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Election 2000, Four Days to Go: Political Focus Remains on 1976 Bush DUI Conviction

Aired November 3, 2000 - 1:01 p.m. ET

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

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Four days away from election 2000, the political focus remains on September '76. That's when Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, then 30 years old, was arrested for driving under the influence near his family's home in Kennebunkport, Maine. That story came to light yesterday, as you probably heard, and the candidate acknowledged it's true.

Today, Bush is back to the business of courting votes in the battleground state of Michigan. Speaking this morning to an overflow crowd in Grand Rapids, the Texas governor mentioned the '76 case only obliquely and only at the end of his speech about military readiness.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've made mistakes in my life. But I'm proud to tell you I've learned from those mistakes.

(APPLAUSE)

And that's the role of a leader, is to share wisdom, to share experience with people who are looking for somebody to lead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALLEN: Earlier today, Bush's spokeswoman was asked about the candidate's decision to keep the arrest quiet all these years.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KAREN HUGHES, BUSH CAMPAIGN COMMUNICATIONS DIR.: Be he had made a decision as a father that he did not want to set that bad example for his daughters or for any other children.

QUESTION: Would it have been an acceptable excuse for President Clinton if he had said he lied under oath because he didn't want to set a bad example for Chelsea?

HUGHES: Well, Jake, again, the only time the governor was directly asked, he was directly asked if he'd ever been arrested for drinking, and he replied -- and I quote -- "I do not have a perfect record as a youth."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALLEN: Bush says he does not think the arrest will change his standing among voters.

WATERS: This story originated with a television reporter in Portland, Maine, who got it from a Democratic activist and former gubernatorial candidate named Tom Connolly.

Now, our own CNN correspondent Bill Delaney got an interview with Mr. Connolly just a short while ago. We've secured that. We'll have that for you shortly.

The Bush camp says it's a case of gotcha politics. But in a phone interview today with CNN, Connolly said he was just being a good citizen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM CONNOLLY (D), FMR. MAINE GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: My role is to release information that I considered germane to the decision- making process, and the chips will fall where they are. That's your job, is to evaluate it, analyze it, discuss it, debate it, criticize it and what have you. But I want to underscore that this came out as a result of serendipitous actions, that the suppression of the truth, however, was a plan on their part. And that's what should be focussed on, not the fact that this came out late. It was good that it came out at all before the election. If it came out a week after the election, it would have no saliency.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WATERS: Connolly says he first tried to fax the DUI report to the Gore campaign in Nashville, but the line was busy. A while later, he says he encountered reporter Erin Phaelo (ph) at the county courthouse. She took the story from there.

So what will the voters make of all of this?

Let's ask that question of CNN political analyst Bill Schneider.

And I would assume you don't know at this point.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: We don't know. I mean, this story has clearly monopolized the press and diverted the campaign. And I think there is a general view that the Bush campaign should have let this story come out earlier, months ago, if the governor knew. And apparently his communications director knew it was there. The damage would have been far less consequential if it had come out back in the summer.

WATERS: The question now is, because of this acknowledged mistake, are there other mistakes? And people are digging hard today.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, that's what the press wants to know. I mean, they're essentially saying, OK, there's an arrest on the record, the governor didn't say anything about it. He didn't lie about it, but he didn't say anything about it. Is there anything else that the voters ought to know in the last few days of this campaign before they make that crucial decision?

WATERS: And the Bush campaign is crying foul, of saying "dirty tricks." Is there any chance this could boomerang on Gore?

SCHNEIDER: It certainly could. Now we know that a Democratic activist was responsible for giving the information to a reporter. The timing is certainly suspicious. He tried to send it to the Gore campaign in Nashville. So it smells like a political plot, obviously, to get Gov. Bush. Now, this could enrage Republicans. I mean, they could see this as a Democratic dirty trick. Whether or not the Gore campaign knew about it, there's no evidence of that. But they still could be enraged about it and it could really drive up Republican turnout just because they're furious that this happened.

WATERS: How is the Gore campaign handling this?

SCHNEIDER: I think they're handling it very well. They're staying away from it. They have no fingerprints on it. They're saying, look -- they're letting the press do their work for them.

WATERS: Here comes the argument again, do we need to know the private lives of politicians? We had on "BURDEN OF PROOF," as I mentioned to you just a few minutes ago, a Democratic trial attorney who said there should be statute of limitations on past misdeeds by politicians to avoid this kind of thing.

SCHNEIDER: Well, look, it depends on the seriousness of the offense. I mean, this is not a very serious offense and I think the voters are not going to take it that way. And it does create a diversion, but it looks like a temporary one for the campaign.

The issue is, what's the nature of the offense? Is this a purely private matter? My feeling is, to say it's a youthful indiscretion is a little understating it, because driving under the influence of alcohol is a menace to public safety. It's a fairly serious matter. It should have been brought out earlier.

WATERS: This, of course, is a distraction to the Bush campaign. How significant is this? because we're in the last few hours of the campaign.

SCHNEIDER: Well, we have a couple of days left and we're talking about it, aren't we? And we've been showing it on "BURDEN OF PROOF" and the press is talking about. It's going to be a day or two of talking about this story until -- when the press determines either that it is or it isn't going anywhere. And there are tributaries, like what did the Gore campaign know? And who is the guy who originally reported the information? And did Bush ever lie about being arrested? And is there anything else on the record? It's not going to stop until the record is clear, or the story has gone as far as it's going to go.

WATERS: Are there any new signals along the campaign trail that we can digest about how this whole election is going? SCHNEIDER: Not yet, because the voters have just found out about this. We are, of course, polling every day and we're going to try to find out if this is having any impact, either in favor of the governor or against the governor. It could go either way, because you could have Republicans furious at the Democrats and furious at the press for pursuing this.

WATERS: All right, CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

As we've said, the Texas governor is spending much of the day in Michigan, a tossup state that's backed the winner in the last 10 presidential elections. His next event is in University Center, and then it's on to Morgantown, West Virginia. West Virginia is another traditionally Democratic state that's very much in play this time around. The Bush event at Saginaw Valley State University gets under way at 1:50, 10 minutes to 2:00 p.m. Eastern, 10 minutes to 11:00 a.m. Pacific. You'll see it right here live on CNN.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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