updated 8/5/2008 12:31:33 PM ET 2008-08-05T16:31:33

Guest: Mike Barnicle, Andrea Mitchell, Roger Simon, Jim Warren, Susan Page, Mike Paul, Del Walters, John Heilemann, Michelle Bernard, Maria Teresa Petersen

MIKE BARNICLE, GUEST HOST:  Turnabout is fair play.  Obama goes on the attack.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Mike Barnicle, filling in for Chris Matthews.  Leading off tonight, fighting back.  Last week, it was John McCain who was on the attack, criticizing Barack Obama‘s energy policy and charging him with playing the race card.  And it seemed to pay off in the polls.  Today, Obama counterpunched, and hard, going after McCain for his record on energy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  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)

BARNICLE:  Obama also hit McCain with a new ad tying him to President Bush.  Has Obama found the message that was eluding him last week?

Also, will somebody please name that vice president?  With just three weeks to go to the conventions, who are the leading candidates to be the vice presidential running mates?  When will the choices be made?  We‘ll rank the top contenders in the HARDBALL “Power Rankings.”

And do you see subliminal images in McCain‘s now infamous ad using Britney and Paris?  Is this a racist ad, sexist or sexually provocative?  That debate on this controversial ad keeps growing, and we‘ll do a reality check later.  Whatever is in that ad, Paris Hilton‘s mother sure didn‘t like it, and she‘s a contributor to John McCain.  Check out her reaction in the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

And Bill Clinton speaks out on charges that he played the race card during the Democratic primaries.  That and more in tonight‘s “Politics Fix.”

But we begin with Barack Obama on the attack.  Joining us, NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell and “The Politico‘s” Roger Simon.  Andrea, Roger, earlier today in Lansing, Michigan, Barack Obama took the gloves off, so to speak.  Let me set this up this way.  It appears from polling data, and from anecdotal evidence, that Barack Obama had a tough week last week.  Whenever the issue is raised, there seems to be a consensus that Obama loses on that issue.  So he spent all last week talking about race off of the ad, the McCain ad, threw him off of his message.  Today he‘s back on, trying to retain a message, attacking John McCain.

So my question is—we‘ll get to the specifics of the attack, but Roger, you first.  Do you think Barack Obama‘s personality is geared to be on the attack?

ROGER SIMON, POLITICO.COM:  I don‘t think it is, and I think we saw that in the debates.  I don‘t think he actually likes attacks.  He can tend to be an intellectual or even cerebral figure if left alone, and the campaign is not going to leave him alone.  But I think he has also learned the lesson that unless you respond—in a 24/7 media world that grades each week on who won and who lost and now is grading each day on who won and who lost, you‘ve got to respond.

But I also think there‘s been a strategic turnaround in the Obama campaign on quick fixes about energy.  During the campaign, he opposed a quick fix on a gas tax holiday, and his polling showed Americans bought into that.  They didn‘t believe it a meaningless quick fix.  Now, in the midst of the summer driving season, with Americans paying $70, $80 to fill up their gas tanks, I think Obama would like to propose a meaningless quick fix or two, if it‘ll get him a few votes.

BARNICLE:  You know, Andrea, the whole issue of oil drilling, off-shore oil drilling, no matter the merits of it, whether it helps in five years, ten years or that it helps tomorrow afternoon, at least the people I know, they seem enormously in favor of it—Drill in my backyard, if it‘s going to help reduce energy costs.  And do you think that this has hurt Obama, this inference that he is against off-shore oil drilling?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  I think the McCain people certainly felt that that was the one issue where they really could go after him.  And you saw his shift.  They will deny that it‘s a shift, but he said that he was open to compromises.  You even saw, you know, up in Massachusetts, John Kerry from Massachusetts on “Meet the Press,” softening a bit on nuclear power.

There is a shift on a lot of these energy issues, where the environmentalists, the conservationists are no longer as rigidly against some of the things that we‘ve long been talking about because there is an acknowledgement that America has to do something to become more independent and that the prices right now are really hurting the very voters that both sides need, hurting the American people.

Look, I think that Barack Obama—the one quick fix that he can‘t shift on will be in Indiana, with Evan Bayh, who campaigned with Hillary Clinton for that gas tax holiday, and Barack Obama was notably against during the Indiana primary—he cannot switch on that and that is the one, you know, easy sort of gimmicky thing...

BARNICLE:  Yes.

MITCHELL:  ... that he will not be able to shift on.  But they will be there together on Wednesday and doing an energy forum together.  And a second event will probably be put up, as well.  I don‘t think that this is the vice presidential moment.  All indications are that it is not, but he‘ll be at Elkhart, Indiana, talking about energy.

BARNICLE:  All day long, I guess, in Indiana on Wednesday.

MITCHELL:  Yes.

