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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In the Sunshine State, they're talking about a new senator. In the Palmetto State, they're talking impeachment, and a master's thesis enters the governor's race in the Old Dominion. It's Wednesday and time for another visit with the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Former Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad. Where's the beef?

Former Senator BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

CONAN: On Wednesday's, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us. This week, summa cum laude trouble. The Washington Post unearths Bob McConnell's master's thesis, less than grade-A work for the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia. Louisiana Congressman Charlie Melancon will challenge Senator David Vitter. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine continues to lag behind his Republican challenger, Chris Christie. And earlier today, former Congressman James Traficant was released from prison.

Later, we'll focus on Massachusetts and what happens to the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, and former Senator Bob Dole will join us to talk about health care and what he thinks President Obama needs to do now. But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. As always, we'll start with a trivia question.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal. Well, let's see. There are reports that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is seriously talking about running for governor of New York. So the trivia question this week is: Who were the last two people who went from mayor to governor with no office in between?

CONAN: So you had to be an incumbent mayor, running for governor of whatever state, not just New York.

RUDIN: Or even a former mayor but went straight from mayor to governor without being elected to something in between.

CONAN: Oh, something in between. All right. So give us a call, 800-989-8255, or email us, talk@npr.org. You've got to get them both right. When you do, you'll win, of course, a fabulous no-prize T-shirt from TALK OF THE NATION's political junkie.

So in the meantime, Ken, we have to remind ourselves - people may have forgotten what James Traficant sounded like. This is what the former congressman was known for when he was - back in 2002, at a House Ethics Committee inquiry, responding to an argument for his expulsion from Congress.

Former Congressman JAMES TRAFICANT (Democrat, Ohio): I want you to disregard all the opposing counsel has said. I think they're delusionary. I think they've had something funny for lunch in their meal. I think they should be handcuffed to a chain-link fence, flogged, and all of their hearsay evidence should be thrown the hell out. And if they lie again, I'm going to go over and kick them in the crotch. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Former congressman, after seven years for corruption, served - let out of prison today and astonished reporters by walking past an outstretched microphone and saying nothing.

RUDIN: Right. We actually know him as Federal Inmate 31213-060. Jim Traficant was one of a kind in Congress. He had the worst hairpiece in the world, the worst polyester suits in the world, the worst everything, but he was entertaining. And of course, they loved him back in Youngstown, Ohio, which has been devastated economically for years, but of course, he was also in trouble a lot, ethically. He was always under some ethics investigation, and in 2002, he was only the second member of Congress since the Civil War to be expelled because of ethics problems.

CONAN: Only two? Who was the other one?

RUDIN: I think it was Ozzie Myers during Abscam. Remember, he was married to Harriet for a while, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Anyway, so anyway, they had this big plan, this big welcome-home-Jimbo plan today or tomorrow in Youngstown.

CONAN: People are going to wear denim suits, wear skinny ties and bell-bottoms.

RUDIN: Well, I hear that Colonel Gaddafi may be there because, you know, they - no, I'm sorry, Neal just made a face. Okay, I made that part up. But you know, you either loved him or hated him, and a lot of people did both, but Traficant was really one of a kind.

CONAN: Talk - he may try to run again.

RUDIN: He has not ruled it out. Of course, he did try to run for Congress from prison, and he was defeated. Tim Ryan, who is the congressman who has succeeded him in the Youngstown area, is still very popular in that district.

CONAN: Well, let's talk about elections that are actually under way. And going back to that governor's race in Virginia, the Washington Post found a copy of Bob McDonnell's master's thesis from Regent University, which, well, expressed some views that may not turn out to be too positive for him in this election.

RUDIN: The Washington Post - Ruth Marcus, the columnist, today in the Washington Post said this could be his macaca moment, obviously referring to what George Allen said en route to the presidency, when he was running for re-election in 2006.

CONAN: You remember President…

RUDIN: George Allen, exactly. Anyway, Bob McDonnell, in his master's thesis, talked about how working women and feminists are detrimental to family. The government should favor married couples over homosexuals and fornicators. So anyway, the whole thing was really, I mean, very, very extreme Republican - no, I should say just extreme philosophy on abortion, on gays, on working women, things like that.

Now, Democrats love this because McDonnell in the latest polls was up, like, 14 points over his Democratic opponent, Creigh Deeds. Republicans really want to win Virginia and New Jersey to show that they are back in the game, but McDonnell has taken a hit. His polls - his lead has now been cut in half. Democrats are now running wild with this. The Washington Post is running stories about this completely. The question is whether this was Bob McDonnell back in 1989, when he was, you know, at Regent University.

CONAN: Thirty-five years old, we should point out.

RUDIN: Right, right, before he'd ever run before, or this is still the conservative philosophy. Now, he's a very conservative guy. He's trying to bypass a lot of that conservative philosophy in his campaign for governor this year. The question is which Bob McDonnell is the real one. Democrats are trying to make the point that what we saw in '89 is the same thing 20 years later.

