updated 10/21/2008 1:28:13 PM ET 2008-10-21T17:28:13

Guest: Steven Hayes, Steve McMahon, Joan Walsh, Tom Daschle; Joan Walsh, Steve Hayes, Steve McMahon, Richard Wolffe, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Douglas

Brinkley, Robert Dallek

DAVID GREGORY, HOST: Tonight, Senator John McCain may say he is not President Bush, but ironically, he is desperately trying to hold on to the states George Bush won in 2004. Can Senator McCain find success walking that fine line while Obama runs ahead in traditionally Republican strongholds? That and more, as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on. Eighteen days to go now in the race for the White House. Welcome to the program for a Friday night. I'm David Gregory. My headline tonight, "The Campaign Trail of Fears."

The McCain/Palin camp is certainly not going down without a fight. And Senators Obama and Biden aren't pulling any punches either. Both sides continue to raise doubts about their opponents. Campaigning in Virginia today, perhaps the most crucial swing state of the election, the Illinois senator continued to link John McCain to the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't blame Senator McCain for all President Bush's mistakes. After all, he is only voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time.

(APPLAUSE)

Senator McCain still has not offered a single thing that he would do differently from George W. Bush when it come to the most important economic issues that we face today. Not one.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: For his part, Senator McCain continued to tie Barack Obama to Joe the so-called plumber. He doesn't have a license. McCain continuing to tap into fears that taxes will go up in an Obama administration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: All he had to do to say to Joe the plumber and millions of small businesspeople around this country, I won't raise your taxes. But he couldn't do that because he's going to raise their taxes.

My friends-my friends, when politicians talk about taking your money and spreading it around, you'd better hold on to your wallet.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: As both sides trade the charges, some endorsements from major newspapers for Barack Obama today-the "Los Angeles Times," "Chicago Tribune," and "The Washington Post." And even though he holds a clear lead in most of the polls and on the electoral map, Senator Obama continues to warn his supporters to remember New Hampshire, where he unexpectedly lost to Senator Hillary Clinton.

Joining me now, Richard Wolffe, "Newsweek" senior White House correspondent, also an MSNBC political analyst who covers Obama; Steven Hayes, senior writer at "The Weekly Standard"; Steve McMahon, Democratic strategist; and Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of Salon.com. Welcome to all of you. Let's go right to one of the toughest charges that's being leveled in this campaign. It comes from the McCain campaign. It's in Virginia, the so-called robo-calls. These are these calls that people get with recorded messages.

This is the one that Virginians are getting right now. Listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello. I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC, because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home and killed Americans. And Democrats will enact an extreme leftist agenda if they take control of Washington. Barack Obama and his Democratic allies lack the judgment to lead our country. This call was paid for McCain/Palin 2008 and the Republican National Committee.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GREGORY: Steve Hayes, make the pitch here. Why do they think, the McCain campaign, this is going to work?

STEPHEN HAYES, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, I think that they're trying to cast this, as you've heard in the closing statement there, they're trying to cast this as an issue of Barack Obama's judgment. They're basically saying, Barack Obama, together with his Democrat allies on Capitol Hill, don't have the judgment to lead this country in times of peril. And for an indication of that, or a demonstration of that in the past, they're calling up Bill Ayers.

GREGORY: Richard Wolffe, the reality is that the polls show us that voters saying McCain has gone negative, there doesn't appear to be a lot of resonance for the William Ayers issue in terms of an association with Barack Obama. Yet, this may be the strongest card the McCain campaign has to play if they're going to disqualify Obama.

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITCAL ANALYST: Well, if they hadn't tried it already then it would be, but they have and it's not on topic, which is the economy. That's all people want to hear about. I just doubt whether robo-calls really affect many voters. And on the Obama side, the campaign there is saying, well, look, this is a candidate, John McCain, who spoke out against robo-calls when they were used against him in the 2000 campaign. So there is some hypocrisy there. But in the end, does Ayers really represent what people want to hear? I'm not sure these robo-calls get to the core argument of the campaign.

GREGORY: Well, there is a core argument though, Joan Walsh, in the McCain campaign which is about Barack Obama. It's about judgment, but really, it's about mystery. Now, you can take issue with that and whether that is somehow below the belt. But the idea is the guy is not leveling with you whether it's tax policy, or whether it's the people he surrounds himself with, or people he's known in the past who have influenced his thinking.

JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SALON.COM: Well, yes, David, but come on. Richard's right. It's not working. Even Stephen's heart didn't sound into it when he tried to make the best of that pitch. I mean, these calls are despicable, first of all. And second of all, they're not effective. So it just seems like more desperation on the part of the McCain campaign. I don't think it's working and I don't think it's going to work.

