updated 10/19/2004 10:27:21 AM ET 2004-10-19T14:27:21

Guest: Jayne Weintraub

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  The president pulls away from the senator and now has a commanding lead in the polls except in those polls in which he doesn‘t. 

And down the stretch they come.  The politics of saying no.  It‘s one thing when John Kerry insists our troops don‘t have enough protection in Iraq.  It‘s quite another when our troops say that.  And when the head of CENTCOM says he cannot continue with such low troop readiness.

The Peterson case can always continue.  The defense takes over with the promise that is an oldie but a goody, it will identify the real killer. 

Fire when ready?  Fox News moves to terminate the accuser in O‘Reillygate and the king of cable news comedy does the “I accuse” bit. 

TUCKER CARLSON, CNN CO-HOST, “CROSSFIRE”:  I thought you were going to be funny. 

JON STEWART, HOST, “THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART”:  No, no, I‘m not going to be your monkey. 

OLBERMANN:  Guess that‘s what Bill O‘Reilly is for.  All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening from Burbank, California.  This is Monday, October 18, 15 days until the 2004 presidential election.  Not 25 miles from here, a tribute to the history of the famous Santa Monica Pier.  Salutes its notorious 1912 exhibit, an unlikely object inside a vast glass case with one eye and a lot of limbs barely visible in murky water.  “The Amazing Mystery Thing,” read the poster.  It‘s alive.  What is it? 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, today 82 years later, we know what the amazing mystery thing is.  No, not the Bill O‘Reilly story, which we‘ll get to in—rather, it is the presidential public opinion polls.  Two major polls showing Mr. Bush opening what for this race is a huge lead.  And two other major polls showing Senator Kerry closer than ever. 

“TIME” has the president up by one, 48-47, a virtual tie while in the pages of “Newsweek” Mr. Bush is leading by six with an even bigger lead in the Gallup poll for “USA Today,” 52 percent to just 44 percent for Senator Kerry.  Yet the Democrats do not appear to be panicking, and this may explain why the Zogby daily tracking poll for Reuters is deadlocked at 45.  Mr. Bush had a two-point lead yesterday and a four-point lead the day before that.

Well, in the only poll that may truly matter, the “Washington Post” shows that in 13 key battleground states, Mr. Kerry is up by 10 points, 53-43.  The amazing mystery thing.  And if you‘re agreeing it is alive but what is it, this will only add to your confusion.  John Kerry yesterday alone received the editorial endorsement of at least 30 newspapers, including some biggies. 

The president got just 17.  This from the research of the trade publication, “Editor & Publisher.”  The highlights for Kerry, “The New York Times,” I know, I know, you‘re shocked and five papers that supported Mr.  Bush in 2000 including ones in swing states, “The Bradenton Florida Herald,” the “Columbia Daily Tribune,” and the “Muskegon Michigan Chronicle.”

The president got the endorsement of seven big hitters and 10 others.  Those in Dallas and Fort Worth, the “Chicago Tribune,” the “Arizona Republic,” the “Indianapolis Star,” the “Richmond Times Dispatch,” and the “Rocky Mountain News of Denver.”

“Editor & Publisher‘s” overall scorecard to date, and this might be pretty close to a final score, Kerry, 45, Bush 30.  And in terms of circulation, it is no contest, Kerry‘s endorsers have roughly 8.7 million readers.  Those who support Mr. Bush‘s re-election, just 3.7.  Of course, that is presuming you believe their circulation figures and lately that has been a big presumption in the newspaper game. 

The “Washington Post” has not endorsed anybody yet.  A probable for Kerry.  The “L.A. Times,” the “Wall Street Journal,” and “USA Today” will not endorse anybody.  That is their policy.  Perhaps most interesting, maybe troubling of all, three papers in Wichita Falls, Texas, Winston Salem, North Carolina, and a big one, the “Tampa Tribune,” all of which endorsed Mr. Bush in 2000 saying yesterday they would not support anybody this year. 

In Tampa, the “Tribune‘s” editors who have endorsed every Republican since 1962, say for Barry Goldwater, wrote of their achingly difficult position.  “We are unable to endorse President Bush for reelection because of his mishandling of the war in Iraq, his record deficit spending, his assault on open government, and his failed promise to be a uniter not a divider within the United States and the world.  Neither can we endorse Senator Kerry whose undistinguished Senate record stands at odds with our conservative principles and whose positions on the Iraq war, a central issue in this campaign, have been difficult to distinguish or differentiate.”  Hello, Ralph Nader.

Pleasure to be joined here in Burbank by a man I usually get to talk to on7ly by satellite, MSNBC senior political analyst Lawrence O‘Donnell. 

Thanks for coming in.

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, MSNBC SR. POLITICAL ANALYST:  Thanks, Keith.  It is great to see such anguish in the decision that they did not make. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  It is wonderful.  I mean, that‘s—maybe it‘s the title for this campaign.  Let‘s go back to the amazing mystery thing from the Santa Monica Pier.  The polls, do they matter anymore?  Are they of any guidance?  Do they reflect the uncertainty of the race or are just some of these pollsters really, really wrong? 

