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Crossfire

McCain's Dan Schnur and Bush's Ari Fleischer Engage in Pre- Debate Debate

Aired March 2, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

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

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, why were Bush donors invited to spend a night at the governor's mansion?

And has John McCain been ignoring women's health issues?

Look for those questions in tonight's GOP debate, and first in our pre-debate debate.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE, in San Francisco, McCain communications director Dan Schnur; and in Austin, Ari Fleischer, senior adviser and spokesperson for the Bush campaign.

PRESS: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

With all eyes on Super Tuesday, George Bush, John McCain and Alan Keyes climb into the ring one more time. Tonight's debate, co- sponsored by CNN and "The L.A. Times," starts at 9:00 Eastern right here on CNN.

For McCain and Bush, it's back to the issues after hitting the late show circuit last night, Bush on David Letterman and McCain on Jay Leno. And leading up to the debate, both front-runners were busy today putting out fires: Bush trying to defend inviting big contributors to stay overnight in the Texas governor's mansion -- shades of the Lincoln Bedroom -- and McCain still trying to recover from calling Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "evil."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not saying that they're forces of evil. I say they're wrong, I say they're bad for the Republican Party, and they're taking us in the wrong direction. That's what I have been saying. I stand by that speech.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Will John McCain get enough Republican votes on Tuesday to keep his insurgent campaign alive, or will Super Tuesday secure the GOP nomination for Bush? Bob Novak's at ringside tonight in Los Angeles -- Bob.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Dan Schnur, you have a well-deserved reputation as being more candid than most political aides are, so I wonder if you would agree with me...

DANIEL SCHNUR, MCCAIN COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Quite standard.

NOVAK: ... if you would agree with me, based on my 43 years of reporting politics from Washington, that your candidate, Senator McCain, made one of the colossal goofs -- strategic goofs of all time in presidential politics in Virginia Beach, Virginia, when he took out after the leaders of the religious right?

SCHNUR: Well, candidly, Bob, I guess I would disagree with you, because one of the things that John McCain stressed in his speech, as I'm sure you heard, is that while praising religious conservatives as a whole and even praising some religious conservative leaders who've had some fairly harsh things to say about him, John McCain was very specific in criticizing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for forfeiting their claim to leadership by abandoning the ideological priorities that their movement is supposed to be holding here.

So, no, I don't think he made a mistake. He praised the religious conservative movement. They're an important part of our Republican base, but he said these leaders are betraying the ideology, because they're putting maintenance of the status quo ahead of ideological progress in Washington.

NOVAK: Well, the criticism has been almost universal, Dan, and we have a case of William Bennett, the virtues man, who is -- everybody thought was getting ready to endorse Senator McCain -- he certainly had been advising him -- and he had a stunning piece in "The Wall Street Journal" that I have to read from.

Quote: "The blast against Messrs. Robertson and Falwell is the worst manifestation of an emerging pattern with Mr. McCain. He often portrays those with whom he disagrees as not just wrong but wicked. Those who oppose his campaign finance reforms are 'corrupt.' The leaders of the pro-life movement are 'turning a cause into a business,' and now two visible Christian conservative leaders are 'evil.'"

Evil, Mr. Schnur?

SCHNUR: Well, Bill Bennett has praised both Governor Bush and Senator McCain on a number of things and he's criticized them both on a number of fronts. But the point here is this, Chuck Colson, James Dobson, these are respected leaders of the religious conservative movement, who John McCain went out of his way to praise. Pat Robertson ran ads calling our national chairman, Warren Rudman, a bigot because Warren Rudman had the nerve to stand up in defense of General Colin Powell.

I think Senator McCain is perfectly entitled to point out that Mr. Robertson's -- the Reverend Robertson's rhetoric doesn't match his actions...

NOVAK: I wonder if I could just...

SCHNUR: ... He purports himself to be the leader of a religious conservative movement that wants ideological change in Washington, Bob -- you know, you called for campaign finance reform in your book. Pat Robertson is fighting it. He's not evil, he's just wrong.

