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THE MCLAUGHLIN GROUP HOST: JOHN MCLAUGHLIN PANEL: PATRICK BUCHANAN, MSNBC; ELEANOR CLIFT, NEWSWEEK; TONY BLANKLEY, THE WASHINGTON TIMES MARTIN WALKER, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL TAPED: FRIDAY, APRIL 27, 2007 BROADCAST: WEEKEND OF APRIL 28-29, 2007

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MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue One: Path to Peace.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From videotape.) In the last election, the American people called for a new direction. Nowhere were they more firm in that new direction being necessary than in the war in Iraq.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID (D-NV): (From videotape.) For a president that took us to war under false pretenses, he now needs the courage to admit his policies have failed and work with us to bring the war to a responsible end. This conference report, Mr. President, gives him that path forward.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Democrats won a hard-fought victory this week in their battle to bring American forces home from Iraq. With slim majorities in the House and the Senate, the Democratic-controlled Congress approved a bill that mandates that American troops begin evacuating Iraq five months from now, October 1, and with the expectation that all U.S. troops will be out 11 months from now, March 31, 2008.

The defeated Republicans blasted the bill.

REP. DAVID DREIER (R-CA): (From videotape.) It is nothing more than a cheap attempt to score political points at a time when the American people have understandably become very weary of war.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From videotape.) This legislation is tragic. If the Iraqis make progress, we leave. If they don't, we leave. This is not a choice. It is a mandate for a defeat that al Qaeda desperately wants.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The bill now moves to the White House, where it faces a certain veto by President Bush. Question: How big a political setback was this for Bush? Pat Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: John, this is a historic vote and it's a major setback for President Bush. Both houses of the Congress of the United States, every single Democratic senator, voted for a deadline basically to start out by this October, to be out by April.

This, I believe, is the beginning of the end of American involvement in Iraq. I think the president is going to win the battle next week after the veto, but I don't think you can sustain this battle when the American people and the Congress are this much against it.

But I'll tell you, those of us who thought it was a terrible idea to ever go into Iraq are mighty apprehensive about what's going to happen when we go out. What Congress has done, though, and is doing is it's not their war, but they're going to now share co- responsibility for the consequences of what I cannot believe we can have as an American victory. We are headed down the road to losing Iraq.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: Very deft transferral of responsibility from the Republicans to the Democrats. Pat, this is Bush's war. And the president did suffer a major defeat this week because he is now pitted against two-thirds of the American public, who are in favor of setting a time line.

And I might say that the time line that's in this bill is what the Iraq Study Group, with Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton and all the giants in both parties, it's what they recommended. And it's probably what's going to happen when General Petraeus comes to the Congress in August or September and tells us how the surge is not going to be able to claim any kind of victorious end to this war.

So the Democratic strategy is to isolate the president and to keep the Democrats together and to peel off Republicans. And there are going to be more votes, and they're going to be harder to take. And you're going to see the Republicans gradually leave the president alone.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: General Petraeus was in town. General Petraeus had a bad report. General Petraeus said, "We cannot win this war militarily." Then General Petraeus said, "We do not have a unitary government there." So the politics to effect a withdrawal are not there.

If you don't have a unitary -- he further said that the government is flying apart in various directions, with various entities in the country, ethnic entities or racial entities or religious entities, fighting each other. And therefore, he said unless there are compromises, which the government must effect, there is no end. He said that practically word for word.

MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah. Now, obviously, he said there's no military solution, but he also said that the military is a necessary but not sufficient process in order to try to get the --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He asked for more time, for more time for the surge.

MR. BLANKLEY: And Pelosi didn't even bother to meet with him because she's so -- and Reid --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, she had met with him on a --

MR. BLANKLEY: No, she talked to him over the phone briefly. And Senator Reid said he didn't believe anything Pelosi was saying.

But let me go back to your central point, because I completely agree with you that currently this is a popular position the Democrats have taken. However, I believe -- you know, Neville Chamberlain was vastly popular when he came back from Munich with the appeasement deal.

