Guests: John Harwood, Rachel Maddow, Chuck Todd, David Gregory, Michael Smerconish
DAVID GREGORY, HOST: Tonight: Reverend Wright comes to Washington and creates a new political headache for Obama, forcing him to disavow the views of his former pastor once more, as THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.
A new week and a lot to talk about. Welcome to THE RACE. I‘m David Gregory. This is your stop for the fast-paced, the bottom line, and every point of view in the room. Every day of this race is game day. And we are here to wrap it up and tell you what it means.
After our discussion of Reverend Wright tonight, an examination of the extreme makeover within the Obama campaign. He‘s tweaking his message, changing the backdrop. Might he even listen to Karl Rove? More on that later.
Also tonight, a special Bubba edition of the war room. Has Bill Clinton helped or hurt in this campaign?
The bedrock of the program, as you know, a panel that comes to play. And with us tonight, Philadelphia radio talk show host and columnist for both “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and “The Daily News” Michael Smerconish, CNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent, John Harwood, NBC News political director, Chuck Todd, and MSNBC political analyst, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, Rachel herself.
We begin as we do every night with everyone‘s take on the most important political story of the day. It‘s the headline.
Here we go.
My headline tonight: Wright again. Is it wrong for Obama? In Washington today, Obama‘s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, defended himself, saying attacks on him amount to an attack on the black church. He was unapologetic about his views and his statements, arguing he served in the military while leaders of this country avoided service in war.
He also took on the charge that he is a liability to Senator Obama.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT, TRINITY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST: He didn‘t distance himself. He had to distance himself, because he‘s a politician, from what the media was saying I had said, which was anti-American. He said I didn‘t offer any words of hope. How would he know? He never heard the rest of the sermon. You never heard it.
I offered words of hope.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Here, Wright defended this remark about that effectively America brought 9/11 on itself. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WRIGHT: You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: During the Q&A today.
So, later on this afternoon, Senator Obama responded. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have said before and I will repeat again that what—some of the comments that Reverend Wright have made offend me. And I understand why they have offended the American people.
He does not speak for me. He does not speak for the campaign. And, so, he may make statements in the future that don‘t reflect my values or concerns.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: But Wright is speaking. And that‘s a problem for Senator Obama.
By the way, the Wright distraction of Obama on a day when he picked up an important superdelegate endorsement from New Mexico, Senator Jeff Bingaman. It looks like he‘s got the edge among the superdelegates in the Senate.
Chuck Todd, what does it mean? Your headline, your take on this story today.
CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, maybe there‘s an Obama silver lining, David, a couple things that this Wright, this new Wright reappearance created.
It‘s an opportunity potentially for Obama to not only distance himself once again from Reverend Wright, which he tried to do this afternoon, but potentially refrain his campaign in this last week before May 6, a date that he would like to make the last day of the campaign trail, reframe this as an argument for his candidacy again, the whole idea that he‘s trying to get rid of this politics of distraction, that he‘s trying to turn the page, that he doesn‘t want to be sort of killed by shiny metal objects that seem to distract the media, but rather focus on key issues, focus on change.
So, he‘s always been better when in reactive mode, and sure enough, he‘s got a chance to be reactive again.
GREGORY: All right.
Michael, your headline tonight.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Hey, David. Good evening.
Paging Dr. Freud for a Reverend Wright diagnosis. I just don‘t understand the motivation of Reverend Wright. And it‘s a subject we debated this morning on my radio program. Surely he knows that he hurts the Obama candidacy when he comes forward. And particularly now, at a time when the campaign is struggling to win over Reagan Democrats, I mean, it makes me wonder, does he really have the candidate‘s best interests at heart.
Does Reverend Wright really want to see Senator Obama win that nomination? I think that‘s a fair question tonight.
GREGORY: Interesting that he chastised him a couple of times for not knowing the complete sermon, for not being in attendance at church as often as he should have been to hear those sermons, and for essentially having the gumption to challenge the pastor, which not a lot of people are supposed to do.
Who knows what the dynamic is between these two individuals. Only they do. But it has me asking a lot of questions tonight.
GREGORY: All right, John Harwood, your take?
JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: David, my headline is caution flag for Clinton. While she races around the track in the political equivalent of the Indy 500, Hillary Clinton has to steer very carefully on Jeremiah Wright. She‘s got to capitalize on Barack Obama‘s vulnerability, but avoid anything that creates a backlash from fellow Democrats.
That‘s why today, she slammed John McCain for his reaction to that North Carolina Republican Party ad, but deflected questions about Obama‘s relationship with Wright by saying you have got to ask him.
GREGORY: Well, why doesn‘t she go more aggressively now? If she wants to cite Reverend Wright privately, as she‘s done in other areas, in terms of raising electability questions, why not use him to make that argument to superdelegates? Why be bashful about it?
HARWOOD: I don‘t think she has to. I think we‘re making that argument right now by talking about it on this show. And it‘s happening all over the country.
GREGORY: All right, Rachel, your headline.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: My headline today is, John McCain veers off the high road.
