updated 9/28/2004 3:57:31 AM ET 2004-09-28T07:57:31

Guests: Tom O‘Neil, Karen Tumulty, Craig Crawford

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  The debate agreement.  No props, notes, charts, diagrams, other writings, other things.  Real explanations for all this from Craig Crawford.  Cynical explanations from us. 

The latest clean up in Florida.  Thirty-one percent of Orlando residents polled tell a local TV station, they‘re thinking about moving out. 

First Virgin Records, then Virgin Atlantic, now Virgin Galactic? 

Richard Branson offering suborbital flights.  Maybe with a liquor license. 

Yep!  Drugs in space!  And this space for rent. 

Corporate sponsorships for the Star Jones wedding.  I wonder who paid groom to go through with it.

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  This is Monday, September 27.  Thirty-six days until the 2004 presidential election.  Forty-four years ago yesterday, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon conducted the first of their four presidential debates.  And if anybody thought the face-to-face meetings did not matter or were not, as Wellington described Waterloo, a damn near run thing, it is essential to remember that those watching the debates on television handily believed Kennedy had won.  And those listening on radio handily believed Nixon had won.

To paraphrase Billy Crystal, it may be better to look good than to sound good. 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, the meaningfulness of Thursday‘s first Kerry-Bush debate.  The debate over the rules of the debate and the slice of debate history today appropriated by John Kerry.  Meaningfulness, first.  “TIME” magazine has a poll of the day.  Mr. Bush by four points among registered voters, a margin of error of three.  Two debate-related numbers in their survey.  Nineteen percent of all of their respondents say they are either undecided or might still change their vote.  Sixty-nine percent of that 19 percent say the debates may clinch their decision, whatever it may be.  But the prospect of one out of every five voters on the line, it thus does not surprise that both candidates are now spending much of their time cramming for Thursday‘s big test. 

The challenger Senator Kerry setting up camp, debate camp over the weekend at a secluded resort in Wisconsin.  Can you say swing state?  The Badger State‘s 10 electoral votes make it that much more convenient.  Afternoon study breaks turned into town hall meetings.  Senator Kerry criticizing the president for saying not only does he not regret the “mission accomplished” speech aboard that aircraft carrier a year ago in May but that he would do it again. 

But one man‘s stubborn refusal to admit a possible error is another man‘s, “hey, at least I‘m not a flip-flopper.”  President Bush on the campaign trail today in Ohio.  In case you‘re wondering, he has been preparing for the debates at his ranch in Texas.  Today his communications director Dan Bartlett tells the “Associated Press,” quote, “obviously, President Bush has had to practice twice as hard to learn all the different positions that John Kerry has taken on the big issues of the day.” 

The president himself suggesting today, he may not even need to show up on Thursday night because Senator Kerry, quote, “probably could spend 90 minutes debating himself.”  Kerry partisans, please restrain all inner dialogue about the senator thus debating his intellectual match. 

With the Kerry-Kerry debate unlikely, it is still scheduled to be Bush-Kerry.  Joining me to begin our countdown to the debate, Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent, for “TIME” magazine.  Karen, good evening. 

KAREN TUMULTY, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Perhaps nothing else in a campaign in our campaigns has devolved so starkly from political analysis and the rhetorical process to a simply popularity contest as these debates.  We hear about Bush and Kerry preparing for this.  How do you prepare to look presidential? 

TUMULTY:  The first thing you try to prepare to do is not make any big mistakes.  Certainly, that is the experience we‘ve seen.  It is really hard to make up ground and do yourself a big favor in these debates.  It is not hard to screw up. 

OLBERMANN:  So finish this paragraph for me.  George Bush can screw up or even lose the election Thursday by...

TUMULTY:  I think that George Bush‘s biggest danger here is saying or doing anything that makes him look as though he is out of touch with the reality that people are seeing coming across their television screens and what they‘re reading in their newspapers.  Certainly our polls suggested that a lot of people think George Bush is not being straight with them about Iraq.  And that of course is likely to be what this debate will be all about. 

OLBERMANN:  Same question for John Kerry.  What can he do to bury himself on Thursday? 

TUMULTY:  Flip flop.  Anything that even—anything that has a hint of a flip flop to it or that can be spun that way the next day.  Because don‘t forget, it is just as important to win the spin game after the debate as it is to win the actual debate. 

OLBERMANN:  If you were advising John Kerry, would you say to him, go out there and the first opportunity you get and use that phrase against President Bush? 

TUMULTY:  Actually, I would be very surprised if he doesn‘t do that.  Although, interestingly enough, by the way, these rules of this debate are so constrictive, that these candidates are not allowed to ask each other questions.  Although the rules do say, and probably sub chapter 4 of section 5, that you are allowed only rhetorical questions. 

