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August 12, 2004 Thursday

HEADLINE: U.S. Threatens Endgame on Al-Sadr; Double Threat to Florida from Tropical Storm and Hurricane; Who Will Win Florida in Election?

GUESTS: George Joulwan, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Kendrick Meek, Tamara Chalabi, John Markham

BYLINE: Wolf Blitzer, John Vause, Orelon Sidney, Jeffrey Toobin, Matthew Chance



BLITZER: Now for some response to that response from the vice president, Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer tells CNN, and we're quoting here: "If you continue with a foreign policy when you're arrogant, it makes it harder to hunt down terrorists." That's the quote.

The Kerry campaign itself issued this statement and it reads: "What Dick Cheney doesn't understand is that arrogance isn't a virtue when the lives of our men and women are on the line. George Bush and Dick Cheney both went out of their way to avoid combat duty, pursued policies that have made America less safe, alienated key allies and overextended our military to its thinnest levels in years." End of that statement.

This afternoon, John Kerry will make a campaign stop in Carson, California, to tout a major tax cut plan. Then it is on to the rally, a rally in Central Point, Oregon, another key battleground state.

Most of the states I've just mentioned are considered battleground states in this year's election. CNN has determined there are right now 17 states that are considered too close to call. In the coming weeks, on this program, we're going to focus in on each one of those 17 states. Today it's Florida, where the president's brother Jeb is the governor, as all of us know, and where a new poll shows that John Kerry has taken a lead.

Here to talk about the fight for Florida, two members of its congressional delegation. Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, she is in Miami. Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek, he is joining us today from Memphis. And let me get to these polls and we'll open up the discussion. The new Quinnipiac poll that is just out in Florida shows that in a two-man race, right now Kerry is at 49 percent. Bush is at 42 percent. If you add Ralph Nader to the mix, and certainly he could be a factor, 47 for Kerry, 41 for Bush, 4 percent for Ralph Nader.

This comes on the heels of another poll that just came out in Florida, the American Research Group poll, let me show you those numbers, a little bit different: 52 percent for John Kerry, 44 percent for George W. Bush. If you add Nader into the mix in this one, Kerry at 50, Bush at 43, Ralph Nader with 2 percent.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, what do you make of those numbers? Not very good numbers at least at this moment in the political history for the president.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN ®, FLORIDA: It just gives us more enthusiasm to get out the vote and make sure that everyone does turn out to vote on November 2. I think when that when Florida voters look at the issues that they're involved with, they'll see that President Bush has a sterling record. Prescription drugs, who delivered for them? President Bush.

The economy in Florida is coming back stronger than ever. Real estate market is so hot, housing starts. The employment rate is stronger than ever in Florida. When you look at the military situation, yes, it's a rough go right now in Iraq, just like any war is, but this is a very pro-military, pro-defense state and they know that we've got the best commander in chief.

So I think, you know, it's interesting that you had teased with a stop that John Kerry is going to have in California to talk about a tax cut plan. You're talking about a man who has been in the Senate for 20 years who has never met a tax raise that he didn't like. He's voted for every tax increase and now he's talking tax break?

BLITZER: All right, Ileana, Ileana, hold on, Congresswoman, hold on a second. I don't want to get into a stump speech right now. Let's talk about these polls. Why right now is the president significantly behind in these poll number in Florida? Before the Democratic Convention it was pretty much neck and neck in Florida?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, the same question could be asked, why didn't John Kerry get a big bounce after his convention? Now we're going into our convention. Laura Bush will be in Florida next week. We're going to have a lot of officials come into town. And you're going to see an energized base and we're going to have a lot of reach-over voters, independents who are going to come on board the Bush campaign.

We're not worried about those numbers, they are going to turn around. From now until November, boy, that's a lifetime in politics.

BLITZER: That certainly is, Kendrick Meek. What do you make of the fact that the president is behind right now but he's going to be going to Florida often, probably at least once or maybe even twice a week and he's going to be bringing with him to Florida Republicans that are popular with those swing voters like John McCain who was just there yesterday with him?

