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'Race for the White House with David Gregory' for Thursday, May 15

Read the transcript to the Thursday show

Guests: Milissa Rehberger, Michelle Bernard, Richard Wolffe, John Harwood, Rachel Maddow

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, Bush wants in, joins McCain in attacking against Obama on the subject of terrorism.  And a real debate over diplomacy in the fractured Middle East is at full boil as THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on. 

Welcome to THE RACE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Happy to have you. 

This is your stop for the fast-paced, the bottom line, and every point of view in the room. 

Tonight, more on the Edwards effect and the GOP crisis.  The picture and “Three Questions” comes later.  We‘re going to look at McCain‘s promises to end the Iraq war and his potential path to the White House. 

As you know, the bedrock of our program is always a panel that comes to play.  And with us tonight, Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women‘s Voice.; Richard Wolffe, “Newsweek” senior White House correspondent, and he‘s covering the Obama campaign full-time these days; Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America Radio.  All three MSNBC political analysts. 

Also here tonight, John Harwood, chief correspondent in Washington for CNBC and political writer for “The New York Times.”  John also has a hot new book out.  He‘s the co-author of “Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power.”

We begin as we do every night with everyone‘s take on the most important political story of the day.  It‘s “The Headline.”

I‘ll get us started here tonight.  My headline, “The Terror Wars.” 

Obama and McCain spar over how to take on Iran.  President Bush launched all of this today.  He never mentioned Obama‘s name, but while marking Israel‘s 60th anniversary in Jerusalem, a speech at the Knesset, he hammered the senator‘s willingness to sit down with Iran, should he be president. 



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We‘ve heard this foolish delusion before.  As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.”  We have an obligation to call this what it is, the false comfort of appeasement. 


GREGORY:  Appeasement. 

Obama fired back, accusing the president of a sad and false political attack.  He charged the Bush administration with making Iran stronger.  And he added this, “Instead of tough talk and no action, we need to do what Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan did, and use all elements of American power, including tough principles and direct diplomacy to pressure countries like Iran and Syria.  George  Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president‘s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally, Israel.”

Then McCain joined the fray.  Obama called him Bush‘s wingman on this issue, while McCain challenged Obama over his pledge to sit down with Iran‘s leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 



SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  What does he want to talk about with Ahmadinejad, who said Israel is a stinking corpse, who said he wants to wipe Israel off the map, who is sending the most explosive devices into Iraq, killing Americans?  What does he want to talk about with him? 


GREGORY:  All of this a clear reminder of how Republicans will campaign against Obama this fall.  It might have been predictable, trying to paint him as weak and liberal on national security.  The challenge for Republicans this year, this election cycle?  That Obama has a case to make about a more dangerous Middle East and a weaker Israel, perhaps, after the Bush years. 

Richard Wolffe, your headline on all of this. 

RICHARD WOLFFE, “NEWSWEEK”:  My headline, “Pot, Meet Kettle.” 

Look, we have a president out here talking about Iran and appeasement, but either he‘s choosing to ignore his own administration, or he‘s pretending like it‘s not going on because his own State Department officials are currently talking to Iran.  And in case the McCain campaign hasn‘t noticed, the Bush administration is also talking to another state sponsor of terror.  That‘s North Korea. 

So, please, can we get the facts straight if we‘re going to have a general election? 

GREGORY:  Does Obama want to sit down with Ahmadinejad directly?  Is that what he‘s been talking about? 

WOLFFE:  He has talked about face-to-face talks, but the idea that this would be without any preparation isn‘t actually true.  They‘re saying there would be plenty of preparation.  In any case, there‘s a very relevant debate about what should be done at a presidential level. 

One thing he has ruled out off the table, talking to Hamas.  His position isn‘t any different from Bush‘s or McCain‘s.

GREGORY:  And there, again, the administration has met with elements of the Iranian government over Iraq, over other actors in the region, as well.  So there‘s some precedent for this. 

More on this debate coming up a little bit later. 

Rachel Maddow, your headline tonight? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  My headline tonight is, “John McCain Hints at Serving Just One Term?” 

McCain getting so much deserved attention, I think, for an interesting and controversial speech in which he predicted what America would be like in 2013 after four years of a McCain presidency.  Much of the controversy focused on his claim that U.S. troops would be gone from Iraq by 2013.  That‘s seeming to contradict his statement that it would be dangerous to pick a calendar date by which we wanted troops out of Iraq. 

But really caught my eye was this statement at the end of the speech, when he talked about whether he would be thinking about serving another term while in office. 

Check it out. 


MCCAIN:  I won‘t judge myself by how many elections I‘ve won.  I won‘t spend one hour of my presidency worrying more about my re-election than keeping my promises to the American people.  There‘s a time to campaign and a time to govern.  If I‘m elected president, the era of the permanent campaign will end. 


MADDOW:  John McCain, making the case there that maybe he will think differently about the number of terms and the number of elections he plans on serving or competing in.  He‘s not explicitly promising he‘s only going to serve one term, but I think he is raising the prospect. 

GREGORY:  It is an intriguing idea and the leverage that that might give him, if he had nothing to actually campaign for and answer for in another election.  It could make it very appealing in terms of things he wants to accomplish. 

MADDOW:  It also could, of course—the obvious element here, political element—is that maybe he thinks this would take age off the table a little bit in terms of people‘s concerns about him. 

