updated 2/22/2008 11:34:55 AM ET 2008-02-22T16:34:55

Guests: Floyd Abrams, Andrea Tantaros, Bob Bennett, Gabe Sherman, Julie Roginsky, Peter Beinart, Lars Larson, Laura Schwarz, Joan Walsh

DAN ABRAMS, HOST:  Tonight: John McCain comes out swinging against “The New York Times” over its front page story linking him to a 40-year-old lobbyist.  But while the “Times” gets slammed by the right and even many on the left, why is almost no one talking about the fact “The Washington Post” had much of the same information on its front page today?  We have an exclusive interview tonight with the “Times” long-time attorney, who also happened to have cross-examined McCain about many of these issues in 2002 and who also happens to be my dad.

But first: The fallout continues tonight from the bombshell “New York Times” article linking John McCain to a 40-year-old lobbyist before his White House run in 2000.  The article cites former McCain aides, quote, “Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of 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.”  The article goes ton to say, “Two former associates said they joined in a series for confrontations with Mr. McCain, warning him that he was risking his campaign and career.  Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman.”

Today: The senator appeared with his wife in Ohio and denied the accusations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m very disappointed in “The New York Times” piece.  It‘s not true.  And I‘ll be glad to respond to any questions you might have. 

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS:  Senator, did you ever have any meeting with any of your staffers in which they would have intervened to ask you not to see Vicki Iseman or to be concerned about appearances of being too close to a lobbyists?

MCCAIN:  No.

O‘DONNELL:  No meeting occurred?

MCCAIN:  No.

O‘DONNELL:  Your staffer was ever concerned about a possible romantic relationship?

MCCAIN:  If they were, they didn‘t communicate it with me.

O‘DONNELL:  Did you ever have such relationships?

MCCAIN:  No.

O‘DONNELL:  How would you describe your relationship with Vicki Iseman?

MCCAIN:  We‘re friends, seen her on occasion particularly at receptions and fundraisers and appearances before the committee.  I have many friends in Washington who represent various interests and those who don‘t.  And I consider her a friend.

O‘DONNELL:  But do you feel like, in terms of your relationships with lobbyists in general and you were closer to her than with others?

MCCAIN:  No.  No.  I have many friends who represent various interests.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  And it‘s not just McCain‘s denials.  The timing and sourcing of the story today, underwent a weathering assault from Republicans and seem to have galvanized the right and even many on the left against “The New York Times.”

Later: We‘ll talk to John McCain‘s attorney, Bob Bennett and put those questions directly to him.

But first: The great Constitutional attorney, Floyd Abrams is here with us.  He has long represented the “Times”, although not in this matter.  Mr. Abrams also cross-examined McCain for hours on some of these issues back in 2002.  I call him dad.

And, we are joined by Republican strategist, Andrea Tantaros; and political analysts, Lawrence O‘Donnell.

All right.  Dad, let me ask you the first question, the “Times” is getting blasted today.  It seems everyone on the right and the left either saying, they were out to get him or on the left, that the very least saying, that they shouldn‘t have published it.  You know, what‘s the defense?

FLOYD ABRAMS, CONSTITUTIONAL ATTORNEY:  Well, look, I don‘t know what the reality is here.  I know this as a reader.  As a reader, I know there‘s an article that says, there were major confrontations within the staff of Senator McCain with respect to the fact that she was always around, to the point that many of them became suspicious at least, of a romantic relationship.  And to the point, so the article says, the two of them confirmed to the “Times” that Senator McCain had acknowledged inappropriate behavior.  Now, that‘s the start of a great story to me.  And I think that the story, just reading it straight, is a fine piece of journalism.  I understand people saying, how do we know who to believe.  It is hard to know.  But it‘s very news worthy.

ABRAMS:  But as a matter of journalism, what they‘re reporting on are suspicions of campaigning.  Right?  I mean, the campaign aides became suspicious and they believed X.  But there‘s nothing in the article which says, there was a romantic relationship or that Senator McCain was using his influence improperly.  And so, there‘s this innuendo hanging out there.

F. ABRAMS:  But I think journalists often at their best go with what they know.  The “Times” reporter, I don‘t think know, they can‘t know there was a romantic relationship.  They know that staffers, people close to the senator were concerned enough about this but there was, so the article says, a confrontation which is confirmed by several, not just two, but several people who‘d been on the staff.  Now, if that never happened, if anyone believes the “Times” just made it all up, that‘s one thing.  But if the “Times” has the sources, and these are serious reporters and serious editors and prize-winning people, if this is what they were told by credible people, there‘s a way to write that up and get it in the newspaper.  And I think that on the face of the article today and remember, Senator McCain refused to talk to the “Times”.  Senator McCain staff did not talk to the “Times” at all.

ABRAMS:  His lawyer spoke to the “Times”.

F. ABRAMS:  His lawyer spoke to the “Times”, his great lawyer, my friend, Bob Bennett spoke to the “Times”.  And if I were a reporter and I asked to see Senator McCain and Bob Bennett walked into the room, I would start thinking, wow, what‘s going on here.  That doesn‘t mean Senator McCain did any wrong but it does mean this is big time stuff.  And if a reporter is doing a story and the person won‘t talk to him, you know, the story goes on.

