updated 8/17/2004 9:30:15 AM ET 2004-08-17T13:30:15

Guest: Michael Brown, Harvey Levin, John Zogby, Charles Gasparino

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKE BARNICLE, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The wrath of Charley:  At least 16 dead, almost one million homes and businesses still without power, thousands without any home left at all.  Damage estimates now top $11 billion.

A vision in white:  Michael Jackson arrives to screaming crowds outside the Santa Maria courthouse.  His family surrounds him, showing the solidarity in matching white getups with yellow armbands en masse to watch the testimony of their favorite D.A., Tom Sneddon.

And it sounds like a screenplay straight out of Hollywood:  A volcano in the Canary Islands collapses into the sea, triggering a tsunami that crashes into the U.S. wiping out the entire eastern seaboard.  One hitch—some scientists are saying it‘s far from make-believe. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  Good evening.  I‘m Mike Barnicle, Keith Olbermann is off tonight. 

A spokesperson called it the largest Red Cross response since September 11.  Nearly one million without power, thousands without homes, staying in emergency shelters, property damage with the staggering estimated price tag of $11 billion, and the death toll, at least 16.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight:  Rescue teams, the National Guard, and the president all descend on the state of Florida as storm-battered victims slowly awaken from the nightmare that was Hurricane Charley to the reality that is picking up the pieces left in its wake.  NBC‘s Martin Savidge is the hardest hit community, Punta Gorda.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARTIN SAVIDGE, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In the heart-wrenching wake of a hurricane, the search for what no one wants to find is almost over.  Specially trained teams using cadaver dogs are nearly done looking for the dead. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And we just wanted to make sure everybody was accounted for here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yeah, everybody‘s here.

SAVIDGE:  Though Charley was a massive destroyer, it was not a monstrous killer.  Sixteen deaths statewide are blamed on the storm, though tragic, officials say it is also a miracle.

WAYNE SALLADE, CHARLOTTE COUNTY EMA:  That is an incredibly low number of deaths attributed to a storm‘s impact. 

SAVIDGE:  And in a landscape where good news is as hard to find air conditioning, another positive—power is back on.  Electrical crews by the thousands have switched on lights to nearly a million customers. 

(on camera):  But over 800,000 are still in the dark and it could be weeks or even a month for many of them. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Bright and early what we need power and water, we have neither. 

(voice-over):  Without it, residents and recovery crews swelter in Florida‘s August temperatures that push the heat index close to 100 degrees.  And other numbers run equally high:  90 mobile canteens have begun serving 100,000 meals a day.

More than 5,000 National Guard troops and police officers are providing both security and relief.  Two-thousand insurance adjusters are on the ground with another 2,000 on the way.

And finally, pity the plight of postal worker, Sharon Wittasef (ph) who struggles to deliver the mail and something more. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) here, this is ice-cold.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Oh, that really tastes good!

SAVIDGE:  Despite promises of massive assistance, hers is the only government face many victims have seen.  Here, three days after Charley, the greatest help is still passed from one person to another.

Martin Savidge, NBC News.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I love you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I love you, too. 

SAVIDGE:  Punta Gorda, Florida.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘ve known you for so long. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  The hurricane left in its wake destruction on a scale requiring the mobilization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, now under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. 

FEMA‘s director is Michael Brown.  He joins us now from Florida. 

Undersecretary Brown, good evening and thanks for taking time to join us. 

MICHAEL BROWN, DIRECTOR, FEMA:  You bet, Mike.

BARNICLE:  One person in that Martin Savidge report indicated the need or the essential—the essentials actually, power and water.  Where does that stand right now in that area? 

BROWN:  Well, the power companies are making tremendous progress in getting the number of people without power reduced, but as you can probably hear or see right now, there have been thunder storms rolling through the past 24 hours, and these victims are being—you know, just victimized again by Mother Nature.  People without roofs on their homes, and—you know, without power, serious lightening storms.  We‘ve got to do everything we can to get them in shelters. 

BARNICLE:  You know, one thing that might occur to some people who are familiar with Florida from traveling down there, or had relatives there, and you‘re standing just in front of some natural disasters, a tree fallen over, many houses have been destroyed—the large number of elderly people in some areas of Florida.  And what does the tought—what‘s the thought about so many elderly people perhaps trying get back to their homes or picking up a power saw for the first time in a long, long, time and injuring themselves or perhaps fatally injuring themselves trying to get back to their home.

