updated 5/7/2007 11:07:49 AM ET 2007-05-07T15:07:49

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR: A few trip-ups, a few laughs, perhaps more Iran than Iraq. Certainly more Iran than Iraq that we expected, and perhaps some criticism...

MATTHEWS: ... for being our partners tonight. Thanks, also, to the people of NBC News and MSNBC. And, of course, thanks to the 10 Republican presidential candidates here tonight. From the Ronald Reagan presidential library, good night.

OLBERMANN: And no matter the candidates, no matter the party, Chris Matthews will always have the last word.

A few trip-ups, a few laughs, more Iran than Iraq perhaps. More criticism, although not by name, of President Bush's policies in Iraq.

Certainly that expected. And those open questions: Who looked presidential? Who did not? Who got their points across? Who seemed to be trying too hard to get their points across?

You've been watching the first in the nation Republican presidential candidates debate here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Chris Matthews, who moderated tonight's debate, will be joining us momentarily, after the obligatory handshakes and back slaps.

I'm Keith Olbermann, above the crowd and above the fray here, alongside the "Chicago Tribune's" Jill Zuckman and "Newsweek's" Howard Fineman.

And we bid you, again, a good evening from the library. Howard, there are many of those huge points and many extraordinary policy statements that we heard here. We'll go through them throughout the course of the next 90 minutes. But that biggest point: Who looked presidential? Who sounded presidential? Who did not?

HOWARD FINEMAN, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK": I think that Rudy Giuliani did not quite. He came in as the frontrunner. I think this was not a situation that he could dominate, and he didn't dominate it, because he had to talk about abortion, stem cell research, a lot of social issues that he was not on firm turf with, with the base of the Republican Party.

I think Mitt Romney came off looking presidential, although perhaps a little too calculated and a little too fine in the cuts that he was making on the issues, on stem cell research, for example, raising a phrase that most Americans had never heard of.

And John McCain was Popeye once again. Love him or not, he was the guy that came to prominence in the Republican Party and on the national scene. For better or worse, that's who McCain is and was tonight.

OLBERMANN: Jill?

JILL ZUCKMAN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": I think the bottom line is that the top three are still the top three. Giuliani, McCain, Romney, nothing upset the apple cart tonight.

Now, Giuliani went from flip-flopping to waffling, I would say, when it comes to abortion. He was a little bit all over the place. It is not an easy issue for him. But, at the same time, nobody did anything so disastrous that they're no longer in the top tier. And anybody who was below the top tier, well, no one has the label that Mike Gravel won in the Democratic debate last week, as comic relief.

OLBERMANN: To talk about, as we noted, Howard, as we sat here and watched this, we expected a lot about Iraq. And there were slams on Mr.

Bush's execution of the war. Obviously, Congressman Paul, Dr. Paul referred to the war itself as a mistake.

But McCain seemed angry about the reaction in various political quarters. Governor Huckabee said we had not listened to the generals.

Congressman Hunter was talking about the Iraqi military needing a greater build-up. Senator Brownback, the misuse of allies, which seemed to be fairly pointed.

Obviously, this was not going to be like the Democratic debate last week in South Carolina. We're not going to the pinata effect we discussed about beforehand. But the point was made that a lot of these Republicans wanted to stand away, at least from President Bush's execution of this war.

FINEMAN: Very clearly. And I think, to one degree or another, all of them did so. I think, when John McCain said, "We're on the right track now," the exact quote was, "Now I think it's on the right track,"

that is a phrase, that is a piece of videotape that he may, come the general election, if he gets that far, come to regret.

But all of the others, in one way or another, including McCain, were critical of the handling of the war, the military execution, the lack of diplomatic finesse, and so forth. I thought that was significant, if low-key. It was significant.

OLBERMANN: But, Jill, McCain was not low-key about Iraq, by no means?

ZUCKMAN: No, no, not all. In fact, while he said -- this was the most limited I've seen Senator McCain in saying, "We're on the right track." He said we're on the right track, and then he immediately segued into "but horrible mistakes have been made," you know, "books have been written about what a disaster this has been." So, clearly, he feels like, if he had been running the show from the very beginning, this would have been waged completely differently.

OLBERMANN: Jill, Howard, stand by. We're going to go to the spin room, where NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory has been here at the Reagan library and joins us now from there. Has the spinning already begun, David?

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Already. I can see Giuliani advisers and McCain advisers beginning to congregate behind me and talk to reporters about how they did. I mean, it's word pointing out, as Howard and Jill know, this is a lot about enthusiasm and generating enthusiasm, creating a moment in the debate that they can use as they go out on the stump to get activists and donors excited about their campaigns, to give more money so that they can generate more momentum going forward in the second quarter, Keith.

And I just want to pick up on the conversation, what I thought was most notable right off the bat. You know, John McCain has been criticized in the past couple of months for being kind of lethargic on the trail. He was certainly impassioned tonight. I think their intent was to look presidential, to look forceful, to project that passion and vigor, and he did that. I mean, detractors of McCain may see other adjectives and apply them, but when it came to talking about following Osama bin Laden to the gates of Hell or attacking the Democrats, McCain came out firing early.

OLBERMANN: David, was there a moment -- did you hear a moment in that, that will stand out?

GREGORY: Well, I think, as Howard suggested just a moment ago, McCain will still face the difficulty of supporting the surge strategy while at the same time saying that the war was terribly mismanaged. And so there are going to be moments from that, from his defense of the war and criticism at the same time, that will begin to stand out.

But, you know, he even laid it out there, which is going to, I think, presage what he may have to go through in a general election, if he goes that far, which is that it will depend upon events in Iraq. He is very much beholden now, and his support of the surge strategy beholden, to how things go in Iraq. And so his positions, you know, may have to change as events on the ground change and the situation becomes more fluid.

I will say, from Rudy Giuliani's perspective, he was able to talk about his record, his conservative record on taxes in New York, able to talk about his record of cutting crime in New York. He wasn't able to be as expansive as I think he may have liked to have been, because of the format on fighting the war on terror, though he did say early, "This is something that we can never retreat from as a country."

OLBERMANN: David Gregory in the spin room. Stand by. We'll get back to you.

Senator Sam Brownback and his wife, Mary, are now joining us from the debate stage.

Senator Brownback, thanks for your time.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), KANSAS: Good to join you.

OLBERMANN: Did you, without mentioning the president, did you mention -- did you criticize President Bush's handling of our allies, in relation to Iraq, without mentioning the president? Or were you being more critical of the execution of the war by others?

BROWNBACK: What I was being critical of is, I don't think we have a political solution moving forward as aggressively as we do a military.

We cannot set a deadline to pull out. The day we set that deadline, Al Qaeda declares victory, and much of the world will agree.

But we've got to get a political solution on the ground that works.

And I think that really involves a three-state, one-country solution, where you have a Kurdish area, which already exists, a Sunni area and a Shia area, with Baghdad as the federal city.

And I don't think we're pushing enough on the Sunni and Shia in particular in Iraq to get that moving forward. We've got to do that to get it stabilized in Iraq.

OLBERMANN: Senator, did you feel that -- David Gregory had just suggested that, in some quarters, this might have seemed like the debate moved too fast for people to actually get their opinions out and their positions out on many key issues, not just Iraq. Did you feel you got a fair shot at airing your opinions?

BROWNBACK: No, not really, but it's a long debate. And we're at the 1st of May, and there will be other chances to do it. I did think you saw clear differences start to come forward on basic issues, like life, taxes, some on foreign policy, not particularly much there, but hopefully that will develop as we move on forward in the campaign.

It did go very fast. I thought, though, Chris did a nice job and the other moderators of trying to get as much coverage on a lot of topics as they could, in a short time frame.

OLBERMANN: Senator Brownback, great thanks to you, great thanks to Mrs. Brownback for your time.

BROWNBACK: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: We're going to now be joined by Governor Mike Huckabee from Arkansas, who is also on the debate stage in the wake of this first Republican debate.

And, Governor, you might have had the -- call it the Joe Biden moment, but you might have had the laugh of the night, I think, in discussing the possibility of amending the Constitution to permit Governor Schwarzenegger and others who are not born here to run for president, but only after you had served both your terms. Were you prepared for that, or was that spontaneous, sir?

