updated 6/25/2008 10:51:53 AM ET 2008-06-25T14:51:53

Guests: Rachel Maddow, Jay Carney, Tony Blankley, Michael Smerconish

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Tonight, Obama‘s Muslim problem.  Is it actually with Muslims?  And is the Democratic nominee inching toward the political center?  As the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on. 

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

Tonight new poll numbers show a widening gap in Obama‘s favor as John McCain campaigns in California today, arguing he‘s the one who can give Americans hope when it comes to sky-high gas prices. 

Where are the Clintons today?  Well, she‘s back at work on the Hill and the former president is lining up behind Barack Obama, well, sort of.  The big picture tonight in “3 Questions.” The politics of terror.  After the Bush years, do they really still favor a Republican? 

The bedrock of this program, as you know, a panel that always comes to play.  And with us tonight, Jay Carney, TIME magazine‘s Washington bureau chief; Tony Blankley, syndicated columnist; Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philadelphia, and columnist for both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News; Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America and an MSNBC political analyst. 

We begin, as we do each night, with everyone‘s take on the most important political story of the day.  It is the “Headlines.” 

Rachel, we talked about the Clintons.  You start us off tonight. 

You‘re thinking about them as well.  What‘s your “Headline”?

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Thanks, David.  My “Headline” is, could he have played this down any more?  Just as all us Democrat-watchers eagerly await the first joint appearance by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton later this week. 

We‘ve all also been eagerly awaiting the inevitable Bill Clinton-Obama endorsement.  It did happen today, but if you blinked you might have missed it.  Clinton released precisely one unpunctuated sentence, by e-mail, through a spokesman today saying essentially, yes, I‘m happy to help out. 

If we‘re supposed to be reading between the lines to suss out Bill Clinton‘s level of enthusiasm for Barack Obama‘s candidacy, that message is as clear as it could possibly be and it is not a positive message. 

GREGORY:  You know, Rachel, I talked to somebody within the Obama campaign today who said the mantra is right now, don‘t push the Clintons.  That comes from Obama, himself.  They realize they have got to come and do this on their own terms. 

MADDOW:  And apparently the Clinton campaign is willing to give the impression that they are not 100 percent there.  Not the Clinton campaign, the Bill Clinton juggernaut, I guess.  I saw this as sort of a damning-with-faint-praise slap. 

GREGORY:  Yes, we know that they are going to be campaigning together, that is Obama and Senator Clinton.  It doesn‘t look like Bill Clinton is big in this picture just yet.  It reminds me of something which is that in 2000 and 2004, the Democratic nominee found it tricky to deal with Bill Clinton in terms of where to put him. 

MADDOW:  Yes, certainly.  And every Democrat for the next few cycles is going to have to deal with that, as well.  He‘s the only two-term Democratic senator (sic) we‘ve had in modern American history.  And he looms large, even with all of his flaws and with all of the enthusiasm that he generates. 

It‘s a very complicated thing.  But having had Senator Clinton get so close in this primary, I mean, I don‘t envy the Obama campaign, the choices they have to make about how to use him, or not. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Jay Carney, you‘re looking at the faux outrage over this politics of terror business and Charlie Black, what‘s your “Headline”?

JAY CARNEY, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, TIME:  Absolutely, David.  My “Headline” is outrage alert.  You know, we‘re in round 15 of the grievance wars, the outrage wars in this campaign where each campaign jumps on some statement by a campaign official from the other campaign or the candidate himself and sort of turns it into something just horribly, horribly wrong. 

Now in this case, it‘s Charlie Black, the veteran Republican political consultant who is a senior strategist for John McCain.  Black, as you know, is quoted in Fortune magazine saying that if there were a terrorist attack on U.S. soil between now and the election, it would be an advantage for McCain. 

Well, what‘s wrong with that?  It‘s a gaffe.  As Michael Kinsley famously said, a gaffe is when a politician, or in this case, a political operative, speaks the truth.  And of course, I think it‘s conventional wisdom and probably true that if there was a terrorist attack on U.S. soil between now and Election Day, it will benefit the candidate who is more associated with national security.  That is John McCain. 

But the umbrage and outrage is really getting tiresome.  You know, the Obama campaign jumped on this, milked it for what it was worth yesterday.  Did it again this morning in a conference call with Richard Ben-Veniste who was on the 9/11 Commission. 

And now I expect that the next time a Democrat even remotely affiliated with the Obama campaign suggests that a spike in unemployment, perhaps, would help Obama, the McCain campaign will be outraged that they would call for such horrible, horrible things to happen to the American people. 

GREGORY:  We‘re going to debate this in “3 Questions” tonight, whether national security politics really do still favor Republicans or whether that has changed.  Rachel has talked a lot about that. 

Tony Blankley, tonight, you‘re focused on energy.  Out there, McCain with the “Governator” in California talking about energy day in and day out.  What‘s your “Headline”?

