U.S. Politics Focus on 2006 Elections

Steve Inskeep talks to Cokie Roberts about the American reaction to the formation of a government in Iraq, and limits to the U.S. commitment to the country. Also, they talk about 2006 election-cycle developments and the re-election of Ray Nagin in New Orleans.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts has been listening with us to Ambassador Khalilzad. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I want to play you something else that the ambassador said. I asked if he is warning Iraqis that there is a limit to the U.S. commitment in Iraq, and he said, yes, there is a limit.

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD (U.S. Ambassador, Iraq): We want to help, because we see Iraq's success as our success. But it's ultimately their responsibility to make sure they do the right thing, that they contain sectarianism, and that they build effective forces that work for all Iraqis. Our role is to assist, and we're prepared to do that.

INSKEEP: Now, Cokie, is there a political limit in the U.S. to how long the Bush administration can support Iraq's government if the news from there doesn't improve?

ROBERTS: Oh, absolutely, and that's, of course, what we're seeing in all of the polls. The reason the president is so low in all the polls, according to all the analysis, is the war in Iraq. And, no, Steve, we've criticized the Pentagon for not allowing pictures of coffins - flag-draped coffins to be shown coming back from Iraq.

What the administration wants to show now is homecoming ceremonies - of flag-waving ceremonies, people greeting soldiers returning from Iraq. And if that doesn't happen anytime soon, that is a huge problem not only for the president, but for Republicans in Congress.

Now, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said last week that he couldn't guarantee a draw-down in troops this year, and that will be a terrible problem for the president. His numbers could stay in the basement then, and then his fellow Republicans run away from him, especially his conservative Republican base.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about something else that conservative Republicans have been following closely. There was a primary last week in Pennsylvania and Republicans were especially interested in the results.

ROBERTS: Because a bunch of conservative Republicans ousted in the primary sitting members of the state legislature - and they had an immediate cause: They were mad at them over pay raises. But the president, you know, is a problem for everyone there, because they asked him to lead, for instance, on a question like immigration, he gets out, makes a big speech, and the conservatives didn't like what he said.

So they are just rebelling in the party, and anybody who doesn't go along with them is in trouble. And anybody who goes along with the president is in trouble. And if that's true for Republicans, Steve, think how true that is for any Democrat who's been going along with the president.

INSKEEP: Oh, my gosh! The Democrats have been divided all along, haven't they? And maybe that's being shown in Connecticut where Joe Lieberman, a Senator who supported the war, discovered he's going to have a primary who's an anti-war Democrat.

ROBERTS: And that's going to be a problem for him, because even though Lieberman is popular, and even though he's likely to vastly outspend any opponent, that Pennsylvania election shows that outspending doesn't necessarily do it. Those challengers were greatly outspent and they won. And another place that the incumbent was greatly outspent was in New Orleans, where the incumbent won, having been outspent.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. You're hometown - New Orleans.

ROBERTS: Right.

INSKEEP: Ray Nagin will remain the mayor for another four years. I don't know if anybody would really want that job, but he's got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Very interesting election, because he not only won a vast majority of the black vote, but he also won the conservative white vote. Republicans who had run in the primary endorsed him. The people in the uptown neighborhoods of New Orleans decided that voting for a Democrat - Mitch Landrieu - was something they just didn't want to do. They stayed with the mayor, even despite his troubles.

But, unfortunately, New Orleans' troubles are not over, Steve. There were reports today of the Congressman from New Orleans, William Jefferson, having been videotaped accepting bribes. So New Orleans will continue to have it's problems for some time to come.

Well, thanks very much. That's NPR News Analyst, Cokie Roberts, who joins us every Monday morning.

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