updated 2/28/2008 3:32:32 PM ET 2008-02-28T20:32:32

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  What a week in the presidential race, the race for the White House, 2008 -- John McCain versus “The New York Times,” Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton in another debate.

Here to put it all in perspective, Eugene Robinson of “The Washington Post”; Norah O’Donnell of NBC News; and Michael Crowley, “The New Republic.”

Welcome all.

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Thank you.

RUSSERT:  All right.  Ladies first. 

John McCain and “The New York Times,” big bombshell in the papers on Thursday morning, people running around, scurrying around, trying to report it.  And by Friday morning, barely a mention.

NORAH O’DONNELL, NBC NEWS:  Barely on the front page of “The New York Times” on Friday.

John McCain’s campaign hit back so hard that they managed to turn a threatening story into one that benefited them.  The conservative community essentially rallied behind John McCain because criticism by “The New York Times” is essentially a badge of honor for conservatives.  And how ironic that this man that claims the base is his media is now lashing back at the base and then gaining the support of the conservatives that he so badly needed.

RUSSERT:  And Rush Limbaugh, who had been critical of John McCain, saying, I told you so, that mainstream would turn on you, Mr. McCain, almost like a welcome home, did you learn your lesson?

O’DONNELL:  Right.  And then that was Rush Limbaugh’s message.  And Laura Ingraham as well said, now do you think need us radio talk show hosts now?  So, it will be interesting to see if that opens a way for him starting to do interviews on some of these programs that he has been reluctant to engage with in the past.

RUSSERT:  Michael Crowley, “The New Republic” was part of this story because there had been discussion that “The New Republic” had been reporting on why The Times was holding the story, or some of the debate within the news councils of “The New York Times.”  A young reporter for “The New Republic” named Gabe Sherman had been tenacious on it.

What role did your magazine play in this story?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, “THE NEW REPUBLIC”:  Well, Tim, we’ll never know for sure.  And the McCain campaign’s contention is that it was the fact that we were asking around and doing reporting that pressured The Times.  What the McCain campaign says was that The Times, in the McCain campaign’s words, chose to smear McCain rather than suffer the possibility of an embarrassing Judy Miller-type drama playing out in other publications.

I don’t know if it’s true.  I have no way of knowing if it’s true.  And The Times, without naming specifically, has made a point of denying that any external pressures forced their hand. 

But this had been out there for a long time.  There was sort of an inexplicable delay from the first time that this story surfaced on “The Drudge Report” and in other media outlets.  So...

RUSSERT:  Back in December.

CROWLEY:  Back in December.  It first appeared in “The Drudge Report.”  I think it may have been sort of a preemptive leak, or possibly some disgruntled reporters who were upset their story was being held.

And so we decided to sort of look into it and figure out what was going on after so much time had gone by.  So I can’t tell you what decision was made in The Times.  But I think that we wound up getting very interesting—Gabe Sherman wound up writing a very interesting back-story that painted a picture of a real struggle that went on for months between reporters and editors there in New York.

RUSSERT:  What did Gabe find out?  What was the struggle?

CROWLEY:  Well, essentially, according to Gabe’s reporting, reporters in Washington and The Times Washington bureau chief really felt that they had a story, that they had nailed it, I think was the word that either Gabe or one of his sources had used.  But up in New York, and particularly Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, felt that it wasn’t quite there, kept sending it back, wanting them to pin it down a little more.

And one interesting thing he got was the transformation of the piece went from being sort of a breaking news, sort of exclusive, to one in a series that The Times has been doing of sort of biographical profiles of the candidates which they call “The Long Run.”  So you get the sense they dialed it back.  They were cautious, they weren’t sure that what they really had justified a wham-o exclusive.  You know, this was more, well, here’s this interesting episode in the context of John McCain and lobbyists and reform and the Keating Five.

And it was a little bit of a hedge, I think.  He had some other details which we can get into if you want, but that’s—that was the most interesting thing to me.

RUSSERT:  Gene Robinson, your paper, “The Washington Post,” also had a front-page story.

ROBINSON:  Right.

RUSSERT:  The editor of The Post, Len Downie, said that he couldn’t go with The Post story until The Times story had gone because they had to double-check with some of the sources.

ROBINSON:  Right.  Right.

RUSSERT:  What can you tell us?

ROBINSON:  Well, just that The Post had been working on a story and didn’t have it nailed down to our satisfaction.  When a story hits like The Times story hit, that opens everything up.  And then people who weren’t willing to confirm or weren’t willing to talk or weren’t willing to go on the record will do so.  And that’s what happened.  The Post was able to come out with the story that same morning.

But our story dealt only with the influence-peddling—alleged—aspect of the relationship between John McCain and Vicki Iseman and did not intimate, as The Times story did, that there might have been a romantic liaison as well.  And we stood clear of that, you know, because it wasn’t pinned down to our satisfaction.

RUSSERT:  You have been in many of these...

ROBINSON:  Oh yes.

