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No Revote in Florida; Obama and Race

Aired March 17, 2008 - 20:00   ET


CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: A big day in politics, everybody, with all sorts of important developments on the campaign trail.
Florida's Democrats have just thrown their hands in the air and said a revote is not going to happen, no new primary, no new caucus, and they're telling the national party, you broke it; you fix it.

Well, speaking of fixing things, the economy is huge mess. No surprise there. But, when politicians say they have the cure, are they telling you the truth? A reality check on what you're hearing right now from the candidates.

But our top story, as it has been so often in this campaign, is about race. Senator Barack Obama has announced he will deliver a major speech tomorrow about it. He's already denounced controversial remarks from his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

But, today, Obama said the criticism of Wright has crossed the line.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The statements that were a source of controversy from Reverend Wright were wrong, and I strongly condemn them. I think the caricature that's being painted of him is not accurate.


BROWN: Our Suzanne Malveaux is in Pittsburgh. She's covering the campaign.

And, Suzanne, what do we know about the speech tomorrow, and how did it come about?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Campbell, we know that it was Barack Obama's idea, first and foremost.

He talked a little bit about it today at a press conference. I also talked to his chief strategist, David Axelrod, about this. But he felt like he needed to get beyond what people were talking about for the last couple of weeks. Obviously, he is going to address the controversy, Reverend Wright. He's going to talk about those remarks.

He's also going to defend him, as he has done in the past, because he believe that he's become somewhat of a caricature in the media. But beyond that, what we expect that he's going to talk about is very much how he talked about this in Indiana over the weekend. He talked about his background. It was very personal.

He says that he's a diverse family, that his mother is a white from Kansas, his father a black African from Kenya, that he has, what he calls, many different pieces of America all inside of himself. And so he has a unique perspective to bring people together, to reconcile.

He's also going to talk about the fact that there's a lot of anger, there's resentment and there's pain in the history of America when it comes to racism. He's going to talk about the fact that inequality still exists. But he's going to try to turn the corner and turn page and make this a call to unity. He's going to say there's nothing that we can't do unless we bring people together, and that this is a moment that he must seize, and that this is what he's going to try to do -- Campbell.

BROWN: But, Suzanne, in all honestly, it's about more than just sort of bringing everyone together in unity. They want to give the speech to put this issue to rest to allow him to start talking again about other issues like the economy and like Iraq and health care.

So, do they believe that this speech will be able to do that?

MALVEAUX: Well, obviously, there's a political element to all of this as well. They want to move forward. They have been talking about the fact that they have got to get beyond this, so that people will listen to what he's talking about, what he's saying.

What's interesting, the backstory here, Campbell, is just yesterday I got a chance to talk to Reverend Freddie Haynes. He's at the Friendship-West Baptist Church. That is a megachurch that is out of Dallas, 10,000 members.

I talked to him today. He was on a conference call yesterday with more than 50 representatives of black churches and ministries, on the phone with representatives from Barack Obama's campaign. They're outraged. They're angry. They feel that Reverend Wright in one word -- one person said that he had been treated like he was lynched by the media, that they want to make things right here, but they believe that there's a way to do this, and that he needs to come out and express this as a moment to bring people together, to educate.

So clearly he's in a situation here. He's got folks on one side who are frustrated that he needs to answer to. And on the other hand, he's got to convince some of those white male voters that he has a great deal of support, that this is not something to be threatened by -- Campbell.

BROWN: All right, Suzanne Malveaux for us tonight -- Suzanne, thanks.

And we should mention we will have a lot more on this later in the hour.

But, first, we want to go tonight's other big issue. It is the economy. And frankly, it has a lot of people intensely worried right now. Look at our new poll -- 74 percent say the country is now in a recession. That's the highest it has been since we started asking the question back in October.

Over the weekend, the federal government stepped in, as you all know by now, to help save a big investment bank, Bear Stearns. And all of our political leaders have offered their views. President Bush says, essentially, job well done.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One thing is for certain. We're in challenging times. But another thing is for certain, that we have taken strong and decisive action.


BROWN: Senator Clinton says we should have done things her way.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, when I first called for a lot of these steps, I was ridiculed by the Bush administration and frankly my Democratic opponent. Now we are in the soup.


BROWN: Where Senator Clinton sees soup, Senator Barack Obama seems to see a cliff.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's no doubt that we are teetering on a potential crisis on Wall Street.


BROWN: So, what is it? Are we teetering in the soup, or are we taking decisive action here?

Let's try to get some straight answers from CNN senior business correspondent Ali Velshi.

Welcome to you. Good to have you.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Campbell, good to be on the show.

OK, so they're both hitting -- the candidates, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, both hitting the economy pretty hard as an issue. But whoever gets elected, a new president, would they actually be able to do anything about this?

VELSHI: A new president is not going to be in office for several months from now. They're not going to be able to do nearly as much as they're saying on the campaign that they would like to do, or that they can do.

