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Larry King Live

Should Third-Party Candidates Be Included in the Presidential Debates?

Aired September 25, 2000 - 9:00 p.m. ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, Phil Donahue. He's out to get Green Party candidate Ralph Nader elected, or at least included in presidential debates. And then joining us for a political roundtable, ABC News correspondent Ann Compton. She's in Miami. In Washington, Democrat Paul Begala, author of "Is Our Children Learning?: The Case Against George W. Bush," and the co-host of "Equal Time." And in San Francisco, the longtime Republican strategist Ed Rollins.

They're all next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Just a couple of quick program notes before we start with Phil Donahue, and then Phil will join our panel as well: Tomorrow night for, the full hour on this program, Governor George W. Bush of Texas and his wife, Laura.

On Wednesday night for the full hour, Coach Bobby Knight.

And on Thursday night for the full hour, Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper.

We start tonight with Phil Donahue. He's in New York. The Emmy award-winning television talk show host who gave up this business sometime back. He's a member of the Committee to Elect Ralph Nader.

Phil, have you -- have you endorsed candidates publicly before?

PHIL DONAHUE, COMMITTEE TO ELECT RALPH NADER: No, Larry. As you know, while you're doing a show like this, you have -- I tried to retain my political virginity, such as it was.

KING: And why...

DONAHUE: This is my first -- this is my first time out of the house during a presidential campaign, and I want you to know this is an exciting experience.

KING: And why are you doing it?

DONAHUE: Well, as you may know, I have known Ralph Nader since 1965. I have -- he -- he appeared on our program more than any -- in the 29 years we were on the air, more than 6,000 shows, no one appeared on the program more than Ralph Nader. And if it sounds like I'm bragging, I am. I was -- I have -- in 1965, I was impressed with this young man out of Harvard Law School. And I thought that over the years of watching him, I had a front-row seat to his career.

I saw what he was able to do all by himself. I believe he is America's No. 1 private citizen of the 20th century. He is greedless, honorable, principled man, and I definitely think he is presidential timber.

KING: But he has always said -- he always told me in times he appeared with me and the times I've been with him socially he thought that public office diminished his role. He was much better off as the Quixote, so to speak, taking them on from outside.

DONAHUE: It is true. He didn't want to be in the Senate, and he felt that he had more power as an outsider. I don't think that that position, which he previously held, should necessarily be held against him now. A man is allowed to change his mind. And I think he's picked the right time, because right now we have a real power grab on the part of both major parties.

They have literally hijacked this presidential election season and locked everybody out, ensuring that these debates -- if we don't get Ralph Nader on that stage -- are going to be pretty thin gruel.

I think the agenda of the two major party candidates is very narrow. It's -- they're afraid of third-rail issues they don't want to touch. And the result is that issues that I think are important to millions of Americans are never going to surface in this presidential election, because they won't be legitimized, because there's going to be nobody on that stage to bring them up.

KING: Isn't it like a Catch-22, though, since the Republicans and Democrats control the committee which picks the candidates to appear in the debates, and we're trying to -- if you're trying to enlarge two-party system, how are you going to do it if the two parties are deciding who's in the debates?

DONAHUE: Well, we shouldn't be surprised, Larry. It's the two parties that have made it so difficult for third-party candidacies, not only for president, but for Congress as well. I mean, there are -- incumbents have a significant advantage: franking privileges just to name one advantage. Over -- it's just very hard to be a challenger today.

It's getting harder with each passing year, and now, the major parties have really scored a home run on behalf of themselves by locking out challengers in the presidential debates.

You know, Ralph Nader could go to every city in this country in the next 50 years and never reach 1/10 of 1 percent of the people that will be reached in the Broadway of the presidential election season: the three major party -- the three debates that are now owned by the major parties. And in fact, not only have they locked everybody out, they're selling these debates to major corporations.

Now, if you look at it -- if you understand what they have done, you can see how difficult it is for a third-party candidate to get inside this tent. Can you imagine, AT&T, for example, will be a sponsor, Anheuser- Busch. Imagine how enthusiastic they are about having Ralph Nader on this stage.

KING: We did have one: Ross Perot, in 1992. And that almost was because he was doing so well in the polls they were literally forced to. What about the concept, if you have 15 percent you're on?

DONAHUE: Well, this is an arbitrary figure chosen by the third party -- by both major-party candidates, both major parties. The handlers, the spinners have decided at 15. That's a nice safe number for them. It essentially makes it pretty likely that without the attention that you'll get on a debate, you're not going to reach that 15 percent.

Where is it written that these major party -- these major parties are able to pass these laws, form this company? You know, this is a business, the debate commission. They took it away from the League of Women Voters, and now, they have a business, which is essentially controlled equally by both parties. And they -- they're putting on a show, and they're going to sell it to major-party candidates. What's next, you know?

