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Pope's Speech To Congress Comes At A Politically Tricky Time


The pope arrives here in Washington, D.C., tomorrow evening. He'll be greeted by the President and Mrs. Obama for the start of two days of firsts for the nation's capital. Pope Francis will perform the first canonization ceremony on American soil, and he will be the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress. That speech comes at what could be a tricky time for the pontiff politically with a government shutdown looming over the question of federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Joining us now, as she does most Mondays, is Cokie Roberts. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Now, some Republican members of Congress are hoping the pope addresses the issue of abortion in his talk. Some Democrats are counting on him to take their position on funding for the government programs and the issue of climate change. So are either of those things likely to happen?

ROBERTS: Well, he's certainly likely to talk about protecting life, including the life of the planet. But I think both sides are going to be disappointed if they think they can claim the pope is on their team. But it's obvious why they want to do that, Renee. I mean you look at the polling numbers on the pope, ABC had a new poll out over the weekend showing 86 percent - that's about as high as you ever get - of Catholics viewing the pope favorably and 70 percent of all Americans viewing him favorably and also a majority seeing the church in touch with the people. And that is up from about 34 percent at the start of Francis's papacy. So there are a lot of politicians wanting to cling on to his cassock.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's turn to politics generally speaking. We do have another new poll to look at - this in the wake of the Republican debate last week which seems to a shaken up the field of candidates quite a bit.

ROBERTS: Yes. CNN took a poll after its own debate and found that Carly Fiorina, unsurprisingly because of her strong debate performance, now comes in second after Donald Trump, whose numbers are down somewhat. Also, you see one candidate likely to really be in trouble as a result of that debate, and that is Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin who now registers less than one half of 1 percent, an asterisk in the polling. So you start to see some winnowing now. Some candidates are likely to start to drop out. But, you know, debates are just part of the picture here, Renee. There's a flap going on, as you well know, that emerged over the weekend after the debate when Donald Trump made a comment about Muslims to a voter in New Hampshire.

MONTAGNE: And, Cokie, for those who might not be following this, the man who asked the question talked about Muslims being a problem in this country. He prefaced it by saying that the president is a Muslim and not even an American, quoting him. Trump's failure to set the man straight on the facts has drawn a good deal of criticism from Republicans. But I'm wondering if it's really making a difference in his frontrunner status.

ROBERTS: Well, nothing seems to. That's - that is the case. But this Muslim question has caught up some other candidates as well. Ben Carson, the doctor, was asked about whether he would approve of a Muslim as president, and he said no. And that's caused a lot of upset. Donald Trump, when asked the same question, said, well, some people think it's already happened - so going back to that inference that President Obama is a Muslim, something that a good quarter of Republicans believe. But, you know, the other candidates really don't believe in the end that Trump or Carson or Carly Fiorina will ever get the nomination, and so they're still running against each other, hoping to get heard above the din. And the debates are somewhat helpful there because Donald Trump draws people to watch those debates.

MONTAGNE: Well, just quickly, no Democratic debates yet - is that a problem?

ROBERTS: Well, a lot of Democrats are asking for more debates. Hillary Clinton who's obviously been taking some hits in the polls is trying to get out there. She had her first Sunday interview in four years yesterday. And she was asked about whether Joe Biden, the vice president, is getting into the race. She said she doesn't know, but there's lots more talk about that happening, and Mrs. Biden has said she'd be on the team.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. That's Cokie Roberts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 28, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
We say that a quarter of Republicans believe President Obama is a Muslim. That was a misreading of a recent CNN/ORC poll. It actually found that "overall, 29% of Americans say they think the President is a Muslim, including 43% of Republicans."
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.
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