updated 10/29/2007 11:06:40 AM ET 2007-10-29T15:06:40

Guests: Sally Bedell Smith, David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  Welcome again.

Hillary Clinton continues to be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.  Who is she?  What kind of president would she be?  What about her relationship with another president, Bill Clinton?

Those subjects and more.  A new book, “For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years”.  And here to talk about that is the author, Sally Bedell Smith.

Welcome.

SALLY BEDELL SMITH, AUTHOR, “FOR LOVE OF POLITICS”:  It’s great to be here, Tim.

RUSSERT:  Why did you write the book?

SMITH:  I wrote the book because they are—it is the most compelling and I guess to a lot of people maybe even a mysterious marriage.  And they have the most unique political partnership that we’ve ever seen.  And by—and by giving the complete picture of what they were like in those eight years, we can get quite a good idea of what it would be like to have two presidents married to each other (INAUDIBLE).

RUSSERT:  How would you explain their relationship?  Is that possible?

SMITH:  Well, her own mother, Hillary’s own mother, has called them a third kind of entity.  They’re almost codependent.  They’re really two halves of a unique whole.  And in many ways, temperamentally they’re quite different.  Their personalities couldn’t be more different.

He’s all enthusiasm and exuberance and wrapping his arm around people, and she’s sort of ramrod straight and famous for saying, “I don’t know spontaneity.”  And he’s—he’s quite the opposite.  But they—yet, in political terms, they almost revere each other.

Their friend, Susan Thomas (ph) has told me that they expect and admire each other totally in a political context.  And that Bill has always been the chief strategist for himself and for her.

RUSSERT:  Whenever you think of Bill and Hillary Clinton in political terms, you think of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.  She never formally ran for president, thought about it, Mrs. Roosevelt.  And yet you recount an interview that Bill Clinton gave to National Public Radio talking about the Roosevelts’ relationship.

SMITH:  Right.  And I—when I heard it, I thought, boy, he could have been talking about his own.

What he said was that Eleanor and Franklin loved each other, said they had a bunch of children, but yet—and here was the really telling quote—he said they had deep pockets of estrangement and pain.  And yet they stuck with what they had in common.  And they both worked together for public service.  And that deep pockets of estrangement and pain part really hit me, because there is so much of that in the history of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s relationship, going all the way back even to the beginning of their marriage.

His well-known infidelity, and, of course, going into the White House, the terrible scandal of Monica Lewinsky.  Yet through all that, this glue has kept them together—running for elections, holding office, pursuing their agenda.  And it’s kept them—and when they—after they—at the end of the—you know, the sort of impeachment, the whole Lewinsky impeachment crisis, when Hillary decided to run for the Senate, it brought them back together again and even strengthened their bond.  And they had been going to couples’ counseling, and Hillary later said, “Finally, we could get back to something we could talk about other than our relationship.”

RUSSERT:  You talk about the Lewinsky scandal in your book, Sally, and she became, after the initial hurt and shock, a full partner in trying to repel impeachment investigations and so forth.

SMITH:  Absolutely.  And that operated on a couple of levels.  I mean, it’s fascinating to go back into the research and see what they had said back during the ‘70s, even, when they were in Arkansas.

They had always had enemies.  And somehow, uniting against enemies in a way helped dispel the anger that they felt toward each other when they were in terrible stressful situations.  That was sort of one dynamic.  And the other dynamic is that, as one of her very close aides said to me, Hillary had to fight for him to prevent him from being driven from office, because if he were driven from office, she saw her own presidential ambitions going down the drain.

RUSSERT:  She had presidential ambitions back then?

SMITH:  She absolutely did.  In fact, of the sort of 7,000 pages of the public records that I went through, I found a really interesting quote from Bill Clinton back in 1992, where he said, “Eight years of Hillary Clinton,” you know, “not a bad idea.”  So—and there were friends of theirs who were saying—I interviewed one member of the Clinton cabinet who said there was a lot of loose talk even in the first year of the Clinton administration where they were really seriously talking about Hillary, not Al Gore, following Bill.

RUSSERT:  When there was the first allegations made, Hillary Clinton when on “The Today Show” and sat with Matt Lauer, and she talked about the vast right wing conspiracy.  And then when she ran for the Senate in 2000, I moderated the debate.  I asked her about that comment and whether she had misled the American people.  She said, “No, because I did not know at the time the truth of the matter.”

Does that vet out?

