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THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: This is INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King in Washington. Is Al Gore preparing to run for president again? We'll bat that question around with key Democrats.
MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Mike Boettcher in Nashville well Al Gore has reappeared after months out of public view.
KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Kelly Wallace in Crawford, Texas with the latest on stem cell research from the president and from the polls.
RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Rusty Dornin in Modesto, California with the fallout from an editorial urging Congressman Gary Condit to resign from Congress.
ANNOUNCER: Now, Judy Woodruff takes you INSIDE POLITICS.
KING: Thanks for joining us. Judy is off this week.
The American people have had several days now to absorb the president's approval of limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. And our new poll released just this hour suggests the public is, by and large, satisfied with the compromise. Mr. Bush spoke about his decision again today.
Our White House correspondent Kelly Wallace is covering the president's working vacation in Crawford, Texas -- Kelly.
WALLACE: Well, John, President Bush is defending his decision and issuing a bit of a warning to lawmakers. At the same time senior Bush advisers say this issue is a bit difficult to poll, but they believe the way the president outlined his decision is helping him win the support of the majority of the American people.
WALLACE (voice-over): It is not every day you see a president driving himself to an official event. President Bush signing a farm aid bill on his ranch and then sending a message to Congress that he'll block any efforts to expand embryonic stem cell research.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The statement I laid out was what -- is what I think is right for America. And any piece of legislation that undermines what I think is right will be vetoed.
WALLACE: While the president supports federal funding of research only on stem cells already extracted from human embryos, some lawmakers want to go further. Mr. Bush's decision does have the support of 60 percent of Americans, according to the latest CNN-"USA Today" Gallup poll, while 34 percent disapprove.
One group of particular interest to the Bush administration: Catholics, a key voting block. Even though some in the Catholic leadership, including Washington's Cardinal McCarrick, have expressed disappointment with Mr. Bush's decision. According to the CNN poll, 58 percent of rank-and-file Catholics support the president on this issue, while 33 percent do not.
JENNIFER LATKA, CATHOLIC CHURCHGOER: I am against it personally, so -- but I'm glad he's not, you know, putting federal funds toward any new lines of these cells.
WILLIAM BROWN, CATHOLIC CHURCHGOER: He's trying to have it both ways, and I think, unfortunately, he's going to find that on this issue, probably ultimately won't be able to have it both ways.
WALLACE: But since the president's announcement Thursday, some anti-abortion activists have accused him of condoning the destruction of human life. Mr. Bush would have none of that.
BUSH: I laid out the policy I think is right for America. And I'm not going to change my mind. I'm the kind of person that when I make up my mind, I'm not going to change it.
WALLACE: Senior Bush advisers acknowledge there's an ongoing scientific debate that they'll have to deal with but believe they've headed off a veto showdown with Congress over an alternate proposal -- John.
KING: Well, Kelly, you say they're confident they've headed off a potential veto showdown. On what do they base that? Even some Republicans out over the weekend saying they will push for legislation that goes beyond what the president wants.
WALLACE: Exactly. Although senior advisers say based on their consultations with lawmakers, they just don't believe either side has the votes, that those who want to broaden embryonic stem cell research, the White House does not believe that group has the votes, and then on the other side, those who want an outright ban on federal funding. So the view from the White House is that the president's compromise, his sort of middle-of-the-ground approach, has maybe taken away the momentum from lawmakers dealing with this issue. So they think again that they're not going to have to deal with legislation coming to the president's desk anytime soon -- John.
KING: All right, Kelly Wallace in Crawford, Texas, thank you very much. Now Mr. Bush's approval rating is up a couple of points in our new poll to 57 percent, another indication that his stem cell decision hasn't hurt him with the general public. For a closer look at the numbers and the reaction of key voting groups, we're joined here in Washington by our senior political analyst Bill Schneider.
Quite a debate raging among conservatives: the anti-abortion movement cultural conservatives about this decision. Some very much opposed to it; others say it's OK with them. Any evidence in the new poll that the president has been hurt on the right?
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No evidence of that, John. Let's take a look. Backlash among conservative, not at all. Sixty-four percent of conservatives say they approve of the president's decision. Anger among abortion opponents, not at all. Nearly 60 percent of Americans who call themselves pro-life support the decision even though some anti-abortion spokespersons have denounced it. Trouble with the religious right? Nope. Most of them liked it, too.
Opposition to the president's decision doesn't come mainly from the right, it comes from the left. Liberals and Democrats are the most critical. But you know, even they are not deeply hostile. Over 40 percent of liberals and Democrats say they agree with the president. That is an amazing degree of consensus on a highly divisive issue.
