updated 5/27/2008 2:01:54 PM ET 2008-05-27T18:01:54

Guests: Kelly O‘Donnell, Tim Russert, Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson; Tony Blankley; John Harwood

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, Hillary Clinton apologizes for referencing the assassination of Robert Kennedy as justification for staying in the fight for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama. 

Our coverage continues as THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on. 

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

You will hear Senator Clintons comments and her apology in just a moment. 

Inside the “War Room” tonight, getting to know John McCain.  He releases extensive medical information today, as well as tax information.  We‘re going to have the very latest on this new development.

At half past tonight, our special Memorial Day Weekend backyard barbecue “War Room” with none other than Tim Russert.  He‘s going to talk about where the race goes from here. 

There is a lot to get to here, so don‘t unplug for the weekend just yet.

The foundation of our program, a panel that always comes to play.  And with us tonight, Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America;

Eugene Robinson, columnist and associate editor at “The Washington Post,” both MSNBC political analysts; syndicated columnist Tony Blankley; and John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC and the political writer for “The New York Times.”  John is also the co-author of “Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power.” 

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

I‘ll get us started here tonight.  My headline, “Words That Hurt.” 

Today Hillary Clinton created new controversy in this race by referring to the assassination of Robert Kennedy Jr. as a justification to stay in the race.  She did it during an interview with an editorial board in South Dakota.

Listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary, somewhere in the middle of June, right?  We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, in California. 

You know, I just—I don‘t understand it.  I don‘t know.  I find it curious, and I don‘t want to attribute motives or strategies to people, because I don‘t really know, but it is a historical curiosity to me. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Late today, stung by the bad press this was getting about the remarks, she emerged to apologize. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  ... that moment of trauma for our entire nation, and particularly for the Kennedy family, was in any way offensive, I certainly had no intention of that whatsoever.  My view is that we have to look to the past and to our leaders who have inspired us and give us a lot to live up to.  And I‘m honored to hold Senator Kennedy‘s seat in the Senate from the state of New York, and have the highest regard for the entire Kennedy family. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Chief strategist for the Obama campaign David Axelrod appeared on “HARDBALL” tonight and reacted. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID AXELROD, CHIEF STRATEGIST, OBAMA CAMPAIGN:  Well, Chris, first of all, we said that we thought it was an unfortunate comment.  And I honestly can‘t believe that is what she meant.  I don‘t think she‘s hoping for some tragic catastrophic event to intervene. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, “HARDBALL”:  No, no.

AXELROD:  And so, you know, I don‘t want to impute that to her.  And I don‘t know what The Associated Press bases that on, but I‘m certainly not going to do that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  A late-breaking story.  The dustup overshadows all the talk about Hillary Clinton joining the Obama ticket down the road. 

Rachel Maddow, your take on this?  Your headline on everything that‘s transpired today? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yes.  This is a dramatic and strange development. 

It actually makes me feel a little bit ghoulish, because I‘ve been saying on this show and elsewhere that she‘s had sort of an understudy strategy toward the end game here, saying that she‘s been trying to stay in the race as long as possible, by herself as much time as possible in this race, so she can be there waiting in the wings on the off chance that something untoward happens to Senator Obama. 

I think that it probably is a gaffe and a strange reference, and hopefully not a Freudian slip on her part to have made this reference, but it‘s just a ghoulish, ghoulish thing to have said, and it makes me feel personally creepy. 

GREGORY:  Gene Robinson, what did you make of her actual apology?  I‘m trying to parse it a little bit.  It sounded like an apology to the Kennedys at one level, and also... 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  That‘s exactly what it was. 

GREGORY:  ... a way to say, well, no, that‘s not really what I mean.  But it wasn‘t a real clear apology. 

ROBINSON:  It‘s—the apology, actually, kind of adds insult to injury, as far as I‘m concerned.  It was an apology to the Kennedys.  It wasn‘t an apology to Obama.

Words like “appalling” and “reprehensible” are the ones that are coming to

my mind.  And I don‘t know why everyone is being so polite.  If you listen

to what she said, I think the meaning is clear.  And it‘s pretty outrageous

here‘s why I should stay in the race and nobody should force me out. 

Things happen in June.  Something bad could happen to the guy.

GREGORY:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  I mean, it‘s very clear.  And I understand she regrets that she said it, but she did say it.  It‘s outrageous. 

GREGORY:  You know, Tony Blankley, she has raised the specter of racism in this campaign, saying that she‘s got white working class, hard-working white voters on her side.  If you remember back in January as well, she raised the specter of JFK‘s assassination. 

She said, “If you look back, some people have been comparing one of the other candidates to JFK.”  She‘s referring to Obama.  “And he was a wonderful leader.  He gave us a lot of hope, but he was assassinated.  And Lyndon Baines Johnson actually did all of his work and got both the Republicans and Democrats to pass those measures,” talking about civil rights measures. 