O‘DONNELL:  The polls matter.  None of them are wrong.  They‘re all ties within the statistical margin of error.  This margin of error which we kind of throw away is a footnote to polls.  It is hugely important.  When you see a four-point margin of error, what that means is each number in the poll could be either four points higher or four points lower than it actually is.  This is not meteorology.  This is not the weatherman telling you that it was 72 degrees yesterday in L.A.  It is the weatherman telling you, we think it was in the 70s yesterday in L.A.  It‘s that big a guess.  It is a band of possibilities. 

OLBERMANN:  68 to 76. 

O‘DONNELL:  The important number, the important number in an incumbent‘s election is what is the polling number for the incumbent?  And by the way the definitive article on this is in the “Los Angeles Times” today.  Here in L.A., Ron Brownstein wrote, the incumbent in any race, especially presidential races, usually gets exactly what his final poll number is.  They usually pick up no votes in the election.  All of that goes to the challenger.  So when you‘re looking at polls today, for example, that show the president at 48.  And they show John Kerry at say, 44 or 45.  If that‘s what the poll is on November 1, you should all bet on John Kerry winning because historically, what happens is the incumbent picks up less than 1 percent.  Less than one more point than what the polls indicate and everything else goes to the challenger. 

OLBERMANN:  The undecideds all break for the challenger. 

O‘DONNELL:  Overwhelmingly, yes. 

OLBERMANN:  It doesn‘t matter if—your political affiliation doesn‘t matter. 

O‘DONNELL:  And the office doesn‘t matter.  This is true for senators, it‘s true for governors, and it is true for the president. 

OLBERMANN:  With 15 days left, what are the issues?  Can we narrow them down to one or two that will stick for each candidate?  How are they going to sell?

O‘DONNELL:  They‘re running two different campaigns.  The Bush campaign is running entirely to the people who are already in favor of him.  And they are trying to drive turnout to get to the 50-percent mark.  So in the president‘s speech today, it is all about his war on terror and how he has conducted it and how Iraq is essential in the war on terror.  The Kerry speech today includes a discussion of Iraq.  It includes a discussion of how to combat terror.  But then immediately goes on to health care, spends a lot of time on that, spends a lot of time on education, a lot of time on jobs and the economy because the yet undecided voters rank healthcare, the economy and jobs much higher than all the rest of the voters who have already decided.  So you can see Kerry is aiming for a group that the president is not trying to get.  He is trying win this on conservative turnout. 

OLBERMANN:  Last question here.  Are we most likely to be able to say here 15 days out, Bush wins or Kerry wins?  Are we most likely to be able to say it is 2000 redux or it‘s even worse than that, it‘s our actual first contested election? 

O‘DONNELL:  We‘re into the pure guesswork phase here.  But on the theory that lightning never strikes twice in exactly the same place, I‘m going to say that we‘re probably going to have a decided election by about 2:00 a.m. that night.  But all the indicators are, this does look exactly like last time with one additional component.  Those legal teams who are out there in all the battleground states ready to ask for recounts in more than one state.  So we might have something that is maybe four or five recounts going on in important states. 

OLBERMANN:  And lightning did strike in Florida in 1876 and 2000.  So if it hit twice already...

O‘DONNELL:  And look at that hurricane pattern this season. 

OLBERMANN:  Instead of lightning, we‘re going to get hurricanes.  MSNBCs‘s senior political analyst Lawrence O‘Donnell, thank you for joining me.  We can validate parking and we‘ll cover the tip for the valet.  Good to see you, sir. 

A tip for the president meanwhile.  A Cornell university researcher suggested last week that there was material evidence that with every change in the terror alert status, or significant increase to threat perception, Mr. Bush gets a not too surprising political bounce.  But can the fear factor also create “a boy who cried wolf” factor?  For the second time in a week, the president‘s press office announced Mr. Bush would give a major speech on matters vital to the nation including counterterrorism.  Just as last week, Mr. Bush‘s address, this one in New Jersey, thus got live play on the cable networks and the appropriate hushed anticipation and yet also just as last week, the president delivered pretty much old material, stuff in fact reminiscent of most of his purely political campaign stump speeches. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  He says that preemptive action is unwise not only against regimes, but even against terrorist organizations.

Senator Kerry‘s approach would permit a response only after America is hit.  This kind of September the 10th attitude is no way to protect our country. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Not part of the president‘s top 40 hits, and not addressed per se in his speech today, the dangers of war in Iraq to the Americans fighting there.  At the center of the latest controversy, the investigation into those 18 soldiers who last week refused to drive their convoy in Iraq, saying mission was too dangerous and their vehicles were not sufficiently protected with armor.  Military officials saying today that no decision has been made on whether to discipline those reservists even though their families say the soldiers have been told they would be discharged. 

