updated 8/20/2008 1:20:06 PM ET 2008-08-20T17:20:06

Guest: John Harwood, Eugene Robinson, Todd Harris, Willie Brown, Jennifer Palmieri

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Eleven weeks until the election, but no week is as nerve-wracking as this one for Obama‘s possible running mates.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m David Shuster, in tonight for Chris Matthews.  Leading off, name that veep.  We‘re only one week from the Democratic convention and we still don‘t know who Barack Obama or John McCain‘s running mates are.  What are they waiting for?  Then there‘s the other question: When?  When will they make their choices?  Can Obama really wait until the weekend before his convention?  Tonight we‘ve got the latest edition of HARDBALL “Power Rankings,” and we‘ll take a closer look at all the names being named.

Also, while most of the country was watching the Olympics on NBC Saturday night, political junkies and reporters were watching Pastor Rick Warren‘s forum on the president at his Saddleback Church.  Yes, McCain and Obama made their pitches to evangelical voters, but the candidates also gave us a preview of what we might expect from them this fall during the three crucial presidential debates.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  If I‘m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  It was that kind of straightforward, some would say well-rehearsed answer, that has many people saying that it was John McCain‘s night.  We‘ll look back at Saturday and look ahead to the debates.

And that presidential forum is just one of the reasons that Democrats are having a few “Uh-oh” moments right now.  Obama‘s modest lead in national polls has been shrinking, and McCain has been gaining ground in the more important state-by-state polls.  Suddenly, Democrats are urging Obama to get tougher with McCain and to better define what he means when he talks about “change” and “hope.”

In the “Politics Fix,” we‘ll talk to our panel of experts about this tightening race and who seems to have the edge heading into the conventions.

And after winning eight gold medals, Michael Phelps got a call this weekend, and it came from someone living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  We‘ll have that story in the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

But we begin tonight with the speculation about running mates and the tightening presidential race.  The latest Pollster.com average shows Barack Obama leading John McCain by just over 2 points.  And as you can see from the graph, the race is clearly getting closer.

Joining us now is CNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent, John Harwood, who also writes for “The New York Times,” and “The Washington Post‘s” Eugene Robinson, who is also an MSNBC political analyst.

Well, the story today on “Drudge Report” which suggested “The New York Times” was about to report that Barack Obama was going to announce his vice presidential nominee tomorrow by e-mail to supporters.  Our reporting is that the story is not true.  That‘s not what “The New York Times” is going to report.  But we have no more information that it‘s going to be tomorrow or next week.  What‘s the latest you have on the timing?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC, “NEW YORK TIMES”:  I believe “The Drudge Report” is untrue.  I do not believe that “The New York Times” is going to report it will be as early as tomorrow, and further, from talking with people in and around the Obama campaign, they say it‘s not going to be tomorrow, as well.  So...

SHUSTER:  It could be Wednesday.

HARWOOD:  Yes.  I think it could be Wednesday.  I think it could—look, we‘re at a point in time where there‘s only a finite number of days before Barack Obama goes to the convention.  I would have a lot of confidence it‘s going to be Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  But (INAUDIBLE)

SHUSTER:  Let‘s go through the candidates, and this is our HARDBALL “Power Ranking” time now.  Number three on the Democratic side, Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia.  We learned today that Barack Obama is going to be in Virginia on Thursday.  Kaine represents a state that is an Obama electoral target, but he only has three years as governor.  Eugene, what do you make of Tim Kaine?

EUGENE ROBINSON, “WASHINGTON POST,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, clearly, Obama and Kaine like each other at lot and have a lot in common in terms of their view of the world and—but the other thing they have in common is not a lot of experience.  And I think Kaine kind of opens Obama up to that charge.  So if he wants to go with somebody he‘s very comfortable with, Tim Kaine would be a choice, but I‘m not sure that it helps him a lot.  Does it get him Virginia?  I‘m not sure it takes Virginia for him.

SHUSTER:  Should we read anything into the Virginia tea leaves about Thursday and his schedule?

HARWOOD:  I don‘t read much into that.  And I agree with Gene.  I think it would be a big risk to pick Tim Kaine because you would double up on two guys who, in the highest office that they‘ve held, haven‘t even served a full term.  So I think that would be a reach.  But as Gene said, he‘s got a background in Kansas, as Barack Obama does, and they like each other.

SHUSTER:  Here was Tim Kaine on “Meet the Press” yesterday.  Let‘s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. TIM KAINE (D), VIRGINIA:  I‘m not going to talk about conversations with the campaign, but as you know, I‘ve been a co-chair with Senator Obama since February ‘07 because I knew his vision for getting this nation back on track was what Americans would embrace.

DAVID GREGORY, GUEST HOST, “MEET THE PRESS”:  And you‘d accept the job.

KAINE:  Here‘s what I‘d say.  I didn‘t sign on to get anything about it or to be appointed to anything.  And I think it‘s very unlikely, but I‘ve told Senator Obama I‘m going to help him in whatever we—way he thinks I can be helpful.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  You know, when Barack Obama was on “MEET THE PRESS” a couple weeks ago with Tom Brokaw, he said the first thing he would want is somebody with independence, which I took to mean possible code word for, Hey, maybe somebody how‘s got a different view on an issue like abortion than I do.  Eugene?

