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'Meet the Press' transcript for Oct. 5, 2008

Transcript of the Oct. 5, 2008 broadcast of NBC's 'Meet the Press,' featuring Paul Begala, Mike Murphy, Chuck Todd, David Gregory, Gwen Ifill, Peggy Noonan and David Yepsen.

MR. TOM BROKAW: Our issues this Sunday: Just 30 days to go and the battle for electoral votes is shifting rapidly. We take you through the national political map and the key battleground states with two top political strategists—Democrat Paul Begala, who helped Bill Clinton get elected to the White House in 1992; and NBC News analyst, Republican Mike Murphy, who worked on McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign; also joined by Chuck Todd, political director of NBC News and the keeper of the scorecard.

Then, a bailout bill finally passes on the Hill. What does this mean for the American people and for the next administration? And the vice presidential nominees go head-to-head for the first and only time in this campaign. Did they help or hurt their tickets? Insights and analysis from our political roundtable: David Gregory, chief White House correspondent for NBC News and host of MSNBC’s “Race for the White House”; Gwen Ifill, moderator of PBS’ “Washington Week,” senior correspondent for PBS’ “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and the moderator of this week’s Biden-Palin vice presidential debate; Peggy Noonan, columnist for The Wall Street Journal and author of a new book, “Patriotic Grace: What it is and Why We Need it Now”; and David Yepsen, chief political correspondent for The Des Moines Register, taking the pulse of America’s Main Street.

But first, the final month of this campaign. Let’s get the latest on the current state of play in those all-important battleground map states with NBC News political director Chuck Todd. He’s our walking, talking MapQuest, actually. We’re going to take a look at what’s going on.

And, Chuck, there’s been a dramatic change in those states just in the last 10 days or so. Let’s begin by comparing 2004 and the state of play now one month before the election, 2008.

MR. CHUCK TODD: All right. Well, let’s go to our surface. Here’s where we were in 2004, Obama being—representing the Kerry states here in blue, John McCain representing the Bush states in 2004 in red. Two eighty-six, 252; John Kerry came up 18 electoral votes short, or one Ohio. And here’s where we were last week, just to show you where the battleground was. And I want you to keep an eye as I change things to these states up here in the northern tier of the country, the industrial Midwest. And everything has moved, at least with the Kerry states, have moved out of toss-up and into the Obama column. Throw in the fact that he is up in Iowa and up in New Mexico, and right now, if the election were held today, we would say that Obama is up five or more points right now in enough states, 264 electoral votes. John McCain under 200, under 175. And as you see here, all, all of these states are Bush ‘04 states—Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and Indiana, Colorado and Nevada.

So right now, Obama one state away. Even if it’s Nevada, 269, it sends it to the House where, where Democrats have an advantage. Any other state, one state, as it stands today John McCain would have to run the table. Now, good news for him, they’re all states that voted Republican four years ago. However, he’s behind right now a little bit in Ohio. There’s a dispute of who’s ahead or who’s behind in Florida, but it feels as if Obama’s a little bit ahead in Florida. Obama’s a little bit ahead in Colorado. And it’s a dead-even race in Virginia. Dead even in, in Nevada; and even Missouri, which we almost put in toss-up this week is getting very close where McCain just has a very narrow lead, Tom.

MR. BROKAW: Chuck, a very senior Republican was startled the other day when he called me and said, ‘What in the world is going on in Florida? Why are we in trouble there?’

MR. TODD: Well, Florida is all about the economy. And it may explain the Michigan decision. Michigan decision, you know, had—McCain had all the money in the world. He would have stayed in the state. He’s down maybe eight to 10 points there. But they had to make a financial decision; because Florida, not only is Obama even now, it looks like he’s pulled ahead a little bit, and this is all about the economy. It’s a one-two punch down there—the real estate boom that happened over the last 15 years in Florida coming home to roost, the credit crisis is hurting. And then here’s a state that also depends on tourism, and when people don’t have a lot of money in their own pockets, they don’t vacation. So here Florida’s getting hit twice. Less, less tourism, bad news on the home front—on the home building front, and all of a sudden that has turned Florida in a very economically sensitive state, perhaps more sensitive than even Michigan, Ohio, the states that we’re used to see being sensitive to the economy.

MR. BROKAW: I would think it would also be very unsettling for Republicans looking in this morning to take a look at Virginia in play and North Carolina in play. Is that organization on the Obama part, or is it the economy?

MR. TODD: That is all organization. They have changed the electorate. We had a poll earlier this week with our friends at MySpace and The Wall Street Journal where we just looked at new voters, and if, if 10 to 15 percent of the electorate is new voters nationwide, it could be up to 20 percent in places like Virginia and North Carolina where Obama has registered hundreds of thousands of voters. And remember the, the thing about both of these states, Tom, they were both very important primary states. And so Obama got a huge head start here, registering voters because he was trying to stop Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Well, all of that effort that took place then has now catapulted this—these two states from lean Republican states into, frankly, pure toss-up states because they have changed the electorate, really, the way they changed the electorate in places like Iowa and Wisconsin during the primaries.

MR. BROKAW: All right, let’s go to another session that you have there and see if we can move a couple of those states around for just a moment. Say New Hampshire, for example. What’s going to happen in Indiana which, surprisingly, may be in play at this point?

MR. TODD: Well, let’s, let’s look at this. So right now, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, two of the, the blue states that McCain was going after, double-digit leads probably right now. Now, they’re very volatile states. Both states have a lot of independent voters who will move around. But right now, they’ve been moving heavily in Obama. Obviously we know the Michigan decision. That leaves Pennsylvania where, where Obama has the smallest lead of any of the Kerry states. And this could be why we’re going to see a lot of the William Ayres stuff and the culture character stuff because, of all the blue states left, this is the one that the McCain folks feel could be the most sensitive to it where they could keep things close.