RUSSERT:  ... editorial debates and discussions.  When someone says, all right, we have a great story here, we believe that Senator McCain was perhaps having an affair with this young woman, who also lobbies his committee, and then it comes to you and you say, OK, this happened eight years ago, yes he did write those letters, but that’s been reported on, yes, he was involved in the Keating Five, that’s been reported on—and how hard do you have this alleged relationship?  And if it doesn’t measure up, do you kill the story, do you try to walk back, or do you try to back into it?

ROBINSON:  Well, in dealing with the nature of a relationship, obviously that’s a delicate thing.  Is it relevant to the story that you’re—that you’re—that you want to tell?  Do you have it nailed down to your satisfaction?

And if the answer to either of those questions is no or I don’t know, then you probably don’t use it.  I mean, because it adds a whole—you know, another dimension to what you’re saying.  And you have to—I think the burden of proof is on the news organization to somehow convincingly demonstrate that that sort of information is relevant to the—you know, to the story.

And that’s a pretty high burden of proof.  It is often met, however, as we know from history.  You know, the Monica Lewinsky case, for example.  It was certainly met.

RUSSERT:  But there you had one party acknowledging that something had taken place.

ROBINSON:  Right.

RUSSERT:  In this case...

ROBINSON:  You don’t.

RUSSERT:  ... both Senator McCain and the young woman said nothing happened.

O’DONNELL:  Right.  And in the case with Monica Lewinsky, there were tapes, of course, of the phone conversation...

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  Exactly.

O’DONNELL:  ... that she had had with Linda Tripp, where she had claimed that she had this relationship with the president.

The criticism of “The New York Times” has been because there was one former top strategist to John McCain, John Weaver, who most in the press know very well, acknowledging that he met with Vicki Iseman and that there was concern about her.  And then there are two associates who are disillusioned with the senator who are the other sources, anonymous sources.  And while they acknowledge that they were disillusioned, it raises real questions for some people about their motives.

Now, when I read the story, it appears there’s a lot else that The Times knows and those reporters know that’s not in that piece.  And that’s what raises real questions about what else is out there.  And it does seem to suggest, given the reporting that “The New Republic” has done, that there may still be some out there.

RUSSERT:  Well, is that enough, for a reporter to kind of wink at you?

O’DONNELL:  Well, as you know, some of—some of the challenges I’m sure—and I have not spoken with any of “The New York Times” reporters who put this together—I’m sure that there always are.  There are challenges between a correspondent, a reporter sometimes, and their editors.  And also the people who write—who write the headlines.  I mean, that is a challenge that we face behind the scenes that most people don’t know about, yes.

ROBINSON:  But it was a very clear wink.  OK?  The wink was definitely there.

So, you know, one would—one would think that there’s some underlying information perhaps off the record, in a way that it couldn’t be used, something that the reporters know that we don’t know of yet.  But the other thing that complicates it all is that the story read as if it had been edited by a committee, and it was a bit of a...

RUSSERT:  We have to take a quick break.  We’re going to come right back.

Michael, you’re first.  Norah, then after you—all right?

We’ll be right back with more of our discussion of “The New York Times” versus John McCain.  And then the debate highlights, Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we’re back talking about John McCain versus “The New York Times,” the big story for McCain, “Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses its Own Risks” in “The New York Times” on Thursday.

Michael Crowley, you had a comment.

CROWLEY:  Well, what I thought was so extraordinary about the story was that it had something we had never seen before.  The clincher, apparently, for putting forward the details of this relationship between McCain and the lobbyists was not that there were tapes like we had in the Monica Lewinsky case, or DNA evidence, or a photograph in a compromising position, but the fact that everyone thought they were having an affair.  And that seemed to be the bar that allowed The Times to go forward and say it.

His staff was convinced, suspicions were running rampant.  And that’s just sort of a new criteria, a new bar that The Times has set that I don’t think we’ve seen before.  And that’s part of why I think there’s such a ferocious debate, because it’s an interesting and new standard for reporting a relationship like that.

RUSSERT:  I thought the debate was very healthy for the media community to have, certainly within the political community.  All day long people...

ROBINSON:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  ... basically weighing in, saying, I would have published, I wouldn’t have published, this is where they went wrong, this is where they were right. 

One interesting thing, Gene Robinson.  When John McCain says, I can say categorically I did not have a relationship with and I have never done anything inappropriate, I mean, he drew the line.

ROBINSON:  He drew a line, yes.

RUSSERT:  And so if anyone comes forward on the record and contradicts Senator McCain, then the story reignites.

ROBINSON:  Then it reignites in a big way.  Then it’s a real problem for him.  Conversely, if no one does that, if there is no demonstrable evidence that something untoward happened, it is egg on the face of “The New York Times.”

RUSSERT:  The piece in the story in your paper, referenced in The Times—and then “The Washington Post” did another follow-up on Friday, Norah.  The whole notion of John McCain, the anti-lobbyist, being surrounded by lobbyists, and that’s what the Democrats are rubbing their hands, saying...

