updated 1/31/2005 2:02:00 PM ET 2005-01-31T19:02:00

Guest: Randy Clark, Margaret Carlson, Jeff Thomason, Tom Squitieri

ALISON STEWART, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  Democracy and the deadly road to it.  Insurgent attack polling places, U.S. soldiers, Iraqi policemen, and even an electoral candidate.  Just as President Bush says U.S. forces will get out if asked. 

Hey, all the kids are doing it.  A third journalist enthusiastically supporting the Bush administration‘s marriage initiative as long as the check is in the mail. 

Sunday surprise.  An NFL player turned New Jersey construction worker is headed to Jacksonville for one last game.  They call it the Super Bowl. 

The belly as billboard.  A pregnant woman offering advertisers the chance to plug their product on her seven-month bump. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening to you.  I‘m Alison Stewart.  Still holding down fort while Keith Olbermann is on vacation.  The good news tonight, voting has officially begun in the Iraqi elections without incident.  The bad news, that‘s because none of it has taken place within the borders of the country itself. 

Our fifth story in the COUNTDOWN, T minus two days until the polls open inside Iraq.  The creation of a hostile and deadly environment continued as more lives were lost today.  Insurgents attacking at least six designated polling sites in yet another attempt to make Iraqis stay home on Sunday.  That‘s in addition to roadside bombs targeting U.S. troops.  At least 10 Iraqis and five American soldiers were killed in today‘s violence. 

Now the Iraqi government announced it has arrested three close associates of the al Qaeda-linked terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  And insisted it‘s the insurgents who are on the defensive.  There‘s still more.  Two American pilots, the fate of them unknown tonight after their Kiowa helicopter crashed in southwest Baghdad.  Military officials do not believe the helicopter was hit by hostile fire.  It is believed the chopper flew into electrical wires. 

Today‘s crash comes just two days after a Super Stallion helicopter went down in bad weather in western Iraq killing 31 servicemen. 

In the Iraqi capital tonight the lockdown has begun.  U.S. soldiers blocking the streets of Baghdad today with concrete barriers.  MSNBC‘s David Shuster join us now from Baghdad.  David, with only hours to go until the polls open, can you set the scene for us tonight in that city? 

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Alison, it is very tense as you mentioned.  Streets are closed.  Shops are closed.  The U.S. forces have moved out of some of the larger bases like this one and essentially made the security zone much larger.  In addition for much of the night, we‘ve been hearing F-15s, F-16s flying over.  We‘ve been told that U.S.  operations are much more aggressive now as far as trying to find out the insurgents, trying to track down some of the bombs that they may have placed or that they may be making.  There have been some claims by insurgent groups that they may have as many as 400 suicide bombers ready to go on Sunday.  U.S. forces are desperately trying to find some of them in order to prevent the violence. 

In addition to that, a lot of the bombs that you were talking about, the car bombs, you can hear them here in Baghdad every time they go off.  And the frequency with which you‘ve been hearing these thuds, and then followed by the gunfire and then the roar of the Bradleys as the U.S.  forces out there try to go after the insurgents or escape from them.  The frequency by which those attacks and those engagements are happening is much more frequent than people, say, have been happening in the past.  For example, my colleagues who have been here much longer than me say there have been certainly a ratcheting up of the attacks and of the engagements here in Baghdad. 

STEWART:  Now on the surface, it appears that that announcement that three of Zarqawi‘s associates have been arrested was aimed at helping reassure Iraqis about security.  Now is that how it is being received over there? 

SHUSTER:  Not really, Alison.  The interior minister, when he made the announcement, it was clearly part of the campaign to try to reassure Iraqis.  But it turns out that these arrests were made more than 10 days ago and it is not clear what impact if any, what information if any they they‘ve been able to get out of these aides to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  And clearly, even though they made the arrests, the violence is intensifying and it has sort of become a bit of a wash, at least as far as many Iraqis seem to think. 

STEWART:  All right.  I need to pick your brain here.  This election is far from a vanilla, walk in, pick a guy, walk out.  Walk us through what makes this Iraqi election so unusual. 

SHUSTER:  One of the things that makes it unusual right off the start is Iraqis have not voted for anybody but one candidate over the last several decades.  That‘s very strange to be going into an election ballot where you have essentially 111 different lists.  When you look at the ballot, there are mostly parties.  There are few individuals but each of those sort of representatives and they are numbered.  The campaign has been conducted with the group saying vote for number 50, number 75, or vote for this particular logo. 

With each particular party, there is a list of possible candidates who would serve in the legislature.  And the number of seats that they would receive in the legislature, the general assembly, whatever you want to call it, is based on a percentage of the votes.  For example, if somebody gets 33 percent of the popular vote, they would then get one-third of 275 seats which I think according to my math is about 88. 

