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Democrats See Senate Gains in Election

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If it's September of an even-numbered year, you can feel sure that everything that happens in Congress is done with the election in mind. Our best understanding about this fall's election is changing day by day. Analysts give Democrats a good chance at breaking Republican control of the House. A few months ago, Republicans seemed very likely to hold on to the Senate, but now the battle for the control of that chamber is growing tighter.

To sort out what's happening, we've brought in NPR political editor Ken Rudin. Ken, good morning.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And NPR national political correspondent Mare Liasson. Good morning to you.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what is the roadmap for Democrats, if they have one, to actually win control of the Senate?

LIASSON: Well, there is a roadmap, Steve. They need six seats net to win control of the Senate, and they have some targets. The pool from which they're fishing for those six seats include very tight competitive races in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Ohio and Montana, all held by Republican incumbents. The Democrat is either tied or ahead at this moment.

INSKEEP: I gotta tell you, at the beginning of the year, when you looked at the political map, you could see that Rick Santorum, the senator in Pennsylvania, was vulnerable, but it was hard to find the second vulnerable Republican. What's changed?

LIASSON: Oh, there are plenty of vulnerable Republicans now. I talked this week with Senator Chuck Schumer, who's head of the Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee. He said he feels good about where the Democrats are. He certainly is not predicting that they're going to take over control of the Senate. The one race the Democrats are on the defense for is in New Jersey, where the Democratic incumbent is trailing by a couple points with his Republican challenger. But Democrats are also very hopeful about the Virginia race, which didn't look too competitive too long ago.

INSKEEP: Ken Rudin, is there really a chance that a Democratic Senate candidate can win in the state of Virginia, a very Republican state right now?

KEN RUDIN: Well, it's not as Republican as it used to be. It used to be a really clear red state. But if you looked at all the votes that were counted in the 2004 presidential race, George Bush only got about 50-51 percent of the vote.

If we were talking about George Allen's prospects for a second term a few months ago...

INSKEEP: The Republican Senator, yeah.

RUDIN: Exactly. It was a cakewalk. He was actually measuring the drapes for the White House in 2008.

But he got himself into a lot of trouble, first with the M word, which was macaca, of course, then the J word: he didn't know how to define whether he was Jewish or not. Actually, Steve - you probably know this - he would be the first Jewish African-American president ever elected.

INSKEEP: What do you mean African-American?

RUDIN: Well, George Allen's mother was born in Tunisia, and the fact that her family was raised Jewish, he would be the first Jewish African-American president. And that's the real shame in this.

INSKEEP: Tunisia, that's in Africa! That's part of Africa!

RUDIN: That's absolutely right. By the way, we haven't even mentioned the Democratic nominee, who's running against him, Jim Webb. And this has nothing to do with how Webb is campaigning, and he's not campaigning that well, actually. But the fact is that Allen seems to be imploding.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about national politics here. Obviously these races are state by state, but people are trying to nationalize them to some degree. Republicans have felt they have an advantage if people are talking about terrorism. Democrats have felt they have an advantage if people are thinking about Iraq. Who's gaining in that battle?

LIASSON: I think Iraq is still the top issue in a lot of polls that we've seen around the country. However, terrorism is gaining, and I think you have to give the White House credit for that.

They set out very purposely to make terrorism, not Iraq, the main issue of this election. They wanted to kind of shift the focus away from Iraq, where things aren't going well and where the war is unpopular, and back on to the war on terror.

RUDIN: Let me make the opposite argument. We wouldn't be talking about Mike DeWine in Ohio or Jim Talent in Missouri if there were not an anti-Republican mood based really on President Bush's low numbers, the low approval rating of Congress, and the war in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Vulnerable Republicans here.

RUDIN: Right. Because Mike DeWine has really done nothing wrong. Jim Talent has really done nothing wrong that would warrant them being defeated in 2006, and it's really the war and the anti-Republican mood.

INSKEEP: Have Democrats gained at all as this - word of this National Intelligence Estimate has brought the headlines back to Iraq? This is an intelligence document saying that Iraq has actually increased the motivation for terrorists around the world.

LIASSON: I think that the whole debate over the NIE shows how intensely partisan and politicized every single thing about Iraq and the war on terror is and is going to remain for the next six weeks. And the White House hoped to de-link Iraq from the war on terror, but the NIE just re-linked it in a very negative way for the White House.

But look, both sides are using the NIE to bolster their own arguments: either why it's important to stay the course in Iraq or why Iraq is a disaster and we have to do something different.

INSKEEP: We started by saying Democrats still have a better chance. But would you call them the favorite to win the Senate at this point?

RUDIN: I say no. I still think that there are certain vulnerable incumbents. Mike DeWine in Ohio, Conrad Burns in Montana, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island. They could all go down to defeat. Talent still has a slight lead in Missouri. And also, the Democrats are very nervous about New Jersey. You know...

LIASSON: It's very hard to see...

RUDIN: Please, go ahead.

LIASSON: ...how the Democrats get to six if they can't hang onto New Jersey. It means they have to do a clean sweep of all these other tight races, and that would be a pretty tall order.

The big question all along is whether Democrats could kind of ride the anti-Bush, anti-war, anti-incumbent tide to victory, or with the Republicans' very formidable structural advantages, including money, could that be enough to kind of hold back the tide.

INSKEEP: Mara Liasson, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Ken Rudin, thank you.

RUDIN: Thanks, Steve. Can I just say that Ken Rudin is also writes the Political Junkie column on NPR. You can read it. The nine people who already read it read it on npr.org. But thanks, Steve, for mentioning that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ken Rudin
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.