Ark. Candidates For Senate Look To May Vote

Guests

Ken Rudin, political editor, NPR
Mike Thompson, news director, WOSU
Bill Halter, Lieutenant Gov., Ark.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-AR

On May 18th, voters will go to the polls in Ark. Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln faces a primary challenge from Bill Halter, the state's lieutenant governor. As voters gear up for primaries around the country, the candidates for the Ark. Democratic nomination share their top issues.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

April showers bring May primaries and plenty of them. The world champs visit the White House and Carl Levin reminds Goldman Sachs execs what earned them an invitation to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): God what a (BEEP) deal.

CONAN: It's Wednesday and time for a pinstriped edition of 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. Wheres the beef?

Former Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Former Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

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

Former Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But Im the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us to talk politics. The DNC goes after Mitt Romney. The president asks his supporters to go back to the polls. Time ticks away if Florida Governor Charlie Crist plans to run as an independent.

Later this hour, a primary review from Ohio, and Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln and her Democratic challenger, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, will join us. Plus, the Senate do-se-do over immigration, climate change and financial regulation.

Political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A, as he does every Wednesday. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And of course, we usually start with a trivia question.

RUDIN: Well, the big news of the week, of course, actually the big news of the year is the fact that the world champion New York Yankees visited the White House this week.

CONAN: Was that world champion?

RUDIN: It was. It was the first time since 2000.

CONAN: Twenty-seven...

RUDIN: It was the 27th round. As a matter, it was the first they haven't won the World Series since November 4 of 2009. I want to point that out.

CONAN: Okay, well.

RUDIN: But anyway, okay, so it's the perfect complement of sports and politics, which leads to this week's trivia question. Who were the last two Hall-of-Famers or most valuable players and you have to name both who ran for president?

CONAN: Baseball or any sport?

RUDIN: Any sport.

CONAN: Any big...

RUDIN: But you have to be a Hall-of-Famer or a most valuable player, and you need to, you have to have both.

CONAN: So if you think you know the last two Hall-of-Famers or most valuable players in some big-time professional sport who ran for president, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

RUDIN: Oh, I'm sorry, I should also I want to point out, Neal just gave me a clue.

CONAN: That was a cue.

RUDIN: A cue, that's true, that both Neal Conan and I will be at Camden Yards tonight, watching the world champion Yankees play the Orioles, and we will be giving autographs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah, both people who come up to us. Anyway, Ken, we're talking about these primaries, and Indiana I guess comes up first, along with a couple of other states.

RUDIN: Right, Tuesday, it starts off, basically we had some big ones in April, I mean, in February. We had Texas. We had March, we had we had Illinois, and we had Texas. We had nothing in April, but they come back in May.

On Tuesday, we have Indiana, North Carolina, the big one is in Indiana. It's for the Senate seat given up by Evan Bayh. And the big one is the Republican primary - Dan Coats, the former senator, is facing a bunch of Republicans, including former Congressman John Hostettler. The Democrat will be Congressman Brad Ellsworth.

In North Carolina, it's for the Senate seat by Richard Burr, Republican Richard Burr, has held for a year. It's a three-way Democratic race. Ken Lewis, African-American candidate, Elaine Marshall the secretary of state and Cal Cunningham, former Iraq war veteran who a lot of folks in Washington would like to see be the nominee.

CONAN: And then against Burr in the general election. Is that a duel?

RUDIN: Burr versus right.

CONAN: We're going to do Ohio later in the program. We're going to skip over Ohio. Then we go to Tuesday, May 11th.

RUDIN: And that's Nebraska and West Virginia, and let announce here nobody cares about no, that's not true, of course.

CONAN: Oh, come on.

RUDIN: But there are no major Senate primaries. Governor Heineman in Nebraska is running again. No big story in West Virginia. But then on the 18th, that's the big primary day in the month. Arkansas, so you have primaries in both parties, including Blanche Lincoln, Senator Blanche Lincoln, two-term Democrat against Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter.

CONAN: They will be with us later in the program.

RUDIN: Very exciting. And Kentucky, primaries in both states for the seat that Jim Bunning, Senator Jim Bunning is giving up. Trey Grayson is the secretary of state, backed by, basically, the Republican establishment in Kentucky, against Rand Paul, the son of Ron Paul; an ophthalmologist first-time candidate but a very, very fierce battles going on there. And also, on the Democratic side, Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway are running for the Democratic nomination.

CONAN: In the Arkansas primary, by the way, we should mention there is a Republican primary, as well, where Congressman John Boozman thought to have a commanding lead over seven challengers.

RUDIN: Right. One of them is Gilbert Baker. But all the attention seems to be on the Democratic primary in Arkansas. And then, of course, also on May 18th in Pennsylvania, you have Arlen Specter, who by the way one year ago today.

CONAN: One year ago today.

RUDIN: Switched to the Democratic Party. He's facing a primary challenge from Joe Sestak, a congressman, and the winner will face Republican Pat Toomey in November. It's also the day of the special election in Pennsylvania's 12th district, the one that John Murtha, where he passed away, and both parties would love to win that one.

And four days later in Hawaii, there's another special election for the seat Neil Abercrombie is giving up to run for governor, and Republicans would love to win that one, as well.

