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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript


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MR. RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday -- Romney bows out.

MR. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): (From videotape.) I feel I have to now step aside for our party and for our country.

MR. RUSSERT: McCain looks to November.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): (From videotape.) I intend to fight as hard as I can to ensure that our principles prevail over theirs.

MR. RUSSERT: But Huckabee fights on.

GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R-AR): Am I quitting? Let's get that settled right now. No, I'm not.

MR. RUSSERT: What now? We'll ask our guests, former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee. Then the Democrats -- yesterday Obama wins Louisiana primary and tweaks caucuses in Nebraska, Washington state, and the Virgin Islands building his lead with elected delegates.

But what about the role of unelected or so-called "super delegates?" And what does it mean that Hillary Clinton loaned money to her own campaign? Insight and analysis from David Broder of The Washington Post; David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network; Gwen Ifill of PBS's "Washington Week"; and Chuck Todd of NBC News.

But, first, here are the results of the Republican primary and caucuses held yesterday -- Louisiana, Mike Huckabee, 43; John McCain, 42. Kansas, Mike Huckabee, 60; John McCain, 24. Washington state, a very close race, McCain, 25; Huckabee, 24; Ron Paul, 21. The delegate count now estimated by NBC News, McCain at 721, Huckabee at 231, you need 1,191, and here to talk about that is the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, welcome back.

MR. HUCKABEE: Thank you, Tim, great to be back; great to still be on my feet after all this time, because we started right here when I announced on "Meet the Press" a little more than a year ago.

MR. RUSSERT: January of '07.


MR. RUSSERT: What's your take on yesterday?

MR. HUCKABEE: It was a great day for us. I mean, to win two out of the three, and one to still be too close to call even the day after -- I think that certainly would, by anybody's estimation, be a surprise to most of the pundits and observers who thought that this was all over last week.

MR. RUSSERT: You need 1,191 delegates; you have 231, as I mentioned. That means you need 960. There are only 819 delegates to win. So how are you going to do that?

MR. HUCKABEE: Well, you know, I don't know how the math works out, but there is always the chance something stumbles. The thing is, it's not just how many I need. Senator McCain also needs that many, and if he doesn't get that many, he's not the nominee, either. This thing could go to the convention, who knows?

But the one thing I know, when people say, "Isn't it a rather complicated and convoluted path to victory? You bet it is, but it's a real easy path to defeat -- all I have to do is walk off the field, the game is over.

MR. RUSSERT: When will you walk off the field? If Senator McCain gets the 1,191 will you quit?

MR. HUCKABEE: Well, I think then it's over. He is the nominee at that point. But until then, you know, I haven't had one of my supporters, Tim, come up to me and say, "Why don't you leave?" Not one -- none of my endorsers, none of the folks who are with me, and, in fact, they're so fired up that we're having record hits in contributions going to our website, we've had more traffic -- we had a $250,000 day. We've never had anything like that -- on, I think, Friday.

MR. RUSSERT: Next up is Tuesday. We have Maryland and Virginia. Here is Mason-Dixon latest polls out this morning -- McCain, 54; Huckabee, 23 in Maryland. In Virginia, it's McCain, 55; Huckabee, 27. You're the decided underdog in both those states.

MR. HUCKABEE: Oh, sure. That was before the caucuses and primaries yesterday. I think we're going to get a pretty nice little bump out of what happened in Kansas. You know, we weren't polling big in Kansas -- we won 60 to 24. Most people, in fact, we didn't think Louisiana was winnable because of the way they're structured. It's a very strange structure. That was a surprise to us. Washington state -- it's not quite yet over, it's still too close to call.

MR. RUSSERT: But the party has declared it over.

MR. HUCKABEE: They have, but there are some weird things. We're looking at some legal issues up there, and so we're not ready to concede that one until we understand how --

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think -- Tuesday, though, Virginia is your best state?

MR. HUCKABEE: I think we have a shot at Virginia. I think we have a shot at Maryland. You know, I'm just one of those people that think we have a shot at everywhere we go.

MR. RUSSERT: Mitt Romney was in a similar circumstance, as you were, decidedly behind in delegates. On Thursday made a different decision.


MR. RUSSERT: Let's watch what he said.

