Return to Transcripts main page
CNN LARRY KING LIVE
Analysis of First Presidential Debate
Aired September 30, 2004 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LARRY KING, HOST: We've got a special hour edition of LARRY KING LIVE. With us from Miami at the debate hall is Ann Richards, the former Democratic governor of Texas, who debated George W. Bush in 1994. In Washington is William Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, who debated John Kerry in the 1996 U.S. Senate race, which Kerry won. Bush won the governorship against Richards. Senator McCain will join us in a couple of minutes.
Let's start with Governor Richards. What's your overview of this debate tonight?
ANN RICHARDS (D), FORMER TEXAS GOVERNOR: I thought what you saw tonight in John Kerry was a man who is ready to assume the leadership and the mantle of commander-in-chief. I was really pleased, Larry. We were all nervous going into this debate, and I thought that John Kerry knocked it out of the ballpark. I thought that Bush was defensive. I thought he acted annoyed and sort of petulant about some of the questions that were asked him. And he showed, obviously, that he doesn't have a clue on how we're going to get out of Iraq.
KING: You have said on this program, though, to never underestimate President Bush and that he is a very effective debater.
KING: Are you saying he fell short tonight?
RICHARDS: I thought he did fall short tonight. I thought his little set, pat answers generally didn't work as well tonight. It didn't work so well for him to repeatedly say, We're working hard, and, This is a hard job, and things like, Freedom, freedom, freedom. Somehow, it didn't connect in the way that usually his messages do.
KING: Governor Weld, you have debated John Kerry. You did many debates with John Kerry. What's you view of tonight's experience?
WILLIAM WELD (R), FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR: I thought the only fluff that either candidate made was that Senator Kerry seemed a little nervous at the outset. And I think the president -- and this is partly the foreign policy context -- has an advantage when the challenger, Senator Kerry, has to say, I believe in being strong, or, I do not intend to wilt or waver. Whereas the president, the existing commander-in-chief, can say, Listen, I know how the world works.
And I think the president really has the better of the debate on the matter of alliances. Senator Kerry says he's going to take this burden from our shoulder by new alliances, and the president can say with respect to Iraq, What are you going to tell these other countries, Come on in and join a grand diversion, join the coalition of the bribed and the coerced? That's not going to work.
KING: All right, having someone...
RICHARDS: But isn't it...
KING: ... who has debated...
RICHARDS: Hey, Larry...
KING: Hold it. Hold it, Ann. Hold it, Ann. As someone, Governor Weld, who has debated Senator Kerry -- I asked Ann Richards this, who has praised George Bush as a debater -- how did Kerry fare as a debater tonight? You've debated him many times.
WELD: As I say, I thought he seemed a little bit off his feed for the first four or five questions, and then he visibly settled down, got a lot more relaxed. And I think he was his normal, very skillful self for the second two thirds of the debate.
KING: Ann Richards, you were going to say?
RICHARDS: Well, I was really surprised because I -- by the way, Bill Weld and I are good friends, and I admire him a lot. And I was just interested in what he had to say because somehow, it rang hollow to me tonight when Bush said, Look, I know how the world works. My gosh, he's debating somebody that's been a part of the United States Senate, traveled all over the world and worked with world leaders for 20 years. I think both these gentlemen have some -- some -- notion of how this world works.
KING: Governor Weld, what effect, if any, do you think this had on undecideds?
WELD: Well, I think the context favors the president. In the context of the Iraq war, Senator Kerry made a huge point about Osama bin Laden being the enemy and not Saddam Hussein, but John Kerry voted to authorize the use of force -- in other words, in favor of the war with Saddam Hussein. That's a worm in the middle of the apple for him.
KING: Are you saying, then, Governor, that he was up against it, no matter what, when you're debating a president and the subject is foreign policy?
WELD: I think he's up against it, no matter what, when his mission is to attack the war in Iraq and he voted for it. I mean, I think we've seen in recent days, his statement yesterday on a morning talk show and his escalation of rhetoric against the president on Iraq, that -- I believe the anti-war John Kerry is the real John Kerry, and I think that candidate is coming out in recent days. But he's saddled with this vote in favor of the war, which was taken at a time before the ascendancy of Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries. And I think it's a tension that's going to be very hard for Senator Kerry to resolve. KING: We're joined now in Miami by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, strong supporter of the Bush campaign. What's your assessment of tonight, John?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I thought it was a good debate. I've watched a lot of debates and been in a few myself, and I thought it was an excellent debate. I thought there was a lack of zingers and, you know, the kind of gotchas that's sometimes characterize these debates. I thought that John Kerry did a good job style-wise. I think that the president was very convincing in his conviction that what he has done is right, what he will do is correct. And I was glad to see him emphasize two things. One, that it's a tough struggle we're in, and two, that the benefits of democracy in both Afghanistan and Iraq are very significant. And I think that appeals to a lot of Americans.
