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STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY

Interview with John McCain; Interview with David Axelrod; Interview with Martin O'Malley, Roy Blunt

Aired September 30, 2012 - 09:00   ET

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


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Of 37 days left, Romney's chance to shake things up may come down to four-and-a-half hours. Today, this week's Denver debate, the first of three 90-minute faceoffs, Obama versus Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: How is it that you're the expert on my position when my position has been very clear?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: I'll tell you...

MCCAIN: I'm the expert. I'm the expert, and on this...

Admiral Mullen suggests that Senator Obama's plan is dangerous for America.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, THEN-SENATOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's not the case.

MCCAIN: That's what Admiral Mullen said.

OBAMA: What he said was a precipitous withdrawal would be dangerous. He did not say that.

MCCAIN: That's what Admiral Mullen said.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Sizing up the showdown with a man who has debated both 2012 candidates, Republican Senator John McCain.

And then, the risk of being the frontrunner, with Obama senior adviser David Axelrod. Dissecting the campaign message with Republican Senator Roy Blunt, and Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley.

Plus, polls, ads, and early voting, with Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, and CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

I'm Candy Crowley, and this is STATE OF THE UNION.

It would not be debate season if the political world and the campaigns didn't play the expectations game.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: The president is obviously a very eloquent, gifted speaker. He will do just fine.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: The president's campaign manager, Jim Messina, called Romney a very skilled debater. And in an open memo to interested parties, senior adviser David Axelrod wrote: "Just as he was in the primaries, we expect Mitt Romney to be a prepared, disciplined, and aggressive debater."

Joining me now is someone who knows a thing or two about expectations and debates, Republican Senator John McCain.

A little trip down memory lane there. Having debated...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

CROWLEY: Yes, absolutely, you smiled during it, though, I thought that was interesting. You've debated both. Size up this debate for me.

MCCAIN: I think it's going to be excellent. I think both candidates are well-prepared, and understandably, you'll see their surrogates lowering expectations, oh, I don't know how our guy will compete, and that's part of the whole routine.

CROWLEY: But who is tougher?

MCCAIN: Pardon me?

CROWLEY: Who is the tougher debater?

MCCAIN: I think both are excellent in their own way. I think you could argue that Mitt has had a lot more recent experience, obviously. But also, Candy, part of it depends on who is moderating.

CROWLEY: Oh, thanks.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: I don't want to put any pressure on you, but the tenor of the questions and all that are dictated by that.

But, second of all, I think sometimes we expect a major breakthrough, you know, the comment that -- that doesn't happen very often. It happened with Reagan and Mondale. It happened with Reagan and Carter.

But, frankly, I can't remember the last time there was one of these comments that grabbed everybody's attention because, frankly, the candidates are too well-prepared. They're well-scripted.

I guarantee you if I was in that debate, I would know seven of the 10 questions you're going to ask because they're the obvious, the ones you have to ask. So I think they're going to be excellent. I think they're good for America. I wish -- I'm not saying I approve of the moderators.

(LAUGHTER)

CROWLEY: No, no, don't do that, for heavens sake.

MCCAIN: But the fact is they are important -- becoming a more and more important part of the political scene. I mean, they're -- look at the primary debates, how they got the attention of the American people. I think you're going to see more viewers at this first debate than you have in history.

CROWLEY: Wow. Let me ask you about the Romney campaign in general. And something that Charles Krauthammer wrote Friday caught our attention. He wrote, in part: "For six months he has," meaning Romney, "been matching Obama small ball for small ball. A hit-and-run critique here, a slogan-of-the-week there. His only momentum came when he chose Paul Ryan and seemed ready to engage on the big stuff: Medicare, entitlements, tax reform, national solvency, a restructured welfare state. Yet he has since retreated to the small and safe. And when you're behind, however, safe is fatal."

Has Romney been too safe?

MCCAIN: I don't think so. I think he has been running a very vigorous campaign. I think most people approve of his selection of Paul Ryan. Look, it's tough. It's very difficult.

CROWLEY: Why is he behind, then?

MCCAIN: I think he is behind because I think Americans probably feel better than they did before about jobs and the economy even though it's terrible. It's sort of the Stockholm syndrome.

CROWLEY: Right, they still feel pretty bad though, right track, wrong track -- well, that's interesting. Tell me -- I mean, just stretch that out a little bit.

MCCAIN: I think Americans see a glimmer of hope. There is slight improvement in the economy. And I think that some people, for example, a state like Ohio, a battleground state, thanks, in my view, to the governor that the unemployment is down.

That's true in some of the others. I understand how tough this campaign is. I do believe that media coverage has something to do with it, but I'm not -- that is what it is. But I think most Americans will still be making up their minds after these debates and maybe right up to Election Day.