So that‘s the way the election essentially will break down.  Again, most of the people that are listed on the ballot, these are parties, not individuals, although if you want to look for the individuals who might get possible seats in the legislature, you can now do so after a lot of candidates deciding that they didn‘t want their names published.  Now officially the names are being released.  There are some 7,000 who could possibly, or at least tonight are thinking they may have an outside chance of landing one of these seats in the legislature.  But again it depends on the percentage of the vote that their particular organization receives.

STEWART:  David Shuster, thanks for taking something complicated and helping us to understand it.  We appreciate it.  Take care in Baghdad tonight. 

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome.  Thanks, Alison.

STEWART:  Someone who is not running for election could still end up a major player in the new Iraqi government.  Richard Engel has more from Baghdad on the invisible force who is guiding many candidates. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Campaigning door to door.  Waffah Hussein (ph) is determined.  A devout Shiite Muslim, she is running on a little known slate.  Her campaign message?  Voting is a God-given right that will lead to stability and security.  Her headquarters, a charity now educating women voters. 

Her husband Rod (ph) is running, too, but for a different small party.  His political forum, mosques.  But what many voters don‘t realize is the same invisible yet formidable force is behind both of them.  The senior Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. 

Al-Sistani isn‘t a candidate himself but it doesn‘t matter.  Many people here consider him to be the most powerful man in Iraq, the leader of the Shiite who make up 60 percent of the population.  The question everyone is asking is if his supporters win, will he push this country toward Islamic rule? 

The answer according to Abdel Aziz al-Hakim (ph), the leader of the most prominent Shiite bloc, also blessed by al-Sistani is no.

“We don‘t want to establish a religious or sectarian state but one open to everyone,” he says. 

But there‘s a different message at Rod‘s mosque seminars.  “The new government will be accountable to the people who have suffered so much,” says this cleric, “and will promote Islam throughout the land.”

But there is another concern about Sistani and his top clerics:  their

close ties to Iran.  Waffar‘s charity and Rod‘s mosque campaigns are funded

by the Iran‘s hardline Islamist government. 

GEOFFREY KEMP, MIDDLE EAST EXPERT:  The priority for Iran is to make sure that a government comes into power in Baghdad that is dominated by Shiites with whom they have relations. 

ENGEL:  Many others fear Sunday‘s elections could set a course for Iraq to gradually drift closer to Iran and its theocracy, guided by a powerful and reclusive Ayatollah whose vision for Iraq remains unclear.  Richard Engel, NBC News, Baghdad. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)‘

STEWART:  Now as you mentioned at the top of the program, actual voting in the Iraqi elections has begun only not in Baghdad.  All around the world, in fact, though, including five U.S. cities.  Kerry Sanders is in one of them tonight, Nashville, with more on democracy in action.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KERRY SANDERS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Casting a ballot.  Cause for celebration.  A dance for democracy among people who once lived under dictatorship.  In Nashville, home of the largest Iraqi Kurdish community, Mohammed Hamo (ph) with his 3-year-old son Dylan, grateful to the more than 1,400 members of the U.S. military who have died. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  If it wasn‘t for all the sacrifice the American people did and all the allied forces, we wouldn‘t be here today. 

SANDERS: In New York, 26-year-old Nadir al-Hadini (ph) says he will travel to Maryland to vote this weekend. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I vote because I believe in it. 

SANDERS:  His vote represents his whole family.  His uncle in Baghdad said he is not voting because it is too dangerous. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You know, the security, it‘s very danger to me now to go to the vote.

SANDERS:  In this country, the Department of Homeland Security said it has received no credible threats against U.S. polling places.  Still all those eligible are not voting.  In Detroit, Ayad Nakshabani (ph) blames confusion.  The ballot has 111 party choices.  But the names of candidates weren‘t released until yesterday. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I really don‘t know who is who. 

SANDERS:  Of an estimated 350,000 eligible voters in the United States, fewer than 26,000 registered to vote in this historic election.  Kerry Sanders, NBC News, Nashville. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  And rounding out our number five story, a sharp turn from the Iraqi voting booth to detainees interrogation chambers.  Female interrogators at Guantanamo Bay have employed a slate of extreme tactics, specifically designed to prey upon strict Islamist religious tenets.  According to an insider‘s account obtained by the Associated Press, the interrogators sported thongs and bras during questioning, touched themselves or prisoners in the genital area and in one case, allegedly smeared a Saudi man‘s face with red ink and told the prisoners it was menstrual blood.  All efforts designed to psychologically break the Muslim men many of whom have strict beliefs that forbid close contact with any woman who isn‘t a wife or any women menstruating.  Both are considered a sin, strictly taboo.