BARNICLE:  Speaking of that, what you just brought up, though, Andrea, here is Barack Obama explaining his recent decision to support some form of off-shore oil drilling.  Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Now, like all compromises, this one has its drawbacks.  It does include a limited amount of new off-shore drilling.  And while I still don‘t believe that‘s a particularly meaningful short-term or long-term solution, what I said is I‘m willing to consider it if it‘s necessary to actually pass a comprehensive plan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  So Roger, what does this do to the hard left of the Democratic Party, people whose views are set in stone?  It might appear to them that this is another issue in which Obama has flip-flopped.  He flip-flopped on the FISA vote, the national security vote.  It seems he flip-flopped a bit on the DC gun Bill.  I mean, that‘s going to be the charge, I would think, from the far left of his party.  Does this hurt him?

SIMON:  Some greens are not going to like it.  But Obama‘s pathway to victory is to do in a general election campaign what he did spectacularly in Iowa, which is expand the voting universe, include people who have never voted before, including young people, including some independents who have given up on politics, including some Republicans who are distressed with what their party brand has become.

So I think Obama is willing to take positions which will offend some groups that have rigidly supported rigid positions in the past.  But as long as he can expand and reach to new groups, he‘s going to go for it.  Off-shore oil drilling has never been popular in the Democratic Party, but I think the Obama campaign has seen that he‘s got to reduce the pain at the pump, at least to get him through the summer driving season.

MITCHELL:  And you know, there‘s a second thing, Mike, because he also shifted on the strategic petroleum reserve...

BARNICLE:  Yes.

MITCHELL:  ... talking about swaps, and he‘s not talking about a net loss in the reserve, but he is talking about losing sweet, light crude, which is the very highly favorable crude that can be more easily refined, swapping it, letting the oil companies put in heavy crude, which is harder to refine and has more limited uses.  So that is a different position than he took on July 7, when he was categorically against it.  It‘s not different from something that Bill Clinton did in 2000.  That was also an election year, and the Clinton White House was also accused by some of doing it for political reasons to help Al Gore.

BARNICLE:  Hey, Andrea and Roger, take a look at Barack Obama‘s latest ad, which sort of begins to hit back at John McCain.  And I have a question for you after this ad, again about his personality.  Here‘s the ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Every time you fill your tank, the oil companies fill their pockets.  Now big oil‘s 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 tax breaks.  After one president in the pocket of big oil, we can‘t afford another.  Barack Obama—a windfall profits tax on big oil to give families $1,000 rebate, a president who will stand up for you.

OBAMA:  I‘m Barack Obama, and I approved this message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  So Andrea, obviously, the ad tries to link George Bush and John McCain together, handcuff them together.  But you keep hearing from some political professionals in the Democratic Party, people we all know, that all three of us know, who are beginning to complain that Barack Obama doesn‘t hit back hard enough, that when he puts on the gloves or takes the gloves off, there‘s mittens underneath.

(LAUGHTER)

MITCHELL:  Well, you know...

BARNICLE:  So what do you think?

MITCHELL:  Well, this is at least an issue ad.  This is not a character ad or, you know, personality.  It doesn‘t bring in some extraneous celebrity, dare I use that word, figures.  But you know, it could be that, especially given his call for a new paradigm, a new kind of politics, that he doesn‘t like hitting back.  This is a tough ad, but it‘s within...

BARNICLE:  Yes.

MITCHELL:  ... the sort of appropriate realm of political combat.  By the way, I have maybe a counterintuitive view that John McCain also doesn‘t like this kind of politics, went along with his new, tougher political advisers, and I think on some of his responses such as saying last week, personally saying that he thought that Barack Obama had retracted some of his previous comments—I think he‘s inside a bubble and is not aware that Barack Obama never did say that and he‘s being told by his advisers, you know, He did this, he did that, Obama did this.  I think he‘s been ginned up a little bit.

BARNICLE:  I agree with you.

MITCHELL:  I think all of these candidates are being handled a bit too much.  You know, they‘re traveling.  They‘re giving speeches.  They don‘t see what we all see who are fixated on this stuff.  They don‘t know.

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  I absolutely agree with you.  Do you agree with that, Roger?

SIMON:  I do.  For a guy who‘s supposed to have such a famous temper, McCain really doesn‘t like attacking.  I think Andrea is exactly right about that.  Which is why I think he is often uncomfortable with his own campaign.  The Britney and Paris ad I think will go down in history as one of the most visually incoherent ads ever shown on TV.  At the end of it, it just made John McCain, in my opinion, look like a grumpy old man.

BARNICLE:  Well, it also—it also, I would think, gets to his—something that he‘s very proud of, has been very proud of, and it‘s clear in talking to him over the years—his sense of honor.  And I think an ad like that offended, or would offend, if he paid attention to it, his sense of honor.  Do you agree with that, Andrea?

SIMON:  I do, but I think that he may have been misled about what Obama did or did not say, about how he may have been mischaracterized from the House caucus meeting that he attended.  You know, there‘s a lot of anecdotal stuff out there, and in this Internet age and with the blogosphere, things are just ricocheting around.  And I think he just—as a candidate, there‘s no way that he could be tracking all of this himself.

SIMON:  Also, there was the whole thing about Obama canceling his visit to wounded troops in Germany...

MITCHELL:  Right.

