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Crossfire

Christie Todd Whitman Makes the Case for Tolerance in the GOP

Aired January 20, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

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

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman on campaign 2000. Who's her choice for president, and would she like to be his vice president?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, in Trenton, New Jersey, Republican Governor Christie Whitman.

MATALIN: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE. And we're delighted to welcome Christie Whitman, New Jersey's 50 and first female governor. Her successful record in the Garden State, including 34 tax cuts and 375,000 jobs created, have made her a Republican superstar, frequently speculated as a vice presidential choice.

She first blasted on the national stage when she came within three points of defeating Democratic superstar Bill Bradley in the 1990 Senate race despite being little-known and outspent 12-to-1.

Though the darling of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives use her as a political punching bag, pummeling her in the debates. Most critical is Steve Forbes, her childhood buddy and key adviser to her 1993 gubernatorial victory, who has transformed from a Christie Whitman to a Christian Coalition Republican.

So in the crossfire tonight, Governor Whitman's thoughts on the two New Jersey presidential contenders, her choice for campaign 2000 and her aspirations for her own future -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Governor Whitman, welcome to CROSSFIRE. Thank you for joining us.

GOV. CHRISTIE WHITMAN (R), NEW JERSEY: It's a pleasure to be with you both.

PRESS: You are one of the few Republican governors who has not yet made an official endorsement in the GOP presidential primary. Governor Whitman,if you're prepared to do so, we would like to now give you that opportunity.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITMAN: Well, I signed a letter with my cohorts, the fellow governors, in support of George Bush, and I expect to make an official and formal endorsement sometime in the not-too-distant future. PRESS: Well, governor, let me ask you why you've waited so long. Have the Bush people asked you to wait because they don't want to alienate the Christian conservatives who don't seem to like you very much?

WHITMAN: Well, actually my feeling to them was you got rolling so fast so early, you had lots of people onboard, there's going to be some rough spots. There always are rough spots in a campaign, and perhaps it would be more useful to save one or two people to roll out when things got a little tough to show that in fact there's still a great deal of support for him.

PRESS: Well, let's look a little behind the scenes here. The "Los Angeles Times" yesterday showed a poll that they took of the likely GOP caucus-goers in Iowa. And the question they asked them, governor, was, who do you think is the most knowledgeable person in the recent GOP debates? I want you to see how it came out. Alan Keyes, 26 percent; George Bush, 22 percent; Forbes, 17 percent.

Governor, did you have some of those same concerns that these voters seem to have about George W. Bush, that he's not knowledgeable enough about the issues?

WHITMAN: No, I don't have any concern about (AUDIO GAP) issues. He is very knowledgeable, and what's more important is he's had a proven track record of being able to deliver on policy.

Now, it's great to know all of these things. It's just like knowing the names of everybody who's in office anywhere but not having a foreign policy to go along with it. It's more important to have the policy and more important to be able to deliver on the issues. And one of the things that George Bush has shown in Texas, one of our largest states, is that he can deliver.

And the people in Texas, as you know, were notoriously fickle about giving their governors a second term, and yet they not only gave him a second term, they gave him the support in the legislature and other constitutional offices to support him in getting what he wants to do done. And that's very important. I think that's an important testament.

You have to look to the people nearest, with the most experience with the candidate and how do they feel about him. And they feel very strongly about him.

MATALIN: Governor, let's talk about your fellow Garden Stater, Steve Forbes, who promised today in the Iowa caucuses on Monday there would be a big surprise and a positive one for him. And no matter what happens in these primaries, he will be a force in the future of the GOP.

We reference your multiple appearances at the debates, despite your not being on the stage. This is one of the references to you made by your colleague Steve Forbes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) STEVE FORBES (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And our own governor, Christie Whitman, says she's -- may not like it because it takes too much time out of the day.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's pathetic.

FORBES: And she's -- she's about to endorse Governor Bush. I think we need to get back to basics.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATALIN: He's referencing what he says is your objection to a recitation of the Declaration of Independence for school children at the top of the day.

Now, you guys grew up together.

WHITMAN: Yes.

MATALIN: He was a key adviser in your campaign. And he's gone from being a Christie Whitman Republican to a religious right Republican. What happened to him?

WHITMAN: I don't know. I think he figures this is the only way he can win the nomination, because he really is the one who has changed. And the thing that troubles me about it so much is, you know, you can change your opinion. You can change your beliefs as long as you explain it and tell people why and admit that it's a change.

