updated 2/28/2008 3:42:35 PM ET 2008-02-28T20:42:35

Guests: Dana Milbank, Howie Kehoe, Margaret Carlson

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

The day after the Clinton campaign presses superdelegates not to commit and certainly not to switch: And superdelegate Congressman John Lewis of Georgia today officially switches from Clinton to Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  You know what keeps me optimistic is, you know, the success I‘ve had thus far and what I think the prospects are for Tuesday.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And what are those?  The debate underscoring the underrated key to Obama‘s campaign he founds unflappable.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I think actually, Senator Clinton‘s answer on this one is right.  If the word reject, Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word denounce, then I‘m happy to complete the point and I will reject and denounce.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Raise and spend: Obama‘s TV ad advantage in Ohio and less easily seen seed money on the ground in Ohio and Texas.  Texas, where a staggering 420,000 Democrats had already voted early as of Monday.

First Iraq battle of the election: Senator McCain admits he didn‘t see it, but he criticizes Obama‘s claim that any president would have the right to pursue Al Qaeda even in Iraq, even if we gotten the troops from Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I have some news.  Al Qaeda is in Iraq.  Al Qaeda is called Al Qaeda in Iraq.

OBAMA:  I have news for John McCain.  That is that there was no such thing as Al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And another McCain flat denial rings flat itself: The radio bully who tried to use Obama‘s middle name as an epithet at yesterday‘s McCain rally in Cincinnati.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I‘ve never met Mr. Cunningham.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But Mr. Cunningham says, he‘s met McCain twice.  That the McCain campaign chose him specifically, that they chose him because he can throw, quote, “red meat”: to the McCain crowd.

Is Roger Clemens meat?  The House Oversight Committee asked the attorney general to investigate Clemens for perjury before Congress.  Not just the Democratic chair asked, but also the ranking Republicans.  Oops.

All that and more: Now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening, this is Wednesday, February 27th, 251 days until the 2008 presidential election.  As a practical matter, the superdelegates figure to end up meaning nothing to the Democratic nomination.  As a mathematical matter, the decision by just one of them to leave Hillary Clinton‘s column for Barack Obama‘s may be utterly insignificant.

But in our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN: As a symbolic matter, the day after her last debate, the day she pleaded with the superdelegates to give her more time, that move may mean everything.  According to the “Huffington Post”, the Clinton campaign has now e-mailed supporters a list of talking points to pressure superdelegates not to make any endorsements right now, six days before Rhode Island, Vermont, Texas and Ohio go to the polls.

The e-mail reads, quote: “It would be unfair and unjust to cut off the nominating process now.  There might come a time when the process needs to come to a close, but that time is not now.”

If, as we expect, Hillary wins Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, the current dynamics of this race will shift dramatically.  The goal post is also shifting dramatically there, with the Clinton firewall now expanding to include Pennsylvania which does not vote until April 22nd.  And there is movement as well within Pennsylvania.

The latest Quinnipiac Poll shrinking Clinton‘s lead, her down to 6 points, 49 to 43 with that undecided plus margin of error variable at about 12.5 and her lead down from 16 points just two weeks ago.  In Texas, the Secretary of State today, saying early voting there is at unprecedented, almost unbelievable at levels, 680,000 so far, double 2004‘s turnout, also predicting record turnout on the actual poll day, Tuesday.

Despite Senator Clinton‘s plea, her superdelegate lead is also shrinking today.  Two members of Congress, including red state senator, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, threw their votes and endorsements to Senator Obama.  The other, Congressman John Lewis, representing a multiple blow to Clinton in so much as he used to be in her camp and so much as for nearly, two weeks after his switch was rumored, he refused to confirmed it and so much as, his personal reputation as a Democratic stalwart and before that, an at the barricades, civil rights activist.  One of the men of spoke just before Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 is impeccable.  He also led the march at Selma.

He did explain this decision to NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN LEWIS, (D) GEORGIA:  I love Bill Clinton, I love Hillary Clinton, but something is happening in America.  Something is unbelievable, it is unreal.  Forty-three years ago, I marched across the bridge in Selma.  It was much easier than the decision that I have to make, but I have to make it.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS:  You‘re saying this decision was harder than the Selma march?

