updated 7/25/2006 10:54:05 AM ET 2006-07-25T14:54:05

Guests: Richard Wolffe, Jonathan Alter

BRIAN UNGER, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Condi‘s surprise visit.  Destination, Beirut.  Objective, prop up democracy, quick.  The secretary of state meets the Lebanese prime minister.  What was said?  Was anything accomplished?

And with thousands of Israeli boots on the ground inside Lebanon, and Hezbollah rockets still being lobbed into Israel, does diplomacy even have a chance?

Reports from Andrea Mitchell, traveling with the secretary of state, Richard Engel on the devastation in Lebanon, Martin Fletcher with Israeli troops, and Mark Potter on the ground in Haifa.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the civilian death toll rises, 100 dead this weekend alone.  And the head of the Iraqi parliament calls the U.S.  liberators butchers.

So, how is the vice president spinning this and the other chaos in the Middle East as reasons to vote Republican?

And then, the agony and the ecstasy, an emotional win for Tiger at the British Cup, a guy with basically no hip wins the world‘s biggest bike race, and the newly crowned leader of the universe passes out after the victory.  At least she kept her pants on.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

And good evening.  I‘m Brian Unger, in for a vacationing Keith Olbermann.

Day 13 of the Mideast crisis, and what may not yet officially be called a war is still looking like one more than ever.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, more fierce fighting on the ground in Lebanon, more innocent civilians paying the price, while on the diplomatic front, the first discussion about what will happen the day after the fighting stops.

Secretary of State Rice finally on the ground in the region tonight.  First stop Beirut.  The question, will she be the one to broker a new peace?

But we begin tonight on the front lines, thousands of Israeli troops continuing their ground push into Lebanon, Israeli fighter jets keeping the assault from above while Katyusha missiles fired by Hezbollah are still raining down on northern Israel.

We begin tonight with reports from both sides of the border, starting in Lebanon with NBC‘s Beirut bureau chief, Richard Engel.

Richard?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF:  Good evening, Brian.

U.S. military intelligence officials tell NBC News, since the start of this conflict, Israel has flown more than 1,500 combat sorties, and fired more than 20,000 rounds of artillery here into south Lebanon.

(voice-over):  Today, we followed a trail of destruction toward the front line.  Just outside Beirut, an Israeli air strike smashed the road and overpass and water pipes.  Fifteen miles further south, a black cloud from a bombed oil depot stretched for over a mile.

(on camera):  This area is so cut off because Israel seems to have destroyed every bridge we‘ve come across.  Here, a rocket came right through the center.

(voice-over):  In Sidon, we found part of the financial district flattened.

At least 700,000 people in Lebanon have now fled their homes.

“We are in shelters with no food,” said this woman today, “no water, with nothing.  May God destroy the Israelis.”

The U.N.‘s humanitarian envoy, Jan Egeland, told NBC‘s Ann Curry the crisis is worsening by the hour.

JAN EGELAND, U.N. HUMANITARIAN ENVOY:  Every day we hear about tens of thousands of new displaced, we hear of new wounded.  One-third or more of the wounded and the dead are children.

ENGEL:  At our last stop in Tyre, we found Mohammed Throoer (ph).  Last night, he and his family tried to escape the fighting when their car was hit by what they say was an Israeli air strike.  Mohammed‘s father was killed.  He, his mother, brothers, and baby sisters suffered burns.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They are only in civilian positions and civilian cars.

ENGEL:  At Tyre‘s main hospital, Kassan Shalan (ph) is one of six ambulance drivers recovering from another Israeli air strike last night.  The Red Cross says the ambulances were clearly marked and were the only vehicles on the road, roads that are now battlegrounds.

I‘m Richard Engel in Tyre, south Lebanon.

Now to NBC‘s Martin Fletcher in Haifa, northern Israel.

MARTIN FLETCHER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In intensive fighting overnight, Israel seized control of strategic hills overlooking the town of Bint Jubail, about a mile inside Lebanon.  Next, the Israeli army is set to invade the town.

But already two soldiers killed and 14 wounded, and two pilots died when an Israeli helicopter crashed.  Hezbollah doesn‘t give numbers for its casualties.

BRIG. GEN. IDO NEHUSHTAN, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES:  This terror organization has been preparing for this war for years.

FLETCHER:  Despite Israel‘s onslaught on Hezbollah, they‘re still firing Katyushas against northern Israel.

This shopkeeper from Nahariya in northern Israel has had enough.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘re closed, and we‘re leaving.

FLETCHER:  Joining about 300,000 refugees from northern Israel.

But none are without shelter.  The country‘s pulling together.  This family is hosting complete strangers, parents, four children, two grandparents, two dogs, and a rabbit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We‘re here, we‘re happy, we‘re together.

