updated 6/30/2004 1:01:20 PM ET 2004-06-30T17:01:20

Guests: Dan Senor, Sen. Chuck Hagel, Sen. John McCain, Howard Dean

ANDREA MITCHELL, GUEST HOST:  Will freedom reign in the newly sovereign Iraq, or will insurgents continue their reign of terror?  Just back from Baghdad, former occupation official Dan Senor on the handover and the future of Iraq.  And a new poll shows the president‘s approval rating is at an all-time low, but voters still don‘t have a clear fix on John Kerry.  Tonight, maverick Republican senators John McCain and Chuck Hagel, plus former presidential candidate Howard Dean on the heated battle for the White House.

I‘m Andrea Mitchell, and this is HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Andrea Mitchell, in for Chris Matthews.

With a new government in power in Baghdad, the United States is now ready to hand over Saddam Hussein to Iraq.  But while the former dictator will face charges in an Iraqi court this week, he won‘t go on trial for months.  And for now, he‘ll stay in an American-run jail because Iraq lacks a prison to hold him.

Dan Senor spent the last 14 months in Iraq, serving as senior adviser to coalition administrator Paul Bremer.  Dan, welcome back.  It‘s good to see you safe and sound.

DAN SENOR, FORMER ADVISER, U.S. ENVOY IN IRAQ:  Thank you.  Good to be home.

MITCHELL:  Well, first of all, who‘s really in charge in Iraq?  Is this new government really sovereign?  Or didn‘t Paul Bremer leave behind so many rules, letters, regulations, constrictions, that the American forces not only control security, but have holdover authority on a lot of the laws?

SENOR:  Well, for one thing, Prime Minister Allawi and his government are in charge of a fully sovereign Iraq, so much so that after the formation of the government in early June, he had been itching to get started before the June 30 handover.  Initially, the plan was he wouldn‘t take over until June 30.  But as he assumed mr and more authority in June, he said, “I‘m ready to lead.  I‘m ready to go.  Let‘s hand over sovereignty sooner.”  We agreed.

As for those rules and regulations and letters, I think there‘s been a lot of confusion over them.  Almost all of those regulations were designed in consultation with Prime Minister Allawi.  These weren‘t done unilaterally.  And the interim government has the authority, with a majority, and these are outlined—these details are outlined in the interim constitution.  The interim government has the authority to overturn them.  So the interim government, Prime Minister Allawi, are in charge.

MITCHELL:  But for all intents and purposes—let‘s say there‘s an uprising in Fallujah and American military want to go in.  Can Allawi and his interim government say no and veto it?

SENOR:  What they can do is opt out of the operation if the Iraqi security services don‘t want to participate...

MITCHELL:  But it‘s the worst possible case because that is, again, an American face in a contentious situation, without the blue-shirted Iraqi police leading the way, as you would want them to.

SENOR:  And we want the Iraqi security services to play a major role here.  And what the U.N. Security Council resolution dictates and what we‘ve agreed to is that if there are very sensitive operations, we‘re really going to seek the input of the prime minister and hope that they do play a role.  And based on his initial statements, I think it‘s going to be a very constructive partnership.  He is as serious as we are on clamping down on the insurgency and clamping down on the foreign fighters, the international terrorists.  Nobody wants Zarqawi, who‘s been operating outside of Fallujah, more than we do.  Prime Minister Allawi has been clear on this.  He wants to get Zarqawi.  Almost every statement he‘s made in the past week has been about getting Zarqawi, and he‘s actually been very supportive of some of these operations we‘ve engaged in against Zarqawi‘s safe house.

MITCHELL:  In fact, has Zarqawi overplayed his hand, in that Iraqis are now victim to this violence, as much as American and Western targets, and that even al Sadr is now supporting the American role, or at least the Iraqi interim government role?

SENOR:  I think so.  Zarqawi‘s strategy was to create—to wreak enough havoc in the lead-up to June 30 in the hope that we would make the calculation that we could not leave because he has been quite explicit.  There‘s nothing Zarqawi and his al Qaeda affiliates want more than for us to stay exactly where we were, continuing to be the occupation force, because they made a realistic assessment.  The longer we‘re there, the more that Zarqawi can capitalize on a sense of frustration with the occupation and continue to engage violence.  Once we‘re gone, he‘s engaging in violence against the Iraqi government.  It‘s Iraqis that are going to be suffering, not the coalition.

So he is—it seems he‘s overplayed his hand.  His calculation was to get us to stay.  Not only did we not stay, but we left a couple days earlier than anticipated, in a very symbolic move that the prime minister was very enthusiastic about.  And now Zarqawi‘s going to be hunted down by a government led by Iraqis.

