MIKE PESCA, host:

The finish line's in sight, well, not the real finish line, but the one for the time trials. There are just over two weeks left in the Democratic primary cycle. Tomorrow voters in the Beaver and Bluegrass States - Oregon and Kentucky, like I had to tell you - vote. One sign of the evolution of the campaign narrative is that John McCain has been in the news a lot more as of late, acknowledging, perhaps, that the contest is becoming Obama versus McCain, not Obama versus Clinton. Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Poltico.com, joins us for the BPP's political breakdown. Hey, Jim.

Mr. JIM VANDEHEI (Executive Editor, politico.com): Hey, how you doing?

PESCA: I'm well. All right, I'm going to throw the primary questions to you really quickly. We'll state that Obama is polling well in Oregon, where he may already be a winner because of their mail-in process. Clinton may very well repeat what she did in West Virginia in Kentucky. So I'm going to ask you to save me 15 hours of watching all those returns on cable news and just tell me something interesting about what could happen in those two contests.

Mr. VANDEHEI: The truth is nothing interesting is going to happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VANDEHEI: Obama's going to win Oregon and Clinton's going to win Kentucky and...

PESCA: Nice, you are an efficient guy, Jim.

Mr. VANDEHEI: I don't think anyone is going to pay attention to either of them, because every single Democrat now thinks that Obama is going to have this wrapped up Tuesday and that it'll be over in early June. Save yourself the time. Watch something else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: All right, so let's talk about the appeasement issue, or the how-dare-you-compare-me-to-Neville-Chamberlain issue. Here is Senator Joe Biden on ABC's "This Week," epitomizing the Democrat response to when President Bush went before the Israeli Knesset and said some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals. Here's Senator Biden.

(Soundbite of TV show "This Week with George Stephanopoulos")

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): Any time you inject anywhere, but particularly in the Israeli Knesset, the Holocaust, Nazi tanks crossing into Poland, Hitler, I mean, it's just above and beyond anything. I mean, everyone from Pat Buchanan found it stunning.

PESCA: There was wide umbrage taking on the political left. Is that the right strategy?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Well, it is. I think this is essentially the fruits of the lesson learned from the last campaign, where they - Democrats felt like they were not forceful enough in defending John Kerry and his record on national security in military matters. So now the Democrats are very aggressive in responding to any charges from Bush or Republicans, because they do not want to be portrayed as weaklings on the national stage.

You know, Bush obviously used very sharp language. The truth is, you know, Obama, Nancy Pelosi, other people have suggested we should be negotiating and talking to leaders in Syria and Iran, and other dictators. I think it's just a different way and a better way of doing international diplomacy.

What Republicans will try to do, they're already doing it and will do it more forcefully in the days ahead, is basically say, listen, Democrats are weak. The idea that they want to negotiate with these terrorists or these countries that harbor terrorists is dangerous and John McCain would not do that. Therefore, you should choose the Republican brand, because we are tougher on national security.

The big question is, is that - does that argument still work? You've got to remember in '04 and in 2000, and quite frankly, for a decade before that, Republicans were always favored on national security and always seen as the stronger and smarter party when it comes to keeping the country safe. That's changed. At best, it's a wash now, and a lot of people are very skeptical of Republican leadership, broadly speaking, on national security because of what's happened in Iraq, and the fact that people feel the rest of the world just doesn't like us.

PESCA: If the 2004 presidential campaign could be distilled to one phrase, or the winning phrase for President Bush, and of course, a lot happened, and gay-marriage initiatives, and a whole raft of differences, but the phrase would be, I am strong and he is weak. That is what Bush was selling to the American people. That's essentially what the American people bought. You were just saying that it's not going to be that simple this time. So do you think the Republicans are going to have to come up with the better argument than that simple argument?

Mr. VANDEHEI: They certainly are. But undoubtedly, they're going to keep trying that. You know, we - I talked to a bunch of governors and leaders in the party last week to get an idea of what Republicans will talk about in the election, and it's clear they feel that the one ace in the hole that they still hold is national security and fighting terrorism.

They feel like if they can really hit that argument hard and basically say that Obama does not have the experience nor the strength to lead on national security, if they can raise questions about the willingness of Democrats to talk to Syria, Iran and others, they feel that that will be a very powerful message that they can take to Independent voters. And also, when you juxtapose Obama, who has very little national security experience, with McCain, who was obviously a war hero, spent time in a - as a prisoner of war and has been a leader on those issues for the Republican Party, they think that works in their favor.

The question is - McCain is so tied to the Iraq war, I mean, his - and to George Bush on that issue, and the Iraq war is so unpopular, and most analysts and people that have spent time over there, no one thinks it's going to be significantly better come election day, so somehow, McCain is going to have to transcend that. That will take a very skillful political act.

PESCA: You know, the Democratic argument, the how dare you say that we want to talk to the leaders of Iran. Is that somewhat undercut by the fact that the Democrats themselves were having that very argument, where Hillary Clinton criticized Barack Obama for saying that he was willing to talk? Can the Democrats now present themselves as a united front saying that, you know, you can't criticize us for wanting to talk?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Well, I mean, for the most part, the Democratic Party is united in their approach to foreign policy. There's certainly differences between the conservative wing and the more liberal wing. There's been a push, especially among liberal activists and now Barack Obama and others, to say, you know what? We need to start to engage even our strongest enemies.