The Democrats and much of the country right now are in the thrall of a lunatic proposition that it makes any kind of sense to -- not only to propose surrender but to set the specific date on which we're to march out. And right now it seems to make sense.

In time they're going to find out -- and Pat is right -- that while the president is certainly responsible for this war -- and there's no question about that; this is Bush's war -- that the Democrats and Republicans, if they join them, who, if they're able to succeed in driving us out, it'll be their peace that they're going to have to pay the price for.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay. Reid versus Cheney.

Earlier in the week, the Iraq debate sparked an all-out war of words between Vice President Cheney and Senate Majority Leader Reid.

First, Reid.

SEN. REID: (From videotape.) I told the president that this war is lost and that the surge is not accomplishing anything, as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Second, Cheney.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: (From videotape.) It is cynical to declare that the war is lost because you believe it gives you political advantage. Senator Reid himself has said that the war in Iraq would bring his party more seats in the next election. MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Third, Reid.

SEN. REID: (From videotape.) I'm not going to get into a name- calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating. The president sends out his attack dog often. That's also known as Dick Cheney.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Whose view is mirrored by the majority of the American people: Reid's view that the war is lost or Cheney's view that the war is not lost? I ask you.

MR. WALKER: I think it's probably tending towards Reid's view. But the awful thing about that clip is what we saw were the two least acceptable faces of the two sides of this argument. Cheney is no longer particularly credible or a particularly solid debater of his own case. Reid, I think -- well, we're already hearing mutterings in the Democratic Party about how much longer he's going to be the leader.

I think the real question here is the one that Petraeus put when he said, "We're now looking at -- it's going to have to be a major commitment in Iraq for a very, very long time."

There's absolutely no stomach for that in this country among the voters, among the Democrats, and increasingly among the Republicans. This war is heading towards its close.

The only question is how humiliating will be the --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What's the view in Europe, Martin?

MR. WALKER: The view in Europe is that, thank God, Bush is going to be going in about 18 months' time. But nobody expects the Americans to be staying on in Iraq after that. Even the Brits are pulling out this year.

MR. BUCHANAN: John, I think what the president's going to do is this. He cannot keep this number of troops in Iraq as of November of next year or the Republican Party will be wiped out. I think he himself is going to start drawing down the troops, and he will leave in Iraq as of November of next year enough troops so that what's going to happen, which I think probably is going to be a complete disaster, does not happen on his watch and happens on the watch of the individual that replaces him.

MR. BLANKLEY: I disagree. I think he is going to keep a very high level of troops right to the end. I don't think he's going to back off. And unless --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Ending when?

MR. BLANKLEY: January 20th, 2009, when he leaves office at 12:01 p.m.

MS. CLIFT: He's not going to have the standing to do that unless the surge shows definitive progress on the ground. And the likelihood of that happening is so remote because it's designed to create political space for the Maliki government to perform, and the Maliki government can't perform. And while Reid may have spoken inartfully, his central point is correct, and that is that there is no military --

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, you've always thought --

MS. CLIFT: -- solution to this war. And that's why a deadline is appropriate. The problem is political. It's not military.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: Would Bush be smart to embrace the Democrats' timetable and use it as a lever to disengage from Iraq, yes or no? Pat Buchanan. MR. BUCHANAN: No, because President Bush believes in this war. He believes an American withdrawal is going to be a complete disaster. He will do what he can do to prevent that happening on his watch. I disagree with Tony to this extent. He has got to get some troops out of Iraq or the Democrats will take over and end it in January of 2009.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think it's steadfastness or do you think it's obduracy?

MR. BUCHANAN: I think it's conviction on the president's part. I think he believes in the war.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: He cannot sustain it without the support of his party. And you're going to see the Republicans beginning to defect. And again, I think the timetable will match up with what the Iraq Study Group advocated. And while that sort of faded from view in the last several months, it's going to be back as the road map that both parties will embrace as an honorable way to end our involvement there.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Tony.

