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updated 5/18/2008 12:43:27 PM ET 2008-05-18T16:43:27

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday, John Edwards endorses Barack Obama after Hillary Clinton's landslide victory in West Virginia.  The next battle for the Democrats:  Tuesday in Oregon and Kentucky.  John McCain outlines his priorities for a first term.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ):  This mindless, paralyzing rancor must come to an end.

MR. RUSSERT:  And President Bush's words inject him into the campaign.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH:  Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals.

MR. RUSSERT:  Insights and analysis from the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr., former Republican presidential candidate who served as the governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee.  He worked for John McCain and Mitt Romney--Republican strategist Mike Murphy.  And he worked for John Kerry, Al Gore and a key supporter of Barack Obama, Ted Kennedy--Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.

But first, joining us now is that rare species known as an undeclared superdelegate to the Democratic convention, the junior senator from Virginia and author of "A Time to Fight:  Reclaiming a Fair and Just America."

Senator Jim Webb, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. JIM WEBB (D-VA):  Nice to be here with you.

MR. RUSSERT:  Before we get to the Bible, I want to ask you a couple of political questions.  And this was the vote in Virginia in February:  Barack Obama, 64 percent; Hillary Clinton, 35 percent.  Which side were you on?

SEN. WEBB:  I decided that I would allow the process to go forward and not endorse a candidate, and I've pretty much kept to that position.  I think they both deserve the right to go out and make the case, and they've both put an awful lot of energy in it, and they're both people who I think could be very fine presidents.

MR. RUSSERT:  Could either of them carry Virginia?

SEN. WEBB:  I think either of them could carry Virginia, with different formulas.  But, yeah, I think either of them could.  The numbers--if you look at the numbers on those votes, the primary votes, both of them were considerably higher than the Republicans.

MR. RUSSERT:  In the press release which accompanied your book, sent out by your publisher, it describes you this way:  "Now, in `A Time to Fight':  the celebrated junior senator from Virginia, who is already being mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate..."

SEN. WEBB:  I, I didn't write that, and I didn't read it.  So I know there's, there's all--you know, you have even asked me about that.  But I'm not interested in doing that.  I think we've done some incredibly productive things in the last year and a half in the Senate, and I've been able to do some things--you know, we just saw what John McCain said he wanted to see done.  I think we've, from our office, been able to work across party lines and to really work to develop a formula where we can govern.

MR. RUSSERT:  But if Senator Obama or Senator Clinton asked you, you'd be open?

SEN. WEBB:  I would, I would highly discourage them is probably the best way to say it.

MR. RUSSERT:  But you wouldn't be General Sherman and say no?

SEN. WEBB:  You know, I--at this--at this point, no one's asking, no one's talking, and I'm not that interested, so.

MR. RUSSERT:  President Bush was in Israel this week and said some things which you talk about in your book in a more general way, but let's listen to President Bush first and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape)

PRES. BUSH:  Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.  We've heard this foolish delusion before.  As Nazi tanks, tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, `Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is, the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Now, in "A Time to Fight" you write, "It is clearly in our national interest to confront authoritarian regimes around the world and to attempt to change their practices.  But refusing to engage them is actually tantamount to ignoring the circumstances that we supposedly condemn."

SEN. WEBB:  Absolutely so.  I mean, I think it shows how out of touch this administration has been with the realities of the region.  It's one of the reasons that we are still in such large numbers in Iraq.  The military people have always done what they've been asked to do.  The military situation in Iraq is a classic holding action, in classical terms, which is in place so that political resolutions can be made.  And if President Bush were to use the right historical example, he probably should be looking at China in the 1970s rather than the situation in Germany in 1930s where we had a rogue regime with nukes, with an American war on its border that was spouting all of this hostile rhetoric and was not a part of the international community; and by aggressive diplomacy at the same time that we kept all of our other options on the table and maintained all of our other alliances, we were able to arguably bring China into the world community.

MR. RUSSERT:  It is interesting in reading your description of the political parties as we look at this upcoming presidential campaign and their defense policy postures.  You say, "The Democrats who came of age during the Vietnam era, and many others who've grown up under their tutelage, have erred greatly for many years in not understanding the positive aspects of military service. And in doing so, in the eyes of those who've served, the Democrats became not simply the anti-war party, but also the anti-military party ...

"This legacy is still with the Democratic Party today.  Like a boil that must be lanced, it needs to be examined before it can be overcome."

And for the Republicans you say this:  "The Republican Party ...  continually seeks to politicize military service for its own ends even as it uses their sacrifices as a political shield against criticism for its failed policies. And in that sense, it is now the Republican Party that most glaringly does not understand the true nature of military service." Explain that.

SEN. WEBB:  I, I, obviously, strongly believe that's true.  I've lived the journey.  I grew up in a family that was principally Democratic Party leaning, and, like a lot of people, the Reagan Democrats, if you would, drifted away from the Democratic Party because of the positions that they had taken, not simply on the Vietnam War, but the way--the way that the veterans were being treated.  Democrats tended to treat veterans, even after the Vietnam War, as victims rather than as affirmative figures.  They wanted to fix this problem, they wanted to fix that problem.  They want to go to Agent Orange, they want to go to post-traumatic stress.  And all those things are laudable, but they don't go to the core meaning of why you serve.  And the Republican Party was the beneficiary of that for a long period of time.  But we've seen a, a reverse here, and I think the G.I. bill that I introduced gives you something of a microcosm in which to understand that.  I, I introduced this G.I. bill my first day in office.  The idea was to give to people who'd been serving since 9/11 the same educational benefits, the same right to a first-class future as those who served in World War II.  We, we started working hard on this bipartisan, nonpartisan, hopefully; we have now got 58 sponsors in the Senate, 300 sponsors in the House of Representatives, and a, and a good number of the, you know, the thinking Republicans have moved to us.

