'Special Report' Panel on Republican Presidential Politics and Fred Thompson's Timing

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume" from September 4, 2007. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: Come on in, the water's fine. As you know, he and I have been good friends for many years, and I welcome him to the race.


BRIT HUME, HOST: A bit of grace there from John McCain, who, like all the other Republican presidential candidates, may be wondering whether this business of getting in early is overrated what with Fred Thompson, who is not going to be in until later this week, will not be in Wednesday night's debate, doing very well indeed.

Some thoughts on all this now from Fred Barnes, the executive editor of The Weekly Standard, Nina Easton, Washington bureau chief of Fortune Magazine, and Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call — FOX News contributors all.

Let's take a look at a couple of polls. These are averages composed by the Web site Real Clear Politics of a whole bunch of polls, and the national poll shows Rudy Giuliani in the lead with 28 percent. But look who is second — Fred Thompson, 16 percent, ahead of Mitt Romney and John McCain, both.

And the picture is a little different in the three major states, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where the picture is — where you'll see that Mitt Romney is leading in two of those states, Rudy Giuliani is second, but there is Fred Thompson in third place, doing very nicely, especially in South Carolina, where he is a at 20 percent.

So what to make of this, what to make of the fact that while all these other candidates, eight of them will be debating here on Wednesday night. Fred Thompson will be taking an ad that runs right before the debate and then appearing later that night on "The Tonight Show."

Some in New Hampshire are saying that is a snub. Is that a snub or a smart move — Fred?

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Thompson will have a bigger audience, that's for sure, then a presidential debate during the primaries. Look, everything up to now was the preseason. Now the season begins. And Fred Thompson was always going to have to do well when the season began. These are the three months leading up to the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, and everything else that is going on in those first months.

So Fred Thompson did not hurt himself. And the other candidates may have helped themselves a little, but the way I see the race now, it is a three-way tie among Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson. Then, somewhere, a little behind you have John McCain, and then somewhere back there is Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, and I'm not sure where the others are.

But Fred Thompson is going to have to shine. But he was always going to have to shine, so staying out didn't hurt him.

MORT KONDRACKE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, ROLL CALL: I think he has missed an opportunity. He has to going to have to mix it up with these other opponents at some point. And why he is ducking this one, it's not clear.

There's more evidence of disorganization in the Thompson campaign than there is big-time strategy. He was going to announce around July 4, and it was going to be before Labor Day. He was going to participate in this debate, now he's not participating in this debate.

There have been people quitting his campaign. His performances on the stump haven't been all that great. His fund-raising hasn't been that great.

So he is going to get a bump from Jay Leno, but he has got to come into this thing. The time is short. He's got time to do this, but he is going to have to have a fast start. And we'll see whether he has a fast start or not, but the lead up has not been great.

NINA EASTON, WASHINGTON BUREUA CHIEF OF FORTUNE MAGAZINE: He doesn't have time to stumble out of the block. And I think he is an actor. He likes scripts. He is entering in a very scripted way, which prevents him from stumbling immediately.

As Mort said, he's had a lot of problems in the campaign. He didn't raise the money that he thought he was going to raise. Now he does have this southern strategy, apparently, where he's hoping to show well in Tennessee and Florida.

But can he really, at this late date, be up and are ready for the big states this time around? California, New York, and so on? That is just a logistical issue.

And McCain, over the course of the summer, we saw how much trouble he had both when you're mixing it up over issues, i.e., immigration, and running a campaign. These are big, big, seminal points in a campaign, and he is jumping in pretty late to be tackling…

BARNES: This is what the preseason is about.

Mort says there's disorganization, and, obviously, there was disorganization. And that's what you get rid of during the preseason, and you hope you are better honed.

Look, we're going to have a very early verdict on Fred Thompson, it will be by the end of this week. He will have the 30 second ad. He will be on Jay Leno. He will go to Iowa on Thursday and make his formal announcement, and then he'll have a few speeches leading up to the weekend.

And we are going to know very early if he hit the ground running or not.

KONDRACKE: In the lead up to the debate tomorrow night, there was one other interesting thing that happened, and that was Romney's appeared yesterday, here in Durham, actually, he was asked about the Iraq war, and he said it is a mess.

And he has adopted what sounded very like the Iraq Study Group's strategy, that we are going to start withdrawing troops, we are going to move to a place outside Iraq, but we're going to be available in case we have to respond to an emergency, or something like that.

