updated 9/29/2008 5:30:22 PM ET 2008-09-29T21:30:22

Guest: Eugene Robinson, Pat Buchanan, Howard Fineman

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, "COUNTDOWN": As debates went, this seemed to be pretty prosaic.

Senator McCain's basic statement was, Senator Obama does not understand "fill in the blank," but I have been to "insert location here.

Senator Obama's standard response seemed to be: "That's very nice, John, but that's just not true. Here's where you or your facts are wrong," until we got late into this debate, and the candidate who claimed tonight's subject, international affairs, as his home turf got the name of the president of Pakistan wrong, called that country a failed state, which is probably a big surprise there tonight.

And, then, suddenly, John McCain announced, we have to do a better job in human intelligence, and we have got to make sure that we have people who are trained interrogators, so that we don't ever torture a prisoner ever again-the Republican nominee admitting that this country indeed has tortured prisoners during his first presidential debate.

(voice over): A debate John McCain claimed he had won at 10:00 this morning in an Internet ad before he even officially confirmed he was attending. Should he just quit while he was ahead?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R-AZ) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Now here, is

Ahmadinejad -

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: The debate over whether he should have ever been threatened to skip the debate. The ominous pre-debate verdict from McCain's former advisor, Craig Shirley: "In the end, he blinked and Obama did not. The 'steady hand in the storm' argument looks now to more favor Obama, not McCain."

Did that translate into the substance on a night supposedly devoted to McCain's strength-foreign policy?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D-IL) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: John, you're absolutely. But presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But, you know, coming from you, who, you know, in the past have threatened extinction for North Korea, and, you know, sung song about bombing Iran, I don't know, you know, how credible that is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: With Richard Wolffe, and the immediate reaction from Oxford, Mississippi. Howard Fineman, truth-squadding the claims of both candidates. The analysis of Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson, and Pat Buchanan. And among our guests, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware.

This is COUNTDOWN's coverage of the first 2008 presidential debate.

(on camera): Good evening. This is Friday, September 26th, 39 days until the 2008 presidential election and about 23 minutes after the first debate of the 2008 presidential election.

On a special post debate edition of COUNTDOWN, at the University of Mississippi in Oxford tonight, in the changed election, the Republican nominee describing the word "change" only once, the Democratic nominee seeming to debate the current the president about how much as he did his opponent.

More noise it seems and clarity from the stage of the Gertrude C. Ford Center, at the economic and foreign policy debate, more questions raised than answers gleamed, including why wasn't the Republican, Senator McCain, wearing a flag lapel pin. The Democrat, Senator Obama, after such huffing and puffing all spring, was.

Maybe that as a pseudo issue has changed at what was a ostensively a foreign policy debate, foreign policy not raised until 39 minutes had elapsed out of the gate tonight, and understandably so, the economic crisis and the debate format that started off, well, the fundamentals were not exactly solid.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Ten days ago, John said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. I do not think that they are.

JIM LEHRER, DEBATE MODERATOR: Say it directly to him. Say it directly to him.

OBAMA: Well, John, 10 days ago, you said the fundamentals of the economy are sound.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: And you're afraid I couldn't here him?

(LAUGHTER)

LEHRER: I'm just determined to get you all to talk to each other.

I'm going to try -

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: That was the end of the good fellowship. The benefit of tonight's format-calling out your opponent when you felt that what he was saying about your tax record was not true.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: Senator Obama has shifted on a number of occasions, he has voted in the United States Senate to increase taxes on people who make as low as $42,000 a year.

OBAMA: That's not true, John. That's not true.

MCCAIN: And that's just the fact. Again, you can look it up.

OBAMA: Look, it's just not true. And if we want to talk about oil company profits under your tax plan, John, this is undeniable-oil companies would get an additional $4 billion in tax breaks. Now, look, we all would like to lower taxes on everybody. But here's the problem, if we are giving them to all companies, then, that means that there are those who are not going to be getting them.

MCCAIN: And on that respect, you've already gave them to the oil companies.

OBAMA: No, but, John, the fact of the matter is, is that, I was

opposed to those tax breaks, tried to strip them out. We got an energy

bill on the Senate floor right now that contains some good stuff, some

stuff you want, including drilling offshore -

MCCAIN: Right.

OBAMA: But you're opposed to it because it would strip away those tax breaks that have gone to the oil companies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: In the list of wasteful earmarks, Senator McCain making no mention, not a thanks or no thanks in fact about that "Bridge to Nowhere." The Republican nominee also mocked an earmark to study bear DNA, even though his running mate, Governor Palin, requested money to study the genetic makeup of harbor seals.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: You know, we spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don't know that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue, but the fact is, that it was $3 million of our taxpayers' money and it has got to be brought under control.

