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updated 4/20/2008 12:17:46 PM ET 2008-04-20T16:17:46

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  Another testy Clinton-Obama debate. Obama tries to brush off critical reviews of his debate performance, while the Clinton campaign continues to pound away. All eyes on Pennsylvania this Tuesday.  And in two weeks, Indiana and North Carolina.  With us, for Barack Obama, his campaign’s chief strategist, David Axelrod.  For Hillary Clinton, he replaced Mark Penn as her campaign’s chief strategist, Geoff Garin.  Obama’s Axelrod, Clinton’s Garin—the chief strategists square off, only on MEET THE PRESS.

Then, insights and analysis from David Brooks of The New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, and Michele Norris of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

But first, two days until the Pennsylvania primary.  We’re joined by the top strategists from each campaign, David Axelrod of team Obama, Geoff Garin of team Clinton.

Welcome, both.

MR. GEOFF GARIN:  Thanks, Tim.

MR. DAVID AXELROD:  Thanks, Tim.  Good to be here.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let’s go to the board and look at the very latest poll from MSNBC, McClatchy and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  There it is, Pennsylvania: Clinton, 48; Obama, 43.  A Clinton lead of five.  Other polls last week, Indiana:  Obama, 40; Clinton, 35.  North Carolina:  Obama, 47; Clinton, 34. Here’s the latest delegate count, elected delegates:  Obama, 1417; Clinton, 1251.  A lead of 166.  Superdelegates:  Obama, 236; Clinton, 262.  A lead of 26 for Hillary Clinton.  Add those together, 1653 to 1513, 140 delegate lead for Barack Obama.  Contests won, Obama’s won 28; Clinton, 14.  Total cumulative votes cast in the primaries and caucuses:  13.4 million for Obama, 12.7 million for Clinton.  Obama advantage of 699,000.

Looking at those numbers, Geoff Garin, what is Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination?  How does she win?

MR. GARIN:  Well, step by step is the short answer, as we’ve got 10 contests left, starting with Pennsylvania on Tuesday.  We recognize that we have to show up well in all of those contests.  But we’re going to let the process play through.  The process has been good for the Democratic Party.  We are gaining new Democratic registrants every day.  People are excited.  People say that, that, that there is a view among Democratic voters that this is a process that should go on.  People care much more about getting it right than getting it done.  And, you know, we’ll go through to June 3rd.  I think at that point it’ll be a very, very close election.  Neither candidate’s going to have enough pledged delegates to win the nomination to have the 2200-plus that are needed.  And we’ll see where we are, and the, and the, and the party leaders and elected officials will then start to exercise their good judgment about what’s in the best interest not just of the party, but of the country in terms of who will make the best, strongest president for America.

MR. RUSSERT:  But if you crunch the numbers and even assume that Hillary Clinton wins Pennsylvania by 10 points...

MR. GARIN:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...with two million voters turning out, she would gain 200,000 cumulative popular votes in that total.  It’s very difficult to find a way where she’ll have more elected vote—delegates, she’ll have less popular cumulative vote, she’ll have won fewer contests.  How do you then say, “Nominate me and not the other guy, who has more delegates, more popular vote and won more contests”?

MR. GARIN:  Well, there, there’s more to this process.  The—look, the superdelegates as they’re called are—this is not about a back room deal. These are people who are elected officials.  They are elected party representatives.  They’re going to—in, in the, in the clear light of day, both candidates, I think, will make a case to them about why they’re the best choice for the party and for the country.  But the, the reality is is that neither candidate will have enough pledged delegates when the last votes are count—are cast on June 3rd, and we will go from there.

There, there is not—there is no need to make a rush to judgment here. The—to me, in, in some respects, the—there’s an analogy in what happened in November 2000 when, after the close count in Florida, all of these people were wringing their hands saying, “Oh my gosh, we have a constitutional crisis on our hands.  We’ve got to get this done quickly.” The voters were saying, “No, slow down.  Let’s, let’s get it right.  Let’s let the process play through.” And they showed great good sense then.  And that’s what Democratic voters are saying now.  “There is a process; let it play through.  Let the people speak.” We’ll see where we are on June 3rd.  There is not—there’s not a, a problem here.  And Senator Obama has said the same thing.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, look, I agree with Geoff that there has been something very positive about this contest.  We’ve brought more Democrats out than at anytime in recent memory.  There’s great enthusiasm within the party, but to say that we shouldn’t have a rush to judgment, I mean, we’ve been at this for 15 months.  We’ve been through, you know, 40-some-odd primaries.

Now, look, I don’t believe that, that anyone should tell Senator Clinton to get out of the race.  She has to make that decision, and as long as she feels she has a reasonable chance to win the nomination, you know, I understand her continuing.  She’s poured herself into this.  She’s a formidable candidate and a formidable person.  But if the strategy ultimately becomes, “We can’t win the, the delegate count, we really can’t win the nomination on the legit, so we’re going to apply the kitchen sink strategy and tear down Senator Obama and see if we can destroy him in order to advance our own candidacy,” that is damaging.  That is bad for the party.  So if—let’s move forward.  But let’s move forward in a positive, constructive way that serves the purposes of the country and the party and not John McCain and a continuation of these Bush policies.

MR. GARIN:  I, I, I agree with that, Tim, but I, I don’t think that, you know, that’s what the Obama campaign says.  I, I honestly don’t think it’s, it’s what it does.  They—talk about the kitchen sink, just this weekend they’re out there with two new negative ads.  They held a—Senator Obama said at the debate the other day that they only deal with Bosnia when asked.  I think they held their fourth conference call on Bosnia the other day, which their—one of their spokespeople said that Senator Clinton lacks the—this is the quote, “lacks the moral authority to lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier on Memorial Day.” When has anybody in the Clinton campaign said anything like that about...

MR. AXELROD:  Well, there was the time—well, first of all, we, we...

MR. GARIN:  About Barack Obama.  David says that Hillary has, “a special interest obsession.” David Plouffe says “one of the most secretive politicians in America.” This is not—I’m, we’re—we want a go ahead and have a good, fair discussion of the issues facing the country, but we really don’t want to play by two sets of rules.  It’s not fair.

