MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And now another edition of the Political Junkie.
(Soundbite of Political Junkie opening montage)
President RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ich bin ein Berliner.
Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.
Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): Aaaaaagh!
MARTIN: This week, the brand who brought us macaca faces another setback. Republican Senator George Allen is hit with allegations that he made racist comments during his college years. We play catch up on some of the close races for the U.S. Senate, plus a conversation with Congresswoman Katherine Harris.
It's your chance to talk to Political Junkie Ken Rudin. What race are you following? What political stories caught your attention this week? Our number here is Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@NPR.org.
And Ken Rudin is with us now in Studio 3A. He's NPR's political editor. He also writes the weekly column Political Junkie and a Podcast called It's All Politics. You know, you have almost as many titles as Jeffrey Nunberg has in that title in his book.
KEN RUDIN: And yet in many ways I'm very lonely. Oh, never mind, I'm sorry.
MARTIN: And I should just explain that I was laughing because the Dean scream crack me up every time I hear it.
RUDIN: Well, except every time we do it I always get e-mails from people that say, enough about that. Howard Dean should be known for more things that the scream, but we still do it, don't we?
MARTIN: You do. Okay, so, Ken, on a serious note, let's begin with Senator Allen. It is a serious allegation. So describe the allegations for us. Do we know why they surface now?
RUDIN: Well, it's almost like the swift boating of John Kerry, and the fact that this is things that happened 30 years ago that just so happens is coming out six weeks - or less than six weeks before - a key election. You know, George Allen is suddenly finding himself in a tough fight for second term for the Senate, which looked like once upon a time as a cakewalk to the 2008 presidential nomination. This was going to be an easy slam-dunk for Allen.
But first it started with the M word, and that was macaca, then became the J word when he suddenly found out he was Jewish - and his mother being, actually his mother being born in Tunisia. If my memory serves, he would be the first Jewish African-American president in history if, you know, that happened.
And now, of course, it's the N word that has come up. Salon Magazine has come up with some people who played football with George Allen 30 years ago who said he repeatedly used the N word.
MARTIN: And why do they say they're bringing this out now, the complainants, or the persons with the information?
RUDIN: Well, one of the persons who came forward said that he knows that George Allen is considered a possible presidential candidate in 2008, and he just, you know, wanted to come forward. But 17 out of the 20 or so players on the football team all either said they never heard him say anything racially disparaging at all, or they just think it's not true.
So, again, there's a swift boat angle to it because it's one word against the other. Certainly George Allen denies saying it. But there is a public perception of George Allen, being certainly, a good old boy from the South, having worn a confederate flag pin on his high school graduation.
And so there's some people who say, well, maybe it is true. And again, that has tightened his race for the Senate against Jim Webb who, until now, was really not much of a factor in the Senate race.
MARTIN: Okay. Just one last question briefly on Allen - because we have a special guest and we want to make sure she has plenty of time. But it's not all people asking him tough questions or people raising things about Allen that's giving him trouble. He's done some things to hurt himself in this campaign…
RUDIN: Oh no, this is all coming out of his own mouth. The macaca line came from his own voice, you know, when a person of color appeared at a campaign rally. I mean it almost seemed like, well, it seemed like he was just singling him out because of his color by saying welcome to Virginia, welcome to America. People said that this is a little ugly.
And when they brought up the fact that he may have been raised Jewish, his mother was raised Jewish. I mean, his line was something like, well, I still eat ham sandwiches. And it was kind of an awkward, uncomfortable moment for even his supporters. And people are wondering about his temperament and his maturity for 2008.
MARTIN: Okay. And stay with us, Ken, we have more to talk about. But from time to time we've checked in on interesting races around the country. Today, we go to Florida. Republican Congresswoman Katherine Harris has led a rocky campaign to unseat Democrat Bill Nelson for the U.S. Senate. She's behind in the polls.
Congresswoman Katherine Harris joins us now by phone from the Washington area. Thank you for coming. I'm sorry. You're not actually here, here but thank you for joining us.
