updated 10/31/2008 12:54:09 PM ET 2008-10-31T16:54:09

RACE FOR THE WHITEHOUSE

October 30, 2008

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

Guests: Pat Buchanan, Michelle Bernard, Joe Lockhart, Scott McClellan, Peter Hart, Neil Newhouse, Richard Wolffe, Lawrence O'Donnell; Harold Ford Jr.

DAVID GREGORY, HOST: Tonight, fast break. Where will the undecideds go in this race, and is it a big enough group to make a difference for Senator McCain, whose campaign insists the race is tightening?

Also, is the Obama team looking to break McCain's back in Florida? Did you notice that's where he staged his first campaign appearance with former President Clinton and where Vice President Gore will campaign for him next?

The ground game, the closing arguments, and the numbers that count, it's all ahead, as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

Just five days to go in the race for the White House.

Welcome to the program tonight. I'm David Gregory.

My headline, "Defiant in Defiance."

He's down in the polls, and following a night in which his opponent ruled the airwaves with a campaign commercial that drew more than 30 million viewers, Senator McCain headed to the aptly-named town of Defiance, Ohio, today, once again accusing his opponent of being presumptuous and vowing a fight to the finish.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He gave his first address to the nation before the election. Never mind. We're a few points down, but we're coming back.

(APPLAUSE)

Last night, Senator Obama said that if he lost, he would return to the Senate and try again in four years with a second act. That sounds like a great idea to me. Let's help him make it happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis echoed the optimistic tone, arguing that they've still got "plenty of time" to close the gap. As it appears, the McCain campaign believes the recent emphasis on the economy is gaining him back some much needed ground.

With the news that the gross domestic product, the broadest measure of our economy, is shrinking, as worried consumers rein in their spending, McCain stayed on message, even bringing in "Joe the Plumber" along to a stop in Sandusky.

Meanwhile, after rallying with Bill Clinton and airing an extraordinary 30-minute infomercial in which he didn't utter his rival's name even once, Senator Obama spent the day in Florida slamming McCain's tax policy while in Sarasota.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No matter what Senator McCain may claim, here are the facts. If you make under $250,000, you will not see your taxes increase by a single dime. Not your income tax. Not your payroll tax. Not your capital gains tax. No tax.

So don't be confused by these ads.

Ninety-eight percent of small businesses make less $250,000 a year.

And 99.9 percent of plumbers make less than $250,000 a year.

(APPLAUSE)

By the way, the reason that we want to do this, change our tax code, is not because I have anything against the rich. I love rich people. I want all of you to be rich.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: At this hour we are on the campaign trail monitoring everything that is happening. Senator Obama is in battleground Virginia and he moves on to the hotly contested Show Me State of Missouri tonight, while Senator McCain remains in the Buckeye State, in Ohio, holding a rally in Mentor, Ohio.

Joining me now, we're going to get to the panel: Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women's Forum; Pat Buchanan, former presidential candidate; Richard Wolffe, "Newsweek" senior White House correspondent; and Lawrence O'Donnell, former chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee; all four MSNBC political analysts.

Welcome all of you.

We are going show you in just a minute some sound from the campaign trail today.

But Pat, I want to start with you here.

As we listen to Senator McCain on the campaign trail today, it reminds me of the fact that in these final weeks, the narrative of the campaign has not changed, and yet the attack lines from Senator McCain have. Even in these final days, he's got several different messages instead of one driving theme.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: To me?

GREGORY: Yes. Pat, you start.

BUCHANAN: OK.

I think that's very true, except this-I do see John McCain now as making ground slowly. And I think, David, the reason he is, is the "Joe the Plumber," redistribute the wealth, soak the rich, all of those things I think are taking a minor toll on Barack Obama, which is why you saw him explaining his tax cut proposals today. I thought that was defensive in Florida.

That's the good news for McCain in the slow growth in his numbers. The bad news is all the states you mentioned-I think it was Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Missouri-where the battle is going on, these are red states. They should be in the bank.

GREGORY: All right.

Let's-pick up on that point, Lawrence O'Donnell. Is Obama on his heels here? Is he watching McCain gain some ground with "Joe the Plumber" and the tax argument?

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think "Joe the Plumber" actually confuses the tax argument a little bit. I always thought McCain was going to run a straight-ahead, hard-hitting, anti-tax campaign in which he was very clear about it. And it's frankly surprised me that the Republicans have not managed that section of the campaign well. By the time we got to the end of the debates in the internals of the polls, it showed that Obama was ahead of McCain on the tax issue.

GREGORY: Yes.

O'DONNELL: Now, if McCain can just drive Obama down to a tie on the tax issue, which is about all the time he has left for, that is a huge win for Obama. The Democrat who is interested in raising some taxes should always in our politics be losing the tax argument. This is the first time we've seen the Democrat succeed in any way with the tax argument.

