updated 5/4/2007 10:46:51 AM ET 2007-05-04T14:46:51

Guests: Vin Weber, Ed Goeas, John Ridley, Arianna Huffington, Lindsey Graham, Zach Wamp

JOE SCARBOROUGH, NBC ANCHOR:  We‘re coming to you live from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where, in just two hours, 10 Republicans will take one stage, all introducing themselves to America this first time, all hoping to grab the mantle of Ronald Reagan, the man whose life this stunning presidential library celebrates. 

Taking center stage, the front-runners, McCain, Romney, Giuliani, with much to gain and much to lose, and the others looking for that breakthrough moment that could happen tonight and change the shape of the most dynamic presidential campaign in 56 years. 

Anything can happen tonight.  Just two hours from now, in the shadows of Air Force One, the MSNBC-Politico.com Reagan Library GOP presidential debate begins.  And you‘re going to be able to see it right here on MSNBC, as we count to the first GOP presidential debate. 

First up, the Republican senator from Arizona, John McCain, the presumed front-runner who stumbled out of the starting gate against a strong challenge from America‘s mayor, Rudy Giuliani. 

With me now, a guy I know well, Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from South Carolina, and a McCain supporter from way back, so far back that we used to debate in 2000 about McCain. 

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM ®, SOUTH CAROLINA:  Absolutely.  I was there before it was cool.

SCARBOROUGH:  Now, since I‘m a good friend of yours, I‘m going to only ask you simple questions, Lindsey. 

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  What the hell has happened to your candidate? 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  What‘s happened to him?  I hear that he‘s too old.  I hear that he‘s too quirky.  I hear that he‘s not a loyal Republican.  He can‘t—why are Republicans saying that about a guy that everybody assumed would walk through this process a year ago? 

GRAHAM:  I thought you were talking about his wife.  You have been talking to her.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAHAM:  No. 

John, I think, is the right guy at the right time for our party.  Just as Reagan was in ‘80, so is John McCain in 2008.  For those who think he is too old, spend a day with him, and I think you will retract that comment. 

He‘s got two teenage kids.  He‘s got a son who is a sophomore at the Naval Academy.  One of his teenagers is an 18-year-old private in the Marine Corps. 

And, honest to God, I believe, for that generation, John McCain is their best hope, because they‘re going to fight a vicious enemy.  His two kids, two boys, are going to go in the military.  And this whole generation of 18- to 21-year-olds are going to be involved in the war on terrorism against an enemy that knows no boundaries.

And they need to be led by a guy like John McCain.  And this generation I‘m talking about, his kids and their peers, somebody needs to fix Social Security.  Somebody needs to have some guts to say no in Washington, not be everything to everybody.  And I think John is their best hope. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know what I don‘t understand is, here we are.  We have got the Reagan Library behind us.

GRAHAM:  Yes. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You have got Air Force One, that your candidate flew on with Ronald Reagan. 

GRAHAM:  Right. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Your candidate, John McCain, was introduced to the American people, to politics, by Ronald Reagan, who urged him to run in 1982. 

He asked of Nancy Reagan, where do we find such men? 

And, yet, you talk to conservatives, you talk to the people who elect Republicans, who will decide who carries the Reagan mantle forward, and they tell you, we don‘t trust him. 

Where is that disconnect?

GRAHAM:  Well, I—you know, to be honest with you, there‘s people that have a bone to pick with John about a particular issue. 

And John is not running a campaign to please everybody in the country.  He‘s leading in my state, a pretty conservative state.  He‘s at 36.  Rudy is in the 20s.  And Romney is at eight. 

I don‘t know where we‘re going to be a year from now, but I know this, that John McCain is going to be right where he is at today on the war, that we don‘t run a campaign in the McCain camp about where we need to be on the war in terms of polling.  We‘re running the campaign based on where the country needs to be against a vicious enemy. 

So, conservatives who are worried about their party spending too much money, John is your guy.  His worst critic could never say he has gone native when it comes to Washington spending. 

We lost in ‘06 because we spent too much of the public‘s money.  It wasn‘t just about the war.  Lieberman...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes. 

GRAHAM:  ... won being for beating the enemy, being with Bush.  We lost, as Republicans, because Washington changed us. 

And John is ready to change the Republican Party. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Let me ask you—let me ask you how that happened. 

Let‘s expand this. 

GRAHAM:  Spent too much money.

SCARBOROUGH:  You and I...

GRAHAM:  Yes. 

SCARBOROUGH:  ... spent too many times...

GRAHAM:  Ninety-four.

SCARBOROUGH:  ... hiding—hiding under tables when Newt Gingrich was coming to get us, before we kicked him out of Washington in ‘98, because he was spending too much money. 

Why can‘t Republicans govern the way they promise they‘re going to govern?  And how in the world can they expect Americans to keep electing them if they don‘t keep their word? 

GRAHAM:  Very good question. 

Remember being in the bowels of the Capitol when me and you and 12 other freshman Republicans refused to back off on the idea to cut committee spending by a third?  Remember when we started drifting from the Contract With America, and a handful of us said, no, this is not what we came up here for?

