updated 9/29/2008 5:22:52 PM ET 2008-09-29T21:22:52

Guest: Howard Fineman, Eugene Robinson, Robert Gibbs

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Over before it began. John McCain's Internet ad boasting he's already won the debate. It was online this morning, before McCain confirmed he was showing up to the debate. Even though he wouldn't show up if the economic bailout had not passed. Premature jocularity?

Home field advantage. Tonight is supposed to be about foreign policy; that is supposed to be McCain's slam dunk specialty. Debate preview with Chris Matthews, Richard Wolffe, and Howard Fineman in Oxford, Mississippi, and Rachel Maddow who went to the other Oxford.

Internal dissention. Mike Huckabee protests McCain holding the debate hostage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE, ® FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know what the talking points are. I think Senator McCain should make it absolutely clear: I'm going to Oxford; I'm going to participate in that debate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: From GOP consultant, former McCain advisor, Craig Shirley, quote, "In the end, he blinked and Obama did not. The 'steady hand in the storm' argument looks now to favor Obama, not McCain."

And back in D.C., with still no bailout bill yet in place, confirmation that the McCain stunt was a McCain stunt.

Minority Leader Boehner's aide, Kevin Smith, is telling the "New York Times" as the paper reports, "Republicans revolted, in part, because they were chafing at what they saw as an attempt by Democrats to jam through an agreement on the bailout early Thursday and deny Mr. McCain an opportunity to participate in the agreement."

Palin panic. Her approval rating is down 14 percent in Alaska. And a conservative columnist, a woman conservative columnist, saying she is, quote, "clearly out of her lead" and must quit the ticket to save John McCain, before there's more of this reverse elitism.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. SARAH PALIN, ® VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The way I understood the world is through education, through books, through mediums that have provided me a lot of perspective on the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Six million viewers and nearly 2 million more on YouTube have gotten a new perspective on John McCain as David Letterman continues the payback for McCain's cancellation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LETTERMAN, TV TALK SHOW HOST: Here's the news, Paris Hilton is on the program tonight-unless she needs to rush to Washington to fix the economy.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: All that and more: Now our COUNTDOWN to the debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PARIS HILTON, CELEBRITY: I'll see you at the debate, bitches.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN (on camera): Good evening. This is Friday, September 26th, 39 days until the 2008 presidential election, less than one hour until the first presidential debate of the 2008 presidential election.

But first, breaking news at this hour on the health of Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. His office is confirming tonight that he has just been released from the Cape Cod Hospital and is returning home after having suffered a mild seizure at his home today. We'll keep you updated on the senator's health throughout the evening.

His staff says he was particularly anxious to get back to his house to watch the debate.

As to that, when then Vice President Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy took the stage where their presidential debate 48 years ago tonight, had Mr. Nixon pretended to suspend this campaign at the midst of a financial crisis, had Mr. Nixon squandered congressional efforts to reach compromise on an economic bailout merely because he had not been seen to be participating in the agreement, had Mr. Nixon threatened before departing for Chicago in a, quote, "general atmosphere of utter confusion?

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN: No, unlike Senator John McCain, all that Mr. Nixon had going against him that night was a flu-driven pasty complexion and a five o'clock shadow.

By the time Senator McCain tended (ph) to inform the country today that he would indeed be showing up at Ole Miss tonight, his opponent, Senator Obama already at the airport waiting to take off for Memphis. Does that mean the Republican's threshold for attending the debate has been reached? Is there, in fact, a bailout agreement? Of course not.

Senator McCain merely moving that goal post, announcing that because of significant progress, the debate is back on. And it appears, Senator McCain has already won before the first question was even uttered. Before Senator McCain stopped hinting he might not show up, an ad appearing on the WallStreetJournal.com this morning declaring "McCain wins debate."

Not that there should have been any doubt that Senator McCain would be in attendance, he knew it last night, Politico.com reporting that after last night's disastrous meeting at the White House, a meeting that McCain requested, the senator got in a few hours of debate prep.

In a statement, the McCain campaign with the goal to blame the Democrats for yesterday's debacle at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: "The difference between Barack Obama and John McCain was apparent during a White House meeting yesterday where Barack Obama's priority was political posturing in his opening monologue, defending the package as it stands.

John McCain listened to all sides so he could help focus the debate on finding a bipartisan resolution that is in the interest of taxpayers and homeowners."

That however, not how it went down according to an aide to Minority Leader John Boehner. The aide, Kevin Smith, telling the "New York Times" that as the paper reports, "Republicans revolted in part because they were chafing at what they saw as an attempt by Democrats to jam through an agreement on the bailout earlier Thursday and deny Mr. McCain an opportunity to participate in the agreement."

