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Was Florida Debate A Game Changer For Candidates?

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Democrats stunned in New York, round two of the Perry-Romney slugfest at the Tea Party debate, and the frontrunner takes his whacks. It's Wednesday and time for a...

Governor RICK PERRY: I'm offended.

CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that add: Where's the beef?

BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics, and this week, actual votes. Congressional specials in New York Nine and Nevada Two and a stellar day for the GOP. In Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren will run for Senate, the president peddles his jobs bill in Ohio and North Carolina. In a few minutes, we'll focus on Monday's feisty debate, which covered everything from poker to Ponzi schemes.

And later in the program, former Vice President Al Gore fires up the fight on global warming. But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. And as always, we start with a trivia question. Welcome back, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Thank you very much, Neal. Well, OK, we're talking about Rick Perry, and of course, many polls show him to be the Republican frontrunner for the nomination. He of course was lieutenant governor under George W. Bush. The question is: When was the last time a gubernatorial ticket produced two future presidential nominees?

CONAN: And we're talking major party, but if you think you know the answer to that question, the last time a gubernatorial ticket produced two future presidential nominees, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Of course, the winner gets a fabulous political junkie no-prize T-shirt.

And Ken, the same Republican who was trounced by Anthony Weiner in New York's 9th wins a special election to replace him in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one.

RUDIN: The Democrats have gone from Weiner to loser in New York Nine. This is a shocker. As you say, it's a three-to-one Democratic district. The last time, as you well remember, Neal, the last Republican to win that seat was Lester Volk in 1920. So it's been...

CONAN: He went on to be a car manufacturer in Germany.

RUDIN: Yeah, some wagon. He built a wagon or something. So obviously it's been a long time since the Republicans won that seat, and of course this may not have had anything to do with Bob Turner. A lot of it had to do with David Weprin, the Democratic candidate, who was thought to be a poor debater. He said in one debate that he thought it was a $4 trillion deficit - debt, when of course it's a $14 trillion debt.

But more importantly, it seems that President Obama and the state of the economy and his views towards Israel were the big issues in this district, two-thirds Queens, one-third Brooklyn, many Jews. Now David Weprin is an Orthodox Jew, and yet Ed Koch endorsed Bob Turner because he said...

CONAN: Former Democratic Mayor Ed Koch.

RUDIN: Former Democratic mayor, right, who always likes to lecture politicians on both sides. But he said that Obama has been weak on Israel, pressuring them to get - go to the bargaining table, you know, under tough means. And so everything seemed to fall into place.

Now what does this mean for 2012? Who knows? First of all, this district probably won't exist in 2012 because New York loses two districts, and that's - the 9th is one of the ones that'll probably be cut up into different pieces. But it's a big, big embarrassment for the Democratic Party.

CONAN: And yet if Democrats are trying to playing it down, as you suggest, but if New York 22nd special election was a bellwether, the Democrats were hailing, this one has to be accepted as a bellwether for Republicans.

RUDIN: True, but when you think of when the Democrats won that bellwether in 2009, yet a bellwether for what because a year later, 2010, the Republicans won everywhere else. So we don't know what it means for 2012, but at least on one certain day in 2011, it's a rebuke of President Obama and the Democratic Party.

CONAN: And of course the only surprise in the Nevada 2nd special election was not who won but by how much.

RUDIN: Right, this is a district that's all of Nevada except for Las Vegas and its suburbs. Dean Heller had been the congressman there. He was appointed to the Senate earlier in the year. Mark Amodei, the Republican, won the seat against the state treasurer, Democratic candidate Kate Marshall.

It was a 22-point lead, 22-point margin, 58 to 36, which is pretty remarkable. But just - we should point out, since this district was created in 1982, it has only elected Republicans.

CONAN: And speaking of places that only elect Republicans, Massachusetts, oh wait a minute, isn't there a Republican senator in the state of Massachusetts?

RUDIN: There is, even though there are only nine Republicans in the state of Massachusetts. Scott Brown, of course, won Ted Kennedy's seat. You talk about the New York Nine, how upsetting that was for Democrats. Could you imagine what Democrats went through in 2010, when Scott Brown won the seat held by Ted Kennedy for 47 years.

Elizabeth Warren, the former consumer advocate who's championing herself as a fighter for the middle class, announced her candidacy today, and she'll probably be - you know, the Republicans dismiss her as a Harvard elitist, but she will certainly get a lot of money from liberal progressive groups around the country.

