updated 9/10/2008 1:33:53 PM ET 2008-09-10T17:33:53

Guest: Harold Ford, Jr., Jay Carney, Susan Molinari, Mary Matalin, Barry

McCaffrey

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, Obama slips in three national polls as President Bush announces a new troop plan for Iraq and Afghanistan.  What is the impact on the Obama campaign and how does he get back on track? 

We are watching the campaigns battle it out over Iraq in the RACE FOR

THE WHITE HOUSE.

Fifty-six days to go in the race for the White House. 

Welcome to the program.  I’m David Gregory. 

My headline tonight, “Obama on the Ropes.”  But against the backdrop of a decline in national polls, he is punching back on Iraq. 

President Bush delivered a major announcement on U.S. troop deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan today, announcing that 8,000 combat and support personnel would return by next February, while a few thousand troops would be re-deployed to Afghanistan. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Afghanistan’s success

is critical to the security of America and our partners in the free world.  For all the good work we’ve done in that country, it is clear we must do even more. 

As we learned in Iraq, the best way to restore the confidence of the people is to restore basic security.  And that requires more troops. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Senator Obama quickly responded at a press conference today in Ohio, wasting no time in linking Senator McCain to President Bush on what he called failed policies in Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I’m glad that the

president is moving in the direction of the policy that I’ve advocated for years.  We’ve still heard no explanation for why Osama bin Laden is still at large, because that’s where John McCain and George Bush’s judgment have gotten us.  President Bush’s speech today underscored that we can’t afford more of the same. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Obama back on the offense now after a pummeling from rivals John McCain and Sarah Palin knocked him off his game.  Three new national polls show them in a statistical dead heat, including our own.  The NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll is about come out, and we’ll have the latest numbers coming up in our next half-hour. 

We are looking live now at Barack Obama in southwest Virginia, at Lebanon High School, where he is speaking at a town hall meeting.  Just about the same time he had one last night. 

On the agenda today, education, the economy and energy independence.  No surprise that he’s talking about education, given some of the polling showing a wild swing in support away from him to Senator McCain among women. 

Let’s turn now to NBC News analyst Harold Ford Jr., former Tennessee congressman and chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. 

Harold, Obama’s response today to President Bush’s announcement on Iraq makes it very clear, this is a debate that he wants to have. 

HAROLD FORD, JR., NBC NEWS ANALYST:  There are two strands here, David.  The first is he is a United States senator.  That being Barack Obama. 

He is advocated now for some time that we ought to have a larger and more robust presence in Afghanistan.  And he did the right thing by applauding a president for doing it.  He also made clear it was maybe a little too late, but the right policy. 

But the second large issue for Barack Obama is the presidential race. 

John McCain is further being isolated on issues of Iraq and Afghanistan.  He continues to stand alone in asking that we pursue a set of policies that frankly have not worked. 

I thought Barack had a good day.  He could probably be even stronger in some of his assertions that what’s at stake in this election is whether or not we travel the path we’ve traveled for the last seven and a half years in Iraq and Afghanistan, or we try a different approach. 

He and his running mate, Joe Biden—and I might say, Joe Biden has probably been one of the loudest and most constructive thinkers in Afghanistan for some time, recognizing some of the unique challenges there on the ground and calling himself for a larger force in Afghanistan some few years back.  So it was a good day for Barack on both fronts.

GREGORY:  Jay Carney, Washington bureau chief for “TIME” magazine, oddly here, given what Harold is saying, Barack Obama has also said that the surge produced results that were wildly beyond his expectations and that of the Bush administration. 

Does that not put him in the same place as President Bush when a question was raised today which is, if it’s just 8,000 troops that are coming out of Iraq, does that not indicate that those security gains are not as stable as people would have thought? 

JAY CARNEY, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, “TIME”:  Well, it does.  You have

to wonder how successful the surge has been or how tenuous the success has been if only 8,000 troops can come out.  And only in February.  It’s only September now, so that’s quite a time between now and February. 

But I think, David, that the Iraq issue, remember, which drove so many voters away from the Republican Party in the 2006 midterms, the more basically good news there is, whether it’s a modest drawdown or not, and whether or not the president is moving toward Senator Obama on Afghanistan, the more basically good news there is, the public then sort of puts Iraq aside and doesn’t count it as against John McCain as heavily as it might have. 

The Independents who oppose the Iraq war, who think it was a mistake to begin with, may not be thinking about Iraq as much when they’re looking at these two candidates.  And that’s probably a disadvantage to Senator Obama. 

GREGORY:  Well, let’s bring in Republican strategist, former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari. 

