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updated 2/15/2004 1:26:25 PM ET 2004-02-15T18:26:25

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NBC News


Sunday, February 15, 2004

This is a rush transcript provided for the information and convenience of the press. Accuracy is not guaranteed. In case of doubt, please check with MEET THE PRESS - NBC NEWS(202)885-4598 (Sundays: (202)885-4200)

Meet the Press (NBC News) - Sunday, February 15, 2004

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: It looks like Kerry vs. Bush. The campaign's already trading charges... (Videotape, Bush-Cheney '04 Web video): Unidentified Woman: Ka-ching. Unprincipled? (End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: ...and countercharges, saying "The Bush White House is going to run a gutter campaign." John Kerry's opponents seek to define him. The Democrats try to put George W. Bush on the defensive. With us, for the Kerry campaign, the Democratic congressman from Harlem, Charles Rangel. For the Bush campaign, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie. Rangel and Gillespie on the race for the White House. Then insights and analysis from Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal, Gwen Ifill of PBS and Roger Simon of U.S. News & World Report. But first, the Democratic congressman from Harlem, representing John Kerry, Charlie Rangel. Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D, NY): Good to be back here, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: You had originally endorsed General Wesley Clark. You now have embraced John Kerry. Are you convinced there's absolutely nothing in Senator Kerry's background that would derail his candidacy?

REP. RANGEL: No, but I'm not convinced there's nothing in President Bush's background that would derail his presidency. When you say absolutely, nothing is absolute. But I think really it's shameful that these rumors will be put on an Internet and be attached and attributed to the National Republican Committee. As a matter of fact, it makes it very difficult to have this exchange when the chairman of the national Republican Party appears to be setting the standards, at least alleging that there should be some standards of decency, and then refuse to debate it. I saw in the paper that I was supposed to be debating with the chairman of the national Republican--I was looking forward to it. Then I find out that he refuses to be on the same program with me. It's OK, but it just seems to me that there should be some agreement as to what is the decent thing to discuss.

MR. RUSSERT: General Clark, this is what you had said about him. "He's the only Democrat who can take the issue of national security from Bush." Only Democrat.

REP. RANGEL: And he did that. He absolutely did that.

MR. RUSSERT: But you don't believe that John Kerry can take the issue of national security from Bush?

REP. RANGEL: I think that he can. I think--but I really believe that General Clark has really made a contribution to the Democratic Party in general, which I think Kerry will be the beneficiary of, in making certain that the question of national security is not one in which just the president and Republicans have. Both of these people have had Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, and I thought the general was best qualified. That's when Dean was a contender and he was the person that appeared to be the anti-war candidate. Now, it's clear that this should not be an issue because even the president is saying that he did not know whether evidence he relied on to go to war was substantial enough. Colin Powell has indicated that he may not have supported the war. There's been no weapons of mass destruction. I think these things were not being discussed as openly as they are now.

MR. RUSSERT: This is the cover of Newsweek magazine tomorrow. "Their Wars: What the Vietnam Years Really Tell Us." John Kerry and George Bush. Max Cleland, the former senator from Georgia, was interviewed recently by NBC News. Let me show that interview and come back and talk about it. (Videotape, January 30, 2004):

MR. JONATHAN ALTER: Do you think that it is fair to say that George W. Bush was AWOL... MR. MAX CLELAND: I do.

MR. ALTER: ...from the Vietnam War?

MR. CLELAND: Not a deserter, but AWOL. He missed some drills in the National Guard. When you miss drills you are AWOL. You're not present for duty, and that was back in the States. That's not under fire. John Kerry showed up for two tours of duty in Vietnam. (End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: The president has now released all his military records. General Calhoun, who was in Alabama, said he observed him coming to duty on weekends in Alabama. Should the Democrats withdraw the charge of AWOL towards George W. Bush?

REP. RANGEL: You know, to say that someone actually saw someone in the military and that's supposed to close it--you know, it was Governor Bush or George Bush who climbed out of a combat fighter plane in camouflage full-combat uniform. He is the one that brings his military service into issue. And the fact that he avoided going into combat, that he deliberately stated that he didn't want to run to Canada, he didn't want to be an infantryman in Vietnam and he joined the Air Guard--now, they're serious questions. Thanks to you, he promised to release all of his weapons. But whether or not he refused to take a physical, whether or not he was suspended as a pilot, whether or not he avoided doing military duty in order to participate in a campaign, whether or not he left early to go to Harvard Business School, these are issues which President Bush has focused. And so if he wasn't where he was supposed to be, let the records speak for themself. But to say that this is a gutter politics issue when the president raised them--that is what Ed Gillespie is saying--I think it is just wrong.

MR. RUSSERT: So the president has not satisfied you on this issue yet?

REP. RANGEL: It's the American people. And the records have not indicated as to whether or not after all of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that it took to train this man, then why was his pilot's ability to fly suspended? Why was he able to get involved in the campaign? These are really issues especially when he says on your program that he's the war president and that he is willing to have a whole lot of Americans, over 530 lives lost, 2,000 people maimed, for a war that we didn't have to fight according to some of the experts. And now we're challenging whether or not he's properly served this country. I think these are legitimate issues.

MR. RUSSERT: Congressman, he was honorably discharged. That must mean something.