SIMON:  ... which the McCain campaign and John McCain personally just got pounded on by the media.  I mean, very respectable down-the-line reporters said, This is a lie.  This never happened.  So I‘m not so sure McCain won last week.  I think he had two incidents that really, personally, he‘s probably not very proud of.

MITCHELL:  Well, if I could just...

BARNICLE:  Why did Obama‘s...

SIMON:  ... mention...

BARNICLE:  Why did Obama‘s numbers go down, then?

MITCHELL:  Well, that was the Gallup tracking poll, and I think, you know, without jumping too much to conclusions, I don‘t think these polls are all that relevant now because we‘re very early in the season.  We‘re not looking at state polls.  You know, this is a national tracking poll that did show a 9-point difference over the week.  I don‘t know if it‘s directly related.

But I was one of those reporters who was there and reported affirmatively that there was no plan to take the press.  But I can tell you, knowing John McCain, he would be very offended, and justifiably so, if his advisers said to him, you know, he was going to take the press and then he canceled it because he couldn‘t take this entourage.  He would have been offended by that, but it didn‘t happen...

BARNICLE:  Hey, Andrea...

MITCHELL:  ... and he was misled, if that‘s what he was told.

BARNICLE:  Andrea and Roger, too, quickly, you know, 50 years ago, the charges being hurled around that would hurt any candidate was, you know, “communist sympathizer.”  There‘s another “C” word out there today, celebrity.  I mean...

MITCHELL:  Celebrity!

BARNICLE:  What is going on with this?

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  He‘s a celebrity!  He‘s a celebrity!

SIMON:  I think that‘s just a bad line of attack.  This is a celebrity-driven culture.  Turn on the TV.  Turn on this network or any other network on TV, what you see is celebrities.  I don‘t think people are offended that celebrities like Barack Obama.

MITCHELL:  Well, I would just say that if they can succeed in categorizing him, in painting him as someone who is a lightweight, quote, unquote, who doesn‘t have substance, who is young, inexperienced, is part of pop culture but not a serious leader, then they have accomplished something.  That‘s certainly what was done not only with the Swiftboating but with the image of the flip-flopping, the wind surfing advertisement showing John Kerry in that unfortunate set of swim trunks.

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  Andrea Mitchell, Roger Simon, as always, thanks very much.

Coming up: How close are Obama and McCain to picking their running mates?  We‘ll get the “Power Rankings” of the top contenders on both sides, plus the latest scoop on when the decisions could come.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back.  It‘s time again for the HARDBALL “Power Rankings.”  Tonight we rank the top three possibilities for the vice presidential slot on both tickets.  Joining us to rank them, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for “USA Today,” and Jim Warren, still the managing editor of “The Chicago Tribune.”

We flipped a coin at mid-field, Susan and Jim, and we‘re going to start with the Republicans.  And we‘re going to start with former congressman Rob Portman, a man known only to his immediate family.  But you dissect his chances, starting with you, Susan, for the number two slot on the GOP ticket.  What do you think?  What does he bring?

SUSAN PAGE, “USA TODAY”:  You know, I think he‘s got a chance.  He brings some economic credentials.  He‘s been the head of the Office of Management and Budget.  He‘s been special trade rep.  He‘s been a congressman for Ohio.  If he could guarantee that John McCain would carry Ohio, a state he has to carry if he‘s going to win, then that would make the case, I think, that Rob Portman makes some sense.

BARNICLE:  Jim Warren?

JIM WARREN, “CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  Boring!

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN:  Well, if he can get to Ohio, maybe.  I‘d agree with Susan there.  On this one, I‘d suggest people take a look at my childhood chum, Billy Crystal‘s, column in “The New York Times” this morning.  Billy is nothing if not absolutely wired to the McCain camp, and to Rick Davis, the manager.  So he cited—he cited Pawlenty and Portman as in a class of potential guys in the “do no harm” category and says the folks in the McCain camp are saying, If you just want to make it, make sure it‘s head to head, McCain and Obama.  Make sure that the vice presidential pick is not much of a distraction.  Take somebody like Portman, who‘s got good, solid credentials, but you know, is not necessarily going to win you or lose you many votes—the safe, safe, safe route.

BARNICLE:  Jim, as long as we‘re out there in Chicago, stick with Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota, hockey player.  I like hockey players.  A lot of people like hockey players.  What does he bring?

WARREN:  Again, very similar to Portman—young, pretty popular, conservative, not too, too conservative, but can be someone that the base is happy with, you know, probably a very, very good campaigner, but again, somebody who can probably rest assured is not going to be a distraction.  And as much as anything, you just don‘t want somebody who‘s a pain in the neck and going to have too much of a spotlight on him or her.

BARNICLE:  You buy that, Susan?

PAGE:  I think he‘s bigger risk than Rob Portman, frankly.  He‘s not played at this level.  I mean, Rob Portman at least has played the Democrats in the vice presidential mock debates that Dick Cheney had in 2000 and 2004.  Tim Pawlenty has run for governor, been elected and reelected governor in Minnesota, but I think a bigger risk, and he doesn‘t bring you those economic credentials that Rob Portman brings you.  So if you‘re going to go with the “do no harm approach,” I would say that he‘s got less of a shot than Rob Portman does.

