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AMERICAN MORNING

Is Bush-Kerry Battle Already Under Way?

Aired February 17, 2004 - 08:07   ET

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

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: John Kerry has been attacking President Bush for what Kerry calls failed economic policies. The president firing back, touting his tax cuts and accusing the Democrats of trying to raise taxes.
So, is the Bush-Kerry battle already under way?

Joining us this morning from Washington, D.C. is Terry Holt.

He's the press secretary for the Bush campaign.

Nice to see you, Mr. Holt.

Thanks for being with us once again.

TERRY HOLT, PRESS SECRETARY, BUSH CAMPAIGN: Good morning.

O'BRIEN: Good morning to you.

HOLT: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: The president in Tampa, we heard him say this: "Inflation is low, interest is low, new jobs are being created, things are looking better for America. There is an optimism in our country that is undeniable." At the same time, some people say well, actually, if you look at the numbers, unemployment was at four percent when the president came into office; it's not at something like 5.6 percent. Three million manufacturing jobs have been lost. You're nodding your head yes.

This is going to be a big issue in the election, absolutely, don't you think?

HOLT: Well, you're exactly right, Soledad. The economy is a big issue for Americans. They want to see that jobs are growing and that their house is of a higher value than when they bought it. It's a range of issues that matter most to the American people and, you know, in "USA Today" this morning, most economists agreed that the president's tax relief policies are helping to spur this economy. You know, when the president first took office, he inherited a big recession. We were already losing millions of jobs and his policies have helped take us out of that.

But this election is about a choice. It's about whether or not you're going to pursue this vision of ownership and of a better economy or you're going to go with John Kerry, who's voted to raise taxes hundreds of times. O'BRIEN: Another issue, military service. Another person stepping forward to say that he remembers President Bush serving with him and flying with him.

Do you think that this now puts the issue to rest or do you think it's going to continue to go on through the election?

HOLT: Well, I hope it puts it to rest. You know, at first this was some very odd statements by the Democratic National Committee calling the president AWOL and a deserter. And now we know for sure the president was one of the most able pilots in the Texas Air Guard, that he served and he served honorably. I hope this gets behind us. We obviously want to move forward.

Since 9/11, the country has changed. We need strong, steady leadership to go into a changing world and dangerous world. And I think it's going to be about that. It's going to be about who is better prepared to handle the challenges we face in the future.

O'BRIEN: Earlier this morning, Bill Hemmer was talking to Howard Dean and Howard Dean said that whether he wins or loses in Wisconsin -- and most people are predicting that he's not going to win -- he's clearly going to work to unite the Democrats against the president. This is a little bit of what Howard Dean had to say this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need to beat George Bush. He is the most irresponsible president in my lifetime. A half a trillion dollar deficit every single year. We cannot go on with this borrow and spend credit card president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Are you concerned with the momentum of the Dean supporters combined with the Kerry supporters, who have not always seen eye to eye, but if they come together as a group, that this is going to be a hard fight for President Bush to win in the general election?

HOLT: Well, I think what I've seen is the angry, reckless rhetoric, the whole pantheon of negative attacks. You know that the senator from Massachusetts, his campaign has run 15 ads attacking the president directly, millions of dollars spent on personal attacks of the president. I think people in this country want a hopeful message. They want to look forward. They don't want to go back to a time when everybody was shooting bullets at each other and it was a very negative campaign.

They want to see what you're going to do in the future, how you're going to provide a better economy and strong national security. That's what the election is going to be about.

O'BRIEN: But, Terry, speaking of negative comments, here's a little bit of what you had to say about Senator Kerry. You called him a hypocrite. You say he's a phony. The guy is not even officially the nominee yet. Is this going to be the tone of what we can expect?

HOLT: Well, what we're talking about is that the senator from Massachusetts has taken a position on one issue and then changed it when it became politically opportunistic to do so. I think what we've seen over the course of this time is this repackaging of Senator Kerry. First he was for the war, now he was against it. First he was for accountability in education and then he's against it. He was originally against the death penalty for terrorists and he changed his mind at the last minute on that, too.

So we need a president who's steady and who you can count on and that there will be a clear message from. And I think that President Bush has demonstrated that he has a clear vision and he's steady in tough times, not someone who's going to blow in the political wind.

O'BRIEN: Regardless of who the nominee is, do you think this may be a close call, a close race? Or do you think...

HOLT: Yes, it will.

O'BRIEN: You do?

HOLT: Yes, I think that we just expect from the very beginning that it could be every bit as close as the last election. Our support has energized. They're ready to go out and take the president's message to the people. And I expect that we'll have a good debate through the next 10 months.

O'BRIEN: Terry Holt, nice to see you.

As always, thanks for being with us.

HOLT: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: We will continue to check in with you, of course, in the next months and weeks ahead.

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