updated 9/4/2008 1:56:57 PM ET 2008-09-04T17:56:57

Guests: David Gregory; Norah O‘Donnell, Eugene Robinson, Michael Smerconish, Rachel Maddow, Mark Barabak, Jon Huntsman, Mike Murphy, Tim Pawlenty, Chris Van Hollen

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, McCain‘s bold gamble.  VP Sarah Palin takes center stage.  Will his big bet pay off?

The RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE watches the chips fall here in St. Paul.

On a glorious day here in St. Paul, Minnesota, welcome back to THE RACE.

I‘m David Gregory.

A big booster for this state and this city, live from Rice Park in St.  Paul, Minnesota, on day three of the Republican National Convention.  And what a story we have to cover here. 

My headline tonight, “Stealing the Spotlight.”  Anticipation is at a fever pitch as the Republican rock star of St. Paul, Sarah Palin, is preparing to accept the vice presidential nomination.  Palin is expected to emphasize her reform and change message. 

Last night, the Republican leadership had McCain‘s back, going on the attack to defend Palin‘s credentials.  The GOP goal tonight?  Balance the political tightrope and spotlight Palin as McCain‘s symbol of change without upstaging the Republican nominee. 

Air America‘s Rachel Maddow is here, soon to be the host of “THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW,” right here on MSNBC. 

This is what Rick Davis said last night on this program on the debate about whether Palin was fully vetted.  Let‘s watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK DAVIS, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN MANAGER:  David, I could take you through the vetting process, but I‘m not going to because it‘s a confidential process.  But I can assure you and I can assure everyone that we put Governor Palin through the exact same vetting process that we took all our candidates. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Rachel, first of all, they are taking reporters through this, as we‘ll hear in just a moment.  What do you make of the way he is handling it and the way the McCain campaign overall is handling it? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  They seem rocked back on their heels by this.  Since we heard Rick Davis say that, we‘ve also had Steve Schmidt come out and say they will have no further comment on their long and thorough process of having vetted Sarah Palin. 

“The Washington Post” has since reported that she got her first major substantial interview for vetting the day before she was offered the job.  And we have had yet another day of new revelations about Sarah Palin. 

Things with political salience.

In this case, it was being at her church while the executive director of Jews for Jesus gave a sermon in which he said that Israel deserves terrorism because it is God‘s judgment for their disbelief in Jesus.  And she was in the church apparently when that happened. 

These are the kinds of revelations that you don‘t want to be dribbling out day after day after day after day. 

GREGORY:  Right.  But these are the kinds of questions that Barack Obama faced as well.

MADDOW:  Absolutely.  The parallels actually are uncanny.

GREGORY:  “Washington Post” columnist, associate editor Eugene Robinson, McCain‘s strategist, Steve Schmidt, as Rachel just alluded to, took the pushback on the vetting question even farther. 

This is what he told NBC‘s “First Read” this morning: “This vetting controversy is a faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee for vice president of the United States who has never been a part of the old boys network that has come to dominate the news establishment in this country.  Senator McCain picked his governing partner after a long and thorough search.  Governor Palin looks forward to addressing the nation and laying out the fundamental choice this election represents for the American people.”

Fair assessment, Gene? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, blaming the messenger is a tradition that goes back thousands of years.  So, look, we‘ll find out as revelations continue to come out, as we learn more about Sarah Palin.  We‘ll learn if this is a sexist media frenzy or a legitimate inquiry into a woman who will be a heartbeat away from the presidency if John McCain wins. 

We don‘t know yet.  This long and thorough vetting process doesn‘t seem to have brought out everything that‘s of interest to the public, but I have a feeling everything will come out in due time. 

GREGORY:  But isn‘t the reality here that it is a question that goes to the heart of John McCain‘s decision-making, which is what Republicans and Democrats agree is what we‘re supposed to judge in this big decision of a running mate? 

ROBINSON:  Absolutely.  I wrote a column the other day saying it‘s really not about Sarah Palin.  She is who she is.  You know, she seems like an interesting woman and a capable woman. 

But, how did John McCain reach this decision?  The interview, the day before he named her.  Can you possibly know everything you need to know in that compressed a time frame?  I‘m not sure that you can. 

GREGORY:  OK.

MSNBC Chief Washington Correspondent and anchor Norah O‘Donnell here as well. 

Last night on our primetime coverage here on MSNBC, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich defended Governor Palin‘s experience when interviewed by Ron Allen. 

Let‘s watch that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINRICH ®, FMR. SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  She has a stronger resume than Obama.  She‘s been a real mayor, he hasn‘t.  She has been a real governor, he hasn‘t.  She‘s been in charge of the Alaska National Guard, he hasn‘t. 

She was a whistleblower who defeated an incumbent mayor.  He has never once shown that kind of courage.  She‘s a whistleblower who turned in the chairman of her own party and got him fined $12,000.  I‘ve never seen Obama do one thing like that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Is this a case where Gingrich is right?  On the experience question, is it at least a draw or close enough to be muddled in a debate? 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  It is true that she has some executive experience by being a governor.  She is the commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard.  She has managed a budget.  So she‘s made some of those decisions. 

She‘s actually, I‘m told by her advisers, going to talk about challenging the old boys network in that sort of way in her speech tonight.  But interestingly, Obama actually challenged her on this by saying that him running his presidential campaign was much more difficult than her running a small town, and was all (ph) that she‘s from. 