GREGORY:  Right.  All right.

John Harwood, your headline tonight. 

JOHN HARWOOD, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, CNBC:  David, my headline is, “You Know it‘s Over When You Lose by Winning.”

The size of Hillary Clinton‘s landslide over Barack Obama in West Virginia had the perverse effect, from Hillary Clinton‘s point of view, of actually increasing the Democrats‘ desire to end this race sooner to spare Obama pointless further embarrassment.  Hillary Clinton‘s campaign thought that they would freeze some of those superdelegates, but, in fact, we saw superdelegates go to Obama.  So did John Edwards, so did NARAL. 

Her political case is so terminal, that the size of that victory had the opposite effect she intended.  As one Clinton team member told me last night, “The bottom is dropping out on us.” 

GREGORY:  She didn‘t even get 24 hours to bask in the glory. 

OK, John.  Thanks very much.

Michelle Bernard, you‘re thinking about Obama and the Edwards effect. 


My headline tonight is, “Recipe for a Democratic South: Obama, Plus Edwards, Plus African-American Voters.”

Something really interesting is happening to—this week, and actually over the last few weeks.  When you look at recent Republican losses in this hugely-Democratic Deep South—Republican Deep South, pardon me—in Louisiana, and this week‘s loss in Mississippi, that is beginning to cause panic with the Republican Party.  And it got me thinking.

If you look at the huge numbers of African-Americans that have turned out for Barack Obama in the Deep South, really unprecedented numbers in the Democratic Party, and you add to that Senator Edwards‘ endorsement of Senator Obama yesterday, and the appeal to white, working-class voters, there is the possibility that the Deep South might go from looking red to looking purple during this election cycle.  And that could be enough to put Barack Obama over the edge. 

GREGORY:  All right.  I‘ve got to take a break here.  A lot more ahead. 

Coming up, more on the Edwards effect.  How would it actually impact Obama‘s race for the White House?  How is Hillary Clinton going to try to counter. 

Also, a question about, where is Al Gore in all of this?  We‘ll examine that. 

Later in the show, your turn to play with the panel.  Call us -- 212-790-2299.  You can e-mail us at well at

RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE comes right back.


GREGORY:  We‘re going to go inside the War Room when we come back on THE RACE. 

After enduring months of criticism for choosing not to wear one of those flag pins on the lapel, Barack Obama now has an addition in the form of the stars and stripes to his lapel.  Was it a tactical decision and a wise move? 

We‘ll get into it, get into the tactics in the War Room, when THE RACE continues.


GREGORY:  We‘re back on THE RACE and we‘re heading inside the War Room.

Measuring the Edwards effect that we talked so much about last night, back with us, Michelle Bernard, Richard Wolffe, Rachel Maddow and John Harwood.

First up, the Edwards endorsement already paying big dividends for camp Obama—or team Obama, I should say.  Take a look at the superdelegate scorecard. 

Obama picked up four superdelegates today.  Clinton, zero.  It‘s a total of 35.5 superdelegates for Obama, and 1.5 for Clinton since May the 6th.  And reports today that seven of Edwards‘ 19 pledged delegates switched to Obama following the Edwards endorsement yesterday. 

Then to the panel, the question—Richard Wolffe, I start with you.  What is this Edwards effect?  How big is it to the Obama campaign? 

WOLFFE:  Well, it was huge in terms of stopping any kind of momentum that the Clinton folks had out of West Virginia.  But more importantly is this real battleground among the superdelegates.  This idea that the race is coming to an end, you better jump on board while the train still has some way to go.  I think that‘s very important psychologically. 

GREGORY:  What about, John Harwood, the idea of Al Gore?  If we see that Edwards was positioning himself as something of the adult in the party, one of the adults, the elders in the Democratic Party who was going to try to bring this to conclusion, is Al Gore soon to follow? 

HARWOOD:  I don‘t know if Al Gore is going to follow.  And I don‘t know if it matters. 

The only issue now is the pace at which she exits the race.  You can only be so dead.  Or you can only be dead once.  And you can‘t keep dying.

GREGORY:  Right.

HARWOOD:  And it‘s been pretty clear for a while that Hillary Clinton simply is not in control of her situation.  And so I think it‘s a pacing issue.

The pace is accelerating.  Look at that 35-1 since May the 6th.  And so I think Al Gore is probably going to stay out until the very end, until Hillary Clinton gets out.  But if he gets in, it doesn‘t make all that much difference. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Now let‘s look forward to the veep stakes.  Lots of speculation after Edwards endorsed that he might actually be a top candidate for the number two slot. 

You take a look at these numbers in the polls, voters say not so fast.  A dream ticket could still be in play.  And that involves Senator Clinton.

Look at this Quinnipiac poll showing 60 percent of Democrats think Obama should pick Clinton as the running mate.  Pros and cons of picking Edwards for the V.P. 

That‘s on the table now, Rachel isn‘t it? 

MADDOW:  I think it is on the table, although if you‘re Barack Obama, and you‘re not looking back at the primaries, but you are looking ahead to the general, you have to think with John Edwards, well, as John Kerry‘s vice president, they lost North Carolina by 12 points. 


MADDOW:  You have to think about what John Edwards would really do, would really bring in terms of Obama‘s electability.  The concern in the primaries may be white, working-class voters.  That may not be Obama‘s concern in the general election.  It seems to be faring sort of equally with Clinton in head-to-head matches in that demographic against McCain.

