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

Guests: Linda Douglass, Roy Sekoff, Michael Smerconish, David Corn, Linda Douglass, Roy Sekoff, Pam Bondi

DAN ABRAMS, HOST:  Did ABC News do a hatchet job on Barack Obama?

And: Debating Hillary Clinton‘s performance.  Obama said she was she in her element last night using Republican tactics.

Our all-star political panel: Linda Douglass; Huffington Post‘s Roy Sekoff; and, Michael Smerconish.

Plus: Karl Rove‘s lawyer told us Rove would testify to Congress about the possible political prosecution of Alabama‘s former Democratic governor.  Today, his lawyer says, maybe not.  And Rove‘s five-page angry letter to me.  Coming up.

VERDICT starts now.

Hi, everyone.  Welcome to the show.

Barack Obama is firing at ABC News tonight after last night‘s Democratic debate, criticizing the questions during the first half-hour of a showdown with Hillary Clinton when the focus was largely on various controversies the media has been salivated over, such as Obama‘s former pastor, flag pins, bitterness and patriotism.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  It took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people.  Forty-five minutes before we heard about health care, 45 minutes before we heard about Iraq, 45 minutes before we heard about jobs, 45 minutes we heard about gas prices.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Obama called it a gotcha debate and charged that it was preview of what the Republicans will try to do in the fall.  ABC‘s Web site has been flooded with comments, many of them negative.

The “Washington Post” Tom Shales wrote that, quote, “Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos turned in shoddy, despicable performances.  They dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed.”

Today, Stephanopoulos standing by their performance, saying, quote, “We decided to focus at the top on the issues that had been at the center of the debate since the last debate.  They all focused on the same theme—which candidate would be a stronger Democratic candidate in November.”

Well, these are the sorts of questions that have Obama and his supporters so angry.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, DEBATE MODERATOR:  Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?  But do you believe he‘s as patriotic as you are?

NASH GABE, VOTER:  Senator Obama, I have a question and I want to know if you believe in the American flag.

STEPHANOPOULOS:  A follow up on this issue, general theme of patriotism, in your relationship.  A gentleman named William Ayers.  He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s.  Can you explain that relationship for the voters?

CHARLES GIBSON, DEBATE MODERATOR:  We‘ll take one more commercial break and come back and say good night.  Stay with us.  The crowd is turning on me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Well, they did.

Joining me now: The founding editor of Huffington Post, Roy Sekoff;

Linda Douglass, contributing editor at the “National Journal” Group, a former correspondent of ABC and CBS News; and, Philadelphia radio talk show host, Michael Smerconish.

All right.  Roy, look, I‘ll admit I‘m torn here.  ABC and some Clinton supporters would say Obama is going to have to address these sometimes unseemly questions in the general elections.  So, are they not legitimate for the journalists to raise here?

ROY SEKOFF, HUFFINGTON POST EDITOR:  It was pathetic, Dan.  I mean, I had a hard time knowing if we are looking at Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos or, you know, Bill O‘Reilly and Sean Hannity.  And in fact, Stephanopoulos had got the talking points about Ayers and the Weather Underground from Sean Hannity on his radio show the day before and Stephanopoulos had said, “I‘m taking notes.”  And it turned out it was.

ABRAMS:  Michael?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  The big picture is, unintentionally they did him a favor.  Because by bringing this up in the first 30 minutes of the debate and continue to go back to the well on these issues, how in the world is John McCain going to be able to bring these matters up in October?  They didn‘t set out to do that.

Now, my confession.  I sat in front of the television last night with a laptop and I tracked the debate questions so that I can e-mail my radio producer and say, “Here‘s the sound I need in the morning,” the sound that I wanted in the morning, all of that which is controversial.

And I guess, my point is, Dan, I don‘t know that you can sustain interest if the debate is about the budget deficit.  I mean, I do think it‘s horrible that gas prices come up in the final couple of minutes.  They played the hits.  That‘s what they did.

ABRAMS:  Linda, we‘re just as geeky as Michael Smerconish in the sense that we went back and actually counted the amount of time that they spent on each topic.  The “bitter” comment, 10 minutes and 46 seconds; Obama‘s former pastor, nine minutes and 40 seconds; Hillary‘s honesty, five minutes and 16 seconds; the flag pin, three minutes and 21 seconds.

Now, we compare that Iraq/Iran, fifteen minutes; the economy, 15 minutes; guns, eight minutes and 53 seconds; affirmative action, three and a half minutes; gas prices, three minutes and three seconds.  Look, you‘re a long time former correspondent, how do you rate it?

LINDA DOUGLASS, NATIONAL JOURNAL:  Well, I mean, obviously, the intention of the moderators was to get into all the issues just as you‘ve been saying that are going to make news to see if Barack Obama who is the front-runner is going to be able to handle with some deftness the controversies that the Republicans will no doubt use against him.  However, it probably went on too long.

There were many stories in the community around Pennsylvania, voters who saw this debate and were frustrated that they felt that it wasn‘t really aimed at them.  I mean, what Michael was talking about was, you know, there‘s good television, there‘s interesting back-and-forth, there‘s controversy and then, there‘s a debate that actually has something to do with the people who are going to be voting next week.

ABRAMS:  Roy, I‘m going to give you a setup here, Roy.  All right.  I‘m going to play what I‘d found to be the silliest question of the night followed the answer from Stephanopoulos.

