Return to Transcripts main page

JOHN KING, USA

Political Name Calling; Gay Choice; Off-Limits Questions; Was Miller Disciplined in Past Job?; Democrats Firewall Strategy

Aired October 18, 2010 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks, Wolf. Good evening, everyone. Tonight, Alaska Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller joins us to explain why his private security detail handcuffed and detained a reporter and we'll put to Mr. Miller some of the questions the reporter says he was trying to ask.

Also ahead Democratic hopes of building a fire wall to protect their House and Senate majorities could hinge on African-American turnout. We'll map out that strategy and discuss the debate within the party over whether it will work.

On the campaign trail, a more urgent tone heading now into the final two weeks -- former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was in Nevada today to help kick off a Tea Party Express bus tour. She urged against over confidence yet suggested the Republican resurgents (ph) will not stop this November.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER GOVERNOR OF ALASKA: We don't work for you anymore, Nancy Pelosi. You're fired. And Mr. Obama and your czars, you're next because now we can see 2012 from our house.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Speaker Pelosi made a rare public campaign appearance in Pittsburgh with the United Steelworkers Union predicting she'll still hold the speaker's gavel come January.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: I have said it before. I will say it again. We're not going back and we're not going back and we're going to win because the women of steel --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The tone is not only more urgent in many places. It is more nasty. Kentucky Senate race is more personal by the minute. At a crackling debate Sunday Republican Rand Paul accused Democrat Jack Conway (ph) of smearing his faith.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

Rand Paul (R), KENTUCKY SEN. CANDIDATE: You just out and out lied because you have nothing to stand on. Run a race as a man. Stand up and be a man instead of just calling me names.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: This will all be over in 15 days. But then comes the hard part, governing.

KING: How low can it go is a question we could apply to a lot of this year's big races? The economy and the Obama agenda are the biggest flashpoints when the candidates debate the issues. But in these final days it seems sometimes well the issues get lost.

Kentucky Senate race is Exhibit A. It is a contest that could prove critical to determining which party controls the Senate, and Democrat Jack Conway (ph) Republican Rand Paul had very different views of the Obama health care bill, the role of government and of America's place in the world, but turn on the TV in Kentucky, and what you get is this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, POLITICAL AD: Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that called the holy bible a hoax that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ? Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his god was "Aqua Buddha"?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Think you get the picture. It goes on, but I think you got the idea. So what's the strategy behind that ad? With us from New York John Avlon of TheDailyBeast.com, here in Washington, CNN contributor and Republican media strategist Alex Castellanos and Matthew Dowd (ph), former chief strategist for President George W. Bush's campaign and a columnist now for "The National Journal".

John Avlon, you have written about this race and this issue. Jack Conway is running that ad, why?

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Because he's trying to make sure that -- sorry, Rand Paul, blanking on the name there for a second, is seen as too out of mainstream for Kentucky voters. He's trying to effectively have a desperate Hail Mary pass in which Kentucky voters say you know what, this is going to be an embarrassment. But there's a massive chance of backlash from this ad. He's running (ph) from the right, too, which is every interesting, essentially questioning his faith and the question is whether it will turn off folks or make them think twice before they pull the lever in November.

KING: Is it proof to you guys who have both done campaigns that he's losing in the sense that he can't run. He's not going to run on spending in Washington, Jack Conway (ph) the Democrat. He's not going to run on the Obama agenda in Kentucky, so he's trying to disqualify Rand Paul on character issues.

MATTHEW DOWD, COLUMNIST, NATIONAL JOURNAL: Well obviously to me it's proof that he's losing the campaign. He's exceptionally desperate at this point and I think I agree with John. I don't think there's a chance that it backfires. I think it will backfire. Anytime that you make allegations like this in the course of a campaign, it's the first (INAUDIBLE) that you're losing. He wouldn't be doing this campaign if it was competitive, this ad if it was competitive or if he was ahead. It's definitely a place that he's trying to do anything possibly he can to win. And I think the voters in Kentucky are basically going to tune it out.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, GOP MEDIA CONSULTANT: And the response ad writes itself. This is cookie cutter stuff. You can do, how much does Jack Conway want to be senator, so much that he would use unsubstantiated charges, so much that he would attack someone else's faith and God so much that even his own party can't support him. How much does Jack Conway want to be senator, too much because --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's pretty close.

(CROSSTALK)

CASTELLANOS: He cares about himself too much --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: That's actually -- that's actually pretty close.

CASTELLANOS: That's how you do it.

