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Bush and Kerry Prepare For Final Debate

Aired October 13, 2004 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening and welcome, everyone.
I join you from inside the Grady Gammage Auditorium here at Arizona State University. Behind me, the stage where, with just 20 days left until the election, George Bush and John Kerry will stand side by side to debate the issues one last time.

Senator Kerry arrived from New Mexico earlier today, his plan landing near the spot where Air Force One sat parked at the Phoenix Airport. President Bush has been in the area for more than a day now. He actually attended a fund-raiser today and had a full-scale debate rehearsal today. Mr. Bush kept out of sight.

We already know that Senator Kerry has won the coin toss and will take tonight's first question. His aides tell us he is not overconfident going into this. And with less than two weeks passing now, we were wondering if all the debate rules would stifle spontaneity.

Well, instead, we've seen vividly why presidential debates matter.


ZAHN (voice-over): The debate formats were painstakingly set out in 32 pages of rules. But rules were made to be broken or ignored. And from the moment the TV networks showed that first reaction shot, the debates took on a life of their own. That may not be anything to make a face about. The rules also said the candidates couldn't ask one another direct questions. That didn't stop them from making direct criticisms.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But the enemy attacked us, Jim, and I have a solemn duty to protect the American people, to do everything I can to protect us.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He just said, the enemy attacked us. Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us.

BUSH: First, little, of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that.

ZAHN: Before the September 30 debate at the University of Miami, Senator Kerry was trailing in the polls. He needed a strong performance to save his campaign. The day after debate No. 1, you could hear the difference by just listening to the crowds.

BUSH: We had a great debate last night.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Did you watch that debate last night?


ZAHN: Debate No. 2 was last Friday's town hall in Saint Louis, a format said to favor President Bush's rapport with crowds.

BUSH: I owned a timber company? That's news to me. Need some wood?


ZAHN: The questions may have come from the audience, but once again the attacks were aimed directly at each other.

KERRY: And, Mr. President, just yesterday the Duelfer report told you and the whole world they worked. He didn't have weapons of mass destruction, Mr. President. That was the objective.

BUSH: They don't name him the most liberal in the United States Senate because he hasn't shown up to many meetings. They named him because of his votes.

ZAHN: So what is different tonight in Tempe? The candidates are back at podiums. There's a new moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS. And for the first time, this debate is supposed to be focused entirely on domestic issues. But don't be surprised if the candidates find a way to work Iraq into their answers.

Each candidate get two minutes to respond to a question. Then the other gets a minute and a half to rebut. At Bob Schieffer's discretion, both can get an extra 30 seconds to follow up. Every once in a while, they seem to need even more.

KERRY: We're not going to go alone, like this president did.

CHARLES GIBSON, MODERATOR: Mr. President, let's extend for a minute...

BUSH: Let me just -- I've got to answer this.

GIBSON: Exactly. And with Reservists being held on duty...



ZAHN: And joining me as usual is senior White House correspondent John King and senior political correspondent Candy Crowley. Good to see both of you. White House aides have admitted to me that they know the president lost some support among women during the last two debates, particularly because of the president's demeanor. Some women found him overly aggressive. Will they recalibrate his performance tonight? Will he do something differently?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's tough because he wants to continue the attacks on Senator Kerry. And he wants America to leave tonight's debate convinced his opponent is a liberal out of the mainstream, would raise their taxes, is a big fan of big government. To do that, he has to attack Senator Kerry.

And attacks are unappealing, if you will, to certain segments of the electorate, women more than others, according to the polls. So it's a delicate balance. He will try to make his case that his approach is the right approach, that his health care approach will get you benefits now, as opposed to being tied up in Washington. It's a very delicate balance. They know this is a big night for the president.

ZAHN: There seems to be a clear intent on the president's part to cast this as the great ideological divide between himself and John Kerry. John Kerry will have to defend his voting record, which is considered among the most liberal in the Senate. How will he do that?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Very much the same way you saw in Saint Louis, which is to say, oh, these labels don't matter. What matters is what I'm for. And I voted for deficit reduction. I voted for it.