“Inside the Wire,” a book due out later this year details the firsthand accounts of Army Sergeant Eric Sar (ph) worked as an Arabic translator at Gitmo from December of ‘02 to June 2003.  The FBI criticized these sexual tactics as, quote, “highly aggressive” in a letter sent last month to U.S. defense officials. 

Moving from punishment abroad to crime at home, a Georgia mom disappears without a trace near a marina where she lives.  Now nine days later, suspicions are falling on her husband. 

And later, it looks like Armstrong Williams, just the tip of the iceberg.  He was not alone.  A third journalist now accused of accepting cash from the Bush administration to promote its agenda. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  It is a story eerily reminiscent of another case.  A woman vanishes.  Authorities search the waters where she lived and some family member point to her husband as a possible suspect. 

Our number four story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, without a trace.  A Georgia woman disappeared nine days ago from a marina where she lived with her husband and nearly three years.  Cindy Lynch shared a three-story yacht with her husband Chet at the Thunderbolt Yacht Club Marina in Savannah, Georgia.  Authorities from several agencies have already searched the waters there and plan to extend that search farther down the Wilmington (ph) River. 

Police have also searched at least two construction sites where Chet Lynch worked as a contractor.  The detective on the case saying, quote, “it works to rule him out or link him and we haven‘t done either yet.” Meanwhile, Chet Lynch is adamant that he is not responsible for his wife‘s disappearance.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHET LYNCH, HUSBAND OF MISSING WOMAN:  Absolutely nothing to do with her disappearance.  And I‘ve been put through the wringer with that.  And you know, I have nothing to do with my wife‘s appearance.  I loved her.  It just didn‘t happen. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  The mystery is yielding some authentic clues, investigators say, but also strange calls regarding possible sightings.  Joining me now is Cindy Lynch‘s brother Randy Clark.  And Randy, thank you so much for taking time to be on the program under these circumstances. 

RANDY CLARK, BROTHER OF MISSING WOMAN:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  Mr. Clark, there have been reports about a phone call between your sister and your mom before she disappeared.  Can you tell us what was said? 

CLARK:  Sure.  My mom and sister were obviously very close.  And my sister had called my mom and spoke to her, I mean, my mom and my mom‘s husband for about an hour and a half.  She had some concerns about her situation with the relationship.  And during the conversation which was just a day before she became missing, she made a comment to my mom that mom, if anything ever happens, you just need to make sure you contact the authorities.  And that is what has gotten most of the family members very concerned about her disappearance.  Because it was just the day before she became missing. 

STEWART:  Now how would you categorize the relationship between Cindy and her husband? 

CLARK:  Well, I mean, they were having some marital problems .  And it has been going on since the end of last year.  They‘ve only been married for a couple years.  so they were having some tough times. 

STEWART:  Have they known each other a long time before they got married? 

CLARK:  No.  They didn‘t.  They probably were only acquaintances for probably three or four years.  Eight months prior to marriage. 

STEWART:  Eight months prior to marriage.  OK.

As far as you know, Chet is being cooperative with the police, right? 

CLARK:  Yes.  Chet has been cooperative and assisting the GBI with any of the investigation that we can bring her home safely and that‘s our ultimate goal.

STEWART:  Now I know you‘re in law enforcement yourself.  And I know you cannot comment on the details of this case, nor should you.  But in a case like this, what kind of clues are law enforcement looking for? 

CLARK:  Well, they go through with a fine-toothed comb.  And they try to pick up on any potential leads, phone calls is very helpful.  Especially anyone who knows of any of the dealings with Cindy or her relationships and things like that that can possibly break the case for them. 

STEWART:  What‘s the police hotline?  I know you have got a number there. 

CLARK:  I do. 

STEWART:  Let me help you out.  I think we have...

CLARK:  It‘s Crimestoppers hotline and it‘s area code 912-234-2020.

STEWART:  Randy Clark, we thank you for your time tonight.  We hope that putting that phone number up there helps out a whole lot.  Best to your family. 

CLARK:  Thank you so much.  Thank you.

STEWART:  Up next, we take a nightly break from the very serious news of the day to bring you some stuff like that.  Like that guy.  Forget the terminator.  Meet a real robot on “Oddball.”

Plus, parents who share every single moment of their baby‘s lives with family and friends are now taking it one step further, sharing every moment with a global audience as well.  On the web, baby blogging coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart wrapping up the week in Keith Olbermann‘s comfy chair.  But they make me sit on a booster seat because I‘m short.  Sometimes you just got to stop the COUNTDOWN of that real news stuff and pause to appreciate all things goofy.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

I got to give me one of these.  It‘s called the sword.  And it is being developed for military, not home consumer use.  Not yet anyway.  The robot is the second generation with one being used in Iraq right now.  Except that this one is armed with live cameras, night vision, and a .50 caliber machine gun.  And you thought that Roomba vacuum rocked. 

