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updated 9/26/2004 11:18:08 AM ET 2004-09-26T15:18:08

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NBC News

MEET THE PRESS  Sunday, September 26, 2004

GUESTS: Gen. John Abizaid, U.S. Central Command, David Broder, The Washington Post, Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian, Robert Novak, Chicago Sun-Times, William Safire, The New York Times

MODERATOR/PANELIST: Tim Russert - NBC News

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:

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MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  Iraq.  The violence continues. How widespread is the insurgency?  Do we need more American troops on the ground?  And will the January elections go forward?  Those questions and more in an exclusive interview with the man in charge of the war in Iraq, General John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command.

Then, this Thursday, the first debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry. We'll look back at some of their earlier debates, remember some dramatic presidential and vice presidential television moments and talk issues and strategy with David Broder of The Washington Post, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times and William Safire of The New York Times.

But first, joining us this morning is General John Abizaid, the man in charge of winning the war in Iraq.

General, good morning.

Let me go right to it by asking you to respond to comments by Senator Chuck Hagel.  He's a Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and Foreign Relations Committee.  He said this about the war in Iraq:  "We're in a lot of trouble [in Iraq].  ...  The worst thing we can do is hold ourselves hostage to some grand illusion that we are winning.  Right now, we are not winning. Things are getting worse."

Your response?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID (Commander, U.S. Central Command):  Well, Tim, first of all, it's a great pleasure to be on your show, and I look forward to have this opportunity to discuss with you these important issues.

Well, when I hear our various political folks discuss the situation in Iraq, I don't generally like to comment specifically on their comments other than to say that we are, in fact, moving in the direction that will allow Iraq to emerge as a democratic and representational state, one of the first to emerge in the Middle East.  And I think that our military activities there have moved it ahead in a positive manner.  It's a tough fight and it's a hard fight, but we shouldn't lose heart because there are difficult times.  We know there will be fighting.  We know that there will be fighting through the elections, but when you think of where we started and now where we are with the Iraqi interim government and elections coming up, I'm positive that we can move the military activity forward to allow for good, stable elections to take place.

MR. RUSSERT:  I think, General, many people in the United States need a reality check this morning.  They are reading in the papers that the Kroll security agency who is working for the U.S. government said there are now 70 attacks a day on U.S. or Iraqi government forces up from 40 before the turnover to the Iraqi government.  And yet Prime Minister Allawi was in Washington this week saying that the only place that is not safe is downtown Fallujah.  Who's correct?

GEN. ABIZAID:  Well, the reality check is such that I get it from my commanders in the field.  And my commanders in the field are confident about the military mission.  They're confident about our ability to have an election period that is fair and relatively stable.  We're under no illusions about the entire country being stable, and we're also under no illusions that the entire country is dangerous.

It is a very complex environment.  There are areas that are very stable in the north and in the south, and then there are areas around Fallujah and in the Sunni heartland that are certainly dangerous to government officials and also to American forces operating there.  That having been said, we have moved very fast in building Iraqi security institutions that will be able to work with us in providing a stable atmosphere for the elections.  I'm very confident that by the time the January elections roll around, we'll be in good shape.

Don't forget, when you go back to four months before the Iraqi interim government emerging, there were all sorts of people saying it would never work, it would never emerge, it was impossible.  But the fact of the matter is it can merge.  It is possible to have elections.  It is possible to move this process forward from occupation to partnership to full independence.

MR. RUSSERT:  I want to ask you about a report that received a lot of attention here in the United States, and that was "A classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for" the president back "in late July" which "spells out a dark assessment of prospects for Iraq...." according to The New York Times.  "The estimate outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005, with the worst case being developments that could lead to civil war."  The best case was tenuous stability.  Is that an accurate estimate of the situation in Iraq?

GEN. ABIZAID:  No.  I don't think it's an accurate estimate.  I have read the estimate.  I think it's overly pessimistic.  What people lack in the United States that we soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have in Iraq and the Middle East is face-to-face opportunity to work with the people in the region. There have been over 700 Iraqis that have given their lives in defense of their own country.  Prime Minister Allawi risks his life every day in leading his country forward.  There are countless other Iraqis and other people throughout the Middle East that are moving forward to try to present a better future, to fight this very important battle against the extremists.  And we should have faith in them and in our own ability to help them achieve what they need to achieve.

And so I am very confident that with the good people of the Middle East, with the good people of Iraq, with the continued focus and perseverance and strength of will and the courage of the armed forces of the United States, that Iraq will emerge as an independent nation that will set the standard for good government in the region.

MR. RUSSERT:  Prime Minister Allawi did say this this week as well: "Terrorists, foreign terrorists are still pouring in, and they're trying to inflict damage on Iraq to undermine Iraq and to undermine the process, democratic process in Iraq, and, indeed, this is their last stand."

