updated 8/18/2008 11:27:14 AM ET 2008-08-18T15:27:14

Guests: Christina Brown, Michelle Bernard, Ken Vogel, David Kuo, Krissah Williams Thompson, Chris Kofinis, John Feehery, Lynn Sweet, Chris Cillizza

DAVID SHUSTER, GUEST HOST:  With the race so close and voter concerns growing about Russia, is Obama having second thoughts about his potential running mates?  And could Hillary Clinton get back into the mix?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, everybody.  I‘m David Shuster, in for Chris Matthews.  Leading off, Russia, Georgia and the Democrats.  For months, the Obama campaign feared that if his race with John McCain was tight by the conventions, the calls would ratchet up again for Obama to put Hillary Clinton on the ticket.  We‘ll take a closer look at the presidential race and the growing U.S. crisis with Russia.  Should Democrats be nervous about how it‘s playing with voters?  And how could that shape Obama‘s running mate choice?

Also, if you‘ve been watching the Olympics, you‘ve seen a lot of negative ads by John McCain and positive ones by Obama.  But if you live in a key Rust Belt state, where the election might be decided, you‘ve been seeing a lot of this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I don‘t believe we‘re headed into a recession.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Oh, I think we‘re absolutely in a recession.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I sometimes struggle just to get the essentials, you know, the milk, the bread, the eggs.

MCCAIN:  There‘s been great progress economically.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The economy‘s in a rut.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Why is the Obama campaign keeping mum about those tough ads?

Later: Are we about to hear more about teenage Obama‘s drug use and the circumstances of John McCain‘s divorce?  Pastor Rick Warren says he will ask both candidates tomorrow at that forum in California about their personal life issues they‘ve had to battle.

In our “Politics Fix,” the battle continues today over that dishonest book attacking Barack Obama.  John McCain was asked about the book and did not condemn it.  We will show you McCain‘s response.

And what‘s John McCain‘s favor song of all time?  Here‘s a hint.  The song is by Abba.  Yes, Abba.  An when you hear it, you‘ll feel the beat of the tambourine.  Oh, yes!  Check that out on the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

And a reminder.  Tomorrow, MSNBC will have live coverage of Pastor Rick Warren‘s forum.  Coverage begins with HARDBALL at 5:00 o‘clock Eastern, followed by “RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE” at 6:00 and then another edition of HARDBALL at 7:00.  Then at 8:00, McCain and Obama, forum on the presidency.  It‘s the first time in this campaign that the two presidential candidates will appear at the same event, and they‘ll even share a moment together on the stage.  Please join MSNBC for full coverage beginning at 8:00 PM Eastern time.

But we begin with the growing fears in the U.S. of an even more serious confrontation with Russia.  Today, the Russian ceasefire in Georgia appeared to fall apart.  The Bush administration announced plans to send anti-missiles to Poland, and a top Russian general responded by saying that move would expose Poland to a Russian military attack.  A visibly angry President Bush today offered this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  By its actions in recent days, Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world.  Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Chris Kofinis is a Democratic strategist, and John Feehery is a Republican strategist.  Chris, let‘s start with you.  The story‘s been on the front page every day this week.  The fears with Russia are growing.  Doesn‘t that tend to help the status quo candidate in this case?  And how concerned should Barack Obama be?

CHRIS KOFINIS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  I don‘t think he needs to be too concerned right now.  I mean, this is clearly, I think, a serious issue.  It‘s a question of whether it bleeds down and starts becoming a focus for voters.  At least the polling that I‘ve seen publicly suggests it hasn‘t done that yet.  I think if it lasts a few more weeks, then it becomes more of a serious issue.  But I think the Obama campaign and Senator Obama have done a pretty good job addressing it and focusing on it while he‘s away.  But the reality is, I think, to what extent this becomes a key issue in the election is going to depend whether this crisis lasts for another few weeks.

SHUSTER:  But if Americans are concerned that we‘re headed towards another cold war, wouldn‘t they tend to go with somebody that—a familiar face, a politician who‘s been around the block, who certainly tends to know foreign policy, even if you disagree, as opposed to the change, younger, new candidate?

KOFINIS:  Well, I mean, if you look at, for example, in 1960, they went with the change, new candidate.  If you look at 1992, they went with the change, new candidate.  I think it‘s going to end up depending on both candidates and the visions they put forth in terms of national security and international affairs.  And I think that‘s where the onus is going to fall on the Obama campaign to make it very clear, you know, what their vision is for the world and what they‘re going to do if he was president and when he becomes president.  I think that‘s going to be, I think, a key question.  But in terms of to what extent this Georgia-Russia crisis bleeds (ph) into the electorate, I think it‘s just too early to tell.

SHUSTER:  John Feehery, I would bet that you think that John McCain‘s had a pretty good week since, essentially, he‘s had this issue all to himself for the past week.

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Absolutely.  I think it really hurt Barack Obama that he didn‘t cut off his vacation and come back and look presidential.  I don‘t think he looks very presidential playing golf, although some could argue maybe he does.  I think it really hurts Barack Obama with the stature gap.  He really needed to get back and look presidential, and he didn‘t do that.

I think John McCain had a very good week.  And I think when Barack Obama, if he doesn‘t select someone who has a healthy foreign policy experience for his vice presidential candidate, it‘s going to really hurt him in the general election.

