Bailout Looms Large Over Fall Campaign

With the first presidential debate coming Friday, the candidates are walking a tightrope on the new economic bailout plan. And VP candidate Sarah Palin will visit the United Nations this week.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand. The economy is now the biggest issue in the presidential election. There are six weeks to go, but some voters can cast their ballots now. Three states, Georgia, Kentucky, and Virginia, allow early voting beginning today, more than 30 states have some form of early voting between now and November 4th. Joining us now to talk about this and other aspects of the campaign is NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. And Ron that all adds up to about a third of the country expected to take advantage of early voting this year, and that seems to be a lot. How will it affect the presidential race?

RON ELVING: Madeleine, in the past it really hasn't affected it much, but this could be the year this phenomenon really grows up. You only had 16 percent - one six percent voting this way in 2000, up to about 22 percent last time, in 2004. This year looks like it might be up again half from that amount. And, you know, at that point you really are talking about an extended decision-making period for an awful lot of people who may not have made up their minds at this juncture.

You would think that the people who would be most eager to vote would be the people who had made up their mind, you know, five years ago, people who have every reason to think they know exactly who they're going to vote for on November 4th. But as we get closer, and as we get past the debates and we get closer to November 4th, we're going to be seeing people who are not decided at this point, and who are making up their minds in the next few weeks, joining the early voting ranks. So, this could be a whole new way to look at the way a presidential election gets decided.

BRAND: Well, presumably the campaigns are already looking at this and they have their strategies, and their plans. What are they doing differently this time around, to court those voters?

ELVING: Well, first of all they have to think in terms of early voting states, the ones you mentioned, and of course 25 others that are voting a little early. Those are the places you want to concentrate your efforts, those that are at all competitive, and that's the place you want to make your visits. You take, for example, of those first three states, Virginia's the biggest one. The two candidates have been in and out of Virginia almost constantly for the last couple of weeks and they're obviously consonant - or cognitive - of this particular early voting opportunity in Virginia. But more broadly, the candidates can't hold back. They can't say, well, we'll do the debates and then we'll really gear up the campaign. They can't hold back on their strongest arguments or their toughest ads. They can't say, six weeks to go, let's keep a lot of arrows in the quiver. They've got to be out there, pushing it as though we're right up against the clock.

BRAND: Well, speaking of the clock, there will likely be a package - a bailout package for Wall Street this week. Both senators will likely have to go back to Washington to vote on this package. How will that play out?

ELVING: The vote probably will come this week, but of course they have the debate coming up on Friday night, so they need to be in St. Louis on Friday night. If the debate is going to be on Friday we may have to see them interrupt their debate preparation and get back here to Washington to cast a vote that could be critical. They probably are both going to wind up wanting to be on the side of putting through the package and saving the economy, if that's still how we all perceive it in another 72 hours. But they probably will also want to have at least one or two symbolic votes that they can cast along the way, perhaps amendments, perhaps versions of the bill that are a little different. And they're going to want to be able to show that they're on the side of protecting the little guy, the mortgage holder, the person who has a house that might be lost, and not on the side of the big banks.

BRAND: Well, this first debate on Friday, as you mentioned, it's supposed to be about foreign policy, and given what's happened on Wall Street in the last week or so, how likely is it that it will be still about foreign policy?

ELVING: It will still be about foreign policy in the main, but they're going to have to admit other questions. How could you possibly have a debate after a week like this and not get into what these candidates think of the bailout and what they would do if they were already president. And I think one of the questions that would clearly have to be asked of each one would be, who's your Henry Paulson? Hank Paulson, the current Treasury Secretary, is setting up a system in which the Treasury Department is going to run an enormous amount of the economy, it's going to be largely under one person, so I think the two candidates might fairly be asked, who's your person?

BRAND: It's interesting that John McCain mentioned Andrew Cuomo to head the SEC.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELVING: Yes, that had to be a shock to a lot of people, maybe including Andrew Cuomo. This is a man whose name is synonymous with Democrats. Cuomo, he was showing again, he has the capability to surprise people, shake things up, act like a maverick, and reach across party lines.

BRAND: OK, you were mentioning foreign policy. The U.N. General Assembly convenes this week in New York. Senator McCain is introducing Sarah Palin to foreign leaders. Who?

ELVING: There are quite a few getting on the dance card as a matter of fact. Tomorrow, Afghan president Hamid Karzai, also the Colombian president, Alvarez Rebay Velez, and a sit-down with former U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Then on Wednesday the presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Iraq, the prime minister of India, and activist Bono from U2.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: OK, well thank you. That's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Always a pleasure talking to us on Mondays. Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

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