updated 3/26/2006 1:00:54 PM ET 2006-03-26T18:00:54

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: the war in Iraq, tensions with Iran and the future of this woman. Our guest: the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

Then, will there be a White House staff shake-up? And what is at stake in the 2006 midterm elections? Insights and analysis from David Broder of The Washington Post; Elisabeth Bumiller, White House correspondent for The New York Times; Charlie Cook of the National Journal, and John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and CNBC.

But first, as we begin the fourth year of the war in Iraq, we are joined by the secretary of state.

Welcome back, Madame Secretary.

SEC’Y CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Good morning. Nice to be with you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: Very disturbing headlines in the papers yesterday. The Russians helping Iraq and this is how it was captured in the paper: “Russian officials collected intelligence on U.S. troop movements and attack plans from inside the American military command leading the 2003 invasion of Iraq and passed that information on to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, according to a U.S. military study. The intelligence reports, which the study said were provided to Hussein through the Russian ambassador in Baghdad at the height of the U.S. assault, warned accurately that American formations intended to bypass Iraqi cities on their thrust towards Baghdad. The reports provided some specific numbers on U.S. troop units, locations, according to Iraqi documents dated March and April 2003 and later captured by the United States.” Have you told the Russians, “What is going on?”

SEC’Y RICE: Well, we’re trying first to make sure we understand fully what the documents say. These are documents that were found, an Iraqi source. And obviously, Tim, we would take very seriously any suggestion that this may have been done maybe to the detriment of the American forces. And so we will certainly raise it with the Russian government. We want to take a real hard look at the documents and then raise it with the Russian government.

MR. RUSSERT: But these are U.S. documents.

SEC’Y RICE: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: A U.S. report. You believe the report?

SEC’Y RICE: Oh, I, I certainly think there is a lot to this report. But we really haven’t much had a chance to look at the documents in detail, intend to do that and then to raise it with the Russian government. I would hope the Russian government would take it seriously.

MR. RUSSERT: Will there be an investigation as to who leaked the information to the Russians?

SEC’Y RICE: Well, I, we’ll just have to see. I, I don’t want to get ahead of us, but obviously we take very seriously any suggestion that this may have been done at the beginning of the war.

MR. RUSSERT: Was it...

SEC’Y RICE: That would be a quite serious charge.

MR. RUSSERT: Could it have been deliberate misinformation?

SEC’Y RICE: I don’t know. I think we really have to take a look at the documents. We’re finding thousands and thousands and thousands of documents. And we’re going to find some, some important and surprising things in these documents. I think we have to step back, take a hard look at the documents, but I—definitely we will raise it with the Russian government.

MR. RUSSERT: When we first went into Iraq, we had some unexpected encounters with Fedayeen and we lost dozens of American men. The Russians may have been responsible for American deaths.

SEC’Y RICE: Well, I don’t want to try hypothetically to, to know what impact this might have had. I think the first thing we need to do is take a good, hard look at the documents and then we definitely want to raise it with the Russian government. And again, I would hope that the Russian government would, would take it seriously and, and give us a serious answer on what they find.

MR. RUSSERT: Back in June of 2001, the president said he looked Vladimir Putin in the eye, he got a sense of his soul, found him to be very straightforward and very trustworthy. Does the president still believe that President Putin is straightforward and trustworthy?

SEC’Y RICE: I really do think that the Russians have generally done what they said they would do. They said they were going to oppose the Iraq war and they did, and they told us that from the very beginning. So I don’t have an argument there. And I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that this was something that was ordered out of the Kremlin. We have to look at the documents, we have to go to the Russian government, but I would hope that the Russian government would take seriously any suggestion that they may have passed data to the Iraqis at the advent of the war.

MR. RUSSERT: But the Russian ambassador is the source. How could Putin not have known? And how could it be straightforward and honest for the Russians to help Saddam Hussein?

SEC’Y RICE: Tim, we have to get to the bottom of the facts of this. We will most certainly raise it with the Russian government. I’ve, I’ve said several times, it’s a serious matter. But I don’t want to jump out ahead and start making accusations about what the Russians may or may not have known. This is something in the relationship that we have with the Russians that really is candid and where we do talk about difficult things all the time, where I think we’ll be able to talk about this and talk about it honestly.

MR. RUSSERT: Why won’t the Russians help us get sanctions in the United Nations against Iran and try to stop them from developing nuclear weapons?

SEC’Y RICE: Well, we’re not yet at the stage where we’re seeking sanctions. What we’re doing now is we’re seeking a presidential statement that would make clear to Iran the international community’s determination that it live up to the obligations that everyone thinks that Iran has. We’re working through it. We have the same strategy here, we have the same view of the problem. The Russians do not want a nuclear weapon in Iran either. It’s been very clear in everything that they have tried to do, in the way that they set up the civil nuclear cooperation with Bushehr, in what they offered the Iranians that the Russians also do not believe that there should be enrichment and reprocessing capability on Iranian soil. And enrichment and reprocessing capability is the core here. If you’re able to enrich and reprocess, then the ability to build a bomb is, is there.

And so we and the Russians, the Chinese, and certainly the Europeans, have the same view of what is, what is to be prevented. Yes, we’ve had some tactical differences on how to get there, but I talked with my Russian counterpart on Friday, we agreed that our people would go back and work very hard this weekend, and we’ll see where we are on Monday. We’re considering whether it might be a good idea to get, after we have a presidential statement, get ministries together again with the, the P5, the permanent five of the Security Council, plus Germany, to talk about charting a course forward, because everybody takes very seriously Iran’s intransigence and Iran’s unwillingness to do what the international community is, is determined that it will do.