Is this a pattern? 

TONY BLANKLEY, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST:  Well, look, I mean, obviously it‘s a pattern.  Obviously it was unambiguous.

She obviously had on her mind the thought that she‘s going to hang around for a number of reasons.  One might be that her opponent might be dead before the nomination. 

And her response, her second statement, was straight out gibberish.  It had no relationship to her statement. 

It was talking about the Kennedys, which is not the issue.  And there was no way she could apologize for the gaffe, a gaffe being an unintentional statement that‘s embarrassing.  And that‘s what happened. 

I don‘t think—she‘s jumped the shark (ph) back and forth.  It‘s—and I think it shows the running on fumes, the sort of almost maniacal focus on a result she can‘t get to that is getting to her, I think. 

GREGORY:  John Harwood, assess if you can at this early stage the impact of this. 

JOHN HARWOOD, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, CNBC:  Well, it‘s a big mistake, which is why she went out before the cameras to acknowledge it.  It was a ghoulish statement.  It was unfortunate, as the Obama campaign said.

But as much as I respect my friends Gene and Tony, I think they are completely wrong about this.  I think what Hillary Clinton was making was a time reference. 

I do not think she was either offering as a rationale or thinking herself that the reason for staying in the race was that Barack Obama might be assassinated.  I simply think she‘s too decent a person to do that. 

I think this was an unfortunate mistake, and she was trying to make a

reference about the fact that primary fights go into June, and therefore

she‘s going to resist the call to get out of race before we get to the end. 

GREGORY:  But if you play that out—and her—and by the way, people

close to Clinton are making that very point, that that‘s not at all the

reference she was making, that somehow she should hang in there because he

could get assassinated, Obama could get assassinated.  Simply that these things do go on, and why would anybody be calling for an end to this thing in June? 

Go ahead, Gene.

ROBINSON:  But she could have mentioned a primary fight that went into June. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  I mean, that‘s not what she referenced.

(CROSSTALK)

HARWOOD:  If you notice in that sentence—guys, she accented the word “June.”  It was a time reference.  She was...

ROBINSON:  We can‘t get inside her head, but don‘t you think it is odd this

would occur to her as the reference to make in this circumstance, the

reference to make to prove her point that things last into June?  I don‘t

think it would have occurred to me.  Would it have occurred to you? 

HARWOOD:  I think it‘s a shocking mistake for a candidate as cautious and careful as Hillary Clinton to make.  I will grant you that.  But to believe that that is the rationale that she‘s offering would require you to believe things about Hillary Clinton that I don‘t believe. 

BLANKLEY:  Look, David...

GREGORY:  Let me just get—I just want to get one other point on this and I‘m going to take a break.

Rachel, when we talk about impact and get away from the motive question, people may do that and think what was she thinking, you know, and they‘ll assign some motive to this.  If you‘re a superdelegate and you hear all of this, does this, A, impact your thought about whether they should be together on a unity ticket, and B, does it say to you we just can‘t have this race continuing to go on any longer? 

MADDOW:  I think that it makes you think that it would be very awkward for a vice president to be on a ticket—for a vice presidential candidate to be on a presidential candidate‘s ticket after she‘s made repeated references to his potential death.  Yes, that would be weird. 

But the other—but I think it‘s important also that you raised this prospect that she‘s talked about other assassinations in modern American history during this campaign. 

GREGORY:  Right.

MADDOW:  I think for the superdelegates, I think John Harwood‘s point is well taken, which is that this shows a lack of discipline at best here.  This shows—this is a gaffe and a big mistake from a remarkably disciplined candidate. 

And if this was a mistake, it‘s a big an uncharacteristic mistake.  If it wasn‘t a mistake, it‘s disgusting. 

GREGORY:  Final point from Tony Blankley before the break.

Go ahead, Tony.

BLANKLEY:  A quick point.  Politicians think about these things.  When I worked for Newt Gingrich, there were death threats.  You think about it.  You get fatalistic about it.

HARWOOD:  Well, reporters do too.

BLANKLEY:  If you‘re president of the United States or wife of a president, you think about it.  So these topics are on the minds of very prominent politicians, because regretfully, it‘s part of American political history.

So I don‘t think this is a misstatement.  I think it was a correct

statement of a thought she had. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Let me take a break here.  More on this to come.

We‘re going to go inside the War Room next.  Talk about a big day for John McCain.  His pre-Memorial Day deluge of information about himself—medical records, tax records as well for Cindy McCain.  What‘s behind all of this?

And don‘t forget, at half past, Tim Russert is here, moderator of “MEET THE PRESS.”  Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief, talks about where the race is going from here. 

THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE is coming right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  Tim Russert coming up at half past the hour. 

Now we‘re going to head deep inside the ‘08 war rooms for a strategy session.

Tonight, the battle between McCain and Obama.  The battle is blazing.  Could yesterday‘s scathing exchanges be a sneak preview of what is to come in the general?

Back with us, Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson, Tony Blankley and John Harwood.

First up, however, McCain‘s pre-Memorial Day purge.  Kelly O‘Donnell, one of the few correspondents who was on the scene today with some of the latest breaking news coming out of the McCain camp and all of these releases today. 

Kelly has the latest. 

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  David, this turned into records release day with the McCain campaign.  Now, we knew about the medical files being opened up, more than a thousand pages.  But the real surprise, Cindy McCain‘s tax return. 

She‘s been saying all along that she didn‘t want to make public any of her financial information.  She is a wealthy businesswoman, and she and the senator have always filed their tax returns separately.  So there was a big turnaround.

They have released a two-page summery of her 2006 tax return.  Income, $6 million.  Taxes paid to the federal government, $1.7 million.  And they plan to release the 2007 return for which she got an extension later in the year. 

Now, the health records, that has been a big deal for the McCain campaign because Senator McCain is 71 years old and a survivor of some serious skin cancer.  We looked through more than a thousand pages today.  The overall headline, his general health is good, there is no return of cancer, but he needs to be monitored regularly to make sure that skin cancer doesn‘t come back—David. 

GREGORY:  Kelli, thanks very much. 

John Harwood, all of this information being put out before Memorial Day. 

There‘s a strategy behind all of this.  What is it? 

HARWOOD:  Well, I think they wanted to bury that $6 million income for Cindy McCain.  Look, John McCain had been sort of cast by the returns that had been released before as the poor man in the race because Barack Obama made a lot from his book, and of course Bill and Hillary Clinton have made a ton of dough over the last seven years.  I think putting that $6 million out behind the news of the health records was a way to de-emphasize that part for a guy who‘s trying to get working class votes from Barack Obama. 

GREGORY:  But you know, Rachel, on the health front, the news is good, thank God, that he‘s healthy, that he‘s cancer free as best we know—I mean, at this stage, based on what his doctors are telling us.  It‘s still a concern, age and a history of cancer. 

Why appear to put this information out when nobody‘s looking if the new is good?

MADDOW:  And why put it out with such obvious and weird restrictions?  And I say weird just in comparison to the way that he‘s publicized his medical information before.

When he was running for president in 2000, he made something like 1,500 pages of medical records available, essentially freely.  He gave reporters access, direct access to question his personal physician. 

This time, reporters, only a hand-selected group of—small group of reporters, are allowed to look at the records for a specific amount of time.  They are not allowed to make photo copies.  There‘s only a pool report.  Prominent medical reporters, probably the most prominent medical reporter in the country, Warren Saltman (ph), who works for “The New York Times” and has an M.D., is not one of the reporters who‘s allowed to look at them.

The contrast between the caginess around the records now and the openness about the records in 2000 makes it seem like there might be something to worry about.  The way they did it I think heightens suspicion. 

GREGORY:  OK.  All right.

Moving on, the battle between Obama and McCain rages on.  Now both camps taking shots at each other over foreign policy on Cuba.  Obama today addressing the Cuban-American National Foundation.  Slammed McCain with this—watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Now, let me say this.  I know what the easy thing to do for an American politician is when he or she comes down to Miami.  About every four years, they come down, they talk tough, then go back to Washington and nothing changes in Cuba. 

That‘s what John McCain did the other day.  He joined the parade of politicians who made the same empty promises year after year, decade after decade. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  In anticipation of Obama‘s speech, the McCain camp released the following statement: “Barack Obama has a lot to say about democracy and Cuba, but his record of weak leadership tells a different story.  Barack Obama has voted against efforts to encourage elected democracy in Cuba, has committed to an unconditional summit with Castro‘s regime, has urged ending the embargo with Cuba, and now he‘s trying to rewrite his record.”

It‘s interesting to me, Tony Blankley, both sides want this fight over foreign policy.  The question is, who‘s winning?  From Cuba to Iran to dealing with terror, how do you size it up so far? 

BLANKLEY:  I think there are two possibilities.  We don‘t know.

If the argument comes in on what Obama says specifically about no preconditions, he‘s going to negotiate with the terrorists—with the rogue state leaders, and on Cuba, that he actually wants to try to deal with Cuba, I think he loses.  On the other hand, Obama is trying to switch the argument to McCain/Bush, don‘t want to talk with anybody, they don‘t believe in diplomacy.  The believe in war and isolation.

GREGORY:  Right.

BLANKLEY:  And if that argument prevails, that‘s an argument that I think Obama can win with a large element of the public. 

