updated 2/26/2008 2:27:20 PM ET 2008-02-26T19:27:20

Guest: Keli Goff, Pat Buchanan, Michelle Cottle, Jonathan Alter, Dana Jill

Simpson, Doug Jones

DAN ABRAMS, HOST:  Tonight: Clinton accuses Obama of distorting her records.  Obama’s team says, her attacks are shameful, offensive fear-mongering.

And: What about this photo of Obama?  Why did it surface today?

We are On Their Trail: Calling out the biggest misstatements, cheap shots and blunders.

And: A prominent national columnist calling is for Hillary Clinton to get out of the race now.  I’ll take him on.

And: Our series—Bush League Justice is back with a former Republican operative and lawyer who says, Karl Rove asked her to spy on a Democratic governor and get compromising photos?  That governor is now sitting in a federal prison in what may be a political prosecution.

But first up: Tempers flaring, mud flying ahead of tomorrow’s crucial Democratic debate in Ohio.  Hillary Clinton on the attack like never, before ahead of the must-win primaries for her in Ohio and Texas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Shame on you, Barack Obama.  It is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I’m puzzled by the sudden change in tone, unless these were just brought to her attention.  It makes me think that there’s something tactical about her getting so exercised this morning.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  We’re On Their Trail: Telling you who’s right or wrong, assessing the misstatements, blunders and cheap shots.

Joining us, to separate fact from fiction on the key issues: Michelle Cottle, senior editor from “The New Republic”; MSNBC political analyst, Pat Buchanan; and Keli Goff, political analyst and author of the book, “Party Crasher”.

All right.  First up: The photo flap.  This photo of Obama dressed in traditional African garb on a visit to Kenya.  It appeared today on the Drudge Report Web site claimed the photo was circulated by, quote, “Clinton staffers”.  The charge the Clinton campaign at first didn’t deny, then, did deny.  Obama camp is calling it, divisive fear-mongering.  The Clinton camp fired back saying, quote, “If Barack Obama’s campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed.”

We’re calling this one, a cheap shot from the Clinton campaign, come on.  The idea that they have no idea why this photo could be seen as divisive, Keli Goff?

KELI GOFF, POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yes, you know what?  These are shades of the John Kerry space suit photo in which people say, you know, if it really appropriate for United States senator to be seen wearing a stupid NASA outfit?  Not exactly.  But can you really make a legitimate argument that it makes really him look good and that the opponents are shocked that it doesn’t bode well for any campaign?  It’s ridiculous.

ABRAMS:  But Pat, this falls in to all of the inaccurate reports that have come out about Obama, all the prejudices about Obama.  I mean, you know, this is, if you want to sort of do fear-mongering this is the picture you want out there.  And the Clinton campaign suggests, oh, I don’t know, what’s the big deal?  It’s just some Somali clothing.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Dan, come on.  This is a “Roots” kind of thing, this is Kunta Kinte.  Look, they’re saying, the guy got dressed up in a Somali chief costume.  Candidate do this stuff all the time, I don’t see anything wrong with the photograph.  Looking at it, you’ve got it out now.  I mean, there’s not getting much to it.  I mean, what is the big deal?

COTTLE:  Come on, Pat.  You know what the big deal is -

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Why get in the outfit if you don’t want to be photographed in it for heaven’s sakes?

ABRAMS:  Wait, let Michelle in.  Go on, Michelle.

COTTLE:  Come on.  This is not the same thing.  This is absolutely playing into all those whisper campaigns that have been out there about how he raised and you know, schooled in a madrasa and he won’t say the pledge of allegiance, not patriotic, he’s some kind of you know, Islamo-fascist.

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Yes.

GOFF:  When I first heard the story, when I heard it, before seeing the photo, my thinking is African attire.  I’m thinking (inaudible), when I see the photograph and see that, come on, everyone knows, PC or not, it’s shades of Bin Laden.  That’s what they’re going for.  And that’s where the fear mongering comes in.

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Look, I’m giving this an absolutely 100 percent given this one a cheap shot on the part of the Clinton campaign.

BUCHANAN:  You got the photo taken himself.

ABRAMS:  That’s fine.

BUCHANAN:  What are you talking about?

ABRAMS:  All right.

Next up: Both candidates trading nasty barbs on issue of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement which they both want to distance themselves from now.  Clinton has been blasting Obama over these mailers campaign sent out in Ohio, which reads, quote, “Hillary Clinton believed NAFTA was, quote, ‘boon to our economy’”.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:   This mailing about NAFTA saying that I believed NAFTA was, quote, “a boon” quotes a newspaper that had corrected the record.  We have pointed it out.  The newspaper has pointed it out.  Time and time again, you hear one thing in speeches and then, you see a campaign that has the worst kind of tactics.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  This is a clear misstatement from Obama.  Hillary never said NAFTA was a boon.  The newspaper that reported it corrected the headlines.  But they are both wiggling and jiggling the truth on NAFTA.  Obama has been accusing Clinton of changing her position on NAFTA.  And he seems to be right.  She now doesn’t like the agreement.

