updated 5/4/2007 10:44:45 AM ET 2007-05-04T14:44:45

Guests: Eugene Robinson

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR:  From the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, this is MSNBC‘s continuing coverage of the start of this historic and, in the life spans of all the candidates present, this unprecedented debate and primary season.

I‘m Keith Olbermann, and this is our countdown to the Republican debate, where, at the start of the next hour, the three front-runners, former New York Governor—New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain of Arizona, former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, will face not just each other, but try to stave off the longshots, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, Representatives Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Duncan Hunter of California, Ron Paul of Texas, former Governors Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, Jim Gilmore of Virginia, all 10 looking to use this public platform of debate to portray himself as the heir to Ronald Reagan‘s presidency. 

And, at any time now, they will get the first visual opportunity to align themselves with the Gipper, meeting with the former first lady Nancy Reagan, who, in announcing tonight‘s debate, said, in a statement, “Ronnie always hoped the library would be a place where policy-makers will debate the future”—end quote—though exactly how these 10 candidates plan to harness the optimism for the future that suffused Reagan‘s candidacy then, given the country‘s current weariness, after four-and-a-half years of war in Iraq, remains to be determined. 

In a little less than an hour, the candidates will take their place on the rostrum, and face 90 minutes of uninterrupted questions provided by tonight‘s moderator, our own Chris Matthews, from John Harris of Politico.com, as well as from selected viewers. 

And you can vote on which questions should be asked of each candidate at Politico.com. 

Waiting here with me for the start of the MSNBC-Politico.com Reagan Library GOP presidential candidates debate, our own Howard Fineman, “Newsweek” magazine‘s senior Washington correspondent and political columnist. 

Great thanks for being here. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:  Great to be here, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  It is an extraordinary setting, is it not?  There‘s a regal quality that the Democrats, for good or for ill, don‘t try to attach to themselves. 

FINEMAN:  It is beautiful.  It‘s historic.  And it couldn‘t be more appropriate, because the memory and the image of Ronald Reagan hangs over this place, as does that of George W. Bush. 

And, in the case of Ronald Reagan, that is an unalloyed blessing for Republicans.  In the case of George Bush, it‘s a—it‘s something of a burden that they‘re going to have to deal with tonight because of the war in Iraq. 

OLBERMANN:  Is it the same standard for these—these 10 as it was for the eight in South Carolina last week?  Is the principal thing—as much as we might talk about what they‘re going to say on that stage, is the principal thing, do they make no mistakes; do they look presidential; do they act presidential; do they convey, yes, you can see me as president.?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think, for the front-runners, for the triumvirate of front-runners, that‘s important. 

I think, for the seven others, who one of the strategists for the top three referred to me as the ankle-biters, ankle-biters have to get in the news.  The front-runners need to show that they can almost literally climb on that airplane and fly right out the window and off into the sunset as president of the United States. 

OLBERMANN:  And pilot the thing, too. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  Well, in the case of John McCain, he could do that.

OLBERMANN:  And we have used that analogy before.  And four years ago the other day, I don‘t think perhaps it is a good imagery. 

Obviously, Congressman Paul of Texas is going to buck on this principal subject of Iraq.  Is there any chance that anybody else is going to deviate from the administration‘s stance tonight?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think it is important to listen to John McCain, because it is clear that John McCain both has the most to gain and most to lose in terms of identifying himself with the war in Iraq. 

He‘s steadfast in his support for the president‘s overall policy, but is becoming increasingly critical about the way the president has handled it. 

So, Ron Paul, who is a libertarian, who is going to say, we shouldn‘t have gone in and we should get out yesterday, will push McCain.  It will be interesting to see what McCain does.  I think the other top front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, are going to not risk criticizing the president on the war, because they have their own problems with the Republican base. 

It will be interesting to see what McCain does on that point.  And that‘s what all the people in the press room are going to be listening for, because Iraq dominates everything, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Is this ultimately for the base, and for the base alone?  Are there things going to be said tonight that whoever winds up with the nomination is going to be later forgetting that he said, or denying that he said, or not being able to recall if he said?

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  I think, for most of them, the base is what is important. 

And you have one form of the base right here in this building. 

These are Reagan Republicans.  These are people, if you know this landscape here, who believe in the idea, or even the mythology, of independence, who think that government has a role, but not a very big one. 

Those are people that these people, these candidates, need to impress. 

And that‘s their primary mission.  They want to do it without getting thing

anything on the MSNBC videotape that is going to function as an advertisement in the general election later on.  That‘s their primary mission. 

Ironically, it is even more of a primary mission for the top candidates, for Rudy, for Mitt, and for McCain, or, as they‘re referred to by the others—let‘s see.  That would be Rudy McRomney. 

OLBERMANN:  I see.  The ankle-biters call them Rudy McRomney. 

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  Rudy McRomney vs. the ankle-biters.

For Rudy McRomney, you have to speak to the base almost more than the ankle-biters do. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  There‘s no difference among Rudy McRomney, that‘s a fallacy, too. 

We mentioned what the expectations are of Senator McCain.  What are the expectations of Mayor Giuliani?  What does he have to do here?  Is this almost a continuing part of the “Let me introduce myself to you” campaign for Rudy Giuliani?

