updated 9/30/2004 11:17:23 AM ET 2004-09-30T15:17:23

Guests: David Von Draehle, Richard Wolffe, Maury Povich

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? 

It‘s debatable: 41 percent of the country says the debates don‘t matter. 

Two new polls stay candidates are tied. 

Some TV folks say they don‘t like the rules. 

The fear factor, what happens if John Kerry convinces voters that Iraq and counter terrorism are a mess? 

Will they get scared into voting for the president? 

And away we go!  Private citizens in space!  Fasten your seat belts, it was a bumpy ride. 

And Washington is back in the big leagues.  Baseball moves in 33 years after it moved out.  Of course, as they used to say, Washington, first in war and last in the American league. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening, this is Wednesday, September 29, 34 days until 2004 presidential election. 

The old joke about the weather has been applied to many different locals.  If you don‘t like it, wait a little while, it will change.  And now we can now apply that to the ancient presidential opinion polls.  Two of which show the race tied or John Kerry leading. 

Our fifth story, the night before the first presidential pseudo debate.  New numbers disputing the conventional wisdom and new noise from the television networks disputing the wisdom of abiding by the debating rules. 

Math first.  The YouGov poll, conducted on behalf of the publication “The Economist,” showing a 46-46 tie, Ralph Nader at 2 percent, margin of error, 2 percent.  Kerry lead this poll by one point last week, Bush by a point the week before. 

In the “Christian Science Monitor”/”Investors Business Daily poll, the two are tied at 45 a piece, with Nader at 2 percent.  Bush lead this poll by 3 points as of the 18th.  Taking Nader out of that equations, the IDB/”Christian Science Monitor poll also shows Kerry up by a point.   

Perhaps a joke even better about waiting for the weather or the polls to change is, don‘t run for a bus, there will always be another one.  The next meaningful surveys will began to trickle out Friday, after the pseudo debate.  But yes, we even have poll about the very meaningfulness about the debates themselves.  Nbc news and the “Wall Street Journal” asking that question tonight, 19 percent of the respondents they are extremely important as to how they will vote, 12 percent said, quite important, 28 percent just somewhat important.  And perhaps the most telling of these numbers, 41 percent saying not at all important. 

All those numbers are down from 2000, except not at all important which is way up, up by half in fact.  And analyst guess that‘s because so many voters are already so locked into their choices.  In the real world when applying for a new job or making the case to keep your old one, the aim is to highlight your skills.  Hard sell yourself as an accomplished and capable performer.  Not so in that alternate universe we know as American politics, where the requisite pre-debate lowering of expectations is now in full swing. 

For months, the Bush campaign has pounded away at Senator Kerry, calling him a flip-flopping, soft on terror, self-inflicting war wound liberal.  But I asked them this week and the Massachusetts Democrat is suddenly in the word of Bush strategist Matthew Dowd, the best debater since Cicero.  Kerry himself equally complementary of the president skills, he‘s won every debate he‘s ever had.  He bad Ann Richards, he beat Al Gore, people need to understand that.  Kind of curious when you consider that both men had the same debate teacher at Yale.

Joining to us talk pseudo debates and polls, expectations, MSNBC political analyst and “Congressional Quarterly” columnist, Craig Crawford. 

Craig, good evening. 

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hi there.  I love the job application comparison.  Imagine going negative on the other applicants, that what it would take. 

OLBERMANN:  If you had a 527 group working for you, that would be a big help. 

CRAWFORD:  Yes, wouldn‘t that help.  Yes.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  You‘re in Miami.  Let‘s start with these Bush and Kerry quotes, and I‘m remind of Lou Holtz when he was the football coach of Notre Dame—University, inevitability would say of the upcoming opponent, a great team to be feared and respected.  Even if that opponent was South Bend high school‘s J.V. 

CRAWFORD:  I think the bush people almost mocked their own argument saying that Kerry is better than Cicero.  I think that, in the expectations game, which is always played, that‘s really going pretty far. 

OLBERMANN:  Do we know how good an debater Cicero actually was? 

CRAWFORD:  I‘ve wondered.  And I have a feeling he probably didn‘t bother with downplaying expectations ahead of time.  I don‘t know.

OLBERMANN:  As to the contents themselves, too fascinating pieces of data from the NBC poll about what one goal voters felt was most important about each candidate tomorrow night.  The first one, for Senator Kerry, it was a clear and consistent domestic plan, followed right behind that with a clear and consistent defense plan, and not too far behind either of those things, show he‘s strong leader. 

Is there a theme in these three answers about consistency? 

CRAWFORD:  Yes.  I would say, don‘t flip-flop.  Those responses are showing how the flip-flopping case against Kerry is working.  As people don‘t expect him to be clear and consistent, and that‘s what they‘re looking for.  And he‘d certainly better provide that tomorrow night for his own good. 