LEWIS:  It was much tougher.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Senator Clinton today was asked whether she failed today stem her losses by failing to land a knockout blow in last night‘s debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  I‘m surprised by it (INAUDIBLE) debate.  And, you know, I think a lot of people who watched it would come away and feel very positive and comfortable about what I said and what I presented as my credentials and my position on these issues.  I think there‘s a real contrast.  (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Real contrast it seems including some that kinder credo to Obama‘s benefit as she try to raise doubts about his ability to keep cool and exercise judgment under pressure, giving him one opportunity after another to do exactly that.  On attack after attack, Obama appeared unrattled, responding at times with the former political jujitsu, striking back in areas she calls his weaknesses, such as Pakistan and at times, letting her land blows, using the momentum to his own advantage, most notably, on the tricky subjects of Louis Farrakhan and separately, NAFTA.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I will make sure that we renegotiate in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about.  And I think actually, Senator Clinton‘s answer on this one was right.  Had we pursued the policy that was looking at democratic reforms in Pakistan, we would be much further along now than we are.  So, on the critical issues that actually matter, I believe that my judgment has been sound and it has been judgment that I think is superior to Senator Clinton‘s.

I don‘t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting.  There‘s no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it, but if the word reject, Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word denounce, then I‘m happy to concede the point and I will reject and renounce.

CLINTON:  Good, good, excellent.

TIM RUSSERT, DEBATE MODERATOR:  OK.  We‘ll -

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s turn now to MNSBC analyst, Dana Milbank of the “Washington Post”, author of course, of “Homo Politicus”.  Dana, good evening.

DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Was Senator Obama well-prepared last night or he just constitutionally unflappable by nature and is that, I don‘t know, sense of center, maybe that‘s the phrase for it, is that something that can resonate with voters, if the guy seems calm?

MILBANK:  I‘m not sure they want calm.  But, you know, they‘ve had 20 of these debates.  I don‘t think you can call them debates anymore.  It‘s like a traveling theatrical production in which they could switch sides and deliver each others lines.  Now, what‘s happened is, he‘s just gotten a lot better during the debates as he went along.  So, Clinton still seems to be better than him in each of these, but he seems to have narrowed the gap and that may be all he needs.

OLBERMANN:  It‘s not as if Senator Clinton did not lay a glove on Senator Obama last night, but why doesn‘t she get seem to get benefit when she does, is that, OK, media bias?

MILBANK:  Yes, it‘s in fact, a media conspiracy.

OLBERMANN:  I‘m sorry, you got the memo writing (INAUDIBLE) hear about the questions.

MILBANK:  Exactly.  Look, the Clinton‘s have had contempt for the media for 16 years.  It has been reciprocated.  But let‘s set that aside.  When she was doing very well, last year, she got good press.  Now, she‘s lost 10 states in a row, she‘s getting very poor press.

If she wins in Texas and Ohio next week, a lot of people in the media are going to shut up and the whole trajectory of the story will change immediately.  It‘s the media‘s following a winner and they perceive her as a loser right now.  That‘s all.

OLBERMANN:  Something else, back to Obama and the personality and what shows up in the debates, especially the last couple.  And I think it‘s a thing that thus of us who watched this stuff constantly, may not appreciate.  It took Hillary Clinton 20 debates just to get close to an apology for her Iraq vote which we saw last night.  So, she tries to scold him about just denouncing Farrakhan, not rejecting Farrakhan support.

Most politicians in that situation in the moment would hum and hom (ph), they have a meeting and they‘d issue a statement the next day.  And John McCain, (INAUDIBLE), “I never him, I never met him, I didn‘t know he was going to say any of that.”  Instead, he just says, if you think reject is a stronger word, then, I denounce it and reject it.  You answer that immediately and you extinguish controversy.  It seems so simple and yet it seems so rare in politics.

MILBANK:  You know, Hillary Clinton did her opponent a real favor right there.  He had sort of dug himself a hole because what he seem to be saying is, I don‘t like the words he said, but OK, I‘ll take his support any way.  If she‘d let it alone and let that fester, that could have come back to bite him.  She essentially gave him an out and allowed him to revise and extends his remarks, if you will, but she refrained from landing a potentially larger blow there, I think.

OLBERMANN:  Can he change what Americans of the 21st century and those survivors of the late 20th century view as politics as normal enough, so that that sense of subtext helps him between now and the general if indeed he is the nominee?

MILBANK:  Well, Keith, we‘re at a point where people are distributing photographs of Barack Obama wearing a Kenyan tribal dress.  So, I suspect that nuance and subtlety is not yet in the foremost of the voters‘ minds, not to mention the media‘s mind.

And as you alluded to it in the opening there, John McCain is not going to be subtle at all in trying to tease out these differences in Barack Obama‘s vulnerability.  So, I think praise of subtlety may be premature.

OLBERMANN:  On the other hand, if you are subtle and the guy next to you is just a little bit hyper, he may seem hysterical by contrast.  We‘ll see.  Dana Milbank of the “Washington Post”.  Great thanks, Dana.

