updated 3/28/2008 5:33:43 PM ET 2008-03-28T21:33:43

Guests: Dana Siegelman, Vince Kilborn, Scott Horton, Dean Calbreath, Bill Portanova, Laura Schwartz, Nadia Turner, Carmen Rasmussen, Tom O‘Neil

DAN ABRAMS, HOST:  We have got breaking news to report to you tonight out of Alabama.  In a stunning court ruling just hours ago, the former Democratic governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman was ordered freed from a federal prison.  He has been locked up there since last summer, serving a seven-year sentence.

Siegelman‘s supporters have long claimed that the Democrat was singled out for prosecution by prominent Alabama Republicans.  Then, the stunning allegation from a Republican operative that former presidential adviser Karl Rove was behind the effort to bring down the popular Democrat as he campaigned for another term.

For weeks in our Bush League Justice series, we have called for the court to release Siegelman while he appeals.  I‘ve been concerned that this case was politicized.  But Federal Judge Mark Fuller refused.  He seemed to be dragging his feet.

But tonight, in a clear rebuke to that judge, a ruling that has already brought a quick response from the Alabama Republican Party, an appellate court agreed with us and found that Siegelman‘s appeal, quote, “raises substantial questions of law or fact.”  And ruled that Siegelman, quote, “shall be released.”

Joining me now is Dana Siegelman, daughter of the Governor Don Siegelman; Vince Kilborn, Siegelman‘s attorney; Scott Horton, a lecturer of Columbia Law School and a contributor at “Harper‘s,” who‘s been writing extensively about this case.

Dana, first, your reaction to the news.

DANA SIEGELMAN, DAUGHTER OF JAILED DEM GOVERNOR:  My reaction?  I‘m thrilled they finally have done something.  My dad might be free on appeal, but he‘s not free until he‘s fully exonerated.  So, I‘m happy, but I want to see more done.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Scott lay out for us what the allegation is here about how—the connection between the Alabama Republicans, possibly, Karl Rove and this prosecution.

SCOTT HORTON, COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL PROFESSOR:  Well, we got to know that the outset, of course, this is entirely independent from the appeal which is going to go forward on technical legal issues.  But we have Karl Rove as you noted being connected directly to this prosecution, to the testimony of a Republican election operative.

We have two U.S. attorneys being involved who are also both tightly-connected to the Alabama Republican Party and to its election apparatus and the U.S. attorney who in fact, brought the prosecution that resulted in a conviction, being the wife of the most important GOP election adviser in the state and one who was actively involved, advising the campaigns opposed to Siegelman as he sought re-election.

ABRAMS:  All right.  We are told that Siegelman will likely now be released tomorrow.  I‘ve got to tell you, this is leading to a huge reaction in the state of Alabama.  The Alabama GOP immediately responded to this.

And they said the following: “The former governor‘s released pending appeal does not change the conviction by a jury of his peers.  It would be premature to turn this development into anything other than a formality.”

A formality?  The fact he‘s been released or is going to be released tomorrow, likely, pending appeal, I assure you, is more than a formality.

All right.  Vince Kilborn, as we continue with this breaking news out of Alabama, I want to lay out for you my concerns.  What I‘ve been particularly concerned about in this case and then, I want you tell me whether you think that‘s really going to be significant as this appeal moves forward, alright?

First of all, the fact this court did not release a transcript for a year and a half.  You can‘t appeal without a transcript, and it took a year and a half to get the transcript.  Second, the first case against him was thrown out.  So, they then came back at him again with a new case.  He was acquitted on 25 of the 32 charges in the second case.

This was, and I think an excessive prison term.  Maybe, most importantly, the key witness also made allegations against top Republicans that weren‘t investigated and 52 former state attorneys general have asked Congress to investigate.  They have said there‘s reason to believe that the case may have had sufficient irregularities.  They‘re calling to question the basic fairness that‘s a lynch pin of our system of justice.

So, first of all, tell me your reaction to the news tonight and also, whether you think that those issues were of concern to the court as well?

VINCE KILBORN, ATTY. FOR FMR. GOV. DON SIEGELMAN:  Well, you are right, it was a stunning development.  It‘s a huge step in the reversal of the conviction on final appeal.  And you said, the Republican Party down here said it was just a formality, I think the eleven (ph) surrogate judges would consider that their ruling is not just formality, it was a clear, legal ruling that has substantial issues which could invalidate this entire conviction.

So, I think it‘s a huge development and they can spin it all they want, but we‘re going to pursue it.  He will get out.  He is innocent and all these other developments that you mentioned are developing stories.

The House Judiciary Committee as you know, they are scheduling a hearing on this very subject in May.  That happened 24 hours ago.

ABRAMS:  Let me reset here.  We‘re continuing with our breaking news coverage from just a few hours ago.  The announcement that a federal court of appeal has ordered the former Democratic governor of Alabama released as he appeals.  This is a strong rebuke to a lower court judge who up to this point has said, there is no reason to release him.

A lot of allegations that this former Democratic governor was prosecuted based on political motivations.  He was convicted of bribery, mail fraud, and obstruction of justice, is serving seven years.

