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JOHN KING, USA

Tax Cut Fight; Kentucky Senate Race; GOP and the Senate

Aired September 8, 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 and good evening everyone from a spectacular site along the banks of the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky. Big political news tonight on both sides of this river, over there in Ohio President Obama turned both populous and personal today as he escalated the election year debate with Republicans over the number one issue in this election campaign, the economy.

And here in Kentucky, another big surprise in a key Senate race that already has helped put the Tea Party on the national map. New CNN polling out tonight shows in what is normally a reliable red state a dead heat between Tea Party favorite Rand Paul and Democrat John Conway.

Also some new newsworthy numbers tonight in big races in Florida and California. And on another big political story, Sarah Palin just a short time ago joined a growing chorus of conservatives urging a Christian pastor in Florida to drop plans to stage a Koran burning to commemorate 9/11.

But let's begin tonight with the big economic news and the president. Speaking in Parma, Ohio, today, that's near Cleveland, he accused Republicans of obstructing his every effort to spur job creation. And despite calls from some fellow Democrats to consider a compromise, Mr. Obama served notice he is in no mood to extend even temporarily the Bush era tax cuts that go to Americans making more than $250,000 a year.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This isn't to punish folks who are better off. God bless them. It's because we can't afford the $700 billion price tag. And for those who claim that our approach would somehow be bad for growth and bad for small businesses let me remind you that with those tax rates in place, under President Clinton, this country created 22 million jobs and raised incomes and had the largest surplus in our history.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So, can the president turn this election year economic debate in his party's favor or will more Democratic candidates join Republicans in accusing the Obama White House of putting the recovery at risk with tax hikes? On the road with me this week as we check in on the big battleground states our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin and our senior political analyst Gloria Borger. And let's begin with the president because I want our viewers first to hear a little bit more of the president. He was in Ohio today. He was very personal, calling out John Boehner, the House Republican leader, by name. And he also essentially made it personal to him. I want you to listen to the president here. He recalled he was in Ohio in the final days of his big election win in 2008. The president urging voters, if you were with me then, stay with me now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: A lot has changed since I came here in those final days of the last election. But what hasn't changed is the choice facing this country. It's still fear versus hope, the past versus the future. It's still a choice between sliding backward and moving forward. That's what this election's about. That's the choice that you will face in November.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The president says that's the choice you will face in November. But can he make this? Can he make this the choice voters face in 2008? They are in a very, very different mood as we've found out the last three days on the road.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well this is the framing the Democrats have wanted to hear from the president and the White House for months now. He's actually explaining in a coherent sort of big-picture way why he's taking the steps he's taking and where he's going and he's putting what he believes is an unlikable face on what the Republicans would do, that's John Boehner. We heard him mention Boehner over and over. The big question is, is it too late? And I know the White House will say no.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Here's the interesting thing that I heard from the president today. You know, the White House is always saying, we don't want this to be a referendum on Barack Obama. These are individual races all across the country. Today, I saw the president personalize the election. And again turn it around to being about Barack Obama. What he set out to do when he won in 2008. And saying the job isn't done. So what he did today was essentially put a stake in the ground and nationalize the election again into a referendum on his presidency, which I'm not so sure a lot of Democrats wanted --

KING: That's an interesting point. Let's talk a little bit about the substance. A couple of days ago, the president put $50 billion in new infrastructure spending on the table (INAUDIBLE). Today, he put on the table an idea that many Republicans support, essentially giving business a quicker write-down, a research and development tax credit. Build a new factory, you can write off the costs sooner.

Hire people now, you can write off the cost of that sooner. The president put that on the table. And as he did so, he was in Ohio. Just a week or so ago, John Boehner, the man who would be speaker if Republicans have a big year, he gave a speech criticizing just about every sentence of the Obama economic policy. The president today called him out by name.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: There were no new policies from Mr. Boehner. There were no new ideas. There was just the same philosophy that we had already tried during the decade that they were in power. The same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place. Cut more taxes for millionaires. And cut more rules for corporations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So that's the president's message against the man who would be the Republican speaker of the House, but Gloria, you were across the river today and that's Cincinnati on that side of the river. And just to the north side, there is a congressional district, Steve Driehaus. He is a Democratic freshman.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

KING: He's in a very tough race against the Republican who once held that seat, Steve Chabot, and you put the question to Steve Driehaus essentially. Are you with the president? Are you ready now to raise taxes on wealthy Americans? Steve Driehaus didn't give you a very good answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: What would you do though? Say it's got to come up, a decision's got to be made. Would you keep the tax cuts for the middle class and have the tax cuts for the wealthy expire?

