With only a few days left until the presidential election, the race for the White House is too close to call. Both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry have been barnstorming the battleground states, hoping to attract the estimated 6 percent of voters who remain undecided. Kerry has a reputation as a strong closer, and “Today” host Katie Couric sat down with him for an exclusive interview as the Senator from Massachusetts prepared his final pitch.
Sen. John Kerry: You know it's incredible how you and I, a lot of people, think everybody's swept up by politics every minute. They’re not. They’re trying to pay the bills. They’re trying to get the kids to school. They’re trying to get home and cook a meal and put the kids to bed and hope that they're safe and they don't get a lot of time to sort of think about and watch politics. There’s a whole group of Americans who come to this race in the last minute and that's why closing is important.
Katie Couric: This week Bill Clinton will be joining you on the campaign trail for the first time since his heart surgery. What do you hope [former] President Clinton will bring to the campaign?
Sen. Kerry: Well, obviously I hope he brings strength of health and … just the excitement that Bill Clinton always brings to the campaign trail. This was a very successful president in terms of the policies of our country … people know that: We balanced the budget; we paid down the debt for two years in a row; 6.4 million people were lifted out of poverty; more women came into business ownership; we had equal-pay efforts; we raised the minimum wage for people. All things George Bush has undone or not done. I think that having Bill Clinton remind Americans about the … importance of this choice and what it can mean to the lives of middle-class Americans. Middle-class Americans have been left behind by George Bush.
Couric: [Former] Vice President Gore opted not to have President Clinton campaign on his behalf four years ago. Are you concerned that President Clinton might in fact alienate some voters — because in our latest poll, 38 percent of voters had a somewhat or very negative opinion of him.
Sen. Kerry: I'm running for president, not Bill Clinton. But Bill Clinton’s policies made a difference to the lives of Americans and I want to remind Americans that there are better choices than George Bush is making.
Couric: The election, as you know, according to almost every poll, is extremely tight at this juncture.
Kerry: Yes, so they tell me.
Couric: And we're hearing complaints from both sides about potential voter fraud or irregularities — lawyers are being hired by the dozens. Do you think that America will wake up on November 3 and actually know who the president is?
Sen. Kerry: Yes.
Couric: You're confident of that. Why?
Kerry: Because I think that Americans don't want a repeat of the year 2000. And I think in the end, Americans are going to come out in huge numbers. They know their vote counts and we're going to protect people's right to vote.
Couric: Let me ask you about the politics of fear. Saturday you said the president keeps going around the country trying to scare people, but you have also employed these tactics, one might say, by saying if the president is elected there might be a draft. People might have to work into their 70s or 80s because Social Security could be in jeopardy. You’ve raised the specter of bioterrorism based on the flu-vaccine shortage. So isn't it the pot calling the kettle black to say that the president is scaring the American people?
Sen. Kerry: No, it is profoundly not at all and I’ll tell you why. Because, number one, if we have more of the same policy in Iraq — where we have nine out of 10 of our active-duty divisions either in Iraq, coming back from Iraq, going to Iraq — and you face North Korea, which is now a nuclear threat, and Iran, which is an increasing threat, and you already have a stop loss policy, a back-door draft on your Reserves and your National Guard ... the president has said we're making progress. He’s going to do more of the same in Iraq. So how he's going to do that and get the job done when our own people tell us "You don't have enough troops on the ground," is beyond me. I think that … this is an anxiety that's not been on Social Security, Katie. It’s not my program that's privatizing Social Security. It’s the president's program. He has chosen to do this.
Couric: The Bush campaign is planning to spend the final days of this election saying you are weak on terrorism. Dick Cheney has talked about the fact that you voted against the first Gulf War [and] Saddam Hussein would still be in power, the Soviet Union would still exist if it were up to you. You voted against intelligence funding after the first World Trade Center attack in '93. You don't have the record to be commander in chief, and this weakness invites more terrorism.
Sen. Kerry: Now let me just look you and America in the eye and tell you this. Unlike Dick Cheney and George Bush, I put my life on the line for my country when it counted. I fought for this nation and I defended it as a young man, and I will defend America as president of the United States. I have supported the biggest military budgets in American history. I’ve supported the biggest intelligence budgets in American history. I'm not going to take a second seat to anybody about the passion that I bring to defending America.
Couric: Some voters have said, “Hey, the United States hasn’t been attacked since September 11, George Bush must be doing something right, and we're too nervous to vote for a change at this point in time.” You would say to them?
Sen. Kerry: I would say to them that this administration has told you, George Bush and Dick Cheney have said to you, “It is not a matter of if we're going to be attacked — it’s a matter of when.” This administration has neglected homeland security. Do you know that the president … said he doesn’t know if America will ever be safe. Well, I do know that America will be safe under my leadership.
