updated 7/24/2008 12:14:49 PM ET 2008-07-24T16:14:49

Guest: Richard Wolffe, Michael Smerconish, Rachel Maddow, Harold Ford, Jr., Tony Blankley, Daniel Silva

DAVID GREGORY, HOST: Tonight, will Obama's overseas tour bear fruit politically back at home? New NBC News poll numbers are out tonight, as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

Welcome to THE RACE. I'm David Gregory. Happy to have you here, your stop for the fast-paced, the bottom line and every point of view in the room.

Tonight, Obama and the Jewish vote back home on the Illinois senator's first visit to Israel. What about McCain? As he tries to step on Obama's message overseas, is he playing a losing hand? That debate coming up.

We have the new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" numbers out tonight on the war and voter enthusiasm for these candidates.

And the 3:00 a.m. phone call to the next president, who's on the other line? Spy novelist and former journalist Daniel Silva, author of the new thriller "Moscow Rules," joins us with his thoughts. It's Russia on the other line.

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

With us tonight, Harold Ford, Jr., chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and an NBC News analyst; Rachel Maddow, host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on Air America and an MSNBC political analyst; Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philly and columnist for both "The Philadelphia Inquirer" and "The Daily News"; and Tony Blankley, syndicated columnist.

We begin as we do every night, with the most important political story of the day. It is "The Headline."

We're going to begin tonight-we turn to Richard Wolffe, "Newsweek" senior campaign correspondent and MSNBC political analyst. Richard is traveling with Barack Obama throughout the Middle East. He is in Jerusalem tonight.

Richard, your headline.

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: David, my headline today was "All About Security."

The key test for Barack Obama were twofold. First, did he have a personal commitment to Israel and Israeli security? And secondly, was he going to downplay the threat from Iran?

Take a listen to what he said today in Sderot, the town close to Gaza.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing. A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat, and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOLFFE: David, as you know, Sderot has taken sustained fire from Palestinian rockets. And it was very important for Barack Obama to say to the voters back home, especially Jewish voters who have doubts about him, relative to where John Kerry was four years ago, or Al Gore eight years ago, that he has a personal desire to protect and stand by Israel. That's what he was trying to do today.

GREGORY: Richard, this is, it seems to me, more about poetry than prose in terms of it's not about policy, it's about the images of being overseas. Your assessment of how he's pulling that off as he's in Israel, which is the trickiest of all the stops?

WOLFFE: Well, this has not been gaffe-free. He has made certain mistakes, saying that he, for instance, served on the Senate Banking Committee, instead of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But generally in tone and in substance, he has hit the right notes here.

No obvious mistakes on the policy. He's made reassuring tones towards the Israelis, and also, importantly, met with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. So, he has set a tone which has been, at the very least competent, and above where McCain and the McCain campaign has suggested he is.

GREGORY: All right. Richard Wolffe in Jerusalem tonight. Thanks very much. Let me bring the panel in on this. Let me actually start with Smerconish.

Smerc, you look at this, your listeners in Pennsylvania, a state that he wants to appeal to, particularly the Jewish vote in Pennsylvania and places like Florida, the images are what matter here. How is he pulling it off?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: The images are all very presidential. He doesn't look like a candidate with that footage which is being beamed back home on MSNBC. He looks like somebody who already holds the position.

Now, I guess some would look at it and say that it's a bit presumptuous. I think that's the way the McCain campaign hopes that it will be perceived. But that's not the way that it's being perceived.

Any objectionable-any objection-can't say it straight. Any person who is looking at this thing without bias has to say, it's coming off full speed ahead for Barack Obama.

GREGORY: Rachel, your take on what emerges for you (ph) today?

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, looking at these pictures right now of Obama at Yad Vashem, the headline for me today was actually what I thought was a jaw-dropper of a political attack by the McCain campaign against Obama because of his statement at Yad Vashem. The McCain campaign actually implied today that when Obama said "Never again" at Yad Vashem, that he was insincere, that he's somehow soft on genocide, or that he would allow a future holocaust to take place.

I thought that was completely beyond the pale, especially following on the McCain campaign and McCain himself, those comments in the last couple of days in which he said that Barack Obama wants to lose the war in Iraq for political purposes. That's essentially calling somebody both genocidal and a trader, and I think it's-I think it reflects poorly on the McCain campaign just in terms of their control.

GREGORY: Let me-we're going to get to that in our "War Room" coming up.

Let me give you a piece of information, a headline tonight, from our new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll.

