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Campaign Plans

February 23, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now, two senior campaign officials join us to offer their probably conflicting opinions of what happened last night and what happens next. Mike Murphy is chief strategist for Arizona Senator John McCain, and Ari Fleischer is a senior adviser to Texas Governor George W. Bush.

Mike Murphy, Governor Bush said today that Senator McCain hijacked the Michigan primary. I bet it looks that way to a lot of Republicans today.

MIKE MURPHY: Oh, I don’t think so. It sounds like sour grapes to me. The Bush campaign is under a lot of pressure, having lost now three out of four contests where they went head to head with our campaign and Senator McCain’s message. A year ago, George W. Bush started his campaign with the argument that he could attract Latinos, he could attract Democrats, he could attract independents, and build a bigger, stronger, winning coalition. The fact is Senator McCain is attracting those voters because McCain’s message of conservative reform is stronger.

GWEN IFILL: Ari Fleischer?

ARI FLEISCHER: The trick to winning in this business is to unify the parties and reach out across the center. Governor Bush is unifying Republicans and reaching out across the center. John McCain so far has unified Democrats as he reached across the center. Let me read to you something that came out this afternoon from Senator Tom Daschle, the Minority Leader of the Senate. He said, “Arizona Senator John McCain is doing the country and Democrats a real service by cutting up Republican front-runner George W. Bush and proving a Democrat-style agenda can win,” said Daschle. That’s what we’re up against. We’re up against somebody who’s doing a great job with Democrats, not such a good job with Republicans.

GWEN IFILL: Ari, let me ask you about what happened in Michigan last night. Have you forever banned the word “firewall” from your vocabulary?

ARI FLEISCHER: Well, I never said that word, and I hope –

GWEN IFILL: Governor John Engler certainly did – one of your big supporters.

ARI FLEISCHER: Well, we think when we run for reelection, then he’s going to do a great job for us up there, and we’re going to take Michigan in 2005. But, listen, let me mention something, because here’s what’s taken place in Michigan. We won the Republican and the independent vote combined. If you add up those groups, you could beat John McCain by four points.

It was thanks to the Democrats who turned out in huge numbers, because there was no “for Bradley” race on the ticket that John McCain was able to best us. The problem is that when Democrats don’t have anything better to do, they vote in our primaries. The calendar is going to turn soon against Senator McCain. The races are now going to be open and more increasingly, to Republicans, independents only, no Democrats. And in the five states that will permit Democrat participation you’re going to have a Gore/Bradley race on the ticket, and that’s John McCain’s worst nightmare.

GWEN IFILL: Mike Murphy, Ari Fleischer does make an interesting point. Exactly – John McCain talked today about reassembling a Republican coalition. What does reassembling mean, and what does he now say to Republicans, other than, I’m Ronald Reagan?

MIKE MURPHY: Well, what’s happened here is the Bush campaign – because they have such a message problem – can’t attract voters. They can’t attract a coalition that will ever beat Al Gore, which is why the polls show McCain beating Gore and Bush not, and decide to put a big barbed wire fence around the country club wing of the Republican Party and say that’s it, we’re locking the door. What John McCain is trying to do is build a conservative Reagan coalition of Republicans, conservative independents and Democrats.

That’s what we did in Michigan; that’s what’s winning. And so now what’s incumbent upon our campaign is to not let the Republican establishment go out – which the Bush campaign is trying to do, and fool rank and file Republicans about John McCain’s conservative record.

The fact is on spending, on national defense, on many issues he’s somewhat more conservative than Governor Bush. I’d also add that some of these closed primaries that Ari’s counting on are primaries right now where the latest polls show John McCain ahead or tied – New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts. There is no question the real problem here is a message problem. Governor Bush’s campaign is having trouble getting people to vote for him, so you hear all these process excuses about, oh, they’re not letting people in, or they’re secret Democrats.

The fact is the exit polls show that John McCain is an extremely strong general election candidate and all we have to do now is make sure the smokescreen to Republicans is not put up by the Bush campaign, get our numbers up there a little bit, and then we’re clearly going to be the Republican nominee.

GWEN IFILL: But, Ari, obviously some Republicans in a lot of states thought that George W. Bush was a candidate who was speaking to Republicans. What happened to your bounce, though, coming out of South Carolina?