BARNICLE:  All right, Susan, HARDBALL‘s number-one choice on the GOP side—it‘s like the Red Sox and the Yankees in the spring, but, right now, it‘s Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  What does he bring to the ticket that could help Romney—that could help John McCain? 

PAGE:  I think he is—I think he is the number-one pick.  I think he is the person most likely to be picked by John McCain.  He has been tested.  He has gone through these primaries.  He did pretty well in the debates.  He is willing to go on the attack.  That‘s something that—that might be helpful. 

You know, he also—his Mormonism, which was something of a problem for him when he ran for president, could help in a couple key Western states like Nevada and Colorado, which have a lot of Mormons and which may be in play this year. 

BARNICLE:  Hey, Jim, listen to what Mitt Romney said on “MORNING JOE” this morning when asked about the possibility of being John McCain‘s running mate.   

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MORNING JOE”)

MITT ROMNEY ®, FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR:  I expect to be campaigning for the ticket.  I do not expect to be a member of the ticket.  John McCain has a lot of people to choose from.  And I wish him well in that choice.  He has got—got a tough decision ahead.

It comes down to John McCain and him being able to make sure that people know he will get America energy independent.  Barack Obama won‘t.  He will drill for more oil.  Barack Obama won‘t.  He will be successful in Iraq and bring our troops home in victory.  Barack Obama won‘t.  It‘s a very stark contrast.  I think that‘s why he wins in the final analysis. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Jim Warren, even though I resent his head of hair, what do you think? 

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN:  Even though I resent you being a Sox fan—I‘m a Yankees fan Mike...

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN:  ... I would argue that you go with him to reinforce the whole business of Obama‘s alleged inexperience.

Here, you have a guy who has played in the majors for quite a long time.  He has got the business background.  I think he is very attractive to a lot of folks.  And if, in fact, McCain gets along a lot better with him than he apparently did five or six months ago—and you cannot underestimate that element—then I think, of the three you have mentioned, by far the strongest. 

BARNICLE:  All right, Jim Warren, we are sticking with you out there in Chicago and we‘re going next door to your next-door neighbor, Indiana, the number three choice in the Democratic side of the ball, Senator Evan Bayh, what do you think?  You said boring about Rob Portman. 

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN:  Well...

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN:  Yes, yes, you know, I was—I was—if you believe—can you believe it?  I have been on the board of National Cathedral in Washington.  I was at a dinner in the National Cathedral and sat between Bayh and Susan Bayh, his California-bred wife. 

Pick her.  She‘s the one.  Now, there is some personality.  But the notion there would be that, as opposed to somebody like Tim Kaine, you might actually have a guy who could bring you an important state, who is, you know, very strong, very bright fellow. 

It‘s interesting, though.  I was talking to a friend today, who is a very good mutual friend of myself and President Clinton, and a big Bayh fan, who was pushing Bayh on Clinton long ago, and now thinks Bayh is a little bit predictable.  But he underscored something very significant about this process and how difficult to predict. 

He said he swears he was the last guy left in the Clinton camp beseeching Bill Clinton not to pick Al Gore, because they were simply too similar.  And, lo and behold, Clinton went with Gore.  Clinton was right.  My buddy was wrong. 

BARNICLE:  Hey, Susan, give me a little brief on Bayh from your perspective.  And then go a few miles south from where you are right now, and take a look at Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, our number two HARDBALL choice for the Democratic slot.  What do you think? 

PAGE:  You know, the good thing about Evan Bayh for Barack Obama‘s perspective is that he is both an insider and an outsider.  He is a two-term senator, so he has spent some time in Washington.  He has been on the Armed Services Committee, served on the Intelligence Committee, but he also has those eight years he was governor of Indiana.  So, he doesn‘t seem like such a Washington insider. 

I think—I think Evan Bayh is definitely a possible pick, maybe the conventional wisdom pick today.  Don‘t know who that will be tomorrow. 

You know, you get—go to Tim Kaine in Virginia, who was the conventional wisdom pick last week, I think he is a bigger risk.  You know, once again, he is the one-term governor of Virginia.  He did serve as lieutenant governor before that.  But he hasn‘t played in these leagues.  It is hard to run for president. 

BARNICLE:  Yes. 

PAGE:  It is hard to go to those debates. 

WARREN:  And, Susan...

PAGE:  And, you know, some experience helps you out there. 

BARNICLE:  Go ahead, Jim.

WARREN:  And, Susan, don‘t forget—Susan and Mike, don‘t forget that who Evan Bayh supported in the primaries.  It‘s underscoring the grotesquely obvious, but it was Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

So, maybe, just maybe, you throw a bone to the Clinton folks by saying, hey, look, he was in her camp, and we like him. 

BARNICLE:  All right, Jim, we‘re going to stick with you winding up here.

Our number-one choice, HARDBALL‘s number-one choice for Obama‘s vice presidential slot, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. 

Jim Warren, what do you think? 

