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Capital Gang

Democrats Debate in Iowa; Gore Backtracks on Litmus Test for Joint Chiefs; McCain Suffers From Helping Campaign Contributor With FCC

Aired January 8, 2000 - 7:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

AL HUNT, HOST: Welcome to CAPITAL GANG.

I'm Al Hunt with Margaret Carlson. And in Des Moines, our own farm belt, Robert Novak and Mark Shields. Our guest is Democratic pollster and campaign consultant Geoff Garin.

Geoff, it's good to have you with us

GEOFF GARIN, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: I'm really happy to be here.

HUNT: Well, thank you for being here.

At their fourth debate today in Des Moines, Vice President Al Gore again assailed former Senator Bill Bradley on health care.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL BRADLEY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What we have here is a scare tactic. I reject that kind of politics.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: The vice president also attacked Bradley's past votes on farm policy and issued a challenge.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we ought to come back to Iowa and have a debate on agricultural policy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Time.

GORE: Those who don't have any options -- they deserve somebody who's willing to fight for them, not just theorize about them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: Mark, from your front-row seat, who had the advantage in this debate?

MARK SHIELDS, CNN CAPITAL GANG: Vice President Al Gore, Al, and very simply because today's "Des Moines Register" showed Al Gore holding on to a 21-point lead over Bill Bradley, the same lead he had here in Iowa two months ago, and a debate which featured no knockdown and no knockouts. Gore going into the debate was ahead -- was ahead in this state coming out.

The other thing was that we saw that debate Wednesday night in New Hampshire which was acrimonious, where both men showed contempt for each other. And they swapped their Eastern abrasiveness out here for Midwestern good manners.

HUNT: Bob, you're a native Midwesterner. Is that the way you saw it?

ROBERT NOVAK, CNN CAPITAL GANG: Well, I'm sure not an Iowan. I'm from Illinois. And we don't care for niceness.

(LAUGHTER)

But niceness goes very far...

HUNT: We noticed.

NOVAK: ... in Iowa. And niceness goes very far in Iowa. And they did have their gloves on.

It was a fairly dull debate, a lot of material rehashed. But you know, the vice president, his whole campaign is to try to do gotchas on Bill Bradley, to find something that he can find out. And he found out that Bill Bradley had voted for flood insurance when he was a senator.

SHIELDS: Against it.

NOVAK: Against flood insurance. And of course, Bradley looked like the dear in the lights, parking lights. He couldn't -- he didn't remember the thing. He couldn't explain why. Who can remember all those votes?

I don't think that kind of politics goes over very well. But I agree with Mark. Nothing -- there was no -- there were no knockouts and no knockdowns, and that's to the vice president's advantage here.

HUNT: Margaret, you saw it from a distance. What did you think of it?

MARGARET CARLSON, CNN CAPITAL GANG: Both did better today. They found some sort of rhythm. And the Bickersons have gotten offstage, and now they're on actually talking about the issues. They're not saying: You said; no, you said; no, I didn't; yes, you did. That part of it was gone, and maybe they did just do it for Iowa and they'll return in their Bickerson phase.

Gore is engaging the audience now in a way he didn't before because he was engaging Bradley. Bradley, however, is now talking to the audience, the way he talks to Gore, with a certain amount of intellectual vanity and condescension, which I don't think comes across as well. HUNT: Geoff, you agree?

GARIN: I thought this was a sterling performance by Al Gore. I thought he clearly won this debate: not so much for the for the one hour, but looking at the campaign, Gore knows exactly what he's doing. He knows what he wants to say. He's ready to parry all of Bradley's thrusts.

It's a lot less clear that Bradley has his game plan figured out: Especially in the setting of the debates, it's not working as well for him.

HUNT: You know, I want to just add to what Geoff said. There's a fellow named Will Feldt (ph) that's one of your colleagues...

GARIN: Yes.

HUNT: ... a top-notch pollster who runs something called Speakout.com. They hooked up 40 Iowans for an interactive focus group who watched the debate today. They went in virtually tied between Gore and Bradley, came out 2-to-1 for Gore. Apparently, those Iowans -- it's a very small sample -- but thought that Gore's aggressive, specific tack was more appealing. And I think Bradley is going to have to consider changing his above-the-fray debate style. I think it's -- after a while, I think it doesn't -- it doesn't wear as well.

