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State of the Union

Interview With General Odierno; Interview With Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty

Aired June 28, 2009 - 09:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: I'm John King and this is our "State of the Union" report for this Sunday, June 28th.

The deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from all major Iraqi cities, like it or not, is 48 hours away. We'll ask the commander of all American troops in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, if the Iraqis are ready, and the latest timetable to get all U.S. troops home.

The Republican Party is in a tough stretch. Two leaders viewed as possible White House contenders admit marital infidelity, and Democrats are advancing President Obama's agenda. One of the party's 2012 prospects, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, is right here to debate the White House approach to health care, climate change, and to offer his recipe for a Republican revival.

Plus, an early peek at the next campaign in the critical battleground of Ohio. You might call it a back-to-the-future moment, as Republicans turn to two veterans in hopes of finding a new beginning. That's all coming up on this hour of "State of the Union."

A quick reminder this morning before we get to our guest. We continue to track the latest developments in Iran. There are now reports that Iranian protesters are being dragged from hospitals by pro-government militia. Local staffers working for the British embassy have been arrested.

And police questioned Michael Jackson's doctor for several hours last night as the investigation into the death of the pop legend continues. Stay right here with CNN for breaking updates on both of these important stories.

But we begin today with a critical development in Iraq. Tuesday is the deadline for U.S. troops to pull out of bases in Iraq's major cities and to turn major security operations over to Iraqi forces. It is without a doubt a major benchmark in the more than six-year war, and to some, a huge achievement. But even some U.S. generals say they would prefer more time in some cities, and there are worries the shift in power could bring a spike in violence.

The man managing this delicate shift is the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, who joins us now from Camp Victory in Baghdad. Good morning to you, General, and thank you for your time.

A simple question off the top. Are the Iraqis ready for these awesome new responsibilities?

ODIERNO: I do believe they're ready, John. They've been working towards this for a long time. And security remains good. We've seen constant improvement in the security force, we've seen constant improvement in governance. And I believe this is the time for us to move out of the cities and for them to take ultimate responsibility.

KING: Are you doing this based on military calculations or political calculations, in the sense that Prime Minister al-Maliki has said he wants the American troops out? President Obama has said he wants them on a path to get home as soon as possible. One of your own deputies, sir, Brigadier General John Murray, said this, "Sadr City is one we wanted. The Iraqi government said no, so now we are leaving." Are there two or three of these areas where you wish you could keep U.S. troops a little bit longer?

ODIERNO: I think sometimes it's about strategic advantage over tactical advantage. I think again, it's important for us to be in line with the security agreement that we signed in December.

I think from a military and security standpoint, it's time for us to move out of the cities. We'll still be there providing training, advising, enablers for the Iraqi security forces. I believe they're capable of doing this. We'll still be conducting significant operations outside of the cities and the belts around the major cities. And I still believe that this will enable us to maintain the current security and stability situation here in Iraq.

KING: But do you have the flexibility? If you see a target of opportunity, if you see something that troubles you, do you have the flexibility to act? Or do you need to go to the Iraqis and ask permission and perhaps lose incredibly valuable time?

ODIERNO: Well, again, when we signed the security agreement, we agreed to abide by Iraqi sovereignty. So everything that we do today is transparent. Everything we do today and have been doing since the 1st of January is transparent to the Iraqi government. So we will continue to be transparent, but that does not limit our flexibility. We'll continue to coordinate with them, and when necessary, we'll conduct the operations that we need to with their approval.

KING: I want to get up, sir, and go over to the wall, because I want to show our viewers a map of the area. And I specifically want to pull out on a point, because we have seen some incidences, some would say an uptick in violence, down in Nasariyah on June 10th, deadly violence there. In Baghdad, a couple of bombings recently. And up in Kirkuk -- let me shrink the map a little bit -- we can see it all up in the Kirkuk area. Is there a pattern to this violence? Do you believe you're being tested and the Iraqi security forces are being tested on the eve of this deadline?

ODIERNO: I think these are some extremist elements who are trying to bring attention to their movement that's been fractured. They're trying to use this timeframe and this date to first gain attention for themselves, and also to divert attention from the success of the Iraqi security forces. We have not seen increased violence across the country. We still have low levels of overall violence. However, these high-profile attacks, all they have done is kill innocent civilians, and in fact, brought the air (ph) of Iraqi civilians against the terrorist groups.

KING: I want to also show you, sir, I am putting it up on our screen. I know you probably can't see it, but I want to show the level of troops in Iraq. We began with 150,000 in the beginning, May 2003. The peak was 171,000 in October of 2007. We're now at about 138,000 as we're in June 2009. When we spoke two months ago, sir, I asked you on a scale of 1 to 10, how confident you were that all American troops would be out by the end of 2011. Are you still that confident, sir? Is that still a 10 on this morning?

