updated 4/14/2008 12:00:51 PM ET 2008-04-14T16:00:51

Guests: Richard Wolffe, Chris Cillizza

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  General David Petraeus goes before Congress and testifies before the next president of the United States—John McCain, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton. 

A week from Tuesday, the Pennsylvania primary, Clinton versus Obama. 

What‘s the state of that race?

Here to put all this into context and perspective, Richard Wolffe of “Newsweek” magazine, Chris Cillizza of “Washington Post.”

Welcome both.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Good to be with you.

RICHARD WOLFFE, “NEWSWEEK”:  Thanks, Tim.

RUSSERT:  Richard, you have been on the campaign trail with Barack Obama for how long?

WOLFFE:  More than a year now.

RUSSERT:  And look at you.

(LAUGHTER)

CILLIZZA:  He still looks good. 

WOLFFE:  I used to have one color hair.

RUSSERT:  This is like a hostage tape.  You‘ve been set free.

WOLFFE:  Please, take me a way.

RUSSERT:  Tell us the state of the race.  How do you see Pennsylvania a week from Tuesday?

WOLFFE:  Well, finally we‘re a week away.  Isn‘t that great?

The state of the race is about expectations, I think, more than the impact on the overall contest, because the scope of this contest is pretty much established now in the sense that Obama has the lead.  Unless something extraordinary happens in terms of pledged delegates, it‘s pretty much insurmountable for Hillary Clinton.  So, the dynamic of how the overall contest plays out is there with us.

Pennsylvania, though, is about expectations.  And what you have here is the Clinton campaign saying this is it.  The big state strategy, this is a huge one, this is where we prove why we are competitive across the country.  So they‘ve set the bar pretty high.

They need a big win.  A big win in this race has meant good double digits, because Barack Obama has set a bar of 20 points or more.  And, in fact, what we have is a race in the high single digits, where he—Barack Obama will probably lose, but not by a blowout margin.  So that‘s I think where this is right now.

And the overall contest, pretty much unchanged.  But a lot of money spent, a lot of effort expended, and a likely—a likely Clinton win.

RUSSERT:  When we talk to people in Pennsylvania, the governor, Ed Rendell, strong Clinton supporter, he‘ll say, well, you know, five, six, seven points is a good win.  John Murtha, the congressman from Pennsylvania, says she wins by double digits.  Her campaign spokesmen in Pennsylvania say we‘re unbeatable.

Chris Cillizza, a week from Tuesday, what do we look for?

CILLIZZA:  You know, I think that what you‘re getting out of the Clinton campaign—and that‘s not their surrogates, including Governor Rendell—is, look, if we win, we win.  And that‘s it.  But that‘s not it, frankly.

You have two things going on.  And Richard touched on this.

There‘s a practical concern here.  She has to—this is the last really large state in the country.  She has to win by a considerable amount if, as her campaign hopes, she can narrow that popular vote gap and perhaps overcome Obama in Florida and Michigan.  So there‘s the practical concern.

Then you also have the symbolic concern.  Richard touched on this.

Barack Obama—this is amazing to me.  In 24 out of the 29 states he has won, he won by 16 points or more.  He has blown her out, by our definitions, repeatedly, multiple times.

She has only done that a few times.  So if she wins by three, four or five points, I don‘t think symbolically that changes the story line enough.

What we‘ve seen I think between March 4th and now is this inexorable idea that Obama is just too strong, that Clinton can‘t get around him.  That, yes, she‘s had some nice wins; yes, she‘s been able to extend the campaign; no, he can‘t win in unpledged delegates; but that she won‘t ultimately be the nominee.

I think Pennsylvania is one of her last best chances to change that narrative, to change it around.  If she wins, people will say, well, wait a minute, maybe there is something wrong with this Obama guy and we have to take another look.  If she wins by two, three, four points, it‘s essentially, both symbolically and practically, a wash.

RUSSERT:  Because we‘ll wake up a week from Wednesday, and if it‘s not a large victory, the proportional allocation of delegates will mean that she‘ll barely have closed that gap of some 160 lead that Obama has.

WOLFFE:  Right.  And the real contest here is for the hearts and minds of the superdelegates.  To overcome—to get the superdelegates to overturn the pledged delegates, you have to make a very strong argument, a hugely compelling argument.  So, just saying, as the Clinton campaign is effectively doing, well, we‘re going to be slightly better, on balance we‘re stronger here or there, that‘s not good enough. 

You have to say this other guy is a complete disaster, he will lose by 49 states.  Here is why we are not just slightly stronger, we are phenomenally stronger.

That‘s why in the few remaining races and the few remaining weeks that are still ahead of us, the Clinton campaign has to make this overwhelming case.  Not just on edge, on balance, we‘re slightly better in this way or that way, with this demographic or that demographic.  It really has to be a blowout win.

RUSSERT:  To the delegates, to the American people, yes, Barack Obama is ahead in elected delegates.  Yes, he‘s won more contests.  And yes, he‘s ahead in the cumulative popular vote.  But, despite all that, Hillary Clinton should be the nominee because she‘ll be tougher against John McCain.