As the president of the United States, I want to assure you, I've got a pen-this one is kind of old-I've got a pen and I'm going to veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk. I will make them famous that you will know their names.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: One of about 11 times that Senator McCain reuse material from earlier debates or speeches, or in fact, his speech to the Republican National Nominating Committee.

On the topic of foreign policy, all the major highlights touched up

Iraq, Iran, Russia, and torture. Senator McCain in an extraordinary moment that seemed to get passed a lot of people, seemed to admit for the first time that the United States has tortured.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: We have to do a better job in human intelligence. And we've got to make sure that we have people who are trained interrogators so that we don't ever torture a prisoner ever again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Joining me now from the site of the debate at Oxford, Mississippi, Richard Wolffe of "Newsweek" and, of course, MSNBC.

Richard, good evening again.

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

OLBERMANN: Let me start at the end there. I know we're 97 minutes into a very long debate that had no breaks and had a lot of topics described. But have we ever heard John McCain so bluntly admit that this country, in the Bush administration, presumably, although he did not say that, in fact, tortured? I know he's talked about defining waterboarding as torturing and trying to avoid torture, he cannot said, we've, obviously, we're not going to do it again, it means we did it before.

WOLFFE: Well, that's right. I can't recall him using that kind of strong language, and maybe in a debate he got ahead of himself there. He was actually pretty forceful on that and obviously peppered over the pretty complex debate about the loopholes that were left in the legislation about torture. But, you know, in terms of this debate, he was trying to be a forceful attacking posture, and sometimes it worked, and sometimes, I thought it came up in a kind of sneering way.

OLBERMANN: There were a few moments where sneering might have been the apt description of the look on his face during some of Senator Obama's answers. But again on substance, there were a couple of remarks since this was-although obviously we start with the economic crisis, it's the story of the moment and that most concern most people immediately-after that, this was about international affairs and Senator McCain had a couple of factual problems regarding Pakistan, including getting the name of the president wrong, and saying with a great deal of a plume that perhaps not the great deal of accuracy that Pakistan was a failed state.

Is Pakistan-as I said earlier, would that be surprising news tonight in Pakistan?

WOLFFE: Well, it's not the best way to talk about an ally when actually, your point is that you should be nicer to your ally.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLFFE: That was McCain's central premise on targeting al Qaeda sites on Pakistani territory. You know, when you look at how this debate played out, I actually think there was a sort of role reversal. On the domestic side of things, McCain managed to pivot away from the bailout to talk about spending, which is very much his turf. On foreign policy, Obama, actually, held his own and beyond, and so where you thought McCain would be stronger, Obama came back pretty tough and there were those lapses, not the least of which was struggling for McCain on saying the name Ahmadinejad.

OLBERMANN: Well, I mean, to that point, what was in the context we've now, having seen this first debate, and having seen the Sturm und Drang of the last three days, the postponement threat of the debate, the supposed suspension of the campaign, what was all that about relative to the debate if Senator McCain did not really exploit any of that in the debate, as you pointed out, he pivot over away from it, it also meant that he didn't grab any credit for it during this debate?

WOLFFE: Right. Well, I thought, McCain, in many ways, his weakest moment with his first few minutes, he sounded very hesitant in talking about the bailout because neither of them really are going to go into mention detail about how to deal with this bailout because they're all waiting to see what's going on. But you're right, he didn't exploit the tactics around it. He didn't present himself as the great bipartisan reconciliator in this whole thing.

And he was successful, I have to say McCain was successful, in talking not about the bailout but about spending. But the tactics around it, really comeback to the question of tone and manner. I think that was the great, this contrast, let about substance than the demeanor and the tone of voice these candidates adopted, where McCain was being much more pointed and much more aggressive, although, curiously, he couldn't look Obama in the eyes.

OLBERMANN: Yes.

WOLFFE: Obama's tone is much straight and even keel (ph), but ready to look his opponent in the eye repeatedly. A big contrast as much as of a contrast on that ground as there was on age and height between the two.

OLBERMANN: A quick-basically, yes or no on that last topic and then we'll let you go, Richard. Foreign affairs, that overall topic here, if you were tuning in for the first time and had assumed that Barack Obama was describe in the media and this political race as being well behind John McCain in terms of knowledge of international affairs and the ability to handle them in respond to all the issues in the world, would you have been able to discern a sizable experiential different between the two of them tonight?

WOLFFE: Well, would you have heard McCain say time and again, you don't understand. And you would have heard time and again Obama talking fluently and in-depth about complex foreign policy subjects. It's hard to match those two things together.

OLBERMANN: Richard Wolffe of "Newsweek" and MSNBC, joining us in the moments after the debate, the first debate of our series of three, we still think it's going to be three. Thank you, Richard.

