updated 7/17/2008 1:13:41 PM ET 2008-07-17T17:13:41

Guest: Rachel Maddow, Chrystia Freeland, Mike Murphy, Noah Oppenheim

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, poll position.  Where Obama has the advantage is where it could hurt McCain the most this fall, as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

Welcome back 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, why can‘t Barack Obama take a joke?  The take from many comics, that there‘s no good take on Obama. 

Well, is there a larger personality problem for a candidate looking to connect with regular people?  Obama is trying to be the guy who you trust on foreign affairs and national security.  Will his trip to Europe and the Middle East help, or is he leaving the U.S. at the worst possible time? 

The debate tonight in “Three Questions,” are Obama and McCain any different now than they were during the primaries?  And if not, why not. 

A bedrock to this program, a panel that always comes to play.

With us tonight, there she is again, Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, and an MSNBC political analyst.  She‘s been away from this program.  Rachel, good to see you.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Nice to be back.

GREGORY:  Mike Murphy, Republican strategist and NBC News contributor.  Thanks for being here, Mike.  Chrystia Freeland, a U.S. managing editor of “The Financial Times.” 

And Noah Oppenheim, co-author of “The Intellectual Devotional” series, what is being read on beaches across America on the coast, and former senior producer of “The Today Show” right here on NBC. 

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

Big headline tonight, “Poll Position: What The Polls are Telling Us About the State of the Race.”  Tonight, first, voter concern. 

Topping the list, it‘s the economy.  A “New York Times”/CBS poll reveals that 38 percent of voters named the economy the most important issue today, followed by gas prices, 14 percent, and the war on Iraq way down at 10 percent. 

So, who do voters trust to turn it around?  This is the big number.  According to the latest “Washington Post”/ABC poll, voters are putting their money on Obama over McCain.  Look at the number, 54-35 they trust him on the economy.  That‘s big. 

When it comes to foreign affairs, Obama has fallen behind, lagging 63-26 in a head-to-head on who has the better knowledge when it comes to foreign affairs. 

And on the favorability point, Obama is winning with a favorability rating of 39 percent to McCain‘s 31.  They are both tied with unfavorables at 31 and 32, respectively.  Rachel, first up, look at that number on the economy.  That is the big story today. 

MADDOW:  Nineteen points on the economy.  Wow. 

Everybody talks about Democrats having sort of a structural advantage almost with voters on the issue of the economy, that voters are more predisposed to hear economic news they like from the Democratic Party than the Republican Party.  But you don‘t see a 19-point split on that when it comes to presidential candidates.  Presidential candidates who both are pretty broadly liked in that favorability number. 

So, that is—that is turning out to be a starker contrast than I think any of us would have expected before this—before this really got going. 

GREGORY:  Mike Murphy, you‘re on the record saying you‘re skeptical about polls at this point.  But this has got to give the McCain camp pause when they look at this economy number.  This is not an issue he‘s been able to own yet at a time when he should own it. 

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Right.  Well, there are two ways John McCain needs to win this election.  He either has to change that number on the economy, or things have to happen in the world, and there are things he has to do to make the foreign policy issue more important to voters to grow that category where he has an advantage. 

Either way, this is the beginning of the polling circus, not the end.  So these are the numbers that could change.  But the snapshot if the election were held tomorrow would be bad news for John McCain. 

GREGORY:  Mike, I‘ve talked to other Republicans who have said watch those fav/unfav numbers very carefully as this race heats up.  Explain why you think that‘s the case.

Slight advantage right now for Obama, but we‘ll see in some of the polling among how it differs between African-Americans and whites in perception of Obama.  Why is that number so important? 

MURPHY:  Well, favorable/unfavorable is the basic measure of a candidate.  And as the election is prosecuted, both campaigns are going to try to screw with the other guys favorable/unfavorable.  So I think a lot of Republicans—and I‘m unique in this, I don‘t think it‘s necessary the right strategy at all—but they think the way to win the election is to raise Barack Obama‘s unfavorable. 

I think ultimately Barack Obama‘s own record and own weaknesses will kind of catch up with him, and the real way to win is that McCain has got to raise his favorables.  But the general campaign, one-on-one, is you always want your opponent‘s unfavorable rating to go higher. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

MURPHY:  Some other polls I‘ve seen have shown both these guys about the same, like this poll, but both with higher favorables.  This is an election where Americans don‘t like politics at all.  They are really mad at Washington on a bipartisan level, but they kind of like each candidate. 

They are roughly similar.  Maybe Barack a little farther ahead.  So it‘s an opportunity to have a pretty positive dialogue, not the same old negative campaign that I think this year could really get rejected if it‘s not done with a certain amount of aplomb.