GREGORY: Steve...

HAYES: Well, I-I'm sorry.

GREGORY: Well, Steve, let me get Steve McMahon first.

WALSH: Two Steves.

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Listen, I think they're despicable and I don't think they work. And the fact is, in a presidential campaign, even things like television have far less impact than they would in a congressional race or in a down ballot race, because people make their own judgments. And they've watched Senator Obama over a long period of time, they know he surrounds himself with people like Warren Buffett. Isn't he scary, the white guy from Omaha who actually knows something about the economy? And they're reaching the conclusion that Barack Obama would be a fine president. That's what you're seeing in the polls. And every time the McCain campaign goes down this road, they slide a little further behind.

GREGORY: Steve Hayes, final thought on this?

HAYES: Yes. I guess I'm not a fan of robo-calls generally. I just don't think they work. I think they annoy voters more often than they persuade them. But, you know, I don't think the Bill Ayers thing was illegitimate. If they wanted to construct sort of a broader narrative and attach it to other big-picture questionable decisions that Barack Obama has made, the problem is they haven't done that. And so this feels like sort of a one-off last-ditch attempt.

GREGORY: Well, that's my real question, which is, what is the payoff to the Bill Ayers attack? Is it that he consorted with a guy who-with a Weatherman-with a radical domestic terrorist group in the '60s? Or is it that Bill Ayers has somehow influenced Barack Obama's thinking?

HAYES: Well, I would have said that it was basically because Barack Obama was willing to meet with or take advice from anybody to get ahead in politics. You know, the fact that he was ambitious would have been the way I would have constructed the narrative, rather than this-there is no story attached to the Bill Ayers thing, and it's why I think it's coming off a little bit hollow.

WALSH: Right.

GREGORY: All right. Joining me now-go ahead. Who was making that last point there?

MCMAHON: No, I was just going to say I actually think that's absolutely right. The McCain campaign has lurched from thing to thing in terms of what the Bill Ayers thing means. First, it's that he is not telling us the truth. Second, it's his judgment. Third, it's maybe he's influenced by a terrorist. And it's not there no narrative associated with it. I don't think it would have worked anyway, but I think it's really not working now.

GREGORY: All right. Panel, stick around. Joining me now, Senator Tom Daschle, Obama campaign co-chair, and, of course, the former Senate majority leader. Senator, welcome.

TOM DASCHLE (D), FMR. U.S. SENATOR: Thanks, David. Good to be with you.

GREGORY: Why isn't this fair game for the McCain campaign with these robo-calls in Virginia to make an issue of this, to say this is a guy you don't completely know and you shouldn't completely trust, and whose judgment is flawed, and that's why we're bringing all of this to your attention?

DASCHLE: Well, it may be fair game. But I tell you, I think it's backfiring all over. I've had more complaints, more calls. And I think it's more of a reflection-as Barack said the other night, it's more of a reflection on the McCain campaign than it is on the Obama campaign.

They'll stoop to whatever level to do things that they think might jar voters. This isn't working. I think it's a repulsive practice, and I think it's going to have just a negative effect that your panelists just described.

GREGORY: Is there anything that Barack Obama could have done differently to have more fully explained this relationship that would have put to it rest?

DASCHLE: You know, I thought the other night he laid it out so perfectly. I don't think he can do any better than that. He was 8 years old when this happened. And you know, not only has Barack had a relationship, Republicans and Democrats of real prestige and reputation in Illinois have worked with this man. So by any context, any way you look at it, any relationship angle you want to make, Barack Obama I think has laid out very carefully, very well, very confidently that this relationship is nothing more than what you just heard.

GREGORY: Senator, this election may come down to whether voters think that John McCain is more of George W. Bush, that he will continue the policies. That's the argument that Senator Obama is making on the campaign trail. Senior adviser to McCain, former adviser to President Bush, Nicolle Wallace, was on this program last night and made the case for why there is total separation.

Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICOLLE WALLACE, SR. MCCAIN ADVISER: John McCain is someone-and you know this from covering the White House, because you stood on that front lawn, and I think you usually got to go first in the newscast-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 effort-so John McCain is not someone that Americans believe is going to extend really any aspect of the Bush administration.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Why has she got it wrong, Senator?

DASCHLE: Well, David, I think everyone knows by now why she's got it wrong. There are a couple of isolated examples, and I applaud Senator McCain for that. But when you look at the foreign policy, when you look at the fact that he's voted four out of five times for the Bush budget, when you look at tax policy, when you look at all of the major issues that are now being debated in this campaign, there is very little doubt that John McCain represents an extension of the Bush policy. He can put whatever spin on it he wants.

