updated 1/28/2008 12:57:25 PM ET 2008-01-28T17:57:25

Guests: Chuck Todd, Stephen Hayes, The Weekly Standard, Jonathan Martin

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  And we are coming to you live from Tampa, Florida.  Why?  Because Tuesday the Republicans have their big primary here in the Sunshine State. 

But tonight, South Carolina.  It’s the Democrats turn.  Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards going toe-to-toe. 

And here to put all that in perspective, three seasoned political journalists—Chuck Todd, the political director of NBC News; Steve Hayes, of “The Weekly Standard”; Jonathan Martin of Politico.com. 

Welcome all, guys. 

It looks like a frat party here.  Cut the cards, huh? 

All right, Chuck Todd.  South Carolina, we’re hours away.  Lay it on us.  What’s going to happen? 

CHUCK TODD, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, NBC NEWS:  Well, we are trying to find out, not only does Barack Obama win, but what is his coalition?  How much of the African-American vote does he win?  How much of the white vote does he win? 

How racially charged did this thing get in South Carolina?  Does he get a bunch of new voters to turn up?  Does turnout blow away all predictions?

You know, all these things I think we’re trying to figure out to see what—what is—you know, the assumption is, is he’s going to win.  But as we learned from New Hampshire, we don’t assume anything anymore because we actually lived what the word “assume” actually means after the New Hampshire primary. 

So—but if he does win, is it handily, and is it enough to get him momentum?  The Clintons act like he is going to win.  John Edwards like he’s going to win. 

You know, everybody assumes that Obama does win this thing, but what is that coalition?  How damaged does he come out of this? 

Does he—is it totally racially split and he only gets 10, 15 percent of the white vote?  That’s not a good night for him.  Does he get 20, 25 percent of the white vote, do as well as he was doing with the white vote in these other states, plus throw in African-Americans and suddenly is he a powerhouse candidate? 

I mean, there’s just a whole bunch of questions that we have, almost more than we know what the results are going to be. 

RUSSERT:  In 2004, according to our exit polls, 40 percent of the voters were African-American.  The pollsters that MSNBC had been using, Mason-Dixon, say the black turnout will be 55 percent. 

TODD:  Oh, not only that, I mean—and actually, our pollster disputes the whole idea that it was even only 47 before.  I mean, he says, you know, when you really look at the numbers, that he worries that sometimes exit polls undersample African-Americans. 

So, you know, it could see African-Americans sort of blow the doors off.  I mean, you know, I have talked to some African-American folks who believe this is becomes sort of a movement type thing.  You bring—you know, grandparents are going to bring their grandchildren.  This is a historical excitement inside the black community that maybe pollsters aren’t measuring very well. 

We’ll see.  And I think that that’s something that could make predictions very difficult today. 

RUSSERT:  Jonathan Martin, what do you see? 

JONATHAN MARTIN, POLITICO.COM:  Well, no, I think Chuck is right, but I do think the Obama folks have not done a great job in sort of managing the expectations game.  There was a headline in today’s “Wall Street Journal” talking about, how much does he have to win by? 

And so if he does win—say it’s by six or seven points—is that still a victory for Obama/  I think it’s been set up, for the reasons that Chuck just mentioned, that he’s got to almost win this thing, seemingly, by double digits. 

STEPHEN HAYES, “THE WEEKLY STANDARD”:  Yes.  What was interesting to me is the Clinton team has basically been on both sides of how much she’s playing in South Carolina. 

You know, earlier this week, she was reassuring people, yes, I’m playing a lot.  We really want to win here.  This is important to us.  My husband has been here, my daughter has been here.  We’re doing everything we can. 

And then we got the news yesterday that she’s actually leaving South Carolina, going to Tennessee tonight—today.  And they are downplaying how much she’s been actually playing in Tennessee.  So it’s this quick reversal within the space of less than a week. 

RUSSERT:  Bill Clinton won South Carolina in 1992 when he ran for the presidency. 

HAYES:  Right.

RUSSERT:  And a few months ago Hillary Clinton was ahead in South Carolina almost 2-1. 

MARTIN:  Tim, it’s kind of like what happened with Mitt Romney in South Carolina.  You know, he spent a ton of money there, more than any of his rivals, quite a bit of time there as well. 

He realized that he couldn’t win the state.  And so his folks said, all right, we’re going to have you to go to Nevada for the last day and a half before the primary here.  And he came in fourth in South Carolina, but he didn’t necessarily take the sort of blunt force of that fourth place finish because his folks were able to give him that Nevada victory, basically. 

RUSSERT:  Did Rudy Giuliani do the same thing with New Hampshire...

HAYES:  Yes, exactly.

RUSSERT:  ... spend money...

HAYES:  Two million dollars in ads -- $2-million-plus in ads in New Hampshire.  Spent a fair amount of time there before Christmas, and then pulled out and left. 

TODD:  But let’s talk about the wildcard here, and that’s John Edwards.  You know, John Edwards has spent more money on television ads in South Carolina than Clinton and Obama combined.  I couldn’t believe the statistic.  I checked with the guy who does this for a living, Evan Tracey, at CMAG, and it was unbelievable. 

RUSSERT:  What’s CMAG? 

TODD:  CMAG, the campaign—this is what they do for a living.  They track TV advertising all over the country in all the markets.  And they can tell you exactly what the buys are.  All the campaigns subscribe to this to keep track of competitive buys and all this stuff. 

And it was—it was stunning to see that statistic.

RUSSERT:  Where did he get the money? 

