updated 2/21/2008 11:41:08 AM ET 2008-02-21T16:41:08

Guests: Laura Schwartz, Jim Warren, Howard Fineman, Jay Severin, Michael Crowley

DAN ABRAMS, HOST:  We have got breaking news tonight: “The New York Times” has just reported on its Web site that during John McCain‘s first run for the White House, eight years ago, apparently top advisers were so concerned about a relationship with a 40-year-old lobbyist named, Vicki Iseman and they were particularly concerned that it had become romantic, that they, quote, “Intervened to protect the candidate from himself, instructing staff members to block the woman‘s access.”  This is a story that already has the political world buzzing.  And we are learning more about it by the moment.  John McCain has just issued a statement responding to “The New York Times”, and it says: “It is a shame “The New York Times” has lowered its standards to engage in a hit-and-run smear campaign.  John McCain has a 24-year record of serving our country with honor and integrity.  He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interest or lobbyist and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election.  Americans are sick and tired of this kind of gutter politics.  Nothing in the story to suggests that John McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career.”

There is a lot in this story.  Let me read one more piece to the story before I go to my guest.  And this is from again, “The New York Times” story that says: According to two former McCain associates, some of the senator‘s advisers had grown so concerned that the relationship had become romantic that they took steps to intervene.  A former campaign adviser being instructed to keep Ms. Iseman away from the senator at public events, while a Senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman‘s access to his offices.  Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman.  The two associates, who said they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by others.”

Joining us now, MSNBC analyst and columnist for “Congressional Quarterly”, Craig Crawford; political analyst and Democratic strategist, Laura Schwartz; and Jim Warren, the managing-editor of the “Chicago Tribune” and former Washington bureau chief; and on the phone with us is MSNBC‘s Pat Buchanan.

All right.  Jim, let me start with you.  There‘s a lot of back and forth now going on between with “The New York Times” and John McCain.  But nothing in John McCain‘s statement specifically says, it‘s not true what happened with Ms. Iseman.  They‘re saying that “The Times” has lowered its standards, he didn‘t violate the public trust, he didn‘t do favors for special interest or lobbyist which is one of the allegations in this, the suggestion he may have done a favor for her.  But he‘s not saying anything about this relationship.

JIM WARREN, CHICAGO TRIBUNE:  Just a quick glance of the story as I was running over here suggests, if you‘ve been in the business more than 10 minutes, that‘s one heavily edited story and the attributions still seem a bit murky.  One assumes that “The New York Times”, I would assume they have the goods but it is far from clearing that story.  Now, as far as the larger picture, what might this mean to the McCain campaign if anything, I mean, my personal view would be that sex stuff is absolutely private business.  And John McCain has never held himself out to be “holier than thou” when it comes to these sorts of issues.  He has not posed himself as a Jerry Falwell or posed himself as a Bill Bennett.  I would argue that the hypocrisy is that John McCain should be concerned about or ones that he‘s staked out on the money and campaigns turf.  When it comes to lobbyist, I think right there, he is very, very vulnerable.  But on this stuff, not necessarily.

ABRAMS:  Hang on.  But, Craig Crawford, look, I understand that we should only care about the issues and that the public should only care about the issues, how they stand, on social security, healthcare, et cetera.  But in these campaigns, it matters who the person is.  And that‘s a lot of what the story is about: who John McCain is.  And if this is true, this could really be a problem for John McCain.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, COLUMNIST, CQPOLITICS.COM:  And we should all eat our vegetables and talk only about issues.  You know, personalities, you know, we haven‘t had any dirt in this campaign for a long time.  We needed some dirt.  I guess this is it.  Who knows?  Maybe the McCain people put it up to show that he‘s younger than we think.  You know, if we get in to the story, and the attribution, as Jim and I thought was really thin in the story, but I assume it can be attributed somehow in a little more detail, if it‘s true and if it gets talked about, I do think the issue of dealing with lobbyists and doing favors for lobbyists is more important than the sex.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Let me, before I go to Laura Schwartz, I want to read one more piece.  And this is one of the - the only attributed sources in the article: “Separately, a top McCain aide, met with Ms. Iseman at Union Station in Washington to ask her to stay away from the senator.  John Weaver, a former top strategist and now an informal campaign adviser said in an e-mail message that he arranged the meeting after a discussion among the campaign leadership about her.  Mr. Weaver added that the brief conversation was only about ‘her conduct and what she allegedly had told people, which made its way back to us.‘  He declined to elaborate.”

I mean, Laura Schwartz, look, I mean, we can all sit her and we can talk about the attribution and there‘s no question that I‘m going to talk to Pat about it in a moment, but the bottom line is: This is a big story from a big newspaper which is saying two things.  Number one: that there were campaign aides who believed that the relationship was romantic, even though they have denied it; and number two: there was concern that he was doing favors for this lobbyist.