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  ... the reformer is going to be vulnerable on this issue.

O’DONNELL:  I kept thinking in watching the debate on Thursday night with Barack Obama how many times he kept mentioning lobbyists and special interests, almost—it was like he was getting ready to run against McCain.

McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, is a lobbyist.  One of his top strategists, Charlie Black, is a lobbyist.  He has a large number of lobbyists who are also helping in his press operation.  So he has been surrounded by lobbyists.

On the flip side, as one argued to me, listen, you know, we tried to host fundraisers before with defense contractors, because he may be the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.  They don’t feel the obligation to come, because McCain will either say yea or nay based on what he thinks is right.  And so their contention is that even donors aren’t ready to write checks to this guy because they know that he’s an independent man.

That’s the point they make.  But he does have a large number of lobbyists advising him on his campaign.

RUSSERT:  John McCain’s been trying to score points on Barack Obama, Michael Crowley, by saying, hey, you promised public financing in the fall election, and now you see that he’s backing off.  Will this whole discussion of McCain and lobbyists neutralize McCain’s ability to draw Obama out on that issue?

CROWLEY:  Well, sure.  I mean, because McCain’s ability to do that depends on this notion of him as something completely different, as someone who can rise above the swamp of money and politics in Washington.  And the more people see him as a creature of lobbyists, the less credibility he has to make that attack.

I also think that Barack Obama is raking so much money in small dollar increments from people who are going on to his Web site all over the country.  And I think that gives him more leverage or wiggle room.  He could challenge McCain, for instance, to say, fine, but you refuse to take donations that are more than $200.  You know, we can do all small dollars.  That would work so much more in Obama’s favor than McCain’s.

So I think that the dynamic is really setting up in a way that Obama has a lot of leverage over McCain when it comes to these things.  And incidentally, I just think it’s another reminder that Washington is a terrible place from which to run for president.

I mean, Obama is in Washington, but he hasn’t been here for very long.  But even John McCain, who staked his whole identity on this idea that he was, you know, fighting the special interests and the money in politics, now is looking like this creature of lobbyists surrounded by lobbyists on his campaign.  That image is crumbling.

Hillary Clinton, it was the same thing.  It was probably the best line of attack for Obama, was to say that Hillary was part of the system and that she wasn’t going to be able to change it, and that you needed basically an outsider.

So, technically, Obama is in the Senate.  We may have—we will have a senator as our next president.  But I put an asterisk next to him and say it’s a reminder—if you’ve been in Washington for a long time, it’s really hard.  It’s really hard.

RUSSERT:  The first senator since John Kennedy.

ROBINSON:  Right.

RUSSERT:  And the one before that was Warren Harding.

ROBINSON:  Warren Harding. 

(CROSSTALK)

RUSSERT:  There was a congressman named James Garfield, but now I’m dating myself.

Gene Robinson, Barack Obama had been emphatic—I will take public financing.  I won’t be raising money in a general election if I can work out an arrangement with the Republican.  I think that will be the caveat, that will be the out.

ROBINSON:  Right.

RUSSERT:  And we may hear Obama start calling McCain “Chairman McCain.”  I remember in 2000, George Bush kept saying, “Chairman McCain.”

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  Exactly.

I mean, it is—what Michael said is right.  It is impossible to live in Washington without, you know, tripping over a lobbyist at some point or being at a party with a lobbyist.  But that hurts you this year.

The Post did a fact check on Obama’s promise on campaign finance and gave him only two out of a possible four Pinocchios on...

O’DONNELL:  I love that.

ROBINSON:  And—because he did make a statement that was kind of categorical.  He said other things that left wiggle room.  So—I mean, it’s clear what he was intending to say, or the impression he was intending to give.

RUSSERT:  Well, but if one of your sons told you a little something that was worth two Pinocchios...

ROBINSON:  Grounded.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  Definitely.

O’DONNELL:  But McCain has a problem when it comes to public financing, because when he was having money problems, he said that he was going to opt into the public financing system.  And now the (INAUDIBLE) seems to be saying we can’t say that you want in and then say you want out.  So...

ROBINSON:  Right.

RUSSERT:  He his (INAUDIBLE) to loan money, to borrow money.

O’DONNELL:  That’s right.

RUSSERT:  Another quick break.

When we come, we’ll talk about the big debate on Thursday night, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we’re back.

Next up, a week from Tuesday, Texas and Ohio.  Hillary Clinton’s been going around in those two states saying, “Let’s get real.”

Barack Obama addressed that issue at the debate on Thursday.  Let’s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Senator Clinton of late has said, “Let’s get real.”  And the implication is that the people who have been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional, and that, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  ... the 20 million people who have been paying attention to 19 debates and the editorial boards all across the country and newspapers have given me endorsements, including every major newspaper here in the state of Texas.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  You know, the thinking is that somehow they’re being duped.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RUSSERT:  They’re being duped, Michael Crowley, all these Obama Moonies out there.