CONAN: Phew, all right. So lots of political news, actual votes to be counted in the coming weeks.

RUDIN: Real votes.

CONAN: In any case, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, which is the last two members of a Hall of Fame or most valuable player in a big-time professional sports league to and you have to know both of them to run for president of the United States, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Brad(ph) is on the line, Brad calling from Boise.

BRAD (Caller): Hi, my guest is Gerald Ford and Jack Kemp.

CONAN: Gerald Ford I don't believe ever played professional football.

RUDIN: He never did, and he was of course college, played at I guess at Michigan.

CONAN: Yes, team captain or said to be perhaps the greatest athlete ever to stumble down the steps of Air Force One.

RUDIN: And also chewing gum at the same time. But that is not the correct answer. We need both correct answers.

CONAN: Nice try, Brad.

BRAD: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to this is another Brad(ph), this one calling from Hamilton, Indiana.

BRAD (Caller): Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley.

RUDIN: That is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: Bill Bradley was a basketball Hall-of-Famer for the New York Knicks, and of course, he ran for president again Al Gore in 2000 - lost Iowa and New Hampshire, and that was the end of Bill Bradley. And Jack Kemp...

CONAN: He's still around.

RUDIN: Well, politically, anyway. And Jack Kemp, of course, was the most valuable player of the AFL back in 1965. He ran for president in 1988. That is the correct answer, Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Brad. So we're going to put you on hold and you will of course be the grateful recipient of a fabulous no-prize T-shirt in exchange for a promise to take a digital photograph of yourself and email it to us so we can put it on our wall of shame.

PAUL: Will do. I checked it out this week, Ken's wall of shame. I want to be on there.

CONAN: Well, you'll be there as soon as you send us that picture. Hang on. All right, Brad in Hamilton, Indiana, our latest winner. But there's plenty of other political news to go through.

Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida, once thought to be a shoo-in for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, well, tomorrow may be his big day.

RUDIN: Well, the deadline is Friday. He has to announce by Friday, April 30th, whether he will stay in the Republican primary in Florida for the Senate seat, for a vacancy in the Senate seat and run against Marco Rubio, and all polls show him losing by 20 points or more. Or he can drop out and run as an independent.

Now, what Arlen Specter did in Pennsylvania I'm sorry, what Joe Lieberman did in Connecticut, was he lost the primary and then decided to run as an independent. You cannot do that in Florida. Crist has to decide whether to stay as a Republican and run or drop out and run as an independent or drop out altogether.

CONAN: And all the indications are he's going to be an independent.

RUDIN: Yes, it looks like that. He's going to make the announcement we think 5 o'clock PM Eastern time tomorrow in St. Petersburg, and we should know by then. But it looks like and of course, Vice President Cheney, who endorsed Rubio last week, gave, you know - he ripped Charlie Crist, said he can't be trusted, he's a typical one of those Republicans who can't be trusted. And a lot of conservatives really have it in for Charlie Crist. And perhaps if Charlie Crist announces tomorrow, as an independent, he'll have it in for conservative Republicans.

CONAN: There is, in the meantime, we are mentioning all the races that are coming up on primaries, but the immigration debate continues to get hotter around the country. We did a show on this on Monday, here on TALK OF THE NATION with special guest Ken Rudin.

RUDIN: Yeah, it was a great show.

CONAN: It was a great show. In any case, here is a cut of tape from Alabama, where Tim James, a Republican candidate for governor, released this ad.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TIM JAMES (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate): Why do our politicians make us give driver's license exams in 12 languages? This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it. We're only giving that test in English if I'm governor.

CONAN: Actually, it turns out to be, if you include American Sign Language, 14 languages they give it in in Alabama.

RUDIN: There is a lot going on since that Alabama legislature passed, this pretty severe, I mean, it's fair to say, it's certainly a very strict immigration bill that Governor Jan Brewer signed over the weekend. And it is rural politics around the country, but for all the criticism and there is a lot of criticism directed at Arizona it also points out that the U.S. Congress has yet to do anything about this.

They tried and failed in 2007. They have done nothing since, and basically they pushed it aside. Republicans had their chance, George Bush, John McCain, Chamber of Commerce, they all tried to make something happen when they lost their majority and the White House. The President Obama said we'll make this a top priority. They, too, had divisions in the Democratic Party.

But what seems to have happened this week, in the last week or so, in Arizona, is that it seems to have wakened up a lot of people, especially in Washington, who may finally be doing something about this issue, and it's a serious issue.

CONAN: And we're going to focus more on what's happening in the U.S. Senate and the do-se-do over who goes first, the immigration bill or the energy bill, and what's going on with all of that third vote, in the last seven days, to not go ahead with debate on the...

RUDIN: Financial deregulation.

CONAN: Financial deregulation. So more on that a little bit later in the program. But did we mention that the New York Yankees happened to visit the White House this week?

President BARACK OBAMA: It will be up to each of you to make sure that the young people, African-American...

CONAN: And I'm sorry, we hit the wrong cut. I think I miscued the wrong cut.

RUDIN: You just heard Alex Rodriguez run across the pitcher's mound there.

CONAN: And I apologize. I cued the wrong cut. We wanted cut five.

