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BLITZER: Welcome back to “LATE EDITION.”
In just a moment I’ll speak with the former Republican presidential nominee and Senator Bob Dole. First, though, let’s go to CNN headquarters in Atlanta for a quick check of what’s in the news right now.
BLITZER: In just 11 days, President Bush will lay out his case for four more years in office when he formally accepts his party’s nomination at the Republican National Convention in New York.
Joining us now with his special insight into this presidential race, the former Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole.
Thanks very much for joining us.
BOB DOLE, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Wolf, thank you.
BLITZER: Let’s talk a little bit about this whole Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad campaign, what’s going on. It’s a sensitive subject. I’m interested in your thoughts.
First of all, let’s have a little excerpt from this latest ad they’ve put out going after John Kerry.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KERRY: They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads…
JOE PONDER, SWIFT BOAT VETERANS FOR TRUTH: The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating.
KERRY: … randomly shot at civilians…
PONDER: And it hurt me more than any physical wounds I had.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: First of all, Senator, what’s your bottom line on this whole ad campaign?
DOLE: I think this can hurt Kerry more than all the medal controversy. I mean, one day he’s saying that we were shooting civilians, cutting off their ears, cutting off their heads, throwing away his medals or his ribbons. The next day he’s standing there, “I want to be president because I’m a Vietnam veteran.”
And I think he’s – I said months ago, “John, don’t go too far.” And I think he’s got himself into this wicket now where he can’t extricate himself because not every one of these people can be Republican liars. There’s got to be some truth to the charges.
But this is on tape. This is on television. This is before the Senate committee.
BLITZER: Just to remind our viewers, this is when he came back from Vietnam. He testified in 1971…
DOLE: Ran for Congress. BLITZER: Right. And he was quoting a whole bunch of other Vietnam veterans who opposed the war and making these allegations of atrocities, if you will, war crimes committed by U.S. troops.
And a lot of people have always suggested that what’s really angered these Vietnam veterans, the other side, is, not so much what he did or didn’t do when he served in Vietnam, but what he did when he came back.
DOLE: I think that’s true. And I think this ad’s going to take – it’s going to be tough on Kerry because – and he says, “Well, this is all hearsay,” what he picked up from other veterans. But he said it. He said it before a Senate committee. It had worldwide attention.
BLITZER: The fact that he said on Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press” a few months ago he probably went too far. He was a young man just back from Vietnam, and he probably shouldn’t have said some of those things during those statements when he came home from Vietnam. Does that ease the responsibility that he has?
DOLE: Maybe he should apologize to all the other 2.5 million veterans who served. He wasn’t the only one in Vietnam.
And here’s, you know, a good guy, good friend. I respect his record. But three Purple Hearts and never bled that I know of. I mean, they’re all superficial wounds. Three Purple Hearts and you’re out.
I think Senator Kerry needs to talk about his Senate record, which is pretty thin. That’s probably why he’s talking about his war record, which is pretty confused.
BLITZER: You know, the American public seems to be paying attention to these Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads. There’s a CBS poll that came out. I think this is the right poll. Here it is. Presidential choice among veterans, 37 percent support Kerry-Edwards, 55 percent Bush-Cheney. But after the convention it was at 46 percent.
He seems to be losing support among veterans, which is an influential bloc of voters out there.
DOLE: You know, I think it’s too early to tell what – nobody maybe in six – how many days left? Not many. There are eight weeks. Maybe this will be forgotten. Maybe there will be something else. But I think this has certainly damaged Senator Kerry.
And I think it’s partly his own doing. He can’t lay out – I remember in '96, I was the veteran in the race. Bill Clinton avoided the draft. And we didn’t have all this trouble over my service versus his non-service. There wasn’t much written about it. People accepted the fact that I had a record.
Now there’s all the talk about Bush’s National Guard service. Has he told the truth? Has he released the records? And one way, I think, for John Kerry, who I consider to be a friend, is to maybe apologize to all these people for something he may have said at a very early age, and let us have those records he’s given to the author…
BLITZER: Douglas Brinkley.
DOLE: Douglas Brinkley, the records and the journals…
BLITZER: Who wrote a book about his experience.
DOLE: Yes. But somebody ought to find out the facts. I think this is going to be – could be the sleeper issue.
BLITZER: Based on what I’m hearing you say, you tend to suggest that these Swift Boat Veterans have a point when they go out and make the statements they’re making. If so, you would seem to disagree with John McCain, who’s also a friend of yours…
DOLE: Yes, but, John wasn’t there. He was up in the air. He wasn’t any…
BLITZER: He was a POW.