NOVAK: I just want to ask one more question on this religious war going on, and that is if -- in the debate coming up tonight, how in the world will Senator McCain answer why he started this campaign implying that George W. Bush is an anti-Catholic bigot? Why in the world would he put out -- and then say he had nothing to do with the so-called "Christian Voter Alert" that was phoned to voters in Michigan after Senator McCain was licking his wounds in South Carolina?

SCHNUR: Well, if I could make...

NOVAK: How will he answer that?

SCHNUR: If I can make two points, Bob, the first point is that these phone calls, as you know, don't call George Bush a bigot. They don't call him an anti-Catholic. I don't think that George Bush has a single prejudiced bone in his body. What these phone calls said and what we believe is that Governor Bush showed poor judgment by speak at a location like Bob Jones University, which represents such a horrific array of anti-Catholic and bigoted sentiments.

It was wrong for him to speak there. His staff said it was wrong for him to speak there. Reverend Robertson said it was wrong for him to speak there. But it took him three weeks before he admitted himself that he should have spoken out. That was the point of the phone call.

PRESS: Ari Fleischer, the Associated Press reports that last year there were 31 overnight guests at the governor's mansion down there in Austin. Eight of them were these people you call "pioneers," people who have agreed to raise $100,000 for Bush's presidential campaign. Now, here's the question I want to ask you, how Governor Bush will deal with in the debate tonight: How can he possibly attack Clinton-Gore for renting out the Lincoln Bedroom when he's been doing the same thing in Austin, Texas?

ARI FLEISCHER, BUSH SPOKESMAN: Because it's entirely different. And the difference is between family friends and perfect strangers. Governor Bush had his college roommate over for the night. He had his cousin over. Are they both pioneers? Yes. That's the kind of guy Governor Bush is. His college roommate is one of his biggest supporters. I don't think there's any connection between the two other than in the minds of some people in the media who love a good story line and puff it up. And there's just nothing there to it. Eight people, all of whom cousin, family friends, college roommate.

PRESS: Ari, I heard one of your people yesterday give that lame excuse when this story broke, and it sounded to me awfully deja vu. And in fact it is. I checked. Here's, in fact, what Scott McClellan (ph) of your campaign yesterday told the Associated Press yesterday.

Quote -- just about what you said: "The governor and Mrs. Bush always enjoy having family and longtime friends visit them at their home."

Now here just three years ago is what President Clinton told, word for word, to "The New York Times," quote -- about the Lincoln Bedroom, quote, "They were my friends, and I was proud to have them here. I didn't have any strangers here. The Lincoln Bedroom was never sold."

With all due respect, Ari, isn't your defense rather Clintonesque?

FLEISCHER: Bill, you're making my point for me exactly. And that's why America needs to put the Clinton-Gore years behind us. And that way, when a candidate, a man running for office gives his word...

PRESS: No, but, Ari, stop ducking it.

FLEISCHER: ... the American people can take it.

PRESS: Stop ducking it.

FLEISCHER: The difference is when Bill Clinton gives his word, he doesn't keep it. When Governor Bush tells you it's a family friend, it's because it's valid.

PRESS: I...

FLEISCHER: What President Clinton said turned out to be false. They were perfect strangers who stayed at the Lincoln Bedroom when the president wasn't even there. He used it like a hotel. The governor used it...

PRESS: Hey, Ari, spin...

FLEISCHER: ... the way anyone would want to treat their friends.

PRESS: ... spin, spin. The only difference is...

FLEISCHER: Truth, truth, truth.

PRESS: ... the Lincoln Bedroom is in Washington, the Sam Houston Bedroom's in Austin. It's the same thing. You're giving...

FLEISCHER: Bill, even your college roommate would want to stay with you, I hope.

PRESS: Aren't you giving big contributors a reward that the average Texan or average American would never have a chance to get? That's what's wrong with it, isn't it?

FLEISCHER: He's -- there were 25 other people who stayed there who weren't contributors, including his mother in law. How come you're not talking about those other 25 people that the AP story mentioned.

