TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Sen. McCain

The following is the transcript of Charles Gibson's June 5 interview with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

GIBSON: Senator, are you relieved to know finally who you're going to run against?

MCCAIN: I guess, in a way. It was, I think, pretty apparent there for a while that it was going to be Senator Obama. And I called and congratulated Senator Clinton on the great race that she ran and the ability to inspire millions of women all over America and the world and congratulated her on her campaign.

And I also called Senator Obama yesterday and congratulated him, as well.

GIBSON: When this thing was more in doubt, did you have a preference?


MCCAIN: No. I really didn't. I don't know enough about what the outcome is -- what the effect's going to be. So I think both of them are -- either one would have been very challenging. And Senator Obama will -- I'm sure that we'll have a very close race.

GIBSON: Do you in any way run a different campaign against Obama than you would have run against Clinton?

MCCAIN: I don't think so. I think -- maybe some of the states change a little bit, but, overall, I think it's going to be fundamentally differences in positions, principles, views, policies, and both foreign and domestic.

And so I think it was -- because they're very similar, I don't think that the debate would have been significantly different.

GIBSON: In my lifetime, I don't think I'd ever seen a primary and caucus race like the Democrats had. Did you feel at times in the past few months like the forgotten candidate?

MCCAIN: Yes, occasionally I thought -- it was a little hard for us to break through with the message, but I also understand it. There was a lot of excitement there. I mean, Senator Clinton just won South Dakota. I mean, obviously, it went right up to the end.

So I understand. And now, obviously, the focus is going to be on both of us. And the good news is that it's five months, and the bad news is it's five months.

GIBSON: Do you feel in any way as if you're running against history?

MCCAIN: No, I think that it's very clear that Americans want change. It doesn't -- you don't have to be in politics to know that. They want change. The question is, is what kind of change, the right change or the wrong change?

I have a record of fighting against the special interests, of investigating corruption, of fighting for reform, whether it be campaign finance reform, or ethics and lobbying, one of the reasons why I was never elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate.

So I do have a record of change and reform and fighting for it and achieving some -- a lot of it. But there's a lot more that needs to be done.

Senator Obama talks about change, but, clearly, he has no record of it. So we'll be debating what kind of change that America wants, whether it be our effort in which we have to carry out and succeed in, independence of foreign oil, or whether it be the war in Iraq or the overall struggle we're in against radical Islamic extremism. Who is best qualified? Who can best bring about change for America?

GIBSON: But when I ask about running against history, you are of an age, as am I, when segregation was the law of the land in this country.


GIBSON: Did you ever think you'd see a day when there was a black man nominated to represent one of the two major American parties?

MCCAIN: Oh, I did, because -- as I felt that someday there will be a woman who is president of the United States, because I have a great faith in the American people. And I have a great faith in their sense of justice and their judgment of people on their qualities, as Dr. King said, not by the -- by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. I hope I didn't mangle that quote.

So I have great faith that America would select someone and will, either man, woman, no matter who they are, as far as -- more on their qualities and their leadership and the way they can lead the country than any other quality.

But at the same time, Senator Obama has done a remarkable thing. We both started as long shots. And he did, too. And I think, obviously, all Americans give him great credit.

GIBSON: He said on Tuesday night, when he was in Minneapolis, or St. Paul, he said, "John McCain has served this country heroically. I honor that service and I respect his many accomplishments, even if he chooses to deny mine."

Do you think he's qualified to be president?

MCCAIN: Oh, I think that's a judgment that the American people will make. It's not up to me to say that. It's up to me to point out that I have the experience and the knowledge and the judgment, and the right kind of change and the right kind of record, but most importantly a plan of action for the future.

Look, the Democratic Party has just determined that Senator Obama is qualified. Now it'll be up to the American people, and I'm sure that they judge both of us as qualified. I think that it's going to be a question of who's more qualified or the most qualified.

GIBSON: What kind of a relationship do you go into this election with him, having with him? You had a very testy exchange of letters a couple of years ago.

MCCAIN: Yes, once we had an exchange -- I had a letter to him over an issue. In fact, it had to do with ethics and lobbying reform. But I've always had a cordial relationship with Senator Obama. I didn't know him as well as I know Senator Clinton, and I hadn't worked with him as much as I had Senator Clinton. Senator Clinton and I were both on the Armed Services Committee.

