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'Ballot Bowl 08'

Aired February 21, 2008 - 12:00   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon, or good morning if you're on the west coast, wherever you are, this is CNN's Thursday edition of "Ballot Bowl." I'm Candy Crowley at the University of Texas in Austin, the site of tonight's debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
This is your chance, you will be able to hear these candidates, sometimes live, sometimes taped, whatever it is, they are unfiltered. Pretty much you get to see these candidates as we see them, on the trail every day.

Joining me today are Dana Bash, who is with John McCain in Ohio. McCain running into a bit of a rough patch right now. Mary Snow is with hang-on Huckabee in San Antonio. And Jessica Yellin here with me in Austin.

Let's start first with Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Candy, a rough patch to say the least. This is not the kind of campaign day John McCain or his campaign expected to have starting out in Ohio, looking at trying to clinch the nomination officially mathematically with the primary here on March 4th.

But instead, John McCain came before the cameras with his wife Cindy, and the goal of that press conference where I am right now in Toledo, Ohio was to try to combat "The New York Times" story which it posted last night at about 7:00 eastern, very lengthy story, and the gist of it was suggesting a few things. Number one is that John McCain perhaps had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist in Washington, a lobbyist who does a lot of work for the telecommunications industry, and that brings me to the second point that the article made, which is that perhaps this lobbyist, her name is Vicki Iseman, that because of their relationship was able to use her influence with senator McCain and ask senator McCain to use his influence on the commerce committee to help her client. That is very detriment at to a man trying to run on the fact that he wants to change Washington. Those are some of the things in the "New York Times."

In addition to the fact that the allegation was that people back in the year 2000 when he was running for president were so concerned in his campaign and around him that they confronted him and confronted her and said that this relationship has to stop. So Senator McCain came out with his wife before reporters and took questions.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Obviously I'm very disappointed in the article. It's not true.

As has been pointed out, I've served this nation honorably for more than a half century. When I was 17 I raised my hand and supported -- said I would support and defend this nation and I've had the honor of serving ever since. At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust, nor make a decision which in any way would not be in the public interest and would favor anyone or any organization.

As chairman of the commerce committee, there were hundreds of issues, including many telecommunications issues, that came before the committee. I had to make decisions on those issues, and I made those decisions sometimes they were agreeable, sometimes they were not. But any observer will attest to the fact that I made those decisions on the basis of what I thought was in the best interests of the American citizen.

So I'm proud of my record of service to this country, I'm proud of my service as chairman of the commerce committee which has oversight over literally hundreds of issues, the largest committee in the united states senate in terms of jurisdiction and I will continue to serve, and I will focus my attention in this campaign on the big issues, on the challenges that face this country and I think that's what the American people are very interested in hearing about.

Again, I'm very disappointed in the "New York Times" piece. It's not true, and I'll be glad to respond to any questions you might have. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator, did you ever have any meeting with any of your staffers in which they would have intervened to ask you not to see Vicki Iseman or to be concerned about experiences of being too close to a lobbyist?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nobody ever approached ...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No staffer was ever concerned about a possible romantic relationship?

MCCAIN: If they were, they didn't communicate that to me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you ever have such a relationship?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is your relationship with Vicki Iseman?

MCCAIN: Friends. Seen her on occasions, particularly at receptions and fund-raisers and appearances before the committee. I have many friends in Washington who represent various interests and those who don't, and I consider her a friend.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you feel like in terms of your relationship with lobbyists in general, you were closer to her than with others?

MCCAIN: No. No. I have many friends who represent various interests ranging from firemen to police to senior citizens to various interests, particularly before my committee, and I have meetings with hundreds of them and various interests and that was my job to do. Obviously people who represent interests are fine, that's our constitutional right. The question is whether they have excess or unwarranted influence. Certainly no one ever has concerning my public life or concerning my legislative agenda.

Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a quote on the record, Sean Weaver saying had he a conversation with her saying -- basically telling her to butt out. Do you know of that conversation? Do you know why John weaver would go on the record describing such a conversation?

MCCAIN: I do not, and I don't know anything about it. John Weaver is a friend of mine. He remains a friend of mine. And -- but I certainly didn't know of anything of that nature.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you regret flying on -- Iseman was working, do you remember flying on a plane or writing letters to the FCC that was part of this?