KING: What does the poll tell us about how this decision factors into the overall impressions of this president? He put education number one when he ran for president. Said he wanted to change the image of the Republican Party. Is he viewed as a different kind of Republican?
SCHNEIDER: Well, John, you will be shocked, shocked to discover that most people believe that there was politics involved in this decision. In fact, the majority said that they thought the president's decision was driven by political calculation, not by his own deeply held beliefs.
Now you remember during the campaign Bush did describe himself -- he advertised himself as a different kind of Republican. Now do people believe that about George Bush? Nope. Only a third say Bush is a new kind of Republican. Clinton regularly got higher numbers saying that he -- they thought, people thought he was a different kind of Democrat.
Did President Bush's decision here on stem cell research have any impact on that perception? Not much. Among people who approve of the president's decision, 38 percent call him a different kind of Republican. So the bottom line: Not much damage from the stem cell decision, but not a lot of political payoff either.
KING: On the one hand, though, people in this poll say they view the president as sincere.
KING: Yet more than half say they view this as a political decision. Aren't those at odds? SCHNEIDER: I don't think so. I think they thought that the president had strong views on this issue, and he stated a compromise that was driven by political calculation. And that compromise didn't violate his beliefs.
KING: All right, Bill Schneider, thank you very much.
KING: Now we turn to President Bush's former and perhaps future rival as Al Gore continues his return to the political stage with another appearance today in Nashville. He still isn't offering any hints about his plans, at least not publicly. But the mere fact that the former vice president has emerged from his self-imposed hibernation from politics is fueling a speculation boom.
We get more on Gore's day and his presidential prospects from CNN national correspondent Mike Boettcher.
BOETTCHER (voice-over): Two brief appearances in three days does not a political comeback make. But the now bearded Al Gore is making small, deliberate steps back into public life. His latest appearance: between sessions of a political academy for young Democrats held at Vanderbilt University.
AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good morning. How are you all doing? Saturday's walk by came during a bipartisan workshop also in Nashville. His own political future, though, was not a topic he would touch.
GORE: We're keeping the focus on these young people here.
BOETTCHER: The workshops themselves have been closed to the media, allowing him to keep somewhat of a low profile, although Gore did indicate he would be a very public campaigner during mid-term 2002 elections.
GORE: Me included.
BOETTCHER: Former aides say, expect to see him active in New York, Virginia and New Jersey campaigns.
CARTER ESKEW, FORMER GORE CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST: And that, again, is not necessarily a sign that he's going to run in '04. But no matter what the vice president decides to do, he will be active in politics. It doesn't necessarily have to be as I a candidate.
BOETTCHER: Future candidate or not, some Democrats have complained that Al Gore should not have effectively gone underground after his defeat, that he should have led opposition to President Bush's more conservative policies.
But a Republican strategist who attended Saturdays workshop believes Al Gore's extended vacation hasn't hurt him. MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think even in politics, you get a little vacation. And I think if Al Gore wants to get into the presidential race in a couple of years in the Democrat side in that primary, he'd be a very strong candidate.
BOETTCHER: As promised, the former vice president's appearance was not a Gore event marking his return to political life. But after months out of public view, it was an important first step in that direction. Mike Boettcher, CNN, Nashville.
KING: Now former Gore campaign strategist, Carter Eskew, is back here in Washington after taking part in that bipartisan workshop in Nashville over the weekend. I spoke with Eskew today in a coffee shop across from his Washington, D.C. office, and I asked him about the vice president -- former vice president's political plans.
ESKEW: I think politically, he is genuinely uncertain as to what he's going to do in 2004. He is going to remain committed to issues and to politics. He's going to campaign in this cycle for McGreevey in New Jersey and also for Warner in Virginia. And he's going to maintain an active schedule in the '02 races. But in terms of '04, I think he has not made up his mind.
Now in terms of his own timing, his own sort of political body clock, I think he has some advantages because of his stature within the party, because of his name recognition if nothing else, and the fact that he did win the presidency last time. So I think that he has a little time to wait to put that together.
KING: Let's go through some of the grumbling from Democratic Party fund-raisers, some key operatives, some of them who, frankly, feel that he blew, that he should have won with the incumbency, if you will, with the economy the way it was. One question asked quite frequently by Democrats is his relationship with former president Clinton. In your view, does he have some work do that their? Do they need to repair that relationship?
ESKEW: Yes, I think that they do. I think that's best for them personally. But I also think it's best for the party.
KING: But why? I mean, what's the state of the relationship?
ESKEW: Because they are the two presumptive leaders of the party. Obviously, one more kind of emeritus leader and the other an active leader. But I think it's in the best interest of the party for them to do that, and I think they've begun that process. They had a kind of famous meeting in the Oval Office where they aired some grievances. They had a good conversation at a funeral in Massachusetts for Congressman Moakley. So they're beginning to do that. And I think they will have that done in time for it to matter.