WARREN:  Oh, on this one, I‘m not sure.  I‘m not sure.  I mean, if you want someone you can be pretty sure you could control, who won‘t make a bunch of mistakes, I‘m not sure that somebody as garrulous as Joe Biden is the way to go. 

The case you would make is that he is really bright.  He is very, very strong in the areas where you don‘t have a whole lot of experience, particularly foreign affairs.  But he is also the quintessential insider.  He has been in the Senate, right, since he has been about 8 or 9 years old. 

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN:  And, so, I‘m not sure you can make the case for change, change, change with somebody who has spent almost his entire life riding Amtrak from Wilmington to Union Station in D.C.    

BARNICLE:  Never lived in Washington though, Susan.

PAGE:  Yes. 

BARNICLE:  Catholic, helps out in Pennsylvania, regular guy, appeal to blue-collar voters, huh?

PAGE:  Born in Scranton.  Let‘s not forget that.  Catholic, can help in all those blue-collar states and blue-collar voters in the industrial Rust Belt. 

But I—but I agree that he has been in Washington a long time.  He came—was inaugurated into the U.S. Senate in 1973...

BARNICLE:  Yes. 

PAGE:  ... which is before some of the people who will be voting this year were born. 

(LAUGHTER)

PAGE:  I think that is a long time to be a Washington insider.  Maybe he should be secretary of state in the Obama Cabinet, as opposed to vice president.  Then you get the benefit of his experience and his wisdom on foreign policy, without having some of that baggage from being in Washington so long. 

BARNICLE:  OK.  Last question.  How annoying is it that they play this out on both sides, John McCain and Barack Obama?  I mean, just let‘s—let us know who it is. 

Susan, what do you think? 

PAGE:  It is 100 percent annoying. 

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  Jim, are you annoyed? 

WARREN:  No, no, no.  Come on.  This is like the hot stove league.  And, you know, last year, should you have dealt Manny, the Red Sox, or something like that? 

No.  This is absolutely great.  And I think there‘s an undercurrent of deadly serious political tactics and calculation here.

BARNICLE:  Yes. 

WARREN:  And everybody we have mentioned, a case can be made, and a case can be made against.  So, this is big-time stuff, and a big, big decision, as much as we may josh about it. 

BARNICLE:  Jim Warren, suspicious, thanks very much, as always.  We appreciate it. 

Up next, Paris Hilton‘s mom had some choice words for John McCain, after her daughter turned up in a McCain campaign ad.  The “Sideshow” is next. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Time now for the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

Here is Jay Leno on the other women in the running for the Democratic vice presidential nominee. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”)

JAY LENO, HOST, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”:  It‘s been mentioned that Barack Obama may still pick a woman for vice president, but not Hillary Clinton.  Yes, I don‘t know. 

Well, today, a top Hillary Clinton supporter named Lanny Davis said it was inconceivable to her that Obama would pick another woman over Hillary, to which Bill said, it‘s not that inconceivable. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  That‘s right.  Bill and Hillary may be out of the race, but they will always have their place on late-night shows. 

Next,  Kathy Hilton has got some fighting words for John McCain.  The mother of socialite Paris Hilton maxed out donating to McCain this election, only to have the campaign publicly ridicule her daughter as an empty-headed celebrity in her latest ad.

Well, this weekend, Kathy Hilton hit back with a blog on “The Huffington Post,” calling the ad—quote—“a complete waste of the money John McCain‘s contributors have donated to his campaign.  And it is a completely frivolous way to choose the next president of the United States.” 

Yikes.  You know you are off-message when the mother of Paris Hilton is calling your ad frivolous. 

Now presidential candidates have to be prepared to answer questions on any topic, any time.

Case in point, this exchange between Barack Obama and a local reporter in Iowa last week. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION:  If you are elected and you learned that the government knew aliens had visited Earth and the public didn‘t know, would you want the public, would you assure the public found out? 

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, it depends on what these aliens were like, and whether they were Democrats or Republicans. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Odds are, that reporter was an alien.  Time now for tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton may insist there is no bad blood between them, but this is probably one case where actions speak louder than words. 

According to “The Washington Post,” how many times have these two Democratic powerhouses spoken since the end of the primaries?  One time.  Uno.  That‘s right.  In the midst of this critical election, these two Democratic heavyweights, Bill and Barack, have not talked since that long phone call back in June, no advice, no plans for campaigning, nothing since that one call—tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Up next:  The debate is brewing over whether there‘s a racial undercurrent in some of the ads that the McCain campaign and the Republican Party have been running against Barack Obama.  We will hear both sides in that fight next. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELISSA LEE, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Melissa Lee with your CNBC “Market Wrap.” 

Stocks taking a roller-coaster ride before finishing lower.  The Dow Jones industrials fell 42 points.  The S&P 500 lost 11, and the Nasdaq was down 25 points.  This all comes ahead of tomorrow‘s Fed meeting on interest rates—policy-makers widely expected to leave rates unchanged. 

