updated 10/15/2007 10:54:30 AM ET 2007-10-15T14:54:30

Guests: Chuck Todd, Chris Cillizza, Norah O’Donnell

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  The race for the White House 2008 in full throttle.  And here to put it in perspective, Chuck Todd, political director for NBC News; Norah O’Donnell of NBC News, who covers politics and a whole lot more; Chris Cillizza of “The Washington Post” . 

Welcome all.

NORAH O’DONNELL, NBC NEWS:  Thank you.

RUSSERT:  What a week, Chuck Todd.  The Republicans’ big debate in Dearborn, Michigan, focusing on the economy.  We saw Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney mixing it up on tax policy a little bit, Fred Thompson’s debut as a debater.

Let’s start with him.  How did Big Fred do?

CHUCK TODD, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, NBC NEWS:  Well, apparently he did just well enough to be invited back to keep campaigning, but for whatever that means—apparently there was some magical line he was supposed to cross.  Look, he came in with incredibly low expectations after what have been not the greatest stumping performances when he’s been on the campaign trail.  He started out very slow.  He did close strong. 

He seemed like a guy, frankly, who had been overly prepped.  He had way too many facts and figures at hand.  And I think at first he sounded very nervous and he almost had—he was trying too hard to answer the question correctly, because it’s as if it almost came up in his debate prep session.  And I think that’s why his first answer was just horrible.

And I think in the first hour he seemed sluggish.  But the second hour, I thought he picked up.  And he even closed when Romney took the shot, the little “Law & Order” shot, which was a very clever, though scripted, line.  Thompson’s comeback was really good...

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

TODD:  ... when he called him an actor, because it was that double-edged attack by basically saying, you know, you’re pretending to be the conservative, Mr. Romney.  I mean, it was one of those—literally the first five minutes of Fred were, like, wow, this guy doesn’t belong on stage.  And the last five minutes of Fred, you saw that, oh, that’s the potential that everybody keeps talking about.

RUSSERT:  Norah O’Donnell, he has been described by his campaign as Reaganesque, in the Ronald Reagan tradition.  People expecting that he would fill that stage the way Reagan did.

Did he?

O’DONNELL:  Well, it appeared when he first walked on that he did seem to capture sort of the spotlight just because of his size, so tall.  But then he seemed to shrink in some ways.

His jacket was sort of off the back of his—you know, the way he looked.  He looked a little older.  And his first question, as you mentioned, he paused like he almost forgot at the end how to sort of wrap up his answer.  There was that three-second pause.

And he did seem over-coached, even though he spent, his campaign said, seven to nine, you know, times working with Mary Matalin, working with Liz Cheney, working with Liz Cheney’s husband.  So he failed, really, to deliver in many ways. 

He didn’t make any big gaffes.  And he was able to answer, you know, the “gotcha” question.  You know, “Who’s the prime minister of Canada?”  But he didn’t shine.  And I think people were waiting to see him shine.

And, you know, he was billed for so long as this great hope for conservatives, perhaps, you know, or someone other than Rudy Giuliani.  And he just also lacked, I think, too, the vigor that I think some people were hoping from—from, you know, someone to enter this.  Ronald Reagan perhaps had the vigor, you know, that he was not lazy like a fox.

RUSSERT:  Chris.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Yes, I was going to say the big difference that struck me is, with the Reagan comparison, what is Reagan best known for?  It’s “Morning in America,” optimism, believing that this country is great.  Well, the candidate on stage who sounded the most like Ronald Reagan was Mitt Romney, and has throughout the race.

Fred Thompson had a much more practical, I guess I would say, message, which is sort of, OK, things are OK right now, but the long-term trends don’t look good here.  And unless we address them, this country could be in real trouble.

It’s an interesting message for someone who has been compared to the Reagan figure in this race.  That is not, I don’t think, fundamentally a Reagan message.  It’s a somewhat dour message that I think unfortunately is reinforced by the fact that, as Norah pointed out, he isn’t a vigorous presence on stage.

He speaks slowly.  He has a deep voice.  He tends to sort of think about things because he addresses them.  Not necessarily all bad things, but not great if the expectation is that you’re going to be the optimist, you’re going to lead this country into the next sort of generation.

O’DONNELL:  Well, we did say that he didn’t make any gaffes.  But when asked about the economy, he said, “It’s the greatest story never told” about how well we’re doing, and yet he’s sitting there talking to Michiganders, who have the highest unemployment rate in the country and who are suffering, or there’s strikes.  The front page of the newspaper that morning, we all saw it about auto worker strikes.

So there did seem to be somewhat of a disconnect that Romney answered a little bit better.

RUSSERT:  His voice seemed week in the beginning.  I don’t want to make too much of it, but I got that feedback from a lot of viewers who said his—he’s not robust.

Is that a problem?

CILLIZZA:  Well, I think it is, particularly because he’s somebody and people are wondering, OK, is he up to the job?  Is he 100 percent healthy?  So he can’t have moments like that.

Anybody who’s a little bit older when they’re running for president can’t show signs of feeling week on any given day when on the campaign trail because there’s this sense of, boy, the president’s—it’s not fair.  John Edwards can get away with having a bad voice day and people say, well, you know, we know he’s young and vigorous.  Older candidates cannot.

