updated 8/5/2008 12:26:30 PM ET 2008-08-05T16:26:30

Guest: John Harwood; Rachel Maddow; Eugene Robinson; Pat Buchanan

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, Obama on the offensive, going negative against McCain over energy as he looks to refocus the debate on policy.

The RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

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

Tonight, Obama‘s ideas on drilling for oil and tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  Is he trying to catch up to public opinion on an issue that may give John McCain an edge? 

Bill Clinton tonight claims he‘s “not a racist,” hitting back when asked about whether he hurt his wife‘s chances during the primaries.

And veepstakes tonight, why McCain might just want to wait. 

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

And with us tonight, Pat Buchanan, MSNBC  political analyst and former presidential candidate; John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC and political writer for “The New York Times”; Eugene Robinson, columnist and associate editor for “The Washington Post,” and an MSNBC political analyst; and Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, also an MSNBC political analyst. 

I‘m the only one who‘s not an MSNBC political analyst. 

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

I‘ve got one tonight, John.  But Harwood, you start us off.  You‘re talking about some news of the day. 

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  David, my headline is, “Pressure Point.”

Every energy expert knows America needs a comprehensive long-term plan to kick our addiction to foreign oil.  But $4 a gallon gas will break any presidential candidate.  First, John McCain flipped to embrace expanded offshore oil drilling.  Today, Barack Obama flopped on releasing oil from the nation‘s emergency stockpile. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  There are some genuine ways in which we can provide some short-term relief from the high gas prices, relief to the mother who is cutting down on groceries because of gas prices, or the man I met in Pennsylvania who couldn‘t go on a job search after he lost his job because he couldn‘t afford to fill up the tank.  We should sell 70 million barrels of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve for less expensive crude, which in the past has lowered gas prices within two weeks. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARWOOD:  Now, each candidate‘s shift reflects the heat campaigns are feeling to grab onto something that seems to respond to pain at the pump, even if that something does nothing to cure the underlying disease—David. 

GREGORY:  John, is he open to the flip-flop charge again on this? 

HARWOOD:  Sure, but, you know, Barack Obama, on SPRO, and also on offshore drilling, is trying to take an issue off the table that John McCain has been driving the debate. 

GREGORY:  And the question is whether this will actually work, tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  We‘ve had this debate in almost every signal (ph). 

HARWOOD:  Not much.  You know, it may work a little bit in a—for a short time, but nobody thinks that you can empty the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and solve our problems.  That‘s the point.  We have got to get to long-term solutions.  The problem is, of course, those are painful and expensive. 

GREGORY:  Absolutely. 

Rachel, you‘re focusing in on the attack line on energy that Obama‘s now using against McCain.  Your headline? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  That‘s right.  My headline today, David is, “McCain‘s Oil Slick.”

After a week of unfocussed defensiveness on energy issues, Barack Obama did decide to celebrate his birthday today by finally putting McCain on the defensive about big oil. 

Here‘s part of an ad that Obama has released. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR:  Every time you fill your tank, the oil companies fill their pockets.  Now big oil is filling John McCain‘s campaign with $2 million in contributions, because instead of taxing their windfall profits to help drivers, McCain wants to give them another $4 billion in breaks.  After one president in the pocket of big oil, we can‘t afford another. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Now, this isn‘t the hardest-hitting attack ad of all time, or even of this season, but it does at least show an effort by the Obama campaign to get the discussion turned toward John McCain. 

Keep an eye on the investigative blogs like “Talking Points Memo” on this one.  Some of those oil company donations referenced in that ad came in big bundles all at once right after McCain reversed himself in offshore drilling in mid-June.  Reporters are all over this right now, looking for any evidence of quid pro quo or any more specific hit on the big oil connection to hit him with. 

GREGORY:  In the meantime, is this a clean kill for Obama or does he have some vulnerabilities on the question of contributions from the oil industry? 

MADDOW:  He certainly has taken several hundred thousand dollars in contributions from the oil companies, and that‘s why that timing issue is going to be so politically potent for him.  The political potency here may come from the question of whether or not McCain was rewarded financially for having done a 180 on this anti-offshore drilling positions that he‘s held for so long. 

GREGORY:  Plus, the other issue is, you turn off the sound on that ad, what do you see?  Bush and McCain.  That‘s what Obama wants to talk about instead of, you know, whatever connection he might have to Britney Spears. 

MADDOW:  Bingo.  Bingo.

GREGORY:  OK.  Pat, you‘re talking about some of the aggressiveness in this campaign on both sides.  Your headline tonight? 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  My headline is, “Hey, Mr. Obama, Welcome to the NFL.”

You know this Paris Hilton/Britney Spears ad that portrayed Barack Obama as insubstantial and vacuous?  Most of us thought the ads were rather childish themselves, insubstantial, and mildly embarrassing to the McCain campaign. 

However, that was not the Obama reaction.  To them, this was outrageous and racist to the core.  And they said so. 

