updated 2/1/2008 12:04:26 PM ET 2008-02-01T17:04:26

Guests: Eugene Robinson, David Axelrod, Mark Penn, John Amato, Josh Marshall, Arianna Huffington

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR:  The number of candidates reduced.  The amount of conflict reduced further still.  Three times tonight, Barack Obama said he had always been against the Iraq War.  And three times, Hillary Clinton didn‘t answer as her husband had, and never said anything even reminiscent of the phrase “fairy tale.”  A posturing declined, replaced by depth and nuance, and 20 minutes of actual debate about health care. 

About the only that increased in this, the 18th Democratic debate, more celebrity cutaways than a Los Angeles Lakers basketball broadcast.  There has been a Topher Grace sighting. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN (voice-over):  When we herded them out onto the stage at the football stadium, Soldier Field in Chicago, there were seven of them.  It was August.  And it was sultry.  When they were herded onto the state tonight at the Academy Awards venue, the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, there were just two of them left in the deepest and coldest part of the winter of their discontent, with each other.  The last debate before Super Tuesday. 

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We are bringing in a whole generation of new voters which I think is exciting. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  And you know, it did take a Clinton to clean after the first Bush.  And I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush. 

OLBERMANN:  With analysis of Rachel Maddow and Pat Buchanan, and Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post.  The view from the Web, with Arianna Huffington, and Josh Marshall from TPM, and John Amato of Crooks and Liars.  And Newsweek‘s Richard Wolffe on-site in California.  All that and more now on COUNTDOWN‘s special coverage of the Democratic debate. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening, this is Thursday, January 3 1st, 278 days until the 2008 presidential election.  And tonight, at the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in L.A., a venue that regularly plays host to the “American Idol” finals, another competition of two distinct American voices, the winner to be chosen by votes of millions in this country.  What‘s at stake indisputably higher.  The number watching, sadly not.  The quality, unquestionably, was. 

Our fifth story on this special edition of COUNTDOWN, Senator Clinton and Senator Obama facing off in the last debate before Super Tuesday, the first debate to feature just the two of them, also known as, the love-in in L.A. 

What was that about Saddam not wanting to compete with Osama bin Laden for the title of the world‘s top megalomaniac?  The two candidates, walking on stage to little fanfare—with little fanfare, making no effort to shake hands though they would embrace as it ended. 

But in his opening statement, Senator Obama, seeking to put recent and increasingly person attacks by both candidates into some context.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign.  I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over.  She has done—she has run a...

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  We‘re running a competitive race, but it‘s because we both love this country and we believe deeply in the issues that are at stake. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Setting a tone for 90 minutes-plus of debate in which there were almost no raised voices and very, very little conflict.  There was no praise for her opponent in Senator Clinton‘s opening remarks.  Instead the former first lady once again emphasizing the importance for the next president to be ready to start the job on, and you can say it with us now, day one. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  It is imperative that we have a president, starting on day one, who can begin to solve our problems, tackle these challenges and seize the opportunities that I think await. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  If heading into tonight‘s first head-to-head debate, voters had been hoping for a substantive policy discussion, that‘s exactly what they got, including the question of taxes. 

You‘ve heard it before, Republicans calling Democrats “tax and spend liberals.”  So how might these two candidates handle that charge? 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I don‘t think the Republicans are going be in a real strong position to argue fiscal responsibility when they‘ve added $4 trillion or $5 trillion worth of national debt. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  I am happy to have that argument.  If John McCain, for example, is the nominee, I respect that John McCain in the first two rounds of Bush tax cuts said, it is irresponsible that we have never before cut taxes at the same time as we‘re going into war.  And somewhere along the line, the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels. 

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  And now he‘s in favor of extending Bush tax cuts that went to some of the wealthiest Americans who don‘t need them and weren‘t even asking for them. 

CLINTON:  It‘s just really important to underscore here that we will go back to the tax rates we had before George Bush became president.  And my memory is, people did really well in that time period. 

OBAMA:  They were doing just fine.

CLINTON:  And they will keep doing really well. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The candidates also spending nearly 20 minutes on health care.  The nuance and the subtlety thereof, not so much the 95 percent of their plans deemed similar by Senator Obama, but the 5 percent that separates them.  Senator Obama also saying that he would force all parties to negotiate a national health care plan transparently in televised format on C-SPAN.  And he claimed that was not a swipe at Senator Clinton. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  That‘s what I will do in bringing all parties together, not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are, because part of what we have to do is enlist...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  ... the American people in this process and overcoming the special interests and the lobbyists who—Senator Clinton is right, they will resist anything that we try to do. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Joining me now for our first round of analysis, Richard Wolffe of Newsweek and MSNBC, who, as you see, is at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood; and Eugene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post who is in our D.C. bureau. 

