updated 5/28/2008 11:11:09 AM ET 2008-05-28T15:11:09

Guests: Eugene Robinson, Rachel Maddow, John Harwood, Michael Smerconish

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, under the radar, Bush campaigns for McCain in Arizona, but you won‘t see it.  That‘s just how John McCain wants it.  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 pace, the bottom line and every point of view in the room.

Tonight, more on McCain‘s dance with the president.  How close is too close when you are trying to avoid the label that your presidency would be a third Bush term.  Three questions tonight is about the veepstakes.

With whom can Obama change Washington?  Inside the war room is more on Hillary Clinton‘s RFK comment and where that leaves here in the race, as well as the fight for the Mountain West.

The bedrock for this program, as you know, an all-star panel that always comes to play.  With us tonight, Gene Robinson, columnist and associate editor at the “Washington Post,” Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, both MSNBC political analyst, Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philly and columnist for both the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Philadelphia Daily News” and John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC, political writer for the “New York Times” he is also the co-author of a new book “Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power.”

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

I‘ll get us started here tonight.  My headline is she‘s still in it to win it.  Hillary Clinton campaigning over the weekend in Puerto Rico and enjoying herself.  Saying her appearance reminded her of happy days.  Yet the Memorial Day weekend was anything but for her as she took to penning a piece in the “New York Daily News” explaining that she never meant to suggest she hopes Obama gets assassinated by invoking in the murder of Robert Kennedy in 1968.  She also argued that in that piece, she should remain in the race because she is no quitter adding this.  “Finally,” she writes, “I‘m writing because I believe I‘m the strongest candidate to stand toe-toe-toe with Senator McCain.  Delegate math might be complicated by electoral map is not.  Our campaign is winning the popular vote and we have been winning the swing states and we need to get 270 electoral votes and take back the White House.”

Bill Clinton wondered over this weekend why she‘s being asked to step aside.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, HILLARY‘S HUSBAND:  They are trying to get her to cry uncle before the Democratic Party has to decide what to do in Florida and Michigan.  There‘s this frantic effort to push her out.  Because he‘s winning the general election today and he‘s not.  According to all the evidence and I‘ve never seen anything like it.  I‘ve never seen a candidate treated so disrespectfully, just for running.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Arguments are what the Clinton‘s have left at this point in the hope her perseverance preserves a shot at the nomination should something befall Obama.  Democrats have to wrestle with the question of whether she‘s earned the right to exit the race on her own terms or whether she‘s doing more damage than good.  I mentioned she has arguments, well, she also has t-shirts.  The campaign is putting out the results of a t-shirt contest that includes some final entries including this entry that voters can vote on this entry on the Web site.  This is a t-shirt that says, “For everyone who‘s ever been counted out, but refused to be knocked out and for everyone who works hard this one,” with a profile shot of Hillary Clinton, “is for you.”

So in the end, there‘s always t-shirts.  That‘s my headline.  Smerc, your headline tonight on McCain and Bush.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Hey, David.  Hide the camera, take the cash.  It sounds like the presidential campaign‘s version of the famous line from the “Godfather.”  You remember, “Leave the gun, take the cannolis.”

Today the president is campaigning with John McCain out in Phoenix.  You know the strategy, put away the cameras, but gobble up all the money that you can.  That may work in Arizona but what it says to me is they have a real problem on their hands as they plan for the convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  What to do with the president, what to do with Vice President Cheney when it comes time for the GOP convention?  Do you put them on in prime time?  These are the issues that have to be resolved.

GREGORY:  After a two term presidency he has got to play some significant role.

Harwood, you‘re thinking about this as well today, what‘s your headline?

JOHN HARWOOD, “NEW YORK TIMES”:  David, I‘m thinking like Smerc.  My headline is money can‘t buy me love.  John McCain is using George W. Bush for the political mission he‘s best prepared to actually accomplish.  That‘s keeping McCain financially competitive this fall.  But that provides a big target for Barack Obama who fired away, today.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Today, John McCain is having a different kind of meeting.  He‘s holding a fund-raiser with George Bush behind closed doors in Arizona.  No cameras, no reporters and we all know why.  Senator McCain doesn‘t want to be seen hat in hand with the president whose failed policies he promises to continue for another four years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARWOOD:  Bush remains a big draw with GOP donors but swing voters are another story altogether.  So whoever John McCain picks as vice president, Democrats are going to work overtime to turn into the Bush-McCain ticket, David.

GREGORY:  Yeah, we‘re going to talk about who‘s dictating play in terms of on these issues.  But we know McCain is spending a lot of time trying to distance himself from Bush on some major issues and Obama is talking every day about Bush and McCain.  Bush and McCain.  That is going to continue.

Gene Robinson, I talked about Hillary Clinton, that‘s what you‘re thinking about as well and you wrote about it as well recently.  Your headline?