That is absurd.  The problem here is that Obama‘s folks want some special immunity from hardball because Barack is an African-American candidate.  Sorry, fellows, you cannot get a special exemption from political combat if you want to be commander in chief. 

GREGORY:  Pat, do you really think it was Obama who put the racial issue on the table, or was McCain looking for a way in to have that debate when Rick Davis came out and slammed Obama for playing the race card? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, no, I think Obama three times used that line because I don‘t look like the other fellows on the dollar bill.  The third time he did it, it‘s clear, he was saying listen, fellows, don‘t come after me, because I‘m going to play the card on you.  And I give McCain guys credit.  They went right back at him and doubled him up. 

GREGORY:  All right.

Gene Robinson, your headline tonight taking a look at some interesting poll numbers that “The Washington Post” has about the perception of Obama among some interesting voting groups. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  That‘s right, David.  My headline tonight is, “Low-Income Whites Defy Conventional Wisdom.”  And, I might add, defy prognosticators such as Pat Buchanan, my friend here, who, for months, we have been saying, you know, what is this problem Barack Obama has with working class white voters?  Why can‘t he connect with them?  Why do they dislike him so much? 

Well, “The Washington Post,” the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University have done a poll of voters who make less than $27,000 a year.  And the poll found something interesting. 

Overall, these voters support Obama overwhelmingly.  But among white voters who make less than $27,000, take a look: 47 percent for Obama, 37 percent for McCain. 

So, what about that gap that Obama is supposed to have with white voters?  It‘s not there, apparently, in the data. 

GREGORY:  All right.

My headline tonight, “I‘m Not a Racist.”  That‘s a quote from former president Bill Clinton to ABC News, defending his role in this campaign, bragging, in fact, that Senator Clinton did well where he, the former president, campaigned.  And offering only tepid praise for Obama on a critical point, saying that you could argue that perhaps no one is “ready to be president.”

He talked to Kate Snow of ABC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATE SNOW, ABC NEWS:  Do you personally have any regrets about what you did campaigning for your wife? 

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Yes, but not the ones you say.  And it would be counterproductive for me to talk about.  There are things that I wish I would have urged her to do, things I wish I had said, things I wish I hadn‘t said.  But I am not racist, I never made a racist comment, and I didn‘t attack him personally. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  And this news tonight about Mrs. Clinton‘s veep prospects.  Politico.com quotes former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who earlier this year, you‘ll remember, claimed Obama was benefiting politically because he is black, as saying Mrs. Clinton should be on the top of his short list now.  “He should be gracious enough to offer Clinton the vice presidency, considering how narrow the race was.”

Pat Buchanan, she‘s reading your mind. 

BUCHANAN:  Well, she is, but I don‘t think Barack is going to do it, even though he just dropped one point behind in the Rasmussen poll. 

But let me say, my friend Gene Robinson is dead on.  I‘ve been saying again and again, if McCain doesn‘t go after those working white working class folks and their concern and address them, he‘s going to lose the election. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to take a break here, come back with “War Room” next.  Coming up next, it‘s Obama and McCain.  They‘re going head-to-head over energy policy, exchanging some harsh words on the campaign trail.  This is the hot issue in the minds of voters in this long, hot summer.

And later on in the show, your turn to play with the panel.  Call us: 212-790-2299, or send us an e-mail, race08@msnbc.com.  We‘ll take a short break and come back “Inside the War Room.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back on THE RACE, going “Inside the War Room” now.

McCain has scratched his way back to a statistical tie according to some of the latest polling.  Proof, perhaps, that negative campaigning is paying off for him.  So how does Obama get back in the game? Back with us, Pat, John, Gene and Rachel.

First up,  Obama gets back on the attack with some tough remarks launched at McCain during a speech on energy in Lansing, Michigan, today.  Notice where he‘s doing it. 

Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  He said, and I quote, “Our dangerous dependence on foreign oil has been 30 years in the making and was caused by the failures of politicians in Washington to think long term about the future of the country.”  Now, what Senator McCain neglected to mention was, during those 30 years, he was in Washington for 26 of them. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Rachel, what‘s Obama up to here? 

MADDOW:  The obvious, which is to nail John McCain for being part of the problem. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

MADDOW:  I mean, this is senator versus senator, but there‘s—the huge difference is how long John McCain has been in Washington.  And part of McCain‘s great political potency is being able to say, you know what?  I‘m the guy who fights my party.  I‘m the maverick.  I‘m outside the—essentially outside the two-party system.  I‘ve been taking on the man.

And to the extent that Obama can undermine that by saying, you‘re a permanent fixture in Washington, Bozo...

GREGORY:  Right.

MADDOW:  ... you know, you‘re the guy who you‘re complaining about when you complain about Washington, then he‘s going to get him.

GREGORY:  But not only that, John Harwood.  McCain has some traction of late because he‘s appeared to be activist on an issue that people want quick solutions for.  And Obama has been lagging behind a little bit on the idea that, no, there are no quick fixes, it‘s got to be a long-term solution. 