MILBANK:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  For a candidate that‘s so haunted by her vote authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Senator Clinton‘s campaign seems in some ways to have taken on the cast of nothing so much as the Bush administration‘s post-war Iraq strategy.  Just the success in Iraq got move from election to election, benchmark to benchmark, so too, Clinton‘s superdelegates have been told, wait until Super Tuesday, wait until the Potomac primary, wait until March 4th, and now, wait until April 22nd.  Mission accomplished perhaps awaiting in Pennsylvania, raising the question, is Senator Clinton counting on some sort of superdelegate, wait for it, surge?

With us now with answers, MSNBC political analyst, Eugene Robinson, also an associate editor at the “Washington Post”.  Gene, good evening.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  So, this is the strategy, ask the superdelegates to help you stall while you what?  You wait that Obama gets a better job offer in another country?

ROBINSON:  Well, I think the strategy right now is more of a tactic is to try to keep the superdelegates from all bolting the coral even before next Tuesday.  You know, she is losing superdelegates, Senator Dorgan, Congressman Lewis, Senator Dodd yesterday.  And I think the danger for the Clinton campaign is that there‘s something like a superdelegate stampede, that there‘s a consensus, some sort of consensus forums that this really is over, that it‘s time to start healing the party, that any superdelegate shenanigans or, you know, kind of overturning essentially the will of the primaries and caucuses isn‘t going to fly.  And the best way to ensure that that doesn‘t happen is just to all declare for Obama and get Hillary Clinton out now.  And I think that‘s kind of the proximate danger that they have to worry about.

OLBERMANN:  That‘s lovely and it‘s a nice tribute to democracy and process, but it could also simply be self-interest on parts of some of the superdelegates?

ROBINSON:  Absolutely, these are politicians, these are elected officials.  You know, the very, very old saying in Washington, you know, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.  I mean, (INAUDIBLE), friendship is great and a lot of these people are friends of the Clintons, long time supporters, but in the end, part of the deal of being a politician here is that, you do what you got to do and they‘re looking at how their constituents voted, they‘re looking at the way the wind is blowing and saying, you know, we think we see which way this is heading.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  Mesh this strategy, Gene, to these headlines from the campaign today.  Number one, if you plea to the superdelegates, give me this extra time and give me the breathing room.  And the next day essentially, it‘s followed by John Lewis of all people, saying, yes, it‘s tougher when he got his head crushed in by the cops at Selma, but he‘s going across another kind of bridge.  What does that mean for you?

ROBINSON:  It‘s nothing good.  It means nothing good for your strategy because she really can‘t win without the superdelegates barring some sort of magical, you know, Neo sects smocking (ph) kind of revelation between now and the convention.  It‘s very difficult to see how she could catch up in pledged delegates.  So, who‘s going to make her the nominee?  It‘s going to be the superdelegates and if the likes of John Lewis is defecting and other superdelegates are declaring for Obama, this is nothing good for the Clinton campaign right now.

OBLERMANN:  And lastly, Gene, what‘s to be inferred from that news from Texas that 680,000 Democrats have early voted.  And Lord knows what that means in terms of the polls on Tuesday.  What does it mean for Senator Clinton and what does it mean for Senator Obama?

ROBINSON:  Well, I‘m not 100 percent sure what the Clinton campaign has been doing in terms of early voting in Texas.  I know that Obama has been telling people, go out and vote early.  You can vote now.  The video that we‘ve showed was a group of students at a historically black university in Texas who all going to, you know, marching en masse to vote early.  So, if that‘s who‘s voting early, again, it‘s not a great sign for the Clinton campaign.

OLBERMANN:  Eugene Robinson of the “Washington Post” and of course, MSNBC, always a pleasure sure, Gene, thank you.

ROBINSON:  Great to be here, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  When you think of money in the campaign, you think of advertising.  But the Obama cash surge may have its truest impact on the ground, among the door to door canvassers.  What a cash surge it‘s turning out to be?

And Senator McCain is going to outpoint Senator Obama about Iraq might have the game plan out a little better than he evidently did today.  The blow-by-blow ahead.  You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The new math: Barack Obama crosses the 1 million donor mark.  He said, 90 percent of our donations were from small donors, $25, $50, the Federal Election Commission says, 50 percent of what he‘s raised has come from those who gave $1,000 or more.  It‘s not have to up until 140 percent.

Later in Worst: John McCain has to back down from yet another absolute denial, this in the case of a Cincinnati radio bully - we never met.  So (ph), maybe he did.

Ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We have something that may be new from the campaign trail from NBC‘s Ron Allen who‘s traveling with the Clinton camp.  And reports something interesting that I‘d like to read directly from Ron‘s correspondence about this.  He said: “Senator Clinton was asked today about the possibility of Senator Obama being her running mate and after the standard, don‘t want to be presumptuous counter-chickens kind of answer,” Ron says, he points out the nominations have to be won first.