SMITH:  Well, I think in the sense that she didn’t know all the details of it.  One of her very close friends said that given Bill’s history, that she would have—she would have much more readily believed it if she had heard a story about Bill going out on a trip and having an assignation with somebody.  That would have made sense to her.

What she couldn’t quite compute was, as her friend said, that he would be so insane as to do something like this in the Oval Office, or adjacent to the Oval Office, repeatedly over time.  We forget that that relationship went on in one way or another for 18 months.  And then when the time came for him to confess to the American people in August of 1998 that he had in fact been lying about the inappropriate relationship, I believe it was Mike McCurry—Bill Clinton’s then press secretary said that what seemed to hurt her the most at the moment was learning some of the details of it.

I mean, a lot of details had been coming out in the press.  But in an odd sort of way, there was a kind of—there was some sort of feeling between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky that I think was—that was—that was sort of hard for Hillary Clinton to accept.

RUSSERT:  How does she reconcile her role as a feminist with the public humiliation from a situation like this?

SMITH:  Well, she’s never really explained that.  But again, what those—I was so lucky to be able to talk to people who knew both of them well and were smart about it and could interpret it.  And what this good friends said was that Hillary was not going to divorce him for basically doing what he had been doing for their entire married life, except this time it was a question of magnitude.  And so she decided to stay with him.

Also, at that point she was thinking about her political future.  And she knew it would have been a terrible disadvantage for them to split up at that point.  So it was both—you know, it was both—she—Susan Thomases, another good friend, said tolerating his weakness was always part of the relationship.  Now, you have to take that and interpret it in whatever way you like, but that was—that’s something that she has been willing to give up in order to get other things that have come with her marriage.

RUSSERT:  We’re going to take a quick break.  We’re talking to Sally Bedell Smith.  Her new book is “For Love of Politics”.

Want to come back and talk about health care, because that was Hillary’s primary responsibility when she was first lady.

We’ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we’re back talking to Sally Bedell Smith.  Her new book, “For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years”.

Hillary Clinton gave an interview to “Essence” magazine recently, and she said, “I never doubted that it was a marriage worth investing in.”

It’s an interesting choice of words.

SMITH:  It is an interesting choice of words, and it speaks to what we were—what we were just remarking on a few moments ago, which is that they have invested in their political future.  They are deeply invested in the sequel right now.

He very much wants her to win the presidency as a way of embellishing his legacy and sort of purifying Clintonism.  And she wants the presidency because she feels she deserves it after supporting him for all these years.

RUSSERT:  So, post-impeachment, would this be seen by him as a Clinton third term?

SMITH:  Well, it’s a fascinating question, and it’s one that people really haven’t focused on, because it’s inevitable when you have two presidents in the White House, including one who has served two terms, it’s inconceivable that Bill Clinton wouldn’t continue in his deep collaborative role with her that—you know, they’ve gone back and forth in that role for their entire married life.  I don’t think he’s going to be visiting Kyrgyzstan too much when—you know, in the first 100 days, when they’re devising their strategy for policy and, you know, their legislative priorities, he’s going to be—he’s going to want to be right there in the West Wing, right there in the engine room, and where he’s always been.

RUSSERT:  It’s been interesting in the campaign.  When necessary, Hillary Clinton has tried to separate herself from the former president on the issue of trade.  He was very much in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA.

In your book, you talk about how Hillary Clinton resisted NAFTA and was a late convert to it.  Now, in her own campaign, she seems to be distinguishing her position from that of her husband’s.

SMITH:  Yes.  It was a fascinating episode, and nobody had really gone into it before.  But, there was—in the summer of 1993, they had Hillary’s health care plan, they had NAFTA, and reinventing government initiative that were all sort of on the table together.  And the president and his advisers made the decision to go forward with getting NAFTA ratified.

NAFTA came—it came out of the prior Bush administration.  It was really a Republican initiative.  But Bill Clinton believed in free trade and globalization.  And so he wanted to push NAFTA forward.

And Hillary was really prepared to try and kill NAFTA.  Mickey Cantor had to take her out—who was one of their close friends...

RUSSERT:  Special trade representative.

SMITH:  Special trade representative.  He took her out behind the White House, sat her down on a bench, and said, we have to go first with NAFTA.  We can come back to health care later, but we have to do NAFTA because we need a success and we need a bipartisan success.  And he was absolutely right.  And what convinced her at the time was not necessarily the merits of NAFTA, but the fact that it was a good political decision. 

So, even then, she was not very much in favor of free trade.  And so she is consistent.  And Bill Clinton continues to be.  So, if they were both in the White House together, I wouldn’t want to be in the middle of that little fight.