GENE ROBINSON, “WASHINGTON POST”:  David, my headline today is forget the nomination, Hillary Clinton is in danger of losing her soul.

My column this morning in the “Washington Post” deals with the RFK remarks.  This is part of what the column says.  “She‘s abandoned any pretense of consistency, inventing new rationale for continuing her candidacy and new yardsticks for measuring its success when ever the old rationales and yardsticks begin to favor Obama.  It could be that any presidential campaign required a measure of blind faith but there is a difference between having faith in a dream and being lost in a delusion.  The former suggests inner strength, the latter an inner meltdown.

“She and her family enjoy good health and fabulous wealth, they‘ll be fine unless while losing this race for the nomination, Hillary Clinton also loses her soul.”

What I heard in the remarks on Friday, David, was a kind of irrationalty.  Among other things.  They were ugly, I thought.  There was an irrationalty there.  And let me tell you.  It happened the Friday before a holiday weekend.  People were not supposed to be paying attention.  When I came in here, nearly 1,400 comments appended by readers to the column on the website today.  Nearly 500 questions in my Web chat today.  This was something people wanted to talk about today.  It‘s a story that wasn‘t dead yet.

GREGORY:  Rachel, you‘re going back to the math.  This campaign, this primary season, is one long word problem when it comes to the math the delegates are relying on here.  Ultimately for the nomination.  Your headline tonight.

MADDOW:  My headline tonight is Obama‘s secret plan to end the war?  Marc Ambinder from the “Atlantic Magazine” today quoted sources close to the Obama campaign saying Obama is secretly banking undeclared superdelegates?  Why would he bank them and keep their support secret instead of encouraging them to come forward?  Presumably, the idea here is to create what looks like a decisive event in the nominating contest on the Democratic side.

No primary result is going to be decisive.  Senator Clinton has made clear she sees the convention as her finish line, not June 3.  We haven‘t seen the sudden flood of superdelegates toward Obama that many predicted over the last couple of months.  If Ambinder‘s reporting is right, the Obama is trying to manufacture that superdelegate flood to try to put an exclamation point on the end of this brutal primary fight.  If it‘s wrong, I don‘t see any other off-ramp for Clinton before the convention in Denver.

GREGORY:  Yeah, I think it‘s interesting.  Because the flood has not come.  They would have liked it to come.  You have a lot of superdelegates who are looking for some kind of cover.  They want finality and yet Obama wants to rely on them to provide the finality so he doesn‘t look to be pushing her out of the race.

All right.  A lot more on this as we come back from a break.  Coming up right here inside the war room, the McCain camp unveils a new strategy in its attack on Obama over Iraq and challenges the Illinois senator to visit Iraq, together, a place he hasn‘t been to in a couple of years.  Smart tactic on McCain‘s part?  How is Obama responding?  We‘ll get into that right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  It‘s getting uglier and uglier.  The foreign policy fight between McCain and Obama.  Obama still says we need diplomacy and talks with country‘s like Iran but that doesn‘t necessarily mean direct talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  McCain says Obama is backtracking.  The latest on that when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on THE RACE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Time for us to draw back the curtain and head deep inside the campaign war room, tactics and strategies.  We take a look at it all.  Gene Robinson, Rachel Maddow, Michael Smerconish and John Harwood.

OK.  First up, a new attack method from inside the McCain campaign.  Challenge Obama to visit Iraq.  McCain supporter Senator Lindsey Graham on “Face the Nation” over the weekend knocked Obama for not failing to visit the region since ‘06.  Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, ® SC:  Senator Obama keeps talking about an immediate withdrawal as soon he gets to be president, the last time I understand he was in Iraq was in 2006.  I would recommend that he go back.  So much has happened since 2006 on the ground.  It‘s been extraordinary.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  He even suggested that McCain and Obama could go together.  And in an interview with the Associated Press, McCain accused Obama of waving the white flag on Iraq saying quote, “He really has no experience or knowledge or judgment about the issue of Iraq and he has wanted to surrender for a long time.  I go back every few months because things are changing in Iraq.  I would also seize that opportunity to educate Senator Obama along the way.”

Rachel, from the Obama camp, the idea that this is all a political stunt and they are not interested in going.  Any chance that they go together?  Does this catch a spark?

MADDOW:  I doubt we will see a joint appearance there.  I do think the most interesting thing about this is that Obama seems eager for national security and Iraq to be the grounds on which it is fought.  He‘s unlike Democrats especially unlike John Kerry and Al Gore.  He seems confident in national security and foreign policy.  He seems to think the Democrats have an advantage on that this year if he makes it so.  He‘s willing to bring it up and not just treat this as a defensive tactic.  I think it remains to be seen whether he can win on this issue but it‘s fascinating that he thinks he can.

GREGORY:  John, is there anything to this and is there a benefit for Obama to go, whether he goes with McCain or not?