President OBAMA: For a White Sox fan like me, it's painful...

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: ...to watch Mariano's cutter when it's against my team or to see the Yankees wrap up the pennant while the Sox are struggling on the South Side. Although I do remember 2005, people, so don't get to comfortable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And of course, the suggestion that what the financial regulation deal needs is Mariano Rivera to close the deal.

RUDIN: He is something, and you know something, whatever you think about the Yankees, and Neal and I have our own private opinions, which we don't express...

CONAN: Ever.

RUDIN: ...on this broadcast, but well, look, it's still baseball. It's still America's pastime, and we still see that any team, including the Boston Red Sox, can win this thing.

CONAN: Every once in a while.

RUDIN: They do.

CONAN: Twice, in fact, in recent years. But this tradition, though, of welcoming the great sports teams, as they capture championships, to the White House, this has been going on since the 1920s, right?

RUDIN: It has. I think for a long time, it didn't go on. But for a long time, you always see the old pictures, of course, of not only the president throwing out the first ball - I think it was William Howard Taft who threw out the first ball - but they also had, back in the 1920s, the old baseball heroes, World Series winners or other sports luminaries visiting the White House. It's a great tradition.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, our political junkie, is with us. He is going to stay with us for the remainder of the hour. In a few minutes, Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and her opponent in next month's Democratic primary there, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, we'll talk to them both.

If you'd like to ask them a question, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll also go to Ohio and talk about the primaries there and the latest games of chicken in Washington: immigration, financial reform and climate change all coming up. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

It's Wednesday and Ken Rudin is back. Read his Political Junkie blog, download his podcast at NPR.org. You can also go there to solve the ScuttleButton puzzle. We're going to turn to Arkansas in a moment. If you'd like to talk to the candidates for U.S. Senate nomination, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

But first, coming up next week on Tuesday, May 4th, is a primary in that state. Republican Senator George Voinovich will retire. Former Congressman Rob Portman has a lock on the Republican nomination. So we're going to talk about the Ohio Democrats.

Joining us is Mike Thompson, news director for WOSU, our member station in Columbus, Ohio. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION with us today.

Mr. MIKE THOMPSON (News Director, WOSU): Great to be here. Thank, Neal.

CONAN: And the race in the Democratic side between Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes, it's been, frankly, kind of a snoozer. We all thought this was going to be a real barnburner of a primary, two very well-known Democrats, both statewide officeholders, but it's been a pretty tame primary as far as any kind of war of words between these two candidates. They've been pretty nice to each other, not speaking ill of each other too much.

Part of the reason for that is that Lee Fisher has a lot more money than Jennifer Brunner has, and I think if she had some more money to spend on TV ads, it might be a little nastier, but it's been a pretty tame race so far.

CONAN: You say both well-known names, statewide election, but nevertheless name recognition seems to be both of their big problem.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, Lee Fisher has been around a while. He's run for governor and lost. He was secretary of state for a while, and of course lieutenant governor. Jennifer Brunner won the secretary of state's race back in 2006.

So they both have, you know, fairly good name recognition, and so it's just Fisher is the establishment candidate, so to speak, where Jennifer Brunner is running as the independent voice, the courageous voice, is what her claim is.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Mike, you say it's a snoozer because they're not fighting with each other, but of course you could have an exciting race and they don't attack each other. Are there major differences between Fisher and Brunner? I mean, what's the...

Mr. THOMPSON: Not really.

RUDIN: No.

Mr. THOMPSON: No, I mean, as far as, like, things like foreign policy and health care reform, immigration reform and financial reforms on Wall Street, not a whole lot of difference there. They differed a little bit on gay marriage. Lee Fisher has changed his position from supporting only civil unions to now fully supporting gay marriage. Jennifer Brunner has supported gay marriage, legalizing gay marriage from the get-go.

They've sort of had some spats over contributors and things like that and over, you know, unfairness among the party establishment and the rules and endorsements, but all kind of inside-baseball stuff for the voters.

RUDIN: So perhaps maybe the issue may be looking ahead towards November and whether the voters blame George Bush and the Republicans, and if they do, Rob Portman, the Republican, could take some heat because he was Bush's trade guy. Or you blame Governor Strickland, the Democrat, and they run against the Democrats for that.

CONAN: That's exactly what this is going to be, is who gets the blame. Lee Fisher is running ads blaming Bush administration policies. Of course Rob Portman was in the Bush administration. And the Republicans, Kasich and Portman, are blaming the last four years of Ted Strickland and Lee Fisher.

The bottom line is, Ohio has lost, in those four years, 435,000 jobs. So who gets the blame for that loss? Also, Ted Strickland is blaming Wall Street. John Kasich used to work for Lehman Brothers, and that's going to be the tack in November.

I should mention there's a poll out today. Quinnipiac University shows Lee Fisher widening his lead over Jennifer Brunner. It's up to 17 points right now.

RUDIN: And when you mention John Kasich, he's the former congressman who will be the Republican nominee for governor against Strickland.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes.

CONAN: And you have to remind us too - in the last two election cycles, it's been like a complete turnover in Ohio, which used to be owned by the Republican Party.