KING: By the way, do you think Pat Buchanan also belongs on?

DONAHUE: I think Pat Buchanan would add excitement to these debates. No problem with the Pat Buchanan. But when you've got people like, you know -- "The New York Times" calls third-party candidacies clutter. "The American people," editorialized "The New York Times," "deserve a campaign without clutter." Imagine.

And this is one of the things Ralph Nader is complaining about, that you won't hear on the major party -- on these three debates coming up.

KING: We'll take a break and hear about some of those things that Phil Donahue contends that we will not here on the debate, the first one of which is a week from Tuesday.

Governor Bush and his wife will be here tomorrow for the full hour.

We'll be back with more Phil Donahue and our panel will assemble as well later.

Don't go away.


RALPH NADER (GREEN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The majority of the people polled in poll after poll want a four-way debate. They want subject matter discussed that is ignored. I think many of them don't want to fall asleep in front of the TV set watching the drab debate the dreary. And so I think Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore should heed public opinion.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) NADER: A growing number of editorials and newspapers demanding a four-way debate and a growing number of opinion-makers demanding a four-way debate from both sides of the aisle.



KING: OK, Phil Donahue, some of the things that Ralph Nader wants are a single-payer approach to health care, public financing of campaigns, same-day voter registration, decriminalization of drugs, moratorium on the federal death penalty. Do you think none of those things will come up in the debates?

DONAHUE: Well, I don't hear any call on the part of the major- party candidates for public financing. If -- remember, public financing takes away all that corporate money. You don't have to go to fund raiser every night after morning after afternoon after week after month.

I mean, I saw a picture on front page of the "New York Times" of Patrick Kennedy and Dick Gephardt -- two men whom I happen to admire by the way -- on the phone dialing for dollars. It is what you have to do. It is night after night getting your picture taken. We have no room for people who are not billionaires, who are not sucking up to the major corporations.

Public financing will make it possible, first of all, for challengers to have some power, and, two, to allow young minds, fresh, new visionary ideas, to express their new talent and new vision in public service.

KING: What...

DONAHUE: That is not likely to happen as long as you are dependent on this kind of money. Incidentally, Ralph Nader is the only one out there obeying the rules. He takes no pack money, takes no soft money. He -- nobody contributes to Ralph above the limits set by the Federal Election Commission. He obeys the rules.

And, as a result of that, he gets locked out of the debate. Not fair. And millions of Americans are starting to appreciate what the two parties have done to other candidacies. They are mad about it. And the opportunity they have now is to vote for Ralph Nader to let the two-party system know that they will not tolerate this kind of lockout.

KING: How -- are you saying there is no chance he can get on the debates?

DONAHUE: No, I'm not saying that. I think it is very -- I think you are going to see -- we have -- what do we have, about eight, nine days left to make...

KING: Eight days to the first one. DONAHUE: Eight days left. This isn't going to be easy. But the issue of the lockout is a roar on the Internet.,, it is all there. You should -- I think Americans have an opportunity to vote twice here.

They should vote right now for Ralph on the debates. They should tell, those who are calling, to say who are you thinking about or who you're going to vote for president. Tell them Nader. If you say Nader -- a vote for Nader right now will get the attention of the two major-party candidates.

I think it will make it easier in years to come for the 200, 300 people who are now candidates for president to get through the locked doors, the choke hold that the major parties have right now.

KING: What about those who say, if you have four on stage, it becomes more a seesaw, jump-around, a jigsaw puzzle, a conglomeration, and you know that two of them don't have a prayer?

DONAHUE: Well, that is what they said to Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, as you know, Larry.

KING: But they allowed him to debate. They did it...

DONAHUE: Jesse -- they let him on the debates. His poll numbers changed. And he won the election. It is not possible to overstate the importance of the debates as they have evolved in our quadrennial presidential exercise. If you don't get on those debates, you could be Abraham Lincoln reincarnated and you wouldn't be able to be elected president.

This is a very serious issue. And increasing numbers of Americans have become aware of the fact that they are going to -- they are going to watch debates in which the candidates very carefully avoid issues like the fact that we have two million people in jail. We have a drug policy that a rooting, tooting, shooting, knock-the- door-down -- it is not fair to the cops.

We are threatening innocent lives with this kind of Wild West approach. We -- General McCaffrey himself has said we cannot arrest ourselves out of this. And that is exactly what we appear to try -- appear to be trying to do. Pretty soon, half of us will be guarding the other half. And the drug money is going for helicopters, and undermining Colombia.

The drug problem -- Ralph Nader believes the drug problem is a health problem, not a criminal problem.