GREGORY: All right.

Let's talk about this infomercials last night, Richard Wolffe. It was something that was popular, a lot of people watched it, certainly. It was a sign of how financially stable, to say the least, Barack Obama is.

But Sarah Palin on the campaign trail today went after it and picked up another attack line here to use against Obama. Let's watch that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R-AK), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Instead, he wrapped his closing message in a warm and fuzzy scripted infomercial intended to soften the focus in these closing days. He's hoping that your mind won't wander to the real challenges of national security, challenges that he isn't capable of meeting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: But see, this is the challenge for McCain/Palin, Richard, which is the election is not a multiple choice test here. You have to ask voters, especially undecided voters, to vote on a compelling vision or a compelling contrast. We saw that in 2004.

She is talking about a warm and fuzzy message instead of focusing on national security, and yet Senator McCain is out there talking about the tax argument. Is that a confused message down the stretch?

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITCAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, I think she is a confusing messenger in the sense that the celebrity argument, the whole idea that this was a packaged candidate, that Obama was a packaged candidate, was undercut by Palin's arrival on the stage. So, as another performer who is getting actually more magazine covers than Obama, she was not the best person to deliver this kind of argument.

And from the Obama campaign's perspective, there is this sort of multipronged confusing attack coming from the McCain side. A number of different negative lines, some of them effective and some of them not. But no positive image and vision to close in on.

So, the Obama folks say, well, look, we have a closing argument. You may not agree with it, but we have one.

What's the closing argument from the other side? What they are seeing, from their perspective, is a number of different repeated attacks, not the same kind of sales pitch to voters they're pushing out.

GREGORY: All right.

But again, let's talk about where McCain is getting some traction here.

Michelle and Pat, let's have a look at this.

We got some new polling out of Pennsylvania tonight that is good news for Senator McCain, the McCain campaign. It shows, Mason/Dixon, Pennsylvania, Obama is still ahead, but the numbers there, 47-43 percent.

And Michelle, look at that, 9 percent undecided. We're going to talk to our very fine pollsters at NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" coming up a little bit later on in the program to talk about who the undecideds are.

But look at that number there. McCain has got to like what he's seeing in that state.

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: He's absolutely got to like what he's seeing in that state because if we look at what people have called the Wilder Effect before-you know, conventional wisdom tells us that undecideds are probably going to break for McCain on Election Day.

That being said, the numbers are very, very close. McCain has got to stay in Pennsylvania, put all of the resources that he does have in that state, because if he loses Pennsylvania, if he loses Ohio, I think the game is over for him.

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY: Right. He's got to-Pat, but here is the question, Pat. If he's under 50 percent, if Obama is under 50 percent, the McCain argument is look, we've got a shot here because if there is a big enough undecided number we can overwhelm him.

BUCHANAN: I think that's right. That seems to me a persuasive argument. Of course, it may be the only one he's got.

But 47 percent for Obama after he shot everything out of the cannon, and he's still at 47 and he hasn't closed the sale and gone over 50 percent, what are those people waiting for? They've seen everything Obama's got. So I would be mildly, mildly hopeful looking at those numbers if I were in the McCain camp that he could pull out Pennsylvania. And if he does, he may be back in the ballgame.

GREGORY: Lawrence, let me talk about Bill Clinton with you here quickly before I lose time in the segment.

He rallied last night 11:00 for the late local news in Florida with Senator Obama. Here was a bit of that rally last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is not a close question. If you make the decision based on who can best get us out of the ditch, who's got the best philosophy, the best positions, the best ability, and the best judgment, I think it's clear. The next president of the United States should be, and with your help will be, Senator Barack Obama.

OBAMA: In case all of you forgot, this is what it's like to have a great president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Lawrence, I see something like that, I see when they are placing it, 11:00 at night. It is a reminder that all the messaging, all of the chatter by all of us in the final days, doesn't matter as much as whatever the campaigns have put in place on the ground in terms of volunteers, in terms of their effort to actually get people out to vote.

O'DONNELL: Yes. And Obama has a massive advantage on that side. And Obama has a massive advantage in the new voter registration.

He has got a big advantage in the early voting that's going on. Pretty much every photograph that you see of these early voting polling places are clearly Obama voters that are eager to get there. He is the candidate who has excited his side. And so...

GREGORY: Right. And Bill Clinton is part of that.

O'DONNELL: Absolutely. President Clinton I think last night helped confer an aura of winner on Obama. It was a winner standing beside another winner. And it was a good timing for that kind of thing.

I think Clinton could be overdone because there are places in the country where he remains extremely unpopular. Florida is not one of them. That was a good use of Bill Clinton.

GREGORY: All right. Got to get a break in here.