KING: The ad Rand Paul's campaign --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You should do that for a living --

KING: -- yes, you should do that for a living, that's right. The ad Rand Paul's campaign put up essentially calls Jack Conway false witness, saying he's attacking his faith. I want you to listen to a snippet more from this debate because again these guys have huge and important differences on the issues facing the country, but the debate was mostly about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL: Cast aside these attacks on my personal religion. Jack, you should be ashamed of yourself. You should apologize. Have you no decency? Have you no shame?

JACK CONWAY (D), KENTUCKY SEN. CANDIDATE: Why did he freely join a group known for mocking or making fun of people of faith? And secondly, when is it ever a good idea to tie up a woman and ask her to kneel before a false idol, your god that you call "Aqua Buddha" (ph)?

PAUL: Jack, you know how we tell when you're lying it's when your lips are moving.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: I should note Rand Paul told our affiliate down in Kentucky today, WLEX (ph), that he may not participate in a debate scheduled for Monday. He says he's had enough of this, if his personal character is going to be attacked, he's not going to be there. However, some could also, John Avlon, see that as a duck. Rand Paul saying you know, I'm just not going to let him do this to me again.

AVLON: No, that's right, and generally avoiding debates is a duck. But this has gotten so ugly, so personal, and so low that you can understand how there's just a toxic environment before him. And here's where I would just encourage Democrats who are excited about the hard ball that's getting played because the polls have gotten closer, to apply a sense of equanimity to their standards. If a Republican was running this ad against a Democrat, they would be absolutely outraged and you got to apply the same standard.

(CROSSTALK)

DOWD: Most Republicans I think are going to be very happy that Conway ran this ad because basically it's a sign they don't need to put any more money in Kentucky. They're done with the race. He doesn't need to debate Conway anymore. After this episode normally, if you duck debates, it's a problem. In this deal, not going to another debate with this guy is going to be a positive in the voter's mind.

CASTELLANOS: And he keeps talking about tying up women too much I think. It looks a little -- it looks a little interesting there. I don't know. But look, this election is about jobs. And when politicians make this referendum on keeping their jobs as opposed to what they're going to do to help you keep your job, it becomes -- they appear so self-interested. That's what this election is about. They want to get rid of politicians --

KING: Well you say this election -- you say this election is about jobs. Let's go out to the state of California. John McCain who was the 2008 Republican presidential nominee out campaigning for his friend and supporter Carly Fiorina (ph) in the Senate race. John McCain is not talking about jobs here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Barbara Boxer is the most bitterly partisan, most anti-defense senator in the United States Senate today. I know that because I've had the unpleasant experience of having to serve with her.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DOWD: To me, this is another example that nobody in California that's not an unknown that she's a partisan Democrat, that she has a prickly personality. They know all that information. I think John McCain, it's another example where Carly Fiorina (ph) is behind. For John McCain to do this, who's a sitting U.S. senator, who was the presidential nominee for his party, to engage in basically a personality/and burn means that Barbara Boxer is probably in a good position to win that race.

CASTELLANOS: Barbara Boxer had a bad moment this year when she told a general, someone I guess in front (ph) of her committee to please call her senator as opposed to yes ma'am --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think she used the word please.

(CROSSTALK)

CASTELLANOS: And she seemed, you know the epitome of Washington arrogance. She brought her personality into this race. But you know one thing Republicans aren't doing this year, we're not offering anybody and here is a better way. Here is where we'd go next, and so sometimes you see Republicans turn to these kinds of attacks as opposed to leading us out of the forest.

AVLON: What is interesting with McCain's statement I think that he's going after her in a very personal way, and the other thing he is using hyper partisanship as a character witness against her. And that's one thing you're starting to see in these late endings of the campaign are candidates trying to say after they have been sort of rhino hunting and dino (ph) hunting their way through the election year so far, now they're saying in the general election guess what, this candidate is too extreme, they're too partisan. It is a very interesting shift. It's opportunist but it may just work.

DOWD: John McCain --

(CROSSTALK)

DOWD: One thing John McCain I think he has to worry about he's become the guy next door, the old guy next door that when you hit your baseball over the fence he keeps it and won't give it back to you. That's what he sounds like to me.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: A quick timeout. When we come back, another big Senate race where another Tea Party backed candidate is causing some controversy, Ken Buck running in Colorado. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Like Kentucky, Colorado has a Senate race critical to deciding whether the Democrats can hang on to their majority and like Kentucky, Alaska and Nevada, the Republican nominee is a Tea Party favorite who defeated an establishment Republican in the GOP primary and now faces heat over his controversial statements and positions. Republican Ken Buck and Democrat Michael Bennett had a mini debate Sunday on "Meet the Press" and Buck infuriated gay rights groups with this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe that being gay is a choice?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And based on what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Based on what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Why do you believe that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I guess you can choose who your partner is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't think it's something that's determined at birth?