GREGORY: Right. But to be fair here, Senator, you were majority leader. You were majority leader. You thought so much of him as a maverick and as an independent, you tried to recruit him to come over to your side of the aisle. This is not a guy who was unafraid to buck his own party. Fair?

DASCHLE: Listen, David, there is a big difference between the John McCain of 2001, who was angry at George Bush, who really was trying to look and act and be more independent, than the one we now have. John McCain is a different person today than he was in 2001.

I would love to have the old John McCain back. It would be refreshing and it would be good for the country.

GREGORY: Final point here. And that is, as we move forward to a new administration, whoever is president faces tremendous challenges. The economy is challenge number one. Where is the evidence that Barack Obama has been willing to stand up to his own party, which may very well be all the more necessary if Democrats keep control of Congress and have a Democratic president. He's been asked the question repeatedly but has yet to cite examples where he has really taken on his party.

DASCHLE: Well, you know, David, his answer the other night was tort reform and a number of other issues. But I really think the premise is wrong. You know, the Democratic Party has argued for the last eight years that we're on the wrong track and that we need new direction, and that the things that we stand for and believe in are ones we ought to fight for and that the American people would be better off supporting. At long last now, 90 percent of the people have come to agree with Democratic leadership that we are on the wrong track.

So I don't think you have to buy the premise. The premise is wrong. Obviously, there are going to be differences. There are disagreements all the time, and he's pointed some out. But I think the bottom line is, are we on the right track or the wrong track? Democrats now believe, at long last, with Barack Obama as our next president, we'll be on the right one.

GREGORY: But standing up to your own party is not a measure of leadership in your mind?

DASCHLE: Well, I'm not arguing that he hasn't stood up for the party. That isn't my point. My point is that by and large, in those times when he has felt the need to do so, he's done it. He's done it on tort reform and he's done it on a number of issues, both in the state legislature and in Congress. But I think the larger point is, we've been on the right track and there has been less reason to disagree with leadership.

GREGORY: All right. Senator Tom Daschle, always great to have you on the program. Thanks very much.

DASCHLE: My pleasure, David. Good to be with you.

GREGORY: Coming next, strategy shift. Team McCain has a new plan to get to the magic number, those 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. I'm going to go through the map with NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd when THE RACE returns right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

Team Obama went on offense today. The candidate campaigned in a conservative stronghold of Virginia, while Senator Biden went to New Mexico and Hillary Clinton hit Ohio. Meanwhile, team McCain went back to the base. McCain stumped in south Florida, while Palin held rallies in Ohio and Indiana, as the McCain shifts what top strategist Steve Schmidt calls a narrow victory strategy. In other words, protect those red states from 2004. Joining me now, Chuck Todd, NBC News political director. Chuck, I just want to get something straight right off the bat here. I think Dodger fans out of protest over our loss to Philadelphia, we should only speak about Pennsylvania if it's absolutely necessary.

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR: And that's-it's funny you bring that up, because the McCain campaign ought to be acting like Dodger fans and ignoring the state of Pennsylvania. I've had a lot of Republican sit here and say, why are they still bothering? The numbers have not gotten better. If anything, they've gotten a little worse for the McCain campaign.

GREGORY: Well, it's interesting. Do they make a decision, do you think, in these final couple of weeks to just play defense, resource-wise?

TODD: I think they do. It's sort of a, why even bother with candidate time, sending them to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin?

I mean, this idea, oh, you've got to put Obama a little bit on defense, well, that doesn't matter. It's not as if he is going to shift resources away from Indiana to protect Pennsylvania. This is no longer the game. Now, maybe you stay in Wisconsin or New Hampshire because it's not that expensive, and if you get lucky and take one, you can mess with the map. Pennsylvania, you're so behind, it takes such care and feeding to somehow win it.

GREGORY: Right.

TODD: It's not worth it. And that's why there's just a lot of head scratching. Pour that money in Indiana, pour that money in Colorado, pour that money in Virginia, pour it in Florida. But-and spend the candidate time there. Get it out of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

GREGORY: Right. Let me talk to you about Virginia. We were talking in the last segment about these robo-calls, where the McCain campaign is trying to disqualify Obama, bring up William Ayers, bring up the specter of one party rule. What effect do you think that's going to have? And how bad is Virginia right now for McCain?

TODD: Virginia is bad for McCain. It is somewhere in the internal campaign polling that I know about, somewhere between four and seven points in Obama's favor. It's not-you know, the public polls are a little skewed, almost too big at this point. But it is a small but significant lead for Obama. This registration stuff is real.

GREGORY: Right.

