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Capital Gang

Republican Strategist Frank Luntz Discusses Elian Gonzalez and Campaign 2000

Aired January 15, 2000 - 7:00 p.m. ET


ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, THE CAPITAL GANG.


I'm Al Hunt, with Kate O'Beirne and, in Des Moines, Robert Novak and Mark Shields.

Our guest is Republican pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz.

Frank, thanks for coming in.


HUNT: It's good to have you.

Going into their first big test in Iowa and New Hampshire, front- runner George Bush and challenger John McCain confronted each other today in Des Moines.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Why would you have a plan that in essence raises taxes on working people by $40 billion?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Your tax plan has 36 percent of it going to the richest 1 percent in America.


HUNT: The two Republicans also continued their Iowa debate on tax breaks for ethanol.


BUSH: I believe we ought to increase demand for Iowa products. That is what ethanol does, John.

MCCAIN: Ethanol was a program that came in during the gas crisis in the 1970s, and like most government programs it lived on forever.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HUNT: Bob, from your perspective who won today's debate?

ROBERT NOVAK, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, from a stylistic standpoint, Al, I don't think either of the two top candidates, Governor Bush or Senator McCain, did all that well. But I would give the win to Governor Bush on the basis that he kept hitting on this tax issue. I think Senator McCain is really in trouble on his tax position -- raising a lot of taxes, all kinds of taxes, over 50 taxes, and not having a substantial tax cut, particularly across-the-board cut for the upper brackets -- that is not a Republican tax policy. So I don't think that -- I have seen Governor Bush better in these debates, I have seen Senator McCain better, but I would say just because for a Republican primary, McCain is wrong on these issues, I give Bush the win.

HUNT: Mark, is that the way it looked to you?

MARK SHIELDS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: It doesn't, Al, and it is surprising, Bob and I saw different debates today. I thought George Bush was knocked off stride, I think not simply by John McCain's reference to "all hat and no cattle," and "let's not do the Texas two- step," but also by Steve Forbes. Steve Forbes did a little cross- examination on what Governor Bush had done at home. I think that it was not a major stumble on Governor Bush's part by any means, I don't think enough to certainly put him in jeopardy here in Iowa. And the guy who needed biggest boost was Steve Forbes, and I didn't think he got it today.

HUNT: Mark -- Kate, I agree with Mark on that. There was all this hoopla beforehand from the Forbes camp -- boy, we are going to break out, watch Steve at that debate today, we are going to come on -- boy, I sure didn't see it.

KATE O'BEIRNE, "NATIONAL REVIEW": No, neither did I. In fact, Steve Forbes twice leveled criticisms against George Bush and never even named the candidate he was talking about, although most people probably realized.

I thought is was -- I thought it was really a boring debate. I thought the format was boring. I thought they shouldn't have gone back for extra 30 seconds when all the people did was repeat themselves. But because no one did exceptionally well, and everybody did OK, I think George Bush wins by default. And I think he is winning -- I agree with Bob -- I think he is winning the tax fight within the Republican primary for conservative voters. In fact, John McCain has very helpfully permitted, I think, George Bush to reassure conservatives who wondered where he was on the issues, by permitting George Bush to champion conservative positions today both on taxes and education.

HUNT: Frank, I thought it was another six-person circus. You had a closing prayer instead of a closing statement, you had the omnipresent Elaine Hatch there. Did you see anything you thought was remarkable about today's debate?

LUNTZ: I know it seems strange, but I think actually everybody is correct in all of this. That John McCain, from all of our testing with Independents and Republicans, is clearly one of the best Republican spokespeople they've got, and yet McCain is wrong on this class-warfare issue. And that, I think -- I'm actually afraid -- that it may come back to hurt Republicans in the fall. When you start putting Social Security and Medicare out there, that you can't spend the budget surplus on tax cuts, Republicans look at that and they say no. And what they don't expect is that it would come from someone like John McCain, that it would come from their own.

