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Battling It Out

March 8, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Now the road ahead as seen by two campaign insiders. Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci was an early Bush supporter. And Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel was one of four U.S. senators backing McCain.

Senator Hagel, is John McCain’s campaign over?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, you heard what Senator McCain said, he will make an announcement very soon as to where we go from here.

RAY SUAREZ: And is there anything to be gained if he, as we just heard him say, wants to keep up the crusade to reform politics — is there anything to be gained by playing out the string with the remaining primaries?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I don’t think you’ll see that happen. Obviously I can’t speak for Senator McCain, but John McCain, when he began this very significant uphill fight — because he believes in things, making this country better, making politics more accountable, elevating the debate — will continue to do exactly what he said he would do. He won’t put– and that is, making this a more accountable process. He won’t drag the country and the party through the high drama and theater of saying we should stay in it to tilt at windmills. Obviously the mathematics are fairly obvious. And it’s going to be pretty difficult for John McCain to go on and collect enough delegates to be the nominee.

RAY SUAREZ: But can retiring part of the package of retiring from the field be an assurance that his issues will get some airing, either in the Republican platform or in the convention in August?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well I think the fact is — and surely Governor Bush understands this — in order for the Republicans to win in November and beat Al Gore, we are going to need both the Bush and McCain forces. You know, what John McCain has been able to do is attract and appeal to vast numbers of new voters across the political spectrum, all over America, and we’re going to need that. I think Governor Bush understands that. So to bring back together Bush and McCain personally and their forces with a reform agenda is, I think, a winning combination, and we’ve seen that throughout the primary.

RAY SUAREZ: Governor Cellucci, from the other campaign’s perspective, how do you assess the impact of John McCain’s candidacy?

GOV. PAUL CELLUCCI: Well, I agree with Senator Hagel. I think it’s important that Governor Bush get Senator McCain’s support. He’s brought thousands and thousands of people into the process, a record turnout in my state, in the Massachusetts Republican primary. Two-thirds of the voters were independents — a lot of Democrats who actually had to change their party affiliation more than a month ago so they could vote in the Republican primary. We want to keep those people in the Republican column.

I think what Senator McCain has done is he’s brought these people in. I think it’s a sign of his personal appeal, his record as a war hero, his pushing of reform, but I also think it has something to do with dissatisfaction with the Democratic candidates. I think it’s part of this Clinton fatigue that we see around the country. To see it in a state like Massachusetts, which is Bill Clinton’s best state, they say, thousands and thousands of Democrats and independents chose not to participate in the Democratic primary, chose not to vote for Al Gore or Bill Bradley. They chose to vote for Senator McCain. I think that’s something that Senator McCain has brought to the Republican Party. I think it’s going to help us in the fall. I think it’s good news for the Republicans and bad news for the Democrats.

RAY SUAREZ: And you think you can keep these people in November, that this wasn’t a one-time only, McCain-driven….

GOV. PAUL CELLUCCI: We’re going to have to work at it because we have a good shot because they’re not satisfied with the Democratic candidates otherwise they would have voted in the Democratic primary.

And I think if Governor Bush talks about what he has done in Texas, as the dust settles here, one thing we can be pretty sure of: Al Gore is the Washington insider and George W. Bush is the outsider in this race. He’s coming from Texas. He’s not part of the Washington establishment. He has got a record as a reformer in Texas. He talked passionately in that debate with Senator McCain last week about what he’s done to improve the public schools of Texas, ending social promotion, insisting on high standards and accountability in the schools in Texas. He wants to insist on that in schools all across this country. This is an issue that these independents and Democrats who voted for Senator McCain yesterday in Massachusetts will agree with, and I think they will agree with Governor Bush.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Hagel, earlier in the program maybe you heard Robert Reich talk about Democrats kissing and making up. This is a race that got pretty rough at times. Will it be as easy, even possible, to kiss and make up on the Republican side?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, primaries are always a tough business, and we understand that. But I would say our primary was rather tepid comparing it to the Democrats. We didn’t have anything quite like the Al Sharpton, high-drama at the Apollo Theater a couple weeks ago like the Democrats did when it was almost a blow-for-blow presentation. We will come back together as a party because we believe in things. We know that the objective is to take back the White House, take back the government, restore some dignity and honesty and what’s best and what’s right for this country. That’s the objective. And I think when you harness that energy and that passion and emotion that we’ve seen over the last six months in the Republican primary — and we can do that — then we’ll win in November.

RAY SUAREZ: In defeat, does John McCain still have enough clout if he leaves the field now to have some say about the tone of the remaining months of the campaign, all the way to November from the Republican side?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I think we have to understand something here. We have two newly established leaders in the Republican Party; one is Governor Bush. The other is Senator McCain. These two men have earned it. They have fought for it. They’ve been down on the floor and on the battlefield and in the arena. And, together, they will lead the Republican Party. They will form the agenda. Yes, John McCain’s influence in effect, in leadership can be felt all the way through. Let’s not forget, he’s still a United States senator. He still is a national figure. He is a man who has injected himself into national politics. He is still a man highly regarded and respected across this country who has brought in hundreds of thousands of voters. So, yes, he is going to be a rather potent force well into the next few years in American politics.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Governor Bush has suggested, Governor Cellucci, that he’s not going to trim his sails or change direction. But when you see the message of some of these various primaries like the one in your own state of Massachusetts, how do you incorporate that into what you’re doing when staying on course?

GOV. PAUL CELLUCCI: I think you have to talk about some of the things that Governor Bush has been talking about. You talk about high standards and accountability for our schools. You talk about cutting taxes so that families will have more money and taking money out of Washington because after all it’s not the government’s money. It’s the taxpayers’ money. Governor Bush has been very consistent about those messages. And he’ll continue to be consistent. I know he likes Senator McCain. And I believe that they will work together to help get the White House back for the Republicans this fall.

The other thing I’ll say is this campaign has been good for Governor Bush. He had a very tough competitor in Senator McCain. There were questions as to whether he was tough enough, whether he was a heavyweight. Well, he took some pretty good hits. He got knocked down. He dusted himself off. He got up and fought back. I think his stature as a candidate has improved dramatically. I think he’s a much stronger candidate for our party because of the strong challenge that Senator McCain presented. I think they will work together to win the white house for the Republicans this fall.

RAY SUAREZ: Governor Cellucci, Senator Hagel, thank you both.