The Romney reboot arrives

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," October 6, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," the candidates face off in Colorado and Mitt Romney goes on offense. Is this the reboot that Republicans have been waiting for? And can Paul Ryan carry that momentum in next week's vice-presidential showdown.

Plus, could it be a potential GOP pickup in true-blue New England? How Linda McMahon is making the Connecticut Senate race one to watch.

And the Supreme Court is back and they're not shying away from more controversy. Wait until you see what they've got on the docket this term.


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    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you are lowering the rates the way you describe, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It's math. It's arithmetic.

    MITT ROMNEY, R- FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Get the rates down, lower deductions and exemptions to create more jobs, because there's nothing better for getting us to a balanced budget than having more people working, earning more money, paying more taxes. That's by far the most effective and efficient way to get this budget balanced.


    GIGOT: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

    A big night in Denver on Wednesday, as President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney met for their first presidential debate. The candidates sparred, as you heard, over taxes and the deficit as well as health care, Wall Street reform and the role of government, with Mitt Romney taking some sharp shots at the president's record these past four years.


    ROMNEY: What we're seeing right now is, in my view, a trickle-down government approach which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams and it's not working the. Proof of that is 23 million people out of work. The proof one out of six people in poverty. the proof that we've got to 32 million on food stamps to 47 million on food stamps. The proof of that 50 percent of college graduates this year can't find work.


    GIGOT: There's little doubt Romney's commanding performance helped the GOP ticket. The question is, how much?

    Let's ask Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger, editorial board member, Mary Anastasia O'Grady; and "Political Diary" editor, Jason Riley; and Washington columnist, Kim Strassel.

    So, Dan, how important was this debate for Mitt Romney's candidacy?

    DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: It was not only very important for Mitt Romney's candidacy, Paul, it was very important for us. I think he both rescued his candidacy. He rescued the election. And quite honestly, the election to this point was kind of boring. It was boring because both candidates in different ways were making it boring. The president -- and there have been reports to this extent -- was kind of coasting through, thinking he had no real competition from Mitt Romney. And Romney was out there basically expressing conservative platitudes without elaborating on them.

    We get to the debate, and what Mitt Romney does is answer the two things I think most voters were looking for, why do you think that Barack Obama's presidency failed, and what ways has he failed it. Secondly, now -- what alternative would you propose and how would they be better than what President Obama does? He did both of those things. He went right at the Obama record, something the president declined to talk about himself, and he went deep on his tax policy and his health policy. So he put some entirely new baseline for the election.

    GIGOT: Kim, there are a lot of Republicans that were willing to start writing off Mitt Romney if he didn't do well. I mean, there really were. And they were worried that his fundraising might fall off and there would be a big problem. So is there new momentum, new optimism on the Republican side?

    KIM STRASSEL, WASHINGTON COLUMNIST: Yes. No worries about the fundraising dropping off now, I tell you that. I mean, you have not seen this much enthusiasm for Mitt Romney since he's ever run, going back to 2008. But I think because he went out there and talked about ideas. This is what the Republicans have been arguing he needed to do all along because you can't say it's a choice, you have to prove it's a choice. That's what he did in Denver.

    The most important thing he did, he explained the choices very clearly. He talked about things like growth versus tax hikes, about free- market health care versus Obama-care. That was the way he needed to explain it to the electorate.

    GIGOT: Yes.


    JASON RILEY, POLITICAL DIARY EDITOR: It was a very substantive debate. He did layout some ideas and some plans, and that's a good thing. But I think these debates were also about more than substance. They're about demeanor, presentation. And what he managed to do is go up there on the stage, stand next to the president and look more presidential than the man himself. He did he that for 90 minutes and that made it --


    GIGOT: Looked him right in the eye, was respectful.

    I thought he was better on Obama's anniversary than Obama was.


    What about this idea you hear from the left a lot now, which is, oh, well, the secret to Romney's success in the debate was that this was the moderate Romney. That he basically repudiated all of his campaign positions. This is, of course, what the Obama campaign is saying. Is that true?

    MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: Well, I think they're annoyed at the fact he was able to challenge the president on things the president has claimed he's been saying. You know, the Democrats famously say that Republicans want polluted water and slave work -- sweatshops and all kinds of low wages for working people, and he was able to challenge those things directly to the president. And he never -- you know, it's not nice to use the word "liar" for your opponent in politics, but he was able to basically layout where what the president has been saying about him is not true.

    GIGOT: Let's show a clip of the president's frustration with some of Mitt Romney's answers.