CONAN: And the other race that's under way, that is a big race in the governorship in New Jersey. Chris Christie, the Republican, well ahead of the incumbent, Democrat Jon Corzine. Then he ran into some trouble with reports in the newspapers about $46,000 and bad reports, it turns out, that hasn't cut into his lead a bit.

RUDIN: No because obviously, the economy in New Jersey is really, really suffering. Jon Corzine has not recovered from his drop in popularity, of course he being the former Goldman Sachs investor who made so much money. Corzine is - you know, the problem is he is the incumbent, and New Jersey has suffered in the past four years, probably more than just four years. But Democrats have seemed to be smiling a little more in Virginia and New Jersey than they did a few weeks ago.

CONAN: And we think we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to our trivia question, and that is the last two people to be elected governor of a state after their last political office being mayor. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Eric(ph) from Minneapolis.

ERIC (Caller): Hi, Neal. I believe it was - one of them was Jesse Ventura. He went from the mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to the governor's mansion, and LaGuardia of New York.

CONAN: Fiorello LaGuardia I don't believe was ever governor.

RUDIN: He was not. LaGuardia was never elected governor, and while Jesse Ventura was mayor and did become governor, he is not the most recent case of that happening.

ERIC: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Eric. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jacob(ph), Jacob with us from Flint, Michigan.

JACOB (Caller): Is it Jeb Bush and Sarah Palin?

CONAN: Jeb Bush in Texas - Florida.

RUDIN: Jeb Bush in Florida and Sarah Palin. Well, you have to get both right, and Jeb Bush was never mayor. Actually, the first thing he ever ran for was governor of Florida in 1994. He was defeated in 1994, elected in 1998. So Jeb Bush is not the right answer.

JACOB: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much, and let's go next to - this is Ethan(ph), Ethan with us from North Canton in Ohio.

ETHAN (Caller): Sarah Palin and George Voinovich.

RUDIN: George Voinovich was mayor of Cleveland, and he ran for the Senate and was defeated for the Senate. Then he was elected governor, but again, that was back in the 1990s - I think it was 1990.

CONAN: Then he ran again for the Senate, but anyway.

RUDIN: Right, but I'm looking for somebody more recent than George Voinovich.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much, Ethan, but good ears. Nice listening. Let's see if we can talk now to Bill(ph), Bill with us from Easton in Maryland.

BILL (Caller): Yes, hi, how are you all?

CONAN: Good.

BILL: Sarah Palin and Martin O'Malley.

RUDIN: That is the correction combination.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: 2006, Sarah Palin was the mayor of Wasilla, and then she became governor and hasn't been heard from since. I don't know…

CONAN: Whatever happened to her? I think she's on her way to Hong Kong.

RUDIN: And Martin - no, she's actually writing a book. She's writing a book.

CONAN: On the plane to Hong Kong, but anyway.

RUDIN: And Martin O'Malley, the mayor of Baltimore, who was elected governor, beating Bob Ehrlich in 2006. He's - the caller is correct.

CONAN: All right, Bill, we're going to put you on hold. We'll get your vital information, and you'll be the happy recipient of a TALK OF THE NATION Political Junkie no-prize T-shirt.

BILL: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. In the meantime, there's other political news to talk about. We're going to be focusing on the succession in Massachusetts after the break, but there is also succession, senatorial, to talk about in Florida.

RUDIN: This is the seat where Mel Martinez is retiring after one year. Charlie Crist, the Republican governor of Florida, who wants that Senate seat, was forced to name a replacement for Martinez, who decided to quit early. There's something about Republicans and quitting. We've seen a lot of that.

CONAN: Oh no, no, no, that…

RUDIN: Sarah Palin, Kay Bailey Hutchison - anyway, and so he decided to name - he could've named another Hispanic. Mel Martinez was the only Hispanic Republican in the Senate. He could've named any one of several former congressman.

CONAN: He could have named himself.

RUDIN: He could have named himself, although that would have been disaster, as we've seen in history, but anyway, he named George LeMieux, a 40-year-old who was…

CONAN: His nickname isn't Pepe, is it?

RUDIN: Not Pepe LeMieux, no, but a former chief of staff. Now, the Democrats went ballistic on this because, of course, you know, it's cronyism at its worst. You name your former chief of staff. You know, it's egoism at its worst. Of course, Democrats were very quiet when in Delaware, Joe Biden, when he was elected vice president, they named his former chief of staff to succeed him, to hold the seat for Beau Biden, who's going to probably run in 2010. But anyway, the point is they're both right. It is cronyism, and Democrats do it, too.

CONAN: And we'll talk also about the opinion polls that have come out. The president, not so strong, according to a lot of analysis. His numbers are dropping faster than any other president in recent memory. And also Congress, the Democratically run Congress, their poll numbers dropping, too.

RUDIN: Well, you know, we talk about how popular Barack Obama was, and we spent a lot of them in the last couple of months talking about how popular the president is, and yet when you look at his numbers, by all accounts, President Obama's numbers are lower than George W. Bush's were at this time in 2001. So of course, you know, passing of a health care bill or some great movement on that front could change the numbers, but right now, his numbers have been plummeting.

