updated 7/29/2008 12:48:44 PM ET 2008-07-29T16:48:44

Guest: Rachel Maddow, John Harwood, Michael Smerconish, Tony Blankley

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, he‘s up in the polls, but is Obama making the grade?  The political fallout and the possibilities after his overseas tour, as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

Welcome back to THE RACE.  I‘m David Gregory. 

Happy to have you here, your stop for the fast-paced, the bottom line and every point of view in the room. 

Tonight, back to basics.  We will analyze what good the overseas tour did Obama and whether McCain‘s counterpunching has gone too far.  But today, back in America, Obama got back to the issue that will likely decide this campaign: the economy. 

Later, what‘s topping the to-do list inside 100 days until the election?  One big item we know, the number two.  What my reporting indicates is influencing McCain‘s choice. 

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

And with us tonight, John Harwood, CNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent and political writer for “The New York Times”; Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow show” on Air America, also an MSNBC political analyst; Tony Blankley, columnist for “The Washington Times”; and Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host for WPHT in Philly, and columnist for “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Daily News.” 

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

We talked about the economy being issue one today for Obama. 

John Harwood, you‘ll all over it today.  High-level meeting here.  He wanted to show that he‘s on this issue.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  He is, David.  My headline tonight is “Barack Obama‘s Reassurance Tour: Domestic Edition.”

Just like Obama‘s overseas trip last week, his economic summit today had two goals: to underscore his message of change, also to convince Americans that change would be safe. 

For the first part, he offered this explanation for why the nation‘s economy has gone off course. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  It was not an accident, a history or normal part of the business cycle that led us to this situation.  There were some irresponsible decisions that were made on Wall Street and in Washington.  In the past few years, I think we learned an essential truth, that in the long run, we can‘t have a thriving Wall Street if we don‘t have a thriving Main Street. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARWOOD:  Now, the reassurance part came from those around the table with him, veterans like former Treasury secretaries Bob Rubin and Larry, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, and investment king Warren Buffett, who participated by conference call. 

The takeaway from those presidential-style pictures?  Barack Obama may be a first-term senator, but he‘s surrounded by economic advisors whose track record suggest they know what they are doing—David. 

GREGORY:  John, no argument about that, certainly, but this did have a little bit of the feel and the look like it was an analyst call for a big Fortune 500 company here, and talking about the latest quarterly results from their earnings, instead of the idea that conveyed that this guy‘s got a vision and the energy to tackle an economy that‘s hurting a lot of Americans. 

HARWOOD:  Well, he also had labor leaders around that table, John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO.  He had someone from SEIU.  So he had all points of view.

And I think the picture they had in mind was more like the president around the Oval Office with these wise heads around him. 

GREGORY:  Right.

HARWOOD:  But he‘s going to have plenty of opportunity, and he‘s going to Midwestern states Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, over the next few days, to try to convey that on-the-ground understanding of people‘s problems. 

GREGORY:  An indication that he knows there was some risk to the overseas trip, that he‘s got to get back to this issue. 

HARWOOD:  Yes.

GREGORY:  More on this ahead.

Tony Blankley, you‘re thinking about foreign affairs tonight and the fact that the head of Iran sat down with Brian Williams. 

Your headline on all of that?

TONY BLANKLEY, COLUMNIST, “THE WASHINGTON TIMES”:  Well, David, my headline is in the form of a message to Obama: “You‘ve Got to Know When to Hold Them and Know When to Fold Them.”

Just listen to what Iran‘s Ahmadinejad said to Brian Williams today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, PRESIDENT, IRAN (through translator):  We don‘t believe in a nuclear bomb.  We also think that it will not affect political relations. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLANKLEY:  Frankly, to hear that statement, that whether they have a nuclear bomb or not will not affect political relations, is so deranged, that I question whether Obama really still wants to stand by his proposition that he will talk with Ahmadinejad without any preconditions.  He‘s defending that position, just like he‘s defending his position on the surge. 

I don‘t think it‘s defensible.  I think it will be better for him to get back to a defensible line on that. 

GREGORY:  And Tony, you know, those on the right who made the argument that Maliki was trying to play Obama, in effect, by throwing his support behind his timeline for withdrawal of troops.  Do you think Ahmadinejad also realizes there‘s some playing to potentially do with this candidate for president? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, of course every world leader is interested in their own nation‘s interests or their own personal interests.  And when a presidential candidate, whoever he is, comes wandering around, they are going to be played, whether it‘s in France or Germany or Iran, whether they‘re friends or enemies, for the local use. 

GREGORY:  Right.

BLANKLEY:  And you‘ve got to be cunning and shrewd enough to understand when you‘re being played and how not to be played. 

GREGORY:  Some tough questions today by Brian Williams.  More on that on “Nightly News,” of course.  Smerc, you have got some headline to dish out tonight with some advice for John McCain.  What is it tonight?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  I do, David. 

Relative to the selection of the number two, circle day 63 on your 100-day calendar, your war calendar, because that is Tuesday, September 2nd.  That‘s the day I think he should make his VP selection known.  And here‘s how I get there.