PRESS: I didn't mention her because it doesn't matter.

FLEISCHER: You're being a little selective.

Bill, a college...

NOVAK: OK...

FLEISCHER: Even your college roommate, I'm sure, would want to visit you. What's wrong with that?

NOVAK: Nobody wants to visit Press. Now Mr. Schnur...

PRESS: It's not taxpayers' dollars, that's what's wrong with it. Go ahead, Bob.

NOVAK: Mr. Schnur, I want to show you a couple polls that have just come out on Super Tuesday, big states. In Ohio, Bush 53 percent, McCain 36 percent. And then we go to California. "Los Angeles Times" poll -- this is amazing. This is the big casino of primaries -- Bush 47 percent, McCain 26 percent.

Now since California is so important, why in the world is -- tonight -- is John McCain going to be in Montpelier, Vermont, or someplace like that instead of in Los Angeles on that stage? Can you explain that to me?

SCHNUR: Well, as you know, Bob, I had some fairly strong feelings about the senator's participation in the debate myself. It's very important for the senator to participate in this debate because it's very important for the people of California to hear what he has to say. They need to hear his message of Reagan conservatism, they need to hear that he wants to cut government spending, that he wants to reform government, that he wants to reform the military.

That's why he's participating, but because the Bush campaign waited so long to agree to this debate, we had travel plans that, to the senator's credit, he changed at the last minute. We have been in California for the last three days. We're in Missouri, which is...

NOVAK: But...

SCHNUR: Listen to me. We're in Missouri, which is a Super Tuesday state tonight. We're campaigning there. We'll be in New York for the next couple of days, and we'll be back in California Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. We're spending seven of the nine last days before Super Tuesday in the state. That's a pretty heavy commitment to the state, I think.

NOVAK: Oh, Mr...

FLEISCHER: You need to be there.

NOVAK: Mr. Schnur, you're disappointing me. You're ruining your reputation for candor, because people in your campaign tell me the reason he first turned down the debate and the reason he won't be on the stage tonight is he doesn't want to sit down next to Alan Keyes. He's afraid he -- Senator McCain. He's afraid he can't control himself. He got -- he just about blew at Alan Keyes the last two times. That's the real deal, isn't it?

SCHNUR: No, if that were the case, Bob, we would have never agreed to the debate to begin with. But I think you raise a good point here. There's nothing wrong with Ambassador Keyes' participating in these debates, he's still a candidate for president.

But for the last three months we have been attempting to debate George Bush one on one, Boston TV stations before the New Hampshire primary offered it, South Carolina stations offered it. Now California stations, now NBC and CNBC have all offered one on one debates between John McCain and George Bush.

What I don't understand is why Ari and his colleagues don't have enough confidence in their candidate to put him on stage one on one with John McCain without Alan Keyes to hide between.

NOVAK: Why don't you answer that quickly, Ari, before we break.

PRESS: Ari, you want to answer that?

FLEISCHER: Sure, I would be happy to answer that. We have had so many debates I can't even keep track of how many we've had. It's almost approaching 10 or a dozen by now. I think that's a phony issue.

I think the people who have watched all these debates get a fair sense of all three candidates. There may still be a one on one event -- debate with John McCain. We have never ruled that out. So let's see what the voters decide to do and let's see who is left standing.

NOVAK: OK, we do have to take a debate, and when we come back, we're going to talk about something really unusual in this Republican campaign, negative campaigning, would you believe that?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

This is Robert Novak live from downtown Los Angeles. I'm in the "Los Angeles Times" building, where at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, we'll have the eighth Republican presidential debate, maybe the last debate where there is face to face -- not exactly face to face, because one's on satellite, between John McCain and George W. Bush with their faithful sidekick, Alan Keyes on hand.

But on CROSSFIRE we have no sidekicks, we have mano-a-mano pre- debate. We have Ari Fleischer, who is a senior adviser and spokesperson for the Bush campaign, and he's in Austin, Texas, and in San Francisco, Dan Schnur, the communications director for the McCain campaign -- Bill Press.