TODD:  Well, Edwards has been concentrating his money here.  I mean, as somebody reminded me, you know, he didn’t—he sort of pulled back some advertising in Nevada.  He has not really spent money in the Super Tuesday states.  He is making a play here.

What if he finishes second?  You know, the guy has managed—talk about—you say Obama hasn’t managed—well, you know, Edwards has really managed his expectations well.  You know, get four percent in Nevada, you can do that. 

But, you know, look, in our last poll, he was winning the white vote.  He won here before.

He is the native son.  And if you have white voters in South Carolina that have been turned off by what the Clinton—you know, the Clintons and Obama have done, they have somewhere to go, and could John Edwards benefit from sort of white voters who are, you know, not ready to jump on the Obama bandwagon, but are sitting here going, you know what, I’m not ready to reward the Clintons with this either, I’m going to go with John Edwards?

He could steal the storyline here if he somehow climbed into second.  You know, the margin between Clinton and Edwards has been a lot smaller than between Obama and Clinton. 

RUSSERT:  So, Edwards presence on the South Carolina ballot is hurting Hillary Clinton? 

MARTIN:  Oh, absolutely, because the fact that, you know, they share white votes, and the fact is in a primary, Tim, as you mentioned, where potentially 60 percent could be African-American, you know, they’re dividing up to 40 percent of the vote. 

RUSSERT:  Bob Novak, in his column today, says John Edwards for attorney general in an Obama administration.

Are we seeing a potential deal here, Steve? 

HAYES:  Yes, it would be interesting, wouldn’t it?  I mean, one of the things that was interesting was reading National Review’s Web log this morning, and people are more concerned about John Edwards as attorney general than they are about John Edwards as vice president.  It’s a strange deal to cut at this point in the process. 

RUSSERT:  You have real power as attorney general. 

HAYES:  Exactly, right. 

RUSSERT:  Chuck Todd, Barack Obama was on the Saturday “Today” show with Lester Holt today, and he said something that was quite striking.  Obama said, you know, in the beginning of the race, it was said I wasn’t black enough.  And now I’m too black. 

He did very well with white voters in Iowa, in New Hampshire, and suddenly, now, all we talk about is what’s happened in South Carolina.  What happened? 

TODD:  You know, the question is, is it somebody?  Is it the media?  Is it—did the Clintons polarize things?  Did Obama himself?  Is it the calendar? 

I think we always knew that once this race turned to South Carolina, you couldn’t—because there was also a question—I mean, I guess what happened is Obama was underperforming with African-Americans for so long that everybody was wondering, when is he going to be able...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Right.

TODD:  ... when are African-Americans going to coalesce around him?  When is it going to happen?

So, he was doing poorly, so we were all watching it.  And then, you know, as the race shifted to South Carolina, it was the first time he had to sort of do ethnic politics. 

You know, he hasn’t had to do this before. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Right.

TODD:  He hasn’t really had to—you know, he ran for Congress, and when he—he sort of lost.  He was on the wrong side of this when he ran for Congress against...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Right...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  So, this is the first time he’s really had to do black politics.  He’s—and now I think that he’s centered on it.  I think the Clintons are more than happy to let him do this and see him try to figure this out, see him try to walk this line between appealing to white men, which were the—that was always—you know, that was what was interesting. 

Early on in our polling, he did very well with white man.  And that appears to be the group of folks he is losing right now as he’s become the black candidate for president rather than the candidate for president who happens to be black. 

RUSSERT:  We have to take a quick break.  We’re going to come back and talk about the role of William Jefferson Clinton.  His shadow looms over this entire campaign.

We’ll be right back.

We’re in Florida.  Tuesday night, the Republican primary.  Tonight, the Democrats in South Carolina. 

A lot more after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we are gathered around the table in Tampa, Florida.  Tuesday night, the Republican shootout down here.  McCain, Romney battling for first.  Rudy Giuliani, his last stand here in Florida. 

But first, the South Carolina Democratic primary tonight. 

Look at these quotes.  Tom Daschle, former majority leader of the Democrats, said that Bill Clinton’s behavior has been less than presidential.  Pat Leahy, Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says it’s divisive for the party. 

John Kerry, the Democratic standard-bearer in ‘04, said Bill Clinton has abused the truth.  Teddy Kennedy and Rahm Emanuel reportedly urging President Clinton to cool the rhetoric. 

Jim Clyburn, the congressman of South Carolina, saying, chill it, Mr. President. 

Jonathan, what’s going on? 

MARTIN:  Well, I think for the Obama folks, like Leahy, Kerry, they are genuinely concerned, I think, because they do recognize that Clinton’s behavior has actually thrown their candidate off his game a little bit.  I think that, you know, Obama has sort of been diverted, trying to push back against Clinton, trying to figure out exactly how much to push back against Clinton and sort of still keep—still keep to his message. 

So, it has been a problem for the Obama campaign.  And, you know, a lot of folks talk about how, you know, Clinton is sort of becoming—you know, in the words of Maureen Dowd, a ward heeler, I think she said.  But the fact is, is that he’s still one of the most popular Democrats out there, and most rank and file Democrats in places like South Carolina just still flat like the guy.  And everywhere you go where he is there, they are flocking to him getting pictures and autographs. 

So, I think there may be a disconnect between the sort of media exhaust over Bill Clinton and the actual grassroots, rank and file Democrat view of him. 

HAYES:  Well then, of course, conservatives are loving this.  You know, we say, welcome to our party.  We have been saying this for a decade. 

