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Battle for the Senate Down to Four States


The battle for control of the Senate has come down to four states: Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia and New Jersey. So with 11 days to go, we turn once again to NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson and political editor Ken Rudin, who are in our studio this morning. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: We just heard President Bush speaking out against the New jersey court's decision on gay marriage. Mara, let's start with you. Will the court's ruling have an effect on the New Jersey Senate race, or any others actually, for that matter?

LIASSON: Well, in general, this ruling should help Republicans energize their base of social conservative voters. It certainly did in 2004. However, New Jersey doesn't have the concentration of socially conservative voters that other states do. The Republican candidate there says he's not going to campaign on this issue, but it could have some affect around the edges; that, and the fact that Republicans are pouring $3.5 million into that state in the hopes of getting a pick-up.

But in Tennessee there is an amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot. That should help the Republicans. However, both candidates there, Bob Corker, the Republican, and Harold Ford, the Democrat, are for that amendment.

In Virginia there's also a gay marriage amendment on the ballot, and there you have the clearest contrast. The Republican incumbent George Allen is for the amendment, his opponent, Democrat Jim Webb, is against it. And Allen, who has been hurt by allegations of racial insensitivity, has jumped on the New Jersey decision. Yesterday he was at anti gay marriage rally in Roanoke. He's clearly trying to use this to shore up his base.

RUDIN: I do think it's interesting, though, that this push on gay marriage comes not long after the Republican Party was embroiled in the Mark Foley scandal on Capitol Hill, and maybe this is perhaps President Bush's attempt to divert the issue away from Mark Foley.

LIASSON: And, Ken, there's been a lot in the news this week about campaign ads. And one features the actor Michael J. Fox - it's been playing in Missouri and Maryland - that's about stem cell research.

RUDIN: That's correct. It's a very moving ad, Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, he's trying to make the case that the Senate should pass a stem cell research. In Missouri, Claire McCaskill, the Democratic nominee, supports it. The incumbent Republican, Jim Talent, does not support at least a measure on the Missouri ballot that would call for that.

And so you see these ads. But the more interesting ad, and MORNING EDITION has been on top of it all week, is the ad in Tennessee where you have an assortment of people making fun of Harold Ford Jr., the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Tennessee, an African-American candidate, including a scantily-clad, a white woman who you know, seductively looks into the camera and says psst, Harold, call me. Again, they're really hitting the negative stuff.

LIASSON: You know, I want to say something about Tennessee, which I think has been one of the most amazing races this year. The fact that Harold Ford, this is a considered a toss up, Harold Ford is an African-American man running in a Southern state with a family whose some members are involved in ethics scandal. And he has been able to make this an extremely close race.

And people I talked to, both Democrats and Republicans, think he's run one of the best races this year. Win or lose, I think he's going to provide a model for how Democrats can run in some of these conservative rural states.

RUDIN: In a region that has never elected…

LIASSON: Elected…

RUDIN: …an African-American.

LIASSON: He hands out business cards with the Ten Commandments on the back. He's opposed to gun control, to gay marriage. He favors school prayer. He has really been able to give the Republican in a Republican state a run for his money. And we don't know how it'll come out.

MONTAGNE: And as you said, never elected an African-American senator since Reconstruction.

RUDIN: That's correct.

LIASSON: This week, President Bush, as we've just said, insisted that Republicans are going to keep control of both houses of Congress. Karl Rove also says that. Well, what are they basing their predictions on?

RUDIN: Well, a lot of people want to know if they know things that we don't know. Look, he is - President Bush is the optimist in chief and Karl Rove has to say that stuff as well. But I just went through a whole list of every House race in the country. It looks like to me as of this moment, with 11 days to go, Democrats still pick up enough seats, 18 seats in House. They need 15 to take control of the House.

LIASSON: You know, sometimes when you listen to these stories about national polls, there is this drumbeat that there's this huge Democratic wave coming. You know, polls are not predictions. I understand the White House's private projections are from 12 to 18 seats in the House. The Democratic Campaign Committees' private projections are a little bit larger but not that much more. And I think still the real wildcard here are the Republican advantages in turning out their vote and in money.

Those can minimize losses. The problem is those things are invisible. We don't know how they're going to do until Election Day. But there was something that jumped out of me this week. The Washington Post poll among independents - who are breaking two to one for Democrats - asked these independents how many of you have been contacted by either party. Forty-five percent of them said they've been contacted by a Republican, only 17 percent said they've been contacted by a Democrat, which tells you how good the Republicans are at finding and targeting voters. And that could help them minimize losses on Election Day.

MONTAGNE: And 11 days can be an awfully long time?

RUDIN: It is and exactly right. But again that the national momentum is on the Democratic side right now.

MONTAGNE: Political editor Ken Rudin and NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks both of you.

RUDIN: Psst, Renee, call me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, that too, and to look at Ken's projections for the hottest House races, go to npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning Edition
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.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.