FINEMAN:  Yes.  I think—Rudy still leads in the polls.

The latest polls, I think he‘s fallen back in the pack a little bit, but he‘s ahead.  He‘s ahead on the idea of a hope.  He‘s ahead on the idea of one image, which is his image after 9/11 as the can-do mayor who brought the city back together, put it back on its feet. 

The Republicans who support them—him—and there are some surprising ones—are doing it without knowing much about him.  So, this is his first opportunity on a national stage to talk to Republican conservatives, and tell them why they should follow their hope with detailed knowledge of him and support him.

And he has got to tell them:  Look, I can lead.  And I‘m with you in heart, as well as on the stage of leadership. 

OLBERMANN:  Is there a—is there someone like Mike Gravel last week?  Is there somebody who serves not merely as the guy with the flamethrower out here, but also who makes the other Republicans look really centrist by comparison?  Is there somebody out there who is going to do that?  Is that Ron Paul, or is there somebody else?

FINEMAN:  Well, it is confusing on the case of Paul, because...

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

FINEMAN:  ... he‘s as left as you get on the war. 

But I think there will be several of those.  I think, on the abortion issue, Sam Brownback, the senator from Kansas, views himself as the ultimate supporter of the pro-life movement.  And he‘s going to try to identify himself as such and put the others on the defensive, if he can.

In terms of taxes, former Governor Jim Gilmore of Virginia is going to say:  I kept taxes from the Internet.  You know, I‘m the anti-tax guy.

But the problem here is that the old conservative coalition, which was built by Ronald Reagan, in whose building we are, and really perfected, if not over-perfected, by George W. Bush, is now falling apart.  It‘s falling apart on defense.  It‘s falling apart on government, because George Bush has been a big-government conservative.  So, a lot of them dislike him for that.

And a lot of evangelical Christians don‘t find any of these candidates to their liking, so that those three parts of the conservative movement have fallen apart before our eyes, and, with it, the Republican Party, over Iraq. 

OLBERMANN:  We will get into that subject of conservatism, and defining it, and re-defining it, with Pat Buchanan later on.  And we are brining you back towards the end of the hour for final comments. 

Let‘s just sit here a moment more, as we watch this.  And this touches, again, on this idea of regal qualities that were not seen in South Carolina. 

This is the procession.  This is the parade.  These are tonight‘s debaters, the 10 candidates, filing out, just, in fact, to our right.  We can see them from where we are seated.  And there is a—there is a coronation quality that just was not present in South Carolina. 

FINEMAN:  Keith, if you look that the picture, and took away all of the writing and all of the words, and just had the image, could the American people tell that those were Republicans? 

I think the answer is yes.  There is a hierarchical, there is, dare I say it, male, there‘s an old-line quality to them that some voters, indeed, a lot of voters, find reassuring.  And this is something that the Democrats need to understand.  The Democrats are the “We are family” party, which is great.

But this is the other side of the conversation.  And you—this is their home here.  We really are in Reagan country. 

OLBERMANN:  And they‘re about 35, 40 feet to our right—Governor Romney going past now, and, behind him, Senator McCain at the corner, as you see on the left, and, in the back, with Governor Huckabee, Mayor Giuliani. 

And they will now go through their final walk-through in the next hour.  The convivial conversation is taking place now.  Will there be anything but convivial conversation down there?

FINEMAN:  I think they will—you will be—we are going to lapse away from conviviality periodically. 

But that procession there, they don‘t—I know it is just a run-through, but they don‘t look all that excited, I must say.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN:  And the reason they don‘t look all that excited, in addition to the fact that there are 10 of them, and they don‘t like to be in each other‘s company, particularly, is the fact that the Republican Party, as a whole, is, depending on the poll you read, 10 to 20 points down in terms of overall general affection among the American people. 

You don‘t want to overstate this, but the Republican Party really is at a low point.  And, even though this looks like a coronation, it also looks like they may be marching off to an uncertain future, as they go down the hallway there.  And they‘re all aware of that.  They‘re all aware of that. 

OLBERMANN:  And that‘s the only part of the staging that we probably did not think of in advance, was that we would get this long shot of their backs as they walked away from us, with Mr. Giuliani in the rear there. 

FINEMAN:  Good shot.  Good shot.

OLBERMANN:  Howard Fineman of “Newsweek” and MSNBC, we will talk to you later in the hour. 

FINEMAN:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Thank you, sir.

It was the British politician and author Michael Dobbs who put the phrase into the mouth of his extraordinary creation, a fictional prime minister named Francis Urquhart.  Events, the politician‘s enemy.  For all the planning, for all the anticipation, you can still wind up being preempted. 

That won‘t happen tonight.  But the spotlight is a little blocked for the Republicans.  And the news coverage tonight and tomorrow night will be shared with a Democratic candidate. 

Within the last few hours, word that the Secret Service now has under its official protection Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, not just the first Secret Service declaration for the 2008 campaign, but the earliest in American political and protective history.  And it comes amid confused reports as to why. 

Our justice correspondent Pete Williams has been all over this today, and joins us now from Washington with what he has gathered. 

Pete, good evening.

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Keith, there‘s no question about this.  It has been confirmed by officials at the Secret Service and Homeland Security, that Senator Obama has been authorized to receive this protection as a candidate.

