updated 4/3/2008 5:18:43 PM ET 2008-04-03T21:18:43

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  You are looking live at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, scene of the “HARDBALL” college tour.  Chris Matthews has just wrapped up an interview with Senator Barack Obama, and we pick it up from here.  Highlights with the panel.  Chris‘s take and yours.  E-mail and voicemail. 

The RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on. 

Welcome to a special edition of RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE, your cable stop for the fast pace, the “Smart Takes” and every point of view in the room. 

Tonight, you have seen the Obama college tour on “HARDBALL,” now the analysis.  The panel will weigh in on the highlights from Senator Obama.  Later, Chris will give you his take one on one.  And later the big questions including: is anyone jumping on the Clinton bandwagon? 

First, the panel that comes to play.  And with us tonight—we will have Rachel Maddow from “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America coming up, “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson, both MSNBC political analysts, NBC News political director Chuck Todd, and columnist for “The Washington Times” Tony Blankley. 

We begin here tonight as we do each night with everyone‘s take on the most important political stories of the day.  It is “The Headlines.” 

Tonight, our headline Obama unplugged.  Quick take from around the panel before we get to some of the highlights. 

Eugene, you‘re up first. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Obama didn‘t break any spectacular new ground.  I thought it was interesting.  He was speaking before an audience clearly in an antiwar.  He spent a lot of time on the war distinguishing himself not only from John McCain, but also from Hillary Clinton.  And he knew—I think he was in friendly confines for making the war an issue. 

GREGORY:  All right, we‘ll go around the horn pretty quickly.  Tony, your first take. 

TONY BLANKLEY, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST:  Yes, it was an ingratiating performance.  So I think he gave issues that opponents may pick on.  His discussion of merit pay was. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

BLANKLEY:  .pretty much the straight union position.  I think that may or may not be a little bit different from where he‘s been in the past.  His saying that he didn‘t believe in racial stereotypes brings up the question of when he used the typical white person description of his grandmother and I think his discussion of Reverend Wright will be interesting to review in detail. 

GREGORY:  And we‘re going to get into some of that. 

Chuck, your first take on what you heard. 

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Just simply reactive.  I mean he was almost marking time, wanting to make sure that he made it as—much as he could, more infomercial than a news, that he didn‘t want to make news.  So he was doing his best to just be himself and let people bask in the charisma. 

GREGORY:  Yes.  We‘re going to get to some of these highlights. 

Rachel, quick take on what you heard. 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I think that I agree with Chuck.  I think this was very much about him showcasing his personality.  This was about him showing off what he‘s like in terms of his ability to be funny and conversational and relaxed.  This was much—very much about his charisma, and much less than his policies. 

GREGORY:  All right, as we play the highlights now from some of the interview with Senator Obama on “HARDBALL,” we get into one of the big, most controversial issues, and that is his former pastor, Reverend Wright. 

Chris Matthews beginning pretty contentious or at least a challenging line of questioning. 

Listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”:  Why didn‘t you walk out of that church?  Why—when you heard that what you called controversial language, why did you go back and give him $27,000 in contributions to his church?  Why didn‘t you just say he‘s on a different side of this fight than I am? 

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ‘08 PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL:  No, but because I think—you know what‘s happened is we took a loop out of—and compressed the most offensive things that a pastor said over the course of 30 years and just ran it over and over and over again.  Now there‘s that other 30 years.  I never heard him say those things that were in those clips.  And. 

MATTHEWS:  But you did say you heard him say controversial things.

OBAMA:  Of course.  Well—but I hear you say controversial things. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Tony, what do you think about it? 

BLANKLEY:  Look, I think he continues to have problems every time he talks about that.  When he calls the Reverend Wright a good man, this is a man who said God damn America, KKK USA all the rest, racist rants, a lot of people are going to think that‘s not a good man.  Whatever good works he may have done otherwise, soup kitchens, AIDS aid, those statements debar from that. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

BLANKLEY:  Also he continues to be evasive on what he did or didn‘t hear.  Now he says he never heard any of the controversial statements that have been in the loop, that have been reported.  That‘s the first that I‘ve heard him actually make that much of a denial. 

GREGORY:  Chuck, the reality is, as a political matter, he is sticking to ground of saying there is more context to Reverend Wright than meets the eye.  And this loop that‘s played on cable, on the radio and elsewhere.  Is that a politically tenable position to stick to? 

TODD:  Look, he made the decision to not throw this guy under the bus.  And no matter how much I—my guess is that he‘s getting advice saying why don‘t you throw this—I mean, you know, that was almost the premise of Chris‘s question, which  was, why didn‘t you just throw this guy under the bus?  Why didn‘t you leave?  Why didn‘t you get out?  He is not doing it.  He drew that line and he‘s going to defend it. 

Is it a political problem in some places?  Yes.  Period.  It‘s going to be.  But clearly, as polling has shown, it doesn‘t make him unelectable.  It‘s going to just make him less electable. 

GREGORY:  One of the students at West Chester University also asked Senator Obama directly about Reverend Wright. 