SHUSTER:  Let‘s go to that point, that very point.  Does this force Barack Obama to move away from somebody like Evan Bayh or Tim Kaine, people who are not considered to have a lot of gravitas, and instead go to a Joe Biden or maybe even a Hillary Clinton?

KOFINIS:  I don‘t know if it forces, but I think it‘s clearly keeping the Obama campaign, I would guess, you know, factoring into the consideration.  I mean, realistically, there‘s probably four serious contenders for the vice presidency, you know, Governor Tim Kaine from Virginia, Governor Kathleen Sebelius from Kansas, Senator Evan Bayh from Indiana and Senator Joe Biden from Delaware.

SHUSTER:  Sebelius?  Why on earth would the Obama campaign seriously consider Kathleen Sebelius?  Wouldn‘t that totally alienate all of the Hillary supporters?

KOFINIS:  Well, I think it depends on how they do it.  And I think part of it is, you know, them wanting, obviously, to take the party in a new direction.  I think Kathleen Sebelius kind of helps reinforce the change message, as does Tim Kaine.  But in terms of, you know, the question about national security, I think if you‘re not going to choose someone, let‘s say, that has more kind of a national security background, like a Joe Biden, then I think the onus falls on the Obama campaign to make it very clear, if you will, what their vision and doctrine is, the Obama doctrine for national security.  I think if they do that, and they clearly have done that multiple times in the past—but if they do that and lay that out, they can—I think they can have a—you know, a Tim Kaine or a Kathleen Sebelius for VP.

SHUSTER:  John Feehery, you would agree that this is a pretty serious crisis with Russia right now, right?

FEEHERY:  No doubt about it.  And I think that John McCain actually handled it the best out of anybody, including the president...

SHUSTER:  Well, before we get to that, then, let me ask you...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  Before we get to that, though, let me follow up, then, and say, doesn‘t this also cut against John McCain in terms of Bobby Jindal doesn‘t have any foreign policy experience, Mitt Romney is not exactly a foreign policy guru?  Isn‘t it also incumbent, then, on John McCain to have a running mate who can also deal with this?

FEEHERY:  You know, David, I‘ve heard that before, and I don‘t believe it for a second.  The fact of the matter is, John McCain has the experience you need to deal with this crisis.  He has been in Georgia several times.  He knows this issue inside and out.  And I think he also knows the international stage as well as anybody.  He doesn‘t need—what he probably needs is someone who can help him with the economic issues.  But on foreign policy, there‘s nobody better than John McCain and...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  Well, John, you‘ve mentioned how John McCain handled this this week.  Let‘s go ahead and play some sound.  Here‘s Senator McCain yesterday, talking about the situation with Russia and Georgia.  Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  My friends, we have reached a crisis, the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the cold war.  This is an act of aggression, and historians and time will tell us how provoked it was, what actions the Georgian government took, et cetera.  But the fact is that this aggression has far exceeded any—any provocation that might have been inflicted on South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Now, here‘s how Senator Obama responded on Monday from Hawaii while he was on vacation.  Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The United States, Europe and all other concerned countries must stand united in condemning this aggression and seeking a peaceful resolution of the crisis.  We should continue to push for a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate end to the violence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  And John, what‘s wrong with calling for a U.N. Security Council resolution?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FEEHERY:  Well, first of all, Russia is on the Security Council and will veto it right away.  This is a problem that needs to be dealt with by NATO.  The fact of the matter is that the Russians—Vladimir Putin is a tough guy and you need a tough guy to stand him down, a tough guy like John McCain.  And you don‘t need a U.N. Security Council resolution when you know that the Russians and probably the Chinese are going to veto it.  You need tough action with NATO to stand Vladimir Putin down.  I think John McCain gave the right response to that.  I don‘t think Barack Obama looks good at all.  I think he looks pretty weak on this, frankly.

SHUSTER:  Chris, how can it possibly help Barack Obama to invoke the United Nations politically?  It might be a smart policy to try to go that route, but politically, how does mentioning the United Nations help Barack Obama with the voters that he needs in this election?

KOFINIS:  Well, I mean, he didn‘t just—he just didn‘t invoke the United Nations.  He also talked about an aggressive diplomatic effort by our European allies.  He also talked about the need of NATO to get involved.  And he also talked about the—you know, the responsibility on the U.S. government, particularly the Bush administration, obviously, for aggressive diplomacy.

And listen, part of what‘s complicated this situation is a tough thing for the Republicans to want to hear, is the last eight years of isolation and basically bad foreign policy by the Bush administration has only made this situation more complicated.  We‘ve lost leverage not only with our allies, but in particular with the Russians and Putin.  It just made the situation worse.

I mean, let‘s not forget, you know, that this was a supposedly close friend of President Bush, and he clearly didn‘t have any leverage.  So the notion that somehow, I think—I think—folks are going to sit there and say that Senator Obama, the Obama campaign, you know, hasn‘t done the right thing—I think they need to look exactly at what they‘ve said.  They, I think, have been very smart, very measured in terms of the response.

SHUSTER:  John?

FEEHERY:  Well, I disagree with that.  I think that John McCain came out the best.  I don‘t disagree that—I thought the Bush administration was kind of slow off the mark.  I do think, though, that the Vladimir Putin has done a lot of things badly and wrongly over the last five years, and we need a strong response.  The fact of the matter is that he‘s a tough guy and a bad guy.  And we got to do—we have to have the right guy to stand against him, and I think that‘s John McCain.