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), ARKANSAS: Well, it was spontaneous.

I had no idea the question was coming. In fact, we had no idea of any of the questions, and it was a very interesting debate. I agree with Senator Brownback. It's very tough to get a full thought across, and I think we spent so much time talking about things that we largely agree on, more on the war in Iraq.

I wish we would have had more time to talk about things that may really distinguish us, on taxes -- and, for example, I got to advocate for the fair tax, but didn't really get to go into it and talk about it like I would have loved to have done.

OLBERMANN: Was there, in your opinion, as there was at this desk, veiled criticism of the president's execution of the war in Iraq? You specifically referred to whether or not the generals on the ground had been listened to.

HUCKABEE: I don't think it was veiled criticism. I think it was an honest assessment of the fact that we're running to be our own president. We have great respect and admiration for this one.

Unlike the Democrats, we don't think everything this president has done is wrong, but we're also honest enough to say not everything is right. And that's why all of us are out here on this stage, all of us vying for the opportunity to tell the American people why we ought to be president.

OLBERMANN: Governor, did you and Governor Romney have a disagreement, an alteration, or just an energized discussion of the subject of faith during the debate tonight?

HUCKABEE: Actually, I don't even think it was a disagreement. I don't recall ever specifically mentioning Governor Romney. I was speaking to George Stephanopoulos, and maybe it came in that context.

But I've always been very clear -- and I don't mean this about Governor Romney or anybody -- a person's faith ought to be up for discussion, because I think it helps to sort of frame our values system. And sometimes when politicians are asked the question, Keith, they'll say, "Oh, I don't ever let it get in the way. I just keep that separate."

Well, I don't think that's possible. And if it is possible, then it means that our faith is so marginal and compartmentalized that it really doesn't have a big impact on us. It's if real faith, it should have an impact.

I've also said I have a great respect for Congressman Pete Stark of California, who came out and said, "Hey, I'm an atheist. I don't really believe anything." He's honest about it. I think that's better than a person -- and I'm, again, not speaking to any of the candidates here -- but just in general, a person saying, "I'm a person of deep faith, but I don't want to talk about it."

OLBERMANN: Governor Huckabee, great thanks for stopping by after the debate. We appreciate your time.

HUCKABEE: Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Congressman Tom Tancredo now joins us from Colorado, of course, now from the debate stage, as well.

And, Congressman, thank you for your time.

REP. TOM TANCREDO (R), COLORADO: I'm sorry. I don't hear you.

OLBERMANN: Did you feel you got your chance? Well, we don't have Congressman Tancredo yet. I could possibly yell at him from the position we're at, but that would not be good television, would it?

We'll continue on the stage here with Howard Fineman and Jill Zuckman, as we continue to wire up the congressman.

Did it go too fast? Was there substance in here? What would you have pulled out this?

FINEMAN: I think there was a lot of substance in it. And, as Jill said, there was some strong criticism of the way the war was handled in Iraq, but it was balanced in tone by most of these candidates. You've got to leave Paul to the side, but balanced by a lot of saber rattling on Iran.

As you said in your intro, they were critical about the handling of Iraq, but it's not like they were expressing an unwillingness to use military force elsewhere in the region, including Iran. I mean, there was some tough statements by, I think, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani and others, I think Duncan Hunter, as well, about Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and a lot of saber rattling that I think they think the Republican base will like.

And around the world, as opposed to right here, that is the headline out of this debate. If you're elsewhere in the world, looking to see where America is headed, you're seeing a Republican Party talking to its base and still talking about the use of military force, even after what most people in America now regard as a mistaken war in Iraq.

OLBERMANN: Let's put that question now to Congressman Tancredo, who we have been able to reestablish audio contact with.

We apologize for that, Congressman. Thank you for your time. This subject of Iran came up rather prominently. Were you surprised at the depth of emotion about this on the stage with you among the other candidates tonight?

TANCREDO: No, I don't think I was surprised at it, because, of course, I think it's probably the most serious threat we face. What I was unable to say is what I think should happen in Iraq, in terms of where we go from here, and that is this, that, you know, I started to say, in 1787, Benjamin Franklin came out and said, when he was asked, "What have you given us?" He said, "A republic, if you can keep it."

It is the time that we now have to tell the Iraqis that very same thing. We have birthed a republic there. It is up to them to keep it.

I believe in a policy of disengagement, and not withdrawal, not withdrawal from the region, but disengagement.

And because we actually are, I think, in a global war on -- it's not just terror. It is against radical Islam. One might even say it is a clash of civilizations.

I mean, this is the reality. I wish it were not the case. I wish that my colleague, Dr. Paul, for instance, was right and that we really had the ability or the opportunity to just look at the world and say, "There are no real threats out there, not anything that we have to actually go outside of the United States to meet." I just don't think that's true.

OLBERMANN: Congressman, did you get to address your issues, the ones that you have become known for nationally? Did you feel that there was a question in there that allowed you to discuss the subjects that are particularly important to you?

TANCREDO: I tried. God knows I tried. You know, of course, the whole issue of immigration and immigration reform, I think, throughout the campaign up to this point in time has really been brushed aside by most of these folks that were up here.

They keep talking about the fact that they're not for amnesty, but each one of them has in the past said, "But we have to do something with the people who are here." That means, if you stay here, if you've broken the law to come into this country, and we tell you, "You can stay here," that's amnesty.

And, you know, we shouldn't keep trying to redefine the words. I think that's one reason people are so cynical about politics. I mean, say what you think. If you believe that we should, in fact, give amnesty to 12 million to 20 million people who are here, say so.

And then explain to the hundreds of millions of people who are waiting to come into this country or who have come into the country the right way, explain to them why that's not a slap in the face. That's what I really wish we could have gotten into. And, of course, boy, this was -- it went so quickly, each little minute segment there, and, no, I did not feel like we could cover that adequately, I'm sorry to say.

OLBERMANN: I believe your nine colleagues out there and all of the interrogators and those of us up here would agree with you on that.

Thank you, Congressman Tom Tancredo.

Congressman Duncan Hunter of California is joining us now from the debate stage.

Congressman Hunter, thank you for your time. I'm wondering, again, about this point of the -- several of the candidates, yourself included, criticizing, to some degree, the execution of the war in Iraq, if not the president by name. Were you doing so when you discussed the need to, in your terms, further stand up the Iraqi army?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), CALIFORNIA: Actually, not criticizing the president. What we need to do is build on the Baghdad plan that's being undertaken right now, where Iraqi brigades are being moved into Baghdad. They're being put into the fight.

You've got about 129 Iraqi battalions. About 50 percent of them don't have a lot of combat experience. We need to get those guys up, rotate them into a three- or four-month combat operation. That's how you stand up a military force.

And after we've done that and they're combat-hardened, they will be able to start rotating in and displacing American heavy combat troops throughout Iraq. And that's when Americans can come home or be sent to other places in CENTCOM, in that command, where the commanders so designate.

That's the right way to leave Iraq. And if we build on the Baghdad plan, I think we'll be able to do it. And I think that this Iraqi government is going to hold. And I think that the Iraqi military, which I saw just a few weeks ago in Iraq, has improved tremendously, but they've got to get them in the fight. You build a football team by playing football games. You build a military with military operations.

OLBERMANN: Congressman Hunter, there is -- Howard Fineman suggested this, and I would concur with his analysis, that one of the headlines that might be taken from this debate, if not necessarily just nationally, certainly internationally, would be that your party and the members of your party, even after what has not been certainly, minimally defined this way, an easy series of events in Iraq, was being very belligerent and very willing to turn to military solutions, at least keep them on the table, on the subject of Iran. Do you think that was also one of today's headlines?

HUNTER: Well, I think, very clearly, my position is this, that Iran is right now sending military equipment into Iraq. That's very clear.

That equipment is being used to harm American soldiers. Right now, we have license to take military action, whether we take it with intelligence capability, or we take it with precision, or we take it with special operations.

You know, when you have a foreign country which is sending in the equipment that's being used to hurt your soldiers in a theater that you're fighting in, at that point, you have license to undertake operations to stop them.