GREGORY:  All right.

Noah, you look at these numbers, you see the economy, you see foreign affairs.  McCain obviously wants this to be about who do you trust when it comes to a crisis.  Who knows about foreign affairs the most?  Can you look past that economy number to see any good news for McCain here? 

NOAH OPPENHEIM, “INTELLECTUAL DEVOTIONAL”:  I mean, I don‘t think you can look past it.  I mean, John McCain may want the election to be about who you trust in a crisis, but unfortunately, he can‘t force the American people to focus on that if they are focused on losing their homes and filling up their tanks of gas. 

So, I mean, I think Mike hit the nail on the head.  Obviously, you know, John McCain has an extraordinary amount of ground to make up on the question of convincing voters that he can handle this economic crisis.  I also think he can do more to connect foreign affairs to the economy.

I mean, it‘s not as if the things that we do overseas are completely irrelevant to the domestic economic picture.  A big part of this is the oil crisis, is the fact that people—you know, fuel is so unaffordable.  And you know, some of the solutions to that do involve foreign policy, foreign affairs, where we get our oil from.  And so I think, you know, John McCain turned to that whole theme of energy independence.  I think, you know, he needs to connect that to people‘s pocketbooks. 

GREGORY:  Right.  Chrystia, let‘s talk about the economy.  Let‘s talk about Barack Obama. 

There‘s been a debate about whether he has really owned this issue.  Has he demonstrated the kind of energy to solve the economy problem the way that Bill Clinton did back in 1992? 

Look, he hasn‘t really even talked about the mortgage mess and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and what specifically he would do on this.  He‘s had rather cryptic statements about this.  Or, does all he have to do is just sort of step back and say, hey, we were not on watch here when this was going on, it‘s time for a change, we can make it better? 

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, “THE FINANCIAL TIMES”:  Well, I think you‘re right, David, to really point to the economy as the dominant issue, and absent a big foreign cataclysm, this is going to be an economy election.  The economy right now is, in many ways, in worst shape than it has been since the Second World War.  This is a really big financial and now broader economic crisis, and there are a lot of signs it‘s going to get worse. 

You‘re also right...

GREGORY:  So for Obama, though—so where is Obama on that?  I mean, where is his energy to really deal with that?

FREELAND:  Well, he can partly ride the incumbent seat point. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

FREELAND:  And he can partly say, look, Republicans have been in charge for the past eight years and how good are things right now?  And that is effective.

I think another issue though that is part of the reason why he has more economic credibility, according to this poll, is that people appreciate that this economic crisis is one that is going to require government intervention.  We‘re already seeing a very conservative Republican government stepping in and doing a lot of unprecedented things - the rescue of Bear Stearns...

GREGORY:  Right.

FREELAND:  ... the actions on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And that kind of an economic situation where you need government to be active and to intervene is the kind of situation that‘s going to favor Democrats. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

All right.  We‘re going to take a break here, come back.  More of this ahead, of course.  Coming up, though, Barack Obama, is he too serious for his own good?  Might loosening up and cracking a joke or two actually help him with the voters? 

Later on, your play date with the panel.  Call us: 212-790-2299, send us an e-mail, race08@msnbc.com. 

A lot of ground to cover. 

RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

Now “War Room” time.  We‘re going inside the war room to put John McCain and Barack Obama‘s personalities through the ringer. 

How much do jokes, age and imperfections matter? Well, back with us, Rachel Maddow, Mike Murphy, Chrystia Freeland and Noah Oppenheim.  First up, can either candidate take a joke?  Obama‘s reaction to the controversial “New Yorker” article this week has some wondering, may we mock Barack? 

As Maureen Dowd writes today, “John McCain‘s Don Rickles routines - like ‘Thanks for the question, you little jerk‘ -- can fall flat.  But he seems like a guy who can be teased harmlessly.  If Obama offers only eat-your-arugula chiding and chilly earnestness, he becomes an otherworldly type, not the regular guy that he needs to be.”

That‘s from Maureen Dowd.  And Obama‘s rather serious response to the controversial “New Yorker” cartoon cover, in an interview last night on CNN, it shows perhaps Obama missed an opportunity to show a little bit of a lighter side. 

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I know it was The New Yorker‘s attempt at satire.  I don‘t think they were successful with it, but you know what?  It‘s a cartoon, Larry.  And that‘s why we have got the First Amendment.  This is actually an insult against Muslim-Americans, something that we don‘t spend a lot of time talking about, and sometimes I‘ve been derelict in pointing that out. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  The point here is that voters make up their minds as much as who the candidates are about that, as where they stand on issues.  So, did Obama leave himself open to being characterized this way on the cover of “The New Yorker”—you see the cover there—because people simply don‘t know enough about him? 