BROWN:  Well, that‘s why FEMA is sending in literally hundreds, if not thousands, of community relation teams to get out here to those neighborhoods and door to door and make sure that those elderly people are taken care of.  I‘ve established disaster medical assistance teams all throughout the 25 counties.  They‘re literally doing—they‘re doing surgeries, and medical care, all the health care needs for the elderly every single day.  These are volunteers from all over the country and south Florida who have come here to help the elderly.  It‘s just—it‘s really sad Mike, to see this, and so where we can—every way we can to help them.

BARNICLE:  What about the logistics of getting the kind of help that so many people need.  Roadways, some of them, I imagine are either obstructed or perhaps even closed.  What is—what is it like putting together logistics plans to get enough help, physical help, for the people who need it? 

BROWN:  Well, that‘s why we started our pipeline of goods coming in even before the storm even hit landfall, because we knew in a hurricane of this size, we might have trouble getting into neighborhoods.  So, we started that early, actually started the crews cleaning the roads off.  And I‘m pleased to say that except in some neighborhoods, we‘ve made tremendous progress, so the—the supplies are actually getting into those blocked neighborhoods, now.

BARNICLE:  And, of course—you know people from all across this nation, of course, watching these scenes of disaster are obviously taken with them and it‘s a compassionate country, as everyone knows.  What‘s the easiest and quickest way for people to help who want to help? 

BROWN:  No. 1, give some money to the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army or their charity of their choice and designate it for Hurricane Charley.

You know, we don‘t need supplies, we don‘t need clothing and that—or food.  We need the money to those volunteer organizations, because they already have the distribution system set up to get those supplies into the Hurricane Charley area.  So, if they can give some money that‘d be just tremendously good for these organizations. 

BARNICLE:  Michael Brown, undersecretary for the department of Homeland Security, director for FEMA.  Thanks very much for your time and for your efforts.

BROWN:  Thank you Mike, I appreciate it. 

BARNICLE:  As we mentioned—as we mentioned, the president, touring the devastation yesterday, and perhaps with an eye to the criticisms his father faced a dozen years ago in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, promising federal aid quickly.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We need a lot help moving into this part of the world.  It‘s going to take a while to rebuild it, but um—but the government‘s job is to help people help rebuild their lives and that‘s what‘s—that‘s what‘s happening.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  President Bush shrugging off suggestions of any political motivation to his visit, saying, quote, “If I didn‘t come, they‘d say I should have been here more rapidly.” 

But certainly in a state that won this president the White House, facilitating a speedy recovery wouldn‘t be a bad idea.  The grim realities of just how long that may take emotionally are incalculable, but economically it‘s beginning to set in.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE (voice-over):  When the hurricane cut a swath across the Florida peninsula, it did so through the heart of the state‘s agriculture community, the second largest industry behind tourism, contributing $9 billion to the state‘s economy.  The agricultural director of one of the hardest hit counties, Desoto, estimated two-thirds of the orange crop there is lost, to say nothing of the state‘s $50 billion tourism industry, the storm passing directly over Orlando.  Images of that part of the state, not exactly luring tourist dollars, something tourism officials are working to correct through a new television advertising campaign.  The parks, in the meantime, are open. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  An estimated 1.4 million people heeded the call to evacuate as Charley approached the Florida coastline.  But for others, the choice to stay behind, to ride out the worst of the storm was not one of obstinance, but one of devotion as NBC‘s Don Teague reports from the most ravaged part of the state, the bond between man and his best friend unbreakable.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DON TEAGUE, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Carol Bartlett knows she should have fled her mobile home as Hurricane Charley bore down, but doing so would have meant doing the unthinkable—leaving her two best friends. 

CAROL BARTLETT, FLORIDA RESIDENT:  I think that was why it was never even a thought to go to a shelter because, um, because they don‘t take the animals.

TEAGUE:  So, Bartlett rode out the storm in a tiny closet, holding on to “Baby,” a lab mix, and a cat named “Lady.”  One of the perhaps thousands of homeowners who didn‘t evacuate because their animals would be left alone.

Melissa Hepfler wouldn‘t leave her parrot and her dogs, so she was forced to rip the doors off kitchen cabinets to board up the windows as they crashed in around her.

MELISSA HEPFLER, FLORIDA RESIDENT:  This is what we were doing when the 145 mile-an-hour winds—I just holding the boards.

TEAGUE:  Hepfler‘s animals survived, but others weren‘t as lucky.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This large animal doctor has set up at the Promenade Mall. 

TEAGUE:  Today, many pet owners are searching for missing dogs and cats, or like Lauren Polly (ph), looking for a veterinarian to care for injured animals.  Here horse, and several others, suffered severe injuries when the storm ripped apart their barn.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I love this horse; he‘s the only thing I‘ve got in my life.  I‘ve got nothing else besides him.