They're hitting on the things that Americans are worried about. But, when you think about those, gas prices, inflation, fear of job losses, things like that, these are not short-term issues. They can't -- the president and the presidential candidates can't solve those. They're going to inherit some of these problems. We are where we are. As Hillary Clinton says, we're in the soup.

BROWN: So, how bad is it? Is it recession?

VELSHI: Well, look, 74 percent of our viewers -- or Americans, in fact. Those aren't our viewers. Those are CNN people that we polled -- said that we are in a session. It kind of doesn't matter at that point because people behave a certain way when they feel like inflation is out of control, their job might not be there. We don't know yet whether we are. It's one of those things you have to see...


BROWN: It almost doesn't matter if you're meeting the technical definition right?

VELSHI: A lot of people, a lot of very smart people, will say, yes, we are. But the technicalities, it almost doesn't matter. You're right.

BROWN: OK. So if voters are saying to us, this is the issue that I care about more than anything else, the economy, I'm trying to figure out who to vote for, what should they be looking at if the candidates can't really do things about the economy, which is what you seem to be saying?

VELSHI: They can do things about the economy in a slightly longer term. So, take a look at things that take a couple years of fix.

BROWN: Like?

VELSHI: Taxes, for instance.


VELSHI: They differ on those things.

Now, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have similar views on taxes. They will keep the tax cuts in place for the middle class, eliminate the tax cuts for the wealthy. John McCain would keep and make permanent President Bush's tax cuts for everybody. He would also eliminate the alternative middle class, which more and more middle- class earners are falling in to. So, taxes are one issue.

The second one is NAFTA. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been saying a lot about how they want to change NAFTA to be more friendly to U.S. workers. That's perhaps more ambitious than they would like to let on. That's tough to do.

BROWN: Right.

VELSHI: John McCain says NAFTA is a success and he would keep it, and he would negotiate other agreements similar to NAFTA.

And finally, the big one -- and it's sort of placing quite high on our polls -- is health care. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as much as they want to draw distinctions between their positions, they're similar in so far as it's sort of a universality. It's health care for everyone.

John McCain is looking at a health care program which is a little more market-based. Both of them have their ups and downs. They both want to sort of cover more people. But that's where they differ. So, if you're looking to make an economic decision on your candidates, look at the issues that they actually can have an influence on a little further down the road.

BROWN: On your life more generally, where you may see some relief.

VELSHI: That's right.

BROWN: OK, that helps a lot. Ali Velshi, good to have you here. Thank you very much.

OK. We're going to bring our panel into this discussion right now.

We have got quite a crew with us.

You're going to have to help me. Lakshman Achuthan.


BROWN: OK. I tried. OK.

And also with us, Charles Gasparino, who is an on-air editor at CNBC, the author of "King of the Club: Richard Grasso and the Survival of the New York Stock Exchange," Kelly Evans, staff reporter at "The Wall Street Journal."

And, Lakshman, let me go to you and give you your full due, managing director, Economic Cycle Institute and the author of "Beating the Business Cycle."


BROWN: I got to be honest. What Ali just said is pretty terrifying to me, because I think the way all of us think about this, we see -- we hear crisis. People are using those words on Wall Street. And we think, oh, my God. There's a presidential campaign going on. These guys can do something about it, right? They can't, can they?

CHARLES GASPARINO, CNBC: They don't have to make it worse. Remember what happened in the Great Depression? You probably don't remember. You're not that old. I'm sorry. But...



GASPARINO: But, in 1929, we had a stock market crash.

BROWN: Right.

GASPARINO: What prolonged it more than 10 years was bad policy, Hoover raising taxes, Hoover cutting off trade, Franklin Delano Roosevelt expanding the size of government, at the expense of private industry. That's what happened.

That's why that thing lasted 11 years, because of bad policy that made an economic event, the stock market crash then -- now we have the subprime crisis -- it made it much worse.

The question for Barack Obama, the question for Hillary Clinton, they want to raise taxes. Is that the right prescription? I know this is bad, because it's class war. You always want to beat up on the rich. But is it smart to raise taxes on people who are actually going to spend money and employ other people, employ poor people? That, I think, is a dumb policy prescription.

BROWN: Just keeping this in the context of the campaign, is that what we're going to end up debating? As we move into a general election and the economy remains the number-one issue, is it going to be about taxes?

ACHUTHAN: Well, unfortunately, it's going to be about that. I think that that's absolutely right. That's where they want the debate to be.

Where it should be is, how can we revert the recession that is just unfolding now, instead of what are we going to do a year from now? It's almost like they're talking about creating a safety net for a recession that hasn't occurred yet, as opposed to avoiding the recession.

Now, mind you, everybody patted themselves on the back, everybody who is in office, for getting the stimulus package together, right? And we all said, this is an emergency. The consumer needs help. This will revert a recession. So, they're essentially saying the consumer needs CPR. Oh, but we're going to wait half a year until we apply it.