Voters were asked if the news that Iraq's prime minister wants the U.S. to set a timetable for withdrawal led them to believe it was good or a bad idea. Sixty percent of those polled said they believe it is, indeed, a good idea for the U.S. to set such a timeline, 30 percent of them think that setting such a timeline would be a bad idea.

Tony, your thoughts about that?

TONY BLANKLEY, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, look, I mean, obviously, that number, if it means anything, is good news for Obama.

I made the point on this show, I think, last week that it was going to be a cakewalk for Obama. That this was going to be a triumph for him. And it's turning out to be exactly that triumph, compounded by very inept campaigning on the part of McCain.

What will be-what I've also said is that, if he can't get a big bounce out of this, then what do we learn about the public's receptivity to the Obama candidacy? And that's what we're going to have to watch for the rest of the week and in the following weeks, to see whether, with all these wonderful images, whether they are increasing the support that Obama's going to have in the country.

GREGORY: Harold, just assess this trip overall so far. What was the challenge for Obama, and is he meeting it?

HAROLD FORD, JR., NBC NEWS ANALYST: He clearly was wanting to send an unmistakable message to the country that he could be trusted on foreign policy, that he understood and could walk the walk on foreign policy, and could step into the most dangerous and contested and, for that matter, prolonged battle zone that the country has faced, and not only command the respect of our allies in the region, but command the respect of our military commanders on the ground. He was given a few gifts.

Our allies there on the ground from Iraq, the Iraqi government, said that, yes, a timetable is something they would endorse. The president, the leader of the Republican Party, suggested that it was now time to begin talking, or at least engaging in some way with the Iranians and the North Koreans. And then we learned this morning that the Pentagon has suggested to the president that some kind of a movement of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan is something that we should consider in terms of a policy change.

So, Barack has won on two of three fronts. I would agree with Tony wholeheartedly.

The question now is when he returns. I think you have to now offer the country a larger, broader, more strategic vision as to where you see America's entanglement, engagement and involvement in the Middle East, where that goes, and then to shift right back to the economy.

GREGORY: All right. We're going to take a break here, come back, and get into the "War Room."

McCain wants in. He wants to be part of this debate. He's gone on the attack when Obama has been overseas on substance, on tone, on the media's treatment of the Illinois senator. How is it working for him? Has it backfired? Has he seized the moment?

Later on, your chance to play with the panel. Call us, 212-790-2299, or e-mail us at race08@msnbc.com.

THE RACE comes right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back now on THE RACE, going "Inside the War Room."

John McCain's strategy session, how does he deal with McCain-rather with Obama overseas and all of the attention? Well, the answer has been, attack, attack, attack.

Are these attacks working, or is McCain losing the moment? We're going to break it down.

Back with us, Harold Ford, Jr., Rachel Maddow, Michael Smerconish and Tony Blankley. First up, listen to McCain sounding off on Obama at a town hall in New Hampshire just yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Today, McCain stood by that statement. "TIME" magazine's Joe Klein weighs in on the attack, saying he's never seen anything like it.

To the quote board.

"This is the ninth presidential campaign I have covered. I can't remember a more scurrilous statement by a major party candidate. It smacks of desperation. It renews questions about whether McCain has the right temperament for the presidency."

"How sad. There is a reason why politicians who wan to be president don't say these sorts of things. It isn't presidential."

At the same time, Tony Blankley, this is not beanbag here. McCain has a very particular task here, and that is to undermine Obama overseas, to undermine whatever strength he may be getting in terms of foreign policy, and to paint him as somebody who will change positions even if they are on foreign policy, because they lack principle, that they're done (ph) for political reasons.

Do you think he's missing the mark?

BLANKLEY: Well, I think it's a harsh and probably an impolitic statement to make. I wouldn't make it myself. But think of it from McCain's point of view.

He believes there's no war America can't win if we're committed to it. Obama was against the war. He's consistently said we need to end the war, whether we win it or not.

Even now this week he's saying we need to take troops out of Iraq, which is not the central front, and send them to Afghanistan. So, from McCain's point of view, I assume he's making a very harsh, but I suspect sincere, from McCain's point of view, judgment that Obama is not prepared to use all the resources necessary to win the war.

Now, Is that a political calculation on Obama's part? I won't-I can't say that. I have no proof that it would be. But I judge that McCain has made that very harsh judgment and is saying what he thinks.

GREGORY: So, moving on now, this is something that Rachel mentioned just a couple of minutes ago. Some calling a low-blow the McCain takes on Obama's remarks at holocaust museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

This is what Obama said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: It is critical that we impart to our children a sense of a dangerous peril that exists in our world, but also that they feel a sense that they have the power to bring about the change needed to ensure that when we say "never again," we mean it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: The McCain campaign took issue with Obama's statement, firing off a press release calling-called Obama on genocide, featuring a quote from Obama from last year where he said the U.S. cannot use its military to solve ethnic strife around the world.

