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Previewing The High-Stakes Michigan Primary


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After all the votes are counted, Romney still wins in Maine. Super-donors dominate the superPACs, and new frontrunner Rick Santorum struggles to stay on-message. It's Wednesday and time for a...

RICK SANTORUM: Phony ideal...

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 BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

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

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.


PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.



CONAN: Not groovy.


CONAN: Haven't heard that word for a while. And of course the...

: When you think of Ron Paul, you think of groovy.

CONAN: Absolutely. The - Romney himself has taken out an ad against Mr. Santorum.


: See, the problem - the way I see it, the problem is, yes, yes, yes, I don't see Republican voters getting very agitated or excited about the fact that Rick Santorum supported earmarks. What I would think that if you want to beat Barack Obama in the fall, you might get excited or irritated at some of the things he has to say about women's rights and things like that, but...

CONAN: Values issues, social issues.

: But Mitt Romney can't attack Rick Santorum from the left because he's trying to win over all these conservative voters. So he's going to hope, I would imagine that Mitt Romney is going to hope, that John King, CNN's John King, will do the work for him because he can't certainly do it in tonight's debate.

CONAN: And it's a long Hail Mary pass again for Newt Gingrich, who has to make a big showing, I'd think. The last polls in Arizona showed that it was Mitt Romney up by I think 16 points, so his to lose probably there in Arizona.

: Perhaps, but again Newt Gingrich is not really competitive in Michigan or Arizona. He looks like he's looking at the Super Tuesday states in Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, perhaps Ohio, which is March 6th. But again, if all the headlines on February 28th is Michigan - Romney wins or Santorum wins, why will voters support Newt Gingrich on March 6th? It may be too late for him.

CONAN: And Ron Paul did win that one elusive county in the state of Maine, but it was not enough to overtake Mitt Romney's lead. So at this point, where does Ron Paul look to do well?

: Well, again, he is competitive in caucuses. He wants to make a play in caucuses. He hasn't won yet, as you pointed out. All the other three candidates have at least won a primary or a caucus or more. But again, Ron Paul was always never going to - his aim was never to win. Of course he wants to win, but his aim is to get his Libertarian-style bit of Republicanism out there, and he's not going away anytime soon.

CONAN: In the meantime, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question - the last Republican or Democrat to win the most votes in his or her party's primaries but not get the nomination. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Matt's on the line from Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

MATT: Hi, Hillary Clinton?

CONAN: Hillary Clinton in 2008?

: Well, that's a great guess because that was the closest in history, and somehow 35, 38, 40 million votes in the primaries, Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton by 41,622 votes. Now if you include Michigan, where Barack Obama took his name off the ballot, Hillary Clinton has the advantage, but...

CONAN: We're not counting...

: We're not counting that because the Democrats didn't count that. So it's a good guess.

CONAN: Good try, Matt.

MATT: Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's go next to - this is James and James with us from Bennettsville in South Carolina.

JAMES: Yes, I'm going to say the Republican National Conference, 1949, first ballot, Taft.

CONAN: William Howard Taft.

: Well, no, in 1948 would be Robert Taft.

CONAN: Robert Taft, excuse me, Mr. Republican.

: Robert Taft, and he lost to one of the three - Dewey, one of the three nephews. No, Thomas E. Dewey. But no, actually, I'm looking for something more - somebody more recent.

JAMES: OK, thanks.

CONAN: Bye. Good to go back into history. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tom and Tom with us from Richland in Washington.

TOM: I was thinking - I said the wrong way around. I was going to say Bob Dole, but it's actually the guy who was against Bob Dole in 1996 at the Republican...

: Well, the guy who finished second, I think, to Bob Dole was Steve Forbes, but Bob Dole did get the most Republican votes in '96. Pat Buchanan also ran in '96, but Bob Dole got the most votes and got the nomination in '96.

TOM: Yeah.

CONAN: Came in second in the general, though. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Mike, and Mike's with us from Traverse City in Michigan.

MIKE: Hello, Hubert Humphrey in '68, before they changed the rules?

: Well, actually, Hubert Humphrey didn't enter a single primary. Now, that's a good guess because Humphrey got the nomination without entering a single primary, Lyndon Johnson got out of the race too long, but Lyndon - but Hubert Humphrey is not the correct answer. There's somebody more recent than that.

MIKE: OK, thank you.

