updated 8/1/2008 11:38:38 AM ET 2008-08-01T15:38:38

Guests: Stephen Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson, Richard Wolffe, John Kerry, Jon Kyl

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Obama: race and attack politics.  Tonight, the hot debate about who is responsible for taking the low road, as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

And welcome back to THE RACE, everybody.  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, it has gotten nasty.  The McCain campaign has accused Senator Obama of playing the race card.  Obama, in return, has mocked McCain for an attack strategy that he claims has fallen flat.  Two candidates trying to get into each other‘s head tonight and shape how they‘re viewed by voters. 

In “Face-Off” tonight, for Obama, former presidential candidate, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.  And for McCain, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl.  It‘s Kerry versus Kyl in a “Face-Off” tonight. 

And later, does Hillary Clinton still want on the ticket?  Some of her supporters are still making the case.  Is this case closed for Democrats or not? 

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 of “The Washington Post”; Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America; Richard Wolffe, “Newsweek” senior White House correspondent.  He now covers the Obama campaign full time.  Eugene, Rachel and Richard, all MSNBC political analysts.

Also joining us tonight, Stephen Hayes, senior writer for “The Weekly Standard.”

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

Big headline tonight, “The Race Card.”

In an escalating series of attacks and counterattacks, these two campaigns are at each others‘ throats.  What set off the latest round was this comment from Obama yesterday in Missouri... 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  So what they‘re going to try to do is make you scared of me.  You know, oh, he‘s not patriotic enough, he‘s got a funny name.  You know, he doesn‘t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know? 

(APPLAUSE)

He‘s risky.  That‘s the argument. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  This morning, an angry response from the McCain campaign.  Campaign manager Rick Davis saying in a statement, “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.  It‘s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.”

He spoke to NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell earlier today on MSNBC. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK DAVIS, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN MANAGER:  Barack Obama was calling something we had done racist or something we had done with racial overtones.  Otherwise, I don‘t know what else he was talking about. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  McCain later today agreed. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  It is, I‘m sorry to say, that it is.  It‘s legitimate.  And we don‘t—there‘s no place in this campaign for that.  There‘s no place for it, and we shouldn‘t be doing it. 

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT:  They say that‘s not the case. 

MCCAIN:  OK, John. 

KING:  OK, Senator.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Seeking to diffuse the debate about race in this campaign, Obama‘s spokesman issued this stadium late today: “This is a race about big challenges, a slumping economy, a broken foreign policy, and an energy crisis for everyone but the oil companies.  Barack Obama in no way believes that the McCain campaign is using race as an issue, but he does believe that they are using the same old low-road tactics to detract voters form the real issues in this campaign, and those are the issues that he will continue to talk about.”

If Obama in no way believes that the McCain campaign is using race as an issue, then why is Obama saying, “They‘re going to try to make you scared of me.  He doesn‘t look like all those presidents on the dollar bills”? 

Isn‘t the recent celebrity ad featuring Paris Hilton and Britney Spears an attempt to argue that Obama is a lightweight, that he‘s famous for being famous?  Can‘t you imagine McCain running that ad against a white politician, like Bill Clinton if he were in the race? 

All of that said, here‘s what I‘m told by a McCain insider tonight.  That McCain has struggled to find a “narrative frame for this race.”  This week‘s attack strategy, while viewed as risky inside the campaign, reflects the view that there is no longer any room for caution. 

Let me bring in the panel here.

Rachel Maddow, is anyone in this campaign exploiting race, in your view? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I think that there are racial overtones to some of the discussions that we have seen in the campaign thus far.  We talked about it yesterday on the show. 

I think “The Obama is presumptuous” line has a lot of racial overtones.  But I also think that when Obama came back and said, “I don‘t think they‘re using race as an issue, but I do think they are trying to make you scared of me,” I mean, that‘s essentially what mainstream political analysis of this race has been from the very beginning. 

I understand why the McCain campaign would take umbrage at this, but I think if they want to say there‘s been no racial overtones to anything they have done, they‘re opening themselves up to some criticism and discussions about things that they maybe don‘t want to discuss too much. 

GREGORY:  But Steve Hayes, my point and my take on this, is not Barack Obama opening himself up to the issue of making race an issue when he says, you know, they‘re going to make it clear that I don‘t look like the other leaders on our currency? 

STEPHEN HAYES, SR. WRITER, “THE WEEKLY STANDARD”:  Yes, that‘s exactly what he did yesterday.  I mean, I don‘t understand, frankly, how the word “presumptuous” is a racially-loaded word. 

I mean, this is Barack Obama, whose campaign put out it‘s only presidential seal.  That is nothing if not presumptuous.  And Obama said not once, but three times yesterday, that Republicans were going to try to scare voters.  And he used language I think that called up race as an issue. 

I mean, I think he was basically making an accusation that the McCain campaign had played the race card, and I just don‘t think there‘s any basis for it. 