ABRAMS:  Well, Bob Bennett is going to come up later in the program.  I‘ll ask him about that.  Lawrence O‘Donnell, look, you know, it seems that, you know, my dad here is in the minority of people on the right or left who are defending “The New York Times”, A, either the right is going after them saying they had an agenda, oh, look at the timing, they were out to get McCain; and there are many on the left who are saying: Oh, come on, what is this story about.  Where do you fall on this?

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, look, Floyd Abrams has been in the minority of many noble arguments that he‘s won in the past.  I‘m not with him tonight.  Here‘s my problem this story.  It‘s a very specific thing.  It‘s the use of the word convinced about the affair.  That word, convinced is applied to anonymous sources on McCain staff, his staff in the past.  There‘s a very simple thing this article could have done and did not do.  That is say, how they were convinced.  Tell us what is it was that convinced those people and tell us who those people are.  Now, I understand, they had to use blind sources to get the story this far, but use of that word convinced, without saying what are the convincing elements, I think is a horrible piece of journalism.  And the whole story, I have to tell you, I find story to amount to nothing.  Every single senator, I worked in that Senate for eight years, every one of them has a favorite lobbyist, every one of them.  And every one of the Senate‘s staffs worry about the appearance of the favorite lobbyist getting too much time with the senators and too much access to the senators.

ABRAMS:  Before I go to Andrea, dad, real quick response to that.

F. ABRAMS:  You‘re right that senators have favorite lobbyists, but I think you‘re wrong on the proposition that the story does not sell itself.  I mean, again, these two guys, these two people, whoever they were, sources, said Senator McCain in effect confessed to them, acknowledged misbehavior.  Now, journalist got to make a decision.  Do you believe him or not.  Do you have enough background information or not.  Are they consistent enough?  Are they in touched with each other?  Where there are lots of factors that go into this, but to say as Lawrence and I guess, a lot of other folks are saying, that in effect with this body of information, you can‘t reveal this story, I think is wrong.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Andrea, your position is going to be broader than this, in an attack on “Times”.  But before you attack the “Times”, how do you explain the fact that “The Washington Post” also is reporting on the story?  Not all elements of it.  But let me read to you, quote, “John Weaver,” who went on the record to “The New York Times”, “was McCain‘s closest confidant until leaving his current campaign last year, said he met with Vicki Iseman at the Center Caf’ at Union Station and urged her to stay away from McCain.  Members of the senator‘s small circle of advisers also confronted McCain directly, according to source, warning him that his continued ties to a lobbyist who had business before the powerful commerce committee he chaired threatened to derail his presidential ambitions.”  So, now, you have both “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” quoting sources, saying there was this confrontation that McCain is denying.

ANDREA TANTAROS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Well, we‘ve heard that the story has been floating out there for months.  And the difference between “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times” was that “The Washington Post” left out the star magazine salacious affair innuendo.  And when you look at this, Dan, I mean, this really is reckless journalism.  It‘s a drive by hit.  And since when did the paper of the record become the clearinghouse of innuendo?  And I look at this and I say the “Times” really wants to sell papers.  And if this is the threshold for evidence, they could likely file a story about Former President Clinton‘s personal life every week.

ABRAMS:  But let‘s stick with my question though.  I mean, it seems that there are now two major newspapers talking about a confrontation with Senator McCain this woman.  Put the sexual innuendo aside, that in and of itself is a serious charge, is it not?

TANTAROS:  Well, it is.  But if you‘re looking at the same sources, clearly, the two words that described these sources are anonymous and disgruntled.  So, if the same sources are talking to two major papers, they clearly have a bone to pick with Senator McCain and they took it to two of the most popular papers.  But again, Dan, you know better than anybody, in journalism, you‘re only as good as your sources.  And if those words to describe your sources are anonymous and disgruntled, I question the validity of that story.

F. ABRAMS:  But I think what you‘re saying is that both the “Times” and the “Post” were taken in by these people who you describe, without really knowing, as disgruntled.  And if I got a conspiracy theory, that‘s one thing.  But if you‘re saying, these are journalists try to do a good job and they all messed up, the “Times” and the “Post”, on a story of this importance, I mean, that‘s a heavy charge.

TANTAROS:  Look, they want to sell papers.  They want to sell papers now more than ever.

ABRAMS:  Lawrence, what do you make of this, “The Washington Post” and

“New York Times” business?  Real quick and I want to ask you -

O‘DONNELL:  Listen, I agree with Floyd about this.  There‘s no conceivable conspiracy angle here.  You have reporters who are trying to do their best.  I‘m not just satisfied with what they‘d delivered.  That‘s all.  And I understand how close a judgment call it is.  I understand.

ABRAMS:  Dan, you had a chance to cross-examine John McCain about some of the issues that are being talked about here.  Before I read about this, very quickly, how did this come about?