CROWLEY: Let me turn your attention to overseas, because I know there are some things that concern you, but let me first ask you about Libya, the deaths of those four Americans, including the American ambassador to Libya, on September 11th.

Friday we got the administration's sort of definitive statement that this now looks as though it was a pre-planned attack by a terrorist group, and some of whom were at least sympathetic to al Qaeda.

Why do you think and are you bothered that it has taken them this long from September 11th to now to get to this conclusion?

MCCAIN: I think it interferes with the depiction that the administration is trying to convey that al Qaeda is on the wane, that everything is fine in the Middle East. And the fact...

CROWLEY: You think it's political?

MCCAIN: I think there are certain political overtones. How else -- how else could you trot out our U.N. ambassador to say this was a spontaneous demonstration?

CROWLEY: Maybe they thought that at the time.

MCCAIN: Five days later? That doesn't pass the smell test. It was either willful ignorance or abysmal intelligence to think that people come to spontaneous demonstrations with heavy weapons, mortars, and the attack goes on for hours.

And there were warnings, as you know, because part of it -- CNN put out part of Chris Stevens's diary. Look, things are going south all over the world. Look at this morning in Iraq. We've failed -- miserable failure in Iraq. It's unraveling.

Afghanistan, more insider killings, because this president doesn't believe in American exceptionalism and he keeps telling people we're leaving. Have you ever heard him say victory?

Finally he said something about Syria, but now we're going to give them communications equipment, which does very well against attack airplanes and helicopters and artillery and tanks.

CROWLEY: You're being sarcastic here. You want to give more?

MCCAIN: Of course, I'm -- of course, we need to arm them. The Iranians have admitted that they're on the ground. Russians arms are falling in. Iranian planes are flying over Iraq as we speak.

CROWLEY: But do you think the American people want that kind of a conflict, you know...

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: ... sort of adding to it?

MCCAIN: I think Americans, I think the role of America is to lead, not to follow. And by the way, to blame it on the video, it shows the absolute ineptitude and ignorance of the realities. It's not the video... CROWLEY: They were blaming the protests against the American embassy and the deaths, in fact.

MCCAIN: Yes, it's the not videos. It's the radical Islamists that are pushing the videos which are then spreading throughout the Muslim world. So to blame the video is like blaming a killer -- the gun rather than the person who is pulling the trigger.

CROWLEY: But in some ways isn't Libya a bit of a cautionary tale for Syria in this way? We certainly -- regardless of whether you thought we were in Libya enough or we were leading enough in Libya, the U.S. certainly had a part in overturning a dictator, Muammar Gadhafi, and now we have a situation where the FBI, we are told, won't even go to Benghazi, which was the seat of the rebel -- the folks that we supported, because it's so dangerous there.

So they're investigating this from Tripoli, which is 400 miles away. What does that tell you, A...

MCCAIN: And thousands of Libyans demonstrated. They went after these militia extremists, which are al Qaeda-affiliated, themselves. The United States is more popular in Libya than any country in the Arab world, but they need help.

And after it was over, did we give them the assistance they needed? No. Their borders are porous. Al Qaeda is coming in. They don't have a strong government. But they have a people that like the United States of America.

In Afghanistan we are having Americans killed by, quote, "insiders," because they know...

CROWLEY: The troops that we're training.

MCCAIN: They know -- yes. The forces we are training in uniform. They just inflicted the greatest damage in an attack on Kandahar since the Tet Offensive. They destroyed six Harrier -- irreplaceable Harrier aircraft. And it's because the president has consistently overruled the recommendations of his military advisers.

The chickens are coming home to roost, and the president won't even talk about it.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you two quick questions. One of them, I just want to say CNN did not put out the ambassador's diary. They did report -- we did report off of it.

MCCAIN: Excuse me...

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAIN: OK, sure.

CROWLEY: I just wanted to make that clear to our viewers.

(CROSSTALK) MCCAIN: But, by the way, I don't have a problem with that. The reason why the administration objected so vigorously was because what was in what CNN reported. Since when are we not going to publish materials that probably were compromised to our enemies?

CROWLEY: Let me ask you, Peter King has called for Ambassador Rice to resign. Do you agree?

MCCAIN: No, I think she's the messenger. I mean, for her to come out and say what she said, obviously, was total ignorance of the facts on the ground, which, by the way, it was five days later. Five days went by.

We have reports now that intelligence people knew within 24 hours that this was a terrorist attack. And yet they sent her out to say things that were absolutely false, and continued to do so, which is, again, really either, as I say, willful ignorance or abysmal lack of knowledge of the facts.