The McCain campaign is continuing to use Governor Palin of Alaska to attack Obama on the issue of Iraq.  Let listen to her today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R-AK), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Now, for his

part, our opponent, he still can’t bring himself to acknowledge the coming victory in Iraq.  He couldn’t just the other day in—an interview, he says he is for change.  But look there in Iraq.  Change happened, and that’s a great thing for America. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Susan, I get this is a way to reach out to the base, to energize the base.  She’s done that.  McCain has been able to do that after the convention. 

But does the McCain campaign really want to have a debate about the wisdom or lack thereof of the surge as they try to reach Independent voters?  Don’t you think that much of the debate about Iraq is about the wisdom of having gone in or whether we should get out, and not the intricacies of the surge? 

SUSAN MOLINARI ®, FMR. CONGRESSWOMAN:  Oh, no.  I think the surge is

very much placed in Senator McCain’s benefit. 

This is a man who supported going into Iraq and Afghanistan but was adamantly opposed to the Rumsfeld doctrine as it developed.  He was very vociferous in his opposition. 

He pressed for the surge when it was not popular.  I’m a Giuliani supporter, and through the entire primary, he held fast to that.  And now it does look like the surge, that the things that you just talked about that are positive are all attributable to the surge.  So I think, in fact, the surge shows that if you enter a situation that the public perceives as negative, but you take a daring risk politically, and the situation plays out, that’s the kind of leadership that they want. 

GREGORY:  Let me widen it out to the whole panel. 

Harold Ford, I’ll go back to you.

The question of Afghanistan is crucial here in this debate because, it seem to me, in terms of a campaign debate, the argument the Democrats have been making for some time that has not gotten much traction, that Afghanistan is really where the bulk of the government’s effort ought to be in terms of holding off the Taliban, is resonating in a way that it hasn’t before. 

FORD:  Well, I think two things.  Jay and Susan both make good points, but I would say this—the more the conversation moves to Afghanistan politically, the more a benefit that Barack and Joe Biden have in this race. 

Senator Obama has been clear, more troops are needed there.  He said that, stated that, throughout the primary, now continues to say that throughout the general.  But we can’t forget what’s at stake in a larger way.  And if Barack Obama and Joe Biden are able to make this point, I think they benefit even when it come to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

This question of foreign policy and national security is about the fundamental choice we made a few years ago, whether or not we should have gone to Iraq when we did, whether or not we should have changed strategy or changed posture there before we enacted the surge. 

GREGORY:  Right.

FORD:  That’s the question the American people have to answer.  And the more Obama and Biden are able to make that point, the more it will accrue to their benefit. 

Remember, Barack did best in the primary when Iraq was the issue.  As the issue moved more towards the economy with Hillary Clinton, he didn’t fare quite as well.  So if the issue is Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama and Biden will enjoy I think an advantage with the American people. 

GREGORY:  Right.

Let me switch gears slightly here, talk about some of the polling that I referenced off the top. 

The big story tonight at this hour is that our “Wall Street Journal”/NBC News poll is coming out.  We do have a sneak peek to share with you.  It officially come out at half past the hour. 

First up tonight is the Palin factor.  The poll posed this question to voters: “Does John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as VP make you more or less likely to vote for him?”  Look at the numbers here: 34 percent said it makes them more likely to vote for McCain, 25 percent said less likely, 40 percent said makes no difference either way. 

Jay, what do you take from that number? 

CARNEY:  Well, I’m a little surprised.  I figured the numbers would actually be higher in the more likely category. 

But it’s clear that she’s been a huge boost to the McCain ticket.  I mean, they sort of—you know, even though polls were tight, the McCain campaign sort of stumbled into St. Paul and didn’t seem like it had a lot of energy and focus.  It emerged from St. Paul with this huge boost of energy that Sarah Palin obviously provided, not just among the base, but other polls have shown among white women in particular. 

GREGORY:  Right.

CARNEY:  So there is no question she’s a net benefit to the McCain campaign.  What we have to see is whether or not she is like a movie premier that does really well at the box office the first weekend, but does it trail off or does it go on to blockbuster status? 

GREGORY:  Well, and Susan, you look at—when it comes to Biden out of our poll, we asked voters, “Is Barack Obama’s choice of Joe Biden as a running mate make you more or less likely to vote for him?”  Twenty-four percent said it makes them more likely to vote for Obama, 16 percent makes them less likely, 58 percent said makes no difference at all. 

So a lot more neutrality when it comes to Joe Biden.  He just doesn’t have the kind of punch that Sarah Palin has had in her entry into the race.

MOLINARI:  Well, I think that’s right.  And I think, you know, it’s also because Barack Obama sucks up all the oxygen on the Democratic ticket.  And I don’t mean that in a negative way. 

He is the “wow” guy.  He’s the guy that nobody heard of a few years ago and is now a presidential contender.  He’s the guy that knocked Hillary Clinton out of the box. 

So I think part of it is Joe Biden has been in the United States Senate for a while.  He is not new to certainly anybody who watches Sunday news shows. 