KING: All right. As a basic liberal, Phil, are you concerned that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, because it is taking a vote that would probably go -- either stay at home or go to Gore?

DONAHUE: Yes. People who say that -- people who say that are essentially saying: Be quiet now. Don't make trouble.

And asking people not to vote their conscience -- that is the first thing -- they are asking us to stand with our hat in our hand, powerless once again, let another president -- presidential election pass outside the door of locked power, and allow less than half the voters to determine who will lead us for the next four years.

We say basta (ph) to that. We aren't -- we all also would remind those who are concerned, for example, about the Supreme Court, that Antonin Scalia as confirmed by the United States Senate 98 to nothing, with two abstentions, two non-voting absent members were Republican.

So, you know, Clarence Thomas was approved by a Democratically controlled Senate. George Mitchell was the majority leader when Clarence Thomas was -- I think the vote was 52 to 48.

KING: Yes.

DONAHUE: Seven Democrats put Clarence Thomas in the -- and yet people continue to say: Don't make trouble. It doesn't matter that these issues are not discussed.

How about bringing -- Ralph Nader wants to bring our troops home from Europe. He doesn't think we should be spending that kind of money in Western Europe and Eastern Asia defending nations who can defend themselves against nonexistent enemies. You won't hear that from the major-party candidates. They are afraid you are going to be -- they will be interpreted as not supporting the military.

Today, the Cold War is over. Supporting the military ought -- today ought to mean supporting our uniform personnel, improving their housing and their lifestyles, and giving them the same kind of dignity that we -- that the civilian life promises them, instead of buying all these things that go boom, that make profits for "Fortune" 500 companies.

This is not a radical idea, Larry. This is something Ralph Nader wants to talk about. He is against WTO. He is against the China trade bill. And so are millions and millions of Americans...

KING: All right.

DONAHUE: ... including a lot of union people, who I think are going to go in that -- close that curtain and vote for Ralph, because they know what a threat WTO and 32-cent-an-hour laborers are in other countries.

KING: We'll take a break. We'll be right back with Phil Donahue. We'll take some calls for Phil. And then our panel will assemble. And Phil will stay with the panel. And we will talk about Nader, debates, and lots of other things.

Tomorrow night: Governor Bush and his wife. On Thursday night: Vice President Gore and his wife. In between: Bobby Knight.

Don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "CROSSFIRE") PAT BUCHANAN, REFORM PARTY PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You don't have a chance of being competitive unless I get in the national debates. If I can get into all three debates and stand up on the stage with George Bush and Al Gore, and the American people will say: Wait a minute. There are three candidates here, I have a dramatically different message.

There is a huge vacuum in politics left by the Republican Party's -- frankly -- run to the center and to the left, and imitating Clinton, even as they denounce his character. And that vacuum, I think, I can fill in national debates.



KING: Ann Compton, Paul Begala, and Ed Rollins join us at bottom of the hour.

Let's take calls for Phil Donahue, slugging as always.

Oak Lawn, Illinois, hello.

CALLER: Hello, I would like to ask who is the vice presidential candidate running with Ralph Nader?

DONAHUE: Her name is Winona LaDuke. She is a member of the White Earth Indian tribe in Northern Minnesota. She is a longtime political activist, mother, a woman who, early on, was in the front lines lobbying and marching for her own people against the pollution of major corporations, against what so many industrial agencies were doing to the environment surrounding her own native peoples.

And was on the cover of "Ms." magazine, a strong feminist, a principled woman of conscience.

KING: Monterey, California, hello.

CALLER: Hello, Larry.



My question is for Mr. Donahue. Mr. Donahue, with all due respect, why should we vote for Ralph Nader, when he has absolutely no chance to win?

DONAHUE: Well I would -- I would remind you, again, that they said the same thing about Jesse Ventura. You know, as long as media...

KING: In other words, you are not agreeing that he has no chance.

DONAHUE: No, I'm not. I think this is a very interesting age of --when things can turn around instantly, because of the Web, because of the fabulous way that we communicate with each other now. I think that the Web can make a significant difference in pressuring -- in pressuring the two parties.

Beyond the blatant arrogance and unfairness of the two parties in locking everybody out, is, I think, so palpably wrong, that I -- that you have no choice but to vote for Ralph Nader, if for no other reason than to protest that. So I don't agree that -- that this is over. And I think all of us should be once again reminded that they said the same thing to Jesse Ventura before he got on the debates.

It is amazing what that can do to legitimize not only a candidacy, but the issues which will otherwise not be discussed. We didn't mention single payer, Larry: 44 to 46 million people uninsured in America.

KING: Yes.