That‘s not great politics all the time. 

HARWOOD:  Right.  And so, by making this long-term argument, he tries to undercut the idea that John McCain really is a man of action on this issue, while having some flexibility on drilling and also on releasing oil from the SPRO. 

GREGORY:  Well, you mention the drilling.  So that‘s next up: battle over the oil drilling ban. 

It appears Obama has reversed his initial stance on offshore drilling, now saying that he‘s willing to drill in order to provide short-term relief.  Remember just a month ago, Obama was singing a very different tune.  Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I do not believe that we should use the strategic oil reserves at this point.  I have said, and in fact supported, a congressional resolution that said we should suspend putting more oil into the strategic oil reserve.  But the Strategic Oil Reserve I think has to be reserved for a genuine emergency. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  All right.  So this seems like a flip-flop.  He‘s talking about tapping the reserves there.  But not everybody agrees who‘s on the Obama team.  John Kerry told Tom Brokaw on “MEET THE PRESS” yesterday that Obama is not changing his views at all. 

The question is, though, Pat Buchanan, is he going to get caught on this? 

BUCHANAN:  Sure.  He‘s been flip-flopping all weekend on this, on the oil drilling offshore, the SPRO as well.  And I‘m saddened, David, saddened to see a new politics abandoned.  Now, Barack Obama, he‘d been running such a high-tone, high-level campaign.  And I‘m saddened to see it abandoned. 

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  Pat, I think what‘s happening...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Yes?

ROBINSON:  I think the phrase is, “Everything is on the table.”  I think—wasn‘t that the phrase that McCain used about taxes?  Everything is on the table. 

Look, you‘ve got to get on the right side of this issue, I think.  And, you know, the polls indicate that people want folks to do something about energy prices.  So, I think it would have been rather foolish just to sit there and continue talking about, you know, 2025, when there‘s an election to be won in November. 

HARWOOD:  And David...

GREGORY:  All right. Well—yes, go ahead, John.

HARWOOD:  ... I think we shouldn‘t—I mean, we can laugh about it, but there‘s a different standard when we‘re talking about the legislative process.  Just as John McCain, on the issue of Social Security, said, I‘m open to a conversation that includes it, even if I‘m not for it, that‘s what Barack Obama is doing on oil drilling. 

GREGORY:  Right.

HARWOOD:  And we‘ve got to cut these guys a little bit of a break.  If you‘re going to make a bipartisan compromise, you do have to accept stuff that you‘re not for. 

GREGORY:  Well, and this is what‘s interesting.  The oil drilling ban is obviously the hot topic.  This summer, McCain has helped put it there.  He was back in front of the cameras and reporters today, calling on Obama - calling him naive, really, knocking his energy policy overall.  Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  We need to offshore drill for oil and natural gas.  We need to drill here, and we need to drill now. 

And anybody who says that we can achieve energy independence without using and increasing these existing energy sources either doesn‘t have the experience to understand the challenge we face or isn‘t giving the American people some straight talk. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  I mean, it‘s interesting, Rachel, is that McCain is using a similar pattern here.  He‘s trying to turn the oil drilling argument that‘s gotten traction.  And again, he helped create some of that traction by arguing for this over a series of weeks.

He wants to turn it into the surge.  If you weren‘t for oil drilling early on, then you don‘t have the knowledge and the experience to be president. 

MADDOW:  Right.  And that‘s—I mean, that‘s actually brilliant political framing.  And it‘s a political victory for the Republican Party, generally, for John McCain specifically on this, that the whole idea of high gas prices has now become a debate about whether or not to drill. 

And drilling would really have no impact on gas prices for, I don‘t know, a generation, if then.  And so they have succeeded in turning the whole debate about something that really affects Americans every day and changes all of our lives into something that has really no connection to it at all, and that‘s brilliant politics.  It just has no basis in reality.

HARWOOD:  David, let‘s not forget, f we‘re talking about a flip-flop, John McCain flip-flopped on this same issue.  He just did it before Barack Obama did. 

MADDOW:  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Pat, final comment. 

BUCHANAN:  David, I‘ve got to step in here because Rachel has really finally nailed one cold.  Look, we‘ve got $4 a gallon gasoline, $150 a barrel oil, and the Republicans are blaming Barack Obama for it, and they are succeeding with the issue and forcing him to change.  That is a winner.  Astonishingly good politics, a rarity for the Republicans lately. 

GREGORY:  Yes.  All right.  We‘re going to take a break here.  Coming up, Paris Hilton‘s mom is chastising John McCain for his new attack ad featuring her daughter.  Plus, what McCain‘s 96-year-old mother has to say about that celeb video.  THE RACE returns right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back tonight on THE RACE with a look at what‘s on THE RACE‘S  radar today. 

First up, the McCain video comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton has been viewed more than a million and a half times on YouTube.  But one McCain donor is not impressed.  That‘s Paris Hilton‘s mother, Kathy Hilton, chastising McCain now for the ad in a blog on “The Huffington Post.”