The sword is slated to be ready sometime later this year and will ship with one simple warning label:  aim away from face. 

Another new product news.  Check out the latest craze across South Korea.  It‘s a 21st century version of the hula hoop.  It‘s the sing song hoop.  That‘s is it, sing song hoop.  Rather than molded plastic, this new version is heavier with a focus on exercise and made from a double layer of metal springs.  Here two women dangerously demonstrate the sing song hoop in a crowded shopping mall.  One woman said the hoop had acupuncture effects that have improved digestion.  I hear Tums do the same thing.  Just a thought. 

And finally, by popular request, we are updating our story from Northridge, Illinois concerning the deer who had a trash can lid stuck on his head for the past month.  We don‘t have any real new information really.  It‘s just that so many people wanted to see it again so.  We will, however, be looking into what animal control officials can do to free this little fellow because as we reported last night, they cannot tranquilize the deer without then having to put the animal down.  Of course, it‘s always possible that the buck actually prefers lid.  A little bit of deer bling bling or something like that.  I mean, he could be saying to the other deer, hey, yo, yo, check me out.  I like that I made an urban deer.  Yo, yo, check me out.

Stay tuned to the COUNTDOWN for further updates on this developing “Oddball” story. 

Two days to the election that could provide an exit strategy of sorts for American soldiers.  The president saying that he will pull U.S. troops out of Iraq if the government asks him to. 

And what about Poland?  The vice president making a major fashion faux pas at a solemn ceremony for the victims of Auschwitz.  Those stories ahead.

But first here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of the day.  Number three, Dantler Thomas of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  He has been arrested and charged with robbery after holding up a market for about $2,000.  Police say he might have gotten away with it if he hadn‘t returned to the scene of the crime to get the gun that he actually left there. 

Number two, Carolyn Folsom working at a gas station in Omaha, Nebraska.  She accidentally programmed the pumps to sell gas at 18 cents a gallon instead of $1.98.  The problem went unnoticed for about a couple of hours as 500 gallons were sold at the bargain price.  But when word got around town, the rush on the station ended in a near riot.  She is so lucky that her dad is the boss of the station!  So lucky. 

And number one, David Dickinson, a cattle man of Milford, Nebraska.  He‘s got a bit of a situation in his high density feed lot.  His manure pile is on fire.  Not his manure but that of more than 12,000 cows.  The 30-foot high and 100 foot long pile has been burning for almost three months and no one seems able to be able to put it out.  Did they try stomping on that? 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  A “say, what?” moment for the president and another journalist with a nice bank account courtesy of the administration.  Our third story on the COUNTDOWN President Bush sends tongues wagging with a comment about pulling troops out of Iraq.  Another journalist is outed for taking payments from the administration and the secretary of state sworn in twice so it can be nice. 

But we start with the president who told the “New York Times,” as a matter of principle, he would pull American troops out of Iraq if the government that‘s elected Sunday asks him to do so.  The president told the paper, “this is a sovereign government.  They‘re on their feet.”  But added, “it seems like most of the leadership there understands that there will be a need for coalition troops at least until the Iraqis are able to fight.”

A Zogby survey released today found the majorities of both Iraq‘s Shiite and Sunnis calling for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from their soil.  To quote the Clash, should we stay or should we go?  To talk about all of this, I‘m joined now by Tom Squitieri, Pentagon reporter for “USA Today.”  Tom, is this the first time we‘ve heard the all you had to do was ask concept? 

TOM SQUITIERI, “USA TODAY”:  Well, it sort of trickled up from some of the other people in the Bush administration.  But it is the first time the president has said it.  And you know, Alison, it is one of those things that the latest reason the United States says it is in Iraq is to bring democracy. 

So when you have a vote, it is considered bad form not to listen to what the new government that the people selected asked you to do. 

STEWART:  Do you think we‘re moving towards an exit strategy? 

SQUITIERI:  Well, there‘s no exit strategy in the Pentagon at this point.  So this would give them an exit strategy.  And some people think that‘s what the Bush administration wants to do.  You may recall, the last couple of weeks you‘ve been hearing from generals and other senior Pentagon types that it looks like the United States is going to be there at its present troop level for a couple more years.  The Bush administration and Secretary Rumsfeld have also said we‘ll be there as long as it takes.  So they‘re sort of conceding the fact that Iraq is not yet a done deal for democracy or stability.  Yet if the—which means they can‘t get out before at least two or three more years.  But if the new government comes and says, hey, we want to you leave, that gives them that opportunity. 

STEWART:  It was also interesting in that article, the president said that U.S. troops need to be seen as helpers rather than occupiers.  Has there been any movement towards that end? 