So, I think he‘s got to decide looking ahead. 

GREGORY:  I think, Michelle, it‘s a question of whether Edwards can play a role, A, on the campaign trail for Obama, where he might do him some good in that demographic.  And two, does he play a role in an Obama administration? 

BERNARD:  You know, that‘s a real interesting thought, David.  It will be interesting to see what Edwards really wants to do.  And quite frankly, what is going to be the health status of his wife is really going to play with regard to what he does for the Obama campaign. 

I highly doubt that we will see him campaigning for Obama during the rest of the primary season for however long it might last, because if Obama goes on to lose for Kentucky, for example, it would look terrible if Edwards is campaigning for him and he‘s not able to pull in white, working-class voters.  So if we see any work from Edwards, it will be during the general election.

GREGORY:  Right.  And Obama has already proven that he knows how to bring in...

HARWOOD:  David, I would think it‘s much more...

GREGORY:  Go ahead, John. 

HARWOOD:  David, I think it‘s much more likely that John Edwards would serve as, say, attorney general in a Barack Obama administration...

GREGORY:  Right.

HARWOOD:  ... than that he would be on the ticket with Barack Obama. 

GREGORY:  All right.

Let‘s look forward a little bit to these other contests that Michelle just mentioned—Kentucky and Oregon primaries now just five days away.  Take a look at some of the poll numbers inside each state. 

According to “The Portland Tribune,” Obama leads 55-35 pretty handily in Oregon.  That‘s a big state for him in the fall as well.  And according to “The Kentucky Herald-Leader,” Clinton is beating Obama 58-31 in Kentucky. 

So, what should both Clinton and Obama be doing to narrow the gap? 

Richard Wolffe, what does Obama do now about Kentucky?  Does he try to avoid a big margin, a big loss like he had in West Virginia? 

WOLFFE:  Yes, he does.  And he‘s got to try and show—really building for the general election—that he can speak the language of these white, working-class voters that he‘s had such a struggle with. 

I don‘t think John Edwards is going to make the blindest bit of difference here.  Remember, people vote for the candidate, not for the endorser, or even the veep person on the ticket. 

GREGORY:  Right.

WOLFFE:  But, you know, he wants to have a big moment in Oregon when he can say, look, I reached this symbolic moment.  I am the presumptive nominee. 

GREGORY:  Right.  And that‘s where he puts his energies in.

OK.  Let‘s move on to what he said in the past has been a phony issue, but Obama now sporting a flag pin on his lapel.  Just seven months ago, when asked why he didn‘t wear the flag pin, Obama responded with this... 


OBAMA:  I won‘t wear that pin on my chest.  Instead, I‘m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great.  And hopefully, that will be a testimony to my patriotism. 


GREGORY:  Now it‘s popped up Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.  Is this more than a fashion choice. 

He‘s been out there, including out there with Edwards last night, wearing the lapel pin.  A tactical decision. 

Rachel, David Axelrod said you‘re going to be seeing more of this from Barack Obama.  What‘s he up to here? 

MADDOW:  I almost feel like he‘s daring us to talk about it.  I almost feel like he wants us—he‘s now figured out that he needs to be good at these issues that he‘s called phony issues.  Just calling them phony isn‘t enough to make them go away. 

I have to feel, because this is such an overt thing that he‘s been making fun of as a political issue for so long, he‘s got to be daring us to jump in on this in some way.  Otherwise, I don‘t see what justifies the U-turn. 


HARWOOD:  David, how many little phony battles do you want to fight? 

GREGORY:  Right.  Right.  Well, that‘s the point here I was going to say.

HARWOOD:  That being (ph), try to take it off the table. 

GREGORY:  I was going to say, Richard, as well, I mean, there‘s just a little bit of political business that sometimes you have to do when running campaigns.  And if it‘s...

WOLFFE:  Right.

GREGORY:  You know, it‘s cheap enough to just put it on and take it off the table as an issue. 

WOLFFE:  Which is what some supporter came up to him and told him on a rope line.  This isn‘t going to cost him much.  And besides, remember, this is a candidate who thought debates were kind of trivial, and the sound bite stuff was kind of beneath him.  And he has adapted, he has evolved, and he‘s doing the cheap stuff because he knows that it works. 

HARWOOD:  Exactly.

BERNARD:  Well, David, also, one thing I would add is that one of the things Senator Obama clearly has learned since some of his recent losses is that a little bit of pandering can‘t hurt. 


BERNARD:  And at least this is not nearly as bad as what we heard with regard to a gasoline holiday in Indiana. 

GREGORY:  Well, it also shows you—I want to get to a break here, but it shows you something else, which is that he and any politician gets criticized if they don‘t play the game well.  Right? 


GREGORY:  And that‘s been the rap against Obama.  So now he‘s starting to play the game a little bit. 

And I think  -- I‘m with you, Rachel.  I think he‘s sort of saying, OK, now, I dare you.  Now are you going to say that I‘m pandering? 

MADDOW:  OK.  I‘ll do it.  I‘ll do it—yes.

GREGORY:  All right.  All right. 

Coming up next, “Smart Takes.”  Is Hillary Clinton really just preparing for a run for the White House in 2012?  That question and some others when we come back on THE RACE.