ACHUTHAN: Now, that just doesn't sound right at all.

BROWN: But that's the way Congress works. Can you do anything that's an immediate relief?


ACHUTHAN: Well, we see sometimes they can do things quickly when they set their mind to it or if you think outside the box. Now, there's a technical definition of a recession and so on. And that doesn't really matter to the man on the street. But what does matter if we do indeed go into a recession is that it brings with it months on end of job losses. You have only seen a couple of months of slightly negative job losses. If we go into a recession, you're going to see a lot more of that. So, the kind of attitudes and feelings that we're having are going to get worse.


GASPARINO: If you cover the markets, you know that we are in a global panic. Every major financial institution is burdened by huge amounts of debt on their books, leveraged to the hilt. This is a problem, that the whole system right now is jammed up.


GASPARINO: They don't want to lend.


KELLY EVANS, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": A lot of people right now are saying when we say we're talking about a recession, we won't even know for a couple of years whether this was technically a recession or is.

But the thing is, they're saying, look, the job losses aren't that bad. Unemployment is not that bad. And I think you have a point, which is saying yet. And job losses and that sort of thing aren't that bad yet. What's going to happen with that in the coming months?

GASPARINO: We could make it worse a lot. It could be very easy to make it worse. You put the wrong policy prescription in here, and you can have a depression. Remember, these sort of economic cycles reoccur every couple years. The problem is, what do policy-makers do?


ACHUTHAN: We're not going to have a recession.


GASPARINO: If we raise taxes, you don't think that...

ACHUTHAN: Nobody is going to raise taxes heavily here.


GASPARINO: They're going to raise taxes on the people with the most money to spend.


ACHUTHAN: You're having stimulus go out right now. And, mind you, it's an old business cycle quip, but it holds true exactly to your comment, which is, it's a recession when you're out of a job. It's a depression when I'm out of a job.


BROWN: Hold on, guys, because we're going to have the tax debate in a general election, raise taxes or not to raise taxes. That's coming later. We all know that's coming later. The stimulus package has been passed. Is it going to do anything?

GASPARINO: This is decaffeinated coffee. This is decaffeinated. This is insane. It does nothing.


ACHUTHAN: It's all about timing. If it happens now...


GASPARINO: What are you going to do with a $300 check?

ACHUTHAN: Well, you see, you pay down some debt and then you go out and run up your debt again.


GASPARINO: That's the point.

ACHUTHAN: But hang on a second, though.

The real point is, and I think that what people are missing is that because people have been so pessimistic about the economy for so long, a year, and 74 percent say we're in a recession, this has business managers, they have pared down inventory. The cupboards are bare.


ACHUTHAN: If there's any bump in demand, it goes right through to production. That was the opportunity that all these policy-makers -- all these of people who are campaigning are in office. They all had an opportunity to push this policy, the stimulus through quicker, instead of waiting until the summer. That's the policy mistake.


GASPARINO: This stimulus may be good politics, but it's lousy policy, because it's really not going to much for the economy. The real question...


GASPARINO: If you have disposable income, you have money, will you spend in the future, when the specter of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is staring you in the face? (CROSSTALK)

BROWN: We have got to go.

But I'm giving Kelly the last word on the stimulus package.

EVANS: It will help. It's going to be a Band-Aid. It's not going to fundamentally change what's happening over the next couple of months.

BROWN: OK, guys, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

There's breaking political news in Florida. Will they have another Democratic primary? Tonight, it's back to the drawing board. We're going to tell you all about that.

And then later, John McCain in Iraq talking about how much longer we're going to be there.


BROWN: Barack Obama picked up a few more delegates over the weekend due to county conventions in Iowa. The CNN count now gives Obama 1,618 to Clinton's 1,479, a lead of 139.

As of now, 2,024 delegates are needed to cinch -- or to cinch, rather, the nomination. Clinch or cinch? But the state of Florida could still make some major changes in that delegate count if Florida's 210 delegates can somehow get seated at the convention.

But one option is out. Just hours ago, Florida Democratic Party leaders issued a resounding no to the idea of a revote by mail or any other way.

John Zarrella joining me now from Miami. He's got the very latest on this.

So, John, is it a done deal? Is there more to come? When is this thing going to be resolved?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: Campbell, I don't know. I think if the 2000 election taught us anything, it's that it's never really over in Florida. And so there are still some possibilities out there.

But the bottom line was, there was really no traction for a vote for mail campaign, an election. It just was not going to happen.

Just a little while ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Karen Thurman, who heads the Florida Democratic Party. And she said, look, there's no way we're going to be able to have a revote in Florida. There's just not enough time. The window is closing. But she said there are still some options out there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KAREN THURMAN, FLORIDA DEMOCRATIC COMMITTEE CHAIRWOMAN: What we're suggesting now is that the DNC, with the candidates, potentially with us, maybe some outside folks that could come in and make some decisions or look at the options that might available. I'm not even sure at this point that all of the options have been explored.


