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Is John McCain a Real Threat to GOP Presidential Front-Runner George W. Bush?

Aired January 12, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, John McCain introduces a tax plan as a new controversy taxes his campaign. Is McCain a real threat to front-runner George W. Bush?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, McCain campaign strategist Mike Murphy, and in Austin, Texas, Ari Fleischer, a senior adviser and spokesperson for the Bush campaign.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Who has the better tax plan and who has the better flag plan? Those two issues the latest dividing George W. Bush and John McCain, front-runners in the GOP primary.

On taxes, Bush brags that his tax cut is twice as large as McCain's. McCain argues it's more important to save Social Security than give it all away in tax cuts.

On the Confederate flag, Bush says it's up to the people of South Carolina. So does McCain now, but only after first denouncing the flag as a symbol of racism and slavery, which lost him some friends in South Carolina, a crucial primary state.

Back up in New Hampshire, Bush and McCain jockey for first place. One poll showing McCain up by seven; the second giving Bush a five- point advantage.

But nationwide, CNN's latest poll shows Bush with a commanding 45-point lead over McCain among Republican voters.

Still, taking nothing for granted, Bush today rolled out his secret weapon.


BARBARA BUSH, FORMER FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: George W. is doing a wonderful job without his mother. You notice I'm not in New Hampshire or Iowa.


PRESS: How can you argue with his mother? Bob. ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Mike Murphy, I was astounded when your candidate, Senator John McCain, last week played the class warfare card, the Democratic card saying that George Bush's tax cut favored the rich. And I was assured by two of his most prominent supporters that was a mistake, it wouldn't happen again.

Now, let's see what happened on Monday night in the debate in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Let's watch this.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I feel very strongly that we ought to have middle-income and lower-income taxes, and we'll be getting into it, I'm sure, later on in this program. Mine are basically comparable to Governor Bush's; in some cases, far better.

But I'm not sure we need to give two-thirds of that tax cut, of that money to the wealthiest 10 percent of America.


NOVAK: That's Democratic rhetoric! How can he say that and expect to any good in a Republican primary?

MIKE MURPHY, MCCAIN STRATEGIST: Because McCain is the real fiscal conservative. I brought some oxygen here in case we get into this too much, because I know you can't stand it when somebody doesn't say every tax cut is perfect. But the problem is Bush has a bad tax cut. Here's the problem: It's too big.

McCain cuts taxes for everybody. Bush cuts taxes for everybody. But Bush spends about twice as much money, and he targets a lot ore of that money to people in the top 10 or 5 percent.

What we do in the McCain plan is take the money and use it to shore up Social Security by helping us to partially privatize it, and start paying down the debt, which is what real conservatives ought to do with a $5 trillion debt.

NOVAK: Mike, Lindsey Graham, his most prominent supporter in South Carolina, was asked on "Meet the Press" is the senator playing class warfare. You know what he said? He said yes. He said yes right out there.

MURPHY: I've talked to Lindsey. He's a 1,000 percent behind this tax cut, and he thinks it's a good idea to fix Social Security and pay down the debt instead of a blank-check tax cut that frankly we're not even sure if the surplus money will be there to pay for it.

NOVAK: Now, I want to just run out the implications of what you're saying, Mr. Murphy. What you're saying is that Ronald Reagan, on the Kemp-Roth thing, was wrong when he had an across-the-board tax cut. What you are saying is that Bill Clinton was right when he raised taxes in the upper brackets.

MURPHY: Not at all.

NOVAK: Just a minute. Just a minute. Which your candidate says, I'm not going to touch that Clinton tax cut. Isn't that right?

MURPHY: No, Bob, that's not right at all. That's a good try. But what we're doing is looking at a surplus...

NOVAK: Tell me what's wrong about that.

MURPHY: ... and trying to figure out -- we're trying to figure out what the best conservative thing to do is when we have a $5 trillion debt and a Social Security system that's going to start putting out bad checks in 15 years.

To get conservative reform of Social Security and let people start to keep some of that payroll tax income in their own account, you need trillions of dollars to shore up the system. Bush has -- doesn't have that money in the plan because he gives it away in a bigger tax cut than we have.

Look, if I'm one of these top bracket guys -- I ran the numbers -- under the McCain tax cut, I get enough money to take my girlfriend to Paris for the weekend.

NOVAK: You may most of the taxes, too.

MURPHY: Under the Bush tax cut, I get a new Cadillac. And the fact is -- listen, you're going to have me on oxygen again in a minute. I frankly would rather have a smaller tax cut and take care of Social Security, because if we don't, I'm going to be paying the bill, like everybody else, and people who pay payroll taxes to bail out the system.