MITCHELL:  When you think about Iraq, you think about Saddam Hussein.  How important is it to bring him to trial, and quickly?  It was one of the first announcements today from the new government, that they are going to formally arrest him and take legal custody.  But can they bring him to trial?  There‘s so many legal obstacles.

MITCHELL:  First of all, to the first part of your question, I don‘t think people here appreciate how important this is to the average Iraqi on the street.  Not only was it the first action by the interim Iraqi government, but if you look back about 10 months, the first action of the Iraqi governing council was to form the Iraqi special tribunal that will ultimately and will try Saddam Hussein.  If you look at the day we captured Saddam Hussein, and Ambassador Bremer made that announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, we got him,” Iraqi reporters were cheering, unheard of in a press conference, the Iraqi reporters cheering on something that a government official says.  It‘s immensely important.

We think they will be capable.  The special tribunal has a very talented team involved with it.  Unreported is a very strong legal tradition in Iraq that goes well beyond Saddam Hussein.  The Basra law school is very well known.  The Baghdad University law school, great legal talent there.  There‘s going to be international consultants involved.  This‘ll be a serious process.

MITCHELL:  But when we talk to people over there, they don‘t have a legal system in place.  They‘ve got a tradition, but they don‘t have a legal system in place.  They don‘t have prosecutors.  They don‘t have people to go out and interview witnesses, potential witnesses against Saddam Hussein, because it‘s not safe enough for them to go north and interview the Iraqi Kurds and the people who were gassed.  They can‘t collect evidence, even, against him.

So how can they put together a system to try him...

SENOR:  Well...

MITCHELL:  ... when there are so many legal impediments?

SENOR:  Right.  In this kind of situation, there are legal impediments no matter where the sort of trial is held and in what environment.

MITCHELL:  And who‘s going to be brave enough to give testimony against Saddam Hussein?

SENOR:  I think a lot of people are going to be—are lining up to participate in this.  Iraqis want justice.  But if you look at the body of law—you‘re talking about crimes against humanity, atrocities—most countries do not have a body of law that deals with these issues.  So it is normal for the need to bring in outside experts to work and compliment the legal talent that‘s inside Iraq.  That‘s not unheard of.

In terms of the security situation, look, there are challenges.  The security situation is going to continue to be a challenge in everything we do.  But the Iraqis really want this.  They really want to try Saddam Hussein.  They really want to try Chemical Ali, who also is being turned over today, got less press coverage, Tariq Aziz and nine other individuals.  The special tribunal, serious group of people, have been working hard on this, and I think people will be lining up to participate in this process.  If we need to protect people‘s identity, we‘ll figure out a way to do that. 

We‘re not going to let that be an impediment.

MITCHELL:  What are we doing about this hostage taking?  That‘s what Americans really want to know.  How can our people be safe if they‘re being taken hostage and then are put through this torturous process and then beheaded on camera?

SENOR:  Yes.  It sometimes—it‘s something I dealt with every—

every moment.  You know, we got up in the morning and were given notice

that there was footage of a new beheading.  And I used to think to myself

sometimes, particularly when the Nicholas Berg one occurred, sometime the

banality of these evil actions by the terrorists speak for themselves.  And

these beheadings really capture that.  It‘s enormously frustrating and

depressing and tragic, and what we have to do is continue to do what we

have been doing, which is to put our maximum military resources, military

intelligence, military might behind the pursuit—the safe release of some

·         of the hostages.  Some have been safely released.  Unfortunately, some of these are tragically—do not end in a happy circumstance.  We Just have to continue to hunt these individuals down.

I think, though, an Iraqi government is going to help us in all these areas, not just the hostages but security across the board.  When you have an Iraqi leader who has sovereignty of his country, who can speak out, speak directly to the Iraqi people, be held accountable by the Iraqi people, it will really strengthen the Iraqis‘ hands in working us—working with us on clamping down.

MITCHELL:  Dan, you were there for 15 months.  What‘s the first thing you did when you came home?

SENOR:  We landed last night at 11:00 o‘clock and hopped off that plane.  I went to a hotel because we—initially, we weren‘t supposed to be back until June 30.  My home is being subletted, so I couldn‘t get into my apartment.

MITCHELL:  Locked out!

SENOR:  Locked out.

(LAUGHTER)

SENOR:  There‘s a tenant in there, so I went to a hotel and took a very long shower.  And surprisingly, when I turned on the tap, the water came out.  It was very predictable, unlike my life in Baghdad.

MITCHELL:  The water came out, and I‘ll bet it was hot.

SENOR:  Exactly.  And some room service and a clean shave and a few hours of sleep, and I felt like a new person.