Coming next, is race a factor for voters who are still undecided in this election? We were just talking about Pennsylvania. We're going to go inside the war room and look at how Obama is viewing all of this when THE RACE returns right after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

Last night Senator Obama's 30-minute primetime campaign infomercial drew an audience of over 30 million viewers. So what we don't know is how many of those viewers were still undecided voters and whether he managed to seal the deal with any of them as they watched.

Joining me now to go inside Obama's war room is Harold Ford, Jr., chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and an NBC News analyst.

Harold, good to see you.

HAROLD FORD, JR., NBC NEWS ANALYST: Good evening. Thanks for having me.

GREGORY: Let's talk about the undecided voters. You just heard us in the last segment talking about 9 percent, according to our latest Mason/Dixon poll in Pennsylvania, claiming that they are undecided. David Plouffe, campaign manager for Barack Obama, was on MSNBC earlier in the day and said this about the undecided voters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID PLOUFFE, OBAMA CAMPAIGN MANGER: We think that the undecided voters that are still out there are not going to be an issue. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out who these people are. We're pretty confident we know that they are genuinely undecided, what will likely help make their decision in the closing days. A lot of them are focused on the economy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: But Harold, here is where I'm skeptical about that analysis. They may be skeptical about the economy, they may be worried about the economy, but aren't they really more skeptical about Barack Obama after all this saturation coverage they remain undecided?

FORD: Well, maybe they haven't been watching all the coverage. That could be one option.

GREGORY: Yes.

FORD: I think-I take David's argument one step further and say this-it's obvious they're not comfortable with the direction the country is headed, so they're still looking at both of these candidates. I think the more Senator Obama continues to press the case about the differences between his approach to leadership, his approach to the economy, his approach to energy and health care and the other issues, versus George Bush and John McCain, the easier it will be for him to pull some of the undecideds to him.

If you're John McCain, you're probably encouraged, but I would agree with what Pat said, it's probably his only argument. But the final analysis here might be what has been said by some pundits earlier and throughout the course of the week.

The early voting numbers are so overwhelming in many of these states. We have not seen in Florida and Ohio the kind of numbers that we're seeing up to this point. So it may be that Barack is gaining a vote that this polling is not necessarily capturing.

But since we focus on polling, you have to wonder what he must continue to do. If I were Senator Obama, advising the campaign tonight, I would continue to make the big argument that they're going to unite the country, but remind the undecideds in the country why they want change.

The last six, seven, eight years have been difficult for most Americans. They have to continue to make that case to bring those undecideds to Obama's corner.

GREGORY: Presumably, they have some understanding of what's motivating these undecideds. David talked about the economy being one, but they are presumably able to detect, discern what reservations they may have about Obama personally.

FORD: I hear you. And they may know more data than you or I do.

But if 80 percent of the country thinks we are on the wrong track, and it's because of the economy and the war, you have to be willing to place your stock in that-or I should say place a bet on that front. And if I'm Senator Obama, I continue to remind Americans-what he did last night in that infomercial was reinforce his best characteristics, the best impressions of him as a person.

GREGORY: Right.

FORD: From an issue standpoint, remind people where we've been and where you want to take us. I think that's what will win the 8, 9 percent that may be in Pennsylvania, the 5, 6, 7 percent that may be out there nationally.

GREGORY: Senator Obama is still getting out there doing media interviews. He sat down with our own Brian Williams and talked about the difficult road ahead should he be elected given this climate. Let's watch that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Has the job of president-elect, whether it's you or John McCain, changed right now this year because of what we are going through?

OBAMA: Yes. It's going to be a lot tougher. I don't think there is any doubt about that.

We know that the next president is likely to inherit a significant recession. We don't know yet how long and how deep it is. And what actions we take over the next six to nine months could help determine how deep and how long it is. But there is no doubt that we are going to have to spend a lot of time, whoever the next president is, focused on making sure that the financial rescue plan actually works the way that it's supposed to, that it shores up our housing market, that taxpayers are protected and getting their money back, that it's not being used to enrich corporate CEOs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Harold, here is what Senator Obama is not talking about in these final days but some of his surrogates are, even if by mistake. That the notion of rolling back the Bush tax cuts, which Senator Obama says will help him pay for some of the necessary expenditures that help the economy rebound, rolling back those tax cuts cannot be a top priority if he gets into office because in this economic climate, it simply may be too risky to do that.

FORD: It reinforces for me that Barack is not an ideologue to hear him in the Brian Williams interview. To acknowledge, number one, we have a significant economic-a significant number of economic challenges that have emerged in the last six months, six to 12 months, that are now affecting Main Street unlike they were before.

Number two, I think he understands that some of the prescriptions that he may have laid out a year ago may not be applicable, may not be as effective as he thought they may have been a year ago.

