ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And we begin this hour with one of those neck in neck races for the U.S. Senate which will determine who holds the majority of the chamber come January. This one is in Ohio, where I saw the two candidates last week and also heard from a group of voters, especially about the war in Iraq.
George Bush narrowly won Ohio two years ago and the state's 20 electoral votes won him reelection. Since then Ohio's Republican Party has been mired in corruption scandals and support for the president and the war have plummeted.
Mike DeWine, the two-term GOP incumbent senator, is at best running even in the polls and according to several surveys he is trailing Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown.
Senator MIKE DeWINE (Republican, Ohio): Hi. How you all doing?
So last week, there he was with his wife Frances at his side, at a bus stop in downtown Akron.
Senator DeWINE: Nice day, huh?
Unidentified Woman #1: Gorgeous.
SIEGEL: Senator DeWine trumpets his support for homeland security.
Senator DeWINE: There's really a fundamental difference between Congressman Brown and myself in regard to intelligence. You can really see that difference, I think, in Congressman Brown's ten votes where he has voted to cut our intelligence spending.
SIEGEL: Support for homeland security, defense and intelligence are central themes of the DeWine reelection campaign, the stuff of speeches and commercials.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Announcer: 1993. The World Trade Center is bombed. Months later, Congressman Brown votes to cut intelligence funding. 1996. Al-Qaida kills 19 U.S. servicemen. Brown votes again to slash intelligence spending.
SIEGEL: Mike DeWine is a conservative Republican. He raised cautions about President Bush's nomination of Harriet Myers to the Supreme Court, but he's generally been a GOP loyalist and he is strongly anti-abortion.
When we sat down recently in his Washington office, he cast himself as the pragmatist who crosses party lines, his opponent as the ultra-liberal.
Senator DeWINE: Sherrod Brown has been on the fringe. He's been labeled that way by publications of his own party. The significance is that he can't get things done.
SIEGEL: To what extent is this election about Iraq and about U.S. policy in Iraq?
Senator DeWINE: Iraq certainly is on everyone's mind in Ohio. We've lost close to 130 troops now. We've had many more than that injured so certainly it's on people's minds, and there are differences between Congressman Brown and myself. My position is that we want our troops out of there and they have to come out under not an artificial timetable as Congressman Brown wants, where you just pick a date and say they're all going to be out, but rather under measurable results where we can say, they're going to come out when the Iraqi troops are trained to the point so that they can take this thing over.
SIEGEL: Senator Jay Rockefeller said early on, if I knew everything that I knew now back when I cast the vote, I wouldn't have voted for this war. Would you join with Senator Rockefeller?
Senator DeWINE: What I would say is what I've said many times before when asked this question. If we had the intelligence then that we have today and knew what the facts were about the weapons of mass destruction, we wouldn't have even had a vote. It wouldn't even have come up.
SIEGEL: You've been a very strong pro-life senator. For many years, the world without Roe v. Wade has been an abstraction since the Supreme Court upheld its central finding. One more change in the Court and Roe v. Wade could be out. What should be in your view an appropriate law governing abortion if, in fact, the Supreme Court voids Roe versus Wade?
Senator DeWINE: As you point, I am pro-life. I have a 100 percent pro-life voting record. I wouldn't venture to guess what the United States Supreme Court is going to do. I've given that up many, many years ago. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, what that simply means is the matter would go back to the states.
SIEGEL: What should your state do? Should it ban all abortions? Should it make an exception for women who've become pregnant by rape or incest? What should it do?
Senator DeWINE: This will be decided on a state by state basis. My personal position is that I'm against abortion and I've always allowed certainly exceptions there as well.
Senator DeWINE: Good to be back. Good to be back in Akron. Good to see everybody. Thank you all for coming.
SIEGEL: Back at the bus stop in Akron, I asked Senator DeWine about the dimension of this race that brought people like me out to Ohio, the fact that if he wins reelection, he could help maintain the GOP majority in the Senate. DeWine wasn't biting.
Senator DeWINE: I don't think people in Ohio are so fixated on party. I think what they're looking for is who is the individual who will represent the state and can represent them. I don't think anybody understands the state more than I do and that's what I want to be and that's what I've been is an advocate for the state of Ohio and the people of the state of Ohio.
SIEGEL: And that's more important than to say -
Senator DeWINE: I think it's a lot more important.
SIEGEL: Than to keep Mitch McConnell leading the Senate, say, next year as opposed to Harry Reid.
Senator DeWINE: I think for voters, this race is between Mike DeWine and Sherrod Brown.
SIEGEL: Seven-term Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown says he, too, works together with members of the other party but he's also running hard on a vote that he thought was distinctly in the minority. He voted against going to war in Iraq.
Iraq is a central theme of Brown's campaign, including his commercials on television.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Woman #2: I was proud when my son went to Iraq, then I found out the Army didn't have enough body armor. I wrote everyone I could think of. My senator, Mike DeWine, sent me back a form letter that didn't even mention body armor. Sherrod Brown wasn't my congressman, but he met with me and other military families then went to bat for our troops and helped them get -
SIEGEL: Sherrod Brown sat down to talk with us in Canton, Ohio. He is a liberal Democrat, pro-choice on abortion, anti-NAFTA - he says it should be renegotiated - and in this election he is very insistently critical of administration policy in Iraq.
