The Political Junkie's Presidential Debate Preview

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Guests

Ken Rudin, Political Junkie, NPR
Jo Mannies, political reporter, St. Louis Beacon
Thomas Fleming, historian and novelist

President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney face off in Denver Wednesday for the first of three presidential debates. The president continues to hold a slight lead in many swing states, but Romney's been able to close the gap in the weeks since the conventions.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in St. Louis. The candidates get set to duke it out in Denver, Ross Perot will endorse neither, and Joe Biden passes ammunition to the other side. It's Wednesday and time for a...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Barry...

CONAN: ...edition of the Political Junkie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

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 W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. And today we're both here with a studio audience at the University of Missouri St. Louis, at Grand Center, home of St. Louis Public Radio, and thanks everybody for coming in.

(APPLAUSE)

CONAN: The president and his challenger try to downplay expectations for tonight's debate, but Chris Christie predicted a game-changer. Early voting's already underway in some states, and here in Missouri Todd Akin longs for a more ladylike opponent.

In a few minutes, we'll focus on that Missouri Senate race and on the debate, of course, and we'll end this super-sized edition with historian Thomas Fleming on one of Ken's favorite topics: campaign buttons.

Political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in the studios at St. Louis Public Radio, and Ken, we begin, as usual, with a trivia question.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, Neal. I'm glad to be in St. Louis. OK, here's a tough one: Who won the 2011 World Series?

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Oh no. The things I'll do for a gag. OK, OK, in order and through history, which two Missourians received the most votes in the presidential primaries?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is the Missourians who have received the most votes in presidential primaries in order, the one with the most first, the one with second-most second, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll also be taking suggestions from the studio audience here in St. Louis, where they should certainly know the answers, don't you think?

But Ken, big news, no not the debate, our long national nightmare is over. The Political Junkie T-shirt has arrived.

RUDIN: Matter of fact, this being radio, I just want to hold it up to the radio audience.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Neal, what do you think?

CONAN: Who do you think you are, Dennis Kucinich?

RUDIN: Actually during a debate eight years, Dennis Kucinich held up a pie chart during a radio interview.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: But I am holding up this Political Junkie T-shirt that you can get for answering the trivia question correctly.

CONAN: Well, you can get that, anybody can get that, in fact, by just laying out some simoleons, some American dollars. But there is now a special prize available only to the winners of the trivia contest and to the ScuttleButton winners, and that is special Political Junkie no-prize button. And we're going to be talking more about campaign buttons later.

So anybody can now get a Political Junkie T-shirt because demand has been overwhelming.

RUDIN: I came to St. Louis, and all I got was this lousy button.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: But the winners of the contest will get a button, as well, that they can put on their Political Junkie T-shirt. In any case, Ken, there seems to be something going on tonight in Denver. We're going to be focusing on that a little bit later in the program. But the political backdrop of this is that a lot of people think that the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, is behind and needs to throw a Hail Mary pass.

RUDIN: Well except if you look at the history of presidential debates, debates have not always been that conclusive in determining the winner. Of course we always talk about the famous Gerald Ford gaffe in 1976. It's my understanding that Soviet Union...

CONAN: No Soviet domination...

RUDIN: Domination of Eastern Europe, right. And we also think of Ronald Reagan, his great lines against Jimmy Carter in 1980.

CONAN: There you go again.

RUDIN: There you go again, and are you better off now than you were four years ago? Those seem to have changed the dynamic there, but ultimately, you know, Walter Mondale clear, by most accounts, easily beat Ronald Reagan in the 1984 debates.

CONAN: In the first debate but not the second one, which is the one everybody remembers.

RUDIN: Right exactly, the great line about my opponent's youth and inexperience. But the point is when you're down by so many points, it can't be game-changer, but it can change the dynamic of the race, as we saw with Bush and Gore in 2000. Al Gore had a five-point lead going into the debates in the Gallup polls. He left the debates, and his sigh, now his famous sigh, I think he got the Cy Young Award for that.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That year, yeah.

RUDIN: There's booing in St. Louis. And after the debates, Bush had a five-point lead.

CONAN: In the meantime, there will also be next week a vice presidential debate, and Joe Biden, as is his wont, seemed to have stepped in it a little bit on the campaign trail this week when he said that the middle class has been buried these past four years.

RUDIN: Well obviously because Mitt Romney was president the past four years. Wait a second, Barack Obama was - I know, Joe Biden has this way of infuriating and just making Democrats roll their eyes. But you think of amazing moments in vice presidential debate history, and you think of Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988.

Lloyd Bentsen had this great line, you know, you're no Jack Kennedy, I served with Jack Kennedy, you're no Jack Kennedy. And yet for all the applause he got and all the embarrassment that it caused Dan Quayle, the Bush-Quayle ticket won 40 out of 50 states that year.

So we could talk about vice presidential debates and its importance until we're blue in the face, but ultimately it's about Obama versus Romney.

CONAN: And we're going to be focusing on the Senate race here in Missouri, as well, that has attracted a considerable amount of national interest, and one of the questions there is: Will Republicans, who had foresworn Todd Akin, their GOP candidate here, will they come back in now that the Senate may be in play? Democrats face a similar kind of question in the state of Maine.

