updated 4/18/2008 12:58:58 PM ET 2008-04-18T16:58:58

Guests: Joe Scarborough, John Harwood, Rachel Maddow, Harold Ford Jr

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC ANCHOR:  I‘m David Gregory, tonight, debating the debate.  Now it‘s Barack Obama‘s turn to complaint about the format and the treatment, as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on. 

Welcome to the RACE, your stop for the fast pace, the bottom line, and every point of view in the room.  Five days now before PA, and the question is, did last night‘s debate change any minds?  The key exchanges in just a moment. “Inside the War Room” tonight, we find the new poll numbers that expose Hillary Clinton‘s dilemma, to attack or not to attack?  At half past, don‘t forget, that‘s at half past the hour.  Tonight‘s “Big Questions,” has Michelle Obama pulled ahead in the battle of the political spouses? 

The foundation of the program, of course, a panel that comes to play.  And with us tonight, MSNBC political analyst and host of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, Rachel Maddow; NBC News analyst and chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, Harold Ford Jr.; CNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent John Harwood; and “MORNING JOE” himself, the host of MSNBC‘s “MORNING JOE,” Joe Scarborough. 

We begin, as we do every night, with everyone‘s take on the most important political story of the day.  It‘s the “Headlines.” My “Headline” tonight, gotcha politics.  That‘s how Senator Obama‘s campaign manager described the ABC debate.  Obama complained today about 45 minutes of questions focused on his negatives, controversial statements, associations, and gaffes. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Now, I don‘t blame Washington for this, because that‘s just how Washington is.  They like stirring up controversy, they like playing gotcha game games and getting up to attack each other.  And I have to say, you know, Senator Clinton looked in her element. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Obama argued Clinton twisted the knife at various points during the debate, and learned the wrong lesson, in his estimation, from the politics in the ‘90s.  Here is Senator Clinton on Obama‘s bitterness remarks. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I don‘t believe my grandfather or my father or the many people whom I have had the privilege of knowing and meeting across Pennsylvania over many years cling to religion when Washington is not listening to them.  I think that is a fundamental sort of misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are good and times that are bad. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Obama had this comeback. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Senator Clinton is right, she has gone through this.  I recall when back in 1992 when she made a statement about how—what do you expect, should I be at home baking cookies?  And people attacked her for being elitist, and this and that, and I remember watching that on TV and saying, well, that‘s not who she is, that‘s not what she believes, that‘s not what she meant, and I‘m sure that that‘s how she felt as well. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Here‘s the deal, are these the decisive issues?  Maybe, maybe not, but personality, credibility, and character do count in campaigns.  This is Obama‘s time of testing, and he has to deal with distraction, perception and events beyond his control.  How he deals with all of this will determine whether or not he can close the deal and capture this nomination.  That‘s my “Headline” tonight. 

Joe Scarborough, your take on the debate last night? 

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, “MORNING JOE”:  David, I couldn‘t agree with you more.  The “Headline” last night was—and today is that Obama failed his test.  Here‘s a guy who from Iowa on January 3rd through the Wisconsin Primary was a rock star.  He was a unifying figure, he was post-partisan, he was post-racial. 

Well, the honeymoon is over.  Now Barack Obama is another politician getting beaten up.  And when he gets beaten up, what does he do?  He attacks the messenger.  He sounds a lot like Hillary Clinton did a month ago when she kept going after moderators of these debates. 

You don‘t do that unless you‘re taking on water.  Barack Obama‘s biggest problem is, and this is something that superdelegates are worried about in the Democratic Party tonight, the fact that he had his weakest debate this political season, according to The New York Times, last night. 

He should be in mid season form, he‘s not even close.  He was testy, he was defensive, and he looked agitated by the fact that he was having to answer some tough questions that Republicans are going to make him answer from Denver all the way through November.  He had better get used to it.

GREGORY:  A lot to talk about.  John Harwood, your “Headline” tonight? 

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  My “Headline” is not a game-changer, David, and sad to say, as brilliant as Joe, he‘s only partly right here.  Hillary Clinton had an extremely strong debate last night, Barack Obama did not, but my reporting from Democratic political professionals today, including those in Washington, even though Obama was trashing Washington pols for spreading this kind of stuff, they say this has not shaken the advantage that he has had among superdelegates over the last two months. 

He has been accumulating about one a day.  She needs to reverse that dynamic very quickly to have a chance in this race.  It has not happened yet. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Rachel Maddow, your take on all of this tonight? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  The big winner from last night was the one not in the room.  I‘m referring, of course, to John McCain.  And I‘m the first person to criticize the utility of head-to-head match-up polls at this point in this type of election year, but the trend lines are good and getting better for John McCain.

The new AP./Yahoo poll that is out today shows him doing better than anybody could have expected at this point in the campaign, and that‘s because Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are doing the Republican‘s work for him at bottom dollar, tearing each other down.  And McCain, without even really campaigning, is reaping the benefits of it. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Harold Ford, welcome to the program, your take, your “Headline” tonight? 

