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updated 6/17/2007 1:09:27 PM ET 2007-06-17T17:09:27

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: a new Pentagon report says despite the military surge, the overall levels of violence in Iraq have not decreased. And the Iraqi leaders have made “little progress” on achieving their political goals. What now? We’ll ask the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker.

Then, the debate over immigration, a pardon for Scooter Libby, and the 2008 race for the White House. Insights and analysis from E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Kate O’Beirne of the National Review, Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and Byron York of the National Review.

But first, joining us from Baghdad is the United States ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker.

Mr. Ambassador, good morning and welcome.

Let me ask you about the Pentagon report that has just come out regarding the violence in Iraq. And I’ll read it to you and our viewers. “No drop in Iraq violence seen since troop buildup. Three months into the new U.S. military strategy that has sent tens of thousands of additional troops into Iraq, overall levels of violence in the country have not decreased, as attacks have shifted away from Baghdad and Anbar, where American forces are concentrated, only to rise in most other provinces, according to a Pentagon report.

“The report—the first comprehensive statistical overview of the new U.S. military strategy in Iraq—says Iraqi leaders have made ‘little progress’ on the overarching political goals that the stepped-up security operations are intended to help advance, the report said, calling reconciliation between Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni factions ‘a serious unfulfilled objective.’

“The 46-page report mandated quarterly by Congress, tempers the early optimism about the new strategy voiced by senior U.S. officials.”

A U.S. commander this morning saying just 40 percent of Baghdad is now secure. Has the surge done anything in a positive way to bring us closer to the goal of a secure Baghdad?

AMB. RYAN CROCKER: I think it very much has, and the portion of the report you just cited notes that, that violence has indeed shifted away from the two areas where the surge is directed, that’s Anbar and Baghdad. The success in Anbar has been quite striking as the Iraqi tribes out there have basically turned against al-Qaeda, and the level of violence in Anbar is dramatically down. The report notes that violence has shifted out of Baghdad. It is not good that we’re seeing violence in other areas and there are some major challenges in the province of Diyalah to the northeast and to the belt around Baghdad, particularly to the south. General Petraeus and I talk on a more than daily basis. As you know, we’ve got a new offensive under way now that the, the full strength of the surge has been reached, primarily directed at al-Qaeda in the Baghdad area. So, you know, we’re moving by phases here.

We’ve got the challenge out in Diyalah, and clearly, our forces are going to be addressing that, in coordination with Iraqi forces. But the fact that the level of violence is down in the two areas where the surge is focused, Anbar and Baghdad, I think is noteworthy. Again, we should not draw too many conclusions too quickly, either positive or negative. This has a ways to run. But it’s, you know, definitely not by any means a universally negative picture.

MR. RUSSERT: But isn’t it the equivalent of playing Whack-a-Mole? You whack them one place, and put your troops in, and they go to another area.

AMB. CROCKER: As, as the administration said at the beginning of this effort, the president’s speech in January, Baghdad is central. It is really very difficult to imagine any meaningful political progress being made if security is not imposed in Baghdad. So just to use your own image there, what we are now positioned to do with the surge at full strength, is whack a whole lot of moles simultaneously. And that does, does have an effect. Again, not in a position to make a definitive judgment, but if we’re successful in continuing to bring security to Baghdad, same time, forces are now in place to take on challenges in, in Diyalah and in the belt around Baghdad. So you progress, moving out as we get more security in Baghdad.

MR. RUSSERT: General Petraeus was quoted in the USA Today newspaper on Thursday as saying, “You’ll find astonishing signs of normalcy in” “two-thirds of the city of Baghdad.”

The Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, responded by saying General Petraeus “isn’t in touch with what’s going on in Baghdad.”

AMB. CROCKER: Well, I, I worked very, very closely with General Petraeus since literally the day I arrived here at the end of March. America could not ask for a finer, more experienced and more able military leader than, than they have in General Petraeus. I have heard him give tough, clear assessments to, to the president, to congressional visitors as they come through; and you’ve heard him in the open media. He spends time on the ground. He’s out there walking around Baghdad, and he calls it as he sees it. There are parts of the city in which life is remarkably normal. There are parts when it is far from that. He estimates that about 30 percent of, of Baghdad divides along fault lines where we’ve, we’ve really got to work with the Iraqis to try and bring stability and security. No playgrounds open in those areas. But as he has said, in other parts of the city, it’s a different case.

MR. RUSSERT: Last week, the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, was on this program, and spoke about the situation in Iraq, and the military surge. Let’s listen, and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, June 10, 2007):

GEN. COLIN POWELL (RET.): It is a civil war. The current strategy to deal with it, called a surge, the military surge, our part of the surge under General Petraeus, the only thing it can do is put a heavier lid on this boiling pot of civil war stew.

And it’s one thing to send over 30,000 additional troops. But if the other two legs, Iraqi political reconciliation and the buildup of the Iraqi forces, are not synchronized with that, then it’s questionable as to how well it’s going to be able to do, will it succeed?

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: You agree?