GREGORY:  Right.  Well, it also highlighted the fact that he doesn‘t have any executive experience until he actually ran a campaign. 

O‘DONNELL:  Right.

GREGORY:  Which is no small endeavor, by the way.  It is a big enterprise, but it‘s not exactly apples and apples. 

Radio talk show host Michael Smerconish also here, a columnist for “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and “The Daily News.” 

William Ruger (ph) is a political science professor at Texas State University.  Almost a month before John McCain chose Palin—that‘s what‘s interesting—wrote a piece in Alaska‘s “Anchorage Daily News” outlining the five pluses to having Palin on the ticket. 

Here‘s what they are.  She provides much-needed energy and youth to the ticket.  She gives frustrated Hillary voters a reason to shift over to McCain.  Also, she is far from a Washington insider as you can get.  And she can help McCain focus on energy security.  They actually disagree about drilling in ANWR.

Ruger‘s (ph) final plus for Palin is that she fuses the two pillars of the Reagan revolution, traditional conservatives and Libertarian Republicans. 

Your take? 

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  My take is that if you were to poll the folks who have gathered here in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Reagan is a name that I‘m increasingly hearing invoked.  She has energized this base like no other name that was on the landscape.  I‘ve come around to the view now that Mitt Romney, Tom Ridge, who I thought would have been a smart pick, would never have engendered the enthusiasm that exists in this crowd tonight, and will blow the lid off this stadium in just a couple of hours. 

GREGORY:  There‘s also an effort going on, Rachel, to create an icon here, I think, by the McCain campaign and by Republicans generally.  It is to say—you know, to make the argument like that old country music song, “If loving you is wrong, I don‘t want to be right.” 

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW:  I would be so happy to hear John McCain croon that as a way of explaining how he picked her.  But I mean, honestly, I think it comes back to what you and Gene were discussing, which is that this is a story about how John McCain picked his vice president.  And Americans don‘t vote for or against vice president, but that choice does reflect on the president‘s judgment, or the would-be president‘s judgment.  And that‘s what we vote on. 

GREGORY:  But I do think this is a serious point.  I was making light of it, but, in fact, I think the McCain campaign and Republicans in general are saying look what they are doing.  Look what the beltway crowd is doing.  They are trying to demonize somebody who‘s outside of Washington, all the more reason to give her, A, a fair hearing, and to like her all the more. 

MADDOW:  How is she being demonized though?  I mean, these aggressive pushback on the media being mean to the Palin children, I haven‘t seen anybody be mean to the Palin children. 

And I feel like, you know, saying that everything is sexism, you can‘t talk to her about the abuse of power investigation, because that‘s sexism.  You can‘t talk to her about earmarks because that‘s sexism.  You can‘t talk to her about this association with the secessionist fringe party because that‘s sexism. 

I think it‘s really pushing it in terms of this being a sexist attack. 

ROBINSON:  Or you can‘t talk to her at all at the moment. 

O‘DONNELL:  Right.

GREGORY:  Right.

ROBINSON:  I mean, they haven‘t made her available and she hasn‘t made herself available. 

GREGORY:  But here‘s a question.  Why is it that when we talk about Barack Obama‘s inexperience, it seems to be compensated for by the fact that he‘s so inspiring in a lot of people‘s minds, that he‘s kind of a movement candidate, he has bipartisan sensibility, where if you stipulate that there‘s some relation in their experience level, we don‘t know whether Palin may have the same effect on people?  Fair? 

MADDOW:  I don‘t think that her inexperience is actually a great card against her.  I don‘t think it‘s the argument against her. 

ROBINSON:  Let me be elitist for a second.  He was president of Harvard Law Review.  You know?  He has some sterling credentials that lead you to believe he‘s a very, very capable person with the ability to tackle complex issues. 

And, you know, he‘s a really, really smart guy.  She may be a really, really smart woman.  We don‘t have that sort of record to really know that yet. 

GREGORY:  Right.  But not everybody considers the Harvard card essential in terms of being able to govern and do things right. 

ROBINSON:  And by the way, wasn‘t that an R&B song, “If loving you is wrong, I don‘t want to be right”? 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  The GOP has refused to answer further questions on the vetting process of Sarah Palin.  Joining me now for our “Daily Debrief” is veteran “Los Angeles Times” political correspondent, Mark Barabak, who has been reporting on this story.  He joins me from inside the Xcel Center.

Mark, it‘s good to see you, away from the campaign trail.  I remember we spent some time in 2000 together. 

What does your reporting tell you, A, about, are they really not providing details about the vetting?  Your reporting indicates otherwise. 

MARK BARABAK, “LOS ANGELES TIMES”:  Well, they are providing the details that they want to provide, basically all of which are driven to the point they‘re trying to make, which is that this was not a seat-of-the-pants last-minute decision.  They describe a process that goes all the way back to February, when Senator McCain met Governor Palin at a National Governors Association meeting in Washington, said they talked, said basically that the governor has been on John McCain‘s radar ever since then.  That they compiled rather thorough dossiers on a lot of people.

They wouldn‘t say who, but they‘ve made a point of saying that one of those individuals was Governor Palin.  And again, the details that were released all point to one thing, which is what they‘re saying over and over, not a seat-of-the-pants thing, very thoroughly vetted. 

Every time some new revelations come out, they say, oh, well, we knew that.  We know that, that was part of the vetting.  And then today, as you‘ve said, they are trying to cut it all off by saying we are done talking about this. 