GREGORY: Right. The Bush tax cut, is that an example?

FORD: Well, I think he has to look at all of them. I'm not here to set policy for him this evening, but I think he's going to have to look at all of that. And for him to acknowledge that with Brian I think is a positive step, and I think it smacks in the face of anyone who believes that Barack Obama is going to come in with a set of ideas and is going to ram them through regardless of the conditions.

Two, on foreign policy, David, before you break, remember, the Bush administration over the last year has come closer to where Barack is on foreign policy. On Iran, there are midlevel negotiations under way or talks under way now with the Iranians. The North Koreans, there have been talks with them.

The criticism Barack took in the Democratic primary, and even from Sarah Palin and John McCain about foreign policy, the Bush administration is doing more and more of it. The Bush administration is even talking about shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

GREGORY: Right.

FORD: So, in many ways, Barack's mention on foreign policy has been adopted here very quietly in a subdued way by the Bush administration. And frankly, on the economy, I'm encouraged to hear Senator Obama say those things. I hope he doesn't raise some of the taxes he's talked about over the last six to 12 months, because the condition the country finds itself in now is very different than it was a year ago.

The fact that he knows that, acknowledges that, and has the type of advisory team made up of Rubin and Summers and many others in the Democratic Party who have been forerunners in creating growth and prosperity, is a positive thing for him and a positive thing for the country.

GREGORY: All right, Harold. Stick around. We'll come back in just a moment.

When we come back, tomorrow is Halloween, and Al Gore is going to face some ghosts in Florida. He's going to return to the state that cost him the 2000 election to campaign for Senator Obama.

It's on our radar tonight. We'll share it with you when we come back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: We're back with a look at what's on THE RACE's radar tonight.

Tomorrow, Al Gore will return to Florida for his first presidential campaign event in the state since 2000. He and Tipper Gore will stump for Obama in south Florida. Gore's appearance tomorrow completes an Obama hat trick of heavy hitters following last night's appearance with Bill Clinton in Kissimmee, Florida, and last week's appearance in Orlando with Hillary Clinton.

Let me bring back NBC News analyst Harold Ford, Jr.

Harold, talk to me about Florida because-did I not say that right?

You'll correct me, right, if I got it wrong?

FORD: I think a lot of people probably enjoyed hearing you say it, man.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY: Thanks very much. Thanks for that.

FORD: Especially your wife.

GREGORY: I'm out there on a limb.

Talk about Florida, because there really is a movement within the Obama campaign now to break the back of the McCain campaign and put so much firepower into Florida. We've seen that the last few days.

FORD: For the country to see Al Gore here in the last few days campaigning with Obama, it reminds Floridians what the last eight years could have been like, and it also reinforces for them why it's important for them to go to the polls. Al Gore not only has taken the last eight years-I should say George Bush has reminded us of what Al Gore's eight years could have been like.

But Al Gore himself winning the Nobel Prize, his continued heroic work on behalf of climate change and technological advancements and trying to ensure that all neighborhoods have broadband, they could not end the campaign on a stronger note in Florida, with all due respect to President Clinton, than having Vice President gore campaign with him. Kudos to that campaign for arranging that order with Hillary, Bill Clinton-President Clinton-and then with Vice President Gore.

GREGORY: All right. Harold Ford, Jr.

Harold, thanks very much.

FORD: Thanks.

GREGORY: Got to take another break here.

Coming next, what should McCain's final message to voters be? And is there still an opening for McCain with those undecided voters? His campaign say Hillary Clinton may hold the ticket to all of this.

Former press secretaries Scott McClellan and Joe Lockhart, as well as former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, join me in our next half-hour.

Plus, what Obama told Rachel Maddow about Republicans. We're going to share part of her interview when THE RACE returns.

You can see it all, of course, later on MSNBC.

THE RACE comes back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: The fight for undecided voters. McCain's campaign acknowledges it has a narrow path to victory and that fact hinges on getting those undecideds to break his way. Who are they? What do they want?

Plus, message wars - five days out. What are the closing arguments of the campaign? Has McCain laid out a clear case for why he and not Obama is the right man to take on the challenges that the country is facing?

All of that as "THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE" continues.

Back now on "RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE." I'm David Gregory. Time now for the back half.

We are just five days away from the election. Senator Obama is running ahead in the polls but cautioned supporters against becoming overconfident while Senator McCain remains optimistic arguing that he is staging a comeback.

His campaign manager, Rick Davis, said this morning that they have still got "plenty of time to close the gap." How should each of the candidates be shaping their closing arguments in these final precious days?

