updated 7/25/2008 10:59:10 AM ET 2008-07-25T14:59:10

Guests: Richard Wolffe, Chrystia Freeland, Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson, Reihan Salam

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, Obama in Germany.  A huge, adoring crowd; a message of hope and reconciliation after the George Bush years.  Is this too much of a good thing for the senator who is not yet president?

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 we will break down the big Obama speech today and those crowds—look at that—the message and politics back home.  How is it playing here with that crowd swelling to nearly 200,000 people over there in Berlin? 

What Obama told Brian Williams tonight about why the trip was worth it.

And despite the glow of this overseas adventure, where are Obama‘s vulnerabilities?  Yes, he has them. 

We look deeper into the NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll for some answers. 

Also tonight, veepstakes.  As the selection draws near, what do voters want in a number two?  And how might that influences the decision? 

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

And with us tonight, Eugene Robinson, columnist and associate editor at “The Washington Post,” and an MSNBC political analyst; Chrystia Freeland, U.S. managing editor of “The Financial Times”; Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America and an MSNBC political analyst; and Reihan Salam, associate editor at “The Atlantic,” and the author of a terrific new book, “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

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

And we turn tonight for our headline, big story, the Obama speech in Berlin.  We turn to Richard Wolffe, “Newsweek” senior campaign correspondent for “Newsweek” and an MSNBC political analyst.  Richard has been traveling with Obama throughout the Middle East and Europe, and joins us now from the aforementioned Berlin, where he witnessed Barack Obama‘s speech in person. 

Richard, your headline tonight. 

RICHARD WOLFFE, SR. CAMPAIGN CORRESPONDENT, “NEWSWEEK”:  David, my headline tonight, “Barack Obama‘s Balancing Act in Berlin.”

Here you had the Democratic nominee trying to balance two very difficult things: appealing to voters back home, while also supporting his big audience in Berlin today.  Take a listen to how he tried to square that circle today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I know my country has not perfected itself.  At times we‘ve struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people.  We‘ve made our share of mistakes.  And there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions. 

But I also know how much I love America.  I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived at great cost and great sacrifice to form a more perfect union, to seek with other nations a more hopeful world. 

Our allegiance has never been to any particular tribe or kingdom.  Indeed, every language is spoken in our country.  Every culture has left its imprint on ours.  Every point of view is expressed in our public squares. 

What has always united us, what has always driven our people, what drew my father to America‘s shores, is a set of ideals that speak to aspirations shared by all people, that we can live free from fear and free from want, that we can speak our minds and assemble with whomever we choose and worship as we please. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOLFFE:  David, can you imagine President Bush going overseas and delivering a speech that talks about the imperfection of America?  And conversely, can you imagine President Bush attracting a crowd of 200,000 people to talk about American values?  This was a high-wire act, and judging by the images that the campaign took away from it, he just about pulled it off. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Richard in Berlin tonight.

Thank you, as you‘ve done a great job tonight and all week. 

Let‘s bring in the panel to weigh in all of this. 

Rachel, your takeaway from all of this?  Richard mentioned President Bush.  Who was Obama speaking to today? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I think Obama was speaking to Americans, first and foremost.  But, by choosing Berlin to do it, by choosing as the historical touchstone for the speech the Berlin Airlift, he defined a very specific vision for the post-George W. Bush role for America in the world. 

The Berlin Airlift was an American military action, but it was one in which we were very much outmatched.  There were a lot more Soviets blockading Berlin than there were Americans airlifting supplies to the citizens of that city. 

And what Obama essentially said today—and that clip was a perfect explanation for it—was say, you know what?  What amplifies our military role in the world, what amplifies our military force and allows us to lead, is our values. 

GREGORY:  Right.

MADDOW:  And that is what even the people of the country that we had just defeated in World War II just years earlier identified with.  It‘s our values that allow us to lead.  And that‘s the post-Bush message. 

GREGORY:  Right.

Reihan, I found him competing against George W. Bush today and not John McCain, as if to say, Americans are uncomfortable being disliked in this part of the world, let‘s work together on terrorism. 

Did he hit the mark or did you see it differently? 

REIHAN SALAM, “THE ATLANTIC”:  I saw it differently.  I see Barack Obama as actually very, very similar to George W. Bush in a lot of ways.  A guy who is very good at drawing very kind of appealing historical examples. 

But the thing that we can‘t forget is that the Berlin Airlift was actually a very controversial decision at the time.  Those Cold War policies that we all accept as really great and wonderful and that we all agree on as Americans were, again, really fought over very ferociously.  And one problem with Barack Obama is that he wants to please everyone.  He wants to make everyone happy, and that‘s just not the way history works.  That‘s not how decisions get made. 

GREGORY:  Chrystia, your thoughts about how it get played? 

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, “FINANCIAL TIMES”:  I thought it played very well. 