OLBERMANN:  And for the president.  The number one thing on that poll, if we can see the graphic again, almost more so than number two and three combined, showing that he is willing to adjust his policy when‘s they are not working.  If you were advising the president, what does that 37 percent say to you to tell him? 

CRAWFORD:  People are looking for a little more flexibility out of the president.  He‘s gotten a lot of mileage out of being forthright and resolved in his decisions, but there‘s an indication—and I think he understands this.  I think the Bush administration understood this sometime ago when the president came out and said, that he had miscalculated the aftermath of the war in Iraq.  I think they‘re conscious of that.  And it‘s all about stubbornness vs. flip-flopping now.  Those are the two character types, almost in a cartoon fashion that we‘ve seen put forth in this campaign. 

OLBERMANN:  But coming from the campaign headquarters themselves, are we getting any indication that President Bush would do that?  Because, obviously, there‘s a down side to saying, we misunderstood the after effect of the shooting war in Iraq, that it would be worse than the shooting war.  You suddenly say that, does now John Kerry come down like a ton of bricks? 

CRAWFORD;  You bet.  It they‘ve done all the conceding they were going to do back when he said they had miscalculated.  Although, it might unnerve Kerry a bit if Bush did give an inch on something.  It could throw Kerry off.  Who know, they might not be expecting that.  But still, I think this close to the election, the president‘s going to be resolve, to put it nicely or stubborn, as others would say. 

OLBERMANN:  In term of the big picture polls that we mentioned at the start here, there‘s still, obviously, a larger and more prevalent and more quoted set that indicates there is a four to six or even more point lead for Mr. Bush.  But these two from the “Christian Science Monitor” and “the Economists” suggesting a tie. 

Is somebody way off base here?  Is it nearly a tie or nearly a blowout right now? 

CRAWFORD:  I think this campaign is coming down to one or the other. 

There‘s not a lot in between.  Of course, if it is a tie like these polls show on election day, then we‘re not going to know who is president until December when the Supreme Court decides.  But the campaign is tight.  I‘ve never bought a lot of these blowout poll that we‘ve seen.  And I could easily be wrong.  But it feels so much tighter than those other polls, that we had seen.  And of course, what‘s happening in the individual battleground states is what‘s important also.  We‘re not seeing a lot of those big leads in those states.  So, I really do think this is a very close election.  And tomorrow night might just ratify that and we go on to the next debates with the same situation. 

OLBERMANN:  Lastly about tomorrow night and tying this all together, is there beginning to be a sense of some sort of back lash that this is tomorrow, it is not a debate per se?  It is not Lincoln vs. Douglas.  It‘s not even Kennedy vs. Nixon. 

Is there some feeling, that perhaps we‘re getting short changed by the way these simultaneous bipartisan speeches are going to be made tomorrow night? 

CRAWFORD:  Well, we always hope for the best.  That these candidates come out, don‘t play it safe, actually tell us what they think, get to the gut of the matter and that just doesn‘t always happen.  Given where—and I think this is where we get back to the poll.  If this race is as tight as I think it is, and as I think the campaigns think it is, these candidates might be fairly aggressive tomorrow night.  If Bush out there and just ropes-a-dope and just tries to get through it without falling down, then you‘ll know, his campaign thinks they really are as far ahead as these poll show.  But I don‘t think he‘ll do that.  I think we‘re going to see a very aggressive President Bush, because I think he knows, he has not put this in the bag yet. 

OLBERMANN:  Something else to look for tomorrow night.  Craig Crawford will be there.  MSNBC and “Congressional Quarterly,” as always, sir, great thanks. 

CRAWFORD:  Good to talk to you. 

OLBERMANN:  So, we have a date for the first debate, tomorrow in case you‘ve been out of the loop or you‘re just joining us from another dimension.  We also have a place.  We have two candidates.  We have 32 page of details outlining everything from the podium height to the camera angles.  There‘s one small problem.  The campaign may have reached agreement on all that, the television networks have not.  They say they not only object being told how to cover a news event, they plan to ignore many of those request.  They will use whatever camera‘s and angles that strike their fancy. 

Cut-away shots are what made it possible after all, for us to see the first President Bush checking his watch during a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton.  Not to mention Al Gore sighing when then Governor Bush was answering four years ago.  And as for what may transpire tomorrow behind the camera or in front of it, the official statement around these parts, from NBC News is, we will “use pictures as we see fit.”

A programming reminder again about tomorrow, we invite to you join us on a special edition of COUNTDOWN.  COUNTDOWN to the pseudo debate.  Tomorrow at 6:00 p.m. eastern, 3:00 p.m. Pacific right here on MSNBC.  Be there, aloha. 

And then there‘s the debate about over Ralph Nader, not only to be to be absent from tomorrow‘s little clam bake in Florida, but also from the ballots in Ohio and Wisconsin.  The buckeye state, secretary of state ordering the board of elections to remove Nader/Cuomo ticket there, because it failed to turn in 5,000 valid signatures as required. 