He will pick out of those eight gazillion votes that he's made over 20 years and say, here is where I am conservative. I'm conservative where it matters. And the other thing you saw on the social issues is, before he answered any of the questions in Saint Louis, he always said, I understand what you're talking about. He totally disagreed with the questions on abortion.

ZAHN: So the compassionate conservative/liberal.

CROWLEY: Compassionate-liberal fiscal conservative. They have ways that they've already seen -- they know what the president's going to do.

ZAHN: Sure.

And the president goes into this knowing that John Kerry leads him on a whole range of key domestic issues, with the exception of taxes. Why do they think that is? Why does John Kerry in some cases enjoy double-digit leads on those issues?

KING: The Democrats traditionally enjoy a lead over Republicans on some of these issues. That's one of the reasons.

ZAHN: But not by these margins.

(CROSSTALK) KING: Not by these margins.

Another reason the Bush team insists is true and they say the president will try to make the case tonight -- it also gets the appeal to women -- is to say that because of terrorism and because of the recession, his focus has been overwhelmingly on those two issues, the tax cuts to pull the economy out of recession and the war on terrorism. The president's message is, we've been through a lot. And I haven't been able to do everything I wanted to do because we've been through a lot.

That's the president's way to try to make a connection with the American people to remind them of what they like about him and perhaps to ask some forgiveness that he didn't get to some of the things he promised to four years ago.

ZAHN: John Kerry is getting creamed on the campaign trail by Republicans who keep on repeating a quote about referring to terrorism, he hopes, ultimately being a nuisance. Will he find an opportunity tonight to try to mute that controversy?

CROWLEY: He certainly will be looking for one.

They find it very hard to believe that given the ongoing story in Iraq that Bob Schieffer won't feel the need to bring up some of that. And they actually fully believe the president will bring up the nuisance comment. And there are ways to segue from one to the other. We expect they'll be mostly on this.


ZAHN: A lot of Democrats told me they wish he had not said that. It's a matter of semantics. It was a mistake.


CROWLEY: It's semantic. And you know what? You don't want to have to be explaining. It was a silly word to use in that context, because no one -- how many people read that "New York Times" magazine article? So they know it. And they understand it was.

But they also think they can get past it. And how do you they get past it? They say, well, if you have read the whole article, what I really said was -- you know, that sort of thing. So they know he made a mistake. But they indeed think they'll get a chance tonight to kind of zing it back at them.

ZAHN: All right, team, we'll be catching up with you tomorrow -- or, actually, our town hall meeting on Friday to see how right the two of you were. John King, Candy Crowley, thanks for joining us tonight.

With just about 52 minutes to go before the debate begins, you will see it here starting at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

Then our post-debate coverage gets under way at 10:30 with Wolf Blitzer, followed by "LARRY KING LIVE" at 11:00. Larry's special guest, Michael J. Fox and Rudy Giuliani. And then at midnight Eastern time, a special edition of "NEWSNIGHT" with special guest Karl Rove and Bob Shrum.

And don't forget, after the debates, the results of our instant poll of viewers, their opinion of who won the debate.


ZAHN: And welcome back to Arizona State University, where President Bush and Senator Kerry will debate for the final time just about 49 minutes from now, if you're counting. I am. I will be talking with representatives of both campaigns, first, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

Always good to see you. Welcome.

ANDREW CARD, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Great to see you. Thank you.

ZAHN: So how many times will we hear the president refer to Senator Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal?

CARD: Well, I think you will hear the president talking about the record that the president has and contrasting that with the record that Senator Kerry has, but Senator Kerry really doesn't like to talk about, because it is not reflective of the mainstream. It is not even reflective of mainstream Massachusetts. I know that because I'm a Massachusetts voter.

And John Kerry isn't part of the mainstream there. And if you're not part of the mainstream in Massachusetts, you are really pretty far left.

ZAHN: All right, but help me with this, sir. There are a lot of people that look at this deficit and said we have seen record deficits under this president. We've seen dramatically increased government spending. What is so conservative about that and the president's performance?