F. ABRAMS:  I represented Senator Mitch Connell and the National

Association of Broadcasters in a legal challenge to the McCain-Feingold

bill.  And in doing so, I was try to0 show that the notion of appearance of

misconduct, appearance of misbehavior was very, very loose.  So, I was

questioning Senator McCain about some of these very things in order to show

that an appearance standard -

ABRAMS:  And here‘s the question, you asked, “In your view, Senator McCain, was there appearance of corruption in your writing the letters to the FCC, flying on Mr. Paxson‘s jet, accepting contributions from Mr.  Paxson all in the same time period?”  Paxson, of course, is the organization that Iseman was working with.  “As I said before, I believe there could possibly be an appearance of corruption because the system has tainted all of us.  I‘ve said that thousands of times, it has tainted me, it has tainted every officeholder that ever accepts anything from any group or individual that has any interest in Washington.  So, there may be an appearance that is wrong there.  But the fact is that when I did not ask the FCC to act favorably for Mr. Paxson, then, I was not doing anything wrong in any way.”  You actually asked him then, “Do you recall if Mr.  Paxson‘s lobbyist accompanied you on any of your corporate jet trips that you took?”  “I don recall.  Again, I know it‘s a matter of public record.”  Final thought on that?

F. ABRAMS:  Well, look, and the one thing that should be undeniable here is that the circumstances of all this, Senator McCain was doing a favor, maybe not for her.  I have no idea about that.  He was responding to a request from an entity that had made significant campaign contributions to him and did so by pressuring the FCC to decide quickly or at last about the sale of television stations, which benefited these people.  It doesn‘t mean he‘s a bad man, but it‘s the sort of circumstances in which people want to look more deeply to find out just what happened.

ABRAMS:  The panel is going to stay with us.

Coming up next: John McCain‘s attorney, Bob Bennett will join us to respond to the discussion, the allegations.  Is he saying that “The Washington Post” also got it wrong?

And later: If there is one thing right wing radio talk show hosts hate more than the idea of John McCain as their president, it‘s “The New York Times”.  Now, this story seems to be helping unite McCain and conservatives.

Your e-mails in the P.O.‘ed box: Abram@msnbc.com.  Tell us what we‘re doing right or wrong.  Be sure to include your name, where you‘re writing from.  Be back in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Did you know “The New York Times” has been controlled by one family since 1886?

Coming up: The “Times” is under fire for putting the McCain lobbyist story, McCain‘s camp is calling it a hit-and-run smear campaign.  John McCain‘s attorney is with us.  Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I do know this with some interest that is quote, “former aides” that this whole story is based on anonymous sources.  I don‘t think that that‘s really something that is—I‘m very disappointed in that.  All of it is quote, “anonymous sources”, quote, “former aides”.

CINDY MCCAIN, WIFE OF JOHN MCCAIN:  He‘s a man of great character and I‘m very, very disappointed with “The New York Times”.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Today, the McCains lashed out at “The New York Times” story that linked McCain to 40-year-old lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, the article says that Iseman was turning up at McCain fundraiser, at his office, and they flew together aboard her client‘s corporate jet.  It also says that top aides believe the relationship had become romantic and told her to stay away from the senator.

Here now is McCain‘s attorney, Bob Bennett, he is the author of the autobiography, “In the Ring: The trials of a Washington lawyer”.  Bob, thanks a lot for coming on the program, appreciate it.

BOB BENNETT, JOHN MCCAIN‘S ATTORNEY:  You‘re welcome, Dan.

ABRAMS:  Let me ask you, in the previous segment, we were talking about the fact that John McCain was asked by “The New York Times” to go on the record about this and instead, they see the great Washington attorney, Bob Bennett offering them responses, et cetera.  Why wouldn‘t McCain talk to them?

BENNETT:  Well, let me start out by saying, you have every right to be proud of your dad.  He is one of our country‘s great, great lawyers.  And I do consider him a friend.  But let me make a few adjustments to some of the factual statements he‘d made.  John McCain spoke to the executive editor, Bill Keller of “The New York Times”, that is hardly a refusal to talk to “The New York Times”.  Secondly, this was not about Bob Bennett walking into the room and talking to the reporters in place of John McCain.  The reporters on this story, I never even called.  They called me and they‘d asked if they could meet with me.  And that‘s the first time that I spoke to the reporters of “The New York Times”.  And during that meeting and after that meeting, I submitted to them many, many examples of where Senator McCain took position, adverse to the interests and indeed specifically, declined to do the things that Ms. Iseman and her public relations firm asked him to do.  So, let‘s just keep that factual.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Well, let me ask you about that though?  I mean,

let me ask you two of those points.  First of all, you said you went to

“The New York Times” and told them that there were other examples -

BENNETT:  No, they called me up, they came to my office.

ABRAMS:  Fair enough.  I apologize.  When they came to you and you clarified, there were instances where McCain did not do what Iseman wanted.  But they put that in the article.  I mean, it says, he, Mr. Salter, Mr.  David Salter said McCain have frequently denied requests from Ms. Iseman and the company she represented, the McCain aides said the senator sided with that Ms. Iseman‘s clients only when their positions hold (ph) to his principles.  I mean, it seems that they, you know, they listened and they wrote about it.