Let‘s watch that. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Flat in terms of my former pastor, and that was a difficult moment.  You know, this is somebody on the one hand is a good man, but said some things that I deeply disagree with.  My belief is, is that, you know, one of the important things about my Christian faith is that you forgive people, you try to understand them.  And you know, ultimately, you know, judge is going to be—God is going to be somebody who‘s making judgments about many of these things.  So I‘m just going to stay focused on the job that I‘m doing and hopefully, you‘ll pray for me. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Eugene, there was some conversation all along here that there might be a take two from Obama, that he felt he would have to re-respond to Reverend Wright in a new way, try to explain it a little bit better than he did in his speech.  It sounds like he‘s not going to do that.  He‘s looked to the polling.  He‘s looked at a couple of weeks out and thought, “I‘m doing OK on this.” 

ROBINSON:  Well, he probably does believe he‘s doing OK on this.  He could be doing better if he decided to throw Reverend Wright under the bus.  But I think his defense is - at least from his point of view—true. 

You know, I don‘t know Reverend Wright.  I don‘t know if he is a good man.  But I know he is a man who has—very prominent clergyman in Chicago who has run a very successful church that does a lot of good works.  He‘s prominent in political circles.  He‘s been invited to the White House.  He‘s not some exotic French figure.  This is a mainstream pastor in Chicago and a man who‘s has important to Obama spiritually.  And I really don‘t think he has any intention of throwing him under that metaphorical bus. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

MADDOW:  Gene, I would also just add that he doesn‘t have much of a political choice here.  I mean the political reality for Barack Obama with the Jeremiah Wright story is that he would still be getting hit with the Jeremiah Wright story, even if he dragged Jeremiah Wright out into the public square and drew and quartered him.  I mean there‘s nothing that he can do more—I mean in terms of people talk about throwing him under the bus. 

Well, you know what?  The fact remains that he was Barack Obama‘s pastor after some of those comments were made.  Obama has denounced those specific controversial comments incredibly on certain—incredibly certain terms.  There‘s—he can‘t denounce those any more angrily than he already has, any more thoroughly than he already has.  He‘s just saying I‘m not personally going to kill this guy.  I‘m not personally going to beat this guy in front of a crowd.  I‘m not personally going to go as far as I could personally. 

GREGORY:  No, but I don‘t know that he‘s really done that, Rachel.  I think what he has said is that there‘s a context to understand.  And then maybe there are things that I find objectionable or maybe there are things that I found that were beyond detail, but I wasn‘t going to abandon the church.  It was more complicated than just disagreeing with him as to whether I stayed in the church. 

He did have a political choice.  He could have decided, this is not for me, I can‘t be associated with something like this.  No matter how strong I feel about him in other areas, this is something I simply can‘t associate myself with. 

MADDOW:  But he—he‘s still faced with the fact that he did stay in the church after those things had been said.  So the only thing he could do and it would be an awkward political two-step to do it, would be to plead ignorance about things that Jeremiah Wright had said.  And he‘s only pleading ignorance about the things that have been in that clip.  He‘s otherwise saying. 

GREGORY:  Yes. 

MADDOW:  .you know, listen, the stuff in that clip, I absolutely distance myself from that.  But the rest of him, the Jeremiah Wright that I know and how important he‘s been to me, yes, I stand by the guy.  I don‘t see that he has very many other options about ways. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Let. 

MADDOW:  .the ways to thread this needle. 

GREGORY:  Let me move on to the question of foreign policy and what he would do, how he would handle a situation at 3:00 a.m.  He talked about JFK here and the Cuban missile crisis. 

Watch this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I don‘t think anybody predicted 9/11.  And so we don‘t know what kinds of circumstances are going to come up.  Here‘s the important thing about that 3:00 a.m. phone call.  What you want is somebody who‘s, first of all, going to get all the facts and gather up good intelligence.  The second thing you want is somebody who is able to analyze the situation, the cost and benefits of action.  And one of the things that we know this president didn‘t do is to weigh the costs of going into Iraq versus the potential benefits of it. 

We want somebody who‘s going to be decisive, and I won‘t hesitate to strike against somebody who would do us harm if that‘s what‘s required.  But, the most important thing that you need is somebody who‘s going to exercise good judgment.  You know, if you think about, for example, John F.  Kennedy, his biggest mistake was going ahead with military action that hadn‘t been thought through.  His greatest triumph was actually showing restraint in a very dangerous, difficult situation. 

Now, obviously, something involving al Qaeda is not comparable and my whole plan for going after terrorists is to refocus attention on terrorist networks, something that the Iraq war has been a distraction from.  And what I‘ve said repeatedly is, for example, I won‘t hesitate to strike against al Qaeda bases and high value targets if Pakistan is not willing to act and we have our sights on somebody, we should go after them. 

I was sharply criticized. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Tony Blankley, I see two problems with the argument that Obama is making here.  Number one, if he talks about what you do in response to a crisis and then you have the right intelligence and you have the right response.  Well, there‘s not a lot of argument that Bush had the right response to 9/11.  He didn‘t jump to invade Iraq even though there was some. 