So it’s one of those things that, there’s a lot—there’s a lot that Thompson has to deal with, a lot of unfair expectations.  Because he got in late, he needs to perform better than maybe others do so quickly because he’s trying to catch up.  Because he’s a little bit older, he better not ever show a day that he’s a little tired on the campaign trail.

O’DONNELL:  To your point, he sort of coughed a couple of times.  And I saw him, you know, sort of rubbing his nose almost like he had a nose drip.  And his campaign spokesman said afterwards that he’s been battling a little bit of a cold.  But it does raise questions.  And now he has, you know, canceled a trip to New Hampshire, which they say for personal reasons, but it raises questions about whether he’s feeling up to it.

RUSSERT:  This very weekend.  He did have a bout with cancer, and that’s going to obviously be an issue in the campaign.

I might add, so did Rudy Giuliani and so did John McCain.  But in terms of Thompson, there’ll be a lot of scrutiny on his health record.

TODD:  Well, absolutely.  And I also think—I think any of these stories—when you look at what stories sort of break through in politics, it tends to be stories that play into a broader narrative about a candidate.  And for John Kerry, it was, no, he’s out of touch, he’s a flip-flopper.  So any story that played into that narrative got a big amount of play.

I think the story coming in to this campaign for Fred Thompson—and the coming in to this campaign was a long time—was that he is either lazy, doesn’t have the fire in the belly, or is simply not up to it, however you define that.

CILLIZZA:  And I think that, unfortunately, as Chuck said, he faced a lot of unreasonable expectations.  He has to almost out-campaign everybody else at this point, because if he doesn’t, there’s already that narrative.  There’s already that story line out there, does this guy fundamentally want it?

You know, the “Saturday Night Live” skit spoke to this.  You know, “On a scale of one 1 of 10, how bad do I want to be your president?  I’m about a 6.

You know, once you break through into “Saturday Night Live,” I think it’s telling that there is a broader narrative.  And so unfortunately for him, he’s facing a guy, certainly in Romney, and I think to a lesser extent, but in Giuliani.  Romney is just campaigning everywhere.  He’s doing six and seven events in a day, these “Ask Mitt Anything” town halls.

The contrast there I think is something Thompson needs to worry about, especially if he’s canceling trips, that kind of thing.  It doesn’t look good.  And remember, in politics, perception is almost as important as reality a lot of times.

TODD:  It’s a purposeful thing what Romney’s doing, you know.  Literally, when Thompson got in is when he unveiled the jogging ad, where Romney’s just running and doing all—I mean, this is a purposeful comparison that they want to draw, because we like our president to have ambition and to have energy.

It always bothered—you could tell it’s always bothered some that Bush didn’t have ambition going in to the thing.  He had the energy, but not the ambition.  And it’s hard to imagine that Republican voters are going to want to select a nominee that doesn’t have the ambition.

RUSSERT:  But always remember Ronald Reagan, who said, you know, “They say that hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?”

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  We’re going to take a quick break.  We’ll be right back.

Chuck Todd, Norah O’Donnell, Chris Cillizza, we’re talking the race for the White House 2008, the Republicans, the Democrats, and a whole lot more.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we’re back.

Chuck, you mentioned Fred Thompson.  Norah said he canceled his trip to New Hampshire this very weekend.

Is it political?

TODD:  I think it’s very political.  I mean, I’ve talked with some Thompson folks who looked at that last registered (ph) poll that saw them in second place, and in a strong second place.

RUSSERT:  In Iowa.

TODD:  In Iowa.  Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of New Hampshire polling that has shown, look, you know, he is a weak third or fourth.

There’s no reason to mess around, really, with New Hampshire.  And the only shot he has of actually probably taking off in New Hampshire is first taking off in Iowa.  So whatever efforts they were going to put in New Hampshire, even if they’d like to do well in New Hampshire, it starts in Iowa.  And I think they decided they can’t skip Iowa and New Hampshire and Michigan and somehow just put all their money on South Carolina.

So I think—I think this is purposeful.  And I think you will see them in Iowa a lot between now and caucus day.

RUSSERT:  Norah, one of the interesting things in the debate, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani.  Romney’s been jabbing, jabbing, jabbing, trying to get Giuliani to respond.  At the debate, Rudy Giuliani did respond, and they clashed pretty heavily on each man’s respective mayor as mayor of New York versus governor of Massachusetts.

O’DONNELL:  Right, who’s better on tax and spending?  And of course Giuliani said, “I led, he lagged.”  And Romney said, “That’s baloney,” which was this great sort of clash and, of course, set up the two screen as we do on TV.

And Romney’s happy about that because it sets them up as a two-person race, which he wants.  You know, let’s see these two guys.  And people won’t talk about McCain anymore and people won’t talk about Thompson anymore, they’ll see the two of us going head to head.

What was noteworthy about Giuliani’s response when it came to the line-item veto is that he made it an argument of, “I defeated Bill Clinton when it came to the line-item veto,” which in many ways is a general election sort of argument.  It made him look like, well, I can beat Bill Clinton, so it means I can beat Hillary Clinton.  It was sort of a proxy argument that he made, but it was a pretty good one in terms of trying to bat Romney back.