We now know the soldiers have not been alone in complaining about the lack of proper equipment in Iraq.  Similar statements now emerging from the very top of the chain of command.  Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, while in charge of U.S. forces in Iraq last December, wrote a letter to his bosses at the Pentagon, which he said, that the army units Iraq were “struggling to maintain relatively low readiness rates on key combat systems.” M-1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and black hawk helicopters among them.  General Sanchez adding, “I can not continue to support sustained combat operations with rates this low.”

Senator Kerry wasting no time, seizing upon the generals remarks at an early morning campaign event in south Florida, and using them to attack the president. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Despite the president‘s arrogant boasting that he has done everything right in Iraq, and that he‘s made no mistakes, the truth is beginning to come out and it‘s beginning to catch up with him.  And on November 2, it will catch up with him. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  This is troubling stuff to many.  Certainly not the least of them, my next guest, the veteran of Vietnam, Panama, Desert Storm, formerly the head of the White House office for combating terrorism, and now and NBC News analyst, retired U.S. Army general, Wayne Downing. 

General Downing, thanks for you time tonight. 

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING (RET.), MSNBC ANALYST:  Thanks, Keith, good to be here. 

OLBERMANN:  Leaving the political hey making out of this, for the moment, there‘s smoke here from the men on the ground in Iraq who found themselves sitting ducks, perhaps.  There‘s smoke, does necessarily mean there was also fire? 

DOWNING:  Especially on the heel of this Sanchez memo.  You know, they‘ve had recent problem over in Iraq practically from the beginning.  Now, the army has supposedly addressed these.  They place a high priority on that, to get the right kind of parts over there, the right kind of equipment.  Supposedly, it is over there.  Although, you know, a theater as large as a Iraq, just because the parts are there, it doesn‘t mean they always get to the right place.  But it is disturbing, Keith, that a group of soldiers, let‘s not call them reservists, because they‘re soldiers.  Said that they didn‘t want to drive this mission because they didn‘t think the vehicles were sound and they didn‘t have the proper kind of security.  So, yes, I mean that is disturbing.  That disturbs me. 

OLBERMANN:  Today Senator Kerry as we suggested, jumped on this, and by not very far by extension, on the president.  Is that appropriate?  Is it seemly?  Is he turning this into a political issue or should it be one he is just raising? 

DOWNING:  I‘m a soldier.  I‘m not a politician.  But this is a hyper charged area.  You know, the discussion we just had with Lawrence really points that out.  You know, the president of the United States, he doesn‘t supervise spare parts and supplies.  He certainly thinks that his secretary of defense, and his army chief of staff is taking care of that.  And that‘s what they‘re supposed to be doing.  So I mean, to blame him for it.  No.  It‘s not fair.  But certainly, he choose those people who are in those key positions, and they certainly should be paying attention to that.  And of course, I know they are, Keith.  I know they think that this is a high priority. 

OLBERMANN:  As a soldier, general, leaving out all the other equations to this, should this be an issue?  Should what happened there, should it be raised by any party, should it be the media? 

Should it be something where bright lights are shown on no matter who they expose? 

DOWNING:  Well, I think it‘s certainly fair to raise the issue.  I mean, from the very beginning of the Iraq campaign, Keith, there‘s been the cry that we were too light.  We didn‘t go in with enough forces.  The allegation is that the civilian leadership in the Pentagon wanted to prove some of the concepts in transformation that, said you can do more with less.  So there‘s always been concerns that we‘ve been too light.  So, you‘ve either got to make up for this lack—or the small number of U.S.  forces with more ally forces, which we weren‘t able to do.  Or get more Iraqis in the fight.  Either by before by training them or after we got in there by taking the Army and putting it back to work.  We didn‘t do those kinds of thing.  So sure, it is a valid issue, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Retired U.S. General, former White House counter terrorism official, NBC News analyst, Wayne Downing.  General Downing, as always, great thanks. 

DOWNING:  Great, thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  More tonight on another controversy that has attached itself to this presidential campaign, the lead political reporter for the broadcast group that will pre-empt regular programming on all 62 of its stations to air an anti-John Kerry film beginning this Thursday, today ripped his own employers‘ decision to do that.  John Leiberman, told the Baltimore “Sun” that “Stolen Honor” is, “Biased political propaganda with clear intentions to sway this election.” 

Leiberman adding, “For me it‘s not about right or left, it‘s about what‘s right or wrong in news coverage this close to an elections.  I have nothing to gain here and really I have a lot to lose, at the end of day though all you really have is your credibility.” 

The biggest issue of credibility in the campaign is up for grabs.  Florida voters going to the polls early for the first time today.  And already the first reports of voting problem. 

And the main terrorist in Iraq pledges his support to Osama bin Laden and joins forces, he says, with al Qaeda.  Nice of him to confirm what we‘ve all been told already.  That‘s ahead. 

This is COUNTDOWN from California on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN continues now from Southern California.  I‘ll be back later in the hour and with the latest developments in the still unfolding Bill O‘Reilly saga, keep your eye on that clock.  But for now, even through the clock insists we‘re 15 days away from the election voting, already underway in Florida, and already under suspicion.  For that story and more of the day‘s COUNTDOWN to the election, let‘s to go my colleague, Alison Stewart, at MSNBC headquarters. 