BLANKLEY:  No. 

GREGORY:  .argument that he should do that in the room, number one.  And then, number two, you know, he‘s talking about JFK.  But the reality is in Iraq, there‘s still is al Qaeda and he says that should a target but he wants to withdraw. 

BLANKLEY:  Well, the premise of this question originally, I think, was the 3:00 a.m. call was a hijacked plane is coming at the Capitol.  He then talks about collecting intelligence.  He has like a few minutes.  He—the answer was, (INAUDIBLE) the fact, Dick Cheney did on September 1st.  They ordered up planes to be prepared to shoot down the hijacked planes that are going to approach the Capitol.  He did everything other than call for action.  And I think it‘s an example that—one could make the argument that‘s an example of inexperience, executive inexperience. 

MADDOW:  I think. 

ROBINSON:  See, I would make the argument, though, that—it‘s very difficult for a presidential candidate to give that answer.  You know, the analogous situation that I‘m going to argue with—it‘s not really analogous, but what comes to people‘s mind is the question that was posed to Michael Dukakis about what if your wife were raped and, you know, what would you do, right.  And Dukakis gave, you know, a reasoned answer as opposed to saying, you know, I would take out my revolver and shoot the guy. 

Well, but—you know, nobody is going to argue against, you know, shooting this awful rapist and murderer, but people are going to have funny feelings about a presidential candidate who says, you know, I would order the jets into the sky to shoot down civilian airliners.  Well, do you really know what‘s going on there?  Doesn‘t that sound a bit rash? 

GREGORY:  All right. 

ROBINSON:  You‘re trigger happy.  I don‘t think you can really answer the question. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Let me go—I got to take a break.  I‘m going to get a quick comment from Rachel.  Go. 

MADDOW:  I was just going to say, in terms of the response to 9/11, I think the thing that most Americans are wondering is how come we haven‘t gotten bin Laden.  We did invade Iraq.  We never got bin Laden.  The Bush response to 9/11, I think, could—is anything except—is anything but uncontroversial among the broad swap of the American people. 

GREGORY:  Well—but yes, the Obama—the bin Laden point is certainly a good one.  But at the time, there were two visions of what to do and the president did not decide to pursue Iraq at that time.  He was focused on Afghanistan and the country was behind him on that.  It went off the rails in terms of public opinion later on. 

More to come.  Coming up, if you thought the Pennsylvania primary was over, guess again.  Obama talks about that. 

Plus there‘s some new polls and a new question.  Where did Clinton‘s lead go? 

And this is the interactive cable program we have been waiting for.  So what is your take on Obama from the “HARDBALL” college tour?  Call us, 212-790-2299 right now or e-mail us at race08@MSNBC.com

RACE FOR THE RIGHT HOUSE—WHITE HOUSE, rather, will be right back. 

ANNOUNCER:  RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE WITH DAVID GREGORY is brought to you by. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now, “Inside the War Rooms” of the campaign.  The thinking, the plotting, the attacks, the strategy, it‘s all here.  And back with us, the panel, Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson, Chuck Todd and Tony Blankley. 

First up, the latest Quinnipiac University poll shows Barack Obama is closing the gap on Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania.  Look at the numbers.  Clinton has 50 percent to Obama‘s 41 percent.  Just a month ago, Clinton led by 12 in the same poll.  So how is this affecting the expectations game for Obama? 

Chuck Todd, you look at the numbers every day.  What do you see here? 

TODD:  Well, he better be closing the gap.  He‘s outspending her close to three to one in TV advertising in Pennsylvania.  There are some independent groups that are helping Senator Clinton finally close the gap a little bit but he‘s got this enormous adverstising advantage.  You would assume it would start taking effect. 

You know, the Clinton campaign let these expectations get out of control, and right now, if the primary were in a week, a single digit loss by Obama would be seen as a moral victory for him and would be just devastating sort of delegate defeat for Clinton, because single digit in the vote will mean single digits in the delegates as far as. 

GREGORY:  Rachel. 

TODD:  .how many she would net out of that. 

GREGORY:  Where is he making the inroads?  This is what matters. 

Which voting groups is he trying to make these inroads? 

MADDOW:  Well, at this point, what Chuck is saying about the—about outspending Hillary Clinton may make questions about parsing the closing gap irrelevant.  I mean if he‘s spending that much more he may just be winning a wholesale campaign without having to exploit any one particular constituency more than the others. 

The issue here is whether or not Hillary Clinton will be able to say, well, the Pennsylvania results don‘t matter because I was so outspent.  The expectations game works on both sides o f this, both on Obama campaign side and on the Clinton campaign side. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Moving on, Bill Clinton unplugged.  He reportedly lost it in a closed door meeting with California superdelegates.  One calling it, quote, “one of the worst political meetings I have ever attended.” 