RUDIN: Right, what's going on in Maine is that you have a very popular former governor, Angus King, who won two terms as an independent.

CONAN: As governor.

RUDIN: As governor, as governor, and he's running for Olympia Snowe's vacated Senate seat that the Republicans aren't giving up. Most people feel that Angus King will caucus with the Democrats once - if he's elected. So the Democrats are kind of staying aback from their Democratic nominee, Cynthia Dill. The Republicans are going all out with Charlie Summers, who's really been attacking Angus King constantly, day in and day out.

So the Democrats can't come in and endorse Angus King because they have their own Democratic nominee. So instead they're coming in with a lot of money to attack the Republicans.

CONAN: So this is an indirect approach to try to get Angus King, as you say, expected to caucus with the Democrats, but he's not said, and that could be an issue in the race if he does say so. So he's not in fact raised a lot of money for his own campaign so relying on outside money from Democratic allies.

RUDIN: And the polls are much closer than anybody expected.

CONAN: In the meantime, we're going to be getting some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question - we'll get to you, too. 800-989-8255. In order, the Missourians who have gotten the most votes in presidential primaries, one and two, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start on line one with Rob(ph), and Bob's(ph) with us from Rochester, Minnesota.

BOB: Hi, now is this for a real T-shirt this week?

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: A real T-shirt and a real button, real T-shirts now.

(LAUGHTER)

BOB: And a real button, OK. My guess, I believe it is Dick Gephardt and Stuart Symington because Harry....

RUDIN: That's a very good guess, but it's incorrect.

CONAN: Incorrect, Bob, thanks very much.

BOB: Oh, OK, thank you.

CONAN: Bob, what? I think we - well, I'm on an odd system today. In any case, let's see if we can go next to - this is line two, to Eileen(ph) in Charlotte.

EILEEN: Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Eileen. Go ahead, please.

EILEEN: Well, I think it should be Truman first, maybe, and Gephardt.

RUDIN: That is incorrect. I can't explain why it's incorrect because there's only one answer. There's a right answer or a wrong answer, and that's the wrong answer,

CONAN: That's a wrong answer. Not entirely wrong we get the feeling, but in any case, let's go to the microphone here in St. Louis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Is the answer Harry Truman and Tom Eagleton?

CONAN: Harry Truman and Tom Eagleton was the guess.

RUDIN: We should mention that this person who's answer this question is 10 years old, and he's a Political Junkie, and he scares the heck out of me, I'll tell you that right now. But Tom Eagleton actually never ran for president. He of course was George McGovern's running mate briefly, but he never ran for president. But good guess.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to...

RUDIN: I hate this kid.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's go to line eight and Charles(ph) and Charles with us from Wildwood in Missouri.

CHARLES: Yeah, hey, good afternoon. Well, I'm going to make a - first of all, greetings from the home of Todd Akin. He lives in my town.

RUDIN: Wait, is that a legitimate greeting? Oh, I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLES: It'll have to pass for one, how's that?

(APPLAUSE)

CONAN: Go ahead, Charles, we cut you off with badly timed applause there.

CHARLES: No, it's always fun to know my congressman is known by my friends in England and Holland now. But that's another story. My answer is Gephardt and Truman in that order.

RUDIN: That is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

(APPLAUSE)

RUDIN: And actually they're not that far apart. Dick Gephardt got 1.388 million votes in the 1988 primaries. Truman got 1.375 million in 1948.

CONAN: And so Charles, stay on the line, we will collect your particulars. We will send you out a Political Junkie T-shirt and a Political Junkie no-prize winning button. You're the first to earn that, so you can be very proud of that. And there's the T-shirt again on the radio, yeah, you can get a good look at it there. So congratulations, Charles, appreciate it.

CHARLES: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. In the meantime, Ken, there's some other early - some other news in the presidential election. One of the things about swaying the vote in the presidential race, as many as a third of the voters are expected to vote early. That's already started.

RUDIN: Yes, and theoretically that could be bad news for Mitt Romney in the sense that Mitt Romney knows he's behind. He's certainly behind in the swing states, the key battleground states. And what he needs to do is certainly help make his case through the debates. But if people are voting early, and Iowa's vote is - I think early voting began in Iowa the end of September, Ohio began yesterday.

So a lot of these people may go to the polls and not this, quote, "Romney comeback," although I suspect that many people who do vote early have their minds made up, and they're not going to change.

CONAN: Not going to change no matter what.

RUDIN: But it also takes away the possibility of an October surprise because, as you say, up to a third or even more voters of the electorate may have voted before November 6.

CONAN: And we've lately been seeing the Republican candidate trying to make hay on foreign policy, thought to be a great strength of Barack Obama, the man who after all ordered the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. But as more and more details leak out about the raid, the attack on the consulate in Benghazi and various explanations afterwards, it's looking like a liability.

RUDIN: Well certainly Mitt Romney hopes so. Now of course the first debate tonight will be about domestic policy. It won't be the third presidential debate until they talk about foreign policy, although I do suspect that Romney will talk about it in some way this evening.

But having said that, you're absolutely right. There have been conflicting and contradictory responses from the State Department, from the administration, about what exactly happened in Benghazi, and Romney sees that as an opening.