Well, back in 2004, Clinton told reporters, quote, “I think on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York and America.”  But the Clinton campaign is guilty of the very least distorting Obama’s stance.  They released this mailer today, quoting an “Associate Press” article that says, Obama said, the United States should continue to work with the World Trade Organization and pursue deals such as NAFTA, but they conveniently left out, and the rest of the AP quote was, “But the country must be more aggressive about protecting American interests.”

On this one I’m giving them both demerits.  Pat Buchanan?

BUCHANAN:  I give this one to Obama, a victory.  Look, Hillary Clinton may no longer say it’s a boon or anything like that, but she and her husband fought for NAFTA in 1993.  They rammed it through the Congress of the United States.  It was the law of the United States.  She’s now moving against NAFTA because in Ohio and Michigan, people say it cost 90,000 manufacturing jobs.  The Clintons were all behind NAFTA.  They are running away from it.  If Obama has made one minor mistake on this, calling it a boon, I still think he’s fundamentally right.  She changed her position.

GOFF:  That’s actually what I was going to say.  If it is a

misstatement directly from the paper, then, obviously, you have to correct

the record.  But that’s not what voters are looking at.  But they’re

looking at the picture, who’s right on the issue and who’s wrong.  And, you

know, she really can’t have it both ways.  You know, when everyone was

accusing of being a co-president, she was very adamant about saying,

there’s only one president -

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Yes, but Obama is kind of wiggling on this one, too, Michelle.  You know, Obama has been sort of walking the fine line recently, certainly, more aggressively against NAFTA than he was before.

COTTLE:  Well, look, what he’s done is he’s played into something

that’s broader with Hillary’s issue.  I mean, she has tried to have it both

ways.  She wants to claim that she was in for all of the good parts of

Bill’s record.  And so, they’re going to bust her when she decides that

it’s not working -

ABRAMS:  Well, it’s beyond just Bill.  Look, we don’t need Bill.  She specifically said, it was good for New York and good for the country.  Now, look, when you say that, you are fair game.  But the Obama camp blew it on this one by getting that boon thing wrong.

All right.  So, they are both getting a demerit on that one.  We are going to have a scorecard up in a minute.  I’m hoping.  My scorecard.  Yes, there it is.  All right.

Next up: The delegates in Michigan and Florida which Clinton desperately needs but as of now, won’t be counted, a punishment doled out by the DNC for moving their primaries.  But during an interview with a Texas PBS station, Clinton now claims she never agreed to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  The only agreement I entered into was not to campaign in Michigan and Florida.  It had nothing to do with not seating the delegates.  And I think that’s an important distinction.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  I’m calling this one a statement.  Clinton told the New Hampshire radio program back in October, quote, “Well, you know people in Michigan are flat on their back.  It’s clear this election they’re having is not going to count for anything”.  Michelle Cottle?

COTTLE:  This is absolutely outrageous.  It’s just like when right up there, with parching what’s the meaning of is, is.  She may want to split hairs over what of she says she technically agreed to.  But everybody knew what the record was going to be.  They were going to punish the states.  Everybody agreed to his.  Names were taken off ballots, people didn’t campaign and now, she’s just changing her mind because she needs those votes.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  I disagree.

ABRAMS:  You go ahead, Pat.  Yes.

BUCHANAN:  Here’s why.  She left her name on the ballot.  She knew exactly what she was doing when she did.  I think Kucinich did.  The others took it off.  She was erecting a fallback position way back then.  Now, she may have some contradiction problems but there’s a reason she left that name on the ballot when those guys took it off, Dan.

(CROSSTALK)

GOFF:  I was actually going to say that but I know that Dan, was

awarding the demerit here.  But I was going to say that any who deserves

the demerit, it’s the media and the audience for falling this and buying

into exactly what Pat pointed out.  When she said, I’m just leaving my name

on the ballot because I don’t want to be disrespectful for the voters in

Michigan.  Anyone who exactly bought is the one who deserves the demerit

for not having -

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Next up, the battle over—so we gave Clinton another demerit that one.

BUCHANAN:  No.  No.  She won that one.

ABRAMS:  No.  In my view Clinton gets another demerit.  The more points you have on this scorecard the worst you are doing.

ABRAMS:  Next up: The battle over health care.  I’m going to say, right out of the bat (ph), this is the close one.  An issue is a mailer, the Obama campaign had sent around in Ohio, attacking Clinton’s health care plan.  The ad reads, quote, “Hillary’s health care plan forces everybody to buy insurance even if you can’t afford it.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  Senator Obama says that I’m going to make people get health care whether they can afford it or not.  That is false, it is misleading and it has been discredited.  And yet he and his campaign continue to say it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  All right.  Again, this is very close.  On the facts here, we’re giving this one to Obama by a hair.  Clinton’s plan does require that everyone gets insurance.  What the Obama mailer selectively leaves out is what the Clinton plan would do to make the insurance more affordable.  Obama isn’t providing the full context here.  Her plan would offer subsidies to make insurance more affordable.  She says, so everyone could afford it.  But on the facts, Obama seems to have a fair albeit very political attack.  Keli?

