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Will Distraction Stories Dominate the First Presidential Debate?

Aired September 29, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, campaign countdown: Four days until Bush and Gore square off in their first debate, are the candidates getting thrown off course by accusations of campaign spying?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

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

In the CROSSFIRE Bob Shrum, a senior adviser to the Gore campaign. And in Austin, Texas, Ed Gillespie a Bush adviser.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Coming down the home stretch of campaign 2000, and if you've only followed the most dominant stories, you'd think Bush and Gore were contenders for the president of animal kingdom. While the punditocracy is Obsessed with rats, moles and dogs, the candidates are consumed with economics, education, energy and the environment.

Today, both the vice president and Texas governor got into the nitty gritty of Alaskan energy exploration.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our opponents would have us choose between a clean environment and energy security. That is a false and outdated choice. We can achieve both if we make responsible decisions.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The vice president says he would rather protect this refuge than gain the energy, but this is a false choice. We can do both, taking out energy and leaving only footprints.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: It may bore the pundits, but voters seem to actually like the candidate's focus on issues. After enjoying an unusually strong and lengthy bounce off his convention -- it was the kiss that kept on giving -- recent polls show either a Gore -- Gore in either a dead heat or a Bush lead. Gore has not topped Bush in six days of CNN/"USA Today" Gallup poll tracking, and trails him today 46- 44 percent, with Ralph Nader drawing 4 percent and Pat Buchanan an astounding asterisk.

And as if there won't be enough to debate, with the first encounter only days away, long-dormant issues are resurfacing, campaign finance reform and abortion just to name two.

So tonight, so much to debate, such little time. But which issues move voters? And with so many to choose from, do the campaign- foible distraction stories keep voters from real substance? And does this put even more weight on the already eagerly anticipated debate.

PRESS: Ed Gillespie, good evening.

ED GILLESPIE, Good evening, Bill.

PRESS: Ed, we see you here in the studio, then we see you in Philadelphia, now we see you in Austin. Do you have a hard time holding down one job, Ed? Is that the problem?

GILLESPIE: I have a long resume, Bill.

PRESS: Getting longer, Ed.

GILLESPIE: That's right.

PRESS: Ed, in my few years in politics, I've heard a lot of politicians say a lot of dumb things. I think the dumbest I ever heard today was Governor Bush to say that you can move into a wilderness area, move in with bulldozers, with trucks, with land movers, with drilling equipment, drill for oil, and walk away and leave only footprints.

Ed, as an environmentalist, I've heard that BS from oil companies for years and years and years. You know it's a lie, don't you?

GILLESPIE: The fact is bill, you can. This is not the '70s. Technology has come a long way in terms of gas exploration and the technology to get in and out of the ground. In fact, the vice president's own Department of Energy noted in a recent study that the area that's covering have Prudhoe Bay, which is very close to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, if that were to be built today it would be only one-third the size that it covers now because it was built so long ago.

The fact is that you can extract oil from the wildlife refuge while protecting the environment. This notion that you cannot do both is a false choice., and it's time for people to get -- this is the 2000s, and We need to realize that you can do both.

PRESS: Ed, you have been brainwashed down there in Austin. It would leave -- I mean, it just simply cannot be done. The footprints you leave are pipelines. The footprints you leave are roads. This is a wilderness area where there's nothing. How can you say that you can totally change a wilderness area and then leave and have no impact? GILLESPIE: I...

PRESS: It's just -- no rational person would believe that.

GILLESPIE: Bill, let me say it again. The technology has developed where you can drill and get oil out of the ground without harming the environment. And the fact is we need to find ways to encourage domestic exploration, because one of the problems we've had for the past seven and a half years while this administration has been -- in Bill Richardson, the energy secretary's words -- asleep at the switch or caught napping -- I'm sorry, caught napping is what he said.