Senator McCain apparently also with time in his schedule today for the interest of lobbyists. Joining him on the plane to Memphis and then (ph) to Oxford, former New York Mayor Giuliani, a top McCain surrogate. The "New York Daily News" reporting that Mayor Giuliani's law firm has set up a task force with the mission of helping its corporate clients get a piece of the bailout action or at least keep federal regulators from their door.

This morning on the plane to Memphis, Senator Obama putting his role in the bailout negotiations and in tonight's debate into context.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D-IL) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: At this point, my strong sense is that the best thing that I can do, rather than to inject presidential politics into some delicate negotiations is go down to Mississippi, and explain to the American people what is going on, and my vision for leading the country over the next four years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Time now to call in our own Richard Wolffe, also, of course, the senior White House correspondent for "Newsweek" magazine, who is joining us now from the site of the debate in Oxford, Mississippi.

Richard, good evening.

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN: So, why are you even there? I mean, I was reading the WallStreetJournal.com this morning, and apparently, McCain already won the debate. Why aren't you home or on your home to see your kids?

WOLFFE: My kids would clearly love to know the answer to that and many other questions. Look-there's a problem about debates which is, you might call it premature celebration. Four years ago, in the second debate, Bush's aides, if you remember, he'd had a terrible first debate. The second debate that was so keen to show that he'd won the second debate, that after about 20 minutes, his aides came in to the press room and started high fiving.

You know, there is a problem with the spin surrounding these debates, whether it's about an ad or fundraising or just a cold hard P.R. game that goes on, which is what we've seen all before. And these lines are so well-rehearsed that they're not believable for either side, they will get caught here, there's a question of timing.

OLBERMANN: Yes, but, with the rare exception to that rule, there is n authenticity to this debate and the yapping before it because of all the changes in the standard process that Mr. McCain brought to it this week. We have a debate, yet we do not have a bailout deal. Does that leave to the conclusion that Senator McCain blinked, he lose the game of chicken that he was basically playing by himself?

WOLFFE: Yes. The problem is, when you are gambling and taking risks as McCain has done, you make a big bet and you can lose a lot. And he has lost multiple points over the last 48 to 72 hours. First of all, it's one thing to say, I'm going to rush back to Washington and deal with this problem. That's fine, in and of itself.

But to suspend the campaign, trying to postpone the debate, and then lay out a condition for returning to the debate, which is that they had to be a hard and fast deal there-there, you sort of multiply the gamble. And each of those points, the deal, the postponing of the debate, the conditions for returning to the debate, McCain has not met his own definition of the rules here.

So, not only is there sort of flip-flop that you might describe it as, but the risk-taking elements to it. And if you look at the full report coming out of the McCain press corps was, they called it as they boarded the plane, a scene of general and utter confusion. And that's what it's felt like.

OLBERMANN: And one more practical aspect to that-foreign policy which was the stated topic of this debate, is arguably, certainly, the senator thinks it is, Senator McCain's strongest topic. Obviously, the time that would have been spent debating that night is going to be siphoned off the questions on the economy instead that would have happened anyway, but you have to argue that more questions will be asked about the economy after what Senator McCain did, this entirety of the White House and the whole "dog and pony" show in Washington.

Am I misreading this? Or did Senator McCain manage to decrease the number of questions he would otherwise welcome and increase the number he might be struggling with?

WOLFFE: I think they would still be talking about the economy. There is no way for Jim Lehrer. He told-as moderator, he's told these campaigns that there will be a section on the economy. But what he's done is focused those questions or at least some of them on his own role as opposed to being sort of explanatory and expressing concern, and a general set of principles.

Some of these questions are going to be directed towards McCain's involvement. Did he help or did he hinder this bailout negotiation? And that's a problem for him just dealing with that.

OLBERMANN: Is there anybody, by the way, suggesting there in all seriousness that helped?

WOLFFE: McCain is saying that he was very bipartisan. But this deal is still to be done. So, let's see if he can pull people together.

OLBERMANN: Richard Wolffe of MSNBC and "Newsweek," as always, great thanks. We will talk to you after the debate is over.

WOLFFE: Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: For a different perspective on the COUNTDOWN to tonight's debate, we're joined now by Robert Gibbs, senior strategist for communications and message for the Obama campaign. Thank you for your time tonight, sir.

ROBERT GIBBS, OBAMA CAMPAIGN SR. STRATEGIST: Thank you for having me.

OLBERMANN: I don't know if you have heard or if you happen to see the WallStreetJournal.com this morning, but apparently, Senator McCain already won the debate. I don't know what you all are doing there. Do you have a comment on the victory this morning in the first debate?

GIBBS: We were going to turn the plane around. You know, it's a remarkable thing because, up until a few hours ago, we didn't even know if John McCain was going to participate. So, if it takes him winning before we even get here just to show up, then we are happy he came.