MCCAIN: First of all, I'm riding on the airplane that was an accepted practice. I've ridden on many airplanes and since then, the pools have been changed. It was something I supported. On the "letters" to the FCC, interestingly, this was brought up in the year 2000 by "The New York Times." I wrote a letter because the FCC, which usually makes a decision within 400 days, had gone almost 800 days. In the letter, I said I am not telling you how to make a decision, I'm just telling you that you should move forward and make a decision on this issue. And I believe that was appropriate. Former chairman of the federal communications commission at the time in 2000 said that that was more than appropriate role for me to play as chairman of the oversight committee.

So my answer to you is, no.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You were aware obviously of this story in preparation for a number of months.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you speak to the "New York Times" and if so, what did you tell them, did they ever say to the story was not going to run is.

MCCAIN: We never tried to have any dialogue in that fashion. For months, "The New York Times" has submitted questions, and we have answered them fully and exhaustively. And unfortunately, many of those answers were not included in the rather long piece in the "New York Times." but we fully cooperated with them in answering any questions that they might have.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You never tried to dissuade them from running the story in any fashion?

MCCAIN: No. In fact I never spoke directly to them.

[ inaudible question ]

MCCAIN: I really don't know. I'm very disappointed obviously, but we'll move on with the campaign, talk about the big issues, talk about the challenges that people face in their lives, the economy today, our national security issues, and I'm confident that we will move forward and I'm confident that we will continue to compete in the primaries a week from next Tuesday, and get the nomination of the party. I'm looking forward to it.


BASH: We'll have more on this story in just a minute, but first we want to go to Heidi Collins in Atlanta with some breaking news.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there Dana. That's right, other news to cover as well.

Want to take you directly to our Los Angeles affiliate. This is KTLA, Carson, California. You see the police cars there. We are learning that there is a possible gunman on campus. The campus is Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, California. This is sort of in the heart of the south bay of Los Angeles. We are understanding, again according to our affiliate KTLA that the students are reportedly in lockdown. No reports of injuries at this time. As we continue to get live pictures in, possible gunman on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, California. We will continue to watch this story for you but obviously a lot of activity there and I want to keep everyone up to speed as to what may be happening. Again, students on lockdown. No reports of any injuries at this time. We'll watch it for you. Dana, back to you.

BASH: Thanks very much, Heidi.

Now we'll go back to the political story, this huge political story on the Republican side of the race here for president, and that's John McCain.

You just heard a large portion of John McCain's press conference here in Toledo, Ohio trying to explain and emphatically deny the allegations and suggestions in this morning's "New York Times" that he had a relationship romantically perhaps with a lobbyist in Washington and that he used his influence on the Senate Commerce Committee to help her and to help her client, and that there was some concern inside his campaign eight years ago, we should make clear that this story is eight years old, and this is all about something that happened in 1999 and the year 2000.

A lot of the focus inside the McCain campaign, a lot of the scathing criticism inside the McCain campaign has been directed at "The New York Times," saying that this is something that is "gutter journalism," that this is something that absolutely shouldn't have been printed. They are equating it at the highest levels of the McCain campaign to something that should be in the "National Enquirer."

Well, "The New York Times" is responding to those and other charges. I'll read a quote we have now from Bill Keller, the executive editor of "The New York Times." He says "On the substance we think this story speaks for itself. On the timing our policy is we publish stories when they are ready. Ready means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context an caveats. That story was no exception. It was a long time in the works, it reached my desk late Tuesday afternoon, after a final edit and a routine check by our lawyers and we published it."

Now that is a lengthy statement in response to a couple of allegations from the McCain campaign. I spoke with one of his senior advisors last night, Charlie Black, who said he first heard about this story that the "Times" was working on this story back in the fall. He said insisted that he and his campaign on the McCain side that they were trying to give "The New York Times" information. He had been very vocal publicly now, Charlie Black, this advisor to McCain, saying they feel "The New York Times" didn't publish all of the explanation of some of the allegations in there.

The other thing that "The New York Times" -- excuse me, that the McCain campaign is suggesting, that the reason they say that "The New York Times" came out with this story, this is what this reference was about the timing of this, is because a magazine, "The New Republic" magazine had been working on the story as of about a week and a half ago about some turmoil inside "The New York Times" newsroom, about weather to publish this story. The story starts with a number of anonymous sources. The McCain campaign says that's part of the reason "The New York Times" decided to publish the story after working on it for months.