Joining me now are some of the best in the messaging business: Joe Lockhart who served as White House Press Secretary under President Clinton. Scott McClellan, President Bush's former White House Press Secretary, he announced last week that he is endorsing Senator Obama; and still with us, Pat Buchanan, former Reagan White House communications director, Nixon's speechwriter and presidential candidate himself who's endorsed Hillary Clinton. Now, that was a long time ago, not quite. Ok, Pat Buchanan.

Scott and Joe let me start with you. Joe, what I didn't mention of course, is that you were special advisor to John Kerry as well four years ago. For both of you, the veterans of the '04 campaign, tell me how this final week compares to that final week? What is different? How does it feel?

Joe, I'll start with you.

JOE LOCKHART, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: First, people have been interested and much more intensely interested for a long time. The Kerry/Bush campaign only heated up at the end as far as the public was concerned. This has actually captured the public's attention. You've got 50 million people watching the debates.

It has, though, a little bit of the same feel. John Kerry had one route of getting to the White House. He had to win Ohio. We knew that. Everyone knew that. Bush had multiple options.

It's a little expanded now. Obama has got about 15 ways that he can put together 270. McCain has to run a very improbable table but, you know, it is not impossible.

Scott, how does it feel-one of the big differences is what the big external event was and is now. Now, we are talking about the economy. In '04 we were still talking about who is tougher on the war on terror?

SCOTT MCLELLAN, FORMER BUSH WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Right. And remember, just before the election, the bin Laden tape came out to kind of shake things up a little bit there at the end.

But now it's very much a little bit different in the sense that Obama has expanded the playing field. Kerry had to play on a limited playing field with his resources where as the president back in 2004 could claim more states.

The environment was much more favorable to us in terms of the economic climate although we did have the situation in Iraq that was continuing to drag on. It was a very different election in that sense.

GREGORY: Pat, we've talked about this for months now; the framing in this election. Every time I watch Obama, I recognize first of all, he has got an easier job because he is the beneficiary of this climate. So he can simply say, look what is going on, would you like to do something different? That is the argument.

If you are McCain you are trying to make an argument about a contrast that Obama is not somebody you can trust but he has done it in fits and starts here.

PAT BUCHANAN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He has but he is back to what we argued from the beginning. But this race is Obama's to lose. The country wants change. Obama represents change.

What McCain is doing in these last five days is saying he is unacceptable change. He is now focusing on the socialist argument, share the wealth, redistribute the income. He is dangerous in all these regards. I think that is his best case. But you are right, he is not making the case at here is why John McCain is the ideal next president of the United States. It's why we don't want Obama.

GREGORY: Joe.

LOCKHART: Listen, it has been confusing what his message has been because he's been all over the place. He spent a week talking about a guy who was prominent in the '60s in the Weatherman. They spent a week calling him a socialist. He hasn't made the case.

Going back to the first one, by the way, on the environment. In 2004 we watched the numbers go up and we got to about 53 percent, wrong track, right track, John Kerry wins. On Election Day it was at about 50, 51.

GREGORY: Right.

LOCKHART: It is at 90 percent right now, as I understand. But the problem is John McCain is as close to an incumbent as he can be without being an incumbent. He stood with George Bush, he needed it in the primaries.

The public is looking and they are associating and that is a much more powerful connection to whether Barack Obama is ready or not. It is a much more powerful connection that he is tied to Bush.

MCCLELLAN: I think he really missed an opportunity. He grabbed it at the convention when he started making this bigger than just Obama. This election all along has been about Barack Obama, whether or not he is ready to be president and you can trust him.

At the convention John McCain focused on Washington. He needed to make it bigger than Barack Obama. And here at the end now he is back to he is not ready to lead and too liberal for America. But Obama has overcome both those obstacles.

BUCHANAN: Look at Joe's point. 80 percent to 90 percent says we are on the wrong track and McCain is close to Obama, why? Because even though people think we're on the wrong track, they're concerned that Obama is not going to be the guy to take us to the right track. It is the only case McCain has. If Obama answers that in the positive for himself it is over.

GREGORY: I want to play this out. This is for all of us here. The Obama closing ad, it is called rear view. Let's play it and we'll talk about it on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wonder where John McCain would take the economy? Look behind you. John McCain wants to continue George Bush's economic policies. As president he would provide no tax breaks to 101 million Americans but keep tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas. He wants $4 billion in new tax breaks for big oil. And would tax your health care benefits for the first time ever.

Look behind you. We can't afford more of the same.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: Scott, is it incredible to you as a veteran of the Bush White House from the very beginning that this election in many ways is a rejection of George Bush? I mean, that's how Obama has framed it.

MCCLELLAN: Oh, absolutely. It is not the way any of us expected things to turn out.

GREGORY: But these guys just have never liked each other. McCain and Bush never liked each other.

MCCLELLAN: That's true; there has always been that tension there. I think they have gotten along better in the last few years.