MR. RUSSERT: It is the policy of our government that Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon?

SEC’Y RICE: Tim, Iran cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. That is the view of the international community, not just the United States.

MR. RUSSERT: This article is in The New York Times, “The reality is that most of us think the Iranians are probably going to get a weapon, or the technology to make one, sooner or later, an administration official acknowledged a few weeks ago, refusing to talk on the record because such an admission amounts to a concession that dragging Iran in front of the United Nations Security Council may prove an exercise in futility. The optimists around here,” about the White House, “just hope we can delay the day by 10 or 20 years, and that by that time we’ll have a different relationship with a different Iranian government.”

That seems like a much different policy.

SEC’Y RICE: Well, I—since I don’t know who this anonymous person is, I can’t tell you what, what relationship it may have to the policy. I’ll tell you who doesn’t think that, I don’t believe that, I don’t believe that the president believes that, because we’re doing everything that we can to send a strong signal to the Iranians that they have no choice. If they wish to be a part of the international community, they have no choice but to give up ambitions that could lead to the technologies that would lead to a nuclear weapon.

If the international community stays really solid here, Iran cannot stand the kind of isolation from the international community that, for instance, North Korea endures almost by choice. We really do have a chance to solve this diplomatically. But, Tim, I would be the first to say we can’t afford to waste time. That’s why we need our, our people in, in New York to really work toward this first phase. We need to see if that has an effect on the Iranians, and if it does not have an effect on the Iranians, we need to move to the next phase.

MR. RUSSERT: Which is?

SEC’Y RICE: The next phase is to look to further options in the Security Council, for instance, perhaps the Chapter 7 resolution.

MR. RUSSERT: Which is?

SEC’Y RICE: Chapter 7 resolution essentially gives the U.N., or the Security Council, the ability to compel a state to act. It can say that there would be consequences if actions are not taken.

MR. RUSSERT: Including military?

SEC’Y RICE: Well, no one ever takes anything off the table, but I believe we’re a long way from, from that. We have the possibilities of financial measures that could be taken, bans against travel. There, there are a lot of options once you’re in the Security Council. That’s why it was very important to get this dossier, Iranian dossier, to the Security Council and why the diplomacy that we’ve been working over the last couple of years to get the Europeans and the United States on the same page and to now bring the Russians and the Chinese along has been so important.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe if the president chose to embark on military action with Iran, he would go to Congress for authorization first?

SEC’Y RICE: I’m not going to speculate on that. The president is clear that he keeps all of his options on the table. But, Tim, I think speculating about how we might set up military action isn’t helpful at a time when we really are concentrating on the diplomacy. But I want to be very clear...

MR. RUSSERT: But you wouldn’t go to Congress?

SEC’Y RICE: Well, Tim, of course the administration went to Congress the last time. And I would just ask people to look at the history of how this president has, has acted; he has taken Congress as a full partner in these matters. But I’m not going to get into a discussion of what the president may or may not do constitutionally.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn back to Iraq. The war is now in its fourth year, and these are the grim statistics: U.S. troops killed, 2,316; wounded/injured 17,271; Iraqis killed, an estimated, estimated number of 30,000; 130,000 American troops on the ground. When you were planning the war some three and a half years ago, did you have any idea that three years into the war those are the numbers that you would be confronting?

SEC’Y RICE: Well, I certainly thought that it would be difficult. I don’t think anyone knew precisely what we would be facing in terms of numbers. And look, every one of those deaths is, is mourned by people in the administration because these are families that have lost husbands and wives and daughters and sons. But we also know that nothing of value is ever won without sacrifice.

We’re in Iraq because the United States of America faces a different kind of enemy in a different kind of war. And we have to have a different kind of Middle East if we’re ever going to resolve the, the, the problems of an ideology of hatred that was so great that people flew airplanes into buildings. Iraq was—Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a threat. Now that the...

MR. RUSSERT: But, but Saddam was not related to flying airplanes into buildings.

SEC’Y RICE: No, and we have never said that Saddam—Saddam was not related to the events of 9/11. But if you really believe that the only thing that happened on 9/11 was people flew airplanes into buildings, I think you have a very narrow view of what we faced on 9/11. We faced the, the outcome of an ideology of hatred throughout the Middle East that had to be dealt with. Saddam Hussein was a part of that old Middle East. The new Iraq will be a part of a new Middle East, and we will all be safer.

MR. RUSSERT: But Madame Secretary, weapons of mass destruction was the primary rationale given to go into Iraq. Lisa Myers of NBC News broke a story last week that the Iraqi foreign minister, Mr. Sabri, became a spy for the French and, and the CIA. And this is how it was reported: “Saddam Hussein’s last foreign minister, Naji Sabri, was a paid spy for French intelligence, which later turned him over to the CIA to supply information about Iraq, its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs more than six months before the war began in March 2003, according to former senior intelligence officials. ...

“The sources said, he provided information that the Iraqi dictator had ambitions for a nuclear program but that it was not active, and that no biological weapons were being produced or stockpiled, although research was under way.” That’s a far cry from what the American people were told.

SEC’Y RICE: Of course, Tim, this was a single source among multiple sources, and the problem was that Saddam Hussein was unwilling, after multiple resolutions in Security Council, to account for his weapons programs. We all remember that the accounting of the U.N. mission that was supposed—the weapons inspection mission that was supposed to look into its weapons programs could not account for large stockpiles.