CONAN: And there's another issue that's come up lately. The Daily Caller posted a video of 2007 speech by then-candidate Barack Obama where he questions the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: What's happening down in New Orleans? Where's your dollar? Where's your Stafford Act money? Makes no sense. Tells me the bullet hasn't been taken out.

Tells me that somehow, the people down in New Orleans, they don't care about as much.

CONAN: And that before a African-American audience during the campaign, covered widely by the media at the time.

RUDIN: Yeah, I mean, the Republicans are obviously trying to make a point that Obama speaks to one audience a certain way and a different audience the other way, but I think since he was president, this is 2007, but since he's been the president, he speaks to everybody the same way.

CONAN: More with the Political Junkie in a moment. This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. It's Political Junkie day in St. Louis this week with a studio audience here at the home of St. Louis Public Radio. Ken Rudin's with us, too, and Ken, a ScuttleButton winner this week?

RUDIN: Yes actually we have two because I was out last week, but there's two winners. Last week's puzzle, there was a Gray Davis, recall Gray Davis button from California, a Huckleberry Hound for vice president button, he never ran according to official records.

CONAN: He's not from Missouri, anyway.

RUDIN: No, right, an anti-bussing George Wallace button. The answer was Greyhound Bus. And Ethan Majock(ph) of Gainesville, Florida, was a winner there. And the week before that, there was a Russia button, a show-me button from Missouri and an NAH button. It because Rosh Hashanah. And that was the answer.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: And the funny thing is, I can see Rosh Hashanah from my kitchen window.

CONAN: Really?

RUDIN: I'll work on that joke later. And anyway, Joan Steinberg(ph) of Scarborough, Maine, is a winner there, two T-shirts.

CONAN: You can find this week's ScuttleButton puzzle and Ken's Political Junkie column, all at npr.org/junkie. And again shirts are going out, ladies and gentlemen, they're in the mail. It's fitting the first presidential debate falls on a Political Junkie day. Ken may have made a few calls to make that happen.

In a few minutes, we'll ask you: What do you want to hear in the debate this evening? You can call us now, 800-989-8255. Or email the question you would like to ask if you were the moderator. That's at talk@npr.org. And we'll get comments from the questions - from the studio audience here in St. Louis, as well.

But first, the political showdown here in Missouri. Joining us here in the studios of St. Louis Public Radio is Jo Mannies, a political reporter for the St. Louis Beacon, and Joe, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JO MANNIES: Well, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And let me ask you: Is this Senate race still being defined by the legitimate rape quote?

MANNIES: A bit, but there's also a lot of other things involved. A week before Congressman Akin had come out against the school lunch program - saying he was opposed to federal involvement in the school lunch program - he's very conservative on a number of issues, and a lot of people are just now been paying attention to what he's been saying.

On the other hand, Senator McCaskill, Claire McCaskill has her own set of issues. She has been hammered by the Republicans for a couple years now for her perceived closeness to President Obama and also her own problems with a plane that her family failed to pay property tax on for three years here in St. Louis County.

CONAN: And finally, we've seen an ad from the Akin campaign attacking Claire McCaskill, and we played her ad attacking him last week. This is what his ad sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ever wonder why Claire McCaskill called the stimulus bill wildly successful, the stimulus that didn't create jobs but cost us billions? Well, now we know: The stimulus made McCaskill rich, more than $1 million paid to partnerships owned by McCaskill's family. When she gives us excuses, just remember this:

SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: There was a group that went through the bill line by line.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Claire McCaskill, getting rich off us, line by line.

CONAN: And that might be an effective ad, it might not be, but it's no good at all if nobody sees it. Is there any money to run that ad?

MANNIES: There's very little, but I think one of the reasons they put it out, they only earmarked about $50,000 in airtime, which is small, even by Missouri standards. But I think they're hoping that some national groups come in. However, there is a problem with that ad.

It's - all of our studies looking at it at the Beacon but also other news outlets; it's inaccurate.

CONAN: A political ad that's not completely accurate?

(LAUGHTER)

MANNIES: Yes, yes, it's inaccurate, and I'm not taking sides on this, but the HUD documents will show that while her husband, who is a wealthy developer, did have - does have a role in a number of these partnerships that actually his share of it, which was stipulated on her financial disclosure reform, was $26,000 for all of these, not a million.

CONAN: OK, so as we go through this, there's also been debates between the candidates. How has that come out?

MANNIES: Well, there's only been one so far, and this was about a week and a half ago. And it was - they pretty much plowed some similar ground, but this was the first time they'd both been on the same stage together. And Congressman Akin, as I said, who is very conservative, is very clear, making clear his points about less government, more freedom, as he calls it.

And he is critical of Social Security and Medicare, a number of things. McCaskill was pointing some of that stuff out, and again, he was pointing her closest to the president. Now, he contends that she was not ladylike enough in that forum, although actually if you listen to it, eh, it's not that, it wasn't that harsh on either side.

CONAN: And afterwards she characterized her opponent this way.

MCCASKILL: This is somebody who kind of makes Michele Bachmann look like a hippie.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And Ken, a real issue for Republicans now, national Republicans, who said hands off Akin after the legitimate rape comment, they now see their prospects of taking over control of the Senate slipping away unless they can win in Missouri.

