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Anticipation for Final Debate Builds

Aired October 13, 2004 - 20:30   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Thanks very much, Paula. We're doing very, very well. Very excited, as are the students behind me. They're politically charged. They're ready to go. The candidates are ready to go, as our coverage continues.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN's live coverage of the third presidential debate.

BLITZER: Twenty days and counting as the candidates hit the home stretch in a race that is very much up for grabs. They turn toward home in the last debate of the campaign, a debate that will focus on domestic questions from jobs and health care, to taxes, guns and abortion.

Will it end with a clear leader or leave this contest too close to call?

Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer, along with my colleagues Jeff Greenfield, Carlos Watson and the entire CNN election team. We're here on the campus of Arizona State University, once home to two of the greatest competitors in baseball history, Barry Bonds and Reggie Jackson, Mr. October of World Series past.

In contrast to the site of the other debates, Arizona hasn't really been considered a battleground state, although a new poll out today suggests that Kerry is gaining ground here on the president.

Nationally, this election could not be closer. And now for the first time the entire focus of the debate will be on domestic issues, supposedly John Kerry's turf, but one where the president can expect to hit hard on the social issues that speak to his base.

Let's bring in our colleagues, Jeff Greenfield, Carlos Watson.

Jeff, first to you. This -- I guess the stakes really, really are enormous tonight.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Really, really. It's pretty fair to say that the Bush campaign is not where they hoped they'd be at this point before the first debate. They thought they'd be well on their way to wrapping it up.

And it's fair to say that the Kerry campaign is more confident, or at least more hopeful than it would have been about two weeks ago at this point. And that's where we set the stage for tonight, Wolf. BLITZER: That first debate really turned things around for John Kerry. He's got an opportunity tonight.

CARLOS WATSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He really does. These debates have transformed him. He's gone from being down eight points to arguably being in a dead heat. And if he wins this debate, for the first time since July, he could reach 50 percent in the likely voter polls. Significant debate here.

BLITZER: All right. Jeff, as we always do on these occasions, you have certain questions that you're looking for answers to. Later on we'll get the answers. But what are your questions?

GREENFIELD: Well, the first one's going to sound familiar. Which domestic issues? What domestic issues?

We saw during the town hall meeting that domestic issues don't just mean taxes and health care and such (ph). They also mean hot button social issues: guns, abortion and the like. And that's where the Bush campaign thinks it can not only get to its base but persuade some people in the middle that Kerry is outside the mainstream.

Second, and it follows from the first, the liberal label. Will it stick? It's been a tradition among Republican candidates to brand Democrats as liberal, tax and spend. Bush has begun to hit that theme on the campaign trail. And I think you're going to hear that again as we get into this debate.

All right. Let's go to the third one. The third one's going to be -- let's put it up. Let's put up No. 3. Do domestic issues matter? Or will these candidates, particularly President Bush, try to turn back toward the issue of Iraq or the war, in some way linking domestic affairs, whether it's taxes or homeland security, to those issues?

And finally and fourth, this is maybe the key to the whole election, I think, is who is the race about? This is one of those weird things. The more the race is about George Bush and whether you want to rehire him, Wolf, the more likely it is Kerry gains. The more attention focuses on whether you want to hire John Kerry, the better Bush does.

So each candidate, Wolf, hopes this race will be about the other guy.

BLITZER: And Carlos, that's going to be a tough challenge for both of them, not to become overly defensive but to go on the offense?

WATSON: Both are going to need to play offense and defense, to use that tired sports metaphor.

John Kerry, I've got a couple of stylistic questions. Can he use a rhetorical question device in order to make this a referendum on the president? And No. 2, can he use anecdotes in order to humanize himself? When you see those polls who talk about whether he's a strong and decisive leader, whether he cares about people like you. I think those will be a couple of questions.

On the president's side, tonight I think you'll hear something different. Not just that he's a flip-flopper, but that John Kerry's been a non-performer. You'll hear him, as Jeff said, talk about taxes, moral issues, also law and order issues, which we haven't heard a lot about.