But I think, Scott Horton, the fact that this appeals court has come back, and remember, the appeals court said to the lower court justify it to us.  Explain to us why we shouldn‘t release him on appeal.  I want to understand it better.  The lower court issues this long, long opinion and the appellate court is now saying, OK, we got it.  We reject it.

I mean, that to me seems to be more than just saying, he‘s going to be released pending appeal, it‘s saying, hey, we think you have a real issue here to get it overturned.

HORTON:  No question about it.  That‘s exactly what it says.

And, in fact, they had to go back to this district court judge two times, ordering him to deliver an opinion when he put in one originally.  They said that this is unacceptable.  It was ridiculous.  It was a failure to justify his opinion.

Then he wrote a much lengthier opinion after 49 days, an extraordinary period of time and they‘d ruled against him effectively.  They said there are substantial arguments on appeal.  Not saying that Siegelman will win the appeal, but it‘s saying that it is not a long shot.  There are reasonable prospects to win.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Dana Siegelman, tell me about what your father‘s time has been like behind bars.

SIEGELMAN:  My dad is one of the most positive people I know.  And so, when I visited him, he‘s actually lifted my spirits and I left feeling renewed and full of strength to do something about it.  I think, the key here is to remember that he is innocent and he knows that he is going to be fully exonerated one day.

And until then, wallowing in self-pity and feeling sorry for oneself and for my dad, it‘s not going to get us anywhere.  So, he has maintained a positive spirit and I‘m sure he‘s thrilled to go home and sleep in his bed.

ABRAMS:  Mr. Kilborn, one of the things that came out in the “60 Minutes” story about this, the “60 Minutes” story that was miraculously blacked out in a portion of Alabama when the story aired which in and of itself created quite a stir was that one of the key witnesses, and “he spoke to prosecutors more than 70 times. He had trouble remembering details.  The prosecutors were so frustrated, they made him write his proposed testimony over and over to get his story straight.”

That‘s coming from “60 Minutes.”  Is that going to be one of the key issues for you on appeal?  I mean, can you - when you make this appeal, I know you weren‘t able to bring it up in a lower court, can you say to the appellate court, look, believe this was political, we believe they targeted him because he‘s a Democrat?

KILBORN:  We can‘t say that because all these developments came about, about a year after the conviction.  But I can assure, Dan, that we are going to pursue that at the proper time.  We are going to have to wait.

But we will be getting around to that and proceedings like, have this court (ph) proceedings and whatever it takes.  And I think as this story develops, particularly like with your show, more and more is going to come out.

ABRAMS:  All right.  We are going to stay on this story.  This is really—I have to tell you, I think everyone who has covered the case, anyone who‘s been watching this case, anyone who‘s been following this case is stunned by this development from the 11th Circuit but I have called for it before.  I think the 11th Circuit has done the right thing here, to release him pending appeal and we‘re going to continue to follow all the details in the story.

Thank you, Dana Siegelman.  And please let us know when you get in touch with your father.  We‘d love to have him on the show.

James Kilborn and Scott Horton, thank you.

We want to know your VERDICT on the Siegelman case.  E-mail us at: mailto:Verdict@msnbc.com Tell us what you think.  Be sure to include your name, where you‘re writing from.  E-mail us every night in the P.O.‘ed (ph) box.

Coming up: More Bush League Justice.  The Justice Department disbands the unit responsible for going after corrupt public officials in Los Angeles.  This is that very unit which is investigating a prominent California Republican congressman.

And: New polls tear apart some media myths about the presidential campaign.  Bill Clinton‘s negative campaigning is tarnishing his image, right?  Not necessarily.

Plus: The Pentagon awards a contract essentially worth $300 million to a company led by a 22-year-old; the vice president, a licensed masseur.  They delivered exactly what you would expect.  It is today‘s edition of Why America Hates Washington.

VERDICT is back in 60 seconds.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  It‘s time for tonight‘s edition of Why America Hates Washington.  The Pentagon has awarded a contract essentially worth $300 million to a company led by a 22-year-old and a vice president who is a license masseur.

The “New York Times” says Efraim Diveroli secured a deal with the government to arm Afghan forces last January.  When the ammunition made it into the fields, what fell out of the card board boxes were rifle and machine gun cartridges made in china in 1966.  Not only would the ammunition is useless but they‘re procurement from China through what could be illegal arms traffickers might make them illegal as well.

The Pentagon giving millions to a 22-year-old arms dealer is tonight‘s reason Why America Hates Washington.

We‘re back with Bush League Justice in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  We‘re back with a new chapter in our continuing series: Bush League Justice.  We investigate whether the Bush administration is continuing to politicize our justice system.

Tonight: California Senator Dianne Feinstein is demanding an explanation for why the Justice Department closed down the public corruption unit at a Federal Prosecutor‘s Office in Los Angeles.

In a sharp a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Feinstein says, quote, “The decision to close that unit raises serious questions about the future of public corruption cases, and whether they will be vigorously pursued.”

One of those public corruption cases that could be impacted is the ongoing investigation into Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis.  He‘s been under investigation since 2006 after authorities learned, he had ties to the same contractors connected to former Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham who admitted to taking bribes in 2005 and is now serving an eight-year prison sentence.