CILLIZZA:  And the problem with that argument is—and I think the Clinton campaign has run into this—is you saw insinuations that Hillary Clinton is the best commander in chief, and subtly, Barack Obama would not be a good commander in chief.  Well, they have significantly backed off of that.

Even Mark Penn, Clinton‘s former chief strategist, now deposed, he, in conference calls, had been saying essentially, yes, Hillary Clinton is going to be a good commander in chief and, well, we don‘t know about Barack Obama.  Of late, the Clinton campaign has said Hillary Clinton would be the better commander in chief, insinuating that Barack Obama would also be a good commander in chief.

And that goes to what Richard is talking about.  The problem is, is that the superdelegates and, I think, party activists, generally don‘t want to see the candidates savage one another.  The way in which Senator Clinton can get this nomination is to absolutely obliterate Barack Obama—totally negative, carpet bombing on his record, he‘s not ready.  But superdelegates don‘t want that.  They don‘t want their candidate ultimately bloodied up to the point where John McCain can, they believe, win this thing.

So, it leaves here in a very difficult bind.  The one strategy open to her is the strategy that would likely—could win her the race, but almost certainly would cost here the race.

RUSSERT:  To constituencies, the rank and file voter, by saying, I can be commander in chief, John McCain can be commander in chief, but Barack Obama, question mark.  Which is what their theme was.  But if they pursue that, the superdelegates say, time out, you‘re dividing the party.

CILLIZZA:  And ultimately, they know this, and Obama‘s campaign knows this, the math doesn‘t add up for either of them in terms of pledged delegates.  Barack Obama certainly is—is almost certain to end this thing, the nomination fight, with a lead in pledged delegates, but not enough to formally be the nominee.  So, either way, they‘re going to need the superdelegates.  And Senator Clinton right now is—it‘s a very delegate dance that you touched on, Tim.  She has to win these votes in Pennsylvania, Indiana, maybe North Carolina, among the voters, but she also has to keep superdelegates at bay.

She can‘t have 20, 30, 40 superdelegates all going to Barack Obama, because if that happens, that‘s where the nomination fight is going to come down to.  It‘s a fascinating conundrum.

RUSSERT:  We‘re going to take a quick break.  We‘ll be back with a lot more.

Richard Wolffe, you can read his columns and stories in “Newsweek” magazine.  Chris Cillizza, washingtonpost.com and “The Washington Post” newspaper.

Right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  Historic race for the Democratic nomination for the White House - - Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama.

Richard Wolffe, a series of articles written over the last week or so about the campaigns suggesting that Obama has run a more efficient, more competent, more professional campaign than Hillary Clinton, and that alone is a criteria that superdelegates should use to make a judgment as to the executive ability of the candidates.

WOLFFE:  Yes.  You know, it‘s hard to get inside the internal workings of these campaigns too much, but it is certainly true, objectively, that there‘s been less internal strife in the Obama camp, they‘ve raised more money, and they have been more successful in their grand game across the country than their opponents on the Clinton side.  And one of the foundation arguments for the Clinton campaign was that these were the professionals.  These are the people who knew the business, knew how to win, and would do it all over again, because they‘ve done it twice.

That has been taken apart.  It was taken apart actually at a really very early stage.

Remember, one of the first surprises of this campaign over a year ago was how Barack Obama‘s fundraising machine was so much more impressive from nothing, from a standing start, than the Clinton operation, which has been the biggest fundraising machine in Democratic politics. So, those are important factors for him.

Now, the truth is that they‘re fortunate, both of these candidates, both of these Democrats, in that they‘re going up against John McCain, who also has executive experience.  So, none of them have actually run anything.  And in that sense, running—how they run a campaign is about the only measure we have for saying, well, how would they run the government?

So, I think these are important measures, to some degree.

RUSSERT:  We had Hillary Clinton in Ohio when it was revealed that an adviser to Barack Obama had met with a Canadian official and talked about the North American Free Trade Agreement.  Exactly what was said, we still don‘t know.  But she said at that time, if this was me—substitute my name for Senator Obama‘s name—you guys in the press would all be over this story.

Now we have a situation where Mark Penn, her chief strategist, was paid $300,000 as a lobbyist, a public relations executive, to meet with the Colombian ambassador to strategize on how to pass the trade agreement.  We now know that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, paid $800,000 for speeches by a Colombian organization in favor of the free trade agreement.  And we don‘t see the Obama campaign being aggressive on that as the Clinton campaign was aggressive on the Obama campaign with Canada and NAFTA.

Why?

CILLIZZA:  You know, I think that they‘ve gotten a little bit more—

“they,” the Obama campaign—has gotten a little bit more aggressive with Mark Penn.  They did have a conference call earlier in the week in which they said what she has done is not enough.  She needs to explain this more.

