updated 2/27/2008 6:55:33 PM ET 2008-02-27T23:55:33

Guest: Dana Milbank

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The big 2-0, the 20th and possibly the final Democratic debate: One hour from now on MSNBC.

With the latest Ohio polls showing the Clinton lead there down to six with the Keith number of nearly 10.  She has yelled at him.  She mocked him.  She has compared him to George Bush.  She has compared his tactical efforts to Karl Rove’s.  She has blamed the media.

And now: She’s had her Iraq war authorization vote rational for her by conflating Iraq with 9/11.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FMR UNITED STATES PRESIDENT:  Keep in mind, Hillary was a senator from New York City.  She had to stand down there at ground zero and see the awful consequences of what happened.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  All this and yet nothing seems to be making an impact.

The endorsement embargo is broken and not in Senator Clinton’s favor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHRIS DODD, (D) CONNECTICUT:  I believe sincerely and deeply that Hillary Clinton will continue to make a significant contribution to our nation in years to come.  But it’s now the hour to come together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Not among the Republicans: A warm-up speaker for John McCain goes racist.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CUNNINGHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  At some point, the media will quit taking sides in this thing and maybe start covering Barack Hussein Obama the same way they covered Bush.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And in Worst Persons: This clown compares Obama to Hitler.

The debate forecast from Tim Russert; Howard Fineman on the latest explanation of the Iraq vote; David Milbank on his report of public disagreement inside the Clinton camp; and Chuck Todd on the debate and the delegates’ realities.

What happens tonight on the stage at Cleveland State University?  Only on MSNBC.

She is going to challenge, says adviser Howard Wolfson, in a healthy, successful way.  It’s going to be, says “The New York Times,” the “kitchen sink” fuselage.

So, do we all knee lobster bibs?

All that and more: Now on COUNTDOWN.

(on camera):  Good evening, this is Tuesday, February 26th, 252 days until the 2008 presidential election.  Just seven weeks ago tonight, after what seemed like a game-changing victory in the New Hampshire primary, Senator Hillary Clinton announced that, quote, “I found my own voice”.

Tonight, in the fifth story on our COUNTDOWN: To the 20th Democratic debate, as those intervening seven weeks have elapsed, Senator Clinton had seem to add voice after voice to the soundtrack of her campaign.  And still, she seems to have more different ones available to her than does Rich Little.  Thus, the question a week before what could be her final test in Ohio and Texas, 57 minutes before what could easily be the final debate of her campaign.  Which voice will she speak in tonight?  Or which voices?

The latest poll showing Senator Barack Obama already statistically tied with her in Texas if not edging her out there, continuing to eat away at the Clinton lead in Ohio after trailing by 17 points a two weeks ago and nine points one week ago, he now trails by only six points.  Clinton is leading 50 percent to 44 percent with a Keith number of 9.6.  And no way to extrapolate Obama’s future pace without seeing what happens tonight in Clinton.

“The New York Times” today, quote, “An unnamed Clinton aide describing the campaign’s new, quote, ‘kitchen sink’ approach to throw Obama off-balance.  At least for tonight, by hitting him with everything they’ve got.  Begging the question, this is you and you’re holding back?

“The Times” reporting her plan to go sharp on substance, soft on style on the menu, belittling hope as a campaign theme and questioning Obama’s ability to serve as commander-in-chief.  She’s taking to comparing him to another foreign affair rookie, President Bush.  We’d also expect continued focus on differences.  As we heard this afternoon, she’s still ticked about Obama’s mailer claiming she called NAFTA a boon and she is still pushing to make health care coverage mandatory, not just available.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  There’s a big

difference in this campaign between me and my opponent.  You see, I believe

in quality, affordable health care for everyone.  And some of you may have

seen, I got a little hot over the weekend down in Cincinnati.  You know,

because -

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON:  I don’t mind having a debate.  I don’t mind airing our differences.  But I really mind it when Senator Obama’s campaign sends you literature in the mail that is false, misleading and has been discredited. 

That is not the way to run a campaign to pick the Democratic nominee for

president.  And -

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Senator Clinton (INAUDIBLE) is right, Obama’s claim was false.  As with much in this campaign, though, it still seems to have helped Senator Obama, giving him entree to argue she cannot claim the good from the Clinton era without also answering for the bad.  On that theme, former rival Senator Chris Dodd today, praised both Clintons and still gave Obama the first endorsement from any of the former Democratic hopefuls.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DODD:  I spoke with Hillary Clinton last evening.  These are not comfortable conversations.  It’s not an easy thing to do particularly when you admire and care about people very deeply, as I do Hillary Clinton and her husband, Former President Bill Clinton.  And I believe they’ve made significant contributions to our country.  And I believe very deeply and sincerely this morning, that Hillary Clinton will continue to make a significant contribution to our nation in the years to come.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Whether today’s endorsement from former Ohio state basketball star, now injured Portland Trail Blazers rookie, Greg Oden matters more remains to be seen.  Oden is the headline, not Dodd, on Obama’s Ohio campaign Web site.  But if it sounded as though Senator Dodd was wishing Hillary Clinton a fond farewell, Senator Obama did nothing counter that impression, answering the question about tonight’s tone, with the prediction of civility and unsolicited prediction for tomorrow.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  And I think we’re getting to the point now where hopefully, a lot of the differences have been picked over.  And it’s a good time to remind ourselves as Chris just did how much we have in common.  You know, what’s been remarkable about this process is to see how much convergence there is within the Democratic Party in terms of where we should take the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Let’s go now out to Cleveland State’s where we are joined by NBC Washington bureau chief, MEET THE PRESS moderator, Tim Russert, who of course, will be joining Brian Williams onstage at the debate this evening.  Good evening, Tim.