GOFF:  I think they both deserve demerit on this one because if you’re watching the debate and you watch them going to the 10-minute tit-for-tat over the issue of health care, it looks like watching two professors who are competitors battle it out in the classroom.  And I think most voters started nodding.  Most voters aren’t following with these nuances, with these splitting hairs; they want to know whose plan is going to be better for their families.  So, I think, they both get demerits on this one because no one is following them.

ABRAMS:  Yes, but, you know, Michelle, the devil is in the details here.  And then, the point is that look, Hillary Clinton’s plan mandates that everyone get insurance and Obama’s doesn’t.  Then, look, there’s a plus and minus to that.  It’s political attacks that say that’s the way that theirs is different than mine.

COTTLE:  And as you know, political attacks don’t lend themselves to

nuance that they’re not going to get in to this -

ABRAMS:  Exactly.

COTTLE:  And you know, it doesn’t matter anyway because Ralph Nader is going to bring us all a single payer.

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Yes.  So, finally tonight, the lofty rhetoric coming from both sides out on the stump, in particular, Clinton attacking Obama on his yes, we can speeches.  Obama claiming that is an attack on his supporters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing.

OBAMA:  Lately, I have been attacked by Senator Clinton and others about, ah, he talking about hope again.  He is so naive.  And some of these folks, make fun of you all.  They’d say, look at these folks, they’re being duped.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  All right.  We are ruling this one a slight misstatement on Obama’s part.  The idea that Clinton has somehow attacking Obama’s supporters with her criticism, I think is unfair, maybe it’s a little theatrical.  Maybe it won’t help.  But to suggest it’s an attack on his supporters, Pat, to me, it seems even more theatrical.

BUCHANAN:  Well, she’s got a perfect right to say that.  And it’s a very valid and incisive point.  Let me say on your previous thing though, I agree with Obama.  He’s not required to outline her whole medical health plan.  What he said is true.  It’s mandated and if you don’t buy it, they’re going to come and force it on you.  It’s a very valid point.  It is the weakest argument Hillary’s got and hurt her with the libertarians and conservatives.  I think Obama won that one, frankly.

ABRAMS:  I ruled that one against Clinton, Pat.

BUCHANAN:  Right.

ABRAMS:  So, you agreed with me.  I have to put up my final scorecard because Pat seems to be getting confused.  All right.  The final scorecard on the latest things they’ve been fighting over: Clinton gets four demerits, Obama gets two demerits.  A lot of these are close, a lot of these are nuanced, a lot of these are pure politics.

Our panel is going to stay with us because coming up, not on this next one, they’re coming up later: The D.C.’s media anti-Hillary crusade has reached a new level, a famed “News week” columnist calling for her to dropout of the race now.  I’ll take him on.

Plus: Even if you think the “New York Times” is wrong to go with that front page story suggesting a romance between John McCain and the 40-year-old lobbyist, how does he manage to get off scot-free on all those disclosures that came about him elsewhere?

And: Bush League Justice is back with an investigation into whether White House aide, Karl Rove asked a Republican operative to spy on a Democratic governor, find compromising photos.  That operative is here tonight and she’ll tell us what she says Rove told her.  Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Did you know that in 1974, Hillary Clinton was a member of the impeachment staff advising the House committee on the judiciary during the Watergate scandal.

Coming up: Hillary who’s trying to become the first female president, some in the media, on a crusade to end her campaign now.  A columnist at “Newsweek” is calling for her to dropout of the race now.  I’ll take him on up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Senator Obama, oh, my God, I’m so nervous.  I still can’t believe I’m actually talking to you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That’s OK.  Take your time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I just really, really, really, really, really want you to be the next president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Finally: Someone, even if it’s a comedy show, echoing what we have been saying for weeks now.  That many of the inside D.C. media have been enamored with Barack Obama and rooting against Hillary Clinton.  “Saturday Night Live” captured it perfectly.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  But first, we’ve been hearing the same old refrain.  Just give us the news.  Not your personal opinions.  And they are tired of it.  They are tired of being told, you journalists have to stay neutral.  You can’t openly take sides in a political campaign.  And they are saying, yes, we can.  Yes, we can take sides.  Yes, we can.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Wow.  Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Bull’s-eye.  Nothing but net.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Well, there’s obviously no way anyone on earth can possibly follow that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Well, actually -

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  So, this continues tonight’s debate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  All right.  Now, regardless of whether the media is to blame, it is now an uphill battle for Hillary Clinton.  “Newsweek’s” Jonathan Alter, one of the most prominent political columnists in the country is even calling for Clinton to withdraw from the race now.

He writes, quote, “If Hillary Clinton wanted a graceful exit, she’d dropout now before the March 4th Texas and Ohio primaries and endorse Barack Obama.  Now, before the voters speak in those delegate-rich states, before tomorrow’s debate?

JONATHAN ALTER, NEWSWEEK:  No.  Not tomorrow.

ABRAMS:  Yes, Obama is ahead but she’s not out of this yet.  My friend, Jonathan Alter joins us now.  Jonathan this is crazy, the idea that Hillary Clinton should step out now?

ALTER:  Well, first of all, not before tomorrow night’s debate. 

