Political Fallout From Operation Iraqi Freedom

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, June 26, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: As the casualties mount in Iraq, so does the political pressure on President Bush.

Ed Gillespie (search) is the new chairman of the Republican National Committee (search) and that is today's big question: When do American casualties become a political problem, Ed?

ED GILLESPIE, RNC CHAIRMAN: Well, John… [there are] Saddam loyalists who are trying to derail the progress towards a Democratic Iraq. A regime change is the right policy. My heart goes out, obviously, to the families of those soldiers who have lost their lives in this effort. And we knew when the end of the major battles and the battles for the cities came about, that it was not the end of the hostilities there. And there's still much work to be done. And I think the public still recognizes that the policy is the right policy, and they will support our soldiers in the field.

GIBSON: You know, Ed, we are aware that the administration and the military is going after these people as hard as they can. There's some suspicion that Saddam is still alive and is directing this. And we know there have been at least two major operations to try to find him and end it. But supposing it goes on, is it possible that your opponents in 2004, the Democrats, will [benefit]?

GILLESPIE: It's possible. It's hard to say, John. In the field right now of the nine Democratic contenders for the presidency for their party's nomination, there are four different views on the war. And even among those four, and among those nine people, their views are sometimes changing. It is hard to keep track. It depends on who the nominee is. Right now, clearly, there seems to be a move harder to the left to appeal to the core Democrats who make up the primary voters in New Hampshire and the caucus-goers in Iowa. But at the end of the day, I can't tell you what the national security posture of the Democratic nominee will be.

GIBSON: Well, let me put it this way. We know where President Bush stands on national security. We know where he stands on taxes. He has made himself abundantly clear on a bunch of issues.


GIBSON: We don't know where the Democrats are, because we don't know who this nominee is. We don't know exactly what they're going to stand for.

GILLESPIE: And even if we knew who the nominee is, I'm not sure we'd know what the Democrats stand for.

GIBSON: What worries you the most, a Howard Dean that would go clearly to the left or a John Kerry who would try to stay towards the mid?

GILLESPIE: John, you know, none of the candidates worries me. I think that whoever emerges from their primary will be a viable candidate. Jay Leno said a couple of weeks ago that nobody's fielded a team of nine this weak since the '62 Mets. But when you have a primary process going on, there's disarray in the party. But the Democratic Party is a strong and viable party, and whoever emerges as its nominee will be a viable candidate… we anticipate a closely and vigorously contested election in November of next year.

GIBSON: Ed, that discussion of how they're all viable and great candidates sounds a little rote. Aren't you a little dismissive of this group?

GILLESPIE: Look, I am not. The primary process — in either party when we don't have an incumbent president on our side, you always have a vigorous contest for the party's nomination. This is going on now in the Democratic Party. And it's hard to say from where I sit; but like I say, there's not one of them who makes me nervous, who gets me weak in the knees. I think that whoever emerges, though, the two parties are just about evenly divided in this country. I feel very good about it, obviously. I would not trade places with Terry McAuliffe (search), looking at the prospects for next November, not only with the president, but with the governorships and the Senate and House seats. I think we're looking at some real opportunities in all of those places. But we take nothing for granted and we're not dismissive at all of the other party's processes.

GIBSON: The president is working overtime to raise a lot of money for the primary season, we're told, to answer charges that may come from any one of the nine [Democratic candidates]. He has to have nine times the money to answer each one of them…

GILLESPIE: Well, John, the fact is that these candidates, according to their own reports, have raised over $25 million in the first quarter, by March. And all of them have been very relentless, very negative, very shrill in the rhetoric towards President Bush. I don't think that resonates with the American people. I think it tends to turn people off. But the president enjoys very strong support, not only with core Republican voters, but with independent voters and frankly with many Democrats. I was interested to find out when I went over to the Republican National Committee last week — and by the way, I will not be installed as chairman until July, next month — if the RNC members see fit to affirm the president's recommendation to them.

But it's their decision. Meantime, I serve as senior adviser there. But I found that over 915,000 new donors have contributed to the Republican National Committee since President Bush took office. The average contribution, by the way, John, is less than $30 from those contributors. He has a very strong and very broad appeal. People are excited about his positive agenda to add momentum to the recovery, to create jobs, to increase our 401-k and college funds, to add a prescription benefit to our Medicare program and modernize and save that system, to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, to increase our access to affordable health care. People get excited when they hear the president's vision, what he is doing. They appreciate his strong leadership in the war against terror and securing our homeland. That's why there's a lot of money coming into his campaign right now.

GIBSON: But having said all that, they also get excited when they see an American a day getting killed [in Iraq]. Your advice to the president at this point would be that we need to stop that, don't we?

GILLESPIE: John, I don't presume to advise the president of the United States on national security or military affairs. He has very qualified people around for that. He has proven himself to be a very strong leader and commander-in-chief and he'll make those decisions. It is the safety of these soldiers and the completion of our mission that matters most. And the political ramifications… I can't even anticipate.

GIBSON: Ed Gillespie, presently the senior adviser to the Republican National Committee. Next month expected to be elected chairman and will be the new RNC chair as we roll into the 2004 campaign. Ed, thanks a lot. Appreciate you coming on.

GILLESPIE: You bet. Thank you, John.

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