AMB. CROCKER: It is certainly the case that the surge by itself does not fix the problem. The surge buys time for a political process to get some legs under it, buys time for what Secretary Powell describes rightly as the buildup of Iraqi security force capabilities. The Iraqis are very much in this fight, as you know. They are taking casualties at a much higher rate than, than our forces are in Baghdad and elsewhere, and in the process, clearly, clearly learning a tremendous amount about how to deal with complex security situations. How, how well and thoroughly they assimilate all this, again, we’re going to have to see. But it’s giving them the opportunity. And then, of course, the process of reconciliation is key, and I—and we talked about that a few minutes ago. I think there’s, you know, there’s frustration on some levels, an absence of progress rather clearly in the legislative arena.

On the other hand, we are seeing the leadership able to come together at a time of really grave crisis, after the Samarra bombing, and agree who the enemy is, agree what the strategy is, and agree on a way forward. So, again, it’s, it’s a mixed picture, by certainly by not any means a hopeless one.

MR. RUSSERT: But isn’t the Maliki government upset with us for, for providing arms and munitions to Sunnis, who they believe are the enemy of their government?

AMB. CROCKER: With respect to the dealing with those in Sunni areas who have decided that al-Qaeda is the enemy and wish to support us and the Iraqi government, in Anbar, we’ve seen a tremendous shift. And there, of course, the strategy is that these tribes are not going to operate independently, they’re forming into what are called provisional police units that are going to be linked to the central government of Iraq, both for organizational and for payroll purposes.

Now, it is an issue of concern, and the Iraqis are right to focus on it. As one moves to other areas, different conditions may dominate, and they and we will have to look very carefully at who we might be dealing with. The prime minister has ordered the formation of a—of a committee that will be chaired by a senior Iraqi government official. It’s kind of going to look at these issues as they emerge, so there’s a kind of a careful, coordinated process of evaluating what we’re dealing with before we move too far down the road.

MR. RUSSERT: As you well know, in September you and General Petraeus will return to the United States, testify before Congress as to what the results of the military surge have been. The president has called this, “a very important moment.” What do you expect will happen in September?

AMB. CROCKER: What we’ll do is we will come back and jointly, we will give an honest, forthright assessment. General Petraeus will speak to security conditions, I’ll be evaluating where matters stand in the political and economic arenas. It will be snapshot, obviously, but that film can’t be developed until we’re there in September.

The other thing I think we’re going to do, because we owe it to our leadership at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, is also try to provide an assessment of what the consequences might be if, if we pursue other directions. Iraq doesn’t exist in a background—in a vacuum. We have the issue of the neighbors, particularly Iran and Syria, playing distinctly unhelpful roles. We’ve got to consider what, what could happen, depending on the decisions that, that are made back home.

MR. RUSSERT: Does the Iraqi government know that two-thirds of the American people now say that the war was not worth the price we paid in blood and treasure, and that a majority of Americans now say we should withdraw from Iraq?

AMB. CROCKER: One thing I’ve noticed, Tim, being out here, is that the Iraqis are following very, very closely the political debate back home.

MR. RUSSERT: And what is their reaction?

AMB. CROCKER: Their reaction is, is that they understand American concern and frustration, that they are working to meet the, the benchmarks that have been established, and of course, they were part of the process of choosing the benchmarks—they led it, in fact, but that they hope that we understand just how complicated and difficult the situation they face is. There is nothing easy about the task in front of them, and I have certainly been struck since I’ve been here that the amount of commitment and effort that senior Iraqi officials have demonstrated to try and get the job done. A concern I have had is that, and both General Petraeus and I have articulated it, that there are two clocks, and the Washington clock is running a lot faster than the Baghdad clock. The effort with the benchmarks is, and the Iraqis say this very clearly, that they want to get this done. It’s important to them. But they know it’s also a very important way of speeding up the Baghdad clock and putting a little extra time on the—on the Washington clock.

MR. RUSSERT: Ambassador Ryan Crocker, thank you very much for joining us this morning and sharing your views.

Coming next, our political roundtable: E.J. Dionne, Kate O’Beirne, Eugene Robinson and Byron York. They try to decipher the politics of Washington coming up here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Iraq, Alberto Gonzales, Scooter Libby, Decision 2008, all topics for our roundtable, after this station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we’re back, welcome all.

Let’s start with Iraq. You just heard Ambassador Crocker talking about coming back to Washington, September, he and General Petraeus will tell Congress what is happening in Iraq.

Eugene Robinson, you weighed in on this subject with your column on Friday. Let’s read it: “White House spokesman Tony Snow ... said he was emphasizing ‘metrics’ because he knew that in September, ‘some people are going to try to make the argument, if the job is not done and if they haven’t perfected it and if they haven’t achieved all’” “‘it’s a failure. I wanted to guard against that.’ Precisely. In the world of retail, this is known as bait-and-switch.” Wow. Why?

MR. EUGENE ROBINSON: Well, it’s the White House that, that set up September as the time when we would know whether the surge was working or not, and then we would know the way forward in Iraq. And last week, Tony Snow, in his Wednesday briefing, went way, way out of his way to tamp down expectations, and essentially to say that, “Well, in September we’ll have a measure of maybe how things might be going, but it, it’ll be too soon to tell anything.” And you know, what it says to me, really, is that this is a president who has made up his mind on Iraq. He’s not budging, he’s not getting out of there. And I don’t think he’s really considering any sort of serious alternative to, to his existing policy, basically, which is to continue until victory—whatever, you know, as he defines it, whatever victory is.