HAROLD FORD JR., NBC ANALYST:  I think the McCain coronation is a little bit premature, although last night we saw a great raging debate between the two Democrats.  Once Obama or Clinton emerge from this serious and what has been a pretty agonizing primary process, for those watching, and I would dare say the candidates, they will find a John McCain who is ready to be defined. 

I think he is trying his hardest not only to reintroduce himself to the public, and even to his own party, he‘s having some challenge now cobbling together every element, every part of the Republican Party and is going to have a harder time, I believe, as we move forward at bringing more independents as Democrats frame and define him as a Bush third term. 

GREGORY:  Harold, if you look at last night, though, you have to think, yes, there is a fight going on on the Democratic side, but this really was the opening chapter of a general election debate as well, because even if some of these issues don‘t hurt Obama in the primary, and they are certainly distracting him, they‘re going to be fodder for a general election campaign. 

FORD:  Look, this is all a great test for both Barack and Hillary.  Barack needs to be tested more, we need to hear more from him, we need to see how he responds under pressure.  Hillary has shown a lot of that, but she was the inevitable candidate just a few months ago and now we‘re seeing how she responds as an underdog. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Coming up next, most pundits scored last night‘s debate for Hillary Clinton, but the polls show she‘s suffering big time when it comes to trustworthiness, honesty, and favorability.  We‘re going to dissect the numbers coming up. 

Later, your playdate with the panel, call us, 212-790-2299.  You can e-mail as well, race08@msnbc.com.  We‘re right back after this break. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  With all this talk about Pennsylvania‘s primary next week, is anyone looking ahead to Indiana or North Carolina, less than three weeks away?  Well, we‘ll get a breakdown of the latest numbers and tell you who is leading in the long run. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back.  Special edition tonight of “Inside the War Room” breaking down the latest poll numbers to determine which strategies are working and which are not.  Back with us, Rachel Maddow, Harold Ford Jr., John Harwood, and Joe Scarborough. 

First up, the pundits are saying Hillary Clinton scored some political points after last night‘s debate by putting Obama on the defensive.  But according to the polls, she still has an uphill battle to climb when it comes to favorability and credibility in the latest The Washington Post/ABC News poll.

Her unfavorability score, look at this, up 14 points, from 40 in January to 54 percent in April.  Obama‘s also jumped up, but by a lesser margin, from 30 percent in January, 39 percent in April.  John Harwood, what does it tell you? 

HARWOOD:  Well, it tells me that she has got a bit of a box in terms of how to go after Barack Obama.  I think she had the best of all worlds last night in that debate, because you had Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of ABC raising these issues, putting Obama on the defensive, she could sort of chime in sadly and say, you know, I may not care about this stuff all that much, but there may be a lot of voters out there, and I‘m sorry that this is an issue, but we certainly have to deal with it.

That‘s exactly what she wants, because every time she goes aggressively on the attack herself, her negatives go up.  And by the way, there was a lot of criticism of Stephanopoulos and Charlie for raising supposedly irrelevant issues.  I think that is complete baloney.  They were legitimate issues.  Barack Obama is going to have to deal with this stuff if he is the Democratic nominee. 

And from a Democratic point of view, if you are a Democratic strategist, better now than in October. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, what‘s the deal here?  I mean, is there a gender aspect to this, that she gets more negative ratings if she goes on the attack?  Why can‘t she effectively attack him? 

MADDOW:  Well, I think she is effectively attacking him, getting his negatives up by 9 points is no mean feat, it has to be said.  And honestly, with due respect to John, I think that there‘s nothing about the fact that this slime is being discussed now in the Democratic debate that means it won‘t be discussed later. 

Everything that‘s being thrown at Barack Obama right now has been out there.  It‘s just a question of...

HARWOOD:  He gets to practice his answers.

MADDOW:  It‘s just a question of how much he‘s going to have to deal with it.  Look, I mean, Democrats have two things they could have expected from this extended nominating contest. 

They could have expected either we‘re going to start the general election campaign and get the slime and the insinuation and the personal stuff out there now so we have to deal with it for six months instead of two, or they could have expected this is going to be a debate that‘s about what—the Democrats competing over how best to identify a Democratic alternative to the Republican politics the country has had for the last eight years. 

HARWOOD:  But why is it slime? 

MADDOW:  It‘s slime because the first six questions of that debate—or the first one, which I think was already answered, but it‘s not that much of a surprise they started with, will you pick each other as the running mate?  The answer is no.  Then we get pastor, then we get bitter, then we get flag pin, then we get Bosnia, then we get the Sean Hannity question about the Weather Underground guy. 

That is not...

HARWOOD:  That‘s tough, but it‘s not slime. 

MADDOW:  It is slime.  Because if you think about the different options that you have for the way Democrats can fight right now, they could be fighting about what‘s America—what ought America be like after George W. Bush?  But they‘re not.

FORD:  All right.  In fairness to George and Charlie Gibson, understand they‘ve had about 15, 16 debates and they‘ve gone back and forth.  I‘ve been on the ballot and then sat through some of these debates, and there are times I‘m frustrated at the questions that are asked. 