Congressman SHERROD BROWN (Democrat, Ohio): Iraq's important in large part because Mike DeWine sat on the Intelligence Committee and did not ask the tough questions, not demanded about weapons of mass destruction, not demanded of the president a plan to win, a plan for body armor for our troops, a plan to rebuild Iraq and a plan to exit. And Americans, and particularly Ohioans, understand that because they have, Mike DeWine's not held the president accountable, the Iraq policy has been very wrongly conducted.
SIEGEL: He says at this point, post-9/11, what we really should be doing is supporting intelligence and Homeland Security and as you know, he not only criticizes, but advertises against your votes against intelligence funding throughout the 1990s, where you were voting against bills which would've increased or maintained the level of intelligence gathered.
Representative BROWN: I joined James Sensenbrenner, Republican author of The Patriot Act, Porter Goss, who later became the CIA director under this President Bush in voting for amendments that would've exerted some discipline on the intelligence community. We tried to do that on the floor of the House of Representatives because Mike DeWine and others on the intelligence committees, the oversight committees, weren't doing this. If Mike DeWine had done his job -and he's missed about half of the public hearings in the Intelligence Committee - if he had done his job, it could've been a very different rolling out of what's happened since.
SIEGEL: If he and several others -
Representative BROWN: He and others, yeah.
SIEGEL: To what degree should Ohio voters see this Senate race as part of a national picture in which if Republicans retain or win a certain number of seats, they retain a majority in the Senate - if Democrats like you win, they have a chance of winning the majority in the Senate. Is that what it's about, or is it simply about you versus Mike DeWine in Ohio?
Representative BROWN: It's all of that. I think the voters in Ohio understand the pivotal role that we play in national politics. I think voters in Ohio sense an opportunity to end one party rule in this country and in this state. I think the voters in Ohio understand they have an opportunity to say let's change the direction of this country. We live in Ohio. We can do that.
SIEGEL: So those are the candidates. You can hear the complete interviews at our Web site, NPR.org. Here are some voters.
(Soundbite of crowd of people)
SIEGEL: Two years ago, most of these Ohioans talked to us in the same house in Chagrin Falls. It's an upscale suburb of Cleveland. The people we heard from were very strongly pro-Bush, especially on Iraq, although there were some dissenting voices. This year, they invited a couple of newcomers.
For some of these Ohioans, this race is about which party should control Congress. For retired insurance man Peter Herbrook, it's really about which party should not control Congress.
Mr. PETER HERBROOK: I am so appalled by the minority leadership in the House and the Senate and to think that those people would take over should the Democrats regain majority is an appalling thing. To have Nancy Pelosi and this other idiot from Arizona or wherever he is out there is an appalling thing. They are a disgrace to their party.
SIEGEL: For you, a vote for Mike DeWine is not especially a vote for his virtues -
Mr. HERBROOK: I have no clue who DeWine is, he's been so quiet.
SIEGEL: But it's to keep the Republicans in the majority.
Mr. HERBROOK: You can't have those other jerks in there.
SIEGEL: On the other side of this race are David Van Wagoner, a research scientist, and his wife Ann, a counselor.
Ms. ANN VAN WAGONER: I have to say that I really don't know that much about either candidate, but probably I would lean toward Sherrod Brown.
SIEGEL: Where does Iraq count in all that?
Ms. VAN WAGONER: Iraq is huge for me. I think we'd have a lot more money for Homeland Security if we were out of Iraq, and I don't argue with protecting our country and protecting freedom, but I think where our money is going right now to rebuild infrastructure that we bombed - I mean, we need money for our own schools. Perhaps my husband can state it more gracefully than I can with this, but.
SIEGEL: David Van Wagoner?
Mr. DAVID VAN WAGONER: I would look forward to seeing the Democratic Party regain control. I think that we've been on the wrong path for the last few years, and I think that Sherrod Brown doesn't have, other than a record of opposition to the Iraq War, may not have a direct record that is relevant to that, but as a part of the bigger picture of the national direction, I think that it would help to make that transition.
SIEGEL: You're saying that the vote that you'll cast for the Senate, in part, is a national, federal vote.
Mr. VAN WAGONER: Exactly.
SIEGEL: It's a vote to help put the Democrats in the majority of the Senate.
Mr. VAN WAGONER: Yes.
SIEGEL: These 15 people in Chagrin Falls are suburban professionals and businessmen and businesswomen. Debbie Axelrod is a personal trainer and a local council member. She says she'll stick with Mike DeWine and the Republicans, but she is concerned.
Ms. DEBBIE AXELROD: My son is 10. In eight years, I don't want him to be off to war, but I really think that's the direction we're headed.
SIEGEL: This is a question that came up two years ago. Your children were all two years younger then. By a show of voices, is it still a concern to some of you or to many of you?
Unidentified Woman #1: Definitely.
Unidentified Woman #2: Very much so.
Unidentified Woman #3: Very scary.
SIEGEL: There was another worrying concern that these Ohio voters expressed to us. When I asked about the quality of candidates and national leaders, nearly all expressed deep dissatisfaction with those who hold office or seek it. And that sentiment cut across party lines.