updated 5/5/2008 10:35:33 AM ET 2008-05-05T14:35:33

Guests:  John Harwood, Tony Blankley, Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, crunch time before next Tuesday.  Super Tuesday in the fight for the Democratic nomination.  Did Obama turn the corner this week on Reverend Wright, or are we on the eve of a turning point as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on?

Welcome again to THE RACE.  I‘m David Gregory. 

This race is just getting started.  This is crunch time this weekend.  Happy to have you.  This is your stop for the fast-paced, the bottom line, and every point of view in the room. 

Tonight, how does it all end?  What‘s the scenario?  We‘re going to take it on. 

Also, has the week turned the race into the cojones primary?  That‘s what one op-ed writer calls it today, a test of who‘s tougher.

So, who do you think won, Clinton or Obama, this week?

Inside the War Room tonight we examine the superdelegate psyche.  Could Indiana and North Carolina cause a slide toward Clinton? 

The bedrock of the show, as you know, our team of all-stars that come to play.  And with us tonight, Tony Blankley, columnist for “The Washington Times”; John Harwood, CNBC‘s chief Washington corespondent; and political writer for “The New York Times,” Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show on Air America, and an MSNBC political analyst; and Gene Robinson, columnist and associate editor for “The Washington Post.”  He, too, an MSNBC political analyst.

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 today.  My headline, “Obama‘s Wright Turn.”  Did he put the right mess behind him this week?  On the trail in North Carolina, the Illinois senator is pleading for voter turnout and tune-out on that issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  You‘re right, we‘ve had a rough couple of weeks.  I won‘t deny that.

I don‘t think that what happened with Reverend Wright is helpful.  Right?  I don‘t think there‘s any denying that.  But what I also am struck by is just how sensible the people of Indiana and the people of North Carolina and the people of the country are. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Tuesday is the test of Obama‘s tactics on Wright.  Well aware for some time about his problematic pastor, he only chose to cut the tie this week.  The new voters that he courts may see that as the old kind of politics that he decries. 

And what about African-Americans in North Carolina?  Might they may be skittish about Obama and turn out in smaller numbers?  That could have an impact. 

Whether on the pastor or on the elitist rap, Obama is in hurry of mode to relate to voters in North Carolina and Indiana.

Here, talking act his struggles. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  We‘ve struggled with paying student loans, we‘ve tried to figure out how to make sure that we have got adequate daycare.  I actually filled up my own gas tank. 

And so, a part of what we‘ve been—you know, we didn‘t recognize, I think, the caricature that was being painted of us over the last couple of weeks, and we wanted to make sure that that‘s pushed aside. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Does he have as much time to recover with the race coming to a head on Tuesday?  Obama‘s big, bad week isn‘t over yet.  It ends Sunday with a key hour, when he sits down with Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” in hopes of a winning argument for next Tuesday. 

That‘s my headline.  A lot more to come.

John Harwood, your headline tonight? 

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  David, my headline is, “Who‘s Party Is It?” 

Here‘s the key to Indiana‘s primary, which Hillary Clinton needs to win to stay in this race.  How many Democrats show up to vote?  That‘s her edge and it has been throughout the primary season. 

But Indiana has no party registration.  That means Independents and Republicans can vote.  And pollsters for both campaigns think that could be 40 percent of the turnout.  That‘s where Barack Obama does well, and one wildcard is how heavy the turnout is in the seventh congressional district around Indiana, whose incumbent member of Congress is in a primary.  He has endorsed Barack Obama. 

GREGORY:  All right.

Tony, hit me with yours tonight. 

TONY BLANKLEY, “WASHINGTON TIMES”:  My headline tonight is “The Superdelegates Are Sort of in Suspense Waiting for the Third Act of the Obama/Wright Play.”  The first act was back when Obama gave his speech in Philadelphia.  The second act was this last weekend, back and forth. 

Now, is Wright going to come back and say something for the third act? 

GREGORY:  And is the idea that somehow he may impact this once again?  He‘s not done talking about what that relationship was really like? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, we don‘t know.  But if he comes back because he‘s angry at Obama being angry at him, that could further undercut Obama in the election. 

GREGORY:  And there‘s no sense that he put this to an end, at least for Democrats.  That Obama‘s response this week put all this to an end for Democrats? 

BLANKLEY:  We don‘t know that yet.  Maybe it has, but we have to wait to find out. 

GREGORY:  Yes.  All right.

Rachel Maddow, your headline tonight?

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  My headline tonight is that “Hillary Clinton is Tuffling (ph) With Iran.” 

We all know that last week Hillary Clinton raised some eyebrows and earned some hawkishness stripes when she said this to ABC about the possibility of obliterating Iran... 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  As I say, she earned some hawkishness stripes with that comment.  She obviously raised some eyebrows among liberals and Democratic voters as well. 

But now Iran has responded by complaining formerly to the U.N. about Hillary Clinton‘s - what they character rise as a threat there.  And Ahmadinejad went so far as to say that it is not possible like a nation like America could pick somebody like Hillary Clinton, could pick a woman to be president. 

