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It’s tough to be the leading candidate

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" discusses the trouble facing both party's leading presidential candidates, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton
/ Source: NBC News

MSNBC: Tim, Rudy Giuliani is dealing with some questions about funding his security detail while he was mayor of New York and Hillary Clinton is facing some flack about her husband’s comments on Iraq. Are the front runners in the national polls for president running into some problems as we approach the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary?

Tim Russert: That’s what happens to the front runners in every presidential race.

Just throw the national polls away, they really have become meaningless.  It’s all about these early caucuses and primaries. Iowa’s only five weeks away, on January 3. New Hampshire is six weeks away, on January 8th.

In Iowa both races are too close to call.  Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are bunched up at the top.  On the Republican side, its Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, and Fred Thompson. It’s so wide open, so volatile

When Bill Clinton says that he opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning, it plays into the narrative of Bill and Hillary Clinton trying to parse and splice their answers to questions to adjust to changing political attitudes on the Iraq war.

MSNBC: Do you have any reason to believe that there are not going to be a lot more of these stories about Rudy Giuliani’s three marriages - the getaway with wife number three while he was married with wife number two?

Russert: I don’t think that’s ever going to stop, particularly with the New York papers.  If there is a suspicion of suspect behavior, they are going to try to nail it down.

Also, I think the bigger issue is Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani’s police commissioner.  Mayor Giuliani recommended him to the country and to President Bush as THE person to be put in charge of Homeland Security.  Kerik is now under indictment.

I think there will be a lot of questions raised about that lapse of judgment.

MSNBC: This week’s YouTube got good rating numbers - far larger than anything they had done before on any of the cable networks related to the debates. What does that tell you?

Russert: It tells me the voting public is very engaged in this race.

There was a survey done in Iowa the other day where 60% said they were following the race very carefully, 80% of Democrats said they had gotten a phone call from one of the campaigns, and over a third said they met one of the candidates personally!

So this is real. This is a big race - 2008. The first time since 1952 when an incumbent president or vice president will not be the nominee of one of the major parties.  It’s wide open, there are big issues and big problems confronting our country and people are following it closely.

MSNBC:  Right at the start of thatdebate, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney seemed to get sidetracked from immigration into what some have called trivial bickering over personal issues.  Did that have any effect?  

Russert: It appeared that Mike Huckabee, who was standing next to, but not engaging in the back and forth between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani during their debate scuffle over immigration, may have benefited from their battle.

People listen to those kind of charges and countercharges, but they sometimes think less of the people that are arguing and that factors into their voting decisions.

In Iowa, which is five weeks away, on the Republican side, it’s dead even between Huckabee and Romney, with Giuliani and Fred Thompson in the hunt.

On the Democratic side, it’s dead even with Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards.

We are in a real race.

MSNBC: Had either Romney or Giuliani won that debate argument, would it have made a difference?  Was it something upon which a voter is going to decide who to vote for president?

Russert: Absolutely not. They are squabbling.

People, when they watch these debates or an interview on Meet the Press, they are not sitting there with a clipboard checking off different issues and scoring points. They are taking someone’s measure, sizing people up.  And I think sometimes these candidates get down in the mud not realizing they are creating an impression that is not very favorable with the voters.

The voters want to hear the candidates think and reflect and try to answer questions, not have all the answers, but at least give us a sense of their intellectual journey and I think that was lacking with some of the candidates.

MSNBC: What’s your take on several supporters of Democratic candidates showing up on camera asking questions during the GOP debate?

Russert: I think you have to vet things very carefully.  If you are going to use people like that, you have to make sure they don’t bring a bias or an ideology.  That’s a real downside.

To have someone who supports Clinton or Obama or Edwards showing up at a Republican debate asking questions, I believe is inappropriate.

MSNBC: Who’s on Sunday?

Russert: We have an interesting guest. Jim Webb, the Democratic senator from Virginia and a decorated Vietnam veteran, has made his first trip to Iraq. He comes back from Iraq on Saturday and will report to the nation Sunday, on Meet the Press.

He’s been an important voice in Congress in terms of this debate on the war.  His son has served in Iraq.
He also was the author of a resolution about Iran that triggered a debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama about whether it was giving approval to President George Bush for attack on Iran. Plus, Virginia may become a swing state in our presidential politics.  There’s a lot to talk about with Jim Webb.

In light of the military surge, I am very anxious to hear his views on how the reconciliation is going. Where does the country go on Iraq?

Plus, in our roundtable, the very latest on Iowa and New Hampshire.  Here we go - only five weeks to go.

All Sunday, on .