I thought that Obama had to do two things, and he did them. 

The first was to show Americans that the world actually wants to like America, that the world is waiting for an America which seems to be happier to embrace the world, happier to be collaborative, and also happier to stand for those traditional American values, which as Obama pointed out, have drawn people from around the world to America.  And I think he did it crucially, without seeming to be sycophantic, without seeming like he was sucking up to the Europeans. 

It was important that he made the point about how Europe needs to do more on Afghanistan.  So I thought he did a good job today. 

GREGORY:  Gene, aside from the audience he was playing to tonight, what was his overall message and where does it play at this point in the campaign? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  His overall message to voters, I think, was more the pictures than the words.  He needed, according to the polls, to establish his credibility and bona fides as a statesman, as someone who can deal with the realities of today‘s world. 

And that setting and the response of the crowd showed that, yes, he can play on that stage and command that stage.  So I think that was the first thing. 

The second thing was, I think he was speaking to the audience there, though.  As Chrystia mentioned, he talked about Afghanistan, he talked about Iraq, he talked about the role that a President Obama would expect Europeans to play in both those theaters of war.  Iraq, in the context of kind of cleaning up the mess, but nonetheless, he saw a role for Europeans there as well. 

And, you know, a central theme of his campaign has been, and I think a core belief of his, is that he is almost uniquely situated by virtue of his history, who he is, how he thinks, what he is, whatever, to establish a different kind of relationship between America and the rest of the world that is one of American leadership, but is on a different plain from the current relationship. 

GREGORY:  Right.  All right.

That‘s the headline picture of this speech today. 

Coming up next, the McCain campaign accuses Obama of taking a victory lap in Berlin.  But while Obama has been away, is McCain seizing the opportunity on the issues that Americans care most about, like the economy? 

Later, your play date with the panel.  Call us, 212-790-2299, or email us at race08@msnbc.com. 

THE RACE will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  People of Berlin, and people of the world, the scale of our challenge is great.  The road ahead will be long.  But I come before you to say that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom.  We are a people of improbable hope, with an eye towards the future, with resolve in our heart.

Let us remember this history and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Another moment from Barack Obama‘s speech at the Victory Column in Berlin today.  More than 200,000 people came to see the one-term U.S. senator, a crowd that stretched the entire mile that leads to the Brandenburg Gate.

Let‘s go “Inside the War Room” now.

What are the dividends of Obama‘s trip abroad?  What are the risks?  And what has John McCain done to capitalize on the domestic stage this week?

Back with us, Eugene Robinson, Chrystia Freeland, Rachel Maddow and Reihan Salam.

First up, Obama‘s trip looks like a success, but what‘s the payoff?  Obama captured international headlines with his speech in Berlin today, and he made it six days in the Middle East without a major gaffe. 

But Obama‘s trip abroad hasn‘t given him a boost in the polls here at home, at least not yet.  NBC News managing editor and anchor Brian Williams asked Obama about the value of the tour. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS MANAGING EDITOR AND ANCHOR:  Forty-five minutes in Ramallah, no electoral votes in Berlin.  Is the trip worth it? 

OBAMA:  It is because I have firmly believed since the beginning of this campaign and for the last several years that we can‘t solve the problems we face in the United States alone.  We can‘t solve the problems of terrorism without support from the international community.  It‘s also allowed me to send a message to the American people that the judgments I‘ve made and the judgments I will make are ones that are going to result in them being safer. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  All right.  So Reihan, let me take you on a little bit here. 

I think this is Obama poetry on the road.  I think the argument he‘s making to Americans through this speech is, you need a leader who‘s going to be able to do diplomatically what George W. Bush could not do in Europe and around the world, change the face of our public diplomacy.  That‘s what will make us safer, not just the strength and the projected strength of America that we‘ve seen under the Bush years. 

SALAM:  And here‘s Obama‘s greatest strength, that he is an unknown quantity.  But as he becomes a known quantity, I think that‘s going to change. 

For example, during the campaign, during the primary campaign, he talked a lot about NAFTA.  Then later he said, hey, wait a second, slow down, I was amplifying and overstating things. 

So then if you look at this speech and how he was talking about Iran, he said, hey, the United States and Europe needs to get together to say, Iran, no nuclear weapons.  But then, wait.  Did he describe any teeth?  Did he describe any action he would take on that front?  Did he describe anything that Europe could do to collaborate with the United States militarily to punish Iran after the fact?  No, none of that. 

GREGORY:  All right.

So Chrystia, if he doesn‘t do that, how is he going to earn some bona fides when it comes to the commander in chief test, where he is lacking in the polls? 

FREELAND:  Well, I think that this trip was a real positive for him in that area.  And I think as Gene said, the pictures said as much as the words, particularly in the Middle East.  I think some of those images were really powerful, and he did convey that he can talk to the military, he can talk to Petraeus, he can talk to foreign leaders, he is comfortable there. 

