SHOW: CNN CROSSFIRE 16:30
HEADLINE: War on the Campaign Trail
GUESTS: Albert Wynn, Mike Pence
BYLINE: Wolf Blitzer, Robert Novak, Paul Begala
Has Senator John Kerry gained an edge over President Bush following a difficult week in Iraq?
NOVAK: While a bitter war is waged in Iraq, John Kerry and other Democrats try to make the most of it back home.
In the CROSSFIRE to talk about the war and its impact on the campaign trail, Congressman Albert Wynn, Democrat of Maryland, and Congressman Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana.
BEGALA: Gentlemen, good to see you.
BEGALA: Thank you for joining us.
BEGALA: I know you're doing important work on the Hill, so taking a minutes to do this means a lot to us.
There's a new poll just out last hour from CNN and "TIME" magazine. We asked a lot of questions. Let me go through one of them that I think is really telling. Who would do a better job on Iraq? On that indicator, John Kerry beats President Bush. Now, that's a catastrophe. President Bush, he's incumbent president. We're at war. He describes himself as a wartime president. It's clearly central to his message. And he's losing to John Kerry even on who can do a better job in Iraq. Isn't that a disaster for your party?
REP. MIKE PENCE ®, INDIANA: Well, I don't think it's a disaster, Paul, in the context of as difficult an April as we've had on the ground in Iraq, with al-Sadr and other militia members launching efforts and then of course the lurid photographs of the disgraceful behavior of U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison.
I think what's remarkable is the resilience of the confidence of the American people in this commander in chief. Despite all of that for five weeks, America believes in George W. Bush.
BEGALA: At the same-they believe in him, just not as much as John Kerry. And what's interesting is, during that same time, very bad news for the president, many of us believe because his policy is failing.
But, at the same time, he spent I think $70 million of campaign money attacking John Kerry, and John Kerry has only begun to run an ad about his biography and his heroism in war, and yet he is beating him. Both guys have been hammered, but people are turning away from the incumbent president and toward John Kerry. It suggests that those attacks on Kerry haven't worked, have they?
PENCE: Well, I don't know that they have. I'm not a great big fan of negative campaigning personally.
BEGALA: God, I love it.
PENCE: Look, I'll tell you what. This is an evenly divided country. The last election proved that very vividly. I think it still is.
I just really believe that the disgraceful behavior of a handful of U.S. soldiers and maybe some superiors that failed at Abu Ghraib prison has created some uneasiness on the part of the American people. But I think other polls, Paul-it may frustrate you to see it-other polls continue to demonstrate the American people support the secretary of defense and support this commander in chief.
NOVAK: Congressman Albert Wynn, I consider you a serious person. So I want to ask you this question. Don't you feel uncomfortable that your colleagues in the Democratic Party are rejoicing in the failure of American arms in Iraq and the failure of decent behavior by American personnel and say, any bad news we get out of Iraq, that's how we can beat Bush? Isn't that a sickening performance?
REP. ALBERT WYNN (D), MARYLAND: Well, the fact is, we're not rejoicing. It's really quite sad. We're quite frustrated.
You left out the fact that over 700 Americans have died, 20,000 Americans have been injured in this misbegotten war. We're not rejoicing. We're just saying to the American public, it's time for a new direction. This administration is not leading us in the right way.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
NOVAK: You know, one of your colleagues, distinguished colleagues, is Tom Lantos, California Democrat. And I don't think anybody has ever said he is a moderate or anything of the kind, but he is a patriot. And I want you to listen to what he said about Iraq and tell me where you disagree with him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. TOM LANTOS (D), CALIFORNIA: Success in Iraq is a bipartisan national interest. Not only is the credibility of the United States at stake in the region and around the globe, but an Iraq collapsing into chaos would be a heart of darkness in the Middle East.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
NOVAK: Wouldn't it be better if all Democrats talked that way?
WYNN: Well, that's not really the point.
We don't disagree with what he's saying. We disagree with the way President Bush is running the war. He's losing those objectives. We don't have enough equipment for our troops. Our Humvees do not have the proper armor. We don't have properly trained troops. We have fighting men performing the job of prison guards. The war has been mismanaged.
There's no question that if we could have democracy in Iraq, it would be a good thing. Our problem is the secretary of defense and the president are not handling the situation properly. And that's what Democrats will continue to point out.
BEGALA: Congressman Lantos used the phrase
PENCE: Can I speak to that just a little bit?
PENCE: Albert's a good friend. But I couldn't disagree more strongly with the suggestion that this war is being mismanaged. All the presentation, Albert, on the Hill...
BEGALA: So things are going great in Iraq?
PENCE: No, it's not going great because our enemy is ruthless as we learned this week with the horrific slaughter of an American on what turned about to be worldwide television. Our enemies are ruthless and will stop at nothing to end the advance of freedom and democracy in Iraq. You can't manage the enemy. You just defeat the enemy.
BEGALA: So why did he say we would be greeted as liberators? People are beginning to doubt his credibility. We asked him
PENCE: We were greeted as liberators. I remember the
BEGALA: This is how they greet liberators? They've got a hell of a culture over there if they greet liberators this way.
PENCE: Americans were greeted with warmth. And the soldiers I met with six, seven weeks ago in Iraq said that...
BEGALA: Warmth? Those are fires, Congressman. That's not warmth.
PENCE: ... to this day, the Iraqi people bring food to them, bring flowers, and say to them, please don't leave until our country is secure.
