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Analysts Discuss the State of the Senate Races

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - October 24, 2012

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GWEN IFILL: The presidential race is not the only campaign working its way toward a photo finish this year. In competitive contests from East to West, the race for the Senate has turned out to be tight, expensive and slippery.

In Arizona, Democrat and former surgeon general Richard Carmona is running neck and neck with Republican Congressman Jeff Flake.

In Connecticut, former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, a Republican, is battling Democratic Congressman Chris Murphy.

In Indiana, Republican Richard Mourdock, who defeated incumbent Senator Richard Lugar in the primary, is in a fight to the finish with Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly.

And in North Dakota, former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp is staring down Republican freshman Congressman Rick Berg.

The outcome in these and a handful of other races, including in Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, Virginia and Wisconsin, could easily determine who controls the Senate and the president's agenda come January.

Here to walk us through the stakes are Shira Toeplitz of Roll Call newspaper, who joins us in the midst of a Rust Belt reporting tour, and Nathan Gonzales, who keeps track of Senate races for The Rothenberg Political Report.

Welcome to you both.

Shira, it's not an accident you happen to be in Indiana while news is being committed. I suspect you're responsible for some of it.

But, in fact, it's Richard Mourdock, the Republican Senate candidate, who at a debate last night in Indiana was quoted as saying this when he was asked about whether there should be an exception for rape and abortion.

He said, "I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something God intended to happen."

Why did he say that? What did he mean? And what was the fallout today, Shira?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ, Roll Call: Right.

So right after he said that, and after the debate, he went to the spin room and he spoke with reporters, and myself included, tried to get some clarification for those remarks, and he basically stood by the remarks. I think his intent was clear, but he thought he was being misunderstood.

Again, this led to -- the confusion led to a second press conference this morning in Indianapolis, more than two hours away, where he sought to clarify his comments again.

And he ended up apologizing for them, but only to those people who misunderstood them. He didn't apologize for the comments' intention. He stuck by those.

GWEN IFILL: Now, it not only stirred up members of another Republican candidate who made dubious comments about rape, but also reverberated all the way to Mitt Romney and his campaign, didn't it?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: It did. It did. And it's especially pertinent because Mitt Romney recently cut a television ad for Richard Mourdock here just last week, and that was seen as a real boon to Richard Mourdock's campaign, because Murdoch's fate, in many ways, relies on the presidential contest.

But you brought up Todd Akin, who, as we know, several weeks ago made a rather horrific gaffe about abortion. It's the similar case, because the words both have to do with abortion, but they are different set of words. So, I think it's important to make those distinctions.

Richard Mourdock, when he said -- he was really talking about his beliefs, and Todd Akin, when he was talking about this in Missouri, he was stating essentially a factual inaccuracy about biology.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, that women sometimes -- that their bodies are shut down and so there is not pregnancy. And he said he made a mistake.

Today, that's not what we heard Richard Mourdock say.

One more thing I want to ask you before I move back to Nathan here, which is his competitor, Joe Donnelly, the Democrat, he is also pro-life, right?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: Yes, absolutely. Joe Donnelly is anti -- does favor anti -- excuse me -- he is pro-life. He does, however, unlike Mourdock, allow for exceptions for the life of the mother, incest and rape.

GWEN IFILL: Nathan, how close is this race and how much could something like this matter?

NATHAN GONZALES, The Rothenberg Political Report: I think before the debate even happened, as we analyzed it, this was an extremely close race.

We had it in a tossup tilting category, where we gave Mourdock the advantage because of the fundamental nature of the state. We believed that by the time we got to Election Day, a Mitt Romney victory would pull Richard Mourdock across the line.

And even before the debate, it looked like Mourdock was starting to coalesce those Republicans who are still on the sidelines, who still their loyalty was to Senator Lugar.

But now we're in this holding pattern. We're waiting to see whether those moderate Republicans, those Lugar, loyal Republicans are going to return to the sidelines or if they're going to stay with Mourdock or even go to Congressman Donnelly.

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