KEN BUCK (R), COLORADO SEN. CANDIDATE: I think that birth has an influence over like alcoholism and some other things, but I think that basically you have a choice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: After the program, Buck told reporters he did not mean by using the alcoholism reference to apply being gay as a disease and he said he was answer a question and he believes Colorado voters are focused on economic and role of government issues. Is he right, or could that exchange spell some trouble? Let's get back to John Avlon, Alex Castellanos and Matthew Dowd. Social issues, will they play in this campaign?

CASTELLANOS: Not much you know and neither will witchcraft, social issues. People generally don't think that's what the election is about. Look, we've got effective (ph) unemployment near 20 percent in this country. And people are angry at Washington. That's one of the things frankly that has saved the Tea Party is their focus on economic issues. That's what this election is about.

KING: The Human Rights Campaign issued a very strongly worded statement because it said not only did it find what Mr. Buck said offensive, said the timing of it was troublesome. This is the statement from Joe Solmonese, the head of The Human Rights Campaign.

"In the past six weeks a number of teenagers have taken their own lives after being the victims of anti gay bullying, harassment. When a public figure like Mr. Buck makes statements like he did today, kids struggling with their identities question their self-worth, and kids justify bullying. Ken Buck must correct his remarks now." Should he?

CASTELLANOS: That's an unfair characterization I think --

DOWD: I think anybody that's talking about social issues in this election cycle is not talking about the thing that the voters care about. In the end he's going to have to correct it. He's already begun to correct it. He'll probably correct it even more so in the next day or two because he's out of the mainstream when he says stuff like that.

It really doesn't matter if being gay is a choice or it's something people are born with. He should have said, that's what I believe and let's talk about the economy, let's talk about the health care, let's talk about the dysfunction in Washington, but if the left or the right is bringing up social issues, they're off track.

KING: But John Avalon, in Colorado, a closer -- relatively close race, although Mr. Buck had been ahead pretty consistently in most of the polling, is it enough maybe to swing a little bit?

AVLON: Look, I mean Colorado is one of those 10 states where Independents outnumber Democrats or Republicans. And Independent voters who are very focused on the economy right now and would have a lot of sympathy for a Republican candidate, have a lot of identification with the Tea Party message, can be alienated by hard core social conservatism.

And while everyone agrees in rhetoric that this election is not about social issues, the reality is, is that the Tea Party candidates in particular represent a very hard right social conservative view, whether it's on abortion, on gay rights while this country is in the middle of a gay civil rights movement that can alienate voters in the center and that's what happens when you shrink the tent.

CASTELLANOS: No not really, I mean what Ken Buck -- he didn't break any new ground in the nature versus nurture debate there. He said he thought it was attributable to birth, genetics and he thought that gay or straight, you might be able to choose who and when you have sex with. Those are not outside the mainstream positions. He could have said it more artfully.

KING: To John's point though, Mr. Bennett, Michael Bennett, his Democratic opponent has tried to raise the extreme issue. Let's watch this ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, POLITICAL AD: I am pro-life, and I'll answer the next question. I don't believe in the exceptions of rape or incest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right, even in cases of rape and incest, Ken Buck. He's too extreme for Colorado.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DOWD: If this devolves into a campaign over who is talking about these issues more the voters are going to get really mad at either candidate. So if I were counseling either candidate, I'd say quickly switch to what people care about. Settle it. Quickly switch to what people care about, which is the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., the federal government and the economy.

CASTELLANOS: Voters do think this race is about extremism, but it's a different kind. They think it's about extreme spending, extreme bankruptcy, extreme debt that Americans will never pay. That's the extremism that's -- that's the hot stove voters are touching now, not social issues. These attacks at the end I don't think are very effective.

AVLON: Well, but I don't know that it's entirely incidental. Look, there are six state-wide candidates running who have that standard on abortion. They oppose it even in cases of rape and incest and the Republican Party is only fielding three pro choice senators this cycle. That is a decided chip (ph) on social issues. It may not be the (INAUDIBLE) issue people care about, but it's a signifier. It's a barometer of their overall belief system, and it could alienate some voters in the Senate.

DOWD: The vast majority of voters in this country think abortion and everything related to that issue has been settled for years. And any time any side talks about that issue, just like they did in the Terri Schiavo (ph) incidence in Florida, they think they're off track. Voters do now want to be confronted with an issue they think is settled --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about the gay rights issue?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We can use our witch-like powers anyway to knock those attacks down --

KING: What about the gay rights issue because you're in a different place now, but in the 2004 presidential campaign, George W. Bush, your candidate at the time, ended every speech by saying return me to the presidency because I'm the guy who will defend and protect traditional marriage. That was the closing appeal. That was the last line in the speech.