ODIERNO: It is. And John, actually, we're at 131,000 today, have been now for about a month. We'll continue to draw down slowly and deliberately over this year. What's good is I've been given the flexibility to make those decisions based on the security environment on the ground. I believe we'll continue to slowly and deliberately withdraw our forces this year, but have enough forces here to ensure that we have successful parliamentary elections next January.

KING: What do you make then, sir, if you say you're still very confident you will keep that, the former Iraqi national security adviser is quoted in the New York Times just today saying we need to extend the status of forces agreement to 2020 or 2025. I just hope Prime Minister al-Maliki realizes we don't have competent security forces yet.

ODIERNO: Again, I would argue there's a difference between conducting internal counter-insurgency operations and being able to have external capacity. And I think they will have to make some decisions in the future what they want to do in terms of their external capacity. But I think that's something that has to be discussed later on. And there's many ways for them to do that. They can get assistance from the United States, they can get assistance from Egypt, they can get assistance from many countries. But that'll be a decision that has to be made, in my mind, a couple of years from now.

KING: I want to also give our viewers, sir, a glimpse at the U.S. casualties. 4,317 U.S. men and women have died in Iraq over these past six years, 486 in the first year. And you see the violence and the death toll as it goes up, 95 fatalities so far in 2009. As you move into this new posture, General, are U.S. troops safer in that you're pulling back from the major cities? Or might one argue they could conceivably be more at risk, because if they are called upon for major operations, it would be after some tragic or traumatic event that the Iraqi security forces can't handle?

ODIERNO: Well, we'll maintain full coordination with the Iraqi security forces inside of the cities. If they need us, our movements will be coordinated. We'll continue to have intelligence capacity inside the cities. So I'm confident that we'll be able to maintain the situational awareness in order to protect our troops. And our goal is to continue to lower, obviously, our casualties. We've continued to do that, and our goal is obviously to eliminate all casualties over time here.

KING: We're having a military conversation, but in a sense, the success of your mission in the final years will be dependent on the political situation in Iraq. What is your take on Prime Minister Maliki? Is he up to this task? And I ask in the context that you have from time to time have been critical of his government and had to privately go to his government when it has cracked down on its political opponents. Is he a strong man or is he a democratic leader?

ODIERNO: Well, I think, first off, I think this is, you know, working in the situation, he's had to establish a brand new democratic government while trying to maintain stability and security inside of Iraq is a very difficult task. And I think he has continued to develop his government. I think he has continued to develop his security forces, and I think they made great progress over the last -- over the last couple of years.

So I think from that viewpoint, he has done a very good job. Obviously, there's still many political issues that have to be worked out here. Reconciliation is one. Arab-Kurd tensions, intra-Shia, Sunni-Shia. Those are all political issues that still have to be worked here. And I believe they're in the process of doing that. And as we move to the national elections coming up here very shortly, those will be the main issues that are addressed in the lead-up to the elections.

KING: Do you think it's possible there could be a referendum in Iraq that says you have to leave sooner?

ODIERNO: It's unclear. We'll see. We're still waiting to see if, in fact, they will conduct a referendum. That will be up to the Council of Representatives in the Iraqi government as we move forward.

KING: I assume you think that would be a bad idea?

ODIERNO: Well, again -- again, my concern is moving on with our mission here. I'm focused on sustaining our mission here in 2011, our first milestone being the national election, and then continuing to improve security here so Iraqis can take over full responsibility by the end of 2011.

KING: I want to ask you a bit about the situation in neighboring Iran. We have talked from time to time about Iran meddling dangerously in your business, allowing weapon systems to come across, IEDs to come across, perhaps even training some of those who are trying to kill American men and women in Iraq. Has that situation in terms of Iran coming across the border in ways, or training people across the border, sending dangerous equipment across the border, is that better now than if we were having this conversation in the past? Or is it about the same?

ODIERNO: Well, I would say they still continue to interfere inside of Iraq. They still continue to conduct training. They still continue to pay surrogates to conduct operations in Iraq. It might be a bit less than it was, but I think that's more based on the success of the security forces here than it is on Iran's intent. ODIERNO: So, again, I think they're still attempting to interfere. They're still attempting to have undue influence inside of Iraq. And we continue to deal with that.

We have made great progress on that front, working with the Iraqi security forces.

KING: And as you know, sir, there are some in the Congress back here in the United States and others back here in the United States who have urged more assistance to the demonstrators, to protesters in Iran.

And some have said that, you know, we have the capability, technologically, if we wanted to, say, increase Internet access, to use technology, from your position in Iraq along the Iranian border, to somehow help increase Internet access, technical communications, text messaging.

Have you been asked, sir, to do anything?

And do you have that capability if you were asked?