And the other point, which is the fact that Iran is walking down the path to develop nuclear weapons, they're doing that by refining this weapons-grade material, which, when it gets to a certain level, can be used for a nuclear device, is this: You don't wait until you get to the edge of the cliff. And I think we're going to need to make that decision sooner rather than later.

OLBERMANN: Congressman Duncan Hunter of California, joining us from the debate stage. Great thanks for your time again, sir.

Let's check in with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough in the spin room, as we begin to hear more of the comments and analysis of some of the upper tier, if you will, candidates involved in the debate -- Joe?

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC HOST: All right, thank you so much, Keith.

Greatly appreciate it.

Right now, we have with us the policy chairman of Mitt Romney's campaign, former Congressman Vin Weber.

Vin, I tell you what, it looked like Mitt Romney really had a strong introduction to the Republican Party tonight. Talk about his performance.

VIN WEBER, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN ADVISER: I couldn't be happier. The Governor Romney that America saw tonight is the Governor Romney that convinced me that I was going to back him for president.

This is a guy that really has a mastery of the issues. He showed that tonight. He's a guy that's got a sense of humor, and he's a guy that people would feel comfortable coming into their living rooms, that old test that they say people apply to the president of the United States. He gave people some insight into his character and values, talking about the role of faith and helping to make people make decisions.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, and that was an interesting part of the debate, when he got a chance to talk about faith. When he talked about faith, he never talked about his Mormonism. He never talked about his own religion, but he did about, though, faith in general and that America was basically a big tent.

WEBER: Yes, he talked about the American people being the strength of this country and the heart of the American people being formed by many things, including their faith. I think that's an insight into the character of this man, and in some ways is more important than all the specific issues we check off the box.

And I just couldn't be more pleased with what the American people saw tonight, nothing against any of the other candidates. We did not come here, Governor Romney did not come here to snipe at John McCain or Rudy Giuliani or anything like that. He came to introduce himself to the American people, and, boy, I'll bet you they liked what they saw.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, the big issue with Mitt Romney for the base has been, before this introduction, has been the issue of abortion. Has he flip-flopped on abortion? Is he saying something now that he didn't say back when he was governor of Massachusetts?

He had a chance to address that tonight. He said he changed his position, just like Ronald Reagan changed his position. Are you confident that the conservative evangelical base that still elects Republicans for presidential primaries are going to be able to check off that box and say, "I'm OK with Mitt Romney"?

WEBER: I think so. And, you know, we'll have to explain that to additional audiences as the campaign goes on. But beyond explaining that he has become a pro-life person, the governor's explanation of why he changed his mind is credible. He didn't just put his finger to the wind and decide it was blowing a different direction. He had to deal with the issue of cloning and stem cell research as the governor of Massachusetts. And in the course of educating himself on that issue, he came to the conclusion that we had seriously degraded human life and that that was directly a result of Roe v. Wade, and it led to the change in his position on abortion.

I think that, when people hear that, they'll understand, "Yes, there's a reason, a solid well-rounded reason why he came to that change of position," which is, after all, what pro-life people want. They want people to change their position toward the pro-life point of view, because they understand the issue more deeply.

SCARBOROUGH: All right. Thank you so much, Vin Weber.

WEBER: Thanks, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH: I'll tell you what, I get a lot of e-mails throughout this debate from Republicans, conservative Republicans across the country. They were telling me they thought Mitt Romney was the clear winner.

And I've got to tell you, Keith, that's the view from a lot of people inside of here right now. Back to you.

OLBERMANN: Joe Scarborough in the spin room, great thanks.

Chris Matthews has now made his way up. Great job.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: Superb job.

MATTHEWS: Isn't this great?

OLBERMANN: And they even answered some of your questions, and you even let them answer some of your questions.

MATTHEWS: I think they had a pretty good average, but there were a few handoffs. But I liked the way that they all participated in the down-the-line questions. You know, we think it's somewhat humiliating as a candidate for president, in many cases a former governor or something, to be able to just have to just say, "Yes or no?" They hate that. They hate yes or no.

What I thought was interesting, there's interesting divisions about a national I.D. card, because the libertarians and the other guys, the big-named candidates. I thought it was an interesting division on abortion rights. It wasn't simple, even in the Republican Party or either party.

I think, if you sit down and look at that transcript, I think you're going to learn an awful lot about this political race.

OLBERMANN: All right, take a breather. We're going to take a break. You already heard Joe Scarborough anoint Mitt Romney the winner. We're going to go through the panel's estimations of that.

We'll be back in a moment for another hour of coverage from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on MSNBC.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC CO-HOST:  The library in Simi Valley, California, where not half an hour ago, the very first Republican debate of the 2007-2008 presidential race concluded. 

Alongside Chris Matthews, who moderated tonight’s debate, I’m Keith Olbermann.

And tonight we saw 10 men battling against each other to try and keep the White House in GOP hands.  And unsurprisingly the other elephant, besides the logo in the room, was the current occupant of that White House, George Bush and his strategy for the war in Iraq. 

The frontrunner’s unwilling certainly to directly criticize the president.  Only Senator McCain choosing to acknowledge previous mistakes in Iraq, but still saving his strongest words for someone else—Osama bin Laden.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN MCCAIN, ®, ARIZONA:  The war was terribly mismanaged  The war was terribly mismanaged, and we have to now fix a lot of the mistakes that were made. 

On the subject of Osama bin Laden, he is responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans.  He is now orchestrating other attacks on the United States of America.  We will do whatever is necessary.  We will track him down.  We will capture him.  We will bring him to justice.  And I’ll follow him to the gates of Hell. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Likewise Mr. McCain’s fellow frontrunners, seeking to emphasize their own toughness against terror, with a jab at the competition. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI, ®, FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK:  We should never retreat in the face of terrorism.  Terrible mistake.  When you had this debate last week, and all the Democrats were up here. I never remember the word Islamist fundamentalist terrorism being spoken by any of them.  This is a worldwide jihadist effort.  They ultimately want to bring down the United Stats of America.  This is a global effort we’re going to have to lead, to overcome this jihadist effort.  It’s more than Osama bin Laden, but he is going to pay, and he will die.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Governor Romney adding that he did not buy the Democratic pitch that is was all about one man.  The seven other man on that stage aware that they are not leading the poll, seeking to persuade that they are alone true conservatives, that they alone are the heirs to the legacy of the man whose library they were standing in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM GILMORE, ®, FORMER GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA:  I’m a consistent conservative that keeps his word.

TOMMY THOMPSON, ®, FORMER GOVERNOR OF WISCONSIN:  I’m a reliable conservative.  I vetoed 1,900 things. 

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK, ®, KANSAS:  I believe in the Ronald Reagan principle, that somebody that’s with you 80 percent of the time is not your enemy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And here is Chris Matthews, who moderated tonight’s debate to such a success.  Congratulations on that.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC CO-HOST:   I am looking at the clips.  You have to see the clips, since, you know, follow it as a continuum, and the real noise is these clips.  it’s how the debates rule out lives.  It’s the bicentennial moments, if you will. 

Rudy Giuliani trying to explain his abortion position.  The strong argument by John McCain we just saw in terms of we’re going to get the bad guys. 

I think some of it was a competition as to who is going to be toughest against terrorism.  That can be expected.

Certainly there was a bake-off of ideas to cut taxes.  I mean, that really was the free-fire zone.

OLBERMANN:  Would you want to be working for IRS right now? 

MATTHEWS:  I wouldn’t want to be trying to balance the books either.  But you know, I have to tell you, is there a Democratic variation that we just can say—well, when you guys like to show your best at—I’m not sure if have they an actual—don’t have the joyous opportunity, the parade of opportunities that came by on that one.  They all had an opportunity on cutting taxes they were looking forward to. 

But I thought it was interesting.  I thought they were absolutely useless on the subject of Scooter Libby.  One of my favorite banjos to play, and obviously they did not want to play that banjo.

OLBERMANN:  You tried. 

MATTHEWS:  They didn’t like that, and they just didn’t want to be against or for, it seemed.  It was one of those areas you didn’t want to get a division of opinion.  They were very careful about not offending the more hawkish position on the war, including Scooter Libby.  So I guess you didn’t hear a single person say thumbs down on this guy. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, there did seem to be a thumbs down on the prosecution.  There were some willing to...

