Palin's Adieu And Kentucky Senate Seat

Political Junkie Ken Rudin rounds up the week, including Sarah Palin's farewell speech and Sen. Jim Bunning's (R-KY) decision not to run again. Al Cross, director of University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism, has insight on who may run for Bunning's seat.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Sotomayor takes another step toward the Supreme Court; a bitter Bunning bows out in Kentucky; and tomorrow, the president, the policeman, the professor and a few PBRs.

(Soundbite of beer can opening)

(Soundbite of beer being poured)

CONAN: It's Wednesday and time for another cool, refreshing visit with the Political Junkie.

Former President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Former Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad. Where's the beef?

Former Senator BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

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

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.

Former President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us, and as usual, there's a lot to talk about. Health care may stay on hold over the summer recess, a New Jersey mayor establishes a new record for least time in office prior to arrest, and Senators Dodd and Dorgan say: Lobbyists, what lobbyists?

A bit later, we'll check in on a few Senate races now clarified in Kentucky and boiling nicely elsewhere, plus the debate on Michael Vick's return to pro football. But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. As usual, we begin with a trivia question.

KEN RUDIN: Hello, Neal. Well, let's see. Republicans are saying that they have a good chance of winning Barack Obama's Senate seat next year and Joe Biden says, well - that's two states, Illinois and Delaware. That's the two states, by the way, where the two Democrats are not running for a full term, Ted Kaufman in Delaware, and Roland Burris in Illinois.

Okay, when was the last time the opposition party won either the Senate seat or the governor's seat of a newly elected president or a vice president?

CONAN: So if you think you know the last time a U.S. senator or governor was elected president or vice president, and his party proceeded to lose that Senate seat or state house in the next election, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. The first one with the correct answer will get a fabulous no-prize T-shirt.

RUDIN: I can't stop talking about it. It's just unbelievable.

CONAN: And then we have to begin - it was admitted today in a rally in North Carolina, President Obama says the House of Representatives and the Senate aren't going to vote on health care till September or October at the earliest.

RUDIN: Yes, but there is some news on that front, and that is in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Apparently, there is a deal between - among the Blue Dog Democrats, the fiscally conservative Democrats who have been saying that the health care bill is too expensive and it unfairly burdens small businesses. So a deal apparently has been reached with the small - the small Blue Dog Democrats, the very tall White House and the rest of the Democratic Party, and so there may be a vote on Friday.

Now, of course, there's also progress being made, as they say over and over again, in the Senate Finance Committee. That's the one that's led by Max Baucus of Montana, but Mike Enzi, one of the Republicans on the committee, say, you know, hold your horses.

CONAN: Not so fast.

RUDIN: Not so fast. So we'll wait to see what happens, but at least - but if nothing else, there will not be full Senate or House votes before the fall.

CONAN: So this is a huge political investment for the president. This is something, well, he really wants to get done.

RUDIN: It is, that's true. And his polling numbers are taking a beating because of it. Mara Liasson had a piece on this morning, the new NPR poll that showed that more people oppose the Barack Obama health care overhaul plan than support it. The president's numbers are dwindling, but of course, the only - people whose numbers are worse than Obama's are everybody else's, and that is Congress, especially, and especially the Republicans. So his numbers are still hurting, falling, and perhaps part of it is the health care bill. If they pass it, that could help his standing.

CONAN: But if they get a centrist bill, doesn't he risk losing some liberals on this?

RUDIN: The liberals have been complaining that the president is too willing to compromise. Unlike Lyndon Johnson, Barack Obama does not get involved in these negotiations. He's letting Congress do all the heavy lifting, and there's many liberals who say, no, the president should step forward. He still is really a relatively popular person, far more popular than anybody else, and for him to get involved now would be very good to push that agenda forward.

CONAN: Just a slight diversion, he stepped into the controversy over the professor who was arrested in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a couple of weeks ago, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sergeant Crowley. He's inviting those two men over to the White House to repair, but he had to step back from some remarks, where he said the police had acted stupidly.

RUDIN: Right. He did step back, but it was - actually, if you listen - if you think back to that press conference, that was the only real moment of it. The president obviously spoke about race from his heart, and while he did apologize for the wording he used, it brought up, you know, the issue of race.

And, I mean, to say that just because Barack Obama was elected president, race relations are fine and race is off the table is nonsense. And the fact is that this is something that people should be talking about. And it's a clear example of, again, of a black person going into his house and a white policeman and things like that.

So... I'm sorry, I just got a note here. So it's something that needs...