ODIERNO: Well, first, based on the Iraqi security agreement, we are -- we are only concerned with protecting Iraq's security instability. And based on that agreement, I'm not authorized to do anything outside the borders of Iraq. So I think I'll leave it at that.

KING: OK, sir. Let me come back to this important deadline. You believe you can keep this deadline and stay on the path to get U.S. troops home on schedule in 2011.

Let me ask you this question, what is your biggest worry? When do you say, OK, am I wrong here? What's your biggest worry?

ODIERNO: Well, again, I think -- I think it has to do with if we see a breakdown in stability in Iraq; if we see a consistent increase in violence; if we see that the Iraqi security forces aren't able to respond; if we have some event that it caused some instability, then that would cause us to, maybe, after we're asked by the government of Iraq, to help.

I don't see that right now. I believe we're on the right path. And I want to make sure you understand that. I believe we are still on the right path. I think security and stability is headed in the right direction as we move through 30 June. KING: And I've used this test with you in the past, so let me ask it this way. On a scale of one to 10, how ready, in your view, are the Iraqi security forces to take on this added mission?

ODIERNO: Yes, I would just say they're at a very -- they have improved significantly over the last 2 1/2 years. We've seen incredible increase in their capacity and capability. They have proven it in combat operations. They have proven their flexibility and adaptable. So I am much more confident than I've ever been in the Iraqi security forces. KING: I want to close, sir, in our last minute, on a lighter note.

You had a guest recently. Stephen Colbert came over to spend a little bit of time. And you were ordered, I think, by a very high authority, to give him a bit of a military haircut, shall we say, an unorthodox military haircut.

We're showing a picture to our viewers, right now, of you applying the shave to Stephen Colbert. Take us through that moment.

ODIERNO: Well, again, you know, Stephen said he wanted to join the Army. He went through basic training. So we told him, if he really wanted to be a member of the armed forces, he had to have the right haircut. And the president agreed with me on that. So we gave him a haircut.

I've been watching him lately. I think it's time for him -- he needs a trim, I think, so maybe we need to give him another haircut.

KING: You ran him through a little basic training. Is he in shape?

ODIERNO: He did pretty good. He was pretty impressive. Now, it was a little bit unorthodox basic training, but he looked like he did pretty well.

KING: All right. We'll laugh -- we'll laugh at that. But, as we close and say thank you to you, sir, we want to make sure you know you're in our thoughts, and the men and women serving under you are in our thoughts and our prayers as you go forward; first, this big deadline in 48 hours, and then, of course, the important weeks and months ahead.

General Ray Odierno, thanks as always for spending some time with us.

ODIERNO: Thank you very much, John.

KING: Take care, sir.

And as we take a quick break, a snapshot of troops serving in Baghdad, the capital city, of course, of Iraq.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: I'm John King and this is "State of the Union." Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning.

Iran's supreme leader has issued a call for unity. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged both sides in the bitter election dispute to quote, "not stoke the emotions of the young."

The appeal was broadcast today on Iranian TV.

Los Angeles police have new information on the death of Michael Jackson. That information came from the singer's personal physician. Dr. Conrad Murray met with detectives for several hours last night. Police say he was cooperative and that he provided details that will aid their investigation.

Dr. Murray was with Jackson when he went into cardiac arrest and apparently tried to revive him before he died.

The BET awards show will now include an extended tribute to Michael Jackson's life and legacy. CNN will be the only network reporting live on the red carpet. Our coverage kicks off tonight at 6:00 Eastern, 3:00 Pacific. That and more, ahead on "State of the Union."

Here in Washington, President Obama and Congress spent another week wrestling with health care reform. It has been, to say the least, a contentious debate, with Republicans questioning whether the country can afford this right now and whether the president wants too big a role for the federal government.

But the biggest obstacle at the moment are Democratic objections to the White House approach. Some of them aired right here on this program.


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-CALIF.: Well, to be candid with you, I don't know that he has the votes right now. I think there's a lot of concern in the Democratic Caucus.

Controlling cost is a very major and difficult subject as long as you have a large private-sector involvement. So this needs to be worked out.


KING: And as key senators did just that this past week, working to trim the cost of the huge price tag of health care reform, we saw several examples of Democratic in-fighting.

The liberal group, for example, lashed out at Senator Feinstein and others who have raised questions about the president's approach. Feinstein's California one of nine states where MoveOn says it will run advertisements attacking Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ANNOUNCER: California voters sent Senator Feinstein to Washington to fight for us. That includes fighting to pass President Obama's health care plan. But Feinstein is saying health care may just be too difficult. Senator, we don't expect you to lead just on the easy issues.