HARWOOD:  There might be a benefit to going, but he‘s about as likely to go with McCain as he is to sit on McCain‘s knee and ask for a little foreign policy.  Not going to happen.  Barack Obama, John McCain may have some forums this summer or this fall.  And they are going to have a more wide open campaign than we are used to seeing, but I don‘t think it‘s the way Barack Obama wants to go about it.

GREGORY:  We‘re talking tactics in the McCain war room.

Now, accusations that Obama is backtracking on the issue of Iran.  On the trail, Obama is still stressing the need to engage in diplomacy with Iran directly.  But he‘s now saying that doesn‘t necessarily mean sitting down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, listen to this.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

OBAMA:  There‘s no reason why we would necessarily meet with Ahmadinejad before we know he was in power and he‘s not the most powerful person in Iran.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Interesting.  Gene, is this a slightly different take?  Before you answer that, the McCain campaign fired off a press release attacking Obama for inconsistency on his policy toward Iran.  Citing Obama‘s remarks on a press conference, this question, “You said you would meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”  Obama said “Uh-huh.”  “Would you still meet with him?”  Obama said, “Nothing has changed with respect to my belief that strong countries and strong presidents talk to their enemies and talk to their adversaries.”

His new formulation sounds not so much like he‘s walking back, but he wants to put a finer point on what would lead to the one-on-one conversation.

ROBINSON:  I don‘t think the basis can be that the power situation in Iran clarifies itself finally.  And we know whether the religious authorities or the president in charge.  Ahmadinejad is the guy you would talk to if you‘re going to talk to Iran.  I think, Obama, in the end has to stay at that kind of intermediate formulation, which is, yes, I would talk to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but no, there would be no preconditions, but there would be preparation.  That seemed to be the intermediate point in which he was straddling the fence without seeming to straddling the fence.

GREGORY:  Smerc, my question is does he do better by providing more details about the grounds for this kind of diplomacy or less?

SMERCONISH:  I think he does better with more detail.  Because diplomacy loosely defined, is a salable proposition.  But any notion that he‘s intending to sit down with Ahmadinejad.  Can you picture, David, the 527 commercials if McCain didn‘t do it himself that would show those horrific comments of Ahmadinejad, recently, the corpse, all those words, then all of a sudden, a sound bite of Barack Obama saying he would sit down.

I think he‘s doing the right thing.  I hate to be cynical, I think probably about Jewish votes in Florida and my home state of Pennsylvania that are driving the change.

HARWOOD:  This is the equivalent of putting the flag pin back on when nobody is paying attention and just gradually moderating your rhetoric a little bit.

GREGORY:  All right.  Let‘s discuss the landscape for the final push here.  Looking at the math, the delegate math, looking at the superdelegate score card.  Obama picks up seven superdelegates since Friday, Clinton picking up just one.

It means that Obama is now 48.5 delegates away from the required 2026 to secure the Democratic nomination.  His folks are saying indeed how far they are away.  Heading into the final stretch of the primary calendar, with five days from Puerto Rico‘s June 1 primary.  And Montana and South Dakota is on June 3.  Looking at the latest polls, in Montana, Obama double digit lead over Clinton there.

That‘s a strong state for him.  Thirteen percent undecided.  No new polling out of Puerto Rico, but safe to say Clinton is the favorite there.  John, assess the math and where things go as we get into a final week.

HARWOOD:  Obama is getting very close.  He‘ll get most of those 48 delegates he needs in the three remaining states.  There isn‘t much of a flood required to make him the nominee.  Now you do have that question of Michigan and Florida which the Rules Committee is going to consider, that could change the goal line.  But you could be sure any resolution is not going to be something that‘s fundamentally hostile to the interest of Barack Obama.  He may give ground.  She‘ll get more delegates out of that deal than he will, but not enough to threaten his lead.

GREGORY:  And of course, her argument about the popular vote assumes that there is resolution to Michigan and Florida in her favor.

MADDOW:  Mysteriously, Nevada and Iowa and Maine never get counted to come up with those totals.  I thought the popular vote argument was a bit of a canard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Total canard.

MADDOW:  I think it‘s important to recognize Senator Clinton is making a civil rights argument on the Florida and Michigan delegations.  I actually find on its merits preposterous.  But it‘s important to recognize those are her tactics.  Because that means she is not planning on walking away from that fight.  No matter the resolution on Saturday, that decision can be appealed to credentials.  The credentials decision can be appealed to the convention.  If she‘s using this sort of over the top civil rights based rhetoric on that question, I don‘t think she plans on walking away from it after Saturday.

GREGORY:  We‘re going to take a break.  Here‘s smart takes coming up. 

Can Barack Obama win November without the support of working class voters? 