GREGORY:  What‘s the threshold question to you?  You write about this in your piece.  What should we take away from all these questions about the vetting? 

BARABAK:  Well, you know, you‘re getting sort of two conflicting points of view.  You‘re getting the McCain campaign, which of course is saying very, very thorough.  You‘re getting other people—I‘ve spoken with others who are close to the campaign, I‘ve spoken with some folks in Alaska who would seem to be fairly obvious people who you would approach in this sort of process, and they say, we‘ve never heard from anybody. 

You know, it‘s what you all have been saying.  I think the fundamental question is, what does this say about John McCain‘s judgment, the way he makes decisions?  What is the process that he will bring to the White House?  Is this vetting or, as someone suggests, lack thereof, suggestive of the kind of judgment ad decision-making he would bring to the White House? 

GREGORY:  Ultimately, voters are going to look at her and not only make a decision about whether she can be president, but they want to know how McCain approaches difficult decisions.  Is it fair to say, based on your reporting, that the experience level between Obama and Palin is at least similar? 

BARABAK:  You know, that‘s a really subjective question.  You know, how do you weigh what she has done in her life with children, balancing a large family with government, versus Barack Obama‘s experience in the legislature, Harvard Law, as was mentioned?  I mean, that‘s something I don‘t think I can answer, frankly.  That‘s something the voters are going to have to decide over the next couple months. 

GREGORY:  Right.  And I think that‘s right.  And we‘ll continue to examine that, but I think the debate goes on kind of circulating around that question.  And there‘s a lot of spin on both sides to try to hope voters zero in on the decision.

Mark, thanks very much for taking the time. 

BARABAK:  Thanks for having me. 

GREGORY:  Coming next, Sarah Palin is still in her first term as Alaskan governor.  Does she have the experience to be the deputy commander in chief?  I will put the question to a U.S. governor when the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE continues.

We‘re live from the Republican convention in St. Paul on a gorgeous evening here.  We‘re back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R-AK), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  And I pledge to Senator McCain and to you and to all America that I will give this great responsibility all that I have to give. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to THE RACE.

That was Alaska Governor Sarah Palin on the campaign trail in Missouri over the weekend. 

Joining me now, Republican Governor of Utah Jon Huntsman. 

Let‘s look at these credentials, Governor: first-term governor, former White House staff assistant to Ronald Reagan, former ambassador to Singapore.  You look at those credentials, I ask you, are you qualified to be vice president? 

GOV. JON HUNTSMAN ®, UTAH:  Well, I don‘t know, was Harry Truman when he assumed the vice presidency, and after three months after FDR passed away?  And in his position with no foreign policy experience, the end of World War II, the Korean War, the creation of the United Nations, NATO, the Marshall Plan, never traveled except as warriors.  Basically, unschooled on foreign policy.  I mean, if you look through history, you can find examples of people with decent experience and good judgment who rise to the occasion. 

GREGORY:  Is the argument that you‘re making and you think the McCain camp is making is that she‘s indeed, today, prepared to be commander in chief on day one, should that be necessary? 

HUNTSMAN:  I think we‘re saying that John McCain‘s choice was to find the future of the Republican Party.  He wanted to find somebody with the requisite experience and the right kind of profile to do what needed to be done to rally people within the party, and a sense of what the future might look like. 

GREGORY:  That‘s a really important point; however, that‘s not the point that John McCain made when he said what was the top criterion for picking a vice president.  It was somebody who could assume the presidency. 

HUNTSMAN:  He has said that, but he‘s also said, I‘m going to find somebody who represents the future of the Republican Party.  I heard that over and over again. 

GREGORY:  So, the question is, is she ready? 

HUNTSMAN:  Well, I think she will be ready. 

GREGORY:  She will be at one point.

HUNTSMAN:  You have somebody...

GREGORY:  In other words, it‘s a learning curve for her on the job? 

HUNTSMAN:  You have got weeks to go in the campaign.  You have got—and the vice presidency.  And I have every confidence in the fact that somebody who today represents a state that has 24,000 employees, a $10 billion budget—she has 2,000 soldiers who are part of the National Guard.

GREGORY:  Right.

HUNTSMAN:  She has two wings of aircraft, including heavy lift aircraft, who are deployed all over the world.  She‘s been mayor of a small town.  She‘s a mother of five, a special needs child, a son about ready to deploy over to Iraq.  I mean, look at...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  So your position is, in the course of this campaign, she will be ready to be commander in chief? 

HUNTSMAN:  Oh, I have every confidence that she has had the kind of experience that Americans are going to be looking for. 

GREGORY:  Obama had Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, as you know, on his VP short list.  And here is what Karl Rove, former senior adviser to President Bush, said about Governor Kaine‘s qualifications to be VP on “Face the Nation” last month.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, FMR. SR. BUSH ADVISER:  With all due respect, again, to Governor Kaine, he‘s been a governor for three years.  He‘s been able but undistinguished.  I don‘t think people could really name a big, important thing that he‘s done. 

He was mayor of the 105th largest city in America.  And again, with all due respect, Richmond, Virginia, it‘s smaller than Chula Vista, California; Aurora, Colorado; Mesa or Gilbert, Arizona; North Las Vegas or Henderson Nevada.  It‘s not a big town. 