TIM RUSSERT, MODERATOR, “MEET THE PRESS”:  Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Since last Thursday, we’ve heard Senator Clinton’s conciliatory voice, her angry voice, her sarcastic voice.  Which of them are you expecting to hear tonight?

RUSSERT:  Boy, I wish I knew.  I prepared for all of them.  But it’s a challenge, there’s no doubt about it.  We have seen that on the campaign stump, Senator Clinton can be very caustic, very aggressive.  But when seated next to Senator Obama, she’s much more respectful and civil with occasional punches or counter punches.

I am very, very anxious to see who she brings here tonight.  How is she going to play?  How is she going to distinguish herself from Senator Obama?  What are the issues that she wants to draw the differences and make her closing argument to the people of Ohio and Texas and Rhode Island and Vermont?

OLBERMANN:  From our own reporting tonight, from what you’ve heard, from what’s flying around in the media, does Senator Clinton have anything new to try tonight?  Or has this got to be just a louder, stronger version of what we’ve seen previously?

RUSSERT:  Well, they do know that the line about change as xerox did not work last time.  They think that the exchange she had about Tony Rezco, the slum lord, wasn’t particularly effective.  And so, I think tonight, what they are planning to do is to really try to not attack personally, but keep saying, if you had more experience, or if you were someone who had more conditioning or someone who had longer years dealing with these kinds of issues, you’d be much better off as a president or a commander-in-chief.

I think the difficulty comes when he’s being compared by Senator Clinton to George Bush.  Is that really the comparison that she wants to share with a Democratic electorate that has very high favorable ratings for both these candidates but do not like George Bush?

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  To use that clich’, a third rail right there.  But this other thing here, the Clinton camp winding up quoting of all things, “Saturday Night Live” arguing that the media has given Senator Obama a free ride, which I imagine he would disagree with.  Are there tough questions that have not been thrown his way that he still needs to answer?  And assuming he’s not watching this show right now, will you and Brian be asking them tonight?

RUSSERT:  Oh, sure.  There are several questions that I think have risen to the point where they should be asked of Senator Obama at these debates, in our previous debates.  And I know in my MEET THE PRESS interviews, we were the first one to ask Senator Obama about his relationship with Tony Rezco, the Chicago businessman.  We asked repeated questions of Senator Obama’s position on Iraq and whether he was opposed in terms of the speech he gave and his behavior in the Senate.  So, I don’t have any apologies to make for our questions towards Senator Obama.  And that same treatment will continue tonight.

OLBERMANN:  Dee Dee Myers was here last night.  Of course the first press secretary for President Clinton.  And she said there is still a core belief in this Clinton campaign that Senator Clinton has this brain-busting equation to solve that no male politician even has to understand.  You’ve got to prove you’re tough enough.  Did she not in your assessment prove that point a long time ago?  And may that pursuit of toughness in some way hold her back from doing what seemed to succeed, particularly in New Hampshire, seem tough but also seem at core immanently human?

RUSSERT:  You know, that’s a good question.  I just talked to some young high school students the other day, half boys and girls, men and women.  And I said, when I believed I would cover a woman running for president that the litmus test, the threshold issue would be: Is she tough enough to be commander-in-chief?  I said, no one asked that about Hillary Clinton.  Liberals, conservatives, moderates, Republicans, Democrats, independents, no one questions her toughness.

I don’t think that’s an issue in this campaign.  What is the issue is:

whether or not she can relate to, resonate with, communicate with people, so that they believe that she is someone who understands what they’re going through and has viable, tangible plans to deal with it.  I think that’s been the bigger obstacle confronting her campaign, the toughness issue, not her problem.

OLBERMANN:  Tim Russert, who will again, join Brian Williams in the question box at tonight’s upcoming debate here on MSNBC.  Thanks, Tim.  Go get them.

RUSSERT:  Thanks, Keith.  See you later.

OLBERMANN:  See you later.

The Clinton camp’s intense desire to paint Obama as unfit to lead or unready at least, to command the mightiest military in human history consistently runs smack into the Obama rebuttal, that her experience and that of Republican rival, John McCain led to their participation in the worst American foreign policy mistake in decades if not centuries, a single Senate vote in 2002, authorizing the use of military force in Iraq.

