updated 6/12/2008 12:13:16 PM ET 2008-06-12T16:13:16

Guests: Michael Smerconish, Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson, Stephen Hayes

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, our first glimpse at the general election by the numbers.  Where are Obama‘s weak spots?  As the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on. 

And 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, at the half hour, a special look inside our new NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll, the head-to-head match-ups.  Obama‘s problem with white men and suburban women, is this a problem that a vice presidential choice can fix?

Inside the War Room tonight, the war over the war and when U.S. troops should come home.  Are voters prepared to accept a long-term, even open-ended commitment of U.S. troops in Iraq?

The bedrock of our program, as you know, a panel that always comes to play.

And with us tonight for the first time, Stephen Hayes, senior writer with “The Weekly Standard.”  Michael Smerconish here as well, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philadelphia and columnist for both “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and “The Philadelphia Daily News.”  Gene Robinson, columnist and associate editor at “The Washington Post,” and Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America.  Eugene and Rachel, MSNBC political analysts.

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

I‘ll get us started here tonight.  My headline, “Change is Coming.”

Inside our new NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll, a striking look at what is driving voter sentiment this year.  The debate that dominated the Democratic primary, of course, was change versus experience.  Well, we know how that turned out. 

With Obama, McCain, the debate has been reignited.  Our new poll asks voters this: “Thinking about this year‘s presidential election, which of the following statements comes closer to your point of view?  This is the time when it looks important to look for, A, more experience and tested person even if he brings fewer changes to the current policies,” said 42 percent.  A person who will bring greater changes to the current policies, even if less experienced and tested,” said 54 percent of voters. 

A pretty striking contrast there, 54-42 opting for change.  It is a change election.

Again, at the half hour tonight, we‘ll provide more surprising numbers from our poll. 

Rachel, your headline looks tonight at pretty surprising news, announcement out of the Obama camp today.  What is it? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  That‘s right.  My headline, David, is, “Obama Cleans House.”

Barack Obama‘s presidential campaign cut its ties today with Jim Johnson, a Washington insider who had become a bit of an embarrassment to the change candidate.  Obama had criticized the CEO of Countrywide Mortgage, which made it awkward—which made it awkward that the man heading his vice presidential selection process allegedly had received sweetheart mortgage deals from that very same CEO. 

Obama had also railed against runaway CEO compensation, which made it awkward that that same old Washington hand had been involved in some of the most egregious CEO compensation deals.  Initially, Obama resisted cutting Jim Johnson loose.  Here, for example, here he is in St. Louis yesterday. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I mean, this is a game that can be played.  Everybody, you know, who is tangentially related to our campaign, I think, is going to have a whole host of relationships.  I would have to hire the vetter to vet the vetters. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Today, Jim Johnson decided there would be no more talk of a vetter to vet the vetters.  And he resigned. 

To the quote board here.

He said, “I believe Barack Obama‘s candidacy for president of the United States is the most exciting and important of my lifetime.  I would not dream of being a party to distracting attention from that historic effort.  Therefore, I have withdrawn from the vice presidential selection process.  I‘m extremely proud of my service to Fannie Mae and in other important dimensions of public service.  This withdrawal should in no way imply that I accept the blatantly false statements and misrepresentations that have been written about me in recent days.”

Obama himself spun the resignation this way.  Obama said, “Jim did not want to distract in any way from the very important task of gathering information about my vice presidential nominee, so he has made a decision to step aside that I accept.  We have a very good selection process under way.  I‘m confident that it will produce a number of highly qualified candidates for me to choose from in the weeks ahead.  I remain grateful to Jim for his service and his efforts in this process.”

The bottom line here, voters and activists who believe Obama when he says he wants to change the ways of Washington are probably happy to see Johnson cut loose.  Traditionalists worry that Obama has lost an old hand and a steady one.  Change, after all, does mean rocking the boat.

GREGORY:  Right.  The timing on this very interesting.  We‘ll get into more of this and the impact of it in the War Room. 

Steve Hayes, welcome.  What‘s your take on Johnson‘s resignation? 

STEPHEN HAYES, SR. WRITER, “THE WEEKLY STANDARD”:  Well, I think Obama‘s old-style politics reflect bad judgment.  Basically, Jim Johnson is the latest in a long line of people closely associated with Barack Obama who have had to step aside, who have had to remove themselves from this campaign. 

You first, of course, had Reverend Wright, then you had Michael Pfleger.  You have Jim Johnson.  Who‘s going to be next?

Conservatives are training their sights on Eric Holder, who‘s also part of the vice presidential selection process.  I think we‘re just seeing that Barack Obama‘s supposed new kind of politics is hitting some—having some struggles with an old kind of politics. 

GREGORY:  Yes.  And Holder, of course, was—took some flak before now about his tie to the Mark Rich pardon when he was part of the Clinton administration and the Clinton Justice Department at the end of the Clinton administration.  So as you say, conservatives looking for more potential opportunities here. 

