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Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields

Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack Discusses the Race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination

Aired January 8, 2000 - 5:30 p.m. ET

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

ANNOUNCER: Live from Iowa, EVANS, NOVAK, HUNT & SHIELDS. Now, Robert Novak and Mark Shields.

MARK SHIELDS, CO-HOST: I'm Mark Shields.

Robert Novak and I are at the site of Saturday's presidential debate right here in Des Moines. Soon we will ask questions and get answers from this state's very top Democrat.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: He is governor Tom Vilsack.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): In their fourth debate, Vice President Al Gore once again pounded former Senator Bill Bradley on Medicare.

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He doesn't put a penny into Medicare.

BILL BRADLEY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Absolutely not. For 18 years in the United States Senate, I fought to protect Medicare.

NOVAK: In this farm state, the vice president also hit his opponent's Senate votes on agriculture.

GORE: Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Peterson (ph), when he and thousands of others farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods?

BRADLEY: This is not about the past, this is about the future.

NOVAK: But Bradley had a different response in his summation.

BRADLEY: Al has been hammering me on my agriculture votes 15 years ago. But I would simply ask the family farmers of Iowa today, are you better off than you were seven years ago?

GORE: I don't think that the presidency is an academic exercise or a seminar on theories. I think the presidency has to be a day-to- day resolute fight for the American people.

NOVAK: Governor Vilsack, elected in a stunning 1998 upset, has not committed himself in the Gore-Bradley race. (END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVAK: Governor Vilsack, as a neutral observer, who do you think won today's debate?

TOM VILSACK (D), IOWA: I'll tell you, Bob. The Democratic Party won today's debate. If you contrast the substance and the nature of this debate today with what took place in New Hampshire earlier in the week with the Republicans, I think it's clear the Democrats have a substantive, serious debate on a number of issues.

I was very impressed with both candidates, frankly. The vice president showed a great command of a variety of issues in a depth of detail that I hadn't seen in some time. Senator Bradley was able to incorporate into his responses some of the stories he's obtained during the campaign trail and sort of humanized the process. So I was impressed with both of them.

NOVAK: You wouldn't like to give one on points? No knockout, but just on points?

VILSACK: Well, I think it depends on what you were looking for. I will tell you this. An undecided Democrat would have a very difficult time making a decision based upon just that debate today. I think they both did well.

NOVAK: You know, the two candidates, sir, were very mild compared to the way they were in New Hampshire just on Thursday night -- was it -- yes, Thursday night.

SHIELDS: Wednesday night.

NOVAK: Wednesday night. And they were kind of Iowa nice. And there are some reports that they were told that people in Iowa didn't want them to go at each other hammer and tong, so they kind of pulled their punches. Is that correct?

VILSACK: Well, if you take a look at who actually votes in Iowa caucuses, these are serious-minded folk. These are people that read the newspaper, people that are concerned about the issues. They're not interested in the tussle of a debate, they want to hear substance. And they got it today.

SHIELDS: Governor Vilsack, one punch that wasn't pulled on Saturday's debate was Al Gore's continuing charge that Bill Bradley wants to eliminate Medicaid and leave the recipients of Medicaid unprotected, sort of tossed in a snow bank somewhere. Wasn't that, in fact, a pretty, as Bill Bradley described it, a scare tactic?

VILSACK: Well, clearly it's a recognition of who you're talking to in Iowa. We have -- our fastest growing segment of our population is people over the age of 100. We have a significant percentage of our population of people over 75 and 85. So there is a concern, obviously, about the Medicare program.

But I will tell you that there is a genuine concern and a need for a debate on health care, generally. And to the extent that candidates can talk about universal access, can talk about cost, can talk about quality, that's an issue that has not been discussed in this debate throughout the -- this campaign season, about the quality of health care. I think that's something we need to be focused on as well.

SHIELDS: All right, you're the first Democrat elected governor since 1966 in Iowa, and health care has been a concern of yours. Who has the better health care plan, Al Gore or Bill Bradley?

VILSACK: Well, I'll tell you. I think, again, the Democrats have the better health care plan, because they're the ones who are talking about it. I will tell you that I think Senator Bradley's on the right track in terms of his desire to have universal access. I think the vice president also recognizes that whatever plan we put out has to be fiscally responsible. Otherwise it's not going to sell in the general election.

NOVAK: Governor Vilsack, I thought that Senator Bradley was taken by surprise when Vice President Gore asked him about his votes 15 years ago against flood relief for Iowa farmers -- for all farmers. And he did not have an answer. That hurt him in this farm state, didn't it?

VILSACK: Well, I would I would agree with that assessment. I think it is sometimes difficult for legislators to respond to and defend votes that they made 15 years ago. Having said that, the one good thing about this debate in terms of both candidates is that we finally began to have a conversation about agriculture. Albeit somewhat superficial, at least we got it on the radar screen. And my hope is over the course of the next two weeks that at least as far as Iowans are concerned we can have that debate about agriculture. Because it's a very serious aspects of the economy of this state and of the country.

