updated 10/17/2008 12:13:29 PM ET 2008-10-17T16:13:29

RACE FOR THE WHITEHOUSE

October 16, 2008

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

Guests: Harold Ford, Jr., Michelle Bernard, Douglas Kmiec, John Harwood, Steve Hildebrand, Nicolle Wallace, Doug Wilder, E.J. Dionne, Michael Gerson

DAVID GREGORY, HOST: Tonight, the campaign's final phase. Leading in the polls, Senator Obama is pushing a turf war with the GOP, buying time and spending time in states President Bush won four years ago.

Senator McCain, meantime, fresh off an assertive debate performance, hopes that "Joe the Plumber"-well, he doesn't actually have a plumber's license, but he's still a regular Joe-will help lead him to a comeback.

We go one-on-one with top advisers from both campaigns.

That and more, as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

Just 19 days now to go in the race for the White House.

Welcome to the program. I'm David Gregory.

My headline tonight, "Is There Any Way McCain Can Put the Brakes on Obama?"

The Arizona senator stumped in Pennsylvania today and made his pitch that he represents change.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We can't spend the next four years as we've spent much of the last eight waiting for our luck to change. As I mentioned to Senator Obama, I'm not George Bush. And if he wanted to run against George Bush, he should have run four years ago.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Senator Obama, meantime, campaigned in New Hampshire as well, before heading on a red state tour tomorrow that takes him to Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina and Florida. He rallied his supporters by trying to tamp down some of the enthusiasm.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: New Hampshire, we are 19 days away from changing this country. Nineteen days away. But for those who are getting a little cocky, I've got two words for you: New Hampshire. I learned right here with the help of my great friend and supporter Hillary Clinton that you cannot let up, you can't pay too much attention to polls.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Joining me now, John Harwood, CNBC's chief Washington correspondent and political writer for "The New York Times"; Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women's Forum and an MSNBC political analyst; Douglas Kmiec, who headed up the Office of Legal Counsel for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He is the author of "Can a Catholic Support Him?" asking the big question about Barack Obama. Douglas endorses Barack Obama. And Harold Ford, Jr., chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and an NBC News analyst.

Welcome all.

Harold, let me start with you. And I want to get everybody's view on the question of temperament at last night's debate. What did we learn? What did we take away?

Look at this exchange when McCain goes on the attack about that former Weatherman William Ayers. Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: Well, again, while you were on the board of the Woods Foundation you and Mr. Ayers together, you sent $230,000 to ACORN. So-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: That's not the facts.

MCCAIN: And it's not the fact that Senator Obama chose to associate with a guy who in 2001 said he wished he had bombed more-and he had a long association with him-it's the fact that 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)

GREGORY: There was also response I believe there from Senator Obama as well.

OK. That's not ready.

So Harold, what I was trying to demonstrate there-wasn't able to do it-is to show that you had McCain on the attack, and what we saw a lot from Senator Obama was essentially some smiling, a lighter tone about him, just trying to stick to the facts, not trying to respond in kind.

What did we take away from that?

HAROLD FORD, JR., NBC NEWS ANALYST: I took away three quick things.

One, Senator McCain, because I think he is so excited right now and excitable and somewhat incredulous to these polling numbers, has problems reconciling his thoughts, looks on his face, and what comes out of his mouth. It doesn't all quite work at the right pace, at the right time.

Two, Senator Obama's response to that was so rational, was so sober and so thorough and succinct, that it put a rest to those questions and concerns.

And three, the overall takeaway thematically, the country has asked themselves a basic question. With an economic crisis, a financial market crisis, two wars, entitlement spending and other challenges the president faces, whom do you want behind that desk, someone who is steady, sober, with a vice president who has the foreign policy experience, who differs with the president on some issues, who will be honest with him? Or do you want a John McCain, who in the midst of this tough moment seems a little unsteady, seems a little not to take too much from the campaign, but somewhat erratic? And you have to wonder what Vice President Palin would bring to the White House in the midst of all of these challenges.

I thought Senator Obama served himself well last night and did the one thing he had to do, not make a mistake, be steady, and demonstrate to the American people-I guess it's really three things-but be steady and say to the American people, I'm ready to serve and be your president, commander in chief.

GREGORY: All right.

Michelle, does he run the risk of being too cautious? Does he run the risk of looking like he's dismissive when he simply laughs off an attack like that? Or is it a kind of steady as she goes approach that people are finding very winning right now in the middle of an economic crisis?

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's always a risk. You know, we've seen so many people who have said, "Senator Obama, do you ever get angry?" But I think that what the poll numbers are showing us, David, is that this is what the American public is looking for in very turbulent times, which is just as you just said, steady as you go.