Alison Stewart, good evening. 

ALISON STEWART, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  And good evening to you, Keith.  A mere 537 votes made the difference in the state of Florida just four years ago.  So it was with an eye toward avoiding thrusting a term like dangling chads into the national vocab, that state officials decided this time around they would get an early start.  But if this first day of voting is an indication, we may all have to take our accuse from Miss Betty Davis, fasten your seat belts. 

Are correspondent, Kerry Sanders, has more—Kerry.

KERRY SANDERS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Alison, long lines this first day of early voting in Florida.  A huge turnout by both Republicans and Democrats caught election officials off guard.  And then a problem checking voters‘ registrations only made things worse. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANDERS (voice-over):  It was not a good start today. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I am so sorry.  I really am. 

SANDERS:  Florida‘s polls opened early, and the voting stopped almost immediately. 

ROBERT BERGER, FLORIDA VOTER:  Here I‘m trying to do the right thing.  I‘m an American.  I want to vote.  And look what is going on?  They are making it hard for me to vote. 

SANDERS:  In South Florida‘s Broward County, more than half of the early voting precincts shut down when there were computer problem. 

GISELA SALAS, BROWARD COUNTY ELECTIONS SUPERVISOR:  There‘s a wrinkle in the system.  Hopefully we‘ll get it worked out. 

SANDERS:  In Tampa today, similar computer problems, plus a shortage of touch-screen machines sent some irritated voters home.  Some still angry after the 2000 election, and now suspicious of politics at play. 

MIKE FERLITA, FLORIDA VOTER:  I just can‘t understand why we have—you know, we have an appointed supervisor of elections in this county, appointed by a Republican governor who happens to be the president‘s brother.  And once again, once again we‘re at the polling places, struggling to cast our votes. 

SANDERS:  In Jacksonville, officials opened only one polling location.  In this huge city, 758 square miles, critics charge only one polling place disenfranchises voters who live far away.  And to make matters worse there, today, the supervisor of elections resigned, citing health problems. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s a terrible start. 

SANDERS:  It wasn‘t supposed to be like this.  Sweeping changes made since 2000 were designed to improve Florida‘s old punch-card system.  But new touch-screen machines have no paper printout, prompting a lawsuit supported by Democrats that was in federal court today. 

REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D), FLORIDA:  There‘s no certainty in the machines.  There‘s no certainty in the results.  And each and every Floridian under Florida law is required to a manual recount.  And these machines can‘t provide them.  So that we have a back-up system. 

SANDERS:  And for those who vote early, a reminder. 

PROFESSOR AUBREY JEWETT, UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL FLORIDA:  They really could miss out on something crucial or dramatic.  For instance, in Iraq, maybe there will be a big counterterrorism effort, or something happens in Afghanistan.  Or perhaps the stock market crashes or booms. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANDERS:  Elections officials say they have now traced the problem to an Internet connection.  A problem that they say should not be repeated again—Alison.

STEWART:  Thanks so much, Kerry Sanders.  It certainly seems to even the most casual observer that the mess of the last presidential election, coupled with this year‘s tight race, has given real meaning to the oft tread phrase, every vote counts.  While the campaigns are courting seniors, various ethnic groups, and those who like to watch cars go around NASCAR tracks, there is one demographic too often overlooked.  Men and women who never thought their voices could be heard. 

Our own Monica Novotny now with the effort under way in one L.A.  neighborhood to make sure people listen.  Good evening, Monica. 

MONICA NOVOTNY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Alison, good evening.  Today is the voter registration deadline here in California.  Marking the end of one local community group‘s efforts to register hundred of homeless voters.  They‘ve spent the last several months walking the streets of Los Angeles, informing and empowering their community. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETE WHITE, DIRECTOR, L.A. COMMUNITY ACTION NETWORK:  We need to show America that everyone matters, that every vote counts. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Getting out the homeless vote.  Making sure the have-notes have a voice on election day. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Do you want to register to vote today?

NOVOTNY:  So the volunteers start here, skid row in downtown Los Angeles. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Are you registered to vote?

NOVOTNY:  An area populated by homeless and low-income Americans.  It‘s all part of a push throughout the county by advocates to register the homeless.  A push they say is working. 

WHITE:  I would say seven out of 10 people are indeed registering. 

NOVOTNY:  Pete White is the director of the L.A. Community Action Network, where staffers and volunteers hit the streets each day, reinforcing the power of the polls. 

WHITE:  If communities such as this, which is a very, very poor community, demonstrated that they had the wherewithal to make changes... 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Vote!

WHITE:  ... deep-seated changes, both locally and nationally, that other communities across this country would follow suit and get involved in the same types of projects. 

MARY MORGAN, REGISTERED TO VOTE:  I put off registering all year.  And I realize that it is my obligation. 

NOVOTNY:  One sign-up strategy, bringing back those who made it out of the neighborhood successfully. 