GREGORY:  Yes.  I would think, Rachel...

ROBINSON:  David...

GREGORY:  Well, Gene, take on this point.  I think there‘s a real interest and enthusiasm on Obama‘s part to have this argument about foreign policy in the Bush years in a way that John Kerry wouldn‘t even want to have in ‘04, or couldn‘t argue effectively in ‘04. 

ROBINSON:  No, I think that‘s right.  This is something Obama has talked about since before he started running for president.  I think it‘s something he really believes, and I think he thinks it‘s potentially a political winner for him. 

But, you know, I think on the substance, he deeply believes that he is right.  Specifically on Cuba.

It‘s interesting that he made the statement in front of the Cuban-American National Foundation, the most powerful, most anti-Castro lobby in Miami.  I‘ve been to Cuba about 10 times as a journalist, and I‘m hearing from Cuban friends that there is a sense of possibility there that there hasn‘t been in a number of years.  It would be interesting if an American government would try to deal with Cuba in a slightly different way. 

BLANKLEY:  There‘s also a...

GREGORY:  Hold the thought for just a minute.  I have got to get a break in here. 

We‘re going to come back and stay inside the “War Room.”  We‘ll talk about this, veep stakes and more.

Don‘t forget my conversation with Tim Russert coming up at half past the hour. 

We‘re coming right back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  Still inside the “War Room.” 

Going to talk about veep stakes.

First, though, Maggie Williams, campaign chairwoman for Hillary Clinton, reiterating the fact that Hillary Clinton regrets the comments she made about referring to Robert Kennedy‘s assassination as for why she would still be in the race. 

Williams saying, “I think the senator was very clear, and it was clear to anybody watching that she was deeply regretful that people did not understand the context in which she made the reference.”  She claims that the editorial board understood the context of the remarks and that she immediately, as soon as she could, spoke out to voice regret that she had misspoken and that people had misinterpreted what she had said. 

Let‘s put that in some context here of another big issue inside the “War Room.”

Back with us, Rachel Maddow, Gene Robinson, Tony Blankley and John Harwood. 

Turning it over to the Democratic veep stakes, reports now that Bill Clinton wants Hillary Clinton to be vice president.  The campaign now flatly denying discussing a unity ticket with the Obama camp. 

So what‘s behind the reports?  Is Bill Clinton freelancing or is this a way of her actually putting herself forward for the VP slot? 

There‘s some powerful Democrats, Gene Robinson, who are making the case that a unity ticket would be the best thing for the Democratic Party.  Do today‘s remarks cast a pall on that, thinking—and send a chill within the Obama camp about something like that? 

ROBINSON:  Well, I guess I‘ve got to say, it would for me if I were in the Obama camp.  But look, I think Hillary Clinton wants to be president.  And I think today‘s remarks really are kind of an indication that, you know, as Tony says, the campaign is kind of on fumes.  They‘re going forward, they keep moving, even though they can‘t quite get there. 

She wants to be president.  Bill Clinton may well be trying to explore other options or a plan B, but I take her at her word that she‘s not thinking about that.  She‘s thinking about the White House.

GREGORY:  You know, I wonder, John Harwood, as—you know, if you‘re a spouse and you hear remarks like this, I‘m thinking about Michelle Obama, a spouse, somebody who‘s very influential over her husband, as spouses are, and as an advisor in the campaign.

Do you think she sits down after a day like today and says, sweetheart, I don‘t think so.  She‘s not going to be on this ticket? 

HARWOOD:  Look, David, I don‘t think there was any love lost between Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton before this happened.  But I think Bill Clinton believes his wife earned the prospect of a vice presidential race. 

We‘ve seen references by him earlier in the campaign, when he—all the way back to when she was behind at that point, and he said maybe they will end up running together.  I suspect that Hillary Clinton would like to be asked, but I do not believe that the Clinton campaign is doing anything to try to make that happen right now.  And I think it‘s very, very unlikely to happen. 

GREGORY:  All right.  I‘ve got to take a break here.  We‘re coming back with the back half.  My conversation with Tim Russert, the backyard barbecue edition of the “War Room,” coming right up. 

Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Happy to have you here for the back half and a special edition of our war room tonight, the backyard Bar-B-Que, Memorial Day edition of RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  Who better to talk about the big picture of politics than my boss, Tim Russert, moderator of “Meet the Press,” Washington Bureau chief.  Time, thanks very much for being here. 

TIM RUSSERT, “MEET THE PRESS”:  Tim “the Grill-Man” Russert. 