SHUSTER:  Chris, regarding the timing of the vice presidential roll-out, if the polls continue to tighten, won‘t the pressure ratchet up even more on Barack Obama to pick Hillary Clinton because you‘ll have some of the Hillary Clinton crowd saying, We told you so, if you want to unite the party, if you want to have somebody who‘s got the gravitas to deal with foreign only policy, you got to go with Hillary Clinton?

KOFINIS:  Well, I think there‘s some people that may argue that.  I mean, the reality is, I think that train has left the station, so to speak.  I think it‘s pretty clear to everyone that, you know, Senator Clinton is not going to be the VP, and I don‘t think that‘s a—any way a besmirch on her qualifications or capabilities.  I think she‘s an incredibly gifted politician and incredibly gifted senator, and she‘s definitely qualified to be the vice president.  No question about it.

But I think, you know, all the indications, at least from the public, if you will, that we hear is that he‘s going to go in a different direction.  And I think, you know, that is his choice.  He—you know, president—you know, Senator Obama—not to be presumptuous!  Senator Obama, you know, has that choice to basically decide who he believes is the best candidate for himself.

SHUSTER:  But it‘s also a dangerous choice.  If we‘re still talking about Russia and Georgia this time next week, and suddenly, we hear Tim Kaine or Evan Bayh and they‘ve got to get up and explain in compelling fashion why they‘re equipped to handle this—John, go ahead.  You have the last word.

FEEHERY:  Well, David, I would say that this kind of exemplifies further the kind of stature gap between Obama and McCain.  And Hillary Clinton—you know, she‘s already kind of taken over the convention, in many ways.  She‘s almost dominated the convention and all the convention planning.  All the talk is about Hillary Clinton.

This only accentuates how weak Obama looks going into the general election.  And the fact that we‘re even talking about Hillary Clinton is not at all good news for Barack Obama.

SHUSTER:  I can‘t let you go, Chris, without a prediction.  Who‘s it going to be?  Who‘s going to be Obama‘s running mate?

KOFINIS:  Thanks for putting me on the spot, David!

(LAUGHTER)

KOFINIS:  Now I‘m going to be proven wrong on national TV.

(LAUGHTER)

KOFINIS:  I‘m going to go with Governor Kaine.  And if it‘s not Governor Kaine, then I‘m going to go with Evan Bayh.

SHUSTER:  John...

KOFINIS:  If it‘s not Evan Bayh, I‘m going to go with Joe Biden.

SHUSTER:  John Feehery, who‘s going to be McCain‘s running mate?

FEEHERY:  I think it‘s going to be Mitt Romney, but I‘m not positive about that.  It might be Tim Pawlenty.

SHUSTER:  All right.  We‘ve got the tape on both of you now.  We‘re going to have you back in a couple weeks and embarrass you royally.

(LAUGHTER)

KOFINIS:  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  Chris Kofinis, John Feehery...

FEEHERY:  Thank you, David.

SHUSTER:  ... thank you both very much.  We appreciate it.

Coming up: The Obama campaign is running negative ads in key battleground states.  Does this contradict Obama‘s message of a new kind of politics, or is it the way to win?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  While John McCain has trumpeted his negative ads with press releases to the national media in part to get us to run his ads for free, Barack Obama has a different approach.  Obama‘s campaign is staying silent about many of its ads, even though Obama is also going negative in some key battleground states.  Here‘s an ad the Obama campaign tried to run under the radar in Indiana.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I don‘t believe we‘re headed into a recession.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Oh, I think we‘re absolutely in a recession.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I sometimes struggle just to get the essentials, you know, the milk, the bread, the eggs.

MCCAIN:  There‘s been great progress economically.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The economy is in a rut.

MCCAIN:  We have had a pretty good, prosperous time with low unemployment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The way the economy is, it is the bleakest of times.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘m worried.  I‘m really worried.

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

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  Do these type of ads hurt the Obama brand, and is that why his campaign has been so quiet about them?  Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for “The Chicago Sun-Times” and Chris Cillizza is with Washingtonpost.com.

Lynn, is Obama narrow-casting his negative ads?

LYNN SWEET, “CHICAGO SUN-TIMES”:  It‘s a micro-target, in other words, except it‘s for a state, so I don‘t think it‘s all that narrow.  But it‘s part of a reasonable campaign tactic, and that is, they want to make us work for our stories and they don‘t want to—you know, really...

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM:  Absolutely.

SWEET:  ... to work for them.  And it‘s not going to be a hand-out press release with an ad that they want to trumpet.  And it does them no good to have any of us talk about their negative or comparative spots.  Let them, you know, do the work, and hopefully, they would rather you would be talking about something else.

SHUSTER:  Well, Chris, is then McCain beyond all of this, given that every time there‘s a negative ad, even if it‘s a video ad that‘s not even running, we get a press release, we get attention, they‘re trying to get us to run it?

CILLIZZA:  Well, remember one thing, David, as it relates to that.  Barack Obama has, at least in the primaries, this massive fund-raising machine that just seems like they ask for money and it appears.  He‘s opted out of public financing, clearly based on the idea that he believes he can raise well more than the $80 million or so he‘s going to get.

So Barack Obama has the unique ability to play on a number of different levels.  He can run positive spots that he touts in the national media that play into that Obama brand—we need, you know, new faces, we need a different kind of politics.  But he can also run that other flight (ph) that they‘re not making clear to people like Lynn and I or the McCain campaign, frankly, that are much more traditional old-style politic—

Here‘s what John McCain says, and he‘s out of touch.  And that‘s what you saw in that ad.