Mike Murphy, take all this on. 

MURPHY:  Well, yes, I think Barack Obama won the “Lighten up, Francis” award this week.  Satire is always disrespectful, but satire is important.  It‘s what we are fighting for.

And I think we‘ve seen this before.  Barack Obama is a very formidable candidate and an impressive American, but if he has one weakness, he seems to need to get over Barack Obama a little bit. 

That kind of thing telegraphs to people that maybe he does take himself a little too seriously.  There‘s a certain hubris to Barack Obama which, you know, maybe it‘s not who he really is, but it‘s certainly the perception he sends, and that‘s a problem for a candidate.  It‘s a joke, he ought to roll with it.  It was a bit of clumsy satire, but satire is important and Barack needs to lighten up. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, the issue here—and I think Maureen Dowd sort of got at this—which is, it‘s not just on whether he can take a joke, but the idea that generally, he‘s kind of a cool customer.  He can seem aloof. 

People in his campaign know that.  He can seem kind of cerebral.  And at a time when he‘s trying to connect with rural voters in Missouri and Pennsylvania, and seem like more of a regular guy, does he hurt himself if there isn‘t any great comedic take on the guy? 

MADDOW:  I guess I just don‘t—I don‘t see it that way.  I think of him as, you know, dancing on Ellen DeGeneres‘ show.  I think of him as doing the Jay-Z brush your shoulder off, kind of earthy populist—pop culture reference there.  I think of him making the Annie Oakley joke about Hillary Clinton. 

And I realize that Republicans want to portray him as elitist and haughty and all of these other things, but I—it‘s not the vibe that I get from him at all.  And I fell like actually, you know what?  Sometimes the joke in this campaign aren‘t the kind of things that have been all that funny from presidential candidates. 

I don‘t think the “Bomb, bomb Iran” thing was worth laughing at.  I don‘t think the jokes about Iranians being killed by cigarettes that we‘re sending them there—I think that those jokes, while they were—may have been hilarious to some people, I don‘t think those things reflected well on John McCain. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Well, let‘s talk about the McCain side of this.  Is McCain passing his own personality test?  He made a second gaffe on Czechoslovakia this week, leaving some to question if he‘s simply out of touch on some of these issues.  Listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN McCain (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I was concerned about a couple of steps that the Russian government took in the last several days.  One, reducing energy supplies to Czechoslovakia.  Apparently, that is in reaction to the Czechs‘ agreement with us concerning missile defense. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  The problem with that, of course, Czechoslovakia hasn‘t existed since the early ‘90s.  It‘s the Czech Republic.

MSNBC‘s  “First Read” says it‘s not a campaign-killing mistake, but it is this: “... it comes after other McCain gaffes, like mixing up Sunnis and Shiites, and incorrectly stating that the U.S. troops presence in Iraq has dipped below its pre-surge level.  The Czechoslovakia gaffe also advances this narrative, especially when you combine it with the news over the weekend that he doesn‘t use a computer.  McCain is more of a 20th-century presidential candidate rather than a 21st-century one.  This is not an issue for McCain regarding age; it‘s an issue for McCain regarding the future.”

Is that a real issue here, Noah? 

OPPENHEIM:  Yes.  Listen, a couple things.

First of all, I think if you polled the American public and asked them, is Czechoslovakia still a country, I think you‘d probably get 90 percent of people saying yes.  So most people probably heard that and didn‘t think anything of it.

Second of all, I‘m not sure it says anything about being a 20th century candidate, but what it does do is remind people of one of the things so many were frustrated with during the Bush years, which was this idea that our president would be out there on the world stage mispronouncing things and sort of seeming to be unintelligent.  And that‘s the one area where I do think the contrast is pretty profound with Barack Obama, and where even this kind of image of being cool and aloof and elitist might actually, ironically, be working for Obama. 

People kind of dig the fact that he seems to be above the fray, smarter than everybody else.  I think it kind of projects a positive contrast to what people‘s perceptions of George Bush is, is that Obama kind of gets it, isn‘t going to misspeak, whereas McCain might be more of that same risk as somebody who might do those things. 

GREGORY:  Right.  Chrystia, I want your comment, but first, McCain consistently does, however, sell this maverick brand with a jokester flair.  He pulled this off today before the NAACP, where he managed to draw a standing ovation. 

Listen to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Let me begin, if I may, with a few words about my opponent. 

Don‘t tell him I said this, but he‘s an impressive fellow in many ways. 