GREGORY:  Right.

MOLINARI:  Sarah Palin is new.  She’s a—this is an amazing biography.  You know, it’s exciting.

And to Jay’s point, one of the polls showed a 20 percent shift among white women.  If she can sustain that, that’s incredible not only for John McCain, but what a serious revival for the Republican Party with regard to suburban women. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We’re talking about the poll numbers.  We’re going to have much more on this at half past the hour, including the latest head-to-head numbers.  So stick around for that. 

We’re going to take a break here. 

Coming next, one-on-one with Mary Matalin, a White House and war room veteran.  I’ll talk to her about Governor Palin, Obama’s attacks on President Bush, and what will really decide this race?

Mary Matalin, one-on-one with me when THE RACE returns after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

GOP VIP Mary Matalin is a veteran of some tough presidential campaigns going back to the Reagan years.  Among her positions, former assistant to President Bush, and she was former counselor to Vice President Cheney. 

Mary’s going one-on-one to talk about Republican strategies to hold on to the White House. 

Hello, Mary.

MARY MATALIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  One-on-one with David Gregory. 

It’s like the old days, David. 

GREGORY:  I’m glad to have you here. 

Let me start by talking about some of the new polling that is out there.  The fact that white women, according to “The Washington Post”/ABC poll, swung in the direction of John McCain and away from Barack Obama, a 12-point swing, who are these women and why do you think that they are possible—they are potential people to steal for McCain away from Hillary Clinton? 

MATALIN:  Right.  These women are the real feminists, or the gridiron feminists as Camille Paglia has tagged them many years ago.  These are women for whom choice is not their raison d’etre. 

The choice they want is a good job, and they want equal pay for equal work, and they want to have to not make a choice between a career and kids.  We’ve been fighting for 30 years to be able to juggle it all.  And we now have this champion who is doing it.  And that’s what’s not just attracting women, as your former panel had talked about, but in all these other polls, I presume yours, it’s going to show the same thing. 

Independents, another core constituency, between seven-and-15-point shift.  And also, a huge closing of the enthusiasm gap among conservatives.  So that’s a big shift in three cores. 

GREGORY:  But Mary, Senator Clinton has made it very clear, “If you were for me and you’re a female voter, you should be for Obama and not McCain.”  Why does McCain still think that he can peel these supporter off? 

MATALIN:  Well, if the polls are indicative of this at all, 23 percent, or a quarter of Hillary supporters, are saying, no way, Obama.  They’re going to vote for McCain because there’s two kinds of women. 

There’s the kind of Wellesley liberal abortion-first women.  And then there’s feminist women who care about jobs and juggling the whole thing, and lower taxes and security, and Wal-Mart moms, and all the rest of it.  That’s who Sarah Palin connects with, and a good quarter of the people, women who supported Hillary Clinton are saying they’re going to go with John McCain. 

GREGORY:  Let me talk about Governor Palin’s record more specifically.  This claim about—that she has made now repeatedly that she said to Washington, no thanks on the Bridge to Nowhere, Senator Obama, as you know, has taken aim at that particular statement, and he did it just yesterday at a campaign stop in Michigan. 

Let’s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  When it came to the Bridge to Nowhere, she was for it, until everybody started raising a fuss about it.  Then she started running for governor, and then suddenly she was against it. 

Do you remember that, for it before you’re against it?  I mean, you can’t just make stuff up. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Mary, isn’t he right?  Wasn’t she indeed for it before she voted against it?  Or opposed it when it became more controversial in Congress? 

MATALIN:  All right, David.  Let me tell you why Barack Obama does not want to go there. 

First of all, you don’t want to have the top of the ticket doing battle with the vice presidential nominee on the other side.  That’s a campaign no-no.

Secondly, Barack Obama and Joe Biden voted for the Bridge to Nowhere.  And in the end, she stopped the Bridge to Nowhere.  Everybody knows these things go through a rhythm. 

The first bridge she was looking at was not the one that she ultimately had to make a decision on.  The one she had to make a decision on was too costly and she said no way. 

So, at the end of the day, he voted for pork and she stopped it.  And

but I go back to my first thing.  You do not want the top of the ticket fighting with the VP.  Everybody knows that.  They’re really off their game, as you said at the top of the show. 

GREGORY:  But the point is that she was originally for this bridge. 

Does that not undermine her reform credentials? 

MATALIN:  Well, and Barack Obama originally said Iran was just a little state, not a problem.  And he originally said he was going to raise taxes on the rich.  And he originally said the surge was wrong. 

So if you want to be—he switched a lot more positions.  He’s at the top of the ticket.  She has—I’m not spinning here—her record of reform and ethics reform and everything that she’s done in Alaska is a perfect companion with John McCain. 

GREGORY:  But you would concede that this particular assertion would not be the best example of her reform record? 

