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Presidential Candidates Prepare For Debate; Interview With Senator Orrin Hatch

Aired September 27, 2004 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening and welcome to PRIME TIME POLITICS. It is the start of a week that could hold a crucial turning point in the campaign, the first presidential debate. But with all the rules, planning and rehearsal, is there any way for either candidate to break through?
And the Kerry campaign turns up the heat and lashes out on Iraq, while the president, again, faces the question, is the mission accomplished?

Plus, the latest CNN poll, your take on the issues and which candidate you trust to handle them the best.

And we begin on the campaign trail tonight, where the candidates are keeping their eyes on two days, Election Day, just 36 days away, and Thursday, when they face off in Miami.


ZAHN (voice-over): Only three days away from their first debate, both candidates are studying up and tuning up.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I mean, if you're not kind of prepared for these things after a year and a half of running, I guess you shouldn't be running.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's been a little tough to prepare because he keeps changing positions on the war on terror.


ZAHN: A long-distance debate is already under way over the president's 2003 landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and his proclaiming the end of major combat operations in Iraq under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished."

Over the weekend, when asked if he would do it again, the president replied of course, that he would do to say to the troops thanks for serving America. Kerry saw that as an opening.

KERRY: Since he said that, over 900 have given their lives for the country. The mission was not accomplished when he said it. He didn't know it and didn't understand it. It's not accomplished today and he's still trying to hide from the American people.

ZAHN: The Bush campaign quickly pointed out that the president himself never said the words mission accomplished. The president's message today:

BUSH: We're making progress.

7 ZAHN: Both candidates seem to be trying out attack lines we're likely to hear Thursday night.

BUSH: He voted for the use of force in Iraq and then didn't vote to fund the troops. He complained that we're not spending enough money to help in reconstruction in Iraq and now he is saying we're spending too much. He said it was the right decision to go into Iraq. Now he calls it the wrong war. He probably could spend 90 minutes debating himself.


KERRY: When I got here to Wisconsin yesterday at Madison, a guy said to me, you know, I want to vote for you, but a lot of people are asking this question: Can we change horses in midstream? And I said to him, you know, when your horse is headed down towards the waterfalls or when your horse is drowning, it's a good time to change horses in midstream, folks.



ZAHN: Our latest poll indicates Senator Kerry still has some more convincing to do if he wants those voters to change horses in midstream. The president has an 11-point lead, 53 to 42 percent, among registered voters nationwide in our new CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll. The president's lead is eight points, 52-44, among a smaller pool of likely voters.

Senior political analyst Bill Schneider joins us from Dallas for a closer look on what is on voters' minds.

Always good to see you, Bill. Welcome.


ZAHN: I want to start off on something I found particularly fascinating, the polls showing the president not only ahead in the horse race, but that his popularity rating is almost at an all-time high. How do you explain that, particularly at a time when he's getting beaten up by members of his own party who are saying that we're in a real mess in Iraq and we may not win this war?

SCHNEIDER: It's a bit surprising to a lot of people, but the president's numbers have been going up for one reason, the word terrorism. He has been playing up his credentials in the war in terrorism, his leadership in that. That's been the centerpiece of the president's campaign ever since the Republican Convention, which focused so strongly on 9/11 and the threat of terrorism. And what we're seeing the president's approval ratings right now, his overall job rating, 54. It's the highest it's been all year, since the capture of Saddam Hussein last December. And what's leading those numbers is the president's rapidly rising approval numbers on terrorism.

ZAHN: And, Bill, that seems to be spilling over into other questions in the way they were answered. Let's look at the question now of if Senator Kerry can handle the responsibilities of commander in chief. Now, just three weeks ago, 55 percent of those polled said, yes, while 40 percent said no. But the latest poll shows these numbers have closed, with only 49 percent saying yes, 46 percent saying no. Is the senator losing ground because of what you just said?

SCHNEIDER: A little bit, he is, from 55 down to 49. Americans are now saying maybe on the issue of whether Senator Kerry is qualified to be commander in chief. The Bush and Cheney campaign have been hitting him very hard in ways that Democrats say are unfair and in their ads they say disgraceful, raising questions about Senator Kerry's ability to lead the country in the war on terror, but it appears to be raising doubts about Senator Kerry to the point that Americans are no longer sure.

ZAHN: So, Bill, I want to take a closer look now at some of those numbers on Iraq; 52 percent of those polled say the president has a clear plan for Iraq. Now look at the numbers for Senator Kerry. Only 30 percent believe he has a clear plan for Iraq. How do you read those numbers?

SCHNEIDER: I think Senator Kerry has done his best, set out a clear plan. He made a speech last Monday in which he set out a four- point plan for what he wants to do in Iraq.

But President Bush immediately came out and said, aha, it's another Kerry position on Iraq. So no sooner did Kerry lay out a plan on Iraq than the Bush campaign hit him hard and said, this is yet the newest in a succession of flip-flops by Senator Kerry.

ZAHN: But, Bill, can we really tell how important Iraq is to voters right now?

SCHNEIDER: Well, we do know that, over the course of the summer, since the handover of power at the end of June, Iraq has been, surprisingly, a diminishing concern to American voters. The number of Americans who say it's the most important issue in determining their vote has actually gone down. And it's even continued to go down in this latest poll, despite the horrifying news of kidnappings, murders, bombings and continuing U.S. losses.