Today, “San Francisco Chronicle” reporting this.  “Five times to my face,” this is Clinton (INAUDIBLE) he was talking about Richardson, about being (INAUDIBLE), “said that he would never do that.  A red-faced, finger-pointing Clinton erupted.”  He‘s talking about the endorsement of Obama.  “The former president then went on a tirade that ran from the media‘s unfair treatment of Hillary to questions about the fairness of the votes in state caucuses that voted for Obama.  It ended with him asking delegates to imagine what the reaction would be if Obama was trailing by 1 percent and people were telling him to drop out.”

Tony, is he implication there, is what he‘s insinuating that there would be cries of racism here and that nobody is reacting that there‘s sexism against Hillary Clinton?  Is that the argument he‘s making? 

BLANKLEY:  I mean, look, I suppose to.  It‘s hard to know what he‘s saying and who‘s telling the truth, whether it‘s Richardson or Clinton or either of them. 

If I could just very quickly go back to the previous topic, because I think the point was really missed on those polls.  Obama hasn‘t moved an inch.  He‘s at 41 percent in both polls.  Hillary has come down.  He‘s stuck at 34 percent of the white votes.  He‘s was at 37 percent of the white vote in the Franklin poll a few weeks ago.  He‘s got a real problem there that these—that Hillary is just coming down.  He‘s not moving up at all.  So that‘s sort of my view of that. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Gene Robinson, any comment on Bill Clinton‘s reported outrage? 

ROBINSON:  Well, he—you know, he has been losing his temper throughout this campaign.  I think he does believe that Bill Richardson, you know, whom James Carville referred to as Judas, really wouldn‘t—had committed in some say not to support Obama. 

These little slights, they don‘t like losing.  The Clintons do not like losing and this is a very unpleasant experience, I think, for Bill Clinton to be behind and to see the Democratic Party, which was his Democratic Party, perhaps being—becoming somebody else‘s Democratic Party. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to get to another break in here. 

Coming up next, “Smart Takes.”  How do the Dems stack up against McCain in the big swing states?  Might that be the key to locking up the situation?  When the RACE rolls on. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  “Smart Takes” time.  From the informed to the analytical to the provocative, we are on the hunt so you don‘t have to be. 

Here again, Rachel, Eugene, Chuck and Tony.  We‘re limited on our time on “Smart Takes” tonight with so much of our coverage of the Obama on “HARDBALL.” 

We‘ve got one “Smart Take” to chew on tonight.  A big question for Democrats, which candidate could beat John McCain in November?  Quinnipiac has new head-to-head match-ups in three swing states and they show Hillary Clinton winning in every one. 

Go to the numbers.  In Pennsylvania, Clinton beat McCain 48-40.  Obama beats McCain 43-39.  In Florida, Clinton beats McCain 44-42.  But McCain beats Obama by 46-37.  And in Ohio, Clinton beats McCain 48-39.  Obama beats McCain 43-42. 

Chuck, you‘ve been chewing on these numbers all day.  Strength for Hillary in Ohio and Florida. 

TODD:  But don‘t forget, that is her map.  Her map it‘s the 2000-2004 map and she‘ll win Florida or Ohio.  Obama has never been making that promise.  He‘s got a different set of swing states.  It‘s Colorado, Virginia and then it‘s Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada. 

GREGORY:  It‘s different now. 

TODD:  So keep that in mind when see some of these numbers. 

GREGORY:  He tries to play out west. 

TODD:  Exactly.  It‘s a different match.  She can‘t play out west. 

She can‘t really play very as well either in the Midwest by the way. 

GREGORY:  Rachel? 

MADDOW:  Big picture, good news for Democrats in the five of these six head-to-head match-ups.  Even when they‘re not campaigning against John McCain, even when McCain has his side of the isle all to himself and he‘s getting lots of positive press coverage for it, they‘re still beating him in five of these six head-to-head match-ups.  So I think big picture, it‘s pretty good for Democrats. 

GREGORY:  But you do look at some of these states, Tony, it goes to your point about how Obama, you think, is under performing in Pennsylvania.  He‘s still not moving the needle on working class white voters. 

BLANKLEY:  Yes, I mean I take a point.  McCain hasn‘t had to campaign out them yet, so he‘s. 

GREGORY:  Yes. 

BLANKLEY:  He may be as strong as he was going to be.  I take that. 

On the other hand, Gallup came out with the internals on their March polling, their national polling and they showed Obama getting 54 percent of the Hispanics versus McCain. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

BLANKLEY:  And 37 percent of the white vote, which are—those are terrible numbers. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

BLANKLEY:  A 54 percent is worse than John Kerry did. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Let me get in here.  Got to take a break. 

Chris Matthews coming up on the “HARDBALL” interview with Obama. 

Don‘t go away. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  We‘re joined now by our own Chris Matthews.  He is fresh from the HARDBALL College Tour with Barack Obama, an hour long interview with Obama at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.  Chris, welcome. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Thank you, David. 

GREGORY:  Tell me what you learned after an hour with Senator Obama. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, a couple things.  First of all, there‘s the chemistry in the room.  You know, you have been at these events and I have been.  But it‘s something to be on the stage and see 2,000 smiling faces, like the many faces of Beneton, looking at you, the excitement this guy caused.  He could be talking about stem cell and they are all in rapt attention.

