Hot Races Heading Into 2010 Midterms

Guests

Ken Rudin, political editor, NPR
Jon Ralston, columnist, Las Vegas Sun
Libby Case, Washington correspondent, Alaska Public Radio Network
Jon Delano, political analyst, KDKA TV

As November 2 draws closer, political races around the country get more and more contentious. In the Senate race in Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey's long-held lead is dwindling. And in the three-way race in Alaska, there is no clear front runner.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

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

Aqua Buddha becomes a factor in Kentucky, the Rent's Too High Party debates in New York, and John McCain rips Barbara Boxer, but after all, he's got that right.

Ms. CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Delaware): That's in the First Amendment.

CONAN: It's Wednesday and time for a church and state edition of the Political Junkie.

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. After San Francisco and Columbus, we're back in D.C. with less than two weeks before Election Day.

Debates in many states: In Illinois, it was between the liar and the mob banker; in Delaware, where a constitutional tutorial erupted, and in New York, where the fifth- and sixth-party candidates stole the show.

Later, we'll focus on races in Alaska, Pennsylvania and Nevada, plus Dexter Filkins of the New York Times on the Taliban talks in Kabul taking a more serious turn.

But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. And as usual, we begin with a trivia question. Welcome home, Ken.

RUDIN: Hi, Neal. This is weird to see you in our nation's capital. Okay, Senator Roland Burris, you remember him, we used to talk about him a lot before we had Christine O'Donnell to talk about, he says he's been encouraged to run for mayor of Chicago next year.

Now, another former senator, Carol Moseley Braun, is also considering running herself. Name the last person who, after his or her Senate career, ran for mayor, was elected mayor of a major city.

CONAN: So if you think you know the answer of the last United States senator to run and be elected for mayor of a major city in this country, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And of course, the successful winner will get a fabulous no-prize T-shirt.

So we have to begin with the congressional scorecard. Two weeks before Election Day - less than two weeks, 13 days away - what does it look like now?

RUDIN: Well, again, we talk about this all the time, but the first concern is the battle for control of the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of 10, or nine if they can convince Ben Nelson of Nebraska to switch parties.

But it doesn't look like it's happening, but it could happen. I mean, again, right now my numbers show that the Republicans may gain a net of seven seats. Washington Senate is a key one with Patty Murray, but there's a brand new poll, it's a McClatchy-Marist College poll that came out just a few minutes ago: Patty Murray, 48; Dino Rossi, 47. That is definitely very close.

West Virginia's Senate race, which Democrats have held forever and ever and ever, that's a Rasmussen poll, which some people question the validity of it, but again, it's been right many times. It has John Raese the Republican 50 to 43 over Joe Manchin, the governor, again a state that hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate in a million years.

In Pennsylvania's Senate, we'll talk about that later, there is a debate tonight, but there's a new Muhlenberg College poll that has it Sestak, Joe Sestak the Democrat, with a 44 to 41 percent lead over Pat Toomey. Toomey had the lead all year long. We still think Toomey is up. This is the only poll I've seen that has Sestak up. But again, it's among - part of the narrative that many people think that Democrats are making gains.

That's true in Colorado's Senate, as well. Michael Bennet seems to be advancing against Ken Buck, the Republican who had the lead for months. Wisconsin Senate very, very close. Ron Johnson, the Tea Party Republican, seems to have a narrow lead over just a two-point lead now over Russ Feingold. It had been bigger before.

But at the same time, there are Republicans, sizable Republican gains, as well. In Ohio, President Obama was in Columbus, I guess because he was jealous of us.

CONAN: Absolutely.

RUDIN: And he did this rally for Ted Strickland, and right after he left, John Kasich's numbers jumped up, especially among independent voters. Perhaps it was seen as a backlash, but now Kasich is up in the Quinnipiac poll by 10 points.

New Mexico governor, the Republicans are tying the Democrat to unpopular Bill Richardson. Once, he was very popular. He's no longer very popular. Republicans looked like they wouldn't win in New Mexico.

In Colorado, Tom Tancredo, the third-party candidate, the American Constitution Party, now has a big lead over the Republican who is in third place. It's going to be a Democratic win in Colorado, but it looks like the Republican candidate, Dan Mays, could finish third.