TEAGUE (on camera):  It‘s particularly true of elderly storm victims, widows and widowers now living their lives alone, pets their only companions.  In some cases, friends they almost died for. 

(voice-over):  Carol Bartlett lost everything when Charley blew her mobile home apart, but held on to what really mattered. 

Don Teague, NBC News, Punta Gorda, Florida. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  COUNTDOWN opening up tonight with Hurricane Charley. 

Coming up later:

From devastating hurricanes to world-altering tsunamis:  A scientist in Great Britain says a volcano in the Atlantic could trigger a tsunamis so big it‘ll destroy the eastern seaboard and kill tens of millions.

But, up next, tonight‘s No. 4 story:  Michael Jackson, back in court.  This time it‘s his arch enemy district attorney, Tom Sneddon in the hot seat.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Up next on COUNTDOWN:  The Michael Jackson circus returns to court amid charges both sides have the P.R. machines churning overtime. 

And prosecutors in the Kobe Bryant case are dealt another serious set back.  Details after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  It is theater of the absurd, perhaps in its purest of forms.  Hundreds of fans scream in adulation as a family of musicians exit their tour bus dressed in coordinating outfits, but it ain‘t the “Partridge Family.”  It‘s your entertainment dollars in action.  Day 273 of the Michael Jackson investigation.

Our No. 4 story in the COUNTDOWN, tonight:  Michael Jackson in court today ,for a most unusual pretrial hearing, and that‘s saying something. 

Parallels to the Jackson Five on tour notwithstanding, Michael Jackson arrived at the Santa Maria Courthouse this morning with four of his siblings in tow, all dressed in white, all there to see Jackson‘s attorney, Thomas Mesereau, Jr., face off with Prosecutor Tom Sneddon.  The admissibility of evidence prosecutor sees from a private investigator‘s office at issue, today.  At the time, sheriff‘s officials smashed the office open with sledgehammer.  The investigator was under the employ of former Jackson Attorney, Mark Geragos.  Perhaps a bit of a conflict there.

To help us sort all that out and more, and to tell us what the deal is with the damn gold armband, Harvey Levin, executive producer of television‘s “Celebrity Justice.” 

Harvey, good evening.  Thanks for joining us. 

HARVEY LEVIN, “CELEBRITY JUSTICE”:  My pleasure.

BARNICLE:  Prosecutor Tom Sneddon taking the stand today, Harvey.  Why was he on the stand and what happened?

LEVIN:  Well, the real reason why he was on the stand was that Michael Jackson‘s lawyer, Tom Mesereau, really wanted to turn the tables and make Michael Jackson the victim, rather than the villain here, and he wanted to make Tom Sneddon the persecutor and not the prosecutor.  What he‘s saying is that Sneddon was so out to get Michael Jackson that he crossed the line, that he invade the sanctity of the attorney-client relationship and went out to Beverly Hills to scope out the private investigator‘s office and take photos of that office himself, only to then sledgehammer the door in and then take items from inside that office which the defense believes he should have never taken.

They say he knew it, they say he knew better, or should have known better and that he should be reprimanded for crossing the line.  This is really all about turning the tables and that‘s why Michael Jackson showed today. 

BARNICLE:  Harvey, what‘s the deal on sledgehammering the door? 

Couldn‘t he have called ahead and knocked perhaps, or ring the bell or...? 

Did they

LEVIN:  No.

BARNICLE:  ...actually sledgehammer the door in?

LEVIN:  What—you know what?  You—that was one of Sneddon‘s points today, you don‘t call up and say “oh, by the way, in three hours I‘m coming to raid your office.”

I mean, you have to have an element of surprise, there. 

I actually went out to that office because we got a tip on it, at “Celebrity Justice,” we went out there the day it happened and it‘s a pretty secure place.  I mean, I‘m not sure that a sledgehammer, necessarily, needed—that you needed that; probably a locksmith would have done better.  Nonetheless this was a raid, they did get a search warrant.  And Sneddon is saying, “Look, I didn‘t know that Michael—that Michael Jackson was not the one who employed this P.I.  The private investigator was employed by Mark Geragos, but apparently there was a check that was written directly from Michael Jackson to this private investigator, Bradley Miller, so Sneddon‘s saying, “Look, I did the best he could, I wasn‘t about to call Geragos and warn him that a raid was about to happen, and so be it.”

BARNICLE:  Harvey, all the Jackson‘s today, the Jackson supporters, including Michael Jackson, show up in matching white suits.  So, my question to you sir, is are they all insane?  Or do they actually think that this is going to be—you know, a legitimate public relations move on their part that will help them? 