But for now, you put it there and, like I said, we’re, we’re at 264, so he just needs one state. It could be Colorado, and he’s at 273. It could be at Virginia, what we just talked about, at 277. Florida puts it away at 291. And then this is the real fear, and we’ve seen some coverage of this over the last week. If this is where things are going and we are at a tipping point and all of these tip in one direction, well, look at the ceiling that Obama has right now, if he ended up sweeping all of these states and they all go in his column, all of a sudden you’re looking at 364 electoral votes. Now, this is the high-water mark, and, as you pointed out earlier, Tom, this is where things would be if it were today. And 30 days, we’ve got a, a long way to go, but that’s the danger the McCain folks have. They now have to hold everything in order to keep this thing competitive in the toss-up column before they even think about starting to steal some Obama states back.

MR. BROKAW: All right, Chuck, we’re going to see you later in our roundtable here.

But we’re going to be joined now by two top strategists in presidential politics: Democrat Paul Begala, who worked for Bill Clinton when he made his first successful run for the presidency, and Mike Murphy, who was with John McCain in 2000. Mike Murphy is now an NBC News consultant.

To tell you how dynamic and fluid all of this is, just 10 days ago that map would have looked a lot different.


MR. BROKAW: But a great deal has changed since these two candidates first appeared in Oxford, Mississippi. This is the cover of the Weekly Standard this week, which is the bible for the conservative movement in this country. “Can they catch up?” And that is the operative question. As you look at that map, Mike, from the McCain point of view, what strikes terror in your heart?

MR. MURPHY: The fact that it’s McCain’s barn that is on fire. McCain is defending states like North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, that he has to win. You don’t want to fight the close war on your turf, you want to be on offense, taking a Wisconsin or formerly a Michigan or a Pennsylvania away from the other side. So that’s the problem McCain has 30 days out. I think McCain can win, but the fact is, the election were held today he’d lose, and I think he’s on a losing path. I think the McCain campaign has to look in the mirror now and decide, “Do we need to change up the strategy?” They’ve been running the grinding campaign on Obama. There’s a lot of good things to attack Obama about. People have a lot of doubts about Obama. But they’ve got to fix McCain. McCain has to connect to voters on the economy, he’s got to get ticket splitters, get out of base Republican issues, and get people who are worried about the economy and health care over, or, in this anti-Republican environment, this trend line is very, very bad.

MR. BROKAW: Mr. Begala, throughout the course of this long campaign one of the things that’s been striking to me is that the hard core of Obama supporters are besotted by him, and they sometimes think it’s just an easy road from here. As they look at that map today, is that a danger for them?

MR. PAUL BEGALA: It is. You always worry about that in, in a campaign. Although, yeah, talk to the high command in that campaign and they, they’re—even when they were down, and now that they’re up, I think they’re a reflection of their candidate. He’s a very low blood pressure guy. You know, he doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low. But what they need to do is they need to, like, take Murphy’s advice. They’re flooding the zone. They’re going into places where Democrats used to never dare go. Indiana, I cannot believe we’re sitting here 30 days before an election talking about Indiana, a potential toss-up state? Or North Carolina and Virginia? Barack Obama will be the first non-Southerner from my party to carry a Southern state since JFK, which was before I was born, before Barack was born. That’s—this is an incredible map. But he’s got to keep pushing his advantage here. And I suspect he’s putting on a bunch of body armor for that debate you’re going to moderate on Tuesday night, because I suspect he thinks McCain’s going to come at him hard.

MR. BROKAW: Well, they’ve already signaled that they’re going to come out pretty hard on attacks on what they call his “absence of character” and his “absence of leadership qualities.” In fact, there was a story in The New York Times just in the last couple of days about his association with William Ayers, who’d been a member of the Weathermen, who was a radical group in the 1970s. He’s now a school reformer in Illinois. But the McCain campaign has seized on that already, and Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, in an appearance in California yesterday had this to say about it. We want to share that with our audience.


GOV. SARAH PALIN: Evidently there’s been a lot of interest in what I read lately. Well, I was reading today a copy of The New York Times, and I was really interested to read in there about Barack Obama’s friends from Chicago. Turns out one of his earliest supporters is a man who, according to The New York Times, was a domestic terrorist and part of a group, part of a group that, quote, “launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.”

(End videotape)

MR. BROKAW: That’s Sarah Palin.

Mr. Begala, listen, this has been below—just below the radar for some time now. It’s not entirely clear how close their association is. Obama has condemned those acts at that time. Would it have been wiser for him, however, to get at that much earlier than now, when--30 days before the election?

MR. BEGALA: Well, no. Obama was—he was asked about this in a debate in a primaries with Hillary Clinton sitting there; George Stephanopoulos of ABC asked him about it. He answered it. He pointed out that the despicable acts this guy committed were committed when, apparently, Barack Obama was eight years old. And, and I think Governor Palin here is making a strategic mistake. This guilt by association path is going to be trouble ultimately for the McCain campaign. You know, you can go back—I’ve written a book about McCain. I had a dozen researchers go through him. I didn’t even put this in the book. But John McCain sat on the board of a very right-wing organization. It was the U.S. Council for World Freedom. It was chaired by a guy named John Singlaub, who wound up involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. It was an ultraconservative right-wing group. The Anti-Defamation League, in 1981, when McCain was on the board, said this about this organization. It was affiliated with the World Anti-Communist League, the parent organization, which ADL said, “has increasingly become a gathering place, a forum, a point of contact for extremists, racists and Anti-Semites.” Now, that’s not John McCain. I don’t think he is that. But, but, you know, the problem is that a lot of people know John McCain’s record better than Governor Palin, and he does not want to play guilt by association or this thing could blow up in his face.