BENNETT:  Well, I‘m not attacking “The New York Times” for being in some kind of a conspiracy.  I‘m critical of the story because it is not complete.  It makes—it wants the readers to some very dangerous and terrible conclusions based on unnamed sources.  It doesn‘t get, Dan, to the fundamental question, mainly, did John McCain do anything contrary to the public interest?  Did John McCain do something for Ms. Iseman or her firm that was contrary to his views of what the merits were?  And, the article is barren of that.  The two instances they‘ve focused on was the Keating Five case which was 20 years old and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I know more about that case than anybody because I was the Senate‘s counsel.  I investigated John McCain for a year and a half and after concluding he was an honest man, recommended that he‘d not be that go through the hearing.

ABRAMS:  But let‘s come back to this question about this confrontation because I think it‘s important.  Because John McCain is saying, there was there was no confrontation with him about Ms. Iseman and yet you‘ve got these sources to both “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” saying that a confrontation occurred with McCain about Iseman and you have John Weaver going on the record, just saying that he was concerned about this and that he spoke to her.  I mean, that‘s a lot of different people saying the same thing.

BENNETT:  Well, but that‘s not what the real issue is.

ABRAMS:  One of the issues -

BENNETT:  Well, you left out an important piece.  There are other

staff people, including the person who ran the staff who says that that

never occurred.  So, you have ex-staff people and you have other staff -

ABRAMS:  Wait, because someone said they didn‘t see it, it doesn‘t

mean that it didn‘t happen.  I mean -

BENNETT:  Well, of course not, but before you suggest that somebody -

ABRAMS:  So, everyone has to have agreed that it happened in order to print it?

BENNETT:  Look, Dan.  Let me finish.  Of course not.  And if all they‘ve printed was that this dispute between the staff, we wouldn‘t be talking here.  The clearest trust and implication of the story is that Senator McCain did something improper.  That Senator McCain did favors for someone he was very friendly with.  And that is a massive jump from just having one staff person or two staff people saying unnamed, whatever their motives are, who knows, and other staff people saying it didn‘t happen.  And Mr. Weaver, who you refer to, Mr. Weaver said that it wasn‘t that he thought there was any impropriety or improper relationship, as I understand him today, he was warning her because he just felt he was concerned about some appearances that people might think that she was too close to him.  Now, I don‘t know what the truth of the matter is.  But, I know this.  I know “The Daily News”, “The New York Post”, I know, you know, the issue is John McCain did something, did a favor contrary to the public interest.  And that‘s unfair.  It‘s grossly unfair.  This is a thin, thin story that is improperly sourced.  And that‘s how I feel.  I‘m not alleging some great conspiracy here.

ABRAMS:  You get the final word on that one.  Well, Bob Bennett, thank you very much for taking the time.  We appreciate it.

BENNETT:  Thank you, Dan.

ABRAMS:  Let‘s bring in, Gabe Sherman, special correspondent with “The New Republic”.  You guys did a story all about the behind the scenes wrangling at “The New York Times”.  Gabe, was there anyone at “The New York Times” who were saying, we don‘t have it here, let‘s not go with this?

GABE SHERMAN, THE NEW REPUBLIC:  Well, from the, you know—as the piece moved through the process, executive editor, Bill Keller and senior editors at the “Times” expressed reservations about the controversial nature on reporting on an alleged affair based on a set of circumstantial and anonymously sourced anecdotes.  And that was one of the major hurdles and stumbling blocks that prevented the piece from being published until it was.

ABRAMS:  So, that‘s explained.  Well, those who say, oh, the timing.  It was this conspiracy to get McCain now that he‘s become the nominee.  I mean, that it‘d always seem to me completely absurd, because if they wanted to hurt him most, I wouldn‘t think they‘d probably wait until, I don‘t know, two days after the Republican convention.

SHERMAN:  Well, there‘s no, and that‘s the newsrooms function.  I mean, editors and reporters never think about how a story is going to impact the candidate at any juncture during the campaign.  I mean, they work to get the story until it meets their standards and then, they go with it.

ABRAMS:  Yes.  Gabe Sherman, thanks a lot for coming in.  Appreciate it.

SHERMAN:  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  Coming up: We‘ll continue with the McCain and “New York Times” story.  Conservative radio talk show host had been blasting McCain but they hate “The New York Times” a lot more.  Now, it seems this could unite them against a common enemy.

Plus: CNN‘s resident a name caller, Jack Cafferty criticized McCain for name calling against Obama.  We will show you how to define the word hypocrite.  That‘s coming up in Beat the Press.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  It‘s time for tonight‘s “Beat The Press,” our daily look back at the absurd and sometimes amusing perils of live TV.  First up, CNN resident grump Jack Cafferty expressed a disdain for John McCain yesterday, scolding the senator for using his victory speech to go after Barack Obama. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR:  Instead, he chose to call Barack Obama names.  This is schoolyard stuff.  And you‘d think a 71-year-old member of the United States Senate would know better. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  And I would guess you could ask the same of a 65-year-old television commentator when it comes to name-calling as well. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAFFERTY:  These superdelegates don‘t have a brain in their head ...  are going to look like the village idiots.  Now you‘ve got these clowns out in Washington.  And these morons just tore up the rule book ...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Good to see that he‘s the one lecturing on that schoolyard stuff.  Next up, Anderson Cooper loves to talk about how they‘re keeping the candidates honest. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, CNN ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES:  Is it fair?  We‘re keeping them honest.  The question is it fair?  We‘re keeping them honest.  We‘re keeping them honest about the cash that ended up in the campaigns of the superdelegates. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Candidates putting cash in the hands of superdelegates.  Thank goodness CNN is keeping them honest.  So they are going to tell us why it‘s unfair and keep the candidates‘ feet to the fire because this is buying delegates, right?  Or not? 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Is it fair to say that these candidates were trying to buy these delegates? 

