ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

This weekend will ring in the new year, 2006. But for political junkies and politicians across the country, it might as well be 2008. Yes, that's right, the presidential election race is on, and it's getting more intense by the month. It seems like the 2006 congressional elections are just a bend in the racetrack leading to the White House. Part of what's fueling this early zeal is the fact that there's no heir apparent this time around. Vice President Dick Cheney isn't running for the top job, and really it's the first time since 1952 that the race has been truly wide open. That's not to say there aren't some obvious names floating around out there--Hillary Clinton and John McCain, for example.

But for all the hype, is it really too early to be talking about this? We'll see this hour as we talk about the 2008 elections: how they're shaping up even this far out; their effect on current legislative business in Congress and the much more imminent 2006 elections.

Later this hour, we'll check back in with a few Hurricane Katrina survivors NPR has been following and hear how the new year looks to them.

But first, 2008 in 2006. How much are you following the presidential elections? Do you care yet? Who do you see positioning themselves for a possible presidential run where you live? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Joining us for this conversation is NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin. He's on the phone from Maryland.

Hi, Ken.

KEN RUDIN (NPR Political Editor): Hello, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Also with us, David Yepsen, political columnist for The Des Moines Register. He's at the studios of member station WOI in Des Moines, Iowa.

Welcome, David.

Mr. DAVID YEPSEN (Political Columnist, The Des Moines Register): Good to be with you.

SEABROOK: Ken, let me start with you. This comes up every four years, but it does seem that we're talking about the presidential race a lot earlier than in the past. I mean, it's 23 months away. Are we?

RUDIN: Well, yes, we are, and we seem to be doing this earlier and earlier every time. I think one of the reasons, as you say, is that there is no heir apparent. Bush can't run; Cheney won't run. And for that reason, you don't have a sitting vice president after two terms. And remember, we had--after two terms of Eisenhower, we had Richard Nixon running in 1960. We had Vice President Humphrey running in '68. We had the first President Bush in '88. The vice president--we had Vice President Gore running in 2000. This time there is no heir apparent. There's no obvious front-runner in either party.

And so basically, when you look in the polls and you see famous names running like Hillary Clinton, whether she runs or not, or John Kerry--so a lot of the lesser-knowns have to get out earlier and earlier to raise money earlier and earlier.

SEABROOK: And, David Yepsen, from your vantage point in Iowa, you can see a political landscape that may be harder for us to see. Is--do you not get a break anymore in between presidential elections?

Mr. YEPSEN: No, and I mean actually it's all the time now in this state. There's somebody--there's always a presidential subtext to politics in a state like Iowa and in New Hampshire, where these events historically begin. And somebody's always doing something; some candidate is showing up; someone is coming in to help another candidate. So it really never ends in this state.

SEABROOK: Well, one of the things we want to talk about this hour is not just 2008--although we'll get to some of those prospects a little later on--but how the fact that 2008 is sort of visible off in the future is affecting current legislation in Congress and the congressional elections coming up in 2006. Ken, what signs of 2008 do you see at work in the House and Senate?

RUDIN: Well, certainly in the Senate you have the majority leader, Bill Frist, who said long ago that, one, he is not going to run for re-election in 2006 and, two, he's very much interested in looking in 2008. So with him--with Bill Frist perhaps looking beyond his Senate legacy and looking towards 2008, it seems to be every man and woman for himself in the Senate. And we saw that a lot in the last couple of weeks when rank-and-file Republicans, let alone the Democrats--but rank-and-file Republicans ignored their leader on many, many instances and many, many issues and thwarted what the White House would have liked.

So obviously with the lack of leadership in the Senate--or I should say departing leadership in the Senate, and clearly a lack of leadership in the House, given the fact that Tom DeLay is under indictment and Republican seem--most of the Republicans seem unwilling to anoint a successor right away; they seem to be leaderless. And basically things don't happen that often in an election year, anyway, as far as legislativewise, and there's probably going to be less than ever this time.