We have allowed ourselves to become increasingly dependent on foreign oil. That's not a good posture to be in. And the reason that they're tapping into the strategic reserve today is because they have been tapped out when it comes to energy policy. And they're making us more reliant on Saddam Hussein and others around the world to influence our economy. And that's wrong.

PRESS: All right, let me let you believe your fairy tale for now and just ask you one final question on this issue. Let's assume you go into ANWR, as George Bush wants to do, even the Bush campaign today admitted it could be at least four or five years, maybe longer, before there's any oil out of there. What relief is that proposal going to provide to the consumers, the homeowners of northeastern United States who are going to be paying through the nose for higher heating oil prices this year? What relief?

GILLESPIE: Well that wasn't the only proposal that Governor Bush made today, if you didn't notice. There were actually 20 proposals, including increasing the funding for low-income heating and energy costs for those in the Northeast and also establishing a home-heating oil preserve to be managed for the Northeast, as well. So there are other things we can do in the short term.

But look, the real problem we have is a long-term problem. It's a problem of a failure of leadership on the part of Vice President Gore's administration, and we're going to have to make some long-term fixes if we're not going to be increasing the reliance, perhaps needing as much as two-thirds of our energy supplies coming from foreign producers in the next 20 years. That would be a terrible position for this country to be in, and we need to have some long-term solutions. And Governor Bush laid out a comprehensive plan today that would be great for American consumers.

PRESS: Mary.

MATALIN: Thank you.

He also said, Ed, just to point out, many things today other than what Bill is calling a fairy tale, with which we have, by the way -- and we'll get to in a minute -- three decades of experience in extracting oil environmentally safely.

PRESS: Like Bakersfield, California?

MATALIN: Do you want to do the whole show by yourself or can I get in one question?

PRESS: This is a fairy tale.

MATALIN: The Audubon Society has at least three sites that they have overseen for three decades where oil was environmentally cleanly extracted.

SHRUM: Mary, the problem with all this...

MATALIN: May I talk?

SHRUM: No, no, no, I get to talk once.

MATALIN: No, excuse me, you get to talk...

SHRUM: I get to talk once.

MATALIN: You get to talk, but, see, I get to ask the questions.

SHRUM: But you...

MATALIN: I'm going to ask one question here...

SHRUM: Well what is it going to be?

MATALIN: ... unless you two want to do the whole show. I want you to hear something else that Bush said today, because clearly what he has said has been misrepresented here so far. Just take one little listen, and then I'll ask a question.


BUSH: Let me put it plainly. Oil consumption is increasing, our production is dropping, our imports of foreign oil are skyrocketing, and this administration has failed to act.


MATALIN: Now let me just ask you about what your response to that has been, the failure of this administration. "The New York Times"' Tom Friedman (ph), no friend of Bush, calls it "demonizing big oil." "The Washington Post," no friend of Bush, says you're practicing demagoguery. Now just let me ask you this in real terms. If the big oil, the big, bad, mean, big oil is so powerful, why was oil at $10 a barrel for the past several years.

SHRUM: Mary, I'm glad you finally got to the question. And the first thing I'm going to say to you is, I love your position and Ed's. It's basically, let the oil candidates say, let's trust the oil companies to safeguard the environment. No one is going to buy that. In fact, the Republican chairman of the Senate Environmental Committee said the last thing we should do is go into the pristine wilderness of Alaska for a six-month supply of oil.

I love it when Ed says we have long-term energy needs so we have to invade the Arctic National Wilderness. We get six months supply of oil, and we get it in about 10 years.

MATALIN: So you're...

GILLESPIE: Bob, we get as much oil out of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve as the Iraqi government is supplying to us today. And I'd rather be getting it from our own country. Remember, you're highlighting one component of a 20-component plan here. There are a lot of other long-term solutions Governor Bush made today.

SHRUM: Well, I am highlighting it because I think it tells us a lot about the environmental priorities of the Bush administration. But let me tell you, a three-mile additional fuel efficiency in automobiles would replace that Iraqi oil, and that's a lot better than going into Alaska and invading one of the last great natural wildernesses in this country.

