Prosecutor Firings, Polls on the 2008 Race A look at the politics behind the firing of a group of federal prosecutors, plus, fresh polling data about key states in the 2008 presidential election.

Prosecutor Firings, Polls on the 2008 Race

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And it is Wednesday, and time for the Political Junkie.

(Soundbite of Political Junkie Segment Introduction)

President RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ich bin ein Berliner.

Mr. LLOYD BENTSEN (Former Senator, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): Aaaagh!

CONAN: Today Libby lies and finally the verdict, and what it means for the vice president. Plus Congress comes a-knocking and federal prosecutors get the boot. A look at the politics behind the firing of a group of federal prosecutors, and fresh polling data about key states in the 2008 presidential election. And Romney's connection, or not, to the Ann Coulter incident.

As always, we invite you to call with your comments and questions for the Political Junkie. What questions do you have about the verdict on the Scooter Libby case, the latest in the race for 2008 or other political news? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail talk@npr.org.

And with us here in Studio 3A is our good friend, Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor and our very own political junkie. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: I'm sorry.

CONAN: Good for you. Good for you.

RUDIN: Okay. I thought I'd get that out of the way now.

CONAN: You've got closure now?

RUDIN: I'm trying.

CONAN: Now let's start with the big news, the Scooter Libby trial. The federal grand jury found Libby guilty of perjury and obstruction in the investigation on the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, or just lying to a grand jury and to the FBI. There's been some talk about a presidential pardon, is this likely?

RUDIN: Well, it's only in the talk. I mean, the White House, as you've said, said it's premature to talk about that. But given the fact that knowing how the Bush White House operates and the closeness between the Bush and Cheney camps, one would think that Scooter Libby would not spend that much time in jail before a presidential pardon would come.

CONAN: Vice President Cheney issued a statement that said, Libby, his former chief of staff, that he was disappointed with the verdict, but that Libby had served the country well. Does this trial confirm that Scooter Libby, as one of the jurors has came out yesterday, called him the fall guy in this case?

RUDIN: Well, I think everybody looked at this case far more than what it was. I mean, obviously, he was convicted on obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI. But more importantly, people were looking at this about the lead up to the war in Iraq and the lengths that the administration went to either discredit opponents of the war or to manage the information about that war. And obviously Scooter Libby's role in that played a big part of it.

CONAN: Tough week for the White House. So somebody said the best thing about the Libby verdict, as far as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is concerned, was that it took attention off that Walter Reed problem.

RUDIN: Yeah, Walter Reed, and you also have the U.S. attorneys who were fired. It was not a good week for the administration at all. And again, we're talking about a possible presidential pardon of Scooter Libby. Well, you know, people say, well will that affect President Bush's poll numbers? I mean, where can it go from here because it's just so low as it is.

CONAN: And these federal prosecutors who were testifying earlier this week on Capitol Hill, some of them saying that political interference by Republicans may have been involved in their dismissal by the White House. Is this a big deal?

RUDIN: Well, it is a big deal. I mean, of course the U.S. attorneys everywhere always serve at the pleasure of the president. When Bill Clinton came into office, he got rid of a lot of, I think, perhaps all of the original President George H.W. Bush's U.S. attorneys.

When Bush Jr. came in 2001, he got rid of the Clinton U.S. attorneys. But there seems to be clear political interference here. We saw this with the case in New Mexico when Senator Pete Domenici and perhaps Congresswoman Heather Wilson made phone calls to find about the conduct of an ethics investigation.

There was a case in Washington state where a U.S. attorney got a phone call regarding the conduct of a very contentious election for governor in 2004 and whether the Democrats were responsible for some of that. The U.S. attorney in Southern California was fired, the one who convicted and sent Duke Cunningham to prison.

So there seems to be, and also in South Carolina, I believe - no, in Arkansas, a pal of Karl Rove replaced a U.S. attorney there. So it seems to be clear political influence, and it just doesn't seem like - it seems more political than most cases that were involving replacement of U.S. attorneys in the past.