And they say this is the earliest that Secret Service protection has ever been given to a presidential candidate.  And, by my calculations, it is about five months earlier than ever. 

Now, we‘re told that Obama‘s campaign requested this protection, but that this was not in response to a threat.  Apparently, the Obama campaign and the Secret Service had a number of concerns about the size of the crowds that were showing up at his events.  And some of Obama‘s fellow senators have been urging him to seek more security. 

So, the request was reviewed by Homeland Security.  That‘s where Secret Service is now.  It used to be in the Treasury Department, now Homeland Security.  He, as he must under law, referred it to a congressional advisory committee.  And they all approved the protection—

Keith.

OLBERMANN:  His wife, Michelle, is scheduled—was scheduled—to attend an event at the Harvard Club in Manhattan tonight, Pete.  But this does not extend to her, does it?  What are the rules relative to family members at this point in a campaign?

WILLIAMS:  Two things about that.  Number one, as we understand it, it was not requested for her.  And, secondly, even if it was, under the normal rules of the law, she would not be eligible.  Spouses of candidates are not eligible to receive protection more than 120 days before the election. 

Now, there can always be exceptions, but they have to be extraordinary circumstances.  And, because there aren‘t any here, this doesn‘t apply to her. 

OLBERMANN:  Interesting timing on the revelation of this story today.

Pete Williams, NBC‘s chief justice correspondent—great thanks, Pete. 

WILLIAMS:  Yes, sir. 

OLBERMANN:  Back to why we are here:  How will the GOP candidates vying to be the next commander in chief handle the issue of the current self-described commander guy?  Will we see an erosion of support for President Bush happen live on a debate stage?

You‘re watching MSNBC‘s coverage, the countdown to the first Republican presidential debate. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re counting down to the debate of the Republican presidential candidates, the first in the nation for them. 

The Democrats, in their first debate, exactly one week ago tonight, may have had it easy in one respect.  They had President Bush to kick around forever more. 

What the Republicans face this evening is the task of trying to differentiate themselves from the president without alienating the conservative base that still largely supports him. 

One prescription for this has already been offered by Senator McCain, who criticized the administration‘s response to Hurricane Katrina when he formally announced his candidacy last week, without ever mentioning President Bush by name. 

But an adviser to Senator McCain predicts that the candidates will stick with the president, for now—quote—“The general election is another matter.  Whoever it is will be facing a damaged brand, an unpopular president, hopefully not that unpopular.”

But will Republican contenders have the luxury of waiting until after their own battle to take issue with the president‘s policies, especially since time is not exactly standing still?  The fluidity of the war and public opinion on it, the obvious example. 

Let‘s turn now to our chief current foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, who joins us from Washington again.

Andrea, good evening. 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  So, last week, the Democrats could portray Mr. Bush almost as Goldstein from “1984.”  It is all his fault, from their point of view. 

MITCHELL:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  Do the Republicans defend him?  Do they distance themselves from him?  A little of each?  What happens tonight? 

MITCHELL:  Well, as you pointed out, John McCain, in his announcement speech, began to separate himself a little bit from George W. Bush.

But, knowing that that embrace has been seen over and over again, and also that McCain was one of the original authors of the surge strategy—he, in fact, was calling for more troops to go in—he can hardly do that, and hold his head up.  So, he‘s wedded to the war in Iraq. 

And the other candidates, those like Giuliani and Romney, have been not at all shy about embracing George W. Bush.  Look, they‘re trying to win the Republican nomination.  And they have a conservative constituency.  And it is the last redoubt of support for George Bush.  And they‘re going to stick with the guy who brung them. 

OLBERMANN:  Andrea, the other top-tier candidates, former Mayor Giuliani, former Governor Romney, do not appear willing to go even as far...

MITCHELL:  Exactly. 

OLBERMANN:  ... perhaps as Senator McCain, in taking issue with the president. 

If they‘re still betting on the current model, nail down the nomination first, does that work?  Or, as Howard Fineman suggested earlier, is there some clip that is going to appear from this debate tonight in the Democratic campaign against whoever wins?

MITCHELL:  Oh, I think absolutely. 

If these are the nominees, if we‘re not talking about Fred Thompson down the road or someone else coming in, these guys are going to be really caught on what they say tonight.  And they are, I think, going to stick with George Bush, because they can‘t distance themselves, other than what McCain has tried to do in a very delicate way. 

They can‘t really distance themselves from his policy and from this president and still win the nomination.  If anything, the Republican supporters, the—the loyalists, are unhappy that this crowd isn‘t conservative enough for their tastes.  So, they‘re going to have problems in the general election campaign. 

It is sort of analogous to the problems Hillary Clinton and other centrist Democrats, if you will, are having in trying to withstand pressure from the liberal left to come out stronger against the war.  They know they have to be more centrist in order to win a general election campaign—particularly, she does, as the only woman in the group—and, yet, they‘re having trouble going up against some of their more liberal competitors in the Democratic fold. 

Well, that‘s exactly what is happening on the Republican side.  They have to stick to the right, but that is going to create problems for them in the campaign to come. 

OLBERMANN:  And, Andrea, as we watch live pictures of the candidates and staff following through on this tour of this extraordinary facility, once again, I‘m not sure this is exactly how they would have planned it, but they seem to be swarming our location in both directions.  They went past us one way and now come back the other...