RUSSERT:  On the issue of torture, Bill Clinton had said a year ago if there was a ticking time bomb scenario where the number three al Qaeda was apprehended and he, and only he, knew that a bomb was going to go off in America, then you  may do some things that perhaps were not “permissible”.  My words.

Hillary Clinton differed with that at a recent debate in New Hampshire.  And when I pointed out she differed with her husband, she said, “Well, I’ll talk to him when I get home.”

The following Sunday, the former president changed his view to conform with that of Hillary Clinton.

SMITH:  Well, that’s quite consistent with things that happened in those eight years that I report on.  There was one instance that involved some language I couldn’t repeat on television.  But it had to do with the health care proposal, and Hillary was really—she was so dug in on it the whole time.  There were so many opportunities to compromise, and it was a perfect example of how the dynamic of their marriage intercepted with what was good policy.

And he made a speech up in Boston, and he sort of indicated that he would go for something less than universal health care.  And she called him up and she just blistered him.  And he said, you come back here.  I want to see you the minute you arrive home.

And somebody met him when he got at the helicopter and took him upstairs.  And she took him to the woodshed.  And the next morning he came out and he said, no, no, no.  I’m for universal care.

RUSSERT:  The proverbial rolling pin.

SMITH:  Right, the proverbial rolling pin.

RUSSERT:  We’re going to come back and talk a little more about health care, and then about Al Gore and his relationship with Bill and Hillary then and now.

We’ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we’re back talking about Bill and Hillary Clinton, the new book, “For Love of Politics,” by Sally Bedell Smith.  And she is here.

On health care, when you read the inside reporting in your book about it, it is so striking that there are significant people in the Clinton administration.  The secretary of Treasury, Lloyd Bentsen, the economic adviser Robert Rubin.  I read somewhere that Donna Shalala, the Health and Human Services secretary, called the plan crazy.  Leon Panetta, the Office of Management and Budget; Pat Moynahan, the chairman of the Finance Committee; Bill Bradley, another Democrat; Republicans; all saying we can do something, but this plan is too big, too much.  Compromise and we can get down—get a scaled measure through.

Ironically, the scaled measure they were all talking about is pretty close to the plan that Hillary Clinton has now adopted in 2008, which means that from 1993 to 2008, 40 million people went without care...

SMITH:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  ... because she was so wedded to getting her original plan through.

SMITH:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  Fair?

SMITH:  Absolutely fair.  There were so many points along the way, and the complication again had to do with this dynamic between the two of them back then.

There was a fellow who used to represent the hospitals named Michael Bromberg, and he said there was Hillary’s White House and Bill’s White House, and we didn’t know which White House was in charge.  And as you say, if Hillary’s White House had yielded to Bill’s White House, we would have had a decent health care plan that would have worked for so many people.  And I think the lesson or the cautionary tale to look at is the degree to which Hillary becomes invested in something she believes in, which was certainly the case then.  And the test of that was this current plan which, you know, has features that may be debatable, whether she would be willing to yield on things that Democrats, moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans, would say to her, these won’t work.

Would she be willing to fold them and accept something less?  And that’s the real crux of it, I think.  It’s not so much what she says, it’s what she’s willing to do.  You have to look at the action.

RUSSERT:  Is that the lesson she’s learned from her previous...

SMITH:  Well, we’ll see, because it’s hard to tell from—you know, from being in the Senate.  Ever since she became a senator, she’s been focused on running for president.  So she’s been saying things that are very calibrated, and she’s, you know, doing things, by and large, that are not putting her too far out in front of anything.  But the real issue with what happens when—when you’re in executive power, which is what was the case then, and if there were—if she were to become president with Democratic control of both houses of Congress, you know, it would be interesting to see to what degree she would be willing to yield.

RUSSERT:  Would you have again a Hillary Clinton White House and a Bill Clinton White House?

SMITH:  Well, I think it’s pretty inevitable.  I mean, how do you—I mean, what do you—how could you possibly make, you know, a two-term president—you know, have an office in the East Wing with all the correspondent people?  And—no, I think you would have to, just by virtue of the dominance of his personality and his experience.

I think having him sit at the table with a group of presidential advisers and having him say, well, listen, this is the way—you know, this is the way it should be done, I know these things, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, it could be a fairly intimidating situation and possibly chilling situation.  And there are real questions of accountability, too.

RUSSERT:  But it could be an asset?

SMITH:  It could be an asset.  It could cut both ways.