TONY BLANKLEY, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST:  My “Headline” is McCain has heavy foot on the gas.  This is interesting.  The gas issue, the oil price issue didn‘t exist on the political horizon a month ago.  Now, it‘s becoming, at least for the time being, a central issue. 

McCain has somewhat surprisingly moved to the sound of that issue.  And he has come out strongly for oil drilling and other issues to motivate both conservation and production. 

And surprisingly—more surprisingly yet, he has caught Obama flat-footed.  I think Obama is stuck a little bit because of the institutional support the environmental issue has in the Democratic Party.  And he is forced to, I think, what may be the wrong side of the issue. 

I talked to a Democratic consultant late last week who said that he was advising his candidate, Senate, in the field, to come out for oil drilling.  This is a contrary position than normally Democrats would hold, or even Republicans these days. 

So I think this is an emerging issue and McCain is trying to exploit it for all it‘s worth.  I think he‘s smart to do so.  I happen to personally agree with him on the issue as well. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Smerc, your “Headline” tonight? 

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  My “Headline” tonight, David, losing my religion.  The presidential candidates might want to read the findings that were just released from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 

There‘s an enormous amount of data that speak to the country and our religious practices.  We‘re still a very religious nation, but it seems that we‘re more religiously diffuse, we‘re more tolerant than ever before.  The Pew survey, as a matter of fact, said that Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith. 

So what does that mean to the context in the presidential race?  It means that the candidates perhaps can no longer rely upon those old political religious affiliations.  Many self-professed conservatives, by way of example, agree with liberals when it comes to the economy, when it comes to certain aspects of the approach to the environment. 

And so we often speak of driving the base.  It‘s not so easy to discern what exactly the base consists of in this particular election. 

GREGORY:  Yes, and it‘s so interesting at a time when Barack Obama is reaching out to evangelicals when evangelicals may not necessarily be (INAUDIBLE) really behind John McCain.  He has got to fight for them as well.  We talk about redesigning the map between blue and red in this election, also in terms of religious affiliation and political affiliation is up for grabs as well. 

We‘ll take a break here, come back, go “Inside the War Room.” We‘ll talk about these issues and more, including Hillary Clinton‘s return to Capitol Hill today, got a warm response in the warm sunshine of Washington, D.C.  Cheers and applause greeted the New York senator.  We‘ll talk more about that and her upcoming event with Obama. 

Later on, your play date with the panel.  Call us, 212-790-2299 or you can e-mail as well, race08@msnbc.com.  The RACE will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We are back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Time to go “Inside the War Room” to look at the numbers, the tactics, the strategies.  What‘s going on inside these campaigns?  We‘ll do it first, looking at Barack Obama.  And back with us, our panel tonight, Jay Carney, Tony Blankley, Michael Smerconish, and Rachel Maddow. 

First topic tonight, new polling that‘s coming out late this afternoon, L.A. Times/Bloomberg, this is the head-to-head number between McCain and Obama: 49-37 percent, double digits there for Obama.  It‘s the second poll to show that that is in fact the case.  Look at the four-man ballot, if you include Bob Barr and Ralph Nader how the number changes ever so slightly.  It‘s Obama 48, McCain 33, Nader 4 percent, Bob Barr, 3 percent. 

Jay Carney, I know you love a good poll, what do you see here? 

CARNEY:  Well, I see the continuance of a trend.  I‘m not sure that this poll or the other one that showed it in double digits nationwide is accurate, but if you take an average of say the last four or five polls over the last few weeks, it‘s clear that Obama has gotten a bounce, having secured the nomination, and is widening his lead. 

And importantly, much more importantly than these national polls, David, he‘s improving his position in key states like Michigan and Ohio, and putting a lot of pressure on McCain in states like Virginia and North Carolina. 

So I think, obviously, this is very good news for Barack Obama and sobering news for John McCain. 

GREGORY:  Yes, Tony, if you look at this on the other side, what do you see? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, I generally agree.  Now I don‘t give much predictive power to polls that are four-and-a-half months out, before the campaign has been engaged.  I think the interesting numbers are the third- and fourth-party candidate numbers that almost invariably shrink as you approach Election Day. 

As the race heats up, most people don‘t want to waste their vote.  So if this is the high point, 3 and 4 percent for the third- and fourth-party candidates, it suggests that they will be lower, which will be a smaller number come November. 

As far as the head-to-head, I‘m going to follow—all season, I‘m going to follow Obama‘s number more than McCain‘s.  I think it‘s Obama‘s to lose.  And I‘d be interested to see, if he starts sustaining polls above 50 percent, then I‘ll really be trembling in my shoes. 

GREGORY:  Let me keep going.  Yes, Obama at 49 percent.  He‘s still not 50 percent.  In the other poll earlier in the week, he had cracked 50 percent.  So we want to watch that as well. 

