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PAULA ZAHN NOW

CBS Admits Mistake in Bush Report; Kerry Attacks Bush Over Iraq

Aired September 20, 2004 - 20:00   ET

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


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening and welcome. Glad to have you with us tonight. Welcome to PRIME TIME POLITICS.
Tonight, the eye finally blinks. CBS and Dan Rather admit they were conned.

And time is running out. The election is closing in. We'll have another exclusive poll from a key battleground state. You might be surprised by the results.

Plus, the Kerry campaign gets around to fighting the Iraq war. Kerry launches a blistering attack on the president, but what would he do in Iraq? And will it help revive his campaign?

And that's exactly where we begin tonight. Iraq was the topic of the day even before an Islamic Web site posted a gruesome video of an American hostage being beheaded by his kidnappers. It is the latest atrocity in mine days of stepped-up violence that has killed or wounded hundreds in Iraq.

Tomorrow, President Bush takes his case to the United Nations and Senator Kerry is not waiting to make a rebuttal. This morning, he got specific.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): This isn't the first time John Kerry and George W. Bush have crossed paths along the campaign trail. It's usually in showdown states where both men are courting the small, but crucial bloc of undecided voters. But now with just 43 days left in the campaign, they are both in New York City with fund-raising and especially foreign policy as the top priorities.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure.

ZAHN: For John Kerry, today's speech at New York University was a chance to respond to critics who say he needs to make a definitive statement on what he would do differently in Iraq.

KERRY: The president should convene a summit meeting of the world's major powers and of Iraqis' neighbors this week in New York, where many leaders will attend the U.N. General Assembly.

ZAHN: The goal, persuade other nations to contribute troops and to share in rebuilding Iraq's oil industry. KERRY: Second, the president must get serious about training Iraqi security forces.

ZAHN: Kerry accuses the administration of exaggerating the number of police and other security forces its trained to take over from American troops.

KERRY: Third, the president must carry out a reconstruction plan that finally brings tangible benefits to the Iraqi people.

ZAHN: With less than $1 billion of the $18 billion spent allocated for reconstruction spent so far, Kerry says the president should draw up a list of high-visibility, quick-impact projects and cut through the red tape.

KERRY: Fourth, the president must take immediate, urgent, essential steps to guarantee that the promised election can be held next year.

ZAHN: Kerry says Iraq needs more U.N. election supervisors and more troops to protect them. There are also high stakes in the president's trip to New York. He is speaking to the U.N. on Tuesday, hoping to convince skeptical countries, not just swing state voters like these in New Hampshire earlier today, that his international policy is the best, not John Kerry's.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today he said -- and I quote -- "We have traded a dictator for a chaos that's left America less secure."

He's saying he prefers the stability of the dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy. I couldn't disagree more. And not so long ago, so did my opponent.

ZAHN: The president keeps trying to hammer home the message that he, not Senator Kerry, can provide the leadership the country needs in this time of war.

BUSH: We've got to be firm and strong. I believe we're right in what we're doing and I believe democracy in Iraq is going to happen and I believe the world will be better off for it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Did John Kerry help himself on the Iraq issue today?

Joining me from Washington is U.S. Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican of Arizona. And with me here in New York is Richard Holbrooke. He's a former U.N. ambassador to the United Nations and a foreign policy adviser to Senator Kerry.

Welcome, gentlemen. Glad to have both of you with us.

Senator Kyl, I am going to actually start with something that House Speaker Dennis Hastert had to say over the weekend. He essentially told reporters that al Qaeda could operate with more comfort if John Kerry were elected president. Do you really think that's the case?

SEN. JON KYL (R), ARIZONA: I'm not going to get into that question because that's taking us away from the real question, which is...

ZAHN: But that's the question I asked you.

KYL: I know, but I'm not...

ZAHN: Is that a useful question to throw out in this debate?

KYL: No, what I want to talk about and what I know what my friend Richard Holbrooke wants to talk about are, what are the best policies to ensure that we win the war against terror?

And during an election, it is true that critique of the policy can get us into a situation where we send the wrong message to our enemies. And that's why I want to steer it away from that, Paula.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: All right, so I gather by your nonanswer there, you don't think that that was an appropriate thing for House Speaker Hastert to have said?

KYL: What I'm saying is that we want to send a message not just to our troops and to out allies, but also to our enemies. And whether we disagree or agree with exactly how the war is being conducted, we need to send a consistent message that our enemies are not going to be able to wait us out, that we will prevail, and that whatever differences there may be between us are unimportant compared to the ultimate commitment to defeat the terrorists.

ZAHN: Mr. Holbrooke, Richard, please react to what the senator just said about this comment by House Speaker Hastert.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: I think Jon Kyl said it perfectly. That was an inappropriate comment. Al Qaeda should draw no conclusions that either candidate would be less vigorous in his commitment to the war on terror.