REP. STEVE DRIEHAUS (D), OHIO: I'm going to support the middle class. I'm going to support small business.

BORGER: What would you do? How would you vote?

DRIEHAUS: And -- well tell me what the bill is. I mean this hypothetical of the Bush tax cuts as one big package that's not the way this is going to work.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But it's not a hypothetical in the sense that you have two choices on the table right now. Let them expire completely. And what the president wants to do, which is let the tax cuts expire for anyone at 250 grand or above and then keep the middle class --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.

KING: -- as he would say, tax cuts in place. Why won't he answer the question?

BORGER: You know the president's political point is don't hold tax cuts for the middle class hostage to the rich. But if you're in a swing district like Steve Driehaus, you understand that anytime the Democrats start talking about tax increases, it gives the Republicans an opening to say there they go again.

They're Democrats. They want to raise your taxes. Even though if you look at the polls, people don't mind raising taxes on the wealthy. But when they hear tax increases, they say, uh-oh, if they raise it on that guy, they could do it on me, and so it's dangerous territory for a swing district.

KING: Let's ask another Democrat in a very tough race. Jack Conway is the Democratic attorney general of this state we're in tonight, Kentucky. In a moment, we'll talk to him at length about his race against the Tea Party favorite Rand Paul.

But Mr. Conway, welcome to the conversation. Right now, is the president right? Should the Bush tax cuts for those making $250,000 and more, should they expire at the end of the year, or are the Republicans right, saying no, Mr. President, not in a recession, those tax cuts also affect small businesses. Extend them at least for a couple of years. Who's right, sir?

JACK CONWAY (D), KENTUCKY ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well listen, I support the president on a number of things. This is an issue where I differ with the president. I think all the Bush tax cuts ought to be extended for some period of time. I think the economy that we're in right now it's just no time to be raising taxes.

KING: That's Jack Conway. He's the Democratic attorney general in this state of Kentucky. We'll be back with him in a minute, back with Jessica and Gloria as well because Mr. Conway is in what you might consider to be a surprise, a dead heat race tonight with the Tea Party candidate Rand Paul. One of the many races this year, and one of the many things about this state that makes it so fascinating in this midterm election year. Here's a closer look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): Kentucky is reliably red, meaning reliably Republican in presidential elections. But it's still a big battleground state in this midterm election year. As with everywhere else, it is the economy driving the debate. Let's take a peek at the numbers, 9.9 percent unemployment in Kentucky, slightly above the national average.

Manufacturing jobs, down during the Obama presidency. Construction jobs, also down by 15 percent in the Obama presidency. One of the gains in Kentucky, professional and business services, but overall still a tough economic environment in this midterm election year. One of the marquee races getting national attention is this race, the Senate race between Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, now the Republican nominee, against Jack Conway.

Jack Conway is the Democratic state attorney general. Rand Paul beat an establishment Republican candidate to get the Republican nomination. The Democrats think some of his positions might make this race gettable. But heading into the final weeks, it is Rand Paul the Republican who has the lead so far. As we watch that, this another state where Republicans hope to pick up one or two House seats currently held by Democrats.

Their primary target is John Yarmuth. His northern Kentucky district, a swing district. He holds it now, a Democrat. This is one of seats the Republicans hope to take away in the midterm election season. One other reason to pay attention to Kentucky, its senior Senator Mitch McConnell. If the Republicans can pick up 10 Senate seats and get the majority, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would be the new majority leader.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Live pictures there, it is just a spectacular night. You're looking at the Ohio River -- Cincinnati on the left side of your screen there. On our side of the river, Covington, Kentucky, and this state has one of this year's most fascinating Senate races. Tea Party favorite Rand Paul won the Republican nomination defeating the establishment Republican Party candidate.

With us is his opponent, the Democratic attorney general of this state, Jack Conway. Also still with me, our political correspondent Jessica Yellin and our senior political analyst Gloria Borger. Mr. Conway, we've just released a new poll today. Many people across the country had decided this state was going to stay red.

That race would be Rand Paul's despite some controversy. Here's our new poll out tonight among registered voters; Rand Paul, 46 percent; Jack Conway, 46 percent. Now I would note this is among registered voters. If we took a poll of likely voters right now I suspect Rand Paul would get a little bit of a bounce because of the energy on the Republican side. But you are in contention, sir, at a time many Democrats thought probably not. Why?

CONWAY: Well, we're going to win this race. And our own poll shows a dead heat as well, John. You have to understand what's going on here in Kentucky. Kentuckians don't want to be embarrassed. And Rand Paul has said some things that are just out of the mainstream and make Kentuckians think he's too risky.

