updated 10/6/2004 11:23:29 AM ET 2004-10-06T15:23:29

Guests: Marc Racicot, Joe Lockhart, Robin Wright, John Harwood, Bill Maher

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  Cleveland rocks.  John Edwards and Vice President Cheney have a little visit—the preview of the debate by the lake. 

We never had enough troops on the ground.  A man who led the U.S.  occupation in Iraq with that startling comment, the implications for tonight‘s debate, the implications for Iraq from the reporter who broke the story. 

Time with Mr. Real Time.  Comedian Bill Maher joins us to analyze the debate and the campaign. 

Soon it will be the cold and flu season, and in the world of flu vaccines, it also turns out to be the get your license suspended season. 

And why bother with spaceship one when you can build this thing out of a lawn chair and a leaf blower. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN to the debate. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  This is Tuesday, October 5, 28 days until the 2004 presidential election.  And now three hours before the vice-presidential debate, one that symbolically started quite a bit ahead of schedule.  Without saying a word, Mr. Cheney has already been argued with, not John Edwards, but the administration‘s former show runner in Iraq, L.  Paul Bremer and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. 

Our fifth story on this special edition of COUNTDOWN to the debate, on the very day Dick Cheney is to defend the Bush administration on the war in Iraq and the possibility of a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda masseurs (ph) Bremer and Rumsfeld did not.  The Bremer story in full with the reporter who broke it, Robin Wright of “The Washington Post” in a moment.

The headline:  The former civilian head of the U.S. occupation has made a speech saying—quote—“We paid a big price for not stopping it”.  It being the looting of the Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, quoting again, “because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness.  We never had enough troops on the ground.”  A statement was later issued on Bremer‘s behalf in which he indicated he thought the speech was off the record even though it was to a group of about 900 insurance executives and quotes were distributed to the media. 

While the White House was still reeling from Bremer‘s remarks, it had to issue another “what he meant to say” from the secretary of defense.  Asked about the possibility of a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda, Rumsfeld first told reporters he would not answer the question and then he did.  Always go with your first instinct. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  I have seen the answer to that question migrate in the intelligence community over a period of a year in the most amazing way.  Second, there are differences in the intelligence community as to what the relationship was.  To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two.  That one also had to be clarified.  Rumsfeld later saying his answer was misunderstood and that he had—quote—“acknowledged in September 2002 that there were ties between al Qaeda and Iraq.”

The Vice President, meanwhile, arrived in Cleveland from his Wyoming home in mid afternoon.  How all this affects Mr. Cheney should be obvious.  He and perhaps he alone in the administration still sees the potential link not just between Iraq and al Qaeda, but one between Iraq and 9/11.  He was one of the principle shapers of U.S. policy regarding the Iraq conflict in the first place. 

Senator Edwards is thus presumed tonight to be swinging the Bremer and Rumsfeld quotes over his head like a lariat and hoping to rope the vice president with them.  Upcoming, the thoughts of Bush/Cheney campaign chair Marc Racicot and Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart.

First about that man with the lariat.  Senator Edwards who arrived in Ohio yesterday, using his pre-podium time in the hotly contested swing state to answer questions at a town hall-style meeting in a Cleveland suburb.  He says tonight he will not be merely debating on his own behalf or that of his running mate or even his party, instead he will debating for the American people at large.  It is expected that the vice president will try to portray Edwards as a foreign policy lightweight and the ticket as a soft on terror flip-flopper.  Senators Edwards—Senator Edwards responded to that line of attack in advance saying that tonight he will be making three things perfectly clear. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN EDWARDS (D), VICE-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Number one, to the troops, we are with you.  To the...

(APPLAUSE)

EDWARDS:  ... to the terrorists, we will find you and crush you before you can hurt the American people. 

(APPLAUSE)

EDWARDS:  And to the country, we will keep you safe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  As promised now we‘re joined by the chairman of the Bush/Cheney reelection campaign, the former Montana governor, Marc Racicot.  He joins us from the debate site in Cleveland.  Governor, thank you for your time.

MARC RACICOT, BUSH/CHENEY CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN:  It‘s my pleasure. 

OLBERMANN:  Firstly, for purposes of tonight‘s debate, did Jerry Bremer shoot the vice president in the foot when he said we never had enough troops on the ground in Iraq? 

RACICOT:  No, absolutely not.  The president has always said from the very beginning and General Franks has obviously confirmed, that anything that was requested by the generals on the ground was, in fact, provided by the president.  That‘s always been the policy all the way along.  And in the context, Keith, it‘s a challenging context to describe in a few matter of seconds.  But you know the original strategy was a huge number of troops coming down from the north through Turkey—that obviously was nixed by Turkey. 

There were additional troops waiting in Kuwait.  So the context that Ambassador Bremer was discussing this situation in I think doesn‘t present a problem at all for the vice president.  At every moment in time, the principles of the president have been what the generals on the ground need they‘re going to get and that has been the principle that‘s been followed from the beginning. 

