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Inside Politics

Bush, McCain Trade Jabs Ahead of Tonight's Republican Presidential Debate; Gore's Fundraising Problem Resurfaces

Aired March 2, 2000 - 5:00 p.m. ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My message is, Governor Bush, get out of the gutter.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Sounds like Senator McCain is increasingly becoming angry as the campaign goes on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: A new Bush campaign attack on John McCain adds to the tension before tonight's Republican presidential debate. On top of that, a previously unknown group is launching an anti-McCain, pro-Bush ad blitz. We'll trace the group's political ties.

And even as Al Gore tries to campaign by the book, a friend's conviction reminds voters of his past fundraising problems.

ANNOUNCER: From the "L.A. Time" building in Los Angeles, site of tonight's Republican presidential debate, this is INSIDE POLITICS with Judy Woodruff and Bernard Shaw,

SHAW: And thanks for joining us. Judy, well, she will be along later as part of our preview of tonight's Republican presidential debate, which she will moderate here at the "Los Angeles Times" building. The forum comes as the battle between George W. Bush and John McCain is getting even more brass knuckled.

Today, McCain stepped up his condemnation of Bush's campaign tactics. CNN's John King tells us what's behind the latest punches and counterpunches.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): John McCain's tough tone underscored the high stakes of tonight's debate and the Republican race for votes on Super Tuesday.

MCCAIN: My message is, Governor Bush, get out of the gutter.

KING: The complaint was directed at a new Bush campaign ad in New York that says McCain voted against critical funding for breast cancer research.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, BUSH RADIO AD)

ANNOUNCER: John McCain calls these projects, quote, "garden- variety pork." That's shocking. America deserves better.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The Arizona senator says he has consistently supported more research funding, but voted against the money cited in the ad because it was tacked on to a military spending bill.

MCCAIN: When you have 12,000 enlisted people on food stamps, we need to take care of them. The funding for breast cancer research obviously should come out of the appropriations for Health and Human Services.

KING: Governor Bush stood by the ad.

BUSH: He put on his Web page that these programs, he was going to cutback on these programs. This is something John McCain played out.

KING: McCain also complained about another ad, this one by a new group called Republicans for Clean Air.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, REPUBLICANS FOR CLEAN AIR AD)

ANNOUNCER: Last year, John McCain voted against solar and renewable energy. That means more use of coal burning plants that pollute our air. New York Republicans care about clean air. So does Governor Bush.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The spot is being run in California, Ohio and New York. McCain aides say the total ad buy is close to $2 million. McCain called it another example of unregulated money distorting the political process.

MCCAIN: I would pay more attention to assessment of the Republicans for Environmental Protection. They give a very harsh assessment of Governor Bush's environmental record, and I would pay much more attention to them.

KING: The Bush campaign denied any knowledge of the group attacking McCain. The criticism dovetails nicely with the Texas governor's urgent Super Tuesday goal: knock McCain from the race by denying the senator big state victories in New York, Ohio and California.

McCain hopes the endorsement of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca gives him a boost among critical Hispanic voters. McCain also criticized Bush after a published report described how he allowed big campaign contributors to stay overnight at the Texas governor's mansion, comparing to President Clinton opening the Lincoln bedroom to Democratic donors.

MCCAIN: I don't see how you argue with Al Gore on the issue of reform when you've been carrying out that kind of practice.

KING: The debate showcases the Republican candidates five days before the 13 Super Tuesday contests.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Now, Senator McCain will participate in tonight's debate from here in St. Louis via satellite. He says he hopes to get away from the running feud over campaign tactics, and back to a focus on his policy differences with Governor Bush over taxes, shoring up Social Security, the experience necessary to be commander in chief. Asked about losing his focus today, Senator McCain said his campaign has made a number of mistakes, and asked why, he said one of the main reasons was, quote, "We don't have the most brilliant candidate." Bernie.

SHAW: John, is one of those mistakes the failure of the senator to be here at the "Los Angeles Times" building tonight in person at tonight's debate.

KING: There is certainly a debate going on within the McCain campaign as to whether it would have made more sense, sent a stronger signal to the voters of California had he participated in person in Los Angeles. The senator initially was not going take part at all, saying he wanted to go and campaign in New York. That is, of course, a very key target for him next Tuesday. This is a compromise, stopping in middle America to participate by satellite, but he is certainly subject to criticism in California for not being there. Even many of his own aides wish he had stayed and taken part in person -- Bernie.

SHAW: John King on the trail in St. Louis, thank you.