GREGORY:  Exactly.  I‘ve seen you on the grill, it‘s impressive.  Let‘s talk about the big story of the day and over the past couple of days, John McCain releasing his medical records today.  As we talked, the first indications are no real health problems to speak of, which is good news given his background and a history of cancer.  But it comes as we‘re seeing a strategy here of ditching some of his Memorial Day baggage, whether getting out these questions of health concerns, dealing with John Hagee and his controversial comments, the lobbyist issue for him, and his big weekend where he‘s meeting with potential VP nominees. 

Break it all down in terms of where McCain is strategically trying to get back into the spotlight here. 

RUSSERT:  The VP meetings are a good news story, trying to get the spotlight on him as the nominee making sure that everyone knows that he‘s about to make the most important decision as a nominee, who‘s your running mate and try to highlight some of those people who are visiting him, the governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, the governor of Louisiana.  I see Governor Huckabee couldn‘t make it.  It‘s his wedding anniversary. 

It‘s interesting though, because the story of the pastor is one that John McCain didn‘t want.  It is an endorsement he asked for and now has basically had to distance himself from Pastor Hagee.  Many Democrats think it neutralizes McCain‘s ability to use Jeremiah Wright against Barack Obama, although McCain has said the situation‘s different. 

On the lobbyists, it‘s interesting what is happening there, because some of the people who have been very close to John McCain, the hierarchy, were involved in lobbying and are now distancing themselves from the campaign.  It kind of raises questions as to what is this maverick independent doing with this group of folks.  I think, all laid down, David, what it means to us is that McCain realizes this is a tough year as a Republican to run.  He has to continue to create his own brand of Republicanism.  That‘s why you see him taking the steps he is. 

GREGORY:  Why do you think there‘s been such focus by this campaign on the health questions and getting these medical records out?  They said they wanted to make sure they were accurate.  That‘s why it‘s taken as long as it‘s taken to get them out.  You do it the Friday before Memorial Day, when there‘s no real headline, as far as we can tell, as we sit here now, about all of this.  How big of a concern do you think age and health is for this campaign? 

RUSSERT:  If elected, he‘d be 72 when he took office, the oldest American ever to be sworn into his first term.  It‘s something that they‘re very conscious of.  They know in all the polling, many voters have said that age is more important to them than race or gender.  They have to be conscious of that. 

Secondly, McCain has had three bouts of melanoma and that‘s something that‘s very much on people‘s minds.  He has to address it.  There‘s no doubt about it. 

Now, you‘re exactly right, reading through the health records, it‘s indicative of someone who‘s a vigorous man.  His blood pressure and heart all seem to be good and within the norm.  But it‘s an issue that will be revisited over and over again, if, in fact, there are indications on the campaign trail that he‘s faltering. 

GREGORY:  Moving on from John McCain, you pick up the “New York Post” today and here‘s what‘s on the cover, “Man and Vice,” Barack Obama with Hillary Clinton on the top of a wedding cake.  This comes—the speculation about what it is Hillary Clinton wants before she gets out of the race.  She‘s certainly still running like she has an argument to be at the top of the ticket.  Two reports out this week saying that former President Bill Clinton is actively pushing to get her on the ticket.  What‘s real here? 

RUSSERT:  She‘s clearly positioning herself for something, we don‘t know what.  Is it the vice president?  Does she want to lay claim to that, thinking that she can help elect a Democratic ticket?  It‘s a better job than being a U.S. senator.  Or is she positioning herself to be in place for 2012 if Obama‘s the nominee and that doesn‘t work out?  Or is she positioning herself for a long career in the U.S. Senate, and by being someone who‘s in a bargaining position with a nominee who has a constituency she can turn to, such as women or blue collar workers, only enhances her ability? 

I‘ve heard things over the last 48 hours, running for governor of New York, running for mayor of the city of New York.  I think all options are open to Hillary Clinton and she wants to keep it that way.  Bill Clinton, according to “Time Magazine” and other places, believes that she deserves to be the vice president or at least asked to be considered as a sign of respect for the kind of campaign she‘s waged. 

GREGORY:  How does she get on, if she wants on? 

RUSSERT:  Well, it‘s a great question.  If Barack Obama doesn‘t want her, do you try to force the issue?  There was a report that Bob Beckel, the managed Walter Mondale‘s campaign in 1994, said that Bill Clinton could call super delegates and say, you voted for Barack Obama as the nominee of our party, and that really did tee me off, even though I appointed you to X, Y or Z job.  But I‘m telling you, on the second vote for vice president, you have to be with Hillary, even if it means breaking with your nominee. 

Do you force a floor fight on the vice presidential nomination?  Most people don‘t believe that it would be helpful or constructive and it‘s something to be avoided.  On the other hand, can you make the case that Hillary would help Obama?  Would she help him in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Florida?  Many would say yes. 

The counter argument is what about Virginia, what about Colorado, what about swing states like that where people don‘t find Senator Clinton as appealing as some of the other industrial states? 