MADDOW:  Can I just jump—just to be clear about what I said about presumptuousness, when John McCain ran ads that called himself President McCain, when he started doing weekly radio addresses as if he were the president, that was just as presumptuous as anything Barack Obama has done.  He‘s never been attacked as not knowing his place.  And that attack I think has racial overtones. 

HAYES:  Well, fair enough.  That‘s fair enough.

John McCain is also white.  There‘s nothing racial about you calling John McCain presumptuous.  It‘s just a word. 

MADDOW:  But nobody does.

GREGORY:  All right.

Gene, but let‘s go back to the initial point that McCain jumped on here: Obama‘s statements about how they were going to make him risky.  Was he playing a race card here? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, let me get this straight, David.  You mean Obama does look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills?  I mean, you know, he doesn‘t.  He‘s black. 

And, you know, I don‘t think there can be a prohibition on his occasionally mentioning that fact in the campaign.  It‘s obvious to everybody.  You know, if anything worthwhile comes out of this kerfuffle, and this whole campaign, in fact, it might be that we can talk about race or mention it in a way that doesn‘t kind of sets rockets off.

GREGORY:  Right.  But Gene, I don‘t exactly understand your point.  It is obvious to me and everybody else that he doesn‘t look like other leaders who are on the currency, but he is the one who brought it up in the context of what they will do to him. 

ROBINSON:  Well, he brought it up in the context of how his opponent, how the Republican Party, will make Americans feel uneasy about him as president.  It wasn‘t just that he doesn‘t look like other presidents have looked.  And, you know, I don‘t think it is farfetched, given the history of the Republican Party, given where we are as a society, for him to suspect that part of making the American public uncomfortable about him will—you know is race. 

Now, he was being predictive in what he said, he was not necessarily being descriptive.  I do think it was kind of silly for Robert Gibbs, the campaign message guy, to come out and say afterwards, oh, well, what he said had nothing to at all to do with race. 

GREGORY:  Right.

ROBINSON:  It did have something to do with race. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Let me just button up this part of the conversation.

At the end of the day, Richard, you‘re reporting on the Obama campaign.  Your take on what all of this has meant and where they think it is going? 

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, I don‘t think this was intended as a diversion or a major line of attack from Obama.  This is a note that he has struck many times before, and it comes down to the question of patriotism. 

Is that a proxy for other issues, whether it‘s political in the sense that there‘s this caricature the Republicans have used before about Democrats being weak on national security, or is there something else that‘s being said about Barack Obama himself personally, either because of his name, because of his international background, or, yes, because of his race?  So patriotism and how we look at patriotism as it‘s being played out in this campaign is a core issue, and, yes, the Obama folks think that patriotism in all those aspects are being used again him. 

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

Later on in the program, “Inside the War Room,” when McCain attacks.  We‘ll look at the strategy, whether it will work more broadly, this barrage of ads against Obama. 

But coming up next, an important “Face-Off” here.  Two top surrogates in this campaign, Senators John Kerry and Jon Kyl, they face off about foreign policy, the impact of the surge, and the negative tone in this campaign going back and forth today when THE RACE returns. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Time for our “Face-Off” on the question of who‘s got the best judgment to lead America, Obama or McCain?  And the tactics being pursued by both campaigns.

Joining me for the Obama campaign, a supporter, former presidential candidate and Senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry.  On the right, McCain supporter and Republican Senator from Arizona, Jon Kyl.

Senators, welcome to you both. 

SEN. JON KYL ®, ARIZONA:  Thanks, David.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  Glad to be here.

GREGORY:  Senator Kerry, let me start with you. 

Today, the McCain campaign, as you know, accused Senator Obama of playing the race card, referencing comments he made earlier in the week when he said essentially that McCain is going to try to make you afraid of me, he‘s going to point out effectively that I don‘t look like the other guys, the other leaders on the currency. 

Does McCain have a point here? 

KERRY:  Absolutely not.  I think McCain is inserting race. 

What—look, what Barack Obama is pointing to is an unbelievable sort of negative approach by John McCain, who frankly said he was going to give America a different kind of campaign, that it wouldn‘t engage in the kinds of things we saw in 2004 and previously.  And here he is running an advertisement—one advertisement has Barack Obama looming up on the page, blaming him for the rise in gas prices.  I mean, that is so misleading, incorrect, untruthful, distortional, it‘s absurd. 

Then you have another ad with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.  He‘s never met either of them.  He has nothing to do with them.  It‘s clearly an attempt to smear him with some people‘s objections to Hollywood and other visions. 

GREGORY:  Right.

KERRY:  That‘s not what this campaign is about, David.  I think those are gross ads, they are sort of down in the gutter, both for their inaccuracy, as well as what their tone is.  And I think Barack Obama is simply trying to say, look, they‘re trying to scare you, and that‘s exactly what they‘re trying to do, that‘s what they did in 2004. 

