updated 5/2/2008 11:35:12 AM ET 2008-05-02T15:35:12

Guests: Joe Scarborough, Eugene Robinson, Michael Smerconish, John Harwood

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, reconstructing the Wright/Obama relationship.  Was the debate about how to distance the candidate from the pastor personal or political?  And is it the superdelegates who really want to know, as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on. 

Welcome to THE RACE again.  I‘m David Gregory.  And you have found it, the stop for the fast-paced, the bottom line, and every point of view in the room. 

Tonight, is Obama any closer to shaking free from what he called the perpetual distraction of the Wright controversy?  We have our eyes on the supers in the new polling out tonight from Indiana and North Carolina. 

At half past, the bigger picture, and three questions, including this:

why is there so much viewer interest in the Wright story?  Is it simply soap opera or substance? 

The bedrock of the program, as you know, is a panel that comes to play.  And with us tonight, host of MSNBC‘s “MORNING JOE,” Joe Scarborough.  I haven‘t seen him in too long.

Joe, good to see you sitting there.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, “MORNING JOE”:  Hey.  Thanks.

GREGORY:  “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson is here as well, also an MSNBC political analyst.  Radio talk show host Michael Smerconish is with us tonight as well, and John Harwood of CNBC and “The New York Times.”

We begin as we do every night with everyone‘s take on the most important political story of the day.  It‘s “The Headline.” 

I‘ll start us off here tonight.

My headline, “Wright Relates to the Supers.”  As we examine the fallout, we have to take note of the gains that Obama has made sifting through the Wright rubble.  Today, former Clinton supporter from Indiana, former DNC chairman Joe Andrews, switched sides and now is backing Obama.  Here‘s how he explained it earlier today on MSNBC. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE ANDREWS, FMR. DNC CHAIRMAN:  How he‘s hasn‘t the controversy over his former minister and maybe even more importantly the controversy around getting rid of the gas tax, these are things that are not politically expedient, they‘re clearly not things that can help him, but I think they‘ve defined his character.  And for me, that was what was important. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Big news there.  Obama‘s big pickup overshadowed the fact that Clinton herself picked up four superdelegates today.  So here‘s the overall scoreboard.

Clinton, 272; Obama at 249.  But here‘s some additional numbers that you should think about, an additional breakdown of the numbers. 

Since Pennsylvania, Obama has picked up 12 supers to 10 for Hillary Clinton.  He‘ll get a few more from Illinois coming up by the weekend.  That will bring his total to 1,510. 

Since March 4th, junior Super Tuesday, Obama‘s picked up 36 to 12.  Since Super Tuesday February 5th, on the superdelegate category, Obama‘s picked up 79 to Clinton‘s 19.  And we have not seen any switching of sides to Clinton from Obama. 

Not that the Wright issue is going away through all of this.  This morning on “Today,” Obama explained why it took so long to cut ties to his pastor. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  This is somebody who had married Michelle and I, who had baptized our children.  When those first snippets came out, I thought it was important to give him the benefit of the doubt, because if I wanted to be politically expedient, I would have distanced myself and denounced him right away.  Right?  That would have been the easy thing to do. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  It got easier to denounce Wright, perhaps, when as “The New York Times” reported this morning, undecided superdelegates began to voice their concern to the Illinois senator. 

A lot to talk about tonight.

Michael Smerconish, what‘s your headline? 

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Hey, David.

“Six Days and Counting With No End in Sight.”  And by that I mean that, much to the consternation of many in this country, America is enthralled with the Reverend Wright aspect of this campaign. 

I think I have an explanation for that.  And the explanation is that, unlike that which drives gas prices or that which causes the budget deficit, or how you solve the budget deficit, this is an issue we all understand, regardless of what side we come down on.  I‘ve been equating it with Watergate, a burglary.  I get what that‘s all about, as opposed to Whitewater.

I‘m still not sure what Whitewater was all about.  And consequently, it‘s going to continue to go on and dominate the campaign for a long time. 

GREGORY:  But the big question is, are we learning something about the candidate?  Are we learning something that‘s relevant to the campaign, or is it all sensation? 

SMERCONISH:  I think it‘s a combination of both, but I think that associations are relevant.  I think that one‘s past is relevant, and I think that those with whom you associate relevant. 

So—and by the way, I‘m not saying that it bodes poorly for Obama, because I think there‘s a factor here where Senator Obama is now the recipient of sorrow.  People are feeling sorry for him.  Among others, Bill O‘Reilly. 

GREGORY:  All right.

Joe Scarborough, your headline tonight?

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, the headline is “Reverend Wright is Hurting Barack Obama, But Not as Much as the Elite Charge.” 

If you go inside the NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll that just came out, Reverend Wright is hammering him on the issues.  About a third of Americans are less likely to vote for him because of Reverend Wright.  A third of Americans also concerned that Barack Obama is elitist. 

This is a serious problem.  Think back to 1988, when you had George Herbert Walker Bush able to define Michael Dukakis, a first generation immigrant, as an elitist, a serious problem for the Obama campaign.  And as we move forward, his biggest problem is this, Americans think he is more out of touch with them than John McCain, despite the fact that John McCain represents a party that is about negative 20 against the Democrats in head-to-head match-ups.

