updated 10/16/2008 11:53:12 AM ET 2008-10-16T15:53:12

Post Debate Analysis

October 15, 2008

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

Guests: Harold Ford, Norah O'Donnell ,Pat Buchanan, Rachel Maddow, Andrea

Mitchell, Chris Matthews, Mike Murphy

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC ANCHOR: And so concludes the third and final debate between the these two presidential combatants.

One of these men will be elected president of the United States in just less than three weeks now. And this was their final opportunity to square off against each other in the heat of a campaign that has turned personal, that turned tonight on the issues of not just taxes and the economy, but also personal issues, character, the tone of the campaign-as the spouses of each of these candidates greet each other, and the other candidate.

You saw a debate that was punctuated not only by the need to address a stock market which again plunged today, but also one of the biggest issues in this campaign, and that is the past, George W. Bush, the presidency of George W. Bush that hangs over this race in a very large way, Senator McCain saying tonight, at one point looking to Senator Obama: "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against him, you should have run four years ago"-reflecting the fact that it is the legacy of the Bush years that is casting a very difficult challenge over the campaign of Senator John McCain.

I am going to be joined by just-in a moment by Chris Matthews, who is at the debate site. He has got Andrea Mitchell with him as well. We will get to them in just a moment.

First, let me bring in MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, along with MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan.

And, Rachel, just my initial thought on this is that what we saw from Senator McCain was a spirited exchange. He had a lot of fight. I saw in Senator Obama a cautiousness, a guy who's ahead, who wanted to engage on the issues, but did not want to fight at the same level that McCain wanted to.

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW": I think that was true at the beginning of the debate. At least, that's how I saw it.

I saw John McCain being quite spirited, quite aggressive, seeming to be enjoying himself at the beginning-at the beginning of the debate. And before the halfway point of the debate, I actually think that McCain's excitement to be there and eagerness to be participating in that sort of a spirited back and forth devolved into a sort of anger and discomfort.

And there was a lot of eye-rolling. There was a tremendous amount of blinking. There was some grimacing and sort of mugging for the camera, I think, that he's going to regret. He definitely got in the zinger of the night with, "I'm not George Bush."

GREGORY: Right.

MADDOW: The rejoinder zinger from-from Barack Obama was probably, actually, a line against FOX News, not against McCain himself.

But the-probably, the line, at least for me, that will resonate beyond this debate and get used again and again and again and will hurt one of these candidates the most was when John McCain ridiculed the idea that the life of the mother should be a concern in the abortion debate.

GREGORY: We will have discussion between the two of you. We will pretend like it's the debate here.

And, Pat, I will get your initial thoughts on-on how you saw it.

We also saw from Barack Obama, if you talk about tone, you talk about facial gestures, a lot of smiling. Every time McCain went on the attack on an issue, he just smiled in a way that might be seen as dismissive, might be seen as confident. But that's the way he chose to play it tonight. He did not want to necessarily retaliate or fight back from a defensive position.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: He really did not. He really did not engage.

He was like a boxer who knows he's winning on rounds and winning on points, and this is the 15th round, and all he's got to do is avoid being hit and knocked down. I think he almost ducked engagement with McCain, who clearly was intense, passionate, aggressive all evening long.

And what surprised me-and I think some of the most interesting exchanges were on the tone and tenor of the campaigns, where Schieffer went at them directly. "You all are using words like liar and terrorist and things like that."

And McCain was extremely passionate in defending exactly what his campaign had done with Mr. Ayers and with ACORN and also in charging Barack Obama's campaign with the attack ads. And I was surprised that Barack Obama didn't come back strong at all.

Secondly, when the vice presidents were pointed out there, their qualifications to be president, Barack Obama deliberately passed over any effort to criticize, I think, or suggest that Sarah Palin was not qualified.

And, as you know, these are the things that have been consuming talk shows, cable TV. And he was very gracious, which I think might have been pretty smart.

Overall, I do believe this was John McCain's best campaign. I think he clearly won it on points. It was his best performance. He was intense and ideological. And he's appealing to the base, clearly.

But, at the same time, Barack Obama was even cooler than he's been in the other two debates. And I think he realizes, this is a winning formula. I have got this race pretty much wrapped up. What I have got to do is not make some mistake and step into a K.O. punch.