CARD: Well, I tell you what the president has done. He has conducted a war against terror. And that requires us to spend money. Is it very important that we win that war. And he will spend what it takes to win that war.

He'll also spend what it takes to secure the homeland. Beyond that, he says, I'm going to be very frugal with the taxpayers' money. And the tax package that the president put through made it possible for us to have an economic growth that has attracted 1.9 million jobs in the last 13 months. We've seen positive job growth every month in those 13 months. And that's overcoming the recession we inherited, the shock of September 11, where we lost one million jobs in three months, and then the dark cloud of corporate governance scandals that hung over us for a long time, and the drumbeat of war.

So I think the track record that the president has is a good one. And we'll reduce that definite in half within five years. And John Kerry's plan is really one of big spending, tax increases and opposing tax cuts.

ZAHN: Let me come back to the Kerry criticisms of what you're saying. They say it is all spin, that, vet, the statute of limitations has to wear out on 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. And they say, if you look at the performance of the economy over the last three months, that your job growth did not match your projections and that you should be judged on that.

CARD: Well, I can tell you, the president will not be happy until everybody who wants a job in America has one. We won't quit working in building our economy.

But it is a good thing that the president put the tax cut in place that he did put in place, because that recession was shallower than the pundits predicted it would be. And the shock of September 11 was much greater than the pundits predicted that it would be in when we lost those million jobs. So we've overcome an awful lot.

And we're the envy of the world right now in terms of our economic growth and job creation. Europe can't match us. The Asian countries outside of China can't match us. So we're the envy of the world. And it's important that we continue to be the engine of economic growth not only for this country, but for the world.

ZAHN: But, as you know, there are even conservatives within your own party who think that this team is mortgaging our grandchildren's futures and it is those very tax cuts that you claim have stimulated the economy that are responsible for two-thirds of the deficit that we have today.

CARD: Well, the president says we want to build the economic opportunity in this country to make sure that people are trained, first of all, for the jobs of the 21st century, so we'll be spending money appropriately to retrain workers for those jobs. We'll make sure that kids are educated. No child should be left behind. It is not just a slogan. It is a reality.

And school systems right now are implementing that law. And it is going to be hard, but it's important that they follow through. And we're going to make the right decisions on spending the taxpayers' money in Washington. Most of the money should be in the taxpayers' pockets, not in the governments of Washington, D.C.

ZAHN: Final question for you tonight about women. You look at the polls. The president has lost significant support among women over the last 2 1/2 weeks. Some women I have talked to were alienated by the presidents' performance, women who actually agree with him on a lot of the issues. And they found him aggressive. They found him hostile. Is he going to change anything tonight in his performance?

CARD: Well, I think what you find is that the president has a real heart. He speaks with conviction.

And he also understands that security is the most important thing to all Americans. And he is going to do anything possible to make sure we have a securer country and that we win the war on terror. He is are going to make sure that we have economic opportunity. And that's by having sound economic policies, rather than pie-in-the-sky promises to everyone. He's following through on those tough decisions that have to be made in the Oval Office that are right for the country in the long term.

ZAHN: Andrew Card, Boston native, sorry about what is going to happen to the Red Sox tonight.

CARD: The Red Sox are going to win tonight and the World Series.

ZAHN: No, they are not.


ZAHN: Thank you for dropping by.

Now it's time to check in with the Kerry camp. Joining me now, Kerry senior adviser Mike McCurry, who is outside the debate hall here in Tempe.

Mike, always good to see you. You heard Andrew Card pretty much confirm that we know the president is going to go after John Kerry tonight on the basis of his voting record as a Massachusetts, spending liberal. How will he defend his voting record as a senator?

MIKE MCCURRY, SENIOR KERRY CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Well, he will certainly defend his record, but he's going to be talking more about what we need to do going into the future.