ZARRELLA: She wouldn't tell us exactly what those options were, but she did say very specifically that the bottom line is, Campbell, it is now in the hands of the two candidates primarily. It is up to Clinton and Obama to come to the table -- Campbell.

BROWN: Well, OK, so, John, walk us through how we got here, because it seemed at one point that they were trying to figure this out.

ZARRELLA: Yes, they really were. And last week, they said, look, the best viable option -- they floated this trial balloon. The best viable option is this vote by mail.

It can be done for $10 million to $12 million. there seemed to be some momentum for that. But then all of the sudden, the Democratic representatives, the congressional delegation in Washington basically said, look, we're very concerned about this. How are we going to validate signatures? How are we going to make sure there isn't fraud?

So, almost by the time that they were making the announcement last Thursday of this plan, it was already being shut down by many of the principles. So, the party said, look, we're going to take the weekend. We're going to think about it. We're going to get some reaction.

Thurman also told me she got some 3,000 to 4,000 e-mails over the weekend from people saying, look, we don't want you to do this. So, this afternoon, a couple of hours ago, they issued a statement that in part said: "Thousands of people responded. We spent the weekend reviewing your messages. And while your reasons vary widely, the consensus is clear. Florida doesn't want to vote again. So, we won't."

Now, that was the bottom line today issued by Thurman. But again it was almost like this whole plan was sabotaged before it got off the ground -- Campbell.

BROWN: All right, John, and, quickly, what are you hearing from the campaigns?

ZARRELLA: What we're hearing from the campaigns is this.

The Clinton campaign -- as you know, Hillary Clinton won the state of Florida by 17 percentage points in that beauty contest. Her campaign is saying, "We hope the Obama campaign shares our belief that Florida's voters must be counted and cannot be disenfranchised."

The Obama campaign is saying, "We hope that all parties can agree on a fair seating on the Florida delegates, so that Florida can participate in the Democratic Convention."

I'm not sure if anybody is really saying anything there or if either side is coming to the table. But very clearly, Campbell, time is running out. And something has to be done about these 210 Florida delegates -- Campbell.

BROWN: OK. We will keep watching it.

John Zarrella for us from Florida tonight -- John, thanks.

And let's turn to senior political analyst Bill Schneider, who is in Philadelphia, just to talk about this.

And, Bill, what a mess. Who has got egg on their face here? Explain it to us.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's pretty clear. The Florida Democratic Party looks pretty foolish here.

The Michigan Democrats are organizing a make-over primary. They seem to be able to do it. The Florida Democrats simply are unable to do it. The Florida congressional delegation has stood in the way repeatedly. They said, we don't want a do-over primary. So, it looks like once again the Florida Democrats can't get their act together.

BROWN: And, Bill, you're watching the two campaigns. They both keep sort of jockeying for position on this. Who has the better argument right now?

SCHNEIDER: Well, they both have strong arguments.

The Clinton campaign argues 1.7 million Democrats voted in that beauty contest, as John just called it, and their votes should not be discounted. They shouldn't be disenfranchised, which makes a certain amount of sense.

The Obama argument, I think, is stronger, because he argues, there was no campaign. He didn't campaign there. The Democrats agreed not to campaign there. So, the voters really had no basis on which to make up their minds. Barack Obama was very much unknown at the end of January. Hillary Clinton won mostly on name recognition.

And there's one other important fact. The Florida primary and Michigan, those contests were very unusual. There was something odd about them. More Republicans voted than Democrats in those states. That happened in only a handful of the primaries this year.

In the in overwhelming majority of primaries, more Democrats voted. What does that suggest? It suggests that even though 1.7 million Democrats did vote. a lot of Democrats did not vote in Florida because there was no campaign, and they were told that the results wouldn't count. So, it's very hard to say that that was a fair contest or that those delegates should be seated.

BROWN: OK. So, Bill, what are the stakes here? What happens to the Florida delegates at the convention? SCHNEIDER: Well, if the Democratic Party locks them out of the convention, decides to exclude them because they broke the rules, the Democratic Party is going to look pretty foolish. The Florida Democrats are going to be angry, and they could very well be writing off Florida.

So, they're desperate to find some sort of a solution to this. But, if they seat those Florida delegates, imagine what would happen if Florida made the difference between winning and losing, if they named -- if they decided, if they cast the deciding vote, decided whether Clinton or Obama wins the nomination.

Howard Dean himself has said, if you don't play by the rules, then half the people in the party whose candidate does not win the nomination will believe they have been cheated.

That's very high stakes for this debate.

BROWN: All right. Bill Schneider, who is Philly for us tonight -- Bill, thanks.

And, as Bill mentioned, today in Michigan, Democrats are still considering a revote. Legislative leaders are looking at a do-over primary on June 3. The Clinton campaign is all for it. The Obama camp says they still have some concerns.