We got power, and power changed us.  We wanted to keep power for power‘s sake.  When we came to Congress, we wanted to shut down some buildings that were unnecessary to—for the federal government.  We wanted to cut committee spending by a third.  We wanted to reduce staff by 35 percent. 

SCARBOROUGH:  But that all changed—biggest deficits ever.

GRAHAM:  Well, because we changed. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Biggest debts ever.  I mean, it‘s been a terrible record. 

GRAHAM:  We pursued power.  We started putting people on committees based on how much money they could raise, not how talented they were in the subject matter. 

We started making people committee chairmen based on how much money they could raise.  We put people on committees based on how vulnerable they were in their—in their home district. 

What we should have been doing is what me and you came to Washington to do in 1994, turn the place upside-down, run in and—consistent with the principles of our party.  And we drifted, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM:  And we paid a price.  And, if we don‘t readjust, we‘re going to continue to pay a price.  And John is the best hope, I think, to get back...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  And I will tell you, if you look at John McCain‘s voting record since 1982 -- memo to John McCain.

GRAHAM:  Yes. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Talk about your voting record for 25 years.  It is the most conservative record on spending. 

Lindsey, thank you so much. 

GRAHAM:  Thank you.  God bless.

SCARBOROUGH:  Good to see you. 

And, for once, it‘s nice to being with you without Republican leaders screaming at us...

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  ... as they have done for so long.

Now...

GRAHAM:  For being so cheap.

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes. 

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  Now let‘s bring in our all-star political panel, Arianna Huffington.  She is founder of TheHuffingtonPost.com.  She‘s also author of the book “On Becoming Fearless.”  John Ridley, he‘s a screenwriter who has also covered presidential elections for National Public Radio.  And Pat Buchanan, two-time presidential contender, former White House communication director, and MSNBC political analyst. 

Pat Buchanan, you have done this several times before.  You have done it effectively, especially early in the presidential process.  These candidates aren‘t going to have a lot of time to get their message out tonight.  What do they say?  And how do they grab that mantle of being Reagan‘s candidate to move this party forward? 

PAT BUCHANAN, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  It‘s very hard to come off as Mr. Conservative out of this format, Joe. 

What these candidates can do, the second team, the second tier of the seven, somebody in that group can certainly shine, in terms of the sharpness of his position, the clarity of it, taking a principled stand, and going after some of the front-runners in a friendly way. 

Romney and Giuliani, I think, are the key fellows here, because everyone—we don‘t know them, and people—as national figures.  Everybody is going to be interested in them, and especially Romney.  They don‘t got to come off as Ronald Reagan.  But, if they come off as very attractive, they have got humor, they have got principles, they‘re articulate, and they get the message across, I think both of them can really help themselves, because this is wide open. 

SCARBOROUGH:  John Ridley, I love these type of debates.  There are always defining moments, Ronald Reagan in 1980 asking if Americans were better than they were four years ago. 

Reagan also—let‘s keep talking about Reagan.  He was an actor that had the flair for the dramatics in New Hampshire, grabbing the microphone, saying, I paid for this microphone, Mr. Breen.

JOHN RIDLEY, FILM DIRECTOR/ACTOR/WRITER:  Yes. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Are we going to see one of these moments tonight?  What would you recommend?  As a guy with ties to Hollywood...

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  ... what would you recommend these candidates do to break out of the pack? 

RIDLEY:  Well, the thing to do, you‘re thinking about tonight, but you also got to think about the long weekend. 

If you look back last week, again, you had a format with there are actually two less individuals there, not a lot of time.  Who got probably the most play out of Thursday over the weekend was Joe Biden with one pithy remark. 

There‘s a lot I think the wonks and the people who really pay attention to politics are going to look for line by line.  But, in terms of really introducing yourself to the public—and I thought you said something interesting at the top of your show.  You went through Romney, McCain, and Giuliani, and the rest.  I mean, it was like the end of the “Gilligan‘s Island” song...

SCARBOROUGH:  Exactly. 

RIDLEY:  ... and the rest. 

So, I think what these individuals want to do, the pack that‘s in the middle—and you have got seven people in the middle—is that one line that ingratiates, that defines, that really says who they are, but that isn‘t wonky, that the rest of America, over the weekend, is going to go, hey, did you see so-and-so?  And they said this.  I want to go on a Web site and find out more about this guy. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Arianna, what are your thoughts tonight?  What do these Republican candidates need to do to separate themselves from the field?  All ideology and politics aside, what do Americans want to hear from them? 

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, CO-FOUNDER, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM:  Well, if you look at the top tier, Joe, the question is, which John McCain is going to be present, which Mitt Romney, which Rudy Giuliani?

I mean, these three candidates have such complex personalities.  They have been all over the map on issues, on temperament.  So, it depends on who turns up tonight. 

The other seven—I agree with what John said, but, at the same time, the other seven have an opportunity, especially two among them, Sam Brownback and Ron Paul, who have different views on Iraq from the president and from the mainstream of the party, but more in tune with the American people, they have a chance to shine tonight. 