So, if he were to pick Governor Kaine, it would be an intensely political choice where he said, you know what?  I‘m really not first and foremost concerned with, is this person capable of being president of the United States? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Karl Rove is no longer in a position of power in the White House, but that view has been shared by you and others in terms of the qualifications of Governor Palin.  And yet, what he‘s saying there, is that to be cast off?  I mean, isn‘t that the sort of criticism that could be leveled at Governor Palin as well?

HUNTSMAN:  Well, I guess it could be, but I disagree with what Karl Rove just said.  I know Governor Kaine.  He is an excellent governor.  And I thought he was perfectly qualified to assume the vice presidency, and then the presidency, if he had been called on.  So, you know, Karl Rove may be speaking, you know, his talking points from wherever he gets them, but I happen to think that Governor Kaine is an excellent person.  

GREGORY:  Would you stipulate, based on her experience, that her experience and Obama‘s experience are roughly equal, and they‘re equally prepared to be a commander in chief? 

HUNTSMAN:  No, I think Governor Palin has much different experience. 

It‘s a much different set of circumstances when you‘re a chief executive... 

GREGORY:  How is it qualitatively better than Obama‘s experience? 

HUNTSMAN:  You are running a large organization.  You‘ve got a budget of, like, $10 billion.

GREGORY:  Like he is.  He‘s running a campaign, as he points out.

HUNTSMAN:  Come on.  That‘s—you can‘t even draw that parallel. 

You‘re running a major undertaking, a major enterprise.  You‘ve got budgets to prepare.  You‘ve got a cabinet you have to manage.  You‘ve got social service, you‘ve got transportation, you have corrections. 

All of them under the purview of a governor.  You have a tremendously complex management undertaking, not to mention the fact she oversees the largest geographic state in the United States.  I mean, it borders Russia and it borders Canada, if you want any foreign policy experience there.  And think of the multiplicity of relationships she would have with the federal government to be able to do that successfully. 

GREGORY:  But just to be clear, what you‘re saying, despite your excitement, is, you‘re not saying she‘s prepared now, you‘re saying over the course of the campaign, she will acquire the requisite experience to be able to assume the presidency? 

HUNTSMAN:  She has a level of preparedness now that leaves John McCain and everyone around John McCain to believe that she has what it takes. 

GREGORY:  Right.  But voters are going to make this determination. 

HUNTSMAN:  They‘re going to make this determination.

GREGORY:  Right.  And you think she‘s not there yet?

HUNTSMAN:  I think they like what they see.  You know, I hear the punditocracy in New York and Washington.  They are getting this one totally wrong. 

GREGORY:  All right.

HUNTSMAN:  Families in America can relate to exactly to what her family is going through and the Sarah Palin experience. 

GREGORY:  And there‘s a lot of excitement, as you pointed out, in your delegation and on the floor.

HUNTSMAN:  There is.

GREGORY:  Governor, thanks for you views. 

HUNTSMAN:  It‘s a pleasure.

GREGORY:  Appreciate it very much.

Coming next on RACE‘s radar, Obama says that he‘s interested in what the Republicans are not talking about at their convention.  We‘ll show you what he said to women voters in Ohio, coming right up. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now with a look what is on THE RACE‘s radar today.

While Republicans get revved up in St. Paul, Barack Obama is talking about the economy and courting female voters in the Rust Belt.  Today, at a women and economy forum in Ohio, Obama said he has been watching the GOP convention and he doesn‘t like what he‘s not hearing. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Last night, when they were speaking, all these speakers came up.  You did not hear a single word about the economy. 

Now, think about it.  Not once did people mention the hardships that folks are going through.  Not once did they mention what are we going to do about keeping jobs here in Ohio?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Smerc, he‘s right about this, Republicans do need to get to that in the course of this convention.  They can‘t leave here without a real blueprint. 

SMERCONISH:  They do, and time is running short.  And who would have thought in a campaign that began by talking about terrorism, then shifted to the economy, all of a sudden now abortion is escalating on the list?  And this convention stands poised to condone a platform that doesn‘t contain an exception for rape, incest or the life of a mother.  

GREGORY:  But in fairness, Norah, day one of the Democratic convention didn‘t include a lot about the economy either.  It was about redefining Barack Obama.  Presumably, the Republicans will get there.

O‘DONNELL:  Absolutely.  And introducing Michelle Obama, which many people said needed to be done. 

So they‘re going to there a bit tonight with Romney speaking, Giuliani speaking.  We‘re also going to hear from Cindy McCain.  So what part of the message should do tonight is to push back really hard on energy and the economy. 

GREGORY:  All right.

Coming next, can Obama take a cue from the man who beat McCain by tagging him as a Washington insider?  Remember him, George W. Bush?  A maverick flashback, when THE RACE returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  The Palin preview, as the rock star of the Republican party takes center stage.  Will McCain‘s big bet pay off?

Plus, McCain and Bush through the years, have bitter rivals turned into best buds with the president‘s big endorsement? 

With the feeling of early fall here in the air in St. Paul, welcome back to THE RACE.  Bitter rivals turned friend-enemies last night, as President Bush, via satellite, praised McCain as the right man for the job and, quote, ready to lead this nation.  A stark contrast from the mud slinging and bitterness between McCain and Bush of the 2000 presidential election.  We‘re taking a look at Bush and McCain, then and now.  Our dream team panel is still with us, Eugene Robinson, Norah O‘Donnell, Rachel Maddow and Michael Smerconish. 