KING: Forgive me, but why does this have to be a process? These are two men who worked closely together for eight years. Yes they had some differences. That Oval Office meeting you mentioned described by sources familiar with it is quite testy. But a process? Sounds like therapy?
ESKEW: Well, I don't think it's -- I don't need to describe it in that way exactly. I just think that they, you know, they need a little bit of time and -- to heal the relationship. And I think they'll do it.
KING: Now he ran as a senator in a crowded field. Obviously, if he were to run again, many expect that he would have two, three, four, maybe more in terms of competition. Does that factor into his decision? Does that factor into the advice you, Carter Eskew, would give to him? If he said, "I'm torn about this," what do you think?
ESKEW: Well, I haven't discussed it with him, but I would say that he does have the advantage of having run in 1988 in a crowded field. And I think he knows enough to know that a race in '04 will be very different from 2000. I think he knows that it would be closer to 1988. And I think he would adjust his campaign to reflect that. So -- and I would certainly give him that advice. I mean, he is -- he has a very strong standing in the party as you know.
And I go back to something that you mentioned earlier about his prospects and his thinking. You know, one of the things that is interesting is he has been off the stage for six months. George Bush has been very much on the stage as president. I think the vice president made the right decision both politically and for the country, frankly, to give the new administration a period of time.
But the polls, in fact, on your own network show that if the race were held today between George W. Bush and Al Gore, it would be even. So I think either we're overestimating George W. Bush's strength or maybe underestimating Al Gore's. So I think he remains a very strong and viable candidate.
KING: How could he not run in that environment? Polls show him at dead heat.
ESKEW: Well, you know, the decision to run for the presidency, you know, remember, he's run twice -- '88 and 2000 -- is a very personal one. And as I said, he enjoys his private life. And I think one of the things that he's evaluating now is: How can he be most effective about the issues that he cares about -- the environment and arms control. Can he be more effective or as effective in the private sector or as a public figure but not directly in elective office, or does he need to run for the presidency to sort of push the issues that he cares about. And I think he's sorting that through.
KING: Two more quick thoughts. If you call people close to Tipper Gore, many of them say that she does not want to go through this again. (a) is that true, and (b) how much of a factor would that be in Al Gore's decision?
ESKEW: Well, I can tell you I haven't spoken to her, but I can tell you that she is a big factor in all the decisions that the vice president makes. So if she were, in fact, unalterably opposed to a run, I'm sure he would -- that would weigh very heavily in his decision making. But I don't know if that's the case.
KING: What does he say in discussions when the subject comes up of the bad feelings among many Democrats that in their view, this was his to win and that he gave it away. How does he answer that?
ESKEW: Well, I would distinguish between some Democratic insiders that live within the Beltway and the Democratic Party abroad. There, the vice president enjoys strong support. I don't disagree that among certain Democratic insiders, fund-raisers and others, there has been some grumbling. And I think that's to be expected. You know, there was a tremendous amount of disappointment given what happened in this outcome of this race. I mean, the agenda the Democrats care so much about has really been put under a lot of pressure. So sure, there's going to be some people looking for scapegoats.
But I think the vice president has reached out to a number of Democrats and will continue to do so. And frankly, I think it's more important what Democratic primary voters think of the vice president than certain Democratic insiders.
KING: And lastly, of course, the question all of America wants answered: What's up with the beard?
ESKEW: Well, actually, I saw him this weekend. I think he looks great. You know, as they say, he looks tanned, rested and ready and bearded.
KING: Can he run for president with a beard?
ESKEW: I think so. You know, it worked pretty well for Abe Lincoln.
KING: Other perspectives on Al Gore's future just ahead. We've assembled a panel to discuss the former vice president's support within the Democratic Party and his possible strategy. Stay with us. This is INSIDE POLITICS.
ANNOUNCER: Janet Reno on the stump. Ron Brownstein's field report from Florida is next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The audience in a room like this is the core of Reno's potential strength as a Democratic primary candidate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: Also ahead, the president's decision on stem cell research creating division among conservatives. We'll hear from both sides. And Gary Condit's future in Congress after a stinging editorial about his conduct in the Chandra Levy case.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We simply believe that his credibility in this area and his effectiveness are pretty much destroyed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, there's more of INSIDE POLITICS with Judy Woodruff straight ahead.
KING: Al Gore's return to the political spotlight this week leads to the inevitable question: Will he run for president again? We asked several strategists and state party leaders to join us to discuss Gore's political future. Democratic strategist David Axelrod is in Chicago. Kathleen Sullivan chairs the New Hampshire Democratic Party. She joins us from Manchester. And with us here in our Washington studios, Republican strategist Scott Reed.