GREGORY:  There‘s also an argument that seems to be shaping up as she forces the issue with Michigan and Florida, as she stresses the idea that there‘s been sexism in the campaign, that it‘s as if this has been taken from her.  It was hers and it was taken from her.  It is a pretty powerful and divisive argument in this campaign.   

RUSSERT:  It would be and it is.  The whole argument of sexism is one that the Clintons have both come forward in the last week and put out there.  It‘s in start contrast to Senator Clinton saying earlier in the campaign, I‘m your girl.  I know a lot about working in the kitchen.  She said early on that people aren‘t picking on me because I‘m not one of the boys or I‘m a woman.  It‘s because I‘m leading in the polls. 

It seems to be part of a narrative that‘s being woven together and laid out there.  To suggest I had more popular vote, if you include Michigan and Florida and other places, it‘s almost a sense that this is the aggrieved party, that the nomination was rightfully hers.  In fact, everyone agreed that it would be delegates, elected delegates and super delegates.  So I‘m very curious to see how this plays out.  I‘m very curious to see how the Democratic National Committee deals with Florida and Michigan in a week, and whether or not Hillary Clinton will end it there, after the primaries, or decide to try to take this right to the floor of the convention. 

GREGORY:  Meanwhile, we‘re already in general election mode in many ways, and McCain and Obama have really been going after each other.  It‘s been really striking.  McCain, just last night, talking act Obama in a sarcastic way.  Let‘s listen to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I admire and respect Senator Obama.  For a young man with very little experience, he‘s done very well.  So, I appreciate with his very, very great lack of experience and knowledge of the issues, he‘s been very successful. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Here‘s an exchange about the GI Bill that you talked to Senator Webb about on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, which Obama is for, McCain is against.  Obama taking issue with him on the Senate floor, and then McCain retaliated with this, we‘ll put it on the screen: “I take a back seat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans and I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.” 

He went on, “perhaps if Senator Obama would take the time and trouble to understand this issue, he would learn to debate and honest disagreement respectfully.  But as he always does, he prefers impugning the motives of his opponent and exploiting a thoughtful difference of opinion to advance his own ambitions.  If that is how he would behave as president, this country would regret his election.”  Wow.

RUSSERT:  Strong, some would even say harsh words.  The first clip, where he talked about youth and inexperience reminiscent of Ronald Reagan and Mondale, and did it with a smile.  The second one is double fisted.  I think the McCain campaign has to really walk a tight rope.  John McCain wants to be perceived as the happy warrior, out there fighting for people, but enjoying life and enjoying the campaign and enjoying politics, and not unwilling to reach across the aisle. 

That language that he used about Barack Obama is in contrast to what he has said in the past about whether or not military service is an important criteria to be president.  In the past, he‘s said it‘s not. 

GREGORY:  Interesting.  Finally, VP stakes, big weekend, we said, for Senator McCain, beginning to meet with those who might be on his short list.  We could go through all the names.  But analyze what you think both Obama and McCain, in their first meetings on all this, are saying this is what I need as a number two.   

RUSSERT:  McCain clearly needs someone who will be young.  The age is an issue.  It‘s important.  I think he needs someone who will be disciplined, who will not commit faux pas on the campaign trail.  You don‘t want to have your VP candidate as an issue.  I think loyalty is terribly important to John McCain.  He wants to know he can trust this guy, that this guy will have his back. 

He‘s a military man.  He believes in the chain of command.  And he believes in that kind of stark loyalty.  I think that‘s what he‘s looking for. 

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama has to weigh many different things.  If he wants to have a woman on the ticket, could he ever take any other women other than Hillary Clinton?  Probably not, because delegates would ask, why are you taking Madame X when you could have Hillary Clinton?  How do you balance then what he needs geographically?  Ohio, Pennsylvania both have Democratic governors who supported Hillary Clinton.  Is that a two for? 

If you are looking at Virginia, a state you think you put in play, Jim Webb, Tim Kaine, the governor and the senator.  I think that Obama‘s options are almost unlimited.  It all depends on whether he wants to be generational, geographic, gender conscious.  I think he has the benefit of waiting until the very end to make a calculation as to exactly what he needs. 

GREGORY:  This and more on “Meet the Press” Sunday?

RUSSERT:  This is it.  Memorial Day weekend cook out.  We started on Friday.  It‘s going to go on for 48 hours, Sunday morning. 

GREGORY:  Tim Russert, thanks very much Tim.  I appreciate it.  We‘ll take a break and come right back.   

