updated 6/11/2008 12:25:05 PM ET 2008-06-11T16:25:05

Guest: Michael Smerconish, Rachel Maddow, Harold Ford, Jr., Richard Wolffe

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, what‘s yours is mine.  Obama and McCain fight on each other‘s turf in a campaign year that may look unlike any other, 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. 

Tonight, McCain argues Obama will raise your taxes and usher in an era of Jimmy Carter economics.  Obama is working the battlegrounds today and making a lengthy list for his number two with military matters on his mind. 

The bedrock of this program tonight, a panel that always come to play.

And with us tonight, Richard Wolffe, “Newsweek” senior White House correspondent; Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America; both MSNBC political analysts.  Richard covering Obama these days, as you know.

Harold Ford, Jr., chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and former Tennessee congressman.  Harold is also an NBC News analyst.  And Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHD in Philly, a columnist for both “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and “The Philadelphia Daily News.” 

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

My headline tonight, “Making a List.” 

Obama‘s VP vetters are working the Hill this week, naming names and taking names.  One interesting name emerged today, General James Jones.  He‘s President Bush‘s Mideast envoy at the moment.  A Marine, a native of Missouri, he also served as supreme allied commander for NATO and headed the U.S. European Command.  Politically he is an Independent.

According to NBC News‘ “First Read” blog, here are the other names being mentioned this week on the Hill by Obama‘s VP search team: former candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd.  Senators John Kerry, Evan Bayh, Jim Webb, Bill Nelson, Jack Reed. 

Governors Kathleen Sebelius, Tim Kaine, former Governor Mark Warner—

Virginia, of course—former senators Tom Daschle—he‘s doing the superdelegate whipping, or he was—and Sam Nunn, who‘s gotten a lot of buzz because he put Georgia in play, the former senator there. 

Well, also on the list, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland.  He endorsed Senator Clinton.  He tells NPR tonight that he absolutely will not be Obama‘s running mate. 

A lot to consider. 

Rachel, your headline tonight looks at a surprise for Obama today within the party. 


While the Republicans predictably hit Barack Obama from the right today, my headline is about him being blindsided.  Republicans are calling him a tax-and-spend liberal.  You‘d expect that.  But he got some surprising news from a Democratic conservative congressman today named Dan Boren.  He‘s the son of former Oklahoma governor and senator David Boren, who happens to be an enthusiastic supporter.

Boren Jr. told reporters today that he will not endorse Obama‘s run for the presidency because Obama is “too liberal.”  Now, what‘s the significance of this?  Granted, Dan Boren himself is obscure enough that you‘d have to explain who he‘s the son of before anybody understands what you‘re talking about.  But for Obama, this could be a worrying sign about conservative Democrats who backed Clinton being unwilling to join Obama‘s camp. 

GREGORY:  Yes.  The whole liberal label, Smerc, is something that you‘re looking tonight as well.  Big speech today.  The economy has dominated this week, first week of the general election campaign.

What have you got? 

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  “Bad for Business” would be my headline tonight. 

You know, yesterday, it was Senator Obama saying that John McCain is a Bush clone.  Today, it was McCain making the case that beyond those oratory skills, Barack Obama is a classic tax-and-spend liberal.  And you know, David, what occurs to me is, for all the talk of this being such a unique race, in the last 24 hours things have been sounding rather, well, traditional. 

Give a listen. 


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Under Senator Obama‘s tax plan, Americans of every background would see their taxes rise—seniors, parents, small business owners, and just about everyone who has even a modest investment in the market.  He proposes to eliminate or drastically increase the Social Security earnings cap.  The Social Security earnings cap small business people in this room are very familiar with, and that would dramatically increase the taxes on you and employers. 


SMERCONISH:  Painting with that big “L,” the question is, what color is the paint when it dries? 

GREGORY:  All right.

Harold Ford, you‘re also looking at the economy.  This is a fight you argue Obama wants. 

HAROLD FORD, JR., NBC NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST:  Look, David, this debate about taxes is as much about values as it is about money.  Barack Obama has to paint John McCain as wanting tax cuts for millionaires and oil companies, versus taking money out of pockets of veterans who are returning from Iraq, those who are fought and, in cases, those who have given their lives.  Their families suffer, and when those veterans return home, they deserve a right to a good education and health benefits. 

That‘s how this debate has to be defined.  And the more Senator Obama does that, the more he will continue to gain on John McCain. 

GREGORY:  How important is it that this is a debate that Americans have heard over the last two cycles and, frankly, exactly the same way about who bears the ultimate responsibility for a bigger tax burden? 

FORD:  Well, I don‘t think the issue has to be framed in terms of a greater tax burden from one or the other.  The question becomes, where do we allocate our money?  Who gets what limited resources come the government?

No one wants to pay more in taxes than they should.  However, all of us paying taxes, we would much rather those taxes go to ensure we have a strong military, that veterans are taken care of, that the least in society have a chance, instead of ensuring that millionaires and oil companies gain a bigger tax break.