NOVAK: One more -- one more point on that. As you know, all the Republicans have guaranteed the entire Social Security surplus for Social Security. I happen to think that's a mistake, but they've all -- they've all done that. But you go further. You say we're going to dip into the non-Social Security.

MURPHY: We have to.

NOVAK: We're going -- we're going to take this Ponzi scheme and we're going to finance it out of the U.S. Treasury. Correct?

MURPHY: Cato Institute -- right-wing group we both kind of like -- says Social Security is $9 million in the hole. Bush only leaves -- excuse me, 9 trillion in the hole. Bush leaves...


... 2 trillion to fix it.

Privatize -- we need money to do that.

PRESS: How dare John McCain take away Bob Novak's tax cut.

Ari Fleischer, let me ask you about taxes, stick to that issue for just a second.


PRESS: The strongest -- the strongest criticism about George W. Bush when it comes to taxes has not come from John McCain. It's come from somebody else who's still in the race, lest we forget, Steve Forbes.

Here's an ad I bet you might have seen before.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's something you need to know about George W. Bush. In 1994, he signed a pledge with my organization that he would not support sales tax or business tax increases. In 1997, unfortunately, he broke his pledge.


PRESS: Now, Ari, I know you want to attack Steve Forbes, but I ask to try to refrain and simply answer the question. Isn't it true that in 1997 George Bush did propose raising sales and business taxes?


FLEISCHER: Bill, that is a total misrepresentation of Governor Bush's position. He never said anything about he wouldn't touch business taxes. That as says that. That's totally wrong. The ad doesn't say that George Bush cut taxes as governor of Texas.

His record is that he cut taxes $1 billion in 1997. He cut taxes $2 billion in 1999. And he has a plan to cut taxes now in the campaign for the presidency.

He has a record as a tax cutter, and Bill, he signed into law in 1997 and in 1999, cut the sales tax.

PRESS: Well, Ari, you're giving me the same answer that your candidate does. And I...

FLEISCHER: Thank you.

PRESS: For the record, you know, for the record, I'll say maybe you're right on the aggregate that...

FLEISCHER: Well, there you go.

PRESS: ... that he did -- whoa, whoa, whoa -- that he did cut taxes. But coming down to this specific charge -- and I looked into the right and the left today. Left, the "Rolling Stone" magazine in August '99 reported that in 1997 George Bush came up with a plan to cut property taxes by 2.8 billion, to offset that cut by raising business and sales taxes.

"The Union Leader" -- just a second. ""The Union Leader" today reported that there were 75 different taxes raised under the governor's plan, 26 of them were sales taxes. But the right and the left prove that Steve Forbes is right, Ari?

FLEISCHER: No. The 75 taxes you referred to was the House version of the plan in the state of Texas -- that was not the governor's proposal -- which is what Steve Forbes' ad deals with.

Listen, Governor Bush needs to be judged on the totality of his record. It's unfair. What's happened to modern campaigning, we take little snippets out of proportion, out of context, and you run ads on them.

We saw an awful lot of that in 1996, and that's why Governor Bush is going to continue to run a positive campaign that's based on his record and his plans.

PRESS: I -- I would have bet money that the next thing you're going to say was to get to in this negative advertising.

Ari, now, look, you've been around campaigns longer than I have and more campaigns. When you look at a candidate's record, and you look at a pledge that he made and a pledge that he broke, and you point that out, that's not negative campaigning. Don't you even have to admit they're not negative ads? They're just ads that talk about the record.

FLEISCHER: Bill, it's a total misrepresentation of the record, and that's the problem with them. It takes something and puts it totally out of context and out of proportion.

The governor cut taxes in 1997. He did so in 1999. He is the one person standing on the stage in the Republican debates who has cut taxes.

PRESS: Heard that before, too.

NOVAK: Mike Murphy, you and I know that Senator McCain has to win the South Carolina primary to stay in this case, to be viable. And so I was very interested what he said last week, last Sunday on "Face the Nation" when he was asked about the Confederate flag flying in South Carolina.

Let's take a look at it.


MCCAIN: Confederate flag is offensive in many, many ways, as we all know. It's a symbol of racism and slavery.


NOVAK: And you know, The Washington Times on Monday morning ran this headline: "McCain Says Dixie Banner Is `Offensive': Takes Same View as NAACP."

Question: Does that help you in South Carolina? MURPHY: Senator McCain has said the same thing on the flag over and over and over again. One, it's a state issue that South Carolinians are going to decide. He understands why some find it offensive. He also has relatives who fought honorably under the flag, understands why some people see it as a heritage. South Carolina can decide.