ROBINSON:  Well, that could be what that means.  You know, the standard formulation is you need to pick somebody who‘s ready to take over and be president, if the president can‘t be president.  You know, he didn‘t say, I‘m going to pick the guy I like the most, and so—so I think we have Kaine in about the right spot.

SHUSTER:  All right.  Number two on our “Power Rankings,” Indiana senator Evan Bayh.  He—former governor, represents a state that the Democrats would love to steal in terms of the Hoosier state.  He‘s not considered to have a lot of gravitas or a very dynamic speaker, but he does have a lot of experience on the Armed Services Committee dealing with foreign policy—John.

HARWOOD:  There‘s a school of thought that says Barack Obama‘s got all the electricity that the Democratic ticket needs, but what he needs most of all is a reassuring, maybe boring white guy to convince a lot of voters, blue collar voters and swing voters that he doesn‘t have in his pocket that he would be a safe choice.  Evan Bayh is the king of the boring white guys.  And so I think that would be...

(LAUGHTER)

HARWOOD:  That would be the reason to pick him.  He also has experience as governor of Indiana, and that‘s a state that Democrats are targeting.

SHUSTER:  The down side is, if you‘re boring and if you‘re not a very good speaker—and Evan Bayh is not a very good speaker—it makes you less effective as a hatchet man, if you need to go after John McCain.

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  I mean, Barack Obama, for his amazing oratorical gifts, I think has demonstrated that he‘s not terribly good at that sort of attack—attack politics that, you know, perhaps rightly or wrongly, has to be played in running for the presidency.  And so I don‘t think Bayh helps you a lot in the sort of traditional roles of the vice presidential candidate, and I don‘t really see him being all that effective.

SHUSTER:  All right, number one our “Power Ranking” on the Democratic side, Delaware Democrat Joe Biden, long-time senator.  Joe Biden‘s a Catholic.  He was born in Pennsylvania.  He just returned from Georgia at a time when this crisis with Russia seems to be ratcheting up.  I would think that that‘s a good reason why Barack Obama goes with somebody who‘s an old foreign policy hand.

HARWOOD:  I totally agree.  I think he‘s in the right spot on this

list.  From all the people that I talk to, they seem to think that Barack -

that Joe Biden is the likeliest choice.  We‘ve got to the include the discount, though, that there‘s only one guy who knows where Barack Obama‘s head is on this, and he didn‘t call me today.  That‘s Barack Obama.

SHUSTER:  Joe Biden issued a statement, though, that must have taken some Obama supporters a little bit by surprise because he‘s a little bit out in front in terms of the crisis with Russia.  Obama—Biden issued a statement.  He said, “I left the country”—Georgia—“convinced that Russia‘s invasion of Georgia may be one of the most significant events to occur in Europe since the end of communism.”  That is certainly raising the stakes.

ROBINSON:  That‘s not the way Obama has played the Georgia crisis.  I think you could argue, though, that maybe that‘s the kind of role you would want a Joe Biden to play to kind of counteract John McCain, another, you know, senator, long experience in foreign policy, who is making a very big deal of the invasion.  So you know, you could argue, Well, get Biden out there, and he can kind of be a counterweight to that.

You know, as far as I‘m concerned, I mean, I‘ve signed up to get my text message when Obama chooses because I don‘t know if we‘ll know.

HARWOOD:  Well, the argument for Biden is that he is reassuring.  He‘s been around the track.  People have seen him.  He‘s been vetted.  He‘s run for president twice.  Catholic, got good appeal to blue collar constituents.  But he also has that foreign policy gravitas that would enable to him to take the fight to John McCain on national security, which is where Barack Obama‘s weakest.

SHUSTER:  All right, let‘s move on to the “Power Rankings” on the Republican side.  Coming in at number three, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.  His stock has appeared to fall over the last couple of weeks.  Eugene Robinson, how come?

ROBINSON:  You know, I‘m not sure why.  Maybe there‘s a sense inside the McCain campaign that—well, number one, maybe he doesn‘t like him, after all.  You know, we thought they didn‘t like each other.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  And now maybe he really doesn‘t like him.  And maybe they‘ve decided that he‘s not such a—you know, not so great in terms of appealing to the right of the Republican Party and the social conservatives.

HARWOOD:  And you also got to wonder, how much can he help you in Michigan?  That‘s one of the key tests for Mitt Romney.  His dad was governor there.  Michigan‘s a high priority for the McCain campaign.  But you know, we know that running mates in general don‘t always have a huge effect in their state.  The question is, is there any incremental effect you get out of Michigan?  I think it‘s a little questionable.

SHUSTER:  Number two on the HARDBALL “Power Rankings” on the Republican side, the Minnesota governor, Tim Pawlenty.  The tea leaves have been everywhere the last couple days for Tim Pawlenty.  What‘s driving them?

HARWOOD:  Well, I think Tim Pawlenty is the guy—he‘s made a big

deal out of appealing to those Wal-Mart Republicans.  That‘s the swing vote

in this election.  Those are the people John McCain‘s fighting Barack Obama

for in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, other states, Michigan, other states in the

Midwest.  He‘s not very exciting.  This is a guy who‘s not very well known

nationally.  He doesn‘t have a lot of pizzazz.  John McCain needs to take -

may need to take a little bit of a risk.  He‘s more inclined than Barack Obama is to try to swing for the fences because even though the race is tightening, as you noted earlier, he‘s got a lot of factors against him in this election.