At the very least, we‘re looking at a major perception problem here.

Joining me now is the “San Diego Union Tribune” reporter, Dean Calbreath, who‘s covered the Lewis case extensively; and former federal prosecutor, Bill Portanova.

All right.  Bill, first, let me ask you, first, from a perception point of view.  Closing down the corruption unit in Los Angeles, there is - it seems inevitably going to be questions that people are going to say, why?  And when you‘re talking about public corruption which is the investigation of public officials, there‘s going to be questions whether it‘s politicized.

WILLIAM PORTANOVA, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  Well, there‘s no question that you have a massive public perception issue problem here.  These people—they didn‘t disband the unit and fire these prosecutors though, all they did was just redistributed them in the rest of the office.

There‘s still 200 or 300 prosecutors and they‘re now spread out.  So, it‘s not like they are fired and not able to do the work.  But they have certainly taken that team and redistributed it.  it looks bad.  But they‘re still there working.

ABRAMS:  Yes, doesn‘t it send a message?  I mean, again, that‘s the reason Senator Feinstein is asking the questions.  Doesn‘t it send the message that says public corruption is not the priority that it once was?

PORTANOVA:  Well, in a political sense, it does.  But I have to tell you, you know, from the true work standpoint, of a federal prosecutor, all it takes is one prosecutor to make one of these cases, just one.  Honestly, 17 prosecutors on one case is actually counter-productive.

ABRAMS:  Yes, Bill, I called a lot of federal prosecutors, in addition to some who used to work in that office, all of them were concerned about this.  They weren‘t saying this means it‘s politicized.  But they all expressed some level of concern to me, about the fact that when you‘re dealing with public corruption, it‘s so sensitive in particular when you got an ongoing investigation of a prominent Republican congressman that it‘s going to feel like it‘s politicized.

An anonymous assistant U.S. attorney wrote to the “Los Angeles Times”: “Lawyers at the U.S. Attorney‘s Office said their boss, Thomas O‘Brien threatened to tarnish their reputations if they challenge the official explanation for the unit‘s dismantling.  Several said they wanted to talk about the situation but feared reprisals, if they did so.”

I mean, look, it‘s anonymous.  But if true, that is disconcerting, isn‘t it?

PORTANOVA:  Well, that‘s a terrible thing.  Anytime somebody in the justice system makes that kind of a threat to the underling, if they talk to a press or tell the public about a change of the insight, there‘s a sickness inside that has to be fixed.

ABRAMS:  Dean, let‘s talk about this investigation to Lewis.  Tell us about it.

DEAN CALBREATH, SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE:  Well, we started investigating Lewis and I figure it was our paper that really started the focus on him and in connection who Brent Wilkes who is the primary briber of Randy “Duke” Cunningham.  Cunningham has pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, got eight years in jail.

Brent Wilkes was found guilty last month.  And Brent Wilkes did not only gave money to Cunningham, he also gave a lot of bribes, $2.5 million worth of bribes but he gave a lot of political contribution to several key congressmen and Jerry Lewis was one of them.  We outlined a lot of the ties between Jerry Lewis and Brent Wilkes.  They would go out in vacation together, to Belize, go scuba diving together.

ABRAMS:  So, could he still be prosecuted?  Where are we in terms of the investigation of Lewis?

CALBREATH:  In terms of the investigation, we understand that it is ongoing.  You know, when you‘re dealing with the Department of Justice, they don‘t like to give you too many details about what they‘re doing.  We understand that it‘s ongoing, but, you know, it has been a two-year process so far and we aren‘t getting a lot of word from them what exactly they‘re just doing.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Let me just read the response from the U.S. Attorney Thomas O‘Brien, “The whole idea here is to do more, not less.  I guarantee that we will filing more public corruption and civil rights cases than we have in the past.”

We shall see because we know that before Michael Mukasey came in, the civil rights division in this Justice Department was a mess as we pointed out on this program.

All right.  Dean Calbreath and William Portanova, thanks a lot.  Appreciate it.

Coming up: The inside D.C. media loves to come up with a story line and stick with it.  The new polls show that some of them got it wrong.  Most Democrats don‘t want Hillary Clinton to get out of the race and the Reverend Wright controversy hasn‘t hurt Obama either.

And: Is “American Idol” totally selling out?  Is this supposed to be an amateur talent competition?  A lot of the contestants already had recording contracts.  Shocker, they may be beating the real amateurs?  Isn‘t that kind of a fraud?

Plus: FOX‘s Neil Cavuto takes his show into the toilet literally.  Beat the Press is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  It‘s time for tonight‘s Beat the Press: Our daily look back at the absurd and sometimes amusing perils of live TV.

First up: It seems pretty clear FOX‘s Neil Cavuto had excrement on his mind yesterday while trying to get to the bottom of the mortgage mess.  This was all in the matter of three minutes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEIL CAVUTO, TV HOST:  Trying to help a company that got itself in doo-doo is appeasing (ph), you know what.  I‘m not trying to be hard-ass hero (ph), bail their ass out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Neil, a potty mouth (ph).