You know, they have a chance to really challenge the president and challenge the Republican Party, demand some course correction on Iraq.  And that will be a moment which will definitely distinguish them from the pack. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Arianna, you‘re exactly right.  Americans want to know which John McCain is going to show up tonight, which Mitt Romney is going to show up, which Rudy Giuliani is going to show up, because you‘re right.  There are some complex characters there, who have done some flip-flopping over the past several years. 

We are going to talk about that and a lot more with our all-star panel still ahead. 

And we‘re going to be hearing from a member of the Giuliani camp, as the candidate looks to level his image, as well as the competition. 

The first-in-the-country Republican debate is going to be getting under way in, well, a little less than two hours now, right here at the Reagan Presidential Library. 

We will be back. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Rudy Giuliani, the candidate known as America‘s mayor, is hoping to become America‘s president. 

And, according to the latest NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll, he‘s the current front-runner tonight. 

Ed Goeas is a pollster for the Giuliani campaign, and he joins me now. 

You know, Ed, I remember meeting you in 1994.  You talked to all these crackpot right-wing Republicans.  They were so conservative on social issues.  And, yet, you‘re supporting a guy, you‘re working with a guy...

ED GOEAS, GIULIANI CAMPAIGN POLLSTER:  ... who not only supports abortion rights; he has said recently he supports federal funding of abortions. 

GOEAS:  Yes. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Democrats are even afraid to say that.  How does this guy win the Republican primary talking that way? 

GOEAS:  First of all, and, as you know, I come from the conservative arm of the party... 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Oh, you sure do. 

GOEAS:  And I‘m comfortable with it, because I have seen several things from Rudy.  He‘s talked about how he feels in his heart in terms of abortion, and the fact he hates it.  He is pro-choice. 

SCARBOROUGH:  But don‘t Democrats always say that: “I‘m against abortion personally, but”?

(CROSSTALK)

GOEAS:  But there is something deeper. 

And I think we saw a recent example of that.  And that is, he said he‘s for strict constructionist judges.  And, as a conservative, one of the things that we have seen on that issue is, maybe they will overturn Roe vs.  Wade; maybe they won‘t. 

But part of what we want as conservatives is our day in court, especially on the more egregious types of abortion.  And that is what we saw in the Supreme Court decision last week.  They took...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Was that a—did Rudy Giuliani find that to be a positive decision?

(CROSSTALK)

GOEAS:  Well, he came out and said it was exactly the right thing to do.  And I think, as we go through, and you look at constructionist judges looking at the Constitution, as opposed to legislating, that is something that a wide spectrum of voters want, not just conservatives. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Let me ask you this question.  Wherever I go, across America, I talk to evangelicals.  I was talking to Lindsey Graham about this.

I ask them who they are for.  They say Rudy Giuliani.  And it doesn‘t matter.  It really doesn‘t matter whether they‘re pro-life or pro-gun or pro-whatever.  They like Rudy Giuliani. 

Why has his campaign taken off this way, when pundits said there‘s no way he could ever lead the Republican pack? 

GOEAS:  Well, first of all, I don‘t want to believe what they—kind of Democrats have demonized the Christian right, the conservatives of this party. 

We are multilayered.  We are concerned about a variety of issues.  We‘re as—we‘re concerned about taxes.  We‘re concerned about government being efficient and effective, as much as we‘re concerned about issues like abortion and gay marriage and other issues. 

So, it‘s a combination of that.  But I think it is also that we‘re going through an era where there is a question of being able to govern...

SCARBOROUGH:  Right. 

GOEAS:  ... competence of governance.

And, interesting, in the national polls, what we‘re seeing now is almost as many—the 75 percent of Republicans that are favorable towards Rudy, you have as many mentioning his job as mayor as mentioning 9/11.  So, they‘re getting the story in terms of what he did when he was mayor.

SCARBOROUGH:  We‘re going to have to go, Ed.

But it really does look, this year, if Rudy Giuliani wins, that Michael Dukakis was a prophet in ‘88.  It‘s not about ideology.  It‘s about competence. 

Thanks so much. 

GOEAS:  Thank you, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  We greatly appreciate it.

And NBC‘s chief White House correspondent is with us right now, David Gregory.

David, let‘s talk about...

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  ... some of the other candidates. 

You have got Tommy Thompson, who is just a fascinating character.  I understand that your report led “Nightly” tonight on Tommy Thompson.  Tell me about him. 

GREGORY:  Well, we will be doing that for “Nightly News” coming up.

And he‘s a small part of this, but, I mean, the point is that, as a second-tier candidate, as a conservative, he can press some of these front-runners on their conservative credentials, and essentially call them out on whether they‘re real conservatives, at a time when you have got one in three Republicans not very happy with the field, and all of this courting going on of Fred Thompson. 

So, that‘s the role, it seems, for some of these second-tier candidates, to sort of stand up and say, look, we‘re at the Reagan Library.  Who is really going to start acting like Ronald Reagan when it comes to positions and being the party of ideas?

SCARBOROUGH:  Who are some of the other second-tier candidates who will try to step up and grab the mantle of Ronald Reagan, and who may do it most effectively? 

