updated 4/21/2008 11:06:50 AM ET 2008-04-21T15:06:50

Guests: Rachel Maddow, Michael Smerconish, Harold Ford Jr., John Harwood

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC ANCHOR:  I‘m David Gregory.  Tonight, can Barack Obama take a punch?  His team and his supporters are angry about this week‘s debate.  But has it really hurt him just days before Pennsylvania votes? THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

Welcome to the race, your stop for the fast paced, the bottom line and every point of view in the room.  Inside the war room we will go and find the new national poll that shows Obama pulling farther ahead tonight. At half past, the big questions, including this.  How big a win does Hillary Clinton need in Pennsylvania to make it seem like a win?  The bedrock of the program, of course, the 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 Channel, the soon-to-be-married Harold Ford Jr.  CNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent John Harwood and Philadelphia radio talk show host and columnist for both “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Daily News,” Michael Smerconish. 

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, are the super swayed? The past weeks have been among the roughest for Barack Obama‘s campaign with this past week‘s debate perhaps its lowest moment.  But “The New York Times” reports today it may not hurt him.  “Despite Clinton giving it her best shot at what might have been their final debate, interviews on Thursday with a cross-section of these super delegates - members of Congress, elected officials and party leaders—showed that none had been persuaded much by her attacks on Mr. Obama‘s strength as a potential Democratic nominee, his recent gaffes and his relationships with his former pastor and with the one-time member of the Weather Underground.” 

At the same time, head of the Democratic Party Howard Dean urged super delegates today to get on with it.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, DNC CHAIRMAN:  About 65, roughly, percent, of the super delegates have voted.  There‘s about 320 some odd left to vote.  I need them to say who they are for starting now.  They really do need to do that.  We cannot give up two or three months of active campaigning and healing time.  We‘ve got to know who our nominee is and there‘s no reason not to know after the last primary on June 3rd.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Tick tock, tick tock.  Is there enough time for Hillary Clinton to change the dynamic in this race? Rachael Maddow, what‘s your headline tonight?

RACHEL MADDOW, AIR AMERICA:  My headline tonight, David, is final days in Pennsylvania prove how well Barack Obama takes a punch. 

This has been the main concern among the Democratic powers that be about a potential Barack Obama nomination.  How well can he take a punch?  How will he bear up under the inevitable scrutiny and the inevitable criticism and the inevitable frustrations and slime of a big national campaign?  And you know, so far, we‘ve seen the jiggles in the polls.  We‘ve seen his performance, for example, in the debate this week.  But when Pennsylvania voters go to the polls on Tuesday, we will truly have the proof in the pudding of how he bears up under this kind of intense, intense scrutiny. 

GREGORY:  And he‘s continued to close the gap in Pennsylvania during what has been a rough time with no voting and plenty of opportunity for Hillary Clinton to make him look worse, to really attack him. 

MADDOW:  Yes and the question is whether or not there‘s any sort of Bradley effect in those polls, whether or not the way people think they‘re going to vote is going to change once they‘re actually in there in the voting booth all alone with the curtain closed behind them.  The voting is going to really going to be interesting, in particular to see how closely it matches the last polling. 

GREGORY:  All right Michael Smerconish, welcome, your headline tonight?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Hey, David.  My headline is this—Obama nation cries abomination.  And by that, I mean that the blowback from the debate—

GREGORY:  Nice. 

SMERCONISH:  Thank you.  The blowback from the debate earlier in the week showed me a level of passion and organization on the part of the Obama supporters that I really think is unprecedented.  And what it said to me, David, is that they are not going quietly into that night.  In other words, if he‘s denied the nomination at some point in the next couple of weeks, I see no way that they come out in force for her.  I think that they sit home and that determines the ultimate outcome of the election in November. 

GREGORY:  It says something, too, Hillary Clinton has benefited from what she has talked about in the past of appearing to be picked on, being a victim—being a target of unfairness.  She‘s seen actual results from that.  Now Barack Obama is in that position, really, for the first time.  I‘ve talked to people in the Obama campaign who say, not too bad to get it this time.  Maybe we can reap the benefits of that. 

SMERCONISH:  I think not so bad to get it at this time for an additional reason which is, when it happens in October, it‘s like, hey, man haven‘t we heard all this before, what else you got?

GREGORY:  Right, right.  Harold Ford, your headline tonight?

HAROLD FORD JR., NBC NEWS ANALYST:  McCain gears up with what I believe will be an unorthodox campaign plan for the fall.  He won the Republican nomination in a strange way.  He had several guys in that race, they were not as strong as many had wanted to be.  He talked strangely about the surge, did not disassociate himself, and found himself in a great position at the end. 

This fall campaign will be a page out of that book.  He will find himself differentiating himself from the national Republican Party, George Bush and even Republicans in Congress, straddling a very, very close line to demonstrate that he‘s a maverick but he‘s a conservative maverick. 

Democrats, the only way we can beat him, is to not only frame him as a Bush third term, but to offer ideas on tax policy, to offer ideas on Iraq, and to offer a cogent and coherent policy going forward when it comes to foreign policy.  Joe Biden started that critique this week and hopefully the party will hear that echo and the Obama and Clinton campaigns will follow it, whichever one emerges in this primary. 