She said that she and Obama have both been asked this question repeatedly and whether or not she‘d be his VP, whether or not they‘d form some sort of dream ticket, her answer was: “Our highest goal is to win.  We need a unified party and we‘re going to do what it takes to win.”  There was nothing in there indicating that she would not want Obama on her ticket or would refuse to be on his.  Not necessarily urgent breaking news but something noble and interesting off the campaign trail, as reported by our own Ron Allen tonight.  “I had confidence,” said another candidate in the race, “that the American people if they were motivated would in fact, finance the campaign.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN: Senator Obama‘s confidence once again expressed last night and once again, rewarded this morning by 9:13 Eastern time.  That‘s when his campaign passed the 1 million donor mark.  As of 6:36 Eastern time tonight, it was up to 1,007,034, as to how much those 1 million-plus donors have given Obama, the campaign is tight lipped.  Speculation on the Internet estimates he has raised as much as $50 million just in February.  He‘s using the cash to outspend Senator Clinton and obviously in the March 4th states.

NBC political director, Chuck Todd has his own estimate here that Obama and his union backers have four times as many ads as Clinton does in Ohio.  And according to advertising expert Kevin Tracey (ph), Obama has spent 7 million in Texas and Ohio since the 12th of February.  Clinton has only spent 4 million in that time.  Over the past 30 days, Obama has spent 23 million compared to Clinton‘s 14.

Camp Clinton now playing catch up, sending an email out to supporters from Bill Clinton asking for cash to match, what they call Obama‘s $1.9 million worth of airtime in Texas, quoting, “Let‘s show the Obama campaign that they can‘t win the race just by throwing more money at it.  Let‘s match that $1.9 million ad buy of his and make sure this is a race of ideas because that‘s a race that we know Hillary will win.  Contribute now to help us raise $1.9 million in 24 hours.”

Let‘s talk some more numbers with MSNBC‘s David Shuster.  David, good evening.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC:  Good to be with you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  The TV ad budgets are obvious things to see, you can quantify them and see the results.  But how is the money gap here impacting literal boots on the ground.  What can the Obama people do organization that the Clintons can‘t in Ohio and Texas?

SHUSTER:  Since they can open up more offices, they can make more phone calls, they can distribute more literature, and they‘ve also got the flexibility to essentially flood a particular part of Texas or Ohio with resources if they see the need.  The other thing, Keith, comes in terms of the advance work.  You won‘t see it so much in terms of the candidates but with their surrogates, for example, there have been complaint that Bill Clinton, for example, has not been getting big crowds in part because some of the work is left to local volunteers and people don‘t know about his event.  Michelle Obama for example has not had that problem because of the advance team and the work that can be done to try to make sure that people know about her events and know about all in fact, of the Obama events.

OLBERMANN:  Senator Obama said last night that the average donation of his campaign is $109.  And the quote was - “We have now raised 90 percent of our donations from small donors, $25, $50” and FEC though says, just over 50 percent of what he‘s raised so far, came from the donors who gave $1,000 or more.   At first glance, that would seem to add up to like 140 percent, this does not add up literally or figuratively.  Can you explain this please?

SHUSTER:  Right.  It‘s complicated because Obama put two different issues and that thing sent (ph), put aside, Keith, for example, the average donation amount because that will make this even more confusing than what I‘m about to say.  When you talk about dollar amounts, the total amount collected more than half in that Obama pot, came from high rollers or people giving more than $1,000.

When you talk about the total number of donors, that‘s where Obama‘s 90 percent is accurate.  So, here‘s another way to follow this: Out of 1 million people who have donated to Barack Obama, 900,000 gave small amounts, 100,000 gave large amounts.  Thus, the 90 percent small donor figure, even though half of the total dollar figure came in those larger increments.

OLBERMANN:  Right.  So, it‘s half the money raised for 10 percent of the donors and 90 percent of the donors are 50 bucks (INAUDIBLE).  I thought I‘d failed math again.

The issue of funds leads naturally into this question of public financing for the general election.  Obama was pressed about the Midwest Democracy Network questionnaire from last year, during the debate last night.  The question got oversimplified in the process.  Obama did not just say yes to public financing in the general election, he went on and he gave a lengthy answer about hoping to negotiate with the Republican nominee, some sort of spending cap.  It was a very nuance answer.  Is there any better idea today, why in his response last night, he did not emphasize that nuance?  Is it just perceived as being too complicated to be worth it?  To hit the public with that answer right now?

