Will the Swift Boat Ads Backfire on the GOP?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," August 25, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

Watch "The Big Story With John Gibson" weeknights at 5 p.m. ET!

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Max Cleland's (search) travels in Texas, keeping the whole swiftboat issue alive.

James Gilmore is the former governor of Virginia and former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Jacques DeGraff is a Democratic strategist, he was as deputy campaign manager for Bill Bradley's run for the White House in the year 2000.

Today's big question for Governor Gilmore: Should President Bush (search) ignore the Swift Boat issue?

Can it backfire on him and the Republicans?

JAMES GILMORE, FORMER GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA: Not if people focus on the fact that there needs to be a level playing fields and open speech in this campaign. For months and months and months, MoveOn.org and America Coming Together and all those Democratic 527s have been calling the president names and accusing him of wrongdoing and all of that.

And nobody said boo about that until the fields got leveled and then Republican-leaning organization came out and began to make their case against John Kerry (search). So, I think you either get all of them off or keep all of them on. And you have an opportunity for real and open debate in this campaign. What's wrong with that?

GIBSON: Jacques DeGraff, why would John Kerry be interested in keeping this issue alive, sending Max Cleland down there?

What good does it do, him?

I mean, the ad hurt him. How is this helping?

JACQUES DEGRAFF, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: First of all, to claim in a mud fight that after you throw mud, “let's stop fighting” is disingenuous at best. And this is not name-calling. This is beyond...

GIBSON: This is a mudslide?

DEGRAFF: This is clearly a mudslide that the Swift Boat crowd started, funded by the Bush crowd.

GIBSON: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Fund by the Bush crowd?

DEGRAFF: There are key Bush supporters of Texas...

GIBSON: I mean, they can't do anything?

DEGRAFF: You asked a question, I'm trying to answer the question.

GIBSON: You call them the Bush crowds. I mean, they think they're independent.

DEGRAFF: They have also acknowledged that the president of the United States said cease and desist they would stop.

GIBSON: Wait a minute. Wait a minute, how could he? He can't order these groups around.

DEGRAFF: I didn't say orders.

GILMORE: And they said they're not going to stop.

DEGRAFF: The political reality is this: If the president says this does not help me, it does not represent me, I'm asking my friends to stop, that's what they would do.

GIBSON: Governor Gilmore, let me put it this way. It's obvious the ad in the first place hurt John Kerry, that's why this furious reaction.

GILMORE: Seems to be, yes.

GIBSON: Is the reaction hurting President Bush? Should Bush get off this now?

GILMORE: Well, Bush isn't on this. This is an action of the independent 527. It is fair game to come out and have a discussion about Senator Kerry's record in Vietnam one way or the other. It's very fair to have a discussion about John Kerry's conduct when he came back. And he decided to lend, aides and comfort the people in the streets who were opposing the war and out there condemning our soldiers in Vietnam. And then coming in and trying to play the war hero. I think that Senator Kerry, again, is trying to have it both ways. I think the 527 is entitled, as a matter of legitimate public discussion, to point all that out.

GIBSON: Jacques DeGraff, why doesn't John Kerry just say — I mean, it's obvious these people are mad at him about what he said in 1971. These are veterans. They didn't like it when he came here. Why doesn't he say, and he's come close to saying, look, I made a mistake saying those thing, I'm sorry, I apologize to my comrades in arms, let's move on.

DEGRAFF: I think it is important to how you respond to controversy and certain kinds of issues. And beyond the talking points of the day, which the governor has been articulating and keeping a straight face, the reality is this is outside the pail and that is why these extraordinary...

GIBSON: But it's also outside...

DEGRAFF: No. We're not going to have Michael Dukakis again.

GIBSON: It's also outside...

DEGRAFF: I'm not going to have Michael Dukakis.

GIBSON: Tthat is up to the voters to decide whether you're going to have it or not.

DEGRAFF: And the voters are going to judge how you respond to certain kinds of issues.

GIBSON: Do you actually think it's better for him to call more attention to this issue by fighting back like this?

DEGRAFF: I think it's important for him to ask the president of the United States, are you standing behind these people and what are you going to do about it?

GIBSON: Governor Gilmore, we heard John Kerry today come out and call for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. That seems to be the issue he'd like to go forward on. I know the president would like to go forward on taxes.

Is this issue of Swift Boat Veterans going to eat up those other issues?

GILMORE: Well, I suppose they could until the whole issue is completely aired on Senator Kerry's background. But the 527 will be making that decision independently on their own as to what they are or they're not going to do. It could very well be that another 527 or this 527 will address another issue. And looks, let's be very clear about this. This is all because MoveOn.org and people like them spend about $170 million the first part of this year beating up the president. You know one of those early ads, they compared the president to Hitler, for heaven's sakes, and nobody said boo.

Senator Kerry hadn't said anything about that.

GIBSON: Jacques DeGraff, good point. Why doesn't Senator Kerry throw at Bush to call off the Swift Boats, not that he could, but to make the stand, why doesn't Senator Kerry step up and say MoveOn and ACT should stop their tricks, too.

GILMORE: Exactly.

DEGRAFF: I think the issue of campaign finance reform and these relationships of soft money and groups is a legitimate issue and we can discuss that. But this issue about his war record is a scurrilous issue and they are being duplicitous.

GIBSON: Do you think that the Swift Boat Veterans have a right, if they abandon their war record, have a right to talk about 1971, when Kerry came back and made public statements in the U.S. Senate criticizing people who were serving at that moment?

DEGRAFF: It's certainly in the public arena and it's legitimate. That's different than what we're talking about, questioning...

GIBSON: But that is the new Swift Boat ad.

DEGRAFF: What has been asked is have the president of the United States have these folks cease and desist on the issues on his war record.

GIBSON: OK. Governor Gilmore, legally, can the president of the United States step up and say to Swift Boats, “Shut up?”

GILMORE: No, he can't. As a matter of fact, if he did that, he would be violating a law.

DEGRAFF: But politically he can. The question is....

GILMORE: No, no.

DEGRAFF: He politically can.

GILMORE: He politically can. The fact of the matter is that if he starts trying to direct 527s, somebody's then going to jump up, probably you, and say that is evidence that they're coordinating. And they're not coordinating. The 527 is doing what they think is right in the name of the campaign for better or worst...

DEGRAFF: We have to believe that the president is not in charge of his campaign.

GIBSON: He is not in charge of the 527s. You won't even say he is.

DEGRAFF: He is in charge of his campaign.

GIBSON: Why are you saying he is in charge of that 527.

DEGRAFF: He politically has the muscle...

GIBSON: That is a smear, Chuck. You know it is. It's illegal for him to be in charge of that group.

DEGRAFF: I never said legality. He can say, communicate to them to cease and desist.

GILMORE: So can Senator Kerry. He can get on there and he can say that all this long record, all year of attacking the president or from these Democratic 527s was wrong and it should stop. We ought to come back another time and have a little discussion about what we're doing to the political process with all these prohibitions.

GIBSON: I'll save that for another day. It is a matter of the first amendment and the political process. Thanks to both of you. Jacques DeGraff and Governor Gilmore.

Content and Programming Copyright 2004 Fox News Network, L.L.C. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Transcription Copyright 2004 eMediaMillWorks, Inc. (f/k/a Federal Document Clearing House, Inc.), which takes sole responsibility for the accuracy of the transcription. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material except for the user's personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon Fox News Network, L.L.C.'s and eMediaMillWorks, Inc.'s copyrights or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.