And his biggest challenge going forward, in front of Tim, in front of others—Tim this Sunday, but in front of others moving forward—is explaining, why is he so shocked?  What has happened over the past two weeks that has shocked Barack Obama?  What has he heard that he didn‘t hear over 20 years sitting in the pews? 

GREGORY:  Right.  Over 20 years in a relationship. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Nobody buys that. 

GREGORY:  All right.

Gene Robinson, hit me with it tonight. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  My headline, David, “Barack Obama Revs away from Reverend Wright and Pulls Up at The Pump.”

Trying to change the subject, Obama is finally hitting Hillary Clinton back on gas prices and her stance in favor of suspending the gas tax. 

Let‘s take a listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  So I‘m here to tell you the truth.  We could suspend the gas tax for six months, but that‘s not going to bring down gas prices long term.  You‘re going to save about $25, $30, or half a tank of gas. 

That‘s typical of how Washington works.  There‘s a problem, everybody‘s upset about gas prices.  Let‘s find some short-term quick fix that we can say we did something even though we‘re not really doing anything.  We cannot deliver on a better energy policy unless we change how business is done in Washington. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBINSON:  This gets back to a theme that‘s maybe Barack Obama‘s favorite, the theme of a new style of politics, a new way of doing business in Washington. 

GREGORY:  Right.

ROBINSON:  Hillary Clinton, he accuses, is doing nothing but pandering by saying let‘s suspend the gas tax.  Economists agree it wouldn‘t have any impact. 

GREGORY:  Gene, this strikes me as kind of his reaction to his bowling in Pennsylvania.  Pandering is not working, he‘s going to try to stay above, go back to the original Obama brand.

John Harwood, your headline tonight? 

JOHN HARWOOD, “NEW YORK TIMES”:  My headline, David, is “Hidden Democratic Assets.” 

While we pick over every detail of the Clinton/Obama fight, it‘s easy to overlook the Democrats‘ larger strategic advantage in this race, but see it in these number from the NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll -- 27, 63, 81.  Twenty-seven percent of the voters approve of George Bush, that‘s all, 27 percent have a favorable view of the Republican Party.  That‘s very paltry. 

Sixty-three percent give thumbs down to Bush on Iraq.  And 81 percent believe that we‘re in a recession right now. 

GREGORY:  Right.

HARWOOD:  Now, those numbers don‘t mean John McCain can‘t win.  His personal image is strong and he‘s running even with the other Democrats.  But those number are going to matter a lot more after the Democratic primary is over, and the party has a good reason to think it could add up to a lotto for them in November. 

GREGORY:  All right.

A lot more to get to.  We‘re going to have a second war room tonight, looking at the war room numbers from the NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll as well. 

Coming up, when we come back after a break, how is the Wright controversy impacting Hillary Clinton?  Is she taking advantage?  We‘re going to show you the latest polls from North Carolina. 

Plus, what Clinton said when she was asked if she felt bad for Barack Obama.  How is she capitalizing on the weakest stretch of Obama‘s campaign?

Later, don‘t forget, your turn to have a play date with the panel. 

Call us -- 212-790-2299.  The e-mail, Race08@msnbc.com.

RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE comes right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back. 

Taking you inside the Clinton war room tonight.  How will Hillary Clinton take advantage of the Reverend Wright controversy?  We‘re going to take a look at what she‘s saying, the polls, and what the superdelegates are making of all this.

Back with us, Joe, Gene, Michael and John. 

First up, Hillary Clinton responded to the Reverend Wright controversy with Bill O‘Reilly last night on Fox News.  Take a listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O‘REILLY, FOX NEWS:  I feel sorry for Barack Obama on this one.  All right?  I feel sorry for him.  His whole campaign has been derailed by some loony guy.

Isn‘t that amazing? 

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, he spoke out forcefully yesterday and...

O‘REILLY:  Do you feel sorry for Obama? 

CLINTON:  Well, I think that he made his views clear finally that he disagreed, and I think that‘s what he had to do. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Morning Joe, she‘s a guest often n your program.  What was she actually thinking and not saying? 

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  She wanted to jump up and down and say, I would have never stayed in that church.  That preacher hates—but she can‘t do it, and she can‘t do it because Barack Obama finally handled the Reverend Wright controversy the way he needed to do it inside the Democratic Party. 

This issue is dead as far as Democrats go.  Hillary Clinton can say nothing else.  Obama‘s opponents can say nothing else.  This now moves on to a general election, but, yes, of course Hillary wanted to say more.  But at this point it‘s piling on, and I think most Democrats says the issue is dead and buried. 

GREGORY:  John Harwood, does she also have to be worried about the fact that if it goes down the line, if she can keep contesting this nomination, she needs that African-American vote, she‘s got enough problems there already? 

HARWOOD:  No question about it.  Now, I want to know, David, how sorry Bill O‘Reilly really is.  I‘m not so sure about that. 

(LAUGHTER)

HARWOOD:  But look...