That‘s the issue.  It‘s values as much as it is dollars. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Richard Wolffe from “Newsweek,” tonight your headline is on McCain drawing the comparison between Obama and Carter.  This is the Democrat he wants people to be thinking about while Obama wants voters to be thinking about George Bush and McCain together. 

RICHARD WOLFFE, “NEWSWEEK”:  Right.  My headline is “What ‘70s Show?”  You know, you have to be of a certain age to remember what Jimmy Carter was like.  One thing to go after him on meeting with Hamas.  But you would have to be at least 50 to have voted for Jimmy Carter.  You have to be at least over 60 to have a vivid memory of what the economy was like, what the politics was like in that period.  And even if you‘re one of those strange voters who is over 60, your impression of the world of politics has changed. 

It‘s not frozen in amber (ph).  Barack Obama isn‘t talking about price controls.  We‘re not seeing gas lines at the pump.  So, the world has moved on.  And for John McCain to say there is a Jimmy Carter echo here I think speaks more about John McCain than the country right now. 

GREGORY:  Is it more about the liberal label, the weak label? 

WOLFFE:  Well, that‘s what he‘s trying to get at. 


WOLFFE:  But look, if you look at the comparison with the economy, for a start, in the ‘70s oil quadrupled in price.  And even at its peak, in today‘s dollars, it didn‘t top $100 a barrel.  Today, we‘re at $130 a barrel. 

The economy, while it‘s bad, is nothing like the wreck it was in the ‘70s.  There are so many differences here as an evocation of that era, it doesn‘t jell. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to take a break here.

We‘re going to talk more about the tactical use of Jimmy Carter in his campaign and why McCain is doing it.  We‘re going to go inside the War Room next.

Also talk about inside the numbers, the fight over the economy and taxes.  Later in the show, your turn to play with the panel.  Call us, 212-790-2299.  Send us e-mail at race08@msnbc.com. 

We come right back after this break.


GREGORY:  We are back on THE RACE, going inside the War Room now to get a sense of the strategy behind these campaigns.  Only a couple of days into a full-throated debate here in the general election, and it‘s all about the economy.  It‘s the debate that Americans, that voters want these candidates to have.

Back with us, Richard Wolffe, Rachel Maddow, Harold Ford, Jr., and Michael Smerconish.

OK, topic one: battle over the economy.

McCain hits Obama today, and hard.  Listen.


MCCAIN:  No matter which of us wins in November, there will be change in Washington.  The question is, what kind of change? 

Will we go back to the policies of the ‘60s and ‘70s that failed, or will we go forward?  Will we enact the largest single tax increase since the Second World War, as my opponent proposes, or will we keep taxes, low, low for families and employers?


GREGORY:  Yes, Obama didn‘t waste any time.  He had this counterattack today.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  And I‘ve said that John McCain is running to serve out a third Bush term.  But the truth is, when it comes to taxes, that‘s not being fair to George Bush.  Senator McCain wants to add $300 billion more in tax breaks and loopholes for big corporations and the wealthiest Americans.


GREGORY:  Got a real debate here, Rachel.  Who wants this debate and who needs it more? 

MADDOW:  I think they both want it.  I actually think that that is—I think that that‘s right, what Harold asserted in his headline, because Obama thinks he has got a real story to tell about the Republican Party, and John McCain in particular, favoring the rich and favoring corporations and sticking it to regular Americans. 

John McCain thinks he has a great story to tell, a very tried and true story from the Republicans, which is that Democrats will raise your taxes.  The problem is that there is one complication for McCain.  It‘s otherwise a pretty even match there, right...


MADDOW:  ... in terms of which is going to be more politically resonant.  But the problem for McCain is that he very famously was opposed to the Bush tax cuts, very full-throatedly, for a very long time.  And he does have to explain why he has changed his mind. 

GREGORY:  Smerc?

FORD:  To pick up on Rachel‘s point, this is a classic flip-flop.  And I think that the question that John McCain will have to answer, and hopefully Senator Obama will raise it even more, is which John McCain, if he wins, would become president, the one who voted for or against the Bush tax cuts, the one who wants them now, or the one who says there will be a different kind of change in the White House? 

GREGORY:  All right.  But Harold...

FORD:  John McCain has been three different people here in the last three months on taxes.

GREGORY:  Is it a flip-flop, Smerc?  Is it a flip-flop to say, yes, I was against them there because there wasn‘t the adequate spending cuts as well, as a conservative would argue for, but now hat they are in place, you cannot just dissolve them and have the effect of a tax increase that will have a real effect on people and not just the uber rich in this country, but a lot of people across the board? 

SMERCONISH:  That‘s too complicated and too long of a sound bite.  I think flip-flop makes—is more resonant in the world in which we live. 

