Touching All the Bases on Political Races
LYNN NEARY, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Lynn Neary.
The curious and fascinating spectacle of an American election - part beauty contest, part insult-fest, part debate over the common good - reaches its peak this weekend. Taking center stage: a struggle for control of the U.S. Congress. We go now to NPR reporters across the country who have covering some of the most hard-fought political battles of the season, and some of the most intriguing.
NPR's Juan Williams is in Philadelphia. He's been covering several races in eastern Pennsylvania, where incumbent Republican congressmen are fighting for their political lives. Juan, thanks for being with us.
JUAN WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Lynn.
NEARY: What is the latest on prospects for these three congressmen: Curt Weldon, Jim Gerlach and Michael Fitzpatrick?
WILLIAMS: Weldon is just about done, Lynn. He's a 10-term incumbent, and he was expected to do well until he ran into a real scandal. And that has been the theme of his campaign. So the Democrat there, Joe Sestak, looks like he has a victory in hand.
In the two other races, Jim Gerlach versus Lois Murphy - Gerlach, the Republican incumbent, is in a neck-and-neck race. And the same is true in the 8th Congressional District, where you have the Republican, Mike Fitzpatrick - a first-term Republican - running against Patrick Murphy, who is an Iraq War veteran and strongly anti-war. So both of those are close races.
NEARY: So what's produced these close races? Have the districts changed, or is this just a bad year to run as a Republican?
WILLIAMS: I think what you're seeing here is Pennsylvania is a key state, a swing state, and in these districts, these are people who are - you know, have a strong sense of voting, let's say, for Kerry, for Gore, for Clinton, even as they were sending a Republican to the House. And now with all the trouble over the Iraq War, they're taking a second look.
NEARY: What other issues are the Democratic candidates emphasizing?
WILLIAMS: Well, the war is the big one. But then you also get, for example, stem cell research in the 8th District, the one with Fitzpatrick and Murphy. You get a real difference of opinion on stem cells. And I should mention that, for example, in the 6th Congressional District, you get Lois Murphy and Gerlach. And again, taxes becomes a big issues with Gerlach, saying that Murphy is the kind of Democrat who's going to raise your taxes, and Murphy saying absolutely not. She only wants to do away with tax cuts for the upper five percent of Americans.
So it's taxes. To some extent, immigration comes in. There are lots of local issues, but it keeps coming back to the war issue, Murphy running lots of ads tying Gerlach to President Bush and to the war.
NEARY: And that seems to be the trend nationally.
WILLIAMS: It is the trend. And what's really reflected here is Republicans going local, Democrats trying to reflect the national referendum idea on the war, and especially on President Bush. In all three Congressional districts, the president is roundly unpopular. His numbers do not exceed 30 percent or so in any of these districts.
NEARY: NPR's Juan Williams speaking with us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for joining us today, Juan.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Lynn.
NEARY: Next, two reports from the West. In Montana, a Senate race between three-term Republican incumbent Conrad Burns and Democratic challenger Jon Tester has turned into a cliffhanger. For months, Tester led in the polls, but now Burns appears to be catching up.
NPR's David Welna is in Missoula.
DAVID WELNA: Nestled here among snowcapped mountains on Montana's far western flank, Missoula is the state's second biggest city. It's a university town, and it's probably the most liberal political bastion in a state where the further east you go, the more conservative voters tend to be. That's why Jon Tester sees Missoula as key to winning on Tuesday. Here's what he told a crowd here Thursday night...
Mr. JON TESTER (Democratic Senatorial Candidate, Montana): This is a close election. It's far closer than it ought to be. I'm telling you, it's far closer than it ought to be. The people who's going to win this election for Jon Tester - the people who's going to win this election for the people of the state of Montana - the people who are going to win this election for this country are the people in this town.
WELNA: But Conrad Burns is pinning the same kind of hopes on a big turnout in Billings, his hometown and Montana's biggest city. It's on the western edge of the state's more conservative side. And it's where Burns appeared for the first time in this campaign on Thursday with President Bush, who gave his own pitch for getting out the vote for Burns.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Work hard between now and Election Day. Turn out to vote, and Conrad Burns will be reelected for the United States Senate. God bless.
WELNA: Not a word at that rally about the contributions Burns received from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But voters here are hearing plenty about it on TV, where Democrats keep running ads that juxtapose a photo of Burns with one of Abramoff in a black fedora and trench coat. Burns's camp is fighting back with ads warning Montanans that a Senator Tester would raise their taxes and work to repeal the Patriot Act.
National Republicans have ponied up more than $300,000 for such ads these last days of the campaign. That's because a defeat for Burns here could well mean Republicans losing control of the Senate, depending on how some other very tight Senate races turn out. Both sides here are urging supporters to vote absentee and spend Election Day getting more voters to the polls.
David Welna, NPR News, Missoula, Montana.
LUKE BURBANK: I'm Luke Burbank in Nevada, where folks have been glued to the governor's race - not so much because of the political implications, but because of the series of juicy scandals that have rocked the Republican candidate, Jim Gibbons. A month ago, Gibbons was cruising to a comfortable lead over Democratic opponent Dina Titus. Then Friday the 13th hit - October 13th, to be exact.