TODD: The thing that the Republicans are counting on is that there is a veterans vote that could come home, and that somehow he doesn't get destroyed. But, you know, he hasn't spent any money in the Washington media market.

It was interesting, by the way, to see McCain down in Miami, and that they're spending face time down there, because they have yet to buy ad time down in Miami. That's the one-you know, they are skipping a lot of urban markets with money to try to conserve some money.

GREGORY: Right. Let's bring up the map here and talk about this idea of the narrow path victory. Karl Rove discussed it in his piece in "The Wall Street Journal" yesterday, Steve Schmidt is talking about it.

Define it.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: The narrow victory. So it starts with, what, holding the last two big states? That's Ohio and Florida. I think very difficult right now. So I'm not going to move Florida there. Ohio, it has been-there seems to be a ceiling there for Obama. Indiana, same thing.

The campaigns are seeing a ceiling on both sides, that Obama is stuck at about 47, 48. That doesn't mean he's not losing. He's actually winning in Indiana right now. But that the undecided vote is a lean Republican vote. Then you have Missouri. This is one that if you get the base fired up, you can eek out a 50-49-type victory. So what do we have left? North Carolina is one, they hope, that somehow Obama hasn't changed the electorate enough, that he comes up short a little bit. That leaves us these four: Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Florida.

These are the four that Obama probably has the biggest lead of these tossup states and where McCain would have to do some serious overcoming. He's got a problem in Nevada and Colorado because of the Hispanic vote. McCain is losing by big numbers among Hispanics. This is causing-they don't know if they can get to 50. There has been registration advantages for the Democrats in both states. I'm not sure how they get there. I think Virginia, it's still a possibility for them, because maybe they get-maybe they get the veterans vote fired up. Maybe they do a little better out West. And then, of course, there is Florida. And if you remember, Charlie Crist does have a machine there. Jeb Bush still has a machine down there. The Republican Party can overperform polls down there. That gets him to 260. But now you're seeing the problem. And I'll tell you, David, if he gets to the 260 -- and I had a McCain strategist say, hey, we're not trying to get to 270 right now. We're trying to get to 260 so we can figure out how to get to 270.

GREGORY: Right.

TODD: This Hispanic issue that they have in Nevada and Colorado is deadly, because now-let's say we got him to 260. We're sitting here and I don't feel-I don't know the path right now in either one of these states. Nevada is not looking good at all right now. You sit there and that gets him to 269. And that tells you, if they can put all these resources, maybe they can get a tie. Maybe that's as close as they can come.

GREGORY: Right. And you know, Colorado, I'm told by the Obama team that they have a higher number of registered voters who are under 30 than are over 60. So they're counting on a new influx of voters there.

TODD: It is. Now, one thing about Colorado, I can tell you how many times Democrats thought they would beat Wayne Allard twice and it didn't happen.

GREGORY: Yes. It didn't happen, right.

TODD: They've come up short. It is a state-Marilyn Musgrave, the congresswoman from that district, they think-they thought they had beaten her two or three different times. They came up short. The ground game for the Colorado Republican Party usually is another one that can overperform. But we'll see. You know, the Hispanic number is a big issue down there, and you just brought up this registration issue.

GREGORY: All right. Stay where you are, Chuck. We're going to come back right after a break.

A little bit more with Chuck Todd right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back now. Still with me, NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd. Chuck, what's the spread in this race head to head nationally? I ask it because there is a new Gallup poll that has some discrepancies about whether this is a six-plus-point spread or is it down to two? Clear this up.

TODD: Well, one thing Gallup did is they actually-I commend them for it, because this is the trick to this election, is, what is turnout going to look like? And it just is a proof that you can get a raw sample of voters, and depending on how you weighed it, can get a different result.

And what they did is they gave us three different results-registered voters, and they had that as a six-point gap; a likely voter model that mirrored the 2004, which by the way, was the greatest Republican turnout effort in the history of the party, they actually had even registration on Election Day. That had Obama plus two. And then they had expanded turnout, the likely voter model that assumes that there is going to be an influx of new voters, and that had Obama back up plus six.So what I thought what Gallup did was prove what I've been trying to tell people both internally and externally. Look at that registered voter number more than a likely voter model. A likely voter model is when a pollster creates their own recipe for polling. A registered voter is a little more pure. You know, you're just looking for registered voters, making sure your party ID is not too out of whack. And then the number you get is the number you get. And that number has been steadier if you followed it in either Gallup or our NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll.

GREGORY: All right.

Chuck Todd.

Thanks very much, Chuck.

TODD: OK, David.