The reality though is neither of these candidates, one will emerge as the nominee, will be able to avoid these tough, uncomfortable, and frankly, at times, insensitive questions.  So I think it‘s appropriate. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Let me—here‘s the issue, though, character questions, authenticity, trustworthiness, these are issues that voters actually vote on.  And last night, once again, Clinton faced tough questions for her Bosnia comments.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How do you reconcile the campaign and credibility that you have when you‘ve made those comments about what happened getting off the plane in Bosnia, which totally misrepresented what really happened on that day?  You really lost my vote.  And what can you tell me to get that vote back? 

CLINTON:  I‘m embarrassed by it, I have apologized for it.  I‘ve said it was a mistake, and it is, I hope, something that you can look over. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  But will voters take her word for it, or did the Bosnia flap permanently damage her credibility?  Look again at the polling from ABC News/Washington Post poll, nearly two years ago, 52 percent of respondents thought Hillary Clinton was honest and trustworthy.  That number has now plummeted to 39 percent. 

And now a majority of voters, 58 percent, say no, she‘s not honest and trustworthy.  Meanwhile, when asked who was more honest and trustworthy, Obama‘s lead grew from 38 to 53 percent in April, where Clinton has stayed at 30 percent. 

Joe, what‘s the significance? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, the significance is, of course, that these are one of the areas where voters do vote on.  You‘re exactly right.  They want to know whether they can trust the politician that‘s in office, especially if they‘re going to be president of the United States. 

And it‘s something that once you get behind the 8-ball there, it‘s hard to get out from behind it.  You look at Ronald Reagan, in late 1986, he lost the American people, they stopped trusting him.  Iran/contra came, and for the next two years he battled just to survive.  He left the White House with positive poll numbers, but still, it was a tough two years. 

The same thing happened with Bill Clinton in 1997, 1998.  Once you go down in this category, it‘s hard to rehabilitate yourself, and that can have a real impact, especially in a primary election where there‘s not a lot of great differences on policy.  When it gets personal, this is a number that you want to have high. 

You want to be high on leadership and you want to be high on trustworthiness.  She‘s not right now. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Let me just jump in for a second.  I want to go on to this final point here in the polling, and that is, talk about end game.  You look ahead to Indiana and North Carolina primaries, the latest L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll shows Obama ahead of Clinton in Indiana, Obama 40 percent and Clinton trailing by 5 points at 35 percent. 

Look at North Carolina, Obama well ahead of Clinton with 47 percent.  Clinton trails by double digits, 34 percent.  With over 15 percent of voters undecided in both states, still the question of whether it‘s anybody‘s game. 

Harold, it just shows you that the stakes are so high for Clinton.  She needs a real game-changer out of a debate like this to really shift the numbers here. 

FORD:  Both of them now have to focus squarely on Pennsylvania.  If she enjoys a 12-, 13-, 14-point advantage there and a win on next week, where Barack is able to close up to six or seven points, that will influence those states going forward. 

I have to think all the numbers you have put up are relevant.  But remember, political contests are choices between one or two candidates.  Right now, her opponent is Barack Obama.  There has not been a bigger force in newness and politics since Bobby Kennedy.  So she‘s being compared to him. 

When you pair her or match her up against John McCain or even Barack Obama up against John McCain, there are different qualities and different ways we measure these candidates.  Joe is right that there‘s a trustworthiness and integrity issue that we look at closely. 

But  remember, political contests are choices between two people and two parties.  Whichever one of these candidates is able to get out and define the other the quickest—to define the other the quickest in the general will be the one who ends up with an edge, which is why I believe a lot of these numbers are really—are not as relevant as they may seem, or not as important as they may seem. 

After we get past Pennsylvania, we will have a clear sense of Indiana and a clear sense of North Carolina.  If she wins big, she will benefit in big ways in both of those states going forward as well.

GREGORY:  And that‘s going to be the key, how big is the margin of victory after so much time campaigning?  I can‘t even remember the last time we had a vote in this primary. 

Coming up, dueling “Smart Takes,” Marc Ambinder says that Barack Obama couldn‘t have done any worst at last night‘s debate.  Another pundit, Mark Halperin, says he came out on top.  So who has got the smarter take tonight? 

And Mitt Romney provided some laughs at last night‘s Radio & Television Correspondents Association Dinner, delivering his top 10 list of why he dropped out of the presidential race.  Here are a few of our favorites. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Number nine, I got tired of the corkscrew landings under sniper fire. 

(LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY:  Number eight, as a lifelong hunter, I didn‘t want to miss the start of varmint season. 

(LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY:  Number two, I took a bad fall at a campaign rally and broke my hair.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to the RACE.  I‘m David Gregory.  “Smart Takes” time.  The provocative, the thoughtful, the most insightful.  We find them all so you don‘t have to.  Here, again, Rachel, Harold, John, and Joe. 

First up, doing “Smart Takes” tonight about Obama‘s debate performance, theatlantic.com‘s Marc Ambinder says last night was very bad for Obama.  To the quote board: “Keeping the scorecard, there is no way Obama could fare worse, nearly 45 minutes of relentless political scrutiny from the ABC anchors and from Hillary Clinton, followed by an issues and answers session in which his anger carried over and sort of neutered him.”