OLBERMANN:  The second news story of the day, despite his clarification, also for purposes of tonight‘s debate, did Secretary Rumsfeld shoot the vice president in the foot when he said Iraq/al Qaeda connection, I have not seen any strong hard evidence that links the two. 

RACICOT:  Well you know, again, they are talking about an operational nexus that existed between 9/11 al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.  But the fact of the matter is the evidence is overwhelming from the 9/11 Commission that there were all kinds of contacts over a long period of years between Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and representatives of Saddam Hussein and his regime. 

And you know the fact of the matter is, Keith, Senator Kerry himself said, during the Democratic primary, he said any person that doesn‘t see a connection and a requirement to go after Saddam Hussein doesn‘t have the credibility or the judgment to be president.  So, the fact of the matter is I think when you place the secretary‘s comments in their proper context and you realize that there never was an allegation to secure Congress with permission to move forward that this, again, is something that I think is in isolation doesn‘t reflect exactly what he said and I don‘t believe it‘s a problem at all.  I think the vice president will address it just head on in very plainspoken fashion. 

OLBERMANN:  The 9/11 commissioners might disagree with you on their interpretation of the Iraq/al Qaeda connection, but we‘ll leave that for another time.  I wanted to ask you a question...

RACICOT:  No, they said there were all kinds of contacts and relationships that existed there over long periods of years.

OLBERMANN:  At different levels and different...

RACICOT:  Right.  Absolutely true. 

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN:  All right...

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN:  ... let me move to the question and events of Friday‘s debate.  Mr. Bush at an event tomorrow about medical liability, it‘s been postponed to make room for what the press secretary, Mr. McClellan has called a significant speech on our nation‘s two highest priorities.  Is this an effort to regain some ground for the president on national security and Iraq before the presidential debates turn towards domestic issues on Friday? 

RACICOT:  You know, honestly what it is Keith, is a matter of keeping the record straight.  To be very candid with you, virtually every single day, the mistruths, misrepresentations, misimpressions that are promulgated by the opposition are a mighty tour to keep up with.  And the fact of the matter is, Mr. Kerry misspoke, he was wrong, he was inaccurate many, many times during the debate, he has been since.  And the president is going to take the moment to make certain that the record is straight.  It is just that simple.  We have an obligation, I think, to keep the American people informed accurately so that they can make an appropriate judgment. 

OLBERMANN:  Marc Racicot, the chairman of the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign.  As we‘ve said before, many thanks for your time on this busy night.

RACICOT:  Thank you very much. 

OLBERMANN:  To the other side‘s take on tonight‘s proceedings—for that we are joined by the former White House press secretary, Joe Lockhart, now a senior adviser to the Kerry/Edwards campaign.  He‘s also in Cleveland at the site tonight.  Many thanks for your time sir.

JOE LOCKHART, KERRY/EDWARDS SENIOR CAMPAIGN ADVISER:  Glad to be here, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  I know that the rule of debate is under promise, over deliver, but from your perspective, did the comments by Mr. Bremer and Secretary Rumsfeld come as early Christmas presents to your side? 

LOCKHART:  Well Keith, let me be as candid as I can.  I have a lot of experience at dealing from a weak hand.  I wouldn‘t want this hand tonight.  I like my hand a lot better. 

OLBERMANN:  We‘ll skip that whole experience of the weak hand.  We all went through that for too long. 

LOCKHART:  We did. 

OLBERMANN:  Is it now to be presumed in the preparations for this event that there is no chance the Dick Cheney that Senator Edwards will encounter tonight will be the nice Dick Cheney from the Lieberman debate in 2000?  Should the senator be expecting at least a kind of repeat of Mr.  Cheney‘s comments from last month that a Democratic victory increases the risk of a terrorist attack? 

LOCKHART:  Well, listen, I don‘t think we know.  The Republicans have been very adept at making speeches in front of Republican audiences, but then when they face John Kerry head to head, they don‘t repeat them.  So, we don‘t know what Dick Cheney is going to do tonight.  I think what they really don‘t like is to be challenged on the facts.  Because they‘ve managed to insulate themselves, you know, for four years now. 

They don‘t like to take questions from reporters.  They only talk to their own supporters at events and they don‘t like to be challenged.  And you know he is going to be challenged tonight.  So if I had to put money on it, I‘d say you know it‘d probably be the mean Cheney coming out, but we just don‘t know. 

OLBERMANN:  Is that Senator Edwards‘ strategy, is to go for the facts as opposed to what would seem to be, at least by the opinion polls, a fairly slow-moving target in terms of popularity? 

LOCKHART:  No, listen, I think that what the first debate was about and what this debate tonight will be about from our perspective, if we‘re successful, is holding the Bush/Cheney administration accountable for their record because it is a record of failure both domestically  -- I mean we‘re at ground zero of job loss here in Ohio.  Two hundred and thirty-seven thousand jobs out of over a million jobs lost in this country here in Ohio.