HERMAN JONES, L.A. COMMUNITY ACTION NETWORK:  A lot of people would say, well, you don‘t know what I‘m going through, you don‘t know how it feels to be here.  Yes, I do.  Because I‘ve been here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  If I didn‘t see him out there today, I wouldn‘t have voted.  I wouldn‘t have even registered. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m going to have my—have my voice. 

NOVOTNY (on camera):  Voters do not have to own property or have a permanent residence.  But some states do require an address to register.  If that‘s the case, someone without a home can use the address of a shelter or a community center like this one to get inside the voting booth. 

MARGOT ALBERT, VOLUNTEER:  If you get people information, they‘re going to use it.  It will empower them. 

JONES:  Homeless people do care.  Poor people do care about their lives. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  And to ensure these new voters make it to the polls, volunteers plan to be out in full force on election day. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  November 2nd

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yeah, I know when it is. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  All right, homeboy.

Are you going to vote? 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, a

nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Washington, about 25,000 homeless

voters from cities across the country are now registered for this election

·         Alison. 

STEWART:  So Monica, what will these volunteers be actually doing in the next two weeks to ensure those who registered actually make it to the polls on November 2nd

NOVOTNY:  Well, they‘ll continue with their community outreach.  Early voting does start in California on Wednesday, for those who are ready to make their decision.  On election day, some area homeless shelters will be used as polling places, and for those who need it, here in Los Angeles, they‘re preparing to provide transportation to the polls on November 2nd

Alison. 

STEWART:  That‘s what you call doing the right thing.  Monica Novotny, great story.  Thank you so much. 

Well, some people, they carve them.  Some people paint them.  Some people cook them.  Some people just chuck them.  You heard me.  Don‘t say we didn‘t warn you about people who use pumpkins as ammo.  “Oddball” is next. 

And later, COUNTDOWN‘s count is on to your Bill O‘Reilly news of the day.  We‘re only six days into this thing, and the lawsuits just keep on growing.  We‘re back after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart.  Keith Olbermann is in L.A.  So it is up to us back here at the ranch to bring you those strange stories which might not have a heck of a lot of news value, but we just can‘t help ourselves every night.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

Well, Halloween is less than a fortnight away.  So that means it time to find all new and interesting ways to smash pumpkins.  We head to Beaverton, Oregon, where the job that used to be done by neighborhood punks has been taken to a competitive level.  It is the third annual “Super V” pumpkin shoot competition, marking the one time each year that if you own an anti-aircraft pump cannon, you‘re free to use it without being fear of being subject to the Patriot Act. 

Now, if you want to go lo-fi, you can dust off that Roman catapult and the Civil War cannon, too.  And it is pumpkin smashing time.  The event raises money for a humanitarian aid organization, which obviously prefers cash to squished squash.  And prizes are awarded for height, distance, ingenuity and of course body count, which might explain why the local TV photographer appeared to be just too afraid to get any close shots to show us the giant gourds actually hitting the ground.  There‘s always next year. 

To Saint Louis, Missouri, where dozens of our nation‘s finest athletes have gathered to compete in the preliminaries of the NFL and NBA world championships, well, the video game versions of those sports, which means these video jocks have some really beefy thumbs.  There‘s $50,000 on the line and the chance to go to Vegas to vie for the title of most talented couch potato on Earth. 

Most of the competitors have honed their skills through countless hours in front of the tube in their basement somewhere.  And they can finally say once and for all, see, mom, I told you real sports were a waste of time and “Star Trek” is good. 

Finally to the island of Cyprus, which this weekend became home to the world‘s largest Turkish delight, no sky rockets in flight here, just candy, big candy, a Turkish delight jelly-like cubed candy covered in powdered sugar believed by many to be a powerful aphrodisiac.  Sugar and sex.  Good times.  Good times. 

More than 30 cooks worked for three days to produce this giant treat, which in the end weighed more than 5,600 pounds, crushing the previous world record.  It was eaten Sunday.  And then, for some reason, the entire population of Cyprus went into their homes and they haven‘t been seen since. 

Speaking of haven‘t been seen, Osama is busy hiding, but that is not preventing him from growing his terror network, a big terror merger of sorts over the weekend.  Steve Emerson will explain to us what it all means. 

And speaking of expansion, the legal face-off between one Bill O‘Reilly and one producer Andrea Mackris is reaching new heights or depths, depending on your take.  We‘re getting ever closer to our nightly dose of the Bill O‘Reilly-gate.  And tonight, a special Fox story from one Mr.  Keith Olbermann.

Those stories are ahead.

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

No. 3, George W. Bush—well, actually, a guy in a George W. Bush mask who walked into a Pennsylvania bank last week, flashed a weapon and demanded money from the teller.  Police are still hunting for the suspect who got away with an undetermined amount of cash, which he then gave away to a bunch of guys earning over $200,000 a year.  Where‘s the rim shot?

No. 2, Charles Adams of Cordele, Georgia.  He‘s under arrest for arson.  Police say he burned down his own mobile home and told arresting officers that he had drunk nine or 10 beers and was watching the disaster flick “The Day After Tomorrow” when he decided to set fire to his bed pillows.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the best review that movie ever got. 