DOWD: Yes and every moment used to talk about that was a moment that he was not using for what people cared about in that election and in the end in that election if you look at where (INAUDIBLE) and gay marriage they had no effect on turnout among conservatives, among Republicans. And so in 2004 you should not have been talking about it. In 2006 and in 2010 --

(CROSSTALK)

CASTELLANOS: It's 2010, and unemployment is not discriminating who you're married to.

KING: (INAUDIBLE) we got about 30 seconds left here. Before I let you guys go, we're two weeks out, 15 days out. Do the Republicans get the House or the Democrats keep it?

DOWD: I think Republicans take the House by a bare majority and the Republicans don't take the Senate and lose that by a bare majority.

CASTELLANOS: Republicans are going to win about 62, 63 seats, take the House. And I think we're going to be up late watching Carly Fiorina. And if she wins, Republicans are going to take the Senate.

DOWD: He's an optimistic Republican -- KING: Mr. Avlon, you get the last word.

AVLON: Republicans take the House comfortably and a narrow edge for Democrats in the Senate.

KING: All right, we will save this and we'll have it for you on November 3rd you can bet on that -- gentlemen, thanks for coming in.

When we come back, in Alaska, a campaign stop by Republican Joe Miller ended with a reporter in handcuffs. Mr. Miller will be right here to explain what happened and I'll ask him some of the questions the reporter says he was just trying to ask him.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. Let's check in with Joe Johns for the latest political news you need to know right now -- hey Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Hey John. At the start of a hearing on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy this afternoon, a federal judge in California said she's not inclined to change her order for the military to stop all proceedings against gay service members. The Obama administration wants the order put on hold. We will let you know if there's a final ruling.

Senior U.S. officials and diplomatic sources tell CNN the U.S. is putting the final touches on a security assistance package for Pakistan that could total as much as $2 billion.

And during a phone call with President Obama today, British Prime Minister David Cameron gave assurances the United Kingdom will remain a first-rate military power and meet its responsibilities in NATO, which obviously, John, would be a concern given all the talk about budget cuts over there.

KING: Be interesting to hear that conversation about commitment to Afghanistan and elsewhere. You know what I'd love to see, you mention the budget cuts. I wonder if they talked at all about -- you know the prime minister is making some very politically unpopular cuts in social welfare programs. And this country is going to have to deal with a lot of tough budget issues after the election. Maybe they swapped some notes on that call.

JOHNS: Exactly. Yes, it may be one of the kinds of things that President Obama is going to have to --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: All advice is welcome -- Joe good to see you. When we come back, we've got a lot more to go in the program, including a "One-on-One" conversation with the Republican candidate for Senate in Alaska. A reporter says he wanted to ask Joe Miller about his prior employment last night. He ended up handcuffed. Mr. Miller will be right here to give his take on what happened.

And if the Democrats (INAUDIBLE) build a firewall, protect their House and Senate majorities, it could come down to turnout among African-Americans. Are they energized or is that a problem? We'll explore that.

And Sarah Palin in a rare interview with CNN says she has a dire warning for Republicans if they don't listen, listen to the message of the Tea Party. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The closing weeks of any campaign get chaotic, but things hardly ever end up with a reporter in handcuffs. It happened last night in Anchorage when a newspaper reporter was handcuffed by a private security guard hired by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller's campaign. Mr. Miller is here with us to help us try to figure out just what happened and Mr. Miller, let's start with the incident last night.

Mr. Hopfinger (ph), Tony Hopfinger (ph) he says he showed up at a public school, at a publicly announced campaign event and tried to just ask you questions in the hall and as a result, he was handcuffed by your security detail. Is that what happened?

JOE MILLER (R), ALASKA SEN. CANDIDATE: There was one particular blogger. He worked for a blog here in Alaska that hounded me on the way out the door, and you know invaded personal space. I answered a question, but continued to get in the way of us as we are trying to leave. And I ended up turning around and going the other way. There was a private security team that was required. We had to hire them because the school required that as a term of their lease. And after I'd left, apparently he shoved somebody and then they arrested him.

KING: The private security detail held him, the Anchorage police came and they said they would leave it up to the district attorney whether or not to press charges. But in hindsight looking back on this, use of handcuffs and holding somebody like that, was that over the top?

MILLER: Well I got to tell you, I mean the behavior that was demonstrated while I was there was assaultive (ph). It was certainly over the top. There's no question that that hounding was something that shouldn't have happened. It was unfortunate. But you know this was a professional team that was hired according to the contract that we had and I'm sure that they did the right thing.

KING: He says what he was trying to do is ask you some simple questions about your past work for the Borough (ph), for the Fairbanks North Star Borough (ph). You have said that you don't want to talk about those things. Let me ask you first just a general question. Where do you draw the line? What is in and what is out in terms of your past employment?