And we‘ve got reminders every day in the last 24 hours Donald Rumsfeld contradicting the vice president today.  Ambassador Bremer contradicting the vice president.  Reminders every day that our Iraq policy is in disarray.  So that‘s their record.  They don‘t like to be challenged on it and you get varying response when they are.  You know, we don‘t know whether we‘re going to get the smirk or the growl.

OLBERMANN:  Lastly Joe Lockhart, both for this debate tonight and for Friday‘s, was the best thing that ever happened to your candidates that insistence from the Bush administration that those bells and whistles be installed and answers be limited to two minutes, will that be as impactful focusing Senator Edwards as it appeared to have been impactful focusing Senator Kerry last week?

LOCKHART:  Well listen, I don‘t think we ever had any doubt that Senator Kerry and certainly Senator Edwards could be disciplined enough to give hard-hitting answers within the time period.  The fact that the Republicans wanted to make a big deal and have a timekeeper on it, that‘s something that they‘ll have to answer to. 

They also wanted foreign policy as the first debate and as you remember, they were walking around Miami saying that they were going to knock John Kerry out of the race last Thursday night.  Looks to me like John Kerry and John Edwards are still standing tonight.

OLBERMANN:  According to the polls, I think you‘re absolutely correct.  The former White House press secretary, Joe Lockhart, now an adviser to the Kerry/Edwards campaign joining us from the debate site tonight in Cleveland.  Thanks again for your time sir.

LOCKHART:  Thanks Keith.

OLBERMANN:  As we mentioned, ahead “The Washington Post” Robin Wright on her story that revealed Jerry Bremer‘s remark that—quote—“we never had enough troops on the ground to win the peace in Iraq.  First not surprisingly that story played a huge part in the president challenger‘s day.  Senator Kerry, speaking at a campaign stop in Ohio, said he‘s grateful that Mr. Bremer has admitted to at least two of the administration‘s mistakes in Iraq.  Also that he hoped President Bush would do the same.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The president‘s stubbornness has prevented him from seeing each step of the way the difficulties and the ways in which we best protect our troops and best accomplish this mission.  I think it‘s time for America to have leadership that knows how to get the job done and that‘s prepared to level with the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  President Bush had no events today.  Speaking of schedules, we remind you this is a special edition of COUNTDOWN all based on tonight‘s debate.  Usually you‘ll find Dan Abrams and “THE ABRAMS REPORT” here at 6:00 p.m. Eastern.  Dan will be back tomorrow, as will we in our usual 8:00 p.m. and midnight Eastern slots.  All the political news, all the non-political news and most importantly all the political non-news.  Be there.  Aloha.

L. Paul Bremer speaks to a crowd of 900 people, says the crowd of American servicemen in Iraq was not large enough.  Can he then claim the story is off the record?  Robin Wright, whose story this was, joins us. 

And tonight political (UNINTELLIGIBLE) class and my fellow member of the Cornell Alumni Association, Bill Maher, the vice president, the debates and the campaign. 

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Paul Bremer criticizes the administration‘s post war plan. 

Donald Rumsfeld contradicts the administration‘s pre war intelligence.  No matter how you spin it, it is all bad timing for the commander-in-chief and his vice president on the eve of the vice-presidential debate.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The secretary of defense clarified his remarks, said that just because he said I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links al Qaeda and Iraq, that does not mean he doesn‘t believe there isn‘t any and it doesn‘t mean he is a flip-flopper.  The former civilian head of the U.S. occupation in Iraq, meanwhile, offered no such mental gymnastics.  He just said what he said was off the record. 

Our number four story on this special edition of COUNTDOWN, can you speak to 900 members of the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers at DePaul University and then claim the public was not supposed to know what you said?  Yesterday, Mr. Bremer told the insurance men that the U.S. did not have a big enough policy for winning the peace in Iraq, that by not stopping the looting right after the fall of Saddam Hussein—quote—“ we paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness.  We never had enough troops on the ground.”  That was yesterday. 

Here‘s what he said at DePaul on September 17.  The single most important change, the one thing that would have improved the situation would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout the occupation.

Mr. Bremer also said that he wished he‘d fought harder to get more troops on the ground in Iraq last year.  But today an aide says those remarks were supposed to be off the record, intended for private audiences only.  And in a statement to “The Washington Post”, which broke the story, Mr. Bremer himself offers his full support to the Bush administration‘s strategy in Iraq, saying he believes—quote—“we currently have sufficient troop levels in Iraq.”

The story appeared under the byline of two “Washington Post” reporters, Thomas Ricks and diplomatic correspondent Robin Wright.  She joins us for the second time in as many nights.  Thank you again for your time. 

ROBIN WRIGHT, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Nice to be with you. 

OLBERMANN:  Off the record, I remember once airing some controversial remarks by a basketball coach who had gotten up and said them before 200 members of his own team‘s booster club and he said they were off the record, too.  Does Mr. Bremer have a leg to stand on here journalistically? 

WRIGHT:  Well, the interesting thing is that DePaul University came through to me today and said these remarks were not at all off the record. 

OLBERMANN:  And what about the ones to the insurance agency people? 