CROWLEY: Senator Reid put out a statement yesterday where he said -- called it sad and disappointing that some people seem more focused on trying to score cheap political points off when this intelligence information came, than mourning the loss of the ambassador and the other three.

MCCAIN: Maybe Senator Reid doesn't care about Christopher Stevens. Maybe he doesn't care about those three other brave Americans.

CROWLEY: You know he does, though, right?

MCCAIN: We do. Well, to make a statement like that, of course, then politicizes an issue that all Americans should be concerned about what information there was and what caused this death. Every American, no matter whether Democrat or Republican. So he is the one that's taking the cheap political shot.

CROWLEY: Senator John McCain, it's good to have you here.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

CROWLEY: Team Romney says the president's campaign is spiking the ball on the 30-yard line, so which is it? Is the president's team overly confident, or overly cautious? Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod is here next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: I am joined by Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod. I want to pick up on what John McCain and I were talking about. There's a back and forth now about why didn't this administration -- why did it take them until Friday after a September 11th attack in Libya to come to the conclusion that it was premeditated and that there was terrorists involved. John McCain said it doesn't pass the smell test, or it's willful ignorance to think that they didn't know before this what was going on. Your reaction? AXELROD: Well, first of all, Candy, as you know, the president called it an act of terror the day after it happened. But when you're the responsible party, when you're the administration, then you have a responsibility to act on what you know and what the intelligence community believes. This was -- this is being thoroughly investigated.

CROWLEY: But first it was, like, not planned.

AXELROD: We need to bring to justice--

CROWLEY: First, they said it was not planned, it was part of this tape. All that stuff.

AXELROD: As the director of national intelligence said on Friday, that was the original information that that was given to us. What we don't need is a president or an administration that shoots first and asks questions later.

CROWLEY: But isn't that what happened?

AXELROD: And, you know, Governor Romney leaped out on this Libya issue on the first day, and was terribly mistaken about what he said. That is not what you want in a president of the United States. And as for Senator McCain, for whom I have great respect, he has disapproved of our approach to Libya from the beginning, including the strategy that brought Gadhafi to justice.

CROWLEY: But this has to do not with the approach to Libya but with the murder of four Americans in Libya. And didn't the administration shoot first? Didn't they come out and say, listen, as far as we can tell, this wasn't preplanned, this was just a part of --

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: At this point, this is what we know, and we are thoroughly investigating. And that's exactly what you should do. That's what the responsible thing to do is. I was kind of shocked to see Representative King attack Ambassador Rice for what she said last Sunday here and elsewhere, because she was acting on the intelligence that was given to her by the intelligence community. To say she should resign -- she is one of the most remarkable, splendid public servants we have. That's thoroughly irresponsible.

CROWLEY: Let me move you on to the Obama campaign, where we are, kicking off the fall. And I was -- one of the things I wanted to repeat to you is something Ed Rendell, former Pennsylvania governor, a Democrat, said about your campaign.

"The only reason they're up anyway is not because of anything great they did on offense or defense, but because the other side keeps making mistakes. The implosion has had nothing to do with the Obama campaign really, so they can't afford to lay back at all, or it will depress turnout." His point was you all are being entirely too cautious. AXELROD: Oh, I don't think that's true. I appreciate Governor Rendell, but the fact is, we've had a strategy that we've executed from the beginning. I think it's been effective. And, ultimately, we're ahead because the American people --

CROWLEY: The strategy was to kind of pound him.

AXELROD: We're ahead, Candy, because the American people believe that this president has in his mind and in his heart the middle class and how to rebuild an economy that works for the middle class in this country, and that is fundamental in what they're looking for. I hope in this debate, that's what we will talk about. CROWLEY: Do you really think that Americans believe that? Because if you look at right track, wrong track, many more believe we're on the wrong track. Many more believe that the economy is in a bad condition right now than in a good condition. Isn't this more of what Ed Rendell is suggesting about--

AXELROD: We can sit here and, I mean, I can quote polling statistics as you can quote polling statistics. By a huge margin, people think this president is advocating for the middle class. By a huge margin, they think he is working for an economy that will work for the middle class. I think that they made a conclusion on this, and that's the reason that we're ahead in this race.

CROWLEY: How do you think a second term will be different? It's clear that Americans are generally not happy with the economy. You all say you're not happy with the economy at this point. So what is different about a second-term President Obama than a first-term?

AXELROD: Well, of course, you are absolutely right. The president is not satisfied. We've come a long way from when we were losing 800,000 jobs a month in January of 2009 when he took office. We've now created five million private sector jobs.

CROWLEY: But what happens next?

AXELROD: We're net positive in terms of jobs created. But the hole was huge, and we have to not only fill that hole, but create an economy in which the middle class has a chance. And, Candy, we're not going--

CROWLEY: What's the plan?