KING: Republicans also intensifying the air war, the Republican National Committee, for example, running its first ad of the 2010 cycle. And, separately, a conservative group turns its attention to 14 senators, mostly from more conservative states, questioning the wisdom of the president's insistence that a government option be included in any major health care reform.


ANNOUNCER: Remember the $400 hammer? How about that $600 toilet seat? It seems, when Congress gets involved, things just cost more. Now they're at it again with a government-run health care plan. It'll cost more than $1 trillion and raise taxes $600 billion.


KING: Senate Democrats hope to begin voting on their proposal shortly after the July 4th recess. It will be interesting, fascinating to track this debate as the lawmakers go home and meet with their constituents.

KING: And we will do just that watching them.

And coming up, we'll ask a Republican governor facing a state budget crisis whether Washington's actions on the economy, health care, and climate change are helping or hurting. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty joins us in studio next.


KING: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm John King. When our next guest recently decided against seeking a third term as governor, the buzz in conservative circles started immediately. Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney already viewed as possible 2012 presidential contenders. And close associated of Tim Pawlenty urged activists and reporters to add the Minnesota governor to that list too.

But his day job remains leading a state with rising unemployment and a budget crisis, because a painful recession means lower revenues. And as he navigates those difficulties, Governor Pawlenty is often critical of the proposals of the Obama White House that the president says are designed to help. Governor Pawlenty joins us now here in D.C.

Welcome to STATE OF THE UNION. And let's start with the big debate. And we'll get to some of the policy specifics, but I want to talk first about the goals. The president says it is urgent that the United States extend accessibility to health care and have universal or near universal coverage. Do you share that goal?

PAWLENTY: Well, there are goals of three parts for health care reform, John. One is extending coverage, called access, but there are other goals, as well, which is cost containment, because it's bankrupting cities, states, businesses, the federal government. And the third is making sure we maintain quality.

So you can obsess just about access, but if you don't also contain costs and preserve quality, you're in big trouble. And the federal proposal is largely modeled so far after what happened in Massachusetts. They succeeded in extending access, but the cost of that program is now double, triple, and some would say soon-to-be quadruple what they originally estimated. That would be a bad development for those of us who are concerned about the uncontrollable rise in health care costs. KING: Well, that -- let's go through some of the specifics. To pay for this, the president says about $1 trillion over 10 years. Let me start with the threshold question. Can we afford that right now?

PAWLENTY: Well, the president said not long ago in an interview quote-unquote, "we are out of money." With all due respect, Mr. President, if we're out of money, quit spending it.

And so, no, we can't afford it. This is a nation that has got a debt load and a deficit load that is unsustainable. We're going to have, in my view, the federal government debt crisis equivalent of the mortgage crisis within 20 years.

And notwithstanding the rhetoric, the Obama administration does not appear serious to address this out of control spending.

KING: To pay for health care, he says -- and you know the argument, he says we can't afford not to do it. That the economic and the health crisis will only grow if we don't do it now. But one of the ways he says he can pay for this is to squeeze substantially from Medicare and Medicaid.

Those are federal programs. It's about 50 percent of the money in the health care system comes from the federal government. You're a governor, you are on the receiving end, and your state and your hospitals have to pick up the tab when people without insurance come into emergency rooms and the like.

If we squeeze hundreds of billions out of Medicare and Medicaid, what happens to a governor?

PAWLENTY: John, I looked at some of the proposals that were on the table that are in Congress right now. They're actually proposing to expand Medicaid and Medicare eligibility, to expand benefit sets. They're talking about reducing nominally reimbursements of payments to providers.

But I think what they're going to end up doing is running up the costs of those programs under these proposals. We share, as Republicans, the goal of health care reform, to get more access, to control costs, to improve quality. But the way to do that isn't to have the government take over the system.

The way to do that is to give consumers good information about price and quality, and then give them financial incentives to use the system wisely and give financial help directly to those who need it.

We've done that in Minnesota in a variety of ways and that is the way to reform and control health care costs in this country, not to have a new federal bureaucracy.

KING: Well, you say new federal bureaucracy, the president says this public option, that if you -- you can have your private insurance, you can have what you have from your employer, if you like it, keep it. But if you don't have that or if you want to look around in the marketplace, there will be this government plan. And if you like that, maybe you opt out instead. Maybe it will be a little cheaper. Maybe it will offer a different mix of benefits. What's wrong in a mix, as long as there is a mix, of having a public option?

PAWLENTY: Well, what's wrong with it is, you have a government option in a market that is supposed to be driven by private choices. So if you're disadvantaged, unable to pay, and the government is going to subsidize you, the question becomes, should we give that subsidy to you directly? Should we subsidize and create its own program? That's the tradition.

But now they're talking about something new and different, which is to say, even if you're able to pay, even if you're in the marketplace, the government is going to compete for your business with private entities.