WRIGHT:  Well they may have been off the record.  I don‘t know those circumstances.  But Bremer has given a number of other speeches over the last couple of weeks on part of a lecture tour and he‘s made similar comments on those lectures as well. 

OLBERMANN:  And many of these have been summarized and released to the press, the quotations from the statements, right?

WRIGHT:  That‘s right. 

OLBERMANN:  Doesn‘t sound like off the record to me, either.  Let‘s talk about the actual impact of what he said.  Had his doubts ever surfaced before?  His predecessor may not have, but he seemed pretty much like the party policy kind of guy all along. 

WRIGHT:  Well, it‘s interesting, back in the summer of 2003 on both “Meet the Press” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” he said, in fact, that he had not asked for more troops.  So it seems that it has come subsequently despite his claim that he was referring only to the initial days after the fall of Saddam Hussein when there was a lot of lawlessness. 

OLBERMANN:  The impact of these remarks, not just in terms of tonight but in terms of the entire Iraq policy and what is going on now, is there a way to measure this yet?  What kind of proverbial cliche bombshell did this cause today?

WRIGHT:  Well it‘s a great question and I think that Bremer‘s comments really underscore how over the past year there have been an increasing number of assessments from the CIA and by former officials involved in Iraq challenging the original assumptions and judgments and justification by the Bush administration for its Iraq intervention. 

There have been two CIA reports challenging whether there were contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and also warning that the administration did not take seriously enough the insurgency at an early enough juncture.  There is expected to be a report tomorrow during congressional testimony by the top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, the second such report that claims there is no recent trace of Saddam Hussein‘s weapons of mass destruction.  So, this really underscores a growing trend and I think it‘s likely to be a source of growing debate in the administration and in the public. 

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, Robin, while we have you here, as if this was not big enough on the matter of Mr. Rumsfeld‘s remarks, we have all tried to scan the poetry of the secretary of defense before, but I have to confess at least this time I‘m mystified.  How could he have not seen any convincing evidence that there was a link between Iraq and al Qaeda, yet also have always acknowledged that there was such a link?

WRIGHT:  Well I think Rumsfeld‘s remark really go to the heart of the issue and that is some of the claims versus some of the reality of what they‘re saying today.  I think it‘s, you know, a real challenge coming on the eve of the debate and the election and it makes it very difficult for administration officials, which is why they seem to be taking both sides of the line. 

OLBERMANN:  It‘s a mess.  Robin Wright, diplomatic correspondent of “The Washington Post”, striking reporting today as always and many thanks for your time tonight. 

WRIGHT:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  Iraq policy will be center stage at tonight‘s vice-presidential debate.  We‘ll talk new rules, potential new strategies with our political experts on the ground in Cleveland and from spin to hovercrafts, homemade hovercrafts.  There is always time for “Oddball” and that time is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  You‘re watching COUNTDOWN to the convention here on MSNBC.  A special edition, requiring a special pause for the day‘s extra special stories.  Let‘s play “Oddball”. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

OLBERMANN:  And we begin in Fresno, California where 13-year-old Josh Griswold (ph) has scored a blow for every kid who ever ordered the hovercraft kit from the back of a comic book, only to wait six weeks for a hunk of cardboard and instructions on how to take apart mom‘s vacuum cleaner.  Josh did this himself using a lawn chair and dad‘s leaf blower.  Sure, it has got some limitations, you can‘t steer it, it‘s got no brakes and its mileage is limited to how far the extension cord will reach.  You know kind of like a Yugo, but those will be mere footnotes in history whenever neighborhood kids of future generations whisper the name Josh Griswold (ph), the boy who could flip, the boy who could hover.

To the Toma Zoo (ph) in Tokyo, where officials have made a deal with the animals.  If you are going to go insist on flinging shinola in our habitat, then you‘re going to clean up after yourself or else hit the bricks, handsome.  The 48-year-old orangutan gypsy has taken to the charge and now her cage is so clean, she can see her face in it.  Visitors have come from around Japan to see gypsy because good help is hard to find.  And a monkey who does windows is clearly worth the trip from anywhere—now about those dishpan hands.

Finally, scenes from the Great Plains of the old west and by old, we mean yesterday afternoon and there they go.  It is the big annual buffalo roundup in Custer State Park South Dakota.  Many of you are thinking didn‘t our forefathers rid this nation of the threat of buffalo infestation?  And some else of you were thinking there‘s a South Dakota now? 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Fourteen hundred American buffalo thundered across the plain, wrangled, just like in the old days by men on horseback and a guy in a Chevy suburban.  Hundreds of spectators gathered to witness the event, but then the humans got spooked by a rattlesnake and they all stampeded off a nearby cliff.  Wyatt Earp says hi. 

The open range Dick Cheney country—will he go Wild West on John Edwards‘ backside tonight and will we finally have an impact for a vice-presidential debate? 

And traffic on the one‘s, weather on the nine‘s and ash and steam advisories on the two‘s.  Those stories ahead.  First here are our COUNTDOWN top three newsmakers of this day.