That’s not what I was calling for.  But it’s not likely that tomorrow

night’s debate is going to change things very much.  The only shot that she

has, Dan, to win this nomination is a terribly grievous, self-inflicted

wound by Barack Obama.  One that would not just lose him the nomination,

but it would destroy his political career.  Is that possible that something

like that could come out or that he could step in it to that degree?  It’s

possible, but highly unlikely.  The reason they designed Super Tuesday the

way they did, was to have this, other with fairly early, but John Edwards

got out -

ABRAMS:  Look, but -

ALTER:  Let me just finish this point.  John Edwards got out before Super Tuesday because he realized he couldn’t win the nomination.  She can’t win right now.

ABRAMS:  But she can win, it’s an uphill battle.  Look, it’s a long

shot.  They need the -

ALTER:  It’s a super long shot.

ABRAMS:  The delegate count is now -- 1,183 for Obama to 1,031 for Clinton.  You need 2,025 to win.  I mean, look, I agree with you.  If she loses Texas and Ohio even Bill Clinton had said, that’s it, she’s out.  But to step down, as you suggest, before Texas and Ohio when she’s still ahead even in these polls that we can’t necessarily trust in Ohio, to me seems just crazy and it shall be viewed as one who caved by the people in Ohio and Texas as she’s been promising that she’s running for.

ALTER:  Let’s look at the numbers a little bit because you’re saying that, you know, if the firewall holds in Ohio and Texas and wins Ohio and Texas, she’s back in the game.  If she’s trying to erase 156 - 157-delegate deficits she doesn’t have to win Ohio and Texas.

ABRAMS:  She has to win by a lot.

ALTER:  She has to win by a huge landslide in both places.

ABRAMS:  I understand.  But why give up now.  Assume you are right.

ALTER:  OK.  So, let’s say she doesn’t—lets say that Obama who is now even in Texas, let’s say he wins Texas, OK?  And then, she has to get out, right?  That point she’s forced out of the race.

ABRAMS:  But she’s not.

ALTER:  She is a little bit more humiliated.

ABRAMS:  She’s not.  No, she won’t be.  Jon, look, I agree with you.  If she loses Texas, she’s almost certainly going to step out.  She will not be viewed when she steps out, and says, I support Barack Obama.  She will not be seen as someone who kept going until the end, who went to the end of the convention.  They’ll say, but you know what?  She did it at the right time as opposed to what you’re saying which is prematurely, which is now before Texas and Ohio.

ALTER:  I think you can make, you know, a perfect argument for her to wait until March 5th or March 6th if she loses Texas.  I’m not saying, you know, this is the only path for her.  I wrote in my column that I think it’s perfectly defensible for her to go all the way through June, perfectly defensible.

ABRAMS:  But you think the way to go, the choice is for her is to go down ugly with a serious risk of humiliation at the polls or to go down classy with a real chance of redemption.

ALTER:  Imagine if she did that, if she took the path that say, you know, that Edwards or Giuliani took where she got out before she had to get out.  Imagine how electrifying that would be.  How classy it would look.  It would defy all of the stereotypes about the Clintons never giving up.

ABRAMS:  She doesn’t have to do that now.  She can wait until after Ohio and Texas.  And you’re saying, she should get out today.

ALTER:  Fine.  If she doesn’t, you know, totally, triumph in the debate and it’s pretty clear that she’s not going to get the delegate totals that she needs out of Ohio and Texas, why not do something that would be seen as so magnanimous.

ABRAMS:  The point would be when she has only a superdelegate, I’m going to tell her to call it.  Jonathan Alter, good stuff.

ALTER:  In my journalistic interest, I agree with you totally.

ABRAMS:  Right.  Well, thanks a lot.  We appreciate it.

ALTER:  OK, thanks.

ABRAMS:  Coming up: “The New York Times” may have gone too far in a story about John McCain with suggestions of a romantic affair with a lobbyist.  But there were a lot more allegations than that in the article and elsewhere.  So, why is he getting away scot-free and now actually raising more money because of the article?

And CNN’s Lou Dobbs claims to take the high road on that McCain story saying, he won’t talk about the affair allegations, and yet, as we will show you, there are sure was a lot of talk about sex and scandal on that program.  Beat the Press is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  It’s time for tonight’s Beat the Press.

First up: Lou Dobbs while interviewing Howard Kurtz claimed to take the high road while reporting on the “New York Times” story of John McCain, his ties to lobbyist and to the suggestion that McCain might have had an affair.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD KURTZ, JOURNALIST:  To throw that out there and have us all be talking about it now is perhaps something I wouldn’t have done.

LOU DOBBS, TV HOST:  Yes.  And I’ll tell you, we are not doing it on this broadcast.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Oh, really.  But what you’re about to see was all from that very same broadcast.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He had a romantic relationship.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This was an affair.

DOBBS:  It’s really quite a salacious impact.

And it is a salacious.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It is a sex story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  And of course, not Lou, not on your broadcast.

Next up: It’s not often that a guest like comedian Lee Kemp (ph) makes it through the sensors and on the air at FOX News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Can I just ask a question?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What is FOX News?  It’s just a parade of propaganda.  It is just a festival of ignorance.  But why a million people are dead in Iraq?  Come on.  This is ridiculous.  What’s the point of it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Call it a hunch.  I’m guessing, he’s not going to be invited back.

