Politics
11:04 am
Wed June 13, 2012

June Primaries Set Stage For Senate Control

Originally published on Wed June 13, 2012 11:49 am

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Cornyn calls for Holder's head. Giffords hands off to Barber. And the president trips over unemployment. It's Wednesday and time for a...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Doing fine...

CONAN: ...edition of the political junkie.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

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

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

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSON: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

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

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, we recap the week in politics. Ken Rudin is home sick today. Get better Ken. So Mara Liasson will pinch-hit for the Political Junkie. Yesterday, the special election in Arizona and a spate of primaries from Maine to Nevada; presidential candidate gaffes created new ad fodder; and on Capitol Hill, Attorney General Eric Holder stepped from the frying pan of the House, and Fast and Furious, to the fire of the Senate and national security leaks.

In a bit, we'll focus on two key Senate races, and later in the program we'll talk with NPR's Deborah Amos about the civil war in Syria: She's in Damascus. But first, NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, joins us from the White House. Happy birthday, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And we begin when we can with actual votes, and in Arizona, I guess the biggest surprise was in the Gabby Giffords seat, it wasn't all that close.

LIASSON: It wasn't all that close, and this is a seat that at least for now, until November, the Democrats are going to hang onto. Barber was Giffords' staffer. He was also wounded in the attack on Giffords, and she campaigned for him and he won pretty easily.

CONAN: And in November, that seat has been redrawn. It'll move from the Eighth Arizona District to the Second and a more heavily Democratic district.

LIASSON: Yes, so he should be able to hang on in November. However, Arizona is going to be probably a Republican state, and Republicans are pretty hopeful they can get it back.

CONAN: And Republicans - hopeful Democrats saw this as a sign they might have a chance in the Senate race, Jon Kyl resigning there, and it's expected to be Richard Carmona, the former surgeon general, against Congressman Jeff Flake.

LIASSON: Yes, I think that's going to be a tough Senate race. I don't know if it's at the top of Democratic hopes for a win, but it will be a hard-fought Senate race. The question is: Will the Obama campaign stay to really fight in Arizona? There was a lot of talk early on on how that was one state that they didn't win last time because it was John McCain's home state that they might be able to have a chance in, but I think that they've been doing some prospecting there, kind of testing the waters, but I think in the end they probably won't have that on their list of possible pickups.

CONAN: We're going to be talking about Senate races that were settled yesterday in some of the primaries that were held around the country, but did you see any surprises in any of those primaries?

LIASSON: I really didn't. I didn't. I think most of what we saw, we expected. Certainly in Virginia, we knew what the match-up was going to be, between Kaine and Allen. Allen easily won his primary; Kaine didn't have one. That's going to be a battleground state - also a big, big Senate race. Both Romney and Obama really want to win Virginia, and I think that the Senate race will be a big factor in that.

CONAN: Well, more about that coming up in a few minutes. In the meantime, the president at his news conference on Friday said the private sector's doing fine. And, well, of course Republicans leapt on that very quickly. Here's the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.

MITT ROMNEY: The president, as you know, said last week that the private sector is doing fine. And he is so out of touch with what's happening across America to say something like that.

CONAN: And Mara, do gaffes like this make much difference, bulletin-board material?

LIASSON: They do make much - they do make a lot of difference just because - especially if one side has the money and the resources to make them make a difference. And this has been aired now I can't even think of how many tens of thousands of times in commercials, and it will continue to be.

The president said compared to the public sector, where teachers and firefighters are losing their jobs, the private sector is relatively doing better. He of course came out later in the day to clarify. The president doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but this one was one that does fit into the narrative that the Republicans are pushing and the Romney campaign is pushing, which is President Obama is in over his head, he never worked in the, quote, real economy, he's a politician, and he doesn't understand what's happening in the economy, and he can't fix it.

Now, the very same day, Mitt Romney said the president thinks the answer - thinks we need more firefighters and more teachers, where I think the answer is to shrink government. Well, Democrats immediately put that into ads, saying, you know, Mitt Romney doesn't believe in hiring teachers and firefighters.

These things are always ripped out of context, but they do matter, especially if one side can use them to underscore the argument that they're making about the other side.

