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Special Event

Republican Presidential Candidates Face off in Debate; Bush and McCain Battle for Reform Title

Aired February 15, 2000 - 10:30 p.m. ET

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

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: It wasn't supposed to matter that much. By this time as the pre-primary predictions all had it, George W. Bush was supposed to be a few days away from an easy victory in South Carolina on his glide path to the Republican nomination. Instead, after a landslide defeat in New Hampshire at the hands of Senator John McCain, Governor Bush found himself in a neck- and-neck contest in a state that was supposed to be a his firewall. And to mix metaphors, his stately ship was taking on some water.

By tonight's debate, the last before Saturday's primary, the civilized exchanges that had marked New Hampshire had long since given way to an angry exchange about who was trashing whom while Alan Keyes sought to claim the high ground.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I told you: I pulled them all down.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You didn't pull this ad.

MCCAIN: Yes, I did.

BUSH: This, that ended up in a man's windshield yesterday that questions my -- this is an attack piece.

MCCAIN: That is not by my campaign.

BUSH: Well, it says "paid for by John McCain."

MCCAIN: That is not by my campaign.

BUSH: John...

MCCAIN: That is not by my campaign.

BUSH: Well, then somebody's putting stuff out.

MCCAIN: I pulled that off.

BUSH: I agree with you.

MCCAIN: But you're putting out stuff that is unbelievable, George, and it's got to stop.

BUSH: I...

MCCAIN: And your ads have got to stop.

LARRY KING, HOST: Are you going...

MCCAIN: My ads have all stopped.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Well, let me put a -- I can end this now. Are you going to pull anything that you now have on?

BUSH: I'm going to stand by what I'm putting on TV, and what I put on TV was looking in that camera and saying, you can disagree with my on issues, John, but do not question, do not question my trustworthiness and do not compare me to Bill Clinton.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: In the next half hour or so, we'll hear from our senior political analyst Bill Schneider about how these debaters spoke to their strengths and weaknesses. We'll hear from two CNN reporters who have been traveling in so many states they're probably eligible to vote in every one of these primaries: Candy Crowley with the Bush campaign and John King, who's with the McCain campaign.

But first, since this is after all the South Carolina primary, we want to hear from two veteran South Carolina reporters about how this debate played among the folks who will actually vote on Saturday.

Joining us, Lee Bandy, political writer of "The State," the largest newspaper in South Carolina, and Schuyler Kropf from the "Charleston Post and Courier."

Good evening, gentlemen. How are you doing?

LEE BANDY, POLITICAL WRITER, "THE STATE": Fine.

SCHUYLER KROPF, "CHARLESTON POST And COURIER": Fine.

GREENFIELD: Good. Let me ask you first, Mr. Bandy, did anything you hear tonight strike you as particularly relevant to the debate that's been going on before tonight's debate?

BANDY: Well, I think a debate -- thinking about the debate I would have this...

I can't hear.

GREENFIELD: Go ahead. We can hear you.

BANDY: Go ahead.

GREENFIELD: Yes, please. BANDY: Well, I was going say that John McCain was calm, cool and collected, and he came across as very presidential tonight. Alan Keyes was Alan Keyes. And I thought that George Bush was a little too tightly wound up. But I don't think anyone delivered a knockout blow. There was no major gaffe. And whether it changed any votes or not, only time will tell.

GREENFIELD: Schuyler, what was your initial reaction to this debate?

KROPF: I saw for a while McCain and Bush were running to be president of South Carolina. Most of the night they were running for president of the United States. But there were brief interludes, especially Senator McCain was making the appeal to a new kind of Republican. He used phrases like the Republican Party has lost its way. I thought that was significant. Said the party had lost the last few elections and we need to change our path.

And the other thing that really I think is going to set a divide is when he took on Governor Bush for going to Bob Jones University on his first stop in South Carolina from New Hampshire. And he said that their policy there against interracial dating was stupid, idiotic and incredibly cruel. I thought that was really going to set people apart heading toward Saturday.

