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Has the GOP Presidential Campaign Gone too Negative?

Aired February 14, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, on this Valentine's Day, is it time for George W. Bush and John McCain to kiss and make up? Have their campaigns gone too negative? And is it turning off South Carolina voters?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin.

In the CROSSFIRE, Republican Congressman Mark Sanford, McCain South Carolina co-chair; and in Austin, Texas, Bush senior adviser and spokesperson Ari Fleischer.

MATALIN: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

With only five days left to rally voters in the pivotal Palmetto State, John McCain and George W. Bush continued their frenetic pace across South Carolina. All recent polls show the race too close to call but with Bush leading. Today's CNN/"USA Today" Gallup poll -- Bush 49, McCain 42, Keyes 5 -- represents the widest spread since New Hampshire and a gain for Bush.

In the wake of tightening polls, McCain abruptly changed strategies, promising to pull ads critical of Bush and vowed a positive campaign for the duration. Bush says he's not attacking McCain but defending himself after being misdefined and losing in New Hampshire. The campaign about the campaign is delighting the press, who are covering little else. So if you're a policy junky, you'll have to be sure to catch the candidates themselves, including Alan Keyes, debating tomorrow night on CNN from 9:00 until 10:30 Eastern Standard Time.

Meanwhile, more fallout from the party that's been behaving badly. "The Donald" followed Jesse Ventura's departure from the Reform Party and announced he's not running for president. And the remaining Perotistas have dumped Pat Buchanan for McCain. Who says politics isn't fun?

So tonight, has the surreal civility of New Hampshire given way to the realpolitik of South Carolina? If so, who started it? And most important, do the voters care?

Bill? BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Ari Fleischer, yesterday on "Meet the Press," Bush supporter Pat Robertson said that John McCain was unfit -- that was his word, "unfit" -- to be president of the United States. Do you agree? Is that the position of George W. Bush?

ARI FLEISCHER, BUSH SPOKESPERSON: It is not the opinion of George W. Bush.

PRESS: I'm sorry. It was on "Face the Nation," just to correct it.

FLEISCHER: But, Bill, the governor does not agree with that position. Emphatically, no.

PRESS: All right, let me...

FLEISCHER: He thinks he's a better candidate than John McCain, but he does not share that position.

PRESS: Let me ask you about something else. Just when you think politics can get no more disgusting, Jonathan Karl today on "INSIDE POLITICS" reported about an e-mail that's circulating in South Carolina, an e-mail authored by professor Richard Hand of Bob Jones University.

The e-mail quotes, among other things, it says, quote, speaking of John McCain, "He chose to focus his life on partying, playing, drinking and womanizing," It goes on to say he "chose to sire children without marriage."

Professor Hand says he has no evidence to back up either statement. I ask you again, is that the position of the Bush campaign?

FLEISCHER: Of course it's not. And I don't expect that it's the position of the McCain campaign some of the vitriol that's been thrown at Governor Bush. There's a letter circulating from a McCain supporter all around Washington, D.C. that makes wild allegations about Governor Bush that are even worse than that. I'm not going to repeat them on the air.

Look, we all know what happens sometimes in campaigns and we need to deplore it. It's not respecting the voters of South Carolina, but it's not Governor Bush. And he deplores it. He asks anybody who's engaged in it to cease and desist. And frankly I think the media needs to start focusing on what the candidates are doing and saying and leave these side shows on the side where they belong.

PRESS: Well the problem is about the side shows, Ari -- and there seems to be a pattern here -- when you're talking about Mr. Butch -- Birch, rather, the veteran, or Pat Robertson or about this professor -- the pattern seems to be that surrogates are out there calling John McCain unethical, dishonest, unelectable, unstable. And then you guys say, we had nothing to do with this. So I ask you tonight, will Governor Bush call Pat Robertson and ask him never to say that McCain is unfit for president? Will he call professor Hand and say cease and desist on sending that e-mail around South Carolina? Will the governor make those two telephone calls?

FLEISCHER: Bill, I just did that on your behalf -- on the governor's behalf on this show. I just explained that it's not the governor's position.

PRESS: You're not the candidate, Ari, with all due respect. Will the governor make those calls? You're not the candidate.