OLBERMANN: The McCain campaign not only claimed that victory for the debate that had not even started yet. And as you pointed, they've not even committed to at that point, but they've also, more substantially, blamed Senator Obama for the breakdown of the meeting at the White House last night. Would you care to comment on that?

GIBBS: Let's just say, if McCain helps out in any other White House meetings in the near future about the financial bailout, I'm going to take my son's college fund and stuff it in my mattress. I don't think we need anymore help from John McCain. We had the principles of an agreement before his plane landed in Washington, and only a few hours later, Democrats and Republicans left the White House wondering what had happened.

Barack Obama has worked steadily on this agreement for the past week and on this crisis for more than two weeks to make sure that our taxpayers are protected, that we have more transparency and openness in this, that we make sure, most of all, that the CEOs that caused this financial crisis don't get our tax money as a bailout. That's what working constructively can do to help an agreement.

And I think, over the past two weeks, people in this country have got a chance to see Barack Obama as a steady leader and John McCain, quite frankly, as an erratic senator.

OLBERMANN: A debate in modern American politics is all about setting expectations for your guy low and for the other guy kind of high. A Democratic staffer at the bailout talks in Washington had said, I want to read this quote, "Bush is no diplomat but his Cardinal "freaking" Richelieu compared to McCain. McCain couldn't negotiate an agreement on dinner among a family of four without making a big drama with himself at the heroic center of it."

As interesting as that phrase is, and credit is given for it, the

reference to Cardinal Richelieu, does a sense of that-does that lower

expectations for Senator McCain and increase them for Senator Obama tonight?

GIBBS: Well, look, we're on John McCain's home turf. We're on foreign policy and national security experience. Something he spent nearly three decades of his career in Washington on.

Look, anything less than a game-changing event from John McCain, I think, would be considered nothing but a loss. This is a part of the issue spectrum that he's ridiculed everybody else on knowing more than anybody else. So, look, I think we'll do well tonight, but John McCain, the pressure is on John McCain.

OLBERMANN: Are you actually surprised that there is a debate tonight? Or was that never any debate in your camp?

GIBBS: We always planned for John McCain to be here, despite the high jinx and the press releases, and all the traveling back-and-forth and the hand-wringing and decision-making. We're just glad he decided to come and join us here in Mississippi.

OLBERMANN: Robert Gibbs, communications director for the Obama campaign, great thanks for you time.

GIBBS: Thanks.

OLBERMANN: A programming reminder. We've got your post debate analysis for you. COUNTDOWN live at 11:00 p.m. Eastern tonight, 8:00 Pacific. The Democratic vice presidential nominee, Senator Joe Biden among our guests. Chris Matthews and "HARDBALL" live at midnight. "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" live at 1:00 a.m.

A remarkable statement out of one of Congressman Boehner's aides at the bailout talks yesterday, "The Republicans revolted in part because they sense the settlement was being reached too quickly for Senator McCain to get involved. They scuttled the deal because McCain could not have claimed credit for it."

Rachel Maddow on the man who wants to be "President Photo-op." And a remarkable column from the ultraconservative "National Review" online. Kathleen Parker writes that is Sarah Palin must withdraw as John McCain's running mate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Can you parachute in the complex financial and legislative negotiations and get anything done, let alone lead? Apparently not. Can you parachute into a debate and get anything done, let alone lead? Find out about 45 minutes. The leadership of the man who would be "President Parachute." Rachel Maddow joins me.

Also tonight: The continuing revenge of David Letterman.

And, the continuing freefall of Sarah Palin, her negative ratings in the polls up by 50 percent in Alaska. While a conservative columnist says she has to go.

You're watching the COUNTDOWN to the debate on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: With pillars of the U.S. economy crumbling before our eyes at yesterday's White House meeting, both presidential candidates had the opportunity to show how they respond to a crisis. By all accounts, both of them did.

Our fourth story tonight: What really happened?

Before John McCain took off from Newark yesterday, Democrats and House Minority Leader John Boehner had announced bipartisan progress. McCain touched down in Washington just on the afternoon, he and Boehner then met with House conservatives, the biggest holdouts on the bailout. According to the "Washington Post," McCain had few details of their alternate plan.

Four p.m. at the White House, a McCain's spokesman says Obama led the Democratic side and that it quote, "quickly divulged into a shouting match."

But Republican Senator Shelby, who was at the meeting, described both McCain and Obama as, quote, "very courteous." So, did McCain, like Obama, lead his party's efforts? For more than 40 minutes, he said nothing. Then the House conservative plan came up and Obama asked McCain his position about it. McCain refused to take a stand.

But CBS News reports he did float part of the House conservative wish list, namely, more corporate tax breaks, more of the deregulation that got us all here. The bailout talks then broke down.

