What The Presidential Debates Accomplished

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On the heels of the final presidential debate and with less than two weeks until Election Day, both President Obama and Mitt Romney are sprinting to the finish. Political Junkie Ken Rudin talks about the takeaways from the debates and the challenges facing each campaign in the homestretch.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. First the Democratic debacle in the Denver debate, then a show of teeth in Tennessee, last week hells-a-poppin' at Hofstra, and this week a comparative Kumbaya in Boca. It's Wednesday and time for a...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Horses and bayonets...

CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

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 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. With less than two weeks until election day, polls put Romney and the president neck and neck. They faced off in their final debate of the regular season, but let's see if we can - kept steering foreign policy questions back to the economy.

Possible distractions for Romney from Senate candidate Richard Mourdock on abortion and Donald Trump back on the birther bandwagon. Clint Eastwood rides again, without the empty chair. Jesse Jackson, Jr. robocalls voters in his district to ask for patience, and we'll remember George McGovern.

Later we'll focus on the races that will decide control of the House and Senate, but first political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. And we begin, as usual, with a trivia question. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, Neal. Well, if the subject today is battle for the House and Senate, I'll give you a little House trivia question. Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to win a majority in the House. When was the last time an incumbent president was running and his party went from the minority to the majority in the House?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, the last time an incumbent president ran, and his party regained control of the House of Representatives, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Of course, the winner gets a free Political Junkie T-shirt and the fabulous no-prize button that's now been produced. So Ken, we have to begin with, well, you know, after the donnybrook the week before, the last foreign policy debate seemed relatively polite.

RUDIN: Well, polite if you were Mitt Romney. If you were Barack Obama and felt that momentum was going the other way, I think Obama was not polite. He was certainly more argumentative. He was certainly more aggressive, some people would say snarky, but whatever it was, he was certainly more energized than Mitt Romney.

It was almost as if Mitt Romney felt like he had a lead and was coasting. At the same time, Romney also knows that foreign policy ostensibly is President Obama's strong suit and maybe that's why he just stayed back, but clearly the president was more aggressive and put Romney on the defensive for much of the debate.

CONAN: Well, let's hear some of that aggression from Barack Obama. We played the "horses and bayonets" cut already. This is another attempt to, I guess, unsettle Mitt Romney a little bit.

OBAMA: The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years.

CONAN: Mitt Romney, this is a question about his statement that our greatest geo-strategic rival is Russia.

RUDIN: Yeah, and it was also interesting for - you know, I was thinking, watching President Obama say, well, look, you know, you don't have the experience I have in foreign policy. And of course that's true, but four years ago, Barack Obama also had no experience in foreign policy. It's amazing what four years in the White House can do for your experience in foreign policy.

CONAN: But looking back over these four debates, if you include the vice presidential debate, it's been pretty interesting. Mitt Romney scored very heavily in that first debate in Denver as he pointed repeatedly to the president's record.

MITT ROMNEY: The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government spending more, taxing more, regulating more, if you will, trickle-down government, would work. That's not the right answer for America.

CONAN: And it's interesting, they both tried out different phrases. Trickle-down government, you just heard, sketchy deal. None of them are going to go down, I don't think, in political rhetorical history. But Romney certainly dominated that first debate.

RUDIN: Well, he certainly did, and President Obama seemed very - almost disinterested in such a way that Democrats, of course, were ready to jump off the cliff. And clearly we saw in the subsequent vice presidential debate with Biden and Ryan and then the two more presidential debates, President Obama was certainly more vibrant and more excited.

And yet the numbers in the polls that seemed to go Romney's way after that first debate never seemed to move away from Romney even though I think most people agree that Obama was clearly the stronger debater in the final two encounters.

CONAN: And he also did - avoided problems that Mitt Romney had, memorably, I guess in this cut.

ROMNEY: I went to a number of women's groups and said, can you help us find folks. And they brought us whole binders full of women.

CONAN: Binders filled with women, that's - that might be a phrase that'll stick around for a while.

RUDIN: It will, and of course it only added to - I mean, if Mitt Romney has a major vulnerability, and he has several of them, of course, going into November 6, but his support among female voters is one of them. And of course what we saw - I mean, we'll talk about this later, what happened in Indiana yesterday didn't help, as well.

CONAN: We'll talk more about that in a bit, but there is also the impression more in the second debate between the two presidential candidates than in the third, where as we pointed out he was much more mild-mannered, but at times he seemed to be a little overbearing. Here he is in an exchange with President Obama.

ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension? Have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: I've got to say...

ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: You know, I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours, so it doesn't take as long.

ROMNEY: Well, let me give you some advice.

OBAMA: I don't check it that often.

CONAN: And responses like that seemed to be behind his decision to not rise to the bait the last time around.

RUDIN: Yeah, that's true, and we also saw that with Libya, as well. Romney tried to make a point about the lack of American preparedness at the compound in Benghazi in Libya, where our ambassador was killed. He tried to make a point about the kind of investments that President Obama had. But in each encounter, Obama certainly had the best quip, the best last line, and it almost left - in some ways it seemed to have left Romney befuddled.

CONAN: In the meantime, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is the last incumbent president who was running for office and saw his party return to the majority in the House of Representatives that same year, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

RUDIN: It's amazing how you make sense of these questions.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, they pay me the big bucks for that. Let's see if we can go first to - this is Justin(ph), Justin with us from Des Moines.