CONAN: Fan mail for some flounder?

RUDIN: ...to be talked about. That's wrong, by the way.

CONAN: That's good. In the meantime, when is a 13-to-7 vote, well, not as lopsided as it seems?

RUDIN: Well, that's the vote yesterday in the Senate Judiciary Committee for Sonia Sotomayor, who was approved, as expected, on that vote. Only one - all 12 Democrats voted for her and only one Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The rest of the Republicans on the committee voted against her, including people like John Cornyn. Of course, he's not up until 2014, but Texas is, like, 35 percent Hispanic. And Latino groups say that Republicans are voting against Sotomayor at their own peril.

But it's interesting to watch some of the Republicans who have announced opposition to Sotomayor for the vote, which is expected to be next Thursday. Kay Bailey Hutchison in Texas, who's running for governor next year, says she'll vote against Sotomayor. Charlie Crist, who's running for governor - I'm sorry, for the Senate in Florida next year, also said he'd vote against her. So maybe there's more pressure from conservatives in primaries than there are fear about retribution from Latino voters.

CONAN: And the NRA said it would score this vote. If you voted for Sotomayor, they would remember it.

RUDIN: And just to point out again, last time there was a Supreme Court nomination, Samuel Alito, the vote was 10 to 8 on strict party-line vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

CONAN: And we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to the trivia question. That's the last time a senator or a governor elected president or vice president, and their party proceeded to lose that seat in the next election, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And let's begin with George(ph), George with us from Norman, Oklahoma.

GEORGE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, George.

GEORGE: When Bill Clinton was elected president, his seat was lost by his incoming lieutenant governor, Jim Guy Tucker, who lost to Mike Huckabee.

RUDIN: Well, actually, Jim Guy Tucker won the next election. Jim Guy Tucker was elected over, I believe, Sheffield Nelson in the 1994 election, and then Huckabee beat Guy Tucker in the following election. So the first election was held by the Democrats.

GEORGE: All right.

CONAN: Nice try, George.

GEORGE: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Dmitri(ph), Dmitri In Manchester, New Hampshire.

DMITRI (Caller): Hi. Was it Lyndon Johnson?

CONAN: Lyndon Johnson, the senator from Texas, who was elected vice president.

RUDIN: Yes, Lyndon Johnson was elected vice president in 1960, and his Senate seat did go to a Republican the following year, John Tower. So it was a good answer, but it was not the last case that I'm looking for, but it's one of the cases but not the last one.

CONAN: Nice try. Very close, good idea. Let's go next to...

RUDIN: You know, my veins are very close. You know, I have very close veins.

(Soundbite of groan)

RUDIN: Sorry.

CONAN: Bob's(ph) with us from Sacramento.

BOB (Caller): Yeah, 1988, Dan Quayle?

CONAN: Dan Quayle in Indiana.

RUDIN: No. Dan Quayle's seat was kept by the Republicans. Dan Coats won that in a special election in 1990. So the Republicans kept Dan Quayle's Senate seat.

BOB: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, Bob, and let's go next to - this is Douglas(ph), Douglas in Rochester, New York.

DOUGLAS (Caller): Hi, 1992, William Frist, Republican, succeeded Al Gore.

RUDIN: Well, you have the right instance, but you have the wrong year. Al Gore's seat, when Al Gore was elected vice president in 1992, his seat was lost in 1994 to Fred Thompson, not Bill Frist, but it was - Tennessee Republicans did win Al Gore's Senate seat.

CONAN: So are you saying he gets the T-shirt?

RUDIN: He gets the T-shirt.

CONAN: All right, Douglas, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: It was the last case when a vice president's or governor's or president's seat was won by the opposite party.

CONAN: All right, Douglas, we're going to put you on hold, and you get a T-shirt in exchange for promising us a digital photograph we can put on our wall of shame.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much. In the meantime, of course, we have had one of the most recognized gubernatorial retirements in history. In Alaska, Sarah Palin has stepped down, and now the Sean Parnell era begins.

RUDIN: I can't begin - I am so excited about Sean Parnell. I can't believe it. And I'm very sad that you're not going to see Levi Johnston on "The Today Show" anymore.

You know, it's remarkable to watch Sarah Palin's career. It's like a meteor. Eleven months ago, she was a basically nationally unknown person selected by John McCain as his running mate. And for a while, she was going to save the Republican Party, but because of missteps, because of infighting within the Republican Party, and she did - you know, she was satirized. She didn't do well in interviews. A lot of people felt that she actually flamed out.