OK, Michael.  Your headline looks at the root of a huge battle between the Obama and the McCain camps over Iraq. 

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Really incredible.  My headline is, “Iraqi Crossfire Here at Home.”

John McCain went on “The Today Show.”  He said that relative to Iraq reducing casualties, more important than when troops come home.  That ignited a day of charge and counter-charge and facts and counter-facts from the competitive campaigns. 

As for who wanted you to see the entire moment, the Q and the A, it was the McCain campaign that offered it on YouTube.  We, of course, have the exchange from “The Today Show.” 

Let‘s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT LAUER, “THE TODAY SHOW”:  If it‘s working, Senator, do you now have a better estimate of when American forces come home from Iraq? 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  No, but that‘s not too important.  What‘s important is the casualties in Iraq. 

Americans are in South Korea.  Americans are in Japan.  American troops are in Germany.  That‘s all fine.  American casualties and the ability to withdraw.  We will be able to withdraw. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  David, this was a day where my Blackberry didn‘t stop buzzing from both campaigns on this issue.  You know, it was the Obama campaign wanting me to know that they had John Kerry ready to go, and he offered a conference call.  Then it was Joe Lieberman and Senator Thune responding to the McCain campaign.

In other words, the big guns really came out to play today. 

GREGORY:  Yes, it‘s a sign of how hot this issue is. 

Again, we‘re going to go inside the War Room on this and look at where there‘s a vulnerability here and why both of these camps want to have this debate. 

Gene, your headline looks at McCain‘s foray into Pennsylvania today.  He‘s trying to dig into Obama‘s past a little bit here from the primary campaign. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yes, David.  My headline is, “McCain Clings to Bittergate.”

John McCain was courting old Hillary Clinton voters in Pennsylvania today and brought up Barack Obama‘s “bitter” comments.  He made reference to that old controversy.  This is what McCain said. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  We‘re going to the small towns in Pennsylvania, and I‘m going to tell them, I don‘t agree with Senator Obama that they cling to their religion and the Constitution because they are bitter. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBINSON:  Well, that was close.  What Obama actually said was cling to religion and guns.  But I suppose the constitutional reference was the Second Amendment. 

In any event, McCain is putting down a marker there and letting the Obama campaign know that this charge of elitism and some sort of distance from regular Americans is going to be part of the McCain campaign. 

GREGORY:  All right.  I‘m going to take a break.  A lot to get to, as you can see from those busy headlines from the panel. 

We‘re going inside the War Room next, talk about this McCain versus Obama fight over Iraq, and the real debate that‘s behind all the politics today. 

Later on, your turn to play with the panel.  Call us, 212-790-2299, or you can send us an e-mail to race08@msnbc.com. 

We come right back after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to THE RACE.  Let‘s head inside the campaign war rooms now and take a look at what is going on behind the scenes, the strategies, the tactics, how they‘re viewing some of the big plays here on the board.

Back with us, Stephen Hayes, Michael Smerconish, Gene Robinson and Rachel Maddow.

All right.  Topic number one, McCain‘s comments on when troops would come home from Iraq this morning on the “Today” program kicked off political boxing match between Obama and McCain.  It got pretty heated pretty fast.

Camp Obama now blasting McCain for being confused and unbelievably out of touch.  Just hours ago, Obama surrogate Senator Kerry, John Kerry, that is, launched this attack at McCain right here on MSNBC.  Listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  ... being about the surge and laying out a strategy for Iraq, but not having a clue how many troops are there.  How can you be commander and chief if you don‘t know how many troops are there and what your strategic position really is, and how many brigades you‘re dealing with?  You know, it‘s really—let me just say one important thing to you. 

John McCain said at the beginning of this campaign that he didn‘t know a lot about the economy.  What‘s really surprising is he‘s now proving he doesn‘t know a lot about Iraq and the Middle East and our policy there. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  McCain wasted no time.  His campaign put out this statement. 

We‘ll put it on the screen.

“The Obama campaign is embarking on a false attack on John McCain to hide their own candidate‘s willingness to disregard facts on the ground in pursuit of withdrawal no matter what the costs.  McCain was asked if he had a better estimate for a timeline for withdrawal.  As John McCain has always said, that is not important as conditions on the ground and the recommendations of commanders in the field.  Any reasonable person who reads the full transcript would see this and reject the Obama campaign‘s attempt to manipulate, twist and distort the truth.”

Steve Hayes, this touched a nerve today.  Why? 

HAYES:  Well, I think it put the McCain campaign on the defensive, quite frankly.  I talked to a couple McCain advisers today who said that they weren‘t expecting this, certainly, and they felt like they were on the defensive.

On an issue where they think that they should be on offense...

GREGORY:  Yes.

HAYES:  ... when you look at this, the facts on the ground, you look at what the surge has done, you talk about 70 percent reduction in attacks in the past 18 months, they think that this is a winning issue for them, and they‘re happy to talk about it all the time.  This was something that rocked them back on their heels a little bit.