KING: I moderated a debate, a famed debate in South Carolina between you and President Bush. Has he improved -- is he different sine then? Is this a different man than four years ago?
MCCAIN: Oh, I think four years of the presidency have had a very, very maturing effect on the president. And yes, I could see a significant change from the debates that we had four years ago. And he's really grown in the four years in the office.
KING: You've been recently critical, though, of some aspects of Iraq. Were you affected by the debate tonight? Did it affect your criticism?
MCCAIN: Well, my criticism has been there since a year ago last August that we didn't have enough troops there and that we've made mistakes. Look, you make mistakes in every war. The key is fixing them, and the president pointed that out tonight also. I believe those still need to be fixed. I believe we've made some changes. For example, I hear we're going after one of the sanctuaries today. And we have to get them out of those sanctuaries.
But overall, look, we've got to win. We cannot afford to lose. And I was very glad to see Senator Kerry agree on that very salient point about this conflict.
KING: Ann Richards, what's your read on national public opinion about this war?
RICHARDS: Well, I think that people think that we have to have a specific plan for what we intend to do to get out of Iraq and get out successfully. And I do not think that that was described by the president tonight in any way. He did not admit that he had ever seen anything that would dissuade him from what could possibly have been an erroneous entry into that war. I thought that John Kerry did what he had to do tonight, and that was show that the -- the American people that he's capable of being commander-in-chief and that he had a specific plan on Iraq.
I think -- I've been traveling all over the country, Larry, and I've talked to people, and they're worried to death. They can't believe that we have killed a thousand men and women over there, that we've got 7,000 people that have been wounded or maimed in this war and that we've spent $200 billion, and we don't have a clue of how we're going to get out of it. And the president didn't do his job and tell us how he was going to do that tonight...
RICHARDS: ...with all due respect to Senator McCain.
KING: Senator McCain, how effective was John Kerry tonight, just assessing his performance?
MCCAIN: Well, I -- I think he did a good job. I think he failed to resolve the inconsistencies in his position concerning Iraq. I think that no president has ever agreed that we should have two-party talks or single-party talks between the United States and North Korea. And let me also say that this idea that with a new president, our allies are going to flock to helping us in Iraq -- I mean, look, I travel around the world a lot, too, usually at taxpayers' expense. The Europeans and others are not going to start coming into help us until we get the situation stabilized. And I hope that that's going to happen within the next few months.
Have mistakes been made? Are things tough, as the president pointed out? Absolutely. But he is committed to us prevailing there and bringing democracy and freedom to those people.
KING: Thanks for joining us, Senator McCain. We know you've got a busy night ahead.
MCCAIN: Thank you, Larry.
KING: We appreciate your being with us. Ann Richards and William Weld will remain with us. Senator Joe Biden will be joining us in a moment. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Help is on the way, but it's certainly hard to tell it when he voted against the $87 billion supplemental to provide equipment for our troops and then said he actually did vote for it before he voted against it. That's not what commander-in-chiefs does when you're trying to lead troops.
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Welcome back to more of this special edition of LARRY KING LIVE following tonight's first of three presidential debates. The vice presidents go at it, the candidates go at it, on Tuesday. With us in Miami is Ann Richards, the former Democratic governor of Texas. In Washington is William Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts. Both of these articulate, outstanding Americans debated the two Americans who debated tonight. And joining us tonight from Denver, Colorado, is Senator Joe Biden, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator McCain was with us. He assessed George Bush as being very effective tonight, while praising Senator Kerry, as well. Ann Richards, it might not surprise you to learn, Joe Biden, thought that Kerry won, and Weld thought that Bush won. What is your assessment of tonight's debate?
SEN. JOE BIDEN (D-DE), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, we'll let the people decide that. I thought John Kerry was strong. I think he won, but you know, I might say to the governor, if he's still there, Governor Weld, Governor...
KING: He's right here.
BIDEN: ...in the debates that you and Senator -- the debates you and Senator Kerry had -- I mean this sincerely -- were the most significant debates that I've ever heard in American politics. I think they're the most significant since the Lincoln-Douglas debates. You were two brilliant guys who knew what you were talking about, and they were really serious, seven of them. I just want to compliment you. You were really, really good.