Here you saw a very emphatic statement from the executive editor of "The New York Times" saying that that is false, that they went along with regular journalistic practice, checked their sources and their facts and went with it when it was ready. Candy?

CROWLEY: Dana, the female lobbyist or her lobbying firm, have they said anything about this story?

BASH: They have. Actually we just got a statement, Candy, that the female lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, she is the person at the heart of this story. It's a complicated story so to remind our viewers she works for a lobbying firm in Washington that primarily deals with telecommunications companies. When Senator McCain was the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, those are issues that reached hissing desk that he had to deal with on a regular basis, very important issues for these multi-million dollar, billion dollar companies.

The response that we have from Vicki Iseman and from her firm, lobbying firm, Alcade and Fay comes from the head of the firm. The gist of what he says is that these allegations are malicious innuendo reported by "The New York Times." They insist that the firm's relationship with Senator McCain is professional, appropriate and consistent with the legislative jurisdictional and constitutional duties. They also call the story the fantasies of a disgruntled former campaign employee without a foundation or merit. They are sticking by their employee, sticking by the fact that she did nothing wrong, she did not do anything that was inappropriate with regards to trying to get influence with senator McCain with any kind of inappropriate relationship. Candy?

CROWLEY: Thanks, Dana. Probably not the first, or the last, press release we're going to see on this story. As we say in the news business, it has some legs right now. We will be back to you obviously.

Next up, as I've said, I'm Candy Crowley in Austin, Texas, at the University of Texas where there is a big debate tonight. We're going to talk about that coming up after the break.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to the Thursday edition of CNN's Ballot Bowl '08.

We want to remind you, a huge debate tonight here in Austin, Texas. Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama. Comes at a really critical time for both these campaigns. He has pulled ahead, she of course trying to catch up. Lots at stake tonight, so set your Tivo if you're going out to dinner, but mostly we recommend that you watch it live. Again 8:00 Eastern Time.

Now both these candidates have already been debating, albeit in separate venues throughout Texas. Hillary Clinton has been really working south Texas, working the Latino vote which generally in past elections and past primaries has gone heavily in her favor.

Obviously Barack Obama also working Texas, a win here would really be major for him and would be a huge setback for Hillary Clinton.

We want to give you a little taste of what both of them are saying along the campaign trail.


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is the time to pick a president, and the choices between my opponent and I and me and Senator McCain are important differences.

I hope that as you go to the polls to do the early voting you will talk to everyone you know and you will tell them that I am better prepared to be the president and the commander in chief that we need right now.

And you know, I believe that we need to start on day one and we don't need any on-the-job training for the next president of the United States! So will you join me in helping to make me the next president of our country? Will you -- will you go out and vote early? Will you talk to your friends and your neighbors about why this election is so important?

You know, I want to end where I started. This country has given me so many opportunities, so many blessings. I am proud of the United States of America and what we stand for and what we have achieved in history.

We can always do better. We occasionally have leadership like we've had for the last seven years, that hasn't moved our country forward but that's not about the United States, that's about George W. Bush and his failed leadership.

So if you believe, as I do, that we are so fortunate to be here in this great country, then we must work together to provide the leadership that America deserves. There's nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed once we have new leadership, focused on the future.

I pledge to you that I will work my heart out for you and your families. I will be there for up every single day.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: As this movement continues, as this campaign builds strength, there are those who would tell you not to believe. There are those who will tell you it can't be done.

Today Senator Clinton told us that there is a choice in this race. You know, I couldn't agree with her more. But contrary to what she's been saying, it is not a choice between speeches and solutions. It's a choice between a politics that offers more of the same division and distraction that didn't work in South Carolina, and didn't work in Wisconsin, and will not work in Texas. Or new politics, of common sense, of common purpose, of shared sacrifices, shared prosperity. It's a choice between having a debate with John McCain about who has the most experience in Washington, or having a debate about who's most likely to change Washington, because that's a debate we can win.

It's a choice between going into the general election with Republicans and independents already united against us, or running with a campaign that is already united Americans of all parties around the agenda for change. That's the choice.

