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updated 3/23/2008 12:56:54 PM ET 2008-03-23T16:56:54

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  The Federal Reserve cuts interest rates again.  But Wall Street and Main Street are still nervous about talk of recession, bankruptcy, bailouts and more.  What now?  With us, the anchor of CNBC's "Closing Bell," Maria Bartiromo and the anchor of CNBC's "Street Signs," Erin Burnett.

Then, the candidates talk about race, gender, Iraq and delegates.  Insights and analysis from the editor of Newsweek magazine, Jon Meacham; columnist for The Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan; columnist for The Washington Post Eugene Robinson; and political director of NBC News Chuck Todd.

But first, investors and consumers hold their breath as our economy continues on a very rocky ride.  What is the biggest worry, the biggest challenge we face?  Here to put it all in perspective in a meaningful and understandable way, Maria Bartiromo and Erin Burnett, both from CNBC.

Ladies, welcome both.

MS. MARIA BARTIROMO:  Hi there, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT:  Maria, let me start with you.  What is our biggest challenge economically?

MS. BARTIROMO:  Well, our biggest challenge economically right now is the tight credit environment.  From an individual standpoint, it is very tough to get a mortgage, it is very tough to borrow money anymore.  From a business standpoint, the same thing.  I would say one of the key representations of what's happening right now is what happened at Carlyle Capital.  Very simple stuff, Tim.  They had $600 million in assets, they borrowed $22 billion. Doesn't work out.  The math just doesn't work.  And that's exactly what's happening.  People have overextended themselves, businesses as well as consumers, and now we're paying the price.  So the most important issue right now is not a recession, it is the fact that we have an extremely tight credit environment.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is it going to loosen up in the foreseeable future?

MS. ERIN BURNETT:  Well, that is, of course, the--well, let's call it the $14 trillion question, since that's the size of the U.S. economy.  I think, to Maria's point, not immediately.  It's going to be a long, tough road.  And that's why the Fed has pulled out all the stops.  And one of the analogies that I came up with was think about the credit problem like a tumor.  It--and they--right now they are throwing everything at it.  They're doing chemotherapy, they're doing medicines that have never been tried, they're trying the holistic approach.  They're just figuring just throw the kitchen sink at it and hope that that will make things get better, interest rates go down, people start borrowing and lending again.  But it's going to take time, because what you're dealing with here is a huge erosion of trust.  Banks don't trust the people who are borrowing, borrowers don't trust the banks.  And without that key ingredient, you're not going to start having people lend again.

MR. RUSSERT:  Many people watching, Maria, saw Bear Stearns, a venerable institution, practically go under.  Should consumers be worried about other banks, other houses being in financial trouble?

MS. BARTIROMO:  I think the strain on financial services right now is very significant.  I would be hard-pressed to sit here and say we won't see another failure.  Look, Bear Stearns went for such a low valuation because it literally was going out of business.  The, the, the, the alternative was bankruptcy or having this acquisition at such a low valuation.  Yes, banks right now are teetering.  Some of them are certainly teetering.  That's why the Federal Reserve is doing all of these extraordinary actions.  Last week, you cannot underline enough, important enough what the Fed did by opening up the so-called discount window to investment banks.  Typically, that window is only available to commercial banks who have an enormous asset base.  You know, when you're an investment bank and you don't have that asset base, that permanence of funding is very difficult.  You are relying on the markets in terms of funding.  That's why opening the discount window was really critical. I do think that this is cyclical, this too will pass.  We have several more months of probably upset ahead of us in terms of writedowns and losses from the banks.  But, at some point, you are going to see a loosening up of this, given all of the stimulus that's coming out of, out of the Fed and, and the government.

MR. RUSSERT:  Here's the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.  "Compared to four years ago, are you better off or are you worse off?" Forty-three percent of Americans say they're worse off, that's the highest since 1992. Here's the cover of BusinessWeek magazine, "Reluctant Revolutionary:  Where is Bernanke Taking Us?"

On the street, Erin, what are people saying about the Federal Reserve chairman?  Is he doing enough?  Is he up to the task?

MS. BURNETT:  We asked that question to a lot of people and, and the answers that you get on and off the record actually pretty consistent right now.  Most people say, "I wouldn't want that job for any amount of money." I mean, Ben Bernanke is in an incredibly difficult situation.  However, I think most CEOs would say he's, he's now doing the right thing.  He has come out, basically, like I said, "I'm going throw the kitchen sink at this problem.  We, we want to try to get through this crisis." Now, I think one thing that we need to watch for very carefully, and this is why he's stuck between a rock and a hard place, is he's throwing the kitchen sink at the credit problem, but what that's doing is flooding the economy with money.  And maybe you don't see that money now, because we keep talking about the vise that's on the lending problem, but over the next six months or twelve months, that money is going to flood into the system.  And that's where you might start to see a big inflation problem, and some people are critical of Ben Bernanke, because they think that's what he's creating, a big inflation cycle.  That's a big question mark out there, and that might be the demon that we're dealing with in a year.

