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Special Event

Republican National Convention: Jim Nicholson, Gov. Thompson Discuss Opening of Convention

Aired July 31, 2000 - 9:30 a.m. ET

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

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: The preparations are nearly over, the main event is about to begin, delegates streaming into the Comcast First Union Center eager to kick off the 37th Republican National Convention.

BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: The gavel comes down about 30 minutes from now, but already the focus of these delegates is clear: Help George W. Bush break eight years of Democratic hold on the White House.

Welcome to CNN's coverage of the Republican National Convention. I'm Bernard Shaw with Judy Woodruff and Jeff Greenfield.

On Thursday, on the convention floor behind and below us, George W. Bush will get the prize he unofficially won about five months ago, the Republican nomination to run for the presidency.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: And what happens this week is going to go a long way toward determining if he gets the ultimate prize of victory in November. The Bush campaign has spent months mapping out the details of this convention, hoping to drive home its candidate's message of compassionate conservatism, and draw in those independent voters, many of whom fell in love with Bush's primary opponent, Senator John McCain.

WOODRUFF: It all begins in less than 30 minutes, and we are going to bring it to you from every angle possible. We have more than 20 cameras in and around this convention hall and five correspondents will be working the floor for CNN throughout the next four days.

We're going to begin our convention floor tour in a moment with Wolf Blitzer, but first, Bernie, they are already rehearsing the National Anthem.

SHAW: They are, and I'm getting quite a kick out of watching all of the party officials walking around, their chests are just palpitating, they are very proud of this show that they brought together.

GREENFIELD: One of the things that happens at any of these conventions, no matter how dramatic or undramatic is what happens in the evening before, people coming in, and there is an enormous level of adrenaline. Just the fun of being at an event that however predetermined is going to have some historic and maybe enormous historic significance.

And so I have got an enormous kick out of just watching this sort of combination college reunion, rock concert, Super Bowl atmosphere, where people say, didn't -- we met in San Diego or we were in Houston, we were cheering for Goldwater.

WOODRUFF: In '88 or '92.

GREENFIELD: Yes, and that memory increasingly fades for some of us.

WOODRUFF: All right. As we said, we have a bevy of five correspondents who are going to be taking us on this tour of the convention for the next four days.

And to get us started this morning, let's go right to that podium, that expanded podium they've constructed this year over to the right and our own Wolf Blitzer -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN PODIUM CORRESPONDENT: Judy, this is a new podium, it's the first time that it is going to be much lower. There are going to be these steps, I don't know if we can get a wide shot to show the podium, but there is going to be steps that are going to be going down to symbolize this new tone that George W. Bush wants to send out from this Republican National Convention, much more inclusive, a much more America -- look-like America kind of presentation.

Even though most of the delegates here are white and are not necessarily minorities, a lot of minorities will be featured here, including this evening, of course, General Colin Powell.

It's all designed to showcase George W. Bush's insistence that he is not taking any votes for granted. He wants to go out there and try to find Hispanics, African-Americans, especially women, Asians, everyone is invited to join this Republican Party, that's certainly the message coming from the platform.

We're told, by the way, that the platform is going to be approved during the course of the day session here, that's going to go until about 2:30, 3:00 Eastern time without any major challenges, all of those battles over abortion and other issues have been fought.

Now let's go down to the floor. My colleague, CNN senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, is standing by near the California delegation -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN FLOOR CORRESPONDENT: Good morning from between the California and the Texas delegation. The platform, itself, like almost everything else at this convention, bears the imprint of George W. Bush. What they wanted here was a platform that was more moderated than the one they got four years ago, and that's what they got in some key areas. It is certainly a softer, more moderate platform than they have had in years past. But at the core of it, it remains a conservative document. In order to get what he wanted on education, and that is the removal of the paragraph about eliminating the Department of Education, George Bush gave up in some other areas; one of them, the abortion language, always a contentious issue here. In there, the conservatives prevailed, the position in the platform, in fact, is more conservative than that of George W. Bush, but like many other candidates before him, there are those parts of the platform that George W. Bush will ignore.

It is, of course, a delineation of the party's principles and mores, but there have been many candidates in the past that have ignored portions of their particular platform.

Now over to my colleague John King in the Arizona delegation.

JOHN KING, CNN FLOOR CORRESPONDENT: Well, Candy, this is George W. Bush's convention, as you mentioned, though, one of the major subplots will be Arizona Senator John McCain. He was, of course, Bush's chief rival throughout the primary season. He will be watched here to see how he urges his delegates, how enthusiastically he urges his delegates to support the Republican nominee, Governor Bush, in the fall.

We're told to expect Senator McCain on the floor Thursday when Gov. Bush speaks.