CONAN: Republicans need 39 seats to take over control of the House of Representatives. How does that look right now?

RUDIN: Well, by all accounts, by most accounts, it is very close. There are some people who say that it's at least 50. We haven't seen a gain or a loss of 50 seats since the Republican tsunami of 1994, when Gingrich and company won control of the House. And of course, they took the Senate, too.

My numbers are anywhere between very teetering on the late 30s, they need 39, 250, I don't have a definite number yet, but its definitely very doable.

The last time the House switched but not the Senate was 1930. So that would be pretty unusual if the House goes, but the Senate does not.

CONAN: Kentucky Senate, there is a race there between the Tea Party and libertarian favorite Rand Paul, who has been holding a steady lead over Jack Conway, the Democrat in that race.

RUDIN: State attorney general, right.

CONAN: And it's been interesting, a steady lead, but not a huge lead, and this week, Mr. Conway's campaign put on a new ad to attack Rand Paul.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man #1: Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible a hoax, that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ? Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his god was Aqua Buddha? Why does Rand Paul now want to end all federal faith-based initiatives and even end the deduction for religious charities? Why are there so many questions about Rand Paul?

CONAN: Aqua Buddha?

RUDIN: Well, you know, I've heard of Aqua Velva man, but I've never heard the Aqua Buddha man. And this is, you know, a very fascinating late charge in a campaign that most people say actually will backfire against Conway.

It's calling into question Ron Paul's Rand Paul, sorry, son of Ron Paul, his Christian faith. He says: I am a pro-life Christian. And Jack Conway is mocking my religion, and it has no part in this campaign.

Clare McCaskill, the Democratic senator from Missouri, said on MSNBC that this was almost, nearly crossing the line. It was, like, over the top.

But there are some people who say well, wait a second. If this could tell some conservatives that Rand Paul may be a little kind of extreme out there, if it really happened now this is based on an anonymous source, you know, which may or may not have happened. Rand Paul says some of this stuff is just made-up stuff, and it's a desperation on Conway's part. But it does have a new wrinkle in that Senate race.

CONAN: And perhaps the most entertaining debate, the race does not appear close, but the entertaining debate this time around was the debate for New York governor, which included Jim McMillan, a Vietnam vet and Karate teacher representing...

Mr. JIM McMILLAN (Gubernatorial Candidate, The Rent Is Too Damn High Party, New York): I represent the Rent Is Too Damn High Party. People working eight hours a day and 40 hours a week, and some a third job. The people I'm here to represent can't afford to pay their rent. They're being laid off right now without sleep. They can't eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. Listen, someone stomach (unintelligible) - child's stomach just growl. Did you hear it?

CONAN: And his position on gay marriage?

Mr. McMILLAN: Rent Too Damn High Party feels you want to marry a shoe, I'll marry you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And the other candidate that stole the show was the madam in the Eliot Spitzer scandal. This is Kristin Davis. She argued that she was most qualified for the governor's job, making this point.

Ms. KRISTIN DAVIS (Gubernatorial Candidate, Anti-Prohibition Party, New York): The key difference between the MTA and my former escort agency is that I operated one set of books, and my former agency delivered on time and reliable service.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And that followed by the Republican candidate, Carl Paladino, walking off the stage in the middle of closing arguments.

RUDIN: Well, actually, Carl Paladino was the normal guy in the debate, which is pretty remarkable.

Two things: First of all, Jimmy McMillan, the candidate of the Rent is Too Damn High Party, the New York Times disclosed this week that he lives rent-free in Bedford-Stuyvesant. So obviously, his rent isn't too damn high. I can say damn on the air, right?

CONAN: I think you can.

RUDIN: And Kristin Davis, of course, is the woman who supplied the escorts for Eliot Spitzer. We go full circle now with Eliot Spitzer.

Andrew this is all great news for Andrew Cuomo, who was almost ignored in this whole debate. There are a lot of problems with New York, a lot of criticisms of Cuomo that he is not answering what he's going to do. But again, with it becoming a seven-ring circus, as it was, Cuomo really didn't have anything to say.

CONAN: We have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, again, the last United States senator to be elected a big city mayor, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Mark(ph) joins us from Fort Lauderdale.

