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Republican Presidential Hopefuls Try To Make Debate Cut

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Political reporters keep dismissing Donald Trump as a sideshow. He may yet prove to be. But for the moment, the Republican presidential candidate leads his 15 opponents in some polls. That should not matter much months before the presidential primary season except that it sort of does. Let's talk about this and more with Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays.

Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And also in our conversation this morning is NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro.

Good morning to you.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's in our studios. Well, now, often the early front-runner is somebody who's going to go way up in the polls and then make some controversial statement and then go back down again, Cokie. But what do you do in a situation like this where the guy's brand is making controversial statements to begin with?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) Well, it still should be one where you see him go up in the polls and come down even more so because people love those controversial statements, particularly the base of a party. But the problem right now for the other candidates is that they have this debate next week. The first debate of the 2016 presidential season is next week. And it's on Fox News, which has decreed that to qualify for their higher-profile primetime debate that you have to be in the top 10 of the average - well, follow me here - the average of the five most recent polls ending on August 4. So that makes the people who don't make the cut - the six who don't make the cut of the top 10 - look like terrible losers, even though most of the pack is huddled at the bottom in the single digits. So it's causing them to do all kinds of outrageous things to get attention - you know, Lindsey Graham destroying his cellphone or Rand Paul setting fire to the tax code or more interestingly, Ted Cruz going to the Senate floor to call his own Republican leader a liar. So it's only likely to get worse as people try to get attention.

INSKEEP: Domenico.

MONTANARO: Well, no doubt that they're absolutely trying to get as much attention as possible. And the reason why someone like Lindsey Graham goes and sets his phone on fire is because he's trying to take on Donald Trump. He's the one who's in first place among these polls. So if he's going to try get himself on that debate stage, that's something he needs to do. Chris Christie, John Kasich also on the bubble to try to get into the debate, and you're seeing them spend a lot of money on ads. Chris Christie's spending about a quarter-million dollars in some of the early states. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, could be left off the debate stage in his own state.

INSKEEP: Wow. Cokie, you mentioned Ted Cruz trying to get into that top 10 or stay in that top 10 by taking on the Senate. It seems senators are taking on Ted Cruz.

ROBERTS: Yes. Yesterday, there was an extraordinary session in the Senate. First of all, they were meeting on a Sunday - that in itself is unusual. They're trying to move along a highway bill, but Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had attached an amendment to extend the Export-Import Bank, which was supported by 67 senators, so well over a majority of the Senate. But Ted Cruz said that McConnell was breaking a promise not to do that and called him a liar. And the leaders of the Senate just took to the floor and chastised Cruz in a way that was quite remarkable. Orrin Hatch in his role as the president pro tempore of the Senate said that he was using it as a tool to advance personal ambitions, a venue to promote political campaigns and even a vehicle to enhance fundraising efforts.

INSKEEP: Which has never happened in the United States Senate before.

ROBERTS: Well, but it's happening much more than usual when you have four candidates running for president in the Senate. And he didn't mention Cruz by name, but everybody knew who he meant. And then the Senate just shot Cruz out in a vote that he had tried to set up to embarrass people. They wouldn't even take a roll call on it, so he was really left in the cold.

INSKEEP: There's a role that Cruz wanted to play that seems to be taken by Donald Trump.

MONTANARO: I mean, here's the thing. I mean, he is a freshman senator without a lot of leverage, and he's lost his mojo. I mean, Donald Trump has taken on the fighter thing within this campaign. You thought that Ted Cruz would be the guy who would be - if he was going to be the fighter, he would fill that role. And it's been Donald Trump. Ted Cruz is really boxed in in the U.S. Senate as a freshman senator, not a lot of leverage. Donald Trump doesn't have a job in Washington, doesn't have to show results. He just gets to talk. And really, it's very difficult to out-procedure someone like Mitch McConnell - other than maybe Harry Reid when he's in power.

INSKEEP: Now, once Republicans get themselves into that debate or into that series of debates, their next question is how to drag down Hillary Clinton. What's happening there, Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, there's - she is getting dragged down. Her unfavorably ratings have gone way up. There was a report at the end of last week that there was going to be a criminal investigation into her emails. That turned out to not be the case. The New York Times has somewhat walked that back. But there is a question of whether she sent emails that were classified and whether she knew it at the time. She says absolutely they were not classified at the time. But she has now agreed to testify before that Benghazi committee sometime later this fall. And it is distracting her campaign. There's no question about it. But she remains at the top of the polls. The bigger problem for her is that she is losing in some swing state polls to Republicans, and that has some Democrats worried.

INSKEEP: And then there's just the question, Domenico, even if the Hillary Clinton campaign pushes back, there's going to be a lot of average voters that don't quite follow the details and they just hear negative story and negative story about Hillary Clinton.

MONTANARO: Absolutely. And the Clinton campaign pushed back very hard against a poll earlier this week that showed her with very high unfavorable ratings in Colorado and Iowa. Well, this NBC Marist Poll over the weekend kind of confirmed some of that. And this is what Republicans are trying to do - opposition research groups on their side wanting to say that this is going to be a death by a thousand cuts, even if there isn't a smoking gun in some of these emails.

INSKEEP: OK. That's Domenico Montanaro, NPR's lead political editor. And Cokie Roberts joins us most Mondays. Thanks to both of you.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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