MR. AXELROD:  Look, first of all, we repudiate—that was a terrible thing that, that soldier, that veteran said on that phone call, and it was reminiscent of the time that someone on a conference call for your campaign compared our health care plan to Nazi Germany, and Howard Wolfson rightly repudiated that.  We repudiate this.  You can’t control the way your...

MR. GARIN:  But that—you were...(unintelligible)...you weren’t even holding...(unintelligible).

MR. AXELROD:  Just, just, just let me finish, Geoff.  Just let me—just let me, let me, let me...

MR. GARIN:  You said you were only answering when asked.

MR. AXELROD:  Let me finish.

MR. GARIN:  Sorry.

MR. AXELROD:  The, the, the so-called negative ads you’re talking about are a, a response spot to a negative ad that was put on the air in Pennsylvania by a group called The American Leadership Project, one of these 527 so-called independent campaigns, funded by the Clinton campaign, run by Clinton operatives, a negative ad against Senator Obama.  The response spot dealt with Senator Clinton briefly, and 20 percent, 20 seconds of it was a positive exploitation of Senator Obama’s program.

But the, you know, as long as we’re on the subject, and I don’t want to dwell on this, the, the, you—did you not put a negative ad on this weekend in Philadelphia?  The--100 percent negative ad attacking Senator Obama?

MR. GARIN:  No.  I don’t believe we did.

MR. AXELROD:  Yeah, you did.  Go back and check with your people, and it was, it’s an ad on lobbying, and it’s circulating...

MR. GARIN:  It’s not.  It, it ends up, I believe, with...

MR. AXELROD:  No, no, it’s 100 percent negative ad, Geoff.  Go back and ask your people.  I understand you’re new in the campaign, and I love you, man, you’re a good friend of mine.  I know you to be a good, positive person.

MR. GARIN:  Right.

MR. AXELROD:  But I think that there’s some vestiges of the old regime still in place.

MR. GARIN:  Well, look, when, when, when...

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me just cut through this, Geoff Garin...

MR. AXELROD:  OK.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...because I remember Senator Clinton saying that she was qualified to be commander and chief, John McCain was qualified to be commander and chief, but she withheld judgment as to whether Barack Obama is qualified to be commander and chief.  Is that appropriate?

MR. GARIN:  Well, look, I mean, she said in the debate the other day, yes, yes, yes, that he can be elected, but, look, I’m not a—I just don’t understand why that that’s the question for Senator Clinton when, when Senator Obama says that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the sense that things need to change in Washington.  Why isn’t the question to Barack Obama, will Hillary Clinton, if elected, make the kinds of changes we need in the country today? There, there, there, there...

MR. RUSSERT:  There’s the question.  What’s the answer?

MR. GARIN:  There ought to be a level playing field.  That’s all we’re asking for.

MR. AXELROD:  Right.  I, I...

MR. GARIN:  She, she’s gotten a bad rap here that, that just isn’t fair.

MR. RUSSERT:  All right.  You’ve, you’ve asked the question.

MR. GARIN:  Right.

MR. AXELROD:  Look, as I said, I respect Senator Clinton, we respect Senator Clinton.  Senator Obama didn’t get into this race to tear Hillary Clinton down.  He got into this race to lift this country up, and his strong feeling is that, in order to do that, we have to challenge the prevailing practices of Washington.  That means this unbelievable hammer lock that special interests have on the decision-making here, this penchant for scoring political points rather than solving problems, and, most importantly, the divisiveness that emanates from our politics.  We need to bring this country together in order to get things done.  I think that’s what the American people are looking for. Senator Clinton has many, many attributes, and she’s a smart and able person. She’s got a lot of good ideas.

MR. RUSSERT:  Will she bring the changes necessary to Washington?

MR. AXELROD:  I think the answer to that is no.  I think she, she is running as the consummate Washington insider.  That is her argument.  “I know the system better than he knows the system.” I can work the system more.  We believe the system has to change.  This system is not serving the people of Pennsylvania or the American people.

MR. RUSSERT:  You used the word reasonable chance.  Do you believe that Hillary Clinton has a reasonable chance of being the nominee?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, I think it’s difficult.  I think everybody would acknowledge that it’s difficult.  When you look at the numbers, they’re daunting.  But only she can make that decision, Tim.

MR. GARIN:  But...

MR. RUSSERT:  Will Senator Clinton stay in this race through all the primaries in June?

MR. GARIN:  There’s not a reason not to, but, look, I think that will be dictated by, by events.  Her commitment now is to let the process play through, to let voters vote.  This...

MR. RUSSERT:  But if she woke up...

MR. GARIN:  This is...

MR. RUSSERT:  If she woke up after, after Indiana and, and North Carolina, if—where there will only be 220 elected delegates available, and she was still 150 behind Obama, and she couldn’t catch up in the popular vote, would she say, “I just can’t catch up.  It’s time to fold the tent because this is dividing the party”?

MR. GARIN:  Look, I think, I think it’s time to fold the tent when somebody gets to that number of 2200 delegates and...

MR. RUSSERT:  Howard Dean says the superdelegates who are undecided should make their decision by early June, not wait till the convention, so that “we, the Democratic Party,” he said, “will know who are nominee is the first week of June.” Is that advisable?

MR. GARIN:  Well, look, I, I, I, I would advise people to wait until June 3rd when this process is played through, see how close, how close it is, how well the candidates are doing, how they’re conducting themselves.  But let me just go back for one second.  This, this idea that Hillary Clinton won’t make the changes we need in Washington, there—Senator Obama’s campaign is based on a negative premise about Senator Clinton, and, and somehow she’s been cast as the one who’s running the negative campaign.  She is the person—she is all about solutions.  Our events in Pennsylvania and elsewhere aren’t about what’s wrong with Barack Obama, there are, they are solutions for America events. She has a, you know, the debate the other day—the important part of that debate wasn’t the beginning, it was when they were talking about the issues, and in that part of the debate, the reason that Senator Clinton won is that she came across as the person who knew the issues, knows her own mind, knows where—who she stands for, and knows what to do as president to make the changes we need in, in America.  That’s a fair debate to have.  Just to—for out there saying she’s in the thrall of the special interests won’t make changes.  That’s, that’s not an honest discussion.