RUSSERT:  Let me ask you about Al Gore.  What was his relationship at the end of the Clinton presidency with Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton?

SMITH:  Well, it was—it was very strained.  And the first signs, the glimmers of those strains, began at the very beginning, when Bill made it clear that Hillary was going to have to be in the room when he made—when he made a big decision.

It was amazing when he announced that she was the head of the health care taskforce.  Al Gore was among those in the room who were quite surprised by that.  He had not been informed.

There were three forces to be reckoned with in that White House.  Three centers of power.  And that created a lot of rivalry and sometimes confusion. 

And Al Gore was a very effective vice president.  He had a whole portfolio of responsibilities.  He made many contributions.  He was probably the strongest vice president. 

But Hillary was always in there, kind of behind closed doors.  She has this longstanding collaborative relationship with her husband that could in the end always trump whatever Al Gore might have recommended.  And, I mean, I don’t know what Hillary’s running mate would face with the prospect of having Bill Clinton has her primary adviser.

RUSSERT:  Whenever there’s discussion of Al Gore running in 2008, I try to remind people that when he won the popular vote and lost the electoral college, that psychologically can traumatize someone.  But when you rebound and you win an Oscar, win an Emmy, win the Nobel Peace Prize and become independently wealthy because of your investment with Google, do you want to take on Hillary Clinton and risk losing to someone that you have a mixed relationship with?

SMITH:  Yes.  Well, I think that’s a very serious question.  And when we were talking about the end of the Clinton presidency and that last year, I think it was—it was clear that Bill Clinton was spending a lot more of his time and mental energy and fundraising and all that on Hillary’s behalf, rather than Al Gore’s behalf.

And I remember when Hillary was just about to announce her race, Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, a big Democrat, said Hillary should really think twice about this because it could have an adverse impact, as it did, on Al Gore’s presidential campaign.

RUSSERT:  To be continued.

Sally Bedell Smith.  The book, “For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years”.

Thank you for joining us.

SMITH:  Thank you, Tim.

RUSSERT:  And we’ll be right back with David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell, NBC News political correspondents, to talk about Hillary Clinton, all the other Democrats and the Republicans, the race for the White House 2008.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we are back, joined by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory.

Welcome both.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, Tim.

RUSSERT:  We just talked to Sally Bedell Smith about Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Andrea, let me start with you.

The Democrats, how do you see the race right now?

MITCHELL:  Well, Hillary is a prohibitive frontrunner.  Obama is stepping it up, trying to be more aggressive, particularly going after her on foreign policy, on her vote in favor of tougher action against Iran.  And she’s on the spot and we can address that a little bit farther down the road.

But John Edwards, marginalized, having real trouble getting traction.  And Hillary as the target of the Republicans.

The Republicans all going after her, as we’ve seen in all of their recent debates.  She is the one that they want to prove their toughness and their credentials to conservatives, by going after her.

RUSSERT:  The national polls certainly seem to reflect that, David.  And yet, Iowa remains difficult for Senator Clinton.  She’s still locked in in what everyone says is a dead heat with Barack Obama and John Edwards.

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:  Yes, it’s a fascinating story that we’ve got this national story because of the polls, and then in Iowa it’s really a three-person race.  And John Edwards, where he’s losing traction I think nationally, he’s really staking his campaign in Iowa.

He spent so much time there.  He’s just completing going to all 99 counties.  He’s really targeting that rural vote, which can be important for him.  In the mechanics of the caucus system, he’s got a strong antiwar message that’s resonating out there. 

You’ve got Barack Obama also getting traction, spending a lot of money on advertising there, both biography and more pointed pieces as well.  He’s also the neighboring senator, also has a very good ground operation.

And here’s Hillary Clinton, national frontrunner, trying to target her real base of older women.  But these are not likely caucus-goers.  And so there’s a real education campaign going on within the Clinton campaign about how to get these older women out to create something of a gender gap.  And she doesn’t have the political history that she has in places like New Hampshire, because her husband never campaigned there. 

And, you know, there are negatives about Hillary Clinton.  There are weaknesses.  And some of those are playing out in a tighter race.

MITCHELL:  And among the women, the older women are the ones who have been most reluctant to join with Hillary.  Her own peer group.

She just turned 60, but it is the younger women, the women who have needs, who are—find appealing her social safety net positions on health care and other issues.  It’s the younger women who have been supporting her.  The older women have really been distant (ph).