CONAN: And in the Congress - this is bad news. I think just before the last election, I think it was something like 55 percent of Americans said they prefer the Democrats over the Republicans. Now it seems to be a dead heat.

RUDIN: It is, but of course, the key is getting the right candidates. And of course, we're still a year and a half or a year plus two months before the 2010 elections, but the out party is always favored in mid-term elections except for rare exceptions. You think that the Republicans will be making gains. The point is, in a lot of - in races against a lot of these vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Republicans still have not come up with great candidates. But of course, a year from now, things can change.

CONAN: And a lot of Republicans have to defend Senate seats this time around, too. So that's - the math does not work in their favor in that house of Congress, either.

Ken Rudin, stay with us. We're talking with the political junkie. Up next: How to replace Ted Kennedy. Illinois let the governor appoint its next senator, and well, we remember how that turned out. Should Massachusetts wait for a special election in January to fill the seat? Many don't like that idea, either, with a number of important items up before then, including Senator Kennedy's favorite issue: health care.

If you live in the Bay State, give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can also send us email, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, and let's begin this segment with a trivia question for political junkie Ken Rudin. When was the last time there was no member of the Kennedy family in the Senate or the House of Representatives?

RUDIN: Well, John Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1952. He was elected to the House in '46. When he was elected president in 1960, they would have loved to have had Ted Kennedy appointed to the seat, but Ted Kennedy was not 30 years old yet. So then they appointed JFK's college roommate, the very famous Benjamin Smith II. We talk about him

CONAN: The immortal, yeah…

RUDIN: The immortal Benjamin Smith II, who served for two years, waiting for Teddy Kennedy to be ready or old enough to run for the Senate.

By the way, just let me interrupt you for one second. WBUR had this - of Boston - just had this great trivia question: The last person from Massachusetts appointed to the Senate. I figured it was Benjamin Smith II also, but actually John Kerry because Paul Tsongas resigned a day early. John Kerry was appointed, even though he was elected in 1984.

CONAN: Wow, that's a good one.

RUDIN: It is a good one. They stumped me, even.

CONAN: Ooh…

RUDIN: That's why I never liked WBUR.

CONAN: Well, hang on, Ken. Before he passed away, the late Senator Edward Kennedy wrote a letter to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and he hoped that the commonwealth's law could be changed so his Senate seat would not sit empty awaiting a special election during the debate over health care.

The governor set a date for that election, January 19. But on Monday, he said he supported the appointment of an interim senator.

Governor DEVAL PATRICK (Democrat, Massachusetts): Now let me be clear. I wholly support the special election and the democratic process to fill the remaining two years of Senator Kennedy's term, but I will continue to work with the legislature on legislation authorizing an interim appointment to the United States Senate for the five months until that special election happens. This is the only way to ensure that Massachusetts is fully represented until the voters of the state elect our next senator in January.

CONAN: And joining us now is Fred Thys, a reporter at WBUR, our member station in Boston, that devilish station. He's joining us, of course, from the studios there. Fred, nice to have you on the program with us today.

FRED THYS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And how is this going to work?

THYS: Well, as you said, the election is going to be held in January. There will be a primary in December - on December 8. So all the Democrats who want to compete for the seat will have to, you know, go through that primary.

Now, if you're asking me about how is this going to work in terms of the appointing of the senator…

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. THYS: Next week, there is a hearing here to discuss this matter, and I haven't been able to talk to either the Senate president or the speaker of the House, both of whom are Democrats, in the last couple of days, but the Republicans are persuaded that the Democrats are going to railroad this thing through and that in a couple of weeks, we will have a law signed by the governor whereby he will be able to appoint an interim successor until January.

CONAN: And that interim successor would presumably have a huge leg up if that person were to decide to run again for - in the special election.

THYS: Well, here's the thing. Senator Kennedy, in the letter that was written sometime earlier this summer but revealed just a week before he died, asked that that person be asked to make a pledge not to run. So that person would be honor-bound not to run for the special election.

CONAN: And of course, this as we mentioned earlier in the broadcast goes back to the period, mentioning John Kerry again, when he was running for president. The law at that time allowed for an appointment of a successor in the event of the seat coming open. The Democrats changed that law because they feared that the Republican Mitt Romney would get to name the successor to a President Kerry in the meantime. Of course, that never happened, but the law stayed on for a special election instead, and now it seems like the Democrats want to change the rules again.

THYS: And the Republicans are at the same time relishing making this point and letting the Democrats squirm a little bit. But also they're rather upset because they're saying that basically the Democrats are just doing whatever happens to be politically expedient for them.

CONAN: And at this point, there is a lot of talk that former Congressman Joe Kennedy might decide to be among those seeking that Democratic nomination. Any word from him?

THYS: We've not heard from him. I spoke to his office yesterday, and they say they're not even going to discuss the timing of the decision, but you're right. A lot of people are waiting to hear what's going to happen - with Joe Kennedy that is.