Richard, let me start with you.  Before we get into the substance, give us the shiny parts.  Was that as good looking and good sounding a debate in person as it seemed to be sitting watching it on television? 

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR:  Yes.  I think it was.  I actually thought both sides came off pretty well.  They both had their moments.  But concentration on the issues is what voters tell us they want all the time.  You know, we in the media often say, well, how come they don‘t land punches, and then they get into Myrtle Beach‘s debate and they land punches.  And we all throw up our hands in horror and say, how awful and squabbling it is. 

So I thought actually it was good-natured.  Where there were swipes, there were done elegantly, like that C-SPAN thing.  Although I thought Wolf Blitzer was going to jump in and think it was a swipe at CNN. 

You know, there is—there was a good exchange on so many things.  And you know, on balance, certainly in the second half as it got to Iraq, I thought Obama did pretty well.  Anything that gets him known for a candidate who is still trying to get out there, especially in a place like California, is a good thing to him. 

OLBERMANN:  Do you think, Richard, that there was something missed here by Hillary Clinton?  As I mentioned earlier, at least three times we had that same construct that Barack Obama has used before, that he had always been against the war in Iraq, implying in some cases, subtly in some and not so subtly in others, that Hillary Clinton had not been and pointing out the nature of her vote in the Senate to authorize the president to use force in Iraq, and she did not come back with anything, no matter how subtle, even where near what her husband, President Clinton, had said about this—Obama track record being a fairy tale. 

Did she sort of leave the field on the issue of defending herself by tearing him down a little bit?

WOLFFE:  Well I think she did.  I think she drew a pretty strong lesson out of everything that happened in South Carolina over the last couple of weeks, and also in New Hampshire, too. 

But interestingly enough, Barack Obama did not take it one step further.  He didn‘t talk, for instance, when Senator Clinton said she had done all the homework, she‘d talked to a lot of experts, he didn‘t mention that Senator Clinton didn‘t read the NIE on Iraq, the most important document about making a decision on the war. 

So he pulled some of his punches, too.  But Iraq, there was a very clear difference there.  And especially, again, for a Hollywood audience, I think he got the better of that side of the debate. 

She still got off some good lines.  I mean, the clip you heard about cleaning up after a Bush was a great line for her, got a huge response.  But on the question of Iraq, there‘s that clear distinction about the vote for the war. 

OLBERMANN:  You mentioned getting off good lines.  Very important in a Hollywood setting, certainly in that one I know it all too well from working in that neighborhood for seven years of my life.  But Barack Obama showed on at least four occasions a kind of humor that I assume the larger format debates have not really allowed him to do. 

Previously he said how willing he would be to fight the Republicans on the issue of tax and spend.  And then he made the joke about Romney the businessman having not gotten much of a return on his investments.  Have we seen enough of this before?  Has he conveyed enough of that, do you think, in these debates before?

WOLFFE:  No, we haven‘t.  And look, I think this is a candidate who has been a work in progress.  This is by far his best debate.  And he has developed, you know, in front of our eyes.  And that—mistakes and all. 

I actually think this debate went well for both of these senators, because at heart, they‘re both really policy wonks.  They don‘t actually deliver the punches that well.  They come off maybe as too sharp or too soft.  But here in this format, they can talk about—endless detail about health care plans. 

And both came off actually pretty well-informed and knowledgeable and pretty engaging on the subject.  So tapping into their inner policy wonk, I think, worked for both of them.  But those flashes of humor are very effective.  They worked well for Bush in 2000, Al Gore didn‘t quite get the balance right in 2000.

But you know, I agree with you, I think Obama has developed very well over these debates. 

OLBERMANN:  Gene Robinson of The Washington Post, would you agree with Richard there that that was the best performance we have seen in Barack Obama in one of the debate formats?  That number 18 was the big winner for him? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, THE WASHINGTON POST:  Yes.  I did think it was a much better performance by Obama than his earlier performances.  I thought—you know, I thought there was exactly one electric moment in this debate, and that was right at the beginning, when you saw the two of them sitting there, a woman, a man of color, the two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, one of them is going to win.  That, to me, was a really important and exciting moment. 

Then very quickly, we got into the tall weeds of health policy.  And I guess I‘ll play the bad old media here.  But I confess that when the camera panned to a shot of Jason Alexander of the “Seinfeld” series, my thought was, where is George Costanza when you need him? 

What they didn‘t do in this debate is sharpen the differences and really give the voters that much of a reason to choose one or the other. 

OLBERMANN:  That‘s my—that really is my first note down here.  Five words: “that looked like a ticket.” Didn‘t it look like a Democratic telethon of some sort, Gene? 