He's -- a couple of weeks ago, he jumped up and said that drugs aren't a pressing issue here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. John, not too far from where you are here in the Commonwealth tonight we have an epidemic dealing with prescription pills in Eastern Kentucky. And Rand Paul just fundamentally doesn't seem to get that.

He's spoken out against the Department of Education and Pell grants and federal programs. He's spoken out against our farm programs and against that portion of the farm bill that helps 500,000 Kentucky kids with free and reduced lunch. He's running sort of a national campaign. But he's forgetting what Kentuckians want and what Kentuckians need out of Washington and he's just not aligning himself with the state.

Like I said, we're showing a dead heat. We're going to win this race. I'm getting hit with a lot of special interests out of state money right now and we're fighting back.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: All right. Let me jump in right now and then after this, I went Gloria and Jessica to join the questioning in the time we have left.

CONWAY: Sure.

KING: But Rand Paul went up with a new television ad today. He is a doctor. He's an ophthalmologist. He's been sharply critical of the Obama health care plan. You are one of the attorney generals who was asked but declined to join the lawsuit challenging the Obama health care plan. Here's the ad Rand Paul launched today. I want you to listen to a brief part of it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Rand always puts patients first. That's why he opposes the Obama/Pelosi health care scheme, which puts Washington bureaucrats in charge.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Is health care an issue in which he can, he can maybe pick up ground against you in this state? Is the Obama plan that unpopular here?

CONWAY: I don't think so. And I think it's receding as an issue, 654,000 Kentuckians are going to get access to health insurance as a result of that bill. Forty-five thousand small Kentucky businesses will get help with premiums because of that bill. Rand Paul is running around and he's against every federal program except Medicare because he says he needs them for his doctor's payments.

And Karl Rove obviously is in here spending about $500,000 against me on the issue of health care reform and we're fighting back. We had a one-day Internet fund-raising bond (ph) at ConwayFightFund.com yesterday. If folks want to help us fight back against the Karl Rove special interest money, they can go to that Web site and help us out, but we're going to beat it back.

BORGER: Rand Paul -- this is Gloria Borger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gloria.

BORGER: Rand Paul seems to be beating you in most demographic groups, except for senior citizens. In our poll, it shows that you are beating him 51 percent to 42 percent. Why is it that seniors don't like Rand Paul?

CONWAY: I think -- I think the seniors in Kentucky have many needs, including Social Security and Medicare. And on those particular issues, they just don't trust him. Rand Paul's made some statements about Social Security that were highlighted during the primary. He's made some statements about Medicare that are problematic.

And I think the seniors of this state, and Kentucky is a little bit of an older state, I don't think they quite trust him. And when he makes these outlandish statements he kind of waffles back from them. So I just don't think they trust him on some of the stuff he's saying about those important programs.

YELLIN: General Conway, it's Jessica Yellin.

CONWAY: Hi, Jessica.

YELLIN: We've talked about the enthusiasm gap. Clearly -- hi -- there's a lot of enthusiasm in the Tea Party movement for Rand Paul. Today, across the river, President Obama was out partially campaigning in a way, you could say. Would you want President Obama to come and campaign for you, with you in this state, would it help you?

CONWAY: Well I mean obviously the president's going to go where he feels like he's most needed. And I think you welcome the president to your state regardless of party anytime the president wants to come. But this campaign is going to be about Jack Conway versus Rand Paul. It's going to be about my record as attorney general of holding corporations accountable, holding the pharmaceuticals -- pharmaceutical companies accountable that gouged our Medicaid program, about my positive record as attorney general.

And Rand Paul's world view, where he would hold no one accountable. I mean, he thinks we ought to do away with OSHA workplace safety standards. He said to the widows of coal miners that sometimes accidents happen. He doesn't think we ought to have any federal mine safety regulations, so once that --

YELLIN: Is that an invitation?

(LAUGHTER)

CONWAY: Well I'm just saying once that contract (ph) is made --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- Kentucky first.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: In politics we -- in politics we call that a pivot. Ask the question about one thing and turn it to another. Mr. Conway, he's a seasoned candidate, win or lose in this election. Jack Conway, the Democratic attorney general of Kentucky. We'll check back in, sir, as this race goes on into the final weeks and we should note we invited Rand Paul on the program. He was on the program sometime ago, but we invited him on the program tonight because we're here in Kentucky and he declined.

He is welcome anytime as we head into the final weeks of the campaign. We'll have Mr. Conway back as well, we are sure. Thank you for your time, sir. When we come back though, we'll move onto some other hot races, new poll numbers tonight, not just here in Kentucky, but in Florida and California. You'll want to see them. Some of them might surprise you.