David, to you first. A lot of bad blood, if you will, among Democratic operatives who feel the vice president, former vice president now frankly blew it. Can he run again? And if so, what does he need to do to repair those relations?
DAVID AXELROD, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, John, I think Scott can speak to this. The political community is full of armed chair Monday morning quarterbacks, and you know, I would say you're never as smart as you look when you win and you're never as dumb as you look when you lose. This guy got 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush and lost by the margin of a few hundred disputed votes after being counted out during various points of the political season, including against Senator Bradley in the primary by the inside-the-Beltway crowd. So I think it would be premature to write his political epitaph. I think if he ran, he'd still be the guy to beat.
KING: Well, Kathleen Sullivan, jump in on that point. Obviously, Senator Bradley, former senator Bill Bradley did challenge the vice president the last time, but he had a pretty easy path to the Democratic nomination. What is your sense of the ground up there early now but in New Hampshire looking ahead to 2004? Senator John Kerry has ventured north from Massachusetts. House minority leader Dick Gephardt has been there. How tough of a fight would the vice president face?
KATHLEEN SULLIVAN, NEW HAMPSHIRE DEMOCRATIC CHAIRWOMAN: Well, don't underestimate the reservoir of support and affection there is in New Hampshire for Al Gore. This is a state where the vice president spent a lot of time campaigning while he was vice president. And people are still saying to me, you know, "When are we going to see Al Gore? We're looking forward to seeing him."
Are there some other good candidates out there? Yes, there are. And we are starting to see them. So it's going to be a different type of primary if the vice president decides to run for what most of us are saying would be reelection. KING: Well, you say people are saying, "When are we going to go see Al Gore?" Are they hearing from Al Gore? People in Washington wondering why hasn't he been more outspoken? Why hasn't he criticized President Bush, say, on the environmental front? Is he at least making private telephone calls to the activists up there urging them to give him a little time?
SULLIVAN: I haven't heard too much about that, you know, with respect to Al Gore and whether he should or should not be speaking out. I think that a lot of the activists up here also recognize that if the vice president had come out and spoken out criticizing George W. Bush these last six months, a lot of people in Washington would have been all over him, you know, calling him a sore loser, saying the tradition is that you're supposed to give -- the loser is supposed to give the winner a chance to set forth his agenda and his policy before, you know, the person who he defeated comes out and starts criticizing him. So I think the vice president has done what is traditional.
You also have to remember the unusual circumstances here in that Al Gore actually did win that election. And I think most people, most activists Democrats up here think that it was just taken away from him.
KING: Let's add one more guest to our discussion. Dr. Sheila McGuire Riggs joins us from Des Moines. She is the chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party.
I just asked the New Hampshire chairwoman. Any evidence Al Gore activity in her state? How about in your state? Any evidence that behind the scenes, the vice president is calling activists and saying, "Don't commit to Gephardt. Don't commit to Kerry or Biden or anyone else. Give me a chance here"?
DR. SHEILA MCGUIRE RIGGS, IOWA DEMOCRATIC CHAIRWOMAN: No, I haven't heard that. And, in fact, what I'm hearing is that the vice president made the Iowa state Democratic Party much stronger. And we're in a better position to elect more Democrats to Congress and to keep the Senate.
KING: Scott Reed, any clues to be learned from that as someone who has run a presidential campaign, the Bob Dole campaign, back in 1996? Is the fact that Al Gore is not calling around asking people to hold tight evidence, in your view, that he won't run?
SCOTT REED, GOP STRATEGIST: I think that there's no doubt in my mind that he's going to run for president again and he's going to run in the year 2004. I mean, you do not get this far in national politics, winning one of the major party nominations without having this incredible drive in you to go out and want to win. And that's what Al Gore has. I think you're going to see it. He's faced with one big stumbling issue.
He has to deal with his relationship with Bill Clinton. It's nothing short of bizarre where during the last campaign, they didn't use Bill Clinton in the campaign at all. He went from calling him the most successful president in our history to not even talking to him for the last two months of the campaign. So he has to come with grips with that relationship. He's been quiet about it throughout the pardon scandal at end of the tenure. And I think until he comes to that, he's going to have a problem defining who he is as a man. And that hurt him during the last campaign.
KING: Well, both the former president Bill Clinton and now Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton planning on publishing books due out in 2003. Scott Reed, to you first. That a helpful or a hurtful dynamic if you are Al Gore thinking about running again?
REED: Well, I think by 2003, Gore will decide that he's going to run. And, you know, he wants five or six or seven other Democrats to run, because he's going to have a huge advantage and that the polls are going to show him in front. And he has the ability to click on this national fund-raising apparatus and be able to raise money. We all know those are the two things everybody watches.