GREGORY:  Senator Kyl, did they go beyond that?  Did Obama go beyond that and try to inject race? 

KYL:  My goodness, first of all, to criticize having Britney Spears mentioned in an ad the way that John just did, it must be getting under someone‘s skin. 

KERRY:  Well, what‘s the issue, Jon?

KYL:  I don‘t think...

KERRY:  Tell me what the issue is about Britney spears.  What does she have to do with health care, with employment, with foreign policy?  You tell me what she has to do with the national dialogue, please. 

KYL:  She‘s got nothing to do except her...

KERRY:  Well, there you go.  You just admitted it.  Why is she in an ad against Barack Obama?

GREGORY:  All right.

KYL:  You know, John, if we‘re going to have a civil discussion, I would appreciate the chance to get just a word in edgewise...

KERRY:  Well, let‘s have an honest discussion.

KYL:  ... rather than having you badger me. 

You just talked about John McCain wanting to run a decent campaign. 

Can we have a decent conversation? 

GREGORY:  All right.  Well, Senator Kyl...

KYL:  Let me refer to—let me just say one thing, exactly.

The first question was, what about the advertisement that talked about Senator Obama and energy prices?  John McCain understands that a national security objective and a national economic objective is for the United States to be more energy-independent of the Middle East, to produce more American energy, and that the only way you‘re going to do that is to start by having more offshore drilling. 

Obama opposes that.  He says he‘s not a fan of nuclear power.  John McCain understands that gas prices and energy prices are related to the amount of energy produced.  That is a very fair point to make. 

KERRY:  Wrong.  It‘s not a fair point to make, because every expert in the country knows, number one, the United States of America can‘t drill its way out of this crisis.  We don‘t have enough oil. 

Number two, there are countless oil wells already approved, already environmentally signed off on.  And the oil companies are not drilling there.

Number three, there isn‘t a drop of oil that will come from anything approved today for at least 10 years or more.

And number four, it will not affect the marketplace prices.

GREGORY:  Let me...

KYL:  I respectfully disagree with all of those assertions.

KERRY:  And finally, let me say—thank you.  And finally—well, they‘re all true, and you can‘t—you can disagree with them, but you can‘t leave (ph) the fact of them.

KYL:  I believe they‘re false.  Yes, I think they‘re false.

KERRY:  And finally...

GREGORY:  Let me just—all right, go ahead.

Senator Kerry, very quickly.  I want to get back to this back-and-forth.

KERRY:  Well, the final point I want to make, I‘m glad that Jon Kyl admitted that Britney Spears has nothing to do with the national dialogue.  It‘s just a smear ad and it‘s inappropriate.

GREGORY:  Let me ask you this, Senator Kyl.  A McCain source told me today that, effectively, this barrage of ads is about creating a campaign narrative and a real contrast between these two candidates.  That effectively, the argument goes that McCain is for country first.  Sacrifice and service, that‘s his political biography and his vision and leadership, and that Obama is effectively so self-absorbed that he‘s about himself first.

Can you back up that narrative as argued through these ads?

KYL:  Well, I think there‘s a certain amount of concern among the electorate with respect to the point you made about Obama.  You know, we‘re the ones we‘ve been waiting for.  There does seem to be an element of narcissism in his campaign. 

John McCain‘s biography, as you correctly point out, is one of service to his country.  He has commanded troops.  He understands what it‘s like to be in war, up close and personal.  And I think he appreciates the—he has the experience to appreciate the kind of threats that a commander in chief has to deal with.

For example, he was right on the surge, and Barack Obama has yet to acknowledge that the surge has worked in Iraq.

GREGORY:  Go ahead, Senator Kerry.

KERRY:  Well, actually, John McCain was wrong about the surge.  And he asserted just last week that the surge created the awakening.  That‘s his quote, “The surge began the Anbar wakening.”  That is not true, neither historically or, you know, in any other military fact.

The fact is, the surge came after the Anbar awakening had already begun.  And Ramadi, for instance, the Ramadi reconstruction conference, took place in January of 2007.  Prior to that, most of the tribal chiefs around Ramadi had already signed on to the awakening.  The surge wasn‘t announced until January 10th of 2007. 

John McCain was wrong about his judgment that we would be greeted as liberators, he was wrong about his judgment that the oil would pay for the war, he was wrong about the judgment that it was the right thing to do to go to Iraq.  And he has been wrong about his judgment of Afghanistan not being affected by Iraq.

KYL:  So, John...

GREGORY:  All right.  Let me get in here because I have—hold on.  I have one minute left and I want to ask a serious question about Iraq.

The president said today that there is “a degree of durability” in the security gains that have been made in Iraq.

Senator Kyl, you first.  This is about 20 seconds a piece here.  What does that mean, that statement mean for the next president?

KYL:  Well, there is a degree of durability, but I think all of the experts also acknowledge that the gains are reversible, were we to exit Iraq too rapidly, for example, something that John McCain has warned against doing.  And all of our military commanders have backed him up on that.