The problem, I think, with the Obama campaign being too aggressive with Bill Clinton is, where do you go?  Do you ask Senator Clinton to fire her husband?  I mean, there‘s not necessarily a logical end there.

But I do think the way—the tactic in which the Obama campaign has adopted is, they really do have an eye on the primary and an eye on the general election.  They have gotten into—this past weekend, an example on the war on Iraq, they‘ve spent a lot of time talking about why John McCain is wrong on the war, why he wants a continuation of the Bush policy.

They spent relatively little time debating the relative merits of what Senator Clinton wants to do versus what their candidate wants to do on the war.  They‘re starting to staff up, bringing on more experienced people.  It‘s starting to look like a general election campaign.

And it‘s fascinating, because in some ways they‘re having to do all of this on the fly.  The nomination fight isn‘t over yet. 

Obama looks like the frontrunner, but he certainly doesn‘t have it in the bag yet.  And yet, they know that when June 3rd comes, after Montana and South Dakota vote, they‘re going to have to hit the ground running one way or another.  Or, when the convention ends, you know, in August, they‘re going to have to hit the ground one way or another.

So, I think you‘re seeing Obama spend, and his campaign spend, 50 percent of its time, maybe even a little more, on McCain and a little less on Clinton.  So, it may be a function of that, that she‘s still there.  I don‘t want to call her an afterthought, but they know the real fight is to come with McCain.

RUSSERT:  But Richard, you know Barack Obama.  You covered him for over a year.  Hillary Clinton went for the jugular in Ohio.  This was a campaign meeting with a foreign government in secrecy, basically winking and nodding, as she said.

Senator Obama, I do not believe, has addressed the Mark Penn situation in a public forum.

WOLFFE:  No.  And that says something about the kind of politics—he actually—as he‘d told me, he actually believes this stuff.  It isn‘t just the slogan, although he knows it is a slogan, but this different kind of politics, the whole raising the tone stuff.

He doesn‘t really have it in him to go for the jugular.  Some of these people do around him.

One of the interesting dynamics of this long campaign in Pennsylvania is that we thought it would be this long, slippery slope.  And that certainly coming out of Texas of Ohio, for a couple of weeks they were really eviscerating each other, both these campaigns, and the Obama campaign, too, doing something it really hadn‘t done before.

Now, I think both sides pulled back from the brink.  They saw, they heard what the rest of the party was concerned about. 

One interesting conversation I had recently with Howard Dean.  And Dean says, look, Dean isn‘t really going to be the peace broker in all of this, but Dean does have some direct personal experience of how to patch a party together.

His supporters in 2004 were incredibly passionate for him and, most notably, against John Kerry.  He said it took him three months of hard work, not just personally, but with his supporters to say, calm down, folks, Kerry is still a better choice than George Bush.  And I think certainly in Obama‘s head he‘s thinking now beyond this stage.  Even if his operatives do rip a new hole in Hillary Clinton—excuse my language—then he‘s going to have to patch the party up. 

And that‘s going to take time.  He doesn‘t actually have that time if he waits until August.

RUSSERT:  Three months would be June, July, August.  Plenty of time for the fall campaign.  But if this goes on all the way to the convention, then you have September, October.  Out of time.

WOLFFE:  Out of time.  And this party needs—if it‘s not united, then they have lost one of their key strengths here in this campaign.

So, the tone of the campaign at this point is actually important, both for what they want to do in the general election and the party‘s fortunes (ph) in November.  There‘s no question.

RUSSERT:  Democrats in ‘68, ‘72 and ‘80 very divided going into a general election.  All three times, in the tank.

CILLIZZA:  And, you know, I think, Tim, that history, even more recent history, 2004, haunts them.  Not necessarily divided, but an election where many people, neutral observers, many people in the Democratic Party, some people in the Republican Party, though we cannot lose this election.  We have nominated a military war hero, George Bush‘s numbers are not great, this is not the George Bush of 2000.

This one is a slam-dunk.  All we have to do is sort of drop the ball in the hole.  Well, it turned out that that was not as easy a task as they thought.

I think Democrats continue to be haunted by the idea that it looks so easy.  You know, I always—the metaphor from my childhood, Charlie Brown, where Lucy is holding the football and she‘s like, “Come on, Charlie Brown.  Just go over and kick it.”  And every time he gets suckered in to trying to kick it, and she whips it away and he falls on his head.

That‘s how Democrats in a lot of ways see presidential elections.  So, I think they‘re always concerned about the possibility of screwing up a good thing.  And I think they think that this potential for divisiveness is what could be that pulling the football away this time.

RUSSERT:  We‘ll be right back.

More of Richard Wolffe of “Newsweek,” Chris Cillizza of “The Washington Post,” right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we‘re back.

John McCain, meanwhile, people thought, well, as he said in New Hampshire, he was Lazarus.  He was dead.  And he had to come back to life. 

He won New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida.  He‘s the Republican nominee.

As it turns out, he‘s been able to consolidate his base pretty quickly.

