Msnbc: Tim, the White House denies it, but the Barack Obama campaign is accusing President Bush of targeting the Democratic frontrunner with comments Thursday in Israel, where he warned about negotiating with terrorists. It got some pretty sharp reaction.
Russert: It’s a dividing line. There’s no doubt about it. The Republicans have concluded they cannot run on the Iraq war or on the economy or on eight years of George W. Bush. The three special congressional elections have demonstrated how much damage there has been to the Republican brand according to the Republicans - Tom Davis from Virginia and others.
And so, the way they believe to make this race competitive or beat Barack Obama is to say, “Never mind the issues. Let’s talk about whether or not he has the experience to be commander in chief - naïve, in the words of John McCain -- whether he’s up to the task or up to the job.”
One of the ways to look at that, they will say, is his judgment or lack thereof. He wants to sit down and talk with the Iranian president and other similar despots.
The Democrats pounced on it. Why? Because the president was offshore, speaking to a parliament of a foreign government, which they say is an inappropriate forum to discuss domestic politics. Secondly they say, “Just a second Mr. President. What about Moammar Gadhafi of Libya? What about Kim Jong Il of North Korea? You’ve engaged them.”
Then they quote Colin Powell, as Bush’s former Secretary of State and Robert Gates, his current Secretary of Defense, who have both talked about engagement. And suddenly we have a serious and legitimate political debate. I think it’s healthy.
Msnbc: Is there some benefit in this to Barack Obama, because it seems as if the Republicans are now saying the debates are over and it’s time to start the general election campaign?
Russert: Absolutely, because it’s directed at Barack Obama. And who rushed to Obama’s defense? Hillary Clinton. She was seen there as defending the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party - not a position she wanted to be in, but she had no choice.
Msnbc: With the Democratic delegate count being the way it is, is Hillary Clinton still in the race just to raise money so she can eliminate her campaign debt.
Russert: The law is simple. She cannot carry that personal debt past the convention in August. If she does not pay herself back the $11 million she gave the campaign, she, in effect, loses it. So I think the idea of being in the race, keeping the campaign up and running and raising some money, all works for her. If in fact her message is based on issues and not attacking Obama, she could help unify the party.
The flow of superdelegates to Obama continues. The math just gets more and more difficult, to the point where she would have to win over 90 percent of the remaining delegates. And many close to her campaign acknowledge she’s simply going through the motions.
Msnbc: On the other side of the campaign trail, Thursday, John McCain said he could see the beginning of a troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2013, if he were to become president. Is this positioning himself for November and those who say McCain would be a continuation of the Bush years?
Russert: Sen. McCain will say, “I never put a timeline on it. We won’t leave until there’s victory.”
But by mentioning that his goal is 2013, he is suggesting that he has to deal with the problem, in the voters’ minds. I don’t think the McCain campaign, the day they were rolling out their priorities for a first term, were expecting the president to step into the news the way he did. Senator McCain has been trying very hard to suggest he would not the third Bush term. But Thursday it looked very much like a tag team – Bush-McCain against Obama.
Msnbc: What’s coming up Sunday on Meet the Press?
Russert: We have one of those increasingly rare, endangered species – an undeclared superdelegate by the name of Jim Webb, the Democratic senator from Virginia. Where does he stand on this presidential race? Is he interested in the vice presidency? Where does stand on the issue of sitting down and having discussions with foreign leaders like the president of Iran? Then in our political roundtable, we’ll have some insiders: Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansans governor and presidential candidate – does he want to be vice president? Harold Ford, Jr., the former congressman from Tennessee, Democratic strategist Bob Shrum and Republican strategist Mike Murphy. All on Meet the Press. Another interesting Sunday morning coming up.