DONAHUE: Canada has the single-payer model. Canadians probably will tell you that it is not perfect. But ask Canadians if they want to swap with us. How about concentration of everything, including media? Who is going to celebrate the merger of Exxon and Mobile now that we are facing the oil crunch and heating oil problems, especially in the Northeast this winter?

How about media? You know, in 1995, you could only own seven radio stations. Now we have one company owns over 800 radio stations. The "New York Times" owns the "Boston Globe." The "Chicago Tribune" owns the "Los Angeles Times." Is there anybody -- even in media there -- are there any reporters out there -- who will tell you that this is a good idea?

KING: We will be back with some more phone calls for Phil Donahue on the subject of Ralph Nader. And then Phil will join our panel at the bottom of the hour to discuss Nader and other things -- all ahead.

Wednesday night: Bobby Knight for an exclusive interview for the full hour.

Don't go away.


KING: San Diego for Phil Donahue, hello.

CALLER: Hi, Larry, thanks. And thanks to Phil for speaking out.

Phil, would you address the fact that none of the other networks or major media are covering Ralph Nader, therefore determining the outcome of these arbitrary polls that are set up deliberately so Ralph can't be in the debates? And...

KING: By the way, we are setting up -- we were in contact with the Nader camp to have him on this program.


KING: But, Phil, do you think he is being shut out?

DONAHUE: I certainly do. And with the -- certainly, the "New York Times" doesn't think he ought to be there. The "New York..."

KING: No, I mean, do you think he is being shut out from the media? Do you think he's being kept off...

DONAHUE: No, I think he is -- I think he is being covered. But certainly, he is marginalized. The -- you know, if your -- if you espouse liberal values, you really are -- you are kind of dismissed as some -- if you are a conservative, you are a patriot. If you are a liberal, you are a moonbeam. You know, there's a...

KING: Yes, but Pat Buchanan is getting the same coverage as Ralph Nader, isn't he?

DONAHUE: Well, Pat, I think, benefited from the fact that he is a member of the media.


KING: Do you think they like him more?

DONAHUE: The -- well, you know Pat. You know Pat. Everybody on TV, all the talking heads, know Patrick. They have interchanged with him on the air. And I think that helped him in the early-go. Unfortunately, his numbers have diminished from the last two times out.

I would also remind you that when Ross Perot was allowed to be on the debates in 1992, I think we had something like 90 million viewers.

KING: Yes, the most ever.

DONAHUE: When he -- when they threw him out in '96, he -- we dropped to 50 million. Still a tremendous -- you know, Larry, the people who say that more than two people is a -- is a -- Bill Safire on "Meet the Press" yesterday said it was beauty contest.

These people essentially are saying it's -- you know, this democracy would be a wonderful thing if we didn't have all these people who wanted to speak all the time. They are made nervous by, you know, by this. They want it nice. And they want a heavyweight fight. They want to be entertained. They want somebody to knock somebody else out. And that is going to be hard to do if you have another...

They want to be entertained. They don't even realize what they are saying.

KING: Let me get in one more -- let me get in one more quick call for Phil, then our panel.

Roscoe, Illinois, go ahead. CALLER: Yes, hello.

I certainly can appreciate and relate to the passion Mr. Donahue feels toward Ralph Nader's campaign. I myself was a volunteer in 1980, for John B. Anderson. But ultimately, with the result of that election, I felt like I helped get Ronald Reagan elected. And don't you feel, Mr. Donahue, that a vote for Ralph Nader, at this point, is ultimately going to be a vote for George Bush?

DONAHUE: No, I don't feel that way. I would remind you that significant numbers of conservatives support Ralph Nader's positions, including, for example, stopping this hysterical drug war; including, for example, let's not -- should we -- there are states that are executing retarded teenagers.

We have a Republican governor of Illinois who has called a moratorium on executions. You will not hear this even raised. All of the four major-party candidates are four-square in favor of executing. Their new policy appears to be: Let's make sure they're really, really guilty before we kill them.

KING: All right, let me get...

DONAHUE: Without Ralph on the -- you are not going to hear this on this stage without Ralph there.

KING: All right.

We'll get a break and we will -- Phil will remain with us -- and Ann Comptom, Paul Begala, and Ed Rollins will join us.

Vice President Gore and Tipper will be with us for the full hour Thursday night. Tomorrow night, Governor George W. Bush and Laura.

Don't go away.


KING: Welcome back to LARRY KING LIVE.

In New York, is Phil Donahue, a member of the Committee to Elect Ralph Nader. The Emmy award-winning television talk-show host, who, I might add, no matter what side of the aisle you sit on, is sorely missed in the media. In Washington -- in Miami is Ann Compton. Ann is the ABC news Washington correspondent, who was a panelist in the 1988 and 1992 presidential debates. In Washington, Paul Begala. He's helping Al Gore prep for the debates, indeed he's playing George W. in the debate prep. He's the author of the new book, "Is Our Children Learning?" -- funny title "The Case Against George W. Bush." He's the co-host of MSNBC's Equal Time. And in San Francisco, Ed Rollins longtime Republican political strategist. He worked for Perot in '92, served in the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.