MR. RUSSERT:  On our poll that we put on the board where Clinton is ahead, David Axelrod, voters, by 2-to-1, said Hillary Clinton was the better debater the other night.  Do you agree?

MR. AXELROD:  I think she had—I think she was a—had a very strong performance the other night.  I, I’ll give her that.  We’ve had 20 some-odd debates and you know, everybody’s had good nights and bad nights, and she, I think, did—I think that she did well.  I just want to go back to something Geoff said, though.  He said, “Our events were positive; we’re talking about solutions.” Yesterday in Pennsylvania, Senator Clinton said that Senator Obama’s health care plan would leave 15 million Americans in the cold.

MR. GARIN:  In response to your negative ad.

MR. AXELROD:  Just a second.  Just a second.  “Just leave them in the cold.” She knows that that’s not true.  The Washington Post broke that there—you couldn’t find a person who wouldn’t be able to get health care who wants it under the Obama plan.  So she repeated something that she’s been told isn’t true, and she, she did anyway.  And this is the reason why in the, in the Post poll a couple of weeks ago, almost 60 percent of the people polled said that they didn’t find her honest and trustworthy in, in a general election sample. That’s going to be a problem going forward.  That’s not the way to launch a general election campaign.

And by the way, we’re not—we—our negative view is not of Hillary Clinton, our negative view is of the politics of Washington.  It’s broken, it has to be fixed, and you can’t do that when you wink and nod at the very practices that are essentially corrupting the system and making it difficult to get anything done.

MR. GARIN:  Well, all I can say is that Senator Clinton is the person who voted against the Bush-Cheney energy bill.  Senator Obama has taken close to $2 million over his political career from corporations, PACs and lobbyists. Do you feel he’s been corrupted by that?

MR. AXELROD:  The—well, first of all, that’s what’s in your negative ad that you didn’t know about in Philadelphia.  Secondly, what he has said—he has—he’s been very forthright about this, Geoff.  He’s never—he said that he’s taken PAC money and money—contributions from lobbyists in the past.  But he said he’s running for president of the United States, this is a big problem for the country, we have to draw the line in the sand and I’m proud that we have 1.3 million contributors.  The average donation is $96.  I think that—we’re, we’re changing politics from the grass roots up, and that’s how we’re going to change Washington.

MR. GARIN:  Well, Senator Clinton really wants to change the, the economy. She wants to change what’s going on in the world.  She’s offering a, a, positive solution.  She’s got the—I think she’s got the leadership to...

MR. AXELROD:  She, she...

MR. GARIN:  ...turn solutions into real action.

MR. AXELROD:  She has...

MR. GARIN:  And the idea that you have to wait to, to, to have the special interests go away before we can begin to tackle the economy or before we can begin to fix our, our standing in the world, it, it doesn’t make sense.

MR. AXELROD:  She...

MR. GARIN:  She is out there talking about the changes our country needs, how to fix our economy, how to fix a broken health care system.  She is all about keeping the promise of America for whom that...

MR. AXELROD:  Geoff...

MR. GARIN:  ...for, for people to whom that promise was broken.

MR. AXELROD:  ...here’s the problem.  We’ve been—here’s the problem.  We’ve been talking about fixing the broken health care system for two decades. We’ve been talking about this energy problem for three decades.  We don’t get it done because Washington responds to the oil companies and to the health care interests and not to the needs of the country and the American people. So to detach the two and say we’re going to continue to advance ideas and let them die in the graveyard that Washington has become does not solve anyone’s problem.

MR. GARIN:  Yeah, but the thing is to stand up to the special interests when the time comes to do that.  That’s why Senator Clinton voted against the Bush-Cheney energy bill.  Senator Obama voted for it.

MR. AXELROD:  And...

MR. GARIN:  And just to go back on health care, real quickly, your attack ad makes this false claim that Hillary’s going to—is going to garnish people’s wages.  It’s not true.  She is...

MR. AXELROD:  She said that.

MR. GARIN:  It is...

MR. AXELROD:  She said it, Geoff.

MR. GARIN:  David, David, this is all about if health care is not affordable, it’s not going to—people aren’t going to be required to get it.  Those, those are the facts.

MR. AXELROD:  No, that’s not true.

MR. GARIN:  Paul, Paul Krugman’s column has been—and all the economic analyses have been clear on...

MR. AXELROD:  Geoff...

MR. GARIN:  ...this, that it’s going to—that her plan will cost less, about $1700 less to insure each new person.  So, David...

MR. AXELROD:  Geoff, that’s not true.  She sat on a program like this on a Sunday, and she said, “I will, I will garnish people’s wages if they don’t sign up for this health care plan.” That’s, that’s what she said.  Her and—her mandate is a mandate on people to buy health insurance.  And if you don’t...

MR. GARIN:  Like yours on children.

MR. AXELROD:  ...and he—and if you don’t, she will garnish your wages. That—there’s a respectable debate to be had about this.

MR. GARIN:  Right.

MR. AXELROD:  But let’s be honest about what we’re proposing here.

MR. GARIN:  Right.  But the full story on Senator Clinton’s health plan, if you want to be honest, is she has extraordinary cost controls that aren’t, aren’t in your plan.

MR. AXELROD:  That’s not true.  They’re, they’re almost identical.

MR. GARIN:  Well, well, we’ll let the health care people litigate this.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to, let me turn to foreign policy.

MR. GARIN:  Sure.

MR. RUSSERT:  This was in the debate last week in Philadelphia, and Senator Clinton was talking about an umbrella of deterrence.  Senator Obama and Senator Clinton were asked if Iran attacked Israel.  Let’s see if we can hear Senator Clinton’s—all right, here’s what she said:  “I think we should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel.  Of course, I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States.  But I would do the same with other countries in the region.” To my ear, that’s suggesting that if Iran invaded or attacked Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Senator Clinton would use U.S. troops and U.S. military power against Iran.

MR. GARIN:  I, I think she would take the appropriate steps against Iran. But, at the moment, I, I, I believe that Senator Clinton believes and many other experts, that Iran is the greatest threat to the stability of the Middle East.