Now, let's take a closer look at that new group Republicans for Clean Air, the group which is taking aim at McCain's environmental record.

For that we go to national correspondent Mike Boettcher at CNN Center in Atlanta -- Mike.

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bernie, as John said, those ads ran in three states, according to the McCain campaign , $1.5 million was spent in New York, about $300,000 in California and another $150,000 in Ohio.

Now, when Republicans for Clean Air bought the advertisements, they listed as their address a post office box in Hearndon, Virginia. And the only name listed was the group's treasurer, a woman named Lydia Merat (ph). Now, interestingly enough, that same address and name, according to Texas Ethics Commission records, is listed for another political action committee called the American Dream PAC. That PAC was formed by Texas Congressman Henry Bonilla, who was a strong supporter of Governor Bush's candidacy for the presidency. Now, American Dream PAC supports minority recruitment of candidates in the Republican Party -- Bernie.

SHAW: Mike, a couple of questions. Is there any connection between the group that put out the ad and Bonilla's PAC?

BOETTCHER: We talked to Congressman Bonilla's office 30 minutes ago, they said absolutely no connection. It's just a coincidence that both addresses are the same, that Lydia Merat handles both accounts, so to speak -- pardon me, Lydia Merat. They say there is absolutely no connection.

Also, we spoke to Lydia Merat, and she said that -- she described herself as paper pusher. She said that the person who was the real leader of Republicans for Clean Air would reveal himself later today -- Bernie.

SHAW: Now, Mrs. Merat described Republicans for Clean Air as a 427 committee. What's that?

BOETTCHER: Well, actually, Bernie, it's a 527. It's a section of the IRS Code, which is a big loophole for these issue organizations. They don't have to report to the IRS the -- their contributors or the amount of -- of -- let me get that exactly right -- they don't have to disclose the donors' names to the Federal Election Commission or to the IRS, and they pay no taxes, and they can get contributions from anyone and spend as much as they want. We're told, expect to see a lot of these 527 commercials coming this year.

SHAW: OK, thank you. Mike Boettcher with the latest on this story.

Now to the Bush campaign and the governor's response to his last criticism by John McCain. Our Candy Crowley is with Bush here in California, as he gears up for tonight's debate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Bush campaign is feeling pretty good about California, an upbeat note the governor hopes to carry into this evening's debate to show a contrast to the last week of the McCain campaign.

BUSH: Mr. McCain is running an angry campaign. And I am going to talk about how to make the education system better. I am going to talk about keeping the peace. I am going to talk about growing the economy.

CROWLEY: Bush strategists think he gets a double dip out of the education issue, which he's been pushing heavily in recent weeks. It was the only issue on the agenda today.

The issue appeals to the independents any Republican will need in a general election and the Bush camp likes comparing Bush's education plan to McCain's.

BUSH: I have a plan, therein lies the contrast.

CROWLEY: Expect to hear more of the same in tonight's debate. Bush wants to bring the conversation around to education as often as possible. In general, Bush believes most issues play in his favor. Exit polls from Michigan and South Carolina showed most people who vote on issues vote Bush.

Looking at the barrage of contests over the next two weeks, Bush strategists think most of the Northeast looks iffy to no chance, except Maine and the big prize: New York. Of the major states up for grabs Tuesday, New York clearly poses the biggest challenge for Bush, and he's making a major effort there.

This evening's debate is the last shot at a broad audience before what's expected to be the decisive two weeks of the GOP campaign. Bush thinks he scores a bunch of points just by showing up. John McCain will be satellited in from St. Louis.

Candy Crowley, CNN, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHAW: We're joined now by CNN's Robert Novak, also with the "Chicago Sun Times" and CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield.

The debate tonight on the fifth floor at the Harry...

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Chandler.

SHAW: ... Chandler Auditorium. What does it mean that McCain will come in by satellite?

GREENFIELD: I actually think it hurts McCain. The debate in New Hampshire, where I thought John McCain had done the best, was when he turned to Governor Bush and said: I can beat Al Gore like a drum, but if you're on stage with him, you'll have to be silent. There was a body language there in which I think John McCain was the strongest as I have seen him in the campaign. And Governor Bush looked a little bit on the defensive.

When you're doing this by satellite that kind of direct engagement, which is often more important in a debate than what's said, is just impossible. It is very hard to do.

SHAW; Bob Novak, does Governor Bush have very much exertion to engage in tonight?