LAURA SCHWARTZ, POLITICAL ANALYST:  And that second point is the most important point, Dan.  If there is any quid pro quo going on here and there is rumors and I believe it was in the article about, perhaps, John McCain writing a letter for government regulators on behalf of one of the clients of Ms. Iseman.  And I think, that‘s where you really get into the substantive issue here.  Is there any quid pro quo?  If you can prove that, that‘s really major.  As far as the personal stuff, you know, I don‘t think any campaigns are going to touch it.

ABRAMS:  Well, look, everyone is saying that the personal stuff

doesn‘t matter.  I don‘t know if everyone on this panel is pretending or

what.  But the bottom line is, to suggest that the personal stuff isn‘t

going to matter, to me, it‘s not being realistic.  It‘s not dealing with

the real world of political campaigns.  Kelli O‘Donnell -

SCHWARTZ:  Oh, no.  I think that matters to voters, absolutely.  The

campaigns are not going to take that -

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Hang on one sec.  Hang on one sec.  Kelly O‘Donnell in Toledo, with the McCain campaign, Kelly, what do you know?

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS - TOLEDO, OH:  Well, Dan, this of course is a difficult situation for John McCain who is normally very accessible for reporters.  I‘d spent probably an hour with him on his campaign bus talking about a whole range of issues before this development happened tonight.  For the campaign, the things you are talking about in terms of lobbyist influence, McCain has released all the letters he had written on behalf of anyone to the committee that he formally was a part of in this time frame, the Telecommunications Committee.  He‘s denied any wrongdoing.  And what I think is interesting about this right now is that some of the people who are former staffers, remember there was a huge campaign shake up last summer when McCain fired John Weaver, who‘s one of the quoted sources in this and a number of other people were let go.  There was a lot of reorganization.  So, these are not necessarily people who are close to Senator McCain right now.  One person who is, is quoted in that article, his name is Mark Salter.  He‘s been with the senator for many years, one of his chief speech writers.  And they collaborated on books together.  He says to “The New York Times” that he had no reason to believe there was anything inappropriate and described their relationship as a friendly, professional relationship between McCain and Iseman. 

So, there‘s a lot in this to look at.  We are scheduled to have a press conference with him again tomorrow.  We do usually two press conferences a day on the campaign trail.  And obviously, we‘ll have a chance to put some of these questions to him.  The campaign tonight, calls it hit-and-run smear, a gutter type of politics.  The kinds of things that you would expect they might say in a statement as they‘ve been working on that for the last hour or so.  A number of the top people that I‘ve been trying to reach out to have been participating in trying to craft the statement that they‘ve released.  So, it presents a challenge for John McCain, no doubt.  But there really are questions that people will have to evaluate about, what is this story really trying to get at and for John McCain, the whole issue of lobbying, special interest is certainly a core in his campaign and that‘s something he‘ll have to try to deal with now that he‘s moving into sort of the general election phase much more so than the primary contest now.  Dan?

ABRAMS:  Kelly O‘Donnell, thank you very much.  Appreciate it.  Our Pat Buchanan joins us on the phone.  Pat, one of the key issues in terms of this article is going to be the timing, when it came out, why it came out and you say that there‘s a lot to read into there.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST (by phone):  Well, I sure do.  Drudge has up now, Dan, the story that I mentioned that I‘ve read last December, I think it‘s December 20th, he‘s got it right up on his Web site, where it was said that John McCain had hired—he was enraged, he was angry and bitter at “The New York Times” and attacking them for gutter journalism—and they‘d hired Bob Bennett, the super lawyer.  He had denied he‘d have any kind of a relationship with this woman.  She had denied it, she had a lawyer going.  And Bill Keller ahead was involved, the head of “The New York Times,” and so, nothing came of it. 

And now McCain would not have, probably, if there‘s anything true - I mean if what they impute or imply or suggest and don‘t say has truth to it, that could have really affected the New Hampshire primary.  Obviously, in whether McCain would be the nominee which he is right now.  If “The New York Times” deliberately held this up, and then dropped it, what does that say about “The New York Times” playing politics and intervening in primary process?  Second, Dan, let me mention this, they imply and impute a lot of things but they won‘t come out and say it.  I mean, look at what kind of journalism is this?  That a couple of aides said, we were worried about what was the senator and this lady and, therefore, we were worried about that and so and so, and talked to her and said, stay away.  And you got flat denials on the part of the two principals.   I mean, “The New York Times,” is this all they got?

ABRAMS:  Well, let me a read: “A female lobbyist was turning up with him at fundraisers and his offices and aboard a client‘s corporate jet.  Convinced the relationship became romantic, some his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself, instructing staff members to block the woman‘s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on condition of anonymity.  Jim Warren, I mean, it‘s serious business to suggest that “The New York Times”, whether the article is accurate or inaccurate held the story just to hurt John McCain more.  You would think that if the ultimate way to hurt him would it not would be to wait until August, and then release the story then or in September?