How many foreign fighters do you think there are now in Iraq?

GEN. ABIZAID:  I think the number of foreign fighters in Iraq is probably below 1,000, but it's kind of difficult to know because people infiltrated into Iraq to fight next to Saddam before the movement phase of the war began back in March of '03.  It's also clear that there is foreign fighter infiltration.  There is foreign terrorist activity such as Zarqawi.  There is activity by al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in Iraq.  But it's not just in Iraq, and sometimes we tend to look at Iraq through a soda straw, and also Afghanistan through a soda straw, whereas we really have a problem of terrorism that is ideologically motivated throughout the entire Middle East and Central Asia that has to be faced, and it's got to be faced with the will and the perseverance of the American armed forces and the American people, but most importantly with the moderate peoples in the region that don't want to have this type of life be dictated to them by the extremists.

So while the foreign fighters in Iraq are definitely a problem that have to be dealt with, I still think that the primary problem that we're dealing with is former regime elements of the ex-Ba'ath Party that are fighting against the government and trying to do anything possible to upend the election process. The greatest danger to the former regime, to the terrorists, and to the foreign fighters are fair and free elections, and we aim to make that happen.

MR. RUSSERT:  Why haven't you and the Iraqis been able to secure the borders? Why are they so porous?

GEN. ABIZAID:  Well, I think we could ask the same question about the United States border with Mexico.  It's a very difficult thing to do to secure and make a border absolutely safe and hermetically sealed that's over 2,200 kilometers long.  So the key is not to secure every inch of it.  The key is to have effective border forces that are out there that have modern technology that can detect people coming across from Syria with false passports or that are on terrorist watch list.  That's the key to doing that.  That'll take some time.  It'll involve a lot more people in the border forces of Iraq.  It will allow for American forces to be freed up that are currently operating on the border.  But over time, and all of this is a matter of time, over time the Iraqis will get better control of their borders.  And, in addition, I believe that you'll see the country's neighboring Iraq start to work very hard to secure their own borders as well because it's in their interest that a stable Iraq emerge.

MR. RUSSERT:  A Turkish journalist was captured and then released, and I read very carefully some of her comments and I'd like to share them with you, General.

She said that, "People appeared eager to help anyone they thought was part of the resistance."  She said, "I saw that around Mosul," which is up north, "Everybody is the resistance.  They use the small kids to bring them water and no one treated them like children.  They'd be with the men who are talking about cutting heads and the kids would be standing guard like little men.  So you became afraid of the children too."

"Everyone is the resistance."  Can you win a war in which the populace is aiding the insurgency?

GEN. ABIZAID:  You know, Tim, every now and then in Washington, we need to take a deep breath and we need to look at what's happening in the region as opposed to the reports of one or two journalists that happen to think that everybody in Iraq is in the resistance.  If everybody in Iraq was in the resistance, Prime Minister Allawi would not be trying to lead his nation forward to a better future.  If everybody in Iraq happened to be part of the resistance, they wouldn't be volunteering for the armed forces.  We've got over 100,000 people that are trained and equipped now.  That number is going up higher.  There is more people that are coming forward to fight for the future of Iraq than are fighting against it.

So the constant drumbeat in Washington of a war that is being lost, that can't be won, of a resistance that is out of control, simply do not square with the facts on the ground.  Yes, there is a resistance.  Yes, it is hard.  But the truth of the matter is that Iraqis and Americans and other members of the coalition will face that resistance together, will through a series of economic, political and military means, figure out how to defeat it and will move on to allow the elections to take place and a constitutional government to emerge.  So I'm not saying it's easy, but I am saying it's possible.

And remember that the enemy wants to break our will.  They are experts at manipulating the media.  They have yet to win a single military engagement in that country.  They have yet to win a single military engagement against the forces of the new Iraqi armed forces that are standing up.  No doubt that there are difficulties in building up these new armed forces, but I think the way is clear.  I think that Iraqis will take the lead in this entire endeavor and will emerge victorious and they'll do so with our help.

MR. RUSSERT:  General, I know you don't want to be involved in politics, but we are in the middle of a presidential campaign and I want to get your reaction to some of the charges and countercharges from your standpoint on the ground.  John Kerry said "This is the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."  President Bush says those comments embolden the enemy and send the wrong message to the troops.  Do you believe that the debate about Iraq in this country emboldens the enemy and sends the wrong message to the troops?