SQUITIERI:  Indeed, the military does do a lot of what you and I may call humanitarian work.  They build schools, they guard sewage plants.  There‘s a lot of that going on.  But in those local areas, that is impact and the memory of U.S. troops.  But over all, the U.S. is viewed as an occupier.  And the problem with saying we‘re going to leave at a certain date, which they haven‘t said yet, other countries are pulling out at certain dates, it gives the insurgents or the bad guys the opportunity to sit back and wait for that date to happen.  And then resume their activities.  If you know the United States is going to leave, let‘s say, at the end of this year or the middle of next year, or 90 days after the election, why do you want to attack U.S. soldiers now and disrupt the economy and disrupt the political system when you can wait until there are fewer people shooting at you to do that? 

STEWART:  You know, a lot of pundits say that this election is almost as important for President Bush as it is for the Iraqis.  Is that an overstating the case or is it on the money? 

SQUITIERI:  I think it is pretty close to on the money.  If you look at what happened in Afghanistan.  They had a very successful election that‘s helped Afghanistan move toward a stronger democracy, a stronger country free of terrorism.  It is a different situation, of course, in Iraq.  A lot more different elements, a lot more challenges.  But if you do have an election Sunday that it can be credibly seen as a small step toward democracy that can give President Bush some vindication of bringing a democracy to Iraq others say.  We have to see what happens Sunday and the two weeks, three weeks after the election when they‘re counting the votes,  how many candidates who are elected are still alive.

STEWART:  Tom Squitieri, Pentagon reporter for “USA Today.”  Thank you so much for your time.

SQUITIERI:  Have a pleasant weekend. 

STEWART:  You too, sir.

When the Armstrong Williams story broke, he was quoted as saying, quote, “This happens all the time.  There are others.”  Well, he wasn‘t fibbing about that.  Today word of a third journalist who received payments from the Bush administration.  Michael McManus writes a weekly column called “Religion and Ethics” and is the co-founder with his wife of an advocacy group called Marriage Savers.  In 2003, the Department of Health and Human Services, we‘ve heard of him, paid McManus $4,000 plus travel expenses, apparently he drives a hard bargain.  He was paid the money and he delivered a number of speeches promoting the administration‘s, quote, “community, healthy marriage initiative.”  Last September, he received a $49,000 grant to develop a program to encourage single moms with babies to get hitched. 

Mr. McManus told NBC News he is no Armstrong Williams saying, quote, “I don‘t feel it‘s appropriate to flack for the administration.  I wasn‘t bought.”  End quote.

Political backlash was swift.  The chairman of the Democratic National Committee releasing this statement, quote, “President Bush‘s agenda must be in real trouble when he‘s forced to buy stories from right-wing columnists and reporters.  The American people deserve to know the truth.  How many more reporters are on your payroll, Mr. Bush?”  End quote.

This marks the third such payee to come to light.  Earlier in the week, the “Washington Post” reported the same department, Health and Human Services, paid syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher $22,000 to promote the president‘s marriage initiative.  She, too, claims she did nothing wrong. 

Well, to tear into all this, it is a privilege to be joined for a second time this week by “TIME” magazine‘s Margaret Carlson.  Margaret, did these people do something wrong?  And if so, exactly what? 

MARGARET CARLSON, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Well, if they disclosed what was going on, it wouldn‘t be so wrong.  But to act as a journalist, or play one on TV, and not say that you‘re being paid by the person that you‘re commenting on, is—treads very close to being unethical.  Because if I were being paid by someone, wouldn‘t you want to know that?  That—

Armstrong Williams was paid directly to promote No Child Left Behind.  These others, McManus and Gallagher were paid to do actual work.  But they‘re on the payroll of the Bush administration and then go out and talk about these programs as if they‘re not.  And I think that crosses the line. 

STEWART:  So these three people, McManus, Williams and Gallagher, why these three? 

CARLSON:  Well, here‘s the real scandal.  The Bush administration is paying, spending, taxpayer dollars to get what they could have for free.  It‘s not as if these people are changing their opinion.  Now, if you get a convert to your side, maybe that‘s, you know, money better spent because you‘re getting something out of it.  This is not a good use of your scandalous dollars. 

STEWART:  Well, this fellow Michael McManus, he founded an organization called Marriage Savers back in, I think, 1996.  Now these are his beliefs were likely in line anyway.  Could it be argued he was just being savvy, he was going to write a column like that anyway? 

CARLSON:  Well, he was.  So why the Bush administration was paying him, and why he wouldn‘t reveal it.  Because hey, the name of his organization is Marriage Savers.  And in fact, editors and producers should be the ones that either vet the person that they‘re putting on TV or having write a column and disclose it in some way when they put the person on.  I think that would be the preferable way to do it.  If the journalist, if the McManus or the Gallagher doesn‘t know to reveal it, the editor or producer should know to reveal it. 