He was unflappable.

GREGORY: Yes.

BERNARD: He responded to Senator McCain's every accusation that was made about him. Every single question that was raised, Senator Obama responded. He did it in a tough manner, but he was not-you know, he was not uncharacteristically angry, overdramatic, overemotional. And I think if he had done any of those things, we would be having a very different discussion today and people would have said that he lost last night's debate.

GREGORY: All right.

I want to talk about how the campaigns are trying to frame the argument now in the last 19 days. New ads from both campaigns drawing on the debate from last night. First up is Senator Obama, then we'll get a reaction.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: Senator Obama, I am not President Bush.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: True, but you did vote with Bush 90 percent of the time. Tax breaks for big corporations and the wealthy, but almost nothing for the middle class, same as Bush. Keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while our economy struggles, same as Bush.

You may not be George Bush, but...-

MCCAIN: I voted with the president over 90 percent of the time, higher than a lot of my even Republican colleagues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Douglas Kmiec, that sounds like a closing argument to me from the Obama team.

DOUGLAS KMIEC, AUTHOR, "CAN A CATHOLIC SUPPORT HIM?": Well, and it's been a consistent argument, David. The Obama team has largely portrayed the McCain campaign as the third term of George Bush from the beginning. And in fact, that's what it is, because the tax policies, the economic policies, the foreign policy are all virtually identical. It's a stay-the-course kind of mentality, and that's one of the reasons why I think when Senator McCain goes out on the stump and talks about change, people have this great disconnect. They look at the policy and they look at the rhetoric, and they simply don't match.

GREGORY: John Harwood, get inside McCain's head here and the McCain campaign. There was a great line last night at the debate, "I'm not George Bush." It just seemed like it was a little late in the game for that.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Definitely late in the game. And I think Doug is exactly right.

You know, the problem for John McCain, he is a maverick. He has broken with President Bush on important things and sided with President Bush on some things like immigration, for which he was a maverick in his party. But he's not talking about those things because they are not good politically in this particular environment.

And on the big things, taxes and foreign policy, he is with Bush. So it makes the maverick argument, the "I'm not Bush" argument, ring a little bit hollow.

I think what John McCain wants to do is try to hope the stock market calms down, gets off the stage with Barack Obama. Those visual contrasts did not work well for John McCain. And hope that some of the traditional conservatism of some of these states where Barack Obama is now riding pretty high, rural areas, and rural voters, especially, kicks in and gets him close enough to make it a game at the end.

GREGORY: Let me show you the new McCain ad, a kind of closing argument as well from Senator McCain down the stretch. Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: The last eight years haven't worked very well, have they?

I'll make the next four better.

Your savings, your job and your financial security are under siege. Washington is making it worse, bankrupting us with their spending. Telling us paying higher taxes is patriotic and saying we need to spread the wealth around?

Lower taxes and less spending will protect your job and create new ones. That will restore our country.

Stand up with me. Let's fight for America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Harold, you know, the ad makes sense to me on this level. If right now the real focus in the McCain campaign is holding on to those big red states, the Bush states from 2004, a tax-and-spend message is going to speak to the base. It's going to speak to those states, even fiscal conservatives who might be the ones turned off from George W. Bush.

FORD: He's speaking to "Joe the Plumber" in that ad. And there are a lot of them, and a lot of average Joes, hardworking Joes, patriotic Joes in Pennsylvania, in Ohio and Virginia.

I thought Barack's losing ad was a strong one. They've both gone to their strengths.

GREGORY: Yes.

FORD: George Bush is so unpopular. John McCain understands that raising taxes is not. The country will be forced to ask a question, which of those narratives do you find less appealing or which of the opposite of those narratives do you want the most? Do you want the opposite of George Bush?

I think Barack Obama has made a big bet here at the end in part of his closing argument that that will be the case. I think Barack will actually end with Barack talking. I think this is part of that closing argument. And John McCain is going to end on the notion that he will raise your taxes, and that's definitely the question.

HARWOOD: But David...

GREGORY: Hold on one second.

Yes, go ahead, John. Go ahead.

HARWOOD: I was just going to say, there again in that ad you saw John McCain say, I'm going to make it different from the last eight years, but he didn't say how he was going to make it different from George W. Bush. He then went into the hit on Barack Obama.

That's fine to do. And I understand why he is trying to rally his base. But he still hasn't connected for average people what he would do, what there is about the maverick John McCain, that would help us get out of this mess.

