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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Iowa caucus is just six weeks away, New Hampshire primary just a few days thereafter, and 22 states vote on February 5. In this highly accelerated political campaign season, people have told pollsters that in addition to looking for a candidate whose positions they can support, they'd like to find one who's electable - but what does that mean?

NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving joins us now. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And as a generalization, what are some of the qualities that, according to surveys, voters seemed to think make a candidate electable or not?

ELVING: It's a word everyone defines for their own purposes, Scott, but let's not ignore the obvious. Electability has always meant fitting a conventional model. And when we talk about looking presidential, the mental image has always been a middle-aged, white male. But electability is also about easing voters' fears and anxieties, and so we often use the word to mean broadly acceptable, not being too radical.

SIMON: I mean, this year alone, you have a number of candidates on both side of the aisle that don't fit a traditionally electable image one way or another. Mayor Giuliani would be the first Italian American. John McCain would be the oldest president. Mitt Romney would be the first Mormon. Senator Obama would be the first African-American. Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the first woman. I mean, none of these categories have really been seen in a presidential candidate of this consequence before.

ELVING: That's correct, and particularly, I think, it's interesting to see the first woman, the first African-American, and the first Mormon all competing at the same time. We're testing all of those former strictures. I think that, to some degree, reflects the maturation of the entire electorate. I don't people are dismissing any of these candidates out of hand because of those factors. And we're wrestling with how big a burden any of those identifications might be for any of these people.

SIMON: John Edwards on the Democratic side has been telling audiences that he's the most electable Democrat, and some people have suggested this is a codeword for saying I fit the electable image more than Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. I wonder if you'd venture an opinion about that.

ELVING: Well, the last three Democrats elected president were all Southern, white guys: Clinton and Carter and Johnson. In the last hundred years, the only Democrats elected president who didn't have Southern roots were FDR and JFK -it's getting to be a long time ago. The South is more important to our politics now than at any time since the Civil War. It delivers more than half the electoral votes a presidential candidate needs to win, and the Democrats are getting shut out in that region as they were in the last two elections. So, yeah, John Edwards has an argument - question is whether John Edwards is the answer.

SIMON: How do the arguments over electability seemed to break down on the Republican side?

ELVING: It's just as big a question in the GOP. You've got one part of the party saying electability means keep the base excited and united, but another part says, no, you have to compete for the suburbs and the newer voters or you won't be electable. So you've got a lot of Republican candidates all saying they match up well with Hillary by some measures.

But it's probably Rudy Giuliani who's most capable of competing for big blue states like New York and New Jersey and California. In fact, he's so capable of doing that that it creates an electability problem for him coming around on the backside. Those big states that he might be appealing to, the same positions tend to alienate conservatives he needs in the Republican base and that could create a third-party candidate on the right, and that's another big electability issue.

SIMON: Are there some hazards when voters, instead of voting for the candidate that they agree with, decide to play prognosticator and start thinking in terms of electability?

ELVING: Sure, you risk losing twice because you pass over your real favorite and the one you vote for winds up losing anyway. But the crux question you have to ask yourself is whether you're voting to express your feelings or to bring about an outcome.

SIMON: NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

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