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Interview With Fired Sinclair Broadcast Group Employee; Politics of Fear

Aired October 18, 2004 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening and welcome to PRIME TIME POLITICS on a night with a late development in the battle over Sinclair Broadcasting's decision to air a controversial anti-Kerry documentary. It has cost one Sinclair employee his job -- more on that in just a moment.
Also, the politics of fear. Both sides say the other threatens our Social Security. Are there reasons to be afraid?

And a split decision: Kerry wins the debates, but Bush gets the bump in the polls. Go figure.

Well, here we are, 15 days, 360 hours, 21,600 minutes, give or take -- that is an accurate count, I'll tell you. But over the next two weeks, you're going to be swamped with numbers. You can count on new polls every day and a tightening focus on the electoral map, all this while most of you wait to vote the candidate you've already chosen and the rest of you make up your minds.

With those 15 days hanging in the balance, here's our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, on where things stand and what those numbers mean.


WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): The polls are shifting. Five national polls have been taken since the third and final debate last week. The CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll shows George W. Bush leading John Kerry by eight percentage points among likely voters. The "Newsweek" poll has Bush ahead by six. The latest ABC news/ "Washington Post" tracking poll has Bush up by four. Investor's business daily also has Bush ahead by four. The "TIME" magazine poll shows Bush leading by two.

Average the five polls and you get our poll of polls. And it shows Bush 50, Kerry 45. That's a gain for Bush since last week's poll of polls, which showed him just one point ahead. The end of the debates is a signal to many voters, time to decide. According to the CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll, Bush's gains are strongest among three groups, voters under 50, where the president has gained 12 points in the past week and now has a strong lead, urban voters, where he's gained 10 points, and low-income voters, where Bush is now getting nearly half the vote.

Why are younger, poorer, more urban voters, who can usually be relied on to favor the Democrat, moving toward Bush? The answer in a word, terrorism.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The choice we face in this election, the first presidential election since September 11, it's how our nation will defeat this threat.

SCHNEIDER: A week ago, the president had a 14-point lead over Senator Kerry on who can better handle terrorism. His lead is now 25 points. Younger voters, many of whom are parents, tend to be very worried about terrorism. Urban and low-income voters feel vulnerable because they live in large cities.

Among voters under 50, Bush's advantage on terrorism grew by 10 points. Among urban voters who saw the senator as better on terrorism a week ago, the president now has the lead on that issue, as he does among low-income voters. Republicans want to make this the 9/11 election. That may be happening.

(on camera): Paula, our poll shows people do think Kerry won the last debate. In fact, people feel he won all three debates, but perhaps the qualities people value in a good debater are not as important as the qualities they're looking for when they're picking a leader to protect the country.


ZAHN: Thank you very much, Bill.

And joining me now from Washington, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster John McLaughlin.

Great to see both of you. Welcome.


ZAHN: So, Linda, regardless of which poll you look at, the numbers are moving in the wrong direction for John Kerry. Let's look at some of these together. What's behind this?

CELINDA LAKE, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: Well, I think that what you're looking at is national polls.

And of course, what really matters are the battleground polls. If you look at the red states, the margin for Bush has gone from eight to 12 points. If you look the blue states, the margin for Kerry is only eight points. But if you look at the battleground states, the purple states, if you will, Kerry is ahead by two to four points. So we don't care so much if we lose Utah by 40 points, instead of 26 points.

What matters is in a handful of states, and those handful of states are states that are still very focused on the economy leaning toward Kerry. The second thing you need to look at is turnout. And the turnout models this year frankly are very difficult for all of us to look at. But one of the things we're seeing is that the turnout models which emphasize which candidate do you like the most are often missing some of the enthusiasm of the Democrats. George Bush has completely united the Democrats, and often the energy on the Democratic side of the ticket is more anti-Bush, so I'm not sure the turnout models, which tend to rely on how enthusiastic you are for your candidate, are catching all of that factor.

ZAHN: Sure. They're all but impossible to predict at this stage.

LAKE: Exactly right.

ZAHN: John, what I want to take a look at are some numbers that might be easier to assign meaning to. And these are the president's job approval ratings. CNN shows Bush with a 51 percent approval rating, "TIME" 49 percent, "Newsweek" 47 percent, "The New York Times" only 44 percent.

In the last 50 years, all incumbents polling over 50 percent won, and those under 50 percent have lost. Can the president win with those numbers?


JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: He can win with those numbers precisely because...

ZAHN: Squeak by?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, he has a net favorable rating that is better than Kerry's.


ZAHN: OK, you lost me on that one. What does that mean? You're the numbers guy.

MCLAUGHLIN: There's a personality dimension to this.