MILLER: Well I think that there's been a real effort here in Alaska to basically take away from the Alaskan voter the opportunity to see the issues that are before them. There's been a concerted effort to cloud it with things from the past that really have nothing -- they're petty issues and that's all they are. They aren't things that have anything to do with where we are as a state.

Right now and I've told you this before, John, our state has 40 percent of its economy that's dependent on the federal dollar, and yet the federal government is headed toward bankruptcy. And as long as we talk about petty issues or we talk about you know a reporter that assaulted somebody, we aren't getting at the issues.

KING: I think a fair issue for any voter to make is can I trust somebody that I'm going to send to Washington for a six-year term to deal with these big consequential issues, and the question Mr. Hopfinger (ph) says he was trying to ask you was this. Were you ever disciplined when you worked for the Borough (ph) for improperly using essentially public taxpayer computers for political purposes?

MILLER: What he asked me was I ever threatened with termination from the Fairbanks North Star Borough (ph) and I answered him directly and I said no and that's the straight truth. That's exactly what we've said consistently throughout this campaign and that was the answer that we gave him and again, yet another attempt to look at something from years ago to dissuade the voters from the issues that are at hand. Yes, our perspective is, is the record speaks for itself. The work I did there as a part-time Borough (ph) attorney speaks for itself.

The work that I did as a veteran, a combat veteran of Desert Storm speaks for itself. The work I did as a judge speaks for itself and again those records are reflected not just on our Web site, but also in the public record. And so again, it's an attempt, particularly here locally by this blogger specifically whose by the way editor is a max donor to my opponent to take away from the voters here in Alaska an opportunity to examine the issues and that is where we're headed as a state if we don't change it around.

KING: The mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough (ph), Mr. Whitaker, was quoted in a newspaper saying you were disciplined for violating the ethics policy. Is that true?

MILLER: I will answer that correctly that it was in fact a case that happened while I was at the borough. There were a myriad of things that happened over time and this was something back in 20008, but the fact of the matter is the performance of the borough at the time that I left had absolutely nothing to do with anything that happened two years before then. This is an attempt again to take away from the voters an opportunity to see where we are at as a state, an opportunity to take a choice that is not based on the past which is the Scott McAdams Lisa Murkowski path, but one that is designed to look at the petty issues and say that really is what matters to voters. I don't think it's fair to Alaskans.

KING: I'm not in a position, I work in Washington, D.C. I'm not in a position to define what the people of Alaska view as a legitimate issue or a petty issue, but I would just simply ask you this. You take issues sometimes with Lisa Murkowski's record, her voting record as a taxpayer paid member of the United States Senate. Is it not fair game to look at your history as a taxpayer paid attorney, anything and everything you did on a public pay roll as a public servant? MILLER: Well the event in question is something that happened on my time off. It was during a lunch hour, so frankly there's not a direct correlation to that.

KING: As you know, someone who takes the oath and takes a public trust and works in any kind of public service, you have a bar of accountability in ethics. A member of the United States Senate, for example, if Lisa Murkowski wants to raise money, she has to leave the office. She can't make that fundraiser call on a taxpayer funded phone. She has to go somewhere else and use a private phone. The question in your case, you said this happened on your lunch hour. Were you disciplined for doing something on your lunch hour maybe you thought was right but that the mayor or someone else thought was wrong, was a violation?

MILLER: John, I'll admit I'm a man of many flaws. I'm not going to sit back and say I've conducted my life perfectly. I will tell you anything I have done that isn't right has been accounted for, has been taken care of, and I move on and I learn from mistakes. To suggest that in fact this is, in fact, if you look at how this arose, it was basically designed to tie that event to something that happened, again, well after a departure that arose because of disputes that I had with the direction of that local government. And again, when we get confused in the details and when we talk about the details as we are in this conversation, what does it do? It takes voters away from the real issues. The real issues for Alaska again is that this state has to change direction. This nation has to change direction. It's a tactic that from our perspective, is you know obviously if the press reports on it 24 hours a day, it has some success. But who loses in the end? It is the voter.

KING: Let me try to end it right here then and you tell me whether I've tried this before and you've been straight up. Is this a fair statement in your view? That at the time this happens, you weren't disciplined for something, but it had nothing to do with the reason you left the agency down the road?

MILLER: Absolutely. That's a fair statement.

KING: Joe Miller is the Republican candidate for Senate in the state of Alaska in a fascinating three arm race, a little more than two weeks to go. Mr. Miller, thanks for your time.

MILLER: Thanks, John. Appreciate it.