REP. RANGEL: It does mean something but it didn't mean that he volunteered to go to Vietnam. It didn't mean that he served in combat. And all I'm saying is that I know the National Guard and the National Guard that we got today that I, with tears in my eyes, see go over to Vietnam and then the Reservists that we have today. This is not what we had in the '70s. This is something that our men and women did not expect to have to do. And when he gets on your program and says that we're disintegrating the National Guard, we are not. They didn't have the record-keeping ability. That's why the president has to come forward and not just wait for someone to say, "I remember seeing him once in the chow line," or, "I think I saw him." He was George Bush's son. Everyone knew who he was.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to John Kerry, who did serve in Vietnam, as you mentioned and decorated with Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star. He came back from the war and was a very visible anti-war activist. This is a picture that has been released by those opposed to John Kerry at an anti-war demonstration. He's several rows behind Jane Fonda. John Kerry appeared on this program and before the Congress as well back in the '70s and talked about the atrocities committed by American soldiers. Do you believe that's a legitimate area of exploration in this campaign?

REP. RANGEL: I've served in combat. And I think that anyone that's been in combat and served this nation is entitled to factually and emotionally describe what they've been through. It is a hell of an experience. And those who haven't shared it ought to give a lot of space to those that have been there.

MR. RUSSERT: Is it appropriate for John Kerry to be linked with Jane Fonda? Newt Gingrich said that he was a Jane Fonda anti-war Democrat?

REP. RANGEL: I hope those of us in and out of politics are not connected with everyone we've taken a picture with because we've taken pictures with a lot of people that we don't know, and clearly, the Jane Fonda picture--she went to Vietnam long after that picture was taken. It appeared to be a rally. And so if you're looking for threads, and I think that the Republicans are, go ahead and attach to it. The wonderful thing about this country is that people either know and support Bush or they think that he got us into a war that we didn't have to get into, that he got us from a $5.6 trillion surplus to a $2.6 trillion deficit, that he's the president that lost two million jobs, that he's anxious to transfer jobs abroad and someone that says we have to get rid of George Bush. And the others believe that Kerry is the man to do it so that under our great democracy we will soon find out what the American people think.

MR. RUSSERT: One of the issues being raised by the Republicans against John Kerry is the amount of money he has taken from lobbyists. A story first appeared in The Washington Post two weeks ago. "Kerry Leads in Lobby Money. Anti-special interest campaign contrasts with funding." It says that John Kerry has received "more money from paid lobbyists than any other senator in the last 15 years." Kerry's "received nearly $640,000 from lobbyists, many representing telecommunications"--"financial companies with business before his committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics." This led the Bush campaign to release this message on their Web site. Let's watch. (Videotape, Bush-Cheney '04 Web video): Unidentified Woman: Facts: Kerry, brought to you by the special interests. Millions from executives at HMOs, telecoms, drug companies. Ka-ching. Unprincipled?

SEN. JOHN KERRY, (D-MA): I have a message for the influence peddlers and the special interests--and the special interests--special interests. (End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Have John Kerry's allegations about George Bush being controlled by special interests been neutralized by his own fund-raising activities?

REP. RANGEL: Let's first get to Ed Gillespie, who refuses to get on this program with me, who is a lobbyist, who understands this better than I do because he spent his whole life being a lobbyist for the vested interests in the United States. And you ask him the question as to whether or not in one year George Bush has received more vested interest lobbying money than Senator Kerry throughout his Senate career. And for him to talk about dirty politics and have this stuff on his Web site, I don't think is credible. And so George Bush is the guy that's been able to get the pharmaceutical money, the oil money, the anti-environment money. And so I would hope if this campaign is going to be on who has received the most in terms of lobbying money, let the war begin because Bush has wiped us out. He's got hundreds of millions of dollars, and all I would hope is that George--Gillespie would make that public. If you want to provide a service to the American people, as you did, and get the president to release his records as it relates to whether he served or didn't serve in the National Guard, get Gillespie to just have the lobbying records of--I keep saying governor because I can't forget Florida. But just have the president's records released on the lobbying money he has. MR. RUSSERT: You say you can't forget Florida. REP. RANGEL: I can't forget Florida. I really can't forget Florida. It took a long time for my people to get the right to vote. And once they got it, they did it the way that they should have. We won the popular vote. And then all of a sudden, the Supreme Court comes in and says, "We got enough votes for Bush. Stop counting." And that's what happened.

MR. RUSSERT: But our Constitution provides that whoever wins the Electoral College is the president of the United States. It's not popular vote.

REP. RANGEL: Well, some say that George--that Mayor Diehl controlled the number of votes that Kennedy got, and clearly the Republicans got even if that happened because there is no question that people who are entitled to vote were not allowed to vote in Florida. And so it was a bad count that we got. And we will never, never, never forget Florida. This is the only time that we have an appointed president of the United States in our history.

MR. RUSSERT: Before you go, you talk about this with such passion. What do you think the minority turnout is going to be in 2004? Is the outrage that you're now showing on this show, does it exist in the minority community across the country?

REP. RANGEL: There's no question about it. And you don't have to talk about Senator Kerry for president or George Bush being out. All you have to do is go into a minority community and have a button on. And just say, "Don't forget Florida." And it will say the whole story.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you expect a huge turnout?

REP. RANGEL: I think there is--it's going to be so exciting; it just won't be the minority community. I think those people that have managed to reduce the tax burden on the richest people in the world, those people that refuse to have their kids involved in a draft but have no problem in saying, "Let's go to war, I'll hold your coat," that they are so anxious to maintain this power, both in the House and the Senate and the presidency, that they are going to raise all the money that they can to destroy the Democratic candidate and the Democratic Party. But I think that we Democrats know that, in a democracy, we have taken it for four years, we are mad as hell, we're not taking it anymore. And you're going to see a record turnout with Democrats, black and white, Jew and gentile, throughout this country.