    OBAMA: He says that he's going to close deductions and loopholes for his tax plan. That's how it's going to be paid for, but we don't know the details. He says that he's going to replace Dodd-Frank, Wall Street reform, but we don't know exactly which ones. He won't tell us. He now says he's going to replace Obama-care and assure that all the good things in it are going to be in there, and you don't have to worry. And at some point, I think, the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all of these plans to replace secret because they're too good? Is it because that somehow middle class families are going to benefit too much from them?


    GIGOT: Jason, the president have a point?

    RILEY: Well, Romney has not been as specific as some of us have been urging him to be, particularly on the tax issue.

    GIGOT: But he was very specific, I thought, on the tax issue.

    RILEY: He was specific in refuting Obama's characterization of his tax plan. I thought he did an excellent job of that. The president has been relying on a report that has been debunked, left and right, by people about how Romney wants to raise taxes --

    GIGOT: Raise taxes by $2000, yes.

    RILEY: -- on the middle class in order to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. He rebutted that very effectively I thought. But I would also like to see more details in terms of --


    GIGOT: But he gave a couple of details in regard to, for example, here is how you could reduce deductions and exemptions. For example, you could have a $25,000 or $50,000 limit that any one individual could use. That is a very specific example that had been offered by people like Marty Feldstein, of Harvard, as a way to make tax reform work.

    HENNINGER: And the group both of them embraced somehow, which was the Simpson-Bowles Commission. And the Simpson-Bowles Commission has -- put out three different tax rates and said, at each rate, you will have to do something with the deductions and exemptions, either eliminate all of them or retain them. Romney said, I'm going to drop rates and put all of those deductions and exemptions on the table for negotiation. Any serious person in politics knows that's the starting point for reworking the tax code. You don't have to get into the fine detail at this point.

    GIGOT: Kim, what do they have to do to maintain the momentum, the Romney campaign, coming out of this?

    STRASSEL: You see them doing it. They have now -- flooding the zone with a whole bunch of new ads going after the president both on things like the deficit, but also talking more about Mitt Romney's own plans for reform. And so they're trying to bulk up their presence out there in the swing states and really grab this momentum. And then they've also, of course, got to have a good rest of the remaining debates. No one should forget, John Kerry had a good opening debate in 2004. He still went on to lose the election.

    GIGOT: Right.

    STRASSEL: They're aware of that. And so they've got to go out there -- he's got to keep this image rolling with the public.

    GIGOT: OK.

    Much more ahead on this week's presidential debate, including Mitt Romney's takedown of Obama-care, a topic he's largely avoided on the campaign trail. So, why the change of heart?



    ROMNEY: I just don't know how the president could have come into office facing 23 million people out of work, rising unemployment, an economic crisis at the kitchen table, and spend his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obama-care instead of fighting for jobs for the American people. It has killed jobs.


    GIGOT: That was Governor Mitt Romney Wednesday night, attacking the president on his administration's signature piece of legislation, Obama- care.

    So, Mary, this is typically Democratic turf, health care. Where did Romney score on that issue?

    O'GRADY: Well, I think he did two things very effectively. One was - - remember when he first started running for president against -- in the primary when John McCain was the candidate, he tended to like to talk about data, and we even joked how he was so focused on data.

    GIGOT: Right.

    O'GRADY: This time around, Mitt Romney came out and talked about people he had met -- a woman with a baby in her arms who told him how difficult it was, a couple that was not able to afford their health care. And you know, he, I think, made the points that he needed to make about the data, but he humanized them, and I think that was a great achievement of his at the debate.

    GIGOT: Health care distraction from job creation. You inherit a recession, a financial crisis, and instead of focusing on that, Romney is saying, you spent two years trying to pass one of your big priorities in social legislation and that's hurt job creation. A powerful point.

    HENNINGER: Yes, it's a good point. But I think the health care issue is not going to go away in this debate. We're going to hear more of it. Barack Obama was defending his idea of Obama-care and Medicare. He said, for instance, that Medicare works because the insurance companies have to make a profit on top of their administrative costs. Medicare doesn't have to do that. It's has lower administrative costs and therefore it's a better deal. He said that Romney's idea of premium support, helping people buy insurance in the private marketplace, he said, all economists agree the premium support will cause Medicare to collapse.

    Now that's an arguable point. And I think that Romney is going to engage him on those issues and try to continue to make the case for private-sector health insurance.

    RILEY: What I found interesting about this exchange is, remember, Obama-care was supposed to be Romney's Achilles heel. Throughout the primaries, his rivals said he wouldn't be able to challenge on that, and I think he proved a lot of people wrong on Wednesday night.