BLITZER: Let's bring in our reporters who are covering this story for us. Let's begin with CNN's John King, Candy Crowley. They're standing by.

John, let's begin with you. What are you looking for?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president tonight needs a strong performance. His team knows that. He has prepared much differently than for the first and second debates. Two practice debates even in the past 24 to 30 hours. So cramming, we're told, on Air Force One, in limousine rides.

They say that he needs to convince the American people tonight, No. 1, that he does have a progressive and a thick agenda for domestic issues and, No. 2, that Kerry is out of the mainstream. And that if you elect Senator Kerry president, he'll hurt job growth by raising taxes; he will not get a health care plan through the Congress, and if he did, it would be government run health care plan.

So on the one hand he needs to give an agenda for the second term. And also tell the American people, "Perhaps I did promise four years to get some of this done, but we've been through a lot," meaning terrorism and the recession. So the president with a very tough challenge tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, John, stand by. Candy Crowley, what are you going to be looking for? You've spent an enormous amount of time covering these candidates.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think what we're looking for with John Kerry is an answer if the president does, indeed, bring up his record. This is something that we saw during the convention, for instance. And even out on the trail that doesn't come out a lot.

So if, indeed, the president tonight focuses on John Kerry's record, what we have to see is how he comes back first of all on the "L" word, as they say. But also on the specific votes.

We do know by some of the polls that one of the only strong suits for the president, according to the polls, is tax cuts. So John Kerry has to also explain what Bush began to ask him in the last debate, which is how are you going to do all these things that you say you're going to do -- improve homeland security, put more money into education, fund health care for everyone -- and not raise taxes on the middle class? And what we find is that's a very sore place to a lot of voters. They believe that George Bush is the one much more likely to cut taxes, and they believe that John Kerry will raise taxes on the middle class. So that's one thing I think we'll see John Kerry try to correct.

BLITZER: All right, Candy Crowley, John King, we're going to get back to both of you, obviously.

Lots more going on. We're counting down to the beginning of this third and final presidential debate from Arizona State University in Tempe. When we come back, we'll talk to Bill Hemmer. He's with a group of swing voters in Columbus, Ohio. No state more important right now than Ohio.

Much more coverage leading up to the final presidential debate from Tempe, Arizona.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At 73, President Ronald Reagan's age had become a campaign issue. During the 1984 debate he was able to deflect it, turning the attention to his opponent Walter Mondale.

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.



BLITZER: It's only about 20 minutes from the start of this third and final presidential debate at Arizona State University here in Tempe, Arizona. Thanks for joining us.

Let's go inside. Judy Woodruff is standing by.

Judy, let's remind our viewers what the rules are for tonight's debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF, HOST, "INSIDE POLITICS": Wolf, the rules are exactly what they were in the first debate. We're going to see the two candidates standing at lecterns. They will be away from each other.

There's not going to be an audience asking questions. It's going to be Bob Schieffer, the CBS newsman, veteran newsman. And the topic is domestic and economic policy. So that's what we're going to see.

Wolf, I would just add quickly, I'm here in the spin room just across the alley, if you will, from the place where the debate is taking place. And I think it's fair to say that everybody is on edge.

I think some of us thought maybe by the third debate we'd all feel kind of a letdown, but there is a sense that this debate could be decisive. And you know, I think more confidence from the Kerry people than from the Bush people at this point. But still, a real sense of tension in the air here.

BLITZER: All right, Judy, we're going to be checking back with you, obviously, throughout this night after the debate in the spin room, where both campaigns come in and they do some spinning.

Let's go over to Washington now. Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider is standing by.

Bill, you and a team of CNN reporters, producers, researchers are going to be doing a serious fact check for us to make sure that we keep both of these candidates relatively honest.

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, tonight the charges will fly fast and furious. Somewhere, in between all the charges, a few facts may peek out. And when they do, we'll be there to check them out.