But look, it doesn‘t help Barack Obama that on this particular day, when they‘re duking it out as to whether he‘s a classic liberal, that you‘ve got admittedly a member of Congress that probably the country hadn‘t heard of until today.  But someone within his own party saying, I can‘t live with this guy, he‘s too liberal for me here in Oklahoma. 

GREGORY:  Right.  But again, it‘s in Oklahoma.  I mean, that‘s not a huge - it‘s not going to be a huge surprise. 

SMERCONISH:  But he‘s a member of Barack Obama‘s party. 

GREGORY:  Right.

SMERCONISH:  I mean, to so quickly distance himself from the nominee within 72 hours of him being the heir apparent, I think it‘s a problem. 

MADDOW:  I mean, I think...

GREGORY:  Let me just keep the focus, Richard, on the economy and on gas prices in particular. 

One of the things that Obama wants to do and that the party wants to do is deploy a lot of their surrogates.  The AFL-CIO plans a nationwide protest targeting some swing states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, even taking the fight to McCain‘s home state of Arizona.  Look, it‘s a map of the swing states.

And I‘ll show you, we‘ll put it up for our viewers to see, this is the message.  It is about gas prices. 

This is the AFL-CIO: “Participants will call on Senator John McCain and President Bush to denounce their support of big oil, which has reaped record profits at the expense of working people who are struggling to afford skyrocketing prices at the pump.  Union members holding signs that say ‘Bush and McCain Love Big Oil‘ will also decry McCain‘s corporate tax cut proposal that would give the five largest oil companies $3.8 billion in tax breaks.”

Is this effective because people can feel this, they can identify with it, or will they see this as gimmicky in a way that a gas tax holiday is, this idea of a windfall tax on profits of big oil companies? 

FORD:  David, I think...

GREGORY:  Richard, go ahead.

WOLFFE:  David, you know, we have covered the White House for a long time, and one thing we‘ve seen throughout the Bush years is their concern about gas prices.  There is no more important number in terms of political fortunes. 

They actually thought in the Bush White House, to the exclusion of everything else, like Iraq and the rest of the economy, that their own approval ratings, certainly for the president, were tied to the rise in gas prices.  Now, that may have been overstating it, but it is a core value for people as they look at their own economic well-being. 

I mean, everyone is their own best economist.  They all have their ideas about which way the economy is heading.  Gas prices affect each and every American.  So I don‘t know that you can sort of take it on in a gimmicky way if you‘re highlighting it and saying what is the record here for the last eight or seven years, because...


WOLFFE:  ... one thing we haven‘t talked about so far—McCain and the flip-flop is interesting, but there was President Clinton in between as a branding issue.  Democrats are associated with a good period in the American economy.  Republicans are struggling with this record, not just on gas prices, but with the economy through the 2000s. 

GREGORY:  Harold,  quick point here?

FORD:  I don‘t—first of all, I don‘t think the gas tax holiday is a gimmick.  I actually agree with it.

I do think, however, that this is—at the end of the day, if the Republican Party, at a time in which American families are suffering, are urging that we provide more tax breaks to those who are enjoying record profits and not provide tax breaks and benefits to veterans and to families, that is a simple values issue.  As Smerc said so well at the beginning of the show, if McCain is able to paint Barack as wanting to raise taxes, and paint him into a classic liberal, Barack will have a problem.  If Barack turns this right around on John McCain and says, no, this is about where you stand and I stand on values, I stand with people struggling, you stand with those who are making and doing—and should say doing well off in this conversation. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, let me have you respond here to the issue of McCain comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter.  Let‘s remind people what he said.  This was with Brian Williams.


MCCAIN:  They need a little break from their gasoline taxes, and they know that we have got to get spending under control and we‘ve got to become independent of foreign oil.  Senator Obama says that I‘m running for Bush‘s third term.  It seems to me he‘s running for Jimmy Carter‘s second. 


GREGORY:  Rachel, does it work?

MADDOW:  You know, I think that Richard is right to point out that mostly what this says is remind America that John McCain was 40 in 1976, and that this is an era—that he sees this as front and present in everybody‘s minds in terms of, what‘s the modern era of American politics and what we‘re all thinking about.  And for I think most Americans, it is sort of ancient history.  It requires a lot of explanation in order to get why that is a bad thing. 

I‘m just not sure that Jimmy Carter has been sufficiently demonized to a sufficient number of Americans for this to hit as anything other than John McCain‘s telling another old guy story. 

GREGORY:  There‘s another point to this as well, which it is hard to put Obama, saddle him with this label of Jimmy Carter, if you have any sense of the two of them, just in a way if you have any sense of McCain and Bush you‘re going to struggle, some people are going to struggle and say Bush and McCain are not joined at the hip.  They‘re simply not joined at the hip.

That may be a bridge too far as well, comparatively speaking.

Smerc, what do you say? 

SMERCONISH:  Well, what I say is I don‘t think it has much to do with the economy.  Call me a conspiracy nut.