SHUSTER:  Well, Keith, it is a very complicated decision for Barack Obama in part because of all the money he‘s been able to raise.  Keep in mind though, when you talk about public financing for the general election, that means the two months between the conventions and the November election.  Obama knows that if he‘s the nominee, he‘s going to have a huge advantage over John McCain in the next five months.  The question is: How much of an advantage can Obama produce for those final two months and that depends of course, on what John McCain decides to do and how Barack Obama fundraising goes this spring and over the summer.

OLBERMANN:  MSNBC‘s David Shuster in Washington for us.  Thank you, David.

SHUSTER:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Police in Romania try to change their image.  Now, they‘re going to have to try to change this image.  That lane.

Another day and another flat denial retracted by the McCain campaign.  “I never met him,” he says to the radio bully who‘d try to use Obama‘s middle name as an insult.  Today, well, now, it‘s - “I may have met him.”

But first: The headlines breaking in the administration‘s 50 scandals

Bushed.

Number three: SCHIP-gate.  Not only did the president veto the $35 million expansion of federal health insurance for uninsured or underinsured kids but three governors told Congress that Mr. Bush is now trying to force their states to roll back their coverage, to deny or expel children from SCHIP whose families have incomes of few thousand dollars over the Bush organization cut off point of $44,000 a year.  Take away their gruel and their begging cups while you are at it.

Number two: MRAP-gate.  The good news we told you yesterday, the marines want the Pentagon to verify and investigate the internal marine investigation that showed that foot dragging and favoritism denied American soldiers MRAP, armored protected vehicles in Iraq and led to hundreds of them being killed by roadside bombs.  The bad news?  The marines have now stopped that internal investigation telling the civilian scientist they have commissioned that he had exceeded his authority by talking about MRAPs to all because the commission never mentioned the MRAPs vehicles by name.  In other words, they are going to try to bury the thing in Pentagon red tape.

And number one, a new one:  Foreclosure-gate.  As Congress starts to gain a head of steam on changing bankruptcy laws to save the victims of predatory lenders, Mr. Bush is threatening to veto the help for homeowners in trouble.  We look at this as a bailout, said spokesman, Tony Fratto, but worse than that, it is interfering with contracts.  The Bush administration has a message for those homeowners facing financial disaster: “Screw you.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  I was reminded by a viewer that we completely blew Monday‘s birthday notation because 65 years ago Monday was born at Liverpool, England George Harrison.  Apart from having probably been the most musically talented Beatle, he was also the first to travel here to the United States.  His sister Louise had moved to Benton, Illinois early in 1963.

And that September, five months before the group made its epic debut on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” George Harrison went to visit her.  While in that town 100 miles east of St. Louis, Harrison stopped by the local record shop and offhandedly asked about this group, the Beatles.  The guy there said he‘d never heard of them proving all things must past.

With thanks to the viewer who reminded me, you may have already guessed, is Louise Harrison.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin about 439 miles northwest of Benton in Omaha, Nebraska.  Where thanks to an icy blast unsuspecting drivers finding themselves literally skating down the street.  Yes, it‘s that guiltiest pleasure of television, watching terrified motorists and laughing at them because we have not in the car with them.

And much like any other ice rink in the world some of the participants managed to execute dainty pirouettes but others ended up simply going too fast and bumping into the barrier.  That‘s funny.

Maybe these guys can help out the Nebraskans next snow day.  They are traffic cops of Timokora (ph), Romania.  Instead of getting yelled at by angry drivers every day, they can now expect to get laughed at.  Their boss has mandated ballet lessons twice a week to teach the men how to make their traffic directions more graceful and elegant which the department hopes will entertain drivers.  As you can see from the footage, the boys in blue are thrilled by their new assignment.  Plus they‘re in yellow.

Did the general election campaign start today?  McCain tries to school Obama about Iraq.  Obama praises McCain‘s war service and then smokes him inside.

Speaking of which, it might be good news for some federal prison ballclub out there.  They could get Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens on their team.  These stories ahead.

But first time for COUNTDOWN‘s top three best persons in the world.

Number three best self-serving cooked books press release.  Our friends over at CNN who were nice enough to pledge things to make it look like their 8:00 shows were a few thousand viewers aged 25-54 ahead of this show for the month of February.  They gave their 8:00 show the same name as their election night coverage and so they counted the 8:00 hour of election nights as their regular 8:00 election night show.

I know this is kind of personal and peevish, but this is the same crap O‘Reilly pulls.  If you play the ratings game by the spirit of the rules, you can‘t do this, but then CNN would have to admit COUNTDOWN is beating them by 118,000 viewers, by 41 percent every regular night.  Oops.