SEABROOK: Well, one of the things that was interesting to me is watching the Patriot Act and other legislative business, but looking specifically at the Patriot Act. The Senate approved a six-month extension; the House came back and approved a five-week extension. Is it possible that they were thinking six months out they'd be in the middle of their re-election campaigns in the House, Ken?

RUDIN: Well, what's more interesting is that after the Senate agreed to a six-month extension, this came following declarations by both President Bush and Majority Leader Frist that they would not accept a temporary extension, that they want it permanent. So even this six-month extension which Frist reluctantly went for and then had to retract--that was against what Bush had first wanted. So it's really out of their hands. There's--nobody seems to be in control of what's going on up there.

SEABROOK: David Yepsen, who's already popping up in Iowa? I know popping up in Iowa at a certain time--going to a little tea here, having dinner there publicly--sort of signals something to us. Tell us about that.

Mr. YEPSEN: Well, there are--we're in what I call the `deal me in' phase of the presidential game where in both parties you'll have national political figures who will come into Iowa to do a fund-raiser for somebody or make a speech, give a lecture. And what that does is it sends a signal to party activists in either party that this is an individual who wants to be considered as a presidential possibility. And candidates are very careful about when they come in here and what they do, but it will get interpreted that way. Let me just give you some names of people that have been through here.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

Mr. YEPSEN: Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, New York Governor George Pataki; Senator Frist has been here; Congressman Tom Tancredo of California, Senator Lindsey Graham. Those are all names of people who have been here once, sometimes several times, on the Republican side.

SEABROOK: Isn't Tancredo of Arizona? Am I wrong? I must be wrong.

RUDIN: Tancredo's from Colorado.

SEABROOK: Colorado. We all had it wrong. (Laughs) Thank you, Ken.

Mr. YEPSEN: What's important about Congressman Tancredo is he's really pushing the immigration issue and trying to get it focused into the race for president. One of the things that happens in both parties is the activists on each side really do pressure congressional candidates to take stances one way or the other. I think--going back to Ken's point, I think it makes it difficult for people in Congress who are running for president sometimes to find common ground when you have the more activist or extreme elements in their party pulling them in an opposite direction. If you're a Democrat, for example, you have a lot of activist Democrats who want to get out of Iraq now, for example. That makes it difficult to fight a more centrist game.

But let's not overlook the Democrats. You've had Governor Warner of Virginia, Governor Richardson of New Mexico, former Senator Edwards, Senator Kerry--have all been here sending that signal.

RUDIN: And, Andrea, you know what's interesting about what Dave just said is that the so-called front-runners--and of course it's ridiculous to talk about front-runners December in 2005 when we're talking about 2008. But if you look at the CNN-Gallup Polls and the national front-runners on the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain; on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton. Well, you don't see them in Iowa and New Hampshire, but you don't need to see them because they don't have to do what the lesser-knowns have to do, and that is, you know, rev up the party activists and get known, whereas Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, should he run--and we could talk about that, 'cause I don't think he runs--but they don't have to make any kind of move until well--much later than the others.

SEABROOK: You know, most...

Mr. YEPSEN: Well, and I think--Andrea, just parenthetically, I think the front-running candidates hate places like Iowa and New Hampshire because they really have nothing to win and everything to lose in these states when some of these lesser-known candidates get in a position to beat them.

SEABROOK: Well, most of the people that you guys have mentioned are people who are still in elected office. And we saw in the 2004 elections that Kerry's record of voting over the previous few years became a central point. You know, you remember the whole flip-flopping thing, his votes on the war and the money to fund the war. Is 2008 already affecting how people vote in the Senate and the House, Ken?

RUDIN: Well, I think everybody casts a vote, every lawmaker casts a vote, one, ensuring his or her re-election and, two, assuring what they may have--what plans they have down the road. But you know, it's not a coincidence that only two senators in history have ever been elected president, directly elected a president: Warren Harding, as Andrea--I think that was your first campaign you covered, 1920, Warren Harding--and JFK in 1960. And the reason I say that is because it is very hard, as Bob Dole learned, as others have learned--it's very hard to try to run the Senate, let alone be a legislator in the Senate, and have to defend these votes in Iowa and New Hampshire and states like that, whereas if you're thinking of the other people who ran, former governors--you think of Jimmy Carter, you think of Ronald Reagan--not only did they not have Senate votes to have to defend, but they also were out of office and were able to campaign full-time.