TIME‘s Mark Halperin says it wasn‘t Obama‘s best night, but he still gave him a B-plus, a higher grade than Clinton.  To the quote board: “Subdued and secure, but often peevish and cross, it was a surly, tepid night for Obama, but he still emerged stalwart and in the lead.” Joe? 

SCARBOROUGH:  I don‘t know how anybody could have said that was a good night for Barack Obama.  I respect Mark Halperin, and always read his work on time.com, but, boy, it was a bad night for Barack Obama. 

He was peevish, as Halperin said, and unfortunately for him, he has had much better debate performances, but last night was the most watched debate performance, about 10 million people saw Barack Obama, a lot probably for the first time in a debate.  That‘s not how he wanted to introduce himself to those people.  It was a bad night for Barack Obama. 

GREGORY:  Well, but, Rachel, here‘s another take on this, which is, is there an advantage—I‘ve talked to some people within the Obama campaign who say, you know, it‘s not so bad to come out looking like he got beat up a little bit here, because they‘ve seen the other side, where it‘s Hillary Clinton complaining about debate coverage and treatment, and that didn‘t work so well for the Obama team.  She got some benefit of that before. 

MADDOW:  I think that‘s right, but kind of for a different reason.  I think it‘s not so much that Obama could benefit from the sort of sympathy against a hostile press thing that Clinton benefited from.  I think it‘s more that Democrats have been concerned that Barack Obama maybe can‘t take a punch.  Well, we have now seen him be punched a lot, and we know what he looks like when he gets punched.

And I think that Halperin is actually right when called him kind of tepid and stalwart.  What Barack Obama looks like...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  But this is the important point.  You said it was slime earlier. 

MADDOW:  Yes.

GREGORY:  These are qualities of these campaigns, and this—how he responds to issues like this, taking a punch, how he deals with this kind of stress, and stuff that he thinks is a distraction, it matters.  That‘s what he‘s going to face in the White House, isn‘t it? 

MADDOW:  Well, it depends.  I mean, it would have been really also interesting to see him take punches on stuff like Iran, and gas prices, and Iraq, and—you know, and the torture story that ABC broke to such effect last week and then they didn‘t discuss at all last night in their debate. 

I mean, there are so many substantive issues on which he could have been hit and sort of pulled apart, and they didn‘t.  They instead hit him all with the personal stuff.  It‘s interesting, but it‘s not everything. 

SCARBOROUGH:  The question is, how did he take that punch, Rachel?  Does anybody believe he took the—because you said that‘s what‘s important, and that is what‘s important, how is he going to take the punch, how will he take it this fall against John McCain?  Does anybody really believe he takes a punch well? 

MADDOW:  Well, we saw what he does, he said “um” a lot.  He punched back kind of mildly, he didn‘t lose his composure, and he actually didn‘t wallow as deep as his opponents and the moderators did in going... 

(CROSSTALK)

MADDOW:  That‘s what he does, now we know. 

HARWOOD:  There‘s another question, Joe, and that is, who is going to play Stephanopoulos and Gibson on SNL on Saturday night.

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  That‘s the big question.

HARWOOD:  But look, I want to make one point about what—the slime issue that Rachel mentioned earlier.  Rachel, Harold, and David are all too young to remember this, but Joe and I are old enough to remember the 1988 campaign.  George H.W. Bush went to a flag factory running against Michael Dukakis, who had voted against the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, and everybody said in the press, including—what a ridiculous issue, what a slimy thing to do, what a dumb thing to do. 

SCARBOROUGH:  They mocked him.

HARWOOD:  Guess what?  Lee Atwater was right in doing that for George H.W. Bush, that‘s why the things like the flag lapel pin are things that Barack Obama has to learn to have good answers for. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And if I can say really quickly, everybody did, the press was unmerciful against George Bush senior.  He went to flag factories, he talked about it non-stop, and I‘ll be damned if that didn‘t have a great effect.  A lot of Americans said, I‘m not voting for this new kind of Democrat that won‘t even let kids in Massachusetts pledge allegiance to the flag.  These things that people in Manhattan think are slimy, connect. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  I got to get in here, I‘ve got take a break.  We‘re going to come back, “Big Questions” of the night of this campaign coming up on the RACE.  Don‘t go away. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

(NEWSBREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Time now for the three big questions of THE RACE.  Still with us, MSNBC political analyst and host of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, Rachel Maddow, NBC News analyst and chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, Harold Ford Jr., cNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent John Harwood, and Morning Joe himself, the host of MSNBC‘s “MORNING JOE,” Joe Scarborough. 

First up, this may have been the marquee moment from the Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton saying, yes, he can, when pressed if Barack Obama could win in the fall.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  A simple yes or no question, do you think Senator Obama can beat John McCain or not? 

CLINTON:  Well, I think we have to beat John McCain and I have every reason to believe we‘ll have a Democratic president and it is going to be either Barack or me. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The question is, do you think Senator Obama can do that?  Can he win? 