NOVAK: It's hard to do it in Iowa. It's hard to make that change in Iowa, because -- I think Iowa is a real big problem for Bill Bradley. It always has been, because it's a caucus state.

But I think before we go overboard on the Gore bandwagon, I think all in all this was a very bad week for Al Gore. He came out with a -- a litmus test for members of the joint chiefs of staff, and they had to be for gays in the military. He backed off of that. Donna Brazile, his campaign manager, belittled General Colin Powell. The vice president had to apologize to him. And the CNN/"TIME" poll shows him 17 points -- shows Gore 17 points behind George Bush. That's a big drop from where he was just a few months ago. It was a terrible week for Gore.

HUNT: Mark -- Mark Shields, there have been a lot of reports that Bradley is going to make a massive effort to try to either win or make Iowa a very, very close contest. Is this a futile effort, on his part?

SHIELDS: Well, Al, I'd have to say, based upon the "Des Moines Register" information, it's uphill. But I don't think that -- I was talking to Senator Paul Wellstone today, a Bradley supporter, and to Gina Glantz, his campaign manager last night -- I don't think that they could survive a 65-35 blowout here. And I have to say, I think that the argument that Bradley would be a better candidate in the fall against George W. Bush, or whoever the Republican nominee, and a more formidable candidate because he isn't tarred with whatever Clinton baggage there is, that certainly is undermined as well: not simply by the numbers here, but by that "TIME"/CNN poll, which shows Bradley as far behind as Gore. HUNT: Do you think that Gore had as bad a week as Bob Novak suggests, Margaret?

CARLSON: I don't -- you know, he didn't say anything different than Bradley on gays. But...

NOVAK: Oh yes, he did.

CARLSON: ... litmus test -- litmus test is the wrong phrase to use.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a dumb answer.

CARLSON: That was a dumb answer. But the formulation was wrong. But you know, they're both very pro-gay rights. I mean, to be -- to get to the left of them on gays, you'd have to be gay. So you know, there's no difference between the two of them. But that was a minor mistake. But the policy is the same.

NOVAK: Margaret, there was a difference in the -- there was -- no, it wasn't. Read the transcript.

CARLSON: He came back...

NOVAK: Margaret, may I -- may I explain where you're wrong? In the -- in the..

CARLSON: No.

NOVAK: In the New Hampshire debate, he said that he would only pick members of the joint chiefs of staff who believed in gays in the military. Bill Bradley said that the members of the joint chiefs would follow orders. That's a position that after two days -- and I wonder why it took him that long -- that Gore finally came to. And I bet you Mark will agree with me on that.

SHIELDS: Well, I do agree.

CARLSON: He -- he...

(CROSSTALK)

HUNT: Let me -- let me get Geoff Garin...

CARLSON: It took one day.

HUNT: Let me get Geoff Garin in here.

GARIN: Yes. It took him one day, but who's counting? It was an inartful answer, but he figured that out...

HUNT: It was a dumb answer.

GARIN: ... quickly and fixed it.

HUNT: Can you -- can you recover from something like that, or will that come back to haunt him in a -- in a fall campaign if he gets there?

GARIN: I think he -- I think he has recovered from it. You know, it was -- it was badly put. I think he recognized it immediately and fixed it immediately. And on to the next thing.

CARLSON: Absolutely. This is what most people remember, not the litmus test.

NOVAK: Those...

HUNT: Mark, a final word in there.

NOVAK: Those quotes are going to be bronzed and used in fall by the Republicans, I guarantee you.

SHIELDS: Al -- Al, I hate to say that the Republican National Committee was chortling, but they were over that headline in The New York Times. And I think the national defense, national security is not a good issue for Democrats. And if their only position on it is we're for gay-supporting joint chiefs of staff, I don't think it's where they want to be trying to win Reagan Democrats in November.

HUNT: OK. Final word -- final word, Mark Shields. Geoff Garin and the gang will be back with Bush versus McCain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HUNT: Welcome back.