We'll go "One-on-One" with a very important man in this state and this country, Mitch McConnell. He's the Senate Republican leader now. If he can pick up 10 seats and he'll give you his path, he could be the next Senate majority leader.

And we'll give you the latest on the Koran controversy. There's a minister in Florida wants to burn Korans on 9/11. Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin now weighing in saying that's a bad idea. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back from the banks of the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky. Let's check in with Joe Johns for the latest news you need to know right now -- hey, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John. The remnants of Tropical Storm Hermine are causing flooding and tornadoes in central Texas. A tornado warning was issued a short time ago for Central Dallas County.

Detroit's mayor is defending his city's fire department and blaming unusually strong, dry winds for knocking down power lines and causing some 85 fires in a four-hour period.

And controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is giving a speech in New Hampshire this Sunday. A spokesman tells CNN the sheriff is not testing the presidential waters, even though many people are urging him to run. And John, I can tell you for a fact, there is a Facebook page that says Joe Arpaio for president, but so far I've seen about 325 members, just checked it.

KING: As you know, Joe, he's been a frequent visitor here on the program and we'll check in with him again. Not a shy guy. I'm sure he's going to love the spotlight up in New Hampshire.

JOHNS: For sure.

KING: All right now let's move on. Some other big new numbers tonight from CNN. To talk about these big Senate races let's bring in John Avlon. He's from "The Daily Beast". He's our independent watcher out there and Erick Erickson, the conservative editor of the RedState.com. Gentlemen, I want to break through some of these Senate races, but before I do, I'm in Kentucky today so I went over to Louisville to see Mitch McConnell. He's the Senate Republican leader.

He needs a net gain of 10 seats. Republicans need to pick up 10 on Election Day to make Mitch McConnell the majority leader. So we played a little mix of "Sportscenter" and "David Letterman". Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: I'll tell you where we're competitive. Number one, I don't -- we will not lose a single Republican incumbent senator in November. Number two, we have five Republican open seats including here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. We will win all of those. And we are competitive, that is, in the race, either slightly behind, dead even or ahead, in the following places where there are Democratic senators -- California, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Dakota, Arkansas, Wisconsin, and probably even in Connecticut and maybe in West Virginia.

So I'm not predicting we're going to win all those but we're on offense and we will win a number of them. And we will be a more influential group in the next Congress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The Republican leader, Mitch McConnell naming 13 Democratic seats there, 13, if you're counting. When I asked him for his top 10 list, John and Erick, let's start with California. Here are the new CNN numbers out tonight among registered voters.

Barbara Boxer, the Democratic incumbent, 48 percent. Carly Fiorina, the Republican challenger, 44 percent. And if you look at the breakdown among Democrats, independents and Republicans, you see right in the middle, Boxer, 45 percent, Fiorina, 40 percent, among independent voters.

John Avlon, the Republicans can say, hey, we're competitive in California. That in and of itself is a plus, but heading into the stretch, they probably hoped it was a little better than that.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, but I think it's going to tighten up a little bit and I think you need to look at the Boxer/Fiorina race in light of also Meg Whitman versus Jerry Brown in the gubernatorial race. And if Meg Whitman has a strong push coming into the fall that could help Fiorina with independents in particular.

So clearly, you know the Republicans are running against headwinds in California. There's not a lot that's conservative about California. But the candidates there are doing better this year than expected in part because of the fiscal crisis in that state.

KING: And Erick, one of the races you've paid a lot of attention to is Florida where you have the three-way race. Your favorite, Marco Rubio is the Republican candidate. Charlie Crist was the Republican governor, now he's the independent candidate for Senate. Kendrick Meek is the Democratic nominee.

Look at these numbers. They are fascinating when you look at it. Kendrick Meek, the Democrat, 24 percent. Marco Rubio, 36 percent, the Republican. Charlie Crist, 34 percent. And I want to show our viewers out there -- let's put it up on the screen -- the breakdown among Democrats, independents and Republicans.

Because even if you just look at Charlie Crist numbers, he's getting 36 percent of those who describe themselves as Democrats, 45 percent of those who describe themselves as independents and 21 percent of those who describes themselves as Republicans. Erick Erickson, when you look at that right now, Republicans need to hold this seat or Mitch McConnell has no dream of being the majority leader. What worries you?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Right. You know not a whole lot worries me frankly. We're talking about registered voters in the poll and for perspective, pretty much every registered voter poll leans Democrats. There tend to be more Democrats who are registered voters.