ROBINSON:  It kind of did.  I mean, there was so much more agreement than disagreement.  There was so much careful and really apparently genuine respect.  They seemed to have made up for all of that unpleasantness of a couple of weeks ago in—you know, or a few days ago in South Carolina. 

And they‘re buddies again.  You know, what I think we really saw was two campaigns that are pretty happy with where they are right now.  I didn‘t get the sense that either side thought it was going to be blanked or knocked out of the race on Super Tuesday.  Hillary Clinton has a lead, Obama has a certain momentum.  I‘m not quite sure what is going to happen on Tuesday.  But it was—you know, in that sense, it was a pretty careful debate, and they chose their words carefully and they also chose not to fight very much. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  And there seemed to me to be at least four or five invocations by each of them of Democratic unity, which is against everything that we‘ve been raised with.  Eugene Robinson in Washington, Richard Wolffe at the debate for us, great thanks to you both. 

ROBINSON:  Thanks, Keith.

WOLFFE:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Coming up, tonight‘s debate as seen through the eyes of the candidates.  Reaction from both camps ahead.  And the reaction from the blogosphere, Huffington Post, TPMMuckraker, and Crooks and Liars all represented here.  You are watching COUNTDOWN‘s special coverage of the Democratic debate in Los Angeles. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Barack Obama raised $32 million in the first 30 days of January.  Tomorrow he will get one of John Edwards‘ key endorsements from the Transportation Workers Union.  Did he get anywhere with the first one-on-one debate in the Democratic nominating process?  There was a lot of policy, there was a lot of information, was there any distinction?  Ahead on our special, the post-debate reaction from both campaigns.  That‘s next, this is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I respect Senator Clinton‘s record.  I think it‘s a terrific record.  But I also believe that the skills that I have are the ones that are needed right now to move the country forward, otherwise I wouldn‘t be running for president of the United States of America. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN‘s special coverage of the Democratic debate continues.  And joining us now from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Senator Barack Obama. 

Thank you for your tonight, sir.

DAVID AXELROD, OBAMA CHIEF STRATEGIST:  Good to be with you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Incredibly thorough by both candidates, I think you would agree, incredibly policy-heavy, incredibly unified in terms of the Democratic Party.  But what were the distinctions between the candidates?  They both looked like winners to me? 

AXELROD:  Well, I think that there were some areas of disagreement.  I think there were some areas of disagreement on health care at the beginning of the debate that were pretty clear.  They have a difference over whether we should mandate people to buy health care policies, even if they can‘t afford it.  Senator Obama says no, Senator Clinton says yes.

But the biggest, I think, difference, Keith, came over the issue over Iraq.  And Senator Clinton, still, after 17 debates, has a hard time explaining why she reposed her trust in George Bush on this war and how she somehow believed that this wasn‘t a vote for war, when the resolution itself was called a Resolution to Authorize Military Action Against Iraq. 

So you know, I don‘t—I thought that was an interesting 20 minutes.  But overall, I think what they saw in Obama is someone who is ready to lead this country and lead it forward, bring it together, take it in a new direction.  And you know, I think it was a very positive night for us. 

OLBERMANN:  To that answer that Senator Clinton gave, it certainly got a lot of response to those of us watching here that there was fear in her circles, among her advisers that she had given that authorization vote, that there was fear that somehow Saddam Hussein wasn‘t going stand having his megalomaniac crown taken from him by Osama bin Laden. 

Had you heard anything like that before?  Was the one head-scratcher for those of us watching here?

AXELROD:  No.  As I said, I think that those 20 minutes did not illuminate her decision-making during that period.  And as Senator Obama said, it really isn‘t a matter of what she did then.  I mean, the fact that she still doesn‘t acknowledge it is a mistake is problematical.  But it really does give you an insight into how these two people thing. 

Senator Obama gave a very trenchant analysis back in 2002 as to why this war would be a mistake.  He predicted with chilling accuracy that we would end up in the situation we did and it would have a deleterious effect in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, make us less safe.  And Senator Clinton is still trying to justify that decision. 

So in terms of judging these two people as commanders-in-chief, people who are going to lead American foreign policy, that is an important exchange. 

OLBERMANN:  David, was there to any degree a sense going into this that you might as well have your candidate address issues that will come up in the general election to begin the actual presidential campaign now, because a couple of those answers sounded like they might be palatable, not merely to people in the middle, but even to people on the right? 

Senator Obama said of Iraq, I want to see this mission completed honorably, which could have been something—though obviously it means something entirely different, it could have been something Richard Nixon said about Vietnam.  But the second thing was about this issue of learning English for any illegal immigrants who want to achieve citizenship here, which was echoed to some less degree by Senator Clinton‘s answer.

Was this partially a debate that was designed to sell both of these candidates to the general election audience? 