Mr. THOMPSON: In 2006, some scandals affecting then-Governor Bob Taft and Congressman Bob Nay(ph), the former congressman who's recently gotten out of prison, swept Democrats into office. Ted Strickland won. The Democrats won all the statewide executive posts except for one back in 2006, and now, because of the economy largely, they're in trouble of losing them all.

CONAN: And as you look ahead to I don't know if we can say at this point which of the Democrats might be the victor, though Mr. Fisher, as you say, has a pretty good lead at the moment, nevertheless against Rob Portman, who is a well-practiced and polished campaigner.

Mr. THOMPSON: Very well-liked around the state. It's hard to find anybody who does not like him personally. He has raised a lot of money. He right now has raised about twice as much as Lee Fisher has, seven and a half million to about three, almost four million for Lee Fisher. So it's going to be a pretty interesting race to watch come Wednesday morning on.

CONAN: All right, well, thanks very much. Mike Thompson, appreciate it.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thanks.

CONAN: Mike Thompson, news director for WOSU, out member station in Columbus, Ohio, with us today from a studio there, and always nice to have you with us on the program.

And coming up in a few minutes, we're going to be going to the two Democratic leaders in the race to the domination for U.S. Senate. We're going to be talking with Bill Halter, now lieutenant governor, and Blanche Lincoln, now the incumbent U.S. senator. We'd like to hear from those of you who would be interested in talking to them, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org.

Meanwhile, a couple of things we haven't gotten to, Ken, and that includes in the state of Illinois where the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in a little bit of financial difficulty, at least his family is.

RUDIN: It's not a surprise, and this is what has been getting the Democrats nervous from the beginning. Alexi Giannoulias, who is the state treasurer, his family has owned the Broadway Bank in Illinois that went belly-up. The FDIC seized it last week. It was just completely closed.

But Giannoulias has been warning everybody all along that my bank is in trouble, but it's part of the economy. It's you know, it's part of mom-and-pop problems around the country. But what the Republicans are insisting, and they may have a good argument here, is that the bank has given out some very risky, questionable loans to people of organized crime.

There was a famous loan to Michael Jaws Giorango, who was a child prostitution ring operator. I mean, this is the kind of thing that the Republicans are going to capitalize on, not so much that the bank failed...

CONAN: How did he get past the loan office with a middle name of Jaws?

RUDIN: That's, I think, one of the question. I think you hear that music with, you know, the music from the 1976 movie in the background. But clearly - this is Barack Obama's Senate seat, of course now held by Roland Burris. It would be very embarrassing for the president to lose this, plus the fact that you have the specter of Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial starting in June. The Democrats are not looking that well right this moment in Illinois, a state where - has been looking very blue in the last couple years.

CONAN: And Rod Blagojevich, speaking of his was Rahm Emanuel sounded disappointed not to have been subpoenaed to testify at this trial?

RUDIN: He's too busy running for governor of Chicago, right.

CONAN: Mayor of Chicago.

RUDIN: Mayor of Chicago, right. Rahm Emanuel has not been subpoenaed, but Dick Durbin, the senior senator of Illinois, has, and he says he will appear if he's required to do so. Of course, President Obama - the Blagojevich people are trying to subpoena President Obama. The president might perhaps file a deposition or something.

But this is all regarding what Blagojevich asked for and talked to about filling the vacant Senate seat after President Obama was elected president.

CONAN: And we'll get to Arkansas in just a moment, but we have to note the passing of Willard Wirtz, a name most of you may not remember, but the last living member of John F. Kennedy's Cabinet.

RUDIN: He was. He was the undersecretary of Labor when Arthur Goldberg, secretary of Labor, was named to the Supreme Court in 1962, and a few weeks ago, Stewart Udall, who was secretary of the Interior, I believe, under President Kennedy, he died a few weeks ago. Willard Wirtz, secretary of Labor under Kennedy, later Johnson, died last week. He was the last surviving member of the Kennedy Cabinet. I believe he was 98 years old.

CONAN: All right. Ken Rudin, stay with us. Joining us now on the phone is Bill Halter, the lieutenant governor of Arkansas, running to replace Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln as the nominee of the party for the U.S. Senate seat.

And Lieutenant Governor, nice to have you with us on the program today.

Lieutenant Governor BILL HALTER (Democrat, Arkansas): Good afternoon, fellas.

CONAN: And what distinguishes you from the incumbent? Why are you running?

Lt. Gov. HALTER: Well, I'm working here to put Washington back on the side of middle-class families, and unfortunately, as I go around the state, there's a lot of frustration with the incumbent, a belief that she has not been decisive on issues that are important to Arkansans, a belief on many issues that in fact she's sided with special interests rather that middle-class Arkansas families.

I was out yesterday in East Arkansas, in the delta region, meeting with folks, and frankly, county judges are endorsing me and have said that she's disconnected, not responsive to them. And the fact is here, there are serious issues and serious differences between us.

She voted for a Wall Street bailout bill, and Arkansans are extraordinarily frustrated with that, especially as they see tens of billions of dollars of bonus payments being made to Wall Street executives, and they also see the reports that the bailed-out banks in fact have lent less and paid their executives more than banks that were not bailed out.