RUDIN: Well, it's iffy with or without Akin, but a lot of Republicans - I mean, we've seen this both with Roy Blunt and Kit Bond, senator and former senator here in Missouri, and as well nationally, as well, saying that, look, we distanced ourselves clearly, completely from Todd Akin's remark, but we need four seats, three if Romney wins, to win back the Senate.

And Claire McCaskill until this comment was very, very vulnerable. As Jo said, the Air Claire comment about her plane and things like that, her perceived closeness to Obama. So they want the seat, and a lot of them are willing to go past the Akin apology.

CONAN: And Jo Mannies, she all but campaigned for Todd Akin in the Republican primary, and would any of the other Republicans in that primary have been more difficult for her?

MANNIES: Yes, I think there's no question. In fact, I wrote a story this week that said this is an unusual matchup of the candidate who was supposed to have no chance of winning re-election against the candidate who was supposed to have no chance of winning the primary. All the polls had showed that Akin was not supposed to be winning the primary, but he did. He did handily.

Congressman Akin often underperforms in polls. So even some of these polls that show her with a few points ahead, that's something that most of us who have been covering him for a long time keep that in mind. He often underpolls. He actually performs better on election night.

CONAN: So too close to call at this stage?

MANNIES: Correct. He has a base of supporters, homeschoolers, social conservatives who will come out no matter what. It doesn't matter what the weather is, doesn't matter anything. They will come out. And so he has before beaten better known rivals who he wasn't supposed to win, and so that could happen. I think it is too close to call, I really do.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: One thing that perhaps may hurt Akin is the fact that - understanding out there that Mitt Romney will take Missouri, and the Romney camp knows that. And because of that, they're taking resources out of the state and focusing them elsewhere, like in Florida, Virginia, where it's very, very close.

So if there's a lack of Republican money in there, that could also hurt Akin's attempt at winning.

CONAN: And when is the last time people can - money would make a difference, Jo Mannies?

MANNIES: Yes, in Missouri - well, it could take - part of the issue is that any of this direct money can only be $5,000 or a few thousand each. It's this indirect money that - I mean, the superPACs. It's whether or not they come back in and put up big money just within a few weeks.

And now Ann Romney is going to be here tomorrow to raise money, but she's not expected to see Akin or say anything about Akin.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And Jo Mannies, thank you very much for your time today, we appreciate it.

MANNIES: Thank you.

CONAN: Jo Mannies, a political reporter for the St. Louis Beacon, with us here at St. Louis Public Radio. She also reports for beyondnovember.org, a media collaboration here in St. Louis. There's something after November?

(LAUGHTER)

MANNIES: I hope so.

CONAN: The big political story today, of course, tonight's debate, the fist in a series of matchups between Mitt Romney and President Obama. The president still holds a bit of an advantage in the latest polls in most swing states, though that lead shrank a little bit in recent days. Mitt Romney hopes a strong showing tonight will give him a boost going into the final weeks of the campaign.

If you were the moderator, what question would you pose to the candidates tonight? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Ken, everybody's been trying to downplay expectations in advance of the debate, though, apparently Chris Christie didn't get the memo.

RUDIN: Right, Chris Christie thinks something dramatic will happen, and something dramatic could happen, but whether it will change the numbers is another thing. But obviously, Romney wants to make the point that the president is a great orator, he knows what he's doing, and he's been very successful at this.

And the Obama people have been saying that Mitt Romney had 23 debates this year, and he really wiped out the rest of the Republican field because of his showings in the debate. So both sides are up - are downplaying their own chances, talking about how good the other side is.

CONAN: And the questions tonight are going to be focusing on domestic issues, primarily on the economy.

RUDIN: That's true, but again, you expect that if Romney has a line that he wants to use about international politics, he'll use that, as well.

CONAN: Anything he's got, any ammo in his locker, he's going to see if he can get it off tonight.

RUDIN: Really, it's his last chance to make a first impression with many voters.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get some suggestions from callers, and I'm sure Jim Lehrer is listening carefully so he'll know what questions to ask tonight. Well, we have somebody here in the studio in St. Louis. Why don't we start with you, sir?

TOM ROTH: Tom Roth(ph), city of Saint Louis. I'd like to ask kind of two different questions to both of them. The first question to Government Romney is: What are the good aspects of Obamacare? And then the question to President Obama is: What are the not-so-good aspects of Obamacare?

CONAN: And those could be well asked tonight.

Ken Rudin, the good aspects of Obamacare, there's a lot of people in the Republican Party who say, wait a minute. We're never going to go back to the day when a 25-year-old can't stay on their parents' health coverage.

RUDIN: Yeah. And if Mitt Romney wants to talk about the good aspects of Obamacare, he could talk about his tenure as governor of Massachusetts when, ostensibly, he had those good parts of the Obamacare. Now, Romney has since tried to distance himself away from that, saying his first act would be repealing Obamacare. But he's - obviously, that's a very good question, Tom, because he's going to have to - obviously, it's not going to go away completely, and he's going to have to make the case what works and what doesn't work.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go to a caller, and let's go to line six. And Michael's on the line with us, calling from Kansas City.