(CROSSTALK)

SWEET:  ... means on the reality because, you know, word gets around.  It means that there‘s a lag time of a day or two before this stuff comes out, as opposed to the instant, you know, Put it out, it‘s on my blog, on your blog kind of thing.  It doesn‘t mean that we‘re not going to know about it.  It‘s just lag time.

SHUSTER:  But it does mean something of a mixed message.  I mean, here‘s what Barack Obama was bragging about just before the Iowa caucuses.  Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  They said we couldn‘t have a chance in this campaign unless we resorted to the same old negative attacks.  But we resisted even when we were written off and ran a positive campaign that pointed out real differences and rejected the politics of slash and burn.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Now obviously, there‘s a difference between a negative attack and slash and burn.  But still, that‘s a mixed message for Barack Obama with that statement up against these harsh ads.

CILLIZZA:  What we have seen—and Lynn can speak to this because she‘s covered Barack Obama as closely as anyone—Barack Obama has a real strain of pragmatism, political pragmatism to it.  He is not an ideologue willing to prove a point and lose an election.  I think we saw that when he accepted—when he opted out of public financing.  I think we saw that when he said, You know what?  I‘m going to agree to vote for this domestic surveillance bill, even though the left does not want the warrantless wiretapping, the telecommunications immunity.

This is a guy who is practical.  He has not risen as quickly as he has from state senate to the U.S. Senate to the Democratic nominee for president by chasing after windmills.

SHUSTER:  Well, he is certainly being tough.  I mean, here‘s an Obama ad that‘s running in Ohio about McCain‘s lobbyist ties. 

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, OBAMA CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  At DHL, if something happens, it‘s going to be like a ghost town. 

ED RUTHERFORD, RESIDENT OF OHIO:  I thought I was doing a good job providing for my family, and I had that taken away. 

NARRATOR:  In Washington, John McCain helped pave the way for foreign owned-DHL to take over an American shipping company.  McCain‘s campaign manager was lead lobbyist for the deal.  Now thousands of Ohio jobs at risk. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Now, here‘s—before—before I get your response, here‘s the McCain ad in response to that Obama ad. 

Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR:  Maybe the applause has gone to his head.  Saying John McCain cost Ohio jobs?  Well, it‘s just not true.  It‘s Obama‘s taxes that will hurt Ohio families, higher taxes on your paycheck, your life savings, your electric bills.  His taxes are a recipe for economic disaster. 

That‘s the real Obama, ready to tax, not ready to lead. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m John McCain, and I approve this message. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Attack and counterattack, who wins in that? 

SWEET:  Well, all in one day, and where the McCain—and the winner is, I think it‘s a draw for the moment.  Don‘t know long-term damage, to answer your question specifically, but just so people out there know what the McCain campaign had to work with in their quick ad they threw up was that this group called factcheck.org, which I highly recommend to anyone as a referee—this is a University of Pennsylvania group—they came out and they said that the Obama ad wasn‘t...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  I think they said misleading.

I mean, the point was, in the Obama ad, you get the sense that, because of this deal, a lot of the people in Ohio lost their jobs, when, in fact, a lot of people lost their jobs even before the merger that John McCain supported. 

But, having said that, is there a price that anybody pays for getting something wrong in an ad? 

CILLIZZA:  You know, when you‘re seeing this many ads—I think Lynn touched on it—you‘re seeing a call and a response within about 10 hours of... 

(CROSSTALK)

SWEET:  Even less than that.

CILLIZZA:  Yes, right.

I think, for a lot of people, this passes sort of in the night, and they don‘t really notice it.  Only when something is egregiously wrong, when someone can be directly proven—the problem with 30-second ads and with all these various groups that rate them is, every side can pick 30 seconds of a newspaper quote or a clip that plays to their advantage.

And it‘s hard, frankly, for the average voter, I think, to navigate through it.   

SWEET:  This is—this is the thing.

I know, from dealing with some of the people around Obama for many years who have done the ads, they understand that we might be sitting here and saying, that might not have been 100 percent right.  But they also know that we‘re—this show might be shown one time, have a life on the Web maybe.

In the meantime, the paid advertisement of that message will go out countless time.  And it will just drown out.  And they kind of know that.  One other thing.  So, then you say, if the ad was seen as not quite up to standard, will it be fixed?  Will they correct the so-called errors?  Now and then, they do it.  Very rarely.

SHUSTER:  Well, but here‘s the other issue.  As we all know, negative ads are intended to suppress turnout.  So, who is that John McCain is trying to keep away from the polls in his negative ads?  And who is it that Barack Obama is trying to keep away from the polls in some of his battleground ads? 

SWEET:  I don‘t think...

(CROSSTALK)

SWEET:  I think it‘s turn early to be a turnout issue.  I think it‘s to change the narrative.  This is what it‘s about for both of them.  They want to change the narrative.  They want to inject different storylines.

And, by that, I mean—and that‘s why I think the McCain people took what I thought was a slight risk of mocking Obama for his celebrity and for his terrific speaking skills and his wonderful charisma and his ability to inspire people.  Who would have thought that would have been a negative?  And they‘re trying to turn that, in a way. 

CILLIZZA:  And you see they clearly think it‘s worked if the first clip of that response ad was the footage, now famous footage, of Barack Obama speaking in Germany. 