MATALIN:  No.  I do not concede that at all.  And don’t put words in my mouth, as you want to do, and is our history. 

In the end, she was against it and she stopped it.  And Ted Stevens, her own party, her senior senator there, blamed her for that.  The Democrats blamed her for stopping that bridge.  They would not convert those dollars into Katrina help, which we’re very aware of down here in New Orleans. 

GREGORY:  Right.

MATALIN:  And in the end, she stopped the bridge.  So if he wants to take the fight there to the top of the ticket, the Democrat presidential nominee wants to fight with the Republican VP, bring it on, as we like to say. 

GREGORY:  Yes, you do like to say. 

All right.  Let me ask you something else. 

There’s her first big interview on another network that will be happening later this week.  Her own home state newspaper has suggested a couple of questions that she actually ought to face.  And we’ll put them up on the screen from the Anchorage paper. 

The first one is this: “If you were a fully qualified vice presidential candidate from the get-go, why did you wait more than 10 days to face reporters?”  And two, “McCain spokesman Rick Davis told FOX News the media didn’t show you enough ‘deference.’  How much deference do you expect to get from Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chavez?” 

Response?

MATALIN:  Boy, that’s a non sequitur.

Look, if anyone thinks, and to the extent that they continue staying, that she’s afraid of the media, let’s just see what she does with Charlie or with you or all the rest of it.  The people have vetted her.  They vetted her pretty fast. 

And the reason 40 million people tuned in is to see, who was this person?  So she’ll do fine.  It will be a great interview. 

She’s substantive, and I don’t think she’s—I think she can take plenty of non-deference from everybody from Putin to you to all the rest of them.  She’s done just fine so far. 

GREGORY:  She talked about the war in Iraq, and I would like to ask you just a couple of questions about that.  The first one, she originally described the war in Iraq as a task from God. 

What did she mean from that? 

MATALIN:  I’m sure that you are well aware at this point, that that was completely taken out of the context of what she was saying at her church.  And that we all hope that when our leaders make these kinds of decisions, that they’re doing what is a righteous decision. 

That is not what’s being portrayed.  What the Democrats are trying to do now, which is part of the kitchen sink, kill her, wipe her out, kill the messenger, is make her look like a religious kook.  And that’s not going to get very far. 

She is a mainstream Christian woman who walks the walk.  And to the extent they try to brand her as something kooky here, starting with that and other things that they put out there, that’s going to backfire as well. 

She also didn’t say—they’re also saying that she said she doesn’t focus on Iraq.  That entire interview was truncated.  She was saying that that day she hadn’t followed the news of Iraq on that day.  This Thursday, on the anniversary of 9/11, as all we all know now, her oldest son is going off to Iraq. 

Obviously she follows what’s going on there.  Bring it on!

GREGORY:  You said earlier this year that your former boss, Vice President Cheney, has redefined the role of vice president.  Does Governor Palin fit the role, the mold, of Dick Cheney as vice president? 

MATALIN:  She fits the mold in the sense that she is a very augmenting, complementary partner with this—with her president.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

She has completely not just transformed the race, but she has reemphasized, reasserted the key and critical brand for John McCain—reformer, ethics, maverick. 

GREGORY:  Right.

MATALIN:  The two of them together are greater than either of them separately.  And in that way, she does fulfill that Cheney prototype. 

GREGORY:  OK.  We’re going to leave it there. 

Mary Matalin, thank you very much. 

MATALIN:  Thank you, David. 

GREGORY:  All right.

We’ll come right back on THE RACE after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  And now a look at what else is on THE RACE’s radar tonight.

VP nominee Joe Biden set off a firestorm on the trail in Missouri today, where he made this comment criticizing Republicans for their opposition to stem-cell research funded by the federal government. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I hear all this talk

about how the Republicans are going to work in dealing with parents who have both the joy, because there is joy to it as well, the joy and the difficulty of raising a child who has a developmental disability, who were born with a birth defect. 

Well, guess what, folks?  If you care about it, why don’t you support stem-cell research? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Senator McCain supports stem-cell research, but his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin opposes it.  The McCain campaign shot back with this statement: “Barack Obama’s running mate sunk to a new low today launching an offensive debate over who cares more about special needs children.  Playing politics with this issue is disturbing and indicative of a desperate campaign.”

Late today, the Obama camp defended Biden’s comment, saying he raised a substantial policy difference with the Republican Party’s platform. 

We are just minutes away now from the release of the NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll.  It’s new, our first poll since McCain tapped Governor Palin for VP, and you’ll have more of it coming up next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  It’s hot off the press, our new NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll.  It shows if McCain’s bounce continues.  That’s the question.  Plus, Iraq takes center stage on the campaign trail, as President Bush announces his plan to draw down troops. 

Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I’m David Gregory.  The back half here.  Hot of the presses, brand new NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll number that are just being released tonight.  Back with us to break them all down with the latest, Susan Molinari, Republican strategist and former New York Congresswoman,  Harold Ford Jr., NBC News analyst and chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, Jay Carney, “Time Magazine’s” Washington bureau chief. 

Let’s get right to it.  First, the head to head match-up numbers.  Obama and McCain locked in a statistical tie.  Obama with 46 and McCain at 45.  Last month, Obama was ahead by three, 45-42.  Take a look at this poll.  McCain has still not tackled his number one problem, the perception that McCain would be a third Bush term.  Look at this, 58 percent of voters say McCain would follow the direction, agenda and policies of President Bush, compared to 35 percent who say a McCain administration would be different. 

Jay Carney, the head to head number, a statistical dead heat.  But this is bad news for McCain that he hasn’t been able to break that chain coming out of the convention. 

CARNEY:  I think you’re right.  It isn’t great news for McCain.  Clearly he’s gotten this bounce.  But it is all within a relative small margin—relatively small.  There was one “USA Today”/Gallup poll that put McCain’s lead at ten points, but no other poll we’ve seen really makes it that large or anything out of the range of the statistical dead heat. 

So if you’re a Democrat, an Obama supporter, you’re hoping this is a traditional convention bounce that dissipate over time and that the race will settle about where it was before either convention, with Obama having a slight lead nationally and slight leads in key battleground states. 

GREGORY:  Moving on to voter enthusiasm.  McCain had been trailing Obama in this category by large margins through the race, but since the Republican convention and the Palin factor, that gap is closing.  Asked about how they feel about their candidate, 55 percent of Obama voters said they were excited.  That’s up nine points from 46 percent in early August.  Look at McCain’s number though; 34 percent of registered voters say they are excited about the McCain candidacy compared to just 12 percent from early last month, a 22 percent jump. 

And Harold, that enthusiasm gap closing is a big deal for McCain. 

FORD:  Well, I’ve never put a lot of stock on the enthusiasm gap for one reason: when you walk in the polling booth and you vote for someone, it doesn’t matter how enthusiastic you are.  The vote only counts once.  I can understand why the McCain people might be excited about that.  I think the first number that Jay touched on is the most important for one reason.  The more Barack and Joe Biden are able to make this race—remind voters what is really at stake, the last eight years, the economic performance, the poor performance, the flawed and wrong choices we made overseas and our reduced standing around the globe, the less you make it about Sarah Palin. 

I would agree with Mary Matalin in one regard.  Barack needs to leave Sarah Palin alone.  She’s not the nominee.  It is John McCain.  What’s at stake is what George Bush and Dick Cheney have done.  Clearly, that’s working.  That’s where they ought to stay. 

GREGORY:  Yet Susan, we see in Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, for that manner, over the past almost a week, trying to find their footing, trying to find their message when it come to dealing with all this enthusiasm on the Republican side by training their fire on Sarah Palin. 

MOLINARI:  That’s exactly right.  Clearly, the pick of Sarah Palin and the enthusiastic response and the curiosity that she’s generated—Senator McCain is raising money now like he’s never raised before.  The voters enthusiasm is there.  The curiosity is there.  It obviously took the air out of them.  And they need to figure out how to deal with her.  They’re not dealing with her as a woman who came upon the scene.  This is also the party and the team that decided not to make Senator Clinton the vice-presidential candidate.  So there is that sore that is there.  They have to be very careful how they deal with Senator Palin.  They are making it about her and I think it is a mistake and it plays to our advantage. 

GREGORY:  Let me gel get to this next poll, Jay, and you make your point.  Moving on.  Registered voters were asked what factors would be the most important in deciding for whom to vote.  Among those surveyed, this is critical, 41 percent said the candidates’ positions on domestic issues and the economy.  That was the number one issue.  Back at 26 percent said the stance on foreign policy and defense issues; 26 percent said the ability to bring real change, and 24 percent said experience and judgment to make the right decisions. 

The stock market was down 280 points today.  The economic news continues to be certainly far less than positive.  How is McCain going to overcome all of this.  Jay? 

CARNEY:  It will be still a very steep climb.  He has gotten a boost, a surprising boost out of his vice presidential pick.  History tell us that when the right track, wrong track number are as glaringly disparate as they are now, with as many as 80 percent of the country saying that the country is on the wrong track, and then blaming traditionally the party in power, which is the Republican party.  It is very hard to overcome that.  Not impossible. 

McCain has his own brand.  It is independent from the party.  That’s why he is a viable nominee.  Any other nominee for the Republican party would be in dismal shape right now. 

GREGORY:  But Harold, you have got to be concerned as a Democrat when you look at how much wind at your back the Democratic party has, the ability to make a change argument against the Bush—the outgoing Bush administration, the state of the economy, that we come out of these late conventions with a dead even race. 