CONAN: In Florida, there are dueling lawsuits now as the state of Florida is suing the federal government to get access to some data to help it purge the voter rolls while the Justice Department is suing Florida, saying wait a minute, you're not allowed to purge the voter rolls 90 days before an election.

LIASSON: Right. I'm surprised that this went all the way up to 90 days before an election, but Florida believes, the state of Florida and Florida's Governor Rock Scott, believes that there is potential voter fraud because illegal immigrants or people who aren't citizens are voting in Florida.

It's hard to - you know, there's dueling accounts of whether there's actually any evidence of that, but they want a certain database from the federal government, they've sued to get that, that they say will help them find the people. They have a list of 2,700 voters that are targeted for removal. They say that will help them determine which ones are actually citizens.

But the Justice Department says this is in violation of the Voting Rights Act, and they're suing Florida too. And right now the purge has been stopped.

CONAN: And we've seen, obviously, voter ID laws in many states. The Democrats say this is an attempt by Republicans to suppress the vote again. The Republicans say it's to suppress voter fraud. Thin evidence again that voter fraud is a problem, but anyway, Florida, this is different. And we all remember, Florida can be very, very close.

LIASSON: Yes, this is different. This isn't so much voter ID rules, where you have to show some ID before you vote. This is to actually take people off the rolls that are already on them. But Florida is going to be a battleground. It was the most famous battleground ever in 2000, and you know, we've already learned that a couple of votes can make a big difference.

CONAN: In the meantime, on Capitol Hill, in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, Texas Senator John Cornyn called for the head of Attorney General Eric Holder.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: Mr. Attorney General, it's more with sorrow than regret, than anger, that I would say that you leave me no alternative but to join those that call upon you to resign your office.

CONAN: And next week the House of Representatives is going to hold a vote to hold the attorney general in contempt.

LIASSON: Yes, I think that the attorney general is not going to resign. This is an ongoing controversy. And I really think that at this point in the election that this doesn't change anybody's minds. Everything is now seen through a partisan lens, so in the bigger political picture, I don't think this is a huge factor either way, but obviously more trouble for the embattled Justice Department and for the White House.

CONAN: The controversy in part over Fast and Furious, the bungled arms investigation on the Mexican border that ended up sending weapons to the cartels.

LIASSON: Yes, that's right. Those are investigations that have been going on for a long time. There clearly were problems, and there were clearly a lot of mistakes. Whether or not the attorney general should have to resign over this is a partisan debate.

CONAN: And then the new debate is over national security leaks. There have been reports about the kill list of President Obama and how the senior officials in the Obama administration decide when to launch drone strikes and when not to, how they do that. And then a David Sanger report on Stuxnet, the president ordering the cyberattack on Iran.

LIASSON: Now, that is potentially much more serious. You've got Democrats and Republicans in the Senate saying the leaks are worse than they've ever seen. And there is now going to be an investigation. Attorney General Holder has appointed two prosecutors to investigate this to find out where the leaks came from. David Sanger, Daniel Klaidman of Newsweek, are going to have to explain, maybe, or resist the request to explain, where they got this information.

And the accusation that's being made by Republicans is that the White House leaked this on purpose, the president blessed it, because they wanted to make him look tougher, stronger on national security. I think there's no evidence of that yet, but these are leaks that could compromise national security. You know, the detail about Stuxnet was quite granular and, as some people in the Senate have said, breathtaking.

And the problems with these kinds of investigations is, one, it's very hard to get to the bottom of it; and two, it's at this point unclear whether a crime was actually committed, because it's not a crime to divulge classified information. It's only a crime if you do it under certain circumstances.

CONAN: And it's fair to say the Obama administration has been much more aggressive in investigating leaks and trying to punish leakers than I can ever remember.

LIASSON: They've been very aggressive. They have punished leakers. The president runs a pretty tight ship when it comes to leaks. But there have been an awful lot of these leaks in the national security area, and now maybe these two prosecutors will get to the bottom of where they're coming from.

CONAN: The attorney general has appointed two federal prosecutors to look into this, one a Republican appointee, one a Democratic appointee. Republicans say that's not good enough. They want a special prosecutor.