Yesterday our attorney general, Martha Coakley, took out papers to - nomination papers. She needs 10,000 confirmed signatures to run, but - and she's the only candidate who's done that. But a lot of professional women would like to get behind Martha Coakley, including women fundraisers who have done very well here in Massachusetts backing other candidates, but some of those women are waiting to hear, as are many of the men fundraisers, to see if either of the Kennedys - Vicki Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Senator Kennedy, or Joseph Kennedy, the former congressman and nephew of Senator Kennedy - are going to get into the race.

CONAN: And among those waiting in the wings are former and current members of Congress from Massachusetts, and I'm just going to read a short list of names: Marty Meehan, Ed Markey, Richard Neal, Stephen Lynch, John Tierney and Mike Capuano, all of whom have considerable amounts of funds in their war chests and might be ready to start an election campaign.

Mr. THYS: Marty Meehan has the most money there. He has more than $4.5 million, and - last time I checked in his federal campaign account. He told me last week, after Senator Kennedy died, that he was going to wait to see what the Kennedys did. If a Kennedy ran, he was indicating he would most definitely not run, but as for the others, we don't know.

CONAN: We don't know. Anyway, we've got a caller on the line, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Adam's(ph) on the line with us from Boston.

ADAM (Caller): Good afternoon, hello.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ADAM: Hi. I just want to make the point that when the legislature changed the rules in the Kerry instance, it was - the original, as I understand it, the original rule was that the governor could appoint somebody to fill out the entire term, and I think that the fix that was suggested at the time, which is the special election, certainly made sense. But I think that what's really going on now is they're trying to fix sort of an obtuse fix. So what they want is something a little more nuanced.

I think that the foul that's being cried and has been picked up by the national media by the Massachusetts Republican Party is more than a little bit disingenuous. I think that, you know, they're obviously getting - making maximum political hay out of it. But I think that really, the real issue is a little bit different than what's being talked about on the national stage.

CONAN: Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Well, obviously, look, it's not the same because this appointee would serve until a special election. The point really is - and I disagree a little bit with the caller - the point was the Republican governor - the governor had the choice of naming an appointee in 2004. They took it away, and now they want the governor to have that choice again.

ADAM: But there was a difference…

RUDIN: There is a difference because there is a special election this time. I understand that. But there's also something else that we're also not mentioning is that there's no longer 60 Democrats, 60 Democratic votes in the Senate, and with a key vote coming up on health care, the Democrats - it's not only that they don't have two votes because Teddy Kennedy hasn't voted in the Senate since April and for much of the last year. The point is they no longer have the 60 to break the filibuster on health care. They desperately need that 60th vote.

ADAM: Well, I think one could argue - but as a resident of Massachusetts, I'm much more sympathetic to the idea of having a continued presence in the Senate. I think this is a much better fix than the original fix.

Now, one could argue that the first fix was political motivated, to say we're going to take it completely out of Romney's hands, he doesn't get any say on it, and that certainly would be true. But if you're arguing the merits of the two systems, I think the system being proposed is much better for the voters in Massachusetts, and I think that's unimpeachable.

CONAN: All right. Unimpeachable. We haven't gotten to South Carolina yet. Adam, thanks very much for the call.

ADAM: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Turlock(ph) in Boston: As a constituent of Kennedy's senatorial seat, I'm very much in hopes that an interim senator is appointed while the preparations for the race and voting day are made. The people of the district in which I live deserve to have their voice heard in the Senate as much as any other district - and he also adds: WBUR is awesome. I listen to them every day.

RUDIN: And Fred Thys makes a very good point. While a lot of focus is on the January 19 special election, as Fred pointed out, the primary is December 8. No Republican in Massachusetts has succeeded a Democratic senator since 1946. So whatever you think about Republicans on the ascendancy in this country, they're not on the ascendancy in Massachusetts. What really is going to matter is who's going to win that appointment on December 8, and if the appointee, which we expect to happen in September, does decide to run for that seat.

CONAN: And Fred Thys, I guess we should ask, pro forma, any Republicans thinking about running?

Mr. THYS: Well, there are certainly Republicans thinking about running. One person that's been mentioned in the last few days is our former lieutenant governor. She was lieutenant governor to Mitt Romney. Her name is Kerry Healey, and she ran for governor against our current governor, Deval Patrick, and lost. She's the one that's being mentioned most frequently these days.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in, Tom(ph) on the line from Andover in Massachusetts.

TOM (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Good.

TOM: I like your show always.

CONAN: Thank you.

TOM: It kind of struck me as ironic and funny that someone who's appointed would pledge not to run. And as I remember, Marty Meehan himself pledged that he would hold to a two-term limit and decided not to. So what would actually keep them, if they did make the pledge, from not running?

CONAN: Well, presumably, the length of time between the pledge and the primary. But that - I guess, memories aren't that short.

TOM: Right.

CONAN: All right, Tom. Thanks very much.

Let's see if we can go next to Collin(ph). Collin with us from Wooster, Massachusetts.