CONAN: All right, Mike, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Derek(ph), and Derek's with us from Birmingham in Alabama.

DEREK: Hey, was it Ford in '76?

: No, Ford, Gerald Ford had more votes than Ronald Reagan. That was close also. Ford had more votes than Reagan in '76.


CONAN: All right, give us a call, send us an email, talk@npr.org.

: Me?

CONAN: You know the answer. Or 800-989-8255. Nobody left on the line who thinks they know the answer. In the meantime there is this...

: By the way, there was no T-shirt last week, either. We're stocking up on them.

CONAN: Curiosity of gay marriage bills passing in the state of New Jersey, where it was promptly vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, who challenged the legislature: Go ahead, put it on the ballot in November. And it's moving through the legislature in Maryland at the behest of Governor O'Malley, who says he will sign it, and it's expected, if does pass the Senate this week, which it is expected to do, and he signs it, it will be then balloted - also put on the ballot in Maryland.

These measures are ending up on the ballot in more than several states, again like contraception, gay marriage ending up a big issue in this year's election.

: Absolutely, and of course every time it has been put into law, and I think there are seven states, if you include Washington state, there are seven states and the District of Columbia that do have same-sex marriage on the books, but it's been passed either by the courts or by the state legislature.

When it's gone before the voters, it has always gone down to defeat. Chris Christie says that the way to decide this should be on the ballot measure, and who knows, it could go down to defeat in New Jersey, as well. But remember, there are still 41 states that prohibit same-sex marriage. So while the trend may be going the opposite way, it has a long way to go to get that kind of equality.

CONAN: Let's go to Massachusetts, one of those states, where it is on the books, and there is a statewide contest for the Senate, the Tea Party darling of the Republican Party, Scott Brown, thought to be at a disadvantage to his Democratic challenger, but that's not what the polls say now.

: Well, this is one poll. Suffolk University had a poll this week that had Scott Brown, who was elected with Tea Party support - I'm not sure he's a Tea Party favorite anymore because he's kind of moderate - of course, in Massachusetts you have to be kind of moderate. He's up by nine points in a poll. But there was a WBUR, the NPR affiliate, poll that came out just a day or two before that that had Elizabeth Warren, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee, up by three. It's very, very close, but Scott Brown is the most vulnerable Republican in the Senate this year.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in on the junkie contest. This is Steven(ph) with us from Cleveland.

STEVEN: Hi. It was McGovern in '72.

: That is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

STEVEN: Thank you.

: Hubert Humphrey, of course we talked about him in '68, but in 1972, Hubert Humphrey had more votes than George McGovern, McGovern in the primaries, McGovern got the nomination.

CONAN: So stay on the line, Steven, we'll collect your particulars...

STEVEN: Great.

CONAN: ...and send you a political junkie no-prize T-shirt in your size in response to your promise for a digital picture of yourself wearing it we can post on our wall of shame. Congratulations.

: He's so excited he's speechless.

CONAN: Yes, and let's try not to hang up on - put him on hold. There we go. All right. Stay with us. Ken Rudin has got more. We're going to be focusing with Don Gonyea on next Tuesday's very important primary in the state of Michigan. If you live in Michigan and plan to vote in that primary, what's making up your mind? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is here with us, as he is every Wednesday. Each week he posts a Scuttle Button puzzle, and each week he announces a winner, if there is one. Ken, did somebody win the ScuttleButton prize this week?

: Yes, it just so happens that Russ Wiley(ph) of Mountain View, California - the puzzle was Grammy Awards. I had a Phil Gramm button and an MIA for missing in action button - Grammy Awards is how we got that one.


: Russ Wiley.

CONAN: All right, and of course the regular Political Junkie column is up on the website as well. This week, interesting feature on the latest Kennedy to enter a race for Congress, Joe Kennedy III.

: Right, that's Joseph Kennedy II, former congressman, his son, and of course Robert F. Kennedy's grandson, the late Robert F. Kennedy. And it has a whole listing of all the Kennedys who have served in Congress, starting with Honey Fitz Fitzgerald, Rose Kennedy's father.

CONAN: Better known as mayor of Boston, who served as mayor from prison for a time.

: No, no, that's the other guy.

CONAN: Oh God, the other guy?

: Yeah, Curly.

CONAN: Curly. Oh, that's right.

: And of course him and Mo Udall and - right, Larry.