    GIGOT: He pushed right through that and went on offense.


    RILEY: Used it as an example of his effort to reach across the aisle.

    GIGOT: Bipartisanship --


    RILEY: Bipartisanship, yes.

    GIGOT: That's interesting.

    Let's look at an ad that -- we have a big question here about how the Democrats and Obama are going to respond. Let's look at the ad they rolled out after the debate.


    OBAMA: I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message.

    ROMNEY: I'm not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut. That's not my plan.

    ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: The non-partisan Tax Policy Center has concluded that Mitt Romney's tax plan would cost $4.8 trillion over 10 years.

    AD ANNOUNCER: Why won't Romney level with us about his tax plan which gives the wealthy huge new tax breaks? Because, according to experts, he'd have to raise taxes on the middle class or increase the deficit to pay for it. If we can't trust him here, how can we ever trust him here?


    GIGOT: Kim, first of all, I should point out, they're using the "Wall Street Journal's" name in vein once again there.


    GIGOT: We do not endorse -- in fact, we think that Tax Policy Center study is completely bogus.

    But, Kim, this suggests -- this ad -- to me that they are not changing strategy. They're doubling down on their strategy of going after Mitt Romney.

    STRASSEL: Yes, if you thought it was ugly so far, just hold on. The problem the Democrats have is that, what Mitt Romney really did in Denver is he demolished, to a certain extent, their main campaign strategy. Their goal was to go out there and present him in a negative light. And they've spent an enormous amount of money, saying this guy is a rapacious millionaire, failed record, bad ideas, and then presented Barack Obama as the moderate alternative. He really took a sledgehammer to that. The problem is they don't have much better than that. They can't run on the economy. They can't run on the president's legislative record. People don't like it. So what they're going to do is they're now going to go straight after his character, suggest he has a credibility issue, call him a liar, say that he's a flip-flopper, and that's where they'll go for the rest of the election.


    GIGOT: Yes, Mary?

    O'GRADY: I think Kim is touching on a really important point, which is fear is such a big part of the Obama campaign. I mean, he is trying to gin up fear for people who -- you know, you have 23 million people out of work and you tell them, by the way, this guy is going to take away every chance you have for health care?

    GIGOT: But when Romney comes in and looks like he's a reasonable guy, a competent fellow, he's not scary. He talks about his Medicare plan in pretty reasonable terms. He's non-radical.

    O'GRADY: That's exactly what I mean. That's why --


    GIGOT: You blow up the fantasy, the caricature, rather, of how he's been portrayed. And I think that helped him.

    O'GRADY: That's why the debate was so damaging for Obama.

    GIGOT: Are we going to see a movement in the polls, Dan, as a result of the debate?

    HENNINGER: I think we'll see some movement. Yes, I think Romney will get a bump. Whether he'll get one in Ohio is a good question. But he's got to keep that momentum going.

    GIGOT: Briefly, Jason?

    RILEY: I think he'll get something of a bump. But I think the most important outcome of the debate for Romney is that he energized the party and they believe they can win again. And I think that's an even more significant accomplishment in the short run than a bump in the polls.

    GIGOT: OK, Jason, thanks.

    Still ahead, one debate down, three more to go, believe it or not. The vice-presidential candidates get their turn next week in Kentucky. Can Paul Ryan keep the Republican momentum going in his face-off with Joe Biden?


    GIGOT: Vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan get their chance when the two square off in Kentucky in their one-and-only debate.

    So, Jason, let's first talk about, you know, it's been I guess six weeks or so since the Paul Ryan selection. How well has he done on the ticket? How much has he added to the Romney campaign?

    RILEY: Well, I think he's helped to energize Republicans. And I think he's helped Romney. He's turned out to be a solid pick. The first rule of V.P. picks is do no harm.

    GIGOT: Right.

    RILEY: He's cleared that bar. I don't think he's helped as much in Wisconsin. Romney was hoping to get a pump there, maybe make it more competitive. The Real Clear Politics average has Obama above 50 percent there, up by about seven points. That hasn't panned out. They put a bunch of ads out after the convention and they wanted to put Wisconsin in play. That hasn't worked out. But overall, I think that Ryan has been a solid pick. Medicare reform has become part of the debate. And there's no real evidence out there that it's harming the ticket.

    GIGOT: Kim, the poll right after the Ryan pick, for the two weeks leading up to the Republican convention, showed the race had closed almost to basically to a tie. And then you have the two different conventions and the gap widened again. So I think you can make the case that Ryan helped but the conventions reopened the gap. And this debate could help -- could help the campaign again?