President Bush alluded to past differences with McCain when he addressed the convention last night. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  John is an independent man who thinks for himself.  He‘s not afraid to tell you when he disagrees.  Believe me, I know. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Rachel, he does know.  He knows from back in 2000 and he certainly knows from particularly his first administration, his fist four years. 

MADDOW:  That was a nice self-deprecating moment from the president, I thought.  He‘s essentially recognizing, listen, it is a positive for John McCain politically that he‘s been as standing up for me.  I‘m going to share that with you.  It‘s kind of as far as he could go with that.  I thought it was a nice moment for the president.  I do think it has to be noted that President Bush‘s name was not spoken by any of the speakers last night, not once.  The word Bush was not spoken, nor were the president‘s or the first lady‘s comments noted on the RNC website today.  It‘s as if they did not exist. 

GREGORY:  It‘s striking to me, Smerc, having covered the Bush presidency, having covered the 2000 election, there was the president last night, not physically in the hall, making an argument that the only person capable, in effect, of picking up his mantle is John McCain, with whom there‘s so much bitterness.  A political figure the party has never really loved.  And yet it falls to McCain as perhaps the best hope of preserving Republican power.  It is a dramatic turn around. 

SMERCONISH:  I think I understand it.  My argument would be that it‘s all about the president‘s legacy.  The best hope he has for maintaining or enhancing his legacy is the election of John McCain.  How bad could those years have been, if, in the end, they stuck with the Republican party. 

GREGORY:  I think if they stick with the Republican party, it‘s going to be because McCain is successful at redefining it away from George W.  Bush.  Here is then candidate George Bush attacking John McCain early in the 2000 presidential campaign. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  The reality is he is the person who has been the Washington insider. 

What I need to do is make it clear and not let Senator McCain get away with this Washington double talk. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  There‘s a road map there.  There‘s a road map for Obama, there, Gene. 

ROBINSON:  Right.  Both campaigns are going to be going back into the video archives and pulling out things like that.  That is a gem and I think the Obama campaign can use it.  But it‘s true.  I mean, John McCain has been in Washington for a long time.  And to paint himself as an outsider, the entire Republican party as some sort of maverick party is a bit of a stretch. 

GREGORY:  That‘s a question I want to ask the governor as well, which is is there a danger in all the buzz he‘s creating for Sarah Palin that she will overshadow him? 

O‘DONNELL:  I don‘t think she overshadows him.  She‘s doing exactly what he needed.  She‘s energizing this base.  Let me tell you something, I spoke with some Republicans last night, who pointed out to me that there were a lot of empty seats in the hall last night.  I don‘t think it‘s going to be the case tonight.  I think that‘s one thing I‘m going to be watching for, the energy and excitement level.  There has been an enthusiasm gap for the Republicans and John McCain.

GREGORY:  I think this is a bit of a thrill ride.  There‘s excitement and there is a lot of nervousness.  Honestly, you hear it from the delegates, well, we‘ll see. 

O‘DONNELL:  You hear from everyone who comes out to support her on this ticket say, well, we‘ll see how she does tonight.  It falls on her. 

ROBINSON:  There‘s very high expectations tonight, too.  It‘s a very high bar for her to meet. 

GREGORY:  Speaking to Republicans in St. Paul again last night, President Bush didn‘t pull any punches, drawing a contrast between John McCain and the other side of the political aisle. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  Fellow citizens, if the Hanoi Hilton could not break John McCain‘s resolve to do what‘s best for the country, you can be sure the angry left never will. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Joining me now is Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee .  Congressman, welcome. 

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND:  David, it‘s great to be with you. 

GREGORY:  How do you respond to the comment from the president? 

VAN HOLLEN:  Well, George Bush had it exactly right eight years ago when he said that John McCain was a Washington insider.  Now, they set up this convention to try and distance himself from George Bush.  But it‘s awful hard to run away from the fact that you have been voting with the president 90 percent of the time in Washington.  On the biggest issue of concern to the American people, the economy, you‘re in lock step with the president. 

In fact, if you like George Bush‘s campaign on the economy, the way he‘s run the economy, you‘re going to love John McCain.  I think the fact that we didn‘t hear from them last night on the economy is an indication that they have got nothing to say, but more of the same. 

GREGORY:  Congressman, let me ask you about Governor Palin.  And let‘s go through the facts here.  There are still questions about whether Senator Obama is qualified and experienced enough to be commander and chief.  Those are questions within the Democratic party.  Notwithstanding the fact that Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton now vouch for him, there were still 18 million voters who had questions about that, who voted for her.  Why not apply the same standard, and say, if Barack Obama can surmount those questions, because he‘s got a bipartisan sensibility, he‘s inspiring, he‘s such a terrific speaker; we don‘t know if Governor Palin is capable of that as well, and perhaps she can surmount some of the questions about her lack of experience. 

VAN HOLLEN:  I think the issue boils down to judgment, at the end of the day.  What we have seen from this administration with Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld is the amount of time you spent in Washington is not an indicator about whether or not you‘ll have good judgment.  What Barack Obama has done now for more than 19 months on the campaign trail is talked about his vision of where to take this country, both at home and abroad.  He‘s answered the questions on national security. 

With Sarah Palin, we just have a blank slate right now.  They‘re going to have to fill that in.  It was a very risky choice.  It tells us a lot about John McCain‘s decision making process, where he‘s having to find out a lot more about her in the days since he decides to chose her as vice presidential running mate than before. 