One of our smart takes argues that he can.  That‘s coming up after a break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

               

GREGORY:  We are back now with smart takes.  We cover the papers, magazines, the blogs to bring you the most provocative and informative takes of the ‘08 race.  Here again to talk about it, Gene, Rachel, Michael and John.  Fist smart take come from our very own John Harwood who reports in the “New York Times” that Obama could win in November even if he loses working class voters.  And John referenced Roy Teixiera, who has done a lot of work in this area.  “Though, blue collar Democrats once represented a centerpiece, they have shrunk as a proportion of the information age economy and as a proportion of the Democratic base.  Al Gore lost working class white voters by 17 percentage in 2000 even while winning the national popular vote.  Senator Kerry of Massachusetts lost them by 23 points in ‘04 while running within three points of President Bush overall.”  So Roy Teixiera suggests that Obama can win the presidency if he comes within 10-12 percentage points of Mr. McCain with these voters as Democratic candidates in the House did in the 2006 election.”

So in other words, John, not as big of a deal.  Is he already there, do you think, at this stage?

HARWOOD:  David, that‘s the smartest thing that I have read since that hot new book, “Pennsylvania Avenue.”  You should have that guy on your show.

GREGORY:  We‘re here to support.  We‘re here to support.

HARWOOD:  Some polling suggests that he is there.  The Quinnipiac poll recently showed him down seven points, 46-39 to McCain among white working class voters, that is those without a college degree.  “Washington Post”/ABC showed him down 12 points.  In both of those polls he was ahead by seven nationally.  If he‘s ahead seven nationally he‘s going to win the election.  Structurally, the situation is there for Barack Obama to do okay, as long as he comes close to John McCain.

GREGORY:  OK.  Our next smart take, Barack Obama and John McCain traded sharp words over the GI bill culminating in McCain saying that he wouldn‘t be lectured by Obama who quote, “did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform.”  On MEET THE PRESS Sunday “New York Times” columnist Maureen Dowd gave her take on what the exchange really showed.  Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAUREEN DOWD, “NEW YORK TIMES”:  We learn something very interesting from this exchange.  For one thing, McCain really doesn‘t like Obama and he thinks he‘s the punk who hasn‘t led as McCain people like to say and doesn‘t deserve to be in this arena.  And we also learned Obama is not as intimidated by John McCain as he was Hillary Clinton.  He is much freer when he goes on the attack, much more confident.

And McCain has another problem, he doesn‘t sound as fun and genial as Reagan did when he said those lines.  And also he tends to take a policy criticism as an attack on his integrity and he attacks back on the other person‘s integrity and it sounds nasty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  A lot there, Rachel, take it on.

MADDOW:  I think it‘s an interesting analysis.  My reaction when I heard John McCain‘s response to Obama on the G.I. Bill was wow, thin skin.  He seemed to go immediately to the sort of argumentative nuclear option by immediately calling him out saying you never served in uniform and therefore you do not have a right to question me on that.  What do you say after that?  This is supposed to be a policy debate.

This is a debate not about whether or not John McCain is a veteran but whether or not he is adequately supporting veterans.  And for him to have taken it so personally there and put out such a vituperative statement I thought was a misstep on McCain‘s part.

GREGORY:  Smerc, what do you make of .

ROBINSON:  That‘s not the line of attack that John McCain usually takes against his opponents.  It usually doesn‘t say, you didn‘t serve therefore you‘re not qualified to talk about military matters.  So, it makes you wonder if there isn‘t something personal there.

SMERCONISH:  David, I thought the nomination process was correct.  That fears of one being called a sexist, the other a racist, kept both of them in short pants for many of these primaries.  And what tells me is the gloves are off.  How about John McCain using the “S” word “surrender” relative to Barack Obama.  And he didn‘t take it lying down.  Fasten your seatbelt for the fall is the message.

GREGORY:  It seems to be able to get personal rather quickly.  Questions about integrity and I think what‘s interesting about what Maureen says, the idea of who are you to question me on these issues.  That‘s a parallel to what we saw frankly in the Clinton reaction to Obama as well.

All right.  We‘re going to take a break and come back and talk about our three questions.  The veepstakes edition.  Talk about Bloomberg and others when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back with three questions about the vice presidential race.  Both the McCain and Obama campaigns have started the process.  McCain entertained some V.P. hopefuls this weekend out in Arizona.  Big questions for them, who can help their candidate win, and, if elected, who can help him lead? 

Back with us talk about all of it, Gene Robinson, columnist and associate editor of the “Washington Post,” Rachel Maddow, host of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, both MSNBC political analysts, Michael Smerconish is here, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philly and columnist for both the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Philadelphia Daily News,” and John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for cNBC, political writer for the “New York Times,” and co-author of a new book “Pennsylvania Avenue, Profiles in Backroom Power.”

