Political Junkie: Morgan State's Republican Debate Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, and Republican media pundit Armstrong Williams discuss tomorrow's Republican debate scheduled to take place on the campus of Morgan State University, a historically African-American institution in Baltimore. Which of the Republican candidates will show up?
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Political Junkie: Morgan State's Republican Debate

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Political Junkie: Morgan State's Republican Debate

Political Junkie: Morgan State's Republican Debate

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington.

BROOKS: And now, it's time for another edition of the Political Junkie.

(Soundbite of past political speeches)

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.

Gov. HOWARD DEAN (Democrat, Vermont): Byaah.

BROOKS: Democrats debate, if not scream, tonight at Dartmouth. But the bigger story may be the Republicans. The top candidates have all been accused of snubbing African-American voters. They turned down invites - invitations to tomorrow's presidential forum at Morgan State University. We'll talk with Armstrong Williams about that in a few minutes.

Also today is Larry Craig's big day in court in Minnesota. New polls show Hillary pulling away in New Hampshire and we might have a race for vice president getting underway.

NPR's political editor Ken Rudin is here as he is every Wednesday.

And if you have questions for our political junkie about what's at stake in this week's debates, the new poll numbers, what's up with Larry Craig or the rest of the week's news, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. You can also e-mail us, talk@npr.org.

And hello, Ken Rudin. Great to have you.

KEN RUDIN: Hello, Anthony Brooks.

BROOKS: So let's start with tonight's debate in New Hampshire. The Democratic presidential contenders will be at Dartmouth College. What are you expecting?

RUDIN: Well, a lot of things have changed since the last time the Democrats debated, and most of it has been about Hillary Clinton. She unveiled her latest Hillary care - health care plan. And even though, you know, Barack Obama has a plan out and John Edwards has a plan out, all attentions seems to have been on Hillary Clinton given the fact that that was her fiasco back in 1993, 1994. She was on five talk shows, Sunday morning talk shows.

BROOKS: That must have been a new record, five all in one morning.

RUDIN: It's the old Ginsburg record, yes. And - but basically, she didn't say anything. But the point is she's out there. And whenever she sneezes, whenever she yawns, there are 25 cameras there to get those pictures.

And there are new polls, as you just alluded to. There are new polls not only nationally, but in New Hampshire. A CNN poll shows that she has widened her lead over Barack Obama, second place Democrat, by 23 - up to 23 points.

Again, we're talking about it three or four months out before Iowa and New Hampshire. It's not clear what these polls mean, as I say every week. But, you know, the fact is that it's there and people are taking notice.

BROOKS: Hmm. And what of this Celinda Lake survey, this was another poll that wasn't such great news for the Democrats, as I read it.

RUDIN: Well, they - it also shows that, you know, despite the fact that the Democrats are very optimistic about their chance in 2008, and they are very happy with their choice of candidates, far more so than Republican voters, Celinda Lake survey shows that Hillary Clinton, and perhaps Barack Obama as well, could be a drag on some Democrats trying to either win seats or retain marginal seats that they captured in 2006. So all is not rosy for the Democratic Party.

BROOKS: Getting back to this debate in New Hampshire, does that mean we're going to hear a lot about health care tonight? I mean, now that Hillary's got her plan out? Is that going to be the issue that's going to - that these candidates are going to try to distinguish themselves with?

RUDIN: Well, again, this or that. There's probably the MoveOn controversy about how the Senate split - well, the Democratic Party was split on whether to defend or reject the MoveOn controversy. Their ad, you know, attacking General Petraeus as General Betray Us. Republicans were on the warpath on that. The Democratic Party seemed to be split on the Senate on that. There's also new -of course, the new poll numbers as well. There may be a reference or two to Norman Hsu, the fundraiser who has gotten, perhaps, a cause of embarrassment for the Hillary campaign.

But again, there's also these other candidates, we say this all the time, they've got to break out of the pack. I mean, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden and Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, as well - I mean they all have got to do something to make people to stand up and take notice.