    STRASSEL: No, Ryan has been a net plus, because he's given a foundation to this campaign. And I think you probably have to argue that the Romney that you saw in Denver this week was, in part, a reflection of having a strong candidate like Paul Ryan by his side. And so that's what he's going to do, Paul Ryan himself, in Kentucky this coming week. Arguably, he's going to have a little bit of a harder row to hoe here going into the first presidential debate. Barack Obama, everyone expected he would win.

    GIGOT: Right.

    STRASSEL: And just Romney needed to put in a good performance. In fact, he did very well.

    The argument here is that Paul Ryan is so great -- and he will hold his own -- but no one should underestimate Joe Biden. He's going to be OK out there.

    GIGOT: This may be something of a trap for Ryan because, you know, the media expectation is he's going to do so well, he's a numbers guy, knows his brief, and so on, but Biden is a real slasher. And he's going to go after, I assume, Mitt Romney, hammer and tong. What does Ryan have to do here in this debate?

    HENNINGER: Well, he's going to have to fight back, Paul. There was once a debate called the kitchen debate. This is going to be the kitchen- sink debate.


    Joe Biden is going to stand there throwing one kitchen sink after another at Ryan. He is going to bring up the 47 percent. He will bring up the war on women. He will bring up Bain Capital. He'll throw all of this stuff at Ryan.

    GIGOT: He'll throw the entire MSNBC agenda at him.

    HENNINGER: Exactly.


    We'll see if it sticks.


    HENNINGER: But part of the strategy there will be to pin Ryan down on defense, and prevent him from talking about the things he knows best, which are Medicare, taxes and financial stuff, the sort of things that Romney opened up for him in that initial debate. Romney unlocked Paul Ryan to a certain extent, and now he can leverage him if Ryan can get the space to talk about it in the debate.

    GIGOT: Mary?

    O'GRADY: He will -- I think what you can expect from Paul Ryan, he will repeat over and over again the $716 billion in Medicare cuts that Obama is putting on people who are right now relying on Medicare. And he will show -- he will try to show that his plan will actually save Medicare while Obama will destroy it. I think that's his greatest edge and that's where he's going to go.

    GIGOT: He's got a delicate task thought because I think he has to defend -- Jason, I think he has to defend Romney against what will be Biden's task, even as he turns around and tries to go after the president's agenda while showing his own competence on substance --

    RILEY: Sure.

    GIGOT: -- on these issues. That's a more complicated task than Biden, who is basically going to be all in, assaulting Romney.

    RILEY: I also think Biden is going to want to talk foreign policy, because I think the polls have shown that the president's doing good on that, not as well as he was. That gap has narrowed with the events in the Middle East. But still, we killed bin Laden and we're bringing troops home and so forth. So it will be interesting to see how Team Romney responds on foreign policy.

    O'GRADY: I don't know. I think if he tries to go too hard on foreign policy, he's in big trouble because of what happened in Benghazi. Ryan will use that against him and I think damage him very badly.

    GIGOT: But Ryan is a rookie on foreign policy. That's not his area of expertise. I've heard him on that subject and he sounds, I have to say, more callow than he does on the budget in some of these things. So it's going to be interesting to see if he's done a full emerges on that and does pretty well.

    Dan, briefly?

    HENNINGER: Well, I'd like to see them get into the battle over happened with the super committee and the deficit last year. Joe Biden said last week that Paul Ryan walked away from that committee. The details would be a lot of fun to listen to because they were both on the committee.

    GIGOT: And Ryan has a good answer to that, I can tell you --


    GIGOT: -- about how the president sabotaged it.

    Much more to come in the second half hour, including a preview of the Supreme Court's new term. It's promising to be another blockbuster, with racial references, voting rights and gay marriage all potentially on the docket.

    And after this week's debate on the economy, foreign policy is set to make a campaign comeback, with Mitt Romney delivering a major speech on Monday and Republicans holding hearings in Washington on Wednesday on last month's deadly attacks in Libya.


    GIGOT: Welcome back to the "Journal Editorial Report." Coming up in this half hour: The Supreme Court is back in session, and it's promising to be another tumultuous term as the justices revisit the issue of racial preferences in college admissions.

    And could it be a potential pickup of Republicans in the bluest of blue states? We'll have the latest on the Senate race in Connecticut.

    But first, an update on the investigation into last month's deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Congressional hearings are planned for next week, with members of the House Oversight Committee promising tough questions for the administration over allegations of lax security at the U.S. consulate leading up to that assault.