GREGORY: Coming next, McCain says he's got Obama right where he wants him. We're going to go inside the war room for an in-depth look at McCain's strategy in the final days. Later on in the program, how much does temperament count in the Oval Office and with voters? We're going to bring history into play with three top presidential historians when THE RACE returns right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: McCain tries to attach Senator Obama to ACORN, that voter registration group now under federal investigation, and to Bill Ayers, the '60s radical who the GOP is labeling a domestic terrorist. The final lap as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE heats up, right after this. Back now on the program for the back half. I'm David Gregory. Welcome back to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE. While Senator John McCain may be slipping in the polls, time is slipping away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: We have 18 days to go. We're six points down. The national media has written us off. Senator Obama is measuring the drapes. My friends, as it has been in other races, we've got them just where we want them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: He used to call the national media his base, by the way. He traveled through battleground Florida today, although he is trailing in the latest statewide polls. He made a stop in Miami, where Senator McCain won a majority of the Hispanic vote during the primaries. Earlier this hour, he appeared on Florida's Space Coast at a rally in Melbourne. This weekend, he's going to head to the battlegrounds of North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio, again, all Republican states from 2004. We want to go inside McCain's war room with our all-star panel, Richard Wolffe, "Newsweek" the senior White House correspondent, also an MSNBC political analyst, Steve Hayes, senior writer at the "Weekly Standard," Steve McMahon, Democratic strategist, and Joan Walsh, editor in chief of Salon.com.

For our discussion here I've got the fab four, four conversation starters heard on the campaign trail today. I want to start off with Governor Palin today going after Obama on this issue of ACORN, the group that registered voters and is now under investigation. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. SARAH PALIN ®, VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Obama won't tell you the full truth about his tax increases, and now he's kind of fuzzing up his connections to ACORN. Now, they're under federal investigation. And John and I are calling on the Obama campaign to release communications they've had with this group, and to do so immediately.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Steve Hayes, take us through this issue about ACORN and why it matters.

STEVEN HAYES, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, ACORN is an outside group that Senator Obama has worked in the past dating back years. He has used them, or an affiliate group this year in the primaries. And I think what the McCain campaign is trying to do is say, look, there are lots of questions here. What we're hearing maybe is an emerging narrative. We heard it a little bit in the robo-call that we talked about earlier. And that is basically this: Senator Obama is not telling the truth. There is a lot you don't know about him and it is too risky to trust him. Now that, I think, isn't a bad message for the McCain campaign if they tie it to issues. And you heard Sarah Palin say he is not telling you everything you need to know about tax increases. If they start doing that, tying it to issues, that's not a bad closing message.

GREGORY: Richard?

RICHARD WOLFFE, "NEWSWEEK": Well, I think Steve is right as a message. The ACORN issue about voter registration, voter fraud, is something that speaks to the base. It fires up Republicans every time, every cycle, but it doesn't reach out to independent voters. It doesn't get them any new voters in the bloc here. On the Obama campaign, what they say is look, Senator McCain worked with ACORN too on immigration, when he was on that side of immigration debate. So the whole relationship has been telescoped.

In fact, the Obama campaign has its own independent voter registration effort, which far exceeds anything that ACORN has done.

GREGORY: Steve, I want to you pick up on something. Be a little counter intuitive here, talk strategically about the Republican side. When they're talking right now, as Richard points out, they're talking more to the base than they seem to be talking to these swing voters. Now my feeling about this is that this has been basically a base strategy that is the narrow strategy right now, which is they're playing to hold on to the red states that Bush won in 2004, he has really got to do that before he can start thinking about peeling off some of those independent voters. Is that how you see it? Or is there something else going on?

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: No, I think that's exactly right. The problem is he put himself in this position. First, when he picked Sarah Palin, he basically did two things. The first thing he did was he gave up the experience argument, which until he picked Sarah Palin had kept him in a pretty close race. Remember, experience over change got 49 percent in the Democratic primary, because that was Hillary Clinton's platform. The second thing did he was he decided, I think, to run a base campaign and to run to the right and to shore up his base. And that was not the campaign that he needed to run this year. I mean, I wouldn't be surprised-there are 18 days left. The way John McCain is retreating right now into red states, I'll expect him to be campaigning in Arizona before too long.

GREGORY: Here's McCain last night on the David Letterman show. They tried to patch things up after he had canceled on him. Listen to him from last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: It's been a tough campaign. And I'm sure the next 19 days will be even tougher.

DAVID LETTERMAN, "THE LATE SHOW": Pretty close.

MCCAIN: Think of all the material that it gives you.

LETTERMAN: What about the-

MCCAIN: There's going to be kind of a sad feeling around here when the election finally takes place.

LETTERMAN: We're going off the air, John.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Joan Walsh, is this the charm offensive part now? We're going to have Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live" on Saturday, which is going to be awesome, I'm sure. Is this the charm offensive part of this?

JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM: Yes. Also watching him at the Al Smith dinner, I thought if this McCain had run, it would be a closer race. And listening to Senator Daschle early in the show, David, if the John McCain of 2001 had run, it would be a closer race. But all this, the charm offensive, is coming too late. We've seen the nasty offensive and it is really not working. What we found, the most interesting thing I've heard in a poll was earlier this week that showed that voters now think that John McCain is the risky choice for president more than Barack Obama. That's kind of crazy, given how new Obama is, versus the McCain experience argument. He's done that to himself.

GREGORY: We're showing pictures of the Al Smith dinner. This is one of the great pleasures I've had being on the campaign trail, when I covered the Al Smith dinner, because the speeches are so funny. It is such a grand event. They use humor to speak some real truths. And this is Senator McCain last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: Even in this room full of proud Manhattan Democrats, I can't shake that feeling that some people here are pulling for me. I'm delighted to see you here tonight, Hillary.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Steve Hayes, we always say-we did this with Al Gore, we may do it with senator McCain. If we saw more of that guy on the campaign trail, he would be doing better. That's not what occurs to me. But nevertheless, for him to deliver that kind of barb was really funny and on point, and got to what a lot of people were thinking anyway.

HAYES: I think that's right. It was a good event for him. I don't know how much people are going to see it and how much it will actually affect votes. But I think he delivers those kinds of speeches pretty well. The other thing about John McCain is he is a genuinely funny guy. If you sit around with him, and we did more obviously during the primaries, and ride in the bus or when it was September of 2007, and I was the only guy in the Ford Econoline straight talk van, you know, we would go back and forth, and he would call me a jerk. He is actually a very funny and a very personable guy. I can't second guess the campaign for wrapping him up and putting him on message. I think it would have been a disaster if he was out journalists all day every day. But you do you miss some of this. There is a tradeoff, I think.

GREGORY: He actually introduced me as a communist at an event at a VFW hall in South Carolina.

WALSH: Charming.

GREGORY: So here is-again, talking about Sarah Palin, one of the fab four here, the last sound bite from Jim Webb in Virginia today, talking about Palin. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JIM WEBB (D), VIRGINIA: Do you really think that Sarah Palin is the most qualified person in the Republican party? There is a song about two years ago, it was called, "I Know What I Was Doing, But What Was I Thinking?" I think John McCain is probably singing that song right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Richard, to what extent is the Obama campaign counting on that sentiment? Essentially that independent voters and even some Republicans have turned away from McCain because of his selection of Palin.

WOLFFE: Well, number one, they don't talk about Sarah Palin. In fact, Barack Obama doesn't just not mention her. He doesn't reference country songs either. He did actually sing to Aretha Franklin's "Change" once, which was really hideous. But what they're really doing is working it much more on the ground, through surrogates. Obviously, Joe Biden is taking swipes. Where they think they're seeing a difference is with Jewish voters in Florida. They're also seeing it with Hillary Clinton supporters. So people who the McCain campaign maybe thought would be won over by Sarah Palin, they're now seeing them come back into the fold. Their support rates among Democrats are really much higher than anyone thought a month ago.

GREGORY: Steve, I want to get a quick question to you. On Sunday, Tom Brokaw on "Meet the Press" has an exclusive interview with former Secretary of State, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell. He is at least expected-we don't know for sure, but he is expected to endorse Senator Obama. If that happens, how important will that be?

MCMAHON: Which Steve? Steve McMahon.

GREGORY: I'm sorry, I did that again. Steve McMahon, sorry.

MCMAHON: It's OK. It's OK. I actually think it will be very important. To the degree that the McCain campaign is trying to make the case, which I don't think is very effective, and I think the polling shows it, that you need to be worried about Barack Obama because of the people he surrounds himself with. Look, he has Warren Buffett on the one hand, who knows something about the economy. If he does, in fact, get Colin Powell, I think that will be a pretty reassuring thing for most people. And I think it's going to be quite a newsworthy event for somebody who participated in the Bush administration at the level he did and who has known John McCain for as long as he has, to say Barack Obama is the right person for America's future. I think it will be pretty powerful if it happens.

GREGORY: Quickly, Steve Hayes, does it have a real blow against McCain?

HAYES: Yes, I think it would. It would certainly shore up Senator Obama's foreign policy, national security credentials. And they would owe the Powell folks would owe a big apology to my editor, Bill Kristol, who suggested a month this was coming. There were denials all over the place. We haven't made that decision. I'll be watching closely on "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

GREGORY: I think a lot of people will be watching closely. All right, panel, thank you very much. Coming up next, looking at McCain and Obama's temperaments and how their personalities might shape the way they face the challenges of the Oval Office. Three presidential historians join me when THE RACE returns right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: This campaign needed the common touch of a working man. After all, it began so long ago with a heralded arrival of a man known To Oprah Winfrey as the one. Being a friend and colleague of Barack, I just called him that one.