FLETCHER:  Here, 3,000 refugees sleep in giant tents, eat three meals a day, all financed by an Israeli billionaire.

But still...

ORLY BITON, NORTHERN ISRAEL RESIDENT:  I know I feel very angry. 

We‘re sad.

FLETCHER:  It‘s better here, though, than where Orly spent the first three days of the war, here in Shelter 376 in Nahariya.  Explosions still keep them awake at night, and after 13 days in the bomb shelter, tempers fray.

These women fight over food, but mostly they just sit and wait.

(on camera):  Another potential front in the war tonight, Israel has put its embassies on high alert in case of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah sympathizers, Brian.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  Martin Fletcher in Haifa, Israel.  Thank you very much.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also in Israel tonight, after spending her day in both Cyprus and Beirut.  As we mentioned, her visit to the region comes on day 13 of the crisis, some left wondering if the trip is too little, too late.

More on that from chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who is traveling with Secretary Rice in Jerusalem.

Andrea?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Brian.

Well, after criticism that the United States was not fully engaged enough, U.S. officials say tonight that Secretary of State Rice‘s surprise visit to Beirut puts the U.S. firmly, squarely in the picture, leading the diplomacy.

(voice-over):  Using the element of surprise to lower the risk of flying into a combat zone, Condoleezza Rice swept into Beirut as the first stop on her Middle East mission to show support for the Lebanese people and its beleaguered government.

Her first meeting was designed to prop up Lebanon‘s Prime Minister Siniora, a Sunni.  But she was careful to also see the country‘s highest elected Shiite official, parliament speaker Nabih Berri.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE:  President Bush wanted this to be my first stop here in Lebanon to express our desire to urgently find (ph) conditions and (INAUDIBLE) we can end the violence and make life better for the Lebanese people.

MITCHELL:  Rice came bearing gifts, $30 million in aid, blankets, plastic sheets, food.  But she is not willing to support an immediate cease-fire, despite complaints from Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.N.  They all want the fighting to stop now.

Instead, at a summit on Wednesday in Rome, U.S. officials say Rice will propose that Lebanon‘s army be strengthened in the south and helped by a new international military force.  The U.S. would also like to see Hezbollah withdraw 15 miles from Israel‘s border, putting most of their rockets out of range of Israel‘s largest city.

Rice made a point of reemphasizing her opposition to an immediate cease-fire.

RICE:  If we have learned anything, it is that any peace is going to have to be based on enduring principles and not on temporary solutions.

MITCHELL (INAUDIBLE):  Rice‘s mission is partly notable for where she is not going.  She‘s not going to Damascus.  And there has been no real contact between the U.S. and Syria, even though Syria really is the chief sponsor of Hezbollah, along with Iran.

The other thing is that she‘s not going to have a Middle East summit, right now, at least, in Egypt, which had been anticipated, because the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Saudis are very uncomfortable with the level of violence.

Meanwhile, here in Israel, Rice is trying to mitigate that criticism by putting together this aid package for the Lebanese.  And one thing she‘s really trying to do in negotiations with the Israelis is negotiate safe passage for that aid past Israel‘s blockade, Brian.

UNGER:  Thank you, Andrea.

For more on the pace and purpose of the diplomatic effort, let‘s call in our own Richard Wolffe, the senior White House correspondent for “Newsweek.”

Thank you for your time, Richard.

RICHARD WOLFFE, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, “NEWSWEEK” MAGAZINE: 

My pleasure, Brian.

UNGER:  Richard, diplomats like Secretary Rice and her Israeli counterpart are now discussing what happens the day after the fighting stops.  But what is the timetable on diplomacy here?  Because it seems that the actual day after would still be quite a long ways off.  Am I right?

WOLFFE:  Yes, you are.  You know, this is a very complex diplomatic piece.  And, you know, anytime you go through the U.N. and try to put together a peacekeeping force, as they‘re talking about, it takes a long time.  These are complex things where you have a number of different nations offering support, but only on the right terms.

And it ranges from everything from the negotiations at the U.N., to who has command and control, is it going to be NATO, or is it going to be some European operation?  And then there‘s the logistical element that presumably the United States would support.

So a lot of moving pieces.  I think this is really about months, not weeks, before this force can really take control in southern Lebanon.

UNGER:  With those logistical efforts you just spoke of a moment ago, Richard, are we talking about sort of a hunt and a seeking out of these Hezbollah sort of tunnels and weeding them out?  As one general said, this is war, and we need some time.

WOLFFE:  Yes, you know, these are the critical things they have to negotiate, the terms of engagement, because, of course, things that have hampered previous peacekeeping forces and other U.N. missions like UNIFIL in southern Lebanon, have been exactly these terms of engagement.