FLEISCHER: I think when the governor talks to Pat Robertson, he'll make his position perfectly clear, and he'll say it to the country and say it directly to Pat Robertson next time he talks to him, I'm sure, that that is not his position.

Look, John McCain is a honorable man. He's a good man, he's a United States senator and we look forward to many more years of service by John McCain in the Senate.

MATALIN: All right, Congressman, I'm not going to hold you responsible for Internet whack jobs, OK? Only for what the candidates are saying to and about each other. The McCain supporters say that this he said-she said that the press is so fond of covering started at a vets event or push polling or something. But the Bush people really say it began with the McCain ads.

Let's look at some snippets from those McCain ads and Governor Bush's response to them.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: His ad twists the truth like Clinton.

NARRATOR: Do we really want another politician in the White House America can't trust?



GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's about as low as it can get in the Republican primary. I suspect if I called you Clinton you'd be mad too. And I don't appreciate it. And guess what? The voters...


MATALIN: Actually, I don't know what the governor is smiling about. As you know, particularly being from South Carolina, there is almost a visceral antipathy amongst Republicans towards this president. Wasn't that really the lowest blow of this campaign so far, to compare the governor to President Clinton?

REP. MARK SANFORD (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, again, it was in response to the very things that Bill Press was just a moment ago talking about, which is Governor Bush standing on a platform with veteran -- pseudo-veterans suggesting that John McCain hadn't been loyal to veterans and a number of other crazy things like that. So it basically was a fire back. In other words, he'd been fired at hard all week. In other words, that last week after he came down from New Hampshire, and you get beat on, beat on and beat on, and finally you send an ad saying this is crazy.

MATALIN: Well, of course...

SANFORD: And the important thing to remember, though, is finally he said, though, this is going to be a downward cycle, period. We're pulling that ad and we're pulling any other response ad. We will not respond. We're unilaterally disarming, which is basically something you don't ever see happen in modern-day American politics.

MATALIN: Well, let's -- before we say why he pulled it, let's see what Senator Thompson, who's another leader in the McCain campaign, of Tennessee, had to say about that ad.



SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R), TENNESSEE: I don't think John should have done that, and I don't think John thinks he should have done that.


MATALIN: So is the reason it got pulled -- is the reason you backed off because that ad was backfiring? Not because you're...


MATALIN: And I think your timing is a little off. I think the bashing of Bush and comparing him to McCain preceded these events that have apparently so outraged the senator.

SANFORD: Well, you know, what happened -- in other words, the actual thing that caused that ad to be pulled was a town meeting where a woman stood up and she told of her young who's a Boy Scout who'd been push polled. Without going into the details of that particular push poll, he again came back that night and said enough is enough. This is going to be a downward cycle. We're going to nip it in the bud, I'm going to unilaterally disarm because I want to have a campaign that ultimately my children can be proud of, win, lose or draw.

FLEISCHER: Congressman, can I ask you just on that point...


FLEISCHER: ... isn't it true that you and Lindsey Graham had a meeting where you urged the senator to take that ad down, and it had nothing to do with the 14-year-old child and the phone call he allegedly received?

SANFORD: No, we were saying that from -- that wasn't any meeting. In other words, that's something we've consistently said from day one. And we were hearing negative comments about the ad. But the actual event that...

FLEISCHER: So it didn't have anything to do with the 14-year- old, it had more to do with politics...


FLEISCHER: ... what was working and what wasn't working.

SANFORD: In other words, he came back after that town hall meeting and said, enough is enough. We're pulling it.

PRESS: All right, Ari, let me ask you a question -- usually the guests ask the host -- or the host -- I'm sorry, I got it backwards -- ask the guests the questions.

This ad that disturbs you so much that -- where John McCain -- the ad that's no longer running -- where he did say...


PRESS: ... that the governor twisted the truth like Clinton, you know, Ari, in New Hampshire, if I heard the governor say it once I heard him say a hundred times that John McCain had a tax cut that was just like Clinton/Gore. So if you want to get into this, the first person that I heard compare anybody to Clinton was George W. Bush. Why is it OK for him and not John McCain?