GREENFIELD: Be a little more specific, if you would, Schuyler. How do you think that that will set people apart? In what sense did that comment strike you as it affects the vote on Saturday?

KROPF: Well, as far as South Carolina goes and the Republican primary vote is going to be based in the conservative upstate. We will probably get 40 percent of the turnout from just a few counties, and that's the Greenville area, where the conservative Republican Party base, the traditional party who comes out in the Republican primary -- that's all thrown out the window this week, primarily because it's going to be open to independents now a lot more than before.

GREENFIELD: I see. Lee Bandy, you said at the outset of your remarks that Alan Keyes was Alan Keyes, which nobody can argue with.

It's presumed that any votes that he gets will come largely from Governor Bush. Given the fact that he was at least as much a participant tonight as the other two candidates, do you think that he will wind up being a factor in the outcome on Saturday?

BANDY: I'm sorry. I couldn't quite hear you. Did I what?

GREENFIELD: Alan Keyes, do you think Alan Keyes will be a factor in Saturday's vote given that he was very much apart of this debate?

BANDY: Well, if Alan Keyes is a factor in Saturday's vote, he could take some Christian right votes away from George Bush. But I really don't expect that to happen. I think a lot of the Christian right people like Alan Keyes very much and they support him, but they think they're throwing away their vote because he's not going anywhere.

So right now, I would say that George Bush will be picking up most of the Christian right vote.

GREENFIELD: One last comment from both of you -- and I hesitate to ask you for predictions, so I'll try to phrase this in a non- predictive way. And you first, Schuyler. Do you expect a huge turnout among Democrats and independents on Saturday?

KROPF: We're trying to do the numbers on that right now. You've got 46 counties in South Carolina, and if you get 300 Democrats out per county, that's really not going to have that huge an outcome. If the number gets bigger -- and I understand there is some Democratic phone banking going on -- that could play a role.

BANDY: I really don't think that many Democrats are going to turn out. I know the Bush people say the Democrats are going to turn out to create mischief. But the few Democrats I've talked to say they will vote for John McCain because they like him. And then they say in the next breath, "I will not vote for either Al Gore or Bill Bradley in November."

So they are voting -- if they wrote vote in the primary, they're voting because they really like John McCain.

GREENFIELD: And lastly, we've heard for so many years about the South Carolina Republican establishment, how it comes to the rescue of endangered front-runners. How big a factor on Saturday do either of you think that will be?

BANDY: Who's that question to?

GREENFIELD: Well, it's a jump ball, but we'll start with you, Mr. Bandy?

BANDY: How important is the vote to...

GREENFIELD: The Republican establishment.

BANDY: The Republican establishment. Well, first of all, George Bush is going to get a majority of the Republican vote on Saturday, and the Republican voters here are independent but they're not independent like they are in New Hampshire and they tend to follow the party leadership. And of course, the party leadership is with George Bush.

Now John McCain in order to win has got to get a huge turnout among the independents and he needs to get a good turnout among the Democrats, and that's a tall order. It's going to be tougher for John McCain to get his vote out. That's -- those two groups are unpredictable in South Carolina.

The Republicans will turn out, a very predictable group, so George Bush will -- he can depend on the establishment to turn out his vote. GREENFIELD: OK, Mr. Bandy and Mr. Kropf, I thank you very much for joining us. Sorry for the technical glitches that accompany live television.

When we come back, we'll hear from our two senior correspondents from CNN, Candy Crowley and John King. We'll be back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREENFIELD: Just a few hours before this debate, Governor Bush unveiled, again, his campaign finance reform plan, designed in the opinion of most observers to take some of the steam out of John McCain's traditional and long-enunciated position on campaign finance reform. That issue, unsurprisingly, came up in tonight's debate. Here's a brief taste of what they said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KING: On the corporate end, about unions giving against the will of the member, should stockholders have the right to say whether a corporation can give?

BUSH: Members of the United States Congress should not be allowed to raise money when there's a legislative session; that members should not be allowed to raise money from federal lobbyists during a session.

KING: On the corporate end, about unions giving against the will of the member, should stockholders have the right to say whether a corporation can give?