WOLFFE: Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: And joining me, Rachel Maddow with a few thoughts before or getting to prepare a late edition of "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" which will come up in about two hour, at 1:00 a.m. Eastern Time.

Good evening, again, Rachel.

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

OLBERMANN: All right. If you say, as John McCain said and had to have been probably eight or nine times maybe I've exaggerated there, let's say at least six, what Obama does not understand, here Senator Obama does not understand, Senator Obama you don't understand, if you say that enough will it have an impact? Will it make people he doesn't understand or will they listen for the answer, what happened tonight?

MADDOW: I think that he perfected that sound byte. He made it clear that that's the way that he's going to campaign against Obama, at least, for the minute. He's had a lot of changes in strategy but that's the current one. I think that probably almost for every "doesn't understand or don't understand" we heard from McCain, though, we heard the invocation of the word "Bush" from Barack Obama. I think those are the sort of dueling epithets in this debate and you don't understand is probably a less powerful one than you don't like Bush.

OLBERMANN: What happens when you make mistakes like, the inability and-you and I both know this very well, it's a very tough to pronounce Ahmadinejad, if you then get the name of the president of Pakistan wrong and call his country a failed state, and then sort of, just sort of slip and slide this idea we're never going to torture again-for emphasis, anybody at home watching, we must have tortured before-did he seem to be the master of international affairs and Obama the novice, or maybe the other way around?

MADDOW: Well, I think that there was such high expectation for McCain in terms of getting everything right on foreign policy because he is supposed to be, that's supposed his wheelhouse, that supposed to be the place from which he has the greatest strength. So, getting a few things wrong there, even if it is mispronounced saying a difficult name, probably does hurt him pretty badly. Barack Obama did not have any obvious gaffes of those kinds.

But honestly, I think, because this is the first of three debates, because it was very long and very dense and had no breaks, probably the way most people are going to interpret this is with the juiciest sound bytes that got played over and over again. And honestly, I think, the juiciest sound bytes in this debate were attacks by Barack Obama against John McCain when said over and over again, "On Iraq, you were wrong. You said we've be greeted as liberators, you were wrong. You said it should be easy, you were wrong." That was probably the best sound byte of the entire night. That may be the thing that lives on past this debate.

OLBERMANN: Or perhaps, throwing Henry Kissinger back in Senator McCain's face, which is physically a tough act to do, certainly, but the other one that might ring in the days to come, somebody and it happened to have been the Democratic presidential nominee, finally brought up the, let's say, the ethical untidiness of Senator McCain having sung a bastardized version of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," bomb Iran. It seems like such a simple point but to what you were just saying, that's the sort of visceral stuff that may hang with people.

MADDOW: And also, I think that what was interesting there was sort of the sense that you got about how John McCain felt about having that thrown at him. We saw a lot of grimacing, sighing, kind of lifting his hands in despair from McCain tonight, a lot of emotion from McCain. The most surprising emotion that we saw from Obama was aggression, but from McCain, we saw a lot of anger, exasperation, smearing, disdain. And I think that when Obama threw that back at him, that setting it to music, the idea of bombing Iran, what we saw McCain go to immediately was members of the military killed in action.

OLBERMANN: Yes.

MADDOW: He started talking about veterans. He started talking and invoking the families of fallen soldiers, without answering the question, without addressing the fact that he did it. He just went right to that. And that's a temperament issue with John McCain and it's an exploitation issue.

OLBERMANN: And leading, also, we must mention, Senator Obama to turn on that as well and say in another memorable line, I have a bracelet, too.

MADDOW: Yes.

OLBERMANN: I mean, that was-the gist of this, I suppose, was, if you took this, if you actually sat and watched and paid attention to this, I don't think there'd be any doubt about who won this debate. The question is, are those sound bytes that will wring in people's minds actually going to play in favor of, exclusively, Obama against McCain, rather than the other way around?.

MADDOW: I think that it's a question of which sound bytes get most picked up. I do think that the Obama ones were probably the most interesting. I mean, John McCain's sound bytes for tonight are going to be about talking about some of his miscues, talking about Miss Congeniality a lot and how old he is a lot, probably weren't good ideas.

OLBERMANN: We're not running for Miss Congeniality here. That would be some other nominees and some other races.

Rachel Maddow of "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW," thanks for your time.

A reminder, Rachel will be back for the whole hour of analysis at 1:00 a.m. Eastern. Go ride it. Go ride (ph) it.

MADDOW: Thank you, Keith. I will.

OLBERMANN: Thank you.

Coming up, our special guest, the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, Senator Biden of Delaware. COUNTDOWN's coverage of the presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, opening night, continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Comparisons to President Bush were many in this debate.