I mean take Kentucky, for example, where it's 46/46 among registered voters. While we were on break I looked at the real clear politics average and it's 8.8 percent ahead for Rand Paul when you factor in likely voters where he's 15 points ahead in three polls.

You know among likely voters, the Republicans are ahead -- that Marco Rubio is ahead in a registered voter poll looks very good for him. And who would have expected? I would have never guessed we would be talking about competitiveness for Republicans in places like Wisconsin, Washington and California.

KING: Erick makes an interesting point. And in our polling we have a system. We go registered voters for now. We will go to likely voters heading into to the final weeks of the campaign. And Erick does have a very good point.

I want you to listen here to Steve Chabot. He's the Republican challenger for a House district just across the river here in Cincinnati. And he made the point Erick is trying to make right now and it is a true point that if you judge voter intensity, listen to Steve Chabot. He'll tell you where it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You saw what happened in 2008 when Democrats were so energized. Can you tell me how you feel about Republican voters this time around?

STEVE CHABOT (R), OHIO CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Yes, the energy last time was clearly on the Democrat's side and in their favor. This time, Republicans and conservatives can't wait to vote. I've heard the expression they'd crawl over broken glass to get to the polls this time. They want to vote. And I think they're going to vote in overwhelming numbers this time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let me ask you both, quickly, and we'll talk a bit later in the program, but on this point the president was in Ohio today and one of his goals to be out right now, talking in a populous way about the economy to try to change that intensity dynamic. John Avlon to you first, any evidence he's succeeding?

AVLON: But I think by personalizing it and trying to build off one edge (ph) that's consistently in the polls is that voters tend to blame Republicans for the economic problems. It's an anomaly and it's one they're trying to push (INAUDIBLE). But the big problem here Ohio big swing state, first district that congressman just discussing there, Obama won it by 10 points. Now his numbers are upside down. His approval is 10 points down. That's a big headwind for Democratic candidates to confront.

ERICKSON: Yes, you know, I would say --

KING: Erick, any evidence?

ERICKSON: Yes, the president's doing his best now. He's doing what Paul Begala has been beating his chest for months saying he needed to do. Finally doing it. The Democrats are a little bit more optimistic. I'm sure these races will narrow somewhat. But you've got to remember in 1994, they narrowed almost completely back to where they had been. And it didn't help. There's so much momentum right now for Republicans.

It's going to be very, very hard for Democrats. According to "The Washington Post" yesterday, this is the first election since 1930 where Republican turnout in primaries exceeded Democrats and contrast that with 1930 when there were more registered Republicans than Democrats. It's pretty impressive that they were able to do it this time.

KING: I missed the 1930 election, but I will go back and say that's the one I haven't covered recently. (INAUDIBLE) John and Erick stand by. We'll talk to you both a little bit later in the program.

When we come back though, if you go back through the Obama administration, who has been the Republican who has most led the charge against the Obama agenda? It's not John Boehner of Ohio, but Mitch McConnell, the senior senator from Kentucky. He wants to be the majority leader and when we come back we'll go "One-on-One".

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: President Obama and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell have had a running battle since day one of this president's administration. I went to see the senator and I asked him, are you willing to compromise with the president, maybe do something before the election to help people out there in America find a job? He said he's willing to talk but listen here, I wouldn't expect much.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: Well, we're certainly willing to talk to the president about anything that might help get us out of this economic trough we're in. But at the same time, he is recommending that we continue to pursue higher taxes in the middle of what most Americans think is a recession. I don't think these targeted efforts are going to have nearly the stimulative effect they might have if you were not depressing the economy with things like raising taxes. This particular tax increase he has in mind that he will characterize as a tax increase on the wealthy, in fact, impacts 50 percent of small business income, 25 percent of the workforce, and our friends on the other side can say, oh, it's only 3 percent of small businesses. I had my staff check to find out how many businesses that is. It's 750,000 businesses, the most productive small businesses in the country.

KING: As we sit here today, do you believe there's a reasonable chance of the ten-seat pickup that would make you the majority leader?

MCCONNELL: I think I'll be the leader of a larger group than I am now. I'm the leader of 41. I'm optimistic I'm going to the leader of a larger group.

KING: 8, 9, 10, 12?

MCCONNELL: We have a long way to go, a lot left to happen. We're giving it our best shot. The wind is at our back. That's an experience we haven't had the last two cycles. And it's good to be running in an environment where people seem to want checks and balances in Washington. They're not in love with either side, we know that but they've looked at what this administration has done, they don't like it, and they'd like some balance in Washington.