Pollsters ask what the job rating is. We also attacks what the favorable/unfavorable is of each candidate. And in your poll, since a week ago, Bush has had a net increase of six points, where he's moved up, where his favorables are over 50 and Kerry's aren't. So what you have here, you have a higher negative for him. And we've had this since July, where everybody's been predicting bounces in polls, and they haven't bounced.

What's happened is they both have high negatives, over 40 percent, but Bush maintains a favorable over 50 percent. So he gets the benefit of the doubt, gets a higher rating there.

ZAHN: So, Linda, are you troubled by these numbers? We're looking at the poll right now.

LAKE: Not really. I'd be more troubled if it were an open election.

But for an incumbent, I think the job performance is the critical number. If voters on Election Day assume that Bush is doing a good job, he is probably going to win reelection.

ZAHN: But you heard what John just said. You have to factor in the likability at the same time you are looking at the job approval ratings.

MCLAUGHLIN: I think likability is more important in an open race than it is in a race with an incumbent.

In an incumbent, its up or down on the incumbent. It's whether or not the undecideds are going to defer to the challenger. So I think the job performance number with an incumbent is more important than the likability.

ZAHN: You're discounting that, John.

MCLAUGHLIN: What I'm saying is it does matter.


ZAHN: Because those numbers aren't good for you or your candidate.

MCLAUGHLIN: The difference is, but if they dislike the opponent, if the person that he's running against -- it's a one-on-one raise. Nader is now in lot of the states. He's at 1 percent.

But if they dislike Kerry worse, they're going to bounce back to Bush, which is why, in your poll, when they asked who do they think is going to win, Bush was at 56 to 36 among all voters. And the reason is, is because, when they're forced to make a choice between the two, they're go back with the person they know, with Bush, who they think can be commander in chief, who they think can win the war on terror, which is most important.

ZAHN: Celinda, there's another interesting subset of numbers for us all to look at. And that is the label polling question. And in our latest poll, you see that four in 10 believe the president is too conservative. Nearly half believe that Kerry is too liberal.

Is this evidence that the president's attacks on Kerry are working, particularly in the debates, when he repeatedly referred to him as the tax-and-spend liberal from Massachusetts?

LAKE: I think it's working a little bit, but I think in the end it will fall short, because voters think there are a lot of problems out there that are kind of bipartisan. Creating jobs isn't a liberal or conservative issue. Dealing with terrorism isn't a liberal or conservative issue. And getting out of a mess in Iraq is not a liberal or conservative issue.

So I think those attacks are primary resonating with the bases. And if you look at who are the voters that think Kerry is too liberal, they tend to be Republicans, just who are the voters who tend to think Bush is too conservative tend to be Democrats. I don't think labels in the end will determine this election. And I think, after 18 months, when you think about it, of trying to define your opponent, that this is the best the Bush team can come up with says that they're in pretty serious trouble in terms of winning these undecided voters over.

ZAHN: You have got John smiling here. You say that these labels don't define the election.

Your look would suggest otherwise.

MCLAUGHLIN: You just can't have it both ways. You can't say the president's job rating is not good enough and then not hold Kerry accountable for his record.

And what Bush did well, what the president did well in the last debate was, he brought up Kerry's record. He stopped playing defense and he started going on offense, because most Americans, you have a conservative edge in the electorate. Roughly 3-2 or 2-1, there's more conservatives in the electorate than liberals. And what happens is, if Kerry gets pushed out of the mainstream, that means Bush can win moderates back. He can win independents back.

And that's probably why you're seeing a little bit of this movement where the president has a little more decisive lead, but it's still a very close election.

ZAHN: And you two have a lot of work to do in the weeks to come. Good luck crunching all those numbers. Celinda Lake, John McLaughlin, thank you both.

LAKE: Thank you.

ZAHN: And still to come on PRIME TIME POLITICS, a new twist tonight in the controversy over Sinclair's Broadcasting's airing of an anti-Kerry documentary and much more.


ZAHN (voice-over): Goodbye, hanging chads. Hello, lawsuits and confusion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is preparing for a mini-disaster.

ZAHN: Will this election be another "Groundhog Day."


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He said -- and I quote him -- "We're going to move quickly to privatize Social Security."

ZAHN: A campaign scare tactic or fair warning about our future?

And tonight's voting booth question: Will your local newspaper's candidate endorsement influence your vote? Go to and tell us. We'll have the results at the end of the hour.


ZAHN: And now we turn to a major controversy that flared up again today. As you know, the Sinclair Broadcast Group has ordered its 60 television stations across the country to show a documentary stalled "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal." The program, which has been labeled by many Democrats as inflammatory, biased and unfair, looks into the impact of John Kerry's nationally televised allegations in 1971 that U.S. troops in Vietnam committed atrocities.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But was it the truth? Or were all Vietnam veterans slandered, their honor stolen?