    Republicans Darrell Issa and Jason Chaffetz sent a letter to this week to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claiming that, quote, "Multiple U.S. federal government officials have confirmed to the committee that prior to September 11 attack, the U.S. mission in Libya made repeated requests for increased security in Benghazi. The mission in Libya, however, was denied these resources by officials in Washington."

    The FBI arrived in Benghazi Wednesday, three weeks after the attack, but spent only about 12 hours there.

    We're back with Dan Henninger. Also joining the panel, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Matt Kaminski and foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens.

    So Bret, foreign policy had been said to be a big asset for President Obama in this election campaign. Is that edge eroding with the news in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East?

    BRET STEPHENS, WALL STREET JOURNAL: I think it is, and I think it ought to be eroding. It's long past time that the president not get the credit that he claims to get for foreign policy achievements which don't exist.

    What happened in Libya -- I mean, there's a lot of focus now on the kind of bureaucratic blunders that were made both prior -- especially prior to the attack in not sufficiently securing our diplomatic security there...

    GIGOT: That's an important issue, is it not?

    STEPHENS: It's a bureaucratic issue. And let's face it...

    GIGOT: Well, wait a minute. Don't we -- don't we have to keep our...

    STEPHENS: Yes.

    GIGOT: ... our diplomatic missions secure?

    STEPHENS: Yes, we do, but it's not the largest issue. I think -- I think these congressmen will be making -- Darrell Issa will be making a mistake if they don't focus on the fact that this was President Obama's 3:00 AM call. The real blunder is what happened when they knew that our facility was under attack, they knew that our ambassador was missing, and their instinct was, Let's do nothing, let's ask for Libyan government...

    GIGOT: And why was that -- what does that instinct tell you about Obama foreign policy? What could they have done?

    STEPHENS: Well, we have a naval base in Sicily 450 miles away, OK? We could have called up supersonic jets to get over the site.

    GIGOT: But what would they have been able to do on the ground?

    STEPHENS: What they could -- what they could have done at least on the ground is have a show of force indicating that we were ready to prepare to deploy force. We had no idea whether this incident was going on for two hours, 12 hours, 24 -- 24 hours...

    GIGOT: But if you're going to save the guys on the ground, you had to be there on the ground, did you not? Didn't you have to be...

    STEPHENS: Look, the instinct here -- but Paul, the instinct here was, Let's not violate Libyan sovereignty. Let's consult with our Libyan partners. It wasn't, We have Americans who are in danger right now, let's take every action available at our disposal.

    And after the fact, then the instinct was, Let's agree essentially with the jihadists' premise that all this is about this video and it wasn't a pre-planned terrorist attack. That's where the fault of the administration lies!

    GIGOT: You know, the administration, Matt, is saying, Look, you guys are politicizing this. We had a letter from William Burns, a leading State Department official, who said that about our own editorial on this. Is there a danger for the Republicans of appearing to politicize what was a terrible setback for the U.S. State Department and U.S. foreign policy?

    KAMINSKI: Well, I think so far, they've been playing it pretty straight, unlike the administration. I mean (INAUDIBLE) themselves into this. I mean, they took on the storyline that it was the fault of the video.

    GIGOT: The video, yes.

    KAMINSKI: And they...

    GIGOT: Spontaneous combustion.

    KAMINSKI: Exactly. And they stuck with it for far too long. And now it's very hard for them to admit, well, yes, there were security concerns before the attack, yes, there were insufficient protections for this mission the day of 9/11, the anniversary of 9/11, and afterwards not coming forward with actually what they knew.

    And (INAUDIBLE) people in the CIA and FBI are very unhappy about this. And apparently, they knew within 24 hours that it was a jihadist possibly al Qaeda-linked group that was behind this, and they didn't say so.

    GIGOT: What about Turkey and Syria, shelling across the border, Dan, the Syrian up rising now spilling over regionally? We were told that if the U.S. intervened, we'd get a wider regional conflict. We didn't intervene, we have a wider regional conflict.

    HENNINGER: Right. And it -- I mean, it is growing. Turkey -- we don't know what exactly is going to happen between Turkey and Syria, but the Turks have made sort of official preparations to go deeper into Syria, if necessary.

    And at the same time, I think you've got a situation in Iraq where you have a lot more terrorist insurgent attacks going on. You have the Iranians flying over Iraq because the Iraqis can't protect their air space.

    GIGOT: Deliver aid to...


    HENNINGER: So there is a lot shaking in the Middle East right now, and it's -- and the president, as Bret is suggesting, has been trying to keep all of this at arm's length during the election. And that's not very presidential.

    GIGOT: What would you like to hear from Romney in that speech, Matt?