SEABROOK: David Yepsen, Ken Rudin, hang on just a second. Let's go to a phone call. George in Kansas City, Missouri. How are you? George?

GEORGE (Caller): Yes, hello.

SEABROOK: Hi. What's your question?

GEORGE: Actually, it was just answered on your program. I had made the observation that, you know, when the people go to the polls, time over time they'll choose Governor Reagan, Governor Clinton. It just seems like they do not go for senators. And I've had to think back to JFK in '60 to get somebody like that. So there you are.

SEABROOK: Ken, one more time, which senators have ever won, or members of the House?

RUDIN: Well, just two sitting senators, Harding in 1920, Harding, the senator from Ohio, and he became president--he was a completely unknown; you know, he just came into the convention in 1920 and won--and JFK in 1960. And you know, it's another thing that's interesting when we were talking about what David Yepsen was saying, about how they have to come in and campaign years and years in advance. In the old days, I mean, you could walk into a convention as a non-candidate, as Adlai Stevenson did in 1952, and he left the convention as the nominee...

SEABROOK: Wow.

RUDIN: ...I mean, which is so amazing. Now you have to campaign months and years in advance, you know, whereas the old days are clearly the old days; no longer it holds.

SEABROOK: And, David Yepsen, as you watch the parade of possible candidates in and out of Iowa, do you take a little less seriously the ones that are in the legislative branch?

Mr. YEPSEN: No. In fact, those of us who cover politics in Iowa have learned never to dismiss anyone too early. I made that mistake with a guy named Jimmy Carter once. And--because it's so far out and anything can happen and often does. And one of the things, Andrea, that I wonder--and I just pose this more as a question and certainly something I'm watching for as--in this campaign, is the fact we have Iraq and the huge foreign policy concerns going to change the equation here so that those issues that used to help governors get elected to the presidency may not be as salient in the '08 election as they have been in the past, thereby giving an opportunity, say, to US senators?

SEABROOK: We'll get to that question and your calls after this short break.

I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

We're talking about campaign 2008, which hasn't officially begun. Unofficially, it's another story. Are you paying attention to the race for the White House yet? Our number is (800) 989-TALK. Or send an e-mail to totn@npr.org. Our guests are NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin, and David Yepsen, political columnist for The Des Moines Register.

Ken and David, hang on just a second. I've got some calls here of some people who are seeing dream teams in their future. Let's start with David in Muskegon, Michigan.

DAVID (Caller): Hi there. How are you?

SEABROOK: Good. Who do you think is going to run?

DAVID: Well, I'm looking a little bit beyond 2008. I'm thinking the best hopes for the Democratic Party are guys like Barack Obama and Eliot Spitzer. They're strong, they're passionate and they're inspiring. And no one of their weight is running in '08.

SEABROOK: Thanks, David.

And now let's go to Douglas in Minnesota. What's your dream ticket?

DOUGLAS (Caller): Hi, how you all doing? My dream ticket would be John McCain and questions about Colin Powell. Is his political career over after the Bush fiasco?

SEABROOK: Well, we will consult our experts here. Let me start with Ken Rudin. One of our callers is looking even beyond 2008.

RUDIN: Well, I know, but I mean, talking about a Barack Obama and Eliot Spitzer--we've had so many black and Jewish presidents already, and I don't think--you know--no, actually, there's no question that everybody I've spoken to about Barack Obama, it transcends race. This guy is obviously a comer, and you know, there's always the talk--we always worry about overhyping somebody. But there's something about Obama that--he is just--he's not--you know, he's not all over the map. He's not overexposed. He's really picking and choosing his fights. But obviously, you know, he's a first-term senator and maybe--obviously 2008 may be too soon for that.

