OTR Interviews

Rove: Cain Needs to Capitalize on Surge Now

Former Bush adviser says GOP presidential candidate needs to capitalize on surge now


This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," October 14, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: And tonight: Karl Rove says Mr. Herman Cain just got a gift, and now Mr. Cain is leapfrogging past Governor Mitt Romney. So what is Mr. Cain going to do with that gift?

Here's former adviser to President Bush, Karl Rove.


VAN SUSTEREN: Karl, nice to see you.


VAN SUSTEREN: All right, you're still doing your notes...


VAN SUSTEREN: Still working on this. OK. All right. I realize it's only a poll, it's very early and it's a national poll, it's not Iowa, it's not New Hampshire. But tell me, Mr. Herman Cain leading at 27 percent.

ROVE: Yes. First of all, I think -- I like the RealClearPolitics idea of averaging together the recent polls because it gives you a better sense of what is actually happening and sort of gets rid of the outliers, people who are either -- you know, polls that either overemphasizing or underemphasizing a candidate.

If you look at their average, it's Mitt Romney at 23, Cain at 20, Perry at 14, Gingrich and Paul at 8. As Perry declines, Cain rises. And it begins in Florida with the -- after the poor debate performance by Perry and the -- and Cain wins the straw poll, and it's continued since then.

Now, whether or not it's going continue to continue, we don't know. Herman Cain needs to get his campaign focused on the campaign and not book sales.

VAN SUSTEREN: But he's getting -- but his book -- I thought -- the way I interpreted his book sales is that it was part of his campaign strategy. I forgot the subtitle of the book...

ROVE: Well, but...

VAN SUSTEREN: ... but that seemed like a way to get the word out.

ROVE: Well, fine...

VAN SUSTEREN: This is who I am, and this is...

ROVE: Fine, but look, he spent -- with all due respect. he had four stops in Texas. I don't think that's -- you know, it's not an early primary, March 8th. He -- why did he spend a full day in Texas?

Today he was in western Tennessee, which doesn't vote until at least March. He needs to get his bus to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada. If he doesn't break through there -- and to break through there, you've got to show up, particularly in the first three. They have a very keen sense of their role in this, and they expect you to show up. And if you're not campaigning actively in those states one on one now, it's going to be a problem for you.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, that seems to make an abundant amount of sense. The only thing that's sort of curious about it is the fact that he is improving. Whatever his strategy is, his numbers are improving. I realize this is national and I realize that there's...


ROVE: Remember -- remember, though, four years ago at this very day, it was Rudy Giuliani at 30, Fred Thompson at 20, John McCain at 13, Mitt Romney at 11 and Mike Huckabee at 6. Huckabee was camped out in Iowa, and as a result, won Iowa and vaulted onto the national stage. And by the time we got around to voting, the two front-runners, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani, were nowhere to be seen.

And so that's a cautionary lesson for Herman Cain. Look, he's got -- he has been given a gift, and the question is whether he's going to take that gift and transmute it into something more durable. And being on a bus tour in west Tennessee is not the way to go about doing it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does that suggest, then, that Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who's been sort of a sleeper in the past few weeks in terms getting attention from the media, but she spent a lot of time in Iowa. I mean, that's her strategy. Does that put her in a more viable position?

ROVE: She may be more viable position than the national polls give her credit for being because, look, my experience with Iowa is each one of these, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, they have a different sort of tone to each one of them. In Iowa, they're slow to commit, but once they commit, they stay with you through thick or thin. It's sort of that Midwestern sensibility.

In New Hampshire, they're slow to fall in love with you, but once they fall in love with you, they'll fall out of love with you, they'll fall in love with you, they'll fall out of love with you. And you hope that they're falling back in love with you about the time they go to vote.

But she went to Iowa early. She's got -- she's from Waterloo originally, grew up there, represents the adjoining state in Congress. And she's got -- you know, she's got an organization in place. In a caucus, organization matters.

And we need only look at four years ago on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton was the leader in the early polls and yet got crushed in the caucus states because she hadn't bothered to organize most of them -- Idaho, for example. And as a result, the guy who had organized them swiped a bunch of delegates, and those were his early victories, not the primaries, they were in the caucus states.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, Governor Romney for years ago -- I remember his son -- and many of his sons, and he, too, was doing -- was driving around the state, hitting every single county in Iowa. Is he doing that kind of emphasis now in Iowa, or has he sort of ceded Iowa to others and focusing on other states?

ROVE: I don't think he's made a decision because, look...