Representative KATHERINE HARRIS (Republican, Senatorial Candidate): Thank you, Michel. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: And I should mention we also invited Senator Bill Nelson to join in this discussion but he wasn't available. And as I mentioned earlier, Congresswoman - and I hope it's not painful to bring it up - but you are trailing the senator in the polls. What do you think you can do to turn this election around?
Rep. HARRIS: Well, we - just right after the primary we had already cut his lead in half, and we've seen - and others have told us of polls of us leading - just behind him now. So we know we have the momentum to catch up and win November 7th.
What's interesting about my race, is that if you look back historically in Florida, I ran against the Democrat senate incumbent. I was down 30 points and won. I ran against the incumbent, state-wide, for secretary of state - down 30 points and won by 20. Jeb Bush was behind 10 points the week before his election, and he won by 10.
So, honestly, Michel, we don't value these polls to terribly much but we know that we've got the momentum to move forward.
MARTIN: Speaking of Jeb Bush, he's one of a number of party leaders in your state, who initially asked you not to run, or asked you to drop out.
Rep. HARRIS: Initially…
MARTIN: - What was that about?
Rep. HARRIS: Way back in May. Way back in May, they had someone else that they had hope would run. But after qualifying, and, certainly after this last primary they've gotten on board.
Both Jeb Bush and the president came to Florida last week and enthusiastically asked everyone to get behind me. So we are moving forward, because the point really is, for the people of Florida, the issues like tax cuts - to make sure that hardworking families get to keep more of their hard-earned money; to make certain that we cut this ridiculous waste, fraud, and abuse in Washington D.C.; to make sure that our border's protected; and even protecting our marriages, as we know it. All those issues - and Bill Nelson has not been supportive of… And we have a 180-degree difference in terms of our outlook and where we would want to take this state and the nation.
MARTIN: But, I guess, I'm just wondering, how is it that happened - from having been secretary of state, from having been really the toast of the town of the Republican Party in Florida, and nationally, after your stint as secretary of state…
Rep. HARRIS: Well, you know, just…
MARTIN: …and then to have it be so many people asking you not to run. What…
Rep. HARRIS: No, it wasn't that many people.
MARTIN: …was going on there?
Rep. HARRIS: It was just two or three at the top.
MARTIN: Whose name were Bush?
Rep. HARRIS: And everywhere else where we've gone, Michel, there's an overwhelming support. It was a wave of support. Think about this, even in tough Miami-Dade, in a field of four candidates, we still won with 65 percent.
So we've moved forward, and now this is the present, and everyone is on board, and we are confident we'll win. Because my issues, that I'm fighting for - like I said cutting taxes on hardworking people, making sure we protect marriage -because Bill Nelson has voted against marriage between a man and woman, not once but twice. And he has voted to give new citizens way more rights and privileges than you and I even have today.
MARTIN: Some say…
Rep. HARRIS: …and so when…
MARTIN: …you're too polarizing to win statewide. What…
Rep. HARRIS: …Floridians…
MARTIN: …what would you say to that?
Rep. HARRIS: …were we stand.
MARTIN: Congresswoman, some say that you're just too polarizing to win statewide. What would be your response to that?
Rep. HARRIS: I don't believe I'm so polarizing when you see the wave of support from Republicans, Independents, and Democrats. All I've ever done is to prove that I'm gonna stand for what's right, not what's popular. I'm not gonna follow partisan politics and I'm certainly not gonna kowtow to liberal media and be politically correct. I'm gonna fight for Floridians, and they like an independent voice that's going to fight for them. And every campaign promise I've made, I've lived up to during my term.
MARTIN: Now that the primaries are over…
Rep. HARRIS: …you want me to - all right…
MARTIN: …what's your plan to… I'm sorry, now that the primaries are over, what is your plan to appeal to the people who have voted for Bill Nelson in the past? Or who you'll need to put a bi-partisan…
Rep. HARRIS: Well, isn't it…
MARTIN: …coalition together?