CONAN: And to have left office taking a few parting shots at her critics.

Former Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): We are facing tough challenges in America, with some seeming to just be hell bent, maybe, on tearing down our nation, perpetuating some pessimism and suggesting American apologetics, suggesting perhaps that our best days were yesterdays.

CONAN: And that's, I guess, a line borrowed from Ronald Reagan, but he sort of it put it the other way: It's morning in America.

RUDIN: Right. And I don't think he ever used the word apologetics. I don't think anybody has ever used the word apologetics.

CONAN: Well, she may be facing a wonderful career as a pundit, an observer. She may get her own talk show.

RUDIN: She'll make millions writing a book, that's for sure.

CONAN: But a lot of people say she will never get the nomination to be Republican president.

RUDIN: I'm one of those people. I don't see it happening.

CONAN: Let's talk about the corruption case in New Jersey, this a roundup of local officials that's also having some statewide impact.

RUDIN: Absolutely. Forty-four people were arrested last Thursday: three New Jersey mayors, two assemblymen, five rabbis. It sounds like the punch line of an Earl Butts(ph) joke, but what it does politically, it definitely hurts the re-election chances, already dicey to begin with, of Democratic Governor Jon Corzine.

One of the mayors, the mayor of Hoboken, Corzine was very close with. As a matter of fact, on July 1st, he attended his inauguration. They were good friends, and the perfect - Republicans have the perfect candidate, Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney who spent his whole career battling corruption.

His lieutenant governor is a former sheriff of Monmouth County, who also spent years battling corruption. This is a big issue. This is not unusual for New Jersey because we see corruption there so often. Over 150 mayors, lawmakers, have been arrested over the past decade in New Jersey. So it's not an unusual thing. Chris Christie, the Republican, could take advantage of that.

CONAN: And he's already got an ad out tying Corzine to corruption.

RUDIN: That's right, and even though Corzine personally has not been touched, one of his members of his administration, his community affairs commissioner, resigned after the federal agents raided his house. Corzine's in big trouble.

CONAN: All right, you're listening to the political junkie, Ken Rudin. Coming up, we'll look at what's going down in Kentucky and also at other Senate races around the country that are coming up soon and take your calls.

If you've got a Senate race shaping up where you live, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also stay in touch with us right here on the radio. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) I'll make you glad you got me in with everything I do. And I'll defend until the end the old red, white and blue. I want to grow up to be a politician and take over this beautiful land, and take over this beautiful land.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. It's Wednesday. We've got political junkie Ken Rudin with us. And of course, we're not the only ones addicted to politics. Some Senate races are already starting to bubble, especially in Kentucky, after incumbent Republican Jim Bunning announced that he will not seek a third term in 2010.

We want you to give us reports on the Senate races where you live. Are candidates already campaigning? Who looks good, who looks not so good? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now to talk about Senator Bunning's announcement and about the political prospects for his replacement is Al Cross, a long-time reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, now director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. He joins us from WUKY, our member station in Lexington. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. AL CROSS (Reporter, Louisville Courier-Journal; Director, Institute for Rural Journalism, University of Kentucky): Nice to be with you.

CONAN: And Jim Bunning was not at all bitter in his resignation statement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROSS: He was typical Bunning. He vented and made clear that he didn't appreciate the rub-out job done by Boss McConnell.

CONAN: And that's Mitch McConnell, who's the leader, the Republican leader in the Senate and, of course, his co-senator from the state of Kentucky. And it was hard to figure out whether Jim Bunning hated Republicans or Democrats more.

Mr. CROSS: Oh, at the moment, I think the Republicans he hates are Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, who's chairman of the Senate Republicans' Campaign Committee. He's definitely a Republican through and through and carries very little brief for any Democrat.

CONAN: Any socialist, as he would put it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROSS: Well, I don't think he'd go quite that far.

CONAN: Well, he did mention that the country was on the road down to socialism since he's not going to be there. Nevertheless, his problem was money or lack of same, not raising enough in his own state and complaining that he was not getting any help from his minority leader or, indeed, the Senate finance campaign chairman.

Mr. CROSS: That's true. McConnell, I think, took many steps to dry up Bunning's money, but we have to remember that Bunning did not really actively raise money in the first four years of this current term. And then all of a sudden says, hey, I'm going to run after all. And McConnell told him, I think, he had no business running, but he insisted on running, and so you had this rather bizarre situation of one Republican senator trying to oust another in the same state.

RUDIN: Hi, Al.

Mr. CROSS: Hi, Ken.