It's a choice between a candidate who has taken more money from lobbyists and special interests than any other Democrat or Republican and a campaign that hasn't taken a dime of their money because we've been funded by you, the American people. That's the choice.

If I'm your nominee, John McCain won't be able to say that I agreed with him on voting for war in Iraq, that I agree with him with the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like, that I agree with him on supporting NAFTA and permanent trade with china because I haven't agreed to those things. That's the choice in this election. That's a choice that's not just about turning the page on the politics of the past, but also turning the page on the policies of the past.


CROWLEY: Quite honestly, you have heard right there the core of both of these campaigns. Hillary Clinton arguing, as you heard her, we don't need a president who needs on-the-job training, obviously referring to Barack Obama. She's telling herself, selling herself as the candidate of plans with the experience to implement them. He comes back and says, that's the past, I have plans, too. The fact of the matter is, if you put the same old people back in Washington you cannot get a different result. Of course tonight the two of them are face-to-face, rather than in their separate arenas. We will hear variations of both those themes.

I want to bring in our Jessica Yellin, who along with me and Suzanne Malveaux have been covering the Democratic side of this race.

You know, Jessica, when I look at what's at stake tonight, what I see is Barack Obama maybe has the most to lose. This is pretty much a risk for him, one he had to take obviously. But by most terms, he is the front-runner. Not by much but certainly the front-runner. Front-runners always have the most to lose in debates. You've been with the Clinton campaign. How do they view tonight?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they see tonight as an opportunity to try to change the story a little bit. We've seen this story line emerge where Barack Obama is on this wave of momentum winning primary after primary, and she is the underdog who has to win here and in Ohio or she's essentially not going to make it.

They want to make the point tonight that Senator Clinton is this stronger candidate who we really cannot count out, we need to take a second look at her. Some of the ways they are looking to have her do this is underscore what they say is her strong point. "She simply knows more." That she is the person who is versed in these issues, worked on them for years, has a record, we know what she will do, they will say, when it comes to working on domestic policy.

Then on the foreign policy front, she can try to underscore that the general election nominee on the Democratic side will go up against John McCain who has this enormous record, foreign policy expertise. She can dry to draw out Barack Obama on this issue. Does he really have a record that can go toe-to-toe with John McCain on foreign policy?

And then the larger challenge of course is to just try to get Barack Obama to somehow slip up. I mean at this stage, Candy, to be a realist, they really have to be banking that he will, either mess up or that somehow the bottom will fall out, that people will start to ask, well, what is this change that we believe in when he says the time has come? The time has come for what? What is he promising? What is he offering to do? Where are the specifics? That is, in sum, the message that they would like Americans to start thinking about, to start asking about Barack Obama. Candy?

CROWLEY: You know, not only, Jessica, is tonight critical, these whole next ten days or so are critical for the Clinton campaign.

I was really struck by Bill Clinton yesterday talking here in Texas, saying to a crowd, listen -- if she doesn't win Texas she's not going to win the nomination. If she does win Texas and Ohio I think she'll win it so it is all up to you. That seemed to be just a little off the rails from how they are framing this race.

YELLIN: What? Former president Bill Clinton a little off the rails? Shocking! No.

They're acknowledging that these are two big states that she would like to win, and their argument is, if Barack Obama does not win Texas and Ohio, he is also not won almost every other big state that's voted. Despite his string of victories recently, they've been in the smaller states, and that their argument would be that no Democrat can win the general election without carrying these big states in Ohio, a swing state, for example, so senator Clinton really has a dog in the fight and is really going toe-to-toe, I mean that they're in an equity position if she wins these big states. If she doesn't, don't expect her to bow out. They will still say that the delegate match up is close and they'll fight through the convention. Candy?

CROWLEY: Jessica Yellin also on the campus of University of Texas here in Austin because there is a huge debate here tonight. You need to watch I, 8:00 Eastern Time tonight. Again, from Austin, Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton.

But next up, we're going to switch over to the Republican side. Governor Huckabee, ex-Arkansas Governor Huckabee and John McCain right after this.


DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to BALLOT BOWL '08. I'm Dana Bash in Toledo, Ohio, where just a few hours ago John McCain had a press conference he definitely would have rather not had. And he came out with his wife, Cindy McCain, to dispute, he said, emphatically a story in "The New York Times" this morning which has a lot of suggestions about him and his -- some of what he was doing, allegedly, eight years ago. An allegation or suggestion that he had an improper relationship, perhaps a romantic relationship, with a lobbyist back then. And the suggestion that he used his influence in the Senate on the Senate Commerce Committee to help her and to help her clients in the telecommunications industry.

Well, as you can imagine, standing next to Cindy McCain, his wife, who was standing there the entire time smiling, it was an interesting to see what she had to say about it. So I asked her what her impression was when she read "The New York Times" this morning.


CINDY MCCAIN, JOHN MCCAIN'S WIFE: Well, obviously, I'm very disappointed in "The New York Times." And more importantly, my children and I not only trust my husband, but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America. He's a man of great character and I'm very, very disappointed in "The New York Times."

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I should have had you conduct this meeting.

Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you expect this will be damaging or distracting, at the very least, to your campaign at this juncture?

J. MCCAIN: Something like this is always distracting and very disappointing and I hope we can, by, you know, doing what we're doing here, put to rest the whole situation. But I would imagine that, you know, it does distract and it keeps me from talking about the big issues and the not-so-big issues. But hopefully we can get this thing resolved and behind us and move forward with the campaign. And I'm confident that we can.

I hope that all people, all Americans, will recognize that this is an issue that I hope I can get resolved and move forward. And I believe we are, and can, and will. And I think the American people are very fair in their judgment.

And, so, you know, there will be other obstacles in this campaign, I am sure. We all know that presidential campaigns are very, very tough. And so I intend to respond and I intend to move on and I'm confident that we will continue on the path to victory, not only in the primary, but in the general election in November. And I look forward to the debate.


BASH: John McCain admitting that this bombshell story in "The New York Times" this morning is a distraction. A distraction perhaps because for the same reason that some of his aides may have been concerned back eight years ago, because of the subject matter, because it suggests that he is doing something improper in Washington while he is campaigning incredibly hard day after day as the person who wants to change Washington, who wants to battle lobbyists and special interests. So that's why John McCain came out and emphatically denied that he did anything wrong eight years ago. You saw in a very subdued way there with his wife Cindy.

Now we're going to take a break right now. But when we come back, we are going to stick with the Republicans and we're going to look at the Republican still in this race, still battling John McCain, Mike Huckabee. And today he's at the Alamo. Stay tuned.


BASH: Welcome back to BALLOT BOWL '08. I'm Dana Bash in Columbus -- excuse me, in Toledo, Ohio. Ohio is a state that is holding its primary on March 4th. Another state, big state, that is also holding its primary that day is the state of Texas. And that's where Republican candidate Mike Huckabee is. And that's also where our Mary Snow is covering Mike Huckabee.

And, Mary, you are at the Alamo. That is an event today that is knee-deep in symbolism. And the Huckabee campaign knows full well. That's exactly why they're there, isn't it?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Dana. Mike Huckabee does not want to be forgotten in this Republican race, despite the fact that his chances are slim to none of really making an impact in terms of getting enough delegates to stay competitively in this race.

But, you know, Mike Huckabee, this morning, was campaigning in Houston right around the same time that Senator John McCain was answering questions about today's "New York Times" story. And Mike Huckabee has been saying for weeks that anything could happen on the campaign trail. He's been asked why he's been staying in despite the fact that he has really suffered a string of losses.

And he has said, any candidate could be, in his words, YouTubed at any moment. Given that, when asked about Senator John McCain, at first his campaign said he was not going to have any comments on it. And then when pressed by reporters, he did comment just a bit. But really not saying much about what he thinks about this story. Here is Mike Huckabee earlier today responding to questions about Senator John McCain, really the chief Republican rival for Mike Huckabee. Here's what he had to say.


MIKE HUCKABEE, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've campaigned now on the same stage and platform as John McCain for 14 months. I only know him to be a man of integrity. Today he denied that any of that was true. I take him at his word. I have no further comment other than that. I think, you know, for me to get into it is completely immaterial. Again, I only know him what I know him to be, and that's a good and decent, honorable man.


SNOW: That is Mike Huckabee questioned today about Senator John McCain. Mike Huckabee has also been saying on the campaign trail that he is the only candidate in the presidential race who does not have a Washington address. Some conservatives were very critical, of course, of "The New York Times." It is certainly a frequent target by conservatives.