WYNN: The soldiers say to me, we don't have enough soldiers. We don't have enough protective equipment. We don't have equipment that the Humvees should have, the armor that they should have. The soldiers say this war was not planned well. Certainly, the postwar effort was not planned well. That's the fundamental problem.
NOVAK: Congressman Wynn, Paul cherry-picked from that CNN/"TIME" poll. The poll showed a lot of other things. Let me just run down some of the things it showed.
Should Rumsfeld resign? No, 57 percent. Should we release additional photos of Iraq prisoner abuse? No, 66 percent. Can the U.S. win the war in Iraq? Yes, 67 percent. Will the U.S. win the war in Iraq? Yes, 52 percent. Now, this is what I like. How things are going in the U.S. today, well, 58 percent.
So the idea that this is a president in a freefall, it depends what question you ask and what answer you get, doesn't it?
WYNN: Well, there are a lot of polls, but the one Bush has to worry about is the one that says that people don't approve of the way he's running the country. That's the fundamental poll that he has to be concerned about.
The other thing is, there is still the problem of the economy and all the people who are unemployed. There are a lot of reasons why this president, this administration...
NOVAK: Unemployment is real low.
WYNN: What town are you in?
NOVAK: I'm in Washington.
NOVAK: I mean, isn't it bad-isn't it bad news for the Democrats, Albert, when how are things going, well or badly, well is 3-2? Isn't that bad news for the Democrats?
WYNN: I think the bad news for the Republicans is when people say do you approve of the way the president is running the country, the majority of folks say, no, they do not.
BEGALA: I'm sorry to interrupt, but in fact all the poll numbers Bob cites are not about the president, but the election is. And one of his great strengths used to be the notion he was a Texas truth- teller.
And yet he told us there were weapons of mass destruction. There weren't. He told us there were ties to al Qaeda. There weren't. He told us that we would be welcomed as liberators. We were not. And so today, the American people don't trust George Bush. We asked this in our poll. Is President Bush a leader you can trust or do you have doubts and reservations about him?
Let me put it up on the screen. Only 39 percent trust him; 59 percent, they have doubts and reservations about his trustworthiness.
BEGALA: People don't think President Bush don't tell the truth, Congressman.
PENCE: I think the president is a truth-teller. He's a man of extraordinary integrity, Paul. And I think we've seen over the last three years of this administration a refreshing break from your former employer, who brought disgraceful behavior to the Oval Office and to other White House.
BEGALA: No disrespect, but what are you drinking at work
BEGALA: If you think George Bush is telling the truth what he said about weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda in Iraq...
PENCE: No, I'm saying I think...
PENCE: Paul, the reality is that whether you want to interpret the way our troops bravely fought their way into Iraq as not having been received as liberators, the hundreds of Iraqis I met with seven weeks ago expressed a different viewpoint.
BEGALA: They love us. Oh, yes.
PENCE: They were grateful to these people. The WMDs, we will get to the bottom of it.
PENCE: This president is an honest man and the American people know that.
BEGALA: No, 59 percent think he's not, sir.
NOVAK: Time for a break, Mr. Begala.
NOVAK: Next, in "Rapid Fire," we'll ask our guests if they can do anything about John Kerry's lack of likability.
And later, I'll share one of the most exhilarating experiences in my long life.
And right after the break, word that one of those facing court- martial in the Iraq prison abuse scandal is turning on some of his fellows. Wolf Blitzer reports on that.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
Coming up at the top of the hour, another American soldier faces a court-martial, arraignment in connection with the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal.
Murdered hostage Nicholas Berg is buried in West Chester, Pennsylvania, but questions continue to surround the circumstances of his life and of his death.
And have you ever been to a royal wedding? We'll take you to one in Denmark. Those stories, much more only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."
Now back to CROSSFIRE.
BEGALA: Thank you, Wolf.
Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.
Time now for "Rapid Fire," where we serve up our questions a whole lot faster than President Bush can change the subject from Iraq. The topic is that war and its impact on the campaign trail. In the CROSSFIRE, Republican Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana and Democratic Congressman Albert Wynn of Maryland.
NOVAK: Congressman Wynn, pollster Mark Penn, who worked for Bill Clinton, says that John Kerry's problem is a lack of likability. How do you get a likability transplant on your candidate?
WYNN: I think John Kerry is very likable. In addition to that, he was a hero. In addition to that, he's right on the issues. I think John Kerry is going to do just fine. And you know what? The polls show it.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BEGALA: Congressman Pence, are we on the right course in Iraq or do we need a new direction in our Iraqi policy?
PENCE: I think there's only two courses we can take, forward or backward. And this commander in chief will lead America forward to the freedom and democracy and stability that the people of Iraq deserve.
NOVAK: Albert Wynn, if you wanted to really get out of Iraq tomorrow morning, why not vote for Ralph Nader? He says we're going to get out right away if you elect me as president.
WYNN: Ralph Nader is not the right candidate. It's clearly John Kerry who has a balanced, sensible approach to internationalize the California, bring in other allies, and also treat the Muslim community with respect. I think his approach is the one that will serve the country best. I think, again, the polls show it.
BEGALA: Congressman Pence, the group Media Matters For America is running an ad condemning Rush Limbaugh for comparing the prisoner abuse to a fraternity prank. Do you join in that condemnation or do you support Limbaugh's characterization of those atrocities?
PENCE: I thought that characterization by Rush Limbaugh was very unfortunate. I think the behavior of those military personnel was truly disgraceful. They need to be brought to justice and any superiors responsible for that behavior need to be held to account.
BEGALA: Mr. Novak.
NOVAK: Thank you.