Raising eyebrows is one thing. Getting attacked by Iran is probably a political move that she never thought she‘d be lucky enough to stumble upon in this campaign. 

GREGORY:  Does it help her with some street cred with conservatives or Independents?

MADDOW:  I think this is—if you can start getting picked on by name by a country that‘s identified as an American nemesis, that‘s the sort of thing that makes you look presidential.

GREGORY:  But goes to the U.N. of all things. 

MADDOW:  And the U.N. of all things.  This is hawkishness stripes.  This is conservative...

GREGORY:  It‘s a twofer.

MADDOW:  stripes that she never thought she‘d be able to earn. 

GREGORY:  All right.

Gene Robinson, your headline tonight? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  David, my headline is that “Hillary Clinton‘s Excellent Week Doesn‘t Look to Be Enough to Change the Game.”

Hillary Clinton I think had a terrific week as a candidate.  She looked great, she sounded great, she had confidence.  Her opponent was in trouble trying to get away from—get out from under the Wright controversy. 

You know, it should have been a terrific week for her, yet she lost a little bit of ground among superdelegates.  Two former heads of the party came out for Obama.  And while the poll numbers have tightened up for her in North Carolina, she looks OK in Indiana, in the end, it doesn‘t look like she‘s going to get the big sweep of the two states that she needs to really change the game.

GREGORY:  Right.  And it does button up this segment, because just as he faces such a big test going into Tuesday, so does she.  The question that hangs over Hillary Clinton, can she capitalize on the worst period in Obama‘s campaign that we‘ve seen so far? 

Got to get a break in here. 

Up next, we head into the War Room for a closer look at Clinton and Obama‘s final battle plans heading into North Carolina and Indiana, and a very busy weekend.  That‘s why tonight‘s show matters so much.

Plus, could Republicans swing the Indiana primary?  And is Rush Limbaugh‘s so-called Operation Chaos really prolonging the Democratic race? 

The War Room coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back.  Time to go inside the War Room. 

Ninety-six hours until the polls close in North Carolina and Indiana Tuesday night.  But really, who‘s counting? 

Obama skipping between the states, while the Clintons crisscross North Carolina today.  And a race against time to close the gap. 

Back with us here tonight, Tony, John, Rachel and Gene. 

First up, the latest polls out of North Carolina show Clinton narrowing the gap to single digits.  She‘s now trailing by seven, 51-44. 

Obama‘s still dominating among black voters.  Take a look at this.  Eighty-eight percent of black voters prefer Obama to Hillary Clinton, who is at just 5 percent. 

Among white voters, Clinton winning 2-1, 66 for Clinton, 30 for Obama. 

What group is most likely to be influenced by this week‘s event? 

John Harwood.  Look at the numbers.  Overall, what do you see here? 

HARWOOD:  What I see is a race that is static and has remained so.  Hillary Clinton is dominating among whites, doing especially well with those working class whites that Barack Obama is desperately been trying to raise his standing with.  It hasn‘t worked so far. 

GREGORY:  Right.

HARWOOD:  She hasn‘t made inroads with black voters, but that‘s not as consequential in this case because she‘s got more white voters to draw upon.  And as long as she can maintain that edge, she‘s going to stay alive in this race.

GREGORY:  But Rachel, one question is, how does she get beyond her base? 

MADDOW:  That‘s going to be the question for both of the candidates.  I mean, Barack Obama can‘t take comfort from looking at Hillary Clinton only getting 5 percent of the black vote.  He‘s got to make inroads into her base, she‘s got to make inroads into his.

GREGORY:  Right.

MADDOW:  I feel like they are both doing almost as best they can in terms of the imagery and the sort of photo-op stuff and trying to do that.  But both of them obviously need to be tweaking what they‘re actually saying, their message a little bit, so that it resonates more.  I don‘t think photo-ops are going to be enough.

GREGORY:  All right.

Moving on, Indiana‘s open primary rules mean Hoosier Republicans will be able to cast their ballot on Tuesday.  As one Republican Party official put it to “The Wall Street Journal” today, “When the circus is in town, people want to go to the circus.”

Obama already picking up prominent Indiana Republicans, including John Clark (ph), a top aide to Republican Governor Mitch Daniels; William Ruckelshaus, a former Nixon administration lawyer; and Jim Benem (ph), president of the state‘s National Farmers Union.

But conservative radio‘s Rush Limbaugh wants a replay of Ohio, urging voters to vote for Clinton in what he‘s calling Operation Chaos. 

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  It‘s called Operation Chaos.  The dream end. 

I mean, if people say, what‘s your exit strategery (ph), the dream end of this is that this keeps up to the convention and we have a replay of Chicago, 1968, with burning cars, protests, fires, literal riots, and all of that.  That‘s the objective here. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Tony, how real is it?  Will it have an impact? 

BLANKLEY:  Look, I think Rush‘s Operation Chaos has been fun.  I think he‘s getting—turning out some votes.  I don‘t think there‘s been an election where that number of votes has been decisive. 

You know, in Europe, this kind of strategic voting happens all the time.  And we don‘t see it much in the United States.  But it‘s very typical in France and Germany. 