COLLIN (Caller): Well, I think the big question is who would be a candidate for the interim appointment. And I would look to Governor Michael Dukakis as a real strong candidate for that, as someone who wouldn't be interested in running and would be a real senior politician.

CONAN: An elder statesman, as it were, and somebody who would not be seen -would be seen as above the fray. Any talk of that, Fred Thys?

Mr. THYS: I asked Governor Dukakis this right after the funeral for Senator Kennedy, and he said that it was just too soon to talk about it. But he didn't deny that he might be interested in the seat.

CONAN: Anybody else, Ken Rudin, of that stature who might be available for such an interim appointment?

RUDIN: Well, of course, Vicki Kennedy's name is on the list. And she said over and over again to people, including Governor Patrick, that she's not interested in it, but she still heads the list.

Regarding the earlier call, though, I suspect though that if Joe Kennedy or someone like that is named to it, I suspect that that pledge of not running -first of all, it's probably of dubious legality anyway. I think whoever is named will probably run, I would think. Because the last thing Patrick wants to do is to name one candidate and alienate so many other people who've been waiting for years for a Senate vacancy in Massachusetts.

CONAN: And the only one that might - he might be able to get away with that with it would be a Kennedy.

RUDIN: That's correct.

CONAN: All right. Fred Thys, thanks very much.

Mr. THYS: You're very welcome, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Fred Thys, a reporter at WBUR, a member station in Boston, with us from the studios there in the Hub. Of course, Ken Rudin is still with us, our political junkie.

Ken, still some items we have yet to get to. Last week, in South Carolina, Mark Sanford responded to calls for his impeachment. And, in fact, now a lot of Republicans who had been reluctant to call for him to step down in South Carolina have come around and said it's time for him to go.

RUDIN: They want him gone. I mean, it's not so much the affair and, of course, that was the big headline. But he lied to so many people. He used state aircraft to facilitate this affair and it's been an embarrassment around the country. They're talking about having Eliot Spitzer replace him in South - no, no…

CONAN: No, no, no. That's not true.

RUDIN: That's not true. But even Republicans, who have a majority of the state legislature, they say it's time for him to go. But the governor says he's not leaving.

CONAN: He says he's a got a God-given task that he needs to fulfill, so he's being very stubborn about this. And he is term-limited. He cannot run again. How much of a term does he have left?

RUDIN: He's up - his term would have been up in 2010. Andre Bauer, the lieutenant governor, who a lot of the Republicans are not crazy about either said, look, if you - Governor Sanford, if you resign, I promise I will not run for the seat in 2010. So, he's trying to make it more palatable for other Republicans if Sanford gets out early.

CONAN: We're talking with political junkie Ken Rudin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And funny you should mention Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former governor of the state of New York, the Democrat.

RUDIN: He's not disgraced. As the New York Post called him yesterday, he's the hooker-happy Democrat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: That's what they called him. The New York Post reports on the front page yesterday that Elliot Spitzer is been talking - has been talking to allies, political allies about seeking redemption and running for office, statewide office, next year, either state controller or perhaps challenging Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in the Senate primary. I mean, I think that's nonsense and it's insane, although it's fun. But, I mean, I think with all the problems that Democrats have - and actually, Eliot Spitzer's numbers are higher than David Paterson, who is the current governor, the guy who became governor…

CONAN: Governor...

RUDIN: …when Spitzer quit because of the prostitution scandal. There's no way that Spitzer runs but it is a fun story.

CONAN: And if anybody would care to draw the comparison, David Vitter, the senator, Republican senator from Louisiana now facing a new challenger, this from a Democratic congressman.

RUDIN: Right. Charlie Melancon, who's a member of the Blue Dog Democrats - pro-life, pro-gun, very conservative. Of course, David Vitter has a ton of money. In the history of Louisiana, no Republican senator has ever been defeated. That's because David Vitter is the first Republican senator in the history of Louisiana. But Vitter still remains very popular. The Republican Party has rallied behind him.

But there is the fact, the undeniable fact, that his phone number was found in the D.C. Madam's phone book and that's the prostitution scandal. And Vitter is on the defensive over this. But, again, Barack Obama remains very unpopular, or at least his policies remain very unpopular in Louisiana. The Republican…

CONAN: A state trending more and more Republican.

RUDIN: Absolutely. And so, I think that this is a stronger than expected challenge to Vitter. But right now, I think the feeling is that Vitter will prevail.

CONAN: What - since we last convened, the - there's been a decision made about the California 10. Ellen Tauscher, the Democrat has gone on to a job in the State Department, and a primary held, and looking like a likely new congressman from northern California.

RUDIN: And that is John Garamendi who is the lieutenant governor. He was talking about running for governor but his candidacy was going nowhere. He jumped in the race late - this is California's 10th district, just east of San Francisco - to replace Ellen Tauscher. It looks like it will be John Garamendi. But there is a general election on November 3rd.

CONAN: And there's some sad news to report. There is indications that a former member of Congress is suffering from prostate cancer.