GEN. ABIZAID:  Tim, I believe that debate in our country is what our country is all about.  And if we're successful out here, debate will be part of the future of Afghanistan, it'll be part of the future of Iraq and it will be part of the future of all of the Middle East.  As a matter of fact, as I look around the Middle East, we're going through a revolutionary times right now and debate is happening everywhere.  So that there is a debate is certainly a good thing for the peoples of the region.  That there's a debate back home is a good thing for our people.

I can only tell you that as the military commander, I remain confident in our troops.  I remain confident in the Iraqis.  I remain confident in the people of the Middle East looking forward to a better future.  They don't want to live the life of al-Qaeda or a Talibanized society like we saw in Afghanistan. They want to live a moderate life where their children can grow up and have a better life.  And I think to the extent that we can help them help themselves to that end, we will be enormously successful.

So is this fight in the Middle East worth fighting?  And the answer is absolutely.  In my mind, and in the minds of our young people that are out here fighting and sacrificing, it's absolutely worth it.  And we believe that by fighting out here offensively, by helping the people of the region help themselves, we have kept the country free of attack.  That doesn't mean that the country will absolutely be free of attack, but we certainly think that we've done our bit by maintaining an offensive orientation.

MR. RUSSERT:  You talked about elections in late January.  Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said earlier this week that it may be the case that there could be elections in, say, three-fourths of the country, the parts of the country that were secure.  It wouldn't be perfect, but it would be doable.  Is that your goal?

GEN. ABIZAID:  Well, Tim, you know, for example, look over to Afghanistan right now where we're getting ready for elections within two weeks.  It certainly is not going to be a perfect election, and I don't think that Iraq will have a perfect election.  And if I recall looking back at our own election four years ago it wasn't perfect either.  That the election will be able to be held in the vast majority of the country under good circumstances is our goal.  I don't think we'll ever achieve perfection.  And when we look for perfection in a combat zone, we're going to be sadly disappointed.

The key question is:  Can elections be held?  Right now, based on the fact that 25,000 more Iraqi forces will join us between now and January, I believe with the addition of those additional Iraqi forces, with the jelling of the Iraqi chain of command, with good leadership by Prime Minister Allawi and his ministers, that the elections will be able to be held.  I also think we're going to have to fight our way all the way through elections, and there will be a lot of violence between now and then.

MR. RUSSERT:  You say "fight your way through the elections."  I'll show you a map of Iraq highlighting cities like Ramadi, Fallujah, Baquba, Samarra, Najaf, as you know.  Will there be a major military offensive in order to destroy the insurgency in those areas and insert the Iraqi government before January?

GEN. ABIZAID:  I certainly wouldn't want to talk about whether or not there's going to be a major offensive in any one particular place or another.  We never want to tip off our hands about what we want to do.  It's clear, however, that through a combination of political and military action we will do whatever is necessary to bring areas of Iraq under the control of the Iraqi government as soon as possible, and to have all areas of Iraq under government control to the extent possible by the January elections.

But, again, let's make sure that we understand one another.  I am not predicting victory by January at the end of the elections.  I am predicting that we'll have elections.  We will fight our way through the elections. It'll be tough, it'll be hard, but it will move us a step closer to ultimate victory, which is when Iraqis control their own destiny and have complete opportunity for choosing their own government and are free of any sort of American help that they don't want.

MR. RUSSERT:  You said on Wednesday, General, "I think we will need more troops than we currently have to secure the elections process in Iraq that will probably take place in the end of January."  Where will those troops come from?

GEN. ABIZAID:  Well, Tim, if people would look at the entire quote, they'd see that I said in the next sentence that those troops would come from Iraq. And when I say from Iraq, I mean Iraqis.  We're building up an additional 25,000 Iraqis in the armed forces, and we look to them to be able to help secure the election process in conjunction with American forces.

We also look to the possibility of international forces joining the United Nations to help secure that mission to a certain extent.  And we certainly won't ever rule out the possibility of increasing our own troops if the military situation requires it.  But it's my expectation and it's General Casey's expectation, as he leads the effort there in Iraq, that it'll be primarily force levels at their current strength along with additional Iraqi troops, that will set the stage for successful elections.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you believe there's a possibility, though, that the elections may occur in just parts of the country and not all of it?

GEN. ABIZAID:  My belief is that elections will occur in the vast majority of the country.  I can't predict 100 percent that all areas will be available for complete, free, fair and peaceful elections.  I assume that there will be certain areas of the country that will have to be fought over in order to have the elections take place.

That having been said, if we look at our previous experiences in El Salvador, we know that people who want to vote will vote.  We look to our own example that we see taking place right now in Afghanistan.  We know that there are certain provinces along the Pakistan-Afghani border that are going to be very, very difficult.  We also see that al-Qaeda and Taliban troops and activities are starting to increase in those areas, but we believe that we can deal with those challenges.  We believe that we'll set the conditions for successful elections, although they won't be perfect conditions.