GREGORY:  Well, I think it will be—it will be interesting to see. 

Certainly, you have got Senator Brownback and Huckabee, governor Huckabee, of Arkansas, and Tommy Thompson who are poised to—to play that role. 

And McCain, obviously, is in a position to carry the mantle of Reagan, but he‘s got his own issues to contend with, both in terms of dealing with the conservative base, and notably on Iraq. 

And it‘s Mitt Romney who has tried to position himself as the real conservative standard-bearer, who, like Giuliani, has to answer for previous positions and his own evolution in the race, which has raised a lot of skepticism. 

SCARBOROUGH:  As a reporter tonight, what are you looking at when you go in and cover this story for NBC News?  What‘s—what—what are you looking for, as far as a defining moment goes?  Who is the candidate, do you think, is going to—may provide the most interesting headline tomorrow morning? 

GREGORY:  Well, you know, for me, I think the dynamic between McCain and Giuliani is very interesting.  You have got some aggressive people behind them.  The candidates themselves can be aggressive.

So, you—you look to see whether there is a moment that happens on the stage tonight.  It‘s hard, as you know, 10 candidates, for anybody really to emerge, because there is so little time.  And there is not as much time for that interactivity. 

So, that‘s something that—that you look for.  And you said it, a moment, any kind of a moment, whether it‘s a gaffe or a shining moment.  Obviously, these are candidates who would like to break away, if they can. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Al right, NBC News‘ David Gregory, thank you so much for being with us. 

GREGORY:  All right, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  We will talk to you soon. 

And still ahead here, we‘re going to be hearing from the cash candidate, Mitt Romney.  Will the man with the money bank enough support to be called the real front-runner after tonight?

As our live coverage from the first-in-the-country Republican debate continues, live from the Reagan Presidential Library.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney may be trailing in the polls, but, so far, he‘s the man with the money, raking in more campaign cash than any other Republican candidate. 

Last night, he told Jay Leno his strategy for tonight‘s debate is to get on, get off, and keep his hair from getting messed up. 

Here for some more of Romney‘s game plan, former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber.  He‘s a top campaign adviser to Mitt Romney. 

Let me just say, with a guy with hair that looks like this, I don‘t understand how he keeps it so straight.  But...

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  ... we won‘t talk about hair.

VIN WEBER, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN ADVISER:  I don‘t—I don‘t talk about hair.

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, exactly. 

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  You don‘t talk about hair at all.  I understand. 

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  Let‘s talk about some of the issues that we hear time and time again that are going to concern the Republican base, the fact that he‘s a Mormon.  Do you think that‘s—do you think the Republican Party, with an evangelical base, will ever elect a Mormon? 

WEBER:  Yes, I do. 

I think that people are not familiar with the Mormon Church very much.  I‘m a Roman Catholic.  I remember—I was young, but I do remember when Kennedy ran in 1960.  I was only 8 years old.  It was a big deal.  People weren‘t familiar with the Catholic Church.  But they elected a Catholic president. 

And I think, when people become familiar with this candidate, they will be perfectly comfortable.  You know, we‘re not asking people to change religions.

SCARBOROUGH:  Right. 

WEBER:  We‘re asking them to vote for a president. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, let‘s talk about the flip-flops.  That‘s another issue.  Obviously, Mitt Romney has been accused of flip-flopping on several issues, whether you‘re talking about gay marriage or abortion or guns. 

What do—what do you think Republicans are going to demand to hear from Mitt Romney, so they can believe he‘s not going to flip-flop again when he becomes president? 

(CROSSTALK)

WEBER:  First of all, I really believe this issue is vastly overstated. 

Most of the so-called flip-flops go back to statements that the governor made when he was running for office a long time ago.  If you actually look at the policies that he implemented and presided over as governor of Massachusetts, there is really a great deal of consistency on most of those issues. 

The one issue where the governor freely says, yes, he‘s changed his position, he changed his position on abortion.  He grew to a pro-life position, just as Ronald Reagan did.  Ronald Reagan signed a liberal abortion law when he was governor of California.  He changed his position as late as 1975. 

But, all on those other issues, I—I really think, if you look at his record as governor, he‘s got a good, solidly conservative social record.  And, if people look at that, I think they‘re going to be very comfortable with him.

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, that‘s interesting, though.  It‘s one thing if you change your position on abortion or on guns or on gay marriage when you‘re sitting around the college dorm room, trying to contemplate the universe.

But, after you have been governor of the state of Massachusetts—how old is he right now?  He‘s in his...

(CROSSTALK)

WEBER:  He‘s 59. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Fifty-nine.           

(CROSSTALK)

WEBER:  He governed as a conservative, a socially conservative governor of Massachusetts.  And we have got a record we would love to talk about on that. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  But he would have never been elected, though, if he had ran as a pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, pro-gun guy.

WEBER:  Maybe not.  I don‘t know.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  People could not...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Could they not also say, he will never get elected president as a Republican if he doesn‘t take the positions he‘s taking?  It seems convenient. 

WEBER:  No, Joe, let me—let me say something, though.