Next up: With that in mind, CNN‘s Larry King said some things that you probably don‘t want to think about particularly coming out of his mouth.  Here he is with comedian Lewis Black.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEWIS BLACK, COMEDIAN:  I need the paper especially in the bathroom.  Who could sit with a screens in the bathroom.

LARRY KING, TV HOST:  Can anyone go to the bathroom without reading it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Images of Larry reading that I‘d like to eliminate from my memory forever.

Finally: FOX‘s Bill Hemmer, one of the best in the business interviewed Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman at the White House Easter egg roll with his daughter, Monday.  A minute into the interview, he noticed something behind him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL HEMMER, TV HOST:  Who‘s the gal with the pairs (ph) behind you by the way?  What‘s that egg behind you?

TROY AIKMAN, “HALL OF FAME” QUARTERBACK:  You know, I don‘t know.  She kind of worked her way in here.  She‘s the egg that gets in every shot.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  How did she sneak in there without them seeing her dressed as an egg?

We need your help Beating the Press.  Include the show and the time you saw the item.  If you see anything right, wrong, amusing or absurd, go to our Web site: Verdict.msnbc.com.  Leave us a tip in the box.  Please include the show and the time you saw the item.

Up next: Media myths about the campaign are proven wrong.  New polls show Obama‘s former pastor has not been a big problem for him and Bill Clinton‘s legacy is not as famed as some had been claiming.

And later: “American Idol” the show that sells itself as finding amateur singers and making them superstars.  Are they cheating their viewers?  Many of these candidates are actually pros?  Doesn‘t that matter?  Someone?  Maybe?

Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILISSA REHBERGER, UP TO THE MINUTE:  I‘m Milissa Rehberger.  Here‘s what‘s happening.

The three hour stand off on the Walt Whitman Bridge outside Philadelphia ended peacefully tonight.  Police say a driver have first refused to be pulled over for a traffic violation, then, stops on the bridge.  Witnesses say he started yelling while holding a baseball bat in one hand and a child in the other.  He threatened to jump but was eventually talked into surrendering by a police officer with whom had some kind of contact last week.

Now: Back to VERDICT with Dan Abrams.

ABRAMS:  Welcome back.  Coming up: It turns out “American Idol,” the competition is supposed to be discovering stars is discovering singers who‘ve already made it.  Two former “Idols” will be with us later and speaking of singers who used to be famous, Duran Duran kicked off their world tour yesterday.  The lead singer forgot the words to one of their biggest hits.  The bases stormed offstage.  That‘s coming up in Winners & Losers.

And: Reality Bites for the robot who gets the vicious chicken in the annual robot one championships in Japan.  That‘s coming up later.

But first: Brand-new polls show one thing, that some in the inside D.C. media don‘t necessarily know a whole lot about public opinion.  From the Reverend Wright controversy to whether Clinton should drop out of the race, the people are not saying what some politicos may have thought.

We‘re separating fact from fiction.  Here to bust the media myths or bust my chops, an all star panel tonight.  Nora O‘Donnell, MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent; Tucker Carlson, MSNBC senior campaign correspondent; and Democratic strategist Laura Schwartz. 

All right, first up, contrary to most of the forecast from the inside D.C. media -

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GERALDO RIVERA, HOST, “GERALDO AT LARGE”:  The big picture is that Obama‘s candidacy is on the brink of disaster and ruined right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER:  I think that the larger question is beyond Barack Obama, and this may sink him. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER:  I mean I think that he‘s - what Obama - I think this is potentially a killer.

(END VIDEO CLIP) 

ABRAMS:  Well, it turns out the controversy surrounding Obama‘s pastor is not that big a problem for the Obama campaign.  A new NBC “Wall Street Journal” taken this week shows Hillary and Obama tied at 45 percent before the controversy.  Clinton actually led in the most recent national poll, 47 to 43 percent. 

So, Tucker, did some just overstate the significance of what Rev. Wright meant to the campaign?

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC SENIOR CAMPAIGN CORRESPONDENT:  Maybe and others are overstating the significance of a single poll.  I mean, you know, a poll is a snapshot.  So it tells us where we are in a certain moment time.  It doesn‘t necessarily tell us where we‘re going.  It doesn‘t - I mean, look.  These things take awhile to percolate and filter down to the population at large, which is unfortunately is not glued to cable news 24 hours a day.  I wish they were. 

I think that Obama looks like he‘s dodged this.  I‘m not sure that this is going away, though.  I mean just because people aren‘t upset about it right now, doesn‘t mean the predicate hasn‘t been laid for a real scandal if more comes out. 

HAMMER:  But Nora, it was - I mean Tucker is right, that those who don‘t follow every word of cable news, which is most people - some of them didn‘t even know who Rev. Wright was, a good percentage of them.  But it still seems to me that considering the saturation of coverage that was going on during the Rev. Wright issue, the fact that Obama‘s been able to emerge seemingly unscathed says something. 

NORA O‘DONNELL, MSNBC‘S CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  It‘s remarkable that he‘s not taking a huge hit.  I mean that‘s why we took this NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll to get a sense of if there had been any damage.  What was interesting, as you noted, half the people didn‘t know who Rev. Wright was.  Of those who knew who he was and familiar with the controversy, 55 percent said that they were disturbed by it. 