“I‘ve been asked again and again for my response to the now infamous McCain celebrity ad.  I actually have three responses.  It is a complete waste of the money John McCain‘s contributors have donated to his campaign.  It is a complete waste of the country‘s time and attention at the very moment when millions of people are losing their homes and their jobs.  And it is a completely frivolous way to choose the next president of the United States.”

She‘s not the only one criticizing that particular ad.  McCain‘s own mother, 96-year-old Roberta McCain, called it “kind of stupid.”  “The Huffington Post” obtained this audio from a fund-raiser last week.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What do you think about the Paris Hilton stuff?

ROBERTA MCCAIN, JOHN MCCAIN‘S MOTHER:  The what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The Paris Hilton...

R. MCCAIN:  Oh, I didn‘t see it.  I think it‘s kind of stupid.  Well, see, for your age, it‘s fine, but I‘m just too old hat for it.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Switching gears, one of the big figures in the world of political reporting is stepping down tonight.  “Chicago Sun-Times” columnist Robert Novak announced his immediate retirement today after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.  The situation apparently dire, according to reports. 

Novak has been writing and reporting for nearly half a century, covering every president since JFK.  You‘ll recall in 2003, Novak became part of the story when he revealed the name of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame in his column.  That, of course, launched the leak investigation and ultimately the trial of chief of staff for the vice president, Scooter Libby. 

Novak‘s scoops and his insights have been a familiar presence with us on this program as well, and we certainly wish him the very best in his recovery. 

And finally this: Ted Kennedy, also battling a brain tumor, will make an appearance at the Democratic convention, even if he can‘t make it to Denver.  The liberal lion spent the weekend taping a video message for the convention at his Cape Cod home.  The 76-year-old is said to be doing well, but doctors are concerned about exposure to infection in the large convention crowd. 

If there was any doubt about Kennedy‘s status as an icon in American politics, remember back to early July, when you saw this video.  He made a surprise appearance on the Senate floor during a critical vote on Medicare, received an extended standing ovation that was described by one senator as unlike anything he‘d ever seen before. 

John Harwood, can you imagine the impact that Kennedy is going to have one way or the other on the Democratic convention?  I‘m told it‘s not completely outside the realm of possibility that he shows up in person, even if it‘s for a brief period of time. 

HARWOOD:  David, either way, that convention is going to explode when they see Ted Kennedy, either on video or if he shows up in person.  And you know, I‘m reminded of all of the times in which Kennedys have loomed so large in Democratic conventions.  Bobby Kennedy, 1964 in Atlantic City, making a tribute to his slain brother, Jack Kennedy.  And then again after Bob Kennedy was killed in 1968. 

It‘s going to be an incredibly emotional moment for that party. 

GREGORY:  And Pat Buchanan, can you remember a more important impact that the Kennedys have had in a generation, in the latest generation of politics and presidential campaigning than his decision, Ted Kennedy‘s decision, to endorse Obama? 

BUCHANAN:  No.  Quite frankly, I don‘t know that that proved all that significant.  As you know, Obama lost Massachusetts, didn‘t do that well in California in those areas. 

But I do agree with John Harwood.  I think back to 1968 and you think back to 1964, you know, when Bobby Kennedy was shot in ‘68 and everything.  I think this is going to be one of the most dramatic moments at a Democratic convention, even maybe more dramatic than the famous 1980 speech by Teddy Kennedy.  And I‘m old enough, I saw that, too, and that was an unbelievable address. 

GREGORY:  Gene Robinson, whether you can measure it in the case of states, Ted Kennedy‘s impact was certainly felt endorsing Obama and getting the Kennedy family name behind him to help Obama frame the argument for this race. 

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  And what Ted Kennedy‘s endorsement did was allow the Democratic establishment to switch, essentially, and to come over to Obama‘s side.  He opened the floodgates there and made it possible for others to join the Obama campaign, which was very important.  It will be quite a moment at the convention. 

GREGORY:  Absolutely.  We‘re going to take a break here.  Coming up, “Veepstakes.”  Mitt Romney, on the attack on the morning shows, compares Obama to online dating.  THE RACE comes back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Time now for the back half and Veep.  Who is still in the running and who is new on the list?  Still with us tonight, Pat, John, Gene and Rachel.  First up, Mitt Romney joins the pack, attacking Obama on all three cable networks this morning.  Watch this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY ®, FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  He‘s like an Internet date.  We didn‘t know who he was, and now we‘re getting to know who he is.  We say, gosh, this guy just doesn‘t have the judgment and experience.  He doesn‘t have the experience and judgment to be president.  I think that‘s going to come out as well in the debates.  You‘ll seem him as a well spoken, handsome young man, but just not ready to lead the country at such a critical time. 