And wait for this. Just when you thought nothing could surprise you in this presidential race, could this man be wrestling with the political decision of his life? Is Jesse Ventura considering a political comeback?



OBAMA: Most recently, you heard some statements from my former pastor that were incendiary and that I completely reject.


BROWN: A presidential candidate denouncing the words of the man who had been his pastor for 20 years, but that's what Senator Barack Obama did after Jeremiah Wright's incendiary past statements started getting too much attention on the campaign trail.

More damage control may happen tomorrow, when Obama delivers a major speech on the hot-button issue of race in the presidential campaign.

We want to bring in our political panel tonight. ESPN analyst and radio host Stephen A. Smith is joining us. "New York Observer" columnist Steve Kornacki is with us. And Tara Wall, who is the deputy editorial page editor of "The Washington Times," is joining us as well.

And, Tara, let me start with you. Let me start with you, looking at the camera. There you are.

Just talk to us generally about the stakes for Obama and the risks, you think, for him in giving a speech tomorrow.

TARA WALL, DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON TIMES": Well, I think the risk has been that he's not addressed this sooner, quite frankly.

And I think that part of what he needs to do tomorrow is go above and beyond what he's already said. He stated that he rejected and renounced his pastor early on in the last debate he was in with Senator Clinton and again said that over the weekend, but certainly has not yet addressed what part he rejects and renounces and how much of this has actually impacted him, as he spent 20 years being influenced by this pastor.

I think that if as has been suggested he continues to defend this hateful language, which we haven't been able to hear yet, but, I mean, for a pastor to be this divisive and this hateful by essentially saying God damn America instead of God bless America, and saying America is run by white rich people, he's sounding more like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. I mean, this is not the kind of speech that we want to accept as every day course of language that is to be accepted. And so, I think he needs to go a little bit above and beyond just renouncing, announcing and making it clear he no longer accepts this pastor or his words, as we spelled out in our editorial over the weekend.

CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: OK. Let me ask you guys, do you agree with that? Has he not gone far enough? Is that what he's having to do tomorrow?

STEVE KORNACKI, COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK OBSERVER": We'll I think what you just heard there is a preview of what the Republicans are going to say if he's the nominee this fall. And you're going to hear that exact line of attack almost word for word that we just heard for the last couple of minutes.

I think, the issue though is he hasn't gone far enough yet, but he's going to tomorrow. But I think Obama is in a unique position as politicians go when these subjects come up, and that when he speaks about race himself, when its his own words, he's the guy standing on the stage, he can be very unifying on the subject.

And I think you're going to hear very harsh words directed at his pastor. He's also not going to throw him under the bus completely, which I think some people will respect as well. But I think then, he's going to move on and talk in a very sort of unifying way, as he usually does, about race. And I think there is the opportunity there since they bill this as a major speech and since there's going to be a considerable audience for it. There's the opportunity for people to see the Obama, you know, mainstream America, to see the Obama that they sort of fell in love with. You know, four years ago, there's the opportunity to showcase that more.

BROWN: Right. KORNACKI: They're absolutely going to try to do it at least.

BROWN: Stephen?

STEPHEN A. SMITH, ANALYST & RADIO HOST, ESPN: I think that he went far enough to denouncing his pastor. I just don't think he was forceful enough in doing so. The fact is is that he came across as a bit apprehensive about going against this method of incendiary remarks. And when you're speaking out against somebody that they say something is inflammatory, immediately you are supposed to come out especially when you are running for the presidency of the United States. You are not supposed to hesitate in any way, shape, form or fashion.

During the debate against Hillary Rodham Clinton, even though he did come across and he did elocute that he was denouncing what the man had said. At the same time, he wasn't forceful enough. And then, Hillary put us up in a position to challenge it.


SMITH: And then, he came back and corrected himself even more, which is a problem.

BROWN: But let me bottom line this a little bit, because I think this is what I keep getting hung up on about this thing. I mean, does anybody here believe that if he's elected, that Barack Obama is going to be in the White House working on behalf of Reverend Wright's agenda?


SMITH: No. Not at all.

BROWN: Like if you don't believe that, do you, Tara -- now, honestly, Tara, answer that question. Do you think he's going to be in the White House promoting Reverend Wright's agenda?

WALL: Well, no.

BROWN: And if you think the answer to that is no, then how can you say this is an issue?

WALL: Well, this -- that's a very legitimate question, Campbell, but I do think, of course, he's not going to get up there and espouse a complete agenda by this pastor.

But, first of all, I mean, I attended a black church all my life for over 25 years and consider my pastor my mentor, my leader, my teacher outside of my mother and teacher. He absolutely has influenced and impacted who I am. I would say the same as the case for Senator Obama.

You can't sit under somebody's teachings for 20 years and not have that impact. Not to mention, when you look at some of the remarks that his wife has made as it relates to how she feels about America, you have to question that.