They have different points of view on homeland security and how effective it's going. John Kerry laid his views out today in New York. President Bush will be laying them out here in New York at the U.N. tomorrow. That is the central issue, in my view, of the remaining weeks of the campaign, because we are now in only the fourth election since the Civil War taking place in a time of war.

The war isn't going well. We all recognize that. President Bush has admitted it. The issue before the American public is whether or not they wish to give this administration four more years because they're satisfied with how Iraq is going or they wish to change course, as Senator Kerry suggested today.

ZAHN: In Senator Kerry's speech today, Senator, he was highly critical of the president's prewar planning, postwar planning. And the president also has to deal with the criticism of senators from within his own party, Senator McCain saying Bush is not being -- quote -- "as straight as we'd like to see him."

Another one of your colleagues, Senator Lugar, referring to incompetence in the administration. The president has a problem, doesn't he?

KYL: It's not the president's job I think to stand up every morning and announce the number of casualties.

He's recognized how serious it is and how much it bothers him that we're having to put people in harm's way. It's important, especially if we're going to get more allies into the conflict, as Senator Kerry would like to do, to have a president who can be positive and who can be resolute in ensuring that we see this through to the end.

ZAHN: Senator Kerry is also being criticized by people within his own party, the most recent from Leon Panetta, the former chief of staff of President Clinton, who basically said in an editorial, pick a message, any message. And the vice president out there beating up Senator Kerry today for continuing what he says flip-flopping on the issue of Iraq.

HOLBROOKE: Well, it's good politics to accuse your opponent of flip-flopping.

The fact is, it's the Bush administration, the president and vice president, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and company who have done a lot of flip-flopping. They predicted democracy. They predicted dancing in the streets. They predicted that we'd be down to 40,000 troops by now. They called it an accomplished mission when the casualties were mounting. It is the administration that has got a policy that has failed.

And, as you just pointed out, some of the most important Republicans in the country have said the same thing.

ZAHN: Senator, I want to close with what got us to this point. The president was asked, if he had to go back and do it all over again, knowing what he knows today, knowing that no weapons of mass destruction were found, knowing that there were no operational ties confirmed between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, would he go back and wage war in Iraq? He said yes.

Is that a mistake for the president to answer the question that way?

KYL: No, both he and Senator Kerry were asked the same question and they both said, yes, they would go back and do it again.

Now, you can argue about whether knowing now what they didn't know at the time, they might have done some things differently. That would be a legitimate question. But hindsight is always great. Both candidate Kerry and President Bush said that, knowing what we know today, they still would have voted to take Saddam Hussein out. And, in fact, during the presidential debates, when Howard Dean was questioning that decision, Senator Kerry was very clear. He said those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein and those who believe we are not safer with this capture don't have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president. Now, that does conflict with what he said today, which is that we're not safer off today without Saddam Hussein.

ZAHN: Can you explain that contradiction?

HOLBROOKE: Very quickly, it is a misrepresentation of Kerry's position. He said very clearly he doesn't regret the vote to give the president the authority.

The authority is what got the U.N. to get the inspectors into Iraq. President Bush premised the war on the weapons of mass destruction. Senator Kerry said again today, if we had let the inspectors finish the job, they would have found that there was no weapons of mass destruction and it would not have been necessary to go to war at that time in that way without a sufficient coalition. So, Jon Kyl is correct. They both supported the resolution.

What John Kerry is saying repeatedly is, I would have done a different thing with that and we would have not had 1,000 dead and we would be able to focus Osama bin Laden, still missing and still dangerous, and al Qaeda.

ZAHN: All right, gentlemen, I need 10-second answers apiece. Where do you think Iraq will be as a campaign issue come Election Day?

Richard Holbrooke.

HOLBROOKE: For the undecided voter, the central issue, who has a better chance of success in Vietnam -- in Vietnam, I'm sorry, a Freudian slip with a lot of under-text -- and what will be the plan to succeed without -- a war without any light at the end of this tunnel?

ZAHN: Senator Kyl, you get the last word tonight.

KYL: I agree with Richard that it will be a central issue because both campaigns have made it a central issue. And the question will be, do you want to change horses in the middle of the stream? Do you want to change commanders in chief, one who is obviously resolute, the other who has a difficult time making up his mind?

ZAHN: Got to leave it there.

Senator Kyl, Ambassador Holbrooke, you'll have to come back and answer that one the next time. Thank you both.

And that brings us to our PRIME TIME POLITICS voting booth question for tonight. Who has the better plan for dealing with the problems in Iraq, President Bush or Senator Kerry? Go to CNN.com/Paula and give us your opinion. We will reveal the results at the end of hour with a huge drumroll. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): Rather embarrassing for CBS. The network now admits it was misled on those controversial National Guard documents. What does that mean for CBS, its star anchor and the presidential campaign?

And it may be the only thing they'll ever agree on. The campaigns finally come to terms on a series of debates -- when and how when Paula ZAHN NOW PRIME TIME POLITICS continues.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And we are continuing our focus Iraq tonight.