Yesterday defending that vote, President Clinton not only referenced the fallacy that led to it, that Iraq was somehow tied to 9/11, in doing so, he also suggested, an experienced senator was tricked by an inexperienced just removed from Texas governor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

B. CLINTON:  And Hillary said repeatedly, I wouldn’t have voted for it if I had known that they weren’t going to let the inspectors finish.  But should you decide that that’s disqualifying, her opponent says, yes.  But they never point out, the other side, that after they were both in the Senate and had some responsibility—and keep in mind Hillary was a senator from New York City.  She had to stand down there at ground zero and see the awful consequences of what happened.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And just as the Clinton camp urged the media to focus on Obama’s foreign policy credentials, so too did the media do so today.  The “Associated Press” and the conservative “Washington Times”, the latter paper headlining its piece: “Military Fears Unknown Quantity”, quoting only one fearful military by name, retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, happens to be an analyst for the FOX News Channel.  And unnamed war profiteer was also quoted and nobody else.  Obama’s rebuttals are coming from his military backers, most of them veterans of the Clinton administration.

At this point let’s turn to our MSNBC veteran political analyst, Howard Fineman and also senior Washington correspondent for “Newsweek”.  Great thanks for your time tonight, Howard.

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  Tying Iraq to 9/11 -- kind of a third rail for

Democrats, was President Clinton wandering off the reservation or is this -

when they talk about throwing the “kitchen sink” at Obama, was that, you know, at least the faucet?

FINEMAN:  Well, Bill Clinton carries his own reservation with him, Keith.  It’s a portable reservation.  He’s in on the strategy calls and strategy meetings but then, he goes off and does his own thing.  I talked to a Clinton adviser today who is mixed in their view of this.

On the one hand, it’s understandable.  Don’t forget the Clintons are from New York now and Hillary is a New York senator.  And one interpretation of his remarks is: Hillary and Bill defending their base.  But the problem with it is as this person told me is that really the comparison now that Bill Clinton is making indirectly is between his wife and George Bush.

He’s saying, Clinton is, that she reacted emotionally to the tragedy of 9/11 in her decision-making and, also, she acted on incomplete information and was duped by advisers, i.e. the White House.  So, he’s really undercutting his own wife in this regard.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  I was down there, too, after 9/11.  I had the same emotion that we all did.  We wanted to hit somebody.  But that doesn’t mean you start a war with a country that didn’t have anything to do with it.

FINEMAN:  Right, that’s the point.

OLBERMANN:  We’ve heard two comparisons between Obama and President Bush.  There was a third comparison from Senator Clinton to Karl Rove’s tactics, more third rails among Democrats.  Could we hear something that strong tonight?  And what happens if we heard something that strong tonight?

FINEMAN:  Well, it depends on how Hillary phrases it.  You’re going to hear it, Keith, because Barack Obama’s biggest weakness—and it shows up in the polls and it’s generally regarded as such throughout the country, really—is the question that’s open: Does he have the experience, ironically, the toughness to be commander-in-chief?  That’s really—if he becomes the nominee, that’s going to be the discussion with John McCain all the way along.  And Hillary’s really beginning that and amplifying it and she’s going to do it tonight.  The question is the matter of tone, not whether she’s going to do it.

OLBERMANN:  Does she actually invoke President Bush, though?

FINEMAN:  Well, that’s a good question.  I think she may.  I think actually, Bill Clinton’s explanation if he wanted to give it—if Hillary wanted to give it, would have been better given a long time ago, because she’s got to explain that vote better.  She never really apologized for it.  But it’s the only way she can get at, attacking Barack Obama for lack of experience in foreign affairs.  It’s a big weakness for her, but she’s got no choice but to go after it, because that’s her opponent’s main weakness.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  A side bar to this, that may not be one, Senator Dodd’s endorsement.  As a final point, Howard, is that a tipping point among party establishment?  Does that open up flood gates of endorsements?  Might we see anything more for him next Tuesday?

FINEMAN:  Yes, I think you’re going to see others and nobody has a better sense of where the ground zero, center of gravity of politics is than Chris Dodd.  I think it’s significant.

OLBERMANN:  Howard Fineman of “Newsweek” and MSNBC.  Well, we’ll see if the prediction comes true, an actual Bush reference or something near it.  Or the fireworks will fly if that happens.  Talk to you later, Howard.  Thank you.

FINEMAN:  OK, thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  The Clinton campaign infinitely claiming its candidate is on the verge of locking up the nomination.  No, seriously, we have a guy on the show tonight who heard Harold Ickes say this out loud in front of people.

Speaking of which, John McCain would never call him Senator Barack Hussein Obama or brand him a fraud or a hack.  The guy introducing the guy who introduced McCain at the McCain event today, he sure did and the candidate is just shocked.  Plausible deniability next, you are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Who could have possibly known?  John McCain’s campaign selects a rabid Cincinnati radio bully to speak at the McCain event this morning, a radio bully who’s claimed Barack Obama is part of a terrorist sleeper cell, was raised in a madrasa and identified him as Mohammed.  The guy gets up and says to McCain’s crowd that, quote, Barack Hussein Obama is a, quote, “fraud” and a, quote, “hack”.  Senator McCain is utterly shocked and utterly sorry.

