updated 1/16/2008 12:36:46 PM ET 2008-01-16T17:36:46

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Debates versus the primary: Senators Clinton, Edwards and Obama and Congressman Kucinich?  What happens in Vegas, you‘ll see on MSNBC in exactly one hour.

On the second day of Clinton/Obama race truce:  Ops.  Congressman Rangel didn‘t get the memo before he said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHARLES RANGEL, (D) NEW YORK:  How race got into this thing is because Obama said race.  But there is nothing that Hillary Clinton has said that baffles me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Tim Russert from the debate in Vegas on the recently baffling and battling Democrats.  Richard Wolffe on Nevada‘s place in the Democratic firmament.  David Gregory on the shifting issues defining the debate and the race.  What happened to Iraq?  Chuck Todd‘s forecast on what we‘ll hear tonight and whether the race card will stay firmly inside and unopened deck.

A shocker as the Republicans take to the polls in Michigan.  Governor Huckabee saying, it‘s easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the Living God.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  And that‘s what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so, its in God‘s standards rather than try to change God‘s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat our family.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Rudy, you must speak English Giuliani goes to a bilingual church.  John McCain trumpets in Iraq political victory the Iraqis see as a setback.  Mitt Romney does an interview on the home of the financially-strapped single mother.  He never tells anybody she‘s a mother of one of his campaign‘s staffers.  An all Republican candidate‘s edition of Worst‘s.

Plus: David Shuster on Mr. Huckabee‘s pledge to change the Constitution to fit the Bible.  Norah O‘Donnell with the first exit polls from Michigan.  Candidates shop until you will drop.  She‘s OK.  All that and our COUNTDOWN to the debate now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening, this is Tuesday, January 15th, 294 days until the 2008 presidential election, less than one hour from the unique convergence on the 2008 political calendar.  At the same time, as polls are closing in Michigan.  In our fifth story in the COUNTDOWN: The Democrats will begin debating in Las Vegas.  The Democratic nationally committee having stripped Michigan of all of its delegates because it moved its primary in front of Super Tuesday.  The leading candidates are instead focused on this Saturday‘s caucuses in Nevada and more immediately on tonight‘s debate which will take place live here on MSNBC from the Cashman Center in Las Vegas, some 57 minutes six seconds from now.  Please, no wager.  As a result: the candidates with almost no events on their public schedules today, Senators Clinton and Obama with none, presumably to prepare.  Senator Edwards perhaps taking a break from his studying when he met with lunchtime diners at the egg and eye diner in Las Vegas.  And the congressman who wants to be the fourth hand for bridge.  Dennis Kucinich got a quarter of it last night putting in the debate.  NBC News appealed that ruling, no ruling yet from today‘s judge.  Let‘s turn now to the Washington bureau chief of NBC News, moderator of course of MEET THE PRESSS, Tim Russert who‘s joining us now from the side of the debate in Vegas.  Tim, good evening.

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS:  Hi Keith.

OLBERMANN:  So, this is said of every debate, in terms of importance, this is the first time the two main candidates have met since Senator Clinton‘s win in New Hampshire; since Senator Obama closed the gap in the national polls; the fluidity of the polling there heading into the caucuses on Saturday.  With all that in play, how crucial is tonight‘s debate to the fight for the Democratic nomination?

RUSSERT:  It‘s very big.  We have Nevada coming up real soon, the caucuses, then South Carolina, then Super Tuesday.  And it also comes on the heels, Keith, of some very bitter exchanges between the Obama campaign and the Clinton campaign about the issue of race.  Both sides tried to call a truce to that yesterday.  I‘ll be quite anxious to see how they comfort themselves tonight on that very delicate but important issue.

OLBERMANN:  With that over tune of the campaign, sort of what we have in the weekend, being racial but with these two leading candidates declaring a truce on this, what are the ethics here?  I mean, must a question be asked or must the candidates be permitted in their own way to bring it up or not bring it up themselves?

RUSSERT:  I think it has to be asked.  It‘s been on the front page and lead story of so many newscasts.  And it‘s an important issue.  The whole notion of Barack Obama as the African-American candidate taking seriously as a presidential candidate; Hillary Clinton trying to break the glass ceiling as a woman candidate; the role of Latinos out here in Nevada, huge block who‘s constituency; and white voters watching this discussion.  Race is an issue in America in 2008.  As serious I think as important as it has been for the last 50 years.  So, I do look for that discussion to take place.

OLBERMANN:  As if we didn‘t have enough with that into play or Vegas itself did not contribute to the prize fight and gambling atmosphere at the debate here.  We‘ve got a feature tonight that‘s not been seen in debating in quite some time, the candidates asking questions of each other.  How is that going to work and most importantly, how are you going to get them to stop?

RUSSERT:  Yes, you never know.  I‘ve seen debates where there have been some very pointed questions of one another.  Other times where the candidates decided, well, you know what?  Let‘s not go quote “negative.”  And let‘s ask large, big, generic questions and each take the opportunity to offer a 30 to 45 second commercial.  So, it‘s easy.  You just do not know.  I think it will depend on the tenor of the debate leading up to it.  But quite interested to see what kind of questions the candidates are going to ask each other, how they frame them and how they‘ll answer.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, but you could gauge the feel of a room as good as anybody has ever covered politics.  So, despite the gift of candidate to candidate questions and possibility that people might hold back, what is your feeling on this?  Is this going to be one of the more polite debates we have seen?  Or once those cameras come on are all bets and truces off?