SEKOFF:  OK.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS:  Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?  And number two: If you get the nomination, what will you do when those sermons are played on television again and again and again?

OBAMA:  You know, George, look, if it‘s not this then it would be something else.  I promise if you, if Senator Clinton got the nomination, there would be a whole bunch of video clips about other things.

STEPHANOPOULOS:  Did you believe he‘s as patriotic as you are?

OBAMA:  This is someone who is a former marine.  And so, I believe he loves this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Look, you know, I like George Stephanopoulos, I really do.  You know, he knows a lot more about politics than I do.  But that sure seems like a really stupid set of questions.

SEKOFF:  I mean, he wanted him to get into Reverend Wright‘s heads and just do the leverage.  How much does he love America?  Does he love a little bit, a lot, just a tiny bitsy bit (ph)?  It‘s a incredible thing.

But the one thing I want to point out, Dan, is that the thing was, Michael was saying that this was good.  It helped him because he was getting this out in the open.  There was nothing new.  We heard all this stuffed ad infinitum.  I mean, the pins and Reverend Wright.

SMERCONISH:  Yes, but, Roy, my point is that was so asinine.  That question.  And the next time somebody goes to the same well, it‘s going to be, “Oh, my God.  This again?  Are you kidding me?”

You know, the problem for John McCain is he needs this primary to end.  That‘s what I keep saying.  Everybody else is saying this is great for John McCain.  They are not killing each other.  They‘re not killing each other, and nobody‘s leaving any meat on the bone for McCain.  If all the negative comes out now before we even get to the convention, I‘m just thinking, practically, as a Republican strategist, what‘s going to be left?

ABRAMS:  Let me ask, Linda, some have said this is almost a sea change in the way the mainstream media is going to be viewed.  And look, there are lot of people out there who‘ve for many years viewed the mainstream media as out of touch, et cetera.  But, was this a black eye, do you think, Linda, on the whole?

DOUGLASS:  Well, look, there was a lot of criticism of NBC, of Tim Russert and Brian Williams and all of the NBC moderators that they were going too hard on Hillary Clinton.  She complained openly in the debate, “Why they come to me first?”

ABRAMS:  Right.  Not like this.  I mean, nothing like this though.

DOUGLASS:  That she was getting some very rough questions.  “Saturday Night Live” did a routine that many people thought actually helped Hillary Clinton in the polls, pointing out that she was getting beaten up by the reporters.  So, I‘m not sure how long these things really last.

SMERCONISH:  Dan, may I make one of my observations?

ABRAMS:  Yes.

SMERCONISH:  And you should know upfront that relative to the Democrats on Tuesday in my home state, I have weighed in in print and on my radio program and said Obama is the better of the two, OK?

ABRAMS:  Right.

SMERCONISH:  But, what I continue to come back to is that this long-term strategy of all of this coming out, Obama got a free ride early on.  I think that for the first several debates the sort of issues that could have been raised about him weren‘t touched.  So, when they‘re finally raised, I think it does give the appearance of a piling on.

SEKOFF:  But, is—Michael, is the flag pin an issue?  We keep saying, these issues, these issues.  Is that really an issue?

SMERCONISH:  Roy, I think it‘s bogus.  I‘ve seen that photograph - the photograph was snapped at a time when they‘re playing the national anthem.  It is not a flag salute—I mean, flag salute, here‘s my hand.  If I‘m singing the national anthem at a Philly‘s game, my hand is at my side like his was.

ABRAMS:  Here‘s what Bill Clinton had to say about Obama, he says, “Obama has been whining about the debate.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT:  When I watched that debate last night, I got kind of tickled when the other guy, after the campaign, her opponent‘s saying, “Oh”—that people were working were saying, “Oh, that is so negative.  Why are they doing this?”  Well, they have been beating up on her for 15 months.  I didn‘t hear her whining when he said she was untruthful in Iowa.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Well, Linda, there was a lot happening there.  They‘ve been whining on both sides here, right?

SMERCONISH:  Yes.

ABRAMS:  Linda?

DOUGLASS:  Yes.  The former president, you know, really is always playing the role of the vice president, the running mate in this campaign.  He‘s always the one who says the things on the stump that his wife can‘t say.  It gets him in trouble sometimes.

It‘s not clear how accusing Barack Obama of whining is going to go over with Democratic voters who are becoming increasingly uncomfortable and alienated from the other candidate by the tone of this which, you know, was certainly exacerbated somewhat last night.

SEKOFF:  This from the campaign that released the video saying, “They‘re piling on, they‘re piling on, they‘re playing”.

ABRAMS:  Roy, I want to play the piece you talked about before.  That this business that Stephanopoulos may have gotten his question from Sean Hannity and reason people are saying that is because he was on the radio show.  He claimed he was taking notes when this issue came up and then, lo and behold, he asks this question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS:  On this issue, general theme of patriotism, in your relationship.  A gentleman named William Ayers.  He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s.  Can you explain that relationship for the voters?

OBAMA:  The notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was eight years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn‘t make much sense.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Look, Michael, he may have known, he more than knew Ayers.  Bu the point is that it seems now that anyone who has contributed to, has had any sort of, you know, consultations with Obama, is now being called to represent the campaign.