CLINTON:  Yes, yes, yes. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Yes, yes, yes.  Well, some polls have shown as many as 30 percent of Clinton supporters will vote for McCain if Obama gets the nomination.  But last, Clinton seemed to say don‘t worry about that. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  I will do everything to make sure that the people who supported me support our nominee. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Our first question tonight, did Clinton concede her strongest argument to these super delegates, her electability argument?  Harold Ford Jr., what do you say? 

FORD:  No, she was being what any good candidate for president, for Senate, for governor, who‘s in a tough primary, of course you make clear.  They have split the votes basically in this race.  They‘ve split the delegates basically in this race.  I thought she did the right thing.  She not only showed a kind of maturity, but showed a sense that she wants a Democrat in the White House. 

By no means—but she made the case, as Barack would have said, of course, I‘m going to vote for Hillary. 

GREGORY:  But the issue is, Rachel, was it just a throw-away line to say yes, he can win the general election, when her entire substantive argument is no, he can‘t because of the issues. 

MADDOW:  I thought it was a moment of graciousness that was a bit empty, and I think that‘s the way that Barack Obama responded to when he said, essentially, later on in response to that—he said, thank you for saying that, and of course I would say the same thing about you, but you‘ve always called me condescending, out of touch, elitist and inelectable. 

So it‘s one thing to say of course, your opponent from your same party could win.  It‘s another thing to denigrate not only their chances but the fact—the extent to which they deserve it. 

FORD:  I was 10 years old when George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan ran against each other in 1980.  George H.W. Bush called Ronald Reagan‘s economic plan it Voodoo Economics.  They joined together and went on to run the country for eight years.   

SCARBOROUGH:  He was also pro-choice until the night before the convention. 

FORD:  Funny how things happen.

SCARBOROUGH:  David, if I could say really quickly on this electability argument, last night at the dinner down in Washington, D.C., I talked to a lot of leaders of the Republican party, talked to some people in John McCain‘s camp, leaders of that campaign, they told me off the record, quietly, that right now they would prefer to go up against Barack Obama.  They think he‘s going to get wiped out in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Missouri.  They say if they run against Barack Obama, Missouri is in the bank. 

They believe now—two months ago, they believed Hillary Clinton would have been an easier target.  But on this electability issue, you ask Republicans quietly, behind the scenes, they will tell you Obama is weaker. 

HARWOOD:  David, that doesn‘t mean Joe is right.  First of all, I‘m surprised Joe would be hanging around with all those Washington elitists in tuxes last night. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I‘m totally elitist. 

HARWOOD:  But second of all, rather than being gracious, I think Hillary Clinton was doing the necessary thing in saying that he could win.  She would offend super delegates a lot more if she said he couldn‘t win the election, and probably hurt herself in the process.  It‘s one thing to say that he‘s less electable, to say he‘s unelectable, even if she thinks it, would be very in-politic and backfire. 

GREGORY:  Let me go—next up, Barack Obama was hit with the charges of elitism, and Michelle Obama is hitting back.  Mrs. Obama is providing she can deliver a pretty effective counterpunch, passionately speaking to voters about her family‘s working-class roots.  Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHELLE OBAMA, WIFE OF BARACK OBAMA:  Yes, I went to Princeton and Harvard, but the lens through which I see the world is the lens I grew up with.  I‘m the product of a working-class upbringing.  I want people to know when they look at me to be clear that they see what an investment in public education can look like. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  For most of the season, in a campaign, Bill Clinton has been the spouse in the spot light, both good and bad, but Michelle Obama‘s strong response to the bitter-gate leads us to question number two: in the war of the political spouses, does Michelle Obama have a new edge?  Harold, I have been watching over the last couple days.  I think she‘s been a controversial figure in the course of this campaign, mostly under the radar.  But in some ways, I felt she‘s been helping Obama find his voice on this background question, more effectively than he has. 

FORD:  Michelle Obama, whom I know, is not only a great campaigner for her husband, she‘s a terrific mom.  She‘s a wonderful lawyer, and has given up a lot of her professional pursuits to help her husband.  At the end of the day, these races are about the people running.  As Hillary Clinton has told her own husband, I think recently, I make decisions in this campaign, and I‘m the candidate.  And Barack is the candidate on the other side.

But she‘s very effective.  She‘s very smart.  But at the end of the day, neither Bill Clinton nor Michelle Obama will sway votes in Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina going forward.  This is about these two candidates. 

GREGORY:  I think you‘re fundamentally right.  But Joe, you know as well as anybody that just as the Clintons are looked at as a package, as they were back in 1992, when you have both very accomplished spouses here front and center, they‘re looked at.  They‘re judged sometimes together. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And they‘re judged harshly sometimes.  It‘s ironic you‘re asking this question tonight, when last night—it‘s not ironic.  It‘s a coincidence.  Last night, you had Barack Obama talking about Hillary Clinton in 1992 being slammed for being too assertive.  It was trouble for Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, despite the fact they ended up winning, also Michelle Obama is walking a very fine line in 2008. 