MR. RUSSERT: Congressman Charles Rangel, we thank you for joining us and sharing your views.

REP. RANGEL: Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: And we'll be right back with a view from the other side. The chairman of the Republican Party, Ed Gillespie, is here. He's next, coming up, on MEET THE PRESS. (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: The Republican response from Ed Gillespie, our political Roundtable both coming up after this station break. (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

MR. ED GILLESPIE: Good to see you again, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: I showed that picture of John Kerry with Jane Fonda. Is it appropriate for Republicans to try to call--label John Kerry a Jane Fonda Democrat?

MR. GILLESPIE: Tim, I've not done that, and that Web site was not the Republican Web site. It's an outside organization, as you know. And Senator Kerry is entitled to his opinion and to express that opinion when he came back from the war. He's also entitled, by the way, to credit which we fully give him for his honorable service in the military. The questions I have about Senator Kerry's national security policies relate to the policies he's adopted and the policies he's voted for in the United States Senate, including voting and advocating a cut of $1.5 billion in our nation's intelligence funding at a time we most needed it back in 1995--that's a $300 million cut in intelligence funding--the year before the Khobar Towers were bombed. It would have been a $300 million cut in funding before our embassies in East Africa were bombed. It would've been a $300 million cut in intelligence funding the year before the USS Cole was attacked, so I think he's shown some policy judgment that's worth raising and that's what I raise.

MR. RUSSERT: You just heard Congressman Rangel say that the issue of the president's service in the National Guard is still an open one, that he wants to know why he left the Guard early to go into the Harvard Business School, why he chose not to go overseas, why he chose not to enlist to go to Vietnam. You heard his whole list of questions.

MR. GILLESPIE: Right, right.

MR. RUSSERT: How do you answer him?

MR. GILLESPIE: Well, these have been answered, obviously, and the fact is the records made clear that the president served honorably, as we always said he had. He was honorably discharged. I have to tellyou, I think that when Congressman Rangel sits on this show, and we saw Senator Cleland say that President Bush was AWOL, my counterpart, Terry McAuliffe, said the president's AWOL. Tim, that's a felony. That is a felony crime punishable by imprisonment. And the fact is that all the documentation refutes that, and I think it's absurd. And I have to say that I think that when you say something like this and make a charge that someone committed a crime and you have no documentation to back it up and all documentation refutes it, that's dirty politics. I'm sorry. It's one thing to debate the issues, to talk about the intelligence funding discussion I just raised. That's a legitimate issue in a time of war and in a time when we're trying to fight the terrorists and intelligence is critically important. Let's have that discussion. Let's discuss whether or not we should go back to treating terrorism as law enforcement matter, as Senator Kerry says. But I have to tell you, when you hear this kind of rhetoric, when Senator Kerry, who in 1992 said that Bill Clinton's decision to go to London to avoid service entirely was not a matter that's relevant today and we shouldn't be reopening these issues from 31 years ago that divided us, now says--equates National Guard service with going to Canada, you know, that kind of hypocrisy, I think, raises questions as well.

MR. RUSSERT: Congressman Rangel said the president injected himself when he landed on the aircraft carrier, suggesting that that's the symbolism people should see. And the suggestion seems to be that as a son of privilege, George W. Bush opted not to go to Vietnam but to take an easier course.

MR. GILLESPIE: Well, the fact is, if you look at the accounts in the paper today, the commander at the time of the Guard says that there was not a matter of privilege or strings being pulled and the fact is they were looking for qualified pilots and, in fact, his record says that he was an exemplary pilot and a formidable leader in his unit. So, again, you hear these charges, but there's no basis for them. I can say anything. You know, I could sit on your program and I could say anything. I can make stuff up, but that's not the way I see politics. I think politics should be an honorable exchange over policies and issues and ideas and not just slander. And that's--frankly, there's just--these charges against the president are nothing short of slander. Now, nobody's going to bring a lawsuit here. But I do think that when you look at the records, the American people will come to that judgment.

MR. RUSSERT: With 20 percent of the troops in Iraq members of the National Guard, do you believe that there will be resentment towards the president?

MR. GILLESPIE: I don't believe so, Tim. I believe that those Guardsmen and the other men serving honorably in the military, and women as well, appreciate the president's commander-in-chief role and the fact he has been a strong commander in chief, and they appreciate his strong support in winning the war against terror and they appreciate the fact that if we're not waging this war against terror in places like Kabul and in Baghdad, it is more likely to be waged in places like Boston and Kansas. So I think they strongly support the commander in chief and the president of the United States.

MR. RUSSERT: Congressman Rangel seemed to suggest also, when I asked about anything in Senator Kerry's background, the Republicans were involved in spreading things about Senator Kerry.