MR. RUSSERT: Kate O’Beirne, the president did say that September was an important moment. Is it?

MS. KATE O’BEIRNE: It absolutely is on Capitol Hill, Tim. It’s been reinforced enough times. Whether or not the White House regrets the fact that people on Capitol Hill are expecting a status report telling them the way forward in September, they might regret that deadline, but it, it exists nonetheless. And people on Capitol Hill expect General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to tell them what kind of progress is being made.

Today, Ambassador Crocker said things aren’t universally negative in Iraq. I think an awful lot of people who’ve been with the president so far—the Republicans—need to hear more than “things are not universally negative in Iraq.” The members tell me it’s got to be more than half full. There can be a mixed picture, but is General Petraeus convinced that there is a way forward now? Is he more convinced than he was when this was undertaken that the surge can work? That’s the kind of thing they want to hear.

MR. RUSSERT: Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, said this: He went on to say that the “Iraqi government,” condemned it “for its failure to resolve security and political problems more expeditiously and predicted that, unless the current troop surge succeeds, U.S. policy will be changed by year’s end either by” the president, “or congressional action.”

John Boehner, the leader of the Republicans in the House, said that September’s “when Petraeus is required to report back to Congress on the progress of” the “‘surge’ policy.” “Numerous Republicans,” including himself, “have suggested there could be dramatic erosion in support within the GOP for the president and the war unless the political and military situation” “shows dramatic improvement.”

Is that the standard?

MR. BYRON YORK: Yes, it is. The White House is incredibly nervous about this. In the past week they’re—they’ve done a full court press on Baghdad. They’ve sent Admiral Fallon, head of all U.S. military in the Middle East, they’ve sent John Negroponte, number two man in the State Department, and now they’ve sent Robert Gates, the defense secretary, to Iraq to try to push the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into some sort of action. And what they’re getting in response is al-Maliki says, “Well, we’re making progress on an oil revenue sharing bill. We’re making progress on power sharing. But this is very complicated.” So the White House is pressing for results, trying to say that, “Look, September is really, really it.”

I talked to a very conservative Republican senator the other day, supports the war, and he says, “Look, we’re going to have to see some real progress by September, reasonable control of Baghdad, or we’re not going to be able to hold off the Democrats.” So the White House is very nervous.

MR. RUSSERT: E.J. Dionne, the Democrats have had an interesting strategy through the voice of their leader in the Senate, Harry Reid. This is how the Politico reported it: “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Marine General Peter Pace, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ‘incompetent’ during an interview with a group of liberal bloggers, a comment that was never reported,” later was.

“Reid made similar disparaging remarks about Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said several sources familiar with the interview.”

As I asked Ambassador Crocker, Reid said that Petraeus was out of touch with reality in terms of Baghdad. Is that a smart strategy for the Democrats?

MR. E.J. DIONNE: Well, I don’t know if it’s a smart strategy, but it’s nothing new. We’ve been criticizing generals for years. I bet if we had clips, we could find a lot being said about General McClellan back in the Civil War. Moreover, John McCain himself, leading supporter of this war, had been critical of Peter Pace. I think the controversy about Reid really goes back to what we’re talking about earlier, that time really is running out on the administration. You own poll, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, asked the question, “Are things getting better in Iraq?” Ten percent. “Are things getting worse?” Fifty-four percent. That means most Republicans out there in the country don’t think things are getting better. And that’s why I think the effort to slip the September date and say we’re going to go forward just can’t work.

But I do think it sets up a more honest debate for the fall, because it’s very clear that the president’s desire is to keep American troops committed there well beyond the 2008 election. And I think what we’re going to start having in the fall is a debate over, do we really want to keep them committed there, even in smaller numbers, or do we eventually want to get them out. That’s the real choice we’re facing.

MS. O’BEIRNE: Tim, was, was Majority Leader Reid smart or not? No, it wasn’t smart. General Petraeus is widely respected on Capitol Hill. Members have every reason to believe that he is not going to be some sort of a mouthpiece for the administration, that they can expect, when he gives an assessment, that it’s going to be his honest assessment of how things are going on the ground. There’s no reason for Harry Reid to be maligning General Petraeus in any way. At the moment, the facts on the ground benefit the Reid side of the argument, and I do—I don’t think it’s smart for them to be picking on generals who serve so honorably by name. Not smart.

MR. RUSSERT: Is this the way the war is going to end, Byron York? Republicans in Congress are going to go their president and say, “Mr. President, time’s up”?

MR. YORK: I think what happens in September if he doesn’t show significant progress that can, that can make them keep supporting him, I think that’s going to happen, and the question will be faster or sooner. On Friday, I asked someone in the White House, “I mean, what is a realistic expectation of progress that can be shown by September?” And the answer was, “That’s difficult to say.” That’s just not going to work.

MR. ROBINSON: It’s hard to see exactly how that works, though. I mean, are the Republicans going to join the Democrats in a, in a, in a measure to defund the war...

MR. YORK: Mm-hmm.

MR. ROBINSON: ...in refusing to appropriate any more money for funds, which is essentially something they’ve said they can’t do because how can we not give money to support the troops who are already there. Short of that, it’s hard for me to figure out exactly what they’re going, going to do, given the president’s determination to press forward.