Today's proceedings include adopting the rules. No big deal at this point, now, because although Senator McCain won seven states in the primaries, that would have been enough to mount a floor fight had he wanted to do so. When the actual delegates were picked, he lost the majority in two of his states, so he does not have the power to mount a floor fight.

Still, some of his delegates grumbling a bit about Governor Bush here and the control he has over this convention. The Bush people have an intricate whip operation on the floor here to try to keep things in order. Although we are told this morning they expect no major trouble at this opening session.

Now I'd like to toss over to Georgia, where CNN's Frank Sesno is standing by.

FRANK SESNO, CNN FLOOR CORRESPONDENT: John, thanks very much.

Well, as you can see, the delegates are arriving and talking with some of these delegates there is absolutely no suspense here, everybody knows what is going to happen, but there is ample enthusiasm and there are two themes. The first theme you hear here in Georgia, and that is unity, and the new face of this party, at least that is what they are saying.

Fifty percent of the Georgia delegation is here for the first time. They have got several, half a dozen are so, African-American and minority members, one of them will be speaking here later this morning, he's running for a House seat out of Georgia. If he is elected, and they think he's got a good chance, he would be the first African-American Republican elected from Georgia since Reconstruction.

The other theme here, the underlying theme is unity, and this button I got just a short time ago, "Straight Talkers for Bush 2000" from someone in the New Hampshire delegation just behind me. They were well aligned behind John McCain, now the "Straight Talkers," as John McCain's bus was known, they are now well behind George Bush, though there are still some lingering resentments. We will be hearing these things again and again.

Right now I want to go over to Jeanne Meserve, a colleague over in Michigan -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN FLOOR CORRESPONDENT: Frank, for the most part, participants at this convention will be singing, but with the same voice, sticking to that old adage: "United we stand, divided we fall."

The Bush campaign put out the word that it did not want controversy at this convention and it has done what it can to quash it. As Candy mentioned, they put things in the platform to satisfy conservatives, they also named Dick Cheney as the vice presidential candidate, but they have also calmed the moderates with their tone and general approach.

This party is, however, not as monolithic as they might want you to believe. There are differences of opinion, strong differences of opinion, not just on abortion but on issues like gay rights and gun- control. Some of those issues unlikely to even come up at this convention.

But, for the most part, delegates seemed perfectly willing to swallow their differences with the platform and with one another for the greater good of getting George W. Bush elected. They know their man is ahead and they don't want to blow it. As one delegates from Washington said: Republicans are tired of losing.

Back to the booth.

SHAW: And here in the booth, the chairman of the Grand Old Party's National Committee, Jim Nicholson.

Welcome, good morning to you.

JIM NICHOLSON, RNC CHAIRMAN: Good morning.

WOODRUFF: Good morning.

SHAW: Good morning to you. What's going through your mind right now?

NICHOLSON: Well, in a little less than 30 minutes, I'm going to go down there and gavel this 37th National Convention of the Republican Party to order. The first convention we ever had as a party was here in Philadelphia in 1856. And we came here because of our convictions and our commitment to freedom and liberty, and we're back here 144 years later, just as committed to freedom and liberty as we were then. It's just as important now as it was then. And so this is an important event, a lot of people make up their mind about how they are going to vote by watching conventions.

WOODRUFF: Was there anything that Governor Bush wanted about this convention that he didn't get?

NICHOLSON: Not that I know of. I mean, I have never seen this party so excited and so united going into a convention, as it is here today, and I've been doing this a long time.

GREENFIELD: Mr. Chairman, one of the major themes is that George W. Bush is a different kind of Republican, different from what?

NICHOLSON: I think he's different in that he is such an optimist and he is so forward-looking. I mean, he wants to talk about the future for America and Americans, and what he'd like to do with them and for them. He's not looking back and he is not spending a lot of his time and energy beating up the other side either. He is a very positive, optimistic guy and it's contagious. And that's why you see this party so united and so optimistic.

GREENFIELD: What I mean is, we understood when Bill Clinton used that term eight years ago that he was deliberately separating himself from the congressional liberal wing of the party, different kind implies that he needed to be different from something. What was wrong with the old Republican Party that he had to separate himself from it?

NICHOLSON: Well, I don't know that there was anything so wrong with the Republican Party. You know, we have a new generation of leadership now, baby boomer, he's a forward-looking, I mean, he wants to talk about the future for America and Americans and what he'd like to do with them and for them, he's not looking back and he is not spending a lot of his time and energy beating up the other side either, he is a very positive, optimistic guy and it's contagious, and that's why you see this party so united and so optimistic.