The government is going to come right into the marketplace and compete. So it would be equivalent to say, you know, John, you're a corn farmer and the government is going to put up a row of corn or a farm next to you and compete with you.

We don't do that in the United States, it's a different kind of model with a different kind of culture and society.

KING: Well, let me -- I want to close the circle on health care with, we don't this in the United States, you just said. How do you take that philosophy and match it up with those who say we have to have universal coverage in the United States of America or else we fail the test?

PAWLENTY: Again, the way to do that, if you want to extend access to people who are in need or in disadvantage, then give them some help directly or in the form of a voucher, in the form of a tax credit, and then give them good information about price and quality, and at least for those who can function in a marketplace, let them go do that. That's how you assist people in need who can't afford health care.

But to have the government come in and say, we're going to compete directly with the private market is another example of the partial, you know, nationalization of an industry, not unlike the mortgage industry, the banking industry, the auto industry, now the health care industry, soon you'll see that in the energy industry.

This is a pattern with this administration of government encroaching into the private market.

KING: Let's move on to the energy debate. The House just passed legislation, the narrowest of margins, two votes to spare, I guess not quite the narrowest of margins, but almost. The cap and trade legislation it is called. It would dramatically change the way -- if it passes the Senate, change our whole energy economy and our whole energy structure is based in this country.

The Congressional Budget Office says it would increase the energy bill of the average family about $175 by 2020. Is that an acceptable price to pay to reduce our dependence on foreign oil?

PAWLENTY: Well, John, the estimates you cite are on the low end. There are some other studies out that show it could be as much as several thousand dollars for an average family by 2020 per year. So depending on which of those estimates is accurate, it could be a very significant burden.

We all share the goal, I think, of reducing pollution and reducing emissions in this country. But we should have a debate about how best to do that. This bill that has just passed the Congress is a nightmarish, mind-boggling, overly bureaucratic, misguided bill.

I've been a strong supporter of renewable, clean and secure energy. I've been a strong supporter of finding ways to reduce emissions. But the way to do that is through conservation, doing things for base-load (ph) like nuclear energy, bringing on more fuel- efficient vehicles.

But this bill goes so far as to have the federal government micromanage and prohibit what local homeowner associations can do as it relates to the design features of local homeowner associations.

PAWLENTY: That's one example of dozens in this bill in terms of its overreach. And it's a cap and trade bill. It's going to cap our job growth and trade our jobs to other countries who provide a more competitive business environment. This is the overly burdensome version that Congress has put forward.

KING: Strong language there. Cap our job growth. You were part of a regional consortium to work on something that did pretty much this. Why is the president's approach so wrong?

PAWLENTY: Well, I think if you're going to have an approach to reducing emissions, let's focus on incentives to reduce emissions, like the ones I just mentioned before. But if Congress is going to consider a cap and trade bill, you've got to have the cap be at a level that's reasonable and practical.

And then the allowances shouldn't be an excuse for the federal government to raise money. If you look at President Obama's budget, the charge that they were going to put for these allowances in the bill was a big part of how they were going to raise money for other stuff.

Now some of that has gone out the window, but this remains an extraordinarily expensive bill. We should do things to reduce emissions and pollutions, but we have to do it in a way that doesn't wreck our economy or put unreasonable burdens on our citizens. And this bill does not meet that test.

KING: The president's senior adviser, David Axelrod, was out on another program this morning, and says this is a phony issue, the way you call it -- the way you just characterized this. He says it's phony and Republicans are using inaction as an excuse here, a political tactic. PAWLENTY: Well, with all due respect to David Axelrod, why are they so opposed, on the other side of the aisle, of looking, for example, in the base load energy area of promoting aggressively more nuclear power plants? One of the biggest emitters of pollution and carbon in this country is our base load energy sector.

Nuclear power plants have no such emissions to speak of. There are next generation opportunities to process -- reprocess nuclear fuel. And yet while they kind of tip the cap at the argument, they really don't want to do anything and won't do anything.

Ask them to be accountable for that. That would be a major step forward as it relates to carbon emissions, and they won't take it.

KING: I want to go back in time a little bit. You were the host governor for the Republican National Convention. And in your speech at that convention, in the middle of a heated campaign, you were talking about then-Senator Obama. And it's clear you weren't that impressed. Let's listen.


PAWLENTY: When John McCain is president, there will be no misunderstanding about where America stands and what we stand for. In this time, when don't need a president who can just read a poll or momentarily thrill a crowd. We don't need rhetoric or empty promises.


KING: As a guy some think might be running against -- trying to run against President Obama down the road, rate him now.

PAWLENTY: Well, he's only six months into his term, John, and so I think the history books should be a little broader in terms of perspective than just six months. But I'm very concerned on a number of fronts.