MADDOW: I would-I would just say, Pat, that I think that the-the intensity sort of curdled in-for John McCain towards the end of the debate.

He looked exacerbated, frustrated, rolling his eyes, grimacing, interjecting, making weird jokes that didn't connect again.

BUCHANAN: Right.

MADDOW: I think, on temperament, John McCain didn't do himself any favors tonight, even though you think that he did well on policy.

BUCHANAN: Well, I do tend to agree that he should not interrupt Barack Obama, as he did. I don't think that helps him, just dropping the words and the phrases in there.

But I do think he came to fight. He gave it everything he had, I think, and he decided, look, all these things we have been arguing, we have been putting out there about-about William Ayers, these are perfectly legitimate.

And he defended them with real passion and intensity, and, frankly, conviction. So, I think he-I really believe he had the best-best-best debate of the three.

GREGORY: Right.

BUCHANAN: The question is, though, David, the last two times, I felt he has won the debates on points, and the public seems to believe otherwise. And Obama ran the same kind of traps he had run twice before.

(CROSSTALK)

MADDOW: I think this-I think this was John McCain's worst debate.

So, we're probably perfectly matched here, Pat.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY: All right, Rachel Maddow and Pat Buchanan, thanks very much.

Want to go out to Hofstra University now, site of the debate, and Chris Matthews.

Chris, your initial thoughts. How did you score it?

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Well, I believe there was a big mistake made by John McCain tonight with regard to abortion rights.

If his goal is to win over the Hillary Clinton voter or older women or younger women in Florida or in southeastern Pennsylvania, I think he blew it tonight. You can't belittle the health exception with regard to abortion. You cannot belittle a woman and her doctor saying there's a health reason for an abortion, even in late-term. You can't belittle it.

You can't simply say only your health would permit-or, rather, her possible death would permit an abortion. The health exception is in Roe v. Wade. You cannot belittle it. You cannot characterize it in any diminutive way. He did that nation. It's going to kill him with pro-choice women across the board.

On another point, a very visceral point, he never really did what he had promised to do for weeks, which is to challenge Barack Obama on his patriotic impulse, with regard to palling around with a terrorist. If they're going to use that phrase, as the vice presidential candidate has done so dramatically, if they're going to continue to talk about Bill Ayers, they had to say what they meant by it: This guy was anti-American. To pal around with him was anti-American.

He never said that tonight. He played around with it. He talked around it. He never did it. John McCain didn't do what he was-what he was prepared to do, it seemed, coming into this debate. So, I don't think John McCain scored the point he wanted to score for weeks now, which is bring into question the character of-and the patriotism, if you will, of Barack Obama. And I think he made a big mistake on abortion rights.

GREGORY: Chris, I thought it was interesting...

MATTHEWS: That would be my thoughts.

GREGORY: I think it was interesting how they did engage each other on the question of President Bush, because this, in many ways, is the pillar of this campaign that is going to drive what happens on Election Day...

MATTHEWS: Right.

GREGORY: ... whether voters think that McCain is more of Bush.

And he said it. He looked Obama in the eye and said, "I am not George Bush."

MATTHEWS: Right.

GREGORY: And then Obama responded. How do you think that played out?

MATTHEWS: Well, I thought that was a great line.

I completely agree with you. That may be the-sort of the bicentennial moment with regard to the McCain campaign. He said: "I'm not President Bush. If you wanted to run against him, you should have ran four years ago," obviously a set piece. It was a good line.

By the way, I'm sitting here with Andrea, who has all kinds of thoughts, too.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Let's bring her into this conversation.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: NO.

MATTHEWS: Andrea.

MITCHELL: I was going to say that I thought that that was the line of the debate, was John McCain saying, you know, Senator Obama, if you wanted to run against George Bush you should have run against him four years ago.

I thought John McCain had a very strong night. I think this was his best debate, clearly. I'm not sure it was enough to close the gap. Obama seemed to be sitting on his lead, his lead in the polls, and not wanting to make a mistake, not wanting to opening anything up. I agree entirely with you guys that he chose to overlook the invitation to attack Sarah Palin, who is popular with some sectors. And attacking a woman candidate is always risky, as other candidates have learned in the past.

One thinks of Rick Lazio against Hillary Clinton. So, he deferred from taking that on.