So there's a whole host of issues that we've debated. I asked Senator Lincoln, in fact, to give back her contributions from Goldman Sachs. She refused to do that, finally gave back some of the contributions yesterday. We have asked her in fact to give back all of the contributions from Goldman Sachs.

And in the debate she actually drew a parallel between contributions from soybean growers and cotton growers and Wall Street executives. And, frankly, I was astounded by that because, obviously, soybean farmers didn't put our economy into the train wreck that we're experiencing.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Mr. Halter, obviously, there's probably a difference between the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Lincoln-Halter debates. But what it - well, I mean, I'm - what I'm fascinated about this is that - well, we see this with the Republican Party, too, that we see with the rise of the Tea Party. We're trying to define what is a true Republican. In Arkansas, especially in a state that went only 39 percent for President Obama in 2008, the question is: What is a true Democrat? Is Blanche Lincoln less a Democrat, or is she just - has the Democratic Party left her, or is she just fearful of a situation in Arkansas that doesn't look so promising for the Democrats?

Lt. Gov. HALTER: Well, you know, I think - I've tried to avoid labels, but let me answer your question here. You know, I've run as a mainstream Democrat in Arkansas for lieutenant governor, got over 57 percent of the vote in the general election. I have put initiatives, ballot initiatives before the voters and had those passed. I think you can stand for principles, and I think you can be a principled Democratic candidate and win election here. One of the most frequent complaints I hear about Senator Lincoln from Democrats, independents and Republicans is they don't know where she stands on particular issues.

And, in fact, she takes stands and then reverses field 180 degrees, whether it be the public option in health care, where she was initially for it and on record for it and, in fact, wrote and op-ed for the statewide newspaper saying she was for it, and then came out against it and then went to the floor of the Senate and threatened to filibuster it. Whether it's the Employee Free Choice Act, where she was an original cosponsor of the - or a cosponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act and then decided to be against it, and then again threatened to filibuster. Or, you know, a range of issues where she said one thing and then done another. And I think that is not so much about whether you're a Democrat as to whether or not you're taking principled stands and sticking with them in the face of special interest pressure.

CONAN: You say you're the mainstream Democratic candidate. You've been supported by what could be described as the left wing of the party, the union support and, indeed, moveon.org.

Lt. Gov. HALTER: Well, that's true, but it's also true that I've been supported by moderates. I even have friends that typically will vote Republican that are providing support. The fact is these - this left-right distinction which seems to be driven around this race is not really the way it is down here. What voters are really looking at is who's on your side, who's willing to stand up and fight for middle-class Arkansas families. And that's really the crucial distinction here, is when special interest pressure comes along, are you going to stand by Arkansas families, or are you going to cave to that special interest pressure?

CONAN: Lieutenant governor of Arkansas, Bill Halter. In a few minutes, we're going to be also talking with Blanche Lincoln. But stay with us, lieutenant governor. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get a caller on the line. And this is Bill, Bill calling from Little Rock.

BILL (Caller): Yes. I have a question for Lieutenant Governor Halter. He's taken Senator Lincoln to task for her votes on health care and the so-called bailouts for banks. How would he have voted?

Lt. Gov. HALTER: All right, sir. Bill, thanks for the question. On the health care reform, I've said that I would have voted for the Senate bill and also voted for the reconciliation package because I thought that reconciliation package actually improved the underlying bill. With respect to that, Senator Lincoln voted for the Senate health care bill, but voted against reconciliation. That was two votes, then, for the Cornhusker Kickback and a vote against improving the underlying bill.

On the bailout, I would not have voted for the bailout package. It needed more accountability. It certainly needed more reporting, and it needed more transparency.

CONAN: At the time, it was supported by both former - then-former President Bush and by President Obama.

Lt. Gov. HALTER: Yeah. But we should never have gotten in that place in the first place. The fact is that the deregulation of - in 1999, that Senator Lincoln voted for, and the lack of oversight for 10 years by the Agriculture Committee and other committees that she sat on allowed this problem to build up for four years. And it's a very Washington thing to do, to slap yourself on the back and claim credit for finally trying to fix a problem that you helped create in the first place.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to - this is Barbara, Barbara also calling from Little Rock.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi. Neal, first of all, you are a rock star. I love you.

CONAN: Oh, thank you.

BARBARA: But I would just like to ask Bill Halter how and why this campaign got so incredibly ugly? If I could vote for neither one of you because of all these ridiculous ads, I would do it.

Lt. Gov. HALTER: Listen, Barbara, I appreciate the sentiment. And the other night, I, in fact, said in a debate that I told my staff to pull down a Web site that I wish we had never put up. And I asked Senator Lincoln to do the same thing and to stop the negative campaigning. The ads that initially came out of my campaign, in fact, never mentioned Senator Lincoln at all. And I wish that we could get fully to a debate about the future of Arkansas and the future of the country and not have these negative attacks.

I've not sent a single mail piece for campaign that attacks Senator Lincoln. By contrast, she sent six that has referenced shady drug deals and put my face in a pill bottle and other things. And I just - I told her in the debate that I thought it was unbecoming for a U.S. senator in a campaign for the Senate.

CONAN: Barbara, thanks very much for the kind words, and thanks very much for the call, too.

