Who Are the RNC Protesters?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Aug. 30, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: So who are these [Republican National Convention] protesters, exactly? And what kind of coverage are they getting from most of the media?

For answers, we turn to Larry Sabato (search), director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and a convention observer who had a particularly good view of yesterday's protest here in New York.

Larry, welcome.


HUME: So how is it you came to have so good a view of all these proceedings yesterday?

SABATO: Well, they simply all paraded by my hotel. So it was very convenient and you could watch all the signs, and all the people, and the obnoxious things they did and said.

HUME: When I picked up The New York Times this morning, I read about soccer moms, and other nice people, middle class people, people like you and me who had come to express and protest their president, and express their views in a peaceful way. I read complimentary things said about them by the police authorities in New York and I thought what a nice protest. What did you see?

SABATO: I saw a very different protest. I saw lots of obscenities, not just on the banners but also hurled at almost anybody who looked like they might have been a delegate or anybody connected to the Republican convention. And you know, I tell you Brit, I saw much worse on the other major networks. I watched the coverage. They did something called mainstreaming. They were very careful to pick out a couple of Iraq War (search) veterans, a little old lady had who attended her first convention and a married couple. A middle-class married couple who had very moderate things to say. Now that may have been 10 or 20 percent of the protesters, but I can guarantee you, having watched a good part of this demonstration, that was not representative of the demonstrations.

HUME: What seems likely to you to happen, based on what you've seen of this coverage in these protests so far, if this gets ugly and the streets ignite?

SABATO: The real threat for this convention is that these protesters will end up dominating the story. Now remember, the networks and others have a responsibility to give relatively balanced and equal coverage to the two major parties. What was the coverage on Sunday and Monday of the Democratic convention? Absolutely glowing coverage on every network and the major newspapers. Already we see a major difference.

Suppose on Tuesday they do have this Civil Disobedience Day (search) and it turns to violence? The Bush people have to worry that their message will be drowned out. What we've seen suggests that the networks really won't cover what's going on inside the convention hall.

HUME: I guess we owe some of the credit or blame for that, depending on how you look at it, to a judge here who would not allow the kind of level restriction that was imposed on the protesters in Boston. But it's probably also the case that the protesters in Boston were not nearly so numerous.

SABATO: Absolutely. And it's a legitimate story to point out that this is part of this convention and the numbers are relatively large. Although 250,000 in the city size of New York, with 5 to 1 Democratic registration, with the city voting probably 65 — 70 percent better of George Bush, I don't think it's a very impressive number.

HUME: And of course, it's a number that's in some dispute. Protest organizers were saying a million; other estimates placed the numbers as low as 120,000. It's very difficult to tell.


HUME: And nobody does official crowd estimates anymore.

The other thing I wanted to ask you about, Larry, was some weeks ago in remarks made in Alabama, you, as I recall, said that this race had gotten to a pass in the aftermath of the Democratic convention. Where you thought it would take a Harry Truman-like comeback, come from behind miracle for Bush to win the race. Does the race seem to be in a different posture now to you?

SABATO: It is. In fact, I think that may have been Bush's low point. I do think that Bush is doing better because of the Swift Boat Veterans, but also because people are starting to get to know John Kerry better and seeing some of his flaws. They didn't see those during the Democratic convention, again because of the extremely positive coverage, which is contrasting already with the coverage of this convention.

HUME: I've said to others on this program that I thought that the convention speech that Kerry made — I've known him a long time — was the best I've seen him give. It appears not to have gone over well with the public. Why do you think that is?

SABATO: Well, because they were still asking a basic question: Who is John Kerry? And they knew instinctively that John Kerry was not the four months he served in Vietnam. That's a piece of him. Where's the last few decades? That's a big part what he's done, 20 years in the United States Senate. They wanted to know who he was and what he did. And they never learn it at the Democratic Convention.

HUME: And it appears now that the Swift Boat Veterans, despite somewhat minimal coverage, you might say, in some of the major news organization — some of the major news outlets — have made a dent. Are you surprised at the affect that that has had?

SABATO: I absolutely am. Although veterans have a special place in the hearts of many Americans. But Brit, it's also a tribute to the Internet. It's not that television isn't important or newspapers are no longer important. But people get a lot of their news now from the Internet. And you can have a story spread from coast to coast and have a major impact in a matter of hours. And this was an Internet story

HUME: It was for quite a time. And we worked it; some other news organizations worked it, The Washington Times, a few others, not many. Does it not, a story have to eventually have to break into some of the major news organizations for it to really have an impact?

SABATO: Absolutely. It has to but it also has to be true. And there are at least major pieces of this story, like Cambodia, like the first Purple Heart and like the 1971 testimony to the U.S. Senate by Kerry, that are true.

HUME: All right. Larry Sabato, great to have you. Thanks very much.

SABATO: Thank you.

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