He said that we can rid ourselves of our dependence on foreign oil by simply inflating our tires and tuning up our engines.  I don‘t think Polly Anna answers are going to solve our energy needs. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Gene Robinson, certainly Romney is out front as a surrogate for McCain.  They seem to have patched up their relationship some.  He‘s a very aggressive guy know in a surrogate role for McCain.  Does that tell us something? 

ROBINSON:  Well, I think it tells us that he‘d like to be vice president.  It doesn‘t necessarily tell us that John McCain will pick him.  He‘s been my pick for McCain all along.  He‘s good at this.  He‘s seasoned.  He‘s vetted.  I think he could be—I think he could help McCain perhaps more than the others.  We‘ll see. 

GREGORY:  Pat, that‘s the question, do people look at him—do voters look at Mitt Romney and say, this is a guy who really shores up McCain‘s experience, who sort of doubles down on the experience question, and can go after Obama as being inexperienced. 

BUCHANAN:  Right, you‘re looking at a heavyweight here.  He‘s showing something surprising, it is loyalty.  He was rabbit punched and kicked by McCain in the campaign, who was quite nasty to him.  He‘s been tougher than anybody on McCain‘s behalf.  He‘s been on television constantly.  He helps in Michigan, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada.  Quite frankly, I think standing him up alongside a Tim Kaine or an Evan Bayh, he looks far more presidential, far bigger a figure.  He shows more—he give people, I think, more natural confidence as a candidate.  I think he‘s moved out in front. 

HARWOOD:  I think John McCain would also be doubling down on flip-flop by picking Mitt Romney, by the verdict of none other than John McCain.  I think it was John McCain in the primaries who said, the one thing we know, governor, is you‘re the candidate of change. 

GREGORY:  Would it also help though, John Harwood, on the issue, if he were to decide—if McCain were to decide—this is something Rachel has talked about a lot—to just say I‘ll go for one term and one term only.  Does that strengthen Romney? 

HARWOOD:  Boy, I think that whole bit about going one term and one term only, president, vice president both just puts a big lame duck stamp right on your forehead.  I don‘t see why somebody who wants to lead the country would do that to themselves?

GREGORY:  Next up, who‘s got the VP buzz today?  According to MSNBC‘s First Read, it has been leaked that Representative Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, is being vetted by the McCain campaign.  First Read speculating that Cantor‘s rising profile as a Jewish conservative is drawing some attention from the McCain campaign.  Another House member under VP speculation is Chet Edwards, a Democrat from Crawford, Texas, who Nancy Pelosi has been pushing for to insiders in the Obama camp. 

Rachel, how do you read those two?

MADDOW:  The Chet Edwards decision is an interesting one, because Edwards represents not only a nice reminder of George W. Bush and a nice smack, as a reminder, in a sense, that Crawford is now represented by a Democrat, but he‘s also like Barack Obama, represents somebody who is relatively—who is not seen as an insider in Washington, somebody who is of Washington and who has a job there now, but isn‘t as somebody who is a lifelong Washington fixture. 

In terms of Eric Cantor, it‘s possible.  I think that the issue about Jewish voters has been played up or played down, depending on what‘s going on in the campaign.  But right now, people like Joe Lieberman necessarily aren‘t even that popular among Jewish voters.  Barack Obama has about double the approval rating among Jewish voters as somebody like Joe Lieberman does.  I think Jewish voters are looking on policy, rather than just on the religion of the person they would be choosing.  I‘m not sure how far McCain is going to get trying to prioritize Jewish voters against Obama. 

BUCHANAN:  This sounds like William E. Miller time in 1964 with Goldwater.  Look—taking a Congressman for the ticket.  I think it would be deadly for McCain to pick someone from Virginia to help win Virginia, simply because he‘s Jewish, although he‘s smart and young.  As for Obama, picking a Congressman from Texas, for heavens sake, he‘s going to lose Texas.  He‘s going to spend all the time building this character up, passing by Hillary Clinton and Biden and people like that.  I think the heavy weights of the Democratic party will feel snubbed and overruled and over rung and overridden. 

HARWOOD:  Good line. 

GREGORY:  The timing, Politico and Bill Kristol of the “New York Times” both reporting today that McCain will most likely select his running mate after the Democratic convention in order to take the wind out of Obama‘s post-convention sales.  Our own Michael Smerconish was ahead of the curve on that, speculating a McCain VP pick on September 2nd.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Circle day 63 on your 100 day calendar, your war calendar.  That is Tuesday, September 2nd.  That is the day, I think, he should make his VP selection.  It‘s Labor Day weekend.  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. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Harwood, what do you think?

HARWOOD:  I think that‘s a smart take by Smerc.  I think we‘re seeing both of these campaigns drift back after flirting with the idea and enjoying the speculation about maybe a long advanced pick, going back to conventional timetable, with Barack Obama looking in the last ten days before his convention, and John McCain not wanting to surrender the strategic advantage of going second, watching how McCain‘s pick plays out and then trying to dull the bounce he gets from his convention. 