MR. BLANKLEY: I'll make an almost prediction. If a Democrat becomes president in 2009, which is a distinct possibility, and if the president has been able to keep a fair level of troops there till then, that the next president, the Democrat, will not follow on the policy they're now articulating, but will find that the geopolitical reality would require him or her to keep that level of troops --

MS. CLIFT: If you listen closely --

MR. WALKER: (Inaudible.)

MS. CLIFT: -- if you listen closely, they all say they want combat troops out. They're in favor of --

(Cross talk.)

MR. BLANKLEY: That's what they're saying now.

MS. CLIFT: -- that continues.

MR. WALKER: Eleanor, you're missing the point. I think the thing that Bush has realized is that this is not like Vietnam. In Vietnam, they stayed on long enough to realize that there were no important dominoes going to fall. If Iraq goes, the dominoes could go down all across the Middle East. Bush understands that. The Democrats have yet to confront it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Bush needs an exit strategy. He should utilize the ones that the Democrats have given him. If catastrophe ensues, he can blame Congress. If no catastrophe ensues, he's clear and free of Iraq.

Issue Two: South Carolina Showdown.

Eight Democratic presidential contenders competed this week to stake out the strongest opposition to the war in Iraq. They held their first group exchange at South Carolina State University. The participants: Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.

The big question of the night was, how will Obama measure up to Clinton? Here's Clinton on how she would respond, if president, to a major terrorist attack.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY): (From videotape.) I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate. If we are attacked and we can determine who was behind that attack, and if there were nations that supported or gave material aid to those who attacked us, I believe we should quickly respond.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Here's Obama.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): (From videotape.) Well, the first thing we'd have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans. And I think that we have to review how we operate in the event of not only a natural disaster, but also a terrorist attack.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: How did the two front-runners measure up in the first Democratic debate? I ask you, Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: I think they both more than held their own, but Hillary Clinton in particular was very decisive in that answer. In fairness, Obama got the question -- he was first to get it, so the others did have a chance to think through their thoughts. And you saw him really thinking on his feet.

But he tends to talk more in abstractions. She's much better on specifics. And she was really commanding and she was warm. I don't think her front-runner status was threatened in the least.

MR. BUCHANAN: I think her front-runner status is more secure than ever. I think she was excellent in that answer. Her answers were crisp and sharp in the whole debate. She was presidential, John. And frankly, the general consensus is that Barack Obama was gauzy, abstract. He's taking pieces out of his speech and delivering them. And he really performed far below expectations. And I think his momentum has been slowed, if not stopped.

MR. BLANKLEY: Look, I agree with the analysis, but that was Obama's worst moment of the night. MS. CLIFT: Yeah.

MR. BLANKLEY: And he also has a learning curve. Hillary has been debating for many years. And Obama is a very smart guy. I mean, I thought he did a perfectly serviceable job, with that as the worst example, and I think he's still a very formidable foe. So I don't think he's been hurt. He didn't get momentum, but he didn't hurt himself.

MR. WALKER: The real loser was number three. It was Edwards, who I think is now going to be permanently nailed with the $400 haircut. And I think it -- he clearly lost his nerve. He clearly lost his rhetorical skill. He didn't look like the kind of populist he's been campaigning as. And that's bad news for Hillary, because she counts upon Edwards to be splitting the anti-Hillary vote with Obama.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, good news for Obama. In a head-to-head match-up between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, Obama is ahead 45 to 39 percent. What does that tell you? Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: It tells me John McCain's having a real problem, John. He's losing the independents. McCain is --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why?

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, one thing is he's all-out pro-Bush on the war. He's been solid there.

Secondly, he's not the candidate, the Straight Talk Express full of fire and energy, independent now. He had a soporific announcement. I had thought McCain would be close to locking this up by now, but he continues to fall, John. And I frankly do not know at this time who's going to get the nomination, because I don't think Giuliani can pass muster.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You know, Obama says, and he's correct, that he did not vote for the war. And that helps him.

Okay, experience matters. Here's Bill Richardson, the most experienced man ever to run for president of the United States.

