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Talks About N.H. Polls That Show Him Ahead of Gov. George W. Bush (Interview)

Location: Today Show



MATT LAUER, co-host: The New Hampshire primary is less than two months away, and according to a new poll, Senator John McCain is ahead of Governor George W. Bush there for the very first time.

Senator McCain, congrats on that news and welcome. Nice to have you here.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Thank you, Matt. First, I'd like to deny any connection between myself and any resident of Hong Kong, no matter what—no matter what their profession is. So I'd like to get that out to start with.

LAUER: Wasn't it nice of the people at Time magazine to describe you that way? I'm sure you're really flattered by that.

Sen. McCAIN: My family was especially pleased.

LAUER: What have you got going on in New Hampshire here? Why is this happening? Last time you and I sat down and talked, you were 20 points behind in New Hampshire. What's happened?

Sen. McCAIN: Straight talk, lots of involvement. The people of New Hampshire expect to see you. They expect to ask questions, follow up. I've had people come to two or three town hall meetings. I met a guy the other day who had been to five, ample testimony to my inability to close the deal. People in New Hampshire expect to have that kind of contact. But the message is also reform. Reform government, reform education, reform in the military, and reform this finance system which has corrupted our legislative process and give them back their government.

LAUER: When we talk about race horses and sports teams, we always say, you know, you want that team to peak at the right point in the season.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

LAUER: You've got two months till New Hampshire and the primary. Any fear that you're peaking too soon here?

Sen. McCAIN: Sure. Sure. Absolutely. Obviously, the ideal situation is—your best position is the day that the—the moment the polls open. But you really can't control these things. They take on their own rhythm. I'm very happy where we are. I'm still far behind in money, far behind nationally. We've got a long way to go. People in New Hampshire change their minds three or four times between now and the day that the—that they'll cast a vote. They take their responsibilities very seriously. But I think we're competitive. I've always believed we're competitive, but we have a long, long way to go.

LAUER: Let's talk a little bit about the debates. We've seen now two occasions where all the candidates on the Republican side...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

LAUER: ...have gotten together on the same stage. You were—you were in New Hampshire for one of those. Not a lot of fireworks. Kind of a love fest so far. But if there's one moment that people seem to be talking about, it's this response to a George W. Bush question from Senator Orrin Hatch. Let's take a look.

Senator ORRIN HATCH: My only problem with you, governor, is that you only have four, going into our fifth year of governorship in a constitutionally weak governorship. And frankly, I really believe that you need more experience before you become president of the United States. That's why I'm thinking of you as the vice presidential candidate. Because if you had—if you had—just think—just think, Ronald Reagan picked your father because he had foreign policy experience. Somebody suggested the other day, they should—you should pick me because I have foreign policy experience. They've got it all wrong. I should be president, you should have eight years with me, and, boy, you'll make a heck of a president after eight years, I'll tell you.

LAUER: You're known as a straight shooter. Tell me straight, does George W. Bush lack experience to become president?

Sen. McCAIN: No. And my answer to Orrin Hatch, if I'd have been him, would have said, my credentials are there. My message is clear. And I'm fully prepared to be president of the United States. And the question is, it's not so much what I've done, but what I'll do for the future of the Americans in the next century.

LAUER: So you think George W. Bush, five years as governor of a constitutionally weak governorship, a state that has a constitutionally weak governorship, is qualified to be president of the United States?

Sen. McCAIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think I'm, obviously, more qualified. But, the key to it is, is you have your qualifications and your credentials. People will consider you on that basis. But they really want to know how you're going to lead them in the next century. How are you going to provide and train an educated work force? How are you going to give them back their government? How are you going to reform the military? How are you going ensure that—that we live in a stable and peaceful world? I mean, those are really what their—their questions are going to be all about.