I think this is all about John McCain making a play for Jewish voters.  I do believe that Barack Obama has a problem in the Jewish community. 


SMERCONISH:  And I think that Jimmy Carter has been demonized to a certain extent in those quarters.  And I think that was the real message here. 

FORD:  I agree with Smerc.

GREGORY:  All right.  I know.

Richard, we‘ll get back to you on this question, actually, about Jewish voters, because we have a piece of you reporting from earlier in the week. 

We‘ll take a break here, come back with “Smart Takes.” 

Dick Morris predicts this will not be a close margin of victory in this race.  Are we done with the close races in this country?

We‘ll come back on THE RACE.


GREGORY:  Back now.  It‘s “Smart Takes” here, the provocative, the insightful, the sharpest thoughts about the race. 

Here again, Richard, Rachel, Harold and Michael.

OK.  First up, from Dick Morris today, he‘s talking about a prediction for the general election.  We‘ll put it up on the screen for our viewers to see. 

“I doubt that this election is going to be close.  Either Obama or McCain will probably win it in a landslide, depending on whether or not Obama can fulfill his existential mission of explaining to the American people who he really is.”

Who he really is, Richard.  Existential and essential, really both, because this issue of reassuring people, erasing doubts and defining himself so that by the end of the campaign, he can reach that threshold with people where they feel like, even if I have some reservations, I feel like I know him well enough. 

How important? 

WOLFFE:  Very important.  There‘s no more important question to deal with than identity.  And it speaks to patriotism and who the guy really is.

But I‘m going to ignore Dick Morris‘ previous predictions about Obama becoming the black candidate in South Carolina and say, you know, when it comes to the margin of victory, he is sharing a sentiment that you hear across members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, they don‘t think it‘s going to be close.  They think it‘s going to be a big win.

GREGORY:  Yes, it‘s interesting.  On either side, Rachel, there has really been this debate about, you know, if Obama lives up to what he could live up to, he could win it going away.  McCain could do the same. 

Do you feel like we‘ve broken out of this cycle of the hard-fought contest here?

MADDOW:  Well, it really depends on what happens over the next five months.


MADDOW:  I mean, I think the campaign is going to matter.  If it was a snapshot right now, we know that it would be, what, like a four-point or five-point race.  That would be a pretty big difference.

But the thing that I take issue with, with Dick Morris‘ analysis, is the idea, the, really, that the election is going to be a referendum on Obama.  I think that Morris would probably like that.  I think Republicans will probably like that.  But I think Obama is fighting to make that not the case.  I think Obama, if he gets to choose the grounds on which this happens, he makes this a referendum on Bush, and by extension McCain.

GREGORY:  And just on the status quo as well. 

MADDOW:  Exactly.

GREGORY:  A referendum on the status quo...

MADDOW:  Exactly.  Exactly. 

GREGORY:  ... which is the basics of a changed (ph) election.

Fareed Zakaria in “Newsweek” magazine talks about bipartisanship and some of the big issues facing the country economically.  We‘ll put it up on the screen for you to see. 

“During the 1980s, the United States tackled many of the problems it faced through bipartisan compromises.  The government passed a massive tax reform; it revamped Social Security and passed immigration reform; as well as a series of trade deals, all with strong bipartisan support.  These policies were crucial in setting the stage for two decades of strong economic growth.”

“The contrast with today is stark.  Now Washington can argue about everything and solve nothing.  A can-do country has been saddled with a do-nothing political system.”

Harold, you look at McCain, you look at Obama, where‘s the evidence that either one of them can break through this reality that Zakaria describes? 

FORD:  Fareed touched on it brilliantly and forcefully.  This is Barack‘s great, great advantage. 

And one of the reasons why this argument that Hillary used during the primary about experience didn‘t resonate as much as she wanted and, frankly, one of the reasons why John McCain‘s outreach and the nucleus of his campaign strategy, that somehow or another he is better positioned to lead and he has more experience won‘t work.  Americans want something different.  They want something new. 

And the frankly what Fareed said, a do-something and a can-do Congress to help America live up to all that we can be. 

GREGORY:  Yes.  The question is whether either of them really have demonstrated that they can reach across successfully enough to tackle big enough problems as he talks about in the ‘80s that need a lot of momentum to get fixed. 

We‘re going to take a break here, come back.  Another War Room here—reaching out to each other‘s supporters.



GREGORY:  Welcome back to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Time for the back half, taking you back inside the McCain and Obama war rooms.  Focus now, who is up for grabs? 

Back with us, Richard Wolffe, Rachel Maddow, Harold Ford Jr., and Michael Smerconish.  Topic number one, Obama and the Evangelicals.  He met with some Evangelical leaders in Chicago today.  It was interesting, a meeting that was highly tactical.  From “Christianity Today” this, “in the last five presidential elections, Democratic candidates have never earned more than 33 percent of white Evangelical votes, according to John C.  Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  A Republican drop from 77 percent to 67 percent would swing the ‘08 election.  If McCain‘s support among white Evangelicals below 67 percent, Green said, that would be a political earthquake.”