WARREN:  Well, of course, if will you remember the amazing return from the dead, McCain has experience, it might have been a period of time when, even if they had the goods on him, they might have thought, well, who in the world cares.  There‘s no way he‘s going to be a serious viable candidate for president.  I might just say, you know, for folks out there that don‘t know how the business operates, there is always, in our newsrooms, the upper echelon of American newspapering, there‘s always the anxiety about the sorts of stories one runs that can be damaging on any sort of subject about a candidate a day or two or three before an election. 

And I‘ve been in newsrooms where we have pulled back and not run stuff that

we had on people because we just thought it would be unfair, since there‘d

be no valid amount of time for them to respond.  I don‘t know what the time

frame is here.  I agree with some of what Pat said about the curious

wording of all this.  But I do still the fact to the main point -

ABRAMS:  I‘ve got to take a break here, Jim.  Jim, hang on a sec. 

I‘ve got to take a break here.  Craig, you want 10 seconds?

CRAWFORD:  I was going to say, I think the timing of this actually helps him because it didn‘t come before the New Hampshire primary.  It‘s early in the general election race now.  He‘s got plenty of time for people to forget about it.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Let‘s do this.  You know, it‘s a big story from “The New York Times”.  It‘s just broke in within the last couple hours.  Again, “The New York Times” reporting that in 2000, 2001 that campaign aides of John McCain were extremely concerned about a relationship that they had believed had become romantic and that they were keeping a lobbyist away from him and also, allegations in here or at least concerns that McCain may have done favors for that lobbyist.  Again, McCain denying it, the campaign denying it, and this woman is also denying that they had a romantic relationship.  The question coming up after this break: How could it affect the campaign?  How could it affect Mike Huckabee?  Could we see Mitt Romney back?  Are any of these really possibilities.  I‘ll be back in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  More on our breaking news story from “The New York Times” and allegations about John McCain and his relationship with a female lobbyist.  The question now: Could it affect the campaign?  Does this change anything on the Republican side?  And how could it affect the Democrats?  Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Continuing now with our breaking news story from “The New York Times” that has the McCain camp issuing a statement, blasting “The New York Times” over this report.  “The New York Times” is writing: “A female lobbyist have been turning up with McCain at fundraisers, in his offices and aboard a client‘s corporate jet.  Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisors intervened to protect the candidate from himself, instructing staff members to block the woman‘s access, and privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.  We are talking about eight years ago in the previous campaign.  But the question now: Could it affect this campaign?  Could it impact the other Republican candidates?

Howard Fineman is with us.  Howard, what do you think that the response, the thinking is right now in the Huckabee, maybe even the Romney camp?

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  Hello.  I‘m sorry.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Howard, let me come back to you in one second. 

Is Pat Buchanan with us?

BUCHANAN:  Dan, I‘m here.

ABRAMS:  Yes, Pat, what do you make of that?  I mean, is there going to be any thought, any rumbling or any talks within the Huckabee campaign, within the Romney campaign about this new report?

BUCHANAN:  I would do if I were Governor Romney and for Governor Huckabee to call in all the senior staff and say none of you are to comment on this in any way.  No smart and late (ph) comments.  No off the record, no for background.  We don‘t want to be in this story.  The public statement of the governor, Huckabee I would think would be, look, John McCain is an honorable man.  I don‘t know what this story is about.  If he says what it says is not true, I take his word for it.  And sit and watch and see this develop.  The thing is, Dan, what bothers me about this is “The New York Times” is imputing a lot of things.  Why don‘t they come out, if they have something and say it?  And this fellow, Rutenberg, apparently, according to the Drudge Report on 20th of December, was really frustrated and angry with his own executive editors that they wouldn‘t go with the story he had been working on a long time.  I agree with Craig Crawford here.  “The Times” is holding this thing up.

ABRAMS:  But Pat, isn‘t it possible, I mean, isn‘t it possible that as time passed, “The Times” after debate and discussion became convince they are ready to go.  That you say, they‘re not saying anything, but maybe, they were not ready to say it.  Meaning, they‘re saying look, here‘s what we know.  We know their campaign aides thought this.  We know the campaign felt that.

BUCHANAN:  Well, Dan, if they have dropped the story on December 20th, I don‘t think John McCain—and there is something to it that they imply is there, that could have sunk John McCain in New Hampshire and he would not have been the nominee for the Republican Party.  Now, I mean, if there is something to this story and by waiting until after the season where McCain is, you know, a few yards from the nomination, it has been an enormous blessing, again, if there is something to this.  But let me get this, Rutenberg should be put on the griddle, Keller should be on that griddle as John McCain is going to be tomorrow.