And now the president says he's going to veto this bill.  No president in history has, has vetoed a, a benefits bill for those who've served.  So on the one hand, we have this rhetoric, which goes to what I was writing saying, "This is the next greatest generation, these guys are so great." And then we see this president, he's fine with sending these people over and over again where they're spending more time in Iraq than they are at home.  He's fine with the notion of stop loss, where we can, we can make people stay in even after enlistments are done.  And then we say, "Give them the same benefit that the people in World War II have," and they say it's too expensive.  So I think the Republican Party is, you know, is, is on the block here to, to clearly demonstrate that they value military service or suffer the consequences of losing the support of people who've, who've served.

MR. RUSSERT:  The Pentagon, the administration and other editorials across the country have said the problem with the bill is that if, after three years people can leave with full benefits, it'll be very difficult to retain good soldiers, to have them re-enlist.

SEN. WEBB:  Well, I, I would say to them that three years of accumulated service qualify you for the benefits, but you still have to serve your enlistment.  I spent five years in the Pentagon--one as a Marine, four as a defense executive.  I did manpower issues the whole time; I know how these formulas work.  We have, as co-sponsors on this bill, John Warner, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee; Carl Levin, current chairman of the Armed Services committee; Chairman Akaka of the Veterans committee; Senator Specter, former chairman of the, the Veterans committee; Chuck Hagel, the only senator to have served as a senior official in the Veterans Administration. We know what we're doing and, and we are not going to harm the military.

What you have is 70 to 75 percent of the ground troops in the, in the Army, in the Marine Corps, have left the service by the end of their first enlistment. And those are the people that are not being taken care of.  The Department of Defense does a very good job of taking care of the, the career force, but this large number of people, the overwhelming majority of people who are out of the military, that come in because they love their country, they do a hitch and then they want to get on with their lives, they are not getting the opportunity for a first-class future that they deserve.

MR. RUSSERT:  Will this bill, you think, if the president vetoes it, be an issue in the campaign?  The presidential campaign?

SEN. WEBB:  I, I would say the president really has a choice here and--to, to show how much he values military service.  And if he were to veto this bill, I can't see how it would not become an issue in the campaign.  What we want to do is get a bill--and I've been, I've been trying to keep the politics out of it.  I've working--been working really hard to keep the politics out of it. We want to get a bill where Democrats and Republicans can come together.  And I've, I've listened to all the veterans' organizations, I've, I've listened to other members of Congress and, and made modifications in this bill, and I think it's a very fair bill.

MR. RUSSERT:  In the debate over Iraq, which we're going to see this fall, Barack Obama will say have a withdrawal of troops over 16-month period, and John McCain said the other day his goal is to have them out by 2013, but there would be a continued force there.  How do the Democrats argue withdrawal from Iraq without being perceived as weak on foreign or defense policy?

SEN. WEBB:  Well, I think what we need is the kind of leadership that knows how to aggressively pursue robust diplomacy, just as the Baker-Hamilton report and a lot of very strong Republicans from past administrations like Brent Scowcroft have, have said.  There's a, there's a fair preponderance of people who have been thinking in this area who believe that you can put the right sort of diplomatic mechanisms in place so that we can withdraw our troops.  To turn that around the other way, I do not believe that you're ever going to have stability in that region with a large number of troops in Iraq.  We were saying that, the--I was, I was writing about that six months before the invasion.  So it is in the national interest for us to remove our combat forces.  It is in our economic interest in terms of larger grand strategy to do it, and it is doable.  So I don't think there's a downside for the Democratic Party to be saying that.

MR. RUSSERT:  Before you go, you write in your book, page 19, "It's pretty safe to say that I'm the only person in the history of Virginia to be elected to statewide office with a union card, two Purple Hearts, and three tattoos. It was no easy ride." This is a family show.  Are those...

SEN. WEBB:  Then I can show you two.

MR. RUSSERT:  That was my question.  I'm not going to ask where the third is. Senator Jim Webb, "A Time to Fight:  Reclaiming a Fair and Just America," we thank you for sharing your views.

SEN. WEBB:  Thanks for having me.

MR. RUSSERT:  And to read an excerpt of Senator Webb's new book, "A Time to Fight:  Reclaiming a Fair and Just America," logon to our Web site, mtp.msnbc.com.

Coming next, political insiders:  former Democratic congressman from Tennessee, Harold Ford Jr.; former Republican governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee; political strategists--Republican Mike Murphy, Democrat Bob Shrum. The race for the White House 2008 through their eyes, coming up right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Our political roundtable after this very brief station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we're back.  Welcome all.

Bob Shrum, you're a long time associate of Ted Kennedy, and before we begin, I'm going to talk to you a little bit about it.  Here's Senator Kennedy on the Senate floor.  Here he is at the Kennedy compound, photos of the Kennedy compound on Friday.  He was taken in an ambulance on Saturday morning to the local hospital, airlifted to Massachusetts General.  You see him there on the stretcher.  The report from his staff out of Massachusetts General is that he had a seizure, but resting comfortably.  What else can you tell us?

MR. BOB SHRUM:  Oh, he was sitting up in bed eating take-out food from Legal Sea Food, wishing he could go sailing, and watching the Boston Red Sox.  He had a restful night, and I'm told that he'll probably have a really restful day unless we say something on this show that upsets him.

MR. RUSSERT:  But you do expect him to be in the hospital...

MR. SHRUM:  He'll be in there--he'll be there for several days for tests and evaluation.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, obviously, our prayers are with Senator Kennedy as we talk.  Something...

MR. SHRUM:  It was, it was terrifying, if you, if you were a friend, and also, when I think about the country and the role he plays, but I feel a lot better about it today.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, that's good news.  And our thoughts are with him, and we'll say hello to Senator Kennedy.  And we'll talk politics, something he likes.

Richard Engel sat down with George Bush this morning and asked him about his comments that we had seen in our earlier segment in the Knesset in Israel. Here's the president responding to Richard Engel.