MITCHELL:  Well, I got to tell you, after watching you all these months live from Baghdad, it is really good to be sitting across the table from you.  And just a message to your mom—we‘re glad he‘s home, too.

MITCHELL:  Yes.  Well, thank you.  She feels the same.  I appreciate that, Andrea.

MITCHELL:  OK.  Welcome home.

SENOR:  Thank you.

MITCHELL:  And coming up: The new Iraqi government is in power, but will the Iraqi people truly believe they‘re in control as long as American troops remain?  Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska will join us.  And later, John McCain on the American hostages in Iraq.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MITCHELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Senator Chuck Hagel is a Republican from Nebraska and a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees.

Senator Hagel, earlier this year you called on Congress to debate the idea of reinstating the draft.  Now that the U.S. has handed over sovereignty to Iraq, are more troops needed?  We‘re talking today—we‘re hearing today that there‘s going to be a call-up, an involuntary call-up of 5,600 retired and—retired reservists.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R-NE), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE:  Well, Andrea, what I said was that we need to stay focused on matching the mission with the resources.  And what that means is very simply, as we continue to make more commitments around the world with American troops, with the smallest army we‘ve had in modern history, we are stretching our armed force structure to the point of breaking it.  We are digging deep into our National Guard and reserves.  We are seeing the consequences of that.  We are seeing that we are putting stop-gap measures on people rotating out and seeing second and third terms going back into Afghanistan and Iraq.

So yes, we do need to take a look at where this resource—this manpower resource is going to come from for the future.  And—I‘m not calling for a draft, but I think we need to look at all the possibilities and have a legitimate debate about it.

MITCHELL:  Do you think—excuse me.  Do you think that this involuntary call-up that we‘re hearing about is unfair?  I mean, these people have served their time.  They‘ve been discharged or they‘ve retired.  And now they‘re being called back.

HAGEL:  Well, Andrea, my understanding of what the situation is in the call-up of 5,100 involuntary reserves—their status still is that they are obligated to a certain number of years yet in service to the United States.  And it‘s within the context of that service that they are being asked, or I understand will be asked, to come back into active duty for a remainder or a good part of the remainder yet in their obligation to this country.

MITCHELL:  Senator, the latest “New York Times”/CBS poll shows that the president‘s approval rating is down to 42 percent.  That is a record low.  Do you think that is reflecting dissatisfaction with the Iraq policy?

HAGEL:  Oh, I‘m sure that issue is part of the dissatisfaction.  It can‘t help but be.  It is the main issue that is confronting this country today.  And certainly, it will continue to be, I suspect, the main issue as we go into the November elections.

MITCHELL:  Well, you just wrote in a piece in “Foreign Affairs” magazine that to have a successful Republican foreign policy, it has to be sustainable and it has to be built on consensus.  Where is the consensus in America for this Iraq policy?

HAGEL:  Well, we are developing that.  At least, the president is hoping it will develop.  This is a difficult time.  And as you know, I‘ve had differences with this administration as to how we went into Iraq.  And I think and thought at the time it was far too unilateral, that we didn‘t think through all the dynamics.

Now we—like always in any policy, we‘re confronted with the sustainability of that policy, the American people staying with that policy, because when you‘re losing men and women daily—we‘ve now lost over 850 men and women dead in that conflict and over 4,000 wounded—the American people are going to question the policy.  And they should, in the sense that it‘s their men and women being killed, their sons and daughters, their money.  But is it worth it?  Is this policy worth it?  Is there a dynamic to it that, in fact, connects America‘s security and stability in the world to the sacrifices we‘re making?  A president must lead on that policy, and only a president is going to be able to help sustain it.  SO yes, it‘s a big issue.  It will continue to be a big issue.

MITCHELL:  The Supreme Court, 8-1 in one instance, voted against the president‘s policy on the detainees.  Was the administration wrong to assert that foreign and other detainees did not have the right to challenge their detention?

HAGEL:  Well, I think the Supreme Court‘s decision was a correct decision.  Yes, this country, the United States of America, was under attack.  It was unprecedented what happened to us September 11, 2001.  But at the same time, we are a nation of laws, and no president, no matter what the challenge is, is above those laws.  We have rights, and those rights must be maintained and sustained.  So I think the Supreme Court was correct in its decision.

MITCHELL:  Well, there are a couple of other issues coming up that are going to contentious in this campaign.  One of them is the constitutional ban on gay marriage.  There are conservative groups calling on you to support them on getting this ban through the Senate.  Will you?