(APPLAUSE)

His success should make Americans, all Americans proud.  Of course, I would prefer his success not to continue quite as long as he hopes. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  All right.  So you see a lighter side of McCain, Chrystia, as well. 

But one of the issues here is, if he does seem like a last century politician, you‘re going to have the image of these guys in debates, on the campaign trail, side by side, and there‘s going to be a real contrast there that is about personality, it‘s about superficiality, but it also is the stuff of gut check for voters. 

FREELAND:  Yes.  I think that‘s right.  And I think it‘s also about what your take is on the world.  And that‘s why I do think the Czechoslovakia comment was about more than a gaffe.  It‘s about whether people are going to see McCain as a guy who‘s looking at the world through an old paradigm.  And you know, that‘s the kind of impression Obama really wants to create. 

MURPHY:  I don‘t...

GREGORY:  And you know, it‘s interesting, Mike.  On that point today, that‘s something that Obama—he wants to try to own this foreign affairs issue.  And he talked about loose nukes and proliferation, and he took this shot at McCain in a kind of veiled way, saying, we‘ve got to stop fighting the next war and understand what the threat is of the future.  I‘m the guy who knows about foreign policy for the future threats.  It‘s all about the future, it‘s all about change, it‘s all about a new generation for Obama. 

FREELAND:  Yes.  I think...

MURPHY:  Yes, but there‘s a point...

GREGORY:  Go ahead Mike. 

MURPHY:  ... where that becomes—excuse me—where that becomes almost a marketing gimmick.  I mean, the future is often dictated by the history of the past. 

McCain is a student of history.  It‘s been Czechoslovakia for a long time.  I think it was kind of a typo, frankly.  It‘s not as important as the substance of really knowing the region and what‘s happened, which is where McCain is really strong. 

I actually—I used to refer to it as the Hungarian empire, so I‘m totally out of touch.  But history is very important in foreign policy.  And the reason McCain tends to use the old Cold War terms is that really is the defining history of the region, and they‘re kind of stuck in his head from his familiarity with that very complicated subject. 

I think Barack never makes a mistake on this stuff because he‘s always on the prompter.  So give all these guys a pass on (INAUDIBLE) and typos.  I want to know what their policy is and what they really want to do in a detailed way, not just the empty slogan of change, change, future, future.  I‘ve got an iPod, therefore I‘m a better president than you because you don‘t use, you know, an iPod in your daily life.  I think it‘s...

GREGORY:  By the way, have you seen the line outside some of these Apple stores for the new 3-gig thing?  That just blows me away.  Talk about a generational divide.  The thing comes out on day one and people are lined up around the block. 

Anyway, we‘ll take a break here. 

Coming up, Obama goes public with two people presumed to be on his list of potential running mates.  Is he dropping hints or just plain campaigning with them?

We‘ll “Vet the Veeps” when THE RACE returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE. I‘m David Gregory.  Happy to have you here.  We‘re going to head inside the war room now, looking closely at the risk/reward surrounding Senator Obama‘s highly anticipated trip to Europe and the Middle East.  He leaves at the end of this week.  Back with us, Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America and an MSNBC political analysis, Mike Murphy, Republican strategist and NBC News contributor, Chrystia Freeland, US managing editor of the “Financial Times,” and Noah Oppenheim, co-author of the “Intellectual Devotional” series, and former senior producer of the today program right here on NBC. 

First up, the risk business of Obama‘s trip abroad.  He leaves at a time when the markets are in danger of collapsing and consumer confidence is shakier than ever.  A “New York Time”/CBS poll on the condition of the U.S. economy says that 80 percent of voters say the economy is in fairly to very bad shape.  Chrystia, bad time to be leaving the country? 

FREELAND:  Of course, the economy is in bad shape, but I think this trip by Obama is risky but brilliant.  I think that one of the things which has been really interesting for us at the FT—we publish around the world is the intense interest outside the United States in this election, and the intense excitement around Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee.  To people outside the United States, it says something they didn‘t expect about America, about how truly open and Democratic it is. 

I think there‘s a real possibility that on the trip, Obama will be received in such an optimistic way that back home, Americans will say, you know what, we like the idea of America being viewed that way.  So I think it‘s a risk, but a good one. 

GREGORY:  This is a pretty big tableau though.  There‘s people in Ohio, people in—around the rust belt, Pennsylvania, industrial America who are going through a very hard time right now, not to mention the housing crisis affecting so much around the country.  Now, you‘re going to have Obama up on the world stage, looking worldly, trying to repair America‘s image abroad, when there is something that‘s really bleeding at home, and that‘s the economy. 