But we've always had a cordial and respectful relationship. And I'll do everything I can to maintain that during this campaign. Americans are tired of the partisanship or the fighting of the -- impugning of character.

They want a real debate here, and that's why I challenged him -- or invited him, is a better word -- for us to do a series of 10 town hall meetings across this country, one a week between now and the Democratic convention. And let's start next week at Federal Hall in New York.

And, you know, I think the town hall meeting is the essence of democracy. Why not let people come and ask us both questions? I think that's what it's about. I think, from my own experience, that town hall meetings are more beneficial both to the candidate, as well as the voter.

GIBSON: Senator Obama, when we talked to him yesterday, said he was going to accept. He said, "Senator McCain has generously offered to me to start next week." He said, "I just got the nomination, and I think that's a little premature," but indicated that he was certainly interested in doing some of those.

It sounds to me like you both, actually, in these town meetings think that you've got the other guy on your turf.

MCCAIN: I'm not so sure I think that. I think one of the great regrets of the tragedy in Dallas was the campaign that we missed between Senator Barry Goldwater, my predecessor, and President Jack Kennedy.

They had agreed -- they agreed, because they knew each other well from their days in the Senate, that they would travel around the country on the same plane and go to a town, and have debate and discussion, and town hall meetings, and then go to another one.

I think America missed a rare opportunity at that time. Look at what campaigns have deteriorated into, and I mean deteriorated: sound bites, gotchas, attack ads, 527s.

So I think this may be trying to revive what I think most Americans would have approved of way back in the 1960s and they certainly want today.

GIBSON: On what three issues, principal issues, do you think this election will turn?

MCCAIN: Reform, prosperity and peace. Reform of government in the way we do business, which is geared to the '60s and '70s and not responsive to the new challenges.

Prosperity, obviously, Americans are hurting badly, keeping their homes, the job loss. The continued deterioration of certain -- a lot of aspects of our economy.

And, of course, security. I believe that the war in Iraq has far more effects than just Iraq. I think it is the central battleground of the struggle against radical Islamic extremism, as General David Petraeus portrayed it.

And I think that our treatment of Iran, the conflict in Afghanistan, the entire globe now is beset with challenges to our nation's security. And I think that, also, will be a very big issue.

And I will be compared -- glad to compare my vision and my view of how we secure this nation's future with that of Senator Obama. I think he was wrong about the surge when he said it would fail, and I think he's been wrong on other aspects of national security issues, and a lot of that is due to inexperience.

GIBSON: Do you worry that it might turn on race and age?

MCCAIN: I hope neither. Look, I believe in the decency and fairness of the American people. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be seeking to lead them. I think they're the finest, fairest, most decent people in the world.

And, of course, we have extremes in our society that do things which are not in keeping with the principles and, frankly, the greatness of this nation. But, overall, a vast majority of Americans are fair, decent people, and they're going to judge who they want to lead on the basis of how they think that person can lead.

GIBSON: Senator Obama, during the primary campaign, has felt the need to address the issue of race. Do you have to address it, do you think, in your campaign in any way?

MCCAIN: I don't think I have to address the issue of race. I have tried to on various venues address the issue of age. You know, on "Saturday Night Live," when I said the person -- the primary qualification for president has to be someone who's very, very, very old.

But I think, as in the primary, the voters will judge me by the way I campaign and what my vision is and what they view my vitality and strengths are. And that's where I think that I can convince them, that not only do I have the age, but I have the experience and knowledge to make the kinds of judgments that are necessary to keep the nation safe and prosperous.

GIBSON: Are you the underdog?

MCCAIN: Oh, yes, I think so. I think so. I think -- I'm surprised, frankly, to see the polls as close as they are, given our brand problems in the Republican Party. I'm pleased where we are.

But I also think that, not unlike the primaries, that Americans pay attention, but, really, when they start to pay attention is really during the convention and sort of during what has traditionally been the campaign season, after Labor Day.

GIBSON: What's the biggest obstacle that you face to getting elected?

MCCAIN: I think energizing independents and the Reagan Democrats, both old and new, to have a look and see if they can understand that I'm the best qualified to serve.