PRESS: And I'm in Washington, D.C. Dan Schnur, let me come to you this time, we have been wondering when in this campaign we were finally going to see the famous McCain temper flash out. Maybe we saw it this week when he referred to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as evil -- he's since backtracked on that -- but also in a radio interview with the son of Ronald Reagan, Michael Reagan.

Now, I want to play just a part of that interview for you, Dan, and remind you this comes after the senator has already pounded on Pat Robertson, told what he thinks is wrong with Pat Robertson, and Michael Reagan is moving on now to talk about education. Here's just a little clip.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MICHAEL REAGAN, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: So what about your plan for a better educated child here in America? What is the McCain plan?

MCCAIN: Choice -- by the way, before we go into that, it doesn't disturb you that Pat Robertson would call up people and say that Warren Rudman is a vicious bigot? I would like you to talk about that a little bit from time to time ...

REAGAN: No, senator, no, because let me tell you, I think that gets all...

MCCAIN: No, let me tell you. Let me tell you, the man's name is maligned and his reputation is maligned, and it ought to be talked about, OK?

REAGAN: Senator McCain, good bye.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Now, Dan, everybody knows where John McCain stands on Pat Robertson. Isn't it time to give it up when you have an opportunity, for example, to talk about education, or is it just a broken record with him now?

SCHNUR: Well, I mean, in fairness, Bill, I think if you had played an earlier portion of that interview you would have heard Michael Reagan getting in Senator McCain's face about this whole Pat Robertson issue. Senator McCain felt that they hadn't finished that topic, so before moving on to education he wanted to finish it up. I think that's reasonable.

On the whole question of forces of evil, though, I think it's worth clarifying, because we talked about it for a few minutes earlier, John McCain since relatively early in the campaign has been comparing himself to Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the Death Star. It's fun. It's funny. He doesn't really think he's Luke Skywalker. He doesn't really think that this campaign is the Death Star, he doesn't really think that George W. Bush is Darth Vader, he thinks that Mitch McConnell is Darth Vader. But -- and he doesn't think that Pat Robertson represents the forces of evil...

PRESS: Dan...

SCHNUR: ... the point he was trying to make to Michael Reagan, and he was frustrated that he wasn't able to make it, I think that's reasonable.

PRESS: Dan, we have heard that spin. The fact is, though, at the end of this phone conversation, Michael Reagan says, you just lost my vote, Senator McCain, and rips up a piece of paper on the air. I mean, this is the man, Senator McCain, who goes around calling himself a Reagan Republican, and he publicly loses the son of the president's vote. Isn't that a big embarrassment? How do you explain that?

SCHNUR: Again, I think when you have an issue that is unresolved between the senator and Michael Reagan on the subject of Pat Robertson and this whole question of religious conservatives and their leadership, Senator McCain wanted to resolve it. It's unfortunate that Mr. Reagan reacted the way he did.

It's not something over the long haul that's going to slow down the campaign. He's a respected voice. He and the senator will make up. Senator -- John McCain has gotten into fights with other people before, they've made up before. He and Michael Reagan will make up. In the long term, it's not -- I don't think it's worth nearly as much of our time as some of the other topics we have been discussing.

PRESS: Go ahead, Bob.

NOVAK: Ari Fleischer, in Los Angeles today Governor Bush was very soft and non-negative going to a charter school, but on the other side of the continent in New York, his forces were just wailing the devil out of John McCain, saying he has a pattern of anti-New York voting. Don't we have a pattern that whenever George W. Bush is behind in a state, then he goes negative?

FLEISCHER: Well, that would be funny because "The New York Times" reports that Governor Bush is up 10 points in New York State. If you're suggesting to me that politics in New York gets rough-and- tumble, well, that's news me, I have never heard that about the Empire State before. But there is a close race going on in New York State and Senator McCain has a long voting record, and includes one item, frankly, that Senator McCain has publicly advertised on his Web page, and I brought it along with me tonight.