(CROSS TALK)

OPPENHEIM:  The bottom line is, if you feel yourself going under economically, you couldn‘t care less about how enthusiastically the Germans greet Barack Obama.  Those pictures will be impressive, and Chrystia is definitely right, he will be greeted with great warmth, almost like he‘s David Hasselhoff, maybe, but I don‘t think that really helps him in terms of economically struggling American families. 

I also think there‘s a risk here.  That risk is that Barack Obama‘s foreign policy, when you get down to specifics, may not go over so well.  He talks a lot about wanting to negotiate with Iran, wanting to bring our European allies back in to the fold.  The bottom line is negotiation is a tool.  The Europeans who he wants on our side are going to want something in return.  The Iranians are going to want something in return for abandoning their nuclear program.

So what Barack Obama doesn‘t talk about is, yes, let‘s use more diplomacy, let‘s get more allies.  But what is he going to give them in order to get all this progress that he is promising?  Once you get down to those specific, people might raise an eyebrow and say, wait a second, I don‘t think I want to give that to the Iranians an incentive.  I think that‘s the bigger risk. 

GREGORY:  Related to that, next up, could Obama be walking into a land mine on Israeli/Arab politics?  He‘s schedule to meet next week with Israeli Leader Ehud Olmert, Shimon Perez, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, before making a stop in Ramallah, where he will visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.  He‘s getting into an area, Mike Murphy, that‘s fraught with peril for him, not only with Jewish voters, but just in terms of how to deal with one of the most intractable problems in the Middle East, something that the Bush administration has been grappling with for years. 

MURPHY:  He‘s not going over there to solve any problems.  He‘s going over there to show foreign policy credentials and try to move some of those poll numbers we talked about earlier.  I think as long as Obama stays on the script, which he‘s very good at, and as long as the script is generalities, which is also something he‘s very good at, I think he‘s going to have a good trip.  I think, again, it‘s a big opportunity for him.  I don‘t think it puts the election away by any means, but, I have to say, I think it‘s a pretty smart move. 

The key thing is that in all his messaging there, he remembers that he‘s not playing to the local audience.  He‘ll be the biggest thing to hit France since Jerry Lewis.  That‘s not the issue.  It‘s that his messaging both in the Europe and the Middle East and everywhere he goes has to be about him listening and learning.  Then, when he‘s talking, he‘s really talking back to mainstream America.  I think Noah‘s right, he ought to hit trade and some issues like that.  He ought to play against type and stand up a little bit and push back on the Europeans on a few things.  I think that will score him huge political points. 

I don‘t worry about the economic deal from his point of view.  There‘s nothing he can do here about the economy anyway, other than maybe move to the center and closer to McCain, like he has done on Iraq. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, risk/reward for Obama over seas. 

MADDOW:  I think the risk is that it looks like he is far away from the action.  It never feels like there‘s a good time to take an international plane trip in the middle of the heat of a presidential campaign.  He‘s got to go.  He will benefit from being received well from abroad.  Conservatives are sometimes—they like to laud somebody‘s popularity abroad as a sign of weakness or as a sign that you‘re not a pushy enough American in some way.  Maybe some conservatives will see it as a bad thing that he‘s received well abroad. 

I think honestly that Americans, main street Americans, even rust belt Americans, like you were talking about—I think Americans, coast to coast, care about our standing in the world and care about the way that America is viewed on the national stage.  I think that it does concern Americans, left, right and center, that we have really fallen in the world‘s estimation since, for example, 9/11, when we had such an opportunity to unite the world and really squandered it, I think, with a foreign policy that turned a lot of people against us.  I think Americans care about that. 

GREGORY:  Noah, what‘s interesting about this trip, in many ways it‘s like it‘s his first major trip as president.  People are going to be seeing him on the world stage for the first time, and looking in terms of what he says, tone, how he is received.  What‘s the best thing he comes back to America with as he‘s campaigning, trying to shore up this—where he‘s lagging with McCain, in terms of can he handle a crisis.  Does he know enough about foreign affairs? 

Some people will look at this and say, look, this is kind of a copy cat trip to what McCain has been doing for the past several months. 

OPPENHEIM:  Look, the pictures alone will be enough.  The images of him with foreign leaders will automatically elevate him to that status.  I think that‘s going to be powerful.  The fact of the matter is what I keep wondering is at what point do the generalities become not enough.  You‘re right, if he keeps to script, goes over there, adoring crowds, doesn‘t really say anything all that controversial.  It‘s all just change, refreshing, new beginnings, et cetera.  Yes, that‘s kind of inspiring.  At a certain point, people are going to start asking, or John McCain should start asking, at what price does the new beginning come.  At what price do all of a sudden the world rally around us?