What does that say about the country?  I don‘t know, maybe not a lot of positive things.  But at the same time, whenever a potential first lady speaks out aggressively, there‘s always criticism and blow back.  The question is, will it happen here?  Of course, she has been put in the background over the past month or two. 

GREGORY:  That‘s right.  John, I talked to some people close to Obama‘s camp last night at the dinner that we‘re talking about, who were concerned about Michelle Obama‘s level of intensity.  Is she a natural campaigner, does she smile enough?  Things you talk about in terms of people campaigning, how they come across. 

HARWOOD:  I got to tell you, David, to take your question, if you take the last two weeks or last two months, I think Michelle Obama has cleaned Bill Clinton‘s clock.  She‘s a very appealing figure.  That bit about public schools was very powerful.  Most of what Bill Clinton has provided for his wife in this campaign would be say stuff that he would have provided even if he had been out of the country during the campaign.  It‘s the Clinton brand from the 1990s.  That counts for a lot and it counts for a lot of Hillary Clinton‘s political reputation, and what causes a lot of working-class voters to be for her.  But in terms of what they‘ve actually done, the blocking and tackling on the campaign trail, she‘s been fantastic. 

GREGORY:  Finally today, 2008 was supposed to be the year of the Democrats.  We‘ve talked about it a lot.  Before Iowa, generic presidential match ups by the AP and Yahoo shows a Democratic nominee with a 13-point lead over the Republicans.  But the rise of McCain and the prolonged primary battle have virtually erased the Democrats advantage. 

A new AP Yahoo match up, McCain gets 37 percent to the Clinton‘s 36 percent, and McCain gets 36 percent to Obama‘s 34 percent.  The key quote from the pollsters: “what‘s clear is that some Republican leaning voters who backed Bush in 2004 that lost enthusiasm for him are returning to the GOP fold along with a smaller but significant number of Democrats, who have come to dislike their party‘s two contenders.”

Our third question then, is John McCain now the front-runner in the general election?  Rachel, I have a theory or a question about this that is the McCain brand I think jibes well with people who have an anti-political affect to them this year.  He‘s seen as authentic.  He may by too close to Bush on the war.  But he‘s seen positively by people who are skeptical about the system. 

MADDOW:  I guess I don‘t feel that, because he represents Washington to such a great extent.  He‘s been in Washington since roughly right after the Capitol was rebuilt.  He‘s been in Washington for a very long time.  I do think you‘re right that he‘s trying to tap into that.  I think it‘s important to note that his biography tour, his reintroducing himself to the country tour ended at the time in his biography when he came home from Vietnam.  He didn‘t do a biography tour about his time in the Senate. 

So he wants people to think of him as an outsider, but for my entire lifetime, he‘s been in Washington, so it‘s hard for me to see him as somebody who doesn‘t represent politics. 

SCARBOROUGH:  David, how much though—try to put a money figure on how much John McCain has gotten goodwill from the American people over the past seven years by being high profile seemingly every time where he‘s been against George W. Bush.  He‘s been a maverick over the past seven years.  And I know Democrats can name 1,000 issues where he‘s like Bush.  But the bottom like is John McCain has been in the news over the past seven years time and time again by sticking a sharp stick in George W. Bush‘s eye.  Try to monetize that.  You just can‘t do it. 

HARWOOD:  John McCain is going to be very tough in a general election, but he‘s absolutely not the front-runner in this race.  Whoever emerges from the Democratic primary process is going to be the front-runner.  You talk privately with McCain‘s people, they know that too. 

FORD:  I agree. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Agreed.   

MADDOW:  It doesn‘t look like that to me, not when I look at those numbers.  John McCain isn‘t campaigning right now—

(CROSS TALK)

HARWOOD:  That‘s a bad formula.

SCARBOROUGH:  And the fact that he‘s only one percentage point ahead in the middle of this intramural blood bath? 

MADDOW:  What has John McCain done to earn his numbers right now?  He‘s run like one three-minute-long web ad involving spooky multi-colored smoke and his high school English teacher.  He‘s not even campaigning right now.  He‘s essentially on vacation. 

SCARBOROUGH:  They‘re voting for the maverick brand that John McCain earned over the past 20 years. 

MADDOW:  They‘re voting against Obama and Clinton right now, who are spending a million and a half dollars a day for that privilege.  Obama and Clinton are spending themselves into the ground.  They‘re tapping out their fund-raising to a certain extent.  They‘re tied with a guy whose not even running. 

SCARBOROUGH:  They‘ll come together.  Republicans a month ago were talking about how they would never join in behind John McCain.  Now you look at the polls internally, John McCain‘s beating Hillary Clinton 95 to five percent among Republicans.  They‘re breaking back.  Democrats will do the same thing.  This is just a phase.  They get to Denver, the balloons go up, everybody will cry. 

(CROSS TALK)

HARWOOD:  There‘s no way that 30 percent of Hillary Clinton‘s voters are going to vote on for John McCain.  No way. 