Obviously, the books are going to have some little things in them that will be embarrassing for him. But again, he's got to define that relationship with Clinton before these books come out or it's going to defined for him. And it's the type of thing that will plague him during the next campaign.
KING: Well, David Axelrod, you close to both men and close to other people who are close to both men. Why is it after eight years of serving together in office that Democrats are talking about having to repair a relationship? Are things that bad?
AXELROD: Well, John, you covered the race and you understand that there were strategic differences at the end of the race as to how the former president should be used. When you reach that level of national politics, you don't get there with insubstantial ego. And both of them have it. And there were some hurt feelings over that. But I don't think that's what's going to define the 2004 election.
You know, what rings in my ears is what Al Gore said about George W. Bush in the last campaign, that he would be an opponent of the environment, that he would side with the oil industry too readily, that he would spend down the surplus on a tax cut that would ultimately cause him to have to borrow from the Social Security and Medicare funds, which apparently may be around the corner. All of the things that he warned America about have come to pass. And it seems to me that he's in a very strong position to launch a campaign in 2004 if that's what he chooses to do.
KING: Sheila McGuire Riggs in Des Moines, David Axelrod says the vice president would be in a very strong position. Who among the other Democrats is working your state the hardest right now?
MCGUIRE RIGGS: Well, we're welcoming a lot of nationally known and powerful Democratic leaders into our state. Many have visited. Senator Daschle, Senator John Kerry, of course, our next speaker of the House, Dick Gephardt, many have been visiting and we're welcoming them all.
KING: Next speaker of the House. Do you want Dick Gephardt to stick in the House or not run for president?
MCGUIRE RIGGS: Well, we're really focused on the 2002 election. And like I said, Vice President Gore did a great job of showing us the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. And the Republicans have additionally put on neon lights to separate the difference on things that really matter to Iowans: prescription drugs for Medicare. It's very dangerous what Bush is doing to the environment. And he's into that lock box on Medicare and Social Security. It's going to be a great year for the Democrats and we're going to take back the House.
KING: Kathleen Sullivan in Manchester, New Hampshire. How much of an impact would a Senator John Kerry for president campaign have in your state? My first national campaign was Michael Dukakis running. The governor of Massachusetts moved up to the north, won that state. Would Senator Kerry cause Al Gore problems if he ran?
SULLIVAN: Well, certainly, Senator John Kerry is a friend to New Hampshire and he's been up in New Hampshire as has Representative Gephardt. And we're expecting to see a couple of more coming up in the near future. So certainly, John Kerry has name recognition. He's been a friend to the party up here. And we have a number of very good candidates who we expect to hear from.
If you took Al Gore out of the picture, sure, I think then John Kerry looms very large. If the vice president does decide to run, that changes the mix. So we're three years away, and as Dr. McGuire said, we still have our 2002 elections to get through. And most of the people discussing this presidential race now are you people down in Washington.
KING: Us people down in Washington. Let me ask each of you quickly, and we'll start with you, David Axelrod. When does the vice president have to at least give a strong clue so that not only that he could raise money, but so that he could keep key operatives at least on the sidelines and not signing up with other candidates? When would he have to give a clue?
AXELROD: Well, I think he has to start reemerging in the 2002 cycle, but I don't think he has to do anything definitive until after those elections are over. I think he has more latitude than any other candidate, and I think he'll take advantage of that.
KING: Scott Reed?
REED: I think Dave's exactly right. I think you're going to see Gore play a little mix in here and lay low for a while longer. And as the midterms come around and it looks like the Democrats may pick up some seats, you're going to see him jump in front of that parade and use that really as the springboard for 2003.
KING: Sheila McGuire Riggs, how long does he have?
MCGUIRE RIGGS: Well, we'd like him back in Iowa as soon as possible just to thank him for all the hard work that he did for the Democratic Party a few months ago. KING: And Kathleen Sullivan?
SULLIVAN: I agree. We'd love to have Vice President Gore up here in New Hampshire. We've got a very competitive U.S. Senate race and two congressional races coming up in 2002. And we think it could be very, very helpful to us in those races. In terms of making a decision, I don't think he has to make one until after those elections in 2002.
KING: All right, we'd like to thank all four of you for joining us. Scott Reed in Washington, David Axelrod in Chicago, Sheila McGuire Riggs in Des Moines, Iowa, and Kathleen Sullivan in Manchester, New Hampshire, thank you. And we'll keep in touch as Al Gore decides just what he wants to do.
Now the former vice president, of course, will have some company if he decides to seek the Democratic Party nomination in 2004. Over the weekend, Massachusetts senator John Kerry made a brief speech on values and leadership to a small gathering on Martha's Vineyard. The audience included a vacationing Bill and Hillary Clinton, and sources say both the former president and the now New York senator raved to friends about Senator Kerry's comments.