GREGORY:  Yes, but the big question here is whether, on the flip side of this, Gene, Obama courting Republicans works in a state where he can get Independents and Republicans to vote in the primary. 

ROBINSON:  Yes.  I mean, it will be interesting to see if Obama‘s appeal for Independents is maintained in Indiana in the wake of the whole Wright thing and the “bitter” comments and this and that. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  You know, if he does as well with Independents as he has done in some earlier states, he could be setting pretty in Indiana.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  David...

ROBINSON:  And as far as Operation Chaos is concerned, I don‘t think we‘re going to be able to tell at the end of the day, because if Hillary Clinton wins, people kind of expect her to win.

GREGORY:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  So will the Republicans have made a difference?  I‘m not sure. 

BLANKLEY:  David...

GREGORY:  All right, John.

HARWOOD:  ... it‘s pretty clear from state after state, that if Rush Limbaugh turns out Independents and Republicans, he‘s turning out Barack Obama‘s vote.  And you know what the chances are that this convention in Denver is going to be like Chicago ‘68?  Zero.

GREGORY:  OK.

HARWOOD:  Zero.

GREGORY:  Next up, the Clinton war room may have found its sweet spot for Bill Clinton after all.  As MSNBC‘s “First Read” put it today, “If Hillary Clinton pulls off an upset in North Carolina, it will be Bill‘s victory.  He may be showing the playbook for how to use the former president, send him to these Ruby Red Southern states and let him do his thing.”

On the trail in rural North Carolina today, he‘s scheduled to hit nine campaign stops on Monday.  Listen to how the Arkansas native has been working the crowd this week. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I love my duties in this campaign because I‘m basically the ambassador of Hillary‘s campaign to rural America. 

So, all these people that tell you she can‘t win, or Rush trying to get all these people to declare—to cut you off and stop your voice, don‘t you believe it.  You‘re still in the driver‘s seat. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  John Harwood, explain why he‘s well deployed in this circumstance. 

HARWOOD:  Bill Clinton can lay it on thicker than the average politician.  That‘s exactly what he was doing there, trying to convince people that others, pundits, Barack Obama‘s campaign, trying to prevent them from exercising their right to vote.  He‘s good at it, even though it may be a little over the top. 

ROBINSON:  You know, we finally know what he will be called if Hillary Clinton does win the presidency.  I think he‘ll be “First Bubba.”

GREGORY:  I thought that‘s where you were going.

All right.  Finally, inside Clinton‘s decision to sit down with Bill O‘Reilly of Fox News Channel.  Here‘s a clip from her interview on Fox last night and how she responded to cracking down on illegal immigration.

Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O‘REILLY, FOX NEWS:  Are you going to crack down on the sanctuaries?

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  No, I‘m not. 

And I‘ll tell you why.

O‘REILLY:  Whoa.

H. CLINTON:  I‘m not, because the reason why a lot of those folks do it in New York - why do police officers turn a blind eye?

O‘REILLY:  Because they want them to report crimes.

H. CLINTON:  They want them to report crimes.

O‘REILLY:  OK.  It doesn‘t override.

H. CLINTON:  Because the—well, sometimes you have two competing values.  You want to report crime, you want to protect people.  And the violence spills way beyond whatever committee...

O‘REILLY:  So why not have a federal law?  Abolish the immigration law? 

Abolish it.

H. CLINTON:  No, we‘ve got to fix it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  She‘s taking heat from her liberal base for appearing on Fox, but is this a strategy to win over those Independent voters that make up a considerable portion of Indiana and North Carolina, the electorate in both places? 

Rachel, she comes off as pretty tough and she‘s willing to take the tough questions in these interviews. 

MADDOW:  Yes.  A lot of liberals, I think, and a lot of centrists, even, thinking about the Democrats breaking their Fox News boycott.  She‘s never been on O‘Reilly before. 

I think people were really hoping that she would go on O‘Reilly and challenge him—challenge him politically, challenge Fox News generally for its role politically.  But she ended up having a very substantive back-and-forth policy discussion.  I think this would not have happened if Republicans couldn‘t vote in Indiana.  I think both she and Barack Obama are directly trying to reach Republican voters right now. 

GREGORY:  All right.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  Also trying to reach Reagan Democrats.  There are a lot of Democrats who watch Fox too.

GREGORY:  Yes.

All right.  Got to get another break here. 

Coming up next, is there a toughness gap between Clinton and Obama?  A “Smart Take” about which Democrat is winning the cojones primary. 

And later in the show, three big questions, the big picture about the race.  We‘re going to look at how the Reverend Wright controversy has changed Obama as a candidate, if at all.

The RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Time for “Smart Takes.”

We‘ve combed everything out there and we‘re bringing you the smartest, most provocative, takes on the presidential race. 

Here again, Tony, John, Rachel and Gene. 

First “Smart Take,” “Washington Post” columnist Charles Krauthammer says this week‘s Wright controversy undercuts what Obama said in his much-praised speech on race back in Philadelphia.

To the quote board.

“It‘s hard to think of an act more blatantly expedient than renouncing Wright when his show once done from the press club instead of the pulpit could no longer be conceptualized as something whites could not understand and only Obama could explain in all its complexity.  It turns out the Wright show was not that complex after all.  Everyone understands it now, even Obama.”