Now, I do think he has been seen, I agree, as a unifier, saying we're one America. He has the ability to transcend race, if you will, and bring races together. And that's why you have that -- he can't have that continued dichotomy...


WALL: ... though to sit here and defend that, but yet say I'm a unifier of all the races.

BROWN: So we chose it. I mean, this is the problem. I mean, does anybody think that -- I mean, is he that influenced by Reverend Wright? He can't -- he's either a unifier or he's got to answer that.

KORNACKI: This is about -- this is about -- in the fall -- first of all, this is about Hillary Clinton right now. If her campaign pushes this at all to any degree, this is about her campaign trying to scare superdelegates and the decision makers in the Democratic Party that if you nominate Barack Obama, this is the kind of campaign that is going to be directed at him in the fall.

This is going to scare the white voters in Ohio. This is going to scare the white voters in Missouri. All the swing states. This will be, if it is raised by the Republicans in the fall, and I have no doubt it will be, this will be all about Republicans voters, Republican tacticians trying to scare voters about Barack Obama.

SMITH: And this is why you have to be forceful from jump street in denouncing what this man has said, simply because you recognize the votes that you're in pursuit of. And in fact is if you don't, you know politics. He's running for president of the United States for crying out loud, and he's a black man running for president of the United States. You can't sit out there and come across as apprehensive or hesitant in any way, shape, form or fashion you're going to denounce this guy.


BROWN: You have to nip it in the bud.

SMITH: You've got to nip in the bud.

BROWN: We've got a lot more to talk about with everybody -- Florida, Michigan. So we got to take a quick break.

John McCain takes his battle for the White House to the front lines in Iraq. What he's saying now about bringing the troops home. Find out when we come back.


BROWN: The Iraq war started five years ago this week. The anniversary comes as the U.S. combat death toll closes in on 4,000. The number of Iraqi civilian deaths is harder to pin down. Estimates vary widely from 151,000 to nearly 655,000. The war has cost an estimated $624 billion so far.

Senator John McCain is getting a head start in marking the anniversary of the war. He is in Iraq now, walking the streets in short sleeves along with armed guards. Our chief national correspondent John King is traveling with the senator, and asked him the question that we all want answered.


JOHN KING, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is your eighth visit to Iraq. Based on what you've seen on the ground, and as you travel to Mosul, to Ramadi, Al Anbar, your conversations with General Petraeus and others, do you see an end in sight? Or is it too soon to see an end in sight?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've always seen the end. How closer we are to that is significant progress. There's large areas of this city we're in right now that the neighborhoods are safe.

I was in Haditha yesterday. We walked down the streets with no body armor on. People are out. But there's significant police presence, and there's still U.S. military presence. So a lot of progress has been made.

Now, the question is will we be able to continue that progress to the point where the Iraqis take up more and more of those responsibilities and we withdraw? We're not there yet, at least in my assessment.


BROWN: And John King is joining us now from Baghdad. And John, we all know that the military is not going to let someone like John McCain walk around Baghdad or anywhere in Iraq without a great deal of protection? So to what extent is he able to get a sense for what is really happening right now on the ground?

KING: It's a great way to put it, Campbell, because to walk around freely on the streets certainly depends who you are and where you are. Senator McCain made a big deal a year ago about walking around the market here in Baghdad. We try to go back to that market the other day, and it's simply not safe. It's a bad neighborhood, a very volatile neighborhood, under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army.

So it depends where you are going. But Senator McCain did walk around in a handful of Iraqi cities. He was much more measured in how he described it this time saying, yes. There were Iraqi army, Iraqi police, U.S. military personnel with him. But without a doubt, Senator McCain can make the case, and it is just a simple fact that you can walk around in more Iraqi cities, and it is much better than it was six months or a year ago.

That is indisputable. The question is, if you took the U.S. troops out, would it all just collapse overnight because there has not been much political progress? And that is the long term key here. But in terms of walking around and security, it is better.

No one disputes that, and it is in part at least because of the surge. But we'll see how things are going forward. But he did get out and walk around in a way that no prior congressional delegation has been able to do.

BROWN: And John, his visit there, did he open (ph) attack by Senator Clinton on his Iraq policy? Let's listen to what she had to say this morning.


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Despite the evidence, President Bush is determined to continue his failed policy in Iraq until he leaves office. And Senator McCain will gladly accept the torch and stay the course, keeping troops in Iraq for up to 100 years if necessary. They both want to keep us tied to another country's civil war. A war we cannot win. And that in a nutshell is the Bush/McCain Iraq policy. Don't learn from your mistakes, repeat them.


BROWN: And John, I know you spoke with John McCain, and he had a pretty strong response to those kind of arguments. What did he have to say?

KING: What he says, Campbell, is that it is Senator Clinton who is disconnected from reality and Senator Clinton who should perhaps come to Iraq.

Now, she has been here before on trips with Senator McCain, in fact. And he says, and the other senators traveling with him, said that if she came back now or if Senator Obama would come now, they would see and they would be forced to acknowledge that despite their long-term questions about the mission that there has been considerable progress on the security fronts here in Iraq.