GREGORY: All right. I've got about a minute left in this segment. I want to talk about "Joe the Plumber." He was the big feature last night in the debate besides the candidates. Here were the candidates today talking about "Joe the Plumber" on the campaign trail. Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: The real winner last night was "Joe the Plumber." He won and small businesses won across America. They won because the American people are not going let Senator Obama raise their taxes in a tough economy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: He is blowing a hole through the budget on tax breaks that are the exact same kinds of tax cuts that George Bush offered. The same argument, same philosophy, and then he's trying to suggest that a plumber is the guy he is fighting for. How many plumbers do you know making $250,000 a year?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: So Douglas Kmiec, give the McCain campaign for creating some buzz and creating something to talk about, but is this an imperfect every man for their campaign to try to ride a comeback to?

KMIEC: Well, I think it is. I mean, he is trying to make the case that Senator Obama's tax plan is going to be targeted at the middle class in terms of raising their taxes, and it does exactly the opposite.

People can do the numbers. They know that their wages have flat-lined. They know they haven't gotten any meaningful tax relief. They know the tax relief has been at the top end of the tax spectrum.

The fact is, is that John McCain can't hide what he actually plans on doing, and that is staying the course on taxes on the top .1 of 1 percent. Barack Obama has well aimed his economic program for the average person, and it's well known.

GREGORY: All right. Got to go to break here.

HARWOOD: David, did you know "Joe the Plumber" said today he doesn't believe in the Social Security system?

GREGORY: Is that right? He said he doesn't believe in it?

HARWOOD: He did.

GREGORY: He also doesn't think he will get taxed. If he's only making $250,000, he would not be taxed under Obama's plan, right? He concede that?

HARWOOD: Yes.

FORD: Guys, there are a lot more Joes out there than there are those of us on TV. We ought to be careful in being critical.

GREGORY: All right. We've got to take a break here.

Coming next, a look at the battleground map. What is Obama's path to 270 electoral votes? I'm going to one-on-one with Obama's deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand.

Later in the program, McCain's path to victory. I'm going to one-on-one with McCain senior adviser Nicolle Wallace.

RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE returns right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

Senator Obama spent the day campaigning in New Hampshire. Tomorrow he's going to kick off a tour of four hotly-contested battleground states, the red states: Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina and Florida, all states that went President Bush's way back in 2004.

Joining me now is Steve Hildebrand, Barack Obama's deputy campaign manager, and he joins me from Miami.

Steve, always good to see you.

STEVE HILDEBRAND, OBAMA DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Great to see you, David. Glad to be here.

GREGORY: You know, people may not appreciate this, but it is-following you is where the action is. So you were in Florida tonight. Let me put up the latest CNN/"TIME" Magazine Florida poll.

It has Obama at 51, McCain at 46. An edge for Senator Obama.

My understanding is, Steve, that you basically decided to stay down in Florida for the duration. Is that the case? I mean you personally.

HILDEBRAND: Well, let's not read too much into that, David. A lot of our staff has been put out into the states from headquarters. You know, there's not a lot of votes on the 11th floor of 233 North Michigan in Chicago. The votes are out in the states, and so that's where I'm at.

GREGORY: Well, let's talk about Florida, because a few months ago you had Senator Clinton and others in the Democratic Party who were prepared to write this off as a Democratic state in 2008. What's changed?

HILDEBRAND: Well, we've never-you know, never had an inclination to write off Florida. It was always an important formula to win the presidency. It's an important state. It's a state that's hurting economically, that needs a lot of attention from the next president and the next Congress.

We need to get people back to work. You know, there's a lot of homes that have started to be built, David, that aren't being built because of the housing market, the mortgage crisis, the banking crisis. And as a result, it's not just "Joe the Plumber," it's also the landscaper, the sheet rocker, and those are the kind of people that Barack is fighting for.

And, you know, there's a lot of people, you know, middle income, lower income people, who need a fighter for them right now. And that's going to be Barack.

GREGORY: I want to read you something that Karl Rove, senior adviser to President Bush, of course, the architect of the 2004 reelection, wrote today in "The Wall Street Journal" talking about the battleground. And he's talking about Senator McCain's campaign.

"His campaign understands the dire circumstances it faces and is narrowing his travels almost exclusively to Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and Nevada. If he carries those states, while losing only Iowa and New Mexico from the GOP's 2004 total, Mr. McCain will carry 274 Electoral College votes and the White House. It's threading the needle, but it's come to that."

So, what Rove is saying here is that, yes, McCain could drop New Mexico, could drop Iowa, two very strong states for you, but hold on to the rest.

Where do you disagree with Rove's analysis?