Finally: My pal, Greg Kelly over on FOX is not gay.  And yesterday on their morning show he seemed oddly intent on making sure that anyone suspected otherwise.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GREG KELLY, TV ANCHOR:  By the way I like girls not guys, any man who wears pink is not a man, period.

You guys were dressing up in tuxedos and I was playing with guns.

(CROSSTALK)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Greg, we get it.  You like girls, you don’t wear pink, you played with guns.  Why so defensive?

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.

Up next: Even “The New York Times” ombudsman says, the paper shouldn’t have written about the suspected affair between John McCain and a lobbyist without more evidence.  All right.  I agree, but what about everything else on that story and others?  How he’s avoided dealing with that?  The “New York Times” isn’t running for president and he is.

And later: Bush League Justice is back.  When he was still in the White House, did Karl Rove try to push the governor Alabama out of office and into a prison cell?  We’re going to talk to a Republican attorney who says Rove asked her to get compromising photos of the governor before he was prosecuted.

Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Coming up, “Bush League” Justice is back.  “60 Minutes” picked up a story we first reported two months ago.  A Republican operative said Karl Rove asked her to spy on the Alabama’s Democratic governor and get lewd photos of him.  That operative is here tonight to tell her story. 

But first, John McCain now seems to be benefiting from the “New York Times” article last week, linking him to a 40-year-old lobbyist.  Aides now reporting on of their best 24-hour fundraising periods since the beginning of the campaign.  Look, the “Times” shouldn’t have written about a suspected sexual affair with Paxson lobbyist Vicki Iseman without more evidence.  Their ombudsman said it and I agree.

But the “Times” isn’t running for president; John McCain is.  And since the article came out, there have been a series of revelations about McCain that raised fundamental questions about his record as a maverick who takes on special interests.  Here are the new facts we’ve learned about Sen. McCain who has long claimed his involvement in the Keating Five helped him see the light about money and power in Washington. 

Fact: Both the “Times” and “Washington Post” reported that McCain aides including close confidant, John Weaver, told both papers that there was some intervention to protect McCain from allegations about Iseman.  The “Times” reports McCain even “acknowledged behaving inappropriately” and pledged to keep his distance from Iseman. 

Fact: As the “Washington Post” reported, Friday, within McCain’s inner circle of closest campaign advisers, quote, “Virtually every one was part of the Washington lobbying culture he has long decried.” 

Fact: Even his chief political adviser, Charlie Black, is still making phone calls from aboard McCain’s Straight Talk Express bus on behalf of his clients, General Motors, J.P.  Morgan and AT & T.  So how is the leader of the Straight Talk Express, who rails against the corrupt influence and special interest in Washington, emerged unscathed stated from all of this?  

Joining us once again is Michelle Cottle from “The New Republic,” MSNBC political analysts, Pat Buchanan and Keli Goff.  All right.  Pat, how does he emerge from all of this unscathed?  

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, the only way he has is the “New York Times” dumped all this garbage on him and when they found out they couldn’t back it up and everybody stood up and said it was an outrageous thing to do, McCain denied it.  Apparently the woman denied it.  And so that’s the story, the big national story. 

But you’re right, Dan.  This drip by drip by drip I think is beginning to hurt McCain’s credibility which is his major asset and his reputation as a real, you know, fiery antagonist of the special interest.  And also they are contradicting a number of statements he made.  Now, a number of these you could say, “Look, I didn’t know.  I didn’t meet with him and I forgot that.”  But if you keep doing it and doing it and doing it, it is going to become a problem. 

ABRAMS:  You bring up a good point.  Let me read.  McCain’s campaign said, “No representative of Paxson or Alcalde & Fay personally asked Sen.  McCain to send a letter to the FCC.”  The problem?  Paxson himself says that he did.  And then there’s McCain himself from a deposition my dad did in 2002 where McCain said the following, “I was contacted by Mr. Lowell Paxson on this issue.  He wanted their approval very bad for purposes of his business.  I believe that Mr. Paxson had a legitimate complaint.”

I mean, Michelle, this is serious stuff that McCain is caught in and yet, it seems that people are so focused on bashing the “New York Times” that they’re ignoring the important realities of his presidential candidacy. 

MICHELLE COTTLE, “THE NEW REPUBLIC”:  Yes, for now.  But I think this will probably come back later on.  I mean, this is a man whose entire candidacy is basically based on his unimpeachable character.  And what he is looking at now, whatever he did is one thing, but he’s actually said that he’s not done it.  He’s contradicted himself, and journalists hate hypocrisy and dishonesty more than anything.  And they are going to come back to this later on down the road.

ABRAMS:  But Keli, I blame the journalists to some degree.  And I think even the media became obsessed with bashing the “New York Times” the day after this came out because, as I said, I think the ombudsman for the “Times” was right.  They shouldn’t have snuck in this business about the affair.  But you know what?  A lot of other stuff has come out in the last three days that we, in the media, seem to be ignoring. 

KELI GOFF, POLITICAL ANALYST:  It’s not that people are, I think,

ignoring it.  I think that it’s not - is anyone listening?  You know,

you’re saying something and no one’s cares or no one’s listening -

ABRAMS:  No one cares about the guy who’s going to be the Republican presidential candidate whose running the whole campaign is based on this issue, and it seems that he’s contradicting himself and showing he’s not what he seems. 