NOVAK: Governor, as we showed in the opening of this program, Senator Bradley recovered a little bit near the end. He never did explain why he voted against flood relief, but he said that farmers in Iowa should ask themselves, are they better off or worse off than they were seven years ago? I think farmers, at least listening to the oratory of Senator Harkin on the Senate floor, are worse off. Does the Clinton-Gore administration have to take some blame for that?

VILSACK: Well, I think that the Congress is the one that has to take responsibility, because it was the Congress who crafted the Freedom to Farm Act. And they did so on the premise that we were going to have open markets for agricultural products. That has not been realized, so the premise and the promise of freedom to farm hasn't been delivered.

The result has been in low prices, low commodity prices, farmers are left without a safety net. So as a result, the Clinton-Gore administration has responded and Congress responded with two emergency packages the last two years. The question is, are we going to continue to have these emergency packages year after year after year, or are we going to revise and restructure this program until the promise of free markets is developed?

NOVAK: Well, Senator Bradley clearly indicated he thought this was a failure by the administration. And after the debate, one of Vice President Gore's senior advisers, Bob Shrum, said that it is not going to help Bill Bradley if he keeps criticizing the Democratic administration. Do you agree with that?

VILSACK: Well, Bill Bradley is in a fight. And he's got to draw distinctions between himself and the vice president. And in this area, where the vice president has been discussing the need for a debate about agriculture, it's probably appropriate to try to have the blame or the spotlight shifted a bit.

I don't know whether Senator Bradley is going to he be successful with that tactic, I'm just thankful that at least we started talking about agriculture.

SHIELDS: Governor Vilsack, the outline of the Gore strategy against Bradley was clear in the post-debate spinning by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who said that Senator Bradley would make a great college professor, talking about theorizing and sort of theoretical -- that was the language. Is that an effective campaign device, do you think, to be used?

VILSACK: Well, it depends on who you're appealing to, I mean, obviously, Senator Bradley's going to have a difficult time reacting and reaching the core of the Democratic Party in Iowa as it exists today in terms of caucus-goers -- heavily unionized, heavily organized, the vice president has a lock on those folks.

Senator Bradley's strategy, I think, is to reach outside, non- traditional caucus-goers, non-traditional Democrats, and bring them into the fold. And for those people, that kind of impact, that kind of process may be very effective. I know that he has pockets of strength in areas where that message does resonate.

SHIELDS: Well, Senator Paul Wellstone, a Bradley supporter, said afterwards, he spoke about the chemistry that Bill Bradley demonstrated, establishing that sort of intangible connection with voters, emphasizing his sincerity and his authenticity. Is that your own sense of what Bradley's got going for him in Iowa?

VILSACK: I think it's important and necessary for any candidate running for president to be able to make a connection with the American people. And it is clear that the Americans have to believe what the individual is saying. They have to believe in that person's sincerity.

My sense is that that is what people are really looking for. Forget about the details of one plan or another. It is, are you believable? Are you going to be able to project the kind of image that people say, I'm comfortable with this person? The great beauty of the caucus process, what we have here in Iowa, is that we get a chance to really size these people up. They have to come into our living rooms, they have to come into our coffee shops, and we can see them as real people. It is not a 30-second commercial-type campaign. SHIELDS: OK, one question of Bill Bradley's sincerity and authenticity occurred at Saturday's debate he talked about a possible secretary of agriculture.

Can we play that?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRADLEY: When they said FDR wasn't going to be good for agriculture, you know what he did? He came to Iowa and appointed Henry Wallace as his agriculture secretary. Now I'm not saying Tom Vilsack is interested, but what I'm saying is under my administration the agricultural secretary will think the family farmer first all across this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHIELDS: OK, I don't know if this was an offer of federal job, but is Tom Vilsack interested?

VILSACK: Tom Vilsack would have to learn an awful lot more to be a legitimate candidate for secretary of Agriculture. I appreciate the senator's comments, but I think it was more in jest than it was serious.

NOVAK: While we are on the farm subject, I think he was serious, sounded serious to me.

Governor, while we are on the farm subject, twice Vice President Gore said, come back to Iowa for a strictly farm debate. Do you think the press and the people could stand an hour of agricultural debate?

VILSACK: Bob, I'll tell you what, I think people would be absolutely excited about such a debate, and I truly mean that.

When I went to World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, I really learned firsthand about the complexity and the sophistication of agricultural issues. You are talking about export subsidies, you are talking about internal support systems that basically prop up a way of life, you are talking about the need for dealing with science and technology with the GMO issue.