(Videotape)

MR. RICHARD ENGEL:  You said that negotiating with Iran is pointless, and then you went further.  You're saying--you said that it was "appeasement." Were you referring to Senator Barack Obama?  He certainly thought you were.

PRES. BUSH:  You know, my policies haven't changed.  But evidently, the political calendar has.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  The president says he's restating his views, it's just the political timetable that's changed.  John McCain, Mike Murphy, after hearing President Bush's comments, had this to say.

(Videotape)

SEN. McCAIN:  This does bring up an issue we'll be discussing with the American people, and that is why, why does Barack Obama, Senator Obama, want to sit down with a state sponsor of terrorism?  It is a serious error on the part of Senator Obama.  It shows naivete and inexperience and lack of judgment to say that he wants to sit down across the table from an individual who leads a country that says--and says that Israel is a stinking corpse, that is dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel.  My question is, what does he want to talk about?

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  And on Friday in South Dakota, Barack Obama responded to both President Bush and Senator McCain.  Let's listen.

(Videotape)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL):  That's exactly the kind of appalling attack that's divided our country and that alienates us from the world.  And that's why we need change in Washington.  George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for.  They've got to explain why we are now in our sixth year--entering our sixth year of war in Iraq.  They're going to have to explain the fact that Osama bin Laden is still at large and is sending out videotapes with impunity. They've got to answer for the fact that Iran is the greatest strategic beneficiary of our invasion in Iraq.  It made Iran stronger, George Bush's policies.  That's the Bush-McCain record on protecting this country.  Those are the failed policies that John McCain wants to double down on.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Harold Ford Jr., first skirmish on foreign policy.  Who won?

MR. HAROLD FORD JR:  It laid out the differences between the two.  What is clear, I think, is what Barack Obama was saying there.  If you look five years ago, ask yourself a simple question:  Is Iran more dangerous today than it was five or six years ago?  You probably have to answer the question yes, and emphatically.  They're exporting weapons into--to Iraq to arm the Shia, to kill our soldiers, and to upset what we're trying to accomplish there. They're providing weapons in support for Hezbollah, which has upset if not upended our efforts in Lebanon, and for that matter the Lebanese government's efforts to bring some stability and to allow democracy to live.

At the same time, we find ourselves, with Israel, in a more dangerous place probably than they were just five or six years ago.  By ignoring threats, you don't confront them or solve them.  With this president and what John McCain will have to answer, who was clearly demonstrating he will pursue a very similar course, is how will you be different?  And I think the question, I come back to it, what I started with, the American people have to ask themself and answer very simple one:  Are we safer today when it comes to Iran, and is Iran more safe or less dangerous today than they were five or six years ago? This approach we have employed over the last five or six years is not working. What Barack Obama offers is a different, cleaner and better approach.

MR. RUSSERT:  Governor Huckabee.

FMR. GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R-AR):  Well, I would disagree that the reason that we're worse off is because of what George Bush has done.  I think it's a little bit disingenuous to say that it's all his fault that things are more dangerous with Iran than they were.  As I look at what happened this week, I've always believed in politics that the counterpunch is more effective than the punch.  So if Barack Obama, instead of taking the punch, had deflected it and then used it as an occasion to say, "He wasn't talking about me, but let me tell you what he should have been talking about," I think it would have been a better political point for him.  But, instead, he allowed himself to take the punch.  And now the frame of this debate is whether or not he has the toughness that John McCain clearly does have to confront enemies.  And I believe Obama made a serious tactical error in that.

MR. RUSSERT:  Bob Shrum.

MR. SHRUM:  I couldn't disagree more.  I think--I mean, I think it's disingenuous--if I step back, what happened this week was that John McCain acquired a third name, a new last name:  John McCain Bush.  And while on the periphery he has some differences with Bush, on the big issues, the war and foreign policy, the economy, health care, he is George Bush.  And if he's Bush 3 instead of the McCain who ran in 2000 when Murphy was running the campaign, he's in big trouble.  Secondly, Barack Obama showed how effective he could be fighting back.  I have no doubt that the American people agree with him on this issue.  Appeasement is not talking to the other side.  Richard Nixon talked to China when they were the state sponsors of the war in Vietnam against America, and it was the right thing to do and it helped advance America's national interest and maybe even to end that war.

GOV. HUCKABEE:  John McCain...

MR. SHRUM:  So that's what--so that's what I really...

GOV. HUCKABEE:  Yeah.

MR. SHRUM:  The amazing thing is the White House backgrounded people that Bush was talking about Obama.  Then when it backfired, they said, "Oh no, we weren't talking about Obama," and they decided to attack poor Jimmy Carter.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mike.

GOV. HUCKABEE:  John McCain is his own man.  Anyone who knows John McCain knows that he has an independence in him that is going to be very difficult for anybody to say that he is George Bush third term.

MR. SHRUM:  He's the one who said it.  He got big-footed, and then he adopted this, this policy that Bush put out there.

MR. MIKE MURPHY:  Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mike Murphy, was it politically helpful for the day John McCain was laying out his vision of his first term...

MR. MURPHY:  Right.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...for the president to inject himself into the race with his words?

MR. MURPHY:  Well, the politics of it were a bit of a jumble.  The policy I think is a winner for John McCain.  Even Hillary Clinton, representing about half the Democratic votes, said it was irresponsible and naive for Barack Obama to adopt this essentially equivalency policy that the horrible dictator of Iran should be treated like the prime minister of Denmark and have any kind of conversation.

MR. RUSSERT:  No...

MR. SHRUM:  Is that, is that what they said?

MR. MURPHY:  No, no, no, but it, it, it--don't interrupt, Bob.

MR. RUSSERT:  Just a minute.  Senator Clinton, in her defense, she did condemn President Bush's comments when she was in South Dakota.