Couric: But can you really, Senator, make the guarantee, in all honesty…
Sen. Kerry: You bet, because we can win.
Couric: …that America will be safe under all circumstances?
Sen. Kerry: Katie, let me say this to you. We won World War II, we won the Cold War — we know we can do it if we put our minds to it. We haven't done a third of the things we need to do to win the war on terror. I think you can make the world safe if you begin to deal with the problems of not just using your military muscle in certain parts of the world, but also use our concern, power, our ideals [and] reach out and bring our allies to the table.Couric: How important is capturing Osama bin Laden, especially given the fact that Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi is considered the most dangerous man in the world at this point, in terms of killing Americans in Iraq? A story Sunday morning [reported] about 50 Iraqi soldiers were killed [and] he is taking responsibility.
Sen. Kerry: Osama bin Laden is the world's number one terrorist and criminal. He was allowed to escape and regroup and reorganize. He's now in 60 countries around the world and he is the beacon for Zarqawi and for others. This administration had a chance to capture and kill him, and they made the wrong choices and allowed him to escape. I will do a better job of focusing on the real war on terror, which was not in Iraq. The priority is al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi.
Couric: The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, Senator Kerry, said only 51 percent of voters said they felt they knew what you would do when you were elected, compared to 76 percent who think they know what the president would do. Forty-one percent said you didn't have a message. So, right now, can you tell me succinctly, if you had to say what your message to the American people is, what would that be?
Sen. Kerry: I'm going to make America safer and stronger than George Bush has. I’m going to fight a more effective, smarter war on terror. I’m going to bring America’s reputation back in the world, bringing our allies to our side. I will make America stronger at home, providing affordable health care to all Americans and keeping our commitment to jobs that pay more here in America than the jobs that are going overseas, and a tax cut for middle-class Americans. I will fight a more effective war on terror and I will fight for the middle class, something George Bush doesn't do.
Florida is an important swing state that could quite possibly determine who becomes president. Couric starts the second part of the interview by asking the senator what he felt was the most important thing he's learned in this campaign.
Sen. Kerry: First of all, just how amazing the American people are, by and large. In Iowa, people listened with such intensity, and they worked at democracy. They really wanted to know where you stood. And they pulled and pulled before they made a commitment — Theresa and I were both amazed by it. I guess the second thing is just the intensity is more than anybody can describe. Until you do this, you're just not aware of it.
Couric: How do you handle that? I mean do you listen to…
Sen. Kerry: I know.
Couric: …music? Do you exercise? You…
Sen. Kerry: I was…
Couric: …lose a lot of weight?
Sen. Kerry: …exercising.
Couric: You have to eat a lot.
Sen. Kerry: I was exercising like crazy. And the last month has been hopeless, kind of.
Couric: What are you most looking forward to in terms of this ending for you?
Sen. Kerry: Well, I want to win, because … I really believe that I offer America a better choice. I think I can make America safer. I believe I can get our troops back from Iraq in a way that does honor to their service and at the same time fight a more effective war on terror. And I know we can be fairer here at home. We can do a better job at creating better jobs. We can raise people's income. And we can do a better job with our kids — after-school programs, things that matter. I want the chance to do that. This isn't about me. I want the chance to do better for America. We can do better in this country than we're doing today. And we've got to do better on the deficit, on fiscal responsibility. We got a lot of tough choices ahead of us.
Couric: You've been face-to-face with President Bush on a number of occasions, including…
Sen. Kerry: I have.
Couric: The three debates.
Sen. Kerry: Yeah.
Couric: Is there anything about him you admire?
Sen. Kerry: I like him. He's a likeable fellow. I think he's a great family man. I know he loves Laura and his kids enormously. I respect him as a father. I admire the way he stood up after 9/11 and brought the country together. But I disagree with the way he's divided the nation since then. It's been ideological. It's been excessively partisan and political. And we need a president to bring America together. We really do.
Couric: I was surprised in the New York Times Magazine that you said that you had not been changed by 9/11. That's something the president brought up in his radio address this weekend. Do you regret saying that? Because at first blush, one can't imagine not being changed by that day.
Sen. Kerry: I knew that terror was a problem. And I wrote a book about it eight years ago. Having been to war and been through what I went through, it rekindled in me the same kind of responses. But it didn't change. It made me intent on winning. That was something that I knew as a response to the war I fought in — that we have to win.It's not disrespectful. I know what we went through as a nation. But personally, I knew exactly what we needed to do and how we needed to do it. And that's why I've been so frustrated by the choices the president made.
I would never have asked Afghans to go into the mountains to get Osama bin Laden. I would have used every American troop possible, surrounded those mountains, used every device at our disposal, to guarantee that that guy either never walked out of there or he walked out of there in American chains. We didn't do that, and now the world is less safe. So I had a sense of purpose that I would have implemented differently from the president.