In terms of the news, I think you and I may agree that it‘s the way he has bottom lined this campaign so far.  He‘s saying, basically, at the end, when I got him—he, look—I said, what happens at the end of the schedule of primaries and caucuses in early June, after Puerto Rico, you‘re ahead in the elected delegates, where is this election allowed to go?  He basically gave this answer. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I think most of the super delegates who have not yet decided will recognize that we‘ve earned this nomination.  That‘s not guaranteed and I don‘t take it for granted, but I think that at that point, I will have shown to be the strongest candidate to run against John McCain. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  There you have it, David.  He will say that if he wins in elected delegates, if he wins in number of states taken, and I think he hopes, as well, the popular vote, he will say he‘s earned the nomination.  In other words, it‘s his; no one else should get it.  I think that will be taken—that verb, earned, might be taken to the bank by his people.  They might say, he‘s not going to let anyone else be nominated except him once he‘s earned, as he put it, the nomination.  

GREGORY:  The Wright issue came up again.  You really put the question to him directly, which is why didn‘t you leave; why did you keep contributing money; why did you stay with him?  My read politically on his answer was he‘s looked at the polling, he‘s looked at the reaction from his speak; he‘s not about to abandon his pastor.  He doesn‘t feel like he needs anymore repair on this. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  He‘s not going any further on this.  You and I know that there are a lot of bends and turns in this campaign coming up.  The Republicans are often not the ones to bring the hardest fight against you.  The Republicans down the road, if he gets that far past the nomination; they are going to revisit this again and again.  I agree with you; he seems to believe that he‘s dealt with it enough to the point where he can say there‘s good and bad to this fellow who was my preacher.  He wasn‘t willing to throw this guy from the train.  You‘re right. 

GREGORY:  What about Iraq?  I was struck—while he compared the sort of judgment he thinks he‘s got to JFK, acting too quickly in the Bay of Pigs, restraint in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But his argument, I don‘t believe, holds up when he‘s talking about the response to 9/11.  George Bush was roundly praised for his initial response to 9/11, in terms of targeting Afghanistan, did not pursue Iraq at that time, though that was on the table.  Huge disagreements came later in the pursuit of the war in Iraq.  Does his argument fall flat in his analysis here? 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll have to study the scripture—the transcript and see whether he was talking about the and intel that didn‘t warn of us 9/11 or the intel used to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  We‘ll have to see.  Clearly, he disagrees with the policy.  Everybody‘s upset we didn‘t know what was coming, what happened to us on 9/11.  That intel failed completely. 

GREGORY:  What about the politics of Pennsylvania.  You‘re looking at the polls out there.  You see some movement.  Hillary Clinton coming down.  Her lead shrinking a little bit.  Is he moving new voters with Bob Casey‘s endorsement.  Is he moving working class whites and others that he needs to really make a dent in her lead?   

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the great question.  I haven‘t been up here long enough.  I‘ve been here since Monday morning talking to people, a lot of politicians, friends of mine I‘ve known a long time, including the mayor, big politicians like Tom Leonard.  I‘ve been around talking to a lot of people, but what I get is not yet an answer to that question you raise, which is: sure, the TV advertisement, the saturation TV ads, you see them on the TV constantly.  That will move some opinion.  Something can be moved there.

In the end, I don‘t sense the gut change yet among the white working class.  When we see that, I‘ll believe it.  I do think he faces in this state a lot like what he faced in Iowa—rather Ohio, where you have a lot of white working class people.  They‘re called ethnics, whatever that means these days.  They are not exactly liberals on racial issues, and he has to face what Ed Rendell warned him he faces, which is an ethnic challenge up here. 

But, that said, I think he‘s spending—coming here to this school, with a lot of middle class kids, not rich kids, not poor kids, regular kids from working backgrounds—I think they‘ve figured out they have to work this sort of inner suburban area that‘s not Ritzy.  We‘re out here in Delaware County, which has some very wealthy neighborhoods.  But this is a very beautiful little town here, West Chester.  But the kids here are from all diverse backgrounds, black as well as white.  A lot of difference here.

I think he‘s figured out where the sweet spot is for him.  But, you know, the bowling thing to me was instructive.  Why did he go bowling?  Why didn‘t he find some other way to—my dad was one of them, a Nights of Columbus bowler, a regular guy.  Was he able to connect by throwing the ball into the gutter a couple times?  I don‘t think so.

Tonight, he was elegant, as always.  He‘s wonderful with college kids.  Why can‘t he connect with the 55-year-old worker the way he connects with kids?  I think that‘s still a challenge ahead of him. 

That said, I think Ed Rendell is the smartest politician in this state, as we know.  He said the lead is shrinking.  I think Eddie would like us to think, going into this, it‘s going to be about three points for Hillary Clinton, his candidate.  It ends up being about eight.  The confetti comes down and they say they beat the spread.  I would say that‘s the game they‘re playing right now. 