OLBERMANN:  Part of the great article that you have in the current issue of “TIME” magazine.  After they read it, if they could, Lincoln and Douglas would be turning over in their graves no doubt.  Final question.  The benchmarks, I assume, in this process.  The bad benchmark is what Al Gore did and the good would be what Ronald Reagan did.  Is John Kerry‘s goal as the underdog to look quietly serenely dismissive of the incumbent president? 

TUMULTY:  I think so.  It is to put himself in the situation where people are comfortable with him and where they can imagine him in the big chair. 

OLBERMANN:  We‘ll see how it turns out.  We‘ll also see how the remaining predictions and the remaining pregame show stuff turns out.  Karen Tumulty of “TIME” magazine, as always, great thanks. 

The mechanics of debating have now gone as Karen mentioned from coin flips to 32-page memoranda of understanding.  If you have any doubts as to the intensity of the negotiations that led to those 32 pages, you need only look at the negotiators.  Representing Team Bush, James Baker, secretary of state for Bush 41.  And that there even is a Bush 43 due in large part to Mr. Baker.  He was Bush‘s point man during the bitter Florida recount battle.

For the opponent, Vernon Jordan, lawyer, former civil rights leader, Clinton pal, ultimate Washington insider.  Almost every detail of the debates, of which there are many indeed, more on what they are and what they mean in just a moment was decided in Mr. Baker‘s favor and thus the president.  That‘s because Jordan and by extension, Kerry, were keen on winning just one point, that there would be three debates not merely two.  Thus no ties and more opportunities to pound the president. 

To go over those details line by line, a pleasure as always to be joined by MSNBC political analyst and “Congressional Quarterly” contributor, Craig Crawford.  Good evening, Craig.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY”:  Hello there.  Line by line is right.  I think some treaties are shorter than this. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes, the nuclear test ban treaty, the first one is actually literally shorter.  I have about 10 of these 10,000 details and I want to run through as many of these as we can in about five minutes.  You give me the decision who it favors and very, very briefly why it favors them and then I will respond by giving you the cynic‘s answer to the same question.  So we‘ll have our own little debate here.  Is that all right?

CRAWFORD:  Sounds good.  No wonder you were so good on “Jeopardy.” 

OLBERMANN:  Shut up!  I lost by a dollar. 

The podiums shall be 50 inches tall and stand 10 feet apart.  Who does that favor? 

CRAWFORD:  That‘s an advantage to Bush.  They‘re worried that Kerry is five inches taller than the president.  And taller candidates tend to win.  So since Bush can‘t wear his flight suit, they want to make sure that they don‘t see how tall Kerry is.

OLBERMANN:  So that agrees with the cynic‘s answer which is advantage, President Bush.  At that distance he is less likely to forget Kerry‘s name and call him Stretch. 

Number two, there will be no opening statement.  To whose advantage is no opening statement? 

CRAWFORD:  I would say that‘s the advantage of President Bush.  Because—I‘m sorry, advantage Kerry because in the formal speeches, Kerry is very stilted and any time he‘s not giving his stump speech, I think Kerry is better off. 

OLBERMANN:  The cynical explanation to that one is actually, advantage audience.  It will be one less time we will hear Kerry say, “my friends...” So that‘s sort of an agreement. 

Number three here, the audience will be able to see the warning signal lights that tell the candidates when they are about to go over the time limit.  Who does that favor? 

CRAWFORD:  That‘s advantage Bush, because they think Kerry, who is so long-winded will get the buzzer, the light more often, and that he will look bad to the audience as he is talking over the warning light. 

OLBERMANN:  The cynic‘s response to that one was, lights will be used to alert viewers when the crap is coming down so heavy that they should wear a hat.  And incidentally, the default setting is as you see orange. 

CRAWFORD:  I‘m taking my COUNTDOWN shovel down there.

OLBERMANN:  Number four—I hope we all do.  And boots.  Number four, studio temperature.  Kerry‘s camp withdrew its demand that the hall should be cooled to below 70 degrees.  Who is that one for? 

CRAWFORD:  The Bush people think because they saw him sweat in the debates for his Senate re-election some years ago, they saw him wipe a bead of sweat from his brow and decided, he is a sweater.  And people are afraid of sweaters.  So they want it nice and warm so Kerry will sweat. 

OLBERMANN:  That agrees with the sarcastic explanation where the advantage is in fact for Mr. Bush.  Because at 76 degrees or higher, it is believed that Kerry‘s face may dissolve fully into Edvard Munch‘s “Scream.” 

CRAWFORD:  As opposed to the Dean scream. 

OLBERMANN:  The fifth one, no props, notes, charts, diagrams, other writings, other things.  It‘s somewhat inclusive but does it favor one rather than the other? 

