Super Tuesday To Measure Anti-Incumbent Anger

There are primaries in 11 states Tuesday — as well as a runoff in Arkansas, where a two-term Senate Democrat may become the latest victim of anti-Washington fervor. With all these contests in so many states, the day is being called "Super Tuesday."

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Many states hold primary elections tomorrow, which give us a chance to gauge the elections shaping up for this fall.

AMOS: And without any doubt, the results will be scanned for news about a man who's not on the ballot - the president of the United States.

Our political brain trust is with us. NPR's political editor Ken Rudin is here. Good morning.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson also in our studios. Mara, good morning to you.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning to you.

INSKEEP: You know, every time the president seems to be emerging from a disaster, he encounters another one. That seems to be the pattern here.

LIASSON: Well, he certainly hasn't been having a very good couple of weeks. He had those disappointing job numbers come out last week. He had the initial wobbly response to the BP oil spill. The White House has been trying very hard to correct that. They've been sending him to the Gulf making many more visits down there. He's going to be talking about it again today.

They have finally come up with some good surrogates to talk about this. Thad Allen is going to be briefing at the White House. Carol Browner is all over television. And while a lot of the BP spill was beyond his control, the White House has also made some unforced errors. Prime among them, the job offers that were dangled before Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff - two Democratic candidates that the White House wanted to get out of the way to clear the field for...

INSKEEP: In these primaries, yeah.

LIASSON: In these primaries. I haven't talked to anyone who said what happened was unethical or illegal, but it certainly has hurt the White House promise of transparency. And the fact that they were so slow in getting the facts out about what happened prolonged the story, it raised more questions and now there's tremendous pressure for an investigation.

AMOS: But, Ken, how out of the ordinary is this? Doesn't the White House always try to coordinate what members of their party go for what job?

RUDIN: Well, that's definitely true. Of course, when Barack Obama was running for president, he promised jobs for America - he'd be the jobs president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Is this what he meant?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: I guess he meant Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff. The thing is, look, the Republicans say it's illegal. Darrel Issa, the congressman, the Republican from California says this is President Obama's Watergate - that's a little bit much. The want a special investigation from the Justice Department. Democrats, as you say, Deborah, this is politics as usual.

The difference here is that when Barack Obama was elected, he promised this would not be a politics as usual administration. We would not be doing the way things - do things the way it's been constantly done in Washington and that's where he has suffered.

AMOS: Well, how much politics of usual is the White House - how are they going to be involved in the primaries?

RUDIN: Well, look. They want to retain control of the Senate. Obviously they have an uphill battle to stem the losses, because the president's party always loses in midterm elections - and so they want the stronger candidates. Now, they wanted Arlen Specter over Joe Sestak - that didn't work. For all we know, Joe Sestak, who may portray himself as an outsider, he may do better than Arlen Specter could have done.

In Arkansas, they obviously - the White House wants Blanche Lincoln, who's under tremendous pressure in tomorrow's Arkansas primary. But the outsider there, Bill Halter, could do better than the Washington insider. So the White House calculations may not be exact on this.

INSKEEP: So Democrats are positioning themselves for what they anticipate to be a challenging election, to say the least. Republicans are hoping to make some gains. And let's talk about California, Mara Liasson, one of the states holding primaries tomorrow. You've got a couple of Republican business leaders seeking jobs.

LIASSON: Not only are they seeking jobs, they're the frontrunners in both the Senate and gubernatorial Republican primaries. Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay, is the frontrunner for the gubernatorial nomination. If she wins, she's going to run against Jerry Brown, former governor, lots of name recognition -of course, much less money than Meg Whitman. And Whitman has been forced to the right in her primary, particular on immigration, by her opponent. That can be a dangerous place for Republican candidates to be in a California general election.

In the Senate primary, you have Carly Fiorina, another former business executive - head of Hewlett Packard, very deep pockets. She is the frontrunner in that primary. Her opponent is actually the moderate, Tom Campbell; he's a social issue moderate. And being conservative on social issues - the way Carly Fiorina is - is also not the standard profile for candidates who are successful in California.

But this year is different. And if she does win, I think you're going to see an epic battle between Fiorina and Boxer.

INSKEEP: I got to ask you, because as a layman this seems quite dramatic to have Republicans as frontrunners in California. It has seemed that any Republican not named Schwarzenegger was in terrible shape in the past in California.

LIASSON: Oh, I'm not saying they're frontrunners. These women are...

