RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama's senior campaign adviser lobbed a dig at Mitt Romney this week. David Axelrod tweeted a photo of the president with his dog Bo. It shows Mr. Obama sitting with the animal in the back of a plush-looking car. The caption: How loving owners transport their dogs, a perhaps not-so-subtle reference to the story of Romney putting his Irish setter in a crate tied to the roof of the family car years ago for a vacation road trip. With Republicans on his mind, David Axelrod talked with Steve Inskeep about the presidential campaign.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Welcome to the program again.
DAVID AXELROD: Great to be here, Steve.
INSKEEP: I want to ask you: if Mitt Romney becomes the Republican nominee, are you likely(ph) to recycle negative campaign ads that Newt Gingrich has used in the last few weeks?
AXELROD: Well, I don't like to think of myself as recycling anything that Newt Gingrich has offered here in that way. But look, there are legitimate arguments that have been raised, legitimate questions that are obviously going to be part of this. Governor Romney's running on his record in business. Seems to be running away from his record as governor. That's the nature of presidential campaigns. Everything gets scrutinized and everything gets debated.
INSKEEP: Republicans, of course, have very much enjoyed noting that this week is the third anniversary of the president's remark on television regarding the economy: If I don't have this done in three years, then this is going to be a one-term proposition. How can your guy win if a majority of Americans continue to disapprove of his handling of the economy, which has been the case for quite some time?
AXELROD: Well, I think if you look at where we were when he made that comment and where we are today, it's a vastly different situation. Remember, when we came to office, we lost almost 800,000 jobs - the worst period of the recession. And if you look at what happened in the months after and the years after his policies took effect, we've had 22 months of positive job growth. I don't think there's anyone who can argue that we should go back to where we were before - anybody, I should say, other than all of these Republican candidates.
INSKEEP: Although, I mean the president's words, if I don't have this done in three years, then this is going to be a one-term proposition. You're saying he doesn't have it done after three years.
AXELROD: I'm saying that the president said that we need to turn the economy around and show real improvement in three years, and I think we have shown improvement. I'm not in any way suggesting that we don't have more work to do, nor is he.
INSKEEP: Well, what do you think has happened in states that the president, somewhat unexpectedly in some cases, won in 2008 where he seems to be in deep trouble now - Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia - all states that he won in 2008 and it would be hard to find an analyst who is certain that the president is going to win all three of those states again.
AXELROD: Well, look, I think certainty is a hard thing to come by in American politics.
INSKEEP: I think it'd be hard to find an analyst who thinks he's got a good shot.
AXELROD: We're closely divided. All of the polling I've seen lately from North Carolina, Virginia, shows the president holding his own and doing well. But believe me, Steve, I anticipate that every one of these states is going to be hotly contested, and we're not taking anything for granted at all.
INSKEEP: Indiana, which maybe was the most unexpected win for you in 2008, you expect to contest that seriously in 2012?
AXELROD: Well, I'm not ruling any states in or out. Obviously, Indiana was the first time that Hoosiers had voted for a Democratic candidate, I think, since 1964. So we recognize that that is a challenge and it's, you know, to replicate it would be a real feat. But at this juncture I'm not ruling anything in or out.
INSKEEP: I want to come back to the Florida primary, where you had two principal candidates, was a brutally negative campaign on both sides. It actually depressed voter turnout. Is it reasonable that that is going to be the shape or at least part of the shape of the fall campaign? You're going to have two candidates, it's going to be a brutal campaign, and a lot of people may be disgusted by it by the end.
AXELROD: I can only speak for out campaign, Steve. You know, I'm not very encouraged by what I see on the other side. Take Governor Romney, for example. He has his superPAC and they were the major players in all these early primary states. The superPAC is run by the guy who created the Willie Horton ad back in 1988. It's funded in part by a fellow who was the major funder behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Troops, so called, in 2004 that slimed John Kerry in an inexcusable way.
INSKEEP: Although we have to point out that Democratic groups have already been running negative ads and it's not even the general election yet. Surely it is going to be a pretty harsh campaign this fall.
AXELROD: Well, any closely contested race in American politics can become edgy. And I, you know, and I'm not Pollyannaish about that. I understand that. But at the end of the day, the candidate who's going to win is not the candidate who is the most negative; it's the candidate who has the most compelling vision for the kind of country and the kind of economy in which the future is brighter.
INSKEEP: Final thing - and I have to ask this because the president sang a few lines of an Al Green song the other day, Mitt Romney sang "America the Beautiful" at a campaign stop the other day. How would you compare President Obama and Governor Romney as singing talents?
AXELROD: Well, let me say this about Governor Romney's singing. He likes to sing "America the Beautiful" but he always omits one verse that I think is one of the more meaningful verses. It's not as well-known a verse but it's: America, America, God shed His grace on thee, 'til selfish gain no longer stains the banner of the free. I think he should not only sing that verse but contemplate the meaning of it.
INSKEEP: David Axelrod, presidential adviser. Thank you very much.
AXELROD: All right. Great to be with you, Steve.
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