Is it a case, Rachel, of a flip-fop by Obama?  Is that part of the fallout here?

MADDOW:  Well, no, I don‘t think so, because I don‘t think that Obama ever made the case that Wright‘s comments were appropriate in context.  Remember that he said he disagreed with them, he renounced them, he condemned them, he said he rejected them.  All of that was part of the pre-this week Barack Obama treatment of Reverend Wright, even though he doesn‘t get much credit for it.

So, I don‘t think that Krauthammer is right in the way that he characterizes what Obama had said about Wright before. Now, renouncing him after the press club may indeed have been expedient, but I don‘t know that that means it was wrong.

GREGORY:  But Tony, there was an aspect to this as if he only really understood the depth of some of the things he said about AIDS, about America, about terrorism, for the first time at the press club when he‘s known the guy for 20 years. 

BLANKLEY:  See, I don‘t think that Obama has been speaking forthrightly about this all along because of the deep emotional attachment he has with Wright.  The only thing new coming out of Wright‘s statement was that he called Obama a politician.  And everything else we had heard. 

And it made it unlikely the way he talked at the press conference, made it unlikely that Obama hadn‘t heard this stuff over 20 years.  So I think it‘s very expedient and Krauthammer has it right. 

GREGORY:  All right.

Our second “Smart Take” tonight, “The New York Post‘s” Kirsten Powers gets tough on Obama, saying he‘s getting stomped by Hillary Clinton in what she calls the cojones primary. 

To the quote board.

“Obama likes to say, I may be skinny, but I‘m tough.  Hillary throws back shots and threatens to obliterate Iran.  He complains about tough questions from George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson.  She sits down with Bill O‘Reilly.”

“Earlier this year, chief Obama strategist David Axelrod told ‘Newsweek‘ that Obama wouldn‘t let himself be swift-boated as John Kerry was in ‘04.  When Kerry didn‘t respond to the Swift Boat ads, people wondered, if he won‘t stand up for himself, how can I trust him to stand up for me?  Now they may be asking the same thing about Obama.”

John Harwood, what do you say? 

HARWOOD:  Well, I say Hillary Clinton is plenty tough, but I really haven‘t seen evidence that Barack Obama isn‘t.  Yes, they complained about those questions from Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson, but Hillary Clinton and her campaign complained about questions before from Tim Russert and Brian Williams.  So I don‘t see anything new there.

I think these are both very strong, resilient politicians who have proven a lot in the campaign.  That‘s why they are still in it. 

GREGORY:  But Gene, it is a question of metal, ultimately, that superdelegates were looking at as well.  We know from some of the reporting this week that these undecided superdelegates called Barack Obama and said, you need a different response to this.  So his handling of this crisis, if you want to call it that, or at least a flare-up in the campaign, is something that mattered to the most important undecideds in this race. 

ROBINSON:  Well, you know, a couple of points.  First of all, these are a couple of millionaire Ivy League lawyers who are pretending that they drive pickup trucks on the weekend and throw back shots of beer all the time, which is not true.  OK?  You know, they both know what arugala is and probably like it. 

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  Although they dare not admit it now.

MADDOW:  Those are fighting words, Gene Robinson.  Those are fighting words. 

ROBINSON:  The second thing is that, in terms of his response to the Wright controversy, I‘m not quite sure what else Obama could or should have done at either juncture.  The first time, I think it would have been a potential mistake for him to completely cut ties with Reverend Wright.  I think that would have hurt him with African-American voters back then. 

GREGORY:  Right.

ROBINSON:  Remember, this was some time ago.  But when Wright surfaces again and, you know, kind of throws it in his face, you know, yes, it was expedient to cut him loose, but it was certainly necessary. 

GREGORY:  I got to get to a break here. 

That is test for next Tuesday for Clinton, can she do something to cause a superdelegate slide?  We‘ll get into more of that when we get into the three big questions about this race  coming right up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Happy to have you on our Friday edition.  This is a big weekend coming up before another Super Tuesday.  North Carolina and Indiana will be on top of it.  Now, we‘re taking a step back, looking at three questions about THE RACE.  Still with us, Tony Blankley, columnist for the “Washington Times,” John Harwood of cNBC and the “New York Times,” Air America‘s Rachel Maddow and the “Washington Post‘s” Eugene Robinson. 

First up tonight, the headline of the week was the return of Reverend Wright.  The pastor who first inspired Barack Obama to have the “Audacity of Hope” launched a publicity tour that nearly derailed Obama‘s presidential campaign.  It sparked a political fire storm, but also a personal one, forcing Obama to publicly renounce the man who married him and baptized his children. 

The campaign is still gauging the political damage in the wake of Wright.  First question today, how is Obama a different candidate after the Wright controversy.  Rachel, take it on? 

MADDOW:  I think we‘ll know more when the Wright controversy finally winds down.  I think this is absolutely still going, judging from the amount of coverage that it‘s getting.  Barack Obama‘s going to do one of two things; he‘s either going to be a more cautious politician, which I think might be fatal for him in this nominating contest, or he‘s going to be more a confrontational politician, who knows that when threats like this arise politically, he needs to get all over them, get ahead of the story, and never underestimate their staying power. 