MR. RUSSERT:  General, as you know, there's a debate here in the United States about the readiness of the Iraqi troops.  This is what Senator Kerry said on Thursday.

(Videotape, September 23, 2004):

SEN. JOHN KERRY, (D-MA):  Secretary Rumsfeld misled the American people about the numbers of troops that have been trained.  Look, he told America there were 210,000 armed forces.  The secretary of defense didn't tell the truth to the American people.  Then he told Congress there were 95,000.  He didn't tell the truth to the Congress.  There were 5,000.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Then the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, went before Congress and said this.  "It's 100,000 total security forces, and I don't want anyone to make the mistake that security force equals soldier ... or it could be what I refer to as the shake-and-bake three-week police force, which are previous policemen who are now given a three-weeks course.  So it's a mixed bag, but there are about 100,000 total security forces."

Help us out here.  How many Iraqi soldiers are there and Iraqi policemen or shake-and-bake security forces as Deputy Secretary Armitage described them?

GEN. ABIZAID:  Tim, I think the important point for all of us to understand is that the Iraqi security forces have ever since March of '03 gone under a very, very extensive renovation, shall we call it.  They were completely destroyed during the war of movement.  Immediately after that, we started building up police forces and not pay a lot of attention to the armed forces. Several times throughout this journey to build security forces at a reliable, well-trained and well-motivated, we've had either setbacks or revisions to our strategy.  The current strategy is one that I believe will work.

General Dave Petraeus has got a great article today in The Washington Post, I believe, where he outlined where we're going, how we're going and what we're doing, and it talks about numbers and it talks about the fact that Iraqis are fighting for their own country.  Shake-and-bake gives some sort of an idea that the Iraqi police and the Iraqi armed forces that are out there standing on the line fighting for their country right now are somehow or another unserious, unqualified and unprofessional people, and that's just not true. The are serious enough to be fighting and dying for their own country and we need to give them a little respect and help.

The key for us is to build an Iraqi security institution that'll be loyal to the civilian government, that will be well-trained, will be effective against the insurgency and ultimately will be able to protect the country of Iraq. And in most of the country right now, Iraqi security forces perform that function.

I think the best way to judge this is that right now there are about 100,000 armed forces and police forces that are trained and equipped by the measure of a standard that General Petraeus uses that's accepted by Prime Minister Allawi.  Those numbers will continue to grow, and I am very confident that with good leadership, the Iraqi armed forces and security forces at the police and border police level will continue to be more effective.

We need to understand that back in April when we had the difficulties with the armed forces and the police forces where they melted before the insurgency that it was more a lack of an Iraqi chain of command and proper leadership at the Iraqi chain-of-command level than it was anything else.  If you look at the recent actions in Najaf, Iraqi armed forces and Iraqi police fought well, performed their mission, were well-led and we continue to believe that this leadership element will evolve and make the Iraqi armed forces a serious and professional force that'll secure the nation.

MR. RUSSERT:  But in terms of securing Iraq before the January elections, that will be a military operation largely conducted by the United States, correct?

GEN. ABIZAID:  Well, by the time that January rolls around, we'll be in a position where in most parts of the country, Iraqi forces will have the lead. But in those parts of the country where terrorist networks remain very resilient or where the insurgency remains effective, we will probably end up having the lead for most of the difficult military operations.  But it remains to be seen.  There's a lot of progress that's been made, and I think when it all comes down to the end of the day, we'll see Iraqi security forces securing their country, defeating the insurgency and also rooting out the terrorists. But in the meantime between now and January, you can be assured that we won't turn our back on the insurgency or the terrorists with American forces.

MR. RUSSERT:  General, should the American people be prepared?  Should they brace themselves for a long and bloody fall and winter leading up to the elections in January?

GEN. ABIZAID:  Tim, the American people need to brace themselves for a long war in the Middle East and Central Asia, and they need to brace themselves for a long war in the Middle East and Central Asia because the battle is being waged out here between extremists and moderates.  It's not a war that ultimately needs to entail large number of American forces, but it's a war where intelligence, where economics, where political and diplomatic power need to come together with military power to defeat this ideology of al-Qaeda, Zarqawi, Ansar al-Islam, the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, etc.

This ideological movement is just starting to gain strength.  People in the region do not like it.  They don't want it to be successful.  They need our help to win the fight on their own, and that's what we need to do.  It'll be a long process, it'll be a difficult process, but it'll be one that can be successfully fought if we come together not only at home but in the international community and with the peoples of the region to set the standards for good government and the standards for a moderate lifestyle.

MR. RUSSERT:  General John Abizaid, thanks very much.  May you and our soldiers remain safe.