It's - Scott Brown, even though he's leading at the moment, he may be the most vulnerable Republican senator up in 2012.

CONAN: We have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is before Bush-Perry, the gubernatorial ticket, the major-party gubernatorial ticket to produce two future presidential candidates...

RUDIN: Nominees.

CONAN: Nominees - I said - all right, nominees, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Phil(ph), and Phil's on the line from Miami.

PHIL: Hey, gentlemen. I'm going to go with Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

CONAN: In the state of New York in 1928. No, that was when Al Smith ran for president.

RUDIN: Well, see, that's the thing. FDR wasn't lieutenant governor. Al Smith did run for president. He was governor of New York, ran for president in 1928, and FDR ran for governor. But Smith and Roosevelt, first of all, were never governor and lieutenant governors together, and two, we're talking about much more recent than that.

OK, Phil, thanks very much. Good guess, though. Let's see if we can go next to - this is David, David with us from Rochester, New York.

DAVID: I would go with Carter-Bush.

RUDIN: With I'm sorry?

DAVID: Carter and Bush.

RUDIN: No, we're looking for two people who ran on the same ticket in the same state for governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket, and those two people later turned out to be presidential nominees.

DAVID: OK, I see.

CONAN: Misunderstood the question, but we always do that. Let's see if we can go next to David, and David's with us from Santa Cruz in California.

DAVID: Hi there, I would say Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

RUDIN: Well, again, we're looking for a governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket. Jimmy Carter did run for governor of Georgia, but Walter Mondale was not his lieutenant governor. That's what I'm looking for, governor and lieutenant governor of the same state, later ran for president.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Bob(ph), Bob with us from Rochester, Minnesota.

BOB: Hi, this is Bob from - Bob Sixta(ph) from Rochester, and I just as a wild guess I was going to say California with Jerry Brown.

RUDIN: And his lieutenant governor was?

BOB: I don't know, Toomey?

RUDIN: Well, actually, his...

CONAN: Neither one of them were major-party nominees for president.

RUDIN: Right, Brown was never the nominee, and his lieutenant governor was Mike Curb, a Republican, so that's not the right answer.

BOB: That was a very good question this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thanks, Bob, appreciate it. A connoisseur of trivia questions, Bob. Ruth(ph) is on the line from Boson.

RUTH: It takes a woman. How about Michael Dukakis and John Kerry?

RUDIN: That is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding, the woman has the floor.

RUDIN: Ruth hit it out of the park once again, of course not in Boston anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: On the third try.

RUDIN: In 1982, Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis was the Democratic nominee for governor. His lieutenant governor was a guy named John Kerry, and both of them later were Democratic nominees for president.

CONAN: And a late entry, I'm getting an email from Philip(ph), emailed us to say Dukakis for governor and John Kerry for lieutenant governor. So I guess we're handing out two political no-prize T-shirts this week. Stay on the line, Ruth, we'll collect your particulars, and we'll send you a political junkie no-prize T-shirt in response for your promise to take a digital picture of yourself wearing it so we can post it on our Wall of Shame.

RUTH: Happy to do it. (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Thank you.

RUDIN: And of course, you know, there's another T-shirt we're giving out because the solution to last week's ScuttleButton puzzle, which was chicken cacciatore, it was very brilliant...

CONAN: The third of the Torre brothers?

RUDIN: Yes, the T-shirt goes to Susan Dagoleach(ph) of Prescott, Arizona. If she can prove that she's a U.S. citizen, she gets a T-shirt.

CONAN: OK, ScuttleButton puzzle winners, one selected at random will win a Political Junkie no-prize T-shirt from now on.

RUDIN: A new puzzle up today.

CONAN: A new puzzle up today. Anyway, Ken, we also, since we were on last, heard the president's big speech on jobs. The president has since taken the campaign out to the hustings. He appeared in Ohio yesterday. There was a Rose Garden event I think the day before, and then he's in North Carolina today campaigning, I think, for the general election on jobs, at least that's what some of his Republican rivals are saying.

RUDIN: Yes, I mean, look, of course it is about the 2012 campaign, and the campaign rhetoric is underway, but again the Republicans still insist that for President Obama to say the way I'm going to pay for my $440 billion jobs program is to increase taxes on the wealthy, Republicans say that's a non-starter, and it's just not going to happen.

CONAN: And so is this going to be a club with which the president can attack the Republicans in Congress?

RUDIN: Well, if you blame - if you buy the fact that polls show that most people feel that taxes should be raised on the wealthy, then perhaps it works. The president was very persuasive in his speech to a joint session of Congress, saying pass this bill, and he's hoping that'll resonate outside - out in the states.