RUDIN: Actually, a current member.

CONAN: A current, excuse me.

RUDIN: Jim Sensenbrenner has been around since 1978. He's seeking - he still says he's going to seek a 17th term. But, again, as we saw with Chris Dodd in Connecticut, it's in early stages. And apparently, he was expected to be fine. But, again, it's just something to watch out for.

CONAN: All right. In the meantime, we should let you know that we have a bonus trivia question on our blog. ABC News announced today that Charlie Gibson will retire as the anchor of "World News" in January. Diane Sawyer will become the anchor of the network evening newscast.

Of course, now, who was the first woman to anchor a daily national news broadcast? Don't call in with the answer. You have to go to our blog. That's over at npr.org/blogofthenation. And there's the trivia question there if you like to respond to that.

In just a moment, we're going to be coming up with Senator Bob Dole - former senator and former majority leader, former presidential candidate as well -with his ideas for health care and how President Barack Obama should seize control of the debate and present Congress with a plan of his own.

In the meantime, Ken Rudin, Congress due back next week from the long August recess. And, well, health care has certainly not gone away.

RUDIN: Yeah. I think it's probably - have been the longest August recess in history, because if you think of the anger, the rancor, the scenes we've seen out of town hall meetings, there's a lot of misinformation out there. There's lot of uncertainty out there. And of course, with Congress gone, it became the voice - there was the voices of the screamers that we heard from much of August. Congress comes back next week, perhaps there'll be some sanity in Washington, although the words sanity and Washington are usually not found in the same sentence.

CONAN: Rarely co-located. Very interesting, next week, we may be talking about an event this evening in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

RUDIN: That's right. It's interesting: Conservative Republican Pat Toomey, Liberal Democrat Joe Sestak, both are running for the Senate, both wanted to defeat, in their own way, Arlen Specter. It's going to be very interesting. They're going to have a town hall meeting tonight. They have nothing in common except for the fact that they want to replace Arlen Specter.

CONAN: Arlen Specter. So - anyway, Ken, stay with us. Coming up, Bob Dole with some advice for President Obama on health care, the retired senator and former presidential candidate joins us next. If you'd like to join that conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255 or zap us an email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: On Monday, the Washington Post carried an op-ed piece by a former Senate majority leader and former presidential candidate Bob Dole. His advice to President Barack Obama: Take health care into your own hands, write your own bill and present it to Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

If you'd like to talk with Bob Dole about health care or about today's political landscape, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Bob Dole, the former senator from Kansas, joins us now by phone from his office here in Washington, D.C. And Senator Dole, good to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. BOB DOLE (Former Senator, Kansas): Hey, thank you. Good to be here.

CONAN: Of course, Ken Rudin, our political junkie, also with us. Senator Dole, well, do you think you're going to see a heath care bill passed this term?

Mr. DOLE: Oh, I think so. I mean, I think it's a, you know, it's early yet. There are lot of predictions that it's dead or dying or whatever. But things have a way of popping up - changes being made, compromises. This should - they just have to figure out a way to do this because this is the most important legislation many of these members are ever going to be participating in. And it's something that needs to be done particularly when it comes to the vulnerable groups in America, like the disabled and the seniors and the children. And, you know, if we don't do it now, it's going to be another four years that there's - we've - I started working on this on 1977, and that's 31 years. And we're still, you know, putting little patches here and there, but we really haven't worked it out.

CONAN: And your advice for Senate - for President Obama was - while there are all kinds of different versions of bills in the House, in the Senate - they're still working one in the Senate committee even as we speak. Nevertheless, what you say he ought to do is present his own measure?

Mr. DOLE: Yeah, it seems to me it just elevates the debate. It elevates the importance of this legislation, to say this isn't Bob Dole's bill, or Mr. X Congressman Y. This is my bill. This is the Obama bill. This is what I put my heart and soul into. And I understand that we may not get everything we want, but I'm introducing it today and I'm hitting the road. I'm going to go Republican swing districts and invite the Republican member, if there is one, along, and the Republican senator in those states, if there is one, to travel with me. And well, maybe we can work on some of the problems they seem to have with the bill. But there's just something about the presidential stamp of approval that, I think, would make a positive difference.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Senator Dole, as you well remember, the knock against the Bill and Hilary health care plan of '93, '94 with that they basically pushed it on Congress. And the word from the Obama White House from day one was they didn't want to repeat the mistakes of the Clintons. Do you think the Obama White House has taken that hesitancy too far?

Mr. DOLE: I think so. I mean, that's a different time. It's really at critical mass right now. It was serious then, and it should have been done. But there, the president and first lady started off on the right foot. I remember going to dinner there and talking about a bipartisan solution. Senator Lloyd, the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen was sort of in charge, and he was an outstanding, decent, honest man of integrity. So, you know, we thought, oh, maybe we can do it. And Senator Packwood from Oregon at the time knew more about health care than probably most of us on the committee.