TOM MCNISH, FORMER POW: All of the contacts that I've had with veterans from South Vietnam have straight-out said that that did not happen. Those were point-blank lies.


ZAHN: Sinclair stations, include ones in major media markets of swing states like Ohio, Florida, Iowa, and Wisconsin, have no choice but to run the program this week.

But at 5:00 p.m. today, a Sinclair executive says he was fired after speaking out about the company's motives and tactics. His name is Jonathan Leiberman. He was Sinclair's Washington bureau chief, and he joins me now from Baltimore in this exclusive interview.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us tonight.


ZAHN: So, Mr. Leiberman, what reason did your bosses give you for being fired?

LEIBERMAN: The reason that I was fired today -- and, first, I just want to say that my colleagues have been wonderful and the Sinclair Broadcast Group has been wonderful up until this point. They've allowed me to do what I love to do, which is report and uncover the news. And they've sent me all over the world to do that.

Today, I was fired because I spoke to a newspaper here in Baltimore this morning about my concerns about labeling this special as a news special. Now, I agree that Sinclair, under the First Amendment, has the right to air part or all of this documentary, but my argument has been, call it commentary, call it editorial, call it programming, but don't call it news.

And yesterday, we were called into a mandatory staff meeting and told that the news department would be handling an hour-long special dealing with this documentary, and we were basically told we had no choice but to participate. I stood up and said, I'm not comfortable with this. I think my credibility is at issue. I think the viewers aren't going to trust us if we call this news. And today, I was fired because I spoke to the newspaper about what I said at that meeting and the concerns that I have over the issue.

ZAHN: All right, Jonathan, I hear what you're saying, but you still didn't answer the question. When they announced to you that you were being fired, did they say it was because you publicly spoke out against the airing of this documentary, or was there another reason for you being fired?

LEIBERMAN: They said two things. No. 1, I violated company policy by speaking to the media, and, No. 2, I gave away what they called proprietary information because I relayed to the newspaper some of what was talked about at this mandatory meeting yesterday.

ZAHN: Did you violate company policy?

LEIBERMAN: I did. Company policy is that you do not speak to the media unless you have prior approval, but I feel so strongly that our credibility was at issue here. And at the end of the day, I don't think this is about being on the right or being on the left. I think it's about right and wrong in news.

And I just -- I couldn't be part of this special where we labeled this as news, when clearly what it is, is political propaganda. It's part of a documentary. We can't validate the facts. Of course we can't, so I was fine if the company wanted to run it, again, as an editorial or as commentary, but just don't call it news, because that's how we erode the public trust, I think.

ZAHN: Are you also guilty of given over proprietary information, if that's one of the two tenets you were supposed to abide by there?

LEIBERMAN: I relayed to the newspaper some of what was said at the meeting, because I didn't feel that my -- for months, I've been complaining that I didn't feel we were being as balanced as we could and I felt we were violating the public trust by not being complete and clear and objective in our reporting.

And so, yes, I did. I gave information of what was talked about at this meeting simply to illustrate my point and to show viewers that somebody was fighting for them in all of this.

ZAHN: So you're telling me that when you went public with this, you basically knew you were going to get fired here or at least you were accepting that risk?

LEIBERMAN: I was accepting that risk. I mean, I knew that -- look, I knew I had nothing to gain by doing it and everything to lose. And I just -- I needed to sleep at night knowing that I was doing the right thing. And I didn't want to be part of a propaganda, what's blatant political propaganda this close to an election.

I feel that our company is trying to sway this election -- and I say our company, my former company, the Sinclair Broadcast Group -- and I just don't think that serves the public interest. I don't think that we should be trying to way an election. ZAHN: So what evidence do you think there is of Sinclair trying to sway this evidence? Were there conversations you had with your bosses, we're going to air this anti-Kerry documentary because we know it might get traction in the swing states? Was it that specific?

LEIBERMAN: It wasn't that specific, but this idea originated in our commentary department with a commentator who has lashed out at John Kerry repeatedly over the several months, very right-wing commentary. And this idea was passed down from that level down to the news department, and we haven't done -- for example, we haven't done an hour-long special on anything else, not the war on Iraq, not the war in Afghanistan, not the election, not the debates.

And all of a sudden, two weeks before the election, now we're doing an hour-long special based on this anti-Kerry documentary. And I'm already being attacked for -- people are saying that, oh, it's because of my political leanings, the reason why I'm speaking out. Paula, I'll tell you here tonight, I haven't given a dime to either of these political parties during this election. I play it right down the middle. I pride myself on being fair in my reporting. And to suggest otherwise, I'm insulted by that.

ZAHN: But I'm still curious if you had a specific conversation where someone said in a blatant way, we've got to put this on the air; we've got to help President Bush?