MR. MURPHY:  Right.  But, but Barack Obama has taken the "talk as policy" argument to a full extreme, and he's been criticized for it.  But the point is the politics of it.  I think John McCain is clearly an independent-minded guy who is a better person to prosecute that argument, which I think is an argument the American people will agree with, than, unfortunately, the president right now.  That's the political reality.  So it was a bit of a jumble on political tactics.  But in the longer view, this is a winning issue for McCain because Barack Obama's great weakness is his naivete on foreign policy.

MR. FORD:  Barack Obama's the only candidate running for president who's made clear that he's willing to use military force in Pakistan, if necessary, to go after al-Qaeda and their growth and their proliferation there in that region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  Whether you agree with it or not, you can't call him a weakling.  You certainly can't suggest that he's not prepared to use force if necessary.

MR. MURPHY:  Not weak, naive.

MR. FORD:  Secondly, this country over the last six or seven years has seen oil prices shoot up, which has mean--which has meant regimes who have gone after and tried to upset and, for that matter, disrupt what progress we're seeking to make in the region, we've armed them, we've funded them.  So we can't have it both ways.  I like President Bush personally, but if you're analyzing this as a business person, as a farmer, as a Tennessee doctor or nurse or a fireman or a policeman, you've got to wonder and ask yourself the question, has he really succeeded, as well-intended as he has been?  What Barack Obama has offered and what John McCain will offer will be two totally different approaches.  If you--I concede and admit, gladly, that John McCain is a tough patriot and a warrior.  But I will not concede and I don't believe this country will concede that Barack Obama can't be trusted to be tough, that he can't be trusted to be smart, and can't be trusted to lead this country down a safer and better path in the Middle East.

MR. MURPHY:  Do you think Barack will have a tougher line on Iran than McCain will?

MR. FORD:  I know this, Barack Obama said he's willing to use force to go find al-Qaeda in Pakistan.  John McCain has not.

MR. MURPHY:  Well.

MR. FORD:  John McCain has supported policies over the last seven years, albeit well-intended, but have not worked.  The country wants a different path.  Barack Obama's challenge, I'll concede, you cannot meet with foreign leaders, with terrorists, rather, and those who lead rogue nations without some conditions.

MR. MURPHY:  Right.  Well, that's the point.

MR. FORD:  He's made clear, he's made clear, however, that those conditions, he assumed that was implicit in those meetings, as he had the debate with Hillary Clinton.  If, indeed, we're going to debate process, I'll take my man any, any, any moment, any time of the day.

MR. MURPHY:  But, but, in a quick footnote, the mistake was he didn't make those conditions explicit, which is generally the, the rule of those kind of dialogues.

MR. FORD:  Implicit, explicit, change is what Americans what.

MR. SHRUM:  This is a tone, this is a tone, this is a tone deaf irrelevant debate.  I mean, Secretary of Defense Gates is saying that we ought to have contacts with Iran.  We have negotiated with Iran.  We're now sending hundreds of millions of dollars worth of food to North Korea, which--a country we refused to talk with for a long time.  The fact is that toughness does not consist in refusing to talk.  Toughness refuse--consists in conceding, and, and real mistakes consist in ignoring problems and just saying...

MR. MURPHY:  Yeah, but, Bob, you're redefining...

MR. SHRUM:  Look, the Vietnam War went on for two or three years longer because we argued about the shape of the table instead of sitting down and talking.

MR. MURPHY:  Bob.  Yeah, but Bob, you're missing the point of the argument, which is all talk is not the same.  Talk of conditions at one level is--what Barack--the mistake Barack Obama made that Hillary Clinton jumped on him for was implying that he would talk to anybody, any leader of any country.  And we all know that the rules of diplomacy have layers at which you negotiate what kind of talking...

MR. SHRUM:  He didn't say, he didn't say it would go in the first...

MR. MURPHY:  ...because talk is reward.

MR. SHRUM:  He didn't say...

MR. MURPHY:  Oh, that's what he implied.

MR. SHRUM:  ...we'd go in the first--talk is not, talk is not reward.

MR. RUSSERT:  And there is an interview with James Rubin, as you know, from Senator McCain where he said that, in time, we would have to talk with Hamas.

MR. MURPHY:  Right.  Well, but I think if you look, like many of us did, at the full YouTube of that, I think Rubin mischaracterized it in his op-ed. I--McCain campaign jumped on him appropriately.  The--McCain had a lot of qualifications, if you look at the full context of it, which is not what Rubin paraphrased...

MR. FORD:  But, but, Mike, if we concede that point, why can't you...

MR. MURPHY:  ...in that op-ed, and started that fight, so.

MR. FORD:  ...why can't, you concede the point on Barack?

MR. MURPHY:  McCain has always put conditions on any engagement with any kind of rogue regime.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me, let me move on...

MR. MURPHY:  Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...to the Republican brand, because I think it's important, and it's a subset of this conversation.  Tom Davis, who was the chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee said this.  "The political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November is the worst since Watergate and is far more toxic than the fall of 2006 when we lost 30 seats.  ... Whether measured by polls, open seats, money, voter registration, generic ballot, presidential popularity or issues, our party faces a steep climb to maintain our current numbers.  ...

"Members instinctively understand that the Republican brand is in the trash can.  I've often observed that if we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf." That was a memo to party leaders.

On Tuesday night, when word came out that Mississippi was the third special election that had fallen to the Democrats after Illinois and Louisiana, one Mike Huckabee was on MSNBC, asked to respond to that, and this is what he said.

(Videotape)

GOV. HUCKABEE:  I think that it really does indicate that the Republican brand is badly damaged.  John McCain can't run the Republican brand.  He's got to run a different approach.  If he just says, "I'm the Republican candidate," I don't think it's a very good year.  You know, but people ultimately don't buy the brand, they buy the cereal.  So what we've got to be able to do is to show that there are individuals out there that are worth supporting and worth electing.  But they can't go out there and ride the elephant down Main Street, because if they do, the elephant's going to get shot out from under him.

(End videotape)

GOV. HUCKABEE:  He's a smart guy, Tim.  You ought to listen to him.