McCain did some TV interviews, was home by 6:00, at 6:09, this came from the McCain camp, quote, "We're optimistic that Senator McCain will bring House Republicans on board." At quarter to 10:00 this morning, Democratic Chuck Schumer on the Senate floor, asking Mr. Bush to quote, "respectfully tell Senator McCain to get out of town, he's not helping."

Joining me now, Rachel Maddow, the host, of course, of her own show here on MSNBC as well as on Air America Radio.

Good evening.

RACHEL MADDOW, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW": Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN: We heard earlier, Boehner's aide said the GOP wanted to stop the deal from going through too quickly to enable McCain to get credits. So, they basically put their foot on the brake just for his credit getting.

MADDOW: Right.

OLBERMANN: Today, another former McCain advisor, this man Craig Shirley told the "Huffington Post" that this whole debate bailout debacle shows that his campaign, McCain's campaign, is governed by tactics and not ideology. That's from a former McCain advisor, not from somebody on the liberal side.

What damage do you think McCain has actually done to himself this week, and do you think he understands that he has?

MADDOW: It's hard to imagine that things could have gotten worse for him, given how bad they were just by virtue of the fact that we were talking about the economy. It's such a bad two weeks, but this was a disaster. I mean, it was a disaster, I think, on two fronts, both on temperament and on leadership, because on temperament, that's something for which, I think, the public already maybe has a sort of negative perception of John McCain, broadly speaking.

And he did himself more damage by showing that once again, he's willing to panic, gamble, pull the fire alarm, and see what happens, try to hit the reset button. So, on the temperament thing, he made a bad situation worse for himself.

But on leadership, he undid what might have been a more positive perception of his skills. I mean, in this case, you either lead the nation by saying: Actually, we do not need a bailout, the president is wrong, what you heard from the secretary of the treasury is wrong. What you are hearing in the mainstream views in Washington is wrong. We don't need a bailout, here's what we should do instead.

You either say that, or say: You know what? Republicans, we need to get our arms around this bailout even though we don't often like government solutions.

OLBERMANN: But we've already skipped to the second thing you do as a leader. Isn't the first thing you do as a leader to say, "This is where I stand"?

MADDOW: Yes.

OLBERMANN: Where is he-I keep asking this question-where is he on this?

MADDOW: We have no idea. As you said, he went to the meeting at the White House, the big photo-op, and sat there silently for 40 minutes. At the very end of the meeting, after which reports are that Barack Obama was peppering Secretary Paulson with questions the whole time, John McCain sat silently. Then at the very end, raised some of the issues that House Republicans have raised, but never asked Hank Paulson: Do you agree with this plan, do you object to this plan.

We don't know where he stands on it. If you're going to bother to show up, show up.

OLBERMANN: And the only essence, the only-just iceberg top that we know about his policy on this, from the reports of those who are at the meeting, was that he came out and asked for more deregulation.

MADDOW: Yes.

OLBERMANN: Less regulation, more deregulation when nine out of 10 people on the street, who barely can grasp how to spell economics rather than what they're, you know, understanding what they're saying, and I count myself in that group-nine out of 10 people would say, obviously, it's deregulation that got us where we are.

What is he trying to sell? Should it be terrifying to people that he's trying to gut what few regulations are left?

MADDOW: He's-I mean, responding to this crisis by saying we need deregulation is like using gasoline to put out a fire. It's ridiculous. We don't yet know if that's John McCain's idea. All we know is that he has empowered the dissidents in the Republican Party who are pushing this one-page plan. I think I got it here. It's not that hard to carry around if it's all in one-page.

And I mean, if you thought the Paulson plan was thin, this is deregulation, corporate tax cuts, and essentially, no to the bailout. That's what they are proposing, oh, and a blue ribbon commission. That's what they are proposing. And these are the folks that he's empowering, there was a bipartisan consensus emerging. He decided to empower these guys.

OLBERMANN: Yes.

MADDOW: Now, we have nothing.

OLBERMANN: And so that, that blue ribbon commission would be there

to watch and make it easier for everybody else to watch the economy go to

hell in a handbag, if that's what -

MADDOW: Will they be able to explain to us what was happening as it was setting itself on fire.

OLBERMANN: You maybe overstating in that case, I'm just wondering, that one page, do we know that McCain's read that?

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW: As of Tuesday, he hasn't read the Paulson plan which was 2 ½ pages. So, I suppose we can't be guaranteed. But, I mean, we shouldn't-I don't think that we should be unfair here. It's a blue ribbon panel and it doesn't get any better than blue when you're talking ribbons and panels.

OLBERMANN: That's right. A nice sash for the women members of the panel, too.

Our own Rachel Maddow will rejoin us in our post debate coverage at 11:00 Eastern and then will host her own hour, a post debate coverage at 1:00 a.m. Eastern, 10:00 p.m. Pacific.