MR. YORK: I think they’ll be fighting each other, because a number of them oppose Bush’s handling of the war for different reasons. We know why the left does, but I was in South Carolina last week talking to conservative Republicans, and they oppose Bush’s handling of the war because they wanted him to pursue it more aggressively.

MR. ROBINSON: Right.

MR. YORK: Not only did he not go in with enough troops, but they felt that there were restrictive rules of engagement on our troops.

MR. ROBINSON: Uh-huh.

MR. YORK: And then, that if you’re going to fight a war, fight a war. So you have two sides that are both unhappy with the president coming from different places.

MR. RUSSERT: And there’s—I’m sorry.

MS. O’BEIRNE: And Gene—Gene, supporters of the president see the DOD appropriations bill in the fall as the vehicle.

MR. ROBINSON: That’s true, yeah, it is.

MS. O’BEIRNE: It only needs a majority vote.

MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

MS. O’BEIRNE: Will there be a majority come the fall that will want an appropriations bill with timetables for withdrawal? That’s the fear, of course, on Capitol Hill.

MR. RUSSERT: And Republicans might be willing to support that?

MS. O’BEIRNE: There might be enough Republicans this time around to get that kind of a bill, they fear.

MR. DIONNE: And I don’t—yeah, and I don’t even think Republicans need to meet a goal. If you had enough high powered Republicans who got together and made a statement—high powered meaning people respected by conservatives, respected across the party—and said, “This policy has to change,” they’re going to have an impact without winning any votes on the floor of Congress..

MS. O’BEIRNE: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: Another issue where the left and the right converged to bring about its defeat, that may be back to life a bit, is the immigration bill. Byron York, the president working feverishly to get his immigration reform bill passed.

MR. YORK: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: As the former governor of Texas, he understands this policy and the politics. In his mind, if the Hispanic vote is written off by the Republican Party for years to come, they could join blacks in being an overwhelmingly subgroup in our society supporting the Democratic Party, which would be devastating to the Democrats long term.

MR. YORK: On this, he is fighting his base and fighting them very hard. The latest, the latest vehicle for this is this new plan to appropriate, in a separate bill, $4.4 billion for additional border security. But what, what the conservative opponents of this bill are saying is, “That’s great,” but they’re almost saying, “Don’t show us the money. We don’t care about the money. We want to see actual results in increasing border security.” So Jim DeMint, for example, the South Carolina Republican, says, “We need to do this in phases. First we’ll do border security, then we’ll talk about the path to legalization,” while the president insists that it has to be all in one ball. The question is, have any minds been changed from a few weeks ago when the bill died, and nobody knows that right now.

MR. RUSSERT: Will the president get it?

MR. DIONNE: I think there’s an outside shot. What I think is in the end there are probably 60 votes in the Senate for some combination of legalization of the 12 million, plus tougher security.

But the politics of this are very complicated and I think for a lot of conservatives it’s not only that a lot of them oppose this on principle, which they do, but this has become a vehicle for conservatives to express many of the same frustration that liberals and moderates feel about the president. They can look at border security, attack the administration’s incompetence by saying “They haven’t controlled the border.” They use this issue to talk about economic and cultural unease, and a lot of Republicans, particularly downscale Republicans, I feel. And the country is genuinely divided on immigration. There have been a ton of polls. Your own, I think, had a—asked a very interesting question: “Does immigration help our country”? Fifty-six percent. “Does it hurt”? Forty-four percent. On a question that closely divided it’s really hard to get a comprehensive bill like this one.

MS. O’BEIRNE: But the NBC poll didn’t show divided opinion on the merits of this bill. There was a reason why the grand compromisers wanted to push this through really pretty quickly. The longer it hung out there, the more opposition has grown. People have been informed about it more. It delayed through Memorial Day. Time is not on its side. So it’s really a broad cross-section based on the polls. They—the typical public thinks immigration reform means secure the border and reduce the level of illegal immigration. And what critics charge that this bill won’t really deliver on promises about border security and will provide a magnet—just as the ‘86 amnesty did—to, to increase illegal immigration, it puts its defenders in a really awkward spot.

MR. ROBINSON: But one—one interesting—another interesting thing from the NBC poll is that most Americans do no believe it’s realistic, for example, to deport—just talk about deporting 12 million people who are here illegally. So there is this sense of realism in the, in the country about—if not a desire to then take the next step and say, “Well, OK, let’s legalize these people.” But at least there’s the recognition that they’re not all going to be rounded up and, and shipped home, you know at anytime, and certainly not any time soon.

MR. YORK: Right. But if you look at the specific measure in this bill in this poll, support for imposing new fines on businesses, 74 percent; support for the fence, 65 percent; requiring all those who apply to be citizens to learn English, 89 percent; support for allowing illegals to get an automatic visa if they pay $5,000, 30 percent. So, I mean, the difference is quite striking in this poll.

MR. RUSSERT: Byron, does the White House think they’ll get it?

MR. YORK: Yes, they think they do, in part because when the bill was defeated the last time, a number of Republicans voted to stop it on the grounds that Republicans weren’t being allowed to offer enough amendments, a process reason. So that this time perhaps there’ll be enough Republicans who feel they can have their voice heard and let the bill go forward.