GREGORY:  All right.  We told you yesterday how tight it is in Indiana, a virtual tie between Obama and Clinton, and now there‘s some new numbers coming out of North Carolina.

Show these up on the screen.

According to the Insider Advantage Poll, Clinton leads Obama 44-42.  And Mason-Dixon/WRAL in Raleigh/Durham poll, has Obama leading Clinton 49 - 42. 

So, the question is, do we see any movement here that suggests that Hillary Clinton is actually able to close the gap, Eugene? 

ROBINSON:  I think there‘s definitely been a tightening.  If you kind of take the totality of the polls, you see a race that was, you know, 15, 16 points, that seems to have—the lead seems to have shrunk to single digits.  You know, the poll that shows Clinton ahead is clearly an outlier compared to the other polls.  But I think we do probably have some tightening, and it‘s undecideds making up their minds.  In previous primaries, they‘ve tended to break toward Hillary Clinton in many states.

GREGORY:  Hey, Smerc, look at this.  If you look at another big factor here, it‘s the number of undecideds in the upcoming primaries, and take a look at these numbers that we‘ll put on the screen for you.  They could shake things up. 

According to the North Carolina Insider Advantage Poll, 14 percent undecided, and in Indiana, 21 percent of voters claim they are up for grabs in either camp.  Also look at this—Independent voters, according to the latest NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll, 46 percent of Independents are leaning toward Obama, while 43 percent leaning toward Clinton. 

She‘s closing the gap there. 

SMERCONISH:  She is closing the gap.  And I‘ve been wrong in prior appearances in telling you that there are no undecided voters when Senator Clinton‘s name is on the ballot, because I think that‘s now belied by the data that you‘ve just shown.  And I think it is an effect of this Jeremiah Wright controversy and some of the related issues that are surrounding it. 

And by the way, she did a heck of a job on that O‘Reilly interview just by taking the interview. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Wow.  Yes.

SMERCONISH:  And did you notice that she dropped the name Ronald Reagan into those sound bites? 

SCARBOROUGH:  And I‘ll tell you what—yes, boy, that makes Gene really happy.  I‘ll tell you what else, David.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  She went nuts when Barack Obama did that, but never mind. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I know.  That‘s right.

But time and time again, election and election again, caucus and caucus again, over the past three or four months, they always break Hillary‘s way the last couple of days.  So the fact she‘s that close in North Carolina, the fact she‘s that close in Indiana, the fact there‘s that many undecided voters, and Obama‘s still trying to find his footing, I think it‘s bad news for Obama in the short run. 

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  The only two states where they broke Obama‘s way were Virginia and South Carolina.  They‘re on opposite sides of North Carolina.  So, you know, maybe—so I‘m not sure we know exactly what‘s happening. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Let‘s move on to favorability ratings. 

Obama‘s negatives rising from 32 to 37 since last month, while his positive rating takes a dip from 49 to 46. 

The flip side of that, Clinton‘s positives up 37-42, while her negatives are down 48, last month, now to 44.

So, again, superdelegates are looking at this, Joe, and do they see a Rust Belt match-up in Indiana from Pennsylvania? 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, I really do think—and I don‘t want to overstate what Barack Obama has done this week.  I really do think talking to superdelegates and Congress and across the country, they‘re breathing a sigh of relief, because they believe that Barack Obama probably has this locked up.  They‘re breathing a sigh of relief because of what he did with Jeremiah Wright.

I will tell you, even if he loses Indiana and North Carolina, they won‘t be happy, but they will think he‘s less damaged.  And he‘s so much closer now to getting the nomination because of these superdelegates than he was just three days ago. 

(CROSSTALK)

HARWOOD:  If he loses Indiana and North Carolina, he‘s got a big problem. 

GREGORY:  A big problem.

All right.  Finally, we‘re talking about how Clinton is handling all this right now, how she‘s taking advantage of Obama‘s distraction with Reverend Wright.  She‘s getting out in front of support of a gas tax holiday. 

“The New York Times” reporting, and you heard Barack Obama in a clip earlier saying, that the break would only end up saving about $30 for the average American filling up at the pump, plus encouraging people to use more gasoline.  But she and John McCain are heavily promoting the policy, while Barack Obama and the White House, by the way, staunchly opposed.  Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, also opposed.

Clinton even pumped gas for the first time in years in Indiana yesterday during a ride-a-long with a local metal sheet worker on his way to work at the plant.  Is it the ultimate political pandering, or is this a wise move for Clinton?

Smerc, you go inside here, a little bit of pandering may not hurt when this is a hand-to-hand combat fight for voters in a tight state like Indiana. 

SMERCONISH:  I wish she had filled my tank today, because it cost me $68 in Philly, OK? 

The answer to your question as to how she‘s handling all of it, she‘s handling it masterfully by talking about the gas pump issues instead of Reverend Wright, because there are so many surrogates out there doing the dirty work for her, she need not do that.  So I think she‘s doing exactly what she needs to do.  He can‘t move on from this issue, she can. 