Now Bush is in a very strong position right now, but the real debate, the real battle, is actually between McCain and Bradley, and it is actually in New Hampshire and not Iowa. And what McCain is trying to do is he's trying to move sufficiently to the left, capture those independents, capture those Perot voters. And what he said today will help him in that cause even if it won't help him in Iowa.

HUNT: Bob, I'm tempted to ask you if you really think that tax cuts would solve this flu epidemic that we have all over America today, but I won't do that, Robert. But I will say this.

NOVAK: I think it might.

HUNT: You do?

NOVAK: Go ahead, Al?

HUNT: Well, go ahead, Bob, tell us how it cures flu if you like.

My impression is that for all the sound and fury of the last week or 10 days, at least in New Hampshire where I was this week, and I suspect in Iowa too, not a whole lot has changed. Is that...

NOVAK: No, I don't think it has, but I think it is close in New Hampshire and not close in Iowa.

But I think this is a broader question on taxes. When Steve Forbes is hitting George Bush on his record as a tax cutter in Texas, which is subject to some criticism, but it is all blown up by the fact that McCain has such a much poorer position, from a Republican standpoint, than Bush on taxes.

And when you have Senator -- we, Mark and I, interviewed Senator McCain earlier this evening on "EVANS, NOVAK, HUNT & SHIELDS," right after the debate. And I was really stunned that Senator McCain really believes that you cut high-level taxes, high-rate taxes, as a stimulator of the economy when times are bad, purely Keynesian, not because the tax rates are too high. That is why Ronald Reagan cut them, but John McCain doesn't understand that.

SHIELDS: Al -- Al, do you remember -- I'm sorry, go ahead.

HUNT: Go ahead, Mark.

SHIELDS: Al, do you remember in 1986 when my brother Novak and all the conservatives backed Bill Bradley in that across-the-board tax cut which Ronald Reagan signed? Which eliminated all these tax havens, these sweetheart deals and these loopholes? That is what John McCain is doing. John McCain is saying, let's not have any special pleaders and special deals.

NOVAK: But he doesn't cut the top rate, though.

SHIELDS: Cut the top...

NOVAK: You have got to cut the top rate.

SHIELDS: I know, Bob, and Bob is the tribune of the deserving rich, Al, and he does it so very, very well.

HUNT: There is no better champion.

SHIELDS: This was a typical Republican debate, it was "praise the Lord and praise ammunition" both. I mean, I got the point Frank made about this class warfare. Governor Bush indulged in a little class warfare at Steve Forbes' expense. When Forbes said he had raised taxes in Texas, Governor Bush said, no, we raised the homestead exemption on people over the age of 65 $10,000. He says, that might not appeal to people who live million-dollar houses. Now, that was class warfare, Bob.

HUNT: What do you think of that, Kate.

O'BEIRNE: I think, I think George Bush is going to get the better part of this argument. He has got an argument about a fairly bold tax-cut plan, he talks about shrinking government, keeping money away from Washington, and John McCain is arguing to a Republican audience that instead of doing that they ought to embrace this abstract goal of reducing the debt. It will never -- reducing debt -- and few Republicans, seems to me, defend that on the merits as a policy initiative -- will never stack up against all the goodies Democrats are going to want to be spending money on, and I think George W. is going to wind up winning that fight.

HUNT: Frank, very quickly, is Forbes dead?

LUNTZ: I don't think he has got much of a shot, and I would be concerned on Bush's case that his numbers have fallen vis-a-vis Al Gore.

HUNT: OK, thank you on that, Frank. We will -- THE GANG will be back in just a minute to talk about the Democrats.


HUNT: Welcome back.

Bill Bradley unleashed new attacks on front-runner Al Gore in their battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.


BILL BRADLEY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is no credibility, for Al Gore to come to Iowa and say, I'll help family farmers. Because for the last seven years there's been zero help for family farmers from this administration.

The health care plan that he has announced has nothing in it in terms of being anti-tobacco. I do.