Ann Compton, we'll start with you. Does Phil Donahue have a good point? ANN COMPTON, ABC NEWS: Well, I want to cover one of those debates as a reporter, to have two or 300 presidential candidates that he mentioned are actually registered. Last time I looked, I think it was about 31 who are actually on the ballot.

The fact is, we had a taste of those big debates back in the beginnings of the Republican primary, seven candidates at once. They had to grandstand and pull out some gimmicks to try to get recognized. You know, there's no law that says it has to be a debate by the Presidential Debate Commission. If they were going to have a mixture of debates, a couple with just two candidates, a couple with a bigger field.

I just ask Phil Donahue, what's the line? What's the threshold? Don't you have to have some kind of threshold before you're included in a nationally televised debate?

KING: Phil, you want to...


KING: You may, and then we'll go to Paul. It's not a press conference of Phil. We're going to discuss other things, but go ahead, Phil.

DONAHUE: I think if you get through the roadblocks, the labyrinth of detours and the herculean effort to get your name on the presidential ballot in enough states that would mathematically make it possible for you to garner the 270 electoral votes needed to be elected, I think you should be in the debates. If that criteria were applied now, we would have seven candidates qualified, the two major parties and five others.

If -- let's put the seven candidates on the first debate. Let's let them go at it. Let's not be made nervous by -- by democracy. And then after the debates, take a look at -- maybe you want to take a look at the poll numbers. Maybe you want to see how the American people felt about them...

KING: All right.

DONAHUE: ... and then maybe you can do a winnowing process for the next, for the second and the third debate.

KING: Paul Begala, in a pure democracy, Mr. Donahue is hard to argue with, is he not?

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, "EQUAL TIME": Well, but there's already a winnowing process. I mean, I noticed in the first segment Phil pointed out that Ralph Nader had been on the "Donahue" show, one of the great shows of American television, more than anyone else. He's been famous for 35 years. Pat Buchanan was the host of "CROSSFIRE" here on CNN. He's famous all across the country. And, you know, in today's CNN poll, Ralph Nader's at 2 percent, Pat Buchanan's at 1.

That is democracy. People are speaking, and they basically want a serious debate between the two most serious candidates. One of these two men, Bush or Gore, will be our next president.

I think Phil makes some good points. Fifteen percent is maybe too high, but I'm telling you, 2 percent and 1 percent is just too darn low to put into a debate, when the reality is one of these other two men, Bush or Gore, is going to be our president. We'd better be about the serious business of examining where they stand on the record.

KING: And, Ed Rollins, you're a longtime strategist. Does Phil make good arguments?

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I hope his candidate does extremely well. I hope he takes a whole bunch of votes away from Al Gore, and I can guarantee you my candidate, George Bush, the presidency.

I think the bottom line is we have a very, very close election, probably the closest we've had in a long, long time. This debate is going to be the focus of an awful lot of Americans, who are going to basically choose between one of these two men who are going to be next president of the United States.

Mr. Nader has obviously made a lot of impact in the course of his life. He's been a catalyst for a lot of change, and he's done some significant things. But I think the reality is he's not going to be president, and in this particular debate I don't think he'd be a constructive force.

KING: Now, Phil, that's one of the arguments that hurts you, is that Ed Rollins, who's working for George Bush, hopes you succeed.

DONAHUE: Well, I think Ed Rollins should take another look at his analysis. I believe there are significant numbers of conservatives out there who feel as Ralph Nader does, that we shouldn't -- that WTO opens the doors for the threatening of jobs in this nation.

I think there are a significant number of conservatives who believe as Ralph Nader does, that -- that our war on drugs is -- we have people like former Secretary of State George Schulz is saying our drug war isn't working. Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist wants to take another look at this, William F. Buckley -- Mr. Rollins should not presume that Ralph Nader draws from only the liberals.

ROLLINS: If you read the polls, when Nader was doing well, Gore wasn't doing well. And since the convention, as Gore has bought back Democrat liberal votes, he's done much better. Sure, there's conservatives that are for everything, but the reality is it's a very small number who are -- support the positions that you outline there today. And I think the reality is that we're talking about this debate, and this debate basically is a debate between the two men who are going to be the next president of the United States, one of them, and I think that's what's important.

KING: Ann, do you think there's any chance of Nader getting on the debates if there's some sort of assault on the Internet as Phil proposes?