It was just a week ago when John McCain got props from even big liberal me from having told the North Carolina Republican Party...
GREGORY: And we kept that tape, Rachel. We got it. We got it on you.
MADDOW: I know. I know. It will be my political epitaph at point.
Maddow praised John McCain and then look what he did.
MADDOW: He said that he was going after the North Carolina Republican Party saying the Jeremiah Wright ad was inappropriate, that he did not want to campaign on those grounds. His campaign manager, Charlie Black, saying guilt by association is not going to be the way that John McCain campaigns.
Now we‘re hearing a very different tune from Senator McCain. And it only took a week. I think we have got a clip here.
GREGORY: Why do you think he made a choice? Be analytical about this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: ... as Senator Obama said yesterday, view this as a political issue. That‘s what Senator Obama said.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: As if Senator Obama was luring him into this discussion.
In terms of why John McCain is doing this, David, I think he sees this as low-hanging fruit. And I think that John McCain realized that he was going to get a little political capital, he was going to earn a little bit by taking that moral high ground position. I think it bought him something in terms of defense to John Hagee questions when he was heading to New Orleans.
But now, with Jeremiah Wright back in the news in such a big way, McCain just felt it was too attractive to walk away from. And he‘s hoping that people don‘t remember his pledge from last week.
GREGORY: And there‘s no question that if Obama says it‘s a legitimate issue, it creates some opening, but it seems like kind of a thin argument veil, a thin argument for McCain to then use and say, yes, all right, so, it‘s going to become an issue, after he went out of his way to say in that North Carolina ad that it shouldn‘t be part of the discussion.
MADDOW: Essentially, if John McCain is taking what he says is a principled stand on this, then it shouldn‘t matter what Barack Obama or anybody else says about it, if it is John McCain‘s values that he says would keep him away from this type of campaigning.
GREGORY: All right. A lot more on this ahead.
GREGORY: We will come back to this in just a minute.
Obama is re-launching his campaign, focusing more on the economy in his speeches, hitting the basketball court for a campaign event and reminding people of his life story. Is it going to work? We will talk about the makeover.
Plus, breaking news—a big endorsement for Hillary Clinton. We‘re going to tell you about it when we come back.
GREGORY: Big endorsement for Hillary Clinton. We will give you that news after the break.
Also, she wants another debate with Barack Obama, not picky about where the debate should take place. Even the back of a pickup truck will do. So, should Obama give in and agree to another debate or hold his ground and continue to reject her invitations?
THE RACE is right back.
GREGORY: Welcome back to THE RACE.
We‘re heading inside the war rooms of these campaigns. Idea here, to examine strategy shifts in campaign tactics.
Still with us, Michael Smerconish, John Harwood, Chuck Todd, and Rachel Maddow.
Breaking news on the race tonight. Hillary Clinton picking up a big endorsement from North Carolina Governor Mike Easley. NBC News has indeed confirmed that Governor Easley will endorse Senator Clinton tomorrow and Raleigh. He is the second North Carolina superdelegate to back Clinton.
Chuck Todd, big deal?
TODD: It is a big deal, because she hasn‘t gotten a lot of support in North Carolina.
The two candidate Democrats running to replace Mike Easley in—who are on the primary ballot with Clinton and Obama have both chosen to support Obama. So, it tells you that those who have to get votes in this primary electorate are trying to side with Obama. Easley, who is not on the ballot and won‘t be on the ballot again unless he runs for another office some day, is siding with Clinton.
It‘s a big get for Clinton, but it—and it raises the expectations for her a little bit.
John Harwood, do we know anything about what is behind this? And how might it change the dynamic in a state where she‘s more trying to close the gap, the spread, narrow the spread, than win the state?
HARWOOD: Well, he‘s a conservative Democrat. He speaks to a lot of the target voters that she‘s trying to get to.
He‘s also urged Obama to debate, which she has agreed to do. And Barack Obama has shunned that request. So there‘s a certain logic to it. And like Chuck, I agree. This is a very good thing for Hillary Clinton. I don‘t think it‘s worth 10 or 12 points, though, which is what she needs.
GREGORY: All right, coming up next, Barack Obama‘s new game plan for North Carolina and Indiana. This will be part of it, reconnect with the white working-class and deliver a more populist message. So, he hit the basketball court Friday night, trading in his suit and tie for sweats and sneakers in a three-on-three game of basketball. And before crowds in North Carolina today, he acknowledged his campaign has made the mistake of falling into the trap of negative campaigning.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: I have noticed over the last several weeks—I told this to my team—we are starting to sound like other folks, starting to run the same negative stuff.
This election is not about me. It‘s not about Senator Clinton. It‘s not about Senator John McCain. It‘s about you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Michael, what‘s this retool all about?
SMERCONISH: I think it‘s a retooling of the message.
It‘s a message that drops him now from the loftier goals and notions and talks more about some brass tacks issues like the economy or health care. And I think that‘s a good thing. I think he needs to get off that stage.