MITCHELL:  They‘re coming after you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  And that‘s...

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Well, you might very well think so.  I could not possibly comment. 

MITCHELL:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  Mr. Giuliani now having moved more or less to the front of the pack, and returning the wave of Howard Fineman. 

FINEMAN:  Waving...

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN:  We appreciate that, Howard.

Andrea, to the point, we just saw the former mayor there.  Mr.  Giuliani, in New Hampshire last week, threw out some true red meat to the conservative base, at his own peril, I guess, something we heard from President Bush prior to the midterms last year, the idea, this construction that the country will be safer with a Republican president, specifically him, than it would be with a Democratic president. 

Is Mr. Giuliani strenuously aligning himself with Mr. Bush on that, since he‘s obviously not aligned with him on abortion or gay rights or many of the other cultural issues?

MITCHELL:  Absolutely.  This is Giuliani‘s attempt to try to wrap himself around conservatism. 

And, frankly, it is his real campaign platform.  If he‘s not America‘s mayor, connected to 9/11 and the post-9/11 Rudy Giuliani, who, as you know, as a resident of New York, is very different from the way he was perceived before 9/11, he has very little to commend himself, other than that record, that persona, which is completely connected to the war on terror and 9/11. 

And, so, that will be the way he keeps trying to define himself.  You would like to think, though, that, tonight, as they try also, of course, to be Reaganesque, that they could try to have the—the wit and perhaps the political agility of the Gipper himself, who managed to be both beloved by conservatives, and also pragmatic when he needed to be, and still not viewed as a hypocrite. 

It was an extraordinary performance by the actor president.  And I‘m not sure any of these candidates are quite up to that standard. 

OLBERMANN:  Andrea Mitchell, NBC‘s chief foreign affairs correspondent

always a great pleasure to talk to you, Andrea.

MITCHELL:  Thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Take care.

How will President Bush react to his treatment by the candidates of his own party tonight, especially if it‘s any of it is negative?

David Gregory joins us from the spin room with more on the White House reaction from the almost certain criticism that could come, at least from some quarters—the Republican Party gathering here in Simi Valley tonight.  The candidates have been everywhere in this library in the last half-an—hour, except for the gift shop. 

There is the collection, the official photograph of the debate in the replica Oval Office, with Nancy Reagan, the moment of association with the 40th president, Mr. Reagan. 

You saw Chris Matthews in the group, too, a picture you will no doubt see on “HARDBALL” at some point as well. 

Can anyone, as they honor Ronald Reagan, fit that bill?  How tonight might spark a sea change in the conservative movement. 

This is the countdown to the Republican presidential debate here on

MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We rejoin you with MSNBC‘s coverage of the countdown to the Republican presidential debate, the first face-off among the 10 declared candidates vying for the GOP nomination right here in Simi Valley, California, in the impressive, daresay daunting, venue of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library—the pack of candidates already greeted by Nancy Reagan tonight.

Some political insiders say that, after four years of war, the GOP is at a crossroads tonight.  Pat Buchanan joins us on the future of the conservative movement. 

We will also discuss the long shadow cast by the Republicans not on the debate stage tonight.  Fred Thompson polling better than three-fourths of the declared candidates—will tonight impact his decision to run or not?  And what about Senator Chuck Hagel and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich?

Speaking of long shadows, the George W. Bush effect—David Gregory joins us to talk about how the president and the administration might handle any criticisms that could come from their own party tonight—all ahead in the final half-hour before the first Republican presidential debate, moderated by Chris Matthews, here on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Tonight‘s Republican presidential debate is the first clash not merely in a battle to lead the nation, but also a battle to lead both the Republican Party and the conservative movement that is its engine. 

First, however, the hopefuls will have to answer a burning question on the right these days:  What the heck is conservative, anyway? 

Once upon a time, everybody knew what defined conservative politicians.  They were serious, thoughtful, and competent.  They championed fiscal prudence, distrusted government sufficiently to rabidly defend the checks that our founders placed on governmental power.  They sought, famously, to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub.

They opposed pie-in-the-sky utopian idealism about transforming the world.  They rejected calls for America to engage in nation-building.  They honored the troops.  They fought crime. 

Today, after six years of self-professed conservative leadership, violent crime is on the rise.  Soldiers lack equipment and health care.  America is mired in a war to rebuild not just a nation, but an entire volatile region.  Government competence is in scarce supply whether you look to Iraq, New Orleans, the halls of Justice, or the halls of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

But government itself is larger than ever, and so is spending, so is debt, and the Republican Party has come to trust government so much, they gave a single politician the power to throw Americans in jail, a power that, as conservatives, would have screamed under the last administration, virtually defines the concept of un-American.

We turn now to MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan, perhaps uniquely qualified to comment on tonight‘s battle for the conservative soul, as a conservative of the classic mold.  Communications director for conservative icon Ronald Reagan, former presidential contender himself.

Pat, thanks for your time tonight.

PAT BUCHANAN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  It bears noting that the first two presidential primaries, the one here and the one last night—last week, six months after those midterms, which seem to put the sort of final—I don‘t know, airplane propeller to the deck of cards, about defining this.  What is conservative, conservative right now, and what is not conservative, and how does it relate to this debate tonight?