On that night, a drunken 32-year-old cocktail waitress named Chrissy Mazzeo called 911 from this Las Vegas parking lot I'm standing in. Mazzeo alleged Gibbons had grabbed her in an attempt to get her back to his hotel room. They'd been drinking together just over there at a McCormick and Schmick's restaurant.
Gibbons said he grabbed Mazzeo's arm when she slipped on the pavement, and that it was innocent. The series of legal twists and turns though that followed have kept the story on the cover of every paper here in Nevada. Adding to Gibbons's problems are charges that he and his wife knowingly hired an illegal alien to work as a nanny, and that during his time as a congressman, Gibbons steered millions of dollars in contracts towards his friend. Gibbons denies all the allegations.
So that's the bad news for Jim Gibbons. The relative good news is that after the public relations month from hell he's been going through, he still leads Dina Titus in the polls, if only by a small margin.
Other interesting races here in Nevada include the 3rd Congressional District, where Democrat Tessa Hafen has been gaining ground on Republican incumbent John Porter. On the Senate side, Republican incumbent John Ensign seems to be pulling away from his Democratic challenger, Jack Carter, son of former President Jimmy Carter.
From a parking lot just off the Las Vegas strip, Luke Burbank, NPR News.
NEARY: If there's anything really going to the Republican's way, it's the race for governor of California. NPR's Ina Jaffe joins us now from NPR West. Ina, good to have you with us.
INA JAFFE: Hi, Lynn.
NEARY: Now, the polls are showing Arnold Schwarzenegger with double-digit - a double-digit lead.
JAFFE: It really is a remarkable political resurrection, Lynn. I mean, a year ago he was absolutely creamed by the voters in a special election. They didn't care that he was a big, famous movie star. They didn't like any of the initiatives that he put on the ballot and they didn't like his strident partisan rhetoric in the way he had a sort of bullying manner.
And he said he got the message, and all this year he acted like he really did. He signed bills that people cared about in the state. He signed one to raise the minimum wage, one to curb global warming, one to help poor people get prescription drugs. And it also conveniently had the side effect of cutting the legs out from under his Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, the state treasurer.
NEARY: California's congressional Republicans look like they're fighting the same kind of battles that Republicans are fighting all around the country.
JAFFE: That's absolutely right, Lynn. There's a race in the 4th Congressional District in the northeast corner of the state. That's where incumbent John Doolittle is running for reelection. He's been tarnished by his association with Jack Abramoff, as have other candidates across the country.
And his opponent is Charlie Brown who - like a lot of Democrats running this year - is a military veteran, a former lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. Also in the 11th Congressional District, incumbent Richard Pombo is getting a big challenge from an engineer named Jerry McNerney, and also from environmental groups who really loathe the fact that he's trying to rewrite the endangered species act.
NEARY: NPR's Ina Jaffe, speaking with us from NPR West. Thanks for being with us, Ina.
JAFFE: You're welcome.
NEARY: President Bush is making appearances exclusively in Republican strongholds in the days leading up to the midterm elections. NPR's Don Gonyea is with him in Greeley, Colorado this morning.
DON GONYEA: The president says it's a sprint to Tuesday's finish line. For his part, he's taking off and touching down at airports in states he himself carried in 2004, hoping to limit Democratic gains by maximizing Republican voter turnout.
President BUSH: I want to thank all the grassroots activists who are here. Grassroots activists are those who put up the signs, those who make the phone calls, those who turn out to vote.
GONYEA: That was Missouri yesterday in Springfield, where freshman Republican Senator Jim Talent is in a very tight battle with Claire McCaskill, the state auditor. Before the president takes the stage at these events, there are warm-up acts, mostly local politicians and a pumped-up music playlist blasting from loudspeakers, though sometimes the songs can leave you wondering about how they fit in with the goal of keeping Republicans in control in Washington.
(Soundbite of song, "We're Not Gonna Take it Anymore")
QUIET RIOT (Rock Band): (Singing) We're not gonna take it anymore.
GONYEA: On a personal level, President Bush seems to be enjoying stumping for GOP candidates. His speech is also a bit of a greatest hits performance. He says Democrats will raise taxes, that they're running a campaign based on criticism and not on solutions. As for the Democrats and Iraq...
President BUSH: The principle they agree on is get out before the job is done.
(Soundbite of booing)
President BUSH: Look, I'm not saying these people are unpatriotic. I'm just saying they're wrong.
(Soundbite of cheering)
GONYEA: Of course the danger for the president in this election is that the polls show a majority of Americans think he is wrong in the way he has led and managed the Iraq war, and that is a major issue even in states where Mr. Bush himself remains relatively popular. Today, his sprint continues to Colorado. Then after a break at his ranch tonight to celebrate the First Lady's 60th birthday, he's off to Kansas and Nebraska tomorrow. Then on Monday, it's rallies in Arkansas, Florida and Texas. Don Gonyea, NPR News, traveling with the president in Le Mars, Iowa.
NEARY: You can find analysis and projections for Tuesday's House, Senate and gubernatorial races in NPR's interactive election map. That's at npr.org...COST: $00.00