Iraq, Economy To Play Small Roles In Next Primaries

Correction Aug. 23, 2010

We incorrectly identified the Republican running for U.S. Senate from Florida. His name is Marco Rubio.

Voters in four states go to the polls Tuesday to choose candidates for November elections. It's a year in which anti-Washington feelings are running strong, and anti-establishment candidates have scored some victories. Unlike other elections, Iraq and the economy are not expected to play big roles in Tuesday's primaries.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Voters in four states across the country go to the polls tomorrow to choose candidates for the November election. It's a year in which anti-Washington feelings are running high, and anti-establishment candidates have scored some victories.

NPR's Cokie Roberts joins us now, as she often does on Monday mornings, to tell us what to look for in these primaries. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, Cokie, before we get to the particulars of those primary races, I want to ask about the politics of the war in Iraq. This month, of course, the administration pulled out its last combat brigade. Iraq was a big issue back in 2006, the last major midterm election. Is it an issue at all this year?

ROBERTS: It barely registers. When voters are asked to the list the most important issues facing the country going into this election, about six, seven, eight percent - depending on the poll - cite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And as you say, in 2006, going into that election, Iraq was always right at the top of the list. And that's of course when the Democrats came to power, and it was really the issue that launched Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

So you might expect a little more fanfare as the last combat troops leave Iraq. But, of course, it's so muddy, Renee. Fifty thousand troops will still be there and in harm's way, and that question of combat status is somewhat a semantic one. But there's no question the violence is way down.

And yesterday, on CBS, the commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno was asked if we had won this war.

General RAY ODIERNO (Commander, Multi-National Forces, Iraq): I would say that we've made lots of progress here. I would say to determine whether we've won the war or not, we can see that in three to five years as we see how Iraq turns out. A strong democratic Iraq will bring stability to the Middle East, and if we see Iraq that's moving towards that two, three, five years from now, I think we can call our operations a success.

ROBERTS: That's hardly a victory statement. It's not one of defeat, either. It's the much messier time will tell. And General Odierno did raise the specter of troops staying longer than the total drawdown of 2011, if their needed. If they ask, the U.S. would consider it, he said.

MONTAGNE: And President Obama is scheduled to make a speech on Iraq when he gets back from vacation. Would this be a moment for him to take credit for a success, and is that something he can realistically do?

ROBERTS: Well, I doubt it. I think he seems to want to signal, of course, that this moment of drawdown is important, that he will mark it in a major way. And the vice president, today, is going to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. But it's a somewhat awkward subject for the president. He ran against the war in Iraq. He argued against the troop buildup called the surge. A lot of people credit that buildup for the more secure situation in Iraq today. So I think the president can't exactly take credit for a success, such as it is.

He can say that he kept his promise to bring the troops out, which he's been alluding to on the campaign trail. And he'll certainly honor the men and women who have fought there and certainly those who were killed there, without necessarily endorsing the policy that put them in Iraq in the first place.

It's a balancing act. But as we said earlier, also not an issue the voters are thinking very much about right now.

MONTAGNE: Yes, what the voters are thinking about right now is the economy. And in earlier primaries, pretty influential incumbents have lost their seats over a bad economy.

Are we likely to see more of that anti-incumbent anger in tomorrow's primaries?

ROBERTS: Well, it doesn't look like it, but that's partly because the big fight is in Florida, where that anti-establishment feeling already played out in the Republican Party, where Governor Charlie Crist - running for the Senate -decided to not run as a Republican anymore, because he was being so seriously challenged by conservative Mark Rubio. So it looks like Rubio will be the Republican candidate. Crist will be the Independent candidate.

The fight is on the Democratic side, where wealthy businessman Jeff Greene just poured tons of his own money into a campaign against Congressman Kendrick Meek. But Meek, at the moment, looks like he's likely to pull it out. He has had the endorsements of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. And Bill Clinton's backing was considered absolutely crucial for the incumbent in his home state, Blanche Lincoln running for the Senate.

Unlike the endorsement tomorrow of Sarah Palin for Lisa Murkowski in her home State of Alaska, Palin backed Murkowski's opponent. Murkowski is running well ahead. But Palin's endorsement in Arizona of her old running mate, John McCain, might be helping him there.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much.

NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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