It‘s not going to be just based on the strength of Barack Obama‘s charisma.  That‘s not going to do it.  There‘s going to have to be concrete policy shifts and people are going to want to know what those are. 

MADDOW:  Noah, how has he been any less concrete than John McCain?  What‘s John McCain said that was so specific about our role in the world that Obama hasn‘t matched? 

OPPENHEIM:  I think Iran is a good example. 

MADDOW:  Yes? 

OPPENHEIM:  Barack Obama wants more diplomatic engagement with Iran.  The problem is, the diplomatic engagement, again, it‘s about the substance of what that engagement entails.  Iran has a nuclear program.  They have nuclear ambitions.  They are not going to simply abandon those ambitions because they think Barack Obama is charismatic, articulate and sexy.  They are going to want something in turn for abandoning that. 

MADDOW:  The Bush administration just adopted Obama‘s position on Iran.  They announced today they are sending an envoy.  They are engaging in diplomacy.  There‘s not preconditions about stopping Iranian enrichment.  They just adopted Obama‘s position.  

OPPENHEIM:  That‘s not true.  They are going to have an envoy listening to the Iranian‘s response to the Europeans offer.  That‘s a big difference. 

MADDOW:  They could get that from a letter.  They‘re sending somebody to—

GREGORY:  Let me get in here.  Mike Murphy, get in here with your point. 

MURPHY:  Specifics are the Obama Achilles heel.  There‘s an energy plan with no plans for more energy.  There‘s a foreign policy based on all carrot and no stick, which is not the way the world works, particularly with bad guys.  Obama is a great poet of painting these things, but I think Noah is right, Obama is going to run into trouble, I think, a little later in the campaign, when people start taking a second look at Obama, wondering where the beef is, where the details are, and where are the hard choices?  This is an election where people are tired of the same old political stuff.  I think, ultimately, in the end, after Labor Day, when it really gets down to it, candidates who are honest with the American people and talk about this is a game of hard choices not lofty rhetoric are going to do really well.  I think that‘s McCain‘s ace in the hole. 

GREGORY:  Let me make this observation before we go to break.  One of the things from covering George Bush over the past eight years is that Americans seem to be uncomfortable with the notion that an American administration and that the country generally is unpopular abroad, even if they have disrespect for organizations like the U.N.  Barack Obama can speak to that on the world stage.  He‘s also not going to out commander in chief, by their own admission in the Obama campaign, John McCain.  They‘re not going to out-do him on that.  There‘s a threshold here that he has to cross.  It may not be with specifics.  It may simply be a threshold that hey, we trust him on some of these big matters.  And then this election might be fought out on some other areas. 

We‘re going to come back, take a break here.  Before we break, this note.  We want to get it right here on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  One clarification to make from our program last night; we referenced a piece from the “Wall Street Journal” that examines some Congressional Democrats who weren‘t fully supportive of Barack Obama.  We mistakenly included Maryland Representative and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen on that list, based on a quote that was in that piece, advising many of the party‘s freshmen that, quote, their constituents come first and that they should spend time in their districts, instead of at the convention in Denver.  The DCC reports that, in fact, Van Hollen fully supports Obama and does plan to go and speak at the convention in Denver next month.  Just want to be clear with you on all of that. 

Up next, he‘s certainly come a long way, but is Obama doing an effective job of persuading voters that he‘s who they want in the White House when crisis were to come calling?  We‘re going to answer that when THE RACE returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  We‘re playing the question game.  What are today‘s three biggest questions in the ‘08 race?  Back with us, the panel tonight, Rachel Maddow, Mike Murphy, Chrystia Freeland and Noah Oppenheim. 

First up, Obama‘s foreign policy cred.  When Hillary Clinton hit Obama on his lack of experience on the world stage during the primary, you remember, Obama argued that judgment trumped experience.  Now going up against John McCain in the general election, that argument may be a tougher sell.  The “Washington Post” finds voters trust both candidates evenly to handle international affairs; 45 percent say Obama, 45 percent say McCain.  That may be a more esoteric, cerebral question.  Look at this, voters polled see McCain as far more knowledgeable than Obama about world affairs;

72 percent say McCain has enough world affairs experience to be an effective president.  Only 56 percent say that about Obama.  First question the, has Obama persuaded voters that he‘s any more prepared to handle foreign affairs than when he opposed Hillary Clinton.  Rachel, take it on. 

MADDOW:  I actually think that 45/45 number is kind of amazing.  The McCain campaign has to look at that and think, that‘s not where we expected to be at this point in this race.  I think they expected to have a natural and persistent advantage over Obama on foreign policy. 