WOLFFE:  Right.  And comeback stories are great in and of themselves, but also, I think the party‘s probably ready for a comeback.

I mean, people—you know, I was hearing from a lot of Bush supporters, donors, friends who were talking about Bush fatigue.  People talk about Clinton fatigue, but Bush fatigue is very real in the party.

So, I think it was a natural desire to coalesce around someone, someone with a compelling story.  It doesn‘t really solve the key question that the Republican Party faces, which is, what do they stand for?

Apart from the war—and even the war is obviously divisive among Republicans—but apart from the war, the conundrum that President Bush has set them: big government, small government, the compassion agenda, the tax issue, how far they take tax cuts moving forward, and, of course, the war on terror and how that‘s waged, that—those questions are not resolved by John McCain.  He has to do that work, as well as being the figure head, raising money, instituting or growing a campaign.  He really has to address some of those ideological questions and show leadership.

RUSSERT:  It is interesting, Chris Cillizza.  On all the issues that you ask voters about—the taxes and the economy and climate control, energy independence, Social Security—right down the list people prefer the Democratic position.  You ask a generic question, in the fall do you vote for Democrat, Republican, 12 to 15 points Democrat.

Then you match up McCain/Clinton, McCain/Obama, it‘s a dead race.  Sometimes McCain is ahead.  A poll last week in New York State, Hillary Clinton‘s home state, John McCain/Condoleezza Rice, versus Obama/Clinton, Clinton/Obama, McCain wins.

What‘s going on?

CILLIZZA:  Well, I think that the generic ballot, a Democratic candidate

versus a Republican, speaks to where the two parties‘ brands are at the

moment.  Even the most Republican folks that I talk to, consultants, people

who have been in this business for a long time, say the brand is as badly

damaged as we‘ve seen.  We‘ve seen evidence of that—a special election

in Illinois in the House.  Dennis Hastert, the former speaker‘s old beat, a

seat that Republicans should never lose, they lose

The brand is in bad shape, and I think it‘s a lot of what Richard talked about.  No one really knows what being a Republican stands for anymore, and that‘s problematic.

The Republicans used to have that wonderful gift that, smaller government, lower taxes.  That was it.  Two things.  Very simple for people to understand.

Democrats had a much longer explanation of what their party stood for.

RUSSERT:  Is McCain running better because he‘s seen as a maverick more than a Republican?

CILLIZZA:  I was just going to say, I think, frankly, that the very things that made it hard for me, at least, to see why John McCain would be the Republican nominee are the things that recommend him as the best possible general election candidate.  He is conservative enough—he‘s certainly not beloved by conservatives, but he is conservative enough to keep conservative voters at home, and I truly believe that.

I think if the party had nominated Rudy Giuliani, someone who‘s pro-choice, someone who is in favor of gun rights, that some within the party would have stayed home.  I‘m not saying they would have supported Clinton or Obama, but they might have stayed home.

I think McCain keeps those folks in his fold, but also, he has the—speaking about brands, the McCain brand is still lingering from 2000.  It is a strong one among Independent and Democratic voters.  We saw that in this Republican primary process.

John McCain regularly won Independents.  He regularly won Democrats voting in the Republican primary.  His biggest problem was with Republicans.

So, I think in a general election, when you have a Hillary Clinton or a Barack Obama, versus a John McCain, his base stays at home, and he is the candidate best suited of the Republicans we saw run to reach out to that middle.  And I think this election—if 2004 was an election about the two bases of the parties, I believe that 2008 is going to be more about who can enliven those Independent voters.

RUSSERT:  What do you think, Richard?

WOLFFE:  Not so much.  I mean, elections are always won in the middle—the loosely-aligned, loose-party affiliation.  That‘s all true.  But, if Barack Obama is indeed the nominee, I think he‘s shown a capacity to grow with his base, bring new voters in, which is a substantial force.

I think the big turnout numbers for the Bush operation in 2000/2004, evangelical voters are going to have a problem with John McCain.  I think they have a problem with politics in general.  There‘s a deep sense of disillusion with what the Bush agenda has been—how much they were promised, how much was delivered.

RUSSERT:  Who are those, hard-core conservatives, evangelicals?

WOLFFE:  Evangelicals, I would say, in places like Florida.

RUSSERT:  Southern Ohio?

WOLFFE:  Yes.  And they‘re disillusioned.  They‘re also hit hard by the economy as well.  I mean, they‘re not single-issue voters.

But then you also look at McCain‘s strengths with his core groups.  And if there‘s a silver lining for Democrats, it‘s that they have campaigned all across the country and spent giant amounts of money all across the country.

John McCain in 2000, big media profile, but very geographically concentrated in certain pockets.  Running a national campaign is very different.

CILLIZZA:  Can I just make one counterargument?  I think Richard is right, but the one thing I will say, Barack Obama‘s biggest struggle in this primary is with white rural voters, Reagan Democrats.  Do they become McCain Democrats in 2008?

I don‘t know, but it‘s at least something to look at if he‘s the nominee.