Yet, as you pointed out with those magic numbers, it didn‘t really affect Obama that much.  I think his own campaign believed that those who watched the speech and there seems to be some indications of this in our own poll - those who saw the speech about race after the big controversy, those people were satisfied with his explanation. 

That‘s why Obama‘s campaign believes he should keep talking about it and he‘ll do it tomorrow again on “The View,” sort of defending to some degree of Rev. Wright saying that the media is taking some of these clips and putting in a 30 second run around and that‘s not representative of his whole life. 

ABRAMS:  Let‘s me play a piece of sound from Obama from tonight talking about this issue. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES GIBSON, ANCHOR, “WORLD NEWS”:  Can you understand why many, particularly white voters are so repelled by the remarks he has made?

OBAMA:  Absolutely, I understand and I acknowledged that in the speech.  As if we took the five dumbest things that I ever said or you ever said in our lives and compressed them and put them out there, you know, I think the people‘s reaction would be understandably upset. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Laura, do you think it‘s the way Obama‘s dealt with it, as Nora points out, the speech and comments like that that has avoided the public opinion polls from shifting?

LAURA SCHWARTZ, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  This was a huge challenge for him, Dan.  He rose to the occasion and I think that makes him stronger after this as we can see in the polls.  As he continues to speak about it, he puts it into context.

Now, you know, he doesn‘t do a big back and forth.  He doesn‘t get heated.  He lays it out in a genuine tone, and I think that‘s what the voters want to see.  They have seen him go through this kind of trial and tribulation.  Tucker‘s right; there may be more left to go.  But for now, I think he‘s handling it in the right way and it shows that his campaign had a strategy.  Barack Obama was going to face this head on. 

ABRAMS:  But wait a second. Nobody -

O‘DONNELL:  Dan, I was -

CARLSON:  No, let me just say nobody doubts that Barack Obama is cool and smooth and eloquent and the rest.  But watch what he just said.  He‘s defending a guy who accused white people of creating AIDS and spreading crack in order to kill black people.  That‘s not a dumb thing.  That‘s a deranged thing.  That‘s not some slip of the tongue.  I‘m that‘s unbelievable.

SCHWARTZ:  No, he‘s not defending what he said -

CARLSON:  He‘s defending the man. 

SCHWARTZ:  He‘s trying to put into context that this is a man who‘s preached over 30 years. 

CARLSON:  But Nora -

SCHWARTZ:  If you read his other services that we don‘t see on the Internet or not seen on TV -

(CROSS TALK)

CARLSON:  But what‘s the context for that.  What‘s the context. 

ABRAMS:  But Nora, for some reason, it‘s not sticking the way that many thought it would. 

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, I mean he has proved to be a Teflon candidate to some degree.  And what was one of the most remarkable of the NBC poll was that it‘s actually Hillary Clinton who‘s taken the hit over the past couple days. 

Now, we took the poll when the whole Bosnia flap was going on whether she exaggerated or misspoke, about the whether they came under fire or sniper fire.  But she has, for the first time, a net negative rating among women.  Those are her strongest supporters.  She has her lowest personal feeling rating this entire campaign.  So she is taking a hit when you see Clinton and Obama engage. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  The next myth, the nastiness of the campaign, in Bill Clinton‘s words, will stain his legacy.  Not according to the new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll.  Bill Clinton‘s favorability ratings were at 40 percent in April 2001.  They fluctuated between about 40 to 50 percent over the years.  And today they are at 42 percent. 

So Norah, I was most surprised by that because you do hear again and again and again, this is changing Bill Clinton‘s legacy.  Everyone is going to be angry at Bill Clinton.  And yet, he‘s got basically the same favorability rating that he‘s had for seven years. 

O‘DONNELL:  That is true to some degree.  However, his ratings were a little bit higher at the beginning of this year.  What we have seen is that his negative ratings have gone up.  Those are the positive ratings you‘ve shown. 

If you show his negative ratings, those actually have gone up just a bit.  And we have seen, if you look in the internals of the poll among African-Americans, there has been some fall off among support.  But it‘s not remarkable as you point, Dan.  It‘s not a huge drop off. 

ABRAMS:  And Laura, is it possible that some Democrats like the sort of Bill Clinton fire that some Democrats - some don‘t want to hear it, and they say, “Oh, this is not the tone of the campaign, et cetera.  But is it possible that others are saying we need a fighter out there?

SCHWARTZ:  Well, and that‘s what Hillary wants to be on one of the most watched debates on this network before Ohio and Texas.  She came out and said, “I am a fighter.  I am your fighter.  I‘m fighting for you.”  She‘s saying on the campaign trail and they like that.  It kind of brings her down to size and say, “Hey, I don‘t think I‘m entitled.  I‘m going to fight for this.”

But at the same time, I believed in the myth.  I thought his ratings would take a bigger hit than they have.  But then I was thinking, you know, maybe, people are saying, “Listen, this isn‘t Bill Clinton‘s campaign.  It‘s Hillary‘s campaign.”  And you‘ve seen her take maybe the hit for the things that he has been saying. 