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting.  Watching who Barack Obama picks and also the themes that then come out of that pick, what he‘s trying to reinforce with the pick that McCain will want to pivot off of.  That‘s very reactive.  That‘s something that McCain has not done well on.  He‘s been better on the offensive, if you just look at last week. 

Finally, inside McCain‘s play book in picking a VP, Bill Kristol breaks down three scenarios I thought were interesting for picking a running mate inside the McCain campaign in his op ed in today‘s “New York Times.”  First scenario, per Kristol, from team McCain, we‘re going to defeat Obama straight up, which means picking a non-controversial choice like a Tim Pawlenty from Minnesota, second term governor from that state, or Rob Portman, who is a former Ohio Congressman, a Bush administration official, former trade rep, et cetera. 

Second scenario, according to Kristol, we need accentuate Obama‘s key vulnerability in experience.  It means picking somebody who reinforces that message like a Mitt Romney or former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.  Or don‘t fight the public desire for change, co-opt it.  Kristol sees 37 year old Bobby Jindal or 44 year old Sarah Palin of Alaska on the ticket, saying, quote, they are real performers.  They have begun to do in Baton Rouge and Juneau what many voters would like to see done in Washington. 

Pat, I‘m interested in this third scenario.  Here is—if McCain wants to be McCain, he wants to be somebody who shakes up the system, tries to broaden the party and goes for a bit of a long ball here.  Don‘t you think there‘s some real benefit in that third scenario, go for some big time change? 

BUCHANAN:  I really do.  If he‘s going in there behind and he‘s got to change things and make himself possible, I think this Sarah Palin, she‘s the queen of Wasilla (ph).  She goes out—she‘s an NRA lifetime member.  She eats moose burgers.  She‘s got a 100 percent conservative voting record.  She threw out the corrupt gang up there.  She‘s terrific.  She‘s a woman.  She‘s enormously attractive.  She has got five kids.  Pro-life.  All the way, the conservatives would say, at last, at last; we‘ve got to get up and work. 

HARWOOD:  Also watch Bret Smith, the CEO of Fed-Ex.  That could be a risky or a bold choice by John McCain going popular company, very successful.  You never know what‘s in the background of a businessman.  But that‘s something that would also be a shake up the deck choice. 

MADDOW:  I would just say on Sarah Palin, as somebody who also enjoys a moose burger and therefore is very sympathetic to her, I am also not under investigation by the Alaska legislature right now for having fired a public safety commissioner for not having fired the trooper who was divorcing my sister. 

HARWOOD:  You are cleared, Rachel.  You have been cleared. 

MADDOW:  I have been cleared of that.  The Alaska legislature just appropriated 100,000 dollars to investigate her for that.  She up until this point has been the symbol of not corrupt Republican in Alaska.  That‘s a little tarnished right now. 

BUCHANAN:  David, when I campaigned in Alaska, they had a bumper sticker on a car right in front of me.  It said eat moose, 10,000 wolves can‘t be wrong. 

GREGORY:  I think that‘s on the official vetting favorites for McCain. 

The question to that question, do you enjoy a good moose burger. 

OK, coming up next, has McCain leveled the playing field with his recent attacks on Obama?  How is Obama doing playing defense?  THE RACE returns with three questions after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  The state of the race really a big focus now.  We‘re focusing on Obama‘s effort to get back on his campaign message this week.  The McCain certainly campaign knocked him out of the headlines last week, with web videos comparing him to Britney Spears and even Moses.  How did Obama respond? 

Still with us, Pat, John, Gene and Rachel.  First up, Obama responded to the McCain ads over the weekend, calling them a distraction, saying he intends to keep his campaign focused on issue. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  What they‘ve been good at is distraction.  If you‘ve got statistics saying we lost another 50,000 jobs, and what was being talked about were Paris and Britney.  So they are clever on creating distractions from the issues that really matter in people‘s lives.  We have to make sure that we keep focused on people‘s day-to-day concerns.  And we have to drive that very hard.  I will keep on driving that hard. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  First question then, can Obama change the topic from personal politics to policy?  Rachel, embedded in that question is the idea that he doesn‘t want all the focus on him.  He wants to put the focus back on who is McCain and is he tied to Bush.  That‘s the referendum he wants.

MADDOW:  That‘s right.  I think his political analysis there—he was doing a little Obama punditry there—was spot on until the very end, when he should have said we‘re going to keep this campaign focussed on the issues that affect people‘s lives and what John McCain thinks about those issues and what John McCain‘s record is on those issues.  He should be hitting McCain every day to try to force the focus back on McCain. 

Hit him on being in Washington for 26 years, his links to George W.  Bush, the lobbyists and special interests that hang on him like sweater lint.  They‘re everywhere in his campaign.  Hit him on his lack of understanding of his own policy issues.  You can hit somebody very hard without hitting below the belt, without going personal, without going unnecessarily nasty or divisive.  You just hit them on policy over and over and over again in the effort to turn this ship around, to get people talking about John McCain. 