McCain campaign aide Michael Goldfarb followed up with it this way today. He says never again.

"A year ago he said genocide was not a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces in Iraq. Doesn't that strike you as inconsistent?"

Smerc, we know that Obama last year walked back that statement some.

But here, the McCain campaign wants to make use of it here.

SMERCONISH: The McCain campaign is saying that Barack Obama would not stand in the way of a repeat of the holocaust, God forbid such a circumstance should repeat itself. Nobody's going to believe that statement, and it's wildly inconsistent-I mean, what I see going on with the McCain campaign is an unbelievable level of frustration over how well this trip is being carried out and how well it's being perceived at home.

And consequently, there's no consistency in the way that they are responding to it. For all that discussion, David, about the way in which the McCain campaign needed to unify its message, and consequently was bringing in Steve Schmidt, I see no evidence that they've learned from their past mistakes.

GREGORY: Well, related to that, they're getting pretty personal today as well. McCain senior foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann took the gloves off, attacking Obama's foreign policy judgment, saying this...

"What is Senator Obama's judgment based on? His tenure at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when he did not hold a single substantive hearing? His years in the Illinois state Senate or as a community organizer? Or is it based on his international experience gleaned while he was in junior high school in Indonesia or on a college spring break trip in Pakistan?"

Again, Rachel, you look at this and you wonder, is there any kind of central theme to this or is it just lashing out?

MADDOW: It seems like extreme lashing out. As I think Michael was saying, it's stuff that doesn't actually resonate as true. And it says a lot more about the campaign saying these things than it does about the candidate against whom they are leveling these accusations.

I think this says a lot about the McCain campaign. And just talking about message discipline, if that was going to be your message today, why would you have Randy Scheunemann deliver that message?

Randy Scheunemann, who worked for Rumsfeld? Randy Scheunemann who was a lobbyist for that guy who got caught on tape offering to sell meetings with Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney in exchange for contributions to the Bush library?

I mean, don't talk about people's past associations and put Randy Scheunemann in the front of the podium making those comments. It just shows bad execution, bad forethought, and I think it shows a real-a real confidence on the part of the McCain campaign that they're not going to get attention from making a statement like that.

GREGORY: All right. So the question is, what does McCain do to reverse course on this?

Slate.com's John Dickerson advises, "McCain should go on the defensive, yes. But in targeted forays. The central question is just how much time McCain should spend attacking his opponent."

"Some argue that he needs to get more aggressive in raising doubts about Obama, whose advantages put him in a position they fear to run away with the race. Other longtime McCain allies argue for an almost opposite approach. One suggested McCain ignore Obama for a month so that McCain can spend time explaining to voters where he'd like to take the country."

"Perhaps McCain can go after Obama more often and more vehemently, as the goaders would have it, if he were here and he were better at it. But most of the time he's not."

Harold, look at this kind of counterintuitively here. If you're advising McCain and he's in the middle of this week, where there is frustration about whether it's press coverage or how this trip is being pulled off, how do you stick to what is an important point in the campaign, which his to undermine Obama's credibility on foreign affairs, on the national security test, and really put that nugget into the voters' mind, that is this a guy that you can trust? Those are all fair arguments to make, and important arguments to make.

FORD: McCain will be associated with George Bush on the economy, Iraq, national security, FISA, all the bad things that Democrats think that George Bush has represented.

If I were John McCain, I would lay out clearly where I wanted to take the country on foreign policy, national security, and the economy. I would use those specifics and contrast them with Senator Obama.

His people continue-McCain's people continue to, I think, erroneously make the case that Senator Obama lacks the experience to lead the country. But they have yet to lay out what John McCain's vision is.

To hear him suggest that a sitting United States senator does not want to win a war, I have to agree with Joe Klein, I'm surprised at John McCain. He owes not only Barack Obama an apology, he owes the country an apology for such a silly and asinine and, frankly, cruel statement.

GREGORY: All right.

FORD: He may disagree with Barack's approach, but to say that this guy doesn't want to win the war, John McCain, shame on you, and shame on your staffers for suggesting that.

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

First this, a White House alert. Press Secretary Dana Perino announced today that President Bush will speak at the Republican National convention in Minnesota on Monday, September 1st. It's the first night of the convention, the night the incumbent traditionally speaks.