But one most unlikely one came not at Senator McCain, but from him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: You know, we've seen the stubbornness before in this administration, to cling to a belief that somehow the surge has not succeeded and failing to acknowledge that he was wrong about the surge.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Joining me now from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, Senator Joe Biden.

Senator, a pleasure.

SEN. JOE BIDEN, (D) VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hi, Keith. How are you?

OLBERMANN: I'm well, sir. And yourself?

BIDEN: A good night for us.

OLBERMANN: Did you think so?

BIDEN: Good night for my team.

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN: Have you-that was a comparison. We just played that clip there of Senator McCain trying to compare Senator Obama to President Bush.

BIDEN: (INAUDIBLE) Bush.

OLBERMANN: Something of a reach -

BIDEN: I found that fascinating. Well, I think that's a bit of a reach. You know, I find that, you know, here's a guy that has got along with George Bush on 90 percent of everything he's done, who's been dead wrong about the war and not only, I mean, look-John did at the same time I was on your show saying we were not going to be greeted as liberator, there wasn't going to be enough for all to pay for this, there was going to be an initial civil war, the Sunnis and Shias were going to fight each other. John was on your show and others saying-no, no, no, that's not the case.

At the same time, guys like Barack and I were saying, hey, look, Afghanistan is a big problem. That's where the real terrorists were. John was saying, Afghanistan, the reason you haven't heard it about is the success.

This was about judgment. Barack Obama passed the commander-in-chief's test tonight. I think this is over in terms of that issue. I think John was on his strongest turf. And he argued about the past, he had no suggestions about the future, when you think about it.

Look what he's talking about Iraq, he continues to talk about the surge and even got that wrong. He talked about the surge being the strategic idea. The surge was a tactical necessity to accomplish a strategic goal. Remember what it used to be about (ph), I bet you can be the mentor (ph) of me. We have to surge in order to create breathing space for a political settlement. That was the strategic objective which has not been accomplished yet.

And then John says he wants to take the same strategy and apply to Afghanistan. Come on. And John is talking about he won't sit down, John won't even sit down he said with a NATO ally who has troops in Afghanistan fighting with the United States troops against the Taliban and al Qaeda. I mean, there is man out of touch.

OLBERMANN: The substance of this. I think anybody who took, maybe who read this debate would have no doubt about their equality or Senator Obama's supremacy in terms of international relationships as the main topic tonight. But always the visceral things as you well know get just as much play or as just as much important in people's decision-making process as anything else.

BIDEN: Sure.

OLBERMANN: If John McCain says of or to Barack Obama repeatedly, "You don't understand, what Senator Barack Obama doesn't understand, here's another example of what Senator Obama doesn't understand," if you repeat that long enough, does that message actually get through and make people think that Senator Obama doesn't understand?

BIDEN: No. Look-the American people are so much smarter. The American people know that Barack has a plan to end this war, that even George Bush has essentially embraced to drawdown our troops over 16 months, hand the responsibility over to the Iraqis, stop spending our $10 billion a month, start spending their $87 billion. Barack Obama made it clear what he would do in Afghanistan. He called for 14 months ago that we needed to beef up our ability in Afghanistan.

And look-we spent more money in three weeks in Iraq than we spent in six years in Afghanistan and we wonder why things are being lost. More money on combat than we have on building up Afghanistan.

So, look, I just think, Keith, that they get it. The one thing I may not have gotten is that, you know, John McCain being the hero he is, and he is a hero, John McCain saying he take care of veterans. I just want to point out, disabled veterans in American rate John at 120 percent on his voting record. The veterans groups don't think John has cared for the veterans coming home.

And, you know, and so, my point is that there's some places John is, because of his stature as a hero, is probably able to avoid, you know, being viewed as out of touch. But I just think he came across, at least-you expect me to say that I know-but I think he came across as out of touch and angry.

OLBERMANN: But you can point together the components parts of the last three days? I mean, dating back even before he left the David Letterman show in a lurch and we didn't-and I wound up having to go and talk to David Letterman for 20 minutes, what was this whole thing about with parachuting into the bailout discussion and why, if it was so important, was it not more of his answering, Senator McCain's answering, in tonight's debate?

BIDEN: Well, look, I think John's staff knows he needs a game-changer. That this isn't going very well for him. So, I think they probably thought, I don't know what their strategy was, but to use your words, Keith, it looks like he's lurching back and forth.

Here's the guy last Monday said the economy was doing great, it was fundamentally sound, Bush had made great progress, or make progress over the last eight years. And in two hours later, we have an economic crisis. As we Catholics say, where is the epiphany? What happened? Where was John a week ago, a month ago, six years ago, while he was on Wall Street talking about shredding, how he was, there was any regulation that he saw that he liked?