It sounds as though — he is pursuing…

HUME: Do you think he'll emerge as the antiwar candidate?

KONDRACKE: He is the doviest of the major candidates, and I think that reflects his timing strategy. He is an Iowa and New Hampshire first kind of guy. Iowa is notoriously, even though it's the Hawkeye state, it's not a super hawk state, and people there tend to be less interventionist than other places. New Hampshire a little bit less so.

HUME: Well, he's not the only one talking about the possibility of troop withdrawal. The president is as well. Congress is back at work, and preparing for a showdown with the president on Iraq. So we will get to that subject next. Stay tuned.



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: If the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces.

SEN HARRY REID, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER, D-NEV.: We will soon hear, as I have indicated, from the president and his generals. But we know already that political progress has failed.


HUME: Well, there you have two views. The president says things are going so well in Iraq that if it continues, he will be prepared to withdraw some troops. And then you hear Harry Reid say that the political progress, which he and other Democratic critics of the war have made their principle subject here, has failed.

So what about all? And what about what the president said yesterday — Nina?

EASTON: Well, this is shaping up, I think, going into the delivery of the Petraeus report next week, this is shaping up as the Iraq war's political football by both sides. And I think it's once again going to attribute to the 18 percent approval rating of Congress and 30 percent approval rating of the president.

What you've got is the Petraeus report, which is largely based on benchmarks about the central government. And that's what the Democrats are going to latch onto — the political part of it.

And the GAO, the research arm of Congress, came out with a report saying that look, that these benchmarks haven't been met. Now, the White House disputes a couple of those key issues, but those reports are based on how things are going in central Baghdad.

The progress that has been seen, and is sort of a surprise, is on the ground, as we know. Sunni sheikhs are involved with troops. They have turned against al-Qaeda. So the White House is seizing on that to show that, yes, there's progress, but don't pull the rug out from under us.

But this is the time there should be serious consideration — you are hearing it from Democrats as well — serious consideration about how to not leave this country irresponsibly. And if Harry Reid is going to get out there and turn this into a political football and the White House responds in kind, I just think you're going to see more disgust on the part of the American public.

KONDRACKE: The center of gravity in Washington in this conflict is Republicans, moderate Republicans. Will they break from the president?

And I think that because of the progress that the surge has shown on the military front in Anbar and Diyala, and also in terms of suppressing civilian casualties, and so on, and in addition, the president's promise that if this all plays out well, he will begin withdrawing troops on his own, that the Republicans are going to hold.

And, therefore, the Democrats, when they attempt to cut off funds or impose the deadline, it is not going to work anymore than it worked last year.

On the other hand, the picture is mixed, not only on the national reconciliation front, but even on the local reconciliation front — supposed bottom up reconciliation. It's reconciliation by the Sunnis with us, possibly temporarily. It's not Sunnis and Shiites living together and learning how to cooperate and stuff like that.

So there's still a lot of sectarian violence going on. There's still a lot of sectarian animosity. So if and when we withdraw, that's the crucial time. That's when the civil war might break out again.

BARNES: Mort is wrong about the Sunnis. Look at what has happened among the Sunnis. And this is the most important that has happened in Iraq all year, and the GAO report doesn't deal with it at all.

And it happened not only in Anbar, where the president went, now probably the safest place in Iraq, it has been Diyala provinces, it's been the provinces in the so called "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad, and some others, where it's moving very rapidly, this bottom-up reconciliation.

HUME: What Mort was saying that it was with the Sunnis, but not so much with the Shia.

BARNES: Mort's point was that the Sunnis are not joining the coalition or the Iraqi government. Now you would be worried if these Sunnis, who are now fighting the insurgency, and are fighting and, really, defeating Al Qaeda, were just forming militias and doing that.

They are joining the Iraqi National Army in units with Shia soldiers as well. And they're joining the Iraqi National Police Force. So they're signing up for Iraq. They're not signing up to be a separatist movement among Sunnis.

Now, look, one of the things about the GAO report, it says in the report there is no clear evidence there has been any reduction in sectarian violence, none, because we can't tell what the perpetrators really were thinking when they did it.

When somebody drives a truck bomb into a Shia neighborhood and it blows up, it is probably sectarian violence. And it is way down.

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