GREGORY:  You will concede that yes, you don‘t know a lot about her, but you have nothing to suggest that her judgment is flawed and that Obama‘s judgment is any better.  You‘re just saying you don‘t know. 

VAN HOLLEN:  We know what Obama‘s judgment is on these issues.  He‘s been tested.  He‘s been asked on the campaign trail.  He‘s answered lots and lots of questions.  What we do know about her is she‘s not rendered any judgments on important issues like national security issues and national economic issues.  So they are going to have to fill in that slate.  What we do know is that much of what they have told us so far about her has turned out to be quite not the case. 

They have tried to present her as a reformer.  It turns out she was for the bridge to nowhere before she was against it.  She had a Washington lobbyist to get earmarks.  They say they are not for ear marks.  She‘s under investigation in Alaska.  These are facts.  So what we have learned is that John McCain rushed to judgment on this issue.  And it‘s one thing if you personally are bearing the consequences of that.  It‘s another thing to ask the American people to bare that risk. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you about Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, who was the keynote speaker at last night‘s convention.  He was on the ticket as a running mate in 2000.  Now, he‘s making a direct appeal to independents and Democrats to vote for McCain.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIEBERMAN:  Some of you may have never voted for a Republican before, and, frankly, in an ordinary election, you probably never would.  I want you to believe with me that this is no ordinary election. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  No ordinary election.  How do you feel about Senator Lieberman? 

VAN HOLLEN:  David, for Senator Lieberman, this is all about Iraq.  He was with George Bush on Iraq.  He was with John McCain on Iraq.  I think the American people decided that going into Iraq the way we did was the wrong decision.  We took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan.  Barack Obama‘s been right.  We continue to see al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden gather in strength there. 

What we saw in the midterm Congressional elections last time around, where independents were the deciding vote, was that they did not like the course the president took on Iraq.  So for Joe Lieberman to come to the Republican convention and say, stick with me and George Bush and John McCain on Iraq, I don‘t think it‘s going to sway any independent voters.  It may mean that Joe Lieberman loses some support among independent voters for himself. 

GREGORY:  All right, Congressman Chris Van Hollen, thank you very much for joining us inside the Xcel Center tonight. 

Coming up next, McCain puts a spotlight on security, an area where polls show he still has a pretty big advantage over Obama.  I‘m going to go inside the war room with Mike Murphy and Rachel Maddow when THE RACE returns.  We‘re live from the Republican Convention in St. Paul.  Sarah Palin on deck tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY:  In Afghanistan and Iraq, 50 million people are now living in freedom.  And let‘s not forget, President Bush has kept the American people safe. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to THE RACE, live from St. Paul and the Republican National Convention.  Tonight, Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin take center stage, each touching on national security and women‘s issues.  Are these area‘s where McCain will deliver a knock out punch against Obama?  We‘re going to go inside the war room now with Republican strategist Mike Murphy and MSNBC political analyst Rachel Maddow. 

All right, the latest NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll, taken in mid August, shows just how big McCain‘s advantage is on some of these national security questions, questions about who better can handle issues on national security.  On handling Iraq, McCain has a ten point advantage over Obama.  On handling an international crisis, McCain has a 25 point advantage, 52 to 27 percent.  Handling terrorism, a 28 point advantage, 51 to 23 percent. 

Mike, those numbers may shrink a little bit out of the Democratic convention, when pollsters are able to get back into the field some, because of the work done at the Democratic Convention.  But we saw on the first night of this convention a doubling down on that argument.  And Laura Bush I thought brought up an important point, which is the country hasn‘t been hit again since 9/11. 

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Right, I think that‘s a very important point.  In campaigns, you generally have a strategic choice.  You either litigate the top issue, which is the economy, or you take another strong issue, like national defense and security, where you have an advantage like McCain does, and you move it up.  You make it more important.  That‘s what the McCain campaign is doing.  I think it‘s smart. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, I talk to Republicans who say, look, if he can get into the debate about change, he may not win it, but if can keep a bigger advantage on national security, then he‘s in business. 

MADDOW:  The only unexpected thing in this campaign is that Obama has shown an enthusiasm for engaging on the issue of national security.  He says the response to 9/11, I would have done it differently.  I would have stayed focused on bin Laden.  We wouldn‘t have gone to Iraq.  I will get us out of Iraq now.  We will not stay indefinitely.  Obama feels like he‘s in his strong suit when he‘s on national security issues, which I think doesn‘t necessarily fit into the usual calculus. 

GREGORY:  There‘s going to be more of a debate too.  McCain‘s former rival, Fred Thompson, told Republicans last night that America is winning in Iraq thanks to John McCain. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

THOMPSON:  This man, John McCain, is not intimidated by what the polls say or what is political safe or popular.  At a point and time when the war in Iraq was going badly and the public lost confidence, John stood up and called for more troops.  Now, we are winning. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Mike? 

MURPHY:  I think Rachel is on to something there.  Both are jumping into each other‘s category.  But McCain is a different kind of Republican.  He can fight the change Washington war and he can own national security. 

If on election day he‘s done those two things, I think he wins. 

GREGORY:  Rachel?

MADDOW:  I don‘t know how McCain fights the change Washington war, anymore.  I think the John McCain of 2000 did.  I think the John McCain of 2008, you already saw the Democrats nudging into this old John McCain versus new John McCain stuff at their own convention.  Last night, the fact that it was almost like a do over of 2000, like the last eight years had not happened at all.  To have that embrace of McCain by Bush last night I think reminds Americans that McCain right now does have a 90 percent accordance rate with Bush. 