FLEISCHER: Because, Bill, there's a fundamental difference between comparing two people on policy -- listen, Governor Bush supports some of Bill Clinton's free trade ideas -- there's a difference between supporting somebody on policy and saying that another man is just as untrustworthy as Bill Clinton. That crosses all reasonable lines.

Policy differences are fair game, but when you challenge another man's integrity by saying he's as untrustworthy as Bill Clinton, you've gone too far.

PRESS: I think Mary's right. I think the Clinton thing is the buzz word in South Carolina. However you mention it, you get the results you want.

Now let's talk about your ad that's running, because the governor has said he's not going to pull his negative ads. In fact, he says is ads aren't negative.

Well here's one that's running right now.


NARRATOR: McCain says he's the only candidate who can beat Gore on campaign finance...

NARRATOR: ... but news investigations reveal McCain solicits money from lobbyists with interests before his committee and pressures agencies on behalf of contributors.

NARRATOR: He attacks special interests, but "The Wall Street Journal" reports...

NARRATOR: ... "McCain's campaign is crawling with lobbyists."


PRESS: Now, Ari, other -- I mean, you sort of call him a hypocrite without using the word. You call that a positive ad?

FLEISCHER: Well, actually, Bill, you're a little late on that one. That ad is no longer running.

PRESS: Is it a positive ad?

FLEISCHER: That ad was a ad that we...

PRESS: Why did you pull it? Because it's negative?

FLEISCHER: That ad we put up last week to refute John McCain's statement that he alone can stand on a stage and debate Al Gore. He's going to have some problems of his own if he's on that stage with Al Gore because of some of the things he's said and done. And that ad makes the case that Governor bush is the one candidate who can debate Al Gore, because Governor Bush doesn't have these inconsistencies on campaign finance reform.

PRESS: Well, here's the problem: You talk about John McCain taking money from lobbyists who have business before him. One of the things that George Bush brags about is tort reform. "TIME" magazine reports this week that Governor Bush took $4.1 million when he was running for governor from lobbyists who support tort reform.

So I mean, George Bush is the guy out there who's raking in more lobbyists' dollars than anybody else: in fact, five times as many lobby dollars as John McCain, according to Al Hunt in The Wall Street Journal.

Ari, what is it? Again, wrong for John McCain but OK for George Bush, is that it?

FLEISCHER: It's just the opposite actually. Governor Bush took on the trial lawyers in Texas. He beat one of the biggest special interests there is, and they threw all their money against Governor Bush.

The difference between Governor Bush and John McCain on this issue is John McCain has made it a holy crusade to rail against everybody who does exactly what he is doing, and you can't have it both ways.

SANFORD: That's not -- that's not fair, Ari. In other words, I think what we have to look at is what is John McCain talking about. What he's talking about is eliminating soft money, period.

FLEISCHER: We agree with him on that.

SANFORD: And it does not make common sense in South Carolina, you know, to think that you can give $500,000 or a million or $2 million, and somebody not expect something in return. That just doesn't pass the common-sense test in South Carolina. So I think John McCains on to something with that.

FLEISCHER: Congressman, you are absolutely right. And Governor Bush agrees entirely with John McCain about the need to...

SANFORD: Oh, come on.


FLEISCHER: ... soft money.

The difference is -- and I think Congressman Sanford is with George Bush on this -- we want to make sure that union bosses can't take their workers' dues without permission and use it for political purposes.

SANFORD: So you're saying that now...

FLEISCHER: I think Congressman Sanford is with Governor Bush on that one.

PRESS: All right. We're going to take a break on that. We've seen all the debates. We've seen too many disagreements on campaign finance. So let's -- when we come back, here's the real question: Which of these guys is going to be the stronger candidate against the Democrats in November? Talk about that when we come back.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Over the weekend, John McCain took all negative ads off the air, promised to run only positive spots, and challenged Governor Bush to do the same, a challenge so far left unanswered. Are both candidates better off staying positive, or do negative attacks really work?

Debating this issue tonight for the Bush campaign, spokesman Ari Fleischer in Austin, Texas, for the McCain camp, Congressman Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina -- Mary.

MATALIN: Congressman John McCain, Senator McCain is so lucky to have you, and I'm a long-time fan of yours. I remember '94 when you ran, you wore camouflage. You said it's open season on career politicians. You term-limited yourself. It's almost up to six years.