JUSTIN: Hi, FDR?

CONAN: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and, well, he had a lot of chances with a lot of Congresses.

RUDIN: Well actually, Roosevelt, every time he ran for re-election, and that was in 1936, 1940 and 1944, the Democrats already had control of the House. They didn't recapture it with Roosevelt's re-election.

CONAN: But probably you're still seeing his ads there in Iowa.

JUSTIN: Absolutely, and can I get a T-shirt anyway?

CONAN: Well, you can buy a T-shirt on our website.

JUSTIN: Oh wonderful, thank you.

CONAN: Thank you very much, it's the no-prize button that's now available. Let's see if we can go to next, this is Jonathan(ph), Jonathan with us from Alamos in Colorado.

JONATHAN: Hey, T-shirt weather out here, but I'm looking, I think it's Nixon '72.

CONAN: Richard Nixon, 1972.

RUDIN: Richard Nixon actually, he was one of the few presidents in our history who served eight years, and all eight years, the control of Congress was under control of the Democrats. So Nixon, when he was re-elected in '72, never had a Republican majority in the House or Senate.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: Hey, thanks.

CONAN: Let's see if we can try - this is Sonya(ph), Sonya with us from Boulder, Colorado.

SONYA: Yes, hey Ken.

RUDIN: Hi Sonya.

SONYA: Hey Neal, it's been a while. I had to call in and say hello. I missed you at the DNC in Charlotte.

CONAN: We weren't there, so that's why you missed us.

(LAUGHTER)

SONYA: I know, I know. Well, my answer is Reagan.

CONAN: Ronald Reagan, of course, ran for re-election in 1984.

RUDIN: Right, well, when Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984, the Democrats continued to control the House. They did have the Senate. But the Democrats, the Democrats kept the House, the Republicans didn't win it until 1994.

SONYA: Oh darn. Well, I have the T-shirt. I'm going for the pin next time.

CONAN: OK, thanks very much, Sonya.

SONYA: Thank you. Bye bye.

CONAN: So long. Here's an email response, this from John Hogan(ph), who says Harry Truman.

RUDIN: Harry Truman is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: In 1948, Truman won a full term, of course he was already president but not elected. He won a full term, and...

CONAN: Thereby incumbent president, OK.

RUDIN: He was an incumbent president then. And the Democrats won a net gain...

CONAN: You're being tricky.

RUDIN: ...of 75 seats in 1948, right.

CONAN: Wow. We'll be talking later about whether they can possibly get more than 25 seats they're going to need this time to regain the majority, but hang in for that. In the meantime, we're going to be going on to talk about some of the other political issues of the week, and it's been interesting.

We've had Jesse Jackson Jr., the Democrat from Chicago, who of course - well, he won the nomination in a primary that was relatively hard-fought, but he's yet to campaign because of his emotional problems. He's back in the Mayo Clinic as of, I think, yesterday, but he did send out this robocall to some of his voters.

REPRESENTATIVE JESSE JACKSON JR.: The good news is my health is improving, but my doctors tell me the road to recovery is a long one. For nearly 18 years, I've served the people of the 2nd District. I'm anxious to return to work on your behalf. But at this time, it's against medical advice. And while I will always give my all to my constituents, I ask you to continue with your patience as I work to get my health back.

CONAN: Is Jess Jackson, Jr.'s election in any difficulty?

RUDIN: Not at all. I mean, it's a solidly Democratic seat. He did have a little interesting Democratic primary with a former incumbent, one-term incumbent, a white Democrat I should point out. But it's an overwhelmingly African-American, overwhelmingly Democratic seat. The problem is his fellow Democratic Congressman Danny Davis of Chicago also said yesterday he wouldn't be surprised if Jackson did not - never returned to Congress.

He hasn't been seen since June, in public since June. As you say, he's returned to the Mayo Clinic for this bipolar disorder. And he's also - there's a rumor, again rumors here, but there's reports out there that he's being investigated by the FBI for misuse of campaign funds.

There are a lot of things that seem to be weighing on Jackson, and, you know, as Congressman Davis said, he may not return, even though he will get re-elected on November 6.

CONAN: But speaking of return, Donald Trump, you'll remember him, briefly considered a run for the presidential nomination in the Republican Party, later of course endorsed Mitt Romney, released a video today offering a $5 million contribution to the charity of President Obama's choice if the president will release his college application records and his passport records.

DONALD TRUMP: He'll be doing a great service for the country if he does this. If he releases these records, it will end the question, and indeed the anger, of many Americans. They'll know something about their president. Their president will become transparent, like other presidents.

RUDIN: End what question?

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: I mean, Donald Trump seems to be one of the few people who still have this question. Even the longtime so-called birthers, who thought this might be a winning issue, have long since abandoned it. But Donald Trump being Donald Trump and the fact that we're still talking about Donald Trump is kind of cute, but anyway it's Donald Trump being Donald Trump.

CONAN: And the Romney campaign will presumably have to answer some questions about, well, he's on your side, what do you make of this now.

RUDIN: Well, he says he has - Trump says the president has until October 31 to come clean, or else.