CRAWFORD:  I think it definitely is advantage Bush.  Because again going back to the Senate debate against William Weld, where Kerry really won that re-election, in those debates, he used charts and diagrams to great effect, to withering effect to that debate.  The Bush people don‘t want him to do that here. 

OLBERMANN:  And our cynical answer is, does Dick Cheney count as a prop. 

OK, the sixth element, there will be no direct questions from candidate to candidate, as Karen Tumulty mentioned. 

But rhetorical ones are OK.  Who does this work for? 

CRAWFORD:  I have to give advantage to bush on that one.  Any opportunity Kerry has to take it directly to Bush, that‘s what the Bush people don‘t want, because they want the president some distance from Kerry, not just in physical distance but rhetorically. 

OLBERMANN:  And once again, the lousy stinker answer agrees with that.  It is advantage, Bush.  He only took office on the understanding that there would be no direct questions. 

CRAWFORD:  Not even from the moderator. 

OLBERMANN:  Exactly or anybody.  Number seven, Mr. Crawford here, no questions shall be asked of a candidate in the final six minutes of the debate. 

Who does that favor and why? 

CRAWFORD:  That maybe advantage Kerry.  He can‘t even answer a question in less than six minutes. 

OLBERMANN:  And the cynics‘ answer agrees with you as well.  Advantage, Kerry, if randomly ad-libbing, Bush may return to the subject of OBGYN‘s.  That‘s actually interesting possibility.

And last one here, Craig, no television shots of the audience at the debates. 

Who liked that one and why? 

CRAWFORD:  That was a little tough to figure.  I think that may be the advantage Bush as well.  I think that takes the camera away from Kerry and the stage is time that Kerry is not on the air.  That‘s about the best I can do on that one. 

OLBERMANN:  The cynical explanation disagrees with you.  It is advantage Kerry, because it eliminates the president‘s planned closing statement to the live studio audience which was, you get a new car, and you get a new car, and you get a new car. 

Craig Crawford from MSNBC and “Congressional Quarterly,” as always, thanks for the info, and thanks for playing with our little stupid game here. 

CRAWFORD:  You‘re my winner in “Jeopardy.” 

OLBERMANN:  Thank you very much.  I‘ll tell Al Franken he owes me a dollar.  Thanks, Greg.

For the unique blend of this kind of political insight, with this kind of lame political humor, we invite to you join us for another special edition of COUNTDOWN, COUNTDOWN TO THE DEBATE, 6:00 p.m. Easter, 3:00 p.m.  Pacific, this Thursday on MSNBC.  Be there, aloha. 

Tonight, 72 hour to the campaign—to the debate rather.  The Kerry campaign pulling out a subtle stick from the Republican wood pile and trying to beat Mr. Bush over the head with it.  A newly released Kerry commercial entitled “He doesn‘t get it,” begins with a familiar phrase, “There he goes again.”  Who is that supposed to remind us of just before a debate? 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CARTER, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Governor Reagan, again, typically, is against such a proposal. 

GOV. RONALD REAGAN ®, CALIFORNIA:  Governor, there you go again.  You know, I was not going to say this at all.  But I can‘t help it.  There you go again. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There he goes again.  George Bush said Iraq was mission accomplished, 16 months later, he still doesn‘t get it.  Today, over 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead, kidnappings, even beheadings of Americans.  Still, Bush has no plan what to do in Iraq.  How can you solve a problem when you can‘t see it?  John Kerry‘s plan, train Iraqis to handle their own security, real elections, and work with allies to shoulder the burden.  It is time for a new direction in Iraq. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Of course, if Sylvester Stallone‘s mother is right.  Kerry and Bush campaigns can put away their advertising dollars and just go home.  Her psychic dogs have made their presidential predictions now.  Jackie Stallone says her pincher are forecasting a major pinching of Senator Kerry.  President Bush to win by 15 percent, she said.  Not so fast on the laugh track. 

In a “Los Angeles Times” article in 2000, she said the dogs told her -

·         Bush would beat Al Gore “by a couple hundred votes.”  On this program, she forecast an easy victory for both the California recall and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Of course, the dogs also told her Kobe Bryant was going to prison and they did not bother to tell her when she was actually on television with us, so that at the end of our interview, she asked, what kind of questions are you going to ask me? 

From dogs and democracy—it actually happened, to dogged democracy, the very real worries about election influence by terrorists here, by the U.S. Government there.  The CIA acknowledging today, a plan to pull strings in Iraq. 

And Florida‘s hurricane hangover.  The devastation and now the decisions to move or not to move. 

This is COUNTDOWN on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The situation in Iraq is getting worse.  The insurgency is getting more audacious and aggressive.  And the American presence has increased anti-Americanism throughout the world?  The platform of John Kerry, no.  The comments of Colin Powell. 

Our fourth story, elections here, elections there.  Including doubts about the authenticity of the voting in Iraq and Florida. 