Remember, the interim Iraqi prime minister visited the United States. Both he and President Bush gave encouraging signs for what they say is going well in Iraq. They communicated the sense that things are under control and plans are going along to have an election in Iraq. The White House handed over power to the Iraqis at the end of June to try to communicate that Iraq is less of an American problem now. The Iraqis are in charge. And that appears to have had the effect of causing Americans to say, well, maybe Iraq is less crucial an issue in this election.

And as Iraq has gone down in public concern, concern about terrorism has been going up.

ZAHN: An awful lot of numbers to absorb. Thanks for crunching them for us tonight, Bill Schneider.


ZAHN: And joining us now, senior political correspondent Candy Crowley in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, where she's covering Senator Kerry's campaign.

Welcome, Candy.


ZAHN: So how does the Kerry campaign view these numbers we have just discussed?

CROWLEY: Well, look, here's what they say in public: It's an outlier, which is sort of like an outlander, which is, they say, look, all the other polls don't show that big a gap.

The fact is, though, that they have been watching those internals -- and that is the polls inside the major horse race -- which show George Bush with that huge lead on leadership, which show that most people think George Bush has a plan for Iraq, that John Kerry does not. That has to be troublesome, particularly after two weeks of sort sustained assault by John Kerry on the president's leadership, both on policy as well as character.

And last week, they thought they had a great week, which they began with a speech on Iraq on Monday, they ended with a speech on terrorism on Friday. Aides were talking it up as momentum. This doesn't show it just yet. Right now they say, look, the debates are coming, that's what we're focusing on right now and that this is just a poll, a snapshot in time that they think is an outlier.

ZAHN: So do you think we'll see a change in strategy here?

CROWLEY: I don't think so. They've just now gotten -- they brought on new staffers from the Clinton years. They have been getting the candidate to stick to his script. He stayed on one subject and that was Iraq last week. I can't imagine that with one poll they're going to switch strategies.

Now, you know, talk to me again in a couple weeks if all the polls continue to come in as this one has.

ZAHN: Let's talk about the debates. There is a feeling among some Democrats that perhaps their party has given up too much in these debates. What's the prevailing thought out there?

CROWLEY: Look, the prevailing thought is that when they went into negotiations on this debate that everybody thought that the Bush White House would stand firm on two debates only and would cut out the town hall meeting. In the end, they ended up with three. They said it really wasn't much of a fight.

I don't know exactly where they stood on issues of the lighting and all of that, but they sort of looked at that as, hey, whatever. What they were concerned about was the three debates, which they say they got, although the middle one, the town hall one, not in the form they would have liked.

ZAHN: So what does John Kerry have to do Thursday night to reverse some of these numbers?

CROWLEY: You know, I've talked to people on both the Republican and the Democratic side. And one of the interesting thing in the poll also asked voters, which do you care about more when you're looking at a candidate? Is it character and judgment and values or is it issues? And character and judgment and values is what tops it every time.

So what John Kerry has to do is remind voters where he comes from. He has to look presidential, act presidential and he has to be a credible substitute. And a lot of people have also said inside and outside the campaign he has to seem likable. They have to -- he has to show them his softer side, as well as show them his intellect and that he does in fact have a plan for Iraq.

ZAHN: And I know he spent a lot of today getting ready for those debates. We will all see on Thursday night.

Candy Crowley, thanks.

And next month, we'll get a chance to hear what you think about this election, the candidates and the elections. We'll old four live town meetings in battleground states across the nation. Join us October 7 in Racine, Wisconsin, October 14 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, October 21 in Clark County, Ohio, and then November 1, the night before the election, in Orlando, Florida.


ZAHN (voice-over): Just ahead tonight, Senator Ted Kennedy goes ballistic on President Bush.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: They misled the American people in going to war. They hyped their intelligence and they misrepresented their intelligence.

ZAHN: What's the definition of down-and-dirty politics?


NARRATOR: Stop playing politics with the war on terror.



NARRATOR: Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it.


ZAHN: Just take a look at this year's campaign ads.

And of course, tonight's voting booth question: How does political advertising influence you? Simply visit our Web site,, and click away. We'll show you the results at the end of the hour.

All that and much more on PAULA ZAHN NOW: PRIME TIME POLITICS tonight.



ZAHN: Senator Ted Kennedy today evoked the memory of his brother John, saying it's a good thing George Bush wasn't in charge during the Cuba Missile Crisis. The Massachusetts senator has been acting as an attack dog for John Kerry. And today he charged that Mr. Bush has made the nation more vulnerable to nuclear attack by diverting resources away from fighting al Qaeda to a war in Iraq.


KENNEDY: The greatest danger we face in the days, weeks and months ahead is a nuclear 9/11. We hope and pray that it's not already too late to prevent. The war in Iraq has made the mushroom cloud more likely, not less likely, and it never should have happened.


ZAHN: Kennedy also talked today with our own Judy Woodruff, who joins me now from Washington.

Welcome, Judy.



Clearly, the senator came out swinging during his speech and he didn't mince any words with you either. Let's listen to part of your interview now.