Senator Clinton also told friends that Democrats are preparing to take a tough stand with the president in the fall. She said they will make the case that the president's tax cut leaves no money for education, defense and other priorities.
Next up, our Ron Brownstein tests the political waters with Janet Reno later on INSIDE POLITICS. But up next, an update on some of the day's other top stories, including President Bush's reaction to the growing tension in the Middle East.
KING: You might not think that Janet Reno has much in common with Senator John McCain, but spend some time with the former attorney general as she lays groundwork for a possible run for governor and you might think you were on McCain's Straight Talk Express. At least, that's what CNN political analyst Ron Brownstein says. He filed this field report while watching the outspoken Reno in action.
BROWNSTEIN (voice-over): The Florida governor's race was always going to be one of the most closely watched in the country because of all of the emotions surrounding Jeb Bush's role in the 2000 presidential election. But it's become even more intriguing with the possible entry of Janet Reno, Bill Clinton's attorney general, into the Democratic primary. Reno has very little experience running for public office, but early polling gives her a lead of four to one over any of her potential rivals for the nomination.
She hasn't made a final decision to run, but she has been moving around the state, listening to voters and appearing before Democratic activists, like the Democratic Club of Century Village in West Palm Beach, whose members are gathering inside here today to hear from Janet Reno. Let's go inside and take a listen.
JANET RENO, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Now, some people say to me, "Janet, how could you spend eight years getting cussed at, fussed at and figuratively beaten around the ears." I just put one foot in front of another and remembered what Abraham Lincoln said, which -- and he said, "If I read everything bad that people said about me, I might as well close this shop for business." And the other thing I remembered was what Harry Truman said. He said, "Do the right thing." But what he said, too, was, "doing the right thing is easy; trying to figure out what it is, is much more difficult."
What I've been doing in these last months is to try to figure out how I can best serve this state. Can I serve it best by running for governor and getting elected? Or could I serve it best...
BROWNSTEIN: The audience in a room like this is the core of Reno's potential strength as a Democratic primary candidate. She's a huge draw for Democratic activists. So many people turned out today that at the last minute, the sponsor had to scramble to find more chairs for everybody who wanted to be in the room. That advantage is magnified by a quirk in the election law that's going to affect the primary here next year.
As part of the election reform that the Florida legislature passed after all the controversy of 2000, they eliminated the runoff primary in the state. That means that none of the other Democratic candidates can get Reno one-on-one in a runoff if she runs. If they could have gotten her in a runoff, maybe they could coalesce the moderate and centrist and conservative voters against her. But as it stands, they're going to have to try to beat her in a crowded field. And that's going to be very difficult to do, given her geographic base is from South Florida, where as much as 47 percent of the Democratic primary vote will be cast.
(on camera): How do the polls affect your decision? I mean, on the one hand they are very promising on the primary, they raise questions about a general run.
RENO: I think they can be instructive, but I think there's got to be a campaign and the debate on the issues, and I hope it will be a good -- whoever is the candidate or candidates, I hope it will be a good, constructive debate.
BROWNSTEIN: Will part of your decision be whether you think you can win a general? I mean, will you run if you're not convinced that you can beat Jeb Bush?
RENO: I won't run if I don't think I can win, but -- those are the judgments I'm going to have to make. BROWNSTEIN: Because the fear would be that you are a polarizing figure, very attractive to Democrats and someone the Republicans might mobilize against. That would be the concern in some Democratic circles. Do you think that is legitimate?
RENO: That's the conventional wisdom of some Democrats.
BROWNSTEIN: And your sense is what?
RENO: My sense is that we'll see.
BROWNSTEIN (voice-over): As much enthusiasm as Reno inspires in Democratic circles, early polling suggests she may incite just as much antagonism among Republicans, both over her role in the Elian Gonzalez controversy and her general association with Bill Clinton. Those findings have generated a quiet fear in Democratic circles that while Reno may not be able to be beat in a primary, she could have a very difficult time winning a general election.
Privately, some Democratic leaders would prefer a less polarizing candidate, like former Vietnam Ambassador Pete Peterson to take on Jeb Bush. But before anyone like Peterson can worry about Bush, they would have to get past Reno in a primary. And based on the response she received here today, that won't be easy. This is Ron Brownstein in West Palm Beach for INSIDE POLITICS.
KING: This Florida footnote: During her appearance in Ft. Lauderdale, an audience member asked Janet Reno to weigh in on the federal question -- of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Reno, who has Parkinson's -- one of the diseases targeted by stem-cell researchers -- simply responded, quote: I say yes.