Senator John Kerry finally got specific today in spelling out what he would do differently from the Bush administration now.

And joining me to discuss that, regular contributor and "TIME" columnist Joe Klein, who joins me here in New York tonight.

Welcome.

JOE KLEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Hi, Paula.

ZAHN: His latest column is called "Bush's Iraq: A Powerful Fantasy."

Tell what me how you really think, Joe.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAHN: And in Washington tonight, Stephen F. Hayes of "The Weekly Standard." The title of his latest column is "No Terrorism in Iraq Before the War, Who Does John Kerry Think He's Kidding?"

Welcome to you as well.

All right, so, both you have written extensively about the issue of Iraq. Was John Kerry's speech, Joe, too little, too late to try to put a dent in those poll numbers, with -- Americans overwhelmingly show that they trust Bush more with national security than John Kerry?

KLEIN: Well, that's a political question and involves a political prediction. and I don't make predictions.

The question is whether it was too little too late is a very valid question, and it may well be, but it was also right, finally, especially not so much on the remedies, but on the prescription, on the description of what George W. Bush has done wrong in Iraq. You know, he talks -- the president has talked a really good game of resoluteness and so on, but he hasn't played a really good game in Iraq. And he's created a real disaster there that the national intelligence estimate last week, you know, reinforced the opinion that things are not going very well there.

ZAHN: And, Stephen, as you know, it's not just the Democrats that are beating up the president. He has key members of his own party saying this is a mess in Iraq, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska saying that this war may not even be won in Iraq, that we are in deep trouble over there. How does the president confront that?

STEPHEN HAYES, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, I think it's tough for the president right now. And certainly having Republicans criticize him gives the story more media oxygen.

I think John Kerry was smart to talk about the problems in postwar Iraq. And it's interesting that six weeks out, he seems to be sort of betting his campaign that that will resonate with voters.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: Is that a smart move, Stephen?

HAYES: Well, I think it is a smart move, although the way that he did it today I don't think was smart. He came out and said, we need to have an honest debate about Iraq and then went on to misrepresent numerous administration positions on Iraq.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: OK, name one misrepresentation, so we're sure to have Joe react.

HAYES: Well, sure.

He said -- at one point in his speech, he said that the administration had made a direct link between Iraq and 9/11. It just didn't happen. He said that the administration said that there was an imminent threat. They didn't say that. John Edwards, John Kerry's running mate, said it on a couple of occasions. So those are just a couple the examples of where he misrepresented.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: I see you shaking your head. What is the truth of this?

KLEIN: But that's peripheral.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: Is what he's saying true or false?

KLEIN: No.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: Did the Kerry campaign misrepresent those facts about operational links between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein?

KLEIN: Obviously, yes, they did.

But compared to the misrepresentation that the Bush campaign has been leveling at Kerry throughout, up to this very day, those are minor points. There's a real serious debate to be had here and finally, I think we're have it. I think that it's not an honest debate in a far more important way -- and Steve may agree with me on this -- that, if you're really going to talk about winning in Iraq, you have to talk about more American troops there, because if we don't send more American troops there, we're not going to win.

And even if we do send more American troops there, we may not win because the situation has gotten so dangerous. That's the important discussion to have now, not about whether the threat was imminent or this or that or the other thing. And we keep on going off on these tangents.

ZAHN: All right, but there was allegedly a secret report last week that indicted that potential...

(CROSSTALK)

KLEIN: It wasn't allegedly.

ZAHN: All right.

KLEIN: It was a national intelligence estimate that was leaked last week. It's not secret. It exists. It says that we are losing the war.

ZAHN: All right, but our Pentagon sources say, Stephen, that that is not true and that there is no plan to increase deployment levels to Iraq.

KLEIN: Oh, but that's a separate thing.

HAYES: Well, you know, I think I actually do agree with Joe somewhat that it would be helpful to have more troops on the ground. It would be helpful also to have the troops that are on the ground show themselves more.

We need a presence there. And we need to show the Iraqis that we're still there and that we will knock down any terrorists and insurgents. We should not have free zones for terrorists and insurgents. It's a bad idea. I think it's not effective. We've seen that.

But I would disagree that the other stuff is peripheral. I really don't think it is. I think it goes to the heart of the debate, especially because John Kerry basically made the central point of his speech today the question of whether we are more or less secure. And I do think that Iraq's connections with al Qaeda, the presence of mass destruction or the capability, those are worth discussing at length?

ZAHN: What's the connection you're talking about? The training camps that may have existed at one point in Iraq?

KLEIN: There's no operational connection with al Qaeda. There never has been.

ZAHN: That's what the 9/11 Commission is saying. You're absolutely right.