LEIBERMAN: It wasn't said that explicitly, Paula, but when you're in this newsroom environment and you know the messages that are coming from above and the commentary that is coming from above, and when there's no clear delineation between the person that's doing the editorials and the news department -- for example, in this meeting yesterday where we were mapping out a strategy to put on this hour- long special, the person whose voice that was being heard the most was our editorialist, who is also the company spokesperson who happens to be very anti-Kerry and he is not a journalist.

I think leave the news to journalists and let the commentary and editorial play outside of news.

ZAHN: Before we go on to Sinclair's statement tonight, you have got a lot of folks out there saying, wait a minute. The airing of this anti-Kerry documentary is no more irresponsible than putting a piece of war footage up out of context that doesn't properly or accurately tell John Kerry's story in Vietnam.

LEIBERMAN: It may not be any worse, but I'll tell you that two weeks outside the election, to air something like this and again call it news -- when viewers see news, they expect clear, objective reporting. But there's no way that you can clearly and objectively and fairly report on such a slanted documentary. There's no way to verify the facts that are coming out in the documentary.

There's no way to verify what the people in the documentary are saying. I think they should be heard. People can log on to the Internet and view the documentary. Our company could have labeled it as commentary or as editorial and run it that way. But, again, I just think to run it as news is irresponsible. And I just couldn't have my face and my name on that.

ZAHN: I wanted to share with you now a statement that we've been given from your former employer.

It says: "Everyone is entitled to their personal opinion, including Jon Leiberman. We are disappointed that Jon's political views caused him to violate policy and speak to the press about company business. We have no further comments on the actions of a disgruntled employee or an ongoing personnel matter. Viewers can grade Leiberman's opinion vs. the reality when the finished product is aired."

What do you think that reality will be?

LEIBERMAN: I'm not sure, and I know that my colleagues are going to do their best to present some sort of balanced presentation in the context of this documentary, but to call me a disgruntled employee is just completely unfair.

I've worked hard for this company for nearly five years. They've sent me to cover news stories around the world, Iraq and Cuba and the political conventions. They have promoted me two times. I started up an investigative unit at Fox station in Baltimore and then I was tapped to head up the Washington bureau, to start the bureau from ground up.

So to call me a disgruntled employee when, as recently as three weeks ago, my boss was patting me on the back for a job well done, it's just trying to deflect the issue here. I hope, when it comes out on the air, the hour-long special, I hope it is clear and objective, but I don't think that starting with this documentary as the focus and again this close to the election, I just don't see how it can be a fair representation.

You're note going to have Senator Kerry's -- most likely, Senator Kerry is not going to be on there. He is not going to be given equal time, but, again, my problem is just that it's not news and it shouldn't be labeled like that.

ZAHN: Jonathan Leiberman, thank you for joining us tonight in this exclusive interview. I appreciate your time.

LEIBERMAN: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: On to the issue of fear. It seems to be an increasingly favored strategy in the final weeks of the campaign, fear in the future of Social Security when we come back.


ZAHN: So if you really want to get voters' attention, scare them. Well, fear is a favorite campaign tactic on both sides. And it was on display over the weekend, when Senator Kerry warned voters that President Bush plans to put Social Security, which sends check to 47 million Americans a year, into private hands.

Here's our Tom Foreman.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In battleground Florida where one in five people is of retirement age and early voting has started, John Kerry is sounding the alarm.


ANNOUNCER: The truth is coming out.


FOREMAN: A new ad says President Bush is poised to privatize Social Security, ravaging the system in the process.


ANNOUNCER: Now Bush has a plan to cut Social Security benefits by 30 to 45 percent. The real Bush agenda, cutting Social Security.


FOREMAN: The president, who has said repeatedly he is not going to do that, accuses the senator of preying on the fears of older Americans, even as he explains his plan.

BUSH: We must strengthen Social Security by allowing younger workers to save some of their payroll taxes in a personal account, an account they can call their own, an account the government cannot take away.

FOREMAN: The AARP, which represents older Americans and is backing neither candidate, says currently Social Security will have all the money it needs until 2042. However, the president's plan could change that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Private accounts or moving money out of Social Security into private accounts just means the financial health of the Social Security system is going to be much worse.

FOREMAN: But John Kerry is making his own promises.

KERRY: I will never privatize Social Security. I will never cut the benefits, and I won't raise the retirement age.

FOREMAN: And the independent Congressional Budget Office says that, too, could leave Social Security with a gaping hole.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN, DIRECTOR, CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE: He's got to come up with more money. He'll either borrow it or raise taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This Social Security measure...

FOREMAN: When Social Security started in the 1930s, most Americans did not live much past retirement age. By the 1950s, the average lifespan was nearly 70 years. Now it's almost 80.