RUSSERT:  And the women who supported Hillary Clinton.  Do they come back if Obama‘s the nominee?

We‘re going to talk about that and Iraq.  How big of an issue will it be after the General Petraeus hearings?

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we‘re back.

The race for the White House 2008 has energized this country, captured the attention of voters from California to New York.

We‘re talking to Chris Cillizza of “The Washington Post,” and Richard Wolffe of “Newsweek” magazine.

General David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker testifying before Congress in front of John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama.  One of them will be your next boss, General.

What did you make of the hearings?

WOLFFE:  Well, a couple of things.  First of all, what a difference it is being a senator stuck behind those microphones from being a presidential campaign.

You‘re not controlling the show.  You‘re not setting the agenda.  It‘s not your strategy.

Everyone looks at these things and says, well, what about the commander in chief test?  This isn‘t really a commander in chief test.

Unless one of those senators had flubbed up hugely—and McCain did make a flub of his own on Sunni and Shia when it comes to al Qaeda.  But really, you‘re asking questions.  It‘s a cross-examination.

Sometimes, in McCain‘s case, you‘re leading the witness.  And that‘s a different set of skills from what a commander in chief does, or even a presidential candidate.

They all did fine.  They all have all this background knowledge.  They all came to it with their various agendas.  But in the end, it isn‘t going to be President Bush‘s strategy.  It‘s not even going to be General Petraeus‘ strategy.

Each of these people is going to have to figure things out for themselves. 

And even if it‘s John McCain, the current path is not going to be the same.

RUSSERT:  But in November—or let‘s say in October—John McCain saying to the American people, all right, we‘ve made mistakes, but we can‘t get out, because we‘ll leave chaos behind and we‘ll allow a haven for terrorism to spring up which could hurt our country.

Obama or Clinton saying they‘ve had five years, it‘s time to start the withdrawal.  They have to take the training wheels off and grab on to their own destiny.

WOLFFE:  I think—look, I think the American people have looked at the war all these years and pretty much made up their mind.  And it‘s going to take something really quite radical to get them to review that judgment.

The surge right now, for all of its limited success, has not proved enough of a success to say the troops can come home.  That was the game plan.  The game plan was the return on success, as the president crafted it.

And actually, what you have is a situation where Petraeus comes in and says, well, we‘ve been successful, but it‘s reversible.  Troops cannot actually go back now, and it‘s all very fragile.

That‘s a mixed picture, which Iraq has been all of these years—slightly better, but still capable of sliding back, as we‘ve seen recently in Basra.  That‘s not a winning proposition for John McCain either in and of itself, or to get people to say, have another look at Iraq, take another look, it‘s worth sticking with.  Because right now he‘s faced with two-thirds of the American people saying, sorry, this was a mistake.

RUSSERT:  Two-thirds saying it‘s not worth the price we‘ve paid in human life and treasure.  And yet, when I look at those numbers and then go out around the country and talk to people, there‘s a sense we have to get out.  And they say, but, by the way, we don‘t want to lose.  And I‘m not sure you can have both in the large scope of things.

CILLIZZA:  I think—I mean, if elections are fundamentally about a choice, the American people making a choice in—between two candidates, between two directions, we will have a very clear choice, whether it‘s Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton and John McCain.  Now, John McCain is being careful, smartly, I think, if you look at President Bush‘s approval numbers.

RUSSERT:  But on Iraq there will be big differences on a big issue.

CILLIZZA:  Huge differences on a huge issue, absolutely.  You know, I think you can make arguments with the economy, about health care.  They clearly differ.  But on this issue John McCain is going to stand his ground.

I don‘t think we—people ask me all the time, “What do you think McCain is going to do about his position on Iraq in the fall?”  I don‘t think he can hedge his position necessarily.

The one thing that people really like and identify with John McCain, straight talker, tells it like it is.  “I‘d rather lose an election than lose a war.”  All of those things.  So, then, it is very difficult when that is your position to walk back regardless of what they say. 

Look, John McCain has been in politics for a long time.  He is well aware, I think, of the fact that this is not a popular war.  That if you look back at Vietnam and polling done there, that once it crosses that sort of critical juncture of people disapproving, as Richard says, it would take a radical event that I can‘t even imagine to tip it back in terms of people being in favor that this war was worth fighting.

But I think he also knows, to the point that you talk about, Tim, what next?  What do we do if we leave?  I think the sense that, does chaos ensue?  People are worried about that. 

Iraq is tied in, in some ways, in the psyche with national security.  McCain knows that.  I think that‘s the argument he makes—commander in chief, I can keep you safe.

In some ways, it‘s a replay of 2004.  It‘s a very similar argument to what George Bush made.  Have the American people changed in that time, and does that argument still sell, I think, is the question.

WOLFFE:  Well, I think they have changed.  And I think there are two prisms for the war in the fall.

One is, how do we get out?  John McCain said when Iraq is peaceful, stable, prosperous.  That‘s a very high bar. 