MR. RUSSERT:  But when she says we would do the same with other countries, is she saying that the United States would rush to the defense of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan?  Which countries is she talking about?

MR. GARIN:  Tim, I, I, I want to be totally honest here.  I, I am helping Senator Clinton with her message, I am not her policy adviser, but I, I think what is—what she is saying is that Iran is a threat.  Iran has to know that we take it seriously as a threat, and we’re not going to sit by idly if—as it, as it, as it gains nuclear strength and power, in part because of the failures of this administration.  We’re not going to sit idly by and let them attack other countries militarily.

MR. RUSSERT:  David Axelrod, Senator Clinton said yesterday that, “You know he always says in his speeches he’s running a positive campaign, but his campaign does just the opposite.” And Senator Clinton’s talking about the negative ad about her health care plan and this flier about her trade position, “Hillary Clinton supported NAFTA, permanent China trade, lost thousands of jobs.  Hillary Clinton was praising NAFTA.  See for yourself.” It’s a negative piece on Hillary Clinton.

MR. AXELROD:  Well, look, you know, Geoff said before that in the debate Senator Clinton spoke her mind, but the problem is she speaks her minds.  She usually has two positions on these issues.  On NAFTA, for 12 years she was a strong supporter, and the fact is that when her schedules came out from the White House after months of delay, what they showed was she was in organizing meetings for NAFTA, exhorting people to support it.  She never spoke out.  She said she spoke out against NAFTA.  In fact, she didn’t.  You can—look, there are—there’s an honest debate to be had about NAFTA.  But again, let’s be straight forward about what your position was.  And so the complaint really is that you can’t be for NAFTA for 12 years, and then go into Pennsylvania or go into Ohio and say, “Oh, I was always against it.” I mean, this is part of the credibility problem that Senator Clinton has, and it’s very much what makes people cynical about Washington, cynical about politics.

MR. RUSSERT:  But if your campaign can criticize her position on trade, why can’t she criticize your position on health care?

Mr. AXELROD:  She can, and she has, and she’s availed herself to the opportunity again and again.  But we should have a straight up conversation.

MR. RUSSERT:  Are they both negative campaigns?

MR. AXELROD:  We should have, we should have a straight up conversation about what these positions truly are, not a distorted conversation based on changes of position or, or misinterpretation of things that were said.

MR. GARIN:  Tim, I—David’s description of Senator Clinton and NAFTA is simply and wholly inaccurate.  During the 1992 campaign, she was opposed to NAFTA.  Everybody in that campaign who were at those meetings and knows that she was opposed to NAFTA.  She read—she actually read the treaty.  She knew exactly why it was a bad treaty.  But for, for—David refers to the schedule, she was a member of President Clinton’s administration.  Under those circumstances, you support the president.  And when Hillary Clinton is president, everybody will be expected to do that as well.  But...

MR. RUSSERT:  She did say it’s been good for America.

MR. GARIN:  She—what she has said about NAFTA is that it needs to be changed, that, that, that it’s time for a time out on, on trade to rethink this.  When, when we had that debate, Senator Obama’s representative, representative went to Canada and said, “Well, not really.” And Senator Obama has not been consistent on this issue of, of NAFTA as well.  So again—but the idea that she has 12 years of being for—it’s just a lie.

MR. AXELROD:  All her public statements, Geoff...

MR. GARIN:  It’s simply—it’s simply not true.  It’s simply not true.

MR. AXELROD:  All her public statements reflect that.

MR. GARIN:  And certainly not true to the extent that she—when, when she has been an independent agent, it—when she had an opportunity to advise Bill Clinton during the campaign and early administration on this, she was opposed to NAFTA.  As a senator, she’s talked about the need for time out for trade. She’s talked about the flaws of, of these agreements.  And so, you know, I...

MR. AXELROD:  Geoff, what, what she said was, “I spoke out against NAFTA.” Can you show one place on the public record where, over—before this year, before this campaign, that she actually spoke out against it?

MR. GARIN:  Well...

MR. AXELROD:  There, there—I, I—we, we have not found one.

MR. GARIN:  She spoke out against it strongly in...

MR. AXELROD:  Privately?

MR. GARIN:  ...in the counsels of when, when it, when it...

MR. AXELROD:  The other thing, the other thing is...

MR. GARIN:  Senator Obama...

MR. AXELROD:  A more current example...

MR. GARIN:  Senator Obama’s view on trade...

MR. AXELROD:  ...your predecessor...

MR. GARIN:  ...has been a little...

MR. AXELROD:  It has not.

MR. GARIN:  Yes, it has, David.

MR. AXELROD:  Your predecessor, Mark Penn, is not here tonight because he angled on down to the Columbian Embassy at the time that Senator Clinton said that she was opposed to that treaty to plot strategy with him about how to pass that treaty.  Her chief strategist.  Doesn’t that cause some concern for people?  I think it does.

MR. GARIN:  Well, A, as you note, he’s not here today.  And second, is that the, the co-chair of your campaign writes editorials in favor of the Columbia free trade agreement.

MR. AXELROD:  He doesn’t...

MR. GARIN:  Nobody would say that Barack Obama is going to take a position different from the one he believes in because the co-chair of his campaign feels that way.  Nobody says that Tom Daschle shouldn’t be the co-chair any longer or, or shouldn’t ever be allowed to...

MR. AXELROD:  So why did Penn leave?  If there’s nothing wrong with it, why did Penn leave?

MR. GARIN:  ..serve in—shouldn’t, shouldn’t be in administration.

MR. AXELROD:  Why did she ask him to leave, then?

MR. GARIN:  Well, I, I, I think that he made an error in judgment.

MR. AXELROD:  Well, what was the error, if there’s no problem with it?

MR. GARIN:  The, the error was that he ought to be very focused on, on Senator Clinton’s business but—right now.  But look, we don’t make a—an issue about Senator Daschle, the co-chair of your campaign, advocating this treaty because we, we believe that Senator Obama has the integrity to do what he thinks is right.  It would be nice if you felt the same way about Senator Clinton.  I recognize you don’t.

MR. AXELROD:  Well...

MR. GARIN:  I—and look, I, David, I...