It is extraordinarily exciting stuff. And in addition to that, it is very important, because at the center of future trade negotiations, and our ability to open world markets, is going to be our ability to crack the difficult agricultural nut that has yet to be cracked after 50 years of trade discussions. There needs a substantive discussion and debate on agricultural policy, because I think it is key to the future economic well-being of entire nation.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak and I have to take a break right now, but we will be back in a minute to ask Governor Tom Vilsack whether in fact Al Gore has Iowa, and its caucuses, all sewed up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) NOVAK: We are in the studios of Iowa public television, where a few hours ago they had the debate between the Democratic presidential candidates.

Governor Tom Vilsack, "The Des Moines Register" poll came out this week, and it shows that Vice President Gore has stabilized in Iowa. He had dropped from 64 percent, between June and November. And now from November to January, he is leveled out at 54 percent, still 21 points ahead of Bill Bradley.

Doesn't that kind of indicate he has got this state locked up for the caucuses?

VILSACK: Well, I think it is still a ways to go, but I think certainly the vice president is in good shape. He has got the kind of traditional caucus-goer base fairly locked up.

But the unknown in this is Senator Bradley's ability to get new caucus-goers into the process. We haven't really had a contested caucus on Democratic side for a number of years, so I think that is the unknown.

NOVAK: Why did he stabilize, do you think, in that period of time?

VILSACK: Well, I think he came back, and -- starting with the Jefferson Jackson Day dinner, which is our big fund raiser -- he basically began showing people who he really was. I think he began speaking from the heart, I think he began speaking what his vision was for the country, and I think people responded to that.

NOVAK: The question of -- at Iowa caucuses has always been getting out the vote, but Bill Bradley is spending a lot of money on television. Does running television ads do any good, any good at all, to get people to come out on a possibly cold Monday night, and spend two hours or more at caucus?

VILSACK: I don't know about that. I have to -- I would question the wisdom of that, in this sense: I think caucus-goers are people that are coming to caucuses because they have a passionate belief in a person. And in Iowa, we obtain that passionate belief by having personal candidate either with the candidate, or personal contact with people who are very, very passionate about the candidate. So I think it is the phone banking, it is the neighbor-to-neighbor kind of thing that will work more effectively to get people to caucuses.

SHIELDS: Governor Vilsack, you are a small-city mayor, and then state senator before you were elected to governor in an upset. What does Bill Bradley have to do between now and the 24th?

VILSACK: Well, I think Senator Bradley has to continue to reach out for these nontraditional caucus-goers, and hope that he does well enough in Iowa that he doesn't lose whatever momentum he may have in New Hampshire. I think he sees this as a two-step process to obtain legitimacy, and the first step is to survive Iowa, and the second step is to win in New Hampshire. The vice president, on the other hand, I think would like to be able to do very, very well, in Iowa, and use that as a springboard for a comeback in New Hampshire.

SHIELDS: This week Vice President Gore was forced to call General Colin Powell to apologize for the remarks made by his campaign manager, Donna Brazile, who charged that Colin Powell was used by Republicans for photo-ops, that was their whole race policy, and that somehow he was just a puppet by the Republican big wigs.

Isn't this really an outrage? And shouldn't Donna Brazile think about leaving the campaign?

VILSACK: What I got from that, reading between the lines, was this is a discussion about whether or not one party or the other is actually substantively talking about the issues that are important to Americans. I mean, to extent that Democratic candidates are talking about race, or talking about health care, or talking about education, or talking about foreign policy in substantive ways, I think they are doing a service to the country. And I think that is what the focus ought to be on -- as we look at these candidates, as we look at these debates -- who is really talking substantively, who is really going into depth, who has plans, who has ideas, who has concepts for future of this country. And I think we sometimes get sidetracked on some of these peripheral issues that I really don't think are significant.

SHIELDS: You don't think Donna Brazile's comments were helpful at all?

VILSACK: Well, not to extent that they take spotlight off the vice president's message. If the vice president's message is health care, or education, obviously it is important and necessary to keep the focus on that. So obviously it is not helpful.

But my point is, I think what -- where the spotlight ought to be, is we had two opportunities this week to take a look at the Democratic candidates and the Republican candidates in the debate forum. Which set of candidates was providing more substance to the people? Which set of candidates was really talking about some significant issues that affect Americans on their day-to-day life? I think that is the key here.

NOVAK: Governor, the only Democrats to be elected president in last 35 years, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, did not run as liberals. There is no question that Bill -- that Al Gore and Bill Bradley are running as liberals, running to the left. Is that a mistake as far as general election politics is concerned?

VILSACK: Bob, I'm not sure that any Democratic candidate is happened to be able to run in the economic conditions that this country has today. I mean, we are faced with unprecedented prosperity, and the question is, what are we going to do with that prosperity?