But now he's doing things, like that thing about the Declaration of Independence, I mean, it's so disingenuous. He knows perfectly well I said, look, it should be part of an integrated course. I have nothing against the Declaration of Independence. I've never had a bill come to my desk that would have required that.

And in fact, the bill that they were talking about was one that I thought became very acceptable, because it talked about not just the Declaration but Thomas Paine. It talked about looking at other historical figures and other historical documents and putting that in some kind of context so that kids can understand what it means.

Should they know about the Declaration of Independence? Absolutely. But I want it to be more than something they recite in a rote way every day. Let's mix it up. And that's what was proposed to have been done here, and that would have been fine.

MATALIN: Well, this is what concerns other Republicans, that Forbes has in the past, and clearly has in this instance, distorted the records, policies, pronouncements of his fellow Republicans, which has led to the Republican Leadership Council running for the second time an ad registering this concern.

Let's take a look at that ad now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, RLC AD)

NARRATOR: Sadly, Steve Forbes has a history of unfairly attacking fellow Republicans. Forbes attacked Bob Dole, which helped the Democrats, and now he's doing it again.

Call Steve Forbes. Tell him to join George Bush and John McCain in running a positive campaign on the issues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATALIN: Now, governor, Steve Forbes' response to this is that Christie Whitman sits on the board. The Republican Leadership Council is a pro-abortion, anti -- pro-abortion and pro-Bush group. You sit on the board. What is the group and why are they running these ads?

WHITMAN: Well, in fact I have no knowledge of the ads. I haven't been part of anything like that.

I have been on the board in the past of the Republican Leadership Council, and what it is, is a group of Republicans who say there should not be narrow litmus tests to become members of the Republican Party. We support Republican candidates who support other Republican candidates and who support what we believe in, which is lower taxes, less government, fiscally conservative, socially inclusive.

That's always been the mantra. In fact, Steve Forbes used to be on the board of the Republican Leadership Council.

(LAUGHTER)

And that's what's so funny about this transformation. He is now walking away from everything that he just -- and this was just a matter of a couple of years ago. Three years -- three, four years ago, he was on the board. And now all of a sudden it's become a terrible thing.

So he's the one that really has to explain why he has come to this change in position and how real it is. And it's just too bad, because he's a very bright person. Don't get me wrong: Steve Forbes understands economics very, very well. He has got a lot to offer. And it really is sad, I think, to see someone who can be a good, positive force in the Republican Party tearing down other Republicans, making them more vulnerable when we get to a general election.

MATALIN: And one final question on him: If he came to his senses this summer saying he should and run for that Senate seat that you're not running for, do you agree with those who think he could win that seat and would you endorse him if he ran?

WHITMAN: Oh, I think he'd be a very powerful force if he came in, but we have three very good candidates here who also now have raised a substantial amount of money. They couldn't match him, of course. But they have also shown on the Republican side they can each get elected in districts that have a lot of Democrats in those districts. So they're proven vote-getters. And when you compare them to the Democrat side, we have two candidates there, one who's rarely voted in elections and nobody knows who he is, and the other they all know and nobody likes very much. So I think the Republicans are going to win that seat whoever runs.

PRESS: Governor, I'd love to debate the governor's race in New Jersey with you, but I'll restrain myself for a second here. Let's come back to...

WHITMAN: Oh, come on, Bill, you can.

PRESS: Let's go back to the issue at hand. As Mary indicated, there have been three big issues in the Republican debate so far: taxes, campaign reform, and you, governor. Here's one of the more recent references to you by Gary Bauer in one of the recent debates.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GARY BAUER (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Now, I'm willing to say that Governor Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey, the pro-abortion Republican governor, doesn't need to stick close to her phone. I won't be calling her to be my running mate. Are you willing to make a similar commitment for a pro-life running mate?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Governor, how does it feel to become the whipping girl of the Republican Party?

(LAUGHTER)

WHITMAN: Well, my advice is I don't think anybody ought to sit by a phone waiting for Gary Bauer to choose them as their running mate...

(LAUGHTER)

... because I don't think he's ever going to have that opportunity.

(LAUGHTER)

So, that's never been a big problem in my life.

You know, I keep hearing that, and all I think is it points to the paupacy of issues that he has to talk about. This presidential election is going to be about far more than one or two social issues, no matter how deeply you believe in it.

I mean, he chooses to characterize me as a pro-abortion -- I'm pro-choice, and there is a vast difference between pro-abortion and pro-choice. But be that as it may, he has very strong beliefs that differ from me. But this election is about much more than that: It's about the future of this country. It's about education. It is about the economy, and it's about taxes. It's about foreign policy. It's not about abortion. PRESS: But governor, though, do you believe that your position on choice should or does disqualify you as a potential vice presidential candidate?