FORD:  Look, a lot of people thought this would end up like it is.  I think Senator Obama and Senator Biden have to watch this very closely.  Again, I think Susan Molinari makes a great point as a strategist for the other side.  The more Barack and Joe Biden focus on Sarah Palin, the worse it is for them.  The more you come back to what fundamentally is at stake for the country going forward, whether or not John McCain, who I might add, has stated in the last several weeks how he would continue all the Bush economic tax policies—he would pursue essentially the same Bush economic game plan. 

As much as a maverick as John McCain purports to be, his economic policies for the next four years, if he is elected, he has stated throughout this campaign would be essentially the same that we’ve had over the last four.  The more Barack and Joe Biden make that case, the better chances are. 

Remember also, it is hard for Democrats to win national races.  Bill Clinton won two, but he won with less than 47 percent of the vote both times.  Even Jimmy Carter, at the height of Watergate, won with less than 50.1 percent of the vote.  The last Democrat to score a majority of the working class white vote in the country was LBJ.  Before him, FDR.  Barack has to put together a coalition of Americans in the right states to win this race. 

I’m glad they continue to focus even more so on Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan.  That’s where this race will be won or lost for the Democratic ticket. 

GREGORY:  Let talk about another issue.  The McCain campaign has just launched a new ad attacking Senator Obama on education, which was the focus for Senator Obama today.  The plan is to air in some key states.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP(

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Education Week says Obama hasn’t made a significant mark on education, that he is elusive on accountability, a staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly.  Obama’s one accomplishment?  Legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergartners.  Learning about sex before learning read?  Barack Obama, wrong on education, wrong for your family. 

MCCAIN:  I’m John McCain and I approved this message. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Big push back from the Obama camp on this ad.  Campaign spokesman Bill Burton issued this statement, quote, “it is shameful and downright perverse for the McCain campaign to use a bill that was written to protect young children from sexual predators as a recycled and discredited political attack against a father of two young girls, a position that Mitt Romney also holds.  Last week, John McCain told ‘Time Magazine’ he couldn’t define what honor was.  Now we know why.” 

Susan Molinari, the tone of this, without getting into the facts of the matter, which we may not be able to get to the bottom of right now—two things strike me, the tone of this turning and, second, the fact that there is an effort now to fight this campaign on more kind of cultural values lines. 

MOLINARI:  I think they’re trying to do two things.  First of all, yes, nobody is surprised.  The tone of both campaigns is changing because this is a very tight race and we’re entering into the final run.  So we’re going to start to see some more pointed attacks on each other’s records.  And, you know, this is the first time I’ve seen this ad.  You know, they’re quoting newspapers and the media in terms of what Barack Obama’s record is on education. 

Clearly, what they’re trying to get to is a combination of judgment and experience, going back to, here’s a guy who voted present 130 times while he was in the Illinois state Senate.  I think it all wraps into is this man prepared to be president, which by the way, one of the latest polls shows that out of the four of them, he polls last. 

GREGORY:  Quick comment from Jay. 

CARNEY:  If I could just say that the tag line of that ad is John McCain approved this message—I’m John McCain and I approve this message.  I just don’t think John McCain eight years ago would have approved that message.  It seems like a very distorted attack on Senator Obama, based on the facts as I’ve read them.  It just shows that this is now no holds barred campaign that both sides are running, in particular John McCain. 

GREGORY:  We’ll take a break here, come back and switch gears.  I’ll talk to General Barry McCaffrey about President Bush’s plan to withdraw 8,000 troops.  That announcement today.  And Obama’s claim that it is more of the same strategic mistake, when we return on THE RACE. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  Today’s announcement

by President Bush that 8,000 U.S. troops will be pulled out of Iraq next year drew a swift response from Senator Obama while in Ohio today.  Let’s hear from both the president and Obama. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Here’s the bottom

line: while the enemy in Iraq is dangerous, we have seized the offensive.  Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight.  As a result, we’ve been able to carry out a policy of return on success, reducing American combat forces in Iraq as conditions on the ground continue to improve. 

OBAMA:  We will continue to spend 10 billion dollars a month in Iraq, while the Iraqi government sits on a 79 billion dollar surplus.  In the absence of a timetable to remove our combat brigades, we will continue to give Iraq’s leaders a blank check instead of pressing them to reconcile their differences.  The president’s talk of return on success is a new name for continuing the same strategic mistakes that have dominated our foreign policy for over five years. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Two sharply different views today on the question of Iraq.  Joining me now, MSNBC military analyst, retired General Barry McCaffrey in our daily debrief.  General, good of you to be here. 

GEN. BARRY MCCAFREY (RET), US ARMY:  Good to be with you, David. 

GREGORY:  Two different versions of reality in Iraq.  Who has it right? 