KING: What do you see is the message to you in this campaign, right here in your home state, the tea party candidate won Republican Senate nomination, defeated the candidate you endorsed. That's not the only example. You can go across the country and see what it's Kentucky, Alaska, Colorado. We could go down the list of surprises for the Republican establishment. What message for voters in your own coalition sending you, that you will have to deal with people who have challenged you who have said straight out, Joe Miller, the nominee in Alaska, I spoke to him a little more than a week ago. I asked him if he wins that race, will he vote for you for leader, and he said, let's see what happens. They're mad at the Republican establishment. They think their own party has let them down, supported too much spending, maybe not stood up to Obama enough. Do you take a lesson from that?

MCCONNELL: I'm for Joe Miller whether he's for me or not. I already have enough votes to be re-elected leader and we'll work with him no matter what his view may be.

KING: Do you think in all that you personally or the leadership in general has to change its way are, or is your message to them, you know if you win and you come to Washington, maybe you'll learn more about the system and you'll understand it a little better?

MCCONNELL: If you look at the current leadership, 18 months ago, we were down 12 points in the party generic ballot and presiding over a small number. I think John Boehner and I have had a lot to do with the comeback we may well have this November in warp-speed time. In 18 to 20 months, we've come back from all the articles being written about the demise of the Republican Party. I think some of that is attributable to good leadership.

KING: So no apologies?

MCCONNELL: Apologies for opposing the Obama initiatives? No apologies for opposing the stimulus. No apologies for opposing the health care bill. No apologies for opposing what they call the Wall Street bill. I think those were measures that were wrong for the country. And it's a shame that the president didn't choose to go to the center. What I'm hoping is after this election, he'll become a more born-again moderate, move to the center as he campaigned in '08. If he does that, we'll be happy to meet him there.

KING: How about the period before the Obama election or before the Democrats took back the Congress in the -- after the 2006 elections, some of those conservative activists are mad for that stretch, thinking you spent too much money and forgot about conservative principles.

MCCONNELL: This election's about the future, not the past. We're running against this administration and this Congress and what they've done over last 18 months. I think that's what the American people are focusing on.

KING: How hard is it to be a leader today, and want to be the leader tomorrow, at a time there is some house cleaning going on?

MCCONNELL: We have a lot less tension than the other side. They're busy pointing the fingers at each other blaming the white house for the dilemma they're in. Their candidates are running away from the speaker and the president, running ads that feature the speaker and the president, saying, I don't work for them. I've got a very happy conference, looking forward to having a larger number of people after November.

KING: If you have a larger group, let's start with this hypothetical, if you have a larger group, but you're still in the minority, what will the first conversation with the president be? You two have not developed a very close relationship. We have talked about this since right after he was elected.

MCCONNELL: Yeah, well, I don't dislike the president, but we -- he just, I think, felt he didn't need me. We did have a private meeting right before the august recess and we agreed not to discuss what we talked about there but I did say afterwards that I thought he had the feeling he was going to be talk to me a lot more often in the future and I think the reason he thinks that is because he thinks I'm going to be the leader of the larger group. Look, I don't want the president to fail. I want the president to change. He needs to move dramatically away from this leftward drift that's tried to turn America into a western Europe-type country. And come back to the middle. We can meet him seriously on reducing spending, reducing debt. He says he's for nuclear power. I'm for nuclear power. He says he's for clean coal technology. I'm for clean coal technology. There are a number of things that we can do where there are similar interests, it's just that he hasn't chosen to do any of those in his first two years.

KING: And he says if there's any evidence to go back to the Bush administration idea of taking a small sliver of your social security money and being allowed to put it into private accounts, he will wield the veto pen, he says no privatization on his watch. He says if you try to significantly repeal or change the health care law, that he would have a veto pen for that too.

MCCONNELL: Well, nobody's talking about social security except the Democrats. They always bring up social security --

KING: Some of your candidates, Mr. Miller in Alaska says maybe even phase it out --

MCCONNELL: The Democrats bring up social security every single election. The president himself has appointed a deficit-reduction commission to which I have appointed three people. John Boehner's appointed three people. They're looking at the entitlements. We'll see what they come back and recommend in December. But if it's election time, you can guarantee the Democrats are talking about social security.

KING: They do talk about social security you're absolutely right. It's been an age old Democratic strategy.

MCCONNELL: We're used to it.

KING: This time, they've been getting some fresh coats, if you will, from people like Mr. Miller who says in his view the country can't afford it and should start thinking about making that a states right program. Mr. Buck in Colorado has also said it needs significant changes and he questions whether the founding fathers could have ever envisioned it happening. When you have Republican candidates saying things like that, it gives them fodder. That's two candidates. 50 states. But do you have conversation with those candidates saying look, it's not helpful if you talk about that?