GREGORY: They have. But nobody who is a veteran of the Bush White House could really say that you could believe that McCain and Bush were tied together.

MCCLELLAN: No. But Barack Obama has made the case and on the big policy they are tied together. Then just this weekend, John McCain went out and reiterated we share a common philosophy. That wasn't helpful here at the end.

LOCKHART: The fundamental thing is this campaign has come down to the economy. If it had been about another issue, it would have been about Iraq. It is about the economy. John McCain has had every opportunity, three debates, the convention, all the speeches, $50 million in ads and he has yet to articulate a single position where he differs with the president on economic policy.

We've had 14 months of this and he is exactly with the president and the public is saying nine out of ten people it is the wrong direction.

GREGORY: But now what's unfair about this, Pat, is that he is a conservative Republican at taxes; there's not a lot of room to maneuver here on the economy.

BUCHANAN: Exactly. He and Bush are very, very close in philosophy and everything else. And in addition to what you say-

LOCKHART: The public is rejecting that.

BUCHANAN: 90 percent say we are going the wrong direction. We had the greatest crash since 1929 and McCain is gaining in Pennsylvania and he's gaining on Barack Obama. That is the fascinating question. Why isn't Obama ahead by 20 points, why isn't this 1933?

GREGORY: All right, we are going to take a break here. We're going to come back here with these three guys.

Stay right there. We're going to take a short break. Talk to these former White House insiders about the challenges that the new president is going to face whoever becomes president.

Also we'll show you a clip of Rachel Maddow's interview with Barack Obama airing later tonight.

"RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE" comes right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back now on "RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE." Back with Pat Buchanan, Scott McClellan and Joe Lockhart.

Joe, I want to get into the issue of what's ahead and also what we've learned about these candidates. But I want to go back to something from the 2004 race and what we think about in the final days and that is what we can't see at we sit around here talking.

That is the ground game. It is so important. Republicans have history on their side in terms of turning their people out, the 72-hour plan, what the Bush/Cheney campaign accomplished in 2004.

This is a different climate though. Does enthusiasm matter in terms of who is going to show up?

LOCKHART: Enthusiasm matters and organization matters. John Kerry lost in that final day in Ohio because the Bush people turned out voters that we didn't know existed.

I think there was equal enthusiasm. There is a big enthusiasm gap here. In New Mexico last weekend they both went to Albuquerque, 35,000 people showed up for Obama, 1,000 showed up for McCain.

Barack Obama had the-it didn't feel like a luxury at the time-but he had a bruising primary battle where they went and they organized these states. Those young people are there. They've already been through this once; they're tested. For every office that John McCain has, Barack Obama around the country has three.

He is going to turn out voters-traditional Democratic constituencies, new voters, young people-in a way that I think is going to surprise a lot of people on Election Day.

GREGORY: And it is striking that these Obama guys are running the Bush/Cheney campaign from 2004.

LOCKHART: Absolutely.

GREGORY: On the ground game.

MCCLELLAN: I know, on the ground game. Absolutely. They have-it is going to be interesting to see the African-American turnout, the young voter turnout, as Joe talked about, to see how much a difference that makes in some of these states that are really close here at the end, like Florida and North Carolina, to see if he gets that huge electoral victory he is looking for.

GREGORY: Let me look ahead a little bit. Pat, what have we learned about these two candidates in the course of this extremely long campaign?

BUCHANAN: One of the things we learned is what you just mentioned, Barack Obama and the people around him who have run a magnificent campaign. They husband their resources at the right time when Hillary was about out of money in February. They had a ground game that was superior to the person Hillary we thought would have the greatest ground game at all.

And we've learned that John McCain, quite frankly, is not a ground game candidate at all. I think he's been a great media candidate in 2000 but his organization collapsed in the middle of last year. There has been infighting. It doesn't look like it has got a central strategy or theme. It is ad hoc back and forth.

But he is a candidate who is a guerilla candidate and he's very, very effective. And that is the only reason he is in this race at all right now, when by all accounts he ought to be out of it and gone.

GREGORY: But what is interesting, Joe, is that unlike 2000 or 2004, this business of a test, of candidates getting tested, there was a real test here and both candidates have made an argument for why they passed that test on the economy. Voters have been able to really learn something about them in the course of a campaign.

LOCKHART: I think this is the-the campaign is the best way to decide whether someone is going to be a good president or not. And it doesn't always work.

I think the best way to look at this is Obama has shown that the key thing he needs as president is he sets the agenda. He doesn't let the political winds move him around. He is disciplined. They all have a bad day occasionally but he comes right back to what he wants to talk about.

McCain has lurched around day-to-day and that tells you something, I think, about what kind of president he'll be and that as a test. The second is there has been a lot of talk about this, picking your vice president is an important test and John McCain failed there. This has been now, I think, an unmitigated disaster for them.