MR. RUSSERT: Two others issues confronting the president and this is how Robert Novak, the conservative columnist, framed them: “What can a lame duck president fighting an unpopular war—the fate also of Harry Truman and Lyndon” “Johnson in their closing months—do about this? No much, but two possibilities are talked about in Republican circles: let” Alberto “Gonzales” the attorney general,”go, and pardon” Scooter “Libby. That might drop Bush’s approval ratings even lower, but it sure would hearten his base.”

Kate O’Beirne:

MS. O’BEIRNE: Well I’m—his approval ratings at the moment I don’t think would drop. It’s—it could just reflect Scooter Libby’s friends and family at this point who might—who might stay—who might hang in there with him. I wouldn’t expect—I don’t think the Alberto Gonzales controversy is affecting the president’s poll ratings. I don’t know that this U.S. attorney controversy has caught on in that respect. And it is true that there’s something liberating about being below freezing level in the polls, I suppose. And it is the president’s base. It’s very much his base. And, and ironically, the issues come together. We just talked about with respect to Iraq, those members of Congress who are most apt to stick with him on Iraq are the ones who feel most strongly about immigration. They see this as sort of a fratricide the president has sort of launched. So anything he could do to help with his base, to remind people—it’s like a bad marriage at the moment, Tim. At the moment, the base is having a big fight with the president about a big issue: immigration. But it’s not just about immigration. It’s about all problems in this relationship. Right away, you hear Republicans say, “And another thing, Harriet Miers and No Child Left Behind and prescription drug benefits.”

MR. RUSSERT: So would a pardon...

MR. DIONNE: (Unintelligible)...in this is very good.

MR. RUSSERT: Would pardoning Scooter Libby help that?

MS. O’BEIRNE: It certainly would help with his conservative supporters who had, who had long objected to what they see as politicized prosecution and I think they would give President Bush credit for being a stand-up guy who stood by a loyal White House staffer.

MR. RUSSERT: Also, there’s been discussion of a middle step, not a pardon, called a respite. What is that?

MS. O’BEIRNE: Well, the president—we call it, it’s pardon power, but of course it’s a plenary power. It’s an executive clemency power. The president, through this constitutional authority, can do anything along the way. For instance, a respite is possible. The president has the authority—previous presidents have done the same thing—to suspend the sentence for the moment. He still lets the legal process run its course, wait till the appeal is over, but meanwhile the president would have the authority to see that Scooter Libby did not serve a jail term as long as his appeal was pending. There are things you can do short of pardon.

MR. RUSSERT: A get out of jail free card.

MS. O’BEIRNE: Well, suspended for the moment, and then wait for the, for the appeal to run its course.

MR. RUSSERT: E.J. Dionne, you wrote this in your column: “The Republican presidential candidates have two time frames to think about: their need to win conservative support in the nomination battle now and the general election imperative to break with what is looking like a discredited presidency. Taking a stand on a pardon [for]” Scooter “[Libby] forces an awkward and immediate choice between those objectives.”

MR. DIONNE: Indeed. That’s if, right now, in the conservative base, which plays a big role in the Republican primaries, as Kate says, there’s a lot of sentiment for pardoning Scooter Libby. But here, you would be a Republican facing an election in the fall where you tied yourself to an administration that could be perceived as—and I think correctly—as letting its friend off the hook when he lied to an investigator to protect other people in the administration, is just not where you want to be. And it’s not where President Bush wants to be. This is a terrible choice for him, because if he doesn’t pardon Libby, or give him a respite or something, the few remaining people in the country who really support him among the conservatives, are going to be furious at him. If he does move to pardon Libby, or give him some relief, lots of other people, most of the rest of the people, are going to be mad at him, including Democrats he’s leaning on now to pass a few things, like immigration. So this is about the worst of all possible choices for the president.

MR. RUSSERT: Here’s the latest poll ratings on the president, Gene Robinson. He has a 29 percent approval, 66 disapproval. Why not take a shot?

MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, as Kate said, below freezing. I mean, he’s not going to—you know, he’s—that’s as low as he’s ever been, lower than he’s ever been.

I, I think the Democrats must be saying bring it on, you know. If he, if he does pardon Scooter Libby, I think it’d be a great issue for them to run on. On the...

MR. RUSSERT: By the way, the Democrats who ran—took control of Congress, here’s the latest favorable/unfavorable of Congress: 23 percent approval, 64 disapproval. So things all aren’t peachy for the Democrats running Congress.

MR. ROBINSON: No, they’re—no, they aren’t. You know, I don’t know if that reflects the Democratic leadership, Harry Reid’s sometimes intemperate remarks. I think it’s more just dissatisfaction with, with the city, with the way things are going, the feeling—you know, that, that question in your poll, are things on the right track or the wrong track? The Democrats came into office with very high expectations, some of which they can’t deliver on, because they don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, and—to override, override vetoes and get anything through.

MR. RUSSERT: And they haven’t stopped the war.

MR. ROBINSON: And they haven’t stopped the war.