CILLIZZA:  I was just going to say, I think Giuliani wants it to be a two-person race, too.  It’s just the other person in that is Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

CILLIZZA:  I mean, if you looked at it, he engaged Romney sort of when punched several times, but he did not—it is not a fight I think he is spoiling for.  The name that came up a lot more out of Rudy Giuliani’s lips was Hillary Clinton and how she’s going to take this country in the wrong direction.

It’s not a new thing.  He’s been doing it for several months.  But I think he wants that two-screen shot to be himself and Hillary Clinton eventually and thinks the more he talks about it the more likely it will become.

TODD:  You know, the only thing that struck me about this fight is, are they really having a fight over a line-item veto?  I mean, it was just sort of an odd thing that this is, like, the make-or-break issue.  And there’s no question that some Republican voters, you know, obviously don’t like spending, but this is the big debate—you know, the Democrats are debating over war.

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

TODD:  You know, war and peace.  The Republicans are debating over lawyers.  I mean, the lawyer line—first you have Mitt Romney going to consult an attorney.

I thought it was Democrats that liked their lawyers.

RUSSERT:  Yes, but Chuck, it’s a foxy issue for who’s a real conservative.

(CROSSTALK)

O’DONNELL:  Right.  Any...

RUSSERT:  And that’s the problem each of them have, because as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney did nothing about in terms of abortion.  He let the pro-choice law stay in place.  He suggested he was more actively pro-gay rights than Teddy Kennedy when he ran against him.

And Mayor Giuliani, pro-gay rights, pro-abortion rights, pro-gun control, pro-immigration sanctuary city.  Both of them are trying to nuance their positions, and it flies in the face of the way they campaigned to be elected to their executive positions.

TODD:  You know, I just think it comes across—I just think it comes across oddly disingenuous to the swing voter.  To the swing voter that’s sitting there going, this is a huge election, this is a big election.  I care about the war.  I care about health care.  I care about safety.  I care about a lot of things, and the Democrats are talking about those issues, the Republicans aren’t.

I’d be a little nervous if I were the Republican Party that that’s the face I’m putting on as far as the voters are concerned.  Yes, it talks to a portion of the base, but it’s not talking to the middle very well.

O’DONNELL:  It would have been more interesting to have the two of them argue about who’s more socially conservative.  I mean, here they are, ironically, arguing about who’s more fiscally conservative.  What if they had had a debate about who’s more socially conservative, given both of their backgrounds on issues like you just pointed out, abortion, gay marriage, and other things like that?  That would have been pretty interesting.

CILLIZZA:  I actually thought it was a good debate for Giuliani because the terms of the debate were good for him.  You know, it was a debate focused on the economy.

I was sort of listening.  Sam Brownback, the senator from Kansas, briefly mentioned abortion.  He said that he would want the nominee to be pro-life.  But social issues, or almost all those things you talked about, gay rights, gun control, abortion, really didn’t come up at all.  And the closer—look, the closer we get to Iowa without Rudy Giuliani taking a real body blow on something like that, the better it is for him.

RUSSERT:  This was the traditional and conventional wisdom going into this race, that Rudy Giuliani was too liberal.  How—the Republicans will “never nominate” someone pro-abortion rights, pro-gun rights, pro-gay rights, pro-gun rights, pro-immigration, and yet no one in the Republican Party in the campaign has attacked him.

There have been no negative ads about his social positions.  Why?

TODD:  I don’t know.  I think it’s coming.  I mean, I keep hearing stories that...

RUSSERT:  From whom?

TODD:  ... the Romney folks are putting together that they’ve got their—that they’ve got their sale, their sales pitch, the “Why not Rudy?”

I think that the reason the Romney folks haven’t done it yet is because they’re still building up their own positives.  And they’re not building them fast enough.  I mean, you look at both the national polls and even in some of these—you know, their fav on favs are not great.

RUSSERT:  But does Romney have the standing to attack Rudy Giuliani?

TODD:  And that’s the other problem, and they haven’t raised that.  And that’s an issue.  So who’s left?

I mean, will Thompson do it?  I don’t know.  I mean, Thompson’s still got to get himself known a little bit, so he might not have time.

I mean, this whole thing, it seems, to be shaking out in Giuliani’s way.

RUSSERT:  And he lobbied for a pro-choice group.

TODD:  Right.  So he...

(CROSSTALK)

O’DONNELL:  But the candidate doesn’t want to do it.  If Romney doesn’t want to do it, then you have a third party, like an independent expenditure, do it.  And there’s a lot of money floating out there that’s already being raised.

TODD:  And it’s Romney that’s taking the brunt of an independent expenditure ad right now with the Log Cabin Republicans.

O’DONNELL:  Right.  But there’s a lot of other money out there.  And that money, I’ll predict—because I’ve heard people discuss about that—will eventually make its way into television ads.  And it will hit Giuliani on his marriage to Judith Nathan, as well as other issues.

CILLIZZA:  The problem with the conventional wisdom—and I was as guilty of this as anybody—is I think we assumed, OK, Rudy Giuliani with this profile, again, sort of generic Republican candidate who has a very strong, socially conservative profile, and is electable.  Well, you know, Rudy Giuliani rightfully saw the field as, you’re not running against generic Republican candidate.  You’re running against Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain, none of whom have a sterling record there.  So he’s benefiting, I think, from the fact that he’s running against other real people with real flaws, especially in the socially conservative community.