KLEIN: And if you're going to countries in the region that had more operational relation to al Qaeda, you have to talk about Saudi Arabia, which funded al Qaeda, Pakistan, which to this day is harboring a lot of al Qaeda. Countries like Yemen and Jordan and Syria and Iran also had relationships, which is a smart thing to do. Iraq had some contacts as well.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: But that is -- but that isn't central to this war. And the fact that they had the capability of making weapons of mass destruction, right next door in Iran, they're building an atomic bomb. This was a stupid war.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: All right, gentlemen, we have got to leave it there.

Joe Klein, Stephen Hayes, thank you for both of your perspectives tonight.

HAYES: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: We are going to take a short break here.

A veteran news organization and a veteran news anchor both admit mistakes in judgment. CBS, Dan Rather and the impact on the presidential campaign, that's straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Well, there is nothing anyone in the news business hates more than getting it plain wrong. Well, tonight, the pain showed on Dan Rather's face as he admitted that CBS News had made a big mistake in a story about President Bush's National Guard service.

Jeanne Meserve reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A 180 from CBS, an acknowledgement that it made a mistake, that it cannot authenticate documents used to undergird a CBS report raising questions about President Bush's service in the National Guard. The network revealed and interviewed its source, former National Guardsmen Bill Burkett.

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: Have you forged anything?

RETIRED LT. COL. BILL BURKETT, TEXAS NATIONAL GUARD: No, sir.

RATHER: Have you faked anything?

BURKETT: No, sir.

RATHER: But you did mislead us.

(CROSSTALK)

BURKETT: Yes, I did.

RATHER: You used the word lie. You lied to us.

MESERVE: Burkett says when CBS pressured him about where he got the documents, he just threw out a name. He now says that individual was not the actual source. Though he still says the documents are real, he says insisted to CBS that the documents be authenticated, something the network did not do.

RATHER: The failure of CBS News to do just, to properly, fully scrutinize the documents and their source led to our airing the documents when we should not have done so. It was a mistake. CBS News deeply regrets it. Also, I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry.

MESERVE: Bill Burkett has in the past sued the Texas National Guard over medical benefits and alleged that President Bush's military records were sanitized, a charge that former Bush aides have called hogwash. The White House pounced on the revelation that Burkett was the source.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What contacts did Mr. Burkett have with Democrats? There are reports that he had senior-level contacts with members of the Kerry campaign.

DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Who was behind these documents? Who was behind organizing this story? Those are the questions that the American people deserve answers to.

MESERVE: Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says don't point fingers at this party.

TERRY MCAULIFFE, DNC CHAIRMAN: No Democrat, none at the Democratic National Committee or the John Kerry for president had anything to do with the preparations of these documents.

MESERVE (on camera): But Republicans said McAuliffe left unanswered whether Democrats had anything to do with the dissemination of the documents. When it was first broadcast, Democrats hoped the "60 Minutes" report hurt the campaign, but some ruefully acknowledge, the only group that has been hurt at this juncture is CBS News -- Paula.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Thanks very much, Jeanne Meserve in Washington. Joining me now from the nation's capital, "Washington Post" media critic and host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES," Howard Kurtz.

Always good to see you, Howie. Welcome.

HOWARD KURTZ, "RELIABLE SOURCES": Thank you.

ZAHN: So who should be fired over this mess?

KURTZ: Well, probably, some heads should roll. It's not for me to say.

But the more we've learned about this as I've pieced this together almost hour by hour, the worst that CBS News looked. They rushed this on the air in a matter of five days. They ignored warnings from their own document experts that they had hired. They took a lack of a hard denial from White House communications director Dan Bartlett, who we just saw, as some kind of green light, some kind of confirmation that this story was OK. We can put it on the air.

And now we know they relied on a quirky source who lied to them, but also said, I didn't authenticate it. I thought you were going to authenticate it.

ZAHN: You say it's not for you to say, but you certainly have investigated this story. How many people are you talking about that got caught up in this web of lies?

KURTZ: Well, look, this goes to the very top of CBS News, CBS News president Andrew Heyward, who also admitted to me others today that this was a serious mistake and it was in fact rushed on the air, and perhaps they were too slow to acknowledge the mistake, saw the piece before it went on the air in "60 Minutes." So did a number of other senior-level executives.

So did Dan Rather, their star anchor, put his name and his prestige and his reputation behind this. So did Josh Howard, who is the executive producer of "60 Minutes" Wednesday, who has acknowledged some missteps as well, and so did Mary Mapes, Dan Rather's producer, who is the person who did most of the reporting on this story.

ZAHN: So does, in the end, does this apology mean anything, Howie?

KURTZ: Well, I think it's about time that CBS, in an effort to get this mess behind them, Paula, acknowledge, A, that the story was not true, or at least they couldn't prove these documents were true, and, B, express some regret for hurling this kind of charge at the president of the United States in the middle of a reelection campaign when they didn't have it nailed down. They didn't have it halfway nailed down.