STEWART:  One more question for you before I let you go.  In terms of the administration, is this just a mild embarrassment or is this something bigger? 

CARLSON:  Well, in his press conference, you could tell President Bush seemed not to like it.  I‘m not sure how big it is.  I think someone got the bright idea, oh, hey, let‘s get people to pretend to be journalists and on our side.  One of the peculiar things about it is that the Bush administration, and HHS, they don‘t like journalists.  Why would they think that the journalists they don‘t like promoting their policies is going to make their policies more palatable to people?  That‘s a mystery that remains.  But in any event, it is not money well spent. 

STEWART:  This is weird journalism infomercial territory.  Margaret Carlson of “TIME” magazine, thanks again. 

CARLSON:  Alison, good night. 

STEWART:  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was officially sworn in today.  Wait.  Didn‘t I already report this?  It is deja vu all over again.  That‘s because Dr. Rice was sworn in Wednesday privately in the White House by the president‘s chief of staff.  That‘s Andy Card.  Today was the public ceremony.  And practice makes perfect.  A perfectly good photo op for madam secretary to be sworn in with the president of the United States right there for the world to see.  Oh, yes.  That‘s also her Aunt Maddie (ph), her Aunt Jean (ph) and her Uncle Alto (ph) up there.  The president is the guy on the left. 

So now she really, really is the secretary of state.  Ruth Bader Ginsberg as well.

And lastly, a programming note.  Senator John Kerry will sit down with Tim Russert Sunday on “Meet The Press.”  This is an exclusive.  His first interview since he lost the election.

But first watch this.  Space.  A mom to be puts her belly up for sale to the highest advertising bidder.  If you think that‘s odd, wait until you see what some parents are doing after the kid is born.

Plus, she‘s handed in her notice three times and now she‘s handing it in six years in advance.  Is Oprah really calling it quits? 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  There is nothing more amazing than the bond between parent and child forged by prenatal nurturing and ultrasound photo framing, cemented by baby book (UNINTELLIGIBLE), little Morgan or Bethany‘s first lock of hair.  Every single feeding, hick up and diaper change, documented in unnerving detail.  All things thankfully to be treasured privately because honestly, the rest of us don‘t really care that much.  The kid is cute and everything but we‘re just being nice. 

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the World Wide Web and TMI, new proof that the Internet is making parents insane.  More insane.  We begin in Myrtle Beach where one mother to be took one look at her expanding waistline and thought, real estate.  Here‘s Lucas McFadden with our affiliate WIS.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  First reaction was, like, I can‘t believe you‘re doing this.  You‘re crazy.  You‘re nuts. 

LUCAS MCFADDEN, WIS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  22-year-old Amber Rainey (ph) from Myrtle Beach is taking pregnancy to a whole new level.  She‘s selling advertising space on her pregnant belly on E-bay. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I got the idea from the guy who put his forehead up for bid on E-bay.  He got 37-some thousand dollars doing it.  So I was just joking around, I‘ll put my face up on E-Bay.  I said, wait a minute.  I have a really big stomach.  It‘s like, hey!  Everyone looks at it, too. 

You can‘t help but look at a pregnant belly. 

MCFADDEN:  Your husband isn‘t here but what does he think of this?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Basically he thinks I‘m crazy and he has the shaking of the head and the—that‘s pretty much what I get from him. 

MCFADDEN:  What do you want to say to folks that say it is kind of tacky. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE;  I just don‘t think it‘s tacky.  I think pregnant bellies are cute. 

MCFADDEN:  Rainey will display her belly billboard until she has her child in late March. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I thought it would be cute for a company like, you know, a diaper company or a pregnancy test company.  How cute to have me walking around with a pregnant belly with a pregnancy test.  Just something silly like that.

MCFADDEN:  You and I know that‘s probably not going to happen. 

Rainey‘s belly has been posted on E-Bay since late Tuesday night.  And the bidding will end in five days.  She says her site is averaging roughly seven hits a minute.  One group that bellied up was a local rock band that wanted exposure. 

MCFADDEN:  Do you think it‘s inappropriate? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Well, I mean, logos and websites and what not.  I mean, nothing obscene or anything.  And basically, I don‘t really have anything—just as long as it is not obscene or offensive. 

MCFADDEN:  So far the bid for Rainey‘s belly is over $400. 

Does this set a good example for your unborn child? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I think it will prove to him that his mom is a lot of fun. 

MCFADDEN:  With the money from this auction, Rainey plans to furnish a nursery for her child and set up a college fund. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  By the way, the bidding on Amber‘s belly now nearly $2,000. 

That story makes those baby on board signs seem a whole lot less noxious.  And our next story will make them seem downright quaint.  Baby blogging can take a parent‘s obsession with his perfect little angel to a whole new level.  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny checked this al out for us.  Hi, Monica.