MARK (Caller): Robert Wagner, New York City.

RUDIN: Well, that's very interesting, but I'll tell you the answer is wrong. But you're confusing Robert Wagner, who was the mayor of New York City.

CONAN: Senior.

RUDIN: And Robert Wagner Senior, who was a senator from New York City, but two different people. They didn't serve as senator and mayor.

MARK: Okay.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to this is Emily(ph), Emily calling from Durham.

EMILY (Caller): Bill Green of Philadelphia?

RUDIN: Well, Bill Green was a congressman in Philadelphia, and he was mayor of Philadelphia. He also ran for the Senate in 1976 against John Heinz, but he was not elected to the Senate. He lost to John Heinz, never served as senator.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Emily. Let's see if we can try Jack(ph), and Jack's with us from Boulder, Colorado.

JACK (Caller): Ron Dellums in Oakland, but I think he was in the House of Representatives, not a senator.

RUDIN: That's correct. You answered your own question, right.

CONAN: There you go, but nice try, Jack. We may have to go a little deeper in your answers, perhaps.

RUDIN: You...

CONAN: No, I'm telling the callers. They maybe need to go a little deeper to find the answer to this question.

In the meantime, there is still a great deal to talk about. The debate, which is, you know, we're going to talk about in Nevada in a bit. But the Delaware debate was simply astonishing. This is the again, this has not been close for a long time, this race, at least double digits, more like 20 points.

RUDIN: It's close to 19. It's 19, 20 points. I mean, the reason we cared about this story so much is: One, this was a Republican seat for the taking that ended once Christine O'Donnell won the primary over Mike Castle; and two, Christine O'Donnell has provided copy, that great commercial saying she's not a witch, even though on the Bill Maher show she talked about how she was a witch or attended all these things and blah, blah, blah.

But there was a very interesting debate this week where basically it sounded like she was not aware now, Neal, I'm not sure if you're playing tape of this or not. Are we?

CONAN: We played it before.

RUDIN: Okay. So we're talking about whether she's aware that separation of church and state is in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Now, her argument is saying look, I know what the First Amendment is, and, you know, I memorized the Constitution. What I'm trying to point out is the words separation of church and state is nowhere to be found in the First Amendment.

But certainly when she said her statement, there was a gasp in the audience because they're saying: How could she not know what that is? But she argues...

CONAN: At a law school, she was talking...

RUDIN: She argues that that's not her point.

CONAN: Let's go one more caller, Cindy(ph), Cindy with us from Burlington in Wisconsin.

CINDY (Caller): Hi, Tom Barrett of Milwaukee?

RUDIN: Well, Tom Barrett of Milwaukee was never U.S. senator.

CINDY: I thought he was.

RUDIN: Well, no, we're looking for somebody who was senator who was elected mayor after this term as senator.

CINDY: Oh. Okay, sorry.

CONAN: All right, bye-bye. One last shot. One last shot. Jerry's(ph) calling from Tallahassee.

JERRY (Caller): Hi. Jim Sensenbrenner from Ohio.

RUDIN: Jim Sensenbrenner was never senator from Ohio. Do we want an answer? Does that music mean...

CONAN: I think the music means we can...

RUDIN: The answer is Theodore Frelinghuysen was senator for New Jersey and later mayor of Newark; and DeWitt Clinton of New York, governor and senator and later mayor of New York City, both in the early 19th century.

CONAN: Great TV ads for both of them. Put them over the top in those mayoral races. But, well, that's what we meant by going a little deeper. No winner this week.

Ken Rudin, our political junkie, will stay with us as we look ahead to Pennsylvania, Alaska and Nevada. Listeners out there, what is happening in those races? Stay with us, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Ken Rudin is with us, as he is every Wednesday, the Political Junkie. If you'd like to read more of what he has to say on his blog, if you'd like to solve his ScuttleButton puzzle, if you'd like to download his podcast, go to npr.org, and, well, you'll have to take your own responsibility for whatever happens after that.

We're talking about, this week, several races. We'd like to hear from those of you in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Alaska. What's going on the lections where you live? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And we'll begin in Nevada, where Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for Senate entered into some awkward observations about a group of Hispanic students at a meeting of the Hispanic Student Union at Rancho High School outside of Las Vegas.