I think that right now, a lot of folks are not paying such close attention to what‘s going on in this election.  The Olympics is coming up soon, then the Democratic convention.  It‘s going to be huge for Obama, particularly that Thursday night speech in front of 75,000.

And then, David, it‘s Labor Day Weekend. 

GREGORY:  Right.

SMERCONISH:  The president speaks on Labor Day.  I think that‘s deliberate so that people are driving and grilling and swimming and not watching TV.  That takes me to Tuesday, September 2nd.  That‘s the day he should make his selection known. 

GREGORY:  But here‘s the question for you, Smerc:  Is that too late?  If people, after the Democratic convention have had enough time to allow Obama to pass that acceptability threshold, is there a question of timing for McCain that he just can‘t wait so long? 

SMERCONISH:  But the problem is, if he plays that card now, what else does he have in his hand?  I mean, I totally recognize this has been a 10-day win for Senator Obama.  But if this is the last controlled announcement that John McCain has up his sleeve, so to speak, he‘s got to play it right.  And that‘s when I think he ought to do it.

Add some excitement to that GOP convention.  Otherwise, it‘s going to be a wake. 

GREGORY:  All right.

Rachel, tonight you‘re focused on media bias, or not so much media bias, in the coverage of this presidential race.  Your take? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  That‘s right, David.  My headline tonight is “There is Such Thing as Bad Press.”

Much has been made in the past couple of weeks about the disproportionate media coverage that Obama is getting, as compared to John McCain.  Indeed, Andrew Tindall‘s online “Tindall Report” found that Obama was getting more than twice as much network news coverage as McCain.  But now, George Mason University has looked into not just how much the networks are saying about each candidate, but what they‘re saying.

And it turns out that 72 percent of the opinionated statements about Obama on network coverage were negative.  The networks were 15 points kinder, more favorable, to John McCain than they were to Obama.

It‘s not just the quantity of coverage, it is the quality.  And that means, I think, that I‘m not sure the John McCain campaign has much to complain about in terms of their press coverage right now. 

HARWOOD:  Cry me a river. 

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  McCain still getting the glow and the buzz from 2000? 

MADDOW:  He‘s just not getting very much attention at all.  And the coverage that he is getting is sort of rounding him up in sort of a nice, hazy, soft-focused way based on his 2000 impression.  People just aren‘t taking a hard look at him and they‘re not being tough on him. 

GREGORY:  I mean, the reality is, if you get—if you‘re in the spotlight a great deal—and Obama is new enough on the scene to get that he was—you know, had a long period of this primary fight with Hillary Clinton where he was in the lead, so he was getting some of the glow of that while the press was deconstructing why she was falling behind, no longer the inevitable candidate.  You spend all that time in the spotlight, there‘s naturally going to be plenty of scrutiny that comes your way as well, and a lot of that is negative, whether you—you know, whether you meet all the hype that you‘re creating. 

MADDOW:  That‘s right.  It‘s not so much a love affair, I think, as an unhealthy obsession between the media and Barack Obama at this point. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to take a break here, come back.

HARWOOD:  I‘m not feeling too sorry for him. 

GREGORY:  I know.  Well, that‘s the thing about you, John.  Just, your heart is so hardened to these poor candidates. 

HARWOOD:  Yes.

GREGORY:  That‘s the problem. 

All right.  We‘re going to take a break here, come back with an expanded edition of “Smart Takes.”  We‘ll dig into some of the media coverage and opinions about this race.  One columnist wants to know, why is the question always how well do we know Barack Obama?  He asks, do we really know John McCain? 

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

We‘re back after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now with “Smart Takes,” the most provocative and insightful writing about the race. 

Our lineup today focuses on a central question of this race: Can Obama curve voters‘ concerns that he‘s an unknown quantity?

Here again, John, Rachel, Tony and Michael. 

OK, “Smart Take” number one tonight, Bloomberg‘s Al Hunt writes that Obama‘s trip abroad has given him the momentum ahead of his all-important biography tour next month.

To the quote board.

“Obama‘s eight-day trip to the Middle East war zones and Europe was almost perfect.  The Democratic candidate looked and sounded presidential and reassuring while avoiding missteps.  The contrast, often unfairly with McCain at home, were stunning.  One looking vigorous in a helicopter over Iraq, the other in a golf cart with former President George H. W. Bush—

155 years of age between them.”

“And the Obama camp anticipates a good next month.  He‘s planning a biography tour aimed at filling in the blanks and alleviating concerns about his life and values.  They have the skill and resources to do this well.”

Tony, this is an important stage.  This biography tour seems to me, based on people that I talked to, to be everything.  It goes back to the idea that this is his campaign, in many ways.  He‘s either going to convince these voters that he‘s the real deal, that he‘s acceptable as commander in chief, or not. 

BLANKLEY:  I agree with the second part, that it‘s his to win or to lose, but I‘m not completely convinced that the more we know him, the more we‘re going to like him.  That was something he said on the campaign a few months ago, “To know me is to love me.” 

GREGORY:  Right.

BLANKLEY:  He was doing it good-naturedly.  But that‘s not always the case for any of us.  We may like to think, to know us is to love us, but it may be that when they see more of him—for instance, I think things he said in his Berlin speech may not play well at all, even though we‘ve seen maybe an honest part of how he thinks about the international scene. 