I think, you‘re absolutely right, the point you made earlier, David, the super delegates are really looking to find out if Obama is going to be able to play political hardball.  The Wright story is the biggest example we‘ve seen of that yet.  Obviously, he hasn‘t weathered it as well as he would have hoped. 

HARWOOD:  Joe Andrew, Bill Clinton‘s former Democratic national chairman, who is a super delegate, seemed to think he did OK with it this week. 

MADDOW:  That‘s right. 

GREGORY:  Here‘s my question, John: to the extent Obama has changed it‘s in this way: thus far, he has commanded center stage in a campaign where he has provided the definition for himself.  He‘s defined not only his campaign, his candidacy, but he has set the contours, the parameters of what is a pretty phenomenal campaign.  He‘s become this phenom.  All of a sudden, he‘s in a mode—he said it at the top of the broadcast in a speech earlier today in North Carolina that he‘s got to do something about this caricature that‘s being painted of him.  He‘s been defined now.  He‘s not doing the defining. 

HARWOOD:  Yes, look, I think Tony Blankley‘s point a few minutes ago was exactly right.  Sometimes there are problems with no good solutions.  I do think, given the set of facts he had this week, Barack Obama did about as well as he could.  He got a gift from Jeremiah Wright in the sense that Jeremiah Wright smacked around Barack Obama personally.  That gave him a pretext to go hard after Wright, to smack him down in a way. 

What was different from the race speech was he didn‘t disown Jeremiah Wright, but what he did was come out and say, look, my relationship is not the same with this guy anymore.  He doesn‘t speak for me.  And he was able to more personally separate himself. 

GREGORY:  Tony, as you know, the McCain campaign is sitting back.  McCain is off this weekend.  He‘s doing a lot of watching and observing in this race.  How does he look forward and say, where is there an opportunity on this Wright business to attack Barack Obama, not just on the substance of this, but where there are some vulnerabilities that he tries to exploit? 

BLANKLEY:  I think it‘s very hard for McCain to make much news at this point.  He‘s kind of doing, in a weird way, what Obama‘s been doing, which is sitting on a lead.  Not that McCain has a lead, but he‘s been sitting around not doing too much.  Obama, I believe, going back to the last question, has been sitting on a lead.  When you do that, things happen to you.  The Wright thing happened to him because he didn‘t have his own initiative moving forward. 

GREGORY:  All right—

ROBINSON:  In a sense, this ought to theoretically liberate Obama in some way.  He actually did still have Reverend Wright somewhat joined to him.  Now he‘s able to cut him loose now and maybe, again, turn it into a Sister Soldier moment, the way Bill Clinton did in 1992. 

GREGORY:  Right.  OK, next up, Hillary Clinton has seen some traction this week in the wake of Reverend Wright and her Pennsylvania win.  Although, she didn‘t get as many super delegates as Obama did.  She has picked up a few.  Obama has picked up 13, including a Clinton defector.  For the record, Clinton has yet to convince any super delegate to jump ship from Obama.  That‘s significant. 

Second question today, How well does Clinton have to do Tuesday to force a super delegate slide her way?  Rachel, what do you say?

MADDOW:  I think, again, we‘re back to this situation where it‘s all about expectations.  Right now—it may change over the weekends with the polls.  But right now the expectation is that she will win Indiana and that he wins North Carolina.  That means in order to have a game changing moment, in order to have something really dramatic happen with the supers, one of those things has to not happen. 

I think it‘s most likely, looking at the polls right now, that she will win Indiana and he will win North Carolina.  On Wednesday, we‘ll kind of be back in the same situation we are in now, wondering when the watershed moment is going to happen. 

GREGORY:  John, we get into great competing spin here.  On the one hand, Obama has been in such a rough patch.  She‘s had so much momentum.  If she can‘t capitalize on Tuesday, coming out of Pennsylvania and the ride that he‘s had, isn‘t that a sign of weakness?  They will come back and say, are you crazy?  How could we ever be expected to win North Carolina?  Look at the demographic advantage that Obama has there. 

HARWOOD:  That is the status quo.  She is the weaker candidate in this race when you look at the throw weight of what both sides.  There are three potential outcomes, she could lose quick if she gets knocked off in both Indiana and North Carolina.  She could lose slow if there‘s a split decision and we follow form all the way through the end; the super delegates continue dribbling to Barack Obama.  Or she can turn the thing upside down.  To do that, she has to win both states on Tuesday. 

GREGORY:  Gene, is it a question of the spread?  In other words, a single digit win for Obama North Carolina, is that seen as a loss? 

ROBINSON:  Well, high single digits, low single digits?  You know, look, if North Carolina is a squeaker, I think seen as problematic for Obama.  Basically, I think, in these two states, you know, a win is a win.  These are not states where we‘re used to having a race decided.  In North Carolina and Indiana -- 

GREGORY:  Rachel, why should a win just be a win.  For Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, she did what she had to do.  She won by ten.  If she won by less than that, there would have been a lot of questions about how he was able to close the gap on her there. 

