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Campaign Times: The Impact of Saddam Hussein’s Capture

December 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The seizure of Saddam Hussein has triggered a boost in President Bush’s job approval ratings in several polls taken since Sunday. At the same time, his capture has had a major impact on the Democratic candidates’ rhetoric and tactics.

Here to tell us about that are three New York Times reporters who’ve been covering the Democratic campaigns: Jodi Wilgoren, who’s traveling with Howard Dean; Diane Cardwell, who’s been with Joseph Lieberman; and Adam Nagourney, the Times chief political reporter. Welcome to you all.

Jodi, let me begin with you and Howard Dean, because he’s really ridden his antiwar message to his current front-runner status. How has he dealt with the capture of Saddam Hussein?

JODI WILGOREN: Well, Margaret, first on Sunday when the news first broke, Howard Dean immediately had a news conference, and had very little to say. He congratulated the military, congratulated the Bush administration, said it was a great day for Iraqis and a great day for America, but really would not comment on how it would play in the political race.

The next morning he had a major foreign policy speech planned. And he rewrote that speech to include many longer sections about Iraq. He repeated his congratulations of the military, but he also made a statement that became very controversial. He said that he did not think that the capture of Saddam Hussein had made America safer. He continued to say that while he was campaigning in California, Arizona and New Mexico on Monday and Tuesday. And that’s where he stands now.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Diane, let’s switch to Joe Lieberman, because he wasted no time in using the capture of Saddam Hussein to jump on Howard Dean. Tell us about that.

DIANE CARDWELL: That’s right. On his first day he was saying that, you know, if Howard Dean and to a lesser extent Wes Clark had had their way that Saddam would still be in power rather than in prison. The same day he also spoke very, very strongly, calling for the death penalty essentially even before the man had been tried, even calling for him to go to a court where the death penalty was on the table.

Much of this was in fact aimed at showing how different he is from Howard Dean. And the next day, in response to Dean’s statement that America was no safer, he called a conference call with reporters, to say that Howard Dean, if he truly believed that, had jumped into his own spider hole of denial.

MARGARET WARNER: So Adam Nagourney, then other major rivals of Dean have also jumped into the fray.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: That’s right, with a slightly different attack than Senator Lieberman who is sort of arguing this over the merits of the war. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who both voted for the war resolution, have taken this to what has been certainly for Kerry a more fundamental challenge of Dean, which is they argue that he would be the weakest possible general election candidate against Bush, both because of his opposition to the war, but also because they say he doesn’t have the kind of foreign policy or national security experience that voters will be looking for during this kind of election.

MARGARET WARNER: What about Wesley Clark?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: General Clark has been a little different because first of all he actually opposed the war even though he said he might have voted for the resolution. He was in the Hague for the past couple days and said that therefore he was restrained in what he could say in commenting on this at all and being critical of the president.

So, so far Lieberman is looking at this as sort of a political battle. I think Lieberman has by far done the best job of, I don’t want to say these guys would exploit something like this for political gain, but in exploiting this for political gain.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Jodi, then how has Dean responded to all these attacks?

JODI WILGOREN: Well, Dean has embraced a sort of typical front-runner stance of trying to stay above the fray. When Lieberman not only talked about his — Dean dumping into a “spider hole of denial” but also said the world would be a less safe place if Dean were president, Howard Dean just said I’m not going to respond to these kinds of attacks. This is what voters don’t like about Washington politics. I’ve got a positive message, I’m going to talk about hope, and if they want to talk about this, you know, leave it to them.

So he’s trying to put himself above the whole thing, and also he has as I said before repeated his assertion that it has not made America any safer.

The reporters who are traveling with him yesterday asked him about that. He said that it was his own idea to insert that into the speech, that line into the speech at the last minute, and he feels very strongly that he does not think America is any safer. He thinks the real enemy of America is al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, and he feels that one of the reasons he opposed the war in Iraq, he says, is because he thought it would distract from the search for al-Qaida and for Osama bin Laden. So he’s sticking by his assertion and really refusing to engage in the criticism.

MARGARET WARNER: Diane, as Adam pointed out, carrying Gephardt while they’re attacking Dean, aren’t reembracing their own votes for the war, but Lieberman really is. What makes Lieberman and his advisors think that a pro-war — an aggressive pro-war — stance is a winning message in the Democratic primary universe?