I think that you're right about the abortion question, about Roe v. Wade.

MATTHEWS: Belittling the health exception, right.

MITCHELL: Roe v. Wade is a big issue with a lot of undecided women, a lot of those suburban women. And Barack Obama laid that out there in a very clear fashion.

So, I still think that this debate went to John McCain, but that it may not be enough to be a game-changer.

MATTHEWS: Well, we will see. I think it's a narrow victory for Barack, based upon watching these.

David, you and I and everybody here, Andrea, we have all watched the way the public has reacted to these performances. And they seem to like the casual, almost casual, performance of Barack Obama, over the more heated intensity of John McCain.

I think Andrea and I agree that it was the most heated intensity of John McCain. It doesn't seem to work with the public.

MITCHELL: Here is my one caveat.

This is-this is a day, with this extraordinary drop in the market, and Barack Obama is clearly betting that his cool, calm, approach is what people are looking for. And when he kept saying, you know, this tit for tat is not what people really want right now in this crisis, his demeanor...

GREGORY: Right.

MITCHELL: ... may have won something on style that he did not perhaps win on points, David.

GREGORY: And, Andrea, the reality is that Barack Obama is cautious about appearing angry and negative. He wants those titles to go to John McCain. He seems-appears to have won that, in terms of the polling. More voters think that McCain has gone negative than Obama. Obama said that his ads have been 100 percent negative.

Our fact-checkers say, no, that's not quite the case.

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY: The advantage goes to McCain in terms of negativity by-by a few percentage points, but they're-but, by 73 to 67, or something like that, but he's not been 100 percent. There are certainly positive ads out there as well.

MITCHELL: Well, in fact, in terms of the facts, in the last two weeks or so, yes, McCain's ads have been 100 percent negative, according to the University of Wisconsin project that looks at such things.

But, over the course of the campaign, as Obama really phrased it, by saying that, in the past, all ads have been negative, he's wrong. Obama was wrong on that particular fact.

The other point, as the McCain people and Nicolle Wallace, his spokesperson, said today, the fact is that Barack Obama has so much more money and so many more ads on that, overall, he has probably done more negative ads.

GREGORY: That's right.

MITCHELL: But, again, David, you're correct. That is not the way people perceive it. And the perception in this game is really the fact.

MATTHEWS: I think, David, that John McCain made a calculation tonight that he could come in and say, you're angry. Three times, he said, the public's angry, angry, angry, so he could be angry and be consistent with the public mood.

I think he's wrong. I don't think the public's angry. I think they are scared. I think they're worried, and they're depressed. And I thought that mood was captured by Barack Obama tonight by saying, we're facing the worst economic challenge since the Great Depression, almost like an historical weight to it that is on our shoulders now. It's not a time to shout out the window. It's a time to deal with a very difficult challenge.

And I think he may have the tenor right. But we will see in the hours ahead who had the right tenor tonight.

GREGORY: All right.

Chris and Andrea, stay with us.

When we return, we're going to get reaction from our insiders tonight, former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford and longtime Republican strategist Mike Murphy.

And our focus group of voters tonight, what did they see in the debate?

This is MSNBC's coverage of the third and final presidential debate.

We're back right after this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I'm going to give a new direction to this economy and this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: MSNBC welcomes our global audience for coverage of the presidential debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I don't mind being attacked for the next three weeks. What the American people can't afford, though, is four more years of failed economic policies. And what they deserve over the next four weeks is that we talk about what's most pressing to them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: David Gregory here with you in New York. We're back on MSNBC's live coverage of the third and final presidential debate.

We want to send it back now to Hofstra University and Chris Matthew-

Chris.

MATTHEWS: David, we wanted to get-to find out what voters thought about tonight's debate. And we assembled, as we did last week, a focus group of voters out in Kansas city, Missouri.

MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell is with our focus group and joins us now.

Norah, I'm fascinated. What did we learn?

NORAH O'DONNELL, NBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It was fascinating.

We got instant feedback from this group of people here in the Show Me State. We chose Kansas City, Missouri, because this state is the most accurate bellwether in U.S. history. They have voted for every president, except once, in the past 100 years who ended up winning.

Want to show you exactly how they reacted first.