MATALIN: So Mr. Technology, Mr. 21st Century, Mr. Your Guy denies what your own administration is putting out, that this technology to not -- to decrease our dependency on foreign oil exists, and you guys still don't want to use it.

SHRUM: No, no, wait a minute. The administration has never advocated going into the Alaska National Wilderness. The Prudhoe Bay statistic that was just cited by Ed basically says would be a third smaller if it were built today. The problem with the Arctic...

GILLESPIE: No, no, Bob, a third of the size. That's inaccurate, a third of the size.

SHRUM: Got it -- got it -- got -- got it -- got it. The problem with the Arctic National Preserve is that the 7 percent that contains oil is all over the place, and you have to build roads and you have to build infrastructure. And you're not going to leave footprints, your going to leave sludge, abandoned roads, all sorts of oil facilities, and you're going to destroy one of the last great natural preserves.

What's happening here is that George Bush is using the excuse of higher gasoline prices to let his oil-company friends go in to the Alaskan National Wilderness. It's a very bad idea.

MATALIN: No, that is not what is happening here. In the past eight years, there's been no energy policy. The energy secretary said, as Ed said, you were caught napping. There is no...

SHRUM: No, no...

MATALIN: There has not been one refinery opened...

SHRUM: There has been.

MATALIN: ... domestic production is only 18 percent.

SHRUM: Oh, Mary, I was waiting for you to say this because the Bush people keep saying it. Do you know that under Reagan, Quayle and Bush refinery capacity in this country declined 18 percent and in the last eight years capacity at refineries has gone up 8 percent. PRESS: All right...

SHRUM: And the other thing Governor Bush wants to do is use this as an excuse to take away the environmental regulations on siting refineries.

PRESS: All right

SHRUM: Maybe they'll build one next to your farm in Virginia.

PRESS: Ed Gillespie, I want to move on to another issue, please. We're not going beat energy more to death than we have.

And I want to talk to you about the FDA approval of RU-486, which Governor Bush said he disapproved of. Yesterday, Congressman J.C. Watts, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said that the next administration, if it's a Bush administration, would reverse the FDA decision.

Now, of course J.C. Watts does not speak for Governor Bush, but you do. I want to ask you tonight, if elected, would Governor Bush overrule the FDA decision on RU-46?

GILLEPSIE: Bill, it's not apparent that the president has the power to overrule that, to rescind a regulation as issued by the FDA. I think he would look closely at it, but the fact is the assumption the president has that power is not an accurate one.

PRESS: I think you're correct on that.

GILLEPSIE: He disagrees with that.

PRESS: I think you're correct on that point, So now there are Republican congressman who are saying they would introduce legislation to block distribution of that drug in the United States. My next question, you speak for Governor Bush, if he were elected, would he sign legislation as was reported today to block distribution of RU- 486?

GILLEPSIE: Again, Bill, I don't know that you can pass such legislation because of the requirements surrounding the FDA. And it would have to be done on the basis of whether it's safe and medically, you know, it's been scientifically tested. The fact is that this is something, you know, Governor Bush disagrees with the decision and has said so.

PRESS: Ed, you can certainly make a drug illegal. I mean, Congress has already done that. Congress can pass a bill making this drug illegal. I believe the American people have a right to know. This is a major decision.

Are politicians going to decide or are scientists going to decide? I listened to all things considered tonight, and they quoted Bush campaign officials as saying that if elected president, George Bush would sign a bill that would block or ban distribution of this pill in the United States. I want to know, is that correct? We have a right to now.

GILLESPIE: No, no. They weren't quoting this campaign official. I have not had a chance to talk to the governor this...

PRESS: So you don't know.

GILLEPSIE: ... about whether or not he's signing a bill, and I don't -- I do not know the answer to your question. I know the answer about the FDA reversal. I don't know the answer to a legislative approach.