Going to take a break here. Coming up, when it comes to Iraq policy, who has the better plan, McCain, Obama, how about both? Why McBama could be the answer.

"Smart Takes" up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back on THE RACE now. I'm David Gregory, looking for the sharpest, provocative thinking out there in the '08 race. We've got it for you tonight, "Smart Takes."

Here again, Harold, Rachel, Michael and Tony. First up, "The New York Times" Tom Friedman says that when it comes to the Iraq debate, McBama is the answer.

To the quote board.

"McCain, who called the surge a right, may get little credit because the story now is about post-surge Iraqi rights. Meanwhile, Obama, who is not a surge supporter, and simply stuck to a 16-month withdrawal timetable, finds himself, by luck or smarts, in perfect harmony with the post-surge mood in Iraq. All of which suggests that the right position on Iraq today is probably McBama: stick to a clear withdrawal timetable because post-surge Iraqi and American politics will tolerate nothing else. But leave yourself some wiggle room if things keep getting better."

"Not exactly on schedule, but always remember this is Iraq. The more Iraq is seen as succeeding on its own, without U.S. scaffolding, the more positive impact it will have on the neighborhood."

Tony, what I take from that is that there's shifting ground in Iraq for sure, but that it's become more of a muddle, as a matter of policy, which can make the politics a muddle as well.

BLANKLEY: Yes, I think that's true. But I come to this from a political point of view, and politic is about driving messages.

And Obama was wrong, at least you can make the case, McCain is going to make the case, Obama was wrong as a matter of judgment on the surge. Obama has taken great credit on his excellent judgment in opposing the war, so if I were McCain, I would bang away for a month on the poor judgment that Obama showed.

Now, I agree with Friedman that it is becoming a muddle because of what Maliki said and the flow of events, but campaigns are about unmuddling to your own advantage. And that's what McCain should be doing.

FORD: Can I follow up on Tony's point?

GREGORY: Yes.

FORD: This is the point that McCain should be making. I mean, to make the point that a United States senator doesn't want to win a war is just unbelievable. It's laughable.

Tony's point, and what Friedman laid out in the article, perhaps he ought to hire Tony to run the campaign and sneak advice from Tom Friedman. Otherwise, not only will John McCain lose this race, he'll be laughed out of it before he even reaches his own convention.

MADDOW: I think we should point out though that there's no sense in which this is a McBama plan that Friedman's talking about...

GREGORY: Right.

MADDOW: ... except in the need for Tom Friedman to have a cute new word. I mean, the strict timetable with a little wiggle room? That's the Obama plan, and that's been the Obama plan forever. It doesn't really...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY: Right. But there's a fair point to be made about whether the Obama plan would take root, would have the sort of traction, without the surge.

FORD: Right. That was his point about McBama, I think.

GREGORY: Yes.

MADDOW: But he's-but at this point, what Friedman is defining is post-surge politics in Iraq. Post-surge politics in Iraq, what do we do with the 140,000 Americans that are there now? John McCain says leave them there. This is our chance to get there for 100 years. Obama says no.

GREGORY: I totally agree with that. It's the going forward, it's the management part.

MADDOW: Right.

GREGORY: But you can't separate out the fact that it's how you get to a place where post-surge politics become possible and salient, maybe even to the benefit of Barack Obama, without acknowledging what the surge has accomplished.

BLANKLEY: David...

MADDOW: The surge is over. It's over. It's done.

GREGORY: Go ahead. Who wants in?

BLANKLEY: Let me just make a quick point.

GREGORY: Yes.

BLANKLEY: That it's not about the issue, it's about the confidence of the voters in the two candidates, and the issue is an example of that. That's why it continues to be important for Obama to do that-I mean, for McCain to go forward.

GREGORY: OK. I've got to take a break here.

Coming up, we've got new poll numbers out tonight, NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" on the economy, on who's a bigger risk, enthusiasm for the candidates.

Stay where you are for the back half.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY: We're back on THE RACE for the back half here. I'm David Gregory. Happy to have you with us. Our second, special edition of the war room tonight, focused on new polling. We go inside the just released NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll on the '08, the first national survey since to be released since Barack Obama embarked on overseas tour. Still with us, Harold Ford Jr., chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and an NBC News analyst, Rachel Maddow, host of the "Rachel Maddow Show" on Air America and an MSNBC political analyst, Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philly and a columnist for both the "Philadelphia Inquirer," and the "Daily News." Tony Blankley also here, a syndicated columnist.