ROBERT NOVAK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, I think he -- today, for example, he was at a school. He was very soft. He turned back the clock six months. He's very confident. He doesn't have to be fighting for his life, as he seemed to be after New Hampshire.

I agree with Jeff that being remote, there is a tremendous mistake on the part of Senator McCain, all working presidential candidacies make mistakes. These are two rookies. I think Senator McCain made two mistakes, the strategic mistake was going after Pat Robertson. The tactical mistake was not being here for this debate.

Everybody in this campaign, I am told, wanted him to be here, but he didn't want to sit next to Alan Keyes and take that guff because he didn't know if he could really control himself. He didn't control himself all that well the last two times. It might be worse if he was sitting next to him this time.

SHAW: What are you hearing about the latest controversy, the whole Catholic issue with New York, one of the major primary states coming up on Super Tuesday?

NOVAK: Well, I think that the McCain people overplayed it with this Catholic voter alert. I think they gained some initial strength. The polls indicate that that has been lost. It kind of added a bad tone to it. Some Catholics I have talked to feel they -- they're being used by both sides.

I don't think it helps the Republican Party with the Catholic vote. You know, Mark Shields and I interviewed Senator McCain in Des Moines, about five weeks ago. And off-camera he told us, he said, you know, Bradley and Gore are so mean to each other. He said, one thing I know and I hope is that we will never descend to that level. Well, I think they've surpassed the Democrats.

GREENFIELD: I also think it was telling today that William Bennett, who was a prominent conservative who has come very close to endorsing McCain, has a blistering op-ed piece in the "Wall Street Journal" today taking McCain to task for his intemperate language, because Bill Bennett is not by any stretch of the imagination a Pat Robertson kind of social conservative. He's much more like a "Weekly Standard" social conservative, has been very kind to McCain. And for him to be drawing this line suggests that, among those Republicans who are not hostile to John McCain, and who are actually sympathetic to him, they felt in the last few days that there has been a kind of line crossing.

So, what it means tonight is John McCain is in a really tricky position. And just for political theater, it's going to be one of the most fascinating debates that I can remember.

NOVAK: And what does he do? You know, I know his people want him just to stay away from any of this business, perhaps, the person who's interviewing him, you know? Somebody from CNN I believe. Judy Woodruff will be there...

GREENFIELD: She's the moderator.

NOVAK: She's the moderator.

SHAW: Jeff Greenfield.

NOVAK: ... and yourself. And I think it's going to come up. But, I know they want the people in the McCain campaign want him to stay away from this. So it -- I agree with you, I think it is going -- I am not just hyping it. I think it's going to be an interesting debate. SHAW: Well, in sum, let me use this metaphor by asking you the question this way. Is Senator McCain's campaign a freight train that has been sidetracked on a side rail?

NOVAK: Freight train?

GREENFIELD: I'm not sure, you know, with the decline in passenger and rail travel, I'm not too good on train metaphors. But, I think -- what I think it is, is it's a campaign that is coming up against a very hard reality of where the delegates come from, how they're apportioned and in what states.

I have thought for a while, Bob, that Florida, Texas, and California, among the three of them with 364 delegates, fairly or not because of the different rules, Bush is likely to get almost all of them. That's been McCain's dilemma from the very beginning.

NOVAK: You're precisely right, and the fact he couldn't get Republican votes, even when he won his great victory in Michigan, he did it with independent and Democratic votes which constituted 51 percent of the total.

What many of the people who were for McCain felt he had to do at that point was show he was a real conservative Republican. Come out for the things he believes in, school vouchers, Social Security, privatization, missile defense, and instead, he attacked Pat Robertson, one of the huge mistakes I think I've ever seen.

SHAW: Bob Novak, Jeff Greenfield, thank you very much.

GREENFIELD: I'll check up on that freight train, Bernie.

SHAW: Thank you.

Still ahead on INSIDE POLITICS, fuel for the Republican presidential campaign? A jury convicts a former Democratic fundraiser and longtime friend of Vice President Al Gore. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHAW: Former Democratic fundraiser Maria Hsia was convicted today of arranging illegal contributions during the 1996 Clinton/Gore campaign. Now, the Republican presidential hopefuls have repeatedly questioned Al Gore's actions in the fundraising efforts of that campaign.

Our Charles Bierbauer has more on the verdict and the reaction from the campaign trail.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHARLES BIERBAUER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Maria Hsia was silent after a jury found her guilty of five felony counts violating campaign fund-raising laws. On the campaign trail, Vice President Gore could not be silent, even if he might be embarrassed.