MR. GILLESPIE: Yeah. You know, here's what I talk about when I talk about Senator Kerry and I defy you or anyone else to find any instance where I've said anything other than talking about his record, talking about the fact that he is someone who has voted consistently in the United States Senate to weaken our national security policies, consistently for higher taxes. I think his record is out of sync with the American people. If I have a question about Senator Kerry's leadership qualities, it would be that the fact is he consistently says one thing and does another. This is a man who in the United States Senate has voted for the No Child Left Behind Act and now says it's an abomination. This is someone who voted for the Patriot Act and now says he wants to replace it; voted for the war in Iraq and now says he's an anti-war candidate; voted for NAFTA, now says that he would vote against it if he had the chance to do it again; said that he was in favor of dividend tax relief and now says it was a sop to the rich. The fact is that it's his hypocrisy that I think is a character issue that we ought to be concerned about in terms of his ability to lead this nation because we need steady leadership in the kinds of times of change we face today.

MR. RUSSERT: As chairman of the party, are you instructing anyone who works with you or other political operatives to not engage in that kind of activity against Senator Kerry? MR. GILLESPIE: Yes, I am.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the issue of credibility. This was a poll in The Washington Post. "Most Think Truth Was Stretched to Justify Iraq War. A majority of Americans believe President Bush either lied or deliberately exaggerated evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in order to justify war. Barely half--52 percent--now believe that Bush is `honest and trustworthy,'" which led to this cover in the Time magazine: "Believe Him or Not, Does Bush Have a Credibility Gap?" How concerned are you about these numbers when half the country say they don't believe the president?

MR. GILLESPIE: Tim, I'm not concerned about them. Obviously, anytime you're watching the polls, they're a snapshot. You'd rather be up than down on such issues, but we understand that this is a movie, not a snapshot. And the fact is, the intelligence President Bush had and shared with the American people is the same exact intelligence that former President Bill Clinton had. Made the same assessment publicly, by the way. Senator John Kerry, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made that same assessment. The fact is, when it comes to our credibility, the world had said through the United Nations in a unanimous vote in the Security Council that if Saddam Hussein did not comply with the need to come forward and disclose his weapons program, that we were going to implement regime change. And the United States said that's what we're going to do. There's a credibility issue here as well. The United States has to do what it says it's going to do when it comes to implementing our foreign policy. By the way, we're seeing the benefit of that credibility today because we did what we said we would do and the president is a credible leader. When you see someone like Moammar Khadafi say "You know what? I'm stopping my weapons program. Come on in, international community, and take a look at what I've got. We're disarming. We're going to make it clear." The president's resolve is what resulted in that kind of positive development. Other positive developments as well taking place. Let me just say when it comes to credibility, not only on international affairs but on domestic affairs as well, this is a president who said we need tax relief to spare our economy and cut taxes and we're seeing economic growth as a result. The president said we need to reform our education system in this country and make it more accountable for parents and students and passed No Child Left Behind. A president who said "You know what? We've had politics play for a long time on prescription drug benefit. We got to get this done for the American people" and did so. This president has a great deal of credibility, and as this campaign moves forward it will become more and more apparent.

MR. RUSSERT: But he also said he would cut taxes without increasing the deficit. It's $500 billion. He also said a prescription drug plan would cost $400 billion. It's 35 percent more than that. There are lots of issues out there percolating which suggest that the voters are looking at the president in a much different way when it comes to credibility.

MR. GILLESPIE: Well, let's talk about the issue, for example, of the deficit. And when the president first put forward the tax cuts, we didn't know we were going to be in a world after September 11. We didn't know we were going to have to have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we did know that the economic slowdown was resulting in 50 percent of that deficit as it is today. And unless we get economic growth rates up, which we now saw in the fourth-quarter of '03, a 4 percent growth rate, the quarter before that, 8.2 percent growth rate, 113,000 jobs created last month alone. We're starting to see the job creation catch up to the economic growth rates. If we don't bring growth rates up, we're not going to bring the deficit down. Fifty percent of that deficit is attributable to slow economic growth. The other 25 percent is due to our need to support our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and wage a war against terror.

MR. RUSSERT: Let's talk about the campaign and Senator Kerry's comments last night at a Democratic dinner in Wisconsin. Your name was invoked. Let's listen.

(Videotape, February 14, 2004): SEN. KERRY: George Bush and our opponents have once again turned to attack politics. Well, here's what we have to say to George Bush and Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie and the rest of the pack: You're not going to get away with it this time. (End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Kerry is a tough candidate. Do you agree with that?

MR. GILLESPIE: Oh, look, whoever emerges from the Democratic Party primary process is a tough candidate. That was a tough process, is a tough process. It's not wide open anymore, but it's not settled yet. But the fact is whoever is skillful enough to win the party's nomination is going to be skillful to be a strong challenger in November. We're preparing for a close contest. We're going to win, but it's going to be close.

MR. RUSSERT: When the Bush campaign released the attack on the Web site that I showed Charles Rangel, the Kerry Web site responded last night. Let's watch.

(Videotape): Unidentified Narrator: Who's the politician that has taken more special interest money than anyone in history? The same one who's attacking John Kerry's record because he can't defend his own. (End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: And this is on the whole issue of special interest money.


MR. RUSSERT: The Washington Post examined the records of both men. This was their conclusion: "He Ought to Know. It's hard to recall a more brazen display of political chutzpah than the Bush campaign's assault on Sen. John F. Kerry as a captive of special interests. ..."Mr. Bush's acceptance of special-interest money and his subsequent rewards to the industries doing the giving dwarf anything in Mr. Kerry's record. ... "Of Mr. Bush's Pioneers--those who raised at least $100,000 in the 2000 campaign--21 snagged ambassadorships ... Checks from `HMOs, telecom, drug companies?' Mr. Bush has swamped Mr. Kerry in all three sectors during this campaign raking in 10 times as much from donors connected to the pharmaceutical industry and telecommunications ..." A new book out called "The Buying of the President, 2004" by the Center for Public Integrity has this page: George W. Bush Top Career Patrons. And there number one is the Enron Corporation. Attacking John Kerry on special interests, according to The Washington Post, is chutzpah by the Bush campaign.

