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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Frost Seeks Post of House Minority Leader

Aired November 7, 2002 - 10:01   ET

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

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: On Capitol Hill two days after the midterm elections left them in the minority in both the House and the Senate, one top Democrat is now talking about quitting his leadership post. CNN has learned that Missouri's Dick Gephardt will not seek re- election as House minority leader.
Now, already, two of his House colleagues are jockeying to replace him. Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority whip from California, is going to seek that position, and Congressman Martin Frost of Texas is announcing his intentions -- let's listen to him right now.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

REP. MARTIN FROST (D), TEXAS: ... if we were to come back in the majority and not move farther to the left. It's a clear choice, and I have a long record of taking on Republicans successfully, of taking the fight to them.

I served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1996 and 1998, and we picked up a net of 14 seats during that time. I served as chairman of the Democratic Party's redistricting effort during the 2001-2002 time period, and we basically produced a level playing field. We didn't win all of the new seats, but we produced a level playing field and stopped the Republicans from making large gains just as a result of redistricting.

And now, our party must make a choice. It must decide whether we want to speak to the broad center of the country, or whether we want to speak to only a narrow spectrum of the country. I have taken on the Republican leadership -- Tom Delay, Dick Armey -- in my own state, and I have taken them on successfully.

Texas is the only southern state that still has a majority of its delegation Democratic. We have 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans.

I took them on in redistricting and beat them. I know how to deal with the far right and the Republican Party and to take the fight directly to them and stand toe-to-toe with them. And I intend to do that if I am the minority leader.

Also, I think it is very important that everyone within our caucus -- moderates, liberals and conservatives -- feel that they are a part of the process, feel that they are consulted and help form policy. I have done that as chair of the Democratic Caucus for four years. We have to have participation, broad participation, from all of our members before we make a decision, and then we have to move forward.

I think the key issue that we will face as a party in the next two years is the economy, and I intend to focus very distinctly and very toughly on that issue if I am given the opportunity.

And I'd like to make one other comment about where the battleground is in the next election. The battleground is in moderate and conservative swing states. And while the national ticket may be competing in other parts of the country and will have to compete in other parts of the country to elect a president, to elect a majority in the House of Representatives, we will have to be successful in those areas. We will have to be successful in the swing parts of the state -- of states, the areas that on the map are colored red.

Al Gore only carried 200 of the 435 congressional districts in the last election. There are districts that Bush carried that we will have to carry if we're to be the majority party, and we can only do that if we speak broadly from the center of the political spectrum in this country.

I'll be glad to take questions. Yes?

QUESTION: Some members of your party said that it's not good enough to be moderate Democrat (UNINTELLIGIBLE). But where the party has to go is exactly the opposite of (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the party, they say, has lost its voice. How do you respond to that?

FROST: No one is suggesting that we be a "me too" party. In fact, we have to have a very distinct economic message from the Republicans. I think in forming that message, we need to broadly consult our membership.

My personal view is that from this point forward, that 40 percent of the tax cuts going to the 1 percent of the population -- top 1 percent ought to be revisited. And I would take that to the caucus and try and form a majority view within the caucus. There will be some members who don't share that particular view.

As to the question of the foreign policy in Iraq, the president successfully won, I believe, by standing for a strong America. There are people who feel differently within our party, but in the swing districts, in the marginal districts, in the closely-contested districts where Democratic incumbents were re-elected by narrow margins, almost every one of those incumbents voted with the president on the issue of Iraq.

I do not think the Democratic Party will rise or fall as a majority party in the House of Representatives on the issue of foreign policy. We have to make our case on domestic policy, and let members vote their conscience on the issue of foreign policy on war and peace.

And if we try and make that the overriding issue -- if we try and make defense, foreign policy, the overriding issue, we will lose, because the country is with the president on that issue. There are clearly members in our party who feel strongly on that issue, and they should be free to take that position. But if that's the position of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party will not win the next election.

The Democratic Party must speak to the economic concerns of working people, of middle class people, of poor people in this country, of people who want -- and there's a broad spectrum of Democrats who agree on this issue. Democrats want to see us do something about deficit spending across the board.

Democrats -- if you remember, it was Democrats who led the fight during the 1990s to balance the federal budget and to return us to a situation where we could actually pay down some of the national debt. And Democrats across the spectrum respond to that type of policy, and they also respond to a party that wants to create jobs and wants to put that as a No. 1 issue.