Number two, best strategy, Karl Rove.  Seriously.  “The Atlantic” Web site reports he met in private with Republican state executive directors last month and told them not to try to demagogue Senator Obama‘s middle name.  That doing so would perpetuate the perception that Republicans were bigoted.

Comedian Rush Limbaugh promptly slammed John McCain for apologizing for his local demagogue in Cincinnati when he demagogued it.  I can‘t believe somebody‘s name is off limits, I just don‘t believe it.

Number one, best resume item for a new politician.  Brock Olivo, former running back of the University of Missouri.  Says he wants to run for Congress as a Republican from Columbia Missouri.

Not only was I a football player, he says, proudly, but I also was in social studies class.  So going to class is so rare for a college football player, you can try to run for Congress based on it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If today‘s first head to head clash between Senators McCain and Obama over Iraq is any indicator of an election campaign to come, the senator from Arizona needs to get himself a seatbelt.

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, McCain mischaracterizes what Obama said about al Qaeda in last night‘s debate.  Then Obama uses it to run rings around the Republican.  Senator McCain today said he didn‘t watch last night‘s debate.  Perhaps he should have.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I am told that Senator Obama made the statement that if al Qaeda came back to Iraq after he withdraws, after American troops are withdrawn, then he would said military troops back if al Qaeda established a base in Iraq.  I have some news, al Qaeda is in Iraq.  Al Qaeda, it is called al Qaeda in Iraq.  And, my friends, if we left, they wouldn‘t be establishing a base.  They wouldn‘t be establishing a base, they would be taking a country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Yeah, that‘s another point.  We‘ll get to that later.  Here‘s what Senator Obama actually said last night in answering a question from Tim Russert which was, “Do you deserve a right as an American president to go back into Iraq once you have withdrawn with sizeable troops in order to quell any kind of insurrection or civil war?”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I always reserve the right for the president as commander and chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure we are looking out for American interests.  And if al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  So, Senator Obama today answered Senator McCain‘s comments but not before making preparatory remarks which are both laudatory and disarming.  “McCain is a genuine American hero that deserves respect and gratitude.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  First of all, I do know that al Qaeda is in Iraq.  That‘s why I said we should continue to strike al Qaeda targets.  But, I have some news for John McCain.  That is there was no such thing as al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.

They took their eye off the people who were responsible for 9/11, that would be al Qaeda in Afghanistan that is stronger now than at anytime since 2001.  I have been paying attention John McCain.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Senator Obama also pointed out that quote, “Senator McCain likes to say that he wants to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but so far all he has done is followed George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq.”

Let‘s call in the Washington editor for “The Week” and political columnist for Bloomberg News, Margaret Carlson, Margaret, good evening.

MARGARET CARLSON, BLOOMBERG NEWS:  Hi, Keith, good evening.

OLBERMANN:  Perhaps the first Iraq battle of the general election was joined.  Did Senator Obama seem a lot more prepared for it than Senator McCain, or at least more prepared for it than Senator McCain thought he would be prepared for it?

CARLSON:  Well, if John McCain had watched the debate last night, he would have seen how well prepared he was.  Senator Obama certainly enjoyed the moment when he got to say to Senator Clinton when he got to say you can‘t pull the bus out of the ditch because you drove it in.  Referring to her vote on Iraq.

And John McCain is even more enthusiastic about the war in Iraq than Senator Clinton ever was.  In fact, she quite regrets her vote.  He gets to lecture McCain rightly because that al Qaeda thing.  Can‘t you picture some P.R. guy in Fallujah said let‘s call ourselves al Qaeda, that will confuse them back there in America.

OLBERMANN:  And to that point, there‘s an inference to be drawn from this.  If one of the candidates does not know the difference between al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq, which of course only began after we leveled Iraq‘s political structure and we didn‘t bother to secure the borders and stuff, obviously McCain‘s base will look at that conflation and cheer and Obama‘s will look at it and say what an idiot.

But what about the people in the media?  Is John McCain betting that the distinction is too complex for undecided voters?  Is that the strategy?

CARLSON:  Well, Keith, that‘s a good point.  It‘s been muddled up until now.  Obama is going to have to keep hammering away at that.  He takes a little time because he does have to, each time say, we honor your service.  But he says it as if McCain was serving in the French Foreign Legion or maybe the War of 1812.  It makes him sound like a World War I veteran or something.  However, it can be separated and people can be told and Obama may be able to do it where others have not been able to thoroughly unweld those two things together.

OLBERMANN:  You mentioned that paid tribute every time out.  If this turns out to be McCain versus Obama, have we seen anything like this before?  One candidate mentions the other candidate he‘s going to pay tribute to his war service.  If you do that, is it foolish because you remind everybody that he served in the war or do you inoculate yourself by complimenting the opponent and then saying anything you want to about him?