MATTHEWS:  That was Patrick Fitzgerald. 

OLBERMANN:  That was much more.  That was beyond the...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I guess it’s interesting, but we kept trying to be fair among the frontrunners, and the other candidates.  There are 10 of them.  And they have equal rights to be out there, and it’s was a challenge to myself and the producers to keep it going.  But we also, let’s face it, And the viewers at home have a say.  They want to hear from certain people, and people who have a chance to really run the whole thing.

But I thought it was interesting, somebody said to me afterwards.  I’m not going to say exactly what they said, because I don’t want to do it.  Let me them say it.  They thought that the fact that Romney was in first place in order, gave him—which reminded me, one the biggest old political tricks among the street corner politicians is when they’re getting their pictures taken in a group, always stand to the right because your name gets mentioned first in the captions below. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  Stand on the right, yes.

MATTHEWS:  You always stand over here, and if you stand on the left always put your hand over the shoulder so they can’t crop you.  These are old street corner tricks.

OLBERMANN:  If you are on the far right, then you’re the one who gets to answer last theoretically.

MATTHEWS:  Tancredo was ready to play.  He picked it up there.

I like the guy who did clean up.  Was it Tommy Thompson?  He, like, accumulated three for four questions. 

OLBERMANN:  I’m going to do this.  I’m going to do that.

MATTHEWS:  He whacked them out of the park.

OLBERMANN:  Let’s go back to the “Spin Room.”  MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough is in there with one of those candidates, the former Virginia governor, Jim Gilmore—Joe.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY”:  Thanks, Keith.  I wish I would have learned those tricks from Chris Matthews before I went to Congress. 

We’re here with Governor Jim Gilmore.

Governor, I thought you put on a masterful performance tonight, a very strong performance.  The question is, though, how do you use a successful debate performance in front of American and turn it into some momentum, which you haven’t had thus far?

JIM GILMORE, ®, GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA:  Well, I think we’re picking up momentum, Joe.  We haven’t been in the race as long as some of the guys that have been in it.  We just got in the race the beginning of the year.  We’re going to come through Joe, because of principals, because of solid positions, because of a track record. 

And I had wanted to say two things, tonight, one I did successfully, which is I am a real conservative, I have a long track record of doing it.  I’m reliable.  I keep my word.  That I think came through. 

The other challenge that this nation faces right now is national security, and there’s a lot of issues to be dealt with in that.  It was hard to get into that debate here tonight. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Let’s expand on the flip-flop issue.  Of course I am not anointing anybody the winner.  But I heard a lot people talking about your strong performance, and I kept hearing Mitt Romney over and over again from Republicans across the country, e-mailing me throughout this debate.  Is Mitt Romney a flopper? 

GILMORE:  Well, I think he’s changed a lot of positions.  Historically in politics people know that can rely based upon what you have done and you have said in the past, and I’m running on that basis.  I’ve always been a conservative, been consistent through my entire life.  I have done things in policy as the chief executive of a very major state, the wonderful Commonwealth of Virginia, and I think the viewers and voters can rely upon that. 

Now, if a person is going to changes their positions on gun control,  on abortion, on a variety of issues, if they’re going to put forward socialized medicine in their home state, and then come to a debate and say they’re a conservative, I think the American people have a right to examine that.

SCARBOROUGH:  And you are talking about Mitt Romney there. 

Let’s talk about Rudy Giuliani.  You talked about how you’re a true conservative.  You’ve got a conservative record.  Is that your way of saying that Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are not true conservatives? 

GILMORE:  I don’t think that Rudy Giuliani asserts himself as a conservative, as a matter of fact. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Is John McCain a true conservative?

GILMORE:  I don’t think he’s made his reputation that way.  And what he said tonight is he has sort of explained away his opposition to the Bush tax cuts. 

One thing the president has done right is to cut taxes so that he can build up this economy, create more jobs and more opportunities, and put money back in the pocket of regular people.  That’s what I did as governor, and I think that’s what the president is looking to do, and Senator McCain opposed that.

But you know, all these men that were on the stage tonight have great attributes.  Everyone on this stage tonight would make a better president than Hillary Clinton, and I said so in the debates.

SCARBOROUGH:  Would you make a better president than George W. Bush, on issues like Katrina, on issues like Iraq, on these issues over the past two years where even Republicans believe this president has come up short?  Would you provide—let’s talk about Katrina.  Would you be a better president than George W. Bush in that type of situation?

GILMORE:  Let me say very quickly that in 1999 I was approached by the United States government and asked to chair the Commission on Homeland Security and Terrorism for this country.  We did it for a total of five years, three years before the attack and two years after.  And in that commission report, we absolutely asserted, and I assert tonight to the American people, that we must have a Homeland Security system that is a complete community of preparedness so we know what we’re doing in advance, and we’re prepared to deal with things correctly, whether it’s a Hurricane like Katrina, or whether it’s a terrorist attack or whether it’s a lunatic gunman.  We have to be prepared to deal with these issues.  That’s what I have asserted all along and what I will assert again tonight. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, Governor James Gilmore, very good job.  Thanks so much for being with us tonight. 

GILMORE:  Thank you, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Keith, I’ll send it back to you.  And by the way, the way you know if someone is a true conservative or not—and of course that’s being debated on John McCain—is when you say you’re going to follow somebody to the gates of Hell, and then crack a smile as John McCain did.  An interesting moment tonight at the debate.

Back to you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Indeed.

And, Joe, the governor just raised a point here.  We not have a bogey man for the Republicans quite to the degree that the Democrats did last week in South Carolina with President Bush.  But once Chris unleashed that question about Hillary Clinton, we did got open season on one of the Democrat leaders, did we not? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, we really did.  And as a guy who was around in 1994, who got elected to Congress running against Hillary health care, I must say those attacks sounded stale, sounded a bit old.  I think there are a lot of people who voted for Bill Clinton twice, who also voted for Ronald Reagan twice, who just aren’t going to be swayed by name calling against Hillary Clinton.  But there is no doubt that the Democrats may have had George W. Bush last week, but this week, the villain, the person with the black hat in the Ronald Reagan movie was Hillary Rodham Clinton.  I think Hillary Rodham Clinton, circa 1993. 

OLBERMANN:  Eyes lit up across that room.  Thank you, Joe.

Let’s bring in our panel.  From “The Chicago Tribune,”/ Jill Zuckman, and of course “Newsweek’s” Howard Fineman and “The Washington Post’s” Eugene Robinson, who was is in Washington.  Again, of course, Chris Matthew is here with me. 

Boy, did you sense that that room—whether those answers were stale—when you mentioned Hillary Clinton’s name were people listening to the microphone.

MATTHEWS:  It was pin the tail on the donkey.  My reason for raising it was, I have a sense—remember I had the question, what would unify the Republican Party?  That was the same question.  I think in the end they’re going to run against, if she’s the nominee; the possibility of her being president will be their campaign message—if we lose, she wins.  I think it will be a negative campaign.   

OLBERMANN:  Of course that question was phrased as Bill Clinton’s return, and it was rather quickly turned to...

MATTHEWS:  Turned it around.  I’m surprised they didn’t have some fun, because almost all those guys voted to impeach him. 

OLBERMANN:  As Dr. Paul pointed out.

MATTHEWS:  He said he wanted to be consistent.  That was a funny one.

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  They moved onto the other Clinton.  Chris is right, if this party is going to be unified that’s what will unify them. 

And by the way, on the other side, the Democrats know that full well, and among sophisticated Democrats, who are looking at who they’re nominee is going to be, they’re thinking about that.  They don’t want to give the Republicans an excuse to be in (INAUDIBLE).  If you look at Hillary’s numbers, that’s what you see.

OLBERMANN:  Did they give them an excuse to be unified. 

JILL ZUCKMAN, “CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  I’m not so sure, but I just have to say that when you mentioned Bill Clinton, it was like they all giggled.  You know, they all thought a bunch of things and then nobody wanted to say anything, and they turned...

OLBERMANN:  A bunch of cheap jokes they didn’t want to make.

ZUCKMAN:  It was like pushing a button.

MATTHEWS:  It is such a cultural question, because if you said Bill Clinton to, say, an African-American crowd, it would be devotional, the response.  If you said it to a group of sophisticated big city liberals, it would be, look what he’s doing for world AIDS, fight world AIDS.