GREGORY:  All right, you‘re going to stick with us here.  Let me bring in the rest of our panel to join this discussion.  Joining us, host of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, Rachel Maddow, “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson, both MSNBC political analysts, NBC News political director Chuck Todd and columnist for the “Washington Times” Tony Blankley. 

Rachel, let me start with you.  The answer that was given by Obama here about the Poobahs, as he said, of the party should reach as a conclusion to this race.  How do you see that? 

MADDOW:  I think that Barack Obama has to decide whether or not he‘s going to make his claim to having earned the nomination on the basis of whether or not he‘s moving rank and file Democrats and voters or whether or not he‘s moving the Poobahs, whether or not he‘s moving the super delegates.  The way the math works, what Chuck has been telling us for about a month now, is that this is a super delegate decision at this point.  It doesn‘t really matter what the vote is in Pennsylvania.  It doesn‘t really matter what the vote is in any of the remaining states.

It‘s the Poobahs who are going to decide this at this point.  So denigrating that vote is not a smart vote when that‘s what he needs to put together in order to win. 

GREGORY:  Tony.

BLANKLEY:  The Poobahs are going to be making the decision.  In their own mind, they would like to make the decision best for their party, who can win.  I think that one of the things that Obama is beginning to do by I‘ve earned it is to buy an insurance policy that even if by then the polls don‘t look as good for him as they currently do, vis a vis Hillary‘s competitive with McCain, that he can say, it will be an awful lot of disappointment, because I‘ve earned this.  You can‘t take it away because I‘ve earned it.  So I think this is a bit of an insurance policy he‘s trying to lay down. 

ROBINSON:  I thought the same thing, David.  I thought he was laying down a marker and saying, if I have the most pledged delegates and it looks like I am going to have the most popular votes too, then I‘ve earned this thing, and I‘m going to expect that the super delegates will come to that conclusion. 

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting to me, Chris, one of the points you made—you asked him what‘s it like to be a black kid with a white mom.  One of the things he did in the speech where he talked about race is he finally said, race is a central part of who I am, both as a politician and a man.  I understand black resentment in this country.  I understand black anger. 

The answer you got to that question was that I understand everybody‘s point of view.  I‘m mixed as a heritage here.  I‘m different, not only on the political scene, but just as an American.  I‘m so completely different, and therefore, I‘m not going to stereotype people.  I really do understand where people are coming from.  Who does he reach with that honesty, that argument? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s appreciation of American life.  I raised the question, nobody here who‘s white knows what it‘s like to be black.  Nobody here who‘s black know what it‘s like to be white.  There was a little hush when I said that.  It‘s tricky business in America to talk like that, ethnically.  People aren‘t comfortable with that conversation. 

Yet, when he talks, as a man of mixed background, he does have that freedom.  How many times, David, have you heard—Everybody has heard this.  He says, you know, when they do a genealogy on you, you like to think they‘re going to say you‘re related to somebody like Abraham Lincoln or Willie Mays, and you end up being related to Cheney.  That‘s a funny joke because it says black and white, we can agree we don‘t like Cheney.

How many people can say, hey like, I could have been related to Lincoln or Willie Mays.  He‘s dancing across that San Andreas fault of race in America.  He‘s celebrating his own personal diversity.  He‘s comfortable.  The man—he‘s very elegant about talking about race.  I don‘t think he leans into it very well.  I got him into it.  When I, a white guy, says white people don‘t know what it‘s like to be black, I noticed some people—I think they may have been black—saying, wow here.  You don‘t really have the call to make those kinds of comments.  Everybody in this panel knows it tricky business in America, ethnic differences and racial differences.  They‘re very serious problems.   

ROBINSON:  Let me point out though, Chris, most African-American‘s do have an idea of how complicated and multi-colored our histories can be, our genealogical histories can be. 

MATTHEWS:  Sure. 

ROBINSON:  Most of us—I only speak for myself—but in my family, there are people who have complexions that are basically like you when you have a sun tan, and there are people who—what was Obama‘s, from Margaret Thatcher to Berny Mac.  A lot of African Americans have that range in their families.

MATTHEWS:  Sure.  I think most Americans can appreciate that, just in terms of appearance, that people have mixed backgrounds.  A lot of whites, of course, way back then, being involved sexually with African slaves, basically, that history.  We know that history.  What‘s unique to him was he was raised by a white mother.  It wasn‘t just nature.  It was nurture, as well.  I think because it nurture he has a unique perspective. 

GREGORY:  Go ahead, Tony.  Quickly, then we‘ll take a break. 

BLANKLEY:  What‘s fascinating about this moment—physicality has always been an element in politics.  The handsome, taller man usually does better than the short, fat, ugly man.  Now, we have him embodying a racial hue.  The question is: is that going to be a positive physical attribute or not?  The jury is out. 

MATTHEWS:  Full hour of the show coming back at 7:00.  We‘re going to see the whole Obama amazing performance, I think here, by the students, as well as by hour guest Senator Obama, this hour. 

