Video: RNC chair plays Hardball

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updated 8/19/2005 11:15:46 AM ET 2005-08-19T15:15:46

Ken Mehlman, who headed President Bush's 2004 campaign and is now chairman of the Republican National Committee, joined MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell on Thursday's edition of 'Hardball.' In the wide-ranging interview, the two discussed the impact of the daily news coming out of Iraq, Cindy Sheehan's protest and the nomination of John Roberts.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

Mehlman on Iraq
NORAH O'DONNELL: Ken, more deaths in Iraq today and the president's poll numbers are slipping.  Is there growing concern now within the Republican Party about the president's strategy in Iraq?

KEN MEHLMAN, CHAIRMAN, RNC:  Well, obviously every American is concerned about the war on terror.  The central front of that war on terror is in Iraq.  But I think what Republicans and millions of Democrats and independents understand is that the call that some have had to withdraw and cut and run is exactly the wrong thing we would do.

O'DONNELL:  Do you acknowledge that there's some concern within the Republican Party about the way things are going in Iraq?

MEHLMAN:  Any time you're in a tough war, there are obviously concerns about the lives, the safety of our troops, of our men and women that are serving.  I think Republicans and I think again, millions of Democrats and independents agree we must prevail.  The ultimate thing we can do to thank those troops for their sacrifice and their risk is to make sure their mission is accomplished.  To make sure we support their morale and support what they're doing over there.  This is central front in the war on terrorism.  And the worst thing we can do would be to cut and run from the terrorists because then we would have to face them at home.

O'DONNELL:  Congressman John Duncan, who is a Republican from Tennessee, is quoted in today's paper as saying there is no enthusiasm for this war.  Grover Norquist, who is a conservative who I know you meet with regularly, said there is great concern that candidates, Republicans up for re-election in 2006, could face a backlash if something is not done in Iraq to change the course.  What will be done politically?  And is there a concern that this could hurt Republicans in the mid-term elections?

MEHLMAN:  Norah, I don't view this as a Republican or a Democratic issue.  I view this as an American issue.  We've got to win this battle in the war on terrorism.  The central front which is now occurring in Iraq.  Is it going to be tough?  Absolutely.  Are Americans concerned?

Americans are always concerned when we're in a tough war.  And we're in a tough war.  This war on terror.  But when you heard this past weekend, my counterpart, Chairman Dean, said that women in Iraq were better off when Saddam Hussein was still in power?  When you their angry Move On.org left saying we should cut and run, saying the mission wasn't noble, all those things are wrong.

The American people understand this will be a tough battle but they understand what the stakes are.  They understand this is the central front in the war on terror and the most important thing we can do is to defeat the terrorists there and to promote freedom over there because then we're going to be safer at home.

O'DONNELL:  I know, of course, you are the chairman of the Republican Party.  You know President Bush.  I've covered President Bush.  How do you think he looks at some of this criticism out there?  I would think the president would say this is a bunch of ninnies doing a lot of hand wringing.  Do you think that's how he sees this criticism?

MEHLMAN:  First of all, Norah, the president recognizes and the president appreciates and he always says this is a free country where folks ought to talk about the issues.  And certainly when you hear folks raise concerns about the war, the president has concerns.  He prays with the families of service men and women who have fallen or have made the sacrifice.  But what the president ultimately remembers, we're about to come with a four-year anniversary of September 11.  And what he remembers is that terrible day and we have to do everything we can to make sure that the next 9/11 doesn't happen.  And that's why it is so important that we prevail in Iraq.

O'DONNELL:  There's now a debate, though, Ken, raging in this country about what is the strategy in Iraq?  What is the way forward?  How do we defeat the insurgents?  And today, there has been a significant change within the Democratic Party.  For the first time, we now have a Democratic Senator, Russ Feingold calling for a timetable.  He says by the end of 2006, all troops should be out of Iraq.