RUSSERT:  And the memory of September 11th, leadership against terrorism...

CILLIZZA:  Very strong...

(CROSSTALK)

RUSSERT:  ... towards everything else.

TODD:  They like Rudy.  Social conservatives that don’t yet agree with him, that aren’t for him, personally like him.  That’s not a bad place to start.

RUSSERT:  Another quick break.  We’ll be right back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we’re back.

Let’s wrap up the Republicans, Chuck Todd.

Mike Huckabee, now in third place in many of the polls in Iowa, doesn’t have a lot of money, but clearly making an impression on the voters in Iowa and nationally with his debate performances.

TODD:  He is.  But boy, this last debate he seemed to disappear.

I thought he was one of the big losers of Thompson showing up on stage, because it just took—Huckabee I think has gotten this interest because there hasn’t been a great alternative to the others chasing Rudy.  With Thompson there distracting folks for a long—for a little bit, that’s bad for Huckabee. 

I think he’s—he’s already got no money.  And now, if he loses that free media publicity that he’d been getting, he’s going to have a problem.

RUSSERT:  He is the one candidate who can say to Giuliani, Romney and Thompson, I am the true conservative.  I have never changed my views.

TODD:  He still has a great line, you know, when he said, “If the Republican Party nominates Giuliani, they owe an apology to Bill Clinton.”

O’DONNELL:  Wow.

TODD:  Talking about the personal aspect.  It’s a vicious line.

O’DONNELL:  I thought the one good line that Huckabee had in the debate had to deal with the economy.  And he said I Republicans turn on the TV and hear that, oh, the economy is great, some people are going to turn the dial, I think is what he said.

In other words, there is this disconnect.  Yes, the stock market is booming.  There’s a lot of people, like especially in Michigan, who are really not feeling the effects of the good economy. 

The Democrats will try and preach to certainly those people.  And we’ve seen in polls that the American people favor Democrats now in dealing with the budget and federal issues, tax issues and stuff like that.

But Huckabee’s problem, as you mentioned, $1 million in the quarter?  I mean—and he’s former head of the RGA.

RUSSERT:  Republican Governors Association.

O’DONNELL:  Republican Governors Association.  He’s got the connections.  People know him.  He has a national profile.

He’s got these books about losing weight.  He’s run these marathons.  He’s been on “The Today Show” for not being a politician, but for being a guy who can lose weight.

And yet he only raised $1 million.  That signals problems.

RUSSERT:  If Romney is the nominee or Thompson’s the nominee or Giuliani’s the nominee, people look at Mike Huckabee as a potential vice president.  I asked him about that on Tuesday, and he said, “Well, it’s a job that no one wants but no one turns down.”

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  And he said he wants the gold.  And I said, “My dad, Big Russ, he’d be happy if I ever got a silver medal.”

CILLIZZA:  Remember, the other thing to think about with Mike Huckabee is he’s now out of office.

RUSSERT:  Right.  He needs a job.

CILLIZZA:  You know, I mean, he—I hate to say it, but he doesn’t have all that much to do if he’s not—if he’s not in office.

The one thing that I don’t understand with his campaign is, OK, we never expected him to be that great a fundraiser.  We always know it was going to be a long shot.  But he is showing some movement in Iowa.  And yet, I went back and looked at the trips to the state over the last—he spent three days there in the last two months.  That includes the fact that he came in that surprising second in August in the Ames Straw Poll.

This is a guy who is out of office, who has an open schedule, and yet he’s not spending time in the state.  In the absence of having millions and millions of dollars to compete with Romney and whoever else winds up on TV, you would think he would be in the state organizing among social conservatives saying, “I’m your guy,” because if he does wind up coming in second, or he does come in a strong third, that could mean something.  And yet, he’s not spending the time, which is the one thing he has.  He doesn’t have money, but he does have time.

I don’t understand it.

RUSSERT:  Norah, one of the questions I found interesting in the debate was, “Will you support the Democratic (sic) nominee?”  And they all emotionally lined up and said, yes, sir. 

But Ron Paul, the Libertarian Republican from Texas, and Tom Tancredo, the immigration—the anti-immigration congressman from Colorado, seemed to withhold a blanket endorsement.

Do we have a potential of a serious third party race if Giuliani or Romney or Thompson emerges as the nominee?

O’DONNELL:  I think so.  I think there’s an indication from those two saying that they wouldn’t support the nominee, that they could do that.

We’ve heard from evangelicals who are going to be meeting soon that they may be backing a third party candidate.  Although Bloomberg has said that he is not interested in running, I’ve heard a tip recently again that he’s been spending some time with other people talking about whether backing or moving forward.  So that thought is still out there.

So I think there’s still a very real possibility.  And I think when people still have within the party a lot of concern about Rudy Giuliani—that is, social conservatives and evangelicals still have a lot of concerns about him.

RUSSERT:  What do you think, Chuck?

TODD:  Look, I—this is a potential disaster for the Republican Party.  I mean, it seems like they’re acting like Democrats.  It’s really Democrats that can’t get united, that have their different factions that are mad if the nominee isn’t going to kiss up to those factions.