We'll see you then.

MADDOW: Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Thank you, Rachel.

The call from a syndicated conservative woman columnist, Sarah Palin must withdraw from the Republican ticket because, quote, "if B.S. were currency, Palin could bailout Wall Street herself." And she is, quote, "clearly out of her league." Wow.

And what kind of league did Senator McCain sign up for when he ditched David Letterman and earned yet another night of Letterman's laser-like response? Also, there were jokes about the size of my head. That's next. This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: One, perhaps, underrated factor as tonight's debate nears, David Letterman. Or correctly, the 6 million of so people who watched him the last two nights, or the 1,800,000 more who have already viewed the nine-minute clip from the night McCain bailed on him and lied to him about why. And Letterman did not dial it down one iota in a follow-up vivisection of McCain last night.

Maybe (ph) this way, John McCain had a new TV show debuting tonight, this would not be considered a good pub.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE LATE SHOW"/CBS/WORLDWIDE PANTS)

DAVID LETTERMAN, TV TALK SHOW HOST: Here's good news. Paris Hilton is on the program tonight.

(APPLAUSE AND CHEERS)

LETTERMAN: Unless she needs to rush to Washington to fix the economy.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: A lot of people don't know this, but Paris Hilton was actually McCain's first choice for running mate.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Yes. I felt bad about this because we're all ready to go with John McCain, and then, like with an hour to go he cancels, and I felt bad about it. And I was thinking about this, John. John, here's how it works. You don't come to see me. You don't come to see me, well, we might not see you on inauguration day.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: That's how it works. Honest to goodness, it's like you're getting a call from Superman, it's like you're getting a call from Batman, it's nice. "Love to talk, got to go Dave. Gotham is about to go belly up."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Whoa, OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like you are the commissioner.

LETTERMAN: Do what you need to do and call me when you can.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

LETTERMAN: Well, no, you know, it's like he stopped off and had a facial.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Letterman might still be one of the most famous native sons of the state of Indiana. So, here's what is, presumably, just a bizarre coincidence. NBC News reporting today that the Republican National Committee has decided to sink $5 million into local TV advertising for Senator McCain in tight states, like Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and Indiana?

President Bush won Indiana four years ago, 60-39. And just to lighten this up a little bit. Last night, Letterman also had some fun with that goofball who pinch hit for McCain on Wednesday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LETTERMAN, TALK SHOW HOST: We think, OK, so we get that Keith Olbermann who is a great guy to come on at the last minute.

PAUL SHAFFER, TALK SHOW SIDEKICK: Came on at the last second.

LETTERMAN: He doesn't know what's going on. He comes out here. By the way, he has an enormous head.

SHAFFER: I noticed that. It's hard not to.

LETTERMAN: It's huge.

SHAFFER: It's hard not to notice. You try not to. But .

LETTERMAN: Very nice guy and I think very suit. It's like you see a suit and luggage? Oh, that's his head. His big head that makes him smart.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANNN: Yes, I do have a big head. My hat side is between 7 7/8 and 8. I had to special order my mortarboard head in college? Does it worry you that this time he's talking about my giant squash and last time how enormous a person I am.

Sarah Palin evidently reproving Joe Louis old warning from the boxing ring, you can run, but you cannot hide. A conservative woman columnist calling for the governor to withdraw from the Republican ticket.

A half an hour to the debate. Nobody suspended anything, nobody has asked for postponement. Well, not tonight, anyway.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: For her, there's the ivory puffin mask worth $2,200, a woven grass fan for $300 and a gold nugget pin valued at $1,200. And for a total of about $1,000, an Aleut basket, a sea otter headband, a rattle and a whale basket.

For him, the more practical of gratuities, two charter airplane flights valued at over $1,000. These just some of the 41 lovely gifts totaling $25,367 in value from Alaska mining operations and other industries received by Governor Sarah Palin and Husband Todd during her 20 months in office.

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, but for both of them something else. The suggestion from a conservative columnist that Governor Palin is, quote, "clearly out of here league and should for the good of the Republican Party and the nation withdraw from the ticket."

The vice presidential candidate was kept away from reporters today, this after Wednesday's disastrous interview with Katie Couric. And yesterday's rambling answers during a brief media opportunity in New York. So nobody can ask about the free gifts.

"The Washington Post" reports her benefactors included large mining interests, the city of Nome and state corporation executives, many of the items given right before and after her proposals became law.

Not surprisingly, the governor's approval rating at home has tanked 14 percent since she was picked as McCain's running mate. Her approval, though, in the mind of conservative columnist Kathleen Parker on even shakier ground still.

"Palin's recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate who is clearly out of here league," the columnist writes. "Only Palin can save McCain, her party and the country she loves. She can bow out for personal reasons perhaps because she wants to spend time with her newborn. No one would criticize her mother who puts her family first. Do it for your country."