SMERCONISH:  I‘ve got to tell you, Dan, I‘ve got to defend Sean Hannity.  Hannity raised a legitimate issue.  Hannity raised last spring the Reverend Wright issue.  And what?  Simply because it‘s Sean Hannity‘s idea that it shouldn‘t become a bona fide issue of the debate?  “The New York Times” today—

ABRAMS:  How is that bona fide issue?  Forget about Hannity, how is it a bona fide issue?

SMERCONISH:  Do you think that the candidate‘s associations are not legitimate issue?

ABRAMS:  No.  With this guy, with this guy, with Ayers.

SMERCONISH:  Wait a minute.  The New York Times—let me get this off my chest.  Today, “The New York Times” had a lengthy story about, you know, ‘60s association or ‘60s radicals.  Was it fair for them to print the story about this?

ABRAMS:  But, look .

SEKOFF:  This is the kind of question, Dan, that slimes and sleazes somebody just by the asking.  This is the equivalent of: Are you still beating your wife, you know.

ABRAMS:  Roy, I mean, what is the relationship?  I mean, Obama‘s response was, they didn‘t have a relationship.  He hardly knew this guy.  You know, he didn‘t say that, but basically saying he had a minimal relationship with him, it‘s something more than but certainly not like his reverend.

SEKOFF:  No, I mean, you know, the guy - the guy sat on a board that he sat on the Woods Foundation and he was a neighbor and he had, you know, had an event at his house.  But meanwhile, Bill Clinton pardoned two people who were the members of the same group, the Weather Underground.

SMERCONISH: And she said that.

SEKOFF:  Well, he said that.  That‘s right.

ABRAMS:  Linda, a fair issue?

DOUGLASS:  Well, you know, I don‘t know that I want to necessarily pass judgment on whether it‘s fair or not.  It‘s a small issue.  He has somewhat of a tangential relationship according to all the fact check groups who really looked into this today.

William Ayers was indeed a member of the Weather Underground when Barack Obama was eight years old.  He‘s a University of Illinois professor.  He gave him a little bit of money when he was running for the State Senate, not for this race certainly.  So, Barack Obama is saying, this is a tangential relationship and it seems to be that that‘s the case.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  This is such a muzzled campaign.  We are so afraid .

ABRAMS:  But, Michael, there is limited amount of time in this debate, right?

SMERCONISH:  We are selecting the president of the United States.

ABRAMS:  I understand.  But the most watched debate yet, one of the key questions, one in that limited amount of time they have, is on some guy who he had some limited relationship with.  That you think is one of the key issues that Barack Obama (INAUDIBLE)?

SMERCONISH:  I‘m not saying it should have been one of the first issues raised in the debate.  But it should be part of it.

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  We didn‘t get to the issues for 50 minutes.

(CROSSTALK)

SEKOFF:  Iraq.  Ayers.  Iraq.  Ayers.

SMERCONISH:  Can I get this off my chest?

SEKOFF:  Go for it.

SMERCONISH:  This is the most muzzled campaign I‘ve ever witnessed.  And I‘ve been paying attention for three decades.  Everybody is scared to death to criticize him, for - be perceived as being a racist.  You criticize her, you are a sexist.  Winston Churchill said, “Nothing so tests a character of an individual at their running of election.”  Because in this meat grinder, we separate, you know, the weak from the ...

ABRAMS:  Look, I‘m OK .

SEKOFF:  Michael, wait a minute, if I recall correctly, didn‘t someone I know wrote a book called “Muzzled.”

SMERCONISH:  Yes, this is my whole point.  We are too muzzled.

ABRAMS:  Yes, but look, the point is that there is a difference in my

mind between Reverend Wright and this, alright?  Reverend Wright - and the

other thing is, a lot of these issue were old.  That was my other concern -

is that these are issues—look, we‘ve talked about a lot of these issues on this program.  And I would defend the fact that we talked about them.  But some of these issues are older.

Look, I‘ve got to move on here because everyone is going to stay with us.  That‘s the good news.  All right?

Because coming up: While Obama is upset with ABC, some are also blaming Hillary Clinton.  Obama even hinted at that today and what about the candidate‘s responses?  Did they get the facts right?

Last night, Clinton sure sounded like she was admitting she knew she did not tell the truth about being under fire in Bosnia.  We are On Their Trail, checking Clinton and Obama‘s misstatements from last night.

Plus: An Air Force officer hands a $50 million contract for an air show to a friend not the lowest bidder.  Why America Hates Washington is coming up in 60 seconds.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Tonight‘s edition of Why America Hates Washington: Air Force officials flying high awarding a multi-million dollar contract to their elite Thunderbird planes to a company barely off the ground.  A Pentagon report says, Major General Stephen Goldfein pushed to give a $50 million contract to a wealthy retired four star general who also happened to be a pal.

Goldfein even convinced President Bush to plug the contractor in a videotape.  The stunt worked according to an inspector general‘s report.  The company charged twice as much another bidder and still got the deal. 

Now, three Air Force officials are facing administrative action.

Big contracts to big buddies, is another reason Why America Hates Washington.

We‘re back with more on last night‘s debate.  The question: Was Hillary an instigator?  Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  We‘re back with all the finger-pointing at ABC over last night‘s Democratic presidential debate.  Some fingers are now pointing not just at the media, but at Hillary Clinton?

Obama on the trail today, suggesting Clinton had no small role in the debate‘s focus on scandal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I don‘t blame Washington for this because that‘s just how Washington is.  They like stirring up controversy and they like playing gotcha games and getting us to attack each other.  And I have to say, you know, Senator Clinton, you know, looks in her element.  She was taking every opportunity to get a dig in there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  So, is it fair to blame Clinton, Michael?

