updated 9/4/2008 1:50:57 PM ET 2008-09-04T17:50:57

Guests: Norah O‘Donnell, Rick Davis, Rachel Maddow, Michael Smerconish, Eugene Robinson, Amy

Klobuchar, Peter King

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Welcome to THE RACE.  I‘m David Gregory, reporting tonight from Rice Park in St. Paul, Minnesota.  It is the site of the Republican National Convention. 

My headline tonight, “Don‘t Stand So Close to Me.”  President Bush is expected to address the Republican National Convention via satellite from the White House tonight.  The McCain campaign is walking a political tightrope around all this as the outgoing president, whose approval rating now hovers at about 31 percent, takes the spotlight this evening. 

The tactic, use the president to energize the Republican base tonight without damaging McCain‘s argument that he is the true candidate of change in this election.  A tall order as Obama‘s chorus of attacks linking McCain to Bush only grows louder. 

All this, as the McCain campaign defends its decision to add Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to the ticket.  Many questioning now, is she experienced enough to be, as team Obama says, a heartbeat away from the presidency? 

And then this curveball came.  Palin‘s 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant, a revelation made yesterday.  McCain himself responded to questions regarding the VP vetting process for the first time today.  This is what he told NBC News‘ Kelly O‘Donnell. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Senator, was your vetting process thorough enough? 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  My vetting process was completely thorough.  And I‘m grateful for the results. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Joining us with more on the decision to pick Sarah Palin and the goals for McCain‘s week at this Republican convention, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis is inside the hall. 

Rick, welcome. 

RICK DAVIS, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN MAANAGER:  Thanks for having me.

GREGORY:  All right.  Thank you very much.  We may have a little bit of a delay, so we‘ll bear with each other in the questioning and the answers. 

Let‘s talk about President Bush tonight.  I don‘t have to remind you, but I‘ll remind our viewers that, according to our latest polling, his approval rating stands at 31 percent.  Also not a secret to you, our viewers, that the Obama campaign has tried to make the argument that a term for John McCain, putting him in the White House, would be more of the same.  This is a new ad that they put up today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR:  They share the same out-of-touch attitude, the same failure to understand the economy, the same tax cuts for huge corporations and the wealthiest one percent.  The same questionable ties to lobbyists, the same plan to spend $10 billion a month in Iraq when we should be rebuilding America. 

MCCAIN:  I voted with the president over 90 percent of the time, higher than a lot of my even Republican colleagues. 

NARRATOR:  We just can‘t afford more of the same. 

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m Barack Obama, and I approved this message. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Rick, on a day when the president will speak, he will speak tonight, what is it that you hope he will say and what do you hope he will stay away from as you try to break that chain between your candidate and the president? 

DAVIS:  Well, you know, first of all, David, I think it‘s a really good indication of the level of desperation that the Democrats have come to when the greatest thing they have coming out of their convention is to try and pin John McCain on George Bush and vice versa.  Look, the American public have watched John McCain for a very long time.  They know who he is. 

They know that he has disagreed with this administration many times over the last eight years and agreed with it many times over the last eight years.  But the one thing he‘s done over and over again is he‘s put his country first.  And that‘s something we‘re going to talk about tonight.

We expect the American public, they are going to hear from us, unfettered by any network broadcast, at least for a little bit during the course of this evening.  And I think they‘re going see that the real McCain, the maverick McCain, the John McCain that always puts country ahead of self, is the one that they‘re going to get to vote on in November.  And I think that‘s the one that the Democrats are going to have a very hard time keeping down. 

GREGORY:  Rick, but what do you hope the president will say tonight? 

What do you hope he will avoid discussing? 

DAVIS:  Oh, I think the president will probably say that he appreciates the support that the American public has given the Gulf states during a very bad hurricane over this last couple of days.  I think that, you know, the American public should know it‘s the reason that John McCain asked the convention to not hold its first night of session, so that we can allow the public to remain focused on the Gulf and ensure that there‘s nothing that we do politically that distracts from that crisis.  I think both the president and our convention has done a terrific job of doing something that is not typical in our political system, and that is taking the back seat to what the national interests are. 

GREGORY:  Rick, we‘re watching on our screen here Rudy Giuliani, who is your keynoter tomorrow night, doing a run-through on the convention floor. 

Let me turn to the issue of Sarah Palin and questions that have been raised about frankly whether this campaign did its homework in learning about her background as governor and some personal details as well. 

Can you take me through what the vetting process was and how you worked through the information that it uncovered, including the pregnancy of her daughter, Bristol, and yet kept to the decision to put her on the ticket? 

DAVIS:  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.  And I‘m pretty sure that the whole reason there‘s so much debate about this process is because we‘re for the first time, we were able to keep a secret in our campaign and we were able to fool just about everybody with the announcement that was very exciting and electrified the electorate during the course of our announcement tour. 

GREGORY:  But is there a concern in your mind that there are questions about Sarah Palin that may be a distraction?  And are you also convinced at this point that there‘s nothing else in her background that would be disqualifying for this campaign and to keep her on the ticket? 