RUDIN: How are you? Bunning is 77 years old. Six years ago, or five years ago, when Bush was winning the state by 20 points, he barely got by. So he was always kind of in trouble from the beginning. Now, he's the sixth Republican to announce he's not running, but I think for Kentucky Republicans, this is a good thing, as opposed to some very popular senators who are retiring.

Mr. CROSS: Absolutely. There was great fear in the Republican Party that Bunning could not hold on to the seat. A lot of people said there was no way that he could. I actually think he saw a very narrow set of circumstances under which he could have won re-election, that is getting the nomination uncontested and Obama becoming quite unpopular. And this red state, essentially a red state, becoming more red and, you know, running against Obama and the Democrats.

You also had the prospect of a relatively liberal, in Kentucky terms, Democratic nominee, and you know, he could see this narrow set of circumstances that might give him the seat again. But I think he always realized that money was the bottom line. He said after he ran for governor in 1983, the only race he ever lost, that he would never get into another race in which he was not properly funded, and he sure wasn't properly funded this time.

RUDIN: But there's no guarantee that the establishment Republican choice, Trey Greyson, the secretary of state, will have an uncontested primary. Ron Paul's son is running against him.

Mr. CROSS: Yes, that is Rand Paul, a physician in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and he's expected to formally announce his candidacy next week. He, like Greyson, has been running an exploratory committee. You know, Greyson opened his exploratory committee at the behest of Bunning, but I think it kind of went farther than Bunning imagined. Bunning didn't endorse Greyson when he announced out.

CONAN: And who's going to run on the Democratic side, do you think?

Mr. CROSS: Well, you have Daniel Mongiardo, the lieutenant governor, who was a state senator when he almost beat Bunning in 2004. I should say when Bunning almost beat himself with a series of gaffes and odd behaviors. And you have the attorney general, Jack Conway, who ran for the 3rd district congressional seat against Anne Northup in 2002, and has made himself the frontrunner with very strong fundraising and endorsements. He's a very appealing candidate. Folks inside the beltway like him a lot. Mongiardo will try to cast him as a candidate of the Louisville liberal elite.

CONAN: And does any early polling suggest who might have an advantage?

Mr. CROSS: Early polling suggests that Conway has a very slight advantage.

CONAN: And on the Republican side?

Mr. CROSS: No polls I've seen on the Republican side. Greyson has won election twice now, statewide, but secretary of state's a relatively minor office, and Rand Paul, I think, will put Greyson to the test in terms of dealing with the major issues that senators have to face.

CONAN: And is he, like his father, also - is he a Libertarian streak in him like his dad?

Mr. CROSS: Very much like his father, although he says they differ on a number of things. He hasn't laid that out yet. He's basically been waiting, I think, for Bunning to get out and the race to shape up.

CONAN: Well, Al Cross, thanks for your time.

Mr. CROSS: Glad to be with you.

CONAN: Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky, a former reporter with the Louisville Courier-Journal and with us today from studios of WUKY in Lexington, Kentucky, and we're getting some callers on the line.

If you'd like to know about some of the other races shaping up around the country, Senate races, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And let's go to David(ph), David calling us from Guilford, Connecticut.

DAVID (Caller): Hello, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to mention that I think that although Chris Dodd is in for a little bit of a fight here, and folks have made missteps along the way, and Ken Rudin referred to those with Sarah Palin, I think in these very challenging times, people are looking for intelligence and experience, and that, at the end of the day, will win out.

CONAN: Chris Dodd, the senator from Connecticut, of course had a triumph this year with anti-smoking legislation but also tied to sweetheart mortgage. That's a stain, Ken, that's he's had a hard time shaking off.

RUDIN: Right, and what made it worse this week is that somebody, a former official of Countrywide Financial Corporation, said that Chris Dodd knew he was getting a sweetheart mortgage deal from Countrywide. He saved thousands of dollars. Now, Dodd denies it. Dodd says, I've never spoken to this guy, I don't know anything about it, but there's a new poll that came out in Connecticut that shows - only one third of people in Connecticut say that Dodd is honest and trustworthy. And that's pretty bad for somebody who's been in office, in the Senate, since 1981.

CONAN: By the way, I misspoke earlier. The other senator tied to that is Kent Conrad, also an FOA or friend of Al, the official from Countrywide, and got what he said he did not know at the time was a sweetheart deal. David, who's going to be running against him on the Republican side? It seems like every Republican in the state of Connecticut is lining up to run against Chris Dodd. I think David's left us, but anyway, that's - Ken?