When they don't check out, we'll bring it to your attention. If there are legitimate disagreements about what the facts are and what they mean, we'll tell you that, too.

I'll be back shortly after tonight's debate with an initial assessment. Later tonight and tomorrow, as we sort through the debate and examine the record, my colleagues will bring you additional details.

Now, we're not trying to play gotcha. We'll be guided by a sense of what's important and where the record needs to be made clear.

You know, everybody makes misstatements. Why just the other day, a Senate candidate said North Dakota had weapons of mass destruction, when he meant North Korea. He quickly corrected himself before we could check it out.

But when a candidate distorts the record to create a false impression, that's when we'll tell you about it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll be checking back with you immediately after this debate. Thanks very much, Bill Schneider.

In Columbus, Ohio, once again our Bill Hemmer has assembled a group of important voters who will be watching, listening very carefully.

Explain once again, Bill, to our viewers what your mission tonight is.

BILL HEMMER, CO-HOST, "AMERICAN MORNING": Hey, Wolf, listen good evening again. We're back on the campus of the Ohio State University.

Very few cities in this country are being bombarded right now with political ads like the city of Columbus, Ohio. Twenty-four new voters with us tonight that will help take us through the process of this debate. And we're going to gauge their reactions over the course of the debate this evening.

Christine is a teacher. What are you listening for tonight, Christine?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm listening for their views on the economy and specifically outsourcing and the loss of jobs.

HEMMER: So that's your No. 1 item, right?


HEMMER: Robert, you're retired. What are you listening for tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm listening for how they'll handle our Social Security in the next four years and how bad our Medicare increases will be. And what I hope to not hear is their military records being said over and over and over.

HEMMER: Well, we have no promises, but we'll all find out together, OK?


HEMMER: This is the meter. All 24 have been given them here tonight: 12 men, 12 men. One through 10, again at home, just like we've done three previous times here. Ten is the strongest positive reaction; one is the strongest negative reaction.

You can follow along on our web site at and our financial news network, CNNfn, in real time, to watch the women in yellow and the men in blue. And you can watch the meter move for the next 90 minutes.

Now Wolf, last Friday night when we were here with a completely different group of two dozen other voters here in Ohio, 11 said George Bush won that debate; 11 said John Kerry won that debate. Two said it was a tie. It does not get much closer than that.

See you again in about 90 minutes. Back out to Tempe now and more with Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Bill Hemmer, thanks very much. Fascinating material for all of our viewers.

We're going to take another quick break. When we come back, though, our "CROSSFIRE" co-hosts Paul Begala, Robert Novak. They're standing by. They have some very, very opinionated thoughts of their own to share with you.

We're live on the campus of Arizona State University. We'll take a quick break.


BLITZER: Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Only a few minutes to go before this third and final presidential debate. Lots of excitement on this beautiful campus. Welcome back to our coverage.

Let's get some analysis now and some serious opinion on what we can expect. For that we return to our "CROSSFIRE" co-hosts, Paul Begala. He's here in Tempe. Robert Novak, he's on the phone back in Washington.

Paul, first to you. What specifically must John Kerry do tonight to win?

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": He needs to parry President Bush. President Bush, we've seen him on the stump in the last week. He has been, in the words of my old friend, Zell Miller, unrelentless. He's been very much on the attack.

Kerry needs to not defend, not rebut, but slip those punches, and then launch his own punches on Bush's domestic agenda, which he believes he can put on trial successfully today. So if he stands there on defense and defends the attacks that Bush is likely to make on taxes and social issues, he's going to lose.

He's got to slip those punches and try to put Bush's record on trial.

BLITZER: The best defense is a strong offense, or the best offense is a strong defense. One of those expressions is going to work tonight.

Robert Novak, a great sports fan. He's on the phone with us from Washington, D.C., feeling a lot better, we hope, Bob Novak. But what do you think the president needs to do tonight to win?

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": Wolf, thank you. I'm home now.

