updated 10/8/2008 12:12:39 PM ET 2008-10-08T16:12:39

Guest: Debbie Wasserman Schultz

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? As the debate looms, incitement to hatred today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. SARAH PALIN, ® VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I hope Americans know that is not what our brave men and women in uniform are doing in Afghanistan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Incitement to hatred, yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R-AZ) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Who is the-who is the real Barack Obama?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Terrorist.

(CHEERS)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: And incitement to violence. During another vice-presidential rally, Governor Palin pushes the envelope on Barack Obama and William Ayers and somebody in the crowd shouts, "Kill him!" And the McCain campaign does nothing...

. except to continue to repeat the drum beat from the repulsive one-note wonder.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PALIN: You mean to tell me that he didn't know that he had launched his own political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist?

(CROWD BOOING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: The problem is, Senator McCain has a deeper, more direct, more disturbing connection to domestic terror. The group was tied to Iran-Contra, to torture and murder by death squads, to Nazi collaborators, and to funding the rebels in Afghanistan. Why was McCain's name on the group's letterhead?

All that, lending a toxic taste to the debate an hour hence. Last time, John McCain couldn't look Barack Obama in the eye. This time, perhaps, John McCain couldn't look himself in the mirror. Down in the polls, loser of the first debate, his reputation and ethics in tatters on the floor. Does Senator McCain gamble it all tonight and say what slanders he has said behind Obama's back to Obama in person?

With the analysis of: Rachel Maddow, Richard Wolffe, Howard Fineman, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Chris Matthews.

And if Senator McCain brings up that grisly bear DNA study, pork barrel, earmark again tonight, you will know why he made this evening's Worst Persons' list. It turns out the senator voted for it.

All that and more: Now on COUNTDOWN.

(on camera): Good evening. This is Tuesday, October 7th, 28 days until the 2008 presidential election.

There's a fine line between a smear campaign and an incitement to violence. If Senator McCain and Governor Palin have not previously crossed it this week, today even, they most certainly did.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN to tonight's second presidential debate by all but calling Senator Obama himself a "terrorist," by inciting the crowds at the McCain-Palin rallies to yell, and this is only what can reporters have been able to hear, quote, "kill him," "terrorist," and "treason." The message that the Republican nominee for the highest office in this land has approved makes Willy Horton or the Swiftboat ads seem quaint and almost respectable.

At a morning rally in Jacksonville today, Governor Palin not only, again, inflating beyond all recognition, the link between the Democratic nominee and William Ayers, a reform member of a radical anti-Vietnam War group known as the Weather Underground, the governor also making light of it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PALIN: Now, our opponent's campaign is claiming that for the first time, Barack Obama wasn't aware of Ayers' radical background.

(CROWD BOOING)

PALIN: Barack recently remembered him as just a guy in the neighborhood. But wait a minute, there-you mean to tell me that he didn't know that he had launched his own political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist?

(CROWD BOOING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Yet, there is nothing to be made light of when at the very same rally, a candidate's staunch (ph) about her rival incite a member of the crowd to shout "treason." This happened when the governor falsely claimed that U.S. troops in Afghanistan have not been involved in attacks on Afghan civilians.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PALIN: I hope Americans know that is not what our brave men and women in uniform are doing in Afghanistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Treason.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: This would be the second consecutive day that Governor Palin's rhetoric has inflamed the crowd in a manner exceeding politics or rationality. The "Washington Post" reporting that when Governor Palin recounted the Obama and Ayers portion of her stump speech in Clearwater, one man in the audience proposing to, quote, "kill him." Whether the remark was directly at Senator Obama or Mr. Ayers, the remark and the report so shocking that the Secret Service is tonight investigating.

A spokesman, Malcolm Wiley, is telling "Radar" magazine that the agency did not hear any threatening statements directly at targets under its protection and "no threatening statements were reported to us by law enforcement or citizens at the event." Yet in the wake of the newspaper report, it is investigating, because, says Mr. Wiley, "We take all threats seriously."

The "Washington Post" also reporting that at the same event when the governor bashed the media, Palin supporters began to hurl abuse at reporters in the press area. One even shouted a racial epithet at an African-American soundman for TV network also telling him to, quote, "sit down, boy."

Despite that, knowing that, the hateful, hate-filled rhetoric continuing unabated today, extended even to press releases. The chairman of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania where McCain is bleeding, down by 10 to 15 points, sending out a mass email entitled, "Obama : A Terrorist's Best Friend," which reads in part, quote, "What does it say about the character of Barack Obama that he knowingly associates with terrorists? It tells me that Obama lacks the judgment and character to be our next commander-in-chief."