If you believe he had utterly no idea it’s going to happen, you have to believe Senator McCain and his campaign have utterly no clue who is going to speak at McCain presidential events.  Maybe the guy just ran up out of the audience and seized the microphone.  That’s next on our COUNTDOWN to Obama/Clinton 20.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OBLERMANN:  The public at a John McCain presidential campaign event in Cincinnati this morning, heard Senator Obama’s middle name used as insult and innuendo.  The possible next president of the United States called a hack and a fraud.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN: More conveniently for the racism and religious intolerance, happily brandished to the McCain event.  The candidate himself was not yet in the hall when the words were spoken, thus providing Senator McCain with the opportunity to play swiftboat plus, also known as the Captain Renault ploy from Casablanca - “I’m shocked to find that slander is going on here.”

The litany of name-calling from a local radio talk show in Cincinnati well known for trading in such racism and hatred, named, Bill Cunningham, three times using Senator Obama’s middle name - Hussein, calling Obama a hack and the fraud from Chicago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CUNNINGHAM:  The stooges from “The New York Times,” CBS, the “Clinton broadcasting system”, NBC, the “nobody but Clinton” network, the “all Bill Clinton” channel, ABC and the “Clinton news network” at some point is going to peel the bark off Barack Hussein Obama.  That day will come.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Peel the bark off.  Mr. Cunningham is apparently not smart enough to understand how close he came there of being guilty of trying to insight physical violence against the presidential candidate.  Cunningham also said that the world leaders who want to kill will be singing kumbayah, only he mispronounced kumbayah, around the table with Barack Obama.

Senator McCain later took the same stage at Memorial Hall in downtown Cincinnati, no reference to Cunningham’s remarks.  McCain told reporters afterwards he had never met Mr. Cunningham and was not in the building when Cunningham spoke, allowing McCain to take responsibility and apologize long after those in the audience were gone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I have repeatedly stated my respect for Senator Obama and Senator Clinton, that I will treat them with respect.  I will call them senator.  We will have respectful debate, as I have said on hundreds of occasions.  I regret any comments that may be made about these two individuals who are honorable Americans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The senator’s advisers say, they had no advance knowledge of Cunningham’s comments.  McCain said he would not allow anything like that to happen again.  The Obama’s campaign said they appreciated McCain’s remarks.  Mr. Cunningham has now declared on his radio show that he feels betrayed by McCain’s action.

And the Senator McCain still has time to speak with one voice when it comes to sleazy attacks.  The battle of the two McCains continues on the lobbyist front.  The latest that the senator may have tried to spare a Republican colleague and election year embarrassment in a Senate committee investigation in 2006, about the activities of disgraced now jailed lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.  That issue, according to “The Huffington Post’s” Sam Stein, a 2002 e-mail from Abramoff to one of his aides in which Abramoff sought the help of the Alabama governor, Republican Bob Riley.  The committee headed by McCain did not say whether it thought the contents of the e-mail were fact or fiction and did not release the e-mail in its final report.

More on that presently, but first a reminder of McCain’s often used line on Abramoff.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Ask Jack Abramoff if I’m an insider in Washington.  Probably you have to go during visiting hours in the prison.  And he’ll tell you and his lobbyist cronies of the change I made there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And if he wants that answered or not.  Let’s bring in MSNBC political analyst, Air America Radio host, Rachel Maddow.  Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  To the bully Cunningham in a moment.  First, what is the McCain/Abramoff story here exactly?

MADDOW:  2006, John McCain was the head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.  The report on Abramoff was designed to figure out the reach of the Abramoff scandal, how far that corruption spread.  And we know because of Sam Stein’s reporting that one of the things the committee had, in terms of evidence, was an e-mail from Jack Abramoff saying, what he expected from Alabama Governor Bob Riley in exchange for Abramoff contributions and Abramoff client contributions to Riley’s campaign.

We know that Riley took those contributions.  We know he did what Abramoff was demanding from him.  And now, we know the missing piece because of those e-mails that Abramoff had formulated those essentially as demand that went along with the contributions.  What we don’t know now is:

Why John McCain never published those e-mails?  Why he sack on that and let that report be published without once including Bob Riley’s name in that report?

OLBERMANN:  All right.  So, what it’s looking like here is we’re going to get a McCain lobbyist story, an average of every 2.3 days.  There’s going to be a new one.  But now, we did have something new on the spectrum, at least, as far as McCain was concerned, this story about Mr. Cunningham in Cincinnati.

Just today, Mark Halperin, a political blogger, listed things that McCain could do to Obama that Senator Clinton cannot.  Let me read number six exactly—allow some supporters to risk being accused of using the race card when criticizing Obama.  Could McCain not have known who this Cunningham was?  I mean, I knew everything I needed to know about him from blogs for months and years or that he called Obama a quote, “sleeper cell”, like he said that Obama was an entire sleeper cell by himself, mind you?  Is it plausible that him or somebody who’s working under complete authority of John McCain had no idea who this guy was?