MS. BARTIROMO:  I really don't think you can blame Ben Bernanke for this, Tim.  You know, I think that he is, as Erin said, throwing the kitchen sink, doing a lot at this point.  And remember, he--he's a new chairman.  You know, so what was put in place before he was actually in the--in, in this role has, has set us up for this.  I actually think he's doing a good job.  And sure, you know, maybe they needed to watch to see how steep things really got before they actually got very aggressive.  But they're certainly aggressive now.

MR. RUSSERT:  What are people on Wall Street telling you?  How nervous are they about what they're seeing?

MS. BURNETT:  The nervousness has increased.  You know, last week, the Treasury secretary, when he was on the "Today" show, said to Matt Lauer, the economy was in sharp decline.  That was a shift.  We had seen the administration more publicly saying the fundamentals of the economy are strong.  They're now, they're now saying, fundamentally over the long term, the economies are strong, that the fundamentals are strong.  But things have changed a little bit, and CEOs are also more concerned.  You know, one of the interviews that, that surprised me recently was several restaurant CEOs--you know, Little Caesars Pizza, Papa John's and Landry's.  They own, say, the cafe--Rainforest Cafe, if you've ever seen that in a mall.  And all of them said over the next 18 months they think things are going to be worse.  And that surprised me, because just a few months ago, they were saying things were all right, or maybe we'll be through this in six months.  The CEOs that deal on the ground with consumers every day are becoming much more negative about the longer term outlook.  That has been significant over the past week.

MR. RUSSERT:  Maria, you talked about the credit crunch, but you mentioned the word recession.  Is there a consensus that we're in a recession?

MS. BARTIROMO:  Probably.  Look, Tim, it doesn't matter what you label it, right?  A recession, sharp slowdown, the bottom line is we're all feeling it. Jobs have been cut, things have slowed down, we are certainly in a sharp slowdown.  Whether it's a recession or not--we could be talking ourselves into a recession, by the way, because all of the headlines and all of the negativity out there...

MS. BURNETT:  Yeah.  That's right.

MS. BARTIROMO:  ...you know, will push us to, to pull in our horns and, and spend less.  So I think that it's--that was sort of last quarter's conversation, and now we're talking about, you know, when this will end and whether or not the markets turn off before the recession.  I'm actually a lot more positive than, than many people out there.  Having said that, you asked the question, how are people on Wall Street feeling?  Nervous.  It's tough, OK?  It's tough out there.  I had the CFO of Lehman on the other day, Erin Callan, and she said, "Maria, this is the toughest I've seen it or anybody who is in the business has seen it for 40 years, like my CEO Dick Fuld." So it's very tough, and yes, it could be a recession.  By the way, we may know more next week when we get the GDP report out on Thursday.  If we see negative growth--because we know that the definition of a recession is two quarters of negative growth.  We haven't seen that yet.  So we don't know that it's a recession.  But as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter.  It doesn't matter what you call it.  This is--this is real...

MS. BURNETT:  Right, it's semantic.

MS. BARTIROMO:  ...and it's a slowdown.

MR. RUSSERT:  Does anyone talk privately of calamity?  A real meltdown?

MS. BURNETT:  Some people do.  There are some, some--one you know, Marc Faber, he edits The Gloom, Doom and Boom report.

MS. BARTIROMO:  Oh god.

MS. BURNETT:  Yeah, right?  All right, there are those out there who will always entertain the Armageddon, cataclysmic scenario.  But it appears, from what the Fed did this week, and I think, you know, Maria was right when she said you can't underestimate the significance of what they did with Bear Stearns and with that discount window that the central banks of the world right now do not want that, and they will do anything to prevent it, and they have the full faith of their governments behind them, and they have the one thing that people may not realize.  They can print money.  They can print money out of it.  And again, that creates problems down the road, but they will do whatever it takes, I believe, at this point to avoid that Armageddon-like situation.

MR. RUSSERT:  An investor, with his portfolio, her portfolio, watching today, what should they be thinking, Maria?

MS. BARTIROMO:  Well, it's always a good time to reassess where your money is.  If you have money in a bank, in a CD, you are insured.  The FDIC is insuring that money.  You are fine.  I don't think you want to look at what's happening right now and have any knee-jerk reactions.  I think you want to save, invest wisely for the long term.  Long term means five, 10, 15, 20 years and beyond.  But it's always a good time to say to yourself, "Well, is my money in an institution that I think is shaky?" Is my money in, in an area where, you know, we could see a reversal of fortune?  And you want to be diversified.  I think so long as you're diversified and you have--you know, I call it the three buckets, putting your money.  Number one bucket, simple savings account.  You're not going to get a great yield, but you know it's safe if life throws you a curve ball.  Number two, 401(k), you must have money for retirement.  And number three, you need to have some money in the bucket of stocks because virtually every asset class will be exceeded by the performance of stocks over the long term.

So I would not be, you know, getting, getting so, you know, knee-jerk reaction and, and nervous over this.  Yes, we're in a downturn, for sure, but everything is cyclical.  This too will pass.  By the way, you asked if people are calling this, you know, a calamity.  Alan Greenspan in an op-ed just last week said that this is the worst since World War II.  So yes, people are certainly nervous about it.

MR. RUSSERT:  I'm not asking you to be political predictors, but there is an election in November.