Coming next, Bush vs. Kerry, 37 days to go.  On Thursday, they square off in their first presidential debate.  We'll look back at their previous debate performances and some historic footage of debates.  Our political roundtable is next right here on MEET THE PRESS.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Bush vs. Kerry:  the first debate in four days.  Broder, Novak, Safire and Goodwin after this brief station break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.  Welcome all.

Let's look at the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll and get a sense of this race.  The election held today:  Bush, 48; Kerry, 45; Nader, 2. Breakdown between men and women:  Bush ahead by 10 with men; Kerry up 3 by women.  Remember, Al Gore carried women by 11 points in the year 2000.  What issues are driving the election?  Terrorism and values, 44 percent say most important; economy and health care, 44 percent say that's most important.  But look at this.  Married women 18 to 45:  terrorism and values, 57; economy and health care; 33.

The so-called security moms, David Broder--unless John Kerry can have a gender gap, get his totals amongst women up, he's going to have a very difficult time.

MR. DAVID BRODER:  And that's why he has really focused this past week or 10 days on Iraq, because there are--the general was so impressive.  But you talk to people--I was up in New Hampshire last week, and the concern up there is Iraq.  It's not the vague generalization about terrorism; it is specifically Iraq.  Because they continue to send new National Guard troops from New Hampshire over there, families are wondering:  What do they face when they get there?  How long are they going to be there?  What's the plan for ever getting them out?

MR. RUSSERT:  Anxiety about Iraq, Bill Safire?  How much of a driving force will that be in this election, and it will turn those 18- to 49-year-old married women away from the "war on terror" but more concerned about the war in Iraq?

MR. WILLIAM SAFIRE:  Well, the women who are worried about the war in Iraq are worried about the safety of their own family.  And they accept the idea that we are fighting over there to protect ourselves over here.  When Kerry has decided that Iraq is going to be the be-all and end-all in this campaign, not the economy, not health care, not education, but Iraq, he then had to make the further jump into, "We have to become the new Howard Dean," and that's what he's done.  He's taken on the mantle of the anti-war candidate.  And in so doing, he hopes to reassure women that he can bring home the troops.  But I think he's running against a stronger undercurrent, which is the troops are there to protect us here.  And that's his big problem.

MR. RUSSERT:  Not only was there an exchange on the campaign stump but also in the pay advertising.  And, Doris and Bob, I want to roll the latest George Bush campaign commercial and the latest John Kerry campaign commercial.  Here they are.

(Videotape, Bush campaign ad):

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH:  I'm George W. Bush, and I approve this message.

Announcer #1:  In which direction would John Kerry lead?  Kerry voted for the Iraq War, opposed it, supported it and now opposes it again.  He bragged about voting for the $87 billion to support our troops before he voted against it. He voted for education reform and now opposes it.  He claims he's against increasing Medicare premiums but voted five times to do so.  John Kerry--whichever way the wind blows.

(End videotape)

(Videotape, Kerry-Edwards '04 ad):

PRES. BUSH:  I saw a poll that said the right track, wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America.

Announcer #2:  The right track?  Americans are being kidnapped, held hostage, even beheaded.  Over 1,000 American soldiers have died, and George Bush has no plan to get us out of Iraq.  John Kerry does.  The Kerry solution:  allies share the burden, train Iraqis to protect themselves.  John Kerry--a new direction in Iraq.

SEN. KERRY:  I'm John Kerry, and I approved this message.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Doris?

MS. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:  I think the most important thing in that last commercial we saw on Kerry is he's got to somehow make people believe that there is a fresh start possible in Iraq if he becomes the president.  I agree with what Bill said.  I don't see how he can become the anti-war candidate, not when our troops are over there.  History shows that you're rooting for success when your troops are somewhere.

One politician who went against the war of 1812 and was thrown out of office, he later said, "I've learned my lesson.  Never again.  I will forever be for war, famine and pestilence.  It's the only thing that really works."  He's got to somehow make people believe that he has--because it's a fresh start, because Bush hasn't been willing to acknowledge his mistakes so that his course is going to stay the same- -what's incredible about that poll that you had is it showed that 58 percent of the people or even larger don't want to see the same four years under Bush second term than the first term.  Somehow Kerry has to capitalize on that, but he can't do it by being anti-war.  He's go to just show he'll be in there and he'll let us win, because he has some better planning somehow.

MR. RUSSERT:  And by showing windsurfing, they hope to establish a cultural difference?

MS. GOODWIN:  Oh...

MR. RUSSERT:  Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel of Harlem said, "We don't windsurf in Harlem."

MS. GOODWIN:  I couldn't agree more.  I mean, somehow, candidates--John Kennedy knew never to put some stupid hat on his head.  They should have known to kept him out of the water from the windsurfing.