Number three, Jackie Smith of London.  At age 38, she is now carrying her fifth surrogate child.  She has also six kids of her own and she‘s donated more than 50 eggs for in vitro-fertilization.  Thus, the odds are 6-5 that she is your mama. 

Number two, the unnamed suspect in normal heights in San Diego, he held up a store, walked away with two bandannas and the $90.00 that was in the till.  The business was a 99-cent store. 

And number one, Jason Belmer of Pittsfield, Maine.  If he ever saw a Buster Keaton movie, he must have felt like he was re-enacting it.  A drug suspect, Mr. Belmer was alluding police when he jumped into a parked car, had the good fortune of finding the keys in the ignition, he started her up, floored it, and to his horror, the thing went nowhere.  The car was being repaired.  It was up on blocks.  Oops...

(MUSIC)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Who won the vice-presidential debate in 1984?  George H.W.  Bush or Geraldine Ferraro?  Who told Dan Quayle I knew Jack Kennedy and you‘re no Jack Kennedy?  And did it make a difference in the vote?  How about this one?  Who was James Stockdale?  It has been 28 years since the vice-presidential debate was introduced and while some of them have been memorable, few have been impactful. 

Our number three story on the COUNTDOWN, tonight‘s confrontation in Cleveland may be the best bet yet to change that.  Analysis in a moment from John Harwood and Craig Crawford.  First, our correspondent, Chris Jansing is at Case Western Reserve University with the pregame rundown.  Chris, good evening. 

CHRIS JANSING, MSNBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening to you, Keith.  Well the big debate now just two and a half hours and I say “big” as a surprise because usually these things don‘t matter much, but suddenly we have growing public interest in this race.  Hundreds of thousands of new voters have registered over the last couple of months and the polls are tightening, so this could really be interesting. 

Now these two candidates couldn‘t be more different in their preparation than they are in their style.  Take Dick Cheney, for example.  He only got here to Cleveland late this afternoon.  He had been pretty laid back over the last couple of days, took a break, in fact, from his debate preparations and went fishing.  But here he is arriving.  You see his wife Lynne with him.  She has been key strategist in getting prepared for this debate.  She has always been a very important adviser to him. 

So, too, Mary Matalin was on the plane with him, long-time adviser to both the president and the vice president.  He is basically going to have dinner tonight, spend some time with his family; both of his daughters are here.  Exact opposite from John Edwards, who came into town yesterday, couldn‘t wait to get the ball rolling, there was a big, big event for him today in Parma, Ohio, which is an ethnic community just outside of Cleveland.  There he had a town hall-style meeting.  His wife introduced him.  She got the crowds all fired up. 

This is how he thrives.  He feeds off an audience and so this was a good warm-up for him.  Big question is whether either will fill in some of the blanks from the presidential campaign.  Big question is what do you do about the situation in Iraq?  Neither candidate giving too many specifics.  We‘ll see if they do that tonight. 

Now what will we actually see inside that hall?  Something very different than the presidential debate.  Remember their podiums were 10 feet apart, both Dick Cheney, John Edwards sitting at a table with the moderator, Gwen Ifill, across from them.  This is something that the Republicans had fought for because Dick Cheney is a lot more comfortable sitting down.  They will be in these swivel chairs.  He thinks it helps him to look more serious, more in control and they wanted to take away what they see as an advantage of John Edwards.  He likes to work a room. 

He, of course, a very experienced trial lawyer.  Somebody who likes to get up and walk around.  He won‘t be able to do that tonight.  How important is this debate?  You can tell in some respects by the spin.  And I‘ll tell you, they are at it in full force.  To hear the Republicans tell it, John Edwards is the greatest trial lawyer who ever lived.  They‘re trying to raise expectations for him, saying he is so glib.  He is clearly the favorite here.  But if you talk to the Democrats, they‘ll say, look, Dick Cheney has all this experience, he‘s done a one-on-one debate, our guy hasn‘t and, in fact, he killed Joe Lieberman four years ago. 

Of course, one of the things they forget, Keith, is that four years ago, they were trying to spin that Joe Lieberman actually won that debate.  One more note for the body language experts, because of the timing of it, by the time the cameras go to the candidates, they‘ll already be seated.  We‘ll miss that all-important opening handshake—Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Chris Jansing at the site of tonight‘s sit-down.  Maybe Cheney could sit and Edwards could walk.  We‘d make it into a Eugene O‘Neill play.  Many thanks, Chris. 

JANSING:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

OLBERMANN:  There will be no standing.  No opening statement.  No audience participation but with the race apparently as tight as Britney Spears‘ pants, will there be an impact?  I‘m joined now by MSNBC political analyst, “Congressional Quarterly” columnist, Craig Crawford.  Craig, good evening. 

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hello.  Maybe we could compare them on table manners...

OLBERMANN:  Something like that.  Also with us, national political editor of “The Wall Street Journal”, John Harwood.  John, good evening to you. 

JOHN HARWOOD, “THE WALL STREET JOURNAL”:  Hey Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s start with predictions, gentlemen, not on the winner or the loser, not even on the style, but on this big question—will this actually matter in this race?  John, you first. 