COMPTON: Oh, I suppose it's possible. It's probably better for Nader to do it at the front end of the process. They have one debate every week for about three weeks, and the later it goes the less advantageous to him.

But there's also no rule that there has to be a presidential commission debate. They could come on LARRY KING LIVE, they could do any kind of format they wanted, broadening out.

You know, for the years I've covered the White House and politics, some of the best and most revealing appearances candidates and presidents have made is in another kind of forum. Tomorrow, Al Gore -- we're with him in Miami tonight, but tomorrow in Michigan he does an MTV appearance. And it's not only fraught with a little bit of risk, but it's a kind of fun way to see a deeper and another side of a candidate.

KING: We'll take a break and come back with more. We'll include our panel and discuss lots of other issues, as well.

Don't go away.


GORE: The other side seems to put a lot of trust in those HMOs. And that's simply an area where we disagree. Their plan would force seniors into HMOs, and their plan would make seniors go beg the HMOs and insurance companies for prescription drug coverage, even if the HMOs don't want to provide it.

If I'm entrusted with the presidency, I will block any effort to turn Medicare over to the HMOs and the insurance companies.




JIM LEHRER, MODERATOR: First question goes to Governor Clinton for two minutes, and Ann will ask it.

COMPTON: Governor Clinton, can you tell us what your definition of the word "family" is?


KING: Ann Compton, is the podium the best way to learn about candidates?

COMPTON: Oh, Larry, I think you have to use every available format there is. Standing at the podium, the big problem is that candidates have these little rehearsed lines. We see them say it on the stump speeches all the time. What I really want to see is something spontaneous, showing some thought, showing some reaction, some heart and some humanness. And I think the podium is probably the least good, although sitting down at a little table with two candidates or three candidates alone, talking to each other, probably we'll never see it, but that would be my vote for the best format.

KING: Paul, what do you make of this Gore team getting a videotape of the Bush team practicing? What's going on?

BEGALA: You know, I've been at this, I guess, about 17 years. I've never seen anything like it. But if you go back 20 years, that happened with Ronald Reagan. You know, the Republicans got hold of Jimmy Carter's debate briefing book, and they kept it. And they used it. It was a dirty deal.

I'm real proud of the Gore campaign and Tom Downey, who was originally supposed to play Governor Bush in the mock debates, for taking whatever this was and turning it over to the FBI, saying, look, we don't want this. We don't know where it came from. But it's really a crummy deal.

The only person that's been hurt in this, of course, is Al Gore, because he lost his best Bush debate stand-in, and he got me to substitute.

KING: Ed Rollins, what do you make of this whole thing?

ROLLINS: I think to a certain extent it's a lot about nothing. I do think that the Gore campaign handled it extremely well in turning the debate -- the tape over to the FBI.

I mean, clearly, in 1980 when we received a tape, we didn't know what to do with it. No one basically used to it prep Reagan, and I think that the reality is that Reagan would have won the debate pretty easily.

Where debates do matter, though -- and I take issue with someone who said they didn't -- is in 1980 Ronald Reagan was behind before the first debate. And once he could stand on the stage, people could see he wasn't all the things that Jimmy Carter and his people had said about him and that he was a man that obviously was very reasonable and very articulate, it helped him and helped him immeasurably.

KING: Phil, you've repeated many times how important they are. Is there a format that's better than another?

DONAHUE: I'd like to see the presidential candidates in a room all by themselves, with no moderator whatsoever, free to speak, interrupt, raise any issue they want to. I think we would be instructed by the issues that they chose to speak about, did they interrupt too much or not enough, how did they respond to the questions absolutely uncontaminated by anybody, any reporters, any moderator. Put them in a room, turn on the cameras, and let's watch and see what happens.

KING: Didn't you do that once?

DONAHUE: I did it with Governor Clinton and Jerry Brown on the stage, all by themselves. And the Clinton people wanted me to be on the stage -- why I'm not sure -- but I just pulled back and let the two of them go at it.

BEGALA: And I was one of those Clinton people actually, Phil, and I was there for that debate. And it turned out to be a terrific debate. As somebody who supports Gore, I'd like to see it. Because, you know, you've really got -- I know you kept talking about the two parties that are here and there, and there are some issues they agree on -- but you've got important distinctions here.

You've got Al Gore, who wants a real patients' bill of rights, you've got Bush who's got one straight out of the HMO industry. You've got Al Gore who wants prescription drugs in the Medicare program, you've got Bush who's got a plan straight from the pharmaceutical industry. You've got Al Gore who wants to raise the minimum wage, you've got Bush who doesn't even want a national minimum wage. And most of all, you've got this huge American surplus that Bush wants to give half of it away in a tax cut to the very rich.

KING: Ann, how do you explain, Ann, this fluctuating polls? Bush is ahead by 19, Gore's ahead by 11. Today, Bush is ahead by two. Is the public nuts?