ROVE: No. He's got an organization in the state. He's got the advantage of having a list of people who supported him four years ago, augmented by the intelligence that his organization has been able to gather thus far. But I don't think he's made a decision whether or not to commit.

VAN SUSTEREN: But isn't that like Mr. Herman Cain? Mr. Herman Cain...

ROVE: Well, he's...

VAN SUSTEREN: ... hasn't committed in Iowa, either!

ROVE: Well, he's been going in and out, in and out. But he has an advantage that Herman Cain doesn't have, which is he's got a bunch of people in all the counties who know him and know him well enough to have signed up and said, I'm the Romney county chairman here in Cherokee County.

Herman Cain needs to get that kind of apparatus in place if he's going to -- if he's going to shake Iowa. You've got to, if you're a challenger like Herman Cain, who has -- who's -- you know, look, he would be the first presidential candidate of a major political party since 1920 not to have held elective office and won the nomination. If elected president, he'd be the first president in history who never held elective office.

So if you're -- if you're running uphill, you better seize the opportunities that are given to you, and this is an opportunity which wandering around western Tennessee on a bus is not exploiting.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is that, though -- I mean -- I mean, the fact that he hasn't held an office, I actually think in this climate, inures to his benefit. You've got the Tea Party, who's so sick of Congress, and they predominantly -- we expect that they're going to vote Republican -- I mean, if anything I think it hurts more to have a background...

ROVE: Well, I hear this, but I don't accept it. I think the presidential -- we want our presidents to be people who've go substance and...

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, that's not a sign of substance, though! I mean, experience...

ROVE: Experience. And look, we think about the new members of Congress as being Tea Party representatives. They are. But they have the same percentage of people who've held local elective or state elective office as the rest of the Congress. So they're not that much different in terms of their experience than the rest of the Congress. That is to say, the Tea Party did not sweep in a bunch of people who have never been involved in politics before. Just the opposite.

VAN SUSTEREN: But I think experience -- I mean, at least I think his experience is different.

ROVE: It is.

VAN SUSTEREN: It's very different, but it may be refreshing. It certainly is an experience that, you know, might be easily transferred into some of the skills...

ROVE: Look...

VAN SUSTEREN: I'm not, you know, promoting him...

ROVE: Yes, but...

VAN SUSTEREN: ... but I'm saying I wouldn't undermine him.

ROVE: But wait a minute. At this point, we don't know, OK? We do know this, that in the head-to-head match-ups, Romney tends to lead Obama, Perry tends to lag but relatively close, and Herman Cain in the national match-ups, even though he's ahead of Perry in the Republican presidential sweepstakes, he nonetheless lags him in the head-to-head match-up with President Obama.

And I think one of the keys may be they want to know -- look, being in office and having served as governor of Texas, for example, as Governor Perry did, gives people a confidence that when I say I'm going to do something, you can know I can get it done because I've gotten it done before. That's what serving in office, gives people a clue.

VAN SUSTEREN: I guess I have a little bias because everyone said that I was just a lawyer, I'd never make it in TV, you know, that I didn't have -- I didn't have a journalism degree.

ROVE: Well...


ROVE: ... that's because you are an exceptionally gifted (INAUDIBLE)

VAN SUSTEREN: I tease you with that! All right, Governor Romney, going into this -- he's now among many of the sort of conventional wisdom, the pundits, which is pretty much inside Washington, is almost like the heir apparent. Is he?

ROVE: Look, I think we're way premature on this. I mean, again I point to four years ago. Rudy Giuliani was leading the pack, and he was nowhere by the time of the early...

VAN SUSTEREN: So what -- when do we get -- when do we get to the point where...

ROVE: When we -- when the individual state polls start -- when we get close to voting in the individual states, and people are making up their minds in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and so forth. But even then, they'll change. These early contests will have an impact on the subsequent contests.

In 2000, I can remember, we felt really good about South Carolina until the night of the New Hampshire primary. We were up by into the 20s, and two days later, we were behind by 6 after losing New Hampshire.

So what is going to matter is these early state polls as we get closer to voting because it's going to be -- people get to a point -- and we don't know when it is, it varies from election to election -- where somebody in Iowa says, You know, it's time for me to make a decision. Or I'm in New Hampshire, it's time for me to make a decision. I'm in South Carolina, it's time to make a decision. And that's what really matters.

And until then, this is all great. It's all good conversation. But it -- you know, the conventional wisdom is Romney has the lead. The conventional wisdom is now turning to that he is the presumptive nominee. They may be right that he's got the lead, but if the conventional wisdom is that he's the presumptive nominee, that ain't true. And he better not be thinking it.