GREGORY:  Are there some gains that he makes on this campaign swing that he will take—he may not get a big reaction everywhere we goes, but he start to make inroads by showing authenticity, by showing a willingness really to face down, if not hostile crowds, at least some critical crowds?

FORD:  That‘s the missing element.  I think the fight between Obama and Clinton will keep both of them current and in shape and frankly connected with what voters are most interested in. 

What McCain is probably doing, if I were advising him and I‘m not, but if I were advising him, I would be saying, let‘s figure out a way to burnish and to highlight and magnify your maverick stance because for you to win against Barack or Hillary, you‘re going to have to be a change candidate because at the end of the day, the narrative in this race will be change on the Democratic side. 

I disagree slightly with Michael‘s point, although I do agree the Obama nation is as passionate as I‘ve seen in politics.  But I think Democrats are going to want change.  Independents are going to want change and McCain‘s got to figure out how he walks that line.  He will run an unorthodox campaign in the fall if he has a chance on winning. 

GREGORY:  All right, John Harwood, your headline tonight?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Well aside from congrats to Harold on the impending wedding, my headline David is no populists here, at least in terms of their own pocket books.

John McCain released his tax returns today, showed he made $400,000 in 2007 between his Senate salary, his Navy pension and Social Security.  Now, that sounds not hugely out of line with a lot of Americans, but it doesn‘t count Cindy McCain‘s fortune, which may be more than $100 million.  She didn‘t release her tax returns.  Combine that with Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton‘s $20 million last year, Barack and Michelle Obama‘s $4 million last year, there‘s plenty of elitism to go around in this race. 

GREGORY:  Does it just take all of that off the table?

HARWOOD:  Well, I think it takes some of the edge off of these attacks.  If John McCain wants to try to make a living in this campaign going after Barack Obama for being an elitist, and then you start throwing back there the $100 million family fortune, I think it gets a little dicey after a while. 

GREGORY:  All right a lot more ahead tonight.  Coming up, Hillary Clinton wants you to know that she‘s nice, that she‘s not as bad as you think, and she‘s asking college students to help her spread that word.  Stick around for the details.

Later, of course, your play date with the panelists.  You can call us, 212-790-2299 or e-mail us at Race08@MSNBC.com.  We‘re back after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  The race returns now and we‘re going inside the war rooms of the ‘08 campaigns to see which strategies are working, which ones are not.  Back with us, Rachael Maddow, Harold Ford Jr., John Harwood and Michael Smerconish. 

First up, Hillary Clinton is softening up her image on the campaign trail with some words of advice to student supporters when they‘re out campaigning for her.  Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Just knock on the door and say, you know, she‘s really nice.  Or you could say it another way, she‘s not as bad as you think. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Given her high negatives, unlikability and creditability, should she have dealt with this earlier, contrary to Mark Penn‘s advice not to focus on these elements? 

Rachel, particularly at a time when I know that that she‘s got other people who were sort of kept out of the fold when Mark Penn was there, who are going on these tours, the Hillary I know tours to try to humanize her a little bit more.  Is it too late?

MADDOW:  I don‘t know if it‘s too late.  At this point this campaign, this calendar is so hard to understand at this point that I‘m not sure can call anything too late at any point.  I actually think that clip is very, very appealing for Hillary Clinton.  I think when she does speak in a way that seems unscripted and off-camera and in a human way, I do think she does connect with voters and that her supposed charisma deficit just disappears.  So I don‘t know if the timing is right on this, but I think it works.  If people are going to be voting in four days, why not do it now?

HARWOOD:  David, every time she shows a lighter side, good things happen for Hillary Clinton.  That doesn‘t necessarily mean that it made a big difference earlier on in the campaign.  There are many things that went into her difficulty, from the targeting of the campaign to simply how appealing Barack Obama was. 

But Rachel‘s exactly right.  That was a very endearing clip and Mike Murphy, our friend, the Republican political consultant says, jeez, her problem is half the country thinks she rides around on a broom.  And anything you can do to try to puncture some of that stuff is good. 

GREGORY:  Michael, we also know it‘s not just Hillary Clinton in these final days of the Pennsylvania campaign, Barack Obama as well is trying to play some smaller locales, do a little bit more retail campaigning to try to show people that he doesn‘t have a cool and detached affect to him, that he really can relate to people.  So both of them doing this in the final days. 

SMERCONISH:  Well, I think that there are no undecided voters left right here in Pennsylvania.  That‘s been my view for quite some time.  At this moment, I think it‘s all about driving your base.  Relative to the clip you just showed, where has that been? The one time that she, as our current president would say, resignated with me, is when she cried in the Portsmouth coffee shop.  I thought it was a genuine moment, and I thought, show us more of that, Hillary, if you want to win the thing, but it just never came out.  That‘s beyond my bedtime. 

GREGORY:  Moving on, John McCain has joked that he‘s older than dirt, but is it OK for other people to crack jokes or actually use it as the basis of an attack?  A new Web site poking fun at the Republican candidate‘s age by listing things that are younger than McCain.  Take a look. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  John McCain is older than FM radio. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  John McCain is older than the Golden Gate Bridge. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And the Lincoln Tunnel too. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  McCain is older than the periodic table of elements.  All right, not really.  But he is older than plutonium. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Now, Howard Dean of the Democratic Party promised not to make an issue of McCain‘s age, but now it‘s out there.  Will the strategy backfire? Harold?