LIASSON: Yes, but that's kind of a ritual here. The opposition party always say they want a special prosecutor, and generally White Houses resist that, to the extent that they can. Independent prosecutors are generally - they can go looking into anything, and it generally causes even more problems for the White House. So...

CONAN: We remember the swerve from Monicagate to Whitewater - Whitewater to Monica, rather.

LIASSON: Yes, and - but that was when you had the independent counsel statute. We no longer have that law. So if you have an outside counsel, it has to be appointed by the attorney general. So it's still within the administration's power to have one or not. Bill Clinton didn't enjoy that discretion.

CONAN: No, he didn't enjoy the experience much at all.

LIASSON: Didn't enjoy the experience either, right.

CONAN: And the - as we look ahead, is there anything else on the primary calendar that you're looking ahead to?

LIASSON: Not so much on the primary calendar. I'm pretty much focused on the general election, which is really extraordinary, you know, very, very close already, lots of structural disadvantages for the president, lots of fundamental disadvantages for the president in terms of the economy. When you look at things that could happen between now and Election Day, most of them are things that would be bad for the president, European financial collapse, eurozone problems.

You can't see anything out there that if it happened, it would be good for him. It's kind of either the status quo or worse. But this is going to be a very close, very hard-fought and extremely expensive election.

CONAN: Mara Liasson, stay with us. She's at the White House, sitting in today for political junkie Ken Rudin. In a moment, we'll come back and focus on Senate races in two key states come November could determine control of the upper house. We'd like to hear from those of you in states with competitive Senate races. What's going to decide that for you - local issues, national issues or partisan issues? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan. Ken Rudin's out sick today. Guest Political Junkie Mara Liasson saved the day for us. You can still find Ken's latest column and his new ScuttleButton puzzle online at npr.org/junkie.

A number of key Senate races continue to evolve that could help sway control of the Senate after the November election. In Maine's primary yesterday, State Senator Cynthia Dill won on the Democratic side, Secretary of State Charles Summers for the GOP. In an unusual twist, both must now contend with former Governor Angus King, who's running as an independent and has a big lead in the polls.

Another key primary in North Dakota, where as expected Republican Representative Rick Berg will face Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in the race to replace Senator Kent Conrad, who's retiring. We'll focus on two other states now, Virginia and Nevada. In a moment, if you live in one of the states with a competitive Senate race, call and tell us what's going to decide that race for you - local issues, national issues, partisan issues. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org.

First to Nevada. Joining us from Las Vegas, Jon Ralston, columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, host of the political news program "Face to Face." Jon, nice to have you back on Political Junkie.

JON RALSTON: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Democratic Shelley Berkley and Republican Senator Dean Heller won their respective primaries last night, no big surprise.

RALSTON: No surprise at all. They've been running against each other, doing TV ads against each other, putting out press releases against each other for months. They really had token opposition, Neal.

CONAN: This is Dean Heller - of course got the seat by appointment after John Ensign resigned in disgrace. And does the incumbency give him an advantage?

RALSTON: I think that it gives him the advantage in this sense: Dean Heller is from northern Nevada. He has run statewide before, he was secretary of state, but he didn't have much of a presence in southern Nevada, Las Vegas, that's where all the votes are in the state, two-thirds to three-quarters, depending on the turnout.

So he got to set up an office down here, has more reason to spend time down here and can get his name recognition and just have a presence in southern Nevada. But in the long run, I don't think it's going to be that much of an issue. They're going to have plenty of name recognition because there'll be plenty of money spent, and some of that name recognition won't be so good.

CONAN: Because some of those ads are not going to be positive.

RALSTON: Right.

CONAN: As you look ahead to this race, is it just going to be he's going to try to tie her to Obama, and she's going to try to tie him to Romney?

RALSTON: There will be some national atmospherics at play, and there will be some of that. The Democrats are using the standard talking points in a federal race these days, that he's in the pocket of Wall Street, that he wants to end Medicare as we know it.

And meanwhile, she is using the standard talking point - I mean, he is using the standard talking points of trying, as you mentioned, to tie her to Obama and also mentioning that she's been in Congress for seven terms.