MR. RUSSERT:  But it sounds like your party's in trouble.

GOV. HUCKABEE:  It is in trouble.  I mean, you know, I can't sit here and tell you it isn't in trouble.  You'd, you'd look at me and you'd, you'd crack up laughing.  Of course it's in trouble.  When we lose races in places like Mississippi, where we should have won that race, period, and the race in Louisiana and Ohio, there's no doubt that the Republican brand is in trouble. It's damaged.  And so I could try to gloss that over.  Now, here's what I think--if there is a sort of silver lining in this very cloudy sky of ours--it is that John McCain is not the traditional, establishment Republican.  Thank goodness he's going to carry our banner this fall, because I think he's the guy that has the best chance of sort of saying, "OK, you don't like the traditional Republican brand, I'm the new and improved.  I'm the different version of it." Because he is, and no one who's ever observed John McCain through all of these years can say that he is just like all these others.  He is not a mimeograph of the originals.

MR. FORD:  I live next door to that district in Mississippi in Memphis.  I represented that district for 10 years.  Many, many from Memphis have moved into that area, right across, right across the border line.  Two things.  The MVP in that race was George Bush.  He's been the great organizing force, the great catalyst.  John McCain voted with George Bush 95 percent of the time.  I hear you, your point, Governor, and I know you're trying hard to stick to those talking points, but the reality is, the facts are the facts.  Dick Cheney traveled to Mississippi and campaigned vigorously for the Republican there a few days before.  You had a 10 point win, almost, by a fellow who had, had owned no local office, run for local office before.  Illinois and Louisiana, we know the record.  What it says is that conservative Democrats--Democrats have a message from this, too.  We can't run a liberal campaign.  It was a conservative Democrat, moderate Democrat approach.  That approach is on the ascendancy in the party.  If Barack Obama adopts that approach, he will enjoy more success in many places around the country and might be able to expand a map to the extent that his team is suggesting, in North Carolina, in Georgia, and even Mississippi.  There's a lesson for Democrats as well, and I hope we take it.

MR. MURPHY:  I hope you do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mike Murphy, can, can John McCain shake off eight years of George Bush?

MR. MURPHY:  Sure.  I mean, the reality is McCain is a very unique animal. He is a different kind of Republican.  That is the truth of McCain.  The Democrats are making a big mistake if they think they can glue a phony "somebody-else" suit on John McCain, because John McCain will bust out of it. That's who he is, I know him very well.  So I think they're making a big--they want to beat George Bush again, which they can do.  But President Bush is not on the ballot now.  I, I think his political problems were a little unfair to him, but that's the reality.  McCain's his own guy, and he will--if McCain runs the campaign McCain naturally will want to run, I think he's going to be the most powerful possible Republican we have because he's a change agent in Washington.

The question is will the rest of the Republican Party get out of the way and align themselves to follow it?  A hundred days ago, I would have said McCain would have real internal problems in the party doing that.  Now, after these defeats, everybody's a McCainiac now over in the House of Representatives, which is a change, but a good one.  And I, I think McCain is well-positioned to do well if he runs the campaign that is who he really is, which is a centrist and a change agent.

MR. SHRUM:  Murphy, Murphy...

MR. MURPHY:  No, but I know the guy, that's who he is.

MR. SHRUM:  You're in a--I know.  You're not there yet, but you're already spinning very hard.  Look, what happened was...

MR. MURPHY:  It's the truth, Bob.  It'll lift you up.

MR. SHRUM:  What happened, what happened...

MR. RUSSERT:  This is Murphy's law.

MR. SHRUM:  Yeah.

MR. MURPHY:  Exactly.

MR. SHRUM:  Murphy's law is...

MR. MURPHY:  Let McCain be McCain.

MR. SHRUM:  ...Senator McCain, please listen to Murphy.  Hire him, this is how he wants you to run.

Look, what he did in the first week of the general election was he put on the Bush suit, he picked up this whole issue about appeasement, which was a phony issue.  I think there is no question, I think there is no question Barack Obama is going to pass the threshold question on whether or not he can be commander in chief.

I think the real issue here is how does John McCain pass the threshold on the economy, where he endorses the Bush policies; on health care, where he endorses the Bush policies; on a whole range of issues where the country is deeply dissatisfied with the direction that we've been taken in.  And if John McCain continues to go down this road, he will suffer a loss of historic proportions, I believe.

GOV. HUCKABEE:  Bob, he's not taking on the economic policies.  He's talking about vetoing spending bills, he's talking about making sure that we don't go out there and increase taxes.  And that is not exactly the same policies.

MR. SHRUM:  No, no.  He's actually talking about extending the Bush tax cuts for people at the top.  The country doesn't want to do that.  And the Republican National Committee keeps issuing these pot boiler press releases accusing Obama of wanting to raise taxes on hard-working people.

MR. MURPHY:  Whoa, whoa, one...

MR. SHRUM:  I understand your party's definition of hard-working people...

MR. MURPHY:  We're glad you're reading them.

MR. SHRUM:  ...of hard-working people is someone who makes over a million dollars a year.

MR. MURPHY:  Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT:  I want, I want to talk about Barack Obama and, and the faith, which is now front and center in the campaign; an attempt, I think, by the Obama campaign to brid the--bridge the cultural divide that he is experiencing in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Before I do that, Governor Huckabee, Friday at the NRA...

GOV. HUCKABEE:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...you went down and made a joke, and I want to show that and give you a chance to come back and talk about it.

GOV. HUCKABEE:  OK.

MR. RUSSERT:  Here's Governor Huckabee on Friday.

(Videotape)

GOV. HUCKABEE:  But the reality is--and I'm worried, because, frankly, within the...(crash in background)...that was Barack Obama, he just tripped off a chair.  He's getting ready to speak, and somebody aimed a gun at him and he, he dove for the floor.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Now, many who have been concerned about the security of Senator Obama took great offense to that.