Everyone‘s talking about this being a robust force, but no one really knows what that means.  And nobody thinks that it will be robust like the Israelis are, because, of course, for them, the stakes are worth taking these casualties for.

And so, you know, I would expect that this force will be trying to intercept rockets, trying to stop launch sites, but not the kind of village-to-village stuff that the Israelis are now engaging in.

UNGER:  This international peacekeeping force, would the United States be part of that?

WOLFFE:  I seriously doubt it.  Maybe in some logistical capacity, maybe through NATO they‘d have some planning operation that they would be a part of.  But there‘s no chance, really, of American troops getting into this.

And the White House thinks that actually U.S. involvement here is counterproductive, that it becomes an American involvement as opposed to a multinational thing, and the French and maybe a country like Turkey could really put a different face on it.

UNGER:  Richard, historically, some of us may remember the shuttle diplomacy of Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter that came to represent a relentless effort on the part of the United States to bring about peace in the Middle East.  Is that the case for Secretary Rice here?  I mean, can she be a relentless, honest power—peace broker here?  Is that what we‘re seeing?

WOLFFE:  No, it‘s not.  I mean, she could be if she wanted to be, but she doesn‘t want to be.  And you heard why.  She talked about enduring principles for peace.  You know, the White House believes, and I spoke to her and President Bush on their recent trip to Europe, they believe that the only way for real peace to be established in this region is for Hezbollah to be crushed, and for Iran to be rolled back, and for Syria to keep out of Lebanon.

You know, what you‘re looking at there is peace after the enemy is defeated, not the kind of cease-fire that people are talking about, which means peace now, and then let‘s talk about the terms afterwards.

UNGER:  Richard, no matter how you look at it from either side, the pictures we‘re seeing, especially the ones over the weekend of Lebanese civilians and children being bombed on the roads after the Israelis told them to leave, just one part of this humanitarian crisis that‘s unfolding.  Might the fallout, Richard, from that be driving this diplomatic effort now?  It‘s been 13 days, and only now is that effort really seeming to start.

WOLFFE:  Well, these are distressing pictures, of course, and they‘re distressing when you see Israelis being killed too.  But, you know, that leads to pressure, political pressure from the allies that you heard Andrea talking about, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

And so there is a sort of time limit on it, given those kinds of building pressures, especially as they translate into allied pressure.  But for the time being, you know, the administration takes the Israeli position.  Hezbollah sites itself in residential areas, and therefore it has to—you know, these kinds of images are inevitable.

UNGER:  Richard Wolffe of “Newsweek” and MSNBC, thank you so much for your time tonight.

WOLFFE:  Any time.

UNGER:  What impact is Israel‘s offensive against Hezbollah having on the people of Israel?  We‘ll go live to Haifa for the latest from there.

And the U.S. war in the region is escalating out of control, 100 Iraqis dying a day.  Vice President Cheney says the events in the Mideast shows why the GOP should stay in power.  Does he see the same news you do?

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  It‘s been 13 days since Israel struck back after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, launching hundreds of air strikes against targets in Lebanon, and finally moving ground troops deep into Hezbollah‘s southern strongholds over the weekend.

But in our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, is Israel actually succeeding in its military mission, or can Hezbollah hold out against the all-out assault?

Israel estimates it has destroyed about half of Hezbollah‘s Iranian- and Syrian-made rockets, but that doesn‘t seem to have stopped Hezbollah from firing dozens of rockets into northern Israel today.

To assess what progress is being made, and how Israelis feel about the conflict, I‘m joined by correspondent Mark Potter in the port city of Haifa, Israel.

Mark, good evening.

MARK POTTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Brian.

It appears that there‘s not much impact on the Israeli people in the conflict so far, at least as to what the Israeli soldiers are doing on the other side of the border.  The rockets are still falling here, at least 80 in the northern zone today, probably more than that.  That‘s the official number.  We‘ll find out in the morning exactly what it was.

Three of them hit here in Haifa.  Several people were injured today.  There doesn‘t seem to be any letup in this at all.  The towns here are still virtually ghost towns all along the northern area here.  Here in Haifa, where we are, very few people out on the streets right now.

And so while the Israeli military says it is making slow progress, has taken out about 2,000 rockets, 100 rocket launchers, the rockets are still coming in.  The army admits it has a long way to go, probably will never get all the missiles.  The hope is that between the military and the political action, they can push the Hezbollah fighters back, miles away from the border, to create some sort of safety zone up there in time.

But right now, it has not happened yet.

UNGER:  Mark, is there any fear that as Israeli troops get closer to Hezbollah rocket depots, that Hezbollah will start to fire everything they have across the border, rather than letting these arsenals fall into Israeli hands?