DOLE: Well, yes. But he wasn’t – he was in Vietnam, but he wasn’t on the swift boat.
BLITZER: But listen to what he said only this past week. I want you to listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA: I believe that President Bush served honorably in the National Guard, and I believe that service in the National Guard is honorable. And I believe that John Kerry served honorably.
And there are more compelling issues. Today, probably, an American will die in Iraq, a young American. We should be focusing our attention on winning that war, not trying to refight one that’s been over for 30 years.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DOLE: And John McCain is absolutely correct. But as I recall, it was Terry McAuliffe who made reference to President Bush as being AWOL. They dragged up all the stuff. I think there were 80 stories in the media about the National Guard. There’s only been about eight or 10 on the so-called Kerry flap.
So it seems to me they’ve initiated it, and now they’ve got into some rather murky area. But I don’t – I wish they’d forget it. It’s not about whether or not you’re…
BLITZER: There’s a lot more important issues in this campaign that should be focused on. But McCain earlier said that these attack ads against John Kerry, who he says is a friend of his, are dishonest, dishonorable, and he would like the president specifically to disassociate himself from these ads.
DOLE: Well, then he is cooperating with the committee. Then he is coordinating. I listened to John O’Neill the other night, who is one of the sponsors of these ads, saying in no way…
BLITZER: He’s the author of this new book.
DOLE: Yes, he’s the author of the book, “Unfit for Command,” saying we’re not going to listen to the president. There isn’t any coordination. That would be coordination.
President Bush has disavowed the ads. What else can he do?
BLITZER: He’s disavowed all these 527 ads, these so-called organizations, these independent organizations.
DOLE: Moveon.org, which is funding all these vicious attacks against President Bush.
You know, I would like to talk about – you know, I think they ought to talk about the record. But Senator Kerry’s record in the Senate, I served with him for 14 years, I can’t remember a single piece of legislation that bore his name. And maybe he did a lot of good work, but it wasn’t very obvious.
BLITZER: What a lot of Democrats are saying, they’re suggesting there’s a pattern here in going after John Kerry’s Vietnam war record, similar to what Republicans did to John McCain in the South Carolina primary in 2000.
At that time, John McCain was in a neck-and-neck battle with the president for the Republican presidential nomination. I want you to listen to what he said to the president in that debate on February 15, 2000.
DOLE: I saw it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCAIN: But let me tell you what really went over the line. Governor Bush had an event, and he paid for it, and stood next to a spokesman for a fringe veterans group. That fringe veteran said that John McCain had abandoned the veterans.
Now, I don’t know how if you can understand this, George, but that really hurts.
MCCAIN: That really hurts.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DOLE: Yes, that does hurt. I mean, I’m a veteran. And these same people now are going after Bush. I didn’t see them going after Clinton in '96 because he didn’t serve at all. They were going after me on my record.
That’s why I say we ought to get back to the issues. Let’s talk about the issues. Let’s talk about taxes, the environment, jobs. John Kerry – very articulate. You know, he’s not a…
BLITZER: Well, because one of the things you’re suggesting – and I want to make sure our viewers are not left with the wrong impression, Senator, is that you seem to think there is some doubt whether John Kerry deserved those ribbons and medals that he got, serving in Vietnam.
I want you to listen to what Senator John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a friend of yours, he was on this program sitting in that seat only one week ago. He was secretary of the Navy when John Kerry got that Silver Cross. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN WARNER ®, VIRGINIA: We did extraordinary, careful checking on that type of medal, a very high one, when it goes through the Secretariat. So I’d stand by the process that awarded him that medal, and I think we best acknowledge that his heroism did gain that recognition.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The Silver Star he was talking about. You obviously believe Senator Warner.
DOLE: Yes, but I don’t think Senator Warner drafted the citation or even, you know, they’d gone so far as to say Kerry wrote up his own record.
BLITZER: But what Senator Warner said is there was a process that, when it got to him, the secretary of the Navy, he had total confidence that it was justified. And that if he got the Silver Star, John Kerry, he believes it was justified.
DOLE: I don’t quarrel with that. I said John Kerry’s a hero. But what I will always quarrel about are the Purple Hearts. I mean, the first one, whether he ought to have a Purple Heart – he got two in one day, I think. And he was out of there in less than four months, because three Purple Hearts and you’re out.