RUSSERT:  It is interesting watching Barack Obama.  Several months ago, he had numerous opportunities to sharpen the differences between himself and Hillary Clinton, not in a personal way, but on a substantive way.  “You were for the war, I was against it.”  And he was resistant to do that.  And that was at a time when Hillary Clinton—negatives amongst Democrats were relatively higher than they are now.

Fast forward, October.  Hillary Clinton’s positive ratings of Democrats is up considerably, because as Andrea noted, the Republicans have attacked her, and that must make her OK.

GREGORY:  Right.

RUSSERT:  Suddenly, Obama’s deciding it’s a new season.  I now have to start showing people that there is—there are differences between myself and Hillary Clinton.

GREGORY:  It’s really hard for Barack Obama though, because he’s running on a unique brand, which is the kind of change that elevates politics, ends the hyperpartisanship that really, you know, started in this new go-around with the Clinton years.  And so when he starts pointing out those differences—and I don’t think that they’re—they’re gratuitous attacks.  They are questions about judgment.

The Clinton campaign is lying in wait.  They’re saying, oh, really?  What happened to the politics of hope?  Every sentence in reaction is, what happened to the politics of hope? 

The attacks are too hard.  I think there’s a real danger that his brand blows up and he doesn’t really have a chance.

His brand of a new kind of politics turning the generational page are really the two strengths that he’s got going into this primary.  And it may not be enough, but that’s what he’s got to keep going with.

MITCHELL:  But it’s flattened out.

GREGORY:  Yes.

MITCHELL:  And he may run out of time.  He may have to go much tougher, much more negative against her, because if he does not do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, he has a really hard time stopping her from moving down the road.

GREGORY:  But it’s still close enough in Iowa where he can lay...

MITCHELL:  Oh, he can.

GREGORY:  Yes.  He takes his campaign in Iowa.  And again, there’s a concern about what happened in 2004 with Gephardt and Dean going after one another and whether that just paved a way for Kerry.

RUSSERT:  Opening up as the non-negative candidate.

GREGORY:  Right.

RUSSERT:  From up the middle.

Also, we have learned from Iowa that there’s a strategic voter that is in place many times, where people will say that, you know, my heart was with Howard Dean but my mind was with John Kerry.  I dated Howard Dean, but I married John Kerry.  All those phrases because they thought Kerry would be a stronger general election candidate.

The debate still continues about who would be a stronger general election candidate.

MITCHELL:  And Hillary Clinton obviously  making her point that she is experienced, she has fought against Rudy Giuliani, as he is the frontrunner on the Republican side, in 2000 in a virtual contest, which they never became joined because he dropped out before running for the Senate.  But that she knows how to campaign against him than anyone else, that she’s tougher, that she sees (ph) it, that she has handled the “great right wing conspiracy” all those years in the White House.

That’s her argument.  Of course, the counterargument by the other Democrats is that she’s been damaged by that, that she’s damaged goods, that the Republicans want her to be the nominee because they would delight in rallying their base against her.  That she is the best thing the Republicans have going for them because it’s the best way to get a very lethargic, not very passionate Republican base energized to go and defeat Hillary Clinton, stop this woman from becoming the first female president.

GREGORY:  But it’s striking, Tim.  You know, I think that the inevitability argument has been made so strongly by this campaign that it’s sort of permeating everything.  And you want to say, well, hold on a second.  What is Hillary Clinton’s real experience?

She’s got political experience.  When it comes to actual leadership and judgment, you talked about health care.  You talked about the war on Iraq.  Let’s just take health care for a moment.

Her experience was intransigence, stubbornness.  She operated on a policy matter in a way that she has criticized George Bush for operating, not negotiating with the Hill, not negotiating even with friends, let alone members of the other party.

Those are key differences, and that’s what Barack Obama has to try to exploit.  His difficult is that he still appears to be something of a movement candidate.  And movements are attractive, especially to young people, but do they really get you across the line?

MITCHELL:  And what Mitt Romney said last week in the Republican forum was, you know, what is her experience?  She’s never run anything.  She’s never run a state.  She’s never run a city.  She’s never managed anything.  You don’t want an intern—loaded term—to become president of the United States.

So, the Republicans are making that very argument.  If Barack Obama is unwilling to make the argument, the Republicans are certainly making it.

When you talk about health care, David is exactly right.  She went up against Democrats inside the White House—Bob Rubin; Lloyd Bentsen, the Treasury secretary; Laura Tyson, the economic adviser, Donna Shalala, the Health and Human Services cabinet secretary.  Went up against all of them—Daniel Patrick Moynahan, who was on the Finance Committee, the key player on health care.