HUNT: In turn, Vice President Gore continued to assail former Senator Bradley's health care plan.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And he's wrong on not putting enough money into Medicare today, than maybe he'd be wrong in guiding our economic policy.


HUNT: A new Quinnipiac College poll showed Bradley 10 points ahead of Gore in the February 1 New Hampshire primary. But this week's CNN/"Time" national poll showed good news for the vice president. In addition to being far ahead of Bradley, he's gained six points on Republican George W. Bush in the last week and now trails him by only five points.

Mark what's the impact of Bradley's new attack strategy?

SHIELDS: Well, Al, you know, in real estate they say there are three principles: location, location, location. Al Gore has taking that to politics. It's been attack, attack, attack. Naomi Wolf, his adviser, would be thrilled with what an alpha-male he has become. Our gust on the show last week, Jeff Garin calls it winning ugly. And Bill Bradley had to respond. And it was interesting.

Willie Horton was the other example, the convict who was out on a weekend pass in Massachusetts while Michael Dukakis was governor, was used very effectively by George Bush in the 1988 campaign. Bill Bradley attacked Al Gore on that. And he's fighting back. He's borrowing his tactics from Al Gore's playbook because they have worked for Al Gore.

HUNT: Is he doing it effectively, Kate?

O'BEIRNE: He had to get out there and defend himself. It amazes me. Al Gore so benefits from his reputation or this feeling about Al Gore that he's so wooden and boring. He is a really vicious politician. I just saw a quote the other day when he was thinking about running in 1992. What would you do when you run? How would you do it? He said, well, I'll rip the other guy's lungs out. And we're sort of seeing that's how he plays ball.

I think the good news for him now is the Democrats' chief concern is, is he electable in November.

HUNT: Right.

O'BEIRNE: They care a lot less about any votes he cast 15 years ago than can he win in November. So the good news for him is he is closing a gap with George Bush. And I think that actually helps against Bradley, because that's what people are trying to weigh. They're not that different on the issues. Bradley -- they're both liberals. Although Gore is saddled with Clinton, he also has a record of this administration he can talk about. Bradley has a lot of liberal votes, is running even farther to the left, and more and more people in the media are commenting on the fact that Bradley is saddled with an arrogant, testy sort of personality.

HUNT: Robert Novak, you've never been accused of being a great Al Gore fan, but he's had a good couple weeks, hasn't he?

NOVAK: He's had a good couple weeks. But what he does, Al, is that he -- he coarsens every political campaign he enters. And I've been watching him since starting with 1988. But he -- all he knows is how to attack. And poor Bradley. I feel sorry for Bradley because he started off, remember, he wouldn't even respond. He was turning the other cheek when these ridiculous attacks were made on him that he left the Senate because he was afraid of Newt Gingrich. Now he's attacking and he looks like he's desperate and mean-spirited bringing up old positions on tobacco and Willie Horton.

Of course, you know, I would love to see Senator Bradley return to his tax-cutting, school voucher position, but in a Democratic primary that would kill him. So he's in a dilemma.

HUNT: Frank, you're a Republican consultant but you've done some research on Bradley-Gore. What's it show?

LUNTZ: We've been looking at how they play against each other, and we have found that the more that they see the two of them debating side-by-side, the more hostile people get towards Gore, not towards Bradley. They see Gore as being programmed.

The best analogy I can give you is that the lowest person in school is the nerd, is the geek. But there's one person worse than that and that is the nerd and geek who thinks that he's cool. And that's what Al Gore comes across as. They feel that he doesn't listen in the debates, that he's so programmed that he will continue to ask or respond the same way time after time. We looked at this on the Sunday shows and the various debates. People think that he's mean, they think that he's vicious.

Bradley seems much more aloof, that he's sitting back above it all. That's good for the college graduate, the higher-income-level individual, and it's good for Bradley in places like New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York. It won't be good for him in the South.

I'll tell you one other thing. The challenge for Gore right now is to appeal to that people in the center, that Reform Party-type individual. The way that Gore's speaking, it ain't working.