Next up, conservative reaction to the stem cell decision. Should the president be worried about a split in the ranks? We will consider the decision, its reception on the right and the potential impact on the president's political support.
KING: As we discussed earlier this hour, in the latest CNN polling, many Americans, including many conservatives, approve of President Bush's decision on stem cell research funding, but the decision has divided some activists on the right who are normally strong political allies of the president.
For one, Charles Colson, the founder of the Prison Fellowship Ministries, has praised Mr. Bush for his decision. In Mr. Colson's words, the president, quote: "Defended the sanctity of human life." Mr. Colson will share his views with us here tomorrow on INSIDE POLITICS. Joining us now, Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America. She has a different view. Ms. Wright has been subbing as host this week of Beverly LaHaye's radio program. Ms. Wright, what is the reaction of the listeners as you've been listening to them about the president's decision? WENDY WRIGHT, CONCERNED WOMEN FOR AMERICA: There's a mix. One or all of being confused, being disappointed and being loyal to President Bush. One thing we find is that there's mainly confusion over the decision. There's still confusion over what the decision is about, that this only has to do with federal funding -- that it is not about a total ban on embryonic stem-cell research. So there's that, as well as some disappointment in the fact that by allowing a limited form of funding of the embryonic stem-cell research, that it does bring some disrespect to embryos which is the youngest form of human beings.
There's confusion, as well, over what kind of research this actually is, and the fact that adult stem-cell research is past the promising stage and is already treating people. And that's really the avenue that we ought to be going in.
KING: There seems to be a great divide, if you will, among cultural conservatives. I want to give you a bit of the evidence of that. If you go to the Focus On the Family organization, led by Dr. James Dobson in Colorado Springs, Colorado, quite prominent among conservatives in this country -- they did a poll on their web site -- visitors to their the web site. Let look at results. This was last Friday. Do you support President Bush's decision on limited embryonic stem-cell research. Voting yes, more than 62 percent. Voting no, 24 percent. Saying they weren't sure, 13 1/2 percent. And on his radio show on Friday, Dr. Dobson quite supportive of the president.
WRIGHT: Yes, well, you've go to remember there are...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. JAMES DOBSON, FOCUS ON THE FAMILY: It is with a deep sigh of relief, and frankly, with great thankfulness to God because we've been praying about this, that this happened. And I commend the president of the United States for making this brave decision.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Go ahead, Wendy Wright, what do you make of that?
WRIGHT: Yes. You have to remember that the sense of relief that many of us felt that the decision did not go farther, that it didn't allow for federal funding of the research that actually destroys the embryos in the research itself. So we had been built up, up to Thursday night to the -- perhaps that the decision would be much worse. And so many people did respond immediately with the sense of relief. But as we've had time to think about the decision and see the kind of foothold this can give to the idea of funding the destruction of human embryos.
One thing we've got to remember is that once the spigot of government funding turns on, it's nearly impossible to turn it off. And when the researchers come back and say, "We've not been able to get any cures. What we need is more funding and we need more access to more embryos." Then President Bush is going to face a tougher decision. That's one thing we are very concerned about happening. KING: For the first six months of his administration, this president enjoying relatively good relations with the right, with Christian conservatives, cultural conservatives and others. Yet this ad in the Washington Times Newspaper by the American Life League. Coming into this decision the American Life League had said that this was tantamount to his father's breaking his "no new taxes" pledge. And again, now, they say this president's decision indeed was tantamount to that, and that this president has broken a pledge. Do you see conservatives now rebelling against the president because of this?
WRIGHT: Well, there is the question of did this break the pledge that he opposed the federal funding of research that destroys embryos. Now I think the question among many conservatives is: Did he parse his words? And that's something that I think is still being decided. But one thing that plays into all of this is the sense of overall relief that we do have a president who's a man of character, of humility, who doesn't abuse his power. That does play a part in all of these decisions and all of the responses to President Bush's decision. But the one thing that we're very concerned about is the sense of being taken for granted. Now, if President Bush stays strong to this decision, will only allow the federal funding of research on embryos that have already been killed, then he probably won't see too much a backlash from conservatives. However, when the biotech industry and when liberal politicians come to him and say, "This isn't enough, we need more" and if he backs down on that, then there would be a backlash.
KING: And Wendy Wright, very quickly, looking ahead to the fight in Congress. Many Republicans, even, moderate Republicans, saying they want to do more, they want to go beyond what the president endorsed. Are you now looking ahead, and bracing for a fight in the United States Congress?
WRIGHT: We were bracing even before the decision was made, because we knew ultimately this would end up in the lap of Congress, because they're the ones who hold the purse strings, they're the ones who decide who gets funding and how much. So we've already been working on the Congressmen to let them know that we expect there to be a ban on federal funding of research. One thing that people have got to remember is that this is not a ban on the research itself, although we wish it were. This is just a ban on whether American taxpayers will be forced to be accomplices in unethical research.