MCCLELLAN: And that similarity, again, very much similar to George W. Bush setting the agenda, discipline, focus. You know this from covering the White House during our days in the campaigns.

In addition to that the test has always been whether or not Barack Obama would pass that threshold on temperament, the judgment and the strength of character to be president and he's done that on all accounts with the majority people because the environment so much favors him on economic issues and all other issues, wrong track, right track, that all he had to do was pass that test.

GREGORY: I've been very interested in this idea which is you all have perspective on this, what does the way you campaign say about how-the kind of White House you'll ultimately run? Pat?

BUCHANAN: I think a McCain White House will be chaotic. There will be warfare from day one and he'll be right in the middle of it.

But let me show you on judgment. They keep knocking Sarah Palin but it was Sarah Palin alone put John McCain back in the game after a great Democratic convention where Obama had an outstanding speech, he was ten ahead. She, in effect, for three weeks, suddenly McCain was ahead until Lehman Brothers and everything else dropped out. She has had a rough go since then but she put him back in the game. She is the only one that gets him more than 500 people at crowd.

MCCLELLAN: If the argument is the best thing about John McCain is Sarah Palin, I'll take it.

GREGORY: Joe, would you handle that question now about what a campaign says-Pat answered in terms of McCain-what kind of White House do you think Barack Obama would run based on what you have seen in the campaign. And would it differ from Clinton, for instance?

LOCKHART: I think it will. I think Clinton's campaign was more free-wheeling. I think the beginning of the administration was more free-wheeling; moving around, not high on discipline. A lot of good ideas but they were not executed.

GREGORY: The no drama mantra. The Obama campaign wasn't really the Clinton campaign.

LOCKHARD: Not at all. And again, I think you saw the president maturing as a president over the years. I think from Obama you will see what you've seen in the campaign which is highly disciplined, organized clear lines of authority and people who want to promote themselves and fight and be in the news pages of Washington will be sent home quickly.

GREGORY: Scott McClellan.

MCCLELLAN: I agree. He has shown that he will run a very disciplined and focused operation in the White House.

In terms of Sarah Palin, she did provide some short-term gain for the candidacy of John McCain. But in the long term she has become a very big liability on it, a reflection on his judgment and not in a good way because she has not demonstrated that she is ready to be president on day one. Now she might be if he were to win but she has not demonstrated that yet.

BUCHANAN: Obama has shown himself to be what (inaudible) said a prime minister has to be, a good butcher. He has chopped people off, not only Reverend Wright, but his foreign policy advisor; one mistake and they're gone. And quite frankly, you have to do that as the President of the United States. I think he is very, very pragmatic, I think he's opportunistic and I think he could probably almost surely he's going to be more of a centrist president because he knows going to the left is nowhere.

GREGORY: All right, we're going to leave it there. Gentlemen, thank you all.

We're going to take a break here and come back with the best in the business, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal pollsters, Peter Hart, when we continue here on "RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Big issue in the final week; can you trust the polls? What about these undecided voters? What's really happening out there? We have the answers now. Our two pollsters who do the NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" polls, Democratic pollster Peter Hart, principal of Peter Hart Research and Associates; and Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies. Welcome, both gentlemen.

This is one of the big questions now which is what do we really believe here. What do voters believe? Peter, where are we?

PETER HART, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: At this stage of the game, Barack Obama ahead. How much he's ahead, we're not sure but I would tell you the underlying factors are a lot more comfort with Barack Obama than three weeks ago. I think it's all pointing in his direction.

GREGORY: Neil.

NEIL NEWHOUSE, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: Things are heading his direction but this race is closing over the last few days. We've seen a number of polls that indicate that the margins we saw just ten days ago in NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll have probably diminished some so that we are looking at a five-point race right now.

There is a lot of campaigning left. This race is not over yet; it's far from over.

GREGORY: What has happened, say, among Republicans if we see tightening in a state like Pennsylvania or we see tightening in some national polls? What is it that's happened?

NEWHOUSE: It is not Republicans. What you are seeing is Republicans have basically been for John McCain by a 92 to 6 margin. It is not like Republicans are coming home.

What's happening is there some hesitation among Democrats in the west, western Pennsylvania, very conservative territory, looking at Westmoreland, Beaver Counties, predominantly Democratic areas. And there are some areas that are having second thoughts about Barack Obama.

In the southeast, that is actually where some Republicans are soft on John McCain, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware Counties; you get a sense that John McCain is making some inroads there. It is tightening the state up a little.

It hasn't turned but all they are looking for right now is to make this close in Pennsylvania and then hopefully the ground game will take over.

HART: Nothing's turned.

GREGORY: You don't think anything has turned?