MR. MITT ROMNEY, (R-MA). (From videotape.) If I fight on my campaign, all the way to convention (cheers, applause) I want you to know I've given this a lot of thought, I'd forestall the launch of a national campaign and, frankly, I'd be making it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win. (Cheers, applause). Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.

MR. RUSSERT: "Make it easier for the Democrats to win." Are you concerned that you are draining resources that the Republicans need; that you are embarrassing Senator McCain, and that you're providing the Democrats an opportunity to win in November by continuing this fight?

MR. HUCKABEE: Oh, that's total nonsense, let me tell you why. First of all, I didn't set the rules for how one obtains the nomination, the party did. So the party sets rules and says, "Here is how the process works," they were the ones who front-loaded and allowed it to be front-loaded, so you had states like California and New York going up early, large delegate counts, but neither of those states, Tim, are going to be really decisive for the Republican in November.

The question I have is, do we tell the people in Texas and Ohio and Pennsylvania and all these other states -- North Carolina, Nebraska -- that you don't matter; we don't care what you think, we're going to go ahead and pull the plug on this whole thing and not even give you a chance to express yourselves?

If our party can't have a thoughtful discussion and some meaningful debate and dialog about the issues important to us as a party, then we're really not prepared to lead. I am prepared to lead, that's why I'm in this race, and I think I've got to continue to make the case. There are people who got me here with far fewer resources than other campaigns.

And the Democrats haven't settled their nominee, either. So for us to suddenly act like that we have to all step aside and have a coronation instead of an election, that's the antithesis of everything Republicans are supposed to believe. We believe that competition breeds excellence, and that the lack of it breeds mediocrity.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me bring you back to September of '06 -- some comments you made about John McCain back then, "I have a hard time seeing him being elected president just because I think, at times, some of his views have alienated very important segments of the Republican Party. I'm not sure he can mend the fences with the evangelical wing of the party."

Do you still have a hard time seeing John McCain elected president?

MR. HUCKABEE: Well, I have an easier time seeing him elected than I do either of the Democrats, but I do think he's got some challenges with -- not just evangelicals but, frankly, economic conservatives because of his opposition to the Bush tax cuts; to many of the conservatives because of his views on immigration that certainly weren't in the mainstream, they were way out of the mainstream and quite unorthodox.

He has been often the voice in the wilderness, and I have great respect -- as you know, I think it's interesting that the two most civil campaigns are the two that are still on their feet in the Republican Party. That's a healthy thing. We've not attacked each other. I think we have mutual respect. I like John McCain. I've said publicly, even on debate stages when I was debating him that I thought he was a man of honor, and I do believe that.

So this isn't about personal hostility, but there are significant differences that we have on the human life amendment, on embryonic stem call research on human embryos, on the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Act, which I think is one of the worst things that ever happened to election law in this country, and on the Bush tax cuts, and so I think that there's room for us to have that conversation.

MR. RUSSERT: On Thursday, you won the endorsement of Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family.


MR. RUSSERT: There is a headline saying that. This is a statement that Dr. Dobson issued, talking about John McCain, "I am deeply disappointed with the Republican Party seems poised to select the nominee who did not support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage; voted for embryonic stem cell research to kill nascent human beings; opposed tax cuts that ended the marriage penalty; has little regard for freedom of speech; organized a "Gang of 14" to preserve filibusters and judicial hearings; and has a legendary temper and often uses foul and obscene language. I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative; in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are."

Do you agree with Dr. Dobson?

MR. HUCKABEE: I would say that if you compare Senator McCain to Hillary or Obama, he's much a conservative, frankly, even within the Republican Party. I'm not going to say he's anything but a conservative. I've said that publicly before, I'll say it again.

I do think that there are issues where he takes sharp contrast with the mainstream of conservative thought -- sometimes economically, sometimes on the social issues, and those are real sensitive issues for many of us. The life issue is a very sensitive issue for me, Tim. I think that that's a defining issue for me personally, and I think it is for many conservatives because we think that if you are wrong on the life question, it reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of our nation and the equality of human beings; that there is intrinsic worth and value in each of us that that individual power and freedom that our founding fathers so believed in that they put their lives on the line for it. It begins to deteriorate at the point when you start saying some lives are worth more than others.

MR. RUSSERT: But Dr. Dobson, talking about Senator McCain's temper and use of foul and obscene language -- did Dr. Dobson tone down his rhetoric?