AXELROD:  Keith, actually he has been saying that throughout this campaign.  That—on immigration, he has always said that he thought that one of the conditions for people who wanted to make the transition from illegal status to legal status was not just to pay fines, but also to learn English. 

In terms of the war, you know, leaving honorably doesn‘t necessarily mean—just doesn‘t conflict with leaving swiftly.  He wants to get out as quickly as we possibly can.  And I think he believes that we have to get out in order to compel the Iraqis to take charge of their own destiny and come to a political accommodation. 

So his position hasn‘t changed at all.  We do have big differences with John McCain, however, who wants to be there for 100 years—or said he wouldn‘t mind it.  So I think we‘re going to have great debate with Senator McCain in the fall. 

OLBERMANN:  David Axelrod, who is obviously already preparing for that debate, Mr. Obama‘s chief strategist, thanks for stopping by with us, from the spin room at the Kodak Theatre. 

AXELROD:  Thanks, Keith.  Good to be with you. 

OLBERMANN:  Good to be with you.

So that is the take on tonight‘s festivities from the Obama side of the equation.  Up next, the Hillary Clinton campaign and its chief strategist, Mark Penn, will join us.

And later, analysis of the Democratic race as it now stands, from Rachel Maddow and Pat Buchanan.  This is COUNTDOWN‘s continuing coverage of the Democratic debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  So clearly, we are both dedicated to doing the best we can to win the nomination.  But there‘s no doubt we will have a unified Democratic Party.  We will go in to the November election prepared to win. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And that was heard throughout the night at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.  We rejoin you with COUNTDOWN‘s special coverage of the aftermath of this 18th Democratic debate.  And joining me now from the spin room at the Kodak, Mark Penn, Senator Clinton‘s chief strategist. 

Mark, thanks for your time tonight.

MARK PENN, CLINTON CHIEF STRATEGIST:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Deep, convincing arguments by both candidates, subtleties and nuances of heavy duty policy issues that didn‘t bore, that did have shades of difference between the two candidates, a lot of excellent back and forth, and almost a love-in quality to it. 

But as I asked your counterpart, Mr. Axelrod, where were the distinctions between those two candidates? 

PENN:  I think it was a very strong debate for Senator Clinton.  I think she again showed that she‘s ready on day one to be president of the United States and carry out the duties of commander-in-chief.  I think it‘s very important that she really stands for universal health care, a plan that covers each and every American without any exceptions. 

And I think that‘s a very important difference between the two candidates.  It‘s a fundamental Democratic principle.  I think she was very strong in her belief that we need comprehensive immigration reform and that we‘ve got to do something about this dreadful economic situation that we‘ve got here as well as get our troops out of Iraq. 

OLBERMANN:  About the subject of Iraq, the only time that I did not follow what was happening from either was her answer invoking a reference to the megalomania of Saddam Hussein as being part of the—and a sort of—some sort of megalomania contest between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as a component in her decision to vote yes on the authorization bill that gave President Bush the powers that he exercised to such great detriment to this country in that one.  Do you have a further explanation of what that answer was actually about? 

PENN:  Well, I think she was really just commenting that previously Saddam Hussein had done a number of things, including using poison gas on his own people.  And that those were all factors in her decision that she made to go ahead and to give authorization to the president and that authorization, as she said, was misused by President Bush.  And that if she knew then the facts that he knows now, she would not have voted the same way. 

But we have to look forward, as she said.  Who—as the commander-in-chief, who is ready to pull out the troops that we have there responsibly, to reestablish relations around the world and to deal with the dictators and other influences around the world that we have to pursue aggressive diplomacy against.  And I think that‘s Senator Clinton. 

OLBERMANN:  Mark, the wild card, or the change in this race since the last time your candidate and Mr. Obama met is obviously the departure of Senator Edwards from this campaign.  Was there something in your candidate‘s performance tonight that was specifically tailored to or you think would have a specific impact on those voters who were supporting John Edwards and are now looking for a new place to live? 

PENN:  Well, I hope the voters of Senator Edwards will very seriously consider coming over to Senator Clinton.  I think that she shares the same kind of passion for many of the issues that Senator Edwards did.  She has been fighting life-long fights, starting with working for the Children‘s Defense Fund, on issues of the poor. 

And I think as you saw, both Senator Edwards and her had a similar health care plan that in fact covers each and every American.  And that was a fundamental principle to Senator Edwards, and it‘s a fundamental principle to Senator Clinton. 

OLBERMANN:  Last question, sir, was it deliberate on your part of the equation here to have this be a perfectly well-mannered and almost non-confrontational debate?  Was this a healing moment for the Democrat Party and was it intentional? 