We want to go to John McCain. Barack Obama has said, say to it to my face when it comes to Bill Ayers. Well, McCain talked about Bill Ayers.

Watch here, because it appeared that, the way McCain talked about it, that it backfired with independents. And McCain even faced some drop-off among Republican voters. Watch the lines.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: And you launched your political campaign in Mr. Ayers' living room.

OBAMA: That's absolutely not true.

MCCAIN: And the facts are facts and records are records.

OBAMA: And that's not the facts.

MCCAIN: And it's not the fact-it's not the fact that Senator Obama chooses to associate with a guy who in 2001 said that he wished he had have bombed more, and he had a long association with him. It's the fact that all the-all of the details need to be known about Senator Obama's relationship with them and with ACORN, and the American people will make a judgment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'DONNELL: Kelly (ph), you are an independent voter. You voted for George W. Bush in the last election. You didn't like when John McCain brought up Bill Ayers. Why?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel like it's an issue that's been discussed time and time again. He gave a very clear explanation of his relationship. And McCain kept bringing it back and would not let it go. And I just thought that it was kind of beating a dead horse.

O'DONNELL: All right.

One of the other interesting things that we saw some movement on, in that same part of the debate, Barack Obama said he could withstand three more weeks of these attacks, but America could not stand four more years of George W. Bush's policies. Watch Obama here and the lines.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Senator McCain's own campaign said publicly last week that, if we keep on talking about the economic crisis, we lose, so we need to change the subject.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'DONNELL: Now you see just a slight dip among Republicans there.

Sharon (ph), you're a Republican. You voted for George W. Bush. You also want to focus on the issues.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's correct.

O'DONNELL: And, so, how did you feel then, about McCain bringing up Bill Ayers and ACORN and the voting controversy?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I felt like that it needed to move on. He really needed to move on. I agreed with Barack Obama for saying, move on, but I agree with John McCain and his issues.

O'DONNELL: You're still going to vote for John McCain?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I definitely will, yes.

O'DONNELL: All right, Chris, so very interesting sampling here. It almost kind of reflects a lot of what we saw in that "New York Times"/CBS poll. A lot of people did not like the attacks by John McCain. This is a group that wants to focus on the economy.

Am I right?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

O'DONNELL: Everybody here wants to focus on the issues-Chris.

O'DONNELL: OK, thank you very-Norah. I love it.

Let's get back right now to New York and David Gregory.

GREGORY: Chris, thanks very much.

We're joined now by our insiders, NBC News political analyst Harold Ford, former Democratic congressman from Tennessee, and longtime Republican strategist Mike Murphy.

Mike, I will start with you.

What did you hear tonight from John McCain that's going to be part of the final pitch in the final now less than three weeks?

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN MEDIA STRATEGIST: Well, I heard him engage on the economy, and I heard him talk about change. I mean, if I had to call a winner of the debate tonight, I would give it to Joe the plumber, who is probably going to have a Hollywood agent and a string of franchises by the weekend.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY: Right. Where is Joe? Who is he, and where is he?

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MURPHY: Joe is the most famous plumber ever now.

But, as far as the candidates were concerned, I thought Obama had the most to lose, and he spent a lot of time trying not to lose it. I thought he was a little off tonight, no critical mistakes, but a little off, seemed a little weak at times.

I thought McCain had moments where he was the best he's been in any of the debates. He also had moments where I think tone will be a problem. But I think all the back and forth misses the real big question of this debate. You never knock a guy out. McCain wasn't going to do anything tonight to change everything.

But what he really needed, as he's sliding in the polls, is, he needed to break through to the audience at home and get them to take another look at McCain for the next two weeks, so he can grab the race and start coming back on the economy.

And, frankly, I'm not sure he got that or not. I thought he came close. I don't think he hit the kind of home run, almost a speech to the home audience, to kind of reframe all that.

On the other hand, I don't think he had a big loss of any kind. So, I think that's just an open question. He might have come close. It was definitely an improved performance.

GREGORY: And, Harold, same question to you.

This is the final phase of this campaign now. We have gotten through the conventions. We're now we're through the debates. Now it's homestretch. What did you hear tonight from Senator Obama that becomes part of his final pitch to the late-breaking undecided voters.