But there's one issue also that he's using and that the outside groups are using, and that's the fact that Shelley Berkley is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for using her job to allegedly help her husband's business. He's a doctor. She's voted on a lot of health care issues. And that issue could be a real problem for her in this race, Neal.

CONAN: You mentioned turnout as a big issue. If she is going to win, she is going to have to get a lot of votes from Hispanics.

RALSTON: Yeah, the Hispanic vote here is huge. You know, it's been growing for the last few cycles. It's been 15 percent of the electorate the last two cycles. It helped save Harry Reid's seat in 2010, helped Barack Obama win the state in 2008.

Shelley Berkley doesn't have much of a record with Hispanics, isn't as strong with Hispanics. But Dean Heller has made some fairly inflammatory immigration remarks that have hurt him. But again, being down here, where most of the Hispanic population is, he's been able to do outreach to those groups. But that is going to be a very, very key demographic.

Some of the Hispanic groups hope to get that turnout closer to 17 or 18 percent. The higher they get it, probably the better for Shelley Berkley.

CONAN: There is another issue, the GOP machine, the party leadership there has turned over. It has been seized by Ron Paul forces, and that's seen as having maybe some effect on the presidential election. Is it going to affect the Senate race?

RALSTON: Well, I think there's going to be a trickle-down effect, and as I've said, the state Republican Party here, Neal, is better than any comedy act on the Strip. They have just had all kinds of problems. It took them forever to count the presidential caucus votes. They've just installed a state chairman who was essentially forced out of his city council seat, found guilty of ethics violations, has a real checkered past.

And they've actually had to set up what I refer to as a shadow Republican Party, which is what the Romney campaign and the Dean Heller campaign are going to use. Whether or not that's just a sideshow or actually has an impact on turnout, I think it's too early to tell, but the Democrats still have an advantage because, as you know, Harry Reid won last time with a pretty amazing turnout machine.

So did the Obama campaign in state in 2008. That machine is still intact, although the Democratic registration edge isn't as great.

CONAN: Mara?

LIASSON: Yeah, no, that's exactly what I was just going to ask Jon about. I mean, Harry Reid has - the Harry Reid machine has a kind of mythical reputation. So did the Obama turnout operation. But of course in 2008, the Obama campaign had the wind at its back. Harry Reid did have to fight off a pretty tough challenge. What do you think about the grassroots operation there and the ground game? Is it really that good? And if registration is down, isn't that a sign that maybe it's slipping?

RALSTON: Well, as a person partially responsible for that myth-making, Mara, I have to say...

(LAUGHTER)

RALSTON: ...it was that good in 2008 and 2010, but you're asking exactly the right question: Will it be there in 2012? There's a couple of factors. First of all, the reason that the Democratic advantage isn't as great as it once was is not because the Republicans here have done any great job of registering voters. The foreclosure crisis, the economy here have caused a lot of people to leave, to fall off of the rolls.

The attrition has hurt the Democrats disproportionately for a variety of reasons. So I wouldn't say that that's much of a problem. The real question, though, is whether or not there's the energy - as you mentioned, they had the winds at their back in 2008 - whether there's the energy down there at the grassroots level inside that infrastructure to go all out for Shelley Berkley the way that they went all out for Harry Reid. I'm not so sure of that, although because of the national significance of this race, because Harry Reid wants to keep that title, Senate majority leader, and this race may be key to that, I think it will be almost as good as in the past.

But I do think that is something to watch.

CONAN: Jon Ralston, if there's one key in this race, it's got to be the economy. Nevada has the largest unemployment rate in the country, and the real estate sector is, well, a disaster area.

RALSTON: Yeah, it is a disaster. We were, you know, as you know for decades the boom state, and then the bottom fell out of the housing market. We have this terrible foreclosure crisis. There are all kinds of estimates that 70 percent to maybe 80 percent of the people in this state are underwater on their homes, and that is just a huge issue in the presidential race here.

That is why the president's numbers, which were good here, are no longer that good. Mitt Romney kind of leveled the playing field, though, when he came here and sat before one of the newspaper's editorial boards and suggested that maybe the foreclosure crisis should just hit bottom.