And starting with the secretary of state‘s explanation, that events are worse in Iraq because of a focused effort to forestall the schedule, the Iraqi national elections in January. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE:  Yes.  It is getting worse.  The reason it is getting worse is that they are determined to disrupt the election.  They do not want the Iraqi people to vote for their own leaders in a free democratic election.  And because it is getting worse, we will to have increase our efforts to defeat it.  Not walk away and pray and hope for something else to happen. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi said voting would be possible tomorrow in 15 of his country‘s 18 provinces.  An alternative that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld embraced but Powell rejected.  Incidently, the three provinces where voting would not be safe include Baghdad, that‘s 25 percent of the population, and two critical Sunni provinces.  Among the 15 where it would are several provinces of made up of nothing but open desert and the occasional wandering nomadic tribe. 

An irony of timing, Secretary Powell‘s remarks were followed by an opinion piece this morning in the “Washington Post” by former president, Jimmy Carter.  He‘s wondering about the integrity about the integrity of the electoral process in the state of Florida.  Carter, co-chair with his predecessor Gerald Ford on the Blue Ribbon Commission that investigated Florida‘s 2000 voting debacle, says almost none of their panel‘s recommendation for de-politicizing the election have been followed in Florida. 

And he today writes that “The disturbing fact is that a repetition of the problems of 2000 now seems likely.  It is unconscionable to perpetrate or fraudulent or biased electoral practices in any nation,” he writes.  “With reforms unlikely at this late stage in this election, perhaps the only recourse will be to focus maximum public scrutiny on the suspicious process in Florida.” 

If president Carter‘s comments can be interpreted as a warning that there will be an attempt to influence or interrupt the November elections in this country, there‘s a certain bitter irony to that. 

As our correspondent Pete Williams reports, it is a similar sounding though far less domestic threat, one that Homeland Security officials are combating, in part by making as much noise as possible as they do so. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETE WILLIAMS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT, (voice-over):  Many U.S.  intelligence analysts believe terrorists tried to influence Spain‘s elections by attacking in March.  And that a terror group tried to do the same in Russia by crashing two planes in August.  That‘s one reason why U.S. security officials worry al Qaeda could be planning an attack to disrupt the U.S. Elections, even though flood of intelligence contain nothing concrete. 

ROGER CRESSEY, NBC NEWS TERRORISM ANALYST:  They‘ve not received any additional information beyond what they had in the spring timeframe.  There‘s still a general concern about an attack in the fall that could be time toward the election. 

WILLIAMS (on camera):  Even so, the officials at the Department of Homeland Security believe they have no choice but to act as if an attack is in the works.  The government plans an unprecedented deployment of federal agents.  Thousands nationwide, a highly visible show of determine nation. 

(voice-over):  Among the tactics, stepped up surveillance on a few hundred suspected sympathizers.  Detaining and arresting those whose immigration papers aren‘t in order.  Questioning recent arrivals from countries known to harbor terrorists.  Urging people who act as law enforce sources to press contacts for information.  And appealing to Arab-American communities for minute help in reporting anything suspicious.  Agents will review threats of rental trucks and limousines, even unconfirmed reports of stolen delivery service uniforms. 

ASA HUTCHINSON, HOMELAND SECURITY DEPT.:  So a substantial amount is being done, both from a deterrent, preventive method, and also, from a disruptive method. 

WILLIAMS:  And while no intelligence suggests an attack is more likely on election day, some states like Ohio and Minnesota are urging poll workers to pay closer attention to potential trouble.  With more than 180,000 polls nationwide, vote day security will be a largely local problem. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  May I see your voter‘s registration card. 

WILLIAMS:  And sensitive to concern that this October push could bring criticism of the administration trying to scare the electorate into voting Republican, security officials are going out of there way to insist, that they‘ve been planning this final push since the spring. 

Pete William, NBC News, Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  We worry about undue outside influence in our election, others worry about our undue outside influence in their elections.  On the one hand, the CIA was looking to get a little electoral shot in the arm to U.S. friendlies in Iraq.  More on that in a moment.  On the other, we seem to be in the middle of the old diminishing expectations game.  The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Republican Jim Kolbe of Arizona, telling a “The Los Angeles Times” that administration officials have told him privately that this country has set its sights a little lower in Iraq. 

“They‘ve definitely recalibrated their goals.  One of the told me when we went in there, I thought we would build American-style democracy.  Hell, I‘d be happy with Romanian-style democracy now.” 

Goodness knows this country has often tried to influence OPE, other people‘s elections.  But the question of how much we can help or would help burst from the pages of “Time” magazine today, when it revealed a covert plan to use the CIA to help friendly Iraqis win in January‘s votes. 