And there's definitely an element of the Democratic Party, a lot of them former Clinton administration officials, who feel like, no, you really have to lead by strength, and I think that Hillary Clinton's really captured that. She talked about, you know, if Israel was ever hit by an attack by Iran that we would respond forcefully, and when she uses forcefully, everyone knows that that's essentially saying, that we would probably use tactical nuclear weapons if that's what they did to Israel. Because they feel like you have to respond with strength and that the folks in the Middle East only respond to strength.

PESCA: I want to turn, for a second, to some congressional elections. Perhaps they are a bellwether, perhaps not. Republican seen as a safe seat in Mississippi went Democratic last week. Dennis Hastert lost his seat to a Dem - or he didn't run, but his seat went to a Democrat. Even a smart, learned politico like you, were you surprised to see this?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Certainly surprised by that Mississippi result. That's one of the most conservative districts in the country, one, I think, that Bush had won by about 25 points, one that, under no circumstance, should a Republican be losing that seat. And the fact that they did shows how bad things are for Republicans. I think that is the big, big story right now that's being overshadowed by the Democratic race.

The Republican brand is about as damaged as I can recall. I mean, it's as damaged as it was right in the wake of Watergate. Bush's numbers are in the tank, about a 20-point advantage to Democrats right now in who people favor in a generic match up in a congressional race. Approval of virtually Republicans on every issue is down very, very low, and there's no real smart thinking going on about how they're going to change that. It's very difficult, once the public turns on you or turns on your party to instantly turn that around.

Even in this era of, I think, great fluidity that we have in culture and in politics. Six months is not really a lifetime in politics to repair a brand. That's why Republicans are so enthusiastic - reluctantly enthusiastic about McCain. Because they feel like, yeah, I don't like the guy, and he's been a hot head, and he's not been with us on most of our issues, but maybe because he has been a maverick, and he has clashed at times with Republican leadership, maybe this is the kind of guy who can reinvent the party, even if he reinvents it in a way that would not be to our precise liking.

PESCA: Right. During the primary, the big knock on him, he's not a real Republican, he's not a conservative Republican, and now...

Mr. VANDEHEI: Right.

PESCA: People look at the atmosphere and say, woo hoo, thank God, he's not a conservative Republican!

Mr. VANDEHEI: Yee haw, he's not a real Republican!

PESCA: There's a - I thought the political quote of the week was Republican Representative Tom Davis, who said of the party and the brand that, if we were dog food, we'd be taken off the shelf. Wow. But what I want to know is this. Does it - what does this mean for the presidential race? Because those Democrats who are winning in the Republican seats, they're not liberal Democrats. They don't look a lot like Obama or...

Mr. VANDEHEI: Right.

PESCA: Clinton even. So can the top of the ticket think that they can get any momentum from this shifting beneath them?

Mr. VANDEHEI: I mean, when you have an environment this bad and this hostile to Republicans, it cannot be good for McCain. That said, I don't think there's necessarily a direct correlation between the performance of these candidates in these congressional races and how McCain will do, mostly because, I think, McCain starts from a pretty good place in the presidential election in that most people don't pay attention. Those that do pay attention, their blink reaction is, ah, war hero, or maverick, or campaign-finance-reform guy. That's probably all they know about McCain, so...

PESCA: Funny guy on "SNL."

Mr. VANDEHEI: So he comes from a basis that's not bad.

PESCA: Right. Finally, well, I guess I'll put you on the spot with this. You know, in politics there are coattails, where the guy at the top of the ticket - or lady - is supposed to drag along congressman. Is there an opposite word for where a congressman being a Democrat can help the guy at the top of the ticket?

Mr. VANDEHEI: I don't - there's not really a case that I can think of where that's ever really happened. In truth, I think coattails, even at the presidential level, are rare unless there is a national tide. I think where you'll see - I think, less than coattails is that you just have such a bad environment for Republicans, and I think that's what is going to hurt them across the board. I think the party as a whole has very big structural problems.

You know, they can't raise as much money as they used to. They're not as good at training candidates as they used to. And quite frankly, the issues that people care about are changing; the Republicans have not changed with them. So they have a lot of things that they have to fix structurally before they can sort of heal as a party. And I'm struck by - my conversations with them, I'm not hearing a lot of really like genuinely interesting thinking going on, and they're going to have to figure out a way to do that.

PESCA: All right, Jim VandeHei, executive editor of politico.com. I enjoyed it, Jim.

Mr. VANDEHEI: Take care. Bye.

PESCA: Bye.

(Soundbite of music)

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Stay with us. Coming up on the next on the big show, one reporter's experience covering the story of the stalemated election in Zimbabwe. Her husband, a journalist, too, was kidnapped for, quote, committing journalism. We'll have a conversation with Celia Dugger of the New York Times coming up on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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