FINEMAN:  I thought it was significant.

MATTHEWS:  It’s a different cultural reaction.  They think it’s comical, the name Bill Clinton.  That’s a different reaction.

FINEMAN:  But also I think it might be significant that they didn’t bother trying to attack Bill Clinton.  It shows you the relative standing of the current and previous president.  They don’t want to waste their time making fun of Bill Clinton, who actually has high approval numbers now as people look at him compared with George W. Bush.  I thought that was also interesting.

ZUCKMAN:  I think they recognize that Hillary Clinton is a formidable candidate if she gets the nomination, and they need to keep their sights trained on her.

OLBERMANN:  We have a lot to go through.  We didn’t get to the statement about Mr. Ahmadinejad being totally irresponsible and has to be stopped, which we heard from Senator McCain, but there were a couple of contradictory positions for Mr. Giuliani, and have not discussed whether or not there was a clear winner.  We’re also going to go inside the spin room to get reaction from the McCain camp, from Joe Scarborough. 

We’ll be back with our panel and more from the campaigns.  You’re watching MSNBC’s coverage of the first in the nation, Republican presidential candidates debate from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library here in Simi Valley, California.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIULIANI:  The reality is the use of military force against Iran would be very dangerous.  It would be very provocative.  The only thing worse would be Iran being a nuclear power.  It’s the worst nightmare of the Cold War, isn’t it?  Nuclear weapons in the hands of an irrational person, an irrational force.  Ahmadinejad is clearly irrational.  He has to understand it’s not an option, he cannot have nuclear weapons, and he has to look at an American president, and he has to see Ronald Reagan.  Remember they looked in Ronald Reagan’s eyes, and in two minutes, they released the hostages.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  The war was terribly mismanaged.  The war was terribly mismanaged, and we now have to fix a lot of the mistakes that were made, but we have a new strategy and a new general, and these men and women are committing to winning. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  We rejoin you from the Reagan Library, site of the first-in-the-nation Republican debate. 

Alongside Chris Matthews, I’m Keith Olbermann. 

Let’s go to Joe Scarborough, who’s in the Spin Room with the director of Homeland Security, secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, who is here on behalf of Senator McCain—Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  Thanks a lot, Keith.  And thank you, Chris. 

I’ve got to tell you, I thought John McCain was tentative tonight and he stumbled at times.  Do you think he turned in a strong performance.

TOM RIDGE, MCCAIN SUPPORTER:  Well certainly I think he turned in a very strong performance.  I think there was a lot of energy, a lot of passion.  He continues to take very courageous stands on issues that are very controversial, Iraq, immigration.  Tonight I think he demonstrated for the first time, I think, aloud his domestic agenda, much broader in scope, very aggressive when it came with trying to deal with fiscal problems that plague this country right now, particularly the deficit. 

So I thing, again, among 10 candidates and sometimes awkward form, not too much time, I think, answer as much as you like.  I think perform and you can’t answer what you like.  I think his performance was impressively strong. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, you’re a political pro, obviously.  Before Homeland Security, you were one of the top governors from Pennsylvania.  I remember the 2000 campaign.  You were a real superstar there.  So you understand politics.  You understand the dynamics of debates. 

Let me ask you, and I know we’re in the spin room, but did John McCain look comfortable to you up there. 

RIDGE:  Oh, yes, but maybe it’s because I have known him for 25 years. 

I mean, I’ve know John since he got elected back 1982, and I think he—his energy and his passion, particularly with the first couple of questions that he was asked, came through.  And I think as always in a debate like this, because I have been in politics, when you’ve got 30 seconds or that minute, sometimes there’s a tendency to rush your answer.  But I think he compressed his answers, kept on message, established his priorities, continued his courageous stand on a lot of these very difficult and controversial issues.  I think he did well.

SCARBOROUGH:  Governor, you bring up a good point, John McCain is known, by the press certainly, as a guy who will sit on a bus and talk to you for hour after hour after hour. 

If he did not do as well stylistically as, let’s say, say Mitt Romney would that be because he is used to a free stage of ideas.  He’s used to talking, not in soundbites, but used to talking in expansive prose. 

RIDGE:  Well, I think all 10 candidates articulated very clearly their ideas tonight.  There was a sprinkling of humor.

I thought John—I’m sure there are people who are going to give style points for not electing the president (INAUDIBLE), and so a determined style maybe the other candidates, they did just as well. 

But I think, clearly, when you take a look at the kinds of questions that was asked, go back and review some of those questions and how well he took them head on, I think at the end of the day you’re seeing he was very strong. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You’re in a unique position—you came in with John McCain in 1982.

RIDGE:  Correct.

SCARBOROUGH:  This is a man that Ronald Reagan introduced to the political process.  John McCain is a man.  He asked Nancy Reagan, where do we find such men.  And yet John McCain has been struggling in the early part of this Republican primary to establish himself as a true, bedrock conservative.  He comes to the Reagan library tonight.  Do you think he was he able to grab the mantle of Ronald Reagan? 

RIDGE:  I don’t really think he needed to grab it; I think he’s already had it.  I mean, when people—as this campaign evolves—the word “conservative” is used by a lot of candidates and by a lot of people, but as the campaign this evolves and people take a look at who has clearly the most consistent conservative record, coupled with the ability, when appropriate, to reach across the aisle in a bipartisan way to try to fashion the kind of solutions that Americans prefer, bipartisan solutions, John McCain’s the man.  So I don’t think he had to break out tonight, because the record exists for all to see. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, there is no doubt.  It’s not a subjective conclusion; it is objective.  If you look at records, going back to 1982, there is no doubt John McCain is the most conservative consistent candidate out there, was tonight, and has been for some time. 

Thanks so much, governor.  Greatly appreciate it.

Keith, back to you. 

OLBERMANN:  Joe, thanks.  Back here with the panel, Jill Zuckman of “The Chicago Tribune,” Howard Fineman of “Newsweek,” and of course Chris Matthews.  I attributed this wrong, let me correct this, the punch to the thorax comment about Ahmadinejad.  I think I attributed that to Senator McCain; it Rudy Giuliani who said that this was the worst nightmare of the Cold War, an irrational man with a nuclear weapon.  And Ahmadinejad is irrational.  And we talk about what the headline’s going to be out of here.  That’s going to be the headline in a couple of places, isn’t it?

FINEMAN:  Well, I don’t think it’s any news that the world think he’s irrational, but the news out of here is that the candidates, as I said, to compensate for their tiptoeing away from the president on Iraq, were really saber rattling on Iraq, and you had Rudy doing it.  You had McCain doing it.  Two of the frontrunners.  Interestingly, Romney stayed out of that one.  Duncan Hunter to be expected. 

But I thought that was significant, because it shows that this Republican Party, as unpopular as it is, as behind in the generic ballot as it is.  With a war that most Americans don’t like, is willing to talk tough about another war. 

MATTHEWS:  They are doubling down on war. 

FINEMAN:  They are doubling down on war.

ZUCKMAN:  There are a lot of voters out there who look at Iran and here the Republicans saying this, and wonder, are they making it up again?  Do they really have nuclear weapons there?  Is this another excuse to just shift the focus from Afghanistan to Iraq to Iran?

MATTHEWS:  We’ll have to get to the notes, but when I asked Senator McCain what his tripwire was, (INAUDIBLE) from the Cold War in Berlin, we cross this line, we go to total war.  What was the tripwire?  It sound like he had a fairly early one.  It wasn’t going to require that they launch or...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It was preventative war rather than preemptive war. 

OLBERMANN:  But it required the actual nuclear weapons. 

MATTHEWS:  Because I think country In terms of our history would probably be more comfortable with preemptive war.  Somebody’s about to strike you, strike them first.  That makes perfect sense.  But strike them before you think they might think about doing it. 

You know what I like, when was Giuliani giving a tough—I love information questions, like tell me prime minister of Canada, right now, see how many would get it.  Somebody asked him to—it was a caller, explain the difference between a Sunni and a Shia, which of course is very much in our world know; we have to know that.  And at one point he said, of course. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I had a kid in school, Brian Delaney, went to school with me, who every time you asked him a question, he would say, obviously.  You wanted to punch him out.  Obviously.  It wasn’t obvious.  It wasn’t of course.  Nobody knows in this audience, but everybody’s learning as he was talking. 