AXELROD: -- we're not going to get there by going back to the same policies that we've had before.

CROWLEY: So how are we going to get there?

AXELROD: This top-down -- we're going to do it by responsibly dealing with these deficits while leaving money to invest in those things we need to grow -- education, research and development, clean- energy technology.

CROWLEY: That's not a -- those aren't sort of specific proposals. AXELROD: No, but he's made specific proposals.

CROWLEY: What I'm asking you is --

AXELROD: Let's talk about specific proposals.

CROWLEY: But they haven't passed.

AXELROD: 100,000 new math and science teachers. We need that to move forward as a country.

CROWLEY: That's a goal, though, right?

AXELROD: -- to give people their best chance. Educating -- training two million new workers in our community colleges in conjunction with business to fill jobs that are open right now. Boosting American manufacturing by ending the tax break that sends jobs overseas, and giving tax incentives to companies that start manufacturing businesses here. These are specific, tangible proposals, and Candy, I believe that they will pass, because I believe the American people are supportive of that. And the verdict will be...

CROWLEY: But they haven't passed.

AXELROD: ... rendered on November 6th. No, they haven't. There are lots of things that have.

CROWLEY: Out there for two years, the jobs plan, the debt reduction...

AXELROD: No, these specific -- some of these specific proposals haven't.

CROWLEY: Those are goals.

AXELROD: But, Candy, think about the logical extension of what you're saying. What you're saying is, so we should elect the other guy because he will implement the proposals that the Republican Congress has pushed to cut taxes by $5 trillion, skewed to the wealthy, can't pay for it. That will add burdens to the middle class. To slash education, to slash research and development. He...

CROWLEY: No, no, I'm not suggesting people should...

AXELROD: He could get those votes for those proposals, but they're not the right proposals for the country.

CROWLEY: Is there a new proposal, a new plan, something different that will happen in a second Obama term, or is this stay the course, is that the message?

AXELROD: Look, as I told you, the president has a series of specific proposals around education, around energy, around manufacturing. We need a long-term plan, Candy. Not tag lines for a show like this 30 days before the election. The president has had a view from the beginning about how you lay the foundation for real sustained growth.

CROWLEY: Quickly, are you going to make a play for Arizona? Are you going to spend some money there? Do you think you can get it?

AXELROD: We are always looking, always looking for opportunities, and, you know, we're heartened by what we see, not just in these battleground states, but some of the states that weren't battleground states. But I'm not going to -- I can't tell you today exactly how we're going to expend our resources in the final 30 days.

CROWLEY: I'll call you later, and you'll tell me, right?

AXELROD: OK, yes, great.

(LAUGHTER)

CROWLEY: David Axelrod, senior adviser to the Obama campaign, thanks for being here.

AXELROD: Good to be with you.

CROWLEY: And this election isn't just about the White House. Both parties have lots at stake in those Senate and governors races. That's next with Governor Martin O'Malley and Senator Roy Blunt.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Here's a check of today's political headlines. President Obama heads to Nevada today. He will hold a campaign rally this evening in Las Vegas. The president is staying in the state until Wednesday for debate preparations.

He will be joined by Senator John Kerry, who is playing the role of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

There is trouble for Florida's Republican Party where a voter registration controversy is brewing. The state's party fired a private consulting firm it hired to help register voters after learning it may have submitted fraudulent registration forms. Suspicious forms have been discovered in at least five Florida counties.

And former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum says Mitt Romney and the Republicans should support Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin. Santorum says an Akin win is essential for the Republican Party to win control of the Senate. Akin is challenging Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. He has been criticized by both Democrats and Republicans after using the term "legitimate rape."

Down-ballot politics are next with Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Missouri Senator Roy Blunt.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Joining me now, Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. He is the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

Thank you both. Big overriding question, first, and that is when we look at adjustments in the gross domestic product figures for the first and second quarters of this year, it's downward. It went from 1.7 to 1.3 when they adjusted it and looked back on the second quarter, exactly the same as it was last year.

I know we got all bollixed up in the question of "are you better off now than you were before?", but it doesn't look as if we're any better off now than we were last year. It's the exact same growth rate.

O'MALLEY: Except in one very important sense, Candy, and that is instead of losing jobs as a country, we're actually gaining jobs as a country. In fact, our private sector last year under President Obama's leadership created more private sectors than in all eight years of George W. Bush.

So I think what all of the economists would agree is that there is steady job creation that is happening. It could happen more quickly if Republicans in Congress would vote for some of the president's jobs initiatives.

CROWLEY: So your bottom line is that Republicans have stunted the -- the growth of the economy?