MCCONNELL: We know what this fall election's about. It's about too much spending, too much debt, too many Washington takeovers and tax increases in the middle of an economic slowdown. That's what the elections about. There will be some candidates who talk about different kinds of issues. The Democrats will try to run against President Bush again. We know what's on the minds of the American people. And we think that they're headed toward a serious midcourse correction that can bring the president back to the political center.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Mitch McConnell in his office in Louisville a bit earlier today. One of gifts you get when you go on the road is you get to come to beautiful places. As we go to break, take a look at this sunset along the Ohio River. Next, some things we've learned from some remarkable people we've met along the way.

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

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey John. We have new polls and a pair of important governors' races. California is tied up. Republican Meg Whitman's two-point lead over Democrat Jerry Brown is within the poll's sampling margin of error. In Florida, Democrat Alex Sink's seven-point lead over Republican Rick Scott could be a lot narrower also because of the sampling error. Also in Florida, a church pastor tells CNN they have no intention of canceling plans to burn Korans to mark the anniversary of 9/11. Mitt Romney's weighed in, telling Politico, quote, burning Korans is wrong on every level. And a Facebook posting, Sarah Palin writes, people have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation, much like building a mosque at ground zero. And don't forget, the imam behind those plans for an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero talks exclusively with CNN's Soledad O'Brien tonight on "LARRY KING LIVE" at 9:00 p.m. eastern and a lot of buzz about that interview, John. You know, among other things, I've heard he has been criticized, the imam has, for simply not talking about this before now, because of his world tour. This is the time he opens up I guess.

KING: It will be quite fascinating. He knows, of course, anything he says will add to the controversy. The question is, can he turn the volume down or will he escalate it? That's must-see TV tonight. When we come back, we'll empty out our notebooks. What have we learned on the road the last several days including right here in the state of Kentucky? Please stay with us.

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KING: Would Rahm Emanuel make a good mayor?

MCCONNELL: Oh, gosh, I don't know. I like Rahm. We haven't interacted as much as I anticipated because again they had such big numbers they didn't think they need us. It will be interesting to see what he chooses to do. He's always fun to watch.

KING: You won't cut him a check if he runs --

MCCONNELL: I probably won't be supporting a Democrat running for mayor of Chicago, no.

KING: That's one of the things we learned in Kentucky. The Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell won't be sending Rahm Emanuel a check if he runs for mayor of Chicago. Let's talk about some other things we learned. Back with us, our CNN contributors Erick Erickson and John Avlon. With me here in beautiful Covington, Kentucky, Jessica Yellin, our national political correspondent and Gloria Borger, our senior political analyst. I want to start with one of the things we came here to learn is, is the intensity of the tea party still there? The tea party gave Rand Paul that Republican nomination for Senate. Jessica, you talked to some tea party voters today about their message. Let's share it.

DUANE SKAVDAHL, TEA PARTY ACTIVIST: One message we want to send is, if you don't support us, we're not going to support you in future elections. Like you've asked us, we're not going away. We will be there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The tea party, now, is in its infancy. Wait till we grow teeth.

KING: What did you come away with?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: They are true political activists now. They said we were just getting involved. Now we're informed. And we're here to stay. Also, they do not want their candidates to be flexible in the least. I mean, we talk about bipartisanship. They're not interested in bipartisanship unless everybody can move to where they stand. It will be a very different Senate if a lot of their candidates are in it.

KING: What's the most interesting lesson, Pennsylvania, Ohio, here in Kentucky?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's interesting. What I learned is just because Barack Obama says something doesn't mean it's going to be so with Democrats. And when I talked with Steve Driehaus on the tax cut issue, the day the president was giving the speech in his state, he wouldn't commit to supporting that repeal of the tax cuts for the wealthy.

KING: Critical also, the young people we've run into don't seem terribly involved in this election. A woman I sat down with today says she hasn't been paying much attention and most of her friends, she doesn't think they'll vote. I want you to listen to this because the president of the United States gave an interview to ABC's George Stephanopoulos today and it seems pretty clear he's thinking more and more about the election and he's trying to keep it from being a referendum on, say, the question Reagan posted, are you better off than you were two years ago?

PRES. BARACK OBAMA (D), UNITED STATES: My challenge and the challenge of every Democratic candidate out there is making sure people understand there's a choice here. If the election is a referendum on are people satisfied about the economy as it currently is, then we're not going to do well because I think everybody feels like this economy needs to do better than it's been doing.