DAVIS:  David, we‘re confident that we know everything we need to know about Governor Palin and the administration that she did in the course of her nine years in office in Alaska.  We‘re very confident that she‘ll make a fine vice president.  We‘re very excited about her speech coming up tomorrow in this convention, which will give her the first time to really present her case to the American public about who she is and how she will govern, and what a great candidate she is for our ticket. 

GREGORY:  Finally, Rick, at the convention in Denver, on the final night, Barack Obama made a very specific case that boiled down to this: Who do you trust on the issue of change?  And he made an argument that you can‘t trust John McCain, that the next four would be the last eight, essentially, in people‘s minds. 

What‘s your response specifically going to be in the course of this convention to that charge? 

DAVIS:  Well, I don‘t think we have to respond to that.  I think the American public knows that John McCain is a maverick.  He‘ll lead this country in an independent fashion, he‘ll appeal really during this campaign to all voters, which is a lot different than the partisan negative attacks that were launched against him by Barack Obama in his final speech to his convention. 

Look, the public is going to have a very clear choice.  Do you want Barack Obama‘s kind of change of higher taxes, more restrictions of government, telling you what to do with your life?  Or do you want the John McCain America, the change that he‘s going to implement on Washington, which is a less corrupt, less bias government that will lower your taxes and allow you more choices with your life? 

GREGORY:  All right.  Rick Davis, campaign manager for the McCain campaign.

Look forward to speaking to you throughout the week. 

DAVIS:  Thank you, David.  Look forward to a great convention.

GREGORY:  All right.  Thanks very much. 

Let‘s bring in the dream team now for some rapid response: “Washington Post” columnist and associate editor, Eugene Robinson; MSNBC chief Washington correspondent and anchor, Norah O‘Donnell; Air America‘s Rachel Maddow, soon to be host of “THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW” right here on MSNBC; and radio talk show host Michael Smerconish, a columnist for “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and “The Daily News.” 

First up to you Rachel, the vetting question, the questions about Sarah Palin.  Rick didn‘t want to go there.  The truth is, behind the scenes, and even publicly, they are talking about their vetting process to make the case that what they learned was thorough and that they made a decision, particularly about the pregnancy of her daughter, that it was not a disqualifier. 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  There are two things going on.  One is the unexpected and previously unknown things about Sarah Palin that are so rapidly coming to light.  And yes, it‘s the pregnancy of the daughter, but it‘s a lot of political matters that aren‘t just personal matters—position on the Bridge to Nowhere, for example, the possible membership in the Alaskan Independence Party, which is contested between the Republican Party and that Independence Party. 

I mean, I feel like it actually boils down to a question about John McCain and how he made this decision.  Did he really only pick her after one conversation or two conversations?  If so, doesn‘t that mean he effectively ceded that decision to somebody else, or he just made it on a gut check level?

GREGORY:  Right.

MADDOW:  I don‘t think either of those is flattering to McCain as a decision maker.

GREGORY:  The Democrats, Smerc, say it was an impulsive decision, and, frankly, a political one, which these always are.  But in other words, a decision that was made for tactical reasons rather than reasons that concern how they would govern together.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  The theme of this convention is country first.  And only time is going to tell if the American people take a look at this decision-making process and believe that John McCain put his country first in selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate.  She seems like a fine individual, but the fact of the matter is that apparently, he spent one day, one-on-one, interviewing her. 

That was last Thursday.  That‘s a little shaky.  That‘s a little unsettling.

GREGORY:  The experience issue, Gene, is also what‘s critical here.  John McCain has said time and time again in the course of these primaries is his first consideration is somebody who could immediately take his place as president. 

Is Sarah Palin ready on day one? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, I don‘t know that she is.  I mean, I think the American people will have to decide, as Smerc said, whether or not Sarah Palin is really ready to be president.

It seems clearly that she was chosen to satisfy certain political requirements, or perhaps because she and McCain made some sort of soul mate connection, as he said.  But either way, one wonders if it really was country first.  That‘s the theme of the convention.  I think they are going to try to convince the American people that it was. 

GREGORY:  Norah, the question about Bristol Palin‘s pregnancy, did Barack Obama, when he said that kids are off limits, families are off limits, and by the way, my mother had me when she was 18 years old, did he close this conversation down?

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSBNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  No, I don‘t think so.  I think because what it becomes now is sort of a test for Americans to make a judgment about someone they don‘t know very much about. 

None of us have had the chance to talk to her.  She‘s only spoken really a couple times out on the stump.  We don‘t know very much about her.  And so people are starting to judge her by her daughter‘s behavior and until we hear more from her.

So, I don‘t think it‘s close the door.  But I think everybody does agree that children should be off limits. 

GREGORY:  OK.  We‘re going to take a break here.

Coming next, Senator Amy Klobuchar from right here in Minnesota, a strong Obama supporter.  She‘s going to join me here at Rice Park for the Democratic response on day two of the Republican convention.

RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE returns.  We‘re live in St. Paul right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

Senator John McCain is taking heat for picking first-term governor from Alaska, Sarah Palin.  The campaign now admitting that he only met with Palin a handful of times before choosing her as his running mate.  Is McCain‘s message, a leader you can believe in now, in question?

