updated 2/1/2008 3:27:26 PM ET 2008-02-01T20:27:26

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

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR:  At the top of the hour is COUNTDOWN‘s coverage of the electoral debate continues now.  This is COUNTDOWN‘s continuing coverage of the Democratic debate.  Good evening.  I‘m Keith Olbermann. 

And in the end, tonight‘s Democratic debate at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California, was not “American Idol.”  It was not the Academy Awards.  It was not even last week‘s slum lord slug fest in South Carolina.  And our fifth story in the COUNTDOWN, the Democrat Party, not to mention the American democracy, should be all the better for it.  The candidates finding more common ground than engaging in verbal fisticuffs with each other. 

Although a handshake at the outset would have been nice.  There was the hug and almost kiss at the end.  Facing only each other for the first time in the campaign, it would be their last debate before Super Tuesday.  Super being perhaps just the word to describe the substance of their policy discussions, including how they would bring troops home from Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I will do everything I can to get as many of our troops out as quickly as possibly, taking into account all of these contingencies that we‘re going to have to contend with once we‘re in charge and once we can get into the Pentagon to figure out what‘s really there and what‘s going on. 

WOLF BLITZER, MODERATOR:  Right.  You can‘t make a commitment, though, that 16 months after your inauguration would be enough time?

CLINTON:  I certainly hope it will be.  And I said I hope to have nearly all of them out within a year. 

BLITZER:  Go ahead. 

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, you know, I think it is important for us to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The candidates also addressing a question of taxes.  They wouldn‘t have even had to threaten to raise to be called tax and spend liberals by the Republicans, rolling back the current administration‘s tax cut should be enough to get them that honor.  And both candidates tonight fighting back that charge. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I don‘t think the Republicans are going to be in a real strong position to argue fiscal responsibility when they‘ve added $4 trillion or $5 trillion worth of national debt.  You know, I am happy to have that argument.  If John McCain, for example, is the nominee, I‘d 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 and now he is in favor of extending Bush tax cuts that went to some of the wealthiest Americans who don‘t need them and were not 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 during that time period and they will keep doing really well. 

OBAMA:  They were.  That‘s right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  This was Hollywood.  This was the site both of the “American Idol” finals and, of course, of the Oscars, back when they still used to have the Oscars.  And if you did not watch this, you missed, again, more cutaways of celebrities in the crowd. 

There‘s a point to this.  Stevie Wonder was there.  Bradley Whitford, Lauren Holly, Jason Alexander, Rob Reiner, Diane Keaton, Pierce Brosnan, Steven Spielberg, Ed Helms, Kate Capshaw, Brandy, Alfrey Woodard, America Ferrara, Fisher Stevens, Isaiah Washington where there, Topher Grace and, at the end, Fran Drescher.  The most important part of this, of course, the reason we‘re mentioning it is, they were all in the box seats.  They were all down at ground level.  We are told that Congresswoman Jane Harman), one of the most significant people in American politics, certainly in California politics, was seated in the mezzanine.  If you‘ve never lived in Los Angeles, that was it in a nutshell. 

We‘re now going to analyze what we saw.  Eugene Robinson, columnist and associate editor at the “Washington Post” is good enough to be back with us. 

And, Gene, with some time to reflect on this, did anybody win?  Was there a winner?  And I‘m not asking this to try to elicit one answer or the other.  I just don‘t know. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “WASHINGTON POST”:  I‘m not really sure either.  I think there were narrow victories on various issues.  I think Obama wins on Iraq.  I thought she—maybe Pat Buchanan is right, that she won on immigration or she was clearer on immigration.  There wasn‘t much of a decisive victory by either side in this debate.  There was a lot more agreement than disagreement.  I‘m sure you noticed that one thing they‘re in complete agreement on is what a fine human being John Edwards is.  And the fact that fine human beings . . .

OLBERMANN:  Now that he‘s gone. 

ROBINSON:  Right, exactly.  And all his supporters are fine human beings, too, by the way.  And they might want to consider supporting either Obama or Clinton now. 

But it was—you know, I wouldn‘t call it a lovefest, despite the hug at the end.  I didn‘t get a sense of true love between the two of them.  But they were respectful and it seemed to be two campaigns who thought they were in pretty good shape right now. 