GREGORY:  All right.

Senator Kerry?

KERRY:  The gains are reversible if we don‘t have the kind of political settlement that the surge was supposed to create.  And most of the military leaders and intelligence experts and others will tell you, while we‘ve made some gains in security, and certainly our troops have added to the ability to do that, we haven‘t seen the Iraqis make the political decisions necessary to create a lasting capacity for Iraq.  Most people believe that—or many people believe—certainly the prime minister and president of the country believe that it is by setting a date and assuming responsibilities to the Iraqis that you in fact will begin to create that more lasting capacity.

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘ll make that the last word.  To be continued, for sure.

KERRY:  Thank you.

GREGORY:  Senators Kerry and Kyl, thanks very much tonight.

When THE RACE comes back, today‘s “Smart Takes” after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  A short segment here with “Smart Takes,” the sharpest, provocative thinking of the ‘08 race. 

And here again, our panel: Gene Robinson, Rachel Maddow, Richard Wolffe and Steve Hayes.

We‘re talking about attack, counterattack.  Well, Jonathan Chait in the “Los Angeles Times” says Obama needs to start attacking McCain or risk winding up like Senator John Kerry in 2004. 

To the quote board.

“Obama‘s weak tea replies express disappointment with McCain and reject the same old politics.  Here‘s the likely rationale: the public, by a wide margin wants a Democrat to win the presidency.  So all Obama has to do is make himself acceptable, and he‘ll win.”

“Perhaps that sounds familiar.  Let me refresh your memory.”

“It was the John Kerry campaign strategy in 2004.  Rather than attack Bush, Kerry focused on defining himself.  Obama‘s strategy seems predicated on convincing voters that they really, really like the inexperienced black guy with the foreign sounding name, convincing them not to vote for the other guy.  The one who embraces the least popular president in modern history sounds like a better bet to me.”

Richard Wolffe, how polite have the counterattacks been, and is there an effort to deal with this, to address this within the campaign? 

WOLFFE:  Well, a couple of things.

First of all, I think Jonathan Chait just played the race card there. 

But first of all, the problem with Kerry in 2004 was not about attacking, it was his failure to defend himself.  That‘s his failed response to the Swift Boat things. 

And, you know, the Obama campaign has actually been pretty swift in terms of defending itself.  So I‘m not really sure it‘s applicable in that sense. 

And then you have got to question whether an aggressive strategy, a forward-leaning strategy really works for Obama.  I think when you look at what they‘re trying to do, look at how he made those comments yesterday, there‘s a touch of humor in there, a light touch which the candidate and the campaign are more comfortable with.  To me, it actually invokes the Bush campaign, where you get other people, spokespeople, to do the tough stuff, put the boxing gloves on, and leave the candidate somewhere above the fray. 

GREGORY:  Well, and you have, Rachel, an effort here to get inside each other‘s heads.  And certainly Obama does that when he‘s out acknowledging what voters may be thinking about him, even if it‘s not specifically raised by the McCain campaign. 

MADDOW:  But the main point is that he knows that the election is all about people thinking about him.  And that‘s still the big problem, whether it‘s Obama himself or surrogates or outside groups or whatever. 

If Obama cannot turn this election around and make it a referendum on George Bush and John McCain, then he will lose.  If it‘s a referendum on him, no matter how well he plays up his positive side, he will lose this race.  And so far, for all his political skill, this race is about him, and that means he‘s on the wrong territory to win. 

GREGORY:  Steve, quick comment? 

HAYES:  Yes.  I mean, I basically agree with the overall thrust of the Chait piece that Obama would be wise to start attacking.  But I also don‘t think it‘s entirely true that he hasn‘t been linking John McCain to George W. Bush every single time.  It‘s what he says. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to take a break here, come back with the back half, go “Inside the War Room” to look at this McCain strategy, beyond the race card.  Will it work? 

After this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  When we come back in the John McCain and inside my own Reporter‘s Notebook about what is driving this new attack strategy by McCain on Obama.  Where are the risks, where are the rewards?  Will it work?  Get all of it at the half.

First, let‘s check up your headlines.

CHRISTINA BROWN, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Christina Brown, here‘s what‘s happening.

Minnesota authorities are still working to confirm a passenger list for a small business jet that crashed in Awatana.  Officials say at least eight people were killed and one person is still unaccounted for.  The plane was on a charter flight from Atlantic City when it crashed in severe weather.

Alaska‘s Republican Senator Ted Stevens pleaded not guilty in a federal court today.  He‘s facing seven felony counts of lying about gifts he received from an Alaska oil contractor.  The indictment says Senator Stevens received more than a quarter of a million dollars in goods and services from Veco Corporation.  A federal judge has tentatively set his trial date for September 24.

And NASA says there is water on Mars.  The finding was confirmed in laboratory tests conducted aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander.  The robot landed in the Martian Arctic on May 25 for a three month digging mission but because of today‘s findings, NASA says it will extend the mission another two months.