I do think that it hasn‘t translated yet in the polls.  And what is maybe missing for him is persuading Americans not just that he can be a leader, but that he is someone they can relate to.  And that‘s hard.  Barack Obama is very different from most of us, and I think that‘s going to be the gap he has to close.

GREGORY:  All right.

While Obama may have wowed the crowd internationally, John McCain spent the day campaigning in Pennsylvania.  In an interview with our own Kelly O‘Donnell today, McCain suggested Obama‘s Berlin speech was premature. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Do you believe it‘s appropriate to hold a political rally of that scale in a foreign country? 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I would rather speak at a rally or a gathering any place outside of the United States after I‘m president of the United States.  But that‘s a judgment that Senator Obama and the American people will make. 

O‘DONNELL:  Do you think it sends the wrong message to speak to such a huge group of Europeans?  Is Senator Obama making a mistake by doing that? 

MCCAIN:  Oh, look, as I say, I would rather make a speech to our European friends and allies after I‘m president, but that‘s a judgment that the people of this country will make. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  The spokesman for the campaign went a little farther, with harsher words for Obama. 

In a statement to the press, “While Barack Obama  took a premature victory lap today in the heart of Berlin, proclaiming himself a ‘citizen of the world,‘ John McCain continued to make his case to the American citizens who will decide this election.  The contrast is clear: McCain has dedicated his life to serving, improving and protecting America.  Barack Obama spent an afternoon talking about it.”

Rachel, take that on. 

MADDOW:  It would be more powerful if John McCain hadn‘t just got back from his trip to Colombia and his trip to Canada and the other overseas trips that he‘s taken since he‘s been the Republican presidential nominee. 

I mean, I understand they‘ve got to make some sort of argument about this, but the McCain campaign faces this awkwardness that they really goaded Obama into making this trip.  They were the ones who were all over him for not having been overseas enough.  He travels overseas, and they say, oh, now he‘s going overseas too much. 

It‘s predictable, but I‘m not sure that these punches land.  I also think that McCain had an unfortunate—some unfortunate stagecraft today, trying to appear at a German restaurant while Obama was actually in Germany.  That was kind of weird. 

GREGORY:  All right.  McCain will get a little bit of star power tonight in Ohio when he attends a town hall on cancer with Lance Armstrong, and tomorrow in Colorado, where he‘ll meet with the Dalai Lama.  But what has the campaign done and been doing this week to combat the image of Obama looking like a president overseas?

The McCain campaign has had a bad stroke of luck, when Hurricane Dolly forced it cancel a photo-op over an oilrig in the Gulf.  Remember, he wants more drilling.

And McCain didn‘t help himself last night when he chose to mount a forceful defense of the surge in a supermarket dairy aisle. 

Our own “First Read” says this: “Voters are screaming for candidates to focus on the economy.”  And as our political director Chuck Todd wondered allowed today, “What if McCain had used this week to plant his flag on the economy in one key battleground state, like Michigan?”

Gene, there has been this dichotomy in the McCain campaign.  On the one hand, try to be the only one, the only candidate in America who‘s stressing some issues domestically, while at the same time trying to chase the election cycle and the news cycle with Obama overseas by hitting him on substance, on policy, and on the politics of his trip abroad. 

ROBINSON:  Yes, but again, why isn‘t he focused on the economy, on gas prices, which are issues that he could make work for him?  I confess, I don‘t understand how the McCain campaign could have, in my opinion, really blown this opportunity. 

I mean, granted, the hurricane did prevent the trip to the oil rig in the Gulf.  And the oil spill in the Mississippi River didn‘t help a lot. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  I mean, that‘s not the backdrop you want for that event.  Nonetheless, you go to a supermarket, you‘ve got it all teed up to talk about food prices and the economy and the pain people are feeling, and the message that gets through is more about the surge.  You know, I don‘t think that‘ going to be the winning issue for John McCain. 

GREGORY:  All right.  I‘ve got to get another break in here, but speaking of the surge, we are going to talk about that issue that has been the overhang for this trip for Obama, Obama and Iraq.  He‘s downplaying the impact of the surge, but does his position make him look a little too much like the current president when it comes to that position, in the view of some critics? 

“Smart Takes” will come up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

Time to bring you “Smart Takes,” the most interesting and provocative, insightful thinking of the ‘08 race.

Here again, Eugene, Chrystia, Rachel and Reihan. 

First up tonight, The Washington Post‘s David Broder writes that the worries about Barack Obama‘s overseas trip being risky, he feels, were unfounded.

“Foreign leaders would go out of their way not to embarrass a man who may six months from now be president of the United States.  Obama prepares thoroughly for the big occasions.  He is almost always well briefed.  And he was traveling in sharp company—with Senators Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel.  So you knew he would be thoroughly ready for these meetings.”