Now, Gravel has a knack of saying things that would make people stand up and take notice, but it's not been reflected in any polls.

BROOKS: Maybe scream. People notice that.

RUDIN: Well, we do in beginning of this show every week…

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: …to the consternation of some people, yeah.

BROOKS: Senator Evan Bayh, the Democrat from Indiana, who was a presidential contender not long ago, has come out and endorsed Hillary Clinton. What do you make of this?

RUDIN: Well, I think he's looking at the polls as well. And of course, you know, whatever - I mean, not only are we deciding that Hillary Clinton has the Democratic nomination locked up, and now we're already deciding who her running mate would be. And this is of course ludicrous and ridiculous, but we do it anyway. And of course, if you're going to look at a running mate - if we're going to go that far - no matter who the Democratic nominee is, we see that the Democrats cannot win the South. We saw that Al Gore and John Kerry came within a whisper, both came within a whisper of winning the presidency, neither can they carry a single southern state.

So perhaps, the real battleground is the Midwest. And if you're going to look at the Midwest, you look at the track of the Democrats there. You look at former Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, but you look Evan Bayh who - a Democrat who consistently wins in Republican-heavy Indiana. He was elected twice as governor. I believe at least twice as senator, secretary of state as well. So he has a - theoretically, he could help the Democratic nominee win in this key Midwest states like Iowa, like Wisconsin, like Minnesota, like Indiana, which, you know, are up for grabs in 2008.

BROOKS: Well, everything is beginning earlier this year including the Veep sweepstakes, apparently.

Give us a call, 800-989-8255 if you have questions for Ken Rudin.

And let's go to Tiago(ph) who is calling from Chicago. Hi there, Tiago. You're on the air.

TIAGO (Caller): Hi, guys. Thanks so much for taking my call. My question is, it seems for a while that Barack Obama was a rock star, that he was just really doing so well. Has he started making mistakes? What exactly is going on that Hillary is taking so much of a lead? Is he making mistakes specifically or what's happening?

BROOKS: What do you think, Ken?

RUDIN: That's a good question. And I haven't seen any mistakes. I mean, of course, some people feel that he's too cautious. But they've been saying that about Hillary Clinton for ages and she seems to be increasing her lead. He is still very strong in debates. He is still getting very strong turnout. Very - the crowds are very enthusiastic. And his money, he's been raising a ton of money. So I haven't seen it.

Again, you know, these polls they could blur a lot of things. We've seen polls in the past that are, you know - I say this all the time - but 10 days before Iowa, Howard Dean had the lead. Richard Gephardt was second. They finished third and fourth ultimately.

So four months out, things could certainly change. Obviously, whoever wins in Iowa - and it looks like a three-way race between Edwards, Obama and Clinton - whoever wins it, will obviously have a big leg up. So a national poll is one thing, but the early primaries and caucuses is another thing. Watch Obama. Watch the numbers - the amount of money he raises at the end of the month, which is the third quarter, and you may see another uptake in Obama's numbers.

BROOKS: Thanks for the call, Tiago.

Speaking of polls, I was in New Hampshire a couple of weeks ago talking to Andy Smith about the polls among the Republican candidates, and he pointed out something very interesting. And that is at that point, his latest poll showed that only six percent of Republican voters had made up their minds. So when you talk about polls and sort of what they're saying, it's just another reminder - sometimes they're not saying that much.

RUDIN: Well, that's very true and especially true on the Republican side. The longest time - for the longest time, we were saying that the reason - the argument for Fred Thompson is that there's such fluidity in a Republican side. But he hasn't really made the kind of difference that a lot people expected him to make. There's also a new New Hampshire poll that's going to come out in the next day or so that shows John McCain, who had lost so much of his support because of funding and staffing problems, maybe moving up in the polls as well.

BROOKS: Well, let's talk about this story - moving from the debate among Democrats to a debate tomorrow night at Morgan State in Baltimore. Top-tier Republicans John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney won't be there. Why aren't they're not going to this? This is an opportunity to reach out to black voters. It seemed very important to me. What's going on here?