Taken together what could well be the sleaziest four days in modern American political history-four days in which it is easy to see where Senator McCain or Governor Palin might have induced in an embittered or unintelligent individual, the premise that Senator Obama either associates with terrorist or might be even one himself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PALIN: One of Barack Obama's earliest supporters is Bill Ayers. A domestic terrorist. Domestic terrorist. The known domestic terrorist. Unrepentant terrorist. Domestic terrorist. Domestic terrorist. Part of a group that, quote, "launched a campaign of bombings." Campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol. Our United States Capitol.

Obama held one of his first meetings of his political career in Bill Ayers' home. In the guy's living room? In the living room of a domestic terrorist? Of a domestic terrorist? Of a domestic terrorist?

Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists-domestic terrorist-domestic terrorists who targeted his own country. Targeted his own country. Targeted his own country.

MCCAIN: Who is the real Barack Obama?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Terrorist.

(CHEERS)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Time now to call in our own Richard Wolffe, also, of course, senior White House correspondent for "Newsweek" magazine, joining us now from the site of tonight's debate in Nashville.

Richard, good evening.

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

OLBERMANN: What is really the scarier proposition here, that Obama chaired the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge to improve intercity education on which William Ayers happened to sit alongside many Republicans who were not upset to have him there? Or that Senator McCain and this Governor Palin are putting themselves on camera with lunatics who are shouting "kill him," "terrorist", and "treason"?

WOLFFE: Well, this is the freak show season of politics and that's no excuse for what's going on. And, of course, when you have these crowds shouting things, maybe the people on stage can't hear them and that's also no excuse because what you're seeing here is a very conscious attempt to paint Obama as un-American, as unpatriotic and, yes, cohorting, consorting with what they call, "domestic terrorists."

Now, I happen to think this is actually not just distasteful but bad politics because, one number one, you're turning off the suburban independent voters whether it's the crowd reaction or the kind of rhetoric coming from the stage, those voters who will decide the election. And secondly, if you are going to play this card, then do what the Australian conservatives do, which is dog whistle politics. Only certain people can hear the message. This isn't dog whistle politics that they're trying here, this is fog horn politics and it's not subtle.

OLBERMANN: If Senator Obama is, as they are painting him, this scary, dangerous terrorist sympathizer or best, why in the world is Senator McCain agreeing to share a stage with him? I mean, he wouldn't agree to talk with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shouldn't McCain be turning into the authorities or something?

WOLFFE: Well, I don't think he did want to share a stage with him last time around. He made that very obvious.

Look, no one really believes that McCain thinks Obama is a terrorist or an Ahmadinejad type of person. This is clearly a tactic born out of the position they are in to raise a huge question marks about Obama's status, his frame of mind, and his allegiance. If they'll really believe that, them the question would be on point. But his distaste for Obama is very clear and his challenge tonight is not to show that.

OLBERMANN: The desperation before we talk again about the debate tonight, the McCain campaign called time-outs when the hurricanes hit, cancelled one night of the Republican National Convention out of respect for victims or those in danger, but today, Governor Palin did not have the respect to not attack Senator Biden while Senator Biden was attending his own mother-in-law's funeral. Is that really even a truer measure of just how desperate this campaign has become?

WOLFFE: You know, they've tried so many suspensions and they haven't really worked. I think it would have been a classy move. It certainly would have been respectful. And, by all accounts and appearances, there was actually a genuine amount of respect between Palin and Biden at the last debate.

So, it would have been good but they need to set up this debate for tonight because all the expectations are that John McCain will not come out and be as negative. So, Sarah Palin had to do the work for him.

OLBERMANN: So, what happens? What does he talk about if he's not going to come out and talk about terrorism-he's lost every other issue and shutdown his own discussion of the economy?

WOLFFE: Well, number one, I think, he has to repair the damage of the first debate. He has to probably embrace Senator Obama. He has to show his human side. He has to look at the camera and look at the other candidate on stage. And then he can move on.

But, you know, the idea that you can go out and be this kind of aggressive on-stage tonight in front of the town hall, as they have been on the campaign trail, is really not going the fly tonight.

OLBERMANN: Richard Wolffe of MSNBC and "Newsweek," at the debate for us tonight. As always, sir, great thanks.

WOLFFE: Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: The Rovean tactic of old was, of course, an attempt to scare voters into believing: "Vote Democratic and you will die, die because terrorists would then kill you because the Democrats would let the guard down." The new McCain/Palin tactic seems to be the next version of this:

"Vote Democratic and the Democrat himself might kill you."

For more on where the barometer has now been set by the McCain campaign, let's turn to our own Jonathan Alter, also, a senior editor at "Newsweek" magazine.