KING: On the one hand, John Avlon, no shock from what the president said, but it's pretty clear he sees the trend line.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Sure, I mean, you know, Democrats can't be in denial. Every single trend shows Republicans have the wind at their back. The question is, you know, you heard Mitch McConnell talking about wanting to meet Obama in the middle. It must be general election time and they realize they need independent voters. The question is, is there any credibility? Is it really checks and balances or is it about obstruction? That's going to be one of the final sales jobs Republicans are going to have to do.

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I would say I think voters have become so cynical about both parties that they don't believe what they're hearing from either side. But what they see with their eyes and they know in their gut is that we're headed in the wrong direction and the policies we've been pushing in Washington for the past few years haven't worked and they want the other side, even though they haven't liked them, they want to give them a shot at it. The cynicism is going to be hard for the Democrats to break through for the next two months.

KING: One of the things I am fascinated by and I want everybody's opinion as we round out tonight is the tough choices that both parties, but particularly the Democrats, will have to make, which is who to give money to and who to cut off. If you go back to the '06 midterm election, the Republicans were in the same position the Democrats are in now, desperately trying to hold on to their Congressional majorities. And I remember them cutting off candidates at the end and making a big decision in the end. We're going to try to keep the Virginia Senate seat. They got to the point where they had three or four states left. No one else got money. In a tough race, all the money went in there. And they came up just short. Gloria, will the Democrats make those decisions? A guy like Jack Conway here could be a guy who loses out.

BORGER: They have to, particularly in the house. Don't forget the Democrats occupy what, 99 percent of all the swing districts in the house because they were so successful in 2006 and 2008.

KING: Right.

BORGER: So the campaign committee in the house is going to have to make lots of decisions. If some folks in those swing districts are so far behind that you can't save them.

YELLIN: And Republicans are working on a game plan to force Democrats to have to cut people off. So they want to build up so much strength, a fire wall in states like, say, Pennsylvania, Florida, that they can move out west and start pumping money into California. The fact Democrats have to compete there, means it's so much money.

KING: It's so much money. John and Erick, give us a final thought on that point, the fire wall strategy.

ERICKSON: I think the Democrats will have to do this. They've got more money in the bank than Republicans technically but it didn't help them in New Jersey, Massachusetts or Virginia, those gubernatorial and special Senate elections.

AVLON: It's going to mean some very tough choices. Guys like Jack Conway better than probably expected candidates. Someone like Kendrick Meek in Florida might be on the losing end of that decision.

KING: One other thing, I've just learned, Jessica Yellin's I-pad can make some really interesting noises while we're on television. Gentlemen, thank you. Jess and Gloria as well. When we come back, Pete's on the street, and I understand Pete wants to get personal.

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KING: Time now to check in with our offbeat reporter Pete Dominick. He's in New York tonight.

PETE DOMINICK, OFFBEAT REPORTER: Well John King, you're on the road. Of course, Monday, you were in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, yesterday, Columbus, Ohio, and tonight you're in Kentucky. America wants to know, John King, and I'll put you on the spot, and you must commit, who has the best food, first of all.

KING: No way. I'm not doing that. I enjoyed great small diners all over the place. We have this new hookup, if you've followed the tour; I've had some great meals in every state. It's a 50 state beautiful place to eat this country. It's a copout.

DOMINICK: That's what we call in politics the pivot. All right, John, so here's my question for you. Today, the president gave this fiery, I would say partisan, speech in Ohio. Look how many times he said the name "Boehner." I think it's 8 to 10. Watch this.

OBAMA: Mr. Boehner. Mr. Boehner. Mr. Boehner. Mr. Boehner. Mr. Boehner. Mr. Boehner. Mr. Boehner.

DOMINICK: John King, there was a time when he didn't really call out names. Almost didn't say the word "Republican" very often. Is this a change?

KING: It's interesting. Some people say it's a mistake for the president of the United States to elevate the house Republican leader. But here's where the Democrats are going with this in the white house. It's very hard to say those Republicans. It's best in a contrast. It's Red Sox versus Yankees. So Obama versus Boehner gives you a focus. It allows the Democrats to personalize the enemy. Will it work? I don't know. If you travel the country like we're doing this week, the Republicans are personalizing Pelosi and Obama. That's what the president's trying to do Pete.

DOMINICK: All right, John King, it's great to see you on the road, taking the cameras to the people. We look forward to having you back in the studio tomorrow.

KING: Once you can get a Visa to leave New York we'll bring you next time we hit the road, Pete. That's all for us tonight. Thanks for joining us. "RICK'S LIST PRIMETIME" starts right now.