Now back to David Gregory.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back on “Race for the White House.” I‘m David Gregory. 

Happy to have you here tonight.

Coming up now, “Inside the War Room.”  When McCain attacked, I‘ll take you inside my reporter‘s notebook tonight on what‘s going on behind the scenes of this McCain strategy.

What‘s the strategy behind the attacks, where are they hitting Obama the hardest?  And is it risky?  Risky business all around. 

Back with us Eugene Robinson, columnist and associate editor of the “Washington Post;” Rachel Maddow, host of the Rachel Maddow on Air America;

Richard Wolffe, “Newsweek” senior White House correspondent, he now covers Obama full time.  Eugene, Rachel and Richard all MSNBC political analysts and Stephen Hayes, senior writer for the “Weekly Standard”.

Well, the mud is flying, much of it sparked by this ad from John McCain this week.  Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He‘s the biggest celebrity in the world.

But is he ready to lead?

With gas prices soaring, Barack Obama says no to offshore drilling and says he‘ll raise taxes on electricity?

Higher taxes, more foreign oil, that‘s the real Obama.

I‘m John McCain and I approve this message. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Obama shot back with this zinger at a town hall today in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESUMPTIVE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE:  But so far all we‘ve been hearing about is Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.  I do have to ask my opponent, is that the best you can come up with?  Is that really what this election is about?  Is that what is worthy of the American people?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  All right, so what‘s behind the attack?  What‘s the strategy here?  Inside my reporter‘s notebook tonight, based on people I‘m talking to in the McCain campaign, there is Richard Wolffe, an attempt to create what they call a narrative frame for the campaign, as I mentioned with the two senators earlier.  That the argument is McCain puts country first, Obama puts himself first.

A way to say he‘s a light weight that he‘s caught up in his own fame, that he lacks character, he may not be patriotic, doesn‘t support the troops enough and that ultimately he‘s a movement politician, not a real leader.  Dissect that strategy. 

RICHARD WOLFFE, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it‘s pretty obvious what that strategy is.  And the interesting thing here when you came out on the top of the show, you said that they felt that he was worth taking the risks and that‘s kind or perplexing, frankly because this race by all the polls is still within the margin of error.

So you‘ve got to question why they‘re taking this approach and also I think some of the execution.  This ad, while obviously being an attempt to trivialize Obama, if you turn the sound off, what are the images you get?  You get a guy in front of lots of people and lots of smiling pictures of him.

It would have been much better if they had chosen pictures of him getting snapped by a photographer as sort of on a red carpet if that image exists.  So I think there they have maybe got something in terms of the direction, in terms of saying their opponent is somehow light and inexperienced.  But execution wise, language wise and the risks involved, I‘m not convinced this is the best way to do this.

GREGORY:  I guess the question, Steve Hayes from a tactical point of view, this was so over the top, I mean I thought a lot about this today because this is what I do.

And I was thinking, what are Britney and Paris all about?  They‘re famous for being famous.  Now it‘s a fairly sophisticated attack when you think about it.  But the idea is that he is becoming famous for being famous and not for real substance, which is frankly a corollary of what Hillary Clinton tried, unsuccessfully to argue against Obama.

STEPHEN HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, “THE WEEKLY STANDARD”:  Well, you thought about it so much that you just stole the point that I was going to make, thanks a lot.

GREGORY:  Sorry.  I thought about that all day, I couldn‘t keep it to myself.

HAYES:  The first—well it was such a brilliant thought, I‘ll give you credit for it.  The first half of the ad, it really is, it basically puts pictures to the argument Hillary Clinton made, unsuccessfully I think throughout much of the primary campaign.  She argued again and again and again, Obama is in effect a light weight.  He‘s got beautiful speeches, but there‘s not a lot of substance there.

And I think it‘s a risky argument to a certain extent for conservatives to make, because I think Obama is much more substantive than Hillary Clinton gave him credit for and that a lot of Conservatives are giving him credit for.  What McCain did in this ad, I think was tie that sort of Clintonesque argument in the first half of the ad to specific policies in the second half and it‘s why I think the ad actually is pretty effective.

GREGORY:  All right me—you guys are on deck here.

I want to go to some other points thought.  When McCain attacks, what is he attacking?  Let‘s go through this over the past several weeks.

Obviously he‘s not pulling any punches.  When he talks about character against Obama, you think about what the RNC—the Germany ad for one thing, which is that he doesn‘t support the troops.  The RNC has said that his associations and his relationships in the past are at issue.  The issue of judgment, Iraq, the surge, the withdrawal deadline, the prospect of meeting with Iran.

Credibility, McCain has attacked Obama for not admitting that the surge has helped bring more stability to Iraq.  Arrogance, the attacks are that Obama‘s presumptuous, that he‘s acting like he‘s already president, and of course Obama as celebrity, that he‘s famous for being famous.  He‘s a light weight, he‘s self-absorbed, and that he believes his own hype.

