RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Labor Day marks the traditional start of the sprint towards Election Day. Although this campaign has certainly been everything but traditional. Nevertheless, let's talk about the state of the race as we begin the last leg with NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, if someone were to just now start paying attention to this campaign, what would they find?
LIASSON: They'd find a race, a horse race, where, by most metrics, Hillary Clinton is ahead in polling nationally and in key battleground states, in fundraising and campaign operations on the ground, in advertising, endorsements, surrogates. But Donald Trump, who has had a harder time with what political professionals would call message discipline, has changed that recently. And he has been able to narrow her lead a little bit nationally, if not in battleground state polls.
MONTAGNE: Well, for someone, as we've just suggested, who is just starting to pay attention, that person might be surprised to hear about states that you would never have thought were battleground states.
LIASSON: That's right. Trump is struggling in states that used to be reliable red states, like Arizona and Georgia. The Washington Post today even has a poll that shows Texas in a dead heat. So that gives Hillary Clinton a lot of running room if she wants to devote resources to states like Georgia and Arizona, even Missouri, she could. She might not necessarily think she can win them, but she can force Trump to play defense in those states he should be able to count on.
MONTAGNE: All right. Well, let's take a few minutes to get on the road with those candidates. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did spend time talking to voters in battleground states yesterday. NPR's Tamara Keith is traveling with the Clinton campaign.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hillary Clinton's day was notable, not for the speeches she gave to large crowds at Labor Day events in Ohio and Illinois, though she did do that...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HILLARY CLINTON: I am going to say no to rolling back collective bargaining. I'm going to say no to unfair trade deals like the TPP.
KEITH: ...And not for all the high-profile campaign surrogates that fanned out to swing states all over the country - Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Bill Clinton. What was notable is that for the first time in this very long campaign, Clinton flew on the same plane as her traveling press corps.
CLINTON: Hey, everybody.
KEITH: And she came back on that plane to talk to reporters.
CLINTON: So with that, I'd love to take your questions.
KEITH: Her opponent's campaign has been counting the days since Clinton's last formal press conference. The tally was up to 275. On the plane, for more than 20 minutes she answered questions and follow-up questions on a range of topics, including Russian hacking of the DNC, Syria, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Trump foundation, the Clinton Foundation and why her staff used something called BleachBit to delete her emails after The New York Times had reported on her private email.
CLINTON: I don't know anything about that. That was not something that I was aware of and I think that the facts point out that there was no connection...
KEITH: Clinton's answers didn't make news. But in this election year, just the extent of the Q&A was newsworthy on its own. Tamara Keith, NPR News.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: I'm Scott Detrow, traveling with the Trump campaign. Trump's Labor Day schedule illustrates just how, well, traditional Trump has seemed lately. It was filled with the types of events that Hillary Clinton has been doing all year - small, tightly controlled roundtables with just a handful of voters, meet and greets at the fair and a diner outside of Cleveland.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi. Look, Lukey (ph).
DONALD TRUMP: Beautiful, that looks like me when I was a baby.
DETROW: Until recently, Trump had dismissed this type of retail politics for big rallies. But in the last few weeks, he's been staying on message and away from the off-the-cuff remarks that have gotten him in so much trouble. One thing Trump's expected to keep focusing on - his promise to restore America's strength in the world. Speaking to about a dozen people in an American Legion hall outside Cleveland, Trump pointed to the recent dust-up White House staffers had with Chinese officials over what stairs to use when Air Force One landed in China this past weekend. He said the scuffle was a symbol of how China pushes the United States around.
TRUMP: If that were me, I'd say, you know what folks? I respect you a lot. Let's close the doors. Let's get out of here.
DETROW: After visiting Ohio Monday, Trump is in North Carolina and Virginia today. The schedule shows how hard his challenge is over the next two months. All three are critical states for a Republican to win if he wants to take the White House. But in all three, Trump is trailing in most recent polls.
MONTAGNE: That was NPR's Scott Detrow with the Trump campaign, plus Tamara Keith with Clinton, and with us here is Mara Liasson. And given all the advantages that you listed a few moments ago about Hillary Clinton, why is this still a close race?
LIASSON: It's still a close race because these are two of the most unpopular candidates ever. They have historically high unfavorability ratings. Hers are only a little bit better than his. More than half of each candidate's supporters say their vote is going to be against the other candidate, not for their candidate. So despite all of Clinton's assets, her ability to pull support and endorsements from Republicans from previous administrations, her structural advantages in the electoral map and with important demographic groups like minorities and young people and college-educated whites, this race is still close. The electorate is in the mood for change, but the change candidate, Donald Trump, has not yet passed the plausibility test with enough voters.
MONTAGNE: So with a little more than two months to go, what should we be watching for?
LIASSON: In past elections, we've learned that it is very hard to change the state of the race after Labor Day barring a big October surprise or a spectacularly good or bad performance in a debate. So I would say what we should be watching for are the debates. That is the main thing. And the first one is on September 26, at Hofstra University in Long Island. Right now it looks like Donald Trump will come into that debate as the underdog. He'll be needing to change the dynamic of the race. And since he's a candidate who has been willing to do and say things that no other candidate has been willing to do, that first debate should be as unpredictable as the rest of this campaign has been.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks very much.
LIASSON: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.