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton basically said—in Obama‘s terms, a sloppy, messy status quo.  And the question is then, is this Vietnam or is it Korea?  And clearly, McCain is saying, hey, it‘s going to be like Korea.  We‘re going to be there and it‘s going to be pretty much deadlocked.

And the Democrats are saying, you know, this is a hard thing.  To make people face up to the idea that this has been, as two-thirds of people say, a mistake, that‘s not an easy argument to make.  But really the question is, what‘s the exit strategy?

McCain‘s is the exist strategy is when Iraq is like West Germany.  And that‘s going to be a difficult sell, I think.

RUSSERT:  It has been interesting covering Obama in Pennsylvania, I believe, for you, because he‘s been able to weave a new argument in terms of Iraq—we can‘t afford it.  We‘re in a recession and this war is draining money that we need to be spending back here at home, as well as having a very negative effect upon the makeup of our military.

WOLFFE:  Yes, the economic argument is huge.  And that‘s partly targeted (ph) for him because he‘s not done so well with blue collar workers—in some parts of the country, anyway.  But look at the polls.

When this race started, Iraq was sky high in terms of the agenda as a priority for voters. Now, the economy, the economy, the economy. 

And we all think about the Lieberman moment, when McCain had Joe Lieberman whispering in his ear about al Qaeda.  But he has many of those moments on the campaign trail when he‘s deferred questions about the economy to Phil Gramm or someone else. 

He admits that the economy is not his strongest suit.  He‘s going to have to learn a way to talk about the economy not just in places like Pennsylvania, but across the country, because, you know, tying those two things together is powerful, but he‘s also going to have to reassure people that he is a good steward of the economy.

CILLIZZA:  I think the Obama strategy is actually very sound, because it goes to what you‘re talking about, Tim, I think, which is people don‘t want to lose even though—in Iraq—even though they feel as though we‘ve sort of already lost.  I think sort of admitting that we‘ve lost is a different thing.

I think when you say look at all that‘s being sacrificed for this—health care, education, jobs, all this money that could go there—I think it‘s an opportunity cost argument.  Look at how much money we‘re spending.  Look how we could take that money and spend it on things that are more important to you on an everyday basis.

I think that may be the way that people ultimately justify to themselves why we should get out of Iraq.  We need better education, our economy is feeling.  We need to take that money and put it elsewhere.  It‘s about priorities.  It‘s not about winning and losing.

RUSSERT:  We‘re going to take another quick break.  More of Richard Wolffe, Chris Cillizza, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we‘re back talking to Richard Wolffe of “Newsweek,” Chris Cillizza of “The Washington Post.”

Richard, you‘re on the road with Barack Obama.  I‘m sure a lot of viewers are saying, OK, Wolffe, what‘s he like?  How is he?

WOLFFE:  You know, that—to me, that‘s the question he has to answer now, six months‘ time.  I think it will be the question he‘ll be answering six years from now.

And I spent a lot of time with then-Governor Bush in 1990-2000, and the same questions he faced then he‘s facing now, which is, is he smart?  Does he just talk funny? 

So I think there is a certain pattern to this, not just because he‘s new, which he is, and there are all these unanswered questions about his background, his biography, what he stands for, but also because of his identity.  And those things are never going to be resolved.

What‘s he really like?  Well, he‘s tired right now.  He‘s exhausted.  And he kind of shows it, actually.

He can hide it some ways.  He drives himself hard.  You know, he‘s exercising at 6:00 a.m. every morning, and playing basketball and everything else.

RUSSERT:  He said Iraq rather than Iran the other day at the hearing.  And he looked tired saying it.

WOLFFE:  Yes.  And, look, part of that may be that he wasn‘t wearing enough makeup, because the makeup hides a lot when he does his TV interviews.  But, no, he‘s tired.

And he means it when he says it‘s a grind.  And anyone who says it‘s not a grind is lying.

Long days, lots of stops.  Having said all of that, he actually enjoys campaigning.  And I think that comes through, too.

Even something that I think at the start of his campaign he thought was somehow beneath him—he‘s a sort of intellectual, policy wonkish-type, really.  He didn‘t really want to give some of the big, fiery speeches early on because he thought, well, I can...

(CROSSTALK)

RUSSERT:  Is he aloof, distant?

WOLFFE:  I think he actually breaks down the barriers pretty well.  He can, when he‘s tired, withdraw into himself.  But John Kerry would never really wade into a crowd, go into a bar, and really be at ease with people.  This is what I mean by him coming to terms with, A, him enjoying the retail campaigning, some of the photo-op stuff we‘ve seen a lot of in Pennsylvania, but also, you know, just being able to meet people, convince them, and enjoying sort of sharing who he is with people.

I think he‘s at ease with himself in that sense.  Now, that doesn‘t mean to say he‘s run a (INAUDIBLE) campaign, because he hasn‘t.  I think there have been doubts about some of his messaging, how hard he should go on Clinton, whether he gets complacent.