Senator John McCain took offensive on the tax issue to begin this week's Republican presidential campaigning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Governor Bush's tax plan has 60 percent of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 10 percent of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: At Thursday's New Hampshire debate, Governor George W. Bush was asked to pledge no new taxes, so help me god.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is not only no new taxes, this is tax cuts, so help me god.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: Friday night's South Carolina debate, the dispute continued.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE FORBES, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: George, the American people are tired of people who make promises, who make promises about tax cuts that they can't keep.

BUSH: There is enough money to give the American people a substantial tax cut.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: Bush attacked McCain's campaign finance reform and got help in doing it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Think it through, because it would hurt the Republican Party. And I can tell you this. John is starting to sound like the accordion player only knows one tune -- "Lady of Spain."

MCCAIN: You are defending an illegal system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: Bob, did anybody score in these Republican debates?

NOVAK: Yes, I think the score was a negative for John McCain. This was Senator McCain's worst week. The darling of the media and Democrats really had a terrible week. Not just because it was shown, like other senators, he took money from people that he was helping to get access into the vast bureaucracy, but much worse was he played the class warfare card. That's a Democratic card, Senator. You can't do that.

This was a disaster in the minds of his own supporters to say that the tax cut goes to only the rich, and then to bring it up again in the South Carolina debate, saying Republicans don't fulfill their tax cut promises. What about Ronald Reagan?

HUNT: Margaret, was this a disaster? By the way, it was a different tune in South Carolina than it was in New Hampshire. He dropped, it was only for wealthy. So he did...

CARLSON: I mean, it's as if these debates are only in that state and they're not on TV, and people in other states don't hear them.

NOVAK: Well that was on TV.

CARLSON: Yes, I -- the, you know, the idea who won the Republican debate last night is that the Democrats won, because they looked like they were at their convention in Houston, which is the -- you know, there's the crowd like it's happy hour at the Holiday Inn, waving and cheering and stomping the most simple-mined statements.

And this comes across as, you know, intolerant. And they're not right on the issues that people care about. And, you know, they've got to play outside that room in South Carolina. And they're not going to with that stuff.

HUNT: I think Margaret's usually right. This time I'm not sure I agree with her, though, Geoff. I didn't quite see that. I didn't quite see that extremist. Other than refusing to denounce the Confederate flag, I didn't really see that in South Carolina.

GARIN: Well, it's -- part of it is -- look, I think McCain was making the right point about Bush's tax plan, just to the wrong audience. I think it's a -- will be a powerful point in the general election. I'm not sure it's going to be a powerful point against Bush now.

But, you know, it's really the absence of what they're talking about. There's no health care in the Republican debate, there's no education in the Republican debate. I think, you know, average American voters to the extent that they're going to pay attention said, why don't these people talk about the important things?

HUNT: Mark Shields, I agree with Bob Novak for different reasons. I agree with Geoff that I think that the Bush tax cut, which is primarily for the rich, will hurt in the general but it's not a good primary issue. But overall, didn't John McCain really have a pretty bad week?

SHIELDS: I think he did, Al. I think that John McCain's candidacy has been a remarkable rise. Outraised financially seven to one, overwhelmingly backed by the establishment is front-runner George Bush, and yet he's made a race of it in New Hampshire and elsewhere and he's struck fear into the hearts of the Bush people. He did it based upon a heroic biography and a differentness. He was the outsider. He was a maverick. He was the guy that was going to change things.

He lost his differentness, or at least it was eroded this week with a story of making calls for a major campaign benefactor whose planes he had used. It's a loophole, but legal. In the campaign, just simply paying, first-class fare. So I think it did.

At the same time, I don't think it was an unmixed blessing for Governor Bush. Governor Bush was able to cast himself as the outsider. But I'll tell you this from just reporting in New Hampshire, talking to voters here, there's -- people are starting to grow a little tired of the tales of the Rio Grande miracle, much like the Massachusetts miracle of 1988. He better have something else to say.

NOVAK: I think -- on contrary, I think that John McCain may -- I will not make a prediction -- but he may have lost the New Hampshire primary.

I cannot stress enough to all these Democrats on the programs tonight the fact that this -- that coming out against tax cuts, talking about tax cuts for the rich in the Republican Party is as loony as being against labor unions in the Democratic Party.