GOFF:  But what we’re forgetting, Dan, is that he is not just any sort of Republican nominee.  Everyone sees him as an American hero.  And I think that the cardinal sin out of this whole story is that not only was there the allegations of the affair but they led with it.  And as you and I both know, working in the media, is when you lead with something that seems to dirty, I guarantee there are a lot of people didn’t even read the whole article but saw that—

(CROSS TALK)

ABRAMS:  But Pat, the problem is that the rest of the media, in my view, is now sort of flogging themselves for the “New York Times” bad choice and saying, “This whole thing.  We’ve got to stay away from this whole issue.”  This is a serious issue and an important one in this campaign. 

PAT BUCHANAN, POLITICAL ANALYST:  It is a serious matter, but the

“Times” did a horrendous thing -

(CROSS TALK)

ABRAMS:  Enough.  They’re not running for president. 

BUCHANAN:  But let me tell you right now you’re right.  Now, what you’ve got on the line - McCain’s credibility is on the line.  It’s not whether he had some fling ten years ago.  He went out and told the reporters, no, no, no, no.  And now, on the points about the lobbying, it turns out that maybe that wasn’t exactly true. 

ABRAMS:  That’s right. 

BUCHANAN:  Look, everybody cuts McCain a lot of slack and he does have

a lot to fall back on.  But you keep this drip, drip up and he could have a

real problem.  But I agree with you because they’re going -

COTTLE:  And Dan, right now—

BUCHANAN:  Not now, but they’re going right at his vital asset right here, his credibility. 

ABRAMS:  Michelle, go ahead. 

COTTLE:  Yes.  Right now, there is no primary competitor who’s really in a position to take advantage of this the way it would be in the Democratic Party.  But we’ve still got a general election.  And you can bet that the Democrats, no matter who the candidate is, are going to come back to this, because again McCain’s character is the big thing for him. 

ABRAMS:  Michelle, let me ask you as a fellow member of the media.  Don’t you think that the media on the whole has sort of let this whole story?  And again, there’s the “Washington Post” story that mirrored in many ways the “New York Times” story.  There’s the “Washington Post” story on Friday which is talking about his lobbyist connections.  There’s also the fact that his own statement where he said, “I didn’t do this,” and that turns out not to be true and yet it seems it is kind of being ignored. 

COTTLE:  I think probably what people are doing is letting the initial furor die down.  I mean the “New York Times” obviously overreached and that’s the danger when you overreach like that you distract from the media elements your piece.  I’m sure at this point, they wished they had just stuck with the other.  But I don’t think that this is going to end right now.  This is not a short-term game.  This is a long haul here. 

COTTLE:  I also think -

(CROSS TALK)

BUCHANAN:  McCain -

ABRAMS:  Hang on one second, Pat.  Yes.

GOFF:  I also think we are forgetting that there are two audiences here whenever we have this types of conversation.  There is the Washington elite, the Beltway insiders.  There’s us and then there are the actual voters.  I don’t know that this is something that’s really resonating with actual voters.  I think that people that are outraged and are doing what you are saying are the elite. 

ABRAMS:  But it’s got to be - I mean, look.  If his candidacy means anything and if you take what he says seriously about what he stands for, Pat, and you have the final word on this, it has to matter to the voters or else they are not voting on issues at all. 

BUCHANAN:  But look, the main concern (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the country was the allegation of affair.  That’s what was big and explosive.  You had me on by phone, so did Keith, as soon as it happened.  But you’re right.  In the longer run, McCain has put his credibility - he shoved his whole stack in the middle of the table. 

And now, he’s challenged reporters go ahead and contradict me and they’re starting to do it.  I agree with you.  The “Washington Post” story on Friday was a good story.  If it hasn’t been for the “Times” thing, that would have been a good story everybody have been following.

ABRAMS:  Keli, real quick, do you agree it’s going to come back up in the general election?

GOFF:   I think it will definitely come up.  How effective it is the million dollar question.  

ABRAMS:  Michelle, you agree, right?  It’s going to come up?

COTTLE:  It’s going to come back and bite him. 

ABRAMS:  And Pat has already said it.  I’m bringing it up right now because I can’t believe everyone is ignoring it.  All right.  Pat Buchanan, Michelle Cottle, Keli Goff, thanks a lot.  Appreciate it. 

ABRAMS:  Up next, our “Bush League Justice” series returns.  Last night, “60 Minutes” aired a story we brought you first, an Alabama lawyer, a Republican, says while Karl Rove was in the White House, he asked for compromising photos of Alabama’s Democratic governor.  That is before Rove’s friends in Alabama prosecuted the governor.  That lawyer joins us, next. 

And later, a woman who runs an agency offering rehab to DUI offenders is arrested for, guess what?  She’s earned a place in tonight’s “Winners and Losers.”  