Oil prices closing out their lowest levels in nearly three months, crude falling $3.69, to $121.41 a barrel.  That‘s a 3 percent, decline that as it appeared unlikely Tropical Storm Edouard would disrupt oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of the Mexico.  Since hitting a record high above $147 three weeks ago, oil has now dropped almost 20 percent. 

And consumer spending fell in June, as shoppers were hit with the second biggest increase in prices in nearly three decades.  Meantime, personal income rose in June by just one-tenth-of-1-percent. 

That the latest from CNBC.  We are first in business worldwide—now back to HARDBALL. 

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

The McCain attack ad against Barack Obama featuring Britney Spears and Paris Hilton has come under a lot of criticism.  Some critics have compared it to the controversial ad targeting Harold Ford when he ran for Senate in Tennessee last year.  There is a striking similarity in these two ads.  Both feature young, sexy blonde women.  And both are targeting black politicians. 

Is this hardball politics, or do these ads feed into a disturbing racial stereotype? 

Joining us now, Mike Paul, public relations consultant and former adviser to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and “EbonyJet” columnist Del Walters. 

Gentlemen.  Let‘s start with you, Mike, because you‘re right here in front of me.  What did you see in that McCain ad, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton? 

What did you see? 

MIKE PAUL, PUBLIC RELATIONS CONSULTANT:  I certainly didn‘t see a comparison to the Harold Ford ad. 

I mean, one of the things I certainly saw was that it was talking about two celebrities who, quite frankly, aren‘t all there with a lot of substance in what they do, especially looking at Paris Hilton, being more famous just for being rich.

And the comparison, then, looking at this campaign, is to say, you know what?  There are at least some out there that think that Barack Obama is filled with rhetoric, because he doesn‘t have a lot of experience, hasn‘t really earned his stripes.  So, it‘s the earning of the stripes that I think that was a comparison, not anything to do with, you know, dating white women, for gosh sakes.  He‘s a happily married man. 

BARNICLE:  Del, it‘s all in the eye of the beholder. 

What did your eyes see?

DEL WALTERS, “EBONYJET”:  I think that‘s one of the most absurd things I have ever heard. 

I don‘t know how you can look at that campaign ad and say that it is not injecting race into this, because, think about it, if they really wanted to pay him as being an empty celebrity, or just a celebrity, period, why not use other celebrities?  Why not use Oprah Winfrey, who comes from the entertainment aisle, or Tiger Woods, who comes from the golf... 

(CROSSTALK)

PAUL:  The reason why they are not going to use Oprah Winfrey.... 

WALTERS:  Wait a minute.  I listened to you.  I listened to you while you answered.

PAUL:  Go ahead.

WALTERS:  Let me—let me—let me finish my thought. 

PAUL:  It‘s absurd.

WALTERS:  Why not use Tiger Woods? 

I mean, the bottom line is that they want to keep the public off-balance when it comes to the Obama campaign.  I think that they have to be very careful in this, that they are not irritating people who are losing their houses, who are losing their jobs by actually engaging in such a frivolous ad campaign, because what does that speak to of John McCain‘s character?  When the country has so many different problems, what type of leadership is it that launches a campaign like this? 

BARNICLE:  Well, let me ask...

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  Mike, hold on a second. 

Let me ask you both.  This morning, Bob Herbert “New York Times” op-ed columnist, he was on the “MORNING JOE” program. 

Listen to what he had to say about the ad.  Then I would ask both of you for your reaction. 

Here is Bob Herbert. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MORNING JOE”)

BOB HERBERT, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  Can you explain to me why there are two phallic symbols immediately in those first few seconds of that ad?  And I put it in the context of the ad that was run against Harold Ford in 2006?  And you explain to me why you have these scantily clad women, or women known to be constantly clad, women who have trouble keeping their clothes on, only in ads where the candidate is a black male, where the person being attacked is a black male.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Del, did you see any phallic symbols in the ad. 

WALTERS:  I didn‘t until I watched this morning on “MORNING JOE” and then I looked at them and I had to ask myself, as someone who has been in the business for that long, why were they there?  It‘s clear and it‘s obvious.  And one of the things that has to be pointed out is in subliminal advertising, they are always introduced only briefly.  They‘re not put there with a big sign underneath that says phallic symbol.  So you have to ask yourself, if that‘s not what they were, then what were they?  It would be nice to have somebody from John McCain‘s campaign really tell you what they were. 

BARNICLE:  I got to tell you, I‘m about an inch deep, and pretty shallow, but I didn‘t see it.  Did you see it?

PAUL:  I didn‘t see it.   

WALTERS:  I didn‘t see it at first, until Bob pointed it out. 

PAUL:  Let me go back to the reason why—you asked me a question before, and I think it needs to be answered, Del.  Why didn‘t he choose Tiger Woods or Oprah Winfrey?  The reason why he didn‘t Tiger Woods or Oprah Winfrey, it doesn‘t fit with the ad.  Those are very competent, entertainment oriented people.  And the opinion of the ad, the position that they were looking for—you had your turn so here hear me out now.  The positioning of that commercial was to say that these are two entertainers, celebrities, who are filled with rhetoric, who didn‘t have at lot of experience to back up them even being in their business.  And at that‘s hard hit.  This is HARDBALL.  And this is also hard politics. 