I mean, this guy has governed as a conservative in the most liberal state in the country.  Now, you know, we‘re defending the governor‘s record.  He‘s ready to exchange—to talk about the change of positions on abortion.

But we also like to point out to people, it‘s pretty easy for candidates to say, “I have always been a conservative” when they come from some of the most conservative states and constituencies in the country. 

This guy was a conservative in a blue state, the bluest of the blue states.  And you know what?  If the 2006 elections tell us anything, they tell us that we‘re going to have to have a candidate that knows how to talk to some people in states that we are not winning, because we have narrowed our base a little bit. 

I think that he can do that.  I think he showed he could govern and win as a conservative in a blue state.  He can win for the Republican Party nationally.

SCARBOROUGH:  And he can also talk about just the remarkable job he did saving the Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002. 

But we‘re going to have to let him do that, and not you right now, because they‘re telling me I need to wrap. 

WEBER:  OK.

SCARBOROUGH:  Thanks a lot, Vin.

WEBER:  Thanks, Joe.  Good to talk to you.

SCARBOROUGH:  He‘s a fascinating guy.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  And good luck tonight.  There is a blank slate for him, I think, with a lot of Americans.  He‘s going to have a great chance to..

(CROSSTALK)

WEBER:  I think he‘s going to do very well.  We‘re anxious for tonight. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  And let‘s hope that all the hair stays in place. 

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  Thanks a lot, Vin Weber.

Hey, just an hour-and-a-half until the first-in-the-country Republican debate gets under way live. 

Now, when we return, who has got the most to lose and could be the dark horse in tonight‘s jampacked, tightly-timed debate, coming here live from the Reagan Presidential Library?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Simi Valley, California, home to the Reagan Presidential Library, where tonight 10 candidates will meet all vying to lay claim to the Reagan legacy and lead their party to victory as the next Republican president.  Hey, let me bring back in our all-star panel.  Arianna Huffington, John Ridley, and Pat Buchanan.

John, let‘s start with you.  Who has the most to lose tonight. 

RIDLEY:  Oh, the guys in front have the most to lose because they‘re the frontrunners.  In the front horse stumbles, they‘re going to go down and you have got a pack of other horses who are just going to run all over them. 

So for—you know, I think what we saw last week with the Democrats, they were playing tight.  I mean, they looked look like an all-star basketball team that was hitting the court for the first time.  Playing tight, not wanting to make any mistakes.

And in some ways it made it look like everything they were doing was a mistake.  So I think you‘re going to see from Giuliani, McCain, and from Romney, just answer the questions and—not the questions necessarily that they were asked, the questions they wish they were asked, the questions they were prepared for, and again, the rest of that middle pack really trying to distinguish themselves.  And as you said earlier, it‘s a pack, a real pack. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Right.  And Pat Buchanan, who do you think has the most to lose tonight, who do you think has the most to gain tonight? 

BUCHANAN:  The most to lose is Rudy Giuliani and second is Romney because a real footfall or gaffe by Giuliani, I think everybody will pounce upon it and it will confirm what everyone—what an all of lot of people believe that this fellow is basically a social New York liberal talking like a conservative. 

I think McCain is in such a position that he‘s going to answer these things steadily.  I would be astonished if McCain made any serious mistake tonight.  I just don‘t think it‘s going to happen.  He has been on too many of these shows.  So that‘s what I would say. 

Number one would be Giuliani and number two, frankly, if Romney makes a grave mistake, he might wound almost mortally his chances to be that candidate who comes through two fading frontrunners. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, Pat, it sounds like you were saying that we have in John McCain the Republican‘s version of Hillary Clinton, strong, steady, been through this before, don‘t make any mistakes, keep your head down, charge ahead and you may just win the debate by default. 

BUCHANAN:  And durable.  You may just win the nomination.  I still think, and we heard someone in the last hour, he is leading in Iowa, leading in New Hampshire and leading in South Carolina.  If McCain wins Iowa, Joe, this race is over. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, I want to ask you, Arianna Huffington, let‘s compare what we saw last week in South Carolina with the Democrats to what we are going to see tonight.  Let‘s talk about for instance Barack Obama.  There are a lot of—in fact, I wrote a post on your site, The Huffington Post, suggesting that it wasn‘t the end of the world but Barack Obama seemed a little tentative, seemed a little stiff. 

Of course you would expect that of a relative newcomer on the national stage, but who tonight needs to have a breakout performance?  Is it Mitt Romney that is in the position of Barack Obama introducing himself to America and he better not stumble, better not play it too safe? 

HUFFINGTON:  Well, you know, Joe, the candidates, actually, senior advisers of the front tier candidates talked to Adam Nagourney for The New York Times.  And they really told us what their strategy is going to be in the debate tonight.  John McCain‘s strategy, especially John Weaver made it clear that McCain is going to separate himself from George Bush on certain key issues, as he has already done.

For example, criticizing the White House performance on Katrina and on the war, calling for the resignation of Attorney General Gonzales.  The other two frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Giuliani, made it clear through their advisers again that they intend to actually stick with the president and they think actually that John McCain‘s strategy in general and for the debate tonight is a very risky one. 