HILDEBRAND: Well, if I know this correctly, Senator McCain was actually in Pennsylvania today, not on Karl Rove's list.

Look, David, this race continues to be very, very close in these states that are going to end up deciding the final outcome. And, you know, we're working very hard, Barack and Michelle, Senator Biden, his wife Jill. Everyone is working very, very hard to try and get every vote and stay very focused on the issues that the voters care about just like Barack did last night during the debate-very focused on education, very focused on health care, very focused on trying to move this economy in a direction that's going to help the middle class.

And I have to point out, if I listened to that debate as carefully as I think I did, I'm pretty sure that McCain never once said the two words "middle class." He talked about the tax breaks that he's going to provide for people in the upper income brackets. Those are the people he's in touch with.

He's not in touch with people in lower and middle income scales that really need the help. Those are the people that really need the help. They're the ones that are hurting.

GREGORY: Do you think that John McCain is going to contest Pennsylvania as we get even closer to Election Day, or do you think he's going to have to retreat to just protecting Bush '04 states?

HILDEBRAND: Well, I think that-you know, again, a lot of these states are very close. And the polling during the primaries, a lot of it was not very accurate in predicting the outcomes. So I do think that it makes sense for these candidates to pay a lot of attention to each of these battleground states and fight for every vote, whether that's in Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, wherever.

GREGORY: Yes.

HILDEBRAND: You know, we've got to-we've seen the electorate change, David. Millions and millions of new registrants across this country because of the urgency of the issues that we're facing as a nation and our place in the world.

GREGORY: The question is whether-because Republicans still boast that they can turn out their voters better than Democrats. Are they relying on a different electorate from a different season back in 2004?

HILDEBRAND: Well, they always like to brag about their 72-hour plan.

GREGORY: Right.

HILDEBRAND: You know, we have a many-month plan in the Democratic Party. We work on this very hard.

We've had a grassroots campaign for Barack that he insisted that we run at the very beginning. He wanted to build a movement for change. That's what we've done. That's what we are doing.

And on November 5th, should he win the presidency, it's going to be vitally important that the American people join him in trying to change Washington. You know, that's what it's got to be. It's got to be a stronger voice from the American people that drowns out the special interests and the lobbyist on K Street.

GREGORY: All right. Steve Hildebrand down in Miami today, where Florida is in big play for the Obama campaign, a big battleground.

Steve, always good to have you on. Thanks very much.

HILDEBRAND: Thank you, David.

GREGORY: All right.

And coming next, he was a regular Joe, but last night's debate made him the most famous plumber in America. "Joe the Plumber" talks about which candidate persuaded him last night. He talked to the media today. We'll have it for you right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: "Smart Takes" time here on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

Today "Joe the Plumber" is having his say. He became part of the presidential race last week after he asked Obama about taxes after a rally in Ohio. Well, last night, both candidates spoke directly to Joe during the debate. And this morning, Joe himself told reporters camped out in his driveway Obama didn't make the case for him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE WURZELBACHER, "JOE THE PLUMBER": If you believe him, I would be receiving his tax cuts. He'd be hurting people that-you know, I have to buy supplies from other companies. I have to-you know, and if he raises taxes on those other companies, then that hurts me eventually.

You know, it starts at the top. It doesn't come from the bottom up.

We are the greatest country in the world. Stop apologizing for it. I mean, really. It just-I get real mad about that.

I'm not sorry for being American. I'm not sorry for having the things I have. I've worked for them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: A couple of things about Joe. His first name is actually Samuel. Joseph is his middle name.

He doesn't have a pluming license, although he claims he doesn't need it when he works for other people in Ohio. And he has been described as being undecided, but he is a registered Republican who voted in the GOP primary this year.

Let me bring in Harold Ford, Jr.

Again, Harold, as an every man, as a symbol of policy for John McCain, it's created a lot of buzz, created a lot of conversation and attention just where John McCain would like it.

FORD: Yes. I'm just a believer that if there is a voter whom you disagree with or a voter who may disagree with your own policies, explain why your policies benefit that person. You have to be very reluctant. Having been in politics and-I just don't think you do that.

Now, having said that, I do think Senator Obama's tax plans would probably benefit Joe-and have a lot of friends who call themselves by their middle name. That's not unusual where I'm from. But Samuel or Joe, whatever the guy wants to be called, there are a lot of people who will benefit under Barack's tax plan. He is probably one of them.