It's bad enough that he said that to an editorial board. Of course in this day and age, what do they do at some editorial boards? They tape them. And then so they put it up on the Internet, and of course the Democrats now use that in a lot of their ads.

So it's going to be interesting how that plays out. It's kind of, I think, a microcosm of what's going to go on in the sense that the entire Barack Obama campaign is, well, maybe the economy's bad, maybe you're not happy with what I've done, but the other guy would be worse. And so I think that's the campaign that's going to be run here.

CONAN: All right, Jon, thanks very much. I'm sure we'll be back in touch.

RALSTON: Always a pleasure, thank you.

CONAN: Jon Ralston, who's the columnist for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the paper's political news program "Face to Face with Jon Ralston." And let's see if we can get a caller on the line, and let's go with - this is Don, Don's with us from Chesapeake in Virginia.

DON: Oh, hi.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

DON: Yeah, I'm going to use this election to vote president for the person who I think economic policy is better. That's how I choose to vote president more than any position, because that's what - that's their main issue. They mainly talk about economic policy. And in that, I want to see the candidate who I feel is going to bring back the middle class the best.

CONAN: And who do you think that is at this moment? Have you heard interesting plans from either candidate?

DON: Well, none of them is really perfect, but I think now I probably will lean towards President Obama.

CONAN: OK, but we were talking about the Senate race.

DON: Oh, and also the Senate race in Virginia, it's really neck-and-neck. Matter of fact, I voted for the primaries yesterday, and to get a feel here, I would say, you know, each day it'll be 50-50. It just really depends on voter turnout for each party to see who wins between George Allen and Governor Kaine.

CONAN: And which way are you going to go? You voted in the primary; there wasn't a Democratic primary, right?

DON: Yeas, I voted - I wanted to also vote for my congressman that day, so I chose the Republican primary ballot. And if I were to vote today, I probably would choose Governor Kaine because, you know, I think it's time to end the tax cuts for millionaires and oil companies.

CONAN: All right, Don, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it. As mentioned, Virginia will be very close, he's right about that. Joining us now is Jeff Shapiro, political columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch from their offices in Richmond. Nice to have you with us today.

JEFF SHAPIRO: Thank you, good afternoon.

CONAN: And I guess there was not a lot of suspense at George Allen headquarters last night.

SHAPIRO: None whatsoever and not a particularly heavy turnout at the post-primary party either, and one wonders if that is a sign of things to come.

CONAN: So this is an easy win. In a sense, he's got the wind at his back, but as you look at the polls, it is neck and neck. These are two titans.

SHAPIRO: Two former governors, two popular former governors, certainly popular during their governorships. Kaine is not as distant and dim a memory as George Allen. And George Allen, of course, has to answer for the question he never really answered when he was defeated in 2006, and that is why does he even want to serve in the Senate? He described it once as moving with all the purpose of a wounded sea slug. Of course, at the time, he was an unofficial candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and now, he wants to go back to this institution that he's not sure anyone can fix.

CONAN: Six years ago, of course, his campaign was undermined by the famous macaca moment. Has the statute of limitations run out on that?

SHAPIRO: Not at all. In fact, Governor Kaine makes the point, and I think this is something that registers with a fairly broad audience, that the macaca moment is not one of those isolated instances of Governor Allen's tendency to be a bit robust with his rhetoric, if not a bit of a bully. And I suspect that you will be seeing the Democrats trying to paint a larger picture of using the macaca moment as a dab of paint, perhaps like a Seurat painting.

CONAN: OK. George Seurat. Anyway, Mara Liasson, you have a question?

LIASSON: Oh, I have a question. How do you - how are Virginians experiencing superPAC spending? I mean, the amount of money is breathtaking, but what makes it even more impactful - terrible word - is just that it's being spent in pursuit of so few voters in just a handful of states, and Virginia is one of them.

SHAPIRO: Well, Virginia has been one of those states because it's, you know, Virginia is for swingers - they tell us - that the superPACs have been spending and spending a lot. The Rove-led PAC is up today with a fresh air ad backed by a million-six buy, and a lot of this has been used primarily as a place keeper for the Republican candidates; presidential level, Romney until his nomination was filled. And now, for Allen, now that that nomination has been settled. So we've been seeing, you know, quite a bit of traffic, and I suspect we're going to be seeing a lot more.