BARBARA: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And we just have a little time left with you, lieutenant governor. There was one expression used against you by the senator in a debate, Dollar Bill, because you were once on the board of a software company that outsourced jobs to India.

Lt. Gov. HALTER: No, allegedly outsourced jobs to India - did not do so. Not a single American job was moved to India. In fact, 800 jobs were created in the United States. And as the company expanded overseas, it added workers overseas. That's an allegation not, in any way, a fact.

CONAN: And you are currently trailing, though most polls show trailing by a little bit less than you used to. If you should lose, will you endorse Senator Lincoln?

Lt. Gov. HALTER: We're not going to lose. The fact is Senator Lincoln is well under 50 percent. Everybody that's - that follows politics knows that an - when an incumbent is below 50 percent, they're in real trouble. We have all the momentum in this race. Every commentator that observed the debate on Saturday said that we decisively won it. We're moving forward, and Senator Lincoln is stuck well below 50 in the polls. We're looking forward to being the Democratic nominee.

And, of course, you see a recent survey that The Washington Post put out, showing that the danger and the trouble that all incumbents are in across the country.

CONAN: And Lieutenant Governor Halter, I'm afraid we're out of time, but good luck to you, and thanks very much for being with us today.

Lt. Gov. HALTER: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Lieutenant governor's - the lieutenant governor's challenger will join us in just a moment. Political Junkie Ken Rudin stays with us.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: A number of Senate incumbents face primary challenges in the next few months: Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania - who switched parties a year ago today - Senator Michael Bennett in Colorado, and as we mentioned, Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. We just heard from her Democratic opponent in the upcoming primary, and she joins us in just a moment.

Ken Rudin is with us. Our supersized edition of the Political Junkie continues.

Again, if you're in Arkansas, what would you like to ask Senator Blanche Lincoln? And the number is 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln joins us on the line. She has represented Arkansas in the Senate since 1999. And she's with us from her office here in Washington. Nice to have you on the program again.

Senator BLANCHE LINCOLN (Democrat, Arkansas): Well, thank you so much. Is this Neal or Ken?

CONAN: Oh, this is Neal.

Sen. LINCOLN: Hey, Neal. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

RUDIN: Ken is taller.

CONAN: Ken is taller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Not much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. LINCOLN: Okay.

CONAN: So who's the real Democrat in this race?

Sen. LINCOLN: Oh, I think without a doubt, in terms of representing Arkansas, you know, I'm - I fit the bill. I've worked hard as a moderate in Washington to look for common ground and solve the problems that exist. I think Arkansans are very pragmatic people. They are focused on getting results and solving problems. And, you know, they're focused on things that are important to them, certainly their faith and their family, and without a doubt, their state. We are very devoted to our home in Arkansas, and I think looking for those pragmatic solutions is what Arkansans are all about.

So, you know, I've - I have to say I've been bruised. There's no doubt that I've had a lot of outside groups that have come in to Arkansas, both in the fall. People came in and beat up on me because I voted for health care. And I think that there were some on - in the Democrat side that saw that as advantageous, where those on the right had come in and tilled the soil in the fall in beating me up over health care, that those on the left could come into this primary from outside the state and spend a lot of money in trying to, again, just create negative advertising against me. And I think there's no doubt that Bill has taken advantage of that.

CONAN: As you look ahead - there's no question that people in the country in general - and certainly in Arkansas - are upset about the bailouts. And that's one of the key arguments of your opponent. I think Bailout Blanche is the sobriquet.

Sen. LINCOLN: That's right. Well, it's amazing to think that he would want to use that, particularly when you realize that, you know, I've already produced probably the toughest reform bill on Wall Street than any of the bills produced up here to date.

We marked up, out of committee, a bipartisan bill in the Senate Agriculture Committee focused on derivatives, the $600 trillion marketplace - dark markets on Wall Street - by providing 100 percent transparency, real-time reporting to both regulators, as well as the public, not to mention the fact that we've got mandatory exchange trading and, you know, making sure that the mandatory reporting is there and, you know, all of the things - not to mention the too-big-to-fail portions of the bill, which really do accentuate, making sure that banks should be banks and can be banks. But that - when they want to be swap dealers and then when they want to, you know, participate in risky business, that they have to separate those things out so that they don't put their regular bank depositors at risk.

So, you know, in terms of bailing out, you know, I've asked Bill what he would do, you know, when faced by both the existing president and the incoming president, along with the secretary of the treasury and the chairman of the Federal Reserve, if they all four come to you and say, you know, we're going to experience another Depression like we did in the '30's, the crash of the - of the economy then, again, if we don't do something about it - I took steps to ensure that whatever we were doing would have strings attached and made it clear that many of us wanted to ensure that it wasn't all going to be spent in one spot, that we would have the ability to have some control, hopefully, over what happened with second portions of - particularly those TARP dollars.

So I fought for stricter limits on executive compensation and have continued to do that, both in the health care debate, as well as in the debate on Wall Street of what we did about the economic crisis, push for excise tax on executive bonuses. So, you know, I don't see how any - there's anywhere close to where he can get me as a proponent of bailout and all out of any of that.

CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in on the conversation.

Sen. LINCOLN: Yeah.

CONAN: Let's go to Carol(ph), Carol calling from Hot Springs.