KENNEDY: This administration has bungled its policy in Iraq and has not leveled with the American people about the increase in danger that our troops are facing and that Iraq is facing every single day. Now, they misled the American people in going to war. They hyped the -- their intelligence, and they misrepresented the intelligence in bringing us to war.

And now at this very critical time when we're going to have an opportunity to have a new direction in American foreign policy and national security and defense issues, they're going to try and avoid any debate and discussion about the significance of their mistaken policy in Iraq.

One of the aspects of the fact of the obsession about Iraq is that we have ignored, virtually, the two nuclear powers, one Iran and one in North Korea.


ZAHN: Judy, is this kind of attack on the president really going to help John Kerry?

WOODRUFF: Well, Paula, I think, you know, it depends on who you ask, frankly. You ask Democrats who are supporting John Kerry and they say they certainly hope so. Republicans would say it's over the top.

The fact is, Edward Kennedy has been a consistent opponent of the war in Iraq. He voted against that original resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war, if need be. He has increasingly been critical over the last year and a half since the war ended. And now the language has gotten even tougher. As you just heard, not only is he talking about North Korea and Iran. He's saying that President Bush, by taking his eye off of al Qaeda, has in effect made it easier for al Qaeda to find nuclear weapons, which, he says, is something they very much want to do. So it's out there.

ZAHN: So the senator, obviously, feels strongly about this. So, it begs the question, how does he explain why John Kerry can't get any traction on this issue?

Let's listen to the answer to your question about that.


KENNEDY: it shouldn't just be an issue that we're looking at in terms of the election, because national security obviously has been an issue that all Americans care about and care about deeply.

But there hasn't been this kind of debate, and there hasn't been this dialogue. There will be. It will be the first chance for Americans to see both President Bush and John Kerry on Thursday night.

And what, I believe on Thursday night, John Kerry will outline what I know, what he knows and what the American people will know if they listen carefully, that he has a plan in order to be able to have a stable and democratic Iraq and be able to get American troops out.

He has a plan to be able to deal with our intelligence and with homeland security. And he has a plan and a vision on how to deal with challenges that we're facing in the economy.


ZAHN: So the senator obviously feels Thursday's debate is critical. How critical?

WOODRUFF: Well, critical because this is John Kerry's chance to do what he apparently has not been able to do for many Americans.

There were clearly, Paula, 20, 25 percent -- you look at the numbers -- 25 percent of the American people were at least listening to John Kerry, were ready to hear his argument, and they have not been persuaded. Teddy Kennedy wouldn't say this today, but it's pretty clear that the Kerry people know that this debate is critical for him. He's got to get the message across that he's better able to lead the nation through the war in Iraq, he's better able to lead the war on terror, and he's somebody that they frankly want to look at on their television screens every day for the next four years. That's a tall order for John Kerry.

But people are going to be watching and there is an opportunity.

ZAHN: Judy Woodruff, thanks for joining us tonight.

WOODRUFF: Glad to do it. Good to see you.

ZAHN: And joining me now to respond to Senator Kennedy's charges, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who serves on the Select Committee on Intelligence.

Welcome, sir.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Nice to be with you, Paula.

ZAHN: First of all -- thank you -- let's review what Senator Kennedy said, that the greatest threat to the United States now is a nuclear 9/11 and that by going into Iraq that the Bush administration has exposed America to this terrible threat. Your reaction?

HATCH: Well, what did Kennedy want to do, just wait until they attack us here or did he want to take this to them offshore, where we have been having them on the run ever since?

Bin Laden's hold up in northwestern Pakistan, Zarqawi is doing everything he can to be absent and to not get caught. And, of course, we have been keeping them under pressure all over the world. And we have been an awful lot of interrupting their finances, their money, their banking, and of course their organizations all over the world. But what were we supposed to do, just wait until they strike us here in our country? I don't think so.

ZAHN: I'm not sure I understand what you're saying here, sir. Are you accusing the senator of aiding and abetting the enemy by making this kind of explosive statement?

HATCH: Well, let me say this. Kennedy used the illustration that he was glad that George Bush wasn't president during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was the perfect -- that's the perfect all-time illustration of the doctrine of preemption. His brother used it. They called it a quarantine, but it was really an embargo, which is an act of war. The fact of the matter is, we preempted the Russians, and I give John F. Kennedy full credit for it.

But now that we're preempting the Osama bin Laden people and others by going to war both in Afghanistan and Iraq, there seems to be a lot of criticism about it.

ZAHN: So you're tying both of these wars together. But do you believe that the war in Iraq has made the world a safer place?

HATCH: I don't think there is any question that getting hold of Saddam Hussein, who certainly had the capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction and who had used them against his own people, was a very important part of it. And anybody who doesn't know that hasn't looked at Steve Coll's book called "Ghost Wars," where Osama bin Laden was in Sudan and was aided by none other than Saddam Hussein.

Plus, al-Zarqawi came from Osama bin Laden up in Afghanistan. When we took them down in Afghanistan, a lot of these terrorists fled Afghanistan to come to Iran and then into Iraq. And al-Zarqawi is the perfect illustration. Now, either we can take it and just sit back and let them attack us or we can go after them. And that's what President Bush is doing and I think he's done a pretty good job so far.

ZAHN: But, Senator, even members of your own party think the result is just the opposite, that this has actually seeded the terrorism movement.

HATCH: I don't think so.