First up, Barack Obama has staked his campaign on brining change to Washington.  In the “New York Times” today, David Brooks says the biggest challenge Obama will face is making good on that promise if he wins presidency.  To the quote board, “if Barack Obama is elected, his chief challenge will be that he hopes to usher in a new style of politics.  But he has no real strategy for how to do just that.  He will find himself surrounded by highly partisan Democratic politicians, committee chairmen and interest groups thrilled to finally seize power.  These entrenched Democrats are more experienced than Obama.  They know how to play the game better.  The effect of their efforts will be to turn his into a Potemkin administration, filled with great speeches but without great accomplishments or influence over legislation.”

First question then today, who does Obama choose to help him change Washington?  John, first to you? 

HARWOOD:  First of all, I don‘t know if they know how to play the game better.  If all those established Democrats knew how to play the game better, Barack Obama wouldn‘t be the Democratic nominee.  I do think it matters somewhat whether he picks somebody outside of Washington or inside of Washington.  If you want to double on change, and not operating under business as usual, you look at Tom Vilsack, you look at Kathleen Sebelius.  You might look at Ted Strickland, the governor of Ohio. 

GREGORY:  Is that the idea, Gene, you have to go outside of Washington?  It certainly is not an argument in support of Hillary Clinton on the ticket. 

ROBINSON:  Well, you have to—it‘s not an argument in support of Hillary Clinton on the ticket.  I don‘t think you necessarily have to go outside of Washington.  Two things; I think Obama‘s line has been essentially that you go to the people; you go over the heads of the politicians in Washington.  You kind of convoke this national spirit and movement for change, and they force the politicians to play. 

But the other point is that he had to play by these arcane rules to win the nomination.  In fact, he put together meticulously a campaign organization that competed in all 50 states and knew the rules in most states better then the Clinton campaign did.  That‘s how he won all those caucuses and those 11 in a row.  I wouldn‘t underestimate his and his people‘s abilities to play the Washington games when they have to be played. 

GREGORY:  But Rachel, the interesting point about this is that there‘s so much criticism for Dick Cheney and his role in this administration, but the role that he played is not likely to be abandoned.  That is that you have a vice president with a very large policy portfolio and somebody who becomes an important advisor to the president.  That‘s what is interesting to me about Brooks‘ take on this.  Then how does that affect Obama‘s thinking. 

MADDOW:  Right, the idea that executive power expands kind of like an old rubber band.  It never quite contracts to how small it was before somebody started pulling on it.  I think it‘s important.  David Brooks‘ idea is that in order to get stuff done in Washington, you need an old Washington hand there who knows how to get stuff done.  I think that Obama, at least in his rhetoric, rejects that and says that the old ways of doing things in Washington aren‘t the way that we need to proceed. 

I could imagine him looking at somebody like a Mark Warner.  I spoke earlier on the show about Obama‘s evident confidence on the issue of national security and military issue.  A lot of people have been assuming that Obama will pick somebody who will compensate for him on those grounds.  I don‘t think he sees himself that way and I think he is more likely to pick an outsider. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Next up, Mitt Romney, Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, and Governors Charlie Crist and Bobby Jindal all attended McCain‘s VIP barbecue in Arizona this weekend.  Are any of them in the running to be the VP choice?  Before we put the question to the panel, we want to invite you to make your own pick.  You can do that by checking out our brand new VP stakes bracket on MSNBC.com.  Think of it as a May Madness.  There are 32 names of potential VPs.  Please submit your choices for the first round,  and Chuck Todd and I will be back next week to show you the 16 winners. 

This is Chuck cannot let go of college hoops, and so everything is through that prism.  Roughly 40,000 people have made their picks.  Here are the results so far, Mitt Romney has the biggest lead with 88 percent of vote in a match up against Congressman Connie Mac.  Also leading by big margins right now, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former candidate Mike Huckabee. 

Now, let‘s find out who our panel is picking.  Second question today, who are the top seeds?  Who are the long shots to be McCain‘s VP?  Smerc, I go back to something we talked about before, Rob Portman.  He‘s from southern Ohio, former Congressman.  He‘s been in the administration.  He‘s handled—he was the trade rep.  He‘s also a budget guy, a strong conservative, but certainly widely liked.  He could play a big roll in a McCain administration.  He was mentioned prominently today by David Brooks as well. 

SMERCONISH:  First of all, I‘m the one who‘s going to win the flat screen TV for entering that contest.  I just want to serve notice now.  I don‘t think Portman has the national stature.  That‘s an insider name.  I just don‘t think it plays well in middle America.  I think that if the economy becomes the issue—it‘s either going to be the economy or Iraq, whichever is hotter—then I think John McCain has vulnerability.  Barack Obama hammered him within the last 48 because of that statement concedes it‘s not his strong suit. 

I think that bodes well for Romney, even though I believe they don‘t like each other.  Bottom line, John McCain needs someone with chief executive experience.  That could be Romney.  It could be Haley Barbour.  I still like Lamar Alexander. 

ROBINSON:  You know, David, I think he really needs a hail Mary at this point.  It should really be somebody who‘s known.  I don‘t—

HARWOOD:  That‘s a football analogy.  We have to have a basketball one. 