Facing off tonight on who is winning the leadership argument, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. 

And every time I see you, especially when I‘m here in Minnesota, I want to say (INAUDIBLE).  Huh?  How about that?  Pretty good, huh?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), MINNESOTA:  But we are very nice here in Minnesota, as the congressman from New York has noted. 

GREGORY:  Yes, that‘s right.

And Republican Congressman Peter King of New York. 

Welcome both.

REP. PETER KING ®, NEW YORK:  Maybe—I think the people here are too nice.  I can‘t think of...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Obama running mate Senator Joe Biden fielded questions on this question of Sarah Palin today at a town hall in Florida.  Listen to what he said. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  But there‘s no reason not to respect her and believe she‘s qualified to be the vice president.  I‘m not going to make that judgment.  That‘s the people—for you all to make.

I just simply—I‘m being completely honest with you.  I know people worry about Biden style and answering the question, but the truth is, I simply don‘t know.  And I take her on face value.  She‘s a governor.  That‘s no mean feet, and she seems to have a strong personal story. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  I understand you had a hard time hearing, the both of you. 

Senator Biden saying she appears to be, you know, capable, ready to lead.  Being governor, no mean feet.  But it‘s going to be up to the voters to decide whether she‘s in a position to be commander in chief. 

Congressman, let me start with you on the question surrounding whether McCain did his homework on this selection.  Are you confident based on what has developed that America knows everything it needs to know about her and that, more importantly, the McCain campaign knows everything about her that may prevent them from finding something disqualifying? 

KING:  Well, first of all, if you‘re talking about the two issues that came out, I don‘t consider that significant for the race.  I have faith in Senator McCain‘s judgment, certainly the impression she made when she first appeared on Friday has been very good.

But I agree, she does have the burden to show that she has the qualifications to be vice president and ultimately president.  I‘m confident she can do that, but it‘s going to be her burden over the next nine weeks to get that done. 

I think she‘ll do it.  I think beginning tomorrow night or Thursday night, whenever the final date is for her speaking, I think she‘ll do a very good job. 

And people I know who know her think she is very able, very capable, and certainly she has a dynamic personality and a very interesting—and a very good life story.  And women I have spoken to in my district, not necessarily the traditional Republican women, seem very intrigued by her.  So I think it‘s a home run right now, but it‘s a tough race.

GREGORY:  Senator Klobuchar, you called the choice impulsive. 

KLOBUCHAR:  Well, you know, we welcome her to this race.  And the concern I have is this meeting one time, when it‘s really the first test of John McCain as a presidential candidate in terms of who does he pick, how does he do it? 

Senator Obama interviewed many people.  He had a very thoughtful process.  And this concerns me that this was so last minute. 

I mean, I‘ve interviewed summer law clerks for longer times than this.  And I‘m very concerned this that he would go about it in a process.  And this is not to at all take away from her accomplishments and what she‘s done.  But as Walter Mondale—and you know this is the home of vice presidents, Minnesota.  Our moms bounce their babies on their knees and say, “One day you can grow up to be vice president.”  But I‘m just concerned that there wasn‘t more thought.

GREGORY:  All right.  So you think it was impulsive.  But if the question goes to experience, she‘s been governor of a state.  Barack Obama doesn‘t have any executive experience.  Why is he any more prepared than she is to lead, particularly on foreign policy matters? 

KLOBUCHAR:  Barack Obama has been a leader in this country.  I‘m a new person in the Senate.  I saw it firsthand.

I was out on my driveway driving to Washington with my family when he called me to talk about that ethics bill passed.  And it was one of the first things we passed in the Senate.  It wouldn‘t have happened without him.

You go through his career in the Illinois legislature, everything he‘s done, he‘s been a leader, he‘s shown good judgment.  And that, in the end, is what this is about.  And I think picking a vice presidential candidate in one meeting...

GREGORY:  Has she shown poor judgment? 

KLOBUCHAR:  We don‘t know.  America has to do its homework.  We have 63 days and we have just met this woman. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you...

KING:  If we‘re talking about leadership and judgment, I mean, Senator Obama based his campaign against the war in Iraq, and yet he never took the time to meet with David Petraeus.  Never spoke to him and never met with him during the whole time the surge was going on.  Also, he said that the key battleground is in Afghanistan, yet he‘s chairman of a subcommittee that never held a hearing on Afghanistan. 

So we can go back and forth on this.  The fact is, it‘s up to Governor Palin to prove that she is qualified.  I think she is.  I think the American people will determine that too.

KLOBUCHAR:  Barack Obama was ahead of his time, David, on the war.  He said that he was concerned about this war, $12 billion a month on this war.  And obviously the world knows he met with General David Petraeus when he was in Iraq just recently. 

KING:  But he made his decisions on the war and opposed the surge without ever meeting the general on the ground who was going to be coordinating that surge.

GREGORY:  Let me move on, Congressman.  As we talk about this week, after what we‘ve seen in Denver, and particularly Barack Obama‘s speech in INVESCO Field, where he said pointedly, if this is about change, you‘ve got to ask the question, who do you trust to change the country if you don‘t like the direction it‘s headed? 