I mean, this is a very difficult ground, in fairness, to John. It's really difficult to defend the terrain that he occupies. And the terrain he occupies is he's bought on to the economic philosophy of George W. Bush and the sort of, you know, free market, let it run its way, let it be on its own. And now, all of a sudden, he's talking about greed on Wall Street, the same way this foreign policy. He went in and thought this was, you know, we were going, this is going to be over in a short time, that we were going to be greeted and so on and so forth.

John's judgment, here's the point, John's judgment has been fundamentally wrong on the basic critical foreign policy and domestic decisions we had to make. And then John, at the same time, talking about he asked to cut the budget-and still calling for an additional $300 billion a year in tax cuts for Corporate America and the wealthy? Where did he think that money comes from?

That goes straight to the deficit or it goes straight to cutting programs or it goes to-I mean, how does he-I just don't get the math. I just don't get the math; I think people will get it. I hope I'm right about that. And if they don't, then, I'm really messing up. I think the folks are a lot smarter, a lot smarter than everybody gives them credit for.

OLBERMANN: Well, you've stepped next on the stage. It's your turn next week.

BIDEN: I do.

OLBERMANN: I don't even know, I have about 400 questions about your debate in advance of it. I don't think you'd answer more than two of them for me because you want to keep the stuff as proprietary information. But what is-are you holding back, are you preparing to go in with kid gloves against Governor Palin in your debate?

BIDEN: No, no, no. I'm not going to do that condescending stuff John did tonight. You know, my friend knows, if you have the experience, something (ph) I've traveled around. I've traveled all those places John traveled to. I've been in Afghanistan twice. I've been in those mountains. I was the guy that went when the tanks were rolling to Tbilisi. I was there with the President Mikheil Saakashvili because he asked me to come and stand there with him.

You know, but that's just because I was there doesn't make me right. I think what we've got to do is we got to talk about the future, what we're going to do, how we're going to change it, how we're going to make us a respected nation again worldwide, you know. And so, I think it's about me and the listener and not so much me and Sarah Palin.

OLBERMANN: We'll see if it plays out that way but I'm just writing down your thoughts (ph).

BIDEN: Yes, we'll see. I don't know. I hope I do as well as Barack did.

OLBERMANN: Just because I was there doesn't make me right. I think that's one of the most honest statements I've heard a long time.

Senator Joe Biden, the vice presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket, I haven't had a chance to say it on a personal level, sir. Congratulations.

BIDEN: Thank you. Thank you.

OLBERMANN: And thanks for your time tonight, sir.

BIDEN: Happy to be with you.

OLBERMANN: Coming up: We'll hear what the Republicans are saying in the spin room about tonight's debate. You're watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: CBS News up with a snap poll of 500 uncommitted voters conducted for them by an outfit called Knowledge Networks, reporting after this debate that a clear winner among the uncommitteds, Barack Obama.

Forty percent, they say, thought that Obama had won this debate. Twenty-two percent thought John McCain had won the debate. Thirty-eight percent saw it as a draw. So, that, obviously, should have been in second place in the list, Obama 40, draw 38, McCain 22. Forty-six percent of uncommitted voters, as surveyed by CBS, said their opinion of Obama got better tonight. And 55 percent said they thought McCain would make the right decisions about Iraq. Forty-nine percent said Obama would make the decisions about Iraq, the biggest gap in McCain-in the McCain/Obama polling seeming to close, at least by this one survey of uncommitted voters country CBS tonight.

Obviously, the essence of this debate and ones to come, the issue of change. One side describes it as change. The other uses the term maverick.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: John, it's been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending. This orgy of spending and enormous deficits you voted for almost all of his budgets.

So to stand here and after eight years and say that you're going to lead on controlling spending and, you know, balancing our tax cuts so that they help middle class families when over the last eight years that hasn't happened I think just is, you know, kind of hard to swallow.

JIM LEHRER, MODERATOR: Quick response to Senator Obama.

MCCAIN: It's well-known-it's well-known that I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate nor with the administration. I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoner, on - on Guantanamo Bay. On a-on the way that the Iraq War was conducted.

I have a long record and the American people know me very well and that is independent and a maverick of the Senate and I'm happy to say that I have got a partner that's a good maverick along with me now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Ironically, the mavericks, in at least the CBS News poll. suggesting tonight that Obama, and not McCain, won, and handily, in this debate.

Well, much more ahead in our analysis of that debate-Howard Fineman, Eugene Robinson, Pat Buchanan among out guests.

You're watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Everybody ever in a presidential debate, or perhaps any other kind of debate, has looked for a catchphrase, perhaps inspired by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and "There you go again" to Jimmy Carter.