Second topic here, Obama and the Clintons, something Rachel talked about in the “Headline” today.  On Capitol Hill, Senator Clinton back in business.  Back to the Capitol.  She was greeted with cheers and well-wishers there here in Washington on Capitol Hill. 

Meantime, it was Bill Clinton who was traveling who issued a statement responding to some questions about where he is in terms of Barack Obama.  And this is what he said.  We‘ll put it on the screen for our viewers to see.  “President Clinton is obviously committed to doing whatever he can and is asked to do to ensure Senator Obama is the next president of the United States.” That from Matt McKenna, a Bill Clinton spokesman. 

The big question there, Smerc, is what is it that Obama is going to ask him to do? 

SMERCONISH:  Well, if I were Barack Obama, I would be wiping the slate clean and I‘d be asking him to do a whole host of things, because his role relative to the primary season just really got off track.  I still maintain that he‘s the best of the lot out there when it comes to campaigning.  And he has desperately needed particularly to keep in house in the Democratic column those non-college-educated white voters. 

GREGORY:  Yes, I mean, you know, Rachel, if you just look at the map, and you look at the primary history, why not try tap into all of Clinton‘s strength.  And you can do that in part with Hillary Clinton, but as you always would argue, just because she got the votes in a primary doesn‘t mean they wouldn‘t go to Barack Obama. 

But where those voters are elusive, in Appalachia, for instance, in rural parts of other states that may be battlegrounds, that‘s where Bill Clinton may be far more important than even Hillary Clinton. 

MADDOW:  But voters everywhere, coast to coast, have to believe that the person who they are hearing stump for the candidates really believes it.  And they do have to—I mean, people are smart.  You know?  And you can detect political authenticity. 

And Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, one thing they both share is a sense that they—at least voters sense that they really believe what they are saying, and that they believe what they bring to the table politically.  That‘s why they inspire such emotional fervor as well as political support. 

I think it also works for both of them on the downside too.  When they say something they don‘t really believe, you can tell they don‘t feel like they‘re good actors.  And so that‘s why I think it matters that this isn‘t a big personal effusive statement from Bill Clinton in all the ways we know he can do that.  This is a one-sentence statement by e-mail through a spokesman. 

He can‘t really downplay it any more than he did.  And I think that may be a signal. 

GREGORY:  Let me move on here to the topic of Obama and Muslims.  A piece in The New York Times today saying that some within the community are not very happy at how they are being treated by Obama.  Remember last week when a couple of supporters were asked not to be in the picture because they were wearing headscarves, they were Muslim. 

This is how The New York Times reports it, in part: “While the senator had visited churches and synagogues,” The New York Times reports, “he is yet to appear at a single mosque.  Muslims and Arab-American organizations have tried repeatedly to arrange meetings with Mr. Obama, but officials with those groups say their invitations, unlike those of their Jewish and Christian counterparts have been ignored.”

Jay, what is the issue here? 

CARNEY:  Well, the issue clearly is that Barack Obama is sort of damned if he does, damned if he doesn‘t.  He has been fighting, as we know, rumors about the idea that he might actually be a Muslim and not a Christian, which are false.  And in fighting those rumors, he has tried to he has sort of suggested that to call him a Muslim would be a smear. 

Now, of course, Muslims say that‘s—what‘s wrong with being a Muslim?  Why would that be a smear?  And I think they are offended.  I think in this case the campaign has to be careful.  But if it is over-careful, it risks alienating an important group of voters in some key states across the country. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  suspicions, Smerc.  I mean, that‘s the reality.  If he shows up and visits a mosque, it‘s going to be photographed and covered in a way that is going to create problems for him when people are already suspicious. 

SMERCONISH:  Well, and he‘s going to do it sooner or later, so he may as well do it.  I thought that this issue was really accentuated in that experience at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, where two women with Muslim garb were initially invited and then discouraged from sitting within camera shot. 

And I think Jay has summarized the issue well. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Yes, go ahead.

BLANKLEY:  Yes, there were three close states, Ohio, Michigan and Virginia that all have measurable Muslim votes.  If their vote goes overwhelmingly for one candidate or the other in a close race, they could be determinative.  They probably defeated George Allen in the ‘06 Senate race.  So .

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  But what about Michigan?  I mean, what about.

BLANKLEY:  I said, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia. 

GREGORY:  Oh, OK. 

BLANKLEY:  There will also be in California and New York, but they probably won‘t be close.  So Obama has probably got that vote, unless he loses it by his conduct. 

GREGORY:  Let‘s stay on this topic, but change it slightly.  The Catholic vote, an interesting study that came out today indicating that 57 percent of Catholics said that they are Democrats or leaning Democratic compared to 40 percent who say they are Republicans or leaning Republican. 

This, by the way, is the smallest number of Republican identification among Catholics since back in 2000, the year that Al Gore won the Catholic vote.  Showed you that number.  Look at this in terms of independents who were Catholics back in 2000.  It was at 35 percent, now at 41 percent.  This is the Center for Applied Research in The Apostolate coming out today. 