SMERCONISH:  Only if she and George Stephanopoulos are still thick as thieves.  Otherwise, you know, the deejays played the songs, not the other candidate.

ABRAMS:  But there was some stuff and I want to play this sound byte.  This is from Hillary Clinton talking about his “bitter” comment, which I‘d said on this program before, I think it‘s one of the silliest debates that we‘ve had in this campaign, that Obama said that people are bitter and they‘re clinging to the guns and religion.

Here is what Hillary Clinton said about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  I don‘t believe that 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.  And I, similarly, don‘t think that people cling to their traditions like hunting and guns either, when they are frustrated with the government.  I just don‘t believe that‘s how people live their lives.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Look at Obama‘s face there, it‘s classic.

SEKOFF:  Dan, she upped the ante every single time.  I mean, it was outrageous enough that Stephanopoulos said, you know, “Do you love America?  Does Wright love America?”  But then, she had to say, OK, I‘ll see your Wright (ph) and I‘ll double down and I‘ll raise you a Farrakhan and I raise you a Hamas.  I mean, how did we get to Farrakhan and Hamas?  You know, incredible.

ABRAMS:  Linda, look, Hillary Clinton did have to take every shot she‘s got.  She‘s behind.  She‘s got to throw any punch she can, right?

DOUGLASS:  Absolutely.  And that‘s what she was doing.  I mean, whether it‘s going to help her, by the way, or not is another question because these are the kinds of performances that often get her in trouble with voters because it tends to make them like her less.  And so, she has to always run the risk of being less likable when she does that.  But, look, she‘s trying to make the case that, number one, we don‘t know enough about Barack Obama.  She‘s trying to make the case that maybe he‘s out of touch with voters.

She‘s trying to make any case that is going to bring him down because that‘s her path to victory.  And every time she had an opportunity, as you say, to ratchet it up, she certainly did.  The William Ayers case is a perfect example where she wouldn‘t let that go, she got right back into it again.

ABRAMS:  But this does - this is leading her negatives to be going way up.  I mean, in January, they were at 40 percent, this week, they are 54 percent, according to latest ABC/”Washington Post” Poll.  Does that matter?

DOUGLASS:  Well, certainly.  I mean, this is her biggest problem.  Last night‘s debate was a contest between these two candidates to try to make the case that either “I am more electable or my opponent is not electable.”  That, certainly, what Clinton was saying about Obama throughout the evening.  But Obama‘s argument back is, the campaign‘s argument.  He does necessarily say this is, she‘s unelectable because her negatives, her unfavorable rating is so high.

SMERCONISH:  I don‘t think any of this moved the numbers.

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  You are the Pennsylvanian.  You‘re the one who‘s talking to people every day, calling, et cetera.  Did this change the game at all, the debate?

SMERCONISH:  No.  I said .

ABRAMS:  Not at all?

SMERCONISH:  I said a week ago now, going into the whole “bitter” weekend, right?  That I thought he was poised, that the momentum was on his side and that he would beat her in Pennsylvania.  I backed off for a couple of days, didn‘t know the effect of that whole comment.

Now, I am back to the view that the momentum is on his side.  Hey, Dan, I don‘t know anybody, not only in Pennsylvania, anywhere in the country, who‘s undecided about Hillary Clinton.  And that‘s not a derisive statement about her.  It‘s just the reality.  Man, you‘re either for her or you against her.  We could have this election tomorrow and get the same result we‘re going to get next Tuesday.

ABRAMS:  Linda, do you agree?

DOUGLASS:  Well, certainly, people have strong opinions about Hillary Clinton.  That‘s including the people who like her a lot and a very large segment of the population, mostly Republicans and some independents and some Democrats who really don‘t like the Clintons and Hillary Clinton in particular.  It is her greatest vulnerability going into a general election.

SEKOFF:  And I don‘t think Democrats like seeing somebody - a fellow Democrat running on the Karl Rove-Lee Atwater GOP attack playbook.  I‘d just—I think it turns them off.

ABRAMS:  We shall see.  Great panel.  Thanks a lot.  Appreciate it.

Coming up: What about the facts?  We‘re talking about the media and the coverage.  Did they get them right?

Obama said he never wanted to ban the manufacture of handguns, assessing the candidates‘ misstatements from last night.

And: A FOX News pollsters asked a group of undecided voters what they‘ll do if their candidate loses.  How would they know if they‘re undecided?  Beat the Press is next.

And what‘s your VERDICT?  E-mail us at verdict@msnbc.com. Your e-mails are in the P.O.‘ed Box at end of the show, be sure to include your name, and where you‘re writing from.

Back in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  It‘s time for tonight‘s Beat the Press.

First up: FOX News Pollster Frank Luntz was with a group of undecided voters last night to gauge their reaction to the Democratic debate.

Well, listen to the question Luntz asked of his so-called “undecided voters.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We go live to Pennsylvania where a group of undecided Democratic voters are with our own Frank Luntz.

FRANK LUNTZ, FOX NEWS POLLSTER:  How many of you in this room?  If your candidate isn‘t chosen will consider voting for John McCain?  Raise your hands.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  How can they answer that if they‘re undecided?  Who‘s your candidate if they‘re undecided?