MR. AXELROD:  I’m not questioning her integrity.  I’m questioning, I’m questioning her forthrightness on this particular issue because she has a long record of doing, of saying one thing and doing another.  And that, I think, is a concern.

MR. GARIN:  It, well, it’s—it would be a concern if it were true.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me ask about two final issues.  David Axelrod, based on the last couple of weeks, many Democrats fear Republicans in the fall will string together an ad which shows Michelle Obama saying that she really never had pride in America until this campaign when Barack Obama was running, Barack Obama with his hands clasped in front of him rather than holding his heart during the pledge of allegiance, Barack Obama not wearing a flag pin, Barack Obama talking about clinging to faith and to guns, suggesting—Barack Obama meeting with Bill Ayers, a former Weather ground under—Weatherman underground figure.  Are you concerned that all those kinds of issues could be strung together to create an impression of Obama that would make him almost unelectable to a lot of swing voters?

MR. AXELROD:  No.  First of all, understand that what—whoever the Republic—the Democratic nominee would be, the Republican Party is going to string things together to try and destroy the Democratic candidate because they have an untenable position.  They have to defend the record of the last eight years, and that’s an indefensible record.  So of course they’re going to attack.  But when people—as people get to know Senator Obama during this campaign, what they learn is, here’s a guy who was raised by his grandparents from Kansas, his grandfather served in Patton’s Army, his grandmother was a Rosie the Riveter on the bomber assembly line.  He has said many, many times, only in America could his story be, be true.  I don’t know anybody who’s more patriotic and who loves this country more than Barack Obama.  And that’s the person people are going to get to see when he’s the Democratic nominee and campaigns across this country.  We’re not—we’re going to fight all those caricatures off, as Senator Clinton will have to deal with—would have to deal with many, many things were she the nominee.  But ultimately, this is going to be an election about who can lead us into the future.  Do we want to continue eight more years of the Bush policies, which is what John McCain promises?  Or are we going to bring real change to this country?  I think people are going to choose change.

MR. RUSSERT:  Geoff Garin, your candidate, the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, is Hillary Clinton honest and trustworthy?  And look at these numbers. Now, 39, yes; no, 58.  It’s—that’s amongst Democrats.  This is Obama, Clinton, 53/30, they think he’s more trustworthy.  But Clinton has a 58 percent no, not trustworthy.  Obviously the Bosnia sniper piece had a large part in framing that.  But now there’s been a new issue, and that is a comment she made at a fundraiser about Democratic activists and MoveOn.org.  This is what she said earlier this year.

(Audiotape)

SEN. CLINTON:  We have been less successful in caucuses because it brings out the activist base of the Democratic Party.  MoveOn.org.org didn’t want us to go into Afghanistan.  I mean, that’s what we’re dealing with.  And they turn out in great numbers.  And, you know, they, they are very driven by their view of our positions, and it’s primarily national security and foreign policy that drives them.  I don’t agree with them.  They know I don’t agree with them, so they flood into these caucuses and dominate them and really intimidate people who actually show up to support me.

(End audiotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Last year, when she was seeking the endorsement of activists and MoveOn.org, her tone was remarkably different.  Let’s watch.

(Audiotape)

SEN. CLINTON:  You’ve been asking the tough questions.  You’ve been refusing to back down when any of us who are in political leadership are not living up to the standards that we should set for ourselves.  I think you have helped to change the face of American politics for the better, both online and in the corridors of power.

(End audiotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  What changed?

MR. GARIN:  Well, I don’t think anything changed.  I don’t, I don’t really see a contradiction.  The truth is that we agree with MoveOn on lots of issues, disagree with them on some.  Move—one of them is they, they’ve endorsed Senator Obama, and their, their—they have been very effective in these caucuses for turning out...

MR. RUSSERT:  Wait a minute.  She said, “I don’t agree with them, and they don’t agree with me.”

MR. GARIN:  They—on, on, on a particular set of foreign policy issues, Tim. It’s not about everything.  We...

MR. RUSSERT:  She also said that they, “They intimidated people who were showing up to support me.” When did MoveOn.org or liberal activists intimidate Clinton voters?

MR. GARIN:  Tim, I, I don’t, I don’t want to—I, I don’t—I’m here for two weeks now, so this was—comment was made in, I believe, at the beginning of March.  But, look, the truth is Senator Clinton, as she said in that other clip, respects the, the right of MoveOn to be involved in this process for—and respects the role that activists in our party.  I think the, the larger point is that when you move from the caucuses to the primaries, where participation is much, much greater, she has done extremely well.  We’re very proud that in four of the five events with the largest turnouts she’s won them and won them well.  We hope to continue that in Pennsylvania.  We’re not—look, we’re not, we’re not looking to pick a fight with MoveOn.  They play an important role in the Democratic Party.  I think she was making an observation about the caucus process.  I think the primary process, you know, it, it—mathematically it’s hard to ignore the fact that there’s much greater participation in those.  And when lots and lots of people vote, as we encourage them to do all the time, she does very, very well.

MR. RUSSERT:  Before you both go, I know you’re raising lots of money and, and increasing Democratic ranks with new voters, but John McCain has had his nomination locked up for some time.  He’s going to Appalachia, inner cities, he’s been to Europe, he’s united his party, he’s raising money.  Has this protracted skirmishing between Obama and Clinton hurt the Democrats’ chances, come this fall, against John McCain, who’s had two months to pull his party together?

MR. AXELROD:  Tim, I really think Democrats are going to be united in the fall.  I think people understand that this is a really serious time for our country, between the war and the devastation in our economy, and that the decisions that are made in the next four years are going to shape not just the next decade, but the next century.  And people want to move forward, they don’t want to go back.  John McCain represents a continuation of the George Bush policies.  He’s embraced his economic policies, he’s embraced his Iraq policies.  I think Democrats are going to be united in the fall.

MR. RUSSERT:  So you want to go all the way to the convention with this battle?

MR. AXELROD:  I, I, I’m, I’m not looking to go all the way to the convention, but I don’t think we will.  I think this will be settled long before the convention.