RUSSERT:  Yes, I think there‘s some real differences on some issues we‘re going to hear about tonight, I really do.  You know, the economy, the economic news you‘re going to be reporting all week long and coming in today on CNBC, coming on to tonight, these candidates want to stake out very strong positions that they are the best suited to deal with the lower and middle classes.  And I think some sparks will fly.  And you know, we have the right, Brian Williams and myself to ask follow ups to the candidates questions to make sure that they are answered appropriately and asked completely.  So, I do look for, at this stage of the campaign, I think some pretty pointed exchanges.

OLBERMANN:  NBC Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert who is in the debate along as he mentioned with the moderator, Brian Williams on the top of the hour in Las Vegas and Tim, with our great thanks.  We‘ll let you get back to work.

RUSSERT:  We‘ll see you in a couple hours, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  OK.  The Obama/Clinton cease-fire not off to an auspicious start in its first 24 hours.  To recap, if you were on the moon, Senator Obama in Nevada yesterday afternoon, meeting with reporters to declare a truce and to shower praise upon his opponent.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS:  I think that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues.  I think that they care about the African-American community and they care about all Americans and they want to see equal rights and equal justice in this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Senator Clinton then following that with a paper statement.  She also taped an appearance on a Tyra Banks Talk Show in which she shared her pain over the situation minus any verge of tears and emotion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m very pained by what is being said because it‘s baseless and it‘s divisive.  And you know, it is something that is personally hurtful to me because you know, I‘ve been on the forefront of pushing for civil rights and women‘s rights and human rights for many years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And the Clinton campaign war room no doubt, feeling very pain once it had learned what Congressman Charlie Rangel was saying on local cable news in New York at just about the same time that Mrs. Clinton had issued her statement.  Congressman Rangel, a Clinton supporter clearly not getting a heads up that a truce had indeed been signed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RANGEL:  How race gotten to this thing is because Obama said race.  But there is nothing that Hillary Clinton had said that baffles me, but for him to suggest that Dr. King could have signed that act is absolutely stupid.  It‘s absolutely dumb to infer that Dr. King alone passed the legislation and signed it into law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Now, there‘s goes another Treaty of Utrecht.  Here‘s just one problem with Congressman Rangel‘s statement.  Senator Obama never suggested nor implied any such a thing, he said nothing of inferred but Mr.  Obama had said was that there is something vaguely un-American about this missing hopes as false and that it doesn‘t jive with the careers of figures like Doctor Martin Luther King or President Kennedy.  Senator Clinton had been responding to that.  Senator Obama meantime addressing charges of inexperience during the meeting with the editorial board of the “Reno Gazette Journal” in Nevada quoting him, “I don‘t think there‘s anybody in the race who can inspire the American people better than I can and I don‘t think there‘s anybody in this race who can bridge differences better than I can but I‘m not an operating officer.  Some of this debate around experience seem to think the job of the president is to go in and run some bureaucracy.  Well, that‘s not my job.  My job is to set a vision of here‘s where the bureaucracy needs to go.”  Our vision of where COUNTDOWN needs to go.  It is next to our own Richard Wolffe, senior White House correspondent for “Newsweek” also joining us from Las Vegas.  Richard, good evening.

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Congressman Rangel, was this all just an unfortunate timing issue?  He was going on New York on about the same time that Senator Clinton had released her statement agreeing to the truce.  Or might the Clinton campaign have a problem on its hands here if supporters and surrogates continue not to comply?

WOLFFE:  Well, certainly unfortunate.  I mean, at best, this is a huge blunder than treads all over the campaign‘s written message.  But you know, you have to start wondering, if there is if not something concerted about this line of attack on Obama.  At least something in the air, something in the conversations going around the Clinton campaign because you just have to look at the tone, the difference in tone between the statements coming out of the Clinton campaign and what we just heard from Senator Obama who went out of his way as you pointed out to praise the Clintons for their record on civil rights.  Congressman Rangel talked about Obama behaving in a stupid and dumb fashion.  And then Senator Clinton herself talk about her personal emotion.  Well, I never heard Barack Obama say, I am personally hurt by this.  So, you know, you have to kind of look at the differences here and I think it does say something about the way the campaigns are conducting themselves.

OLBERMANN:  Richard, I‘m going to interrupt just for a second to tell that you‘re going to be watching a three person debate tonight.  The Supreme Court justice in Nevada, is that correct?  Has ruled in favor of NBC News and its decision not to, the Nevada Supreme Court has just ruled in favor of NBC News and it‘s decision not to invite Dennis Kucinich.  So, it will be Clinton, Edwards and Obama tonight and just those three.  Continuing with Richard Wolffe on the subject of Charlie Rangel and Obama and Clinton and race, what he said and how much of it did not seem to be factually oriented?  Is that a sign of just how much misinformation is out there and how diligently any voter must work to get to the bottom of anything?