More snippets of the Couric interview now being made available and one the governor was asked whether it was a lack of interest in the world that delayed her getting a passport until last year.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. SARAH PALIN, ® VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world.

No, I've worked all my life. In fact I usually had two jobs all my life until I had kids. I was not a part of, I guess, that culture. The way that I have understood the world is through education, through books, through mediums that have provided me a lot of perspective on the world.

Then, maybe her book learning talked about whether the Pakistani government might be harboring al Qaeda.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PALIN: I don't believe that new President Zadari has that mission at all. But, no. The Pakistani people also, they want freedom, they want democratic values to be allowed in their country, also. They understand the dangers of terrorists having a stronghold in regions of their country, also. And I believe that they too, want to rid not only their country, but the world of violent Islamic terrorists.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Joined by Eugene Robinson, MSNBC political analyst, "Washington Post" columnist and associate editor. Good to see you, Gene.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Good to see you, Keith.

OLBERMAN: Let me quote a little more from Ms. Parker here. "Palin's filibusters. She repeats words filling in space with deadwood. If B.S. were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself. If Palin were a man, we'd all be guffawing."

This is from a conservative columnist at the "National Review" Online. She's written, the governor needs to quit for John McCain's sake and the country. Is she speaking for anybody one the right besides herself? Are there these doubts?

ROBINSON: I think, clearly, there are doubts among I guess those on the right who were raised in that culture where you put on a backpack after college and go see the world. I mean. And maybe there's a focus group in North Waziristan that has something to say about Governor Palin as well. She seems to know what they think about democratic values in Pakistan.

OLBERMANN: But she knows about everywhere in the world, she just substitutes the name of the country. They don't want terrorism, they want democracy.

ROBINSON: They want democratic values.

OLBERMANN: I have been asking this, with three to one odds are required on this. But I was saying the governor could be off the ticket by October 1. Between this week in the interviews and this little tawdry gift scandal, could it happen-or how could it not happen. How can you run the risk letting her go out there in six days in a debate.

ROBINSON: Well, I think it's kind of in for a dime for a dollar at this point. I don't think-I think the odds will be longer than three to one, to tell you the truth. Will there be increasing nervousness and maybe ultimately despair, who knows. If she continues to make pronouncements, we'll see. The debate will be key in how she performs there. And we'll see. But I don't think they are going to back off.

OLBERMANN: But if they don't, don't they have to find some excuse to cancel the debate? Not postpone it but cancel it. Something's happened. Alaska got closer to Russia. It's now 52 miles between the Bering Strait.

ROBINSON: We have to go solve this crisis.

OLBERMANN: Global warming has caused the ice to melt off the Bering Strait about a half mile in each direction. We're now just 52 miles away, she has to rush back for the rest-How do you take those kind of lumps at the debate when she could not handle her own with Katie Couric?

ROBINSON: I don't know. Frankly, this is the opinion columnist in me. That interview was chilling to me, it really was in the way betrayed such lack of knowledge of the world. And to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, that's actually not a laughing matter.

OLBERMANN: Also, not a laughing matter, there was sort of a reverse elitism in that. I'm the first guy in my family in like a century to go to college and I'm damn proud of it. I'm damn proud to have learned something. And my parents and my grandparents were prouder that I was able to do more in my life than perhaps they were, educationally certainly. Why is this a good thing what she is actually expressing there amid the filler material?

ROBINSON: Why are the two mutually exclusive? It is curiosity about the world and desire to see more exclusive coming from a working class family where there's not a history of going to college. I don't understand it. I don't think they are mutually exclusive.

OLBERMANN: I also didn't know your parents could just get you a passport. I thought you could go to the office yourself. Maybe her parents got her her passport. We'll see how that turns out. Gene Robinson of the "Washington Post" and MSNBC who will be with us again after the debate. Thanks.

ROBINSON: So you then, Keith.

OLBERMANN: The University of Mississippi is ready. The Democratic nominee is ready. He has already departed his hotel and made it to the Ford Center. The Republican nominee, well, we think he's going to be there. The late word from the two camps via Howard Fineman as our countdown to the debate continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Five hundred ninety four days after Senator Barack Obama, shown here moments ago, arriving at the Ford Center at the University of Mississippi for tonight's debate, 594 days after he declared his candidacy at the old State Capitol building in Springfield, 576 days after Senator McCain declared his candidacy on the "Late Show with David Letterman", the two presidential nominees will finally to debate just 15 minutes from now despite McCain's call two days ago that this first debate be postponed.

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, as always, there are attempts at pre-debate spin. Our own Howard Fineman joining us presently. Let the images from Oxford not mislead you for the candidates, their supporters, the production crew, the moderator, this is the time for panic.