GREGORY:  Back on THE RACE now with “Smart Takes.”  We‘ve read it all in the newspapers, magazines, the Web, to find the most provocative takes in the ‘08 race so you don‘t have to. 

Here again, Michelle, Richard, Rachel and John. 

First up tonight, The Times‘ Peter Beinart says Obama supporters should say thank you to the people who made his candidacy possible, the Clintons. 

To the quote board.

“As it shows Clintonism in the door, Obamanation should remember something.  Without that pair from Arkansas, it wouldn‘t be here, because Bill Clinton threw his body into the line, wrecking the Republican Party‘s intricate defenses.  Obama today has the political room to run.”

“Clinton deracialized American politics, removed the word ‘welfare‘ from America‘s political lexicon on affirmative action.  Clinton took the air out of a deeply polarizing issue.  As the they bid Clintonism good-bye, Obama fans should show a little gratitude.  If Bill weren‘t the person they reviled, Barack couldn‘t be the person they love.”

Rachel, take it on.

MADDOW:  I think that Peter Beinart is grasping at something that I want him to reach here, which is that I‘m waiting to hear the great political analysis, the great 21st century speech, on how Bill Clinton changed Democratic leadership.  And the idea of the Democratic Party and what it means in America. 

I don‘t think he got there.  I think essentially, to make the point that Barack Obama‘s candidacy is only possible because of what Bill Clinton did with welfare reform, shows that he‘s a little bit derailed here.  But I do think there is an important speech to be made, there‘s important in that piece of analysis that we still need in this country about how Clinton really changed the idea of what the Democratic Party needs. 

GREGORY:  John, do you think he‘s on to something here? 

HARWOOD:  I do.  I disagree with Rachel.  I think Peter‘s got a very good point. 

The only thing I would disagree with Peter on is, I‘m not sure that Bill Clinton was selflessly throwing his body into the Republican defenses.  I think he got something out of it, too. 

But look, I do think he showed that the Republican sort of presidential juggernaut could be stopped.  But he failed to build the Democratic Party. 

We saw the Democratic Party fall back behind him.  Now Barack Obama has got much more favorable party conditions.  Look how Democrats are coming on strong in places like Mississippi and Louisiana and House races. 

And in some ways, Bill Clinton did set the stage.  Although, the Bill Clinton that the Obama people revile is not the Bill Clinton who beat the Republicans.  It‘s the Bill Clinton who‘s been a little over the top in this campaign so far. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Let me move on talking about Hillary Clinton. 

“The New York Post” Charles Hurt says Hillary Clinton is continuing her primary fight for one reason, because she really wants to be the Democratic nominee in 2012.

To the quote board.

“As she seems to float in and out of reality on the campaign trail,” he writes, “it is so easy to dismiss her as delusional.  She is not.”

“For many years, the Clintons have dined on opponents who mistakenly dismissed them.  As with her husband, there is always a method to her madness.  By sticking with it against the odds, Clinton becomes the patron saint of lost causes and never giving up.  That opens the door to a return in four years as the party‘s prodigal daughter saying, ‘As you‘ll recall, my worst fears came true.  Now it is my turn.‘”

Michelle, we‘ve seen echoes of that.  Not even echoes.  She‘s directly said it, when she‘s talked about Barack Obama‘s weakness with certain voting groups—white, working-class voters, for instance. 

BERNARD:  Absolutely.  Starting with the March 4th primaries, we started seeing Senator Clinton really almost working in concert with Senator McCain, speaking over and over again about how much experience she has, how much experience Senator McCain has.  And all Barack Obama has done is given a speech.  And then after that, we had the Reverend Wright problems...

GREGORY:  Right.

BERNARD:  ... and all of the different issues that we‘ve seen come up in this campaign.  And really, you know, if you think about what Rachel said earlier today, if John McCain wins and he really is a one-term candidate, this is a perfect storm for Hillary Clinton.  I have maintained all along she is a very pragmatic person, she sees the writing on the wall, and she is running for 2012. 

She‘s running against Senator McCain and she‘s running against Barack Obama.  And I believe she‘s hoping that Senator McCain actually is the person that gets in. 

GREGORY:  So, Richard, in Obama world, what do they think of this theory? 

WOLFFE:  Oh, I think they believe she‘s running for now, not 2012.  You know, and I don‘t—look, we all ascribe all sorts of Machiavellian methods to all sorts of candidates.  But look, perseverance is a sincere quality trait that she has and has shown.  And I think it‘s genuine that she wants to win right now. 

GREGORY:  Yes.  All right.  We‘re going to take a break here.

Barack Obama says President Bush attacked him during a speech in Israel this morning, when the president made references to appeasing terrorists.  The White House denies targeting Obama with that comment. 

We‘re going to have more on this back and forth.  It has launched a real debate over diplomacy, taking on terrorists, and dealing with the Middle East for the general election. 

We get into it when we come back on THE RACE.


DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Coming up, the back half on “Race to the White House” and a second special edition of the war room.  We‘re looking ahead to the general election.  If Barack Obama is the nominee, how should and how will the GOP depict him? That‘s coming up next.  First, a check of your headlines.  

MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I‘m Milissa Rehberger.  Here‘s what‘s happening.  California‘s supreme court overturned a voter-approved state ban on gay marriage.  The justices ruled 4-3 that domestic partnerships are not a good enough substitute.  The ruling clears the way for same-sex couples to marry in California.  The only other state that allows gay marriage is Massachusetts.  