And as far as I know, he’s never spent one day in the hospital. I don’t think he draws any disability pay. He doesn’t have any disability. And boasting about three Purple Hearts when you think of some of the people who really got shot up in Vietnam…
BLITZER: And speaking about people getting shot up in Vietnam, the Democrats, at least some Democrats, are now going after the president and the vice president for avoiding service in Vietnam. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, Democrat…
DOLE: He’s not a very good one to complain because he was hiding out in Japan, claiming he was a Vietnam veteran.
BLITZER: Well, that’s another matter.
DOLE: Yes, I know it is.
BLITZER: Let’s talk about what he said. He said this. He said, “Those of us who served and those of us who went in the military don’t like it when someone like a Dick Cheney comes out and he wants to be tough. Yes, he’ll be tough. He’ll be tough with somebody else’s blood, somebody else’s kids, but not when it was his turn to go.”
So there’s two sides to this type of debate.
DOLE: Oh, no doubt about it. You know, this is a very sensitive – a lot of mothers and a lot of fathers and a lot of wives who have lost their husbands and a lot of mothers who have lost their sons – this is a very, very sensitive area. And it ought to be treated that way.
Somebody ought to be, somebody like Wolf Blitzer, ought to take a week off and go out and give us the facts because people, the American people, will believe you.
Right now, there’s probably a certain amount of truth here and a certain amount of truth there. But we don’t know what the real truth is.
BLITZER: I’m not so sure the American would believe me if I…
DOLE: Well, I would.
BLITZER: Maybe you would.
Let’s talk about the convention a little bit. How is this race shaping up right now?
DOLE: Very tight. Very close.
BLITZER: How tight?
DOLE: Well, you know I’m one of these junkies, so I watch all the polls. I watch the battleground states. I see two points, one point – nobody really knows at this time.
But I’d say right now Kerry has the edge.
BLITZER: Because of the battleground states? So you’re looking at the Electoral College…
DOLE: I’m looking at the Electoral College in the battleground states. And even though they didn’t get a bounce in the convention, you know, people got to know John Kerry. I think most people liked what they saw. There’s a little backlash now because of all the Vietnam thing. But he’s probably ahead. So Bush has got his work cut out for him.
BLITZER: What does he need to do at the convention, the president, in order to get a bounce out of his own convention?
DOLE: What he needs to do is what I was never very good at, and that’s sticking to your message and talking about leadership and talking about global terror and talking about taxes and talking about values and talking about what he’s done for Medicare, the Medicare drug benefit.
BLITZER: What’s more important, reaching out to those undecided, moderate – the moderate middle, the swing voters, or making sure you have your real conservative base in front of you so that they can go out and get out the vote and get their friends to vote?
Because these are two different audiences and you have two different appeals going to the conservative wing of the Republican Party as opposed to the more moderate wing.
DOLE: Well, I’m planning on a very – you know, I tried to reach out to the moderate base. And some of the real conservatives, the ones that are way out there, never really trusted Bob Dole.
I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t tough enough, da, da, da. You know, my voting record was OK, but – but when you reach out and try to expand the base, which I think you should do whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, and that’s what I think George Bush should do.
He ought to reach out – most people are in the middle in this country. They’re not on the far right or the far left. They’re out there in the middle where Eisenhower was and where Harry Truman was, where most of these great leaders were.
BLITZER: Speaking of the far-right wing of the Republican Party, Pat Buchanan has a new book that’s coming out. The New York Times reported on it today: “Where the Right went Wrong.”
And he goes after the president, this President Bush, just as he went after his father in '92. “The Iraq invasion is the greatest strategic blunder in 40 years. If prudence is the mark of a conservative, Mr. Bush has ceased to be a conservative.”
Pat Buchanan I assume still has some following out there among some conservatives.
DOLE: Some. You know, Pat’s a great writer. But he’s always been sort of an isolationist. So it doesn’t surprise me. But you know, he’s one of those.
Is he going to vote for John Kerry? I don’t think so. I think he’ll support Bush. He’s disappointed in Bush when he measures him by his standards. But Buchanan didn’t get a nomination, as I know of, as I recall.
But anyway, that’s his right, it’s his view. It’s a free country. It’s the same with the people on the swift boats, on both sides. It’s a free country. All these people might be telling it how – truthfully as they see it some 30 years later.
BLITZER: But you’re still a political news junkie, huh?
DOLE: Oh, yes. I don’t give up.
BLITZER: You still watch all this stuff.
Thanks very much, Senator, for joining us.
DOLE: Thank you. Thank you.