FORD:  This race will be about change, and the Democrat will wear that label.  John McCain—I want to remind every one in this program, ten months ago, many of our friends in the media industry declared John McCain politically dead.  Ten months later, he now finds himself—

GREGORY:  I don‘t remember that.  I think everybody in the media was giving him a fair shot.  He had a legitimate shot to come back.  That‘s the story I‘m sticking with. 

I have to take a break.  We‘ll come back with your voice mails and e-mails.  The panel has a lot to talk about tonight.  You do as well.  Or phones have been ringing off the hook, inbox is overflowing.  And Vice President Cheney has some fun at Hillary Clinton‘s expense last night at the Washington dinner we‘ve been talking about. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Did you see that footage of Hillary knocking back that shot with the beer chaser?  It looks like she replaced Mark Penn with Johnny Walker.  Apparently, it was pretty strong whisky, and there might have been a few more when the cameras stopped rolling.  When the 3:00 a.m. phone call came in, it went right to voice mail. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I was talking about the vice president, Dick Cheney, at the correspondents dinner last night.  I want you to look at some of this video as he tells these jokes.  Every time he delivered a punch line, he looked very, very impressed with himself.  But I thought one of the great lines, where he tried to get serious for just a moment.  He went on this litany of I want to tell you that your work matters.  I want to tell you that you sacrifice a lot, and that you really try hard.  I want to tell you all those things, but I just can‘t bring myself to do it. 

In other words, he really doesn‘t like us, and he wasn‘t going to make any pretense about it.  But here was interesting, Joe, I was talking to Mo Rocca a little bit afterwards, with Noah Oppenheim (ph), our producer, and I said, what was that like sitting next to the vice president.  He‘s not an easy guy to make small talk with.  Apparently they talked about Mo Rocca‘s book that he had written about presidential pets.  And they talked about President Ford‘s lab, I guess, or cocker spaniel.  It must have been an amazing moment up there. 

SCARBOROUGH:  It must have been.  I‘ve had an opportunity in past campaigns to sit down and talk to Dick Cheney behind the scenes.  He‘s a very likable, relaxing person, doesn‘t seem impressed by himself, completely opposite from the whole Darth Vader image that‘s been cast on him.  I love—that was one of my favorite lines, when he said he went to his wife Lynne, complaining about the fact people were calling him Darth Vader, and she said, don‘t worry, honey, it humanizes you. 

HARWOOD:  Joe, was the Chardonnay up to your standards. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know what, I‘m a working class man.  I don‘t know if you saw me but, I had some water, bread, and then I actually helped people serve you elitists.  I‘m a man of the people.  They don‘t call me regular Joe for nothing. 

GREGORY:  Leave Joe alone.  Joe is in touch with the people.  Leave this man alone.  Let‘s get the viewers to weigh in.  I‘ve had a chance to talk to the panel.  You get your turn as well, with your play date starting right now.  As you can see, Rachel Maddow, Harold Ford Jr., John Harwood, and Joe Scarborough with us.  

A lot of responses about the Democratic presidential debate yesterday.  Let‘s start with Jim in Kentucky.  He says this --  

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  At what point are we expecting presidential candidates to not have any kind of association with somebody of questionable character in their past? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  I think that‘s a fair question.  Harold Ford Jr., when does guilt by association go a step too far? 

FORD:  The American people are smart enough to distinguish between these things.  If you have a close relationship with someone who has a very checkered, questionable past, and you didn‘t know them before that time, or you met them during that time, and you steadied and grew the friendship, voters are able to see through that.  And I thought Barack handled that question fairly well last night.  It was an interesting comparison he made between Tom Coburn, but I understood what he was trying to say.  I think voters get it. 

SCARBOROUGH:  But Harold, if you ran for governor of Texas or ran for Senate again, people in Tennessee know you.  If there‘s a questionable association, they go, we know Harold Ford, maybe he hung out with a weird guy one summer when he was younger.  Whereas if somebody new runs for that Tennessee seat and nobody knows him, then you start saying, OK, who is this person?  Who do they hang out with?  Who do they associate with? 

Barack Obama can‘t be shocked.  He was in Washington for one year before he decided to run for president of the United States.  People don‘t know him.  They know John McCain.  They know Hillary Clinton.  They don‘t know him.  So who he associates himself with is that much more important to voters. 

FORD:  That‘s why Jeremiah Wright has been such a big issue as well.  Joe makes a good point.  But I do think the caller‘s question dealt with how far back—how do we know—how long can you punish a candidate or someone running for office for a friendship?  At some level, I just think voters are able to get it.  Jeremiah Wright will pay bigger than this --- the Weather guy we talked about last night. 

MADDOW:  Associates and friendships become an issue when political opponents decide to make them an issue.  We talked about this before on the show.  The Jeremiah Wright

(CROSS TALK)

MADDOW:  Joe, let me make my point and then you can dismiss me.  Let me make my point first.  Jeremiah Wright as a pastor for Barack Obama is an issue.  The political associations that John McCain has made with right wing pastors have not been an issue.  The issue that has been made about who‘s giving money to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, because their opponents have decided to go after them on that.  For example, John McCain had this incredibly controversial relationship with a Florida campaign co-chair, who was caught in a bathroom offering money to a police officer to do something that we can all imagine in a bathroom.  Nobody is going to John McCain and saying he was your Florida campaign co-chair; what do you think about men doing that in bathrooms?  What do you think about entrapment from police officers?  What do you think about public sex? 