MADDOW:  First, I think it should be—we should note for a moment what Mark Halperin did with this list.  I mean, it’s one thing to have the RNC polling on just how racist they can get in their campaign before they tip over.  It’s another to have Mark Halperin at “Time” magazine recommending that they go racist against Barack Obama. But in terms of McCain and this Cunningham guy, I believe that you don’t necessarily hold every politician accountable for everything done by everybody who has ever given them money, by every half-brother, by their kid, by their ex-wives, by everybody’s, things that they can’t control, you don’t hold them accountable for.

But when it’s their campaign, picking somebody to introduce the candidate in the middle of the presidential campaign, yes, you hold them accountable for that and you got to take a - I think take with a big grain of salt, any repudiation of those comments.

OLBERMANN:  And the repudiation after the fact was commendable.  Exact quote was, “I will make sure nothing like this happens again.”  But McCain did not say that to the crowd.  Is this not like the way he laughed when that woman in North Carolina, I guess it was, or South Carolina, I can’t remember, who asked him about Hillary Clinton, quote, “How do we beat the bitch and then, he laughed and said it was an excellent question and then later on, he seemed to sort of tried to back away from it?

This isn’t about Bill Cunningham being, you know, a pig.  This is a question of John McCain’s judgment in action at the moment and maybe he got it right, 45 minutes later, but what happened at the moment?  He failed, didn’t he?

MADDOW:  Yes.  And to profess shock at something usually implies that you immediately feel the shock when the thing happens.  It doesn’t mean that after you talk to your advisers 45 minutes later, and the crowd is gone, then, you retroactively feel shocked.  If you really are shocked by these things, you react in the moment, you’d really do make sure they don’t happen again.  You don’t laugh them off for the benefit of the crowd and those around you.

OLBERMANN:  I never understood this.  It always pays to apologize even if you’re insincere about it.  Why wouldn’t he come out and make a big deal about it with the crowd?  Why wouldn’t someone say it to him as he’s going on in the stage?

MADDOW:  Then, why didn’t he tell the woman who called Hillary Clinton

you know, I mean, at this point, he’s going along with it.  If that makes it not credible that he was shocked by these things.

OLBERMANN:  Another list to keep.  Rachel Maddow of Air America and MSNBC, as always, a pleasure to talk to you.  We’ll talk to you again after the debate.

MADDOW:  Indeed.

OLBERMANN:  And 23 or 22 ½ minutes until what might very well be the final Democratic debate—try it again in English—debate live only here on MSNBC.  Now, 32 minutes to go.  Which stage of grief or stages of grief will we see from Senator Clinton?  And how does Senator Obama play in all this?

And in Bushed: The marines ask the Pentagon for a formal investigation into the marines own charges, that hundreds of American troops died in Iraq because the administration would not buy armored vehicles to save them from being blown to pieces by roadside bombs?

Next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The scene literally three minutes ago at Cleveland State University, Senator Barack Obama reporting to our NBC facilities at the university there for the debate tonight.  We have not yet seen Senator Clinton.  Senator Obama has arrived at the debate which begins in 28 minutes here on MSNBC.  We’re on the way to locking this nomination down, the words in public of a senior adviser to Senator Obama? Senator McCain?  Senator Clinton.  As we continue our countdown to what might be the last Democratic debate in 2008, you can’t believe anybody in the Clinton campaign would actually say that.  We have an eyewitness, Dana Milbank, senator’s advisors clashing not just with each other but with reality.  Speaking of which, worst persons.  Who thought the McCain warm up speakers references to Barack Hussein Obama were bad enough? This guy just compared to Obama to Hitler.  

These stories, but first, the headlines breaking tonight, the administration’s 50 scandals, bushed.  Number three, MRAP-gate.  Not H.  Rapp Brown, but MRAP-gate.  The Marines internal report indicated that hundreds of American soldiers died from roadside bombs in Iraq because of foot dragging and a pigheaded insistence that it was better to wait six years for an American-made armored vehicle instead of buying them immediately from other companies.  The Marines have now asked the Pentagon’s inspector general to conduct a formal investigation.  If you want to predict which Bush functionaries are likeliest to wind up the longest in prison, keep watching this story.

Number two, we lied to you about troop reductions-gate.  Lt. General Carter Ham, head of the operations for the joint chiefs, says that the redeployment after the so-called surge will end in July.  Troops who legally have to go home will have gone home and the remainder still in Iraq will total 140,000, 8,000 more than were there when Mr. Bush launched the ill-fated surge.  In the state of the union, when he said troops were beginning to come home from Iraq, it was as if he said the problem with the heating in this room is being resolved when the room was actually on fire. 