FORD:  I‘ve never been a believer that age, race, gender, any of those things should be made issues in campaigns.  I mean, the relentless attacks, however, that Barack has undergone and even Hillary, I mean, John McCain will deal with this and frankly the country is going to vote for the person that they believe is best-suited to be president. 

Now, John McCain will have to think about the age issue as he chooses a running mate, if he chooses a young running mate, as John Harwood and others have said over and over again, it might be and you‘ve said it as well, David, it might be an admission that his age is an issue.  So it‘s going to be curious to see how he approaches it and how he deals with it as he approaches that big decision to choose his number two. 

GREGORY:  But, John, politically, what matters most? McCain has used humor and he‘s also pointed to what he does on the campaign trail, which is to campaign vigorously.  Don‘t those things form perceptions for voters?

HARWOOD:  Absolutely.  I don‘t think age is going to be a factor for John McCain in terms of people thinking he‘s not up to the job.  You probably saw him at the AP meeting the other day when he got a question about age, and he pretended like he was asleep.  It‘s not about health or capacity.  I think the issue for John McCain about age, especially if he‘s matched against Obama, who‘s going to be 25 years younger than him, is going to be the issue of future versus past. 

And it helps Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton if she‘s the nominee, but more Barack Obama because he‘s younger, make the argument that we need something new, we need change, and Barack - John McCain‘s age represents not change. 

GREGORY:  I want to get to this final item here.  Finally, tonight, brand-new poll tonight with very different results.  Look at this.  The new “Newsweek” poll shows Obama pulling away from Clinton by almost 20 points, 54-35 percent.  Just a month ago, Clinton and Obama were locked in a statistical dead heat according to this same poll. 

On the other hand, there‘s the latest Gallup tracking poll, and it shows Clinton closing the gap on Obama, now trailing him by three points, Obama, 47, Clinton at 44. 

That‘s down from a double-digit lead Obama had earlier this week.  John, you look at so many of these polls.  Why don‘t you start here, what does it mean?

HARWOOD:  I wouldn‘t trust a 19-point lead in this race as far as I could throw that camera right in front of me.  I think it‘s much more likely that this is a single-digit race nationally and a single-digit race in Pennsylvania as well.  Hillary Clinton has been more resilient than a lot of us expected this in this race after she was down.  She continues to hold that lead in Pennsylvania.  She‘s behind vis-a-vis John McCain with Barack Obama, but I do not believe she‘s down 19 points nationally. 

GREGORY:  Quick comment, Rachel—go ahead, Harold. 

FORD:  I agree with John.  But I tell you this, if she wins by 10 or more in Pennsylvania, we‘ll all be back here on Wednesday saying, gosh, that other poll was right.  The real polling will take place on Tuesday night, but it‘s hard to believe any poll that shows anybody up that amount.

GREGORY:  Let me get another break in here. Former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan has some advice for John McCain which helps both McCain and Barack Obama.   Smart takes, coming up next.  Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back and bringing you the smart takes, the most provocative, most thoughtful, and most insightful we find them so you don‘t have to. 

Still with us, Rachel, Harold, John and Michael.

Our first smart take tonight, there‘s been a lot of talk about the dream ticket with Clinton and Obama.  Today, Peggy Noonan proposed her own two-fer, involving McCain and Obama.  “It seems to me if would be a brilliant thing for McCain to announce he means to be a one-term president, that he means to have a clean, serious, one-term presidency in which he will do things those under pressure re-election do not and cannot do.  This would be received as a refreshment, a way out for voters in a year they seem to want a way out.  For many in the middle it would be a twofer.  You get a good man, for only four years, and Mr. Obama gets to grow and deepen at the same time.”

Rachel, do you think there‘s anything to grasp onto there?

MADDOW:  I think Peggy Noonan is good at shoving in the shiv with a smile.  The point of this is to make the point that Barack Obama needs to grow and deepen, which I think Barack Obama supporters do not believe.

The problem also with the argument that John McCain would somehow be unconstrained in a way that voters would find favorable by promising to only vote one term, I‘m not sure that voters feel more satisfied with second-term presidents than they do with first-term presidents. 

I think there‘s as much sentiment among voters that a second-term president is unaccountable and therefore more likely to do things that are either embarrassing or radical.  So I think the argument doesn‘t work for me on a couple of levels. 

GREGORY:  But also Michael, he becomes a lame duck very quickly if you‘re a one-term president. 

MADDOW:  He starts as a lame duck. 

SMERCONISH:  If you‘re an insider and you think in those terms, I like the strategy.  I think this echoes what Harold said earlier in that John McCain has got to play the maverick card.  What this would say is that he is coming into D.C. to kick butt and take names and it‘s only going to take four years.  I like it, I think it makes sense. 

HARWOOD:  We can have four years of all the fun George Bush is having right now, seeing his power go down the drain. 

SMERCONISH:  He‘s not beholden to anybody.  He‘s only there for one term. 

GREGORY:  Let me move on to our second smart take tonight.  “Newsweek‘s” Michael Hirsh writes about the Democrat‘s win factor and sees shades of ‘04 in the recent attacks on Obama. 