And I think over the next few days, what it goes to show is that Senator Obama and the team has to talk even more about 95 percent of Americans benefiting. Explain how if you earn $250,000 what that means. Explain the capital gains plan, tax plan that Barack has which is a zero percent plan for small businesses and startups, and those earning under that amount. So, I think it speaks to just a little more work that needs to be done here in these final 19 days, which is not surprising, because more people like Joe or Samuel, or whatever you may call him, are going to start playing close, close attention.

If I have one piece of advice for my friend Senator Obama and some of the campaign tonight, don't take this voter on. Take the issue on and explain how your plan will benefit Joe and benefit a lot of people like him across Ohio and the country.

GREGORY: All right. I've got to get another break in here.

Coming next, how can McCain regain the momentum? And what is his path to victory? I'll go one-on-one with senior McCain adviser Nicolle Wallace when RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: A day after their heated presidential debate, McCain and Obama are together again tonight for the Al Smith Charity Roast in New York, a traditional stop on the road to the White House. With less than three weeks to go, McCain is trying to blunt Obama's momentum, while Obama is warning supporters not to get cocky in the final days of the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

Back now for the back half on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE. I'm David Gregory. Supporters of Senator McCain say he saved the best for last in that presidential debate last night in New York, but will it be enough to change the race. Joining me now is Nicolle Wallace, senior adviser to the McCain campaign. Nicole, good to see you.

NICOLLE WALLACE, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: Thanks for having me, David.

GREGORY: Did Senator McCain earn a second look last night?

WALLACE: I hope so and I think so. I think that Senator Obama has something that John McCain will never have, and that's those Hollywood good looks and the smooth talk. John McCain has something that Barack Obama will never have, and that's a record of reform, a record of standing up to entrenched interests, and a direction of-a vision for a new direction in this country that he can actually deliver.

Barack Obama, he wraps things up in packages that sound really good even to me, and I'm a Republican. But the truth is, he can't deliver on those promises, because what is behind the surface, and not very deep behind, is a plan for raising taxes on small businesses. We heard a lot about Joe the Plumber in the last couple of days, government mandates on health care, and policies that will decimate America's small businesses, which is the last segment of our economy that is still thriving.

GREGORY: Let me ask you a political question. I want to play this exchange about abortion last night. I don't want to get into the policy of it. That could be for another time. I want to ask you a political question. First let's play the exchange.

WALLACE: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: With respect to partial birth abortion, I am completely supportive of a ban on late-term abortions, partial birth or otherwise, as long as there is an exception for the mother's health and life. This did not contain that exception.

MCCAIN: Just again an example of eloquence of Senator Obama. Health of the mother; that has been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, health.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: So Nicolle, here is the political question. It seemed to me like McCain was a guy who was talking to his base of conservatives and not talking to a wider group of independents, more moderate Republicans or even more conservative Democrats that he should be trying to reach, it seems to me, at this stage of the game. Why?

WALLACE: Well, late-term abortions, partial birth abortions is actually one of the few areas in the debate between pro-choice Americans and pro-life Americans where the vast majority of Americans agree. Many pro-choice men and women are opposed to late-term abortion. Barack Obama is out of the mainstream on the issue of late-term abortion.

I think that was actually the opposite example, David. That's an example, whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, most every American is against a second term or third term abortion. The point was opposite than the one you made. Even people who disagree on the fundamental issue of choice and life can agree that a partial birth abortion is something that should be banned.

And Barack Obama's record-again, his rhetoric is lovely, but his record should count for something, especially in these final days. His record is one of opposing a ban on late term partial birth abortion.

GREGORY: But talking about, in air quotes, the health of the mother and taking issue with that-again, this a political question-when you are 11 points behind among women. Do you run the risk of alienating some key swing voters at this stage of the game?

WALLACE: Listen, women are I think very well represented when we talk about the numbers of Americans who-even if you're pro-choice, who really do come down opposed to a late-term abortion. So Senator McCain was making a fair point about Barack Obama's record. He was saying that the record shows a vote, several votes against a ban on partial birth abortion. It certainly wasn't meant to offend anyone, not to offend women, not to offend pro-choice Americans.

But the point is that even on an issue as emotional as abortion, there are some areas for agreement. John McCain, he's got a record of working with Democrats for all this time in the Senate. He has worked in places where Democrats and Republicans can agree, even on the most difficult issues. I would say abortion is one of them. Barack Obama is the one who stands outside of that mainstream.

GREGORY: Nicolle, let's talk about the electoral map at this stage, and some of the polling on the economy. Even in Pennsylvania, a state where Senator McCain and Governor Palin are trying to contest, a blue state, a recent poll came out today saying Pennsylvania disagreed with McCain's handling of the financial crisis, which is a big topic of debate and discussion. Based on that, based on what we are seeing in the polls, what Americans have been seeing in the substantive debates, three of them, what is the argument you make that disqualifies Obama as a potential to be president.