MR. GILLESPIE: Well, let me tell you what chutzpah is, Tim, and the issue here is not special interests. Look, I think that John Kerry, you know, the contributors and supporters that he has who are, you know, the trial lawyers and the public employee unions, those are special interests by my lights. He thinks that the Chamber of Commerce and Second Amendment advocates who support the president are special interests. One candidate's supporters are another's special interests. The issue here is this is a guy who is the number-one recipient of lobbyist money in the United States Senate over the past 15 years saying he's going to drive the money changers out of the temple when he's been changing money in the temple for 19 years now.

MR. RUSSERT: Charles Rangel said the president raised more money from lobbyists in one night than John Kerry raised his entire career.

MR. GILLESPIE: I don't believe that's accurate, but I don't know. I don't...

MR. RUSSERT: No, but he also said that John Kerry has agreed to release any meeting he's had with lobbyists. Will President Bush release any meeting he's ever had with a lobbyist?

MR. GILLESPIE: I don't speak for the president, as you well know, but I do know this: The fact is that when John Kerry talks about these things, as if he's purer than Caesar's wife, his record is at odds with that fact. There's another thing, too, by the way. He says, "Oh, I voted for McCain-Feingold. I don't like this soft money." This guy, after voting for that, set up a political action committee to take soft money and took soft money, non-federal money, into his campaign accounts. He's right. It wasn't his Senate campaign. Technically, he's right, he did not take PAC money to the Senate campaign. He set up another entity to do that. And then he set up a 527 as well. So I think Senator Kerry--the issue again is now where he gets his money or his support. That's fine. That's the nature of the business. But you don't say one thing when you're doing completely the opposite.

MR. RUSSERT: Charles Rangel said there are big differences in this campaign: the war in Iraq, the tax cuts. He also talked about shipping jobs overseas. This is what the Republican speaker of the House had to say just on Thursday. "Hastert Rebukes Bush Adviser. Speaker Challenges"--"Statements on U.S. Job Loss. Dennis Hastert, one of the nation's highest-ranking Republicans, rebuked the chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers for calling a transfer of U.S. service jobs overseas `just a new way to do international trade. His theory fails a basic test of real economics. We can't have a healthy economy unless we have more jobs here in America.'" That's a disaster for you, isn't it?

MR. GILLESPIE: Look, we do need more jobs here in America. And it's not a disaster in any way, shape or form because the president's policies are resulting in more jobs in America. The fact is that the president is out there every day trying to make sure every American who wants a job can find a job. That's why we have to make the tax relief permanent so we can continue to see the gains in the economy. That's why we have to bring down the cost of excessive, frivolous litigation in our economy. That's why we have to make energy more affordable, and that's why we have to make health care more affordable, as well. Health care is a major cost of employment today and we've got to bring that cost down. But the fact is, if you look at the policies that Senator Kerry and the Democrats support, they are completely contrary to that. Senator Kerry is supportive of the Kyoto Treaty, which exempts India and China, which would make them have even greater competitive advantage in creating jobs and taking jobs offshore from the United States. Look at the policies; the policies of this administration, this Republican Congress are the policies that are resulting in job creation. Raising taxes, when we're trying to foster job creation, is the exact wrong policy. It would take us back to low growth, maybe even back to recession.

MR. RUSSERT: But there's been a net job loss of two million Americans during the Bush administration. If that continues, the president will be the first president to oversee a net job loss since Herbert Hoover.

MR. GILLESPIE: Tim, we're not seeing that continue. And let's understand something. When the president came into office, the economic growth rates were already slowed and, in fact, going into recession the first quarter. Some now say it was going into recession the last quarter of '03. The manufacturing employment loss had already begun under President Clinton. I'm not blaming him. That's just--I'm just saying those are the data points. Those are facts. That slowdown was compounded by the attacks of September 11, by the march to war in Iraq, by the corporate scandals that took place that President Clinton inherited as well. That's not my estimation, by the way. That's former President Clinton's chief of his Council of Economic Advisers who made that assessment. Now, we're seeing the growth rates up. We're seeing the jobs created. And we're seeing the benefit of the president's policies. The markets are up for the first time in four years last year. I see it in my children's college funds, people see it in their pension accounts, in their 401(k)s. And that's a result of the president's policies. That's the debate we want to have. We're looking forward to it.

MR. RUSSERT: Before you go, the latest national poll: John Kerry, 51; George Bush, 43. Eight points back. You must be stunned by that.

MR. GILLESPIE: I'm not stunned. Like I said, I would rather be up than down in the polls. But we're exactly where we said we would be. We said a while back, as much as a year ago--and I had people, Republicans, say to me when the president was at 64 percent and was up by 24 points over the leading Democrat, "You've to be kidding me." The fact is when this--when the Democratic front-runner emerges here, and they get close to settling their contest, which is about where they are right now, this thing is going to tight--we're going to be behind at some point. And we probably will be behind, up and down, and throughout the conventions, I suspect, because the American public is evenly divided. And they are clearly united. We just saw Charles Rangel, who said that he wanted to support Wesley Clark because Clark was going to be a better candidate than John Kerry. His guy's out. Now, he's here as a surrogate for Kerry. That's fine. We always anticipated that the Democratic Party would rally behind their front-runner and their eventual nominee. We're seeing that now. And the fact is that these are going to change and at the end of the day we're right on the issues. The American people share the president's commitment on national security, oncreating jobs, on who shares our values, and they appreciate a strong and principled leadership. That's why he's going to be re-elected.