ABRAMS:  Tucker, final thought on this one and then I‘m moving on.

CARLSON:  Well, you know, look.  He stained his legacy.  He injected race into this contest in South Carolina.  A lot of liberals rightly attacked him for it.  The Democratic Party treats its losers very badly.  Where‘s Mike Dukakis, right? 

So if Hillary Clinton loses this, and Bill Clinton is not elected to a third term, which is, of course, the whole point of the exercise, he will be thought of as a lesser figure than he was before this began.  Of course it hurts him.  That‘s why he‘s fighting so desperately. 

ABRAMS:  Not so far, though.  But we shall - we‘ll see what happens.  I think it‘s a fair point.  We‘ll see if she loses and that could change. 

The next myth that some endlessly discussing how many Democrats want Hillary Clinton to drop out. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER:  Hillary Clinton says she‘s going to keep fighting as the pressure mounts for her to drop out of the race. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  In the argument that she should drop out, a lots of people making it -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You‘re not among those Democrats who are quietly urging Hillary Clinton to drop out. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The idea Hillary Clinton should drop out, that it‘s about that time.  That‘s obviously a great concern. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  But according to a new Rasmussen poll - these polls aren‘t always that accurate, of Democrats, only 22 percent think that she should quit, the same number for Obama.  Now, are you surprised by that, Tucker?  The fact that -

CARLSON:  I‘m not surprised at all.  I‘m not surprised at all.  I think the idea that she should quit is propaganda from the Obama campaign.  I‘m not attacking him -

ABRAMS:  But do you think - but put that aside.  What about Democrats as a whole?  Weren‘t you surprised that the party as a whole isn‘t saying, “Look, we need to get this resolved?” 

CARLSON:  No. 

ABRAMS:  And Obama‘s ahead by so much.  I don‘t think she should.  But I thought that that‘s what many of them are going to say.

CARLSON:  No.  This is one case where I think you‘re absolutely right.  Where there is a huge gap between what a bunch of over-agitated columnists want, most of whom support Obama, and what ordinary Democrats want.  We‘ve got a lot of contest left.  This thing is going to go to June no matter what anybody says.  And most Democrats get that.  It‘s good to have an actual race, of course.

ABRAMS:  Laura?

SCHWARTZ:  Yes, we in the media are talking so much about the mathematical challenge to get in enough pledged delegates or getting near Barack Obama and what the difference is between pledged and un-pledged.  And those pledged maybe really un-pledged.  While everybody out in America is thinking, wow, Pennsylvania matters.  They‘ve got 4 million registered Democrats.  People are still turning out.  They are still tuning in.  They are interested in the issues more than they are on this mathematical challenge. 

ABRAMS:  Do you think -

SCHWARTZ:  So that‘s why I think that outside Washington isn‘t calling for -

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Norah, how worried do you think the Democrats -and let‘s not just talk about the polls, but the people, the Democrats out there are about the notion of extended fight?

O‘DONNELL:  What do I think?  Regular voters are concerned about it?  No, Because they care about their own pocketbook.  They‘re not involved in the same sort of discussion that party leaders in Washington are. 

But the party leaders in Washington look at what the donors are saying and knowing they are going to have a convention at the end of August where they might be fighting.  And they should be spending their time on hitting John McCain when he has no money in his campaign account.  And so they are worried about that. 

And there is some indication in these polls, Dan, that people are ticked off at the other Democrats.  In other words, 20 percent of Clinton voters say they won‘t vote for Obama.  20 percent or more won‘t vote for Clinton and may sit home.  And that‘s what the party leaders look at and say, “Hey, this is the nightmare scenario.”

ABRAMS:  I want to get this final one in because I find this one to be really interesting.  Next myth, the gender or race is certainly a bigger issue than age. 

It turns out in the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll voters have more of a problem voting for a candidate of McCain‘s age than object to supporting an African-American or female candidate. 

Only 61 percent said they are ready to elect a person over 70.  As for a woman or African-American, both were in the 70 percent that are ready to elect them.  Norah, could this be underreporting of some people who aren‘t necessarily admitting that they are not ready for a woman or for an African-American and yet, they are willing to admit age is a factor?

O‘DONNELL:  Sure, I think that‘s certainly is probably a factor in there.  One of the things McCain is going to have to deal with is whether there is ageism out there, whether people want the oldest president ever elected.  John McCain will be the oldest president if elected at age 72. 

His campaign knows that, you know, starting next week, he‘s got to stand out there at every campaign with his 96-year-old mother, Roberta McCain, who‘s an amazing woman, who gets speeding tickets in Arizona because she‘s such riley woman.  So they‘ve got to bring her out. 

ABRAMS:  Tucker, does this surprise you?

CARLSON:  No, it doesn‘t.  I mean people always say women are toughest on women.  Old people are toughest on old people.  If you break down this poll, it‘s people over 60 who are the most concerned about electing an older candidate.  I think it‘s absolutely a problem.  But you‘re right, though; people absolutely in this country lie repeatedly about questions of race and gender.  There‘s no way to get a real poll on that. 