CONAN: We're talking with Ken Rudin, the Political Junkie, and up next the House and Senate both up for grabs on November 6. What's the interesting House or Senate race where you live? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday, Political Junkie day, on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday, Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin is with us, as always, and Ken, no ScuttleButton winner this week, but everybody gets a shot at a new puzzle.

RUDIN: New puzzle is up this week, and it's a good one, and yes, and of course there will be a new column next week, all about the battle for the House.

CONAN: We'll be talking about that as well, and we'll announce the winner of the ScuttleButton contest next week. In the final two weeks of the campaign, Mitt Romney and President Obama will stump through swing states. Both are frenziedly going from one rally to another. And they'll gather many of the news headlines.

There's another battle, though, on November 6, this one for control of the House and the United States Senate. Thanks to redistricting, several races pit incumbent versus incumbent. The Tea Party faces a test after a number of notable wins in the midterm elections and in the Republican primaries.

We want to hear about the interesting House or Senate race where you live, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Ken, we have to begin in the state of Indiana and the Senate contest there, where Richard Mourdock of course upset Richard Lugar, the longtime Republican stalwart, in the Republican primary.

RUDIN: He's upsetting more Republicans right now.

CONAN: Well, because of a statement he made in a debate last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RICHARD MOURDOCK: I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is a gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

CONAN: The only exception he would make for abortion is for - to protect the life of the mother. And, well, this has re-opened a whole can of beans.

RUDIN: Right, there's something about Republican Senate candidates this year and rape and abortion, and it's just - there's obviously a lot of Republicans just shaking their head, thinking that this was - first of all, in addition to Missouri, where they thought that Claire McCaskill was a prime target for defeat, the Republicans thought they would keep the seat.

Of course if Dick Lugar had survived, he most likely...

CONAN: Politically survived, he's doing fine.

RUDIN: Politically survived, but when Richard Mourdock clobbered him with support from the Tea Party and the conservatives, saying that Lugar was too accommodating, too liberal, too blah blah blah, Mourdock was having trouble uniting the party. And then he was almost moving a little, becoming a little more moderate, trying to go out to swing voters, reach out to swing voters.

And then in the debate, when he was asked about exceptions for rape or incest, he said that, you know, God - rape - you know, pregnancy because of rape, something God intended to happen. Now, what he meant was to say that life is a gift from God, is what he meant to say. He didn't mean to say that God wants rape.

But the point is, he got entangled in these words again, and it just sounds like - so the Democrats have another example, in their words, of Republicans once again betraying women's rights and women's values. And of course they want Mitt Romney to disassociate himself with Richard Mourdock.

CONAN: And you've had some Republicans recoil from Richard Mourdock. Kelly Ayotte, the senator from New Hampshire, scheduled to campaign...

RUDIN: Today.

CONAN: ...with Richard Mourdock, stayed in New Hampshire.

RUDIN: Right. Ayotte says that she's not doing it. Scott Brown says this is absolutely wrong. Even Mitt Romney's spokesperson said this is not Mitt Romney's views. And Mourdock, of course, is trying to backtrack. And again, a race that perhaps was slightly leaning Republican, this could put Joe Donnelly, who himself is anti-abortion, but of course with exceptions for rape, incest and health of the mother, Joe Donnelly could win this because of this comment.

CONAN: We want to hear from you on what's the most interesting race where you are, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And David's on the line with us from West Hartford in Connecticut.

DAVID: Hi, guys, thanks. Nasty race between Chris Murphy and Linda McMahon, and I would like to ask Ken what he thinks the nastiest Senate race in the entire country is...

CONAN: Well, Ken spends a lot of time pursuing this question.

Linda McMahon, of course, running for the second time in two years. Ken?

RUDIN: Right, I mean two years ago she spent $50 million of her own money and got clobbered by Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut in a big Republican year. This time there was a new Linda McMahon, a more humble, more accessible, a more likely...

CONAN: She'd wrestled with her conscience?

RUDIN: Right, former WWE executive. And for the longest time she was doing pretty well in the polls. There was a Quinnipiac poll that came out yesterday that had Chris Murphy, the congressman, up by six points over Linda McMahon. It's a tough state for a Republican to won - no Republican has won it since Lowell Weicker in 1982.

CONAN: And a lot of Republicans would say he wasn't one - much of a Republican either.

RUDIN: That's exactly right. So it is tough. There are a lot of nasty things. I think the more money you see in campaigns, the more nasty it's become. There's just - I mean Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown in Massachusetts...

CONAN: That was a race that started out on the high road. They vowed not to accept campaign ads from out of state, and, well, it's careened into the gutter.

RUDIN: Well, certainly the ban on outside money has held. But of course it's gotten very nasty, very personal. In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson and Tammy Baldwin, Tommy Thompson the Republican, former four-term governor, Tammy Baldwin the congresswoman from Madison who's thought to be, by the Republicans, just too liberal to win statewide - that has devolved into nastiness as well.

CONAN: And if you want to hear how - an example of how, here's an ad that was just released by the Republican candidate, Tommy Thompson.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Tammy Baldwin had the opportunity to vote to honor the victims of 9/11, and she voted against it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's a slap in the face to every one of their families and anyone who has ever served in the United States military. Tammy Baldwin's extreme far-left approach leaves this country in jeopardy.

CONAN: Tammy Baldwin responded by saying that recognition for victims of 9/11 also included reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which she opposes.