ARI FLEISCHER: Well, I think there really wasn’t much time for a bounce, and I think in this business bounces are sometimes obviously a little over rated. But what did take place in Michigan vis-à-vis Senator McCain and Governor Bush, the governor won Republicans in Michigan with the same numbers that he won Republicans in South Carolina. He has a huge appeal. He’s the only one in this race that can unite Republicans. Even in Midwestern multi-ethnic states he has appealed to Republicans in the South, Republicans in the Midwest, throughout the country. In New Hampshire, Senator McCain – to his credit – got 37 percent of the Republican vote. And then he plunged. He only got – he got less than 30 percent of Republican voters in South Carolina, less than 30 percent in Michigan. The difference between a Reagan coalition of Ronald Reagan and John McCain’s is Ronald Reagan’s coalition included Republicans. John McCain’s coalition has few to any Republicans. And that’s the difference. And that’s why I think Senator McCain is going to have a very hard time winning this nomination.

GWEN IFILL: Ari, if a group of governors came to you and said let’s put an end to these open primaries, would you support that?

ARI FLEISCHER: No. Governor Bush supports the open primaries. Texas is an open primary state and the governor welcomes the participation of independents and others into the primary. The difference is though, Gwen, again to win, you need to build a base and rally your party and then reach out across the center and welcome newcomers and young people into the Republican Party. The governor carried young people in the state of Michigan. Senator McCain’s success has been predicated upon a Democrat base, which he then uses to reach across the center. He does well with independents but the point is we do well enough with independents and Republicans that we’ll be able to prevail in the upcoming primaries unless, of course, again, the Democrats tip the balance to Senator McCain.

GWEN IFILL: Mike Murphy, we heard John McCain talking last night about what a conservative he is. If he is such a conservative and he can sell that message to voters, why is it that he is attracting the majority of voters who say, for instance, they favor abortion rights?

MIKE MURPHY: Well, I want to address one of Ari’s points first. If you look at the map on this, what really happened in Michigan were 72% of the voters were the normal Republican voting electorate and 28% were these new voters that Ari says Governor Bush is supposed to attract. The fact is we ran competitively at the 72% or typical Republican primary voters, about a single digit difference, maybe about 10 points….

ARI FLEISCHER: — of Michigan …

GWEN IFILL: Just one minute, Ari. Let Mike finish.

MIKE MURPHY: You’re misinterpreting the exit poll; I’ll send it to you. 28% were voting in their first Republican primary ever. 72% were people who had voted in Republican primaries before. I’ve done all of Governor Engler’s election. I’ve done Spence Abraham’s elections. I know Michigan politics. And what you saw in John McCain was a coalition that wins Michigan. What you saw in Governor Bush on primary day was a narrow country club slice of the Republican party that’s a sure loser in November. But to get to your larger point about why John McCain …

GWEN IFILL: Wait a second. Let Ari respond first.


ARI FLEISCHER: If you combine the Republican and the independent vote, Governor Bush would have won Michigan. He would have had a four-point win over John McCain.

MIKE MURPHY: I don’t agree …

ARI FLEISCHER: And that’s the way the numbers work out. It was thanks to the Democrats. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having the Democrats support John McCain. That’s to his credit and that’s his prerogative. The point I’m making is it’s not sustainable. Because of the calendar and the math, as soon as the primaries turn to states where Democrats are not allowed to participate in Republican primaries, remember Republicans don’t exactly participate in Democrat primaries. When the Democrats can no longer participate, I think Senator McCain’s day is going to quickly close. He’s hit his high-water mark.

GWEN IFILL: Mike, please talk about what is happening with the voters that you have to convince, but also respond to the issue about the incredibly steep hill you now have to try to negotiate.

MIKE MURPHY: Well, I’m not sure it’s that steep. I think the Bush strategy is to try to control the outcome by controlling the process. That’s what they tried to do it with the New York ballot where they wanted to keep McCain off the ballot, so instead of a fair election where people choose, they try to control it. If you look at who’s conservative and who’s not, John McCain is the hero of fighting pork barrel spending in Washington.