O'MALLEY: Oh, I think they've been trying hard. I think they've voted against every single jobs initiative the president has sent to The Hill and -- in an effort to try to slow the economy before the election.

They haven't been able to do it, we're still creating jobs instead of losing them as we were under George Bush.

CROWLEY: You -- you can't be happy that economic growth is -- 1.3 percent in a quarter is not great. It's growth, I grant you that, but it's the same as it was a year ago, so where's the improvement?

O'MALLEY: Well, when you -- when you -- when you compound it, I mean it's -- in Maryland, for example, we've recovered 70 percent of the jobs we lost during the Bush recession. We haven't recovered all that we lost during the Bush recession, but it's clearly headed in a more positive direction than it was before President Obama took office.

Home foreclosures are lower than they were before he took office. And so we're constantly still creating jobs; could do it faster if Republicans would stop blocking every jobs initiative on the Hill.

CROWLEY: Senator Blunt, I'm going to give you some equal time, but first, first, I want to play something that you're candidate said; and part of the reason there has been this (inaudible) on Capitol Hill is that Republicans have been adamant that there would be no tax increases, that what we actually needed was to retain tax cuts.

Mitt Romney has campaigned, much of the delight of conservatives on, I'm going cut everybody's taxes.

But here's what he said recently.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: By the way, don't -- don't be expecting a huge cut in taxes because I'm also going to lower deductions and exemptions. But by bringing rates down, we'll be able to let small businesses keep more of their money so they can hire more people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: What do you make of that? Sounds like people aren't going to get a tax cut.

BLUNT: Well, I -- actually I think that's what the governor's been saying all the time, and it's what most Republicans have been saying all the time. Get the rate down, eliminate the -- a lot of the intricacies of the tax code...

CROWLEY: But hasn't he been -- I'm sorry. Hasn't he been campaigning on cutting taxes?

BLUNT: No, no, no, he has always said we're going to lower the rate and we're going to eliminate the complexity of the tax code. That's what he's said consistently. It doesn't mean revenue would go down. That would mean that people would have some sense that everybody's paying the same thing based on the same rules, both at the corporate structure and the individual structure and I think that's very consistent.

In fact, I think that's what the American people want. People are ready...

CROWLEY: Do you have any idea of what kind of deductions he's talking about?

BLUNT: ... people are ready for a significant relook at the tax code and we ought to take advantage of the moment when people want to see that happen, and it needs to happen next year.

CROWLEY: He -- he -- he is steadfastly sort of not told us what sort of deductions he's talking about eliminating. Do you have any idea what he's talking about, the home interest loans, charitable deductions, do you know what -- what he's talking about?

BLUNT: Well, I think you can look at the corporate code and see all those things that where you have some people, little corporations paying a higher percentage of what anybody would realistically see...

CROWLEY: Oil and gas loopholes?

BLUNT: ... as profit, other -- other big corporations being able to take more advantage of that broad, complicated tax code. I think he's saying let's eliminate that. Let's equalize, let's flatten that tax code in a way that everybody has a sense that everybody's being treated fairly.

CROWLEY: But it's your understanding that will not be a tax, that there will not be tax cuts -- big tax cuts.

BLUNT: You would reduce the rate and -- and in all likelihood, you would maintain the same amount of revenue, and of course, revenue grows if people have more confidence in the economy, if they have more competence and fairness and equity and that the rules are rules they can live with. CROWLEY: Governor O'Malley, let me pick your brain as head of the -- the Democratic Governors Association. There are 11 governorships up right now. Four of the eight that you're defending look like they could go to Republicans.

What's wrong here at the state level? Because the Republicans look like they're maintaining and could pick up some of the governorships currently held by Democrats. What's going on?

O'MALLEY: Well, actually, we're being greatly outspent in virtually every state, and we're -- we are defending 11 states, not in some of them, not in the friendliest of terrains for President Obama. But as we saw last year in Kentucky, a state that where the president did not prevail, our candidate was all about jobs, all about bringing people together to make the tough decisions to expand the economy and create jobs, and we've prevailed.

So I think you're going to see our candidates come through in this election.

CROWLEY: When you look at it, it's Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Washington states, all of those held by Democrats, all look very threatened by pretty strong Republican races. That's 50 percent of those seats you're defending.

O'MALLEY: Right. Well, that's what makes it so exciting.

CROWLEY: Yeah, yeah, you look excited.

O'MALLEY: In fact, if you -- if you look at some of those states, I mean in the state of New Hampshire, where Maggie Hassan is running very competitively, she follows a Democratic governor who retires very, very popular. You look at Washington state, Jay Inslee, who literally wrote the book on green job creation and jobs through renewable energy...

CROWLEY: But they're competitive. Why is that?