And, No. 1, Chris Van Rossman of Corvallis, Oregon.  His brand new Toshiba flat-screen TV had some sort of bizarre glitch that was causing it to transmit a signal on the international distress frequency, which was picked up by a satellite and then relayed to the Air Force coordination center in Virginia.  Rossman had no idea about this signal until the Air Force with sheriff‘s deputies and local police just swarmed down on his home.

They‘ve ordered him to keep his set turned off or face a $10,000 fine for sending a false distress signal.  And he is banned from watching “The Day After Tomorrow” ever again. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  And welcome back to COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alison Stewart.  Keith Olbermann is in Burbank.  And not to worry.  He‘ll be back in a bit with tonight‘s top story. 

But, first, the most wanted man in Iraq teams up with one the most wanted man in the world.  Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, al-Zarqawi‘s new allegiance to al Qaeda.  In an Internet statement purportedly from the Jordanian militant, his terrorist group, Tawhid and Jihad, pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden.  The U.S. intelligence group believes the posting is genuine, although its authenticity has to be fully verified yet. 

Zarqawi has been linked with the group before.  But this marks the first time that he has actually sworn fealty to Osama bin Laden and thus the first time that he can actually be called a member of al Qaeda. 

I‘m joined now by terrorism expert and MSNBC analyst Steve Emerson. 

Steve, thanks for being with us tonight. 

STEVE EMERSON, NBC TERRORISM ANALYST:  Good to be with you, Alison. 

STEWART:  So what is Zarqawi‘s agenda here?  Is this a bid for self-elevation or just a monstrous buddy system in the making? 

EMERSON:  Well, it is sort of like the reverse merger of some sort, because, in the end, there‘s no need to advertise if there‘s going to be an alliance between the two, which there has been for many years. 

Here is I think something else going on.  One, Zarqawi, one, gets to be in the position of a legitimate successor in case there‘s a power struggle.  And that may be occurring, in case bin Laden has been killed or he‘s not able to continue his command of al Qaeda.  No. 2, Zarqawi gets use of other al Qaeda assets, in addition to which, al Qaeda itself now gets to claim as its own victories all those attacks carried out by Zarqawi in Iraq. 

Previously, it was Ansar al-Islam that claimed credit, so it couldn‘t legitimately be put into the kill victory by bin Laden himself. 

STEWART:  You make an interesting point.  Is this an open invitation for Osama bin Laden to come in and get involved more in Iraq? 

EMERSON:  Well, this is a good question. 

First of all, we need to see what is the response from the al Qaeda organization itself.  So far, as I understand, there has been no response.  No. 2, I don‘t know that this would be an invitation for bin Laden to come in, because al-Zarqawi is really filling a major void there.  There‘s really no more room for terrorists there.  He has sort of saturated every square inch.  It really can‘t get that much worse, but it will probably will.

No. 3, bin Laden himself, as you know, has not been really heard from for the last eight months in the last audiotape, and even that was subject to possible skepticism about the authenticity.  So we really don‘t know where the al Qaeda organization is with this new addition to its membership.  Zarqawi is the clear winner here.  And he might really be trying to anoint himself a legitimate heir to bin Laden in case it really is determined that bin Laden is not around any longer. 

STEWART:  You bring up an interesting point of authenticity.  While U.S. intelligence says, yes, this is an authentic statement from Zarqawi, there‘s some European papers who have said, hold on, not so fast.  Why wouldn‘t it be authentic?  What would point to it being inauthentic and is there any way to really tell? 

EMERSON:  Well, in the end, it is smoke and mirrors, Alison.  You‘re right.  There is really no way to tell.  In the end, it could be a false posting.  And in the age of Internet fabrications and the ability to put anything online, no one would really know.  It could be disinformation, because the reality is, there‘s no real self-interests for Zarqawi to announce his loyalty to bin Laden, or byatt (ph), which is a religious term, other than to make sure that followers know about this or that the Western media and Western intelligence knows about it. 

And if that‘s the case, he has got something else up his sleeve, probably. 

STEWART:  MSNBC analyst and terrorism expert Steve Emerson, we thank you for your insights tonight. 

EMERSON:  Sure, Alison.

STEWART:  Before looking for concrete proof that Scott Peterson is innocent, his defense opens their case with a call to stop the whole darn trial.  He stopped talking about it, but that hasn‘t stopped everybody else, the ever-evolving case against Bill O‘Reilly still ahead. 

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  would for your own personal budget, household budget?  The amount of debt you can afford—it‘s all right. 

LYNNE CHENEY, WIFE OF VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY:  Just a spider. 

D. CHENEY:  A spider on my back. 

(LAUGHTER)

CHENEY:  The amount of debt you can afford.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Here you go. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Now that we‘ve lost all of our customer service. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY:  I‘m sorry. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What can we do for you? 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MEET THE PRESS”)

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  This is the first debate, George Bush at the podium.  The bulge in the back of the suit.  All right.  Come clean.  What is it? 