“The Wall Street Journal” had an editorial yesterday saying, you know—basically saying, in effect, no way, Bill Clinton not telling the truth?  So we are loving to watch this from afar. 

But I think one of the interesting things about Bill Clinton is when you see these video clips of him again and again and again, she seems so angry.  I mean, he seems sort of agitated.  And, you know, he’s getting in the face of reporters. 

He said to a reporter who asked him a question the other day about race issues, “Shame on you.”  You know, got in the face of reporters. 

It’s a gamble, I think, and it seems to be working right now, but I’m not sure it works.  I think that could be some point at which the voter exhaustion catches up with media exhaustion. 

RUSSERT:  There was also an event, however, Bill Clinton was at where a black pastor stood up and said, we don’t—we can’t elect a black president.  And the press tried to pursue that with follow-up questions, and the pastor was whisked out the door at not allowed to. 

Which begs the question, is this a deliberate strategy by the Clinton campaign to inject race, or is this Bill Clinton trying to throw Obama off his message? 

HAYES:  Well, I think it actually may be both.  And I actually have the sequencing on Chuck’s point before the break a little bit different. 

I think Obama, if you look back at what Obama was saying in his stump speech in Iowa and New Hampshire, he was assiduously avoiding the use of race.  The only time in Iowa that he would mention race was when he would quote Martin Luther King talking about the urgency of now, the fierce urgency of now, I think it was. 

And I think that was deliberate.  He didn’t want to do that. 

Now, it also made sense for him to do it because there weren’t the black voters in New Hampshire and Iowa for him to, you know, seek their votes.  But I think that the Clintons started early on injecting race in very subtle ways into the race. 

And, by the way, not inappropriate ways at the beginning.  But we have seen this now become so racially polarized.  And it’s just back and forth. 

And I think it could have implications for the general election.  If Hillary Clinton were to go on and win, have they done damage to the kinds of support that she might otherwise be able to expect from black voters? 

RUSSERT:  In terms of turnout? 

HAYES:  In terms of turnout. 

RUSSERT:  And also, young voters who are getting all enthused about an Obama candidacy now suddenly feeling diminished and unwilling to participate? 

HAYES:  Right.  You are stepping on his dreams and you’re stepping on my dreams. 

RUSSERT:  Chuck Todd, when we were in South Carolina, I was quite taken by the number of African-Americans who said President Clinton is not respecting Barack Obama.  He is “dissing him.”  That he’s risky, or the constant use of the phrase “a young, eloquent African-American with a solid base in South Carolina.”

And they really took great offense to the choice of those words, calling them code words.  Jesse Jackson, Jr. said much the same thing. 

What’s there? 

TODD:  Well, look, I can’t—you know, I don’t walk in a black man’s shoes, but the one thing I have learned about racial politics in the South is that it’s never buried.  Racial politics in the South—and Bill Clinton knows this as a southern politician—is right up top.  And it’s always very open. 

It’s always striking to me when you go South and you’re in South Carolina, or here, you know, in certain parts of Florida—not all parts of Florida are southern, per se—and it’s a very open conversation.  And it’s very normal for folks to be talking about the black-white divide and these issues and stuff like that. 

And I think that that’s why Clinton, Bill Clinton, is both comfortable talking about it and why so many black politicians are criticizing him, because they know he knows what he’s doing.  They know that he knows being a southern politician, how easily he can speak in the code of talking about black-white issues when it comes to—when it comes to Democratic primary politics. 

So, look, I think the big danger here with the Bill Clinton role in is—has to do with long-term problems.  I think short term—and we’re not—you’re talking about youth turnout and black turnout, but I think about her as a woman candidate for president.

I mean, if she’s got to be relying on him to do the dirty work, well, then it’s going to transition to the natural question of, OK, is he going to be the chief attack dog when she can’t get a policy initiative through Congress?  Is he the one that’s going to go down to the Hill and start wagging his finger at, you know, wavering Democratic members of the House or the Senate to get things—to get things done?  And that’s—you know, that’s the long-term potential problem that they are attracting by using Bill. 

Look, this has been effective short term.  I mean, the fact is, he has gotten inside Obama’s head.  A the last Democratic debate, Obama said the word “hope” twice.  OK?

He was not on his message at all.  Bill Clinton has gotten in his head. 

It is just like you’re almost seeing—I feel like I’m seeing a replay of McCain/Bush 2000, when McCain—and Obama is just angry, he is mad.  He can tell that—you know, that he has gotten under his skin.  And so that’s going to—you know, it’s throwing him off his game.  So...

RUSSERT:  Jonathan, Greg Craig, who was the lead counsel on behalf of President Clinton...

MARTIN:  Right.

RUSSERT:  ... trying to stop impeachment, now supports Obama.  He said the other day, if, in fact, the Hillary Clinton campaign can’t control Bill Clinton now in the campaign, how will they control him if they take over the White House? 

MARTIN:  Right.  He’s floating something that is very similar to what Chuck just alluded to, and that is, in the short term, perhaps, this does help.  And I think there’s sort of evidence there to back that up.  But in the long run, it does resurrect that sort of uncomfortable question for the Clintons that could be very harmful in a general election, and that is, what exactly will Bill Clinton’s role be in the White House? 

What is he going to do day to day there if and when Senator Hillary Clinton becomes president?  And that, I think, goes to a question about, you know, this family and ruling families in America that the American people are going to be uncomfortable with in the fall general election to try to sort of grapple with this issue of, I like Bill Clinton’s policies, I enjoyed the ‘90s, I think Hillary Clinton is perhaps a path-breaker of her own.  But at the same time, you know, is this going to be a co-presidency?  What’s going on here?