MR. GARIN:  And let me add two quick points.  First, I think this has been beneficial to the Democrats not just because people are excited, but Senator McCain—in getting a heck of a lot of attention, he did his bio tour, people were paying attention to us.  But more—and—but I want to agree with what David said.  It may be hard to tell, David’s one of my best, best friends in politics.  Senator Obama is the nominee and he asks me to help, I’ll be there in a heart beat.  And if Senator Clinton is the nominee and...

MR. AXELROD:  We’ll be there.  We’ll be there.

MR. GARIN:  ...I know, I know that David will be there as well.  So this will be a united party when this is all over.

MR. RUSSERT:  Geoff Garin, David Axelrod, thanks very much.

MR. AXELROD:  Thanks, Tim.

MR. GARIN:  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama—the race for the White House through the eyes of David Brooks of The New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Michele Norris of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Our roundtable is next, right here, only on MEET THE PRESS.

MR. RUSSERT:  Our political roundtable:  David Brooks of The New York Times; E.J. Dionne, Washington Post; and NPR’s Michele Norris, after this station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.  Welcome, all.

David Brooks, back in January you said Barack Obama “may be changing the face of American politics.” This week you said something much different, that he’s been ground down and probably would have a difficult time being elected.”

MR. DAVID BROOKS:  Well, he—he’ll have challenges.  And, and this is the—I don’t know if it’s the tragedy of Barack Obama, but, but the challenge of Barack Obama.  The man has extraordinary gifts.  The man is extraordinarily thoughtful for a politician, enormously deep in the way he thinks about the world.  And I think he really does want to have a discussion, really change American politics.  But it’s been 15 months since he’s been running, and the last three months have been different.  And the conversation we just heard on this show, the tone of that conversation, believe me, is very different from the tone of Barack Obama’s speech in Des Moines three months ago.  And the campaign has changed him.  And I think it’s changed him in two ways, which has made him less inspiring for a lot of us who are not orthodox liberals.  It’s changed him because he seems like a more conventional politician, trading jibes about who’s throwing which negative ad at each other, which is not particularly hopeful.  And then he’s become—as he’s had to chase Democratic primary votes, he’s become much more orthodox liberal.  He, he seems very traditionally liberal on trade, on the war, in the debate.  He made an ironclad promise to bring American troops home in 16 months after he’s elected.  We don’t know what Iraq is going to be like two years from now.  Why is he making ironclad promises for a policy that won’t be enacted for two years?  So it’s become a much rougher season, and it’s really taken him away from the most inspiring parts about him.

MR. RUSSERT:  What do you think, E.J. Dionne?

MR. E.J. DIONNE:  I thought that was a brilliant way of making two columns fit together on David’s part.  I think this has been a very rough campaign, and I think we’ve seen just on the—your show today how much damage this could do to the Democratic Party.  Here you had two of the best liked Democratic operatives who are going at each other hammer and tongue.  I think for people who were for Obama from the beginning, they still see that promise in him. But for people who had been on the fence, I think the need to engage in this long campaign really has taken something out of him.  The question will be can he rediscover that later on in the campaign if he wins this nomination?  And he still has to be the favorite to win this nomination.  I, I think that the interaction in a very difficult primary period doesn’t necessarily set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

MR. RUSSERT:  Michele.

MS. MICHELE NORRIS:  It’s an interesting balancing act that he, that he has to go through in trying to inspire people but, at the same time, convince people that he is tough enough

MR. BROOKS:  Right.

MS. NORRIS:  ...in a general election campaign, because part of what you hear again and again from Hillary Clinton is that she—that he is not strong enough to stand up to John McCain, to the attack machine that they’re surely going to throw at him.  You mentioned the, you know, the ad that the, the Republican operatives and the people who practice in the dark arts of opposition research are probably working on at this moment.  People worried that he wasn’t tough enough to do this.  You know, when you mentioned the ironclad promise, I mean, one thing that may help him, at least in the primary, is that Hillary Clinton is also making a similar ironclad promise to bring troops back from Iraq within six months, regardless of what the generals tell her.

MR. RUSSERT:  And John McCain, ironclad promise...

MS. NORRIS:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...keep the troops there until we have achieved success or victory.

MR. DIONNE:  Right, but...

MR. BROOKS:  And it’s a sign of people caring more about the campaign than about governing, because when you’re governing, you don’t want those ironclad promises.

What bothers me about Obama is that he seems to have forgotten the strength that got him here.  After Jeremiah Wright, he really gave this great speech about race.  After the San Francisco comments, I think he should’ve given a great speech about class in America.  He should’ve re-given the speech he gave a couple years ago about religion in America.  His strength is he has the ability to elevate above conventional politics.  Last couple weeks, it’s been conventional politics.

MS. NORRIS:  You know, can I just say one thing?

MR. RUSSERT:  Sure.

MS. NORRIS:  I mean, there’s a lot of people who looked at, you know, the question in the debate about the questionnaire and whether or not he had signed the questionnaire.  One of the things that, that the campaign had talked about is perhaps trying to elevate the debate on gun ownership in America.  If there was never an—ever an opportunity to do that, Pennsylvania would be the, the place to do this.  There are some 12 million hunters in America, one million of them are in Pennsylvania.  And so, as someone who comes from the 13th district in Chicago, where gun issues are very different in a place where young people are sent to their grave early because of this, you know, people wondered if he would stand up to the hunters and say, “I respect your position, but, you know, understand that there are people in America who view this in a different way.” Instead, he spoke like a politician.

MR. DIONNE:  And I think Michele hit on the paradox that Obama confronts. And we’re really scrambling lots of stereotypes in this campaign.  One is a gender stereotype.  Hillary Clinton is running as the tough fighter, and if Obama doesn’t show Democrats that he can be a tough fighter against the Republican attack machine, so-called, but in fact it is, then, you know, Democrats are going to pull back from him.  So he’s got to do both at the same time.  He’s got to be the unifier David talks about, and he’s got to be a tough unifier.  That’s a hard thing to do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Here’s the latest numbers from Pennsylvania, as I showed the two strategists, Clinton, 48; Obama, 43, a five-point race.

The internals are fun.  Here it is.  Amongst hunters, 56, Clinton; Obama, 31. Gun owners, Clinton, 53; Obama, 28.  And bowlers, 54-to-33.  I guessed they heard he bowled a 37.  But here’s the comeback for Obama, beer drinkers, 44-to-44.