CONAN: New polling shows the president's disapproval numbers higher than ever before in his presidency, 55 percent, according to a CNN poll, 43 percent approval, that's more or less about the same. Though the same question then put on who do you trust better to handle the economy, the president or GOP and Congress, president's numbers aren't great. The GOP number and Congress are terrible.

RUDIN: That's true, but look at the people who are running for president. If you look at the so-called frontrunners, the Republican frontrunners for president, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, neither of whom serves in Congress.

CONAN: Neither of whom serves in Congress, and they're polling against the president head to head pretty good right now.

RUDIN: Absolutely, but of course as President Muskie once told you that polls, you know, months and months in advance of a presidential election don't mean that much. But again, you know, September, right before the election, 9.1 unemployment rate, 14 million people out of work. It's a daunting task for the president going into 2012.

CONAN: We're going to be focusing on the campaign to choose that Republican nominee in just a moment; of course, the big debate in Tampa earlier this week. And we should note, however, that some interesting endorsements this week: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, endorsed his fellow sitting governor, that's Rick Perry, in Texas.

Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota and a former candidate himself, endorsed Mitt Romney, the author of Obamneycare.

RUDIN: Well, yes, there - that is true. And everybody's trying to play up these endorsements. But remember right before Iowa in 2004, Tom Harkin endorsed Howard Dean. Al Gore, you remember him, he may be on the show later today...

CONAN: I hear that.

RUDIN: He also endorsed Howard Dean, and Howard Dean finished third in the caucuses in Iowa. So endorsements may be overrated, but again, as they try to jockey for momentum, having names on their side is not a bad thing to have.

CONAN: We're talking with political junkie Ken Rudin, as we do every Wednesday. Up next, Romney and Bachmann landed some punches at Monday's GOP debate, but did that change anything? And later, former Vice President Al Gore will join us. Stay with us. It's the Political Junkie on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday, we're talking with Ken Rudin, our political junkie. The celebrated Political Junkie column is back, and so is the devilish ScuttleButton puzzle - chicken cacciatore. You can find both at npr.org/junkie.

And now to the race for the Republican nomination for president. Monday night's debate saw candidates Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann land body blows to frontrunner Rick Perry. But how much of that will affect the field? For that, Alex Vogel will join us to talk about how the pecking order did or did not shift after the debate dust settled. He's a former chief counsel to Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, now a partner at the lobbying firm of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. And he joins us here in Studio 3A. I think Castagnetti right.

ALEX VOGEL: You did, it was perfect.

CONAN: That's good. (Unintelligible) there. And interesting debate. Some people say Rick Perry, he said he felt like a pinata after that.

VOGEL: Well, that's what happens when you're the frontrunner. I mean, you know, we saw this last time, too, when you have these large, gang-style debates. There's now in my opinion two people - Governor Romney and Governor Perry - who are legitimate frontrunners, and everyone else is scrambling. So if you're Perry, you're the current flavor of the month, you're going to take it in the chin for 90 minutes.

And that's what happened, and it works for everybody but Governor Perry. It works for Romney, who gets to bask in the glow. It works for Bachmann. It worked for Santorum. It worked for Gingrich. What's fascinating is when you look at the numbers coming out of that debate, Romney, who everyone generally said won the debate, his numbers went up.

Governor Perry's numbers went up, as well. So Romney's going up, but he's not taking it away from Perry, he's taking it away from the also-rans. So the question is: Can you beat the other guy up but actually hurt him at the same time?

CONAN: Which raises the question - and we're going to get to some of the issues in a moment - but Perry, Romney and also-rans? We're getting - right now we're getting calls from supporters of other candidates, including Michele Bachmann, who won the Iowa straw poll, and the man who came in second at the Iowa straw poll and polls pretty good, up around 15 percent in the rest of these numbers. And they're saying it's a long way before this is decided yet.

RUDIN: Right, mention his name, Ron Paul.

CONAN: Ron Paul, yes.

VOGEL: It's true, it is a long way before the presidential election and before these primaries actually - real votes get cast and people go to caucuses. But I really do think this is effectively a two-person race. Is it theoretically possible that one of these other folks, Huntsman or someone like that, could break out? Yeah, but I have not seen it not only in this debate performance but in the broader campaign dynamic. They just don't seem to be getting any traction at this point.

CONAN: Well, here's one of the big issues that emerged at that debate, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney and Romney grilling Perry on the issue of Social Security.

