Recap of Saturday, September 6

This is a partial transcript from The Beltway Boys, September 6, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

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FRED BARNES, CO-HOST: The semiofficial start of the campaign season began in earnest this week with debates both among the Democratic presidential and the California recall candidates, minus Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), of course.

Joining us to handicap the candidates is America's favorite political science professor, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. His Web site, is a must-read for political junkies and a lot of other people as well.

Welcome back, Larry.


BARNES: Larry, you watched this Democratic debate, officially sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, the first of those, in Albuquerque on Thursday. And there were eight Democratic presidential candidates there. After watching it, could you imagine any one of them, or more, going one on one with George Bush in, in 2004?

SABATO: What a…no. What an orgy of Bush-bashing. You know, there was so much red meat thrown out to the Democratic activists that I thought I was visiting a slaughterhouse.

BARNES: Well, didn't you think that Dick Gephardt was especially forceful, though?

SABATO: Yes. Look, the big winner, I'm sorry, was Howard Dean...

BARNES: Really?

SABATO: Oh, absolutely. Because Dean is the front-runner, and no one laid a glove on him. Lieberman tried, and his attack fell flat. And the others, apparently, were too afraid to try.

But the secondary winner, you're right, Fred, was Dick Gephardt. He was on fire. His repeated reference to Bush as a "miserable failure" as president...


SABATO: ... may turn off centrists, but the Democrats who were watching, who will vote in primaries and caucuses, they loved it.

BARNES: Well, they probably think that Gephardt has a better chance of beating Bush than Dean does. But anyway, let me ask you about the one-time but no longer front-runner John Kerry. What did you think of his performance?

SABATO: Absolutely flat. He missed a major opportunity to take on Dean. It's like he doesn't know that he's on the ropes. And he is on the ropes. If Howard Dean beats him, I think by any margin, in New Hampshire, he's through. He seems to think he has a firewall coming up a week later in South Carolina. That firewall will absolutely disappear if he loses New Hampshire big.

MORT KONDRACKE, CO-HOST: So where do you see, in the Dean…in what Dean is saying a point of vulnerability for Kerry or, or anybody else to knock him out of the front-runner spot? What, what, what's the, what's the point, what's the case?

SABATO: If Howard Dean is going to be knocked out, it's going to have to be on the basis of issues and, and Dean's lack of federal experience. Everyone thinks it's a plus not to be from Washington. Well, it will be a plus unless the other candidates make experience important.

And they seem afraid of the fact that they've actually lived and worked in Washington. That can be important and helpful to a president.

KONDRACKE: And which issues?

SABATO: The issues, I think they have to go after him on Iraq. You know, he's, he's also flip-flopped a bit on Iraq, and they're going to have to go after him on some of the social issues where he is too far to the left to win a general election.

BARNES: Yes, now, there are three candidates we haven't talked about yet that I want to ask you about. One is Dennis Kucinich. What did you make of him, and what did you make of the highly favorable response he got from the audience at that debate?

SABATO: I'll tell you what I made of it, Fred. That is a typical liberal Democratic audience. They were well representative of the people who are going to turn up to vote in primaries and caucuses. And they loved Kucinich. Dean isn't liberal enough for them. That ought to be warning to the Democratic Party. That is not the definition of the general electorate.

BARNES: Joe Lieberman, is he finished?

SABATO: I think that…I think the audience response said it all. He…even though he's leading some national polls, even though he's probably the most electable Democrat up there, he got the most tepid response from the audience.

KONDRACKE: Well, there's, finally, there's John Edwards. How was his performance?

SABATO: John Edwards was, as always, cute.

KONDRACKE: Now, look, if, if there's a general election contest, say it's Dean, Dean-Wesley Clark, or maybe Dean-Graham as the nominee, what, what it, what are the most vulnerable points that President Bush is going to use against that kind of a ticket?

SABATO: He's certainly going to focus on Dean. I think he'll try and ignore Wesley Clark, you know, let Dick Cheney and others go after him. But for Dean, look at Vermont.

And Dean said this himself, and it's going to come back to haunt him if he's the nominee. He said, You know, a lot of my people are arguing that I'm really a moderate. Yes, I'm a moderate in Vermont, but a moderate in Vermont is a liberal across the country.

And so they're going to focus on civil unions for gays and lesbians and a whole wide range of liberal issues that Howard Dean has sided with during his long tenure as governor of Vermont.

BARNES: Larry, let me ask you about the recall debate in California. I know you hate the recall. I love it, but...

SABATO: I do, I hate it.

BARNES: Well, we'll, we'll get over that. I'm not going to hold that against you. What did you make? Arnold wasn't there, but the, but the, but everyone else of the major, I use the word "major" loosely, candidates was.

SABATO: Gray Davis did better than expected. He actually appeared to be human and not an android. That was a big plus for him. He was sympathetic. In fact…listen to his message, Fred and Mort. You know what's interesting? He is saying, Hey, people of California, you have humiliated me. This has been horrible, it's been embarrassing, this recall. So you've already sent me the message. It's not necessary to send me packing.

It just might work. It's tough, but it might work.

KONDRACKE: So who's going to, if he, if it doesn't work, who gets elected governor?

SABATO: I, I'd still put a quarter on Schwarzenegger, but only if the Republican Party essentially endorses Schwarzenegger and minimizes McClintock or gets him out.

KONDRACKE: Great. OK, thanks, Larry.

SABATO: Thanks a lot.

KONDRACKE: Great to have you, as always.

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