ABRAMS:  Right.  And look, the problem is, no matter when this came out, it would have been accused to being political, there‘s no question about that.  I mean, if it came out in December, they would have said, it‘s impact New Hampshire, it comes out now, they‘d say it could have come out earlier but come out later, they say it should have come out earlier.  But inside the campaign, Howard Fineman has just talked to a couple of the McCain top aides, Howard, what are they saying?

FINEMAN:  Hi, Dan.  Well, let me give you their point of view of what‘s happened here.  I just got off the phone with Charlie Black who is one of the top people there and who has more experience in just about anybody in Republican circles.  He says that “The Times” first started asking questions about this last fall.  Then, it reached a crescendo around Thanksgiving time and the people at the McCain campaign finally called “The New York Times” reporters and said, what‘s going on here, what are you guys looking for?  You know, we would like to talk about it.  We‘d like to confront you, we want to deal with it.  What eventually happened is that John McCain talked to Bill Keller, the editor of “The New York Times” and according to the McCain people, McCain flatly denied he had any kind of inappropriate, i.e. sexual relationship with this woman.  Now, if you read this story, it‘s mentioned that McCain denied it to Keller but there‘s no quote there, I don‘t believe.  I don‘t believe McCain is quoted directly saying that.  And I don‘t know why, but that‘s the way it went down.  And there the matter laid for awhile.  Bob Bennett, a powerful Washington attorney was brought in to argue McCain‘s case apparently with the editors of “The New York Times”.  They didn‘t go with the story back then.  According to Charlie, what happened is over the last week or so, as it surfaced again, the word around town was that another publication, I think “The New Republic” magazine was working on a story about what “The New York Times” had and why “The New York Times” didn‘t go with the story.  And as we know in journalism circles, that kind of thing can change the equation and change the thinking in newsrooms.

ABRAMS:  Yes.

FINEMAN:  And “The Times” went with the story.  I‘m told that John McCain tonight is in Toledo, he knows that the story is out there.  He hasn‘t read the story yet.  Charlie Black says that McCain will issue a statement tomorrow morning.  They‘ll put a couple more and he will say on camera, I guess, a few paragraphs about this ,will deny that there was anything inappropriate, deny that he ever did favors for this woman or this woman‘s clients, will not take questions about this.  Because as Charlie says, we don‘t want to dignify a story full of rumors, gossip and innuendo.  But it‘s going to be interesting to see this tableau tomorrow.  Which Kelly, I‘m sure will be in the front row for it of whether the straight talk express is going to just be able to get away with issuing a couple of paragraph statement.

ABRAMS:  And Craig, Crawford, I mean, look, this whole article is about a lot more than just Vicki Iseman.  I mean, this is an article that‘s basically saying that when it comes to ethics, John McCain is not what he seems.  I mean, this is a total blast at John McCain.

CRAWFORD:  I found the rest of the article in a way more interesting to me.  I mean, a lot of, very little of it was actually new, but it‘s been awhile since anyone has pulled all that together going all the way back to the Keating Five days.  And there are some issues to talk about, some apparent contradictions and he‘s role as a reformer and some of the things he‘s actually done with lobbyists.  And the top of the story, of course is the sexy stuff and got everybody talking.  But if it gets people more into the rest of the story, which might in the long run be what hurts him the most.

ABRAMS:  Let me take break.  I still do want to talk about what could happen if this story does become bigger, if it does get traction.  Could the other candidates, could Huckabee, could even Mitt Romney reconsider?  It may never get to that point, but you‘ve got to believe that when something like this comes out, it‘s at least going through the minds of people on the other campaigns.  Our panel is going to stay with us.  We‘re going to take a break and be back in a moment with continuing coverage of this breaking news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  We‘re back.  More with this breaking news: “The New York Times” breaking this story tonight that John McCain, and I‘m going to read to you:

“According to two former McCain associates, some of the senator‘s advisers have grown so concerned about a relationship with a lobbyist named Vicki Iseman.  Then, they were so concerned the relationship had, quote, ‘become romantic‘ that they took steps to intervene.  A former campaign adviser described being instructed to keep Ms. Iseman away from the senator at public events, while a Senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman‘s access to his offices.  Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman.  The two associates, who said they had become disillusioned with the senator and spoke independently of each other.”

And so, again, the significant point being there is that these are two people who had become disillusioned with the senator.  But this is big stuff, the McCain camp immediately issuing a statement that saying a lot of things and concluding with “Americans are sick and tired of this gutter politics.  There‘s nothing in this story to suggest that John McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career.

Jay Severin is with us.  He‘s a radio talk show host. One of the people on the right, who have been critical of John McCain, Jay, thanks for joining us.  What do you make of it?

