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Hot Stories: Family Feud, GOP Turnaround

Beltway Boys

MORT KONDRACKE, "ROLL CALL": Coming up on "The Beltway Boys": President Bush facing an election-year revolt in his own party over the treatment of terror suspects.

FRED BARNES, "WEEKLY STANDARD": The Republican Party going for broke this fall to maintain control of Congress. We'll look at their game play, and why it just might work.

KONDRACKE: We'll tell you how the Minutemen are turning anger over border security into votes.

BARNES: And George Allen still trying to get his groove back after his infamous "macaca" remark.

KONDRACKE: "The Beltway Boys" are coming up next, right after the headlines.

(NEWSBREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The bottom line is simple: if Congress passes a law that does not clarify the rules - if they do not do that - the program's not going forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNES: I'm Fred Barnes.

KONDRACKE: And I'm Mort Kondracke, and we're "The Beltway Boys."

Well, the "Hot Story" is "Family Feud." Republicans had hoped to trap the Democratic Party into looking weak on terrorism again this year: one, by having the again on NAS - against the National Security Agency's terrorist-surveillance program; and two, by voting against the tough interrogation techniques that the CIA used, according to President Bush, to stop no less than eight terrorist attacks on the United States. This political strategy is getting upset because the Democrats are going to just vote for the - the NSA program, and because - this is the - the family feud problem - the Democrats are hiding behind some prominent Republican senators - John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins - who are opposing the president on the interrogation program.

Here's the president vigorously defending his position on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I think it's vital, and I have the obligation to make sure that our professionals, who I would ask to go conduct interrogations to find out what might be happening, who might be coming to this country - I got to give them the tools they need. And that is clear law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KONDRACKE: The president says that - that U.S. law has got to clarify the vague language of the Geneva Convention Common Article III, which outlaws "outrages against human dignity," which could be interpreted widely there (ph).

McCain.

BARNES: It could be interpreted as some things that happen on this show.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDRACKE: That's right.

McCain and company, including Colin Powell - the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - say that - that what Bush wants to do is to amend the entire Geneva Convention Common Article III, which has never been done before, which would open the United States open to charges that we're allowing torture, or practicing torture.

McCain, quoting Bush - "clarify, modify - I mean, please. You're changing a treaty which no other nation on Earth has" done - "changed for the" last - "for the first time in 57 years." That's the McCain position.

BARNES: Yes.

Now look, you mentioned the political strategy. But what's a lot more important than this political strategy by Republicans - which I happen to think is working - but what's more important is the - is the substantive issue involved, and that's a national-security issue. I mean, I don't know what's gotten into John McCain and John Warner and Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins. They're all pretty tough - they're not wimps on national defense. And yet I think they've forgotten somehow what their obligation is here. It's not to please world opinion; it's to protect the American national security.

You pointed out very well what Bush wants. He wants to clarify the language in this section of the Geneva Convention so it would allow the kind of interrogations that were done with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and - and - and some of the other high-value al-Qaida leaders who were captured that led to thwarting these other attacks.

I mean, Bush in that speech a few weeks ago outlined how they went from one to another to another picking up all this information. And - and - and McCain and company want that language that the - you know, the - any outrages against personal dignity, that - I mean, that - Mort, that just sets the bar way too low. Or maybe too high. Maybe that's what I mean. Too high.

In any case, look, as far as a political strategy, Democrats are not going to be - Democratic candidates in particular - are not going to be able to say, when asked about, Do you agree that it shouldn't - our interrogations practices, like Bush says, shouldn't be weakened? And they say, Oh, no. Well, I'm just with McCain on this. That won't suffice; they're going to have to deal with the substance of the issue, whether they like it or not.

KONDRACKE: Well, you know, I was perfectly shocked, frankly, when a McCain staffer told me that John McCain and the other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee do not know what the specific interrogation techniques that were used by the CIA are, how often they're used and - and all of that. That - that the - the Senate Intelligence Committee members know, but the - but the Armed Services Committee people don't.

Now what I would suggest is that President Bush call these guys and - and Susan Collins down to the White House and lay it all for them, and tell them just how vital it was in - in securing America to - to have these kind of interrogation techniques.

BARNES: Now - now, that might work. But I'm not so sure at this point.

McCain can be very, very stubborn, as you know. And - and the rest are sort of following along. He's the leader here.

I'll have to say this for McCain: he is not doing this for political reasons. That's for sure. Because I think this is going to harm him tremendously in his search for the Republican presidential nomination. This will be brought up by others; they will talk about how Bush compared to McCain; they'll talk about this, you know, limiting any - any questioning of a practice that would have out - you know, been an outrage to someone's personal dignity you couldn't do. Which obviously means, say they've gotten nothing at all out of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and all the others. I think that's pretty clear.

All right. Coming up: President Bush goes to Capitol Hill for a pep rally with Republicans. We'll tell you about the GOP's game plan heading into the fall midterms. "Hot Story" number two straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNES: Welcome back to "The Beltway Boys."

"Hot Story" number two: "Turnaround." Mort, that's a - a catchy but probably exaggerated way of describing the.

KONDRACKE: (INAUDIBLE)

BARNES.improved - huh?

KONDRACKE: I mean, you - you - you're - you think that it - that you - you've got that it - that it is not exaggerated.

BARNES: Well, I haven't said what it is yet. It's the improved political position of Republicans and President Bush going into the midterm election, which is - you keep a countdown - how many days away?