BUCHANAN:  Well, no one can really define what conservative politics is today, Chris.  There are a lot of people that are trying to.  I think I‘m more of a traditionalist conservative in the Goldwater-Reagan tradition.

But you‘re exactly right, the neoconservatives, who are really the strongest supporters behind the invasion of Iraq, are considered by many conservatives not to be conservative at all.  They‘re into nation building.  I mean, Woodrow Wilson, idealism, all the rest of it.

On the issue of—let‘s take immigration, you got a clear division between the conservative base, which wants the border secure, which wants the laws enforced, and President Bush, who is very much in line with Edward Kennedy on this.

And you take trade, the loss of manufacturing jobs in Ohio and Michigan, because of free trade and because of the enormous trade deficits, has cost us the Reagan Democrats.

There is a real division.  The house of conservatism is a house divided.

OLBERMANN:  Of the serious contenders this evening, Pat, is there one who adheres closest to your conception of classic conservatism?

BUCHANAN:  I think the closest, candidly, is probably Ron Paul, who is pro-life libertarian, who does not vote for big spending, who opposed the Medicare expansion, who opposed No Child Left Behind, who opposed the war in Iraq.  And he was the Libertarian candidate for president years ago.

I think Tancredo and Duncan Hunter are very good on immigration.  I think Duncan Hunter has the new idea of conservatism on trade, in the sense that the first concern should be the standard of living and welfare of working Americans, not some ideological idea.

In foreign policy, the battle is between traditional conservatives and neoconservatives, who are very much on the run now that Iraq has turned out so badly.

OLBERMANN:  Flip that question.  Tell me who offers either the most foresighted vision of what conservative is now coming to mean or might be able to best offer his own vision of a new kind of conservatism.

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t think there‘s anyone among the front three, Romney, Giuliani, or McCain, who really represents, in my judgment, a traditional conservative.  McCain is very good on spending, there‘s no doubt about it.  I think Rudy Giuliani in the law-and-order situation, the way he ran New York, that would be conservative.  On social issues, he‘s off the mark.  And Governor Romney, of course, is a—I mean, he‘s a—he‘s an act in progress here.  And he‘s moved his position on an awful lot of things.

I don‘t think there‘s a Ronald Reagan there, because we‘re not in the 1980s, anticommunism defined us, tax cuts.  We‘ve already got them.  Conservatism on social issues.  That was Ronald Reagan.  But he was a man for his times, and these are much different times, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  You know my argument that the last six years have been through the looking glass in all sorts of respects.  I won‘t bore you with it or anybody else with the whole jazz again, Pat.  But if you put the proverbial paper bag over these candidates‘ heads, and you altered their voices, would the average Republican still be able to identify the true conservatives, or would they simply pick the name-brand conservative, the one who sounded the most like George W. Bush?

BUCHANAN:  I think it depended upon the issue you asked about.  If you ask about immigration, they would take Ron.  On the other, conservatives tend to be very loyalist.  They stand behind the president, they stand behind the troops in battle, even when they are skeptical of this war.  about the war (INAUDIBLE), which is the most divisive issues.

I think what they would say is, Look, we may not have liked the war, but the president‘s the commander in chief.  We don‘t want to walk away, we don‘t want to lose the war.  And we don‘t—we want to give the troops what they need and give them a chance to succeed.

That‘s a natural conservative Republican instinct whether they were opposed to the war or not.

OLBERMANN:  And there is, Pat, the icon of the natural conservative instincts in the Republican Party and in the nation, Nancy Reagan being escorted to a standing ovation by the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, with 24 minutes-plus to go until the start of the debate here in the library.

But, of course, this magnificent facility, that bears her husband‘s name, the welcome being completed, and the applause continuing until Mrs.  Reagan is in her seat.

Howard Fineman?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think it‘s interesting that Arnold Schwarzenegger is escorting her.  Not only is he a Republican governor, but he shows how a Republican can survive in the current circumstance.  He‘s governed as a moderate here in the state.  And that‘s something that is both a lesson and a caution to the Republican candidates.

OLBERMANN:  Howard, thank you.

Pat Buchanan in Washington, thank you.

We‘ve talked about how the Republican candidates will deal with President Bush, but in assessing how the president will deal with them.  We might get a sense of that from those midterms of last year.  The president then did what he could to help Republican candidates, even when it meant not appearing with them on the campaign trail.

But with the stakes this time around so closely tied to his legacy, will the president himself act differently:  Let‘s now turn to NBC‘s chief White House correspondent, David Gregory.  He is in the Spin Room.  Nobody spinning there yet.

David, good evening.

DAVID GREGORY, NBC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  How does the president help candidates who may be pushing back, and more than ever so, as the general election approaches?

GREGORY:  Well, it‘s a different question when it comes to the general election.  When it comes to the primaries, and that‘s what we‘re still in the middle of, the president can help a bit, insofar as he‘s still very popular among Republicans.  Our polling indicates that three out of four Republicans still support and approve of the way the president‘s doing his job.

That changes dramatically when you start to look at and factor in independents and Democrats in the country at large.  But among Republicans, conservatives, this president is still popular.  And that‘s the difficult line.