So Rachel, what out of that do you think is effective or frankly ineffective?

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST, AIR AMERICA RADIO:  Well, I think that if you throw the kitchen sink at anybody, some of it is going to stick.  The thing that doesn‘t connect with me here is the reporting from the McCain campaign is that they see themselves putting out the idea that John McCain puts his country first.

Where are you seeing that articulated in any of these ads?  I mean the ads, as you say, they said Barack Obama raised your gas prices, Barack Obama hates the troops and Barack Obama‘s like Paris Hilton.

From the candidate himself, from McCain we‘ve heard that he doesn‘t know whether or not Barack Obama is a socialist.  We have heard him call Barack Obama a traitor saying he would side against his own country in this war.

We‘ve heard from the McCain campaign, again, this idea that Obama doesn‘t know his place; that he‘s arrogant, that he‘s acting like someone he can‘t be because of who he is.

All that tells me is—that doesn‘t tell me that John McCain is putting his country first.  It tells me that John McCain is putting Barack Obama first.  And the basis of him running for president is that he‘s not Barack Obama.  Maybe that‘ll work, but it‘s not a story about John McCain.

GREGORY:  Gene?

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, it seems to me that what the McCain campaign is doing is a fairly classic attempt to take Barack Obama‘s positives and turn them into negatives.  And the fact that he speaks so well, that he‘s good looking, that he has a commanding presence, that people like him; there‘s an attempt to turn that into somehow a negative.  And while we shouldn‘t really trust him because people like him and he makes a lot of sense when he speaks.

You know, it‘s—the distance between Barack Obama as a campaign presence and a speaker and Hillary Clinton was not as great as I think the distance between Barack Obama and John McCain.  McCain has not shown that he can deliver that kind of compelling, rousing kind of message.  So I think the McCain campaign is just trying very early to make this about Obama, to take his positives, turn them into negatives and bring him down a peg.

GREGORY:  All right, but Richard you first.

Inside the McCain campaign, there‘s a recognition that this is a risky strategy and even the realization, it seems to me, that all this noise may obscure a central argument that‘s being made, which is Obama is a phenomenon, he is very popular, but does he have the judgment to lead?

That‘s the debate that John McCain does want and certainly believes that he can win.  But is the downside that, a, that gets lost, and b, that following a similar strategy to what they did, meaning they the Bush campaign did to John Kerry in 2004 which is what a lot of this is about, does that further tie John McCain to George Bush?

WOLFFE:  Well, first of all, they‘re not making an affirmative case about themselves.  About the only argument the McCain campaign has made assertively about their own agenda is about drilling for oil.

And that itself doesn‘t speak to some of the bigger campaign themes that McCain has built his brand around, for instance public service, serving of course greater than self.  So we‘re not seeing that side of McCain.

And when you compare it to Bush, you have to remember that there was a whole Bush mythology and character out there in 2000 and 2004, especially 2004 that allowed him the freedom to run the negative ads.  They form as [indiscernible] over that position and sort of gone straight to the negative and there is this question mark.

What kind of conservative McCain is, what kind of independent he is, and that does open him up to the Bush question and is he too close to Bush?  I don‘t think they have made their own case right now.

GREGORY:  Well, that‘s the question.  Are we in a phase, Steve, where they‘re just taking on Obama and are they leaving out the idea that they have got to make an affirmative case for themselves, to affirmatively argue this argument that they‘re making that McCain puts country first, that they‘re really going to paint that contrast?

HAYES:  I just disagree, I guess.  I think I disagree with you and I disagree with Richard.  I think they did do quite a bit of that.

They did it when we weren‘t paying as close attention.  But if you look at the period since McCain won the Republican primary through the general election, I would even argue a couple of weeks into the general election, he basically talked only about himself.  And he had this biography video that they showed at every stop.  It was all about McCain, all about country first and I think there were some conservatives who were a little bit concerned especially once Barack Obama had in effect captured the Democratic nomination that McCain wasn‘t doing enough to define Obama early.

Remember, we‘re seven weeks into the general election campaign and it took McCain about five and a half to really start trying to define this guy who‘s relatively new on the scene.

GREGORY:  But that‘s the other question, Rachel.  Just about enough at this point before we take the break which is what is the down side for McCain?  He has got a reservoir of good will in the country, in terms of his popularity, people do know him.

And as [indiscernible] said last night on his program, the audience may not be everybody seated around this panel, it may be narrowly focused in a part of the country and in certain states where the message might resonate where there are doubts about Obama in terms of who he is.

MADDOW:  Sure and as I‘ve said, I think the strongest ground tactically for McCain to be on is to make this election as much about Obama as possible.  He is effectively doing that.

When it comes to McCain making an affirmative case for himself, he‘s got to do it in a way that doesn‘t tie him to George W. Bush.  So far the Obama campaign has proved inept at making the discussion about Bush and McCain and so I feel like McCain is almost safe to go there just because Obama hasn‘t shown a willingness to try to turn the ship around.