GREGORY:  Hey, Joe, you made an interesting point before, which is that Barack Obama is dealing with this Wright issue effectively in the Democratic Party, while Hillary Clinton this week has also been playing her best strengths in the Democratic Party.  She‘s scrappy, she‘s out there looking after the working man, concentrating on those issues, and playing to what her political identity is right now. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, think about this.  Think about how damaged she was a month ago as we were running through all of the caucuses and primaries, where she‘s losing one after another.  Everybody was thinking she‘s Nixon in 1960, her career‘s over—or ‘62, her career‘s over, and she just keeps winning and she just keeps winning. 

GREGORY:  Right.

SCARBOROUGH:  And the way the Clintons think, they‘re not just thinking about Denver.  They‘re thinking about 2012.  And if Hillary wins a string of these and still comes up short, she‘s in a powerful position in 2012.

They‘re thinking Ronald Reagan now, 1976.  We lose in the short run, we win in the long term. 

One final think about the gas tax.  “The New York Times” may not like it, economists may not like it, elites may not like it, but Bill Clinton always knew that the most important thing for his approval ratings, gas prices.  He passed that on to Hillary. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Got to take a break here.

“Smart Takes” coming up.  Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re keeping it moving with “Smart Takes” here. 

On the race tonight, two topics—Obama and Wright, as well as the war in Iraq. 

First “Smart Take” from Robert Novak today.  In “The Washington Post,” the columnist taking a look at why Reverend Wright could be kryptonite for the Obama campaign. 

To the quote board.

“If Obama is seen as not just a presidential candidate who happens to be black, but as a black candidate in the mold of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, he faces a difficult struggle in the general election against John McCain even if he bests Hillary Clinton for the nomination.  Nobody knows whether Obama‘s performance elicited permanent damage on his candidacy.  The difficulty is Jeremiah Wright, thrown under the bus by his former parishioner, can reemerge at any time he wishes and renew discussion of the Democratic presidential frontrunner‘s real identity.”

How big of a danger, Eugene Robinson? 

ROBINSON:  You know, I don‘t think—I don‘t think we can say this is a huge danger in the general election.  I tend to agree with Joe that the issue is pretty much done for the Democratic primary in that Hillary Clinton can‘t really attack him on it in a sort of fulsome way.  And so, you know, I think it probably doesn‘t affect him that badly. 

In the general election, the larger issue may well be the question of whether he seems to some voters too snooty and highfalutin. 

GREGORY:  But Smerc, the question is whether Reverend Wright puts him back on the issue.  He knows more about the relationship than he‘s even saying so far. 

SMERCONISH:  And let me break a little news.  I can tell you that Reverend Wright is already booked to preach in my hometown here in Philadelphia at the end of this month and again in June.  So it is going to happen, and Novak is very insightful when he says he could reemerge. 

He will be reemerging.  And like it or not, there will be camera crews in tow.  So, he‘s there.  He‘s a part of the landscape from now until November. 

GREGORY:  All right.

The second “Smart Take” tonight is about Iraq.

McClatchy reports that as surge forces withdraw, U.S. troop deaths are rising.

To the quote board.

“April has been the bloodiest month for Americans in Iraq since September.  With 44 troops killed, compared to 39 in March, 29 in February, the number of U.S. troop deaths is rising even as the U.S. has begun withdrawing troops that had been sent to Iraq as part of the so-called surge has some officials fretting that the U.S. and Iraqi forces cannot sustain what had been billed as security gains without the additional forces.  So far, three of the five surge brigades have left.”

John Harwood, how big of an issue does Iraq become once we get past some of the sensational stuff, some of the soap opera as we get into the fall? 

HARWOOD:  It‘s going to be a big issue, not quite as big as the economy, given how people feel about that.  But I was struck by the numbers in this NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll, David, when we asked, “Do you agree with David Petraeus that we should have a pause in the withdrawal of troops?”  A majority of Americans said yes, they agree with Petraeus, stop pulling out. 

GREGORY:  Right.

HARWOOD:  So, if that‘s their response to rising violence, that‘s not such a bad headline for John McCain. 

GREGORY:  Joe, your take on this in terms of how defining this becomes. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, nobody knows how Iraq plays.  If they did, if the conventional wisdom was right, John McCain would be behind by 14 percentage points on who Americans trust more on the issue of Iraq. 

But actually, Iraq is one of the few issues that he wins on. 

Americans know we can‘t withdraw overnight.  They know that that‘s a farce. 

And so when Democrats step forward and try to sell that to their base, it really undercuts.  We don‘t know what‘s going to happen though in the next six months.  Al-Sadr and radical Shiites are the ones that are causing this.  Does John McCain and Barack Obama, do they really want to try to figure out who‘s going to win this election based on what‘s going on over there? 

GREGORY:  Right.  Right.

There‘s a lot of uncertainty, and I think you‘re right.  I think Democrats may see some shifting sand here underneath their feet when it comes to how they approach a withdrawal, should they get to the White House. 

We‘ve got to take another break here. 

Straight up at the half hour, we‘re coming back.  We take a look at the bigger picture in this race.  Three big questions about Reverend Wright and beyond the politics as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE continues. 

Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Good to have you along with us.  Three question time; as we take a bigger look at this campaign.  We focus on the on-going fallout from the Wright controversy.  Still with us, Joe Scarborough, host of “MORNING JOE:

here on MSNBC, the “Washington Post‘s” Eugene Robinson, also an MSNBC political analyst, radio talk show host from Philly, Michael Smerconish, and John Harwood of cNBC and the “New York Times.” 

First up, the Wright controversy exploded this week, but the political threat he posed has been building for more than a year.  The “New York Times” reported today it started when Obama slighted his former pastor disinviting him to give the opening prayer at his presidential announcement last February.  Obama told Wright he didn‘t want him out front, because of his, quote, rough sermons.  But Obama didn‘t really break with Wright until this past Tuesday.  On the Today program, Obama defended that decision to wait.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I think the sequence of events was the right one, because this is somebody who had married Michelle and I, who had baptized our children.  When those first snippets came out, I thought it was important to give him the benefit of the doubt, because if I wanted to be politically expedient, I would have distanced myself and denounced him right away.  Right?  That would have been the easy thing to do. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Question one, as we take a step back: was Obama‘s decision to distance himself from Reverend Wright more personal or was it political?  Smerc, take it on. 

SMERCONISH:  It was initially a political decision.  I read that Times coverage and I thought it was excellent.  When he picks up the telephone call the night before the announcement, when Reverend Wright has already been pre-booked to deliver the invocation, that was a political calculus.  More recently, I think it was personal, because I‘m sure that Barack Obama, like the rest of us, is sitting there wondering what in the world accounts for him accepting that invitation to the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP or the National Press Club.  Surely, he knew he was going to become fodder for this campaign. 

GREGORY:  Gene, hear me out on this.  Here‘s a situation; they knew that he‘s a potential political liability.  He knows what the sermons are like and how it could come across.  But remember when Barack Obama is announcing for the presidency, it‘s a much different political landscape for him.  African-Americans, at that point, are not squarely behind him.  They are skeptical about whether whites will actually vote for him.  They are, in fact, favoring Hillary Clinton.  Could he have possibly, as a political matter, made a clean break from Reverend Wright at that point in time if he wanted to? 

ROBINSON:  I think you‘re absolutely right.  I do not think he could have given the statement he gave the other day, completely distancing himself with Reverend Wright.  If he had done that, I think he would have suffered at that point with African American voters, who would have wondered about him, even if they didn‘t particularly know or like Reverend Wright.  I think it would have made it harder for him to consolidate the African-American vote the way he has. 

And I think both decisions were a mixture of the political and the personal.  Clearly, the other day, his decision to really cut the ties was a political decision, but he sounded hurt.  He sounded hurt and offended personally that Reverend Wright had resurfaced in a way that could do nothing but hurt his campaign. 

SCARBOROUGH:  What did he hear, though, between the Philadelphia speech and what he said a couple days ago.  In Philadelphia, he said I can no more disown this man than I can disown the black community or my white grand mother.  He knew what Reverend Wright was about.  He knew about his, quote, rough sermons.  What was new? 

ROBINSON:  What he heard, Joe, was the guy coming back out and booking a media tour, the likes of which -- 

SCARBOROUGH:  But his objection, supposedly, was to the content.  He said, this is not the man I knew 20 years ago.  Yes, it was.  He knew about his rough sermons a year ago. 

(CROSS TALK) 

ROBINSON:  The man he knew 20 years ago wouldn‘t have done that to his parishioner.  I think that‘s part of the point. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Barack Obama claims it‘s content, not a personal slight. 

GREGORY:  Let me wedge in here.  I think the point that Joe is raising is really important.  Do people look at this and see personal anguish?  Do they identify with it, John?  Or do they see political calculation?  The Times coverage today included this very important fact that I mentioned at the outset; undecided super delegates started calling Barack Obama and saying, you‘re facing a test here.  You need distance from this guy.  And he made a decision. 

HARWOOD:  They undoubtedly, David, see both of those things, personal anguish and political calculation.  None of this would be happening if Barack Obama wasn‘t running for president.  Now that he‘s in some difficulty, he needed to do this.  But look, I want to say something that Bob Novak, a smart take you mentioned earlier—to say that Barack Obama would have trouble winning the election is he was perceived like Al Sharpton is like say, yes, if Hillary Clinton is believed to be a witch and John McCain is believed to be senile, they‘re going to have problems too.  But those things are not true.

Barack Obama is not Al Sharpton.  He cannot be made into Al Sharpton, no matter how many times You play those Reverend Wright clips. 

GREGORY:  Let me get to question number two; in the midst of the Wright controversy, Team Obama was dealt another blow today.  New general election match ups that show Clinton the only Democrat beating McCain in two swing states.  Florida, Clinton beats McCain 49 to 41.  McCain beats Obama 44 to 43.  In Ohio, Clinton beats McCain 48-38.  McCain beats Obama 43-42.  Couple these polls with the tightening polls in North Carolina, Indiana, and Clinton starts to get a little bit of super delegate movement in her favor.  Has the Wright controversy cast doubt on Obama‘s aura of inevitability, Joe? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Sure, up until a couple days ago.  But again, just like the “New York Times” reported, as you mentioned, a lot of super delegates were concerned.  They breathed a sigh of relief when he came out and talked about it.  Think about how long we have now until the general election.  This issue is dead for Democrats.  In the end, in the super delegates, between now and the general election, six months, four days; you know how long that is? 