But then something happened and got into partisan politics again, and I probably helped it along. And that went nowhere, you know. That was the end of it. But this time, you know, we were taught growing up that the president proposes, where he puts it together and sends it to Congress and then the Congress disposes. But now, the Congress is doing both, they proposed and they're disposing. And I don't know why it was done that way because there's not much precedent for a major legislation. It's normally introduced by the leaders for the president.

And again I, I want to be positive about this because I don't want - I think we need health care reform and we need it now. We don't need it four or five years from now. So we have to go through and maybe figure out some ways to restrain the cost and figure out what to do with the public option. I think that's probably going to have to be jettisoned.

And maybe some other things you can add, things you can take out. And try to get some Republicans onboard, so you'd have at least, you know, a dozen Republican senators and 40 or 50 House members, then it is bipartisan. But you - otherwise - and we'll put it in the positive light. If you get a bipartisan bill, I think the American people are more ready to accept it because they don't see any politics in that point, if you get both parties with a pretty good solid block of votes for the passage.

CONAN: Now, let's get a - some callers in on the conversation. And we'll start with Kelly(ph). Kelly joining us on the line from Cleveland.

KELLY (Caller): Hi, good to talk to you. I've tried calling in, like a hundred times. And, of course, today, I get through and I'm totally unprepared.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, we hope you're prepared, Kelly. But, please, go ahead.

KELLY: Okay. My comment was really kind of a short story. My dad is 57 years old. He worked for the same company for 25 years. And once his children were raised and out of the house, he decided to start his own small business. So he took a huge leap of faith. And I think one of the things he didn't fully think through was health insurance.

When his COBRA ran out and he was looking for his own, because he has a preexisting condition, it made it nearly impossible for him to afford it. And I guess if we don't have a public option, I'm just curious what Mr. Dole thinks is necessary so that things like this don't need to happen…

Mr. DOLE: That's - well, I have to say.

KELLY: …to people who do spend their lives working hard.

CONAN: Kelly…

Mr. DOLE: We can't pass a bill that doesn't take care of preexisting conditions. You don't need a public option do that. There's also administrative expenses and two or three other things that we need to...

What - there were four of us former leaders in the Senate - two Democrats, two Republicans - and we put together some recommendations. And what we did in effect was to give the companies, I think, four or five years to shape up and take care of these issues or Congress would do it for them. And we had it all laid out on our recommendations that it would be almost automatic. Because your dad is in a bind and if he can't get coverage because of his preexisting condition, you know, what you're going to do when he gets sick?

KELLY: Well, that's my concern is, is that you say that they would have four or five years, but, you know, if something happens and, you know, he needs a liver transplant of some type because he does have hepatitis, he may not have four or five years. So, I guess - I'm just…

Mr. DOLE: I wouldn't be - that would be the outside limit. Most of the provisions in this bill aren't implemented for three or four years, so we're not talking about adding five years to four years, we're talking about five years. And the companies aren't going to wait until the fifth year.

I think most of them are in good faith. And once they know that, you know, they're under the gun to do something, they're going to get it done. And maybe they get - most of them do it on the first year or I have to guess, probably just between the second and third years because it take some time.

CONAN: Kelly, tell your dad for us that we wish him the best, okay?

KELLY: I will do that. Thanks so much, guys.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to Elizabeth, Elizabeth calling from Kansas City.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to ask Senator Dole why he had originally not supported Medicare when it first came up back in the '60s and '70s. And I also wanted to have him clarify how a public option in this new health insurance reform is not the same as Medicare. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much.

Mr. DOLE: Well, we had a bill called elder care which we thought was much better, in fact, it had prescription drugs for seniors which we didn't get until two years ago. So, you know, we had a substitute, we had a better bill, we got a lot of votes, we didn't get enough. So, that takes care of that issue.

And the other question was on public option. What happened if what?

CONAN: Well, I think, it's basically if Medicare - if people support Medicare, which is a very popular program, why isn't the public option just like Medicare?

Mr. DOLE: Yeah. Well, that's the argument that's being made but it's not the argument being made by the insurance industry; and that's why myself, Senator Mitchell, Senator Daschle and Senator Baker came up with a different idea which is the five-year period for them to shape up and take care of their problems, and if they don't, then there will be action taken.

So, you know, we're trying to deal with it. We had to make some very tough choices. Senator Daschle was strongly for the public option. I was opposed to the mandates. I had to agree with the mandates, and he had to agree to these things he didn't like. And believe me, if I learned anything in 35 years, there aren't going to be any easy votes in health care reform. And what may be very important to the lady on the line is going to have to be voted on and it's going to cause a lot of angst.

And I think what we're seeing now is not partisan politics but politics of survival, because most of these men and women in Congress like what they're doing. They want to stay here, and I think they're going to be here long and after Obama and maybe the next president is gone, and so they're going to be very careful before they vote aye or no, depending on how the bill finally shapes up. But this is probably the toughest - probably going to be the toughest legislation they'll have to vote on in the time they're in Congress.

CONAN: Let's go now to Patty(ph), and she's with us from Elkhart, Indiana.