So I think you ought to be a little careful about assuming that if he simply reveals more of himself, that he bucks up.  He may not be.

GREGORY:  Second “Smart Take” related to columnist Bob Novak.  He says images aside, Obama‘s trip hasn‘t helped him where it counts in the polls. 

To the quote board.

“An effective and massively publicized foreign trip failed to push Obama above the 50 percent mark.  Clearly, Obama has not yet convinced the people to accept a young, inexperienced African-American as their president.  Obama had virtually clinched the nomination when white working men in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia poured out to vote and comfortably deliver their states to Hillary Clinton.”

“These were the voters Obama was targeting when he ventured into the war zones to demonstrate his mettle as a future commander in chief.  He looked good, sounded good, and committed no serious gaffes.  But sitting by the popular General David Petraeus and disagreeing with his military judgment may not have been the way to win over undecided white working men.”

Rachel, take it on. 

MADDOW:  I think the stereotypes in this undermine it.  The idea that only white working class men care about national security issues I think is giving lie by the public opinion polling on what people care about right now. 

I also think that we have seen time and time again, that the way the electorate broke down between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama doesn‘t tell you very much about how it‘s going to break down between Barack Obama and bob Novak.  It was a decade before I was born, the last time a Democrat won a majority of white working class men.  If that‘s Barack Obama‘s strategy, to win a majority of those voters, he‘s probably not running for this race in this election. 

GREGORY:  Right.

Smerc, let me ask you this though.  I was watching “MEET THE PRESS” yesterday, during which Brokaw interviewed Obama in London.  And I was with somebody who said, “You know, I just don‘t find him that impressive.  I‘m not sold on him yet.”

And there was an aspect to him, this kind of cool demeanor, maybe seeming aloof to some, very smart, appearing very capable in terms of depth on the issues.  But again, appearing to not really have the kind of passion that some people expect.  You put all of that together, that‘s part of that acceptability threshold in my mind. 

SMERCONISH:  Anecdotally, what I see from this trip based on folks with whom I speak—e-mails, telephone calls from listeners—is that it was a reinforcement.  If you liked him, as he was headed in that direction, you really like him now.  If you didn‘t like him before he went over, perhaps thought that he was pompous, that view was reinforced. 

Initially, the polling data suggested that maybe he wasn‘t going to get a bump and that there was a countermeasure, a counterweight to that trip.  But now, the Gallup survey suggests it was a win.  I think it was a win. 

By the way, one thing about Novak‘s piece, which I thought was well written, I read it and I said, “Well, yes.  Well, yes.  Well, yes.  But then again, explain to me why McCain is stagnant in the low 40s.” 

GREGORY:  Harwood, I just want to get your take on this idea of that acceptability, that comfort level with Obama as he comes across.

Do you hear some of this? 

HARWOOD:  Well, I think you just put your finger, David, on an important dynamic in the campaign.  And that is, some of this goes to the particular taste and sensibilities of different groups of voters. 

It‘s kind of like humor.  Some people get and like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, and some people don‘t.  And it‘s possible, and certainly there‘s reason to think from the primaries that it might be possible, that there are some people who simply, as Tony suggested, simply don‘t like the kind of demeanor, the kind of personality...

GREGORY:  Right.

HARWOOD:  ... the kind of resume that Barack Obama has.  Other people absolutely love it.  And it‘s going to be interesting to see whether this bio tour can expand that base a little bit. 

GREGORY:  Let me take on the issue of McCain‘s counterpunching against Obama.  Some of these ads that he‘s been running going back to before the trip.

This is our own “First Read” blog, took it on in terms of whether this is an effective attack against Obama, and whether it will be effective.  You remember the ad about that he‘s responsible for gas prices because he doesn‘t support oil drilling, or that he didn‘t visit the truth. 

“McCain‘s latest TV ad hit Obama, blasts the Illinois senator for canceling a visit to meet with wounded U.S. troops at the Landstuhl military base.  Like other McCain attack ads on the air, it‘s a bit over the top.  It asks the voter to believe something that seems hard to believe, that Obama doesn‘t care about U.S. troops.  This McCain ad follows another one blaming Obama for high gas prices.  Once again, an attack that doesn‘t seem believable.  A negative ad is always more effective when the attack is believable, when it speaks to a question the voter has already pondered in his own head”—Rachel.

MADDOW:  I think that the big elephant in the living room here is that the ad is also demonstrably false.  The ad is actually untrue.  And it‘s not fair to talk about the ad without talking about that. 

When the ad says it seems the Pentagon wouldn‘t allow him to bring cameras as the explanation for why Obama didn‘t go to that base, that‘s just not true.  That‘s not what the Pentagon says, it‘s not what the campaign says.  It‘s not what anybody who reported on it says.  It‘s false, and that should hurt the McCain campaign for putting out a false ad. 

BLANKLEY:  David...

GREGORY:  Go ahead.  Get in there, Tony, yes.