MR. BROKAW: Mr. Murphy, one of the defenders of William Ayers in Chicago is Rich Daley, the six-term mayor of the city, who has said that, in fact, Mr. Ayers has been very helpful on school issues. Isn’t that going to be an effective counterstrike against anything that the McCain people try to do here?

MR. MURPHY: Maybe. But Ayers has kind of gotten off a little easy in Chicago. A lot of people say what a good guy he is. The problem is the one person who hasn’t really condemned William Ayers enough is William Ayers, and I think that’s a real problem. And Obama, while, he’s clearly not the same. He still also has pulled his punches, I think, a little bit about it. And this will be a kerfuffle, it’ll do a little damage to Obama, but fundamentally this campaign’s going to be about the economy.


MR. MURPHY: So Obama will take some damage on this, but then it’s going to pivot back to real life, and that’s where I think McCain has to connect.

MR. BROKAW: That’s not even in the distant future. In fact, the Obama campaign is launching a pre-emptive strike tomorrow with this ad, in which they’re talking about the subject that you just raised, the economy, the economy, the economy. Let’s share that.


Narrator: (From political ad) Three-quarters of a million jobs lost this year. Our financial system in turmoil. And John McCain? Erratic in the crisis, out of touch on the economy. No wonder his campaign wants to change the subject, turn the page on the financial crisis by launching dishonest, dishonorable assaults against Barack Obama. Struggling families can’t turn the page on this economy, and we can’t afford another president who’s this out of touch.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: (From political ad) I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

(End videotape)

MR. BROKAW: Mr. Murphy, it seems to me that one of the things that’s happened in the last 10 days or so is that this race has been crystalized, in a way, about Main Street vs. Wall Street, given all the confusion about the bailout and everything else, and Main Street will always be in favor of the Democrats.

MR. MURPHY: Yeah. I—I’m not sure that should be accepted as a premise by the McCain campaign. I think they have to prosecute that all the way. That’s a smart ad by Obama. If McCain lets him get away with that, he’s going to have trouble. I think the Obama campaign wants to run economy vs. character. I think what McCain ought to pivot to is, one, connect himself to middle-class worries and squeezes. He is a reformer who’s going to change the way Washington works. That’s built into his DNA. And second, bring up the issue of the concept of a runaway liberal one-party train here in Washington. You know, just no checks and balances at all. McCain, a partisan, can-do pragmatist vs. the idea that everything in this town being run by the Democrats with no restraint, no balance, no control, and that’ll affect the economy in a bad way. I think that’s a better prosecution for the McCain campaign than these character attacks or these dubious association, you know, background issues and Obama. They’re hurt him, but I don’t think that’s the key when everybody in the country, at least the swing voters that are going to control the election, are very much worried about the economy. That’s where all the interest, focus and worry is.

MR. BROKAW: Should the Obama campaign just be driving the economy as hard as it possibly can between now and November 4th?

MR. BEGALA: Well, they should, but, of course, I believe in counterpunching, too. I mean, I don’t like just—you know, there’s this myth in the Democratic Party that it should be rapid response. Why don’t we have a rapid response. How about rapid attack, right? How about ads like that, that, that show the president of the United States, who has a job approval rating of 26, standing with John McCain? And this is where McCain has made a huge strategic error. He should have run McCain 1.0 that he ran when Murphy was running his campaign in 2000, which was stridently anti-Bush. It’s like, when the country loved Bush, McCain hated him. Now the country hates Bush, McCain loves him. And it’s hard in the last 30 days to reinvent yourself as someone who knows something about the economy and will be a break with the past. And that’s a problem. People have never—never have I seen a mood for change like this, and Obama is change incarnate. And, you know, McCain just looks like status quo incarnate.

MR. MURPHY: I can’t let Paul totally get away with that. John McCain’s very...

MR. BEGALA: What, praising you?

MR. MURPHY: Well, no, I’ll take that anytime, thank you. But the fact is that John McCain is very different from President Bush on a lot of issues, be it climate change, be it, you know, campaign reform, campaign finance reform. You look at any piece of bipartisan legislation in the Senate that got done in the last five years, John McCain’s been the quarterback. And that needs to be put in the center here for the close of the campaign, that McCain is a guy who can get things done in Washington with two parties, he can provide balance as opposed to a runaway Democratic train.

MR. BEGALA: See, that...

MR. BROKAW: I don’t want the two of you to get away without sharing with you some excerpts from the vice presidential debate the other night and then getting your reaction to it. Let’s begin with Governor Palin and a couple of the things that she had to say, and then we’ll hear from Senator Joe Biden.


GOV. PALIN: Say it ain’t so, Joe. There you go again, pointing backwards again, though. You prefaced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now, doggone it, let’s look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future.

Let’s commit ourself, just everyday American people, Joe six-pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say, “Never again. Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again.”

(End videotape)

MR. BROKAW: And now let’s hear from Senator Joe Biden, who late in the debate, took on the whole issue about is John McCain, in fact, a maverick in Washington?


SEN. JOE BIDEN: He has not been a maverick in providing health care for people. He has voted against—he voted against including another 3.6 million children in coverage that—of the existing healthcare plan when he voted in the United States Senate. He’s not been a maverick when it comes to education. He has not supported tax cuts and significant changes for people being able to send their kids to college. He’s not been a maverick on the war. He’s not been a maverick on virtually anything that genuinely affects the things that people really talk about around their kitchen table.

(End videotape)

MR. BROKAW: Mike Murphy, let’s begin with Governor Palin, if we can. I don’t think there’s any question of the fact that she probably helped her own self-image. But did she move anybody across the aisle, and did she demonstrate to this country that she’s qualified to be one heartbeat away from the presidency?