Rachel, you look at those numbers and you realize that Catholic voters may be a problem for Obama in certain states, but it shows you, it‘s a very big pool that both these candidates are going to be going after. 

MADDOW:  Yes.  When I look at those numbers, I see Latino vote.  I think that what we may be seeing there is the extrapolation of what has happened with the huge erosion in Latino Republican identification.  The Bush-Rove-Cheney Republican Party, one of the things that they did to really broaden the GOP tent was to—they made a very deliberate effort to try to bring African-Americans and Latinos into the Republican Party. 

That was really the hallmark of Ken Mehlman‘s tenure as chairman of the RNC.  As the Republican Party moved into the immigration issue though in 2005, 2006, 2007, that support among Latinos who were mostly Catholic, for the Republican Party, just completely crumbled very fast and very dramatically.  And I think that‘s what we are seeing in some of those Catholic voter numbers. 

GREGORY:  All right, got to get to a break here.  When we come back, a mini-veepstakes edition.  We‘re going to vet a veep each night here, look at a couple of potentials with the panel when we come back. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back on the RACE to vet a veep, something we‘re going to try to do with more frequency now, look at both sides.  Tonight, the Republicans.  Go through some of the choices and do one at a time. 

Tonight we‘re going to look at the Republican governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, 47 years old, an evangelical Christian.  And he has certainly been talked a lot about in Republican circles.  Chairman of the National Governor‘s Association.  He‘s a strong advocate of environmental reforms and clean energy, and a staunch opponent of amnesty when it comes to a migrant worker program that McCain has been heavily involved in. 

He was on “MORNING JOE” this morning, talked about his prospects for the ticket, listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKA BRZEZINSKI, CO-HOST, “MORNING JOE”:  But I‘m not going to ask you if you want to be vice president, if asked, would you accept.  I‘m going to ask you what would make you a good running mate for John McCain?

GOV. TIM PAWLENTY ®, MINNESOTA:  I don‘t think it‘s up to me to decide that.  But in terms of what he brings to the country, he brings a lot of great strengths, in national security, in energy policy and the like.  And I‘m sure he‘ll find a vice presidential running mate that will amplify his strengths.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  All right.  Tony, assess the case for or against Governor Pawlenty.

BLANKLEY:  Well, I don‘t think he does much harm.  He might do a little good on the ticket.  He is obviously solid on the conservative issues.  So to the extent that McCain needs to bolster his base, it will be helpful. 

He didn‘t win an overwhelming election last time, so he‘s not a fabulously popular candidate.  I met with him in a small group late last year, and he‘s pretty impressive.  And he‘s very smart.  I think he will make a pretty good impression. 

I‘m not sure where he is on energy taxation.  My recollection was that he had some interesting in perhaps some taxes on—related to energy.  That might be inconsistent with McCain.  But then events have changed, the price of gas has gone up, so he can probably resolve that dispute.

GREGORY:  Rachel, the idea of getting a governor outside Washington, somebody with executive experience, he satisfies perhaps some of the tactical issues, but also in terms of helping McCain govern could be a solid pick.

MADDOW:  Sure.  He‘s not only not a senator, he‘s a governor.  He‘s from a swing state, as Tony mentions.  He‘s obviously young and very attractive candidate.  I think—one of the things I think is interesting is if Obama was going to pick Evan Bayh, I think Evan Bayh and Tim Pawlenty look so much like each other that they could have something like kind of a confusion primary between the two of them. 

But in terms of his politics, I do think it goes with McCain‘s grain in terms of trying to represent himself as an environmental Republican, as problematic as that legacy may be.  Pawlenty is one of those Republicans, though, whose state is turning blue around him. 

He is not really—he‘s not leading the charge for Republican power in Minnesota.  That state may very well still go blue.  And so that may be an electoral problem.

GREGORY:  Real quick, Smerc, it‘s interesting, he has said publicly that he thinks McCain got it wrong on immigration and that McCain now realizes that.  So he takes a much more conservative line on the immigration debate.

SMERCONISH:  Which is great for the base, but what does it do for the middle?  I maintain that in the end, the base is coming home for John McCain regardless of who he selects as his V.P.  What he needs to do is attract some support from independents and moderates.

GREGORY:  All right.  Going to take another break here.  We‘re going to come back.  We‘ll go back “Inside the War Room,” now focus on Senator John McCain.  He‘s talking about drilling having psychological benefits.  Is that really what‘s behind his strategy about talking about the energy demands that this country has and the gas prices as much as he has over the past week? 

We‘ll come back on the RACE after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  We are back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  A lot to get to here in the back half.  Three questions coming up, some big questions for this race as we move forward.  We‘re now going to go back inside the war room and focus on Senator John McCain, the strategies, the numbers, the tactics, what‘s going on.  Back with us, Jay Carney, “Time Magazine‘s” Washington bureau chief, Tony Blankley, syndicated columnist, Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philly and a columnist for both the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Philadelphia Daily News,” and Rachel Maddow, host of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, also an MSNBC political analyst. 