SHUSTER:  The biggest risk that McCain could take is our number one in the HARDBALL “Power Rankings,” and that is former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.  He is pro-choice.  I‘m not sure Republicans would necessarily go for the Republican ticket if Ridge is on the ticket.  But on the other hand, McCain may have a problem with evangelicals.  And if he does pick Ridge, that almost certainly puts Pennsylvania in play for McCain, which would be huge.

ROBINSON:  That‘s the huge advantage for McCain in picking Ridge, is that it does put Pennsylvania in play.  He could really give the Democrats a run for his money, at the very, very least, force Obama to spend all kinds of time and money in Pennsylvania that he would rather spend elsewhere.

But I can imagine—I mean, the Republican convention‘s going to be very, very interesting if he picks Tom Ridge because he is pro-choice, and that is a deal breaker for a lot of Republicans.

HARWOOD:  With Tom Ridge, David, you have both the strategic argument, Pennsylvania, and the personal argument, which is that McCain and Ridge get along very, very well.  That‘s a powerful argument.  And I do think that the question of, What‘s the fall-out going to be?  Look what‘s happened to James Dobson.  James Dobson over the last several months has gone from saying, There‘s no way I could ever vote for John McCain, to, Oh, well, maybe I will after all.  I think the McCain campaign might be able to calculate that the same thing would happen if they picked Tom Ridge.  That‘s the pick that Democrats fear most.

SHUSTER:  Tom Ridge was on “Fox News Sunday” talking about the possibility that he might be asked, and here‘s what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM RIDGE ®, FORMER PENNSYLVANIA GOVERNOR:  Well, I think you have the opportunity, first of all, to John to decide whether he wants a pro-choice running mate, and then we‘d have to see how the Republican Party would rally around it.  At the end of the day, I think the Republican Party will be comfortable with whatever choice John makes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  There you have it, Tom Ridge, number one on the HARDBALL “Power Rankings” on the Republican side, and number one on the Democratic side, Joe Biden.

Thank you, John Harwood Eugene Robinson.  A pleasure, as always.

Coming up: John McCain and Barack Obama both spoke at Pastor Rick Warren‘s mega-church on Saturday night and both candidates gave some intriguing clues about what we can expect next month in head-to-head debates.  We‘ll go through that next.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  On Saturday night, Barack Obama and John McCain were interviewed by pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren at his California mega-church.  The candidates were questioned separately and had different styles that could give us a clue as to how they‘ll perform in the debates this fall.

Joining us, Republican strategist and former McCain spokesman Todd Harris and Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.  “The New York Times” reported today that John McCain was actually not at the church when this started.  He was in his motorcade and then arrived at the church, and that is fueling some speculation or allegations maybe he had access to the questions before he started.

Here‘s what they said at the forum about the “cone of silence.” 

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PASTOR RICK WARREN, SADDLEBACK CHURCH:  I‘m going to ask identical questions to each of these candidates so you can compare apples to apples.  Now, Senator Obama is going to go first.  We flipped a coin.  And we have safely placed Senator McCain in a cone of silence.

My first question was, Was the cone of silence comfortable that you were in just now?

MCCAIN:  I was trying to hear through the wall.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Again, we found out he was not in the “cone of silence” the entire time he was in the motorcade.  Steve, what do you make of it?

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Remember those old Bob Barker game shows, where...

(LAUGHTER)

MCMAHON:  We‘ve got your spouse back in the back room.  We‘re going to ask some questions, and they‘ll never hear.  Listen, I don‘t think that—first of all, I think that probably Senator McCain did not cheat, and unless somebody can demonstrate that he did, this is kind of silliness.  But I also think that there were not very many questions that were asked and there weren‘t very many answers given by either Senator Barack Obama or John McCain that weren‘t expected and that you haven‘t heard before.  So I think this is a tempest in a teapot.  And at the end of the day, what matters in this election is who‘s going to get us out of Iraq, who‘s going to fix the economy, and who‘s going to take us in a different direction.  And that‘s what voters are going to decide on.

TODD HARRIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  I actually think this episode is fairly illuminating because it‘s about one thing and one thing only, and that is the arrogance of the Obama campaign.  They—it is so far beyond their ability to comprehend that McCain cleaned their clock the other night, which he did—he had a great night.  Obama had an OK night.  McCain had a great night.  And instead of acknowledging that perhaps Obama has a shortcoming and didn‘t do as well as they thought he should have, they‘re trying to say that McCain cheated.

MCMAHON:  Well, I was—I was...

HARRIS:  And it‘s ridiculous.

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  We should be clear we have no evidence that McCain cheated.  We‘re not making the allegation, the Obama campaign did, but we have no evidence that...

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  McCain did so well.  So that‘s all the...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  Let‘s make some comparisons as far as their style.  Here‘s Pastor Rick Warren asking the candidates about evil.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WARREN:  ... evil exists, and if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, do we defeat it?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Evil does exist.  I mean, I think we see evil all the time.  We see evil in Darfur.  We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities.  We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children.  And I think it has to be confronted.

MCCAIN:  Beat it.

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN:  A couple points.  On, if I‘m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.  I will do that (INAUDIBLE) I will get that guy.