KONDRACKE: Fifty-three. Several lifetimes in politics.

BARNES: Overnight can be a lifetime in politics, as Bob Strauss used to say.

Anyway, here are some of the things that are fueling his GOP turnaround.

No. 1: falling gas prices. Underrated, Mort, as an issue. Analysts are talking about $2 a gallon nationwide by Christmas. It's $2 a gallon some places now. And, you know, as gas prices fall - fall, the president's popularity goes up. Important.

OK, the next one: Bush's war-on-terror speeches. Aides say a more aggressive defense of the war on terror has helped boost GOP prospects.

It certainly has. I mean, just the numbers on - poll numbers on terror have helped.

The Republican get-out-the-vote machine is revving up. Boy was it ever revved up in Rhode Island. I'm not sure that Senator Chafee would have be - Linc Chafee would have been the winner in the Republican primary absent all that money, plus also the turnout machine, which gives him now a chance to be re-elected in November.

Next, the Republicans have a deep war chest this year - like every year. The RNC expects to outspend the Democrats 5 to 1 in the midterm elections.

That's pretty impressive, don't you think? Although, you know, when you - there's also spending by committees and independent organizations and (INAUDIBLE).

KONDRACKE: Sixty million dollars difference.

BARNES: OK. And the dark cloud that had been above the GOP is starting to lift. By that I mean, you know, the mood. You talk to these Republican House members, and they're in a better mood now. They think that the party has a better shot of holding on to the House, and - and the Senate, for that matter.

Now this is just for you, Mort, because I know this is going to please you so enormously. And that is some poll numbers. Bush's job approval is at 40 percent in the latest FOX poll, and it's as high as 47 percent in the Rasmussen poll. The GOP has a 12-point advantage over the Democrats on the question of which party will keep the country safer from terrorism. And if it weren't there, Republicans would be in worse trouble, of course.

And Bush's handling of the economy has improved. In an NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll this week, 43 percent approve of Bush's handling of the economy. That's up 8 points since the spring. Fifty-two percent disapprove in this recent poll.

Do you like those?

KONDRACKE: You know - you know, I notice - I notice pattern. That you - you suddenly become enamored of polls the better they are for the Republicans.

But in any event, you neglected to mention, actually, the FOX poll which - and the - on the - the generic Congressional ballot, which you often put down.

BARNES: (INAUDIBLE)

KONDRACKE: Which - which - which now - it is in October - it's not October yet - anyway, which now showed a three-point Democratic lead versus I think it was like 16 points not - not to look ago. And if - if the Democrats can only get a three-point advantage in vote across the country, they will not take over Congress.

On the other.

BARNES: They probably won't even win any seats if that's all it is.

KONDRACKE: On the other hand, the FOX poll also shows that Iraq is by far the number one issue on voters' minds. The economy and terrorism are a distant second and third.

And, you know, the - while the McCain flap over the interrogation plan will keep the issue of terrorism front and center for awhile, the fact is that we're going to get lots and lots of continuing news, most of it bad probably, from Iraq. And that - that can't be good - that can't be good for the president. And the - the Iraq war is being used against Republican candidates.

Here - here's an ad from Diane Farrell in a - in a tight Connecticut race against Congressman Chris Shays. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For three and a half years, Chris Shays has been wrong on Iraq (ph). He's been one of George Bush's strongest supporters, and has given him a blank check to run an open-ended war. We've lost over 2,600 troops and spent over $300 billion. Our families here struggle to pay for gas, college tuition and health care.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KONDRACKE: That - that's a - that's a perfect - perfectly fair ad. I mean, Chris Shays has been a staunch supporter of the war.

Now after his 14th visit to Iraq - he's a very diligent member of Congress - he came back and said, Now it's time for a timetable. People were accusing him of doing this for strictly political reasons, and he swears up and down.

(CROSSTALK)

KONDRACKE: No. No. No. Just the - just - everybody, including me - I - you know, I thought that he was adjusting his position based on politics.

I was at a breakfast with him the other day in which - in which he said, Look, that - that's not the way I operate. And I sort of him believe him. He - but he thinks that there should be a timetable, not based, as most Democrats want to do, just on an arbitrary date, but rather on the basis that as the Iraqi security forces get trained up to a certain level, we should begin - as the president has said we would - to - to - to withdraw - withdraw troops.

BARNES: Let me add one thing. You know, the - while Connecticut is sort of anti-Bush voter central, you know - a lot of the - a lot of the anti-Iraq feeling is among conservatives who are mad because the U.S. isn't obviously winning there. And guess who's going to Connecticut on September 25 for a big fundraiser for candidates just like Chris Shays, including Chris Shays? President Bush.

(CROSSTALK)

BARNES: There you go. (INAUDIBLE)

KONDRACKE: All this is leading up to - us to revise our bottom-line predictions about what's going to happen. In the House, I think the Democrats will - now I think they'll pick up 16 seats. That's four less than what I predicted last week. That would still give them a one-seat majority. Fred says that a Democratic pickup of 12. He's sticking there, and Republicans maintaining control.

In the Senate, I'm sticking to my prediction of Democrats plus 4. Fred says they'll pick up three. That's one less than last week's prediction. And both of us think that the Republicans will maintain control of the Senate.

BARNES: Yes, I - I lost control there. But - but I'm not going to ask you to do it again.

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