REP. KENDRICK MEEK (D), FLORIDA: Well, I feel the president will be burning a lot of federal jet fuel, flying celebrities down, probably delivering checks to the state of Florida. But I can tell you one thing, Wolf, about these poll numbers. The very positive message that John Kerry and John Edwards has for America, the vision that they have, I'm talking about prescription drugs, letting Floridians know, and we have a number of veterans that are elderly and also regular citizens that have moved down, that saw that we had a great opportunity of the buying power to make prescription drugs lower in Florida.

He has a great vision for the space program in the space coast area. So these polls reflect the positive message of John Kerry-John Edwards, versus the message of negativity and also misleading Americans about John Kerry and John Edwards' voting record.

BLITZER: Kendrick Meek, how worried are you that there could be a repeat performance, if this is another close race in Florida, a repeat performance of what happened four years ago with those hanging chads? I understand there is a new system in place right now, no more punchcard ballots. There's electronic balloting but no paper trail, if there's any question. How worried are you about this?

MEEK: That is a concern. We have a number of advocates that have stepped forward, citizens and lawyers, to be proactive. To make sure that voting facilities are ready and available. And even with the early vote, to make sure votes count this time around.

Wolf, I can tell you that there is a big effort afoot to have voter suppression. There's not by mistake that the Bush administration in Florida released a voter purge list that they knew was faulty from the beginning. This has been reported throughout the media. All of these things. So what I look at here, Wolf, is voter confidence in Florida, we're going to make sure that every vote counts. We're not leaving any vote behind in the Kerry campaign, whether it be Democratic, independent or Republican. We feel that we...

BLITZER: All right. What about that, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen? What about that charge, a serious charge that Kendrick Meek has leveled just now but it has been leveled by a lot of Democrats in recent weeks that there's some sort of hanky-panky going on, Republicans trying to prevent minorities, specifically African-Americans, from voting in Florida?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Absolutely not. I love Kendrick, he's a good friend. And I served with both him and his mom, Carrie Meek, a wonderful congresswoman. But this is part of a scare tactic that they're using in trying to racially divide our community. And it's not going to work. We're going to have an election, Wolf, August 31, throughout the state of Florida. It's our primary.

We're all going to see how great these new voting machines are working or how problematic they are. And we will fix all of those problems. No one is getting disenfranchised. We want to increase voting turnout. We are doing all we can to have early voting. Starting on Monday, you can already start voting throughout the state of Florida.

So anyone who wants to say that their vote is taken away, that's just not true. We're doing everything possible to encourage people to even vote early. And there's going to be no trouble by the November election. And it's going to be proven that the Republican Party is the big tent party. We want minorities. President Bush is really reaching out to Hispanic voters, particularly, thanks to his brother, Governor Jeb Bush. So African-American voters, we're going after them all.

BLITZER: Kendrick Meek, are you reassured by what Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen just said?

MEEK: Well, Ileana is a great friend of mine. We fly to Washington every week back and forth to South Florida. But I must say that her very-not everyday Republican, but the Republican leadership in Tallahassee, the Republican Party sent a mailer out to all Republicans, saying, vote by absentee so there's a paper trail because the touch screen is not what it should be.

And then the governor comes out the next day and chastised the Florida Republican Party, I must add, that he has total control over it, that they're wrong and that our voting system is up and running. So I'm saying, Wolf, as it relates to the subliminal message, not just to minorities but just to first-time voters and the infrequent voters that their vote may not count. So this is a real issue.

BLITZER: All right. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, can the president be re-elected if he doesn't carry Florida?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Absolutely-I think that, first of all, he will carry Florida. It is a close state. That's why we're encouraging everyone to vote. It's very important. Senior citizens, minorities, everyone, and our base vote. But I think that even if he doesn't win Florida, he can still win the presidency. There are a lot of battleground states that you're going to be highlighting in these next weeks. And I think that we will see that one of them is the pivotal state of Florida. But it doesn't mean that it's the be-all and the end-all.

But when I talk to my constituents, I tell them every vote counts and we don't want any replay of all of those-the parade of horribles that the Democrats are putting out there. We want the reality. And the reality is that President Bush is supported in a bipartisan way throughout the state of Florida; but here in Dade County, even more so.

BLITZER: All right. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Kendrick Meek, two members of the Florida delegation joining us as part of our spotlight on the so-called battleground states. By the way, good luck to everyone in Florida as these tropical storms and this hurricane approaches. We're following that story as well. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

MEEK: Thank you, Wolf.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you, Wolf.


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