BLANKLEY:  ... there‘s another large animal in the room, and that is that, while these ads may offend us and may or may not be accurate, it may be that they are playing.  That‘s why you do market survey work before you release these ads on your target audience.  And it may be that what people know about McCain allows him to get away with statements that, if you or I made them, we‘d be slapped down for.

SMERCONISH:  But to what audience?

BLANKLEY:  So, I‘m not so sure that these are losing adds, although my first reaction when I saw them was to kind of grimace.

MADDOW:  Yes.

SMERCONISH:  Hey, David...

GREGORY:  Yes, go ahead, Smerc.

SMERCONISH:  ... my hunch is this is very deliberate.  I mean, initially, you look at that ad that blames Barack Obama for gas prices.  I thought he was the guy with the thin resume who couldn‘t achieve anything.  I guess he achieved one thing—he drove up our gas prices.

And you laugh it on and you say, who‘s going to buy into this?  It‘s like that Internet lure.

But now there‘s a pattern emerging, and here‘s my conclusion.  They are very deliberate and they‘re playing to a certain level of the electorate.  And frankly, it‘s not any of us. 

MADDOW:  Well, it‘s also...

GREGORY:  All right.

MADDOW:  But it ought to take a chunk out of this whole “straight talk” idea.  I think if John McCain is putting out stuff that can be disproven and isn‘t recanting it when called on it, I think that ought to hurt the McCain campaign. 

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

Coming up next, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talked candidly with NBC‘s Brian Williams about Iran‘s nuclear plans and recent diplomatic overtures from the United States.  It‘s an exclusive interview, and its impact it could have on the presidential race is still being debated.

We‘ll get into that when we come back next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

In an NBC News exclusive interview, “Nightly News” managing editor and anchor Brian Williams sat down with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  He told him that he wanted to pursue common ground with the U.S.

Well, how will the candidates respond? 

Back with us, John, Rachel, Tony and Michael.

Brian Williams asked Ahmadinejad about specifically Iran‘s uranium enrichment program. 

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, “NIGHTLY NEWS” MANAGING EDITOR/ANCHOR:  Are you willing to suspend uranium enrichment.  And if doing that would welcome you into a wider world, is that something Iran is willing to do? 

AHMADINEJAD (through translator):  The doors of the larger world are not closed to us.  This is a great and mighty country, a great nation, with a great economy, a rich culture, thousands of years of history and civilization.  And we have very good economic and cultural relations with countries around the world. 

It would be very good for you to walk on the streets here in Tehran, in other cities, for that matter, and gain a better appreciation of life in this part of the world.  For the continuation of our lives and for progress, we do not need the service, as if I can use the word, of a few countries. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  John Harwood, a couple political questions.

Look, that exchange indicates to me defiance, gamesmanship, that Ahmadinejad wants to try to negotiate the world community about dismantling and stepping away from a nuclear program.  It also indicates that the international scene is in flux right now.  You have got the administration pursuing some sort of different relationship with the Iranian government in the heart, in the heat of this campaign. 

So how does it affect the debate about Iran and other hotspots like it? 

HARWOOD:  Well, I think that the fact that the administration has moved a little bit in the direction of Barack Obama—that is to say, to have direct conversation  between U.S. diplomats and Iranian diplomats—is something that Barack Obama can use to tell people, the world is flowing my way.  Now, that defiance is something that, you know, pushes back the other way, and people say, well, wait a minute, this guy seems to think that he‘s not being stopped, and so why should he stop his nuclear program?  He‘s not being barred to that wider world that he mentioned to Brian Williams. 

But I think Barack Obama has an opening based on both that and what happened with al-Maliki over the last few days to try to make some headway in this argument with John McCain about who can keep the country safer. 

GREGORY:  But Tony, do you see it a little bit differently?  This is a guy who‘s trying to game the U.S., and he knows what he‘s doing.  He‘s trying to game the election.  And again, a guy like McCain says, look, this is the kind of guy you want to deal with now? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, yes.  I mean, statesmen generally do not speak candidly.  And this statesman in particular.

But keep in mind, the argument that things are going Obama‘s way on this, the Bush administration has been talking informally with the Iranians for years.  What Obama said was our president shouldn‘t. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘ve got to go.

More on the economy coming up at the half.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory, happy to have you here.  We‘ve just passed 100 days, 99 days really from the election now.  The current state of the race shows an eight point spread.  Latest Gallup daily tracking shows Obama with the edge, 48 percent, McCain has 40 percent, revealing what is believed to be a balance from Obama‘s over seas trip. 

Back with us now, John, Rachel, Tony and Michael.  First, on Obama‘s agenda today is the economy.  He headed to Washington to meet with his top economic advisers, including Warren Buffett, by conference call, former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and New Jersey governor, formerly Goldman Sachs, Jon Corzine.  At the meeting, Obama called for a bipartisan solution for what he called an economic emergency, laying much of the blame on Wall Street.  Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  There were some irresponsible decisions that were made on Wall Street and in Washington.  In the past few years, I think we learned an essential truth, that in the long run, we can‘t have a thriving Wall Street if we don‘t have a thriving main street. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

At this point, whoever wins the economy, most likely wins this race.  John Harwood, if you take that as a proposition, I still want to ask you, what‘s he talking about?  You know, Bush talked about this last week when talking about some of the decisions made in Wall Street and in Washington.  What‘s he referring to?