MS. BARTIROMO:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  Based on your reporting, do you think the economic downturn lasts through November and goes into '09?

MS. BURNETT:  That is a great question.  Right now the consensus forecast, which would include the administration, is that in the second half of this year things turn around.  The economy is once again growing, the administration now projects we could have half a million jobs created over that timeframe.  Many people are more skeptical, and, and it would appear from talking to CEOs in many industries--not just the restaurants, as I mentioned, or even Lehman Brothers, that it will last through the rest of the year.  But I think one crucial thing to remember is the market often looks ahead.  And when the market recognizes there's a recession, historically one year after that the market's up 15, 16 percent.  So you might make money in the market, but as for the overall economy, what voters are going to be dealing with in November, it will likely be an economy that is still in a recession or very close to it.

MR. RUSSERT:  The psychology, so important.  I remember in 1992, the economy grew in the fourth quarter some 4.7 percent, but the perception on Election Day was, "We're in bad economic times."

MS. BURNETT:  Yeah, mm-hmm.

MS. BARTIROMO:  Well, I think that, you know, we are in a slow period, and it will go into the second half, but you have to believe that all of this stimulus will take effect at some point.  In May we'll get those checks from the government, the fiscal stimulus package.  Rates keep coming down.  You know, the, the banks are seeing an ease up by this liquidity from the Fed.  I, I suspect that by the second half of the year we see a little ease up.  But most people are predicting that the--this does go into '09, actually.  I think, though, the market will obviously trade up a lot sooner than that.

MR. RUSSERT:  Final thoughts?

MS. BURNETT:  One positive thing out there.  Everyone talks about the weak dollar as a sign of weakness in the U.S. economy.  Big picture, you can't really disagree with that, Tim, but when you look at it day to day, the weak dollar has been stimulating the one part of this economy that's still growing--exports.  It's cheap for everyone that lives everywhere else in the world to buy American-made products.  So about 12 percent of our economy is exports, and it is booming.  And it's cheaper here right now for other companies, so BMW's opening plants in the United States, Honda's opening plants in the United States and creating jobs.  So the weak dollar, the weak economy is creating an opportunity in and of itself.

MR. RUSSERT:  Final thoughts?

MS. BARTIROMO:  Well, the situation at Bear Stearns is really a tragedy. Shareholders, employees, they're wiped out because of this $2-a-share bid. But oftentimes situations, events like this takeover of Bear Stearns often represent a bottom.  I would not be surprised if we have seen the worst at this point in terms of hard, hard economic times.

MR. RUSSERT:  To be continued.  Thank you for your expertise, ladies.

MS. BURNETT:  Good to see you, Tim.

MS. BARTIROMO:  Thanks, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT:  Good to have you here.

Coming next, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Barack Obama.  They speak out on race and gender, Iraq and more.  Our roundtable is next.  Jon Meacham, Peggy Noonan, Gene Robinson, Chuck Todd all coming up right here only on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Our political roundtable:  Jon Meacham of Newsweek, Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal, Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, Chuck Todd of NBC News, all after this station break.

MR. RUSSERT:  And we're back.  Joining us now in New York, Jon Meacham of Newsweek, Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal.  Here in Washington, Gene Robinson of The Washington Post and Chuck Todd of NBC News.

Welcome all.  What a week in American politics and culture and in society. Barack Obama spoke to the nation on Tuesday, responding to some tapes about--from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright.  Let's watch the tape of Reverend Wright which forced a response and a discussion of race by Senator Obama. Here's Reverend Wright.

(Videotape, September 16, 2001)

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT:  We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye.  We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards.  America's chickens coming home to roost.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  And here's Senator Obama in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

(Videotape)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL):  Given my background, my politics and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough.  Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask.  Why not join another church?  And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television sets and YouTube, if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.  I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Peggy Noonan, after the speech you wrote this:  "It was a good speech and a serious one.  I don't know if it will help him.  We're in uncharted territory.  ...  My sense:  The speech will be labeled by history as the speech that saved a candidacy or the speech that helped do it in." Reflecting now, a few days later, what's your sense?

MS. PEGGY NOONAN:  Oh, my sense, Tim, was that he made a good beginning. There are people who've been running around saying, "Oh, does this solve the, the question of race in America?" and "Does this solve all of his problems, Obama's problems in that area?" I don't think so.  But I think it is a good beginning.  I think he'll have a lot more that, that he'll have to be saying, and maybe all that--all of us will have to be saying a lot.  Maybe this'll be the beginning of a conversation.

I'll tell you in general, I feel that the 2008 election year had been getting a little grubby, it had been getting a little low.  There was race-baiting going on in South Carolina, there's this name-calling going on here.  I think Obama came forward and he added some height and some grace to the political conversation by trying to talk seriously and at some length and in a nonapplause-lined speech about the problem of race in America.  I think this was good, and, and I give him a lot of credit for a speech that tried to be frank.  At the same time, I don't know how it's going to work for him in a political way.  We are in uncharted territory.