WALLACE: Well, listen, at an hour of crisis for our country, we are not looking at an economic downturn. We are looking at a crisis as serious as any crisis our nation has faced. You need someone who tells the truth and the whole truth, and lets the political consequences be what they are. I think when you look at John McCain, someone who is a fighter, someone who scraps and will fight for the American people and fight for our comeback and fight to bring us back to a place where our economy grows again, where we win these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and where we really restore all that I think people feel has been lost in the last eight years. That's confidence and trust in Washington, confidence and trust in the fundamental foundational institutions of our economy.

Barack Obama talks about it probably better than any living politician in our time, but John McCain can do it. He's got that record of reform. He's got that record of fighting for the little guy. This fight over the plumber Joe, Barack Obama has attacked Joe today. This wasn't a debate between Barack Obama and Joe. He should be trying to earn his vote with the power of his policies. Instead, that campaign is more interested in character assassination and debating a hard working American. We are going to fight for his vote, and we hope that he will support someone whose policies will help him prosper.

GREGORY: Yet, the arguments are belied by a lot of the substantive polling that shows on critical issues like the economy and handling of the financial crisis that Barack Obama has a clear advantage. I also want to talk to you about environment. This is what E.J. Dionne wrote in the "Washington Post" today, talking about the 2006 mid-term election, when you were still working for President Bush, "at this crucial juncture, the contours of the 2008 contest are remarkably similar to those of the 2006 midterm elections that ended with a Democratic victory. Strikingly and no doubt unintentionally, McCain echoed the Democrats 2006 campaign theme when he said that voters want the country to move in a new direction. That is McCain's problem."

Do you disagree that there is that similarity to '06 and it is a problem?

WALLACE: I think what is similar about 2006 is Americans are desperate for a change. They're desperate for a new direction. The truth is Barack Obama and John McCain will both move America in a different direction. When John McCain said last night to Barack Obama, if you wanted to run against George Bush, you had your shot four years ago. Take that up with John Kerry.

John McCain is someone-You know this from covering the White House. You stood on that front lawn, and I think you usually got to go first in the news cast, every time John McCain attacked the White House, had a fight with them, debated them over big issues like climate change and torture and the conduct of the war in Iraq. So John McCain is not someone that Americans believe is going to extend any aspect of the Bush administration. He is someone that is going to get our economy moving again. He's going to take on the entrenched special interests, take on the pharmaceutical lobby. He's going to take on all the corruption in Washington. He's someone who two years ago sounded the alarm about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and really tried to take on the housing crisis.

GREGORY: I don't dispute what you said. That's right, I saw it firsthand, reported firsthand on him bucking his party and bucking the president. But I also know, from studying our polling in the last couple days, our most recent polling indicates, in fact, 61 percent of Americans think that McCain would be more of Bush. Whatever that background, that belief on the part of voters still exists.

WALLACE: That's why we have to take the fight to the ground and make the case and make the point. We'll do that. You know, there's something else to look at. In the final 19 days, people really dig down and ask, what will these two men do for my life. How will it be different. Under Barack Obama, the economy will most certainly inch closer to a Depression. If small businesses, which is the only aspect of our economy still adding jobs, have to pay 50 percent of their income in taxes, if they are mandated health care-these things don't help us add jobs. These things don't help us dig out. They smother the last flames of growth and vitality and vibrance in our economy.

People are going look at the crisis that we face, at the moment we're in for our country. They're going to ask who is going to fight for me. John McCain is the only person who can point back at a proven record of bipartisanship and reform, and say this is my vision and the new direction I'll take this country. I have a record of doing it. I have always fought for the American people, and I will fight for you now in your hour of need.

GREGORY: Nicolle Wallace, I always appreciate you coming on.

WALLACE: Thanks, David.

GREGORY: All right, Nicolle. Coming next, too close to call. I'm going to get the view from the ground in Virginia from Doug Wilder, the state's first African American governor, when THE RACE returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back now on THE RACE. It's time for too close to call, a look at those tossup states that will help decide the election just 19 days from now. Both candidates have lined up for what some are calling the red state sprint in these final days. McCain works to defend traditionally Republican leaning states. Obama is going on the offense, making a play for Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, where he is going to be tomorrow. The last time Virginia voted for a Democratic president was 1964. In the '04 election, President Bush beat Senator Kerry there by nine points.