RUDIN: It's former Congressman Rob Simmons, who lost his seat in 2006, but he seems to be very popular, former FBI agent. Now, he doesn't have a clear shot to the primary. Tom Foley, who is a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, is also running in the Republican primary, but it looks like Rob Simmons will be the nominee. And he's leading Dodd in all the polls, and again, next year is a long time away, but Dodd's numbers are surprisingly weak for a long-time incumbent.

CONAN: Dan(ph) emails he'd love to hear some analysis of the Ohio Senate race.

RUDIN: Well, that's the one where George Voinovich is retiring, and it looks like the Republican Party has united behind Rob Portman, the former congressman, the former Bush trade representative.

CONAN: And close ally of George W. Bush.

RUDIN: And that's what the Democrats are going to run against Portman, that he's part of the Bush economic disaster, as it turned out. But the Republicans have - the Democrats have a big fight among themselves. They had - the secretary of state is running, and the lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher, is running, and they seem to be beating each other up. Right now, it's probably a toss-up race, but the Republicans do have a decent shot…

CONAN: A toss-up in Ohio? How unusual.

RUDIN: Obviously, but the Republicans have not been doing well in Ohio for two cycles, and they have a good shot of keeping the seat.

CONAN: Let's go next to Dave(ph), Dave on the line from Salt Lake City.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. Bob Bennett is the incumbent. He's a Republican, and he's being challenged by Mark Shurtleff, who is the state attorney general.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: This is Bob Bennett in Utah? Is that what you're saying?

CONAN: Yes.

RUDIN: Yes, well, the - now this is interesting. This will be - no matter who wins this primary or convention as they have in Utah, the Republicans will keep the seat. Bob Bennett is very conservative, but as we've seen with other officials in Utah, not conservative enough for some Republicans there. So he's going to have a tough battle for re-nomination for a third term, I guess a third term or so, in Utah next year.

The Republicans will seat, but he is in danger of losing the nomination. We saw Congressman Chris Cannon in 2008 losing to a more conservative - and Chris Cannon was very conservative, but he lost to even more conservative challenger for Congress in 2008.

DAVE: Well, I - you say he may lose the seat, and I would say maybe.

RUDIN: Maybe, yeah.

DAVE: You got Jim Matheson, who is our second congressional district congressman, who may decide to run against him. And, yes, we're red state, but we're not as red as we used to be. Salt Lake County, which is the largest county in the state, with a population of a million voted for Obama. And that hasn't happened since 1964.

RUDIN: That's true. But at the same time, Democrats haven't elected a senator in Utah since 1970. So you do have history on both sides of it. But it would be very interesting to see what happens. I still suspect Republicans keep the seat.

DAVE: You're probably right.

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much for the call.

DAVE: Okay, bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Andy - Andy with us from Miami.

ANDY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. In Florida, we have a pretty interesting situation. Senator Mel Martinez has announced that he is not running again for his seat. And it looked like the interesting race would be between U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek, who's an African-American, comes from a long line of families. His mother was a pioneer in South Florida politics, who was going to run against Dan Gelber, who I know well personally. He's probably one of the most -smartest, honest people and knowledgeable about the state of Florida. He really should be a governor one day.

So, anyway, then our Republican governor, Charlie Crist, decides that he's going to run for the Senate seat. And now, in Florida, the cabinet are all elected positions, and everyone in the cabinet is now running for a different seat.

CONAN: Sounds like a game of 52 card pick-up.

ANDY: It's one of those puzzles where you'd pull one piece out and everything kind of slides up one over one and you got to get all the numbers in order. So, like - love to hear you comments.

RUDIN: Well, Charlie Crist has been anointed by the establishment, Republicans certainly - Republicans in Washington. John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Mitch McConnell and others have all backed Charlie Crist. But there are many conservatives in Florida and elsewhere who say that Crist is hardly a conservative. And now, if they call him - some people call him a RINO, Republican name only. And Marco Rubio is running as a conservative alternative to Crist.

Now, Crist has raised a ton of money. I still think Crist wins the primary and perhaps is elected to replace Martinez. But we'll be - it's very strong among conservatives and could damage him for the fall.

Now, Kendrick Meek, the African-American congressman, also has a challenger in the Democratic primary. He is not assured of the nomination either. So both parties have spirited challenges. I still think the Republicans hold the seat.