We all thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He certainly had a very healthy appetite for them, and he had used them before, both against his own people and against his neighbors. He was a threat. This was someone flying against our aircraft—or, or shooting at our aircraft as they flew the no-fly zones. He’d invaded his neighbors. But the point is that now that he is gone Iraq has an opportunity to be a different Iraq in a different kind of Middle East.

I know it’s hard, and I know that the numbers that you put up are difficult to see, and I know that the violence on TV is difficult. But I would ask people to, to look at the perspective here of what is really going on in Iraq. Under this, the violence—under the specter of this violence, you have Iraqis now—Sunnis, Shia, Kurds and others—determined to form a government of national unity. That’s extraordinary in Iraq’s history where they’ve always settled their differences by violence, not by politics. And when they succeed in that, you—they are going to have the basis for a very different kind of Iraq, and I think they’re going to succeed.

MR. RUSSERT: But people are being asked to take your judgement on this, as we sit here this morning, and refer to previous judgements the administration made: weapons of mass destruction, there were none; we would be greeted as liberators, this is three years later; that it would not take hundreds of thousands of American troops to occupy Iraq. Tommy Franks, according to the book “Cobra II,” said we’d be down to 30,000 troops in November of ‘03. The cost of the war: the budget director of the White House said it’d be $50 billion dollars, it’s now over $350 billion dollars. Each judgement has proven to be wrong.

SEC’Y RICE: The judgement that has not proven to be wrong, Tim, is that the region is changing in fundamental ways and the region is better without Saddam Hussein. Yes, it is true that everyone thought he had weapons of mass destruction; he did not. It is, by the way, the case that the Iraqis are delighted to be rid of him. And some Iraqis, most Iraqis, in fact, are willing and want to keep coalition forces there until they can take care of this themselves. But we do have to keep things in historical perspective. These people are doing something that is quite unknown in the Middle East, and one has to ask, “What was the alternative?” Was the alternative to leave Saddam Hussein in power, continuing to threaten his neighbors, continuing with his windfall profits from the Oil for Food scandal, continuing to repress his people and build mass graves, continuing to use those Oil for Food profits to, again, build the infrastructure for his weapons of mass destruction?

MR. RUSSERT: But many will say he was contained by the no-fly zone.

SEC’Y RICE: I don’t think that there is anyone...

MR. RUSSERT: He was in a box.

SEC’Y RICE: I, I do not think that he was in a box. It, it—the Oil for Food program alone shows that the billions of dollars that he was collecting, he was not just going to build palaces. This was someone who had an insatiable appetite to dominate his region.

Now, without Saddam Hussein, you can look across the region and see that a lot is changing, thanks to the president’s democracy promotion and the hard work of people in those countries. You have Syrian forces out of Lebanon, you have Saddam Hussein out of Iraq. The people of the Middle East are taking on authoritarian governments across the Middle East. Kuwait has given women the right to vote. I’d be the first to say that these big, historical changes are turbulent and they’re difficult. But the notion that somehow there was a placid Middle East, that if we’d just left it alone, if we’d just not invaded Iraq, if we’d just not overthrown dictators, if we’d just not challenged Syrian power in Lebanon everything would be just fine, is simply not true. It was that Middle East, the malignancy of the Middle East, that we “disturbed” that led directly to the 9/11 event.

MR. RUSSERT: The president said this week that whether there’ll be troops in Iraq for the unforeseeable future will be determined by the next president, meaning we’re going to have troops in Iraq at least through January of ‘09.

SEC’Y RICE: Well, the president was asked this question in a particular way, and he answered that some American troops may well be there for the next president. But I would just point to what the president has said continually, which is that American forces are going to come down commensurate with the need as Iraqi forces stand up, and they are indeed standing up.

General Casey has talked about a significant reduction of American forces over the next year, and that significant reduction is because Iraqi forces are taking and holding territory now. Because during this most recent uptick of sectarian violence, the Iraqi Army behaved very, very well. So Iraqi forces are getting better, American forces are ceding territory, and I think it’s entirely probable that we will see a significant draw-down of American forces over the next, next year. That’s what General Casey believes.

MR. RUSSERT: This year.

SEC’Y RICE: It’s all dependent on the ground, but this is—on, on events on the ground. But as General Casey has said, “We see the progress of the Iraqi forces, we see the progresss of the political process, and there’s every reason to believe that American can start to draw down.”

MR. RUSSERT: Is the insurgency in its last throes?

SEC’Y RICE: Well, the insurgency politically is certainly in, in danger because the Sunnis who stood outside of the political presence...

MR. RUSSERT: But in terms of violence, is in its last throes?

SEC’Y RICE: Well, the insurgency is still able to, to pull off violence and kill innocent children, or kill an innocent school teacher, yes, they’re able to do that, and they might be able to do that some—for some time. But what they’ve not been able to do is to disrupt the political process, what they’ve not been able to do is to set Iraqis one against another in the political process, they’ve not been able to stop free elections, they’re not able to stop the formation of the government. A few violent people can always grab headlines and can always kill innocent people.

MR. RUSSERT: It’s more than a few.

SEC’Y RICE: Well, it’s a few in terms of the population of Iraqis.

MR. RUSSERT: But it could not exist without being enabled by the population.