That does not diffuse what they did. It's certainly not going to quell the criticism. There are certainly a lot of voices out there saying Rather should be fired, Heyward should be fired and so on. But I think CBS today took the first step, after resisting it, very bafflingly, even in the view of some who work at CBS, for some two week, took the first step toward acknowledging that it had screwed up.

ZAHN: All right, here's what I want to know, Howie. Is there any evidence that you have seen that would suggest that there was a political motivation on CBS' part to air this story?

KURTZ: Well, I will say this. I don't necessarily buy the notion that people at CBS were trying to get President Bush or have some kind of vendetta against him.

But they fell in love with the story. They wanted the story to be true. We learned that Mary Mapes, again, Rather's producer, Bill Burkett, the source, says she pressured him into naming who his source was. He was just the middleman. He hadn't actually seen the original documents.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: Hang on a minute, Howard. If she wanted it to be true, what does that mean? That means the end result is that this was a story that would end up hurting the president, right?

KURTZ: Right. But that would have been a big journalistic scoop. I'm not necessarily attributing any partisan motivation. Maybe they would have gone after a story just as hard involving John Kerry.

My point is -- and we've all been there -- when you get the adrenaline pumping, the excitement of having something that you think is an exclusive, that you think is going to explode in the middle of a presidential campaign, you tend to minimize or dismiss the kinds of warnings that CBS had, the fact that the source was shaky.

It took some of these bloggers about a couple of hours to discover major problems and whether these documents could have been typed on a government typewriter in 1972. CBS should have been far more careful.

ZAHN: And finally tonight, you heard the Jeanne Meserve piece. Republicans are having a field day hurling accusations that in some way the Kerry campaign may have been in cahoots with CBS News. Is there any evidence of that?

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: There is no evidence to date. The Republicans are having a lot of time saying, well, there are serious questions. Let's investigate the questions.

We do know that Bill Burkett was calling people in the Kerry campaign, that he was calling Max Cleland, a big Kerry supporter. He wanted to -- we don't know want he wanted to do. He wanted to urge them to go on the attack and so forth.

But there's no evidence that anybody in the Kerry campaign or the Democratic Party was soliciting or somehow in bed with Bill Burkett. But something tells me we have more to learn about this whole thing. ZAHN: And I have a feeling you'll help uncover it for us as we...

KURTZ: I'll try.

ZAHN: ... follow this investigation. Howard Kurtz, thank so much.

So when will the candidates go face-to-face, one on one? When, where and how will they debate each other?

Plus, an exclusive poll from the crucial battleground state of Iowa.

But first, the CBS story is playing in the world of talk radio from the right and the left.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: If anybody now believes this didn't come from somewhere within the ranks of the Democratic Party then you need have your head examined. You need to go back in for a brain transplant or perhaps go in and get some I.Q. drugs, because there's something you are seriously missing what is happening here.

RANDI RHODES, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I'm not even going to bother with it except to say bad, bad, bad, bad form, CBS. Really bad form. In these days and in this troubled time, you really got to check your facts.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Over the next six weeks, American voters will have three chances to size up the candidates side by side. The Bush and Kerry campaigns have finally agreed to a series of debates. What can we expect?

Here's Tom Foreman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): So far, all of the punches...

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I understand my opponent changes positions a lot.

FOREMAN: ... have been thrown from a distance.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He failed to tell the truth.

FOREMAN: But soon, George Bush and John Kerry will battle for the presidency in person. Three debates are planned, in Florida, Missouri and Arizona, and a lot will ride on those encounters.

ADAM CLYMER, NATIONAL ANNENBERG ELECTION SURVEY: There's plenty of evidence from our surveys and others that people learn a fair amount of the candidates' backgrounds and about where they stand on issues from watching debates and from paying attention to the subsequent media coverage.

FOREMAN: So how do the contenders compare?

The president, political analysts say, is best when he is plainspoken and passionate. He sometimes stumbles over words, but he's been in presidential debates before, and voters liked him.

KEATING HOLLAND, CNN POLLING DIRECTOR: He's his own man. He's a straight shooter. He says what he's going to do and then he goes ahead and does it. It's something that came through very clearly, particularly in the contrast to Al Gore in each of the three debates in 2000.

FOREMAN: After each those meetings, Mr. Bush's poll numbers rose and Mr. Gore's fell.

KERRY: That is more than doubled.

FOREMAN: Senator Kerry is known for being a skilled debater and for a deep understanding of the issues. On the other hand, he is sometimes criticized for giving such complicated answers that he loses his audience.

HOLLAND: Kerry's strength is his weakness, which is he has a great command of detail, a great command of facts, and he can't resist showing it. If he starts to tangle himself up in all of those details, the public may see that.

FOREMAN (on camera): And so after months of campaigning it comes down to this. Now and then on the campaign trail, the candidates have come within a few miles of each other.

(voice-over) In the debates they will be a lot closer together, but doing all they can to show that politically they're a lot farther apart.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And that was our Tom Foreman.