MR. RUSSERT:  Gene Robinson, there has been a lot of--obviously, a lot of praise, this speech, but also a lot of criticism.  Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post wrote this:  "The question is why didn't he leave that church? Why didn't he leave--why doesn't he leave even today--a pastor who thundered not once but three times from the pulpit (on a DVD the church proudly sells) "God damn America"?  Obama's 5,000-word speech, fawned over as a great meditation on race, is little more than an elegantly crafted, brilliantly sophistic justification of that scandalous dereliction.  ...  Obama ...  waxes rhapsodic about the hope brought by the new consciousness of the young people in his campaign.  Then answer this, Senator:  If Wright is a man of the past, why would you expose your children to" this "vitriolic divisiveness?  ...  It is not just the older congregants who stand and cheer and roar in wild approval of Wright's rants, but young people as well.  Why did you give $22,500 just two years ago to a church run by a man of the past who infects the younger generation with precisely the racial attitudes and animus you say you have come unto us to transcend?"

MR. EUGENE ROBINSON:  Well, you know, at--first of all, I thought it was an extraordinary speech.  Why doesn't he leave the Reverend Wright?  You know, Reverend Wright has been portrayed in, in--throughout this whole thing as, as a, as some sort of exotic fringe figure who no one had ever heard of before, and those snippets have been portrayed as the, the whole of his ministry. Neither is true.  Later in the week, a photograph surfaced of the Reverend Wright at the White House being received by, by Bill Clinton at prayer breakfast the day the Starr report was, was released.  The point of which is he was not a fringe figure.  He was very well known in Chicago and elsewhere as a prominent clergyman whose, whose ministry is not fully represented by those snippets that, that keep, as Senator Obama said, running in a loop. Obviously, he's a man who's been very important to him spiritually and perhaps politically over the years, and, and I think, you know, that's a personal choice not to, not to leave the, the congregation.  The political effect on the Obama candidacy, you know, the jury is not in yet.  But what, what we do know so far is that he seems to have survived this, it, it, it appears.  Now, you--we can't say long term, but there's a new CBS poll that shows essentially it was kind of a, kind of a wash, that the speech did help, and equal numbers say they're more likely or less likely to vote for Obama.  And, and he's back up in the, in the Gallup tracking poll again.  He's, he's changed places with Hillary Clinton again.  So, so, you know, again, it doesn't seem to have been a disaster for him politically the way it, it appeared it might be earlier in the week.

MR. RUSSERT:  Jon Meacham, looking at the week, the comments by Reverend Wright, Barack Obama's speech, then subsequent to that, Barack Obama criticized for talking about his grandmother and defending his comments, he made the notion of a, a--described her as a typical white person which, which reignited another debate discussion.  What's your sense reflecting on what we've seen play out on the issue of race and politics in this country over the last week?

MR. JON MEACHAM:  My sense is that Senator Obama has put out the tactical fire for the moment, that he has, in fact, delivered, as Peggy was saying, as Gene said, a, a really, I think, interesting speech about this.  But it was one speech, and we are looking at a long general election campaign in which what the tape you just played is going to be played a great deal.  And I would argue that, tactically, in pure political terms, what happened to Senator Obama this week is, A, we learned that if he walks across Lake Michigan, he might sink actually...

MS. NOONAN:  Hm.

MR. MEACHAM:  ...which had not been the impression in many quarters of the country before now.  And secondly, that he is a--becoming much more conventional Democratic nominee for a general election season.  You can see now a more plausible way that Republicans or Obama's opponents can talk about how he, Senator Obama, is outside the mainstream without appearing to go too far, because there's no question that, I think, in my opinion, that Reverend Wright's remarks are outside the mainstream.  And whether this affects his path to the nomination or not, I don't know.  It's, it's a hard mathematical task for Senator Clinton to overcome.

But I think that we've learned, too, that in comments about--just how much words matter--I mean, that sounds obvious, but, when he said "typical white person," when he talks about how the--he hears one thing in the black world, one thing in the white world, he's making a very sophisticated and, and important point.  And we should all be willing, I think, to have a listen as carefully as he spoke in Philadelphia.  Because race is, is a, is an immensely complicated thing.  This is, as he put it, our original sin.  Nativism is our second sin.  So he called us, I think, to some extent, to be nuanced about something that requires nuance.  And I think that, politically, I think the country responded that way, and I'm--found it to be a rather cheerful week in that way.

MR. RUSSERT:  Peggy Noonan, as we know, Barack Obama's father was black, his mother was white.  He's able to see both races through his eyes, a part of his own experience.  Gene Robinson wrote this this week about something Obama said.

"Obama called on African-Americans to embrace `the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past,'" "to take `full responsibility for our own lives.' And he's absolutely right.

"This amounts to a new set of talking points for a discussion about race: Don't be paralyzed by history, but acknowledge its affects.  Recognize that whites have legitimate grievances that are not racist.  Don't cling to victimhood as an all-purpose excuse.  Accept personal responsibility."

Is Obama uniquely situated to talk bluntly to both the white community and the black community?