CROWLEY:  I thought that was a very effective response.  It is possible to have some fun with the Obama movement.  Did you see when he blew his nose on the stage the other day and the crowd started cheering?  And I thought that was Jon Stewart or “The Onion” or something.  I couldn’t believe it.  That said, I thought that was a very effective response in a couple of ways. 

One, Obama has this very disarming way of laughing at himself.  He’s got a smooth, cool sense of humor.  That works very well.

And also, I think just generally speaking, it touches on something I was saying a couple of minutes ago.  He’s been very effective at putting down Hillary as kind of representing a sort of cynicism, things that can’t be done—putting a limit on our hopes, telling people when they’re excited, calm down.  And there’s nothing exciting about that.

So I thought it was a devastating response, actually.

O’DONNELL:  But it was interesting, because part of, perhaps, the failure of her campaign is not anticipating the strength of Barack Obama and being dismissive of this “movement.”

I had written something down a while ago that she said.  She said, “Others might be joining a movement.  I’m joining you on the nightshift, on the dayshift.”

Now, that’s how she sees things.  You know, I’m there working in the—I’m going to join you on the nightshift, but others are joining this movement.

She’s dismissive of those who have joined in his movement.  And I think that that has been one of the Achilles’ heels of her campaign, is failing to understand this mood out there for change.  And in exit poll after exit poll, we have seen that change, almost by two to one, is more important to voters than experience.

On experience, she wins in the 90th percentile.  She did in Wisconsin, too.  But voters, for some reason, want change in this country.  And she’s—while she tried at one point to appropriate the change message, it’s not worked.

ROBINSON:  What I don’t understand, it’s how the campaign, the Clinton campaign, a bunch of professionals who’ve done this successfully for many years, failed to see themselves being outflanked by the Obama campaign machine, by the ground game.  I mean, didn’t they notice all these—all these kids running around Iowa winning the caucuses?  Didn’t they notice that they were losing all these other caucus states and that they were being essentially out-hustled on the ground by what looked like a superior organization?

RUSSERT:  You know, it’s so interesting.  In 2004, I went out to Iowa and saw a lot of the Dean—what do they call them?

O’DONNELL:  Deaniacs.

ROBINSON:  The Deaniacs.

RUSSERT:  Deaniacs.

ROBINSON:  Deaniacs.

O’DONNELL:  Deaniacs, right.

RUSSERT:  And they all had orange little caps on.  But very few of them were from Iowa.  Their kids were shipped in from out of state.

This year I went to Iowa, and the kids running the Obama campaign were all native kids.

CROWLEY:  But Tim, isn’t it possible that the Dean example lulled the Hillary campaign into a sense of complacency?

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

CROWLEY:  They thought, we’ve seen the kids get carried away with their Web sites and their text messaging and...

ROBINSON:  Those crazy kids.

CROWLEY:  ... it all falls apart in the end, and just wait it out.  I suspect that may be part of it.

ROBINSON:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  And at the Obama-Winfrey rally, when they said, OK, everybody get up, you all know—you all have a text cell phone—they all have the cell phones.

O’DONNELL:  Oh yes.

RUSSERT:  Now, you know five people you can text right now and tell them they have to vote.  And I saw people clicking madly.  I said, my God, what a way to communicate and what a way to organize.

O’DONNELL:  I mean, we have people who are contributing $50 a month automatically, have gone online and done that.  And without any sort of prompting, really, by Barack Obama himself.  It’s a viral movement.  In other words, it is spread by friends, which is the best kind of marketing in advertising, which is, if I tell Gene to go out and buy something...

ROBINSON:  Exactly.

O’DONNELL:  ... he’s more willing to trust me than a commercial to go buy something because we’re, you know, friendly with one another.  And so this viral movement has helped Barack Obama in a way that I think Hillary Clinton didn’t anticipate.

I would stress that Hillary Clinton still in speeches says, “And log on to my Web site, www.hillaryclinton.com.”  And I thought to myself, how 2000 that is, because everybody knows, if you’re interested in a candidate, how to find their Web site, right?

RUSSERT:  How 2000.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  That was recent, Norah.

O’DONNELL:  I know.

RUSSERT:  That’s not too old.

O’DONNELL:  I know.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  You know, this other impression I’ve gotten, though, is that even paid staffers in the Obama campaign at very low levels seem to—seem to be—seem to have a sense of agency, a sense of—that they are a thinking part of the campaign, that they have internalized the discussions that are going on at higher levels, that they participate in those discussions, and that they can—they can, you know, within parameters act independently.  It doesn’t seem to be strictly hierarchical.  It could be a newer, more networked kind of organization.

This is my hypothesis, at least.

RUSSERT:  Yes.  I had a conservative Republican say to me, you know, both Ron Paul and Barack Obama, “I wish we had that passion.  I wish we had that intensity in our campaign.”

They see it.  I mean, Ron Paul had the same kind of sense of discipline amongst his supporters in terms of funding his campaign.  All very high-tech.