OLBERMANN:  The question was asked at the end, and it was a note that was there from the beginning, that looked to some degree like a ticket.  Was there some self-protective measure invoked here?  Because we‘ve had such acrimony.  And as we discussed earlier, we love to see the acrimony.  Then there isn‘t any acrimony.  We wonder where it is.  It happens.  We get all upset about it.  The acrimony wasn‘t there even to the point where several times there were subtle jabs about flip-flopping, especially on the issue of immigration, on both of them and they wound up agreeing that it was a tough issue and maybe every once in a while you would flip-flop.

ROBINSON:  Right.  Right.  So, aw, it was nothing, you know, just a little flip flop.  They—the acrimony was just like in the last couple of days.  I mean, Obama has been going after Hillary Clinton with pretty tough language yesterday and earlier today.  So this was kind of a sudden flowering of their mutual respect and friendship. 

And clearly was a considered decision by both camps to be that nice.  I took them at their word that neither is thinking about taking second place on a ticket at this point.  And I think they both think that they can still win this thing and that they‘re set up to win this thing and this was a night to chill out a little bit. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  Well, if there‘s bloodletting, it will come later, I guess.  I guess they‘re willing to go into Super Tuesday allowing the other one to survive. 

Eugene Robinson . . .

ROBINSON:  Well, unless . . .

OLBERMANN:  Go ahead. 

ROBINSON:  I was just saying, unless tomorrow the knives come at you.

OLBERMANN:  Exactly.  With a live audience, with people actually seeing what they‘re saying, they‘re not going to say anything like that. 

Eugene Robinson with the “Washington Post.”  Always a pleasure, sir. 

ROBINSON:  Good to be here, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  All right.  Turning now to MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and Rachel Maddow.  And when last we discussed things with them, the subject of Iraq had come up, which might have been maybe the biggest area of dispute between the two and for reasons that have been long present. 

But, Rachel, I‘m wondering, do you think Hillary Clinton answered any of those people in the Democratic Party who are literally holding her vote in 2002 -- late 2002, early 2003   her votes and her stance against her.  Did she convince anybody to go with her?  And if she did not, what can she do about a, winning the nomination, and, b, winning the election without them?

RACHEL MADDOW:  She made it considerably worse for herself tonight on Iraq.  And I think that‘s why I would say, if I had to pick a winner, I would say she lost the debate because of Iraq.  Previously when Obama has pointing out that he was against the war when she was voting for the use of force, she‘s counterpunched by pointing out his softer statements earlier on in the war and the fact that he‘s voted to continue funding it since he‘s been in the Senate. 

Tonight she didn‘t counterpunch.  And instead she decided to explain that her vote in 2002 -- when she voted that way was a complete shock to her that Bush used that use of force authorization as an excuse to go to war. 

OLBERMANN:  As a use of force.

MADDOW:  Yes, exactly.  I remember vividly that night in October, 2002, driving around and around and around in my Ford because I didn‘t have a TV and somebody was broadcasting those Senate floor speeches.  And when she started to give her speech, I literally—and I don‘t mean to be dramatic here—I literally remember crying as I was driving because she was voting for the war. 

We all knew she was voting for the war.  She was voting for the war.  She knew she was voting for the war.  It‘s one thing to be wrong.  It‘s another thing to go back and say, how could I have known?  I was so surprised?  It insults me personally for her to have make that case tonight.  And I think it insults all of us who remember that far back or can Google it tonight.

OLBERMANN:  Pat.

PAT BUCHANAN:  I‘m not insulted, but I will say I thought that was the strongest—look, Barack Obama did two things tonight.  The most important thing, I think, he got back up—he got away from the Rezco/Wal-Mart nonsense and got back up as sort of an inspirational leader.  And you got all of that race/gender stuff out of there. 

Secondly, on Iraq, he was very good.  He had two outstanding lines.  He said, the important thing is to be right on day one, which goes right at her.  And the second line, which I thought was a very good line, we‘ve not only got to end the war, we‘ve got to end the mindset that brought on this war. 

And I think those two are really telling lines and maybe because I happen to agree with the position, but I thought they were the best lines that Barack got tonight besides—also, let me add one thing.  I think his humor came back. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.