The risk for McCain is that the reservoir of good will is in part about how he was treated in 2000 and the idea that he‘s somehow above the nastiness of politics.  I don‘t know if what that‘s the reservoir of good will toward McCain is, but if it is, he‘s hurting that with these negative ads.

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

Coming up, we switch gears.

For Veepstakes, Hillary Clinton hits the trail for Obama today, but is the case closed on the dream ticket?

And later in the show, if you want to play with the panel, call us 212-790-2299, you can e-mail at race08@MSNBC.com.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Veepstakes time now as Obama‘s VP list gets a little bit shorter, are Clinton‘s prospects dimming?  She‘s reportedly been tapped to speak Tuesday at the Democratic convention in Denver while Wednesday is traditionally the night reserved for the vice presidential candidate.

Even the Website vote.com that voted to pushing for a dream ticket it‘s closing up shop.  Is she officially out?

We‘ll take you down Obama‘s VP list.  But first here again, Eugene Robinson, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Wolffe and Stephen Hayes.

Clinton introduced Obama at an even this afternoon in California. 

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) NEW YORK:  I know the best way we can stand up for you and for everyone who knows we can do better is to make sure we have a Democratic president taking the oath of office on January 20th, 2009.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  She‘s still playing the heavy hitting surrogate and drawing a crowd and according to recent reports she‘s been tapped to give the keynote address at the convention.  Some say this is a sign she‘s off the list.

But Clinton supporter Lanny Davis says keep her on, making the argument in the “Wall Street Journal” today that quote, “With Senator Clinton on the ticket, I do not believe Senator Obama can lose, she adds important strength to Senator Obama in the key constituencies of women, blue collar workers and senior citizens and thus she could tip the balance in such key border states as West Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas (not apparently in play for Senator Obama as of now) as well as in the key battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida.”

Does it make sense, Rachel Maddow?  Is there still—I guess my question is this a case closed inside the Obama campaign?  And if that‘s the case, is it a case closed for rank and file Democrats?

MADDOW:  I think that it‘s probably—nothing‘s probably a case closed for the Obama campaign, unless they are ready to announce early, unless they‘re ready to announce well in advance of the conventions, I don‘t think there‘s any reason to believe that they push themselves to make a decision before they have to.  You always want to get as many data points in as possible before you make a decision like that.

I will say that if it‘s an organized effort by the Clinton camp to get Obama to pick her by having Lanny Davis say so on the op-ed page of the “Wall Street Journal,” they aren‘t very well tactically organized.  The last time we heard about Lanny Davis on the “Wall Street Journal” op-ed page about Barack Obama, he was talking about all of his spurious associations that made him worry about Obama.

So he‘s probably the wrong messenger for this message.

GREGORY:  Richard, inside the campaign, they think what about the Clintons at this stage?

WOLFFE:  Well, inside the campaign publicly or semipublicly, they‘re very respectful.  They obviously value the contribution, yada, yada, yada.  Privately, of course there‘s still a lot of bat feelings, not so much around the candidate, but I think around the senior aides and the people that are close to him, about some of the excessive things that went on in the primaries, although, you know, let bygones be bygones is also a spirit within there.

I think when you look at what the case that Lanny Davis made, what the campaign thinks is they‘ve actually already doing pretty well, in fact, very well with those key demographic groups, with women, with Latinos, with the white working class, at least the portion of it that tends towards Democrats.

00.00 - 6.51

And when you come down to states like Kentucky and Arkansas, well, he‘s 15, 20 points behind and Hillary Clinton isn‘t going to make that up.  So, the question is if he really needs Hillary Clinton at this stage for those key groups like women then he‘s in deep, deep trouble.  They don‘t see that in the polls right now.

GREGORY:  But Gene there could be greater momentum at least for the idea of working out the issues they have to work out particularly between Obama and Bill Clinton to at least get them in a surrogate role that doesn‘t create questions about the drama between these two camps.

ROBINSON:  Right, I think you definitely—if you‘re Obama—I think you definitely want both Clintons out there active in a surrogate role at the very least.  And I also think, you know, as Rachel said, you look at the data point and among those data points is how the race is standing according to the polls and it‘s not difficult to imagine a scenario under which the Obama campaign would take a fresh look at the idea of at least of Hillary Clinton as a potential Vice President if they thought that was necessary and would help.

It does somewhat hurt the kind of new politics turning the page theme of the campaign.  But in order to turn the page, you have got to get elected.  And no doubt that if they thought that was the only way they‘d get elected, they would make the phone call.

GREGORY:  Steve, thought on this?

HAYES:  Yes, David, if I can just jump in.  Yes, I don‘t think it somewhat undercuts the new politics claim.  It totally undermines the new politics claim.  I mean, I actually think the Obama campaign might not be using Hillary Clinton as much and Bill Clinton as much publicly because they don‘t think it‘s wise.