CONAN: 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. E-mail talk@npr.org. Kevin's on the line, Kevin with us from Dolores, Colorado.

KEVIN (Caller): Yeah, I'd like Ken to compare and contrast the firings of the people in the White House travel office or Travelgate, Clinton administration, with this recent spate of firings of the U.S. attorneys.

CONAN: Just to remind people, Travelgate erupted shortly after the Clintons took office and changed both procedures and personnel in the White House Travel Office. Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Well, they're similar in the fact that you know, just like with the early days of the Clinton administration, they were talking about getting Bill and Hillary's pals into the travel office and getting their people in high positions. But this seems to be more political.

I mean look, it's all politics, and every time you fire somebody, every time a D fires an R or vice versa, it's politics. But…

CONAN: But weren't these federal U.S. attorneys? Aren't these R's being fired by R's?

RUDIN: Well that's true, but the point is they do serve at the pleasure of the president, and there's nothing illegal what they're doing, but you do know that there will be - you know, everybody talks about what happened in 2006 and the Democrats taking over Congress.

One thing that guarantees is that more and more investigations will be coming out of this, and the fact is is that - the fact that these U.S. attorneys did speak about this political pressure has a lot of resonance, perhaps, into 2008, too, when for example, Pete Domenici, is up for re-election - may or may not run again. Heather Wilson may run to replace him in New Mexico, and the Democrats could reap a tremendous benefit out of that.

CONAN: It's also probably worth pointing out that after exhaustive investigations, no indictments ever resulted from Travelgate, so Kevin, thank…

KEVIN: I'd like to know, though, if Ken feels these firings are of the same level of significance, in terms of the effects that they might have on the governing of the country.

RUDIN: I think this is far more serious than Travelgate. I mean, obviously politics played in both, but you're replacing government officials working on criminal cases, and if politics is the reason for that, I mean that I think goes a little further than what Travelgate - happened in 1993.

CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much.

KEVIN: I'd say you're understating the whole thing. Thank you, Ken.

CONAN: Okay. Let's go on. As promised, we've got new polling numbers on key states in the 2008 election, and here to parse the data is Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which conducted the surveys. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. PETER BROWN (Assistant Director, Quinnipiac University Polling Institute): My pleasure, Ken.

CONAN: And - he's Ken. I'm Neal. Keep that straight. Your institute conducted polls in three key swing states: Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Of course, Ohio decided the last presidential election, Florida the one before that, Pennsylvania has been close all along. What were the key findings?

Mr. BROWN: Well, the thing about those three states is that no one has won the White House since 1964 without carrying two of those three, and they're really the key to the electoral college.

What we found was that former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is running very well. He's ahead in Florida. He's ahead in Pennsylvania against all the Democrats. In Ohio, he's not doing as well. Ohio has become, because of a variety of factors, a little bit more Democratic than it has in the past. It has a new Democratic governor, who's quite popular. The old Republican governor had a job approval rating of about 15 percent and had a scandal, so things aren't as good for the Republicans in Ohio, and ironically they're better in Pennsylvania than they have been for a while.

CONAN: So Rudy Giuliani is doing extraordinarily well. Who is doing well amongst the Democrats?

Mr. BROWN: Well, it's not clear who the best Democratic general election candidate is because in the various states, you have various different results. Senator Clinton, obviously, is the best known, and in some states she's ahead, but she has a very high unfavorable rating. Roughly 40 percent of the voters in all three of the states have a negative opinion of her.

Now, that's not a - that doesn't doom her to failure, but it is worrisome, and she needs to watch that. The other thing that's interesting is that she has a very large gender gap, and among men, for instance, she has a net unfavorable. In other words, more men view her negatively than view her positively.

CONAN: So but as you look at the other Republican candidates, Rudy Giuliani ahead. John McCain is the most frequently mentioned of his competitors.

Mr. BROWN: John McCain does not run as well as Giuliani. He's - in some states, he's ahead. In some states, he scored behind. It's very competitive between he and the Democratic candidates.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama is competitive, which is very interesting given that four in 10 voters in each of these states said they don't know enough about him to have an opinion.