PRESS: OK, honest man, doesn't know the answer and its time to say so.

We're going take a break right now. Are you having fun yet? Well, you're going to have even more fun because we're only halfway through.

When we come back, we've got a lot more issues to get into including soft money and vouchers and who knows what else? We'll be back with more CROSSFIRE.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

With national polls showing this race for the White House an absolute dead heat, Al Gore and George Bush keep looking for break out issues, Bush tried energy today, Gore tried soft money, floating a proposal to ban all soft money which Bush rejected. So which issues are tracking and whose issues are winning?

Tonight, for objective, impartial, nothing-but-the-truth answers, we ask two totally biased political consultants: Ed Gillespie, adviser to the Bush campaign in Austin, Texas, and Bob Shrum, senior adviser to the Gore-Lieberman campaign here in the studio -- Mary.


SHRUM: Mary.

MATALIN: Can we try to have -- I want to have a follow-up question on the abortion issue. A very emotional issue, but I want to have it calmly with a sophisticated, 21st-century man, whom you are.

Even pro-life people who do not have -- do not want to make that choice for you have become appalled with where the debate has gone. We are now -- here's where your side stand.

We are not against this legislation on the hill which is the right to life for infants who survive abortions. We are now for partial-birth abortions, your side is, which the American Medical Association says is never medically necessary. It's not a women's health issue, and Moynihan calls infanticide.

An your guy went on "Meet the Press" and said a woman on death row could exercise her right to have an abortion. Shouldn't the 21st- century debate on it focus less on the right and more on the choice? Wouldn't that be the right way to go here?

SHRUM: Well, I think it should focus on the choice, Mary. And the first thing I want to say is it should be no surprise that Governor Bush would sign a bill to out law RU-486 because he's committed to sign legislation, if it can pass, to outlaw a woman's right to choose. So that doesn't surprise me at all.

And frankly, for example, with respect to whole question of partial-birth abortion, Democrats have offered time and time and time again to pass legislation to deal with this issue, if the Republicans would just accept an exception for the health of the mother. Grievous physical danger to the health of the mother and the Republicans won't accept that.

So I think it would be good to have a truly civil debate on this, and that begins by recognizing that in an America where women have the right to choose, medical science should make decisions about what drugs are available, not a bunch of politicians.

MATALIN: The AMA, let me repeat again, says partial-birth abortions are never medically necessary. Let me go back to Bill Clinton, okay, who said, and this kind of where the country is, if we don't outlaw abortion we should make it rare, safe and legal, but rare.

This RU-487...

PRESS: RU-486,

MATALIN: RU-486 -- we're not even allowed to say that, the pill formally known by a number. Now we just can't call it the abortion pill here -- was advocated by an advocate for it saying because it happens so early it might make the procedure more, and I'm using her words, socially acceptable for many people. More mainstream. Is the point here in the 21st century debate to make abortion mainstream and socially acceptable?

SHRUM: No, I think the point is to provide the best medical means necessary for women to exercise their right to choose and RU-486 is that.

And before you repeat your point again in a question, requoting the AMA, I'd like you to at least respond to the notion that Democrats are willing to pass this legislation if Republicans will just agree to an exception if there is grievous physical danger to the health of the mother. Republicans won't accept it.

MATALIN: That is -- guess I'm not allowed to answer that.

PRESS: Al Gore this week made a proposal to George Bush, he said let's ban all soft money, agree to ban all soft money for the rest of the campaign. George Bush summarily rejected it. Didn't sit too will with the father of campaign reform. Here's what John McCain said to the Associated Press -- quote -- "I would have liked for him" -- Bush -- "to accept our offer, and I feel it was mistake not to."

So we're to conclude that George Bush doesn't support campaign reform any more in the general than he did in the primary, is that right, Ed?