VAN SUSTEREN: With the sole sort of exception, I assume that in Iowa, since it's not a primary, it's a caucus, you have to have the machinery on the ground to get people to come and caucus, and a lot of people think even Iowa's a little bit unfair in that unless you have the night off so you can caucus -- if you have a nighttime job, you can't even participate.

ROVE: Well, and look, generally, about a quarter to a third of the Republicans who vote in a gubernatorial primary in the state actually vote in the -- show up and vote at the caucuses. A caucus by its very nature tends to draw fewer people than does a primary.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is there a path, for instance, for Speaker Gingrich to get the nomination?

ROVE: Well, yes, and you've got to break through in one of these early states. And he's done well in each one of these debate performances. It's nudged him up a little bit in the national polls. But again, this gets down to making a retail-style campaign in three or four early states, certainly Iowa, certainly New Hampshire, certainly South Carolina, maybe Nevada and maybe Florida.

But you got to break through early in order to get there. And the question is, how strong is his organization in these early states?

VAN SUSTEREN: And is the same thing true, I guess, of Senator Rick Santorum?

ROVE: And Santorum -- look, Santorum is another potential -- like Bachmann, a potential interesting figure to watch in Iowa. Again, he's going for some of the same kind of people that she is. That is to say, evangelical and social conservatives. He's got a little bit greater appeal to Catholics who are in the eastern part of the state. She's probably got a better appeal to evangelical Protestants who are in the western part of the state.

But he's camped out there. And if he's going to have a chance, it's going to be there.

VAN SUSTEREN: And what if one of the -- what if Santorum or -- Senator Santorum or Congresswoman Bachmann wins Iowa?

ROVE: Well...

VAN SUSTEREN: What does that do for them going into New Hampshire?

ROVE: Well, New Hampshire doesn't pay much attention to Iowa, but it will give them a bump in the national media and it will allow them probably to survive a second or third place finish in New Hampshire and go on to South Carolina and Nevada and other states.

I mean, we saw this with Huckabee, who went through in -- broke through in New -- broke though in Iowa, didn't do so well in New Hampshire, but it allowed him enough time to do things like run well in Georgia, run well in Missouri, and so forth.

VAN SUSTEREN: To the extent you can generalize, if you do well in Iowa, you can expect to do better in South Carolina than you would in New Hampshire?

ROVE: That's my general reaction because, again, I think Iowa -- you know, New Hampshire doesn't pay much attention to Iowa. South Carolina pays attention to New Hampshire. Even though that -- we view the South Carolina -- we say South Carolina and we think typical Republican Party in the South. However, it's a very diverse party.

You've got a lot of retirees along the coast and the lower part of the state who came from the Midwest and the Northeast and have a slightly more moderate flavor and emphasize economic and national defense issues over social issues. And then in the up-country, you've got a party that is more likely to emphasize the social issues. And in the middle of the state, you got, you know, a mix of, you know, sort of small town conservatives and Chamber of Commerce types who emphasize both.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you get with an endorsement like a Governor Christie?

ROVE: You get -- you get -- you get two things. You get a brief moment of positive attention, where you get some of the advocates of that person and some of their detractors, but you get a nice little attention. It soaks up the day or the news cycle.

The second thing you can get is if they're willing to go on the campaign trail and actually do things for you because you quickly get into a place where you can't be everywhere that everybody wants you to be. And having a strong surrogate like a Christie or Bobby Jindal for Rick Perry allows you to cover additional ground and keep your people fired up.

I noticed, for example, that Governor Christie almost immediately did an e-mail -- fund-raising e-mail appeal on behalf of Governor Romney. That's the kind of advantage you get if you've got a surrogate who's willing to throw themselves into the race.

VAN SUSTEREN: I have the sense -- and maybe I listen to too much TV and too much of the pundits -- that Governor Kerry -- or not Governor Kerry, Governor Perry seems sort of less enthusiastic. It's almost like the wind is out of his sails. Maybe he'll get a second wind. But does he seem -- is he less of a factor, or do we go back to your original thesis that it's way too soon?

ROVE: It's way too soon. Look, first of all, clearly, particularly from his wife's comments, you can see that their mental state is not particularly good. But he gave a good speech today on energy, and he's got $15 million in the bank.

And the question is, does he have the start of an organization, and does he have a message that allows him to compete in these early states? I suspect that South Carolina's going to be pretty good for him, and if he keeps up this fund-raising pace, then he can be competitive with Mitt Romney on the tube in these early states.