There is no issue here. This is the press trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.

NOVAK: Well, let me -- let me...

FLEISCHER: He sounds like he's got that issue surrounded.

NOVAK: Let me -- let me -- let me...

MURPHY: It's also the Bush position. That's why it (UNINTELLIGIBLE) sounds familiar.

NOVAK: Let me -- oh, yes, that is the Bush position. Let me -- let me...

FLEISCHER: No. The Bush position is that it's up to the people of South Carolina.

MURPHY: That's what I just said.

FLEISCHER: That's a respectful position a president ought to take to state issues.

NOVAK: And that -- that gets the point, Mike. Why is it that when Governor Bush says, gee, that's for South Carolina to decide, instead Senator McCain has to give this liberal claptrap about the flag being offensive? Why does he start that way?

MURPHY: He is not setting a liberal claptrap. He said he understands why it's divisive and why people on either side have a different opinion. And he keeps coming back to the point that's an issue for South Carolina to decide. Governor Bush just says, it's an issue for South Carolina to decide, and walks away from the microphone. The fact is...

NOVAK: You don't think it's offensive?

MURPHY: What? Oh, I don't care. I'm a Yankee, so you know, I have to -- I know what side I was rooting for, personally being from Michigan, but South Carolinians can figure this out. And I understand why people down there think it could be about heritage. I understand why Senator McCain, why other don't like it.

PRESS: I'll give the liberal claptrap. It is offensive.

NOVAK: Some people think you're offensive.

PRESS: Yes, right.

Are you going to break?

NOVAK: OK, we're going to have to take a break. I'm so offended by him. When we come back, we'll talk about some other issues, including abortion.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Senator John McCain is Governor George W. Bush's closest challenger for the Republican presidential nomination. Their backgrounds are very different, but what do they really disagree about? We're finding out from Ari Fleischer, senior adviser and spokesman for Governor Bush. He's at Bush campaign headquarters in Austin, and from Mike Murphy, Republican campaign consultant, who's advising Senator McCain, and is here in the studio -- Bill.

PRESS: Mike Murphy, my turn to pummel you.

MURPHY: Come on.

PRESS: Let's say for the sake of this debate that John McCain's ahead in New Hampshire. You saw two polls that had different results. But the fact is, you're not even competing in Iowa. Last time I looked, you were...

MURPHY: Smartest thing we ever did.

PRESS: ... double digits behind, double digits behind in South Carolina. We just showed you 45 points behind nationwide. You're going to be lucky, McCain is, if he even wins his home state of Arizona, because Bush is so strong out there. I mean, this so-called challenge that those of us in the media are so excited about is really a phantom, phony challenge, isn't it?

MURPHY: No, it's your worst nightmare, Bill, because we're going to not only John McCain, he's going to lead the ticket to a big win. Here's the deal, we have gone from 3 percent in New Hampshire, where we're up against a...


PRESS: I'm not talking about New Hampshire. I gave you New Hampshire. I'm talking about, what else have you got?

MURPHY: What New Hampshire proves is that when John McCain and George W. Bush, two good guys with good messages, go out and campaign, McCain moves up, Bush moves down. We have taken 25 points off in Michigan. We've taken 25 points off in South Carolina. Every day McCain goes up, Bush goes down. We are winning this campaign.

FLEISCHER: The only reason that you get 20 points off of us, is because we were up 50 points. Nobody has 50-point leads in politics that last forever. They're nice to have, but they sure don't last. That doesn't mean that Senator McCain is going to cut those gaps. And I think he does really have a big Arizona problem, and that's telling. MURPHY: So let me ask you a question, Ari, if we win the Arizona primary, is that a big win for McCain?

FLEISCHER: I think you've got to win the nomination to have a big win for John McCain.

But let me say one thing, because Bill jumped on you on this, but this is a very important thing. Senator McCain is helping the Republican Party throughout this process. Whoever emerges as the nominee, and obviously, I think it's going to be George Bush, that nominee will be a better nominee, they'll be battle tested and be ready to unite the party to win in November. This is a healthy part of the process.


PRESS: Wait a second, before we get into some lovefest here, let me come back to you for just one more question.

FLEISCHER: Oh, you guys hate that.

PRESS: I mean, the fact is, the reason that you're doing so well in New Hampshire is because you've got a one-state campaign...

MURPHY: Absolutely not true.

PRESS: ... and Bush is running in 50 states.

MURPHY: The biggest mistake of the Bush campaign is they've got Guam and Oklahoma organized. The primary process is about the first seven or eight campaigns. I mean, these guys, with all due respect, have spent $37 million, a record, and all they've managed to do is blow 20 or 30 points in the states that count.