JAY SEVERIN, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST (by phone):  Well, if you don‘t mind my mentioning.  It was about 10 years ago the week or the night that I‘ve received a call from MSNBC asking me to comment on a president of United States and the story similar to this.  Dan, this strikes me as a non-denial denial.  The story for the moment is huge until there is a definitive denial by John McCain that will remain huge and get only bigger.  I would say that the two interesting and opposing possibilities this opens up are politically, will the right, will many on the right who—there‘s a lot of disquiet as what we know about John McCain.  Will this be an excuse for those on the right to say, he is deeply flawed, and depending on how this comes out, he‘s deeply flawed and therefore it‘s legitimate for us to press our objections or ironically, will the very fact that “The New York Times,” the whipping boy over the right, the fact that “The New York Times” is going after John McCain cause people on the right to coalesce behind him in his defense.

ABRAMS:  And Laura Schwartz, let‘s talk about how the Democrats are going to respond.  I‘ve got to believe that both Obama and Hillary are going to want to be very, very careful about what they say, if anything.  I would guess they probably will say very little or nothing about this.

SCHWARTZ:  You‘re absolutely right, Dan.  They‘re not going to say anything because—first of all, the first person that throws a stone, you‘re bond to be hit in the back.  And you don‘t want to open that up.  They‘ll continue hitting on the lobbyist thing that there has been.  You know, John McCain has a lobbyist running his campaign, he‘s taking the most lobbyist money in this campaign among the Republicans.  They‘ll stay with that, but they won‘t get close to this adultery or anything else. 

CRAWFORD:  I don‘t know, Dan.  You know, Sen. Clinton could always make the argument that this is another reason to end 220 years of men in the White House. 

WARREN:  Well, Dan -

ABRAMS:  Real quick, Jim. 

WARREN:  If I could just say a couple things. 

ABRAMS:  No, Jim, I don‘t have time.  Real quick, yes.

WARREN:  John McCain has long ago proven he‘s not a Christ figure.  He‘s a distinctly flawed man.  I think ultimately, he is far more vulnerable on matters of policy and money than he is on personal morality.  He‘s not staked out that as a high ground in his career. 

ABRAMS:  We‘ll leave that as the final thought.  Jim Warren, Craig Crawford and Laura Schwartz, thank you very much.  Appreciate it.  We are going to take a break.  When we come back, we‘re going to move on to the question of Hillary Clinton.  She had a bad night last night, losing big in Wisconsin and Hawaii.  The question now, what can she do to make a comeback?  Many are writing her off, particularly, in the inside D.C.  media.  You‘d think that the campaign is already over.  We‘re going to lay out what Clinton‘s keys to a come back could be.  Coming up. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Continuing now with our breaking news, “The New York Times” just reporting on its Web site that during John McCain‘s first run for the White House eight years ago, top advisers were so concerned about his relationship with a 40-year-old lobbyist, named Vicki Iseman, that they, quote, “intervened to protect the candidate from himself, instructing staff members to block the woman‘s access.”

There are also allegations of giving her special treatment as a lobbyist.  And many would say that is the most serious allegation of all.  John McCain‘s campaign has blasted “The New York Times,” denying that he‘s done anything unethical. 

He‘s never violated the public trust, they say, never done favors for special interest for lobbyists and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election. 

MSNBC‘s Tucker Carlson joins us now.  All right, Tucker, this is all breaking so I know you haven‘t had a lot of time to digest everything here.  But how significant is this?

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, “TUCKER”:  Well, I mean I think it‘s significant.  I mean, you know - I think it‘s pretty unbelievable actually.  So step back a little bit.  If you read the story, it doesn‘t even really allege they were having a sexual relationship.  It just kind of implies it in the first part of the story.  To what effect, it‘s not clear.  They don‘t demonstrate that McCain gave her special favors as far as I can tell.  In fact, there‘s countervailing evidence that he didn‘t do the bidding of the companies she was representing.  So why is it sort of alleged in this kind of smirk-smirk way that he was schtopping her when there‘s no evidence that he was?  What the hell was that?

ABRAMS:  Let me read - It said, according to two former McCain associates, some of the senator‘s advisors had grown so concerned that the relationship had become romantic, that they took steps to intervene.  A former campaign adviser described being instructed to keep Ms. Iseman away from the senator‘s public events, while a senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman‘s access to his offices.  And then there‘s - then both said McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman.  The two associates who said they had become disillusioned with the senator spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by all. 

CARLSON:  Right.  But as far as I know - hasn‘t both McCain and as the “Times” says that Ms. Iseman denied a sexual relationship?  And of course, I don‘t know the truth, who McCain is sleeping with.  I‘m just not sure why it‘s relevant.  Didn‘t we declare a national truce on this kind of thing?  You know what I mean? 