MICHAEL: Hi.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the other end of the state, but we can still hear you.

MICHAEL: OK. That's cool. My question for both of them would be that 22 percent of children in this country (unintelligible) live in poverty, and I'd like to see what either candidate would address, since I haven't seen that number be brought up in any form in the national discussion.

CONAN: Ken, poverty, in general, has, well, not gotten a lot of attention, except in the 47 percent discussion.

RUDIN: No. And Mitt Romney has still not recovered from that, and that's really because he was starting to make a move, even though that there was momentum coming out of the Democratic Convention, Romney was ostensibly going to make the move, and then he's been saddled by that 47 percent. But Republicans can make the case that, look. We still have 8-plus percent unemployment, which no president since FDR has been elected with that high of an unemployment number.

So the people are still enmeshed in poverty. There's still unemployment, still no great sense that things will change. But the latest polls show that more people are confident about the future than they have been before, and obviously, that's a good plus for the president.

CONAN: And the president might be able to say, well, look. If you look at the CHIP program, we've passed legislation to address this issue, though we're nowhere close to where we need to be. If you look at my health care program, this is meant to address part of that situation, as well. If you look at my education programs - but the fact is, as the caller points out, 22 million children still in poverty, and he's been president almost four years.

RUDIN: Right. If you make the - if you try frame this election as a referendum on Barack Obama, which is - the Republicans tried to do for the longest time, then, theoretically, the president would be in trouble. That's why the Democrats would like to say this is not a referendum about Obama. It's about the choice between Obama and Romney, and that's where these Democrats think they have the advantage.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Judy in Cincinnati: I would ask if each candidate could stop negative ads and only put out ads stating their position on the issues. And she's apparently going to vote in utopia.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Right, exactly. You know, she's obviously - I mean, ideally, you would have the candidates doing positive ads, and then you have these third-party superPAC ads being the negative. But both sides are just - because they think negative campaigning works.

CONAN: We were talking earlier this week with Ari Shapiro, who did that great reporting on political advertising in Colorado. And he said there'd been some 1,500 ads ran during one period of time, of which five - not 5 percent - five were positive.

RUDIN: Well, you and I live in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, and because Virginia is such a swing state, it's such an important state, such a dead-even state, we're bombarded day-in and day-out with negative ads, nonstop.

CONAN: I'm blessed to live in the Baltimore television market, so I don't get those ads. I get to watch them online. It's the Political Junkie every Wednesday here on TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go back to the microphones here in Saint Louis and get another suggestion for what the moderator might ask tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you. We have had discussion in Missouri recently of a proposed amendment to the Constitution requiring a balanced budget. That amendment might include total expenses, plus a 3 percent reduction in the deficit each year could not exceed revenues. I would like to hear a reaction to that.

CONAN: The balance budget amendment has been proposed many times in Congress, Ken, and has never really gotten anywhere.

RUDIN: Well, actually, I think it came within one vote a bunch of years ago. Mark Hatfield was the one Republican who voted no, and that's why it was defeated. It's always been a pet cause of the Republican Party.

CONAN: McCoy never forgave him.

I'm sorry.

The McCoys never forgave him.

RUDIN: No. Versus the Hatfields, I get it, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Wow.

CONAN: Ooh.

RUDIN: I want to bend(ph) with that joke.

CONAN: Ooh.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So the difficulty is a lot of people would say if you get into a situation like Pearl Harbor, the federal government went into enormous debt after December 7th, 1941 to fund the Second World War.

RUDIN: I mean, that's a very fair point. If you think of during the Clinton years, there was tremendous surpluses which seemed - once 9/11 happened, that went out the window, right?

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Let's go to line seven. This is in Philadelphia, and Haley(ph) is on the line with us. Hello, Haley.

HALEY: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

HALEY: I am a senior in high school, and so I'm looking at colleges right now. And I'd like them to address the situation of college tuition, because it's rising 15 percent each year, and I think everyone should have an equal chance to go to college.

CONAN: This is a question that comes up perennially, Ken Rudin.

RUDIN: Yes. And a matter of fact, not only is it a presidential issue, it's a state issue, as well. We've seen governors around the country, including here in Missouri, and Jay Nixon, who's the governor running for re-election, has - is very popular in the polls, but state spending on education in Missouri is down 12 percent from the previous year. There are tremendous cuts in everything...

CONAN: And as you see the situation in California, where, again, cuts to the budget and those costs are then shifted to student tuition.

RUDIN: Exactly. It seems like education is the first one they go to cut, and that is kind of criminal.

CONAN: So thanks very much for the call, Haley. We have another...

HALEY: Yeah.

CONAN: ...person here at the microphone in Saint Louis.

BETTY SIMS: Hi. I'm Betty Sims(ph) from Saint Louis, and both candidates spend a lot of time talking about jobs and creating jobs. So my question is I'd like you to be more specific. I'd like some specific programs as to how do you intend to create jobs.

CONAN: And that is very likely to be - I think Mr. Lehrer's listening to you. That's very likely to be one of the questions that comes up tonight.