MADDOW:  I think because in Pennsylvania, we were looking at polls that were like this.  And then saying, how far down is he going to go?  In this case, the polls aren‘t that dramatic.  I think trying to pick a spread at this point—there isn‘t going to be a common wisdom on that.  I think it‘s harder to do than with Pennsylvania. 

HARWOOD:  Dude, I believe it was only 9.4 in Pennsylvania. 

GREGORY:  That‘s right.  I stand corrected.  I stand corrected. 

That‘s why you‘re here Harwood. 

Finally, big picture question at the end of the week; it‘s what any Democrat super delegate and anyone who is paying any attention to this primary season wants to know: our third question today, how does the race end?  What is the scenario?  How do you see it?  John Harwood, I‘ll start with you. 

HARWOOD:  Like I said, she could lose fast.  She could lose slow.  Or she could turn the table upside down.  I think those are the options.  Right now, we‘re on a path for Barack Obama to be nominated.  She simply has not stopped this trickle of super delegates his way.  By the time we get to the end of the primaries June, there aren‘t going to be very many of them left. 

MADDOW:  That‘s right. 

GREGORY:  Tony, we played the bit from Mark Ambider a little bit earlier.  She‘s got to really change the argument about whether he is still no longer going to be the nominee.  That‘s a big hill to climb.  Does she do it going two and zero?   

BLANKLEY:  But I don‘t think that one election makes the difference.  I think this is going to be a long drawn out process.  If Obama can staunch the bleeding, he‘s got it.  But if he keeps sliding, at some point, the Democrats are going to look very hard at how bad he looks in November.  We‘re not going to know that until June or maybe later. 

MADDOW:  I think this race ends the way that my basement floods every spring when the snow melts in Massachusetts.  What happens is you notice a little bit of a trickle.  You know there‘s been some rain.  You know the snow is melting.  All the atmospherics tell you that the basement is going to flood, but you don‘t really believe that little trickle it‘s going to be it until all of a sudden, your ankle deep in water in the basement and the sump pump is on the fritz.   

At this point, it‘s going to happen slowly.  There‘s not going to be a single moment where it all happens.  It‘s just those super delegates, two, three and four a day, that are ultimately going to produce a winner, without anybody really noticing that it was happening. 

GREGORY:  When we see this trickle, Gene, the question that comes up is do we really feel we can discern some kind of trend among the super delegates at this point?  It‘s only a trickle.  It‘s not a flood. 

ROBINSON:  Since it‘s been exclusively a trickle in one direction, sure, we can see a trend.  Because of who the super delegates are who have been trickling, yes, we see a trend. 

HARWOOD:  Watch it, man. 

ROBINSON:  It‘s clear that some large number of super delegates are

waiting to let it play out a little longer and make sure he is as viable as 

--  

BLANKLEY:  David, we have two different trends.  We have the trickle of super delegates towards Obama and we have the slow slide of Obama‘s strength in the polls.  They‘re contradictory trends. 

MADDOW:  I think the super delegates are more pronounced though.  I think the polls are still very much up and down. 

GREGORY:  Look how many undecided super delegates we still have, John.  Yes, there‘s a trend towards him, but there are more super delegates who are waiting on the sidelines, looking for some kind of cover than there are going to him.  If the Obama people had it their way, they would have the flood already.  They are telling the super delegates that the race is over.  They are not getting the traction yet. 

HARWOOD:  David, super delegates don‘t want to be out front deciding this thing if they don‘t have to.  Barack Obama—there are maybe 300 super delegates left.  She has to win such a high proportion of those when we get to the end of the primaries that it‘s just a very steep hill to climb.  She needs—Tony mentioned erosion in the polls for Obama.  She needs more erosion in the polls.  She needs it to be steeper, both in terms of her standing vis a vis Obama and his standing vis a vis John McCain. 

GREGORY:  All right, we‘re going to take a break.  Coming up, a special edition second war room on the gas tax mania, all about the fight between McCain, Clinton and Obama, what they‘re having over the gas tax.  First, Robin Williams conjured the candidates for Jay Leno last night. 

Take a look at this.  

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBIN WILLIAMS, COMEDIAN:  Obama is very eloquent.  You know, a very tan Kennedy, if you well.  Are they afraid that all of a sudden, he will take the Oath of Office and go like, you‘re now president, Mr. Obama, and he‘ll suddenly turn into Flavor Flav?  What‘s up.  What‘s up.  Yo yo.  Obama, yes.  Get down. 

The same holds for Hillary.  What are they afraid of?  You elect a woman and every 28 days there‘s going to be severe negotiations.  She‘s 60, she has her own global warming now. 

Mr. McCain, right now he‘s sitting back, going at it people.  Go at it.  I like the fact they say he‘s very spry.  That‘s a good quality.  He woke up this morning.  Way to go. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back.  Second edition of the war room her on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  Tonight, Obama and Clinton fighting on how to save your pain at the pump.  Meanwhile, a Research poll shows that concern over gas prices is now the issue people are paying attention to.  So who is winning the argument out there on the trail?  Back with us, Tony, John, Rachel and Gene.