HART: No. The most important thing to know is the people who are voting right now getting out there, Democrats are winning overwhelmingly which tells you something about the ground game. At the end of the day I think that you are going to see massive turnouts in terms of African-Americans and young people. And I think the polls have to represent that there's going to be an opening, not in terms of what the final spread may be, but more Democrats coming out to vote.

GREGORY: One of the big questions is we are just five days away now, if we get to the weekend and we get Monday and this is still a five-point race, isn't that a huge margin going into Election Day?

HART: Of course it is. And more important than that David-

GREGORY: Even though the national poll doesn't matter? The national head-to-head doesn't matter; in this case it does.

HART: But sure it does. If it is a five-point margin, essentially what it says is like Bill Clinton against George H.W. Bush in 1992. It probably means a fairly comfortable win. But the other side is you have got to be able to look at the undecideds and how they are going to break. If you're a Republican you're hoping that you're going to get a break there but against that you have to be worried about that Democratic turnout.

NEWHOUSE: The other thing, national polls, this close to the election you are looking at state by state. If you look at these state by state numbers, there is no question McCain has a tough job ahead. In seven states he has to win right now, he is down by an average of four points. That is tough ground to make up in a short period of time.

He has to not only win Ohio and Florida, the two key states in the last election, but I think the key state this time he has to win Virginia. He has to win the Commonwealth of Virginia.

GREGORY: In most polls you see Obama's over 50 percent in Virginia.

NEWHOUSE: Yes.

GREGORY: Is there a big enough group of undecideds to break to make a difference?

NEWHOUSE: You know what? In Virginia it is not going to undecideds. He has to turn voters. It's now going to be he's got to turn voter who were supporting Obama and then cause them to have doubts about the guy.

GREGORY: One of the things that the McCain campaign put out this was that Bill McInturff memo; we know Bill McInturff. He's an esteemed pollster, Republican pollster. This is what he wrote, "The only undecided or refuse to respond voters are white and Latino. This puts any number of historically red states very in play and much more competitive than is generally believed by the media."

Peter.

HART: Not so.

GREGORY: Not so?

HART: The easiest way to look at this race is where they are campaigning and where are they spending money. When the Republicans are spending money in Arizona and Montana, what else do you need to know?

To be perfectly honest, sure you can look at these numbers, you can wish and hope, but they are looking for an inside straight where they are missing two cards.

NEWHOUSE: But Bill's making the case is that after spending $570 million, if there are voters out there who are undecided on Barack Obama, they are not likely to vote for him.

What he's arguing is, he is the functional equivalent of an incumbent. An incumbent doesn't get the benefit of the undecideds. And if you look at the profile of undecided voters, you can argue that.

I looked in our last NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll, the images of both candidates are about even. Nationally it doesn't fit quite yet. But maybe in the individual states like in North Carolina and Virginia, you have to watch that.

GREGORY: Can we overstate-we can break the electorate down, we can break the demographics down, or we go issues, comfort level, can we overstate the importance of President Bush in this race?

HART: Oh, I don't think you can overstate it. He has been the overhang in the election. He has been the 200-pound weight around John McCain's leg. He's there from beginning to end. Obviously, he's not out there, but voters know it's his economy, it's his world. They're unhappy. They want to make a change.

NEWHOUSE: Look at that ad that you showed a few minutes ago. Barack Obama is trying to make Bush John McCain's first name; it's the Bush/McCain plan-

HART: And pretty successful.

NEWHOUSE: Well, you know, you look at-Pat Buchanan had a good point, you're looking at a political environment that is extraordinarily negative and has been for quite some time, Bush's approval rating anywhere from 27 to 30 percent, he's very unpopular and it's a sustained unpopularity. It is a weight dragging down the McCain campaign.

GREGORY: If you look at the number, is there one state-either of you, both of you-that you look at that you think, yes, that is going to be decisive on election night? We are going to talk about that state, is there one for you?

NEWHOUSE: Yes. Virginia, David.

HART: Yes.

NEWHOUSE: I think if McCain wins Virginia that is a good sign for the rest of the evening and he can even keep as closer win. If he doesn't win Virginia it is going to be a long night.

GREGORY: Real quick, Peter.

HART: West Virginia.

GREGORY: Really?

HART: That would be culture loses to economics and that becomes a huge story.

GREGORY: Peter hart, Neil Newhouse. Thank you very much.

That does it for "RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE" for this evening. Just five days away from the election.

A quick programming note before we go. Be sure to tune into MSNBC 9:00 p.m. Eastern, tonight Rachel Maddow's interview with Barack Obama. You'll see it here on MSNBC.

I'm David Gregory. Thank you for watching. Back here tomorrow night the same time, 6:00 pm Eastern.

"Hardball with Chris Matthews" coming up next. Good night.

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

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