RUDIN: Exactly, and so the advantage that Tommy Thompson thought he would have by putting Tammy Baldwin on the defensive may have backfired in the sense that she says, look, I'm opposed to the Patriot Act, and I'm not going to just sign onto a bill for other language.

CONAN: Well, in the meantime, we're going to be talking about individual races, but let's talk about control of the United States Senate for just a little bit. The Republicans started out this season, and indeed they still do, they need four, a gain of four seats to get control of the United States Senate, three if Mitt Romney is elected and could rely on the vote of Vice President Ryan to break ties in the Senate.

Going into the race, a lot of people thought well within the GOP's reach. What about now?

RUDIN: Well, first of all, let's not say the word control because nobody, unless you have 60 votes, nobody will control the Senate, but certainly a majority and having the committees run by the Republicans or the Democrats, that's what 51 votes would mean. But a lot of problems for the Republicans.

Even though the numbers are in their favor, of the 33 seats up, 23 are held by the Democrats, so you think there are more Democratic targets. But at the same time, Maine, where Olympia Snowe...

CONAN: The Republican.

RUDIN: ...left, it looks like the independent former governor of Maine there, Angus King, is going to win that seat, which is clearly a Republican loss. Dick Lugar's seat in Indiana could be gone for the Republicans.

CONAN: As we mentioned, yes.

RUDIN: Right. North Dakota. In Nevada, Dean Heller, who was appointed to the seat, is running no better than slightly ahead of Shelley Berkley there. That's a seat that the Republicans could lose.

CONAN: We mentioned Massachusetts as well.

RUDIN: And Massachusetts. And there are some Democratic - Scott Brown is certainly very vulnerable, and Elizabeth Warren seems to be a very slow momentum, but certainly a momentum since the Democratic convention, that seems to be heading in Elizabeth Warren's favor.

And then there are all those vulnerable Democrats out there, like Claire McCaskill in Missouri, who was thought to be gone, certainly has a clear lead now because of missteps by Todd Akin. The Republican candidate in North Dakota, Rick Berg, this is Kent Conrad's seat that he's vacating. He may not be doing as strong as Heidi Heitkamp, who is the Democratic nominee and very, very popular there.

The Republicans still may win that, but again, they're going to have to sweep a lot of the states because they're going to lose a bunch of their own as well.

CONAN: And Virginia as well, where the Democrat, Jim Webb, is retiring, and two former governors in a real heavyweight contest.

RUDIN: Absolutely, and George Allen may - I mean he may have gotten past the macaca comment from six years ago, but Tim Kaine seems to be moving ahead slightly of George Allen. Now, there's still 13 days to go in the campaign. That's a lot of money being spent there because it's almost a dead-even state. But again, it's something that the Republicans were really expecting to win in their march to the majority, and they may not get it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Joseph, and Joseph's on the line with us from Lacrosse in Madison, Wisconsin.

JOSEPH: Actually, I'm in Wisconsin but I'm from Massachusetts, and I've been splitting my time there for the past year.

CONAN: You must love political advertising.

(LAUGHTER)

JOSEPH: (Technical difficulties) anymore.

CONAN: Your line's cutting in and out, but we understand you're not interested in watching TV much anymore. Go ahead.

JOSEPH: And the other thing that's happening now is everything exists forever. Tommy Thompson is being beaten up for things he said at Health and Human Services, like we'll get rid of Medicare and Medicaid. I mean he said it years ago, and he wasn't running for anything statewide, and he was part of the federal government at the time, but that's been huge here in Wisconsin.

And Elizabeth Warren has used her (unintelligible) working with President Obama to just come back and hammer again and again Scott Brown, who it should be said, really made an error in calculation when he decided to get nasty with her, because one of the things he had going for him was this good-guy image. And he kind of let that slip away.

And if I may, one last comment: What fools to attack Lugar because you're probably going to lose the seat, and you're going to lose it from a senator who's done amazing bipartisan work for years. If we had 10 more like him, we'd have 10 — we'd have 100 percent fewer problems.

CONAN: All right. Joseph, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

And a reminder, that nothing a politician says these days ever goes away forever.

RUDIN: No. Nor should it, actually. And I always remember Tim Russert, the late Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press," would always have this great chart on the screen of something that the candidate or non-candidate said in years past, and it often came back to bite them.

CONAN: Let's go next to Pat. Pat with us from Warrick County in Indiana.

PAT: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Pat. Go ahead, please.

PAT: Thank you very much for taking my call. I am, of course, familiar with the Mourdock/Donnelly campaign here in southern Indiana, and listened - I didn't get to watch it - but I listened to the debate last night on NPR and heard Mr. Mourdock get his tongue all tangled up in the whole question of abortion. And I just think it's strange how Republicans continually get their tongues tangled up in the question of abortion and have to spend a lot of time and energy trying to walk back what they said. It's my opinion that what they say when they claim their tongues got tangled up is what they really mean to say and what they try to walk it back to is something that is more acceptable to women.

CONAN: Well, certainly that's the position of the Democratic Committee, the Senatorial Committee and indeed President Obama's campaign, which said today that this is another example of how if a President Romney has a United States Senate with a majority of Republicans, women's rights will not be protected. But well, you know, Ken Rudin, as you look at that race, Republicans, you would think, on the Senate side, of course Mitt Romney's going to carry that state as well, have such an advantage in the state of Indiana.