One of the things I think to all remember about this back and forth during the primaries was that there are these bitter feelings I think are just likely to stick around going forward and it would be hard to overcome them.

GREGORY:  Overcome down the road, for sure.

Ok, we‘re going to take a break here.  When we come back, your play date with the panel‘s up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  It‘s time to “Play with the Panel” and back with us, our panel tonight, Eugene, Rachel, Richard and Stephen.

Heather in Idaho writes this: “McCain‘s negative attacks on Obama may end up being the best thing that could have happened for Obama‘s campaign.  Obama supporters don‘t just get mad, they get even.  I donated money yesterday and may do so again today.  I know I am not the only one feeling fired up about this.  I‘m sure contributions have spiked in the final days of July.”

What‘s remarkable about that Gene is that she lives in Idaho.

ROBINSON:  Maybe it‘s her own private Idaho or maybe she knows something we don‘t know about Idaho.  But yes, you know maybe there‘ll be some reaction from the Obama campaign.  But I guess I wouldn‘t go so far as to say it may be the best thing that would happen to the Obama campaign.

I think negative campaigning usually works to some extent.  And to the extent that McCain has been able to make this talk about Obama‘s fitness, that‘s success for him.

GREGORY:  Right.  And by the way, he doesn‘t need the money.

Richard in Michigan writes this: “Don‘t you think the “Celeb” ad would have been more effective in getting the “Obama is a celebrity” idea out if he had showed Oprah, Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise instead of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

Well, if we‘re ticking off celebrities, Rachel, how about Scarlett Johansson with whom he has some sort of email relationship as has been reported?  That‘s something that he actually knows.

MADDOW:  Yes, and that would have at least given you the same crypto-racial message about the black guy with the white girls which is the whole sub-text here that our friend Harold Ford was hit with Republican ads against him in his last race in Tennessee.  That‘s the unspoken between the lines thing going on here.

And the reason that they didn‘t show him with Oprah, with whom he‘s done huge events, they didn‘t show him with any male celebrities, they could have picked Scarlett Johansson and maybe you‘ll see that for round two.

GREGORY:  I just don‘t—I don‘t really think that that‘s a fair analogy in terms of the use of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears here.  I go back to the point, Steve, that this is about choosing celebrities who are famous for being famous.  That‘s the knock over the head that I think they‘re trying for.

HAYES:  It‘s why you have, you know, Rachel and somebody like me on the panel.  I don‘t see it at all.  I don‘t think there‘s any crypto-racial, I don‘t think there‘s anything racial at all.  I think Britney and Paris Hilton are light weights.  They‘re trying to suggest that Obama‘s light weight; that he can‘t follow it up with substance.  I‘m just flabbergasted when I hear that there‘s a racial element to it.

MADDOW:  Why not put—couldn‘t Oprah make the same effort?  Couldn‘t Oprah—she‘s a talk show host, she‘s wildly popular.  She‘s very, very rich.  She has a huge following.  Right, it makes all the right points.

HAYES:  She talks for an hour every day and actually makes sense.  Britney Spears and Paris Hilton don‘t talk and they don‘t make sense when they do.  It would have totally defeated the whole purpose.

Oprah is an asset for Obama.  The last thing that a McCain campaign would want to do would be to remind people how much Oprah likes Obama.

MADDOW:  I think that if you—if you want talk about the fact that he actually has a tie with somebody like Oprah who makes most of the points that they wanted to make here, you use her in the campaign if you want to deliberately avoid the obvious racial association by putting the black guy with the white girls.

GREGORY:  Richard comment here.

HAYES:  It‘s unbelievable.

WOLFFE:  I think it‘s not just about celebrities.  They want to make him out to be an air head, which is what these celebrities are most famous for.  The problem is they‘re setting the bar very low.  This is a point Steve made earlier.

When you hear Barack Obama speak, he doesn‘t sound like Britney Spears or Paris Hilton.  So I think they‘re actually not helping themselves.  They did the same on foreign policy, the guy goes overseas, lo and behold he can talk about foreign policy.

GREGORY:  All right, we‘ll got one more in here that doesn‘t have to do with anybody including Lindsay Lohan.

Norm writes with his pick for Obama‘s VP: “Imagine who would happen if McCain can get Colin Powell on his ticket.  He could promise Powell that he would only serve one term and would back Powell as the standard bearer in 2012.  Powell would level the playing field with African-Americans and as everybody knows, has a large following with independents and moderate Democrats.”

Gene a couple of problems with that thing is it‘s very clear that Powell does not want to run and I think it‘s also fairly clear that he might actually endorse Barack Obama. 

ROBINSON:  You‘re right, there is that David.  There would be a problem with that.  Endorse the other guy, that would be trouble.

GREGORY:  We‘re out of time, I cannot continue with—

That would be right. 

We got to go, see you tomorrow.

“Hardball” next.

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

END   

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