What‘s at the top of his to-do list here for you as a Republican? 

KING:  John McCain?

GREGORY:  Yes.

KING:  Is to demonstrate that he has the leadership to move the country forward, that he recognizes the problems facing us overseas, the problems facing us domestically.  And just to show that he has the ability to lead.  He can show it.

I‘m not concerned.  John McCain has nothing to prove to me.  I supported him back in 2000.  So I strongly support John McCain. 

GREGORY:  Is George Bush going to hurt him? 

KING:  No.  This is John McCain‘s party.  It‘s—and he‘s moving forward with his choice of vice president.  This is going to be his convention, his party.  And just like Al Gore ran away from Bill Clinton in 2000, to me people vote as to who‘s at the top of the ticket and who‘s the candidate. 

GREGORY:  Quick response. 

KLOBUCHAR:  I think, as someone said at our convention, we need someone who‘s going to look out for Barney Smith, and not Smith Barney.  George Bush has had eight years in office.  John McCain voted with him 90 percent of the time. 

This country can‘t afford to take a 10 percent risk on getting change. 

We need someone that wants to move this country in a different direction. 

That‘s Barack Obama and Joe Biden. 

GREGORY:  We‘ll leave it there.  Thanks to both of you, Senator Klobuchar, Congressman King.

KING:  The people of Minnesota are nice.

KLOBUCHAR:  The people of Minnesota are great.  They welcomed me with open arms.

GREGORY:  Absolutely.  All right. 

Coming next, a look at what else is on THE RACE‘s radar tonight.  Sarah Palin is bringing in the cash for McCain.  His new fund-raising record and how it stacked up to Obama‘s haul when THE RACE returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE with a look at what else is on THE RACE‘s radar today, day two of the Republican convention. 

McCain‘s new fund-raising numbers out today, and they show that he‘s cutting Obama‘s money edge.  McCain had his highest take recently.  His best month, rather, in fund-raising in August, spurred in part about the excitement about his VP pick, Sarah Palin.

The campaign announced that it raised a whopping $47 million in August.  That was bolstered by the $4 million haul just last Friday, the day McCain introduced Palin as his VP pick.

McCain‘s $47 million month was his best ever, and just shy of the $50 million Obama raised back in July.  The Obama campaign has not yet released fund-raising numbers for August.

It is a sign, Smerc, is it not, that the base is excited about this choice? 

SMERCONISH:  Oh, you bet.  And everywhere I was traveling yesterday on the floor, mixing and mingling, I was hearing from folks who were telling me how their phones were ringing off the hook—and I believe them—at the local party headquarters back at home, wherever home might be.

The question is, how is it playing with Independents and moderates?  We know it‘s playing well with conservatives.  And these folks are largely conservatives.

GREGORY:  It‘s not just Palin though, Norah.  There is the idea that Republicans are coming home, which we expected them to do closer to the convention, especially as the Obama campaign was picking up momentum.

O‘DONNELL:  Right.  As everybody gets ready to make a decision.  They‘ve come home, as you say, and it energized not only financial support on the Internet, which McCain has not been as good about raising money on the Internet, but it also energized new supporters.  They say people who actually called state offices and said they want to volunteer. 

GREGORY:  OK.  We‘re coming right back.  Back with more here on RACE

FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Convention take two.  Tonight, the Republicans will tell the nation why John McCain is the real candidate of change, with President Bush helping deliver the message.  Plus, new questions about the VP pick Sarah Palin.  Is she ready for prime time? 

Welcome back to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory, coming to you live from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.  Smart take time now.  The person everyone is writing about today is McCain‘s VP pick, Sarah Palin.  I talked with “New York Times” columnist David Brooks about Palin earlier today.  I‘ll share that interview with you in just a couple of moments.  But first, our dream team panel is back, Eugene Robinson, Norah O‘Donnell, Rachel Maddow and Michael Smerconish. 

Our own Gene Robinson wrote an op ed called “The Cynicism Express” in the “Washington Post” today.  Gene, you asked this question.  We‘ll put it on the screen, “So at 72 and with a history of cancer, how could McCain choose a vice presidential nominee who has, let‘s fate it, zero experience in foreign affairs?  Being the nominal commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard doesn‘t count unless you think Vladimir Putin is about to order an invasion across the Bering Strait.  We are reminded, if we did not realize it before, that the three things not to expect from a McCain presidency are caution, prudence and a willingness to always put the nation‘s interest above his own.” 

That‘s pretty tough, Gene. 

ROBINSON:  It was pretty tough.  You know, my image of John McCain is of a guy who served in Vietnam, who puts the country first.  But, to me, the whole Sarah Palin controversy is less about her.  She is who she is.  She seems to be a fine person and I think I‘d enjoy sitting down and having a beer and moose burger with her.  You know, 80 percent of Alaskans believe she‘s a fine governor or Alaska.  But what does the pick say—the pick, not only the pick, but how it was made and why it was made say about John McCain.  I don‘t think it was a country first pick. 