RUDIN: Yes. And well, of course, President Obama did win the state four years ago, the first time since 1964 that the Democrats took Indiana, but what - the sad thing for Mitt Romney is that Mitt Romney has somehow been able to go back on his previous abortion statements because we know he was once upon a time pro-choice, then he became very strongly anti-abortion during his 2008 and 2012 presidential run, and then he became more centrist, you know, the Etch-A-Sketch comment.

CONAN: Sure.

RUDIN: But more to the middle, and he was making progress with women in the last two weeks. And again, a comment like this by Mourdock reminds everybody all over again the problems that the Republicans have been having with women.

CONAN: And gets the attention back off the economy, where Mitt Romney would like to keep it. We're talking with Political Junkie Ken Rudin, as we do every Wednesday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Peter's on the line with us from Roseville in California.

PETER: Yes. I'd like to discuss the crazy ballot we have out here in California this year whereby only one party is allowed on the ballot.

CONAN: That's not quite the case. It's the top two finishers in the primary from whichever party.

PETER: Yeah. But whatever - but the reality is down in L.A. in the U.S. Congress, and up where I live in the state assembly, there are only two Democrats or two Republicans. No other party is on that ballot.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Well, what it - of course I mean what Neal - the way Neal just described it is exactly right. All the candidates run in the June primary regardless of party. They're on the same ballot.

PETER: Right.

RUDIN: The top two finishers wind - move up to the November runoff. Now, in many cases, like in the 30th District in California, that's the famous Berman-Sherman race...

PETER: Right.

RUDIN: ...where longtime Democratic incumbents Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, because they finished one and two, go into the November thing...

CONAN: Against each other.

RUDIN: ...against each other. And that's the same case with Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson, two members - Democratic members of the Congress. Pete Stark, a longtime guy - I mean I don't know what else to call him - from Northern California and I think...

PETER: Yeah.

RUDIN: ...he's also running against a Democrat, he very well may lose his seat because a lot of people are just tired of Pete Stark, but again, not by a Republican, not by a Democrat - by a Democrat. But what it also does, though, when you have the top two finishers, it eliminates third parties. So in the old days, you used to have, in November, Green Party and Socialist Workers Party and Libertarian Party. None of those people will be running on the ballot in November in California because they didn't finish in the top two.

CONAN: The innovation...

PETER: Yeah. But also the second party is eliminated...

CONAN: In this case...

PETER: ...not just third parties.

CONAN: Well, in - had a Republican finished second or first, they would have been on the ballot.

RUDIN: And there are some - there are some House seats - there's one or two House seats where the top two finishers were Republican. I think there were only one or two in the state, and those districts will be only among - between two Republicans.

CONAN: But the idea, Peter, as far as I understand it, is that because of the primary, the party primary system, Democrats would be outflanked to the left, Republicans outflanked to the right, you get more and more extreme candidates, particularly in seats that are safe in November. There was a redistricting bipartisan commission...

PETER: Right.

CONAN: ...in California that drew more competitive seats. And this new system where the two top finishers in the primary, regardless of party, so two Democrats, well, if you want to win that election, theoretically you have to appeal to independents and to Republicans to try to win that seat. And if there's two Republicans, they have to appeal to independents and to Democrats to win that seat.

RUDIN: But in fairness to Peter, though, that new congressional map in California clearly favors Democrats. A lot of Republicans, like David Dreier, like Jerry Lewis - they love him in Paris.

CONAN: They do.

RUDIN: Yes. They all retired because the lines were really poorly drawn for them, and a lot of Democrats will benefit in California.

PETER: Yeah. But you're not addressing the problem I brought up. There is still only one party on the ballot in that district.

RUDIN: True.

CONAN: That is the result of the reform in your state by...

PETER: Right, right.

CONAN: But you had a lot of options back in the primary election, back in June.

PETER: That's right. But still, there's only one party...

RUDIN: In that district, yes...

PETER: ...on the ballot.

RUDIN: ...but if you look at the 52 seats in California, I think 50 of them are a Democrat - or 45 of them are a Democrat versus a Republican.

PETER: Yeah. But there's still only one party on the ballot.

RUDIN: In the 30th District, yeah.

CONAN: All right. Peter, we get the point.

PETER: All right. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

PETER: Thank you.

CONAN: And this is a reform - people talk about redistricting and talk about reforms designed to, well, take more partisanship out of politics. Some of the states are going to be looking at how this works out in California.

RUDIN: Exactly. And you know, I mean Arizona is also - I think there's a ballot on the Arizona ballot as well, an initiative on the ballot also calling for the same thing, a nonpartisan primary. I think the party activists don't like it, but the people who want more centrism in politics would prefer it.

CONAN: We're talking about the races that will decide who controls the House and Senate next year. What's the interesting House or Senate race where you live? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us here in Studio 3A, as he is every Wednesday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: Right now we're talking with Political Junkie Ken Rudin, a supersized edition two weeks before Election Day. Ken, we'll get back to talking about the House and Senate races in just a moment. But we have to remember the Democratic standard bearer from 1972, George McGovern, who passed away earlier this week.