HARWOOD:  I think this could matter, Keith.  It is really a question of momentum at this point.  Republicans are saying that the juice that John Kerry got from that successful debate on Thursday night has about run its course and the race has settled in with the president a couple of points ahead.  John Kerry‘s campaign is very eager to try to keep that story going into Friday when Bush and Kerry meet a second time.  So they think if John Kerry—if John Edwards can be very aggressive tonight, and they promise that he will be, they could get another bounce out of this rolling in towards the last two presidentials. 

OLBERMANN:  Craig, does it matter?  And if so, why? 

CRAWFORD:  Well the easy answer is if they both just sat there and drooled for 90 minutes it would matter because this race is so close that anything is going to change it.  The weather on Election Day could matter.  But I think it is a potentially impactful debate because, for one reason, John Edwards is really unknown to a lot of Americans.  They‘re going to get their first impression with this much level of specificity from John Edwards.  They‘ve seen maybe the sounds bites.  But seeing him for 90 minutes, this will be a first for a lot of Americans. 

OLBERMANN:  Craig...

HARWOOD:  And, Keith, the other thing about that is not just is John Edwards known, but Dick Cheney is known in a different way than vice presidents usually are. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.

HARWOOD:  He has much higher negatives than most vice presidents do.  He‘s very, very closely associated with the substance of the president‘s policies on energy and on national security and John Edwards is going to go at both of those tonight. 

OLBERMANN:  And to that point, Craig, I know Marc Racicot said no to this, but what did Jerry Bremer‘s comments about we never had enough troops in Iraq and Don Rumsfeld‘s comments about no links between Iraq and al Qaeda do to Dick Cheney going in to tonight? 

CRAWFORD:  You know the president and the vice president have had very bad luck here on these debate days.  You had the 35 children killed in Iraq the day of the president‘s debate.  That actually wasn‘t that new.  We‘ve seen so much violence there.  This is really new.  These two administration figures getting off the page of the message in a big way. 

So, I do think that is very dangerous for them and it really shows how Iraq is going to be so influential in this election because come Election Day, what if something major happens over the weekend before the election?  This is something they‘ve got to be prepared for and so far they‘re getting some bad luck. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes, John, this seems so atypical for the Republicans, whether or not they all agree on points like Iraq and whether or not there are enough troops on the ground, none of this seems to get out under any circumstances.  These got out in quotation marks within 24 hours of the start of another meeting and the subject that seemingly the vice president might be the most vulnerable in.  Is he wounded as this thing starts? 

HARWOOD:  Well, I think it certainly gives John Edwards something to talk about, as does that “New York Times” report over the weekend, detailing exactly how the public assessments of the administration on the eve of the run-up to war were at odds with some of the dispute within the intelligence community.  But, you know, I think people like Jerry Bremer and Colin Powell and others are looking beyond the election.  They‘re concerned about their own reputations...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.

HARWOOD:  ... which are on the line depending on how Iraq plays out. 

CRAWFORD:  And you know, this is really feeding into something that I‘m fascinated by, Keith.  The rhetoric—the level of rhetoric from the Democrats about the president and the vice president, they are now using the word “lie”...

OLBERMANN:  Yes.

CRAWFORD:  ... much more freely in a television ad and in a press release I saw today.  They are really trying to make the credibility of this administration an issue with some pretty harsh language and that‘s their answer to the flip-flopping charge is that we may be flippers, but we‘re not liars. 

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s wrap this up with a quick note on individual strategy.  Craig, give me a 30-second piracy (ph) on where John Edwards is going tonight. 

CRAWFORD:  Well where he could be going is to become a major rock star in the Democratic Party after this election.  You know, even if they lose this election, this could be a win-win night for John Edwards if he does well.  And I think he may just do that.  His first impressions are good.  I‘ve seen that over and over again for the past year and I have a feeling he is going to make a good first impression tonight. 

OLBERMANN:  John, same thing.  You take the Cheney strategy.  Is he playing offense tonight because he has to or what happens? 

HARWOOD:  He is playing offense, Keith, but not against the guy sitting across the table from him. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.

HARWOOD:  His target is going to be John Kerry.  He wants to go after Kerry on the flip-flopping while Edwards is going as a guy who is sitting in the room with him because Cheney is so strongly identified with those administration policies.  So, very different strategies and approaches from these two guys. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes, I think Marc Racicot tipped that earlier in this broadcast when he said that that speech tomorrow night—to correct Mr.  Kerry‘s statements since the—since and during the last debate.  We‘ll see how that plays out...

HARWOOD:  Exactly. 

OLBERMANN:  John Harwood is the political editor of “The Wall Street Journal”.  Great.  Thanks John.  And Craig Crawford of MSNBC, “Congressional Quarterly” as well.  Craig thanks to you as always. 

CRAWFORD:  Good to be here.

OLBERMANN:  And by the way, James Stockdale, Admiral James Stockdale was Ross Perot‘s running mate for 1992, the man who said at the V.P.  debate, who am I and what am I doing here?  This added value for you, his middle name is Bond—James Bond Stockdale. 