LEVIN:  But, you know what, Mike?  I mean, on one hand, yeah, it seems just crazy.  I mean they look like kind of cheesy bridegrooms there.  But on the other hand, I think they‘re trying to show, I mean there‘s a reason for white, and I think they‘re trying show that purity and I mean, that‘s one of the reasons Michael Jackson—I‘m really serious about this. 

I mean, all of this stuff gets subtlety telegraphed to the perspective jury pool.  And, yeah, maybe to you and me it just seems kind of ridiculous, but what they‘re saying is “Look, we‘re the good guys here, we‘ve got the white hats on and here‘s the guy on the stand who‘s been out to get me for 10 years, and by God, we‘re going to prove today that this guy was up to no good.”  And I think that‘s the moment they‘re trying to telegraph, here. 

BARNICLE:  Harvey Levin of “Celebrity Justice,” thanks as always.

LEVIN:  My pleasure.

BARNICLE:  We should tell NASA, no need to go to Mars, we‘ve seen outer space today.

A lot of other developments in high-profile cases around the country to tell you about.  In Colorado today, another critical ruling in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault trial and another setback for prosecutors. 

The Colorado Supreme Court today, announcing it won‘t hear the prosecution‘s appeal on whether the accuser‘s sexual history should be a part of the trial.  Judge Terry Ruckriegle ruled last month that the defense can use the accuser‘s sexual history in the 72 hours before she got her hospital examination.  Prosecutors, this afternoon, say they will still go ahead with the case.  But legal experts say look for some sort of development this week that could get the case thrown out before jury selection is set to begin August 27.  The accuser is already pursuing a case against Bryant in civil court.

And more from Redwood City, California, where today marked the fourth day jurors listened to recorded conversations between Scott Peterson and his mistress, Amber Frey. 

On those tapes, the jury heard Frey question Peterson‘s action in days following his wife‘s disappearance, quote, “No one will think your behavior is innocent,” unquote.

Peterson‘s response, he hoped, quote, she wasn‘t involved.  Ms.  Frye taking the stand twice today to confirm she‘d made the recordings.  More tapes to be played tomorrow.  Amber Frey taking the stand to face questions on Wednesday. 

COUNTDOWN now past our No. 4 story.  Up next, a break from the serious news of the day for the headlines that make us laugh, “Oddball” is up next with the latest installment of the good guys verses the bad guys on the open road.

And later, the New Jersey governor‘s secret gay life:  Inside the closely held secret that wasn‘t so much a secret in political circles.  And after his stunning admission, McGreevey‘s polls actually go up.  What‘s up with that?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  I‘m Mike Barnicle in for Keith Olbermann.  And we‘ve reached that point in the show where we pause the COUNTDOWN of the day‘s real news to spend a few days chuckling at the weird news.  Let‘s play “Oddball.” 

And we begin in Oberlin, Ohio, with the COUNTDOWN car chase of the week.  Checking the “Oddball” scoreboard for the year, it‘s cops 51, guys who think they can escape the cops, nothing, but for some reason they keep running. 

This guy driving a stolen Ford pickup, he has 20 police cruiser in hot pursuit when he decides to take a hard right onto the 14th hole of the Oberlin Golf Club, it‘s a private course, but this fairway fugitive is playing through.  A man facing felony evasion and grand theft auto, he‘s obviously unconcerned with paying greens fees or with your silly cart caps only rule.  And the maneuver actually enables him to get away, briefly.  But he was brought to Oberlin City Justice early the next morning, so this double bogey desperado will have plenty of time to work on his shank where he‘s going, not 19th hole—the big house.

To terminal four now, at New York‘s JFK International Airport where the world record for rolling an orange with your nose has been squashed.  Yes, that‘s an orange, it‘s just a little ripe.  As Ashrita Furman rolled the little green citrus one mile through the terminal in 24 minutes, 34 seconds.  Juicing the previous mark by over four minutes.  Furman now holds 22 Guinness world‘s records in various categories from brick carrying to balancing milk crates on his head.  In his lifetime, he‘s set 82 different Guinness world records, which makes him the Guinness World Record holder for most Guinness world records.  And I‘m going to need a Guinness to sort all this out, it‘s making my head hurt!

Finally, cannonball:  Cannonball coming! It‘s the first official world championship of arse bombing.  We‘re in Beirut, Germany, and it‘s not an Olympic event just yet, but they‘re hopeful.  The goal?  Biggest splash from the 10-meter platform.  The rules: Your butt has to hit the water first, after that it‘s a free-for-all.  Points are given for technical merit, originality, and least amount of skin left in the pool.  And in the end, the German team walked away with the title.  Well, they were carted away with the title.  Remember, you can get all your arse bombing coverage right up through the closing ceremonies on MSNBC, NBC Bravo, USA and ABC, the arse bombing channels.  Check your local listings.