BUSH: No, corporations should not be giving at all.

KING: Period?

BUSH: There should be a ban on corporate soft money.

KING: You should agree with that, right?

MCCAIN: Of course not, because there's a $1 billion...

KING: But today you called it a joke.

MCCAIN: Yes, there's a $1 billion loophole in it.

KING: Which is?

MCCAIN: And it's called individual contributions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: I promised you Candy Crowley and John King -- in the tradition of live television, we are joined by senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

Bill, welcome. WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Thank you.

GREENFIELD: Earlier tonight, you told us some of strengths and weaknesses of the different candidates. What did you hear tonight that spoke to the candidates strengths or weaknesses? Let's start with Governor Bush.

SCHNEIDER: Governor Bush clearly had a weakness going in which I would describe as, say, the stature gap. In previous debates, he's looked rather young, inexperienced, "callow" is a word you sometimes heard, not ready for primetime, out of his element. Well, tonight, he didn't look like that at all. He sounded very take-charge. He was a leader. He answered the stature gap. He was assertive. And most of all, he sounded like a fighter who was going to take this fight to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. He sounded like a guy who was willing to step up and lead this campaign.

GREENFIELD: It's interesting you mention that, because at one point, when John McCain was challenging Governor Bush, he said, no, it's not the Washington mentality I'm speaking for; it's the grownup mentality.

SCHNEIDER: That's right. And I thought that comment fell absolutely flat, because George Bush didn't look like or sound like he was out of his element. He could hold his own in this debate. He didn't sound uninformed. He sounded perfectly competent and of answering all the questions. He didn't give any -- make any apologies. And so when McCain made that comment about being a grown up, he had planned it, and he knew what he wanted to say, but it fell absolutely flat.

GREENFIELD: Now take us into the mind of John McCain. What was he going for tonight? And how did that demonstrate itself in the debate?

SCHNEIDER: Well, he wanted to show that he was just as conservative as George Bush, and that came out a couple of times. And I, you know, many times they said, everyone said, we're all conservatives here, and that helped McCain. He also wanted to demonstrate his passion for reform.

But I'll you something, I think Bush had a passion that trumped the passion for reform. That was the passion to end the Clinton era. Bush knew his strength. His strength all along has to be that he's the guy who could take the White House; he's the guy who could put an end to Clinton and Al Gore. There were two passions competing: McCain's passion to reform the political system. People like that, especially Democrats and independents. But this is a partisan primary with a lot of Republican partisans there, and I could hear their juices starting to flow when Bush says: We want to end the Clinton era, and I'm the guy who could do it.

GREENFIELD: Hang with us, Bill, but I believe that we have established communication, out in South Carolina and elsewhere, with Candy Crowley and John King. Candy Crowley, covering the Bush campaign, I assume that those people are not going out and saying, we did a terrible job, but from your perspective, what do you think the governor tried to do and did he do it?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, if I go with what they told me they wanted to do and then what he did, I'll tell you that they'll say it was a success. They wanted Bush to get out there and to show his knowledge, to show that he does have policy knowledge. Bill Schneider just spoke to that. He seemed competent in all of the areas that came up, which is something we didn't see early on. He has progressed steadily over this debate time, and John McCain, of course, having served 19 years the Senate is a good debater. Bush did not start out that way.

They thought this format would suit Bush, and it seemed to. What they wanted him do -- and you're going to hear Alan Keyes in the background here, because we're in the spin room, so that's what you're hearing. What they wanted to do here with the Bush campaign was to delineate the differences between John McCain and George Bush, which Bush did, and to say that Bush was the reformer with results. That's been his campaign theme for the last couple of weeks, because he wanted to show that he's a reformer, and he's done reforms in Texas, whereas John McCain is the guy that talks about it but has nothing to show for it in the Senate, and that's what they wanted to accomplish. It seems that he at least got those words out.