WOLFFE:  Yes, look, we went in through this exercise at “Newsweek” in the most recent issue.  I mean, you have to work incredibly hard to pick apart the facts.  And frankly, I think, (INAUDIBLE) are full of junkies are going to find it time consuming to say the least to get to the bottom of this time of thing and there is I think a natural conclusion which is just to brush them all aside and say, they‘re all the same here.  In fact, what Senator Obama said was that comments from Hillary Clinton were ill-advised and unfortunate.  That‘s not playing the race card but the way this is ended up is as if everybody is screaming at each other.  And it‘s interesting to see that being played out.  I suspect, like I said most voters won‘t have a clue which way is up or down.

OLBERMANN:  The senator‘s comments regarding his own experience, the stuff at the “Reno Gazette Journal” editorial board, did he help his cause?  Did he set it back?  You can almost hear and this is very faint, but that stuff about inspiring as oppose to being a businessman, almost sounded some sort of same construction, same detachment, like George W. Bush circuit 2000.

WOLFFE:  Yes, you know, if anything sounded dumb and stupid to me, it‘s the idea that you don‘t have to be on top of the bureaucracy.  I guess he‘s trying to suggest what kind of leader he‘s going to be.  One thing is to express leadership in a direction, another thing is to say I‘m useless with this stuff; I‘m going to leave it up to the experts.  I mean, that does require the voters to trust your personal selections before they even know who you‘re picking.

OLBERMANN:  We‘ve seen how that‘s worked since 2001.  Richard Wolffe of “Newsweek” and MSNBC at the Cashman Center in Las Vegas.  Enjoy the slightly less big show than we thought it might be a few minutes ago.  Thanks, Richard.

WOLFFE:  I will.  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Forty-six 46 minutes until our live debate coverage begins.  Again: Dennis Kucinich will not be part of it.  The ruling just coming from the Nevada Supreme Court.  It will be Clinton, Edwards and Obama.

And: We might have at the top of the hour, some early characterization of the results of the Michigan primary from the decision desk.  We‘ll see about that.  Is there any other way to characterize what Mike Huckabee declared said in Michigan?  We have to change the Constitution so it matches the Bible?  And the number one issue has changed among Democrats and Republicans.  It is no longer Iraq.  David Gregory here on why not.  You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Mike Huckabee‘s startling speech at Warren, Michigan last night.  There is interjecting faith into politics.  But what is it called when a presidential candidate says he wants to change the Constitution so it‘s in God‘s standards.  What it‘s called when there is a primary of the Keith number of 16 as to Republicans in Michigan tonight.  And later: In Worst, three of the governor‘s Republican rivals trying to top him in various ways that will make your jaws drop.  All ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Coming from an ordained minister, even from a conservative Republican candidate for president, it was a shockingly explicit proposal to change the United States‘ Constitution not according to man‘s law, but according to God‘s law.  Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN: On the eve of the Michigan primary, Governor Mike Huckabee declares his intentions on an audience at Warren, Michigan last night that when it comes to pro-life and anti-gay marriage issues, he wants what he considers to be God‘s words as law.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I have opponents in this race who don‘t want to change the Constitution.  But I believe it‘s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the Living God.  And that‘s what wee need to do is to amend the Constitution so it‘s in God‘s standards rather than try to change God‘s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how treat each other and how we treat our family.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And that a very, very live shot of that speech.  More on that and just how it will play in his presidential chances in a moment with David Shuster.

First: Republican primary voting still underway on the wolverine‘s state.  Thanks in part to statewide snowfall, turnout appears to be lower than the predicted 20 percent and given that any registered voter who can vote, who shows up is just as important as how many.  One Michigan pollster is telling “Newsweek” that between 15 and 25 percent of the voters are expected to be not Republicans, which is actually kind of low.  With that caveat, most polls have put Governor Mitt Romney in the lead, and even though according to the latest MSNBC-McClatchy the Keith number - undecided plus margin of error—is a whopping 16 percent, and 39 percent more said they could still change their minds.  Romney remained at least outwardly confident that he would win the state that his father governed for three terms.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. MITT ROMNEY, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  This is the day that‘s going to change I believe the politics in the nation as we get ready to select our nominee.  I think Michigan is going to vote for a Romney again.  I‘m planning on it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Not if John McCain has anything to say about it.  In 2000, he won Michigan, thanks to 65 percent of the independent vote and 80 percent of voting Democrats who choose him over the only candidate on the Democratic ballot, Lyndon LaRouche.  A fate that Mr. McCain is hoping to replicate in  2008 although it‘s Hillary Clinton is the only frontrunner on the Democratic ballot this year.  As promised, I‘m join now by our own David Shuster, who‘s already move on to South Carolina to cover the Republicans from there tonight.  David, good evening.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  Let‘s start with the comments from Governor Huckabee, who‘s headquarters you‘re at whether or not they‘ve wanted to as any other candidate in recent history been so explicit about wanting to reshape the state in accordance with his church, with his religion?  I mean, that sounded like William Jennings Brian toward the end.