ZUCKMAN:  You remember Andy Heller (ph), the TV reporter in Boston, who made that famous...

(CROSSTALK)

ZUCKMAN:  And then everybody got to say, OK, now we know. 

MATTHEWS:  The question was, who’s the president of South Korea?  I knew it would be Li.  That would be a good bet. 

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  More importantly and prophetically Andy Heller asked him who ran Pakistan, which turned out to be very important, turned out to be very important.  I thought Rudy’s answer no that, he got a passing grade on that. 

MATTHEWS:  Did he get it right?

FINEMAN:  I think he got it fundamentally right.  I’m no expert.  He could have gone into greater detail.  But at that point he wasn’t going for extra credit; he just wanted to hand in his blue book at that point.

MATTHEWS:  It shows where we are in the history of our country that that’s not considered a exotic question. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I have a question about two statements from Giuliani that need to be reconciled in my mind, which we will get when we return, because we will be hearing from the Giuliani campaign. 

You’re watching MSNBC coverage of the first-in-the-nation Republican presidential candidates debate, from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Continuing from the Ronald Reagan presidential library in the wake of first Republican presidential debate, let’s go back to Joe Scarborough in the spin room with Rudy Giuliani’s campaign manager—Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, thanks so much Keith.

I’m here with Mike Duhaime.  He is Rudy Giuliani’s campaign manager.

How did your man do? 

MIKE DUHAIME, GIULIANI CAMPAIGN MANAGER:  I think he did very well tonight.  I think what people saw is somebody who’s ready right now to be president.  This somebody who had a very tough job.  Maybe one of the toughest jobs in America is mayor of New York, somebody who not only a great leader on some of the toughest days our country has ever seen, but also but somebody who, while he was mayor, cut taxes, cut spending, got people from welfare into work.  This is somebody right now who could be president.

SCARBOROUGH:  I’ll tell you what, though, they weren’t talking about welfare to work, they weren’t talking about welfare about fighting against terrorism.  It seemed for this man, for your candidate tonight, there were three issues—abortion, abortion and abortion.  He’s going to hear this everywhere he goes for the next year, isn’t he?

DUHAIME:  Well, Mayor Giuliani is somebody who says what he means and means what he says.  I mean this is somebody—that’s what American deserve in a leader.  They deserve somebody who’s going to say what he believes all the time.  This is somebody whose made his position clear.  He personally hates abortion.  While he was mayor of New York, adoptions went up, abortions went down, and this is somebody who really delivered on those things.  This is somebody who ultimately—has (INAUDIBLE), and he believes ultimately (INAUDIBLE).

SCARBOROUGH:  But he’s also talked funding abortion.  He supports funding of abortion.  If the government wants to fund abortion that’s fine with him.  Isn’t that dramatically out of step?  Again, by judging the candidates we heard tonight on the stage, and many would suggest that these candidates are far more conservative than the mainstream America, but judging by these 10 candidates on the stage, your guy does seem to be a step back (INAUDIBLE) the rest of them. 

DUHAIME:  In terms of funding, he said that he’s in favor of the Hyde amendment.  If the Democrats control Congress, tried to change the Hyde amendment, he would veto that.  And so people can judge for themselves in terms of what is in step or out of step.  We heard Senator Brownback saying my 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy.  What most Republicans will see is somebody who’s an economic conservative, somebody who’s going to keep us safe from terror, somebody who’s a great leader, and hopefully they will certainly judge his record as a whole. 

MATTHEWS:  And you know, Mike, If abortion was the top issue talked about tonight, certainly debated back and forth, that Chris has to go back to time and time again, because that seemed to be what everybody was talking about, Iran was near the top of list also, as Keith and our panel were suggest.  Does Rudy Giuliani believe that if Iran continues to develop a nuclear weapon, that that is in fact the worst-case scenario in the sort of United States would have to intervene to take that nuclear weapon away? 

DUHAIME:  What Mayor Giuliani was clear about tonight was that Iran, when they look across the table they need to see somebody with the strength of Ronald Reagan, and Mayor Giuliani is that person.  He is somebody who’s a strong leader, takes decisive action, and somebody who’s dealt with terrorism firsthand, somebody who would be a great leader.  He will not let nuclear arms fall into the hands of Iran and could obviously...

SCARBOROUGH:  Does that mean by not allowing arms to fall into the hands of Iran, that you use military force if necessary to stop that from happening? 

DUHAIME:  I think every options is on the table. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, thanks so much. 

DUHAIME:  Thank you.

SCARBOROUGH:  We appreciate your time.

Keith back to you. 

OLBERMANN:  Joe, great.  Thanks. 

Let go back to Gene Robinson of “The Washington Post,” who has been patiently standing while we’ve all been yapping out here.  Gene, my apologies for that. 

Did Giuliani get the 80 or the 20 percent, do you think, if you’re a Republican conservative really hearing him for the first time tonight? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, you know, there’s one thing Rudy Giuliani won tonight—he won the contest to invoke Ronald Reagan’s name.  By my count, on three separate questions he invoked Ronald Reagan.  That’s much more than any of the other candidates.  The late president’s name was only mentioned about a dozen times by any of the candidates.  Aside from that, I think his campaign will is going to be the one that most wants kind of a do-over. 

I didn’t quite get the answer to the Roe v. Wade question, which was basically indifferent—if the Supreme Court overrode Roe v. Wade that would be OK Giuliani said, and that didn’t exactly sound like a candidate, you know, who says what he mean means or means what he says in a forceful way.  So you know, I think it was problematic for his campaign.

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, but don’t you think that’s reasonably in its vagueness consistent with his—let’s use a kind word—evolving position on the subject of abortion?  The quotes can be read from any time in the last 10 years, and they’re all a little bit different on the subject certainly.  And maybe the first one is huge hugely different than the last one. 

ROBINSON:  I think evolving is a very kind word. 

I think if I were a social conservative who cared very, very deeply about the abortion issue, I think it would bother me that the latest evolved step in the position kind of had to be dragged out of him in a way in this debate.  It wasn’t really expressed forcefully, and it seemed to open discussion really to wanted to be talking about something else, like Ahmadinejad or something.  But it was I think not his greatest moment in the debate. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Do you think also there is—this is the point I keep saying.  I’m going am going to ask about this, and I’m finally going to ask about it.  Early on in this we heard something that seemed to be an olive branch from Rudy Giuliani to the Democrats, which of course is the last thing you think conservatives and Republicans tuning in to watch this, certainly at this stage of this campaign, want to hear.  He mentioned that neither party has a monopoly on virtue or vice, and later on came back, when Chris raised the question about Hillary and Bill Clinton.  He said that of course Bill Clinton being in the White House again would mean Hillary was elected president, and that would mean we’re back on defense on terrorism, again, again, saying that—complimenting President Bush about being of offense in September 20, 2001 onwards. 

Was there a—did Mr. Giuliani correct course in the middle of the debate.  Did somebody send him a note under his door that said, don’t go out there and be nice to the Democrats under any circumstances?

ROBINSON:  I actually took the virtue and vice reference as an attempt at inoculation, not as an olive branch.  I took it as a way of saying, well, gee, many of us have been married three times and have these messy private lives, and also many of us dress up like women and get photographed doing it.  So that’s the way I took that, not so much as a peace offering. 

OLBERMANN:  Gene Robinson of “The Washington Post,” great.  Thanks. 

I think there is only one person on the panel here who regularly dresses up as a woman. 

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN:  What was that?  Those two things, looking at them on the same piece of paper next to each other, really don’t look like they resemble the same guy. 

ZUCKMAN:  I don’t they have to be at odds.  I think if you ask voters, do you have want partisan bickering?  Do you want your congressman and senators to be each other throats all the time, because they know we want them to work together.  We want them to solve big problems.  So you can say something that, and you know, I respect Democrats or I respect Republicans, but they say, I completely disagree with you, and if the Democrat was in the White House right after September 11th, God knows what would have happened.