One more reminder, we regularly join you here at 8:00 p.m. and midnight Eastern, 5:00 and 9:00 p.m. Pacific for COUNTDOWN.  We will do so again tomorrow night. 

Another debate that might be irrelevant, should you get a flu shot?  Because that may now change to “can you get a flu shot?” and the yo and the volcano.  Another day, another steam cloud—that‘s ahead.

Now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEWIS BLACK, STARBUCKS RAISING THEIR PRICES:  Doesn‘t seem to matter anymore.  It‘s already out of control.  It was a quarter.  It helps wake people up.  They‘re going to go oh, my God.  I just paid three bucks.  I‘m going to have to really work today. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  If you‘ve ever wanted to bite the head off of one of this year‘s presidential candidates...

(SOUNDS)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  ... well, here‘s a chance. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  People buy them to spite the other guy.  Let your vote be heard and have your dog chew on the competition. 

(SOUNDS)

KERRY:  The connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and there are a long, long list of quotes about misleading—let me just share this with you.  Here‘s—and the list is so long it‘s extraordinary.  But...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The Lord Jehovah has given unto you these 15...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE) 10 Commandments. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Coming up here, talking politics with Bill Maher and the flu season is also here, but the flu vaccine season apparently will largely wait until next year.  Today‘s other headlines straight ahead here on COUNTDOWN to the debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  This is a good day to reveal bad news as once characterized on the NBC series “The West Wing,” this is one of those take out the trash days, moments on the calendar when the media is obsessed with one story and one story alone. 

Our second story in the COUNTDOWN, as an example, say half of the nation‘s flu vaccine supply suddenly vanished.  This would be a good day to get that out there.  Nobody would cover it except us.  Chiron Corp., the California company that makes nearly half the country‘s supply, had its license pulled due to contamination at its plant in Liverpool, England.  The company now says it will not be shipping any of its flu vaccine to anyone this season.  That‘s as many as 48 million doses off the supply worldwide. 

The news sent the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services scrambling saying it—quote—“poses a serious challenge as flu season fast approaches.  Secretary Tommy Thompson holding a news conference late this afternoon, assuring the public this is serious, but we are on top of it.  Officials say their immediate focus is making sure the supply they do have gets to those who are most vulnerable. 

Not a week after the last big drug disaster and here come the lawsuits.  Three class action suits now pending against the makers of the arthritis drug Vioxx—two in Canada, one in Illinois.  Last week, the Merck Company announced it was pulling the popular painkiller after studies indicated it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes.  The lawsuit filed today covers about 300,000 people in Illinois and alleges Merck has known about Vioxx‘s harmful side effects for years. 

And more sloppy science.  Mount St. Helens continued to defy seismologist‘s original predictions that nothing much was happening with the biggest burst of roiling steam and ash we‘ve seen so far.  Geologists attributing today‘s spectacle to magma, continuing to push its way up inside the volcano.  Level three, the highest volcanic alert remains in effect.  That warns of an imminent and explosive eruption, one that could happen anytime from half a minute from now to the year 4000.  They continue to insist, though, that whatever will happen will not like the 1980 eruption, which took 57 lives. 

And from natural disasters to preventable ones a woman—a wooden grandstand collapsing during a rodeo in Ecuador, crushing the crowd, injuring about 150.  Though no fatalities were reported, police searching for the event organizers.  They‘re not only—they got—they did not have any permits to build and whatever they did build could never have supported a crowd estimated at 3,000. 

Back to tonight‘s vice-presidential debate, Bill Maher joins me next to assess the race for the White House.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  For a period of two school years in the late 1970‘s, the campus of Cornell University and its home Attica, New York was afflicted by the presence of three particular students, Bill Nye (ph), the science guy, yours truly, and tonight‘s guest and our number one story, comedian, political satirist, and host of HBO‘s “Real Time” Bill Maher.  And it must have been hell for the rest of them.  Bill, good evening.

BILL MAHER, “REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER”:  Go big red, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Are you going to watch this here debate tonight?  And if so, what are you looking for? 

MAHER:  Are you kidding?  There‘s a playoff game on.  I‘m not crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  Yes, of course I‘m going to watch it.  I mean it‘s my job to watch even if I wasn‘t interested.  But I‘m very interested to see these two guys go at it.  I think it‘s probably going to be more interesting than the presidential debate because that one to me, you could have put on a loop.  You know, they said everything they had to say in the first 10 minutes and then repeated it nine times. 

OLBERMANN:  You seem to be one of the few commentators who was not enthusiastic about that debate from any one of the points of view, either the partisan point of view or the they actually talked about some things point of view, or they actually skunked out each other on some issues point of view.  Did you see nothing redeeming in that after those first 30 minutes? 

MAHER:  Well I think it‘s redeeming that the American people did get to see these guys.  I mean that is important.  However, I was very disappointed in John Kerry.  Everybody thought John Kerry did great.  I guess what they wanted him to accomplish, he accomplished, which was to not look like a guy who doesn‘t even belong on a stage with George Bush. 