(on camera): Such trends once had Social Security within six months of not paying the bills, but then President Reagan signed reforms, which slightly decreased the amount being paid out, increased the amount being paid in, and aimed it back towards solvency.

(voice-over): Today, although it was never intended to be the sole support for retirees, that is exactly what Social Security has become for millions of Americans. And their numbers, concerns and fears about Social Security's future keep growing.


ZAHN: That was Tom Foreman reporting for us tonight.

And joining me now from Los Angeles are two political strategists. On the Democratic side, Bill Carrick, on the Republican side, Mike Murphy.

Good to see both of you.


ZAHN: So, Bill, you have heard the president or at least his team accusing John Kerry of using scare tactics here. Why are you so convinced that he's going to cut benefits if he partially privatizes this system in a second term if he's reelected?

BILL CARRICK, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I think, first of all, there's trillions of dollars in transition costs, which come right out of the system.

The reason that people say this is scaring people is, it's a really scary idea. Privatizing Social Security is a bad idea the Republican conservative wing has. It's really very bad. And John Kerry has got an issue here that is going to get him a lot of votes, because people really don't like privatization. It's extremely unpopular.

ZAHN: Doesn't it wholly depend, Mike, on who you talk to? I was talking to a couple pollsters today that said, if you poll the younger people, they think it's a grand idea, because they don't think they are ever going to get this money back when they're in their 60s, 70s. And they don't think this is going to have the traction it did in Florida, for example, that it did in the year 2000.


This is the oldest Democratic trick in the world. About two weeks before the election, they bring out the fear and smear campaign about Social Security, which is a tragedy, because what it makes -- it makes it impossible to have a rational discussion about how do you strengthen the system by including ways to increase...

ZAHN: Well, the question is, Mike, how are you going to pay for it? Is the president going to borrow a lot of money, or is he going to raise taxes? We know that his plan is a some, what, $2 trillion plan.

MURPHY: What the president's plan is to take Social Security now, where things don't compound and bring the miracle of compound interest to it. And the argument in this, which is what next year will be about when he's reelected, is how do you pay for the transition costs to what almost everybody agrees is a better blended system? And that's going to be a big debate. How do you pay for it?


ZAHN: What's the answer to the question, Mike? You didn't answer my question. How is he going to pay for it?

MURPHY: Elect me president, Paula, and I will.

ZAHN: That is such a cop-out. How do you think he's going to pay for it?

MURPHY: Look, you have to put more money into the system to make it stronger over time. Nobody debates that. But for them to run ads saying he's going to cut benefits 40 percent, that is the worst smear of this campaign so far.

ZAHN: Bill...


ZAHN: ... is your candidate lying?

CARRICK: No, he's not. He's telling the absolute truth, if you take out $2 trillion out of the Social Security system to finance this crazy scheme -- you take $2 trillion out of the system to finance this crazy scheme, you are going to bankrupt Social Security.

It is a really bad idea. The Republicans ought to drop it. You heard what Mike said. If the president gets reelected, they're going to bring this up...

ZAHN: No. That's not what he said, Bill. Hang on, guys. Bill, if you didn't hear correctly, he said when the president is reelected.

MURPHY: Reelected.

CARRICK: When the president is...

MURPHY: There's a big national debate -- a big national debate on how we strengthen the system. And the question is, the Democrats, they want to scare you and do you want to leave a system where the money is flat and doesn't compound. Compounds at about 1 percent a year, which is why it's always in fiscal trouble.

It's Republicans like Ronald Reagan who fixed it last time and George Bush...

CARRICK: There's a nonpartisan commission to check...

MURPHY: ... who's willing to take on the reality risk here, get out of scare tactics...

CARRICK: And Bob Dole fixed it last time.

MURPHY: ... and come together to fix the system. And there is no question, to change it you're going to have to put more money in. Nobody's denying that. And so the idea of a 30 percent cut is ludicrous.

ZAHN: All right. But Bill, are you denying that? Are you denying that if John Kerry were elected, he's going to have to pump a heck of a lot more money into the system to deep it funded?

CARRICK: I believe what the AARP says, 2042 we have the money to do it. And if we have a problem with it, we'll do what we did the last time. Ronald Reagan didn't do it by himself. There was a bipartisan commission of Democrats and Republicans that put together a fix.

But I'll tell you what will break it, privatizing the system. And investing...

ZAHN: But Bill, let's forget about the president's plan for a moment. Can John Kerry promise a voter out there, if he's elected, they're not going to ever see any reduction in their Social Security payment? Or if they do, they're going to have to pay for it?

CARRICK: I think two things. One, the system is solvent to 2042. Two, if you grow the economy and get us out of this deficit mess that Bush has put us into, you'll make Social Security more solvent for longer periods of time.