SEC’Y RICE: Well, the population is less and less enabling. Every day there are reports that Zarqawi and al-Qaeda meet stiff resistance, indeed violent resistance, from Iraqi tribes. Sunnis are now a part of the political process. And I know that people wonder when will the government formation finish. It, it seems to be dragging on after the election. But I would just note, I read the other day someone said, “Well, they’re dividing up the spoils of the offices.” That’s not what they’re doing in this process. They are writing a government program on which the national unity will govern. They are writing the rules by which they will govern, and they’re determining who will take key positions. So, this is an extraordinary matter, an extraordinary scene with Iraqi Sunni and Shia and Kurds all working together toward a unity government.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to Afghanistan. There’s a story moving on the wires that the Afghan court has just dismissed the charges against this gentleman who had converted to Christianity. Are you aware that was going to happen?

SEC’Y RICE: I can’t confirm that particular report, Tim. I know that the Afghans are working on it. They’ve been very aware of the issue and of the concerns about the issue. This is a young democracy that is working with a Constitution that, like many constitutions when they’re first born, that the conflicts have to be worked out. We have our own history of conflicts that had to be worked out after a new Constitution. And so, the Afghans are working, working on it, but America has stood solidly for religious freedom as a bedrock, the bedrock of, of democracy. And we’ll see, but I can’t confirm that specifically.

MR. RUSSERT: Should American Christian missionaries be encouraged to go to Afghanistan?

SEC’Y RICE: Well, I think that Afghans are pleased to get the help that they can get. We need to be respectful of Afghan sovereignty.

MR. RUSSERT: Including Christian missionaries?

SEC’Y RICE: We have to be respectful of Afghan sovereignty. And, Tim, respectful of the fact that this is a country that is coming out of 25 years of civil war, a country that’s going to have to find its own way, and a country that is going through one of the most difficult debates that any society goes through, and that is the proper role of religion in the politics of the state. It’s a debate, by the way, that all of us went through at some point in our history.

MR. RUSSERT: But Madame Secretary, we talk all the time about spreading democracy, and your own State Department report on human rights abuses said Afghanistan says that Christianity is punishable by death, that missionaries, Christian missionaries, are not welcome, that women cannot get a passport or leave the country without permission of a man. This is a far cry from the responsibilities and rights given to most people who live in a democracy.

SEC’Y RICE: And it’s also a far cry from the Taliban. This is a country that has come an enormous way in four years, where, yes, the issues of the Constitution are going to be debated in this very traditional society that is trying now to move to a modern political system. I would just ask people to remember how hard this was for us.

Tim, I am, I hate to say, 51 years old, but it’s in my lifetime that black Americans were guaranteed the right to vote. Who are we to be so, so insistent that people must do this overnight? We’re working with the Afghan government. They’re moving in a democratic fashion. It’s going to be hard. But when something arises, as with Mr. Rahman, it is the obligation of the international community and of the United States—and there has been support across Europe for this—that the Afghans be reminded that in their own Constitution they have enshrined the universal declaration on human rights which guarantees certain religious freedoms. We didn’t have that Constitution with the Taliban to work with.

MR. RUSSERT: So Christians should be able to worship. People should be able to convert to Christianity in Afghanistan.

SEC’Y RICE: Of course, Tim. That our—the universal declaration of human rights is, is clear on this. But I would be the first to say that Afghans are going to have to work through some of the difficulties and contradictions.

MR. RUSSERT: But it can’t be done on a case-by-case basis. It has to be ensured.

SEC’Y RICE: They will have to work through court cases, as we have, to interpret the Constitution. They will have to work through individual cases, and I’m quite certain that the evolution of Afghan democracy is going in the right direction. But I would just remind people that four years ago the Taliban was executing people wantonly in stadiums for playing music. This is a country that has come a very, very long way, and women were not being educated at all. It was punishable to educate women. This is a place that has come a long, long way. Let’s support them in their quest to become a modern democracy.

MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned you’re 51 and I’m curious if it’s time for a career change. We’ve discussed future options for you on this program. Here is the headline all across the paper: NFL Commissioner Paul “Tagliabue Step Down in July.” And here’s our conversations in 2001, ‘02, ‘03, and ‘04 on this subject.

(Videotape):

MR. RUSSERT: In your next life, you want to be commissioner of the NFL?

SEC’Y RICE: Right.

(End videotape)

(Videotape):

SEC’Y RICE: I think the NFL is really a terrific institution.

I’d love to be associated with it someday.

MR. RUSSERT: Another first.

(End videotape)

(Videotape):

SEC’Y RICE: Tim, I’m going off to be commissioner of NFL, remember?

(End videotape)

(Videotape):

SEC’Y RICE: I think Paul Tagliabue is doing a fine job as NFL commissioner, but I look forward to the day that he decides to retire and I, I very much think that the, the best job in America’s got to be NFL commissioner.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: You just announced your candidacy.

SEC’Y RICE: I still think the best job in America maybe NFL commissioner. It’s a little too soon for me. I’ve got lots to do as secretary of state. I think if my ship came in, it’s going to have to leave the port without me.

MR. RUSSERT: So you’re not interested?

SEC’Y RICE: No, not interested.

MR. RUSSERT: Now, Fred Barnes, a reporter, has close ties to the—sources to the White House, wrote this in The Wall Street Journal the other day, “Third Term for Bush. The president’s most spectacular move would be to anoint a presidential successor. This would require Vice President Cheney to resign. His replacement? Condoleezza Rice, whom Mr. Bush regards highly.”

SEC’Y RICE: We’ve got a great vice president of the United States in Vice President Cheney. He is doing a fantastic job for the president and for the country. He is really one of the strongest supporters that I’ve drawn on from time to time, and he’s doing a great job. I think I better try to be secretary of state. You just gave a whole list of things that I have to work on as secretary of state.