MASSIE RITSCH, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE

POLITICS:  I don‘t think it‘s fair to say that, no. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  OK.  So then, how exactly did CNN keep them honest?  For that, you can watch this program as we go “On Their Trail” assessing the misstatements, cheap shots and blunders.  Finally, CNN was covering the violence in Belgrade this afternoon.  Protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in the Serbian capital.  You have to wonder how committed some of the so-called protestors really were. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CNN REPORTER:  All right, much more of the unrest in Belgrade right here in the CNN News room. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  OK.  Those guys are really committed to protesters. 

We need your help beating the press.  If you see anything right, wrong, amusing or absurd, go to our Web site, Abrams.MSNBC.com.  Leave us a tip in the box.  Please include the show and the time you saw the item. 

Up next, Mitt Romney used the “New York Times” endorsement of McCain last month as proof positive that McCain wasn‘t a conservative.  Now, the “Times” has published this new story linking McCain to 40-year-old lobbyist, all of a sudden, conservative radio talk show hosts have turned their attention to the “Times.”  Is it actually going to end up being a good thing for McCain?  Plus, how the “Times” story could shake up the presidential race.  Speaking of Mitt Romney, is he off somewhere, kicking himself for dropping out now?

(NEWS BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Right wing radio has been in a tailspin over the painful thought of having to suck it up and get behind John McCain as the nominee of the Republican Party.  But now, many of the fire breathers are singing a different tune.  In a sharp reversal today, right-wing talk radio seems to be unifying around McCain against an entity they despise more, the “New York Times.”

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, HOST, “THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW”:  You are a Republican. 

Whether you are a conservative Republican or not, you are a Republican.  And at some point, the people you cozy up to, either to do legislation or to get cozy, media stories are  going to turn on you.  They are snakes. 

LAURA INGRAHAM, HOST, “THE LAURA INGRAHAM SHOW”:  John McCain getting slammed on the front page of the “New York Times” in what is one of the more ridiculous pieces I have read in some time.  These are wild animals, these reporters from the “New York Times”.  You have to treat them as such. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  It is hard to believe, but the question, has the “New York Times” story about John McCain‘s links to a 40-year-old lobbyist really accomplished what McCain himself couldn‘t do?  Unify the far right of the party behind him? 

Back with me is Andrea Tantaros. Lawrence O‘Donnell and we‘re joined by political analyst Laura Schwartz.  And conservative talk show host Lars Larson is on the phone.  All right.  Lars, look, you‘ve been one of the people on this program before saying you did not think that the far right or you can call them the right in the party, “We‘re going to come and vote for John McCain.”  Is this going to change it? 

LARS LARSON, CONSERVATIVE TALK SHOW HOST:  No, it‘s not going to change it.  I consider myself part of the reasonable right.  We still have our issues with John McCain.  This isn‘t going to change my vote.  However, we‘re intellectually honest enough to look at the reporting of the “New York Times” and say you put six reporters on this non-story for two months. 

You dug up a lot of things that probably deserved to be mentioned like the

Keating Five.  That‘s fine.  It‘s fair game.  They you dig up next to

nothing.  You have two unnamed sources - 

ABRAMS:  Right.

LARSON:  That say something might have happened with this young lady?

ABRAMS:  All right.  Look, you guys all agree - you guys all think that this article is crap.  We know that. 

LARSON:  Yes, it‘s garbage.

ABRAMS:  Look, I know that that‘s what you think.  But I‘m asking you now, is it crap enough that the Republican Party, as to the far right of the Party, is now going to come behind McCain? 

LARSON:  No, I don‘t think it is, because we still have our beef with McCain on taxes and illegal aliens and a lot of other issues.  I‘ve got about a dozen of them.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Well, Rush Limbaugh today sure sounded like he was ready to shift gears.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIMBAUGH:  Most people‘s predictions last night what this is, was going to finally rally conservatives to McCain.  And McCain couldn‘t do it himself but the “New York Times” could do and the drive-by media.  And I‘ve got some E-mails, “That‘s it Rush.  I haven‘t planned on voting for McCain but I‘m going to send him some money now.  I‘m not going to stand here and let the ‘New York Times‘ destroy my candidate.” 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Lawrence, what do you make of it?  Real quick. 

LARSON:  Well, I‘ll tell you what.  I -

O‘DONNELL:  I listened to the first hour of Rush today and it was a pretty warm hour for McCain and the first one this year for McCain.  But you know, there‘s a really interesting component of the story that people are ignoring. 