All of these candidates want to position themselves on a national stage as conservatives, but they‘re also trying to be palatable in a general election context.  So they want to differentiate themselves from the Iraq war, from this president, try to emulate Ronald Reagan and speak in those terms.  But they don‘t want to go so far that they‘re actually overtly critical of the president.  It‘s a very tight, a fine line to walk.

OLBERMANN:  David, (INAUDIBLE), what about the scenario, it‘s not difficult to imagine, fall 2008, U.S. troops still in Iraq, largely the same numbers, same situation is in progress, or perhaps a worse one.  If the Republican nominee at that point is ready to take a stand about withdrawal, does that definitively sideline the president from the 2008 election?  I mean, it‘s not likely to be Ron Paul carrying the Republican mantle.  But what if it were, or someone with his opinions?

GREGORY:  I think that there‘s no question, as you get into the general election in 2008, that the president does become sidelined.  But he still ran two successful campaigns, notably in 2004, that was about getting the base out, getting conservatives out.  And that‘s something that he can be helpful to do again.

But the conduct of the war, and even the recession you see in support among conservatives, it used to be about 94 percent, now it‘s come down to 75 percent, that can continue to erode, the worse things go in Iraq.

OLBERMANN:  NBC‘s chief White House correspondent, David Gregory, in the Spin Room, where the spinning will begin later on.  And then we‘ll see how the spinning goes during the campaign, when we get to that stage.  I guess we‘re in that stage now.

We‘re waiting for the 10 candidates to take the stage.  The polls show that the Republican voters they are trying to woo are not exactly excited about the options in front of them, potential candidates like Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich, Chuck Hagel, conceivably, any or all waiting in the wings, the impact of those who are not here on those who are.

You are watching MSNBC‘s continuing coverage, the countdown to the first Republican presidential debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  In just about 17 minutes, the 10 Republican candidates will begin debating on this stage in Simi Valley, California, their reflection gleaming off the underside of an Air Force One that just happens to be looming above them here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

What they reflect has many Republicans, especially conservatives, as we noted before the break, wondering why they won‘t feel represented tonight, as we watch Fred Ryan, the chairman of the board of trustees of the Reagan Presidential Foundation, introduce there NBC News president Steve Capus to talk about the rules of the debate for the benefit of those in the house.

Back to our point here.  Just as Al Gore still looms silently over the Democrat field, Republican candidates who spent years of their lives and millions of other people‘s dollars to get here tonight find themselves still laboring under the shadows, not just of the late icon‘s plane, but of men who have spent neither a day nor a dime to run, officially, at least.

The next hour and a half might change all that, if any of the preeminent noncandidates spies what appears to be an opening open tonight, be it of ideology or personality.

Three men mentioned most often are former senator Fred Thompson, perhaps best known as the crusty “Law and Order” DA, who better not catch you kids playing on his lawn, appealing to Republicans yearning for Reaganesque charisma, or at least a reminder of the good old days of “The Hunt for Red October.”

There‘s Newt Gingrich, who left his position as House speaker under, at best, embarrassing circumstances, but who still enjoys significant support from both the religious right and conservative policy wonks.

And, of course, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, the antiwar war hero, who has broken with his party over Iraq and over presidential powers, and who could be, to this year‘s race, what John McCain was in 1999 and 2000.

Let‘s turn now to “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson.

Thanks for your time tonight, Gene.  Thanks for being with us.

EUGENE ROBINSON, COLUMNIST, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Good to be here, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  The Republican Party has held the presidency for six years, held the Senate for most of that time, the House for more than a decade, few parties at any point in our history seemingly better  positioned to cultivate a perfect presidential candidate.  You got 10 guys getting ready to go on the stage right now.  Why do many Republicans still seem to feel their ideal man is not in that group of 10 here?

ROBINSON:  Because nobody on that stage, I think, has the perfect combination, the, you know, the charisma, the bedrock conservative credentials, the track record, the voice.  Nobody has—quite has it all.

And the three men you mentioned who are looming over the race, Gingrich, Thompson, and Hagel, are very substantial figures.  And you could see why they would be very attractive to the Republican Party, you know, depending on how events break.

OLBERMANN:  Does this debate tonight, will it, do you think, affect whether Fred Thompson or Gingrich or Hagel jump in?

ROBINSON:  You know, I doubt that it will.  I mean, someone could emerge tonight.  Someone could surprise us tonight and kind of take command of the moment, and gather some momentum in this race.

OLBERMANN:  Let me interrupt you just for a second, Gene, to explain what we‘re seeing.  Here it is, the actual introduction by Fred Ryan, the chairman of the board of trustees of the presidential foundation here, the official introduction of the 10 announced candidates, as Governor Schwarzenegger leads the applause here alongside Mrs. Reagan.  There they are, for the second big photo-op of the night.

The choice of clothing seems remarkably similar and consistent.

All right, as the applause dies down, I interrupted Gene Robinson on this subject of whether or not this is going to impact what happens tonight, what those 10 gentlemen do, whether or not that impacts those other three.

ROBINSON:  Yes, Keith, and I was just saying that I think those other three will make their decisions independently, unless something really unexpected or surprising happens tonight.  You know, they seem to be on their paths.  I think Thompson, most people think he‘s going to get in the race.  Gingrich is really unpredictable.  And with Hagel, you know, it‘s kind of hard to tell, because of his position against the war.  But if Iraq continues to go really, really badly, you know, the race could become almost irresistible to him.