And the Obama—the McCain campaign, rather, obviously thinks they have a winner here, that here‘s this guy who—hundreds of thousands of people turned out.  They have portrayed him as the one, as a celebrity. 

So, they‘re clearly...

SWEET:  Yes. 

CILLIZZA:  It‘s exactly what Lynn said. 

It‘s about changing a narrative.  It‘s about using what in theory is Obama‘s greatest strength, his speaking style, his ability to be charismatic, against him.  Is he too good a speaker?  Is he too charismatic?

(CROSSTALK)

SWEET:  Can you imagine if I attack Chris or you, David, you‘re too good a reporter.  You get too many...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  I get that all the time.  So, I must...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

SHUSTER:  Well, you both are great reporters.  Let me say that for the record. 

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  Chris Cillizza, thank you very much. 

Lynn Sweet, thank you for coming in.  We appreciate it.  Great discussion. 

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  Up next:  You can dance, you can jive, but are you having the time of your life?  ABBA enters the ‘08 race.  That‘s next in the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Time now for the HARDBALL “Sideshow.” 

First up:  Lay off my music.  John McCain raised eyebrows this week when “Blender” magazine published his 10 favorite songs.  Topping McCain‘s list—check it out.         

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

ABBA (singing):  You can dance.  Having the time of your life.  See that girl.  Watch that scene.  Dig in the dancing queen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)  

SHUSTER:  That‘s right.  ABBA‘s “Dancing Queen,” surely one of the lamest pop songs in history.

Yesterday, John McCain defended the band and had a message for critics.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  A lot of my taste in music stopped about the time I impacted a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane, and never caught up again. 

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN:  Now, look, everybody says, oh, I hate ABBA.  Oh, ABBA, how terrible, blah, blah, blah.  How come everybody goes to “Mamma Mia!,” huh? 

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MCCAIN:  I mean, really, seriously.  Oh, I hate, ABBA.  They‘re no good.

Well, everybody goes. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Well, that‘s true.  But regarding McCain‘s musical awareness timeline, he was in Vietnam from ‘67 to ‘73.  “Dancing Queen” didn‘t get produced until 1975.  Oops. 

Hey, Senator, see that girl, watch that scene, just so you dig in the dancing queen, and leave it there.

Next up, some of us are still shocked that “The National Enquirer” was so far ahead—and accurately so—on the John Edwards extramarital affair bombshell.  You see, many of associate “The Enquirer” with stories about UFO abductions, celebrity weight loss news, and government conspiracies.

So, who is staying on top of those stories now?  “The New York Times” And I kid you not.  Check out the gray lady‘s reporting today.  “Georgians say they have Bigfoot‘s body.”

So, while “The National Enquirer” is nailing politicians, “The New York Times” is talking about Bigfoot.  Yes, up is down, and down is up.  And Sasquatch is back. 

Now for “Name That Veep.”

Here‘s Mike Huckabee slamming a potential McCain number two.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE ®, FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR:  I think the issue is that, you know, in many ways (EXPLETIVE DELETED) has had very definite swings of position, not just on one or two things, but on many of the issues.  I think that there are better choices for Senator McCain that will have the approval of value voters. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Which so called flip-flopper is Huckabee talking about there?  His ‘80 primary rival former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. 

Time now for tonight‘s “Big Number.”

The two presidential campaigns are quick to tout their record-breaking funds and what they call a huge number of grassroots donors.  The McCain campaign, for instance, announced today that it raised $27 million in July, its biggest haul yet.

But hold a second, though.  All in all, how much of the American population has donated to either John McCain or Barack Obama?  Nine-tenths-one-1-percent.  That‘s right.  Despite all the talk, only about one in 100 Americans have given money to the two presidential candidates.  Less than 1 percent of Americans participating in the McCain and Obama money chase—tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Up next:  John McCain and Barack Obama court the evangelical vote tomorrow.  Who‘s got the inside track? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

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CHRISTINA BROWN, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Christina Brown.  Here‘s what‘s happening. 

Georgia‘s president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emerged from five hours of reportedly difficult talks with the Georgian leader, saying he had signed a cease-fire deal with Russia.  The deal makes big concessions to Russia, including a six-mile patrol zone inside Georgia.  Russia has yet to sign it.  Meantime, U.S. humanitarian aid continues to arrive in Georgia.  It‘s estimated the conflict between Russia and Georgia has left more than 100,000 Georgians homeless.

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SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Just 24 hours from now, live on MSNBC, Barack Obama and John McCain will sit down with Pastor Rick Warren to talk about faith and the future of our country.  What can we expect?  And what should the candidates expect from evangelicals this November? 

David Kuo worked for President Bush in the office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives.  He‘s the author of the bestselling “Tempting Faith.”  And Krissah Williams Thompson is a national political reporter for “The Washington Post.”

And both, I think, are recovering from the news that John McCain likes “Dancing Queen”? 

DAVID KUO, AUTHOR, “TEMPTING FAITH: AN INSIDE STORY OF POLITICAL

SEDUCTION”:  Yes. 

KRISSAH WILLIAMS THOMPSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  ABBA.  Wow. 

SHUSTER:  All right. 

KUO:  It does kind of fly in the face of the whole, hi, I‘m John McCain, and I like “Dancing Queen”?  I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

SHUSTER:  Well, let‘s—let‘s move on.