GREGORY:  Yes. 

You know, it‘s interesting, Rachel.  There is a serious debate here about the war in Iraq, which is, what matters more, casualties or the long-term presence of U.S. troops?  Because that is John McCain‘s point and it‘s always been his point, that Americans are on board if you want a long-term presence in Iraq, so long as the violence is down. 

That‘s a real choice for voters and two very different visions between these candidates.

MADDOW:  Well, you‘re choosing though between John McCain of June, 2008, and John McCain of August, 2007.  I mean, as recently as August of last year, he was saying, you know what?  Iraq is way too different than South Korea, for example, to consider South Korea or Japan or Germany to be a model for the kind of long-term presence that we can have with not only.  With the religious factors, but all of the other factors that make Iraq different from those other places, there‘s really no analogy there.  And so we can‘t be a constant irritant in the Middle East by staying there. 

I agreed with John McCain in August, 2007.  I don‘t know what has caused him to now embrace the idea that it could be Iraq as South Korea and we could be there for 10,000 years, or 1,000 years, or 100 years.  But he‘s made both sides of this argument very articulately.  And I think it‘s—the weird thing is, is his inability to come up with one story about what he believes and explain his evolution on this issue over time. 

GREGORY:  Let me move on to issue number two here in the War Room tonight, and that is Jim Johnson, who was the chief vetter here looking for a VP selection for Obama, stepping down today as head of the search team, along with Caroline Kennedy and Eric Holder. 

John Dickerson from “Slate” magazine had responded with a column initially when Obama‘s initial response was that this was not a big deal.  This is what Dickerson wrote. 

“Since Obama has just held a national seminar for 16 months on changing politics and shedding the old insider way of doing things, you might expect that he‘d take these disclosures seriously, if for no other reason than to show that even when it might hurt him, he‘s committed to letting the light shine on his associates.  Nope.  His campaign has called this issue irrelevant.  Double bad.”

And yet today, Johnson is out. 

This is what McCain‘s campaign in a statement said about Johnson leaving and not being the vetter anymore.  The following—“Selecting the vice presidential nominee is the most important decision a presidential candidate can make and one even Barack Obama has said will signal how I want to operate my presidency.  By entrusting this process to a man who has now been forced to step down because of questionable loans, the American people have reason to question the judgment of a candidate who has shown he will only make the right call when under pressure from the news media.”

“America cannot afford a president who flip-flops on key questions in the course of 24 hours.  That‘s not the change we can believe in.”

Jim Johnson has said there was no wrongdoing in the loans that were talked about with Countrywide, which was a major lender that got into a lot of trouble with the subprime loan mess.  It was that association, I suppose, to other questions that led him to step down or Obama to decide that he should no longer be vetting his candidates.  He did not officially work for Obama, was volunteering, and that was part of the defense from Obama. 

The question, Gene Robinson, in my mind is, boy, this was awful fast to act by Barack Obama.  Why pull the trigger on this so fast? 

ROBINSON:  It seems to me that Obama wants to have the high road on the government accountability.  You know, clean government issue that both he and McCain care deeply about and talk an awful lot about. 

He doesn‘t want to cede that high ground to John McCain, who incidentally has had—seen a string of lobbyists leave his campaign.  So he can‘t be tainted by the same brush.

GREGORY:  Right.

ROBINSON:  It‘s going to be interesting, if they are going to—if we‘re going to play holier than thou the entire next five months, but it looks like we might.  My question is, who do you get to pick your vice president, if not a Washington insider? 

Who do you get to vet these people if it‘s not somebody who knows the ways of Washington?  And what Washington insider are you going to find who doesn‘t have some connection to somebody else who has a connection to somebody else who, you know, has a connection to lobbying or something like that? 

GREGORY:  Yes.  But it‘s interesting.

On this point, Smerc, the question is, are conservatives, are Republicans really trained on the idea that we cannot let Obama own this reform idea that he‘s going to change the ways of Washington?  We have to kind of kill that idea as fast as we can in voters‘ minds? 

SMERCONISH:  Well, David, I think this was shooting fish in a barrel for the GOP, because in retrospect—and the answer to your question as to why they moved so quickly, I think it was so obviously wrong.  This is the equivalent of a Republican candidate running to, you know, shake up Washington, and then selecting Jim Baker as the individual to make that recommendation as to a veep pick.  Or saying we need a lawyer, or let‘s go get Fred Fielding.

I mean, I think in retrospect, it was the worst thing they could have done.  And then when you throw in the fact that subprime mortgages are an issue, the economy is an issue, and there is that connection—and I‘m not alleging any impropriety—but it was just a foolish pick.  So they moved on. 

GREGORY:  All right. 

Let me move on here to topic number three inside the war room. 

MSNBC.com‘s “First Read” blog, essential reading every day, crunch the numbers on projected turnout for the fall.  This is very, very interesting.  And this is what it found. 