Our Andrea Mitchell has the advanced story, tying it back not just to Central Intelligence, but also to the National Security Council. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT, (voice-over):  With daily violence already threatening Iraq‘s January elections, the White House plan was for the CIA to secretly help pro American candidates.  But as first reported in “time” magazine, the plan was scaled back after Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi strongly objected to National Security Advisor Condoleezza rice.  Senator Ted Kennedy in an interview today with Chris Matthews. 

TED KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  If that were true, that would just shatter any credibility that the United States had, not only in Iraq but in the, across the Muslim world. 

MITCHELL:  In the past, the CIA has been criticized for trying to influence elections in Chile, Nicaragua, Italy and Portugal by financing newspapers and radio stations, running smear campaign.  Printing election posters, sometimes at CIA headquarters.  The plan for Iraq‘s election was so secret, it would have to be approved by the president.  The White House denies he was involved.  But the White House says the U.S. does need to counteract Iran‘s efforts to influence Iraq‘s voting. 

DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COMM. DIR.:  There was a real concern about the Iranians trying to have undue influence on the election process. 

MITCHELL:  Intelligence experts are say Iran is paying for television broadcasts seen widely in Iraq.  Arming and financing insurgents in Fallujah and Sadr City. 

ELLEN LAIPSON, IRANIAN INTELLIGENCE EXPERT:  They are pouring in money.  As far as we know, they have hundred if not thousands of agents of agents of influence in the country. 

MITCHELL:  Already the Iraqi prime minister says if the Sunni Triangle is still a war zone, only 15 of the 18 provinces are safe enough to vote in, and many experts say that is optimistic.  The administration plans to spend more than $150 million on Iraq‘s election.  It claim on public programs like voter registration, promising that the CIA plan is dead. 

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  From the horse race of elections to the real rat race that is every day life, by rat, we mean gorilla, chipmunk, rabbit.  “Oddball” ahead.

And the risk of oddballs with too much cash to burn.  Richard Branson now with a plan to send you into outer space if he can get himself a liquor license. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back and we pause the COUNTDOWN now for the segment named the quote “The best three minutes in all of television” by a guy who works on my staff.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

And we begin in England with “Oddball”‘s spectacular one-camera blowout coverage of the sporting event of the year, the big annual Grand National Mascot Derby at the Huntingdon Racecourse.  Over a dozen soccer team mascots ran.  We‘re not really sure why.  But, honestly, who cares?  A girl won.  The chipmunk fell down.  An owl finished second.  And in a special tribute to British soccer fans, the remaining mascots grabbed tire irons and loose two-by-fours and whacked each other into unconsciousness. 

To Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and we‘re going to need a bigger boat.  You have no doubt heard by now they have a bit of a shark problem there, a 2,000 pound great white, to be exact, which swam into the inlet here last week and has apparently decided to live there.  Woods Hole, incidentally, is where you catch the ferry to Martha‘s Vineyard and otherwise waste your time, otherwise known as Amity Island in the 1975 movie “Jaws.”  Researchers tagged the shark last week, but they have been unable to steer it clear back out to the ocean. 

I‘ll make this offer to the people of Woods Hole.  I‘ll find your fish for $3,000, but I‘ll catch him and I will kill him for that $10,000.  And I won‘t be riding no underwater jeep when I be doing it either, matey.

Ms. Sherry Eichorn (ph) Los Altos, California, was reading in bed.

Saturday night when one of her neighbors drove over to use the pool.  Nobody injured.  The owner simply parked the car at the top Ms. Eichorn‘s hill without putting on the emergency break.  And the rest was gravity.  Ms. Eichorn put up a humorous sign reading: “We don‘t swim in your driveway.  Please don‘t drive in our pool.”  Well, what about when there‘s flooding? 

Coming up, Florida‘s unwilling place in history.  After four hurricanes, what percentage of residents in the Orlando area do you suppose are thinking of moving?  There‘s actually an answer to that.  And later, this wedding is brought to you by—you will not believe the Star Jones nuptials sponsorship deals. 

First, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.

No. 3, Alfred French, a prosecutor in Clackamas County, Oregon.  He will be suspended for two weeks for having used office equipment to print an affidavit he signed for the swift boat ads.  He will not, however, be suspended for having lied for years about an affair with an office secretary.  OK, just as long as we have our priorities in order. 

No. 2, Walter Breuning of Montana, he gave up smoking cigars nine years ago because he could no longer afford them.  That got into the newspapers.  People sent him gifts of cigars, so he started smoking again, figuring it can‘t do him any harm at this point.  Mr. Breuning is, after all, 108 years old. 