But--and Eliot Spitzer, he seems to be the odds-on favorite to be the next governor of New York. George Pataki is not going to seek a fourth term and, had he done so, he probably would have lost to Spitzer anyway. So you have two very strong candidates in their state, Obama and Spitzer in Illinois and New York respectively. But as far as president, you know, 2000--my God, we're talking about 2012 now. I have no idea what I'm going to have for lunch tomorrow and we're talking about 2012.

SEABROOK: David Yepsen, what about McCain and Powell?

Mr. YEPSEN: It's a real possibility. I mean, I think John McCain, you look at the early polling and he is--he's ahead of everyone else. But the trouble with Senator McCain--inside his party there are a lot of conservative Republicans who, for one reason or another, do not care for him. Now Republicans are in a tight spot here. The polls do not look good for them in the '06 congressional elections. Some of them, I think, are probably willing to set aside some of their differences with Senator McCain on this, that or the other thing under the idea that he may be one of the few Republicans who can win. That is going to be important; it's always an important consideration in primary contests. So while I think McCain has got problems with parts of the Republican base, I think his electability may have--may transcend some of that.

RUDIN: You know, David's exactly right. Go back to 1992 with Bill Clinton. A lot of liberals in the party did not like Bill Clinton. They didn't trust him; they didn't like his views; they felt he was too cutesy with the moderates and the conservative Democrats. But there were a lot of Democrats in 1992 who wanted to win, and Bill Clinton was the guy who got in there.

SEABROOK: Let me run some other names by you guys. We have a few e-mails here. Matt from Hawaii writes, `I'm a strong Democrat, but I think Condi would make a good president,' referring, of course, to Condoleezza Rice. `You may consider this simplistic,' Matt says, `but my mission is black woman president. Let's get over the hump in one leap.' He says, `I would vote for Oprah, but I know that's ridiculous. Go, team!' What do you think, Ken?

RUDIN: Well, the pr--I mean, Condoleezza Rice--the recent Gallup Poll had her third among all Republicans, following Giuliani and McCain. The problem with Condi Rice is we've never seen her campaign. First of all, she's said she's not going to run. She's said she's not interested. And, two, we've never seen her campaign. And you know, sometimes when somebody, a celebrity like that, like Wesley Clark, who ran in 2004 for the Democratic nomination, came from a military background. As a candidate he really was a bust, and there's a lot of people who think that Condoleezza Rice, for all her strengths, may not be the greatest candidate.

SEABROOK: And, Ken, at the Conservative Political Action Conference almost a year ago now, Condi was the first in their straw poll.

RUDIN: That's right. But you know, be careful about those kind of polls. The fact that Rudy Giuliani is the most popular Republican--if you've ever been to a Republican convention, they are not going to nominate a pro-gay-rights, pro-abortion-rights, anti-gun nominee at their convention. They're just not going to do it. So it's nice to have polls, but reality has to step in somewhere.

SEABROOK: David Yepsen, listen to this e-mail. Liz in Salem, Oregon, writes, `Don't count out John Edwards and General Wesley Clark on the Democratic side and Chuck Hagel on the Republican side.' What do you say, David?

Mr. YEPSEN: I agree; I don't. And I should have mentioned them. General Clark has been back touring Iowa. I think he's learned some lessons that Ken was pointing out, that when he was a bust the first time around, he's much better as a candidate this time. And Senator Hagel has been through here as well. And I think there's potential for any of the names that she mentioned.

SEABROOK: And from Ofer(ph) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he says, `Russ Feingold is solidifying as the progressive grassroots candidate for 2008.' Ken, is he the Dennis Kucinich of 2008?

RUDIN: Well, hopefully for Feingold, that's not the case. But you know, again, like you said earlier, if the Iraqi War is a defining moment for the Democrats in 2008, then you look at people like Kerry and Edwards and Hillary Clinton, all of whom voted the authorization to go to war. Feingold from the beginning was an opponent of the war. Feingold was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act. Calling him a Kucinich is a little--you know, a little harsh, I think, because he still has--you know, he's still a statewide figure with strong support at home. But again, if the Iraqi War is a defining issue for 2008, don't count out Russ Feingold.

SEABROOK: David Yepsen, that brings up a good point. It's not just the candidates and the names, but the issues. Which do you see--I know it's far out, but could be some of the defining issues?