MR. RUSSERT:  Bob, what's your sense of the race?

MR. ROBERT NOVAK:  I think Senator Kerry has a real problem on the war in that his speech at NYU, which is probably the best-delivered speech I've heard him give, very strong.  He sounded like Howard Dean, as Bill said.  And then he comes to his four-point program, it sounds like Bush.  So he will throw the long pass.  He won't say we've got to get out of there because that would be dangerous.  That's what his people really want.

The other problem, I believe, is I don't think you can think of this, gee, where are all these women going to go?  We've got all these millions of women, and they all move this way or they move that way.  I think there's a very small undecided group or even a small group that can be moved by this campaign.  And so we're talking in a very few states, a very few people, and the decision, I think, that the Kerry people have made, which--after much debate, is that you can't move them by talking about outsourcing and health care.  The only issue that can move part of those is Iraq, but he is unwilling or unable to go all the way with a total Dean approach.

MR. RUSSERT:  David Broder, Senator Kerry said that Prime Minister Allawi of Iraq had been contradictory in some of his comments.  One of John Kerry's senior advisers said that Allawi was a puppet.  President Bush quickly responded by saying that shows a lack of steady leadership, it's emboldening the enemy, it's sending the wrong message to our troops.  What kind of exchange is that and how does that resonate with the public?

MR. BRODER:  It was probably a mistake for Senator Kerry to criticize Prime Minister Allawi while he was in this country.  But the--Tim, on this program three months ago, I said that it was likely that President Bush would find his real opposition not in John Kerry but in the insurgency in Iraq.  And I think that is how it's playing out.  We're heading now for six weeks before our election.  Everything that the general said, everything we're told, is that we can expect increased fighting, increased violence, in that period of time. The American people are much more likely to react to their sense of what's happening on the ground in Iraq than they are to the rhetoric on either side of this question.

MR. RUSSERT:  Rather than Florida, Florida, Florida, it's Iraq, Iraq, Iraq?

MR. BRODER:  I think so.

MR. RUSSERT:  There's been an interesting turn and twist in the campaign cycle this year, and that is the so-called independent committees, 527 campaign funds.  One is The Media Fund, sponsored by the Democrats.  This is their latest offering.

(Videotape, The Media Fund ad):

Announcer #3:  And even though 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, are Bush and the Saudis too close for comfort?

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  And Republicans have bankrolled something called Progress for America, which makes this suggestion.

(Videotape, Progress For America Voter Fund ad):

Announcer #4:  These people want to kill us.  Would you trust Kerry up against these fanatic killers?

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Pretty strong stuff, Bill Safire.

MR. SAFIRE:  Yes.  And usually supported by or financed by multimillionaires or billionaires.  And the Republicans are way behind the Democrats in this race to spend huge sums on television by outside groups.  And finally the Republicans are getting together and saying, "Hey, we can't let this happen," and belatedly they're trying to catch up.  Can you imagine a year ago saying that the Democrats would be outspending the Republicans in this campaign?

MR. RUSSERT:  But is it right to show pictures of Mohammad Atta, one of the hijackers, and Osama bin Laden, and say that John Kerry will not stand up to them?  Or is it right to say that George Bush is a pawn of the Saudis?

MR. SAFIRE:  Is it right to be dramatic and powerful in a television commercial?  When do you go over the top?  And for everybody, it's a different--it's a fuzzy line.  But as Potter Stewart once said in regard to obscenity, you know it when you see it.

MR. RUSSERT:  Did you see it there?

MR. SAFIRE:  Not quite.  It was up against the line.

MS. GOODWIN:  I don't think it's very helpful, these ads, I mean, whether it's right or wrong, whether they work or not, because they can afford to be more extreme than the candidates themselves can.  Now that the candidates have to stand up and say, "I stand behind this ad," there's a certain kind of moderation in what they're willing to put out.  But such serious issues are at stake right now that I'd much rather see it hard-hitting without those kind of extreme things like, "Do you really trust him against this thing?"

MR. NOVAK:  It's politics.  It's American politics.  The famous Daisy ad showing Barry Goldwater to be a potential nuclear bomber.  Only showed once, but it was shown...

MS. GOODWIN:  They had to take it off because it was so extreme.

MR. NOVAK:  But, Doris, it was shown on television...

MS. GOODWIN:  Oh, of course.  It was brilliant.