KING: 15 days from Election Day, Democrats say one way to limit the damage would be to increase African-American turnout. Can they do it? The president and first lady we know they are trying to help. We'll explore the strategy when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Democrats are trying to build a firewall to protect their majority in Congress and a key part of the strategy involves motivating African American voters. Here for a closer look, Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher and CNN political analyst Roland Martin. I want to use the map in a minute to map this up, but Cornell first, a simple question from the data. When you look at the polling, the president's been out there, the first lady has been out there. Is there any evidence to what we would call the enthusiasm gap or the motivational gap among African-Americans specifically? Any evidence in the last week, 10 days, you have seen more motivation?

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: We actually are seeing some movement in the numbers. If I go back to four months ago to where we actually are right now, actually just coming out of the field with new data, take a look at some of the base constituencies, you know it's 13 point sort of increase in the number of voters saying they're paying -- they're more familiar with their candidate. 14 point increase in base voters saying they're more interested. And what I know is that when voters say they're more interested and they're paying more attention and they grow more familiar with the candidates, they're more likely to turn out and engage in election. The problem is we are not penetrating that with a surge. There's a direct correlation in the data with where we're actually communicating and touching voters on the ground, touching voters on the ground, neighbor to neighbor. And seeing where they're engaging. The problem is we had 11 percent more voters turn out in '08 than had previously turned out before. That increase was disproportionately was black and brown, 45 percent of that was black and brown. If we're not engaging that surge electorate, some of those victories that we saw in '08 and '06 are going to erode away. My fear is that we have not done a good enough job of engaging those surge voters, particularly in some of these important Congressional districts.

KING: What is not being done?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The failure is that you had all of these people were engaged in '08 and all of the sudden they drop off. You have seen President Obama in the last three weeks appear on Tom Joyner, I do his show everyday, all these different radio shows all of the sudden bringing in African-American bloggers, talking to black columnists, but they haven't been doing that consistently for the past 18 months. In fact, between inauguration and the interview three weeks ago, there's only been one interview. You have to constantly touch your base support. In many ways I make the point that it's like family. You have to stay in touch with family. You must continue to talk with them, engage with them. That's been the problem. The DNC is saying they're spending $3 million more than they have spent in quite some time. What is the DCCC spending? What are the Senatorial folks spending? How are they engaging people on the ground? That's been the failure of Democrats and it might hurt them because if they don't get the folks out, they'll lose.

KING: Let's take a closer look by going over here and just mapping some of this out of where the votes exist. This is right here the competitive governors races across the country. These states that are highlighted have over 10 percent African-American registered voting population. Texas is a tough race for the Democrats. Florida down here, Georgia and Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama, I'm sorry. You have Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and you have the state of Maryland. These are the governor's races where you have at least 10 percent registered African-Americans. You see the percentage is quite higher in some of those states, 29 percent in the state of Georgia. Let's look at some Senate races. Right here through the heartland you have the Missouri race, you have the Arkansas race, you have the Louisiana race, Florida, North Carolina tough for the Democrats. Obama carried that state in '08. Ohio here, and within a lot of those states are the house districts. The House districts, several in Georgia that are in play, several in Ohio that are in play, several out here in the heartland that are in play, and again, on a case by case, race by race basis, that's where you see the effort is lacking.

MARTIN: Here is the other issue. You have many of these states in the joint center for political and economic studies. They laid out there are some 20 house races where black voters could put Democrats over the top. Part of the problem is you have these conservative Democrats or leaning conservative Democrats who are saying I would not vote for Bobby Wright, I would not vote for Nancy Pelosi. They're trying to run away from the president but black voters are saying no you need to be running to the president. How does a Larry Cisal in North Carolina, how does he engage independent voters and white voters while also hoping African-Americans turn out? Democrats will get 90 percent of the black vote. The question is will they get a significant portion of increase of the 90 percent? That's the real issue.

BELCHER: If I could jump in here, I'm going to go rogue for a moment here on my party as I do from time to time. We have done a fairly poor job of engaging our base. We Democrats don't engage our base and sort of keep our base in tune and energize where Republicans are. We have done a poor job of that. You can look at some of the committee structures, and this is something I've brought up on your show before, when you look at the committee structure and the folks those in those committee structures, they don't look like the new base of the Democratic Party, they don't think like them, and they're not inclined to engage them. That's a problem moving forward for the Democratic Party. It's a problem we're going to have to fix down the line. We have to grow more diverse in that strategic room of the Democratic Party in order to engage these voters. We haven't done that and we may pay the price for it.

KING: Will they respond to the 911 call from the president in the final two weeks if they feel as you say and Roland says, I'm not stupid here, it's like the family member, if they only call twice a year, it's because they need money.

