Midterm Election Frenzy Sweeps the Nation

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, made news this week by announcing that he will not run for president in 2008. He was considered a frontrunner. But that announcement only served as a brief distraction to the multitude of close House, Senate and gubernatorial races that will be decided in just a few weeks.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now every year when they announce the Nobel Peace Prize, people at NPR ask the same question: How do they keep overlooking our political editor, Ken Rudin? Ken's consolation prize is that he's in our studios to talk about the upcoming election.

Once again, Ken, good morning.

KEN RUDIN: Thank you, I think.

INSKEEP: And he's joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning to you.

MARA LIASSON: Thank you. I'm his devoted factotum.

INSKEEP: Oh, there we go. There we go. Control of Congress is at stake here. And let's start with President Bush's appearance last night at a fundraiser for House Speaker Dennis Hastert. And we have some tape from that event.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Speaker Denny Hastert has a long record of accomplishment. You know, he's not one of these Washington politicians who spews a lot of hot air. He just gets the job done.

INSKEEP: So the president supporting his embattled speaker of the House of Representatives, who's in trouble over his handling of the Mark Foley scandal. And, Ken, let's start with you. Why would the president go out of his way to be seen with somebody who's in so much trouble?

RUDIN: Well, Steve, I think one reason is that nobody else seems to want to.

INSKEEP: So somebody has to, of course.

RUDIN: Speaker Hastert has been dis-invited from many Republican fundraisers because of his role - real or not, perceived or not - in the Mark Foley scandal.

But, you know what? This whole thing may be very well moot, because on November 7th the Democrats could very well take control of Congress. And if that's the case, Speaker Hastert will no longer be Speaker Hastert. And even if the Republicans do retain it, there's a lot of disaffection with what's going on with the Republicans with their campaign tactics. And win or lose, Hastert may be out as leader.

LIASSON: Yeah, you know there's something else that the president can do even now, even with his approval ratings down. He can raise a lot of money, and he raised $1.1 million last night for two House candidates. And that shows you what the president, what the bully pulpit of the White House can do. And, you know, the president has been successful in this campaign at framing the debate at certain moments. He can control events.

You know, somebody said to me it's like the difference between piloting a plane and flying a hang glider. The president has his hand on the controls; the Democrats are more subject to the winds. And the problem is that the Democrats have had a lot of external events like the Foley scandal, like Iraq violence to take advantage of. The question is can the president pilot the plane again and reframe this debate in these last three or four weeks?

INSKEEP: Can the president also say, look, I'm loyal. Dennis Hastert's a Republican. We Republicans have to stick together and we need to keep Congress in the control of the Republicans.

LIASSON: Sure. It's a morale booster for Republicans.

INSKEEP: Now let's talk about a couple of Senate races here. Ken is just back from Tennessee. What did you see?

RUDIN: Well, what I did see is that - this is a seat that Majority Leader Bill Frist is giving up ostensibly to run for the presidency. And this is thought to be a Republican state with a Republican likely to win. Democrats haven't won it since Al Gore left the Senate back in 1992.

Two things. The Republican nominee, Bob Corker, is not running an effective campaign. He seems to be off his stride. And the real surprising thing is Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., African-American from Memphis, Tennessee, is really bowling over a lot of voters. He's talking a lot about his faith. He's a very centrist kind of Democrat and not one of those Nancy Pelosi liberals that certainly wouldn't sell well in Tennessee.

And it's very interesting. One, voters are not talking about race. And you'd think, given the fact that no black has ever been elected to the Senate from the South in history, you'd think this would be some major thing, but (unintelligible)...

INSKEEP: In recent history anyway.

LIASSON: Since Reconstruction.

RUDIN: Since Reconstruction, right, which Mara remembers, because she covered that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: But two, the fact is that the Republicans seem to off their game. It's a national problem for the Republicans, but it's certainly true in Tennessee as well.

INSKEEP: Mara Liasson, let's check on another state where a Republican is trying to keep his job: Rhode Island.

LIASSON: Rhode Island is the bluest state where a Republican incumbent is running this year. It was Gore's best state in 2000 and Kerry's second best in 2004.

Lincoln Chafee, who's the Republican incumbent, is a very liberal Republican. He's so liberal he didn't even vote for George Bush for reelection; he actually wrote in the name of his father, George H. W. Bush.

But his opponent, the former attorney general, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse -and that really is his name - is running a very unusual issue in Rhode Island. He's running on partisan control of the Senate.

He's saying you might like Lincoln Chafee, he might fit the profile of the liberal state, but he is a vote for Mitch McConnell, or whoever is going to be the next majority leader of the Senate.

INSKEEP: Well, let me talk about...

LIASSON: ...and that's very abstract concept, but he thinks it's going to work.

INSKEEP: Well, that's interesting because it's said over and over again that voters just focus on their local senator or their local congressman. Are people thinking nationally this year?

LIASSON: Well, this is an election that has been nationalized to a large degree. But at least in Rhode Island someone like Lincoln Chafee is counting on his personal bond with the voters of Rhode Island. And this will be a test of how strongly the anti-Republican tide is, how much this election has been nationalized versus the power of individual candidates.

INSKEEP: Ken and Mara, I have to ask about one other thing. Because even though we're in the middle of an election season, it's never too early to think about the next election. And Mark Warner, former Virginia governor, Democrat that a lot of Democrats were looking at, has said that he is not going to run for president in 2008. What do each of you make of that?

RUDIN: Well, first of all, it's not too early to talk about it. The day after George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, the 2008 presidential election began. Mark Warner had done everything right. He'd been raising tons of money. He's making a lot of appearances. Very good receptions in Iowa and New Hampshire.

INSKEEP: And he was running, for sure.

RUDIN: There was no question he was running. He had his own political action committee. He was donating money to different candidates for 2006. Apparently, he just said he's not ready yet. His family is not ready yet. Now the question everybody wants to know is who benefits. Certainly those who wanted an alternative to Hillary Rodham Clinton do lose a good candidate, because the last three Democrats who were elected president were all from the South: Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But to say who benefits, I noticed most of the newspapers this morning are saying, well, Evan Bayh may, you know, do better for this. That's nonsense.

This time in 1992, nobody ever heard of Bill Clinton in the cycle, yet he went on to win the nomination. Somebody will win this nomination. It's not too late for the Democrats. It's not a fatal blow. But it's interesting that somebody who was clearly going to run is not running.

LIASSON: Look, this Democratic nominating contest is shaping up to be Hillary Clinton versus someone else. And now the someone else slot has a vacuum in it for the moment. It probably will be a red state governor. Mark Warner was the red state governor du jour for a while. Now somebody else is probably going to move in to fill that vacuum.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, Thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ken Rudin, thank you.

RUDIN: And Nobel Peace Prize winner.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's right. Congratulations as well. You can read more about his prize at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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