GREGORY:  That‘s it, coming up at 7:00 Eastern time.  You will see the full hour of Chris Matthews‘ news worthy interview with Barack Obama.  Chris, thanks very much.  Be sure to catch the HARDBALL College Tour right here, 7:00 Eastern time. 

Coming back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE, up next, the Obama endorsement juggernaut; is anybody climbing on the Clinton bandwagon and does it matter? 

We‘ve had our chance to weigh in on Obama‘s HARDBALL college tour interview.  Now it‘s your.  Tell us what you think.  Call us at 212-790-2299.  Or e-mail us at RACE08@MSNBC.com.  THE RACE comes right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to THE RACE.  Time for our big three questions tonight.  Still with us, Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson, Chuck Todd and Tony Blankley.

First up, today Barack Obama picked up the endorsement of former Congressman Lee Hamilton, the top Democrat on both the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group.  Hamilton is not a super delegate, but he could help Obama in his home state of Indiana.  Obama also picked up the endorsement of Wyoming‘s Governor and super delegate Dave Freudenthal.  The governor is the 53rd super delegate Obama has gained since Super Tuesday.  Hillary Clinton has picked up, but lost nine, a net loss of five super delegates since February 5th

Clinton still leads Obama in the total number of super delegates.  She has 255.  He has 223.  The only high profile endorsement she‘s received lately is from Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania.  Our first question tonight: is anyone actually getting on Clinton‘s bandwagon, Rachel? 

MADDOW:  This is maybe the most damning statistic in the entire Clinton/Obama race right now.  To see Obama up by more than 50 and Clinton down by five since Super Tuesday is incredible numbers, given that it will be the super delegates who are going to make the decision.  This is not just one metric among many.  This is the metric that makes the difference now. 

GREGORY:  That‘s the whole thing, Chuck.  The Clinton‘s are making the argument that the voting should go on and that they shouldn‘t be counted out.  They don‘t seem to have very many high profile allies in that fight. 

TODD:  You know, early on, there was a lot of chatter that if you weren‘t with them early, what would make you get on the bandwagon late?  That‘s what we‘re seeing here.  Literally, you have a whole bunch of these uncommitted super delegates, when you start probing them and you start having conversations with them, they are not yet with Obama, simply so they can always claim that they were always on the fence with the Clintons.  They are not yet with Obama because they don‘t want to offend the Clintons, but they‘re not going to be with the Clintons.

I think beyond something that chances the race, they are not going to be with them. 

GREGORY:  Next up, the Democratic primary isn‘t over, but team Obama is already planning an ambitious general election strategy.  The “Politico” reports the Obama camp is focusing not on swing voters, but on getting young and African-American voters to turn out in mass in November.  Ben Smith puts it like this—to the quote board—“Obama‘s proven appeal to independent voters, his campaign‘s focus on increasing turnout of younger and black voters --  his base—could counter balance hints of weakness among more traditional swing voters like the working class whites known as Reagan Democrats.”

Let‘s put it to the panel, our second question.  Could Obama reshape the electorate?  Tony?

BLANKLEY:  He could in many ways.  Obviously, he‘s going to get a boost from the 13.5 million African-American votes in 2004.  The question is, how will he deal with the 95 million white votes.  The other area where he could be changing the map not to his advantage is New York.  There‘s a lot of nervousness in the Jewish community there.  That could be a source of money for McCain.  Conceivably, you could see a fairly low Jewish Democratic vote, maybe in the 60s, rather than in the 70s.  Could that flip New York against Obama?  Maybe.

GREGORY:  Could also be a factor in Florida.  There‘s also, Eugene, the issue of Reagan Democrats.  A lot of them working class, white voters.  We‘ve seen this swing group of voters, white men, where Obama has done well in the west.  He did well in Virginia as well.  But states like Ohio, he has not done so well.  That‘s why Pennsylvania becomes important as well. 

ROBINSON:  I suspect he might—if he were to get the nomination, you might see him pivot somewhat on a few issues, in an attempt to attract what he calls Obama-cans, the converse, I guess, of the Reagan Democrats, maybe the same people. 

So, I think he will go after those people. 

GREGORY:  What are those issues, really?  He‘s still going to have to fight a pretty liberal voting record. 

ROBINSON:  Well, he does have a liberal voting record, but he said some tantalizing things, for example, about affirmative action and how you look at affirmative action going forward.  I don‘t know that this would happen, but I think you could see him come up with some sort of innovative position on affirmative action, going into the general election, that might be an expansion on some of the things he said in the race speech and some of the things he said in other speeches.  That‘s the kind of issue that he could break new ground on. 

GREGORY:  OK, finally tonight, John McCain is making his VP short list.  He told reporters he‘s in the embryonic stage, that‘s a quote, of picking a running mate.  He wants to make his choice sooner rather than later.  McCain said today, quote, “I would like to announce my VP choice as early as possible.  I‘m aware of enhanced importance of this issue, given my age.” 

Our third question tonight, how important is McCain‘s VP choice to his chances of winning in November, Chuck, precisely because of age? 