It is stunning to see a president of the United States as negative as George Bush has been. And I think one of the reasons why he's having so much difficult a time with women, with other voters is he just hasn't had anything positive to say about the future. Senator Kerry is going to be talking about those things that we really need to do to build a strong economy here at home and that we are really going to I think be working a lot harder at trying to paint a vision of what America can be four years from now. That's what voters want to hear about. They don't want to hear all this negativity.

ZAHN: And, Mike, while it's clear that John Kerry comes into this debate tonight leading on a whole range of domestic issues, with the exception of taxes, the fact remains that polls also show that a lot of voters out there do not think John Kerry is consistent with his positions. Do you want to try to defend that?


MCCURRY: In each of these debates, John Kerry has been standing side by side with George Bush. And people are taking a measure of him now as a potential president, a future commander in chief. And we think they like what they're seeing. They're seeing someone of strength, conviction, who is going to lead America in a different direction, who is going to correct some of the wrong choices that President Bush has made, and who really offers hope for the future.

And I think that contrast is beginning to settle in on people. People are imagining John Kerry now in the Oval Office. And I think the more they see that, the more they like that. I think that's why we've been gaining a lot of ground and why the next three weeks will be painting that contrast even more vividly.

ZAHN: Mike, while you say voters out there can imagine John Kerry now being in the White House, the fact remains that the president continues to enjoy significant leads when it comes to the war on terror and the war in Iraq right now.


ZAHN: The campaign, of course, Bush campaign, is just slamming John Kerry for the comment he made tying terrorism and basically saying eventually he hopes it will just be a nuisance that we have to lead to, something that doesn't completely govern our lives.

MCCURRY: Look, that is -- they're having a hard time with that. I think most Americans want to see us win the war on terror, take the terrorists back to the caves where they belong, so that they no longer threaten us, so that we're no longer suffering orange alerts all the time and moms going to bed at night worrying about their kids being safe at school and the kinds of anxieties that Americans have.

What John Kerry is saying is a very optimistic message, that we can win this war on terror and not live with the kind of anxiety we have today. I think that's a very positive thing. If the president wants to debate that, we're certainly happy to have that debate. I suspect we will hear more about Iraq and about the war on terror tonight, because John Kerry just has a much different view of the reality of what's happening in Iraq.

The news from there today is awful and that, you know, we hear the president constantly saying we're making progress there. He just seems so out of touch with the reality of what's happening on the ground. More importantly, he's out of touch with what's happening to the reality of American families here at home. Tonight, we're going to talk about how the middle income -- the middle class will really benefit if we can have a change of direction.

ZAHN: Back to the issue of deficits.

Independent think tanks are slamming both campaigns, saying, even though they both, both the president and your candidate, want to cut it in half in five years, their plans simply are not realistic.

MCCURRY: Well, look, we know, in the 1990s, we saw what happens if you're serious about deficit reduction.

President Bush has set an all-time record for federal deficit spending. And we're in a place now where we're mortgaging our future and everybody knows that. But we look back at the 1990s, when we had $5.7 trillion surplus that the treasury secretary today somehow or other said was just a mirage, it was real. We made serious choices, hard decisions about where to cut spending.

And, most importantly, we didn't give disproportionately large tax cuts to the very wealthiest Americans, those making more than $200,000. And Senator Kerry has spelled out very specifically how we would bring fiscal discipline back to that equation and restore the kind of growth that we enjoyed in the 1990s. We know we can do that. But it is pretty clear that this president can't do it because he doesn't see the reality.

ZAHN: Mike McCurry, thanks for your time tonight. Appreciate it.

MCCURRY: Nice being with you.

ZAHN: And coming up -- our pleasure.

In this last debate, every single question carries the possibility of a slam dunk or a setback. When our special coverage continues here from Arizona, Joe Klein's dos and don'ts for the candidates.

And, remember, you can check out facts and figures and follow real-time analysis during the debate on our Web site,


ZAHN: And you're looking at the view from behind the scenes of the spin room here at Arizona State University, where partisans will attempt to spin political straw into gold.

We are counting down to the final presidential debate here in Tempe. We've heard from both of the campaigns this evening.

