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Lee Atwater on the 1984 Campaign

August 23, 1984 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow the Republicans go forth from this place called Dallas to try and win an election. If it were today, say most polls and pundits, it would be a snap: Reagan-Bush over Mondale-Ferraro in an easy and overwhelming walk. But it isn’t and much can happen between now and November 6th, and one of those in charge of making sure all that happens for Reagan-Bush is good is Lee Atwater, the campaign’s deputy director and political director. Before joining the campaign, he was deputy assistant to the President for political affairs. Mr. Atwater is at the convention center Mr. Atwater, is there any quesfion of the lead that the Reagan-Bush ticket has over Mondale-Ferraro tonight?

LEE ATWATER: Well, we’re certainly pleased to be where we are in the polls. I’d certainly rather be – see the President’s position here than elsewhere at this time. But we are at the same time not going to get cautious or overconfident. Complacency and apathy are the two big demons for us in this campaign in my judgment, so we’re not going to take anything for granted.

JIM LEHRER: Everybody talks about that – complacency is the enemy. Why is complacency the enemy? If you’ve got the thing made and people are voting on the basis that Reagan-Bush is better than Mondale-Ferraro, how can complacency hurt?

Mr. ATWATER: Well, I’ll tell you how it can. I’ve probably been in 15 states in the last six or eight weeks, and people know that I’m working for the campaign and so forth. And they’ll come up and joke with you and say, “Well, you know, you don’t have to work hard this year. It looks like you all have it made. And you all haven’t got much of a campaign out there.” And the point is, is that that kind of apathy and complacency can create a situation in which a lot of people that are supporting you just say, “Well, it’s no use to go out to the polls this year.” So we’ve got to make sure that our people understand that this is a very important election and that their vote and their support and their hard work is very important to us.

JIM LEHRER: Well, how do you do that? How do you go about keeping people interested in a race that is supposed to be a shoo-in?

Mr. ATWATER: Well, very fortunately for us, we have a candidate named Ronald Reagan who I think is the most exciting political candidate in the last two decades. And 80 million American homes will see him this evening and he, better than anything or anyone we have in our campaign, will keep our troops excited and keep our message out there. At the same time, our job in the organizational part of the campaign is to make sure that our phone banks are cranking and that our voter registration drive is going full force. Our state chairmen, our state organizations are out there popping and cracking for the campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Is the President going to use what is called the Rose Garden strategy, to be the President and presidential and come out to the Rose Garden and make announcements and kind of stay above it all?

Mr. ATWATER: No, he certainly isn’t. And as you have seen for the last three years, he’s never stayed in the Rose Garden even while he’s been a President not in a campaign. He really is the type of person that likes to get out there with the people, and he’s been traveling outside of the White House in my three years there at least once a week already. And he’ll be traveling extensively. He has never taken a Rose Garden approach to his presidency and he’s certainly not going to take a Rose Garden approach to the campaign. He loves to be out there with people. And by the same token, they love him.

JIM LEHRER: Both President Reagan and Vice President Bush have already used in their statements, in their speeches, the fact that Mondale-Feffaro are to the left of America, etcetera. Has it sold? Have you gotten anything back? Is that going to be a basic theme of the campaign?

Mr. ATWATER: Well, I think all you have to do is look at the voting records of the Democratic ticket while they-

JIM LEHRER: No, I mean is it working, is what I mean.

Mr. ATWATER: Well, it certainly is. I’m – particularly in the South and the West, where I’ve just been reviewing some data recently. The ticket is much further to the left than any ticket that’s been around for some time. As a matter of fact, particularly in the South, I’ve noticed that actually the numbers at this point – again. I’m not going to get overconfident look clearer between the Reagan campaign and the Mondale campaigns than the Nixon-McGovern race looked down the South during this same time period. And as you remember, by the end of that campaign it was very clear.

JIM LEHRER: Are you going to use that technique particularly against Ferraro with women, say “All right, she may be a woman, but look how liberal she is,” and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera? Is that a big deal there, do you think?

Mr. ATWATER: I don’t particulady think so. I think the big deal is Walter Mondale. He is the candidate that’s running for president. Voters this year, as they have for the past 200 years, will focus on the candidate for president, the issue’s on the presidential level. And I think after all is said and done, it’s going to be Ronald Reagan versus Walter Mondale. And I think the issues are clear, I think the personalities of the campaign are clear, I think Ronald Reagan’s confidence and leadership versus the lack of both of those of Walter Mondale’s are very clear. So I think the focus is going to come right in on the two candidates at the top of the ticket by the end of this campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Is it unfair to characterize the race, as some have already, that it’s going to be a struggle from the Reagan-Bush folks on the one hand to get as many white conservatives out to vote, versus on the Democratic side to get Hispanics and blacks out to vote, and it’s basically a turnout thing and there’s not going to be any changes between now and Election Day?

Mr. ATWATER: No, and I think a lot of people are trying to fan those kind of fires. After all is said and done, I think there’s going to be a good healthy turnout across the board in this election. You have two candidates that are pretty well defined, and I think supporters of each are going to turn out in maybe not record number, but certainly in very healthy numbers. And I do not think that there’ll be any great deal of racial polarization or anything else like that.

JIM LEHRER: Barry Goldwater told Judy Woodruff in an interview a moment ago that we ran a moment ago that the platform that’s coming out of here doesn’t mean a thing. And would you agree, that as a matter of running this campaign, it’s an irrelevant document?

Mr. ATWATER: I wouldn’t say it’s an irrelevant document. I think our platform this year is almost identical to the platform we ran on in 1980. Voters, I do not think, consciously think about platforms as they go to the polls on Election Day. But I think a platform does give an indication, a general indication of where the party’s standing, where the candidates stand. And I think to the extent voters will compare and contrast the two platforms, we’ll come out on top as we did in 1980. In effect, they’re running on the same type of platform they ran on in 1980 when we won a landslide. Theirs is a little more to the left than it was then, and we’re running on almost the identical platform we ran in in 1980.

JIM LEHRER: You wouldn’t suggest that yours is a little more to the right?

Mr. ATWATER: No, I really wouldn’t. As a matter of fact, I kept hearing that, and I had my Washington office send- I certainly don’t carry around a 1980 platform with me, So I had my Washington office send me a platform the day before yesterday and read both of them, and frankly, I’m having an analysis done to find if there’s any real differences-

JIM LEHRER: Did you hear what Senator Goldwater also told Judy, that his advice to President Reagan and Vice President Bush and all of you folks who are going to be running the campaign is never mention Walter Mondale or Geraldine Ferraro at all – leave them alone, ignore them, and just talk about the record. Does that make sense?

Mr. ATWATER: Well, I’ll tell you this. I believe that after all is said and done, to a large extent this election will be a mandate one way or another on President Reagan. Most elections with regards to incumbent presidents are, and I think that’s going to turn out to be very good for us. People are going to know the record, they know our candidate and they know what he’s done. So to the extent we stay on our record and stay concentrating on the positive, upbeat issues as the President presents them, I think we will probably do well.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Mr. Atwater, thank you very much.

Mr. ATWATER: I enjoyed being here.