RUDIN: And both candidates think they have the advantage on that issue. Obviously, Obama is very prone to talk about how Obama - how Mitt Romney is creating jobs in China with outsourcing and things like that, whereas Mitt Romney says, look. Just look at the numbers. Look at the number of jobs that have been created in the past four years, far less than anybody expected, far less than Obama promised.

CONAN: Far less than Obama promised, but he would then reply: The situation when I came in was far worse than I expected.

RUDIN: Right.

CONAN: And, in fact, if you look at the numbers, we have now created more net jobs during my administration than we lost. And indeed, the numbers have been going up over the past several months.

RUDIN: Right. And if we're talking about a blame game, the question is: Are we still blaming George W. Bush, or do we blame Barack Obama for the last four years? And both sides have a case.

CONAN: On this program, we'd like to blame Ken Rudin...

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...every Wednesday with The Political Junkie segment. We're going to take more of your suggestions on what the moderator in tonight's debate ought to ask. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We'll also be talking about the history of campaign buttons when we come back. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(APPLAUSE)

CONAN: Right now, we're talking with Political Junkie Ken Rudin and getting suggestions from the audience about what questions ought to be asked at tonight's debate. And let's see if we get another caller on the line. Let's go to Eric, and Eric's with us from San Francisco.

ERIC: Hey. How are you all?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

ERIC: Great. So my question is: How are the candidates going to address the huge partisan divide that we have in this country that has literally just paralyzed our ability to move in any direction at all? And I'm curious how they can address this in practical terms and really get this country working together.

CONAN: And this is something that has bedeviled every person elected president. George W. Bush famously said I'm a uniter, not a divider. That didn't turn out to be true. Barack Obama vowed to change the political culture in Washington. If anything, it's gotten more toxic, Ken.

RUDIN: It has absolutely gotten toxic. I think it started - perhaps, it started with Bill Clinton in '92, followed by George W. Bush, followed by Barack Obama. There are several reasons. First of all, I think a lot of the stuff you get from cable television - and I'm singling out Fox News and MSNBC - they seemed to like to rile up their supporters and - by preaching to the converted. There's no reason for anybody to tone down their rhetoric. But also, we've seen - when there are several members of Congress who try to work with the other side, Republicans trying to work with Democrats and vice versa, they're almost immediately challenged as either traitors or sellouts or being hit with primary challenges from the right or the left. So you can talk about bipartisanship and reaching across party lines, but the folks back home, the ideologues back home really don't want it.

CONAN: And it's a byproduct of the primary system where, in Republican primaries, you generally win by outflanking to the right, and in Democratic primaries, a lot of places, you can win by outflanking to the left. And it's going to be interesting to see what happens this year in California, which has a new system this year.

RUDIN: Right. What happens in California - and we saw this in the June primary - everybody runs on the same two - the ballot, all the candidates, regardless of party. And the top two finishers move on to November. So there will be a lot of Democrat versus Democratic and Republican versus Republican, especially in congressional races.

CONAN: So I think the answer to your question, Eric, is that every challenger has an advantage on this question, because they can promise to change this for the better. Every incumbent has a real disadvantage, because they already know it's not going to change any time soon. But thanks very much for the call.

ERIC: You're welcome.

CONAN: There's a question here at the microphone in Saint Louis.

WILLIAM: Yes. My name is William from Chesterfield, Missouri. I'd specifically like to ask the candidates what policies would they advocate for to address education in this country, specifically to - to address high school dropouts, to close what is referred to as the achievement gap, to raise K-12 academic gains across the board and to keep college affordable and accessible for all.

CONAN: Well, we already talked about that last point with an earlier questioner. The dropout rate, this is an indictment of American education, Ken.

RUDIN: That's absolutely true, and especially if you compare it to European nations, what's it like. And I have not seen - I mean, it's clearly a problem. It's growing problem, and we've seen it from more than just the Obama administration. But again, with all the issues out there, I have not seen this addressed as fully by the candidates this time.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to line four, and George is on the line, calling us from San Jose.

GEORGE: Good afternoon. We baby-boomers are a little bit concerned about what we're hearing about Social Security, especially decreasing the benefits, raising the age and changing the cost of living adjustment to change CPI. So I'd like to know what the presidential candidates plan to do.

CONAN: And again, I think this is something that - it's very likely to come up tonight, Ken.

RUDIN: Exactly. And we saw that when Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate, we thought that this would be the overriding issue in his campaign. For better or for worse, Paul Ryan will make the case that the - Social Security, Medicare is in danger of getting - going broke, and there need to be cuts, serious cuts. But at the same time, there are a lot of seniors, a lot of people who are just frightened by the thought of long-time entitlement program being weakened. So I guarantee that will come up this year.

CONAN: And a lot of people would say it's not an entitlement. It's an earned credit. People paid into this their whole lives. But I think it's fair to point out that both Republicans and Democrats at this point, I think, say this would not change under anybody's program for anybody over the age of 55.

RUDIN: Well, that's, you know, that's certainly the Paul Ryan/Romney point, although a lot of people like to call it the Romney/Ryan campaign. But, obviously, all the issues about Medicare - once Romney picked Ryan, that was the poster for the Democrats there.

CONAN: And if there's one question you could ask tonight, Ken, if you could slip into the chair for just a moment, what would that be?