HAGEL:  Well, first of all, I, like I suspect, most Americans, believe that maybe should be a contract.  It‘s a sacrament between a man and a woman.  That‘s not the issue.  The real issue is how do you assure that or protect that?  Historically, the United States has been about states having the authority to control and delegate authority over civil contracts.  On one level, that‘s what a marriage is.  On the second level, a marriage is a religious commitment.  It‘s part of a religious institution.  It‘s a sacrament.  And I don‘t think that, based on the 38 states that now have laws on their books, including my state, Nebraska, which defines what marriage is, or at least the recognition by the state of a marriage between a man and a woman, you need a constitutional amendment to protect that.  The fact is, we do have a federal law on the books right now which gives each state the power to make that decision for themselves.  So I‘m an old-fashioned conservative, when it comes to the Constitution of the United States.  I think we should be very careful...

MITCHELL:  More of a Libertarian.

HAGEL:  Well, maybe a Libertarian‘s a better word.  But we should be very careful how we use the Constitution.  And I do not see, at this point, a need to amend the Constitution in order to protect the sanctity of marriages.

MITCHELL:  Senator Hagel, how do you feel about what happened on the Senate floor last week?  What are you hearing from your constituents?  What do people back home think about the so-called “F-bomb,” the dispute between your vice president, our vice president and your vice presidential nominee, and Senator Leahy?

HAGEL:  Well, I don‘t think any American is shocked by the verbiage and some of the words that were used.  But I think it‘s important that we all stand back for a moment and understand those of us who have the privilege of serving this country in high office, we have a responsibility to those we serve, especially young people.  And that kind of discourse on the floor of the Senate, there‘s no way you can allow for that.  It‘s inexcusable.  And what that does, it further erodes the standards and expectations of our country and our people, our institutions at the very time we‘re trying to define up our standards and our expectations.  And so I‘m sure the vice president was sorry he said it and he...

MITCHELL:  He said he felt better for saying it, Senator.  He said he felt better afterwards.

HAGEL:  Well, I...

MITCHELL:  He got it off his chest.

HAGEL:  I can‘t speak for the vice president.  But I can tell you that any time I use the word “damn” at any time, I will get letters from teacher in Nebraska saying, Senator, don‘t you realize that you are a role model for our young people?  How can you defend that?  And I made a mistake when I said that.  I‘m imperfect, like all of us.  But there‘s just no reason that we should be conducting ourselves and using that kind of discourse on the floor of the Senate between elected officials.  We certainly debase the system...

MITCHELL:  Should he apologize?

HAGEL:  Well, he says he‘s not going to, I guess, but that‘s up to him.  But I‘ve already told you what I think.

MITCHELL:  OK.  Thank you very much, Senator Chuck Hagel.

HAGEL:  Thank you.

MITCHELL:  Up next, former prisoner of war John McCain on the growing number of Americans taken hostage in Iraq.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MITCHELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Senator John McCain, fresh off the campaign trail with President Bush last week, will have a prominent speaking role at the Republican national convention.  Senator McCain, welcome.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE:  Thank you, Andrea.

MITCHELL:  NBC News has learned that the U.S. Army is planning an involuntary call-up of nearly 6,000 retired and discharged soldiers for combat support roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Good idea?  Bad idea?

MCCAIN:  It‘s probably an idea that‘s driven by an emergency situation, where we simply don‘t have enough troops and boots on the ground in Iraq.  It‘s very rare that this kind of involuntary call-up of people who have already gotten out of the military takes place.  And some of this could have been prevented if Secretary Rumsfeld had recognized long ago what so many of us were saying urgently, that we needed more troops on the ground in Iraq, particularly of particular specifications, specialties that these people have that are being called up involuntarily.

MITCHELL:  Well, we now have a situation where, according to the “New York Times”/CBS poll today, 60 percent of those polled disagree with the Iraq policy, the way the president is running Iraq policy.  This is becoming a problem for reelection, is it not?

MCCAIN:  I think it probably is.  I think the—Iraq will—may have a very significant impact on the elections.  But I believe that with this turnover of power to an Iraqi government that I am guardedly optimistic that we will, with the help and assistance of the Iraqis, but recognizing the United States is still going to have to be the significant military role here—that we can succeed.

Andrea, could I just mention real quickly...

MITCHELL:  Please.

MCCAIN:  When our Forefathers wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men”—meaning men and women—“are created equal, they didn‘t say all American men.  I believe that the Iraqi people have the same yearnings for democracy and freedom that everyone else in the world does.  I believe they want their kids to have a choice.  I don‘t think they want 8, 9-year-old kids in prison in Baghdad.  And so I‘m guardedly optimistic that we will succeed.

MITCHELL:  Do you think that this is real sovereignty, or have their hands been tied by all of the rules and letters and restrictions that Paul Bremer left behind before he got on that C-130 and got out of there?