And, No. 1, the True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo, which on Saturday opened inside its doors its own Subway sandwich franchise.  Oh, yes, I‘ll have the body of Jared with holy oil and vinegar—to go. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It is hard to imagine that Florida‘s run of four hurricanes in 44 days could possibly be near the low end of the American natural disaster scale.  But, in short, if Floridians think they have got problems, they should look at the latest from Mount Saint Helens. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, the cleanup in Florida and the anticipation of a possible big mess-up in Washington state, seismologists reporting that the volcano which erupted on May 18, 1980, blowing up part of the mountain, killing 57 people, ravaging hundreds of square miles, has been hiccupping.  A series of earthquakes, most of them at a depth less than a mile below the lava dome, began last Thursday.  They seem to be trailing off now.  These are still the old pictures, obviously. 

But officials are worried that—quote—“clearly, something new is happening.”  They‘re worried about the prospect of a—quote—“small explosion without warning.”  To them, a small explosion of Mount Saint Helens could litter a five-mile area north of the volcano with mud flows and rock debris and maybe some ash and steam. 

Pick your geology, pick your natural poison, a volcano in the Northwest, earthquakes along the Pacific Coast, tornadoes in the Midwest, hellish snowstorms in the East, and then the seemingly unending nightmare, one hurricane averaging every 11 days in Florida, 2.5 million without power there now and some residents talking about giving in, giving up, and moving out. 

First, where Hurricane Jeanne is now, downgraded to Tropical Depression Jeanne and moving steadily northward through Georgia and the Carolinas towards Washington, D.C., and then ultimately New York, a tornado warning still in effect for the coastal Carolinas. 

Florida got no such diluted product.  Jeanne hit their Saturday night, killing at least six and tying for the place formerly known as the Sunshine State the dubious record of four hurricanes in one season.  That was last recorded in Texas in 1886.  This latest storm followed almost the identical path from Hurricane Frances three weeks ago.  Ivan, the third hurricane chronologically, hammered the Panhandle.  The third one, Charley, it suddenly switched right and smacked into the state‘s Gulf Coast. 

Hurricane fatigue may pass, but not right at the moment.  An unscientific poll by an Orlando TV station asked residents now hit by three of the four storms there if they were now thinking of moving out of Florida and 31 percent of them said yes. 

Of course, leaving requires fuel and/or electricity.  Staying requires a conviction that Jeanne was the last of the load-bearing hurricanes.  Either option takes a lot of effort just now.  The hurricane season does not officially close until November 30.  And late-season storms tend to hit the one major area of the state not really affected by any of the first four, Miami and environs.  But that‘s tomorrow or next week or whenever. 

And, as Kerry Sanders reports from Port Saint Lucie, in the wake of Jeanne, tomorrow seems a long, long way away. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KERRY SANDERS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Like a repeat of a bad movie, Floridians once again dealing with heartache.  Today, for the first time, evacuees returned to see what was left, like Donald Base (ph). 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is where I live at.  This is where I used to live at would be a better question.  Where am I going to live now? 

SANDERS:  More than 148,000 people are in shelters, wondering the same thing; 2.5 million residents are without electricity.  In Port Saint Lucie, waits 90 minutes long for ice.  It‘s a routine learned during Frances.  Among the volunteers this time, 15-year-old Kendrick (ph) and 12-year-old Michael (ph).  No one told them to help.  They just showed up. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m doing it for them. 

SANDERS (on camera):  Airborne over the damage reveals just how extensive it is, roofs off houses.  And this is not just the hurricane season.  It is also the rainy season, which means a simple rain shower could make life here just that much more miserable. 

(voice-over):  In the crosshairs of three hurricanes this year, Orlando.  Ed Granahan (ph) was slammed every time. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s hard to deal with. 

SANDERS:  All four hurricanes have made this FEMA‘s largest ever response, including the 9/11 attacks. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Tomato soup, ravioli. 

SANDERS:  FEMA‘s Jana Pennington (ph) has hopscotched the state trying to keep up. 

CAMILLA CANARAS, HURRICANE VICTIM:  She must be here from God or something, because she helps. 

SANDERS:  Recovery will take some time.  In Punta Gorda, where Charley hit six weeks ago, FEMA only just delivered Amanda Somrani‘s (ph) new temporary home. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And home sweet home. 

SANDERS:  Kerry Sanders, Port Saint Lucie, Florida. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  At this point, Florida residents may be thinking outer space is an option.  If so, Richard Branson has an idea.  We‘ll show you that.  And Jay Leno is retiring from “The Tonight Show.”  His successor already named, not immediately, mind you.  There will be two presidential inaugurations before the big change. 

Right now, let‘s bring you COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Have the picture established to West Palm Beach, where last we saw Joe Scarborough.  He invoked by saying occasionally there were gusts of 120 miles an hour.  Then one came along and disconnected his microphone. 

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY”:  Come on!

OLBERMANN:  OK, Joe.  Go ahead. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I need to add this, that my children know discipline.  In fact, they were just reminded last night about discipline.  But if this is not a...