And I don't think President Bush was nearly as good as you are, Governor, tonight. I think that he -- he was sort of a one-horse -- you know, a one-note -- one-trick pony tonight. And he made some -- he made some good points, but he did not respond to any of the -- any of the points that Senator Kerry made about the mistakes in Iraq, about not using American forces to get bin Laden, about the fact that we, in fact, are much worse off with Korea.
And I might add, Larry, I can say for anyone listening, I can assure you China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, our partners in those talks, all have asked us -- all have asked us -- to have individual talks with North Korea, as well. So that's a fact. And the president was not accurate when he said China would leave if we spoke to them. China'd be more engaged if we spoke.
KING: All right, let me get...
BIDEN: So anyway...
KING: Let me get a comment from Governor Weld. You are seeing a rally that Kerry is attending and Bush is attending, post-debate rallies for their supporters.
Governor Weld, you want to comment on what Senator Biden had to say?
WELD: Thank you, Senator Biden, for your kind words about 1996.
BIDEN: I mean it.
WELD: Thank you. You know...
BIDEN: No, I really mean it. You're -- you're something else.
WELD: As to your point about what you say about the president seemed like he was almost riding a one-trick pony there -- I guess my reaction to that is if the one-trick pony is the security of the United States, which was the topic of tonight's debate, that's a pretty big trick. And on that, I thought the president showed to pretty good advantage when he was saying, We have to deal with these threats before they fully materialize or before they materialize close to or within our borders.
And I thought the president had the advantage on substance when he questioned Senator Kerry about what the senator meant about something having to pass a global test before the American president would take action to commit troops or safeguard the security of the United States in certain ways. I think that might be...
BIDEN: Well, that's not what Kerry said.
WELD: Well, he talked about passing a global...
BIDEN: That is not what Kerry said.
WELD: ...test, and I think that that could be...
BIDEN: He said...
WELD: Go ahead.
KING: One at a time, guys.
BIDEN: No. I'm sorry. Go ahead.
WELD: No, I just think that...
BIDEN: Let the governor finish.
WELD: ... whole line of -- that whole line of reasoning could be nervous for, you know, this year's swing voters, the "security moms," who are replacing the soccer moms, or so we read, of the 1990s.
KING: Joe Biden and then Ann Richards. Joe?
BIDEN: My response would be John Kerry said he would use preemptive action. But he also pointed out that in the past, every time a president has used preemptive action, from Roosevelt to before that, that, in fact, it has been able -- it has been so clearly the right judgment that the world has rallied behind us. Many times during the cold war, we took preemptive action that the Europeans did not like, but because our judgment was correct, they rallied behind us.
And the only point that John Kerry was making is, it is very dangerous when you have such a fundamental misjudgment about how to proceed. I thought it was devastating he pointed out -- look, even Dick Lugar, when asked a couple weeks ago why things weren't going better on the ground, he said because of the incompetence -- his words -- the incompetence of this administration.
And what frustrates me is a lot of us are prepared to support the president, have been for two years, Larry, on your show supporting the president in his effort. But he refuses because this -- I guess this battle that still goes on between Powell and Cheney and Powell and Rumsfeld -- the president sends the ultimate mixed signals.
KING: Ann Richards -- hold it a second, Joe. Ann Richards, do you think the debate makes a difference?
RICHARDS: Oh, I think this debate has made a tremendous amount of difference. You asked me a while ago, Larry, about what people are saying out there in the countryside. Every poll, every single poll, regardless of the outcome, the majority of the people say this country is headed in the wrong direction.
KING: Then why is...
RICHARDS: And I thought this debate...
KING: Why is the president ahead in the polls?
RICHARDS: Because I think that the people did not -- have not had enough time to get to know John Kerry, because they have been listening to Bush on television now for three-and-a-half years. And I thought tonight, Kerry showed himself to be a leader, a man of courage who unquestionably would go after the terrorists and kill them when necessary. And I thought he showed that he can be the commander-in- chief and was very decisive tonight.
KING: Governor Weld, in that area, would you admit that Senator Kerry did show himself to be -- to have the credentials to be a commander-in-chief?
WELD: Well, he's got 20 years in the United States Senate, but he does have a back-and-forth record on the question of Iraq. And I thought -- in terms of how people perceive the debate, I thought the president showed to very good advantage when he pointed out that when we give our word, we got to keep our word. As Justice Robert Jackson once said, Great nations, like great men, must keep their word. And no one doubts that George Bush is going to do that.