Ms. SHARRON ANGLE (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Nevada): I don't know that all of you are Latino. Some of you look a little more Asian to me. I don't know that. What we know about what we know about ourselves is that we are a melting pot in this country. My grandchildren are evidence of that. I'm evidence of that. I've been called the first Asian legislator in our Nevada State Assembly.

CONAN: The video from which that was taken was posted by Nevada journalist Jon Ralston, columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, host of the paper's political news program "Face to Face with Jon Ralston," and he joins us today.

Jon Ralston, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. JON RALSTON (Columnist, Las Vegas Sun): Hi, there, gentlemen.

CONAN: What was she talking about?

Mr. RALSTON: I'm still asking myself that question. I mean, she said so many bizarre things in that clip, Neal, talking about an image from one of her commercials maybe not being Latino, when it clearly is. And it's a very - such a controversial image of Hispanics that it had to - that was pulled down both from her ad and from the same image being used by David Vitter.

Then talking about the real issue being the northern border and implying that the 9/11 terrorists came from Canada - which, of course, has sparked outrage north of the border, and the Canadian ambassador has demanded an apology.

And then talking about how some of the kids look Asian, which was a totally bizarre thing to say and now has sparked a demand for an apology from the Hispanic Student Union at Rancho High School here in Las Vegas.

And then the topper, that she was once mistaken for Asian, which is a reference that I do not understand. I was there when she came to the legislature in 1999. I don't recall anybody mistaking her for Asian.

So just when you thought things couldn't get more bizarre in the U.S. Senate race here, Neal and Ken, they got more bizarre.

CONAN: And while the bizarreness continues, what do the polls show?

Mr. RALSTON: Well, the public polling has consistently showed this to be essentially a dead heat within the margin of error. No, I think there have been a lot of problems with polling this year, but you, you guys don't want to hear my complaints about that.

The race is close. It's going to come down to a turnout race, and the reason it is so close is because people here - at least a large percentage of them - are very upset with Harry Reid. They're very upset in general and are directing a lot of their bile toward Harry Reid as one of the faces of the Democratic agenda.

He's not a very skillful politician. Indeed, he may be the least skillful politician ever to ascend to the ranks that he has in this country, and he has committed some gaffes that have only reinforced that image.

He did not, in my opinion, do well during the only televised debate between Sharron Angle and Harry Reid. So he has real problems. So Reid's only chance to survive is to take some of these people who don't feel so good about him and get them to feel very badly about Sharron Angle and perhaps hold their nose and vote for him - or, because we have this crazy none of the above on the ballot here, vote none of the above.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Huck(ph) is on the line from Battle Mountain in Nevada.

HUCK (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

HUCK: I think you really just did describe myself. I'm a registered Republican, a fairly conservative person. I'm not real happy with Harry Reid, but I think that Sharron Angle's a nutcase.

I mean, she's I just can't see putting her in office. I really - I voted against Harry for a while, but I think the Republicans have shot themselves in the foot by putting this woman up as their candidate.

CONAN: Did you participate in the Republican primary there in Nevada?

HUCK: Yes, sir. I did.

CONAN: And I take it you did not vote for Sharron Angle?

HUCK: No, I did not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What do your neighbors tell you about this race?

HUCK: You know, I get kind of a mixed bag up here. It is fairly conservative, and a lot of them are willing to vote for Sharron because they just - they don't want Harry Reid in office anymore.

And I said I have voted against him a couple of times. I just - my concern is that we'd be trading a less-than-adequate individual for a nutcase, and I don't want to do that.

CONAN: All right, Huck. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Ken?

RUDIN: Speaking of nutcases, thank you. John, a question here. Going back to the Harry Reid problems, given the fact that Nevada has perhaps more foreclosures than anywhere in the country, the charge that made -the revelation made the debate that Harry Reid lives at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Was that a problem for Reid?

Mr. RALSTON: Well, that has been used in Web ads and in some press releases by the Republicans. But it's clear that Sharron Angle wanted to bring that up during the debate as a prelude to what's now going on with some of the ads that have come out subsequently from her campaign and from the National Republican Senatorial Committee to reinforce the image of Harry Reid as being out of touch with common Nevadans who are out of work or hurting.