A surprise as the House of Representatives voted down a bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into next year. The measure was rejected as Republicans, angry about how the vote was structured by Democratic leaders, withheld their votes. While the House action kills the war funding bill for now, it is expected to be revised in the Senate next week.  

And take a look at this.  One single-engine plane landed on top of another this afternoon at a small airport, in Dallas-Ft. Worth.  Officials say the red plane was trying to take off, when the other just landed right on top of it.  Good news here, both pilots walked away unharmed, hard to believe.  

Back to David Gregory.  

GREGORY:  We‘re back on “Race to the White House.” I‘m David Gregory, glad to have you here.  The back half now, a special second edition of the war room. There‘s so much to talk about it.  Back with us, Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women‘s Voice.  Richard Wolffe, “Newsweek” senior White House correspondent, now covering Obama full time, Rachel Maddow (ph), host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America radio, all three MSNBC political analysts.  John Harwood also here, chief correspondent for - in Washington for CNBC, political writer for “The New York Times” and is a co-author of a new book, “Pennsylvania Avenue, Profiles in Backroom Power,” a hot seller. 

First up, who won this debate over Iran today? President Bush taking a swipe at Obama‘s call for engagement with Iran.  While in Israel, to mark the 60th anniversary, speaking at the Knesset there, even aligning the Democratic candidate with Nazi appeasers during the holocaust.  Listen. 


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We‘ve heard this foolish delusion before.  As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.  We have an obligation to call this what it is, the false comfort of appeasement. 


GREGORY:   The Obama campaign retaliated quickly by accusing the president of making sad and false political attacks.  But it didn‘t end there.  McCain jumped in, responding to what the president said in Jerusalem.  Listen to this. 


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think that Barack Obama needs to explain why he wants to sit down and talk with a man who is the head of a government who is a state sponsor of terror, that is responsible for the killing of brave, young Americans, that wants to wipe Israel off the map, denies the holocaust.  That‘s what I think that Senator Obama might explain to the Americans.  I will debate this issue with Senator Obama throughout this campaign. 


GREGORY:   The Obama camp shot back at McCain with this quote.  Let there be no doubt that George Bush is John McCain‘s wingman on this issue.  This is a fight we like.  Lots of back and forth on this.  So where does it go? It is a real issue.  I talked to people today, who make this point.  That the argument that often Republicans make about appeasement, comparing Iran to Hitler, is that it elevates Ahmadinejad.  It makes him bigger than he is or that he should be.  It is the politics of fear, in the estimation of a lot of people and it won‘t be a winning political argument.  Richard, what are the contours to this debate?

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I don‘t think the 2004 playbook works for John McCain.  Where he has a line here is that he actually criticized the Bush policies, especially on Iraq, to some degree.  That‘s where he has an opening on national security.  But anytime President Bush is driving his bus with this election, I think he‘s got problems.  A much better playbook for him is the Clinton playbook, is to talk about the economy.  I thought it was very striking.  In his speech today, when he was projecting out what he wants the end of his first term to look like, the economy was four or five or six points down.  If there‘s an opening against Obama right now, it‘s on that economic, bread and butter issue. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, this is a point though I think for Obama to examine as well the debate goes forward, which is, it is provocative to suggest that he should engage Iran at any level which you point out factually, it is going on.  The Bush administration has engaged Iran at various levels, when it comes to Iraq.  There‘s not direct negotiations when it comes to the nuclear program.  That goes through the Europeans and others who engage on that, the Russians, as well.  But Obama would be well-served to spend some more time delineating exactly what that engagement would look like, as he paints a broader picture of what his diplomacy would be in the Middle East.  Your take.  We lost Rachel.  I‘ve laid that out. Michelle Bernard, why don‘t you take that on, while we get Rachel‘s mike fixed. 

MICHELLE BERNARD: I agree with Richard, that really the top issue I believe right now that the American public cares about is the economy.  But on foreign policy, foreign policy is going to continue to be an issue for Barack Obama.  He‘s got great people working on his campaign.  But I think the American public really wants to understand where he stands on this issue.  He has allowed himself to be painted as being quite dovish on foreign policy.  And this is an issue he‘s going to have to deal with and deal with it very well. 

GREGORY:   Let me move on in the war room now.  Should the GOP be going into panic mode? Representative Tom Davis thinks so, warning Republicans could lose as many as 20 seats in the House and six in the Senate, saying today quote, they are canaries in the coal mine, warning of far greater losses in the fall.  The political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November is the worst since Watergate and it‘s far more toxic than it was in 2006.  The Republican brand is in the trash can.  If they were dog food, they would take us off the shelf.  John Harwood, he‘s talking about the special election in Mississippi that went for the Democrats.  Describe the panic mode.  What‘s going on?

JOHN HARWOOD, THE NEW YORK TIMES: There‘s a lot of truth to what Tom Davis is saying.  Look, all the indicators are bad.  Look how unpopular Bush is.  Look how unpopular this war is.  Americans think the economy is in the toilet.  This is where I disagree a little bit with Richard.  I‘m not sure John McCain has much of a chance of winning the economic argument with Barack Obama.  Certainly, he has to contest it.  But the Republican trouble is related to the McCain issue with Bush that you were just talking about.  I think this is a very strategic move by George Bush to try to drive foreign policy.  And the ultimate concern about the war on terrorism, elevate that as an issue, of weakness for Barack Obama, drive his weakness among Jewish voters.  Even though George Bush is an unpopular messenger, he need to try to drive that message and John McCain leaned on George Bush to do that today. 