(LAUGHTER)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Probably want to keep that one to yourself, mom, you know? 

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  We‘ll just turn this into “Dr. Phil,” you know?

(LAUGHTER)

PEDRO MARTINEZ, BOSTON RED SOX:  No, I wish they would (EXPLETIVE DELETED) disappear.  Pardon me the F-word.  It was all me.  It was all me.  I wanted to bury myself in the mound.  What can I say?  Just take my heart and call the Yankees my daddy. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Out of this world.  Three years from now, you could be on a trip to the stars on gossamer wings with a drink in your hand for only $208,000.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  “Stop the world, I want to get off,” sang one Englishman, Anthony Newley, in 1961.  Get me $28,000 and I‘ll send you into space, sings another Englishman, Richard Branson, tonight.

Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, if Branson is right, by 2007, he will be able to take you into suborbital space for two or three hours.  And if he‘s really lucky, he‘ll be able to get a liquor license for the expeditions and you‘ll be able to experience a gin and tonic in zero gravity.  Branson plans to use the same technology that spent the world‘s first privately manned spaceship into orbit last June. 

That would send tourists into space, too.  Included in the ticket, an orbit 62 miles into space, four minutes of zero gravity, and even, license pending, intergalactic booze. 

We were going to show you the news conference at which the Virgin Atlantic mogul and balloonist unveiled his plans or even interview him here on COUNTDOWN.  Then we saw his animated presentation tape.  And just as we did when we saw the sales video for that Japanese high-tech toilet, we thought, you‘ve got to see this.  These people are so high. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Two, one. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Release.  And fire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Two questions.  Exactly what am I supposed to do with lunch during that part of the trip where we‘re going straight up?  And if you‘re applying for a liquor license outside the Earth‘s atmosphere, who are you applying to?  Booze in space!

Branson‘s time frame, flights starting in 2007, means the first three years of customers will still get to watch Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” our cousins at NBC leading off tonight‘s edition of “Keeping Tabs” with what is believed to be most long-range succession announcement in television history.  Jay Leno will retire from “The Tonight Show” and be succeeded by Conan O‘Brien five years from now in 2009 -- 2009!

No truth to rumors that Jay decided to retire after his staff today announced that I will be one of his guests on the 18th of October.  OK, that‘s it.  The announcement is timed to coincide with the celebrations of the 50th celebration of “Tonight,” which has had only four full-time hosts, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and of course Leno.  By the time of Jay‘s retirement, he will have hosted the program for 17 years. 

No successor for O‘Brien at “Late Night” was named.  But there is chance that, given the lead time, that individual has not been born yet, which might be an apt description for whoever at CBS floated a trial balloon picked up this morning by “The New York Post” that the network wants to pass the $550,000 fine for Janet Jackson‘s wardrobe malfunction on to Jackson herself. 

A—quote, unquote—“insider” tells the paper, CBS is playing with the idea.  Yes, that‘s close to what they‘re playing with.  In all probability, this will likely not happen, the source says, but they are mulling it over.  No source indicated anything about how hard Jackson would laugh if she were to get a bill from CBS after she had already been paid for her appearance. 

Somebody else in the entertainment field not exactly taking their real world pills, Olympic gold medalist Paul Hamm, the gymnastics all-around winner, the one whose win owed to the fact that the event scorers could not handle their math, whose victory was so dubious, not even Wheaties would put him on the box.  He is still fighting to keep his gold medal.  It is at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, where Korean Yang Tae-young and Hamm will face off.  The Korean was awarded the bronze medal, but because of the judge‘s mistake, he had technically won the gold. 

Hamm and the Americans‘ answer to that?  Hey, pal, judges make scoring errors all the time.  Live with it.  The International Olympic Committee basically took the same stance.  The appeal was today, the timing of the ruling uncertain.  If he loses, Hamm may also be ordered to face reality. 

And lastly in “Tabs,” billionaire oilman Marvin Davis has died at the age of 79.  Apart from his semi-annual attempt to buy the Oakland A‘s baseball team and move them to Denver, he will be best remembered for having owned the 20th Century Fox studio.  Mr. Davis was worth an estimated $5.8 billion.  He is believed to be explaining to his maker at this hour why on earth he sold Fox to Rupert Murdoch. 

Still ahead, for richer, for richer.  Nothing says true love like selling your wedding to the highest sponsor.  COUNTDOWN crowns the new Bridezilla. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  There are some romantics left.  These are the people afraid that the discussion of a prenuptial agreement will tempt fate or sour the love or get their beloved used to being in a lawyer‘s office.

And then, in our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, there is Star Jones, whose wedding is going to be sponsored, apparently, sponsored just shy of the point where she‘d be wearing a big neon sign on the back of her wedding dress reading, the wedding is brought to you by Sealy Posturepedic. 