We’re going to take another quick break.  We’ll be back with a lot more of the debate of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and some analysis of the race for the White House, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we’re back talking about the campaign—and what a campaign—with Michael Crowley of “The New Republic”; Norah O’Donnell, of NBC News; Gene Robinson of “The Washington Post.”

Let me show you another bite from the debate on Thursday night.  Here we go.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  No matter what happens in this contest—and I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama.  I am absolutely honored. 

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON:  And, you know, whatever happens, we’re going to be fine.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RUSSERT:  “Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine.”  Many people were suggesting that it’s a way of saying goodbye.  Others said, no, she was trying to grab onto an emotional moment suggesting that she is much more closely identified with people who need her hope than someone like Barack Obama.

ROBINSON:  Who knows?  I mean, immediately after the debate, Howard Wolfson, her spokesman, came out with a statement saying, “And that last statement showed why she’s going to be the next president,” and that with it she had seized control of the race again.  So, clearly, the campaign didn’t intend it as a goodbye or a concession or anything.

It was interesting that she preceded it by saying, though, that she’s honored to be there with Barack Obama.  That seemed to negate all the things she’s been saying about Barack Obama, which is essentially that he’s a lightweight who’s not ready to be president yet.  She sits there, she’s honored to be next to him.  So it was an odd moment.

RUSSERT:  And she did pass up an opportunity earlier in the debate, Norah, to—when asked whether he was competent to be commander in chief...

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  ... she basically moved beyond that.  Actually went back to health care, I think, if my memory’s correct.

O’DONNELL:  Absolutely.  In fact, while she has been on the stump saying, “I’m the only one that’s ready on day one,” challenging him on experience, turning up the heat, suggesting she’s the only one who can be commander in chief, when asked about it in the debate she declined to say why.  She was asked again.

You know, there’s the Texas expression—of course as I know from Texas—you know, “All hat and no cattle.”  She said that’s Bush—we need less hat and more cattle in the next president.  Again, another opportunity to hit Barack Obama and explain that, which is curious.

I mean, there seems to be this reluctance to take him on in a debate, while, yet, she’s doing it on the stump.  It does beg an interesting question about why she wouldn’t just say, yes, I’m the more experienced candidate, he’s less experienced?  He’s only been in the Senate for a couple of years, I’ve been in this many years, I’ve spent the time in the White House.

I mean, she did say some of those things, but why not make a clear statement about why she’s more experienced?  That seems to be the whole crux of her candidacy.

RUSSERT:  Michael?

CROWLEY:  Yes.  I mean, I got a sense watching her last night that this was someone who sees the needle hitting “E,” and she’s coming to the end.  I think the Clintons may be starting to worry about their legacy a little bit.

They have to carry on, quite possibly with a Democratic Party and a White House that is run by a new generation of people whose strongest impressions of them will have been from this campaign.  And they took a lot of heat, upset a lot of people with what was perceived as a very negative campaign.  And I think—I noticed earlier in the night she made a point of saying, “I think we’ve run a fairly positive campaign, and I’m very proud of that.”

A lot of people disagree.  And I think to some extent, she may be trying to make sure people understand that that’s not how she wants to be remembered.

At the same time, looking to those last votes that could still save her, she may want voters to think that she’s gracious, that she’s not dismissing Obama in an excessive way.  That could be one of her last kind of strategic bids.

O’DONNELL:  It is possible, given the comments that she made at the end of the debate last night, where she seemed to acknowledge the possibility of defeat and the comments by Bill Clinton that it could be over after Ohio and Texas, that we may be witnessing the last two weeks of her campaign.  Now, let’s not rule anything out, because she may go on past Ohio and Texas.

And Howard Wolfson, just this week, said—you know, didn’t say—and they were talking about Puerto Rico on one of those conference calls.

ROBINSON:  Right.

O’DONNELL:  So we may still go just yet, Tim.  And I want to be the correspondent you send to Puerto Rico.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  We’re all going to Puerto Rico.

RUSSERT:  We’re going to have a special correspondent.

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  I suspect that no decision has been made.  You know, but they can read the—read the polls, and they see that they’re trending in a direction in Texas and Ohio that, at the moment, doesn’t look favorable for the Clinton campaign.

There’s no quit in the Clintons, certainly.  And, you know, I suspect they’re not ready to give up.

It was interesting though that when asked about the superdelegates, she declined to state her case, state her campaign’s case.

RUSSERT:  That will work itself out.

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  She said that will take care of itself, that will work itself out.  I have a feeling, you know, that that’s not going to be the decisive factor, essentially what she’s saying.  If it’s not going to be the decisive factor, is she essentially conceding that the superdelegates ought to do what Obama says and support the popular Democratic vote?

RUSSERT:  You know, as of this weekend, since Super Tuesday, Obama’s had a net gain of 20 superdelegates, and she’s had a net loss of four.

ROBINSON:  Right.

RUSSERT:  So the trend there is also going against her.

ROBINSON:  Right.

RUSSERT:  Not even counting the so-called elected delegates.