First up, the head to head, Obama 47, McCain 41, no change from last month. The poll was taken from last Friday to Monday. Obama has gotten no bump as yet from this trip. Obama only has a six point lead over McCain. But the poll shows he's still dominating the race. When asked what voters are focussed on in the '08 campaign, 51 percent say they are focused on what kind of president Obama would be, while just 27 percent say they are focussed on the kind of president McCain would be.

Big picture, Harold, where are voters as they look at this race?

FORD: This thing is still fluid. I think Senator Obama's trip overseas should answer some of the questions. I've seen some of the other numbers and I'm know we will unveil some of the others throughout the show. It demonstrates that a lot of the country is still interested in knowing who Barack is, what he stands for, what his biography is. Again, I think this trip has been important, because it begins to answer some of the questions and it lays out a narrative that this guy is he capable of leading American foreign policy. First of all, architecting foreign policy and leading and executing.

The more he is able to demonstrate that on foreign policy and economic policy, the more likely it is, come mid to late January, he'll be getting ready to give a State of the Union Address to the country.

GREGORY: But Tony Blankley, this is the absence of a gaffe leads to confidence? This is a lot of imagery in this Obama trip, but this is a very careful trip. He's not over there making major statements of policy. Arguably, in Iraq and Afghanistan, he's gotten a little bit deeper. Is this more about people observing him in the role, seeing him, frankly, in these pictures, side by side with some of these leaders and saying, yes, I can picture this?

BLANKLEY: What this campaign is always about, and I think most of us agreed, it is Obama's to win or lose. The public is trying to make a judgment on him. So far, your poll tonight is the same as the Gallup and Rasmussen daily tracking polls, showing that the European travel is not increasing Obama's number. It's always been the question of does he have a low ceiling. We don't have the answer to that. We'll have that answer in November. This is a beginning indicator that he seems to be stuck at a high, but not quite 50 percent.

GREGORY: Rachel, we could actually argue this so many different ways. We could look at a six point gap and say should Obama be doing better? If the state of the McCain campaign is so poor-there's an issue for Obama or is McCain failing to gain any traction at a time when he ought to be able to close that gap a little bit? How do you argue that?

MADDOW: I think that the head to head polls, as we have all voiced a lot of caution about those early on in the race. Head to head polls, we don't have a national election. It much more comes down to the swing states. I actually feel like the really important finding in this poll is that idea that people are focussed on what kind of a president Barack Obama would be. In the biggest possible framing of this election, the most important question is, is this a referendum on George Bush or is this a referendum on Barack Obama? This is the underside of all of the quantitative advantage that Barack Obama has, in terms of the amount of coverage he's able to get.

Ultimately, in the biggest picture, if it's about him, he has a worse chance of winning than if it's about Bush.

GREGORY: Well, and you set up the next element here, the state of the nation. The number of people say that America is off on the wrong track has climbed yet again to a new record high; 74 percent say the U.S. is on the wrong track, just 13 percent say it's headed in the right direction, just 13 percent. The number one issue, not surprisingly, is the economy. The poll shows neither candidate owning the issue.

Voters were asked how much confidence they have in the candidates' plans to get the economy back on track; 55 percent said they have some to a great deal of confidence in Obama; 52 percent said about the same for McCain. In contrast, 32 percent said they have very little confidence in Obama that he could turn around the economy, and 36 percent said the same about McCain, even though the poll shows that Democrats have a 16 point advantage over Republicans on the economy.

Smerc, take the last piece about the economy first. How do we make sense of that?

SMERCONISH: I don't think the economy is a strong suit for either of these candidates. In particular, it's a problem for John McCain, because he's perceived as a part of the status quo. That's why I've always believed that his vice presidential selection has got to be someone strong on the economy. What I find most significant about those numbers is the fact that 74 percent of the country believes we're on the wrong track. Yet, that's a large margin that's not being tapped into by Barack Obama.

In other words, he's only up six, and yet he's perceive as the agent of change at a time when three quarters of Americans think we're on the wrong track. Why isn't he doing better I think is a question that is worthy of conversation.

GREGORY: Harold, look at this analytically. You look at these numbers; does it reinforce the idea that if you've got the wrong track number so high, you have the numbers on the economy, a lot of people think, what can a president really do about the economy? Is Obama in a position to stand back and say look, if you're for status quo, you're for that guy. He's a Republican. You want change, I don't have to be that specific about it. I'm a new party. I'm a different approach just by showing up.

FORD: Two things, I would agree with just about all that's been said. I'll give credit to Smerc. A week and a half ago, he said this is a going to come down to being a referendum on Barack Obama. It looks as if it's moving in that direction. First, 74 percent wrong track. You have to feel good if you're Barack about that. Two, 55-52, 55 percent think Barack will do a better job on the economy, 52 John McCain. That's got to be a worrisome number for the Obama campaign.