The attack from Senator Kerry and others seems to be that George Bush is stubborn in his prosecution of the war in Iraq. Well, one man's stubborn is another man's resolute. You think about the British in World War II. They were very stubborn. Well, they wound up winning the war as a result, although things didn't look too great during the Battle of Britain. KING: Senator Biden, you want to comment before you leave us?
BIDEN: Yes, I do, Larry. No. 1, John Kerry -- I thought the most decisive line was, No one doubted Saddam Hussein was a threat. The question was, how to proceed to get -- how to proceed to get rid of that threat. And I can't believe -- I know within the administration, I know within the United States Senate, that there are people on both sides of the aisle who believe the president, from the moment that statue of Saddam fell, has proceeded haphazardly. This is a man who brought in a guy named Chalabi, an indicted criminal, thinking he was going to march to Baghdad. We flew him in. He changed course. This is a man who said he was not going to, in fact, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for allowing sovereignty for at least a year before a Constitution. He changed course. This is a man -- constantly, he has vacillated. This is a man who's now said we are not going to go -- there's no-zone (SIC) areas where we know the most serious terrorists exist.
The point here is not whether or not John Kerry will finish this job and be resolute. No one has ever said, nor has John ever said that. And John has been completely consistent on Iraq. He said it warranted going after Saddam Hussein the right way. It's not the right way we did it. And the bottom line is, we're less secure because of North Korea, less secure because of the vacillation with regard to Iran, and in deeper trouble than we needed to be in regard to Iraq. And the president needs to change course. Actually, we need a new president.
KING: Thank you, Senator. Always good seeing you. Senator Joe Biden...
BIDEN: Thank you.
KING: ... Democrat of Delaware, coming to us from Denver.
When we come back, some other panel members will join us. Ann Richards and William Weld -- very effective -- will remain. And we'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: First of all, what my opponent wants you to forget is that he voted to authorize the use of force, and now says it's the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place. I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say, Wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Ann Richards remains with us from Miami, William Weld from D.C. And joining us now, the regular members of our panel for the rest of the program, Mark Whitaker, editor of "Newsweek." Under his leadership, "Newsweek" earned the 2004 National Magazine Award for General Excellence for its coverage of the war in Iraq. In Miami is Jorge Ramos, anchor for Univision, author of "The Latino Wave: How Hispanics Will Elect the Next American President." And in Boston, David Gergen, the White House adviser to Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, professor of public service at Harvard's JFK School of Government, editor-at-large, "U.S. News & World Report."
We'll start with Mark Whitaker. What's your assessment of tonight?
MARK WHITAKER, EDITOR, "NEWSWEEK": Well, Larry, you know, somewhat to my surprise, and certainly, I think, in defiance of the conventional wisdom before the debate, I think Senator Kerry won on style in this debate. I think he seemed calm, presidential, articulate. And I think the president was strangely on the defensive and uneasy. It sort of reminded me of his appearance on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert, where he almost seemed like he didn't want to be there.
On the other hand, I think on substance, the great challenge that I think Senator Kerry had coming into this debate was to not only make a strong indictment of Bush's leadership on Iraq and the war on terror, but also to show that he had a better plan. He talked about a plan. I'm not sure he was that convincing in terms of the details. On the other hand, I think...
KING: Well, what...
WHITAKER: I think the challenge that the president had was to show that he was not only committed and resolute but in touch with the reality of what was happening on the ground in Iraq, and I think he actually failed in that regard. I mean, I've got tell you, Larry, from our reporting, and I know the reporting that you do at CNN, things are far worse than either of these candidates really were willing to acknowledge in terms of what's going on on the ground in Iraq right now.
KING: Jorge Ramos, what counts more in a debate, style or substance?
JORGE RAMOS, UNIVISION NEWS ANCHOR: I think in a debate like this, both things are very important. Larry, first let me tell you something. Nothing in the debate would let you know that it was conducted in Miami. I was very disappointed that after 90 minutes, we didn't hear a single word about Latin America. In Miami is the first time that I've seen two political candidates talk about anything, and they did not get a question about Cuba.
Now, talking about style and substance -- I think we have a race right now. I think that most of the debate -- and we have seen the conversation right now on your program. Most of the debate was concentrated on Iraq and not on the alleged changes of position of Senator Kerry, and that's very important. And when it comes to some of the most important parts of the debate, I would say that when Senator Kerry made references to DeGaulle or to treaties signed those decades ago, I mean, he was not every effective. But at the same time, when President Bush was looking at his notes and moving his papers, well, those were very awkward moments. Visually, I think those moments might have a negative impact on President Bush.