During the closing days of this session, the Republicans prevented us from adding $6 billion in highway spending -- that was money that was already paid into the trust fund, money that should have been spent, and that's the easiest and quickest way to put people back to work. And the Democratic Party has to deal with fundamental economic issues that speak across the board if we're going to be a majority party.

HARRIS: We've been listening this morning to Martin Frost, who is the Democratic -- chairman of the Democratic Caucus there on Capitol Hill, and there laying out -- firing the first sound (ph) in his campaign now to take over the slot that we believe is going to be vacated by Minority Leader Dick Gephardt here.

And we just heard Martin Frost again come out and say some of the things that we've heard the experts saying after the elections from Tuesday night that perhaps the Democratic Party needs to establish a more combative footing, or at least a more vocal footing on certain issues against the administration.

Let's check in now with our correspondent, Kate Snow, there on Capitol Hill. She knows this issue and this man quite well -- Kate.

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Leon, you heard some interesting things there.

Let me first point out. Martin Frost, not a name that maybe a lot of Americans know. He wants to be a name that you will know. He wants to be the leader of the Democrats in the House. He's the No. 3 Democrat right now in the House of Representatives.

The one thing you heard him say a couple of different ways is that he is a centrist. He's a middle-of-the-road Democrat. And he says that he feels it's important to have a centrist in.

Why did he say that? Because look at this woman, Nancy Pelosi in the red there on the left side of your screen. She's the No. 2 in the House. She's also going to announce today that she will run for the job. She is standing there sort of behind Martin Frost.

Now, Nancy Pelosi is seen as more of a liberal Democrat. So, you heard Frost trying to stake out his ground, and say, look, I'm going to be the better man, because I'm more a middle-of-the-road Democrat. I can bring our party together.

He was disputing what some have said in the post-game analysis of the election. Some have suggested maybe the Democrats need to move in a more liberal direction, maybe they need to be stronger Democrats. Martin Frost saying he doesn't think that's the way to go.

Very interesting, Leon, to hear what he was saying there. I can tell you that Nancy Pelosi's supporters say that they think she has a lot more support going into this election, this internal election within the House Democratic Party.

By the way, the election happens one week from today, Leon. So, a very compressed amount of time for these two top Democrats to duke it out, fight it out. And we do expect it might be a little bit nasty before all is said and done before we have a victor next week.

All that happening, of course, because the Democratic leader currently, Dick Gephardt, is stepping aside, potentially to run for president.

Back to you.

HARRIS: And there you go, Kate. You said the key word there: "potentially." You talk about how nasty this might get.

SNOW: Yes.

HARRIS: This is a great sign of it. The body hasn't even gotten cold. The body isn't even cone yet, and they're already...

SNOW: He hasn't officially made his announcement, although we do expect a paper statement out of Dick Gephardt's office at some point today. You're right.

But you know, this also illustrates, Leon, the jockeying that you're going to see, not just in the House of Representatives, but nationwide, as the Democrats try to figure out what went wrong on Tuesday, and how the party positions itself better for 2004.

HARRIS: Well, listen, we haven't heard from Nancy Pelosi yet, but can we get any sense, or do you have any sense yet as to how different she may be from the position we just heard Martin Frost post this morning?

SNOW: Well, she definitely -- her positions, her votes are considered more liberal. She's considered to be more liberal. She's from San Francisco, California, so you might expect that.

She's also very liked here on Capitol Hill. She ran for the second position, the No. 2 position in the House just less than a year ago. That's the Democratic whip position. And, you know, it's an internal election. It's much like a student council election at a high school. A lot of it depends on how popular you are. She was very popular a year ago and won that election. So, her people say she's not going to have as hard a time building support for this election next week.

Back to you -- Leon.

HARRIS: Is it clear where Mr. Gephardt is going to be going? Is he now going to aim for the White House if he's taking out of this leadership position, or what?

SNOW: Well, it's - he hasn't come out and said, I'm going to run for president. Every time he is asked, he says he hasn't made that decision yet, and his confidantes and advisers tell me he really hasn't made his decision yet. It's going to be a tough decision to make with his wife.

That said, he's got $2.5 million raised in case he wants to run for president. He's traveled to all of the key states. He's been to Iowa four times this year.

So, the writing is sort of on the wall, and it's the worst-kept secret in Washington that he wants to run for president.

Could he change his mind, you know, looking at the rest of the field of contenders? Sure. But we do expect something out of him on that front probably before the end of the year, is what his advisers are telling me, because, of course, you've got a lot of other potential Democratic contenders who are going to be throwing their hats in, too -- Leon.

HARRIS: All right, Kate Snow on Capitol Hill -- thanks. We'll see you soon.

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