I think it does really bring up some really awkward questions for them.

RUSSERT:  I asked Mitt Romney at the debate Thursday night in Boca Raton about running against Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.  And he had an attempt at humor, saying, Americans are worried about Bill Clinton in the White House with nothing to do and a lot of time on his hands. 

MARTIN:  Yes, I think—I mean, it’s a great point.  It was a good question. 

The irony is, for as much trouble as there is on the Republican side—and there’s a lot of trouble.  I mean, there is infighting that, you know, I haven’t seen for 10 years. 

This is all going to be very galvanizing for Republicans, should she eventually win the nomination.  And Republicans are actually talking about it right now. 

There’s a great column from a newspaper writer in Oregon who was talking about John McCain and said, you know, I have all these problems with John McCain on campaign finance and what have you. 

HAYES:  But...

MARTIN:  And he ends the column by saying, “President Hillary Clinton, President Hillary Clinton, President Hillary Clinton.”  And, you know, you talk to people who are—I mean, there’s this sort of anti—McCain brigade now and the sort of pro-Romney brigade.  And these sides are all fighting and cutting each other up, but what you are seeing is Hillary Clinton as this galvanizing figure. 

And, you know, this is no secret.  We sort of knew this all along.  But I think the more Bill Clinton is around and on TV and in newspapers, the more that works for Republicans.  And it also brings his record into play, particularly on foreign policy and national security issues, and Republicans are eager to have that debate. 

RUSSERT:  Another quick break.

We’re coming to you from Tampa, Florida.  The Republican big shootout Tuesday night.  And tonight, South Carolina, the Democrats. 

A lot more with Chuck Todd, Steve Hayes, Jonathan Martin, after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  We are in Tampa, Florida.  Tuesday night, the Republican shootout.  We’re going to talk about the Republicans in just a second. 

Chuck Todd, the Democrats, after South Carolina tonight, Super Tuesday, 22 states.  What’s the Obama strategy and the Clinton strategy? 

TODD:  First of all, I love watching tonight and where the Clintons are going.  We’ve got Hillary Clinton is going to be in Tennessee to give her victory/concession speech, whatever she plans on giving in Tennessee tonight.

Bill Clinton is going to be in Independence, Missouri.  So, already, we know two of the states. 

But what’s interesting about February 5th, Tim, is it looks like there are almost going to be two ships passing in the night.  You have got the Clinton campaign ceding the caucus states.  There’s about six caucus states—ceding those to Obama. 

They are going to concentrate on their four base states of New York, New Jersey, Arkansas, and California.  And then try to make inroads.  And obviously Tennessee is a state they believe they can do well.  Missouri is one, Arizona will be another. 

And possibly—possibly then try to make sure they try to get some delegates out of Illinois.  And they may contest Colorado a little bit.  The Obama folks, the six caucus states, the southern states of Georgia, Alabama, and, yes, Tennessee. 

So, the places where Clinton and Obama will face, where we’ll be able to get sort of a measure, definitely Missouri, definitely Tennessee, definitely Arizona.  Then there’s California and then there’s New Jersey, two places that I think the Obama folks say, don’t let the Clintons talk you into this idea that they’re going to overwhelm Obama there. 

And then California.  California, we’ll see.  You know, it’s going to be split up interestingly. 

RUSSERT:  The Democratic side, Jonathan, proportional.  So, you can win a congressional district that has four delegates—you can win 59-41, and only get two delegates.  And the guy who got 41 percent gets two delegates. 

MARTIN:  Exactly right.  It’s a much different ballgame on the Democratic side as far as how the delegates are allocated.  But I think that what you’re seeing, basically, is that Obama, his strength will be in places where you’re going to have more sort of liberal Democratic activists, places that have caucuses, obviously.  And then the Deep South states that have significantly higher African-American populations, and Democratic primaries will be, you know, very, very high. 

And Clinton, obviously her strengths are her base in New York, also California as well.  But also, Arizona.  Chuck mentions a great point, is that, you know, she’s done really well among Hispanic voters in places like California, but also Arizona now, I think could provide for her a great opportunity. 

RUSSERT:  There is this tension between Hispanic voters and African-American voters. 

TODD:  You can ask the mayor of Los Angeles.  Antonio Villaraigosa, the first time he ran he lost.  And he lost because the winning candidate, Jim Hahn, divided blacks and Hispanics.  He became the black candidate, created a coalition of blacks and whites. 

Villaraigosa, four years later, wins by creating a coalition of Hispanics and whites.  But what’s the one thing they had in common?  African-Americans and blacks (sic).  There was—they were on opposing sides.  So, it is—it is common politics out there in southern California. 

RUSSERT:  Take 30 seconds on super delegates, the Democratic side.  If you’re a governor, a senator, a House representative, you can—you have a vote at the convention.  And both campaigns working very hard to lock up those so-called super delegates. 

MARTIN:  That’s exactly right, which is why it’s much more important.  In a Democratic race, when these candidates get endorsements, because it means something more at the convention.  When a congressperson like Loretta Sanchez, say, in Orange County, California, comes out for Obama, you know, that is not just a paper endorsement.  On the Republican side, these congressmen, the mayors, endorse left and right, and it’s good for a press release, and that’s about it. 

RUSSERT:  We’ll keep watching the super delegates.