“The chance of a major screw-up was minimal.  So where was the risk?  It existed mainly in the minds of some journalists, and perhaps in the musings of Obama staffers who wanted to hype the journey.”

“Acknowledging all that, it is still the case that Obama has pulled it off in great style, and thereby enhanced his credentials for the Oval Office.”

Reihan, do you agree? 

SALAM:  Absolutely.  I think that, like George W. Bush, Barack Obama knows how to run a great campaign.  Unfortunately, like George W. Bush, that doesn‘t tell us a whole heck of a lot about what kind of president he‘s going to be. 

But yes, I think it was very polished, very stylish.  And I think that he went to exactly the right places in terms of how it‘s going to play domestically. 

GREGORY:  “USA Today,” next up, writes about—again, we‘ve been talking about Obama and Iraq. 

Today‘s editorial, Barack Obama and troop surge in Iraq.  The message, it‘s OK. 

But when it happens—I‘m sorry.  The message, it‘s OK to be wrong. 

But when it happens, own it and adjust your strategy accordingly. 

That was kind of the point.  Here‘s the actual quote from “USA Today.” 

“Perhaps it‘s too much to ask that Obama risk being taunted by headlines such as ‘Obama says Bush was Right.‘  But for the nation to move forward on its single most vexing debate, it would help if the next president could admit the obvious, whether that‘s Republican John McCain conceding that it was a terrible blunder to invade Iraq in the first place, or Obama acknowledging that the surge had worked better than expected.  Americans don‘t expect their president to be right all the time, they do expect him to change course when he‘s been proved wrong.”

Rachel, what does it cost Obama to recognize that the surge has led to a reduction in violence? 

MADDOW:  I‘m not sure that Obama has been so defiant on this issue.  I read his comments this week.  It‘s saying, I didn‘t anticipate exactly the way the surge would play out, but the surge is one of many factors that explain why violence is down in Iraq. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

MADDOW:  And had my path been followed, what he suggested in 2007, which was an increase in diplomacy and that we set a timetable to start withdrawing, maybe that would have caused violence to fall too, given all the other things that contributed to it. 

I‘m not sure that is such a bull-headed way too look at what happened with the surge.  But I realize that he‘s being hit politically on it.  I‘m just not sure he deserves it.

GREGORY:  Right.

Well, Reihan, you‘re shaking your head.  You don‘t see it that way? 

SALAM:  I‘m sorry.  It‘s just that, you know, Obama said on “Nightline” very forcefully he would do the exact same thing this time around as well.  And it‘s true, we don‘t know exactly what would happen in this alternate reality, but we do know that having a larger number of troops helps secures Baghdad.  We do know that it actually reassured a lot of the parties on the ground.  And we do know that it was an integrated military, political, diplomatic strategy. 

Those things went together.  It involved entrusting a new group of commanders on the field.  And Obama was very forceful about the fact that it would increase violence.  He has said a lot of things on the record, and he isn‘t inching away form them at all. 

MADDOW:  Reihan, I think it—I mean, you have to pay attention though to the fact that in Iraq, when you ask the Iraqi prime minister, why is violence down, he gave a list of four reasons why he thinks violence is down.  The surge was not one of them.

This is not something that everybody agrees on.  It is a complicated reality, and I think Obama hasn‘t been shying away from that.

GREGORY:  Got to break here.  Come back, look at Obama‘s vulnerabilities.

Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory, time for the back half.  Happy to have you here.  Second installment of the war room on a big day.  Barack Obama overseas, that big speech in Berlin.  We‘ll break down Barack Obama‘s vulnerabilities.  Despite the glow of this overseas trip, where is Obama weak politically and how effective has the McCain campaign been capitalizing on those weaknesses. 

Back with us here tonight, Eugene Robinson, columnist and associate editor at the “Washington Post,” also an MSNBC political analyst, Chrystia Freeland, US managing editor of the “Financial Times,” Rachel Maddow, host of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on Air American and an MSNBC political analyst, and Reihan Salam, associate editor at “The Atlantic,” and the author of “Grand New Party, How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

First up, it may play in Berlin, but how is it going to play in Peoria.  Top story today, Obama said he wasn‘t speaking today as a candidate.  But he voiced some partisan comments, calling America imperfect, and talking about the Iraq war coming to a close.  He also spoke forcefully about the need to break down barriers around the globe.  Let‘s listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand.  The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand.  The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christians and Muslims and Jews cannot stand.  These now are the walls we must tear down. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Gene Robinson, is this the message that Americans want to hear Obama delivering overseas, not in this country, but going to a foreign capital, when they‘re still not certain that he‘s the guy on foreign policy as a commander in chief? 