“Oddball” is now in the record books.  Up next, tonight‘s No. 3 story: 

The battle for the White House.  A new poll has Kerry leading nationally, but more importantly he‘s also leading in some key battleground states.

And later, unraveling the mysteries behind Harry Potter.  J.K. Rowling with clues about the young wizard‘s future and the questions she‘s surprised no one is asking her. 

Those stories ahead.  First, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day:

No. 3:  Bennett Abrams has died at age 72.  He was the inventor of the artificial tree.  Before he died, he told the “L.A. Times,” quote, “No one will remember me, but these trees will still be here in 200 years.”

No. 2:  The keystone cops guarding St. James Palace in London last week; Scotland Yard says he was standing on a chair trying to close a window when he lost his balance and fell.  On the way down, he ripped the curtains off the window and ripped a gaping hole through the middle of a priceless 19th century painting belonging to Queen Elizabeth.  Oh, bugger!

And No. 1:  The 115 men arrested by the Hong Kong police on Sunday for illegally gambling on insect fights.  Cops seized about 300 crickets and over 1,000 bucks in cash from the bust, which took place inside a Cricket Lover‘s Association building.  God only knows what‘s happening down the street at the Hong Kong Cat Fancier headquarters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Mike Barnicle, standing in for Keith Olbermann. 

With just 11 weeks to go until the election, the race is still too tight to predict much of anything.  But given the neck-and-neck nature of the current campaign, any seemingly slight shift could turn out to be significant. 

In our third story tonight, John Kerry seems to be slowly edging ahead of his incumbent competition.  In a moment, independent pollster John Zogby will offer us his insight on the latest numbers. 

But first, let‘s go to the polls. 

In a straight match up, John Kerry stands four points ahead of George Bush in the latest Zogby poll, close to the margin of error, but still a definite advantage. 

And when you put the running mates in the mix, the Kerry/Edwards ticket shoots up to a seven-point lead over Bush/Cheney. 

That national result seems reflected in three different polls out of so-called battleground states.  The president was stumping in two of them today, making his 23rd visit to Ohio and his 20th visit to Michigan. 

And although he professes not to go by the polls, his team is likely looking to improve on the latest numbers out of those states. 

In Ohio, an AMR poll puts the president three points behind Kerry, though within the four percent margin of error. 

In Michigan, the gap spreads to seven points, George W. Bush with 42 percent, John Kerry holding 49 percent of the vote. 

And in Missouri, where Senator Edwards spent the day today, the president is trailing by two points. 

To put this Kerry lead in some perspective, we‘re joined now by independent pollster John Zogby in Utica, New York. 

John, thanks for your time tonight.  We appreciate it.  Six to seven percent undecided nationwide, do you think?

JOHN ZOGBY, POLLSTER:  Yes, that‘s just about it.  Even five percent, and in some of the battleground states, where they‘ve been bombarded with commercials since May, it‘s even three or four percent. 

BARNICLE:  So what would that tell us about an incumbent president who has commanded the news each and every day whenever he wants it.  Who would be undecided about George Bush, or are they undecided about him?

ZOGBY:  Well, very few I think are undecided about George Bush.  What we did was we took a detailed analysis of our undecideds, both nationally and in the battleground states. 

And what we‘ve discovered is the president has a pretty negative rating on his job performance, on the direction of the country and whether or not he deserves to be re-elected among those very undecideds. 

And so the president really is on the short end in his match up with Kerry, but he‘s got some trouble with the undecideds, as well.  He said, his work cut out for him the next couple of months. 

What are your poll responds telling you, John, about George Bush‘s weaknesses?  What do they perceive as these weakness?

BARNICLE:  Well, essentially, you know, it‘s the issues.  It‘s the economy.  It‘s the war in Iraq.  It‘s health care.  It‘s education. 

The president still gets pretty decent marks for personal affability, for leadership, for making decisions, for fighting the war on terrorism.

But in many ways this battle is not only a battle between two warring nations that are almost even, but it‘s also between the personality of the candidate versus the issues. 

Kerry wins on the issues.  The two candidates, I think, are pretty much tied when it comes to personalities. 

BLITZER:  I‘m struck by one series of numbers in your polling data, John, that Kerry, whether he gets 47 percent or 49 percent, depending on—what state you‘re talking about, 53 percent of the voters that you polled say they want someone new.  So what does John Kerry do, have a tattoo on his forehead saying “new guy”?