To the quote board, “Between the questions about Obama‘s meager association with William Ayers, a former weatherman, and—not the meteorological variety, by the way, and the suspicions raised by his lack of a flag lapel pin, the likely nominee is slowly being turned into John Kerry.  He is becoming, in other words, a candidate who may be mostly right about national security, but who will lack the red state street cred to carry his point and the election.”

Anything to that, Harold?

FORD:  Look, there‘s no doubt that it would be an intense focus on the part of a Republican machine, including part of McCain‘s team to paint and to describe and to caricature Barack if he‘s the nominee, which looks likely—to caricature him in a way that puts him outside of the main stream.  Barack would do the same and Democrats would do the same to John McCain. 

The question becomes, which of these candidates is able to resonate fastest, quickest, and most substantively with the national voting audience.  I do think Peggy Noonan has an interesting point.  He would be a lame duck right away, but he‘s got to figure out an angle, he‘s got to figure out something.  Because Barack‘s appeal, if he‘s the nominee, is going to be so overwhelming and the number of new voters he will bring to the fold in a lot of ways could just overwhelm that Republican machine and overwhelm John McCain before he gets started. 

GREGORY:  Let me get to the final smart take here. Rachel, comment on both this one from “The New York Times” David Brooks, who says Obama‘s looking vulnerable and it will hurt him in November.  To the quote word, “It was inevitable that the period of ‘yes we can‘ deification would come to an end.  It was not inevitable that Obama would now look so vulnerable.  He‘ll win the nomination, but in a match up against John McCain, he‘s behind in Florida, Missouri and Ohio, and merely tied in a must-win states like Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania looking at the map.”

Rachel?

MADDOW:  Polls at this point in the campaign, when there‘s not yet a general election underway and the Democrats don‘t yet have a nominee are pointless. 

HARWOOD:  Bingo.

MADDOW:  I think that what‘s happening right now to Barack Obama was inevitably going to happen to Barack Obama.  It‘s probably happening earlier than he expected that it would if he had mapped out his nomination.  But no matter who the Democratic nominee, if it was Harold Ford or Sam Nunn or anybody, any Democratic nominee is not insulated from attacks on national security basis by their bio or by their record. 

Any Democrat will be attacked as weak on national security and weak on patriotism.  That is how American two-party politics work right now.  And so you can‘t expect that any other nominee would have an easier time on those issues than Obama.  We just know now the character of the challenges that Obama faces on those grounds. 

GREGORY:  All right, let me take another break.  Up next, how big of a margin and victory in Pennsylvania does Hillary Clinton need to puncture the perception that Obama‘s got this thing wrapped up?  We‘re coming back.  Three big questions, don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Still ahead, three key questions on the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE, including this.  What does each of the Democrats have to do in Pennsylvania this weekend to ensure a victory on Tuesday?  That‘s next.  First your headlines. 

(NEWSBREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Just a few days before Pennsylvania and lots to debate about.  Time for our “Three Questions.” 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 chief Washington correspondent John Harwood; and Philadelphia radio talk show host and columnist for both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News, Michael Smerconish. 

First up, Obama supporters are showing their teeth after this week‘s Democratic debate, inundating NBC News with tens of thousands angry calls, e-mails, and Web posts.  And it could be a warning sign for the Democratic Party.  NBC‘s own “First Read” blog puts it like this: “Curious of what the bitterness and the anger could look like if Obama is somehow denied the Democratic nomination?  Check out the reaction from the ObamaNation over Wednesday‘s debate, to put it simply, ABC was under siege yesterday.  This may only be a taste of how the ObamaNation would react to a Clinton nomination.” 

So our first question tonight, will Obama supporters simply not allow a Clinton victory, John Harwood? 

HARWOOD:  I think you just heard about a lot of whining, whining, whining by those Obama supporters.  I think we are defining divisiveness down in the sense that this is not 1968, this is not a fundamental ideological divide within the Democratic Party.  Yes, the Democratic Party is going to unite at the end of this thing, probably behind Barack Obama.  But if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, Democrats are going to be very strong. 

Look at these voter registration numbers out of Pennsylvania.  Final numbers in, record number of those registered.  By three to one, they are registering—new registrants are Democrat rather than Republicans.  And by 10 to one, those switching their registration are going over to the Democratic side. 

GREGORY:  But I don‘t know, Rachel, it does seem to send a message to Hillary Clinton and her camp and her supporters and to the head of the Democratic Party that if somehow superdelegates do sway this in a way that does not reflect the will of the pledged delegates that there could be some real problems. 

MADDOW:  I think the superdelegate aspect of this, how it‘s actually going to be chosen, the transparency of that process, and the apparent fairness of that process is very important.  I‘ve been saying from the very beginning, if Democrats feel like the nominee is chosen unfairly, or by some backroom process, then there are going to be pitchforks in the streets in Denver.  I think that‘s still true. 

But on the debate issue, I think the.

HARWOOD:  Pitchforks!

MADDOW:  That‘s what I think.  But I think that on the debate issue, it‘s not so much that people—I‘ve seen a lot of the character of the outrage here.  It‘s not so much that people are mad that Barack Obama was being ganged up on, it‘s that the debate was conducted in such a way that it was not about substantive stuff.  And it was about tabloid issues. 