Six months and four days ago, going backwards, was the beginning of November.  Rudy Giuliani was the presumptive Republican nominee.  This stuff is going to be cleaned out just like in 2000.  We heard George Bush going and talking to the—what is it—I can‘t believe—the Greenville South Carolina church—

ROBINSON:  Bob Jones. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Bob Jones, that was going to be the big issue in the fall!  Nobody mentioned the word Bob Jones four months before the election. 

GREGORY:  It‘s a smart point.  It‘s a smart point.  Gene, one of the issues here is that this has been so litigated, in such an amplified way, this is an argument that Democrats made about a bruising primary actually being good.  If Republicans try to put this back on the agenda, does it get the same kind of traction it‘s got now? 

ROBINSON:  It can‘t get quite as much traction, because we‘ve had so much of it.  But look, this could be an issue in the general election.  Reverend Wright could resurface and book himself another media tour, and the Republicans certainly, if not McCain, some 527, or some state party, will make a huge issue of it or try to. 

I do think it loses some of its bite when you‘ve heard it and heard it and heard it again.  I think Obama has time to demonstrate he‘s neither Al Sharpton nor Jeremiah Wright.  And we‘ll see what happens. 

GREGORY:  Let me get to Number three; Barack Obama says we won‘t know the full impact of Wright until voters weigh in on Tuesday.  But on Today, he took a dig at the media, saying he believes his recent troubles are mostly media driven.  It was the implication.  Listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Two months now, or a month and a half, in which you‘ve had the Reverend Wright controversy.  You‘ve had the issue of my comments in San Francisco that have been magnified pretty heavily. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  One begets the other in terms of coverage and attention, but this is a hot story.  We all know it.  It‘s dominated the coverage.  Voters are asking Obama about Wright on the campaign trail, even when he‘s selecting his own events.  Judging by our in box, it‘s certainly a topic that people want to talk about.  Smerc will amplify on that in just a second.  Third second today, so why have people responded to this Wright story?  Michael, take it on. 

SMERCONISH:  Well, I think the media are playing the hits.  I‘m mindful of the fact that ABC was thrown under the bus for the way in which Stephanopoulos and Gibson questioned the candidates for the first 40 minutes, and yet nobody remembers it drew the highest ratings of any of the 21 debates so far.  I can tell you, as one who answers the phone for a living and takes calls all day long, this is what people want to talk about. 

The answer to your question, David, is because, regardless of what side of the fence we come down on, we get it.  We understand it.  It‘s not one of those complicated issue that surrounds the campaign.  I want to go back briefly, on this issue, to what Gene just said; we‘re all talking about the potential that this could come back to bite those who raise it in the fall.  I think it could come back to bite those who continue to raise it in the next few weeks.  Already, I‘m seeing a factor of people who say, man, I‘ve had heard enough of this Jeremiah Wright thing.  Give the guy a break.  It‘s not what he said.  It‘s what the pastor said.  Get off his back. 

HARWOOD:  I thought Michael said it is like Watergate. 

SMERCONISH:  It is like Watergate in the sense that you get it, you understand it, is what I‘m saying.  It‘s not like Whitewater.  What the hell was that?  Watergate was a burglary.

SCARBOROUGH:  The thing is, David, you have Barack Obama going on, acting kind of smug on TV, going I can‘t believe—well, you know what?  The issue is not Reverend Wright.  The issue is how he responds to Reverend Wright.  The issue is the elitist comments.  It‘s how he doesn‘t respond to the comments.  The issue is not the dumb question about the flag.  The question is how he flusters the dumb question about the flag. 

He has bobbled these issues around for the past month and paid for it.  You know what, if they‘re dumb issues, that means dumb issues are easy to brush away.  He‘s finally finding his footing, but this ain‘t the media‘s fault.  It‘s his fault. 

HARWOOD:  Joe is exactly right.  The problem for Barack Obama is not the media coverage.  It‘s that he‘s lost three big primaries in a row.  That‘s why he‘s got to prove himself next Tuesday.  He‘s got to win North Carolina.  If he can win Indiana, he can shut down Hillary Clinton‘s effort to come back.  If he doesn‘t do that, problems. 

GREGORY:  All right, got to take a break.  Coming up, the new NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll shows John McCain‘s presidential bid could be hurt by President Bush‘s low approval ratings. 

Later in the show, your turn to play with the panel; one viewer wants to know, are Clinton and Obama too bitter to get on a ticket together?  We‘re coming right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back.  Special war room tonight.  We go back inside the numbers of our new NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll.  Some fascinating results.  The first theme; John McCain tied with President Bush; is it a liability?  Look at the poll numbers.  I‘m going to go through a few of them here to build this case, and then we‘ll get the panel to weigh in.  The new NBC poll numbers could spell trouble; 43 percent see McCain‘s alignment with Bush‘s policies as more of a concern than Clinton changing positions on issues or Obama‘s association with Reverend Wright.  This is called perspective. 