ZOGBY:  Well, I think the 43 percent that you see in our poll basically are—that‘s the anti-Bush vote there.  So when you see the gap between 47 percent willing to vote for him today, the 43 percent who say it‘s time for someone new, it tells me that he‘s got a long way to go still to close the deal among these voters. 

Again, I think many of those voters have made up their minds about George W. Bush, but have serious questions about John Kerry.  And again, many of them also are not even really paying attention and won‘t be until the last week to 10 days. 

BARNICLE:  John Zogby, always interesting.  Thanks very much for joining us. 

Call it the Clinton effect.  A politician admits he cheated on his wife, and his approval rating actually goes up. 

New Jersey Governor James McGreevey being the latest of that breed to experience a strange surge in popularity.  In early August only 43 percent of people polled thought he was doing well on his job, but late last week after he admitted that he was gay and had cheated on his wife with a guy, his approval rating went up two percent. 

Since his shock announcement on Thursday, Republicans have been loudly calling for McGreevey‘s immediate resignation.  Now, his fellow Democrats are joining in. 

According to “The New York Times,” several senior members of the party faithful spent the weekend brainstorming a way to ease him out of office before the end of the month. 

That would push New Jersey into a special election in November and allow the party to try and persuade popular Senator Jon Corzine to run for governor. 

Well, right now, McGreevey says he will step down in November, which would allow the Democratic Senate president to serve out the rest of his term.

As for the other man at the center of the scandal, the governor‘s alleged lover, Golan Cipel, now says he‘s straight.  He told an Israeli daily paper, quote, “It really doesn‘t bother me that it is said I am gay, but I really am not.  I‘m straight.  On the other hand, to accuse me of being an extortionist, someone here has lost his mind,” unquote.

He also added that he didn‘t know McGreevey was gay until the governor started hitting on him so often, Cipel says, that he became afraid to be alone with him. 

A McGreevey spokesman says that all of Mr. Cipel‘s allegations are false. 

We‘re joined now by Charles Gasparino of “Newsweek” magazine, senior writer, and the author of an upcoming book on corruptions and scandals, titled “Blood on the Street,” which will be released in December 2004.

Thanks for joining us, Charles. 

CHARLES GASPARINO, AUTHOR, “BLOOD ON THE STREET”:  Thanks for having me. 

BARNICLE:  In this week‘s “Newsweek” there‘s a compelling piece about the entire McGreevey situation.  What were the dynamics in the last 24 hours leading up to the governor‘s amazing announcement before the nation last week?

GASPARINO:  Well, I mean, the dynamics was essentially—this is all about politics. 

Yes, there is a sensational charge here, but you have to remember that New Jersey is maybe not a battleground state, but it‘s a near battleground state.  It‘s one of those states where there have been some polls that showed that George Bush was kind of coming close to John Kerry. 

So what we had here was a situation where the sitting governor was going to be exposed in this huge sex scandal, patronage scandal.  And the question became, does he resign and when does he resign?

And I think the fact that he‘s putting it off shows that, you know, presidential politics is playing a role in this.  You do not want that state to have a Republican governor.  A Republican governor controls much of the apparatus, essentially the P.R. for the entire campaign. 

So, and as has been reported, John Kerry did play a role, at least his advisers had advised McGreevey not to step down immediately.

BARNICLE:  In the “Newsweek” piece as well as other reporting that‘s been done on this, there‘s some indication that up until quite shortly before he made the announcement, that there was some indication he might try and get by without resigning.

How close did that come to happening?

GASPARINO:  Well, you know, listen, right up until the end, we were hearing, right up until when he had announced his resignation, we were hearing that he wasn‘t going to resign. 

I think this was kind of a sort of tough decision for him.  I mean, let‘s face it, this guy lost the first time to Christine Todd Whitman, very close race.  He came back and won a fairly substantial victory.  He was a candidate on the rise, at least until recently when he‘s been bedeviled by this incredible corruption scandal that goes beyond this, obviously. 

BARNICLE:  Charles, you know what‘s amazing to me, perhaps it is to some other people around the country, New Jersey is not that far from the white heat of the New York media, page 6 and everything like that, and we live in an era where a politician, or a member of the media—if you go through the eight or under checkout lane with 10 items, it‘s in the paper.  How did it happen that clearly this hidden life that he has had for so long a period of time was never uncovered prior to this?

GASPARINO:  That‘s a great question.  Listen, you know, I covered municipal finance for many years, and a lot of the municipal finance investment bankers that worked on Wall Street, you know, talked about this for a long time.  They were talking about how, you know, it was widely known that Jim McGreevey had—was gay. 