Next up: FOX Business Channel, Cheryl Casone was asked if the rich are paying enough in taxes.  She took the opportunity to go after Senators Clinton and Obama‘s plan to give the middle class tax cuts.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHERYL CASONE, FOX BUSINESS CHANNEL:  They‘re saying that they want, you know, help the middle class with more tax cuts but they don‘t realize is that most middle income and low income earners actually not only don‘t pay taxes, they get money back in their returns.  So, somebody needs to kind of work on their math a little bit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  I‘m not great at math either.  But let me get this straight.  They don‘t pay taxes and they get money back.  Wow.  I thought folks got money back because they overpaid on taxes already.  What do I know?  I guess, this is what Obama and Clinton could learn if they only watched more of the FOX Business Network.

Finally: Over on “FOX & Friends” they talked to the women from the Texas polygamist compound, where the men have multiple wives, it seems that co-host, Brian Kilmeade, was a little confused on the arrangement over there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN KILMEADE, CO-HOST:  Janet (ph), could you tell me how many husbands do you have?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  How many what?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  How many what?

They can‘t have multiple husbands.  Technically, polygamy could be one woman of multiple husbands and the guy can switch wives there but there‘s no multiple husbanding on that sect.

Up next: We‘re On Their Trail again tonight, assessing the biggest misstatements from last night‘s debate.  Obama claims he never said he doesn‘t wear flag pins and Clinton seemingly admitting she knew her Bosnia under fire comment wasn‘t true.

And: Karl Rove writes an angry five-page letter to me, furious over the way we covered the allegations that he pressured prosecutors to go after Alabama‘s former Democratic governor.

Now, Congress wants some answers and I respond to Rove.

Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

ABRAMS:  We‘re back.  We‘ve been talking a lot about the media coverage, how the media dealt with the debate last night.  Did Clinton and Obama pass the fact check last night?  

As always, we‘re “On Their Trail,” assessing the biggest misstatements, this time from last night‘s debate.  Here to help separate fact from fiction, David Corn, Washington bureau chief for “Mother Jones” magazine.  Linda Douglass, contributing editor of the “National Journal” group, and Roy Sekoff, founding editor of “The Huffington Post.”

First up, Obama faced some tough questioning last night over why he has said he doesn‘t want to wear an American flag lapel pin. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I have never said that I Don‘t wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins.  This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Look, it is a stupid issue, but it is an Obama misstatement. 

It is going to come up again and again if he doesn‘t come clean about this. 

This is an interview he gave in October. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I have decided I won‘t wear that pin on my chest.  Instead, I‘m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great.  And you know, hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism. 

ABRAMS:  David Corn, how important is this - I view this is sort of a silly issue.  But is this going to become significant? 

DAVID CORN, D.C. BUREAU CHIEF, “MOTHER JONES”:  Well, Dan, since about 95 percent of Americans go to work each day without wearing a flag pin.  I think you‘re right.  I think it‘s a silly issue.  If you look at the part of the statement where he said, “I never said I refused to wear a flag pin,” that‘s technically true because he got caught not wearing a flag pin. 

And in return, he said, “Listen, I choose not to because I think it is a cheap form or easy form of patriotism.  I prefer to be judged on my deeds and my actions.”  Saying that he never said that he didn‘t wear a flag pin is somewhat of a misstatement, but I think it‘s a minor misstatement about a minor issue.  Not a big deal. 

ABRAMS:  Linda? 

LINDA DOUGLASS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, “NATIONAL JOURNAL”:  I agree with David that it‘s one of those issues that - Again, reporters look back at past campaigns.  They look at things that have happened in the past.  George H. W. Bush went to a flag factory to try to show that Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate in 1988, was not as patriotic as he was. 

So, you know, this always the expectation that a Republican will use the flag ...

ABRAMS:  Yes.

DOUGLASS:  Against the Democratic candidate.  But Barack -  I mean David is absolutely right.  Obama never said that he refused to wear the pin.  He simply said he wasn‘t wearing it at the time because he was trying to show his patriotism in another way. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  Is it heresy for me to suggest that maybe in this election in 2008 that people aren‘t going to care as much about the symbolism issues as they did in 2000 and 2004 in the general elections? 

ROY SEKOFF, FOUNDING EDITOR, “THE HUFFINGTON POST”:  No, I think it‘s actually not heresy.  I think it‘s correct, you know.

ABRAMS:  What?   I mean why do you think it won‘t matter as much as this time?

SEKOFF:  It‘s a change election and I think people want change.  And I think one of the things that they want to change is this kind of picayune little non-issues turned into big things. 

ABRAMS:  Well, you know, the response is, “Look.  This is why the Democrats have lost big elections.  It‘s because they didn‘t focus enough on the significance of guns and religion.”

CORN:  But Dan -

ABRAMS:  Go, Dave.

CORN:  But Dan, in previous years, that‘s when there weren‘t big issues to deal with.  We have the war and we have the economy tanking.  Those are pretty big issues on most people‘s minds.  And I think they will be judging the candidates in the fall on the basis of that and not on who - you know, what talk show host causes a fuss about which flag pin. 

SEKOFF:  But, I‘ve noticed though that Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos - they didn‘t have flag pins either.  So do they love their country, Dan?  

(CROSS TALK)

... more than Rev. Wright, less than Rev. Wright. 

ABRAMS:  And look, I think all of you may have seen the episode where I had a very conservative Republican on this program blasting Obama for not wearing a flag pin and of course, he wasn‘t wearing one himself. 