MR. RUSSERT: Eight months to go. We'll be watching. Thank you for sharing your views.

MR. GILLESPIE: Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: And we will be right back. Our political Roundtable--insights and analysis--race for the White House, 2004. (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Welcome all. Let me go back to that poll I mentioned from The Washington Post. George W. Bush, honest and trustworthy? 52 to 45. Weapons of mass destruction, did the president exaggerate them--the evidence? Yes, 54; no, 42. Gwen Ifill, how much of an issue is credibility going to be, do you think, in the 2004 race?

MS. GWEN IFILL: After listening to Ed Gillespie and Charlie Rangel, you come away thinking it's going to be a fight of hypocrisy vs. credibility. You hear them talking about the hypocrisy, you hear Ed Gillespie talking about the hypocrisy, he says, of John Kerry, that he voted one way--he did one thing and voted another way. And, of course, that's what they said about Al Gore, you'll remember, four years ago. So it's a familiar argument. But when it comes to the president, clearly, the White House thinks it's going to be a big problem. That's why we saw this rush to justify this week, this rush to document where the president has been, how he spent his time, this Internet--this subterranean Internet negative-advertising campaign going on between both campaigns. Even though it's only February, they know one of the basic rules of politics is the first guy to define the other wins.

MR. RUSSERT: Dwight Eisenhower had this to say: "The greatest asset any occupant of the White House has is the trust of the American people and total credibility. If the president loses this, he has lost his greatest strength." Roger Simon, as Gwen mentioned, the documents were released on terms of the president's National Guard service. He also agreed to sit with the chairman and co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission...


MR. RUSSERT: ...which was a change. How much of an issue is this credibility, as Time magazine called "a potential gap," going to play in the 2004 race?

MR. SIMON: I think it's going to be huge. We've had presidents who have lied to the American people. Our last president lied on a number of occasions to the American people, but nobody died when Bill Clinton lied. If, as these polls reflect, a majority of the American people think the president either lied or exaggerated about the weapons of mass destruction and sent young men and women off to war to fight and to die based on those lies and exaggerations, they're likely to be a little unforgiving, I think, in November.

MR. RUSSERT: John Harwood, what's your sense of this?

MR. JOHN HARWOOD: Well, the Democrats are trying to dent the image of straight-talking leadership, which is the strongest individual asset that George W. Bush had. Since 9/11, people think that this is a guy who calls it like he sees it and acts decisively, moves the country forward. This is an attempt to neutralize that advantage. At the end of day, however, Tim, I think the facts on the ground--what's the state of the economy, what is net job gain or loss for this administration, is he, in fact, the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net job loss and how's the situation in Iraq, do Americans think they are safer because of George Bush's leadership or not--that's what's, ultimately, going to decide the election.

MR. RUSSERT: Ron Brownstein, you're in Wisconsin this morning. What's your sense of this race? How is it shaping up? The whole issue of credibility, how central will it be to the race?

MR. RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, first of all, Tim, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed seeing two guys named Russert and Gillespie debating the meaning of chutzpah. That was the highlight of the morning. But, look, I mean, I'm very much with John. I don't think there is any one dimension that is going to decide this race. Clearly, many in the White House believe, as John said, that Bush's strongest assets are the assessments of his personal qualities from the public. They think that the perception of him as a strong leader outweighs, for many voters, the questions about his performance or his priorities or his policies. They see him as someone who is presidential. And, certainly, when he was on the show last week with you, that was the message he was trying to drive home. Again with Ed Gillespie, he was trying to drive it home this morning, especially with--by contrast with John Kerry, who they portray as a flip-flopper. I would just say that credibility, if it erodes, obviously, cuts into that image, but I agree with John. In the end, performance is what matters most for an incumbent president.

MR. RUSSERT: All right. Let me turn to some of the things the president said last week on MEET THE PRESS about the National Guard, because again, it's the cover of Newsweek magazine. You can tell by Congressman Rangel and Ed Gillespie's comments today, it's still a raw issue in this campaign. Here's the president from last Sunday.

(Videotape, February 8, 2004):

MR. RUSSERT: When allegations were made about John McCain or Wesley Clark and their military records, they opened up their entire files. Would you agree to do that

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Sure. Yeah. Listen, these files have been--I mean, people have been looking for the files for a long period of time, trust me, and starting in the 1994 campaign for governor, and I can assure you in the year 2000, people were looking for those files as well. Probably you were. And absolutely. I mean I...

MR. RUSSERT: But you'll allow pay stubs, tax records, anything that show you were serving during that period?

PRES. BUSH: Yeah. If we still have them.

MR. RUSSERT: But you authorize release of everything to settle this thing.

PRES. BUSH: Yeah, absolutely. (End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Everything has now been released according to the White House. General Calhoun, Gwen Ifill, has came forward and said, "I remember being with George W. Bush in Alabama." Has this issue been closed down?