Mr. YEPSEN: Well, historically it's always been the economy and things like that, and I think the economy still is an issue and certainly health care is an issue. But the point I was making earlier that national security, terrorism--these are issues now that weren't here the last time we picked a new president in 2000. This is the first post-9/11 election where we will elect a new president. There won't be an incumbent on the ballot. And so I think that changes the concerns people have, the questions people get. Senator Feingold has been in the state a while back, talking about issues surrounding the Patriot Act. And a lot of the activists that were there were very much concerned about those.

So I think the issue set changes, and I think that plays into the strength of candidates from Washington, candidates who have experience in foreign policy, in a way that may have not been true in past elections, where governors did well because they made it--had executive styles and made decisions. And you look at some of the foreign policy mistakes that various presidents have made coming out of governorships, maybe it's time to look at a little Washington experience, to somebody who has had--spent some time on an Intelligence committee or on a Foreign Relations committee, because they have a--bring a perspective to the race that governors don't necessarily have.

I think that's one of the issues, for example, with our own governor here in Iowa, Tom Vilsack, who is thinking about running for president. Fine, Governor, but what do you know about foreign policy? I think there's going to be a real challenge for him if he tries to run for the White House.

SEABROOK: Let's get back to some of our listeners' questions. Terry in Iowa City, Iowa, how you doing?

TERRY (Caller): Hey, really good. How are you guys.

SEABROOK: Good, thanks. What's your question?

TERRY: I have a--it's going to be kind of a lengthy thing to go through here, I think, but you were talking about the Iraqi War and stuff and senators having to run for office with votes that they have to be found--and just recently they had that--oh, that funding bill come up that had drilling in the ANWR attached to it.

SEABROOK: The defense--the...

TERRY: And there was quite a little bit of ruckus going on to get that ANWR thing out of there. A lot of people probably voted against it or participated in the blocking of that because of ANWR. But if they should have their name on the ballot, nothing's going to be said of ANWR; all that's going to be said is that they fussed and bothered over funding the war. And I was just wondering who might be out there that, you know, would run into trouble with that that might be a serious candidate.

SEABROOK: Ken Rudin, has that been a key vote, you think, looking forward?

RUDIN: Well, you know, what's interesting is that that's exactly what Ted Stevens tried to do. When Ted Stevens attached the ANWR--the drilling in the Arctic to a defense spending bill, he basically dared Democrats to vote against him, saying, `If you're doing that, you're voting against, you know, our troops and, you know, the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world.' But the Democrats and the Republican opponents didn't buy that at all. They said it was actually shameful that he would attach an ANWR thing to such an important thing like defense spending. So even though Stevens tried to call the Democrats' bluff by daring them to vote against it, they managed to separate that from the bill.

SEABROOK: It may have backfired on him a bit.

Jim in Columbia, South Carolina, what's your question?

JIM (Caller): I'd like to know why the rest of the country has to be held hostage to what Iowa and New Hampshire select as candidates. I mean, they're not really the most representative states in the union.

SEABROOK: Of course there's very small minority populations, as Jim was alluding to. David Yepsen, question for you there in Iowa.

Mr. YEPSEN: That's a very...

RUDIN: Good luck, Dave.

Mr. YEPSEN: And that's a very good question. The Democratic Party is wrestling with that issue right now, which states should start the process and which states should not. They've had a study committee that has looked at this and has made a recommendation to the national chairman and to the national committee. The idea that they have proposed is that Iowa would lead off the contest in January of 2008, there would be another caucus state a week after that, and then there would be the New Hampshire primary.

But here--you know, here's the problem with the process. No matter where you start it, there will be a disproportionate influence on the voters of that state. Secondly, creating a federal system is difficult because our Constitution and our system gives a lot of power to the states in terms of how they run elections. And so other states who try to creep up, for example, find that Iowa and New Hampshire will outmaneuver them. The country dislikes the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire have such a big influence on the process, but no one can agree on a way to change it.