HARWOOD:  I believe Bush said Wall Street was drunk. 

GREGORY:  He did. 

HARWOOD:  Obama left the alcohol aside.  Basically, what he‘s talking about the creation of the securitized mortgages, where they would take the subprime mortgages and also some of the regular mortgages, package them together as investment vehicles, sell them, and the people buying them—neither the ones buying them, nor the ones selling them knew exactly how much bad debt was in that paper.  That‘s what we are discovering right now.  That‘s why we don‘t know how bad this crisis is going to get and what other investment houses may be in trouble. 

GREGORY:  Smerc, the imagery of how both of these candidates go after the economy and convey empathy and real solutions; how do you size that up, based on what you‘re seeing so far? 

SMERCONISH:  I don‘t know that either one of them has taken ownership of any sub-category of the economy.  I know they are both talking about it incessantly now.  But if you were to say to me, relative to the economy, what specifically is Senator Obama offering or Senator McCain offering, it would be hard for me to discern one versus the other.  I can tell you this, the status quo benefits Senator Obama, because of that association between Senator McCain and this White House.  If it remains the same, I think that on the economy, Obama wins.  I do buy into your proposition. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, I guess, this meeting around the table, you have some top names, not that every voter knows who these people are.  But certainly a lot of people know the Bob Rubins, the Paul Volckers.  You certainly know about Google and its strength, Warren Buffett.  It just makes people feel good to know that these are some of the people who are talking to Obama. 

MADDOW:  It makes him look very mainstream on the economy and it makes him look like he‘s surrounded by success.  I think Obama has some built in advantages.  Smerconish is right here.  The public generically prefers a Democrat to a Republican on the economy.  The economy is not exactly in the toilet right now, but it‘s approaching that room of the house.  That means that people are probably looking for a regime change, in terms of one party to the next.  Frankly, I think Obama distinguished himself by staying away from some of the gimmicks, like the gas tax proposal, which is sort of disprovable.  McCain endorsed those things, which can have a real populist appeal.  He still has to figure out a way communicate something other than corporate tax cuts. 

BLANKLEY:  Let me make a slightly different point.  I agree, a bad economy tends to favor the Democrats.  But the question in the public is who can best handle the problem going forward.  We see this odd thing in the Iraq war, where the public tends to agree with Obama on the issue, but they trust McCain at least as much, if not more, to solve it.  The question is which of this two candidates, neither of whom to me has proven anything yet to the public, can handle the problem moving forward, not merely who‘s party is responsible looking backwards. 

GREGORY:  Here‘s the other thing about all this, that this economy, this particular state of the economy is extra complicated.  There‘s lots of smart people who don‘t know where the bottom is now, which makes the challenge for an incoming president all the greater. 

Let me turn to the issue of McCain and the attack ads.  He‘s in this mode now.  The campaign unleashed another attack ad at Obama, accusing him of focussing more on media than the troops.  Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Barack Obama never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan.  He hadn‘t been to Iraq in years.  He voted against funding our troops.  And now, he made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops.  Seems the Pentagon wouldn‘t allow him to bring camera‘s. 

John McCain is always there for our troops.  McCain, country first. 

MCCAIN:  I‘m John McCain and I approve this message. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Now Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who was with Obama on the trip, a Republican, fired this shot across the bow at McCain yesterday. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL ®, NEBRASKA:  John is treading on some very thin ground here when he impugns motives and when we start to get into, you‘re less patriotic than me; I‘m more patriotic.  I admire and respect John McCain very much.  I have a good relationship.  To this day we do.  We talk often.  I talked to him right before I went to Iraq, as a matter of fact.  John is better than that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  John, how ever you feel as a voter on the merits of the message, one thing is clear: McCain felt he had to get into the news cycle last week by taking, as if they were bullet points of Obama‘s trip, and taking on elements of that to make a larger point about judgment and credibility.  In other words, this is not a guy you can trust.  Right, he‘s a political figure, and he doesn‘t have the judgment.  Is any of that sticking in this ad barrage?

HARWOOD:  He‘s trying to raise the risk premium on Barack Obama.  Look, that ad was a distortion, if for no other reason than it showed Barack Obama dribbling.  It did not show him sink the three-point shot, which he did right after those couple of dribbles there.  I agree with the discussion earlier.  Barack Obama tried to go visit those soldiers and the Pentagon told him that, given the nature of who was with him, he couldn‘t go.  It seems like an odd attack to pursue something that the guy was trying to do anyway, when, as Rachel pointed out, he did visit wounded troops earlier on the trip.  I think it‘s an odd choice of content for the add.

But the larger point you raise, David, is that John McCain is trying to do whatever he can to breakthrough.  He‘s also trying—certainly the Obama campaign believes this—to bait the Obama campaign into more of a back and forth.  The Obama people are trying to avoid it a little bit, sail above the fray.  McCain is trying to get him to mix it up more. 