KING: All right. Wendy Wright from Concerned Women for America. We thank you for joining us today, and again, we will continue our discussion with key conservatives around the country, getting their reaction to the president's decision on limited embryonic stem-cell research in the days ahead.
Gary Condit's hometown newspaper says it's time for him to go. Just ahead, Condit's response to calls for his resignation and the latest developments from his California district.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: California Congressman Gary Condit says he plans to comment on the Chandra Levy case, in his words, "very soon." Condit issued a statement yesterday in response to calls for his resignation by his hometown newspaper, the "Modesto Bee, " as well as the nearby "Fresno Bee." As part of its lead editorial, the Modesto paper wrote: "Gary Condit should resign. His behavior since Chandra Levy disappeared more than three months ago has been abhorrent."
In response, Congressman Condit said: "It is terribly unfair and disappointing the Bee would have come to any decision about me without first allowing the investigation to conclude and hearing what I have to say." Condit went on to say he hopes his neighbors and constituents will be more understanding of what he called "the complexities of this case." He said he hopes they will judge him by his entire record, and that they will "wait their judgment until they have heard what I have to say." CNN's Rusty Dornin is in Modesto, California, outside Condit's district office. She joins us now with the latest. Rusty?
DORNIN: Well, John, I think it's important to recognize that the response that Congressman Condit gave was his first personal -- really from the heart, since police sources say, he admitted to his affair with Chandra Levy. Now, the editors at the "Modesto Bee" did tell us that it was a difficult and painful decision that they made when they decided to go ahead with this editorial. In the past they have supported him throughout his career, even though they said they have disagreed with him on particular votes or particular political decisions. Overall, they have supported him and have always come out on his side during any of the elections. But they did feel that in this case, there are plenty of reasons to call his behavior abhorrent.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARK VASCHE, EDITOR OF "THE MODESTO BEE": This isn't your normal case. This is a case that has, you know, potentially the life of a young woman at stake and we just feel for him to -- to have delayed and dodged really speaking to the authorities, for example, as long as he did, is just unacceptable. We expected more of him, and I think we have the right to expect that of the people that we elect and put our trust in.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DORNIN: Now, Dr. Robert Levy in front of his home today did say he could care less about any decisions that Condit makes about his career. But he did applaud the paper's position.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. ROBERT LEVY, FATHER OF MISSING INTERN: I think the paper's been -- been fair, I do. I do believe "The Bee" has been quite fair in everything.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DORNIN: Now, Congressman Condit did say in his response that he plans to speak very soon. The questions are: When and what kind of venue that will be? -- John.
KING: Well, Rusty, any sense on the streets there that these editorials are driving discussion among his constituents as to whether or not they're now moving towards more calling for him to step down?
DORNIN: Well, I think in some cases, it is swaying people to -- to also ask for his resignation. We have spoken to a few folks who said that yes, this is the time, they have had it. They want him to come forward and say something. But the mayor of the Modesto, Carmen Sabatino, did tell us that he felt the paper was a bit premature, that it was like stopping a man who was swimming across a river halfway and not allowing him to finish, that they should have waited a couple more weeks to see what the Congressman would do before they made such a decision.
KING: All right. Rusty Dornin in Modesto, California. Thank you very much.
There will be more on the editorials calling for Gary Condit to step down tonight on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS." For the first time, Gary Condit's chief of staff speaks out. An exclusive interview with Mike Lynch. That's tonight at 8:00 p.m. eastern.
An update now on another member of Congress. Representative Floyd Spence of South Carolina is in critical condition this afternoon following surgery four days ago to remove a blood clot from his brain. The 73-year-old Republican underwent surgery last Thursday at a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, where he had received a double lung transplant 13 years ago. Doctors have characterized his condition as "extremely critical" since Friday. Spence was reelected last year to his 16th term in Congress.
INSIDE POLITICS will be right back.
KING: Finally, President Bush once again put his unique spin on the English language today. While on the links in Texas, Mr. Bush seemed to amuse himself with remarks inviting a critique of his golf swing. But a White House aide's response provided the punch line.
BUSH: Did anybody see a flaw in my swing.
How about a swing in my flaw?
GORDON JOHNDROE, WHITE HOUSE AIDE: Funny one, sir.
KING: That deadpan delivered with the impressive comic timing by White House aide Gordon Johndroe.
That's all for this edition of INSIDE POLITICS, but of course you can go online all the time at CNN's allpolitics.com. AOL keyword: CNN. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm John King. "FIRST EVENING NEWS" is next.
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