SEKOFF:  Yes.

ABRAMS:  All right.  But nevertheless, this was a misstatement.  I think everyone can basically agree factually it was a misstatement on an insignificant issue, so this one goes - a small one against Obama giving him the first strike of the night. 

Next up, Clinton forced to address her misstatements regarding her trip to Bosnia as first lady.  She‘s already apologized for saying she faced sniper fire during her visit when in fact, she didn‘t.  She‘s explained it saying she misspoke.  But last night, it almost sounded like she was saying she had lied. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  On a couple of occasions in the last weeks, I just said some things that weren‘t in keeping with what I knew to be the case and what I had written about in my book.  And you know, I‘m embarrassed by it.  I‘m very sorry I said it.  I have said that, you know, it just didn‘t jive with what I had written about and knew to be the truth. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  “Knew to be the truth - “ I mean that is a dangerous admission. 

SEKOFF:  “It didn‘t jive with what I knew to be the truth.”  So that either to me means she lied or she has bought her own line, so which means she‘s delusional.  Neither which is good for the next president.

ABRAMS:  I mean Linda this seems to be a dangerous admission here. 

DOUGLASS:  Well, except that at the very end of the statement, she

went on to say that, you know, “I‘ve got to be careful what I say when I‘m

tired.”  So even though it sounded like she was saying that she understood

that what she said was not true, it wasn‘t completely clear that that‘s

exactly what she meant.  In other words, did she establish intent in what

she said?   In other words, the intent to lie.

                ABRAMS:  We are being such lawyers here.  I love it.

                DOUGLASS:  Because she did go on and blamed it on her being tired.

                ABRAMS:  Yes.

                SEKOFF:  That is the bigger lie though, because it (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

proven that she said in that speech at 9:00 in the morning when she wasn‘t tired. 

ABRAMS:  David, the significance to me is she is saying, “I knew it wasn‘t accurate.  I knew it wasn‘t true.”  And she may not have meant that.

CORN:  Well, she said she knew it wasn‘t in keeping with the truth, whatever that means.  It doesn‘t get to - it was such a Clinton-ian explanation.  I think you know what I mean by that. 

But it doesn‘t get to the issue of why she said it.  It wasn‘t because she was tired as Roy just pointed out.  She said it several times in different occasions including at 9:00 in the morning.  Maybe she had pulled an all-nighter.  I Don‘t know. 

But in any event, you know, it was kind of slippery.  Well, I think she has done as much damage to herself on this story that I Don‘t this remarks from last night is going do any more damage. 

ABRAMS:  And again, I‘m one of these people who didn‘t think this was that big a deal.  But I have to tell you, when I hear Hillary Clinton sounding like she is saying she knew it wasn‘t true, then it makes me nervous. 

All right.  Clinton gets a strike on this one, leaving us tied at one strike each.  Charlie Gibson raising the issue of gun control with Obama last night, specifically whether he favors a ban on handguns. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLIE GIBSON, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  In 1996, you - your campaign issued a questionnaire and your writing was on the questionnaire that said you favored a ban on handguns. 

OBAMA:  No.  My writing wasn‘t on that particular questionnaire, Charlie.

(END VIDEO CLIP) 

ABRAMS:  Well, that‘s an Obama misstatement.  His handwriting does appear on the questionnaire.  Here‘s the survey in question.  The Obama camp did not deny that that is Obama‘s handwriting, and the answer is yes to the question, “Do you support legislation to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns?” 

Now, the Obama camp claims the answers provided in the survey Don‘t reflect his current views.  But why doesn‘t he say that?  Again, same thing here, Roy.  I Don‘t think gun control is going to be as hot button an issue as it may have been in the past.  But he seems to be tying himself into knots here. 

SEKOFF:  This was not good.  You should not try to re-handwrite history, you know.  But the sad thing is that we live in a country where he can‘t say, “Look, I‘m from a district where people are being killed.  Kids are killing kids.  You know, we have too many guns.  We should stop the madness.”  It‘s crazy that we live in a country where you can‘t say that. 

ABRAMS:  But David, that should have been the answer, right? 

SEKOFF:  Of course.

CORN:  Well, it should have been.  I mean the issue is handguns not handwriting.  And Obama tried to get to that answer that Roy was just scripting out for him, but didn‘t quite get to it in time because they wanted to move on to other trivial matters. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  All right.  Bottom line, Linda, is the issue of guns going to be as important as it was in 2000-2004? 

DOUGLASS:  Well, again, I mean this is the question I think we are grappling with now.  Are any of these issues that have been so outsized in past campaigns going to matter in a campaign year when you do have huge issues like the economy and Iraq? 

I can guarantee you that the National Rifle Association which has given both Clinton and Obama an “F,” is going to go after both of them and try to make guns a very big issue.  But when there are other bigger, bigger issues it‘s just not clear that it‘s going to matter that much this time around. 

ABRAMS:  This one, nevertheless, was a misstatement.  This goes against Obama, giving us a final score of two strikes against Obama, one strike against Clinton with regard to the facts last night.  David corn, good to have you on the program. 

CORN:  Good to be with you, Dan.

ABRAMS:  And Linda Douglass, also a newbie on the program.  Thank you. 

Roy Sekoff, an old hand.  Good to see you. 

Up next, “Reality Bites.”  Cheney and Romney do standup.  It is actually - I know it‘s hard to believe, but it is actually funny, taking on the media themselves, and Clinton and Obama. 