The times have changed though. A new CNN/"Time Magazine" poll shows this: Obama holding a 10-point lead over McCain, with 53 percent to 43 percent. Joining me now is the former Democratic governor of Virginia, the current mayor of Richmond, and Obama supporter, Douglas Wilder. Governor, welcome.

DOUGLAS WILDER, FMR. GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA: David, good to be with you and good to see the progress you are making on your show.

GREGORY: Thank you, thank you very much. I appreciate you being here. A lot of Democratic supporters of Obama that I talk to say right now, yes, we are feeling good about where he is, but we just are still nervous or don't believe he will win it all because of racism in this country and because people will do something different when they get in the voting box. How do you evaluate that, assess that right now?

WILDER: They talk about the Bradley effect and sometimes even the Wilder effect. I don't assess it as it has been in the past. One of the good friends of mine who has been on your show earlier today talked about certain things, Harold Ford. If you look at the polling relative to his race in Tennessee for the U.S. Senate a year or two ago, and to see how it ended up, pretty much where people said it would end up. Same thing with Ron Kirk in Dallas, who ran for the Senate in Texas. It ended up pretty much that same way.

Now, it didn't do that in my case. It didn't do that in Dave Dinkins' case, who ran for mayor at that time. Yet Dinkins won and fortunately I won. I think though that there may have been some over-sampling. There may have been a different matrix.

What I'm impressed with-forget the polls, and I don't mean discard them. But when I see people riding in cars and bumper stickers and countless numbers of them, and you look to see who is driving that car, and you see it is not an African-American. It doesn't look like when. When you look to see these signs of people in front of their homes, in front of their businesses, people are saying it's time for a change.

As much as you tried to get Nicolle to speak about that issue, the health of the mother, the health of the woman, it was not discussed by her. Senator McCain poo-pooed it almost. And yet that single issue, in my judgment, in addition to the vast majority of African-Americans that supported me, caused a number of women, suburban women, Republican women to say, I'm going to vote for that guy. John McCain's position is exactly identical to the position of man I was running against when I was elected governor.

GREGORY: Governor-

WILDER: Now, I am-sorry. Go ahead.

GREGORY: Finish your point.

WILDER: I am convinced that Virginians have been ready for a long time. Your numbers in terms of '64 are absolutely right. John Kerry didn't campaign here. Bill Clinton didn't campaign here. Al Gore didn't campaign. I remember standing in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1992, when the returns were coming in. And Hillary said, Doug, look, we're only five points back in Virginia. I said Hillary, if Bill had put the resources here, if he had campaigned here, we would have won it.

Now, look what's happening. Barack Obama has almost 50 offices here in Virginia. You pointed out, he is coming to Roanoke tomorrow. He's been everywhere. I told him go to the rural areas. Go to see people. Let them see you, feel you, touch you, hear you, know who you are. It is going to make a big difference across the country.

GREGORY: Let me ask you generally, Jesse Jackson got in some hot water with the Obama campaign in the last couple of days because of the comments he made about Zionists who controlled American policy for decades will lose a great deal of their clout when Obama enters the White House. Obama immediately distanced himself from Jackson, as he has for much of this campaign, particularly on foreign policy. What do you think, at this stage, Barack Obama represents to the traditional African-American political establishment in this country.

WILDER: I am so glad you asked this. He has done what he needs to do. His election is almost cathartic. It will be saying, free at last from having to believe that this person speaks for African Americans or that person. These people, in many instances, appoint themselves. And in many cases, people go to them and ask them for quotes. Barack Obama is not setting himself up as a spokesperson for any race or any group of people. He is saying, I am an American. I am running to be president to represent all people. I don't have those special interest appeals. I don't appeal to special interests. They do not speak for me.

Yes, he has done that. He's done it eloquently. I am so impressed with what Nicolle said, that he sounds so good, it sounds even good to her.

GREGORY: All right, Governor Wilder, I have to leave it there. I hope you'll come back, because it's a pleasure having you on.

WILDER: I will, David. I enjoy being with you and God bless. Take care.

GREGORY: Thank you, Governor Wilder. Thanks very much.

Coming next, a look at what McCain and Obama have to do in the home stretch with columnist E.J. Dionne and Michael Gerson, after this.

(WEATHER REPORT)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back now on THE RACE. We are truly in the homestretch now. At this point, what will be the most decisive factor for voters? Is it the economy, judgment, temperament, character? Here with me to weigh in are two esteemed "Washington Post" columnists, E.J. Dionne and Michael Gerson. Michael is also the author of "Heroic Conservatism, Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals and Why They Deserve to Fail if They Don't."

(CROSS TALK)

GREGORY: What is decisive? Michael, I will start with you.