SHUSTER:  Yes, it‘s almost unheard of, Keith even for Mike Huckabee.  Even though Mike Huckabee might feel that way, in the 12 years that I‘ve been covering him, I haven‘t heard him say anything like that.  However, having said that, Mike Huckabee does believe in a constitutional amendment that redefines marriage as between a man and a woman.  He also believes in a Constitutional amendment that would redefine sort of the sanctity of life and this is an issue that plays very well to the southern conservative base here in South Carolina.  So, his aids are saying that maybe he‘s just getting caught up in the moment and is not sort of phrasing things so artfully or carefully.  But it is an issue that politically plays very well for him here in South Carolina.

OLBERMANN:  But as you are recognizing, and maybe those aids are recognizing, that sort of statement sounded, if it wasn‘t meant to sound, it was sounding much more broad than that.  And wherever sounded, it appeals to an evangelical base, in being so broad, is it being perceived that Huckabee might have burned his chances with more mainstream Republicans, more moderates, independents?  Could it win him a primary in South Carolina but lose him the chance of a nomination?

SHUSTER:  Keith, that‘s absolutely right.  Even some of Mike Huckabee‘s supporters would wish that he would be a little bit more careful.  But at the moment Keith, the entire Huckabee campaign is focused of course on winning the primary.  They believed that John McCain is the biggest opponent here not Mitt Romney and they believe that issues like immigration in which Huckabee said we shouldn‘t have immigrants from places like Saudi Arabia, that‘s something that‘s going to set them apart.  Right now, their focus of course is winning the primary.  But, Keith, they say that it‘s going to be much harder for Mike Huckabee to win the primary than to win the general election.  Even having said some of these things.  So, they‘re not so worried, all though they acknowledge that yes, it will pose problems for him in a general election.  But they keep saying, right now, they just want Mike Huckabee to draw distinctions on issues of faith and on issues like immigration.

OLBERMANN:  He sure did.  All right.  Let‘s look at Michigan tonight.  John McCain banking on the independents perhaps some of the Democrats to cross lines with no real Democratic race there to propel him to victory.  Is that going to be, is the expectation going to be that could be adversely impacted from his point of view because of the likely for the small turnout because of the weather?

SHUSTER:  Yes, absolutely, Keith.  I mean, there was two inches of snow and ice in Detroit, a very cold temperature, six inches up state.  The McCain campaign was concerned that at least some of the moderates and Democrat who don‘t really have a horse in this race that might have come to the polls and just support McCain as some of them probably did.  That having weather problems that a lot of them could say, you know what?  It‘s not worth it.  It‘s not worth crossing over and voting to Republicans because of the snow and the ice.  So, there are some concern there.  But there was also some concern in the Romney camp that when you talking about snow and ice, you‘re talking elderly voters who might think twice about going to the polls, and elderly voters was a certain sort of base of support for Romney.  I mean, those people who remember his father, Governor George Romney having serving here more than 40 years ago.

OLBERMANN:  And lastly, this construction that Romney is out if he doesn‘t win Michigan, as the son of the governor and all the rest of that, is there another strong second scenario that would permit him to continue to lead in terms of delegate votes and continue to campaign?

SHUSTER:  Yes, Keith, absolutely.  I mean, they‘re looking at the delegate count as long as this race continues to be divided between McCain, and Huckabee and now Romney.  As long as this sort of three-way or even four-way race, Mitt Romney‘s calculation is different.  His campaign keep saying look, all along, we were fearful that Giuliani would be one we have to deal with coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire.  But now, Giuliani having such problems and nobody having any money, Romney‘s equation is entirely different.

OLBERMANN:  David Shuster at the Huckabee headquarters in South Carolina.  As always, David, many thanks.

SHUSTER:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  It‘s hot up here, former President Clinton explained last night as a young woman provides a very bad omen for his wife‘s campaign.  The young woman is just fine, thank you.  I hope she‘s not going to the debate.  Our live coverage still to be proceeded  by the analysis of David Gregory and Chuck Todd.

But first: The headlines breaking in the administration‘s 50 scandals

Bushed.

Number three: Iran-gate.  Somebody is lying here.  Press secretary Perino or President Bush.  An administration official told “Newsweek” that while in Israel, the president through the NIE on Iran and the America intelligence agencies under the bus in conversation with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.  Ms. Perino said today, “I have not heard the president express anything but support for the intelligence community.  Legally true, he probably never said as he was standing there.

Number two: Waterboarding-gate.  “Newsweek” reporting that the CIA thinks there maybe more tapes of terror detainees even after it thought it had destroyed all the ones the agency have made.  The magazine sources say the CIA might have received recordings made by friendly intelligent services that also question al Qaeda suspects.  Now, here I don‘t see more on, friendly intelligent services.

Number one: Phony terror threats-gate.  White House spokesman, Tony Fratto telling “Congressional Quarterly,” that February 1st the date that the administration‘s expanded rights to eavesdrop and spy domestically expire, quote, “We‘re exactly three weeks away from the date when terrorists can be free to make phone calls without fear of being surveilled by U.S. intelligence agencies.  The right to authorize surveillance aim to people outside the U.S. which is what the White House claims the law for continues even as the powers officially expire.  They continue for another year.  You‘ve got until February 1, 2009 to keep listening.  So, Mr. Fratto when you say terrorists can be free to make phone calls, without fear of being surveilled by U.S. intelligence agencies, you‘re engaging in a hysterical terror mongering bald faced lie.  Sleep well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  January 15, Martin Luther King‘s birthday, obviously, and also Charo‘s, Gene Krupa‘s, and Edward Teller‘s.