GREENFIELD: What I mean is, we understood when Bill Clinton used that term eight years ago that he was deliberately separating himself from the congressional liberal wing of the party, different kind of implies that he needed to be different from something, what was wrong with the old Republican Party that he had two separate himself from it?

NICHOLSON: Well I don't know that there was anything so wrong with the Republican Party, you know, we have a new generation of leadership now, baby boomer, he's a forward-looking guy, he has a very positive attitude about America and he wants to bring Americans together, of course hold the Republican base, but be inclusive and bring other people to this party because he wants to -- he wants to help kids in America by giving them a better education, help their parents by lowering their taxes. He wants to during the country together and have a stronger defense with some missile defense, and he wants to save and secure the Social Security system for people as they grow old and know that it is going to be there, and help people get health care, those that really need that help. SHAW: Turning to his running mate, Dick Cheney, starting today the Democratic National Committee -- nationwide ad campaign underscoring Mr. Cheney's House voting record. Are you going to answer the Democrats ad for ad? Are you going to counterattack?

NICHOLSON: Well, I think that is sort of a political Pearl Harbor. I mean, I think that speaks volumes about how panic struck the Democratic Party is, really how desperate they are feeling to run attack adds against us as we start our convention. That is very, very unusual in politics. And I think it is significant that they're doing that.

I think, when Governor Bush announced Dick Cheney, it's put the fear of God in them because he's found one of the most qualified, beloved people in America, who, as he said, I want somebody who is ready to be president, and he found him, and the American people are reacting to it, they are not responding to their politics of personal destruction. If you want to believe polls, and they -- they don't mean a great deal to us, but the polls are showing that Governor Bush's gap over Gore is just continuing to increase since they attached us, so it's not working, the people aren't buying it.

WOODRUFF: Jim Nicholson, the chairman of the Republic Party, we're going to let you get on to the business of hammering that gavel down and we want to thank you very much for joining us.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, and you have a good convention up here too.

WOODRUFF: We will, and I hope we see you often over the next four days.

NICHOLSON: Thank you.

SHAW: Thank you. We're going to cover every minute of it.

WOODRUFF: That's right.

Now down with Jeanne Meserve on the floor of the convention there's a gentleman who's run the so-called Platform Committee.

Jeanne, tell us whom you are with.

MESERVE: I'm with Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.

Thanks so much for joining us here today. Is there going to be a floor fight over abortion here today?

GOV. TOMMY THOMPSON (R), WISCONSIN: We don't think so. We think, you know, with the outreach that we have already made to the pro-choice -- I have personally met with the pro-choice people more than any other group, and we think that they are relatively happy with the access to the committee and to the discussions, but I don't think there is going to be a floor fight.

MESERVE: Is there lingering unhappiness with the education part of the platform on the part of conservatives?

THOMPSON: I really don't think so. I think the whole tenor of the platform committee as well as the convention as a whole is very upbeat. We're excited about our candidate. We're excited about the real possibility of winning back the White House, and this convention is dedicated to do that, and we're very unified. We're a family. And pro-choice people and minorities have been asked to come into the big tent and we've got a very uplifting, progressive, visionary platform that's very optimistic.

MESERVE: Some people say the party is not, in fact, so unified, that what the platform does is gloss over differences, what do you say to those people?

THOMPSON: Well I think the whole platform is different. The platform is different because I set out to put a different tone on the platform, along with the co-chair, and with the complete cooperation of George W. Bush. We want to put sort of the formation on -- with the words to what compassionate conservatism is all about. We wanted to reach out to various groups. We wanted to make sure we talked about the centerpieces of what George Bush is talking about: education, welfare reform, the environment, national policies, strong military, and great foreign policies, and we encapsulated this all into the platform.

MESERVE: But is the party for the moment failing to grapple with some of the serious issues that divided it -- abortion specifically?

THOMPSON: No, the Republican Party certainly is not avoiding it at all. In fact, we are so much different than the Democrats, the Democrats won't even allow pro-life people to testify. I sat out and had dinner, lunch, many meetings with people from pro-choice, they spoke at the platform subcommittee, they spoke at the plenary hearing, everybody was very courteous, they had a chance to vote in all the amendments, very different than what the Democrats allow the pro-life people to do, but our party is pro-life, the majority is pro-life, but we have a strong minority that is pro-choice and we want those people to be happy, that's why I reached out to them so often and so completely, and that tenor I think helped to prevent the floor fight.

MESERVE: Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, chairman of the Platform Committee, thanks so much.

And now back to Bernie in the booth.

SHAW: Thank you, Jeanne.

The opening session begins at the top of the hour. When we come back, more coverage from Philadelphia, including a look at the anatomy of the Republican Party.

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