We’re in Florida.  We’ll be right back with a conversation about the Republicans.  John McCain, Mitt Romney, toe-to-toe. 

Right after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we are back. 

In just a matter of hours, we will know who won the South Carolina primary for the Democrats.  We are in Florida—Tampa, Florida.  On Tuesday night, the Republicans will be squaring off. 

Here to talk about that, Jonathan Martin, from Politico.com; Steve Hayes, of “The Weekly Standard”; Chuck Todd, political director for NBC News. 

Steve Hayes, you have been traveling around Florida following these candidates.  It looks like it’s Mitt Romney versus John McCain.  What are they saying about each other? 

HAYES:  Well, it’s sure setting up like that here.  It’s interesting. 

The debate on Thursday night that you moderated, I called it the nice debate when it was done.  I mean, nobody really took any serious shots, and what shots they took, they felt like sort of blank (ph) shots to me, which I found very interesting. 

I mean, John McCain, at one point, was talking about Iraq.  And we all know that John McCain believes that Mitt Romney didn’t support the surge as much as he might have.  But rather than actually calling Mitt Romney for his lack of enthusiastic support on the surge, McCain said, there are some who supported, you know, a secret plan or a secret withdrawal, rather than actually confront him directly.  And it was interesting to watch that kind of campaigning. 

Then what we saw the day after, the next day, is all of this opposition research that they had and that they had prepared and that they had in their minds to use in the debate they unloaded on the campaign trail, with trading barbs about experience in Washington and who’s best to fix Washington.  It was a feisty day. 

RUSSERT:  Who is a leader as opposed to a manager? 

HAYES:  Right.  Exactly. 

RUSSERT:  The Republicans seemed to be open that they did not want to have a debate that would be compared to the exchange between Obama and Clinton...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Right. 

RUSSERT:  ... when one accused the other of working for a slumlord and serving on the corporate board of Wal-Mart. 

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN:  I think, Tim, that they knew very, very well that tens of thousands of Floridians were just tuning into this race for the first time.  This is not Iowa or New Hampshire.  These folks are not all political junkies here in this state.  And that this would be broadcast not just on MSNBC, but also on the affiliates here on NBC in Florida. 

A lot of folks didn’t want to see, you know, candidates really scrapping, going at it back and forth.  So they were, as Steve said, on their best behavior.  But I think the next day there was some sort of regret about that because they went after it. 

Look, I think Romney in this state has sort of found his comfort zone talking about economic issues.  He’s much more comfortable doing that as he has been now for a few weeks, going back to New Hampshire and really peaking in Michigan. 

Then he is trying to get to somebody’s right, which is what he did basically for all of last fall, was trying to get to the right of Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.  I think he’s now found more of a comfort zone in talking about his background and the private sector with the Olympics.  And, you know, John McCain, I think, is still trying to sort of find his message here.  Talking about national security, yes, but also recognizing he’s got to add an economic element to his stump speech. 

RUSSERT:  Mitt Romney, Chuck Todd, I have been stunned watching television trying to monitor it, how many Romney ads there are.  He is just washing the other candidates out with the sheer volume.  And it appears that a lot of that is being paid for by his own personal wealth.  Some estimates now, that he may have spent close to $40 million of his own money in his presidential campaign. 

TODD:  Well, we’re going to know in five days.  And despite the fact that we asked him how much he was going to make (ph), he made sure to say he wasn’t going to tell us a minute sooner than he had to, which probably means it’s going to be -- (INAUDIBLE) postmarked on January 31st, apparently.  We’re not even going to be able to see it before then.

But, you know, it’s interesting.  And Jonathan brought up the regret that McCain folks may have had. 

You know, this was the first time Mitt Romney participated in a debate where he wasn’t attacked.  Wasn’t really attacked.  And it was his best debate performance, I think.  And I think that that’s not a coincidence.

He doesn’t do well when he’s under attack.  You see him like smiling and gritting his teeth at the same time when he’d come under attack.  And he would look terrible at these.  He’d have these awful moments. 

And here he wasn’t attacked, and what happened?  He made this really good first impression.  And that’s what this campaign is about to become, which is a series of first impressions. 

You talk about the TV advertising you are seeing.  This is first impression. 

He was a big businessman.  What did Bain Capital do?  They went in, they’d make a pitch.  That first impression is everything in the business world. 

Mitt Romney knows how to do it.  It doesn’t wear well.  That’s what he proved in Iowa.  That’s what he proved in New Hampshire.  But if you don’t have to wear—if you don’t have to wear over a long period of time, that’s a huge potential advantage for Mitt Romney. 

RUSSERT:  Look where we are now.  If Mitt Romney wins here in Florida on Tuesday, he has Super Tuesday, February 5, 21 states.  And he has to make a calculation. 

John McCain, short of money.  Rudy Giuliani, on the ropes.  If I reach into my own personal wealth and spend another $10 million or $15 million and sprinkle it on those Super Tuesday states, and the other candidates don’t—can’t possibly match that, he could “buy the nomination.”

HAYES:  Well, I would be shocked, frankly, if he doesn’t do that.  I mean, at this point, if you have spent, you know, $30, $40 million, whatever it is that people think he spent, I mean, it sounds silly to say this, but what’s another $10 million, I mean, at that point?  And that is one of the ways that he’ll be able to make his—to define himself without the opportunity of his opponents to define him because of the short time period. 