GREGORY:  In other words, that‘s a trust question versus a knowledge question. 

MADDOW:  Right, who do you trust on international affairs.  Trusting Obama and McCain equally, I think that‘s remarkable at this point in the game.  I also think it‘s important to note that Obama has made essentially the same attack against Hillary Clinton and John McCain on judgment, saying listen, you know what, I opposed the Iraq war when you should have opposed the Iraq war, too.  For him to be able to play a tape now of John McCain saying, we‘ll be greeted as liberated --  McCain may think he‘s got an ace in the hole on Iraq, but Obama can keep going back to that old tape, to show how allied McCain has been with Bush. 

GREGORY:  Here‘s the issue Chrystia: in both cases, Obama has a challenge before him, which is he wants to make this a referendum about Bush, period.  He‘s linking Hillary Clinton to Bush.  He‘s linking John McCain to Bush.  That‘s what he wants voters to think about.  At some point, voters are looking to him to say, do I trust you in that Oval Office when a crisis strikes? 

FREELAND:  That‘s absolutely right.  I think that‘s part of the reason that this trip to Europe and the Middle East is such a good idea.  I think that the whole point is, Obama needs to show people that he will be comfortable on that world stage, that he can stand next to Gordon Brown, Sarkozy, Merkel and be their peer and they will look up to him.  I don‘t think right now, he needs to focus on the details of policy.  I think he needs to focus on showing that he can lead. 

I agree with Rachel.  I think it‘s really remarkable how far he‘s come, given that he doesn‘t have very much experience. 

GREGORY:  Next up, Obama won the Democratic primary, in part, because he tapped into the voters‘ desire for change.  Now we‘re in the general election, but change is still topping the polls of what voters want from the next president.  Second question, has McCain persuaded voters that he‘s prepared to bring change to Washington since the primary?  Mike, take it on? 

MURPHY:  No, not yet.  It‘s kind of a great irony, because John McCain is the original blow up Washington and change the culture here guy.  Somehow, Barack Obama has hijacked that from the 2000 McCain campaign and is now getting a lot of credit.  I think McCain can win it back.  But I think a legitimate criticism of his campaign is they‘ve stumbled around on messaging, and they have let go of a lot of space that McCain naturally owns.  It‘s been a huge mistake.  I think they haven‘t served McCain well on that. 

I‘m hoping they get it together now and—

GREGORY:  Mike, isn‘t it hard to use the analysis from the 2000 race, which I covered in part and first got to know you on, compared to 2008, when he‘s coming off an incumbent Republican president who‘s so unpopular, and now he becomes the standard bearer of the party. 

MURPHY:  Right, but the issue is not that the party is going to change McCain.  It‘s that McCain is going to change the party.  If McCain is really who he is, a different kind of Republican, and he bets his whole campaign on that, because campaigns are best with they amplify the truth, I think John McCain can win this election.  If he is in the mold of a third Bush term, which I think is inaccurate—it‘s not who McCain really is—he‘s going to be in trouble. 

I think they have been murky about that.  They had to win a primary, but they won in.  Now they have to put the thing in the center and amplify the real John McCain.  I think, in the ultimate head to head debate on that, you‘re going to find McCain is the real reformer, because he‘s had the guts and the courage to cast the tough votes in Washington, something Barack Obama, for all his rhetoric and, I think, good heart about it, has never really done.  Hard to find a Barack Obama tough vote on reform or anything elsewhere where he‘s bucked the party establishment and interest groups. 

GREGORY:  Noah, you‘re on deck for this one.  The race and the current White House, from the economy to foreign affairs—the Bush White House has made some surprising moves this week.  First, the president backed a bail out for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a plan one Republican senator linked to French socialism.  He likened it to that.  Today, the Bush administration, as Rachel mentioned a while a go, will send a top diplomat to meet with Iran‘s chief nuclear envoy, as team McCain is hammering Obama for wanting to talk directly to Iran. 

The third question, is President Bush undermining the Republican nominee?  It goes to the point of how is it that McCain can reinvent the Republican party at a time when, in some ways, the current president is leaving him out there to the right on issues economic ideology and foreign affairs, diplomatic affairs. 

OPPENHEIM:  I think that‘s a bit of an overstatement.  As I said before, I‘m not sure the presence of this envoy at these talks is quite the radical departure everyone is trying to make it out to be.  More importantly, John McCain has to reclaim that mantle of reform, as we‘ve been talking act.  The other thing he has to reclaim is that mantle of being the straight talker.  That‘s something that neither Barack Obama or George Bush is doing right now, which is to say to this country that, you know what, no matter what we do as a government, this economic crisis is not going away. 