ROBINSON:  Here‘s what I really: what I really think is that Chuck Todd ought to be at least a number two seed in one of these brackets.  Where‘s Chuck in this?

GREGORY:  Real quick, Rachel, throw out a couple names about who you think, at this stage, would be in that tight circle of the short list. 

MADDOW:  For McCain, I don‘t think Condoleezza Rice is a pipe dream.  I do not see John McCain running away from Bush on policy matters.  I do not see him running away from national security.  I do not see him trying to remake himself as some sort of economic whiz kid.  I think Condoleezza Rice has a lot of things going for her, not least her youth.  I don‘t think that‘s out of the question. 

HARWOOD:  David, here‘s your final four: Mitt Romney, Charlie Crist of Florida, Tim Pawlenty and—who am I missing? 

MADDOW:  Condoleezza Rice. 

HARWOOD:  No.  I just blanked on my fourth. 

SMERCONISH:  Tom Ridge. 

HARWOOD:  Not Tom Ridge, but I‘ll think of it later. 

GREGORY:  Let me get this third question out, but I want to bring up Ridge again, because it‘s interesting to me.  Finally, this was the topic at my Memorial Day barbecue, the idea of Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the VP candidate.  Bloomberg raised more than a few eyebrows when he had breakfast with Barack Obama at a local diner back in November.  He told reporters they were just talking about bipartisanship.  The photo op did support some speculation that the mayor, who left the Republican party to become an independent last June, could be a possible Obama running mate. 

It turns out Bloomberg has been burning the candle on both ends.  He revealed on his New York radio show this month that he recently had dinner with John McCain.  He said, quote, “he did not discuss who McCain was going to pick.  He said that was one of the great challenges, was to find somebody.  We didn‘t talk about anything else in terms of the vice president.  It was just part of a list of things he had to do.”

Third question today, what‘s the possibility of Bloomberg being a choice for either one of them, Smerc?  This is interesting, because both of them could claim Bloomberg as a kind of home run here. 

SMERCONISH:  Zero.  If you give me some kind of blot test where I see the image of Bloomberg, the first word that comes to my mind is competency.  I have a very high regard for this guy.  But I can‘t see him playing second fiddle to anyone.  He‘s a chief executive.  There‘s just no way he‘s going to be comfortable, or that an executive would be comfortable looking over their shoulder and having him backward.  It‘s the same kind of a problem with Bill Clinton, if you take Hillary as the VP. 

GREGORY:  You know, Harwood, the things it that I‘ve talked to some Democrats who say if Obama really wants to send a shocking message throughout the political system about changing politics, he does picks somebody like Bloomberg, independent minded but a Republican still through most of his political career, that that really does send a message and could really help him. 

HARWOOD:  I agree with you, David.  By the way, Portman was the fourth member of my final four that I was blanking on a moment ago. 

GREGORY:  OK. 

HARWOOD:  I think Mike Bloomberg is a better pick for Barack Obama than for John McCain, because he‘s been so recently a Republican.  I think Mike Bloomberg would blow up the Republican party.  If John McCain picks a pro-choice running mate, he has big problems in his base. 

GREGORY:  Do you see Ridge getting any traction at all? 

HARWOOD:  Some.  I think he‘s got the same problem.  This is why Tom Ridge has not been considered more seriously in the past. 

MADDOW:  I have to say, I don‘t think Homeland Security, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, is something the Republicans are going to be planning on bragging on.  It‘s a huge of the federal government. 

HARWOOD:  We haven‘t been attacked since 9/11. 

ROBINSON:  McCain is on record as saying it can‘t be pro-choice vice presidential pick. 

HARWOOD:  That‘s a mistake.  They ought to take someone deliberately who‘s pro-choice.  John McCain‘s running on a pro-life banner.  It‘s time for the GOP to build the tent.  Look at Ridge, Harvard educated, grew up in public housing, Vietnam veteran, central casting good looks.  It‘s a shame that this guy gets crossed off the list because what?  He‘s pro-choice.  Ridiculous. 

GREGORY:  By the way, he was the governor of Pennsylvania. 

HARWOOD:  That too.  

GREGORY:  We‘re going to take a break here.  When we come back, a special war room looking at the Mountain West.  Is this where Democrats—can Obama, in particular, make gains here, and doesn‘t he have to if he‘s going to end up losing, potentially, some of the big swing states in the eastern part of the country? 

We‘re going to go inside the war room and how the west was won when we come back after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back with a second special war room edition tonight. This round, we‘re taking a close look at how the west will be won.  Why are McCain and Obama spending so much time out there.  Back with us, Gene Robinson, Rachel Maddow, Michael Smerconish and John Harwood.   