Jon, good evening.

JONATHAN ALTER, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Why aren't the Republicans scared to death about the crowd reaction to the sleaze here? Is there no fear that either on the safety level or the political level, they are playing with fire if they're getting this kind of response from crowds?

ALTER: Well, first of all I'm not sure that, you know, all Republicans strategists quite get this yet because the story is really kind of ripening today. But they are willing to win ugly. More likely, they're going to lose ugly.

But they're going to do what they believe it takes to win this election and all of the old standards about playing with fire, about turning people, you know, into human punching bags, unleashing the furies of the dark side of American politics, perhaps, risking some people's lives, if things get out of control. All of that is out the window in the service of winning an election.

And the ironic thing is, it doesn't even help them. It's not smart politics, which makes it all the more terrible. You know, if this was somehow-if you're Republican and you thought, hey, this is going to help win the election, but a smart Republican like a Mike Murphy type knows that this doesn't help them win the election.

OLBERMANN: This is now Huey Long territory they've gotten into, which is to say a lot, I think. But if there had been some sense of backing off, presumably, it would have come off after the Secret Service began investigating the "kill him" comment which kind of moved it out of the political realm and into the serious problem realm, and that didn't happen.

Governor Palin amped up the rhetoric if anything today, is she somehow encouraged by that reaction? And what is here next step? I mean, does she start just, you know, cut out the middleman and call Obama a terrorist, start using his middle name herself?

ALTER: I don't think she's going to do the former. But she could conceivably do the later. She is inhabiting the traditional role of the vice-presidential candidate which is that of attack dog.

This is an old idea. You know, Richard Nixon, when he was running for vice president, basically, strongly implied that Adlai Stevenson was a communist. You saw, you know, Dan Quayle in 1992, raising the issue of whether it was suspicious that Bill Clinton had taken a trip to the Soviet Union when he was a student.

So, some of this is standard fare from vice-presidential candidates. But this year, in particular, I think you put your finger on it. They're playing with fire because, you know, there are Americans who forced by hard economic times, very unsettled at the idea of the first African-American president. There are people who are out of control.

So we're into short of uncharted territory here in terms of what could conceivably be unleashed if they don't return to some sense of decency. And a decency, by the way, Keith, that John McCain repeatedly said he wanted for his campaign. He said, on many occasions, that he did not want to go there. And, yet, this is where we are.

OLBERMANN: No, at my worst estimations of this man, I always thought he was about 50 times better than the last couple of days have suggested.

But last point, and it's minor one relatively. But the "New York Times" story on William Ayers that she keeps quoting and beyond the fact that she keeps deliberately misrepresenting it, how do you get without making somebody in the audience go, wait a minute, how do you get to bash the media while reporting on its reporting, relying on that reporting in the very same stump speech?

ALTER: Well, I mean, this year has all been hypocrisy with a capital "H." So, just add that to the list. But, who's going to notice? The "New York Times"? You know-"Newsweek"? I think that's one of those things that, you know, she'll be able to get away with.

But the larger point is that going down the Bill Ayers route is not

the way to win. And this is what, you know, they're eventually going to

realize. Every time they're not talking about the economy, the American

people are going, "Are they out to lunch? Are they clueless? Why are they

re-fighting the Vietnam War?"

OLBERMANN: Yes.

ALTER: People do not want to re-fight the Vietnam War. We did that in 2004. We're in a different place now, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Yes. Well, ultimately it will get her a nice show on FOX News. So, what's the difference to her?

Jonathan Alter of "Newsweek" and MSNBC, at Nashville for us tonight.

Thank you, Jon.

ALTER: Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: The U.S. Council for World Freedom, a private group that more than 20 years ago tried to help overthrow the elected government of Nicaragua, linked to the Iran-Contra scandal, to right-wing death squads, to former Nazi collaborators, to funding the rebels in Afghanistan who sort of became the Taliban and linked to John McCain? What was the then congressman's name doing on its letterhead and what was he doing in its organization? Kind of a problem the night of a presidential debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Yesterday, it was Sarah Palin's association with secessionist and a domestic terrorist-turned preacher in Kenya. Today, it's John McCain's haunting connection to a man named John Singlaub, an organization tied to Latin American right-wing death squads of the 80s and even the founding of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And does McCain tonight go back to that bear's DNA study, as his example of wasted taxpayer money when it turns out, in Worst Persons, that he voted for it?

You're watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: If Barack Obama does raise the Keating Five tonight, the McCain campaign will certainly paint Obama as going negative.