MITT ROMNEY: But the question is: Do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program, as you did six months ago when your book came out, and returned to the states? Or do you want to retreat from that?

PERRY: I think we ought to have a conversation...

ROMNEY: We're having that right now, governor. This - we're running for president.

PERRY: If you'll let me finish now, I'll finish this conversation.

CONAN: And Governor Perry went on to argue that indeed he did make some moves as governor of Texas to return some aspects of that to the states but argued that this is a conversation we need to have on a national level.

PERRY: Rather than trying to scare seniors, like you're doing and other people...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

PERRY: It's time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program where it's not bankrupt, and our children actually know that there's going to be a retirement program there for them.

ROMNEY: Governor, the team Ponzi scheme is what scared seniors...

CONAN: And of course quoting the governor back at him.

VOGEL: What's fascinating is if you go back four years, and you look at Governor Romney's performance in the debates when he was up against Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom seemed to be tag-teaming fairly aggressively on him, Governor Romney played the victim, it really hurt him.

He's learned the lesson. He has learned how to respond politely but aggressively, and when you look at the dial-a-meter stuff from this last debate, people really liked it when Governor Romney went after him that way. Look, he's a very smart candidate, and one of the things he has shown is he has learned from his past debate experience.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: What is the big issue here? Is it looking for a candidate who can defeat President Obama, or is it somebody they want who is more true to conservative principles? Remember with Barry Goldwater in '64, he was not going to beat Lyndon Johnson, but he was a true believer. He was not part of the establishment like a Nelson Rockefeller type. Is that the same dynamic here?

VOGEL: I think it is. I mean, what's interesting is you - Governor Romney's biggest challenge is since he's been running for five, six years, depending on when you start the clock, people know who he is, and his bio is out there, whereas Perry is the new flavor of the month.

Both of them I think are trying to lay mantle to this I can be the guy who beats him, we're the real candidates in this race. I think it's going to have to be a combination. It's not going to be enough to say I'm the real conservative. You're going to have to be the conservative who can actually win this election.

CONAN: And by taking up the issue of Social Security, this is an issue, everyone knows, is going to be - if Rick Perry is the nominee, this is going to be a huge issue in the general election.

VOGEL: Look, I don't know whether the decision for Governor Perry to come out there with the Ponzi scheme line was tactical or whether it was a real-time moment where he threw it out there and now has to walk it back. But you are playing with fire, obviously. And if he was trying to get attention, he succeeded in that regard. The question is whether he can ride that tiger. I'm not sure it's a dead loss for him, though.

People say, oh, he shouldn't have done it. I'm actually not convinced. Many people I've talked to said, you know, he's actually right. Maybe it is a Ponzi scheme. And he may ultimately win that conversation.

CONAN: It could be tough in Florida, (unintelligible).

VOGEL: Absolutely.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Jesse(ph), Jesse on the line with us from Salt Lake.

JESSE: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jesse, go ahead, please.

JESSE: Thanks for taking my call. I have a question of - well, why are some candidates like Romney and Perry discussed so often, and others, like I'm a huge fan of Huntsman, being from Utah, he did a great job, and why they're not discussed as often. Is it the media, or is it the polling numbers from the rest of the country?

CONAN: And Alex Vogel, this is the chicken-and-the-egg thing. You pay attention to the people at the top of the polls, the people at the top of the polls get the attention, it feeds in on itself, and that makes it difficult for candidates like Jon Huntsman, who are back in the pack.

VOGEL: Yeah, look, campaigns that are lagging always claim that they're being ignored by the media, and that's why things aren't going well. I will say this: Governor Huntsman got, I think, as much attention, maybe more than anyone, at the start of this process, when he was going to run, rolling out his run.

The honest answer is he just hasn't done that well. His announcement fell a little bit flat. His debate performances haven't been up to par. And I think that's what's really driven the media attention. So I actually think in this case it's a performance-pushing-the-press piece, not the other way around.

CONAN: Jesse, thanks very much for the phone call. There was another issue that came up important in the Tea Party CNN debate on Monday, and that was Governor Perry's decision as governor to mandate HPV virus injections, vaccines, for girls 12 and under, a decision he defended at the time as pro-life. He has since called it a mistake. And, well, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann took the lead on this line of attack, saying there was more to it than the question of whether it was pro-life or not.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN: The question is, is it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company.

WOLF BLITZER: Wow. All right, I'll let Senator Santorum hold off for a second. You got to respond to that.