POTTER:  That‘s a fear, I suppose, and that would be a horrible prospect, if you consider how many they have.  I heard the figure a moment ago that they took out half their missiles.  I don‘t think that‘s correct.  From what we‘re hearing, 2,000 have been taken out, maybe 1,200 have been fired, leaving 8,000 or 9,000 or so still in their arsenal.

That would be a horrid prospect.  But it would also leave Hezbollah with nothing left.  And they probably don‘t have the ability with launchers to fire that many at once.

So it, you know, it might not be a real possibility, but it is a horrible prospect for people here to think about, given what‘s happening now, when 100 a day come in, all the damage and the fear that they‘re going through is bad enough at that rate.

UNGER:  Mark, the presence of Condoleezza Rice in the region, are you getting any reaction from residents or troops there?

POTTER:  Absolutely.  The people here say they want a peace, but they want a lasting peace, they don‘t want a cease-fire just for the sake of stopping the shooting.  They want Hezbollah moved.  They do not want to go back to the way things were before July 12, when the soldiers were seized and this conflict began.

We hear the phrase, “Never again,” and they‘re adamant about that.  So they‘re glad to see the secretary of state, they‘re glad that the world is concerned about this.  But they do not want a cease-fire.

And in the meantime, before some sort of settlement comes, the Israeli military is dedicated to using every minute that it can to, frankly, kill as many Hezbollah guerillas as possible, to destroy as many missiles, to gain as much territory, to push them back as far as they can, using this time to create that buffer and to buy that time and to buy that peace that they hope will be lasting.

That‘s what we hear over and over here, a lasting peace, they don‘t want to go back to the way things were.  They saw this building for years here, Hezbollah building up the rockets, building up the bunkers, the tunnels.  They don‘t want that anymore.  And so that‘s what they‘re talking about, now that the rest of the world is talking about peace, they want their own kind of peace, a lasting peace.

UNGER:  Mark Potter, live for us tonight once again.  Thank you so much, from Haifa.

From picking out Hezbollah‘s firepower to attacking its finances.  The Arab world trying to raise funds for Hezbollah, and a surprising U.S.  connection.

And can Bill Clinton help ignite a Democratic win in the midterm elections?  Today, the former president steps in to try to rescue a very battered and stalled Joe Lieberman.

Details are ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  Not all of Israel‘s targets in Lebanon are Hezbollah military operations.  Both the Beirut airport and the highway to Syria have been heavily bombed since the conflict erupted nearly two weeks ago.

And now, as NBC senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers points out in an exclusive report, it appears that Israel is also secretly targeting financial institutions in Lebanon that are allegedly aiding Hezbollah, one of which had an American connection.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA MYERS, NBC CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 

Israeli intelligence sources tell NBC News that among the targets hit in Lebanon in the last week are as many as a dozen financial institutions, part of a previously secret campaign to destroy Hezbollah‘s financial infrastructure.

Some banks were demolished, others deliberately damaged, but not destroyed.  In one case, Israel also took out the bank manager‘s home.

In an exclusive interview, Israel‘s top counterterror official says these attacks are a warning.

BRIG. GEN. DANI ARDITI, ISRAELI COUNTERTERRORISM ADVISER:  The message for all the Lebanese banks, assistance to Hezbollah is direct assistance to terrorist organization.

MYERS:  Among the targets, eight offices of Hezbollah‘s treasury, which the Israelis claim caught Hezbollah by surprise.

ARDITI:  We know that they are looking for money.  They are very, very desperate to have some cash, and they don‘t have.

MYERS:  The Israelis say they also struck branches of two major banks, Albaraka and Fransabanc, which they claim help Hezbollah receive and move money around the world.  They say a third bank, the Middle East and Africa Bank, also is on their hit list.

The banks deny any ties to Hezbollah, but this appeal last week on Lebanese TV asks for money for the Hezbollah  resistance to be sent to an account at the Middle East and Africa Bank.

An NBC producer called the number.  She was told to go to any U.S.  bank and wire money, but not to tell anyone it was for Hezbollah.

(on camera):  The Middle East and Africa Bank, MEAB,  has a relationship with the U.S. bank Wachovia.  After NBC News informed Wachovia of the Hezbollah fundraising appeal, Wachovia terminated the relationship.

(voice-over): But how much difference can targeting the banks really make?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  If they have a hard time moving money, they‘ll have a hard time funding their operation.

MYERS:  And the Israelis hope Hezbollah also will have a harder time getting money from Iran.

Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  As Lebanon braces for more attacks, to the east in Iraq, it‘s a country reeling on the brink of civil war, if not civil war, nearly 100 civilians dying every day.  Even with things worsening, the vice president says events in the Mideast are reason enough to keep the GOP in power.  We‘ll get a reality check on the Republican success story.