MR. NOVAK:  ...news shows over and over and over again.  To say it was only shown once means they only paid for it once.  But I will say this, that the McCain-Feingold has got to be one of the greatest failures of a piece of legislation, bipartisan, signed by a Republican president, that I've ever seen.  The idea that it was going to get these billionaires out of there is not true.  The idea was going to make it responsible because you have Bush and Kerry saying "I paid for this."  It's very hard to limit free speech.  And frankly, I don't see anything wrong with these ads.  The American people can sift through it, decide what's important and what's not, and I am not even critical of it.  I think those ads are fine.

MR. RUSSERT:  What do you think, David?

MR. BRODER:  Voters have a pretty good filter system for things that are exaggerated and over the top, and I think they will sort out and get to the essentials.  There is a reality check for Americans in this situation.  We are dealing with a real war that's taking place in real time, and that is what ultimately, I think, will control.

MS. GOODWIN:  The only problem with that is that if the newspapers follow up the ads for weeks, as they did with the Swift Boat ads against John Kerry, then momentum in a campaign can be lost if the ad isn't truthful, and then it becomes part of the story.  I agree with you, the voters can figure it out, but it becomes part of the story for a long period of time, and it may not be true.

MR. RUSSERT:  Before we take a break, I want to show something that Bob Novak wrote in his column on Monday, talk about it:  "Inside the Bush administration policymaking apparatus, there is strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year.  This determination is not predicated on success in implanting Iraqi democracy and internal stability.  Rather, the officials are saying: Ready or not, here we go."

Bob, that totally contradicts President Bush's public comments that we're going to stay the course until we have a secure democratic Iraqi state.

MR. NOVAK:  Certainly it does, doesn't it?  The--I get that.  My sources are not the dreadful State Department, CIA bureaucrats.  They are political appointees, conservatives.  Strong feeling that the American people cannot tolerate the beheadings.  They cannot tolerate the losses.  And checking with the Kerry people, they will say the same thing.

I use the word "blather" in the column on what is being said about this in the campaigns.  In the political campaign, 30-odd days from the election, you're not going to tell the truth about these things.  But if you notice this past week, Donald Rumsfeld, hard-liner amidst all hard-liners, said troops are going to start leaving after the election.  That's not quite what I said, but the idea that we are going to be taking casualties of American troops in there on an indefinite basis, I think, defies reality.  And I really do believe that that is--this is a problem for the Iraqis.  The thing I also said in that column, Tim, was that getting rid of Saddam Hussein protected us and protected the region, but after Saddam Hussein was gone, what kind of country it's going to be is up to the Iraqis, not us.

MR. RUSSERT:  Bill Safire, United States withdrawing from Iraq next year?

MR. SAFIRE:  I talked to some of the same people that Bob does, and some of them are saying we've got to get out of there one of these days next year. But the majority that I speak to reflect the president's view that we'll stay as long as we have to stay, and because we're in this to win, and we're not in this to draw.  And I think that is the clear difference between the candidates this year.  Kerry wants out and to turn things over to the U.N., and Bush wants to win.  And as Abizaid pointed out at the top of the program, winning in this situation will change the entire Middle East.  And I think we shouldn't run away from the real choice that we've got here.  And the real choice between Kerry and Bush is between--I wouldn't say cutting and running, but settling and removing and...

MS. GOODWIN:  I don't think that's fair.  I mean, I think that what Kerry is trying to say is that because Bush has not been willing to acknowledge mistakes over time, because he hasn't been willing to look at what worked and what didn't work because of that stubborn drivingness forward, there's no chance for the situation to change and turn over there.  And perhaps if a new president gets in that's willing to look at what happened, what went wrong, you can't be in a position of saying, "We're just going to get out."  He's not really saying that.  If he does, he's not going to win.  But I think what he's saying is that we need the kind of leadership that can absorb what went wrong, change it and make a fresh start.

MR. SAFIRE:  But, Doris, the clear impression you get from Kerry is that he is different from Bush, that he's going to follow a different policy from Bush, and Bush's policy, contrary to what you hear from some of the insiders in the Pentagon, is to win this war.

MS. GOODWIN:  Well, his has to be that, too, but he has to show he's going to do it differently.

MR. RUSSERT:  We have to take a quick break.  We want to come back and talk about the debate that's coming up on Thursday.  More of our roundtable right after this.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Let's look back at some presidential debates.  1960, here's Kennedy-Nixon, John Kennedy looking poised and relaxed as the press reports--Richard Nixon sweating on his chin there.  Then we had the famous debate with Michael Dukakis when he was asked the following question by Bernard Shaw of CNN.

(Videotape, October 13, 1988):

MR. BERNARD SHAW (CNN):  Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS, (D-MA):  No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life.  I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Largely criticized for his matter-of-fact response rather than showing emotion about his wife being attacked.  Then this is the famous zinger in the vice presidential debate, Lloyd Bentsen, Dan Quayle.