Now it is time to turn our attention to CNN contributor and "TIME" columnist Joe Klein, here with his pre-debate dos and don'ts for the candidates.

All right, get started here.


We're going to go with Kerry first tonight. For John Kerry, stay presidential. Your demeanor through these first two debates has been excellent. Keep the details coming, especially the local state details, as you did in Missouri. And, three, keep the president on the defensive. He doesn't like it very much.

Don't: Don't be too dark on the economy. It is not midnight in America. It never is. Don't overpromise. People might think you're a liberal. And don't get cocky.

ZAHN: Don't overpromise -- think you might be a liberal. That's the only thing we've heard going into this debate. Andrew Card...

KLEIN: Well, I was being a little ironic there.

(LAUGHTER) ZAHN: The president's chief of staff making it clear that will be the line of attack on John Kerry. How does he defend that? How does he fight it off?

KLEIN: Well, I think he has to say that his first responsibility is going to be keeping the economy strong and balancing the budget, that all these other plans, like his health care plan, are things that he wants to do, but may not be able to do.

And he could say, I want to do these things. The president doesn't. And that's the difference between us.

ZAHN: And will he admit he'd be willing to make cuts in those programs if he had to?

KLEIN: Well, he already has tiptoed up to it.

ZAHN: John Edwards did over the weekend a little.

KLEIN: And John Edwards did in the vice presidential debate.

I think Kerry has to do that a lot more strongly here to convince people that he's not a wild-eyed, wild-spending liberal.

ZAHN: Now on to the president's dos and don'ts.

KLEIN: The president has to be specific and factual. Act as if you really care and know about this stuff.

He has to be more presidential and not quite so aggressive as he's been in the first couple of debates. It doesn't go over well with women voters. And he also has to challenge Kerry on his mushy responses, as he did very successfully on the abortion question in the last debate.

Don't: Don't be too rosy on the economy. There are a lot of people out there who are actually hurting. Don't be flippant or scornful. That goes without saying. And don't go back to foreign policy. Bush's weakest moments in these debates have been when he has talked about foreign policy. His strongest moment in the last debate came on social issues and domestic policy.

ZAHN: And yet we can see the line of attack coming from the Kerry campaign tonight. They're saying, OK, at some point, the statute of limitations has to wear out on inheriting the so-called Clinton recession, the expenditures for the war in Iraq. They're going to look at the last three months of the employment picture and they're going to say, Mr. President, you didn't meet your job growth projections.

KLEIN: And then the president is going to be specific about the last year and about nearly two million jobs grown and the fact that the economy is growing in many sectors.


ZAHN: But that still doesn't address the issue of that three- month period.


KLEIN: When they did this last week, I thought it was a kind of a wash. And on economic stuff, it is really, really difficult to score a knockout.

ZAHN: Where do you think a knockout could conceivably be scored tonight? I know you hate hypothetical questions, but I'm going to ask you anyway.

KLEIN: No, no. It beats me. It could happen at any moment. But the most important thing is that the first two debates have been far more about style than they've been about substance. The knockouts have come on stylistic grounds. And that's where they may come tonight.

ZAHN: And a lot of women are going to be watching tonight.

KLEIN: That's right.

ZAHN: And that is what has hurt the president a lot over the last couple of weeks.

Joe Klein, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

With less than three weeks to go before the election, we'll continue to track the pulse of the voters in our series of town hall meetings in key swing states. The next one is just 24 hours away. We're on the road again tomorrow night. We will be with undecided voters in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

And, remember, you can send in questions for the Bush and Kerry campaigns at our Web site,

With a razor-thin difference in the polls, the final debate is a chance for George Bush or John Kerry to gain some valuable ground.

With about 30 minutes to go and the excitement building right here, our special coverage continues in a moment.


ZAHN: And thank you so much for joining us tonight for our preview of the debate tonight.

Our special pre-debate coverage continues now with my colleague Wolf Blitzer, who joins us from Tempe as well.

Hi, Wolf. How you doing tonight?


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