So we‘ll see how that plays out in the debate and a lot will depend on what Chris Matthews does.  Is he going to ask some of his famous follow-up questions?  Because it‘s in the follow-up questions that you really see what the candidates are made of. 

Everybody at that level can answer the first question, it‘s what you do with the second question. 

SCARBOROUGH:  No doubt about it.  And, John Ridley, let‘s talk about some of those other candidates who are out there who we haven‘t mentioned yet.  And it‘s unfair but that‘s just the way things go.  You have got three candidates that have raised all of the money, that are high in the polls. 

People forget people like for instance somebody from your home state, Tommy Thompson, who was way ahead of his time on welfare reform, way ahead of his time on school vouchers, school choice.  Is that a guy who can break out of the pack? 

RIDLEY:  Well, as you mentioned, I am from Wisconsin, so in the interests of full and fair disclosures, I‘ve got to say I‘m predisposed to like this guy.  But yes, you look at the individuals, one of the things, again, that you set up in front in setting this is the issue of flip-flopping.  And I think maybe the Republicans may be sorry they entered that term into the lexicon with some of their frontrunners. 

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  With these guys, no doubt.  

RIDLEY:  Yes.  But with Tommy Thompson, here you have a guy who has done a lot of social progressive reforms in a swing state, very progressive and very conservative at the same time, plus a guy who has governed.  I mean, history is on the side of governors.

So Mitt Romney clearly is a governor who has got a lot going for him.  But you have got this other pack of governors in the middle that can really break through tonight and show what they are made of and don‘t have a lot of baggage.  That‘s the other thing, they don‘t have a lot of baggage that they‘re carrying with them. 

And even if you go back to the Democrats, somebody was asking earlier, Hillary Clinton is doing so well, why doesn‘t she match up with Rudy Giuliani?  A lot of it comes down to baggage.  You got a guy like Tommy Thompson who doesn‘t have any despite, the fact that he has been wrong for a long time, he‘s a fresh face and the Republicans need a fresh face. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes.  No doubt about it.  And you know, it seems to me, Pat, with this second tier we can talk about, I mean, we‘ve got people like Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tommy Thompson, James Gilmore from your home state.  Who in that pack, that so-called second tier can break out tonight and be that fresh face that the Republican Party so desperately needs? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, I think the—I mean, I think they‘re all going to try to—I just—I mean, Tommy Thompson is a solid guy, I think he was governor for 13 years and everything, but I don‘t think he never had much flash here in D.C. as a cabinet officer. 

But, Joe, I think Arianna has touched on something very important here, and that is this.  When you and I do the show at 9:00 at night, we talk about 2-1 the American people want to get out of Iraq and they don‘t like the president.  In the Republican Party it is 2-1 the other way. 

And if you talk about the conservative base, it is even higher.  And Romney is going to stay there behind the president and for the surge, and I agree, McCain will take a serious risk if he tries to move away from the president and move basically away from 67 percent of the Republican Party and probably a higher percentage of conservatives and tries to undercut him on the war. 

So I think that—I agree with—that Giuliani and Romney will stick behind the president and I do think if McCain tries that, he starts moving again, he is taking a risk. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And you know, it is very interesting what you just said because John, Pat, Arianna, we all come on this show and talk about the problems with Iraq, but the Republican base believes, again, this president for the most part is doing a very good job.

And let‘s talk about the successes for a second.  Most Republicans that I talk to say they really don‘t care if Rudy Giuliani is for abortion on demand so long as he supports somebody like John Roberts or Samuel Alito.  Bush got the Supreme Court right as far as conservatives are concerned. 

He got tax cuts right as far as conservatives are concerned.  You know, he has got the war on terror right as far as conservatives are concerned.  And I guess the question is whether Republicans are going to be back on their heels because of what they here on shows like mine every night or whether they‘re going to be leaning forward and being more aggressive, Arianna Huffington, in speaking to the base that really don‘t think George Bush has done that bad of a job? 

HUFFINGTON:  But you know what, Joe, even Vin Weber, earlier on your show, admitted that the Republicans have not done very well on a core conservative principle of government spending.  So even in terms of addressing the base on this very important issue of pork barrel spending, deficits, Republicans don‘t have a great record under George Bush.  And who is going to reach for that mantle? 

I mean, it‘s not as simple as saying this has been a conservative president whose war went wrong.  There are many other problems with his conservative principles and the conservative base. 

But I think what Pat said is very, very important for us to remember, that in the latest New York Times/CBS poll, 76 percent of Republicans still approve of George Bush compared to 32 percent of the nation at large.  And that is, of course, two numbers that the candidates will remember tonight. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes.  And you know, John Ridley, it‘s always—if you‘re a Republican candidate, in the past it has been so fun to run against Democrats because they‘re always like John Kerry, they‘re afraid to come out and say, this is what I believe because if... 

RIDLEY:  Stand for something. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes.  It may be ahead of where the American people are, and tonight, though, it may be the Republican Party that‘s back on its heels.  Isn‘t it the best—I mean, you‘ve commented on presidential races for NPR for quite some time, isn‘t it always better to be aggressive, do not apologize for your president, do not apologize for your positions, and say this is what I believe in, if you like it, vote for me, if you don‘t like it, don‘t vote for me.  You have got nine other guys up there.  Don‘t Republicans need to lean forward and be aggressive tonight? 