ABRAMS:  Right.  You know what -

O‘DONNELL:  The “New York Times” endorsed McCain while they were writing this article.  So they, themselves, don‘t think this amounts to very much.

ABRAMS:  Here‘s what I‘ve got to do.  I‘ve got to thank you Lars.  I appreciate it.  But we‘ve got to take a break here.  Everyone else is going to stick around because up next, we‘re going to do the post debate analysis, Clinton versus Obama. 

We‘re going to tell you who won.  Our guests have been watching the entire thing.  They are going to rate the candidate performances with grades.  They‘re going to tell what the most important point of the debate was.  And the ultimate question, did Hillary get what she needed out of this debate?  Coming up in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have just wrapped up their second one-on-one debate.  It took almost an hour of civil conversation about the economy, immigration and foreclosures before they actually started duking it out, digging in, and at times, it got aggressive. 

The question, did Hillary Clinton deliver what she need to, to make a comeback now?  My three guests have all been watching the entirety of this debate.  Peter Beinart from “The New Republic,” Joan Walsh from “Salon.com,” and Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky all join me now.  Thanks to all of you, appreciate it. 

All right, Peter.  You watched the debate. Did Hillary Clinton, quote, unquote, “win?”

PETER BEINART, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS:  No.  I think she did fine, but he did better.  He was consistently - if her main attack on her is that he‘s a lightweight, he consistently answered in thoughtful, substantive ways that I think countered that impression.  I don‘t think she really laid a glove on him. 

ABRAMS:  Joan, what do you make of it?

JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, “SALON.COM”:  I disagree with Peter.  I thought she was very stronger.  I thought she was stronger he was.  Where Peter is right is where you‘ve got a frontrunner and he doesn‘t stumble, then he wins.  I don‘t think she did enough to turn things around, but I thought she gave a stronger performance.  She always does. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  Julie, look.  She needed a knock out or Obama needed a major slip up, it seems at this point, based on the fact it‘s been ten to zero as of late when it comes to these primaries and caucuses.  And Clinton has been asking for more debates I think in the hope that there was going to be some sort of knockout.  But again, you don‘t think she got it tonight.

JULIE ROGINSKY, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  No.  I think she needed a Lloyd Bentsen moment, “You‘re no JFK,” or a Ronald Reagan moment - there you go again.  Some sound byte that you guys and everybody else will play over and over tomorrow.  She hit it double.  She really needed to hit a home run.  And I agree with Joan.  She was better than Obama, who I thought, at times, looked kind of bored.  But having said that, she really needed a home run on this one.  And while she hit a double, she‘s has not hit it out of the ball park. 

ABRAMS:  Julie, one of the questions that came up with this Obama and plagiarism.  And while the Clinton camp has been claiming, “Oh, it‘s the media who‘s been putting this forward.”  You know, you listen to these calls from the Clinton camp, they‘re mentioning it.  It was brought up today at the debate.  How do you think Obama handled it? 

ROGINSKY:  You know, Dan, I‘ll be the first to say, who cares?  This

issue is so unimportant to me.  I think it‘s unimportant to most American

people.  What are they, like they‘re competing who wrote the better term

paper in law school?  I don‘t think people care -

ABRAMS:  I totally disagree, Peter.  I think this could have become a huge issue.  I mean if Obama handled it badly or if it became a bigger deal than it has so far become, it could have been one of those knock-out punches.

BEINART:  If there had been other instances, and it seems like there was a pattern of this guy playing fast and loose, then it could have been an issue.  But those other instances never came about as an isolated instance.  Given that most people know that this guy can give a great speech with his own lines, I don‘t think it‘s gotten enough traction for the Clintons. 

WALSH:  You know, I basically agree.  I think this is the kind of thing journalists care about because if we plagiarized, we‘d be out of a job.  On the other hand, a couple of interesting things happened.  He said, “You know, you caught me two times” - he didn‘t say caught me - whatever, two times.  Well, actually, there are more than two times.  There are at least three.  There‘s a new YouTube going around of him back-to-back with John Edwards about, “I spent enough time in Washington to know Washington needed change.” 

ABRAMS:  Well, those are cheesy comparisons. 

WALSH:  Well, still - No, no.  Don‘t cut me off, Dan.  I don‘t think - I actually think that when you say two and there are three, people begin to pay attention.  So I think that‘s one of the things that could come back to bite him if there‘s more than two and more than three.  And then, you know, change you can Xerox.  We‘ll see if that picks up.  That was probably her best line of the night.  I was happy she didn‘t go negative.

BEINART:  She got boos for that one. 

(CROSS TALK) 

Hang on.  One at a time.  Hang on.  Julie, go ahead. 

WALSH:  But it‘s not about the audience there. 

ROGINSKY:  Yes.  All I can say to you is people care about the war.  People care about the economy.  The fact that he may have cribbed a couple lines and developed - Yes, you, guys are journalists, you worry about it because you obviously would be in a lot of trouble if you crib from each other and lawyers - you know, people in college.  But the American people and people watching this debate, they don‘t care. 

ABRAMS:  But Julie, you sound like a politician.  The reality is it‘s sort of like saying that negative ads don‘t work. 

ROGINSKY:  They do work. 