What the president has to do is convince the American people, at least those who are still persuadable or undecided, that John Kerry is just too liberal to be president of the United States. He wants too much taxes, too much spending, too much government. That's that.

He didn't do that -- the president didn't do that at all in the first debate. He did pretty good, I thought, in the second debate.

At the same time, I think he has a habit of thinking about his next question and not answering sometimes some of Senator Kerry's very tough attacks. So I think that President Bush has to be -- to get down to the sports thing -- he has to be -- play offense and defense at the same time. But he cannot ignore Senator Kerry's attacks as if they didn't exist.

BLITZER: Bob, do you get the sense that the president is more comfortable talking about national security issues, Iraq, the war on terrorism, or more comfortable talking about domestic issues, economic, social issues?

NOVAK: I think it depends upon the issue. I think the president has a tough time talking about the economy, which is odd, because he was a businessman.

I thought he was masterful in talking about abortion. I think he's going to be very good on stem cell research. I think he's very good on the social issues, not so good on the economic issues, but he loves to talk about terrorism.

BLITZER: What do you think about John Kerry, Paul Begala? Where is he more comfortable?

BEGALA: Well, he seems more comfortable on national security issues, even though Republicans have a traditional advantage there. He's a guy who came to the Senate to serve on the Foreign Relations Committee. Obviously, a Vietnam War veteran...

BLITZER: Here comes Laura Bush. She's walking inside. Teresa Heinz Kerry. A standing ovation for both of these women, the wives of the candidates. Both their families are there, as well.

We see distinguished people in the audience. I see Rudy Giuliani standing there, as well. John McCain, the senator from Arizona.

Go ahead, Paul. I interrupted you.

BEGALA: But Kerry -- there's Teresa Heinz is sitting with Michael J. Fox, the actor and Parkinson's Disease advocate who is a strong spokesman for stem cell research, clearly, something the Kerry campaign wants to stress tonight.

But I do think that Senator Kerry is going to have to find his voice on the economy tonight. He's going to have to talk about jobs and health care, the kind of kitchen table, core Democratic issues which should be easy wins for him. But I think he has to show the same passion on them as he has on the foreign policy issues.

BLITZER: John King, I know you're there. Candy Crowley, as well. Do you get a sense that both of these campaigns put guests out in the front rows that might psych out the other candidate?

KING: Well, part of this is to psych out the other candidate, perhaps. At one point during one of the previous debates I think they tried to put the Democratic National Committee chairman into the president's sight. He moved when the Secret Service asked him.

The Democrats had Senator Pat Leahy, who had a vulgar exchange with Dick Cheney. Once they tried to do that at the V.P. debate.

I think it's more to have a friendly face for the candidates to make eye contact with. But there have been a lot of gimmicks and stunts in this campaign, Wolf.

BLITZER: Candy, the fact that Michael J. Fox is sitting next to Teresa Heinz Kerry, that potentially could psych out the president of the United States a little bit.

CROWLEY: Well, sure. And -- but it won't come as a surprise. Michael J. Fox has done campaign commercials for John Kerry. He has campaigned with John Kerry. So it's not going to be startling to see him there. He has been up on Capitol Hill, advocating for more embryonic stem cell research, more federal funding of it. This isn't come as news to the president.

My guess is when they are up there, the people they look at, in the president's case, is his wife and his two daughters sitting there. And in the senator's case, his wife and his family, as well.

BLITZER: Candy Crowley, John King, stand by. We're going to take another quick break.

The applause you just heard was for Bob Schieffer of CBS News. He will moderate these 90 minutes of the third and final presidential debate. He's speaking to the crowd inside right now.

When we come back, we'll take it up to the debate. We'll take a quick break.


BLITZER: Tempe, Arizona, the home of Arizona State University. This is where the debate will start in only a few minutes, a debate that could be decisive in this presidential campaign.

Welcome back. You're looking at a live picture inside the hall. Bob Schieffer of CBS News will moderate this debate.