RIDLEY:  Well, to be a traditional Republican, yes.  And whether you like it or not, I mean, that‘s what the Republicans did very well, stay on message and you are never wrong. 

Now certainly, actually, you can be wrong and make mistakes but there is something about being presidential in saying, look, this is what I believe and this is what I stand for.  And you‘ve seen it with so many Democrats that were—they came of as being wishy-washy. 

They may have been very good with policy.  They may have done a very good job in Washington.  But with Kerry, you know, it was—he was never on the attack, he was never standing up.  You got that same feeling with Dukakis.  Even Jimmy Carter felt comfortable in a time where America needed to feel comfortable, but when it needed to feel strong, it didn‘t feel strong. 

Now look, you can what you want about policy, Americans want to feel certain things.  They want to feel leadership.  And I think that is what they‘re going to be looking for is a certain feeling.  The message comes later.  It‘s that feeling that has got to drive the message.

BUCHANAN:  Hey, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes.

BUCHANAN:  One thing a Republican ought to do, and when you defend the president, you come out there, you know, obviously, I mean, you want to take a position consistent with your principles, but you defend him and you just say this.

Let me say something else.  I‘m really fed up with the media piling on this president in Washington, D.C.  Not giving him credit for the good things he has done, the judges, the tax cuts, and the media has been piling on. 

The base loves that.  You know, if it‘s the media versus Bush, the base loves that.  And that‘s what I would do if I were one of those candidates up there in defending the president where you think he‘s right. 

SCARBOROUGH:  There is no doubt about it, Pat. 

(CROSSTALK)

HUFFINGTON:  I want to say, let‘s see which of the candidates is going to get Pat Buchanan as a speech writer after tonight‘s debate. 

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN:  I did that when I was 20.  I‘m older now. 

HUFFINGTON:  I know. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, I‘ll tell you, they need to do it.  They need to do it because Pat Buchanan, you and I have run in Republican primaries and I can tell you my instincts are identical.  If I‘m you, the second an issue comes up about the Supreme Court or taxes or the war on terror, I would say, you know what, I really don‘t care what the editorial page of The New York Times says, I really don‘t care what that turncoat Joe Scarborough says. 

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  All I know is we haven‘t had a single attack on American soil since September 11th, 2001, you can criticize the president of the United States all you want, he has protected us.  He has protected our families.  And on September 12th, 2001, that is more than I could have ever asked for.  I‘m sick and tired of those liberals like Pat Buchanan and the rest of them in the debate. 

That will get the biggest applause line here tonight.  Right behind us.  Pat Buchanan, let‘s see if you were a speech writer for somebody tonight and see if they parrot that line.  I think it would be smart. 

Still ahead, we‘re going to hear from the former Wisconsin governor, Tommy Thompson‘s campaign.  They may not be a frontrunner now but that could all change after tonight when our coverage of the Republican presidential candidates debate continues and it‘s only going to be right here on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, let‘s bring in a good friend of mine, Congressman Zach Wamp.  He is a Republican congressman and a Fred Thompson supporter. 

You know, Zach, the spirit of Ronald Reagan may be sort of hovering over this area tonight but the specter of Fred Thompson landing in California later tonight and delivering a speech, that may excite the base more than anything anybody says here tonight.  Certainly concerns a lot of candidates here.  Talk about Fred Thompson, is he getting into this race and is he going to be the next Republican nominee? 

REP. ZACH WAMP ®, TENNESSEE:  I believe he will get in the race.  I believe he‘s a man preparing to get in this race and you‘re there at the Reagan Library and he was the great communicator and the credit tonight goes to these 10 men that are on stage. 

They‘re all good men but really the best communicator in the field is in midair right now, flying from Florida to California.  Fred Thompson still kind of towers over the field in a lot of ways.  And I think he would make our best nominee.  I think he can win in November.  And I think he is going to run. 

This race started probably too early.  There is still plenty of time.  He is a figure that kind of transcends American politics.  And just like President Reagan, he talks in a simple direct way with the American people.  They feel secure in his presence.  And I think the communication skills are going to be so important in the future, Fred Thompson has what it takes. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, Fred Thompson, though, is going to have to get $50 million or so to win the primary.  It‘s so front-loaded right now.  Has he waited too late to get in?  Because you look at all of the money that Mitt Romney has raised and that Giuliani ahs raised and John McCain has raised, they‘ve already taken close to $100 million away from Republican donors already.  Can he raise the $50 million or $60 million that he needs? 

WAMP:  Well, they have already spent a lot of money and I don‘t see anybody gaining any traction, frankly.  And so the money is not really the issue at this point, especially since Senator Thompson has a lot of stature.  A national organization has come into place. 

We can raise the money to be competitive, plus he‘s going to do this a little different.  I think the consultants in Washington have been wrong for a long time.  Fred Thompson is going to do this his way and he‘s going to get a lot of attention during May. 