So I think you look at—this is a Republican Party—they have, what, eight Senate seats that they could have vulnerable?  Maybe a couple more retirements could happen.  They have more—an indictment or two that could hit them in the House.

I mean, there is no good news politically for the Republican Party these days.  I mean, between—between—I mean, the only thing that keeps them—keeps them from completely, I think, you know, withdrawing as a party for ‘08 is that Giuliani is competitive with Clinton in the general election.

You know, it’s like that’s the only thing that sort of keeps them happy.  They’ve got a third party—this could cost them all these electoral votes.

Ron Paul, he could get three, four, five percent in Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico.  You know, I know you love these Rocky Mountain states.  All of them will go blue.

RUSSERT:  But he’d be running as an anti-war candidate.  Probably more anti-war than Hillary Clinton.

TODD:  But he’d be running as an anti-government candidate, too.  And that wing of the party has not been represented very well these days.

CILLIZZA:  His campaign I think from the start almost has had a feel of sort of a national campaign.  It doesn’t have the feel of like an Iowa, then a New Hampshire.

RUSSERT:  He raised $5 million.

CILLIZZA:  He raised—he has this broad Internet national following.  As we...

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  Anyone who’s written about it knows about it.  It had the feel of a national campaign from the start.  So it doesn’t seem like it would be all that big a transition.  And he ran for president in ‘88 as a Libertarian.

RUSSERT:  All you Ron Paul supporters, we just talked about you.

We’ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we’re back talking about the campaign, the race for the White House 2008.

Chris Cillizza of thewashingtonpost.com is with is.  Norah O’Donnell of NBC News.  Chuck Todd, the political director for NBC News.

The last time I had Todd and Cillizza together I called them the dynamic duo and I got this picture.  There it is right there.  Yes?

TODD:  Oh now.

RUSSERT:  There they are, Batman and Robin.

TODD:  Right.

RUSSERT:  And it’s nice to be joined here at this table by Wonder Woman.

O’DONNELL:  Yes.  I love Wonder Woman.  I love Wonder Woman.

RUSSERT:  Let’s go to the Democrats.

In 2006, here we are, the Democrats grab control of the Senate and the House.  And Democrats all across the country said change is here.  The war is going to stop.  The eavesdropping of the Bush administration is going to stop.  And hedge funds will be reigned in.

Chuck Todd, has there been change?

TODD:  Yes, none of that’s happened.  It’s a huge problem for the Democratic Party right now, is that they’ve got—and I’ve seen the leaders are struggling with this and you’re starting to see the House leadership blame the Senate leadership—you know, oh, it’s those --  you know, that Senate can’t get anything through.  We’re doing everything—Nancy Pelosi says we’re doing everything we said we’d do if we took over the House, it’s all the Senate’s fault.  And if only we’d get 60 Senate seats.

You almost wonder is if they’re going to start to try to run as if they’re in the minority again and pretend that, you know, well, gee, it’s Republican obstruction and—it’s actually a campaign that the Republicans ran against the Democrats going into—you know, ‘02 and—going into ‘04.  So it is a message that you can win on, but right now it’s hurting them.  I mean, that’s why congressional job approval rating is, you know, in the teens in some of these polls.

I think that was one of—the only Fred Thompson gaffe.  I think he did say it was 11 percent.  It’s not that low yet.  It might get there.  Maybe he’s...

RUSSERT:  One poll had 11 percent.

TODD:  He’s going to get there.  The premonition, it’s—so we’ll see.  But it’s—it’s bad.  And it’s because there’s no apparent change.  And, you know, whatever they want to do anyway.

RUSSERT:  Well, it’s interesting how John Edwards has seized on this argument, saying you can’t just change the players.  Because if you just change one corporate-supported culture for another, you’re not going to get any change in policy.  You’re just moving around the chairs.  People get money, Democrats, Republicans, from the same sources, and you won’t have any real change.

Is that going to resonate, Norah?

O’DONNELL:  It might resonate.  I mean, rather than it being an anti-Republican year, it could end up being an anti-incumbent year.  And some Democrats could get tossed out as well.

The Democrats look like they’re spinning their wheels up there on Capitol Hill.  They’re in control and they promised changes and they’ve yet to deliver.

That’s why the only bill that they seem to have sort of gained some political traction on is what’s called SCHIP, but it has to deal with children’s health insurance, and why now MoveOn, as well as all of the unions, have gotten together a big multimillion-dollar ad buy to blast these Republicans in selective districts to try and get a veto-proof majority in the House to overturn the president.  It’s a great issue for Democrats because 72 percent of the American people agree, yes, we should have an expansion of children’s health insurance.  Sixty-two percent of Republicans, even Republicans in the Senate, support having a veto-proof majority.

So that’s an issue they can wield with a big stick over—over the Republicans.  But I haven’t seen it championed that much on the Hill.

RUSSERT:  But this issue of SCHIP, expanding health care for children, has worked for the Democrats.  They were able to box George W. Bush into a corner.  Sixty-seven senators saying, Mr. President, you’re wrong.  The first bipartisan coalition I’ve seen in a long time in the Senate.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Right.

O’DONNELL:  Right.