MS. NOONAN:  Maybe he's situated to speak with a certain sensitivity.  He's a black man.  He also is white.  He is both.  That means he has experience of both communities, if that isn't too clunky a word to use.  Let me take--say, Tim, I thought one of the most important things that he did in his speech was talk about racism even though he started with slavery, and that was a long time ago.  He talked about racism as a generational problem, as a problem that had changed over the years.  He said Reverend Wright came from the Jim Crow days, he came from another America, and he was shaped and misshapen by that dreadful cultural arrangement of Jim Crow.  Younger black people and younger white people do not have the same experiences.  They have to understand each other, they have to mark their progress, they have to, on both sides, stop using the past as an excuse not to get along or, or not to change and improve. So I haven't heard anybody say that in, in politics in some time in America. I thought it was a real insight, really smart and the beginning of a wonderful start-off point for, for more talk.

Let me say something else, though.  It seems to me, every time I look at a YouTube of Reverend Wright talking and doing his thing and saying his strange things, I notice two things.  One is that the people behind him look bored. Another is that frequently, not always, but when they pan to the crowd, his audience looks almost passive, like we are receiving this, we're hearing this, we know what's going on.  It seemed to me that in his statements, Wright was not just extreme, radical--we all know the words to say, because they are true--but that he was a throwback.  He was old-fashioned.  He himself was the voice of yesterday.  And I was wondering about the extent to which that audience and people like Barack and Michelle Obama know he is yesterday, and yet he has some wonderful things within him as a human being.  I just throw that open as a possibility.

MR. RUSSERT:  Chuck Todd, all this discussion in the context of a presidential campaign.

MR. CHUCK TODD:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  Bill Clinton was on the campaign stump on Friday talking, his staff says, about the need to focus on issues rather than these kinds of things that sometimes surface in a campaign.  These are the words that President Clinton used to say that.  Here they are.

(Videotape)

FMR. PRES. BILL CLINTON:  I think it'd be a great thing if we had an election you--where you had two people who love this country and were devoted to the interest of the country and people could actually ask themselves who's right on these issues instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Suggesting a race between John McCain and Hillary Clinton would do that.  General Tony McPeak, the co-chair of the Obama campaign, former chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, took great umbrage at that and said this:  "I think it's horrible.  I'm really disappointed because I worked for President Clinton, you know?  ...  We know Barack Obama, don't we?  Do we think Barack Obama loves America?  Is this stupid or what?  ...  It sounds more like McCarthy.  I grew up, I was going to college when Joe McCarthy was accusing good Americans of being traitors, so I've had enough of it." Later, the next day, McPeak went on to say he was saddened to see the former president employing these tactics.  Big issue?

MR. TODD:  Well, it's interesting.  One thing we've learned in this campaign is that General McPeak can be angry, and he's got one very sharp tongue.  But I do think that there is a challenge here for Obama that sort of President Clinton was laying out there a little bit, and it's almost become--it's become his own commander in chief test, and that is how is he going to become a candidate that isn't always stuck talking about race, but then can pivot and start talking about the economy, going back to talk about the war, something he tried to do this week.  Of course, we're not talking about either of his speeches on Wednesday or Thursday.  One was on Iraq, one was on the economy, but we're still talking about Tuesday's speech on race.  And I think that was the message that, that Bill Clinton was saying, you know, because one of the things about race in this country is that most people don't want to talk about it.  It's an uncomfortable conversation.  White people don't want to be reminded of their past sins, and they don't want to have it--and that was almost the subtle message that I was receiving, I thought, when President Clinton said that, which was, "You know what?  We won't have to have that conversation.  We won't have to have that debate.  We, we can just have this debate--a, a normal debate on the issues." Of course, the idea that President Clinton, who's been a distraction for his wife's campaign this whole time, is somehow saying, "Oh, this won't be a campaign with distractions to it," is kind of amusing.  But I think that that was the, that was the message I got from it was just sort of if it's Obama-McCain, you know we're going to have these uncomfortable issues cropping up that isn't about what Americans care about right now.

MR. RUSSERT:  Gene Robinson, what did you take from President Clinton's comments?

MR. ROBINSON:  You know, I think Bill Clinton can't help himself, you know, in, in, in a way.  I mean, I, I did take it as more or less as General McPeak took it.  I mean, I thought it was deliberate, the, the use of the "who love their country" construction in, in that.  And, and, and I think Chuck is right that he was suggesting that, well, we can have a debate without all this, this messy race stuff.  But, but I, you know, I think it was a dig at, at the Reverend Wright comments.  I'm not sure that--you know, Bill Clinton is a political being and, and I, and I think an opening like that comes up and I don't think he could even help himself.  And, you know, it blew back at him immediately.  In the long run, it doesn't do anything good for Hillary Clinton's campaign.  But I don't--you know, I think it was just almost instinct that he, that he, you know, you see something like that, "Boy, I can, I can say this," and, and, without even thinking about--thinking through the implications of it.

MR. RUSSERT:  The Obama campaign tried to end the week on the high note with the endorsement of the Obama candidacy by Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, former presidential candidate, former ambassador to the UN in the Clinton administration and secretary of energy.  Here's Governor Richardson endorsing Barack Obama.

(Videotape)

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D-NM):  Senator Obama has started a discussion in this country that is long overdue, and rejects the politics of pitting race against race.  He understands that clearly, by only bringing people together and by bridging our differences, can we succeed together as Americans.