MARTIN: Absolutely. That a real issue, so the president is pushing hard, but Democrats can't just assume, black president, he's going to get them out. Look at Virginia, Massachusetts, look at it New Jersey, it doesn't happen. You have to touch people on the ground. You can't just go to black churches the last two Sundays before Election Day and hope they're going to show up.

BELCHER: You have to move the resources. You've got to put the people on the ground. You have to touch them. You have to have people inside the Democratic Party inside the committees that understand this group and have decision-making power, and that we don't have enough of. KING: How could people that were so good at this in 2008 suddenly be so bad at it?

MARTIN: Because they took folks for granted. They assumed, hey, no problem. They're going to stick with us. But African-Americans are very sophisticated. And not only this, black women are at higher rate than any other group in America. If you don't engage black women, you're going to lose them. So I don't understand why they haven't been using Michelle Obama now.

KING: That's what I was going to ask. We see Michelle Obama out now. Again, in the end, if you're that black woman, are you going to say, here she is now? That's a tough one for her because she doesn't want to be overly political as the first lady. She's got a tough one to do. And she's a mother trying to raise two kids in an interesting part of their lives. But Cornell, can she, is she more key than him?

BELCHER: Well, quite frankly, they both have favorable ratings, 95 percent plus in the African-American community. Barack Obama is not just a political leader among blacks and to a certain degree, some brown voters. He represents something larger than that. They don't use the same metrics with Barack Obama. He's a larger cultural and social figure than them. They're not simply politicians, so they want to see him with success. The Democrats tie themselves to the wagon of Barack Obama's success, they can pull out this segment of the vote. Not enough of them have been doing that over the past.

KING: A fascinating area to keep an eye on. 15 days the election. We'll keep in touch over the next weeks and months.

When we come back, maybe you have already voted. When I say the election is in 15 days, you say, no it's not. We'll show you where you may have already cast your ballot when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. Let's check in with Joe Johns for the latest political news you need to know right now. Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, President Obama has arrived at a private fund-raiser in Maryland. Later in the week, he makes a campaign swing through California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Minnesota.

During a speech to the United Steel Workers this afternoon in Pennsylvania, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Democrats know they haven't accomplished enough because the country needs many, many more jabs.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), HOUSE SPEAKER: I know between now and Election Day in actually many places voting is going on now, early voting. I think I could not be in a better place with a fuller appreciation of how important this election is.

JOHNS: The bottom line there is this is a house speaker who has been very low profile this past campaign season. No small part because she's been under so much pressure.

KING: She's controversial, so he's laying low. She's out in California. One of the things she mentioned there is that early voting is going on. Have you voted yet?

JOHNS: Not yet. I'm going to.

KING: It depends on where you live in the country but perhaps you've already voted. You could make a mint if you could market a device that someone voted early and their house didn't get any campaign ads. You could make a mint if you could sell that. If you look, 22 states opened early voting a while ago and you can see they go from coast to coast, Maine to California many places in between. Today, six more states, plus the District of Columbia, Texas among them. You see the darker shade. And by the time we are done, a few more states will kick in over the next several days. By Election Day, 32 states plus right here in Washington, D.C. will have afforded their states the ability to vote early and it's an interesting thing because of technology and the like.

JOHNS: It's a real advantage, especially for people who have to work on Election Day to be able to go a little early. It's helped me.

KING: Michelle Obama did it when she was in Chicago last week. When we come if can you vote early, it's important, get it done.

When we come back, Sarah Palin, Pete Dominick part of the same block. You don't want to miss that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: 15 days to Election Day, let's check in with two of our finest on the trail covering this. Jessica Yellin is in Columbus, Ohio. Dana Bash is up in New York. Let's talk about the story we were talking about before the break with Joe Johns. Early voting, by the time the election comes around, 33 states plus the District of Columbia, a lot of states, including Ohio have early voting. Which party thinks it works best for them?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Democratic Party says they have developed a 300 person staff in the state, the biggest operation outside of the national DNC party. And they -- their people have targeted so many houses, targeted so many districts, they know who's voting when, Democrats are voting early in the state, at higher numbers than Republicans and it's proof that we, the pundits are wrong, there is no enthusiasm gap. That's their argument, but it's part of their game to build a firewall here for Ted Strickland and President Obama.

KING: I'm shocked they would say we the pundits are wrong. Dana, what does your reporting tell you about early vote something?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm hearing the same from Democrats more broadly across the country, especially in a place like Nevada where the early voting started on Saturday. Same idea, they're hoping that the Democratic voters who might not be enthusiastic, but more specifically in a place like Nevada may have a hard time getting to the voting place on a Tuesday, that they just have a lot more time to do it. They're working hard to get them out.