INSKEEP: Frontrunners for the primaries, right.

LIASSON: ...in the primary. Now, if Fiorina wins her primary, she will face Barbara Boxer. So it will be this epic battle: two women, one conservative, one liberal. I think that might be kind of the marquee race this fall, if she does - as expected - win the nomination.

AMOS: Let's talk about Nevada. There is an important primary there. Ken, who are the Republicans trying to unseat Senate majority leader Harry Reid?

RUDIN: Well, don't say Nev-AH-da because Nev-AD-a Republicans will kill you if you say Nev-AH-da.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: They'll yell at you. Believe me, I've made that mistake.

But if the Tea Party was excited about Rand Paul's victory in Kentucky, the number one target they had from the beginning is Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada running for reelection. Now, polls from the beginning have said that any Republican can beat Harry Reid. Well, now it's no longer going to be any Republican.

And it looks like, from the polls, that the frontrunner for the nomination, for the Republican nomination, is a woman by the name of Sharon Angle, who has made some controversial statements; she wants to get rid of Social Security or phase out Social Security. And while Harry Reid's numbers are terrible in the state, if Sharon Angle wins, the Tea Party will be faced with a tough thing, whether to rally Republicans around her or reelect Harry Reid, who's been good for Nevada.

INSKEEP: Excuse me? Why would that be a...I don't understand. You mean - you're talking about a tough challenge, not for the - for the voters. You're talking about the...

RUDIN: Well, I mean, look, his numbers are bad. Harry Reid has, from the beginning, tried to balance his more liberal persona in Washington with a more conservative electorate in Nevada.

INSKEEP: Okay.

RUDIN: But Sharon Angle has to unite the Republican Party behind her. Sue Lowden is a Republican, former chairman, who's also running for the nomination.

INSKEEP: Okay. Let's go to another state here: South Carolina - Republican primary - and I'm shocked, shocked to learn that there's a sex scandal in South Carolina. This never happens - oh wait, it has happened before.

RUDIN: Not to a woman.

INSKEEP: Okay. Okay. You have a woman in the race facing allegations of affairs outside the marriage. What's going on here?

LIASSON: Well, what's happening in South Carolina - and I should point out this is yet another Republican woman frontrunner for her party's nomination. I mean, look, we just talked about California, Nevada, where two women are frontrunners. Now, in South Carolina, you have Nikki Haley, who is running. She's the only woman in the race; she is the frontrunner; and she has been accused, not once but twice, by men who say they've had affairs with her.

Now, what's she's done is she has denied this 100 percent. This is not one of those non-denial denials that politicians sometimes make. She has said absolutely, completely, 100 percent untrue. She has even said she would resign - if she wins and later there's proof that she actually had an affair with either of these guys - she would resign. So, she is the frontrunner. I think this race could end up in a runoff. In South Carolina, you have to get over 50 percent to be the nominee.

RUDIN: But the best part of this story is that she's been vouched for, her integrity has been vouched for by Mark Sanford, the outgoing governor. So, if that doesn't help her, nothing will.

INSKEEP: Well, let me...

AMOS: Can I ask if it makes a difference. This is a real precedent-setting event. Does it make a difference if it's a woman and two men come out and say that they had an affair with her?

LIASSON: You mean does it make a difference if you had a - as opposed to having a man accused of having an affair?

AMOS: Exactly, yeah.

LIASSON: I don't know if it makes a difference. This is something new. There's a lot of new things this cycle: we haven't had this many Republican women, and lo and behold Republican women politicians face a lot of the same problems that male candidates would. In other words, some of them have very deep pockets and can self-finance; some are them accused of affairs. I mean, this is progress of some sort.

INSKEEP: Ken Rudin.

LIASSON: Of some perverse sort.

RUDIN: It's worth pointing out that these accusations didn't come out until she proved herself as the frontrunner. Once she became the frontrunner, then these accusations came out.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask, very briefly, is this a concentrated energy by the Republican Party to push a lot of women forward or is it just the way things have worked out?

RUDIN: Well, part of it is also, as Mara said, the fact that there are non-politicians in the state like California with Whitman and Fiorina. We've seen the politics as usual - those kind of candidates have suffered on both parties and perhaps maybe an outside-Washington, anti-establishment candidate, as Nikki Haley once was in South Carolina, could do it.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent. Thanks for coming in.

AMOS: And Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. You can read all about the primaries on his Political Junkie blog at NPR.org/Junkie.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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