VICE PRES. AL GORE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The jury has rendered its verdict and it's a hard day for her. She has been a friend and a political supporter.

BIERBAUER: Hsia has a lengthy history of raising funds for Democrats, especially Vice President Gore, from the Asian-American community.

Republican John McCain held Gore responsible.

MCCAIN: To think that Maria Hsia was responsible for these incredible transgressions and debasement of the institutions of government is obviously somewhat not in touch with reality. This was a conspiracy that went right to the White House.

BIERBAUER: Hsia was at Gore's side at the 1996 fund-raiser at the Hsi Lai Temple in California. John Huang, a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee, was in the shadows. Gore initially said he thought the temple visit was no more than "outreach" to the Asian-American community, but later admitted he knew it was "finance- related."

The event raised $140,000, but most, as it turns out, was illegally contributed, with Maria Hsia arranging illegal reimbursements from temple funds to false donors.

Hsia was found guilty of causing five false reports to be filed with the Federal Elections Commission totaling more than $100,000 in illegal contributions. Each charge carries up to a five-year prison term.

Leaving court, Hsia's lawyer said the case is not dead yet.

(on camera): Hsia's lawyer has filed a motion for acquittal, saying: "The government relies entirely on inference upon inference, innuendo upon innuendo, to support its theory of liability."

Judge Paul Friedman set a status hearing for May 15.

(voice-over): Although Gore was never implicated, the fund- raising cloud that follows him on the campaign trail is now darker. Republicans will surely make it an issue.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: This takes Gore back to the Clinton days, to the worst days. As soon as he escaped from Clinton's shadow, his campaign improved. This drags him back into it, so you can expect the Republicans to play this, I think, very, very big.

BIERBAUER: In Wednesday's debate, Gore had an answer to the broad question of campaign finance reform.

GORE: I also support tough new restrictions on lobbyists. We should have -- we should let the sun shine in with full disclosure.

BIERBAUER: But Hsia's conviction could make future questions tougher.

Charles Bierbauer, CNN, Washington. (END VIDEOTAPE)

SHAW: And we'll be back with more INSIDE POLITICS.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We'll have more of the day's political news coming up, but now a look at some other top stories.

The faces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and two other accused war criminals now appear on wanted posters, and there's a price on their heads. The U.S. State Department plans to saturate Europe and Serbia with the posters and is offering a reward of up to $5 million.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID SCHEFFER, U.S. AMB. AT LARGE FOR WAR CRIMES: We are putting a sharp focus on these three indictees because it is time they should face justice for the heinous crimes for which they are charged. We also believe that the time has come for these individuals to move from the region to the Hague so their influence will no longer impede the efforts of those citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia who want to advance democracy and the rule of law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Milosevic and the others have been indicted by an international tribunal for war crimes.

The Cuban diplomat kicked out of the United States is on his way back to Cuba. Jose Imperatori left Canada earlier this afternoon. He had been hiding out in the Cuban embassy there since leaving Washington last week. He said he wanted to return to the United States to fight charges that he was involved in spying.

Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is aboard a plane right now headed to Chile. He left Britain this morning after more than 16 months of house arrest. Pinochet was wanted for trial in four European nations for alleged human rights abuses committed during his 17 years of rule. However, Britain's home secretary says the 84-year- old is not mentally or physically fit to stand trial after suffering two strokes. Pinochet's opponents are protesting his release. They want him prosecuted regardless of his deteriorating health.

Prosecutors are charging 19-year-old Jamelle James with involuntary manslaughter for allowing a 6-year-old boy to obtain a gun used in the Michigan school shooting. Prosecutors say James was negligent in letting the first grader get the gun and use it to commit homicide.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARTHUR BUSCH, GENESEE COUNTY PROSECUTOR: We also are alleging and will allege in our complaint that the defendant contributed to the delinquency of a minor, and as a result of that misdemeanor the manslaughter was committed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The 6-year-old is in temporary custody of an aunt. He is too young to be charged with any crime under Michigan law.

INSIDE POLITICS now returns with Bernard Shaw in Los Angeles -- Bernie.

SHAW: Thank you, Wolf.

And there's much more ahead on this edition of INSIDE POLITICS.

Still to come, sizing up John McCain's record on defense, would he make a good commander in chief?

Plus, Frank Buckley on the Texas governor and the Catholic vote. Could his recent misstep cost him?

And later, the Republican hopefuls test their material on late- night television. But our Bill Schneider has a review and some pre- debate tips.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHAW: The swaying palm trees in Los Angeles.