FLEISCHER: Mike, how does Iowa fit into that for you then?

MURPHY: We're not competing in Iowa, Ari.

FLEISCHER: Did you skip that state?

MURPHY: We're competing in New Hampshire. We're competing in Arizona. We're competing in Michigan. We're competing in South Carolina.

FLEISCHER: Why not Iowa?

MURPHY: In all those place we're going up and you're going down.

FLEISCHER: Why isn't Senator McCain campaigning in Iowa?

MURPHY: I tell you why, McCain is winning the battle of ideas, and you guys have won the battle of bucks. And the grassroots conservatives in Republican Party want an idea candidate, a conservative reformer, not a candidate who's reflecting just a dollar auction, who can raise the most money. NOVAK: Ari Fleischer, let me ask you a question. I want to reiterate the poll that Bill talked about before, by John Zogby, who I think is the best, most effective political pollster in the country, and very objective and nonpartisan, and he took this poll, and he showed in New Hampshire, the Republicans choice for president: McCain, 41 percent, and Bush, 34 percent. Now, that's not even within the margin of error. Now I know these aren't exact.

But, Ari, what has George Bush done so wrong that he has slipped so badly in New Hampshire?

FLEISCHER: He campaigned in Iowa and the rest of the country. Look, Senator McCain practically lives in New Hampshire. That's a smart strategy for him. And If I were in the senator's position, that's probably what I would be doing, too. But that doesn't mean he's got the ability to win in the state down the road. That's going to be up to the voters to decide. And it doesn't mean he can go the distance. Look, there's only one candidate who can defeat Al Gore, and that's George Bush. Why do you think that he's beating Gore and McCain isn't?

NOVAK: Let me relive a magic moment from Grand Rapids, which we all enjoyed so much Monday night. And Steve Forbes asked some questions to Governor Bush about abortion, including would he support the plank in the platform, the abortion plank in the platform, that was in there last time, and yet this was George Bush's answer, or should I say non-answer.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES: I will work to keep the Republican Party pro-life, that's what I'm going to do, Mr. Forbes.


NOVAK: Now I was puzzled by, because I thought he had supported the platform, and I -- your office supplied me with a statement, which has gone out to thousands of copies, in which it says that the Governor Bush believes that the current Republican Party platform on abortion is an important statement of pro-life ideals and he does not believe it should be changed. Now what is going on? Why didn't he answer Forbes that way?

FLEISCHER: Bob, you know that George Bush is pro-life, and he's always been pro-life. That's his position, and he's going to go into the convention leading a pro-life charge and a pro-life ticket.

NOVAK: Ari, since you chose not to answer my question, I'll answer it for you, and tell me if you think it's right. The reason is, that when he is on a debating platform and he is given that tough question on abortion, he just won't say what he said in this statement that was prepared for him, that he's going to change -- that he's not going to change the platform.

So I'm going to ask you right now: Are you going to pledge right now for the campaign that that plank will not be changed at the instance of George Bush?

FLEISCHER: Bob, let me say it again: He is pro-life, that's his position, but it would be presumptuous of any candidate who is a primary candidate in January to start writing platforms. That's something that's going to be considered down the road, after whoever becomes the nominee.

NOVAK: Wait a minute, Ari, it says right here in the material that goes out to pro-life people: He does not believe it should be changed. What's the real Bush?

FLEISCHER: You know what is real, his position on this issue. He is pro-life, and you heard what he had to say, and you got a statement there from him as well.

NOVAK: I think you better regroup on this one.

MURPHY: Ari, you have got a...

PRESS: OK, Mike...

MURPHY: ... good future in the ballet. I haven't seen footwork like that in a long time.

PRESS: Michael Murphy, your candidate has been rolling along in this bus up in New Hampshire in sort of this...

MURPHY: The straight-talk express.

PRESS: ... holier-than-thou -- holier-than-thou bubble, which seems to have popped. Let me quote you from this morning's "Manchester Union Leader." I am going to point out that this editorial was written by Bernadette Malone Connolly...

MURPHY: Yes, a great editor.

PRESS: ... who learned her art...

MURPHY: At the poison pen with Novak, yes.

PRESS: ... at the feet...

NOVAK: She's one of America's great young journalists.

PRESS: ... at the feet of Bob Novak.

Here is what she writes this morning in "The Union Leader," quote: "He expects," McCain, "Granite Staters to believe that he is John, Patron Saint of Justice and Fairness in Government. In fact, St. John is just an ordinary human when he is down in Washington -- no worse, no better than any other Congressman, except that he's so sanctimonious when he brings his campaign finance rhetoric to New Hampshire."