And the other thing I would say about February 5th is, I think we are seeing Romney not only coming to a comfort zone here in Florida, but he is sort of a natural comfort zone that’s been created for him because Fred Thompson is now out of the race, and Mike Huckabee is fading fast.  And Romney’s plan all along was to be the candidate of the right. 

He finally seems, with his main competitors being John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, to sort of have that mantle.  And you’re seeing this.  I think we saw a lot of this this week with talk radio hosts, who have not necessarily warmed to Romney over the last several months, coming around to Mitt Romney.  You start seeing them making defenses of Mitt Romney and, you know, escalating their attacks on John McCain. 

RUSSERT:  Let me ask you, Steve—Rush Limbaugh said if McCain or Huckabee becomes the nominee, it would be a much different party.  And people probably wouldn’t come out and vote.  And it would alter the future of the Republican Party rather significantly. 

HAYES:  Yes, he did say that.  And I’m not—you know, I’m not sure he’s right about that. 

I mean, I think we’ve had—maybe more with Huckabee than McCain.  I think people are more comfortable with McCain than they would be with Mike Huckabee, but Rush is one of several people.  I mean, he’s obviously the loudest voice and the most influential talk radio host in the country, but others are saying the same thing, local talk radio hosts are saying the same thing.  And there’s been this intense, you could almost call it a campaign, to highlight John McCain—the areas in which John McCain has not been friendly to conservatives.  There’s a lot of them.

RUSSERT:  Jonathan, Rudy Giuliani, he said that he was going to win in Iowa and then pulled out.  New Hampshire, pulled out.  State after state he’s finished, sixth, fifth, fourth.

He’s now planted his flag in Florida. 

MARTIN:  Right.

RUSSERT:  Said this is it. 

MARTIN:  Right.

RUSSERT:  Well, is it?  If he loses here, can he possibly go on? 

MARTIN:  It’s very difficult to see, Tim. 

You know, this was not a strategy that I think his campaign wanted to pursue.  This was something that he had to do. 

They realized, probably rightfully, that they could never win Iowa.  They gave New Hampshire a real shot.  New Hampshire made more sense, I think, because Independents, Democrats can vote.  It’s northeastern, it’s more secular and moderate. 

His numbers just didn’t move after spending quite a bit of money on TV.  And so they have two options—put everything into New Hampshire, like John McCain did, or try and come down here and hope that, you know, time stands still until Florida.  It doesn’t seem like that’s going to be the case here on Tuesday, and he is now falling into a sort of distant third behind John McCain and Mitt Romney. 

I think his folks will try to make the argument, if he comes in a close second, that he can go forward.  If it’s third place, it’s very difficult to see how he can plunge ahead. 

But I do think, though, that John McCain would certainly benefit from Rudy being out of the race.  Places like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, keep in mind, where Rudy has been strong, they’re all winner-take-all states.  If Rudy is out of the mix, John McCain is going to take those votes and probably capture all those delegates in those states. 

RUSSERT:  I did take note of John McCain interrupting the debate to say something nice about Rudy Giuliani. 

MARTIN:  There was a reason for that. 

RUSSERT:  And on your way out, Rudy, don’t forget your guy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well, you know...

RUSSERT:  And Fred Thompson may endorse John McCain as well. 

MARTIN:  Right.  No, exactly. 

Look, I think that the sort of last legacy that Rudy could leave in this race to his friend John McCain would in fact be an endorsement.  And for Rudy, I think—and this is just speculation—but Rudy potentially could save face by, you know, basically painting himself as king maker and delivering Jersey, New York and Connecticut to his buddy John McCain. 

HAYES:  It was fascinating, that moment in the debate that you described, because there was a debate—I think it was in the September 5th debate in Durham, New Hampshire, when everybody thought John McCain was done.  And you saw Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney go out of their way to praise—I mean, it was this praise John McCain debate.  It happened three or four times because they thought he was done, and now it’s totally reversed. 

(CROSSTALK)

RUSSERT:  Does anybody know how to put a throat on a throat anymore in politics? 

Before we take a break...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Not John McCain’s.

RUSSERT:  ... Rudy Giuliani, in November, favorable rating in the 50s.  It’s now in the 20s.  He was at 36 percent here in Florida.  He’s now at 18. 

What happened? 

TODD:  Well, you know, it’s interesting.  I’ll be curious how the obituary—political obituary is written with Giuliani.  I think a lot of people are going to immediately say, see, his liberal or moderate positions didn’t play.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Right.

TODD:  The irony is, those things have never become factors in his campaign.  It was the personality stuff.  It was Bernie Kerik.  It was... 

RUSSERT:  The former police commissioner that he tried to make secretary of homeland security. 

TODD:  But, you know, it goes back to something else.  You talked about New Hampshire and he—this guy didn’t understand the town hall format. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That’s right.  That’s right.

TODD:  He didn’t understand.  He could have replaced McCain in New Hampshire by being the New York City guy and gone up there, taken off his jacket...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Right.

TODD:  ... gone around, started doing town halls, and hand-to-hand campaigning.  This guy doesn’t like to hand-to-hand retail campaign.

RUSSERT:  And the irony is he did it as mayor. 

TODD:  And that was his downfall.

TODD:  That’s right.

(CROSSTALK)

RUSSERT:  He would have a call-in radio show.  He’d take on any caller.

We’ve got to take a break. 

We’ll be right back.  We’re from Florida.  The primary, Tuesday night for the Republicans.  And then tonight, South Carolina, the Dems.

Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  Tonight, South Carolina for the Democrats.  Tuesday, it’s here in Florida for the Republicans. 