That‘s exactly what he has in mind, right Richard? 

WOLFFE:  He does.  Although, I think he has a more immediate challenge right now, which is to talk about religion, that he was very well known for before this presidential campaign.  But to talk about religion that moves beyond Reverend Wright and Father Pfleger.  He has to get back to what his faith means to him and bring it back into part of his every day discourse that doesn‘t, again, evoke Trinity United Church of Christ. 

I have to say, McCain‘s big challenge is not that Obama will take white Evangelicals away from him.  It‘s that Evangelicals who delivered so much for President Bush in 2004 will stay at home because they‘re disillusioned with Republicans.  It‘s not that they will go to Obama. 

GREGORY:  It‘s also the case in 2000 that they stayed home because of Bush‘s DUI story that came out.  But Smerc, there‘s another issue here too, which is that maybe Obama can‘t break into this to a big degree, but on the environment, poverty, these are issues that Evangelicals have been crossing the isle to work on. 

SMERCONISH:  There‘s no doubt that the Evangelical interest issues have expanded since the last cycle.  The tight rope that John McCain has to walk is to go sufficiently far as to make sure they come out to vote.  However, David, this is a race that ultimately is going to be won in the middle.  If he goes too far in placating the extremists within his party, he loses all that middle ground, and ultimately loses the election. 

GREGORY:  Let‘s talk, Rachel, about McCain reaching out to Hillary Clinton supporters.  This is what he said about Hillary Rodham Clinton in the last couple days. 


MCCAIN:  She inspired women all over the world, including in this country, and I respect her.  We‘d obviously love to have the support and are getting some of that support. 


GREGORY:  We‘re talking about Reagan Democrats, white working class woman as well.  It could be very important for McCain if can break into that category.  Nancy Pelosi understands, speaker of the House, at a DNC even today, a party unity event, she spoke out forcefully on this point.  Listen.


REP NANCY PELOSI (D), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  We want all those women who came out for Hillary Clinton and for Barack Obama, but especially those who came out for Hillary Clinton, to know that the work goes on.  Women and blue collar workers, whatever their race, have the most to gain by the election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States, and the most to lose by the election of John McCain. 


GREGORY:  Rachel, there‘s a fire wall being erected here.  Obama knows that he‘s got to be the one to reach these voters first. 

MADDOW:  That‘s right.  I think that, to a certain extent, you get a lot of points with voters simply when you ask them voters for their votes.  John McCain saying, I want women to vote for me, and if he does eventually start saying I really want blue collar voters to vote for me, that means something.  You actually do get points for that. 

Policy also matters too.  John McCain is out there making the plea for women voters and making the plea, by extension, for blue collar voters who supported Hillary Clinton on the same day he‘s toeing his I want a big corporate tax break line.  His policies, not only on Roe v. Wade, but on all sorts of economic populist issues and other women‘s rights issues is going to have to move if he‘s really going to try to make a play for those voters, more than just asking for their votes. 

GREGORY:  But Harold, inside the War Room for Obama, where are they nervous about women and white working class voters?  Where do they think McCain has some game here?

FORD:  Women bay pay 4.50 a gallon as well when they either drive to work, take their kids to school or pick them up from games or other activities.  Women understand what it means when you have a 12 or 13-year-old son and you are worried about five or six years from now if we‘re still in Iraq and we have to adopt a draft or embrace a draft to ensure that we have troop support. 

Every women in America, they are among the smartest voting demographic in the country.  I can appreciate what John McCain is doing.  If John McCain‘s best position in this campaign is to hope that he can hold on at this moment to Evangelicals and hope that he can break into Hillary Clinton‘s block, Barack Obama has to be encouraged. He has to continue to take his message to people, continue take it to the Appalachia states and those states where he didn‘t perform well.  If he does that, John McCain will have a very difficult time winning Hillary Clinton‘s women support from him.   

GREGORY:  At the same time, Obama is now talking about a 50 state strategy.  This is what his campaign manager is putting out to supporters in the way of a memo.  We‘ll put it up on the screen; “I am proud to announce that our presidential campaign will be the first in a generation to deploy and maintain staff in every single state.  Your work building our party means that a list of competitive states will be longer than ever before and will include states like Virginia and Montana, where your work has helped a Democratic resurgence at the state level.”

How much of this, Richard, is a head fake? 

WOLFFE:  A little bit.  I mean you can‘t really have a—

GREGORY:  We‘re going to have offices in Asia.  We‘re going to have offices in  Europe. 

WOLFFE:  I want to be the guy in Oklahoma. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

WOLFFE:  It‘s important for them.  It means they have a serious ground game and they are trying to build this up from the ground up.  That‘s important.  That‘s been important for them through the primaries.  It‘s some Democrats haven‘t done, any campaign hasn‘t done, because it costs so much and takes so much time.  It has succeed for him through the primaries.  There‘s reason to believe that if you register enough new voters—you‘ve got to do that early—you could put some other states in play, maybe in the south, maybe in the west as well.  But 50 states, no way. 