As you mentioned, we're the foreclosure capital of America. We have the highest unemployment rate in the country. So it was - may have been a revelation to a lot of people who hadn't seen some of these Web ads, which, you know, very few people see. But it clearly was laying the groundwork for this new ad campaign in the final days.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Regan, Regan with us from Sparks, Nevada.

REGAN (Caller): You know, it's a very interesting race here. I've never seen it come down to the last two mentioned people have already said, but what I'm saying is we seem to have a lesser of two evils.

The people here in Nevada are definitely tired of Reid, really feel he's just completely been a front man for the Obama administration. I am an undecided. I'm one of the few people that still are undecided.

But Reid has not done anything to help his cause, especially with the mud-slinging going back and forth quite a bit. Harry Reid, though, definitely has not really has come across as a person who's very detached from his constituencies.

And I think that's what's probably going to end up being the breaker here, that he will not survive this election, and people in Nevada are very, very upset with him. And you really are going to be entering into a period where we may have a U.S. senator who is as people have said, she's crazy. I just think that she's an unknown.

CONAN: Okay. And if you, I think, announce yourself as undecided, both of these candidates may arrive at your house within the next 20 minutes, Regan.

REGAN: They've been arriving at my doorstep every five minutes if you watch television.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Whether you want them to or not.

REGAN: I've never seen a campaign like this, and it's really mud-slinging on both sides. And I'm really surprised by Senator Reid, who I saw with a little bit more integrity - a person of integrity than he has led himself to believe.

And the oddest thing in the world is the first four, five months of his son running for governor. It was Rory, you know, for governor, never announced that his last name was Reid. He was separating himself from his own dad, which we all found very, very odd. And most people don't talk about that, but we Nevadans find that to be pretty insulting.

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

REGAN: All right.

CONAN: And Jon Ralston, remind us a little bit about the demographics of the state. Battle Mountain, that's in the northern part of the state, and I think our caller from there, Huck, was accurate to describe that as pretty conservative. All of the major part of the population, though, down in the lower left-hand corner of Nevada.

Mr. RALSTON: Right. I'm in Las Vegas, which is in Clark County, southern Nevada. It has about 70 percent of the vote down here, Neal. But both of those phone calls were very interesting. Battle Mountain is in a very rural part of Nevada, which is a very conservative place.

About 15 percent of vote - maybe 12 percent of the vote, depending on what the turnout looks like - will be in rural Nevada, where they absolutely despise Harry Reid and where he is not going to do very well.

But the fact that there are pockets in Battle Mountain where he is being able to peel away some people, as that caller is, who can't bring himself to vote for Sharron Angle, that's a sign that maybe his campaign has had some impact.

Of course, it's just anecdotal with one phone call, but he's going to lose very badly in rural Nevada. But if he can manage the carnage there to some reasonable level, that would be interesting.

Sparks, the second caller, is right next to Reno. It's the other urban area in the state, where Harry Reid has traditionally run just well enough to survive. He barely survived against John Ensign in 1998 because he ran fairly well in Washoe County, which encapsulates Reno and Sparks.

But you can see just from that gentleman there that he saw that Harry Reid came across as detached in that debate, as I believe he did, too. And there are people up there who will not vote for Harry Reid and will vote for Sharron Angle no matter what.

As I've said, she could commit a public felony, and I think people would still vote for her. And he was a good example of that.

CONAN: Jon Ralston, thanks for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. RALSTON: You bet.

CONAN: Jon Ralston, a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, the host of "Face to Face," a daily public affairs talk show, and he joined us by phone from his office in Las Vegas.

Alaska next. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org - where Senator Lisa Murkowski was all but written off when she lost the Republican primary challenge to Joe Miller. The story of the Alaska Senate race, though, was only getting started. Libby Casey is the Washington correspondent for the Alaska Public Radio Network, and she joins us from her D.C. office to tell us more. Nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. LIBBY CASEY (Correspondent, Alaska Public Radio Network): Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And this is a write-in campaign considered, well, the longest of long shots. Well, apparently, the incumbent senator is teaching people how to spell that last name.