OK, I guess our expectations are pretty low.  I would have liked to have seen John Kerry really call the president out on some of his things.  He never mentioned the word incompetence.  He never mentioned that Bush‘s prosecution of that war is incompetent.  He never mentioned Abu Ghraib prison.  He never really made the case that Bush has not protected us homeland security wise. 

He mentioned Vietnam a couple of times, but I would have liked to hear him say, look, I have been to a guerrilla war.  I have seen an insurgency in a third world country close up.  I know what is going on over there.  He just didn‘t seem to take apart Bush in the way that I think Bush needs to be taken apart. 

OLBERMANN:  Perhaps that kind of thing may be attempted tonight.  Because for years, the Republicans have been real good about not getting hit with friendly fire.  But do you think that changed today with these two stories, the news that Paul Bremer‘s assessment came out that we never had enough troops to win the peace in Iraq and Secretary Rumsfeld, although he later tried to correct his correction of his correction, that he said he never saw evidence of a link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.  That‘s kind of tough weight for Dick Cheney to carry into this thing tonight, isn‘t it?

MAHER:  It does make you think that the house of cards over there is falling a little bit.  And speaking of cards, I mean, this administration has from the very beginning been playing a weak hand.  I mean there‘s no doubt about it.  They‘re playing a weak hand.  If the positions were reversed and the Democrats had to play their hand and the Republicans got a shot at criticizing the guys on whose watch 9/11 happened, and the rest it, this race would be 15 points apart.  So I think it definitely is possible that the whole thing will be—start falling down.  I mean a week ago I would have thought oh, Bush is going to win again.  Now, I don‘t know.  It‘s at best even money in my mind. 

OLBERMANN:  So I know from your great body of work—not your great body, but your great body of work—that the subtleties and the nuances of the campaign are as important to you as they would be for me looking at this.  And something—I think something changed this afternoon.  I don‘t know if you‘re aware of this. 

When the Cheney campaign got off Air Force Two in Cleveland today, his daughter Mary and her partner Heather got off the plane with the vice president in a group.  And that‘s not only believed to be the first time that they‘ve gotten off with, you know, with the cameras there but it‘s the first time we believe that the Cheney‘s have not had their gay daughter Mary classified as cargo.  Does this mean something? 

MAHER:  It almost reminds me of, you know in the old days, of the Soviet Union...

OLBERMANN:  Yes, exactly...

MAHER:  ... communist China...

OLBERMANN:  Who is standing where? 

MAHER:  Who was standing where and who was near the coughing and when they were reviewing the troops, you know, who coughed next to the guy.  And it‘s—I guess that is the opening barrage of Dick Cheney‘s charm offensive, an attempt so soften him because you know he is, after all, going to be there debating the Brett girl, as they call John Edwards, and I guess he just doesn‘t want to look like the mean old man who‘s telling (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to get off my lawn.

OLBERMANN:  That‘s right.  Go—you kids can‘t play in my yard.  What do you make of that Breck Girl appellation of John Edwards?  Do you have a better assessment of him or what?

MAHER:  Yes, I‘ve had him on the show a few times.  He is very bright.  You know, honestly, if he was the candidate, it would be a lot closer, this race.  This guy, you know, he‘s I think 51 years old.  I mean they call him the Breck Girl.  They call him inexperienced.  They‘re good.  You know what? 

The low expectations game, it‘s about time that that worked a little bit for the Democrats.  Because lord knows that it has been working for George Bush for a long time.  It‘s amazing to me that he was able to lose a debate considering how low they put those expectations.  But I guess, you know, in this world where we read these tea leaves that we‘re—you‘re talking about and these signals, the fact that they saw George Bush smirking...

OLBERMANN:  Yes.

MAHER:  ... you know, smirking is the new sighing, Keith. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  And you know I was watching that debate last week and I didn‘t see anything I haven‘t seen in George Bush for four years.  So when people said Bush was off his game, I was like, what game did this guy ever have?  He‘s always smirking.  He‘s always making that face. 

He always has that pouty look like what don‘t you morons get about what I‘m doing?  What don‘t you get about 9/11 was bad, Saddam is bad, they hate us for our freedom.  What don‘t you get about that?  And he just did the same thing that night. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, we‘ll see what he does on Friday.  Because he‘s providing you with a great live lead-in, so congratulations on that.  The show...

MAHER:  Yes, he is, right. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes—“Real Time with Bill Maher”, Friday nights on HBO, 11:00 p.m. and live this Friday after the debate.  Always a pleasure sir.  Take care.

MAHER:  Thank you. Go big red. 

OLBERMANN:  Go big red.  And that‘s the COUNTDOWN to the debate. 

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

MSNBC‘s coverage of the vice presidential debate continues next with Chris Matthews in Cleveland.  Good day and good luck.

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2004 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2004 FDCH e-Media, Inc. (f/k/a/ Federal Document Clearing House, Inc, eMediaMillWorks, Inc.) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and FDCH e-Media, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,