: Is anybody still listening to this show?

CONAN: I don't know, but they're stooges if they are. Now we turn to Michigan. The latest polls there show a basic tie between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Romney had long considered Michigan an easy win. He grew up in the Detroit suburbs, his father was a popular auto executive and eventual governor who ran for president at one point.

But Rick Santorum's national surge has helped in Michigan, where most analysts call this a must-win primary for Romney. We want to hear from those who will vote in the Michigan primary. Who are you going to support and why? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us from metro Detroit area is Don Gonyea, national political correspondent for NPR and, worth mentioning, a proud Michigander. Is that what we say, Don, Michigander?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Michigander, I think we say.

CONAN: Michigander. OK. All right, nice – nice to have you back...

: With Gonyea, it's propagandar.


CONAN: So what is the - is the Santorum surge for real?

GONYEA: Well, he certainly has a base of support here, a very strong base of support. The Tea Party likes him. There are a lot of Christian conservatives here. They certainly love him. And even though he - you know, he started off his Michigan swing with a speech to the prestigious, very august Detroit Economic Club last week. He's been spending a lot of time talking about those social issues that those voters want to hear about.

The question remains, you know, did he kind of peak too soon, or was that big lead he had for just a short time here in the polls a result of just the afterglow of Colorado and Minnesota and Missouri and all the attention that he got? Or is it for real? And even if it is for real, can he counter the vastly superior ground game that Romney has built here?

Romney has done everything right here for a candidate in terms of building that organization and having people in every county and every precinct and practically on ever single block.

CONAN: And including being his own personal broadcaster stimulus fund. He's spending like crazy there in Michigan.

GONYEA: He is. The ads - between Romney ads and the Restore Our Future ads, the superPAC that supports him, those are the ads that you just see over and over and over. But there are plenty of ads that feature the likeness of Mitt Romney and President Obama going back and forth from the Red, White and Blue PAC that supports Santorum. It's really making the case that Romney and the president are not different enough on the key issues.

But it - the ad war makes it feel a little bit like Iowa or New Hampshire, there are so many ads.


: Don, you also see a lot of images, picture of George Romney, Mitt's dad, who hasn't run for office - who's long-deceased, of course - hasn't run for office in 45 years. Is the Romney name that - still that big in Michigan politics?

GONYEA: The Romney name is still held in very high regard here because of George Romney. But again, the younger the voter, the less it means. I talked to one guy after the Economic Club speech who is 40 years old, and I said, well, what do you know about George Romney? Does that mean anything for you? He says no, he says I'm not old enough. He said, he said: I don't get all those warm and fuzzies about the Romney name that a lot of people do.

That said, a lot of people do, and a lot of people who vote do really remember the dad fondly. At every Mitt Romney event, you see somebody holding up a vintage George Romney sign. So it helps. The other thing is, there's still Romney family here. Mitt's brother Scott is very active. Mitt's former sister-in-law, Ronna, ran for the Senate a couple of cycles back. Ken, you can probably pull the date right off the top of your head.

: 1994, thank you.


GONYEA: So the name has been out there continually. It's not like it just kind of fell off the face of the earth after, after, you know, George Romney left the governorship and left town.

: Now, a lot of people talk about Mitt Romney's vulnerability being the fact that he opposed the bailout, but all the Republican candidates opposed the bailout of the auto industry, right?

GONYEA: Exactly. There's no differential there. But here's - here's how Rick Santorum is using it. And he seems to have, you know, come up with this line in the last couple of days. He says that he opposed the Wall Street bailout and that he opposed the bailout of Detroit. Mitt Romney voted in favor of the Wall Street bailout but voted against Detroit.

And what Santorum says is that he can see how someone could be either for both bailouts or against both bailouts, but he cannot figure out for the life of him how you can be for Wall Street and against Detroit. So he's trying to get some traction on that. And at the very least, it plays into that problem that Romney always has, that people aren't sure what he stands for.

CONAN: Just to keep the emails from coming in, Mitt Romney opposed the bailout for the auto industry and was in favor of the bailout for Wall Street. He didn't have a vote for anything. So in any case, let's see if we get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Sara(ph), Sara's with us from Charlotte in Michigan.

SARA: Hi. I was leaning towards Romney, but you know, I really have a problem with people saying that this is Romney's home state. He left here as soon as he graduated from high school and he never came back. And I lean towards him because I thought that he would have the best shot at defeating Obama, but I don't think so.