RUDIN: Yes. You know, something - I mean if you think of conventions, he probably had one of the worst conventions in history. He was nominated - he accepted the nomination at 2:40 in the morning. He nominated Tom Eagleton as his running mate. That lasted 17 days. And of course he lost 49 states to Richard Nixon. But at the same time, he was just a big, a huge leader in the battle against the Vietnam War, and he upset the Democratic establishment to win that nomination.

CONAN: As you remember, that convention, all that time in the morning, remember the kind of rhetoric and the kind of planning that goes into these speeches aimed to get the biggest number of viewers, typically at about 10:00 Eastern Time, and this is what George McGovern sounded like at the end of his acceptance speech at 1972.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GEORGE MCGOVERN: So let us close on this note: May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home. And now is the time to meet that challenge. Good night, and Godspeed to you all.

CONAN: He sounded exhausted.

RUDIN: Yeah. I mean who watched it at 2:40 in the morning?

CONAN: Well, you and me, but...

RUDIN: Well - but we were in separate rooms.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: But anyway, the point is back then, you didn't have the 24 cable with the replays and everything. McGovern, you know, as I said, you know, on the war, on the Democratic Party establishment, he changed the Democratic Party, the rules a lot, but he certainly wasn't rewarded with anything in 1972.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to other callers. And this, of course, is Anne(ph). Anne's on the line with us from Lutsen in Minnesota.

ANNE: That would be Lutsen.

CONAN: Lutsen, forgive me.

ANNE: Hey, Ken. I would like to hear your comment about the congressional race here. Rick Nolan, who served in Congress 30 years ago, who's a Democrat, is trying to unseat a first-term incumbent Republican, Chip Cravaack, and he - Mr. Cravaack had unseated Jim Oberstar, who was a longtime congressman and head of the transportation committee. Anyway, I've heard that more money is being poured into this race than almost any other race in the country, and just like to hear what you have to say about it.

RUDIN: Well, Anne, that's a good question. I mean Chip Cravaack, of course, had no business beating Jim Oberstar, one of those Republicans who had no business winning in 2010, one of the big upsets. Rick Nolan, as you point out, left Congress in 1980. That's how long he's been out of Congress. I think he was a two-term congressman back there, and I think back then he represented a Minneapolis suburb. Now we're talking about northeastern Minnesota, which is a different district.

But having said that, this is a solid Democratic district. Oberstar had it since 1975. I think Cravaack is in big, big trouble. Rick Nolan may be more liberal than the district probably requires, but again, it's a Democratic seat. And I think Nolan wins it.

ANNE: OK.

CONAN: Anne, thanks very much.

ANNE: Thank you.

CONAN: Another email, this one from Minnesota in St. Paul. James emails: You asked about interesting races. Though the contest between Cravaack and Nolan is the one most in play, the most interesting one is between Michele Bachmann and Jim Graves. What makes it interesting is that Graves is a self-made millionaire, in some ways a model Republican, only he's a moderate Democrat. It's interesting to see how the Bachmann campaign is twisting around itself trying to cast Graves as a far-left liberal and big spender, though he's never held public office.

RUDIN: Right. And of course, his button, I should tell you, says I Dig Graves For Congress.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Michele Bachmann lost a lot...

CONAN: How would you know that?

RUDIN: Because I have the button. But Michele Bachmann lost a lot of friends by running for president, you know, and some people say ignoring her district. And it seems like Graves was on the air for much longer than Bachmann. She seems to have taken the race not as seriously as some Republicans advised her. I still think she wins, but it's going to be much closer than anybody thought.

CONAN: Let's if we can go next to - this is Edward. Edward with us from Greenfield in Massachusetts. Hi. You're on the air, Edward. Go ahead.

EDWARD: Yes. Scott Brown is running against Elizabeth Warren here, of course, and I don't know, but I saw Scott Brown on television at the Republican convention, the commentator - looked like he had been caught there. The expression I see looks fearful and like he had somehow wandered in. And he has spent a lot of time trying to get away from, I think, being a Republican. Just as Mitt Romney, when he was governor here, he talks about his bipartisanship. However, he had twice as many vetoes as Weld, who served before him. What will typically happen is he would, you know, veto something, line in a veto and then, of course, he would be overridden by the majority, I think 99 percent of the time with the Senate, almost that much with the House. So it wasn't bipartisan at all as much as him using his veto power. So that's my comments.

RUDIN: Well, obviously, in a state that President Obama is going to beat Mitt Romney by at least 30 points, you know, Scott Brown is not going to tout the fact that he's Republican, just as Jon Tester, the senator from Montana, is not going to talk about being a Democrat in a state that's obviously going to go big for Mitt Romney in Montana. So, obviously, Scott Brown, who is elected with Tea Party support - and, of course, he won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat - is going to have to run away from the Republican Party as much as he can and has been trying to do so.

I think an even more interesting race in Massachusetts is in the Sixth Congressional District, where John Tierney, who's been there for eight terms, his wife and her brother basically are involved in some kind of illegal gambling scheme, that while it doesn't touch Tierney, it has really hurt him. And this is a state that doesn't have any Republican member in the House. Richard, I think, Tisei is an openly gay Republican, who has been endorsed by the Boston Globe, has a real shot of winning that seat; pro-choice Republican in that Massachusetts district.

CONAN: And we're likely to see a Kennedy back in Congress.