(Videotape, October 5, 1988):

MR. LLOYD BENTSEN:  Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy.  I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine.  Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we all remember, after the first debate, concern about Ronald Reagan's age.  He responded with humor in the second debate.

(Videotape, October 21, 1984):

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

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  David Broder, what do we look for Thursday night?

MR. BRODER:  A startling contrast in styles between John Kerry, who has a lot to say in complicated ways about every subject, and George Bush.  The headline in the Traverse City Record-Eagle after George Bush's appearance there this summer was a quote from Bush about himself:  "a plainspoken fella."  And that's the contrast that we will see.

MR. RUSSERT:  Bill Safire?

MR. SAFIRE:  We saw in the debate negotiations something very interesting. The back-runner, the one who's behind, wanted the most number of debates; they wanted three debates.  The front-runner always wants fewer debates.  And so we wound up with three.  But what did the Bush people get?  There won't be any direct questioning between the two candidates because that's how Kerry could trap Bush, with a loaded question.  So if Bush is going in not to lose and Kerry is in going having to win, that's the dynamic we're in now.

MR. RUSSERT:  Doris?

MS. GOODWIN:  Well, my guess is if Kerry is practicing anything now, it's practicing how to be plainspoken.  I think he's not going to be this prolix character.  He wouldn't even use the word "prolix" probably.  But I think what's so interesting about those pieces we just saw is that what works in a debate is when there's a vulnerable issue that the candidate already has and the other guy can zing right into it:  the fact that Nixon looked shifty and looked sweaty, we worried about that part of him; the fact that people worried about Reagan's age, and he countered so brilliantly in that zing; the fact that we thought that Reagan--that Dukakis, rather, was passionless, he never even mentioned Kitty Dukakis, whom he loved.  She'd just been murdered and raped in the question, and somehow he forgot to mention her.

So I think what we're going to look for here is the vulnerability of the flip-flopping on Kerry's side.  Can Bush drive that home?  The fact that Bush hasn't acknowledged mistakes--can Kerry drive that home?  They're each going to be looking to exploit that because, otherwise, the comic line like Bentsen used that's fun for theater; that didn't influence anybody's vote.  In fact, right after that Quayle said, "That was uncalled for," and there was a feeling that Quayle held his own by staying cool under that pressure.

MR. RUSSERT:  I remember so well when President Bush was in the debate in 1992 and looking at his watch.  It was seen as a metaphor, fairly or unfairly, that he had been disengaged and not focusing on the economy.

MS. GOODWIN:  Oh, exactly.  In fact, that came right at the same time where somebody had asked a question about, "How does the debt affect you powerful people?"  And he just said, "I don't get it."  What she really meant was how does the recession--and then Clinton, of course, with his empathy, goes out, "I understand what you're feeling," and he won it at that moment.

MR. NOVAK:  Tim, with the exception of the very first presidential debate in 1960, when Kennedy showed he could stand up to Nixon--people were wondering if he was too inexperienced, too callow to come up against Nixon--usually these debates do not have a theme that carries over.  Debates tend to be very tedious.  There are a lot of details.  People are turned off.  Their mind wonders.  And it's these little unpredictable incidents that have the impact.

I think the most important impact in a presidential debate was the Ford-Carter debate when Gerry Ford got mixed up in his language and gave the impression that he didn't know that the Soviet government controlled Poland, an absolute disaster, which he took too long to correct.  I think the most important thing of the 2000 debates was when Al Gore wandered into George W. Bush's space. Big mistake.  So they can rehearse and talk and get their plans, and it's these little unexpected incidents that sometimes do change the votes.

MS. GOODWIN:  That's why we like the debates.

MR. NOVAK:  Yes.

MR. SAFIRE:  And right here in this studio, 45 years ago, is where the second Kennedy-Nixon debate took place.  And here we are with these ghosts in the room.

MR. RUSSERT:  And legend has it that Robert Kennedy turned up the thermostat in order to make it warmer and cause Nixon to sweat.  Do you believe that?

MS. GOODWIN:  I wouldn't be surprised.

MR. SAFIRE:  I wouldn't be surprised at all.

MR. RUSSERT:  David?  Big debate, big moment Thursday?

MR. BRODER:  I'm--what did you say?

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think Thursday's a big event in this campaign?

MR. BRODER:  They will be a big event, because people are still trying to figure out who John Kerry is, and that's unusual at this stage of the game.

MR. RUSSERT:  We have to leave it there.  We'll be right back.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  We'll be back next week.  We continue our MEET THE PRESS Senate Debate series with the battle in Oklahoma, Democratic Congressman Brad Carson versus former Republican Congressman Tom Coburn.  The Oklahoma debate, plus the latest in the race for the White House.

That's next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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