ABRAMS:  Yes, they do, even though you‘d say the public doesn‘t want to hear them.  The public doesn‘t want to that.  They want to talk about healthcare.  But the reality is, when you do negative ads, they tend to work. 

ROGINSKY:  This is not a negative.  This is not an issue.  What is this?  Who cares?

BEINART:  You know, Dan -

ABRAMS:  Peter, go ahead.

BEINART:  In this campaign, they haven‘t worked.  The truth is that Hillary Clinton‘s negative attack in South Carolina and in Wisconsin didn‘t work very well.  And I think that may be one of the reasons she didn‘t go quite as aggressive in the first half of the debate. 

ABRAMS:  You know, that‘s interesting, because she, of course is the -

The campaign has claimed that they did better in Wisconsin - they would

have, if they hadn‘t issued these ads.  But when you lose by - what was it,

17 points, it‘s hard to say -

WALSH:  Hard to believe.

ABRAMS:  That our ads worked.  But that‘s an interesting question.  Joan, do you think it was a strategy coming in on the Clinton camp which said, let‘s not go too negative here.  We‘ve got to be careful.  So far it hasn‘t been working for us as well as it might have been in another campaign?

WALSH:  I think clearly, there was a strategy.  You know, there are lots of reports about Mark Penn-Mandy Grunwald debate.  You know, and I think I‘d come down if there is that split - I think I do come down on the side of Mandy Grunwald  I don‘t think she can go anymore negative.  I really think that it hurts her.  Her only hope at this point - She has two hopes.  One is to be strong and to make her own case, really convince people that she is a doer, not just a talker.  And then I think she‘s also playing out the clock.  And, you know, if he stumbles, if the media -  The thing about the plagiarism thing is not to beat a dead horse. 

The other real problem was that her campaign fingerprints were all over it.  So they held a conference call to hype it.  That was so silly.  If it was going to be an issue, it would have been an issue on its own.  But then, it looked like partisan bickering.  So they really - I think they really step on her when they get too negative.  I think a decision was made to pull her back.  We got that one line, “Change you can Xerox.”  But other than that, she was pretty positive. 

ABRAMS:  You know, Peter, what you also noticed is in Obama‘s answers, he seemed to try and link himself with Hillary Clinton a lot, as a front-runner might, to say, you know, we don‘t disagree on a lot of these issues, we actually agree on some of the key issues.  And it seemed again and again, as if Obama kept trying to say, you know, hey, we‘re not that far apart, which is what a front-runner might do. 

BEINART:  Well, what he actually did was even shrewder than that.  What he said again and again was our ideas are basically the same, but I can bring people together to get change done and you can‘t.  And that essentially moves the debate from the specifics of the issues where Hillary Clinton is good and where people tune out a little bit to the larger question of change versus someone who‘s been around a lot to their persona.  That‘s really where he shines.  That was his consistent theme tonight and I thought it was effective. 

ABRAMS:  Julie, any of the differences - they kept being asked about the differences between them.  Smartly, they would then they answer the question by first starting with what their position is and trying to avoid, both of them, the questions specifically how we differ on some of the most important issues related to the economy, immigration, et cetera.  Did you think that either of them were able to clarify or able to crystallize any key differences between them in a way that maybe effective? 

ROGINSKY:  Not really.  The difference really here is approach which is not an issue.  But don‘t forget one of these people is going to be the Democratic nominee, and they‘re going to need the support of the other candidates‘ supporters.  So obviously, Barack Obama is not going to really criticize Hillary Clinton‘s position, A, because they agree and B, because he‘s going to win this race or she‘s going to win this race.  But it‘s not going to be a blow out by any stretch of the imagination. And they‘re going to need to consolidate right after August whoever becomes the nominee.  That‘s so important.  You cannot have a divided Democratic base. 

ABRAMS:  But I think if she thought she could win by doing it, it

seems to me -

ROGINSKY:  Sure, but the problem for her is, you know, she really - I disagree with what Joan said earlier.  I would have actually erred on the Mark Penn side.  She really needed to go for broke.  He‘s the one that needs to run down the clock.  He‘s the frontrunner.  She‘s the one that really needs to go for broke and do something really dramatic to gain all the traction that she‘s lost.  I didn‘t see that happen tonight, though I think her performance was so much better. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Let‘s take a quick break.  The panel is going to stay with us.  When we come back, we‘re going to get the grades of each panelist on each - on Obama and Clinton.  How did they do tonight?  Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Messing whole passages from someone else‘s speeches is not change you can believe in. 

It‘s change you can Xerox.  And I just don‘t think -

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  No, that‘s not what

-

CLINTON:  No, but you know - but Barack, it is.  Because if you if you look, if you look - if you look at the YouTube of these videos, it does raise questions. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Change you can Xerox and then she gets booed by the audience.  I mean it seems to me, Peter Beinart, that she prepared that line, she had it ready to go, change you can Xerox and the Democratic audience didn‘t seem to want to hear that kind of, let‘s call it, personal attack. 