OLBERMANN:  Howard Fineman made this point earlier, and I think it‘s a subtle, salient, and relevant one.  Is it possible that someone could actually say, I‘m not going to get in at this point, because it‘s so early that anything I say to the base can and will be used against me later in a general election, if I win the nomination?

ROBINSON:  You know, I think that is possible, because you have to get the attention of the base now.  And, you know, candidates, you know, have a lot of explaining to do to the base at this point.  So, you know, that could keep somebody out.

Also, you could just wait for the field to thin out a bit.  Not every one of these 10 candidates is going to be able to raise enough money to keep going, you know, deep into the fall.  And so then it, you know, the—some of the undergrowth might be cleared out, and you‘d have a clearer path into the race and into prominence.

OLBERMANN:  We know Hagel had some serious indecisions several weeks ago, a not too productive news conference.  Mr. Thompson is evidently going to run, hasn‘t done it yet, as we watch Chris Matthews come to the podium to address the house here.  And Mr. Thompson thinking of his own health.

But about Newt Gingrich, I mean, I doubt he would see the comparison.  But I keep thinking, he‘s a little reminiscent of Al Gore, that each would run, would serve, but only if they were summoned, either by overwhelming crisis in the country or in their party, or if they got a guarantee that nobody would vote against them.  Do you think that‘s a fair analogy for these two guys?

ROBINSON:  Yes, I think that‘s fair.  I think that if we, you know, approach on our knees as a grateful nation, either would—you know, might deign to get into the race.

You know, one week Newt Gingrich sounds like he really wants to run.  The next week, he sounds like he doesn‘t.  The next week he says, you know, he tells somebody, I will be the next pr.  So, you know, it‘s hard to tell.  I think they want us to say pretty please.

OLBERMANN:  And what of Mr. Hagel?  What happened to Senator Hagel (INAUDIBLE) who was so much confusion when he held a news conference, at which he would announce, simply, that there would be a news conference later on?  Do we know where he stands?

ROBINSON:  I personally don‘t know, really, much more than what we saw.  I gather he really hasn‘t made up his mind.  But I think his political standing right now is so tied to his views on the war that, you know, he‘s got to be thinking about that, and thinking about the implications of getting into the race as a strong antiwar candidate.  And that‘s not just a political calculation, it‘s a calculation about what he thinks would be good for, you know, good for the party, good for the country, good for him.  So, you know, maybe it‘s complicated for him.

OLBERMANN:  Eugene Robinson, columnist of “The Washington Post,” able to hold his own there against both Chris Matthews‘ voice echoing throughout a hallway, and, in fact, all the 10 Republican candidates tonight.

Thanks for joining us tonight, Gene.

ROBINSON:  Good to be here.

OLBERMANN:  We are less than 10 minutes away from the first Republican presidential debate for the 2008 campaign, 10 men, with 90 minutes to persuade GOP voters and independents, and maybe Democrats, that they are the best hope for the party to keep the White House.  All live, right here, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We rejoin you from Simi Valley, California, soon to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the wise decision to change the name back from Simiopolis, California.

We are literally just eight minutes away from the very first opportunity for Republicans running in 2008 to square off one on one, or, more correctly, one on nine, the MSNBC-Politico.com-Reagan Library GOP Presidential Candidates‘ Debate.

The three current front-runners, increasingly familiar faces to the American public.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, trying to claim the candidacy after having lost it in an epic head-to-head battle with George W. Bush in 2000.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who raised more money in the first quarter than any other GOP candidate, and is hoping to become the first-ever Mormon president, and the first-ever former Olympic organizer president.

Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, who, despite his liberal record on social issues such as gun control and abortion, is leading Republicans in the national polls.

All three facing off, of course, not just against each other, but against seven other current contenders for the GOP nomination, including former governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and Jim Gilmore of Virginia, also the current congressmen Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Duncan Hunter of California, and Ron Paul of Texas, and current Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, all just minutes away from their very first live debate right here on MSNBC, and all hoping to somehow claim the mantle of the man whose library they appear in, and whose memory almost shouts from every corner here, the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

Joining me again here in the final countdown to the debate—forgive the pun—our own Howard Fineman, also, of course, of “Newsweek” magazine.

So to my last point here, is there somebody here who can evolve into the man who lays claim to the Reagan legacy?

FINEMAN:  Well, that‘s what this debate is about and what‘s—that‘s what these candidates are going to try to do.

I think John McCain is going to say, almost literally, I was a pilot, I know how the fly the craft.  He‘s going to do the commander in chief routine and say, You may disagree with me on some issues, but I‘m the one to lead.

Rudy Giuliani is going to say, I led under the most difficult circumstances, and I led Democrats in New York.  I led in a Democratic city the way Ronald Reagan led in a Democratic state.

And Mitt Romney is going to cite Ronald Reagan, I‘m told, if he‘s asked about abortion, because when Ronald Reagan was governor, he signed a liberal abortion measure before Roe v. Wade, and then evolved into the pro-lifer that he was.