(APPLAUSE, CHEERS)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Steve?

MCMAHON:  I mean, if only it was that simple, Defeat it.  Oh, yes.  Great.  Defeat it.  We‘re going to go defeat evil wherever it occurs.  And to John McCain, by the way, the only evil that came to his mind was Osama bin Laden.  There‘s a lot of other instances of evil out there I think Senator Barack Obama thoughtfully recognized and engaged.  And I thought Senator Obama gave a much better answer than John McCain.  John McCain took it to the war in Iraq.  It has nothing to do—I mean, it may have something to do with Saddam Hussein or with Osama bin Laden or with some of the other evil people out there...

SHUSTER:  But isn‘t it a problem when a candidate speaks from the head intellectually, instead of from the gut?  And that seemed to me to be the clearest difference politically.

MCMAHON:  Depends on whether or not you want to go to war with Iran, and it depends on whether you want a hair-trigger president, or somebody who is thoughtful and articulate and can give a good speech.  I prefer the latter.  Some people—I think maybe Todd—would prefer the former. 

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS:  Something tells me. 

This—look, this is the difference between a professor and a leader, someone who‘s ready to be president of the United States.  John McCain was decisive.  He talked—he laid out specifically what he—what he would do as president.  And there wasn‘t—yes, Barack Obama was thoughtful.  Well, congratulations.

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  George W. Bush was decisive back in 2000 and 2004, but that doesn‘t really tell us too much about they‘re necessarily going to run the country.

HARRIS:  Well, with all due respect to George W. Bush, I think, if you take John McCain‘s readiness to be president of the United States and compare it to where George W. Bush was in 2000, there is no comparison. 

And, so, in terms of his leadership, his leadership, and that decisiveness, what you saw on Saturday night was a microcosm of the two huge sort of schisms between the two campaigns.  You have got the thoughtful professor.  And he is thoughtful and he is fun to listen to.  And then you have got the guy who is real leader, the decisive leader who‘s ready to be president. 

MCMAHON:  Who may have had the questions before the exam. 

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS:  Right. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  The clearest policy division is... 

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  Steve has now changed his mind about...

MCMAHON:  I‘m a new person.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  The clearest policy divide was clearly on the issue of—the hot-button issue of abortion.  Here‘s Pastor Rick Warren asking both candidates at what point a baby gets human rights, in their view. 

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I think that whether you‘re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  At the moment of conception. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MCCAIN:  I have a 25- year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  That‘s an easier question for pro-lifers to answer, isn‘t it? 

HARRIS:  Well, I don‘t know.  Barack Obama is pro-choice.  He could have very easily said, look, I‘m pro-choice.

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  He could have answered it just as quickly and as succinctly. 

He just chose not to, because...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  You can‘t answer that question succinctly if you‘re pro-choice, because it‘s—for the pro-choicers, it‘s not an issue of when you believe life begins.  The issue is, when do you believe a woman has the right to carry a pregnancy to full term, or when should the government step in and tell her no?  And that‘s not the way the question was phrased. 

HARRIS:  He very easily could have answered it that way.

I mean, look, if you can answer a question by saying, I‘m pro-life, you can just as easily answer the same question by saying, I‘m pro-choice. 

MCMAHON:  But hold on a second, Todd.  Now, I‘m going to have to disagree with you. 

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS:  I‘m shocked again. 

(LAUGHTER)

MCMAHON:  The question was, when does a child or when does—or when does a fetus get human rights?  That‘s a different question...

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  So, the argument would be...

MCMAHON:  No, hold on.  Hold on one second.  That‘s a different question than, are you pro-life or pro-choice?  When does life begin?

Again, Senator Obama, I thought, gave a thoughtful answer.  And John McCain shot from the hip.  He‘s obviously comfortable in a crowd that went 75 for President Bush in 2004 and in 2000.  And—and it showed.  And he did a—he did a pretty darn good job. 

But I will tell you what.  Senator Obama went into a difficult crowd, and he also did very, very well.  And I think he won the hearts, if not the minds, of a lot of people in that—in that room, just for going in, and for taking those questions, and for doing as thoughtful and as good a job as he did, without knowing the questions in advance. 

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS:  I think Obama deserves credit for showing up.  I do.  I think that—that Saturday night revealed that he has got a steeper hill to climb in terms of his outreach to the evangelical community.  A lot of people thought, talking about him campaigning in Georgia and North Carolina, because he could reach out to the evangelical community.  He deserves credit for being there.  But that hill is still pretty steep...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  I think it also revealed that John McCain is going to be a much better debater than a lot of people think.  And maybe, also, in some sense, Barack Obama is lucky, in a way, that Saturday night was Michael Phelps‘ night, and not a night when a lot of people were paying attention to politics. 

In any case, Todd Harris, Steve McMahon, thank you both very much.

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  Up next:  John McCain mocks $3 million spent studying the DNA of bears in Montana, but who‘s laughing now? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back. 

Time now for the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

It‘s a perfect eight for Michael Phelps.  This Saturday, the swimming

icon cemented his status as America‘s feel-good story of the summer.  And

it earned him a long-distance call from one very special fan, a call

Phelps spoke about immediately afterwards. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL PHELPS, MULTIPLE OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL WINNER:  I just got a call and was on the phone with President Bush.  So, it was pretty cool, yeah.  He actually told—he told me to give my mother a hug and say that was from the president. 