GOV. HUCKABEE:  It was a dumb, off-the-cuff remark.  There was a Bobby Knight incident going on backstage with a chair that fell, made a terrible noise, distracted the crowd.  I apologized for it immediately.  In no way--Tim, anybody that knows me knows that I would never, ever try to inject something like that to, to create any dangerous moment for any candidate, I don't care who it is.  And, you know, it wasn't the first dumb thing I've ever said and, let me go ahead and announce on this program, it won't be the last dumb thing I've ever said.  I'm sure I'll make other comments.  I mean, we all in politics do.  Ronald Reagan had an open mike and said, "I'm going to launch a nuclear attack against Russia." I remember John McCain, you know, sang "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." I thought that was funny.  But, I mean, a lot of people didn't.  This wasn't funny, I'll be the first to tell you that. Shouldn't have said it.  I apologize.  I don't know what else I can do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to the issue of faith and Barack Obama.  This is a letter that's being circulated in churches in Kentucky:  "Dear Pastor and church family, ...  if there is one thing I've learned from my time as a community organizer on the Southside of Chicago all the way to my work in the United States Senate today, it's that ordinary people, with the grace of an awesome God, can do extraordinary things."

And then this flyer:  "Faith, Hope, Change.  Barack Obama for president.  My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work." Obama for America flyer.

Which led David Brody of the Christian Broadcast Network to blog this: "Remember Mike Huckabee's supposed subliminal cross in his Christmas campaign ad?  Well, the Obama campaign ditches the subliminal and goes for the in your face cross.  ...

"The Obama campaign has consistently believed that their candidate can compete for the `religious vote.' A lot has been made about how Obama hasn't done as well with Catholics compared to Clinton.  But let's remember one thing:  Obama has a story to tell about how Jesus came into his life.  You can bet we will be hearing more details about it on the stump in the fall.  (if Obama is the nominee)

"Meanwhile, John McCain won't be partaking in the `Evangelical speak' or handing out these types of flyers in the south which makes you wonder if Huckabee could help McCain shore up the Evangelical base and at the same time play to the Independent middle with his populist streak."

Mr. Vice President.

GOV. HUCKABEE:  I thought that was going to be Harold Ford.

First of all, I think it's interesting that nobody's jumping on Obama for this very blatant cross in his ad.  And I took grief for months, I'm still taking it, over something that wasn't even a cross.  It was a bookshelf, for heaven's sakes.  It really was a bookshelf.  It, it shows, though, that there are two sets of rules that sometimes we play by.  And if Republicans even get near a church, we're accused of embracing it.

Frankly, I'm delighted to see Obama talk about his faith.  I, I don't have any problems with it.  In fact, I am refreshed by it, I applaud him for it, I welcome it.  I think it's an appropriate thing, because he is a person of faith.  He's being honest with the people.  I've always said that's the only thing that matters is authenticity and honesty.  If you are a person of faith, let us know that.  If you're not, be honest and say, "That's just not that important to me." I can still vote for you, if you aren't.  What I can't do is vote for you if you're not honest with me.

MR. RUSSERT:  Be honest.  Would you like to be vice president?

GOV. HUCKABEE:  I'd like John McCain to be president.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, would your being vice president help him?

GOV. HUCKABEE:  I don't know.  I mean, he's the only one who can know that. And I'm not trying to be coy about it, but the truth is running for vice president is not something one does.  And here's what I can tell you.

MR. RUSSERT:  But if he said to me, "In order to become president, you could help me.  Would you be my vice president," you'd say yes?

GOV. HUCKABEE:  There's no one I would rather be on a ticket with than John McCain.  You know, let, let me point out that all during the campaign, when I was his rival, not a running mate, there was no one who was more complimentary of him publicly and privately.  He was my number two choice.  I want to make sure you know he was my number two choice.  I still wanted to win, but if I couldn't, John McCain, from always, was the guy I would've supported and have now supported.

But whether or not I do the best for him, that's something that only he can decide.  I'm going to support him because I think he's the right person for America.  I think he has the kind of seasoning and maturity that this country needs.  We are in crisis.  We are in crisis with $4 a gallon gasoline, we're in crisis with small businesses who can't barely get through their government paperwork, and I believe that right now, in a time of crisis, we don't need to test drive, we need to make sure that we've got a reliable person in that chair, and that's John McCain.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mike Murphy, when you see a Democratic candidate like Barack Obama?

MR. MURPHY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...publicly professing his faith...

MR. MURPHY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...which is unusual for a Democratic candidate to be--to feel comfortable being able to do just that...

MR. MURPHY:  Right.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...does it cause you concern that he be able to connect with people, values voters?

MR. MURPHY:  It doesn't bother me kind of either way.  I, I respect his right to do it.  I'm kind of an Obama fan for a Republican.  I think he's an honest guy, and I think his reform instincts.  I think, as a practical politician, I look at it and I see Obama is trying to reach out to a voter group that, so far in the primaries, he's had great trouble with, and I understand why he's doing it.  I don't think he's being disingenuous.

I, I think that Obama's going to have a problem now, a challenge, moving from being an exceptional primary candidate to a general election candidate.  Now, he's got the environment working for him, but the question is, is he going to be able to connect in these swing states and not only in the South, I'm more worried from an Obama point of view if I were thinking that way, about the industrial Midwest, the states where he's had trouble in the primary against Hillary Clinton.  And I think embracing culturally conservative voters is a good strategy for him.  Whether or not, in the ultimate analysis, he'll line up on the policy issues they care about is a very open question, and I think it's still a point of great vulnerability for him in an election.

MR. SHRUM:  You, you don't have to be culturally conservative to be religious, and I think, and I agree with Governor Huckabee here...

GOV. HUCKABEE:  Can we hear that again?  You don't...

MR. SHRUM:  You don't have to be culturally--well, actually, I endorsed you for president.  I thought the Republicans should've nominated you, and I think maybe McCain should pick you for vice president.  And I mean that with all due respect.