RUSSERT:  But it does not in any way suggest that the Democrats have been successful on the war, which is why they were elected to the majority, according to people you talk to in the Democratic Party.

CILLIZZA:  Just one quick SCHIP—you saw Mike Huckabee, who has been more so than any, I think, of the other Republican candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, willing to criticize the Bush administration in really harsh terms, say this is a political loser, which I think is sort of saying what a lot of Republicans think at this point.

The war, I think the problem with it on the Democratic side is—and it’s both sides, in some ways—is the presidential race is so all-encompassing.  You have these big figures, especially on the Democratic side, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—throw John Edwards in there.  None of them have pledged to have troops removed.

They won’t do it.  Hillary Clinton...

RUSSERT:  Right.  2013.

CILLIZZA:  2013.

RUSSERT:  All troops.

CILLIZZA:  Hillary Clinton, in an interview with my paper, “The Washington Post,” specifically avoided a question about a timeline.  And I think they take their cues in some ways from the presidential candidates.  And I think the presidential candidates don’t know what to do.

They know what the base wants.  There’s no question.  The base would want everyone out of Iraq yesterday.  But then they also—and I think Senator Clinton is especially cognizant of this—they know the general election awaits and they know that people don’t want to see a precipitous withdrawal that results in even more tragedy, even more loss of lives, sort of adding on to what already most people view as a bad situation.

They’re caught between a rock and a hard place there because the base is who votes in these Democratic primaries and caucuses.  So they need to appeal to them, and yet, they also know that just willy-nilly withdrawing, taking all the troops out yesterday, is probably not the best solution either.  And so I think that’s why you see—you don’t see anyone coming down very stridently and hard on a specific withdrawal date.

O’DONNELL:  But on the health insurance matter you do have the leading Republican presidential contenders all agreeing with Bush on the unpopular idea of not expanding children’s health insurance.  It’s a good issue for the Democrats running for president to hit them on that.

I mean, I saw that they’re calling—one Democratic congressman called Bush Ebenezer Scrooge, you know?  And they’re saying that Bush is heartless.  Hillary said this is I think a sneak attack on the American children by Bush.

It’s an issue that can resonate other than the war, because the Democrats don’t want to talk about war.  They don’t want to talk about the war in Iraq.  It’s not a good issue for them.

RUSSERT:  Well, except when they talk about health care, they’ll say he can find the money for the war in Iraq, but he can’t find the money to help our sick children.

O’DONNELL:  Ten billion dollars a month we are spending in Iraq.  And I think Dick Durbin got on the floor of the Senate and he said, if we can spend $10 billion a month on the war in Iraq, why can’t we spend $35 billion to give children health insurance?

The line that the Democrats haven’t used that they need to use is, this is an issue of values.  And if they use the word “values,” then that’s one that resonates more in terms of political terms.  Our children are values in this, and willing to spend money on them.

TODD:  Let me give a quick explanation of why I think the Republican presidentials are not supporting this.  I think that this is the lesson they took away from supporting the Medicare prescription drug bill, that they sided on a government program and they feel like, boy, that hurt them with the base when it came to spending and all that.

But I want to go to the war a minute.  And that is, this caution and calculation by the presidential candidates, you know, this is exactly the incorrect political advice John Kerry got in 2002.  And I don’t care what anybody says.  I will go to my grave believing that John Kerry in his gut wanted to vote against that resolution and he was talked into voting for it for this reason: he was told, you know, you’ll look weak if you’re the nominee, neutralize Iraq, get it off the table.

It’s almost as if there are all these presidentials on the Democratic side, they’re all sitting there saying—they’re all just being a little cautious because they think, gee, I’ve got to neutralize it, I’ve got to get it off the table.  And I’ll tell you, you know, that actually cost the Democrats the White House in 2004.  And I wonder if that caution is going to hurt them.

RUSSERT:  We’re going to come back and talk a lot more about that, caution, caution, caution.  Why won’t these candidates step out and make their positions clear on the big issues confronting our country?

We’ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:   David Yepsen, the political reporter for “The Des Moines Register,” Norah, in Iowa, wrote a column on Thursday in which he said as a warning for Hillary Clinton that, “You’re driving around Iowa in a big entourage, you have Secret Service protection.  You bristled when a political activist began to challenge your vote condemning Iran, which many people thought was a predicate for military action against Iran down the road.  And you don’t talk to local Iowa reporters.  You better start.”

“You have 11 or 12 weeks to do go before Iowa, and we here in”—he said hayseeds—“expect to be treated as human beings with respect.  And don’t try to drop in here and have this kind of bubble and then disappear from our state.”

Now, I say all that, quoting Yepsen, and yet she’s still ahead in Iowa.

O’DONNELL:  Right.  And I think with—as well as not being specific.  They don’t feel the need to do it because she’s still—well, she’s gaining in the polls, at least in Iowa.  She’s now number one in Iowa.  And of course she’s still leading nationally.

But it’s a problem her campaign has acknowledged for a long time.  When the questions about authenticity have been raised multiple times, Terry McAuliffe has said, well, we know that she needs to spend more time with people one on one.

Look how well she did on New York when she spent one-on-one time on her listening tour.  Everybody got to know her and love her.  And yes, we’re going to make her very, very available to the press.  That has not been the case.