But, most hilariously, it‘s the focus of one of great uncorrected errors blindly repeated throughout the Internets.  This is cited on literally dozens of Web sites as the birthday of the model Katrin, also known as  Catherine Quinol, who lip-synched the songs of the band Black Box in its videos starting in 1989.  Her birthday is given as January 15 --

January 15, 1567.  She‘s over 441 years old.  And she used to date Mozart.

Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin at a high school in Henderson, Nevada, where last night former President Clinton held a campaign event on his wife‘s behalf, the president delivering his wife‘s message of change, also providing a lesson to all the other campaigns using humans as backdrops. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  It‘s paid for by letting the tax cuts on the wealthiest of Americans expire and by proven cost savings in the health system that everybody agrees are there.  It will work.  And it‘s very important. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  What is that?  It‘s a spelling bee? 

I‘m not sure she agree with his assessment.  The young lady, a victim of nothing thankfully worse than heat exhaustion, bounced back up and was escorted off the stage.  How about chairs next time?  Luckily, she would be covered under Senator Clinton‘s proposed health care plan.

To Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where the cavalcade of bizarre imagery from the president‘s Middle East trip continues.  This is our commander in chief arm in arm with Saudi Prince Salman, doing the traditional sword dance in front of the Saudi Museum of National History.

Swaying back and forth with three-foot swords on either shoulder, President Bush at one point giving a big belly laugh after he tells the prince they look just like that John Belushi samurai deli guy. 

We made that up.

He may not have forged peace in the Middle East, but reports are that the president will at least get to keep the sword.  So, the trip was not a total waste. 

Twenty-eight minutes until the Democrats debate in Las Vegas, live here on MSNBC, all three of them. 

Chuck Todd will walk us, figuratively, up to the stage.  And David Gregory will walk us through how the price of milk and the other real elements of the economy replace Iraq as the number-one issue among Democrats.

These stories ahead, but, first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s top three best persons in the world, three classic criminals.

Number three, best new disguise, Robert C. Lavery of York County, PA, convicted of having robbed a credit union while disguised as drywall.  He had smeared several layers of plaster board over his face.  He had forgotten, though, to remove the distinctive commemorative NASCAR plates from the front of his getaway car. 

Number two, best redefinition of a cliche, David Spillers of Jacksonville, Florida, and the question, you want fries with that?  He did.  The McDonald‘s he went to did not give them to him, so, naturally, he rammed his car into the side of the golden arches.  Nobody hurt.

Number one, staying on the food theme, best taunt—Gayle Winfrey of Chattanooga, Tennessee, she was arguing with her boyfriend at 4:00 a.m.  He opted out by going to sleep.  So, police say, she doused his car with gasoline and lit it on fire.  She returned to the bedroom and told him—quote—“You might want to get some marshmallows.”

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OLBERMANN:  The same conventional wisdom that gave Iowa to Senator Clinton and New Hampshire to Senator Obama told us Iraq would dominate this election.  It could yet become such, but, for now, conventional wisdom, meet Michigan, where the economy is doing so poorly, that some residents refer to their state as “Michisissippi.” 

In our third story tonight, with apologies to 1992, it‘s the stupid economy, especially in a state with unemployment consistently above 7 percent, where home foreclosure rates rival Louisiana‘s, where the auto industry has shed 330,000 jobs since 2000, not including GM‘s 200 layoffs yesterday, all of which, along with the nation‘s mortgage crisis, sinking stocks, unemployment, et cetera, pushing Iraq off the front pages, as American deaths there have declined and Republicans edge back towards mission accomplished. 

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today applauding virtually the only benchmark Iraq has met, a new law allowing lower-level Baath Party members back into the government there, which at best undoes only some of the damage done by Mr. Bush‘s precipitant purge of all Baathists back in 2003. 

Republicans largely in line on Iraq instead are battling fiercely over how to avoid or recover from recession.  Senator McCain promising to cut government spending, which does nothing to spur consumer spending, necessarily, but still warning that most of Michigan‘s auto manufacturing jobs will never return. 

Mitt Romney vowing to bring them back somehow, despite his support for free trade and employer-subsidized health care, which costs GM alone $5 billion a year.  And Governor Huckabee bent on swapping the income tax for a flat sales tax, estimated to mean a tax increase for everyone making between $30,000 and $200,000 a year. 

A pleasure to be joined here now by NBC‘s chief White House correspondent, David Gregory, who is going to share his insights on the issue of the shifting issues in this campaign. 

Good to see you, sir.

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Good to see you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  All right.  So, why has it happened?  Why has the economy replaced Iraq as number one on both sides of the fence.

GREGORY:  Well, I think what we‘re seeing is that this housing crisis, the credit crunch, is really hitting people.  And it‘s hitting people at all levels. 

And a lot of economists think it could move on to other areas, auto finance, auto loans.  And it‘s a classic pocketbook issue that is hitting people who cannot make their mortgages, or if they an adjustable rate mortgage, they have to face this at the same time that we‘re losing jobs in places like Michigan and other pockets around the country. 