And congress today calls on Karl Rove to testify about whether he influenced a federal corruption case against former Democratic Governor Don Siegelman of Alabama.  Meanwhile, Rove writes an angry five-page letter to this program, steaming over how we covered the story.  I‘ll respond to Rove and call out his lawyer who is now flip-flopping. 

And for the first time, the victim, in that brutal teen beating caught on tape is speaking out.  We are back in 60 seconds.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Now to “Reality Bites,” a dose of reality caught on tape.  You might not think of Mitt Romney, Dick Cheney and funny together, but last night they were pretty funny at the radio and TV correspondents‘ dinner in Washington.  Up first, Mitt Romney on some of the reasons why he dropped out. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY ®, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Number ten, there weren‘t as many Osmonds as I had thought.  Number nine, I got tired of the corkscrew landings under sniper fire.  Number five, I‘d rather get fat, grow a beard and try for the Nobel Prize.  And number one, there was a flaw in our campaign theory that as Utah goes, so goes the nation. 

ABRAMS:  Then came Dick Cheney in hat and sunglasses. 

DICK CHENEY, UNITED STATES VICE PRESIDENT:  At breakfast today I asked Lynn if deep down it bugs her people have taken to calling me Darth Vader.  She said, “Not at all.  It humanizes you.”  You and the press need to go easy on Sen. Clinton on the whole business at running and ducking from gun fire in Bosnia.  She made an honest mistake.  She confused the Bosnia trip with the time I took her hunting. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Now to a “Bush League Justice” update.  A big development in a case we have followed closely for months.  The case against the former Democratic Governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman.  Now, congress is getting involved and Karl Rove has sent me an angry five-page letter. 

Siegelman was released from prison on bond after serving nine months.  He was convicted on bribery and corruption charges, but says his prosecution was political and claims it was spearheaded by former White House adviser Karl Rove.  Rove has denied speaking to anyone in the Justice Department or the White House about the case.  But there are many questions yet to be answered based on certain allegations about Rove and his relationship with various people in Alabama involved in the prosecution. 

Today the House Judiciary Committee asked Rove to testify under oath about the case.  But just last week, we asked Rove‘s attorney, Robert Luskin, in an E-mail whether Rove would testify if subpoenaed by congress.  His attorney said, quote, “Sure.  Although it seems to me that the question is somewhat offensive.  It assumes he has something to hide even though Gov. Siegelman‘s uncorroborated assertions aside, there is literally no credible evidence whatsoever to substantiate his charges.”

Now under pressure from congress, Luskin has completely backtracked, telling roll call, quote, “Whether, when and about what a former White House official will testify is not for me or my client to decide but is part of an ongoing negotiation between the White House and congress over executive privilege issues.” 

Since Rove has said he had no conversations with the White House about it, what is the executive privilege here?  Rove also sent me angry five-page letter yesterday suggesting all sorts of questions he thinks I could have and should have asked various guests in the program including the former governor himself. 

But he only suggested questions, no answers.  We‘ll probably talk more about that letter later and I‘ll be responding to Mr. Rove. 

Mr. Rove, this is your opportunity to answer under oath many of the questions you suggest I should have asked.  Your attorney had said in no uncertain terms you would testify.  We have the E-mail.  And since you seemed determine to get to the truth, I would think you would embrace this opportunity to testify to congress. 

We are not going to let this story die.  A jury found Don Siegelman guilty.  But if his prosecution was driven by partisans after him because he was a Democrat, in this case needs to be revisited, and an appellate court has ruled it will be. 

Mr. Rove, you are invited on this program to debate the governor or talk with me about the case.  We‘ll stay on it. 

Now to new details in the brutal teen-beating case in Lakeland, Florida.  We now know who the girl behind that white circle in that video is.  It‘s 16-year-old Victoria Lindsay who was recently photographed and interviewed by “People” magazine.  Victoria says she is now skeptical of all her friends after she was lured to a friend‘s house and beaten. 

She says, quote, “Your number one friend is your family.  Don‘t trust anybody.”  Her interview appears in the next issue of “People” magazine on stands Friday.  The frantic 911 call Victoria placed just minutes after the attack has also been released. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

VICTORIA LINDSAY, VICTIM OF TEEN BEATING:  I just got jumped. 

911 OPERATOR:  you just got, what, jumped? 

LINDSAY:  Yes, ma‘am. 

911 OPERATOR:  And do you know who did it? 

LINDSAY:  Yes, I do.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Here now, Florida prosecutor Pam Bondi.  Pam, we‘re going to play more of that 911 tape.  But does this matter that she has done this interview with “People” magazine? 

PAM BONDI, FLORIDA PROSECUTOR:  Well, Dan, we know the judge placed the gag order on the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, all the defendants.  Now, whether he specifically laid out that the victim should not be speaking, she shouldn‘t be speaking.  And I know the prosecutors probably aren‘t happy about it. 

These prosecutors are good, tough prosecutors.  They want to try their case in court.  You know, she is very sympathetic.  It is horrible what happened to her.  And you know, clearly the defendants weren‘t supposed to speak.  So then they have all their parents do interviews because they can‘t.  So no, I don‘t think anybody should have been talking about it.  The judge made the gag order very clear. 