CAROL (Caller): Yes. Senator Lincoln, I have contacted your office on numerous occasions, and unlike Senator Pryor or Congressman Ross who respond, your office has once replied to me - even though I have requested that I receive a letter each time. I have great concerns that you're - considering that your constituency is the conservative right, I am not a conservative right person.

And as a Democrat, I want to see you vote more on the Democratic side. I have to say, I think you're probably the best Republican that Democrats could have elected. Can you please address your - what we, constituents, who are looking for a more progressive and current agenda can do, when looking to you to -looking to vote for you.

Sen. LINCOLN: Sure. And I hope that, Carol, you'll provide us your information so we can research and see what information we have received from you and any mail that you may - you feel like you havent received an answer from. We work hard in the office, all of us do. And I have an excellent staff that is very close on looking at how our constituent services go.

We actually have offices. That's the first time in the history of a senator in Arkansas, that we've actually produced regional offices to be able to help our constituency. We have offices in all four of the congressional districts, and of course our main office in Little Rock. And I hope you'll be sure to leave your information with us.

Whenever we find someone that hasn't been able - we haven't been able to respond to, sometimes we find it's a problem in equipment, but most often than not, we've responded but it's gone to an incorrect address or maybe an old address. So, certainly hope that you'll give us the opportunity to answer that question, first and foremost, because we do work hard. And I'm very proud of my staff, and they do an excellent job at reaching out and making sure that we answer as many of those 17, 1,800 emails that we get a week and certainly the letters as well that come in.

And I would just say that, you know, in terms of Democratic voting, I was very proud to start working on health care years and years ago. And working through the Senate Finance Committee was an integral part of putting together a good health care bill. I stood with the president and the Democratic senators, in moving that bill forward. I voted for it out of the Finance Committee which, you know, if we hadn't got it out of the Finance Committee, we wouldn't have had a bill.

I voted on the motion to proceed, to move it to the floor and move to the debate on health care, which I thought was very important; and certainly, stood by the president and my Democratic colleagues in voting for the health care bill on Christmas Eve. And that's not to mention all of the other things. I've certainly had a consistent A rating with the educators. I've had a consistent A rating with the NAACP. I've worked hard on a host of different issues, whether it's housing or certainly job creation, education, higher education as well have been an enormous part of helping to create greater opportunities.

I've led the effort on Pell Grants and TRIO programs and other things like that. And I've also worked very hard on the quality-of-life issues in our communities, whether it's water - safe drinking water, wastewater treatment. We just held a wonderful rural summit on the Rural Outreach Chair for our Democratic caucus. We invited President Clinton and he came and joined us. And we visited with folks all across the country who really - their main objective is to improve the quality of life in rural America. And I was very pleased with the outturn - the turnout for our summit and a lot of really good questions. And I was joined by probably eight or nine of my...

CONAN: Senator, I know you've got a large number of wonderful things to say about all the great things you've done. I wanted to give another caller a chance, if you don't mind.

Sen. LINCOLN: Sure. Thanks.

CONAN: All right, let's go ahead and next to - this is Jennifer(ph), Jennifer with us from Hot Springs.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi, guys. My question for you, Senator, is - I've always voted for you.

Sen. LINCOLN: I appreciate it.

JENNIFER: And so going in with this primary, you know, my vote was already set, until, you know, the name calling. And it was very, almost elementary to me, you know? I'm teaching - I'm a single mother, have a daughter and, you know, I get her involved in watching all this. And, you know, you're a great role model for kids. And so, my question is why do you feel it's necessary to turn it so ugly?

CONAN: In the campaign ads?

JENNIFER: That campaign ads. And especially the name calling, you know? Though - you had some pollsters call. And I told them, you know, the commercials talking - the one commercial with the farmer, and talking about the good that you've done. That's your best commercial, you know, out there and highlighting your positive attributes.

Sen. LINCOLN: Right. Well, and I'm proud to do that. And I'll be honest with you, I don't like negative advertising either. And you should know that I'm being outspent three to one in outside resources that are coming in to our state on behalf of Bill Halter, to, you know, that are producing the majority of those negative ads.

One, I'm only participating in one-sixth of the advertising that's out there. In terms of anything that's pointing out, you know, not necessarily negative, but just making sure that people are aware of the choices that Bill Halter has made.

You know, my voting record is very clear, and I think people can look at it if they would choose. I've got 15 years of a voting record and I'm very proud of that. But the fact is is I'm being outspent three to one by outside sources that are coming into our state who were saying negative and ugly things about me on behalf of Mr. Halter. He doesn't have to say those things.

CONAN: So does that make you think you have to fire back?

Sen. LINCOLN: No. What I'm firing back with is just making sure that people do know the choices that had been made by Bill Halter. You know, I have a clear record on supporting tax incentives to keep jobs here and repealing provisions that encourage companies to move jobs overseas. But when Bill led a company, on their board, they created jobs, they sent them - those jobs to Bangladore(ph), India, instead of here in U.S.

CONAN: I think that's Bangalore. Anyway, Jennifer, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

JENNIFER: ...guys.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Senator Blanche Lincoln about her campaign for re-nomination for U.S. Senate. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken?