I want to raise a point that Michael raised, Gene Robinson, in terms of running a positive campaign.

Bill Clinton said the other day, you know, “I never criticized or went negative on Barack Obama in South Carolina.”  And when I started going through all the literature, I realized he had said that his record on Iraq was a “fairy tale,” but that was in New Hampshire.  And that...

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  And he said it was a riskier roll of the dice. 

ROBINSON:  Right.

RUSSERT:  He said that in New York.

Because I think a fair analysis would be that Bill Clinton had been critical of Barack Obama.

ROBINSON:  Oh, of course he was critical of Barack Obama.  Bill Clinton came in—you know, came barging into the campaign at a moment when things looked precarious for Hillary Clinton and delivered roundhouse punches to Barack Obama in an attempt to slow down his momentum, and was, you know, somewhat successful, you could argue.  I mean, then he kind of slowed down—what seemed to be happening.  But he cannot claim that he was not negative against Obama.

CROWLEY:  Well, I mean, the two key things that I remember from South Carolina, first of all, was Bill comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson, which really upset a lot of people.  But the other was that radio ad they ran about Obama’s comments about Ronald Reagan.

Now, there was a debate about what Obama really meant, but that radio ad, I forget the details, but really strongly implied that Obama had said Reagan was a good president, and I approved of his policies.  I thought that was actually sort of the lowest moment of the campaign for the Clintons, although it didn’t come straight out of Bill’s mouth.  So maybe that’s...

RUSSERT:  But what happened in South Carolina and after that was remarkable, because African-Americans, who, in all the polling—initially, last year Clinton was leading amongst African-Americans 60-30.

ROBINSON:  Absolutely.

RUSSERT:  Then Barack Obama, as the campaign went on, pulled up maybe into a 60-30 lead.  Suddenly, after Bill Clinton’s comments, African-Americans are 90-10, state after state after state.

ROBINSON:  It was—it was a combination of two things.  One, it had become clear that Barack Obama could attract white votes.

You know, you’re winning Iowa, you’re doing well in New Hampshire.  He came in very close in New Hampshire.  You’re—clearly, African-Americans couldn’t see that white folks will never vote for Barack Obama.

RUSSERT:  He was a viable candidate.

ROBINSON:  He was a viable candidate.

And the second thing that happened, you know, I mean, Bill Clinton’s linkage of Obama with Jesse Jackson, that may have been seen as ambiguous by a lot of people.  I think, you know, 90 percent of African-Americans saw that as a clear-coated message, and resented it, frankly.

RUSSERT:  Trying to dismiss a black candidate.

ROBINSON:  Yes, exactly.  Trying to dismiss and limit his appeal as that of a symbolic black candidate.

RUSSERT:  We’re going to take another quick break.

More on the race for the White House right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we are back, all wondering how Hillary Clinton is going to perform on the campaign trail in Texas, Ohio.  Will she keep up her attacks on Barack Obama?

She tried one in the debate on Thursday that, even by the Clinton campaign’s own acknowledgement, fell flat.

Let’s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  You know, missing whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in.  It’s change you can Xerox.  And I just don’t think...

OBAMA:  But that’s not...

CLINTON:  No.  But, you know, Barack, it is, because...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RUSSERT:  Michael?

CROWLEY:  Her heart didn’t look in that to me, first of all, which goes back to what we were discussing a minute ago, that she’s worried about how she’s going to be perceived in these final days.  And it fell flat.  I think if we had played the tape a few more seconds, you would have heard some booing from the audience. 

And generally, I think, you know, this plagiarism charge is kind of interesting for a day or two.  I think that for them to be continuing to ride it feels like a little bit of a stretch, feels like scraping the bottom of the barrel.

And on top of that, the Obama campaign has come back with some examples where her rhetoric has been similar to other people’s rhetoric, and including her closing statement at the end of that debate, which apparently echoed something very similar her husband said in 1992.  So I think what we’ve learned here is that politicians borrow from each other quite a lot.  And I think it’s time to sort of give up the ghost on that one.

RUSSERT:  There seems to be Hillary Clintons, the one who wants to go for the jugular, and the other one who keeps pulling back.

O’DONNELL:  And interesting, that reflects a debate within her campaign about whether she should draw more contrast with Barack Obama, or whether she should highlight what she did, for instance, in those final days of New Hampshire, more—and at the end of the debate on CNN, which is the more heartfelt, human side of Hillary Clinton.

From the beginning of this campaign, before it got heated, her adviser said to me, “She’s the most famous woman in America that no one knows.”  And just like in New York, she won there because as she retailed (ph) politics, the more people got to know her one-on-one, the more people will like her, love her, and vote for her.

And so those moments that Mandy Grunwald has tried to capture, where she’s been more emotional and heartfelt, people say, yes, that’s the Hillary I know, that we see, you know, in the campaign...

RUSSERT:  It’s a television ad creator.

O’DONNELL:  Yes, exactly.