PERRY: Yes, sir. The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raised about $30 million, and if you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BACHMANN: I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice. that's what I'm offended for.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CONAN: And a good comeback line from Michele Bachmann.

VOGEL: It was, and it was actually one of those body blows that was actually delivered. And the reality is it's an unfortunate intersection for Governor Perry of a hot-button social issue, and, you know, politicians do raise money from people, and people can dig around and make the implication, and it can look bad.

And to be honest, his answer was not as quick and clean as one would like, if you were his consultant.

RUDIN: Well, first of all, he received $30,000 from Merck and not the $5,000 he said. But the charge against Rick Perry of being crony capitalism, talking about, you know, the appointments and favoritism donors have given to his campaign, that's the thing that's been hanging around him. It's not an ideological argument. It's just basically a character argument against Rick Perry.

CONAN: Rick Perry, is this also going to be a problem for him - does it have legs? Is this something that's going to mean something beyond some in the Republican Party base?

VOGEL: Well, I do think that - look, the longer this campaign goes, the more this stuff's going to be talked about. And one of the prices of being the frontrunner is they're going to dig through every contribution you've ever received.

If you were the longest-serving governor of a big state like Texas, you're going to have a lot of contributions and a lot of policy decisions that enterprising young reporters can go and try and match up with said contributions.

CONAN: And if you're running for the first time on the national stage, a lot of this is new. A lot of Mitt Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts was raked through the last time when he was on the...

VOGEL: Absolutely. People do not understand the difference between running for governor and running for president. It is an exponential leap in terms of exposure.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Of course, the difference with Mitt Romney is that four years ago, Romneycare was not as controversial, or as much of an epithet as it is in 2012.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Jordan(ph), and Jordan's calling us from Cincinnati.

JORDAN: Yes, hello. I am a Tea Party organizer here in Cincinnati. I am of the persuasion we're not going to accept a moderate Republican this time. We're not going to accept Rick Perry or Mitt Romney, certainly not Jon Huntsman. So I guess what I - to be considered, you guys earlier were talking about Goldwater and making some comparisons to that (technical difficulty).

I think this is very similar. I think the difference is that this time we've got - we haven't got LBJ in there. We've got Barack Obama. And I think we can beat them with a conservative nominee who gets the base out. Otherwise, we're going to stay home. So I'd like to hear what you have to say about that.

CONAN: And who would your candidate be?

JORDAN: I think Mrs. Bachmann is wonderful. I think Newt Gingrich is right on. I think Herman Cain would be acceptable. I think even Mr. Santorum from Pennsylvania would be fine.

CONAN: Most of those polling in very low numbers, at least right now, Alex Vogel.

VOGEL: Yeah. I think the most remarkable thing about that is that even Rick Santorum - I was in the Senate - worked in the Senate with Senator Santorum - generally considered a very conservative guy. I think it's more a testament to what has happened within the Republican Party that Governor Perry is not necessarily considered by some to be conservative enough. He's a pretty conservative guy. You know, Governor Romney has staked out positions that now are pretty conservative, probably more moderate when he was running for governor of Massachusetts the first time. But the reality is, all of these folks are generally speaking, fairly conservative. Utah is not exactly known as a bastion of moderation in the Republican Party. So...

CONAN: Jordan, you were trying to get in there.

JORDAN: I would like to challenge one thing. Mitt Romney has a long history of flip-flopping. If you look at what - where Mitt Romney has stood on just, you know, simple social issues like gay marriage or abortion, he flip-flopped. And he flip-flops within a few years. It looks very much like he's changing his position, depending on what the constituency is. We're not comfortable with that. We're also not comfortable with Rick Perry and his HPV support - this HPV - Gardasil. And Merck labs has a long history of being involved in crony capitalism and a long history of trying to buy different candidates. So that's just not going to be acceptable this year.

CONAN: Jordan, thanks very much for the call.

JORDAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Alex Vogel, those are admitted weaknesses. Certainly, there are vulnerabilities on Mitt Romney's front to looking like a bit of an opportunist.

VOGEL: There are. And, as I said, you know, what it takes to get elected as the Republican governor of Massachusetts is very different than it what takes to be the Republican nominee for president. He's had to live with that dance, and he's - some of his positions have - shall we say transitioned over time.

CONAN: Alex Vogel is a partner at Mehlman, Vogel and Castagnetti, former chief of counsel to Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. He joined us here in Studio 3A. As always, Alex, thanks very much for your time today.

VOGEL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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