(MUSIC)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Coming up, our “Bush League Justice” series is back.  Tonight’s question, did Karl Rove ask for compromising photos of the Democratic governor of Alabama? Our next guest says he asked her to find just that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Tonight, a follow-up on our continuing series, “Bush League Justice.”  Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, a Democrat, remains in a federal penitentiary tonight, serving more than seven years for bribery and conspiracy.  But the more we learn, the more it seems like Siegelman was singled out and prosecuted because he was a Democrat, possibly at the request of former presidential adviser Karl Rove. 

A key witness in the case described corruption involving the former governor and two prominent Alabama Republicans - one currently a federal judge the other a U.S. senator.  Only Siegelman the Democrat, was investigated and prosecuted.  And then, “60 Minutes” reporting last night that federal investigators met with the same witness 70 times to try to get his testimony straight, that evidence not provided to the defense. 

And now more information from a Republican lawyer in Alabama who joins us tonight.  Dana Jill Simpson says she heard discussions about how Rove led the effort to bring Siegelman down and that Rove even asked her to spy on Siegelman and try to catch him cheating on his wife.  Fifty-two former state attorneys general, Democrats and Republicans, now crying foul, including Grant Woods, former AG in Arizona who is backing John McCain for president. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRANT WOODS, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL IN ARIZONA:  I haven’t seen the case with this many red flags on it that pointed towards a real injustice being done. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  The group of 52 former AGs wrote to the House Judiciary Committee last year, urging them to investigate.  Now, when “60 Minutes” finally followed up on our story last night, they either had the worst stroke of bad luck in television history or something far more insidious.  This story was mysteriously blacked out in a part of Alabama, but only in Alabama and only this story. 

Joining us now, Atty. Dana Jill Simpson and Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who once defended Siegelman.  Thanks very much to both of you for coming on.  Appreciate it.  Mr. Jones, let me start with you.  When you were defending him back in 2004, so you were clearly under the impression this case was going away. 

DOUG JONES, U.S. ATTORNEY:  Don was under indictment in another district.  And we met with the prosecutors and talked about it.  And they had written - at least they told us they have written off a number of the things and clearly gave the impression that this case was going south.  It’s not until after the case in Birmingham was dismissed that they got another one. 

ABRAMS:  Well, let’s go to the timeline.  November 2002, Siegelman narrowly loses re-election bid for governor.  May 2004, he is indicted on corruption charges.  This is just as his career is coming back up.  October 2004, the charges are dropped.  So in 2005, he launches another run for governor.  And lo and behold, October 2005, he is indicted on 32 counts, including bribery and conspiracy.  Siegelman then loses the Democratic primary and is sentenced to seven years in prison. 

JONES:  That’s right. 

ABRAMS:  It’s awfully suspicious, isn’t it?

JONES:  Well, it’s very suspicious if we were correct.  I’m telling you this case seemed to be going away.  And it was only after that case in Birmingham was dismissed.  Now, we were told there was a meeting in Washington.  In the meeting in Washington, they said, give it another look top to bottom.  And they started over with the case, ramped it up in 2005 that ultimately led to the indictment. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  And in Washington, Karl Rove may have been involved.  Ms. Simpson, you met with Karl Rove.  What did he say to you about Siegelman?

DANA JILL SIMPSON, ATTORNEY:  That he wanted me to follow Mr.  Siegelman.  He suspected that he was cheating on his wife and he asked me if I would follow him. 

ABRAMS:  And you didn’t turn out, you didn’t find anything, et cetera,

as you did that.  But you also overheard phone calls, did you not, where

you heard top Republicans in Alabama saying -

SIMPSON:  Yes, I did. 

ABRAMS:  Something about having his girls working on it, not about Rove but about another top Alabama official?

SIMPSON:  Well, what happened was we had Bill Canary down here in Alabama.  Basically he was involved in a phone call with me that I had gotten some photos of another matter.  And Bill Canary said he was going to get his girls to take care of Don Siegelman.  He was married to Laura Canary.  And the two girls he was talking about - I had to ask who they were, and he said it was Laura Canary and it was also Alice Martin, who were both United States attorney generals. 

ABRAMS:  Let me play a piece of sound from Karl Rove who is denying that this happened.  He’s denying that he’s ever met with you or he met with you.  Here’s what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, FORMER WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF:  I did not ask her or anyone to dig up dirty photographs on the governor.  I’ve never worked with her.  I don’t believe I’ve ever met her.  I may have shaken her hand at a fundraiser, but she has never been working in a campaign in Alabama I work in.  I’ve never asked her to do a darn thing. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  What is your response to that?

SIMPSON:  Well, this is what I’d say.  Since Karl Rove has said that and he feels so good about saying that, what I want him to do is go and swear in front of the United States Congress and swear what he is saying is true.

ABRAMS:  And as you know the Alabama Republican Party is now coming after you saying, “We can’t find one instance of Dana Jill Simpson volunteering or working on behalf of the Alabama Republican Party nor can we find anyone within the party leadership in Alabama who has ever so much has heard of Dana Jill Simpson.” 

SIMPSON:  Well, that is absolutely a lie.  That has been said by Mike Hubbard who is now the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.  But Mr.  Hubbard is going to have a real problem because he’s got to explain how I was talking on the telephone to the party headquarters in 2006, and also talking to the rally campaign in 2002.  And further he is going to have to also explain how I have records showing I was talking to him in Washington and also in Virginia about the campaign back in 2002. 