GREGORY:  Let me move on to the battleground.  You talk to the McCain people and they will say, yes, did he have a great trip last week?  Yes he did, Obama did.  But we did OK in some these battleground states, in terms of our local coverage.  Some of the ads are geared to people in those battleground who may be on the fence about Obama anyway. 

Speaking of the battleground, Ohio is back on the map.  RNC Chairman Mike Duncan says, quote, from a practical standpoint, Ohio is going to be ground zero again.  In Pennsylvania, Clinton loyalists and economically depressed voters are hesitant to jump on the Obama bandwagon, according to a McClatchy paper analysis.  In Michigan, the latest polling out of “Detroit News,” the station WXYZ, shows Obama and McCain in a statistical tie there. 

Rachel, a few things to chew on there.  I gravitate towards the Clinton analysis, which is: is this a problem for Obama that he can‘t seem to bring these two camps together? 

MADDOW:  This is more—What we are talking about here is more important than those daily head to head tracking polls at the national level.  We don‘t have national elections.  It comes down to these states.  Much as we all talk with excitement about the prospect the electoral map will change, until we have evidence that‘s going to happen, the whole race is about these swing states.  I don‘t know that the Obama campaign has figured out why it is that they are losing ground in some of these states, but they have got to figure it out quickly, because this is everything.  This is the whole enchilada.

GREGORY:  Tony, go ahead. 

BLANKLEY:  David, let me make a point.  These are the kind of states where the kind of ads we just saw, where McCain is taking advantage of the advantage he has over Obama image-wise, on commander in chief and maybe even on patriotism, pounding that message home in conservative, white workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.  That could be a powerful message.  Maybe it‘s not a fair one, but it‘s a powerful one. 

SMERCONISH:  He‘s playing at such a base level.  This is what I was trying to say earlier.  I think this is a very calculated strategy to reach a certain segment of the electorate, non-college educated folks, let‘s call it out, who may buy into the notion that Barack Obama is responsible for gas prices, that Barack Obama disrespects the troops.  In that image, I think that‘s an image where he‘s with the troops when he‘s shooting hoops.  But we won‘t visit them in the hospital.  We look at it and say, who‘s going to believe this?  This doesn‘t pass the smell test.  I‘m telling you, they are playing to the states you identified, David, and the non-college educated electorate in those areas. 

HARWOOD:  I want to know if Smerc is saying those voters are dumb. 

SMERCONISH:  I‘m saying the McCain campaign thinks we can reach dumb voters with this kind of an ad.  Maybe we offend the people who are on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE, but so be it. 

MADDOW:  You look at—let‘s look at that gas tax roll back, for example.  More than 60 percent of people think that‘s a gimmick.  The whole idea is that, well, it‘s something that won‘t really work.  No economist will say it will do anything right, but it‘s OK; people are dumb, they‘ll buy it.  The American people aren‘t dumb.  They don‘t buy it.  Something like 62 or 63 percent, just on that issue, which didn‘t get blanket coverage, know that it is made up.  I think people deserve more credit. 

BLANKLEY:  Let me make a quick point.  I have to post-graduate degrees.  These ads hit me pretty well.  I don‘t think it‘s just uneducated people.  I think these are powerful messages that a lot of people are going to pay attention to. 

GREGORY:  Let me say one thing before the break.  I always knew you were smart. 

HARWOOD:  Believe it. 

GREGORY:  I believe it.  We‘re going to take a break here.  Coming up next, Obama‘s revealing comments on “Meet the Press” about what he‘s looking for in a vice president.  Do they give us some clue into the direction he‘s looking at right now, when THE RACE returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on THE RACE.  We‘re talking Veep stakes.  This afternoon, Obama met with Eric Holder, the head of his search team here in Washington, at his Washington offices.  The timing of their two choices for VP is getting all the buzz. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY (voice-over):  For Obama and McCain, it‘s the most presidential decision of the race.  By all accounts, they are closing in on a number two.  Senator Obama dropped an important hint over the weekend. 

OBAMA:  I am going to want somebody who shares a vision of the country, where we need to go, that we have to fundamentally change not only our policies, but how our politics work, how business is done in Washington. 

GREGORY:  Fellow senators like Evan Bayh from red state Indiana and Joe Biden, who could shore up Obama‘s thin resume on foreign affairs, have topped the short list.  But does the emphasis on change suggest something else? 

BOB SHRUM, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  I think that instead of the usual suspects, he may actually surprise us with the choice that he makes. 

GREGORY:  Among the outsiders being considered, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, who could help Obama on that Republican state, as well as former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn.  Hillary Clinton seemed to many an obvious choice, but indications now are she‘s fading from consideration.  An aide said last week, Obama has not taken steps to vet her. 

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  You don‘t want to screw up a ticket dramatically by picking somebody who is a symbol of what you ran against, which is why I think Hillary is a non-starter.

GREGORY:  Republican sources close to McCain say he appears to be down to a short list of three: Mitt Romney, former Congressman and Bush administration official Rob Portman, and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, with whom McCain is said to have good chemistry.  But might McCain try someone more unconventional, like the pro-abortion rights former governor of Pennsylvania Tom Ridge? 