Our fourth story this evening: Obama's restraint in not mentioning that when it comes to anti-Semitic association, ties to Iran, and yes, terrorist, McCain-Palin have Obama beat hand's down.

On Sunday, Democratic strategists, Paul Begala reminded us that McCain sat on the board of the U.S. Council for World Freedom, the local neighborhood chapter of the world anti-communist league. McCain joining in 1982 after the anti-defamation league called it, "a gathering place for racists and anti-Semites" with links to Nazi collaborators and right-wing death squads.

As for Palin, she declined to walk out of her church on August 17th this year when David Brickner of Jews for Jesus said, "Terrorism in Israel was God's judgment for rejecting Jesus." Palin's pastor, Larry Kroon defends Brickner.

What about the Alaska Independence Party? We may have mentioned this to you last night. Todd Palin belonged to it. Sarah told them in March, "Keep up the good work."

The founder, Joe Vogler, openly urged violent secession. In 1993, according to Salon.com, Vogler planned to denounce American tyranny in a speech at the U.N. Well, how would he get a speaking slot at the U.N.? He got a different nation to sponsor him-Iran. Iran also hit deep in the scandal that brought down-yes, John McCain's Council for World Freedom, funded by a right-wing moony, Moon himself, chaired by the former general and CIA operative, John Singlaub, illegally supplying Contras with weapons bought from Iran.

John McCain publicly claimed he left that group because of its activities but the "Associated Press" reports his resignation letter referred only to his lack of time to be involved in those activities. He reportedly attended a 1985 event and the group still used his name on its letterhead until at least, 1985. "Huffington Post" reports it was 1986.

If Iran ties and secession do not qualify as terrorist associations, there is this. In October of 1986, the "New York Times" spoke to a council official that said that the group had provided millions in supplies to communist fighter, literally including boots for the rebels in Afghanistan. Those rebels now known better as the mujahedeen, who would later become the Taliban and al Qaeda, its veterans of the Soviet conflict including Osama bin Laden, who McCain once promised to chase to the gates of hell.

And if bin Laden is quaking in his boots at that thought, who knows, maybe those are "Air McCain's."

Joining us tonight, my colleague, Rachel Maddow.

Good evening, Rachel.

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

OLBERMANN: Is there a substantive difference in the types of associations we're talking about here?

MADDOW: Well, substantive in terms of politics, there's one very important difference. The Obama association with Bill Ayers, tenuous as it may be, has been the subject of multiple distorting, direct, political attacks by his political opponents by the Republican ticket.

So far the associations of Sarah Palin with the Alaska Independence Party and John McCain with these groups associated with Iran-Contra and other strange anti-communist activities including buying boots for bin Laden, possibly-those things have been raised by observers and by outsiders and thus far, Obama and Biden are not going there.

And that may be the biggest and most important piece of this story, that these sorts of associations with seen as relevant, fair game, central to the political attack on Obama from the Republican side. The Democrats have not treated this kind of stuff in the same way.

OLBERMANN: What do those associations say? Whether or not the Democrats want to use them, what do they say about McCain and Palin?

MADDOW: Well, there's a charitable way and uncharitable way to look at it.

The charitable way to look at it is to say-well, these guys as white politicians, as Republicans, as conservatives know that their associations will never be used against them because they know who their political opponents are, they know how the game is played, they know that the playing field is not level in this regard. So, they're not careful about who they associate themselves with. That's the charitable way to look at it.

The uncharitable way to look at it is that these guys have not cared in their political careers about associating themselves with extremists and radical groups because they have extremist and radical inclinations.

OLBERMANN: Rachel, one other element to this that I don't think has been touched upon sufficiently, maybe it's too obvious and maybe I'm missing the coverage of it-but anything that connects William Ayers to Barack Obama was not contemporaneous with whatever it is William Ayers did or did not do.

MADDOW: Right.

OLBERMANN: His activities are over here in one part of history and his association with Obama is in a later part of history. There's no disputing that no matter which way you want to get hysterical about what you read in your copy of the "New York Times" or perhaps on a misprinted Starbucks cup somewhere, that elitist Starbucks-drinking governor of Alaska.

But, the McCain involvement in this world council and the Palin involvement with the AIP, the Alaska Independence Party or the AKIP, these are while those operations are in full flower. There's no distance. It's not like he's a retired, you know, subversive over here. These are people who are actively involved when McCain and Palin were associated with them.

MADDOW: Sure. And you could say, at least (ph), and the Anti-Defamation League had already denounced.

OLBERMANN: Yes.

MADDOW: . the group that McCain was on the board of as anti-Semitic when he joined. The group was formed, apparently, as an offshoot of the World Anti-Communist League by the time McCain was along (ph) them, who put his name on their letterhead and serving on their board. The chair of the World Anti-Communist League had already been kicked out of that group as a Nazi sympathizer.