And yes, maybe it was more unfair to Barack Obama than it was to Clinton, but most of the outrage that I‘ve seen is just on the substance of the debate not hitting the real issues and instead hitting that side stuff.  I don‘t think it‘s a message to Clinton, I think it‘s a message to ABC. 

GREGORY:  Right.  Next up, the candidates have spent the past six weeks campaigning for the Pennsylvania Primary.  Now they have just three more days to make their case to voters.  Our second question today, what do Clinton and Obama have to do to close the deal in Pennsylvania? 

Michael, you talked about there not being a lot of undecided voters here.  One of the things that you know Obama is doing is he‘s looking at white, working class voters and saying to himself, how do I try to close that gap a little bit so I can stay close in this thing? 

SMERCONISH:  If you were to envision the state of Pennsylvania, a rectangular shape, the eastern side, particularly the southeast tends to mirror the politics of New Jersey, far more progressive than what you find in the western part of the state.  If you handed me a map right now, David, I could color code it and tell you who will win in what territory because I think it‘s set. 

So it becomes a function of who can drive their voters out to the polls.  It‘s not so much that you‘ve got to change minds in these final 72 or so hours, you‘ve got to drive your vote.  And that‘s what each of them will seek to do over the span of the weekend. 

GREGORY:  So but, Harold, if you‘re Hillary Clinton, you‘re trying to drive up numbers.  So getting out your base, that matters a great deal.  If you‘re Barack Obama, what are you doing to keep it close? 

FORD:  You‘re doing exactly what he did today.  He‘s on a bus tour across the state, he‘s reconnecting with voters, he‘s showing people at a very base level that he understands their issues, that he will be a president that will be responsive, not just in the pejorative and large and above-life sense, but he will be on the ground listening and responding. 

To make one point about something Rachel said, and I think that this debate the other night is unfair, some of the questions were, having been in politics before, we can‘t control those things as candidates.  And one thing I think voters resent at times is when politicians after presentations or debates complain about the kind of treatment they got. 

One of the things you have to do is play through that kind of pain.  You get up the next morning, you look voters in the eye, and say, maybe it didn‘t go as well as we wanted, maybe they didn‘t ask the questions I wanted, but I‘m running for president for this reason. 

The more he does that, the more he will move beyond whatever criticism, warranted or unwarranted, about his performance the other night.  And the same is true with Hillary.  I thought her take at the humor there was a good thing.  It humanized her a bit.  It may be too late. 

But it shows people that are watching her closely.  And I think there may still be a few voters there in Pennsylvania trying to make up their minds on these two incredibly qualified and very dynamic candidates on... 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  John, how do you see the endgame?

HARWOOD:  David, the other thing you do if you‘re Barack Obama is you dump an avalanche of television ads on the head of Hillary Clinton.  He‘s outspending her two, three to one in most markets and he‘s getting a big infusion of cash over the weekend from labor union allies who are running their own advertisements.  That‘s how he does it. 

The other thing he needs to do with those white, working class voters, get out of the bowling alley, maybe get on to the basketball court.  One of the things that Democrats have had problems with is appealing to men.  And any ways that a Democratic liberal nominee like Barack Obama can relate to men, this is a guy who played college basketball, that is a lot better than windsurfing, which is the way the John Kerry expressed his athleticism.  Barack Obama has got some raw material to work with there. 

GREGORY:  Right, and it may deal with the elitism charge a little bit as well. 

HARWOOD:  Exactly.

GREGORY:  Finally, Hillary Clinton has always been expected to do well in Pennsylvania.  So she has the support of much of the state‘s political machine.  She won neighboring Ohio by 10 points.  But with Barack Obama ahead in both the delegate count and the popular vote, just how well does she have to do?  So the third question today, how big of a win in Pennsylvania does Clinton need after the perception of Obama‘s inevitability? 

Rachel, what do you say? 

MADDOW:  This is the $64,000 question.  This weekend, and heading into Monday, it‘s going to be all about setting expectations.  Because we all remember here that there‘s nothing mathematically determinative about the Pennsylvania vote.  There‘s nothing magic that happens by Pennsylvania voters‘ choices that‘s going to get us any closer to a nominee. 

This nominee on the Democratic side is going to be chosen by superdelegates.  And so it‘s all about the impression of the win.  And the Obama campaign and the Clinton campaign are going to have to really start cracking the numbers this weekend and come up with a story line about what counts as a disappointing day for Hillary Clinton, or what counts as a disappointing day for Barack Obama. 

Because it‘s that sense of momentum, that sense of being able to take it all the way that‘s going to be the entire point of this exercise for superdelegates. 

HARWOOD:  And you know, Michael, Chuck Todd, who goes through the numbers every day and all the various combinations and permutations in a state like Pennsylvania, talks about, for instance, if Barack Obama outperforms in certain largely African-American congressional districts, he could capture more delegates, lower her delegate takeaway.

And then, of course, the electoral vote issue as well.  If she doesn‘t get, say, a 10-plus, she doesn‘t really take enough electoral votes—I‘m sorry, popular votes, raw votes out of Pennsylvania that she really needs to close that gap and make that argument to superdelegates. 