MICHAEL GERSON, "THE WASHINGTON POST": What is decisive? In some ways on temperament Obama has had a good three debates. In the time of rapid fluctuations in the economy, he has seemed very even keel. That is an accomplishment. I do think that McCain, though, kind of stumbled on a pretty good issue in this last debate, which is raising taxes as we are entering a recession, which makes very little economic sense. So I think he has gotten to the point where he has an argument, a substantive argument on the economy right at the right moment.

GREGORY: But, E.J., we see in our polling voters are not as concerned about taxes and spending right now as they are about the overall economy and jobs.

E.J. DIONNE, "THE WASHINGTON POST": No, and I think that is why the temperament issue matters. I think it goes back to when this crisis first hit. I think that in that week when McCain suspended his campaign, said let's pull out of the debate, then ended up going into that debate-I think that is where the temperament problem started for him. Obama was very even keeled in that period.

McCain is in a kind of Catch 22. He needs to pull Obama down, but the polls show that voters think he attacks a lot more than Obama, and it has hurt his favorable rating. He needs to attack Obama, but when he does, it hurts him. I think you saw it in the response to the debate last night, where undecided swing voters gave the debate overwhelmingly to Obama. I think Obama talks to swing voters a lot more than McCain does in those debates.

GREGORY: Because McCain has this added responsibility of having taking down, disqualify the guy he is running against, as well as talk up himself, and thread the needle with Bush. He's got all of these various things he has to do. It is very hard right now.

GERSON: Right, particularly when you are behind for reasons that you have very little to do with, because there is a massive economic crisis that is identified with Republicans, Wall Street banking. That is not McCain's fault, but he has fallen behind. Then trying to come from behind, it is easy to look negative. There is no question. The reality is there are still a significant number of Americans, even at this point, that have questions about Obama's qualifications for the job.

I think McCain-E.J. may want him to give up at this point, but he can't. In fact, I think you are likely to see these numbers close. It's a huge uphill battle. But I think these economic attacks, I think they appeal to a certain group of people.

GREGORY: E.J., that is an important question about Obama. There still is this threshold for him. Do you think he has crossed it? We see the polling reflects that perhaps he has on the economy. Do you think that comfort level is there among undecided voters who say, yes, I can see him doing it? I may not agree all the time, but I can see him doing it.

DIONNE: First of all, 19 days is 19 days. No one should ever declare a race over until everybody votes. But I think the important thing about the three debates is that in every one of those debates, as Mike suggested, there was a feeling of comfort. He started to really look like a president, which is a very important piece to people deciding can he be a president. I think in doing that, he pushed aside some of those questions about qualifications.

Of course, when John McCain picked Sarah Palin, it made it more difficult to raise that issue generally.

GERSON: I agree with that. Barack Obama, in these debates, has had the manner of a 1940s crooner, just very-

GREGORY: Very cool.

GERSON: Really cool. Very even keel during a national crisis. In a certain way, I do believe that has helped him. I feel bad for McCain because he can't play that role. He has a harder role to play. He has to make up ground. But that's the reality.

DIONNE: Obama has also been very good at expressing optimism and hope. I mean, hope was his signature virtue. But I think that has been very important. It's been channeling Roosevelt a little bit.

GREGORY: Here is a question-you raise this in your piece today.

Is this really an extension of 2006? That was the big question about 2008. 2006 was a verdict on Iraq, was a verdict on Bush. Republicans would say it was also a verdict on spending out of control and corruption and so forth. Were you still at the White House in '06?

GERSON: I left in '06.

GREGORY: You left in '06

GERSON: And then everything went downhill.

GREGORY: Do you see the parallel?

GERSON: I see some parallel. But you have to take into account that both of these men, as far as their net favorables, were about the same as late as mid September. It was only the economic crisis that reminded people of this division between the parties that hurt the Republican brand. You know, it's unfair. It is outside of his control. Sometimes you are trying to shift the glacier when you're in politics. I think, unfortunately, that is where McCain may be right now.

DIONNE: I think the '06 metaphor really works is right now-it could change, but right now Obama is doing two things at the same time just like the Democrats did in '06. He has a really strong energized base that's going to come out to vote, but he is winning moderates and he's winning independents. So he has made huge gains in the middle. Doing those two things was the key to '06. It'll be the key to this one if he wins.

GREGORY: E.J. Dionne, Michael Gerson, thanks very much for this discussion. That does it for THE RACE for tonight. I'm David Gregory. Thanks for watching. See you back here tomorrow night, same time.

"HARDBALL" next on MSNBC.

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

END

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