Ms. CASEY: That's right. They have a whole campaign and effort right now going on, on how to get people to memorize the name Murkowski - nine letters - and also people have to fill in an oval, which is critical because if you don't fill in the oval, it won't be scanned, and it won't count. And so this could be a long election night. We may have not just a long election night but a couple of weeks of dry out counting - hand counting of how well people managed to nail the name Murkowski.

CONAN: So there is, of course, a Democrat in the race, too.

Ms. CASEY: Yes, Scott McAdams. And he is a small-town mayor. He's really actually coming up in the polls. The polls right now are showing - the latest ones - that the Republican who has the official nod, the primary winner, Joe Miller and Lisa Murkowski, the write-in, pretty neck and neck. But the Democrat, Scott McAdams, is not too far behind.

As Alaskans have learned more about him, there has been an uptick in interest in what he has to say. He's got some clever ads out there on TV. He had a decent fundraising period. And so he is part of this race, and, you know, people are saying could the craziest thing happen of all. That the two Republicans split the ticket, split the Republican vote and the Democrat sneaks in. I mean, really sort of all bets are off in what's happening in Alaska. It certainly is a Republican-leaning race, but don't count McAdams out.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Libby, two things. First of all, it's one thing for somebody to tell a pollster that I'm going to vote for Lisa Murkowski when I get into the voting booth. It's another thing to actually write her name. Now, the question is, is there - I mean, if they misspell Murkowski, does it count? If they write Lisa, does that count? Do you know what the rules are?

Ms. CASEY: Yeah. It's such a good question. And the officials at the State Division of Elections have not given an exact layout yet of what will count and what won't count. But they have said voter intent is what matters. And so if they can tell that people are trying to spell Lisa Murkowski, that will be critical. But there are lawyers on all sides now sort of lining up and getting ready to deal with what may be a real conundrum as we try to figure out if people spelled her name adequately enough.

And, Ken, you bring up a really good point about polling. How do you poll to figure out if someone is going to in and actually write in the name? And it's really hard to know, and so some folks are saying that even though she's polling pretty well, it may be a different matter on Election Day. A lot of it's going to be about how well she can get Alaskan voters to believe she's a real viable candidate, that she has a chance.

Nobody wants to throw away their vote, right? You stand outside in Alaska. It's 20 degrees below zero in some places around election time. You don't want to throw away your vote. So voters have to believe that she is a viable candidate, and she's someone who could win, and that's going to be crucial for her campaign to make people believe she can do it.

CONAN: We're talking with Libby Casey of Alaska Public Radio Network, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

RUDIN: Libby, I just want to tell you a fun story. We're talking about voter intent and how they have to decide what - you look at a ballot and who it's really for. There was - years ago, there was a recount in a New Hampshire Senate race, and one of the votes said crook. And both sides were fighting over that vote, insisting that it was for their candidate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASEY: That's a great one. A friend of mine who's following politics for a long time - Michael Carey, editorial columnist at the Anchorage Daily News - said, you know, it could come down to, like, 200 votes of sort of the quirkiest people of Alaska who end up writing some really quirky stuff on their write-in ballots, you know, and these people could end up deciding the fate of our Senate race.

CONAN: Speaking of quirky stuff, the Republican candidate, Joe Miller, has had some difficulties with the press. Handcuffs have been involved.

Ms. CASEY: That's right. So a reporter was dogging him outside of a public forum that Joe Miller had on Sunday, at a public school in Anchorage, and the Miller's security guards - these are private security guys that the Miller campaign hired - ended up detaining him and handcuffing him. And there's a dispute about sort of how far the reporter went but - and the reporter said, yes, I was a bit assertive, maybe aggressive, but he wasn't threatening necessarily in his opinion and the opinion of people who saw the incident. But the guards made, like, a private person's arrest.

The police have not filed charges against the reporter. The D.A.'s office has not filed charges against the reporter or against the security guards. But it's really tapped into this animosity that's been brewing between the Miller campaign and the press. Because Miller shut down the Alaskan media about a week ago and said I'm not going to answer your questions about my life, my past.

And when we talk about personal questions, we're not talking about, you know, what did you do 20 years ago in college or - these are questions about did he take federal assistance, did he take things like Medicaid, and did his wife take unemployment benefits. These are programs that he has criticized and said unemployment is unconstitutional. It shouldn't be left up to the feds.