SMERCONISH:  I‘m certainly aware of the way in which our proportionate system of representation works for the delegate count, but I think this is a discussion only for political junkies, and I am one, so I‘m willing to engage in it.  But I think that to the rest of the country, who won the state?  Did she win the state?  Did she get 51?  Did he get 51?  And I think that‘s the bottom line.  I mean, the rest of it is for us. 

MADDOW:  Well, it‘s also about whether or not it‘s a blowout though.  If they go into it—if they made the mistake of setting the expectation that she‘s going to blowout in Pennsylvania, and it comes down to a one-point race, that will look bad for her. 

SMERCONISH:  But nobody is saying that now.  I know, but those days are over.  You‘re right, Rachel, it‘s all expectations.  I remember a conversation like this two weeks ago where it was a 15-point race and I said, never, never going to happen. 

MADDOW:  Yes, well, the other thing interesting to keep in mind here, you look back at Ohio and Texas where we had all these same discussions heading into Ohio and Texas about how this was going to decide, this is what all the superdelegates were going to decide.  Ultimately, when the counting was done in Texas, Barack Obama won Texas.  He actually ended up winning more delegates there. 

But at that point, the impression game was over.  And it‘s all about impressions and expectations.

(CROSSTALK)

HARWOOD:  If Barack Obama wins by one vote, she‘s out of the race by the end of the week.  If she wins by one vote, she‘s going to go on to May 6th and have to win in Indiana. 

MADDOW:  You don‘t think the margin matters at all?  Just one vote?

HARWOOD:  No, I think it matters.  But the point is, what‘s going to knock her out of the race?  What‘s going to make her get out?  I do not think—I think if she wins by any margin, she‘s going to stay in the race and she‘s going to have the opportunity to keep winning primaries.  She then wins in Indiana, she‘ll stay in after that. 

I think each of these, if she loses, there‘s some potential doors to close.  But I think she intends to go through the end of the primaries.  But, look, if you stay on the current trajectory that we‘re on, she‘s going to lose the nomination.  Superdelegates are bleeding away from her almost every day. 

GREGORY:  But, John, it‘s not—you may be right about the margins here and how the rest of the country takes this, but what—her audience that matters is the superdelegates right now.  So then she‘s.

(CROSSTALK)

HARWOOD:  Yes.  She‘s already losing them. 

GREGORY:  And so it doesn‘t matter? 

HARWOOD:  Well, it matters some.  If she were to win by 10 or 15 points and look like she‘s gaining altitude rather than losing it, that‘s better than not.  But if she wins by 6 or 7 points, she has still got some room to stay in this race. 

SMERCONISH:  And, David, she would win the battle, but she would lose the war, because if ultimately the superdelegates give her the nomination, she loses to John McCain, people will think that Barack Obama got the shaft because he was ahead in the popular vote and in the delegate count.  That is the lose scenario for the Ds. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Up next.

FORD:  If she wins Pennsylvania she‘ll be in good shape.

GREGORY:  Go ahead, quickly, Harold. 

FORD:  If she wins Pennsylvania, and she was outspent three to one, she‘s going to be in good shape.  If Barack loses narrowly and he‘s able to frame a ‘92 Clinton “comeback kid” kind of strategy or narrative there in Pennsylvania, he‘ll be in good shape.  I‘ll tell you this, if I‘m either one of these candidates.

MADDOW:  This is the Democratic nightmare, everybody in good shape. 

FORD:  . I want to win.

MADDOW:  This is the Democratic nightmare.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  Yes, right, right.  All right.  Up next, your e-mails, your voicemails, and Hillary Clinton stopped in at “The Colbert Report” last night to help out with some technical problems the show was having.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Jimmy? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, Senator Clinton? 

CLINTON:  About the screen, how are you feeding this?  It‘s through the router or the OFFSBUS (ph) on the switcher? 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s an OFFS. 

CLINTON:  Try toggling the input. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  OK. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, “THE COLBERT REPORT”:  Holy cow!

CLINTON:  You know what, Stephen, your forehead is a little shiny. 

Makeup.  Makeup, powder, please. 

COLBERT:  Well, Senator Clinton, you‘re so prepared for any situation. 

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT:  I don‘t know—I just don‘t know how to thank you enough. 

CLINTON:  That‘s OK, Stephen, I just love solving problems.  Call me anytime. 

COLBERT:  Really? 

CLINTON:  Sure.  Call me at 3:00 a.m.  

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  We‘re back and it‘s your turn to weigh in.  Time for you to play with the panel.  Here again, Rachel Maddow, Harold Ford Jr., John Harwood, and Michael Smerconish.  First up, one e-mailer is not please with Clinton‘s swipes at Obama today on the trail.  Here is what Clinton said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  I know that some of my opponents‘ supporters and my opponent are kind of complaining about the hard questions.  I‘m with Harry Truman on this.  If you can‘t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Isaac writes this: “I‘m sorry, I think this is a safety issue now for Senator Obama.  The right statement should be, get out of the kitchen because Hillary is throwing the kitchen sink your way.”

It was ironic, John Harwood, to hear the Clintons stand up and say, what are you whining about the questions for, when they did the very same thing when they didn‘t like how the debate were going. 