MURPHY:  It‘s the oldest rule in politics, after the primary, you go to the center.  John McCain has won his primary.  He‘ll be voted in as the nominee.  Then the real general election begins now.  I think McCain will be the real McCain, which is a centrist different kind of Republican. 

MADDOW:  How can they be going to the center though when they are elevating abortion, when they are saying, let‘s crusade on abortion?  That‘s not a centrist -- 

MURPHY:  They‘re a right to life party.  They talk about it. 

MADDOW:  Fred Thompson said last night that essentially Barack Obama wants to kill babies. 

MURPHY:  I didn‘t hear that. 

MADDOW:  Newborn children, that he does not want to protect newborns.  He almost went so far as accusing him of supporting infanticide.  They are putting abortion front and center.  They didn‘t pick Ridge or Lieberman.  They picked a very strong pro-life candidate.  They‘re moving on this issue. 

GREGORY:  I want to talk a little about tactics of the McCain campaign, on the vetting issue and beyond.  Maureen Dowd writes in the “New York Times” today that Republicans are playing the sexism card to counter attacks on Palin.  This is how she writes it: “when McCain gets in trouble, he pulls out the POW card.  Now Republicans are pulling out the sexist card.  Hillary cried sexism to cover up her incompetent management of her campaign.  Now Republicans have picked up that trick.  But when you use sexism as an across the board shield for any legitimate question, you only hurt women and that‘s just another splash of reality.” 

MURPHY:  Gender politics is always tricky and dangerous.  I think you never try to make a tactic out of it.  I would disagree.  I don‘t think there‘s any POW card.  There‘s a POW fact.  He‘s a hero.  It doesn‘t mean he ought to be president.  It sure credentials him as quite an American.  I resent the fact that that‘s how she labeled it. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you about this general idea—I keep going back to this reference because I like it so much, which is Republicans are arguing, if loving her is wrong, I don‘t want to be right, to really—to use this argument against the media that all this scrutiny, all the questions is a way, just like was done to Ronald Reagan, that we must be on to something if the beltway crowd doesn‘t like it. 

MURPHY:  I think one of the things that happens in our ultra-fast Internet web news world is stuff sometimes moves too fast and boundaries are ignored.  So facts are totally legitimate.  They ought to be discussed.  People ought to know.  They can figure it for themselves.  Hot commentary and speculation out in the unpleased world of the Internet that crosses over and is maybe picked up and reported on too quickly is a mistake and I think it could really backfire. 

MADDOW:  I think the difference between using something as a card and involving an issue in the debate is whether or not you something to deflect legitimate questions.  I think the criticism of John McCain on the POW issue is that he said, don‘t ask me about not knowing how many houses I have, I was a POW.  It doesn‘t seem like a politically relevant rejoinder. 

Same thing with the Sarah Palin situation right now on the gender issue on sexism.  I don‘t think it‘s sexist to ask about the abuse of power investigation in Alaska.  They are using sexism as an allegation against people who are asking about legitimate political questions like that.  That‘s why I think it‘s playing the sexist card. 

MURPHY:  There is no more trivial issue than a gaffe about how many houses his wife owns.  I can‘t think of any smaller, less important issue in the campaign than that. 

MADDOW:  Unless John McCain‘s trying to make himself seem like a man of the people, and he doesn‘t know how many houses he owns.  Then it‘s a big deal. 

GREGORY:  All right.  A lot more debate to be had.  Thanks to both of you for being here.  Coming next, the governor many thought would be McCain‘s VP.  I will talk with Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty about the woman who got the job.  THE RACE will be right back.  We‘re live from St.  Paul and the Republican convention. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Tonight Minnesota, where Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, John McCain‘s running mate, is just hours away now from delivering her much anticipated speech.  You‘ll see it all here live in our coverage on MSNBC.  Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota joins me live from the Xcel Center. 

Governor, are you in there? 

GOV. TIM PAWLENTY ®, MINNESOTA:  I‘m right here, David. 

GREGORY:  Nice to see you there.  So in a couple hours, behind you, in front of a very, very large flag, Sarah Palin is going to speak.  What is the test for her tonight? 

PAWLENTY:  It‘s her chance to introduce herself better to the country, to explain her values and priorities and vision to the country, how that aligns with John McCain.  I think she‘s going to do a great job.  I think they have written a great speech for her.  She‘s well prepared.  I think you‘re going to see it turn out to be very positive. 

GREGORY:  Would you concede that, as much excitement as there is on that convention floor, there‘s also a fair amount of nervousness about her? 

PAWLENTY:  I think what you see is reaction by the press to look into her and to explore her background and record.  As long as it‘s on her record and issues, I think that‘s fair.  But some of the things the press and others are delving seems a little out of bounds—is out of bounds, David, like this situation with her 17-year-old daughter.  That‘s not relevant to her ability to be vice president. 

GREGORY:  I‘ll tell you, governor, until you mentioned it, it hadn‘t come up at all this hour.  My question is not about the press.  My question is about the nervousness among Republicans. 

PAWLENTY:  I don‘t sense that.  I think the base that is here and the activists that are here are well represented by this convention, is very excited and positive about Governor Palin.  I don‘t sense any nervousness or hesitation amongst the Republican base.  But there‘s still a lot of people across the country who want to get to know her, want to know what she‘s like, what she‘s about, what her values are.  That‘s what that speech is about, taking the next step down that trail tonight. 