And number one, the nexus of politics and terror-gate again second day running.  You heard the conservative Cato Institute say we’re no less safe today than we were before the so-called protect America act expired without immunity for the telecoms.  You heard the conservative “Washington Times” say we’re no less safe today.  You heard an administration source say, the last of the holdouts among the telecoms capitulated last Friday.  So the entire argument that they will no longer cooperate without surveillance is now a moot point.  Regardless, Senator bond of Missouri and Congressman Hoekstra of Colorado and Smith of Texas wrote a screaming op-ed in “The Wall Street Journal” today saying, quote, we are less safe today because, quote, those companies critical to collecting actionable intelligence could be sidelined in the fight.  Even though they then go on to admit the telecoms are all cooperating.  Mr. Hoekstra wrote a similar op-ed yesterday for the “National Review,” concluding, history never takes a vacation, neither do terrorists.  But as Mr. Hoekstra demonstrates, honesty does.  Mr. Bond, Mr. Hoekstra, Mr. Smith and others doing Mr. Bush’s bidding for him in the nation’s press are political shills and the manipulators and amplifiers of the natural fears of Americans.  They are men not worthy of continuing in office.   

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Three minutes ago at the Wolfstein Center, Senator Clinton had made her way through the new snow in the Cleveland area for tonight’s debate.  So they’re both in the house.  Even in these final moments before the 20th Democratic debate, what is going on inside the campaign of Senator Clinton of New York? The apparent answer is, everything.  We are told to stand by for a kitchen sink fusillade against Senator Obama.  Then again, we’re also told of Senator Clinton’s senior advisers thinks she’s about to lock the nomination down. Dana Milbank of the “Washington Post” who heard that actually said out loud as we continue our countdown to the MSNBC Democratic debate in exactly 21 minutes and 30 seconds.  That’s next.

But first, time for COUNTDOWN’s worst persons in the world.  The bronze to Glenn Beck, asked by NPR for some bizarre reason to name a rising star among conservatives.  He chose Rick Santorum, saying the former Pennsylvania governor (sic) is a Winston Churchill in many ways.  He blew his Senate campaign because he spoke the truth.  Winston Churchill, a man who said on the eve of the battle against Hitler, “we shall not flag or fail, we shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and the oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air.  We shall defend our coast, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills.  We shall never surrender.” 

Rick Santorum, a man who said of marriage quote, “it’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog or whatever the case may be.”  Winston Churchill, who could have been speaking of Rick Santorum when he said of a political rival, “a modest man who has much to be modest about.”  Yeah, good analogy. 

The runner-up tonight, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, voicing opposition to Democratic proposals to begin troop withdrawals from Iraq within 120 days—her right, of course. But to say this, that a proposal would, quote, “put a bullet right into the hearts of our troops who are there,” accusing Democrats of shooting American troops, not just a tasteless, un-American comment, but pure hypocrisy from Senator Hutchison who five years ago voted to kill the amendment that for our heroes in Iraq would have bought $322 million worth of body armor. 

But our winner, Jonah Goldberg, the guy who thinks fascists were leftists and socialists—even though the founders of fascism used to try to beat socialists to death on the streets in Italy.  He’s still obsessed with this topic and he still doesn’t know anything about it.  Quote, “I think one of the things that is decidedly fascistic or at least just a bad idea is looking for silver bullets.  You know, when Barack Obama campaigns, he’s basically saying I’m a silver bullet, I’m going to solve all your problems just by electing me.  FDR, Hitler, all these guys, they basically said all your problems can be solved.” 

So he just compared Obama and Franklin Roosevelt to Hitler.  What was this Republican thing about not wandering off into psychosis when targeting Senator Obama?  Jonah “I’ll compare anybody to Hitler” Goldberg, today’s worst person in the world!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Sixteen months into this, I’m just angry, the words of Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer.  We’re on the way to locking this nomination down, the words of Clinton campaign adviser Harold Ickes.  The real headline as we continue our countdown to the debate tonight with our number two story, both of those remarks occurred on the same day at the same media event at a breakfast organized by the “Christian Science Monitor.”  In fighting, disaffections spilled over in public, to say nothing of what sounds like some substance that induces hallucinations.  Dana Milbank who joints us presently, reporting that the campaign accused the press of being soft on Obama and compared the senator from Illinois to George McGovern.  “The Baltimore Sun” meanwhile reporting that disagreements within the campaign were evident too, like when strategist Ickes sniped at Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn by joking, quote, I’m not the chief strategist.  I’m the assistant sanitation commissioner.  I’m not in the high realms.  Politico.com reporting today that even in the high realms there’s no concrete strategy nor plan. The campaign is mostly improvising and it’s not always working as when this picture of Obama surfaced.  At first Clinton’s campaign dithered over whether to deny responsibility for it or just ignore it.  Then when they finally decided a position, they mailed out talking points to their surrogates but as evidenced on MSNBC this morning, those surrogates are not always staying on script. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEPHANIE TUBBS JONES, CLINTON CAMPAIGN SURROGATE: I have no shame or no problem with people looking at Barack Obama in his native clothing, the clothing of his country. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: As promised, I’m joined now by our Dana Milbank also of course of the “Washington Post.”  Good evening Dana. 

DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST:  I’m in my native clothing. 

OLBERMANN:  I can see, although like a welder’s helmet would seem more appropriate after what you’ve been through. Are we assuming that the congresswoman meant one of his ancestral nations or was this a convenient slip of the tongue or is the real point now regarding the Clinton campaign, nobody has a freaking clue anymore. 

MILBANK: Having watched the congresswoman at various hearings, I think we should give her the benefit of the doubt.  It probably was a slip of the tongue or a brief loss of the mind but it does speak to what’s going on in general, as you’ve been referring to as the whole kitchen sink notion.  The problem is any one of these things may have been a legitimate strategy to pursue. They’re just all being pursued at once.  At the same time, this photo of Obama in Somali dress came out. There was also another one on the wire of Obama with a camel.  So it’s only a matter of time perhaps until they start comparing him to a dromedary I suppose. 

OLBERMANN:   That was also the point about this breakfast with the Clinton campaign in Washington yesterday, right.  Your account seemed to include everything except guys busting into crying jags and somebody on the staff throwing cream pitchers at reporters. 

MILBANK: It very nearly came to that.  It was a fairly plausible idea.  They wanted to have Ickes come out.  He’s the expert in the delegates.  And explain why we all need to withhold judgment until next Tuesday, until March 4 and Ohio and Texas.  He was just trying to buy time.  What happened is the spokesman for the campaign, Phil Singer essentially hijacked the session and started lecturing the likes of David Broder, who was covering presidential politics for two decades before Singer was born about being too beholden to Matt Drudge.  This speaks a lot about the mutual antagonism between Clinton and the press corps that has not worked to their advantage. 

OLBERMANN:   The Ickes quote, though, is there any possibility this is misinterpreted in terms of tone? Did he say it wrong? Was he referring to something he said a year ago? We’re on the way to locking this nomination down?

MILBANK: In fairness, he said it will take a little bit of time until they lock it down.  They’ll have to win in the Puerto Rico primary and then turn on all the super delegates.  I think he was getting a little carried away.  He’s a very good lawyer and he was trying to make the best possible case.  Ultimately he was forced to admit in that same session that if she doesn’t win in Ohio and Texas, then she’s going to have to think about whether she goes on from there. 

OLBERMANN:   I asked this last night.  Separating out whether they were good ideas or not or realistic ideas or not, what good was specifically supposed to come out of some of these tactics? Again, absolutely agreeing with your point that all of them at the same time can’t work.  But just individually, how is Senator Clinton supposed to be helped by her people comparing Obama to Bush and to George McGovern? How was Senator Clinton supposed to be helped by her people attacking the media? 

MILBANK: Well I think the McGovern comparison may indeed be a good one.  We’ll know that in November. 

OLBERMANN:  It can’t be McGovern and Bush at the same time. 

MILBANK: Can’t be at the same time and of course it doesn’t help her since it makes her into Ed Muskie, which isn’t going to do her any good at all.  But look as you say, they have to throw out whatever they can at this point.  Some of them are neither here nor there.  But a lot of things are counter productive.  When they go after the press with such animosity and then complain about the negative coverage is a chicken and egg game going on here.  This has been going on for a year and a half and they’re sort of reaping what they sowed. 

OLBERMANN:   Crying in New Hampshire references coming back to play now as you make the analogy to Edwin Muskie.  Dana Milbank of the “Washington Post,” MSNBC and survivor of the “Christian Science Monitor” breakfast the other morning. Thank you Dana.  

MILBANK:  Thanks Keith.

OLBERMANN:  And thus we are nearly arrived at the moment. 

A different meaning perhaps for the words of Teddy Roosevelt at a different political event 25 presidential elections ago.  To you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of human kind, I say we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the lord.  The countdown to the debate at Cleveland. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  A correction tonight.  In Bush, I identified Congressman Peter Hoekstra as being from Colorado.  He is in fact from Michigan.  So my apologies for the error and my apologies to Michigan. 

Cleveland, Ohio, not just the site of what is probably the final of an epic 20 debates in this Democratic primary campaign, enough to make Lincoln and Douglas blush, but the home also of baseball owner George Steinbrenner about whom it was once said, not the kind of person who will sit around doing nothing when a situation calls for panic. 

Number one story in the countdown, that perhaps the synopsis of the Clinton strategy on that stage six minutes hence.  But what of Barack Obama’s strategy? Is he best advised to indeed just sit around and do nothing?  So far nothing thrown against his wall has seemed to stick.  He’s inching closer to Hillary Clinton in the Ohio polls each day to within four or six points now.  He’s even beating her in the Lone Star state according to the latest Opinion Research poll and he has not only gotten the endorsement today of Senator Dodd, also two more super delegates pledged to him.  Obama with 28 super delegate pledges since Super Tuesday, Clinton having lost three.  Thus our NBC count of the super delegates now 257 for Clinton and 198 for Obama.  I’m joined now by NBC news political director Chuck Todd who is outside in the hallway for the debate.  Chuck, good evening. 