I mean if there is evidence that he gave her favors that he would not have given someone he was not sleeping with, then I think that is a significant charge.  If that can be proved true, I think it‘s a deal killer for McCain.  It‘s over for McCain.  But this story, as far as I can tell, is still missing something, it doesn‘t prove that, an absent proof of that.  I think, running about talking about people‘s sex lives - didn‘t we agree we weren‘t going to do that?  I guess we didn‘t really do that, because we‘re doing it.

ABRAMS:  I think in the end that without sort of the smoking gun, without the photograph, without the documenting evidence, I think that the story will fade to some degree in the days to come.  We shall see, Tucker Carlson, thanks very much.  Appreciate it.  .  

Turning to politics on the Democratic side.  In the wake seeing defeats in Wisconsin and Hawaii last night, even Bill Clinton admitting today that Hillary could be running out of time. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT:  If she wins in Texas and Ohio, I think she‘ll be the nominee.  If you don‘t deliver for her, I don‘t think she can be.  It‘s all on you. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Last night, Clinton lost in Wisconsin by 17 points and watched Obama peel away support from groups she needs to win.  The Hawaii caucus, an Obama landslide, 76 to 24.  Obama is now beating Clinton by an average of 33 points in the last ten contests.  And now, Obama is leading Clinton 52 to 38 in a new national poll.  Obama also picked up the support of the teamsters today which could help get out the vote in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

But Hillary Clinton is still talking like a candidate who will win Texas, Ohio and beyond, potential big state victories that could help Clinton make her case to the superdelegates.  And it‘s her current lead among the superdelegates that is keeping the overall delegate battle close. 

Obama is up by 84 delegates at this point.  So right now, it would be nearly impossible for Obama to sew up the nomination before the convention when anything can happen.  NBC News estimating Obama would have to win 65 percent of remaining pledged delegates to clinch it before then.  As always, many inside D.C. media making it much worse than that for Clinton. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN GIBSON, HOST, FOX‘S “THE BIG STORY”:  I‘m John Gibson live at Fox News World Headquarters.  Hillary Clinton‘s chances of becoming the first female president of the United States are now looking bleaker and bleaker. 

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR:  At this point, Hillary Clinton‘s chances of becoming the Democratic candidate for president are hovering somewhere between slim and none. 

JOHN DICKERSON, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, “SLATE” MAGAZINE: 

Everybody‘s writing her obituary. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  OK.  It‘s not looking great for Clinton, but it‘s far from over.  So while they write her political obituary, we‘re talking about the key tactic she can and will employ to try to stage a comeback. 

So here to sort out whether there‘s a recipe for a Clinton comeback, MSNBC analyst and “Congressional Quarterly” columnist, Craig Crawford, political analyst, Laura Schwartz, and Capitol Hill correspondent to “The New Republic,” Michael Crowley. 

All right.  Up first, one key move to a potential Hillary Clinton comeback.  She could go even more negative.  We saw some attacks in the days before Wisconsin.  Some Clinton insiders reportedly think this helped keep the loss from being even bigger.  Clinton needs to find a way to try to raise doubts about Obama among undecided voters.  Michael Crowley, should she go even more negative?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, CAPITOL HILL CORRESPONDENT, “THE NEW REPUBLIC”: 

Well, look, there‘s some evidence that going negative on him in the last couple of days was working.  If you look at the voters who‘d made their decision at the last minute in Wisconsin, that margin was a lot closer than the overall vote in Wisconsin.  The Gallup poll showed on Monday night when she first rolled out this charge of alleged plagiarism against him.  She did very well on that night‘s tracking poll.  But the issue with the Clintons is their legacy.  You know, you don‘t want to swing and miss.  “If you shoot the devil, you better hit him,” is the old saying.  Not imply Obama is the devil.  The point is though if you want to hit, because if you miss, you look like you went down dirty. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  But you know what?  Laura, it‘s not just about their legacy.  It‘s also about the superdelegates, meaning, it may help with voters if they go negative.  We know people say they hate negative ads.  They tend to work.  But they may not work.  They may backfire with the superdelegates who may say, “You know what?  We don‘t want that.  We don‘t need that.”  And that could end up backfiring on the Clinton campaign. 

SCHWARTZ:  Exactly, and I think all the talk about the superdelegates by her campaign is really backfiring as well.  Because it makes them look like the establishment trying to get around the establishment.  I think they need to take the superdelegates off their radar screen publicly.  Keep working it behind the scenes (UNINTELLIGIBLE) if she really has to do that (UNINTELLIGIBLE). 

But she needs to get back to the basics.  She won New York over skeptical voters because she went county to county and sat down.  She‘s trying to compete with Obama.  She needs to compete against Obama.  She‘s got to get back to what she does best.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Let‘s bring back Craig to this issue of the superdelegates, all right?  Again and again, I said on this program that I find this to be really an unattractive way to get votes.  The idea that these party insiders are sitting back there deciding who gets their votes - 795 VIPs and insiders having the power of about 9500 voters.  It‘s problematic.  But it is, it seems, at this point, the best hope for the Clinton campaign. 