OBAMA: Contrary to the rumors that you heard, I was not born in a manger. To name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility. My greatest weakness, it is possible that I'm a little too awesome.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Some funny moments from that Al Smith dinner last night in New York. Senators McCain and Obama getting a laugh last night. It was a benefit that has been a presidential campaign trail stop for decades. That country has elected a wide variety of personalities over the years. What is it about a candidate's temperament that is most important to voters? Joining me now are three presidential historians with a very interesting and unique perspective, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is also an MSNBC analyst, Douglass Brinkley, who also a professor at Rice University, and Robert Dallek, also the author of the newly published "Harry S. Truman, the American President Series, the 33rd President." Welcome all.

(CROSS TALK)

GREGORY: Doris, let me start with you. You've thought a lot about this. We talk about history coming alive here, using history as a way to guide us in our assessment of these candidates today. What is the leadership lesson of some of our greatest presidents that we can then apply to this choice?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I think temperament actually is the key to answer your original question. We spend so much time on five-point programs, three-point programs, who has a clever reply to an ad, who makes a funny remark in a debate. What matters are the strengths and weaknesses they're going to bring into that Oval Office. And history tell us a lot about that. The ability to withstand adversity and somehow motivate yourself in the face of trials by fire, as FDR did with his polio; the willingness to surround yourself with people who can question and can argue with you and who you feel strong enough to allow them to do that; the emotional strength somehow to control your anger, your panic, your fear. All of those emotions are going to come to the fore. Lincoln was brilliant at being able to do that, to be able to somehow know that if you let resentment poison you, it will just fester inside of you. The ability to inspire your countrymen to actions, the ability to communicate with them, to acknowledge errors and learn from your mistakes. We know these about the presidents. We know it about FDR. If only we would look at these strengths and weaknesses of our candidates and spend less time on the polls in the two years we do it, we would have a better chance of who is going to be giving us what we hope in the White House.

GREGORY: Douglas, I'll extend that question to you as well. As you look at figures in history, great presidents, what are the leadership lessons of their time in office that can be applied to our own assessment in comparing and contrasting it with these candidates?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, that I think one way to look at it is take a nautical approach. There are some president that are submariners, that go from A to B, that want to jam everything down your throat. They have an agenda and a couple things they want to do. I think John McCain fits that, and it is a model of presidents, the submariners, people hike Ronald Reagan or Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and George W. Bush. Then there are the sailors, the politicians that learn to tack. They tend to be more diplomatic. I think you see Obama being more in that school, which is really John F. Kennedy, and FDR, Bill Clinton. So I do think their personalities are very different, in the fact that one of them, McCain, is out of this direct approach victory in Iraq. And Obama is trying to find nuances on things. But the problem for McCain is people are sick of eight years of Bush's straightforward, no grayness.

GREGORY: "Time Magazine" does this on the cover this week with a very interesting piece by Nancy Gibbs. She talks about McCain temperament and Obama's through talking to people and making her own assessments. This is what she writes about Senator McCain: "the sense that you're never sure which McCain you'll get feeds Obama's case that being an unpredictable maverick may not be the model you want in times that call for methodical decision making. But McCain's defenders cite another soldier termed politician who was legendary for his temper, George Washington. Those who rise in the military, notes Virginia Senator John Warner, are people of strong will, of brevity, giving orders and commands. I just hope the people that occupy the presidency are people of strong will."

Robert?

ROBERT DALLEK, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I think that's all for the good and very true. I think what people want, especially in time of crisis, of uncertainty, as we are passing through now-what they very much want is a sense that they connect to the president. After Franklin Roosevelt died, somebody stopped Mrs. Roosevelt on the street and said, I missed the way your husband used to me about my government. And who could imagine someone spaying that about any politician nowadays? But it is such a vital and important aspect, I think. Leadership in this country, inspiring confidence, creating the feeling that you're on the public side, that you're looking out for them. Theodore Roosevelt, the Square Deal; FDR, the New Deal. John Kennedy had that, too. So I think the greatest, most effective presidents have been men who could not just lead but connect to the public.