Steve Hayes, I want to talk about the general election for a second.  You began to talk about it a little while ago. 

NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll, the generic question—Coming this fall, who will you vote for, the Democrat candidate, or  Republican candidate?  Democrat wins by 17 points.

Then we put in the names—John McCain verses Hillary Clinton.  McCain wins 46-44. 

Then we put in John McCain, Barack Obama.  Dead even, 44-44. 

Why the disparity from the generic question, Democrat versus Republican, and the closeness when you match real people? 

HAYES:  Well, I think—I think John McCain is pretty widely respected.  And when—even people who disagree with him, and there are a lot of them, can respect John McCain and think he would be a good leader.  So I think that accounts for some of it.

But you’ve seen now—I mean, you’ve seen almost this early pivot towards the general election.  It’s funny to watch all of the things that we are seeing and all of the things that we’re talking about now in the context of this bigger picture.  Because you had this week Bill Clinton in what I thought was a great and sort of classical piece of political mischief talk about how close John McCain and Hillary Clinton are.  They are buddies now. 

RUSSERT:  The kiss of death in the Republican primary? 

HAYES:  He knows...

(CROSSTALK)

HAYES:  But look...

RUSSERT:  So, you mean Bill Clinton would prefer to run against Mitt Romney than John...

HAYES:  That’s what it sounds like.

RUSSERT:  You’re kidding? 

HAYES:  Imagine that.

It was smart, though.  Look, it was smart.

I mean, it’s already—it already is going to—it’s already causing buzz, you know, in discussions down here.  Think about talk radio on Monday. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Oh my god—yes.

HAYES:  It’s going to be basically taken as an endorsement of John McCain by Bill Clinton.  McCain, he needs to reject that endorsement.  He needs to reject “The New York Times” endorsement, and then he can actually make progress. 

MARTIN:  I mean, Bill Clinton is dominating both primaries now.  It’s incredible.  You know?

RUSSERT:  And he just does it in this, golly, oh, shucks, way, holding the microphone. 

TODD:  No, he’s Obi-Wan, man.  The guy—you know? 

He just—he got inside the head of Obama, now he’s going to climb inside the head of McCain.  And, you know, the thing is McCain is too polite to just totally—you know, because he’s not going to hit somebody for saying a nice thing about him. 

HAYES:  Well, and the interesting thing is, actually, I think, on a personal level, I don’t know, I wouldn’t say that McCain really likes Hillary Clinton.  He doesn’t dislike Hillary Clinton.  And there have been times...

TODD:  Well, our man Josh Green (ph) -- they did vodka shots in Greenland, right? 

RUSSERT:  They took that trip together to evaluate climate change and global warming. 

MARTIN:  No, but McCain, I think, is much more comfortable with (INAUDIBLE) Romney than he is with Hillary Clinton right now. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  Why the disparity between the generic test and then the head-to-head? 

MARTIN:  Well, I think because you’re putting real flesh and blood there on the ballot, and people are looking at personalties, not sort of party names, one of which now is fairly tainted.  And I think that this is the reason why, Tim, John McCain’s campaign for months now has been touting the general election and viability. 

This is a great talking point for them.  When the Romney folks and when some conservatives said, you guys can’t win a primary that doesn’t include Democrats and Independents, the McCain comeback—and it was a strong one—was, look, it’s not going to be just Republicans in the fall voting.  And we’re going to have to have a coalition of Democrats, Independents and Republicans—that’s how Reagan did it back in the ‘80s—to beat whoever the Democrat is. 

And that’s a pretty compelling argument.  And it’s something that McCain really is touting right now.  And...

RUSSERT:  Isn’t that Obama’s argument as well 

MARTIN:  It’s very similar. 

RUSSERT:  They can’t just win with the loyal supporters of one party. 

MARTIN:  You have to (INAUDIBLE) folks to win, exactly.  And, you know, McCain recognizes that he’s not perfect in the eyes of many conservatives, be he gives them something that Romney, at least right now by the numbers, can’t promise them.  And that is, I can beat her. 

TODD:  To be totally crass about this and look for what is the swing vote in this, you know, in this election, if Clinton and Obama or one of those two are the Democratic nominees looking like that, you know, barring a John Edwards miracle comeback, the swing vote may end up being educated white men, you know, which are the ones that seem to be teetering back and forth. 

You see this in these polls.  They’re—you know, they’re generically leading Democrat.  A lot of them did vote Democrat in 2006.  Sort of Independents. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Right.

TODD:  These are white male Independents.  They’re the ones that seem to be vacillating back and forth. 

Barack Obama did well with them in New Hampshire, did well with them and got some of these white men to come out in Iowa.  What will he do today in South Carolina?  I think that’s going to be interesting. 

But in the general election, you know, here we have this historic nature—first woman president, maybe first African-American president.  And it could be...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Lots of white guys.

TODD:  ... you know, white guys that could end up being the swing vote. 

You know, we always talk about soccer moms and this or that, but the—or whatever you want to call them—office park dads is what the microtrend—microtrend tried to call them.  But it’s going to be—that could end up being an interesting swing group, because I think that’s who you’re seeing move. 

RUSSERT:  Steve Hayes, at the debate on Thursday, I asked the Republican candidates about the war on Iraq, how that six out of 10 Americans, the highest number we have seen, no longer believe it’s worth the price in human life and in treasure to have removed Saddam Hussein.  And yet, each of the Republicans, other than Ron Paul, said this is going to be our position come the fall, that the war was worth fighting, and that we are going to stay and not leave. 