Take a look at the president‘s job approval ratings, 66 percent of those polled say they disapprove of the job that Bush is doing.  Just 27 percent approve.  Eighty one percent of those polled in our survey say that the United States is indeed in a recession, and 73 percent say the country is headed off on the wrong track.

Defining issue for McCain, given his proximity to Bush.  John Harwood, what do you may of it? 

HARWOOD:  Look, he‘s got a problem there.  Maybe we‘ll see a press conference from McCain soon, saying, you know, I‘ve known this guy for 20 years.  I just didn‘t know he had these kind of views, on the economy, views on the war.  It shocked me.  But he‘s going to have to deal with that.  That‘s the issue that he‘s going to have to deal with all campaign long. 

Michael was talking about having to deal with Wright all the way through November.  You can bet that John McCain is going to have to deal with George Bush all the way through. 

GREGORY:  What do you think, Joe? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, Reverend Wright may go away, George Bush isn‘t going to go away.  Look at these numbers in the new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll you just showed; stunning, 27 percent approval rating.  He‘s getting into Jimmy Carter territory and Harry Truman territory.  We know what happened in ‘52 and 1980.  But more than that, the Republican party is such a damaged brand.  They‘re looking like the Whigs looked in 1856. 

Seriously, please, somebody on this panel, name me one new Republican idea that the Congress—Republicans in Congress or the national committee have generated over the past two or three years.  There‘s nothing. 

SMERCONISH:  It‘s been downhill since Joe left the Congress. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I didn‘t want to say that, but seriously -- 

GREGORY:  I want to remind people that we had a great show that night when the Whigs really deconstructed there. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And you predicted it, Gregory. 

GREGORY:  That‘s right.  Let me look at these numbers here.  We talked about values last night on the program and whether the candidates reflect voters‘ values.  This is an advantage for John McCain.  Voters identity, now 54 say yes, identify with his values, no 35 percent.  Then you look at the Democrats; just 46 percent say this about Clinton, that they identify with her values, 46 no.  For Obama 45 yes, 46 no.  That‘s down from his previous totals. 

Smerconish, this is an advantage.  This is the McCain story, the brand, the heroism.  This is all coming into play here, despite the trouble that Joe described among the Republicans.  . 

SMERCONISH:  And obviously inherent in those numbers that you first referenced is a recognition by the American people that while he agrees with the president on a whole host of issues, he is his own man and he has cut his own path.  On this value issue, what I find significant, different survey, “New York Times” today, front page, does the candidate share the values of most Americans?  Senators Obama and Clinton, the exact same number, 78 percent. 

Yet then when you the ask are they patriotic, there‘s a big disconnect, and Hillary comes out with better numbers.  The lesson I think is that some of those urban legends that circulate on the Internet, like the flag salute, when in fact it was the national anthem, are catching up with him.  I think that‘s unfortunate because many of them are untrue. 

GREGORY:  John Harwood, the Republicans at some level want to make this a values debate if they can.  The Democrats will make this a direction of the country debate, an economic debate, an Iraq debate.  Who wants change? 

HARWOOD:  Yes, but look I think they want to make this campaign as much about John McCain as they can.  John McCain, as you mentioned, David, has a great brand.  He‘s a war hero.  People like him.  He‘s funny.  All these things are big assets, and ways for him to separate himself from that very damaged Republican brand. 

ROBINSON:  I think Obama and Clinton have both anticipating the values issue, too.  I think, frankly, either is prepared to go head to head with John McCain in a general election on values. 

GREGORY:  I‘ve got a couple more numbers I want to get to here.  We‘re taking a look at who leads among the independents.  So McCain leads Obama 46-35.  Obama is losing ground here since March, when they were tied at 37.  McCain also beating Clinton among independents, 46-32.  She‘s down, 31-47 last month.  So the question here, Smerc, do you think her decision to go on O‘Reilly, do you think she‘s trying to reach independent voters with that move?  How are they making determinations about what independents want at this stage?

SMERCONISH:  My hunch is that she was trying to reach Reagan Democrats by going on a show like O‘Reilly‘s, not necessarily the independents.  I see this from my small perch in Philadelphia, where individuals look at a guy like me, ad they say, well, after him, you have Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh.  Do we really want to go on his show.  They make a huge mistake in prejudging me.  I think the delay in putting her on that show was a mistake.  It was a smart move.  He treated her well.  She looked good, yet she made all her points. 

GREGORY:  Final poll number here.  I think this is important.  We remember Iraq.  How do voters respond?  Fifty five percent say that indeed the U.S. should remove most troops by 2009, where 40 percent say that the U.S. should remain in Iraq until the situation is stable.  Joe, again, you look at this, 55 percent, a majority here, but a pretty robust 40 percent saying stay until the situation is stable.  Are you reading something into that? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Please, please find me any consistency in any polls that have been taken over Iraq in the past six months. 

GREGORY:  No, no, Joe, you know what?  That is stable since November of ‘07. 