I've covered this issue now for over 30 years, and it just seems to me like inertia keeps these two states going without a consensus on a different way to nominate presidents. And because each state sort of has a lot to say about how it does that, it's impossible to get a national consensus, to get a national bill through the Congress. This process just keeps going on. And so I think if we were to look at 2012, get this away from personalities of '08, you could create a system that's a little different. But getting agreement on it would be difficult, and absent that agreement, these two states will continue, I think, to play an early role.

SEABROOK: Isn't the Democratic Party trying to throw in some states between Iowa and New Hampshire, though?

Mr. YEPSEN: Yeah. Yes. The idea of getting in states that have a greater minority population or more union members to give a greater voice to the process. The trouble with packing so many states together is that the law of unintended consequences sets in, Andrea, where in an effort to take away from Iowa and New Hampshire, you jam up a lot of states right after that, you make it impossible for a candidate who does poorly in Iowa or New Hampshire to break out and do well in these other states. So the party needs to be looking at a way to decompress the schedule of primaries in '08 in an effort to give more Americans some say in who their nominee ought to be.

And one of the proposals that the party is considering is to give bonus delegates of--say, 50 percent more delegates if you hold your presidential nominating contest in May or June, in an effort to get states to back off and not have all these contests in January, February and March. We'll see. It's an open issue on the Democratic side. The Republicans have pretty well settled on the fact that they're going to lead off with Iowa and New Hampshire and that--they made that decision at their national convention.

But if the Democrats start tinkering around with their process, I would imagine that the Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire will have to moving their date around. So one of the things that always goes on in presidential politics in this country is this argument over process and who goes first and why do we do it this way. And only the purest of political junkies pay much attention to it. I have thought that the best system that you could devise would be one that started the contest in those states who were the closest in the last election. Iowa and New Hampshire would still be--were very close states in '04. They changed from the way they voted in 2000; they were only two of three states that did that.

But we also need as a--if your purpose is to win a presidential election, which is what a nominating contest is really all about, there ought to be some effort put into Ohio. Why not have an early primary in Ohio, in Michigan, where candidates can go in, build organizations that will then pay some dividend later in the fall? But the two parties have not seen fit to hire me as a consultant.

RUDIN: Of course...

SEABROOK: We're talking--Ken, give me one second. We're talking...

RUDIN: No, no, I'm still talking. OK.

SEABROOK: We're talking about 2008 in 2006. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Ken, what's your comment?

RUDIN: Oh, thank you. OK. One of the reasons--obviously, one of the attractions of Iowa and New Hampshire is that theoretically a candidate wouldn't have to spend $100 gazillion to win or compete in those two states, whereas a state like Ohio, which is so populous, with just so many different voting blocs--this is a multimillion-dollar effort. But you know something? Even Iowa and New Hampshire now have become multimillion-dollar efforts. Howard Dean raised $52 million going into Iowa and New Hampshire, so the old romantic vision of somebody who just has, you know, a pocketful of babysitting money and think they can run competitively in those states--those days are gone forever.

SEABROOK: Well, let's get back to some of our listeners, who have some interesting ideas for a ticket. Eric in Portland, Oregon? Who's on your ticket?

ERIC (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call. I don't know that I want to call it my interesting idea, but I did hear on slate.com or read it on slate.com and heard it on "Day to Day"--must have been, gosh, even three or four months ago that folks like Bill Cosby and/or Tom Hanks might be interested in running.

SEABROOK: Ken Rudin, what do you think?

RUDIN: Well, that's ridiculous. The next thing you'll tell me is Arnold Schwarzenegger has a future in politics.

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SEABROOK: So you're saying maybe it isn't quite so ridiculous. David Yepsen, you see any celebrities through Iowa these days?

Mr. YEPSEN: Well, some of these candidates start to take on rock-star status. You know, Senator Clinton, for example, would fall in that category. Rudy Giuliani would. But no, we haven't--no movie stars are taken seriously as presidential candidates that I know of.

SEABROOK: And maybe some...