So I did ask him about Senator Clinton's speech back in Washington today, and he responded quite forcefully. Let's listen.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: All I can say is that she obviously does not understand nor appreciate the progress that's been made on the ground. She told General Petraeus last year when he testified that you'd have to suspend disbelief in order to believe that the surge is working. Well, the surge is working. All I can say is that this will be a big issue in the election as we approach November, because at least a growing number of Americans, though, still frustrated and understandably so, believe that this strategy is succeeding.


KING: Now, Senator McCain understands the polls back home. He knows more than six in 10 Americans want this war to be over, and they oppose it right now. But, Campbell, what he is hoping for is a strong performance by General Petraeus when he comes back to the Congress in April. And that the American people, no matter what they think about the war looking backwards, begin to think that things are at least better for the moment. And then, he will make the case to the American people that pulling the troops out quickly as the Democrats advocate would cause Iraq to collapse back into chaos.

BROWN: All right. John King traveling with John McCain in Iraq. John, thanks.

One of this year's biggest question marks focuses on the Democrat superdelegates. I'll ask my political panelist what they know about underground campaigns and their efforts to make their -- help those superdelegates make up their minds.


BROWN: John McCain says the surge is working in Iraq, but is that a winning strategy for his presidential campaign? Let's bring back our political panel. ESPN analyst and radio host Stephen Smith, "New York Observer" columnist Steve Kornacki, and Tara Wall, who's the deputy editorial page editor of the "Washington Times." Welcome back, everybody.

Steve, let me start from you -- start with you. We just heard from John McCain who is in Iraq right now. You know, he's there. He's got the nomination wrapped up, so he can focus on issues at this point. But is this the issue to be focused on at the moment? Is it a double-edged sword for him?

KORNACKI: Surprisingly, I think the answer is he's sort of safe on this. It's shocking to me because if you listen to his rhetoric and you look at his political history, he is on politically the wrong side of this war, and he has been for a long time now. And moreover, it should concern the average voter who's against the war. That not only is he, you know, supportive of this war now, but his entire foreign policy history of the last 15 years is supporting the theories and the doctrines that led us into this war in the first place.

But what people see, the average voter sees, when the average voter looks at John McCain, still is the maverick streak, the independence, the defiance of his party, and they see him more than anything as a tough-talking guy who's good to clean up any situation. And if the proof is in the pudding, if you look at why he won the nomination, this is shocking to me.

He has called people who want to get out of Iraq basically traitors. And yet, he owes his nomination to independent voters and Republicans who are opposed to the war. The very people he basically categorizes as traitors on this issue voted for him at a 50 percent clip in the New Hampshire primary. Only reason he won New Hampshire, only reason he won Florida. Otherwise, we're talking about Mitt Romney right now.

BROWN: Tara, go ahead. Hang on one second. SMITH: It has been a known fact that he's known as a moderate conservative. That's number one.

BROWN: Right.

SMITH: And number two and more importantly...


SMITH: ... when you think about John McCain right now, you look at his positions, you're saying to yourself the war in Iraq, obviously the economy to most Americans right now is the primary issue. But because you got Hillary and Barack distracted with some of their issues, which some people would say are a bit frivolous considering the things that are going on in this country right now, John McCain looks more presidential, because he is over in Iraq, because he is addressing and dealing with issues that are more pertinent in terms of -- it took kind of a bolt that he's listened in general.

BROWN: OK. But, Tara, isn't the counter debate is that right now everyone is consumed with the economy, especially given the news, you know, over the weekend. So in a sense, does he seem at all out of position?

WALL: Well, everyone is consumed by the economy. But you have to -- I mean, for John McCain right now, again, the air is being sucked -- I mean, Hillary Clinton and Senator Obama are sucking the air out of any coverage he could possibly get. So this is essentially keeping him on the map. And it is really his bread and butter, despite all the criticisms.

And in fact, despite what I think John said, you know, independents, Republicans and Democrats were polled, actually all of them put John McCain ahead on this very issue despite, yes, a lot of the sentiments about the fact that we need to get out of there. We've been in there too long. It's still his bread and butter.

There is -- there are strides being made. I mean, we're seeing sectarian violence down. We're seeing legislation being passed by the government there, and his strategy actually worked. This strategy now that Obama and Clinton, you know, now haphazardly sort of kind of want to acknowledge is working, but don't really want to acknowledge because they criticize it from the very beginning. But again, it's what he's kind of -- what he has to do be right now in order to stay in the midst of the political discussion.

BROWN: All right. Let me bring it back to Democrats. We were talking earlier about Florida and Michigan. Things still very much up in the air. God knows what's going to happen on that. But check in with me on superdelegates, where things stand now. Who is winning this wooing campaign with regards to the superdelegates?