Joining us now, senior White House correspondent John King, who's been covering President Bush's campaign, and senior political correspondent Candy Crowley, who's covering John Kerry. And the only reason these two are in town is they're following their candidates, because they have crisscrossed appearances, raising money and talking about Iraq here.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You've changed the couch.

ZAHN: It's comfy. So what was the sticking point in these debate negotiations? The buzzer?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The buzzer and the -- you know, what's interesting to me is we went into this thing and OK, there will be two debates. The president wants two debates because Bill Clinton had two debates.

And I talked to a Democrats today. They said, "No, they kind of went in and said, 'We want two debates,' and we said, 'No, three,' and they said, 'OK'."

So apparently there was not a lot of "we have to have two." So it was never a question, really.

ZAHN: But the format was an issue, too.

KING: The format was an issue.

ZAHN: Whether the town hall format was better for the president or the simple Q and A from the moderator.

KING: The president doesn't mind that format. What they were worried about is it was allegedly supposed to be, quote unquote, undecided voters and the Bush campaign was suspect as to how you would choose them.

This is the 32-page agreement here. It legislates everything. Everything.

ZAHN: Nothing left to chance.

KING: Including the camera shots you can take during the debate. But it says in here that those voters will not be termed undecided. They will be soft Bush and soft Kerry voters. So persuadable voters, you might say.

ZAHN: Is that acceptable to John Kerry and obviously they agree to this, but...

CROWLEY: Yes, apparently. I think they're just thrilled to have three debates, really.

I mean, in some ways, I think it's interesting that they went in with the expectation that the Bush people would push for two, and then they gave on that immediately. And I think at some point then they had to give on this format.

KING: The one the Bush people wanted to give up was Missouri, and then they realized in the end, "Do we really want to fight over this? What would the local media be? We're ahead in Missouri now. We need the state. Do we really want to have a fight about this?"

And in the end they decided they think the momentum is going their way, let's cave on this and avoid this dispute.

ZAHN: But they're still going to have stuff with the audience members who are almost...

KING: This here says that those audience members speak up, the moderator will cut them off. It says so right here.

ZAHN: After what? After 15 seconds?

I think it's so interesting that both these camps are out there, basically trying to underestimate the performance of their own candidate: the Kerry camp saying George Bush saying George Bush has never lost a debate, the Bush folks saying the greatest debater, John Kerry since Cicero.

CROWLEY: It depends on what your definition of lost is.

I mean, you know, look, it's all part of the game, as you know. It's like who's the better debater.

And Kerry, you know, had these great debates with Bill Weld in Massachusetts. And everyone talked about his great intellect.

And so now they're going, "Oh, but wait. George Bush is a terrific debater and he's -- we're not really sure if we can, you know, keep up with him." And that's just part of it. I mean, they're so different stylistically I think that will be the fun part of it.

ZAHN: The public doesn't care about this preamble, do they? They're going to watch through their own prism of reference.

KING: They will. The president has the tapes of those Bill Weld debates from John Kerry back in 1996. We don't know if he's actually watched them yet, but we do know he has them.

The public doesn't care so much, I think, about all the antics and the staging and everything. I think what is interesting, though, is now that you have the three presidential debates and the one vice presidential debate, they tend to freeze the campaign, the two or three days before the debates and the two or three days after the debate.

So you essentially have to -- you have to sort of segment now in the campaign of the six weeks left.

ZAHN: How much will they be rehearsing between now and the time of the first debate?

CROWLEY: I think so much rehearsing is...

ZAHN: Oh, come on they practice answers. They practice answers.

CROWLEY: Rehearsing is different to me than watching the other guy, understanding how, you know, Kerry may come from behind the podium or who's going to walk this way or, you know, that kind of thing.

I don't think it's like they say, "OK, now when they ask this, you know, answer it this way," as much as it is, you know, watch -- look, when you look back at what turned debates. Al Gore sighing...

ZAHN: Sure.

CROWLEY: ... George Bush looking at his watch.

ZAHN: So it's as much about form as it is about substance.

KING: They do test the president in these. Senator Judd Greg of New Hampshire played Al Gore last time. He is so far playing John Kerry. Congressman Rob Portman of Ohio is playing John Edwards.

And we are told that they have been known, especially Portman, has been known to turn to the vice president to practice vice presidential debate and say, "The war that you decided has killed a thousand Americans."

It will be very hard to rip the skin off. They'll try to surprise them in the practice sessions just to get them ready.

ZAHN: You'll have to fill us in.

KING: They don't get to ask questions of each other, though.

ZAHN: They do not, yes.

KING: This says they do not get to ask questions of each other.

ZAHN: As long as they stick to that 32-page document.

Candy, John, stay with us. We're going to reveal the results of our exclusive PRIME TIME POLITICS poll in a critical battleground state in just a few minutes.

Plus, our voting booth is open. Tell us who you think has the better plan for dealing with the problems in Iraq: President Bush or Senator Kerry. Vote now at CNN.com/Paula.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Tonight we reveal another of our polls in the battleground states that will help decide the presidential race.