First up, getting the lay of the land.  What makes these western states a gold mine for McCain and Obama?  Looking at the electoral map from 2004, President Bush swept the southwest, taking home 19 electoral votes from battleground states Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.  As the “L.A.  Times” points out, Bush won by only the thinnest of margins, beating Kerry in New Mexico 49.84-49.05 percent.  In Nevada, 51-48 and in Colorado, 52-47.  So, you move on, winning the west will give the victor major electoral elbow room in November, but just how much? 

On MSNBC today, NBC News political director Chuck Todd said it could mean Democrats can give up the rust belt and the south.  Listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  It‘s a concern, if I were the Republican party, if I were Mike Duncan, who was on with you earlier.  I would be very concerned about the west.  If you suddenly—the west become as battleground, then Democrats can write off the south. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  John, Harwood, let‘s start with you.  Go to those states that Kerry lost narrowly.  For Obama, those have to be must win.  He‘s got to think those are within striking distance.  Why? 

HARWOOD:  They‘re within striking distance because they have a lot of those independent voters who have been gravitating to Barack Obama in these primaries.  Colorado is a prime example for that.  You see a much better showing for Colorado Democrats with Obama leading the ticket than Hillary Clinton.  They‘ll tell you that.  You have also got Hispanic votes, which Barack Obama needs to get once Hillary Clinton is out of the race and he‘s the nominee.  There‘s no particular reason to think that‘s going to be a lingering problem for him. 

The combination of Hispanic votes, suburbanites, the fact that these are less tied to the old industrial economy—we talked about the trouble with white working class voters.  That‘s less of a problem in those states.  You have more of those independent minded Democrats and pure independents, even some moderate Republicans that he can take advantage of. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, it is interesting.  It‘s not just a question of does he have an opportunity there.  This becomes a real necessity if you look at Barack Obama‘s map.  If he‘s potentially in trouble in Ohio and Florida, which is what Hillary Clinton argues is the case, he‘s got to pull off wins in the west to win the race. 

MADDOW:  That‘s right.  Everybody is focusing on the potential of him winning Virginia and maybe some states in the south.  It‘s really when you look at Colorado and even places Iowa, where he‘s got to be able to make the case.  What I think is fascinating here is that if John McCain is going to have trouble with the conservative base, there isn‘t an equivalent base problem for the Democratic party.  Whether it‘s Hillary Clinton by some miracle or whether it is Barack Obama, the liberal base is going to turn out for Obama or for Clinton. 

Clinton—McCain may not have that same luxury.  The fight is going to be over the voters in the middle.  It‘s going to make for very interesting policy decisions.  It‘s going make for very interesting geographic decisions about where to put the candidate.  I think the map this year, when all is said and done in November, is going to look like a very different map than it looked like in 2004, because the strategies are almost opposite. 

GREGORY:  What‘s interesting—hold on a second, Gene.  A state like Colorado, Smerc, you have a lot of independents who are really disaffected Republicans, who as we‘ve seen in other states, appear at least open to the idea of voting for a Democrat this time around. 

SMERCONISH:  Consequently, wasn‘t it wise for the Democratic party to select Denver as its convention local.  For what that‘s worth, I think it was a smart move.  I think the best analysis I read in a sound bite was offered by Governor Richardson, and I think it was the Politico that pointed out his quote, which was that John Kerry could sacrifice Ohio, could lose the state of Ohio, and still become the president had he only carried the three states we‘re focused on. 

I think that sums it up.  To be able to write off that kind of a rust belt state and still be president as a Democrat. 

GREGORY:  Talked about a new area of potential for the Democratic party. 

HARWOOD:  You can‘t write off the whole rust bell though. 

GREGORY:  Exactly.  Who has the edge over a crucial demographic, the Hispanic vote?  Remember, Bush won 44 percent of the vote in New Mexico, ultimately costing Kerry the state there in ‘04.  You take a look at the electorate breakdowns in each of the battleground states, Hispanic voters represent 37 percent of the voters in New Mexico, 12 percent in both Colorado and Nevada.  McCain made an overt appeal to this Hispanic demographic Monday in a TV ad called Memorial Day.  Watch this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  My friends, I want you the next time you‘re down in Washington D.C. to go to the Vietnam War Memorial.  Look at the names engraved in black granite.  You‘ll find a whole lot of Hispanic names.  When you go to Iraq or Afghanistan today, you‘re going to see a whole lot of people who are of Hispanic background.  You‘ll even meet some of the few thousand that are still green card holders, who are not even citizens of this country, who love this country so much that they are willing to risk their lives in its service in order to accelerate their path to citizenship and enjoy the bountiful blessed nation. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting, Gene, it sounds like an argument from McCain that he made prior to tacking the right in the course of the primaries on immigration reform.  He was in line with George Bush on this one, and ultimately had to tack to the right as the primaries went on. 