GREENFIELD: John King, Senator McCain seemed to be at pains to agree that he was not the most popular guy in the United States Senate, presumably as a way to appeal to Democrats and independents. How much was that part of what John McCain wanted to try to do tonight to lure independents and Democrats into this primary? And how do you think he did?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, both a short-term and a long-term focus on that issue. He certainly hopes to get Democrats and independents to turn out here in South Carolina, as Lee Bandy mentioned earlier, not so much as a tradition here, but the campaign moves onto Michigan from South Carolina; more tradition of a tradition there of Democrats an independents crossing over. Senator McCain wanted to appeal directly to them for short-term political reasons, obviously to win the primary here if he can, and in Michigan, also with a bigger-picture view, trying to make the case that his appeal among those voters shows to Republicans that he's the most electable in the hall.

As Bill Schneider mentioned, whether you go to a Bush rally or a McCain rally, when they talk about ending the Clinton years, that is the biggest applause line among partisan Republicans. Governor Bush may have the strongest support among conservatives right now. Senator McCain trying to make the case that he's the toughest candidate to go up against Al Gore in the fall. How did he do? The campaign, of course, will claim victory.

Just before the debate ended, with about 10 minutes left, I spoke to a McCain supporter here in the room who said he's doing just fine, but this supporter didn't think he was doing as well as he had in past debates.

GREENFIELD: Candy Crowley, I spoke to a Bush supporter just before the debate here in Washington, who said -- who worried that if the polls were within five points, if Bush were only ahead by five or six points, that what happened in New Hampshire might overwhelm Bush, that this turnout that polls can't predict with independents and Democrats might actually make the results different. How worried, if at all, is the Bush campaign about the unpredictability of the electorate on Saturday?

CROWLEY: Worried enough for the candidate to mention everyday. I mean, he has said, you're right, I'm worried about Democrats. He points out that there are in fact Democrats that been have been on various local TV stations saying, look, get out and vote in the Republican primary. Bush says, look, I want people of all types to come in and be Republicans, but what he says he's worry about is that they will come in and vote to kind of meddle in the Republican election, and then in the general campaign go back to the Democrat.

So they're worried about. I mean, they believe that's what killed them in New Hampshire. And they obviously -- over the last couple of days what Bush has tried to do, they looked at the polls; there's about a 10-point difference between McCain and Bush with independents. Bush kills him among Republicans, but there's a 10- point difference. McCain has the lead. Bush has been trying to take off some of those votes, peel away some of those independent votes, to try to shore up the Republican base. So he's been talking about reform. Tomorrow. he's going to talk about HMO reform and patients' bill of rights. So he's trying to appeal to those independents, to try to peel some of them off from McCain and sort of try to counterbalance whatever Democrats may come in, and they are largely for McCain, the Democrats that of course answered the polls.

KING: We have to take a break.

When we come back, I want to at least spend some time talking about the man we have not yet talked about, and that's Alan Keyes, which we will do in a moment when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREENFIELD: And we're back with our coverage of the South Carolina Republican debate with Bill Schneider, Candy Crowley and John King.

Bill Schneider, Alan Keyes was very much a part of this debate. He certainly gave every bit as good as he got. To what effect?

SCHNEIDER: The effect was I think he was making the case that he's the only real conservative left in this race. Forbes is gone. Quayle didn't make it to the starting line. And he was making the point that conservatives should be suspicious about Bush and McCain, especially on the abortion issue, where he said, I'm the real conservative, these guys are defensive, they're compromisers. That is damaging to George Bush. I don't know why Bush agreed to debate with Alan Keyes in there, because McCain wants to make the point that there's no ideological difference between Bush and himself, the point that Keyes made. Anything that minimizes the differences between Bush and McCain on ideology helps McCain.

GREENFIELD: John King, it get a little testy there between John McCain and Alan Keyes, as it has in the past. But deep down, aren't the McCain people perfectly happy to have Alan Keyes give a good account himself, maybe peal some conservative votes away from Bush?

KING: Well, they certainly in the McCain campaign believe that Alan Keyes hurt them. They want to get in on a one-on-one with George Bush. They certainly don't want Mr. Keyes hurting -- echoing Mr. Bush, if you will. Also National Right to Life Committee mailings here, Christian Coalition support here -- so Senator McCain under attack not only from Governor Bush about his conservative credentials, but consistently in this race from Mr. Keyes as well.