And to the extent that -- as Senator Bradley has talked about and the vice president has talked about -- there are people left behind in this prosperity, I think there is a moral obligation, a responsibility, to talk about what we are going to try to do for these people. This health care issue is a big issue, and we ought to be talking about it. And if we do have budget surpluses, how can we best use those budget surpluses to provide a healthier nation.

NOVAK: But on a non-economic issue, both candidates are for admitting gays into the military. And in the debate in New Hampshire, Al Gore said that he would only name people to the Chiefs of Staff of the United States who agreed with him on admitting gays to the military. He later retracted that.

Aren't Republicans -- aren't Democrats really sowing seeds of terrible trouble in the general election?

VILSACK: You know, I think it depends again, to certain extent, on what people are going to be focused on. I think people ultimately vote their pocketbooks. They are going to be taking a look at the economy, and they are going to be taking a look at which candidate or which party is providing an opportunity for continuation of this prosperity. And I think Democrats have provided a road map for continued prosperity to extent we are better educated people, to the extent that we are healthier nation, to extent that we invest in the environment. I think these are ways that we can maintain and continue the prosperity that we enjoy today. And government has a role, not the exclusive role, but has a role in providing opportunities in those areas.

SHIELDS: Tom Vilsack, Dante wrote centuries ago that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a time of moral crisis remain neutral. Here we are, less than three weeks to go to the Iowa caucuses, and -- barely two weeks go. You tell us, are you going to endorse? And why not?

VILSACK: I'll endorse after the caucus, and the reason for that is because I have a responsibility as the first governor, as you pointed out, in quite some time, Democratic governor in this state, to help rebuild the Democratic Party. And to the extent that we can have a contest, a spirited contest, that enables to us get more people involved in Democratic politics. And I think it's important that we do that and we take steps to further that.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak and I will be back with Tom Vilsack, and we will have for him "The Big Question."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHIELDS: "The Big Question" for Governor Tom Vilsack: Governor, just in last two months we've seen by the CNN/"Time" poll a doubling of Governor George W. Bush's lead -- up to 16, 17 points -- over both Bill Bradley and Al Gore. We have the greatest prosperity the country's had in lifetime of many Americans, lowest unemployment in 30 years. I mean, can the Democrats -- what can they do to win? Isn't it over?

VILSACK: Listen, I'll tell you, in my own race I would have loved to have been 16 points behind this close to the election. I was over 20-some points behind. I don't take much stock in these early polls. I think when it becomes a two-person race, and people actually start focusing on the choice that they have to make, I think you'll see those polls narrow, and I think eventually people will vote their pocketbooks.

I think Democrats have a real good shot, and I think they've got a good shot in Congress, as well.

NOVAK: But when Al Gore goes from seven points behind to 17 points behind at the time he's supposed to have put his campaign in shape, Governor, what would you tell Al Gore right now? How could he run against a George Bush? Is he doing something wrong now?

VILSACK: I'd tell Al Gore to be himself and to keep on plugging, because that's what people are looking for. They're looking for grit, they're looking for character, they're looking for strength, they're looking for commitment. And I think people -- you take a look at the inside numbers on those polls, and you'll find that a lot of people have yet to make up their mind even to focus on this election.

NOVAK: Governor Tom Vilsack, thank you very much.

VILSACK: Thank you.

NOVAK: Mark and I will be back with a comment after these messages.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHIELDS: Bob, we tried mightily to get Governor Vilsack to endorse either Al Gore or Bill Bradley. He wouldn't do it. He wouldn't tip his hand. He had nothing bug but good things to say about either man. He's going make his decision after the caucuses.

NOVAK: That's correct. I thought it was interesting when I asked him if he thought that they were making a mistake, Gore and Bradley, in running as liberals. Of course, he ran as a liberal...

SHIELDS: Sure did.

NOVAK: ... when he was elected in 1998. But the governor said there has move been an economy like this, and it's a little different than running in 1992, running in 2000. He may be right, but I don't think so.

SHIELDS: Well, I'll tell you this. The governor made a strong, persuasive case to us that health care is a central issue, not only in this state and this state's election, but he thinks nationally.

NOVAK: Not surprisingly, this was the first debate that had anything whatsoever to do with farming. He was delighted by that. But I think he -- one thing he did agree that Bill Bradley made a -- didn't look so good on was when he couldn't give an answer as to why in the world he had voted against flood relief. I think he's going to have to come up with an answer on that, particularly in Iowa, unless he's going to get washed out in the caucuses. I'm Robert Novak.

SHIELDS: I'm Mark Shields.

NOVAK: Today, in one half hour, on CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES," was all the preparation needed for Y2K, or did the media overhype the scare?

And at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, "THE CAPITAL GANG" looks at today's debate and who's pulling ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Be sure to tune in next week, when Republican candidate John McCain will be our guest here in Iowa.

SHIELDS: Thanks for watching.

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