Barack Obama, you're a leader who has shown courage, judgment and wisdom throughout the years.  You understand the security challenges of the 21st Century, and you will be an outstanding commander in chief.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  John Meacham, the Obama campaign hopes the voters take from that the nation's only Hispanic governor endorsing Barack Obama, someone who has had some foreign policy experience, worked for the Clintons, endorsing Barack Obama.  Was that a big event in the campaign or simply a way to change the subject from the discussion of race?

MR. MEACHAM:  I think it was a big event, because I think Governor Richardson represents a kind of superdelegate conventional wisdom at the moment, and I think that whether anyone actually votes because--votes for Obama because Bill Richardson said to or not, it was an indicator that the establishment, such as it is, in the Democratic Party these days, I think, believes that Senator Clinton probably will not figure out how to overcome the mathematical gap and win the nomination.  I would read this as--in, in a purely tactical way, that Governor Richardson was getting on what he thinks to be is the winning bandwagon.

MR. RUSSERT:  Peggy Noonan, thoughts on Bill Clinton, Bill Richardson?

MS. NOONAN:  I, I am struck by how, how with his beard, Bill Richardson looks like Rod Steiger in Dr. Zhivago.  He has startled me.  I was saying, "That's not Bill Richardson.  And who in the heck is that guy?"

Look, you know what I think the Richardson thing means, seriously, Tim?  It means that this wonderful voodoo magic thing that the Clintons have, that they are always in control, that they run the Democratic Party, that no matter what is happening on the ground or who's winning this race or the popular vote or getting the elected delegates, they're in charge, they're really secretly plugged in, they got secret wires that they're pulling, they will triumph. When a Bill Richardson comes forward, it just reminds you, the Clintons may not be in charge.  They may not be pulling the wires in this race.  Indeed, that may be a sort of magic voodoo thing that they've got out there, that they're always in control and in charge, and little by little, day by day, we see, "My gosh, that's not true.  She's not winning in the popular vote.  She's not winning in the delegate count." She may not be able to win at the end of the day after Pennsylvania, etc., and the popular vote.  So it's just another little sign that this thing is not wired and interesting things can still happen.

MR. RUSSERT:  Chuck Todd, Hillary Clinton released--had some documents released about her experience as first lady, which brought up again her foreign policy experience as she has articulated it.  Here she was last Monday, talking about a trip she made to Bosnia in 1996, suggesting they sent her rather than her husband because of the danger involved.  And here she is.

(Videotape)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY):  I remember landing under sniper fire.  There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead, we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Yesterday in a column called "Factchecker" by Michael Dobbs in The Washington Post, Dobbs wrote this:  "Clinton's tale of landing at the Tuzla airport `under sniper fire' and then running for cover is simply not credible.  Photographs and video of the arrival ceremony, combined with contemporaneous news reports, tell a very different story.  Four Pinocchios." Which is the highest you can get, which means a whopper in terms of exaggeration.  Now, the Clinton campaign has responded by having a speechwriter who was with Hillary Clinton saying, in fact, it was a dangerous situation.  And General Nash, who had told Michael Dobbs there was no sniper fire, said that he was aware of some security concerns, but The Post stands by the four Pinocchios.  The credibility issue, truth telling, is this a problem for Senator Clinton?

MR. TODD:  Well, it's been--the thing, the nagging thing throughout this whole campaign.  When you ask that question of honest and trustworthy, she has always consistently scored lower than Obama, though I am curious what things are going to look like next week, because now, as John Meacham put it, Obama's mortal, and now he is going to be viewed as just another politician.  And so how much does he take a hit, for instance, on that one question.  But I, for the life of me, haven't understood why they have pushed this story.  They knew that, well, somebody went after and reinterviewed Sinbad, who was on that trip, the former comedian, and I put "comedian" in quotes, that he was on that trip and doesn't remember it being that harried or anything like that, and yet she went out and, and retold the story.  They have an, an amazing sometimes, with the, the Clinton campaign, where they continue to push something like the, the Ireland thing, which was, her role in the Irish peace process, there appears to be that she certainly played some role or she was involved with it, but what was it?  And they, they seem to, to push it.  They didn't need to retell this story because, if they had not, then they wouldn't have gotten this four Pinocchio thing under The Washington Post and given the Obama's campaign something to, to hit them with.

MR. RUSSERT:  All this obviously is part of what superdelegates are discussing, as Peggy Noonan and Jon Meacham and others have talked about. Let's go through these numbers very carefully.  Here are the superdelegates as of now.  Obama has 218; Clinton has 255.  Since--in--on Super Tuesday it was 170, Obama; 260, Clinton.  Obama's gained 48 since Super Tuesday.  Clinton has lost five.  In terms of elected delegates, Obama has 1408, Clinton 1251.  When you add the superdelegates, it's 1626 to 1506, a lead of 120 for Obama.

Contests won, it's 28, Obama; 14, Clinton.  The cumulative popular vote for all the contests, 13.4 million to 12.7 million.

Chuck Todd, you've been scrubbing these numbers.  If things play out the way people...