What Obama now has to do is to continue to lay out how he will do it, be forceful in sharing it. The same way he went on a trip throughout the Middle East, it might be smart to come back to the United States here in the coming days and take a trip across some of the hardest hit area's economically in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee. Take it right to the heartland of the country and listen to voters and begin to lay out, between now and the convention, a coherent and cogent economic package that you can begin to talk about and align yourself with Democrats in the House and Senate to try to pass when they return from their August recess.

He has to do something to give voters an opportunity to wrap their arms around something concrete and tangible. Something to be encouraged about in this poll, bit if I was Senator Obama and that campaign, I would be concerned greatly that that gap is not larger when it comes to the economy.

GREGORY: Next up, the conundrum for McCain. The poll shows voters do see Obama, as Bill Clinton put it, as a role of the dice. When asked who would be a riskier choice for president, 55 percent said Obama, 35 percent said McCain, 55-35. McCain has similar double digit advantages on questions of who has the leadership to be president and who's knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the job. When asked what they are looking for in the next president, 55 percent say they want a person who will bring greater changes, even if he has less experience; 40 percent say they want a person who is more experienced and tested.

Rachel, again I go back to the point about is it risky, who brings greater risk? That's the wound that McCain has to keep striking. He's got to keep jabbing at that wound. That's where he potentially wins the race.

MADDOW: That's where, if you're trying to predict what's going to happen in this race, if you're trying to prognosticate, you can get down into the weeds and drill down very tightly on all of these very specific issues and what the economy is doing in different parts of the country. Or you can just ask yourself the fundamental question, are we a risk averse country, or are we not? The McCain campaign has succeeded in trying to portray Barack Obama as not only new, but as risky. If you think we're a risk averse country, you think that McCain, ultimately, no matter what else is going on, has a good chance.

BLANKLEY: David, I don't think McCain camp has succeed at all at that. Keep in mind, the Reagan campaign that I worked in in 1980, the public thought we were the riskier candidate until September and October. It's very early. I would expect to see these kind of numbers for a person who is not as known as Obama is. McCain certainly hasn't done anything to drive his numbers down.

GREGORY: That's the point, Tony, that there had to be a threshold for Reagan at the point, where people looked at him and said, OK, yes, he's an actor, but he can do the job. He can be the commander in chief.

BLANKLEY: It took almost until a few weeks before the election, until after the round of debates that had to break, when people began to say, yes, I can see him as president. So we have a couple months to go.

GREGORY: Finally here, McCain's challenge in the election coming from within the GOP. The enthusiasm gap, pollsters asked supporters of both Obama and McCain how they feel about voting for the candidate. Forty four percent of Obama supporters say they are excited about voting for him. Just 14 percent of McCain supporters say the same. Look at the contrast, 43 percent of McCain supporters say their vote for him is a vote for the lesser of two evils; 22 percent of Obama voters say the same.

Smerc, what does that enthusiasm gap mean in November?

SMERCONISH: The vote of someone who is enthusiastic and the vote of someone who is unenthusiastic, they count the same. The meaning of that is that it translates into turn out. Enthusiasm equates with turn out. That's the message for the McCain camp. David, it's going to get a heck of a lot worse, because those conventions are on the horizon. What is the McCain campaign going to do to follow 75,000 people at Invesco Field?

GREGORY: Yes, but he's going to have something. Harold, my thought on that is that Republicans who may be down right now are going to get excited. It's a question of how excited do they get. How large is the enthusiasm behind McCain? But they will come together to a point where they are prepared to compete.

FORD: There's no doubt about it. The Republican party will rally around John McCain when it comes time. We're going through the summer months. I can imagine, if I were John McCain, I might take the period of the Democratic convention and maybe travel overseas, travel to Iraq. He'll find something to do. I do agree with Smerc's central premise. That crowd on Thursday night, on the night that Dr. King, more than 40 years ago, gave that great speech-almost 45 years ago, gave that incredible speech in Washington. To see Barack Obama talk about transforming and taking America to another level and ushering a new era of leadership is something that will not only be potent and compelling, but will even place a greater burden on John McCain to be careful in how he attacks Barack Obama, and to be even more serious in saying and delivering on a message to where he will take America as well.