WHITMAN: I don't believe that a position on choice should disqualify anyone. We have some extraordinary office-holders who are pro-choice. We've got George Pataki in New York. You've got Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania. You've got a whole host of them -- and they should not be eliminated, people with strong records who are proven vote-getters.

We want to win elections. We have got to be talking about the issues that the American people care most about, and we have got to do it with people who can win elections.

PRESS: And governor, I know you're not sitting by the phone. You have got other things to do. But if the phone rang with that request, would you accept it, and do you think as a vice-presidential nominee you could unify the party?

WHITMAN: Well, first of all, I really don't expect that to happen, so it's not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about.

PRESS: If it happened.

WHITMAN: Is it complementary to be thought of in that way? Of course. If it were to happen I am certainly not going to hang up the phone, but I would have to talk with whomever it was to make sure we were on that same page as to what that would entail as far as responsibilities and things. I know a vice president can be almost anything depending on what the president wants to give them and allow them to do. It would require obviously a great deal of loyalty, and that would never be a problem depending on who the candidate was, so of course I would talk to them.

But that's not something that I anticipate ever happening, but I do think it's as important for the party not to get sucked into this discussion on narrow litmus tests, and to reach out as we look at the vice presidential candidate for someone who can compliment the presidential candidate.

MATALIN: Governor, everywhere I go I am asked about you favorably. We know you have 25 percent left in your term, we know you want to spend time with your family, you have just answered this question. What are you going to do in the future? Surprise me.

WHITMAN: You know, Mary, I really don't know. I really -- I have got two years left here. I outlined a pretty aggressive agenda in the state of the state. I have the budget address on next Monday, and I have got a lot more things to outline in that. And -- so I have got a lot.

I really hasn't -- haven't concentrated on that. I figure that things will take care of themselves. If I do my job here, there will be options open to me. I intend to stay involved, don't get me wrong. I certainly want to stay involved -- I care too much about public policy to walk away.

PRESS: All right, governor, we're going to give you a couple of minutes to think about that while we take a break.

There is another New Jersey resident making headlines. His name happens to be Bill Bradley. Does Governor Whitman have anything good to say about Bill Bradley? We'll ask her when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Among other distinctions, Governor Christie Whitman has two of her constituents running for president -- one Republican, Steve Forbes, and one Democrat, of course, Bill Bradley, whom she almost defeated for Senate back in 1990. Does she now think Bradley is looking presidential? Let's find out. Tonight's special guest again, New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman -- Bill -- Mary.

MATALIN: I am the one with the...

PRESS: Oh, you're Mary. Oh, OK, I'm Bill. OK, got it, sorry.

MATALIN: Governor, you have thrown him off you're so good.

WHITMAN: Identity crises here.

MATALIN: It isn't surprising -- he gets thrown off by great Republican women.

PRESS: Just go on, will you, ask your question.

MATALIN: OK.

We want to understand Bill Bradley in this race. You were recorded somewhere saying that one of the reasons you came close to defeating him despite being outspent in that 1990 race is because he locked into a strategy, which was to not respond on a huge then- Governor Florio's tax plan. Either -- and your analysis was when he gets a plan he can't get out of a plan.

Do you see that as what has happened to his campaign as it looks like it is starting to implode now? He locked into a plan of staying above it all, and despite the mounting evidence that Gore was destroying his campaign he just couldn't get out of that plan?

WHITMAN: I think that is part of his problem, very definitely. You know, I saw a little bit of this back in the fall when we had tropical storm Floyd through here, some of the worst flooding in the state of New Jersey was right up near where he lives in his area of Morris county. I thought it was a no-brainer that he'd come back into this state. This is an important state for him. It's his base. It would show his compassion. All he had to do was come in for a quick visit to say how terrible it was, this devastation, and what he would do as president help people when -- in times of crisis like this. And he didn't do it. I mean, this was his backyard. And to me that was just indicative of what I saw back in 1990, which was this failure to change once you're locked in, thinking I have got it right. And as you all know from campaigns, it's great to have discipline, and you have to stay on message, but you also have to be able to be flexible to be something like president.

WHITMAN: What kind of fighter do you think he'll be? It looks like he is going to lose in Iowa, no surprise, might come up shorter than expected in New Hampshire. And then the pressure is going to be on him to get out of the race despite his having more cash on hand than the vice president. Do you think he'll fight on, and for how long?