MR. TODD:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ..the way people believe in Pennsylvania and so forth, will Barack Obama go to the convention with more elected delegates, more contests won and higher cumulative popular vote?

MR. TODD:  Definitely on the more contests won.  That's done.  We're at 28. There's 10 left.  She could win them all, and she's not going to catch up there.  So that, that one he can put aside.  The popular vote thing, it's tough.  It's tough for her to catch up.  Is it plausible?  Yes.  Is it probable?  No.  In this sense, she'd have to win Pennsylvania by some 20 points, two million turnout, that would net her 200,000 or 300,000 votes there.  But then she has to win--I, I think the tricky thing here is, is, which one of them wins on turf they shouldn't be winning on?  Obviously, if Obama won Pennsylvania, race is over, she'd probably be out by May 1st.  That does--that seems unlikely.  What if she wins North Carolina?  You know, I was talking with one, one person who said--I said, "If Hillary Clinton's the nominee, that means she won what?" And this person said, "North Carolina or Oregon, and probably North Carolina." That means that she--somehow that this, whatever downturn Obama experienced last week meant, it means it continued and that they aren't just sitting there trading serves, you know, holding their, holding their own but not being able to win on the other turf.  So I think at this point, forget--she's not going to pass him in elected delegates.  She's not going to pass--probably pass him in popular vote.  So the question now is, can she start beating him in enough places and, and basically make it so that he can't win in a--you know, she beats him in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana, Oregon, where she's got all the momentum, then the superdelegates might wake up and say, "Uh oh.  We've got a problem."

MR. RUSSERT:  Gene Robinson, if, in fact, it ended that way with "momentum" for Hillary Clinton, even though Barack Obama had more elected delegates, what happens to the Democratic Party?

MR. ROBINSON:  Then, you--then, then "Houston, we have a problem," or "Denver, we have a problem." It's--I think, is--it's--that's a nightmare scenario for the party, I think, because that would put the superdelegates in a position of, of you know, wondering if they were essentially forfeiting an election if they didn't go with Hillary Clinton or if they were, you know, tearing the party apart if they didn't go with Barack Obama.  I, you know, I tend to think, in the final analysis, they're going to go with the pledged delegates because I don't, I don't think there is a stomach among the superdelegates for, for, you know, what going the other way would, would cause in the party, perhaps kind of tearing apart a coalition that has held together for some time.  It could be very ugly.  But again, that's a, that's a ways past.  That would, that would assume that she develops a kind of momentum that is, is not now likely.  We'll see, unless everything changed this week or unless everything changes next week, I think, we probably won't get there.

MR. TODD:  May 6th is the D-Day.  We will know where this race is going on May 6th.  May 6th is North Carolina, Indiana.  If they split, Obama's probably going to be the nominee.  If one of them sweeps, the race will probably end the, the, the race will end the next day if Obama sweeps.  And if she sweeps, he's got a huge problem.

MR. RUSSERT:  John and Peggy, looking at this debate within the Democratic Party, what's your sense of where we are and where we're headed?  Is there a way for this Democratic Party to unify after this kind of primary, and are we in a situation where, in order for Hillary Clinton to be successful and appeal to the superdelegates, she has to win a nomination even though she won fewer elected delegates?

Jon, why don't you go first?

MR. MEACHAM:  Well, my sense of--at every point in this race, Senator Clinton has benefited from a kind of, if not a majority, a silent big plurality of largely female voters who have stepped in at different points and said, "No, not yet with Senator Obama, and we're going to register our belief in her, and her capacity to deal with issues that we believe in strongly." And I think Chuck's exactly right.  I mean, what, what some Clinton people have said to me is they have to win someplace they weren't expected to win, and then they could begin to make that argument.  I think, depending on where you end up with the, as you were saying, the popular vote, or the pledged delegates, you do have the capacity for a kind of corrupt bargain charge, echoes of 1824, which I think we should always be talking about every Easter.  I apologize for that.  But that was when...

MR. RUSSERT:  Jon, 1824, tell us who it was, quickly.

MR. MEACHAM:  Oh, very quickly, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, Henry Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams.  Adams becomes president.  Four years later, running on a, running on a campaign saying, "That was a corrupt bargain," Jackson takes over, founds the modern Democratic Party, and here we sit.  So...

MR. RUSSERT:  And you were, you were there to see it all.  I love it all.

MR. MEACHAM:  We, we, we put Jackson on the cover that week.  But, but, but I do think you have, to be serious, you, you do have a problem of--I think you may have a--if, if Senator Clinton were to overcome this gap, my pure opinion, my guess, based on a couple conversations, is you do have a chance where a lot of Obama voters might not support her in the general election, but I don't think there are any Senator--I don't think there are any Clinton voters who would not support Senator Obama, and I think that's, for the Democratic Party, that's a pretty interesting question going forward.

MR. RUSSERT:  Peggy, take a crack at that.  What's your sense?