ANDY: Yeah, I would agree with you. Crist is very formidable and I think he's the right Republican. Sorry about the use of the phrase right. He's the correct Republican in this election to win. I don't know if in Florida, there's enough of that right-wing conservative voters to have Rubio edge out Crist.

And Crist is a bit enigmatic. I mean, I didn't vote for him. I'm more on the Democratic side. And - but he's done a lot of things in the state that are right down the line, right in the mainstream, very much in the environmental area. I'd have to agree to with your call.

CONAN: All right, Andy. Thanks very much.

ANDY: Thank you.

CONAN: Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from Randall(ph) in Arizona. Have you heard anything about a challenge to John McCain from the right?

RUDIN: Yes. There's an announcement, and I can't remember the person's name. But there is somebody from the Minutemen who said that he would challenge McCain mostly on immigration issues. McCain has been always -you know, there's always been a threat of a challenge from McCain from the - from more conservatives. I suspect McCain wins the primary handedly. And I see no leading Democrat who's come forward to challenge McCain.

CONAN: Let's go to Derrick(ph) in St. Joe, Missouri.

DERRICK (Caller): Yeah. I was actually calling about the Missouri Senate race coming up with the secretary of state, Robin Carnahan. And I believe she is going against Blunt.

RUDIN: That is correct. And I think that, perhaps, may be the best shot, the strongest shot right now for a Democratic pick up in the Senate.

Robin Carnahan is a perfect candidate. Obviously, the daughter of the late Mel Carnahan and Jean Carnahan, who's briefly succeeded Mel Carnahan after Mel Carnahan posthumously was elected to the Senate. She's very popular, elected statewide. Mel Blunt - I'm sorry, Mel Blunt, the…

CONAN: The former quarterback, yes.

RUDIN: Pittsburgh Steelers, right. Roy Blunt is the father of former Governor Blunt in Missouri who was not popular. Republicans have been taking a beating in Missouri.

I think Carnahan has the lead at this point, but Blunt has been raising more and more money than he had in the first quarter. His numbers have been picking up.

CONAN: Thanks, Derrick.

DERRICK: You bet.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Shannon(ph). Shannon with us from Wichita.

SHANNON (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

SHANNON: Hi. I was calling about the Senate race between, right now, Republicans Ted Tiahrt and Jerry Moran, current congressman from the state. So far, no Democrats have lined up to run against them. There was a thought Kathleen Sebelius would, but that was before she was named Health and Human Services secretary.

RUDIN: Yeah. I'm not sure why Democrats are not running in that seat because they do very well in Kansas Senate races. The last Democrat was - to win was 1932.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: I - but I think you're absolutely right. The battle is in the Republican primary between two congressmen, Moran and Tiahrt. I think Moran wins. I think he has better polling numbers, represents a bigger part of the state. But it's getting ugly and it's getting personal.

CONAN: Shannon, thanks very much.

SHANNON: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go to Diane(ph). Diane from Allentown - in Pennsylvania.

DIANE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DIANE: It's interesting here in Pennsylvania because we, of course, have Arlen Specter who left the Republican Party to run as a Democrat. And now, we have Joe Sestak who - I don't know if he's announced it or not, maybe Ken knows. But I think that race should be interesting between him and Specter for the primary.

RUDIN: It is. And it's a very - what's fascinating to me is that somebody just came out with a study that showed that Arlen Specter backed the Republican line about 42 percent when he was a Republican. When he switched parties, it was 68 - 62 percent Democratic. And then since Joe Sestak announced that he's probably going to run against them, Arlen Specter's now been voting 97 percent on the Democratic side. So…

CONAN: Has the White House weighed in on this one as they did in New York?

RUDIN: Yes, the White House is certainly backing Arlen Specter as is Governor Rendell. But Sestak remembers the fact that, you know, all the Arlen Specter histories of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, when he strongly criticized Anita Hill's veracity, a lot of Democrats have not forgotten that.

And there was a new poll that just came out that Pat Toomey, the conservative former congressman on the Republican side, is running almost even with Specter, which shows that a lot of Democrats are souring on Arlen Specter. It'd be very fascinating if Sestak does go through the primary challenge and can beat them.

CONAN: Diane, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

DIANE: You're welcome.

CONAN: And, Ken Rudin, as always, thanks for your time today.

RUDIN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Ken Rudin joins us every Wednesday here in studio 3A with our Political Junkie segment. He also writes the Political Junkie blog, and you can read that at npr.org.

Coming up next, we're going to be talking with Dave Zirin, the sportswriter for the Nation. Michael Vick is out of prison. Should he get another chance to play quarterback in the National Football League?

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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