MEHLMAN:  I think that is worst possible approach.  Can you imagine in if in 1943, FDR said we're going to end World War II.  We're going to remove our troops from Europe and Asia in 1944.  Because that says to the enemy, all you have to do is wait until this period.  That says to the people in Iraq who are fighting, we're only with you for a short period.  That says to our allies that you can cut and run, too.  If you believe, Democrats and Republicans agree, this is central front in the war on terror.  If you believe this enemy is an implacable foe that we have to deal with, then the worst thing we can do is give them a timetable for them to know when they can wait us out.  It would be wrong to the Iraqi people.  It would be wrong to the men and women that are sacrificing.  It would be wrong for our allies and it would be wrong because would it tell the enemy exactly the wrong message.

Mehlman on Sheehan
O'DONNELL:  Let me turn to the president, who is on vacation.  He still has three weeks to go in Crawford, Texas.  There's a woman there named Cindy Sheehan who says she will not leave until she meets with the president.  This morning, on the Don Imus Show, a Republican, Senator George Allen from Virginia -- who many think is the golden boy for the Republican Party in the year 2008 -- disagreed.  (He said) if he were president, he would invite Cindy Sheehan into his home and talk to him.  Are you surprise that had a Republican is splitting with the president on this issue?

MEHLMAN:  Everyone has to decide the right approach.  The president has met with Mrs. Sheehan and he has met with many other, hundreds of families, moms and dads and brothers and sisters and he's prayed with them and thanked them for the ultimate sacrifice.  It's one of the most important and frankly one of the most difficult things he has to do as president.  Obviously, there are a lot of families, a lot of moms and dads who disagreed with Mrs. Sheehan.  I noticed a number, there was someone in the "Wall Street Journal," there were others on some networks this morning.  What they were saying was remember the morale of our sons and daughters. 

Think about the morale of the people that are over there.

O'DONNELL:  Do you think Cindy Sheehan hurts the morale of our troops?

MEHLMAN:  I know that moms and dads that I've heard on television have said they think the most important thing is to remember that.  I think Cindy Sheehan is a grieving mom and I thank her for her unbelievable sacrifice.  There's nothing you can have for the sacrifices she made of her son.  And that's why it is so important that her son sacrifice was not in vain and that we ultimately prevail.  That we make sure that all the men and women, all the servicemen and folks in all the services who have made that sacrifice, who were risking their lives today, we've got to support them and we have to prevail.  If we gave a timetable, the result would be that they would be less safe and their mission would be less likely to be accomplished.

O'DONNELL:  What about some of the comments that she has made?  She has called the president the greatest terrorist in the world.

MEHLMAN:  I think that's an unfortunate and outrageous comment.  I totally disagree with that.  The president is taking on the terrorists all over the world.  Think of the moms and dads of the folks that were lost on September 11.  I always think about them, as well as the moms and dads and folks involved in Iraq.  This war on terror is terrible and it will require incredible sacrifice and that's something that's not easy for us but we have to remember the stakes.  We have to remember the mission.  We've always got to remember that taking on the terrorists there makes sure that you and I and everyone else are safer over here.

Mehlman on Roberts
O'DONNELL:  Let's now turn to the upcoming fight over the president's choice to succeed the Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.  The president has chosen John Roberts.

MEHLMAN:  Good choice.

O'DONNELL:  Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy criticized John Roberts' views as deeply tinged with the ideology of the right.  Is this a fair interpretation of Roberts' record?

MEHLMAN:  I don't think it is at all.  What is so interesting is what else happened yesterday, the American Bar Association, which leading Democrats including Patrick Leahy and Ted Kennedy call the gold standard for whether judges should be approved.  They gave the highest rating possible to Judge Roberts.  And they did it unanimously.  At the same time that happen, though, a bunch of the angry left, hard left groups came out and criticized Judge Roberts.  And it was almost like Pavlov's dogs.  You saw Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy, you saw the leader, Reid, all attacking Judge Roberts.

What's so interesting is this:  what they're complaining is that as an attorney, Judge Roberts, then attorney Roberts, advised his client, President Reagan on positions that President Reagan shared with other democrats.  People like Joe Biden.  People like Robert Byrd.  People like Joe Lieberman.

So if Judge Roberts, by being an attorney, advised his client on positions that they think are the fringe positions, they're calling their own Democrat colleagues fringe.  And I don't think that's right.  I think that the Democrats need to remember that they represent the American people.  Not the fringe hard left and Move On may not like it but most of their constituents understand this is an impartial affair and a great choice by the president.

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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