KING: And David Gergen, always on top of things, and has been around a long time, your assessment of tonight?
DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Well, Larry, no knockout punches and no memorable lines. At least, not any that I can remember. But still, one of the best debates I think we've had in a long, long time. It clarified choices in a way few other events do, and I think that the country should welcome a 90-minute conversation with the president in which he's really challenged and the opposition has a chance to put its views on the table, he has a chance to respond, and you get that engagement. I thought it was great for the country.
As for the candidates, I -- there's no question in my mind that Bush supporters will generally leave this debate feeling good about their candidate. They rally and resonate with what he said. There were times toward the end, especially in the last half, when he seemed tired. And I agree with Jorge, it almost seemed like a remark (ph) that he almost seemed like he didn't want to be there at times. But generally, I think he acquitted himself fairly.
But John Kerry was the one who had the most to prove, and I think he proved it. And that was that he's knowledgeable about international affairs and he can make his points in a concise, compelling way. For the first time, he seemed to be finding his voice before a national audience. And I would think, Larry, the importance for him and the importance of the debate politically is that Kerry's probably back in the game now. I think that George Bush will continue to maintain a lead in the race, but Kerry supporters were getting discouraged. This will give them encouragement, and I think will make the -- will give us more of a race here in the next few weeks and make these next debates much more important than they were only 24 hours ago.
KING: Governor Weld, would you agree that Kerry, on style, was effective tonight?
WELD: Well, as I said earlier, I thought he was nervous for the first third, but then I thought he got much better, and he looked like John Kennedy, Jr., out there. That never hurts.
In answer to your earlier question, I think, in the this debate, substance is much more important than style. And as I say, I think Senator Kerry has an impossible rock to roll uphill, in that he's essentially criticizing the president for going to war against Saddam Hussein when he voted in favor of that.
I think there was at least one very memorable line, and that was the president with respect to Senator Kerry's plan for more allies to fight the war against Iraq, saying, Please join us for a grand diversion. He was using Senator Kerry's words against him. That's a pivot. I was looking for pivots from Senator Kerry, who's the past master of that. And the president did it another time. There was a reference to terrorists coming across the border into Iraq. Senator Kerry made that reference. And the president said, Yes, they're coming into Iraq because that's the center of the fighting of the war against terror, a key point for the president.
So in terms of punch, counterpunch and jujitsu, if you will, I thought the president showed some real skill.
KING: We'll take a break, come back. Ann Richards will then chime in. Our panel will be with us. Your phone calls will be included. We'll have some -- couple of other drop-ins, as well. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KERRY: He misled the American people in a speech when he said, We will plan carefully. They obviously didn't. He misled the American people when he said we'd go to war as a last resort. We did not go as a last resort.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Joining us in this segment with Ann Richards, William Weld, Mark Whitaker, Jorge Ramos and David Gergen is George P. Bush, the son of Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, the nephew of President George W. Bush, the grandson of President George Herbert Walker Bush, who's been campaigning for his uncle.
I'm going to guess that you assessed George W. Bush as the winner tonight?
GEORGE P. BUSH, NEPHEW OF PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I'm not going to give you a canned response. All I'm going to say is that a debate is a wonderful opportunity to present one's positions, and I think my uncle's objective coming into tonight's debate was to present a clearer vision as to where he wants to take this country, as it relates to our foreign policy over the next four years.
And I think the American people now have taken a step closer in knowing more about where my uncle stands on these very important issues.
KING: How, in your opinion, did Senator Kerry equate himself?
BUSH: Well, I think that, like my uncle said, you know, we admire his public service. I think that, ultimately though, that's there a genuine difference as to how we operate our foreign policy. A lot of people are still scratching their heads and wondering where exactly he stands on very important issues, such how we're going to prosecute the war on terror, how we're going to deal with the North Koreans, how we're going to continue to fight this war in Iraq.
These are issues that a lot of undecided voters are thinking about. But they know where my uncle stands. They've had a relationship with him for the last four years. They've been with him, and they know where he stands. So we've done our end of the bargain. Now it's up to the American voters to make that ultimate decision.
KING: Ann Richards, will Iraq -- will foreign policy be the key to this election?
RICHARDS: I think it's one of the keys. I think the other key, of course, is jobs and the economy. That's the thing that I hear most people talking about, particularly women, women who are on minimum wage, who cannot find a job, who are working half-time.