GREGORY:  But wait a minute.  Rachel, the criticism of John McCain is let McCain be McCain.  Let him be the maverick.  He sees in Sarah Palin somebody who is going to shake up the system, who wants to change Washington, who has demonstrated—we can argue the degree of this—but has demonstrated some fight in her, even against her own party.  How is that not putting the country first? 

MADDOW:  On what basis is John McCain concluding that?  We know that he met her a few months ago, and they stayed for 15 minutes.  He describes them as soul mates.  Were they soul mates at that minute?  If so, why did they never speak again until the day before he picked her as vice presidential nominee?  What happened in the additional five minute phone conversation that he had with her that he convinced him that she was the person who ought be one heart beat away from the presidency?

The problem is it strains credulity to believe that John McCain picked her.  The only way that it can seem that John McCain got what he wanted here and made the pick he wanted to make, regardless of politics, is if you believe it was a gut pick.  I only met her once, but I know she is right.  That‘s a decision process that I think worries a lot of Americans, particularly with the whole looking in Putin‘s eyes --  

GREGORY:  “New York Times” columnist David Brooks wrote about why Palin may not be the best choice for McCain‘s VP.  I talked to Brooks right here in St. Paul a short time ago.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  You write about McCain with the choice of Palin doubling down on his maverick image, almost to a fault.  This is what you wrote in today‘s column in the “New York Times,” “my worry about Palin is that she shares McCain‘s primary weakness, that she has a tendency to substitute a moral philosophy for a political philosophy.  There are some issues where the most important job is to rally the armies of decency against the armies of corruption, confronting Putin, tackling ear marks and reforming the process of government.  But most issues are not confrontations between virtue and vice.  Most problems, the ones Barack Obama is sure to focus on, like health care reform and economic anxiety, are the product of complex conditions.  They require trade offs and policy expertise.  They are not solvable through the mere assertion of sterling character.”

You write that in Palin, McCain sees himself, but that‘s not necessarily what he needs, in your view. 

DAVID BROOKS, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  He sees someone who wakes up every morning who wants to defeat corruption, who wants to go after selfishness.  That‘s what he is and that allows him to run that kind of campaign.  That will be great for some issues.  But the next president of the United States is going to deal with health care, is going to deal the economy, is going to deal with complex issues. 

And McCain has many great virtues, he‘s a great man.  He‘s the loan flier who takes risks and is tremendously brave.  Organization is not necessarily one of his virtues.  Dealing with a large structure is not necessarily one of his virtues.  The president sits in the White House.  He has a domestic policy staff he has to work through.  He‘s got a foreign policy staff.  He‘s got all this structure.  McCain has never had structure.  He‘s going to need someone senior, almost his equal, to say we‘re going to do it this way, John.  You‘re going to tamp down.  It‘s not going to be you. 

GREGORY:  Why does it have to be the vice president? 

BROOKS:  It doesn‘t necessarily have to be the vice president.  It could be a chief of staff.  But the reason I think it should have been a vice president—I think it should have been somebody like Rob Portman or even Bob Gates, if he would do it—is that that man or woman is a near equal, cannot be fired, forces McCain in a really serious role, a top role, to live within the structure that he has to live with. 

GREGORY:  Was this a political choice at its core, and only a political choice, as compared to thinking about, as you talk about, how he would govern with a vice president? 

BROOKS:  I think it was half a political choice, not in the traditional sense.  We‘re talking about Palin as if she‘s only a woman, only a reproducer, a producer of babies.  She was a governor.  It allows him to run a certain sort of campaign he wants to run.  He hated being the old goat who ran against the new, fresh Obama.  Now he can be the crusader against evil.  That was campaigning.

That‘s the way he sees—he thinks, and this is testable, that the central problem in the U.S. today is that 80 percent of Americans think that Washington is broken and that as president, his number one job is to fix Washington.  Some people would say, that‘s part of the job, but the other part of the job is health care, education, economy, all that other stuff. 

GREGORY:  If there are questions about how well she was vetted,

questions about how well they knew each other, what does this decision

say about how John McCain makes a decision? 

BROOKS:  We don‘t know yet.  We know John McCain—some people steer the aircraft carrier.  Some people are in the plane and take off from the aircraft carrier.  He‘s the pilot in the plane.  He‘s alone.  He has a group of people he really trusts, but a lot of decisions he makes alone.  The American people are going to decide are his instincts right.  Frankly, we don‘t know.  We‘re all speculating. 

We do not know about Sarah Palin.  I‘m tremendously impressed so far, to be honest.  We don‘t know whether his instincts will be proven right or wrong.  The other irony is the young guy, Barack Obama, all his friends tell me the thing you‘ve got to know about Barack is he‘s cautious.  McCain, the older guy, is less cautious than the younger guy. 

GREGORY:  Quick final question; the revelation about her daughter Bristol, 17 years old, pregnant, a difficult family matter.  Is it an issue in the campaign? 

BROOKS:  It shouldn‘t be.  We‘re going berserk about this story.  This is a private matter.  This stuff happens in real life.  Let‘s talk about—we have no basis of knowing what her family is like.  We don‘t know the information to know what it‘s like.  Let her make that decision what‘s best for her family.  We judge her on how she behaved as governor and stay out of the private life.  I think Barack Obama‘s statement was absolutely correct, the media, not so much. 