I think his whole problem with standing for anything is out the door. So I'm going to vote for Santorum on Tuesday.

CONAN: Even though the polls, the match-up polls, continue to show that Mitt Romney has a better chance against Obama than Santorum, though they're pretty close.

SARA: They're - the difference between them is negligible. And earlier, if you look back a couple of months ago, Romney had a huge lead on Obama. And it just keeps getting closer and closer. I think by the time November rolls around, you're going to see that Obama's going to be way ahead of Romney if Romney gets the nod.

CONAN: All right, Sara, thanks very much.

SARA: Thank you.

CONAN: And there are those people who say yes, a native son, and those people like Sara who say native son, forget about it, he left after high school.

GONYEA: And Neal, there's an interesting point to be made here. At the event, the Romney event in Shelby Township yesterday, which is in Macomb County, should be a lot of votes there, he would hope to do well there – boy, this was a Michigan event. There was a giant Michigan flag, you know, the deep-blue Michigan flag hanging as the backdrop on the stage.

And they were playing The Supremes and The Temptations and Bob Seger and Kid Rock. No MC-5, somebody pointed out, but...

CONAN: Where was Mitch Ryder?

GONYEA: I didn't hear any Mitch Ryder either - but it was all Detroit stuff. And everything said this is a local kid running for president, right? But then when Romney's answering questions, he would keep referring to what we did in my state, and when he was saying my state, he was referring to Massachusetts, not Michigan.

And I found myself getting, you know, just a little bit of vertigo there. It's like, well, wait a minute, is Michigan your state or is Massachusetts your state? And I think, you know, I think that's a subtle thing, but it's the kind of thing that our last caller is kind of talking about, I think.

CONAN: Let's go next to Joe(ph), Joe's with us from Lansing.

JOE: Yeah, and I really don't think it's actually such a subtle thing. I agree with the last caller in the respect of, you know, Mitt Romney's a nobody as far as I'm concerned. I'm 55 years old, and yeah, I remember his father, but Mitt's a nobody as far as - the name means nothing to me.

I'm going to have to go with Paul this time, just hopefully to give him a little - some people would say it's a throwaway vote but hopefully to give him a little leverage at the convention. I - Rick Santorum's just, you know, as far as I'm concerned, gone off into left field, his statements as of late. So from a values voter issue, I'm way, way away from him. So I'm going to have to go with Paul.

But I agree, Mitt Romney's a - you know, at least where I am, you know, Macomb County is basically Romney Republican headquarters in the state of Michigan. So I'm not going to take a whole lot with what goes on in Macomb County, quite frankly.


: Don, what do you make of that Ron Paul candidacy and what's going on there? He seems to be aiming all his arrows at Rick Santorum and not - and letting Mitt Romney completely go.

GONYEA: And there have been some pieces written in the past week or so about the friendship and the bond that has formed between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. I mean, I don't know that that's playing into this at all. But clearly, he sees the place where he can make some inroads in Michigan is to go after Rick Santorum and pick up those voters. It seems, to me, they're very different voters - Santorum voters and Ron Paul voters. But the ad, which you played earlier, really does sound like it could have been written by, you know, the Romney superPAC.

And Ron Paul has not been here, but he is coming in this weekend. He's doing, I think, two or three days of events leading right up to primary day, and he's hitting college campuses and kind of all the usual places where Ron Paul would find some of his core supporters and where he can really get people fired up right at the last minute, so their primed to go vote.

CONAN: Let's go next to Craig. Craig with us from Detroit.

CRAIG: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I kind of wanted to ask a question about the negative ads that we're hearing, how you think that's affecting voters. It's really affecting me, and I'm wondering what this impact is going to have on the long term of political nominees when, you know, all you hear out of them is negativity, and like our - the last two callers brought up, here's an issue now with Mitt Romney and his origins claiming two different states. Where do you see this going in the future?

Is it going to get so bad that people are going to be so turned off? Or, you know, like right now, I'm actually in a position of picking the lesser of two evils or three evils.

CONAN: Don Gonyea, in Florida, all of the ads that Romney ran with one exception where negative. In Michigan, there are some, some Romney ads that are positive.