GREENFIELD: Yes, but John, I was offering you a Machiavellian theory that in fact that helped McCain, because any votes that Alan Keyes gets are taken away from Bush. You are -- you are telling me the McCain people aren't really happy about the attacks from Alan Keyes.

KING: Well, Mr. McCain is trying to cut into Governor Bush's conservative support here, because South Carolina, perhaps more than any state early on in the Republican primary calendar, is dominated by cultural conservatives, although there is some debate as to whether that will be the case this time. It certainly has been the history here. The demographics are changing.

So as Senator McCain tries to cut into Governor Bush's conservative support, Mr. Keyes is there to challenge Senator McCain's conservative credentials. So the McCain camp believes that cuts both ways. They would prefer that he not be in the race so that Senator McCain could have a one-on-one with George Bush.

GREENFIELD: Candy, what's the view of Alan Keyes from the George Bush campaign?

CROWLEY: Well, I think, you know, first of all, going into this debate there was sort of the theory out there that Alan Keyes could in fact help Bush with attacks on McCain, as John was saying. When I talked to a Bush official about this, he said: "Look, you know, Alan Keyes is no stocking (ph) horse for anyone. He goes out there and says what he wants. I assume McCain will take some hits, and I assume we will too." And so I think that pretty much came true. There were hits for both of them from Alan Keyes.

I would say that one of the -- a couple of the staffers here on the Bush -- in the Bush camp believe that because, you know, push has come to shove, so to speak, in South Carolina, that those who might say, "Hey, I really like that Alan Keyes, I really like what he said and he's articulate," will think twice about voting for him because there is that whole electability issue. And South Carolina matters a lot in which one of these two men, McCain or Bush, comes out. Most people don't give Keyes a big chance. And so a lot of people think that in fact Keyes will not be that much of a factor because most South Carolinians believe that their vote has to be for someone they believe can win in November.

GREENFIELD: We're down to our last minute so, so you each have got an inadequate amount of time to answer this question, starting with Bill Schneider.

Did anything happen tonight, Bill, that you think will materially affect the outcome of Saturday's vote?

SCHNEIDER: I think Bush sounded like a fighter for the first time in this campaign. He did not sound like he was in over his head. His righteous indignation at being compared to Bill Clinton came through.

And his best line, the best line of the evening was when he said, "No mothers and dads are naming their sons Bill Clinton."

GREENFIELD: Candy Crowley, anything happen tonight that in your view would alter the outcome Saturday?

CROWLEY: I think Bill is right and the perception was out there that George Bush could not handle the issues. One of the things they said coming into this camp -- coming into this debate was he needs to show command of the policy issues. I think he did that. That can work in his favor, yes.

GREENFIELD: John King?

KING: No. The McCain camp keeps voicing optimism here, but behind the scenes many say they expect Governor Bush perhaps to eke it out. They're already looking forward to Arizona, Michigan and beyond. And as a sign of that, tomorrow morning CNN has learned that they will announce that Bill Jones, the secretary of state in California -- the highest-elected state -- the only elected statewide Republican official will announce he's switching. He was a Bush supporter. He will announce tomorrow he's switching to the McCain camp.

GREENFIELD: John, thank you for some actual news as well as interpretation. Appreciate that. Thank you as well, Candy Crowley. And thanks to Bill Schneider, our senior political analyst, for his comments about tonight's debate.

On Saturday, Republicans -- and for that matter, independents and Democrats if they want -- will go to the polls in South Carolina and vote in what may well be the turning point in this entire campaign. On the other hand, it may not be. We don't like predictions here.

In any event, CNN will provide continuing coverage of that South Carolina debate on Saturday, and Friday night at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time, I'll be hosting a one-hour special on the run-up to the South Carolina Republican primary.

Thank you for joining us, and for all of us here at CNN, for Bill Schneider, for Candy Crowley, for John King, thank you and good night.

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