MCCAFREY:  Well, I think there is no question, it is good news out of Iraq.  The Maliki leaky government appears to be gaining consensus among the warring factions.  The Iraqi security forces are operating much more effectively.  We had this brilliant General David Petraeus and U.S. special operations forces won the battle of Baghdad, to the surprise of many.  So I think it is good news.  I think what we heard today from the—President Bush was kicking the can down the road.  We as Americans, in my view, are better served by having the president-elect make the next set of decisions in November, December, and announce them after inauguration than we are having this administration with it’s very weak leverage, both domestic and internationally making these calls.  I think it was a good announcement. 

GREGORY:  Is that how you view it?  Do you not find yourself being more suspect of the security gains when they’re thought to be only temporary enough to withdraw just 8,000 troops?  Dexter Filkins, who writes for the “New York Times,” has covered this war, said on the Atlantic.com blog site Jeffrey Goldberg, the journalist—he said this, “having said that, it is pretty clear that the calm is very fragile.  The calm is built on a series of arrangements that are not self-sustaining.  Indeed, some of which, like the Sunni awakening in Anbar province, are showing signs of coming apart.  The genie is back in the bottle, but I’m not sure for how long.” 

How much has the surge really accomplished, if that’s the reality, both what he describes and the fact that only 8,000 troops can come out? 

MCCAFREY:  I think the surge was unsustainable.  It was short term.  It was eight months.  All those combat forces are out now.  We’re talking about a further draw-down.  I think you have it exactly right.  We’re going to find out starting in January, February, as we start to continue the withdrawal, whether this will hold together or not.  I think we’re better off not learning of this in November and December. 

So again, the current situation, fragile is a good way to describe it.  I’m reasonably optimistic that we’re going to be able to continue the draw-down without this thing going to all-out civil war.  We’ll learn that between now and next summer. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you about Afghanistan, which was the other focus of President Bush, Senator Obama, and something you’ve written and thought a lot about.  Senator Obama said today that the notion of sending a kind of quiet surge, an additional unit into Afghanistan, not until next February does not reflect the kind of urgency that that war requires from the administration.  What is your view? 

MCCAFREY:  Well, I’m uneasy about both these candidates, both Senator McCain and Obama have been one upping each other on who will send more combat forces more quickly to Afghanistan.  Many of us, certainly me included, make the argument that Secretary Gates, who has sent 10 billion dollars in road building money, and who has gotten a modest increase in combat forces—the way to win that war is not going to be putting three, four, five more brigades.  We need economic development.  We need NATO to stand up to what’s going on in Afghanistan. 

I just came in a couple months ago from Afghanistan.  The violence has spiked considerably.  Drug money, the sanctuary in Pakistan, the lack of abilities and commitment by our NATO allies, this is a very tricky situation.  But the solution isn’t a counter-insurgency campaign over a country the size of Texas, 50 percent bigger than Iraq. 

GREGORY:  You talk about gains in Iraq, a movement toward democracy which will be debated as to whether that’s actually occurring, the same in Afghanistan.  I have heard top White House officials raise a lot more concerns about the future of Afghanistan than even Iraq.  They say there is no natural resources there.  There is no kind of organic Democratic movement.  There is a lot of tribal differences.  It is much more difficult terrain.  And you have this resurgent Taliban.  Do you share that kind of grim outlook for what we’re staring down in Afghanistan? 

MCCAFREY:  Certainly, looking toward the future, I think you described it quite accurately.  Afghanistan is a single unified nation never existed.  These are Pashtun tribesmen on both the Pakistani side of the border and Afghanistan, fighting against the government that they see as illegitimate.  They want to return to a fundamentalist, extremist regime. 

But, in the long run, I think our challenge in Afghanistan is very, very different than Iraq.  Afghanistan is one of the cruelest, most chaotic places on the face of the Earth.  This is a 25-year campaign with allies.  It is a strategic place of great interest to us.  Nuclear armed Pakistan, the Chinese to the north, the influence of the central Asian republics, the drug dilemma, the Iranians are going nuclear to the west.  It is an area that we have to engage in.  But again, the military solution shouldn’t be the center point of our strategy.  This is an economic and a political problem.  It requires allies. 

GREGORY:  The debate continues.  General Barry McCaffrey from San Francisco tonight.  Thank you so much for being here. 

MCCAFREY:  Good to be with you. 

GREGORY:  Coming up next, vetting Governor Sarah Palin.  We’ll be looking at the claims and cutting through the spin when THE RACE returns.  Lisa Myers of NBC News is joining me after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  Rumors have swirled

around Sarah Palin in the week since McCain announced her as his running mate.  Just how well was she vetted?  She’s proved herself likable on the national stage.  We see that in the polling.  Now, new information is coming out on her position on one of her catchiest line, that bridge to nowhere.  There are also questions about that jet that she sold on eBay.  Or did she really?  Joining us now to answer some of the questions in terms of vetting Palin is NBC News senior investigative correspondent, veteran political correspondent as well, Lisa Myers.  Lisa, thanks for being her. 

