This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," Sept. 13, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.
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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: President Bush (search) has had to deal with questions about his military service since his days running for governor of Texas. We saw how Veterans' attacks on John Kerry (search) hurt him in the polls. Will the Democrats be able to turn the tables using the President's National Guard record?
I'm joined by Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf and in Washington, Republican strategist Rich Galen: two old pros.
Hank, you first. What if it turns out that this letter's a forgery? What if? Does that hurt the Kerry attack on Bush?
HANK SHEINKOPF, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It's certainly interesting, but the "what if" is all wrong. The Democrats should be talking about that which they can do best on and they can do best on matters related to the economy. National security and national defense are places where Democrats have done well over the last few election cycles.
GIBSON: So, you don't think the Democrats should be involved in this attack on Bush on this point at all?
SHEINKOPF: Creating sufficient doubt about the president is fine, now get on with the real discussion where Democrats can score big numbers in the places where it mattes, which are in the heartland and in the Midwest.
GIBSON: Rich, this probably is a mystery to all of us. I mean, it was Bill Clinton (search) who told John Kerry, "Get off Vietnam; move on to Iraq and health care and the rest of this stuff."
So, I know you don't have any inside information there; you're not in on the conference calls, but what are they doing?
RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, Hank is exactly right. It's a mystery to me. When this thing broke last week about the fact that these may well be forgeries — now most clearly are forgeries — I think the discussion was, "Oh, my God," for Kerry, "here comes another week that we can't talk about the things that what we want to be talking about."
And whether or not Hank and I agree on the data, the fact is that we do agree that's what Kerry wants to be talking about.
There's something else, though. One of the things that we all know is that people believe what they believe, no matter what they're hearing. Years ago, we had a Democrat in Indianapolis, a guy named Andy Jacobs, very popular in Indianapolis. And we thought we ought to be able to pry him out of there, because at that time it was a very Republican district.
And we ran some focus groups that when we told people, if somebody said something like this, do you think they would be too liberal to represent you? And we'd read them some quote and they'd say, "Oh, yes, way too liberal, way too liberal."
And then we'd say, "Well, Andy Jacobs said that."
And they'd go, "Oh, no he didn't."
And we'd say, "Yes, it's right here in the congressional record."
We'd show it to them and they'd say, "Well, we don't care."
SHEINKOPF: That was a brilliant analysis and on the money. People tend to imprint the characteristics that they like best about themselves on public officials that they like. This is moot argument that lends itself to conspiracy theorists and other wackos. Time to get on with the real discussion.
GALEN So, why is it day after day after day?
GIBSON: Why isn't Kerry pushing the other discussion?
SHEINKOPF: I'm not involved in that campaign. I suggest that every campaign goes through a period like this after Labor Day: the Republicans go through it; we've gone through it, where things don't gel. But don't count Kerry out. This is still a very close race. And some numbers you shared with me, just a moment ago, indicate that...
GIBSON: Yes. I'll tell the people.
This is a Newsweek poll. And right now, asking about George W. Bush's service in the National Guard at the time of the Vietnam War, "Do you think he fulfilled his obligations or you have doubts?"
Same number: 42 percent.
SHEINKOPF: Well, the real issues here, no matter which side of the argument you're on are: Who's the better commander in chief and what's the economy going to do? That you can't answer by going back 30 years to Vietnam. It's been asked, answered, let's move on.
GALEN Yes, but here's the problem that I think the Kerry campaign cannot escape from: They decided to base their entire campaign on Senator Kerry's service in Vietnam. The Bush campaign has never focused on this stuff; they never said that was a big part of his life. And the fact the President has inoculated himself — to use an insider's term — decades ago when he said, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible."
The fact is, the President has been the commander-in-chief for four years and that's what he's asking people to judge him on.
SHEINKOPF: It may not be fair to say they based the entire campaign, I think that nobody benefits — the American people don't benefit — the longer we stay on this.
SHEINKOPF: Let's talk about the real issues. Who's the better commander in chief? Who will deal with Iraq better?
GALEN Somebody proffered forged documents and I think that in a major campaign, that was designed to have a major impact on the outcome of that campaign. And frankly, I think that's a reasonable subject for debate.
GIBSON: Well, all right, since we haven't got who it is or...
SHEINKOPF: I think it was you.
GIBSON: ... or what exactly their relationship to the Kerry campaign is, let's go on to this other thing Hank.
The only place in the latest round of Newsweek polls where John Kerry either beats or comes close to George Bush is on stuff like health care.
GIBSON: But on commander in chief, better job on terrorism, better job on the war: Bush far outscores him. Doesn't that sound as though health care — even if Kerry gets the nod on that — isn't this a decisive issue?
SHEINKOPF: It is not health care, it's the economy. We're talking about a very small number of states and the real target here is still for the Kerry campaign: disaffected Dems, Reagan Dems, who live in Western Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. And probably will retire in Nevada because they can't afford the cost of the East Coast of Florida.
Those are the people that are required for the Kerry campaign to win. By the way, those are the people required for the Bush campaign to win. That is where the battle is.
GALEN The Kerry campaign is not driving their message home because the President is ahead in Ohio, tied in, slightly ahead, within the margin of error, in Pennsylvania. The other states are still way ahead in Missouri, that's gone now for Kerry.
But in Ohio, it looks like now that's beginning to cement itself in. And three weeks ago, nobody would have believed that. So, this is having a real impact. I think Hank's right; they've got to get back on message.
SHEINKOPF: Tactically both parties have the same problem. Everything is in the center. That's the legacy of the '80s and '90s. To get back into the center, both parties got to get that vote out.
GIBSON: Why did the Vietnam Swift Boat Veterans hurt Kerry so bad and these ads against Bush on his National Guard service, not appearing to hurt him?
SHEINKOPF: Because the target voter here is probably a white male; heavily catholic; in the states I just talked about; heavily industrial trade union, not public sector, but private sector; enters building trades; whose father or grandfather served in Vietnam and/or Korea. That's the target voter.
So anything that dissipates that imagery tends to hurts either candidate.
GIBSON: Rich, you'll have to save it for another day.
Rich Galen, thanks; Hank Sheinkopf, thanks to both of you.
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