This important note to our viewers, though. You might remember that at this summer's political conventions, CNN brought you ringside into the convention halls. Well, 20 days from tonight, election night, we will give you another unique viewing experience. And we can announce it right now.

We will use some remarkable technology at our election night headquarters at the NASDAQ market site in the heart of Times Square. We will give viewers perhaps the most content-rich broadcast in CNN's history.

We also will use the state of the art capabilities of NASDAQ's 96-screen video wall to dynamically present real time vote information, exit polls and analysis of key state races across the country.

As a result, CNN will be able to present viewers with more at the moment information than ever before, even out on the street. The coverage will be unprecedented, as the seven-story NASDAQ tower, one of the largest stationary video screens in the world, projects CNN's election coverage live in Times Square.

So please, please be sure to stay with CNN for the rest of the campaign and please be sure to join us live from the NASDAQ on election night, November 2.

Jeff Greenfield, intensity. We feel it here in this crowd, but it's felt across the country.

GREENFIELD: You know, this is one of those elections, one of the few ones, when the hype about increased turnout may be real.

There's $300 million estimated being spent on voter mobilization. Every state is reporting huge increases in the number of registered voters.

Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona was at home in her condo Saturday, a knock on the door. Two people canvassing, asking her, "By the way, are you registered?"

She said, "I happen to be the governor of the state."

There has never been a ground game like this. And it could well mean that many of the polls we're looking at, based on likely voters from past elections, you can throw them into a top hat if 10 to 12 million new viewers show up.

BLITZER: Well, that's what they're expecting.

Carlos, you're expecting any surprises tonight?

WATSON: No, I think John Kerry's team certainly should hope there's a surprise. At this point yet, we haven't seen him, if you will, channel Bill Clinton. We haven't seen him feel your pain. He's been serious and sober, and frankly, he's beat the president.

But I think today, particularly when he talks about his plans on the economy and on education, he can't talk about legislation. He's got to talk about "what I'm going to do for your family."

I think on the other side, the president, I think a lot of people forget that this is a Republican president who came in with a very ambitious domestic agenda.

So this is someone who may be thinking about something he's very comfortable on: taxes, Medicare reform, Social Security reform, education. He's got a lot to talk about in this debate, not just John Kerry.

BLITZER: Paul Begala, as an ardent Democrat as you are, how nervous are you right now at this stage in this campaign?

BEGALA: Well, the handlers, which I used to be when I worked for Bill Clinton, right now I'd be more nervous than a hooker in church, because this is the time when you can no longer control things. You put the guy out there.

Now these are able people. Both of them, Bush and Kerry, are very good debaters. But believe me, right now Karl Rove and Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager for John Kerry, they are very, very nervous right now. Because now it's about to be out of their hands and anything could happen. And we handlers like to handle things.

BLITZER: John King, as you watch this debate, and you've seen a lot of these debates over the years, give us a sense of perspective, the enormity of tonight. KING: Well, this president comes in, having lost the momentum he had coming into the debate series. He was up narrowly in the national polls, but it was a consistent five, six percent. He was competing in so many more states that Al Gore won in 2000 than John Kerry was competing in states that George Bush won in 2000. So the Republicans thought the landscape was tilted in their favor.

That is not true anymore. It is tied nationally, and we're seeing today a poll from New Jersey, a new poll from Minnesota, both core states in 2000 where Bush had hoped to keep Kerry on the defensive to the very end. There's evidence some of those states are now coming back into the Democratic fold.

So the president needs to shift the momentum in this race. He needs to get his lead back nationally. More importantly, he needs to keep those states in play and solidify his lead in places like Colorado, where it's a horse race right now.

So the president needs a strong performance. And Republicans think he did a pretty good job in the second debate. They think he needs to at least match that performance in here tonight. Some of them are a bit more worried, because we're back to the first debate format, no crowd in the room.

BLITZER: All right. John King and the rest of the CNN election team, of course all of us will be back after this 90-minute debate. Bob Schieffer of CBS News takes over right now.


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