MR. HUCKABEE: That's Dr. Dobson's decision to make.

MR. RUSSERT: He says he will not vote for John McCain under any circumstances. You would, if he was the nominee?

MR. HUCKABEE: Oh, sure, I'm going to vote for the Republican nominee. I would have said that even when we had 10 people on the stage, because as I looked at the stage, I said, "Any of these guys are better than any of those guys" from my perspective.

MR. RUSSERT: Rush Limbaugh has taken after both you and John McCain. This is what Rush Limbaugh said, "I am here to tell you, if either of these two guys gets the nomination, "either McCain or Huckabee, "it's going to destroy the Republican Party. It's going to change it forever, be the end of it. A lot of people aren't going to vote -- you watch."

MR. HUCKABEE: I really like Rush. I've been a fan for many, many years and love his show. I think he's been a great voice of conservativism. He's been one of those guys that has used a lot of humor and sometimes some sharp-tongued zingers to kind of keep the movement thoughtful. I'm disappointed in what he said because I don't think it reflects me and my record. I think he allowed some people to put information in front of him that was not accurate.

But the point is, he's got a right to say what he thinks. I will make this observation, Tim -- you know, he did everything he could to knock McCain and me out of the process, and, unfortunately, for him, we're still the two that are on our feet.

MR. RUSSERT: You are an ordained Baptist minister. In November you appeared on "Believers Voice of Victory," this program here, with Kenneth Copeland, also a televangelist. This is how your home state paper described Mr. Copeland's difficulties, "The televangelist under investigation by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee turned a national ministers' gathering into a fundraising opportunity for Mike Huckabee, reportedly helping to raise thousands of dollars for the cash-strapped presidential campaign. The fundraiser was held at Kenneth Copeland Ministries campus, Newark Texas. The Trinity Foundation, a group that monitors televangelists, and viewed a live Internet broadcast of the event said the fundraiser took in $111,000, generated pledges of nearly $1 million.

'Copeland authorized the fundraiser after receiving a personal call from Huckabee pleading for help,' the Trinity Foundation said."

And this is a tape of Mr. Copeland's characterization of your phone call with him.


MR. RUSSERT: Let's watch.

KENNETH COPELAND, TELEVANGELIST: (From videotape.) He hollered at me on the phone, and he said, "Are you kidding me? Why should I stand with them and not stand with you? They've only got an 11 percent approval rating."

(cheers, applause, amens)

And then he said, "Kenneth Copeland, I will stand with you." He said, "You're trying to get prosperity to the people, and they're trying to take it away from them." He said, "I will stand with you anytime, anywhere, on any issue." That settled that, right there. I said, "Yeah, that's my man, that's my man, right there.

MR. RUSSERT: Is that a fair characterization of the phone call?

MR. HUCKABEE: I don't know the exact words were used but, you know, Kenneth Copeland has been a friend of mine for a long time, his wife is from Arkansas, they own property there. He has been somebody that I've known for a long time, and my only experience with him is a positive one, and a person of integrity, people who have worked with him have been there for 30 years, they love him, they speak of him in the most glowing of ways of how he treats them, and that's what I know about him.

And, you know, when other people make accusations, all I can tell you is, people make accusations about me every day. If all my friends abandoned me over it, I wouldn't have any left.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Governor, Senator Charles Grassley is a Republican from Iowa.

MR. HUCKABEE: Yes, he's a great guy.

MR. RUSSERT: He has an investigation, and this is how, a week after that, this is what -- the article in the Fort Worth paper, "North Texas televangelist, Kenneth Copeland, remains defiant in refusing to cooperate with a U.S. senator's request for information about his finances and despite the controversy, he continues having a permanent role in helping raise funds for Republican presidential candidate contender, Mike Huckabee."

When you tell him on the phone you stand with him and not with Congress, are you interfering in a congressional investigation into his finances?

MR. HUCKABEE: Oh, heavens, no -- no, no, no, no. First of all, let's be sure-- people are innocent until they are proven guilty. That's the way we're supposed to operate.

MR. RUSSERT: But shouldn't he cooperate and turn over the materials that Senator Grassley requested?