HUNT: Orrin Hatch once said of Al Gore he's the type that reminds the teacher that she forgot to hand out the homework assignments.

But, Mark, he seems to -- whatever he's doing, it seems to be working, doesn't it? Gore is certainly doing better in the polls.

SHIELDS: Well, it has been working, Al. And I really do, for once, agree with brother Novak. My sympathy is with Bill Bradley because Bill Bradley has run a campaign. He's been very specific about what he intended to do. They're large ideas. They are -- and, I think, noble in purpose, and he talks candidly. Wherever group he goes before, it's -- he talks about registering handguns. That is unpopular in many parts of this state, many parts of New Hampshire, yet he continues to do it.

But I think right now there's no question that Al Gore has put together the institutional elements of the Democratic Party, whether it's teachers, labor and the other groups, and they are backing him.

NOVAK: Well, I think George W. Bush should be forewarned by this, because there's no question in my mind that assuming that the nominees are Bush and Gore, which is the probability right now, Bush is going to -- this is not Ann Richards, believe me. He's a lot tougher than Ann Richards, and he is going to find this relentless nastiness, and it is not easy to cope with.

HUNT: Well, let me tell you something, Robert. The Republicans, I am sure, will be just as tough or just as nasty, depending on your perspective.

Next on CAPITAL GANG, the Cuban boy and American politics.


HUNT: Welcome back.

Attorney Janet Reno indicated her intention to return Elian Gonzalez to Cuba, asserting that federal law supersedes a Miami judge, who has blocked the 6-year-old boy's deportation.


JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think the process that was used by INS is a fair, good process. We are just trying to make sure that people understand that what is at issue is a father who wants his son home and grandparents who want their grandsons -- grandson home.


HUNT: But debating Republican presidential candidates disagreed.


STEVE FORBES (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We would no more send a child back to Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia than we should Castro's Cuba.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In New York Harbor, there's a statue. And the inscription on it says, "Send me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." That boy's mother gave her life so that he could breath free. (END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: So did Vice President Al Gore, who suggested that the boy's father in Cuba was acting under duress.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The kind of oppressive atmosphere that he is living under, it is very difficult to tell. And in the absence of his ability to come and express his candid opinion without intimidation, I think the matter should be resolved in the court that normally takes jurisdiction over such cases.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: That's a political answer. He's running for president. He's looking for the electoral votes in Florida.


HUNT: Kate, has this little boy become a political football?

O'BEIRNE: Initially, no, Al, initially no. He was rescued on Thanksgiving. On December 1, the administration had reviewed the law and announced it's going to be a matter for the state courts. Then on December 5, Castro issued an ultimatum and threatened us -- if the federal government here doesn't do something within 72 hours; within 48 hours, the INS did an about-face, under the pressure from Castro.

And it has become political. The INS is now in a position of saying we have an asylum application alleging fear of persecution by a country, but it can be withdrawn by a father, sitting in the accused country? Al Gore's right, we cannot know the truth as long as the father is someplace not free to speak truth.

So now you have a fight between anti-communists, and anti-anti- communists, and you show -- I think we're seeing in the media an enormous hostility to Cuban-Americans, which I had no idea existed. They're the only minority group the media and the liberals say, get over it, they really resent their attitude towards Castro.

HUNT: The public, Frank, by 56-35 in CNN poll says the boy ought to go back to his father. Isn't the opposition really pandering to that Cuban-American vote in Florida?

LUNTZ: I don't think so. I mean, we all hear, if this had happened to us, my parents would have gone through hell to come back and get me, they would have done whatever it took. I think that the proper.

HUNT: You sure, Frank?

LUNTZ: Absolutely. My parents -- and Fidel would have never held them.

What they would have -- what we can expect is for the parents to come here and pick up the child. That's what I don't understand. If you ask the American people that question, should the boy be released or should we wait until the father come and pick up the child, they would say the father should come here. Of course, the father can't, because Fidel won't let him.

HUNT: Bob Novak, out in Iowa, how does it look to you?