If Barack Obama reached for one tonight, it was in one section of this debate, in which he laid out a series of moments of wrongness, if you will, for Senator McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: At the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong.

You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni. And you were wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Joining me now again from Oxford, Mississippi, Howard Fineman of "Newsweek" and MSNBC.

And, Howard, we played that clip of the "You were wrong" sequence, because, apparently, the Republicans are taking that ball and trying to run with it?

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and I don't know why, because I thought that was one of Barack Obama's strongest moments.

John McCain obviously came into this debate with every attack line memorized, both on the economy, but especially on foreign policy. And he ticked off eight or nine of them, going after Barack Obama on Russia, on Iraq, on Iran, on Israel, on Ahmadinejad, you name it.

And it was-it was Barack Obama's challenge tonight to stand on the stage with McCain, go toe to toe with him on foreign policy, to show that he understood the issues, to show that he wouldn't lose his cool, to show that would respond levelheadedly and with knowledge.

And I think that is something Obama did very well tonight. The body language of this, Keith, was attack, attack, attack by McCain, but it's not that clear that it did McCain very much good.

Here's what Obama's people told me before the debate they wanted to get done. They wanted to get the message of change across. They wanted to talk about the economy in terms of the middle class. And they wanted to demonstrate their knowledge and Obama's knowledge on foreign policy, especially forward-looking foreign policy, looking to the future, not-not-not to the past.

And I think Obama accomplished all those objectives, even amid the very determined flurry of attacks from McCain.

I have got to say this about McCain. He's an energetic guy. He's a determined guy. He knows how to attack. But I don't think any of those tacks-attacks really, number one, unsettled Obama or changed a lot of minds out there in the viewership, as based on the evidence especially of that new poll that you were talking about just a while ago.

OLBERMANN: Yes. One other element that touches on the economy that I hadn't mentioned from the CBS poll of the 500 uncommitted voters, 68 percent said they thought Obama would make the right decision in terms of the economy. And 41 percent, having watched this debate, thought McCain would.

So, there it is once more-once more.

But, now, give me an idea of what the Republicans think went right for them and what they thought John McCain did well. What are they pushing right now?

FINEMAN: Well, they are pushing-they are pushing that, in the debate, Barack Obama, being the agreeable sort that he is, said, I think nine or 10, maybe even 11 times, in one fashion or another: "I agree with Senator McCain. John and I agree on this. Senator McCain is right. John is right."

And they took that as measure of victory that somehow would show that McCain is the guy who won the debate, because he's essentially been endorsed by Barack Obama.

Well, of course, that's not what Obama was doing. That's Obama's style. He-he agrees to what he can agree to, before making the other points of distinction he wants to make. It's a gentlemanly of doing things. It's not a measure of weakness. But that's what they are focusing on in the spin room, in the spin tent here right outside the hall.

They thought that McCain did very well in terms of his knowledge of the issues. And, certainly, he could talk about all the places that he had been. When he mentioned Alexander the Great, I thought for a moment there that McCain was going to say...

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: ... "And, you know, I met with Alexander the Great." It would have brought the house down, but he didn't do it.

He was a little too backward-looking, in terms of the Obama people's view of things.

OLBERMANN: Yes, just a-just a touch.

Howard Fineman of "Newsweek" and MSNBC, thank-thank you, Howard.

FINEMAN: OK, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Still to weigh in tonight, Eugene Robinson and Pat Buchanan.

You're watching COUNTDOWN's special post-debate edition here on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: A Miami radio interview at the beginning of last week tripped up Senator McCain as it happened, in the immediate afterwards-or aftermath, and again tonight at this first presidential debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: He even said the other day that he would not meet potentially with the prime minister of Spain, because he-you know, he wasn't sure whether they were aligned with us. I mean, Spain. Spain is a NATO ally.

MCCAIN: Of course...

OBAMA: If we can't meet with our friends, I don't know how we're going to lead the world in terms of dealing with critical issues like terrorism.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Joined now by two of our MSNBC political analysts, Eugene Robinson, also of course of "The Washington Post," and Pat Buchanan.

And, gentlemen, good evening.

I will start with you, Pat.

I actually cringed a little bit about-about that, when I heard that from Obama, because that interview that John McCain had done last week seemed to have been a moment of-of weakness from McCain, and he just seemed to be kind of confused, as we all will get, and-and merged a lot of things at once.

Is that your assessment of what Obama did, in invoking that Spain question?

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it was very effective, in that it brought up the point, is John out of touch and John's bellicosity, and the rest of it. And, so, I thought it was a very deft moment, where he sort of stuck the needle in.