MR. DIONNE: Well, I mean, I think, I think that’s key. The Democrats have lost ground in two completely different areas. Liberals who wanted the war stopped—I think it was unrealistic to expect Congress to stop it, but nonetheless, they’re mad now. And a lot of other voters who are not necessarily liberals who wanted action on that whole series of domestic, whole series of domestic issues the Democrats brought up. Yes, they got minimum wage, but they haven’t passed that. So they—the war will take care of itself one way or the other, and they’ve really got to act on that affirmative agenda before the year is out.

MR. RUSSERT: Byron York, bottom line on a pardon for Scooter Libby? What happens?

MR. YORK: Well, the fact is, the White House has shown no inclination at all to pardon Libby. They were hoping that all of this would come later in the president’s term, that he could essentially do it on the way out the door. The thing that has triggered all of this is Judge Reggie Walton, the judge in the case, deciding that Libby had to go, go to jail now, rather than stay free pending his appeal. That’s what has caused this problem, and I think that we’re likely to see Libby go to jail within six weeks or so.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the presidential race. Here’s the latest national poll for the Democrats: In June, Hillary Clinton, 39; Barack Obama, 25; Edwards, 15. In April, she had just a 5 point lead. Clearly, the two debates have benefitted her. We have shown polls in recent weeks in Iowa, where it was a very close race, Edwards, Obama, Clinton. A poll last week, where Clinton was ahead in New Hampshire. South Carolina—here’s a new poll out this very morning. Look at this: Barack Obama, 34; Hillary Clinton, 25; John Edwards, 12.

Gene Robinson, you know a lot about that state.

MR. ROBINSON: Oh, I do know a bit about that state. You know, half, half the voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary are African-American. I think one thing this figure reflects is, is African-American support for Barack Obama, which one senses when one goes to South Carolina, that there’s something building there. He’s spent a lot of time there. He just gave a big speech there on Friday about fatherhood and, and paternal responsibility, a theme he comes back to quite frequently and gets a big response.

MR. RUSSERT: Amongst African-Americans in South Carolina, it’s Obama, 41; Clinton, 18. You’re exactly right.

MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you the Republicans nationally. Here is the latest. Rudy Giuliani, 29; Fred Thompson, not yet a candidate, already in second place at 20; Mitt Romney, 14; John McCain, 14. McCain has dropped 8 points, you can see there. Polls have shown Mitt Romney doing well in Iowa, doing well in New Hampshire. But again, here’s South Carolina, Carolina, out this morning, look at this. Fred Thompson, first place, 25; Rudy Giuliani, 21; Mitt Romney, 11; John McCain, 7.

Kate O’Beirne, what does that tell you?

MS. O’BEIRNE: Tells me Fred Thompson has had a really strong debut. As you point out, he debuted at second in some polls, tied for first in other polls. There’s a, there’s a lot of talent there. There’s a lot of interest in Fred Thompson, unlike other candidates. He’s—given the fact that he’s got some name recognition, and the media’s paid so much attention to him, he can make an entry this late in the race. There’s a lot of talent there, as you know. He’s smart, he’s more policy-oriented, I think, than people give him credit for. He has a sense of humor. He certainly has presence. Hollywood casting agents always spotted it. What his opponents are wondering is, does he have a second act? They’re wondering what kind of money he’s going to be able to raise, does he have a solid structure under him, and will he wind up being a plausible candidate. But they all allow his first act has been darn impressive.

MR. ROBINSON: He’s got a much better voice for South Carolina than Rudy Giuliani does, which is...

MR. YORK: But they like Giuliani down there, too.

MR. ROBINSON: They do.

MR. YORK: In South Carolina last week, I talked to the, the head of the Georgetown County Republican Party, and he did not like the McCain-Giuliani-Romney choice at all. He was very, very open to Fred Thompson. But he said openly, he said, “Look, I don’t really know all of that much about him.” And it’s not clear to me right now whether all of these Republicans, these 20 percent in this poll, are in love with Fred Thompson, or in love with the idea of Fred Thompson.

MR. RUSSERT: And that...

MR. YORK: Some outside force who comes in and saves the day, which looks pretty dark right now.

MR. DIONNE: I think that’s exactly right. The Republicans have the blues, and they really see Fred Thompson as a guy who can help them get rid of the blues. And when you look at the polling on Thompson, he’s got the perfect constituency for the Republican Party. It’s a more conservative group, which threatens Mitt Romney. He’s got a lot of support among men, a lot of support in the South, reflected in that poll in South Carolina. And the question is, can he live up to all the hopes that people in the Republican Party are investing in him. Republicans desperately want to get out of the fix they’re in, and they just know that their current field may not be the field that can do it for them.

MR. RUSSERT: I showed you that national poll, E.J. Dionne, about Hillary Clinton building up, solidifying her lead, and yet Barack Obama showing some real strength in South Carolina. Another primary, the money primary. We’ll know a lot more this week, but indications are that Barack Obama is extremely competitive, if not beating Hillary Clinton, in raising money and in the number of donors. How do you see that race evolving?

MR. DIONNE: Well, first of all, I think Hillary Clinton had a very good six months this year. In fact, it was a better six months than I expected. My own expectations, so I confess to being wrong, is that Obama would’ve been closer to her than he is right now. And I think she’s managed to use this argument about experience very effectively, and she’s used the debates to put that forward.