NOVAK: I just can't believe the things I have heard from the media, from some politicians, that send him to his father, send him to this brutal, totalitarian state. If you can save one little boy for freedom, you've done very well. And something I don't do very well, I just like to commend Al Gore for taking, I don't say that's a political position; that's a principled position, in stepping away from President Clinton on it, and saying, because we don't know the degree of intimidation on the father.

HUNT: Do you think Al Gore wants to take that kudo from Bob Novak. Mark?

SHIELDS: I think he'd want to look at it twice, Al, like all gift horses. But you asked the question, has this become, has this little boy become a political football? Al, what is next? They're going to give him a pony? They're going to give him a helicopter? An NFL franchise? This is probably the worst testimony to the materialism of America that you'll ever see. I mean, all they do is just keep throwing things at the kid, and every self-seeking politician in South Florida shows up for a photo-op with him.

Let's be very frank about this. Let's be very fundamentally candid. The father took care of the boy five days a week. He walked him to school. He took him home from school. This is not somebody who's a puppet of Fidel Castro; this is a father who wants his child.

O'BEIRNE: We should spare...

NOVAK: Let's send him to communist poverty.

HUNT: Bob, with that principle, think of all the Chinese you could save.

Mark, thank you for standing up for family values.

And, Frank Luntz, thanks for being with us.

The GANG will be back with the outrage of the week.

ANNOUNCER: Our viewer outrage of the week is from Don Kalbach of Bound Brook, New Jersey. "My outrage is that some people believe the primary villain of the 20th century is big government. They would turn back the clock on product and worker safety, civil rights advances and a host of things that big government does for people who are powerless on their own. As we enter the 21st century, we should not forget what government has done and can do for its people."

If you have an outrage for next week, our e-mail address is, or call the toll-free number at 1-888-847-8660. We will choose one outrage to air at this same time next on the CAPITAL GANG.


HUNT: And now for the outrage of the week: Playing to right- wing primary voters, John McCain and George W. Bush suggests the issue of South Carolina flying the Confederate flag over its capitol as one of states' rights or heritage. Two relevant facts: Republican state senator Arthur Avenel (ph), a leading champion of the flag, refers to the NAACP as "National Association of Retarded People." And South Carolina didn't start flying the flag in 1862, but in 1962, to protest movement to give blacks basic rights.

This isn't about states' rights or heritage; it's about old- fashioned racism.

NOVAK: President Clinton's new budget about to be presented ignores the budget caps that he and Congress agreed to in 1997. "The Washington Post" quotes a high White House official as saying gimmickry destroyed the caps, made them meaningless, but the congressional Republicans had a coconspirator, Bill Clinton, demanding, always higher spending, and then threatening vetoes if he didn't get his way. The Republicans are weak, but the president is duplicitous.

HUNT: Kate O'Beirne.

O'BEIRNE: The Democratic members of the Federal Communications Commission have ruled that the kind of religious programming many noncommercial TV stations run does not qualify as educational or cultural, if it includes professions of faith. The FCC's outrages anti-religious bias now jeopardizes the federal licenses of stations with religious programming. Congress should defend religious expression from the FCC. It's time for Senator McCain to write another letter.

HUNT: And Mark Shields.

SHIELDS: Al, Minnesota Governor Jessie Ventura told "Face the Nation" why he prefers Donald Trump over Pat Buchanan as the Reform Party presidential candidate -- quote -- "Well, because he's like myself in many ways. He's a private sector -- very successful in the private sector, and I just find it refreshing to see candidates who are from the private sector like myself.

SHIELDS: Sorry, Jesse, you're wrong again. Over the last 25 years, our old colleague Pat Buchanan has spent 23 years doing very well in the private sector, thank you. Only two years in public service, and that working for President Ronald Reagan in the White House.

Thank you very much, Governor Ventura.

HUNT: And thank you, Mark.

This is Al Hunt saying good night for the CAPITAL GANG.

Next on CNN, "SPORTS TONIGHT" reports on NFL divisional playoffs and no joy in Washington.


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