(LAUGHTER)

SHUSTER:  Here‘s Rick Warren talking to Andrea Mitchell about the event that‘s coming up tomorrow night.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PASTOR RICK WARREN, AUTHOR, “THE PURPOSE DRIVEN LIFE”:  We‘re going to look at four different areas.  We‘re going to look at stewardship.  What‘s the role of government?  What‘s the role of the president, their background and experience on that? 

We‘re going to look at leadership, character, conviction, their competence, their experience.  We‘re going to look at world view issues, some of the mine fields that presidents have to deal with, that, no matter how you answer it, somebody‘s going to disagree with it.  And we‘re going to look at the role of—of America internationally and where we should be going in the next four years. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Krissah, Rick Warren also said that he‘s going to ask about the candidate‘s personal life, because character matters. 

Does that mean we may hear about Obama‘s teenaged drug use or John McCain‘s circumstances of his divorce? 

THOMPSON:  Well, he says he‘s going to ask about their personal lives.

You know, Rick Warren told David Brody on CBN that God cares about character.  So, they‘re looking at a very broad plate of issues.  And that‘s one of them. 

SHUSTER:  David, now, how does Rick Warren sort of change the dynamics?  He‘s not like a lot of evangelicals that most voters may sort of have a stereotype or an assumption about.

KUO:  I think Rick Warren is sort of the nightmare pastor for the GOP, and potentially for the Democratic Party as well, because he‘s not a televangelist who‘s going to go up there and really have the subversive—or have his real desire to be trying to push a GOP message. 

Rick Warren is about Jesus.  And he‘s likely to deal with John McCain and say very clearly, the Gospel talks a lot about caring for the poor.  It talks about HIV—well, it talks about caring for the least of these.  What do you do on that front? 

And he‘s likely to say to Barack Obama, the sanctity of human life is something that, arguably, the Scripture talks about.  God says he knit us together in our womb.  Yet, you voted against late-term abortions.  How do you square the two?  And he‘s going to be somebody whose allegiance is Jesus, and not to a particular political party.

SHUSTER:  Is there a lot riding on this for both McCain and Obama, in terms of the impression they leave with Rick Warren‘s audience, essentially? 

KUO:  I think it‘s important for the impression they leave with everybody. 

You know, obviously, Barack Obama has issues with Jeremiah Wright.  This is a massive forum for him to be able to talk about his own convictions, his own belief, his own faith.  And, for John McCain, it‘s something—we haven‘t seen any compassion out of John McCain.  We haven‘t seen anything about these social justice issues.  We haven‘t seen him talk very much about his faith.  And it‘s also very important for him as well. 

SHUSTER:  Here‘s John McCain talking about the forum tomorrow night in advance. 

Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I‘m honored to attend this forum that Rick Warren has sponsored.  I hope that I can make it clear, not only my particular individual faith, but my faith in this country and its greatness and its future. 

I still wish that Senator Obama would join me on stage there and all the—any other places we have appeared jointly together, so we could answer those questions or comments together.  But he hasn‘t chosen to do so. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Chris, on that last point, does that really matter to evangelical voters, whether or not John McCain and Barack Obama have had these joint appearances together or not? 

THOMPSON:  I don‘t think so.  People just want to hear them talk about what is in their hearts, the issues that are important to them.

And when you—especially looking at young evangelical and the kind of new evangelical that Rick Warren represents, they‘re not as concerned about the hot-button social issues that we saw make a big splash in 2000 and 2004.  They‘re looking at a broad range of things, world poverty, environmentalism.  You know, they‘re—they‘re talking about God in broader terms than we have seen. 

SHUSTER:  You have got a great piece in “The Washington Post” about a sort of gender differences with evangelicals. 

Why are younger evangelicals possible more receptive to Barack Obama than older ones? 

THOMPSON:  I think that they have seen a lot of issues come up in the last four years.  A lot of them voted with Bush.  They were really into compassionate conservatism. 

But now they‘re thinking about, you know, Darfur.  They grew up recycling.  They are saying, you know, we don‘t have to only care about two things. There‘s a lot more happening in the world.  They‘re looking at the number of times poverty comes up in the scripture versus just life issues. 

SHUSTER:  David?

KUO:  I think what the piece highlights and what the Pew research is so important is that it highlights this Gulf between cultural conservatism and political conservatism.  Political conservatism is saying, I‘m going to vote for the GOP.  This cultural conservatism says, OK, we‘re going to approach the world in a particular way.  We‘re going to have particular views on education and how families are raised.  But it doesn‘t necessarily translate into how people vote and that‘s a big difference. 

SHUSTER:  And I gather that there‘s a lot of pressure building on Rick Warren by some to clarify where do the candidates stand on abortion and how do they explain their position? 

KUO:  I think that‘s right.  I think Rick Warren needs to be able to ask John McCain the hard questions on Africa, on compassion and the hard questions to Barack Obama on abortion.  But I think that Rick Warren will surprise everybody, because I think whether it‘s the cultural issues or the character issues, as we have defined them, I think he will take a different approach. 

SHUSTER:  Does Rick Warren have any political leanings that we know of? 

THOMPSON:  He hasn‘t made any endorsements, says that he won‘t.  And he calls both of the candidates friends. 

SHUSTER:  What‘s the political strategy for Obama, to try to do a little bit better than John Kerry and Al Gore did with evangelicals?  Because, at the moment, the polling suggests that he‘s roughly exactly where John Kerry was four years ago. 