We‘re the postmortem here in Pennsylvania still, David. And one of the reactions is to say that perhaps he would have been better served in the minority community, rustling up votes, rather than in front of 35,000 people in Independence Hall the Friday before that Tuesday election. It was a great television visual, but he needed to be out on Main Street and not in front of so many folks. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but that is one reaction.
GREGORY: Rachel, how do you see it?
MADDOW: I think this as essentially trying to reboot the campaign.
We also talked about this last week, that would be what Barack Obama might be heading into. He took a couple days off last week. While Hillary Clinton was doing some very public high-profile meetings, Obama was quiet and at home. It may be that we see him roll out something new.
The real damage for Obama, the real problem with the Jeremiah Wright issue taking over the news cycle again today is that he may not be able to advance a new agenda yet or a new image yet, if he still has to be addressing questions about his former pastor.
GREGORY: John Harwood, I have talked to people inside the Obama campaign who describe something of a split in terms of how to react to her, how to engage Hillary Clinton.
There are those like John Kerry who say you have got to stand up, you have got to hit her hard, you have got to fight, you have got to brawl. Others saying, no way. You have got way too much invested in this brand of hopeful, different kind of politics to turn back now.
HARWOOD: David, when I talk to Obama people, they tell me they thought—think they made a mistake at the end of the Pennsylvania campaign in engaging the way they did. It hurt them in suburban Philadelphia with some of their target voters and it didn‘t get them much with those working-class white voters.
I think it‘s very smart in the Hoosier State for Barack Obama to get on the court. And he didn‘t look like he was getting a lot of heavy Ron Artest defensive pressure there. Any time a presidential candidate gets out on the court and scores, that‘s a good thing.
GREGORY: All right, moving on, Hillary Clinton is stepping up her calls for another debate. Only, this time, she wants to do things a little bit differently.
Meanwhile, Obama said he‘s not ducking a debate at all. Listen to both of them.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: This state deserves a debate, so here‘s what I‘m offering. How about this? No moderators. Just the two of us on a stage for 90 minutes asking each other questions, talking about whatever is on our minds, just like the Lincoln-Douglas debates. And I think we could even do it on the back of a flatbed truck. It doesn‘t even have to be in some fancy studio somewhere.
OBAMA: I‘m not ducking one. We have had 21. And so what we have said is, with two weeks, two big states, we want to be make sure that we‘re talking to as many folks as possible on the ground, taking questions from voters.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No debates between now and Indiana?
OBAMA: We‘re not going to have debates between now and Indiana.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Michael, no surprise here that politicians who are behind want to debate more. That‘s what Hillary Clinton wants to do. How do you see the strategy playing out?
SMERCONISH: I think it‘s better than the last Clinton flatbed
reference that is somewhere racking around in the back of my mind.
Listen, his problem in that debate was that he was playing out the clock. And my fear is for him if he takes her on again and he has that mentality. Do you know what I‘m saying, David, there? It‘s like there‘s two minutes left in the game and he feels like he‘s ahead. And all he wants to do is wind down the clock. Then she will take him out, because she‘s got game.
GREGORY: I think it‘s an important argument.
Rachel, why doesn‘t he say to himself, I‘m not talking about just the people I‘m trying to—the voters I‘m trying to reach; I have got to speak directly to these superdelegates and engage her in a debate to prove that I can close her out and that I can shut her down?
MADDOW: I think Barack Obama‘s biggest problem right now is that he‘s had six straight days of the worst media coverage that he‘s had in this entire campaign.
And if superdelegates are worried about how he is going to stand up against John McCain, one of the things they‘re worried about is how he can handle bad press, how he can handle lulls, how he get can back on the offense when he‘s rocked back on his heels.
MADDOW: I actually think the momentum is so with Hillary Clinton right now, it doesn‘t really matter that Obama is ahead. If the argument is to superdelegates, he ought to say yes to that debate.
GREGORY: OK. I have got to get a break in here.
Coming up, some friendly advice. It really is friendly for Barack Obama from Karl Rove, President Bush‘s former senior adviser.
But first a little insight into what Barack Obama might be looking for in a running meat.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All these issues, I appreciate your rehearsing, but most of these things about the economy, all this, we know. Don‘t hit on Hillary. It brings us all down. Let her do that stuff. Leave her alone. You don‘t need to do that. You‘re higher than that. Bring us up higher than that. I thank you, sir. Boy, you better be president. You have got to be president.
OBAMA: I just want to know, will you be my running mate?
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: “Smart Take” time.
Welcome back. We take a look at the most provocative, thoughtful, insightful. We find all of these items, so you don‘t have to look for them.
Here again, Michael, John, Chuck, and Rachel.
Today, a conservative edition of “Smart Takes.” Two prominent conservatives weigh in with their views on the Democratic candidates.
First up, “The New York Times”‘ Bill Kristol says Hillary Clinton‘s tenacity is winning the respect of some of her Republican critics.
To the quote board. “Since we conservatives,” he writes, “believe in giving credit where credit is due, it falls to us to praise Hillary.