RUDIN: Well, they say - I mean, their argument is that they have a scheduling conflict, and people are saying, you know, what you're doing is writing off the black vote. In fairness, we should also point out that - I guess a week or two ago, the same top-tier Republican candidates didn't show up for Values - at Values Forum in Florida. So it's obvious they're not writing off the Christian conservative voters either, but they cited a scheduling conflict.

But there are Republicans like Newt Gingrich - we saw today on "Good Morning America," Jack Kemp, Armstrong Williams, who we'll speak to later, have said this is an ill-sighted, a narrow-minded view of writing off the black votes so early. But in fairness to that, you know, George Bush has worked, you know, made it a point, as did Karl Rove, said they tried to reach out to African-American voters. And they think that strategy - whatever chance it may have had, it fell apart after Katrina.

BROOKS: Well, speaking of Armstrong Williams, I want to bring him into the conversation. He's been standing by. He's a nationally syndicated conservative Republican columnist and a radio talk show host, and joins us now from a studio in Washington, D.C. And Mr. Armstrong, welcome to the show.

Mr. ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS (Talk Show Host; Syndicated Columnist): Well, thank you. I don't think I'm a Republican columnist. I'm just a columnist.

BROOKS: I apologize.

RUDIN: That was me and my fault.

BROOKS: That was completely Ken's fault. So - but Mr. Williams, tell me what you make of these Republicans foregoing this opportunity, the debate at Morgan State.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Given what happened to the Republicans in '06, they don't have the luxury to pick and choose whom they will address or not. They are desperate. They could get annihilated in the Congress, in the White House. And they should never believe the tea leaves that American blacks have made up their minds of which candidate they will vote for. It's too early in the election cycle. They have everything to gain, nothing to lose.

I mean, leadership is about courage, going into places where you may find a hostile environment. Standing for your values and your belief system. At least, you will walk away with people respecting you and have a better understanding, instead of them trying to judge and understand your philosophy and what you advocating based on something else they read or something somebody may say. They often complain about the fact that they're misunderstood. But when they're given this opportunity, what do they do?

And I think it's ludicrous that they're using the schedule as a conflict. How in the world can four of the leading candidates and Tancredo, number five, can all have the same scheduling problem? I think they're providing cover for each other. I think they show no backbone. I think it's a huge mistake. It's a huge miscalculation. And hopefully, someone like Senator John McCain, who should show leadership and break away from this pack and say, you know what? I know I've lost ground, I know I've taken a licking in the press, but I'm going to go no matter what the consequences are. And then I think he would make it quite difficult for the other candidates, too. But they should go. I mean, there's no question about it. They don't have that luxury any longer.

BROOKS: 1-800-989-8255. That's the number to call to ask - bring your questions to the political junkie and to Armstrong Williams.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take a call. Let's go to Brian(ph) who is calling from Raleigh, North Carolina. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi. My question - and I'm wondering, is, do you know of any progressive Republicans who might be running in 2008? I know there are far few between. But I was wondering if there's any left?

BROOKS: Armstrong Williams, do you want to tackle that one?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, it all depends on how are you defining a progressive Republican.

BRIAN: I'm thinking of the Lowell Weicker, Jacob Javits camp of the - wing of the party.

Mr. WILLIAMS: On the presidential slate, no.

BRIAN: Anyone down ticket?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I'm not - I don't know anyone as of yet. I don't know.

BROOKS: What about you, Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Well, you know, you mention the Lowell Weickers and the Jacob Javits and the Nelson Rockefellers of the world, that's a wing of the Republican Party that seem to disappear around 1980, when Ronald Reagan, the Christian conservatives came to power, it's hard to imagine. Basically, all those Republicans have now switched to the Democratic Party, just like what we've seen in the South, all those conservative Democrats are now Republicans. There doesn't seem to be much intermingling between ideology and the party.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, I don't the last time, in my young life, that I can remember a field of Republican candidates where the Republican base is just so lacking of energy and belief in its candidates. And, you know, it was a sad commentary when Senator Fred Thompson entered the race and all of a sudden Former Mayor Giuliani was no longer the frontrunner. John McCain was resurrected. And all of a sudden, Romney had no movement. It shows you just how weak this field is and how weak these candidates are and how desperate the base is just for anybody.