CRAWFORD:  Well, maybe, the Democratic party.  The whole point of having superdelegates when the Democratic Party created them was in response to this more Democratic process, more wide open and proportional voting process that they have compared to the Republicans.  And some fear, when you‘re letting a lot of Republicans and moderates and independents and non-party members come in the primaries like what happened in Wisconsin, somebody‘s got to be thinking about what‘s best for the Democratic Party. 

And that means who can win in November?  And that‘s what the superdelegates ultimately are going to be deciding.  And it may not be the case in their minds that the winner by 50 votes of pledged delegates is necessarily the best candidate in November.  And that‘s the process.  That‘s the criteria they‘re going to use and that‘s what they are there for. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  And then here‘s the other tactic that the Clinton campaign is going to use, it seems.  There‘s the disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan, all right?  Over two million people voted.  Right now, their votes don‘t count.  Now, I know there‘s a lot of debate about how to deal with this. 

The state parties basically have said, “You know what,” the National Democratic Party said, “You broke the rules as you‘ve tried to move your primaries up.  As a result, your votes are not going to count.  But when you have 1.5 million people who voted in Florida, and it seems to me, Michael, that the Clinton campaign has a pretty good argument to say, “Wait a second.” 

Obama and Clinton were both on the ballot in Florida.  If you want to talk about will of the people, let the votes in Florida count.  I think their argument in Michigan is horrible.  The idea that Obama wasn‘t even on the ballot and they are going to say we ought to get those delegates.  That, to me, seems absurd.  They have a stronger argument in Florida.

CROWLEY:  Yes, Dan.  The other talking point they have is that Obama did a national ad buy which spilled into Florida, which they say violated a pledge the candidates made not to campaign in Florida.  It was not targeted at Florida, but when you do a national ad buy, it spills over into some markets. 

And according to Harold Ickes today in the Clinton campaign conference call, that ad buy may have totaled approximately $1 million, not that much for a state that big.  But it‘s a good talking point for them.  I would just say though I think the conventional wisdom among political elites is that they can‘t get away with it.  I just don‘t see the support for them doing this.  I think there‘s a feeling it‘s not fair play that Obama really despite that ad, he did not contest Florida.  And that they should have some sort of a do-over or maybe a caucus or something, rather than try to force seating those pro-Hillary delegates. 

ABRAMS:  Craig, what do you think? 

CRAWFORD:  But then again, I‘ve got to come back to what I said about superdelegates.  The biggest issue for Democrats is winning in November.  And they have got to come up with a solution that satisfies what I find as very irate Democrats in Florida.  Not just among the  officials, but among voters too.  We‘re just stunned to find out that their votes aren‘t going to count.  And if the Democratic Party, you know, adhering to its precious rules is going to let this state just float away, you‘ve already got a Republican governor in Florida who‘s proven in getting McCain probably nominated in that primary.  You‘ve got a powerful force to reckon with there.  If you add to that, there‘s ridiculous mess within the party then just don‘t even Florida in November. 

ABRAMS:  When we come back, two other issues the Clinton campaign could be focusing on, more debates, getting a slip up in the debates.  And we talked about attacks before, but there‘s this new information coming out about this Michelle Obama statement that is getting a lot of attention.  The question, do they need to try and blow things up, take a little story and make it really big?  The question, is there any chance for a Hillary Clinton come back?  By the end of this segment, I‘m going to ask my guests straight out whether they think it could happen.  Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Wrapping up our segment on the keys to Hillary Clinton‘s possible comeback.  Two more debates coming up, one-on-one, Clinton versus Obama.  She needs to score some points here.  She‘s going to need to knock Obama down a little bit.  And the final key to a potential Clinton comeback really could be take advantage of any gaffes, big or small, either by Barack Obama or in this case, Laura Schwarz, his wife.  They got a little traction with the questions about his wife and what she said.  And you know, it seems like it might have helped a little bit.  But gosh, it is again the kind of politics that the party, as a whole, hates. 

SCHWARTZ:  Exactly.  People get really tired of it.  But you know, the principal‘s wife or the spouse of either candidate is just as involved in this campaign as the principal himself who‘s running for president.  So they‘re going to have to really watch this.  I think Michelle Obama learned a very valuable lesson.  But I really think that this is kind of petty.  It think people are moving on from it.  And Michelle Obama herself, in the context of her life, growing up through poverty and going to an Ivy League school and making something of herself, I think has a very broad message of hope. 

ABRAMS:  And Michael, the issue about these debates, this has got to be, I would think, the last hope for Clinton as in some other major event. 