ABRAMS:  The notion that Karl Rove even may have been involved in pulling the strings here is an outrage, isn’t it? 

JONES:  Yes, it is.  It needs to be looked at.  I mean obviously,

you’ve got a new attorney general.  Somebody needs to look at this because

what’s following this, Dan, that I think is important, is the fact that

Nick Bailey, the interview with Bailey in which he is now -

ABRAMS:  The key witness. 

JONES:  The key witness, which he is saying is coached.  There is an affidavit in a completely different case where the wife of a former Jefferson County commissioner has said that agents tried to get her husband to make false statements. 

ABRAMS:  I’m going to call for the Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who, at times I have been critical of, times I have supported, to take a look at this case.  Someone else needs to take a look at this case.  And I’m going to call for the attorney general to do that right now.  Attorney General Mukasey, we are going to follow up with you on this to see what’s done.  But these are very serious allegations.  This is serious business.  This is about politicizing our justice system and it just cannot go unchecked.  Doug Jones and Dana Jill Simpson, thank you very much.  Appreciate it.

SIMPSON:  Thank you, Dan.

ABRAMS:  Up next, will tonight’s big winner or loser be actor Gary Busey who misbehaved on the red carpet; a Florida official whose behavior would suggest she ought to find a new profession; or Drew Peterson whose behavior continues to make him seem like a suspect.  Tonight’s “Winners and Losers” are next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  It time for tonight’s “Winners and Losers” for this 25th day of February, 2008.  Our bronze loser, Drew Peterson, already a suspect in the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy.  Now his third wife, Kathleen Savio’s death, has been ruled a homicide.  So what did Drew Peterson have to say about possibly being a suspect in that case, too?  Quote, “I’m a suspect for everything.  If Abraham Lincoln were killed a few years later, they’d be looking for me for that too.”  You mean if you’d been married to Abraham Lincoln and your previous spouse was murdered too?  Yes, you would be. 

Our silver loser, Peggy Gioffi(ph) who runs the Florida agency offering rehabilitation to DUI offenders.  She was suspended last week after being arrested for, yes, DUI.  Her blood alcohol content allegedly four times the legal driving limit in Florida.  Do what I say, not what a do. 

But our big loser of the day, train wreck actor Gary Busey living up to his horrible reputation on the Oscar red carpet last night with his bizarre encounter with Jennifer Garner  and Ryan Seacrest.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GARY BUSEY, ACTOR:  Hi.  You, I’ve been looking for you for years.  

What did I do?   It’s what you haven’t done.  Miss Jennifer Garner? 

JENNIFER GARNER, ACTRESS:  Hi.

BUSEY:  So great to see you.  

GARNER:  About getting kissed on the neck on the red carpet by this man.  That was nice.  Yes, everything is really balanced.  

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER:  You look very nervous. 

GARNER:  I am.  Are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER:  Where is Ben right now?

GARNER:  Where is Ben?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER:  I don’t know but we need him quickly.  

GARNER:  Yes, I think so.  

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER:  I’ll see you at the party.  You know the one.  Take care.  

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Question - who invited Gary Busey to the Oscars?  Our big winner of the day - Tanya and Robert Harris of Portal, Georgia, who won the $270 million mega millions lottery over the weekend.  Robert revealed this morning what they’re going to do - what they are going to buy first with all that money. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT HARRIS, LOTTERY WINNER:  A new car for her.  She’s wanted a new Lexus and I’m finally going to get me a four-wheel drive truck.  

TANYA HARRIS, LOTTERY WINNER:  No, I want a Mercedes.  

ROBERT:  Mercedes, excuse me.  

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Time for the PO’ed box where you tell me what you love or hate about the show.  We brought you breaking news last week when the “New York Times” first reported a story raising questions about McCain’s relationship with a 40-year-old lobbyist during his first presidential bid.  Betty Miller from Idledale, Colorado writes, “It is not important whether he did the dirty deed, but whether an older man was influenced in his senate votes by a younger, attentive woman.”

I agree, but Betty, if it doesn’t matter whether he did it or not in the first place, then why does it matter if she was a younger, attentive, or even a woman? 

On another note, Angelica from Glen Allen, Virginia writes, “I can’t believe you didn’t cover the Drew Peterson case last Thursday.  They ruled his third wife’s death a homicide.  Meanwhile, you continue to devote the entire show to politics.  I love politics but please give it a rest for at least one segment? 

Angelica, we will cover that story if and when Peterson gets charged.  But in the meantime, he may just keep reappearing in “Winners and Losers.”  I mean, losers. 

And Wayne Taylor uses my resume against me, “Disgusting that you handle the ‘show’ against John McCain as if you were prosecutor and jury.  It might be best for you and the public if you went back to your duties you had in 1988 that included, quote, ‘making coffee runs, icing sodas, and keeping certain anchor positions dust free.”

Wayne, I’m flattered you took time to track down and study my bio.  I appreciate it.  That is what I was doing.  As always, we appreciate your feedback.  We check the PO’ed box daily.  Be sure to write to us at Abrams@MSNBC.com.  Have a great night.  Stay tuned for an all new “LOCKUP.”   See you tomorrow. 

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

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