Sharp Elbows Fly as Campaigns Enter the Stretch

The intensity of the political campaign season has risen with just a week to go before voters cast their ballots. Charges and counter-charges are flying at all levels of the political landscape, including a spat between President Bush and his former presidential rival Sen. John Kerry.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Less than a week from now, you may help determine control of Congress if you live in one of the dozens of districts up for grabs.

NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams is tracking the fierce campaigning in the final days. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hope you got a good pair of mud boots.

WILLIAMS: It's getting pretty rough out there. You know, it tends to be that money is the way you can tell the intensity of these things. And right now you're getting infusions of money for additional ads, additional troops for the Get Out The Vote operations in all these states.

Democrats are focused on Senate races in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia in these last few days. The Democrats bought an additional $1.4 million, for example, in ads to attacks Senator George Allen, the incumbent in Virginia.

On the Republican side, additional money is being put into - and this is a surprise to me - Montana, as well as Rhode Island. That's interesting because those two states were seemingly lost for the GOP. That's prompted the Democrats to respond by putting an additional $930,000 into Rhode Island to counter the Republican effort.

INSKEEP: So all this money is going different ways, but how many voters are out there who are really undecided at this point?

WILLIAMS: Fascinating point, Steve, because according to the polls, not many; very few people have yet to make up their minds. So the question is how much power do the polls have in these last few days. And what - the best that the either side can hope to do is to muddy up the other guy, to dirty him up, so the ads are very negative.

But in most elections, independents, you know, split between the parties and with a slight advantage for the challenger this late in the election.

But right now the polls are showing that there just aren't very many independents left to be won over. Independents at this point, according to the numbers, have turned into soft Democrats, which is why the polls still indicate that it looks like it's going to be a good day on Tuesday for the Democrats.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Juan Williams about the fall elections. And let's talk, Juan, about someone who is not on the ballot but who is central to the campaign. President Bush was campaigning yesterday in Georgia.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Democrat approach comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses. And that's what has taken this election. The Democrats want to get us out of Iraq, and the Republican goal is to win in Iraq.

(Soundbite of cheering and clapping)

INSKEEP: Is the president helping his party by being so visible?

WILLIAMS: Well, back and forth on this, even among Republicans who think that they don't want to nationalize this election too much. But the Democrats want it to be a referendum and the president is responding to them.

Later in an interview he added that Democrats don't believe America is at war, but, quote, “Iraq to them is a distraction and not part of the war on terror.” Vice President Cheney in a recent interview said that terrorists know we have an election and they're trying influence the election by stepping up the violence in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Now let's talk about some disagreements between some key players here, some top players. There's been a lot of talk about Senator Kerry and President Bush going back and forth over Kerry's remarks about people being sent to Iraq. We've been talking about that all morning, as a matter of fact. Let's talk about another disagreement, though, here between Vice President Cheney and Congressman Charles Rangel. What are they saying?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, one of the Republican arguments is that the Democrats, if they take control of the Congress, will repeal a lot of the Bush tax breaks and therefore raise taxes.

Vice President Cheney told one interviewer that Charlie here, he's speaking about Congressman Rangel, doesn't understand how the economy works. Congressman Rangel responded that Cheney is a real SOB. He just enjoys confrontation. That's a quote.

And then Rangel was later asked if he was repeating a charge he once made that the vice president has mental issues. And Rangel said, quote, “I don't think he shot anyone in the face lately, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.” It's getting rough out there, Steve.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: And Rangel doesn't enjoy confrontation?

WILLIAMS: No, he says he's warm and cuddly.

INSKEEP: Oh, okay, all right. That's NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams, another warm and cuddly face. Good to see you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much for coming by.

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