John McCain has been in our nation's capital for three times that length of time, 18 years. His entire career outside of the Navy has been in Washington. Are we now for career politicians?

SANFORD: No, we're for two things. One is military model of leadership, and I think it works. That's the idea of leadership by example. He's got a 22-year history, career in the Navy. The other thing is we're for independents. And you could stick me up here for the next 50 years, and I would be as independent as I am now. I think it just runs in John McCain's blood, that maverick blood or independent blood, whatever you want to call it that. But I think that that's what's needed in the White House, somebody who will frankly shake things up.

MATALIN: You also ran on '94 on the flat tax, the essence of which was everybody gets a tax cut, tax-cutting fuels the economy. It's fair to cut everybody the same. Now John McCain is running exactly the opposite: that cutting wage-earners, those producers, the top wage-earners, those producers that fuel our economy now is a sop to the rich. So we're now -- are we for the same Democratic plan, the same class welfare that you fought so hard against and came to Congress for in '94?

SANFORD: No, I believe -- I still believe the exact things that I did before. But what we're looking at is what is a more conservative tax plan. That -- in other words, what I primarily ran on was the issue of being a conservative while I was in Congress. And it seems to me that if you look at the accounting behind the surplus, which I think is bogus, and if you look at the projection in terms of economic forecasts behind the surplus, it's bogus too. In other words, these surpluses are not going to come to fruition. That says to me, in other words, be very conservative in the way you plan things.

And what I think is unique about the McCain plan is that he takes basically two-thirds of these projections of maybe someday surpluses and allocates them to Social Security. That's the biggest contingent liability out there.

MATALIN: OK. We're going to do another show on that. All I'm saying is you ran on very specific issues. You won on very specific issues.

John McCain has been here for 18 years. Can you name three McCain bills in 18 years that if you were running, if you weren't term-limited, you would run on?

SANFORD: I would go back to my own record in the Congress, which is I'll give you five years in the Congress and I've been entirely unsuccessful...

MATALIN: I'm talking about John McCain.

SANFORD: ... though, in my efforts on Social Security.

MATALIN: Give me three specific John McCain pieces of legislation that...

SANFORD: That I would run on?

MATALIN: ... that you would be proud to run on?

SANFORD: I voted for the equivalent of McCain-Feingold in the House, which was Shays-Meehan. I believe it doesn't make common sense for somebody to stroke a check for a million dollars. Common sense says to me they expect something in return.

PRESS: Ari Fleischer, I hate to remind you of your spokesperson on "Face the Nation" yesterday, but Pat Robertson also said something I found hard to believe, which was that there's a conspiracy -- he used the word -- among Democrats to vote for John McCain in order to put the weaker of the two candidates on the ballot in November, that Al Gore's people are behind all these Democrats and these independents that are voting for Al Gore -- I mean, for John McCain.

Ari, do you really believe that? Do you really believe that Bush -- forget the conspiracy -- do you really believe Bush would be stronger against Al Gore than John McCain.

FLEISCHER: Oh, you bet you. Of course he will.

PRESS: Well, I don't know what you base it on. Let me show you the latest John Zogby poll that came out just this weekend. And you know, Bush has been trumping Gore in all the previous polls. This poll for the first time showed Al Gore 45, Bush, 43, which, as we know, is a statistical tie. Looking at John McCain, the poll shows that match-up -- John McCain, 50 percent; Gore, 38 percent.

Now, you tell me which is the stronger candidate against Gore.

FLEISCHER: Bill, you pay more attention to the polls than a career politician. Listen, the polls are going to change right after George Bush wins in South Carolina.

PRESS: They have changed.

FLEISCHER: Just like the South Carolina polls changed After New Hampshire. It's a constant effect that's going to constantly -- you'll see the polls go up and down. But I can tell you with full confidence that after we win in South Carolina, all the other pieces are going to fall into place and all those other polls are going to be temporary fads that'll go away and fade.

PRESS: I remind you the polls have changed. George Bush had a 20-point lead over Al Gore. Now, he's just basically losing to Al Gore, maybe tied with Al Gore, but it's McCain that's beating Gore. Doesn't that tell you something -- let me put it this way. George Bush was the one who said, I'm the one that can unite people...