ZAHN: And let me share with you something that President Musharraf, one of our key allies, the president of Pakistan, told me on Friday when I posed that very direct question. Let's listen together.


ZAHN: Is the world a safer place because of the war in Iraq?

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, PAKISTANI PRESIDENT: No. It's more dangerous. It's not safer, certainly not. I would say that it has ended up bringing more trouble to the world.


ZAHN: As you just heard at the very end, the president saying it ended up bringing more trouble to the world. Do you discount what the president just said completely?

HATCH: No, not at all. There's no question that the terrorists had been building and growing and being financed by many in the Arab world for years and all of a sudden they've exploded, no question about it.

But where do you want them to explode, in the United States of America or over there? On the other hand, you have got to dispute what they're saying, because, look, do you think that Libya, Gadhafi would ever have given up his weapons of mass destruction had it not been for the forthright efforts by George Bush and the coalition of 32 nations?

Actually, Bush has spoken more before the United Nations than any president in history in the first four years of his administration.

ZAHN: But, Senator, finally tonight, even the Bush administration's chief weapons inspector has just shared a report with us that shows that there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq. Doesn't that change all of this?

HATCH: Well, I'll tell you one thing. We are going to find out where they went and what happened to them.

Now, there's no question he had weapons of mass destruction. There's no question that he had the capacity of making them. There's no question that he had the teams in place to make them, also no question that he used them against the Kurds in the north and against the Iranians during the Iran war. The fact of the matter is, is that everybody in the world, including people in the United Nations, believed that he had them at the time this war began.

So to in retrospect go back and say, well, we haven't found them, therefore, there was no cause to go into Iraq I think is a mistake. I've tied in Sudan. I've tied in Afghanistan. There's no question that there were ties to al Qaeda. And even though there may not be direct efforts by al Qaeda in Iran, we've got to suspect that there could be and we have got to do what we can to protect our people and the rest of the people in this world.

ZAHN: Senator Orrin Hatch, we have got to leave it there this evening. Thanks for your time.

HATCH: You bet. Nice to talk to you.

ZAHN: My pleasure.

The candidates are waging a fiery battle over the war on terror. Just wait until you hear what Carlson and Carville have to say about that next.


ZAHN: As we just heard in our last segment, Senator Ted Kennedy contends, President Bush has made the U.S. more vulnerable to nuclear attack by terrorists because of the war in Iraq. Strong words for sure, but are they based in fact or is it just campaign rhetoric playing on voters' fears?

Joining us now from Washington, CROSSFIRE co-hosts James Carville, Tucker Carlson.

Great to see both of you.



ZAHN: So, James, I'm going to start with you this evening.

A lot of Republicans are calling the senator's comments irresponsible. Do you think the U.S. is more vulnerable to nuclear attack because of the war in Iraq?

CARVILLE: Probably, because our own forces are spread so thin that if we had to do something, we're certainly less capable today than we were before the Iraqi war. So no one doubts that. No one doubts that this war has made the United States more vulnerable.

It is probably -- Iran and North Korea, if we had to take military action there, we're substantially weaker today than we were before as a result of this war. So I don't know that there's much dispute as to what Senator Kennedy said.

ZAHN: Tucker, one of our key allies, the president of Pakistan, told me in an interview on Friday he believes this war in Iraq has made the world a much more dangerous place. What's your reaction to these criticisms?

CARLSON: I buy that. I think it's a fair criticism made by serious people, including General Musharraf.

The notion that it makes us more vulnerable to nuclear attack, though, is -- that's a complicated cell, it seems to me. I don't think it makes us more vulnerable to an attack from North Korea or Iran. It's, in fact, Pakistan, which is the world's chief nuclear proliferator, that is the real threat. the potential that a nuclear weapon could be stolen from one of the many places around Pakistan that they're hidden by some sort of al Qaeda force and then, you know, used against the United States, yes, that's a real concern.

And the Bush administration's efforts to prop up Musharraf, I think, help us and keep us safer.

But I just want to say, Ted Kennedy is not the most effective surrogate for John Kerry. He's discredited. He's a screamer. But, more than anything, he's polarizing. I can't imagine there are many swing voters watching Ted Kennedy's speech who, at the end of it said to themselves, you know, I'm going to vote for John Kerry. It's just hard to imagine that.

ZAHN: Discredited, your partner just said.

CARVILLE: I don't think so. I don't think he's discredited.

But the truth is, is that what he says in terms in general that the United States is more vulnerable as a result of this war, I don't think anyone denies that. Now, the question on nuclear attack is, is that we don't have the ability to respond to an Iran or to a North Korea that, obviously, I think, if General Musharraf were to, God forbid, were there to be a coup or something in Pakistan and now that they have the nuclear bomb, we would not be able to take the necessary action we would to protect him because this president as a result of his ill planning has got our armed forces bogged down in this war that is, according to our secretary of state and former Army chief of staff, Colin Powell, not going well at all.

So, maybe Senator Kennedy is not the best person to take the case to swing voters. I don't know. But I don't think there is much dispute as to what he said is very accurate and reflects a real situation here.

ZAHN: And Tucker, while you don't think this, perhaps, was the most responsible thing for Ted Kennedy to have said, was it a responsible thing for the vice president to suggest, as well as another leading member of the Republican party, that perhaps al Qaeda could operate more freely if John Kerry were elected president?