MCCAIN:  I think the public statements by Allawi and others of their appreciation and—for what we‘ve done and their reliance on us for security in the near future is—is fine.  Obviously, there is—since these are young American men and women who are in harm‘s way, there‘s got to be some codification of their role.  But I believe—and frankly, one of the reasons why I believe we‘re going to succeed is because I can‘t contemplate the consequences of failure.

MITCHELL:  Right.  More with Senator John McCain.  And we‘ll be asking about his role at the Republican convention.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MITCHELL:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, Senator John McCain on how to keep Americans safe from terrorism in Iraq.  Plus, former presidential candidate Howard Dean on President Bush‘s slipping poll numbers. 

But, first, the latest headlines right now. 

(NEWS BREAK)

MITCHELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m back with Senator John McCain. 

Senator, you suffered in Vietnam as a prisoner of war.  Now we see these horrific pictures of Americans being held hostage in Iraq.  What can we do about this? 

MCCAIN:  They‘re the symptom of the kind of people we‘re dealing with.  And it reminds us very graphically how evil the adversary is and how implacable. 

And I think that the American people, as tragic as this is, will even be more steadfast in our support of the war on terror. 

MITCHELL:  Well, certainly, all the bad news coming out of Iraq is having an effect on the president‘s approval ratings.  In the latest “New York Times”/CBS poll, his approval is down to 42 percent. 

If this continues to drop, can you see a situation where, in August, the party, the president, comes to you and says, we really have to do something, something dramatic?  And they‘ll come up with some convenient excuse and ask the vice president to make his excuses and they‘ll come and ask you to serve and run on the ticket? 

MCCAIN:  Well, I would prefer emperor. 

MITCHELL:  Not a bad title. 

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAIN:  No, that‘s just not...

MITCHELL:  No one has ever accused you of being a good No. 2, Senator McCain.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN:  Yes, that‘s true.  And I don‘t envision that scenario. 

I think that underestimates the very close working relationship that

the president and the vice president have.  I don‘t envision a scenario to

·         that the president‘s approval will deteriorate further.  I could argue that, with some success in Iraq and the Iraqi people being more involved in the democratic process, that you could see an improvement in the president‘s ratings. 

But the president and Dick Cheney enjoy a very close working relationship and one almost unlike any other in history.  And I don‘t think that is going to be severed for anybody. 

MITCHELL:  Well, clearly, that is the case.  But even though the polls are all over the place, the polls consistently show that this has been a neck-and-neck race, up, down, but very, very closely fought, except when you are paired with George Bush.  And then there is anywhere—double-digit leads for a Bush-McCain ticket. 

MCCAIN:  Yes, but, remember, about two weeks ago, Andrea, we were talking about the Kerry-McCain ticket, which also—which also won. 

(LAUGHTER)

MITCHELL:  Clearly, the answer is John McCain either way. 

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN:  I‘m very happy in the United States Senate.  I would like to be reelected.  I‘m supporting President Bush‘s reelection.  And all this is very flattering, but I also know and you know from being around our nation‘s capital, all this is very transient. 

MITCHELL:  At this stage, what do you think about the partisan nature of this campaign, though?  We see a Bush-Cheney Web site ad which uses the image of Adolf Hitler, comparing Hitler visually to Howard Dean and Al Gore and Dick Gephardt.  Is that fair game in politics? 

MCCAIN:  I think everything is fair game in politics, or unfair game. 

But this is the most partisan campaign that I have ever seen. 

(CROSSTALK)

MITCHELL:  Should they pull that down off their Bush-Cheney Web site? 

MCCAIN:  I haven‘t seen it to make a comment.  But it is part of the larger problem.  It is the partisan divide that exists between the two parties, exhibited on a daily basis in the Congress of the United States, which has led to very low approval ratings on the part of the American people of the way we do business in Washington. 

And there‘s got to be some kind of comity.  And this business of me running with the president or running with Kerry and how those numbers jump up, I would like to attribute it all to my winning personality, but I think it is because of a desire to see more bipartisanship and more courtesy and more respect for each other‘s views and less negativism in American politics.  People are very, very not only turned off, but very dissatisfied with the situation as it exists in America today, reflected in the way we work in Washington. 

MITCHELL:  Does that include not using the F-word on the Senate floor? 

Or has the media—have the media made too much of all that? 

MCCAIN:  Again, I think it is a symptom of the bitter partisanship that exists.  We now vote on things, and both sides do it, promote votes on things which have no chance of passage, but only to try to gain some kind of political advantage. 

That‘s not the way that we should work, and especially when we have compelling problems, Medicare, Social Security, the war in Iraq and so many others that we should be addressing in a much less partisan fashion. 