MURPHY:  The base wouldn‘t like it, but those swing voters, those white independent women, those Hillary supporters who may decide this election, I think they would like Tom Ridge and I think the two of them would play really strong. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Lots to chew on there, and, of course, the timing of the issue.  It‘s not just the who, but it‘s the when, with the Olympics about to start and as we get closer to the conventions.  Let‘s talk about it all.  Still with us here, the panel, John, Rachel, Tony and Michael.  Rachel, let me start with you, start on the Democratic side, what leapt out at you about Obama‘s appearance on “Meet the Press” and his discussion about direction, in terms of what he wants. 

MADDOW:  I wonder if he was saying there, I‘m not going to pick somebody who compensates for what other people see as my weaknesses.  I wonder, because that‘s sort of always the contrary argument, right?  You either pick somebody who compensates or you think ahead to governing and you pick somebody who you want to work with.  Oftentimes, the people you want to work with are people who are interested in the same sort of things that you are.  I don‘t know what he‘s going to do.  I still like keeping the dark horses in the race, people like Warren Buffett, for example, or Jeb Bush on John McCain‘s side.  None of us really know exactly is going to happen.  But as we get closer and closer to what has to be an ultimate decision, I think the short lists are trying to get a reaction from people like us to find out how they will be viewed and what kind of bounce they might give the candidate. 

GREGORY:  John, did he make the precise argument that he used against Hillary Clinton, which we didn‘t really need that, but that‘s one additional indication that he‘s really not looking seriously at her.  Did he also take some of the current Washington insiders, Biden, Bayh and others, and say to them no, that‘s not what I‘m looking for, because I want to be able to hammer this message of change home, particularly against John McCain? 

HARWOOD:  At the end of the day, even if he picks one of those Washington insider, he will be able to figure out a rational for squaring that choice with what he said yesterday on “Meet the Press.”  But if that was a significant sign, if he said that purposely, that would suggest, as you noted that the Biden‘s, the Bayh‘s, maybe that‘s not the way he wants to go.  Maybe he‘s considering people like Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, who a lot of people say, he‘s not going to pick her, because if you‘re going to pick a woman because, you‘d have to pick Hillary Clinton.  It would be an insult to the Clintonites.  Maybe he doesn‘t care.  We really don‘t know how he‘s coming to this decision in his own mind, although aides tell me he‘s not made it yet and he‘s not likely to announce it until shortly before the convention.   

GREGORY:  Smerc, on the McCain side, those three that I reported on tonight, Pawlenty, Portman and Romney; Romney seems to be getting the most buzz as a guy who, number one, voters will look at and say OK, we can picture him as president.  He ran a strong race for it.  He has the economy.  And, by the way, we talked about some polling indicating some tightness there in Michigan.  He could help McCain in the industrial Midwest. 

SMERCONISH:  The more days that the DOW has, as we experience today, the better things are for Romney.  If the economy were sailing along, David, I don‘t think that we would be talking about him.  Please don‘t limit me from talking about your dark horse, your number four.  I still think that Tom Ridge is a central casting, perfect pick.  Look, in the end, that base, there‘s such antipathy towards Senator Obama from the Republican base, they are coming out to vote.  Why not make the pitch toward the middle and take a guy?  Because he‘s pro-choice, you‘re going to cut him off the list?  I think that‘s short sighted. 

GREGORY:  It feeds—Tony, there was a thought I had before the last segment and I couldn‘t get it in, which is Rachel is right.  These are not national elections.  Maybe McCain‘s best strategy is to make it as small, as regional an election as he can possibly make it, and combine the industrial Midwest with parts of Appalachia like Pennsylvania, and choose a guy like Tom Ridge, who‘s got some cred there, who, by the way, can help him run the country.  They would be a compatible match. 

BLANKLEY:  I have been saying ridge.  I think it‘s a real possibility.  I think conservatives are going to have to hold their nose anyway to vote for McCain.  Ridge won‘t—on the other hand, he would deliver Pennsylvania and the whole map changes.  I know Ridge.  I think he‘s a powerful leader, an effective governor.  I think he would be a good campaigner, blue collar.  I think it‘s a strong choice. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, what‘s the other side of that pick on Ridge?  This is a guy, yes, we talk about him as Pennsylvania governor, also the head of Homeland Security at a time when critics said he had the sorbet, rainbow flavored threat analysis here for the country, which could be a knock against him. 

MADDOW:  His post-cabinet lobbying work and work with contractors, sure, some of that could be controversial.  It‘s less the down sides of Tom Ridge, though, than the lack of an upside.  If I‘m John McCain‘s campaign, I‘m worried about enthusiasm.  I‘m worried about voter turn out.  I‘m worried about fund raising.  Somebody like Michael Bloomberg may have some of the same downsides as Tom Ridge, but he comes with a billion dollars that he could spend on the campaign.  I don‘t know, that looks pretty attractive. 

GREGORY:  John, final point here in a few seconds.  Yes, McCain in the view of many needs a game changer.  But I‘m told that‘s not the way he‘s approaching this decision.  Do you think that‘s right and do you think that‘s the right call? 