CARLSON: Well, I'm not saying what Kennedy said necessarily was irresponsible. I just don't think it's exactly the right argument. It's a few beats off, as Senator Kennedy himself is, and I don't think politically it will be very effective.

Sure, look. I mean, both candidates are making the argument "Elect me and I'll keep America safer." That's what the election is about. It's about national security. They're both making that argument pretty explicitly.

Sure, it sounds a little rough when you hear it spelled out clearly, but both sides are saying it. And they ought to be saying it. That's the only issue that matters.

ZAHN: Tucker, do you really think the U.S. is more vulnerable to attack under a Democratic administration?

CARLSON: They are saying that John Kerry is not tough enough on terror. And if he thinks that, you know, America should negotiate its way out of the war on terror. That's the allegation. There's some evidence that John Kerry thinks that.

And their allegation further is that's not going to keep us as safe as George W. Bush will. I don't know. That's not an unfair thing to say.

CARVILLE: This administration never held one meeting on terrorism prior to September 10, the day before 9/11. This president was explicitly warned on August 6 about this.

So I'm a little -- I'm a little almost amused, more than annoyed, that they would make the charge that only George Bush can protect us. You know, Charles Hagel said a very intelligent thing, "The graveyards are full of indispensable people.

ZAHN: All right, gentlemen. I've got to jump you ahead to the debates. Do you have any predictions to make for Thursday night, Tucker?

CARLSON: Look, if you listen to the Democrats, George W. Bush is not only a moron who can barely tie his own shoes, but he's the most brilliant debater in the history of western civilization.

So, every single Democrat we have on our show, I know we're going to hear it again tonight. George W. Bush is an amazing debater.

I don't know. I actually think John Kerry is a pretty good debater. I'm not saying this for partisan reasons at all. I think it will be interesting. At least it's a real subject. It's not on, you know, who did what 35 years ago or the lock box or something. It's on national security, and amen. I can't wait to watch it.

ZAHN: James, a lot of people think that this is the one single opportunity John Kerry has to turn his campaign around. In fact, you've even been quoted as talking about how important it is.

CARVILLE: I think it's a very important debate. I hardly think that that this campaign needs it. I think this campaign is doing fair. Look, I think he'll do quite well.

Look, if you're running for president and you have, I figure that 35 minutes to speak. And if you've got six days to prepare for 35 minutes, you ought to be able to do pretty good. I think he'll do fine. I assume Bush will do fine, too.

ZAHN: All right, gentlemen, we'll be there with you down in Miami watching it, side by side. Tucker Carlson, James Carville, thank you so much.

CARVILLE: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: Unlike "CROSSFIRE," the presidential debates have extremely strict rules, mostly about what is not allowed. When we come back, some clues about what to expect and a look at some past performances, just ahead.


ZAHN: Thursday's face off in Miami is the first of three crucial presidential debates. Both campaigns are already trying to shape expectations, praising their opponents' debating skills and downplaying their own candidates' prowess.

As for those expectations, a CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll finds 51 percent of registered voters predict Bush will do the better job, while 37 percent think Kerry will do better.

Of course, how voters judge may turn on the unexpected: the slip of the tongue, a telling gesture. But have strict rules smothered the spontaneity?

Here's Dan Lothian.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The Sunshine State, battered by four back-to-back hurricanes, now faces the stormy fight for the White House.

BUSH: My opponent has had seven or eight different positions.

KERRY: The "W" stands for "wrong."

LOTHIAN: The candidates, for the first time, face to face in what Webster's describe as a formal contest of skill and reasoned argument.

The first debate, focusing on foreign policy and homeland security, is a potentially defining event for candidate...

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, DEAN, ANNENBERG SCHOOL FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Sometimes in close elections they swing votes enough to potentially make a difference.

LOTHIAN: ... and voter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's a good opportunity to see what they stand for.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's a piece of a whole composite.

JAMIESON: Debates signal to the electorate that it's time now to firm up the voting decision that you've already made, or if you haven't made one, get on the ball and start paying attention.

LOTHIAN (on camera): But even before the first question is asked, the debate over the debates seems to have generated as much attention.

It took 32 pages to spell out all the rules: little details such as who gets to see the timing lights. In this case, even the TV audience. Candidates are prohibited from walking beyond their podium area, avoiding what Al Gore did, invading George Bush's space in 2000.

BUSH: And I believe I can.

LOTHIAN: In another debate, Gore, while listening to Bush, lost points while doing this some 18 times. That was fixed by doing away with cutaways when a candidate is speaking, which may also limit the opportunity for a candidate to get caught looking at his watch, appearing bored.

There's even a line that ensures that appropriate temperature in the room will be maintained, according to industry standards, hopefully preventing sweating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A major candidate for the president.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): Like Nixon experienced in 1960, blamed in part on a bad makeup job.

(on camera) But some people worry too much control may dilute what the voter needs to see and hear.

JAMES FALLOWS, "ATLANTIC MONTHLY": It's like an unbelievable prenup.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): James Fallows writes for the "Atlantic Monthly."

FALLOWS: I think it's a linear extension, the way these things have gone year-by-year or election-by-election. And each time, each side tries to correct something that was left out the last time.