CARLSON:  Probably you just don‘t lose anything by being as gracious as possible.  It does make John McCain seem like another generation as compared to Barack Obama.  The moment in the debate, not this one last night, but the one before that everybody remembers is when Hillary actually said I‘m honored to be on stage with Barack Obama, whether she meant it or not.  A little grace goes a long way.

And he is a genuine hero.  Don‘t you always ask yourself when you see John McCain, could I have stayed five year ins that prison without cracking?  I don‘t know that I would have been that brave.

OLBERMANN:  It‘s extraordinary—If it‘s more than graciousness, it‘s an extraordinary move on Obama‘s part.  We‘ll see how that plays out if they in fact go head to head.

Good to talk to you, thanks for your time tonight, Margaret.

CARLSON:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  An unexpected bit of bipartisanship from Washington.  Democrats and Republicans asking the attorney general to investigate baseball‘s Roger Clemens for perjury.

And a Florida politician who wants license plates there to reflect the state‘s, quote, “confederate pride.”  Yeah we should all take pride in a four year armed attempt to overthrown the government of the United States.  Worst persons in the world ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  William F. Buckley died.  Roger Clemens has had his testimony referred to the attorney general and referred by a Democrat and a Republican for a perjury investigation.  And in worst persons, I never met Bill Cunningham, says Senator McCain.  I met McCain twice, says Bill Cunningham, maybe they did meet says the McCain campaign.  All that ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The country‘s total net vocabulary probably dropped a full percentage point this morning.  Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, the erudite conservative icon William F. Buckley has died, fittingly while writing in his desk in his study.

Proof that at least in the 20th century people could be judged on personality, whimsy and intelligence and not merely politics.

Buckley virtually invented conservative politics in a modern sense, voiced it on his TV show “Firing Line.”  The last 29 seasons of which were shown on PBS.  And some of his positions were gloriously, indefensibly wrong.  As a student, he opposed U.S. involvement in World War II, he defended Senator Joseph McCarthy, he suggested tattoos for AIDS patients and ruminated on denying the vote to the uneducated.

William F. Buckley was suffering from emphysema, he was 82 years old.

Roger Clemens tells reporters covering him in spring training that they need to get a life.  A congressional committee‘s letter to the attorney general about prosecuting Clemens for perjury suggests he me need to get a criminal lawyer.

That‘s next but first time for COUNTDOWN‘s worst persons in the world.

The bronze to lunatic fringer Jonah Goldberg once again not letting details get in the way of the invective, claiming the media was ignoring that quote, “Obama‘s campaign headquarters in Houston had a Che Guevara emblazoned Cuban flag hanging on the wall.”  Yeah.  The Fox station which first showed the flag had to issue a correction.  Because that was not Obama‘s campaign headquarters it was the office of a woman who volunteered in Houston for Obama.  And when the Obama campaign found out about it they told her the flag was offensive and needed to be taken down.

And Jonah, you‘ve now already compared him to Hitler and fascists and now Che Guevara.  It‘s only February.  At this rate you‘re going to run out of slanders by April, and readers too.

Our runner up, Florida state representative Donald Brown who has introduced a measure to allow Floridians to buy special confederate flag license plates to, quote, “show pride in their heritage.”  Which part of your confederate heritage are you more proud of, Representative Brown, the pro slavery part or the part that mounted an armed treasonous insurrection against the lawful government of the United States or the part that led to a war that killed 600,000 Americans?

And the gold tonight.  Senator McCain.  After radio bully Bill Cunningham tried to use Senator Obama‘s middle name as an epithet while warming up the crowd for McCain in Cincinnati yesterday, McCain repudiated them and said I‘ve never met the man.  After which Cunningham said, no, the campaign had hired specifically to throw quote, “red meat” to their crowd.  Oh and he and McCain had met twice.  The first revised statement from the McCain camp, oh right, they might have met at a rally or somewhere like that.

This is the third business day in the last four in which Senator McCain has had to alter one of his absolute denials.  That‘s quite a streak, senator.  Senator John McCain, today‘s worst person in the world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  When baseball‘s Roger Clemens had his showdown day of testimony with steroid accuser Brian McNamee congressional party lines could not have been more distinct and Clemens‘ prior massaging of Republican legislators could not have looked smarter.

But in our number one story tonight, in bipartisanship even more startling than usual.  Not only the Democratic chair of the committee to which Clemens may have lied, but also the ranking Republican who had openly defended Clemens today both asked the attorney general to investigate whether or not the star pitcher has committed perjury.  Henry Waxman and Tom Davis writing of Clemens to Attorney General Mukasey, “We believe that his testimony in a sworn deposition on February 5, 2008 and a hearing on February 13th, 2008 that he never used anabolic steroids or human growth hormone warrants further investigation.