MITCHELL:  Now, you fought for nine years, I think, for campaign finance reform.  McCain-Feingold finally got passed.  And we‘re seeing some unintended results which, frankly, some people predicted, some of your critics predicted, which is record-shattering amounts of money by both parties. 

And these 527 groups, you told me in an interview that you would go to court to challenge them if the Federal Elections Commission didn‘t.  The FEC is asleep at the switch, if you will.  What‘s going on here? 

MCCAIN:  Well, first of all, as far as the amount of money goes, that‘s good.  The Internet is generating more and more people involved in the political process with relatively small campaign contributions, $50, $75.  That‘s wonderful. 

No longer can an office holder call up a CEO or a trial lawyer or a union leader and say, I need $1 million.  And, by the way, your legislation is up before my committee again. 

(CROSSTALK)

MITCHELL:  But sneaking in through back door, the big money is getting in there. 

(CROSSTALK)

MITCHELL:  ... these 527s.

MCCAIN:         Not to the degree, nearly to the degree that the soft money was coming in before. 

But this is the Federal Election Commission.  This is a corrupt organization.  We will take them to court and we will win in court.  And it is unbelievable when the chairman of the Federal Election Committee says, we can‘t act on 527s because we‘re in a campaign season.  Since when does a regulatory body‘s actions dictated by whether a campaign is on or not? 

And then you have got this other guy named Smith who, even after the United States Supreme Court declared BCRA, as it is called, constitutional, continues to trash it.  These are bad people.  The Federal Election Commission has to be reformed.  And we‘ll take them to court.  And I‘ll also take up this cause of getting them reformed, so they aren‘t driven by this partisanship.  Their performance is a disgrace. 

MITCHELL:  And we‘re going to see you at the Republican Convention.  Are you perfectly comfortable in that setting?  You haven‘t exactly been a loyal soldier in the Republican Party throughout the Bush-Cheney ticket. 

MCCAIN:  Well, I‘m very flattered and honored to be asked to speak on Monday night.  The president and I agree on more issues than we disagree on.  We have been—I‘ve been solidly behind him on national security and foreign policy issues.  And I‘m very flattered to be asked to speak.  And it will be a lot of fun. 

MITCHELL:  It will be a lot of fun.  Thank you very much, Senior John McCain.

Up next, former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean on the battle for the White House.

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ANNOUNCER:  Follow all the action in the battle for the White House.  Sign up for our free daily e-mail.  Just log on to our Web site, HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MITCHELL:  Coming up, President Bush‘s job approval rating slips in a new poll.  Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean will be here when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MITCHELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean ran for the Democratic nomination for president, now heads DemocracyForAmerica.com. 

Governor Dean, recent polls suggest that public opinion is turning against U.S. involvement in Iraq.  Your candidacy was largely based on opposing the war.  So, was John Kerry right to have voted to authorize the war? 

HOWARD DEAN (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, my candidacy was not based on opposing the war.  My candidacy was based on having a president that tells the truth.  And I think John Kerry has done that. 

I, along with the majority of Americans, now would prefer to trust John Kerry with administering Iraq than George Bush, because George Bush simply did not tell the truth about why we were going to Iraq.  And it is not surprising that it is falling apart as a result. 

MITCHELL:  But according to the latest “New York Times”/CBS News poll, which is out today, 52 percent of Americans now do not have confidence in John Kerry‘s ability to handle an international crisis. 

So why isn‘t John Kerry benefiting from voter disapproval of the war and voter opposition to the American—to the administration‘s policies? 

DEAN:  He actually—he is benefiting enormously.  That number has come down dramatically. 

When I was running and I was in the lead, the president had a 40-point gap.  John Kerry was nominated, I think, principally because people thought that his military background would make him—give him the credibility to run the military in a situation where we were at war.  And I think that‘s true.  The gap is now down to nine points.  We knew that, if we got that gap under 10, that we were going to beat George Bush.  And I think John Kerry is going to beat George Bush as a result. 

Look what‘s going on.  The president of the United States is now calling up the last group of people, Reserves who were on their way to retirement, who haven‘t trained for three years, to go to Iraq.  This is last step before a draft is necessary.  The president did not plan.  He didn‘t know what was going on when he got into this war.  And now we‘re calling up 40-year-old people who are on their way out of the Reserves and asking the Internal Revenue Service to find their addresses because we‘ve lost touch with them.  This is not a commander in chief who is in control of what‘s going on in the American military. 

MITCHELL:  Well, to take another look it, George Bush is now at the United Nations.  He‘s gotten a resolution of authority.  He went to NATO, asked for their help.  He didn‘t get quite as much help as he would have wanted, but he is at least asking for their help. 

He has turned over sovereignty to a new Iraqi government.  Isn‘t he doing everything that John Kerry has demanded? 