Welcome back to INSIDE POLITICS, coming to you from Los Angeles, where tonight's Republican presidential debate will be held, moderated by Judy Woodruff.

In last night's debate, John McCain -- or rather in the debate tonight, John McCain may make a claim he has made many times. Heading into tonight's debate, McCain has billed himself as the best-prepared to be commander in chief.

Well, Jamie McIntyre takes a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR: There's only one man running for president who knows the military and understands the world: John McCain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): His campaign ads tout his military acumen and war-hero status.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR: As a senator, he's already one of the nation's leaders in knowing how to keep the peace.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MCINTYRE: John McCain isn't shy about brandishing U.S. military might. Take, for example, his hawkish position on defending Taiwan in the face of China's recent invasion threats.

MCCAIN: We should make it very clear to the Chinese that we will develop sea-based missile, defense systems, we will move them in international waters wherever we want to, and we will consider any active aggression against Taiwan as a breach of the one-China policy.

MCINTYRE: That's a much harder line than the Clinton administration policy, which is aimed more at avoiding provocation and urging both Taiwan and China to tone down their rhetoric.

Throughout his 13 years in the Senate, McCain has been an advocate of military force to advance U.S. policy goals. In 1994, for instance, he was willing to send cruise missiles against a suspected nuclear site in North Korea if Pyongyang didn't halt its nuclear weapons program.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: I would recommend selective air and cruise missile strikes to destroy, or at least disable, the North Korean nuclear weapons production capabilities.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCINTYRE: The Pentagon had prepared such an option, but warned it could provoke all-out war on the Korean peninsula and result in tens of thousands of casualties. McCain's advisers insist he is not spoiling for a fight.

JEANNE KIRKPATRICK, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: He is not eager to commit American forces, and it's also clear though that if American forces are committed, he wants them to be prepared and successful.

MCINTYRE: Though supporting NATO's intervention in Kosovo, McCain criticized President Clinton for ruling out a ground invasion. Current U.S. military leaders counter that while a ground option made military sense, it was not politically feasible. And few at the Pentagon agree with McCain's other criticism of President Clinton: that he wouldn't allow pilots to fly low enough.

MCCAIN: He had them flying at 15,000 feet, where they killed innocent civilians because they were dropping bombs from such a high altitude.

MCINTYRE: That policy resulted in the loss of no allied pilots, and commanders argue that civilian casualties are unavoidable no matter how low planes fly.

(on camera): McCain was shot down over Vietnam in 1967, held prisoner for five and a half years. While he is widely respected by today's commanders, privately some question whether his thinking is stuck in the Vietnam era, when weapons and tactics were different. One senior officer said, "There's a reason we don't come screaming in low like we did in Vietnam; it's so we don't have any more pilots shot down like John McCain."

Jamie McIntyre, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHAW: When we return, Bill Bradley gets a taste of New York, as the Democratic hopefuls take to the streets of the Big Apple looking ahead to Super Tuesday.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHAW: George W. Bush and Al Gore are holding advantage -- leading advantages heading into the next week's caucuses in Minnesota. For the vice president it is a similar scene in New York, where the two Democratic candidates are campaigning this day.

Chris Black reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Complacent? Not Al Gore.

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wanted to come here on the eve of the all-important New York primary next Tuesday to reaffirm my top priority is on education.

BLACK: Giving up? Not Bill Bradley.

BILL BRADLEY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's the fourth quarter, we are a little behind, we're putting on the full-court press and we can make this happen. Thank you very much for coming.

BLACK: The Democrats are back in New York, the East Coast bookend to California and next week's megaprimary. A new Marist Poll puts Gore well ahead of Bradley, 61-29 percent in New York, a tough swallow for the one--time New York Knicks star.

But Bradley advisers say the candidate is hopeful. His press coverage is picking up and the John McCain train seems to be slowing down, giving Bradley a shot at independents.

BRADLEY: Don't be discouraged. I'm not. A lot of things could happen. We were 18 points back with seven days to go in New Hampshire. We closed to within 4. This could happen.

BLACK: But some of his most prominent New York supporters expressed concern, the six days spent in Washington State hurt him in the Empire State.

ED KOCH, BRADLEY SUPPORTER: And, of course, I worry about whether or not he'll be able to take the state.