GREGORY:  Let me get back to the issue of press criticism, of which there is a lot.  I don‘t deny that.  “The Wall Street Journal” defended McCain‘s choice of Palin and attacked the press, writing this in an editorial today, “this is the same media whose chant for weeks, no months, has been let McCain be McCain.  If we know anything about John McCain it is that he is, by instinct, a reformer, sometimes to a fault.  Yet when he acts like McCain and pick a maverick reformer in his own mold, his former media cheering squad turns on him for not conforming to beltway mores.” 

In some way, do you think that media commentary of Sarah Palin is quite a favor to the McCain campaign, is helping turning her into an icon? 

PAWLENTY:  I think if you continue to see the media bash her unfairly and delve into personal matters that either aren‘t accurate or aren‘t relevant to her job qualifications as vice presidential candidate, there‘s going to be a backlash in her favor.  I think you‘re starting to see some of that already. 

GREGORY:  Governor, David Brooks in the “New York Times” wrote recently about you—this is back in May—“Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, is one of the Republican party‘s leading and most likable modernizers, the son of a truck driver.  He is the God father of Sam‘s Club conservatism, the effort to reconnect the party to the needs of the working class.  Pawlenty could help McCain play the Theodore Roosevelt style role of reforming the nation‘s institutions to fit a new century and epoch.” 

Obviously, that‘s why you were on the short list.  Can you make the case for how Sarah Palin, reflecting your own views about the reformation of the party, is capable of bringing that kind of reform. 

PAWLENTY:  First of all, it starts with being able to walk the walk.  Her life story and background gives her credibility to speak to people that I call Sam‘s Club Republicans.  But also her positions do in many instances.  For example, when you shop at Sam‘s Club, you don‘t have more money to spend.  You want value for the money that you do spend.  They want that in government too.  People are saying hey, look, I think we are taxed enough.  I do want the money that I‘m spending on government to be effective and I want it to be accountable for results.  That‘s one of the many Sam‘s Club example principles that Sarah Palin possesses, that I think will translate well to many voters. 

GREGORY:  Finally, on the experience question, which seems to be—I don‘t think you‘re challenging that.  It‘s a fair area of inquiry for reporters and commentators alike.  Would you stipulate, given your defense of Sarah Palin and her credentials as a governor and former mayor, that Barack Obama and she have equal readiness to become president? 

PAWLENTY:  Not when it comes to executive experience, David.  I think the presidency is an executive position.  It‘s one thing to be a legislator, and I was one in my former life, a majority leader as well.  But that‘s different than being an executive.  I have done both.  Sarah Palin has executive experience as a mayor, as a governor.  Barack Obama does not have that.  It‘s something that‘s missing from his tool box. 

GREGORY:  Governor Pawlenty, thanks very much.  I just have to tell you, on a gorgeous day in St. Paul, I have fallen in love with this place.  Thank you for having us. 

PAWLENTY:  Send us some of that big paycheck while you‘re here. 

GREGORY:  OK.  Rapid response here for Mike Murphy and Rachel Maddow. 

Rachel, thoughts about Governor Pawlenty.

MADDOW:  It is hard to hear that so much of the Republican media strategy now around Governor Palin is to try to say the media is misbehaving.  The media is misbehaving.  For him to say that her life story is relevant, positive terms, and tells us how she‘s walked the talk, as he said, but then her life story can‘t be discussed in anything but positive terms, because that‘s an unfair attacks.  This just seems liked a very thin response to me.  It doesn‘t seem that -- 

GREGORY:  What I said about the pregnancy issue, there‘s a difference between a story and an issue.  It‘s a story.  She‘s a public person.  She‘s dealing with someone a lot families deal with across the country.  Whether it should be an issue is an entirely different matter. 

MURPHY:  I think there had been some irresponsible attempts to make it an issue, as opposed to a story.  I think that‘s unfair and unfortunate.  It will probably backfire.  The good news is all this process talk we have that‘s raging right now because we have all this news to fill, is—a lot of it will start going away when she gets to do the great American thing of making her case for herself, which will begin tonight. 

Then, I think, if the campaign is smart, they will put her out there.  If she‘s as good as people perceive she could be, she‘ll do.  If she‘s not, they‘ll have a problem.  It‘s on her shoulders.  Tonight‘s the beginning.  She‘ll get to stand-up and litigate her case.  I think a lot of this will go away.

GREGORY:  Quickly, I don‘t think there‘s anybody, Rachel, in the McCain campaign who doesn‘t recognize the risk here.  They just see the potential upside.

MADDOW:  Yes.  But what‘s their path to get to where they want to get to with this.  If the whole path is beat the media, say that the media is being inappropriate to her in some way, until they can turn up some examples of inappropriate—trying to make things political issues that aren‘t, I think that this is going to seem a little desperate. 

MURPHY:  The “US Magazine” cover, I think, was out of line.

GREGORY:  We‘re going to leave it there.  Mike Murphy, Rachel Maddow, thank you very much.  That does it for THE RACE for tonight.  I‘m David Gregory.  Thanks for the panel tonight.  Stay tuned to MSNBC.  Our live coverage of the big night her at the Republican National Convention.  It‘s going to be dramatic.  Sarah Palin takes center stage.  I‘ll be joining Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews.  MSNBC‘s special convention coverage continues now.

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