Michigan primary happens.  This is the highest rate of unemployment in the country.  That‘s why they wanted to move the primary up in Michigan in the first place.  So, I think it is really an issue that‘s come home to roost.  Iraq is an issue that‘s been taken slightly off the table because the debate about what to do next has stalled, sort of waiting for a new president.  The economy moves right in.

OLBERMANN:  In many places, when you hear Democrats and Republicans talk about the economy, it‘s really at least two different things they are talking about.  The Republicans may be talking about the stock market and investments.  The Democrats may be talking about the price of milk. 

This is not the case in Michigan.  They are all talking price of milk there, correct? 

GREGORY:  That‘s it. 

And it‘s very focused on one sector, the autoworkers, who are out of work, and the big question about are these jobs coming back?  Is there an environment there that is conducive for business investment? 

This is globalization sort of running up against the union interests in the state.  And so it is a kind of political battleground.  But you are right.  Nobody has got a real immediate answer as to how to stimulate the economy that‘s going to make it better for these workers. 

Mitt Romney is talking about a summit in his first 100 days on the auto industry.  John McCain saying that the jobs are not coming back.  Ultimately, the White House will play a big role here.  Henry Paulson, the treasury secretary, saying, we don‘t have a lot of time to do something.  It‘s not just about extending the tax cuts in 2010 and making them permanent.  What are you going to do for the economy now?

And George W. Bush, as he becomes less and less relevant, still has a role to play with regard to helping the Republican Party try to get out of the economic doldrums. 

OLBERMANN:  What does the economic issue do in terms of playing a role in this debate that we‘re going to see in 20 minutes from now?  John Edwards, even before his stimulus plan, had made economic issues and the position of the middle class and all of that the centerpiece of his campaign.  Where does he go with it tonight?  How does it shake up the Democratic race, if it can still at this point?

GREGORY:  Well, I think he says just that:  I have had a consistent  message, an economic populist message, that recognizes that people are paying a lot more for college, they‘re paying a lot more for health care, that they are out of a job, that the idea of retraining has not really taken hold yet to help people transition into a new job. 

And that‘s been a singular focus.  Remember, that‘s what Bill Clinton talked about in ‘92.  He would have that laser-like focus. 

So, I think putting it as a front-burner issue, the rest of it becomes very wonky, which is, what do you actually do to stimulate the economy in the short term, when this housing crisis, a lot of people believe, is not even close to being over yet?  It really is going to trap a lot of people. 

OLBERMANN:  All right.  Let‘s say the projections run out in a straight line from where we are now towards the election.  Does it favor the Democrats over the Republicans?  Is there a way to tell? 

I mean, obviously, if we could say now everything is going to be the same until November, CNBC could sign off until November. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  But what are we seeing, based on what we‘re seeing now? 

GREGORY:  Well, I just think it‘s direction of the country, whether people feel the economy is going to get better, confidence level in leadership.  I think that plays to the Democrats‘ strength as a genuine—genuine—a general change argument. 

I mean, that was what the election turned on in 1992. 

OLBERMANN:  Is sure did.

GREGORY:  We have seen so much of this momentum already because of the war and the general direction of the country.  I think an economy that continues to spiral downward makes it very difficult for the Republicans. 

OLBERMANN:  David Gregory, who is here not just for 1997-‘98 MSNBC “Big Show” reunion.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  That‘s right. 

OLBERMANN:  He will also be back with us when we begin our analysis of the debate and the Republican primary in Michigan at 11:00 Eastern. 

We will see you then.  Thank you. 

GREGORY:  See you then.  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Speaking of Michigan, the polls close on the hour.  We have some early trends showing up in the exit polling—Norah O‘Donnell on deck with that. 

And one detail Senator McCain has left out, as he‘s claimed that that new law supposedly permitting more ex-Baathists to get into the new Iraq government shows we‘re winning politically in Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites think the new law will permit fewer ex-Baathists to get into the new Iraq government—an all-candidates edition next of “Worst Persons.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The first exit polls from Michigan, followed at the top of the hour by the earliest results from the real ones in the Republican primary there, and some of the strategy we‘re expecting from the Democrats in our MSNBC debate from Nevada. 

First, the worst in all presidential candidates edition of “Worst Person,” that‘s next.       

This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  A little over 14 minutes to go before the top of the hour and the closing of the last polls in Michigan.  The primary was moved to an earlier date this year in an attempt to give voters there more influence in the election. 

But, as we mentioned earlier, an overnight snowfall cut into turnout.  Also, there‘s really no authorized Democratic contest, though Senator Clinton never took her name off the ballot.  And Democrats can cross over and vote Republican.

How this plays out is anybody‘s guess right now. 

But our correspondent Norah O‘Donnell has the first set of exit polls from Michigan, giving us reasons, if not names. 

Norah, good evening.

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  And good evening, Keith. 

Well, the White House is not going to be very comforted by what we‘re seeing tonight in Michigan.  What is clear from these exit polls is that this is a Republican electorate that‘s fed up with President Bush.  And there‘s also rising anxiety about the economy.

We found nearly half of the Republican primary voters were angry or dissatisfied with the president.  And that is significant.  There‘s also a great deal of fear about the economy among these Republican voters; 51 percent said the economy is not so good.  Another 17 percent of Republicans said it‘s poor.  You add those together, that means more than two-thirds, two-thirds say the economy is in the tank.  That‘s Republicans, Keith. 