HARWOOD:  That‘s what a general election is for. 

MADDOW:  But nobody‘s brought that up to John McCain at this point, and it‘s a decision made by political opponents.  It‘s not something that happens organically because of how long you‘ve been around the block. 

GREGORY:  Let me get a break in before I run out of time.  You can play with the panel every night.  Don‘t forget to call us or email us.  Predictions from the panel are coming up next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back.  It‘s prediction time.  Time for our panelists to peer into the crystal ball and tell us something that they see.  Rachel, Harold, John and Joe still with us.  Joe, what are you seeing tonight? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, I think I may blow all my time on the predictions to respond to Rachel.  I don‘t engage in crossfire type debates and certainly I don‘t want to talk about what people do in bathrooms.  I do want to say though that anybody—and you can ask Harold Ford.  You can ask anybody that‘s ever run for political office, that the thing you want to do is define your opponent. 

You define opponents that people don‘t know more easily than defining opponents that have been in public service for a quarter of a century.  It was the only point I was trying to make.  And again I don‘t do cross-fire, so if we want to yell back and forth, then Rachel will have to find somebody else. 

MADDOW:  Joe, I wasn‘t trying to yell back and forth with you.  I was starting to make my point and you cut me off before I started my first sentence.  You waited for me to start.  I started and you jumped in. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I don‘t mean to be condescending, but I can say that anybody that‘s ever run for political office before knows that there‘s a big difference between John McCain and defining him, who has been in public service for 25 years, and defining Barack Obama who was in Washington, D.C. for one year before he decided to run for president. 

GREGORY:  All right.  I‘m going to shut this particular debate down and move on.  John, your thoughts about what‘s coming up ahead. 

HARWOOD:  After Tuesday, Hillary Clinton is right back in the fight of her life.  What she‘s probably done with bitter-gate and with that debate is preserve her lead in Pennsylvania.  She‘s got a working margin there.  She‘s likely to win next Tuesday.  But then she‘s got those May 6th contests in North Carolina.  She‘s likely to lose there.  She‘s got to win in Indiana, very close race right now.  No more than even money bet for her to win that state. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Harold, what do you see coming up? 

FORD:  The Democratic nominee, once he or she is determined, will surge to a five to 10 point lead over John McCain.  I‘m a believer that as this race is joined between McCain and Obama/Clinton, you‘ll see John McCain have to answer questions about how it is that you can believe that going into Iraq, if they had no weapons of mass destruction, was the right thing to do, which he said. 

I think Joe Biden laid this case out in the last 48 hours.  The Democratic nominee will benefit from the biggest thing happening for Democrats nationally, people want a change, and John McCain doesn‘t represent that. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Rachel, your thoughts tonight? 

MADDOW:  First of all, Joe and I will go out for a beer and hash this all out.  My second prediction is that it will be Cindy versus Laura on morning television.  Next week, the day of the Pennsylvania primary, we‘ll have daytime appearances from two major A-list Republican spouses.  Cindy is going to be co-hosting on “The View” on Monday, the day before the Pennsylvania primary.  Laura Bush is going to be hosting an hour of the “Today Show” the morning of the primary. 

I don‘t know if this is a coordinated effort to get Republican family values and very popular Republican spouses out there in advance of that big Democratic contest, but I think it should start an air war, where we see a lot more of Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton being humanistic and interesting on TV in the next few weeks. 

FORD:  I‘m bringing the Crown Royal for this beer-fest these guys are about to have. 

HARWOOD:  Joe only drinks white wine. 

GREGORY:  What is it we‘re seeing with the spouses starting to step it up and go to some of these forums now?  It‘s almost the time in the primary season where they think it‘s time to bring them out. 

MADDOW:  You know, Laura Bush has consistently been the most popular Republican in the country for almost the entire term that Bush has been president.  So I think they see this actually probably their best face forward on days that otherwise would be owned by the Democrats just because of the sheer volume of coverage of this Pennsylvania primary. 

I think it‘s wicked smart of them to do this.  You put something out there that will be non-controversial, that‘s not going to get any sort of push back from the Democrats, that‘s not going to give the Democrats anything to complain about or to put into their stump speeches.  But it‘s still going to get this very positive side of the Republican brand out there.  I think it is very smart, and I think it was smart for the McCain campaign to jump on “The View” opportunity on Monday after they found out Laura was going to do the “Today Show.” 

HARWOOD:  Especially since I don‘t think Colin Powell could handle that last hour of the “Today Show.” 

MADDOW:  Good point. 

GREGORY:  We‘re going to leave it there.  Thanks to the panel.  I‘m David Gregory.  That does it for RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE for tonight.  We‘re back here 6:00 Eastern time.  Now stay tuned, “HARDBALL” coming up next on MSNBC.

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

END   

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