RUDIN: Who would - OK. Let's just assume a Yankee/Cardinal World Series. Who would you start...

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: All right. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us here at the studios of St. Louis Public Radio. And we should let you know, by the way, that there is a T-shirt image of our new Political Junkie T-shirt up on Ken's blog, @npr.org/junkie. We don't yet have a picture of the button, but we will get one up as soon as we can. So those of you who weren't clairvoyant and saw Ken's holding up the T-shirt on the radio earlier, go to npr.org/junkie. And when we come back, well, speaking of buttons, we'll be talking about the history of campaigns. Stay with us.

Ken Rudin we know is not just a Political Junkie. He's a bit of a political button junkie too. Yes, all those buttons in the ScuttleButton puzzle we put together every week come from his personal collection. Most of them do, anyway. How do those little political symbols influence an election? Thomas Fleming knows his political buttons. He's an historian, novelist, former president of the Society of American Historians and wrote a piece called "How Presidential Politics Fastened Onto Buttons" for The Wall Street Journal last month. And he joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

THOMAS FLEMING: Oh, I'm delighted to be with you.

CONAN: And I have to ask, have you ever entered the ScuttleButton puzzle?

FLEMING: No, I haven't. There's - I just don't feel I'm very ingenious in that department.

CONAN: Well, neither is...

RUDIN: I am.

CONAN: ...Ken, so he'll be a good company.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Why are you laughing?

CONAN: And so tell us, political buttons per se, reading your piece, date back to the first president, George Washington, but not in the sense that we commonly associate them with today.

FLEMING: That's right. They didn't - they weren't worn before Washington was elected unanimously or perhaps he did. But he wore a very - an American-made suit with had - which had very attractive silver buttons on it. And thousands of his followers wore them, too, as a testimony to their admiration for him.

CONAN: So those...

FLEMING: That was one of the - that sort of started people thinking about how buttons could say something.

CONAN: But it took a while before they entered the campaign lexicon.

FLEMING: Yes. Really, the first time - well, as I said in the piece, or maybe I'll say it now anyway. For a long time, candidates for president depended on totally biased newspapers that slaughtered the opposition right and left. Washington himself was a victim of some of this. But the buttons really came into their own in 1828 when Andrew Jackson ran for president against a very solemn and sort of conservative New Englander, John Quincy Adams, the son of the second president. And the buttons that they cooked up for Andy were startling.

The - he was - he had a nicknamed, Old Hickory, which dated back - God know - nobody knows exactly how long. But it had to do with his supposed using a hickory cane as he walked along with the troops. And in the course of this, he got off his horse to help a wounded soldier, and he flourishes his cane and said, I'm ready to go right with the troops. And so they then turned into a - almost a business. They had dozens of buttons of all kinds made of wood and - very often - and they were shaped in canes and all sorts of other things.

And the - meanwhile, to speak of anti-attack approach, Quincy - John Quincy Adams was calling him a murderer because he left a trail of dead bodies in his wake as he dueled numerous people back in Tennessee. And he also claimed that he married his wife without bothering to, actually, have a ceremony performed. And this was very insulting and very upsetting stuff, but it didn't touch Jackson at all. And he cruised to a tremendous victory, and it was a triumph for the first time - and the buttons really helped in this - of personality over issues.

CONAN: Ken, do you have any of those Old Hickory buttons?

RUDIN: No, I don't. Actually - but we've said, you know, the buttons as we know them, the celluloid buttons, began in 1896. And I'm all excited by the...

FLEMING: That's right. And so there's a long jump between Hickory and those buttons that we know. That's true.

RUDIN: You know, I'm thinking of...

CONAN: But the...

RUDIN: I'm sorry.

CONAN: Go ahead. Yeah.

RUDIN: I was just going to say, I'm always thinking of how negative and how nasty - as bad as we see the commercials of today, how nasty the buttons were. I remember when - not that I remember, but I have the button...

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: ...but Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for president in 1928...

FLEMING: Yeah.

RUDIN: ...the Hoover button said, we want a Christian in the White House, as if the Catholic was not a Christian. When Ronald Reagan was running in 1984 for re-election, it says, no more run, but instead no moron. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: ...we would do things. And some of them were clever, and some of them weren't.

FLEMING: Yes.

RUDIN: And there was - and when Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1940, there were hundreds and hundreds of anti-Roosevelt buttons, no third termites. We would talk...

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That's good. Yeah.

FLEMING: Another button that they had at that time was, and we don't want Eleanor either.

RUDIN: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Celluloid transformed the industry, or created an industry really. It made it possible for mass production of buttons in, what, a penny piece?

FLEMING: Yes. So it was - they're very inexpensive. And they really had an impact right at the start. They were invented in 1896, and William Jennings Bryan was running - raging that, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold, and he was seen the ultimate radical. And McKinley's buttons, if you look at them, they are pictorial recitation of this Bryan. He looks like an executive. There's a firmness about his mouth, and there's sort of an angry look in his eyes as if he was thinking about Bryan and what a nut case he was.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: You know, one thing that's certainly different is that in the old days, you could go into campaign headquarters and just fill your pockets, as I did, with campaign buttons.

FLEMING: Yes.