KORNACKI: Well, it began with Hillary Clinton way ahead because she has the institutional support of eight years as first lady, and that her husband is going to get you. So she started out with about 200, 250 in the bank of the 800 total. Her number has stalled there, and it's been stalled there, you know, for more than a month now since Super Tuesday.

Obama is creeping closer and closer and closer. And I think people have to realize this, when this process ends in early June, Obama is clearly going to be ahead in pledged delegates. He's almost certainly going to be ahead in the total popular vote. He's certainly going to be ahead in stage one.

So the Clinton people are really facing an uphill battle to try to get those undecided superdelegates to say, well, you know, the heck with that, we're with you anyway. And one thing that people aren't talking about is who these superdelegates are. They are the people who have been in this party for a long time. They make their living, they make their livelihood, they make their life out of this party. They remember the 1990s fundamentally differently than the average democratic voter does.

BROWN: Right.

KORNACKI: Who remembers the 1990s as, you know, generally a good time. The democratic insiders who are superdelegates remember that their party ended the 1990s in its worst state in 50 years. Locked out of control in the House. Locked out of control in the Senate, and seemingly a permanent minority party in Washington, and they blame the Clintons for that.

BROWN: OK. I wish you could. We got to go. We're out of time, but thanks to everybody, our panel. Appreciate you, guys, being around.

WALL: Thank you.

BROWN: All right. We're switching back to the economy. Get out your buckets. We're about to put government bailouts through "The Decomplicator." We'll be right back.


BROWN: The big story today. Panic on Wall Street, and the near collapse of one of America's most respected financial institutions. Well, everybody has got an opinion on the government's bailout of Bear Stearns. But what does it all mean? Let's put it through "The Decomplicator."

To save your sinking ship, those aboard use a bucket to bail out water. But to save your sinking company, in this case Bear Stearns, ironically what you need is liquidity. In other words, you need to bring in buckets of cash to stabilize the situation until you get your sea legs.

In Bear Stearns case, the government helped infuse cash by creating an open-ended $30 billion risk-free lending program so that another company, JPMorgan Chase, could buy out Bear Stearns.

Well, critics of a bailout say that the infusion of cash is only delaying the inevitable and that the floundering company got what it deserved for getting involved with the shady subprime mortgage crisis. Only time will tell, but if history is any guide, the taxpayer will feel the punch. And the savings and loan bailout from the '80s and '90s caused Americans approximately $124 billion. And that is a lot of buckets.

And in other political news tonight, we are celebrating St. Patrick's Day. So who is the most Irish? Well, tough to beat the president in his green tie, who by tradition accepted a giant bowl of shamrocks from Ireland's prime minister. Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton found a scarf that's got to win the shamrock's per square inch test. While Barack Obama made a strategic O change to his O-name.

Meanwhile, in New York today, David Paterson was sworn in as governor.


MAYOR DAVID PATERSON (D), NEW YORK: Let me reintroduce myself. I am David Paterson, and I am the governor of New York State.


BROWN: Now, we hear you, Governor.

And finally, Jesse Ventura is weighing a run for president. In a new book, Ventura writes, I'm facing probably the most monumental decision of my 56 years on this planet. Indeed. And the nation waits.

Hillary Clinton's most surprising opponent may not be Barack Obama. Remember this guy? You'll be shocked at why he and the senator are at odds.

And at the top of the hour, "LARRY KING LIVE" takes us inside the secret world of cheating spouses.


BROWN: Now, for "Political Pop," where politics meets pop culture, Captain Fantastic for Hillary. Elton John will be helping Hillary Clinton raise money. He'll perform at Radio City Music Hall in New York called "Elton and Hillary: One Night Only."

John McCain's campaign Web site got a jump on March Madness. It's running a pool and visitors get to pick the bracket winners. With a good enough record, you can earn yourself a McCain jacket or a baseball cap.

And it has been a strange political season to be sure. But who would have thought we'd be discussing a squabble between Hillary Clinton and "Star Search" legend Sinbad. It all started when Senator Clinton recalled ducking to avoid a potential sniper fire when she visited war-torn Bosnia in 1996 as first lady.

But it turned out, Sinbad who's, let's be very clear about this, an Obama supporter, accompanied Clinton on the trip and remembered it quite differently. He said, "I think the only red phone moment was do we eat here or at the next place? Well, Senator Clinton was not going to let a serious charge from a C-list celebrity go unanswered. Today, she hit Sinbad with this zinger.


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's a comedian. There was no greeting ceremony, and we basically were told to run to our cars. Now, that is what happened. And we also -- you know, part of it I'm the one who decided to take entertainment for the troops.


BROWN: Finally, we thought the politics of personal destruction were a thing of the past, but then came this amateur video posted by a 22-year-old on YouTube.


NARRATOR: Does his name sound a little foreign? Obama. What is that? It sounds a little Irish. And in a time of war, can we really afford to trust our country to a leprechaun?


BROWN: And that is political pop. That is it for tonight. Larry O'King is live right now.