And later, bizarre moments in the spotlight.  Miss Universe wins her crown, then faints.  A daredevil suffers a big spill but manages to walk away alive.  And the new Tour de France winner‘s big victory with a ruined hip.

Details when COUNTDOWN return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  And as war was grinding into day 10 on the Israeli-Lebanon border, Vice President Dick Cheney was at a republican fundraiser in Tampa, Florida, helping to raise $230,000 for the republican candidate for Congress. 

Our No. 3 story on the COUNTDOWN, the vice president touting the administration‘s war on terror.  He added a new line to the GOP bumper sticker that already reads:  “Iraq, the frontline on the war on terror.”  The new bumper will have to be bigger to make room for: “And Israel and Hezbollah, the other frontline on the war on terror.”  What does it mean?  It means that republican voters are going to need bigger cars with big bumpers. 

The vice president was stumping for Gus Bilirakis, a Florida state legislator running for the congressional seat his father is vacating.  Mr.  Cheney spoke at length about the war on terror, saying, “If anyone thinks the conflict is over or soon to be over, all they have to do is look at what‘s happening in the Middle East.”  He cited Israel‘s clash with Hamas and Hezbollah and drew it into what he sees as the larger conflict. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES:  It‘s very, very important to remind all of our fellow citizens, that this conflict is a long way from over, that it‘s going to be a battle that will last a very long time and it‘s absolutely essential we stay the course. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  The war in Lebanon has left little ink and few airways left for coverage of the war in Iraq over the past week-and-a-half, despite it being as deadly as ever, prompting that country‘s new prime minister to declare that his country would not slide into civil war, if it hasn‘t already slid into civil war.  Clearly, where there are bombs there is a war of semantics. 

Sectarian violence at fever pitch yesterday, 62 people killed by bombs in Baghdad and Kirkuk alone.  In Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew up a mini bus at a busy Shiite market.  In Kirkuk a car bomb exploded, shootings were reported all over the country and 11 bodies were found in Tigris River. 

The American death toll rising also, two soldiers were killed on Saturday in Baghdad, bringing that total to 2,565. 

Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, making his first visit to the West, met Prime Minister Tony Blair today, then Mr.  Maliki goes to Washington, meeting with President Bush.  Mr.  Maliki confirmed data from the United Nations that an average of 100 civilians per day were killed Iraq in May and June.  He described it as a sectarian issue, but said, “Civil war will not happen in Iraq.”  But a senior government official told “Reuters,” “If this is not civil war, then I don‘t know what is.” 

So, how then does Vice President Cheney see the wars on terror, all of them, as the administration‘s strong suit?  Let‘s call in NBC political analyst and “Newsweek” senior editor, Jonathan Alter. 

Good evening Jonathan.

JONATHAN ALTER, “NEWSWEEK”:  Thanks a lot Brian.

UNGER:  Jonathan, before anything else, I‘d like to get your take on whether this is or isn‘t a civil war in Iraq. 

ALTER:  You know, I think it clearly is, by any historical standard.  I mean, what are people waiting for, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant to get out there before they call it a civil war.  A scholar in the “New York Times” recently went through about 10 recent wars that were categorized as civil wars, and none of them was as bad as this.  You know, so I think what‘s going on here is a semantic game where the media doesn‘t want to start calling it a civil war before the politicians do, because then they will be accused of liberal bias and the democrats don‘t want to call it a civil war, because they‘ll be accused of lack of, you know, patriotism by the republicans.  And, of course, the administration doesn‘t want to call it that because it will confirm it‘s a fiasco.  So, everybody has this kind of semantic conspiracy to not call the elephant in the room, the elephant in the room. 

UNGER:  Jonathan, the Bush administration did well with campaigning on the war on terror in Bush‘s re-election and even the congressional elections before that in 2002.  It is getting a little unwieldy at this point, is that still a big play for the 2006 midterm elections, the war on terror—all of them linked together like this? 

ALTER:  It‘s really the only card that they have.  They can‘t run on the economy, because even though there are some good numbers, for whatever reason, the American people aren‘t really buying that story.  So they have to use an old Chicago political expression, where I‘m from originally, they‘re going to “dance with the one who brung ya,” in other words, they‘ve gotten this far by playing this terrorism card, they‘re going to go back to it again and they‘re going to basically try once again to make the democrats look like a bunch of pansies and war wimps, cut and runners, who don‘t want to stand up for America.  So they‘re going back to that well. 

UNGER:  I think we say in Ohio, “that‘s all you got.”  Something like that.  It‘s not as fancy as, you know, what they say in Chicago. 