The fact is, Hillary Clinton has turned out to be an impressive candidate. She has consistently defeated Barack Obama when her back was to the wall—first in New Hampshire, then in several big primaries on Super Tuesday, on March 4 in Ohio and Texas, and then last week in Pennsylvania. Obama‘s team has run the better campaign. But Hillary may well be the better candidate.”
Chuck Todd, how much of this feeds into the idea of chaos theory on the right, which is keep this thing going?
TODD: Right. There‘s definitely a lot of liberals who think that that is exactly what‘s going on, that this new praise of Hillary Clinton from the right is nothing more than to dilute Obama and dilute his victory a little bit.
But, look, the fact is Kristol does point out an interesting fact.
And that is Hillary Clinton has been a better candidate than her campaign. And that‘s been consistent for the last six months. She struggled being a candidate on her own for the first nine months in this race, but she fine-tuned herself and became a pretty good candidate on the stump. The campaign has yet to catch up with the candidate.
GREGORY: All right, so, Smerc, real quick, who do you think conservatives want to run against today?
SMERCONISH: I think people have changed their mind.
It used to be, we have got to keep her propped up, so that we can run against Hillary Clinton. I think now they are completely divided.
But one point on what you just raised, David.
SMERCONISH: Philadelphia is hockey crazy. We‘re in the Stanley Cup playoffs right now.
Today, I spoke to somebody from the Flyers who wanted to talk to me about politics. And you know what he said in a heavy Canadian accent? “Hillary Clinton, I really like her. She‘s tough.”
She is tough. That‘s all Bill Kristol was saying. Holy smokes. You have got to admire her.
GREGORY: Right. Right.
All right, this one is next for Rachel.
Karl Rove writes a memo to Barack Obama in “Newsweek” this week listing six ways the Democratic candidate can beat the elitist rap and put his campaign back on course.
Let me go through these, Rachel. I want you to respond to a couple of them.
One, come up with a fresh, optimistic stump speech focused on the general election. Two, when you get into trouble, pick one simple explanation and stay with it. Three, show bipartisanship. Get some Republicans to agree to serve in your administration and push a bipartisan issue in Congress. Four, get to work in the Senate. Pick a big issue and fight for it. And, five, stop the attacks. You lose altitude when you do what—when you criticize people. Six, tell people in concrete and credible ways what they can expect from you as president. That‘s what‘s missing now.
Whatever Obama‘s views or your views of Karl Rove, certainly a respected political figure. What of that advice do you think he takes?
MADDOW: I think it‘s actually kind of a great mix of patently ridiculous and totally smart.
The idea that he should give simpler responses to the known controversies in this campaign, absolutely. The fact that he needs a new stump speech, you have heard that from a lot of other people, too.
The idea that he ought to go back to the Senate and start working on a big complex issue, on the other hand, I‘m sure Republicans would love to see that, and maybe they would like to send Hillary Clinton back to do the same.
GREGORY: Let me get in on that point, because I think, John Harwood, this is an interesting criticism of Barack Obama, which is, what issue has he owned as a legislator, either in the Senate or when he was back in the statehouse? What has he owned, other than being a political phenomenon?
HARWOOD: More than anything else, David, he would tell you that he owns the issue of ethics reform. And he pushed some legislation on that front.
But I have got to agree with Rachel. The idea that he‘s going to go back to the Senate, which is the Bermuda Triangle right now, and focus—spend precious weeks to try to work on an issue that is not going to go going anywhere, in part because Republicans will block it, give me a break.
GREGORY: Well, the other thing, Chuck Todd, what about this idea of simple explanations?
I think Karl is referring there to some of how he‘s handled the Wright issue. But, of course, this is exactly where Obama‘s trying to be different. He didn‘t want to give a simple explanation for Reverend Wright. He wanted to give a more complex answer, because it is a complex answer to give. Separating yourself from your pastor is not easy. And some of the frustrations that he has and that he expresses are part of the American experience.
TODD: Well, this is someplace where Karl Rove is speaking from his own success, from his own experience, which is you deal with a crisis and you deal with it with the same exact response, to the point where you numb the press corps, so they don‘t ask you anymore.
GREGORY: Right. Right.
TODD: And the problem with Obama and why we love him is that he will always give us a slightly different answer, so we can something more to follow up on.
HARWOOD: Message discipline is just another way of torturing the press, exactly right.
GREGORY: Exactly. Yes, that‘s right.
All right, coming up: a special installment of the war room, Bill Clinton‘s war room tonight.
And President Bush had some funny laughs. We‘re going to get that to you a little bit later, some of his remarks at the correspondents dinner. It was pretty good.
We‘re coming right back on THE RACE.
GREGORY: Welcome back. Back half of the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE tonight. We‘re bringing you a special second edition of the war room. This round we‘re calling inside Bill Clinton‘s war room. Back with us, Philadelphia radio talk show host, columnist for both the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Daily News,” Michael Smerconish, cNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent, John Harwood, NBC News political director Chuck Todd, and MSNBC political analyst and host of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, Rachel herself.