LOTHIAN: That's important to campaigns, because ever since televised general election presidential debates began in 1960, there have been memorable moments that many believe impacted who won.


LOTHIAN: Sometimes it's the substance: what a candidate says but didn't mean to.

FALLOWS: When Jimmy Carter was running against Gerald Ford, a very important moment was...

GERALD FORD, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

FALLOWS: Gerald Ford appeared to say that he wasn't aware that Poland was under Soviet control, and this sort of fit into an idea that maybe Gerald Ford wasn't on top of all the issues.

LOTHIAN: Carter won the debate and the presidency.

But the unexpected moments sometimes have more to do with perception and interpretation than with reality. And that's something everyone agrees not even 32 pages of hotly negotiated guidelines can control.


ZAHN: And that was CNN's Dan Lothian.

To talk about preparations for the debates, I'm joined now by strategists from both sides, Democrat Bill Carrick and Republican Mike Murphy, both joining us from Los Angeles.

Good to see you.


ZAHN: All right, Bill, I'm going to start with you this evening. You know how you would target George Bush in a debate. How does John Kerry do that? Where is his weaknesses?

CARRICK: I think there are two things that the -- that you have to watch out if you're the president's camp. Make sure that he gets solid command of the facts, doesn't make any mistakes and doesn't go into that smirky thing he did with Senator McCain in the primaries, when he often acted exasperated.

ZAHN: Mike, let's show that to our audience now, where it is clear that the then governor has become quite annoyed. Let's watch together.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So, I'd be glad to tell you the rest of the story, if you'd let me, when it's appropriate.

BUSH: Let me answer. Let me answer. First...

MCCAIN: You should be ashamed.

Let me say something, let me finish.

That man there who had attacked your own father.

BUSH: John, I believe that you served our country nobly. And I've said it over and over again. That man wasn't speaking for me. He may have a dispute with you. Let me finish, please. Please.

MCCAIN: He's listed...

BUSH: Let me finish. Let me finish.


ZAHN: That was your candidate, Mike. How much composure training is going on right now?

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I don't -- I don't think that's going to be a real problem.

I think what the Bush campaign is going to focus on doing in this debate, which is very important, because these debates are the big thing now, is to put John Kerry on the defensive about the war. Kerry has decided to make the war the debate, so Bush has an opportunity, I think, to hurt him.

ZAHN: Let's move on to John Kerry's vulnerabilities, Bill. He is not known for talking in short sentences. Here is an example of a two minute-long answer during a debate with John Edwards that we have compressed. Let's watch.


KERRY: This is one of the reasons why I am so intent on beating George Bush. What I was voting for was the process the president promised.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me repeat the question. Do you have any degree of responsibility, having voting to give him the authority to go to war?

KERRY: The president had the authority to do what he was going to do without the vote of the United States Congress. My regret is this president chose the wrong way, rushed to war and has put our troops at greater risk.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That is the longest answer to a yes or no question.

The answer to your question is of course.


ZAHN: So Bill, do you think we're going to hear any short answers from John Kerry? Has he learned his lesson?

CARRICK: That's the big challenge: direct, succinct answers. That's very important for Senator Kerry. Bite-size chunks. He's got to communicate in bite-size chunks.

MURPHY: This will be the first ever.

ZAHN: You don't think it's going to happen, Mike?

MURPHY: Well, you know, it's funny, you always tell these candidates before a debate, "All right. Just be yourself."

I'm not sure that's a good strategy for John Kerry. I think if he does kind of the verbose professor thing, he'll turn people off. Bill's right. He's got to be concise, factual and prove he's ready to be commander in chief. That will be the test for him tonight.

ZAHN: Well, Bill, you've seen some flashes of that, have you not, in some of his campaign stops, where even his own campaign workers say if he could just act like that more often on the campaign stump, people would like him better.

CARRICK: He's had remarkable public appearances where he's been very passionate, very succinct, compelling and directly answered some of the charges that President Bush has had in a very, very effective way. That's what he's got to do.

This is a great opportunity for Senator Kerry Thursday night.

ZAHN: Mike, how much do you think the president benefits from the low expectations gains? I mean, you have his own spokespeople out there saying, you know, expect him to munch words together. But at the end of the day, you're going to understand that his message is consistent and clear.

MURPHY: Yes, absolutely. The expectations game is half of the -- excuse me, the game in he's debates. I predict there will be a story that he's suffering from the flu tomorrow and then food poisoning.

The trick is, this -- historically, George W. Bush has always had fairly low debate expectations, because his opponents always trash him as being an idiot. And then they lose the debate.

ZAHN: But that's not what the Kerry campaign is doing, Bill. You talk to anybody in the Kerry campaign and they're making it sound like George Bush is the greatest debater that John Kerry will ever face in his career.

CARRICK: George Bush is a very effective debater. Look what he did with Ann Richards. Look what he did with Al Gore. He withstood the debate challenge presented by Senator McCain and others in the primary.

He's a very successful and effective debater. And this idea of low expectations is just Bush spin.

ZAHN: Bill Carrick, Mike Murphy, thank you.

MURPHY: Thank you.

ZAHN: And on Thursday night, we will be in Miami for the first presidential debate of this campaign. Our special coverage will begin at 8 p.m. Eastern, and you can see the entire 90-minute face off between the candidates live on CNN, starting at 9 p.m.