When asked sometimes, they say, well, we’re spending time with local reporters.  But local reporters are saying, no, we’re not getting that access that we need to Senator Clinton.

Candidates have to spend time with reporters and be open to questions.  Candidates also have to be open to questions from people in the audience.

When Senator Clinton was challenged in Iowa the other day about Iran, she bristled at that question, accused the man of being a plant.  And then for the next several days did not allow any questions from the audience.  Is she thin-skinned?  Is it too tight, her campaign?

That’s a question to ask.  And it will certainly be leveled at her.  Once, of course, she becomes the nominee and the frontrunner, then you get a lot of these thrown at you, and you’ve got to spend a lot of time with a lot of different reporters.

RUSSERT:  There’s one lesson we know from history.  If you can’t answer tough questions, you can’t make tough decisions.

Chris, history’s replete with presidents who assume the Oval Office.  And we know what their limitations were, what their dark side may have been.  And yet, it wasn’t fully examined in the campaign.

Are we getting at that in this campaign with any of these candidates?

CILLIZZA:  I don’t think we really are.  And I think it’s most important with Senator Clinton, because what’s the strongest argument that Senator Clinton makes?  On day one I can step in and do this job.

I think people want to know more about why can she do that.  I mean, I think people are familiar.  Yes, she’s a senator from New York, yes she was the first lady.  I think most people think she’s a pretty accomplished, bright woman.

But it strikes me as strange that when this campaign started the theme was she’s the most famous person no one really knows.

O’DONNELL:  No one really knows.

CILLIZZA:  Right?  OK.  And let’s talk, let’s have a conversation.

Remember when she announced on the Internet...

O’DONNELL:  Let’s chat.

CILLIZZA:  ... I want to talk, let’s chat.  You don’t—I’m not that aloof, inauthentic person that I’ve been cast as. 

Well, the way that you change that impression is you go out and show people that you are not that aloof, inauthentic person that you’ve been cast as.  Whether it’s a sit-down interview with a reporter, me—that would be ideal—to talk about her family life, or Chelsea, or anything to warm her up.  And you haven’t seen that kind of stuff.

I wonder if it’s because what Norah said.  But they just don’t think they need to do it.  That things are going in the right direction, they don’t want to open her up to risk.  I’m not sure, but when you come out of the box with a campaign that says we’re going to let you know who Hillary Clinton really is, I don’t think that it’s accomplished that to this point.

O’DONNELL:  I think there also is by the candidates distressed of the media.  They don’t want to have to answer some of the questions.  And then I think that there’s an argument in the campaign.  There’s some people who push for more access, and then the candidates themselves in many ways push us back.

We’ve seen this with President George W. Bush.  He calls the media the filter.  He doesn’t have to like to have to talk through the filter, he calls it.  He wants to talk over them.

CILLIZZA:  And she as a candidate is clearly not favorably inclined to the media due to her experience in the White House.  In her personal relationship...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  They are modeling their campaign after Bush ‘04 -- the combination of Bush in the primary and Bush ‘04 to the extent of how they treat the media.  Although I would argue the Bush folks did have aspects of the media they actually treated a little bit better than the Clinton folks have done today.

RUSSERT:  And yet, when you ask a question saying, all right, let’s look at your experience when you were first lady—your issue was health care—the secretary of treasury, Lloyd Bentsen; the chief economic adviser, Robert Rubin; Daniel Patrick Moynahan in the Senate Finance Committee, all begged Hillary Clinton to do a scaled-down incremental health care, which is what she’s now supporting...

TODD:  Right.

RUSSERT:  ... she refused, insisted in going forward with her plan.  It blew up.  And the most important vote that she cast in the Senate, the war in Iraq.

So the two fundamental lynchpins, if you will, of her experience are there for examination.  And by her own admission, she made mistakes.

TODD:  Right.

RUSSERT:  Why aren’t the other candidates saying, wait a minute, let’s examine this?

TODD:  Well, that’s the great question.  You know, these other campaigns—I mean, I hear about it all the time, you guys aren’t holding Clinton to the fire, you’re not demanding access, for instance.  I mean, I do think, for instance, the Clinton campaign, why they don’t open up the Clinton library for every—that—all that does is add to this idea that they have something to hide, it adds to the worst part of the stereotypes of Clinton’s image.

O’DONNELL:  You mean the donations to the...

TODD:  Not the donations.  I’m talking about her correspondence.

O’DONNELL:  Oh, her correspondence, yes.

TODD:  Her papers.  Because if she is running on her experience, of her days in the White House, then the voters deserve and the media deserves to examine that.  But her opponents are afraid to go after her.  And I think they’re afraid because they have found out Bill Clinton is beloved with the Democratic base. 

Not just liked and respected, he’s beloved.  And I think they’re afraid that if they go after her too much, it bounces back.  They’re hoping we’re going to do their job for them, but that never is the case.  And if these campaigns don’t step up, you know, she’s going to be—she’s going to be the nominee.

RUSSERT:  And we’re going to take another quick break.  We’ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we are back.

We’ve talked about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards.  Big full-page ad in the paper this week—“Draft Al Gore”.  The Nobel Peace Prize, all the speculation.