BLACK: With 16 Democratic contests Tuesday, Bradley makes a national appeal on network television Thursday night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, BRADLEY CAMPAIGN AD)

BRADLEY: I'm running for president for a very simple reason, because I want to improve the prospects and quality of life for you and your family.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLACK: Gore is moving on, now drawing sharp distinctions with the Republican candidates in every speech, first in California.

GORE: Who are going to look at Bush and McCain, and they are going to look again, and they are going to look again, and they are not going to see a president of the United States there.

BLACK: Then in New York.

GORE: Now, the Republican candidates, let me say, have both supported draining money away from public schools at a time when more is needed. They seem to think that just because New York schools begin with P.S., that education is an afterthought. It's not.

BLACK: During Wednesday's debate, when asked to name his biggest mistake in life, Bradley seemed to telegraph the realization he faces long odds.

BRADLEY: I think the thing that -- mistake that I learned the most from was really a mistake to believe that you never fail. In other words, coming to terms with failure, and it took me a while to do that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLACK: In these final critical days before March 7th, Bradley advisers say the candidate intends to drop the attack mode and get back to his original style and message of idealism and reform, hoping to win back the favor of his old New York fans -- Bernie.

SHAW: Thank you, Chris Black in New York.

And up next on INSIDE POLITICS, what are Catholic voters in New York saying about George Bush's controversial visit to Bob Jones University?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHAW: On the left, city hall here in sunny Los Angeles.

Now we try to gauge the fallout of an issue that has colored the Republican presidential race for weeks: George W. Bush's visit to Bob Jones University, where officials have espoused anti-Catholic views. Is it likely to hurt Bush in New York's important primary next week?

CNN's Frank Buckley has been talking to Catholics in the Empire State. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Visit the Seaford Palace Diner in New York's Nassau County, and you'll find Catholic Republicans at just about every table. A recent topic of discussion: George W. Bush and his appearance at Bob Jones University. John McCain made it a campaign issue. Bush called it a missed opportunity, which he regretted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he's sincere about saying he's sorry for going there, and if he offended anybody he was sorry. And that's good enough for me.

BUCKLEY: But some Catholics believe the Bush appearance was part of what they see as a larger tradition of Catholic bashing in the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You shouldn't be abused any longer, and -- not that Bush is anti-Catholic, but he allowed himself to be put in that position where he didn't, you know, say, I'm against this. And he really should have.

BUCKLEY (on camera): The views of Catholic voters are potentially important to both candidates, in part due to their sheer numbers. Forty-six percent of New York's three million registered Republicans are Catholic.

(voice-over): The Catholic majority in places like Massapequa Park on Long Island can swing an election. Republican Congressman Peter King's district office is located there. He says any candidate appealing to Catholic voters here must understand what he calls the Catholic culture of the region.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Coming out of the old neighborhoods, coming out of the parishes, I would say there it's a very strong sense of patriotism, a belief in a strong family unit, a great respect for law and order, living in safe neighborhoods and trying to do your best to get your kids through school and have a few bucks left when you retire.

BUCKLEY: Ronald Reagan appealed to such voters in the early '80s. Bill Clinton appealed to the same group in the '90s. In the '96 presidential election, Catholic voters told exit pollers that their top issues were the same ones many other voters care about: education, the economy, taxes and Social Security. And while issues like abortion are of particular interest to some Catholics, few base their vote on it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't vote on Catholic views, I vote on candidates.

BUCKLEY: But retired police officer Jim Higgins is among those who believe that some Catholics will base their vote at least in part on the Bob Jones University visit.

JIM HIGGINS, RETIRED POLICE OFFICER: Will this hurt him with some other people that might have been undecided? Absolutely. BUCKLEY: Tuesday, Bush and McCain will find out.

Frank Buckley, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHAW: Joining us now from Washington to talk more about the presidential race and tonight's debate: former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry and Tony Blankley, the former press secretary to Newt Gingrich.

Mike, starting with you, do you think religion will come up tonight?

MIKE MCCURRY, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I don't see how it won't, because surely one of the panelists, Judy or someone, is going to ask about it. This has opened up, I think, a very deep fissure in the Republican Party, this cleavage in the party between the movement conservative evangelical element and the more traditional sort of country club Republicans. And this is a real clash of cultures. They're sort of two parties that really don't speak the same language, and you've seen a real debate now provoked by John McCain's comments, by some of the things Governor Bush did. and I think that issue is going to be joined one way or another tonight, even if both candidates, as I suspect they will, try to lower the temperature.

SHAW: Tony, is this the worst nightmare for the Republican Party?