O'MALLEY: Absolutely, because this is a competitive time. I mean, people -- people are very anxious about wanting to see our country create jobs more quickly. And some of those states, quite honestly, are in parts of the country geographically where it is tougher for the top of the ticket.

There are other states, however, where we're actually doing very well. I mean, look at Ohio. Ohio is a state where, granted, it's not up this year in the governor's race, but clearly there's a lot of voters remorse, particularly among women. 23 percent gender gap in Ohio because of the reactionary anti-woman policies of the Republican Party.

CROWLEY: So you think that the gap isn't that President Obama is doing so well. You think it's because they don't like Governor Kasich?

O'MALLEY: In Ohio, I think it is a combination, as John McCain just said, people seeing jobs being created in the auto industry, but they also are able to contrast that very hard right-wing policy, opposed to Lilly Ledbetter, trying to block women from being able to have contraception coverage on their health care policies, and all of those things have led to a much bigger gender gap, particularly in those states now led by hard-core, right-wing Republican governors who have taken their eye off of job creation.

CROWLEY: Well, they do have low unemployment rates, as you do, I grant you, but we're looking at some governors who have had some pretty low unemployment rates.

Senator Blunt, let me move you because the Senate -- three months ago I think most people would have said, oh, Republicans are going to take over. Now it doesn't look at all as though that's going to happen. Do you think that is the result of how well President Obama appears to be doing now, with a 3, 4 percent lead, or is it that the candidates aren't as good? What happened here?

BLUNT: Well, I think it's still at least 50-50 that Republicans take over the Senate, and if you look at Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota. Wisconsin now, I believe it will be a Republican seat on election day. And others, Virginia.

CROWLEY: Oh, because in Virginia and in Wisconsin both, the Democrat is up.

BLUNT: Well, but a few days ago, the Republican was up. Let's see what happens on election day. You know, the governor has said a couple of times the election is about Republicans who won't let things happen. You know, this election really should be about what happened the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats should have been able to do anything they wanted to do, and now is when that should pay off. We shouldn't be worried about what happened last month and how that impacts the economy, because, frankly, we've had no budget, no appropriations bills. The majority in the Senate, I think, will change, because people are tired of a Senate that won't do the things that need to be done.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you about the state of the race in Missouri. This is where you had Congressman Akin, who made a very controversial remark, which you condemned, which others condemned. You, in fact, said at the time, "We do not believe it serves the national interests for Congressman Todd Akin to stay in the race for Senate. The issues at stake are too big, and this election is simply too important. The right decision is to step aside."

As we all know, Todd Akin did not step aside. He is running as the Republican. And you are looking as though -- the Republicans are looking as though they're going to lose that race because Akin stayed in it.

BLUNT: I think at the end of the day, that race does largely become a debate about the majority in the Senate. Harry Reid is majority leader. What happens there? I think that becomes really big in that race. Frankly, I think that anybody else would have been a candidate that clearly would have won, and Todd very well may win. He is on a ticket at a time when people are looking at a Senate that's not doing its work, and the only way to change the Senate is to change the majority in the Senate.

CROWLEY: So you are going to sell it as a party race as opposed to the individual of Congressman Akin?

BLUNT: I think it becomes a party race in our state and lots of other places as well, as people look at these Senate races. And I'm not -- I think they look at them to a great extent independently of whatever has happened in the presidential race, but I think the presidential race is going to be decided by the economy, and the economy is not where people want it to be.

O'MALLEY: We have a great candidate in Missouri named Jay Nixon. Jay Nixon is going to be re-elected because he focuses on jobs and dealing with jobs--

CROWLEY: You are already holding that seat, though. It's the ones you might lose that are worrisome. Right?

O'MALLEY: That's right. And Akin is going to lose because of a demonstrated anti-woman policy that they have in the Republican Party, where one month Senator Blunt says he is not going to endorse Akin, then the next month he says he is going to endorse him, even after--

(CROSSTALK)

BLUNT: What I said was that the national issues are big enough that we need to have a discussion of those issues, rather than the ones that Todd managed to bring to the table.

CROWLEY: Which hopefully will be more favorable than the ones that he has brought up.

(CROSSTALK)

BLUNT: It's a race about the majority, and let's see how Todd does.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: Senator Blunt, Governor O'Malley, thanks for coming by.

BLUNT: Thank you.

CROWLEY: Governor Romney steps up his attack on President Obama's economy. Is Romney on the right path to get back in the race?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CROWLEY: Each campaign is different, but every campaign running behind in the stretch shares distinct markings. A candidate with rougher rhetoric.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: What is the path that president's proposed, which is the status quo. His is the path of -- well, he calls it forward. I call it fore warned, all right.