KING: You mentioned Nevada. Sarah Palin was out there today. Our political producer Shannon Travis caught up to her for an exclusive interview along the rope line, listen to this.

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL PRODUCER: Governor, what if the tea party movement winds up splitting the Republican Party in two?

SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: You know, I don't think it will. I think more of the machine within the GOP is going to understand that this we the people message is rising and resonating with independents, hardcore conservatives because it's so full of common sense and time tested truths that could put the economy on the right track. Heaven forbid the GOP machine strays from this message, if so, the GOP is through.

KING: She sounds more optimistic about this marriage than some Republicans, especially if you get them into a private conversation.

Somebody speak up, it's okay.

BASH: I'm waiting for Jess.

YELLIN: I think she definitely seems more optimistic. There's no question. You still have the National Republican Party, particularly when you look at the Senate, for example that really was banking on very different candidates than the candidates that they're getting, you said it right, these Republicans won't say it publicly, but privately, they're biting their nails saying, what is it going to be like with Republicans, the candidates who are out there, if they do win, it will be a very, very, very difficult Republican Party and Republican caucus to manage.

BASH: Did she say at the end the GOP is through?

KING: Through as in done.

BASH: The GOP will be done? Well, she's arguing that it could split the party. In other words, if the GOP doesn't listen to what the tea party wants, then the GOP is done. There is a problem potentially building. We'll have to see what happens after this election and how some of these tea party candidates, how they engage when they're on the hill.

KING: Dana, I want to play a snippet, you did some reporting today on the role of trackers in the campaign. Back in the last Senatorial election George Allen in Virginia, his candidacy faltered after he looked at a guy in the crowd and said there's the makaka. The moment hurt his candidacy. Watch this. This is with the Kansas Congressional race.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If elected would you support Nancy Pelosi for speaker?

STEPHENE MOORE (D), KANSAS CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: This is Dakota, he follows me everywhere and asks me that question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mrs. Moore I have a question for you, if elected will you support Nancy Pelosi for speaker? Mrs. Moore? Mrs. More, if elected will you support Nancy Pelosi for speaker.

KING: This is Stephene Moore running in Kansas. That's not in an ad but a lot of these trackers, campaigns send them out to track each candidate. A lot of it is showing up in ads, making a big difference this year.

BASH: It is. It's not in an ad because she wouldn't answer the question. And the point of these trackers and both parties are doing this, it's widespread across the country is to get these candidates, maybe not on the fly there, but sit in the back of the room while they're having town hall meetings, casual conversations to try do get that moment where a candidate says something that can be used against them. Talk to anybody who makes ads, anybody in the campaigns this year, they say, there's so much clutter out there that it is much more powerful a message when you have a negative campaign ad, and there are tons of them, to have not just a narrator say it, but to hear it from their opponent's mouths themselves. That's why you're seeing this phenomenon. Technology is easy.

KING: You guys hang on just one second. Cleaning up Washington is one of the big messages in all the ads you'll see across the country. We sent Pete Dominick out to ask people, what would you clean up? Pete?

PETE DOMINICK, OFFBEAT REPORTER: That's right John King. Every single ad, every single campaign it seems, every year every time there's a campaign candidates say, I'm going to go to Washington and clean it up, or change it. It's always the same. I asked people if they went to Washington, what would they change?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DOMINICK: What's the wildest thing you've seen or heard or empty promise?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The polarity.

DOMINICK: You've never seen this before?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, we've a lot of that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am not a witch.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You create jobs by creating jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think there was a naval piercing or so.

DOMINICK: A what?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Naval piercing.

DOMINICK: A candidate had a naval piercing. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah.

DOMINICK: Would you vote with someone with a naval piercing?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm thinking about it.

DOMINICK: Who are you voting for? Do you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who's in it?

DOMINICK: Ladies, is it the same old campaign empty promises this year?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't even care.

DOMINICK: Sir, are you a voter?

What are you going to do to change Washington? More juice boxes.

Sir, what would you like to change about Washington?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would make it mandatory everyone on Capitol Hill has to go through a leadership day like trust circles and a zip wire.

DOMINICK: The rope thing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Pete, where do you find these people?

DOMINICK: On the street every day, real people with their real honest opinions. Some of them usually talk to me, some of them don't.

KING: Jess, any of the candidates in Ohio proposing naval piercing or anything like that?

YELLIN: Not yet. But I like it.

DOMINICK: It wouldn't be that big of a surprise this campaign season John King.

BASH: I want to cover the trust circle in Congress. That's my assignment I want to get.

KING: There we go. Go ahead, Pete.

DOMINICK: I'm available for that, I'd like to participate in that. That's the truth about -

KING: You have to get elected first. That's all the time we have tonight. "PARKER SPITZER" starts right now.