MR. BROOKS:  You know, the scary thing about that poll is more Pennsylvanians claim to be gun owners than beer drinkers.  I can’t believe that.

MR. RUSSERT:  At the debate, Senator Clinton was asked a question by George Stephanopoulos about the fall and success.  Let’s listen.

(Videotape)

MR. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:  The question is, do you think Senator Obama can do that?  Can he win?

SEN. CLINTON:  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Now, I think that I can do a better job.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  By saying “yes, yes, yes,” Michele, does she undercut one of the premises of her campaign was that—which they had been saying quietly to superdelegates.

MS. NORRIS:  Right.

MR. RUSSERT:  “He can’t win.” She said “Yes, yes, yes.”

MS. NORRIS:  Yeah.  I mean, that’s something that’s very different than the argument that, that superdelegates say that they’re hearing either directly from the Clintons or from the Clinton surrogates.  They’re either, you know, there are various reports on this.  Some say that they’ve outright said that he’s unelectable.  Some have said that he’s—they question his unelectability. So in, in that sense, you know, when Geoff Garin was talking about this effort to woo the superdelegates, how it needs to take place in the full light of day, so far this hasn’t been happening in the full light of day.  It has been happening in pulling people to the side and making these phone calls.  It’s very—it’s a very, very different argument that’s being made.

Sort of, you know, one thing, though, about the, the—over all the polls?  One think I think is interesting in looking at the numbers in Pennsylvania, there are 150,000 new registered voters in Pennsylvania, and some 160,000 people who have switched to the Democratic Party.  And when you look at the polls and how close they are, I wonder how accurate the polls are because these are two, two groups of people who wouldn’t be counted in any of these polls.  So, you know, it’s a case of that we could all be surprised on Tuesday.

MR. RUSSERT:  And wouldn’t that be nice?  By a—we love being surprised.  We were surprised...

MR. DIONNE:  We never—we’ve never been surprised all year in this process.

MR. RUSSERT:  New Hampshire, Super Tuesday, North, South Carolina.

You know, one of the interesting things, to your point, David, is what these campaigns do to these candidates.  Look at these numbers, favorable, unfavorable.  Here’s Hillary Clinton.  Forty-four favorable, 54 unfavorable. In January, 58-to-40.  Bill Clinton, 47 favorable, 51 unfavorable.  In February, 55, 42.  Barack Obama, 56 favorable, 39 unfavorable.  He was 63 back in January.  John McCain, favorable, 53-to-40.  He was up 59-to-30 back in January.  It takes a poll.

MR. BROOKS:  Can you imagine doing that?  Leading that life?  No normal person would live that way, and no normal person would emerge normally after that, giving the same speech eight times a day for 15 months?  It destroys you, and it, it makes you less attractive and that’s even without the negative ads.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is it a fair test for—to determine who’d be the best president?

MR. BROOKS:  I don’t think so.  You know, watching the debate, the whole furor over the ABC debate, what strikes me is we should actually test candidates by how they’re going to act as president.  We should have war games.  Put them in a room with their advisers.

MR. DIONNE:  Table like this.

MR. BROOKS:  Give them a circumstance and see how they react to decisions and uncertainty.  The debate is a totally artificial way to judge who’s going to be a good president or not.

MR. RUSSERT:  What did you think of Hillary Clinton’s umbrella of the turn saying that she would defend countries, other than Israel, who are attacked by Iran.

MR. BROOKS:  When you asked the question, I’m amazed, I think like you, maybe, that it didn’t become a bigger issue.  Because what it says, I think, to a lot of Americans, two Arab countries or two Middle Eastern countries get in a war and we’re going to get in the middle of it?  I think post Iraq, this is the last place Americans want to be.  It’s a potentially wide-open thing to say.  I don’t know why she would’ve said it, what policy thinking behind it was.  It seems to me extremely perilous.

MS. NORRIS:  I doesn’t seem like it post Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  Were you surprised?

MR. DIONNE:  Yes.

MS. NORRIS:  I mean, we would probably still be engaged in Iraq when this kind of dilemma would present itself.

MR. DIONNE:  You know, and the term massive retaliation is a pretty strong term that she used in the course of that debate.  But I want to go back to this polling business in Pennsylvania.  You know, it seems to me, when you look at these numbers right now, the most likely outcome is that she’s got a five point lead, he probably picks up three or four points, maybe two or three points on organization.  This is form a very smart Democrat I talked to yesterday when I was up there.  But she—those undecideds look an awful like her people, and they seem if you push them that they’re going to go to her. So if you sort of just do it on the numbers, she probably should win a healthy victory.  The real question is is there a backlash against traditional politics?  Is there an anti-media backlash after that debate?  You never lose running against the media.  And then Michele makes the right point, I think, about the new voters.  Do they switch this mix at all?  So, conventionally, she ought to win that by a pretty decent margin.

MR. RUSSERT:  But the discussion is interesting.  If she wins 55-45 and has a net gain of eight or nine delegates or a net gain in the cumulative popular vote of 200,000, I asked Geoff Garin how does she get to a point at the end of this process where she can say to the superdelegates, “Nominate me.  I am behind in elected delegates, I am behind in cumulative popular vote, and I have lost more contests than I have won, but I’m still a better and stronger candidate.” How does that happen?

MS. NORRIS:  It’s a, it’s a very difficult argument to make.  It becomes even more difficult even if she wins that by 10, 15, 19 point margin, there are 19 districts in Pennsylvania and it could be a case similar to Texas where she actually wins the popular vote, but doesn’t carry, you know, all the delegates.  Or it can be, you know, a case where the margin of delegates is so small that it’s hard for her to claim an outright victory.

MR. DIONNE:  I think it’s very hard for her to make a case for a nomination unless at the end of this process, by a count, everybody can agree upon she’s ahead in the popular vote.  If she actually ended up ahead in the popular vote, she would have a moral claim.  But the Clinton people are now talking about are electoral votes.  God forbid we’re back to Florida in more ways than one with them saying, “Look, she wins the big states, and that’s what you’ve got to think about.” But the risk of demobilizing African-Americans, core of the Democratic Party, demobilizing young people who have flocked to Obama, I think that, too, is very much on the minds of these superdelegates.