(CROSS TALK)

GOODWIN: I was just going to say, David, the perfect example of FDR's ability to connect was that somebody wrote him a letter during the Depression saying, my dog died, my wife is mad at me, I've lost my job, everybody in my family thinks I'm a terrible guy; but now you're in the White House. Everything is going to be OK. I mean, that emotional connection is amazing. Similarly, what we were talking about before, that sense of humor; it matters to be able to look at yourself and laugh at yourself. Somebody said to Lincoln, you're two-faced. His immediate answer was, if I had two faces, do you think I would be wearing this face? People can connect when somebody talks like that.

(CROSS TALK)

GREGORY: Let me just-let me take a quick break. We'll come back with more of this discussion about presidential temperament and the extent to which it a real determinant for voters about how they'll vote, when we come back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back now. I'm joined by historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, Douglas Brinkley and Robert Dallek. I want to show you a snippet from David Brooks' column today, where he is talking about Senator Obama and his temperament. This is what David writes: "other candidates are propelled by what some psychologists call self-efficacy, the placid assumption that they can handle whatever the future throws at them. Candidates in this mold, most heroically FDR and Ronald Reagan, are driven upwards by a desire to realize some capacity in their nature. They rise with an unshakable serenity that is inexplicable to their critics and infuriating to their foes."Doris, it goes to the issue of how does a candidate handle adversity.

We look to our past presidents.

GOODWIN: And I think that is where when you look at FDR coming through polio, which changed his entire life, made him a paraplegic at the age of 39, and somehow he emerged stronger, more focused, more able to deal with other people for whom fate had dealt an unkind hand. I think when people look to McCain it is probably the sterling quality that he brings into this election. For anybody to get through that prisoner of war experience, as he did, and still remain upbeat, still wanted to go into public life and do what he did. I think that's one of those things. I think on Obama's side, there does seem to be this extraordinary inner serenity that FDR also had. When things went wrong, he somehow believed they'll somehow go OK. We've seen it in the steadiness of his campaign from beginning to end. No internal drama that has spilled out. We saw it in the vetting of the vice presidential, steady. I think that's what people are feeling about him right now.

GREGORY: It's so interesting, Douglas, because McCain's ability to handle adversity is well known because of his searing personal experience. Yet, voters are going to judge how these two have handled the adversity in the campaign, attacks against one another, the ups and the downs, and this huge external event, which is the economic crisis.

BRINKLEY: That's right. First off, we don't want to make presidents into saints. All of them are killers. They're people that have a lot of narcissism. They believe that they want to be-they want to be the most powerful person in the world. Then it gets down, I think, to judgment. That's what people are looking at. What is the judgment? How are they operating? Obama's rope a dope strategy versus McCain's kind of feisty, forging forward. People will make that judgment. Great presidents, there is not a rule of thumb. I think, in the end, it is people that have good judgment in a crisis situation. McCain has showed that quality and Obama has.

GREGORY: Robert, what about this idea of emotional intelligence, an aspect of leadership that's important not only in getting your immediate team to help you lead in the right way, but also dealing with adversaries or even those in the same party on Capitol Hill?

DALLEK: Yes. No question about it, David. You have to have a kind of detachment, an ability to rise above those moments of tension and acrimony. Franklin Roosevelt had it. John Kennedy had it, too. He can make fun of himself. At one time, he was making fun of Bobby Kennedy and Bobby complained to him and said, Jack, I didn't like that. Why did you make fun of me? Kennedy said, Bobby, if you want to succeed in politics, you have to understand, you have to have a sense of humor. You have to have some detachment and be able to make fun of yourself. Well, it is such a difficult job. It is so demanding. The tensions, the pressures on you are so great. How can you manage to do it unless you have some detachment and can see that you don't walk on water and you've got limitations. You don't want to reveal them so clearly to the public. You want to present a confident face. Nevertheless, you want to understand in your heart of hearts that there are limits to what you can do.

GREGORY: Doris, if we look at the approval rating for President Bush and how low it is on the approval side, as he is going to leave office, the latest "USA Today"/Gallup Poll-there it is, just 25 percent approval. This is going to be a big job for a future president. There is a precedent there, too, isn't there, in history?

GOODWIN: There's no question. The bigger the crisis, the more opportunity there is for a great president to emerge. Lincoln worried when he was a young man that there would be no great crisis when he was in his '30s. Little did he know that Civil War would come. It gave him his opportunity, as the Depression gave it to FDR, as the '60s Civil Rights movement gave it to Kennedy and Johnson. I think that's what the next president will be able to make use of, hopefully for all of us.

GREGORY: Thanks to all of you. A very interesting discussion. I hope we can continue it here before election day. Thanks very much. That will do it for RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE for this evening. One quick programming note. Remember, before we go, be sure to turn into NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday morning for Tom Brokaw's exclusive interview with Colin Powell. I'm David Gregory. Have a peaceful Friday night. See you back here on Monday.

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

END

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