MR. RUSSERT: But if the president, if the president came to you and said, “Dick Cheney’s going to resign, I want you to be my vice president because I want you to run in 2008,” you wouldn’t say no?

SEC’Y RICE: Tim, I think we’ve been through this conversation about 2008. Not, not going to—I’m not going to do that, that’s not what I want to do with my life.

MR. RUSSERT: Laura Bush said you’d make an excellent president, and, “I don’t think we can talk her into running.”

SEC’Y RICE: Well, that’s—I really appreciate that the first lady, who I admire very much, thinks that, but the last part of that’s right.

MR. RUSSERT: Will not happen.

SEC’Y RICE: I don’t think it’s going to happen.

MR. RUSSERT: Madam Secretary, as always, we thank you for sharing your views.

SEC’Y RICE: Thank you very much.

MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, David Broder, Elisabeth Bumiller, Charlie Cook, John Harwood interpret the Washington political landscape, tackle the issue of immigration, and look at the midterm elections in 2006 right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: The politics of immigration, Iraq and the midterm congressional elections. David Broder, Elisabeth Bumiller, Charlie Cook, John Harwood, our roundtable after this station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Welcome all.

Immigration. Look at these scenes and these pictures from Los Angeles. Five hundred thousand people, according to police estimates, turned out to protest some of the immigration reforms that are being discussed, debated, perhaps legislated in Washington.

David Broder, how big of a political issue is immigration, and what are the potential pitfalls for politicians as they try to navigate the issue?

MR. DAVID BRODER: It started as a border issue in the states that have common boundaries with Mexico particularly. It has now become a national issue. Talking to Republican governor of Minnesota, it’s a big issue in his state; suburban Illinois districts now find large Hispanic populations. It has become a much tougher issue for politicians of both parties, but particularly I think for Republicans.

MR. RUSSERT: The polling we have seen with the Wall Street Journal/NBC, 88 percent say it’s a serious problem; 62 percent say that illegal, illegal, immigrants should not be allowed to become citizens, and 60 percent say that we shouldn’t even give them guest-worker status to come here temporarily.

Elisabeth Bumiller, you wrote a piece in The New York Times. Quote, “Bush is facing a difficult path in immigration,” talking about the joint pressures on President Bush. From the business community we need these people to work, because Americans won’t do the jobs, and the conservative community is saying, “Illegal immigrants: get ‘em out.” What does he do?

MS. ELISABETH BUMILLER: He’s trying to thread the needle and walk a very fine line between both of these groups. I mean, he’s a, you know, governor—he a former governor of a border state so he—this is very close to his political experience. Emotionally he is—he gives—in the early days of this debate in 2004 he was giving very emotional speeches about America, the land of immigrants, and he was proposing this, this very, what many Republicans said was a very generous guest-worker program. He has pulled back a lot now under, under onslaught from, from conservatives, and now he’s emphasizing the border security part of his plan. He’s trying to do both. There’s a lot—as we know, there’s a lot of different proposals on the Hill right now; we’ll see some of them next week. The White House is hanging back, waiting to see what, what comes out of the, out of the smoke, and then will, will weigh in.

MR. RUSSERT: Charlie Cook, it appears that the American people have very firm views about immigration, and that the president and other politicians are going to try to nuance the issue. Is that possible?

MR. CHARLIE COOK: Well it’s a funny issue. If you ask people what’s the most important problem facing the country, it’s a small single-digit issue. But then once you raise it, boy, emotions run high and it’s hard to split the baby. And, and I can see where the president’s trying to go the, “Let’s build, build a wall or build a barrier, stop illegal immigration, but for the people we have we’ve got to mainstream them and keep this work force going, because that’s important for agribusiness and business.”

MR. RUSSERT: Is that politically acceptable to conservatives?

MR. COOK: It’s not acceptable to anybody, but it’s the only way, I think—I mean, they’re going to have to figure out a way to split the baby. Because one way or the other is, is, is just not going to work.

MR. RUSSERT: John:

MR. JOHN HARWOOD: Well, let’s don’t forget, Tim, Democrats are also split on this issue. A lot of African-Americans are not very sympathetic with the cause of the guest-worker program. The White House, one of the ways Elisabeth mentioned, trying to thread the needle, one of the things they’re looking at is trying to push the final resolution of this till after the mid-term elections. That also could happen on some budget issues as well as a way of trying to make some sort of common cause between moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans.

MR. RUSSERT: You know, in 2000, “Florida, Florida, Florida”; 2004, “Ohio, Ohio, Ohio.” You look at 2008, that Electoral College map, and you look at states like New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado, some real potential swing states, and this issue could be very decisive as we play it through.

MR. HARWOOD: Well, let’s don’t forget one other thing, Tim. This was raised in the Virginia governor’s race last year by the Republican candidate who went after some of these job centers that attract illegal immigrants. Didn’t work for him. So sometimes the emotion of the issue doesn’t always prevail.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to Iraq. A big discussion in our country about Iraq, the way the issue is being covered by the media. Vice President Cheney last Sunday made these comments: “There’s a constant sort of perception, if you will, that’s created because what’s newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. It’s not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq.”

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld weighed in: “The terrorists seem to recognize that they are losing in Iraq. I believe that history will show that to be the case. Fortunately, history is not made up of daily headlines, blogs on Web sites or the latest sensational attack.”