Iowa has seven electoral votes and went for Al Gore by less than half a percentage point in the year 2000. Our new CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll shows President Bush has overtaken Senator Kerry in Iowa.

The president has a 50 to 44 percent lead among likely voters. Among all registered voters, the president is ahead 48 to 43 percent. Last month Senator Kerry was six points ahead among both of those groups.

Also note that Ralph Nader is on the ballot there and drawing some support.

With us again, CNN White House correspondent John King, senior political correspondent Candy Crowley.

Welcome back.

How is the Kerry camp spinning that? This is bad news.

CROWLEY: Well, Paula, you know, the only poll that really counts is...

ZAHN: The poll on election day. Of course.

CROWLEY: ... the poll on election day.

Look, he's south of these polls in a lot of battleground states that -- I mean, Iowa...

ZAHN: What happened in that short period of time to turn those numbers?

CROWLEY: Well, it depends on who you listen to. Was it that President Bush had a great convention, was it that John Kerry didn't use his convention to go after George Bush? Was it the Swift Boat for Truth ads? There's a lot of things.

I mean, I think George Bush did get on his game in August. Now, I haven't been out there with him, but he seemed like it.

KING: He's...

ZAHN: What does the White House say about it?

KING: Bush is a much better campaigner now than he was three months ago. What the White House says about it is all the elements Candy just mentioned have had the effect, especially in small town rural America, and that is Iowa, trust, reliability, likability.

They say the president is killing Senator Kerry on those three things right now. Still time but small town rural America. Iowa is very much like Wisconsin, like West Virginia. If these numbers start to move, Senator Kerry is in trouble.

ZAHN: Although we also know the White House feels vulnerable on the issue of Iraq. Were they at all threatened by John Kerry's speech today? Did they think that speech will lead to any traction for him?

KING: They -- They are threatened and you notice that by how quickly the president fought back.

Now, their answer every time Senator Kerry criticizes them on Iraq is to say, "Never mind our position. The senator is still debating himself over what his position is."

Some Republicans are nervous that perhaps that started a bit too early, and can the president carry through to election day? This is an incumbent president. This is his war. This is his chaos in Iraq right now by anyone's standard. And a lot of Democrats are frustrated and some Republicans are feeling lucky so far that Senator Kerry has not been able to make it about the incumbent's decisions. The Bush campaign says he's still debating himself, and so far they've had success with that. Can they sustain it? I don't know.

CROWLEY: But let me tell you what is defying gravity, is that this is -- the chaos in Iraq has been going on for awhile, and it almost seems that the president's support is going up as the chaos goes up.

ZAHN: At a time they're being bashed by other Republicans in the party, saying that we're losing in Iraq. So what is that?

CROWLEY: An unpredictable kind of time has given us really unpredictable politics. I have no idea what that means.

KING: They have somehow, at least so far, made the case, the Bush people have, that Senator Kerry is unacceptable to take the job. And they have kept Iraq tied to the big war on terror. If the American people separate those two, the Republicans could see the president is in trouble. If they don't view Iraq as part of the big war on terrorism.

ZAHN: But that's the way the American public seems to perceive it right now, giving the president an overwhelming majority. It comes to who they trust the most with the security of the nation.

CROWLEY: And that's why you're seeing with the credibility, the trustworthiness, the leadership. Every time John Kerry brings up a subject now, whether it's Medicare or the environment or whatever happens to be, George Bush hasn't told you the truth about this.

You notice that today about Iraq it was all, "He's misled you. He hasn't told you the truth. That's not leadership."

So it becomes both a policy issue, but more importantly a character issue. They're going right at those numbers, because that's what really is sustaining him.

ZAHN: Quick. Honest answer. Do you ever call each other when you hear a candidate say something that is supremely dumb? And share it with each other?

KING: That's why we use these silly things.

CROWLEY: Blackberries.

ZAHN: All right. They Blackberry each other. On the record, there you've got it. John King, Candy Crowley. Thanks.

Tomorrow the president faces a tough audience at the U.N., where many members object to his foreign policy. What the rest of the world thinks about the U.S. and how much it matters, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ZAHN: Tomorrow, President Bush will be in New York to speak to the United Nations' general assembly. As you might expect, the president is expected to touch on his hopes for Iraq and Afghanistan.

What kind of reception will he get? Well, one indication may be in a new poll of 34,000 people in 35 countries. University of Maryland researchers asked them who they favor in the U.S. presidential race.

Senator Kerry was the choice in 30 of those 35 nations. Only the Philippines, Nigeria and Poland sided strongly with President Bush.

Joining us now, three international journalists who can give us a global view of the U.S. presidential campaign. Chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour joins us from London. In Paris, Christian Malard, senior foreign analyst with France 3 TV. And from Beirut, Rami Khouri, executive editor of "The Daily Star."