MS. NOONAN:  Yeah, I think--I know that Mrs. Clinton is surrounded by people who would adore the chance to be for Obama.  I, I know one of, one of her top aides who kind of privately makes it clear that he knows that he, himself, is an insurgent character, and that it would be wonderful to be part of Obama's insurgency.  But he is where he is, he's backing Mrs. Clinton.  But look, her people'll go for Obama just fine.  I don't think Obama's people go for Mrs. Clinton just fine.  So that's where it's going to be down the road, I think. Short term, there's this funny abstract sense that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, at the moment, are sort of equal or, or neck and neck.  One of them has to come forward.  I think Obama was looking like the leader in the past month and a half.  He's got to come forward as the leader again in some way so that people look at him and realize, "He's the one who's coming down the pike." He's lost that a little bit.  He'll get a chance to, to do that in the next few races.  My sense of Mrs. Clinton's position is that she's either got to hold on to middle-aged, ethnic, middle and working class women, and that's the only way for her to go, and possibly win; or she has to do terrible, personal, killing damage towards Senator Obama and just keep knocking this guy down.  I think she is communicating symbolically each day with, with her superdelegates, who, at the end of the day, are going to be very important to her.  She's trying to show them that she's a winner.  She's trying to show them she's the only one who can really pull this off.

MR. RUSSERT:  Yes.

MR. MEACHAM:  Can I say one...

MR. RUSSERT:  Go ahead, John.

MR. MEACHAM:  One more historic--sorry.  From 1824 to 1976, very quickly, which I think is the last time where actually a primary battle did have an impact on a general election.  I know that President Ford, after the very divisive battle with Reagan in '76, President Ford very much wanted Reagan to campaign more for him, particularly in southern Ohio.  It's always Ohio.  And President--Governor Reagan, then, was more reluctant to do that, and I know that, until his death, President Ford believed that if Reagan had done more for him in a couple parts of different states that that would have made the difference in 1976.  I think if somehow or another Senator Clinton is in the Ford role, you might actually see a primary battle having an impact on a general election, which doesn't happen very much.

MR. RUSSERT:  Chuck Todd, John McCain has been traveling in Europe and in the Middle East.

MR. TODD:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  Had some problems when he was in Jordan, he talked about al-Qaeda being trained by the Iranians.

MR. TODD:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  And then, then Lindsey Graham, who he was with, and then Joe Lieberman both tried to say to him, al-Qaeda is Sunni, not trained by the Shiite Iranian government.  Does that kind of stumble hurt a McCain candidacy?

MR. TODD:  Well, what's odd about the, the stumble is that it--is it a stumble or was it, or was it that this talking point that he'd been, that he'd been using for actually a couple weeks or over a week, where he was talking about sort of almost blurring that the, the enemy of al-Qaeda and the enemy of the, the Shia-trained Iranians and sort of blurring them as one enemy.  And the, the question is, did he just sort of--he truncated it to the point where he ended up misspeaking.  The, the problem, of course, McCain has is that he can't, you know, he doesn't want to make it so that he, he forgot it for a minute.  You know, he's--because of the age issue, he can't ever look like he's having a senior moment.  So instead, he's better off going ahead and saying, you know, OK, so he misspoke.  Even if he gets dinged on the experience stuff, "Oh, he says he's Mr. Experience.  Doesn't he know the difference between this stuff?" He's got enough of that in the bank, at least with the media, that he can get away with it.  I mean, the irony to this is had either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama misspoke like that, it'd have been on a running loop, and it would become a, a big problem for a couple of days for them.

MR. RUSSERT:  Gene Robinson, the fifth anniversary of the war marked this week.  Martha Raddatz of ABC asked Dick Cheney about the fact that two-thirds of American people have real reservations about Iraq, and the vice president's answer was, "So?" And then went on to say we--we're not going to be governed by opinion polls.

Tom Davis, the retiring member of Congress, said that the Republican brand is in real trouble because of the war...

MR. ROBINSON:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...going into the fall election.

MR. ROBINSON:  You know, it, it remains an unpopular war, and I, and I think people don't understand, at least the way I interpret it, is that it, it is, it is entirely possible that most Americans believe the surge has had an impact on the war, has had a favorable impact and still don't like the war and still want the troops to come home.  Those things are not mutually exclusive.

MR. RUSSERT:  But don't want to lose the war.

MR. ROBINSON:  Well, don't want to lose the war but might define winning and losing in a, in a way that's different from the way John McCain would define it.  But I, you know, I think there's, there's inherently a problem in, in running on a, on a position on the war that essentially says, "We're going to keep 140, 150, however many thousand troops in Iraq indefinitely, for five years, for 10 years, for a hundred years." I think that's a problem for McCain.  And, and the fact that he and, and Dick Cheney were in the region at the same time, it looked almost coordinated, and then Dick Cheney says, "So?" That's, you know, that's not good for him.

MR. RUSSERT:  And the alternative will be, but we can't withdraw and let Iraq go into chaos.  And the debate, big one on this.

MR. ROBINSON:  But we want to think about withdrawing sometime soon.

MR. RUSSERT:  This November.

Economy and Iraq, Chuck Todd, all coming our way.

MR. TODD:  It's, it's going to be crazy, but...

MR. RUSSERT:  Gene Robinson, Peggy Noonan, Jon Meacham, thank you all.  We'll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  That's all for today.  We'll be back next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.  Happy Easter.

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