GREGORY:  Pat, you have watched so many of these campaigns unfold.  Do you think that either Obama or McCain are doing a particularly good job at message discipline?  I think about covering Bush in 2000 and 2004, where that was certainly one of his strengths. 

BUCHANAN:  No, I don‘t think either are doing a good job.  What the McCain folks did last week was this: they decided that the issue is Obama.  You have an unprepared, untested, risky, radical character here.  They are determined to keep that the issue.  They used these very clever little visuals, Britney and Paris Hilton, Moses and Charlton Heston, to keep the focus there.  The thing they got was Barack to react and respond to that.  Basically, the kind of rage he exhibited and everything, they got his goat.  The whole issue we were all talking about last week is Barack Obama.  What is the story with this guy?  So I think—

GREGORY:  It was the issue of whether he is arrogant.  It was the question of arrogance that really came through and put him on the defensive. 

ROBINSON:  Yes.  That‘s—you know, where did that question come from?  As I noted before, I‘ve not met too many presidential candidates, especially US senators, who had itty bitty, tiny egos, who lacked self-confidence or self-esteem.  Look, I think the McCain campaign has done a good job, as Pat said, of making the focus of the campaign right now Barack Obama, his personality, his readiness.  I think that what Obama has to do is turn it back on McCain. 

If they are going to use Moses, maybe he should use Mathousola (ph) or something like that, but find a way to focus it back on McCain. 

GREGORY:  John, hold hat that thought.  I want to mention you right now.  Obama faced these kind of attacks before, as our own John Harwood points out on his “New York Times” Caucus blog.  McCain‘s attacks are straight out of Hillary Clinton‘s play book.  This is how John Reports it, “Mr. Obama has watched Senator John McCain Pick up central strands of Mrs.  Clinton‘s approach and amplified them.  Two months after it began, round two has yielded a similar result as in the Democratic primaries, Mr. Obama retained a lead in public opinion polls, but the lead hasn‘t been very big.  McCain advisers paid close attention to the strong finish of a Clinton primary campaign that fell just short of defeating Mr. Obama.  The most important thing we learned is this, Hillary Clinton won eight of the last 13 primaries, said Steve Schmidt, Mr. McCain‘s top strategist.  He is beatable.”

Second question, has team Obama proven they can play defense, John? 

HARWOOD:  I think the question for the Obama campaign is partly defense, but partly, as Rachel just said, turning it back on John McCain and creating a different narrative and a referendum in this campaign.  I do have to disagree with Pat about one thing.  He was talking about rage of Obama at the Paris Hilton ad.  I didn‘t see the rage in that clip and I don‘t think he accused him of racism for the Paris Hilton ad, and why would he?  Unless, Pat, you‘ve got some news about Paris Hilton being black or something like that.   

BUCHANAN:  The whole idea was he said—you know, he brought up the face on the dollar bill.  That‘s what they are doing.  There‘s a hidden charge there that you guys are playing the race card and I‘m going to give it to you hard.  They came back and smacked him across the head and he backed down on this one, John. 

ROBINSON:  They‘re the ones who showed the rage.

GREGORY:  Let me get Rachel in on this, because on this question, the issue of whether Obama is effectively playing defense, we did see this before, as Harwood reports, Rachel, at the end of the primaries.  Was there a vulnerability for Obama that he coasts a little bit, that he‘s up, he‘s swept up in his own success and then he loses a little bit of that edge?  That‘s what the McCain campaign is trying to bore in on now. 

MADDOW:  I think that‘s right.  I think what is is that I think Obama is a policy wonk.  I think he gets really excited about talking about specific policy stuff, more than he likes doing the political slug it out.  That means, when he‘s ahead, when he sees himself as being ahead, he sort of goes into policy land and stops punching him down at people who might be challenging him.  The best defense here I think would be a good offense.  We‘re not seeing a strong offense from him, and that‘s what he‘ll need. 

GREGORY:  I think his strongest suit has been not just policy, but the ability to put this kind of narrative frame around himself, in terms of what he represents to voters and represents to today‘s politics.  If he has to start defending who he is, what he stands for, whether he‘s a gift, that becomes a problem for him.  

BUCHANAN:  David, they are shredding that thing.  I tend to agree with folks here.  Look, if I were him and his guys, they have to sit down and say, forget the new politics, we are going to have to take this old, mean guy down and demonstrate exactly what he is, what his record was, what he did, and go after him.  Barack Obama can do that, as we have seen from a high level, but very tough.  He can‘t run around talking about he‘s above the battle. 

GREGORY:  All right, so here‘s the final question then in three questions, which is do you look at what‘s happened over the past several weeks, since Obama got the nomination, some sea sawing back and forth.  But has McCain effectively leveled the playing field, Gene Robinson?  Is this a race that‘s a lot more even than we have been talking about over the past couple of weeks? 