COMPTON: No, and not all polls are created equal. We're into an interesting time, though, because what's called a tracking poll, one that takes a sample every single night then gives you a total for over a three-day period, gives you not a snapshot but a trend of where it's going. And -- but all polls aren't created equal. Some have a very high undecided factor, probably haven't asked the right questions or pushed hard enough for an answer. So I think you take a look at a lot of polls, you take a look at a lot of factors in it, and you don't take any of them as gospel.

KING: What does the strategist -- how does a strategist use it, Ed Rollins?

ROLLINS: Well, to watch trends, to see if you're commercials are working. Nightly tracking can drive you crazy if you basically look at the head-to-head count.

One of the difficulties I think we have today is we have too many polls. I think today we have an election that's pretty even. We have two political parties that are about even in numbers, and both parties are supporting their candidates 90 percent or better, which is very unique. So what's bouncing back and forth are kind of these independent, undecided voters that are a small segment of the electorate. And the reality is that those are the people who want to look at a debate, look at the two candidates and obviously make a choice as to which way they go.

KING: And will they, Ed, be the ones that elect the next president?

ROLLINS: Oh, sure. There's no question. I don't think any Republicans are going to move away from Bush, and I don't think any Democrats are going to move away from Gore, so it's really this 10 percent that is undecided or that's truly independent today that's going to make difference.

KING: So all the debates, all this...

DONAHUE: What about the 50 percent who don't vote? What about the 50 percent who don't vote at all?

KING: Yes, what about...

ROLLINS: Well, I wish they did vote. But unfortunately, no matter what kind of campaign that's ever been run, they don't vote. And the reality is that if they were interested in your candidate or other candidates and chose to participate, they certainly have that option. But most people today just don't think it really matters in their life, and particularly younger people, which I find very disturbing that they're the least likely to vote.

KING: Ann...

DONAHUE: They are this year.

KING: Ann, all of this, the debates, the programs, the appearances, all of this is to appeal to 10 percent of the electorate? The other 90 know what they're going to do?

COMPTON: That seems to be the way it's going, although when the candidates are out here on the trail, they're obviously talking mostly to groups that are predisposed to like them.

Al Gore is talking about Medicare here in Miami, George Bush is on the West Coast talking about education. So you are reaching people through the regular news coverage and through your advertising. And it -- but it is that center group that you're trying to get, not the people who are committed.

KING: We'll take a break and be back with more, include some phone calls for Phil Donahue, Ann Compton, Paul Begala, Ed Rollins.

Governor Bush and Laura will be here tomorrow night for the full hour.

On Thursday night, Vice President Gore and Tipper will be here for the full hour.

In between on Wednesday night, coach Bobby Knight.


We'll be right back.


BUSH: When more than half of high school teachers say they have been threatened or abused by students, we're in the midst of an education recession.

When 68 percent of fourth graders in our highest poverty schools cannot read a simple children's book, America faces an education recession.

For the next three days, I will focus on America's education recession and propose plans to make sure that we solve it and that not one single child in this country is left behind.




GORE: Their budget plan spends more on a tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers than their budget invests in health care, prescription drugs, education and national defense all combined. I think those are the wrong priorities.


KING: To Milford, Kansas -- hello.

CALLER: Hello, Larry. My question is for Phil.

KING: Go ahead.

CALLER: Phil -- Phil, do you think that if we eliminated the electoral vote and changed to a popular-vote system that more parties could be heard and more candidates would have a chance to be heard?

DONAHUE: I certainly think that's worthy of consideration. I also support Ralph Nader's call for same-day voter registration. I think six states have it or five, a very small number. But obviously in the new age now, we ought to -- it's too hard to vote. There's too much to go through. It's too hard to be a candidate. The major parties have set up incredible road blocks to ensure that they have the party, I say the party, of running this nation all to themselves. And there's a growing, a growing, resentment across the Heartland about this, and it's going to express itself in a vote for Ralph Nader.

KING: Is there still a good argument for the electoral college, Paul Begala?

BEGALA: Well, there is. I kind of have to say I go back and forth on this. The good argument for it is that the woman calling from Milford, Kansas would never again see a presidential candidate if we lost the electoral college, because it does put a premium on smaller states if they're sort of swing states. The candidates are going to spend a fair amount of time in places like Missouri, which is not that big a state, or in Nevada, Arizona. If we lost the electoral college, you'd spend all time in New York, California, Florida, Texas.

KING: But practically, isn't it fair? Whoever gets the most votes wins.

BEGALA: No, that's not the way we set it up. I've always -- I'm kind of like, you know, one of these people I just play the game. You set the rules and I'll play the game. But you'd have a fundamentally different campaign, and I do think smaller states would suffer.