More about logistics than content, though. Can I get all this done before we start, but still, there's some panic there. Let's bring in as promised senior Washington correspondent for "Newsweek" magazine, also political columnist, our own Howard Fineman. Good evening, Howard.

HOWARD FINEMAN, "NEWSWEEK": Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Other than the Web ad that declared victory before he was declaring that he was going to attend, how is McCain's campaign trying to frame this tonight?

FINEMAN: Well, they are trying to frame this as the guy that is reluctantly going to participate in politics. They are trying to make a virtue of necessity here. McCain has been slammed and criticized and marked down for the political impact of all the flying around and dropping in he has been doing.

And Nicole Wallace who is the top spinner for the McCain campaign was telling me a little while ago, look, he did what he did in Washington and he believes in what he did in Washington because he cares more about the country than he cares about politics. And if his debate performance is off a little tonight, if he's a little tired, hasn't had much sleep, etc, etc, etc, it's because he's putting country first, not politics first. That's their spin and they are sticking to it. And as I say, they are going to make a virtue of necessity here because McCain has pretty well been hammered in terms of the political reaction to his actions in the last couple days.

OLBERMANN: All right. So, he's Cincinnatus McCain, he is going back to plow the fields rather than lead the Roman Army. But obviously the events of the last few days have recast this debate in terms of Senator Obama as well. Has McCain's poor performance in some way raised expectations for Obama tonight?

FINEMAN: I think in a way, Keith. Because I think Obama's tack over the last many days, while McCain was trying one tactic or another was to be Mr. Steady, the be Mr. Even-handed, to be the studious one, to be the level headed one. And I think it's going to be a challenge for him tonight, to maintain that and to show that he's commander and chief material by his very calmness.

Although this is one of the things that people have been criticizing him for. "The New York Times" says he's too cool. They want him to be hot, not cool. Well, I think cool is his chosen role. If he gets to stand next to McCain and look like the more mature one of the two, not in years but in political outlook and demeanor, that's going to be very important but that's a tough challenge and he's been working hard to try to get ready to do just that.

OLBERMANN: If it's coolness, does that also imply a certain amount of defense, trying to shift the spotlight to McCain saying look, this is his specialty. He had better do well. It's almost as if Obama's performance from the Obama point of view is secondary or tertiary to how McCain does in his so-called home court.

FINEMAN: Well, I think you want to try to do that one opponent against another. This is supposed to be mostly about foreign policy. Although I think Jim Lehrer is going to ask a lot of economics questions. But mostly about foreign policy, that's supposed to be John McCain's strong suit. Barack Obama is a studious guy.

Somebody told me a few hours ago that the chancellor of the University of Mississippi here had cleared the gym to make the basketball court available in case Barack Obama wanted to spend some time shooting hoops. Obama didn't take him up on it because he's studying.

And he has Greg Craig who is a very well known and very knowledgeable Washington lawyer, very on foreign policy who has been playing the role of John McCain in the prep sessions, so I think if McCain thinks he's going to go up against somebody who doesn't know how to deal on foreign policy, I think Obama is hoping to surprise him.

OLBERMANN: Let me elaborate on your analogy. Obviously the McCain campaign has been to this point about taking here. Does he have one for tonight? Is he going to come out and take a swing at Obama? Is he going to replace Sarah Palin on the ticket with David Letterman? What rabbit does he have to pull out of the hat?

FINEMAN: Well, let's use another sports analogy. It's always fourth and long in the world of John McCain. That's the way he operates. That's the way he's always operated. He goes one news cycle at a time. One political punch at a time.

And you can expect him to come out and be aggressive. Look to make news by surprising people tonight once again. That's been the McCain philosophy from the beginning. I predict it will be that again tonight.

OLBERMANN: Ask Brett Favre how that works when you go from the Packers to the Jets. Howard Fineman of "Newsweek" and MSNBC. To finish off the sports analogies. We'll see you after the debate as well. Thank you, Howard.

FINEMAN: OK, Keith.

OLBERMANN: A last preview of the first presidential debate. Chris Matthews joins me next as we anticipate the rumble in Oxford.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: "We must meet until the crisis is resolved. I am directing my campaign to work with the Obama campaign and the Commission on Presidential Debates to delay Friday night's debate until we have take action to address this crisis."

Senator John McCain about 53 hours ago.

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, despite that, we are moments away from the first presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. And aside from Senator McCain's own part in raising the stakes in tonight's debate, there is this.

A face-off that would have been exclusively on foreign affairs, will now, due to the obvious economic crisis including some focus on the economy. So says it moderator, that man in the middle there, Jim Lehrer, PBS.

And so predictions about which candidate would be on safer turf in this first presidential debate, to some degree, out the window. Let's bring in the host of HARDBALL, Chris Matthews, who is on the scene. Chris, good evening.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Hi, Keith, how are you doing?