GREGORY:  Real quick, I made this big windup to Rachel and then there was no payoff because we lost her mike.  Rachel, go ahead and make your point.  

RACHEL MADDOW: Am I back now, for sure?

GREGORY:  You‘re back. 

MADDOW: I‘m back, excellent.  In space no one can hear you scream.  I was just going to say, about Barack Obama on the issue of engaging with our enemies, I think he‘s made the case about why that is a good idea.  But I think in going after McCain on this, he has to do more than just say he‘s Bush‘s wingman.  He needs to say listen, the Bush administration is engaging with Iran.  Bob Gates yesterday said we need more engagement and even more incentives for dealing with Iran.  They‘ve engaged with Libya and North Korea and all these other places. If McCain is going to attack Obama on this one, they ought to explain why he‘s not attacked the Bush administration for doing these things that he is going after Barack Obama for.  At this point, it‘s time to bring McCain into this fight. 

GREGORY:  There are some distinctions there, which is the level of engagement now is not about the nuclear program.  We don‘t even know that that‘s what Obama would do and how we would set parameters for engagement with Iran.  That‘s why I‘m saying that there are questions about what he would do.  And as a tactical matter we might expect to hear more from him to really spell out this is what the diplomacy would look like. 

UNKNOWN:  You‘re right about that, David. 

GREGORY:  Let‘s talk about Karl Rove now.  Reasons for some optimism he says and all this GOP panic.  He‘s writing in today‘s “Wall Street Journal,” why it won‘t be smooth sailing for Obama in the general. The reason why he says barely half of Clinton supporters in Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia say that they‘re ready to support Obama against McCain today.  Listen two, Obama owes his success in the primaries to liberal elites drawn to his personality.  But in the general, voters will be voting on the issues.  Reason three he says, looking at the Jewish vote, Obama leads McCain, 61-32.  Kerry won the Jewish vote 74 percent to 25 in ‘04.  Rove argues a weak showing in the demographic could make it harder to win the big swing states.  And certainly, this issue, with engaging Iran.  And what we heard McCain say today is a pretty clear play for Jewish voters, particularly in states like Florida, where they may be concerned about existential threats to Israel.  But on the reasons for optimism, John Harwood, take this on, Rove‘s analysis. 

HARWOOD: That sound likes the Karl Rove who told me the day before the 2000 election that George Bush was going to win 330 electoral votes.  He ended up winning the entire election by 537 votes in Florida.  He‘s congenitally optimistic.  And I think he‘s a little over optimistic there.  To project from these primary showings as we‘ve discussed before, a great weakness for Obama in the general and this sort of thing about how, well, some people like him because of his personality in the primaries, but people won‘t vote for him that way in the fall.  I think that‘s a little dubious, although I do think he‘s got a point about the foreign policy debate and especially the concern about Jewish voters for Obama. 

GREGORY:  I got to take a break here, but I do think there‘s a larger picture, as well - which is and Richard, you brought this up earlier—the 2004 playbook on national security.  It‘s a nuanced debate about how to engage the Middle East after the Bush years. But will that be trumped by the fact there was a new survey out today saying that people are cutting back their personal expenses for their own personal entertainment.  The country, in the view of so many Americans is off on the wrong track.  People are worried.  Are they going to engage in that debate at this time, with the economy being such a big issue? Lots to talk about.  We‘re going to come back, the big picture, three questions, more on John McCain and his potential path to the White House, when we return right after this break.


GREGORY:  Coming up next, big question for John McCain.  How does he differentiate himself from President Bush and persuade Americans that if he wins the presidency, it will not be a third Bush term when we come back.


GREGORY:  We‘re back, now, on the race and asking the big picture questions.  The big three questions about John McCain‘s path to victory in November.  Still with u, Michelle Bernard, Richard Wolffe, Rachel Maddow and John Harwood. OK, first up, they haven‘t decided on a nominee but the Democrats already know that they want John McCain running against in the fall, that they want to essentially frame this as President Bush.  Listen to what Barack Obama told voters in Missouri. 


OBAMA: A vote for John McCain is a vote for George Bush‘s third term. 


GREGORY:  The Democrats are hoping to put the president on the ballot by proxy.  McCain is trying to turn voters‘ attention to the future.  In Ohio today, McCain offered the vision of what a McCain White House would be like.  Listen. 


McCAIN: My administration will set a new standard for transparency and accountability.  When we make errors, I‘ll confess them readily and explain what we intend to do to correct them. 


GREGORY:  Richard Wolffe, for those of us who (INAUDIBLE) the question, how does McCain separate himself from President Bush? Richard, you and I covered both 2000 and 2004 in the Bush presidency.  You can tell from McCain‘s language who he‘s talking about when he says that he‘ll admit to mistakes readily. 

WOLFFE: He‘s obviously got a personal contrast with President Bush and a tone of speaking which is different from President Bush‘s.  But if he really does want to go after a national security agenda as opposed to the economic one, then he‘s going to have to stress something different, not talk about Iran and sort of do war-mongering thing or say he‘s tougher than Obama on Iran.  He‘s actually got to talk about diplomacy in a way that Bush never did.  If he can tie that to one of his core messages, which is about national service, getting regular Americans involved in improving America‘s image, involved in the diplomatic search that people are talking about, then he has an agenda on foreign policy which would sound and look different from President Bush‘s. 