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

GREGORY:  We‘re back now with three questions tonight.  We bring you the backyard Bar-B-Que edition.  These are the questions to toss out to your guests in addition to finely cooked meat on this Memorial Day.  Still with us, Rachel Maddow, host of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, Eugene Robinson, columnist and associate editor at the “Washington Post,” both are MSNBC analysts, syndicated columnist Tony Blankley, and John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for cNBC and political writer for the “New York Times.”  John is also the co-author, as you know, of a new book, “Pennsylvania Avenue, Profiles in Back Room Power.”  Take Memorial Day weekend to curl up with this book.

First up, the candidates‘ spouses; in the new issue of “Vogue Magazine,” Cindy McCain talks about the remarkable race and her potential roll as first lady.  She said she is her husband‘s best critic and that she would be an activist first lady, encouraging Americans to get off the couch and get passionate about community service.  Mrs. McCain also opens up about battling back from a debilitating stroke that she says has helped her understand her husbands experience as a POW. 

Mrs. McCain has not been as visible as Michelle Obama has become during the long Democratic primary, but that will likely change as the general election ramps up.  The first question today, who roles will Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama play in the fall?  John Harwood, it‘s interesting, Cindy McCain got a lot of credit, or at least scrutiny, positive and negative, at the time when her husbands campaign was retooled.  She was thought to be behind that in a large measure. 

HARWOOD:  Yes, I don‘t know how you match up spouses.  Obviously people, generally speaking, aren‘t going to vote on that.  Cindy McCain looks a little more exotic.  She‘s a little richer than Michelle Obama.  Michelle Obama has a little bit more of the average middle class housewife look about her.  She‘s got young kids.  I‘m not sure there‘s a big advantage for either side.  If I had to give any, I‘d say slight advantage to Michelle Obama. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, there‘s a sense in the Obama campaign that it‘s a necessity for Michelle Obama to play a larger role and to be present with her husband, particularly as he‘s reaching out to women voters, to Hillary Clinton supporters.  But there‘s also been some questions about her intensity on the campaign trail, how she‘s coming across, how she‘s relating to voters.  How do you see this match up? 

MADDOW:  I actually see Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama as really interesting book ends, sort of, on that scale.  Both of them have shown a lot of passion and a willingness not only to stick up for their husbands, but also to show some anger and to show some emotion.  We saw Cindy McCain, seemingly of her own volition, get out there and criticize Michelle Obama‘s comments, for example, putting a very aggressive foot forward on that one. 

I see them both as very strong willed powerful spouses.  I think all three candidates in the race right now have very formidable, politically powerful spouses. 

GREGORY:  That‘s true.  Next up, will Chelsea Clinton follow in her parents footsteps.  Proud father Bill Clinton, the former president, told “People Magazine” that Chelsea‘s emergence on the national stage was the second best thing of the campaign.  When asked if he thought his daughter would ever be a candidate herself, the former president the following—to the quote board—“If you asked me before Iowa, I would have said no way.  She‘s too allergic to anything we do.  But she is really good at it.”

The second question today, for fun here, will Chelsea Clinton ever run for office?  Gene, what do you think? 

ROBINSON:  I think that when proud fathers tell everybody how much their sons and daughters are just dying to get into the family business, you know, just really raring to go and come down to the shop and help out, I take that with a grain of salt.  Let‘s ask Chelsea Clinton and not take Bill Clinton‘s word on that. 

GREGORY:  Yes, all right, finally tonight, a preview of what our panelists will face at their weekend Bar-B-Cues.  Our third question, kind of a play on the concept here, to everyone on the panel, very quickly: what question do you get asked the most about this campaign?  Tony? 

BLANKLEY:  Two.  Generally, people ask me, is Hillary really going to be on the ticket.  But, amongst people I know, I got a lot of calls from Republican candidates who say, should I run with or against McCain?  That‘s sort of a professional question, but there‘s a lot of nervousness among Republican candidates around the country, whether they can run under the McCain banner.

GREGORY:  Very interesting.  Rachel? 

MADDOW:  At liberal gatherings, I‘m the dark cloud.  At conservative gatherings, I‘m the silver lining.  I always get asked, why do you think John McCain is going to win in November.  I‘ve been pretty vocal, at least in my personal life, about the fact that I think McCain has a big advantage.  I either get praised or damned for that depending on my audience. 

GREGORY:  That‘s very interesting.  We‘re going to have to talk more about that on the program here one of these nights.  John, what about you.  People really want to know where they can get your book.  That‘s what they want to know when they see you. 

HARWOOD:  That‘s one of the questions.  At one time the question was, hey, are you Tony Snow?  Despite everyone saying they want substance and they want issues and that sort of thing, the most common question you get is the horse race; who‘s going to win the primary?  Who‘s going to be the VP?  Who‘s going to win the general?   

GREGORY:  Interesting.  Gene? 

ROBINSON:  When will this be over?  How long will this last? 