Complacency has been a factor in a number of his stumbles.  In New Hampshire, in Texas and Ohio, I think they got into a rut with the kind of events they were doing.

So, do they have the ideas, do they have the sort of people around him who can freshen himself when he himself is tired and—or he thinks this is done?

RUSSERT:  Do you find him smart?

WOLFFE:  Yes, I think he is smart.

RUSSERT:  Grasp of the issues, knowledgeable?

WOLFFE:  He is deeply into a lot of these issues.  A lot of—into these in a way that, frankly, Governor Bush never was a candidate, and even as a president.

On some things he has a very—President Bush has a very short attention span.  This guy actually likes having the long town hall and going into long, detailed questions about No Child Left Behind.  Foreign policy—he‘ll talk about any part of the world.

Now, one thing people say is, well, you know, Clinton had all these years when he was thinking about his philosophy of politics, where Democrats should be.  I think one of the underestimated pieces of Obama is that he‘s come to this having thought for a long time about this sort of—the reaching across party lines, the kind of politics he wants to do as well.

So, that‘s not really come out so much, but the sloganeering stuff didn‘t come out of nothing.

RUSSERT:  How did he handle losing in New Hampshire, the setbacks in Ohio and Texas.  Twice trying to put Clinton out of the contest, didn‘t succeed.  The whole NAFTA problem with one of his aides, the Reverend Wright situation.

How does he deal with those kinds of crises?

WOLFFE:  Well, they‘re tough, for sure.  I mean, you know, there‘s not—you can‘t sort of gloss over those things. 

They were all setback hugely.  And New Hampshire is an interesting one.  They obviously thought that they were just going to coast to it.  And the news came through—they were in a hotel room, and campaign manager David Plouffe walks in and says, “We‘re going to come up short.”

He disappears into his room with his wife and comes out.  All his aides are anxiously waiting outside in the hallway.  And he comes out and says, “You know what?  No one said this was going to be easy.”  He says, “We‘re going to have to fight every step of the way.”

And I think it was a reminder to them, a very important reminder, that he - - and he said this publicly—as an African-American candidate, name of Barack Obama, he‘s going to have to fight every step of the way.  That is an important thing.  But he forgot it when he got to Texas and Ohio.

I don‘t think they were fighting that hard.  So it knocked him hard, it did.  But then you get to see candidates as they really are.

This stress test means something in this campaign.  You get to see the real character.  And people are focused very much on the fighting qualities and instincts of Hillary Clinton.  It‘s true she has them in bucket loads.  But he‘s no pushover.

RUSSERT:  As we look back at the Reverend Jeremiah Wright situation, Chris, where are we now with that?  Has Obama put it behind him?  Will it rise up in Pennsylvania?  Will it rise up in November if he‘s the general election candidate?

CILLIZZA:  Where we are I think is that he effectively dealt with it in the short term with that speech.  Whether or not he put to bed reservations that people have either reservations that they speak publicly or, I think, more likely reservations that they keep to themselves privately, it is no longer topic  A on the campaign trail.

The Clinton campaign has said it does come up when we talk to superdelegates.  Not clear whether they bring it up or not, but it‘s clearly still an issue.

I believe in the world in which we live in, in modern politics, it is—I would bet every dollar I have that it will come up in the general election.  I think that Republicans have been looking for what they would deem as a silver bullet against Obama.

The one thing I think that‘s different with Obama when Republicans think about him is, they knew, they thought, how to run against Hillary Clinton.  Very traditional campaign, she‘s too liberal, she‘s about the past, we‘re about the future, 51-49 one way or the other.

Obama I think presents them with a more difficult challenge.  He‘s hard for them to get a figure on, to really get a sense of where he is, to grasp, to say this is how we‘re going to define him.  Now, they‘ll probably define him, seek to define him as a liberal out of step, et cetera, et cetera.

I think the Reverend Wright thing gave Republican strategists some confidence.  This guy isn‘t Teflon.  This guy can—is going to have to answer for this in a more real way.  And I think you‘re going to see that come up again.

Just one real quick, Tim.  Because of the way the modern campaign works, those three minutes of footage of Reverend Wright—and I know and we all know that he spoke for hours and hours and hours, but those three minutes of footage are very dangerous in the context of a presidential election.

RUSSERT:  Will it be an attempt, in effect, to keep that question mark over Barack Obama‘s head?  Roll Reverend Wright tape.  Roll tape of the famous photograph now of Obama holding his hand in front of him during “The Star-Spangled Banner” or the Pledge of Allegiance.  Michelle Obama‘s comments about whether there‘s serious pride in America.

Fairly or unfairly, weave all those together suggesting something sinister to the American people.

CILLIZZA:  And that‘s—yes.  And I think the reality is, as well, we like to believe that people vote based on their hopes and their dreams and their aspirations.  Political campaigns in the past, from the state dog catcher, all the way up to the president, have proven that at times, and many times, people vote their fears.