KEN MEHLMAN, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN MANAGER:  The president in fact was receiving secret signals from aliens in outer space.  You heard it here on “Meet the Press.”

BOB SHRUM, KERRY CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER:  You mean, You sent Rove into orbit? 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Coming up, our nightly O‘Reilly-palooza.  Keith will be back and he knows a little thing or two about getting axed at Fox.  Super-secret Keith dish, it‘s going to be excellent.  Also, Martha Stewart and her home behind bars.  She‘s still in jail.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  This morning, in an exchange that lasted for less than a minute, a defense attorney in a California courtroom asked that the charges against his client be dismissed.  The judge denied the motion.  And with that, the defense phase of the Peterson murder trial officially got under way. 

Our second story on the COUNTDOWN, laying the foundation for Scott Peterson‘s defense, as his high-profile legal team begins presenting its case that he did not murder his wife and unborn child.  You may remember months ago the defense promised to reveal the real killer.  We‘ve heard that somewhere before.  Well, that bombshell answer was not exactly how testimony started.  At issue today, how concrete the concrete evidence against Peterson really is. 

Reporter Karen Brown explains. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAREN BROWN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Scott Peterson‘s father gave a rare smile at the San Mateo County courthouse, as the defense of his son finally got under way.

A private investigator was the first witness called to the stand to lay the foundation for the defense‘s cement expert.  Peterson‘s attorney, Mark Geragos, is trying to prove that missing cement from Peterson‘s warehouse was actually used on the driveway at the Peterson home.  The prosecution claims Peterson used the cement to make anchors to weigh down his pregnant wife‘s body. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The defense has started their case going directly right after a significant piece of circumstantial evidence. 

BROWN:  Legal experts said the defense‘s case will likely focus on expert testimony.  But they also expect Geragos to call Peterson‘s family members to try to explain some of his suspicious behavior shortly before his arrests. 

MICHAEL CARDOZA, NBC LEGAL ANALYST:  Where did the $15,000 come from?  I‘m sure the parents will have an explanation that they will give to the jury. 

BROWN:  Most legal experts said they don‘t believe Peterson will take the stand. 

LESLIE CROCKER SNYDER, NBC LEGAL ANALYST:  Why in this kind of case would any defense attorney ever put someone like Scott Peterson on?  He‘s lied consistently.  That‘s shown on the videos.  He lied to television.  He lied to Amber Frey.  He is, everyone agrees, a pathological liar. 

BROWN:  Also, the judge denied the defense‘s request to throw out the case. 

Karen Brown, NBC News. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  With that, we make the transition to the entertainment stories of “Keeping Tabs.” 

And it is official.  “Esquire” magazine has named this year‘s sexiest woman alive.  And it is Angelina Jolie.  She sure is pretty.  Last year‘s sexiest woman alive was Britney Spears, who is still alive, but apparently slightly less sexy, probably the serial bride thing.  But Jolie, even with the tattoos, the piercings, and even with an eye patch in her new movie “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” was the top pick of “Esquire”‘s editors and mostly male readership.  Halle Berry was a close second and Britney Spears dropped two spots to No. 3.  That issue hits newsstands in November. 

You might not find this particular getup sexy, but it is all the rage at Camp Cupcake.  This photo taken by “People” magazine at the Alderson prison camp in West Virginia purportedly shows inmate Martha Stewart strolling the grounds in her prison-issued khakis and green shirt.  Or would that be her wheat-hued trousers and moss tone tunic? 

Ten days into her five-month stay, Martha has issued her first public comments to her Web site, saying—quote—“Everyone here is very nice, both the officials and my fellow inmates”—end quote.  And one of those fellow inmates who met Martha returned the compliment, saying the convicted liar was—quote—“very friendly and very cordial.”

A prison official tells “The Daily News,” “She is in good hands and she‘ll be just fine.”  At this rate, Martha‘s prison diary she‘s reportedly writing would shape up to be the most boring prison book ever. 

Coming up, you‘ll get one more chance to see Keith this hour.  He‘ll lay out the latest legal spats and drama in the Bill O‘Reilly case in T-4:21 and counting.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening again from Burbank, California. 

All singers, they say, secretly want to be comedians and all comedians singers.  Does the same apply for comedians and news commentators?  our No.  1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, cable, comedy, controversy, loofahs, lawsuit, and lacing into the news media. 

In a moment, the latest legal wrangling with two TV careers hanging in the balance.  Wait for it.  First, when fake news anchors attack.  Comedy Central start Jon Stewart was ostensibly booked on “Crossfire” last Friday to talk about his new book.  Instead, “The Daily Show” host took the opportunity to blast the CNN shows and its hosts for—quote—“hurting America.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “CROSSFIRE”) 

JON STEWART, HOST, “THE DAILY SHOW”:  See, the thing is, we need your help.  Right now, you‘re helping the politicians and the corporations.  And we‘re left out there to mow our lawns.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST:  By beating up on them?  You just said we‘re too rough on them when they make mistakes. 

STEWART:  No, no, no, you‘re not too rough on them.  You‘re part of their strategies.  You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks. 