OK, first up here in the McCain war room, a new attack ad that hits Obama on foregoing public financing using Obama‘s own words.  This is McCain‘s ad. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Don‘t tell me words don‘t matter.  I strongly support public financing. I will sit down with John McCain and make sure we have a system that works for everybody.  I have promised that I will sit down with John McCain and talk about can we preserve a public system.  We have made the decision not to participate in the public financing system for the general election. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  All right, Rachel, what does it amount to?  I mean, McCain wants to keep this issue alive.  Does it resonate?

MADDOW:  I think it resonated for awhile.  I think it‘s a mistake to keep pushing this.  If he keeps pushing this, if he literally tries to get this ad on television—right now, as far as I know, it‘s just on the web ultimately, it‘s going to come back to bite him because McCain has his own problems on public financing.  McCain is the one who said he would take public financing during the primary campaign, and then, at the last minute, decided no, he didn‘t want to take that public financing, even though he had already received loans, at least partially and allegedly, on the basis of the collateral that he was going to get from taking public financing. 

He‘s been back and forth on this issue himself, to the point that he‘s being sued by the Democratic party for his stance on it during the primaries.  He sort of on the moral high ground here, but it‘s tenuous.  I think weird for him to push this hard. 

(CROSS TALK)

BLANKLEY:  This is a character issue, not a public finance issue.  The public knows McCain for 30 years.  They are just getting to know Obama, who holds himself to the highest possible standards.  I think it makes imminently good sense for McCain to bang away on this.  The issue regarding McCain had to do with lack of a quorum on the election committee, because the Democrats wouldn‘t confirm Bush‘s nominees.  That‘s a very messy issue. 

MADDOW:  But Tony, he did—

BLANKLEY:  This is a nice clean one, and it‘s regarding Obama, who says he‘s above politics. 

MADDOW:  Tony, he did change his mind.

GREGORY:  Let me keep moving here, Rachel, because I want to talk about drilling and the fact that John McCain in the last few days has been all over the energy issue.  He talked about this in California, about some of the benefits that come from his position, watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I don‘t see an immediate relief, but I do see that exploitation of existing reserves that may exist, even though it may take some years—the fact that we are exploiting those reserves would have a psychological impact that‘s I think is beneficial.   

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Obama today picked up on the psychological impact of the drilling proposal McCain has made.  Listen to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  In Washington speak, what that means is it polls well.  It‘s an example of how Washington tries to convince you that they have done something to make your life better, when they really didn‘t.  The American people don‘t need psychological relief or meaningless gimmicks to get politicians through the next election cycle. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Here‘s the reality, Jay, is that McCain has been out there talking, proposing and putting issues on the table at a time when every voter can understand pain at the pump.  Obama is position of saying, no, these things don‘t really work.  We‘ve got to take a longer term approach.  Who‘s winning on this? 

CARNEY:  I think McCain is scoring points in that policy debate.  He‘s driving the policy debate.  As you say, Obama is responding.  Now, on the substance, I think McCain has a problem.  The psychological benefit is really a psychological impact, which is to continue to dream that we can avoid the day of reckoning on our dependence on foreign oil. 

BLANKLEY:  David, that‘s just not true.  Economics is essentially math psychology quantified.  Once the economic—once the markets know that we are going to start drilling, that will have an immediate affect on the futures market.  That will begin to have down ward pressure.  As soon as we get a couple million barrels in the supply, it‘s going to have a big effect. 

(CROSS TALK)

CARNEY:  Right, and the price goes down, and we postpone any kind of reckoning that‘s going to help us when our extremely limited reserves begin to tap out again.  This is not a visionary solution.  This is a poll tested answer. 

GREGORY:  Let me move on.  I want to talk about enthusiasm among the voters.  The “LA Times”/Bloomberg numbers, new here on the question of voter enthusiasm.  This is what they show; Democrats, 85 percent of Democrats are excited about voting; 86 percent of Democrats are excited about voting in November, compared to 51 percent of Republicans.  Smerc, these are consistent numbers that we‘re seeing in terms of low enthusiasm among Republicans at this point.  Is this low enthusiasm for McCain or is it just a sense of malaise about this year? 

SMERCONISH:  I think it‘s probably a combination of both.  The concern for the GOP is that lack of enthusiasm translates into poor voter turn out.  The key component here of that financial boost that Senator Obama is going to have in the fall is using that money not so much for television—we just talked about a campaign ad that will never get on TV.  It‘s Internet only.  You can do that for 3000 dollars today.  It‘s using that money to turn out all those newly registered voters, that‘s where he‘s got the edge. 