People are just trying to marry his personal story with his political beliefs. He shut everybody down, said I'm not going to answer the questions. I'm not going to answer questions about this job I had for the Fairbanks Borough and whether or not I was fired from that job or left willingly from that job. And so there's been a bit of push-pull.

Now, he did go on CNN this week - even though he wouldn't talk to the local Alaska press - and say, yes, it's true. I was disciplined for doing political partisan work on my lunch break at the Borough offices. But it was just a disciplinary matter. I didn't get fired from it. I didn't almost lose my job over it. And, you know, and that's that. But he still hasn't returned Alaska Public Radio Network's calls about what really happened.

CONAN: And in the meantime, Lisa Murkowski, the incumbent we have to remember, who was criticized a great deal for being complacent in the primary run and maybe believing polls that showed her well ahead. She seems to have been, well, energized.

Ms. CASEY: Yes. She's been fired up. Now, the question is how will that translate in the campaign. As you guys know, she has an ad with Ted Stevens now - Ted Stevens who died right before the primary race - the longtime Alaskan, much beloved, longtime senator. So she has that ad that's coming out. And it's packaged very - in a very sort of appropriate way with one of Ted Stevens' daughters sort of talking about why they support Lisa Murkowski.

But is Murkowski and is the Democrat McAdams necessarily going for the jugular to take down the big guy, who's Joe Miller? We haven't necessarily seen that yet. We haven't seen them doing sort of the bury-the-hatchet type of stuff that you might expect since Murkowski did get so burned in the primary because she didn't go for this real intense campaign.

And Miller is throwing some shots at Murkowski now. He's brought a complaint with the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, over some contributors to a super PAC that's supporting Murkowski, saying that there's some funny business going on there. And so she's - even though she's this sort of rouge outside candidate now, she is going to be attacked more and more as Miller sort of needs to hold on to the lead that he had going into the general elections.

CONAN: Fascinating. Libby Casey, thank you very much.

Ms. CASEY: Thanks so much, guys.

CONAN: Libby Casey, Washington correspondent for the Alaska Public Radio Network, where her phone, apparently, isn't ringing. She joined us from her office here in Washington, D.C. When we come back, we're going to focusing on Pennsylvania, where the Senate race is getting pretty interesting - the governor's race, too. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll also talk with Dexter Filkins of The New York Times about the peace talks in Kabul. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In a few minutes, we're going to be talking with Dexter Filkins of The New York Times about his story today about the efforts that NATO has gone to, to bring wanted men, Taliban leaders, to peace talks in Kabul. So stay with us for that.

In the meantime, political junkie Ken Rudin is still with us. We're going to be focusing now on the race in Pennsylvania. If you're in Pennsylvania, how is the race going there? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

The Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey, has had a consistent, though, not overpowering lead. Some recent polls show that Democratic Representative Joe Sestak may be closing the gap. Jon Delano is a political analyst for KDKA TV and joins us from Pittsburgh today. Nice to have you back.

Mr. JON DELANO (Political Analyst, KDKA TV): Nice to be with you, Neal, and Ken.

CONAN: And Sestak is making up ground, you think?

Mr. DELANO: Well, the latest Muhlenberg College poll suggests that Sestak had 44 percent, Toomey had 41 percent, with 15 percent undecided. There have been two prior polls that were done by Democrats for Democratic institutions, and those also suggest that Sestak was ahead of Toomey by a couple of points. This is the first independent poll that we've seen. And as you point out, Neal, all the prior polls have shown Toomey with a single-digit, some double-digit lead over Joe Sestak.

CONAN: What's made the difference if, indeed, there is one?

Mr. DELANO: Well, certainly, the advertising in this state has just gone out the wazoo. I have never seen so many campaign ads on both sides. We have back-to-back ads, you know, one pro-Sestak, one anti-Sestak, one pro-Toomey, one anti-Toomey. This race has been just consistently becoming more and more visible.

The Sestak campaign will tell you that the reason they are pulling ahead now is that voters are finally engaged in understanding who the real Pat Toomey is, and that he's really a very conservative candidate, who does not represent Pennsylvania values and, particularly, Pennsylvania middle-class folks. The attack on Toomey has everything to do with Wall Street and China and taxes and, now, Social Security. I mean, there has just been a barrage against the Republican candidate, and it may just be working.