MR. HUCKABEE: And as far as I know, he will fulfill his responsibilities; he is taking legal counsel. But, you know what? The whole issue with Kenneth Copeland and Chuck Grassley is not an issue that I'm dealing with as a presidential candidate. It's not a part of whether or not I ought to be running for president. And what I'm saying is that I think he's taking his legal counsel, finding out what he's supposed to do and where he is supposed to cooperate but not in any way yielding over the constitutional rights he has under the First Amendment to be not just a person of free speech but also a person of freedom of religion.

MR. RUSSERT: But if you saw him, "I stand with you against Congress," and then he raises money for you, isn't that interfering in the investigation?

MR. HUCKABEE: No, it's not interfering with an investigation. It would be interfering if I called up Chuck Grassley and said, "Lay off Kenneth Copeland." I've not done that nor would I do that, because I think Kenneth Copeland will ultimately have to provide some responsible answer to the questions that have been raised, and that's fine. And Senator Grassley, he can request whatever information he needs. He'll have the legal authority to do what he does, or he won't be able to get it done. That's all in the world that has to happen.

MR. RUSSERT: But he should provide all of the information that's been requested.

MR. HUCKABEE: If the information is reasonable, and it's not violating the rights that Kenneth Copeland has. I do have a little concern. It's a little chilling when you start thinking about, "Is Congress going to start going after nonprofit organizations and, if so, are they going to do all nonprofits? Are they going to start looking at Are they going to start looking at some of these organizations -- where every dime comes from? If we're going to do it, let's open it up and make sure everybody coughs up the information.

MR. RUSSERT: Since you started your campaign here in January of '07, I've watched it very closely, and there are a couple of issues where you seem to have changed your position, or evolved, or some kind of split.

For example, back in August, you were asked about this, "If you were president in 2009, and Congress brings you a bill to outlaw smoking nationwide in public places, would you sign it?" Huckabee -- "I certainly would."

And then a few months later, your office says, "The Governor believes that this issue is best addressed at the local and the state level."

And then this --

MR. HUCKABEE: Do you want me to answer that or --

MR. RUSSERT: This -- when you were governor, wrote a letter to President Bush about Cuba, "U.S. policy on Cuba has not accomplished its stated goal of toppling the Castro regime and instead has provided Castro with a convenient excuse for his failed system of government. I urge you to join with me in working to lift the failed embargo."

You then went to Florida and said no the embargo should stay, and you said this, "What changed was I'm running for president."

And then on taxes -- I asked you specifically when you announced here, "Would you sign a pledge promising not to raise taxes --


MR. RUSSERT: And here was your answer.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R-AR), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: (From videotape.) I think it's a very dangerous position to make pledges that are outside the most important pledge you make, and that is the oath you take to uphold the Constitution and protect the people of the United States.

MR. RUSSERT: Thirty-three days later, here is what I read, "Huckabee signed the Presidential Taxpayer Protection pledge on March 2, 2007, during the Conservative Political Action conference." It seems that political expediency got ahold of you several times during the campaign.

MR. HUCKABEE: Now, let me go through each of those. First, on the smoking ban -- I was asked, if that was presented to me, would I sign it? I signed a similar bill in my state, which said that we are not banning smoking, we are protecting clean air in the workplace. I still believe that there is a fundamental right that people have to do damage to themselves, but they do not have a right to do damage to others in a workplace. That's the basis on which I signed the state law, and the basis upon which I would sign a federal.

When I said that I still believe that it's best handled at the state level, it is.

MR. RUSSERT: But you wouldn't sign a federal law?

MR. HUCKABEE: If it were about a clean air workplace not about banning smoking.

Because the point is, and I know it may sound trivial, but it's important to me philosophically that you're not telling an individual what he or she can't do, you're saying what you cannot do is to infringe upon the right of another to have clean air.

On the second issue, which was about --

MR. RUSSERT: The embargo.

MR. HUCKABEE: The embargo that was specifically referenced to the rice industry in my state, the number-one agricultural product. At that time, we were really hurting in our rice markets, and based on my experience as a governor and particularly as the governor of the number-one rice producer in the nation, we wanted to export our rice including -- to Cuba.

The more I became familiar with the oppression of Cuba, and as I visited with many of the Cuban-American leaders in Florida, I realized that my position was, frankly, rather short-sighted, and it was based on my rather local agricultural concerns rather than the more important concerns of Cuba's oppressive regime. So I had to recognize that the embargo did have an important effect and should be kept.