And you can see that that‘s a much higher percentage than we found in New Hampshire.  There, about half of the Republicans were unhappy with the economy.  Now, we know of course Michigan is suffering from the highest unemployment rate in the country.  That‘s why we found that more than half of the Republican voters in Michigan said the economy the number-one issue, way above the war in Iraq or terrorism or illegal immigration. 

Finally, Keith, we‘re learning something very interesting about the makeup of the electorate.  That‘s right.  Early exit polls indicate that Democrats and independents did not show up in large numbers to vote in the Republican primary, like they did eight years ago to help John McCain beat George W. Bush. 

This primary is overwhelmingly made up of voters who consider themselves Republicans.  So, Keith, so much for the folks at the liberal blog the Daily Kos, who urged Democrats to make mischief and vote in today‘s Republican primary.  It turns that less than one out of 10 were Democrats, so not much crossover—Keith.  

OLBERMANN:  Well, it‘s an open vote.  We will see what happens. 

Number-one issue, 68 percent saying the economy not so good or poor. 

Norah O‘Donnell, who will we visit with throughout the evening during the combined coverage of the Republican primary in Michigan and the Democratic debate in Vegas, thanks, Norah. 

O‘DONNELL:  You‘re welcome. 

OLBERMANN:  And, again, we may have something for you in terms of characterizing the Republican vote in Michigan when the final polls close at the top of the hour. 

We certainly will get the Democrats at the debate then. 

The Obama camp now reporting that “The Las Vegas Review-Journal” is going to endorse him tomorrow. 

That‘s ahead, but, first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s “Worst Persons in the World,” starting with an apology for calling Jonah Goldberg Jonathan once last night.  I read it wrong.  Sorry.

Tonight, a special Republican primary edition.

The bronze to Senator McCain.  The new laws in Iraq about former members of Saddam Hussein‘s Baath Party working in the new government is proof, he says, now we are succeeding politically. 

A couple problems.  If the new Baathist law is such a step forward, why did the ex-Baathists already in the Iraq parliament oppose it?  And why are some Sunni and Shiite officials saying the new law might actually exclude more ex-Baathists than the old law excluded? 

Runner-up, Governor Mitt Romney had a photo-op at the home of an unemployed single mother at Marshall, Michigan, even did a TV interview with Harry Smith for CBS from the home of Elizabeth Sacks (ph).  She even mentioned to reporters that she had two kids, never mentioned to anybody that one of the kids is a paid employee of the Romney campaign, served as an organizer for five counties in the state, after being chairman of Michigan students at a nearby college for Romney.

But our winner on all-candidates night, Rudy Giuliani.  You are well aware of his proposal to somehow include reading, writing and speaking English as part of immigration and citizenship.  So, where was he Sunday morning as he continued to stump in Florida?  El Rey Jesus, an evangelical megachurch in Miami, a Hispanic evangelical megachurch in Miami, a bilingual Hispanic evangelical megachurch in Miami. 

Oh, and a few seats away from him at the place where they don‘t follow his instructions about reading, writing and speaking English, Katherine Harris was sitting there. 

Rudy “Did somebody place a hex on him?” Giuliani: today‘s “Worst Person in the World.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We are seven minutes away, not only from MSNBC‘s live coverage of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas, but also from the final poll closings in Michigan, where the Republicans have a primary and the Democrats have evidence of what happens if you reschedule a primary against the wishes of the national party.  You have a meaningless vote that will get you 23 minutes of airtime. 

We do hope to be able to characterize the early returns from Michigan at the top of the hour.

In the interim, our number-one story, that little bit debate and a key that can be found in what happens after it.  Senator Clinton will head to an event with actress America Ferrera, “Ugly Betty” of the ABC sitcom of the same name, a flagship for the Hispanic-American community.

Since a caucus and a primary win by Senator Obama and Senator Clinton respectively have made them dueling front-runners, since the injection of race into the campaign reached levels that startled perhaps both of those candidates and resulted in a so-called truce, and the first debate since Senator Clinton teared up, though that phase of the campaign, by today‘s standards, seems like ages ago, all that has happened since the last one.

Tonight may also be the first debate in which the candidates make a pronounced pitch to Latinos, who make up about 20 percent of the Nevada population and whose choices may add a wild card dimension to Saturday‘s caucuses.  And you may recall that one recent poll, including a Keith number of five, finds former Senator John Edwards in a virtual tie with Obama and Clinton in Nevada.

Let‘s spend these last few minutes before show time with our own Mr.

First-Nighter, NBC News and MSNBC political director Chuck Todd.

Chuck, good evening. 

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Good evening, Keith.  Pretty exciting night. 

OLBERMANN:  I guess so.  But now we know we‘re going to have three. 

Kucinich is out. 

But, as of midday yesterday, you said you would have imagined there was no way for race not to come up tonight.  Twenty-four hours ago here, you said the truce was going to hold, might hold.  Now we have heard the Rangel remarks, made while he apparently didn‘t know about the truth—or the truce, rather.  That‘s a Freudian slip.

TODD:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  What‘s the latest odds from the gambling mecca of the continent that race comes up tonight? 