Yet in Wisconsin, a measure of hope remains.  A state judge has already kicked Nader off the ballot there, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court has not yet ruled on whether or not it will take on an appeal of that decision. 

Senator John Kerry has always been called a strong closer, but does he run the risk of his campaign strategy working so well that he‘ll actually scare people into voting for his opponents, fear factor. 

And a more tangible fear, captors of a British man in Iraq release another tape plea by him to Britain‘s prime minister.  Could something like this happen now here between now and the election? 

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Candidates and catastrophe: John Kerry taking the president head on on the security questions.  But could such an argument backfire on him in the long run.  Stand by more on the debates after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  What would happen if tomorrow night, all those debate viewers who think things are going well in Iraq or in the war on terror were suddenly convinced otherwise by Senator John Kerry?  Would they vote for the senator, or would they thank him for lifting the wool from their eyes and vote for Mr. Bush anyway. 

Our 4th story in the COUNTDOWN: Perception and debate from revised signals about Iraq to really revised signals from Dick Cheney.  A former CIA official telling the Washington Post today that colleagues inside their agency characterized the policy in Iraq as, quote, “a disaster” with quote, “no obvious way to fix it.” 

An army officer, concurring with Secretary of State Powell from Sunday that the situation on the ground is quote, “getting worse.” 

Another telling “The Post,” “there is a feeling that Iraqi security forces are in cahoots with the insurgents and the general public to get the occupiers out.”  Against that back drop, it was a poor time from the vice president‘s point of view for the newspaper, “The Seattle Post Intelligencer” to dredge up Mr. Cheney‘s comments about the price of removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  Comments from 1992.  That an appearance in Seattle in August 1992, to then secretary of defense, responded to an audience question about leaving Saddam in power in Iraq after the Gulf War.  He answered, “the question, in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth?”  And the answer, is not very damned many.

Today, Democratic vice presidential nominee, John Edwards, noted the story and what critics might call a flip-flop. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS, (D-NC) VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  12 years ago, Dick Cheney was saying there‘s a great danger and a great risk of going in and occupying a country like this and getting bogged down there.  And then, you know, now 12 years later, where are we?  Oh, yes.  We‘re exactly in this place. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Through a spokeswoman, the vice president has responded to the inconsistency tonight by saying, September 11 changed everything.  But you probably guess that had already. 

For several weeks, in a campaign recalibration, Senator Edwards and Senator Kerry have been describing the place that Senator Edwards just mentioned in the graphic terms.  Kerry is expected to hit the theme hard tomorrow night in the pseudo debate, that the president‘s strategy in Iraq has made the country less safe, that it has marginalized the hunt for Osama bin Laden, that it has heightened American or anti-American sentiment worldwide. 

It is a quote, “high risk strategic shift,” according to two of Kerry‘s advisers quoted today by “The Washington Post.”  David Von Draehle is a national political reporter for that newspaper.  And he join us now.  Mr. Von Draehle, good evening. 

DAVID VON DRAEHLE, WASHINGTON POST:  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Back to the question that I posed at the start of this segment, if Senator Kerry hit a home run tomorrow night and got the country thinking, we‘re in a lot of trouble in these areas, who gains politically there?  Himself or the president? 

VON DRAEHLE:  Well, we‘ll to have see, Keith.  It‘s a high risk strategy, as my colleague said in the paper this morning.  You can tell it is risky, because John Kerry has had to be dragged to it.  He tried for much of the summer to try to change the subject of this election away from national security to the economy and the jobs and the domestic issue.  He wasn‘t able to do it. 

With each day of increasingly bad news out of Iraq, the voters are more and more focused on this.  People see it as issue No. 1.  And Kerry has to talk about it. 

But his problem is, in most of the polls, he trails President Bush right now by double digits on questions of who is the strongest and who is the best position to defend us.  So he is taking this chance that he can raise the profile of the issue without boosting his opponent‘s numbers. 

OLBERMANN:  So Kerry‘s strategy tomorrow, and in the rest of the campaign has to be deeper than just, we‘re in a mess of trouble.  Does it have to be, we‘re in a mess of trouble and you Mr. Bush have spent more time trying to make voters worry about Democrats than about terrorists? 

VAN DRAEHLE:  Yes.  I think that‘s exactly the direction that he goes.  He has to say, look at the facts in front of you.  Is this your vision of successful war?  However you define the mission.  It doesn‘t look, at least, like it is going very well.  And you talked about another story in our paper this morning that had key people in the CIA, and the United States armed forces talking about how badly it is going. 

OLBERMANN:  And when he raises it, of course, he has to phrase it in the form of a rhetorical question if he does that as well. 