Your guy has fallen off the pedestal in the last couple of days, Mike Murphy. MURPHY: I'm shocked, I'm shocked. "The Manchester Union Leader," which is 1,000 percent behind Steve Forbes in the editorial page, is being critical of McCain.

PRESS: The are not the only ones saying it.

MURPHY: No, McCain is the only reform candidate in the race. He is the only one talking about campaign finance reform, he is the only one taking on these huge loopholes, and he is the only one talking about cleaning up our system.

So, I mean, he is a regular guy. He is just as human as anybody else, but he has the courage to run on reform, which no other conservative in this race is doing.

PRESS: The problem is not what he's saying. The problem seems to be -- and by the way, I'll point out "The Washington Times" headline this morning also says "McCain's Shining Star Dims" -- again, it's not what he's saying, it's what he's done. It has been pointed out that he has found a way to end-run the limits on campaign spending in New Hampshire by not counting the money that he is spending on a Boston...

MURPHY: Oh, baloney -- that is absolute baloney.

PRESS: ... on a Boston station for ads that are coming into New Hampshire.

MURPHY: Look, I...

PRESS: Let me just finish.

MURPHY: Well, it is completely wrong.

PRESS: It is pointed out, for example, that he has taken all these campaign contributions from corporations that appear before his committee. It also points out, in this editorial, that he's been attacking everybody else's pork while he's been delivering tons of pork to his home state of Arizona.

MURPHY: There is no...

PRESS: You got a real contradiction in character here.

MURPHY: Only in the DNC talking points. There is no conservative in America tougher on pork-barrel spending than John McCain. Love him or hate him...

FLEISCHER: Are those the same DNC talking points that say Governor Bush's tax plan is too big, that John McCain agrees with?

MURPHY: No, no, we...

FLEISCHER: Different set of talking points?

MURPHY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)... your plan not giving a dime to Social Security, not a dime to paying down the debt -- a promise you all can't keep, and you know it.

Look, I want to get back to spending, because this is important.


FLEISCHER: Governor Bush has a plan to save Social Security by setting 2 trillion dollars aside. But listen, the only...

MURPHY: Here is the problem, you have got to do the math. Cato...

FLEISCHER: Right before...

MURPHY: ... the most conservative think-tank in America, says Social Security is 9 million under -- 9 trillion. 2 trillion is not enough.

FLEISCHER: Right before we came on the air tonight...

MURPHY: That's the problem.

FLEISCHER: ... an AP story went out on the wire that had a statement from the McCain campaign acknowledging that the child credit Senator McCain announced yesterday will not indeed be offered to the American people.

Are you going to revise your tax plan again, Mike?

MURPHY: No, it's inaccurate. Our tax plan is right. We do give a child credit, and the difference is, you give...

FLEISCHER: So no more revisions of the tax cut, this is...

MURPHY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) money to the top 10 percent, we give it to the people who make under $70,000 a year.

FLEISCHER: Is this...


PRESS: Gentlemen, I hate to interrupt this exciting debate over taxes, but we are out of time. You both understand what that means -- that means you're done, good night.

Ari Fleischer, thank you for joining us. Mike Murphy, always good to have you back here. And we'll see you both again around the trail.

Bob Novak and I will be back, closing comments on Bush and McCain.


NOVAK: Bill, Senator John McCain certainly doesn't need any advice from me, but I'm going to give him some anyway. And that is, I would test everything he says to see if you like it. And you like when he talks about class welfare and tax cuts for the rich, you like it when he says, people, I think that the South Carolina Confederate flag is racist. And because if you satisfy Bill Press, you are not doing the right thing in a Republican primary.

PRESS: You know, Bob...

NOVAK: And I think you even agree with me.

PRESS: No, no, I don't. I -- you know what, Bob? I think John McCain is on to something. I think what he's on to is that GOP voters are not as greedy as you and GOP politicians think they are.

The Republicans went out and tried to sell an $800 billion tax cut. They couldn't. George Bush's is twice as big. What John McCain is saying, let's be responsible, pay down the national debt, and then give half as big a tax break as George Bush.

NOVAK: See, the only...

PRESS: It's the responsible thing to do.

NOVAK: ... the only people who talk about greed are the socialists and the leftists, and I hate to see you in that category, since...

PRESS: It just happens to be the truth, Bob.

NOVAK: ... your son makes so much money.

PRESS: I know you can't stand it.

From the left, I'm Bill Press, good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: On the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.


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