HARWOOD:  I don‘t know if it‘s right.  But I do think Tom Ridge could be a game changer.  Look, the threshold to cross here is whether you take somebody who breaks with Republicans on abortion rights, and are the rewards potentially in Pennsylvania worth that risk?  That‘s what McCain has to decide. 

GREGORY:  We‘re coming up next, our play date with the panel.  Some of you weighing in on who you would like to see matched up with Obama.  Is it still Hillary Clinton?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back.  Our final moments here, our play date with the panel.  The great thing about the Veep stakes things is that nobody knows, but everybody has an opinion.  It makes it fun for us.  We‘re back with the John, Rachel, Tony and Michael.  First, we‘re talking about Obama Veep stakes.  Two very different views about Obama and the Obama-Clinton ticket.  Linda and Doug in Arizona write, “with Clinton, he wins.  Without her, he loses.  Let‘s talk judgment.”  But Rob in Oregon says, “in my opinion, McCain can‘t win, but Obama might lose, if he chooses Clinton as his running mate.  I believe many Democrats and independents who supported Obama in the primary did so because they distrust and dislike Clinton.  Nothing would breathe life into McCain‘s floundering campaign faster than Hillary on the ticket and Bill running amuck on the campaign trail.” 

Rachel? 

MADDOW:  I don‘t think that choosing Hillary Clinton would energize a whole lot of people and catapult McCain‘s chances.  But I don‘t think that Senator Clinton would necessarily help Barack Obama very much, because of the big basic thing, which is that she undercuts his message of change.  Right?  You don‘t say change, and then say, by the way, we‘re going back to the good old days of the ‘90s.  If you represent the future, you really have to represent the future.  Hillary Clinton and Bill together would undercut that for him. 

GREGORY:  Right, I happen to think, Tony, that there‘s a kind of new vein that gets opened of attack possibilities against Obama if you put the Clinton‘s in the picture.  Let‘s be honest, in terms of bringing together the Democratic party, you can make a lot about the fact that he may not have closed the deal with the Clinton supporters, but he has to be getting pretty close here as he moves along. 

BLANKLEY:  I agree. I never thought she would make a good running mate for him.  I still don‘t for all the reasons that Rachel and others have said.  I think Richardson, Governor Richardson would be an interesting move.  Try to get 75 or 80 percent of the Hispanic vote, carry Colorado, New Mexico, very hotly contested states.  He‘s a wonderful guy.  He‘s got foreign experience.  Yet, he‘s not a Washington guy.  He‘s been governor of New Mexico.  Might be a good choice. 

GREGORY:  A lot of good questions about who is or is not on the candidates‘ short list.  Manuel in Texas asks this, “is Wesley Clark being vetted?  He has an amazing resume.”

Phyllis in Chicago wants to know, “Why isn‘t Senator Lindsey Graham being spoken of as a John McCain VP contender?”

Harwood? 

HARWOOD:  Well, Lindsay Graham is close to John McCain.  If John McCain decides to go with comfort level, he could end up going with Lindsey Graham, but I think he‘s pretty confident about South Carolina, even without Lindsey Graham.  On Wesley Clark, I think Wesley Clark had an uneven performance in 2004.  I‘m not sure he‘s the right messenger you want to carry that message of change out there.  

GREGORY:  Smerc, does Obama risk going with a military person who may not have the political skills to inspire confidence in voters that he could take over the country? 

SMERCONISH:  I think he doesn‘t need to make that move.  In other words, that would be inherently risky if it‘s someone who hasn‘t gone out and been challenged in the day to day of the campaign.  Somebody like Joe Biden I think is a more secure pick.  I know there‘s that argument that he doesn‘t represent change, but because of his experience relative to foreign policy and you get the wisdom, you get that sage-like presence, I think Biden is a wise pick for Obama on that basis. 

GREGORY:  One of Smerc‘s listeners in Pennsylvania writes—it‘s Hazel, by the way—about McCain going negative: “I watched Senator McCain on the ‘HARDBALL‘ college tour and was happy to see him declare that he was not going to go negative with his ads?  What happened?  I certainly believe his last few ads, whether it was about gas prices or visiting troops seas, are not only negative but untrue.  I‘m very disappointed in McCain and will take this into consideration as I vote.” 

Clearly listening to you on the program, Rachel. 

MADDOW:  Well, I think that if part of what people really like about John McCain is that he seems like an honorable guy who won‘t make low blows, who says stuff like, I‘m going to campaign in a positive way and not attack my opponent in an unfair way, and then he comes out with attack ads that are demonstrably untrue, that seems really newsworthy to me.  I know the news media in general is disinterested in John McCain, but you would think they could summon interest to at least cry foul when he has lies. 

HARWOOD:  David, I have a secret for Hazel.  Hazel, McCain is losing. 

Losing candidates attack. 

GREGORY:  All right, we‘re going to leave it there.  Thanks to the panel.  You can play with the panel every night here on MSNBC.  RACE08@MSNBC.com is the email address.  That‘s going to do it for THE RACE for tonight.  I‘m David Gregory.  See you back here tomorrow night, same time, 6:00 p.m. Eastern time.  Don‘t go away “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews is next.

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

END   

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