I actually met him after the 400 I.M.  And, you know, he came down on to the pool deck, and got to take pictures and stuff.  So, it was pretty cool. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Cool for Phelps, even cooler for the president, who was probably happy that someone popular wanted to get a picture with him. 

Next:  Norm Coleman is taking one for the team.  The Minnesota senator is locked in a tough reelection battle, and he is not happy that next month‘s Republican Convention is being held in his backyard.  Coleman told Minnesota‘s Public Radio—quote—“If the convention wasn‘t in Saint Paul, I wouldn‘t be at the convention.”

Maybe Coleman wouldn‘t have to worry about being reelected if it weren‘t for pictures like this one.  Yes, that‘s Coleman and President Bush. 

Now, it‘s whopper time.  At the Saddleback Church forum on Saturday, one of John McCain‘s loudest applause lines came when he slammed pork-barrel spending and one project in particular. 

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  We spent money in way that mortgaged our kids‘ futures.

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN:  My friends, we spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana.  Now I don‘t know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue...

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN:  ... but the point is, it was $3 million of your money.  It was your money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Your money.  That‘s a pretty good line.  The problem is, it didn‘t keep John McCain from voting in favor of the project as part of a larger spending bill.

Yes, back in 2003, McCain could have tried to block the project through an amendment or other procedural means, but he didn‘t.  And McCain ultimately voted for the spending bill with the bear DNA study funding intact.  Doh!

John Edwards‘ political career is going up in smoke, literally.  Never mind his extramarital affair.  There‘s Senator Edwards kicking off his presidential campaign in 2003, effectively making his debut onto the national stage. 

But you see that textile mill there used as a backdrop for the event?  This past weekend, it burned down.  Yes, it burned down, kind of like Edwards‘ political future. 

Now for tonight‘s “Big Number.”

Barack Obama fired up donors in San Francisco yesterday, telling them

quote—“I will win.  Don‘t worry about that.”

Well, it looks like the pitch is working.  According to “The Wall Street Journal,” in just three hours yesterday, how much did Barack Obama rake in for the campaign?  Seven-point-eight million dollars.  That‘s Obama‘s largest single fund-raiser yet, bringing him almost a third of what McCain brought in all last month. 

Obama‘s record $7.8 million haul—tonight‘s “Big Number.”

Up next:  Some Democrats are increasingly nervous about Obama‘s election chances, and believe he needs to immediately toughen up his campaign style.  Are these Democrats just nervous Nellies, or are they on to something? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILISSA REHBERGER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Milissa Rehberger.  Here‘s what‘s happening. 

The center of Tropical Storm Fay passed over Key West, Florida, this afternoon.  Fay is now moving northwest with 60-miles-an-hour winds and heavy rain.  Forecasters say it could strengthen into a hurricane before hitting Florida‘s Gulf Coast early tomorrow morning.  Fay is blamed for at least 14 deaths in the Caribbean. 

A devastating brushfire in Reno, Nevada.  Reports say at least eight homes have burned.  Firefighters are still trying to put out those flames. 

Pakistan‘s president, Pervez Musharraf, announced that he is resigning, rather than face impeachment by the parliament over his authoritarian rule.  Musharraf has been an important U.S. ally, but has been embattled since his political foes won Pakistan‘s parliamentary elections last February.  It‘s not clear who parliament will elect to succeed him. 

And there are conflicting claims by Russia and Georgia about whether Russian forces have begun a promised pullback from Georgia.  There are also reports Russia has moved short-range missile launchers into Georgia‘s breakaway province of South Ossetia—now back to HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I have got news for John McCain.  My plan is not going to bring about economic disaster.  We already have economic disaster...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

OBAMA:  ... from John McCain‘s president, George W. Bush.  And we can‘t afford another four years or eight years of George W. Bush policies.  And that‘s why we are going to beat John McCain in this election, to put America on a new path. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That was Barack Obama talking tough last night in Reno, Nevada.  Some Democrats want to hear more of that.  And some of them are downright nervous.  Should they be? 

Willie Brown is the former mayor of San Francisco and speaker of the California State Assembly.  And Jennifer Palmieri is with the Center For American Progress Action Fund. 

Mr. Mayor, I understand that you are hearing some of the nervousness from Democrats.  What‘s driving these nervous rumblings? 

WILLIE BROWN (D), FORMER MAYOR OF SAN FRANCISCO:  I think that the conduct of Barack Obama over the last three or four weeks has been very disturbing, because we have come to expect so much out of him. 

He‘s been such a superstar in every way.  He‘s been on his game in every aspect from the primary to the present day.  And we just want to see that continue. 

SHUSTER:  And, Jennifer, when the polls indicate that, in fact, the race is tightening, as opposed to Obama‘s lead getting wider, isn‘t that also a legitimate concern for Democrats? 

JENNIFER PALMIERI, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Well, you know, I love my party.  There are far too many hand-wringers in it. 

I wouldn‘t—you know, Mayor Brown has won more elections than most people ever vote in, so I wouldn‘t second-guess him in terms of being concerned about, you know, not being overly confident in this, but there‘s a lot of signs that Obama is doing quite well.  He‘s done—there‘s no Democrat that‘s is doing as better—as well as he‘s doing now since Bill Clinton in 1996. 