GREGORY:  All right, topic number four here tonight has to do with this war of words between Obama and James Dobson of Focus on the Family.  The Obama camp launches a campaign to court Evangelical and Catholic voters.  Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson blasted Obama today, taking issue with a speech that Obama gave two years ago, where Obama took on the debate over literal interpretations of the Bible.  This is what Obama said a couple years ago; “Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is an abomination?  How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith?  Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount, a passage that is so radical that it‘s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.”

Dobson shot back today on Focus on the Family‘s radio program.  Listen to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. JAMES DOBSON, FOCUS ON THE FAMILY:  I think he is deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Joshua Dubois, director of religious affairs for Obama‘s campaign, said in a statement that, quote, Obama is proud to have the support millions of Americans of faith and looks forward to working across religious lines to bring our country together.” 

Tony, I think this may be a case where excerpts can do a lot of damage.  I read all of Obama‘s speech today, and I would say that that one paragraph even left me a little bit puzzled.  Think it‘s open to some interpretation.  I have some questions about it.  But his overall speech had to do with how we square government action, secularism and ideologies with faith in this country, the faith of the voters. 

BLANKLEY:  It included a direct shot at Dobson in that speech a couple years ago.  I think we understand why Dobson shot back.  This is an opportunity, if I want to be political for a moment in an analyzing it, where Dobson, who doesn‘t want to support McCain, because he disagrees on some important issues, can still sort of be helpful to the McCain campaign by criticizing Obama on religion. 

Dobson has a huge following, about 1,500 radio stations.  Although he‘s not a minister, he talks about faith based values.  I think this is going to be useful for McCain and I understand why Dobson did it, because Obama hit him first. 

GREGORY:  All right, we‘re going to take a break here, come back.  When we return, the big picture in this race, three questions.  We‘ll look at Iraq‘s impact on the race when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We wanted to do 20 questions in this format, but we‘re only going to stick with three, the three big questions on the race today.  Back with us, our panel tonight, Jay Carney, Tony Blankley, Michael Smerconish and Rachel Maddow.  OK, first topic tonight has to do with Iraq.  David Brooks in his column today in the “New York Times” wrote the following—we‘ll put it up on our screen—“the cocksure war supporters learned a humbling lesson during the dark days of 2006, and now the cocksure surge opponents will get to enjoy their season of humility.  At first, they simply disbelieved that the surge and the Petraeus strategy was doing any good.  Lately, they have skipped over to the argument that Iraq is progressing so well that US forces can quickly come home.  Before long, the more honest among the surge opponents will concede that Bush, that supposed dolt, actually got one right.  Some brave souls might even concede that if the US had withdrawn in the depths of the chaos, the world would be in worse shape today.”

The question then, what is the new Iraq‘s impact on this race?  Smerc, take it on. 

SMERCONISH:  I think there‘s a zero net affect, as currently constituted by Iraq.  That was born out by yesterday‘s survey results from Gallup and “USA Today,” where they said, who do you think will do a better job.  On this issue, 43 percent, 43 percent for McCain and for Obama.  That is unless things get worse.  If things get worse, then Obama gets a spike.  Otherwise, I can‘t believe I‘m saying this, but it‘s a non-issue. 

GREGORY:  I don‘t know.  Rachel, I‘ve gone back and forth on this.  On the one hand, have Americans rendered a judgment about the war and it‘s all done in their minds, in the voting public‘s mind, except for the extraction of U.S. troops?  Or is there a growing base of support for McCain‘s view, which is that we have a real position to uphold Iraq and the Middle East and that if there‘s more stability it warms people to the mission. 

MADDOW:  I feel like the American public has been dealing with the politics around Iraq for six years now.  I feel like the public is actually pretty sophisticated in the way they think about the war.  And we sort of moved on to the point where the big question for voters, and the basis on which they‘re deciding, is what is the point of U.S. troops being in Iraq?  Even if we acknowledge that there are American security goals for what we want Iraq to be like, does having our troops there help us get to that goal? 

I understand that David Brooks wants to make Iraq a winner of a political issue.  This column happened to come out on the same day that GAO reported that the surge didn‘t actually do what it meant to do.  Once the surge ends, there isn‘t a clear strategic reason for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq.  So, I don‘t really get that the timing is right for Brooks on this.  And I don‘t think that the American people are where he thinks they are on this. 

GREGORY:  Yes, I—It‘s a good point.  Jay, one of the things that McCain has to look at is how do I win a judgment debate?  I had the judgment to call for more troops earlier on.  George Bush disagreed with me.  I did support the surge strategy.  There have been consequences that are positive.  You can point to them.  They‘re measurable.  Do I win a judgment contest against my opponent, Barack Obama, who opposed it? 