And then this Wednesday, President Bush went to a town meeting in West Virginia of his supporters, and here’s one of the questions that was asked:

(Videotape, March 22, 2006):

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And I ask you this from the bottom of my heart, for a solution to this, because it seems that our major media networks don’t want to portray the good. They just want to focus...

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: OK, hold on a second.

WOMAN: They just want to focus on another car bomb, or they just want to focus on some more bloodshed.

(End of videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Does that issue work, that it’s the mainstream media that’s distorting the good news that’s coming out of Iraq?

MR. COOK: I think it helps with the Republican base, but I don’t think it helps with swing voters at all. First of all, it’s the nature of news. I mean on the evening news at night, a car that isn’t in Iraq isn’t in the news—the house that doesn’t burn, a building that doesn’t burn, a killing that doesn’t take place. News is when—is the aberration, is the change from normalcy.

Secondly, this--80 journalists so far have been killed over there. I mean it, it’s, it’s, I mean, getting out there and looking around, wandering around Iraq, looking for good news? Sounds to me like a good way to get killed.

And then the third thing is, I don’t know if they really want to try to sell this, because people don’t think that, that, that everything’s fine. I mean, I think this is just an extenuation of holding up the banner that says “Mission accomplished.” I mean, people don’t think it’s well, they can see that it’s not going well. And what happens in 15 provinces doesn’t matter. What—if they think that this thing is just really going to hell in a hand basket, it’s kind of—I mean that’s what, you know, that’s that.

MR. RUSSERT: David Broder?

MR. BRODER: The ombudsman at The Post, Deborah Howell, has a very thoughtful analysis of this whole question in the paper today, which I would refer people to. I think the answer is that when there is this level of violence and turmoil in a country, that has to be the heart of the story that the press is, is telling. The other parts of it do get told, but they do not dominate the news and they can’t dominate the news given the realities of that country.

MR. HARWOOD: Nor should they dominate the news. It’s a very weak argument. When, when you have, as Charlie said, journalists over there who cannot move around the country to report because they know that, that they’re in danger of being killed at any moment, that tells you about the state of security in the country. It’s not good.

MR. RUSSERT: The White House?

MS. BUMILLER: The other thing that’s interesting, what you didn’t show was the president’s response to her. I was there that day, and he was very, very careful not to jump on her bandwagon. In fact—I mean, obviously, he didn’t have to, she did it for him. But the point is he said, “Look, wait a minute. You know, I understand your frustration, but we have a free press in this country, we can’t tell them what to do.” He pulled back somewhat from her comment.

And I think you’re right, Charlie, that they aren’t—they know they can’t sell this, and when they’ve tried in the past, it has backfired on them.

MR. RUSSERT: But the president also said don’t be afraid to go to blogs and find out some more information.

MS. BUMILLER: Yes. I mean, I mean, I’m, I’m—these are gradations here, I mean, in White House response.

MR. RUSSERT: But is the White House convinced that in order to secure the base of the Republican Party for the president, it doesn’t hurt to go after the media a little bit?

MS. BUMILLER: Not—of course not. They do it all the time. And, and they complain all the time about, about, about what we do. But, but I, I have noticed this past week Scott McClellan saying, the White House press secretary, you know, “We’re not blaming the media for the war in Iraq.” He said that a couple times this week, and so, so it, it’s—they’re—again, they’re being a little more careful here than usual.

MR. HARWOOD: And did you really fall asleep in that press pool, or was that a cheap shot by the president?

MS. BUMILLER: It was completely inaccurate. I won’t say I haven’t nodded off in previous speeches, but not that one.

MR. RUSSERT: There is a difference between, difference between meditation and sleep, you see.

David Broder, let me turn to the, the rebellion that I sense with some House members, particularly in the Republican Party when you go talk to them privately. You captured it in your column this way: “The conflict [over Dubai Ports World] brought to the surface deep-seated resentments from the Capitol end of Pennsylvania Avenue toward the people around the president - and, surprisingly, toward Bush himself. The harmony that had prevailed during most of Bush’s tenure - the deference that a Republican-controlled Congress has generally shown to his wishes - disappeared. Even the normal circumspection with which congressional Republicans treat the White House withered in the unexpected heat of this dispute.” And then this: Congressman “Tom Davis of Virginia, a committee chairman, told The Post, ‘This is probably the worst administration ever in getting Congress’s opinion on anything.’” Ouch!

MR. BRODER: Well, you’d heard this kind of comment—all of us had—privately from Republicans on the Hill. But the fact that somebody like Tom Davis, former chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, is saying it publicly, on the record, gives you a measure of the sort of fall-off of any sense of either loyalty or intimidation, whatever you want to call it, to the White House. They feel that they are on their own and that the president is going to take care of his business, but they’re going to take care of their own.

MR. RUSSERT: One of the things being talked about, Elisabeth Bumiller, is a staff shake-up at the White House.

MS. BUMILLER: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: This is how you reported it: “Republicans outside the White House said that they had pushed Mr. Bush not to replace” Karl “Rove,” the chief political operator, deputy chief of staff, “but rather to bring in someone at the same level or above, perhaps as minister without portfolio. One Republican said Mr. Bush should view it as replacing a top-notch pitcher struggling in the later innings of a baseball game, rather than as a vote of no-confidence in a friend.” So who’s the reliever?