Using the ‘04 results, this is what Chuck Todd, our political director, did as a baseline.  “If he (Obama) does raise overall turnout by 20 percent (approximately another 22 million voters) and wins those new voters by 60-50, a 60-40 split, assuming an even distribution, a 20 percent turnout increase breaking 60-40 percent for Obama would swing four states from red to blue—Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada and Ohio.”

“If Obama wins the new voters by a 65-35 percent margin, two more states come over, Colorado and Florida, with another (Virginia) essentially too close to call.” 

Rachel, what‘s interesting about this, Chuck and I talked about it this afternoon, ‘04 was thought to be high in terms of Republican turnout because of the very effective job that the Bush reelection campaign did, in effect, creating new Republican voters. 

MADDOW:  Right.

GREGORY:  So, in fact, there could be some drop-off from that on the Republican side.  Very interesting numbers. 

MADDOW:  It is fascinating stuff, because I‘m desperate to hear, I‘m very interested to hear, what the McCain campaign strategy is for turning out voters, turning out new voters who aren‘t going to vote for Obama, but are going to vote McCain.  Because as you say, the way that Bush and Rove did that was by mobilizing the very hard right base of the Republican Party. 

Obviously, that‘s not McCain‘s wheelhouse.  So if he‘s going to bring new voters out that are going to go for him instead of Obama, if that‘s part of the way that you stop that juggernaut that you were just describing there, I‘m waiting to hear it from McCain, how he‘s going to do it. 

GREGORY:  OK.

ROBINSON:  David...

GREGORY:  I‘ve got to take a break.  Hold on.  I‘ve got to take a break here.

We‘re going to come back with “Smart Takes”—Maureen Dowd on Michelle Obama being an easy target for the GOP.  Is there more of this to come? 

We‘ll start with Gene on that when we come back right after this break.  Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now with “Smart Takes,” the most interesting, provocative, sharpest-thinking out there.

Today‘s “Smart Takes.”   And here again, Stephen, Michael, Gene and Rachel. 

“Smart Take” number one tonight comes from Thomas Friedman in “The New York Times” talking about why Obama is popular in Arab countries like Egypt.  He said that Obama could get in trouble. 

Him writing about this, this is what he says: “The don‘t really understand Obama‘s family tree, but what they do know is that if America, despite being attacked by Muslim militants on 9/11, were to elect as its president some guy with the middle name ‘Hussein,‘ it would mark a sea change in America/Muslim world relations.  For now, though, what it reveals is how much many foreigners, after all the acrimony of the Bush years, still hunger for the idea of America.”

Gene, what do you think? 

ROBINSON:  Well, it‘s interesting that because Obama has just made the strongest statement I think I‘ve ever heard an American president make to APEC in terms of his support for Israel, but—and his commitment to Israel, it‘s interesting topic, though, how Barack Obama, as potentially the first black president, as a president with his name, will be received in the rest of the world.  And I think Tom Friedman had an interesting take on the Muslim world.

You could also talk about, how will he be received in Europe?  How will he be received in Latin America?  And you get different answers in different places, I think. 

GREGORY:  Moving across the editorial page, the op-ed page of “The New York Times,” to Maureen Dowd.

Steve Hayes, you‘re on deck for this.

Talking about Michelle Obama and what conservatives think about her, to the quote board.

“Just as Bill and Hillary did the psst, he‘s black thing on Barry”—meaning Obama—“now the Republicans will use the same tactic on the strong and opinionated Michelle.  Unlike her husband, who wrote in his memoir that he had learned at a young age to smile and charm and disarm whites of the notion that he might be a briskly black militant,” Dowd writes,” “Michelle has not always hidden her dangling (ph) opinion so well.”

“She has spent more time dwelling on the ways in which society can pull down the less privileged and refers to a callous by unnamed ‘they.  Michelle, as one political observer puts it, is a target-rich environment.”

Steve, is that how conservatives consider her? 

HAYES:  Well, I think they do.  And I think it goes back to a point that Gene just made when he talked about the idea of America. 

You know, Michelle Obama has said some things that have raised questions about what she thinks about America.  She‘s talked about being a mean country.  She said that she wasn‘t proud of her country until her husband was essentially close to the nomination. 

I mean, these are things that are going to make people question what she thinks about America.  It has nothing to do, by the way—it has nothing to do with race.  And I don‘t think conservatives are teeing up racial attacks on Michelle Obama. 

GREGORY:  All right.  No, no, no.  I wasn‘t suggesting that.  Just suggesting the idea that some of her sentiments on the campaign trail might be fodder.

OK.  We‘re going to take another break here.  A quick segment.

We‘ll come back, talk about our new NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll.  We‘re going to go inside the numbers.  The first time we get a real snapshot about the general election.  Some real fascinating numbers here, so stick around.

The back half of THE RACE comes right ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to THE RACE, I‘m David Gregory.  Good to have you here.  For the next 25 minutes, we‘re going to slice and dice and analyze the numbers just released from the NBC News/ “Wall Street Journal” poll.  You‘re only going to get it here.