And, Keith, I think this is what Barack Obama needed more of tonight, those kinds of lines in each of his responses, because I felt that he let McCain crowd him and, if you will, push him around the ring. And here's McCain, who is a representative of a party the country wants out of power because it's presiding over an unpopular war, with an unpopular president, and the greatest financial crisis since 1929.

And, so, I did think that McCain won the battle, fight tonight on points. But Barack Obama stood with him for 15 rounds, counterpunched well. And, so, I think he helped himself.

Final point I would make is this. McCain comes off as very tough, mean, almost contentious. And I wonder if, with people, the graciousness of Barack Obama, the natural niceness of the guy, might have come across better.

But I will have to say that, on points, I would give the debate to McCain.

OLBERMANN: Gene Robinson, your-your point in the aftermath of this was, again, substance is-is what we would love this to be entirely judged on.

And, in that case, we would just have the debate and issue a transcript, and people could read it, and read the substance, and go back. And it hasn't worked that way since the invention of radio.

(CROSSTALK)

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: No, it doesn't work that way.

In fact, what I do with these debates is, I listen to everybody's-you know, us in the-we in the commentariat, whatever we decide-whoever we decide won on points in the debate, I pick the other guy. That's who people generally think won.

And-and, you know, body language and demeanor and appearance,

things like that, do count. They-it may not be 100 percent of it, but

they count. And McCain was-was just still visibly contemptuous of-of

of Obama. He would not look at him. His body-his body language was kind of clenched and-and almost hunched.

And-and-and, you know, you sensed a certain kind of-kind of anger there. You know, he was being aggressive. I think that was a tactic. But-but I-I think that it came across to a lot of people as somewhat off-putting, would be my guess.

And, you know, the country says, we want a president who-who will reach across the aisle, who will-who won't act in a partisan manner, who will bring us together. And-and, so, there you had Obama being kind of genial, and open, and, "Well, John has a point," you know, and that sort of thing.

And McCain wouldn't look at the guy. It-it-it sent a message that I don't think was all that subtle, actually, and I doubt was-was lost on viewing public. I-you know, I suspect some of it is reflected, frankly, in that CBS snap poll that you were talking about earlier.

OLBERMANN: All right, Pat, put those two things together.

Is that-is it-is it necessarily a bad thing to-to-to be the not-gracious one in a debate, to be the one who is-who doesn't want to-want to look at your opponent? Can't that sometimes be just as effective as the gentlemanly, "I agree entirely with John on that last point; here is where we differ"?

BUCHANAN: Yes, Keith, that is correct.

I do think this. The question is, what does the country want? Now, if you want a tough character, a guy that is going to look people in the eye and stare them down, who is going to defend American interests, and who is-who is the toughest guy on that stage, I think, clearly, it is John McCain.

If you want to know who is-who has got grace, and who is a nice gentlemen, and who is a good counterpuncher, but out of the ring, he's a gentleman, you have got Barack Obama.

And, so, that's a question of what the folks want. And you have got that independents poll. And, again, I have been often wrong. I thought George W. Bush lost every debate he's ever been in.

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN: And the public says he won them all.

So, I do think, if you're talking strictly in debate, it's astonishing that McCain-you realize, the party he represents, the country wants out of there, and there he is on the attack in the ring, and-and-and Obama is backpedalling and counterpunching.

OLBERMANN: But here's one-one concluding point, Pat. Gene pointed this out. And I think it's relevant to what you just said.

If McCain is the guy who looks you in the eye, why didn't he look Obama in the eye?

BUCHANAN: He...

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN: Because-it's like Romney. He doesn't like him.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: You know...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN: He gets in a fight with somebody, he does not like these opponents-I mean, his opponents. And it is-it is vintage John McCain.

OLBERMANN: Well...

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN: Hold on, Gene. We have got to take it, one more break.

ROBINSON: OK.

OLBERMANN: You guys get the last word when we come back.

Gene Robinson and Pat Buchanan, part two-as COUNTDOWN's post-debate coverage continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Back with Gene Robinson of "The Washington Post" and MSNBC and Pat Buchanan of MSNBC.

Three things. First off, there's another research polling data, some quick research from the Opinion Research for CN. This is overall, a 51-38 margin, Obama declared the victors by those in that polling. On the economy, the victor, 58-37 Obama. On Iraq, the victor 52-47 Obama.

The CBS News poll earlier on-on undeclared voters, or uncommitted voters, was, Obama wins by 40 percent, a draw, 38, McCain 22.

Second point, that initial statement by John McCain about Eisenhower's two letters on D-Day, and how you have to take responsibility, and be prepared to take responsibility, asking the SEC chairman to resign, Will Bunch of "The Philadelphia Daily News" doing some great research on that, pointing out that Ike's second letter on D-Day, in it, never is it mentioned that he might resign.

