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On Campaign Finance Reform, His Temper and Polls on his Popularity (Interview)

Location: The Early Show



BRYANT GUMBEL, co-host: In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Governor George W. Bush still holds a commanding lead, but Arizona Senator John McCain has recently picked up ground in New Hampshire and other states as well. In an effort to make even further headway, he's on the stump this morning in Laconia, New Hampshire.

Senator McCain, good morning.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Good morning, Bryant.

GUMBEL: Thanks for being with us.

Sen. McCAIN: Thanks for having me.

GUMBEL: The latest CBS-New York Times poll shows George W. Bush holding a slim lead in New Hampshire, but a seemingly insurmountable lead nationwide.

(Graphic on screen)

CBS News New York Times Poll
Republican Primary Vote
Bush 68% McCain 8%
Margin of Error: 6 Pts.

GUMBEL: To your mind, what's going to change in the next 12 months? What's your best reason for optimism?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, because it's not a national primary, as you know, Bryant. It's a—a primary that goes through the states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and a couple of others and then ends up on March 7th with California and 15 other states. Yet in order to get there, you got to win New Hampshire and South Carolina. And no Republican has won the nomination without winning New Hampshire.

GUMBEL: So you think if you can blunt him early on, that that train that's rolling downhill right now might—might find a few bumps?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I don't know about whether the train is running downhill. I know our train is picking up speed. We've gotten more support from all over the country. The campaign contributions are coming in. I'm very pleased with where we are, and I'm very pleased with the progress we've made. And I still recognize we have a long way to go, still the underdog.

GUMBEL: Yeah. Your—your prime issue is campaign finance reform. It's an issue that has long been close to your heart. Is it an issue that's enough to energize an electorate that seems to be much more concerned with health-care reform, with education, with Social Security?

Sen. McCAIN: If you want health-care reform, education reform, reform of the military, reform of the tax code, you've got to re—remove the influence of special interests in Washington. If you don't get these huge amounts of special interest money out of the political process, we'll never get the kind of reforms, including the Patients Bill of Rights, that Americans yearn for. And young Americans are becoming cynical and even alienated. And we had the lowest voter turnout of young Americans between 18 and 26 in the last election. Americans, I believe, want to get their government back, and I intend to give it to them.

GUMBEL: With an eye to that, you're catching heat, as I think you know, in this morning's Washington Post for your extensive use of private aircraft owned by corporations and—and wealthy donors. What you do is certainly within the letter of the law. I'm wondering if you think it's within the spirit of the law for someone who has made campaign finance reform such a cornerstone of his career?

Sen. McCAIN: Yes—yes, I do. It's about the only way I can get from one place to another in this campaign, and it's—I believe it's in both. And I don't think that it's a—it's a huge deal. Every presidential candidate has done it. I wish I didn't have to, but it's one of those things.

GUMBEL: Are you telling me you're unconcerned about the appearance—even the appearance of impropriety?

Sen. McCAIN: Yes, I'm unconcerned about it.

GUMBEL: Doesn't bother you?

Sen. McCAIN: I...

GUMBEL: Even as—even as Commerce Committee chairman, it doesn't bother you?

Sen. McCAIN: No, it doesn't because I think it's appropriate to do so within the letter and the spirit of the law.

GUMBEL: Polls suggest, Senator McCain, that of all the major candidates, you're the least familiar. But the more familiar you become, the more your unfavorable numbers increase. How do you...

Sen. McCAIN: Oh, really?

GUMBEL: Yeah. How do you overcome that double-edged sword?

Sen. McCAIN: I didn't—I didn't know that was the case. That's not reflected in the polling data that I've seen, but I think we're doing very well, thanks, Bryant. We're gaining traction here. We've got a lot of grass-roots support.

We don't have the—the generals. We've got—we've got a lot of sergeants and corporals and privates, and we're very happy. I couldn't be happier. I'm not afraid of losing. We've got a wonderful campaign, a lot of great supporters. And it's one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. And that's the way it's going to be.

GUMBEL: Part of those numbers, Senator, as you know, is—is—is a direct result of a—of a tag you're often hung with, that—that your temper is a—is a—is a troubling spot for you. How do you—how do you fight the image that you are too hot-headed to be on the pre—on the presidential hot seat?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I respond by saying that we should look at my record, number one. But number two is that I feel passionately about issues. I feel passionately when enlisted men and women are on food stamps in our military, and I get angry about it. And—and they're sort of pleased, they tell me, that I get angry about it and defend them and defend the things that I think are correct and fight against hypocrisy and especially the fact that the government has been taking away from the people. I—and I'm—I'm pleased that I feel that way, and I think it's an important aspect of—of a passionate belief I have in right and in the future of this country.

GUMBEL: Mm-hmm. Just curious, I—I—I—I know you—you like and admire Governor Bush, but as an acknowledged expert on foreign affairs, how did you view his—the governor's inability last week to name the leaders of—of several nation hot spots?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I thought it was unfair. I think that this is not a game of "Jeopardy!"; that Governor Bush and I and the other candidates—and there are other good candidates in this race—will articulate our vision for the future of this country, including foreign policy and national security. And—and that's what the American people will judge us on.

GUMBEL: All right. Senator McCain, thank you...

Sen. McCAIN: Thank you, Bryant.

GUMBEL: ...very much, particularly on this Veterans Day. Thank you for being with us.

Sen. McCAIN: Thank you very much.

GUMBEL: It's nine minutes past the hour. Jane.

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