CROWLEY:  No, definitely.  I mean unless they have some card they haven‘t played and I can‘t believe they do because they played so many cards by now that haven‘t worked.  Look, she feels that she does very well in debates.  It‘s her best form.  It‘s where she‘s gotten the best reviews and looks strongest.  And Obama, frankly, has been a little uneven and I think that they feel like if she can really have great debates, that‘s one of her best chances of turning it around. 

ABRAMS:  A quick answer from everyone.  Any chance, Michael, realistic chance, that Clinton can make a comeback?

CROWLEY:  Yes.  I mean yes.  But it‘s not a big chance.  I would not want to be her. 

ABRAMS:  Laura Schwarz?

SCHWARTZ:  Yes.  When she‘s down, she‘s the most energized. 

ABRAMS:  Craig?

CRAWFORD:  Sure.  If she can keep on winning the big states; if Obama loses seven out of the eight largest states, that‘s pretty good argument.  He may not be electable no matter how many pledged delegates he gets.

ABRAMS:  Craig Crawford, Laura Schwartz and Michael Crowley, thanks a lot. 

Up next, will tonight‘s big winner or loser be Paris Hilton, who‘s been denied a seat at the Oscars; Alberto Gonzales who is in denial about his legacy; or John McCain who is denying any kind of inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist in the breaking “New York Times” story.  “Winners and Losers” is next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Time for tonight‘s “Winners and Losers” for this 20th day of February, 2008. 

Our bronze loser - Alberto Gonzales.  The disgraced former attorney general seems to be totally divorced from reality, saying yesterday that history will judge President Bush and him favorably and even repeatedly compared himself and the Bush administration to Abraham Lincoln.  I‘m guessing history will judge Gonzo and Bush more akin to Lincoln‘s successor President Andrew Johnson, who was impeached and is viewed as one of our worst presidents ever. 

Our silver loser - Paris Hilton, who reportedly was so excited about going to the Sunday‘s Academy Awards.  She went out and bought a great dress, only to find out she‘d been banned from the event.  Apparently, the Academy doesn‘t consider her recent film, “The Hottie and The Nottie” an Oscar worthy performance.

But the big loser of the day - John McCain, as we told you earlier, is now the subject of a big story in the “New York Times” that links the presumptive Republican nominee with a D.C. lobbyist named Vickie Iseman.  The “Times” lays out a story of a close relationship eight years ago that McCain began with Iseman that caused anxiety among his advisers.  The McCain camp denies there was anything improper.  We‘ll see how that story plays out. 

Our big winner of the day, Dog The Bounty Hunter, whose TV career seemed dead just a few months ago after uttering racial slurs in a secretly taped phone call, is getting a second chance.  A & E decided to bring back his reality show after pulling it last November. 

Time for the P.O.‘ed box, your chance to write and tell me what you love or hate about this show.  Just to give you a sense of what we go through everyday with the letters from people.  Let‘s just say watching maybe through their own political prism. 

Andy Medin from Sacramento, “I‘m getting rather tired of you being the Clinton‘s cheerleader.”  While Hal Burr from Seattle, “I‘m a Hillary supporter and you‘re an Obama guy.  I can tell from your bias!”  Molly O‘Leary-Barney from Birmingham, “Dan, you‘re losing all your objectivity.  It‘s quite obvious that you‘re a ‘Clintonista.‘  Blanche writes, “Lately, I find it disgusting to see the way you support Mr.  Obama‘s campaign under the pretense of being objective.”

Look, I know being tough on both sides makes me a villain to all.  Just when I think I can‘t win, Chris Perone from New Jersey, “Your fair treatment of all parties in the campaign is both delightfully refreshing and unusual in your genre.”  Thank you, Chris, and to all of you who wrote in with similar sentiments. 

And during Monday‘s “On Their Trail” segment, I defended Obama against accusations that his language against Sen. Clinton was sexist.  Julie Wardizinski from Simi Valley goes after me, “Dan, you‘re an idiot.  Your failure to see sexism in Obama‘s statements about Hillary Clinton is breathtaking.”  Sorry, Julie, but using the word “claw” and talking about Clinton having days does not translate into sexism for me. 

Finally, somebody wrote in, challenging my position on the superdelegates who I‘ve said should allow the voters to decide this election.  Igal Fligman from New York, “Will you please lighten up?  To adopt your system would mean rendering superdelegates into regular delegates.”

Right, Igal, which should mean these party VIPs wouldn‘t have super powers and the voters would determine the nominee, which is exactly how it should be. 

Quickly, Anna from Illinois, “If the superdelegates simply vote for who won in their state of districts, then why do we even need superdelegates?  Do your homework before throwing your idea over the TV.” 

Anna, since I‘m not ready to concede that we do need

superdelegates, you may want to do your homework before throwing out your

idea over the TV.   Thank you for the note.  I appreciate.  The P.O.‘ed box

Abrams@MSNBC.com.  We will see you tomorrow.

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

END   

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