But I listen to what these gentlemen say, Larry, and sometimes I feel like I was listening to a different debate. I've never had any trouble understanding John Kerry's position on the war in Iraq. He said from the very beginning he authorized the president to have the war, but he thought the president proceeded in a wrong direction and did it in the wrong way, that we needed to do it with our friends by our side and we didn't.
We did that almost unilaterally with a few of our friends, and we're paying 90 percent of the costs of it and 90 percent of the lives lost.
KING: Mark Whitaker of "Newsweek," David Gergen said that Bush will remain ahead but the race will tighten. Do you think so, based on tonight?
WHITAKER: I would suspect so, because I think there were two phenomena. And I think David alluded to it. I think that there was a real deflation that was going on in the rank-and-file of the Democrats, Democrats really starting to wonder whether this race was getting away from them. I think that they're going to be bucked up and encouraged by Senator Kerry's performance tonight, and I think they'll be more energy on the Democratic side.
And I think, you know, among swing voters, again, I'm not sure that Kerry totally made the sale. But I think the dynamic of this race has been that, if you still look at the poll numbers in terms of wrong track and so forth, that there are a lot of people who are still very uneasy about President Bush and his leadership. The problem is that Kerry really hasn't convinced them that he's a credible alternative.
I think he started with that tonight, but I think he still has to finish the job. But I do think you'll see a tightening of at least a couple of points in the next week.
KING: Jorge, what about the Latino community in this country?
RAMOS: Well, I think they're going to be very disappointed that not a single word was mentioned about Cuba, about the possibility of an immigration agreement with Mexico, about a free trade agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic...
KING: The subject tonight was limited to Iraq and national security, so immigration wasn't going to come up. RAMOS: Well, I mean, immigration is very important, especially if you want to make an immigration agreement with Mexico. But what's important is that they have the possibility, both candidates, at least at the end of the debate, they had the possibility to at least mention the importance of Cuba, the importance of Mexico, the importance of the relationship between the United States and Latin America, and they decided not to.
Both of them, President Bush and John Kerry, they've said in the past that Latin America should be a priority for the United States, and these debates, and this debate specifically, shows that it is not. And...
KING: David Gergen, do you agree with that, or do you think it had no place tonight?
GERGEN: I'm sorry, I didn't know what -- what part of it?
KING: That the situation regarding Cuba, Mexico, immigration never came up and they were in Miami?
GERGEN: It would have been better, obviously, if it had, but it's such a limited time, you know, that Jim Lehrer couldn't get to everything.
But I want to come back, if I might, Larry, to Mark Whitaker's point, because I do agree with it very much. Let me flesh it out in just a second.
It seemed to me, Larry, coming into this debate that John Kerry was in a position that if he lost this debate, the ballgame was basically over, that the undecideds would tune him out and basically decide, you know, President Bush really is a better choice even if we disagree with him on some of the issues.
It was critical tonight for him to get back in the game, to go on offense. I don't think he was a clear winner. I don't think there was a clear winner tonight, but I do think he got back in the game. I don't think he's made the emotional sale that he needs to make, but what he has done is extend the game so people will come back, the undecideds will come back and listen again to him.
And he can move on to the economic issues where he thinks he has some advantage, as Ann Richards, says. And it could make for a tighter race. And I'm certain his Democratic base is going to be encouraged tonight, just as the Republican base has always been firm. But the Democratic base was losing spirit. And I think that will firm up tonight.
KING: George Bush, what's the assessment in Florida?
BUSH: I'm sorry. I couldn't hear you quite...
KING: What's the assessment in Florida, as to the presidential race? How does that look?
BUSH: The latest polling data has us up. But, you know, you know Florida politics as well as I do, Larry, and you know that things can change over the course of one week. And so we're not going to take anything for granted.
We have a lead, according to some polls, in the double digits. But we're not going to be very confident about taking any votes for granted. So we're going to go out there, and especially into the Latino community, into the African-American community, and try to reach out to folks that typically don't vote for the party.
And we're going to continue to, I think, have success, as my father was able to do in 2002. We were able to win in 2002 with a double-digit margin. So I think that, with Floridians, when you're talking about economic opportunity, unemployment rate being in the four percentile, and you've got the tourism industry making a rebound, in light of the hurricanes that have impacted tremendously our economy, I think that people (UNINTELLIGIBLE) good here in Florida, with their leadership, both at the state and federal level.