MURPHY: Yes, so the answer is to do nothing.

CARRICK: It's all related to the economy.

ZAHN: Mike, you get the final word tonight.

MURPHY: The Democratic answer is do nothing. We'll wait until 2042. This is how we got in trouble last time. The Democrats like the issue, and the Republicans are trying to fix the system that protect them.

CARRICK: Here's what we've got. We've got a wacky idea being presented by the Republican right. It's been unfortunately adopted by this president, this privatization thing, $2 trillion in costs. Where is the money going to come from? They don't have an answer to that.

MURPHY: It will be $20 trillion in 2042, when you guys finally want to finally address the problem.

ZAHN: OK. We've got to leave it there, gentlemen. Thank you for both of your perspectives.

MURPHY: Thank you.

CARRICK: All right. Take care. ZAHN: You always make us scratch our heads and want to learn more about these issues.

When we come back, often what a candidate leaves unsaid speaks volumes. That's why "TIME" magazine's Joe Klein joins us. He will fill in the blanks for us tonight.


ZAHN: It is the home stretch. There are two weeks of campaigning left. Two weeks for the candidates to win over those undecided voters or lose them, and you'll hear more from President Bush and Senator Kerry, but will you learn everything you need to know about their positions?

And if you do learn from them, will it be a distorted view of their positions?

In our attempt to get as many guys with beards on the air tonight, let's turn to "TIME" columnist Joe Klein, who joins me now.

JOE KLEIN, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Hey, Paula, how are you?

ZAHN: I'm fine, thanks. So let's talk a little bit about your dos and don'ts, the things you think we will hear on the campaign trail and the things we won't.

KLEIN: Well, Paula, we're going to deal tonight with financial questions, the deficit.

The first question is, what do they say about the deficit? Both Bush and Kerry, they both say that they're going to cut it by 50 percent in five years.

What they don't tell you is that there is so many spending commitments now -- lower taxes, military, but especially entitlements like Social Security and Medicare -- that we're not going to be able to do that.

Let's look at Social Security. We just heard a debate on it. What do they say? They argue about privatization, but there isn't nearly enough money in the system to privatize, even if it might be a good idea.

In fact, in the past we found that there is no fix for Social Security without pain. That means either higher -- higher taxes, higher age of eligibility, changing the cost of living adjustments.

And now Medicare, which is the biggest problems -- biggest problem of all, they both promise prescription drug benefits. In fact, one of them was acted -- enacted into law by President Bush.

But what they don't tell you is that prescription drug benefits just are not affordable in the long term, unless we turn Medicare into some form of managed care. Because the costs of Medicare are just going through the roof, because of people like me. We're beginning to retire and there are far too many of us.

ZAHN: You look far too youthful to be close to retirement age, Joe.

KLEIN: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: Shamelessly sucking up to the "TIME" magazine correspondent here.

Let's move back to the issue of Social Security. So we're a little over two weeks away from the election. Neither one of these candidates is really coming clean with their plan is long term for Social Security. So if one of these guys is elected, can we imagine then they pass the buck to the next president?

KLEIN: Oh, yes. Because the problem really doesn't begin to come until maybe 2030, 2040, although -- although we don't know.

I mean, what John Kerry is doing is what Democrats always do, and Mike Murphy was absolutely right about this. This is -- this is scare tactics. It's a kind of demagoguery. They're going to take away your Social Security. That's not going to happen. The present system is OK for now.

But what President Bush is promising costs an awful lot of money, at least $1 trillion. He's not -- he's not promising a full privatization, just a partial privatization. And while I've seen it work in other countries, it's a good idea, but we don't have the money to do it.

ZAHN: So what you're saying then is John Kerry could use a scare tactic, but if he were honest about it, he would just say we don't know ultimately how we're going to pay for this, as opposed to telling people that they're going to see their benefits cut drastically.

KLEIN: Well, talking about -- talking about beards, this is a scare tactic that is so old it's grown a beard. Democrats do scaring on Social Security, scaring on Medicare. In fact Republicans have a term for it, Medi-scare. And they're doing it again this year and it's unfair, and it's untrue.

ZAHN: And the most common scare tactics on the Republican side? Scaring people about the terror?

KLEIN: About terrorism, that John Kerry is -- is weak on terrorism, and they wildly distort the stuff that Kerry says about what he would do about terrorism.

So you have the two biggest issues of this campaign, the economy and the war, and they're being wildly distorted by one side or the other.

ZAHN: Maybe what we need is a guy on the ticket with a beard. Tell it to us straight, Joe.

KLEIN: It worked in the 19th Century. KLEIN: I remember that. Thanks.

More PRIME TIME POLITICS ahead, including long lines of frustrated voters today in one battleground state.