One is the out of control, unsustainable, irresponsible level of state -- or, excuse me, federal spending and the debt and the deficit that's growing by the minute. That is something that is not responsible, something that's going to, I think, snap back and bite us in ways that are going to hurt the economy in the intermediate term.

I'm concerned also about this massive government encroachment in autos, in health care, in energy and other sectors. But, you know, President Obama inherited a very tough situation. I think we need to give him more than six months before you can make an ultimate verdict on how he's doing.

KING: One of the things he has done in those six months is pass a federal stimulus plan. This is one of the Sunday newspapers in your home state, The Star Tribune, in Minneapolis. "Stimulus cash isn't the magic bullet yet," saying the jobs have not yet materialized from the stimulus program.

You used some of that money to make less painful the cuts you've had to make at the state level. So is the stimulus plan in some ways helping a Republican governor like you?

PAWLENTY: Well, in Minnesota's case, we pay $1 into the federal government, we get 73 cents back. On that measurement, we're the fifth-highest payer of money into the federal government of any state in the nation. So we're paying our share of the bill.

But here's a stunning statistic, the GAO, the General Accounting Office, said recently of the $800 billion stimulus bill, only about $150 billion of it is really stimulative for the economy. The rest was spent on government programs, government social service programs that are not stimulative. And so this is a bill that was misdirected, mis-targeted, mis- prioritized, mis-focused. It should have put money into people's pockets through tax cuts and bread and butter projects like roads and bridges. It didn't do that to the extent it should have. And in that regard, the bill I think under serves this country.

KING: Tim Pawlenty is going to stay with us. Up next, the GOP brand took another hit when South Carolina's governor acknowledged a secret trip to visit his mistress. When we come back, Governor Pawlenty's take on what Republicans need to do to turn things around. Stay with us.


KING: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. Let's continue our conversation with Minnesota's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty.

Governor, I want to move on to what you think ails the national Republican Party. But first, a question that is very personal to you. Your state has only had one United States senator since the election because of the disputed election between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.

Your state supreme court has a ruling before it, it could come very soon. After that ruling, the next step would be for you to certify the election. Will you certify the election based on your state's supreme court ruling, is that for you?

PAWLENTY: I'm going to follow the direction of the court, John. We expect that ruling any day now. I also expect them to give guidance and direction as to the certificate of election. I'm prepared to sign it as soon as they give the green light.

KING: And so if Norm Coleman loses at the state supreme court and says he's going to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, will you give him that time or will you say, sorry, Senator Coleman, our state supreme court, our highest court in this state, has spoken, and I will follow their lead?

PAWLENTY: Well, a federal court could stay or put a limit on or stop the effect of the state court ruling. If they chose, if they do that, I would certainly follow their direction. But if that doesn't happen promptly or drags out for any period of time, then we need to move ahead with signing this, particularly if I'm ordered to do that by the state court. KING: And if you're ordered to do it and they say Al Franken has narrowly won the election, you're prepared to sign it, if the court says so.

PAWLENTY: I'm not going to defy an order of the Minnesota Supreme Court. That would be a dereliction of my duty. But a federal court could weigh in and say, don't do that and order a different result.

KING: I want to move on to the drama in the Republican Party right now. President Obama won the election and won it quite handily. Since then and in recent weeks, we've seen two leading Republicans, men like you, who show up on lists of who might run in 2012, Senator Ensign in Nevada, then Governor Sanford in South Carolina acknowledging marital infidelity.

I want to play for you a snippet of a conversation, I want to very careful and tell our viewers, this is from 2007. I went down to South Carolina to spend some time with Governor Sanford, to ask him there about the ongoing Republican competition for the 2008 Republican nomination.

Even then he said the Republican brand was damaged and he also said this...


GOV. MARK SANFORD (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It takes time to damage a brand. It takes even longer to rebuild it. You think about Tylenol, or you think about some of the instance over time, you know, a single night you could do destruction to a brand. And it took time to build up trust.

SANFORD: I mean, the value of a brand is, in the chorus of voices out there, people have a trust in a -- in a single group or in a single product. It takes time to build or regain trust.


KING: How much further damage to the brand of a party that says it's the party of family values, that counts Christian conservatives among its most reliable base -- how much damage has been done nationally by the actions of Governor Sanford and Senator Ensign?

PAWLENTY: It's hard to quantify that, John. But, clearly, there's been damage. Any time you have leading figures who are engaged in behavior that is sad and troubling and hypocritical, other people are going to look at that and say, "Hm, they don't walk the walk." And so the words and the actions don't ring true.

But it's a sad and troubling situation with Jenny and Mark Sanford. I know them. I'm proud of Jenny for her strength and her commitment to her family and keeping that family together. And, frankly, I was glad to see her not standing at the press conference like many others have, and, kind of, charting her own path, saying, look, I'm willing to forgive him, but I'm not going to stand there and condone this in any way.