GREGORY:  But the question for me, Smerc, Obama has so much money and the potential to get so much more, and the Republicans will argue that they will be competitive as well.  What kind of ability will he have to actually commit resources in states where he doesn‘t really think he has a chance, but he wants to draw the opponent in.  He wants to draw McCain in.  Can he do that in a way that previous campaigns haven‘t been able to? 

SMERCONISH:  I like your word choice when you say head fake, because there‘s a lot of time left on the clock.  To the extent he spends time in some states right that ultimately he can‘t win, but if he can convince the McCain campaign that they can‘t keep traditional red state in their column, then he‘s achieved a certain purpose of tying them up in knots and getting them to spend money where there otherwise would not have.  The key here, as you pointed out, is he‘s going to be well funded.  Obama‘s going to have enough money if wanted to fund a 50 state campaign, even though ultimately I don‘t think he‘ll do it. 

MADDOW:  David, one quick point to add.  I think that it is important, also, to note that there‘s a national implication, image implication to Obama doing this.  It‘s not just trying to lure McCain into spending money, although that‘s definitely part of it.  It‘s also saying the Democratic party does matter in Oklahoma and the Democratic party does speaks to people in Montana and the Democratic party is not just a coastal party anymore.  We really see ourselves—we Democrats see ourselves as having a message that resonates coast to coast.  That‘s just a branding issue as well, whether or not he ever follows through on actually campaigning there. 

FORD:  David, one last issue, if Barack Obama takes his campaign to states like Mississippi, where you have a Democrat on the ballot running for the United States Senate, that could put Ronny Musgrove over in that Senate race down there in Mississippi. 

GREGORY:  Right, a lot of down state implications, good point.  Final issue here inside the war room, the Jewish vote.  We have talked a lot about that big AIPAC speech last week from Barack Obama.  My friend Richard Wolffe writes this in “Newsweek” with his colleagues, “Obama has trailed Clinton among Jewish voters polling match ups against John McCain, though both beat him soundly.  But Obama has many high profile Jewish fund-raisers, and aides claim his support among Jews will equal or surpass John Kerry‘s 75 percent in 2004.”

Richard, based on what? 

WOLFFE:  Based on the fact that they don‘t just vote on religious identity and questions about a candidate.  There are other issues the Democrats have found—where Jews have found themselves in line with Democrats for many years. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

WOLFFE:  The proportion, you can easily fall into the trap of drawing the wrong conclusions out of a very hotly contest primary phase.  But in Florida, they are in play and they could be crucial.  It‘s an important outreach message that Obama needs to do out in places like Palm Beach, where he was with Wexler the other day.  He‘s got to go out and say, I‘m your guy.  You can trust me.  And I‘m a regular Democrat like all the others you voted for. 

GREGORY:  Right, of course, the only play for McCain is to try to reach those normally Democratic Jewish voters who will vote on the issue of Israel singularly, because he‘s not likely to pull them across on other social issues or economic issues. 

Going to take another break here.  Come back with the big questions in this race.  Three questions, how hard will it be to turn McCain into a Bush clone or Obama into a lefty.  We come back on three questions.


GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  Time now for the big questions in this race, the big three questions in this race.  We have been talking about the big debate already in this general election about the economy and how both sides are looking for ways to make this a values issue and a policy issue.  Well, it‘s also an issue of political labels. 

Still with us, Richard Wolffe, Rachel Maddow, Harold Ford Jr., and Michael Smerconish.   Look here at the exchange again between McCain and Obama just today. 


MCCAIN:  Under Senator Obama‘s tax plan, Americans of every background would see their taxes rise, seniors, parents, small business owners. 

OBAMA:  This notion that John McCain is peddling, which is sort of the standard fare out of Republican candidates, that some how Democrats are interested in tax and spend is just not true. 


GREGORY:  First question then, how difficult will it be to turn Obama into a tax and spend liberal.  Rachel, take it on. 

MADDOW:  They are certainly going to try.  They‘ve done it to every Democrat who has run for national office for quite some time.  If I were McCain, I would come up with an explanation for why it is that deficit spending has been out of control under Republicans and under the Clinton administration there were budget surpluses.  You look at the surpluses that were left to George Bush and what he did to them to turn us back into deficit spending, I think McCain needs an answer for that.  If he can to that away by other than making people think back to the bad old days of Jimmy Carter, I think this has a chance of sticking. 

Without that, it‘s hard to say, I‘m the Republican.  I represent fiscal responsibility.  Let me take over after George Bush.

GREGORY:  But Smerc, make the other case here, which is if you‘re John McCain and you‘re reaching out to those independents in a state like Pennsylvania, you can say to them, look, you‘re hurting; the economy is bad and this will, in effect, be a tax hike.  Do you want to start paying more in taxes on your investments, your income, et cetera. 