From Scoop Jackson to Paul Wellstone, all Democrats are for labor unions. All Republicans are for tax cuts. And I can tell you that there are supporters that you know very well of John McCain who are heartsick by this and cannot understand why in the world he would do something that self-destructive.

HUNT: Bob, you only have it half right. They are upset, I think, with the attack on it, saying the GOP tax cut, the Bush tax cut, is only for wealthy. However, if you want to pit Social Security against tax cuts in a Republican -- among Republican voters, not among the elites that you populate in the GOP but among rank-and-file voters, they'll pick saving Social Security over big tax cuts every single day of the week.

NOVAK: Well, Al, if we had time I'd explain to you how McCain is doing more than saving Social Security, he is financing it for the future out of general funds, which goes farther than anybody goes.

SHIELDS: Al, let me just say...

HUNT: Why don't you sit here...

SHIELDS: Just one quick thing...

HUNT: Go ahead, Mark, I'm sorry.

SHIELDS: I'm sorry.

HUNT: Mark, go ahead.

SHIELDS: Oh, just one quick thing. I think Bob is missing it on taxes this year. Yes, that's an article of faith and a litmus test for Republicans, but there is less saliency for tax cuts, even among New Hampshire Republicans, this year than there has been in the past. It doesn't...

HUNT: I think that's right -- Margaret.

CARLSON: And remember, Bob that during August the, you know, the congressional Republicans went home and tried to sell a tax cut and just couldn't, and so they've dropped most of their plans.

HUNT: Well, Margaret, you're right again. You've got the final word...

NOVAK: But it was a lousy tax plan. That's why they couldn't pass it.

HUNT: ... And next on CAPITAL GANG, keeping out the Reform nominee.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HUNT: Welcome back.

The bipartisan commission on presidential debates set a high standard for third-party participation in the three proposed debates this fall.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PAUL KIRK, COMMISSION ON PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES: Electoral support, requiring that the candidate, regardless of party, regardless of affiliation, have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the prospective voters in the general election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: Three possible Reform nominees agreed in their reaction to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAT BUCHANAN (REF), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're one of three recognized national parties. And to have the other two set criteria to keep us out of the debate that is going to determine the outcome of the election 2000 is just illegitimate. It is outrageous.

GOV. JESSE VENTURA (REF), MINNESOTA: I think it's despicable. I think it's a clear case of them fearing there could be another Jesse Ventura.

DONALD TRUMP, REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER: I agree 100 percent with Jesse. It's disgraceful. It's amazing that they can get away with it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: Margaret, a 15 percent threshold to get in -- fair or unfair.

CARLSON: There should be a threshold, but that's a little high. Given how hard it is to break through, I think it should be something lower. There are respectable views to be made at some level around 10 or 12 percent. I mean, the two parties have, you know, 60 percent. They don't have 90 percent, so they shouldn't have this control.

I love it when Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf said, you know, they had -- they weren't representing their parties, they had nothing do with their parties, it is just totally independent. Of course it is Coke and Pepsi deciding, you know, what's going to happen.

HUNT: Jeff, Jesse Ventura says if it had been seven weeks before the Minnesota gubernatorial election '98, and that had been a threshold, he would have been out of any debates.

GARIN: Well, remember, the debates don't start until October, and if somebody breaks through by then, they get -- they'll get to be in the debate.

I think it is reasonable. It is less than half of what somebody is going to need to be elected in an evenly divided three-way race. And remember, this is not for the benefit of the Reform Party, this for benefit of the voters, help them pick a president. If somebody is really not in it, it is not going to be very helpful to -- these debates are pretty divided up as they are, you know, the candidates get a few minutes of air time, there is no real sensible dialogue. Two candidates is a lot more sensible than three if there are two viable candidates.

HUNT: Bob, we know how strongly you feel about fairness -- not going say which way -- is this fair or not?

NOVAK: It is not fair, you know. Let's talk with this is about.

Probably -- not certainly, but probably -- Pat Buchanan is going to be the Reform nominee. Do you think they want Pat Buchanan, the co-host of "CROSSFIRE," the former moderator of CAPITAL GANG, to sit at the table with these tongue-tied politicians? They certainly don't.