MS. BUMILLER: Well, there’s lots of names out there. You’ve heard them as well as I have. Ed Gillespie, you know, Bill Paxon, there’s lots of names. The question is, are they going to do it? And, and right now, there’s, there’s a lot of talk at the White House, there’s no indications the president has signed on to this idea. Karl Rove has told people that he thinks that bringing somebody in without a clear line of authority is a mistake. It—and, and the bottom line is what is this going to—is this going to help with the war in Iraq, is it going to help with—you know, that, that—is it going—you know, we’re, we’re not talking about changing policies here, we’re changing about, you know, changing, you know, some, some personnel. So that’s—it’s unclear if anything is going to happen.

MR. RUSSERT: John:

MR. HARWOOD: Chances are pretty good something will happen. The president, of course, didn’t rule out the idea of bringing someone on. Bill Paxon’s a possibility, Vin Weber’s also a possibility. And I think over time you could see some changes in the White House staff as well. When you look at sort of the, the big three, or, or the, the biggest names in the White House, Andy Card, Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett, you could see some change over time. Andy Card probably the most likely to leave at some point, he’s almost already the longest-serving chief of staff ever, you could see some change there.

MR. RUSSERT: On, on the verge of dethroning Sherman Adams...

MR. HARWOOD: You bet.

MR. RUSSERT: ...of Dwight Eisenhower fame.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the midterm elections, where all these things invariably lead. Here’s our latest numbers from the Wall Street Journal poll, right track/wrong track, the United States headed in the right direction: 26 percent, one of four; 62 percent say wrong track. And then the so-called generic question, “Who do you want to control Congress?”: Republicans, 37 percent; 50 percent now, a majority, say the Democrats.

But as always, Charlie Cook is warning us to go slow. And here’s his latest column from the National Journal, “Despite national political trends indicating that the GOP is in serious trouble, a race-by-race ‘micro’ analysis suggests that Democrats cannot easily seize control of the House or the Senate this fall. In the Senate, Democrats need a net gain of six seats. ... Democrats need to win in Tennessee [where Bill Frist is retiring] ... [and] have to run the table by defeating all of the most vulnerable Republicans while holding all of their own seats, including in Minnesota, where their incumbent is retiring, and in Washington state, where Senator Maria Cantwell faces a very strong challenger. They also need to hang on to somewhat more secure open seats in Maryland and Vermont, as well as 14 other incumbents. Although not impossible in a favorable political climate, this is a very tall order.”

And here are the vulnerable states, according to The Cook Report, vulnerable senators: Conrad Burns in Montana, Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island, Mike DeWine, Ohio, Santorum in Pennsylvania, Jim Talent, Missouri, and the Tennessee seat.

Charlie, what do you see in the Senate?

MR. COOK: This is—you know, when you look at this election from the big picture, the national numbers, boy, it just looks horrible and it looks like, gosh, Republicans will be lucky if they hold on to anything. And then you do the race-by-race like this. Now, the thing is, the first three or four for Democrats probably aren’t that hard. But when you get to the fifth and sixth seats, you get to, to, to winning in Ohio and you win—and, and talk about the Tennessee open seat, gosh, that’s hard. I mean, it’s going to take a real, real, real strong wind at their backs. And, and it’s the kind of thing where there are structural barriers. I mean, 85 percent of all incumbent senators get reelected, and you’ve got to knock out five of them? You know, it can happen, but it’s hard. And it’s kind of like having structural barriers that are out there that are protecting the Republican majorities, and if this is a Category 1, 2, or 3 hurricane, those barriers are strong enough, but if it’s a 4 or a 5, they’re not. And the question is how tall will it be?

MR. RUSSERT: And...

MR. HARWOOD: And, Tim, some of this—some of these ranges—races can change overnight in a hurry. Conrad Burns has now got a primary challenge from a significant Republican. There’s some talk among Republicans that maybe Conrad Burns would find something else to do, maybe in the Bush administration. That could change in a hurry.

MR. RUSSERT: Charlie, you also say this about the House: “In the House, where Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats, only about three dozen are truly in play today.” So it’s, it’s tough, and you have to get a straight, an inside straight.

MR. COOK: Right. There’re basically 24 Republican seats that today are vulnerable. Democrats have to win 15 out of 24 and hold on to their 11 most tough—the toughest ones. And again, they can do it. There, there, if, if there were more Republicans retirements in tough districts, if—but redistricting and the incumbency advantages that have built up over the years just make pulling this kind of win hard unless it’s a Category 4 or 5.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, in 1994, you talked about microchanges, 30 to 35 seats in the House, and the tsunami came. Republicans won 52 seats, electing Newt Gingrich speaker of the House. Newt Gingrich has now weighed in, David Broder, and said that the Democrat slogan in 2006 should be, “Had Enough?” And he thinks that would work.

MR. BRODER: What a helper Gingrich is. I think the Democrats’ real slogan may very well be, “Wouldn’t You Like To Have Somebody Watching The Store?” Because the sense that I get from talking to voters is that they are not ready to entrust the government to the Democrats, but they’re not really comfortable with the way the Republicans have been running things. And the simple idea of having a little oversight, a little checks and balances back in the system is potentially a really powerful argument for Democrats.

MR. RUSSERT: Elisabeth Bumiller, when the White House hears “a little oversight, checks and balances,” to them it means hearings with subpoena power.

MS. BUMILLER: That’s right.

MR. RUSSERT: And they don’t like that.

MS. BUMILLER: No, no. And, you know, Karl Rove has told people he’s optimistic they can hang on to both Houses if, if—but he also has said, “Yes, it can happen,” the way Charlie says. And you know, you’re going to see—the president’s out a lot these days campaigning already, raising money for candidates, and he’s out in all these big states.