OLBERMANN: Yes.

MADDOW: I mean, all of that stuff had happened before McCain joined there. Also, I mean-so he should have known that history, you could say. You could draw a parallel there and say, well, Obama should have known Bill Ayers' history and kept clear of him as well.

The difference though, the important difference is that Bill Ayers and Barack Obama were on a board together that dealt with intercity education issues. John McCain was joining this group that was an offshoot of the World Anti-Communist League to support anti-communist insurgencies around the world. He was not joining them for some unrelated purpose that didn't connect to what was scandalous and frankly, malodorous about these groups.

OLBERMANN: And we're not even talking about the quality of the shoes.

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN: The "Future Taliban association of Afghanistan," the FTAA, I think, or FTOA, they would have been.

Rachel, we will see you again after the debate on the 11:00 p.m. post-debate COUNTDOWN special. Thank you much. See you then.

MADDOW: Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: The Obama strategy tonight, by all measures and all polls he is ahead. How do you play a town hall-style debate while you are ahead?

And we know how this guy plays from behind. Bringing in an anti-Semite lunatic and pretending he's an expert on Obama. Worst Persons is next.

This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Chris Matthews on McCain and attacking Obama. If he's doing it on the stump, does he have to do it tonight at the debate? Howard Fineman on the latest from both camps, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz on how Obama should play tonight from ahead. We are 30 minutes and 35 seconds or so until the debate from the Curb Center, named for, donated by the guy who led the Mike Curb Congregation, which sang "The Candy Man" with Sammy Davis, Jr., babe.

Our COUNTDOWN to the debate continues, but first time for tonight's worst persons in the world.

The bronze to Sean Hannity of fixed news, who for what he called the documentary on Senator Obama turned to a well known lunatic and anti-semite, who is convinced that Obama is a Manchurian candidate whose role model is Hugo Chavez. This only merits third place because Hannity so far overshot the mark on this one that it might well be argued that in one night he jumped the shark. The show was so Stalinist, the center piece of it such a transparent nut job that Hannity was even criticized by a hard right pro Fox propagandist on a TV website. It was so desperate and panicky, even by Hannity's own standards, that it may render him ineligible for future citations in these awards. We usually don't give worst person's awards to Yosemite Sam, McGilla (ph) Gorilla or other cartoon characters like Sean Hannity.

Our runners up, the top executives at AIG, produced at a Congressional hearing this morning hotel bills from a resort in Monarch Beach, California for corporate retreat costing 440,000 dollars. It was by executives from the AIG Insurance Company less than one week after we bailed them out to the tune of 85 billion dollars; 23,000 dollars of that went to spa treatments. Well, just because they drove their company into the ground, that's no reason for their executive's skin to be denied the gift of healing that is the anti-aging dermal booster Hollywood glow treatment, at three bucks a minute.

But our winner, Senator John McCain. Catherine MsCowsky (ph), at Salon, coming up with this all-time low, low. At the last debate-and who knows, there's every chance he'll bring it up again at tonight's-Senator McCain rolled right into one of his favorite, most familiar laments: "We spent three million dollars to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue, but the fact is, it was three million dollars of our tax payers money and it has to be brought under control."

Turns out it was five million and it was called the Northern Divide Grisly Bear Project and Senator McCain voted for it. There are only two explanations for how a US senator can take a science project he voted and then mock it as his primary example of out of control spending by U.S. senators like himself, he's either lying about it or he doesn't remember doing it. John-I was for studying bear DNA before I was against it-what was the question again-McCain, today's worst person in the world!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: He's got a nine percent lead in the national Gallup tracking poll and currently stands to win a whopping 345 electoral college votes, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. Three weeks ago, the gambling website Intrade was seen betting at a point spread of McCain 52, Obama 47. Tonight, it's Obama 70, McCain 30, a lead so compelling that his opponents have had to resort to associating him with terrorists just to try to stop the momentum. In our third story in the COUNTDOWN, how does Senator Barack Obama, as a clear front-runner tonight, handle a town hall style debate?

His chief strategist, David Axelrod seeking, perhaps, to play down expectations of the performance, saying only, quote, we'll see. But the campaign leaving Obama the option of responding to the McCain/Palin attempt to sell his associations William Ayers and Reverend Wright as legitimate political issues by reminding voters of McCain own shady dealings that directly impacted the economy, no less, as a member of the Keating Five.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs telling Politico.com that, quote, if people want to get down in the mud, we're prepared to get dirty if that's what it takes.

