Labor Day Kicks Off U.S. Political Season

Labor Day is traditionally the start of the political season. And any reminder of terrorist threats or successes in the fight against terrorism buoys Republicans and may be among the factors that will play a role in upcoming primary and midterm elections.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's get more now from NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts, who's working for us on this Labor Day. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

And happy Labor Day to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. How much does it matter that there appears to be a bit of positive news out of Iraq at the start of the traditional election season?

ROBERTS: Well, I think the Republicans hope that it will matter a good deal. And generally, any reminder, Steve, of terrorist threats - if catching terrorists works for the president and for the Republicans. And you see this series of speeches from administration spokespeople, various secretaries of the cabinet, the president himself - once again going on the offensive on this question and saying that the war in Iraq is a response to terrorism, and it's making the world safer. Now the Democrats are fighting back on this. And the public is highly skeptical of it, but we're going into the September 11th fifth year anniversary, and there will be many more reminders of the attack on our soil and the fact that there hasn't been another one since then in five years.

And it shows you how tough it is to be the party that's out of power, Steve, because you have coming up this week at least two Democratic presidential hopefuls who will be making what they bill as major terrorism speeches - former Virginia Governor Mark Warner is at George Mason University and Delaware Senator Joseph Biden at the Press Club. But they can't get the attention that the president will on the anniversary of September 11th.

Now, it would be better for the Republicans if the anniversary were October 11th - that much closer to the election - because there is now some time, of course, between now and then.

INSKEEP: We should mention that before Republicans and Democrats can focus fully on attacking and denouncing each other, they've still got some internal fighting to do.

ROBERTS: They do indeed and there's some very interesting primaries still coming up, even this late in the season. One against Hillary Clinton in New York, where her opponent is hoping to ride the antiwar wave that brought in Ned Lamont as the Democratic nominee in the neighboring state of Connecticut. But at this moment, Senator Clinton is running well ahead.

Tomorrow in Florida there is a somewhat for the Republicans embarrassing primary because Katherine Harris - famous from the post-2000 election days in Florida - is running for the Senate and looks like she's likely to win the Republican nomination, and the Republicans wish that they had a stronger candidate. But, again, there Bill Nelson - the Democrat who's in the Senate -looks fairly safe, anyway.

The biggest problem for the Republicans is the one coming up next week in Rhode Island, where incumbent Lincoln Chafee - the most liberal Republican in the Senate - has a conservative opponent that the national Republican Party is not backing, Stephen Laffey. Again, very similar to the Connecticut situation, just the other way around. The difference here is that if Chafee loses - which at the moment it looks like he's likely to do - then the Republicans are very likely to lose that seat. So that's a big problem for them.

INSKEEP: Cokie, a lot of prognosticating has been in the paper the last couple of days. You open USA Today and they're predicting the Democrats may gain in the Senate, but maybe not gain control. Republicans might stay in charge there. And then open your Washington Post and they're quoting Republicans saying that there's a very strong chance that Democrats could take the House away from them. Do you agree?

ROBERTS: Well, a lot of people are saying that. The Democrats need 15 seats to take the House, six to take the Senate. There's a lot more opportunity for the Democrats in the House, and the Democrats are very hopeful. The national mood is sour. Fewer than a third of the people in most polls say that the country's going in the right direction. That is the recipe for defeating the incumbent party.

But it's such an odd year, Steve, when almost anything can make and break a political candidate, and fortunes rise and fall. Arnold Schwarzenegger looked terrible at this time last year. Now he's riding high. Unexpected events, both external and internal to the political process, happen. And you take something like Joe Lieberman's defeat in the Democratic primary in Connecticut, his strong run as an independent can affect three endangered Republicans in the Connecticut House races, and all the calculations change. So more to come.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts, who joins us each Monday morning, including this Labor Day Monday. There's more political commentary at npr.org, where you will find these columns: Political Junkie by NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin - who is on the 12-step program - and Watching Washington by Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving.

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