Harkening back to one of the interior numbers in the NBC poll, the one about which of five goals is most important for each of the candidates in the debate to reach.  For the president, he hands down again, showing that he is willing to adjust his policies when they are not working, 37 percent. 

To some degree, is that statistic—although, poll numbers are wildly unreliable in some areas, given that that is as huge as it is, is that to some degree evidence that Kerry‘s tactical switch has made some impact on voters, making this Iraq question an Iraq question? 

VON DRAEHLE:  Yes.  Absolutely.  The voters are smart.  Everybody is -

·         I think everyone in America is unsettled by what is happening over there, to say the least.  And President Bush is continuing to present a rosier scenario than what most people are seeing with their own eyes. 

And so I think there is this feeling that, well, does he get it?  Is he responsive to what is going on over there?  And at what point does steadfastness, resolution, resolve, bleed over into stubbornness or inflexibility built? 

OLBERMANN:  It will be a fascinating thing to look for tomorrow night in the reactions of the days after.  We appreciate your time tonight.  Thank you. 

VON DRAEHLE:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  If politics on the campaign does not scare you enough, perhaps a trip to the amusement park will.  Oddball is next.  That‘s an animation by the way.

And if not to the amusement park, how about a trip to the stars?  Not exactly on gossamer wings.  Is it supposed to vibrate like this, captain? 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back.  And we pause the COUNTDOWN now for the segment that 3 out of 4 MSNBC producers call television at the best.  And the 4th producer was just let go.  Let‘s play ODDBALL.

We begin in the futuristic cyber world of Jackson, New Jersey circa 2005.  It is here at the Six Flags Amusement Park where you all bow down before Kingda Cah, the world‘s tallest and fastest roller coaster.  They have released this computer animation of the 456-foot behemoth with little computer generated people suffering computer generated whiplash. 

The ride on Kingda Cah will last just 50 seconds, reaching top speeds of nearly 130-mile-per-hour.  Almost as fast as rush hour on the New Jersey Turnpike. 

The song, “Plastic Jesus” is from the movie “Cool Hand Luke.”  where this plastic Jesus is from is anybody‘s guess.  But border patrol agents found it last month on a sandbar in a river near Eagle Pass, Texas.  And the faithful, 200 of them a week, have concluded it is divine, because despite being in the river, it is not all that banged up. 

I don‘t care if it rains or freezes as long as I have got my plastic Jesus sitting on the dashboard of my car.  Comes in colors pink and pleasant.  Glows in the dark, because it‘s iridescent.  Travel—take it with you when you travel far.

And the records are a little spotty, but we saw a tradition upheld in baseball last night.  One that‘s about a century old.  It was July 8, 1907.  The Chicago Cubs first baseman and manager Frank Chance was hit by a soda bottle during a game in Brooklyn.  He promptly picked it up and threw it back in the crowding a boy on his leg. 

Last night in Los Angeles, Dodgers right fielder Milton Bradley did the same thing.  And in tribute to his recent bad luck, when he threw it, he missed.  Didn‘t hit nothing. 

Returning to the serious headlines, another plea from British captive Kenneth Bigley to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, this time Blair answers. 

And if you think politics here are strange, how about meeting the newest candidate for president of the liberated Iraq? 

Those stories ahead.  First here are COUNTDOWNS top 3 newsmakers of this day.  No. 3, Steven Konopatzke of Montana, arrested as he attempted to board a flight to Michigan with his components for a crystal methamphetamine lab in a carry-on bag.  Yes, even the T.S.A. screeners sat up and took notice. 

No. 2, Brian Miser.  He will not be shot out of a cannon.  His lighter fluid doused costume set ablaze by his wife and assistant Tina at this week‘s visit of the circus to Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Authorities say the human cannonball part is OK, but the flaming human cannonball is inappropriate, because this is the eve of fire prevention week in Grand Rapids. 

And No. 1, Justice Antonin Scalia of our Supreme Court.  Speaking at Harvard University last night, he gave voice to his usual themes that dangers with anti-sodomy laws, the inappropriateness of racial profiling, et cetera.  And then he said that none of his views were personal, only legal.  Quoting him, I even take the position that sexual orgies eliminate social tensions, and ought to be encouraged. 

Now judge, I would like to you meet Mr. And Mrs. Flaming human cannonball. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  While the administration has warned repeatedly and vaguely about terrorist hopes of intervening in the election by some kind of spectacular act, it may be possible that in Iraq and England right now, we are seeing the template for a much more efficient means of influencing political decisions. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, the abducted British civil engineer Kenneth Bigley has been shown on videotape again pleading for his life again.  And for the first time, the prime minister of his country has responded.  In the latest plea, Mr. Bigley has thrown or has been directed to throw by his captors a gauntlet into Britain‘s upcoming political campaign by accusing Tony Blair of lying. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNETH BIGLEY, HOSTAGE:  Mr Blair says he won‘t negotiate with terrorists.  The French are negotiating with these people to release hostages.  I am begging you, I am begging you to speak and push Blair, push Blair, to help me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The timing seems to be not accidental.  With the general election probably just eight months away, both Blair‘s Labor and the opposition Conservatives are holding their party conferences, events once described in simpler times as organized panic. 