KING: Thanks, George. Always good seeing you. We'll be seeing you on the campaign trail, five weeks to go. George P. Bush, the son of Governor Jeb Bush.
We'll take a break, come back, bring Governor Weld back into it, and meet Max Cleland, as well. Also, include some of your phone calls. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The only thing consistent about my opponent's position is that he's been inconsistent. He changes positions, and you cannot change positions in this war on terror if you expect to win. And I expect to win. It's necessary we win.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Before we welcome Max Cleland, former United States senator, to our panel -- he's on the scene in Miami, as well -- I want Governor Weld to comment on this just in.
CNN-"USA Today"-Gallup poll interviews with 615 registered voters who watched the debate conducted by telephone. Who did the best job? Kerry 53 percent, Bush 37 percent. The poll doesn't, of course, reflect the views of Americans, only of those who watched the debate. After the debates, the views of all Americans can change in 72 hours, so the polls findings may have a short shelf life.
Any comment on that quickie poll, Governor Weld?
WELD: I was going to say, Larry, that I think the most important thing that happened tonight was that it was a laser-like focus on the war in Iraq. And you saw the president talking about, you know, in Russia, schoolchildren being gunned down, that's the nature of the enemy.
I think the nature of the contest came into clearer focus, and that's why, I think, no matter what the quickie poll snapshot result may be, when the nature of the war on terror settles into the voters' consciousness, I think the substance of tonight's debate is going to wind up being a huge plus for the president.
KING: Senator Max Cleland joins us. He's in the spin room, the former Democratic senator from Georgia, the decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, frequently on the campaign trail.
What was your assessment of tonight, Max?
MAX CLELAND (D), FORMER GEORGIA SENATOR: Well, it was John Kerry that had the substance. I mean, he not only had a plan to deal with the disaster in the desert that George Bush has created in terms of Iraq, going after the wrong enemy at the wrong time in the wrong place.
As Mr. Dick Clarke, Richard Clarke, once said, who was a terrorism adviser to former presidents, as John Kerry said tonight, going into Iraq, invading Iraq after 9/11 was like going into Mexico after Pearl Harbor. It was a (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
We should have stayed pursuing Osama bin Laden, and John Kerry talked about the president failing to kill or capture Osama bin Laden tonight. You also dealt with the subject of Iran and North Korea, both of which, one of which, Iran, is developing nuclear weapons and one of which, North Korea, has nuclear weapons. We have a serious situation in our hands.
KING: You fought bravely and paid a major price for your country. George Bush pointed out tonight -- how would it have meant to you, as a soldier, to hear your commander in chief saying you're in the wrong place at the wrong time?
CLELAND: Well, you know, John Kerry and I went through this. You know, we, above all -- and Vietnam veterans above all want a commander in chief who's going to tell the truth to the American people, tell the truth to the troops, not get us into a situation where we have no allies, no plan to win and no strategy to get out, and find ourselves losing young men and women everyday. What, more than a thousand now, some 8,000 casualties, and some 25,000 Iraqis are dead.
Now we realize that that whole country really wants us out of there. We are in deep trouble. Now you've got two choices. You can tell the truth, as John Kerry did after Vietnam when he came back. And he's telling the truth now to the American people. The American people want somebody who will level with them and tell them the ground truth, the reality, of what's going on in Iraq...
KING: David... CLELAND: ... and the reality of what it's like to deal with a growing terrorism world in which we have some 60 countries out there more interested in supporting Osama bin Laden than this president -- we're in deep trouble.
KING: David, will Iraq -- I asked Ann Richards this. She thinks the economy's going to play a big part. Will Iraq be the key to this election?
GERGEN: I think Iraq and national security will determine the outcome of the election, Larry. And it's going to be the question of which -- I don't think it's just the issue, the substantive issue. It's going to come down to the question of which man do you trust more with our future. And that often goes to character as well as the substance.
John Kerry was losing that debate -- he was losing that contest going into tonight's debate. I think he helped himself a lot tonight. If this Gallup poll, this quickie poll, is any indication of what's coming -- I mean, Gallup is the poll that's been accused of being, you know, tilted toward Republicans.
And if it comes in 53-37 Kerry winning the debate, that -- and if the other polls support that kind of finding, you can bet that's going to put a lot of vigor into the Kerry campaign and really help to close this race for him.
KING: Mark, do you think Kerry won -- was there a winner tonight, because you can't ask each other questions. It's not really a debate.