KUO:  Yes, I think the latest polling is 65-25.  It‘s where the undecideds fall that is going to be huge.  Because if he doesn‘t get a big chunk of those undecideds, I don‘t think he can win in the fall. 

SHUSTER:  Any predictions as far as to what we‘re going to see tomorrow, as far as possible danger areas, stumble areas or area where they can hit it out of the park? 

THOMPSON:  I think their personal lives are really going to matter.  There‘s an ad out today talking about family, a pro Obama ad from a progressive Christian group, and I think they‘re trying to pin Senator McCain on his marital history and that sort of thing.  So that could come up. 

SHUSTER:  Krissah Williams Thompson from “the Washington Post,” and David Kuo, author of “Tempting Faith,” thank you both for coming in.  We appreciate it. 

KUO:  Good to be here. 

SHUSTER:  Up next, it‘s the HARDBALL panel with the politics fix.  And a reminder, tomorrow MSNBC will have live coverage of Pastor Rick Warren‘s forum.  Coverage begins with HARDBALL at 5:00 Eastern, followed by “RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE” at 6:00, and then another edition of HARDBALL at 7:00.  Then at 8:00, McCain and Obama, forum on the presidency.  It‘s the first time in the campaign the two presidential candidates will appear at the same event.  And they‘ll even share a moment together on the stage.  Join MSNBC for full coverage beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and the politics fix.  Tonight‘s round table, MSNBC political analyst Michelle Bernard and Ken Vogel of Politico.  I want you both to start with this new John McCain ad called “The Tax Man.”  It‘s kind of tough.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Maybe the applause has gone to his head.  Saying John McCain cost Ohio jobs?  It‘s just not true.  It‘s Obama‘s taxes that will hurt Ohio families.  Higher taxes on your paycheck, your life savings, your electric bills.  His taxes are a recipe for economic disaster.  That‘s the real Obama.  Ready to tax, not ready to lead. 

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Now, the operative line that I found in that, Obama‘s new taxes could break your family budget.  Could is the key word because the family under Obama‘s plan needs to earn 250,000 dollars in order to be taxed. 

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  I think probably what the McCain campaign would tell you is that if President Bush‘s tax cuts expire, and Obama doesn‘t do anything about it, then you‘re going to see a tax increase for middle class families.  That being said, Obama has been very honest in saying he‘s going to tax people who make 250,000 dollars a year or more.  But that‘s not evident in this ad. 

SHUSTER:  Ken, even if the ad is misleading and unfair, is it successful by raising the tax issue, a long time issue that the Republicans have used successfully against the Democrats? 

KEN VOGEL, POLITICO:  Yes, I think this ad really epitomizes what the McCain folks think is the message that is going to be most effective against Obama.  It‘s sort of a twofold message.  One, that he‘s a celebrity without much substance behind him, that he‘s a lightweight.  The other, that he‘s a typical tax and spend liberal, and that his policies, both on the tax side and on the spending side are going to really put the pinch on working class families.  That, of course, at least in the way that this ad suggested, is not really accurate. 

SHUSTER:  It‘s always so interesting when we see these negative ads, and you see these sort of mast heads from newspapers that sort of lend some credibility.  Is that to simply get the candidate away and say, well I‘m not take making this charge.  Look at the “Wall Street Journal.”

BERNARD:  Absolutely.  I think that imagery is that either “The Wall Street Journal,” “The Financial Times,” whoever it might be, the “Washington Post,” for that matter, that they agree with me.  And just in that split second, anyone takes a look at that ad might think that those claims—that the newspapers bolster the claims that the candidates are making in these ad. 

The one thing I wanted to ad, David, though is if you look at the Republican base, I mean, John McCain needs to rally his troops as well.  He cannot absolutely believe that every single Republican out there is going to be voting for John McCain or is enamored with him.  And this tax message resonates with the Republican base.  And he‘s got to work hard to get those people out.  They do not believe in an increase in taxes.  They‘re very scared of Barack Obama‘s tax plan.  If he‘s just looking at his base, we have to realize that his base is thinking to themselves, he‘s promised, you know, almost nationalized health care, a lot of other initiatives.  How is he going to pay for them?  So for those people, Obama does look like a tax and spend Democrat. 

SHUSTER:  Ken, does that make it incumbent on Barack Obama to both explain his tax policy, how he‘s going to pay for his plans, but also, again, to try to deal with this issue of is he a celebrity and is that a problem, and why should we elect a celebrity? 

VOGEL:  Yes, I think on the celebrity side, particularly.  It really seems like this message is starting to resonate somewhat.  It‘s a little bit similar to what Hillary Clinton tried to do to him in the primary, which started to have some success.  You could see that it was having a little bit of traction, at least according to exit polls, later in the primary cycle, where she suggested that he was all, sort of, rhetoric and fluff and she would say that she would make tough decisions and not just make flashy speeches. 

So, whether McCain is able to pick up on the ground work that she late and really drove it home through the general election or not, it‘s sort of unclear.  On the policy side, what Obama has tried to do is say what seems to be a message that would have traction in this type of electoral landscape, to link John McCain to President Bush and President Bush‘s economic policies, which polls show are wildly unpopular, and, you know, that a lot of people associate with economic downturn that we‘re now in. 