Mike Huckabee, when asked about why "The New York Times" was coming out with this story, also really said that he wasn't going to have much to say about that. He is continuing his campaign. He is hoping to have a strong showing here.

Of course, the Alamo, very symbolic. And he is expected to take a tour here later this afternoon and then near the grounds later on will be holding a rally. He believes that he can do well here because, he says, there are so many conservatives in this state. It's an independent state (ph). He believes he needs to stay in this race to carry on the messages of certain causes, particularly of his opposition to abortion.

Last night he spoken in Plano, Texas. He had about 2,000 people turned out to see him speak last night. And he stressed to them the importance of Texas.


HUCKABEE: I think somebody forgot to tell you guys that this election is over. And I'm going to tell you something else. They forgot to tell me it was over, too.

Last night one of the talking heads sitting on one of the networks, when asked why is Huckabee still in this race, here's what had he to say. He said, "I think he just likes to fly around on airplanes." It's a good thing I wasn't close to him. I'm afraid I might have committed a criminal act last night.

You know, and I thought about what he said. And I really do wish that I had been on the program with him because here's what I'd have told him. If there's any great thrill in flying around on an airplane, the glory of that was lost a long time ago.

Now we didn't get into this because I like flying around in airplanes or spending every other night in a different hotel room or being away 29 out of 30 nights a month from my home. My wife didn't give up her job. We didn't forego a lot of our own personal income over the last 14 months just because we like to fly on airplanes.

Let me tell you why. And I want you to understand why we're still standing tonight. Because we love this country and we believe some things would make it better. We believe that if we don't institute some principles that have made America great and would give us another chance to be even greater, then it's going to be upon us for not standing.

When I was a kid, my boyhood pastor used to say, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. Folks, America is a country that is strong because its people have stood for something. And if today we decide that we're just going to just fall for anything and all that matters is let's just get somebody we think's going to win, but, folks, it's more important that we not just win elections, but that we win back this country to what made it strong. And that's a country with a moral center.


SNOW: That was Mike Huckabee last night in Plano, Texas, saying he is going to fight to the finish again, Senator John McCain, for the Republican nomination. But when asked today, he did not capitalize on the scrutiny over Senator John McCain and today's headlines out of "The New York Times." And now we're going to go back to Candy Crowley, also here in Texas. She is in Austin.

Candy. CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks so much, Mary Snow covering the Huckabee campaign at the Alamo today. One of the great benefits of being able to follow these candidates is sometimes you get to see some really cool things. Thanks, Mary.

So we are almost running out of time here on BALLOT BOWL '08, but we will have a final word about those debates right after this break.


CROWLEY: Hi and welcome back to CNN's BALLOT BOWL, the Thursday edition.

Big debates tonight. Texas, of course, is upcoming. A very, very important race, both on the Republican and the Democratic side. But a confusing race as well. We want you to take a listen to this.


HUCKABEE: Go vote early. And then vote often. That's how we do it in Arkansas.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: The great thing about Texas is, this is a highly unusual place on every count. But this election system of yours takes the cake. Texas is the only place in America where you can vote twice in the same election without going to jail.


CROWLEY: You think he's kidding? He's actually not. If you thought the nomination process was complicated until now, wait till you hear about how Texas does its nominating process.

I want to bring in Bill Schneider because, Bill, I can't possibly explain it and I'd like you to.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I have a Ph.D in political science, so maybe that will help. Yes, former President Clinton is exactly right. You can vote twice. In fact they want you to vote twice here in Texas. You vote once in the primary, which you can do as much as two weeks before primary day in advance by going to a polling place, or go there on primary day. And once you have voted in the primary, and only if you voted in the primary, then on primary night you can go to a caucus meeting in your precinct and two-thirds of the delegates are assigned by primary voters, and then in your second vote the remaining one-third of the pledged delegates are assigned according to the caucus vote. So, yes, you get two votes because two-thirds of the delegates are assigned by primary, one-third by caucus. How about that?

CROWLEY: Well, do you have to go to the caucuses? Obviously you don't. After you vote in the primary, you can skip the caucuses.

