December 17, 1999
JIM LEHRER: You're there for the Gore-Bradley debate tonight. Set the stage for this, Mark, what the context is as we in there tonight.
MARK SHIELDS: We're at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, the great orator in the Senate, and both men, of course, I don't think either one is a serious threat to Webster's reputation, Jim. But going in, they each has a problem they have to address. Al Gore's problem is that his tactic which has been working to be relentless negative to Bill Bradley, is helping him in the primary and probably has stopped certainly the erosion of support he suffered earlier in the campaign but it is killing him in the general election, in the match up in the general election, he's losing one out of three Bradley voters according to the "Wall Street Journal"-NBC poll against John McCain for example. So what Al Gore has to be is more positive and less biting, less negative toward Bill Bradley. Bill Bradley by contrast has the other side of the coin. He had adopted, I thought at the first debate at Dartmouth, what I call the Gandhi style of politics: Don't be adversarial, don't be contentious. Don't be confrontational. And when Vice President Gore accused his health plan of breaking the bank, Bradley had almost, well, I've got your experts and I've got my experts attitude which dismayed his supporters because if you're supporting a candidate for president you feel has shared values and outlook, you want to feel the candidate is going to fight for the positions and support them. It's up to Bill Bradley to show a little bit of feistiness and fight tonight.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: I would underscore particularly with the vice president, his negatives have been rising. They're 35 percent in the latest "Wall Street Journal"-NBC Poll and 42 percent in another poll, I think Gallup. Those are awfully high negatives.
JIM LEHRER: You think it's because he's being negative against Bradley?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, they started higher than a lot of sitting vice presidents anyway, but I think that has added to it no question about that. As for Bill Bradley, he has to show he is a fighter and has to make the case, I think that he's the one of the two candidates who can deliver for Democrats some of the things that they really want if you get a third consecutive Democratic term, something bigger, something like universal health care, something that's not just trimming around the edges. He's got to make the case forcefully and say he's the man who can do it and Al Gore can't because Al Gore won't try.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, in a general way to do you feel that Bradley is still making gains against Gore or has that peeked?
PAUL GIGOT: I think it's flattened out. I don't think he's losing ground in this state, for example, but I think his gains nationally have stopped. And some of the momentum he had a while ago, a couple of months bag before the debate in October I think, that momentum has slowed, so he's got to reenergize people and not just in New Hampshire, but elsewhere because after New Hampshire on February 1, you've got about a month and a week before you've got the big primaries all over on March 7. So, he's got to get people energized.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read that, the general picture, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Jim, there is no national presidential campaign. I mean all the national polls mean very little. They're a lagging political indicator. We're talking about a series of -
JIM LEHRER: That's because... Let's explain that because a lot of people, unless you're in New Hampshire or Iowa or one of the first states, are just not that tuned in, is that what you're saying?
MARK SHIELDS: They're not that tuned in, Jim. And the reality is that the battlegrounds are Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, maybe Arizona. But the fact is that these are the states that count, and in both of these states, the underdog candidate, McCain on the Republican side, Bradley on the Democratic side, are competitive. Most surveys show them even with a slight lead here in New Hampshire. So I think Bill Bradley has to pour all his hopes, aspirations and ambition because in both cases, George Bush and Al Gore, the overwhelming establishment choices of their party. I mean the leadership of the party, the money of the party, the institutions of the party are both backing Bush and Gore. So both Bradley and McCain have to win early and often.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, speaking of Bradley and McCain, what did you make of the joint appearance of theirs yesterday on campaign finance reform up there in New Hampshire?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, there's a school of thought that says when you're the underdog and you get on TV and they spell your name right, you're doing okay. You get on network television. So in that sense it helped them both.
JIM LEHRER: But also their pictures were on the front pages of the many newspapers today as well.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right.