MR. RUSSERT:  There goes that bid.

GOV. HUCKABEE:  Yeah, I'm toast.  The torpedo.

MR. SHRUM:  But, but I think it's, it's, it's interesting, and it would be an amazing development in American politics if we actually got rid of this church vs. anti-church division in our politics.  And I don't know how we got there. You know, when you put up that second Obama leaflet, it's very close to what John Kennedy said at the end of his inaugural address, "Here on earth, God's work must truly be our own." I don't think there's anything wrong with people talking about that.  I don't think you have to be religious to be elected president or that that should be a test.  The, the Constitution says it shouldn't be.  But if you are, you ought to tell people and we ought to get rid of this wall that's gone down American politics that Karl Rove built brick by brick by brick that said that if you believe, if you believe in God, if you believe in the church, you're a Republican.  You know what?  I don't think God has enrolled with either party.

MR. FORD:  Let me--I, I think Mike Murphy and, and Bob have raised two interesting points.  First, the polling and the numbers show that Barack Obama and John McCain are tied amongst white voters in this country, 44-44.  He leads Barack Obama some 48-40, these are the most recent Post/ABC polls, leads amongst independent voters, 48-41, and enjoys a seven point lead nationally. Now, those numbers will change, obviously.  It's just a snapshot of where we are.

But if you're Barack Obama, in light of all that has transpired, the Iranian comment from President Bush, which I thought--I would agree with you, the politics was very, very clumsy, we didn't touch on that very much--to the Jeremiah Wright issue, on three, the bitter comments, he still finds himself in a strong position.  He will have to alter and amend some of the things he's doing heading into the fall campaign, or he will have to amplify certain things in order to, to convince and persuade voters in big parts of the country that he's not only for them, but understands them.  But I have to say, he's starting off in a strong point.  I ran faith ads when I ran for the Senate.  I didn't win my Senate race.  We lost a close race.  But I think without them, we would've probably lost by a larger margin.  Because, unless you're able to connect with voters and show that indeed your faith is not only important but you understand where the morale and their faith and the nucleus and base comes from, it's harder to connect with certain voters.  And I think what Barack Obama's done here in Kentucky and is doing in other parts of the country is a smart thing.  I hope he's not afraid to talk about it, because the more Democrats are willing to share and be open about these issues, I think the more likely it is voters will say, "I'm going to listen to them on economic policy, national security and foreign policy issues."

MR. RUSSERT:  And that's St.  Albans training, choosing the hard right over the easy wrong.

MR. FORD:  Three chapels a week, Reverend...(unintelligible)...married me three weeks ago in the cathedral services, did.

MR. MURPHY:  Although, it, it is a point without minor controversy in the Democratic Party.  There's a hard secular wind--wing of the party that doesn't like any of this stuff.  And, and so this is...

MR. SHRUM:  As someone who's been accused of representing the hard secular wing of the Democratic Party, can I say--and I am a person myself of faith--can I say that I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with talking about your faith?  You ought to talk about your faith.  You ought not to say that the laws of the United States ought to enact any specific religious doctrine...

MR. MURPHY:  Well, yeah.

MR. SHRUM:  ...but you ought to talk about your values.  And, and, as I said before, I know the Republicans are in really bad shape this year, but God is not going to endorse the Republican Party.

MR. MURPHY:  Well, Bob, now we know you were wrongly accused.  You're clearly not of that wing.

MR. RUSSERT:  Tuesday, Oregon and Kentucky,

MR. MURPHY:  Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...two primaries.  Hillary Clinton still campaigning, not against Barack Obama.  She is now taking on another group of people, Washington insiders.  This was Hillary Clinton on the campaign stump on Saturday.

(Videotape)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY):  And you know all those people on TV who are telling you and everybody else that this race is over and I should, you know, just be, you know, graceful and say, "Oh, it's over," even though I've won more votes, those are all people who have a job.  Those are all people who have health care.  Those are all people who can afford to send their kids to college.  Those are all people who can pay whatever is charged at the gas pump.  They're not the people I'm running to be a champion for.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Where's the love?

MR. MURPHY:  You know, I hear...

MR. RUSSERT:  She must be talking about James Carville and Rahm Emanuel, because...

MR. SHRUM:  No, no.  She has a, she has a picture of you in her ad, and I think a picture of George Stephanopoulos.  Look, her problem...

MR. RUSSERT:  And Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews...

MR. SHRUM:  And if she wants to get mad, she ought to put a picture of Euclid up there, because the problem is the math doesn't add up.  No matter how you do this, this race is fundamentally over.  She's not going to be the Democratic nominee for president, Barack Obama is.  And we need to go into a process of healing.  And I want to say, on her behalf in the last week, the, the level of the rhetoric has come down, the level of the attacks have come down.  She's making an electability argument.  I think she really cares about the Democratic Party, and I hope that, in the end, whether she's mad at you or not, she can somehow or other help unite this party and move us toward victory in November.

MR. RUSSERT:  Sister Lucille taught me how to add, that's my only...

MR. MURPHY:  Well, I understand when her...

GOV. HUCKABEE:  You're going to take all the fun out of this, Bob.

MR. MURPHY:  ...when her campaign bus left that rally, one of the Maker's Mark barrels was missing, which is my poll of the real state of the Clinton campaign.  They're in it for fun now, not reality.

MR. RUSSERT:  But isn't there a long history of taking on the press when things are going bad?

MR. MURPHY:  Oh, yeah.  Rudy Giuliani ran the same ad with also of MEET THE PRESS pundit footage--in fact, I was in it and I bristle at that.  I live in LA and I'm a political consultant.  But any dying campaign, the last argument you have is, "Let's show those clowns in Washington us people don't believe the thing about me being dead in politics." A week later, they're dead in politics.