And remember our "Voting Booth" question, "Will your local newspaper's candidate endorsement influence your vote?" Go to now and give us your opinion.


ZAHN: And welcome back.

President Bush, John Kerry, John Edwards, all visited the battleground state of Florida today, and people started voting there today, as well.

Early voting is one step Florida is taking to avoid, or at least try to avoid, a repeat of the year of 2000. Less than an hour after the polls opened, there are reports of problems with printed ballots, with touch-screen machines and Internet connections.

Joining me now from St. Petersburg, Florida, senior White House correspondent John King, senior political correspondent Candy Crowley, who joins us from Orlando. And with us from Miami, Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the "Miami Herald," and author of "The almanac of Florida Politics."

Good to see all of you.

Tom, what do you think was the biggest problem confronted in Florida today?

TOM FIEDLER, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "MIAMI HERALD": Well, this was -- this was really the -- just right out of the blocks tonight of early voting in Florida. And I think what happened is we just had so many people who had been so revved up by the visits of both the president over the weekend and Senator Kerry Sunday and today that they raced out to the polling places early and -- and simply overwhelmed a lot of the people there that -- that were, again, on their first day. So it was perhaps just a bit too much excitement to handle right away.

ZAHN: OK. So you talk about the overload on the system. Do you think these voters should trust the new system?

FIEDLER: You know, I'm choosing to be an optimist so far. The one -- the good news out of today is that the problems that did arise at least didn't go to the heart of the voting machinery themselves. As far as we know, so far, the votes that were cast were properly registered, and so we'll see what happens on November 2.

But I think so far, so good there. So I'm -- I'm willing to hope for the best.

ZAHN: But, Tom, before we go any further, describe to us the process that's in place, the legions of lawyers that are gathering in Florida right now...


ZAHN: ... for potential litigation down the road.

FIEDLER: Yes, I believe that we have seven active lawsuits now going -- looking at every conceivable aspect of the integrity of the election.

And tomorrow will, in federal court in Ft. Lauderdale will begin probably the most significant challenge, which is brought by Congressman Robert Wexler, who is asking that there be a paper trail or that voters be given the option of casting a paper ballot or the touch screen.

That really goes to the heart of the question about whether people will tough -- rather, will trust the new touch-screen machines this year, and that's the system that about half of the Florida electorate will be using.

ZAHN: On for John -- John King, that is, to talk a bit more about the president's day. He spent a part of the day -- or at least is in Florida now, spent the rest of the today in New Jersey, where the Bush campaign actually thinks they have a shot at winning?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, they think they have a shot, Paula. Let's not overstate it, though. It's a very, very long shot.

They were there mainly because they wanted to deliver, heading into final two weeks, this very touch hardball politics speech, criticizing Senator Kerry on national security, essentially saying he has a September 10th mindset, that the American people would be at a greater risk, is the theme of a new Bush campaign ad today, if John Kerry is elected president.

They chose New Jersey. They want to say there are some polls there showing a dead heat. The Democrats believe they will win it. Most Republicans believe Senator Kerry will win New Jersey by a decent -- not a huge, but by a decent margin.

But if you can make John Kerry go back there or send Senator Edwards back there or spend a little bit more money there, then the Bush campaign believes it will be doing itself a bit of good on the ground. Any dollar spent in New Jersey is a dollar not spent in Ohio.

But mainly they went there to give the big message, the national security message. That is where the president wants to focus mostly in the final two weeks.

ZAHN: But, Candy Crowley, the president veering off what was supposed to be the planned message of the day into the blistering attack on the president. What was the Kerry camp's reaction?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they -- you know, first of all they used the "The Washington Post" story of this morning saying that the commander on the ground in Iraq last December wrote to the Pentagon and said, "I'm not -- the supply lines are so bad I'm not sure, if they aren't corrected and I don't get more supplies, I won't be able to conduct, you know, the fight against the counter insurgency."

So that was -- that was the major thing they wanted to get out today. It's interesting, because we've been told all along, as we had before at different times during this campaign, that John Kerry wanted to turn home in these last two weeks.

He wanted to talk about jobs. He wanted to talk about healthcare issues that he believes resonate the most in those battleground states, particularly in places like Ohio, in Wisconsin, in Minnesota and Iowa.

But fully 50 percent of the speeches he gave in three different places here in Florida today were on Iraq and terrorism. So they obviously, you know, bow to the fact that they're going to have to talk about that. They believe they have to push back very hard against the president's speech today to continue to reassure voters that John Kerry will conduct an aggressive war against terrorism.

ZAHN: The Kerry campaign, John King, also unleashing a flurry of attacks on the president's plan to partially privatize Social Security, accusing him of the worst scare tactics one could use in a campaign. How fearful are they that the tactic will work? If you believe it is an attack.