Back with us with their analysis, for the first time, tonight, Steve Hayes, senior writer with the “Weekly Standard,” Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philly and columnist for both the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Philly Daily News,” Gene Robinson, columnist and associate editor of the “Washington Post,” and Rachel Maddow, host of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America.  Gene and Rachel, as you know, MSNBC political analysts.

Topic number one is head-to-head in our new poll.  Here are the fresh numbers: Obama up, 47 to 41, a six point spread.  Rachel, is this the bump some thought would be coming after he beat Clinton?   

MADDOW:  It looks like it.  It does seem like he has a modest but noticeable, and it seems to be proved across several polls, bounce out of getting that nomination.  John McCain, if he did get a bounce, he got it in February.  We can‘t wait to see and compare those two.  It does seem like Obama got what was expected. 

GREGORY:  Gene, there was a sense that after Hillary Clinton finally got out of the race, that he would get a little momentum going forward, even though it‘s been such an intense week on the issues between these two candidates.  These are the first head-to-head numbers.  Again, 47-41, Obama has the advantage. 

ROBINSON:  Yes, this is the first bump, I think.  McCain will get a bump after the Republican convention.  Obama will get one after the Democratic convention.  So we will see more bumps, but I think we did see Obama benefit from the Democratic race finally being settled. 

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting, the question of enthusiasm is reflected in this next question, who will win?  The way it was phrased, regardless of who you‘re planning to vote for, who do you think will win the election in November, McCain or Obama?  Look at this; Obama leads this one 54 to 30 percent.  Does this reflect, Steve, some pessimism among Republicans? 

HAYES:  I think clearly it does.  When you talk to Republicans out in the country today, I think there‘s a general lack of enthusiasm from conservatives for John McCain.  This is not a secret.  This is something the McCain campaign has been dealing with since the primaries.  I think that question, the anticipated victor, likely reflects that concern. 

GREGORY:  Is this grass roots support?  If you look within, not particularly this poll, but some other polls I‘ve seen, he‘s still polling very high, like 90 percent of Republicans with him.  That doesn‘t necessarily reflect enthusiasm to get out and vote. 

HAYES:  I think that‘s right.  I think basically what this question measures is enthusiasm.  Look, some conservatives have said quite publicly that they are not enthusiastic about John McCain.  They don‘t intend to vote for him.  This is something where the McCain campaign is going to have to really focus in the coming weeks and months, if they hope to turn out conservatives the way that Rachel pointed out the Bush campaign did so successfully in 2004. 

MADDOW:  David, I would just add that I think saying who you expect to win the nomination is not necessarily connected to who you think you will vote for.  If voters only voted for who they thought would win, then Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul never would have gotten a vote.  I think, to a certain extent, this might be good news, weirdly, for John McCain, just in terms of the branding of his campaign.  He loves to run as the underdog.  For him to be able to say, you know what, nobody thinks I have a chance, everyone thinks Barack Obama has this thing wrapped up.  I‘m the underdog.  I‘m the never surrender candidate here.  He could take this and run with it in a way that might give him some independent style traction. 

GREGORY:  It‘s an important point, especially because Obama didn‘t finish strong in the primary.  One of the knocks against him is does he coast?  Does he feel like he‘s not having to work as hard because he‘s up against an opponent who may not pressure him as much?  That may be a factor down the road.  

Smerc, you‘re on deck for this.  Number three, this looks at potential match ups, in terms of running mates.  If it‘s McCain-Romney versus Obama-Clinton, let‘s look at the numbers.  It‘s Obama and Clinton 51 percent over 42 percent.  I guess the first thing I thought of when I saw that is, really, only 51 percent? 

SMERCONISH:  To put it in radio lingo, she doesn‘t move the needle all that much.  What is a six point margin when you don‘t have a VP, all of a sudden it‘s a nine point margin, when you add Hillary Clinton to the mix.  By the way, we‘re all having a tendency to look at the Democratic side of the aisle, because that‘s where all the excitement has been.  One could also argue Mitt Romney is not bringing a great deal to that match up either. 

David, one other observation, because I think it‘s a confirmation of a suspicion I‘ve long held, the so called blood bath on the Democratic side of the aisle was, as I believed all along, helpful to the Democrats.  John McCain has been out of sight, out of mind.  What happened to that concern that they were killing each other and all they were doing is benefiting McCain?  That didn‘t hold water. 

MADDOW:  I still have that concern. 

GREGORY:  Gene, how do you read this match up? 

ROBINSON:  I read it as not telling us a whole lot about the fall, because, you know, the specific match ups—I agree that Obama doesn‘t seem to get a whole lot out of Hillary joining the ticket.  McCain doesn‘t get a whole lot out of Romney.  I think the overall picture though you get is that people believe this is a Democratic year.  I think we‘re seeing the Democratic primaries brought a whole bunch of new voters into the process, created a lot of excitement.  That‘s a lot of momentum.  I don‘t know if it carries you to November, but it carries you a ways. 