On the other hand, this poll suggests that the primary calendar clearly gives Obama an important opening in South Carolina. The money primary’s going to be competitive. But, as I say, I think she has proven to be as formidable as some thought she was going to be in this early stage.

MR. YORK: But the story right now really has been Hillary Clinton solidifying her lead, and Barack Obama either plateauing or slipping a little bit. You know, in this poll, they ask “Who’s more knowledgeable and experienced enough to be president?” Forty-eight percent said Hillary Clinton, 10 percent said Obama. The, the areas where he scores high are that he is inspirational and exciting. And the Clinton people believe that pretty soon you just have to show substance. So he gives great speeches, but when he goes into a debate or a town hall or something, he’s not as impressive. And that’s the reason, they think, that he’s slipping somehow.

MR. RUSSERT: But it’s been interesting. All our discussion about moving up the calendar, Tsunami Tuesday with Florida and California and New York, New Jersey, so forth, the fact is, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina still...

MS. O’BEIRNE: And Florida.

MR. RUSSERT: ...enormously important. I mean, Hillary Clinton has to win those early primaries. You can’t just hold back and say, “Wait till Tsunami Tuesday.” And Obama still very much in the game in terms of the money. If Hillary Clinton rolls out of Iowa and New Hampshire, game, set, match, right?

MR. ROBINSON: Absolutely. You know, the, the, the—Obama has, has—I’m sure his people would like him to be a little closer, as E.J. said, thought he would be a little closer now. But they don’t seem all that worried to me. They don’t, they don’t seem to be in a panic, They’ve made some mistakes, you know, kind of learning how to, how to do this at, at, at a very high level, which the Clinton people already know. Yet the Obama people seem if, if—they’re not serene, but they, but they seem to feel they’re still in a good position, that they’ll rev up a bit in the fall, and we’ll see.

MR. RUSSERT: And it’s closing in. These primary caucuses are six months away, that’s it.

MR. ROBINSON: Exactly.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me—go ahead.

MR. DIONNE: I, I have the same sense Gene does of the Obama people. Two other things here, one is John Edwards. He’s got to win two of those early contests or he’s out, and he knows that. And he’s counting a lot on South Carolina. Obama may trump him there. He’s hoping for Iowa, Hillary Clinton’s been coming up there. And then Nevada, where the unions support him. I mean, those are the places you can look for him, and they claim they’re...(unintelligible)

MR. RUSSERT: The key to New Hampshire are the independent voters. Which primary are those voters going to—going to be involved in?

MR. DIONNE: That’s exactly the right question.

MR. RUSSERT: They opted for McCain in 2000, and he won by 18 points. If they opt for the Democratic primary, and edge towards the outsider candidate, quote/unquote, the new candidate, Obama, he’s in good stead.

MR. DIONNE: And it looks like they’re leaning Democratic this year.

The other thing Democrats are worried about is you’re seeing these polls which in principle show people want to elect a Democratic president in ‘08, but none of these candidates have the same strength against Giuliani or McCain, and I think that’s going to cause a lot of discussion among Democrats to sort of step back and say, “which one of these candidates do we really want out there fighting, who can win?”

MR. RUSSERT: Who can win? Who can win? Strategic vote.

MR. DIONNE: And I—even if they say that’s not an issue, I think it’s a real issue for Democrats.

MR. RUSSERT: It seemed to be a vote in 2004, that Iowa Caucuses...

MR. DIONNE: Definitely.

MR. RUSSERT: ...when you’re out there. People’s heart was with Howard Dean, but they thought that John Kerry had a better chance in the general election, not to be.

Kate O’Beirne, there’s been a lot of discussion in the primaries about attacks on each other. And it’s been kind of mild in many of the debates. This week, Mitt Romney and John McCain really engaged in some open warfare. Here’s how it started: “McCain’s campaign e-mail to reporters was entitled ‘Mitt vs. Fact: Shifting Positions on Abortion,’” “it outlined a number of apparent inconsistencies in Romney’s views on the issue. ... Romney spokesman Kevin Madden,” called “McCain’s campaign ‘faltering,’ sent out a list of excerpts detailing what he sees as [Romney’s] commitment to opposing abortion, saying the McCain documents are full of ‘calculated distortions.’”

McCain response: “It shouldn’t surprise any Republican primary voters that Mitt Romney has changed his position on federal funding of stem cells, just like he did on immigration, abortion, taxes and guns. This illustrates he’s willing to say and do anything to win the nomination.”

Mitt Romney himself responds: “I guess politics can get a little testy if you’re having a difficult time yourself.”

MS. O’BEIRNE: Mitt Romney, during the last Republican debate, when they were trying to point out the differences on immigration, you know, was he willing to go after John McCain, “John McCain’s my friend, my beef’s not with him.” But the McCain, he McCain campaign, I think, is trying to get back to their view of this race a year ago. They, they, they thought they’d be head-on-head with Rudy Giuliani. They thought Rudy Giuliani, given his position on social issues, would be a nonstarter. Anybody else, John McCain would have the money and endorsements to sort of bury. Well, it’s not that kind of race. So I think at the moment they see Mitt Romney, owing to putting aside the national polls, he’s keeping his head down and he’s doing what he had to do in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he looks good in Michigan. So they figure if they can somehow knock Mitt Romney out of the way, they’ll get back to their Giuliani and John McCain race.