And that changed by Xerox.  For some reason, those negative attacks seemed to highlight what people don’t like about Hillary Clinton.  It almost makes people remember, “Well, I could have stayed home baking cookies,” that sort of tone from Hillary Clinton.

And quite frankly, Barack Obama, in this campaign, seems to be made of Teflon.  You know?  She has tried to draw contrast with him.  He does have little experience.  He has less experience than she does.  And yet that argument—they’ve been unable to make that stick.

ROBINSON:  You know, I had the same impression that Michael did when I heard that—heard her give the line of—the Xerox line.  It didn’t sound to me as if her heart were in it, and it’s almost as if she’s saying, OK, I’ll say the line...

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  ... but this isn’t—you know, I mean, this isn’t going to knock Barack Obama off his stride.  You know, as long as the debate is about speechwriting, that’s definitely in his favor. 

I thought the best part of the debate for her was the health care debate, when you could see her command of the subject, you could see her passion.  It’s a good issue for her with the Democratic base, the idea—comparing it to Social Security and Medicaid and the great legacy of those programs.

So, why didn’t we see more of that Hillary Clinton?  I think that Hillary Clinton would have done better than the one who uses this canned line that’s really pretty lame.

RUSSERT:  Canned line.  I can just imagine the debate prep when someone said, you know, here’s a great line.  The debate goes on, and whoever proposed it is saying, I guarantee you, it will work.  And then the debate comes and the poor guy is, “Oh my God.”

The best the Clinton spin doctors could do afterward were saying, sometimes humor doesn’t work.  That was not an attempt at humor.

ROBINSON:  No.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY:  But it did remind—you know, sometimes David Letterman reads a joke off his card, and then just kind of looks at the camera and throws it over his shoulder and no one’s laughing.  And you know that the joke writers in there are kind of, “Oh God.”

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  Gene Robinson, in the Friday “Washington Post,” “If Obama Went 0 for 10.”  Obama has one 10 caucuses and primaries.  And if you count the Democrats abroad, it’s number 11 now.  And you’re suggesting if Hillary—if Clinton had one 10 in a row, what would they be saying to Barack Obama?

ROBINSON:  They’d be saying it’s over.  I mean, if Obama had lost 10 caucuses in February, 11 caucuses and primaries in a row, if he was behind in pledged delegates, overall delegates, fundraising, total votes, number of states won, at this point we’d be saying that it was over, why is he in the race?  Is he hurting himself by staying in?  Is he hurting the party by staying in?

Relying on Ohio and Texas, this is a hope, not a plan, especially with Obama we call it a hope, right?  And we’d be asking those tough questions of him I think at every campaign stop.

We’re not asking those questions of Hillary Clinton.

RUSSERT:  Why not?

ROBINSON:  Well, there’s a good reason.  I mean, you don’t count out a Clinton until, you know, the final—the last of the final credits rolls up the screen.

RUSSERT:  The last dog dies.

ROBINSON:  Until the last dog dies.  That’s true.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  But you don’t—you don’t because they have a way of coming back.  But, you know, it’s just an interesting experiment to imagine it reversed and what would be saying?

RUSSERT:  Very interesting.

O’DONNELL:  She has won, I believe, it is 13 states.  He has won 24 states, I believe it is.  And—but the argument that the Clinton campaign makes is that if she wins Texas and Ohio, along with Florida, New York, Michigan, New Jersey, California, that she’s won the big states.  And that in order to have a Democrat who can win in November, you need someone who can win the big states, and that that would be the argument that she would make.  In other words, you know, if she wanted to continue forward.

The problem, as been pointed out by our political director, Chuck Todd, is that if this is a math game in terms of the numbers, it’s not impossible, but it’s improbable that she can make up that deficit.  She has to win huge in Texas and Ohio in order to make up on the delegates.

CROWLEY:  And if she does not win those last states, what will be the lesson in this campaign?  People are always—human nature, you fight the last war.  And I think in the next campaign people will say, you cannot give up, as Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton both did, give up a string of contests and say I’m going to make my stand six, eight, 10, 12 weeks from this set time and let my opponents roll through other contests, because momentum winds up flattening you.  So, that will be the last war that everyone will be remembering in the next fight.

RUSSERT:  Well, we’ve heard, too, the all-important Idaho caucus.

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  We’ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Let’s go through some of the math we’ve been talking about.

In terms of elected delegates, Barack Obama is now over 150.  I mentioned earlier how the superdelegates are closing.  He has won twice as many states.  He has hugely with the popular vote, even which you include Michigan and Florida, which has been left on the side.

So, if Hillary Clinton wins Texas and Ohio, Michael, but doesn’t win a net gain of delegates in those states by a significant measure, what’s her rationale to continue?

CROWLEY:  Momentum, maybe, is the best thing she can argue for.  Big states.

Her campaign has been trying to differentiate between states that count and states that don’t count.  And the states that count, in their view, are big states.

RUSSERT:  Mark Penn said—her campaign strategist—said the only significant state Obama has won is Illinois.

