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CNN AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

President Responds to Attacks, Defection

Aired July 1, 2002 - 09:01   ET

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


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Up front this morning, President Bush is on his way to Cleveland, as Leon just reported, where he will be making a speech about what he calls compassionate conservatism. He'll be talking a lot about vouchers, and the doctors gave him a good bill of health after having his colonoscopy over the weekend.

And from the North Lawn, we are joined by White House correspondent John King.

John, good morning.

I'd love to start off with the news that CNN has confirmed, that long-term Congressman J.C. Watts will not go for reelection. What's been the reaction there to that news?

JOHN KING, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: White House officials say they have heard that same information, Paula, from senior Republican advisers on Capitol Hill. No official reaction yet. Do not be surprised if the White House either reacts through a press spokesman or issues a statement a bit later in the day.

Remember, though, one of the reasons Congressman Watts is upset, in recent weeks here in Washington, is that he feels he was not properly consulted by the Bush administration, by the President or Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld. That Crusader artillery system -- it's a big, heavy artillery weapon is built in his district, back in Oklahoma. Don Rumsfeld has pulled the plug on that, wants to cancel the funding for it, does not believe that is the right weapons system for a new mobile military force. Congressman Watts, of course, to him that is a very local issue, because it's about jobs back in the district, so he's been upset at the administration as he has made the decision about whether to stay in the Congress or not.

We are told, a little later today, he will announce he is not going to seek reelection. And look for the White House to say nice things, but there has been some tension in the relationship.

ZAHN: Also, Al Gore's name surfacing in the news over the weekend, coming out swinging against the Bush administration, basically accusing the administration of using 9/11 as a wedge issue, as a political issues. What's the reaction from the White House to that?

KING: They simply say Al Gore seems to be running for president, seems to be gearing up for a rematch, seems to be trying to keep the loyalty of the Democratic base. Here at the White House, they're not so much concerned about that issue.

There's much more sensitivity here to something else the former Vice President, Mr. Gore, said, and other Democrats are saying, trying to create the perception that when you have the Enron stories and the WorldCom stories, it's because this president and this Republican Party are too cozy with big business. The White House says that is not the case, but that is the line of attack from the Democrats they are much more worried about here as we get closer and closer to the November midterm elections.

ZAHN: But it seems, if you listen very closely yesterday, the secretary of state, he made it abundantly clear they have their strategy well laid out for any more attacks coming from the Democrats in not bagging Osama bin Laden, a piece, pointedly, suggesting that President Clinton was given that very chance before Osama Bin Laden was expelled from Sudan. Are you hearing that will continue to be the talking point from the White House?

KING: Yes, if they are pressed specifically on that point, they will say they are making every effort to find Osama Bin Laden. And you've heard the president shift his strategy, his rhetorical strategy, a bit from the very early days after September 11 to make the case this is not about one man, that it is a broader war against terrorism, that dismantling the infrastructure of al Qaeda is much more important than getting any one man. But certainly, if pressed on that point that how could you not capture Osama Bin Laden, how could you not capture Mullah Omar, how could you not capture other top Taliban officials, this administration will say that this problem is something they inherited, that Osama bin Laden did not appear on the surface of the Earth on their watch, and that -- why didn't the Clinton administration do anything?

Again, they do not expect that to be a pressing issue. They believe as we get closer and closer to November, the Democrats will make the calculation that the best way to get at the Republican Party is on domestic issues, and right now, they believe this whole economic question -- faith in the stock market and everything caused by the WorldCom disclosures and the like -- the Democrats think that's their best avenue right now, and they're gearing up to fight that here at the White House.

ZAHN: All right, John. I know you'll be talking to the president as he addresses the crowds in Cleveland later today, when he talks school vouchers. We'll be coming back to you for reaction to that.

Thanks so much for that update.

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