It's probably too early to be up on television. I wouldn't be worried that people are not up on television. Rick Santorum has some radio ads. That's probably useful for him. But if you're well known, like Perry or Romney, it is better for you not -- or Cain, it is better for you not to be on television in some of these early states but to be there in person because this was a critical mistake Romney made four years ago.

In March, April and May of 2007, before he had really introduced himself personally to people of Iowa, he ran a bunch of television ads. And I can't tell you how many people in Iowa I knew from politics said, you know, He's a hot dog. You know, he shouldn't be running television ads now. We'd rather see him at the Lincoln Day dinner or the -- or the, you know, the candidate forum than to see his ads on television.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, let me jump way ahead and play the board game of politics. Let's assume Romney's the nominee. Let's assume that Herman Cain is the nominee. And this is really the board game jumping ahead. What would they be looking for, both of them, in terms of a vice presidential nominee to compliment themselves?

ROVE: Well, look, it depends on whether they're going to make a political or a governing decision. If they're going to make a political decision, then both of them would probably say, in the case of -- in the case of Romney, he'd probably say, I want somebody from the emerging South, like a Marco Rubio, or another successful governor from the Midwest. Or you know, if it's Herman Cain, he would like somebody who's got some solid government experience, much like Barack Obama did when he was worried about his foreign policy credentials and picked the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden.

But look, the -- I learned in 2000 -- I was opposed to Dick Cheney being chosen because I thought it was a political mistake. We didn't need to worry about Wyoming. He was an oil man. He'd served in Bush 41's administration. We were trying to develop the image of Bush 43 as his own man, and so forth.

But the president -- then Governor Bush -- decided to go with Dick Cheney. And the reason was, he said, the day after -- I'd sort of made the case against Dick Cheney to both he and Dick Cheney -- the governor of Texas called me and said, I'm going to go with Cheney, and the reason I'm going to go with him is because I'm thinking through the lens of who would be the best partner to me in the Oval Office, and if something terrible were to happen to me, whom would the country have confidence in to be president? You were right about those political problems. They're political problems. Go solve them. I'm not concerned with the politics. You go work that out.

VAN SUSTEREN: But isn't it the same thing, though -- I mean, take -- take the decision to select Vice President Biden. That was a governing decision because Vice President Biden had been chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations for a long time. So it was a good governing decision because he had experience...

ROVE: Well, except -- except...

VAN SUSTEREN: But it's also a good political decision because it also filled sort of the void that...

ROVE: I think it was a wasted -- I think it was a wasted call. Look, Joe...


ROVE: Yes, look, Joe Biden's advice on Afghanistan -- you know, there's a new article out about the decision on Libya, in which once again, Joe Biden is on the losing end of all of these arguments.

VAN SUSTEREN: (INAUDIBLE) the president went the other way.

ROVE: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. So if his advice was so important to Senator Obama, why is President Obama basically dismissing all of his advice?

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, I think, though, that it looked good, I think.

ROVE: It looked good.

VAN SUSTEREN: Politically! Politically, it looked...


VAN SUSTEREN: ... looked like it was a governing decision.

ROVE: Yes, but it wasn't.

VAN SUSTEREN: (INAUDIBLE) smart political decision.

ROVE: It wasn't. It wasn't. Who thinks Joe Biden -- who would be confident if Joe Biden were president of the United States? I for one would not be.

VAN SUSTEREN: I happen to like the vice president.

ROVE: Yes, well -- but look, you're right, it was a political decision, and it was not a governing decision. And that's the lens through which most people who have to make this decision make it.

I mean, look, Joe Lieberman was a big advantage to the Democratic ticket, but I -- and he -- and it would have been a good governing decision. But we now know in retrospect it was a political decision. Al Gore wanted to have another member of the Senate to have a -- to have -- you know, it was something to allow him to leverage the -- Florida. He wanted to get at sort of south Florida Jews who were not excited about him. Why not take this extraordinary step, put the first Jewish American on the ticket, and off they went to the races.

But that's how most of them make it, and I suspect President Obama made a political decision. I suspect both Mitt Romney and Herman Cain and Rick Perry would also make a political decision. It's interesting, though, if they make a governing decision instead.

VAN SUSTEREN: Always exciting, though, isn't it?

ROVE: It is. It is.

VAN SUSTEREN: It's going to be fun to watch. Anyway, Karl, thank you.

ROVE: You bet.