PAUL GIGOT: Absolutely. Of course it was the bipartisan nature of this. Usually primary races you don't do that. You stick with your own party. And that had some appeal. I think it probably helped Bradley more, frankly, because it got him back on message, back on the I'm a different kind of politics -- I want to be a little different from Al Gore. And it reminded some people... it gave Bradley a chance for McCain to do for him what he won't do himself, which is to take on Al Gore directly on the 1996 problems. And Al Gore... John McCain was tougher on Al Gore than Bill Bradley ever has given the Buddhist temple and other problems from 1996.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read it, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, for years we've been told by knowledgeable savvy observers and politicians this was an esoteric academic issue, never moved anybody. Now in this race in 1999-2000, out of the whole field of challengers, you have two who have emerged, two underdogs, both of whom -- Bill Bradley and John McCain -- define their candidacy on campaign finance reform. And I'll tell you, if either one of them wins the party's nomination or wins the presidency, it will certainly put the lie to that canard that campaign finance reform is just a hypothetical. But I think it forced it in a campaign that has been really free of issues. I mean it's not the economy stupid. It's not Communism or the Cold War. There's no defining issues. This is one that has given some structure to the campaign -- in a strange way, robbed George W. Bush of his outsider image. Earlier in the campaign he was for abolishing soft money from labor unions and corporations and you saw him in the Iowa debate backpedal and draw a difference hoping to pick up Republican Party regular support from John McCain's supporter campaign finance. So I think it's a boost for both candidacies.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, go ahead.
PAUL GIGOT: I'm glad Mark gave me a chance to come back on that on John McCain because following him around for two days in South Carolina this week, nobody in the crowd said, you know that John McCain it's that campaign finance reform issue. McCain is surging because he's John McCain. It's because of his biographical story. It's because he seems to be somebody who is telling it like it is, people talk about honesty. It's because he says I'll never take a poll when I want to send Americans into battle. It's because he's the anti-Clinton and in an age of prosperity, Mark is right, when issues don't cut, biography is very important. Campaign finance helps a little bit with that image because he's standing up to some people but it's not the details of soft money and all that. That goes over the heads of most people.
JIM LEHRER: Staying on the Republican race specifically for a moment, Paul, and I'll come back to McCain in a moment. We just listened to Orrin Hatch, Ray Suarez's interview with him. What is your analysis of his campaign for President?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, he started late. He's a member of the Senate. He's a member of the Senate who is an insider in the Senate. And that's a very hard place to run from. John McCain has done something nobody since John F. Kennedy has done in 1960, which is to be a sitting member of the Senate and to make yourself into an outsider. It's a very hard thing do and it's because of his personality and some of his positions. So I think that's a burden on Orrin Hatch. He hasn't been galvanizing people with any great issues. He's running on experience mostly Washington experience. And Washington experience by itself has never sold very well in recent Republican primaries.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, what would you add to that?
MARK SHIELDS: Orrin Hatch. Orrin Hatch, in my judgment, has yet to offer a single statement that defines his candidacy and what makes it different, what's called in advertising, a unique selling point. In his interview with Ray, he made a lot of interesting points but what didn't come through is a sense of what is centrally important to his candidacy and his presidency. I don't think you run for President, Jim, saying if I'm elected, I'm going to appoint a commission. That really is not the kind of thing that gets people to volunteer, especially against a popular establishment consensus front-runner.
JIM LEHRER: And by the time he got in, Bush was already in that position, was he not?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he certainly was. Jim, could I just make one point on Paul's point about McCain and the campaign finance. The campaign finance fits with John McCain because it is consistent with the character that Paul described. This is a man who, against enormous odds throughout his career in the military as a prisoner of war, as a Naval pilot, showed courage, showed independence, showed strength and if he was just to stand up there now and give the usual riff about I'm going to cut taxes and slink government, whatever else,... in other words his interestingness would end with his biography. I think this is the bookend to his biography in a strange way. But I do not think it's enough by itself to carry him to the nomination and the White House.
JIM LEHRER: Back to you, Paul on the general issue that I asked earlier as far as Gore and Bradley are concerned. Based on your traveling with him and your other readings, do you still feel a surge from McCain against Bush?
PAUL GIGOT: I think that there's real interest in him, Jim. South Carolina where people haven't been paying as much attention as they have in New Hampshire yet because it's 19 days later, the primary, there, he was getting big crowds. People wanted to see him. They want to see him. A lot of them have been sort of waiting for this race to develop and now they see McCain emerging as an alternative. And they want to see what he's like. They want to listen to him. And they like his personal story -- no question about it. But they want to hear more. He didn't make a lot of sales there to some of the people I talked to but they are drawn to him as a man, particularly as an alternative to the president of the last eight years.
JIM LEHRER: In a few seconds, Mark, the surge still going for McCain, too?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it is, Jim. I thought obviously he used Iowa as a device for his appearance in the debate there and stand against ethanol. He used it to help him to burnish his credentials as an independent and maverick.
JIM LEHRER: You still think he's surging? You think he's still moving?
MARK SHIELDS: I think he is still moving. He is certainly still moving here. Believe me.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.