You know, if you—if you look at the polls, you—if the polls play

panned out as they look today, he would already have locked down 264 of the 270 electoral votes he needed.  He‘s doing quite well.  I just think that people need to have—Democrats have a tendency to be overly nervous.  You don‘t want to be overconfident, but I think there‘s a lot of reasons to be more confident than people are.

SHUSTER:  Well, some of those people who are nervous include governors that “The New York Times” spoke with for a story that ran on Sunday. 

Here‘s what “The New York Times” wrote about party leaders: “These Democrats, 15 members of Congress and state party leaders, say Mr. Obama has yet to convert his popularity among many Americans into solutions to crucial electoral challenges, showing ownership of an issue like economic stewardship or national security, winning over supporters of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and minimizing his race and experience level as concerns for voters.”

Those are all legitimate issues, aren‘t they, Jennifer?

PALMIERI:  I think that Governor Strickland was in that story.  And he

that‘s the man who knows a lot about winning the state of Ohio.  And I think that he should—you should certainly listen to his advice. 

               

But look at what he said.  He said that Senator Obama should talk a lot about gas prices.  Well, Senator Obama talks about gas prices every day.  And he not only talks about them.  He actually has a plan that would actually return money into American‘s pockets in this same year, in terms of—in terms of having a rebate that would help with—with higher gas prices. 

So, Obama talks about these things every day.  Do all the voters hear it?  Probably not yet.  It‘s only August.  We haven‘t had—I‘m in Denver, getting ready for the convention for next week.  We haven‘t had that convention yet. 

So, I think that people will hear more.  You know, they will—Obama is saying specificity.  I think that voters will hear more of it.  And that will make a difference. 

You know, it reminds me a lot—what we‘re hearing reminds me a lot about what we heard about Obama in the primary, where everyone said, oh, he can‘t close the deal.  What‘s wrong?  He can‘t close the deal with working-class voters. 

Well, he didn‘t close the deal until people actually voted.  And I think we have the same situation here.  You know, when people actually vote in November, I think you will see that that is what has happened. 

But there‘s really—you know, even the polls on lower-income voters show that he‘s doing a lot better than—than Senator McCain.  And I think the other part of the equation is hearing—voters learning more about Senator McCain. 

I think part of the reason why he sort of levitates over George Bush‘s numbers—because he does do better than most Republicans do in polling—is because people think he is—you know, they still have this sense that he might be different than Bush.  And I think, the more they find out about his policies, the impact will be for people to be more concerned about him and be for Senator Obama. 

SHUSTER:  Willie Brown, could it be possible that what‘s driving some of this is simply the—the Clinton crowd, which is wanting to say, look, I told you so, and maybe they‘re taking advantage of what right now appears to be at least a close race? 

BROWN:  I don‘t think that the Clinton crowd is contributing at all to the business of being uncertain about Barack Obama among Democrats.  I think Barack Obama has...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  Not at all?  I mean, we hear some...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  Wait a second.  Not at all?  I mean, we hear in Washington some very high-profile supporters of Hillary Clinton saying, you know what, if Barack Obama wants to put this thing away, and guarantee his election, he‘s got to choose Hillary Clinton.  Otherwise, who knows what will happen. 

BROWN:  Keep in mind, those are the same people in the primary who made similar comments about Mr. Obama‘s potential. 

Mr. Obama has set a high standard, higher than anybody who has ever run for public office.  And any disappointment comes from his not daily meeting that standard on the performance side. 

No person can maintain—not even Michael Phelps could maintain...

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN:  ... that level of performance. 

But be clear, I share the view of Jennifer.  I think, in the end, Mr.  Obama will win.  But it‘s going to take an incredible effort, just as it took in the primary.  The business of attracting new voters, new participants, people who never have been involved before, that‘s the strength of Barack Obama.  The strength does not exist within the framework of what Hillary Clinton was able to do. 

You want all of the Hillary Clinton people, but you can‘t spend a whole lot of time worrying about that.  You really have to be as excited about change, symbolically and otherwise, that people expect of you.  That‘s what‘s driving the business about whether or not Mr. Obama is still on his game. 

SHUSTER:  One of the people who was certainly aware of the nervousness was Senator Obama himself.  Here he was today in Albuquerque.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I know that Democrats haven‘t been that successful in presidential elections over the last few cycles.  So everywhere I go, people have told me, oh, I‘m getting nervous.  The Republicans, they are so mean.  They are going to Swift Boat you.  They are doing things to you.  What are we going to do? 

I have to just remind people that it is true that, just as John McCain has embraced George Bush‘s policies, he‘s embraced his politics.  The same guys who brought you George Bush are now trying to package John McCain.  They have basically got the same strategy, which is they can‘t win an argument on ideas; so what they are going to do is they‘re going to try to attack me. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Jennifer, the problem with that is a lot of Democrats, instead of wanting Barack Obama to explain why Democrats are nervous, want him, instead of explaining it, just hit back.  Hit back at John McCain.  That raises one of the issue that maybe he‘s not tough enough or not focused enough on hitting back. 