MS. NORRIS:  That’s why...

MR. BROOKS:  There are, there are more Clinton voters who say they won’t for Obama—vote for Obama than there are Obama voters who won’t vote for Clinton. And, to me, that’s the big story.

MR. DIONNE:  Yeah.

MR. BROOKS:  The—I think Obama’s going to get the nomination.  I think it’s a near certainty.  But in the fall, there really are, are dangerous prospects for the Democrats.  The Democrats generically are up by 13 points.  But when you look how Obama does against McCain in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Missouri, he’s behind.  Those are the key states.  He’s only tied in states like New Jersey.  And I think that’s a result of what we’ve seen in the last three months, and the ugliness of it.

MS. NORRIS:  You know, may I just say that part of the issue, also, in the fall is down ticket.  I mean, a lot of the undecided superdelegates right now are House freshmen who, you know, want to make sure that they back the right horse, and were elected in very tight races and they don’t want to make a decision right now.  I mean, the three—look ahead to Indiana, the three House freshman there, undeclared right now, undecided.  And in, in a, in a close race, if the Clinton voters don’t show up, don’t support the nominee, if it is Barack Obama, or vice-versa, and they back the wrong candidate, you know, it’s, it’s tough sledding for them.

MR. RUSSERT:  Interesting choice for the superdelegates.  Hillary Clinton acknowledging, “I have a lot of baggage.” I never heard a candidate say that.

MS. NORRIS:  And he didn’t say anything when she said it.

MR. RUSSERT:  And it, and it’s been rummaged through, and she said, “I can withstand anything that the Republicans throw at me.” Obama saying, “We have to rise above this.  We have to have politics of hope.  We have to get rid of the politics of the past and find a way to come together and find common ground.” It’s really a choice for the Democratic Party as to who they want to send into battle against the Republican candidate.

MR. DIONNE:  And one of the fascinating things about this is that this choice defies all the past choices.  This is not, despite that MoveOn comment, about ideology.  Ideology is scrambled.  In Pennsylvania, Governor Ed Rendell, supporting Clinton, ran against Bob Casey, supporting Obama, in a primary for governor.  Rendell, pro-choke; Casey, pro-life.  The parts of the state that are most pro-Obama actually voted for Ed Rendell.  The parts of the state that actually voted for Casey are most pro-Clinton.  So this is not a choice on any traditional ground you’ve seen.  It is very much a choice about style.  And these primaries have become like a census.  If, you know, the state is this percentage African-American or that percentage old, you can predict pretty much how it’s going to come out.

MR. BROOKS:  And the age, there’s like a part of the country that’s the party of baggage, senior people.  “I got some baggage, fine.  I’m fine with people who have baggage, I’ll vote for Hillary.” Younger people, “No baggage, I’m the no baggage party.” So it’s like checking in at the airport, it’s whether you got baggage or not.

MR. RUSSERT:  Suitcases vs...

MS. NORRIS:  Carry on.

MR. DIONNE:  Backpacks.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...backpacks, right?

MR. BROOKS:  Yeah.  We’ve got our own new insufferable phrase.

MR. RUSSERT:  This, this is it.

When does this end?

MS. NORRIS:  Oh, boy.  I don’t make predictions, but, you know, I, I—you heard from Geoff Garin, they, they plan to stay at it.  They’re in it to win it, they’re not talking about stepping down anytime soon.  I mean, you—it could well go all the way through June.  If you talk to her inner circle, they say that they’re looking toward the convention and they plan to slog on and take this all the way to Denver.

MR. RUSSERT:  And you have—if she wins Pennsylvania’ if he wins North Carolina; she squeaks out, she squeaks out Indiana; she wins Kentucky, West Virginia; he wins Oregon, Montana, South Dakota; she wins Puerto Rico; it doesn’t change the overall delegate count or the popular vote.  Even if you counted Florida.  She—Florida, where Hillary Clinton—it doesn’t count in the delegate count, but gave her that popular vote, she still doesn’t catch up to the popular vote.

MS. NORRIS:  She has a secret weapon, though.  I mean, a million years ago, Harold Ickes helped put together the rules that the Rules Committee and the Credentials Committee will actually follow if this does come down to a floor fight.  So if there’s anybody who knows where the traps are, where the sort of secret rotating bookcase is, you know, that he would be the person who would know how to...

MR. DIONNE:  Harold Ickes was once described as a nuclear weapon by one of his political foes.  You know, I think Obama has been—was close to closing this down several times, and each time he didn’t quite get that breakthrough. If he’d beaten her in Texas, he could have done it.  If he were to beat her in Pennsylvania...

MR. RUSSERT:  Or New Hampshire.

MR. DIONNE:  Or New Hampshire.  If he were to beat her in Pennsylvania, long-shot right now, that would end it.  I think if he—I don’t think the Democrats want to go all the way to the convention.  Clinton would like to. She feels almost a moral obligation, from what people tell me, because she thinks Obama can’t win.  But I don’t think that’s where the party wants to go.

MR. RUSSERT:  “Sold Out:  Reclaiming Faith in Politics,” your book, E.J. Dionne.  Ten seconds on the pope.

MR. DIONNE:  I thought it was very striking that he did not choose to enter our political fray.  He challenged left and right alike.  And I think he understood that his job—one of his main jobs was to reassure American Catholics who were really disheartened, to say the least, by the pedophilia scandal.  And that was where his emphasis lay.

MR. RUSSERT:  Want equal time, Brother Brooks?

MR. BROOKS:  No, it was just great to see somebody who’s not running for office.

MR. DIONNE:  And you didn’t hedge because of the primaries.

MR. RUSSERT:  And he talked about hope, Michele.

MS. NORRIS:  Yes, he did.  He did talk about hope.

MR. RUSSERT:  We’ll be right back.

MR. RUSSERT:  All day coverage Tuesday, the Pennsylvania primary.  That’s all for today.  We’ll be back next week.  If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

How about those Caps?  In Pennsylvania tomorrow night.  Beat the Flyers!

Discuss:

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