BEINART:  Well, I think it was also more of an Obama crowd, perhaps

because it‘s in Austin, which is a college town, the kind of place he‘s

likely to have an advantage.  But I think - look, their best line of attack

I think was healthcare.  But, she did it in the second half but let it go

in the first half.  The other big question is they really go for broke,

Hail Mary thing I think for them to do would have been to raise Michelle

Obama‘s issue about her saying that she‘s only now proud of America.  That

would have been the most controversial -

ABRAMS:  Hey, Peter -

BEINART:  Thing they could have done. 

ABRAMS:  Then, Hillary Clinton has to answer every comment that Bill Clinton has made. 

WALSH:  Exactly.  I think that‘s the third rail for her. 

BEINART:  That comment - it‘s a third rail, but that comment is also a very dangerous comment. 

WALSH:  I agree it‘s a dangerous comment for Michelle Obama, but I don‘t think she could raise it.  I think that, A, she‘d have to answer for Bill and B, there‘s a way in which she cannot be kind of left baiting Obama or Michelle Obama.  She can‘t do it to the base.  The base will turn on her. 

BEINART:  It‘s already turned on her.

WALSH:  They will do it to him in the general.

(CROSS TALK) 

ABRAMS:  Julie, I think the base doesn‘t want to hear.  We talked about the negative ads and the fact that people say they don‘t want negative ads.  But when you do it in a debate and you‘re sitting next to the other person and you sort of insult them to their face, I think that there is something that the Democratic voters are going to say - a little much. 

ROGINSKY:  You know what?  None of us who are Democrats want to see these guys get into a fistfight primarily.  Because we don‘t want to do anything to jeopardize getting the White House back.  And you know, look.  We‘re still desperate to turn the page on the next eight years.  I think most of us don‘t even care at this point who the nominee is.  We just want a Democrat to win.  It‘s not that we don‘t care.  Everybody‘s got their preference.  But I think, unlike McCain, with the Republicans, we take either of the these guys. 

ABRAMS:  Let me do this.  I want to ask each of you to give us a grade on how you thought Clinton and Obama did.  Peter, let me start with you , we asked you to put together your grade for Clinton and Obama. 

BEINART:  I‘d give Clinton an A minus.  I think that as always she was substantive and lucid.  But I would give Obama an A.  I mean he has gotten so much better in these debates from where he was last summer.  He is very consistently substantive and calm.  He doesn‘t get flustered.  If the claim is that this guy is some kind of a lightweight, he just does not look like a lightweight in these debates at all. 

ABRAMS:  Joan, what did you make - grades for Obama and Clinton? 

WALSH:  I would give her an A minus and him a B plus.  And I can‘t believe he let her go first.  Because I think she dominated the first half of the debate because she got to go first and because she was so strong on immigration and got to mention Barbara Jordan. 

ABRAMS:  All right, and Julia, we‘ve got a tie here.  We‘ve got one person saying he thought Obama did better, one Clinton.  Julie, what do make of it?

ROGINSKY:  I don‘t think we‘re watching the same debate because I would give her a B plus, but I would give him a B minus.  I thought his performance was mediocre.  I thought he looked very bored.  But she got a B plus, mainly on substance.  But again, she needed to really hit this one out of the ballpark, I keep saying it.  But the reason she didn‘t get an A or an A minus, is because she didn‘t close the deal tonight as she really needed to do to get ahead in these primaries in a couple of weeks. 

WALSH:  Julie -

ROGINSKY:  Tough.  Yes, you don‘t want me grading your term paper, Joan. 

WALSH:  I don‘t.

ABRAMS:  Yes.  But look.  That‘s the bottom line.  We‘re looking at Julie‘s grades there with the B plus for Clinton, and a B minus for Obama.  But isn‘t that the point, Joan, that Hillary Clinton needed a knockout tonight.  She needed something to change the quote/unquote “momentum,” the trends, et cetera.  She needed a different story for the media to pick up on. 

ROGINSKY:  You know, Dan, of course you‘re right but let me hedge in

one way.  There are always things that reverberate a few days after a

debate that we don‘t see quite at the time.  I thought she did very well on

healthcare and she did it in two ways.  Her point about social security was

really good but she also managed to bring in John Edwards and flatter and

praise John Edwards.  So there are a few things, you know - he flip flopped

on Cuba.  He was pro-normalization.  It was left to Campbell Brown and not

Hillary to point that out.  But, you know, that‘s something that -

ABRAMS:  Yes, Peter - That was an interesting question,  The one on Cuba very early on in the debate about whether they would meet with Raul Castro without preconditions. 

BEINART:  I‘ve always thought that Hillary Clinton has gotten the better of that argument.  But the problem is this is not a first tier issue in the campaign, how you‘ll handle Cuba.  The foreign policy issue that really matters above all else is Iraq, where you‘re seeing that voters who say Iraq really matters to them have flocked to Obama in overwhelming numbers.  And he attacks her on Iraq at several times in this debate for having authorized the war and she didn‘t respond at all.  She didn‘t have any kind of response and I think that hurts. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Peter Beinart, Joan Walsh, Julie Roginsky, thanks a lot.  Appreciate it.  Big debate.  That‘s all the time we have for tonight.  Stay tuned for our special coverage continues now with “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann. 

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

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