MS. IFILL: For reporter, this falls in to the be careful what you ask for world of view. You asked for these records and we got them at--What?--6:30 on Friday night, pages and pages, many of them duplicative, still not answering a lot of the questions? But there's another problem here. One is that in polls people say "I don't know if I care what happened with the president, really, just as long as he is forthcoming about it." The White House has clearly made the judgment that being forthcoming is more important than establishing the actual detailed facts, which they may be correct about. But also after a while, it does seem like you are digging into a dead hole. But I do think it's interesting how this Vietnam question, whether it's Dan Quayle, whether it's President Clinton, whether it's this president, always keeps coming back. I don't know whether it's because it's baby boomer journalists asking the questions and Vietnam-defined allies or whether it's because people really are looking at war service as some sort of larger--I mean, you saw what the president did with the end of his interview with you last week when he said "I'm a strong leader." They tried to turn it into an Internet ad and NBC said "I don't think that's a good idea," and it disappeared. But he clearly--he telegraphed what it is he needs to say.

MR. RUSSERT: "I'm a war president."

MS. IFILL: "I'm a war president."

MR. RUSSERT: John Harwood, the ghost of Vietnam hovering over the race of 2004. Do you believe the president's service in the National Guard vs. John Kerry's service in Vietnam, plus John Kerry's anti-war activities is going to be an issue in this race?

MR. HARWOOD: It is an issue, but there's only so far Democrats can take this. You know, George W. Bush has been the commander in chief now for nearly four years, and I think that pretty well trumps what he did when he was in the National Guard. But the effect of this controversy, though, is to take John Kerry closer to being able to stand on the stage with George W. Bush and compete with him on national security. That's a terrific cover for John Kerry when you have two young men in military outfits, one of whom turned out to have been a decorated veteran and the other was in the National Guard. It simply levels the playing field in a way that's very advantageous to John Kerry.

MR. RUSSERT: Democrats have always had a distant second status on national security issues in recent elections, and you think this gives a level of comparability.

MR. HARWOOD: I think it helps them a great deal. I think it makes it more difficult for Republicans like Ed Gillespie to use John Kerry's votes against weapons systems and say this is guy who's weak on defense. That photograph and the footage we've seen of John Kerry marching through the jungle of Vietnam goes a long way towards neutralizing that charge.

MR. RUSSERT: Ron Brownstein, what's your sense?

MR. BROWNSTEIN: Well, two thoughts, Tim. First of all, I think that the focus on the National Guard from the Democrats by this point is less about moving voters than about putting the Bush campaign on the defensive and signaling to the Republicans that they're going to run a very aggressive campaign. You know, you look at the polling. I agree, that I can't imagine that a very large number of voters are going to change their assessment of Bush now that he's been president for four years, almost four years, based on what happened 30 years ago, but I do think it's sending a signal to the Republicans. Secondly, I agree that the Vietnam experience is really central to the political identity that John Kerry has established. It's important for him in establishing credibility not only on national security but on a broad range of issues that revolve around questions of strength, things like gun control or the death penalty or crime. I mean, he really uses it to root himself in the cultural mainstream against what is likely to be a Republican effort to portray him as someone who is outside of that cultural mainstream. So that, I think, is why you see these Republicans moving to try to change the image from the combat veteran to the anti-war protester. They want to sort of replace how the Vietnam era is defined in people's mind in terms of what John Kerry's legacy is.

MR. RUSSERT: Roger Simon. MR. SIMON: I think what's amazing to me is how much traction the National Guard issue has had. Six months ago, the White House would have dismissed this with a wave of its collective hand. After all, it came up in the 2000 campaign. There's very little new that has been presented now that wasn't presented in 2000. It didn't have a lot of traction in 2000. Now, we are reading about this day after day after day, and I think it's a sign of the president's weakness. And I think it's a sign the White House knows that the president is having a bad stretch. He had a not-well-reviewed State of the Union speech. His performance here on MEET THE PRESS was not well-reviewed by many in his own party. I think they would love to do a press conference, a venue he's usually good at, but the slumbering giant that is the White House press corps has awakened over this issue and they gave his press secretary a very hard time about it. I don't think he's willing to face the press corps on this issue, not in the next few days anyway.

MR. HARWOOD: Tim, it's very important with male voters. Even though John Kerry may be up in the polls now, he and the Democratic ticket are going to have a difficult time getting to parity with George Bush with men in the fall and this is an issue that may help them.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the issue of passion, intensity. You heard Charles Rangel talk about Florida and just what it meant to him personally and he thinks minority voters across the country. The man who George Bush defeated in the 2000 race, Al Gore, spoke to some Democrats in Tennessee and look at this.

(Videotape, February 8, 2004): FORMER VICE PRES. AL GORE: He betrayed this country! He played on our fears! He took America on an ill-conceived foreign adventure, dangerous to our troops, an adventure that was preordained and planned before 9/11 ever took place! (End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: I have to break it out, Gwen Ifill. It's been away in the closet, but this is it. MS. IFILL: I thought that was at the Smithsonian by now.

MR. HARWOOD: Yeah. Right.

MR. RUSSERT: Oh, it's back. This is a mere facsimile, but it's real. Bush, 271; Gore, 266--that's the Electoral College. I said in 2000, it was Florida, Florida, Florida. 2004, it's turnout, turnout...

MS. IFILL: Turnout, turnout.