Joining us now, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, a supporter, of course, of Senator Obama. Congresswoman, thanks for your time tonight.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D), FLORIDA: Thanks for having me, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Depending on which Senator McCain shows up, the one who proposed to run the respectful campaign or the one we've seen this week, whichever one shows up, what does Senator Obama need to do to prevail in the debate tonight?

SCHULTZ: Well, it's clear that John McCain's entire campaign is divided, depressed, demoralized and desperate. So they are trying to turn the page on the economy, trying to focus on the politics of distraction. And what Senator Obama needs to do and what he will do tonight is he'll focus on the issues that matter the most to Americans. He'll focus on the fact that we have-in Florida, for example, we have the second highest number of foreclosures and people facing foreclosure. He'll focus on the fact that we need to make sure we have an economic policy that re-regulates the Wall Street corporations that have taken advantage of the average person.

We need to make sure that we invest in alternative energy, and bring our troops home from this misguided war in Iraq. Make sure that we expand access to the 47 million people who don't have health insurance. Those are the bread and butter issues that the American people want to hear from their presidential candidates. Not this nasty, political distraction talk that just isn't about what Americans are facing every day.

OLBERMANN: Is this, in fact, that point more about what Senator Obama needs to not do tonight, to not go in that direction to respond to any kind of attack, implied or explicit, from McCain, to not get off message?

SCHULTZ: Well, I think he needs to stay focused on those issues that matter the most to Americans, like I just said. But he also can't look like he's a patsy. We can't have him sit idly by and just allow himself to be attacked and not respond, because, lord knows, there's plenty to respond to when it comes to Senator McCain. I mean, we're going to focus on the issues. We're going to talk about the things that matter the most to Americans.

The fact that, for me, as a mom that drives a mini-van that costs about 75 dollars to fill up the gas tank. In Publix this weekend, the supermarket that I go to in Florida, it was almost six dollars for a gallon of milk. That's real money for folks, Keith. That's what Obama has to focus on. But he also has to make sure he doesn't let himself get run over and I know he's prepared to contrast his record with Senator McCain.

OLBERMANN: Well, to that point and to the point of not being patsied

I want to ask you about Senator Obama's response to being attacked last time. The last time they brought out Jeremiah Wright against him, I was about to conclude in my own mind that Obama was too slow to respond and then suddenly out comes the Philadelphia speech about race. He elevated the discourse. He made the proverbial silk percent out of the sow's ear. Is there-per chance, do you see something on the horizon that would provide him with a similar opportunity to do something like that with these latest attacks?

SCHULTZ: Honestly, I think we're 28 days out from the election and I think he needs-it's so incredibly important that he focuses on the issue that matters the most to Americans. Right now people have so much angst. They want to have their confidence in their government restored. It is so badly shaken and they want to believe in their president and that they have a president in the White House who is going to be there for them and is going to be their voice.

Wealthy people have had their voice in the White House for the last eight years. And I think Senator Obama needs to show people that, finally, they're going to have someone in the White House who's on their side and that's what I think he has to focus on in the next 28 days.

OLBERMANN: By the way, one last question, the McCain plan to cut a trillion plus dollars out of Medicare over ten years. Shouldn't you Democrats be going door-to-door in Florida with that bit of news? You might get 100 percent of the vote if everybody knows about that before election day in.

SCHULTZ: Trust me, we're getting the word out. We have 3.2 million Floridians that are covered by Medicare, second only to California. On top of John McCain's plan to privatize Social Security, cutting Medicare by 1.3 trillion dollars is absolutely outrageous. It would yank the safety net out from my senior citizens in Florida. And we're just not going to allow that to happen.

OLBERMANN: It is mind boggling. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, supporter of the Obama campaign, many thanks for some of your time tonight.

SCHULTZ: Thank you, Keith. Good to be with you.

OLBERMANN: The senator is at the debate. We're told you saw Al Gore a moment ago. Howard Fineman has the latest pre-debate angst and assurance from inside both camps. Chris Matthews on the essence of the conundrum;

John McCain needs several game changers. Can he attack Obama face to face tonight, or does he continue to do it only from afar or through surrogates? Our COUNTDOWN to the debate continues here on MSNBC.

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OLBERMANN: Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, the proverbial campaign listening post, wherein players on both sides can tell you their real fears and real excitement without worrying about you figuring out who they are. For that, Howard Fineman, senior Washington correspondent for "Newsweek Magazine." Howard, good evening.

HOWARD FINEMAN, "NEWSWEEK": Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN: What are the two camps expecting about the prospect of McCain invoking whichever bogey man is the bogey man of the day? No chance or could it happen?