In an interview conducted during the Labor conference, the prime minister responded. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER:  The difficulty here is that we are trying to make contact with this particular group, because these are outside people.  They‘re not Iraqis that are holding these people.  They‘re outside terrorist groups.  And we‘re trying to make contact with them.  And we‘re doing everything we possibly can.  As I always say to people, it is probably better if I don‘t go into details of all that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  One recent poll showed Blair and Labor only two points ahead of their rivals, the Conservative Party.  Another found that only 38 percent of Britons believed the war in Iraq was justified. 

Are we in fact seeing not a mindless act of brutality and psychological torture, but a geopolitical act as impactful of any train bombing? 

For some perspective, I‘m joined now by Richard Wolffe, a diplomatic correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine.

Mr. Wolffe, good evening.   

RICHARD WOLFFE, DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT, “”NEWSWEEK”:  Good to be with you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Did the Tawhid and Jihad group, Kenneth Bigley‘s captors, just luck into the timing in England?  Or is this as politically sophisticated a plan as it seems to be on the surface? 

WOLFFE:  Well, it is hard to get into their minds, but these people have shown themselves to be really politically astute. 

We‘ve seen al Qaeda affiliates try and intervene in the Madrid election in Spain.  And what‘s particularly interesting about this one, obviously, it is very poignant and heartrending hearing anyone beg for their life.  But the pleadings are targeted very specifically toward Tony Blair. 

And there, the terrorists who have hit on a weak spot.  Tony Blair has spent all his political capital on Iraq.  And as you heard, as you said, public opinion has turned against him on that. 

OLBERMANN:  Should we be on guard for exactly this kind of thing relating to this country in the next 34 days? 

WOLFFE:  Absolutely. 

We‘ve already seen the kind of hostage-taking, the pace of that increasing.  The fact that America is holding an election right now is no secret.  And the terrorists have a stake in it, too.  We‘ve had administration officials try to play that in their own favor.  But there‘s no question that they‘re trying to apply political pressure on the coalition, trying to split off members of the coalition that are perceived to be weaker and exploit that political difference. 

OLBERMANN:  There‘s an entirely different edge, as you suggested, to the Bigley situation, as opposed to being some sort of template for us to be worried about.  But this was voiced by a senior U.S. official who told NBC News today, it appears to be an effort to split the U.S. and the U.K., as you suggested. 

Let me start with whether or not that reading is sound.  And, if it is, what are the implications?  What is the methodology there? 

WOLFFE:  Well, for starters, I think it is going to work.  Tony Blair has invested, as I said, his political capital in Iraq.  He is not going to back out of this. 

And it is extremely unlikely that he would engage in any meaningful negotiation with these terrorists.  Frankly, it is just as unlikely that Blair would pull out as it is that Kerry would under this kind of pressure.  These are just not going to happen.  What they are trying to do, though, the terrorists, is apply public pressure and turn the public mood even more against the governments. 

That‘s where these terrorists—we originally thought that al Qaeda were unlike any other kind of terrorists.  Zarqawi may be an affiliate of al Qaeda, but he is showing the same kind of political goals as we‘ve seen from terrorists throughout the ages.  There are political goals here.  They want to shift public opinion against the occupation. 

OLBERMANN:  Is there an impact they could have on the British elections that we could use as a warning towards the kind of impact that would be seen here?  Obviously, the British have a flexible election schedule.  It has been talked of as next May for the next general election.  But it could be as late as 2006. 

Could they be influencing timing?  What sort of things might actually result as the fallout from whatever happens to the case of Mr. Bigley? 

WOLFFE:  Well, a couple of immediate things. 

For a start, the number of British troops in Iraq is substantially lower than it was during the peak of combat.  And these kinds of events make it extremely unlikely that Britain will supply any more troops any time soon, no matter how bad the situation gets.  So, in that sense, the worsening situation, a lack of public support, has affected the coalition quite directly. 

Tony Blair does have an advantage over any American president because he can call the time of his own election.  So he can call it to his advantage.  But you‘ve got to remember, British public opinion was much more in favor of the war than any other part of continental Europe.  So there has been a decline.  But the message for American politicians is, you have got to keep people on your side.  If people don‘t know what the mission is about, then that public support can dribble away very quickly. 

OLBERMANN:  Richard Wolffe of “Newsweek” magazine, great thanks for your insights, sir.

WOLFFE:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  The release of two Italian hostages, meanwhile, has created an entirely different kind of controversy, as a senior parliamentary in Italy official accused their own government of paying a ransom to free the two women. 

Aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta returned safely to Rome last night from Iraq.  And almost immediately, the chairman of the Italian Parliament‘s Foreign Affairs Committee said the government paid $1 million to save the women.  “In principle,” said Gustavo Selva, “we shouldn‘t give in to blackmail, but this time we had to.”  Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi has flatly denied that the government paid any ransom or conducted any negotiations with terrorists. 

And just to add a mad coda to today‘s news from a mad world, when you create a democracy, you just never know who will take advantage of it and run for office  The new presidential candidate in Iraq, Saddam Hussein.  That‘s what his lawyer, Giovanni Di Stefano, tells London‘s newspaper “The Mirror,” that Saddam intends to get his name on the ballot for January‘s elections and with it, the names of many of his former Baath Party henchmen. 

Di Stefano pointed out that, in the last election, Hussein got 98 percent of the vote.  But, curiously, he also cited what he called a Gallup poll from Iraq that indicates, while 42 percent wanted to see Saddam elected or reelected, 40 percent wanted to see him executed.  But unfortunately for Mr. Di Stefano and his client, Gallup never took a poll about Saddam being reelected.  And when it asked Iraqis about his possible execution, 61 percent were in favor, not 42 percent.  So this ain‘t exactly going to the Electoral College. 

Moving from out of his gourd to out of this world, SpaceShipOne shooting for the star and a possible prize of $10 million.  For a while, the goal became: “Stop this crazy thing.  Help, Jane.”

It‘s too crowded in Florida.  It is too close to the street in Connecticut, but they have found a jail for Martha Stewart that‘s just right somewhere else.  That‘s ahead. 

First, here the COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”)

JAY LENO, HOST:  Well, the terror level on John Kerry‘s face has now been raised to orange. 

(LAUGHTER)

LENO:  What is the story on Kerry?  Is he changing colors?  No, shown him last—here is the actual photo, unretouched. That‘s last week.  Last week, this is unretouched.  Show yesterday.  Look at this. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We‘ve got proctors in the audience with microphones.  You‘ll note they‘re the people in the orange shirts. 

LYNNE CHENEY, WIFE OF VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY:  Dick, what do those orange shirts remind you of? 

(LAUGHTER)

L. CHENEY:  I‘ll say it.  How about John Kerry‘s suntan? 

(LAUGHTER)

D. CHENEY:  We‘re trying to bring her along here.  But she‘s doing good.  That was a good line. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I usually cut my own hair.  But I just have stuff to cut my hair (INAUDIBLE) Well, he‘s drinking a beer and getting his hair cut in the middle of the day. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Budweiser!

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Losing gravity and losing your lunch.  The latest step towards getting tourists in space goes, eh—next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Thirty-five years ago, Neil Armstrong said one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.  He was supposed to say one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.  It can be argued that the outer space quotation business began its sad and inexorable decline that day. 

In our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, evidently, we‘re down to

·         quote—“Now, that was fun.”  That‘s what the guy said who piloted SpaceShipOne to the edge of space and back today. 

Our esteemed correspondent George Lewis, who has been on quite a run of these out-of-the-world stories lately, was on the ground on the Mojave Desert as what went up came down. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE LEWIS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Just after dawn this morning, SpaceShipOne, latched to its carrier plane, took off from California‘s Mojave Airport heading for an altitude of 47,000 feet. 

An hour later, the two aircraft parted company and 63-year-old pilot Mike Melvill, blasting towards space. 

MIKE MELVILL, PILOT:  Traveling now at 100,000 feet per minute.

LEWIS:  But it didn‘t go exactly as planned.  The spaceship, buffeted by shifting wind currents known as wind shear, began rolling, turning at about 20 to 30 revolutions per minute.  Ground controllers advised Melvill to shut down his rocket early.  He did that and, using all his skills as a veteran test pilot, was able to bring the ship under control, reaching an altitude of 337,000 feet, the lower edge of outer space. 

Once on the ground, he laughed it all off with a touch of right-stuff bravado. 

MELVILL:  I‘m very happy with how it worked out.  And a victory roll at the top of the climb is important for an air show pilot. 

LEWIS:  His boss said the design of the ship prevented a disaster. 

BURT RUTAN, SCALED COMPOSITES:  That would be an accident if it happened on the space shuttle or the X-15.  No question we would be looking for small pieces now. 

LEWIS (on camera):  What they‘re trying to do out here in Mojave is prove it is feasible to have commercial spaceflights with passenger on board.  If they make two successful test flights in two weeks, they win a $10 million award, the Ansari X Prize.

(voice-over):  And on Monday, British airline tycoon Richard Branson announced the deal with Rutan‘s company to fly passengers on rocket ships by the year 2007, the cost, about $200,000 a ticket. 