ALTER:  Yeah, That‘s the more plain spoken version from Ohio version of the same thing.  But that‘s—you know it‘s worked for Karl Rove and I don‘t see any reason to try anything different.  The question is whether it‘ll work again.  And I think most people at this point would say, not as well, that the American public is tired of this war.  You had republican Senator John Thune, who last week, was quoted in the press saying that republican candidates should run away from the Bush administration.  You had another republican congressman who thought that things were going well, believed it was coming out of the White House, he went over to Iraq to see for himself and he was appalled at the conditions on the ground.  So, I think it‘s getting harder for them to move in this direction, but they‘ll try to do so anyway. 

UNGER:  Jon, in the war in Iraq, is it going to be the most crucial issue in the elections, if the violence continues, though? 

ALTER:  Well, yeah, obviously, if the violence lessens, then it‘ll go off the boil and it won‘t be as big of an issue.  Also there‘s a chance that Rove‘s strategy, which is essentially to scare the democrats out of talking about it, to make the democrats feel if they talk about it, they‘ll lose, and it will be pin the tail on the donkey again, they‘ll look like wimps all over again.  If that works, then it won‘t be as big an issue.  If the democrats, by contrast say, you know what?  Bring it on, to use three familiar words.  If they say, look, we will talk about the war, we will explain to the American people that this is a fiasco, then I think it will be front and center.  But you got to remember, Brian, that it‘s the electoral map, the gerrymandering of those districts that will be the most factor to determine whether the democrats really can regain control of the House of Representatives. 

UNGER:  Well, we have season of war and a political season too, that is just starting to get underway, so I guess we‘ll see how all unfolds. 

Jonathan Alter, thank you so much for your time. 

ALTER: Thanks Brian.

UNGER:  And then a White House correction today on one domestic front, straight from the mouth of Press Secretary Tony Snow, he now says he overstated the president‘s opposition to federally funded stem cell research.  Last week Mr.  Snow had compared the research on embryos to murder, when describing the president‘s position. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY SNOW, PRESS SECRETARY:  The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research, it‘s inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder, he is one of them.  The simple answer is, he thinks murder‘s wrong. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  And yesterday, Tim Russert tried to pin down the president‘s view the stem cell research as a murder charge when questioning his chief of staff, Joshua Bolten. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIM RUSSERT, “MEET THE PRESS”:  The president believes that using an embryo for stem cell research is murder? 

JOSHUA BOLTON, CHIEF OF STAFF:  Let me step back for a second, Tim. 

RUSSERT:  That‘s a very important question. 

BOLTON:  It is and.

RUSSERT:  The president‘s spokesman said the word “murder.”  Does the president believe the use of an embryo for stem cell research is murder? 

BOLTON:  Let me—indulge me here for a moment and let me walk through the issue.  The president believes, as do millions and millions of Americans, that that fertilized embryo is a human life that deserves protection. 

RUSSERT:  Does he accept or reject the use of the word murder? 

BOLTON:  I haven‘t spoken to him about the use of particular terminology. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  Well, today Mr.  Snow said he had overstated the president‘s position with regard to the word “murder.”  Mr.  Snow said, “He would not use that term.”  To clarify, the press secretary said the president does believe that the research involves, “A destruction of human life.” 

Joe Lieberman is in the political battle of his life and he‘s calling in the big guns to help.  Can President Clinton give the senator enough momentum to beat back a primary challenger who‘s actually leading in the polls? 

And America‘s new sports hero, the U.S. chalks up another Tour de France win, but this time the cycler basically did it without a hip.  Details are ahead, but first here are COUNTDOWN”s “Top 3 Newsmakers” of the day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over):  Meet the runaway cow of Hagerstown, captured 12 hours after breaking from a stall the four state livestock auction. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  She turned on the boys that were chasing her and she got past them. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Everybody dropped the stuff and ran out the gate for it. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Remember, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. 

(on camera):  So, anything to say for yourself?  No. OK.  You sure? 

OK.  By. 

DAVID LETTERMAN, TALK SHOW HOST:  Anybody here from the Southwest?  Oh my gosh.  Wildfires, you aware of this?  Wildfires are still burning.  And you know what started the wildfires in the Southwest?  Sparks flying when two cowboys met.  Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  .see him play, so let‘s see. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  OK, pick up your cards. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  OK, Mikey.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Pick up your cards. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Oh, he wants to bet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He wants to bet before he even looks at his cards.  Listen.  Listen.  Pick up your cards.  Very good.  Good job.  Good job. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  OH no! Mickey.  Mickey.  Yay!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Oh, he is not happy with that hand. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Have to re-deal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Put them down. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  Politicians in crisis.  Joe Lieberman on the brink of losing a primary battle, Bill Clinton steps in to help.  And big trouble for George Michael, first the public bathroom, now the park, where he apparently does, you know, stuff.  Ruh-roh—that‘s next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  With two weeks to go until the Connecticut primary and both democratic candidates in a dead heat in the polls, incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman is calling in the big guns.  Our second story on the COUNTDOWN, President Clinton, the biggest gun of them all, to the rescue hoping to change the perception that Lieberman‘s unwavering support of the war in Iraq means he is no longer a true democrat.  Our correspondent is Chip Reid. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHIP REID, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman calls it the political fight of his life.  Today in his corner the top heavyweight of the Democratic Party.