DIANE CARDWELL: Well, part of it, I think they’ve been heartened by the capture of Saddam and some of the more positive feelings that people have about our effort there. In addition, he has been a steadfast supporter of this war, and he believes that national security is going to be one of the core issues that people, Democrats and independents and disgruntled Republicans also vote on, and that he has the strongest most sort of opposite position to Howard Dean on that particular issue, so they’re trying to take advantage of that, to whatever extent they can.

MARGARET WARNER: And I gather that there are also bigger crowds. He’s getting more response than he was two weeks ago?

DIANE CARDWELL: Yes. That’s true. Part of this is also building on the momentum that started for him after the Gore endorsement, which sort of created some anger and some sympathy among voters, and he’s also been trying to capitalize on that. They’ve noticed an up-tick in their fundraising, they have more traffic on their Web site. So they’re feeling right now like they have a kind of momentum and that the Saddam capture builds on that for them.

MARGARET WARNER: Adam, there’s one other element that came up the last couple days in the attack on Howard Dean and that is a new ad attacking Howard Dean on foreign policy. Now, while it doesn’t really mention Saddam Hussein, it’s all in the same vein. Tell us about that.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yes, there’s actually three of them, but the ad you’re talking about shows a picture of Osama bin Laden, and basically argues that the nation would be less safe with President Dean in power.

The ad is being put out by one of these pseudo anonymous shadowy groups that are allowed under loopholes in the campaign finance law. The group has links to people who have links to Rep. Richard Gephardt and to a lesser extent John Kerry.

I think most people would say that these are legitimate criticisms to make about Dean as a general election candidate or even as a primary candidate. A lot of Democrats think that the ads are over the top both because they are so intense — you have to take a look at them — and also because they’re being done anonymously, that if one of Dean’s opponent want to make these criticisms of him, they should just come out and make them.

MARGARET WARNER: Diane, I noticed that Sen. Bob Graham who’s dropped out of the race, but he gave a speech last night and said all these attacks are ultimately just going to weaken the eventual Democratic candidate. Does Lieberman, do the Lieberman folks have any concern about that, or do they just feel that all’s fair in this primary campaign?

DIANE CARDWELL: I think to a certain extent they feel all is fair in this primary campaign, but also they need to win the Democratic primary. They feel they’re waging a campaign against Howard Dean, also against some of the other candidates who are also seeking to be the Dean alternative. Whenever they’re asked about these kinds of, this particular issue, the line they throw out is, you know, we’re not going to write the Republican play book, but we are running a campaign against Howard Dean.

MARGARET WARNER: And Jodi, the people you’re talking to in the Dean campaign, do they feel that this capture of Osama bin Laden is an issue with legs, that really the campaign has turned, or is it just one of these weekly stories that we’re all going to move on from?

JODI WILGOREN: Well, as you know, there’s always a wait and see element in that. I mean it’s clearly been the defining issue in the campaign on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Dr. Dean is down today, doesn’t have any public events, so there’s sort of a break in our cycle.

But I’m, they are hoping it’s not a defining event. They have been in the last couple weeks in general been trying to move away from the Iraq issue and broaden their appeal not only within the Democratic primary but looking forward to a potential general election. They’ve been talking much more about domestic issues. And sort of broader themes, a kind of spiritual theme about alienation from corporate America, is what they’ve been hitting the hardest, and I think that they probably are hoping this will go away and they aren’t convinced that it won’t.

With all these attacks coming from all various quarters, their tactic so far has been not to engage any one of them individually, which I think has served to help them in a way, because it makes it all defined as sort of anti-Dean attacks, which keeps the other candidates in a muddle and keeps Dean as the focus. So while they are being attacked and they’re concerned about that, I think they’re sitting as the front-runner.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Adam, the strategists you’re talking to, do they think this is a defining moment, a defining shift, this capture?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Well, it could be, this has been, I mean this whole year has been all this back and forth. One thing I think people will remember. … First of all, Dean’s supporters are not going to move away from him now because of this or change their opinion about the war because Saddam has been captured. In fact, some polling shows that people’s opinions really haven’t changed about the rightness of the war in the first place.

I do think that the speech that Jodi covered the other day, when Dean made the remark that America is not any safer because Saddam has been captured, when I see a quote like that, you can just see it on a television screen — white type against a black background or against the image of Saddam being taken out of that hole. I think that was probably a moment that Dean might come to regret — in terms of a general election campaign.

In terms of the primary, I think it’s given some new life to guys like Lieberman and perhaps Kerry and Gephardt, these sort of antiwar candidates, excuse me, pro-war candidates, whose candidacies have been hobbled because of their vote last year on the Iraq resolution.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all three very much.