MR. RUSSERT: Because the last thing the White House wants is investigation into weapons of mass destruction...

MS. BUMILLER: The last.

MR. RUSSERT: ...into prison abuse, into religious rights in Afghanistan.

Drop, drop the issue and there’s a hearing.

MS. BUMILLER: Right. I mean, that’s the last—that’s the last two years of the Bush presidency then, and they know that.

MR. HARWOOD: That’s true, Tim, but let’s keep in mind, first of all, keeping Republican majority is not the top priority for this White House, winning the war in Iraq is the top priority. And secondly, it might not be the worst thing to happen to George W. Bush. If Democrats had a weak majority, you could see some deals cut, especially on entitlement programs, the last two years, as Democrats try to resolve a problem before they hope they get a president in 2009.

MR. RUSSERT: David, is it enough for the Democrats to say, “We’re not the Republicans,” period, or do they have to come forward with a specific proposals to deal with these problems, including Iraq?

MR. BRODER: Well, if they’re going to be responsible, they need some policy. And the great void on the Democratic side is nobody can tell you today what their policy is about Iraq, about entitlements, or about any of the other challenges facing the country. Whether they need that politically, somebody else is smart enough to decide, but if they’re going to be a responsible party, they need to talk about policy.

MR. RUSSERT: Do they need to do it?

MR. COOK: See, I would argue that minority parties don’t have to be responsible. That’s the one good thing going for them, and when they try to be responsible, they’re just going to dig themselves into a hole. I mean, you’re on—your job is to throw rocks. Once you start offering alternatives, then suddenly you’re playing defense as well. I think Democrats would be crazy, from a political standpoint, to offer up proposals.

MR. RUSSERT: That movie, “Cool Hand Luke,” sometimes nothing’s a real cool hand.

MR. COOK: Exactly.

MR. RUSSERT: Elisabeth, Afghanistan. A very thorny issue for this president who is very open about his Christianity, and now we have the situation where it appears this gentleman who converted to Christianity in Afghanistan has been spared the death penalty, but it’s going to be an ongoing issue as Secretary Rice seemed to indicate, as that democracy in Afghanistan goes through some serious growing pains dealing with religious rights, women’s rights, civil rights, human rights.

MS. BUMILLER: Right. Well, this is what happens when you call for democracy in, in problematic parts of the world. We saw this in the elections in the Palestinian territories. Obviously, what do you do when you call for a democracy and the wrong party wins, in your view? This is also what’s going on in Afghanistan. The president was very—you know, you saw him this week saying this was deeply troubling. I was—it would be interesting to know what was going on behind the scenes and what kind of pressure was put on Afghanistan, our good ally. Obviously, it looks like they got out of this one for now.

MR. RUSSERT: John Harwood, Secretary Rice openly talking about American troop withdrawals. How much are politicians expecting to have significant troop withdrawals before the midterm elections?

MR. HARWOOD: I think Republicans are definitely expecting it, and that could change the political environment. That’s one of the biggest drivers of this wrong-track sentiment that we’ve been talking about this morning. But as David discussed, Democrats don’t exactly have a clear voice. They’re going to try to finesse it this week and have an event drawing together all factions of the party behind—criticizing Bush and calling for some sort of transition without specifying exactly how it’s going to take place. Trying to, to have an umbrella under which those who want to withdraw troops quickly and those who want to go more slowly can all rally behind.

MR. RUSSERT: Isn’t that the Republicans’ hope, David, that by October enough troops have come home the president can then give a speech which says, “You see, we’re making progress. Stay the course, don’t take a chance by going along with these other guys and doing something dangerous”?

MR. BRODER: If that happens, the Republicans would benefit and the country would benefit. And let’s just hope that it’s possible.

MR. RUSSERT: Charlie Cook, politically, will that be enough to deal with people’s anxieties, concerns about Iraq?

MR. COOK: That would help a lot. I mean, your NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that Iraq was just a wet blanket over the administration. It was weighing everything down. And these Republican members, one of us—one of them told us he comes in for the Tuesday House Republican Conference lunch, and he can tell who’s just gotten a poll back, that they have this shell-shocked look on their face. Somebody else said “ashen.” One other member says suddenly they start going into fund-raising frenzies because they’re getting polls back in their individual districts that are starting to reflect those national numbers that look so horrible for them.

MR. HARWOOD: It’s March Madness for Congressional Republicans, too, Tim, I’ll tell you that.

MR. RUSSERT: Speaking of March Madness, you’re a Duke man. Who do you like now?

MR. HARWOOD: Boy, I’m rooting for George Mason. That’s the, that’s the underdog pick right now.

MR. RUSSERT: The Patriots. Charlie:

MR. COOK: LSU. I’m from...

MR. RUSSERT: Shreveport.

MR. COOK: ...Shreveport, Louisiana. Georgetown’s out, so I’m for LSU.

MR. RUSSERT: David Broder.

MR. BRODER: Villanova.

MR. RUSSERT: Villanova.

I’ve got my BC hat. I was ready to wear this for the Final Four, but—huh?

I—you know what, you got to go for “Big Baby” Davis.

Elisabeth, you’re the basketball fan.

MS. BUMILLER: Oh, yeah, I got—whatever you say, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: “Who’s playing?”

MS. BUMILLER: Yeah, I’m better than that.

MR. RUSSERT: All right, you sure are. Elisabeth Bumiller, John Harwood, David Broder, Charlie Cook. We’ll be right back.

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That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

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