But you have to realize one thing about the New York media.  I worked for tabloids for a period of my life.  It‘s very New York City focused.  You know, we care about Bloomberg.  We care about Pataki.  We care about celebrities and even some journalists.  New Jersey is a little bit out of our range. 

BARNICLE:  What‘s the reaction among New Jersey politicians who you have spoken to, quickly, about the fact that homeland security, I mean it‘s vital to New Jersey, how‘s the guy get the job?

GASPARINO:  That‘s a great question.  George Pataki has made lots of patronage appointments, but when he had to pick his homeland security adviser, it was Jim McAllister (ph)...

BARNICLE:  Jim McAllister (ph).

GASPARINO:  One of the best FBI people around.  I mean, this is absurd.  And it‘s actually disgusting that he would do something like that.  This is not about homosexuality.  It‘s about patronage. 

BARNICLE:  Charles Gasparino, thanks as always.  “Newsweek‘s” magazine Charles Gasparino.

COUNTDOWN‘S now past our No. 3 story.  Up next, tonight‘s No. 2 story, a massive military makeover.  The commander in chief announcing today a major restructuring of U.S. military might.

And later, Britney Spears doesn‘t have the corner on the quickie celeb nuptials in Vegas.  Now one of the Hilton sisters is following suit.  Stand by for our tabloid news.

But first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three soundbites of the day. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How did I do this?  This is the cream of the crop. 

This is the Capitol building, supposed to be shiny and very clean.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You‘ve got to be more than 100 feet up there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well, that doesn‘t help hearing right now.  This job is going to buy me a riding lawnmower.

CROWD:  Michael, Michael, Michael.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  No evidence, not guilty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Don‘t run from it.  Run to it.  Souvenirs.

(END VIDEO CLIP) 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Ahead on COUNTDOWN, it‘s the biggest American military reorganization since World War II.  President Bush says it‘s a good strategy.  Critics say it could be sending the wrong message to the world.  Details after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER:  As the U.S. death toll in Iraq approaches 1,000, the president plans one of the largest global troop realignments since the end of the Cold War. 

In our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, tens of thousands of troops will be recalled from foreign lands.  The move might win support from some military families in the president‘s bid for reelection, but it won‘t help the overworked soldiers on the front lines in the Middle East.

NBC‘s David Gregory reports the story from Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At a time when critics say the administration has overextend the military with large deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the president said today‘s announcement amounts to better strategy for the armed forces and less stress on its troops and their families. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We‘ll deploy a more agile and more flexible force, which means that more of our troops will be stationed and deployed from here at home. 

GREGORY:  Administration officials say two Army divisions will return from Germany by as early as 2006.  In all, the president says up to 70,000 troops will be withdrawn from overseas installations in Europe and Asia over the next decade. 

BUSH:  For decades, America‘s armed forces abroad have essentially remained where the wars of the last century ended. 

GREGORY:  U.S. officials want smaller, lighter units posted in Eastern Europe or other locations, providing quick access to hot spots in the Middle East or North Africa, where threats can arise suddenly. 

Retired Army general and NBC News consultant Barry McCaffrey calls it a fortress America policy at a time when the U.S. and Europe are divided over Iraq.

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET.):  It‘s walking away from a major role in NATO with air and ground power, and now building a U.S.  unilateral capability to launch from the United States. 

GREGORY:  Richard Holbrooke, a foreign policy adviser to Senator John Kerry, calls the potential withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea dangerous, given ongoing diplomacy with the nuclear North, saying taking troops out of Korea is exactly the way not to negotiate. 

(on camera):  Today‘s announcement has no impact on when the 140,000 U.S. troops will return from Iraq.  They will come home, Mr. Bush again said today, when the job is done. 

David Gregory, NBC News, the White House. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  Somehow we make the transition now to the sometimes sleazy but always irresistible stories from the world of entertainment and tabloid newspapers.

And we begin with another shocking Las Vegas quickie wedding.  OK, maybe not so shocking this time. 

The Associated Press is reporting Nicky Hilton, younger sister to Paris, married boyfriend Todd Meister (ph) in a middle of the night chapel ceremony yesterday. 

They call her the bad girl heiress, and if you know anything about her sister, that‘s pretty impressive. 

The report says Paris was on hand for the ceremony, and the marriage is expected to last at least 10 times as long as Britney Spears‘ Sin City escapade. 

She‘s a 19-year-old heiress to billions.  He‘s a 33-year-old money manager, and it looks like he‘ll have plenty to manage. 