Good to see all three of you.

Christiane, I'm going to start with you this evening. As you know, John Kerry gets hit every day with charges that he's a flip- flopper. Do you think people over there really understand what John Kerry stands for?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, I think it's important to point out, and certainly this poll shows, that it's not about John Kerry. You know, he's an unknown quantity. It's about President Bush's foreign policy.

That is basically what gets the attention of people overseas. They never really know the challenger. They only know what they're seeing and what's going on.

So it's really much more an opinion, a referendum, if you like, overseas on what they have gone through over the last four years in terms of foreign policy.

And it's interesting from the poll of the 30 countries who would prefer not to see President Bush reelected, those are all traditional U.S. allies, most of them. And it's just, I think Poland, Philippines and Nigeria, also U.S. allies who would prefer to see President Bush reelected.

So again, it's most definitely an opinion on the policies that have been waged around the world, the global foreign policy of the United States over the last four years and that is causing a great deal of alarm amongst the majority of people, certainly according to this poll.

ZAHN: But Christian Malard, do these countries really believe that John Kerry's policies will be that different from President George Bush's?

CHRISTIAN MALARD, SENIOR FOREIGN ANALYST, FRANCE 3 TV: Well, it's clear that President Chirac, his government, even the left wing opposition in his country and French public opinion in a global way would probably think that John Kerry being elected president would have a softer approach of the crucial, sensitive problems of the world like the Iraqi war.

They are convinced that there would be more concertation (ph), not so much as a universal approach as the one done by President Bush in the past and probably more concertation (ph) with the United Nations, with NATO and some collective decisions taken together.

But at the same time, when there is former Clinton people like Madeleine Albright or Sandy Berger, they realized that if John Kerry is elected president, what would he do?

He would ask the French, the Germans and the Russians, all of the people who refused to go along with President Bush to share the burden, financial burden, military burden in Iraq. And they are not so sure that President Chirac would accept that.

So let's say it would be different on the approach, but the content might be the same in another way.

ZAHN: Rami Khouri, when you look at Middle East countries, what is your sense of who that population thinks would make the world a safer place? A President John Kerry or President Bush?

RAMI KHOURI, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "THE DAILY STAR": The vast majority of people in the Middle East certainly in the Arab world don't expect any significant change, vis-a-vis Middle Eastern policies, Arab-Israeli issues, Iraq, democratic reform issues. Those kind of things.

The only place, maybe, where Kerry is differentiating himself a little bit from Bush is he seems to be taking a stronger line on pressuring Saudi Arabia and oil and energy independence policies.

But generally people here don't see much difference between Bush and Kerry. The main problem people here see in the Middle East is that the United States' overall policy in the Middle East is self- serving, hypocritical, riddled with double standards and very violent.

So I think people want to change in American policy, not a change in the American presidents.

ZAHN: Christian Malard, is this anything the French see that is at all positive in the Bush presidency?

MALARD: Well, I think globally, you have here a right wing Republican, President Chirac. He should go along, normally, with the right wing Republican in the United States.

But we are two men having two different visions of the world at the extreme with one another and it cannot work. And this is one of the reasons why probably President Chirac will tell you that he would probably prefer to have a softer president, someone who's more listening to his allies, not having unilateral politics and definitely would prefer Kerry. But I don't know what about the results in the end.

ZAHN: In the Middle East, do they want a president that is less likely to take military action?

KHOURI: Not particularly. What they want is a president and an American foreign policy that is consistent, less hypocritical, less self-serving, less whimsical.

These are the complaints; these are accusations that are made against the United States, that they used force to implement U.N. resolutions in Kuwait and Iraq and other places. Well, what about occupied Palestinian land?

If you marshal the global consensus for sanctions against certain countries for human rights abuses, how about in other countries in the Middle East, whether it's Israel or other places.

This is -- the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Middle East's attitude, to the United States is so enormous. And it's extraordinary that the Bush administration simply doesn't get it.

And the consequence is -- is what we've seen, this massive anti- American sentiment that has been in the Middle East for some years and now has spread around the world.

ZAHN: Rami Khouri, Christian Malard, Christiane Amanpour, thank you all.

The results from our PRIME TIME POLITICS "Voting Booth" question are straight ahead. We'll be back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back. Now for the results of tonight's "Voting Booth" question. I know you've been waiting for this.

We asked you, "Who has a better plan for dealing with Iraq: President Bush or Senator Kerry?"

Twenty-two percent said President Bush; 78 percent said Senator Kerry. Remember this, is not a scientific poll, but a sampling of all of your reactions out there. We have a different question every night on our web site, CNN.com/Paula, and we'd love for you to participate.

That wraps it up for all of us here this evening. Thanks so much for joining us. Tomorrow, the president goes before a skeptical U.N. We will have his message and the reaction. Thanks so much for joining us tonight. Hope you'll be back with us again tomorrow night.

"LARRY KING LIVE" is next. Good night.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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