CONAN: We all know that the wazoo, of course, flows into the Ohio at the same point as the Allegheny and the Monongahela to form the Ohio River.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DELANO: Right here in Pittsburgh.

CONAN: Absolutely. But the attack on Sestak all along, he's a Democratic congressman and votes for the Obama agenda.

Mr. DELANO: Well, not just that. The Toomey ads and his support groups are out there saying that there's liberal, there's very liberal and then there's Sestak. I mean, that this guy is so ultraliberal that he's beyond the pail even in a state like Pennsylvania, which has voted Democratic recently.

The suggestion, again, is that Joe Sestak is a clone of Nancy Pelosi, does exactly what the speaker wants, votes a hundred percent of the time with Nancy Pelosi, ad after ad assailing him on that. The Toomey campaign has been careful. They recognize and they honor him - that is the admiral - for his military service. Joe Sestak has 31 years - had 31 years in the U.S. Navy. They recognize and honor that, but then they just go on to savage him for being a left-wing radical.

CONAN: Left-wing radical admiral.

Robert is on the line. Robert is calling us from - well, it says Robert, Pennsylvania. I suspect they just printed your name twice.

ROBERT (Caller): I am from Philadelphia.

CONAN: Okay. Go ahead, please.

ROBERT: I reflect similarly on your commentator's point of view, and I am going to support Mr. Sestak. However, I really wanted to vote for Mr. Specter. And I think a lot of campaigns just dwindle down to is it going to rain and will the faithful will come out. I think Mr. Specter may have had a better chance had the weather been better in the urban areas. And people were sort of tired after the big Obama race, and they didn't have that energy to follow up, and they assumed he will win. And it didn't happen.

And when Mr. Sestak originally won his poll, he immediately made statements that he had some inner-talkings(ph) with the president, which I thought did not show a good senatorial material, that he couldn't keep confidences. But since the campaign has continued, and I see what the other side is offering, it's no there's no debate for me.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. DELANO: You know, it's interesting, the caller's perspective. I am one who believes that Joe Sestak had a better chance of beating Pat Toomey in November than Arlen Specter.

CONAN: The Republican turned Democrat.

Mr. DELANO: That's right. And the reason is, of course, Democrats had consistently voted against Arlen Specter for many, many years. And so he was voters were being asked in the Democratic primary to support someone that they had voted against traditionally. But more importantly than that, Sestak has been able to position himself just like Toomey did.

But for a Democrat this year, it's highly unusual. As anti-establishment candidate, a candidate who when President Obama said don't run against Arlen Specter, when Governor Rendell said don't run against Arlen Specter, when Senator Casey said don't run against Arlen Specter, Joe Sestak said: sorry, guys, I'm running. And he did. And so he has conveyed an impression, at least, among many as anti-establishment, anti-Washington Democrat. That's a rare breed in the 2010 elections. And I think that's why Joe Sestak, in a race where Pat Toomey should be running away with it, has made this a very close battle indeed.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Jon, the two candidates debate tonight in Philadelphia. What do they both have to do?

Mr. DELANO: Well, I think clearly they have to avoid being put in the position of being fringe radical candidates. That is, in fact, what both camps are trying to do to each other. And I think we're going to watch to see whether or not they can maintain and hew to the middle ground or whether there'll be new information that will be brought out by either side to convince voters who happen to be watching - and the vast majority of Pennsylvanians are not watching this debate, believe me -but those who do watch, can they be convinced that one candidate is truly more moderate than the other or that the other is more extreme?

We have a tradition in Pennsylvania, generally, of supporting people who are right of center, left of center, but not real radical. And this campaign thus far has been an effort to portray the other candidate as just way off base.

CONAN: Jon Delano, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. DELANO: Hey, a pleasure to be with you, guys.

CONAN: Jon Delano, a political analyst for KDKA-TV in Pittsburg, and he joined us from his office there. Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie, will be back with us next Wednesday. And of course that's the big run-up to the election show. So join us for that next Wednesday, right here on TALK OF THE NATION. Ken, as always, thanks for your time.

RUDIN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin. Stay with us. We'll go to Afghanistan.

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