ABRAMS:  This is a great panel.  Norah O‘Donnell, Tucker Carlson, Laura Schwartz, thanks a lot.  Appreciate it. 

CARLSON:  Thanks. 

ABRAMS:  We want to know your verdict on the media myths.  E-mail us at verdict@msnbc.com.  Tell us what you think.  Be sure to include your name and where you‘re writing from.  The “PO‘d Box” is coming up later in the show.

Up next, it‘s your “American Idol” under fire because it‘s not really an amateur contest.  Some contestants have already had record deals.  I don‘t know if that matters to me.  It seems unfair to the true amateurs and misleading to its viewers.  Two former idols are with us. 

And “Reality Bites” for the loser of this fighting robot competition where death comes by a mechanical karate chop.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Now, the “Reality Bites,” a dose of reality caught on tape.  Tonight, the robot won championships in Tokyo, Japan where over 100 humanoid robots competed in a two-day competition to dominate the robot world.  Japan‘s warrior robots come in all shapes from medieval princes to karate robots or even different weight classes.  A fan favorite, the chicken-like robot called leg horn known for its vicious chicken chop martial arts move.  “Reality Bites” on VERDICT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RYAN SEACREST, HOST, “AMERICAN IDOL”:  Syesha, you are safe. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  That was Chikezie getting bounced last night for “American Idol,” the latest contestant to bite the dust.  He was an unknown amateur singer, exactly what the “Idol” contestants are supposed to be.  But to keep up its monster ratings, it seems “Idol” is going for ringers who already have record contracts and might be better singers. 

I‘ll admit, I‘m not a fan of the show, but I‘ve always understood the premise to be that they find amateur, undiscovered singers like Carrie Underwood, and turn them into superstars. 

But this year, several of the finalists had signed contracts with labels that didn‘t work out.  “Idol” producer, Nigel Lythgoe says, quote, “The rules of the competition sate you do not have a record contract now.  Nobody said this is an amateur competition.  It doesn‘t matter if you‘ve had a professional contract.  Kelly Clarkson had a professional contract.  Bo Bice had a professional contract.  Taylor Hicks has got records that are out there.  This is nothing new.”

Maybe it‘s just me.  I don‘t know; it‘s news to me.  I feel like they are misleading their viewers.  Joining me now, Nadia Turner from “Idol‘s” fourth season; Carmen Rasmussen from Idol‘s number two season; and entertainment reporter Tom O‘Neil.  All right, thanks to all of you for coming on the program. 

Nadia, am I the only one out there who‘s gotten fooled out there who‘s gotten fooled by this all this time? 

NADIA TURNER, FORMER “AMERICAN IDOL” CONTESTANT:  I don‘t think so.  I guess my personal opinion on it is at the end of the day, the show itself, you see people get on the show, they win a record deal and they are not as successful as you‘d like. 

So that alone just tells me you just have to know that this is an amateur competition.  But I think there should be nothing wrong with letting professionals in, because even with the record contract, they weren‘t able to achieve the kind of success that they wanted, so whether -  

ABRAMS:  If they let them in, though, Carmen, my concern is then you might as well have a professional singing contest, right?

CARMEN RASMUSSEN, FORMER “AMERICAN IDOL” CONTESTANT:  Who are really amateurs anymore?  I mean everyone has had some kind of experience.  When I was on the show, Trenyce has had a record deal.  Kimberly Caldwell was performing in Branson.  I knew that I was at a disadvantage because I was only 17 years old and I was competing with people with people with more experience than me.

ABRAMS:  That‘s unfair. 

RASMUSSEN:  I don‘t know who the - well, the thing is, you know what you‘re getting into when you get into the competition.  And it‘s not unfair.  I mean these people have every right to be on the show as we do. 

Just because their record deal fell through - I mean no one‘s ever heard of Carly Smithson or David Cook or any of these people regardless of their record deals.  Just because they signed a piece of paper doesn‘t make them professional. 

ABRAMS:  Well, Tom, am I the only one out there?  I mean, maybe it‘s that I don‘t follow it closely enough.  But I was always under the impression that it was an amateur show.  The idea was you try and pluck these unknowns and you make them big stars and they get a big record contract.  Have I misunderstood the premise of the show?

TOM O‘NEIL, ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER:  Not at all, Dan.  The idea of the show - I think everybody in America believes, like you and me - is that “American Idol” is the American dream.  You go from nobody to somebody.  The argument that the producers put forward is all you have to do is be in between record contracts.  So theoretically, Mariah Carey, if she‘s in between, could be a contestant is what they are saying.  But let‘s go back to the original title of this show -

TURNER:  You can‘t use Mariah Carey as an example, though. 

O‘NEIL:  When the show was launched in 2002, the title of it was “American Idol, Search for a Superstar.”  And I think in that title is the promise of going from nobody to somebody. 

RASMUSSEN:  It certainly - it makes it more romantic, I agree.  It definitely makes it more romantic when someone goes from rags to riches.  The public hangs on to that more.  They like seeing someone going from nobody to somebody.

(CROSS TALK)

ABRAMS:  Did they stay on the show, Carmen?  Let me ask Nadia this.