Governor Bush has a record of being a big-spending Republican, increasing spending over the last five years by 36%, almost twice the rate that Bill Clinton and the Democrats increased federal spending. We think that the conservatives are going to look at McCain and see his record on the military, his record on spending cuts; they’re going to see his strong ideas about what sort of foreign policy we ought to have and his message of campaign reform and they’re going to say, you know, this is our guy. He has a strong conservative voting record.

And we can win; we can beat Al Gore and we can save the House from Speaker Gephardt. They’re going to look at Governor Bush and say, my, that’s a lot of spending, this guy is a little untested. He can’t seem to win any election. I think that’s a strong contrast for us. And you’re going to see our numbers go up with Republicans as this campaign gets really …

GWEN IFILL: Perhaps it’s an overstatement to say George Bush hasn’t been winning any elections. But, Ari, what about the general relax polling match-ups right now which show that McCain seems to be the stronger candidate against Al Gore?

ARI FLEISCHER: Well, the governor continues to beat Al Gore. So Mike’s statement earlier that Governor Bush can’t beat Al Gore is not held up by the polls. And, again, we think what’s going to happen is as soon as the governor secures the nomination, many of those independents who are genuinely drawn to Senator McCain’s candidacy will face the choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and they’re going to come right back home to Governor Bush.

GWEN IFILL: Mike, an interesting thing coming up in California. 162 delegates are at stake, but it’s a beauty contest, which means that people can vote for him. McCain could conceivably win the popular vote but lose all the delegates. What do you do if that happens?

MIKE MURPHY: Well, I think then we show that McCain is the strongest candidate because he got the most votes, although clearly our strategy is to focus on the part of the primary that is closed to Republicans only and get those delegates. We feel very, very successful there. Again, in the closed primary in Connecticut where only Republicans vote, in Massachusetts and in New York, right now today John McCain is either tied or ahead of Governor Bush. So we’re not intimidated by close primaries. Our goal is to get our positive message of conservative reform out and penetrate the smoke screen that the Bush machine is putting out to fool rank and file Republicans about John McCain’s good, conservative record.

GWEN IFILL: Ari, can we talk about Arizona for a minute? Why did you spend, as reported, $2 million competing in Senator McCain’s home state?

ARI FLEISCHER: Most of that spending Gwen was done early. That was done when it was a much closer race in Arizona. In the wake of New Hampshire, we ratcheted it down a little bit. And that’s the reason why. There was indeed a close race there. And I’m willing to predict to you and make a bet with Murph tonight that Senator McCain’s margin in Arizona is going to be nowhere as big as Governor Bush’s margin in Texas. Winning your home state by only about 25 points – that’s not really very good in this business. That’s his home state.

MIKE MURPHY: Do I win the bet if he drops out before Texas? I did the math on this. This is my favorite topic because they have the governor in Arizona and they spent so much money, they bought every voter they got in Arizona the equivalent of a steak dinner.

GWEN IFILL: Mike, where are the next big states that you have to compete?

MIKE MURPHY: Oh, I think New York is very important. I think the New England primaries on March 7th are important, and I think California is very important. And we’re making a full court press there as well as Ohio and the other primaries.

GWEN IFILL: Can you do it with the caps on spending which are in place?

MIKE MURPHY: Well, we are at a disadvantage because we’re working under a spending cap. Governor Bush has massive campaign spending, $80 million – favorite of the special interests who write the big checks, so he can out spend us. But the truth is in all the primaries where the voters chose McCain over Bush we’ve been badly outspent – two, three to one. So, you know, we’re not trying to win the battle of bucks; we’re trying to win the battle of ideas. We have enough money to be competitive, which is what we need.

GWEN IFILL: Ari Fleischer, a final word.

ARI FLEISCHER: Let’s talk a little bit about the battle of ideas because that ultimately is what this comes down to is policy. And I think what you’re going to see now is Senator McCain try to address his Republican problem, attach them to the right. The problem is you can’t call yourself Reaganesque when you leave Bill Clinton’s tax hikes in place. And that’s the biggest difference between the two. The top rates that Bill Clinton put in place John McCain will leave the tax hikes in place. Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have let that happen.

GWEN IFILL: Ari Fleischer, Mike Murphy, you guys be careful out there.

MIKE MURPHY: Thank you, Gwen.

ARI FLEISCHER: Thank you, Gwen.