MONICA NOVOTNY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, Alison.  It is the latest must have item for tech savvy parents.  An online brag book.  That‘s right.  A baby blog written by mom and dad, devoted entirely to the proud moments of parenthood and the intricacies of infancy. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over):  Meet the McNeils (ph), one family that‘s not afraid to air their dirty laundry. 

Each day, stay-at-home dad Ben tracks messy diapers along with just about every other detail, documenting the development of his 18-month-old daughter.  All on a baby blog devoted to Trixie (ph). 

What was meant to be an online baby book just for family is now yet another Internet web log read by thousands. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wanted to document the experience that you don‘t find out about in the baby books. 

NOVOTNY:  Ben created the “Trixie Update” five weeks after her birth when wife Jennifer returned to work as a web window into their world at home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I thought it might be, like, fun if she could see that Trixie was taking a nap or that she was getting enough milk and that her diapering is going OK. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It‘s histology.  It really made me feel connected.  And it made the days go by better. 

NOVOTNY:  Park database, part diary, part community where word spread and soon strangers started logging in to get advice, to give it, or just watch Trixie grow. 

Now this baby blog attracts 2,000 readers a day.  From her belly button to milk consumption to sleep charts, the world is watching.  And some of the information is unusual. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I discovered that she was taking 38 minutes naps all the time. 

One year of breast pumping to feed Trixie translated into 22 straight days of pumping.  She didn‘t really have a butt until she was, like, a month or two old and if you don‘t have a butt, the diaper‘s not going to fit. 

NOVOTNY:  She‘s going to love watching this in 10 years!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I know.  I know.  She‘s going to kill me. 

AMANDA LENHART, PEW INTERNET RESEARCH:  They‘re definitely a growing phenomenon.  It actually streamlines a lot of things that parents want to do.  It allows them to record things that are important to them and also share it with people they love. 

NOVOTNY:  But Internet researcher Amanda Lenhart warns, blog carefully. 

LENHART:  Though a web logs are a public space.  Parents need to remember that when you put something up about your child, that anyone can come and see it. 

NOVOTNY:  For Ben, a careful balance.  With his lovable devil in the details. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is just like one look at a very specific little girl who had a dad who had too much extra time when she was a little baby. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  If you want to start your own baby blog but are concerned about privacy issues, experts say there are few easy tips you can follow.  First, don‘t use your baby‘s full name.  You may just want to use a first initial or a nickname.  Don‘t disclose where you live and think about having password protection on the website so that you can decide who has access to it.

Finally, remember that your beautiful baby will grow up and in a few years, maybe mortified by what you‘ve offered up to the world so please edit wisely. 

STEWART:  Trixie, so cute!  Adorable.

NOVOTNY:  So cute.

STEWART:  And a great family. 

NOVOTNY:  They‘re really really sweet.

STEWART:  Monica Novotny, thanks so much for introducing us to the Trixie cam. 

The fashion entertainment stories are keeping tabs with some breaking news.  Oprah Winfrey is retiring in the year 2011.  It is the third such announcement for the queen of all media but Oprah says this time she means it.  Her contract expires in six years and after that, no more.  We can begin the farewell tour now.  And you have a little less than 2,190 days to figure out how to get on one of those shows where she gives away all the really expensive stuff. 

And finally the fashion faux pas that is becoming an international incident.  There‘s an uproar over Vice President Cheney‘s choice of attire when he attended the Holocaust Memorial in Holland yesterday.  It was a solemn event marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Well, he dressed for the weather, at least. 

Sitting among a sea of world leaders in black formal coats, the vice president stood out in his green parka and knit hat from the Jackson Hole Ski Resort.  Fashion writer Robin Givhan of the “Washington Post” criticized Cheney for arriving dressed, quote, “in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snowblower.”  End quote.  And pointed out that clearly Cheney owns a proper over coat.  The world saw it during his swearing in as vice president last week in frigid snowdusted Washington.  Perhaps he forgot to pack his good coat or it was at the dry cleaner‘s. 

Maybe he thought he was going to a Green Bay-Packers game. 

The Givhan contended the parker cap and boots had the unfortunate effect of suggesting that he was more concerned with his own comfort than the reason for braving the cold at all.

A final shot at glory for an old NFL pro called out of retirement for one game.  And it‘s the Super Bowl.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  In a little more than a week, about 90 million people will pull up a Lazy Boy and park their nachos in front of a wide screen to watch the annual grid iron clash that is the Super Bowl.  Now how many of those will want to put the Bud down and turn that ineffectual screaming into on-field action?  How many will actually get the chance to do it? 