LISA MYERS, NBC NEWS INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT:  Great to be here. 

GREGORY:  You’ve looked into a lot of these issues.  Let’s talk about the bridge to nowhere, and listen to Sarah Palin talking about it when it was initially discussed back when she was running for governor back in 2006.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PALIN:  I’m not going to stand in the way of progress, that our congressional delegation, in the position of strength that they have right now—they’re making those efforts for the state of Alaska to build up our infrastructure.  I would not get in the way of progress of this project or other projects that they’re working so hard on. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  That came to be known as the bridge to nowhere.  The attack line against her is that she was for it before she was against it.  True or false? 

MYERS:  The attack line is true.  Basically on the bridge to nowhere, two points.  One, that she has not told the whole story, which is that she was for the bridge before she was against it.  Secondly, that she has exaggerated her role in killing the bridge.  The facts are that Congress was already turning against the project by the time Palin decided to pull the plug.  Now, she deserves some credit.  But it is something—it is akin to putting the final nail in the coffin at a time that the patient is already on life support. 

GREGORY:  The funds that were earmarked here for Alaska made their way to Alaska and were spent on other projects.  Isn’t that right? 

MYERS:  Yes.  That was under Governor Murkowski though.  The Congress sent 223 million to Alaska.  It removed the previous requirement that that money be spent on the bridge to nowhere.  They left it so that the state could spend the money on the bridge to nowhere.  But it didn’t have to.  Murkowski used some of the money for the bridge to nowhere, but not all.  He used it for transportation projects.  By the time Sarah Palin became governor in 2007, the cost of the project had soared.  Some of the good government folks in the state were saying, we need this money for other things.  The other problem was that the cost had gone up to almost 400 million dollars.  They had only a tiny fraction of that.  The state would have had to pony up for more than 300 million dollars to pay it, to build it.  And she said no. 

GREGORY:  Let’s talk about the issue of abortion.  Obviously, critics of hers, Democrats primarily, say that her view is extreme, that she wants to outlaw abortion even in the instance of rape, only protecting the mother’s life if it were to come to that.  Again, back in this debate, she spoke about abortion more generally.  Let’s watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  If your daughter were pregnant or your son was involved in a pregnancy, what would your reaction—before marriage or something like that—what would be your reaction and advice to him or her? 

PALIN:  Again, I would choose life.  And certainly, I’m quite confident here that you’re going to be asking my opponent the same scenarios. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I will.  If your daughter had been raped, would that be something—

PALIN:  Again I would choose life. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  That’s the position that she’s outlined.  What is her record as governor on abortion? 

MYERS:  Interestingly as governor, she has not pushed the issue.  There were times, for example, that members of the state legislature, who had anti-abortion bills to add more restrictions, wanted to bring those bills up as part of special legislative sessions on other issues.  And Governor Palin said no.  She has not proposed any added restrictions on abortion.  And Alaska has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the country. 

GREGORY:  On other issues that she advertises as a maverick, as a reformer standing up to the Republican party, standing up to the oil company, which as we know is a huge part of Alaska’s economy.  Do those advertisements hold up? 

MYERS:  They do.  In fact, she has defined herself by those two battled, against corruption in her own party, against the oil industry.  I’m told by people who cover the oil industry in the state that the companies have been really surprised by how tough she was.  She worked with Democrats to triple their taxes.  She battled them on control of a new natural gas pipeline.  And then she worked with Democrats to give about 1,200 dollars back to every Alaskan to help them with energy costs. 

GREGORY:  In the few seconds we have left.  All this discussion about her support among women.  Can she reach those more culturally conservative supporters of Hillary Clinton in this race? 

MYERS:  I absolutely think so.  I think the polls reflect it.  In talking to senators throughout the country, clearly Democratic women in the Senate are concerned that in the rural areas of Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Sarah Palin really resonates. 

GREGORY:  Senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers, thank you very much for being here.  That does it for RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE for tonight.  I’m David Gregory.  Thanks to our panel.  Thanks to you for watching.  We’ll see you back here tomorrow night, same time, 6:00:00 p.m.  Eastern on MSNBC. 

Two quick reminders before we go, watch “COUNTDOWN” again tonight with Keith Olbermann at 8:00 pm Eastern time, part two of Keith’s one on one interview with Senator Barack Obama. 

Then keep it on right here, 9:00 pm Eastern, Rachel Maddow, her new show right here on MSNBC.  Stay where you are.  Right now it’s “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews.

Content and programming copyright 2008 NBC.  ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2008 ASC LLC  ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user’s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon NBC and ASC LLC’s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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