Is there any chance that Gore will get in this race, Norah?

O’DONNELL:  I don’t think so.  I don’t think that he has either the money to get it and can raise it quickly enough.  I don’t think he has the infrastructure.  But I’m sure he loves—he loves the speculation.  He loves that full-page ad.  And he’ll love having a Nobel Peace Prize, yes.

CILLIZZA:  I’ve always thought that if Obama or Edwards didn’t take off, that Gore might really think about it, because I think that he really does believe that the Democratic Party is—he has a fundamentally different image of the Democratic Party, where it is today and where it needs to go than Hillary Clinton.  And I think he recognizes that.  I think if he believed that there wasn’t someone articulating that vision that could beat her, he would think about it.

The problem is, and the problem every time—I run into this all the time when I’m sort of agitating on the Gore front—is that he has a very nice life.  He’s been far more successful, frankly, as a private citizen than he was as a public citizen. 

He’s wealthy.  He sort of does what he wants.  He focuses on his issue of global warming.  He’s up for the Nobel Peace Prize in the success of “An Inconvenient Truth”.

People say to me, if that was your life, would you want to jump back into it, knowing as Al Gore knows everything that comes with getting back into a presidential race?  Which is the scrutiny and the alpha male and the earth tones and...

O’DONNELL:  And combating a Clinton.

CILLIZZA:  Right.

(CROSSTALK)

RUSSERT:  He was involved with Google at the very beginning.  It’s now worth $600 a share.

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  You know what?  Once you run for president—and he won the popular vote...

TODD:  Yes.

CILLIZZA:  It’s in the blood.

RUSSERT:  ... it’s there.  And yet, will he?

TODD:  I’ve always had this theory that if he did it, he would do it on his terms.  And that also means his own party.  Meaning I think that you read that book, “The Assault on Reason,” and you read the beginning, that’s a man who thinks that the entire system is broken.

Well, if you believe the system is broken, then you run outside the system.  And you go—you know, Gore-Bloomberg.  I mean, you go—I mean, that’s always been the ticket that I’ve imagined that I think is more—you know, I think the two of them—you know, Bloomberg as a president doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  Bloomberg as a venture capital vice president on behalf of Al Gore, that makes a lot of sense to me.

And that’s always been I thought the path that Gore would choose, is to go outside the system, not risk losing to a Clinton in a primary, but instead doing it on his own terms in...

RUSSERT:  A third party.

TODD:  ... a third party of sorts.  Run as a Democrat, but sort of run as basically saying I’m fixing the Democratic Party.

RUSSERT:  But if for some reason the Edwards campaign or the Obama campaign are no longer viable over the next 11 or 12 weeks, and there’s a vacuum, does he take advantage of it?

TODD:  I doubt in a primary.  I think at the end of the day he’s still going to endorse Obama or Edwards.  Three months ago I would have said, of course he’s going to endorse Obama.  Edwards people make noises to me that say, you know what?  You know, Gore has given a lot of nods for—I think Edward’s is working Gore harder.

I asked some Obama folks the other day.  I said, “How often does Obama check in with Gore?”  And he doesn’t.

This is another thing about Obama.  He doesn’t seem to, like, do these little things well, behind the scenes sometimes.  And he hasn’t been wooing Gore.

Edwards apparently has been wooing Gore a little bit.  That could—you know, his endorsement, granted, was Howard Dean.  What did that do (INAUDIBLE)?  But Gore coming in, in December, in Iowa, doing an event for one of those two?  It certainly would send a signal to the Clintons, that’s for sure.

RUSSERT:  Chris Cillizza, all the polls in the generic tests says Democrat—we want a Democrat in the White House, according to voters.  And yet, when you take real names—Hillary Clinton versus Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney, whatever it is—races are tight.  They close rather dramatically.

What’s going on?  Is this going to be another red state/blue state, bring out the chalkboard Florida, Florida, Florida, Ohio, Ohio, Ohio?

CILLIZZA:  You know, I think that it’s what Chuck talked about earlier.  I think Republican’s last, great hope—because not much has gone right for them—I think their last, great hope lies, they believe, in Hillary Clinton being the nominee, which they take to be a foregone conclusion.  They believe that despite the war, despite, as Norah talked about earlier, people’s doubts about the economy, fears about the economy, despite all of the tarnishing of the Republican brand, that she can unite the Republican Party and win over some moderates for them in a way that no one else can.

I think that’s something of a long shot, frankly.  I think Senator Clinton has, in this campaign, in her first campaign for Senate, tended to surprise people with her ability to win them over.  And so I think if you base everything on her being the nominee, it’s a little much.

O’DONNELL:  And yet, our own poll showed that she’s no more polarizing, I believe, than any of the other candidates.  And the Republican National Committee and all the parties have been already raising money off Hillary as a polarizing candidate, and the Democratic committees have more money than the Republicans.  They’ve already been using her to try and raise money and it hasn’t worked for them.  So that’s one argument. 

And also, in the marginal districts, she could be somewhat of a drag.

RUSSERT:  Time out.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  Say hello to Henry and Grace.

O’DONNELL:  I will.

RUSSERT:  Chuck Todd, Norah O’Donnell, Chris Cillizza, see you next.

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