KING: Ed, what do you think?

ROLLINS: I'm for a democratically elected president. I think one of the tragedies of this system is that sooner or later we're going to have an accident again in which, maybe this time, where someone wins the electoral vote and doesn't win the general election vote. And I think when that happens, it'll be an outrage. It's happened a couple of times in our history before.

Here you have an election in which California, New York, Texas, the three largest states, are going to have absolutely no campaigns going on by the presidential campaigns, because they're in one camp or the other, and obviously, there are millions of voters in those states that have a right to hear from the various candidates, and they won't particularly hear from them, because people are now focusing on the smaller states, because that's where the electoral margin may end up being.

KING: And Ann, that could happen, very well happen in a close election, could it not?

COMPTON: Well, yes, I suppose it could. But look, we're here in Florida, which has suddenly become a race. It's important because of the electoral votes. And the candidates really do have a strategy. I'm not sure quite how they'd go about it if they didn't have electoral college giving some weight to a geographic spread.

A worse problem is how you handle the primaries, whether you have big states, little states, everything in New Hampshire first or Iowa. I think that's a knottier problem for the parties.

KING: Back with our remaining moments on this edition of LARRY KING LIVE right after this.


BUSH: The vice president offers fads and fashionable theories. Just the other day, the secretary of education announced Gore's new three R's for American education: "Relationships, resilience and readiness."

Now, that sounds nice.


But what happened to reading?




KING: Buffalo, New York for our panel, hello.

CALLER: Hello. I'd like to ask this of Phil Donahue.

KING: Sure.

CALLER: I believe that if the Republicans do things to a Democratic governor or president, and the Democrats do something to a Republican Democrat, all the Congress gang up on them. What chance do you think, on the outside chance, that Phil -- that Nader would get in, what chance do you think he would have in doing anything? I think they would just all gang up against him.

KING: Yes. How -- well-asked. How could an independent candidate work with Congress?

DONAHUE: We've never even had the opportunity to even think about this possibility. It's so foreign to think about a -- somebody other than a Republican or a Democrat to be president. We can't even imagine it.

I mean, in the Western democracies all over the world feature more than two candidates, and they're still standing. It can happen.


ROLLINS: I differ. Eight years ago at the end of the primary process, 39 percent of the voters in America said they wanted Ross Perot. He was leading all three candidates, and a lot of thought was put into how he would deal with the Congress and what have you, just as a Ventura has to deal with a legislature that's made up of Democrats and Republicans.

The bottom line is you have to have some appeal beyond just parties to get elected in this country, and I think the reality is that we've had a two-party system since 1860. This is the time for us to let a very closely divided election make their choices.

KING: Paul, why is the two party system the best?

BEGALA: Because it can expand as third parties come in the way Perot did in 1992 or the way Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan are trying to this time. They can expand and accommodate them, but they do give us an essential stability in the center, and I think that's useful.

European democracies may be entertaining, but I don't know, the Italians have had 67 governments since the Second World War. I think the stability that we get out of two parties is very useful, and they do sharpen the distinctions. I just want to come back to this point.

The statistic that the vice president had in that sound bite you played earlier is astonishing. Bush will take the surplus and give more away to the top 1 percent than he'll spend on health care and education and national defense and prescription drugs combined.

Now, I mean, I guess, Larry, if, you know, this book keeps selling, maybe I'll be in that top 1 percent, I'll change my tune. But I mean, that's a sin.

KING: Ann, do you think two-party system is absolutely the best?

COMPTON: Well, I don't know whether it's the best, but I can't imagine what would happen in Congress if there were an independent president and the two parties still in control of most of the seats of Congress, whether it would shatter the party lines and whether ideology and issues would come to the surface.

KING: He would, though, have a lot -- he or she would have a lot of clout by being president, would he not? Perot said that, he would call them both in.

COMPTON: Anybody elected with a big mandate has a lot of clout with Congress. Remember, Ronald Reagan in his first term worked very closely with House Democrats and got those budget and tax cuts.

KING: I thank you all very much. Phil, it's always good seeing you. We need to see you more.

DONAHUE: Thank you very much, Larry., It's all there for your review. Go Ralph!

KING: And Ann Compton in Miami and Paul Begala in Washington, Paul's book is, "Is Our Children Learning? -- The Case Against George W. Bush." And Ed Rollins, the longtime political strategist, from San Francisco.

Tomorrow night, the governor of Texas, George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, will be here for the full hour. On Wednesday night, former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight will be aboard for the full hour. And Thursday night, the vice president of the United States, Al, and his wife, Tipper, Gore will be here.

Thanks for joining us. I'm Larry King in Los Angeles. Good night.



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