The problem here is, of course, that John McCain is backing the president on Iraq and immigration, his two most unpopular issues. He himself has gotten on the wrong side of conservatives over the years. Mitt Romney is convincing an awful lot of conservatives where it counts, in New Hampshire and Iowa, that he’s with them. Some conservatives are going to say, “Do I want a fellow who’s been with me recently, or do I want a fellow who’s been arguing with me for the past 10 years?” But it’s—I think, I think it’s all McCain has to do at the moment.

MR. RUSSERT: Has Mitt Romney’s conversion worked?

MR. YORK: It—no. As a matter of fact, there are people who are—Republicans who are very skeptical about it, because he says that he had run as a, as a pro-choice candidate not just for the Senate in 1994, but in—for the governorship of Massachusetts in 2002. So he was strongly pro-choice. So there’s still a lot of Republicans who are skeptical about that.

The problem in—tactically, with this feud with McCain, is that if, if, if you accept the poll that Giuliani’s in front in the first place, and Fred Thompson is next, this is the number three guy fighting it out with the number four guy, and it doesn’t look that good. And people have suggested this could be like Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt in Iowa, just—and it, and it looks a little desperate on the part of McCain.

MR. DIONNE: You know, it’s funny that Romney has pushed his way into his position right now because he’s spent a lot of money in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a Romney guy told me, “You know, he’s not like Mayor Bloomberg in New York. He can’t buy a country, but he can buy a couple of states,” and I think that’s put McCain in a very difficult position. McCain is now falling back on character. He’s trying to say, “Look, I’m always there. I am consistent. This guy, you can’t trust,” and I think character is back is McCain’s best issue.

MR. RUSSERT: Interesting you raise Mayor Bloomberg. Direction of the country. Gene, you brought this up. Look at this. Are we on—going in the right direction? Right track? Nineteen percent. One in five Americans say we’re on the right track. Sixty-eight percent say wrong track.

Here’s the cover of Time magazine coming out. Mayor Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Who Needs Washington?” A suggestion that an independent-minded centrist Republican...

MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: ...one who could run for president, Bloomberg, because he was born here...

MR. ROBINSON: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...Schwarzenegger could not.

MR. ROBINSON: Schwarzenegger can’t.

MR. RUSSERT: But is there a sense that with all the anger at Washington towards both parties and the Republicans having to tack right, the Democrats tacking left, it’s going to open up an opportunity for an independent centrist candidate?

MR. ROBINSON: Who knows? You know, there certainly is the sense all through your poll, your new poll, is the sense that people don’t think things are going very well. They don’t like the president, they don’t like Congress. They’re, you know, they’re kind of—they question most of the candidates to replace the president. Mayor Mike is an, is an intriguing possibility. He, he obviously has the money to, to come in late and to do whatever he wants. And he is acting suspiciously like a candidate.

MR. RUSSERT: He was in New Hampshire the other night because his girlfriend had to go to an alumni dinner, he said.

MR. ROBINSON: Well, of course—of course. What can...

MR. RUSSERT: Where else are you going go on a...

MR. ROBINSON: It’s just a mere coincidence that there’s a primary.

MR. RUSSERT: Before we go, Kate O’Beirne bottom line, right now, who do you think the leading candidates for each nomination are?

MS. O’BEIRNE: I think Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and I think you got a split lead on the Republican side. You’ve got money one place, you’ve got polls in another place, and you’ve got local supporters in another. I think you’ve got a split on the Republican side.

MR. RUSSERT: What do you think?

MR. DIONNE: Right now, Clinton, Thompson.

MR. YORK: Clinton and Giuliani.

MR. ROBINSON: Way too soon to tell. Clinton, Giuliani right now. But I think in both parties, actually, I think it’s fluid.

MR. RUSSERT: And will Mayor Bloomberg run, E.J.?

MR. DIONNE: No, I don’t think so, because his problem is people like me like him too much. He’d split the vote of moderates and liberals and he’d give all the red states for free to the Republicans, and I think he knows that.

MR. RUSSERT: He also doesn’t want to be the spoiler. He knows that Ross Perot got 19 percent of the vote, popular vote, but did not win one electoral vote, and that to him is not having a good time.

MR. DIONNE: Right, and...

MR. RUSSERT: If you’re going to run, you want to win.

MR. DIONNE: He didn’t make all that money by not being a realist. He’s a realist, I think.

MR. RUSSERT: E.J. Dionne, Kate O’Beirne, Gene Robinson, Byron York. We’ll have a lot more with our roundtable during our Father’s Day edition of our MEET THE PRESS Take Two Web extra. We’re going to hear about their dads and give you a chance to talk about yours as well on our Web site this afternoon: mtp.msnbc.com. We’ll be right back.

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MR. RUSSERT: Find out who will be meeting the press on your cell phone. Text MTP to 46833, 46833, and receive weekly alerts on Friday afternoon with Sunday’s MEET THE PRESS guest lineup.

That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

Happy Father’s Day, especially to two great guys: Big Russ up in Buffalo and Big Bill down in Texas. Hang in there, Bucky.

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