SMERCONISH:  I think that is the case that he‘ll make.  I think that much of the back and forth that we heard, which is typical of many of the prior cycles, is a lot of white noise.  What‘s most concerning to folks right now is every time they pull up at the pump.  Whichever of the two of these individuals America is convinced is going to do something about those gas process, that‘s the person who is going to get their vote.  If they are a liberal, a conservative, an R or D, I don‘t think that matters.  They just want to pay less at the pump. 

GREGORY:  Let‘s flip this on its head.  Richard Wolffe, the second question tonight is about McCain and George Bush.  How difficult will it be for Obama to turn McCain into a Bush clone? 

WOLFFE:  Well, partly this is a question of the character of the individual.  McCain can point to all sorts of things in his record where he‘s broken with Bush.  As you mentioned before, on tax cuts, he has shifted positions. 

I actually think it‘s less to do with the individual than the atmospherics.  Think back to Gore in 2000.  Did people really think he had the same morality and integrity issues as President Clinton?  No.  But the searing memory of impeachment was so strong, people just tagged him with the same stuff.  I think that‘s the same problem McCain now has.  The shadow of Bush—remember how Governor Bush talked about the shadow all the time.  The shadow of Bush is going to be there all the time for McCain whether he likes it or not. 

GREGORY:  Harold, if you‘re John McCain, aren‘t you in a better position than another Republican to say I‘ve spent my professional life as a Republican outside the inner sanctum of the party?  I have been more of a maverick, so who better to carry this mantle forward. 

FORD:  If he does that, he runs the risk of alienating some of his voters.  I think the longer Barack is able to point to what George Bush promised eight years ago and where are today, and extending that four more years, John McCain will have a hard, hard threshold to overcome.  I do agree that it will be—if Barack does not lay out a clear, understandable tax cut plan himself on investment and income and talk about those who will see their taxes cut and hammer away at that, he will have a little harder time breaking out of this classic liberal tax and spend thing. 

He has an advantage now because the country wants change.  Five months or four months and 28 days is a long time.  We have to figure out as Democrats how we make that case, if Barack doesn‘t.  The advice I have fore them tonight is we need a simple, understandable tax plan, otherwise McCain will make some ground on this classic tax and spend thing. 

GREGORY:  Third question tonight has to do with the style question and the debate over the debate, this battle over town halls.  What are we going to learn about these candidates when they do face-off against each other.  Smerc, start us off here. 

SMERCONISH:  I think you‘re going to learn that John McCain is not as poor on his feet as he‘s been characterized in some quarters.  The recent election night where Senator Obama was in front of 20,000 people in Minneapolis/St. Paul and John McCain was in front of a small crowd that looked like a wake was bad advance work.  John McCain‘s been around the track.  The man‘s good on his feet.  I think expectations will be so low for Senator McCain that he‘ll end up doing very well. 

GREGORY:  Everybody knows that town hall—Richard, this is kind of a negotiation point—it seems to me, both camps want to come out with some upper hand here, which is to say, this was my idea and it was McCain‘s idea.  So they are somehow in control of the format.  A town hall is good for McCain.  He‘s taken tough questions at these things.  We know that Obama‘s strong suit is not the debate format.  Yet, I have sensed he‘s much more liberated when it comes to taking on McCain than he was Hillary Clinton. 

WOLFFE:  That‘s true.  Town hall formats are supposed to be McCain‘s favored territory.  I actually hope they don‘t use town hall formats.  We‘ve had town hall formats in presidential debates in every cycle.  While they are interesting hearing the candidates take questions from regular voters, what would be much more different would be the two candidates just going at it against each other, like the great debaters.  Get them talking to each other, making their own case.  This idea that the town hall format is radical and new, it just isn‘t. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, the question, too, obviously an institutional plea here for moderators; we think that journalists should be involved and have that role of asking questions and asking follow ups.  Let‘s not forget, the candidates going after each other, that‘s interesting.  But people who are selected to be in the crowd are not necessarily going to follow up with the precision that journalists will, whether you love us or hate us. 

MADDOW:  I understand the impetus to get away from journalists as moderators.  If you think about it, first on the right and later on the left, the media has been demonized as a partisan player.  To its fault or to its credit, the media has become a character in partisan fights.  Both of these candidates are sort of marketing themselves as post-partisan players to a certain extent.  For them to say, let‘s get the media out of this, let it just be us and the voters or let us just be us, mono a mono, is I think a populist message, in terms of how they want to do the stuff. 

To a certain extent, them saying they want to do this is anti-media message.  And they both think it earns points with voters.  Whether it means there‘s going to be a better or worse exchange remains to be seen. 

GREGORY:  Harold just 20 seconds, what do we learn about both sides here through this face-off? 