WHITAKER: Well, you know, I think in a debate there's always somebody who's on the offensive and somebody's on the defensive. He was on the offensive; Bush was on the defensive. I think he won in the sense that I think he may have stopped the rock that was rolling down the hill, the real sense of a momentum inevitability that the Bush campaign was starting to take on. And I think it makes it a real race.
I want to address something else that -- you know, you just talked about what the most important issue's going to be. It seems to me that all of these things are related. One of the things that Bush said during the debate was that Iraq wasn't necessarily a diversion from Afghanistan because we can do it all.
But I think one of the humbling lessons that I think we should take away from the last year is that we can't necessarily do it all. We can't necessarily get bogged down in a war in Iraq, continue to fight the war on terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and also take care of all of our needs domestically.
And I think what you'll see probably in the economy debate that will come up in a couple of weeks is that he's going to make that message, that basically we've made ourselves much more vulnerable economically at home on social issues and on our economic issues, again, because of the war in Iraq. KING: Max Cleland, always good seeing you. Thank you very much for joining us. Max Cleland, a great American.
We're going to take a break, come back, get a few phone calls in for the remaining members of our panel right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KERRY: In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq, he just said the enemy attacked us. Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us.
And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains, with the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn't use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world's number one criminal and terrorist. They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords who only a week earlier had been on the other side fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: In our remaining moments, let's check in with a caller or two.
Spokane, Washington, hello.
CALLER: Hi. I've got a question for the panel.
CALLER: My question is, why is everybody so concerned with the polls when the bottom line is you need to make your own decision based on the input you received from the candidates in the debates?
KING: Do polls affect people, do you think? Let's run it down.
Do you think so, Ann?
RICHARDS: Yes. I think they affect the way the campaign's covered. People on television, like you, Larry, and me, we talk about the polls because it's an indication of what's happening in a campaign. That's what...
KING: William, how does it affect you when you're campaigning?
WELD: It may affect the chattering classes, but I don't think it affects the person in the booth. I agree with the caller. I think people make up their own minds just the way the commander in chief in the Oval Office has to make up his or her own mind.
KING: Mark, what do you think? WHITAKER: Well, you know, I don't think people in this panel have been very shy about saying what they thought about the performances tonight, whether we, you know, even if we don't all necessarily agree on that.
But, look, you know, our job is not only to assess the quality of the debate, but also to look at the effect that it's having on the race. And the fact is, we really don't know that until, at least, we see some polling data that shows how ordinary voters, and particularly in this election, voters in the swing states, in the battleground states, responded to the debate.
And I think it would be presumptuous of us to sit here and declare that we know that until we see the real evidence and data.
KING: Jorge, does it affect a voter, if he reads that his candidate is 5 percentage points behind?
RAMOS: Absolutely. I think it's a matter of perception, and it's a way that we have to measure what's going on. We all knew that John Kerry was trailing before this debate and it was very important for him to be at a level field with President Bush.
And therefore, I think, absolutely polls matter. And we're going to be looking for the polls, not only today, but tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. We want to know if really what Kerry did tonight is going to affect the overall standing in this election.
GERGEN: We all know that John Kerry was on the ropes coming into this debate. If the polls all showed that George Bush knocked him out after it was over, the race would be -- he'd be flat on his back, and I think he'd be basically done.
If he comes out of this as a challenger, and the polls show he wins the first debate, it's going to have a dramatic impact on the way we perceive the race and the way the people start to give him a second look. I think George W. Bush still has the upper hand in this race, but my sense is, coming out of this, that John Kerry is now back in the game.
KING: Of course, it's not 1948, Ann Richards, but can you be a Truman today? Can you be way behind -- stopped polling and still come on and win?
RICHARDS: I think it's pretty hard. Polling is a little more sophisticated. Even though, I think in this particular year, Larry, the polls are going to be more wrong than we have seen them in recent history. And the reason for that is the Democrats have been out registering voters for 10 months now. You saw that article in the "New York Times" that said that we have out-registered the Republicans by 200 percent in the battleground states.
Now, that's just part of the war. That's getting them registered. The second step is for us to get them to the polls. So I think we can win this race and win it decisively with the new registrations. KING: All right. We're out of time.
See you all next Tuesday night after the vice presidential debate.
We thank all of our panelists and all of our guests for being with us on this special edition of LARRY KING LIVE, which came to you at 11:00 p.m. Eastern, 8:00 Pacific. We'll do the same next Tuesday night following the vice presidential debate.
And I'll be back in a couple of minutes to turn it over to Mr. Brown, who is in our presence tonight. Don't go away.
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com