    KAMINSKI: I think I'd wanted to hear -- I want to say that, you know, there's a vacuum that's been created in the Middle East. American power is in decline. And this is what happens when America is not leading in the world. The Turks want America to be engaged. They want American support. They don't get it. The same in Iraq.

    GIGOT: Bret.

    STEPHENS: I want -- I want him to say that friends come first in American foreign policy, and we are not going to favor the Egyptians at the expense of the Israelis or the Russians at the expense of the Poles or the Chinese at the expense of anyone else.

    GIGOT: OK. Bret, we'll see what he says.

    Still ahead: Shades of red in blue New England! A new poll shows Republicans Senate candidate Linda McMahon running neck and neck with her Democratic opponent in Connecticut, of all places. We'll bring you the latest on this possible Republican pickup.


    GIGOT: Turning now to the battle for control of the United States Senate, and this week, we go to Connecticut, an unlikely place for Republican pickup, but that's where a new poll finds former professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon tied with Democratic congressman Chris Murphy for the seat held by retiring Senator Joe Lieberman.

    Connecticut hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate in three decades, and Mitt Romney is running well behind President Obama there. So why is this race so close?

    We're back with Dan Henninger, Matt Kaminski and Mary Anastasia O'Grady.

    So Matt, you were up there for the Republican primary. Why is she -- Linda McMahon doing so well?

    KAMINSKI: Well, she's a marketing specialist and she's managed to rebrand herself for this campaign. She lost terribly in 2010...

    GIGOT: Twelve points.

    KAMINSKI: ... by 12 points. She spent $50 million, got nowhere. But this time around, she saw what her vulnerabilities were. People saw her as overly aggressive, you know, a wrestling promoter, and she's actually managed to turn herself, using ads, into a grandmotherly, moderate, softer figure...

    GIGOT: She's stopped throwing people out of the ring, is that it?


    KAMINSKI: Pretty much. But I think she has a very controlled message. And plus, she's managed to go on...

    GIGOT: What's she running on? What is -- what is -- what is her message?

    KAMINSKI: Her message is actually fairly negative. I mean, she's running on -- well, the positive side is, I was in business, I bring this experience.

    GIGOT: I'm an outsider, not part of Congress.

    KAMINSKI: Right.

    GIGOT: I can shake it up.

    KAMINSKI: Exactly. But the reason why she's ahead here is because she -- starting in August, she went very strong after Chris Murphy, the Democratic candidate. She has great opposition research, and they found that he had been late on paying his mortgage, had some other financial problems. And for the last six weeks, she's been really hitting him hard on that, which has put him totally on the defensive.

    GIGOT: All right, let's run back-to-back ads we have from the two candidates and you can get a flavor of what Matt's talking about.


    REP. CHRIS MURPHY, D-CONNECTICUT SENATE CANDIDATE: My grandfather and great-grandfather worked in Connecticut factories. My family's rooted in the middle class. So my jobs plan starts with a "buy America" initiative to create Connecticut jobs, and my tax plan cuts taxes for the middle class.

    But Linda McMahon's tax plan -- it gives her a $7 million tax cut and it cuts programs for Connecticut's middle class and Medicare for seniors. Linda McMahon never fought for the middle class. I do.

    UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Chris Murphy attacks Linda on Social Security and Medicare. But Murphy didn't tell us the truth about when he was sued in court for not paying his rent, sued for not paying his mortgage or missing nearly 80 percent of his committee hearings. So do you think Murphy is telling the truth now? Two facts. On March 2010, Murphy voted to cut Medicare $716 billion! And Linda McMahon has pledged no cuts to Medicare or Social Security.


    GIGOT: All right, pretty cookie cutter Democratic ad from Murphy saying, basically, you know, I'm a tribune of the middle class and she's for the rich, and Oh, they're going to cut Grandma, throw her in the snowbank.

    Who's getting the best of this exchange?

    MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Oh, I think she's way ahead, and part of that is Matt says she's spending a lot of money, so in polls, her name recognition is much higher than...

    GIGOT: But the polls are even.

    O'GRADY: No, I'm sorry, in -- measuring her name recognition...

    GIGOT: Right.

    O'GRADY: ... she's way ahead. People are more familiar with her, and that seems to be helping her. But you know, she's also -- apart from the negative campaigning about his background, she's also tapping into the economic anxiety in the state, which is significant. And she's talking about her ability to get -- create jobs and having experience in the business world, and Chris Murphy's experience is basically as a political prodigy of Chris Dodd.