MR. MURPHY: I don’t think the vice presidential debate, despite all the interest, had a lot of attention. I guarantee you that, backstage, both campaign managers were there with a bottle of whiskey and a revolver, terrified, because you had two titan-class gaffe machines out there. Either of them could have done a lot of damage, and neither did. So I think now it goes back to the main event. So I think Sarah Palin, who was in trouble before—and I have to admit, I’m a Republican who’s been somewhat critical of the strategy of that choice simply because, for all her attributes and charm, which there’s a lot of, she was—in my view, anyway, and I’ve been wrong before—a base pick. And I think it’s not a base Republican election. But I think she did do herself some good, and, and going forward she’s credentialed enough now to go out there and make a middle-class mom economic argument, where she can do some help for the ticket. But fundamentally, we’re back to the main event Tuesday night with the two presidential candidates. That’s where the race will be decided.

MR. BROKAW: Sarah Palin make you nervous in any way as an opponent in this 30 days that we have to go?

MR. BEGALA: You know, George W. Bush used to say he was always advantaged when people misunderestimated him, and I think that’s part of what some of the left did with Governor Palin. It—Richard Nixon said this when the Democrats destroyed Spiro Agnew and he went on to win that election in 1968, Nixon later said, “You don’t shoot down in presidential politics.” And watch Joe Biden in that debate. I thought he was great because he shot up. He was neither patronizing toward the governor of Alaska nor bullying. He focused his fire on John McCain. Contrast that with Governor Palin, who did a good job of rehabilitating her own image, but there were lots of moments where she was throwing John McCain under the bus. It looked to me like this was a candidate who thinks this race may be over, she’s starting to run in 2012. She did not do a very effective job of attacking Barack Obama or defending John McCain. She did quite a good job of rehabilitating Sarah Palin.

MR. MURPHY: I’ve got to throw one penalty flag on Biden, who I thought did a solid job. He totally demagogued McCain’s healthcare plan in an absolutely shameless way, and he deserves tremendous criticism for that.

MR. BEGALA: Oh, please.

MR. MURPHY: It’s not a tax increase, and that’s out for people.

MR. BEGALA: We, we need to litigate, we need, we need to litigate that, Mike.

MR. MURPHY: The Washington Post said so. They gave it a Pinocchio, and Pinocchio means lie.

MR. BEGALA: We need to...

MR. MURPHY: I just want to...

MR. BROKAW: I’ll let the two of you go off to our green room here and fight that out.

MR. BEGALA: Yeah, we will. We will.

MR. BROKAW: We’re going, we’re going to move on, if we can. Thanks very much for being with us.

Coming next, insights and analysis on Decision 2008 from our political roundtable. And we have a full table this morning: David Gregory, Gwen Ifill, Peggy Noonan, Chuck Todd and David Yepsen from The Des Moines Register, next only on MEET THE PRESS.


MR. BROKAW: Our political roundtable after this brief station break.

MR. BROKAW: We’re back, and we have a very full roundtable this morning because we’ve got a lot to talk about. We have Gwen Ifill, who is here from PBS and fresh from the vice presidential debate; David Gregory of NBC News; Chuck Todd of NBC News; and David Yepsen from The Des Moines Register—a lot of us believe that he only lived during the month of January when the Iowa caucuses, but it turns out he continues on into the fall as well; and Peggy Noonan, from the Wall Street Journal.

Peggy, let’s begin with you. You said on NBC the other night, when you were looking at the vice presidential debate, Sarah Palin “killed,” to use that showbiz phrase. And then you wrote, “As far as Mrs. Palin was concerned, Gwen Ifill was not there, and Joe Biden was not there. Sarah and the camera were there. This was classic ‘talk over the heads of the media straight to the people,’ and it is a long time since I’ve seen it done so well, though so transparently. There were moments when she seemed to be doing an infomercial pitch for charm in politics. But it was an effective infomercial.”

An effective infomercial for Governor Palin or for the ticket? And did she convince the American people she’s qualified to be a heartbeat away?

MS. PEGGY NOONAN: I—I’ll be frank. She convinced the American people that though they had seen her crater in interview after interview in the previous few weeks before that debate, that she was capable of coming forward and simply debating, simply going forth on her own. I think she showed that she is a woman of a great and natural competence about the show business of politics, if you will, the ability to look over the camera, to think that the camera is your friend. All of that stuff. There are questions about other areas.

MR. BROKAW: Well, are you satisfied about those questions, the other areas, because that’s really the critical part of it. The show business part of it can be learned...


MR. BROKAW: ...and demonstrated by a lot of people.

MS. NOONAN: Oh, but some people are naturals. She is a natural. I, I will tell you, I, I feel increased concern about her, I think, what she thinks of populism, as her populist approach. There are two ways—you know, her stuff about “I’m Main Street, you’re not, you’re the elite. I’m not the East Coast, I’m Joe Six-Pack.” She actually says, “I’m the Joe Six-Pack candidate.” This left me thinking, “Gosh, would Lincoln say, ‘I represent the backwoods types?’ Would FDR say, ‘Yeah, the New York aristocracy deserves another moment in the sun. Vote for me.’” It—there’s something weird about it. But there’s also something, for me, concerning populism as a tactic is justified often in politics. “I need this program, the people want it.” Populism as a strategy, “We’re the good guys, you’re the bad guys,” is not good, and, and if that’s the road they’re going, that’s not a good road to be on. It’s not helpful to the country.

MR. BROKAW: Peggy Noonan, meet Dave Yepsen, who had this to say in The Des Moines Register about the debate the other night: “Sarah Palin came up short in [the] vice presidential debate. The face-off ... was mostly about her—about her qualifications for the job, whether she could do something to fix her image as a lightweight and whether she could put the Republican ticket back on a winning trajectory. The Alaska governor failed.” So sayeth David Yepsen.