PALMIERI:  I think, at the beginning of the process, people had some questions.  He‘s relatively new.  How tough is he?  He‘s shown—he beat Hillary Clinton.  I think he‘s shown he‘s been very tough on Senator McCain.  I think he‘s shown he is tough enough.  One thing that you didn‘t show from today was him attacking Senator McCain for Senator McCain being asked on Saturday night what he thought it meant to be rich in America.  He said if you have five million dollars, you‘re rich.  I think the standard is actually, if you have about 100,000 dollars, you‘re rich in America.  It‘s showing how out of touch Senator McCain is.

I don‘t think—again, it‘s going to be tight.  It‘s going to be difficult.  He needs to stay on his game, but I think that he has shown he can be—he fights back very hard.  And we probably have more confidence in him than some Democrats might. 

SHUSTER:  Willie Brown, does he still need to tighten his counter jabs.  He did give a long explanation as to what happened Saturday night.  Again, even there, there‘s some Democrats who say, you know, he just needs to punch back a little bit more crisper. 

BROWN:  He really does need to hit back directly and not by way of the long torturous route that he‘s taken.  He also needs to do what he did in the primary.  He never allowed himself to be dragged into trivia.  The business of what McCain said about who‘s rich and who isn‘t.  McCain, secondly said—and I know tomorrow—he said, in effect, it‘s a joke.  I know tomorrow somebody is going to make something out of it.  Barack Obama is making a mistake when he takes that bait and actually tries to discuss whether or not you‘re rich or not rich with five million dollars.  That‘s not relevant. 

Obama ought to stay on Obama‘s game and he ought to be as swift and as smooth as he was when he was dealing with John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and the other five or six also-rans.  If he does that, he will beat John McCain. 

SHUSTER:  Willie Brown and Jennifer Palmieri, thank you both very much.  We appreciate it. 

PALMIERI:  Thanks, David. 

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome. 

Up next, the clock ticks down for the VP pick.  Who has the edge?  The HARDBALL panel weighs in on the politics fix.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and the politics fix.  Tonight‘s round table, Chrystia Freeland of the “Financial Times” and Michael Crowley of “The New Republic.”  I want to read something that just crossed from the “New York Times” while we have been on the air.  It says Obama appears ready to announce his running mate; “Senator Barack Obama has all but finalized his choice for running mate and set an elaborate roll out plan for his decisions, beginning with an early morning alert to supporters, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, followed by a trip to swing states by the new Democratic ticket, aides say.” 

NBC News has sources telling us that it will not be Wednesday and that aspect of the “New York Times” story is incorrect.  In any case, Michael, what do you make of this? 

MICHAEL CROWLEY, “THE NEW REPUBLIC”:  Well, leaving aside the question of the exact timing, you have to give the Obama campaign credit again for the story about the roll out prior to the actual roll out.  They are great at this, whipping the media up into a frenzy.  We‘re talking about Obama.  There‘s really nothing happening yet.  This has been a trademark of his campaign.  It just shows they‘ve run a very good campaign.  They are getting a lot of free media out of this process. 

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, “THE FINANCIAL TIMES”:  I think that‘s right.  I think the pure logistical timetable with the convention coming next week does mean that this is the week they build us up to a fever pitch.  It would be really surprising if they didn‘t announce someone this week. 

SHUSTER:  Now, some of the Obama sourcing has suggested this pick will not be a surprise, even though when the announcement is made could be a surprise, whether it‘s Wednesday or later in the week.  If it‘s not a surprise and we‘re to believe that is, in fact, an accurate description, doesn‘t that almost guarantee it‘s either Bayh or Kaine or Biden?  Chrystia?

FREELAND:  Yes, I think so.  If it‘s not a surprise, those are the three people whose names have been popping up.  I think the campaign, which has run extremely well in terms of pure campaign mechanics, has done a good job of floating those names, checking if any of us have any terrible stories to write about them, checking what the reaction is.  I think also saying it‘s not a surprise is a way of saying it‘s not going to be Hillary Clinton.

Having said that, I think the single smartest, most surprising thing Barack Obama could do is pick her as his running mate.

SHUSTER:  Really?  Why?

FREELAND:  Because he needs someone who is a fighter and who can go out there—what you were talking about in the previous segment, that they need someone who can go out and attack, and attack McCain.  I think what we saw in the primaries is that‘s something that Hillary Clinton is remarkable capable of doing.  He needs someone who is experienced.  He needs someone who feels, to the country, as if they‘re strong on foreign policy, strong as a commander in chief.  I think also in the primaries, in a funny way, Hillary Clinton is the most macho of the Democratic field. 

CROWLEY:  David, I think you make the case well.  I completely disagree.  I will just give you my perspective, quickly, which is if I‘m Barack Obama, I do not want that psycho-drama.  I do not want Bill Clinton in my orbit.  I do not want to relive all the unpleasant moments in the debates and the primaries. 

Let me just say one thing, quickly also, is that because I respect them, I do not trust them when they said it‘s not going to be a surprise.  I think that‘s all the more reason to suspect it may be a surprise.  They‘ve been playing the press like a yo-yo through this whole process.  If they come out and sucker punch us with a surprise, everyone‘s going to tip their hat to them.  It will be another small PR coup for this campaign. 

FREELAND:  The one thing I would say in response to Michael is, in the highly unlikely event that Obama chooses Hillary as his running mate, the condition would have to be that Bill Clinton spends the rest of the campaign in Kazakhstan.   