I think that that's -- we're going to be in kind of a presidential campaign where the independents, Reagan Democrats, would be the reason why I win.

I think we have unified the party pretty well, but I've got to assure everyone that I'm going to be the president of all Americans. That's what they have to have confidence in; that's what they want now.

GIBSON: There may be some disaffected Clinton voters out there coming out of this primary, upset that their candidate didn't get it. What do you do to appeal to them?

MCCAIN: National security, reform, assurance that I will represent every American as president of the United States, ability, proven record of bipartisanship. Senator Obama talks about bipartisanship. In all due respect, I have a record of working with Ted Kennedy, and Russ Feingold, and Joe Lieberman, and Carl Levin, and Byron Dorgan.

And that's the way I've been able to achieve legislative success. You have to do that in Senate. I'm glad to do it. The problems that face America today require us to work across the aisle and together for America.

We saw America do that right after 9/11. We haven't seen it in a long time.

GIBSON: Your opponent seems to think that you have a hyphenated name. He refers to you continually as "Bush-McCain."

MCCAIN: Yes, I saw that.

GIBSON: I asked about the largest obstacle. How large an obstacle is the incumbent president?

MCCAIN: I hear that over and over from the Democrats and from Senator Obama, and I understand that political tactic. I don't think it's going to work. I think Americans know me. They didn't just get to know me yesterday. I think they know me.

And I think that they'll be looking not -- again, what Americans want now, in my opinion, from having literally hundreds of town hall meetings, what are you going to do about gas prices? What are you going to do about health care? What are you going to do about the threats that we face from radical Islamic extremism?

I haven't heard anybody at a town hall meeting, although I'm sure that it's on their minds, say, "Well, you're too close to President Bush." What they've said is, "What's your plan of action?" That's what they're interested in, and that's how I think that I can meet that particular campaign tactic.

GIBSON: And yet if you look at this from outside, if somebody were just coming into this country, they would say, you know, what chance does the Republican have? Every major issue would mitigate against him.

We have a war which is unpopular. We have an economy that is in very difficult shape from the housing crisis. We have fuel prices that are through the roof, and we have consumer confidence so very low right now. That, it seems to me, puts the Republican candidate in a very difficult situation.

MCCAIN: I do not underestimate the size of this challenge, OK? But I also know that the American people right now are judging us, one, as fairly even, but also they're going to examine us. That's the strength of this process, is that they'll examine the candidates.

What is that candidate's record? But, most importantly, what is their vision for the future?

In other words, let me just mention one of those areas that you talked about very quickly, the war in Iraq. It's clear that the surge is succeeding. We are winning in Iraq now, at great cost, at great sacrifice.

The mishandling of the war for nearly four years, which I fought against and fought for this new strategy. Senator Obama opposed the surge, said it wouldn't work, and said it was doomed to failure, and said that he would withdraw.

I believe, if we'd had done what he said -- and I think it's becoming clearer and clearer to the American people there would have been chaos, genocide, and we'd have been back. But also, now with success, it has beneficial effects throughout the region, as well.

I'm willing to make that case. As you know, when I was running and no one gave me a chance, and they said, "Well, because you're supporting the surge," one of the reasons. I said at that time I would much rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. Well, I was right.

And I'm right about Iran. And I'm right about a lot of these other issues. And I'm not always right. But I think that I can assure people that our nation's national security challenges will be met with experience and knowledge and judgment.

GIBSON: Senator Obama said to me yesterday he will go to Iraq...


GIBSON: ... this summer. Do you think inevitably he's going to modify his position about the pace of withdrawal, as we get into the general election campaign?

MCCAIN: I have every confidence that, if Senator Obama goes to Iraq, meets with General Petraeus, and the sergeant majors and the captains and the colonels and the corporals, that he will know that this strategy is succeeding and he would modify -- would change his position, and support what's being done over there, and bring us home, but bring us home with honor and victory, not defeat.

MCCAIN: Americans want that, too.

GIBSON: What's your timetable for choosing a vice president?

MCCAIN: We're just in the initial stages and try to get it done as soon as possible, but not too early. You know...

GIBSON: Do you want to do it before the convention?

MCCAIN: What I've seen in the past is that everybody that's a presidential nominee says, "OK, I'm going to get this done by this and this, this," and then, all of a sudden, "Whoops, we've got to -- did we consider this and that?" And they end up really fighting up against a really deadline.

