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Terror Threats Could Affect Voters

August 3, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: And joining me are two men who are well-schooled in the art of how politics and policy intersect: Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta.

Mr. Panetta, which candidate, they’re both talking about these issues, which candidate would you say benefits most from headlines, which are dominated by discussions about terrorism?

LEON PANETTA: Any time you have a terrorism threat, any time you have an alert and people are concerned and anxious about their security, generally that would favor the incumbent. It would favor the President.

I don’t know that’s all that true this time around because you have the 9/11 Commission report, which came out, which indicated that government was responsible for the failure that took place on Sept. 11, and indeed made recommendations as to reforms that had to be taken place.

But at the same time, I think any time you do get any kind of orange alert or any kind of terror alert, I think the fact is people do worry about it, and they worry about the present.

They don’t necessarily focus on the future. And that generally tends to favor the incumbent.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Gingrich, advantage incumbent?

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, I think there’s an advantage to President George W. Bush because he has done so many different things.

I mean, Sen. Kerry was going through that list of 2002, 2003. Well, the average American knows that in 2002, with President Bush’s leadership, we were replacing the Taliban in Afghanistan and setting the stage to hunt down al-Qaida.

They know that in 2003 we were moving forward across the world in the global war on terrorism and replacing Saddam Hussein’s regime.

And they know that in 2004 Libya has given up its weapons of mass destruction. So the President has an argument with history on his side, and I think on the other hand, that Sen. Kerry’s right to understand that if he can’t prove he’s adequate to be commander-in-chief, he will lose badly because in a time of fear, in a time when we have real enemies who hate us and want to kill us, having a strong commander-in-chief is a minimum for the American people and they’ll insist people meet that test or they’ll simply rule them out.

GWEN IFILL: Since both of you gentlemen follow politics, I know that you’ve been reading so much that’s been written about the lack of a bounce coming out of the last week’s convention in Boston, Democratic Convention.

Yet inside one of these polls, the Washington Post poll, when they asked which person would better handle, do a better job of handling terrorism, last week the President was leading by 18 points.

This week his lead shrunk to three points. Mr. Gingrich, what do you think that means?

NEWT GINGRICH: I think it means it’s an anomaly in the poll. You have a dozen polls; you have a dozen different numbers. And there are a lot of statistical variations.

I would be very surprised, because I agree with what Leon said a minute ago, the commander-in-chief just has all sorts of psychological advantages.

Leon remembers in 1996 when President Clinton was running for reelection and Sen. Dole was running against him, even though Sen. Dole was a highly decorated war hero of World War II, he just couldn’t make a dent in the commander-in-chief model.

And they saw the gap widen all through September and October because of that.

GWEN IFILL: So Mr. Panetta, all that talk last week about strength and wisdom and security from the podiums in Boston and the parades of generals, you don’t think that helped John Kerry?

LEON PANETTA: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question it helped John Kerry. I think the whole focus of the convention was to convey John Kerry as an individual who would defend our national security, would be a strong leader.

You can’t look at that convention and the number of veterans that were there, the format of the speech was basically focusing on his military record. All of that was aimed at improving his image as a leader in this country. And I think the polls reflect that.

So the question will now be whether the President coming back in their convention can basically reassert his leadership as commander-in-chief. You know, to look at the polls right now, it’s pretty much a draw between President Bush and John Kerry with regards to the leadership quotient.

And that is saying a lot when you’ve got an incumbent President who is in trouble at least with regards to a draw on the issue of leadership.

GWEN IFILL: Have we reached the point in a time when terror alerts are still coming out every day, still post-9/11 reverberations, where the threat of terrorism has eclipsed, say, an issue like the economy in the voter’s mind, Mr. Panetta?

LEON PANETTA: I don’t think there’s any question that every time these terrorism alerts come out, the American people are reminded of what happened on Sept. 11.

Their security becomes a matter of concern — about where they’re traveling, where they’re going, what’s happening to the economy, what’s happening to a city like Washington, what’s happening to a city like New York.

These are real concerns for people, and there’s no question that every time those alerts come out, it detracts from the other issues that the candidates are talking about.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Gingrich, how about that? Is it a bigger deal than the economy in voters’ minds?

NEWT GINGRICH: When people are reminded that al-Qaida terrorists hate us so much that they want to literally destroy us as a country, that they talk in terms of killing four million Americans or ten million Americans, and when we capture, as happened a week ago in Pakistan, a leading planner for al-Qaida, and we begin to learn things, and that’s what led Secretary Ridge to make his comments over the last few days, that we were interrogating a very senior person who was telling us about very specific, very real plots.