ROBINSON:  It‘s hard to tell, because what‘s been happening, if you really look at it since the end of the contest basically, McCain gained some ground, and then he tends to lose it a bit.  Then he gains some more ground.  I think you have to say—a few weeks ago, you would have said—you wouldn‘t have said Obama has it locked up, but you would have said he‘s well ahead.  I think the McCain campaign certainly feels that it‘s more in the game.  There are still all these structural issue that face the McCain campaign about Republicans and Democrats this year that weigh against him. 

GREGORY:  Yet, we‘ve got to go to break here.  But if you look at the past several weeks, McCain on energy and drilling, weathering the storm of Obama‘s trip and then going on the offensive, he‘s kept it tight, at least for now.  We‘re going to come back, play date with the panel coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now in our final minutes, your play date with the panel.  Still with us, the panel tonight, Pat, John, Gene and Rachel.  We didn‘t get a chance to really get into Bill Clinton a little bit further.  He was interviewed on ABC News, talking about his conduct in the campaign, was he a help or a hindrance to his wife, Hillary Clinton.  He maintains he helped her enormously, particularly where he campaigned.  The question about Barack Obama and his readiness came up as well. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Do you have any regrets about what you did campaigning for your wife? 

CLINTON:  Yes, but nothing what you‘re saying.  It would be counter-productive for me to talk about it.  There are things I wish I had urged her to do, things I wish I hadn‘t said, things I wish I hadn‘t said.  But I am not a racist.  I never made a racist comment and I didn‘t attack him personally. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting, Pat Buchanan.  He was asked, as well, about Jim Clyburn, Congressman Clyburn of South Carolina.  He made it very clear that they are not friends any longer and that he disagreed with him, that he was not a supporter, Clyburn was not a supporter, as we know, of Hillary Clinton, even though he was neutral for so long.  When Clyburn said, about Bill Clinton, that he did enormous damage with his standing in the African-American community, he said yes, that may be the case after Clyburn was done with me and doing the work that he did on me.  Still pretty sore about that, it seems. 

BUCHANAN:  I think he‘s more than sore.  This is a president of the United States who is deeply wounded.  Frankly, this is not the old Bill Clinton, if you will.  He brought that right up.  It‘s quite clear that this weighs very heavily on his mind, that folks he thought liked him and the enormous respect he had may be gone.  I think he feels it‘s not his fault and he thinks they think he‘s a racist. 

As I said, I think the man feels very wounded by it.  That was a very that was sort of a touching moment, frankly. 

HARWOOD:  Let‘s be clear, David.  Bill Clinton is not a racist.  He got on the wrong side of some rhetoric.  I think you could convict Bill Clinton of being somewhat dismissive of Barack Obama, but I do not think he was trying to play the race card against Barack Obama. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask this question about Geraldine Ferraro.  She was asked by Politico about Hillary Clinton‘s chances for VP and she said again today—we‘ll put up her quote, “Obama should be gracious enough to offer Clinton the vice presidency, considering how narrow the race was.  If he picked Claire McCaskill or Janet Napolitano from Arizona, Sebelius from Kansas, I think it would annoy women.”

Rachel, it just seems to me that it may be case closed within the Obama campaign.  For rank and file Democrats, particularly women, this is not a case closed on whether Hillary Clinton should be on this ticket. 

MADDOW:  I have just never understood that there‘s a particular type of feminism that would only feel rewarded by Hillary Clinton being on the ticket, that no other woman would be seen as a feminist achievement or an achievement for equal.  I just don‘t feel it.  I have enormous respect for Geraldine Ferraro, but so much of her political analysis in this campaign has just been inexplicable to me.  I don‘t get that from people I know, even members of my family who are Hillary Clinton supporters.  I don‘t get that from anybody who I know in my professional life is a Hillary Clinton supporters.

I just don‘t feel that at all.  She may be observing it differently, but I don‘t understand it. 

BUCHANAN:  It would be inexplicable if Hillary Rodham Clinton were passed over for Miss Kathleen Sebelius or any other woman.  It would be deliberate snub of a woman who got 18 million votes, the most accomplished and famous woman in the world.  I still think, and I think my colleague here, Gene, might agree with me slightly, that Hillary Clinton may still be the best bet for Barack Obama, if he wants some excitement and if he wants to unite that party and get some energy back into this campaign. 

MADDOW:  Why is every woman‘s success at the expense of Hillary Clinton?  Why is Hillary Clinton‘s success at the expense of every other woman?  Why does she take every other woman out of the running? 

BUCHANAN:  I‘m saying, the only way you take another woman is you deliberately pass over the obvious woman choice, who basically beat you in eight of the last 13 states, and almost took the nomination from you.  Why did you pass her over?  Why did you snub that woman?

MADDOW:  Because all women aren‘t the same?  That‘s why. 

GREGORY:  We‘re going to leave it there.  That does it for THE RACE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Thanks to the great panel tonight.  Thank you for watching.  We‘ll see you back here tomorrow night and they‘ll still be going at it, same time, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, only on MSNBC.  Stay right where you are; “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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