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AMERICAN MORNING

Interview with Wesley Clark

Aired December 10, 2003 - 07:31   ET

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

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: The Democratic presidential candidates at it again last night, this time in New Hampshire, the final debate before the primaries there. The forum was more like shadowboxing, though, than a slugfest, so says observers, because the main target of the attacks, Al Gore, was not there.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY ABC NEWS)

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can't say I was really counting on it.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My chances have actually increased today.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: To me, this is about going out to the American people, listening to them, talking about the ideas. This is a very important election coming up. And it's not going to be decided by endorsements.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HEMMER: The most recent CNN poll suggesting the closest contender to the front runner, Howard Dean, is the last man you heard from, General Wesley Clark.

And General Clark is with us today from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Nice to see you, General.

Good morning to you.

CLARK: Good to see you.

HEMMER: Clearly, yesterday the headlines and the momentum all in the favor of Howard Dean. Observers last night say no one even laid a glove on this guy.

Did you?

CLARK: Well, the election is really not about endorsements. It's really about people. And as for me, I'm still in the stage of letting voters get to know me. So I'm not interested in attacking Howard Dean. I'm interested in carrying my story to the voters. I think I've got a compelling message. I think I've got a compelling story. I think I've got a compelling vision for the future of America. And I believe in positive elections as much as possible. HEMMER: I've heard your statement several times in the past, oh, 16 hours or so, endorsements don't win campaigns or elections. You just said it again.

Are you suggesting Al Gore's endorsement does not help Howard Dean?

CLARK: Well, Vice President Gore, back in the 2000 campaign, said elections were about the people, not the powerful. And I think we need to let the primary process play out. I think especially voters in New Hampshire don't want to see elections decided by endorsements. They want their chance. People here and in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona, they're relishing the opportunity to help the nation decide who the candidates will be and shape the election.

They respect Al Gore. They, many of them like him, they voted for him. But I think their response in general has been, please, you know, don't try to cut this off, let it play out, we want to hear from people, we want a chance to have our voices heard. It's about democracy.

HEMMER: General, back to you, then. You said this week, again, you said it yesterday, you would consider Hillary Clinton to run on the same ticket as you. She has said repeatedly again this past Sunday that she has no interest in not completing her term as New York's senator.

If that's the case, why suggest that publicly?

CLARK: Well, I didn't suggest that. Somebody asked me in a question. I've suggested nobody publicly. But I do respond to people. Bill, the Democratic Party has all kinds of talent. We've got so many people there. This party is so ready to help America move ahead again. And I'd like to be able to consider all of the talent in the Democratic Party. I'd like to bring the very best people in America, representing America from all backgrounds, all walks of life, to help shape our vision for the future. And Hillary Clinton is certainly one of those that anyone would consider. She's incredibly talented. She's a real leader. She's very dedicated to public service. I think she's terrific.

HEMMER: General, let me try a different approach, then. If Howard Dean is the nominee, would you run on his ticket?

CLARK: Well, I've never really addressed that question with myself to any extent.

HEMMER: Ever talk to him about it?

CLARK: And I'll tell you why. I'll tell you why, Bill. Because this election is going to be about national security. This country is in a crisis at home. And the Democratic Party can no longer be just the party of compassion. We already can see what happens when we have someone in office who really doesn't have national experience, national security experience. But people said well, you know, but he's got this great national security team behind him with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.

I'm running to be the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, the chief executive officer of the United States. I've spent a lifetime in leadership. I've been in command positions. I'm the only person among that field of candidates who's ever laid awake at night when we've ordered the aircraft to go in and drop bombs and prayed that we wouldn't kill or injure innocent people.

And I think when you go through experiences like that, it changes you and it also readies you, in a strange way, for making the kind of painful decisions and tradeoffs that you would have to make in the highest office in the land. And that's why I'm running for this office.

HEMMER: I understand and accept the seriousness of your answer there. But I don't think I heard an answer to my question.

You ever talk to Howard Dean about being his running mate?

CLARK: No, he talked to me about it before I ran. And I told him, I said, Howard, look, this is not, you know, I'm not interested in talking about that. I'm not even thinking about that. For me, there's only one question in my mind -- and this was in early September of this year -- I said am I going to run to the be president of the United States or am I going to stay in private business?