KING: Obviously, they're worried about it. The president, as Joe Klein said, does have a plan to allow some private investment in Social Security. We've heard some of this from the Al Gore campaign four years ago when Mr. Bush campaigned on this issue quite aggressively in a state like Florida, a state like Iowa, a state like Pennsylvania, key battleground states where you have a significant percentage of the population being elderly voters.

Of course the Bush campaign is worried about it. They say, again, that it is a baseless attack. Both campaigns now saying, accusing the other of gross exaggerations and gross distortions. Two more weeks of that to come, Paula.

ZAHN: Tom Fiedler, a closing thought on that, on both of these campaigns and what we're hearing as potential voters?

FIEDLER: Well, you know, Social Security and Iraq are really the two powerful issues here in Florida. And so we're seeing Social Security on television and -- and then Senator Kerry going after the president on Iraq.

All the polls show that those are the two most important issues for people in this state.

ZAHN: We thank our trio for joining us tonight. Tom Fiedler, John King, Candy Crowley, thanks.

Well, as politics goes, our next story may be the equivalent -- this is equivalent of an Elvis sighting. The battle over the bulge, the president's suit coat that is, when PRIME TIME POLITICS continues.


ZAHN: OK. So we discussed all the minor issues in the presidential campaign. So let's get to the big one, what everybody is talking about, sending messages about this on the Web or coming up with conspiracy theories to explain.

It is an issue that's so big, we're going to leave it up to our own Bruce Burkhardt to handle it.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You can run, but you can't hide.

BRUCE BURKHARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Maybe, but can you hide something in your jacket, under the back of the day, specifically?

In the modern-day battle of the bulge, web sites and web bloggers have been spinning out theories about that bulge in the president's jacket.

(on camera) I suppose all this is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I don't know what the big deal is, I don't see anything terribly unusual about the president's jacket, but still we'll take a look at some of the theories that are out there.

(voice-over) Some speculate that it's some kind of medical device. Others say it's a tracking device that lets the Secret Service know where the president is at all times.

Still others still think it's a bulletproof vest.

But the most persistent and popular theory is that the president was wearing an electronic receiver that allowed aides to prompt him with answers during the debates.

BUSH: In his last litany of -- of...

BURKHARDT: A theory that the White House and campaign aides laugh off.

TIM RUSSERT, "MEET THE PRESS" MODERATOR: Clear up this mystery that has been raging on the Internet. This was the first debate, George Bush at the podium, the bulge in the back of the suit. All right. Come clean, what is it?

KEN MEHLMAN, BUSH CAMPAIGN MANAGER: The president, in fact, was receiving secret signals from aliens from outer space. You heard it here on "Meet the Press."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You mean you sent -- you sent Rove into orbit? BURKHARDT: But such answers have not quelled the buzz over the bulge. The White House has either brushed off the question or in one case suggested that the president had a bad tailor.

And in the mainstream media, the bulge has been fodder for the late-night comics.

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": President Bush's approval rating dropped down to 47 percent. Remember that lump they said was in his back? Now it's in his throat. Yes.

BURKHARDT: Conspiracy theory or the real thing? The mystery of the bulge shows no signs of dying down.


ZAHN: Thank you, Bruce Burkhardt.

And we'll be right back with the results of tonight's "Voting Booth" question and more right after this.


ZAHN: In just a few minutes on CNN prime time, Larry King sits down and talks with Brooke Ellison about her inspiring friendship with the late Christopher reeve. And right now we're going to take a moment to continue our series on "Fortune" magazine's list of the 50 most powerful women.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Transforming with the times and staying ahead of the competition, just two of the strategies Andrea Jung has successfully used since taking the helm of Avon Products five years ago.

While her attempts to sell through a retailer was unsuccessful, Jung managed to revamp an old economy direct-selling company into the modern powerhouse that it is today.

Avon reported nearly $7 billion in revenue with a 30 percent growth in sales. And that's why she has once again been named one of the "Fortune" magazine's 50 most powerful women.

PATTIE SELLERS, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: What Andrea Jung has done with Avon is figured out how to be innovative. They have a wonderful franchise. Three-quarters of their business is international. She's grown the profitability at a very successful rate and she's increased the stock 250 percent. That's power.



ZAHN: And here are the results of tonight's "Voting Booth" question. We asked, "Will your local newspaper's candidate endorsement influence your vote? Twelve percent of you voted yes; 88 percent voted no.

This is not a scientific poll, just a sampling from those of you who logged onto our web site.

Well, another town hall meeting this week. We'll be on the road again on Thursday. We will be joining undecided voters in Clark County, Ohio, along with representatives of both the Bush and Kerry campaigns. And if you'd like to submit your own questions, just go onto

Thanks so much for joining us tonight. We'll be back again tomorrow night. Good night.


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