TONY BLANKLEY, FORMER GINGRICH PRESS SECRETARY: It's not a worst nightmare. You don't want to see a brawl on an issue like Catholicism, obviously. I don't think it's going to be a problem, assuming that whoever the nominee, you know, develops a better position over the next several months. But, you know, it's interesting trying to figure out what the effect is going to be. Obviously, when the Bush camp decided to have that letter to the cardinal, they thought the issue was hurting him. My sense is that in the last 48, 72 hours, the general sense, at least in the Republican community, is that the issue has come back to bite McCain on the bottom, although we are hearing rumors that McCain is still nine points up in New York.

So it may be that it's going to be a wash by the time the back and forths are over. Both candidates are nervous, though, about the affect of the issue.

SHAW: Speaking of those candidates tonight, Bush, McCain and Alan Keyes, Bush and Keyes here in Los Angeles, McCain in St. Louis coming in by satellite, what do you two expect to see unfold in terms of strategies tonight?

Tony?

BLANKLEY: Yes, I'm hearing that Bush is going to be -- try to be pleasant and presidential, above the fray. My instinct told me, and still tells me, he's going to come out slugging. Because even though the Bush people seem to be a bit more confident, I think their sense that McCain may be on the ropes, a good fighter's instincts would be to go on and pound away at the guy who's on the ropes. So I'm looking against the expectations that he will go on, and Bush will come on very strong tonight.

MCCURRY: You know, Bernie, in the one previous debate where John McCain was not present, a debate out in Arizona, he did very well when he was coming in by remote control by satellite. I think it's going to be much harder tonight for him to sort of really engage with the other candidates who are there, with you all out in California. He's got a real challenge tonight to sort of somehow or other engage, keep people focused and energized on his message of reform, when I think Governor Bush will probably try to play rope-a-dope and move back to a more general election argument.

Look, this is quickly now coming down to how do both campaigns, the Republican Party and the Democratic presidential primary, how do they kind of come back to the center of the political spectrum and begin building alliances and constituencies for the fall? And I think you'll see Governor Bush tonight be with his eye on November, maybe looking even beyond March 7th.

SHAW: And, switching parties now, Tony, do you see Al Gore's eyes looking beyond March 7th and looking to November?

BLANKLEY: Sure, I mean, the debate last night where Bradley basically gave up, stopped fighting, we've heard that, you know, the Democrats have been encouraging Bradley to stop the fight. we saw that last night. Gore is mispositioned on a number of issues. We saw that on the Sharpton position, where -- and for instance on -- where he said very favorable things about a man who is an anti-Semite and a racist and an instigator of violence in New York.

Gore's misposition -- I think the Bradley campaign forced him into a misposition to the left of where the electorate is. So Gore is now going to start scampering back to the center, as well.

MCCURRY: Bernie, you just heard some real Republican wishful thinking there.

Let me make a couple of points, first about Senator Bradley. You know, John McPhee wrote a book about him called, "A Sense of Where You Are," and I think the senator last night demonstrated he has a very good sense of where he is write now. I thought he's handled himself in a dignified way and tried to put the focus back on the good and noble things that his presentation brought to this campaign in the first place. That might be, in fact, the very best thing for him to do at this point as he tries to find a constituency for March 7th.

BLANKLEY: But, Michael...

MCCURRY: But if I were picking between the Republican debate so far and the Democratic debate so far, which party is better positioned by their debate for the fall, I'd have to...

SHAW: Quickly.

MCCURRY: ... give the edge to the Democrats, because, you know, they've been talking about health care, they've been talking about education, they have not drifted off on fringe issues.

BLANKLEY: Oh, I think that there are issues that Gore has taken -- for instance, a very harsh position on gun control is going to hurt him in Georgia, it's going to hurt him in Michigan, it's going to hurt him in Indiana. There are states where those issues make a difference. And Bradley has pulled him far to the left of that on those issues. So I think it remains to be seen who's been mispositioned worse.

SHAW: Well, Mike McCurry, Tony Blankley, if you keep this up we'll have to have a debate between you two on CNN.

SHAW: Thanks very much for joining us.

MCCURRY: OK.

BLANKLEY: Thank you.

SHAW: Quite welcome.

And up next, question: Do late-night laughs help prepare Republican hopefuls for their debate showdown? Bill Schneider takes a look.

Plus, a preview from the site of tonight's debate with our own Judy Woodruff, tonight's moderator.

Back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHAW: A little more than three hours from now, the Republican candidates will face questions in the CNN/"Los Angeles Times" debate. But, last night, John McCain and George W. Bush tested their skills in another television forum.