The impending nuptials of the former New York City district attorney, now a host from TV and “The View,” Star Jones, to investment banker Al Reynolds, the wedding to take place in New York on November 13.  And according to “The New York Post,” it will be the first celebrity openly for-profit ceremony in history, the happy couple offering beauty companies the chance to provide the bridal spy for Jones and guests for just $4,500, or to surrender $1,500 bills apiece to underwrite Oscar-style gift bags, or finance the 10 best manicure-pedicure stations for the pre-ceremony declawing of the invited. 

It was P.T. Barnum who observed no one would ever go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.  But somehow you can‘t help wonder if Ms. Jones may have just disproved the old promoter. 

I‘m joined now by Tom O‘Neil, senior editor of “In Touch Weekly.”

Tom, good evening. 

TOM O‘NEIL, SENIOR EDITOR, “IN TOUCH WEEKLY”:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Is my umbrage appropriate here or are we belittling the first celebrity in this country who has been honest about trying to bring in a wedding at a profit, when lots of these people do these kinds of things without admitting it? 

O‘NEIL:  Exactly.  We‘re belittling Star at the expense of these other stars. 

Look what happened last Saturday, Keith.  Britney Spears charged a magazine $2 million for exclusive photos to a wedding that may not even be a wedding.  We don‘t even know if that thing was real or not. 

OLBERMANN:  Which has been said about her many times before.  But we‘ll just skip that for the moment. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  We always sit back and think, you know, this is it.  This is the case.  There will be a backlash from this from the public.  And we‘re just kidding ourselves, aren‘t we? 

O‘NEIL:  There already is a huge backlash.  Already in media circles today, people are screaming shakedown.  And I can see why.  Where does this lead us?  This is the first blatant attempt to sponsor a celebrity wedding.  What happens next?  Do they interrupt the ceremony so that the choir can break into a jingle from 1-800-FLOWERS?  If she and Al have twins, are they courtesy of Doublemint Gum? 

OLBERMANN:  I like that.

But what does it do on the other side of things?  What does it do to celebrities who are trying to—and I know there are fewer and fewer of them—but they still, some of them still try to hide their private moments and have a wedding without a pay-per-view broadcast of it. 

O‘NEIL:  Right.  And we just saw J.Lo do that earlier this year, which I thought was fascinating.  When she married Marc Anthony, she did it privately.  There was no big paycheck that went out to a magazine for photographs. 

But remember last year when she had three bogus weddings set up to, what‘s his name, Ben Affleck, that was a fiasco. 

OLBERMANN:  He sounds like he needs a sponsor in a hurry, by the way, the way that little—the Freudian slip right there. 

If this turns out with Mr. Jones and Mr. Reynolds getting divorced, do we know, do the companies get their money back? 

(LAUGHTER)

O‘NEIL:  That is a great question, Keith.  I don‘t know.  What do you think? 

OLBERMANN:  It would seem to me only fair if you‘re entering into a contractual agreement, that there should be some sort of minimum period of time where that logo is appearing on the shoulder of the bride or the groom. 

O‘NEIL:  I think they should write that into the contracts.  I think you‘re on to something here. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  But we‘re just making it easier for people to do this, easier to reduce the sacrament to something for profit. 

(CROSSTALK)

O‘NEIL:  But we‘ve done that all this year already.  Look at “The Bachelorette.”  We put together Trista and Ryan.  We sponsored the entire courtship as a television show.  The wedding was fully sponsored.  This is love in the 21st century, Keith.  I have bad news for you.  You‘re a romantic at heart.  You probably still believe in love. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes, I know.  I‘m a big sucker, which brings me to the last question. 

Since everything else is sponsored or underwritten in this deal, should we assume that somebody is paying Mr. Reynolds to marry this woman? 

O‘NEIL:  Actually, yes.  Everybody who agrees to be a corporate sponsor is paying them both to get married.  But we will see whether or not they can last the true test of time. 

OLBERMANN:  See, this is how the David Gest-Liza Minnelli thing turned out.  And he needs what?  He gets seven injections in his head a day or whatever it is, whatever the complaint was.  Anyway.

O‘NEIL:  I know.  And it‘s still in court.  And they haven‘t figured that one out there.

OLBERMANN:  Tom O‘Neil of “In Touch Weekly” magazine. 

Coincidentally, “In Touch” and COUNTDOWN are going to split the sponsorship costs of Ms. Jones‘ garter for the ceremony. 

(LAUGHTER)

O‘NEIL:  It‘s a deal. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  Well, it‘s a big garter. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Thanks so much for your time tonight, sir.

O‘NEIL:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  She‘s like a punching bag.  I‘m sorry.  I‘m normally nicer than this, though I‘m not that much nicer.

On that nightmare-inducing thought, that‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night and good luck.

END   

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