Iowa Tracking Polls

This is a partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, Jan. 16, that has been edited for clarity.

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DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE RICHARD GEPHARDT: You shouldn't pay so much attention to the daily track. I guess we're going to have an hourly track at some point. I mean this is ridiculous. This is a dead heat race.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a question about...

GEPHARDT: I mean all of you were saying three days ago that Howard Dean (search) had won the nomination. I mean let's get serious here. This is a dead heat race.


BRIT HUME, HOST: The tracking polls that have marked the rise of John Kerry (search), and to a lesser extent John Edwards (search), and the seeming decline of Howard Dean involve small samples and high error margins. So, can they be believed? And are they supported by what seasoned reporters covering this case have detected?

Well who better to ask than David Yepsen, political editor of the Des Moines Register who joins me here now.

Hi, David.


HUME: Thank you, sir. Glad to be here. Tell me about whether your reporting and what you've sensed confirms these tracking -- this is one particular tracking poll, that we're all reading urgently every morning, is telling us?

YEPSEN: Yes. There are other polls that confirm those kinds of things and what you see on the ground is also evidence. If you look at the Kerry campaign and Edwards, there's a real energy about them. The candidates are pumped up. You can sense it with their people.

Where as in the Dean campaign and the Gephardt campaign, it is a much more of a methodical, hunkered down kind of a, we've got some serious work to do here. So it is having a psychological effect on the race.

HUME: Perhaps more interesting than the Kerry surge, which has sort of caught everybody's eye because he seemed to be so down for so long, has been the drop in support for Dean. I mean this hasn't been massive, I think we can agree; but it's been noticeable at least in the polls. From when do you mark that?

YEPSEN: The arrest of Saddam Hussein.

HUME: Really?

YEPSEN: When Al Gore (search) endorsed Howard Dean, it just lit his afterburners. He really took off.

HUME: Out here?

YEPSEN: Out here, I think elsewhere. But certainly you could sense it out here. There was some real energy. And then came the arrest of Saddam Hussein and it flattened his numbers out. You could see that in polls here and in New Hampshire.

But what it did was it caused a lot of undecided Democrats to take a second look at him. Both Dean and Gephardt have been frontrunners in Iowa. But they've -- they're not breaking through. They are not piling up huge leads, because a lot of Democrats have reservations of one kind or another about them. I mean some people are worried about Dean's gaffes or his temper or the position on the war. Gephardt is an old face. I mean they like these men, but they just have concerns. And so that is what's contributed to the high undecided for so long.

Now here in the end game, we're starting to see some of these undecideds start to make up their mind. And having visited Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, and found them wanting for some reason, they are now moving on to John Edwards and John Kerry.

HUME: We've all talked about these ads. And I know the word has gone out now for the final stages, everybody always likes to close on positive notes. But the one ad that caught everybody's eye this week, at least around the country to some extent, was that hard-hitting Gephardt ad against Dean. Is it your sense that that ad made any difference?

YEPSEN: No, the ads are ... I mean one of the things you're going to discover watching television out here is it is just wall-to-wall, political commercials. And I think when that happens nobody breaks through. Nobody is punching through with a message like the Hyundai ads of 1988 or something, a real memorable, political ad. The only memorable political ad here is the Club for Growth (search) ad.

HUME: Recall that one for the benefit of the audience.

YEPSEN: Well, the Hyundai ad was where Gephardt's campaign said if the North Koreans don't allow -- or South Koreans don't allow trade with the United States, they can let their Hyundais sit on the docks.

HUME: Right.

YEPSEN: It was a very effective ad. It really was a -- it catapulted Gephardt's campaign. There is nothing like that in this cycle. And so, I don't think a lot of these ads at this point are having much of an impact in moving these undecideds. They're actually quite annoying.

HUME: Big issues is the war, in your view?

YEPSEN: Yes. I think that's one of the big issues. But it's not the only one. I mean there are a lot of activists Democrats who are opposed to this war and that has driven their choices. And that's where Howard Dean is getting a lot of his support. But other Democrats are looking at other things. If you look at polls and say what is the most important issue in jobs, economy, health care, other things.

And do, what this has done is -- I think it's helped some of these other candidates stay alive here, that even though they voted for the war, Democrats are still willing to look at them.

HUME: In my years covering politics in presidential campaigns, I thought I knew something. And one of the things I thought I new was that vote for me, I can better beat the other guy. I remember Lamar Alexander with his -- what was its? A, B, C, "Alexander beats Clinton." He got nowhere with that. And then the elect ability question has come up in races before and I never saw it make a difference. Is this year in Iowa a possible exception?

YEPSEN: Yes, I think it is and you can hear that from Democrats. Brit, they are angry at President Bush. They're upset with him. Many Democrats don't consider him to be a legitimate president.

And then they're unhappy with various things he's done, tax cuts, the war in Iraq, whatever. So they're much angrier about situations now than they were -- than I've ever seen them before. And they really want to beat him. I think this issue is helping John Edwards here.

HUME: Really?

YEPSEN: John Edwards, in all his speeches, talks about I can carry something south of the Mason Dixon Line (search) with an accent like this, a southern drawl.

HUME: Yes. He does. Yes. Right.

YEPSEN: And that meant people understand that. I mean if you know your history, Democrats usually don't win the White House unless they carry something in the south. And so, there are Democratic activists here who are responding to that kind of logic. So I think elect ability is an issue.

HUME: Now, obviously all this comes down -- I think obviously we can agree that John Kerry would be happier where he is now if this were a primary and not a caucus. Where you know, voters turn out and poll. And they can just vote and go home. And it doesn't require the organizational muscle that this place requires.

We've talked about this before. Gephardt has a lot of labor support, Dean has a lot of people on the ground and has a good organization. Do you think that Kerry or the Kerry or Edwards organizations are enough to give them a real -- to possibly carry them through here?

YEPSEN: They're not good enough. I mean I think Dean has the biggest organization. It's also a younger organization. But it's clearly the largest. I think Gephardt has the best. He knows labor organizers. That's what they do for a living.

HUME: He's seasoned.

YEPSEN: They are disciplined workers. John Kerry and John Edwards have simply not had the chance to build that kind of infrastructure. Kerry has a better one than Edwards does. But it's just -- I don't have a sense that it is as big as it really needs to be.

HUME: So one senses that he could end up disappointed that he could have more supporters actually people would vote for him, but can't get them to the polls?

YEPSEN: He could. I mean he clearly kicked this thing in, but it may have come a little, bit too late.

HUME: Great. David, great to have you, thank you.

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