ABRAMS:  Here is more of the 911 tape. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

911 OPERATOR:  Is she hurt?  Does she need any ...? 

FRIEND‘S MOM:  Yes.  I think she needs - she‘s got blood in her mouth and she‘s got a big old knot on her left eye and we think she‘s got a tooth broke.  Now, I‘m a nurse and she doesn‘t look too good right now. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  All right.  So this is - we now hear for the first time from the alleged victim herself.  Does she get a say in whether her former friends get tried as adults?  I mean, we now know they are officially being tried as adults.  But how much influence does the victim have on the prosecutors on how to move forward? 

BONDI:  Dan, ultimately that decision is up to the prosecutors.  Most all prosecutors take the victim‘s and victim‘s family wishes into account.  However, prosecutors also have to look at protecting our community and whether or not these defendants deserve and need to be tried as adults.  So yes, they probably listened to her and her parents, but it‘s ultimately their decision whether to prosecute the defendants as adults and I‘m glad they did, all eight of them. 

ABRAMS:  Here is another piece of the 911 tape. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

911 OPERATOR:  She was with them? 

FRIEND‘S MOM:  You were with them, Hon?  Hold on.

LINDSAY:  Yes.  I live there and they told me to hurry up come over and they needed me.  And I walked in the house and each one of them comes out (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

FRIEND‘S MOM:  She lives there.  And they told her, she was gone.  And they said hurry up and come home.  And when she walked in the house, each one came out of a different room and attacked her.  

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  All right.  Pam Bondi, thanks very much for joining us.  We appreciate it. 

BONDI:  Thanks, Dan. 

ABRAMS:  Up next, will tonight‘s big winner or loser of the day be a rapper who made himself out to be more of a bad boy than he really was, apparently to add some credibility; Vladimir Putin who may have lost credibility by becoming a bad boy, leaving his wife to marry a gymnast more than half his age; or bad girl Britney Spears who‘s getting some credibility back.  

Plus your E-mails.  We call it the “P.O.‘d Box.”  We‘ll be right back. 

ABRAMS:  It‘s time for tonight‘s “Winners and Losers” for this 17th day of April, 2008.  Our first loser - the rapper Akon who isn‘t as bad as he wants his fans to think he is.  While the singer has been convicted of felony for gun possession and for hurling a young boy at one of his shows into a crowd, according to the “Smoking Gun,” the singer invented tales of being in prison for three years and facing, quote, “75 years behind bars,” all to give him some street credibility as a bad boy with his hip-hop fans. 

Loser, these seven middle aged mothers in Spain.  Remember the calendar girls in Britain who raised over $200 million for charity posing nude for their tongue-in-cheek calendar? 

Well, these seven women tried the same thing to help raise money for their children‘s school in Northern Spain.  Unfortunately, they didn‘t have the same sort of luck.  They are now saddled with debt and 5,000 unwanted copies.  The women blame poor sales on their inability to get the calendar out before the holiday shopping season.  They‘re hoping the publicity might lead to more sales.

Our big loser of the day, Vladimir Putin, who is reportedly leaving his wife for her.  No.  Come on.  That‘s not her.  That‘s Britney spears.  For her - a gymnast half his age.  

The Russian president hasn‘t even officially announced his separation from his 50-year-old wife and is now said to be remarrying 24-year-old Alena Kabova, an Olympic gold medallist and also 24.  She‘s a member of the Russian Parliament.  If you can see these pictures, she‘s also quite limber.  

Our big winner of the day, a regular loser in our segment, there she is, Britney!  Who after a mess of a year is showing signs of pulling her life together.  She reunited two weeks ago with the manager credited with guiding her to stardom.  She‘s working out three times a day, doing some acting gigs.  We are rooting for Britney.  

Time for the “P.O.‘d Box,” your chance to tell me what you hate or love about the show.  First up, a number went after me about Tuesday‘s “On Their Trail.”  I said Obama‘s newly adorned flag pin was a campaign loss because it revived last year‘s silly controversy about whether it would be unpatriotic to wear one. 

Michael Labriola, “I don‘t wear a yellow Lance Armstrong “Live Strong”

wristband.  But if someone gave me one in front of a bunch of people, I

would put it on and say, ‘Thank you.‘”

ABRAMS:  All right.  Fair enough, Michael, except if you publicly announced why you don‘t wear an Armstrong band months earlier, you might have some explaining to do. 

Susan writes, “So what if Obama accepts and wears a flag lapel pin?  Can he have a change of heart or mind?”

Absolutely, then he should just say, “I‘ve got a change of heart.” 

Aveline Kimbell, “His taking a pin from a veteran gave significance to ‘the wearing of the pin‘ that makes it special.  This gesture gave it purpose that far exceeds the purely ‘ornamental‘ wearing of other members of congress.”

All right.  Fair enough, Aveline, but his previous comments about not wearing it - I think it‘s going come back to haunt him.  I don‘t think it‘s a significant issue. 

As the media‘s obsession with Obama‘s “bitter” comment continued, I questioned whether voters are really as offended by the remark as the pundits assume.  Judy says, “I‘m so happy that you are debating this ‘bitter‘ issue and forcing your counterparts to see it for what it really is: nothing.” 

That‘s all the time we have for tonight.  You can E-mail me about the show at verdict@msnbc.com.  Please include your name and where you‘re writing from.  “P.O.‘d Box” - we call it that for a reason.  I like the nice ones; I appreciate it.  See you tomorrow.  Have a good night.

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

END   

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