Rep. HARRIS: Great question. We're going to remind people of Florida what their values are, who they care to have represent them in Washington D.C. They did not elect someone that was gonna raise their taxes. They did not elect someone that cared more about giving illegals more rights and privileges than we have. They did not want to elect someone that would vote against marriage.
And Bill Nelson, when he was insurance commissioner, allowed the National Insurance companies to cut and run, thereby making Floridians take care of their own homeowners' insurance.
So now, we are stuck with insurance rates going through the roof at 300, 400 or 500 percent. We're gonna make sure that Floridians remember his lack of leadership there as well.
So when you start comparing and contrasting my voting record with Bill Nelson's when his voting record is actually rated as more liberal - according to the National Journal - more liberal than Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer. That's not where Floridians values lie - not Independents and Democrats either. And they know that I'm gonna go to D.C. and fight for them.
MARTIN: Congresswoman Katherine Harris is a Republican from Florida. She is her party's Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate race and she joined us by phone from the Washington area. Thank you so much, congresswoman.
Rep. HARRIS: Oh, thank you for the opportunity.
MARTIN: And Ken Rudin is still with us, our political junkie. Let's talk about some of the Senate races. Some of the other Senate races, because we started with talking about Virginia.
In Pennsylvania, a judge ruled that the Green Party will not be on the ballot. This could be bad news for Republican Senator Rick Santorum. Why?
RUDIN: Well, actually, the Republican Party was helping finance this candidate, because the Green Party candidate was pro-choice on abortion. Both Rick Santorum, the Republican incumbent, and Bob Casey Jr, the Democratic opponent, are both pro-life. And, obviously, any votes that come from the left would take away from Bob Casey.
Rick Santorum has been trailing in this race from day one, but in the last couple of weeks he had been narrowing the gap. Some polls had him within six, five, six points and there are some sense among some Republicans that he was going to close the gap or perhaps pull ahead. But the last polls show Casey up by back to double digits. The loss of a third party candidate really hurts the Santorum cause.
MARTIN: Let's go to New Jersey. Tom Kean and Senator Robert Menendez are running neck-and-neck but recent polls show Kean slightly ahead of Menendez. What's your read on that?
RUDIN: Well, this is a remarkable - given the fact that the atmosphere at nationwide is so anti-Bush, anti-war - and certainly pro-Democratic. The fact that in such a blue-state like New Jersey, which has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1972, as you well remember, Michel.
Tom Kean is leading by five, six points in many polls, and a lot of it has do to with, either Bob Menendez coming from Hudson County, which is - there are always ethical questions about anybody who comes from Hudson County, whether Menendez or - is tied to it or not.
And the fact the Governor Jon Corzine is pretty unpopular and Democrats are taking the blow. Plus, you have a - the specter of a former governor, Jim McGreevey, who resigned over a gay sex affair, is walking around the state promoting his book. And Democrats are saying why can't we shut this guy up somewhere, because he is really hurting the cause. And I think he - ultimately he may be hurting Menendez's chances.
RUDIN: Well, because as what has more Democrat you have - you had Jon Corzine fighting with the legislature. You have McGreevey embarrassing the party by going around talking about what he, you know, what he believes in as far as his personal life…
MARTIN: But wait, he's not on the ballots so what…
RUDIN: Well, look - George W. Bush is not on the ballot, either, and yet George W. Bush, I would say in perhaps, 50 of the 50 states is the key issue for Democrats. There are people who - Republicans who may be very independent but they are being linked with Bush because they have the R after their name, which is Republican.
MARTIN: You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go to a caller. Let's go to Virginia Beach. And Bernard?
BERNARD (Caller): Yes.
MARTIN: Or is it Bernhardt?
BERNARD: Good afternoon. Thank you…
MARTIN: Good afternoon.