I think in 2004 you saw people vote—President Bush has kept us safe until this point, let‘s not change course in midstream.  We‘re worried what that might do.  And I think all of those things you just talked about, Tim, form a somewhat compelling narrative to raise doubt. 

It doesn‘t make a case, convincing case against Barack Obama, but it raises enough doubt.  The question is, is it enough doubt for people to say I‘m with John McCain?  We don‘t know that yet.

RUSSERT:  We‘ll be right back.  Another quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we are back talking about the race for the White House.

You know, sometimes we get so caught up in this race.  January 3rd was the Iowa caucuses.  It seems like 30 years ago.  And we lose the large perspective.

If you had said in 2006 that Barack Obama was going to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, you could have won a lot of money, Richard Wolffe.

WOLFFE:  Absolutely.

RUSSERT:  Because he says he does have a funny name, a skinny guy with ears.  And you‘ve talked to his family, you‘ve done a lot of writing about this.

Where did he come from?

WOLFFE:  Well, for a start, I think they‘re all kind of surprised at it.  He didn‘t know that this would work this way.  He didn‘t know—and there‘s nobody who says, yes, we knew we would go all the way with it.

RUSSERT:  Yes, we can.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLFFE:  Yes, we think we can.

RUSSERT:  Maybe can.

WOLFFE:  Where did he come from?  You know, again, this is a question of who he is.  Who he is, and what does he stand for, what does he represent?

And I think it‘s formative experiences here.  A big part of what he does comes out of the community organizing thing.  Now, this is overblown in the campaign‘s own narrative, but it‘s important to get into his head about the kind of ways he crafts his speeches. 

And people say, well, how is he going to bring everyone together?  Well, this is how he does it. 

As a community organizer, what he had to do every day was ask people what their stories were, and then weave their stories together, these disparate people who weren‘t really talking to each other, and say, you know what?  You have something in common—your heating doesn‘t work, there‘s asbestos in your apartment.  We can come together with all these different stories and take on the city.

Well, he‘s doing that in each one of these landmark speeches.  He‘s saying there‘s white America, there is the blue collar worker in Pennsylvania, there‘s the waitress in Iowa, and there are African-American kids on the south side of Chicago.  Weaves those stories together, paint the broader picture of America.

And that‘s, A, a very compelling American narrative.  All of these things are an American narrative.  That was his 2004 speech as well.

And so, you could say, well, that‘s just a matter of speeches.  I mean, that‘s what the Clinton line is, it‘s just words.  But actually, people like hearing their stories retold.

And one of the ways he did this in Illinois State legislature was to say on

the death penalty issue, to conservatives, to law and order conservatives,

listen, we‘re on different sides of this, but you want the death penalty to

stand up.  You don‘t want it to be undermined by all of these false

concessions.  So let‘s go videotape people when they‘re being interrogated

by police.

And to the other people he was saying, well, we don‘t like the death penalty, and so we need these videotapes.  And we‘re not going to get them to stop it, but we can at least get this middle ground here.

It‘s incremental, maybe.  But people like having their positions reinterpreted, re-voiced through this guy‘s mouth, partly because he does it so well.

Now, does that lead you to the big stuff?  Is it going to get you to universal health care?  Probably not.  But it‘s going to take him, in his mind, part of the way there, an important part of the way there.

So, you know, his life story doesn‘t guarantee anything.  You don‘t know how any of these presidents are going to be when they really get into the Oval Office, but there is a story line there that is evident in the way he campaigns.

RUSSERT:  Chris Cillizza, are you surprised that it‘s, in all likelihood, Obama versus McCain?

CILLIZZA:  Absolutely.  You know, Tim, I thought—in 2006, I remember writing Barack Obama goes to West Virginia and gets 10,000 people at a Jefferson Jackson Dinner.  Barack Obama goes to Ohio and gets 10,000 people.  And I remember writing this guy should at least think about running for president.

There‘s a lot of excitement.  And someone who will go unnamed but is very prominent said to me, “It‘s irresponsible that you wrote that.  There‘s no way he will run for president in 2008.”

And so, I just—it is amazing how quickly...

RUSSERT:  A politician or a journalist told you that?

CILLIZZA:  A journalist. 

(LAUGHTER)

CILLIZZA:  Politicians know better.  Politicians know better.

RUSSERT:  Not at this table.  Not at this table.

CILLIZZA:  It was no one at this table.

And I think what that says is a couple of things.  One, is that this is a guy who is uniquely gifted and charismatic and able to encapsulate and become that vessel through which people‘s hopes and dreams move.

The other thing is that people want something different.  People want a fresh face.  People want a new story. 

And I think if we look back in retrospect at this campaign, we‘re going to say people were sick of the Clintons.  They wanted something different.  And Barack Obama was the exact perfect person there—new, not very experienced in presidential national politics, the right fit at the right time.

RUSSERT:  We‘ll save the tape if Hillary Clinton wins Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  You‘ll be back.

Thanks very much, Richard Wolffe, Chris Cillizza.

We‘ll see you next week.

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

END   

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