BUCHANAN:  And it‘s a very—it‘s a soft humor about the wheels coming off McCain and Romney‘s investment looks like it‘s going a little bad.  And you can smile with his humor.  And so I think, in this sense, he really helped himself, especially in the second half of the debate.  In the first half, I thought Hillary was basically winning on points. 

OLBERMANN:  Where, Rachel, was Hillary‘s answer on any of the three occasions when Barack Obama said, I‘ve always been against the war?  We‘ve seen her husband say, this is a fairy tale. We know what sort of trouble happened as a result of that.  But she seemed to just punt on each of those three occasions. 

MADDOW:  I think that she, for some reason, seemed intimidated to give that standard counterpunch that she‘s been giving.  I mean Barack Obama is not perfect on the war.  He said tonight that—he makes the case eloquently that, you know, it‘s important to have had the judgement to see it was wrong from the beginning.  But then he says stuff like, it‘s important to me to complete the mission and we need to show the Iraqis we‘re serious.  You know, what part of a 3rd Infantry Division doesn‘t make us look serious? 

There‘s a lot of ways in which he‘s showing he doesn‘t get the fundamental problem that Iraq is for America right now.  He‘s not perfect on the war.  She could hit him on that.  I don‘t know why she isn‘t especially when it‘s probably the worst thing about her record for the Democratic base. 

BUCHANAN:  Well, the reason she doesn‘t do that is, you don‘t fight somebody on your weakest ground.  In my judgment, and I think this is her weakest ground.  I do think she could have at least made the case that her husband did make fairly, that after speaking against the war, he voted for it, for it, for it.  But again, when you get more and more deeply into that, I mean, Hillary has an indefensible position for the audience she‘s courting.  So the sooner she gets off that, the better. 

MADDOW:  She needs to say that vote in 2002 was wrong and stop say . . .

BUCHANAN:  No, no, no, no, no, no, no. 

MADDOW:  No, listen, what she‘s saying—but listen to the alternative. 

She‘s saying, I had no idea Bush would use that as an excuse to go to war. 

That makes her sound like an idiot. 

BUCHANAN:  Wait a minute.  Look, she—why would you say—if you say that my vote was wrong, I made a mistake, what you‘re saying is the most important vote of my public life, I made a mistake and it brought on the biggest strategic disaster in my lifetime.  That was the major vote of her lifetime.  I don‘t think about—Edwards has been helped by running around, I made a mistake and I apologize.  I think she‘s politically, she‘s on the right course and she takes her hits.  But don‘t start apologizing and graveling because they‘ll start beating you up. 

MADDOW:  She‘s on a political road to hell here and she‘s got two bad choices to choose between.

BUCHANAN:  She looks pretty good (INAUDIBLE).

MADDOW:  But saying I couldn‘t have known that Bush would go to war is not the better of the two choices.

OLBERMANN:  Hold on.  Hey.  Hold on.  I‘ve got 45 seconds and, Pat, I‘m going to put you in your nightmare position and Hillary Clinton‘s nightmare position.  You‘re her adviser on this.  How does she answer that question if she doesn‘t say, I made a mistake?

BUCHANAN:  She does exactly what she‘s doing.  She says, here‘s why I voted the way I voted.  We had the information we were given.  We weren‘t given all the correct facts.  I voted correctly, I believed, on the information I was given.  And Bush did it.  And he‘s responsible.  And stay with it.

But let me tell you, when you start going out there and say, I made a mistake on the biggest vote of my life and you start apologizing for it, who wants to elect somebody that did that?

OLBERMANN:  As I was once asked by Steven Colbert, have you ever made a mistake on the air?  And I said, yes.  And he said, how do I know you‘re not making a mistake on the air right now? 

Air America‘s Rachel Maddow and MSNBC‘s Pat Buchanan, great.  Thanks to you both.  And we‘ll see you again on Super Tuesday. 

BUCHANAN:  Take it easy, chief (ph).

MADDOW:  Indeed.

BUCHANAN:  OK.

OLBERMANN:  Coming up, tonight‘s debate as seen through the eyes of the top strategists.  Mark Penn and David Axelrod join us.  Reaction from both camps.  The reaction on the blogosphere, The Net, Huffington Post, Talking Post Memo, Crooks and Liars and their leading participants all here.  You are watching COUNTDOWN‘s special coverage of tonight‘s 18th Democratic debate from the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California, in front of a live audience.

(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   

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