ROBINSON:  I guess it kind of depends on whether we hear the whole sound bite or not.  I mean, he went on to talk about his deep love for America, and—

GREGORY:  Yes. 

ROBINSON:  -- and his patriotism and everything.  You know, does one ever mention imperfections in America overseas, if one is a candidate for the presidency?  I thought he did it in a way that was gentle enough, and vague enough so that it was pretty inoculated against charges that he had run down America overseas.  But I‘m sure there will be such charges.  I don‘t think you can seriously say that.

GREGORY:  Chrystia, part of the problem is, it‘s too much of a good thing; 200,000 people show up in Berlin to cheer Obama on.  He‘s wrapping up the trip tomorrow elsewhere in Europe.  He‘s going over there with a message to say, when you think of me as president, when you think of me as commander in chief, think of the message and the face that I bring to this part of the world, to, in his words, from his point of view, repair relationships that America has had with foreign countries with traditional allies. 

FREELAND:  Yes, I think that‘s absolutely right.  If we want actual evidence that the Obama campaign was thinking about this whole trip as a way of asserting what Obama means in America, one actual, factual point is they didn‘t let foreign press on the plane.  They were really interested in having Obama go abroad and in having American journalists tell the story of what he saw back home. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

FREELAND:  I think they were successful in that. 

GREGORY:  We are talking about challenges for Obama here.  There‘s plenty of glow that has come with this trip.  We want to look at some of these vulnerabilities too.  And this question about values; the NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll shows that Obama is still an unknown quantity for a lot of voters.  Asked if the candidate has a background and set of values with which they could identify, 58 percent said they identify with McCain, 47 percent said the same about Obama.  In an interview with NBC‘s Kelly O‘Donnell, McCain emphasized how well voters know him. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I think the American people didn‘t get to know me yesterday.  There‘s a lot of polling data out there that show that they know me pretty well.  These are tough times in America and the world.  They need someone with experience and knowledge and background to make the kinds of judgments -- reform judgment, keep us prosperous and bring us the peace. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Reihan, we‘re in the war room here.  What‘s McCain saying here?  What‘s the tactic behind the message and how he tries to capitalize in this vulnerability we see in our polling? 

SALAM:  McCain is saying that it‘s one thing to be well liked, one thing to be loved by vast crowds in Germany.  It‘s another thing to be respected.  It‘s another thing to have a very clear, consistent record.  That‘s something McCain definitely has.  McCain recognizes there are hard choices that have to be made, and that sometimes you have to alienate people, and sometimes that requires a level of confrontation.  I think that‘s something that is going to be a real strength that McCain is going forward.  I think Obama has the much better, stronger, smoother campaign.  But I think McCain has, frankly, the kind of long-term, you know, relationship with American voters that is going to become a lot more valuable in a few months. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, this is all about I‘m the guy you know.  I may not excite you the way Obama does, but he‘s a riskier proposition. 

MADDOW:  That‘s right. 

GREGORY:  It really does come down to that, let‘s make it all about Obama, which is strange for McCain, given that he has had this biography and this story to tell.  Now he recognizes, no, no, this is a referendum on Obama. 

MADDOW:  He would love for this to be a referendum on Obama.  That‘s the great tension in this biography fight between these two candidates.  John McCain can say I‘m the devil you know.  Yes, I‘ve been in Washington for 26 years.  Yes, I have run for president a lot.  Yes, I seem like I‘m maybe not the candidate of tomorrow.  I sometimes seem like the candidate of today and maybe even yesterday.  I get that.  But that‘s better than a guy who none of you can identify with. 

How many Americans share the background of being a guy who was raised partially in Hawaii and Kansas and had an absent Kenyan father.  He does come from a background that very few Americans, if any, can literally empathize with, in terms of their personal story.  McCain‘s is a much easier story to tell. 

Whether the American people are going to be willing to take a risk—how risk averse the populous is going to be when they go into that voting booth is the great unknown of this campaign. 

(CROSS TALK)

SALAM:  McCain has a pretty exceptional and bizarre biography as well.  By that standard, I mean—Fair enough, I think Rachel‘s point is well taken. 

GREGORY:  Reihan, moving on, Obama and a perception of inevitability, could that be an Achilles heal?  The NBC poll shows more than half the voters are focused on what kind of president Obama would be, while less than a third of them are asking that same question about John McCain.  Today, team McCain went after Obama for acting like a president before he even gets the job, calling his Berlin speech a, quote, victory lap, and taking aim at a report that Obama is already putting together a White House transition team.  Quote, “before they have even crossed the 50 yard line, the Obama campaign is already dancing in the end zone with a new White House team, a transition team.  The American people are more concerned with Barack Obama‘s poor judgment and readiness to lead than his inaugural ball.” 