Is that a winning issue, politically? 

HAYES:  It’s—I don’t know that it’s a winning issue.  It depends who the candidate is who is actually articulating that point.  I mean, if John McCain is making that case, it’s a lot different than if Mitt Romney is making that case. 

RUSSERT:  Why? 

HAYES:  Because John McCain, he was for the war early.  He actually talked about removing Saddam Hussein back in the late 1990s, when the Clintons were talking about it.

He was for the war when things were going badly.  And he was one—and I don’t think he probably gets enough credit for this—who really spearheaded the Republican effort to fight off the withdrawal that Democrats were pushing all summer.  And he did a lot—we’ve got an article on this in our magazine this week by Fred Barnes, “Inside the Surge : How it Came About”—and John McCain actually did a lot. 

He picked up the phone.  He would call Steve Hadley and say, look, you need to do this, you need to... 

RUSSERT:  The national security advisor to President Bush. 

HAYES:  Right.  He was very active in making sure that the withdrawal didn’t happen and that the surge went forward. 

Now, I think, ironically, he’s become a victim of his own success because Iraq is not on the front page of the newspaper as much as it once was.  And we find ourselves in Florida here debating the economy.  Well, John McCain would rather be talking about national security, but because things have improved in Iraq so much, it’s taken that issue and moved it back a little bit in the minds of the voters. 

MARTIN:  The front page of “The St. Petersburg Times,” the first quote that John McCain had was, you know, “I recognize the economy is important, but I still believe that the transcendent issue of our time is the war against Islamic extimism.”

So I think he recognizes that the economy is now vital, be he also recognizes that the best trump card that he has with the conservative base, many of which are still very weary of him, is talking about this war, because he was steadfast on it, he was right from the get-go.  And he never wavered. 

TODD:  Yesterday he had a national security roundtable, one day after that debate, where he basically didn’t do as well talking about the economy.  Denied that he said that—you know, ever said that the economy wasn’t a good issue for him, that he wasn’t as strong on it. 

Here he does—what does he do?  He turns around and has a national security meeting. 

The problem McCain has is, if this is an election about the economy, he just is not in his comfort zone.  And if somebody with a brand name of “Clinton” is his opponent, and the election is about the economy, I mean, the one thing the Clintons have without baggage is—with the voters—is the economic gold standard. 

RUSSERT:  Back to the ‘90s—the dot-com boom, the surpluses.  That’s what Bill Clinton brought America.  You’ll hear it over and over again, right? 

TODD:  That’s—absolutely.  I mean, I think you’re already starting to hear that.  And I think that they can’t wait for this thing to be about the economy. 

RUSSERT:  All right, Jonathan.  Last call. 

What happens in South Carolina tonight? 

MARTIN:  I think Obama is probably going to take it.  But as we were talking about earlier, it’s a matter of just by exactly how much and where—where in there defines victory versus defeat.  I don’t think it’s a question of pure win or a pure loss.  It’s a matter of, how much does he win by? 

RUSSERT:  What about Tuesday, Florida, GOP? 

MARTIN:  I think you’re looking at a two-man race right now between John McCain and Mitt Romney.  Very, very competitive.

I think Romney right now is much more comfort talking about the economy.  As long as that issues stays on the front page, I think that he could be in a very, very strong place. 

And keep in mind, this is a closed primary.  Only Republicans can vote.  So I think that that could benefit Romney. 

That said, the endorsement by Mel Martinez, Cuban-American senator here, could really help McCain at the 11th hour picking up Cuban-American votes, especially in South Florida. 

RUSSERT:  Steve Hayes, tonight, South Carolina, Dems? 

HAYES:  Well, I think that Obama will do very well and could come close to a double-digit victory, but—you know, in part because of this enthusiasm that I think it’s very hard for pollsters to capture.  But I said the same thing before in New Hampshire.  So why listen to me? 

RUSSERT:  All right.  How about Tuesday night, Republicans, Florida? 

HAYES:  I think it will be very, very close.  I think we are more likely to see a Mitt Romney win here, a very close win, than a John McCain very close win.  And we wake up on Wednesday and it is complete chaos. 

RUSSERT:  Complete chaos on Super Tuesday.

Chuck Todd, tonight, South Carolina for the Dems? 

TODD:  Well, I think just watching the John Edwards—I’m just curious how well he does.  Did white voters who are turned off right now, or not ready to go on with Obama, did they decide to go with John Edwards instead of Hillary Clinton?  So that, to me—that’s a dynamic I’m fascinated to watch.

And then you brought it home.  McCain has a coalition of veterans, voters over 65.  A very important group.  And Cubans. 

And Romney has the country club guys and Fort Myers, the I-4 corridor.  You know, that’s a fascinating thing.  You feel like advantage Romney, but, boy, this Martinez thing could close the gap. 

RUSSERT:  Chuck Todd, MSNBC, “First Read.”  We’ll read it every morning.

TODD:  Yes, sir.

RUSSERT:  Steve Hayes, “The Weekly Standard.”  You post a new article on John McCain and talk radio.  And your book, “Cheney” on Cheney.

Jonathan Martin, Politico.com.  You post every day. 

Thanks, all. 

MARTIN:  Thank you.

RUSSERT:  Stay with us. 

Tonight, MSNBC, full coverage of the Democratic primary in South Carolina. 

I’ll see you tomorrow morning on NBC, “Meet the Press.”  Our guest, John McCain. 

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