The final issue was the tax pledge.

MR. RUSSERT: "I will not raise taxes unless I sign a pledge."

MR. HUCKABEE: Right. The reason I ended up signing the pledge, after I met with Grover Norquist for Americans for Tax Reform, realized that what I was signing was to say that we would not raise marginal tax rates and, frankly, I see no reason or no purpose ever that we need to raise marginal tax rates in this country. In fact, I've taken a more rather dramatic position than that -- I think we ought to implement the fair tax, which would eliminate all taxes on productivity, move us to a consumption tax instead. That's the position that I hold. I think it would have a dramatically positive impact on our economy because it would stop the penalization of productivity, and it would eliminate the IRS.

So my position now is probably the most conservative of any of the candidates running for president as it relates to taxes.

MR. RUSSERT: But in all candor, you did not modify your position in order to play to the conservative base?

MR. HUCKABEE: It wasn't to play. It was that I realized that my position had to mature in each of these areas. In the case of the rice issue, it's one thing to be the governor of Arkansas. To be the President of the United States I'd lead the whole country and act in the best interest of how we can best deal with a rogue regime.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you want to be vice president?

MR. HUCKABEE: No, I really don't. If I wanted to do it --

MR. RUSSERT: If asked, would you accept?

MR. HUCKABEE: I'm not going to be asked. I think it's pretty evident that there would be a whole lot of people on the list long, long before me, and one of them would say yes. So there's no point in my speculating it.

MR. RUSSERT: I asked you that in October, you said this, "I'm not even running for vice president but, I will only says this -- it is the job nobody wants and nobody turns down."

MR. HUCKABEE: That's exactly right, I wouldn't --

MR. RUSSERT: You wouldn't turn it down?

MR. HUCKABEE: And I said that tongue-in-cheek because that's the whole point. Everybody says, "No, no, no, I wouldn't ever touch it," but then when somebody is offered it, they say, "Yes, yes, please, let me come up there." But, look --

MR. RUSSERT: You wouldn't turn it down?

MR. HUCKABEE: I wouldn't think about it right now because until John McCain has 1,191 delegates, I still think I can get there.

MR. RUSSERT: But nobody turns it down?

MR. HUCKABEE: Nobody turns it down that I know.

MR. RUSSERT: Including Mike Huckabee?

MR. HUCKABEE: Well, I haven't been offered it.

MR. RUSSERT: But you're a somebody.


MR. HUCKABEE: To a lot of people I'm not. To a lot of people I shouldn't even be sitting here today. That's the amazing thing. That is the miracle, Tim. So the miracles are still happening. I'm still believing in them.

MR. RUSSERT: But, if asked --

MR. HUCKABEE: How many ways are you going to ask me?

MR. RUSSERT: But John McCain says, "Governor Huckabee, I need you to run with me, would you be my vice president?"

MR. HUCKABEE: Again, I see no scenario in which he asks. The question you ought to be asking me is would I ask John McCain to be my running mate?

MR. RUSSERT: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Before you go, I have to ask you about this comment on Morning Joe's program back in January, "When I was in college, we used to take a popcorn popper, because that was the only thing they would let us use in the dorms, and we would fry squirrel in the popcorn poppers in the dorm?"

MR. HUCKABEE: We really did that.

MR. RUSSERT: Did you eat them?

MR. HUCKABEE: Well, of course, we ate them.

MR. RUSSERT: What does it taste like?

MR. HUCKABEE: I should say it tastes a lot like chicken, but it doesn't.

MR. RUSSERT: What does it taste like?

MR. HUCKABEE: It tastes like squirrel. It's not the best thing in the world but, you know, when you go squirrel hunting, you've got to do something with those things, and part of it was just to say we could do it. It was a college thing. I mean, fried squirrel is a Southern delicacy, you've got to know that.

MR. RUSSERT: But you're off the squirrel now?

MR. HUCKABEE: I haven't eaten fried squirrel, I think, since college, thank the Lord.

MR. RUSSERT: This may help you in Virginia.

MR. HUCKABEE: They'd kill me in other states, however.

MR. RUSSERT: Governor Mike Huckabee, we thank you for joining us.

MR. HUCKABEE: Thank you, it's great to be here.

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