BILL CLINTON, FMR. U.S. PRESIDENT:  Go out and elect Joe Lieberman.  He‘s earned it, he‘s been a good democrat, he‘s a good man, and he‘ll do you proud. 

REID:  Clinton‘s rescue mission comes as Lieberman is under task from anti-war democrats, furious over his support of the Iraq war.  Critics have seized on this moment, which they mockingly call, “The Kiss.” 

DAVID LIGHTMAN, “HARTFORD COURANT”:  That for a lot of people was the symbol of what was wrong.  It wasn‘t just the war, it‘s the fact he was lining up with their political enemy. 

REID:  Lieberman‘s democratic opponent, wealthy business man, Ned Lamont, is riding a wave of anti-war sentiment.  In one of his ads.

ANNOUNCER:  Acts like George W.  Bush. 

REID:  Lieberman becomes President Bush.  Three months ago Lieberman was leading 65-19, last week it was neck and neck.  Lieberman‘s so worried he recently announced if he does lose the democratic primary, he‘ll run in the Fall as an independent. 

(on camera):  This endorsement from Bill Clinton, today, is a big deal for Joe Lieberman.  After all, the former president is still enormously popular here in Connecticut, but it‘s and endorsement that comes with a big condition. 

(voice-over):  If Lieberman loses the democratic primary and runs as an independent, Clinton says he‘ll withdraw his support and endorse Lamont, another twist in a 36-year relationship of two political bedfellows.  A history that includes Lieberman‘s angry response to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT:  Such behavior is not just inappropriate, it is immoral.

REID:  Earlier today, campaigning at a candy store, the mood was bittersweet. 

(on camera):  You‘re somebody who, not long ago was running for vice president as a democrat, now you have people questioning whether you are a real democrat.  Does that hurt? 

LIEBERMAN:  Well, it does hurt because it‘s nonsense.  And if people question whether I‘m a democratic, the democratic party is in trouble. 

REID (voice-over):  Lieberman says the real question is whether there‘s room in the Democratic Party for a diversity of opinion on Iraq. 

Chip Reid, NBC News, Waterbury, Connecticut.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  From the strange bedfellows of politics to just, well, strange bedfellows.  It‘s the celebrity and entertainment stories of “Keeping Tabs.”

And we can never hope to understand former Wham! singer, George Michael, completely, we can only observe him in the wild and catalog his behavior.  And that seems to be what the British tabloid the “News of the World” was doing when they caught the aging pop star literally in the wild, in the bushes of a London park.  Yeah, he was.  Not alone.  You‘ve heard the story before.  It was late at night and there was another man there, a stranger.  Michael is on the verge of a huge 50 concert come back tour, which sold out in a half hour, so you can understand if he need to, you know, get some fresh air or you know, whatever. 

And a programming note, Mr. Olbermann is obviously not in this chair tonight.  He‘s in Los Angeles this week on some important business including promoting COUNTDOWN to the Television Critics Association, but see him tomorrow night on the “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.  Don‘t miss it.  Keith with Jay on “Tonight” on Tuesday, 11:35 p.m.  Eastern. 

To the top of the COUNTDOWN and tonight‘s No. 1.  When walking away a winner means you can‘t walk away literally.  From the fainting Miss Universe to crashing dare devils and everything in between, that‘s coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  And finally tonight a chance to step away from the near constant coverage of the crisis in the Mideast for a bit of good news from the world of American sports and just lots of, I don‘t know, beautiful women, I guess.  Our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN, it‘s mostly good news, a look back at the winners and losers over the busy weekend. 

And we begin in Los Angeles for crowning of the 2006 Miss Universe.  It was a Donald Trump production with some notable changes.  All of the women wore the same bikini for the swimsuit competition, forced by Mr.  Trump to dress like tigers.  And they did away with the talent portion of the contest because, as Mr.  Trump himself said, “Their beauty is their talent.”  Millions of women around the world with actual talent then shot their TVs with a gun. 