She rejected all of their advice, went for the single payer system, and refused to compromise when the Republicans were willing to compromise.  And by the time she was ready for compromise, it was too late, because the Whitewater scandals had begun to break and the Republicans backed off and said, we don’t have to bargain with this White House.  This White House is damaged goods.

So she missed her opportunity.

Now she comes back with a health care plan which is remarkably similar to John Edwards’ and Barack Obama, a much more scaled-back, choice-emphasized plan.

RUSSERT:  Do you think Mitt Romney would intentionally use a word like “intern”?

MITCHELL:  Would Mitt Romney intentionally confuse Obama and Osama?  That’s a great argument, whether or not that was a slip of the tongue, fatigue, or really just a Freudian slip.

RUSSERT:  Another quick break.  David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we’re back talking with David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell about the race for the White House.

Rudy Giuliani, interesting who he has surrounded himself with in terms of foreign policy advice—the neoconservative movement.

Norman Podhoretz, who says that we should bomb Iran as soon as it is logistically possible.  Others who are suggesting profiling of Muslim Arab-Americans at airports.  Others who suggest that we should lift the ban on assassination and make that part of U.S. policy.

David, is this going to help or hurt Giuliani in this campaign?

GREGORY:  Well, I think it may help him in the primary.  I think it hurts him in the general.

George Bush remains very popular among conservatives.  In a state like New Hampshire, his approval rating is double his national average.  So it’s worth remembering how polarized the country remains and on the kind of security footing that a lot of conservatives are in the country.  So talking about the threat that is Iran, that is real, is something that could be very powerful for him, particularly when security is really his major conservative credential, because he doesn’t do as well with social conservatives.

I think it’s very difficult for a Republican in the general election to say—you know, to sort of allude to conflict with Iran.  I just don’t think the American people are there.

I think that they will be a lot longer in believing the evidence.  And I just don’t think they want to go to war.  And there is a lot of analysis that has to be done about, OK, let’s—take us through this.

You want to hit targets in Iran to try to eliminate a nation’s nuclear program.  You’ve got over 100,000 U.S. troops in neighboring Iran—Iraq, rather.  You’ve got huge Iranian influence on Iraq already.

There’s some real consequences for U.S. men and women in the line of fire.

RUSSERT:  Does Iran respond by moving hundreds of thousands of Iranian troops into Iraq?

GREGORY:  Right.

RUSSERT:  What happens in Saudi Arabia?  What happens in Turkey?  What happens in the overall region?

Does this ignite anything?

MITCHELL:  In fact, southern Iraq is wide open to Iranian influence already.  And people would start moving across that border in much—in far greater numbers.

And you know, the Brits have pulled out of southern Iraq.  So that’s now a very vulnerable area.

U.S. troops would be targeted.  And U.S. collaborators, or Iraqis who are associated with American interests.  Its would be very, very difficult for the U.S. to also face its Arab allies with an attack on Iran.  Even though the Saudis and others, other Sunni governments, are concerned about Iranian influence, they do not want to see a widening Middle East war.

RUSSERT:  This has become a flash point issue in the Democratic race, because Hillary Clinton voted for an amendment which branded the Iranian military forces as a terrorist organization.  Barack Obama and John Edwards have seized on that, Andrea.  Tell us about it.

MITCHELL:  Well, Barack Obama did vote for a similar resolution previously, but this was the main resolution.  He didn’t vote for it.  He says he would have voted against it.

So he has a bit of his own problem there.  But he has really taken this to her—and John Edwards has in particular—because she’s the only Democratic candidate to have voted for this.

The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, strongly against it, says it could lead to war.  It is that much of an instigation to the Iranian regime.

You are for the first time in what was announced this week by Secretary Rice and the Treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, going after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the elite Quds Force.  This is the power base of Ahmadinejad.  And beyond that, these are the organizations that now run the Iranian economy, in large part.

So you’re basically saying to European companies, if you do business with these entities which are the Iranian government, you can’t do business anywhere else with Americans.  It is a very powerful sanction and it is going to lead to unintended consequences for sure down the road.

GREGORY:  What’s interesting about the fight on the left about this is that you see Hillary Clinton as a frontrunner putting a frame around her candidacy, defining herself as strong on security, but trying to do it in a smart way.  And you see Rudy Giuliani doing the same.

The battleground is going to be about strength on national security grounds.  It’s a question of how you do it.

I think that the Democrats, particularly frontrunner Hillary Clinton, does not want to get into the John Kerry 2004 trap, where the Republican candidate defines himself as strength and the Democrat as weakness.  I don’t think she wants to let herself...