Our number one story in the COUNTDOWN, one, one lucky man.  Like every other rabid Philly sports fan an assistant project manager for a New Jersey construction firm was watching last week‘s Eagles-Falcons game where he saw Eagles tight end Chad Lewis‘s Super Bowl dreams cut short by an injury.  Next day, his phone rang.  Chad Lewis wanted Jeff Thomason, that construction worker to take his place on February 6.  Bit of a shocker, no?  Actually maybe not so much.  The two are buds.  Earlier, I had a chance to speak with Mr. Thomason. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Jeff, thanks a bunch for joining us. 

JEFF THOMASON, CONTRACTOR:  Hi, Alison, good to be here. 

STEWART:  OK, so you‘re sitting at home, your pal calls you on the phone, you‘re talking for a little while then he says, hey, you want to take my place in the Super Bowl?  What were you thinking? 

THOMASON:  I was actually sitting in my office.  And he called me about 10:00 and said, hey, come in and take my spot.  Chad Lewis mentioned that as unselfish as he is.  And I was shocked.  I never thought it would actually come to be but here I am today.

STEWART:  Had you guys ever talked about anything like this?  About, man, I‘d really like another chance to be in the Super Bowl? 

THOMASON:  Well, I‘ve seen him a lot throughout the season, a lot of tight ends.  And we discussed—they keep saying we‘d like to get me back.  We had some good, you know, good couple of years ago.  Mike Baten (ph), Chad Lewis, and myself.  Never did I think two weeks before the Super Bowl I‘d come in for the biggest game of the year. 

STEWART:  OK, you need to clarify for the non-football people out there.  You‘re not this average construction guy putting up sheet rock with the plumbers cracking everything.  You were a live former pro player.  And you played for the Eagles for how long actually? 

THOMASON:  Three years I played for them.

STEWART:  So what is it you think that you know or you have that might have that might help out on February 6? 

THOMASON:  Well, I‘ve been in this offense for ten years.  I‘m familiar with these guys.  I spent three years here.  It‘s a pretty comfortable setting for me being back here with these guys.  And I‘m comfortable in the big game.  I‘ve played in two Super Bowls.  So I have a little bit of experience in these type of games so.  With those I think that‘s definitely helped me get the nod . 

STEWART:  So why‘d you retire in the first place? 

THOMASON:  It was not my choice.  The phones stopped ringing.  I didn‘t have any other options to go play anymore. 

STEWART:  Well, it is ringing now. 

THOMASON:  It is ringing .  It‘s going crazy and I‘m loving it. 

STEWART:  Is it really true that you had to take vacation time to be part of this? 

THOMASON:  Initially when I found out about it I was actually going to a sales meeting.  I ran out of there and went straight to the facility here to try to get some stuff to show these guys I can still run.  so initially I called my boss and said, hey, I‘ll take vacation time, whatever I‘ve got to do.  I need to take advantage of this opportunity so...

STEWART:  But it‘s kind of a working vacation though?  Best case scenario, you walk away with how much?  Worst case scenario, may I ask?

THOMASON:  Best case, I think it‘s about $38,000 -- I‘m not exactly sure of the numbers.  I‘m sorry best case is $68,000, worst case is $38,000.  Which is—if we win it doubles my salary so. 

STEWART:  One quick question for you, how is Chad doing?  It‘s been really exciting for you but he‘s really missing out on a big thing? 

THOMASON:  He is.  Chad is the most incredible guy I know.  He‘s such a good man.  All he does is think about other people.  And I know that he‘s hurting, he‘d love to be—I‘d give (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to have him here to be able to play in the game.  But he‘s so positive.  All he does is think about the fact that I‘m getting a chance to play in this thing and I‘m here.  All he does is talk about other people.  I know he‘s hurting.  I wish he could be here.  But he‘s just a positive man.  He takes things as they come. 

STEWART:  All right, so February 8, let‘s say, headed back to work or are you thinking you might stick around and do this football thing again another year? 

THOMASON:  You know what, realistically, I‘m probably going to be heading back to work.  It‘s going to be a strange feeling sitting back on my desk on the 8th or 9th and just kind of wondering what I just went through. 

STEWART:  Yes, but you might have a big, fat ring to show everybody so...

THOMASON:  Which will be nice.  I‘m definitely hoping for that. 

STEWART:  Jeff Thomason, thanks a bunch.  We appreciate it.  Good luck to you.

Yes, all the ladies on the COUNTDOWN staff think he‘s cute too.  That‘s it for COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being a part of it.  I‘m Alison Stewart, Keith Olbermann will be back this Sunday for a special edition of COUNTDOWN on the Iraqi elections.  That‘s 8:00 p.m. this Sunday on MSNBC.  Have a really great night.

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2005 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Transcription Copyright 2005 Voxant, 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 Voxant, 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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