PENN:  I think the senator felt that tonight‘s debate was really a conversation, a conversation with the American people who are going to make a very serious choice with some very big stakes here with the economy, two wars, and needing to elect somebody who can both beat the Republicans and be commander-in-chief.  She wanted to have that conversation.  I think that the conversation we had.  And I think also she‘s going to continue it Monday night in a national town hall as she announced in the debate. 

OLBERMANN:  Got the plug in on two networks.  Mark Penn, chief strategist for Hillary Clinton and Senator Clinton‘s presidential campaign, thank you for your time, sir. 

PENN:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  Coming up, the reaction to tonight‘s debate from the leading voices in the blogosphere.  We will go to the net.  Will tonight‘s debate provide a significant momentum swing for either of these candidates going into those extraordinarily crucial 22 Super Tuesday contests? 

Also, Pat Buchanan and Rachel Maddow join us.  What was the hottest issue of the night?  You‘re watching this special edition of COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  And with all due respect, we have a president who basically ran as the CEO/MBA president, and look what we got.  I‘m not too happy about the results. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  Let me just also point out that Mitt Romney has not gotten a very good return on his investment during this presidential campaign. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The answer to questions about businessmen or CEOs as president and the lack of Democratic experience running companies pretty well slam-dunked by both of the candidates tonight as we continue with COUNTDOWN‘s special post-debate coverage. 

And joining me now, a panel of people who keep their mouse on the pulse of the netroots, or the mice on the—if we prefer that.  Arianna Huffington, of course, founder of Huffington Post and author of “On Becoming Fearless,” who is with me here in the studio.  Josh Marshall, the publisher of Talking Points Memo, TPMMuckraker, and TPMElection Central.  And John Amato, creator, managing editor of Crooks and Liars who attended tonight‘s debate and is still there.  And I thank you all for being with us. 

And, John, I‘ll start with you, because you are still there.  There were a lot of slam dunks in here and there were a lot of applause lines and there were a lot of laughs.  Who is getting the live and online love after this debate?

JOHN AMATO, CROOKS AND LIARS:  Well, I‘ll tell you, Keith, it has really been a great debate.  The people are alive, it‘s crackling in this auditorium.  It was palpable, the electricity as the candidates were coming on to the stage.  So there is a lot of love both ways.  The Obama fans were screaming outside, they were just as loud inside.  And also the Hillary camp was huge.  So it‘s quite—you know, it is broken up, but it‘s—you can hear the pandemonium behind me, I‘m sure.  It‘s a pretty split even group, I would say. 

OLBERMANN:  Josh Marshall, from Talking Points Memo, from TPMMuckraker, from TPMElection Central, is that your read on this, too?  I mean, I asked Mark Penn and David Axelrod the same question.  There seemed to be great substance, there seemed to be great nuance.  There seemed to be conviviality.  There seemed to be party unison.  But was there anything in here that really separated these candidates by any major distance? 

JOSH MARSHALL, TALKING POINTS MEMO:  I mean, I agree, it was shockingly substantive for a debate.  You know, I thought both of them really had a pretty good debate.  I thought that Hillary was a little stronger in the first half, Obama in the second half, especially because of Iraq. 

You know, I think what this debate showed is that both campaigns went into this seeing the trajectory they are on going into Super Tuesday, basically liking where they are, not wanting to rock the boat.  So, no, it didn‘t—there were not a lot of contrasts.  I think the one thing it came back to was on Iraq. 

And even though it was very convivial and very gentle, I thought that Obama did pretty well on that.  Because for this audience, Hillary Clinton just doesn‘t have a great set of facts to argue.  So on balance I would give it mildly to Iraq.  But I thought both of them did pretty well, and that is because both campaigns are on a trajectory that they are comfortable with, and they didn‘t want anything unexpected to happen. 

OLBERMANN:  And we had very little, Arianna, that seemed to be unexpected.  What—did anything come out at you as the decisive, a faux pas, a great victory, a decisive leap?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, THE HUFFINGTON POST:  There was no faux pas from either one.  But Hillary had the best line of the night.  The one about it took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, it will take a Clinton to clean up after the second Bush.  That was the biggest applause line. 

I feel that Obama had the best kind of, sadly, powerful line when he said “right from day one,” contrasting the “ready from day one” that we can all sing along to.  And also what Josh said about Iraq, I mean, that is the most important moment of the debate for me, because no matter what Hillary Clinton says, she cannot get away from that vote.  She cannot get away from the fact that she did not vote for the Carl Levin amendment. 

I was amazing that actually that came up in the debate like that.  Because it is the one decision that kind of throws into question her claim that she really was voting to authorize more inspections rather than going to war. 