FINEMAN:  There was a tentativeness to Rudy’s performance tonight, which lead me to react immediately after it was over, to say that he hadn’t really made his moment here.  He was on tough terrain on abortion and so forth, and you said give him credit for taking a position different from most of the others and different from the audience here.  But he did it as Gene was saying, in a kind of, eh, kind of way, like I wish I didn’t have to deal with this at all.

If he’s going to be the Rudy Giuliani of 9/11, then he’s got to seize the questions and use for his own purposes, not try to punt, and that’s what he didn’t do tonight, and his staff told me before the debate that they were concerned that he hadn’t been in this kind of debate situation for many years, and indeed as mayor he didn’t have to listen to anybody ask anything.

And It thought they were just spinning the alluring (ph) expectations, but I think that’s part of what happened tonight. 

OLBERMANN:  All right, so there’s the question, if you didn’t know that the three leading guys in the polls here were Romney, and McCain and Giuliani, would you be able to say from the performance that Giuliani was one of the three? 

MATTHEWS:  It’s hard for me to distinguish from what I really know.  It’s hard for me to pretend I don’t—I think that this thing about abortion rights it is one of those, even for us regular people, you don’t have to run for office or even take a position in a newspaper column, it’s a hard one because it isn’t like, well, we’ll give $2 million a year more to the Peace Corps next year, $2 million less.  Are you for it, or against it?  Should a person have a right to end a pregnancy?  And what would be the conditions that would requite them to be allowed to do it or not?  These are tough questions, of philosophy, of metaphysics, of deep religion, and believe about human life.  They are not open to a clever one-liner to get you out of trouble. 

Rudy Giuliani is pro choice.  I don’t like the phrase pro-choice.  It sounds too frivolous.  He believes ultimately—I think he said this, but it’s ultimately the women’s decision.  And I think a lot of America is probably—a majority of Americans believe that.  They don’t like abortion.  But ultimately the decision is not going to be made by the government but by an individual, and I think it’s a hard thing to say, knowing you’re going into a campaign where at least half the people you’re trying to win over disagree with that position.  That’s a hard thing.  It’s hard.

ZUCKMAN:  I think that John McCain ought to be feeling very good tonight when it comes to the issue of abortion.  He’s been consistently opposed to abortion throughout his political career.

(CROSSTALK)

ZUCKMAN:  Well, he’s not like Senator Bob Smith from New Hampshire, who stood out on the Senate floor, stabbing the back of a baby doll.

MATTHEWS:  OK, you know what he’s like.  I think McCain is like Ronald Reagan, against abortion in principle, speaks to the rallies, the right-to-life rally, but no one really thinks that this guy coming out of Hollywood, a tolerant community, is ever going to actually change the Constitution and outlaw it.

ZUCKMAN:  But look at who his two biggest threats, at least at the moment? 

MATTHEWS:  By the way, the president here, he’s honored here in this building, selected Sandra Day O’Connor, who did not like abortion either, and said so, but also supported a woman’s right to choose abortion.  Do you understand that there’s a difference here?

ZUCKMAN:  But if you look at McCain and you look at Giuliani and Romney?

MATTHEWS:  They think like a lot of Americans—they think abortion is terrible, but they also want to live in a free society.  It’s not that complicated, but you have to take a position.

ZUCKMAN:  Well, McCain has taken a position and Giuliani has taken a couple of positions and Romney has taken a couple of positions, and I think for McCain that’s got to make him feel pretty good tonight. 

OLBERMANN:  All right, much more ahead.  We’ve got a report from David Shuster and our truth squads.  We’ll check out on that Sunni and Shia evolution.  We’ll  talk to Jim Vandehei and John Harris, who are our online partners, politico.com. 

You’re watching MSNBC’s coverage of the first-in-the-nation Republican presidential candidates debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  And we rejoin you from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where the Republican candidates for president met tonight for their first debate, which you saw right here on MSNBC and our online partner, politico.com. 

MATTHEWS:  We’re joined right now by Jim Vandehei, our partners tonight, and John Harris.  It was a very fascinating experience out there, to share the stage with these two professional print guys.  So what was your total immersion in the world of television like tonight, gentlemen? 

You first, John.

JOHN HARRIS, POLITICO.COM:  Chris, I come away with a lot of respect for you who goes out in front of the camera every single day, but it was a lot of fun.  Thanks for doing such a great job.  It was very well done. 

MATTHEWS:  Jim.

JIM VANDEHEI, POLITICO.COM:   I thought it was a very lively debate.

MATTHEWS:  Jim, were you surprised by the questions that came in? 

VANDEHEI:  I wasn’t that surprised, because we had had some ability to know what question were coming in, and the one that’s won, they were good questions for the most part, and a lot of them really threw the candidates off.  I think it’s a good model going forward, because it allows a different type of question to get involved into these debates.

MATTHEWS:  What was the most interesting one you rejected? 

VANDEHEI:  There were a lot.  The evolution question that we did ask, I think (INAUDIBLE), because we had a first round of voting, had over 10,000 votes for people who wanted evolution question asked.  I thought that was really interesting.  And then a show of hands as a follow up was interesting as well. 

MATTHEWS:  I think it was interesting that John McCain was—he gave a Joe Biden quick answer.  He said, I do believe in evolution.  And then he asked for extra time to evolve his question—his answer.  The other guys, it looks like we had three sets of hands up there quickly, that wanted to say that they were believers in creationism of some kind.  We didn’t get a chance to get through it, but I think the tape recording of the night of that will show that three of them demurred.

HARRIS:  Roll the tape. 

VANDEHEI:  We’ll want to look at that photo.

MATTHEWS:  OK, John, let me ask you this—were you surprised that they were so docile in those down-the-line series of questions?  I thought that one was going to say, I’m a former Senator, I’m a U.S. senator, I’m going to answer yes or no to a down-the-line question. 

HARRIS:  Well, they were intimidated by the strong moderation, would be my guess. 

MATTHEWS:   I’d like to think so. 

HARRIS:  We kept it under control.  Yes, I was surprised actually.  All these guys were a little bit tentative.  You could definitely tell that this was the first time out.  There was nobody who was ready just to command that stage and take over, either in the second tier, sort of fighting his way in, or the first tier, who was really ready to say, look, I’m by far the most commanding person on this stage.

MATTHEWS:  John, were you getting the looks of the candidates when they weren’t getting enough time?  They were looking at me like, well, they were angry at some point.  They were all friendly afterward, but during the moment I thought a lot really wanted to respond, and there just wasn’t enough time.

HARRIS:  Absolutely, and they were looking at me and I was more than happy to pass the buck.  A lot of dirty looks. 

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you.  It was a great partnership.  I hope it augurs well for the future of our relationship.  Thank you, Jim Vandehei and John Harris of politico.com, two first-rate, top-rank print reporters.

Let’s go to now Joe Scarborough in the spin room with Republican strategist—I love that word strategist—Mike Murphy. 

SCARBOROUGH:  It is a great word, Chris.  We are here with Mike Murphy.

Mike, I’m going to break this up? 

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Sure. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Let’s about—we won’t talk about who one.

MURPHY:  OK.

SCARBOROUGH:  But as two guys who know a little bit about politics, who did well?  Who did well stylistically?  Who stood out for you?

MURPHY:  I thought all the big three did well.  I thought Romney, who people hadn’t really seen, had a bit of a national debut today, and he’s a great performer on television.  So I think people who wondered what all the fuss was about looked at Romney and said, oh, I get it. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And this really looked like his format.  Some guys are good standing on top of piles after 9/11, some guys are good talking on the bus for an hour, and some people like Ronald Reagan pop in these type of debate settings.  It looks like Mitt Romney popped inside this setting. 

MURPHY:  An interesting story.  I ran his campaign for governor of Massachusetts, and he originally hated to debate, but Mitt—this is very indicative of who he is—He decided he wanted to get good at being able to communicate his ideas on television, and they worked at it and worked at it and worked at it, and he’s got those skills now. 

Let’s talk about substance.  John McCain stuttered at times.  He started off very shaky.  And yet, as far as substance goes, he positioned himself pretty well, didn’t he?

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, I thought McCain’s got better as it went on to pretty good at the end, but I was watching McCain’s substance, because I think they’re doing something very smart.  McCain is moving back to the center.  He was the guy tonight who looked at the camera and told the truth about there had been a lot of mistakes in the war and that’s hard for a Republican to say. 