RUDIN: That's right. It's the seat that Barney Frank is vacating. Joseph Kennedy XXII or whatever - I think it's the fourth. This is Joe Kennedy's son, Robert F. Kennedy's grandson, the late Robert Kennedy's grandson. So after a two-year absence, the Kennedy family returns to Congress.

CONAN: There's an email from Nathan in Battle Creek: My district has been a swing district for president, but solid blue in the congressional race for years until two years ago when Justin Amash won. I, myself, am a progressive Democrat, yet Mr. Amash uses social media so well that I feel I know him. That, plus his willingness to break from party lines on certain issues means I will vote to re-elect him over the weak Democratic opponent.

This is interesting. As you look at these races - and again, we're going to go race to race. But the Democrats have a long row to hoe to get 25 pick-ups to regain control of the House of Representatives.

RUDIN: They do. And part of the problem is that in a bunch of districts where they're retiring - there's a bunch of Democrats retiring in North Carolina, other states as well - a lot of them are conservative seats where the Republicans are likely to pick up. So for all the vulnerable Republicans out there, the Tea Party folks who were elected in mostly Democratic districts in 2010 or in the case of, like, some of them in Illinois where they redrew the lines to hurt the Republicans, they may go down, you know, like in Illinois as well. Other states will elect Republicans to the House, and that's what's keeping the Democrats from regaining control.

CONAN: Let's go next to Scott. Scott with us from Savannah, New York.

SCOTT: Good afternoon, gentlemen. I'm living in the middle of the Ann Marie Buerkle district. Ann Marie Buerkle and Dan Maffei are in a pretty fight. It's pretty much been a dead heat, I think, here based on the latest polls. And I'm kind of wondering on what your opinion is as to how the third-party Green candidate is going to impact that race. Ursula, I think - I forget her last name - but I think she's polling at maybe 5, 6, 7 percent.

RUDIN: Well, I don't think that - I understand that point very - this is the 24th District in New York, around Syracuse. And a lot of times, third-party candidates will get 5, 6, 7 percent in the polls weeks out. And then on Election Day, they maybe get only 1 or 2. But in a race that's supposed to be this close - two years ago when Ann Marie Buerkle was elected over Dan Maffei, she won by 648 votes. I mean, that's how close every race is. But with redistricting, the seat has been made a little more Democratic. She's probably the most vulnerable incumbent member of Congress of either party in New York State. She has a tough road ahead of her.

SCOTT: And I was curious of what you thought about those other New York races. We're not much fun to watch here in New York on the presidential end; everybody knows Barack Obama will take the state easily, but there are some other, I think, fairly tight congressional races in our state.

RUDIN: There are. And Kathy Hochul in the Buffalo suburbs is a Democrat who's elected in the special district. She has a tough opponent.

CONAN: Special election.

RUDIN: Special election, right. And Chris Collins, the former Erie County executive, is her Republican opponent. Kathy Hochul could go down, also Louise Slaughter, who's been around for a long time. She's 82 years old. She's probably slightly favored to win, but she's had health problems and it's a very conservative - ideologically conservative district. She could have a tough race as well.

SCOTT: OK, well, thank you.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much.

SCOTT: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Terry. Terry with us from Ogden, Utah.

TERRY: Yeah. Hi. We've got what I think is a really interesting race right here, where the Republican Party basically redistricted to get a Republican out of office. Jim Matheson is a little bit too center of the road, middle of the road for the right-wing Republicans nowadays. And they're redistricted to get him out of his safe, highly urban Salt Lake City area and get him out into some slightly more suburban where there's more conservatives. So he now has Love running against him, who's terribly right-wing conservative. And the race is interesting. The Love campaign and a lot of PACs helping her are trying to paint Matheson as some kind of radical, left-wing hippie whatever, you know, which the man is anything but. But it's just an example, I think, of how radically right the Republican Party as a whole has gotten, where they've got a solid Republican officeholder who is definitely not left-wing or liberal. And they redistricted and they're trying to get rid of him. I think it's crazy.

RUDIN: Well, one thing you're saying is a mistake. Jim Matheson is not a Republican. They are not trying to redistrict a Republican out of his job. Jim Matheson is a Democrat, a very conservative Democrat, but he's the only Democrat left in Utah. And Republicans...

CONAN: There may be one or two others.

RUDIN: Well, maybe...

TERRY: OK, OK, me - my mistake on that. Someone the other day said he was a Democrat. I never paid much attention to his party. I just watched what he did, and he seemed fairly conservative to me.

RUDIN: He's very...

TERRY: He must be a really conservative Democrat.

RUDIN: Well, he is very conservative, but the Republicans really want that seat. And what's fascinating about that race is Mia Love, a small town mayor, the Republican nominee, if she's elected, she'll be the first African-American female Republican ever elected to Congress. So that - and Utah, which is not known for sending African-American female Republicans to Congress.

CONAN: Terry, thanks very much.

TERRY: Either one - female or African-American, from this state.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.

TERRY: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Political Junkie Ken Rudin, as we do every Wednesday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Back to the Senate side, this email from Carol in Flagstaff: I'm interested to hear your take on Arizona's Senate race between Richard Carmona and Jeff Flake. We rarely get attention from Democratic candidates and supporters in this red state. But President Clinton just came to town to stump for Carmona, so the Democrats must feel there's a chance.