WHITMAN: I don't know. I suspect he's put so much of himself into this at this point that he probably will fight on for a while. You know that's all going to be over by March 7 anyway on both sides, so it doesn't go much beyond that. If you don't carry some of those primaries then -- I have always believed it was going to be very hard for him anyway because of the Democrat superdelegate situation gives the party bosses more control than they have on our side, so it makes it more difficult to break Gore's lock on that.

PRESS: Governor, you have been a very successful woman running for public office. I want to ask you about another one running for office right next door to you. Yesterday, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was asked by a Buffalo talk show host if she had ever been unfaithful to your husband -- to her husband. I'm asking...

WHITMAN: Not to mine, I hope.

PRESS: I'm asking -- you're right.

WHITMAN: She's met him on several occasions.

PRESS: But I am asking you, governor, do you think that question is appropriate to anybody running for public office?

WHITMAN: Well, frankly, I think there are a whole lot of questions that are being asked of candidates today that are totally inappropriate, have nothing to do with their ability to be good officeholders, whatever that position is.

But that's a fine line that is really up to the media and the public to decide what they want to hear. And you have got to expect those questions. I mean, you can object, and you can say it's none of your business and I am not going to answer it, but you shouldn't be offended by the question. You have got to expect that those questions are going to be asked.

But I have nothing against candidates who draw the line in places and say, no, I am just not going to answer, and you the public can decide how important this is to you in your judgment of me as an appropriate person to hold office.

PRESS: Another issue, of course, in New York state, is this hassle now over the ballot. The state Republican Party leaders are trying to block Senator McCain, and I also believe Steve Forbes, from access to the ballot in New York State. Governor Pataki, of course, is behind that. Governor Bush has said he supports what the party leaders are doing. Mayor Giuliani has said it's wrong, that everybody should be on the ballot. What's your position, governor? Do you support Senator McCain or Governor Bush in ballot access in New York State.

WHITMAN: Well frankly, I haven't gotten into any of the discussions and arguments that are happening across the river. Our ballot process is much more open than that, and We allow many candidates to get on the ballot, sometimes one would say almost two too easily, but it at least allows people the opportunity to make choices. It's nice to be able to control, but I wouldn't presume to tell New York what to do. Again, that's up to the voters over there and the party members. If they're comfortable with this system, then that's the one they've chosen. We'd like to have everybody have the opportunity to be on the ballot and heard in this state.

PRESS: But isn't that a cop-out governor? I mean, shouldn't there be...

WHITMAN: Of course it is.

PRESS: ... a level playing field. Isn't that the -- well, at least you're honest.

WHITMAN: I am copping out anyway.

PRESS: Well, so is Governor Bush.

MATALIN: All right, let's stop it there.

One final effort to get you to pick sides here. We have -- you are Miss Tax Cutter, Madam Tax Cutter, 34 of them...

WHITMAN: Actually 37. It's 37 up to 11 billion, 11 billion by the end of this fiscal year.

MATALIN: Before we run out of time, each of the GOP contenders has a tax-cut plan. Do you prefer one of those plans of any of the contenders over the others?

WHITMAN: Well, Governor Bush's plan is a broader plan than Senator McCain's. And I've seen the results of tax cutting here in New Jersey. We've returned, as I said, by the end of this fiscal year, it will be $11 billion through 37 tax cuts, and our economy has never been stronger. Unemployment is at 4.1 percent, more people working than ever in the history of the state. Second-highest medium income, third-highest salary and more jobs coming in all the time, and that's what it's about; it's about giving people hope for the future by allowing them to make their own decisions with their own money, more of their own money, by government returning it, and it's worked in this state. So I support the broader plan.

MATALIN: Governor, you've been a great governor. We wish you great good fortune in your future, and thank you for joining us tonight.

PRESS: Thanks, governor.

WHITMAN: It was a pleasure. Good to talk to you.

MATALIN: She's wonderful, isn't she? Threw you off bigtime.

Bill and I will be right back with closing comments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: You have to agree that Christie Whitman -- look, she's a fiscal conservative. She's also pro-choice. She's pro-environment. Putting her on the ticket would be the best way to show that the Republican Party is no longer owned by the religious right. Don't you agree she should be No. 1?

MATALIN: I think those who try to make her the postergirl on abortion, and I say this as a pro-lifer -- I'm making a mistake -- we ought to make her the high priestess of tax cuts and fiscal conservatism and freedom, which is what that's all about. She's wonderful

PRESS: I think that's a no for vice president, wasn't it?

MATALIN: She's wonderful. I would be happy with her there -- be happy with her anywhere.

PRESS: From the left, I am Bill Press. Good-night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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