GREGORY: All right, I have to take a break. When we come back, one of Rachel Maddow's obsessions, she's up nights worrying about the US/Russian relationship. We're going to get into it here. The 3:00 a.m. call to the next president, who's it from? Well, our next guest, the novelist Daniel Silva, has an answer that may surprise you. It's coming from Russia. What should we be worried about? The political scene there and here and the campaign when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: We're back now. While Barack Obama is overseas meeting with various heads of state, already having met with Olmert, Abbas, and plans to meet with Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel. There's one leader and one country that my next guess says the next president cannot ignore. His prediction, Obama will be the next president and will be confronted with a 3:00 a.m. phone call.

This is it from "Town Hall," "perhaps not early in the morning, as it did in the ads of Obama's vanquished rival, Hillary Clinton, but quite possibly early in an Obama presidency-and since I have made one prediction, I will make another: President Obama, at some point early in his administration will be tested by Vladimir Putin and the newly resurgent Russian."

Joining me now is author of the new book, the thriller, "Moscow Rules," Daniel Silva. Daniel, thanks for being here.

DANIEL SILVA, AUTHOR "MOSCOW RULES": My pleasure.

GREGORY: Are you OK with the prediction here?

SILVA: Which aspect of the prediction?

GREGORY: The prediction about Obama being president?

SILVA: AS I predicted in that piece, unless the McCain campaign can find a voice and find a coherent message, I think we are looking at an electoral map changing landslide for Osama bin-excuse me, there it was, Barack Obama.

GREGORY: For Barack Obama.

SILVA: I spend too much time thinking about al Qaeda.

GREGORY: You talk about Russia not only in the book, but also in this piece. You say the 3:00 a.m. phone call with come from a newly resurgent Russia. A political threat here. Not just the stuff of spy novels; explain.

SILVA: I was using the 3:00 a.m. phone call metaphorically. I get to do that because I'm a novelist. But I really do believe that-look, there's plenty of evidence in the news this week that Russia clearly wants to find a place in the world to balance American power, wants to challenge American power around the world. We have been selling weapons-entering into a deal with Venezuela, talking about basing bombers, nuclear bombers in Cuba. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that Russia wants to play a much more aggressive role in the world. I think they intend to.

GREGORY: What is the challenge for the next administration then dealing with a new leader? Vladimir Putin is still on the scene. Medvedev is the new leader of Russia. How much power he has is uncertain. This comes six or seven years after Bush says looks in Putin's eyes and says this is a leader I can trust. The new president of the United States isn't certain weather they can trust Russia.

SILVA: I don't think that they can trust Russia. Look, I think that Vladimir Putin cynically used 9/11 and the atmosphere in the world after 9/11 to strangle what was left of Russian democracy in its cradle, to impose an authoritarian system on Russia, to stifle decent, to crush the free press. He very skillfully used the opening that he had after 9/11. And I believe that-personally believe we are about to enter the post-9/11 world and that it's time for a Russian reckoning, as it were.

GREGORY: In the novel, the challenge is a new Russian arms dealer who's actually selling arms to al Qaeda. Again, these books are very well researched. This is not just the work of a keen mind on your part. But it is rooted on this post-9/11 Russian and it's a real threat.

SILVA: Unfortunately, we have multiple examples of private Russian arms dealers selling all sorts of dangerous weapons to dangerous people, including al Qaeda, Taliban, Hezbollah. Then there are the sales that the state Russian agency makes. They're selling weapons to Syria, as we saw this week. They are about to deliver new anti-aircraft weapons to Iran that could be used to defend their nuclear capability.

So, Russia is a-what I would describe as a promiscuous arms dealer. Their arms sales have soared more than 70 percent in recent years. It's one of the few products that are stamped made in Russia that people in the world actually want to buy. Russia exports very few finished goods. So arms are one of their most lucrative exports. They take advantage of that.

GREGORY: Your hero in the book, the Israeli spy Gabriel Allon (ph), experiences a reality in Russia, in the book "Moscow Rules," that everything has to be the biggest, that the Russians can't be an ordinary people. Do you think that politically America understands this emerging reality, that Putin, as you have written, wants to make Russia an empire again, in many ways?

SILVA: I think that when the Cold War ended, there was a great deal of hope in this country and Western Europe that from the ashes of the Soviet Union would emerge a normal country. Russia has never been a normal country. Having spent a great deal of time there last summer, news flash, it's not going to be normal country any time soon. In another time, I think we would have called what is going on in Russia today fascism. It's, in effect, a one party state, a state controlled economy, no free press, no vehicle for real political dissent. It's going to be an issue, as I argued in the piece, that President Obama will have to deal with.

There, I did it again, President Obama.

GREGORY: The idea of how these candidates talk about Russia and how a new president deals with Russia, based on what you know about how this current administration, how this current government feels about Russia, where's the room to actually maneuver and change? Does there need to be a change?