But it certainly hurts the brand. It's hard to quantify it.

KING: Well, when you say "hard to quantify," what do you hear?

You're an evangelical. When you go to church and you talk to your pastor -- I travel the country quite a bit, and I've spent a lot of time with Christian conservatives. And they, frankly, are fed up.

They think Ronald Reagan didn't always deliver. They think George W. Bush promised to work against same-sex marriage and he did not, in their view, deliver.

How much frustration is there that tars all of you, that the politicians are going to come to us; they're going to tell us, "I'm one of you," and then get elected and not do it?

PAWLENTY: Well, that's a big part of the problem of the Republican Party. It's not the only one. That leads into what your next question was going to be.

It really hasn't mattered that much whether Republicans have gone to Washington or Democrat have gone to Washington, for example; on the issue of spending, the trend line's been about the same.

Now, it's been accelerated pretty dramatically under the Obama administration. But if you're going to be, for example, the party of fiscal discipline and be the person talking who's about fiscal responsibility, then you better do that.

And so hypocrisy doesn't sell, and the Republicans have to be true to their values, be true to their principles and walk the walk.

Now, we live in a world where people aren't perfect. You've made mistakes; I've made mistakes. There's going to be dumb things that happen, sad things that have happened, heartbreaking things that happen. So we can't expect perfection. But we at least have to be headed along the general correct trend lines.

KING: Since Senator McCain's defeat in the last election, many Republicans have said they think the party, especially with younger voters, is viewed as somehow intolerant.

And some, including Senator McCain's campaign manager, have said Republicans need to think again on the issue of gay rights and especially perhaps open their minds to same-sex marriage.

Does Governor Tim Pawlenty think that the Republicans should step aside and drop their opposition to same-sex marriage?

PAWLENTY: Well, no I don't. I think there is a lot of data that shows a lot of younger people feel differently about that issue than older people, and that's something we're going to have to come to terms with down the road, in terms of a country.

But I don't believe, nor does the Republican Party believe, that all domestic relationships are the equivalent. I believe that traditional marriage should be maintained on an elevated status and an elevated form for obvious reasons. It's an important part of our social fabric and a cornerstone of our social fabric.

KING: After the Sanford scandal emerged, there was a little item in The Washington Post saying, well, who else is out there for the Republicans when it comes to 2012?

And they said, "A riveting reality show takes shape," and they mentioned you, with a picture, and they said, "Tim Pawlenty: The Geek. Minnesota earnest with a dash of bland. Is he flying too far under the radar?"

You were in Arkansas just the other night for a fund-raiser. I know your state press back home watches you every time you go out of state. Is Tim Pawlenty running for president?

PAWLENTY: You know, John, I don't know what the future holds for me, but I do know this. I feel strongly about the values and principles for the Republican Party. I believe I have something to say about that.

So, within Minnesota and outside of Minnesota, at least as my time allows, I'm going to go out and speak to that. And I think I can make a contribution, in a positive way, for trying to rebuild this party. And it needs it.

KING: On that point of your travels, I want to circle back a little bit. Because this became an issue and could become an issue in the state of South Carolina.

When you leave your state, what is your responsibility, as the governor, to tell people where you are, how you can be reached, and the whole combination of events that could play out from that?

Because, as you know, one of the questions about Governor Sanford is did he -- was he derelict of duty?

Could he possibly be impeached for lying to his staff about where he was and not telling others in the state he was leaving?

PAWLENTY: Your staff has to be able to reach you and reach you quickly for all the obvious reasons, natural disaster, terrorism, or other events.

And so I'm very careful to make sure that numerous staff people and my security detail always know where I am and can reach me. And any governor should do that.

KING: So Sanford was derelict in his duty?

PAWLENTY: He should not have left the state and not allowed people to know how to contact him in case something happened. That's obvious.

KING: Governor Tim Pawlenty, we thank you for joining us on "State of the Union." We will see you, whether it be in Minnesota or one of those other plenty places in the months and weeks ahead.

Sir, thank you very much.

And so is there going to be a GOP comeback?

We'll get out of Washington and head to Ohio, where two Republicans are already fighting hard for the 2010 midterm elections. The question is, are the voters buying it? You can see for yourself in just a moment. Stay with us.


KING: In our national politics, sometimes Ohio is more watched than any other state. Let me show you why.

Look right here. This is 2008. There's the state of Ohio. You see it blue right there, right? Barack Obama carried that state.

Well, who won in '04? George W. Bush won. Ohio's red.

Who won in 2000? George W. Bush won. Ohio's red.

Who won in 1996? That would be Bill Clinton. And Ohio is blue.