GREGORY:  I think Rachel, I think it‘s a smart point because if he can combine stalwart supporting for the war in Iraq and a tough stand, even diplomatically and couple that with the morality stance as he took on issues like torture, that could be a winning combination. 

MADDOW: Yeah except he lost the torture I think, the torture argument when he voted for the CIA being allowed to continue to use those other tactics recently.  So he could have run on that for a while, until he flip-flopped on it at the last minute.  I tend to agree with Richard on this, but I think slightly from a different angle.  I think that McCain will not really divorce himself from Bush on substantive issues.  He‘ll try to make the distinction on style points essentially, on things like having eco-sensitive, 70 percent bamboo T-shirts available for sale on his Web site (INAUDIBLE) environmentally sound, talking about the same sort of Bush foreign policy agenda but from a more I guess, a more public service-based, American honor-based perspective.  I think it‘s more style points than substance points. 

GREGORY:  Go ahead John.

HARWOOD: Energy and the environment, cap and trade on car emissions.  That‘s a big deal.  The environmental issue is something that appeals to suburban Republicans, suburban moderates and independents that John McCain wants to go after. 

GREGORY:  He Made the big speech out in Oregon, saying he‘d like to put in (INAUDIBLE).  Next up, big promises.  The McCain campaign has put out a web ad that features a bold laundry list of what the McCain White House would accomplish by 2013, the end of his first term.  Watch. 


POLITICAL AD: Middle east, stabilized, nuclear terror threat, reduced, border security, strengthened, energy independence, advanced, wasteful spending, reformed, health care choice delivered, economic confidence, restored. 


GREGORY:   Return to Eden here.  But McCain made his boldest promise today in Ohio suggesting the Iraq war will be over by the end of his first term.  Watch. 


McCAIN: By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom.  The Iraq war has been won.  The United States maintains a military presence there, but a much smaller one and it does not play a direct combat role. 


GREGORY:   It‘s a bold prediction.  Second question then, can McCain make good on his 2013 promises? Specifically, Michelle on troops, most of them, coming out of Iraq by the end of his first term?

BERNARD: In setting out his vision for what the future is going to look like, Senator McCain is off to a good start.  But here‘s where he also has to be very careful and make sure that he doesn‘t alienate his base.  He‘s got to continue to define how he‘s going to get there and how he‘s going to help the American public realize what the future supposedly is going to look like.  Most of his base is hoping that John McCain is not going to try to change the future by reaching out and embracing the policies of what people are now calling Pelosi Democrats.  He‘s talking about, you know, he needs to really define how he‘s going to do this.  This whole cap and trade or cap and tax, as a lot of Republicans are calling it, what he‘s doing with the environment and how he plans to get out of Iraq, are going to be very important.  He‘s got to define them. 

GREGORY:   And on Iraq, John Harwood, as a political matter, this question for you, is he setting a deadline now for troop withdrawal, something that he‘s against?

HARWOOD: I don‘t think he‘s setting a deadline.  I think he‘s hinting at something by saying we‘re going to win the war by then.  George Bush has said we‘ll come out when we‘ve won.  But look, I think he left a few things out of that ad, happiness higher, Americans thinner, everyone better-looking, more competitive Super Bowls.  I mean come on, this is about as platitudinous as you can get.

MADDOW: I think the big thing that he left out was, John McCain, retiring.  He‘s essentially making this implicit promise.  Listen, you‘re not voting for a guy who is going to be in office until he‘s 80.  2013, my work will be done. I‘ll move on, I swear.  I think this is a one-term promise.  I think it‘s a little bit weird. 

GREGORY:  Let me just move on here. I want to get this in.  We‘re looking at McCain‘s potential math and talking about it.  Team Obama we know has identified these six states as prime pickup opportunities in ‘08: New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Missouri and Iowa.  Meanwhile, team McCain, eying these five blue states from ‘04.  New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Oregon.

Second question, then, which states are McCain‘s best bets in November?  Richard, what do you say?

WOLFFE:  Well, you have to look at Pennsylvania.  And Obama‘s weakness there.  The way the debate was mapped out over a long period of time.  Can Obama recover from the image that was planted there, as the candidate who lost, essentially?  So, Pennsylvania, I think is the best of those.

GREGORY:  What do you think, John?

HARWOOD:  I think New Hampshire is the best opportunity because he‘s got a lead there.  He‘s got a long track record.  And I think Pennsylvania is close behind.  And on Barack Obama‘s list, I think you‘ve got to look at Colorado, I think you‘ve got to look at Nevada.  And he‘s got to hope that the McCain effect from Arizona doesn‘t spill over into New Mexico, which, otherwise, would be a very good target.

GREGORY:  Marc Ambinder of makes a point about Florida—the economy‘s in the tank.  The state has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country.  Ghost towns of gated communities are popping up.  Consumer confidence is really, really low.  Rachel, do you think Florida could become a swing state, when most people believe that it‘s pretty solidly Republican?

MADDOW:  I think that Florida‘s going to be one of those places where it‘s very interesting to see.  It may be one of the places where the campaign actually matters.  Most states you can predict what they‘re going to do based on what the issues and what the demographics.  Florida is one of those places where it seems very volatile to me.  Not only because of the population change there.  But because of the grounds of this campaign might or might take off.  I think there‘s very different prospects for each candidate if this ends up being a national security election versus an economy election.