FINEMAN: I talked to top people in both campaigns and I don't think either of them expects John McCain on his own to bring up the bogey man of the day or week, namely Bill Ayers, the Weatherman from Chicago, turn education professor. And interestingly, I'm not sure that the McCain campaign really hopes that Ayers comes up at all, either from Tom Brokaw or from one of the questions from the town hall audience or on the Internet. I think they understand that the economy subsumes everything here. It surrounds and takes over everything, with this stock market plummeting, with the deficit increasing, with world markets in shambles.

They know that if McCain is going to turn this around, and this is his last clear chance to do so, he has to do it by making some kind of economic argument. They will leave the attacks on Ayers to others outside of this venue tonight, I think. But McCain may bring it up on his own, and if he does I'm not sure the McCain people will be all that happy.

OLBERMANN: Either way, he's doing it on the stump and so, especially, obviously, is Governor Palin. Is there a fear in that campaign that when you get so incendiary that in 24 hours three of your speeches are interrupted by people in the crowd calling traitor, terrorist and somebody calling for Bill Ayers or Obama to be killed, that the campaign may have touched a third rail, that there's no going back from this?

FINEMAN: Well, I think they are touching it and I'm not sure that they care. I think that this campaign operates on three levels. And I think that's, to some extent, true of the Obama campaign, less so, but still somewhat true. The first level is the one you're going to see tonight. This is the relatively decorous one. This is the my opponent has a casual relationship with the truth level. That's what's going to happen tonight in the debate, for the most part, unless it gets out of hand.

Then, as you say, you have the stump speeches, especially Sarah Palin's and the advertising, in which especially the McCain campaign, but to some extent the Obama campaign, are hurling accusations. He's a liar. You know, he is allied with terrorists, et cetera.

And then there's the third level, and it's the deep level, and it's the dark level of the American psyche that I think will be touched and is being touched here. And Sarah Palin is perfectly willing to touch it. And the accusatory tone of her campaign speeches and the crowd that is she's getting are going to get there and they're going to encourage whatever else is going to happen on the Internet and independent expenditures and all kinds of nasty stuff in the last month of the campaign.

That's at the outer edges and the deepest levels and I think you're going to see and hear a lot in this last month that's not going to be very pleasant. And does the McCain campaign feel badly about that? I'm not sure. I talked to Nicole Wallace, who's out there on the campaign trail. She says it's getting pretty rough out there. But it was sort of a statement of fact, rather than an expression of regret.

OLBERMANN: Well, if you're juggling chain saws, you better be sure you don't drop one of them and certainly not on anybody. Last question, back to this, tamp it down a bit, the format title is town hall. That's a little generous. This is moderator questions, plus a few pre-screened audience questions. The odds are a lot more stacked against something unexpected happening than we might want to tell the audience, right?

FINEMAN: Well, I think that's true. And interestingly, in talking to the top campaign aides, they expected, at least a few weeks ago, that this was going to be a fairly wide open, free wheeling thing, beginning with Internet questions, lots of town hall questions, the moderator, Tom Brokaw, acting merely as a traffic cop. I don't think they expect that anymore. I think they expect Brokaw to play an active role. I think they expect the questions from the town hall people and from the Internet to be few and to be followed up on extensively by the moderator.

OLBERMANN: Even though there's a deal that says no follow-up

questions. Howard Fineman of "Newsweek" and MSNBC, we'll see how it turns

out and talk to you right after the debate. Thank you, sir/

FINEMAN: OK, thank you.

OLBERMANN: Chris Matthews on that corner McCain may have painted himself into to, attack Obama tonight and he might like irresponsible, even unstable. Don't attack Obama tonight, and he might look like a hypocrite. Our COUNTDOWN to the debate continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: The cliche game changer was what Senator McCain needed 11 days ago for the first presidential debate. Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, the second face off now just minutes away and still he needs one, maybe two. Can he try to force one tonight? Is he gambling any dwindling chance of election on threading a very narrow needle, and with the town hall not the most hospitable format to attack your opponent? A reminder too that yesterday's NBC News/"Wall Street Poll" showed that voters thought, overall, Obama and Biden did better jobs than McCain and Palin did in the debates thus far by 50 percent to 29 percent.

Let's turn to my colleague, the host of "HARDBALL," Chris Matthews, who is in Nashville tonight.

Chris, good evening.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN: There's a disconnect here. John McCain and his surrogates are willing to say Barack Obama associated with terrorists. But so far, John McCain hadn't been able to look Barack Obama in the eye during one of the debates. That might inspire, in some places, the use of the word cowardice. I'll be gentle. We'll call it a disconnect. Which way does McCain resolve this tonight?

