but I predict that, as we've seen now I think in upwards of 90 percent of elections from the local all the way to national level, whoever spends the most money will emerge the victor.

CONAN: Ron Elving, that's one way to put it, but we saw the Supreme Court just the other day decline to review its Citizens United case. So nothing is going to change there. What does the fundraising situation look like in terms of the numbers right now?

ELVING: It's a fascinating mountain of money on both sides, Neal. You are going to see the president raise something in the neighborhood of a billion dollars - 750, 800 million dollars. We knew that was going to happen. Now I believe it will reach $1 billion. And yet while that is the most money any incumbent president has ever raised by far, it will also be the first incumbent president who does not outspend his rival. We, at this point, expect Mitt Romney to exceed $1 billion and probably by several hundred million dollars.

And that, of course, is counting all of these ancillary organizations and so on that are spending quite freely on both sides and will continue to do so, and I believe that's going to ultimately give the preponderance of the money party to - the money power to the Republican challenger.

GREENBERG: I do think, though, that there are diminishing returns, I mean especially in a presidential election where the president himself is so well-defined. There's only so much you can do to change perceptions of Barack Obama, whether that's positive, you know, or negative. And we've seen a recent example. In Wisconsin, for example, the - you know, Governor Walker outspent the recall campaign 10 to one, but there was - the numbers in the recall race were very stable throughout.

There might have been a point or two, you know, here or there. But considering how much the recall side was outspent, you'd think it would have had this huge impact. It didn't. In part because the governor there is so well-defined. There just isn't much new information about him. So I actually, you know, speaking from the perspective of a Democratic, you know, campaign consultant, I worry more about the spending at the Senate and congressional level than I do at the presidential level.

CONAN: What do you think, Vin?

WEBER: Well, I think - I pretty much agree. I think the president and then Senator Obama had a big spending advantage over Senator McCain four years ago, and because neither one of them were incumbents and because Obama was far less well-known than McCain, who after all had ran for president before, the financial advantage was really helpful to him as a first-time candidate for president. But I agree with Anna. Everybody knows the president pretty much.

What the Obama campaign says they're doing with this money, by the way, is not trying to get the president better known or change people's attitudes a lot about him, but invest in what they call the ground game and have a whole variety of techniques through social media and everything else to turn out larger numbers of their voters. We'll see if that's possible or not.

CONAN: And there is another aspect. As we mentioned, independent or at least theoretically independent groups are going to weighing in a lot with their ads. They can wander off message from time to time.

WEBER: Oh, yeah. I mean it's a paradox. Certainly the candidates are glad to have lots of money spent through the superPACs on their own behalf, but they would much rather direct the spending themselves. Somebody gets off message, says something that's unacceptable, and it can cause them a lot of problems, even though they genuinely don't have control over that message.

CONAN: Former Congressman Vin Weber from Minnesota, now among the advisers to Mitt Romney; also with us, Democratic consultant and pollster Anna Greenberg; and guest Political Junkie Ron Elving in Washington, D.C. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And there's another aspect to this campaign. And Vin Weber, the president has (unintelligible) in the past couple of months decisions on - positions on a couple of what he would describe as civil rights issues, on the DREAM Act to people who we will now no longer deport, and on gay rights.

WEBER: Well, and he's - in both cases he's mobilizing specific constituencies that have been supportive of him, and that he is trying to get to turn out in larger numbers in this election. But I think that the broader message there - and I'm sure the Romney people understand this - is it shows one of the difficulties of running against an incumbent president, which is that the president can actually do things. His challenger can talk about things, but the president can actually do things that change the game, and that's what this president is showing himself quite willing and able to do.

CONAN: Anna Greenberg, can the president through these actions and others down the road change the dynamic of the campaign, which I certainly think he did with the immigration decision?

GREENBERG: I think he can, though I think it's at the margins. I mean certainly with the announcement on marriage equality and then with the DREAM Act, he solidifies his fundraising base in the LGBT community. He, I think, increases the intensity or enthusiasm among the Latino vote, though it was already in terms of margin looking pretty close, the way it looked in 2008. But there's a turnout issue with Latino voters that's not as true with other voters. But I still think this is at the margins.

This is, you know, if you think about it in terms of the vote, it's, you know, maybe one or two percentage points. Now, given what we see in the polls, this is going to be a very close election. And so that may be, you know, what it takes to win. But I think that there are also things that are completely out of their control that could have an independent impact that I think the decision tomorrow, nobody has any idea what - first of all, what it's going to be, but what the impact of it is going to be politically on this presidential race. So there's only limited ways, I think, that the president can control the overall environment he's in.

CONAN: Vin?

WEBER: And let's remember what we started out talking about here a little bit. We've got four months of the economy changing one way or the other. And if it does change one way or the other, the impact that will have on the electorate will swamp all these smaller issues we've been talking about, as important as they may be to specific constituencies.

CONAN: Here's one prompted by Norman: A question for your guests, foreign policy obviously going to be a secondary issue to the U.S. economic situation. Do you think it will have any major significance? Vin?

WEBER: Doesn't look like it. When the economy is the central issue, in the absence of something big happening internationally, it's not likely to displace the economy as an issue. I think that there are a lot of very serious foreign policy questions we should be talking about - Iran and North Korea, you know, the Middle East, Egypt, all sorts of things - and I say that really in a nonpartisan way. I just think they're big issues. But it's unlikely that they're going to drive the vote, unless something happens in the world unexpected between now and November.

GREENBERG: But the fact that it's not an issue in of itself is interesting, because if you looked at the 2008 race and the 2:00 a.m. phone call ad that the Clinton campaign ran against Obama, you can't run that ad against him now. And so it's sort of taken off the table a potential line of attack against him, that's he's sort of not strong enough to, you know, on foreign policy he's not tough enough, he will make tough decisions.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much, Anna Greenberg and Vin Weber. We hope to reconvene this group from time to time between now and November over the next four and a half months. Of course, Anna Greenberg is a partner in - senior vice president and principal at Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research, a Democratic political campaign consultant. Vin Weber, a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, economic adviser to Mitt Romney's campaign, former Republican representative from Minnesota. And Ron Elving, we hope to see you in the hallways, but hope that Ken Rudin will be back with us next week. Thanks very much, Ken.

GREENBERG: Thank you.

WEBER: Thank you.

CONAN: And coming up, we're going to be talking with NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, as the U.S. military investigates possible insider terror threats from Islamist extremists, as many as 100 investigations said to have opened up. Stay with us for that. From the Aspen Ideas Festival, I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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