Team Obama quickly sent around a July 3rd “Wall Street Journal” article about McCain getting his transition team together.  So we‘re all even in this.  Gene, there‘s a larger point though, which is I remember you and I talking about this on this very set on one of the primary nights, which is Obama has had a tendency to coast.  Does arrogance take over the campaign and does McCain and his campaign want to sew that in the minds of American voters? 

ROBINSON:  I‘m sure McCain wants to highlight that.  Look, you know, everybody—both campaigns are starting to work on transitions, because you have to.  It‘s a huge job.  And you have to start almost a year in advance.  But the worst place to be in this election cycle is ahead.  You know, it‘s like the kiss of doom.  And so, you know, Obama is going to try to portray himself as the underdog, as is McCain, who, at the moment, is the general underdog.  If you‘re leading, it‘s like you got this big bull‘s-eye on you.  It‘s really a tough position to be in.  And McCain is going to try to take advantage of that. 

GREGORY:  I‘m so excited about this race, I even started a transition team.  Where is that going to lead? 

ROBINSON:  Transition to what, David? 

GREGORY:  I don‘t know.  Finally, Obama is losing ground in the battleground states.  New Quinnipiac Polls show Obama has lost his lead in Colorado.  That‘s interesting.  Last month, Obama led McCain 49-44 percent.  Now McCain is leading Obama 46 to 44.  Not huge movement, but there is movement.  In Minnesota, a blue state and site of the Republican National Convention, in case you haven‘t heard, this year, in June Obama had a double digit lead over McCain, 54-37 percent.  Now Obama is hanging on to his lead, 46 percent to McCain‘s 44 percent.  A little bit of movement there, Chrystia. 

FREELAND:  Absolutely.  I would just like to remind of us those new headlines that we listened to a few minutes ago.  It is really the economy stupid.  Huge problems with house prices.  Wall Street stocks having a terrible time.  What is really amazing is that neither of the candidates has really defined himself in terms of the economy.  Neither one has really said this is what I would do to fix things.  And I think that that needs to be the next thing that they both really work on. 

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting, though, because, Rachel, they are saying it.  They are talking about what they do.  But they don‘t seem to be really owning the issue.  Look—look at all of the press attention that Obama‘s trip got.  He made that decision to go up there to deal with this part of his campaign, this area of vulnerability.  Yet every day is a day to come out and say, I have the energy, I have the mind, the inclination to take on this troubled economy. 

FREELAND:  Can I jump in, David?  

GREGORY:  Yes, go ahead. 

FREELAND:  I was quickly going to say, I think the problem is, sure, both of them have talked a lot about the economy.  But neither one has come up with a compelling, easily intelligible vision.  It‘s easy for us to say they should do that, because the economic problems are really complicated.  But we know what Obama stands for in the rest of the world.  He said I‘m going to be a uniter.  I‘m going to make America more friendly to the rest of the world.  Do we know what he really stands for on the economy?  It‘s harder to say. 

MADDOW:  Chrystia, I think that‘s exactly right.  Since you‘re with “The Financial Times,” I defer to you on economic issues.  What I can imagine happening on these campaigns is the campaigns are smart; they know the economy is the real issue.  They schedule the candidates to talk about the economy.  They put the candidates in places where they ought to be talking about the economy, for example, in the cheese case at that supermarket.  But these candidates both connect so much personally with the foreign policy issues and the national security issues, that they show that‘s where their passion is.  That‘s where they get into the fights.  That‘s where they get into the back and forth between them.  They love this stuff and they‘re both strong on security. 

GREGORY:  Got to get to a break.  Veepstakes next.  Rachel, I think you‘re wrong.  I think there were also cold cuts behind him. 

MADDOW:  True enough.

GREGORY:  Coming right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  It‘s that time to vet the Veeps here on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  With the Democratic and Republican conventions just weeks away, the heat is on.  What are the voters actually looking for in a VP?  Who fits the bill for each candidate?  What is the optimal timing for McCain and Obama to announce their choices?  Back with us here tonight, Eugene Robinson, Chrystia Freeland, Rachel Maddow and Reihan Salam. 

The latest NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll is interesting on this point.  Voters were asked what qualities each of the presumptive nominees should be looking for in their running mates.  For McCain, it went like this: 60 percent want him to pick someone who is an expert on economy; 25 percent, just percent, want a military or foreign affairs expert.  Is that good news for Michael Bloomberg if he‘s on that list?  What about Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Mitt Romney and Rob Portman?  Perhaps lesser known, Portman was actually with McCain in Ohio today, riding with him on the Straight Talk Express.  Could he deliver Ohio, for instance?  He was a congressman from there and in the House leadership.

Meanwhile, for Obama, 50 percent want to see a military or foreign affairs expert on the ticket; 42 percent want him to choose an expert on the economy.  Again, more good news for Bloomberg.  Would this be the counter-intuitive choice, big statement in political circles?  How about Mark Warner?  He‘s running for Senate from Virginia.  Does he move up a few notches?  What about Robert Rubin, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, Citigroup executive and former treasury secretary under President Clinton.  Does he suddenly find himself on the short list? 