CROWLEY:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  And I kept saying to myself, boy, the people in Iowa and the people in Missouri and the people in Wisconsin...

ROBINSON:  And the people in Virginia.

RUSSERT:  And Virginia.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  They’re not going to like that.

RUSSERT:  Not like to hear that.

CROWLEY:  Yes.  And, you know, maybe the one other thing that could go her way would be if Obama stumbles, if some sort of negative story comes out, if there’s a kind of (INAUDIBLE), a conventional wisdom that his balloon has been popped and people are really worried about him.

But I think the Clintons have been waiting for that to happen now since basically January 4th, after the Iowa caucuses.  This balloon’s going to pop eventually.  And to see it happening—I don’t see it happening at this point.

RUSSERT:  The strategists for her campaign, Norah, said on a conference call last week, well, OK, we’re going to keep fighting.  And in June, after you’ll be coming back from Puerto Rico, covering the primary caucus, Obama will probably be ahead with elected delegates, but that’s OK.  Based on the scrutiny of the media and the attacks from the Republican machine, people will say, let’s nominate Hillary Clinton, because she’d be the better candidate.

O’DONNELL:  It’s an interesting scenario that they are laying out.  There are a couple of things to look at.

Ohio and Texas coming up are open primaries.  Independents can vote in Ohio.  That has favored Barack Obama in the past.  Texas is a primacaucus (ph).  It’s a primary and a caucus.

And as Bill Clinton said the other day, we need you to vote twice.  You do.  You need them to vote in the primary in order to participate then in the caucus.  You have to have voted.

Wow.  Gosh, it takes a lot of time to vote, certainly in this event coming up in Texas.

The problem for Hillary Clinton is that Pennsylvania doesn’t come soon enough.  That is a closed primary, which means those Independents can’t vote.

Now, having said all of that, that’s conventional wisdom.  Barack Obama did win Democrats in Wisconsin.  So he has shown that he can win with just Democrats.  He won among them in Wisconsin.

RUSSERT:  Gene Robinson, coming to November, John McCain versus Obama or Clinton.  There are going to be big differences on big issues.

ROBINSON:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  In the war, John McCain says we’re going to stay and win.  And the Democratic candidates would say we’re going to get out.

Bush tax cuts, the Republican’s going to say make them permanent.  The Democrats say roll them back.

ROBINSON:  There will be a genuine choice to be made, not just on the war in Iraq, but on the hope, conception of the war against terror, on the idea of America’s place in the world and how America should confront or interface with the rest of the world.

RUSSERT:  Sit down with leaders.

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  Exactly.

John McCain has been very, very tough on Iran, has all but suggested that there’s going to be some sort of military showdown with Iran, if not an actual conflict.  Obama, you know, has said he will defend U.S. interests, but certainly hasn’t talked about Iran in the terms that McCain has.  So, you know, that’s the whole foreign policy sphere.

And then in the domestic sphere, too, because, you know, as you said, the tax cuts, the economy.  It’s going to be a good election either way.

RUSSERT:  How do you see it, Michael?

CROWLEY:  Well, I think you raise a great point when you talk about security.  What I’ll be so interested to see is whether the Obama mystique works when you get into these very contentious conversations about national security and foreign policy.

He had some of that with Hillary Clinton and did a fairly good job, but the whole routine of hope and uplift and, you know, rhetoric that brings out the best in people is very difficult to pull off when you’re arguing with a guy who is obsessed with the idea that Iran is going to have a nuclear weapon, that is an existential threat to Israel, and could remake the map, the strategic map of the Middle East.  And you can’t counter that by talking about hope and by going to a big rally and whipping everybody up.

You really have to get into the details, be hardheaded and serious.  And I think the test for Obama will be whether he can do that against John McCain.

But I will grant he did a fairly good job in moments like that with Hillary.  He certainly got better.  At first I think he did not do such a good job.

That’s what I’ll be looking for.

RUSSERT:  That first debate when John McCain says, “My friends, they’re going to blow us up.”

O’DONNELL:  Right.

CROWLEY:  Can I just add—one of my colleagues once wrote, “No one was ever charmed out of a nuclear bomb.”  And I think, you know, that’s the sort of line that John McCain is going to be advancing against Obama.

O’DONNELL:  There are huge issues on taxes.  Already, even though John McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts, he now says that he would vote to extend them.

Barack Obama has proposed universal health care.  He’s proposed a number of issues that would cost a great deal of money.  And that is going to be a big clash between them, other than on national security, but on the simple issues that divide the two parties.

RUSSERT:  The most important event of this campaign season?  In July.  Norah O’Donnell is going to have a baby.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  She has Henry and she has Grace, only 13 months.  This is an Irish triplet.

O’DONNELL:  Yes.  Yes.  It’s—the O’Donnell/Tracy brood is growing.

RUSSERT:  All right.

Eugene Robinson, Norah O’Donnell, Michael Crowley, we’ll see you at the debate Tuesday night in Cleveland, MSNBC.  I’ll be with Brian Williams.

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