HAROLD FORD, MSNBC POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Look, Senator Obama has the lead. He approached this debate as if he was out front. I would agree with Mike in large part that Senator McCain had to figure out one big-one big thing, how did he get people to look at his campaign, to reconsider, independents, even those soft supporters of Barack Obama to take another look at him.

Again, all of that will be decided. But I think, on two critical issues, Barack made some headway. Number one, on the personal attacks, he answered as clearly and as cogently as I thought I have heard any-at any of his responses about this Bill Ayers stuff and about some of these negative attacks. And it took-it made-he made John McCain look defensive and uneven and even erratic, to borrow the terminology used by the Obama campaign.

Two, on the issue of health care and economic policy, Barack not only wanted to go back to those issues. And I think he differentiated himself for the second time on health care, which clearly is a critical issue in

Ohio and Pennsylvania and West Virginia and some of the states that they're and Virginia and North Carolina, states where Barack and that campaign are trying to put together a coalition right here at the end.

I would agree with Mike, though, at the end, that the American people still have a lot to decide over the next few weeks between these two candidates. But Obama, I think you would have to score him as the winner this evening overall.

GREGORY: My quick question. "I am not George Bush," kind of like, "Stop lying about my record," was it a strong enough line, a strong enough position? And does it come too late for McCain, who is facing this issue? The overhang of George Bush is, perhaps, the most important issue in terms of a headwind against him.

MURPHY: Well, I think that is an issue for McCain. I thought the line was perfect. It was the high point of the debate. There's no downside to that.

The competition in the newsrooms tonight will be, is that the line of the debate? Or, being the media, will they obsess on abortion and some of the talk when McCain kind of got tangled up on that issue, an issue a Republican doesn't want to close a campaign on.

But, again, I thought McCain had some real high points. I think tone hurt him once in a while. But, fundamentally, he has got to get people to take a new look at him here for the next two weeks and make his case if he's going to break Obama's trend, which is, you know, heading strongly in Obama's direction.

I think McCain will close the race a little bit now. I think-I think things got a little better for him tonight, but there was no knockout.

(CROSSTALK)

FORD: One of the other curious things, David, was when John McCain was asked about his running mate, Sarah Palin, it was curious to me. He has-John McCain has differentiated himself from Barack Obama on experience and judgment and wisdom.

It was curious. When he was asked about his own vice presidential choice, he didn't use any of these terminology, wisdom, judgment, experience, to describe her and her ability to be president, whereas Barack seemed far more comfortable talking about Joe Biden's willingness, able-readiness and capacity to be president.

And the only way-and the only area that John McCain differed with Barack on the issue of Joe Biden was just in issues. He couldn't question the qualifications.

GREGORY: OK. All right, Harold Ford, Mike Murphy, thanks to you both.

We are going to be right back with some final thoughts from Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell.

This is MSNBC's life coverage of the third and final presidential debate-right back here on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Our remaining moments here.

We're back with MSNBC's coverage of the third and final presidential debate.

Final thoughts now from Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell, who join us once again from the debate tonight Hofstra University.

To both of you all-I will start with you, Chris-how do they use tonight, down the final stretch, to make that final pitch?

MATTHEWS: What did-hey, slow down, everybody. I'm trying to hear David Gregory.

David, what did you say?

GREGORY: I'm saying, how do they use tonight in their final pitch?

MATTHEWS: Well, I think-I think that it's hard to see-Barack, it's just riding the crest of the economic situation.

It seems like, every time there's a poll of who win these debates, he does, because people want change. And he simply has to not mess it up. I just sense, calm, casual, almost Zen-like confidence is what people are impressed with right now, in this rocky time.

GREGORY: Yes.

Andrea, real quick.

MITCHELL: And, David, I-yes, real quick, I think that that tone was right. His demeanor was right. He seemed presidential. That's what they wanted him to do.

But John McCain was much more aggressive, and probably won points.

GREGORY: Right.

MITCHELL: But he may not get that verdict.

GREGORY: All right, Chris Matthews, Andrea Mitchell, thanks very much.

Remember, "COUNTDOWN" next.

Chris is going to be back at midnight Eastern with a live edition of HARDBALL.

I'm back on "RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE," 6:00 Eastern tomorrow night, here on MSNBC.

I'm David Gregory in New York. Have a good night.

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

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