GREGORY:  Steve, this is—if you look at the next question here, it‘s interesting, to that point, this question number four, change versus experience.  When asked which statement was closer to their point of view, 54 percent said it‘s time for a president who would bring change, compared to 42 percent who wanted someone more experienced or a tested person who would not change policies all that much.  It‘s a striking number, shows you it‘s a change election.  How is McCain, do you think, doing something different than what Clinton did to go after Obama on the change versus experience argument? 

HAYES:  This is giving us exactly the explanation we need about why John McCain is saying I‘m both; I‘m experienced and I‘m going to bring change.  I‘m not a Bush third term.  I‘ve been in Washington for a long time, but I‘m not of Washington.  I‘ve been a Washington reformer.  I think you‘re going to see McCain try to exploit both of these things that his campaign thinks are strength. 

SMERCONISH:  David, what‘s significant about that number, if I can

just say so, that‘s now a 12 point margin.  All that is is a thinly veiled

reference to each of these two candidates.  In other words, when it‘s Obama

and McCain, it‘s a six point race.  When it‘s change versus experience, it‘s all of a sudden 12.  There‘s a problem in there for Barack Obama. 

GREGORY:  One of the problems, Rachel, is that both of these candidates face definition problems.  They are sprinting now to cast their image in the voters‘ mind.  For John McCain, he cannot be seen as too close to George Bush.  He has to be seen as enough of an outsider in the Republican party to escape the shadow of the Republican brand right now.  Obama has to prove he‘s reliable enough, that he can reassure voters, that he‘s not scary in some way, because of the question marks surrounding him. 

MADDOW:  Right, and I think the way you see that is with the attacks each campaign is levying each other.  Barack Obama is going after John McCain as essentially more of the same, carrying on the Bush legacy.  McCain is going after Barack Obama as somebody who is unknown and scary and actually starting to define the idea of change itself as a little bit scary.  You could have telegraphed this race a very long time ago.  We haven‘t seen campaign surprises from either of these campaigns.  The real question is going to be how good they are at attacking each other and whether they are able to actually score points on this, rather than just setting up to tee off this way, without actually moving the needle. 

GREGORY:  Go, Gene. 

ROBINSON:  I don‘t think McCain‘s numbers on that issue, on change versus experience, are going to be helped a lot by saying it doesn‘t matter how long U.S. troops are in Iraq.  That is not going to say change to most people.  I think the war is really a big issue.  It‘s going to be big in the fall.  And maybe I‘m in disagreement with some people on this, but I think it‘s a real weakness for McCain. 

SMERCONISH:  Why isn‘t Barack Obama getting all of those 54 percent is the question.  If 54 percent of the folks believe it‘s a change year, and if he‘s only at 47, where‘s that disconnect?  That‘s what I‘m raising. 

MADDOW:  He gets closer to it with Hillary Clinton on the ticket.  With Hillary Clinton, he gets to 51.  Maybe that looks more like the change ticket. 

GREGORY:  Let me move on to this question that Gene just brought up of priorities, and this next topic, voters concerns, top priorities.  Here they are, job creation and economic growth at 27 percent.  Two months ago, back in April of this year, it was at 23 percent.  The war in Iraq, as Gene mentioned, 24, up from 18 percent.  Energy and the cost of gas, pretty stable there, 18 percent.  It was 16 percent.

Steve Hayes, the war in Iraq, how big of an issue? 

HAYES:  I think it‘s going to be huge.  I think Gene is right.  The interesting thing will be to look at how the McCain campaign handles it.  On the one hand, it‘s his strongest issue.  Clearly, John McCain can point to his leadership on the surge and say, there‘s my commander in chief moment.  I led.  It was not a politically popular position to take at the time.  I led.  I fought off the cause for withdrawal from Democrats in the Senate.  This is my commander in chief moment.  Now we‘ve seen a reduction of attacks, 70 percent, et cetera.

On the other hand, people are eager to get out of Iraq, by and large. 

I have problem with the way a lot of the questions are phrased on that.  When you ask people if they want to get out, generally, people want to get out of Iraq.  The challenge for the McCain campaign is going to be to change the question.  The question the McCain campaign wants to debate should we win or should we go home, not should we just pull out versus stay indefinitely. 

GREGORY:  All right, I have to take another break here.  When we come back, another expanded edition of this war room to talk about his new poll.  We‘re going to go inside the numbers on the head-to-head match up and look at where Obama has problems with particular voting groups.  What does he do about it?  We‘ll have an in depth conversation about it when we come back on THE RACE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back with THE RACE.  Breaking down even further the just released NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll.  In the new head-to-head match up, Barack Obama has 47 percent, John McCain 41 percent.  so what‘s behind the six point difference?  Who is stronger among which demographic blocks? 

Back with us, as we go inside the numbers, Steve Hayes, Michael Smerconish, Eugene Robinson and Rachel Maddow.