    GIGOT: Protege, as a protege of Chris Dodd, the former senator. Now, Murphy's attacking McMahon for having declared bankruptcy in the past and not having paid the creditors. Now, she and her husband, Vince McMahon, have since paid those creditors off, but this is leading to...

    HENNINGER: Well, this is a race for the Senate, but I must say it's a fairly low-rent race for the Senate.


    GIGOT: ... professional wrestling-style race.

    HENNINGER: Well, that is one of -- that is one of Murphy's primary points, that -- that Linda McMahon represents the war on women, it demeans women, and so forth. And you know, it's worth doing because Democratic registrations far outpace Republicans in that state.

    But Mary's right, there's a lot of economic anxiety. And the Democratic governor, Dan Malloy, raised taxes in Connecticut. His approval has fallen below 50 percent. So I think probably this is going to depend a little bit on coattails, as well, between Romney and Obama and go right -- right to the -- right to the the finish line.

    O'GRADY: And she's also -- and with these ads, she's also hitting on this trust issue.


    O'GRADY: And you know, he was on the Financial Services Committee in Congress, and she's suggesting in her ads, also, that he is, you know, someone who got a favor from a bank in Connecticut even after he had stopped paying his mortgage, so that's suggesting that people can't trust him.

    GIGOT: Though he and the bank do deny it. Briefly, Matt.

    KAMINSKI: I think then her -- really (ph), she went so far that she's forced the Democratic Senate committee to invest in this race. I think she still faces an uphill battle in Connecticut. Obama's up by 12, 14 points in that state. It's a very blue state. But she's made this a competitive race, which no one expected.

    O'GRADY: And a lot of people are independent.

    GIGOT: That's right.

    Still ahead: The Supreme Court is back in town and the new term promises to bring new controversies. On the docket next week, Affirmative Action in college admissions. We'll preview that case and some other potential blockbusters next.


    GIGOT: Well, maybe nothing can top the drama of June's controversial health care ruling, but the Supreme Court is certainly starting off its new term with a bang. Next week, the justices will revisit the issue of racial preferences and whether the University of Texas at Austin's use of race in its undergraduate admissions process violates the United States Constitution.

    We're back with Dan Henninger and Jason Riley and senior editorial page writer Collin Levy also joins the panel.

    So Collin, in this Fisher case about the University of Texas, what's at stake?

    COLLIN LEVY, WALL STREET JOURNAL: I mean, Paul, basically, what's at stake here is whether or not schools can use racial preferences in their admissions process, period.

    This case was brought by Abigail Fisher, who's a white woman who was denied admission at the University of Texas even though some of her scores were higher than some minority candidates. So she sued under equal protection grounds.

    Now, the justices basically have to decide here -- and this is the key point -- whether schools can use racial preferences even when race-neutral means of increasing diversity on campus are already effective.

    GIGOT: All right, Collin, what does this tell you, that the Supreme Court took the case, when as recently in 2003, in a Michigan case, the justices said that race could be one of the criteria used in admissions? Does it seem to you that they're revisiting that judgment?

    LEVY: They're certainly revisiting that judgment, and part of it is because of how that judgment has played out. What happened in the case you're referring to, which is the Grutter case, Grutter versus University of Michigan, was that they basically said that -- Sandra Day O'Connor said in her opinion that schools should try first to use race-neutral means.

    Now, the University of Texas was already doing that. They have a law called the top 10 percent law...

    GIGOT: Right.

    LEVY: ... which basically requires the school to admit the top 10 percent of high school students across the state.

    GIGOT: From any high school.

    LEVY: And this -- from any high school across the state. So this means that the diversity on campus has increased enormously and actually is higher, at about 25 percent, than it was under racial preferences, at about 21 percent. So they were -- they've then done these racial preferences on top of that. The question is whether or not that's necessary or appropriate.

    GIGOT: Well, and on the case, Collin, since that Grutter decision, you had Sandra Day O'Connor retire, replaced by Samuel Alito.

    LEVY: Right.

    GIGOT: So there's a -- there's a -- a switch in the court could lead to a switch in the decision, Jason.

    JASON RILEY, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Sure. Certainly. And it's a good thing that they are revisiting it, Paul, because there's a growing body of evidence that racial preferences not only don't help the intended beneficiaries, which is poorer blacks, usually middle class kids benefit them, but might actually be hurting the kids who receive them.

    And I say that because what you see is a mismatch of kids with schools. In California, when they ended racial preferences back in 1996, the black graduation rate actually increased, and that was because more kids were going to schools that matched their skills and then actually graduated.

    The left loves to obsess over getting the right racial mix in the freshman class. They don't care about...