First up, inside President Clinton‘s war room; could Bill Clinton be, in fact, the biggest loser of the campaign? Al Hunt of Bloomberg writes that if she loses the nomination, Hillary Clinton‘s most painful legacy could simply be putting together a flawed campaign; quote, “in time she will have fresh opportunities, perhaps a Senator leadership role, or she may emulate Edward Kennedy as a truly great law maker. Or if Obama loses, make another run for the White House with lessons learned. It‘s going to be tougher for her husband. The most talented and resilient politician of his generation has damaged his standing with gaffs, political miscalculations, and a series of paranioc, volcanic eruptions. A common question these days among political heavy weights, including long time Clinton devotees, is this: how can a guy this smart act so dumb?”
Michael Smerconish, what‘s happened to Bill Clinton in this campaign?
SMERCONISH: I think he‘s been put in a straight jacket. I think his gaffes are born of frustration. I‘m one who believes that campaign would be better served if they were both on stage. The impression that I get watching Bill Clinton on the campaign trail is one of him being so darn frustrated. For example, when he made the fairy tale reference, and immediately that was greeted as somehow involving a racial implication, which I never say. I think it‘s Bill Clinton saying, are you blanking me? I have this long legacy of service and this is the way my comments are going to be interpreted.
I think they‘d be better served having him out in front. I know that sounds counter-intuitive. I still think he‘s a masterful campaigner.
HARWOOD: His straight jacket seems pretty lose.
GREGORY: Chuck Todd, why does it seem so difficult to manage Clinton for these campaigns? Gore had this problem. Here, it‘s his own spouse, Hillary Clinton, who has had to tell him rather publicly to back away from some issues. he seems to me a difficult figure to really harness.
TODD: In some ways, watching him on the campaign trail is a reminder of his that eight years of presidency, where he would have these tremendous highs and you‘d see this potential for excellence as a president. Then he would have these tremendous lows and these huge gaffes. I think part of the problem with Bill Clinton is that he never made the Democratic party in his image. Therefore, when you see him, you don‘t necessarily see the Democratic party of today because it never was. He never built the party up in his image.
It was always about Bill Clinton. At the end of the day, this campaign has always been about the Clinton brand, not the brand of the Democratic party. That‘s why he‘s struggled, for instance, to get these super delegates on board. That‘s why they are losing this nomination fight.
GREGORY: Rachel, take a look at this: Ryan Lizza in the “New Yorker” writes today about Bill Clinton‘s feelings about Obama. He says the following: “every story has seemed to reinforce an image of Clinton as a sort of ill-tempered coot driven a little mad by Obama‘s success. I think this campaign has enraged him, the advisor told me. ‘He doesn‘t like Obama.‘ Known as a bad loser, Mr Clinton privately buttresses his wife‘s drive to push on, telling her, according to aides, we‘re not quitters. We‘ve got to take him on ever time. He reviewed possible TV spots and told ad makers to be more hard hitting, faster and harsher.”
Rachel, is there self-righteous indignation going on with the Clintons or is a principled stand that they feel this guy cannot win. They know enough about the Democratic party and its trials and tribulations over the past 12 years to make that judgment.
MADDOW: They would maintain the ladder, whether we suspect the former depends on whether we have an overall positive feeling about them. I think the most interesting thing about the whole Bubba factor is that Hillary Clinton does not seem to be running on the Clinton legacy nearly as much as I thought she would. She‘s allowing voters to connect the dots themselves. But she‘s not getting up and giving a stump speech about how good eight years of peace and prosperity was under husband‘s administration. She‘s not getting up and praising the people we put in his administration, what all his policies were.
She‘s distanced herself, almost to the point of incredulity, on NAFTA, on some specific policies. She‘s really not running on a Bill Clinton platform. That negates a little bit of the underside of Bill‘s political presence right now.
HARWOOD: She‘s got every right to run. She‘s doing well right now, but I wouldn‘t go to far with this altruism on behalf of the Democratic party.
GREGORY: We do want to look at some numbers though. If we‘re talking about the former president, who‘s referred to sometimes as Bubba. Let‘s look about the Bubba gap for Barack Obama. Certainly Bill Clinton has the uncanny ability to connect with voters, while Obama faces more scrutiny from McCain as an out of touch elitist. Can Obama overcome that?
Look at some of the “Newsweek” numbers here, in terms of how Obama is rated. In terms of better understanding of people like me, 56 to 28 percent among non-whites. Clinton leads 52 to 32 percent among working class poor whites. You look at this, the poll finds that 19 percent of Americans say they are not ready for an African-American president.
Let‘s step back for a minute and digest those numbers. Rachel, you talked a lot about this. On the one hand, he seems to have some difficulty connecting to working class white voters. Yet, that question of do you understand and connect with people like me, he does better than she does. How do you make sense of that?