You represent Main Street America out there in Iowa. How’s she doing in Main Street America?

MR. DAVID YEPSEN: Oh, I think, I think she’s doing all right. I mean, I think people wonder about her competence to be president. But I don’t think this is about Sarah Palin, this is about the top of the ticket. And you go out to Main Street America and people are concerned about the economy. They—this isn’t about sideshow issues. This isn’t about William Ayers. This is about a job. This is about the future. This is about putting gas in the tank and, and holding on to your house. And, and I think the proof that Sarah Palin didn’t really do all that well in that debate comes from the post polls, the polls that were done afterwards by a lot of reputable news organizations, who found that Joe Biden won, who find that John McCain is still trailing Barack Obama in this race. I mean, it was not a game changing performance, and, and for that reason I think she came up short.

MR. BROKAW: In—this country has gone through a traumatic experience in the last 10 days, a lot of complexity, a lot of these financial transactions that are occurring, a lot of questions about whether it’s in the best interest of the country long term and what happens next. In Iowa, as you were talking to people out there, how did they see what was going on in Washington and the magnitude of the bailout that was required here?

MR. YEPSEN: They’re, they’re angry. I mean, I, I think, I think people are unhappy about this. They don’t like what they see and, and, and yet some—there is some recognition that we got to do something. But what’s going on out there, as one, Tom, who once wrote John McCain’s political obit—I’m not willing to do it again, there’s still 30 days to go—but it is true that in rural America the, the Republican brand is not doing as well as it once was. McCain still leads in, in—all across the country in rural parts, but it’s not by this margin that he needs. And so I think that’s, that’s the problem. And I think the, the Washington bailout didn’t help him in that regard.

MR. BROKAW: We want to talk about the vice presidential debate. And as I introduce this next segment, Gwen, I want you to remember that imitation is the sincerest form of...


MR. BROKAW: ...flattery.

MS. IFILL: Oh, no.

MR. BROKAW: This is from “Saturday Night Live”...

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

MR. BROKAW: ...just last night, the vice presidential debate. Let’s take a look at that and get the audience reaction and your reaction to it as well, if we can.

(Clip shown from “Saturday Night Live”)

MS. IFILL: I got to say, being played by Queen Latifah is not a bad thing.

MR. DAVID GREGORY: That’s pretty good. That’s pretty good, yeah.

MS. IFILL: You know, this is OK.

MR. BROKAW: There you go. When she said—and you asked her a question and she completely ignored it...

MS. IFILL: More than ignored it.

MR. BROKAW: More than ignored it and said, you know...

MS. IFILL: She blew me off, I think, is the technical term.

MR. BROKAW: ...”I’m just going to talk directly to the American people.”

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

MR. BROKAW: Tell us about what happened beforehand about what the rules were and what the understanding you thought you had with the candidates who would be onstage.

MS. IFILL: The understanding was that we were going to have a debate. And one of the interesting things about debates that people forget, especially with this one, there was so much obsession about Sarah Palin, is that there are two people on the stage. And their job—and you—you’ll—you know this, you’re doing this Tuesday night—are to debate each other. The moderator’s job is to control their debate. If they have decided, as Joe Biden decided that he was going to debate John McCain, and she decided she was going to give a stump speech to the American people, there’s very little a moderator can do other than say, “No, no, no, listen, I asked a question. Please, please answer.” So, so I just—I knew going in that they all had their goals for that debate. I was taken, going in, it could now be said, by how many of the questions that people volunteered to me were all about her. There was 99 percent, I would say, was all about her. Ninety-nine percent of the analyses afterwards were about her. It was if Joe Biden wasn’t part of this deal. And if she wasn’t challenged on the things she said that were not completely correct, or she wasn’t challenged on changing the subject and then answering the questions by her competitor, I had another job to do at the table.

So, I, I—you know, they both came out there with their jobs to do. Many of the American people who are not as obsessed by the idea of Sarah Palin on the stage by herself, as a lot of us were, looked at that and thought, “Let’s weigh these two,” which is what you do in debates.

MR. BROKAW: David Gregory.

MR. GREGORY: I think what’s interesting is that she made a decision that she was going to be rhetorical and not substantive on the issues. Her primary job was to excite the conservative base, to make an appeal to, whether it’s women or a populist appeal. She did those things. I think she took herself off the table as an issue that could bring down the McCain campaign. She neutralized that and, as David said, gets our focus back to the top of the ticket. But, I think Gwen is right, Joe Biden made a decision not to take her on...

MS. IFILL: Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY: ...and smiled so broadly, at some points, you know, you wondered what was going to happen next. But, you know, he chose to train his fire on John McCain. She chose to, to ignore a lot of the substantive aspects of the debate and speak right to the American people. That’s where she’s winning. She has a lot of charm, a lot of charisma, and that’s working for her. But, again, I think the, the primary objective that was achieved was to, to neutralize this as an issue for McCain, so now returns to the real focus here, which is the economy. And I don’t know that that competence question on big issues, on a crisis, on being a heartbeat away, was necessarily answered yet.

MS. IFILL: I actually think, David—I just want to add—David’s point about transparency is important. She was transparent in her intentions, when she said, “I won’t listen to the moderator, I won’t answer the questions.”

MS. NOONAN: Absolutely.

MS. IFILL: That allowed people at home to say, “Oh, she’s not answering the questions tonight, what is she trying to do?”

MR. BROKAW: Chuck Todd, as you look at all the polls and take all the soundings, especially in the battleground states, obviously, Governor Palin electrified the Republican ticket when she was first chosen with her dynamic appearance in St. Paul. And, a lot—she’s been filling up, as John McCain has been saying, all of the rallies, 20,000 people. But is she moving the needle for the ticket? Is she pulling people in Ohio or in Wisconsin, the white working-class male, or the white working-class female, for that matter, into the McCain camp?