CROWLEY:  I have some friends there, unfortunately.   

SHUSTER:  I have a feeling, because of all these Democrats being nervous about Barack Obama not being tough enough, that may be a reason why we don‘t see someone like Evan Bayh, who is not a terrific speaker and cannot deliver a hatchet the way, perhaps, Joe Biden might, or maybe even Time Kaine.  In any case, here‘s Barack Obama being pretty tough today, going after McCain on economic policies. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  John McCain, when he‘s proposing are the almost exact same policies that George Bush has been pedaling for the last eight years.  He wants to give 300 billion dollars worth of tax breaks to the some of the wealthiest Americans.  Rick Warren asked him, how do you define rich, he said—maybe he was joking.  He said five million dollars, which I guess, if you‘re making three million a year, you‘re middle class.  But that‘s reflected in his policies. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  As we see the sort of punch and counter-punch of Barack Obama back from his vacation, we‘re hearing about a counter-punch that McCain is already planning for the Friday after the convention.  The Politico is reporting that on August 29th, again, just hours after Barack Obama‘s big speech in Denver, John McCain will have an event in Ohio with more than 10,000 supporters, where McCain will roll out his vice presidential choice.  Smart move, Michael, to essentially try to cut off the whatever momentum Obama might have and try to change the news cycle? 

CROWLEY:  Yes, sure.  You know, there‘s traditionally a big convention bounce.  I think the night Obama gives that speech, you know, he‘s going to do it in a football stadium.  It may actually be a little too much, some people are worried now.  But it‘s really going to feel like a historical moment.  I think he‘s going to get a lot of great coverage.  I think the McCain camp, probably rightly, feels that they‘re going to be losing control of the narrative and they want to get back in there as quickly as they possibly can. 

And Ohio is a good place to do it.  Ohio is going to be a really critical state.  It‘s a place where Obama‘s shown some weakness.  I think that‘s a good button for them to push.

SHUSTER:  If it is Ohio, that‘s going to raise and ratchet up the tea leaves about Rob Portman, who is from Ohio. 

In any case, we‘ll be back with the round table for more of the politics fix.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  We‘re back with the round table for more of the politics fix.  I want to play for both of you a sound bite from John McCain that sort of gives us a road map as to the strategic battlefield that John McCain wants right now.  It‘s about foreign policy and belittling Barack Obama.  Here‘s McCain today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Behind these claims and positions by Senator Obama lies the ambition to be president.  What‘s less apparent is the judgment to be commander in chief.  In matters of national security, good judgment will be at a premium in the term of the next president, as we were all reminded ten days ago by events in the nation of Georgia. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Chrystia, as the tensions with Russia ratchet up instead of going the other way, doesn‘t that help John McCain? 

FREELAND:  Absolutely.  I think the Georgia crisis has been very, very

good for John McCain.  For one thing, he was right.  I think the Georgia

crisis shows that McCain‘s hawkish line on Russia and on Putin, which is

not a new thing—he hasn‘t flip flopped here.  He‘s been very consistent

has turned out to be prescient.  And I think because he had that view, because he was very clear on how he saw events, when the crisis began, he was faster than anyone, including the White House, off the mark. 

So I think he‘s done well on the issue, and I think that‘s given him confidence, and maybe a little deflated the euphoria that Obama and the Obama camp had after that fabulous Middle Eastern and European tour. 

SHUSTER:  Michael, if the story continues to be on the front page, in other words, if the tensions with Russia continue, doesn‘t that almost force Barack Obama to go with someone like Biden or somebody who has that level of gravitas, just to reassure voters that he‘s got a vice president that can deal with the crisis? 

CROWLEY:  Well, my personal analysis all along, David, has been that he wants somebody with foreign policy and national security experience.  You hear some people argue that Obama doesn‘t feel he needs that and, in fact, he thinks that putting someone on the ticket is almost a concession, a way of him saying I‘m not ready for this.  So some people say he won‘t do it. 

Let me just say, it‘s kind of amazing the gal of John McCain to be arranging his campaign around foreign policy judgment when he supported this war that really turned out to be a disaster and incredibly unpopular with the American public.  It was really the basis of Barack Obama‘s political stardom right now.  It‘s sort of the classic Jujitsu tactics you saw in the last two campaigns that Karl Rove orchestrated, where you go at your opponent‘s strengths. 

So Obama strength up until now was the wisdom of his judgment in opposing the war.  McCain really, quite brazenly, is trying to say no, it‘s about my judgment on these smaller, more recent issues.  You have to give him—you have to respect the political tactics of it, but it really takes a lot of Chutzpah. 

SHUSTER:  Well, the other thing is that John McCain was certainly far out in front in front of even President Bush when this first erupted.  There are also all those questions about John McCain‘s foreign policy adviser and the lobbying that he‘s done on behalf of Georgia, and whether there‘s some sort of conflict of interest there. 

In any case, Michael Crowley and Chrystia Freeland, we appreciate you both coming in tonight. 

CROWLEY:  Thanks, David.

FREELAND:  Pleasure, David.

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome.  You can join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  A great week in politics in store, as we count down to the Democratic convention.  One week from tonight is when it starts.  In the meantime, I‘m David Shuster.  “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann starts right now.

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