All of that said on Obama‘s side is the ideal pick, the one we‘ve stopped talking about a little bit, and that‘s still Hillary Clinton.  Gene, size all that up for us.  All of it.  I want it all sized up. 

ROBINSON:  All of it. 

GREGORY:  You don‘t have to do all of it.  Start with McCain. 

ROBINSON:  The finding on McCain‘s VP qualities, I think, is good news for Mitt Romney among that whole list.  I don‘t think Mike Bloomberg is interested in being a number two.  I think Fiorina and maybe Whitman are kind of loose cannons.  They are business people.  They understand the economy, but they are not politicians.  This is really a tough campaign and serious business. 

I think Mitt Romney—I have always thought he would be perhaps the best choice for McCain.  He‘s a good campaigner.  He has credibility on the economy.  I think he could be the guy. 

GREGORY:  Reihan, what does McCain do?  At this point, he needs to shake up this race a little bit.  If he announces the VP coming out of the Democratic convention, that seems the most likely.  There was kind of a head fake this week about doing it this week.  What does he do to change the narrative of his campaign with choice for number two? 

SALAM:  I think it would be great to find someone from a blue collar background.  Rob Portman is a very impressive guy, who comes from a very successful Ohio political family.  He is popular in Ohio, but I don‘t know whether or not he sends the right message about the Republican party being a big tent party, and the Republican party being a party that really does depend on working class whites.  So I think that that means—and also Mitt Romney, I think that Mitt Romney demonstrated on the campaign trail that he really has a hard time connecting with voters, except when he‘s rolling up shirt sleeves as he did in Michigan. 

I‘m not really sure.  I think that Gene makes a good point that Mitt Romney certainly has very broad experience as an entrepreneur.  That‘s something that Democrats could use against him as well.  It honestly makes me very nervous.  I don‘t know what would be the best pick. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, let me go to the Democratic side.  Make the case that you were making months ago, which is about Hillary Clinton.  If it‘s an even split between some foreign policy experience and gravitas, as well as acumen, expertise on the economy, doesn‘t she really fit both ends of that.  Let‘s say hypothetically that there‘s a ceiling to Obama‘s support, whether it‘s because of his race or because of other concerns about him.  Did he not survey the landscape and say, I know about all the tough baggage with Clintons, but I need her? 

MADDOW:  I think if you‘re Obama and you‘re looking to break through your ceiling of support, Hillary Clinton is kind of a poster child for ceiling of support.  When you look at what happened in the Democratic race, you don‘t say, oh, they divided the Democratic electorate, and therefore they would get 100 percent of the country.  It doesn‘t work that way.  We saw that.  One quick example, when Hillary Clinton cleaned up among Latino voters in the Democratic primary, right now Barack Obama is leading John McCain among Latino voters by more than 40 points. 

The primary doesn‘t translate to the general.  I don‘t think that Hillary Clinton would help him necessarily reach the broadest group of the electorate.  He may totally disagree, but I don‘t think he‘ll pick her. 

GREGORY:  Chrystia, if you look at some of the vulnerabilities we‘ve talked about with Barack Obama, name names, look at the short list that‘s debated for weeks now.  We think we could get a decision on this by next week.  Who does he need? 

FREELAND:  Well, I actually agree with Rachel.  I think that what Barack Obama wants is not someone who is polarizing, not even someone who is that original.  He wants a very reassuring, establishment, been around the foreign policy circuit for a long time, reassuring kind of VP.  So I think a Sam Nunn figure would be really good for him. 

I would like to respectfully disagree with Gene, whose columns I love, about Mike Bloomberg though.  I think Mike Bloomberg would love to be on either of the tickets. 

GREGORY:  Really?

FREELAND:  Absolutely.  I think he‘s really, really dying for it.  I think that if John McCain picks Mike Bloomberg, that would be the single smartest thing he could do.

GREGORY:  Reihan, we don‘t have to worry about being that respectful to anybody here. 

(CROSS TALK)

ROBINSON:  Speak for yourself, David. 

GREGORY:  Reihan, this is an interesting point about Bloomberg;

Jewish, successful mayor of the state of New York, obviously has the expertise on the economy.  For either candidate, it is an inspired choice by reaching to the middle, when independents in this country are going to be such an important voting block for this campaign. 

SALAM:  I‘m from Brooklyn.  I love Mike Bloomberg.  So taking off my hat as someone who is broadly supportive of the McCain campaign, I just worship the ground the man walks on.  It‘s kind of bizarre.  But I also think that when you think about Hillary Clinton‘s strength, the person she matches up with best is actually John McCain.  I realize that I‘m living in a crazy fantasy land, but Clinton/McCain.  That would be a powerful, dynamite ticket.  McCain needs to play up Hillary Clinton‘s themes.