I think any rational person, if you think there’s a danger that you and your loved ones are going to be killed, you put survival and safety very high on your list; doesn’t mean you don’t still care about other issues, but you sure as heck want to make sure you have somebody strong enough to protect the country because if they don’t protect the country, all those other issues are going to disappear in a catastrophic problem.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Panetta, to what degree does the uncertainty of events, the possibility that anything could happen, to what degree does that help President Bush or help John Kerry?

LEON PANETTA: You know, I think the unpredictability of present events is something that makes this whole presidential race one big question mark because although this is a close race, and although there are obviously issues that separate these two individuals, the reality is that any attack, any kind of momentous event that takes place could throw this election up in the air.

And we don’t know the consequences of it. Some say an attack will help the incumbent. Some say that it will help the opposing candidate. You just don’t know.

And I think what you see now is an American public that is living in high anxiety, wondering exactly what will take place in these next few weeks and which of these two candidates can do the best job in making sure that it doesn’t happen.

GWEN IFILL: So Newt Gingrich, if outside events, things that are out of the control of these two candidates, can affect the outcome or at least voters’ minds, what can candidates do to prepare themselves, anything?

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, I think the President did exactly the right thing this week by responding pretty rapidly to the 9/11 Commission, by adopting several of its major proposals and in effect by staying on offense by saying, I’m in charge, I’m going to do the right thing, I’m going to listen carefully to a bipartisan commission.

I think Sen. Kerry has to walk a fine line. As I listened to your section earlier, the tape you had, this is a man who missed I think 38 out of 49 hearings of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

He’s a man who admitted on Larry King about a week ago he hadn’t gotten his intelligence briefings because he had been too busy. Actually he had been at a fundraiser with Whoopie Goldberg and a bunch of Hollywood types. And I think Kerry’s got a fairly vulnerable record of not having paid detailed attention, having offered budget cuts, so I think he actually has a more difficult job.

And I agree with Leon Panetta that I think in Boston they did everything they could to prop up a sense of strength and of seriousness. And I think that’s what they had to do.

I think it’s kind of interesting that they still got the worst bounce, according to Gallup, since George McGovern in 1972, and I think that should give the Bush people a chance to go out now for the next five weeks and try to establish a clear choice between the two sides.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Panetta, I’ll give you a chance to respond to some of the things that Mr. Gingrich just said about Mr. Kerry.

LEON PANETTA: Well, look, you know, I think part of the problem here is that with people concerned about terror threats, you know, to play politics back and forth basically reduces the seriousness of the issue we’re dealing with. John Kerry has served in the Senate.

He’s served with distinction. He’s someone who has a military record, has brought his record of leadership, I think, to this presidential campaign, and I think has shown that he can be a serious leader for this country.

George Bush, on the other hand, has obviously shown some weaknesses, particularly with regards to intelligence gathering, particularly with regards to the issue of whether or not this country really is prepared to deal with another attack. Those are serious concerns.

But they ought to be debated in the context of this presidential race, and they ought to be debated in a serious manner, not by 30-second attack ads or by the kind of 30-second quotes that sometimes we hear too much of in an election.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly, when you hear Sen. Kerry talk about the sense of urgency that he says is lacking in the President’s response to 9/11, do you think that that will get any traction? Mr. Panetta?

LEON PANETTA: I think the problem is that the President, with regards to the 9/11 Commission, resisted its establishment, resisted the reforms that were recommended by it and as a result has conveyed the impression that he is not as aggressive in trying to implement those reforms.

I think that is clearly a point of attack. If the President looks like he’s not accepting all of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and putting them in place as quickly as possible, then I think John Kerry may have an issue.

GWEN IFILL: And, Mr. Gingrich, I’ll give you a very brief response to that.

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, all I’ll say is that the Democrats in 2002 filibustered the homeland security bill; it ended up hurting them very badly in the election because people were really angry that they had put the politics of the government employee unions ahead of homeland security.

And I think the President will ask for bill when Congress comes back in September. I think he’ll get a bill on intelligence. I think he’ll sign it.

And I think it will be very hard to argue that he wasn’t being pretty responsive to the 9/11 Commission by the time that bill gets signed.

GWEN IFILL: Newt Gingrich, Leon Panetta, thank you both very much.