But today‘s flight raises the question:  How many passengers would pay that kind of money for this kind of ride? 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEWIS:  Now, what they‘re trying to determine is if they have some serious problems with the spacecraft.  If not, their next flight could go as early as Monday of next week—Keith.

OLBERMANN:  George, are there people who have already made reservations here, and after today‘s little spin roll, are they reconsidering them? 

LEWIS:  We actually talked to some people today watching this thing who have made reservations to go into space.  And, no, they don‘t have any reservations about their reservations.  They want to go. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, I guess you‘re going to get a lot for your $200,000. 

George Lewis near Mojave, California, great thanks. 

LEWIS:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  And keep watching the skies. 

LEWIS:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  From civilians in space to celebrities in stir, a big surprise for Martha Stewart leading tonight‘s segment “Keeping Tabs.” 

She wanted to go to jail in Connecticut or Florida.  She‘s going to jail in West Virginia.  The Justice Department announced that today they can blame the weather for part of this, at least the Florida part, damage to prisons there leading to overcrowding.  As for Connecticut, they say the Danbury is too close to public streets and paparazzi could take Ms.  Stewart‘s photo endlessly. 

I had relatives who lived near there, and they‘re right.  So, instead, the high doyen of household hints will be assigned to the federal prison at Alderson, West Virginia.  And that might not be so bad for the domestic diva, in so much as Alderson‘s nickname is Camp Cupcake. 

A brief moment of self-serving promotion.  I am on “Last Call With Carson Daly” tonight on your local NBC station.  Probably, they should have a picture Carson there and not me, because, of course, they‘ve run out of guests.  Actually, Al Franken and I are on at the same time.  We‘re still replaying that “Jeopardy” incident. 

Lastly from “Tabs,” unless you are or were from New York, the name may not register, but the voice will.  A broadcasting legend is dead. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) 

SCOTT MUNI, DEEJAY:  Hi, everybody.  This is Scott Muni.  I started playing the Beatles to start my show each day.  We want to continue to do that.  And, of course, it is goodbye and hello.  I say goodbye.  You say hello.  Or I‘ll say hello.  And you stay right where you are. 

(END AUDIO CLIP) 

OLBERMANN:  Scott Muni was a New York disc jockey and radio executive, probably the New York disc jockey from the late 1950s through the heyday of top 40 into the FM rock era, right up until yesterday.  For a decade, he was also the sports promotional voice for ABC Television.  He did commercials, national radio programs as well. 

He may have been the first person to be called the fifth Beatle.  Scott Muni, the professor, had suffered a stroke earlier in the year.  He was 74 years old. 

Richard Nixon was president.  There was no such thing as a designated hitter and Barry Bonds was 7 years old the last time Washington, D.C., had a Major League Baseball team.  It has one tonight.  Why that matters with chief fan Maury Povich—next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Thirty-three years ago tomorrow night, the Washington Senators, playing their last baseball game before moving to Texas, where they would ultimately be owned by a man named George W. Bush, were leading the New York Yankees 7-5 with two out in the ninth inning. 

It was at this point that Washington‘s fans, who had already seen previous teams move out of the capital in 1960, 1900, 1889, 1884, 1875, 1873, and 1872 stormed the field and refused to leave.  Some said it was the most enthusiasm Washington‘s baseball fans had ever shown.  The umpires had no choice.  They forfeited the game to the Yankees and Washington‘s baseball history seemed to end with both a bang and a whimper. 

But in our No. 1 story tonight, Washington is back.  It will have its eighth big league franchise next season.  The Expos, the long moribund baseball franchise in Montreal, will move to Washington for 2005, protracted negotiations finally completed today.  In some senses, they‘ve been going on since the old Senators moved out, the last time, incidentally, a big-league ball club changed cities. 

The Expos‘ last game in Montreal was tonight.  A fan at that game threw a golf ball that landed near second base.  The players were waved into the dugout as a precaution.  So they didn‘t know it was a golf ball.  The game resumed about 10 minutes later, as the great tradition of last games in soon-to-be-lame-duck cities continues. 

For any Washingtonian over the age of, say, 40, today is like finally getting the bicycle they were denied on Christmas 1971 or maybe the Holy Grail they‘ve been seeking for even longer than that. 

Few are better qualified to comment on these dramatic developments than my next guest, a former Washington sports journalist himself, a former Senators team batboy, and the son of “The Washington Post” sports editor who chronicled the Senators from 1924 until they left for Texas. 

A pleasure to welcome the host of “The Maury Show,” Maury Povich. 

Good evening.

MAURY POVICH, HOST, “THE MAURY SHOW”:  Keith, nice to be with you. 

OLBERMANN:  Congratulations.  Can you express this in mere words? 

POVICH:  Well, this is sky-high country right now.  I wasn‘t really scheduled to be here in Washington.  And it‘s kind of the stars are in line and my father is applauding from heaven.  And this is a great moment. 