HARWOOD:  Exactly.  And they didn‘t look good when they did it.  And Barack Obama‘s people don‘t look good when they do it.  To Barack Obama‘s credit, he‘s trying to get up and say, I‘m brushing it off and, you know, that‘s the game we‘re playing and that‘s exactly the attitude he ought to take. 

GREGORY:  Right.  I think there‘s something else, too, Rachel, which is—and it may be effective, it may not.  But he effectively said—not during the debate, he might have thought about it during the debate, but certainly afterwards, the idea that, hey, this is what Washington is like.  You know, you get these kind of questions and then she seems right in her element.  That may be the most effective way to speak, not only to his supporters but new people to the process.

MADDOW:  Right.  And the factor that he did the Jay-Z move with brush your shoulders off, which I think was what are people calling that today, the dogwhistle hip-hop signifier, which I thought was great. 

HARWOOD:  Rachel, you do that better than I do. 

MADDOW:  Thank you very much.  I actually was working on it all day. 

GREGORY:  But I do have to say, I don‘t think that‘s going to help him so much with the older voters in Pennsylvania, I‘m just going to go out on a limb there. 

MADDOW:  But that‘s why it‘s a dogwhistle thing.  The older voters will have no idea that it‘s signifying this Jay-Z song.  It was perfect. 

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  Hey, David, I think this is a tame campaign.  I just want to get that on the record.  I mean, everybody is so damned easily offended.  Get over it, we‘re picking a president. 

MADDOW:  You know, but if I were either of them, I would‘ve complained about how I was treated in the debate.  I don‘t think it makes them look that bad.  I thought when Hillary Clinton complained about being piled on, that was a reasonable thing to complain about.  I think when Barack Obama complained about the tenor of the debate questions, that was a reasonable thing to complain about.  I don‘t think either of these things is fatal or looks particularly bad for them.  And I see strategically why either of them would do it. 

GREGORY:  You know, Michael, I‘m offended that you think we.

FORD:  If you‘re a blue-collar worker—if you‘re a blue-collar worker in Pennsylvania, you don‘t want to hear your president whining about some questions at a debate with ABC News... 

(CROSSTALK)

HARWOOD:  Exactly so.

(CROSSTALK)

MADDOW:  I don‘t think that either of them came across as whining. 

FORD:  . what anybody is saying.  But you‘re running for president.  Hillary didn‘t look good when she did it, he doesn‘t look right when he does it.  I‘m voting for a president.  I‘m going to vote for a Democrat.  But Americans are looking for someone who‘s tough, resilient, smart, and can reengage the world.  Not a whiner.  You‘ve got to talk about the issues. 

MADDOW:  But you can characterize it as whining or you can characterize it as pushing back when you get pushed around.  I didn‘t think that it made either of them look weak or whiny.  When both of them struck back on things like that, essentially to me, it was them saying, you know what, this is a stupid format and I‘m going to push back. 

In the same way that Fred Thompson I think got a lot of kudos from Republicans when he pushed back very visibly at a Republican debate moderator.

HARWOOD:  Fred who? 

(CROSSTALK)

MADDOW:  . when these guys push back.

(CROSSTALK)

HARWOOD:  See where it got Fred Thompson.

FORD:  He‘s out of the race. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Seems like a long time ago.  Moving on to John in Ohio, who wants to get back to substantive debates, just like Rachel does: “It‘s clear that there are some very serious issues on the table during this electoral cycle and I keep hearing that Americans will vote on the issues, but based on this week‘s debate, I can‘t help but ask the panel, will this election be decided on the tabloid issues like Wright, Bosnia, bitter, and Penn?” 

You know, I may sound defensive on this, Harold, but I don‘t think that these are tabloid issues.  Some of them—and by the way, there has been a lot of discussion of substantive issues in the course of this campaign.  There are not a lot of distinctions  between these two Democratic candidates on those issues. 

FORD:  Good candidates can take bad issues and try to turn them into good things.  Great candidates take tough, bad questions and talk about issues, substance, and platform.  That‘s the test these candidates have.  John McCain‘s going to have tough questions.  Fred Thompson is no longer in the race.  Mitt Romney had tough questions, he‘s no longer in the race. 

The way you respond, if you get a tough questions, on Jeremiah Wright, you get a tough question on Bosnia and turn it into an—you turn your answer—allow your answer to be transformed into something that lifts you up, people up, and the country up, that‘s what voters want to see. 

They expect the press to ask silly questions.  We in the press, and I‘m part of it now, we‘ll be attacked and ridiculed by voters.  What candidates have to do is rise above that.

HARWOOD:  Have you really come over, Harold? 

(LAUGHTER)

FORD:  Pardon me? 

HARWOOD:  Have you really come over? 

FORD:  Not quite, but I‘m leaning just a bit.  I‘m leaning just a bit, Harwood.  You‘re influencing me, though. 

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW:  I think that in these debates, you can get to really tough questions on which both Obama and Clinton have—in which Obama and Clinton have very serious differences between them without being in the tabloid realm.  I think you can ask them about torture. 

Barack Obama made this incredibly interesting statement about potentially prosecuting members of the Bush administration.  You can take Hillary Clinton on on that very provocative thing she said about putting an American national security umbrella over Arab states in the Middle East. 