RUDIN: Senator Lincoln, thank you for coming on the show. And I was - going back to what Carol said earlier, that you're really a Republican in disguise. The Republicans will tell you - will say that, you know, the John Boozmans and the Gilbert Bakers - will say that youre a left-wing Democrat in disguise.

Well, here's - I guess, my question, and it's probably a little bit of a soft ball here, but I'm really interested in your answer. In the fact that we say that we don't like the partisanship that goes on in Washington on both sides, and you know that Lindsey Graham is getting pilloried from the right for his -whatever efforts he can make to work across party lines - what does it say about the situation in Washington, where when you try to - or at least, go about trying to be - do some bipartisan efforts - you get pilloried from the extremes on the right and left?

Sen. LINCOLN: Well, I just think it adds to, unfortunately, you know, the problem which exists, and that is, is that we're creating uncertainty. We're creating uncertainty, and we're not moving forward. I mean, the objective here is not that, you know, at the end of the day Democrats can say they won the message war or that the Republicans can say they won the message war.

At the end of the day, the objective should be able to - we should be able to say that we've done something that's going to move America forward. And I believe in that, you know? That doesn't make me any less of a Democrat. I mean, if there's anything I've been taught to cherish about my Democratic Party is that it is a big tent, and that it is all about making our country stronger and every individual in this country, having greater access to opportunity. That's exactly what I fight for in the United States Senate.

CONAN: All right.

Sen. LINCOLN: And for individuals who, you know, come in - and, again, large groups from outside our state that spend millions and millions of dollars in just saying ugly things about me, you know - it's hard because you're exactly right. They produce, you know, an impression for people in Arkansas that I'm not a good Democrat. Well, I am a good Democrat, and I'm proud to be a Democrat - I always have been. I'm not going anywhere.

CONAN: But...

Sen. LINCOLN: So it's hard. It's very hard. And in that same sentiment, you know, prevails in Washington because it is fed by extreme groups and - that are willing to get out there and be ugly in campaigns. I don't like being ugly and I dont want to be ugly. I don't think, you know - I've tried to put out, you know, certainly some information that I think is important for people to know, but I don't - I'm not an ugly person. I'm a hard worker, and I believe in the people of Arkansas, and I believe in the things that we should be fighting for, and that's exactly what I've done. And I think if people look at my record, they will certainly see that.

CONAN: Let's get Woody(ph) on the line then. Woody is calling from Fayetteville.

WOODY (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. I have a comment and a question for the senator.

CONAN: If you could keep it quick, because we're running out of time here, Woody.

WOODY: I'll be very quick. I live in Fayetteville, which is kind of a bastion of conservative Republicans. But - and typically in the past, I've been fairly conservative, but I will be supporting Senator Lincoln, simply because - and I want to compliment her on this - she's a levelheaded moderate politician. And that's what this country needs more of today, you know? We got too much divisiveness in this country, right now, and it's created a quagmire in Washington, D.C. So thats my comment.

My question, Senator...

Sen. LINCOLN: Yeah.

WOODY: ...is - as chairman of the Senate Agra(ph) Committee, how do you feel about, you know, the payments to the farmers and subsidies. And I'll take my answer offline.

CONAN: And I'm afraid we'd have to ask you to answer that in a minute or so (unintelligible).

Sen. LINCOLN: Right. Well, quickly, we've done a tremendous job over the last 10 years, particularly in farm bills, to be able to make any of our subsidy programs for production agriculture. We've been able to eliminate fraud, a tremendous amount of fraud and abuse and make sure that they're more productive. Payments follow production, and that is to encourage that we will continue to produce the safest, most abundant and affordable supply of food and fiber in the world, and to do it with greater respect to the environment than anybody else on the globe.

And our hard working farm families in this country do that. And I have tremendous respect for them for it. We've made sure the last farm bill, less than 13 percent of that farm bill actually went to production agriculture, either through subsidy payments or conservation payments. The fact is, is the majority of our farm bill now does go to nutrition programs and others, which also - I'm very supportive of nutrition programs and actually was able to produce the largest increase in nutrition program since its inception in the bill that we marked up in committee last month.

So, I just would say that we are very blessed in this country. We've got a lot of hard working farm families that continue to provide. We've got much to do with 500,000 Arkansans that live in food and security, and that's one of the reasons I started the Senate Hunger Caucus back in 1999.

CONAN: Senator Lincoln?

Sen. LINCOLN: And we continue to work on those.

CONAN: Senator Lincoln, thank you very much for being with us. Good luck in the primary.

Sen. LINCOLN: I appreciate it. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Blanche Lincoln, the incumbent Democratic senator who will be facing off against Bill Halter, with us earlier in the program, for the Democratic Senate nomination in the state of Arkansas.

Ken Rudin will be back with us next Wednesday when we have the Pennsylvania candidates, two Democrats, one Republican. I won't be here, but he will. Anyway, Ken, look forward to that.

RUDIN: And I'll see you tonight at the Camden Yards.

CONAN: I was going to say Yankee Stadium, but that's only after the sixth inning. Anyway, tomorrow, they've labeled everything from patriots, at best, to racists, at worst. Who is really the Tea Party? We'll talk about that tomorrow. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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