OLBERMANN:  And I want to ask each of you this question, and we‘ll go back in the reverse order that we got here.  So, Arianna, you start.  That—may be that‘s it.  Did she get deeper into the woods of trying to explain Iraq and not get out?  Because it seemed as if bringing in the megalomania of Saddam Hussein, I still don‘t know.  And I don‘t think...

HUFFINGTON:  And then Mark Penn didn‘t answer it for you.

OLBERMANN:  I don‘t think he knew what it was either.  Where was she going, and the only thing that it did seem was that they seemed to be comfortable to some degree rationalizing the decision.  Well, it could have turned out the right, the odds, in retrospect, are obviously a million-to-one.  But we didn‘t know that then.  Has there been some sort of shift in the Clinton campaign to rationalize that decision? 

HUFFINGTON:  Well, not didn‘t she explain it, but I think she did go deeper into the woods, because by the end, she was saying that the basically execution was wrong, which is completely the wrong argument for a Democratic primary, because the whole thing here is not that the execution was wrong.  Even John McCain agrees that the execution was wrong. 

OLBERMANN:  Right.  That is a McCain or a Romney answer.

HUFFINGTON:  You know, that is like—exactly.  Everybody agrees on that.  Rumsfeld agrees on that.  So the whole point here is that Democrats almost universally now will say that it was a mistake for those of them, the 75 senators who voted for the war. 

And what is interesting is the journey.  She went from being one of the 77 senators to vote for the war to being one of 14 senators to vote against the funding of war.  And there‘s no way she can explain that transition except for political expediency. 

OLBERMANN:  Or if you just come out and say, no, that was really wrong of me in the first chance and I didn‘t do...

HUFFINGTON:  But she has down that. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, then, Josh, where is that in the list of items that most concerns the Web, the blogosphere?  Where is the online outrage about that?  Will it be tamped up as a result of this or tamped down as a result of this debate? 

MARSHALL:  Well, look, Iraq has been a key issue online and offline in this entire country, since 2003.  And you know, I think that was—it was almost sort of a touching moment in my mind, because I thought Hillary in debating terms did pretty well coming with explanations and rationalizations.  But at the end of the day, she just didn‘t have the set of facts in hand that Obama did.  And that made it—she just couldn‘t overcome that. 

I guess the point that I would point out is that if you‘re a political junkie like we are here, you‘ve seen them go over this a million times.  You know sort of the basic argument that each one of them make.  But there are a lot of people who are going to vote on Tuesday who are watching this who probably have not seen these earlier debates. 

So this was really their introduction to this issue for them.  And on those terms, I think he came off pretty well.  And again, I think that‘s—it‘s really key for people like us who, you know, live and breathe politics, don‘t have another life otherwise to remember that.  This the first time for a lot of people. 

OLBERMANN:  That‘s right.  A lot of people are saying, now which one‘s last name is Clinton and which one‘s last name is Obama?  John Amato, in the theater, was that feeling there extant, that the Iraq issue may be the separator in these two candidates and that maybe that‘s the one thing that you wouldn‘t give an individual grade of A to is Hillary Clinton‘s answers and the new versions, the new mutations of those answers that we heard tonight? 

AMATO:  Yes, you know, look, Hillary is never going say that that was a wrong vote.  She has taken a tough stand on it.  I think she said it in every debate that with the information that she has had, she made the vote that she thought (INAUDIBLE). 

And we all know that she‘s not coming off that.  Because she thinks it‘s a weakness.  And of course, in the blogosphere there‘s a lot of animosity towards that vote.  And it‘s a position that she‘s had trouble dancing around.  And I think Arianna and Josh make that point. 

But all—you know, if you‘re a Hillary fan, you‘ll accept that and move on.  And you‘ll also notice that when Wolf kept hammering on her about being a naive vote, the audience started booing Wolf.  I think that she got a chance to explain it and weaved and bobbed and weaved, but then Wolf just kept piling on.  And it actually turned the audience against Wolf instead of focusing on Hillary‘s question and her answer. 

OLBERMANN:  It will not be the last time nor the first time that the moderator gets in the way, if that‘s indeed what happened.  John Amato, stand by.  Josh Marshall, stand by.  Arianna Huffington, stand by.

Does tonight‘s faceoff in Hollywood provide a boost to either of these candidates as we look at Super Tuesday?  What has actually changed?  Speaking of that, the John Edwards factor, what impact will his supporters have now in the outcome of the national primaries?   Our special coverage of the Democratic debate continues here on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  After the first one-on-one debate of the Democratic campaign, the super two head to Super Tuesday, did either gain the support of those who had been supporting John Edwards?  We‘ll get the reactions of our Web masters and Web mistress, if you will, when COUNTDOWN‘s special coverage of the Democratic debate in Los Angeles continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Of course tonight was all about tomorrow, or to be precise, five days from now when Democrats choose between senators Clinton and Obama in 22 state contests that have come to be known collectively as Super Tuesday.  Super because the extra ingredient is American Samoa. 