RUDIN: But now, you have to buy them. You have to buy them online, and you probably have to buy them from a third-party vendor. The campaign don't produce them like they used to.

FLEMING: Yes. No, they don't. They really don't, but that's because television is sucking up all the money. And it's just - there wasn't anything left over. And buttons have, I think, become a little controversial. In another sense, not a lot of people really want to advertise their choice to the public that way.

CONAN: We're talking...

FLEMING: And that's has another - have something else to do with it, I think.

CONAN: We're talking with historian and novelist, Thomas Fleming, about the history of the political campaign button. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us as he is every Wednesday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Ken, a penny piece in those days, what would a McKinley button go for today from a collector?

RUDIN: Well, it depends. I mean, you could get a McKinley button for five, $6 or some that goes for hundreds of dollars. The most valuable button was a 1920 Democratic ticket when James Cox was the governor of Ohio and some guy named Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for vice president. And a picture button of the two of them have gone for, like, 50, $60,000.

CONAN: Whatever happened to them?

RUDIN: Well, James Cox died a long time ago, and I think FDR died in Warm Springs.

CONAN: Something like that.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEMING: Roosevelt spent the next three or four years trying to figure out why he lost.

RUDIN: And that was pre-polio Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was the assistant secretary of the Navy.

FLEMING: Oh, yes. He was marvelous. He was a marvelous candidate.

RUDIN: Right.

FLEMING: He really was. And he was absolutely baffled and - but now, we historians can sum it up in two words, Woodrow Wilson.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: You know, I remember also going into 1968, Eugene McCarthy, when he was challenging Lyndon Johnson, everybody was wearing all these - the people against the war in Vietnam were all wearing this McCarthy button.

FLEMING: Yes.

RUDIN: And conservatives were so upset, they produced Joe McCarthy for president buttons to get back at them.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEMING: That's very good. Yeah.

CONAN: You mentioned, Thomas Fleming, that this really is part of the process of cultivating personality over position.

FLEMING: Yes.

CONAN: And maybe most strikingly, as you put it in your piece, the Dwight Eisenhower, who was a not a natural as it were on TV or the campaign stump.

FLEMING: No. Yes, but he had a wonderful motto, I like Ike, and that looked great on a button. And it really did have a huge impact. That gave him some personality. And then, also, I think it's very important that buttons can alter somebody's personality as perceived by the voters. Reagan, for instance, when - his first buttons, when he was running against Jimmy Carter, they featured him wearing a big, white cowboy hat and this wonderful smile. And he was immediately recognized as a Westerner. And that, you know, he was about as much of a Westerner as I am in many respects. He was a movie actor, but this button really had a lot to do with getting over the problem of him being an actor and all that.

CONAN: We got a caller on the line. Sharon is with us on line one from Redwood City, California.

SHARON: Yes. I had to share my dad's campaign button I loved. It was: Truman was screwy to build a porch for Dewey.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: I love that one. Different.

FLEMING: I'd love to see that button because Harry Truman was the first president I voted for.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: What's - I have that button too. What's great about it is that they were remodeling the White House and the Republicans saying, why would you boost the Truman when Dewey is the next president. Truman was screwing to build the house for Dewey, I love it.

CONAN: A porch for Dewey.

RUDIN: Yeah, porch, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Sharon, thanks very much.

SHARON: Thank you.

RUDIN: You know, sometimes, you have buttons for candidates that only the people who are wearing them know what they mean. There was one button that said, 007, and you think it's a James Bond-related movie - button, but it was Allard Lowenstein, who's the - he was number seven on the Nixon enemies list. And when ran for Senate, his button just said 007.

FLEMING: Oh, my God.

CONAN: I think we can squeeze one more caller in. Cathy(ph) is on the line with us from Hood River in Oregon.

CATHY: Hi. In 1972, I was a high school journalism and student, and we were taken to the Press Club in San Francisco where we saw a presentation from Nixon's people. And the button that we were all offered said, young voters for the president, which I thought was a very strange comment - button. In those days, there weren't many young voters who are doing anything but opposing the Vietnam War.

FLEMING: Well, it's...

CONAN: Not entirely.

RUDIN: Except he won 49 states. But my favorite Nixon button from 1968...

FLEMING: Yes, I was about to mention that.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: ...it says: The I in Nixon stands for integrity. How do you like that one?

(LAUGHTER)

FLEMING: That's even better.

CONAN: Well, wasn't that the election that then produced the famous bumper sticker, not quite the same thing, I'm from Massachusetts. Don't blame me.

FLEMING: Don't blame me, yes, exactly.

CONAN: All right. Cathy, thanks very much for the call. Ken, is there one in particular that's your favorite political button or you have one or two?

RUDIN: Well, I have this great picture button of Lyndon Johnson. Remember, in 1965, he had a gallbladder surgery and showed his scar to all the press. There's one button of Lyndon Johnson, he's picking up a shirt and the scar was in the shape of Vietnam.

CONAN: Thomas Fleming, thanks very much for your time today.

FLEMING: Oh, I've enjoyed it very much.

CONAN: Thomas Fleming joined us from our bureau in New York. Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie, next week, we'll be together again in the swing state of Ohio, at WOSU in Columbus. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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