Our Bill Schneider joins us now to explain. Bill?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Bernie, as you know, while the entire country was glued last night to the debates here on CNN between Bill Bradley and Al Gore, another debate was going on. No one was watching, probably, but that other debate featured the Republican candidates, Bush on "The Late Show with David Letterman," versus John McCain on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." It was kind of a prep for tonight's debate here in L.A. Let's see how it went.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): McCain knows how to work a room. No sooner did he walk on the set, than he seized the chance to engage a fellow guest, and score a point on health care.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO")

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm very concerned about those bunions.

NEVE CAMPBELL, ACTRESS: Yes, I know.

MCCAIN: You should look at those again.

CAMPBELL: Isn't that awful?

MCCAIN: You know, we're looking at universal health care plan.

CAMPBELL: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

MCCAIN: Perhaps bunion treatment should be one of those.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: But some advice to McCain for tonight's debate, don't let metaphors get out of hand.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO")

MCCAIN: Jesse Ventura and I have a lot in common, we were both in the Navy. I was a high school, mediocre high school and college wrestler. I was pinned in some of the nicest gymnasiums in the east, and I wear a feathered boa around the Senate a lot.

JAY LENO, HOST: Right, we know that.

MCCAIN: So, I think we have a lot in common there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: Bush appeared on the Letterman show via satellite, which is how McCain will be participating in tonight's debate, bad idea, puts off your timing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: Who likes interns better, you or McCain?

(APPLAUSE)

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's the wrong party.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: And please, governor, in tonight's debate make sure you have your index cards lined up when you get asked a question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: ... where the guy in Boston asked you the quiz about the world leaders. Are you tired of that? BUSH: No.

LETTERMAN: You want to try one more?

BUSH: You know why? My mother...

(APPLAUSE)

BUSH: David, David.

LETTERMAN: I'm going to try one more, one more here, governor.

BUSH: Well, let me say something about that world leaders deal. My mother raised me not to show off. I didn't let her down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: Oh, well. And most of all, governor, please be careful tonight not to sprinkle witticisms where they don't belong.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: You keep saying you are a uniter, not a divider. I'm a uniter, not a divider. You say that isn't that correct?

BUSH: That's true.

LETTERMAN: Yes, now, what exactly does that mean?

BUSH: That means when it comes time to sew up your chest cavity, we use stitches as opposed to opening it up, that is what that means.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: That Texas governor's a real cut-up. But he is winning one race on late-night television. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, Governor Bush was the target of 293 jokes on late-night television over the last year, 10 times as many as John McCain. In light of his performance last night, I predict that trend will continue.

SHAW: You so predict.

SCHNEIDER: I do predict that.

SHAW: Bill Schneider, thank you very much.

Well, sitting on the other side of me, Judy Woodruff, moderator of tonight's Republican debate on the fifth floor, five stories up at the Harry Chandler Auditorium.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Where you were last night.

SHAW: Last night. It seems strange, but it's been a long time since the first Republican encounter at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

WOODRUFF: And Bernie, we have come full circle since then, haven't we? I mean, we had six Republican candidates at that point, and we did have an issue then of somebody not showing up. It was George W. Bush. He said his wife was getting an award in Texas, so he had to explain to the people of New Hampshire why he couldn't be there.

We went on and there was a debate in Arizona. This was in October. In November, there was a debate in John McCain's home state of Arizona. He couldn't be there. He ended up doing this by satellite. And we have come, since there, there was two debates in New Hampshire. There was a debate with Larry King in South Carolina. And here we are in Los Angeles, it is the last debate before the big Tuesdays, March the 7th and March the 14th. John McCain won't be here in person, but he will be here by satellite.

SHAW: OK, well, we'll be watching you tonight.

WOODRUFF: It doesn't get any more exciting than this.

SHAW: You are quite right.

WOODRUFF: If you like politics, and we do.

SHAW: We do. See you tonight.

WOODRUFF: I will see you.

SHAW: Break a leg.

WOODRUFF: Thanks.

SHAW: Thank you. Well, that is all for this edition of INSIDE POLITICS. But of course, you can go on-line all the time at CNN's allpolitics.com. Reminding once again: Judy will be moderating the CNN/"Los Angeles Times" Republican debate tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Post-debate analysis will follow at 10:00 p.m. on a special edition of "LARRY KING LIVE," hosted by Wolf Blitzer.

I'm Bernard Shaw in Los Angeles.

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