CONAN: And Giuliani's numbers - just getting back to the Republicans for a minute - they are strong. New Yorkers point to September-10 Giuliani as major weakness. Of course, he's known as America's mayor after his vivid and dramatic performance after the attacks of 9/11. Before that, though, a lot of New Yorkers weren't very fond of Rudy Giuliani after his two terms as mayor.

Mr. BROWN: That may well be true, but to voters outside of the New York area, all they know is 9/11.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we have from Steve in Juniper, California. This is - I read that Grover Norquist said - Grover Norquist, head of the - what is it, the taxpayer's union? No, it's an anti-tax group. I'm forgetting the exact name of the group.

Hillary is my first choice to be the Democrat nominee, unquote. Do you think Hillary will really energize the extreme right while turning off progressives in this country? And Ken Rudin, on the basis of some of the negatives we heard in this Quinnipiac poll, she's got a ways - got a lot of work to do.

RUDIN: She does, and actually, most of the negative things I hear about Hillary Clinton come ironically more from Democrats, who say that they fear what the effect of a Hillary Clinton leading the ticket might mean for the Democratic Party in November.

There are some Republicans, a lot of Republicans say well, you know, she's very formidable. She should not be underestimated. Newt Gingrich says that everywhere he goes, that Hillary Clinton should not be diminished at all. But many, many Democrats said - not that they don't like her, or not that they feel that she has baggage from the Clinton years, but they fear that she could be a very exploitable candidate for the Republicans to take down.

CONAN: And I suspect that one of the reasons you're doing these polls so far out from election day, Peter Brown, is to set a benchmark as you go back and revisit later on in the presidential campaign - because this is awfully early.

Mr. BROWN: This is awfully early, obviously. You are correct, but here's one point. In the case of someone like Senator Clinton, she has almost 100 percent name identification. Most Americans have made up their minds about Senator Clinton, less so about the other candidates, although Mayor Giuliani, and Senator McCain, and Senator Edwards are all pretty well known.

RUDIN: Peter, I have one quick question. I've seen your numbers in showing that Rudy Giuliani leads the Republican field in many, many of these states. Do voters seem to have a knowledge of where he stands on particular social issues?

Mr. BROWN: That's the big unknown. We don't know whether social conservatives who say they like Giuliani are doing so because they don't know about his stance on abortion, gay rights and gun control - or they don't care, that other things such as national security and ability to stand up to terrorism is a dominant issue, and that's what we'll find out over the next 20 months.

CONAN: Peter Brown, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. BROWN: My pleasure.

CONAN: We'll come back and revisit with you as later polls come out. Peter Brown is assistant director of Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, and he joined us today here in Studio 3A. You're listening to the Political Junkie on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Ken Rudin, let's talk briefly about the fallout from right-wing pundit Ann Coulter. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke favorably of her during a conservative conference over the weekend. She went on to then call John Edwards the F-word, which does not look particularly well for Romney.

We covered the imbroglio in which she called John Edwards an anti-gay slur. In the segment, we said Republican candidate Mitt Romney had introduced Ann Coulter at the conference, sponsored by the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Shortly thereafter, his campaign called us here and said no, no, no, he was not there to introduce Ann Coulter, he was just the speaker before her on the podium and therefore mentioned her as the next person coming up. We have the tape of exactly what happened. Listen, and you decide.

Former Governor MITT ROMNEY (Democrat, Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): I'm happy to learn also that after you hear me, you're going to hear from Ann Coulter. That is a good thing.

(Soundbite of applause)

Former Gov. ROMNEY: Oh yeah. Yeah, I think it's always very important to get the views of moderates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Mitt Romney, introducing Ann Coulter.

RUDIN: Well, I mean obviously, that introduction was handed to him while he was up there, but he was - almost everything that Ann Coulter says is toxic, and it's going to burn - it's amazing that she's gotten away with it as long as she has, but you know, everything that she says is so incendiary, yet there is an audience for it.