So, the most talented then was clearly Miss Puerto Rico, Zuleyka Rivera Mendoza, wearing a skin-tight, heavily beaded dress, the 18-year-old donned the crown, waved to photographers and assembled media for a half hour or so and then promptly fainted.  Mendoza was rush off stage while the P.A.  announcer asked “Is there a nurse in the house?”  But she‘ll be just fine everybody.  It‘s just that the heat and the dress and probably the looming specter of—of well, a big sloppy kiss from the Donald and being a prisoner in his tower was all just too much to bear. 

Across the pond, golfer Tiger Woods‘ crowning moment at the British Open was no less dramatic.  After tapping in the winning putt at Royal Liverpool, for his 11th major championship, emotion washed over Tiger‘s face and he collapsed sobbing into the arms of his caddy, Steve Williams, before finding and hugging his wife, Elin.  It was the first victory since the death of his father and mentor, Earl Woods.  And Tiger later explained he just wished his dad could have been there one last time. 

And in Paris for the first time in eight years someone other than Lance Armstrong stood on the podium in the yellow jersey on the final day of the greatest bicycle race on earth.  American, Floyd Landis, the 2006 winner of the Tour de France.  Landis‘ amazing comeback performance for his first tour win may have been the stuff of legend.  But as NBC‘s Dawna Friesen reports, like Armstrong before him, the road to victory for the new champion and the road ahead is full of challenges far more daunting. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAWNA FRIESEN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Despite the odds being stacked against him, the 30-year-old American, Floyd Landis, peddled into Paris leading the pack.  A remarkable victory for a man who earlier this week was written off. 

FLOYD LANDIS, WINNER TOUR DE FRANCE:  Thank you everybody, I can‘t believe it.  And most of all my team, things weren‘t going so well. 

FRIESEN:  On Wednesday, he‘d fell back eight minutes into 11th place. 

In a sports that measures victory in seconds, that‘s a long way back. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You know, I thought oh now, it‘s all over.  But gosh, he came back.  How‘d he do that?  What strength. 

FRIESEN:  Beneath the determination, a secret.  Landis has a bad hip, shattered in a crash three years ago, it has withered and collapsed.  That he can ride a bike at all almost defies explanation. 

DR. JOSE RODRIGUEZ, ORTHOPEDIC SURGEON:  Even in the absence of any physical malady, but to do with constant pain is astounding. 

FRIESEN (on camera):  Landis has osteonecrosis.  His hip is like a rotten piece of wood.  He has trouble going up the stairs and can‘t go run.  And worried he‘d be dismissed in the cycling world as damaged goods, Landis kept his condition secret for almost two years. 

(voice-over):  He even hides his limp in a carefully crafted walk.  Only his wife and close friends knew the agony he was in.  Bike racers don‘t like to talk about crashes or pain. 

LANDIS:  It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice from a lot of people and then on top of that, some luck. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Celebrate!

FRIESEN:  Back home in Farmersville, Pennsylvania they‘re celebrating. 

His father got Landis his first bike. 

PAUL LANDIS, FATHER:  I think I picked it up off the trash, I‘m not sure.  It was a yellow, small bike. 

FRIESEN:  Devout Mennonites, they don‘t own a TV, so rode to the neighbor‘s house to watch their son‘s progress.

ARLENE LANDIS, MOTHER:  He‘s a wonderful son and think that his values will be a terrific example to those who observe his life. 

FRIESEN:  Landis is heading home to have his hip replaced.  If he comes back after that, those who know him won‘t be the least bit surprised. 

Dawna Friesen, NBC News, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  Manufacturers of hips around the world are all competing, of course, to be the supplier of that hip. 

And finally we wrap up our winners and losers with a piece of videotape that just begged and begged and begged to be in the show.  So, we agreed, you can be in the show.  It is the world record, or at least an attempt at the world record, for longest motorcycle jump. 

Now, this guy might technically be the loser, and I think he is in this equation, but someone videotaped it, so that makes us all winners.  Oh yeah, that could have hurt a little.  That‘s dare devil Trigger Gumm.  And he‘s going to be just fine, folks.  He was going for the world record distance with a 315-foot jump at an Oklahoma casino.  He almost made it there.  But they don‘t handout world records guys who don‘t stick the landing.  So, Gumm will have to try again after a short hospital stay and, well, we‘re pulling for him—for you, Trigger, because whether you set the distance record or come up short again in spectacular fashion, as long as you‘re providing the world videotape like this, you‘re a winner every time. 

That wraps it up for us today on the Monday edition of COUNTDOWN. I‘m Brian Unger in for Keith Olbermann.  Thank you so much for watching. 

Our MSNBC coverage continues now with “Scarborough Country.” 

Substituting tonight, Rita Cosby.

Good evening, Rita. 

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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