... they have not worked.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: An itinerary with a faster pace.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: We're in Toledo, right, we've got a win in Virginia and we're going to win Pennsylvania...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: And a campaign getting lots and lots of outside critique.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: The Romney campaign is yet to find a thematic way of explaining itself and laying out in a clear crisp way the different between Romney and Obama and I think that, frankly, is the problem.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Need we say it, Mitt Romney is behind. Polls show he lags President Obama, both nationwide and in key battleground states where the races are either tight or Obama holds a clear edge.

Heightening the urgency, early voting is underway in 30 states, including Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia and North Carolina and it started Tuesday in Ohio and Florida.

The Romney campaign looks to find its footing in the next 37 days. That's next with Alex Castellanos, Dana Bash and Celinda Lake. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Joining me around the table, CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. The debates, I just want to set up how you all feel about this with a quick sound from Newt Gingrich and how he views the importance of these debates.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: It has to be a campaign of contrast, not a campaign of attack. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.

GINGRICH: But part of the contrast has to be disarming the president, because if the president is believable -- this is where Clinton was so good. If the president is believable at the end of the first debate, there's a very high likelihood he is going to get re- elected.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Whoa. Not just the debates, but the first debate. Do you agree?

CASTELLANOS: Sure. I think the first debate is critical, because this is their first chance -- our first chance to see the two gladiators in the arena alone, so how they -- who is the alpha dog in this debate? That's what we want to see. Because if you can't beat the other guy, how can you lead the country?

CROWLEY: So you think Mitt Romney could lose it in this first debate, do you agree?

LAKE: I think that the debates are really tough for the incumbent. I think there's a very famous study done by the University of Michigan--

CROWLEY: Celinda, let me just stop you.

LAKE: No, I mean, they show the challengers win the debates, because it's the first time --

CROWLEY: John McCain would differ with you on that.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: -- a challenger who doesn't know his way around a couple of words. I mean, you know, he is very eloquent. He has done debates. I just think when you are standing next to the president, you have to be careful how you go about being the alpha male.

LAKE: Well, that is a really good point, and one of the problems I think with the Mitt Romney campaign is he has been too much on the attack and not telling the American people where are we going to go? He won't even tell you what tax deductions he is going to take away.

BASH: You know what? You know this, Candy. You have been doing this for a long time, that these debates are important yes, for the one-liners that may or may not happen, but it's also that comfort level, that sort of ineffable comfort level that voters have or don't have with these candidates. And according to the polls, pretty much every one of them, the people who the Romney campaign need to bring over don't have that comfort level. Whether it's because of the 47 percent, it doesn't feel like me, whatever, that what Mitt Romney really needs to get across, and that's what his advisers know.

CROWLEY: Let me just play something real quick, because I want to get your comment on that, and this is Mitt Romney sort of talking about his message for swing state voters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I have been across this country. My heart aches for the people I have seen, and the difference between me and President Obama is I know what to do and I will do what it takes to get this economy going.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: See, to me, that's the two things Mitt Romney has to do. You know, be someone they really like, feel their pain. By the way, remind them that you're a CEO and you can fix the economy. Are they -- are those two different messages he has to get across in one debate?

CASTELLANOS: Those are two different messages, and we've had an opportunity all through this campaign to get to know Mitt Romney better. A debate is such a -- he hasn't done it yet. He hasn't warmed up. It's putting a big burden on him to do it there.

What he can do in this debate is lead, is show us what he would do as president the next four years. Obama has had a chance to do that, and he has not done it. His message seems to be I've done the best that I can. Hang on, it's going to get better. Just don't go back. Romney, his canvas has a little bit of blank space there. He could do that. But clearly, this debate is one of those rare political events where both candidates are the underdogs.

CROWLEY: Apparently, if you listen to--

(LAUGHTER)

CASTELLANOS: So, yes. So there is maybe an opportunity for somebody to surprise.

CROWLEY: It is very hard, it seems to me, in a debate to be -- to show your likability skills, right?

LAKE: Right. I think that right. And the other thing that's hard for Mitt Romney is he just seems weird to people and they can't relate to him and he doesn't seem in touch with their lives. And that's particularly true for women voters.

And if you're an attack dog in a debate, you're not going to fill in that quotient.

BASH: But that's...

CASTELLANOS: There's a difference between being an attack dog and drawing a contrast on where you would lead the country. You know, Bill Clinton was very likable, and he did that in the debate. That's not Mitt Romney's strength. Why should he try to do it there?

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: ... his speech at the Democratic National Convention, right, yes.

CASTELLANOS: Yes, exactly.