And I made the decision that I couldn't not run. I had to run. This country is in great danger. It's in great difficulty. It's being taken the wrong way by a leadership team that has no real vision for the country other than trying to posture and pose and aim for winning the next election.

I think Americans deserve a more visionary, a more selfless and a more dedicated leadership than that.

HEMMER: Thank you, General.

Wesley Clark in New Hampshire this morning.

The next hour here, we'll talk to another Democratic presidential hopeful. Senator Joseph Lieberman will be our guest then, the 8:00 a.m. hour here on AMERICAN MORNING.

What, then, does Jeff Greenfield think the morning after this new political power couple?

Nice to see you, Jeff.

Good morning.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning.

HEMMER: Was this more about Howard Dean last night or Al Gore?

GREENFIELD: Well, it certainly began with the notion of Howard Dean and what he would be like as a general election candidate. And I'm going to condense this debate into a couple of minutes and show you what I mean. Because the first item on the agenda was the Gore endorsement and the rise of Howard Dean. In fact, when moderator Ted Koppel asked the candidates who among them believed that Dean could beat President Bush, well, Dean was the only one to raise his hand.

I think John Kerry managed the neatest shot at Gore. It was a bank shot off the left at the altered status of Senator Lieberman.

Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY ABC NEWS)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was sort of surprised today, actually, by the endorsement because I thought that Joe Lieberman has shown such extraordinary loyalty, delaying his own campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: Now, there were a lot of questions about polls and money and positions, and that prompted Representative Dennis Kucinich to chide moderator Ted Koppel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY ABC NEWS)

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D-OHIO), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I want the American public to see where the media takes politics in this country. To start with endorsements...

(INTERRUPTED BY CHEERING AND CLAPPING)

KUCINICH: We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls and then we're talking about money. Well, you know, when you do that, you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: All through the debate, candidates tried to define what advertising people call their unique selling propositions. For Senator John Edwards, it was the populist outsider.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY ABC NEWS)

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You flaunt someone who has spent most of their lives, most of their adult lives in politics, because there are a lot of people on this stage who represent that. I have not. I am very much an outsider. I've spent most of my life fighting against the powerful special interests.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: Now, for Congressman Dick Gephardt, by contrast, he positioned himself as the insider fighting for the people.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY ABC NEWS) GEPHARDT: I think I have more experience than anyone on the stage at the highest levels of government, fighting for the values of the Democratic Party, fighting for middle class families, something that I came from and something that I feel very strongly about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: Now, for Wesley Clark -- and this is going to sound familiar if you just heard him a minute ago -- it was his stature as a military leader.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY ABC NEWS)

CLARK: But the time has passed in America when this party can be the party of compassion and let the executive branch run foreign policy. It won't work. We have to be the party that can stand toe to toe with George W. Bush on national security, as well as the party of compassion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: And for the man at the center of all the news, Howard Dean, this was his most direct plea to voters, in contrast to Clark, saying look beyond just the issue of war and peace.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY ABC NEWS)

DR. HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What this election is about, yes, national security is important. We need to talk about jobs. We need to talk about health insurance for every single American. We need to talk about an education system that's different than no child left behind.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HEMMER: So let me ask you the question you dislike the most.

GREENFIELD: Yes?

HEMMER: A winner last night? Do you declare one or not?

GREENFIELD: In -- yes, you're right, I hate that question. In terms of pure presentation, I do think it was General Clark's strongest debate performance. It was markedly better than his kind of uncertain earlier forays when he had just announced for president. But I also think the sheer number of candidates made Howard Dean the winner, because each of the other candidates right now is feeling enormous pressure to define themselves as the alternative to Howard Dean.

But when you've got nine people on stage, Bill, it's almost an impossibility. You simply cannot have a clash of ideas with those many people. You don't even call them sound bites. They're sound nibbles.

So the question of who becomes the alternative gets harder and harder for anybody to figure out.

HEMMER: Yes, we're off and running.

See you in New Hampshire.

Thank you, Jeff.

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