So everybody in their own way is going to try to claim the mantle of Reagan, while at the same time distancing themselves, to one small degree or another, from Ronald—from—excuse me, from George W. Bush‘s war, because, Keith, the stock market is at record levels.  Unemployment is low.  And yet, if you look at the polls, the American people say over and over and over again that they think, by a two-to-one margin, that the country‘s going off in the wrong direction.  That‘s got to be about Iraq.  That‘s what looms over this whole debate on this beautiful day in this beautiful part of California.

And don‘t forget that Ronald Reagan, when he was president, took a look at the mess in the Middle East, had sent Marines into Lebanon, hundreds of them were killed.  Ronald Reagan said at that point, We‘re out of here.  We‘re not going to try to remake that region.  That‘s not the tradition of Republicanism and conservatism that has been holding sway the last eight years.  That‘s what‘s on trial here, subtly, and behind the scenes in this debate.

OLBERMANN:  And as you and I are almost the only people speaking in these very tense last five minutes before the debate, there‘s a lot of shifting of feet, the audience is pretty silent, but you can see the candidates, with understandable nervousness, as they‘re really being shown off here like the heifers at the county fair at the moment.

You invoked the possibility that Mr. Romney, Governor Romney, may invoke Mr. Reagan‘s name.  Is it possible we could have a redux of Lloyd Bentsen?  Could whoever follows him turn around and say, You know, Governor, I knew Governor Reagan, and you‘re no Ronald Reagan?

FINEMAN:  Well, put it that—put it this way.  If that subject comes up, Romney won‘t be the first to raise it.  OK.

But every—they all have their defense lines, as well as their offensive lines.  I mean, nobody wants to really take anybody else down here, not in the presence of Nancy Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  This is really a remarkable event, Keith, to be taking place so long in advance of the first actual votes.  I mean, it—you mentioned regality before.  This has a nobility to it as an event, with Nancy Reagan, with the governor of California here in this beautiful place.  This shows the stakes in this election.

Every American election is of interest to the world.  This election, I would submit, is crucial for the world, because it involves America‘s attitude toward the world, and that‘s what makes it so important.

OLBERMANN:  As early as we are, as you mentioned, we refer to the 2008 race, and it‘s nowhere near 2008, is this one going to tell, because we‘ve had this recent uptick in polling for McCain that suggests a bounce back in certain of the key primary states, is this debate going to tell us, if nothing else will tell us, if there‘s an up arrow or a down arrow next to McCain‘s name?

FINEMAN:  Oh, I think so.  I think so.  I think the package known as Rudy Giuliani is slowly but surely being opened, and he‘s come down slightly in the polls because the rest of his story is becoming known.

These characters will be all filled out in detail if they have any chance of winning.  The American people are going to know them.  And this is really where the process of getting to know them begins.  And as I say, it‘s early, but it just bespeaks the importance of the election.

If this weren‘t so important, this wouldn‘t be happening now.  I mean, we could be asking to stage such a thing, Nancy Reagan wouldn‘t be here, the governor wouldn‘t be here.  I just think it shows how important it is, and also the stakes for the Republican Party are enormously high, because the Republicans are down now, there‘s no question about it.

OLBERMANN:  If there‘s one thing Giuliani has to do, is it to try to convey himself properly to social conservatives among his—this Republican group that, as you said, he can say, I ran a Democratic city, and they can say, Well, yes, that‘s because you look a lot like a Democrat?

FINEMAN:  I think that‘s what he has to do.  And this is a crowd in which he can do it.  These are Republicans here.  These are Reagan Republicans from this part of Reagan country.  These are not the evangelical part of the Republican base here in this audience.  So he‘s going to be with people who at least want to give him a chance, literally.

OLBERMANN:  There, you just heard the two-minute warning.

Mitt Romney has raised so much money, but maybe not as much consciousness as he would have liked at this point.  Is this still an infomercial for him?

FINEMAN:  I think so.  The aides of his that I spoke to said they want to show him off as the CEO tonight, the guy who knows his stuff, the guy who ran a big company, the guy who‘s competent in leadership and comfortable in his own skin.  He did the Leno show last night, and he did a good job.  He was comfortable, he was in command, and he actually got a laugh or two, which is not in his repertoire, at least so far as we knew.

OLBERMANN:  Are those who are here fighting off the image of those who are not in Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich and Chuck Hagel?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think those three characters are a measure of doubts and dissatisfaction about this group, as much as they are saying anything positive about those other three.  My understanding is that Fred Thompson is going to get in the race.  He‘s going to do it in July.  I don‘t know about the other two.  And why wouldn‘t he?  He‘s at 17 points in some of the polls without having campaigned a bit.

But those people are for a later time.  Tonight is about these 10 here, and especially about Rudy, McCain, and Romney, and whoever among the others makes a positive impression.

OLBERMANN:  Howard Fineman of “Newsweek” and MSNBC.  And great thanks for joining me here in this hour before we get started to preview this debate.  We will be talking again at length when it‘s all over, as Chris Matthews and I will be back at 9:30 Eastern, 6:30 Pacific, for reaction.

But now the hour has arrived.  It is time for tonight‘s MSNBC-Politico.com-Reagan Library GOP Presidential Candidates‘ Debate, the first in the long campaign of 2008, live from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library here in Simi Valley, California.

You are watching it live, and exclusively on MSNBC.

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

END   

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