(CROSS TALK)

Do they stay on the show?  This contestant who you may or may not be voting for, actually had a record contract before, versus this contestant who‘s never had a record.  If they do that, then fine.  Then the people voting can incorporate that into their vote.  Again, I don‘t watch enough to know, but I don‘t think they do that, do they?

TURNER:  No, they really don‘t.  I think that as you get closer throughout the competition like f you‘re top 200, you‘re not going to know that.  You‘re seeing the behind-the-scenes, the audition process.  It‘s as you‘re getting to know these contestants and I know personally - I think Carmen can relate to this - I know when I got on the show, you know, they ask you, “Do you have music out there?  Do you have other projects out there?”  And you have to be honest and say, “Yes, I‘ve got something online.  I‘ve got something possibly (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  Yes, I used to be in a band.”

ABRAMS:  What about the viewers. 

TURNER:  I mean the rags to riches story is the ideal middle America, that‘s what everybody wants to see.  They want to see the Carrie Underwood story that goes from rags to riches.

ABRAMS:  Very quickly, Carmen. 

RASMUSSEN:  The viewers have the choice to choose to vote or not vote.  Carly Smithson did have a record deal but she‘s in the bottom three.

(CROSS TALK)

ABRAMS:  They should have the information.  They should know. 

RASMUSSEN:  Well, she was in the bottom three.  But obviously, it doesn‘t matter.  If she had a record deal and was still in the bottom three, it doesn‘t really matter. 

ABRAMS:  Fair enough.

RASMUSSEN:  People are going to vote for who they want. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  All right.  Fair enough.  Fair enough.  I don‘t know.  Carmen Rasmussen, Nadia Turner, Tom O‘Neil, this was fun.  Thanks a lot. 

Up next, will tonight‘s big winner or loser be ‘80s band Duran Duran whose show last night was filled with mistakes including not knowing the words to this song?   Actress Elizabeth Banks, now chosen to play First Lady Laura Bush being mistaken for a porn star?  Or porn star Paris Hilton whose Facebook page was accessed based on a mistake?  And The “PO‘d Box” is coming up. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

ABRAMS:  It‘s time for tonight‘s “Winners and Losers” for this 27th day of March, 2008.  Our first loser, Duran Duran.  Yes, they‘re still together.  Their world tour knocked off yesterday in New Zealand.  Simon Le Bon forgot lyrics and bassist John Taylor stormed off stage because they were, quote, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) up in style. 

Le Bon didn‘t just forget the words to any song, but to “Hungry Like a Wolf” one of the bands biggest hits. 

Our second loser, Paris Hilton.  A Canadian computer hacker had his way with the hotel heiress.  With her Facebook page, that is.  It was a Facebook security lapse.  The hacker was able to access some of Hilton‘s private pictures like her partying with her brother.  Rest assured, Paris, Facebook says they have fixed the problem. 

But the big loser of the day, the entertainment reporters who are running with headlines like “Porn Star To Play Laura Bush,” referring to actress Elizabeth Banks, who will be playing Laura Bush in Oliver Stone‘s upcoming George W. Bush movie. 

There‘s a slight problem, Elizabeth Banks is not and never has been a porn star.  She‘s just portraying one in an upcoming movie with “Knock Up‘s” Seth Logan. 

Our big winner of the day, horny older men.  Ten years ago today, the FDA approved Viagra, the bedroom miracle drug that gets older men going.  Sales of the drug are around $2 billion a year. 

Time for the “PO‘d Box,” your chance to tell what you hate or love about the show.  An overwhelming number of you weighed in after last night‘s show, when we spoke to a student who got shot down by Chelsea Clinton for asking a question related to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  I said, Chelsea‘s an adult.  If she‘s going to be campaigning for her mother, she‘s going to have to field tough questions like all other campaign surrogates.

Jose Rodriguez writes, “She got a question about something that might have affected her mother‘s ability to deal with a crisis later in life as a president and commander-in-chief, Chelsea is being treated like a diva.”

Mark Alexander, “Just maybe this Monica thing is behind her.  This kid got what he asked for - nothing.”

Mark, I‘m not saying Chelsea had to answer the question, I just don‘t think she has the right to seem so offended. 

Ray Baisden, “She‘s an adult who has chosen to be a public figure while arrogantly asserting that she cannot be held accountable for her public statements.”

Wanda Cummings thinks there‘s a double standard here, “I was waiting for someone in your panel to ask the young college student if he would have asked Bill Clinton the same question if he‘d been speaking before the crowd instead of Chelsea.  Of course, he would not.”  It‘s a fair question, Wanda.

Finally, Jay Cruz writes about Hillary Clinton‘s response to the Rev. Wright controversy, “Hillary Clinton made a comment about people not having a choice about our parents, but that we have a choice about our pastors, criticizing Obama.  If that‘s the case, I guess we have a choice about our spouses.  Shouldn‘t she be judged about her decision?”

That‘s all the time we have for tonight.  You can E-mail the show, verdict@msnbc.com.  Please include your name and where you‘re writing from.  I will see you back here tomorrow.  Thanks for watching.

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

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