Now my question to Pat and to Gene.

The one thing in which I thought a clear slam dunk was accomplished by John McCain tonight is a discussion about Iraq in the future, not in the past.

Here's the bite first.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not. The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: To both of you, Gene first, isn't that exactly right? Is that not a meme that Pat-that-that John McCain out to pick up and-and run with the rest of this campaign?

ROBINSON: Absolutely. I thought that was a high point for McCain.

And it's an excellent point. It's absolutely true. It made it sound as if Obama were kind of wallowing in the past, and-and McCain is looking forward: You know, here's where we are. Let's figure out where we have to go.

But, you know, overall, you know, in the larger context, though, you know, yesterday, we had the biggest bank failure in history. We're talking about spending nearly a trillion dollars to right the economy. If people have this frustration, they're big problems and they want them solved.

So, tonight, we saw two different styles of problem-solving, in a sense. We saw John McCain, very aggressive, in your face. I'm not Mr. Congeniality. I'm tough. I'm going to-and you saw Obama trying to find consensus, and-and move forward, and say, we don't make false choices, and that sort of thing.

You know, people are going to make their decisions. But-but the important thing is, they want these problems solved. And-and I wonder if that's not the basis on which most people watched the debate, rather than who scored points...

OLBERMANN: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN: Well, an excellent point.

But, Pat, about that one idea that-that was expressed by somebody

against the Barack Obama major talking point since well before the-the -

the primary season was joined, was his-was his opposition to this war in 2002. I thought that was the first cogent, easy-to-remember sound bite anybody produced in response to that.

BUCHANAN: Mm-hmm. I think that's right.

And I think-I agree that is looking to the future. And I think McCain handled that very well.

But let me say about these polls, it's very interesting. In-back in 1984, in the Louisville debate, I remember some of us who were pro-Reagan were very disappointed in his performance, and the polls showed that Mondale had only lost 47 -- or had won 47-43.

But, two days later, because of the commentary, postgame commentary, if you will, 80 percent thought Mondale had won, and only 20 percent. So, what we're doing now, Keith, and what people are saying, and these polls, I think could have an effect, by two days from now, on what we all claim that we saw.

But, again, I do think Obama did very well, in terms of standing up on a level, toe to toe with John McCain in foreign policy, and coming off, at the end of that battle, still standing, and, frankly, the more graceful individual, although I still think that, judged on points, the mean guy won.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN: Well, now, who did you mean by that?

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN: I mean McCain.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN: In the-in the last two minutes, here's the bigger question. How many opinions were actually changed in this debate, do you suppose, and how many positions were just hardened? Or do-or is this a different set-Pat, is this a different set of-of debates, as opposed to 2004, or even 2000?

BUCHANAN: I think your question is right to the point.

I think, obviously, Obama satisfied his folks just fine. They're probably relieved how he came out of it, McCain, to his folks, who are very tough and hard-lined.

The key ones are the ones-I would take a look at not simply the independent voters, but I would take a look at the Reagan Democrats and working-class folks, you know, white blue-collar folks, who tend to like tough customers, and see how they came out.

But that's the decisive factor, Keith. It's those groups between the 45 percent who are now one way and 45 another, how did that 10 percent judge this debate? And that's the winner of the debate.

OLBERMANN: Right. You have got 38 percent who said draw.

Gene, finish me off here on this-on this subject of the influence of the debates this year, as opposed to any other.

ROBINSON: I-I suspect that a lot minds were-were changed or made up tonight.

I-you know, anecdotally, I run across a lot of voters in all demographics, you know, not just white working-class voters, but, you know, lots of voters, who are leaning toward one candidate or the other, but have questions, and, you know, something-maybe the question is about McCain's temperament. Maybe it's about Obama's experience, and, so, those voters who are looking to be-you know, to be confirmed in the way they were leaning by this debate.

And, you know, probably some on both sides found-found reassurance.

You know, Obama seemed to-to cross the foreign policy threshold tonight. That may have a fairly substantial impact on those undecided, wavering voters.

OLBERMANN: And that one last bit of data from that CBS poll about the uncommitted voters, 40 percent thought Obama won the debate. Well, that's nice. But 46 percent said their opinion of Obama got better tonight.

Eugene Robinson, Pat Buchanan, great thanks for wrapping it up for us tonight, gentlemen.

That's COUNTDOWN for this, the 1,976th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq.

In New York, I'm Keith Olbermann. Good night, and good luck.

Our MSNBC post-the-debate coverage continues now with Chris Matthews, live from Oxford, Mississippi.

Good evening, Chris.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Good evening, Keith.

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

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