MR. RUSSERT:  In terms of uniting the Democratic Party, big discussion, debate about Hillary Clinton on the ticket with Barack Obama.  Michael Goodwin of The New York Daily news wrote this, headline:  "Barack's biggest problem" "How to get rid of her gently.  Offering Clinton his vice presidential slot isn't the answer.  She would undercut the essence of his message--a break from the partisan polarization Clinton embodies.  And Clinton, despite her appeal, probably doesn't put a single state in the Democratic column Obama couldn't win without her.  ...

"Even if they were to win together, an Obama-Clinton-Clinton administration would be a three-ring circus.  Obama would be double-teamed and maybe double-crossed by Bill and Hillary, both of whom would be looking to get back to the Oval Office.  Competing power centers would be a permanent condition in everything from foreign policy to health care."

Bob Beckel, who was Walter Mondale's campaign manager in 1984, writes this: "Does Obama want Hillary Clinton on the ticket?  Absolutely not.  Can he stop her if she wants it?  Probably not.  Why not?  Superdelegates are why not. ...

"Almost all superdelegates have had a long history with the Clintons.  ... Can you imagine how hard it was for most of these superdelegates to turn down the former president of the United States?" when he called and said, "Will you be for Hillary?" But if he calls them now, Bill Clinton says, "Will you be for her for VP?" Harold Ford, what happens?

MR. FORD:  Well, he probably won't, and hopefully he won't do that.  I think what the party has to consider is what will bring people together.  I think Bob's point is spot on.  I think Senator Obama, Senator Clinton should have conversations about bringing it together, about bringing their--not only their donors and fundraisers together, which has been talked about in newspapers this morning, but how do you bring your supporters together, how do you synchronize the message, how do you sure this coordination on that part?  I think Senator Obama's got to look at a whole range of things.  Some of them have been mentioned:  states that he wins, how he's able to take his message of hope and change and translate it into a real policy--a set of policy prescriptions when he becomes president.  Maybe Senator Clinton gives him that advantage.  I'd love to see him consider the fellow you had on the show a little earlier.  I'd love to see him consider even General Powell.  I'd love to see him think long and hard about Strickland and Rendell in the two industrial states.  He'll have time to do this, but I will say that those who fret about an Obama-Clinton-Clinton ticket, or what they may mean in the White House, I can assure you of one thing, you have to win to have those problems. And I'd rather have those problems then have John McCain as president.

MR. MURPHY:  I think McCain might pick her, but I'll be stunned if Obama does.  I mean, McCain might.  They agree about Obama.  The problem is...

MR. SHRUM:  That's why they won't hire you in the McCain....

MR. MURPHY:  Oh, no, no, I--yeah, I--the problem--you don't pick somebody who symbolizes what your campaign was about changing.  It doesn't work.  Now, I think the practical politics inside the Democratic Party, there will be pressure on him, on him to pick her.  It could happen.  But I think it would be a big--it would be very bad political karma, I think, for Obama to do that.

MR. SHRUM:  I think he'll make a very hard-headed decision.  That's what Kennedy did with Johnson, that's what Reagan did when he picked Bush.  I don't think it'll be based on pressure from inside the party.  I don't think it'll be based on who looks good in a photo op.  I think the questions will be, "Does this person reinforce or undercut the message?  Can this person help me in states I might not otherwise win, or deliver a state as Strickland or Bill Nelson might?  Can this person help on the national security foreign policy front, as Jim Webb or Wes Clark might?" I think there are--or Joe Biden, or Chris Dodd.  So I think there are a number of considerations out there.  But the one thing I will say is not going to happen is the Clintons are not going to force Hillary's way onto the ticket.  That ticket would lose.  Obama would look weak if he gave in to that kind of pressure...

MR. MURPHY:  In fact...

MR. SHRUM:  ...and the last thing people want in a president is someone who's weak.  It's not going to happen.

MR. MURPHY:  The, the best scenario would be some pressure on Obama, and he stands up and says no, because then he'd have what he isn't perceived as having now, which is a ton of political strength.

MR. RUSSERT:  Vice President Huckabee, who would you like to debate?

GOV. HUCKABEE:  You, you keep going to this.  Let me see.  (Grabs phone to ear) That was Senator McCain.  He said to quit this talk.  I'd like for whoever will help the Democrats to implode most.  That's what I'm looking for. You know, I don't pretend to know what, what's going to work or not work for them.

MR. SHRUM:  That's why I endorsed you.

GOV. HUCKABEE:  That's right, that's why it's all...

MR. FORD:  That's why he may endorse you.  Careful.

GOV. HUCKABEE:  I think that it would be very tough for them to, to marry at this point.  I really do.  Because the heat of the, the campaign has, has gotten personal, and while that could heal over, I'm not sure it can heal over within their supporters, and that's where it gets tough.

MR. SHRUM:  Can I defend her, though?  Can I defend her, though?

MR. FORD:  I have a wild--I have a wild card for VP.  My governor, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, has shown how you win in the South.  He's been able to do some of the things we've talked about.

MR. RUSSERT:  He's from upstate New York.

MR. FORD:  Conservative, moderate Democrat.  We keep that quiet.  But we will keep him as our Tennessee, as our Tennessee governor.

MR. SHRUM:  Can I say one quick thing?  Can I say one quick thing on Hillary Clinton's behalf?  I don't think the animosity between them and their supporters matters.  John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and their supporters did not get along in 1960.  If it's the right ticket, it ought to be the ticket. Question is whether it's the right ticket.

MR. RUSSERT:  That...

MR. MURPHY:  It's not.

MR. RUSSERT:  That has to be the last word.  Shrum, Murphy, Congressman Ford...

MR. FORD:  Our prayers go out to Senator Kennedy.

MR. RUSSERT:  Vice President Huckabee.

MR. SHRUM:  Thank you.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Start your day tomorrow on "Today" with Matt and Meredith, and the "NBC Nightly News" with Brian Williams.

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

Congratulations to the Boston College Class of 2008, one guy in particular.

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