MATTHEWS: Well, they've been very clever in putting out the points on the board there that the voters can connect. They put out the first point of Bill Ayers, which they described as a domestic terrorist intent on blowing up the Capitol, to tie him into the 9/11 killers. Then they-I think they had a hand in getting out the name Hussein, his middle name. I thought last week they were going to do it; it happened. I don't think these things are an accident. They wanted to create that environment where people would connect domestic terrorist aimed at the Capitol with a name like Hussein, which people identify with the enemy.

And then, of course, they have begun an investigation now of contributors to the Barack campaign. They're going after foreign contributors. Obviously Arabs they are looking for. That's all part of the plan, not the make Obama pay the price for being African-American. They don't think that will work. What they're trying to do is make him seem a subjects of mystery, sort of a-perhaps, someone in a sleeper cell.

What they're trying to do is make him look a dangerous foreigner.

They're making him, perhaps, part of the enemy camp. It's very dangerous. They are doing it point by point, but it's systematic and it's been going on. The problem, of course, is the country realizes we are facing a more imminent danger right now of economic collapse and they wonder whether this is anything but a political distraction.

OLBERMANN: Should McCain fear this subject being addressed tonight or this subject not being addressed tonight? There was a piece today online about how his own campaign is worried about grumpy McCain. And it quotes a friend of his as saying, "he is basically having to be somebody that he isn't. He is just not a guy that goes on the attack in public. For him to be on the attack constantly, attacking Obama's character, McCain is uncomfortable with that and it's made him grumpy."

The obvious question is how do you go into a debate conflicted on how hard or even if you should attack your opponent on a personal level?

MATTHEWS: Well, suppose one of the people in the audience-they're expected to be non-partisan-says, I don't like the way you're doing this, going after this man for a past casual association. Why are you doing that? Now, he might get mad at that person. Tom Brokaw may follow-up in a way he finds too aggressive. I'm not sure what's going to happen tonight. It's a very unusual situation of the environment of a 5,000 point decline in the Dow, a eight trillion dollar loss of wealth in a year, surrounding that room tonight. And, also, of course, the question of John McCain's temperament.

Remember, Barack Obama said, I'd be glad to have a debate about this man's temperament. I think that will come to a head tonight. But you've been raising a very powerful question. If you look at the history of violence in this country, at the presidential level, at the leadership level, it's always been a kind of atmospheric thing. And I believe, looking back over history-and I've been studying this all my life-that the atmospherics of this high charisma, high antipathy, hatred level of politics, which is to some extent by ginned up by the enemies now of Barack Obama, that creates an almost temperature in the country, if you will, a political temperature which brings out the nuts on right and left.

I think the temperature against Kennedy was so intense on the right that it brought out a man of the left, Lee Harvey Oswald. It's not so much ideology. It's the temperature level. If you create an antipathy towards a public figure, calling him a terrorist, talking about killing, that kind of thing, it brings out the nuts from all corners. It becomes totally uncontrollable. And that's the problem we have and that's why this is a security thing to think about. And you wonder whether the candidates are giving it any thought at all. That's the question I think you've raised well the last hour.

OLBERMANN: I think you have too. We can only pray that's the case in all respects and with all viewers, mine, yours, the guy on Fox's, people that listen to talk radio. There is one rule here we have to abide by, and, unfortunately, the Republican party has not lived up to that rule. But before I get off with an ad hoc special comment, a quick question about the format. Hoard Fineman suggests that the rule says no follow-up questions. We may get follow-up questions. Do we not desperately need follow-up questions after the last two debates? Were there not enough of them in the last two debates?

MATTHEWS: You and I make our living doing follow up questions, so we have a prejudice towards that. And I'm not afraid to ask the third time, so it becomes obvious to the person watching this person is not answering the question. I know that if you have a real town meeting, in a real town meeting, you're going to meet people in the audience who have strong passions, and who care deeply about the question that they've come up with. It's their question. It's not some casual list of questions a reporter comes up with. It's their personal question. If you toss off that question with some sort of a bromide as an answer, you're going to be in trouble. I don't know what the rules are. I say let the people at these candidates.

OLBERMANN: Amen, Chris Matthews in Nashville, Tennessee. Thanks, Chris, always a pleasure, sir.

MATTHEWS: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: I'll be back after the debate with a special post debate edition of COUNTDOWN. That will be at 11:00 Eastern and 8:00 Pacific. Chris will back with "HARDBALL" live at Midnight Eastern for all your post-debate needs. In the interim, that is COUNTDOWN for this the 1,987th day since the declaration of mission in Iraq. I'm Keith Olbermann, for now, 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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