SHUSTER:  The irony with the celebrity charges is that John McCain has been in a lot more movies than Barack Obama.  The fact that you don‘t hear that from the Obama campaign I think raises some questions about exactly how they are going to respond or maybe they how they won‘t respond, which I think could be a problem for them.  In any case, Michelle and Ken are sticking with us.  Up next, more with the HARDBALL panel in the politics fix.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  We‘re back with the round table for more of the politics fix.  I want both of you to see John McCain.  He was asked about this book, this dishonest book which is attacking Barack Obama, generating a huge amount of controversy.  John McCain was asked about that today.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Thank you so much.  If you just want to go ahead. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That book “Obama Nation” by Jerome Corsi that some people are -- 

MCCAIN:  You‘ve got to keep your sense of humor. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Thank you.  Thank you so much.  Come on.

(END VIDEO CLIP

SHUSTER:  You got to keep your sense of humor.  Michelle? 

BERNARD:  Maybe he really didn‘t hear what the question was, because there‘s nothing humorous about the book.  I have not read the book.  I have seen what people said about it, and it appears it be a pack of lies or lies and innuendoes.  so I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he didn‘t properly hear the question. 

SHUSTER:  Well, there‘s no benefit of the doubt from the Obama campaign.  They released a statement and they said, quote, the old John McCain used to boast about honorable politics, while the new John McCain finds Rovian smears funny.  Honor is not a laughing matter.  What does John McCain think is funny about an intolerant smear artist who called Pope John Paul II senile, and claims the government lied about 9/11?  Ken, your reaction to the response? 

VOGEL:  Well, even if he did hear the question, McCain‘s response was kind of off-handed, as so many of his comments are.  And, you know, he could have been saying that you have to shrug off these type of outlandish attacks during a presidential campaign.  Even still, though, I think he would be wise to come out a little more forcefully, either denounce it or at least distance himself from it, because the Obama campaign, as that statement shows, has done a really effective job of demonizing both this book and this author as representative of this type of dirty politics that both these guys are working very hard to show that they‘re not associated with and that they don‘t condone. 

They‘re both trying to present themselves as reformers, different type of politicians.  Being associated with a book like this, even if it‘s a false association, is not helpful towards that end. 

SHUSTER:  It‘s interesting that you would say that John McCain perhaps ought to change his answer or maybe even condemn this book, because the campaign spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan of the McCain campaign was asked about this.  She said that “John McCain did not hear the question and beyond that the campaign had no comment.”  So they had an opportunity to condemn the book, and they chose not to.  They chose simply to focus on, well, John McCain had a hearing problem. 

BERNARD:  We‘re in general election mode right now.  Earlier in the campaign, when we saw Reverend Hagee and other people that were coming out and making absolutely horrific statements about Barack Obama and Senator Clinton, John McCain then was the presumptive Republican nominee, and I would say felt safe in repudiating these people and really taking a step back.  But we‘re in general election mode and I think what this shows tonight is that the gloves are off.  There is a feeling that negative campaigning works and he‘s going to let it fly. 

SHUSTER:  Yet, four years ago, as we all know, John McCain took a very strong stance against the Swift Boating book and the Swift Boating ads that were being used against John Kerry.  I kind of wonder if that makes this story stick around for a little while, because it becomes clear that McCain, in the eyes of many, is nakedly political by not condemning the book this time. 

VOGEL:  Perhaps, and even in this election cycle, he did not come out as strongly against 527s as he had in past cycles, both in ‘04, when Kerry was a victim, and in 2000, when there were these type of independent groups that were very aggressively out there.  Of course, he made his name as a campaign finance reformer who sought to take this big special interest money out of politics, make it more accountable.  And, so, there is a track record of him being out there against these types of things and more recently—

SHUSTER:  That‘s why I don‘t understand.  That‘s why I don‘t understand.  Why is it so difficult for John McCain just to condemn this and say, look, this book is filled with inaccuracies.  I didn‘t support it four years ago.  I condemned it then.  I condemn it now.  Let‘s talk about real differences in policy. 

VOGEL:  I think he should.  I think we might see him do so moving forward.  Certainly, if this book continues to be in the news, as it has been.  It has really shaped the debate, to some extent, and that is a risk for Obama.  Obama‘s answer to it is to try to demonize the book.  McCain‘s response to that should be to distance himself from it. 

BERNARD:  See, David, there is one point that I disagree on.  On a lot of policy issues, the difference between Barack Obama and John McCain is minuscule.  So I think that it helps the McCain campaign to have this sort of negativity out there, because if you take a really close look on issues such as climate change, he and Barack Obama are the same.  They are going after the same people to vote for them.  They‘re going for moderates, independents, Reagan Democrats.  Those are the people that are going to decide this election.  And on policy issues, it will be a lot more difficult for him to best the presidency from Obama. 

SHUSTER:  I think, ironically, maybe that‘s a reminder that maybe tomorrow night we may hear a lot more things in common from John McCain and Barack Obama than the differences we have—the differences that they have.  In any case, Michelle Bernard and Ken Vogel, thank you very much.  We appreciate it. 

A reminder, tomorrow MSNBC will have live coverage of Pastor Rick Warren‘s forum.  Coverage begins with HARDBALL at 5:00 Eastern, followed by “RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE” at 6:00, and then another edition of HARDBALL at 7:00.  Then at 8:00, McCain and Obama, the forum on the presidency.  It‘s the first time in the campaign that the two presidential candidates will appear at the same event.  They‘ll even share a moment together on the stage.  Please join MSNBC for full coverage, starting at 8:00 pm Eastern time.  I‘m David Shuster.  “COUNTDOWN” starts right now.

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

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