    GIGOT: They don't care about who's in the senior -- in the senior class. What about this finding, Jason, of this issue of diversity and the value of diversity? The Supreme Court really hung a lot in its previous jurisprudence on race in admissions on the value of diversity and saying that justifies -- because we all want -- you know, it's better for students to have a mix of people you deal with. And it helps...

    RILEY: That's become the new excuse.

    GIGOT: It becomes -- it helps the educational experience. What's your response to that?

    RILEY: Diversity has become the new excuse for racial preference. Used to be to make up for past wrongdoings for blacks. That was the original justification for it.

    GIGOT: Right.

    RILEY: But we've switched. We've switched to diversity, which of course, can go on forever. I mean, to getting the right racial mix -- it's the ultimate justification for racial preferences.

    The problem with it is, is there's no evidence that that's the case. There's no evidence that a black kid needs to be sitting next to a white kid to read Shakespeare and understand what's going on or to do calculus and understand what's going on. It's a ridiculous argument.

    And it's a one-way street. Only blacks can bring diversity to white kids. You don't see people complaining about too many -- not enough white kids at Howard University, an all-black school.

    HENNINGER: Jason, in this Fisher case, Justice Anthony Kennedy remains the swing vote. Back in the Michigan case, Justice Kennedy said he had qualms about Justice O'Connor's idea that this was just simply a step on the road to race neutrality.

    GIGOT: She said it was 25 years and then it would kind of phase out.

    HENNINGER: And Kennedy said he had his doubts that they may, in fact, really want to use race as a basis. And I agree with Justice Kennedy about the University of Michigan, and I think that's what's going on in Texas. And I suspect he's going to blow the whistle on it in this case.

    GIGOT: All right, Collin, what else, briefly, can we expect to see from the Supreme Court this term?

    LEVY: Well, the two big cases that everyone's going to be watching, actually, are two cases that are -- they are hoping the Supreme Court's going to take. One is on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

    GIGOT: Right.

    LEVY: And another one is on whether or not section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is still appropriate for states that historically had discrimination and must go to the federal government to approve any changes to their voting laws.

    There's a lot of scuttlebutt now that some of the those requirements are really no longer appropriate for these states, so that is something the Supreme Court could also review.

    GIGOT: Yes. Both of those would be landmark cases if they went -- if they either overturned the Voting Rights Act or the Defense of Marriage Act, which of course, Bill Clinton signed in 1996.

    All right, we have to take one more break. When we come back, our "Hits and Misses" of the week.


    GIGOT: Time for our "Hits and Misses" of the week. But first, have to correct myself. In the last segment, I said that the Supreme Court might -- is considering overturning the Voting Rights Act. It is doing no such thing. It's just a narrow provision of that act. So forgive me for that mistake.

    Collin, first to you.

    LEVY: Paul, this is a hit to Pennsylvania commonwealth court judge Robert Simpson, who this week blocked the state's voter ID law, but did so in a way that made clear that he was only doing so in the context of this election because he didn't think the state could be ready. So this is an issue that the NAACP and the ACLU have tried to use to goose minority turnout in the election, and the decision takes the -- away the ability for them to use it for cynical political purposes.

    GIGOT: All right. Bret?

    STEPHENS: Well, you know, last month, Vladimir Putin effectively endorsed President Obama's reelection campaign. I'm sure the Obama team was thrilled by it. Just earlier this week, he got another interesting endorsement, this time from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who said, If I were American, I'd vote for Obama. And he then added, I think if Obama could vote in Venezuela's election, he'd vote for Chavez.

    Now, this is a segment called "Hits and Misses." This is a hit in the sense of a hit squad.

    GIGOT: OK. Kim?

    STRASSEL: A hit to North Dakota for reminding us that you bet you can have fabulous eonomic success if only government gets out of the way. Reuters had a mind-boggling piece this week nothing that Mountrail County, the heart of North Dakota's oil fracking boom, has doubled its average income over the past five years, making it one of the top 100 richest counties in the country.

    And also, they quoted an excerpt from the University of North Dakota saying that right now, North Dakota is minting 2,000 new millionaires a year.

    GIGOT: OK, Kim.

    STRASSEL: What a contrast with Washington!

    GIGOT: All right. Matt?

    KAMINSKI: Paul, here's the hit to the country -- not the state -- of Georgia, which this week held elections, and for the first time was going to see a new opposition government come in democratically.

    GIGOT: All right. Thank you.

    That's it for this week's edition of the show. Thanks to my panel, and especially to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot, and we hope to see you right here next week.

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