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Good evening, sir. 

OLBERMANN:   We have too much information clearly about what Senator Clinton might do tonight, too many options.  Do we have any idea about what Senator Obama intends to do or might do?

TODD: Well, I think that that’s actually what makes this kind of difficult for him tonight.  I think he is going to—first of all, he has an opponent that he has no idea what’s going to happen.  Is she going to come swinging which is frankly what I think he would prefer.  He would love nothing more than for her to try to beat him up and get really nasty, maybe have that tone that she had on Saturday when she said, meet me in Ohio and really got sarcastic and really beat him up because I think that’s when he’s at his best.  He can be very deflective.  I think what will throw him off a little bit is if she’s tough without being overly—looking like she’s getting desperate with her attacks. 

Then he’s also got to deal with the questioners.  Obviously, we’re going to plug our own.  But between Brian Williams and Tim Russert, I think he realizes if he thinks he’s going to be the nominee-to-be, he’s going to have to answer some questions that maybe he hasn’t answered yet at some of these debates and I think that he’s got a lot more pressure on him than he realized.  I know in some ways they can sit here and say it’s about prevent defense.  But he’s going to have a lot of work to do tonight himself. 

OLBERMANN:   These new numbers on general election polling, McCain and Clinton tied.  McCain losing to Obama by 12.  Should perhaps or is this being one of the strategies considered, should Obama just pivot away from Hillary Clinton in some way in this debate tonight and attack McCain in absentia?  Would that protect him on all his vulnerabilities and at the same time give him another boost from this thing tonight? Can he just sort of segue around her?

TODD: Well, it’s not a bad strategy.  Frankly, it’s one that Hillary Clinton has done in previous debates where she would either attack George Bush or she would attack whoever the front-runner at the time was during that—the crazy Republican season, whether it was Rudy Giuliani or somebody else.  So it is a strategy Hillary Clinton did very successfully when she would ignore the opponents on stage and instead go after the Republicans.  That could be a strategy of him tonight.  It’s something we’ve not seen from him before.  And if he did it this first time, I think it could be very effective. 

OLBERMANN:   As we see the senators come onto the stage, first Senator Clinton and then Senator Obama, shaking hands now, Senator Obama is with Tim Russert, Hillary Clinton having done that already.  On Thursday it was, Clinton said, I’m honored to be here with Barack Obama.  By Saturday it was shame on you Barack Obama.  On Sunday she was trying to turn him into some sort “Sunday Night Live” sketch.  If it’s something—whichever version comes out in the questioning—in her questioning, her challenges to Obama, is there some sense that maybe he has to be textbook dull in his responses to her on these criticisms for fear of giving her anything to work with? Or can he dare point out that it is beginning to resemble maybe from his perspective an eight-candidate campaign again like he’s dealing with seven Hillary Clintons?

TODD: I think he does need to be more Ronald Reagan in a situation like this.  Ronald Reagan when he would get into a debate situation like this, always looking as if he was facing somebody who maybe seemed better than him on the intellectual front.  But he always had a way of being deflective.  I think that Obama shouldn’t just sit back and hope to bore the audience to death.  That said, a boring debate tonight would be a good result for him.  But I think he should—you don’t let your opponent come back if they’re behind.  You go for the kill, particularly when your opponent has the last name of Clinton.  If there’s an opportunity for him to finish her off tonight, he ought to think about taking it. 

OLBERMANN:   Yes or no, Howard Fineman suggested tonight that there might actually be in this debate by Hillary Clinton a comparison of Barack Obama to President Bush in terms of international inexperience on day one. 

TODD: Well, we saw it already on Monday on the speech.  So I think it’s definitely something you’re going to see.  Kind of ironic when we’ve heard others inside the Clinton campaign say being compared to Bush is not a good thing. 

OLBERMANN:   Lastly, drinking game phrases or if you prefer donate a quarter to charity phrases, you should take a swig of soft drink or donate some cash every time you hear Clinton say what, every time you hear Obama say what?

TODD: With Clinton, I say the words shame or the laugh.  And with Obama I think it’s well we agree, some version of we agree I think you’ll hear from Obama quite a bit. 

OLBERMANN:   I’m betting on let’s get real from Senator Clinton. 

That’s the one I’d put my 25 cents about. 

TODD: Let’s get real. 

OLBERMANN:   Chuck Todd, political director of MSNBC at Cleveland State University, also political director of NBC news.  Great thanks as always sir.  We’ll talk you to later on. 

TODD: All right Keith.

OLBERMANN:  That is COUNTDOWN for this the 1,763rd day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq. I’m Keith Olberman and we’ll rejoin you afterwards about 10:30 Eastern time alongside Chris Matthews for a complete analysis of what is said tonight.  In the interim I’ll be doing what you are doing, watching the 20th Democratic debate.  And for that, let’s go to Cleveland State University and Brian  Williams and Tim Russert.

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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