All right, first up, how does Obama close the gap among white men? 

Let‘s go inside the numbers here, and show you what we‘re talking about.  Among white men in our poll, McCain leads 55 percent to 35 percent.  Again the question, how does he close that gap with that particular group?  Smerc, how does he do it? 

SMERCONISH:  First of all, he may not need to.  That‘s a 20 point gap.  John Kerry was defeated by George Bush in that same demo by 25.  It sounds like a staggering number, but maybe he just needs to hold constant.  My answer to your question, he needs an issue.  He needs a particular issue, I have one for him.  I think he ought to talk Pakistan.  Nobody else is.  Look at the news of the day.  We‘re doing nothing to go after those who really were responsible for 9/11.  Why can‘t Barack Obama make that his issue?

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting.  Is there something, Steve, he can do that‘s more specific to the economy, if we‘re talking about white men in particular parts of the country?  I‘m thinking Pennsylvania, Michigan, in states where they are really hurting. 

HAYES:  I‘m not sure he can.  I think this is a number that‘s likely to grow in John McCain‘s favor, in part because one of the things we‘re going to be hearing over the coming months, as we inch towards the general election, is much more of John McCain‘s biography.  You‘re going to hear a lot about him as a prisoner of war.  You‘re going to hear about his heroics in Vietnam.  You‘re going to be hear about his time in Washington, where he was been a reformer, much to the chagrin of some in his own party.  I think that‘s the kind of appeal that will help him among white males rather than hurt him. 

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting, Gene.  If you think about who‘s most likely to come out and vote, a lot of older people vote in large numbers.  Obama expects to bring out younger voters as well.  Older white men are going to connect to that biography of John McCain, are going to connect to his service in the military, his service as a POW during Vietnam.  They have not demonstrated yet to have a real connection yet with Barack Obama, both his story and his approach to politics.   

ROBINSON:  That‘s true.  I think Obama works on trying to close that gap, but maybe in the end he doesn‘t.  It‘s—historically, that‘s not a huge gap between Republicans and Democrats.  There have been bigger gaps, like in the Kerry election.  I think this is one of the instances in which Barack Obama looks toward those legions of new voters that he‘s bringing into the party and the excitement he‘s creating, and hopes to somewhat overwhelm that advantage. 

GREGORY:  We talked about that earlier on.  Next up has to do with women.  Does he have a problem with some women?  Here‘s the stat—again, these are inside the numbers of the head to head match up.  Among white suburban women, McCain 44 percent, Obama 38 percent.  Rachel, how do you read that? 

MADDOW:  I think that Obama is obviously looking to lock up the Hillary Clinton demographic, in terms of women who supported her, bringing them over to hi.  One of the things we talked about earlier in the show today, which I think is important here, is if the McCain campaign and conservative groups outside the Republican party proper are really thinking about attacking Michelle Obama, that is going to drive women toward Obama in droves.  There‘s almost nothing that Republicans can do more than attack the spouse to bring women home to Obama. 

The other issue that‘s emerging somewhat unexpectedly that might hurt John McCain with women is the trust-worthiness and competence issues that are arising just from the ways he‘s campaigning.  I don‘t mean to be insensitive here, but his repeated gaffes and misstatements and apparent confusion over factual issues I think is starting to snowball into an issue that is making people wonder about McCain‘s trustworthiness and steadiness. 

I don‘t necessarily think it‘s an age issue.  That‘s not what I‘m getting at here.  I do think it‘s raising—the series of gaffes, in particular, which is supposed to be his strong suit, the series of misstatements, the unsteady appearances at his campaign events, I think that may affect women voter, in terms of their comfort level with McCain, more than anybody could have expected before this campaign started. 

GREGORY:  Steve Hayes, comment here.  We both remember back to 2004 particularly, and 2000 to some degree, that Dick Cheney was seen as a reassuring figure, thought in Republican circles, among suburban women.  That was a big help to George Bush.  Still a gender gap there that was in Gore‘s favor and in Kerry‘s favor.  But they narrowed that some.  Does McCain stand the best chance at this point to be reassuring to women like that, or do women come home once Hillary Clinton really weighs in and says, no, you‘ve got to be for Barack Obama? 

HAYES:  That‘s a good question.  I think the answer to that question will go a long way to determining who wins the election.  I think McCain has the potential to reassure white suburban women in this demographic, if he can retain his strong posture on national security issues.  I think he overwhelmingly wins when voters are asked about national security issues and who they prefer.  They prefer John McCain.  I think we‘re likely to see events that unfold in the campaign where McCain will have opportunities to sort of reassure people and take hold and portray himself as a statesman that will further his advantage among that set of voters. 

GREGORY:  The third question here has to do with the independent voters.  Again, it‘s a head-to-head question.  It‘s an advantage to Obama by six points here.  But look at the independents, Obama up here 41 to 36 percent.  So, the question then, Smerc, are independents the real battleground?  Are they the group to watch here in the fall? 