RUDIN: There is a chance, and of course, people forget that this is a seat that Jon Kyl is giving up. Even Jon Kyl, who's very popular the last time he ran, he only won with 53 percent. What's interesting about Richard Carmona - he's a former U.S. surgeon general under President Bush. He's Latino, even though he's Puerto Rican from the Bronx or Brooklyn, whatever - as if there's a difference between Brooklyn and the Bronx, right?

CONAN: There is.

RUDIN: Yeah, I know, as somebody from the Bronx would know. But he's also running a very, very good campaign. Jeff Flake is the Republican congressman, he should win. He probably has a slight lead. No Democrat has won that seat since Dennis DeConcini in 1988. Jeff Flake has battled with fellow Republicans over earmarks. It's a very - it's gotten very personal and nasty. The commercials are very negative. I just came back from there, and I just was watching the commercials nonstop. Flake should win, but again, if there's a Democratic late mini-tide, Carmona could pull ahead.

CONAN: Let's see, we go next to Lea. Lea with us from St. Louis.

LEA: Hi. Yeah, I'm out here in Claire McCaskill country, and you know what that race is all about. Now, Claire had to suspend campaigning because her mother is critically ill, but there's an article in today's Post-Dispatch about some previous arrests of Todd Akin that he has not previously disclosed. Apparently, trespassing and resisting arrest and there were some - there were actually some fairly serious charges according to this report in the paper. And I'm wondering if you think there's still time that that may influence the outcome of the election.

CONAN: As I understand, these were at demonstrations outside of abortion clinics.

RUDIN: That's my understanding too. Well, I think once Todd Akin made his comment about legitimate rape, all the Republican hopes of winning the seat seemed to go down the drain. Of course, there are a lot of Christian evangelical voters who love Todd Akin, who really want Claire McCaskill defeated. But I don't think he has the support or the money necessary. And McCaskill, again, was the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate, but the tragedy or the sad news that she's pulled away from this campaign trail, she still should win pretty handily.

CONAN: Lea, thanks very much.

LEA: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go to Isabella. Isabella with us from Morristown, Tennessee.

ISABELLA: Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi, there.

RUDIN: She's too happy.

ISABELLA: I'm just in my car, and I'm a little bit nervous that my service is going to cut out, so I'll try to say this very quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CHIMING)

CONAN: Hello?

ISABELLA: ...me?

CONAN: Yeah, you're still on.

ISABELLA: OK, great. OK, so in my state, in Tennessee, I have literally heard nothing about congressional and Senate elections. Now, I'm a Democrat. I come from a family that I would say we're all pretty politically up. We pay a lot of attention to the elections. We talk about it a lot. You know, we're very current. We know exactly what's going on in the political elections or in the presidential elections. We're always reading 538. But then it kind of hit me as I was listening to you guys that I have absolutely no idea what's going on in Tennessee. And I mostly see that as being probably because the Democrats don't even try here. Could that be the case? There was a big ta-da in town when the Republican headquarters opened up, and there was never, ever even kind of talk, I guess, of the Democrats even starting to open up headquarters here.

CONAN: Ken, there seem to be - I don't mean to cut you off, Isabella, but there seem to be more and more states where one party is in great disarray and the other barely fields any candidates at all.

RUDIN: And that's what's so...

ISABELLA: And the thing that I find most interesting about that is the fact that I live in an area where there has been a huge influx in the Latino population, and it continues to grow. And I feel like there's probably a lot of opportunity for them here, but they just really - maybe they haven't picked up on it, maybe I need to be the one to go and do it. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Maybe you should. Thanks very much.

RUDIN: And the irony is that the senator in Tennessee who's running this year, Bob Corker, the Republican, he barely - he won a very close race six years ago against Harold Ford Jr., that nasty race. But now, the Democratic nominee is a guy named Mark Clayton. He's a writer. Nobody has ever heard of him.

CONAN: He used to be a pretty good receiver for the Miami Dolphins.

RUDIN: That's right. But, I mean, but Bob Corker will win in a landslide and yet, I mean, six years ago, this was a toss - almost a toss-up seat.

CONAN: And other states like Maryland, for example, where Republicans used to be competitive, it's a, well, statewide, this is not a contest.

RUDIN: Well, Republicans haven't been competitive since Mac Mathias, who was senator...

CONAN: Well, there was a Republican governor then...

RUDIN: That's true and he lasted one term. Now, there are some states that once upon a time did have moderate Republicans, but then again, the United States used to have moderate Republicans, and as the Republican Party has moved further to the right, in certain states like Maryland, Connecticut, those kind of states, Maine, it's tougher to elect GOP candidates.

CONAN: We'll end with this comment from Conan in Ohio.

RUDIN: Conan?

CONAN: Conan, yes. I live in Cincinnati, wanted to comment on the race for Senate. The barrage of ads from incumbent Brown and challenger Mandel are nothing short of vicious, venomous vitriol, spewing back and forth between candidates. As both are elected officials, they should be ashamed of themselves. I do not personally watch their recent debates, and I've seen the lowlights, and let me say we should scratch both candidates and start over. That's another aspect of campaigning in this country in this election cycle.

RUDIN: And more and more candidates are complaining about the nastiness.

CONAN: Ken Rudin will be back with us next Wednesday, one week before Election Day, with Anna Greenberg and Vin Weber as we handicap, well, not just the presidential race but the House and Senate races as well. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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