TODD:  I don‘t think it‘s because of age.  I think he makes the decision to pick somebody that simply helps him win the election.  When you look at it in that case, then you start to look at blue states that he wants to pick off or how does he help himself in the West.  I have to say, I keep thinking, this Mitt Romney stuff is starting to become more believable, because Romney could actually help him in Michigan, and help him out west in Nevada and Colorado. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, I think the same thing, actually. 

MADDOW:  At the same time, though, John McCain explicitly brought up the age thing on his own.  He wasn‘t prompted to talk about that.  He raised the age issue.  I find it politically notable and incredible that he‘s raising the specter of his own death in office when he‘s talking about his VP choice.  That‘s a big deal. 

GREGORY:  All right, I have to get a break in here.  Coming up next, you‘re going to get a chance to have a play date with the panel, finally weigh in on Barack Obama‘s college tour and some other topics as well.  We‘re coming right back. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back.  You‘ve heard enough from us, now we get to hear from you about Obama‘s HARDBALL College Tour interview.  Let‘s play with the panel. 

Still with us, Rachel, Eugene, Chuck and Tony.  We start with Michael in Texas; “I‘ve heard Barack Obama being compared to Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter when it comes to experience, but today, watching Obama on HARDBALL, I question whether the same guidelines apply.  Clinton and Carter may have been good enough for their decades, but are the challenges today too great for someone without a lot of experience?”

Tony, as he would argue it, Obama says this is about judgment, not experience that matters. 

BLANKLEY:  It is.  I think the presidency is about judgment.  A lot of experience with poor judgment I wouldn‘t want as president.  You want to have some mix.  I think Obama, obviously, can make a claim—we‘ll see what his judgment is.  I think a lot of the campaign will be testing his judgment.  He claims he‘s got the good judgment.  If he doesn‘t have that, he certainly doesn‘t have the experience. 

GREGORY:  Moving on to Ron in Texas; “I just watched Obama on HARDBALL.  As usual, he spoke about what he would do as president on education, same sex marriage, the housing problems, et cetera.  Since he can not say how he will accomplish all of these things, can someone on your panel explain how he‘s going to do it?  I think he is all talk and no substance.”  Rachel? 

MADDOW:  Hard in even an hour on television to explain how you‘re going to do all of this.  You‘re never going to get that kind of detail from a politician in that kind of setting.  Obama, actually, more than anybody else, has talked about the process by which he intends to govern.  He‘s the one who has been talking about how he thinks he can bring Democrats and Republicans together.  He‘s the one who is talking about a post-partisan America that neither McCain or Clinton is aligned with. 

So, I think, actually, of the three of them, if you care about process, he‘s talked about it more than the other two. 

GREGORY:  You know what interests me, Chuck, and you talk about this in First Read today as well; the point that so many Americans want to get past partisanship, past fighting.  There‘s a big pragmatic streak that runs through voter attitudes that is about believing that he can dissipate some of these divisions.  Do people just say that or do they mean it? 

TODD:  I think they say it, and yet, what happens?  They usually vote their partisan ways.  They vote their partisan history.  This is what makes this Obama/McCain match up so unique.  You have two guys who truly talk a lot about this idea that you are supposed to reach across the aisle.  You are supposed to try to have these tough conversations with your own base. 

McCain, frankly, has more history of doing it.  We haven‘t seen Obama yet.  We‘re still waiting for this moment from Obama where he tells Democrats something they don‘t want to hear. 

GREGORY:  On to Daniel in Kentucky; “concerning Reverend Wright, what other political options do you think Obama has had available to him?  He could completely separate himself from the pastor, but I believe that would leave him looking dishonest.  In all actuality, I believe not throwing his long time friend and pastor under the bus makes him appear more honest and less like your every day politician.”  This is what the polling shows so far, at least, Eugene? 

ROBINSON:  Yes, I actually don‘t think he has a better option than the one he‘s taken, especially since he‘s decided how he would handle the Wright matter.  I think to switch now would show an inconstancy that wouldn‘t do him any good.  So, this is the story.  He‘s going to stick to it. 

GREGORY:  Jenny in New York writes this; “who will seem like the more regular candidate, the one who can‘t bowl well, or the one whose tax return shows she‘s a multi-millionaire?”  Rachel? 

MADDOW:  You know, come on.  The whole idea that any of us are going to get to bowl or have a beer with our president is an illusion under which we all live.  We‘re not going to play basketball with him.  We‘re not going to bowl with him.  We‘re probably not even going to the White House correspondents dinner.  These people are not going to be our friends. 

GREGORY:  It‘s a great disappointment.  It‘s not going to happen.  We‘re not even going to play basketball?  If he builds a basketball court at the White House, I‘m 6‘5; I‘m thinking I get an invitation.  I‘m just putting that out there.

Thanks to a great panel.  You can play with them every night.  Send your email, RACE08@MSNBC.com.  That does it for us.  We‘re back here on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE tomorrow at 6:00 Eastern time.  Have a good evening.  “HARDBALL,” next.

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

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