Rachel made the excellent point that the primary doesn‘t translate into the general election necessarily.  But I think that McCain would be a better messenger for Clinton‘s fighting for you message than Hillary Clinton ever was.  

GREGORY:  Would it help with the base?  That would be tricky.  Coming up next—

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Time to play with the panel.  Back with us, Eugene, Chrystia, Rachel and Reihan.  First, we get up close and personal with the Obamas.  The latest edition of “People Magazine” features the senator‘s entire family on the cover and reads, “the Obamas at Home, from piano practice and pillow talk to who does the choirs.  Not him.  Barack, Michelle and daughters, Sasha and Malia, offer a rare look into their Chicago home.” 

Although they‘ve brought the kids to some special campaign events, the Obama, they‘ve been very guarded when comes to giving the press access to their children.  You may recall one recent exception they made when the kids spontaneously sat down during an interview with “Access Hollywood,” a moment the senator has since said he regrets.  The question is do the Obamas need to allow this type of access to allow voters to feel like they really know them?  What does this do for them if you look at these images?  Gene, going into how much allowance they get.  Something I thought was interesting, which is the kids don‘t get gifts for their birthdays from mom and dad—presumably they get them from other friends—because they want to be taught limits.  I say this after having purchased about 14 gifts for my son today, whose birthday is next week.  I was like, yes, setting limits.  That‘s not a bad idea. 

ROBINSON:  Yes, yes, limits are good, David.  You and I will talk about this. 

GREGORY:  Thank you very much. 

ROBINSON:  But, you know, sure.  I—look, the motivation here is obvious.  There‘s been all of this criticism of Michelle Obama.  And I think showing her in this kind of more domestic light, I think just in terms of pure political strategy, I think is very smart.  If you got kids that cute, put them out there, because who doesn‘t love kids that cute.  I think that‘s the reason.  Whatever the reason the Obama campaign gives for it, it‘s the real reason. 

GREGORY:  Do you think, Reihan, there‘s element of a comfort that he needs to establish with voters?  It‘s all about kind of filling out the blank spaces for Obama. 

SALAM:  My greatest fear for the Republicans this year is that Barack Obama names Sasha or Malia Obama as his running mate.  First of all, they‘re incredibly tall.  They‘re probably twice my size.  They seem incredibly dazzling, articulate and incredibly cute.  I think they are I dangerous, dangerous weapon for the Democrats this year. 

GREGORY:  He says he‘s not going to use them beyond that. 

SALAM:  So he claims. 

GREGORY:  So he claims.  OK, let me get to some e-mail here because we haven‘t to got to that.  We didn‘t do much of it last night.  Erin in Washington writes the following: “Barack Obama‘s unwillingness to explicitly admit the success of the surge reminds me of the political hits Hillary Clinton withstood for not explicitly acknowledging that her Iraq war authorization vote was a mistake.  This inability to make a single declaration nagged her throughout the primary campaign.  It surprises me that Obama, as politically skilled as he is, seems to be falling into the same trap.  Does he fear that saying anything positive about the surge could be used against him?”

Caleb in Missouri writes this: “Barack Obama‘s trip overseas should be an eye opener to America.  We have not seen any American political figure get such a warm welcome from abroad in a long time.  With the dollar losing value and fewer and fewer people having confidence in investing in America, how big of a part will this play.  What would happen with our ties with other nations in the event of an Obama loss?” 

Finally, Bill in Florida writes this: “Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr seems to be the only viable third party candidate that would affect the outcome of the race between Senators Obama and McCain.  Just how much affect can someone like Barr actually have on the outcome of the election, when they consider that both McCain and Obama are having troubles not only with each other but with their own parties.” 

Rachel, interesting about that last point, in our poll, Barr seems to be really pulling votes away from McCain, even if it‘s not a large number. 

MADDOW:  And you‘re seeing Ron Paul, remember.  He‘s got 18,000 people, just moved to a larger venue.  That‘s going to be a competing event with the second night of the Republican convention.  Ron Paul has become a bit of a main stream punch line.  He‘s really moving people in enthusiasm on the Republican side.  I think those guys need to be reckoned with. 

GREGORY:  All right, we‘re going to have to leave it there.  Thanks very much to a terrific panel tonight.  Remember, you can play with the panel each week night here.  E-mail us at RACE08@MSNBC.com.  Our phone number is 212-790-2299, leave a good e-mail.  We‘ll get it on the air.  That‘s RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE for this Thursday night.  I‘m David Gregory.  Thanks very much for being here.  We‘ll see you back here tomorrow night.  I‘ll actually be back in Washington, 6:00 Eastern time.  “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews is next.

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

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