(CROSSTALK)

RUSSERT:  But she’s clearly worried about this, because one of the first things she did was suddenly announce herself as a cosponsor on a Jim—Senator Jim Webb of Virginia resolution which called for the Congress to actually authorize a war against Iran and not just let the president go into one.  And people said, why is she doing that?  Because she wanted to neutralize her previous vote.

And David, she’s now leafleting Iowa with a letter from herself saying, excuse me, let me explain my vote on Iran.

GREGORY:  Well, and it’s like if you go back and read the 2002 speech and her war vote for Iraq, it was the same kind of thing—I’m not giving you a green light, I want you to take more diplomatic measures.  And now that’s what she’s saying, is that I’m not giving the president a green light, we’re just trying to actually force the hand of diplomacy here.  But she’s got to explain it, because she’s tied herself up again on an important...

RUSSERT:  But also in 2002 when she cast that war vote, she said, “I do so with conviction.”

GREGORY:  Absolutely.

MITCHELL:  And, in fact, right now, she is saying things that are remarkably similar to Condoleezza Rice.  Condoleezza Rice said this is in support of diplomacy.  That’s what Hillary Clinton is trying to say, but at the same time, Clinton is facing antiwar Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire.  And she has to somehow persuade them that this is not giving a green light to George Bush for another war.

And that’s her first test.  So she can’t even get to the strength test of a general election unless she gets the nomination, and she’s got to somehow placate the antiwar Democrats who are now renewed in their suspicion of her.

RUSSERT:  When asked why she voted for this resolution, which is something many people interpreted as consistent with the George Bush view of the world, some of her advisers said it’s a general election vote.  And now it seems, whoops, let’s step back, we haven’t been nominated yet.

MITCHELL:  Well, they’re afraid of all of these reports, some of ours included, which suggest that they were overconfident taking Iowa and New Hampshire for granted.  And that’s the last thing they need, because as you know, Tim, voters in Iowa and in New Hampshire, in these early states, take their responsibility very, very seriously.  And they can flip at the last minute.

They are late deciders, and they do not want anyone to assume anything about the nomination before that caucus and that primary.

RUSSERT:  Nine weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses.  It’s going to be a long, interesting nine weeks.

We’ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we are back talking to David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell, our political experts at NBC News.

Mitt Romney, John McCain, Fred Thompson—how do you see them?

GREGORY:  It’s still a muddled race.  It’s amazing.

You know, I think back to 2000, when George W. Bush came on to the scene.  And he was really the anointed one.  He was the presumptive favorite.

He faced an insurgent campaign from John McCain.  And here we are, and we don’t really have that, even though you’ve got to give credit.  Rudy Giuliani has still defined this race, has remained the frontrunner, is coming back up in New Hampshire, making it tight.  Iowa has still been a bit of a struggle.

And he is kind of—he is setting the terms for the kind of general election campaign that he wants to run, a coast-to-cast Republican campaign, trying to redefine the culture of the party to not be so focused on social issues.  But it’s going to be very interesting.

You know, it’s still a Romney-Giuliani dynamic.  Now Fred Thompson making more moves, doing a little bit better in the debate.  But is he really catching hold?  Is he just a regional candidate?

There’s lots of questions at time when McCain seems to be doing a little bit better in New Hampshire.  Still unsettled.

RUSSERT:  Someone who watches politics closely at the White House said that he’s surprised that Rudy Giuliani has been as durable as he has been as a candidate, particularly because pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, pro-sanctuaries for illegal immigrants.  And yet, he keeps saying, security trumps all.

GREGORY:  Well, and look, I think that there is a strong argument to be made that—first of all, it’s pragmatism.  And I think the right recognizes they are not in the kind of place they were in 2000, where they were poised to take over.  Democrats really want to get back into the White House, and they’re behaving in such a way.

Republicans are still in a funk.  And here comes Rudy Giuliani and says, let’s shake ourselves out of that.  “Islamic fascism” a term that’s used, “the threat of Iran.”  This is the conservative principle more important than anything else, and fiscal responsibility, something that has been lost, a lot of conservatives believe, under George Bush.

You rested on those pillars and maybe you get a pass on the social conservative end.

MITCHELL:  So far, he is getting a pass from a lot of voters in South Carolina...

GREGORY:  Yes.

MITCHELL:  ... who would normally be social conservatives.  But here, his strength and real toughness on some of these political issues and foreign policy issues seems to have trumped the social issues so far.