PATTY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Senator, you were my senator in Kansas for years and years, and thanks for all that. I was wondering - I was in a town hall meeting with Representative Mark Souder the other night, and he was explaining that his understanding, his position was to get the bill so much that it would be harder to implement and would be easier to take out in another few years because of people got any benefits from it that they would begin to like the bill and we wouldn't - we would keep it?

My question is what can we do from the grassroots level, from the public, to help get it to be more nonpartisan?

Mr. DOLE: Yeah. Well, that's the thing that…

PATTY: …fighting that went back and forth. What can we do, as the public, to encourage our senators and representatives to actually sit down and work and stop just fighting?

Mr. DOLE: And that's why I think it'd be a great idea if the president had his bill. I was just talking about the - I don't care if he's a Democrat or Republican, that's not the issue.

But President Obama is popular as President Reagan was. One thing they didn't understand, they didn't understand the Congress very well. And Reagan used to tell me as the Republican leader, you know, I want everything in this bill. And then he'd whisper to me, well, give me 70 or 80 percent and I'll be happy. And I think that's the way Obama has to look at this. He's not going to get it all. He may be popular, charismatic, and all those things, but this is a survival vote for many of this people, including Mark Souder who's a wonderful guy, a great legislator.

But, yeah, we got to wring the partisanship out of it. That's why the four of us, two Dems and two Rs, former leaders in the Senate, did what we did and we've made our recommendations public and they've been well received, particularly by Senator Max Baucus' committee, Finance Committee and - who is a Democrat, Max is a Democrat - and Senator Grassley, the ranking Republican on the committee. And I believe there's - that may be the committee where we get the sort of bipartisan compromise.

And for those who don't want to compromise and don't want to do anything, keep in mind the Congress meets every year so if we don't get it all this year - as Reagan used to say, and he did it. He would follow up. We'll try to get it next year.

CONAN: Patty, thanks for the call.

PATTY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with former Senator and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Ken.

RUDIN: Senator Dole, when you were majority leader, when Howard Baker was majority leader, when Tom Daschle was majority leader, there was a sense of, well, we may be partisan but we want to get things done.

What changed because, obviously, few Republicans, if any, are on board to this, maybe Olympia Snowe, maybe the only one, what…

Mr. DOLE: And that would be terrible if that happens. I mean, we can't be the no-party. We got to be - that's again why I think it's…

RUDIN: But what changed? What led to this…

Mr. DOLE: I don't know. You know, I don't want - it's easy for me to criticize the Senate because I haven't been there for 12 years. I don't know - there has been a change. I mean, it's gotten more personal. Maybe it's because so many media outlets and people can get on television or radio or newspaper and vent their spleen or whatever. But this is important.

As I said earlier, they won't have a more important issue than health care, and they've got their mothers or grandmother - they don't have to look very far to see people who are going to need some of these benefits in the next 10, 15, 20 years. And that's why I think we've got to make some tough votes. I mean, people are going to - probably mad at us for six months, and some of them are afraid they'll be so mad they'll be voted out of office. And that's happened to President Clinton in 1994 because the way they handled health care.

I don't believe Obama, you know, he hasn't mishandled it. I just think he needs to take charge of it and say, I'm the president. This is what I want. I know I can't get it all, but let's go to work.

CONAN: The president - you wrote in your piece in the Washington Post - would take a lot - a big hit if, in fact, nothing gets passed, but would get a lot of credit if he does get something through.

Mr. DOLE: Should get credit if it passes. You know, Reagan got credit, Obama should get credit. If it doesn't pass, everybody is going to blame the president even though he doesn't - well, he's not very close to the bill right now. He's for it, and he says he's for it in sort of generic terms.

But I understand, there's rumors today in D.C. that the president may be prepared to kind of outline, in specifics - this is what I will accept or this is what I want. I'm not sure which, but that would be a big step in the right direction. In fact, I've just sent an email to David Axelrod saying don't take half steps. Let's, you know, let's really - this is maybe our last opportunity for, you know, the next presidential election cycle to deal with this.

CONAN: We just have a minute left with you, sir, but I wanted to ask you - if Democrats end up trying to push this thing through, they've got the votes in the House, they can do it with that procedural measure called reconciliation with just 50 votes, 51 votes in the senate. Is that better than nothing?

Mr. DOLE: I'd be very careful. We did that in 1981 with some of the programs that affected low-income Americans. The next year we repealed it. We had the Reagan Republican Congress, and we were overzealous and overeager and we did some things that we probably shouldn't have done and we got to go back and correct it. And that doesn't help anybody, so…

You know, I'm willing to work in a bipartisan way and try to get my colleagues - even though I'm not up there anymore, I do have a lot of friends there so we're still working. I talked to Senator Baucus yesterday. We're working with him and, you know, just like most people at NPR, I think, it's time to get something done.

CONAN: Senator Dole, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. DOLE: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Former Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole, with us by phone from his office here in Washington. You can find the link to his opinion piece on our Web site at npr.org.

Ken Rudin, our political junkie, as always, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thank you, Neal.

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