MADDOW: On the most impressionistic, vague polling questions like that, which I think, more than anything, are a measure of the overall positive sense that voters have about these candidates. There‘s such a vague measure that you‘re asking people. There‘s nothing you can pinpoint to say yes, you get me. It‘s kind of one of these do you want to have a beer with me questions. I think this is more a personality thumbs up or thumbs down question than anything specific about what they‘re offering voters.
GREGORY: Chuck Todd, what about the question of racism? We showed the number here, let‘s just refer to it again; 74 percent of Americans say they are ready for an African-American president. This is a “Newsweek” poll. That‘s up from 59 percent last July. But the poll also shows 19 percent say the country is not ready for that. Polling on the issue is so difficult because we don‘t who is saying the truth. Maybe when you say the country is not ready for it, that‘s closer to what your actual views are in the minds of somebody who is getting polled.
What is the issue of racism, in terms of his ability to close the gap with working class whites.
TODD: I think that we‘re—I looked at one race in ‘06 and thought, you know what, we have gotten past this. That was Harold Ford‘s race, because when he lost in Tennessee, he got 47 percent. In Tennessee, there isn‘t a huge African-American population, so he had to win over a lot of white voters. He lost, not because he was black; he lost because he was single. He lost because he got painted as somebody who wasn‘t ready to be a United States senator. He didn‘t lose on the race issue.
I thought he over performed the number, had it been about race. I thought, if that can happen in Tennessee, then I think something has turned. Deval Patrick got over 50 percent in places like south Boston when he was running in a Democratic primary with White ethnic primary foes. I think those two things together tell me that Obama can get elected. If he loses, it‘s not going to be because of race.
GREGORY: I‘ve got to get another break in here. Coming up, John McCain is getting aggressive. The gloves are off and he‘s going after Barack Obama. It‘s not just about Reverend Wright, by the way. Why this change in strategy from some of the statements last week?
President Bush took the podium at the White House correspondent‘s dinner, his fair well, and he served up a few laughs. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Please excuse me if I‘m a little sleepy. At 3:00 a.m. this morning, the red phone rang, the damn wedding planner.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: We are back on THE RACE. Time for the days three questions. Still with us, Michael Smerconish, John Harwood, Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow. OK, today, we have an extreme make over edition of three questions, in terms of Barack Obama, but we‘ll add one about John McCain as well. Just as Barack Obama hit the reset button on his campaign, Reverend Wright is publicly hitting back at his critics. Now, once again, Obama‘s pastor problem is dominating the news cycle.
The first question today, let‘s look beyond the headlines; what is the real harm that Reverend Wright does to Obama? John Harwood, take it on.
HARWOOD: I think in the near term, Barack Obama‘s got a one week campaign to try to close out Hillary Clinton. Any distraction with Jeremiah Wright becomes a problem for his attempt to connect with those white working class voters. I think over the long run, it‘s a diminishing problem every time Jeremiah Wright opens his mouth. Barack Obama is not sitting in church with him anymore. People are going to get after a while that this is somebody else talking, not Barack Obama. But I don think it‘s a short term problem in Indiana.
GREGORY: Smerconish, do you agree, or do you see an association problem that‘s deeper, given how long he was in the church?
SMERCONISH: I think it‘s a significant problem for Obama. It comes at the worst possible time, because the people who will be most impacted by those statements are the Reagan Democrats that Barack Obama is trying to appeal to right now. This is dominating today‘s news cycle. It will probably dominate tomorrow‘s news cycle because of the remarks this morning at the national press club. Barack Obama needs Reverend Wright off the stage.
GREGORY: Rachel, how big of an issue is it, really? Let‘s break this down. It‘s really these swing voters, these working class white voters that he‘s trying to appeal to who we think this may some impact with. Obviously, if he can win Indiana, he can put a lot of this to bed. Do you think there‘s any real harm here beyond all of the Zeitgeist about it?
MADDOW: There‘s two things. First of all, I do think it matters that the Jeremiah Wright controversy broke after Ohio and Barack Obama did better with the sort of voters who we say are going to be most affected by this in Pennsylvania than he did Ohio. He actually improved with those voters, particularly among voters who self-identify as conservatives, even though they‘re voting in the Democratic party. I think that‘s important. It shouldn‘t get lost.
The more nuts and bolts issue here is that it‘s up to the super delegates now. The big issue for this, the super delegates and Barack Obama, is why hasn‘t he been able to get around this issue. Why hasn‘t he been able to out-maneuver his political opponents and us? Why hasn‘t he been able to in front of the press on this one and put it to bed? That‘s an electability issue for the super delegates.
GREGORY: I think it‘s a smart point. Chuck Todd, if you look at this, politically speaking, here is Obama today—we played it earlier in the hour—saying that this is not somebody who reflects by values. He baptized your children. He baptized you. He married you. Presumably, he does reflects your values, in terms of your faith, bringing you to faith, and in terms of your interaction in the community. Isn‘t that creating some difficulty for him?
TODD: It is. In an odd way though, with what Reverend Wright said today, sort of chastising Obama, that he didn‘t know the rest of the one sermon—you‘re starting to get the idea that maybe these two aren‘t as close as we made them out to be in the media, number one. But number two, I do want to go back to the first question, which is I do think super delegates are watching this, and to see how he handles himself. Obama‘s baggage is no heavier, and might be lighter, ultimately, than Hillary Clinton‘s baggage in a general election.