They can talk about the role of lobbyists in their campaigns, which there‘s misleading statements from both candidates on both of those things.  There‘s all sorts of issues on which you can get into big fights between these candidates and even potentially have very entertaining gotcha moments without just doing the tabloid and character stuff. 

SMERCONISH:  The reality is, people watched.  I mean, for all that has been said about this debate, it exceeded the ratings of all the prior debates.  And you know, frankly, if they had opened up with 30 or 40 minutes about the budget deficit, I don‘t think that would have been the case.  People would have been clicking. 

MADDOW:  You know, if they slaughtered people on live television, it would get great ratings too. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Rachel, that‘ll be enough. 

MADDOW:  It‘s true. 

GREGORY:  That‘ll be enough.  All right.  We‘re going to come back and get into predictions from the panel right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back to the RACE after 55 minutes, it‘s finally time to get predictions from our panelists.  What are they seeing in their crystal balls tonight?  Still with us, Rachel, Harold, John, and Michael. 

Michael, you‘re up first, prediction time.

SMERCONISH:  All right.  Mine is a two-parter.  Part one.  Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama 51, Hillary Clinton 49 percent.  Part two, Thursday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, Hillary Clinton suspends her campaign. 

GREGORY:  Wow.  Based on what, not a big enough victory there or that she lost? 

SMERCONISH:  She loses.  She loses.  And by the way, David, I‘m unavailable next week.  In case you wanted me back, I won‘t be around to clean this up. 

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  John, what do you see coming tonight? 

HARWOOD:  Rich man, poor man, Barack Obama has got upscale friends and if he‘s the nominee, they‘re going to help him continue the slow-motion shift that has more Democrats doing better and better at the top of the income scale. 

They also broke even with those over $100,000 in the 2006 election.  Why?  Because a lot of people who fell on the Woodstock side of the 1960s social revolution are now rich liberal Democrats. 

The flip side that John McCain, if he‘s running against Barack Obama, is going to contest a lot of those white working class voters we‘re talking about in Pennsylvania right now. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Harold, what are you seeing tonight? 

FORD:  A little different than my friends, but the pope‘s visit is a watershed for faith in politics.  I think this pope has demonstrated an honesty, a forthrightness, and frankly, a refreshing nature to how faith invokes itself. 

The fact that he met with some of the accusers, those who were victimized by members of the church shows a kind of honesty I think Americans want and the Catholic Church needs. 

And more importantly, his outreach to Jews and outreach to all faiths is something that has got to inspire everybody in a very challenging time politically here in America and for that matter around the globe.  So I thank him.

GREGORY:  Rachel, what are you seeing tonight? 

MADDOW:  Mine is much more pedestrian coming off those very thoughtful remarks from Harold.  And, Harold, I should actually tell you, congratulations on your pending nuptials as well.

FORD:  Thank you.

MADDOW:  My prediction is purely political, which is that heading into Pennsylvania on Tuesday, if Hillary Clinton has an ace in the hole, now will be the time for her to play it.  We‘re going to see it between now and Sunday morning if there is anything else left to be unveiled negative against Barack Obama. 

We haven‘t seen anything all that new from Hillary Clinton on the positive side, we haven‘t seen anything new in terms of what is what she is constructively offering or what she‘s proposing to voters.  What we‘ve seen is a kind of slow turnover of negative issues against Barack Obama. 

And if there‘s anything left, if there‘s anything left that‘s going to be used for the voters in Pennsylvania, it‘s going to have to come out very soon. 

GREGORY:  The difficulty she faces, and we saw it in the numbers this week, is she the best person to bring up his negatives, to go on the attack, or does it only hurt her more? 

MADDOW:  Well, that‘s—I think that‘s one of the big unknowns in modern politics.  There‘s two schools of thought.  One says that when you go on the attack, you are risking blowback, you are risking looking like a nasty politician who voters don‘t identify with, particularly when you do it in a primary campaign as opposed to a general election campaign. 

The other school of thought says, you know, it may feel nasty when you do it, but the rewards are reaped in the ballot box, and the rewards are reaped when you bring up the negatives of your opponent who you are defining by going harsh negative. 

It‘s hard to imagine much more harsh coming out about Barack Obama in the short term, but if it‘s going to happen, it‘s going to happen right away. 

HARWOOD:  David, she‘s running out of options.  I suggest if she has got something in her pocket, she ought not to leave it there very long. 

MADDOW:  Yes.  And I think it‘s between now and Sunday morning. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Thanks though a great panel.  We‘re going to second our congratulations to you, Harold, to you and Emily, a lifetime of happiness we wish to you for your nuptials. 

FORD:  Thank you. 

GREGORY:  . a week from tomorrow.

FORD:  Thank you, brother.

GREGORY:  And a final note tonight.  And Harold brought this up.  Something caught my eye late today and it was about the pope‘s visit to New York.  He was at Park East Synagogue late this afternoon and the pictures were remarkable as he received an old Seder plate was presented to him, which, of course, is part of the celebration of Passover for Jews, their liberation from slavery in Egypt. 

He said to the presiding rabbi, this will be a moment that I always remember.  And he addressed the congregation by saying shalom.  This on the eve of the celebration of Passover by Jews.  The pope will say Mass on Sunday.  It‘s a time of faith to remember that freedom is so important to all of us and that we have a high responsibility to look after each other.  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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