First up, Clinton using the gas tax holiday to attack Obama in North Carolina today.  Take a listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  This is the kind of choice that I believe we should be trying to make, because, I know where I stand and I know where my opponent stands.  Senator Obama doesn‘t want us to take down the gas tax this summer.  Senator McCain wants us to, but he doesn‘t want to pay for it.  I believe we should impose an excess profits tax on the oil companies.  They have record profits. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Obama opposed to the policy, as is the White House.  He took his own shot at her today with a new ad.  Look at this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Another negative ad from Hillary Clinton.  But here‘s what she‘s not saying: “USA Today” calls her three month gas tax holiday “political pandering.”  It‘s an election year gimmick, saving Hoosiers just pennies a day. 

Barack Obama‘s plan, take on price gouging by oil companies --  

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Rachel, who‘s winning the argument here? 

MADDOW:  Ultimately, voters are going to decide who is winning it. 

But I think that Barack Obama does have a strong leg to stand on here.  He

the next thing that happens in that ad is he says that he is for the windfall profits tax on the oil companies.  When Clinton says, you‘re either with us or against us in standing up to the oil companies, well, he‘s for the windfall profits tax.  He‘s just not for rolling back the gas tax this summer, which most economists say would actually put more money in the pockets of the oil companies at the end of the day. 

GREGORY:  John Harwood, it may be political pandering, but don‘t gimmicks work? 

HARWOOD:  A lot of gimmicks do work.  This is a classic confrontation between new politics and old politics.  Bill Clinton and his campaigns were very successful in using gimmicks like that.  They‘ve got a track record to go on.  Barack Obama is trying to make a difficult argument that voters are smarter than that. 

GREGORY:  Obama calls the gas tax holiday a political gimmick, Bill Clinton responds.  He says let‘s get real.  Listen to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  There‘s a difference between the two candidates here.  Our opponent says, she‘s just pandering to voters.  That‘s not true.  Look folks, there are people out here who choosing every week now between driving to work and having enough food for their kids, between driving to work and paying their medicine bills. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  What do you think about it, Gene? 

ROBINSON:  I think this is not only a gimmick, but it‘s an imaginary gimmick, because the House leadership, Democrats in the leadership of the House have made it clear, this is not going to happen.  There‘s not going to be a suspension of the gasoline tax, because just about every economist who has looked at it says it‘s a terrible idea.  It does put more money in the pockets of the oil companies.  It‘s doesn‘t any sort of meaningful money in the pocket of consumers, because gas prices don‘t go down by 18 cents.  It‘s a terrible idea.  Does it get her a few votes?  It might.

GREGORY:  That‘s the whole point, John.  Look at Bill Clinton.  Excuse me, look at President Bush.  I have this image of him in his presidential library and a Wildcat outfit drilling for oil in an imaginary Anwar.  He‘s been talking about this since 2000.  There‘s never been momentum toward drilling in Anwar.  He‘s still out there talking about it this week.  Just because the forces are aligned against her, Rachel, doesn‘t mean it‘s not good politics for her. 

MADDOW:  That‘s right.  The likelihood of something actually happening doesn‘t seem to affect its political attractiveness.  That‘s always been true.  The question here though is whether or not Barack Obama—John is actually right.  The question is whether Obama can score points here by saying, you know what, voters, I‘m not condescending to you.  You‘re not kids.  You‘re adults.  You know that this wouldn‘t solve the problem.  This is Washington gimmicky that we need to grow out of.  That‘s a high minded argument.   

HARWOOD:  David, it goes back to the age old question: are voters smart or not? 

BLANKLEY:  David, I agree with Obama on the policy, but polling showed before the all of the business with Wright that Obama had a problem with being seen as an elitist.  For all of us here in Washington to say a few bucks doesn‘t make a difference does not play well with an awful lot of people. 

GREGORY:  Listen to this: finally, the Clinton camp is responding to accusations of political pandering with charges of elitism against Obama.  Slate‘s John Dickerson asked the Clinton camps‘s Howard Wolfson about economy experts‘ criticism of the tax break, and Wolfson said the following, quote, “the presidency requires leadership.  There are times that the president does something that a group of experts, quote unquote, does not agree with.  Presidents get advice and then act.  That is what Senator Clinton is doing.”  

In his article, Dickerson argues, quote, “embracing intellectual obtuseness and deflecting criticism with charges of elitism is a tactic George Bush often deployed while campaigning.  It‘s striking to see Clinton do it, because she has been a regular and harsh critic of Bush‘s blindness to expert opinion.  It‘s even more striking to hear her aides actually sound like Bush administration officials.” 

Gene, take it on. 

ROBINSON:  As you were beginning to read the quote, I did happen to think of George W. Bush.  It seems to me we have tried having a president who doesn‘t listen to experts and doesn‘t take that fully into account, and does what he feels by the seat of his pants or in his heart is the right thing to do.  That doesn‘t sell that well with me right now.  I‘m not sure it‘s going to sell that well with voters. 