I mean, is there any wonder why they're struggling and the country is struggling and the base is struggling for a worthy candidate, a nominee? And not only that they lack the paragons or Republican-values president this current offering, but they seem to show complete disregard for a voter base, which they claim they want to secure and take away from the - what they consider to be the Democratic plantation.

So, I mean, it's very disappointing, I must admit. And it doesn't speak well of the Republican Party right now. And I heard your earlier conversation with Ken about what - about Mrs. Clinton and Senator Barack Obama. Where that may be true if the Republican Party had a strong field, but given their fortunes in the past and the future, if I were a prognosticator, I would say it looks pretty bleak unless they do something pretty desperate. I won't say going to Morgan State is a desperate move, I would just say it's the right move.

BROOKS: All right. Well, Armstrong Williams, I want to thank you for joining us today. Thank you so much.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

BROOKS: That's Armstrong Williams. He's a syndicated talk show host and columnist. He joined us from his studio in Washington.

Ken, I want to read an e-mail from Ryan(ph) in Michigan. And he goes - and it's actually addressed to you.

Ken, isn't it rather…

RUDIN: Does it say, Dear Ken?

BROOKS: It doesn't actually.

RUDIN: Okay. Okay. Yeah.

BROOKS: But it is perfumed.

RUDIN: Okay.

BROOKS: Ken, isn't it rather tragic that the leading candidates are the leading candidates because the media says so? There are far better candidates on both sides than those leading polls. They will never get the nomination because they've already been written off by every political commentator including yourself. Let's scrap the system and adopt France's method of choosing their national leader. They got almost 80 percent turnout in their last election. And every candidate gets equal funding and media airtime.

RUDIN: Well, we can talk about the equal funding at another time, but I agree with Ryan, a perfumed e-mail, exactly about the fact that the media does have a terrible habit of anointing frontrunners. And he listed me as one of those guilty. I'm not sure if I do that as much, because I've been warning about the danger of anointing people before people have to vote. We cited the events of previous election cycles where frontrunners may no longer be the frontrunners once people have to vote.

But we are lazy. We decide from the beginning the Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Ron Paul, Bill Richardson and all those people have no - Mike Huckabee - have no chance because of these big people.

But the point is, when you have these candidates like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, Mitt Romney, who are raising millions and millions of dollars - Rudy Giuliani, who is high in the polls, who people know about, it's hard to break through. I mean, every now and then, a Jimmy Carter can come along and come out of nowhere and surprise a lot of people. But when you have so much money raised so early and you have such lazy media coverage, it's just hard to break through.

BROOKS: So, we take your admonition to heart, Ryan. We have 30 seconds to talk about Senator Larry Craig, the Republican from Idaho, who was caught in a sex thing operation in an airport bathroom. As we know, Craig was accused of soliciting sex. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. What's happening today, Ken?

RUDIN: Well, his lawyers are in a Minneapolis courtroom trying to throw -basically throw out his guilty plea. I mean, he never went to court and his argument was that had he gone to court, he probably would have gotten better instructions from the judges.

There is a rumor circulating right now on Capitol Hill that he may even rescind his decision to resign as of September 30 and stay for the rest of his term. But no statement from the Senator yet.

BROOKS: He'd be under enormous pressure from the party, though, to make good on his pledge to step down, wouldn't he?

RUDIN: The part - from the moment of his arrest became noticeable - noticed, the party leaders want him out and gone.

BROOKS: Okay. We're out of time. Ken Rudin, thank you so much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Anthony.

BROOKS: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor and our political junkie every Wednesday. You can find his latest column online at npr.org.

This TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington.

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