GREGORY:  Barack Obama may have closed the case by saying my own mother had me when she 18 years old.  David Brooks, thanks very much for being here.

BROOKS:  Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  We‘re back live now with the panel here in St. Paul.  Smerc, you listen to David Brooks.  The point he made about a gut decision, makes decisions alone, it could be a criticism that you would also make against President Bush, at a time when McCain does not want that comparison. 

SMERCONISH:  If that‘s the argument, that this was John McCain the maverick and this is why he made this selection, then why wasn‘t he John McCain the maverick who said I want Joe Lieberman or I want Tom Ridge and consequently, I‘ll take them at all costs.  Here‘s a theory I want to float.  Is it possible that she was selected because of her thin resume and not in spite of it.  Because it immediately begs the retort of oh yes, what about Obama‘s resume? 

That‘s all I hear, David.  If I raise the issue about whether she‘s qualified, the immediate response is to say what about Obama‘s qualifications?  All of a sudden now, they‘re throwing back into play whether he‘s fit for command.   

GREGORY:  Let me try to take a Democratic argument and push a little bit this, Rachel.  If, as I have been told, Joe Biden confers credibility on Barack Obama, particularly in the area of experience and foreign affairs, then why is Palin‘s inexperience a problem when you have got at the top of the ticket somebody who is vastly experienced, generally and specifically in foreign affairs? 

MADDOW:  Because that conveyance of trust, that sense that the country would be in good hands in this person‘s hands only goes one direction.  If you have an inexperienced vice president, that means that the country could be in their hands.  With Barack Obama, if they have experience worries about him, if something happens to him, the country will be in good hands with Joe Biden.  It doesn‘t go both directions.

I actually don‘t believe that there‘s a credible argument to make against Sarah Palin‘s experience.  Yes, 18 months ago she was doing something where it would be hard to imagine foreshadowing she was going to be vice president of the United States.  The issue for me is the decision process, how little they know about her, how much we‘re all finding out with each passing day.  Why did McCain make this decision or who made it for him? 

GREGORY:  The question to me, Norah, is, A, are we still going to be talking about this in a couple weeks?  We have to get back, at some point, to the focus of John McCain, who is at the top of the ticket, who people are considering for the presidency. 

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s exactly what it‘s about.  Remember what Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech about temperament and judgment?  Those are the two things they want to challenge McCain on.  This pick goes to that argument.  That‘s why tonight, we‘re hearing Fred Thompson is taking the space of Rudy Giuliani to deliver a speech in which he is going to punch Barack Obama in the face rhetorically.  He‘s going to push very back hard on Sarah Palin.  They‘re going to use tonight—that‘s going to be the headline.  He‘s going to defend her from that podium. 

GREGORY:  I‘m concerned you‘re making a fist at me when making that point.  We‘re going to take a break here.  Coming next, did Obama get a convention bounce?  We‘ll look at the latest polls from two top strategists in the field when RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE returns after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE, here live from the Republican Convention in the Twin Cities, going inside the war room now and taking a look at Obama‘s post-convention bounce.  A “USA Today”/Gallup poll taken this weekend gives Senator Obama a seven point lead, with 50 percent to Senator McCain‘s 43 percent.  Senator Obama held a four point lead in the poll a week earlier.  A new CBS poll shows a similar spike for Obama, 48 percent to McCain‘s 40 percent, an eight point lead.  Two polls, two strategists in the war room.  Tonight, they‘re going to tell me what it all means. 

Republican Vin Weber and Democrat Steve McMahon.  Vin, of course, a Minnesota native are represented the city and this state—this region so ably for so long.  Steve is in Washington tonight.  Welcome to both of you. 

Steve, let me start with you, the bounce.  These are both coming so late, these conventions.  Is there a bounce to be had? 

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Yes, there is a bounce to be had.  I think you can see in that polling data that there‘s a bounce that was gotten by Barack Obama.  I think what he did was he answered some people‘s questions about what the change that he‘s offering, what the hope that he offers America will mean in their everyday lives.  I think that‘s what he had to do. 

Obviously, you can see in those numbers that he did it successfully. 

GREGORY:  Vin, you look at those numbers, Steve arguing that there is a bounce, not surprisingly.  He‘s certainly up. 

VIN WEBER, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  I look at the numbers before and after.  He was ahead two or three points going into the convention.  He‘s ahead six to eight points.  He got a five or six point bounce out of it.  Historically, that‘s not a very big bounce.  It‘s something, but it‘s not very big.  We‘ll see what happens with McCain.  I don‘t think it was a very large bounce coming out of the convention for him. 

GREGORY:  Is some of this contingent on what kind of convention has and how he specifically answers what Obama did? 

WEBER:  I think that‘s right.  Remember, this is the largest communication opportunity that the candidates will have, with the possible exception of the presidential debates.  They will reach a larger audience than in anything else they‘re going to do in the rest of this campaign, except the debates.  There ought to be some kind of movement up for Obama and there ought to be some kind of movement up for McCain.  I think there will be. 