Senator McCain's own Web page says, quote, "As president, I will cut every one of the projects on the following list." And on that list he includes money for the New York University Program Women's Center for Cancer, an earmark of $1 million for breast cancer at North Shore Long Island Jewish...

NOVAK: Let me...

FLEISCHER: Senator McCain advertises that he wants to cut those programs.

NOVAK: Let me respond to that. How can -- That isn't really fair, Ari, I am really disappointed in you because isn't it a fact that all the senator was saying is: You shouldn't put this on a defense bill taking money away from the defense program and the GIs who are on food stamps? Put it in the Health Department, where it belongs. That was the point he was making.

FLEISCHER: Bob, that's what Senator McCain said, but the vote actually was on the Labor/HHS bill, Labor/Health and Human Services bill. One of the senator's spokespeople last night said what you said, and said, well, that was on a Department of Labor funding bill. Of course, as everybody inside the beltway knows, that means the Department of Labor and Health and Human Services.

But it's the senators own words on his Web page. He said...

NOVAK: Oh, I think that -- I think that...

FLEISCHER: I will cut every one of the projects.

NOVAK: That really is going too far. But I want to -- in trying to find negative votes, I know the negative researchers in these campaigns go all out...

FLEISCHER: You can't have it both ways. He can't say he's the only crusader against pork, and then say but don't look at the pork that I am going to eliminate.

NOVAK: Do you think Rudy Giuliani is a tough guy?

FLEISCHER: I think everybody in New York is tough.

NOVAK: OK. This campaign -- this anti-New York campaign -- anti-McCain campaign in New York was so much over the line in Mayor Giuliani's opinion that when he found out what he thought was going to be a pro-Bush meeting, was going to be an anti-McCain meeting, that he didn't show up for it. The -- Rudy Giuliani. If it's too tough for Rudy Giuliani, is it too tough for the voters of New York?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's all fine by Rudy Giuliani. He's going to be standing shoulder to shoulder with Governor Bush tomorrow at an event on Long Island. He's going to be campaigning with us. And he's one of our best backers in New York State. We look forward to seeing him tomorrow.

PRESS: Dan Schnur, just one real quick question at the end. According to "The Hotline" today, a look at the states that have had primaries, the states that are coming up before March 14, and the delegate count, it is George Bush 591, McCain 273. Isn't that just an impossible hill climb, Dan Schnur?

SCHNUR: It's not an impossible hill to climb because if you break down those primary states, Bill, what you find is that the states where Bush does well tend to be southern states, tend to be states with an overwhelming majority of religious conservatives. I think, when you get into states like California, like Ohio, like New York, that reflect the American population, politically and demographically as a whole, we feel real good about our chances going to the next few weeks. FLEISCHER: Bill, let me jump in on that...

PRESS: We have to -- can't let you, Ari, because we are out of time. And we got to get ready for the main event here on CNN at 9:00.

Gentlemen, thank you very much, Ari Fleischer, joining us again from Austin, Dan Schnur from San Francisco. Glad you're still on the bus, Dan.

And Bob Novak and I will wrap things up with closing comments coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Tonight, it is the Republicans' turn in the ring in just one hour, George Bush, John McCain and Alan Keyes faceoff. Stay tuned to CNN for live coverage of that big debate.

Bob, assuming George Bush is the nominee, which looks more and more likely, there is one issue he is never going to be able to use against Al Gore, which is campaign reform. I mean, it is ludicrous to suggest there is any difference between renting out the Lincoln Bedroom and renting out the Sam Houston Bedroom.

NOVAK: Well, the whole question is whether they were perfect strangers or not...

PRESS: You know they weren't.

NOVAK: Well, if you pardon -- If I speak while you are interrupting, you have made up your mind without even knowing exactly who was in the bedroom. But the interesting thing, and I am going to tell you something, Bill, this may shock you, but this great election campaign is not going to be settled on that issue.

PRESS: Bob, I will send you the names of the eight pioneers.

From the left, I am Bill Press. Goodnight for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I am Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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