LAUER: Let's take a look at a new campaign ad that you started running, I think, last week.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

LAUER : And I'll ask you a question on the other side of it.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

(Clip shown from campaign ad)

LAUER: All right. President John McCain.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

LAUER: You go there, you get a veto overridden. You're going to step in front of the microphones and you're going to say to the American people, 'Senators blank, blank and blank, folks, just wasted your money'?

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. And if you think it's a good idea to spend $ 2 million for manure handling and disposal in Starkville, Mississippi, fine, call them up and thank them. If you don't, why don't you call them up and tell them you don't think they ought to do that with your tax dollars.

LAUER: If you win the White House...

Sen. McCAIN: We've got to change—we've got to change this environment, Matt.

LAUER: ...but if you win the White House and the Republicans retain control of Congress, you're going to be pointing the finger at Republican congressmen and senators.

Sen. McCAIN: And Democrats, and libertarians, and vegetarians. Whoever does it. This thing is out of control. It has lurched completely out of control. We have pork barrel spending of $ 6 billion on the defense bill when we have 12,000 enlisted families on food stamps.

LAUER: You think you're scaring members of...

Sen. McCAIN: You know that makes me mad?

LAUER: Are you scaring members of Congress? As you know...

Sen. McCAIN: Absolutely.

LAUER: ...a lot of your fellow senators have lined up behind George W. Bush.

Sen. McCAIN: Absolutely.

LAUER: Do you think it's because of your threat to expose pork barrel spending?

Sen. McCAIN: More that, but in addition that I'll get the soft money, the huge amounts of money out of American political campaigns. And that will hurt the lobbyists, the—the legislatures, and this iron triangle that exists down in Washington. Look, anybody wants the status quo in Washington, they don't want me.

LAUER: Let me talk about a couple of quick items in the news...

Sen. McCAIN: Sure.

LAUER: OK? NASA, we just talked about it in the last half-hour. Bad year for NASA. They've had some failures going to Mars. Is it time to have a wholesale re-evaluation of the way NASA does business?

Sen. McCAIN: Yes. Although, we still support NASA. We think it's—space is the last frontier, Mars intrigues and excites the imagination of all of us. But they've had continuous cost overruns, they've had some significant failures. Congress and the administration's responsibility is to look very carefully at what they've been doing without being on a witch hunt. Look, these are good and decent people. But I think we've got to look at what they've been doing and how we can ensure the best use of the American taxpayers' dollars.

LAUER: Six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy in this country now, his father is in Cuba, wants him back. Major political tug-of-war. The latest US stance has been that the father should come here and make his case. Why should that father have to make any case other than that 'I am a fit father, I want my son back'?

Sen. McCAIN: Because that father lives in one of the most oppressive and totalitarian regimes left on earth, and we cannot be sure that his father is speaking for himself or under the pressure of Castro. Look, this—this young man should be able to enjoy the beauty and treasure of freedom. Plus the relationship with his father. In my view.

LAUER: Hard to have both of those.

Sen. McCAIN: No, but, look, why should Castro then be reluctant to have his father take a 20-minute flight over to Miami and state his case there? He can fly him right back if he wants to go back to Cuba. Most people, we've found, that get out of Cuba are not very interested in going back.

LAUER: But why should a father have to do that? If he were a French father, or a Spanish father, or a Canadian father, he wouldn't have to do that.

Sen. McCAIN: I think during the Cold War, if someone had escaped from an iron curtain country, that we would have given special consideration to that case, as well. This—look, we've seen it from previous examples. If Castro will let them, they're all gone. It will be 'the last one out, turn out the lights.' This is the last repressive regime in the world. And I'd like to see the father have a—even a neutral place where he could clearly declare his intentions for his son.

LAUER: Senator John McCain.

Sen. McCAIN: Thanks, Matt.

LAUER: You going back to New Hampshire soon?

Sen. McCAIN: All the time.

LAUER: Good luck to you. Nice seeing you.

Sen. McCAIN: Thanks, Matt.

LAUER: Seven forty-one. Up next, two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks is here right after these messages.

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