GREGORY:  Steve, let me talk about the Palin pick and some of the questions about the vetting.  A lot of this becomes very processy, for people like me and other who question about the drip, drip, all the disclosures about this.  Strategically, though, for the Obama campaign, is there an opportunity? 

MCMAHON:  There‘s an opportunity, but an opportunity basically to stay away, because all of the questions that are being asked and all of the criticism that‘s coming is not coming from the Obama campaign and rightly so.  I think you can ask a question about whether the vet was thorough and whether or not the campaign is surprised by these revelations.  They seem to be.  You got to wonder.  You have four days of your convention.  The first two days have been consumed by the hurricane and the choice of Governor Palin and the questions about Governor Palin.  It‘s about not her daughter and her pregnancy.  It‘s really about what kind of judgment does John McCain have if this is the first major decision he makes as a presidential candidate, and he makes a decision to put somebody who has been in office for this short period of time, with this kind of a record, one heart beat away from presidency.  That‘s I think a fair question to ask.  That‘s really at the heart of all the conversation that‘s going on right now. 

GREGORY:  Vin?

WEBER:  I think it‘s only a fair question if you then ask the same question about the person at the top of the Democratic party.  I have been in the Congress of the United States.  It‘s valuable experience.  It would be more valuable if Senator Obama had spent some of his time there actually being a senator instead of running for president.  It‘s not the same as executive experience, in any event.  Sarah Palin has actually been a governor.  She‘s had to deal with budgets.  She‘s had to make decisions.  It‘s qualitatively a different kind of experience, a better kind of experience. 

GREGORY:  I want to ask about the impact of President Bush, who will

speak tonight, of course, in prime time, in the 9:00 hour.  This is what

was written today in the “Wall Street Journal,” columnist Peter Robinson,

he writes that McCain has been wildly underestimated in the campaign.  This

is how he puts it, “the John McCain of 2008, journalists and activists

understandably assumed, would be the same man they encountered during the

campaign in 2000, the irreverent wise cracking John McCain, the John McCain

who cared about the good opinion of reporters as least as much as he cared

about the good opinion of Republican voters, the John McCain who had proven

let‘s face it—unserious.  Why expect anything different this time around.”

Is he a different candidate now, Vin? 

WEBER:  I think he is a different candidate.  I assume running for president is going to change anybody, because it‘s such a serious, serious undertaking.  I also note that Senator McCain has always done better when he has come from behind and when he‘s been sort of on the ropes, almost.  His campaign fell apart about a year ago and he was declared dead in the Republican primary fight.  He regrouped and restyled his campaign and fought from behind and beat everybody.  He‘s now behind, as you point out, six or eight points in the polls. 

I think John McCain fights better from behind, better in an insurgent campaign.  It‘s more attuned to his style.  He really is the maverick outsider that he‘s portraying himself as. 

GREGORY:  Steve, on the question of President Bush, I covered the 2000 campaign.  I covered the Bush presidency.  I know well that Senator McCain disagreed with him on many issues, the treatment of prisons, taxes, the environment, stem cell research and even the execution of the war.  But I also recall in 2005, him saying pointedly, and that‘s Senator McCain, that on the transcendent issues of the day that he stands by President Bush.  How big of an impact does that have?  In effect, is there a concern that Bush will beat John McCain twice? 

MCMAHON:  It‘s interesting because it‘s probably the reason that he got nominated to begin with.  He had a death bed conversion, if you will, where he decided that whatever President Bush is in favor of, he‘s in favor of at least for the Republican primaries and to get the nomination.  That worked for him in the Republican primaries.  The question is now, what do you do.  If you become a George Bush clone and a George Bush cheerleader to get the Republican nomination, which Senator McCain did, you‘re sort of stuck with it in the fall. 

Tonight, it‘s going to be interesting to see what President Bush says about John McCain, because I‘m sure the McCain campaign would have preferred that President Bush stay in New Orleans or stay in Washington and stay someplace other than Minneapolis, St. Paul.  Instead—

GREGORY:  He will be in Washington. 

MCMAHON:  But they are getting a speech into the Minneapolis, St. Paul and they‘re getting the exact same thing as if President Bush was there.  It will be interesting to see where President Bush says John McCain has been with him and where perhaps he says he hasn‘t.  I think in the areas where he hasn‘t will be more important than the ones where he has. 

GREGORY:  Vin, what can he say tonight?  What can the president say that will be helpful to McCain? 

WEBER:  The president has to defend his record.  He doesn‘t have to wax philosophical about John McCain.  He needs to defend his own record on the big issues that divide us as a country right now.  The transcendent issues that John McCain talked about was national security.  What is the nature of the war on terror?  What is actually going on in Afghanistan and Iraq?  What is the real nature of the threat in Pakistan and Iran?  These are big issues that involve huge threats to our national security, the security of the world. 

The president needs to defend his approach to those issues and explain that John McCain is prepared to deal with them and Barack Obama is not. 

GREGORY:  We‘re going to leave it there.  Former Congressman Vin Weber, thanks for having me to your town.  I‘m really enjoying it. 

WEBER:  Great to have you in Minnesota. 