You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably. 

CARLSON:  You need to get a job at a journalism school, I think.

STEWART:  You need to go to one. 

The thing that I want to say is, when you have people on for just knee-jerk, reactionary talk...

CARLSON:  Wait.  I thought you were going to be funny.  Come on.  Be funny. 

STEWART:  No.  No.  I‘m not going to be your monkey. 

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON:  I do think you‘re more fun on your show.  Just my opinion.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON:  OK, up next, Jon Stewart goes one on one with his fans

(CROSSTALK)  

STEWART:  You know what‘s interesting, though?  You‘re as big a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) on your show as you are on any show. 

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON:  Now, you‘re getting into it.  I like that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The line has blurred between news with attitude and just plain comedy and not just because of Jon Stewart‘s refusal to be anybody‘s monkey.

The gradient can tilt the other way when news commentators become jokes.  It‘s your entertainment dollars in action, day six of the Bill O‘Reilly investigations.  As we reported last week, Fox News Channel has now formally asked a New York judge to let them fire Andrea Mackris with impunity. 

Mackris claims the network is already guilty of retaliation against her.  She has filed yet another complaint against O‘Reilly and Fox, claiming that the company told her to call in sick when the allegations first surfaced early this month and then never gave her any further instructions.  And although she is still being paid by Fox—she picked up the latest paycheck last Thursday—Ms. Mackris says the company has in effect removed her from her position. 

She told “New York Daily News” this weekend that she wants her life

and her career back and that—quote—“My logic in not going through the

·         quote, unquote -- ‘proper channels‘ of Fox News legal and human resources departments has been borne out in the retaliatory actions towards me since I came forward.”

Joining me now, criticism defense attorney Jayne Weintraub. 

Ms. Weintraub, thanks for joining us.  Good evening.

JAYNE WEINTRAUB, DEFENSE ATTORNEY:  My pleasure. 

OLBERMANN:  Forgetting any reason why Ms. Mackris would want to get back to work, considering the environment she would face at O‘Reilly‘s show right now, does she have a retaliation case purely about the firing against Fox?  Is she being even in fact unfairly kept out of the office without being fired? 

WEINTRAUB:  No, I doubt it.  I mean, they can‘t fire her because she filed the lawsuit. 

But, on the other hand, they don‘t have to keep her for a lifetime either.  I‘m sure that there are terms in her contract that discuss what is reasonable to do in a situation like this.  For example, this young lady is going on every national television show trashing her employer.  Why should her employer have to keep her on the payroll while they are diminished from revenues and she is detracting from the very viewers that are coming to the show?  I say, no, she will be fired. 

OLBERMANN:  Now, I might have a unique perspective on this case, because Fox offed me in May of 2001 from their sports operation for a similar fashion, although for different reasons, I think.  They simply told me one day, come in.  Clear out your office.  There will be a guard standing by, but they kept paying me for eight months, which, by the way, was the best job I ever had. 

WEINTRAUB:  Right. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  But I was threatened in no uncertain terms by a Fox executive that, if I went to the media, if I said anything about situation which they did not approve in advance, which would have been anything, they would then fire me for cause for talking to the media without their consent. 

WEINTRAUB:  Exactly. 

OLBERMANN:  That would be a contract violation on my part.  They would fire me for cause.

WEINTRAUB:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  They wouldn‘t owe me a dime.  Is that what‘s going on here?  And if it‘s OK for them to do that, does that impact the other case itself?  Is this part of a pattern that she can show of being not merely harassed, but in some senses abused as an employee? 

WEINTRAUB:  No, because, realistically, why would anybody want her on the show?  It‘s his show.  Why should he be subjected to having her creating a hostile environment in his workspace?  No, No. 1. 

No. 2, when you are asked to leave, I‘m sure that they had started something else and they went on to a different segment, because why would they off you?  But, by confidentiality, you agreed and acquiesced to those terms and accepted the paycheck.  That was your decision, and therefore you did not go on any other TV shows and trash the network.  That‘s why you were allowed to keep the money. 

Here, in this situation, she wants to be paid, keep the money and go everywhere and trash the network, and take away their reputation.  That‘s not going to be allowed by any court. 

OLBERMANN:  I should explain, they basically—they did in fact go—basically, they took their cable network, their sports operation, and took the whole newscast, the whole news department off the air.  So mine was a little different, I think.

WEINTRAUB:  Because, if they were going to have it, they would have kept you.

OLBERMANN:  I would assume that.  But thank you kindly. 

But it‘s still—if you can get the paycheck without going to work, that is the best thing that she might get out of this. 

WEINTRAUB:  I would like that. 

OLBERMANN:  Jayne Weintraub, criticism defense attorney, analyzing the O‘Reilly case for us, thank you much for your time tonight. 

WEINTRAUB:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  And a special tonight thanks here for Alison Stewart‘s help this evening. 

Please don‘t forget to watch me later tonight with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”  Actually, that would be Jay Leno with me.  I would be the afterthought in the equation. 

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

From California, good night 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.

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