The government can back stop Fannie Mae.  The government can announce another 600 dollar stimulus check for tax payers.  But the bottom line is that this financial system has run amok for the last few years, and there‘s a lot of money still to be lost, no matter what the government does.  The economy is in some real trouble.  Right now, if you look at, structurally speaking, the unpopularity of George W. Bush, everything else on the table, John McCain is the long shot in  this. 

If I were John McCain, I would take a gamble.  I would, say, look, traditionally, maybe you don‘t talk that straight to the voters, but maybe this is the year to do it. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, how do you see President Bush helping or hurting John McCain? 

MADDOW:  On this Iran issue, and I don‘t mean to beat it to death—

GREGORY:  No, go ahead, beat it. 

MADDOW:  I do think it‘s interesting that right now—Barack Obama has been so attacked for supporting the idea of talking to Iran, using diplomatic means to try to get what we from Iran.  Right now, the people who are in favor of that position are Barack Obama, the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.  The person who is against it is John McCain.  That could be a position of strength for McCain.  If he wants to come out and say George Bush is wrong on this.  He‘s a Nazi appeaser.  When I said I agreed with him on that, I meant it.  Now, he‘s doing what he said he shouldn‘t do.  That could be a position of strength for McCain. 

GREGORY:  It‘s Iran and North Korea.  You have an incumbent president who is thinking about legacy, not so much about pleasing the conservative base of his party ideologically, on foreign affairs. 

MADDOW:  I think that McCain needs to figure out where the political hay is to be made. 

GREGORY:  Yes. 

MADDOW:  Honestly, he might be able to make hay against Bush if he is willing to do it.

GREGORY:  Got to take a break here.  Our remaining moments up next, your play date with the panel.  Don‘t go away.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SINGING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  A lighter moment in the ‘08 race.  Thanks to the folks over at Jib Jab.  Back with us, Rachel, Mike, Chrystia and Noah.  The really intriguing part about all that is that you can insert your own face where Chris Matthews had been inserted, and you can be part of this little short film. 

OPPENHEIM:  Any opportunity to watch ourselves on screen I think is one we should embrace, absolutely. 

GREGORY:  This is satire, Rachel.  This really does capture some of the funny, satirical narratives in the race. 

MADDOW:  Sure.  The great thing about it is that it‘s edgy, absolutely.  It‘s saying some stuff that if voiced in a serious way you couldn‘t really get away with.  I‘m thinking specifically about the John McCain hospital scene.  But it‘s doing it in such an even handed way.  It‘s funny.  Honestly, you get away with more in satire when you succeed at being funny.  That was part of the problem with the “New Yorker” cover; if it had been funnier, they would have gotten away with it. 

GREGORY:  Mike, it‘s funny.  There‘s a contrast here that is edgy, that voters might think about, the caricature of McCain as the guy who is yelling get off my lawn, and then Obama prancing around with the unicorns in a Bambi moment, as not being up for the job. 

MURPHY:  It‘s very funny.  Good satire does—it‘s edgy but it amplifies pejorative, unfair but funny truths about people.  I predict right now somewhere, Barack Obama is not laughing at this, but I‘ll bet McCain is. 

MADDOW:  I think that‘s mean.  I think that‘s mean. 

MURPHY:  It also—it‘s balanced.  That‘s the other thing that makes it so bullet proof as comedy.  They‘re both in it. 

GREGORY:  I want to get one e-mail in here.  Kayla from Missouri writes with an interesting point: “everybody keeps talking about flip flopping in this race.  However, the last eight years have proven to me that having a close minded president is not working.  A president should be open minded to change.  He should be able to change his mind when new information has been given to him.  We know that having a cowboy mentality in the White House, where that can get us.  Should we be so hard on the candidates over this?”

I‘m kind of guessing where this voter is.  Rachel, where is the fine line between losing credibility over tacking the center, changing your position, and being able to say, as Tim Russert always said, just say you changed your mind, you‘ve evolved in your thinking? 

MADDOW:  It‘s very simple.  It‘s whether you can tell a good story about why you changed your mind?  Explain why you did it.  If you can make yourself seem smart in explaining it, then good.  If you deny that you ever had the previous position, that‘s when you start to get in trouble, or if you can‘t explain the rational reason why you changed your mind. 

GREGORY:  All right, we‘ll leave it there.  Thanks so much for the panel.  You can play with the panel every week night here at MSNBC.  Email us or call us.  That‘s going to do it for RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE for this Wednesday night.  We‘re back here tomorrow at 6:00 p.m. Eastern time.  Stay where you are on MSNBC, because “HARDBALL” is up next.  Have a good night.

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

END   

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

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