But McCain’s getting back to that straight talk, tell the truth, take the consequences style that really made him a darling of independents, and made him a guy who would be a very strong general election candidate.  I think they have had some trouble.  The campaign has been misfiring a little bit, and this is, to their credit, they’re doing, they’re letting McCain be McCain, and I thought you saw a bit of that shift tonight, which I think is a smart move from McCain. 

So I thought both Romney on breaking through on style and crispness as CEO as communicator, and McCain on getting back to that authenticity, that honesty, both played to their strengths, and did pretty well with.

SCARBOROUGH:  I think they did, too.  And I’ll tell you what, Rudy Giuliani, and I think we both agree on this, he needs to figure out an abortion answer.

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SCARBOROUGH:  Thanks so much, Mike. 

MURPHY:  Thank you.

SCARBOROUGH:  And that’s certainly something that Chris Matthews figured out and kept going back to it time and time again.  Thanks so much.

Back to you now, Chris.

OLBERMANN:  We want to remind you, in case you were doing something this evening, that at 11:00 Eastern, 8:00 Pacific.  You can watch the re-air of tonight’s debate, and you get everything you need to get done out of the way beforehand, because as we used to say in my sports day when a broadcast went particularly quickly and well, it moves like a rocket. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Right now let’s turn to MSNBC’s David Shuster, who as usual has been looking at the truthfulness of some of the statements made by candidates here tonight.  He joins us now with the much-anticipated, to this end, Truth Squad Report. 

David, good evening.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC:  Keith, good evening to you.

One of big issues, of course, tonight, hanging over Republicans, is the issue of electability and whether or not Iraq is going to cost Republicans in the general election.  And so John McCain had a novel way of dealing with that.  Here is his explanation for why Republicans got swept out of Congress this past fall:

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SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN ® ARIZONA:  On the issue of why we lost the election in 2006 is because be did lose our way.  We began to value principle over power and spending got out of control.

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SHUSTER:  Spending out of control—he said it lurched completely out of control, and that may be true, but every poll found that the reason Republicans were swept out was not because of spending, but because of the Iraq war and also corruption. 

Now, on the issue of abortion, you’ve already heard that both Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani seemed to be little bit tripped up in their positions on abortion, as far as clarifying it, but they both also made some mistakes as far as explaining their evolution in their thinking.

First, here is Mitt Romney.

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MITT ROMNEY, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, I have always been personally pro-life, but for me it was a great question about whether or not government should intrude in that decision.  And when I ran for office, I said I’d protect the law as it was, which is effectively a pro-choice position.  About two years ago, and we were studying cloning in our state, I said, Look, we have gone too far.  It’s a brave-new-world mentality that Roe v. Wade has given us, and I changed my mind.  I took the same course that Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush and Henry Hyde took.

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SHUSTER:  Actually, that’s not a course at all that George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan took.  Both were consistent.  George H.W. Bush particularly so on the issue; he was always pro-life.  Furthermore, Mitt Romney’s position, actually he says that he was supportive of abortion back when he was running for Senate, and that was not a question, in any case.

Now let’s look at Rudy Giuliani and how he dealt with his shifting position on abortion.  Watch.

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RUDY GIULIANI, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  But ultimately, since it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman’s right to make a different choice.  I support the ban on partial-birth abortion, I support the Hyde amendment.  But ultimately, I think, when you come down to that choice, you have to respect a woman’s right to make that choice.

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SHUSTER:  A lot of people would suggest that simply is an incompatible statement.  The Hyde amendment, for example, refers specifically to government funding, government payment, for women to get an abortion.  Giuliani initially said, several years ago, he supports government funding, then a month ago he said he is against government funding.  Then he told an interviewer he is for government funding, and then again tonight you heard him say, “I support the Hyde amendment,” which is against government funding.

Now, there were a number of shots tonight at Hillary Clinton, and specifically Bill Clinton, and whether or not he should be back in the White House.  Congressman Duncan Hunter said that some of the military shortfalls that we’re facing in Iraq can be blamed on the Clinton administration.  Watch.

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CONGRESSMAN DUNCAN HUNTER ® CALIFORNIA, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  You know, Bill Clinton cut the U.S. Army by 50 almost percent.  In this war against terror, he’s the wrong guy to have in there.

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SHUSTER:  Fifty percent—well, that’s not actually right.  It was about 35 percent—they cut the number of active duty divisions from 18 to 10, but again, this was at the end of the Cold War, these cuts had Republicans support, and furthermore, the Clinton administration is widely credited with modernizing the military to the extent that the military was able to sweep in Iraq, early in the invasion, and have the kind of success it did, early on. 

Finally, there were no major gaffes tonight that might cost anybody in a campaign, but Governor Tommy Thompson seemed to come awfully close to seeming out of touch with Iraq, when he was asked specifically for the numbers, as far as casualties and injuries in Iraq.  Here’s how he responded.

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TOMMY THOMPSON, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  There’s been over three thousand who’ve been lost, and several thousand have been injured.

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SHUSTER:  Actually, it’s not just several thousand -- 24,314 U.S. troops have been injured.  The actual number killed so far:  3,354 -- Thompson was off by 10 percent. 

OLBERMANN:  Who is in the lead?

All right David, and I did one inspired by your fact checking.  The answer that Mr. Giuliani gave about the Shia and the Sunni—the Sunnis believed, after the death of the prophet Mohammed, that a new leader should be elected, and the Shia believed it should stay in Mohammed’s family, so Mayor Giuliani got that one exactly right. 

SHUSTER:  He did.

OLBERMANN:  And for no particular reason, on that point, I want to—and at that point, I want to thank Howard Fineman, of Newsweek and MSNBC, and Jill Zuckman, of the Chicago Tribune, who have been great contributors tonight.  Always a pleasure—thank you both.

ZUCKMAN:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  And Chris and I will return in a moment, with this reminder before we go, you can go online and rate the candidates’ performances in tonight’s debate.  Just go to politics.msnbc.com.  So far, we have received nearly 2,000 votes.  The highest rated candidate at the moment—Ron Paul, with 39 percent.  And a mighty roar has just gone up from Ron Paul’s supporters.

You’re watching MSNBC’s coverage of the first in the nation Republican presidential candidates’ debate, from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

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MCCAIN:  I believe in evolution, but I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also. 

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OLBERMANN:  Answer number two on that question from John McCain.

Back at the Reagan Library, alongside Chris Matthews, I’m Keith Olbermann.  And Joe Scarborough is with us in the spin room. 

And we now have the answer to the question of who raised their hands when you asked, Who does not believe in evolution.

MATTHEWS:  Senator Brownback, Congressman Tancredo, and who was the other one? 

OLBERMANN:  Governor Huckabee. 

MATTHEWS:  Governor Huckabee.  They all wanted to demur—we didn’t have enough time.  But I thought McCain was pretty clear on that.  I mean, most Americans believe in evolution, they also respect the bible.  But he had a clear answer. 

OLBERMANN:  And those were two-part answers, although he did ask for the extra time to come back, just to make sure he didn’t miss it the first time.

Joe, before we—

MATTHEWS:  He didn’t want to be too cold about it.

OLBERMANN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  I understand why he did that.

By the way, these are questions of nuance and sensitivity.  You don’t want to come off on any of these cultural questions and say, I’m for one side, forget the other side—those people can go somewhere else.  You want them all to vote for you.

OLBERMANN:  Joe, 15 seconds to wrap it up from the spin room. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You’re going to find out, over the next couple of days, that Mitt Romney is a guy that exceeded expectations.  And John McCain’s a guy that didn’t quite meet expectations.  A lot of the Republican base may start moving to Mitt Romney.  Rudy Giuliani just was a little more flat than people expected, didn’t show the type of leadership that people expected him tonight. 

And of course, this is just a debate, but certain people pop in a debate, certain people don’t.  Tonight it was Mitt Romney who seemed to break out of the pack. 

OLBERMANN:  Coming up next, a special commercial-free rebroadcast of tonight’s Republican Presidential Candidates Debate.

For Chris Matthews, I’m Keith Olbermann, good night.

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