MR. TODD: Well, three weeks ago she did. Three weeks ago Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, those industrial Midwestern states were more in play. We saw a little bit of movement, or at least claims of movement, by the McCain folks in—even in Iowa, perhaps even in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico. But I think what you have to look at is, is something that, that David brought up, which is the collective, now, of these debates. We’ve had two of them. We had this economic bailout, which may be the more dominating story. Where the race was before the debate started, and now, where the race is right now, halfway between, and Obama’s lead has grown, not shrunk. Places that she should be electrifying the base and are not now: Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina, three states that the assumption was three weeks ago, they—she put those states away, that there’s no more chance that the, the Republican ticket’s going to lose those. They’re now back into play. You have to argue that’s the economy trumping culture right now in those three states. And now there’s a dwindling number of game-changing moments. There’s now only two more debates that McCain has to catch up. What happens if we’re in the same position right now...

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

MR. TODD: ...after the last debate? What’s he got left where a hundred million people will gather around the television to assess these two candidates?

MR. BROKAW: And, Peggy Noonan, as you know, the McCain campaign has signaled pretty strongly they’re going to strain—change their strategy. We have a quote from The Weekly Standard. Bill Kristol, who is the editor, is, of course, in the College of Cardinals, he’s the Pope when it comes to writing about what’s going on in the conservative movement. He says in The Weekly Standard, “More important is the negative message. The McCain campaign has to convince 51 percent of the voters they can’t trust Barack Obama to be our next president. ... Character is a legitimate issue. Obama hasn’t shown much in the way of leadership or political courage, and he’s consorted with dubious figures. It’s fair to ask whether Barack Obama is personally trustworthy enough to be president, and the McCain campaign shouldn’t be intimidated from going there.” We already heard on this broadcast, Senator Palin yesterday, raising the association that he had with William Ayers, who is a former member of the Weathermen, a very radical group from the ‘60s and ‘70s, who is now a school reformer in Illinois. Is this a smart strategy, in your judgment, for the McCain campaign?

MS. NOONAN: You know what, this has been a long campaign. We are in the last month. It is still close. Whoever’s rising or, or, or falling, it’s really close. And some part of me fears they’re going to open up the gates of hell on this one. It seems to me there is trench warfare out there. The left—there’s a huge middle in America, but there’s a left. They think they’re going to win, and they’re getting meaner than ever. The right fears they’re going to lose, they’re getting meaner than ever. I would hate to see this descend into this, this—“I’ll kill—I’ll tear your throat out” kind of stuff. I think that would be harmful. I think we are at a unique and dangerous...

MR. YEPSEN: But, Tom...

MS. NOONAN: ...moment in history, and it’s the last thing we need. And I don’t speak as a sissy; I’m trying to speak as an adult.

MR. BROKAW: Yeah. David.

MR. YEPSEN: There’s a danger, Tom, that it backfires.

MS. NOONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. YEPSEN: I mean, clearly John McCain is worried. They’re, they’re on defense. The best proof of that, Tom, is, is what is Sarah Palin doing this afternoon? She is in Omaha, Nebraska. Now, when a Republican vice presidential candidate has to go to defend one congressional district—they vote their electors by congressional district--30 days out, it tells you they’re worried. And so what, what I see happening in the McCain campaign, with all this talk about William Ayers, is this sort of a sense of desperation. It could get carried away, and it’s irrelevant to people in mainstream America, in middle America. You know, William Ayers, what do they care about—how is that going to put gas in the tank or get somebody a job? I think it runs the risk of coming off as irrelevant.

MR. GREGORY: But just to show you how...

MS. NOONAN: And it runs the risk of being demoralizing.


MS. NOONAN: Forgive me, David. But in a serious national way, don’t do that.

MR. BROKAW: Although, before we go on with this, maybe what the McCain campaign is reading the last draft of the latest Time magazine-CNN poll—and this shows up in a number of polls—Senator Obama still shows vulnerability on the question of what kind of president he would be. Fifty percent of those polled said Obama gives a great speech, but doesn’t have other qualifications; 46 percent disagreed with that statement. But that’s in a poll in which Senator Obama did very well overall.

MR. GREGORY: Right. It’s about qualifications. But the McCain campaign wants to do something else and make it about who is this guy really? It’s the mystery part of this. In 2004, what they did to John Kerry was say that he was weak and that he was a flip-flopper. You know, tough stuff, but not as bad as what they want to do here, which, I spoke to a McCain adviser who said, “This is about character. This is to prove that Obama is a liar, that he lies to you about Ayers, that he lies to you about our record, he lies to you about his position on taxes.” That’s what they’re going for here in a very difficult climate. Because, as Karl Rove said in 2004, “If the debate is about the war on terror, George Bush wins.” It was, and he did. The debate in 2008 is about the economy, and McCain doesn’t want to fight it on that battleground per se. He wants to make it about Obama’s character.

MS. IFILL: You know, it’s been a—I’m sorry...

MR. GREGORY: Sure, go ahead.

MS. IFILL:’s been an interesting week, because I—it’s one thing to academically sit on the sidelines and say, “Ah, this is what they’re doing. They’re throwing everything out there to see,” as Peggy notices, on both sides, “to see what sticks.”


MS. IFILL: In, in Missouri, battleground state, here in Virginia, battleground state, in other states around the country you’ve noticed the Obama people spending a lot of money running one ad with him talking to camera...


MS. IFILL: ...sitting in a place that looks like the White House saying, “This is who I am. This is what change is.” What I discovered this week, in an uncomfortable way, is that when they throw everything in the mix to change the subject, you got to—you can get in the way. I got in the way of it this week.