DEAN:  Well, actually, he‘s done some of the things that John Kerry has demanded.  And I think that‘s good.  I think when the president starts following the Democratic lead, that‘s usually a good thing.  It also shows that the president is in a lot of trouble. 

I do think it‘s a good thing that sovereignty was turned over.  I think that‘s a step in the right direction.  However, the U.N. and the NATO agreements were essentially papered over smiley photo-ops.  The truth is that we continue to use—lose brave American soldiers on a regular basis.  The president has no plan for how to stop that.  The president had no idea that we were going to have resistance. 

Remember Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld telling everybody how the Iraqi people were going to welcome us with arms raised as the great liberators of Iraq?  Eight hundred and fifty Americans have died because of what this president has done.  And we are no safer than we were before we went into Iraq.  The majority of people in America think that‘s also the case. 

So I would prefer to have a decorated combat veteran, John Kerry, running this operation, rather than someone who served part time in the National Guard and never took a step abroad to defend the country in its time of need. 

MITCHELL:  Given the way you feel about the Iraq war, and certainly the way you felt during the primary election campaign, isn‘t your view about the war closer to Ralph Nader‘s than to John Kerry‘s?  And why are not you supporting Ralph Nader for president? 

DEAN:  First of all, Ralph Nader is not going to be the next president of the United States.  The choice is between people like John Kerry and George Bush.

MITCHELL:  Well, he might be if people like you supported him. 

DEAN:  Well, that‘s not true. 

MITCHELL:  He would have a better shot at it if he had support from more people within the Democratic Party. 

DEAN:  The truth is, as I said before, the choice is between John Kerry and George Bush. 

John Kerry has a strong environmental record.  George Bush‘s legacy is to call a bill Clear Skies and then put 500 percent more mercury emissions into the sky.  George Bush‘s attitude is, let‘s pass No Child Left Behind, which makes every public school in the country a failing school by the year 2013.  John Kerry understands that that is not the way to save American public education. 

John Kerry supported without a single Republican vote Bill Clinton‘s effort, successful effort, to balance the budget.  George Bush has never balanced the budget in his life.  Even as governor in Texas, the lieutenant governor runs the budget in Texas, not the governor.  I prefer a balanced budget.  I prefer strong environmental protection.  I prefer jobs in this country again.

And we are not going to get that out of a Republican and this kind of right-wing Republican leadership.  You‘re having two people I think on the show later on, two Republicans who are widely admired.  They‘re widely admired because they speak the truth.  The president has not shared the truth with us.  I think it‘s time we had a president who did.

MITCHELL:  Do you think that Ralph Nader should get out of the race? 

DEAN:  I think nobody should ever be told to get out of a race.  I think that‘s up to Ralph Nader to make that decision for himself.  And I think in general third parties are helpful because they bring new ideas into the mainstream of American political thinking. 

I believe that this president is in such grave danger because of the half-trillion-dollar chronic deficits the president has left us, because of a foreign policy which has run amuck, where he‘s privatized a good many of the military functions.  We have a mercenary army of 20,000 people in Iraq.  I think that‘s not widely known.  I think the scandals of Abu Ghraib were largely a result of the president‘s obsession with privatizing American military functions and the chain of command was messed up.

I don‘t think you can blame our military entirely for that.  We need a president who knows how to lead.  John Kerry knows how to lead.  George Bush does not.  I don‘t think Ralph Nader enters into this equation, except that he will take some small percentage of votes that otherwise would have gone to John Kerry.  And he may have the effect again of reelecting George Bush.  And I think that would be a tragedy for America. 

MITCHELL:  So, if he could have that impact, even drawing 2 or 3 percent of the vote in the key battleground states, does that mean that you would call on him or prefer that he get out of the race, so that there is that clear choice? 

DEAN:  I would prefer that, of course.  But I don‘t believe that anybody should be in the business of telling other people they cannot run for president.  This is a free, democratic government.  And one of the great things about this country is that, if you want to run for higher office or for any office, you are free to do so. 

I don‘t happen to think that Ralph Nader, who has served this country admirably over a 40-year career of consumerist and environmentalist leadership, I don‘t think that he‘s serving this country well by making this race.  I have to say that. 

MITCHELL:  OK.  Coming up, more with Howard Dean on the presidential race. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MITCHELL:   We‘re back with former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. 

Governor Dean, I want to show you a Web ad which is appearing right now on the Bush-Cheney Web site and talk to you on the other side. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  How dare they drag the good name of the United States of America through the mud of Saddam Hussein‘s torture prison? 

DEAN:  I want my country back. 

MICHAEL MOORE, FILMMAKER:  We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. 

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D), MISSOURI:  This president is a miserable failure. 