And Courtney Love is back on tour.  And by “on tour,” of course, I mean in court. 

This time it‘s in Beverly Hills, on charges of illegal possession of painkillers.  The hearing was set a trial date for September 30, where if convicted Ms. Love could face more than three years in prison. 

The Courtney in court tour then moves to Los Angeles, on charges she assaulted her boyfriend with a liquor bottle.  And New York for striking a fan with a microphone stand.

And finally, Harry Potter fans, listen up.  Keeper of the secrets, author J.K. Rowling came out with some new hints as to the young wizard‘s future. 

Five of the seven books are out already, and previewing the final two yesterday, Rowling said Harry will definitely live to see book seven.  Well, duh.  Book six isn‘t titled “Harry Potter and His Rotting Corpse,” people.

Meantime, a bizarre scare on the set of the third movie.  Someone called in a threat to the set on Friday, warning of a brutal attack against the film‘s young stars. 

Insiders fear it was a threat from al Qaeda based on thinly veiled remarks about the United States. 

Up next, tonight‘s No. 1 story.  “Deep Impact” brought us amazing images of Mother Nature wiping out entire cities.  Now some scientists are saying a scene like this isn‘t so far-fetched.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  If you‘ve ever watched the Discovery Channel, you already know our days are numbered.  Armageddon is a-coming, and the only surprise will be how. 

Take your pick: giant asteroid, killer quake.  Melted icecaps, massive flood.  Locusts.  Liquid hot magma, erupting from the earth, and every Discovery show ends the same way: it‘s not a question of if; it‘s a question of when. 

At No. 1 tonight, what if when is now?  One scientist who‘s sounding the alarm, warning that we are one volcanic eruption away from a doomsday event that would destroy the entire eastern seaboard. 

But as Charles Sabine reports, don‘t rush to buy that Ohio beachfront property quite yet. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHARLES SABINE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The teeth of Hurricane Charley.  This week a group of scientists have warned of a threat to the United States that would dwarf these terrible scenes. 

Walls of water destroying the Eastern seaboard.  Here, the fiction of “The Day After Tomorrow,” but reality in the future, according to professor Bill McGuire. 

The cause, he says, will be tsunamis, a Japanese word given to highly deconstructive tidal waves. 

In the past, 30 feet tsunamis caused by earthquakes have brought dramatic death and destruction. 

But only an asteroid, along with the imagination of the special effects team in “Deep Impact,” have envisioned a mega tsunami big enough to destroy U.S. cities. 

But this is exactly what McGuire and his team say will happen when, and not if, the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the steepest island in the world, 4,000 miles away, erupts. 

La Palma, the most volcanically active of the Canary Islands, saw a part of its western flank drop 15 feet after an eruption in 1949.  The theory is that another could cause a massive rock twice the size of Manhattan to drop into the Atlantic.

A dome of water several miles wide would rise 3,000 feet into the air and then collapse.  The resulting tsunami, of biblical proportions, would race towards the U.S.A. at a speed of a jetliner, reaching Boston, New York and Miami within eight to 10 hours. 

(on camera):  According to the British scientists, the wall of water that will hit the eastern seaboard of the United States will be as high as London‘s houses of parliament. 

PROF. BILL MCGUIRE, SHEFFIELD GREG HAZARD RESEARCH CENTER:  The energy of the wave is quite extraordinary.  For every 100 yards down the East Coast of North America, they would expand the same amount of energy as the collapse of the World Trade Center. 

SABINE (voice-over):  McGuire says funding to monitor the movements of La Palma must be resumed to at least give warning of disaster. 

MCGUIRE:  If we don‘t do anything at all, then we won‘t have any warning.  If the collapse occurs before evacuation, there is probably no chance to get a significant number of people out. 

SABINE:  Some scientists say McGuire is taking worst-case scenarios to the extreme. 

DR. RUSSELL WYNN, SOUTHAMPTON OCEANOGRAPHY CENTER:  There‘s only been one of these giant landslides in the last 100,000 years.  So that gives you an idea of the sort of frequency of these things.  They are a very, very rare phenomenon. 

MCGUIRE:  This may not happen for another 1,000 years, but it may happen next year.  We don‘t know, and you can‘t ignore big threats because they‘re infrequent. 

SABINE:  Earth, scientists agree, is a restless planet.  Whether a geological time bomb is imminent, though, is the question. 

Charles Sabine, NBC News, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  Wow.  That will do it for the Monday edition of COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Mike Barnicle, in for Keith Olbermann.  Barring a tsunami, he‘ll be back tomorrow night.  Thanks for watching. 

END   

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