MS. IFILL: And I—it was an interesting—I was—I kind of didn’t pay attention to a lot of it, but it was also interesting to realize that if changing the subject from the stakes of the vice presidential debate meant talking about the moderator instead of talking about the candidate, they would do that. If that meant raising questions about anything else that’s out there, which is why if we’ve learned one thing about this campaign, is that every week it’ll be something else.

MR. BROKAW: Yeah. Well, and I could very well be the target of that because coming up Tuesday night—I think we have to explain to our audience—you are in the process of writing a book, which will come out in January, about the change in American politics, especially among African-American leaders...

MR. IFILL: Right.

MR. BROKAW: which you call the “Age of Obama.” And there were people on the right who said that disqualifies you as a moderator for the vice presidential debate. But what you did was keep your head high and not to respond those attacks.

MS. IFILL: I kind of kept my head low, actually. But, but, but no, that’s the truth. I did not respond to it because it didn’t take much to figure out what the book was really about. I mean, it didn’t take but a couple of mouse clicks to discover that what they were saying about the book wasn’t true and that, in fact, I wasn’t writing the book they said, and I hadn’t—I hadn’t even written the Obama chapter yet because I don’t know how it ends. So I—my editors are thinking, “Really, have you written it? Good, give it to us. We’d like to see it.” So they used that, and it wasn’t really much worth fighting about. I figured it would be a 24-hour kerfuffle. But it was instructive about how often you can get in the way of somebody else’s plan.

MR. TODD: But, Tom, this goes to something, and I think if you look and go back to the first presidential debate where John McCain was lecturing Obama about the difference between a tactic and a strategy, and when I heard him say that, I thought, “Boy, that is the debate going on inside your own campaign is you’re a series of tactics with no strategy.” This William Ayers stuff, I talked to one Democrat who says, “Why didn’t they do this when they did celebrity?” You know, why weren’t they setting this up for months? And what’s happened is—and we’ve said this before—the McCain campaign chases the news cycle. They are going to look at today and say, “Hey, they mentioned William Ayers on MEET THE PRESS. They talked about William Ayers,” and they’re going to consider that a success. But did they move—is this about a bigger picture that they’ve been painting for three months? And right now it’s not, it’s just a series of tactics, and I think they are lacking a strategy.

MR. YEPSEN: This is where the primary has been useful to Barack Obama. We’ve heard about William Ayers. We heard about it from the Clinton people, and we heard about it as part of the rough and tumble there. So it’s kind of an old story to a lot of people. And two can play this game. And this is where I agree with Peggy. This could go on a real bad turn here because we may be starting to hear about Charles Keating. I mean, if we want to talk about...

MS. NOONAN: Oh, of course we are. Of course.

MR. YEPSEN: ...Barack Obama’s negatives, John McCain has some, too. We can start hearing about those. He’s...

MR. BROKAW: John—we have to keep explaining to everyone—that Charles Keating was the Arizona developer with whom John McCain had an, a, a strong relationship, and then he got in a lot of trouble. He was prosecuted by the Feds, and John McCain said, “I made a terrible mistake here.” Yeah.

MR. YEPSEN: And it’s all ancient history, Tom.


MR. YEPSEN: American voters want to hear about the future. We’re in a huge economic crisis. This stuff that’s going on right now just doesn’t speak to the...

MS. IFILL: On that Sarah Palin was correct during the debate, talking backwards leaves people cold. Unfortunately, she then began to talk backwards.

MR. GREGORY: But then...

MS. NOONAN: Can I make a point, also, that I think part of the reason this is going to get so rough in the next month, trying to get my, my hands around this thing, is that we live in the age of political strategists. We live in the age of the guys on the plane. We live in the age of the BlackBerry guys saying, “Let’s get them this way. Let’s get them this way.” It exists on both campaigns, the instinct, “Hey, we have nothing to do now but go to, to the jugular.” I have the sense sometimes lately that these guys on the plane think history is their plaything. History is not their plaything. This is big. This is a nation having two ground wars and an economic recession—we hope just a mild recession. This is not a time for playfulness and mischief. It ain’t right.

MR. BROKAW: We’ve been talking a lot about Barack Obama here, but let’s talk for a moment, if we can, about John McCain. He came to Iowa, which surprised a lot of people, because Iowa has been going south for him in the campaign, as far as we know. And he had a kind of contentious meeting with your Des Moines Register editorial board. We want to share just some of that, when they were raising questions about Sarah Palin’s qualifications.

(Videotape, Tuesday)

Offscreen Voice: There...


Voice: ...seems to be a pretty strong disagreement over whether there are people who are great fans of hers, and there are people who feel very uncomfortable that she does not have a lot of experience in public office.

SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

Voice: You know, even, even among, you know, fairly conservative Republicans...

SEN. McCAIN: Really?

Voice: ...about her policy positions.

SEN. McCAIN: I hadn’t detected that.

Voice: So how do you reassure them?

SEN. McCAIN: And I haven’t detected that in the polls, I haven’t detected that amongst the base. We get 20,000 people that come to our, our rallies. So, again, I fundamentally disagree. Now, if there’s a Georgetown cocktail party person who, quote, calls himself a “conservative” and doesn’t like her, good luck. Good luck.

(End videotape)

MR. BROKAW: Now, that’s the John McCain that we’ve all come to know over the years...

MS. NOONAN: God bless him.

MR. BROKAW: ...from time to time, and people have found it to be part of his charm. I wonder if it works for him, however, with a month to go in the election.

MS. NOONAN: Well, the—I think more and more with Mr. McCain—we’re seeing two different things with the candidates. Mr. McCain has—there’s a sense of containment that you see with him more and more, where he is containing a certain amount of “hm,” indignation, anger, what it is, but—whatever it is, but he has to contain it.