My own suspicion is that the pragmatism in the Republican Party will override the threats.  I think they are empty threats for a third-party candidate, a social values candidate.  I think they’re going to find a way to find someone acceptable.

It’s also interesting that a lot of people, conservatives, like members of the Cheney family.  And Mary Matalin, a former Cheney aide, are in the Thompson camp.  So it shows that there is no anointed Republican.

GREGORY:  Nobody’s going after Rudy.

RUSSERT:  Fred Thompson a little bit in the last debate.

GREGORY:  Yes, but, you know, the extent of what they’re doing is saying, well, who’s the real conservative?  And that’s an important debate to have.

But some of the issues of his business dealings in New York, his support for Bernard Kerik—there have been prominent Republicans who’ve said Bernie Kerik may be the tip of the iceberg.  And if that’s the case for Giuliani, it could be a real political problem for.  It was a very prominent Republican who said that with whom he dealt.

So, you know, these other conservatives, nobody’s running ads about some of these personal issues, that his adult children don’t speak to him, and his personal life in New York.  And so there’s a lot of people who don’t know this about him.  And certainly some social conservatives who say, look, the more people who do know it will be turned off.

RUSSERT:  Go ahead.

MITCHELL:  And I think in fairness, also, that the media have not done the kind of job that some might have expected at going after the background records, the Bernie Kerik affair, and some of this.  But Giuliani has really had a pretty easy path so far.

RUSSERT:  Let me turn to the calendar on the Republican side, because Mitt Romney is ahead in Iowa.  Rudy Giuliani running fourth in many polls.  And then in New Hampshire, a little tighter, but Romney’s still ahead because of the neighboring state.

But let me go back to Iowa. 

Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, who has been performing quite well in the debates, doesn’t have much money.  But with the withdrawal of Kansas senator Sam Brownback, seems to be developing some sense of unity with Evangelical Christians.  If he places well in Iowa, he very well could be the story.

GREGORY:  Yes, absolutely, and get a big slingshot going into New Hampshire, and somebody who’s considered a true conservative.  But he has a hard time translating that into actual votes and actually getting money.  It really changes the dynamic.

But if you’re Rudy Giuliani, to some degree you some like of this.  You want the anti-Rudy vote to be split up among Huckabee and Fred Thompson and Romney.  It only hurts Romney if those other two start to become more of a story, particularly as you get into South Carolina.

The problem for Rudy Giuliani is he can’t rest on his laurels for (INAUDIBLE) strategy and just think you lose the first three and then come out...

RUSSERT:  Because if Romney winds Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan, and then...

MITCHELL:  It’s over.

RUSSERT:  It’s over.

MITCHELL:  But I think in a rare misstep, Rudy endorsed the Red Sox, with an eye on New Hampshire.  I mean, here he’s gone after...

RUSSERT:  There you go, always throwing sports in, Andrea.

MITCHELL:  He goes after Hillary Clinton memorably about her lack of authenticity on her Yankees support.  And then he does the same thing.  And you see the tabloids in New York.  They call him traitor.

This is the number one Yankee fan now supporting the Red Sox.

RUSSERT:  How about this—Mitt Romney gets endorsed by a Christian evangelical leader who says, “I believe that he’s a Mormon and Mormon is an erroneous religion.  But I’m still for him.”

And Mitt Romney says, “Thank you for the endorsement.”

MITCHELL:  And then ducks questions about his faith when he was on with Bob Schieffer.  Did not answer what that meant and what his faith really means.  He just wants to have it both ways, that he is a man of faith, that he doesn’t want to explain the more controversial aspects of that.

RUSSERT:  But erroneous religion, OK, “Thanks for the endorsement”?

GREGORY:  No.  I mean, I think if somebody punches you in the gut like that, you’ve got to stand up for what you believe in, quite literally.  And he’s not doing that.  And it only raises questions about, you know, when is he going to talk about his faith as an issue in this campaign, and what role—and why it matters or doesn’t matter in terms of how he’d lead.

RUSSERT:  Reminiscent of John Kennedy back in 1960.

MITCHELL:  From the convention in Houston.

RUSSERT:  Take the issue on.

MITCHELL:  It’s interesting.  When you look back at George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father when he ran, the issue of being a Mormon was not a question.  You know, he had other problems, but that was not the issue.

Somehow now the strength of the evangelical part of the party has made it a problem.

RUSSERT:  Andrea Mitchell, David Gregory, as always, thank you.

See you on the campaign trail. 

And we’ll see you next week.

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