And I can tell you this.  In Washington, D.C., you know, where they use politics as ground chuck every day, that will be on page two tomorrow, the day of the great debate, and baseball coming to Washington will be page one. 

OLBERMANN:  Now, there were those six Washington teams that went out of business in the 19th century.  And the old Senators won a pennant in 1933, and that was the last time.  And they won a World Series in 1924, and that was the last time.

POVICH:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  And they were so bad so long that the saying developed, Washington first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. 

POVICH:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  The team only drew one million fans once.  And that was in 1946. 

I know it‘s a great day of optimism.  And I know I‘m being something of a wet blanket.  But why will it be any different this time? 

POVICH:  Because it will. 

Because it will because Washington, you‘re talking about attendance back in the day where there were 16 teams in the American League.  There was little television being exposed and everything like that.  And Washington fans are great fans.  Just ask Peter Angelos, who is trying to hold Washington hostage because—and he says that Maryland and Baltimore are going to unfortunately be damaged by all this.

And it‘s all about money.  And he‘s holding us for ransom and he‘s been making his behind-the-scene deals with baseball.  And, in reality, Washington is one of the great markets in the country, great television market, the most powerful city in the world, according to my father, and I think he‘s right.  And we deserve a baseball team.

And we‘ve been denied that baseball team for 33 years.  And I was there in 1971.  And I covered that game in which we had to forfeit.  And I remember when I had to put it on the air for Channel 5 here where I was working as a sportscaster.  I used Graham Nash‘s “Better Days” as my theme song when Washington went down.

OLBERMANN:  It was kind of exciting out there, but not in the sense that anybody wanted it to be.

POVICH:  No, not at all.

OLBERMANN:  As you know, shortly after that, the San Diego Padres made a deal to move to Washington in ‘74.

POVICH:  I know.

OLBERMANN:  And they had a press conference, like they had one today.

POVICH:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  And they had designed new uniforms, which they displayed.  And they even printed the baseball cards with Washington National League on them.  And that deal fell through.  Are you sure this one is not going to fall through?  Is this signed, sealed and delivered? 

POVICH:  It better not.  It better not. 

It better not, because if it does—I‘ve had this theory for years and years about what baseball owners think about Washington and why they‘ve been on the wrong side of reality for a long, long time.  I mean, this city is made up of a majority of nonwhite people.  We have not had a baseball team for 33 years.  A lot of people don‘t want to make the connection there, including those baseball owners. 

But those of us who have long suffered, unfortunately, could use that as one of the reason why Washington does not have a Major League Baseball team.  And it‘s wrong.  It‘s just dead wrong. 

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN:  Well, it was one of the excuses that Calvin Griffith used when he moved the original Senators out in 1960. 

POVICH:  Well, right. 

And my father was instrumental, for instance, in getting the expansion team back then.  And my father lobbied Congress very hard.  And Congress basically said, Calvin Griffith could leave town and become the Twins, as Washington had an expansion team.  And then everybody said here, oh, you know, it‘s going to be a terrible, terrible team.  And my father used to say, well, halitosis is better than no breath at all. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Part of the classic writings of Shirley Povich. 

POVICH:  Exactly. 

OLBERMANN:  One last question here in the minute that I have left.

POVICH:  Sure.

OLBERMANN:  Given all this, they were wearing 1971 Washington Senators caps at the news conference today.

POVICH:  Oh, the red ones?

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN:  Yes, the red ones.

POVICH:  Right.  I have one.

OLBERMANN:  But would you call this team now, after such an interval and after such, attendance wise, not a great history, would you call them the Washington Senators again or would you come up with a different name? 

POVICH:  Apparently, some people in town, because we don‘t have a senator, object to that.  And I can understand that.

But I think a great compromise would be the Washington Nationals, which was the original name for this team.  And the nickname was the Nats. 

OLBERMANN:  Right. 

POVICH:  And I can remember growing up here and reading my father‘s column and headlines in “The Washington Post” every day about the Nats, usually lose. 

OLBERMANN:  That‘s right, “Nats Drop Two.”

(LAUGHTER)

POVICH:  Right.  It‘s always “Nats Drops Two to Yanks” or something like that.

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

POVICH:  But I think that is a great compromise.  I think the Washington Nationals would be a great team. 

OLBERMANN:  And it would work perfectly.

POVICH:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  Because of course, presumably, they are not going to change leagues.  They‘re going to be the Washington team in the National League.  So you call them the Nationals.

POVICH:  In the National League.  What‘s wrong with that? 

OLBERMANN:  Maury Povich of “The Maury Show” and one of the first fans of the new Washington whatevers. 

POVICH:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  Great thanks, sir.

POVICH:  Nice to talk to you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  My pleasure.

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann. 

Congratulations to Washington and its baseball fans.  Now you‘re enjoying it.  When they go 52-110, call me then.

Good night and good luck. 

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

END   

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