And it is a huge state. And what we have seen, over time, in Ohio, is much of what we've seen across the country. It used to be a Republican state. Here's 2002, Republicans more registration by almost nine points. By nine points, they're leading the Democrats.

Let's fast-forward, though; 2008: Republicans, 35 percent identified; 52 percent identified themselves or leaning Democrat.

So, as we head into the 2010 cycle, this is a state we want to look at. It used to have a vibrant Republican Party. President Obama won it and won it quite handily. The Democratic governor, at the moment, has a high approval rating, but also has, as you just saw, high unemployment.

So, for an early glimpse of can the Republicans come back, we went to Ohio.


KING (voice-over): John Kasich knows a lot of people are watching.

JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: The governor's race here in this state, it could potentially be the most important race in the country. So goes Ohio, so goes the country.

KING: For a Republican Party desperate for signs of recovery, Ohio is an intriguing state. Here, hopes that the 2010 elections will bring a new beginning rest largely on two familiar faces from the GOP past. Kasich, the leading Republican candidate for governor, was the House Budget Committee chairman and a rising star when the GOP controlled Congress in the mid '90s. Rob Portman is the GOP candidate for an open Senate seat. He represented the Cincinnati area in the House for 12 years and then served in the Bush administration as trade representative and budget director.

ROB PORTMAN (R), U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE: The 2010 elections is going to be about the Obama agenda and the Democratic Congress agenda and whether they're doing the right thing. And the people will have to judge.

KING: Kasich shrugs off early Democratic attempts to cast him as part of the damaged Republican brand.

KASICH: I was the chief architect of the plan that balanced the budget, cut taxes, paid down debt and gave us one of the most prosperous times in the history of our country. That's sort of a silly attack.

KING: He says the party is in a rut because it stopped seeking new ideas to deal with health care, energy and other challenges, and tried to separate himself from the brand voters rejected in 2006 and 2008.

KASICH: The Republican Party is my vehicle, not my master. I mean, I'm here to try to bring prosperity back to the state, make sure that families are better off. I'm not here to carry anybody's banner.

PORTMAN: This visitor arrived by Greyhound.

KING: Portman's ties to the unpopular Bush administration could make his break from the past more difficult. Step one is defending his cabinet record. PORTMAN: When I was the OMB director, we cut the deficit in half. When I was there, by the way, unemployment rate is half of what it is today.

KING: Step two is balancing a critique of a popular president with a call for his party to better explain what it would do differently.

PORTMAN: The Republican Party needs to have answers. You mentioned health care. The system is broken, the status quo is totally unacceptable. I agree with President Obama about that. I also disagree with his prescriptions because I don't think it's going to fix the very problems that he identifies..

KING: Political scientist Paul Beck at the Ohio State University says it's a big plus for Republicans that two formidable candidates step forward.

PAUL BECK, PROFESSOR, OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY: And that's also the problem for a party that is down, nobody wants to run. They want to wait until the climate is much more supporting of people from their party.

KING: In this next cycle, Beck sees a single, dominant issue -- jobs.

BECK: If we are a year from now and the economy hasn't improved in a visible way, I think the Democrats are going to be in trouble and the Republicans, they are well positioned to take advantage of that kind of situation.

KING: The biggest question though is whether Republicans, here in Ohio and elsewhere, can begin to reverse troubling demographic shifts. Democratic gains in the suburbs, among Latinos, suburbs, and among 18 to 29 years olds.

BECK: It's an ominous future for the Republicans, that they're not doing well among young voters, I think young voters are not attracted by the old themes. There really has been a mood shift in the country, among younger people and a bigger generational divide than I have seen in a long time. You have to go back almost to the 1960s to see something that's comparable to it.


KING: And as we give you a glimpse here at the beautiful Ohio River, we'll give you a promise. We'll go back to cover those races for governor in the state of Ohio, take a look at the Democratic candidates as well in the months ahead.

As you know, one of our goals is to get out of Washington as often as we can. We traveled from Ohio to California, and stopped by many states in between. So where next? You can e-mail us at and tell us why we should come to your community. We want to say good bye not to our international audience for this hour, but up next, for our viewers in North America, Howie Kurtz look at the avalanche of media coverage surrounding Michael Jackson's death.


KING: I'm John King and this is our "State of the Union" report for this Sunday, June 28th. The surprising twist of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's week has made great headline. But is it legitimate news or just an invasion of his private life? Howie Kurtz kicks off our "Reliable Sources" debating that question with three top journalists.

And Michael Jackson's death resulted in nonstop television coverage and a spike, get this, of more than 65,000 texts per second after the news was announced. We'll examine what fuels the public's fascination.

And something you can only see right here, James Carville and Mary Matalin go head to head on all of the day's and the week's political news. That's all head on "State of the Union."