Unfortunately, Mitt Romney was part of it. But everything she touches, I think, is toxic, and everything - everybody she's associated with her - could only hurt the Republican Party. I mean, she does have her cadre of supporters, and she sells a lot of books, but if there's going to be a meaningful discussion in 2008 about what's important to the American people, you know, calling John Edwards - or anybody - kind of a - you know, this name-calling is not what's good for the Republican Party. And I'm sure that the Romney people, if they could do it all over again, wish that he were not on the stage that day.

CONAN: She in her remarks, though, more or less endorsed Mitt Romney.

RUDIN: I didn't - well obviously, I was just focused on what she said about John Edwards, but you know, Mitt Romney has come a long way from 1994 when he ran against Ted Kennedy. In 2002 when he ran for governor, both times supporting gay rights, pro-abortion rights, stem-cell research, and obviously he's really switched that. But to become a very strong conservative is one thing, but to endorse somebody like Ann Coulter I think does not help.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Jason, Jason with us from Cleveland, Ohio.

JASON (Caller): Hey, Neal, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JASON: My question is: Who put forth the idea of pardoning Scooter Libby in the first place? It seems to me that the media may have done it just hours after the conviction in order to squash the president's chance of doing that, because if the president were to, then he would look like a bad guy for going against the jury's conviction.

CONAN: Oh, I think the media asked the White House Press Office about that long before the conviction. If he were to be convicted, would the president pardon him? But did this come up in the normal banter of the White House Briefing Room, or was this something put forward in some other way, Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Well it came up before the White House, and of course, given the fact that Ted Wells, Scooter Libby's attorney, says that he's going to ask for a second trial and, if not, he's going to appeal the decision, the White House said they would not comment on any hypothetical like that.

CONAN: Jason…

JASON: Okay, and can I also add a second point?

CONAN: If you make it quick.

JASON: With the '08 campaign, I do believe that the media's getting way ahead of themselves. It's almost like they're a third party trying to weed out the candidates already, already bringing up comments like taking Joe Biden out of the race and now trying to take Mitt Romney out of the race for the comment that Coulter said. So I just think that the media's just getting so far ahead of the '08 campaign. There's still two years of the presidency left, and it's just crazy that they're already talking '08.

CONAN: Two years of the presidency left, but we're in the thick of the presidential race. Isn't that right, Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Yeah, and actually it's not even two years. It's really 10 months until Iowa. But I do agree with the call saying that we do seem to for some reason anoint the frontrunners. We decide that it's Hillary and Obama on the Democratic side; McCain, Romney and Giuliani; and everybody else - well forget about it.

And if you look at the polls, the polls will indicate that. But you know, if we're going to ignore the Joe Bidens, and the Mike Huckabees, and the Chris Dodds, and the Bill Richardsons, and the Ron Pauls, and the Dennis Kuciniches, we are really not serving the purpose of what we're supposed to do, and that is to allow, let these candidates go before the American people and make their case.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left, but I wanted to make sure we left some time to remember Thomas Eagleton, the one-time vice-presidential candidate who died this past week.

RUDIN: You know, it was just an amazing - if everything you know about presidential conventions is what you've seen in the last couple of cycles, well once upon a time, there was drama, and there was excitement, and there was tension, and for the Democratic Party it was not so good. But in 1972 at 2:00 in the morning, Tom Eagleton was nominated for vice president and George McGovern's running mate - after everybody else said no to George McGovern. Everybody else turned him down. And 18 days later, Eagleton was off the ticket, acknowledging previous depression and electric-shock therapy - and back then, that was just, you know, a horrific thing. Nobody would ever contemplate that. And one thing that - what Tom Eagleton - the lesson of Tom Eagleton was that far more background checks have come out with the running mates.

CONAN: And the situation became the memory of a memorable political phrase, halfway through those 18 days, the candidate said: I'm supportive 1,000 percent. Ken Rudin, Political Junkie.

I'm Neal Conan, and this is NPR News.

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