SCARBOROUGH:  No, I‘m talking about going inside the polls.  You look at that number and then you look at another number that says most Americans agree with General Petraeus; we don‘t need to bring troops out of there.  Then you look at a Pew poll that says a majority of Americans think we can, quote, win in Iraq.  It‘s up and down. 

Here‘s the biggest problem: Americans understand that the reason why we have failed in Iraq is because we haven‘t sent enough troops over to Iraq.  The fact that Democrats are saying, let‘s pull troops out there is what they want.  But at the same time, they understand that will cause more American deaths.  It will cause more Iraqi deaths.

GREGORY:  Got to take another break here.  Play date with the panel coming up next.  Your email, your voicemail—THE RACE comes back in our remaining moments.  Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Not everywhere—I just want to remind viewers, not everywhere do you get Joe Scarborough‘s analysis on what happened to the Whigs, only on this program.  By the way, we‘re back and it‘s your turn to play with the panel. 

Back with us, Joe, Gene, Mike and John.  Sorry, Joe, where else do you get that? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Exactly.

GREGORY:  first up, Virginia in New Hampshire writes this about Obama:

“my concern is how will he handle a crisis in the White House that will affect the nation and the economy, the foreign policy, et cetera.  This Reverend Wright issue doesn‘t show you how he deals with solutions that might affect the world, just shows him denouncing a friend and a mentor.” 

I don‘t know, Gene, let me take this writer on a little bit.  This is a personal issue here at some level.  It‘s not like in the role of the presidency dealing with some of those other topics. 

ROBINSON:  No, it‘s not.  You could argue that there‘s something you could learn about Obama from this issue.  For example, if he were a president and he had a friend who was involved in some transgression, would he be quick enough to cut that person off or whatever.  You can imagine all sorts of scenarios.  But it certainly doesn‘t tell you how he would handle Iran, for example. 

GREGORY:  I do think it‘s a lot more about how can take a punch?  How does he deal with external events affecting, distracting him.  There seem to be a lot of those when you‘re running the White House.   

HARWOOD:  You know what I‘m reminded of?  Remember what happened to Lonny Guinere (ph) in the first part of the Clinton administration?  Bill and Hillary Clinton discovered suddenly that the views that Lonny Guinere had expressed were antithetical to theirs.  After initially appointing her, they un-appointed her.  I think this is a re-trace of that.  

GREGORY:  Terell in Ohio writes this: “Because of Clinton and Obama‘s bitterness towards each other, can they still be on the same ticket and why?”  Joe, anything fresh to add on this? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, they can still be on the same ticket.  If you‘re Barack Obama, though, you have to ask yourself long and hard whether you want to put somebody on the ticket who has it her best interests for you to lose in 2008 so she can win in 2012.  That being said, if you think I‘m going to lose in 2008 without her, you put her on the ticket and cross your fingers, and you do get ahead a food taster. 

GREGORY:  Faith in Houston writes this: “Hillary Clinton admitted on camera that she has not pumped gas for herself in years, but calls Obama out of touch.  If Obama was shown doing this, he would have been raked across the coals.  He would have been called an elitist.  But who can‘t pump gas?”

I don‘t know, Smerc, you know, she‘s been in public service a long time. 

SMERCONISH:  I think better is the Youtube moment that‘s circulating where she‘s struggling with the coffee machine.  Have you seen that?  That made me a lot more nervous than the gas pump.  It‘s an irrelevancy. 

ROBINSON:  The gas thing is a gender issue.  That‘s what it is.  It‘s a gender issue. 

HARWOOD:  I think they did make 20 million dollars last year. 

GREGORY:  Exactly.  Finally, Tracy in Minnesota asks this: “it was a Hillary Clinton supporter who invited Reverend Wright to the National Press Club.  Why aren‘t you questioning that this was a political attack planned to harm Barack Obama?”

You know, Joe, sometimes these questions are asked and there‘s a little bit of conspiracy.  It‘s like people who accuse the media of doing all these under-handed things.  That presumes a level of sophistication and organization that is not always there. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I always tell people, it‘s like the “Wizard of Oz” in Washington.  You could say it about the media as well as politics; you look behind the curtain, and it ain‘t all that.  In this case though, I will say that Mike Brzezinski, very early on, when this story broke, the National Press Club story broke, said to me between breaks—she said, I don‘t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I‘ll bet it was Clinton people that booked him there.  She was right.  I said, you‘re crazy.  Sure enough, she was right. 

ROBINSON:  If you were at the National Press Club in a position, and you got offered Jeremiah Wright, you probably were going to take him, right?  You‘re in the business of news.

GREGORY:  And making news.

SMERCONISH:  David, that‘s a dominant theme on talk radio, that either Senator Obama or Senator Clinton set the whole thing up.  The conspiracy theories are running rampant. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Thanks to a great panel.  I‘m David Gregory.  That does it for THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE for tonight.  Thanks for watching.  We‘re back here tomorrow, same time, same channel, 6:00 pm Eastern on MSNBC.  Don‘t go away, “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews starts right now.

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

END   

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