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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, on the radio in Russia and the station that is one of the last voices of the free press there.

BRAND: First, the Republican presidential candidates are in California tonight for their first debate. We'll have a full report on tomorrow's show. Today though, let's explore a little detail about one of the candidates - Mitt Romney.

A stock question candidates are asked on the campaign trail, what's your favorite book? It can say something about the candidate. Well, in Mitt Romney's case, it may be saying a little more than he bargained for. Romney said his favorite book is the Bible - no surprise there - then he said his favorite novel is "Battlefield Earth." "Battlefield Earth" was written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and was made into a big-budget movie flop starring scientologist John Travolta. Remember, he was wearing those weird dreadlock things.

Mr. JOHN TRAVOLTA (Actor): (As Terl) I can assure you that I was not groomed since birth to have some cushy job that even a moron like you could perform. While you were still learning how to spell your name, I was being trained to conquer galaxies.

BRAND: John Dickerson writes about Romney's reading material at Slate.com.

John, that's quite a piece of acting. I'm wondering for those of us not up on our scientology reading, if you could just encapsulate "Battlefield Earth," what's it about.

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, it's a 1,000-page book. So no summary can capture its full art, but the book takes place in the year 3000. Humans have been enslaved by an alien race with bad breath that occasionally explodes. A young man rescues our race but then has to face another series of foes including things like anthropomorphic sharks who are sort of like interstellar bankers trying to collect on bad debts. It's the age-old story, really.

BRAND: It really is. And okay, so I can see its appeal. But kind of strange political choice, wouldn't you say, for Mitt Romney? He's already getting some weird looks for being a Mormon.

Mr. DICKERSON: It is a little odd. The governor was quick to say in a subsequent interview that what he really meant was this is his favorite sci-fi novel and that his favorite novel was something safer, which is Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

BRAND: So this was perhaps just an off-the-cuff remark - it wasn't politically calculated in any way?

Mr. DICKERSON: I think that's right. I think - for Mitt Romney, who is a very, very careful politician, he's done a lot of things in his campaign to prepare with different constituencies, and he looks like a man, just physically, who prepares very carefully. This may have been a completely unscripted, unplanned moment, which for someone who is so careful might actually have a little political benefit.

BRAND: Well, last year, President Bush said he was reading "The Stranger," the Camus novel about a guy who killed an Arab. I'm just wondering, you know, and this is in the middle of a war. Why don't candidates have a list of safe reading material for this inevitable reporter question - or do they?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, you would think they do. Most candidates prepare for all of these sort of silly questions - what book are you reading? How much does a gallon of milk cost? - those kinds of questions that have tripped up candidates in the past. But I guess, you know, Romney was too busy perhaps boning up on actual issues that might affect people's lives.

BRAND: Okay. Well, let's talk about actual issues. What are you looking forward to in tonight's debate?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, there will be 10 of them on the stage, which means it's going to be very hard for anybody to kind of make their mark and Republicans are trying hard to make their mark with voters who, in the GOP, are just not very happy with the crop of candidates even though there are 10 to choose from. So you'll see candidates try to make their mark in declarative and definitive ways. And Romney, in particular, who's been at the back of the pack in the polls, has a real challenge tonight to kind of stand out from the others.

BRAND: And they need to, on the one hand, say that they are true Republicans but, perhaps on the other hand, distance themselves from the chief Republican -George Bush, the president - because of the Iraq war and the lack of popular support for it.

Mr. DICKERSON: Republicans are in a tricky spot because, yes, they're appealing to GOP voters and they want to be stalwart Republicans, but on the other hand, as you mentioned, the president is not terribly popular. And also, candidates want to talk about the future and not the past. But it's very hard to get away, even if they run away from the president, it will be very hard to get away from the war, which is on everybody's mind.

BRAND: John, thank you.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you.

BRAND: That's John Dickerson. He is chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: There is more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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