RUDIN: Was someone talking about Rob Reiner for governor of California? We're talking about, you know--I mean, look, Ronald Reagan didn't start it, but certainly Ronald Reagan--they laughed at him in 1966 when he ran for governor. Pat Brown ran ads saying, you know, as sort of an actor--I mean, an actor with John Wilkes Booth. You know, you don't elect actors to office. But suddenly, the celebrity candidate is less and less rare.

SEABROOK: And to be fair, Tom Hanks probably doesn't have to go to Iowa to be known. David in St. Louis, Missouri, what's your dream ticket?

DAVID (Caller): My dream ticket--and I'll throw you a curve ball--is an independent ticket featuring McCain and Dean.

SEABROOK: Whoo!

DAVID: I think that would, you know, all the problems people have with the two-party system and, you know, the lack of quality, independent candidates--and I'm very liberal, but I think both of them have great levels of integrity and I think that would, you know, sort of turn everything on its head. It'd be a double whammy.

SEABROOK: Thanks for the call, David. Ken, when's the last time we saw a so-called unity ticket?

RUDIN: Just one--as you well remember, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln, the Republican; and Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, the Democrat. They had a national unity ticket, ran on the Republican label, but it was a Democrat-Republican. In 2000, they talked perhaps about John McCain running with Bill Bradley; that was out for a while. And there were rumors in 2004 that John Kerry was seriously looking at John McCain. But again, it's the party regulars who decide who the nominees will be, and you know, if you go to a Republican convention--it's still a two-party system. Even Ross Perot with his 19, you know, zillion dollars that he spent in 1992 couldn't get--you know, couldn't even get an electoral vote, although he did get a lot of the popular vote. So for now, we're still talking about Democrats and Republicans, and as long as that's the case we have to focus on that kind of--those candidates.

SEABROOK: Coming up after a short break, we'll wrap up our discussion of '08 and talk about Hurricane Katrina. Four months ago today, it struck the Gulf Coast. We'll check in with a few people we talked to right after the hurricane to find out how they're doing now.

I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Announcements)

SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

Some of the top news NPR is following this hour: Responding to accusations by Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups that this month's parliamentary elections in Iraq were tainted by fraud, an international team has agreed to travel to Iraq and review the voting process. Also, changes are in store for the Federal Emergency Management Agency as Congress winds down its investigation into FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina. You can hear details of both those stories today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION/"Science Friday." Host Ira Flatow looks back at the year's top science headlines, including the controversy over evolution and intelligent design.

We're still wrapping up here with Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, and David Yepsen, political columnist for The Des Moines Register.

Let me ask you guys one last question, starting with you, Ken. You guys have been covering politics your whole lives. It's fair to say you are the true pinnacle of political junkies. Is it fun to be doing this in 2006 or 2005, or is it annoying?

RUDIN: Oh, God, it's--first of all, it's the greatest thing in the world. It's like, you know, how do you stop rooting for baseball if you're a baseball fan? You get surprised every four years. As David has said, you know, when Jimmy Carter was--back then it was Jimmy who? You never saw it coming. There are a lot of things you don't see coming. In New Hampshire, four years ago--2000--the fact that George Bush, the overwhelming front-runner got clobbered by John McCain. It's the surprises that keep coming up and new candidates--the unsung heroes who come out of nowhere, and that's what keeps us going. Plus, collect the...

SEABROOK: David, you...

RUDIN: ...campaign buttons.

SEABROOK: David Yepsen?

Mr. YEPSEN: Well, it is fun, and you don't devote your life to something without having some fun doing it. But it's also a serious business, and I think people in politics on both sides who are active and sort of the junkies that pay attention to this stuff--really we all have some fun with these, you know, mock match-ups and that kind of thing. But it is a serious business, and we are talking about the American presidency and I take it very seriously, and I've often said that politics is really the only game for adults. And the country's at war in Iraq, we have a war on terrorism that's going on, we have huge economic problems facing the country. So serious people pay serious attention to this, and that--I think that has a sobering effect on what we do and certainly on the attitude that I take toward this business.

SEABROOK: David Yepsen, political columnist for The Des Moines Register, and Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, thank you both for joining us.

RUDIN: Thank you, and happy New York.

Mr. YEPSEN: Thank you.

SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION.

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