It‘s clear Hillary Clinton thinks she knows how to handle her baggage and how to deal with it. AT least, that‘s the sale she‘s making to super delegates. Obama is not yet making a strong sale that he knows how to handle his baggage.
GREGORY: Let me move on here. Barack Obama has built his campaign around change, unity, moving beyond partisan politics, racial polarization. But Obama has hit some stumbling blocks recently, first with his bitter comments, and now with the reemergence of Reverend Wright. This is a slightly larger question and it speaks to something I‘ve been thinking about today; which is what is Obama‘s political image? What is his persona? What does Obama do now to live up to that image?
John Harwood, take it on.
HARWOOD: Look, Barack Obama has a political image that‘s dissonant in some ways. On the one hand, if you look at his reputation and his record in the Senate and in Illinois, he‘s to the left. He‘s a liberal. On the other hand, he has a bridge the divide kind of reputation and message in his campaign. He‘s got to find a way to convince people that you can actually be a liberal and pull the two parties together, the two sides together. Some of it is entirely personal, biographical, your approach to politics, and the fact the Republicans don‘t hate him. He‘s got to get out of the attacking back and forth and back to the message.
GREGORY: Michael Smerconish, what‘s interesting about this is that in some ways, what‘s different about Obama is what‘s celebrated about Obama. Yet the system, the political system, the core of the Democratic party, as represented by the Clintons, says oh no, you can‘t be that different. You have to be able to fight. You have to be more of the same show your medal, show that you‘re tough to be able to prevail.
SMERCONISH: I think he‘s functioned best when he‘s kept things on higher level. That doesn‘t necessarily tie the hands of his campaign. I think other individuals need to do the dirty work for him, because when he speaks in a fashion that‘s perceived negatively, for example in that ABC debate, it bodes poorly for him. There‘s no need for him to do so. I think he has to reestablish the high ground in these next seven or so days.
GREGORY: He‘s got to close though, Rachel. He‘s got to be victorious and one of the things he‘s talking about is get the subject off him and the tactics and his persona even, and be the guy that delivers and understands what people are going through. He‘s talking about people who are having a tough time with the economy in Indiana.
MADDOW: Yes, I think there are two things that have to happen simultaneously, one kind out front and one behind the scenes. Out front, he has to go back to what I think is one of his most powerful and under-exploited messages so far, which is that he represents the future and both of his opponents at this point represent the past. I think he‘s got to get back to that. I think it‘s the most appealing thing about him right now. It‘s utterly untainted.
I do think behind the scenes, his campaign needs to move undecided super delegates quickly to show that this can end. It may be Indiana, it may be North Carolina, but it needs to happen in a matter of time, not in a matter of waiting for the next races to unfold.
GREGORY: We‘re talking about Obama from a different direction here, and that‘s the Republicans. McCain is on the offense against Obama. He recently told voters that Obama is the presidential pick of the terrorist group Hamas. Then McCain resurrected the bitter-gate, saying that voters see Obama as out of touch. Listen.
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MCCAIN: Just like they viewed Senator Obama‘s statements about why people turn to their faith and their values—he believes that it‘s out of economic concerns, when we all know that it‘s out of fundamental belief, fundamental faith in this country and its values and its principles. Again, Senator Obama, out of touch.
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GREGORY: Interesting. McCain went out of his way to distance himself from an ad in North Carolina likening Obama to Jeremiah Wright. But at the same time, he‘s hit him very hard on some of these foreign policy questions, association questions and now this. Third question, then: why? Why is McCain taking the gloves off now? Chuck Todd, what‘s going on?
TODD: I think he‘s trying to set the parameters of the debate. One of the mistakes Hillary Clinton made early on was that she went soft on Obama for a long period of time, so that by the time she went hard negative, it looked like she was going hard negative. Instead, McCain is basically signaling, look, this is going to be a rough and tumble campaign. He almost wants to draw Obama into the sand box as quickly as possible, because he knows he‘s not going to win the high-minded fight. He‘s going to lose that to independents. Instead, bring him down and get him muddied up. Keep them down there. It seems to be a lesson he may have learned from Clinton.
HARWOOD: It‘s also a good way to rally Republicans before he moves to the center in the fall, which he will.
SMERCONISH: Hey David, conventional wisdom has been that this is wonderful news for the Republicans that the Democrats are still locked in this death struggle. I‘ve often said on your program that John McCain has been out of sight, out of mind. I don‘t think any of this bode well for him, because all of the interest, all the momentum has been on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Now I know who agrees with me, John McCain, because I think this is a bid for relevance and I think it‘s also a bid for fund raising to put himself front and center.
GREGORY: He gets into the conversation, Rachel.
MADDOW: I just got to say, the kind of attention the Democrats are getting right now—if you‘re in intensive care, you get a lot of attention too. It doesn‘t mean you‘re in good shape.