ROBINSON:  Right, he was doing fine until he had to abandon what many Hispanic voters would consider a reasonable position on immigration to conform to the position held by the right of the Republican party.  As a result, I think he burned a lot of capital with this group of voters.  I‘m not sure I get that ad he‘s running.  Love of country does not exactly equate to love of the Iraq war, as demonstrated by the polls.  I‘m not sure that you‘re going to find a lot more support for the war among Latino voters than voters in general. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

ROBINSON:  I don‘t quite get it. 

GREGORY:  Got to take a break here.  Going to come back.  Your play date with the panel up next on THE RACE.  Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back here in our remaining moments.  Your play date with the panel.  Back with us, Gene, Rachel, Michael and John Harwood. 

First up, remember we talked about the Hillary t-shirt idea.  Very interesting, we have the various choices.  This is from the campaign itself.  They‘ve got the various options.  This is one of them, number four, “ For everyone who‘s ever been counted out, been refused to be knocked out, or for everyone who works hard but never gives, this is for you.” 

Then, I think we have to look at some of the other ones as well.  This is on HillaryClinton.com.  Some of them have her image.  I like the pant suit one.  Go to entry number two there, and it has a rather nondescript pantsuit.  At the end of all this, Rachel, at least they are having fun here. 

MADDOW:  You have to be careful with the empty suit metaphor.  She doesn‘t have a head in that picture.  But I like the this ones for you.  I like the she‘s a fighter and stick for her one.  These are kind of great. 

GREGORY:  We‘ve got an email now.  First up, Francisco in Florida writes with this suggestion: “let‘s get to the heart of Obama‘s and McCain‘s foreign policy knowledge.  We can do this with a simple question.  Ask them to explain the difference between Shiite and Sunni Muslims and why we should support one group over the other.  If they can‘t explain that, their foreign policy knowledge is zero.”

There was a mistake that Senator McCain made repeatedly, Gene, on this topic, but I think he understands the difference between the two of them.  In fact, I think this could be the basis of some disagreement and some debate when they are asked to consider the prospect of a Sunni/Shia war that rages in the aftermath of the Iraq war. 

ROBINSON:  I think that‘s the fundamental question.  Is it in the interest of the United States to countenance some sort of really angry Sunni/Shia division in the Muslim world?  Have our policies encouraged such a split?  Is there anything we can do to avoid a larger conflict along those lines.  You can argue Bush administration policies have perhaps exacerbated a split that didn‘t have to be this bad.  You could argue the other side of that case too.  That could be an issue in foreign policy.   

HARWOOD:  David, I think the Hillary Clinton campaign is taking that first t-shirt as a refutation of that cheap shot from Gene Robinson about not having a soul anymore.  It gives her credo on there, standing up for everybody. 

GREGORY:  All right, Henry from New York writes the following: “with Hillary Clinton claiming sexism and the implied claim of racism against Barack Obama, isn‘t what we‘re really seeing here the slow implosion of the Democratic party and the very real possibility in what is supposed to be their greatest triumph, we wind up seeing the party‘s unraveling?”

I think this is an interesting point, Smerc.  There‘s so much pressure built up around the idea that Democrats cannot lose, that they are very nervous about the prospect of losing and not picking the right candidate to go up against John McCain.  There is a great deal of stress and pressure that comes from being in the cat bird seat. 

SMERCONISH:  I think we live in very politically correct times and I think the recognition of this—

GREGORY:  You mean I shouldn‘t have said cat bird?  Is that offensive? 

SMERCONISH:  I had something in mind to say on that, but I better not say.  There‘s cats everywhere.  This has been mantra, for better or worse, throughout the entire primary process.  Everyone is so anxious to be offended.  Oh, he said this, he‘s sexist.  She said that, it‘s a racist statement and so forth.  The general election, I believe—we discussed this here tonight—is going to be different.  The gloves are coming off and I don‘t think they‘re going to be so muzzled. 

MADDOW:  I don‘t think they are expressing offense just to express offense though.  I think they are expressing offense when they think they can use the sympathy that comes from that claim for political advantage.  I think it‘s been stupid most the time, but I think it has been strategic. 

GREGORY:  Look, history and demographics are the dominant themes of the Democratic race.  It‘s not about who‘s going to seek universal health care one way versus the other, or who‘s going to get the troops out of Iraq.  That‘s what dominated the Democrat contest more than anything else. 

MADDOW:  More than anything, Democrats want a winner.  Democrats want somebody who can win.  They don‘t—They‘re not caught up in their own history.  They just want to beat somebody. 

GREGORY:  That‘s right.  We‘re going to leave it there.  Thanks to the panel.  Great discussion tonight.  You can play with the panel every weeknight here on MSNBC.  E-mail us, RACE08@MSNBC.com.  Call us, 212-790-2299. 

That‘s going to do it for us tonight.  I‘m David Gregory.  We‘ll see you back here on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE tomorrow at 6:00 eastern time.  We‘ll look for you then.  Stay right there.  “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews coming up right after this.

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

END   

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