GORE:  He betrayed this country!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  Now, you‘re in good Democratic liberal company, except for, of course, Adolf Hitler. 

DEAN:  Right. 

MITCHELL:  What is Adolf Hitler doing in there?  The Republicans say that it all started with a MoveOn.org ad competition, so that once the Democrats started it, they‘re just retaliating.  What do you think about this ad? 

DEAN:  I think it is pretty indicative of the moral bankruptcy of the Bush campaign, to be comparing his political opposition to Hitler. 

I‘m sure if we compared George Bush to Hitler, which would be totally uncalled for, we would be roundly criticized and rightly so.  And I think they should be as well.  These people are not people who we want leading America.  We want people leading America who will bring us together.  And I don‘t think we want the Bush-Cheney campaign to run this country anymore. 

MITCHELL:  But didn‘t the Democrats actually start this with the MoveOn.org online ad competition?  And isn‘t the heated nature of the campaign really coming as much from the liberal left as from the right?  You‘ve got so much anger out there, with “Fahrenheit 9/11” and everything else.  There is the most intense campaign in recent memory. 

DEAN:  I think, first of all, MoveOn.org is a private organization.  I

think, secondly, the president of the United States

(CROSSTALK)

MITCHELL:  But it is highly associated with your campaign and with Democratic politics, liberal politics. 

DEAN:  I think for the Bush-Cheney campaign to put their opponents in the same breath with Adolf Hitler is pretty bad.  And it is not very American.  And it is one of the reasons I think George Bush is going back to Crawford, Texas, for a very lengthy vacation as of November 3. 

MITCHELL:  Well, one of the things that will help determine whether or not that happens is who John Kerry picks for a running mate.  Who do you think he should pick for a running mate? 

DEAN:  Well, I‘m in that position of actually being asked for some help with that, for some advice and so forth.  And I generally take the position that, if I give advice privately, I don‘t give it publicly. 

So I‘m not going to be able to say much about that and I don‘t plan to say much about that.  I find that, if you give advice publicly, you‘re not likely to be able to give it privately much longer, as it should be. 

MITCHELL:  Well, just looking at the kinds of things that would help him determine it, should he choose someone with whose he‘s comfortable?  Should he choose someone with who is obviously experienced and prepared to lead the country, should that become necessary? 

(CROSSTALK)

MITCHELL:  Or does he need more fire in his campaign?  Does he need a John Edwards?  Does he need someone who can turn on the voters and get out the base?

DEAN:  Well, I think that one criteria that he has publicly talked about and I agree with him on totally is that you have got to pick somebody who could step in at a moment‘s notice and become president of the United States, if necessary.  That‘s something everybody ought to agree to.  And, certainly, that‘s his major criteria. 

After that, he gets to choose.  He is the nominee of the party.  And he is going to make that decision.  And the criteria that he uses are going to be his own and not mine or anybody else‘s. 

MITCHELL:  Well, since you‘re advising Kerry, does that mean that you think that clearly you‘re not going to be part of this competition?  Can we pretty well assume that it is going to be someone like Gephardt, Edwards, Vilsack, somebody who has been named?  Or do you think there is some sort of surprise afoot here? 

DEAN:  There‘s only one person who knows the answer to that.  And I don‘t think he knows it yet.  And that‘s John Kerry. 

MITCHELL:  And when will he announce it, do you think? 

DEAN:  That, I don‘t know. 

MITCHELL:  Do you think he needs to announce somebody soon in order to try to regain some attention here?  The spotlight so far has been on “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Bill Clinton‘s book, the Iraq handover, Ronald Reagan‘s funeral services.  There hasn‘t been very much attention paid to the Democratic nominee. 

DEAN:  I think I need to make a point about that.  I appreciate you brought it up.  That‘s a national media perspective. 

The truth is that I‘ve been on the road with John, and he‘s doing very well.  He‘s turning out crowds.  He‘s getting people really excited.  He‘s getting extraordinary coverage in local press wherever he goes.  The national press is not going to write the same jobs, education and health care story 30 days in a row.  They can‘t. 

But he‘s got to give that speech 30 days in a row because people who he‘s talking to haven‘t seen him before.  So throughout Ohio and West Virginia and Oregon and Pennsylvania, he‘s getting good crowds, great press, and he‘s getting his message across.  The national press is not going to cover that, of course, understandably so.  But I don‘t think John Kerry has been eclipsed at all, not in the battleground states, where he needs to be and where this election is going to be won or lost. 

MITCHELL:  All right, thank you very much, Howard Dean.  Good to see you again. 

DEAN:  Thanks, Andrea.

MITCHELL:  Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more

HARDBALL. 

Right now, it‘s time for the “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann.

END   

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