There is a book that comes out at the end of May.  I just wrote the forward and turned it in Tuesday.  There is a lot of excitement around Fred Thompson and he‘s speaking in Orange County tomorrow night.  He‘s all over the country in May.  He‘s getting plenty of attention. 

He still gives that Paul Harvey commentary, simple communication about logical solutions for our country, strong national security.  He‘s a very confident man and I think he is going to be the nominee when he gets in the race. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Zach Wamp, it certainly sounds like he is going to get in the race.  I look forward to talking to you about Fred Thompson in the coming days and weeks, and I suspect months.  Thanks for being with us, Zach. 

WAMP:  Thank you, Joe. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Let‘s bring our panel back in right now.  Arianna Huffington, John Ridley, and Pat Buchanan.

Arianna, is it an indictment on this field of 10 that most Republicans are looking forward to Fred Thompson and sees whether he jumps in the race in the next month or so? 

HUFFINGTON:  It‘s mostly an indication of how much longing there is for a real leader, for, as Zach once said, a great communicator, someone who can really connect with the electorate.  After all, this is the main appeal of Barack Obama.  And Fred Thompson certainly is a really good communicator. 

It‘s interesting that we‘re talking about those who are not going to be there tonight, Fred Thompson, you didn‘t mention Newt Gingrich.  But here is someone else who may well enter the race and one who talk about ideas.  And Newt Gingrich is full of them.

And of course, somebody else is Chuck Hagel.  If the war continues to go from bad to worse, I mean, there is nobody like Chuck Hagel for deciding at the last minute to step in.  A formal Vietnam veteran.  A guy who has been consistently and from the beginning opposed to the war—not in terms of—he voted for it but he has been consistent in criticizing it. 

SCARBOROUGH:  But yes—now, obviously, he has been criticized lately.  And Pat Buchanan, Fred Thompson, obviously a powerful figure in Republican politics, do you think he has what it takes to step in and take the mantle of Ronald Reagan and have Republicans who hate Hollywood once again elect an actor to the White House? 

BUCHANAN:  I think, look, Fred Thompson, if he gets in, he‘s going to be an enormously existing entry and people are really going to focus on him.  But he can‘t get in and walk away with this thing.  He will really have to perform as a superior candidate in terms of his speeches, in terms of his drive and his energy and really take this away from Giuliani, McCain, and Romney. 

And the question is, can he do it?  I don‘t think it‘s a foregone conclusion.  I know Fred Thompson, I like him.  I think he would be a good candidate.  I think he moves right up to the front tier.  But I don‘t think it‘s a foregone conclusion he would win this nomination. 

SCARBOROUGH:  John Ridley, what is it about Republicans?  I had an actor come up to me and he said, why is it that you Republicans always bash Hollywood, but you always want somebody from Hollywood running your party? 

RIDLEY:  Well, look, it is about communication.  It is about charisma.  And I also think, you know, people, they—some lump (ph) Hollywood, if you‘re in Hollywood you have got to be this far left liberal.  There are certainly people who are socially active but you look at the history of people who get politically active, obviously Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, individuals like this, Clint Eastwood, the people who tend to get politically active in Hollywood tend to be conservative. 

And I think actually conservatives might be smart to not just lump us all together and say, look, if you‘re from Hollywood, you‘re a liberal, that‘s all it is.  And start going, look, who are the people we can mine and start putting out there as the face of Republicans?

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Thanks so much.  And like Ronald Reagan, Fred Thompson, he has got that voice.  It‘s all in the voice, friends.  Thanks so much, John Ridley, Arianna Huffington, and Pat Buchanan.  That‘s all the time we have.  Stay tuned to MSNBC‘s continuing coverage of the GOP debate. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, “COUNTDOWN”:  And now, here are the Republicans.  For the first time since 1928, though their party occupies the White House, there is no president seeking reelection, no vice president seeking promotion.  A wide open race for the top of a beleaguered party begins now. 

Brownback, Gilmore, Huckabee, Hunter, Paul, Tancredo, and Thompson.  The former front-runner who may be regaining traction, McCain.  The unexpected frontrunner hoping to transform from mayor to president, Giuliani.  The terrifically-financed long shot trying to vault them both, Romney. 

And then there are those who could not be here tonight.  Fred Thompson, who might wind up running for president or playing the president in a movie.  Chuck Hagel in limbo since a confused news conference.  And overarching all, the president who was a pinata to the Democratic debaters last week in South Carolina who could be the best friend or the worst foe of any of the would-bes who are here gathered. 

And the issue that could help any of them sink or swim.  Two years to the day since Iraq swore in its first democratically-elected government, these candidates must try to define Iraq or watch Iraq define them. 

And in this building, atop this mountain summit dedicated to the patron saint of the modern conservative, who gets to define the new conservatism?

And while 10 Republicans try to grab the momentum and the attention, events, the politician‘s enemy, deflect their spotlight.  Senator Obama becomes the first candidate placed under Secret Service protection.  The one placed the earliest in history after conflicting reports that there has or has not been a threat. 

All that and more now from the COUNTDOWN to the first Republican presidential debate. 

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

END   

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