WALTERS:  Let‘s play HARDBALL then and let‘s answer this question.  They are attacking Barack Obama, saying that there‘s nothing to back up the rhetoric, but nobody is asking the same reciprocal question of John McCain.  In one corner, you have a man that draws 250,000 in Europe, 60,000 in Oregon.  In another campaign, you have a guy that can barely fill a high school gymnasium.  Yet, he is the one that is touting himself as a leader.  I would like to see both candidates get down to the real issues that are affecting the American public, i.e. high energy causes, the fact that they are losing their houses, and the fact that they are losing their jobs. 

The question that I ask is why was this ad placed right now and what does that speak to John McCain‘s leadership capabilities if this is the first ad he comes out with. 

PAUL:  I find that ironic that you want them to get back to the issues, because number one, that‘s what they have been talking about all this week.  But I find it ironic that you don‘t also mention that one of the things that happened recently is that Barack Obama also had at one of those larger gatherings, some from the left within the black community who said you are not talking about black issues enough?  So how do you answer that? 

WALTERS:  I think the way you answer it is if you are John McCain, the fact that we are talking about race right now is exactly what he wants.  If you are John Q. American public, what you want to hear is which one of these people can make it for affordable for me to be able to fill up my gas tank, hold on to my house or balance my checkbook.  And I think the first candidate that comes out and does exactly what they promised they would do --

Remember, on April 8th, John McCain said the American public deserved a campaign on the issues.  Paris Hilton and Britney Spears appearing in a campaign ad barely fits that criteria, even according to Paris Hilton‘s mom. 

BARNICLE:  Mike, do you agree with the premise, my premise, my belief that any time Barack Obama is talking about race in reaction to this ad or anything that‘s happened in the campaign, it‘s a loser for Barack Obama? 

PAUL:  It‘s absolutely a loser for Barack Obama.  One of the reasons why Del is so upset, quote frankly, and others are so upset is because they know that it works.  But here is something that‘s important: Del, I also think that we need to be talking about racial issues.  Barack talked about racial issues before.  When he framed it in his way, everyone thought it was terrific.  I think one of the things we need do is to find a difference between a racist and talking about difficult racial issues that we have in our country.  The more we have those conversations, the more we will be a better country overall.  Don‘t you agree? 

WALTERS:  I agree that and I think you should pose that question to John McCain.  And the other thing is I‘m never really that upset.  I think one of the things—there are two issues that are squarely in the center of the room.  One is the issue of race, which everybody has addressed with Barack Obama.  The other is the issue of age.  John McCain is 71 and that is the other side the issue of celebrity. 

But it‘s not a matter of celebrity.  It‘s a matter of leadership.  And leadership means that sometimes you have to draw large crowds in order to be able to get people to listen to what your message is.  And if John McCain can‘t do that, what does that speak to his leadership? 

BARNICLE:  Del Walters, Mike Paul, thanks very much.  We appreciate it.  We have some sad news to report this evening.  Columnist Bob Novak has announced he has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.  He is retiring from the “Chicago Sun Times” to focus on his treatment and recovery.  Bob Novak, despite your ideology, is a terrific guy, a good friends of ours.  We certainly wish him all the best. 

Up next, the politics fix.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and the world famous politics fix.  Tonight‘s round table, MSNBC political analyst Michelle Bernard, Maria Teresa Petersen of Voto Latino and John Heilemann of “New York Magazine.”

John, let‘s start with you.  Earlier today, a group of Republican Congressmen were walking aimlessly around the capital, I guess, like the losers that most Congressmen are on both sides of the aisle, speaking before the empty House floor.  But the issue is off-shore oil drilling, which seems to have gained in traction for John McCain against Barack Obama.  What‘s your sense of this issue and the fact that the Republicans are indicating that the Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi in the House, refuse even to vote on this issue? 

JOHN HEILEMANN, “NEW YORK MAGAZINE”:  Well, I think you are right, Mike.  This has definitely gained some traction for Republicans.  As you pointed out earlier in the show, there are a lot of people in America who are very much in favor of off-shore drilling.  You have seen a couple of people change their position on this over the course of this campaign.  One is John McCain and the other is Barack Obama. 

And I think when you see the Republicans attacking the Congress on this, you know, it‘s a time honored tactic.  It‘s very unpopular Congress.  The only thing held in lower esteem in the Congress are television pundits. 

I think they get some mileage out of this. 

I‘m interested in the fact that I do think the public is ahead of the politicians on this issue.  I do think that although they are in favor of offshore drilling by some margin, I also think they recognize that, as Obama has been arguing, this isn‘t a long term solution.  It needs to be seen in a larger context.  It needs to be part of a larger, long term solution.  In that sense, I think Obama is kind of closer to where the public really is than the Republicans are. 