“That testimony is directly contradicted by the sworn testimony of Brian McNamee who testified that he personally injected Clemens with anabolic steroids and human growth hormone.”

The committee also notes the contradiction between Clemens and Andy Pettitte.  They also reveal in a separate memo there is also medical evidence that may prove an abscess Clemens had on his leg in 1998 was actually caused by a steroid injection gone bad.

Today in Kissimmee, Florida, Clemens was in camp with the Houston Astros pitching/batting practice when the news of a possible perjury investigation came through.

No comment.  Joining me now, Greg Kehoe.  Former prosecutor for the Department of Justice who once worked on the prosecution of Howie Spira (ph) for trying to blackmail Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

Mr. Kehoe, thanks for your time tonight.

HOWIE KEHOE, FORMER PROSECUTOR:  No problem.  Great to be here.

OLBERMANN:  Clemens‘ lawyer says that that letter from Mr. Waxman and Mr. Davis is irrelevant, it doesn‘t increase the chance of a perjury investigation.  It doesn‘t decrease it.  Is he whistling past graveyards there?

KEHOE:  Obviously any type of investigation like this has to have a formal referral from the Hill to the Department of Justice.  The Department of Justice is not going to commence the proceeding without that.  But, the department is then going to look at the counts individually to see if there‘s evidence to sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.

OLBERMANN:  Before we talk about whether or not that is possible.  What are the practicalities, what‘s the time frame?  Start investigation, conclude one, decision on prosecution, prosecution length, what could the prison time be, give me the numbers.

KEHOE:  I wouldn‘t think, looking at the referral, that it would be finished in less than a year, maybe even more.  Because the department, if they take the case, will look through this individually.  That being said, a conviction for perjury is serious or a conviction for a false statement under 1001.  And it can carry with it a sentence between 14 months, 16 months, possibly more.

OLBERMANN:  And the relative parameters here, three years ago next month Rafael Palmeiro wagged his finger at this same committee saying I never took steroids, then six months later it was revealed he tested positive for steroids.  Obviously there is a huge gray area there.  Obviously he could have been using, as unlikely as it sounds, steroids for the first time in a 20 year career and he got caught and he also was not lying to them.  But, between that stage where it‘s murky and this stuff with Clemens, is that the illustration of how high congressmen hold the perjury bar before they would request a perjury investigation?

KEHOE:  Criminal cases can be referred.  All they sent was this investigation, go to the department to take a further look at it.  The Department of Justice as a law enforcement body is going to look at each and every one of the charges to see if they can prove them beyond a reasonable doubt.  Perjury charges, false statement charges are very difficult to charges to prove in a court of law.  They are simply not going to take them based on he said she said type of evidentiary proof.

OLBERMANN:  Is it possible they are trying to shake something loose here?  I mean, if you were Clemens‘ attorney, what advice would you give him in the wake of this letter being sent?

KEHOE:  I think at this point, given the fact it has been a referral to the Department of Justice, the best thing Mr. Clemens can do is just keep silent and let the process take its course.  If further questions are asked of counsel, the decision can be made to answer them.  But if I was representing Mr. Clemens I‘d say no further statements at this time.

OLBERMANN:  At what point might you contemplate if there is something to correct in the record, correcting the record?

KEHOE:  That‘s always a possibility.  People have lapses in memory.  I‘m not talking about Mr. Clemens, but I am talking about other people, everybody forgets things during the course of their life.  Sometimes questioning jogs memories.  Whether or not that‘s going to happen with Mr.  Clemens remains to be seen.  But it does happen to people and I‘ve had numerous grand jury investigations where witnesses called me six months to a year after the fact and said I‘d like to correct something that I said under oath.  They come in and correct it.  And they are allowed to clarify that testimony before a grand jury and it‘s perfectly proper.

OLBERMANN:  Could he preempt even a grand jury at this point if there is something to correct and actually go back to Congress and say no, let me revise what I told you.  Would that do any good at this point?

KEHOE:  It would be a difficult thing to do at this point simply because the oversight committee has completed their examination and have made the referral.  Whether or not that would actually undercut a prosecution or the theory of prosecution, that‘s a thing to be said.  I don‘t think a prosecutor would want to take a case after the witness has come forward and said I want to change my story.

OLBERMANN:  We‘ll see how it turns out.  Attorney Greg Kehoe, the former DOJ prosecutor.  Great thanks for your time tonight, sir.

KEHOE:  You‘re welcome.

OLBERMANN:  That‘s COUNTDOWN for this, the 1,764th since the declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.  From New York, I‘m Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.

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

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