GONYEA: Yeah. You only hear about the negative ads. At least, I've only heard about the negative ads from voters at Santorum events, and they have grumbled that all of this money, this big machine has been dumped on him trying to bring him down. You know, in terms of what the effect will be on voters and how discouraged they'll become or disillusioned with the process or whatever, I'll leave that to others to sort out. But I have heard complaints, as I've heard complaints in Florida and South Carolina and New Hampshire and Iowa.

CONAN: And no doubt we will soon in some of the Super Tuesday states. Craig, thanks very much for the phone call.

CRAIG: Thank you.

CONAN: Political junkie Ken Rudin is with us. You can see his ScuttleButton puzzle and read his column at npr.org/junkie. Also with us this week is Don Gonyea, NPR national political correspondent, as we focus on the state of Michigan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Political And, Don, it was not so long ago that Mitt Romney was riding or trying to ride above the pack, aiming his attacks not at his Republican rivals but at the White House and the man he presumed would be his rival come November. We've heard these last couple weeks that it is Rick Santorum instead who's been leveling attacks against the president.

SANTORUM: It's not about you. It's not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology, but no less a theology.


CONAN: Is he taking on the mettle of the frontrunner here, and are those kinds of attacks which, well, get some people's backs up and other people get up - are certainly applauding?

GONYEA: There are still occasional digs at Mitt Romney at Rick Santorum events, but mostly it's all about President Obama and all about the elites in Washington and the elites in the White House. And there's that real populist theme that he's promoting that you hear him say it in that kind of hushed whisper that we just heard there that they're not - they think they know better than you. They think they can make these choices for you. They think they can tell you how to live your life.

They think they can tell your religion what its beliefs should be, what its rules should be, what it should do. So there is a great deal of that. But, again, it is all focused at the White House.


: Don, could he - I mean, everybody is saying, could Mitt Romney survive a loss in Michigan? I mean, there's no way of predicting. Everything has been so topsy-turvy. But what are the prospects for him following Michigan?

GONYEA: Well, yeah, I mean, I won't make predictions, but the one thing that has been a lock in a year when we just don't make predictions - I've learned very early on that we shouldn't make predictions - was that Michigan was Mitt Romney's. It just is. If he were to lose, it would force him to change the whole dialogue and kind of theme of his campaign. It is hard to make the electability argument, which he has been making from the beginning, if he can't win a big industrial swing state where he happens to have been born and where he has such deep family ties and where people know him so well.

So he'll have the money to keep going if he should lose here. And he's certainly got the organization everywhere to keep going. And he's got some important wins under his belt, you know, including Florida. But it would really, really, really change the narrative around his campaign.

CONAN: Flipside: Santorum wins, what does that do for his, at this moment, underfunded campaign?

GONYEA: Oh, I think the money pours in, but also Super Tuesday comes just one week later. And, you know, it's hard to bounce around to all 10 states, even the most important states, you know, even Ohio and Georgia and Tennessee and what else is in the mix, you know? So it would just be a huge boost because he'd get so much coverage, and he would get the same kind of bounce, only even bigger that he got after winning those three, you know, very small primary and caucus victories, what, a week and a half ago or so.

CONAN: All right, Don. Don Gonyea, thanks very much for your time.

GONYEA: This was fun. Thank you.

CONAN: NPR's Don Gonyea, our national political correspondent, with us from the suburbs of Detroit, where he's covering the Michigan primary, which comes up on Tuesday. Ken, we can't forget Arizona, too, coming up also next Tuesday.

: That's right. John McCain has endorsed him, not that endorsements have meant that much. We saw a lot of different kind of endorsements that Nikki Haley in South Carolina didn't help Mitt Romney, for example. But there's also a sizable Mormon population in Arizona, not as huge as it was in Nevada, but Nevada went very strongly for Romney, so that could be a help, too.

CONAN: NPR's political junkie Ken Rudin will join us again here in Studio 3A a week from today. And, Ken, as always, thanks very much for your time.

: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up, NPR's Corey Dade joins us to talk about the money behind those traffic cameras that catch drivers running red lights, but we didn't want to leave Political Junkie without making reference to an event at the White House last night where President Barack Obama hosted, well, some of the greatest blues singers and players in history, some rock 'n' rollers as well. Mick Jagger, B.B. King, Buddy Guy were there. And as the band started to play a particular song, it was Buddy Guy who leaned over to the audience and noted to the president that, well, we'd all heard him doing Al Green. Why don't you try something else?


CONAN: Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.