Right now we continue to look online for a look ahead to most likely the most decisive day in this race.  Still with us: Arianna Huffington of huffingtonpost.com; Josh Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com; and John Amato of crooksandliars.com. 

Let‘s start on where the Edwards factor goes now that Edwards has gone.  Arianna, did anything happen in here that would, in your estimation or the estimation of your bloggers and readers, attract the people who were from Edwards to either Clinton or Obama? 

HUFFINGTON:  I think something did happen.  There were no fireworks, but there were two very distinct styles of leadership presented here.  You had Hillary Clinton, who is passionate about electronic medical records.  She‘s a realist, a pragmatist.  She‘s a brilliant woman who is a wonk, who is going to be disciplined.  She‘s going to give us electronic medical records, I have no doubt about that. 

And then there was Obama, and he talked about bringing in new people to the process. And he talked about transformational leadership really.  You know, interesting, even about the war, he said, I don‘t want just to end the war, I want to end the mindset that got us into war.  So these are two very different kinds of leadership. 

I think a lot of the Edwards people would be drawn to that passionate, transformational leadership.  A lot of them also would want to actually end poverty.  So it depends who they will think will do that.  But I would tend to think that given that Bill Clinton did not exactly end poverty during eight great years of prosperity, he marginally kind of reduced, if they want something fundamentally different, they would go for Obama. 

OLBERMANN:  Josh, anything from what you tell from your community where the Edwards people might wind up and what, if anything, they heard today that might influence them in either direction? 

MARSHALL:  Well, the one thing I thought is, you know, John Edwards got out at just the wrong time, just before he was acclaimed a Democratic saint by both candidates.  You know, I think—I don‘t really know.  And I don‘t think we‘ve seen from the polls yet how they‘re going break. 

I haven‘t got—I mean, the one thing all the Edwards supporters that e-mail me from the site, you know, their big thing was John Edwards.  They were really, really committed to him.  So it‘s kind of hard to figure. 

The one thing I would say is just that his campaign was so oppositional, and in a lot of cases so oppositional towards what he saw Hillary Clinton as representing, that it‘s not so much that I see them naturally going to Obama, but I don‘t think we know.

OLBERMANN:  John Amato at the Kodak Theatre, any impression on this?  Because obviously the first thing that was said when I guess he won the coin toss and when he was allowed to go and speak first, the first thing Senator Obama did, even before his first kumbaya moment with Hillary Clinton, the first thing was to invoke John Edwards and to talk about what a great campaign.  There was more referencing of John Edwards in the first minute of a debate than there had been in the previous 17 debates. 

AMATO:  Well, I couldn‘t agree with you more, Keith.  It was—as soon as they took the stage, it was John Edwards was just an incredible human being.  And of course, I think that Josh also hit on it.  We really don‘t know where the votes at this point are going fall. 

You know, you could see a big difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, because as soon as Rudy was done, it was an interesting picture of Rudy with Arnie, with McCain, he was like a little lost puppy, immediately giving his votes to McCain.  And you don‘t see that with John. 

I think John is trying to—he wants his agenda—you know, he wants to make sure that poverty rules and that what he believes in, both candidates are going to carry on.  So he‘s being kind of cagey with where he is going and if he‘s actually going to even endorse anyone.  We‘re not sure of that.  And so it was very fascinating that that was the opening salvo fired by Barack.  And I guess more shall be revealed come Tuesday. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, yes, maybe.  And maybe not.  I mean, of course, we‘re still waiting for Bill Richardson and Joe Biden and Chris Dodd to endorse anybody, and they haven‘t done that.  Maybe the cards will be held to the vest and you let the voters decide.  What a concept.  John Amato of Crooks and Liars, at the scene at the Kodak Theatre, my great thanks to you.  Also to Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, thank you for coming in.  Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, always a pleasure to see you, especially in person. 

HUFFINGTON:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  The Democratic debate may be over, but the fight over the issues lives on.  Pat Buchanan and Rachel Maddow, our MSNBC political analysts, hit the hot issue from the Hollywood—well, from the Hollywood faceoff, next on COUNTDOWN.  And it won‘t be all those cutaways of celebrities either.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  We should not use immigration as a tactic to divide.  Instead we should pull the country together to get this economy back on track.  That‘s what I intend to do as president of the United States of America. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Something a little different at the Democratic debate tonight, immigration as an issue for the Democrats to debate, the two remaining ones.  This is our continuing coverage in the aftermath of this, the 18th Democratic debate.  And we‘re now joined by MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and Rachel Maddow. 