LIASSON: Do you think it's helping both Romney in the polls, and Allen, at this point?

SHAPIRO: Well, I'm not sure I can answer that question. I think I can say this, that it's definitely complicating things because no longer is the conversation between two candidates. It's between two candidates and three or four others. So Tim Kaine, for example, has spent a good deal of time and energy replying to, knocking down, refuting some of the charges that are leveled by the superPACs, principally in their advertising.

LIASSON: And here - oh, I just have one other quick question, which I'm curious about everywhere, but particularly Virginia. Is there any evidence that the attacks on Romney both at Bain Capital for his tenure at Bain, and also when he was governor of Massachusetts, are making a difference at all?

SHAPIRO: Again, it depends on the company you keep. You know, Democrats seemed to like it, but, you know, Virginia is a state with, you know, a fairly robust economy compared to what's going on around the rest of the country. Our unemployment rate is considerably lower than states such as Nevada. And the business class is sort of falling in line. The big question will be what about the independents who traditionally decide elections in Virginia. The polls suggest that they're still kind of friendly to Barack Obama, but they're sort of uncomfortable with his policies.

CONAN: We're talking with Jeff Schapiro, the (unintelligible) political columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch. Of course, our guest political junkie Mara Liasson is also with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get another caller in. This is Linda. Linda calling from Newport News in Virginia.

LINDA: Yes. Hi. I'm calling from Newport News-Yorktown, and I'm very much involved. And my first focus will be on the national elections, because, you know, the country is in great peril, and the fact that nothing is getting done in Washington is really to the detriment of everyone, especially the middle class. But I'm a transplanted New Yorker, and I think we had our primary yesterday, the Republican primary. We're going to have a Senate election between former Governor Kaine and Allen.

And so, you know, it's very hard to tell what people are doing, because down here people don't speak up the way they do in New York about what they're going to do (unintelligible).

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: They speak up a somewhat different way I suspect that's (unintelligible).

LINDA: Yeah. They're more genteel. You know, they don't want to offend. But, you know, the Senate race will be close, and it's hard to tell. I think you mentioned the economy is doing very well because of the military and because of other things. So, it's just a question of what people - you know, the problem is you ask about the PACs. We are bombarded with advertisements from the PACs and, you know, a lot of the information is misinformation, so it's really hard to know what people feel and how much they believe.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call, Linda.

LINDA: You're welcome.

CONAN: And, Joe Schapiro, thanks very much - Jeff Schapiro, excuse me, thanks very much for your time.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

CONAN: Jeff Schapiro joined us from the offices of the Richmond Times Dispatch where he's a reporter. And this is an email from Steve in Elkhart, Indiana: Joe Donnelly is very much a blue dog Democrat, but at least, he'll listen to a yellow dog like me. On the other hand, Richard Mourdock, the Republican candidate, who spent Indiana taxpayers' money to try to scuttle the Chrysler bailout which would have put thousands of Hoosiers out of work is positively scary. I'll vote for Donnelly.

And, obviously, Mara Liasson, the Democrats trying to hold on to that seat in Virginia, trying now to pick up Richard Lugar's seat in Indiana. Is that a real prospect? Indiana, pretty...

LIASSON: Well...

CONAN: ...pretty red state.

LIASSON: ...I don't think so. I think that very early on in this cycle the Obama campaign was pretty clear that of all of the states that Obama won last time, they were willing to compete in all of them, except for one. They were willing to cross Indiana off the list pretty early. So even though Mourdock looks more vulnerable than a real centrist with a huge reputation like Lugar, I think that it's going to be very tough there, and I don't think the Obama campaign is not going to spend a lot of money trying to win Indiana. I think that's kind of a gimme right now for Mitt Romney, and I think that's going to affect, you know, Donnelly's prospects too.

CONAN: Mara Liasson, thanks very much for pinch-hitting today. Appreciate it.

LIASSON: A pleasure to be here.

CONAN: Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent, joined us from the White House. Ken Rudin, we hope will be better and back with us here in Studio 3A next week. Up next, NPR's Deb Amos from Damascus on what many now call a civil war in Syria. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.