BASH: But we have a lot of recent history with Mitt Romney at debates. Sure, sometimes he blows it, betting $10,000. But other times he has really, you know, come back and he has done quite well, and he has stepped up to the occasion, but it's mixed. There's a mixed bag.

Having said that, it's a completely different arena. The Romney campaign knows that, debating 10 people, eight people, you know, six people on the stage, and going head-to-head with the president of the United States.

CROWLEY: So when you look at the race as a whole, I want to just read you something that came out of the National Journal, in a thing called "Defying Gravity," and it talked about how everybody thinks the economy is bad and the country is going in the wrong direction.

And they wrote: "Perhaps most concerning for Romney, Obama is winning a healthy share of votes from people who think he has steered the country off course. One out of four Obama supporters in the most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll said that the country was on the wrong track, but they're voting for the president anyway. That's what defying gravity looks like."

Why are they voting for him anyway? Is it because of Mitt Romney, or because they like the president so much?

CASTELLANOS: There is a 60 percent wrong track in this country, 60 percent of Americans think we're headed in the wrong direction. They would like a door out of the room. They think Obama is a nice guy but we're just not getting there.

They don't know that Mitt Romney is the door out of the room. Mitt Romney has not yet made the case that, look, we're going to do something different than we've done in Washington the past 30 years, we're going to take money out of that economy and put it in yours, we're going to do something different.

People want change, but if you're not going to get change, you'll take security.

LAKE: A majority of the voters now approve of the job the president is doing and economic confidence is soaring. Those are the two indicators. People know that we were in a very deep hole and people believe that this president has laid out a plan to get us going. And he'll get everybody going, not just half of the country. He's going to be a president for all of America.

CROWLEY: Except for they're talking about people who think that it's going in the wrong direction. That he has done the wrong thing.

BASH: Right. It's the reservoir -- it's what the president has had since day one when all of his numbers were high, but even when his numbers were and have been low, he has always had that likability. And that is a reservoir that the Obama campaign has been really using to sustain the campaign and the president even when the economy is bad.

CASTELLANOS: I think Dana is right. I think that's a big part of it. But the other part is girls and politicians always get prettier at closing time. As we get closer to the election, and, you know, well, I'm not going to go for Mitt Romney, he hasn't made his case yet, I'm waiting...

(CROSSTALK)

CASTELLANOS: If I'm going go for Obama, I think the economy is improving.

CROWLEY: I've got go. Alex Castellanos, I'm going to go back and listen to what you've just said about girls. I'm not sure I like it.

(LAUGHTER)

LAKE: I'm with you, Candy. Thank you.

CROWLEY: But thank you so much. Celinda, Dana, thanks for being here.

Different answers to one question, who won the week? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: And finally this Sunday, we asked some of CNN's political junkies to help us put the period on the show with a simple question: Who won this week? You'd be surprised because we were.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The comeback kid is back. And I think it's pretty hard to argue that Bill Clinton isn't the winner of the week. He's coming off a very successful Clinton Global Initiative conference.

ROMNEY: But a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mitt Romney offered praise for the former president, even though he's becoming a top surrogate on the campaign trail for Barack Obama.

OBAMA: I told folks I'm just supposed to be eye candy here for you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So I think who won week were the ladies of "The View" and President Obama, who chose to meet with a handful of very powerful women with a lot of sway and a lot of influence on American votes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think local television stations in some of the key battleground states are the winners of the week. Why? The ad spending by the two presidential campaigns is not only continuing, it seems to be ramping up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Obama wages war on coal while we lose jobs to China.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All those ads mean lots of revenue for those TV stations.

ROBERT GIBBS, SENIOR OBAMA CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Mitt Romney, I think, has an advantage because he has been through 20 of these debates in the primaries.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The winner of the week seems to be the other guy, that is, if you're looking through the lens of the presidential debate prep. Romney adviser Beth Myers going as far to say, President Obama is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This week's winner, in my opinion, were Democrats in Ohio. And here's why. A new poll out this week from Quinnipiac showed President Obama beating Mitt Romney by 10 points in Ohio.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Obama had a pretty good week in the polls in Ohio and Florida, but the real winner this week, NFL football fans.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The temps are out. The referees -- the old referees are back in. And if the referees won, I think NFL fans won.

JOHNS: Now they can stop complaining about the replacement refs and start complaining about the regular refs.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: NFL referees, they had the best week, and they're good, unlike those replacement refs, they are bad. Maybe nice people, but they are bad referees.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: The NFL and the referees' union ratified their new contract yesterday. Everyone is back at work today. So it should be great day for football fans.

Thanks for watching STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Candy Crowley in Washington. If you missed any part of today's shows, find us on iTunes, just search STATE OF THE UNION.

"FAREED ZAKARIA: GPS" is next for our viewers here in the United States.