And let‘s talk about this issue of Democrats addressing, to some degree—and I imagine Pat will think it was a very small one, to some degree the issue of immigration.  Pat, start us off. 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, I think that Obama had a good moment on it when he said we ought not to scapegoat these folks.  It was emotional.  But the fact that the question was asked by an African-American, and she was talking about the—as I recall, asking about the immigrants taking away these jobs.  And on that I thought Hillary won the debate for this reason. 

She showed empathy for the person and she also showed realism.  Because the truth is, with the 12 million to 14 million illegals she mentioned in the country, most of them very low wage workers, they do dramatically increase competition for low wage jobs.  And so I thought Hillary won the immigration debate basically in terms of reaching out into Barack‘s constituency and into the poor working class folks.  So I think she won that section.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I think she won it in terms of political aggressiveness, certainly.  That was actually the one kind of shocking moment for me in the debate.  I thought that Hillary seemed very bad tonight on Iraq.  But on that immigration issue, that‘s the one other time when I made notes. 

I looked down at my notes and I said, Hillary says that African-Americans should scapegoat Latino immigrants for taking their jobs.  She specifically said, African-Americans—she referenced a personal interaction with an African-American man who had lost his job and believed it was because of Latino immigrants. 

Barack Obama had said, let‘s not scapegoat anybody, African-Americans were having high unemployment rates before the current wave of immigrants that we know we‘re talking about here.  And Hillary Clinton essentially said, well, I don‘t know why we shouldn‘t scapegoat them?  I mean, it wasn‘t in that blunt a term, but it was—she was putting a wedge between Latinos and blacks. 

BUCHANAN:  But the truth is that if you ask African-Americans, many of them are more militant than white conservatives on the immigration issue because they‘re living in these communities and jobs are being taken.  And there is a real turf war, if you will, over jobs and opportunities. 

And the real world that is happening.  And Hillary is showing that awareness.  I think that is going to stand her in good stead.  And I‘m surprised.  It showed courage, because it also—I guess you‘re going find some Hispanics to say just what you‘re saying, Rachel, she is scapegoating. 

MADDOW:  Yes, well, I don‘t think it showed courage.  I think it showed cravenness.  I mean, anytime you have got communities that are hard hit, and when you look at—like if you compare the start of Bush‘s term and Latino and African-American families and their incomes, and how they have dropped so much more than the average American family‘s incomes have dropped over Bush‘s presidency, when you‘ve got two communities that are hard hit, that are both essentially at the bottom of the economic ladder, it‘s great place to drive a wedge.  That‘s political dynamite right there.  You can always turn them against each other.  I was just shocked that she did it. 

OLBERMANN:  Let me interject something here to try to get a little bit bigger picture on this.  Was it a surprise the hear two Democratic candidates for the presidency of the United States both say that for illegal immigrants in this country to gain citizenship, one said they would have to learn English, and the other said, we are going to have to help them learn English?  They seemed to be fairly conservative—if it‘s a very, very subtle slice of the pie, Pat, that was a fairly conservative point of view for two Democrats, was it not? 

BUCHANAN:  It is, indeed.  It is, indeed.  And of course, when you get into the general election, I think Barack Obama‘s position about the driver‘s licenses and things, as we saw up in New York State, where 70 percent of New Yorkers turned against Governor Spitzer, and Hillary Rodham Clinton had to spin on the issue in a matter of weeks—and I thought she was effective also, Keith when she came back, Barack Obama said you had two positions. 

And she came back and said, yes, and you were asked your position, it took you 60 seconds and you couldn‘t think of one.  And he did not come back and respond.  I thought she was crisp and in command. 

On the first section, on the national health insurance, she has got clarity there.  And on the second section, I do agree Barack Obama raised himself up back to the pedestal.  And I think a couple of those answers on Iraq were terrific from the national standpoint. 

OLBERMANN:  We‘re going look at that intensely in a moment, literally in a moment.  But, Rachel, just finish us off on the immigration issue and the subject of teaching English mandatorily. 

MADDOW:  I would just say right now that that sounds good, because I think the country has kind of accepted the Republican talking points and framing on this.  But right now, Eliot Spitzer would probably beat any Republican candidate for president.  Immigration has not been a great electoral issue for the Republicans, even as good as their talking points sound. 

BUCHANAN:  You wait. 

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW: Sure, Pat, I‘m looking forward to it.

OLBERMANN:  I just thought it was extraordinary that they were willing to take any kind of position that might be controversial at the extreme left of their constituencies.  And that‘s why it‘s noteworthy for that, never mind the nuance that followed that both of you have discussed.  As I said, literally, stand by.  We‘re going to reset here at the top of the hour as COUNTDOWN‘s the coverage of the electoral debate continues now.

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2007 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2007 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

transcript

Watch Countdown with Keith Olbermann each weeknight at 8 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,