If presidential debates tend to be overly formalized, this year's political ads are anything but. Terrorism, fear and playing fast and loose with the facts when we come back.

And our PRIME TIME POLITICS "Voting Booth" is open. Tonight's question: "How does political advertising influence you? Go to our web site, and let us know.


ZAHN: Both candidates will spend hours this week getting ready for the first debate on Thursday. In the meantime, their campaigns are spending more money to run attack and counterattack ads.

Here's a look at the latest from the Bush campaign.


BUSH: I'm George W. Bush, and I approve this message.

KERRY: It was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein, and when the president made the decision, I supported him.

I don't believe the president took us to war as he should.

The winning of the war was brilliant.

It's the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I have always said, we may yet even find weapons of mass destruction.

I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.


ZAHN: And from the Kerry campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There he goes again. George Bush said Iraq was mission accomplished. Sixteen months later he still doesn't get it.

Today over 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead. Kidnappings, even beheadings of Americans. Still, Bush has no plan what to do in Iraq.

How can you solve a problem when you can't see it?

John Kerry's plan, train Iraqis to handle their own security, real elections and work with allies to shoulder the burden. It's time for a new direction in Iraq.

KERRY: I'm John Kerry and I approve this message.


ZAHN: And joining us now, regular contributor and "TIME" columnist, Joe Klein.

Good to see you.


ZAHN: I need to take a bath. So those are the kind of commercials that make you just go like this. Do they work?

KLEIN: Yes. Especially the Bush commercials work, because the Bush campaign has had one steady theme for months and months and months, that John Kerry can't be trusted because he's a flip-flopper.

ZAHN: And he's given them a lot of fodder.

KLEIN: He has given them a lot of fodder.

ZAHN: The stuff might be taken out of context, but the candidate said all that.

KLEIN: There was a lot of creative editing going on in that ad. I mean, you know, for example, when John Kerry says the war was a brilliant victory, he then went on to say, I think, that the post-war period has been a disaster.

But, you know, editing is part of what these guys are about and what this art is about.

ZAHN: Talk to us about the Kerry campaign ads. They haven't been nearly as strident until recently. Was that a mistake?

KLEIN: Well, I think the Kerry campaign now understands that it was a real mistake not to make the case against George W. Bush sooner.

And the problem that they have now is that Kerry's been painted as a flip-flopper. That's the only thing people really know about him, that he commanded a swift boat in Vietnam and that he's a flip- flopper.

And then, you know, the weakest part of the Kerry ad that we just saw is John Kerry's plan for Iraq, which is essentially the same as George W. Bush's plan for Iraq: train more people, hold elections and then...

ZAHN: Why do they think that's going to work, if there is not a clear difference between the two plans?

KLEIN: I think it's a big -- big mistake on their part. I mean, the strongest case that they have going for them in terms of Iraq is that things are going disastrously there now. You know, the military people say it, the intelligence community says it.

And Kerry really doesn't have to make a case for what he would do in January. He could just say, I'll see what it looks like in January.

However, they're trying, because the word "plan," you know, market tests very well in focus groups and polling. They keep on using this word "plan" when it's clear that he really doesn't have one.

ZAHN: You and I eat, drink and sleep with this stuff. The average person watching a television commercial is not privy to all of these details. How much distortion are they seeing on the air from both camps?

KLEIN: All that -- all you want to do with a political ad is send one tight message. Bush has been doing it all along, that John Kerry is a flip-flopper.

They had one this ad last week, probably the most effective ad that I've seen so far, the wind surfing ad, because it was funny. It was something different.

ZAHN: Was it accurate?

KLEIN: None of them are exactly accurate. But I think that there is a grain of accuracy in the fact that John Kerry has turned himself into a pretzel when it comes to Iraq this year.

There's also some real truth in what the Kerry ads are saying, which is that George Bush has really made a hash of the war in Iraq.

ZAHN: Even members of the president's own party agree with that assessment. Senator Hagel.

KLEIN: Right. That's right.

ZAHN: He thinks we're losing the war. KLEIN: But -- but the Bush campaign has been very clever in this regard, because they've conflated the war on terror with the war in Iraq, which are two very separate things. And the public thinks that they're one and the same.

ZAHN: The polls certainly bear that out, particularly tonight.

Joe Klein, thanks.

KLEIN: My pleasure.

ZAHN: The race for the White House is just part of the political equation this year. Control of Congress is also up for grabs. Do the Democrats have a chance at making a power play? The hottest seats on the Hill coming up.


ZAHN: We are devoting a lot of time and attention to the presidential race on PRIME TIME POLITICS, but we don't want to forget that the Republicans' control of Congress is also up for grabs.

The year started with Republicans hoping to increase their razor slim majority in the Senate. It is 51-48 with one independent who usually votes with the Democrats.

Nineteen Democratic seats are up for election this year, as well as 15 Republican seats. But fewer than a dozen of those races are hotly contested. One of them, though, is in Oklahoma.

And congressional correspondent Joe Johns takes us there.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's hang onto your hats time at the rodeo and in the increasingly nasty Oklahoma Senate race.

Republican Tom Coburn is the family doctor and former congressman who was part of the Gingrich revolution. He has a deep dislike of pork barrel spending and says his opponent Democrat Brad Carson, is out of step.

TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA SENATE CANDIDATE: Oklahoma is a conservative step. You know, there's two Brad Carsons, the one that -- how he votes in Washington and the one that the type of commercials that he's running in this state.

JOHNS: Oklahoma is solid Bush country, so Carson is talking up his conservative credentials: supporting the Iraq war and tax cuts.

REP. BRAD CARSON (D), OKLAHOMA SENATE CANDIDATE: I'm a Christian. I'm a Baptist. I drive that blue pick up around. I own more guns than I need but less of what I want.

JOHNS: Bush is in his ads; John Kerry is not. (on camera) Do you want John Kerry to come down and campaign for you?

CARSON: No. We don't have any interest in having anyone coming to campaign for us.

JOHNS (voice-over): As much as policy, the race has come down to personality. Coburn is blunt. He's called Indian treaties primitive, and he says some people are claiming to be Indians just for the benefits.

Carson himself is part Cherokee.

CARSON: He really disparaged the Cherokee nation, which has over 100,000 members, saying that the average tribal member had one 512th blood, which is completely false.

JOHNS: A potential wildcard: Coburn's record as a doctor has come up as an issue.

In 1990 Angela Plummer was an unwed mother of two. During an operation for a tubal pregnancy, she says, Coburn sterilized her without her consent.

ANGELA PLUMMER, COBURN'S FORMER PATIENT: He went in and he took out the section of my tube that had blown out from the tubal pregnancy. And he tied it, burned it and then he proceeded on to -- to my healthy tube. He cut it and burned it.

JOHNS (on camera): At any time did you give Dr. Coburn consent to tie your other tube?

PLUMMER: No, I did not. If anything would have come up of them wanting to sterilize me that night, believe me, I would have somehow managed to get something out of, "Don't you dare."

JOHNS (voice-over): Coburn says though he did not get written consent, she begged him to sterilize her on the way into the operating room.

COBURN: There was consent. There's testimony there was consent. There are three people who's testified under oath that we had consent for that procedure.

JOHNS: Plummer sued, but the case was dismissed when she failed to show up in court after a long and frustrating legal fight. The negative charges are starting to register with voters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they can be validated, that's one thing. If they're just slinging mud, that's a problem for me.

JOHNS: In a state known for the rough stuff, with just a few weeks to go, Oklahomans are bracing for a bumpy ride.


ZAHN: And that was Joe Johns.

For a closer look at this year's hottest races on Capitol Hill, I'm joined by Chuck Todd. He is the editor in chief of "Hotline," an insiders' political briefing produced daily by the "National Journal." Good read, I might add.

Good to see you Chuck. Welcome.


ZAHN: So other than the Oklahoma race, what other Senate races are interesting this year?

TODD: Well, I think two of the ones that are probably getting more and more attention as the days go by are the Senate races taking place in Florida and Colorado.

And that's because both Senate races are taking place in two presidential battleground states, so they have to deal with the whole shadow of the presidential race.

And Colorado has a little extra interest to it, because you have a guy named Pete Coors, a Republican nominee, running. Of course, he is of the Coors Brewing fortune and is putting his own money in the race. The Democratic candidate out there is Ken Salazar, who if elected would become the Senate's only Latino member of U.S. Senate.

And down in Florida, the two Democrats are Democrat Betty Castor and Republican Mel Martinez, who could join Ken Salazar, one then of only two Latino members of the U.S. Senate.

So, those are probably the two first tier races that probably have some national significance to it.

ZAHN: How likely is it that the Republicans will lose control of either the House or the Senate?

TODD: I think they have -- they're going to have a difficult time losing control of the Senate. There's a lot of things that have to go to the Democrats' way.

They have to win all of these Republican targets that they have. There's about nine or ten races that are up for -- that are truly competitive.

They've got to hope Tom Daschle, for instance, the Democratic minority leader, holds on in a very tough race up there in South Dakota.

And then they would have to win a run off in Louisiana. And all this would have to happen with John Kerry winning the presidency and the irony is, if John Kerry wins the presidency, they actually lose a Senate seat, because he would have to quit his Senate seat up there in Massachusetts, creating a special election up there.

So the numbers and the way the game works, it's going to be very difficult for Democrats to win a Senate.

ZAHN: And you are a guy that spends 24 hours a day figuring this stuff out, because it is very complicated. Chuck Todd, thanks.

TODD: You bet.

ZAHN: And we're going to have tonight's "Voting Booth" results right after this.


ZAHN: And it is road trip time for "NEWSNIGHT WITH AARON BROWN." Tonight, Aaron begins his West Coast tour in Seattle, soaking up the views of voters, along with some caffeine, no doubt. That is "NEWSNIGHT" at 10 p.m. Eastern.

And now the results of tonight's "Voting Booth" poll. We asked you, "How does political advertising influence you?" Here's what you told us. Keep in mind this is not a scientific poll, just a sampling of audience opinion from those who vote on our web site. Keep it coming.

Thanks so much for being with us tonight. Tomorrow, an insider's view of the rough and tumble 2004 campaign. Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Senator John Edwards, joins me tomorrow.

"LARRY KING LIVE" is next. And for everyone at PRIME TIME POLITICS, we wish you a good night.


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