Remember that in 1992 Ross Perot had seven percent when the debates started. He dominated the debates, affected the election, probably insured Clinton's victory, but he also got, what, 19 percent in the final election. And he wouldn't have been under -- in debates under these rules.

HUNT: Mark Shields, do you agree with your Iowa seat mate?

SHIELDS: I do not. I agree with Geoff Garin, as a matter of fact, who makes good sense on this issue. Let me just say the Reform Party in 2000, Al, is an unserious and divided group of people. If in fact a candidacy emerges, and a candidate raises issues that evoke and provoke, enlist public support, fine. Let him or her be included.

My one reservation, I have to admit, is that that '92 election, Ross Perot, say what one will about him, changed American politics by forcing both parties to deal with a deficit. Deficit politics began, and became real, in the Perot candidacy.

HUNT: Geoff?

GARIN: Well, let me just -- there is a point earlier in campaign '92 when Ross Perot was in the 30s, I mean...

HUNT: He was first.

GARIN: He was clearly a serious candidate. If Trump or Buchanan ever make it up to the 30s at any point, I vote for putting them in the debate, but they will never be there.

HUNT: Well, I thought of course the big news was not the 15 percent threshold, but the fact that one of the debates is going to be held at that great institution, Wake Forest University.

GARIN: I thought the big news is that they are not relying exclusively on "The Wall Street Journal" poll.

NOVAK: What's your position, Al, do you think 15 percent is fair?

HUNT: Strikes me as a bit high, but on that, Robert, we look for you and Mark to be back with us in Washington next week. Geoff, I want to thank you...

NOVAK: No, we'll be in Des Moines.

HUNT: ... for being with us.

THE GANG will be back -- well, we'll see you in Iowa then next week. THE GANG will be back with the "Outrage of the Week."

CARLSON: Our viewer "Outrage of the Week" is from Sandy Britt of Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee.

"It is an outrage that Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker has been ordered to submit to psychiatric testing because he expressed personal opinions that were deemed offensive to women, minorities, and immigrants during an interview. If he violated his contract, then he should be fined, but to force a psychiatric evaluation is something only the former Soviet Union or communist China would do."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HUNT: And now for the "Outrage of the Week." The tobacco industry is setting aside $7 million in soft money for Republicans in this election. It is a simple bargain. The tobacco barons will fund politicians who block any efforts to make it harder for them to hook kids on this addictive habit which of course eventually will kill millions of people. Think about this is the next time Tom DeLay or Trent Lott or party chair Jim Nicholson talk about family values -- Bob Novak.

NOVAK: No surprise that President Clinton has deported 6-year- old Elian Gonzalez to Cuba's communist dictatorship, but that doesn't make it any less an outrage. The president says he wants to go by the law, not politics, and that is deeply ironic. There has been no law in Cuba for the more than 40 years of Fidel Castro's tyranny.

Question: Why didn't Clinton demand that Castro permit the boy's entire family to come to U.S. to speak for themselves?

HUNT: Margaret.

CARLSON: Al.

Gore manager Donna Brazile should hark back to days when aids were seen and not heard. A few months ago she vowed, quote, "Not to let the white boys win," whatever that means. Then in trying to make a legitimate point about the Republican Party's failure to help African-Americans, she said of Colin Powell and Congressman J.C. Watts, quote, "They have no love and no joy. They would rather take pictures with black children than feed them." Powell in particular does a lot more than that. Gore says she is doing a good job. Is she?

HUNT: And now clean up, Mark Shields.

SHIELDS: Al, courageous reformers have been trying for years to get soft money, those six-figure contributions, from labor unions, from wealthy individuals and corporations, out of our politics. But conservatives argue against that. What did they say to the answer: Silver bullet -- instant immediate disclosure on the Internet?

Well, thanks to the Julian Elprin (ph) of "The Washington Post," we learned that J.C. Watts has joined Tom DeLay as Republican leader with his own partisan political organization with anonymous contributors. We don't know what these fat cats have, you go in before Congress and there is no disclosure. If hypocrisy were felony, Republican leaders would be doing hard time.

HUNT: All right, this is Al Hunt saying good night for THE CAPITAL GANG.

Next on CNN's "SPORTS TONIGHT," reports on the first two NFL playoff games -- go Norv Turner's Redskins.

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