BERNARD: …for taking the call. I'm a black male residing in Virginia. And with regards to Allen allegedly using the N word, I think that it's more smoke and mirrors than substantive. And I feel like an overwhelming number of people of color who were not going to vote for him, or vote for him, are not necessarily concerned with his use of the word as much as if they could determine if that's a representative of how he'd feels deep down.
MARTIN: And what do you think if I - can I ask you what - how does it strike you?
BERNARD: Well, it - first of all, I'm not a Republican. Second of all, my personal preference is that I don't like the word, whether someone black or white says it. Okay. I think that the word shouldn't be used, period. And I don't buy and tell it's okay for black folks to use the N word and not okay for white folks.
There's a scene in Demolition Man where Stallone's character uses an expletive and this device on the wall shoots out like a fine or ticket or whatever. And I was would venture to say that if those were installed in households across America you'd probably had more people of color getting those little tickets for using the N word so, I mean let's go away with the word.
I'm not a Republican so I'm not a defender of his, but I think we could stick more to the issues. The reality is that people do pay attention to the negative and that's what causes the problem.
MARTIN: Okay. Bernard, thanks so much for calling. Appreciate it.
BERNARD: Thank you.
MARTIN: Ken, what about that? Do you think - briefly - do you think that Bernard represents kind of the core of minority opinion, that people think, oh, long time ago - it's not relevant. Let's talk about the issues?
RUDIN: Well, not if you look at the polls. I mean, I've seen nothing that Jim Webb has done - the Democratic candidate Jim Webb has done - that made this race as close as it is. It's really - either statements about George Allen or allegations about George Allen. But the caller makes an important point, that it puts Allen in an untenable position. Because he'll say no, but journalists around the country, and Democrats around the country, will say, well, we don't believe you. Because, you know, because you may have worn a flag, or you may have said this, you know, 30 years ago.
So, I mean he's at a tough race and the fact is, again, he should be winning this by 25 to 30 points. And he just seems off his game. He just doesn't know how to deal with it. I mean, how many times can you say that you are not a racist, I mean, until voters - the only word they hear is the word racist, and it comes to be associated with the candidate.
MARTIN: Last question. Congress is about to return to their district for the midterms, what would they likely accomplish before they adjourn? And is Congress - is whatever they do here going to play out when they go back home?
RUDIN: Well, Democrats have been saying for a long time this - they do not in Congress is a lot of thing that President Bush had asked for. Certainly, an overhaul of the immigration system, that's not happening. Or you may see a border fence, but you may not even had that.
President Bush will not even get all he wanted on the fight - the war against terror - the legislation about that. So the Republican Congress does know that they will come back. After the election, they'll have a lame-duck session where perhaps, John Bolton to the U.N. will be brought up. They try and talk about building a fence from Mexico all the way to Lou Dobbs' house, you know, to protect everybody.
But, again, most - this will be a week to get out of town and campaign. And the Republicans need as much as campaigning time as they can get.
MARTIN: Just very, very briefly, of course, you remember Katherine Harris talked about, you know, illegals having more rights than you and I do and so forth. That language - and I noticed, it was vary interesting - she didn't really talked about national security issues, per se. Is immigration that powerful of an issue, and is the fact that Congress has failed to pass any legislation before they go home having any effect.
MARTIN: …and if so on whom?
RUDIN: It is having an effect on the fact that look, the Republicans run the place, they should get what they want on immigration. But it is an important issue, and ultimately, I think it does the Republican Party - because the border is broken. And who do you blame? You should maybe - you do blame the party that's in power. But the border is broken and the Republicans seemed to be much stronger on this issue.
MARTIN: Okay. Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. Thank you, Ken.
RUDIN: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: He writes the weekly column, Political Junkie, and a Podcast called It's All Politics. Both are available at NPR.org.
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.
(Soundbite of song I Want To Grow Up and Be a Politician by The Byrds)
Roger McGuinn: (Singing) …to be a politician and take over this beautiful land, and take over this beautiful land, and take over this beautiful land.
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