OLBERMANN: Let's assume, for arguments sake, that both these guys are at the top of the their game tonight. What is the best scenario for each of them?

MATTHEWS: Well, Barack Obama, who can be very elegant in manner and speech, can come across as warmer and someone who cares about our problems who connects with the average person out there. Not to be blunt about it, the more conservative white voter who may be resistant to him. He can't get the racist vote, but he's got to get the more conservative voter. He has white liberals and white middle of the roaders, he's got black voters. He has got to get the more conservative white voters, that fourth quintile I call it out there on the spectrum. And he can do it if he comes across as the guy who cares about the problems we're all in.

OLBERMANN: And obviously that's front of mind. Economics.

MATTHEWS: Right.

OLBERMANN: The contours of the debate have obviously morphed. It can't be devoted exclusively to foreign affairs. The Hotline daily tracking poll says the difference in which candidate would handle the economy went from Obama plus one on Monday to Obama plus 14 today. How does Obama drive that home in a debate format? What does he do?

MATTHEWS: Well, I've talked to a lot of people who are pretty tough political people. They are pretty tough because they know what's going on out there. And they believe that the cosmos has shifted the way that Norman Mailer would talk about it. All of a sudden, the backdrop has shifted behind these men.

Regardless of what they've done, the world has moved behind them. The cosmos behind them is who is the best commander and chief behind the economy. Who is the Democrat and who is the Republican. Who is with the party in the White House. Who is with the opposition party.

That cosmos shifted now. John McCain finds himself a Republican at a time the Republicans are taking the heat for seven or eight years of trouble leading up to the catastrophe. There's nothing he can do about it. He's stuck in a Republican uniform tonight. Barack Obama finds himself as the alternative to what we right have now. That's an ideal place to be. Things have changed. They haven't changed.

Let's see if Barack can exploit the situation and let's see if John McCain can slip out of it. The word change is a very good word again tonight.

OLBERMANN: Do standard debating rules apply? Have they been affected by the last week? Is it still, if you have the best snappy short sound bite and you have the fewest gaffes, you have won the debate?

MATTHEWS: That's the way we slice and dice it in television. Because all that's left an hour and a half from now, once the debate has begun are the pieces of the debate. It never gets reassembled again as it actually happened.

All that's left are the bicentennial moments when someone makes a mistake or when someone comes through with something that's obvious to us and everyone watching a set piece. But I think Barack better have set pieces. It's rare that you can wing something like this.

So I would bet McCain might be a little more humble and come with set pieces like his favorite and very, very effective one. When he said I couldn't be at Woodstock because I was tied up at the time. No one thought he made it up at the time.

OLBERMANN: Obviously it's not 2004, there's no incumbent. Therefore that element is out of this. Give me the miniature history lesson here. Where do you think the debates rank in terms of making up people's minds for them or helping them make up their minds compared to 2004. There was a big Kerry win in one of those, a big Bush win and then one that could have been interpreted either way. And ultimately, I don't think it impacted the final outcome of that race very much at all.

Is it going to be a complete reversal this time?

MATTHEWS: I think, remember in math there is a necessary condition and a sufficiency condition? The necessary condition has already been met for Barack Obama. We want change as a country. We want him to make it tonight. The American people want an alternative to what's going on now. They want the opposition candidate to look good tonight. The necessary condition is there.

He has to now come in and perform up to his potential. The country was not that moot in 2004. It wasn't in that mood in 2000. It think the condition is there like it was the year 1980 when people wanted a change. All Reagan had to do was perform. The necessary condition was we have a candidate that can represent something different. All he has do is prove that he is effectively something different.

I think that's there for Barack. Everybody wants something different. He has to prove he can be an effective something different. Necessary condition already met tonight. He has got to deliver on the sufficiency condition.

OLBERMANN: So .

MATTHEWS: And he can do it. He has to do it.

I think the other problem with McCain is the Captain Queeg factor here which is starting to emerge. It's not there yet. But the erratic nature of calling for the firing of the chairman of the SEC, attempting to fire these debates in a sense. This effort to constantly change things. He did it in Memphis a couple of years ago when he went down there and knew he was going to lose a straw vote at that Memphis meeting of southern Republicans and he endorsed Bush so there wouldn't be a vote. He's always trying to rip up the score card.

OLBERMANN: Chris Matthews in Oxford, Mississippi. And we can tell Chris is serious, because he has his Winston Churchill tie on. We'll talk to you later Chris, thank you.

MATTHEWS: True enough.

OLBERMANN: I'll be back after the debate with a special post debate edition of COUNTDOWN, that is at 11:00 Eastern, 8:00 Pacific. Among our guests, Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Joe Biden.

That is COUNTDOWN for this, the 1976th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq. I'm Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.

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

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