I hope we can avoid that. But, right now, we're still in the initial stages.

GIBSON: Do you want to get it done before the convention?

MCCAIN: I'd like to very much. I'd like to get it done before the convention, yes.

GIBSON: Public financing...


GIBSON: ... are you going to take it?

MCCAIN: Well, I certainly -- as you know, Senator Obama signed a piece of paper saying that he would take it if I would take it. I still want to take it. We haven't made a final decision if he doesn't take it, but I would hope that he would keep his word.

GIBSON: If he opts out, will you?

MCCAIN: I don't know. We'd have to look and see how much money -- not only how much money we could raise, but how much time you spend away from actually campaigning. That's the problem. The benefit of taking the public financing is that then you don't have to worry about the fundraising.

And so I haven't made a final decision. But, a little straight talk, we'd certainly lean towards it, but I would hope that Senator Obama would also keep his word.

GIBSON: Today, he's going to say that he's going to tell the Democratic National Committee not to accept any contributions from federal lobbyists or PACs, consistent with his policy in his campaign. Do you do the same?

MCCAIN: Yes, but I hadn't thought about it, but we certainly have -- he's taken lots and lots of money from people who have special interests in Washington. And so I'd have to look at it.

I hadn't thought about it much before, but I am proud to say we have the most stringent and transparent policy about lobbyists in our campaign than any campaign in history.

GIBSON: I asked you about your vice presidency. It just occurred the question -- do you have any thoughts you might be running against an Obama-Clinton ticket?

MCCAIN: I hadn't thought that much about it, but obviously it would be a formidable ticket. But I also think there's a lot of people out there that could make it a formidable ticket, as well. And I know that a lot of times, too, we place emphasis on the running mate and, at the end of the day, it's the top of the ticket that most Americans make their selection from.

GIBSON: There are reports that, when you first announced your campaign, that you were very close to taking a pledge that you'd be a one-term president if elected. Is that true?

MCCAIN: No. There's been many proposals made to me. As I was going through the announcement tour, somebody proposed it, but I didn't seriously consider it.

GIBSON: You're a very private man. And Karl Rove wrote a piece recently that said, if people really knew what had gone on when you were in captivity in Hanoi, that it would tell them a lot about your character that they don't otherwise know. Do you intend to talk about that much during the campaign?

MCCAIN: No, because I'm a flawed man. The great honor of my life was to have the privilege of serving in the company of heroes, of observing 1,000 acts of courage and compassion and love with men who were far, far better than I am.

GIBSON: But he talked about the generosity that you had exhibited and that he had knowledge of to other people who were imprisoned with you. Are those people we might hear from during the campaign? Or is this just a chapter that you're going to...

MCCAIN: Well, I'm proud to have the support of so many of the people that I was in prison camp with, yes, people like Colonel Bud Day, Congressional Medal of Honor winner, and others. I'm glad to have their support and their active participation.

I think what Karl Rove was talking about, to some degree, was I did have an opportunity to come home early from prison camp. And, obviously, in some ways, that was tempting. But at the end of the day, it was not something that I could have ever done.

GIBSON: Eight months ago, you were in a campaign that was broke...

MCCAIN: History.

GIBSON: You were written off by most people. I guess what I'm asking is, how badly, in your gut, do you want to win? Or was getting the nomination, coming back enough?

MCCAIN: I want to win, obviously. And I'm going to work 24/7 in order to try to become the president of the United States. It's very humbling to have the nomination of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

But I don't want it so badly that I would do something that later I would look back on as something that was less than the kind of conduct that I would want my children and family and friends to respect.

GIBSON: I've heard you say on a couple of occasions, "I'm very comfortable with myself, win or lose." But as you said that, I thought to myself, "Is it in him? Does he want this deep down in his gut?" Because that's what it takes.

MCCAIN: Well, I think, if you just mentioned in the last year, after we were written off, and I was carrying my own bags in Group C on Southwest Airlines, I think I showed that we -- I wasn't willing to give up. And I've had other challenges, in fact, greater challenges than this campaign in my life that I didn't give up. I think I can assure the American people of that.

GIBSON: Senator, it's good to talk to you.

MCCAIN: Thank you, Charlie.