GREGORY:  What‘s interesting—I get these kind of similar questions and there‘s more substantive questions as well, you know, about Barack Obama‘s stance on something, or what‘s going on behind the scenes.  It‘s interesting, having covered the White House for eight years, the questions I would get most, what‘s he really like and, of course, what‘s Air Force one like.  You think about all the issues and everything else, you realize two pretty cool aspects of the presidency, what‘s the president like and what‘s Air Force like? 

MADDOW:  What is Air Force one like?  Can we talk about that some night? 

GREGORY:  Air Force One is very cool.  The first time you get down there, you get M and M‘s.  Coming right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now with our remaining moments on THE RACE.  We talked about Obama VP stakes with the panel.  Now it‘s time to turn to the McCain VP stakes.  Back with us, Rachel, Gene, Tony and John.  First, a campaign alert, NBC News has confirmed Amy Kobohouse (ph) will direct John McCain‘s vice presidential search.  Kobohouse is a former White House council in the Reagan administration and is considered to be a trusted and long time Republican adviser.  He is an attorney here in Washington.  It comes as McCain is spending the weekend with close friends, family and prospective VPs.  He brushed off VP speculation today, saying it‘s merely a social gathering.  Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  It‘s just having a group of friends for Memorial Day Weekend to visit us and enjoy one of the most beautiful places in America.  It‘s no more and no less, I want to assure you. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  This is a big strategic moment for McCain.  He gets to evaluate his number two first, just as Jim Johnson, who was tapped by Barack Obama to lead his search.  As that‘s getting under way, McCain is trying to get a leg up on it.  His Memorial Day Bar-B-Que list now includes Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindall—This is at McCain‘s place in Sedona—

Mitt Romney and Florida Governor Charlie Crist.  Mike Huckabee and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge were invited but could not make it.  Other reported attendees include dark horse VP possibility Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO, also Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, Fedex chief Fred Smith and South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, as well as Joe Lieberman, both close friends of McCain. 

Tony Blankley, expand on this.  This is a strategic moment in the campaign for John McCain.  He‘s tapped someone who is well known in Washington to lead the search.  What does he do with this moment? 

BLANKLEY:  I think Kobohouse is a very good selection.  I know him a little bit.  He‘s an impeccably careful and thorough lawyer.  He‘ll do the vetting process as well as anybody in Washington.  This is a good sign.  I have a hunch, just a prediction.  I think McCain is going to go with an early announcement.  I think it‘s a mistake, but I think he‘s going to feel like he wants to do something special and announce it well before the convention. 

I don‘t know who it‘s going to be.  No one can possibly know now, but I feel it in my bones that he‘s going to make that kind of move. 

GREGORY:  John, how do you see how this weekend shapes up for McCain, what it means to him? 

HARWOOD:  I think Tony‘s point is very interesting.  I‘d be surprised if it happens, but certainly it could.  This is a guy who needs to throw the long ball in many ways, given the structural problems in this campaign.  I think this is a great opportunity for him to shift a little bit of the focus, as Time suggested, to John McCain as a potential nominee, and just get to know how comfortable he can be with some of these people.  A lot of it is comfort level.  He has to pick somebody capable of being president and seen as such by the American people.  This is a way to take their measure a little bit. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, saying as you did in the last segment that you think he‘s got an advantage here ultimately in the fall, what does he do in the VP selection, pick a name or a way to approach the process, that builds on the advantage, in your mind? 

MADDOW:  I don‘t know the Washington insiders the way you guys all do, but—no, it‘s true, I really don‘t.  But the first thing I wondered was whether this guy was one of these guys who might pick himself, because we have seen that happen with Dick Cheney.  I don‘t know who McCain is going to pick.  He should pick somebody who isn‘t a senator, who isn‘t old, who isn‘t a right wing pastor.  He might want to pick somebody who isn‘t a man, in case there are poachable women‘s votes, if the Democratic race continues the way it does. 

I don‘t know who he‘s going to pick.  I‘d be fascinated to see if he picked somebody early to try to change the dynamics of the race. 

GREGORY:  Gene, comment on this?

ROBINSON:  I‘m just trying to imagine the interaction around the Bar-B-Que grill between John McCain and Mitt Romney, and how McCain reacts when he gives Romney a piece of Bar-B-Que chicken and Romney takes the skin off. 

HARWOOD:  Maybe McCain will ask Romney to flip the burgers. 

MADDOW:  And then back again. 

GREGORY:  All right, thanks.  We‘re going to leave it there.  Thanks to a great panel and enjoy the weekend.  I‘m David Gregory.  That does it for the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  Thanks for watching, we‘ll see you back here Tuesday night at 6:00 pm Eastern time.  Have a peaceful Friday night and a very good Memorial Weekend.  We remember the sacrifices of all those who come before us that we mark on this Memorial Day 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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