CARNEY:  I think he does win a judgment contest, but I don‘t think he wins the overall battle for Iraq, because the overall disposition, I think, of the American people has to do with the original sin, which most Americans, a majority now, believe it was a mistake to go into Iraq.  Regardless of whether or not John McCain supported the surge before George Bush did, he supported the invasion enthusiastically of Iraq and still says it was the right thing to do.  That‘s a problematic position, one that obviously Barack Obama can exploit.   

GREGORY:  Tony, let‘s shift gears a little bit, going to the second question.  We have been talking about Charlie Black and his gaffe, as it was reported in “Fortune Magazine,” saying that a terrorist attack would benefit his guy, Senator John McCain.  That‘s up for debate.  We debate it here with the second question.  Have the politics of national security changed in 2008?  We can remember back to covering the race in 2004, the Osama bin Laden tape late in the campaign.  John Kerry pointed to the polls and said, it hurt me.  It reinforced the image that he was weaker in the face of the terrorist threat.  George Bush was the beneficiary of that. 

Tony, have the politics shifted on this issue? 

BLANKLEY:  I don‘t think they‘ve shifted, but they‘ve weakened for Republicans.  It‘s still the only issue that McCain beats Obama on, terrorism, in some of the recent internals on the polls.  It‘s not as strong because of the seeming blundering of the Republican administration over the years.  I think it‘s still an issue that benefits McCain and generally the Republicans. 

I must say quickly, I think there must be something in conservative water.  My column, which is coming out tomorrow, which I wrote yesterday, is on the same theme as David Brooks.  I think there‘s an opportunity to develop that issue.  We can discuss it another time. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, the interesting point about Democrats taking on the terror issue, is not just about taking on the administration over Iraq or Republicans over Iraq.  Obama has gone right at McCain and the Republican party on their ability to deal with terrorism, which is still, as Tony suggests, a strong issue for Republicans when it comes to polling. 

MADDOW:  Sure, Barack Obama is out there talking about Pakistan every single day, talking about Afghanistan almost every day, talking about having not gotten Osama bin Laden, talking about all of these broader issues about fighting terrorism that he sees himself as very strong on. 

I think the reason that the Charlie Black issue blew up is because I think there‘s anger, particularly among liberals, particularly among Democrats.  But it was shocking even to the people who wrote this magazine article about Black in “Fortune Magazine,” who quoted him saying, essentially that they shocked when he said it.  That is the impression that Republicans have looked to fear for political advantage, have looked to terrorism, have looked to threats to the American people for political advantage. 

There‘s still resentment over the color coded terrorist alert, in the sense that they may be tied to political events.  Whether or not that conspiracy can be proven, I think the Republicans have been tarred by that.  It‘s true that we haven‘t been hit again since 9/11.  There‘s also backlash to feeling that the Republicans have used terrorism for American politics. 

(CROSS TALK)

BLANKLEY:  Hillary said the same thing months ago and she‘s not, the last time I looked, a Republican.  I think any candidate who thinks they are strong on the issue is going to assert it.  

MADDOW:  But the way she said it was, you know, the Republicans think this will be good for them.  She was using it as a political attack as a -- 

GREGORY:  Let‘s move on to question number three here, which is Obama‘s strategy at this point.  Is he tacking to the center?  He may be labeled a liberal, but his recent positions on some key issues suggest that he‘s moving to the center.  Number one, he supports FISA.  The “Washington Times” Obama‘s triangulating.  He‘s backing bill, but will join liberal law makers in a doomed to defeat effort to strip its most controversial provision, retroactive immunity for Telecom companies.  Number two, you look at the economy; “Fortune Magazine” reports that Obama is considering cutting corporate taxes and says that, in an interview, Obama admitted his overheated primary rhetoric on NAFTA was just that, overheated rhetoric. 

Number three, Iraq, after a recent conversation with Iraq‘s foreign minister, the “Washington Post” reports the Iraqi official came away assured by the candidates response, which caused him to think that Mr.  Obama may not differ that much from Senator McCain.  Number four, talking or not to Iran; the “Wall Street Journal” reports that Obama used a recent AIPAC speech to tweak one of his most controversial positions, a stated willingness to meet with Iranian President Ahmadinejad and outlined a hard line position on Iran that‘s basically interchangeable with Senator McCain. 

Third question then, Is Obama tacking to the center?  Jay, do you notice that?

CARNEY:  Oh, yes.  If you have seen his first major ad, which I‘m sure you have, about his love for country, he‘s hitting the themes that you traditionally see a Democrat hit when he or she is trying to move to the middle.  Now, what this tells us, combined with his decision to forgo public financing, is that while he is a liberal and he is messenger about hope and change, he‘s also a politician who wants to win in November.  He‘s playing shrewdly and calculatingly to assert his advantage over John McCain.  There‘s not a lot of purity in this, but there is a lot of political wisdom in it. 

GREGORY:  Smerc? 

SMERCONISH:  Primary season is over.  The general election is on.  I have to go back in this context and say, I‘m not sure it‘s a bad thing for Obama to be duking it out with James Dobson.  This campaign is going to be won in the middle.  Barack Obama recognizes that.  Hopefully, John McCain, for his sake, also understands that. 