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  Well, I think the odds are pretty good that race is going to come up.  This is, don‘t forget, a forum that is sponsored in part by some key minority groups from the Hispanic and African-American communities.

So, race is going to come up.  This is Martin Luther King‘s actual birthday.  Hard not to have this conversation come up.

The question is, how contentious will this be?  Will the candidates want to re-engage in this debate?  You know, I think that is unlikely.  I think you‘re going to see all the candidates try to play a little kumbaya.  We already heard from John Edwards earlier today, saying he wanted to stay out of this now.  He had waded in earlier, a couple days ago.  Now he wanted to stay out.

So, that‘s probably—it‘s got to be something I think that all of these candidates need to get off their chests.  They need to come clean in a public forum like this. 

OLBERMANN:  I mentioned the Hispanic vote, that “Ugly Betty” event that Hillary Clinton is going to go to tonight.  Obviously, due to geography and to demographics, this has not been a big thing, until now, as we see Senator Edwards come out on the stage with Tim Russert and Brian Williams.

How—how does this issue impact what we may hear tonight? 

TODD:  I think you‘re going to hear a lot, because, while I‘m still not convinced how much the Hispanic vote is going to be a big deal in the Nevada caucus itself, when you look to February 5, Keith, and you see Arizona sitting out there, you see California, two huge, competitive—you know, of—look, there‘s 23 states that Obama and Clinton and Edwards are going to be competing for.

But Arizona and California are going to be two of the bigger prizes that night.  And the Hispanic vote is huge in both of those states.  Senator Clinton has a leg up in this.  They really believe—their campaign believes that they are going to—this is going to be their key to victory in those two states and possibly even allow them to win here in Nevada. 

Obama hasn‘t had a—doesn‘t have a lot of key Hispanic endorsements, has struggled to sort of get a foothold in this community.  I think tonight, in this debate, you will see them try to gear some of their answers toward Hispanics. 

OLBERMANN:  The three-way polling tie, this makes tonight into what for John Edwards?  And, if there‘s a Clinton-Obama truce, does that mean that he can‘t confront Hillary Clinton, or what happens in terms of that dynamic? 

TODD:  Well, Edwards himself said today that he wanted to stay above the fray.  He wanted to look like the adult.

I think he‘s hoping Clinton and Obama engage, get into a spat, and he gets to play the mediator.  That would be the ideal.  The thing is, though, is, I don‘t think either Obama or Edwards—Obama or Clinton are interested in giving Edwards that opening. 

So, we will see.  I think that nobody knows whether polling in Nevada is—it‘s a reputable pollster of the poll that we have been airing, this three-way tie.  But, frankly, the electorate might be 50,000 people.  This is a fairly large state; 50,000 people would be a very small number of folks to turn out.  And the idea that any pollster could figure that out is ludicrous.

OLBERMANN:  With regard to the candidates‘ opportunity to question each other, Chuck, in the debate tonight, what does that mean?  And does it mean we‘re moving toward the moderator-free debate? 

TODD:  Well, look, I think it‘s a—we have a small debate.  There‘s three candidates.  These are the guys and gals.  These are the three finalists for this Democratic nomination. 

So, let‘s see them engage.  Do they want to do this?  I think you learn a little bit about their strategy when you are giving them the opportunity to question.  You find out what issue they want to bring up.  Maybe they will end up trying to say something nice about their opponent, so—and we will all read in between the lines.

I mean, I think this part of the debate is what I‘m very excited to see what‘s going to happen, because we don‘t know.  You know, we know what we want to ask these candidates.  And we have a pretty good idea of, say, 75 percent, I think, of where this debate is going to go. 

But this is truly -- 25 percent, potentially, of this debate, we don‘t know where it‘s going to go.  And that‘s sort of fun for us.  Here, we‘re the organizers, and we don‘t know.  And I think that we will learn a lot about what the candidates are thinking, about their issues and about their strategy going into February 5 by how and who they ask these questions. 

OLBERMANN:  And, lastly, that one piece of logistics, it‘s a table, not a set of podiums.  How difficult is it to put a dart through the candidate sitting directly next to you? 

TODD:  Well, I will tell you, from what I understand, the candidates are very excited that they are seated.  They are just tired of being behind podiums. 

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  I know the Republicans candidates—we have got a Republican debate coming up next week.  And their first plea was, please, let us sit down.  We like to be seated. 

And I think, so, all the candidates are happy about that. 

But I do think it will be more conversational.  It will allow for that.  And it will be conversational between the moderators, I think, between Brian, Tim, and the candidates.  You will see just an interesting engagement, much different than the podium, which has that—you know, which sort of has a—almost like a glass—Plexiglas between them. 

OLBERMANN:  You flashed me back to Soldier Field in Chicago, when I thought they were all going to pitch forward.

Chuck Todd, political director of NBC News, great thanks.  We will talk to you later.

That‘s COUNTDOWN for this, the 1,721st day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq. 

I‘m Keith Olbermann. 

Shortly—and I mean in seconds—the Democratic debate from Nevada, and our first hint about the Republican primary, as the polls close in Michigan, then, at 11:00, our coverage of both the debate and the primary. 

Stand by.              

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

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