SILVA: There's a wonderful new book out. Can I plug someone else's book?

GREGORY: Yes.

SILVA: I think everyone in Washington needs to read "The New Cold War" by Edward Lucas. There's been a lot of inflammatory, sensational stuff written about Russia in the last couple of years. This is a very solid, analytical look at what went wrong in Russia and what the threat is. One of his recommendation is that the United States and Western Europe need to set aside all the bad blood over Iraq, and reform that old Cold War Atlantic alliance and rebuild it. I believe that using Russia as that issue gives the next president of the United States a real opportunity to rebuild relations with Western Europe.

GREGORY: There's that book and "Moscow Rules." Good luck with it.

Daniel Silva, thanks very much.

SILVA: Thank you.

GREGORY: Your play date with the panel up next.

GREGORY: Time for your play date with the panel in our remaining moments here. Back with us, Harold, Rachel, Michael and Tony. The trouble with being president in the Youtube world; have you seen this? At a fund raiser in Texas, President Bush asked people to turn off their cameras. One person kept ruling, and caught the president speaking rather candidly on the economy. The video was obtained by ABC affiliate KTRK in Houston and posted on Youtube. Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no question about it, Wall Street got drunk. That's one of the reasons I asked you to turn off your TV cameras. It drunk and now it's got a hang over. The question is how long will it sober up and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments. And then we've got a housing issue, not in Houston, evidently not in Dallas, because Laura was over there trying to buy a house today.

I like Crawford. Unfortunately, after eight years of asking her to sacrifice, I am no longer the decision maker.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: I want to get to the funnier point at the end. But first, Harold, if you look at this, what's interesting-by the way, the White House says this is a more candid way of saying things that he's said before. I assume when he's talking about financial instruments, he's talking about subprime lending and the like, what's partly behind the losses, all write downs in the investment banks that have led to a real credit squeeze in a financial markets.

But he's making these comments at a time that it's very sensitive. There's all this negotiation about legislation related to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and at a time when he's very gingerly trying to manage an economy in great turmoil.

FORD: There's no doubt the markets are working through one of the most challenging, if not the most difficult period in the last 75 years in the country. To listen to the president talk, you would think that government, which has spent more money-I don't know how he would describe the spending that he signed over. The president has not vetoed one spending bill since he's been president.

As we talk about theses metaphors-we have to be sensitive to use that kind of metaphor. I think there's a lot of blame to go around. Hopefully, the next president won't spend as much, will be more constrained in how he goes about things, and will regulate those who need to be regulated.

MADDOW: David, do you mind if I jump in here? The idea that fancy financial instruments some how magically appeared on the scene and screwing things up is a little crazy for the president to portray. The reason we have fancy financial instruments is because of the massive deregulation of the banking industry and the mortgage industry and all of these things. Without the speculators being involved, oil prices would probably look really different. That was a deliberate political government decision to do that deregulation. So I'm worried that he seemed so mystified about how it got this bad.

GREGORY: Tony, just on the latter point of that, the housing crisis, again, which is a very sensitive matter all over the country, and then saying, there doesn't appear to be an issue in Dallas. Actually, home foreclosures are up in Dallas, in Texas over all, not as dramatic as places like California and Florida. But he has told me before that he have been happy to stay in Crawford. But indeed, Mrs. Bush, I think, wants to set up in Dallas.

BLANKLEY: I must say it's unfathomable to me that after being president for seven and a half years, he would think he could say anything in private in a room full of people and not have it come out. That is the most stunning part of the presentation. As far as the markets, animal spirits, you can call it animal spirits, as Alan Greenspan does, or drunkenness, as the president has. But it's certainly typically the case before bubbles burst, there's an excess of enthusiasm in investing and spending. This has been the cycle.

I don't have trouble with the metaphor. I have trouble with this sense of judgment and saying that in public.

Of course, he's never going to be welcomed back to Crawford, now.

GREGORY: The other aspect too, and we dealt with this about the comments about a mental recession and even these comments-Harold, you know this working in the financial sector as well, that there is such a huge element of psychology in the market. That's a fact. It doesn't always translate well politically.

FORD: There's certainly a crisis in confidence. Hopefully, this housing bill will pass the Congress soon. To my dear friend Phil Gramm, I'll stop whining.

GREGORY: OK, we're going to leave it there. That does it for RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE. I'm David Gregory. Thanks to the great panel tonight. We'll see you here tomorrow, same time, 6:00 pm Eastern. Stay where you are, "HARDBALL" with Chris Matthews starts now.

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.

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

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,