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting, we go through election cycles were we talk about the strength of independents and are there really people in the middle.  Yet, this is a race where you see both candidates occupying that middle ground, understanding that those independents are going to be the key battleground as we go toward November.  We‘ll take a break here and come back in our remaining moments with your play date with the panel.  Also, some interesting comments that Obama made today about the Clintons as they prepare to campaign together, at least Senator Clinton and Obama. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  All right, just got a few minutes left for you to play with the panel.  Before we get to that, and we have the panel back with us here, Jay, Tony, Michael and Rachel.  We talked at the top of the program about the Clintons, where are they, are they going to be campaigning with Barack Obama, how will he use them?  On a rival network tonight, Obama was talking about the Clintons.  He tells CNN that Hillary Clinton is, quote, larger than life and her campaign, quote, only enhanced her stature and he predicts that she will be, quote, one of my key partners if he wins the White House. 

Of Bill Clinton, Senator Obama said, quote, he is one of the most intelligent, charismatic political leaders that we have seen in a generation and he has a lot of wisdom to impart.  Interesting there, Jay, if you look at who is the key partner and who‘s imparting the wisdom.  Certainly, the Obama campaign could use both.  But you get this impression that you might see Hillary Clinton out actually campaigning for him, and obviously Obama sits down with Bill Clinton to talk strategy from time to time. 

CARNEY:  I think that would make sense.  While in a comparison with Barack Obama, Senator Clinton had a hard time making the argument she was changed, because she seemed like something of a throw back to the past, she‘s certainly more of a change, more in keeping with his message, more contemporary than the former president.  One thing that Barack Obama‘s comments makes absolutely clear is that this is not a cycle like 2000, where the Democratic nominee is worried about the negative impact of having the Clintons campaign for him. 

I think, to the extent the Clintons are willing—I expect they will be willing.  We‘ll see the Clintons helping out a lot. 

GREGORY:  Tony, back in 2000, I remember Bill Clinton saying about Bill Clinton the shadow returns whenever he got close to Al Gore.  It‘s going to be tough for Republicans to use that kind of imagery against Barack Obama now, don‘t you think? 

BLANKLEY:  As long as they keep Hillary off the ticket, then I don‘t think there‘s any downside to using the Clintons.  I think they‘re a big plus, Hillary with the women and Bill with rural America.  It‘s a good advantage for Obama. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, I feel some of the steam coming out of the story of Hillary Clinton being on the ticket.  That may just be a function of it laying low right now and there‘s lots of directions that the speculation is going. 

MADDOW:  I think that‘s right.  Obama signaled pretty early on after the primary ended that he wasn‘t going to talk about the vice presidential thing anymore and if you heard anything about his thinking about the vice presidency, he didn‘t mean it and it wasn‘t from him and you shouldn‘t believe it.  He‘s tried to make this story go away for awhile.  I think it‘s the sort of thing they can trot out whenever they need a distraction.  Either campaign can do that.  Whenever you need somebody to talk about stuff, you can bring out the vice presidential sweepstakes.  I don‘t think we‘ll really hear anything substantive until very late in the summer. 

GREGORY:  Let‘s get to one of our e-mailers.  Bill in Pennsylvania writes this about public financing, kind of interesting, “since Barack Obama has opted out of the public financing system, shouldn‘t Obama‘s piece of that pie now be made available to McCain to use?  I threw three bucks in there for the presidential funding, so I wouldn‘t have a problem with McCain casing a case that since Obama opted out, the entire fund belongs to him.”

Well, I guess the problem with that, Smerc, is you only get one shot at that, right?  It‘s not like you get the double of the take. 

SMERCONISH:  It‘s a great idea for the McCain campaign.  Either that or we take the 80 million and we say, if you develop a new battery for a hybrid car, it‘s now 380 million dollars. 

GREGORY:  Jay, how do the rules actually work on this?  You do put in your three bucks.  It‘s now up to about 84 million dollars.  If one person opts out, what happens? 

CARNEY:  It‘s a good question and I honestly don‘t know.  I assume you create a reserve of funding, but I don‘t know. 

GREGORY:  It‘d be interesting.

MADDOW:  I have to say, as a practical matter, if you gave John McCain an extra 84, I think Obama would still be way ahead of him.  Wouldn‘t he?  Sorry. 

GREGORY:  He‘s still pretty far ahead.  We‘re going to leave it there.  Thanks very much to the panel for tonight.  You can play with the panel every night here on MSNBC.  E-mail us at Race08@MSNBC.com.  You can call us at 212-790-2299. 

That‘s it for tonight.  RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE will be back tomorrow night, 6:00 pm Eastern time.  We will see you tomorrow night.  In the meantime, don‘t go anywhere on MSNBC.  “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews starts right now.

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

END   

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