FORD:  That they are eager and anxious to get to the issues.  I‘d pick up on Richard Wolffe‘s point, let‘s split the difference and have Denzel Washington do the “Great Debaters.” 

GREGORY:  Right.  All right, going to take another break here and come back.  Your play date with the panel, some interesting e-mails when we come back. 


GREGORY:  We‘re back.  Your turn now to play with the panel.  Still with us, Richard, Rachel, Harold and Michael.  OK, Diane in New Jersey has this suggestion; “for the voters who are not comfortable with Obama‘s inexperience, would it be possible to select his cabinet members prior to the election?  I would think voters may be more easily convinced knowing who would be contributing to his decisions.”

Richard, it might seem a little bit presumptuous, no? 

WOLFFE:  That‘s the big problem with it.  I could see him doing something, as Bush did in 2000, which was to surround yourself at various press conferences with wise people who will be advising in some form or another.  Then you let the speculation take over about the people you have around you and who will be in your cabinet.  On its own, naming cabinet secretaries at this point, way too early. 

GREGORY:  Don‘t you remember early on in the general election in 2000, at the Press Club here in DC, you had Kissinger and Powell and I think Schultz and others as his foreign policy brain trust, at least at that particular time. 

OK, Dee in California writes this: “Barack Obama is trying to figure out a way to win Hillary Clinton‘s voters.  Why beat around the bush?  Why not make sure to get them by asking to get her to be on the ticket.  This election is to important to take a chance and to gratify personal egos.  No one wants to take away anything from his winning the nomination, an historical event, but let‘s make sure and win in November.”

There‘s a lot of that out there, Rachel. 

MADDOW:  There is, but there‘s a problem with the argument.  What Dee is proposing is a great way to go back in time and win 100 percent of the Democratic primary vote.  Talk about winning the last war.  The November election is a totally different election between two totally different candidates who don‘t have the same strategic decisions to make.  Bringing in Hillary Clinton‘s voters and encouraging them to really lock on to Barack Obama, as Senator Clinton has herself said they should, is maybe not the first priority for what the Obama campaign is looking for from the vice president.  It really is fighting the last war. 

GREGORY:  One thing I thought was interesting; I heard Hillary Rosen on HARDBALL tonight make the point that if you just look at the number of women who did not vote in 2004, and Hillary Clinton could bring them out in way that Barack Obama promises to bring out a higher number of African-Americans in this election.  The two of them together, powerful combination. 

FORD:  The numbers speak for themselves in this race.  This is a decision that the Obama campaign and he will have to make personally about whom he feels comfortable with, whom he can govern with, and most important, who he can win with first.  I agree with Rachel‘s comments, in a lot of ways.  At the same time, she makes a compelling case, Hillary Clinton does.  After listening some of the suggestions earlier in the state, Jim Jones and others, there‘s a number of good Democrats out there.  Barack‘s got a good field and a good list to choose from. 

GREGORY:  Richard, we talked about Jim Jones on the top, General Jones, that‘s an overly large.  What‘s this about, this canvassing Capital Hill?  Is it buying time?  Is it casting a wide net to throw us off the trail to what he‘s really thinking about? 

WOLFFE:  I think this is the early stage of vetting.  And vetting hasn‘t been done on these people.  It‘s also about uniting the party, about making people feel like they have been consulted.  They are going to be listened to, not just in the campaign, but also if Obama is elected.  That‘s an important signal for him to send right now. 

FORD:  David, can I say one other thing?  I do think that surrounding himself with some old wise men and women early on—I disagree slightly with some of the comments.  I think it would be a good thing for Senator Obama, because it would allay some of the concerns that some may have and it would blunt some of the criticism that John McCain is throwing his way.  Whether it‘s a strong list of potential VP candidates, and even three or four wise men and women in the party, those who he would seek their advice as president, I think would be a very good thing for the candidate. 

GREGORY:  It‘s this old argument, Rachel, which is that, look, I may have doubts about the candidate, but he‘ll surround himself with really competent people.  That was the case with George Bush.  It didn‘t stop the criticism from flowing his way after the war. 

MADDOW:  You also end up putting a bulls eye on all those people and they become part of what gets attacked in your campaign, whether or not you actually brought them.  I think there are some benefits and some risks.  I would say the risks outweigh the benefits. 

FORD:  Bush won both times, just for the record. 

GREGORY:  That‘s true.  Let‘s not get ahead of ourselves. 

FORD:  They said he won both times. 

MADDOW:  He was selected, that‘s right.  

GREGORY:  You can play with the panel every weeknight here on MSNBC.  E-mail us at Race08@MSNBC.com or call us as well.  Thanks to a great panel tonight, really enjoyed it.  This race is on and we are here on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Thanks for watching.  “HARDBALL” coming up next.



Content and programming copyright 2008 NBC.  ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. Transcription Copyright 2008 Voxant, Inc.  ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall  user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon NBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation

Watch Race for the White House each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET


Discussion comments