GREGORY:  All right.  I got to get another break in here.

HARWOOD:  Florida will be a swing state.

GREGORY:  You think so, John?  Definitely a swing state?


GREGORY:  Got to take a break here.  Coming up next, your play date with the panel.  Everyone has something to say about the Edwards endorsement.  And we got a little something from John Harwood‘s other television appearance, plugging his new, very hot-selling book.  That‘s coming up next.


GREGORY:  Play date time with the panel.  I‘ve had my chance.  Now  you get yours.  As we play with the panel.

Back with us Michelle, Richard, Rachel and John.

Our own John Harwood had some fun with Jon Stewart last night on “The Daily Show.”  Watch this.


HARWOOD:  I bring you greetings from an old adversary.


HARWOOD:  Do you want to guess who it is?

Ashley Stringer (ph) who is a very fine cameraman for CNBC.


HARWOOD:  Played soccer and Randolph Macon College.

STEWART:  Really.

HARWOOD:  And one day, itty bitty Randolph Macon was playing big, bad William and Mary.

STEWART:  I remember that.

HARWOOD:  And Ashley had to guard someone who was way too fast for him.  That would be you.

STEWART:  This was back when I was in college.

HARWOOD:  That is correct.  You had a break away in a scoreless game and he felt he had no chance, no choice, but to execute a scissors tackle.

STEWART:  I do recall.

HARWOOD:  Which he tells me is like a hard foul in the NBA, when somebody had a lay-up.

STEWART:  A flagrant foul, I believe it would be called.

HARWOOD:  And there was a little scuffle afterwards.

STEWART:  I believe there was a scuffle.

HARWOOD:  I‘m here to say, that Ashley says he had no bad intent.  He‘s a fan of your show.

STEWART:  Is that the kid I got in a fight with at Randolph Macon?

HARWOOD:  Well - he told me it was somebody else who got in a fight with you.


HARWOOD:  And I don‘t want to put words in his mouth.

STEWART:  Is that kid watching?

HARWOOD:  Yeah.  I (EXPLETIVE DELETED) you up, dude.


GREGORY:  John, what are you doing here?  I mean, you‘re stirring up—you‘re stirring up bad blood when you should be talking about your book.

HARWOOD:  You know what?  I was trying to tell Stewart‘s audience how good a soccer player he was.  The man was fast.  And he ended up getting kicked out of that game.  Randolph Macon did just fine by that.  But look, that was a great experience.  We talked about “Pennsylvania Avenue.”  Nothing bad about that night.

GREGORY:  Absolutely not.  We‘re talking about some e-mails we‘re getting from viewers tonight.

First up, Charles in California writes this—when Hillary Clinton won the West Virginia primary, she in her victory speech, said to superdelegates, wait, stay on the sidelines and let me finish my campaign before you make a commitment, by coming out for Barack Obama just a day or so later.  John Edwards, as a high a profile superdelegate as there is, is saying to other superdelegates.  Come on in, the water is just fine.

I mean, Richard, that really is the impact of that.  Is to say, this is the end.  And he said it directly.  The Democratic voters have made up their minds.  And so have I.  It‘s time for superdelegates to stop looking for so much political cover.

WOLFFE:  Yeah.  And it sort of sattering (ph) the grip of the Clintons on the party.  If people don‘t listen to her when she‘s won by 40 points, when are they going to listen to her?  And that‘s the problem for the Clintons.  The sort of magical hold on the party has been broken.

GREGORY:  And Rachel, our political director, Chuck Todd, I thought made a smart point yesterday.  Which is to say to validate her argument, in that speech, there would have to be a wavering superdelegate that actually announced support for her, saying she‘s right.  I‘m worried that Barack Obama can‘t win.  I‘m for Hillary Clinton.  That validation has not come.

MADDOW:  As we saw in the graphic from earlier in the show, she‘s only picked up a one and a half superdelegates in total since May 6th.  And that‘s including a couple of defections.

So her argument to superdelegates, you could argue that it‘s been successful to the extent that there are more than a couple hundred, I think, that still haven‘t come out.  If her argument is stay, don‘t decide, I want to string this out to the convention, maybe it is working.

GREGORY:  I am running out—I want to get this other one.  Margaret has this to say.

“The best help John Edwards could have given Barack Obama would have been to endorse Hillary Clinton.  Now it just looks like the boys are ganging up on the woman candidate and by extension ganging up on all women.  I can‘t think of anything that would make all voters feel disenfranchised.”

I‘ve got to tell you, that doesn‘t sound like a serious point to me.  Here‘s a serious question, John Harwood.  How are you half a superdelegate?  I still haven‘t figured this out.

HARWOOD:  You know what?  I‘m a little confused about that, too.  I think we need to talk to Chuckie T. about that.

MADDOW:  You get half a vote.  Some of the superdelegates do.

HARWOOD:  May have something to do with Guam and Puerto rice.

GREGORY:  OK.  I‘m going to ask Chuck Todd and report back so we‘re very clear on this.  My thanks to a great panel.  That‘s it for us.  We‘re back here tomorrow night.  You can play with the panel, every weeknight, on MSNBC.  Stick around.  HARDBALL is coming up next.  Have a great night.