MS. IFILL: Not terribly well. I mean, sarcasm really is not containment.

MS. NOONAN: Well, yeah. Containment can be exhausting, too, you know?

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

MS. NOONAN: Sort of like he’d rather deck the guy, and—but instead he’s a little sarcastic. With Obama, there is a greater sense that if there’s a tiger in that tank, he doesn’t have to work hard to contain it. There’s still that languidness and calm that is serving him well, and it is one of the unspoken things that’s helping him now, I think. American people in the past year in this long campaign have gotten to watch him long enough that they don’t know him quite, but they kind of have a sense of him. I think the impression he’s making is an interesting one.

MR. TODD: You know...

MR. BROKAW: Chuck, is there a longing for civility in American politics? I mean, we always talk about it, but when it comes down to the final stages, it becomes a blood sport.

MR. TODD: Yeah. Look, you’ve had—I think you’ve experienced this, where you, you go out and you talk to folks and you have these meetings, and, and they sit there and say, “I’m tired of red vs. blue. I wish you would stop with the red vs. blue.” And that there was a sense—remember six months ago, we were talking about this, the anti-polarization, and I remember when, when McCain gets the nomination and Obama got the nomination, there were a lot of, a lot of folks writing, saying, “Boy, this is going to be the nonpolarizing election. This is the first time we’re going to get one of those.”


MR. TODD: We’re not getting one of those because winning, you know, isn’t the only thing, as—Lombardi didn’t say it, it’s another coach. I got, I got lectured about that once. But it was a coach at UCLA—it is everything.

MR. BROKAW: He is widely credited for saying that.

MR. TODD: Yes, he is widely credited.

MR. BROKAW: David Maraniss put that record straight.

MR. TODD: And, and I think we’re seeing “the winning is, is everything” approach right now. And with 30 days, it, you know, elections are worth winning.


MR. BROKAW: Peggy Noonan has written a book called “Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now.” I’d like to share just a segment, if you’ll allow me to read your words...

MS. NOONAN: Thank you, sir.

MR. BROKAW: ...if I, if I can, off the screen here for our audience, so we’ll know what we’re talking about. “I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now. ... I think a lot of people are carrying around in their heads ... a sense that the wheels may be coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks, that in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can’t be fixed, or won’t be fixed anytime soon. That our pollsters are preoccupied with ‘right track’ and ‘wrong track’ but missing the number of people who think the answer to ‘How are things going in America?’ is ‘Off the tracks and hurtling toward an unknown destination.’”

It seems to me that those are the very same conditions that were existent in 1980 when your political hero, Ronald Reagan, was running for president.

MS. NOONAN: Oh maybe it’s all more so, but I actually think we’re living in a different world. The intensity of our economic crisis seems to me to be greater. But, Tom, also there’s something that we all know, and it’s in the back of our minds but we don’t quite think of it enough, and it is this: We are living in the age of the unknowable, of weapons of mass destruction, of crazy people who can get and harness these things and who can come and hurt us. When you—you don’t want to be dark and you don’t want to be preoccupied, but when you keep your mind on that fact and that we may in our country face difficult days ahead, and even immediately ahead, when you keep your mind on that, you realize, whoa, this old partisan gamesmanship, this “tear out his throat,” all of that stuff, it’s over, it’s yesterday. What we need now is grace. We need real patriotism, which patriotism isn’t used as a weapon in a campaign. Patriotism actually needs grace in order to function. We got to be our best selves right now. We got to hit our game in a higher way. We got to be forbearing. We got to be adults. I sometimes think one of the problems in America is there are too many people that don’t want to embrace the role of the simple grown-up and show the maturity and forbearance of a grown-up.

MS. IFILL: You know, Peggy, I think that’s what we saw this week, too, when we saw what happened on Capitol Hill. I think people looked at what was happening in Washington...

MS. NOONAN: Yes, yes.

MS. IFILL: ...and thought, “What is it we sent you there to do?” And they had to scramble and realize they had to pass something. It was, it was not a pretty moment for Washington.

MR. BROKAW: David...

MS. NOONAN: No, it was not.

MR. BROKAW: ...Gregory, let me introduce a moment of heresy into the political campaign. Isn’t it also time for these candidates to reflect just what Peggy was saying and say to the American people, “You’ve got a role in this, too. You’ve got to step up.” We’re not going to make gain without some pain here in the next year, and, in fact, the American people have been part of the problem that we have right now. A lot of them took loans that they should—ought not to have taken. Credit card debt is very high. And they want to turn a blind eye to things like entitlements, Medicare and how we’re going to pay for it.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah, I mean, the idea that this is going to be tough, that you’re going to have a president who inherits a very difficult problem, and that there’s going to have to be some pain that’s incurred by the American people. And neither candidate has really stepped up to say, in the middle of all this, “You’re going to have to deal with all that.”

MS. NOONAN: Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY: I think that the test for Obama is how he deals with the next 30 days and how he continues to deal with the economy. He’s trying to project calm in the face of all this. But you’re right. I mean, perhaps he wants to name an economic team before the campaign is over to say, “Look, we’re going to get after something that’s going to be a huge problem, and it’s not going to get any easier for Americans here in the next administration.”

MR. BROKAW: The question is, if he’s going to name an economic team, who’s going to be left to name on that team?


MR. BROKAW: Because some of the very biggest names in America are now looking out for homeless shelters in which they can spend some time in the next nine months or so.

Thank you all very much for being with us. And we’ll be right back here on MEET THE PRESS.


MR. BROKAW: That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. And I know where I’m going to be on Tuesday night, and I hope you’ll be there as well. I’ll be broadcasting from Nashville, the second of the presidential debates at 9 Eastern. A town hall audience, people in the audience and electronically asking questions of these two candidates one month before Election Day. Meanwhile, if it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.