MADDOW:  One quick point, I would just note that if Clinton wants to play that to political advantage, she‘s getting a lot of help right now.  Yesterday, the front page of the “Washington Post” had an article all about how everybody is panning this as a bad idea.  They described it as the Clinton gas tax roll back.  They didn‘t note until the fourth paragraph into the story that it was McCain‘s idea originally. 

HARWOOD:  I bet Gene Robinson eats arugola too. 

GREGORY:  I think I‘ve seen it.  We‘re coming back with predictions. 

Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back with prediction time.  You cannot get enough of this political story going into this weekend.  Did we mention Barack Obama on with Time Russert on “Meet the Press” on Sunday.  We‘re all geared up for Tuesday here.  Back with us, Tony, John, Rachel and Eugene. 

All right, Rachel, prediction time.  What do you have? 

MADDOW:  I think we might be looking at a bell weather this weekend, and I don‘t mean Guam‘s caucuses.  While those will be interesting, there is a special election in Louisiana tomorrow in the Baton Rouge area.  It has been a Republican seat.  There‘s a real chance that that‘s going to flip to a blue seat tomorrow.  There‘s a very good chance for that Democratic challenger down there, which, of course, will give the Democratic party something to be enthusiastic about, even as they continue to despair over the length of their nominating process for the top of the ticket. 

GREGORY:  You know, we talk a lot about the super delegates.  A big concern for these elected officials is the down ballot strength of these candidates at the top. 

MADDOW:  That‘s right.  We have see some of that play out in Louisiana and with the Mississippi special election seat that comes up in about ten days.  In both cases, with slightly difference influences—but in both cases, we‘ve seen Republicans try to tie the Democratic challengers to the presidential campaign, particularly to Barack Obama at the national level.  We‘ve seen different responses to that from both candidates.  This will be a nice little test to see how that message works in a state like Louisiana.  See whether the Democrats have a real chance of expanding the playing field heading into November. 

GREGORY:  Tony, what do you see tonight? 

BLANKLEY:  My prediction, in North Carolina election, Hillary will win a majority of the elite white votes, the Chapel Hill triangle.  She‘ll win it about 53-47.  She‘ll get about 70 some percent of the blue collar white vote.  But it won‘t be enough because of the black vote. 

GREGORY:  She gets overwhelmed there, but does she keep it to single digits then? 

BLANKLEY:  Yes, last week, I predicted she would lose it by seven. 

I‘m bringing that down to about five now. 

GREGORY:  About five.  She will come out of there looking pretty strong if that‘s the case? 

BLANKLEY:  That‘s my hunch. 

GREGORY:  Yes, yes.  All right, Gene, what‘s your prediction tonight? 

ROBINSON:  My prediction is that Obama is going to bring out his secret weapons.  Who are the secret weapons?  I‘m talking about the A-list, very high profile Obama supporters, senators, governors, people who‘s endorsements made a splash, who then made a secret of themselves.  They were not nearly as ubiquitous or aggressive as the Clinton surrogates have been.  I‘ve spoken to a couple of them in the last week.  They say they realize that and that they are ready to come out swinging for their guy. 

GREGORY:  Where is Oprah? 

ROBINSON:  Exactly, where‘s Oprah? 

GREGORY:  Shouldn‘t she be in Indiana. 

ROBINSON:  One would think she might. 

MADDOW:  Do you think they are waiting for a specific thing to happen as a signal or do you think it just happens when they feel like they are most politically safe to do it? 

ROBINSON:  Well, I think it‘s mixed.  I think some were waiting to see

some were worried about Obama‘s losing streak and some were waiting to see how he dealt with the Wright controversy.  But, even before the Wright thing was finally dealt with, a couple people I talked to said we‘re coming out.  We haven‘t done enough and we need to do more. 

GREGORY:  Finally, John, your prediction tonight? 

HARWOOD:  David, this race isn‘t ending anytime soon.  Whether you think that‘s good news or bad news, one of the things we know is that Barack Obama had a chance to shut it down with a Hoosier/Tar Heel sweep.  Everything about this race so far has suggested that voters don‘t want the game to end.  Polling suggests that whether it‘s because of the gas tax, or because Jeremiah Wright, Hillary Clinton is pulling ahead in Indiana.  That‘s all she needs to punch her ticket for the rest of the primaries into June. 

GREGORY:  If they see more strength out of Hillary Clinton, as we‘ve seen this week, do you think Democrats will look at this race and say, yes, it‘s good for the party to keep going here, especially if she can help him get a little healthier in the process?  

HARWOOD:  I think half the party on each side thinks it‘s a very bad thing that the other is going on.  I don‘t think the party sees it as helpful. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Thanks to a great panel tonight.  My prediction:

“Meet the Press” will be the interview everybody is talking about next week.  I already mentioned that at the top, Obama on for the full hour with Tim Russert Sunday morning.  Don‘t miss it.  I‘m David Gregory.  Thanks for watching.  We‘re back here Monday, 6:00 pm Eastern time.  Tuesday is the big vote.  We‘ll have a lot to talk about then.  “HARDBALL” is coming up.  I hope you have a peaceful Friday night and a great weekend.  Good night everyone.

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

END   

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