PRESS: ... I can bring Democrats and independents in. Now John McCain is the one who's doing it, right?

FLEISCHER: No, those polls told me that John McCain did well in New Hampshire, he got a bounce, and now his bounce is heading back in the other direction. That's why Governor Bush is starting to win all the polls in South Carolina. And after he wins South Carolina, you're going to see him move on to Michigan and you're going to see him move on to the states on the 29th -- Washington, Virginia, North Dakota -- do well there and have all the momentum going into March 7. Just watch those polls, Bill, we'll be doing the show again in a couple of weeks and I'll remind you of these words.

PRESS: Denial, Ari.

MATALIN: All right, Congressman, let me ask you about this beating Al Gore like a drum. Today, Senator McCain, Chairman McCain, was asked about inconsistencies in his 18-year voting record.

Whoa, whoa, pushy, pushy.

MATALIN: May I ask my question, Mr. McCain supporters?

He was asked about inconsistencies...

PRESS: I'm not a McCain supporter, I'm a Gore supporter.

MATALIN: ... many of them, in his 18-year Senate record. And he called it savagery. He called it savage, a savage attack. And then he went on to say this.


MCCAIN: ... because we won't respond to this kind of trash and garbage that's been coming out, and I won't respond to it.


MATALIN: If he thinks responding to his record on the part -- in a even debate in South Carolina is savagery, what is he going to do up against "A-Bomb Al," who has just obliterated Bradley?

SANFORD: He's just trying to live by Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment, which was, you don't speak ill of another Republican. And we've had enough of it in South Carolina. I go to what the race is really about. It's about character and leadership. What you all were just talking about is who is in the best position to beat Gore? Look at what happened in New Hampshire with the way John attracted independents, attracted folks who'd been outside the political fold. I think the same is going to hold true in South Carolina.

MATALIN: Lived in their living rooms. He was there for his entire race. He lived in one state.

SANFORD: Well, you know, he's come down to our state, he's spent the last 19 days there. And what's interesting is a lot of the same phenomenon that existed in New Hampshire I think exists in South Carolina.

MATALIN: He's in a great state, he's got great supporters. And so does Governor Bush.

Thank you, Ari Fleischer in Austin, Texas state capital. Thank you, Congressman.

SANFORD: You betcha. MATALIN: Thank you, Mr. McCain supporter. We'll be back with our closing comments...

PRESS: I am not a McCain supporter.


Stay with us.


PRESS: OK, big news. Tomorrow night on CROSSFIRE, a Republican debate preview with McCain supporter Congressman Lindsey Graham and Bush supporter former Governor David Beasley. That's right here, same time, 7:30 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night on CROSSFIRE.

Mary, again, for the record, I am not a McCain supporter. I will not vote for John McCain. I'm going to vote for Al Gore or Bill Bradley, whichever's the Democratic nominee, number one.

Number two, I think the choice in South Carolina...

MATALIN: You're just in the tank.

PRESS: The choice in South Carolina is between a candidate who's running all positive spots and a candidate who is trying to tear down his opponent. And I think people are sick of this kind of negative politics. And we'll find out on Saturday.

MATALIN: Never have I heard -- in 20 years of doing this, seriously -- so much whining about such a weenie campaign. Bush says, look, you've been in Congress for 18 years. You're not an outsider. And on top of that, you've got nothing to show for that. If he thinks that is savagery, if the war hero thinks that's a piece of savagery, what is he going to do when Al Gore comes down on his record, that 18- year record, like a swarm of locusts, which is exactly what he did to Bradley, which is exactly how the Clinton people operate, swarm of locusts. They're going to pick over him. He thinks he's having problems now, he will...

PRESS: Listen, Al Gore will crush George Bush in any debate. He will have a hard time with John McCain. But just to prove that we're not all negative...

MATALIN: Oooh, just when I was going to stay mad at you.

PRESS: ... happy Valentine's Day.

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

MATALIN: Thank you. Happy Valentine's Day to you, too.

And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin.

Join us again tomorrow night, where we will not be as nice -- we promise. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT

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