GREGORY: Right, let me ask you one last question, John Harwood. How do independents read all of this? In other words, this sort of attacking, what will turn them off? You know Obama and McCain are both thinking about that.
HARWOOD: The independents who count and will count at the end of the campaign aren‘t paying much attention at all right now. So that‘s a good thing for these candidates to be able to work out their messages and their games in the spring time for the general election.
GREGORY: We‘re going to take another break here. Coming up, your play date wit the panel. We have a lot of e-mails, you might imagine, voice mail too, about the Reverend Wright situation, other political topics. You sound off when we come back.
GREGORY: I‘ve had my chance, now it‘s your turn to play with the panel. Still with us, of course, Michael, John, Chuck and Rachel. A lot of comments today about Reverend Wright, as you would imagine. Kicking it off with Jessica in Maryland; “As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama must be scrutinized for his relationships. What about Senator McCain? Is he in bed with the same people as George W. Bush? And Hillary Clinton, what kind of compromises has she made in her struggle for campaign cash? Nobody can raise 300 million dollars for a presidential campaign without owing a lot of favors. Aren‘t the most worrisome relationships the ones that lack a sound bite?”
Chuck Todd, fair question about associations. I thought on “Meet The Press” yesterday, which you were on with Tim Russert, questions about her associations back in the ‘60s. She was actually in the middle of some of these culture wars in a way that Barack Obama was not. And donations to the Clinton library, still a lot of questions about that.
TODD: It is. Look, this is a reminder that Obama is the front-runner. You get sort of extra scrutiny and sometimes it will look to a lot of people like unfair scrutiny. I know my e-mail box is filling up today from Obama-nation, who is just coming and saying, we‘re being unfair; we‘re giving too much attention to this. It‘s very similar to the email you got there, David.
GREGORY: Next wondering if Reverend Wrights comments will even matter. Listen.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the end, the simple facts, such as the delegate count, will override all this hysteria. Are we over-complicating matters?
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Rachel, are we over-complicating matters? What is the argument for not talking about this topic?
MADDOW: I think we absolutely are over-complicating matters, to the extend that I don‘t think the vote in Indiana or North Carolina matters. I think at this point, it‘s less than 300 people who get to make the decision. It‘s the super delegates. I think the most interesting reporting that I‘m looking for right now is on what basis those super delegates are going to make their decision.
Until you can convince me that they‘re all hanging on every word out of Jeremiah Wright‘s mouth, I‘m not that interested in Jeremiah Wright anymore.
GREGORY: Here‘s where I disagree with you, Rachel: I think these votes do matter, because I think that‘s what the super delegates are waiting for. There‘s a reason why there are still so many of them who are undecided. They may have political reasons for doing it in their own states or in their districts. I think they want to see him close her out. They want to have confidence that he‘s, indeed, the best candidate to face John McCain, and they want to see how he weathers some of these crisis.
Now, we can have a separate debate about what role we all in the media play in creating the crisis. Nevertheless, I do think that‘s what super delegates are waiting for.
MADDOW: There are so few of them at this point that are undecided, anywhere between 230 and 300, depending on how you count, that they are all interviewable. We can find out. It‘s a quantifiable matter. I think we speculate a lot that they are all waiting for the next primary. I‘m not sure there‘s much evidence that there are.
GREGORY: I have an idea. What if we do the panel all with undecided super delegates.
MADDOW: You can fit 250 boxes on this screen.
GREGORY: Day after day. Right Chuck?
TODD: David these super delegates, they want cover, is what they want. They want an excuse to come out and go the way they are going to go.
MADDOW: I agree.
TODD: They do know how they are going to go, but they are afraid to do it yet and they want cover.
MADDOW: It‘s a tragedy of the common. Their individual responses of not declaring make sense. As a group, it‘s a bad move for the Democratic party to not declare.
GREGORY: I can tell you one guy who is getting ready to be a super delegate. That‘s President Bush. He spoke at the correspondent‘s dinner on Saturday night and he had some funny stuff. I was not there, I have to confess. Harwood has a good story, but listen to this byte first.
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BUSH: I have to say, I‘m kind of surprised we don‘t have more presidential candidates here tonight, like any. Senator McCain is not here. He probably wanted to distance himself from me a little bit. You know, he‘s not alone. Jenna is moving out too.
The two Democratic candidates aren‘t here either. Senator Clinton couldn‘t get into the building because of sniper fire and Senator Obama is at church.
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GREGORY: John, how did it play.
HARWOOD: Here‘s how I know it played very well, David; my guest was Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who made that very successful “Yes, We Can” video for Barack Obama. He was laughing out loud. He said later, he scored some people points with me tonight.
GREGORY: It must be said—I covered George Bush from the beginning. This is a guy who liked people to underestimate him. I think he constantly over-performed at these dinners. He was a lot of fun to watch in these settings. Thanks to a great panel. I‘m David Gregory. That does it for THE RACE for tonight. Thanks for watching. See you tomorrow. “HARDBALL,” right now.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.