GREGORY:  It‘s fabulous.  I‘ve been very happy here.  Steve McMahon, thanks as always, in Washington tonight. 

Coming next, President Bush speaks at the convention.  What does he say tonight.  We‘ll go live to the Xcel Center for a debrief when we come back.  RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE returns.  We‘re live at the Republican Convention in St. Paul after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  The line up on day two of the Republican convention includes President Bush, via satellite from the White House.  He will be introduced by first lady Laura Bush.  Former presidential candidate Fred Thompson and independent Senator Joe Lieberman, a friend of McCain‘s, will also be speaking tonight.  “New York Times” reporter Elizabeth Bumiller joins me now from the Xcel Center with a daily debrief. 

Elizabeth, I want to first ask you about this issue with the McCain Campaign, Sarah Palin and the vetting.  Rick Davis was on this program at the top of the hour saying, I could tell you about the vetting process, but I‘m not going to because it‘s confidential.  Well, that‘s what he‘s saying publicly.  The reality is, behind the scenes, they are talking a good deal about the vetting process.  Why? 

ELIZABETH BUMILLER, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  Because they are very concerned about reports that Sarah Palin was not vetted sufficiently or that she was not vetted over a long period of time, that it was done very quickly.  They are talking about what happened behind the scenes, including what they say now was an interview with A.B. Kobohouse (ph), the main lawyer in charge of the vetting, and so forth. 

They are concerned because these things have come out the last couple of days about Sarah Palin that they say they knew about.  Yet, it has certainly distracted them from their main message at the convention. 

GREGORY:  Elizabeth, what do you expect and what does the McCain campaign expect from President Bush tonight? 

BUMILLER:  They expect that he will endorse John McCain, talk positively about him.  It‘s been a very, you know, complicated relationship over a number of years.  That he will pass the mantle on to him and that he will talk about the Republican party and why Republicans should win in November. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Elizabeth Bumiller with the Times, thanks very much.  What do you expect tonight, Rachel, in about 15 seconds? 

MADDOW:  I agree with Elizabeth, actually.  If I were giving Bush advise and if he believed me, which would be funny, I‘d would say, listen talk about the differences between the Republican and Democratic party.  Talk about the two different Americas envisioned by those two parties.  Make a heroic case for your party, for your cause and then include John McCain in that at the end.  Don‘t spend a lot of time talking about McCain, talk about your cause. 

GREGORY:  Norah, your expectations? 

O‘DONNELL:  He shortened his speech from was going to give on Monday.  He‘s only going to speak about eight minutes.  It will be before prime time, the network‘s coverage.  What he‘s going to say is that John McCain deserves to be president because he knows the lessons of 9/11.  It will talk about the Gulf Coast, but very little too.  They want him off stage.  They want the focus to be on Fred Thompson, some of the other people, and on John McCain and his biography. 

GREGORY:  We have a little more time than I expected.  My reporting indicates a couple things.  One is that this is going to be short, as you say, about eight minutes.  Two, the president does not—Vin Weber suggested that the president needed to defend his record.  My understanding is he will not do that.  What he wants to do is talk about why the next president needs to understand the war on terror.  And he will make the case for why John McCain is that person. 

I think, Rachel, the last thing he wants to do is start parsing where they disagree and get into the record of their relationship, not that you would do that in this setting, anyhow. 

MADDOW:  He‘s the only Republican who can‘t get up and say John McCain is a maverick who takes on his party, because he‘s the guy who McCain, they want to be ale say, is taking on.  He‘s the only Republican in the entire country who can‘t spin the maverick line.  What else is he going to spin?

GREGORY:  McCain has taken him on.  There are certainly instances where he has taken him on over the years. 

MADDOW:  Before 2008.  Most of the issues on which John McCain gets credit for having disagreed with Bush, McCain has now changed his position as candidate McCain in 2008.  So he‘s allied with him on everything from torture to immigration.  He‘s right in line with Bush now.  That doesn‘t change the fact that he disagreed with him previously. 

GREGORY:  Norah?

O‘DONNELL:  It‘s interesting because Barack Obama‘s campaign has made this whole about McSame, McBush, tying these two men together, putting a straight jacket around the two of them together, that famous hug.  They have a new ad out today trying to do that.  That‘s why the president will speak for a short amount of time.  They are trying to politically get him out, not make a lot of headlines from the president‘s speech.  They want the headline tonight to be Fred Thompson‘s speech, where he will push Barack Obama on abortion rights.  He‘s going to throw red meat and he‘s also going to defend Sarah Palin vigorously from that podium. 

MADDOW:  It‘s fascinating to have Giuliani pushed out in favor of Fred Thompson today.  That‘s an inter-Republican party dynamic that I don‘t think we understand yet.  I think we‘ll know a lot more when we hear Fred Thompson speak.  Pushing Giuliani out of the keynote slot tonight is a big deal. 

GREGORY:  Thank you two, both.  We‘re going to leave it there.  That does it for RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  A lot coming up.  The Republican convention from right here in St. Paul, our prime time coverage.  I‘ll join Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann.  This is the place for politics, MSNBC, and our coverage in prime time of the Republican Convention begins right now.

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

END   

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