GILLESPIE: Well, no. The fact is -- as you know -- the governor is for campaign finance reform -- meaningful campaign finance reform. And, in fact, he is in favor of a soft-money ban, and also in favor of allowing union workers to decide whether or not they want their contributions to go to a specific candidate of their own choosing, rather than having their dues compulsorily taken from them and given to a candidate.


PRESS: Why did he reject this one?

GILLESPIE: Well, the fact is that the same day that Vice President Gore announced this offer, he had launched a soft-money- funded attack ad against Governor Bush. A report came out the same day that noted that outside groups are spending soft money 3-1 attacking Governor Bush.

And it also noted in "The New York Times" that same day that, once again, Vice President Gore has demonstrated this clear and consistent pattern of an unwillingness or inability to abide by campaign finance laws very carefully -- and noticed that his legal compliance fund was being -- raising money for it to sell -- to buy advertising on television.

And I'm sure Bob Shrum is buying as we speak.

PRESS: But Ed...

GILLESPIE: So the fact is, if you're going to count on somebody to abide by a handshake, they ought demonstrate they can at least abide by the law first.

PRESS: But Ed, this proposal was not Al Gore's proposal. This proposal came from John McCain and Russ Feingold. Nobody just -- nobody doubts their credentials in campaign reform. They sent the proposal to George Bush and to Al Gore. Al Gore accepted. George Bush rejected.

Are you -- and by the way, McCain and Feingold were going to be the monitors of this agreement. Are you saying George Bush doesn't trust John McCain and Russ Feingold on campaign reform?

GILLESPIE: I'm saying that Governor Bush looks forward to -- after he is elected -- working with both Senator McCain and Senator Feingold to enact meaningful campaign finance reform. The McCain- Feingold bill is something that can be -- I think there's something between what Governor Bush is for and that bill that can be done. I would just -- I can't help pointing out: Al Gore, one his of other exaggerations of course, was he was the original sponsors of McCain-Feingold, failing to notice that he had been out of the Senate by the time Senator Feingold got into the Senate. So this is -- it just doesn't -- you can't enforce something like this with someone who is unwilling to -- as I say, has a history of the Buddhist temple and...


GILLESPIE: And when it comes to campaign finance reform, Al Gore is not exactly the best guy to be talking about it.


SHRUM: This has been an endless filibuster, throwing out everything you could.

MATALIN: Well, hurry up. Go on. Make your


SHRUM: I'm going to say something very simple. The Bush campaign signed an agreement to have debates. They trust that the debates are going to occur. They could sign this agreement. We could ban soft money. And frankly, anybody who violated it would automatically lose the election. This is just a lot of double-talk to get around this, because the Republican National Committee intends to spent a huge amount of soft money.

And you know it, Mary. You used to preside over that.

MATALIN: And your special-interest groups have already spent 10 times more than they have. I'm sorry. We got to go. We got to go.


SHRUM: Mary, and by the way, the Republican's special-interest groups outspent Democrats by 10-1 in


MATALIN: We got to go! And when we come back, more closing comments.


MATALIN: Oh, my God. We will keep going while you're gone. But you come back after the break.

Stay with us.


PRESS: Big news for next week. We are we live before a studio audience at George Washington University, focusing on campaign 2000 and the first presidential and vice presidential debates, of course. Don't miss it.

Mary, I'm showing my age, but I started in this game in 1973 as an environmental lobbyist. I've served on boards of three different environmental organizations in California. I got to tell you, this idea that you can drill and have no impact is total nonsense.

MATALIN: The idea that we have to be in perpetuity dependent on foreign oil at our own security risk is ludicrous. And that this administration has done nothing and has had no energy policy for eight years is another reason why people should vote for people who know something about energy, and that would be Bush-Cheney.

PRESS: Vote for clean energy and the future with Gore-Lieberman.

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

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin.

Have a wonderful weekend. And we'll see you next week for more CROSSFIRE.



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