SCHNEIDER: That's right. You don't have to go to the caucuses. But, if you want to go to the caucuses, you've got to vote in the primary. So you have to vote twice if you want to attend the caucus. You can't just go to the caucus without having voted in the primary.

And there is even more complications. Because look at these caucuses. And here's a real dispute going on. The Democrats have not done particularly well in Texas over the last few years. And in a lot of those precinct caucuses, they don't have a local Democratic operative, a party person, to take charge.

So who's going to take charge? Who's going to chair the precinct caucus? Well the answer is, whoever gets there first and grabs hold of the packets that have the instructions and the information about how to run the caucus. And clearly both the Obama people and the Clinton people distrust each other and they want to be the first to get there and grab those packets so that they can control the caucus. So you've got a race to see who's in control of every precinct caucus in the state of Texas.

CROWLEY: Gives whole new meaning to wild, wild west. Listen, Bill, let me turn you to something a little more immediate than the Texas primary, of course, on March 4th, along with Ohio. Let's talk about tonight and that debate. When you look at this, who walks in to it with the most to lose?

SCHNEIDER: Well, Obama, of course, is the front-runner and Hillary Clinton's going to do everything she can to stop his momentum. This may be her last chance to do it. Texas, of course, is the end game of these primaries. And she's got a dilemma here because in order to stop his momentum, she's going to have to try to persuade Democratic voters to think again, since the momentum seems to be with him.

But every time she goes negative on Obama, calls attention to his lack of experience, his thin resume, the fact that he's not enough of a fighter, she feels, and the Republicans will wipe the floor with him, he just says that's politics as usual. It's the same old stuff. We're back to the Clinton wars of the 1990s. We want to go forward. And so far, those kinds of charges have backfired. So maybe tonight she'll try something new and different. We'll see.

CROWLEY: Our Bill Schneider, who will be around tonight. And, fortunately, he will be around on March 4th to reexplain the whole Texas primary thing for us.

Thanks so much, Bill.


CROWLEY: OK. Again, tonight, 8:00 Eastern Time, big debate, Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton.

BALLOT BOWL continues. We will have a final, final word right after this.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to CNN's BALLOT BOWL '08. This is the Thursday edition. We want to show you a couple of pictures right now. This just happened a little while ago. You want to court Texans? You go to Texas Memorial Stadium. That is where the Longhorns play. And that man, Barack Obama, is with, that is Mack Brown. He is coach of the Longhorns.

And every Texas person I've met here today wants me to mention that the Longhorns, of course, won the National Championship in 2005, beating, in the last minute, I am told, USC. So huge game. But I am going by hearsay from Texas fans. Again, Barack Obama and the coach of the Longhorns, Mack Brown.

So I want to bring back in Dana Bash.

Dana, go ahead, beat that picture.

BASH: Well, I can't beat that picture, but I can tell you I bet I know who that Longhorn fan who was telling you to promote the win for the Longhorns there was.

But in any event, you know, Candy, I'm just sort of interested, very quickly, to get your thoughts on this McCain story. You've been covering Senator McCain for so long, you know him so well, and you also covered him back in 2000. What do you think?

CROWLEY: Well, what's interesting I think is, while the flashy part is this "relationship" with this female lobbyist, I think what is really important, what may have resonance here is what he might have done for this lobbying firm. So I think it does undercut the straight talker John McCain. But I thought his coming out in that so low-key, I'm terribly disappointed.

The other thing that fascinated me, Dana, was that there was no wiggle room in his denial. None. It's not true. None of it's true. And when you leave yourself no wiggle room, if there is anything out there, it's a huge risk.

BASH: It's true. And he even said the one thing that was on the record in that "New York Times" story, that his former aide, John Weaver, who you know, they were as thick as thieves back then. They've had a little bit of a different relationship since he left his campaign in the fall. But that John Weaver did say on the record, and I told me this morning, confirmed that he did approach that lobbyist because he was concern about the perception of the relationship, or more specifically he said he was concern about the perception since she was talking about their relationship. It's really interesting that John McCain said he had no idea anything about that, Candy.

So we're going to have a lot more, Candy, on this story. A lot more of politics tonight. We've got to turn in for the Democratic debate out of where you are, Austin, Texas, at 8:00 Eastern tonight. "Newsroom" is right after a break.