SMERCONISH:  I think they are a significant battleground.  I have to say, on John McCain‘s behalf, I don‘t think his campaign effort so far has been so gaffe laden.  To the extent that it were, I don‘t know that would be more significant to suburban women than it would to any other segment of society. 

The direct answer to your question is yes, independents are in play.  Among all the demographics we‘ve identified so far, they are the critical group. 

GREGORY:  Gene, quick point here. 

ROBINSON:  It‘s interesting, because Obama and McCain would dearly love to appeal to independents.  They both have the image of—a kind of maverick image.  You know, I think this is the real battleground.  I think if Obama can increase the number, he can be elected president.  Conversely, so can McCain, if he can get the lion‘s share of independents. 

GREGORY:  That‘s where we stand here with this snapshot in time, our first general election poll that is thorough, to examine some really striking numbers.  We come back right after this break.  You‘re play date with the panel.  Take some emails after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  In our remaining moments, your play date with the panel. 

Back with us for your emails tonight, Steve, Michael, Gene and Rachel. 

Robin in Maryland writes this, kind of interesting, “do you think that America, and in particular Democrats, might just be too lazy for Barack Obama?  As a Barack Obama supporter from the very beginning, his campaign has emailed me at least 1,000 times to join in and support his candidacy to drive to a nearby town and hoisting a tent or stand at a rally, host a meeting at my house, join a meeting at someone else‘s house, et cetera.  As a country, we‘ve got a very bad reputation for being couch potatoes.  Barack Obama has all the energy of the Energizer Bunny.  He is the community organizer of all community organizers.  I just think most of us won‘t be up for the challenge.”

This is a question of enthusiasm, maybe not Robin, but there are so many Obama supporters who are that enthusiastic.  It just goes to these turn out models.  It‘s like the Republicans did in ‘04.  They tap into the enthusiasm and get people out there voting. 

MADDOW:  I think ultimately, we will know that American politics have reached their apex, they can‘t go higher, when we get a candidate who says kick back on the couch and eat some Cheetos, I‘ll take care of it.  I mean, what Obama has to run the risk of—what he runs the risk of is being characterized as social movement, instead of as a leader for the whole country, as somebody who you have to join in order to support, that you have to become part of other people who are participating in this group activity. 

Americans, while we like people who are charismatic, we‘re not necessarily joiners like that.  We has to avoid that caricature that you have to join this movement in order to support him.  He has to seem like everybody‘s candidate. 

GREGORY:  Dan in Virginia writes this, “I predict an October surprise from this administration to help bolster John McCain‘s campaign.  It‘s what Republicans do to rally their base.  Obama needs to tie our economic woes back to the war in Iraq, and add to the box he‘s gotten McCain in on being Bush‘s third term, the idea that McCain is the riskier candidate.”

Steve, I don‘t accept the premise that the administration would engineer something.  Should there be some national security issue, god forbid another attack on the country or some sort of military action, how does that cut in this kind of debate? 

HAYES:  I don‘t think there‘s a question that it benefits John McCain.  He is still seen, as we talked before, as the leader on national security issues.  I think the main thrust of this campaign is going to be to continue that perception and to give people further assurances that he is, in fact, a leader who can handle these times.  I think any kind of terrorist attacks, god forbid, or even some stuff in the Middle East or overseas accrues to John McCain‘s advantage. 

MADDOW:  Obama would certainly contest that.  The Obama campaign wants you to think of John McCain as the guy who is confused about Iraq and wants to recklessly start more wars.  So Obama wants to change that.  That‘s certainly the assumption that the McCain campaign brings to it. 

GREGORY:  Yes, whether he‘s tied—if this were something that Bush were to initiate before leaving office, too, that tie to Bush could be a problem for him. 

Deryl in Washington writes this: “We talk a lot about demographics and who people will vote for.  I was wondering if anybody polls military families and troops in Iraq.  I would think that it is a demographic that could really hurt McCain.”  Gene, do you see it that way? 

ROBINSON:  No, I don‘t, actually.  Military families, in general terms, tend to be more Republican than the general population, not necessarily overwhelmingly so.  I, as I‘m sure the other panelists do too, hear from a lot of military families who complain about the conduct of the war, at the very least, often the rational of the war, are critical of the president.  But I hear from military families with the other view as well.  I don‘t think they are going to be a big block for Barack Obama. 

GREGORY:  We‘ll leave it there.  We have to go.  We‘re out of time.  Thanks to a great panel.  You can play with the panel every night here on MSNBC by e-mailing us or calling us.  That‘s going to do it for RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE tonight.  A quick programming note, Senator John Kerry is going to be on “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann tonight at 8:00 p.m.  Eastern time right here on MSNBC.  He‘s going to talk about Iraq and other topics.  You don‘t want to miss that. 

I‘m David Gregory, thanks for watching.  See you back here tomorrow night.

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

END   

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