MR. RUSSERT: ...turnout. Matt Dow, the president's pollster, said that if women, blacks and Hispanics vote in the same percentages that they voted in 2000, because of changing demographics, the president would lose by three million popular votes, not by a half million. What is your sense of the intensity and passion you're seeing amongst Democrats, amongst Republicans as we approach 2004?

MS. IFILL: Earlier, you played a clip of what John Kerry said last night in Wisconsin. He said, "We're not going to let them get away with it again." Democrats have clearly decided with speeches like that, even though Al Gore's speeches have a way of being very big at the time and then being forgotten a week later, but they decided this is the way. We have to seize on this idea that Democrats during the primaries wanted to unify so quickly. I mean, no one, even John Kerry, didn't expect to get this kind of momentum out of a couple of early primary wins, and they're reading that as, "Well, Democrats really want to get rid of George W. Bush." The country is still, shockingly to them, as divided as it was four years ago. So they're going to whip it up at every possible turn.

MR. RUSSERT: Howard Dean, Ron Brownstein, was the man who probably understood the intensity, the anger about George W. Bush more than anybody else. He was out on Thursday in Wisconsin there saying that, "I think Senator Kerry is not the best person to carry the banner because he's behaved so much like Republicans and his voting record and now in his practices of fund-raising." Do you believe if John Kerry wins that primary overwhelmingly on Tuesday, that Howard Dean will then say, "All right. It's over. I'm willing to cast my lot with John Kerry"?

MR. BROWNSTEIN: Boy, it's really hard to tell. He sends such mixed signals. It's hard to imagine what the justification for going on would be, after spending so much time in Wisconsin, especially if he comes in third. You know, being out here, this looks--it's been an incredible procession of primaries, partially because they're so compressed, partially because Democrats want to unify behind the candidate against Bush. We've really had a--far more than in my experience before a national primary that just moves the backdrop from state to state. And you see the same dynamic that we've seen here everywhere else. Most voters flowing toward Kerry out of the perception rooted largely in his earlier victories that he would be the strongest candidate against Bush. I think there's very clear evidence that John Edwards, by spending time in the state, is improving his share of the vote as he's done in every place else he spent time. He had a big crowd yesterday in Madison. He got a better response, I thought, than John Kerry last night at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner here. So I do think that there is a very difficult path ahead for Howard Dean, even for John Edwards, for that matter, because most Democrats seem comfortable with the idea. John Kerry may not have been their first choice, but they seem perfectly comfortable with taking him as the candidate against President Bush.

MR. HARWOOD: Tim, Howard Dean may want to go on but a lot of his most prominent supporters do not want him to go on. I talked this week to Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, he said he's asking Howard Dean to get out of the race. He's preparing to meet with John Kerry. Democrats are very, very unified behind this ticket. And George W. Bush has some problems in his base right now: $500 billion deficit is not going down too well with economic conservatives.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to show you just--Go ahead, Ron.

MR. BROWNSTEIN: John, can I--Oh, I was just going to disagree a little bit. I think that if you look at where we are, we have two sides that are going to be very unified. I mean, the dominant, really, thrust of public opinion throughout the whole Bush presidency has been enormous polarization. Most recent Gallup poll, he's running about 90 percent approval among Republicans and about 12 among Democrats. I mean, that's the widest gap we've had in the history of modern polling. 2002 showed to me that Republicans would come out and vote. There were big increases in red states in places like Georgia, North Carolina, even Florida, on Republican vote, and the evidence of this primary is that Democrats are really going to come out against George Bush. As well, I think in the end, it comes down to, as it always does, a relatively small number of conflicted voters, probably culturally conservative, economically populous, in place likes Ohio, and Missouri, and right where I am, in Wisconsin.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, let me show you exactly what happened in 2000, and what I think we have to look forward to in 2004. Look at these states. This was Florida. Dead even, practically. New Mexico, .1 difference. Wisconsin, .2 difference. Iowa, .3 difference. Oregon--Look at these. And look at the next five closest states. Look at these numbers: 48.1 to 46.8; Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio. Roger Simon, Gwen Ifill, that was 2000. These parties are now absolutely motivated, absolutely united, so intense. We could see a replay. MR. SIMON: We could. And the Democrats have an issue, as Charlie Rangel made clear and as we've made clear today. The rallying cry has become "Re-Defeat Bush." We defeated him in 2000, but he's somehow still president. It got taken away from us by the Supreme Court. Now, we're going to have to defeat him again. What I think--and the president--and the Democrats have gone from depression to euphoria very quickly on this issue. I think they're forgetting one thing in that George Bush is a formidable campaigner. He's gotten better since 2000. Not only does he have the incumbency behind him, he is a personable, likable man who is likely to be running against John Kerry, a very serious man, the man who put the `grave' in gravitas, as a newsmagazine famously said a few weeks ago. And in a matchup of the personalities, George Bush has some arrows in his quiver.

MS. IFILL: Well, and if you really want to win an election, and you really want to engage, the time to engage is February. I mean, who wouldn't want a candidate who's peaking in February? We've still got eight, nine months to go before this very close electorate gets a chance to speak. And so if we're talking about a general election now, the Bush White House can't be very upset about this.

MR. RUSSERT: Who would have thought that we would have two candidates like this going at each other eight months before election? And why are we all smiling?

MS. IFILL: I don't know.

MR. RUSSERT: We'll be right back.


MR. RUSSERT: Watch the special WTMJ/MSNBC presidential debate tonight amongst the Democrats from Wisconsin at 6:30 Eastern on MSNBC. That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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