BARNICLE:  Maria, let me ask you, off of what John just said—I mean, there‘s a faculty lounge aspect to this, in that Barack Obama and people who indicate that off-shore oil drilling won‘t do anything to reduce gas prices for a considerable period of time, there‘s a validity to that argument.  Yet, when you combine the emotional impact of off shore oil drilling in people‘s minds, along with the—earlier this spring, the idea of resending the gas tax for summer driving, something that probably wouldn‘t do anything about energy prices, but it does, I think, give John McCain an edge against Barack Obama in some people‘s minds, the fact that he‘s for doing something immediately and Barack Obama is talking about things way down the road.  Way down the road isn‘t tonight putting gas in the tank.  Do you agree?

MARIA TERESA PETERSEN, VOTO LATINO:  That‘s right.  You nailed it, Mike.  I think what happened is that the Republicans finally got something from the heavens and said, you know what, this resonates.  At the end of the day, they can go into their chambers and they can talk all they want.  But they also understand that politics is local.  They can go back in November and they actually have an issue, saying, we have been trying to fix this oil crisis.  It has to be local.  It has to be done right away.  Barack, he had an opportunity really to use this issue as his own.  But, instead, back in June, when he did provide—when he did say very flippantly that what McCain was providing, you know, that 30 dollar rebate in your gas tank wasn‘t enough.  That was his opportunity to own that issue.  He didn‘t provide real, concrete solutions. 

Because it‘s so far out, so far out, where we‘re talking about ten years to actually feel the pain—to feel the rewards, this is an opportunity for McCain really to own this and the Republicans get it.  That‘s why they are talking to themselves right now in a chamber. 

BARNICLE:  Michelle, earlier today, John McCain—no, Barack Obama was in Lansing, Michigan, talking about energy, gas costs, rebuilding the automobile industry.  I‘d like to play a clip for you, get your reaction to it.  Here‘s Barack Obama, earlier today in Lansing, Michigan. 

(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.  In all that time, he did little to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Michelle, pretty good rejoinder.

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  It‘s good rejoinder.  It‘s a cute sound bite.  Here‘s the difficulty for Senator Obama with that sound bite, Senator McCain used to be against off shore drilling, as was Senator Obama.  Senator McCain has changed his position.  I think it‘s the responsible position.  Most members of the American public are in favor of off shore drilling, whether it brings down gas prices now or some time in the future.  Senator McCain came out for off shore drilling long before Barack Obama did.  It‘s sort of difficult to say that you are the change candidate, particularly when his change came out following on the heels of Senator McCain, at least on this issue.  Good sound bite, but I think the American public will realize that we‘ve been hearing about off shore drilling from the McCain camp long before we heard about it from Senator Obama. 

BARNICLE:  John, forget the American public.  What about the outrage people on the west side of Manhattan.  You write for “New York Magazine.”  Are they going to think he‘s a flip-flopper on this, Obama I mean? 

HEILEMANN:  Look, there are obviously going to be some hard core greens who don‘t like this.  You can already see it out there on some of the left blogosphere that, you know, it‘s playing into this notion that he‘s sprinting pretty dramatically toward the center, yet again, which is an idea that‘s taken ahold over the last couple months.  Obama has moved to the center on a number of different issues.  I‘m not sure those people are ready to abandon Barack Obama any time soon, over this issue or any other. 

BARNICLE:  Boy, Barack Obama, can you imagine that, going to the center and he actually wants to win?  Horrors.  

We‘re going to be right back with the round table for more of the politics fix.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Back with the round table going right to automatic pilot. 

Bill Clinton defending how he campaigned for his wife in the primaries. 

Listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

BILL CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  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 did not attack him personally. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Heavy stuff.  John Heilemann, take it away. 

HEILEMANN:  Talking about answering an unasked question.  What‘s on the president‘s mind?  Look, his sense of aggrievement over the way in which he was portrayed in the Democratic primaries is profound, it‘s deep and it‘s directed largely at Barack Obama and his campaign.  It‘s one of the huge unresolved issues as we head into the fall, whether those two sides can make peace and whether we‘re going to see Bill Clinton out on the trail, really pushing for Barack in the fall. 

BARNICLE:  I agree with you.  Maria, what do you think? 

PETERSEN:  I think it‘s true.  I think what he did, unfortunately, that‘s—what he did was realized that I‘m not a racist, but he also wanted to touch a button on other folks that were.  That‘s the conversation that folks are struggling with.  Every time you inject race into the question, you actually have the candidates not talk ant about the issues that are so relevant to the American people.  I think there‘s a lot of ground work that needs to be done and a lot of fences that need to be mended. 

BARNICLE:  Michelle, 30 seconds for an answer. 

BERNARD:  The Democratic party used to be the party of Bill Clinton.  I think that Bill Clinton is very worried about what his legacy will be, particularly since he had been named the first African-American president, and African-Americans, by in large, turned on him after South Carolina.  That‘s what‘s on the president‘s mind. 

BARNICLE:  Boy, he cannot stop being compelling and interesting, no matter what he is doing or saying.  Michelle Bernard, Maria Teresa Petersen and John Heilemann, thanks very much.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now, it‘s time for “RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE” with David Gregory.

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

END   

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