NEW MEXICO GOVERNOR BILL RICHARDSON (D): (From videotape.) What would I want from Russia? Number one, I want them to control some of the loose nuclear weapons in their domain. Number two, I'd want them to be more humane in dealing with Chechnya. Number three, I'd want them to be a stable source of energy for this country. Number four, I would want them to promote more democracy in their own nation.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: How impressive was Richardson, Tony?

MR. BLANKLEY: Not very. And I was surprised. I think well of Richardson. He is very experienced, not as experienced as Nixon was coming into the White House in 1968, but he looked nervous. His gestures were sort of awkward. And I don't quite understand it, because he's a very worldly and suave man. This was a poor performance by him.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you have thoughts on Richardson?

MR. WALKER: Yes. I was struck this week by the way in which he quite openly said, when he was asked, "Why haven't you been calling for Gonzales to resign?" Because he's Hispanic. (Laughter.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, he said for a while it was his Hispanic --

MR. WALKER: There's a frankness of that that I find appealing.

MS. CLIFT: I also think that Richardson comes across as a very genial guy and kind of open and candid. MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is that good or bad?

MS. CLIFT: I think it's good. And I think he will tell you he's the star of the second tier -- (laughs) -- which is not a bad place to be.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, here's Joe Biden, the accidental comic.

(Begin videotaped segment.)

BRIAN WILLIAMS (NBC News anchor): Senator Biden, words have in the past gotten you in trouble, words that were borrowed and words that some found hateful. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times said, "In addition to his uncontrolled verbosity, Biden is a gaffe machine."

Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?

SEN. BIDEN: Yes. (Laughter.)

(End of videotaped segment.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What did you think?

MR. BUCHANAN: I thought Biden had a very good debate. I really do. And he benefited from the fact that he had a clock on him, a shot clock that was going to go off if he went beyond a minute. So he tightened his answers. I thought he showed humor and I thought he showed knowledge and intelligence. I would rank him third, I think, in the debate, or maybe even second after Hillary.

MS. CLIFT: He ought to carry that timer around him -- (laughs) -- to keep him in check. And also, the way he --

MR. WALKER: He's also the only guy with a distinctive policy on Iraq.

MS. CLIFT: -- excuse me -- also, the way he handled the question about his loquaciousness. Why didn't John Edwards have a joke about his $400 haircut? That was the perfect moment to be self-deprecating.

MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah, but Biden --

MS. CLIFT: And he also -- poor John Edwards. When asked who his moral hero was --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Nobody.

MS. CLIFT: -- he struggled for quite a long time. His wife was -- no, finally he said -- yeah, after nobody he said his wife.

MR. BLANKLEY: When John Edwards was asked that question, it took him 12 seconds of silence before he came up with an answer. MS. CLIFT: That was painful.

MR. BLANKLEY: Then he said his lord, his wife and God -- and his father. It was a very embarrassing moment for a trial lawyer to not have any moral guidance.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He sounded exhausted.

MR. BUCHANAN: He did. He sounded --

MS. CLIFT: It's as though the zest has gone out of his campaign.

MR. BLANKLEY: But Biden not only had a good night. Biden, as Martin was going to say, is the only Democrat up there who's actually talking about a serious policy in Iraq other than the president.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, let's throw the net wider. Are Democrats generally satisfied with their party's contenders? The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 78 percent -- that's almost four out of five -- of Democrats are satisfied with their choices for nominee. Only 13 percent say they are unhappy with the Democratic field, as opposed to Republicans, which I'll get into in a minute.

What does that tell you?

MR. WALKER: Well, it tells us that we've got a real horse race among the Democrats, that they've got almost an embarrassment of riches. They've got two, three, four, perhaps even more, credible candidates. And that's not a bad position to be in this early, particularly when you've got -- one of them is an African-American, Barack Obama, one of them is a woman, and they're both of them looking entirely presidential.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Pat, listen to this and weep. Republicans' level of satisfaction with their field of contenders. Only 53 percent of Republicans say they are satisfied, and fully 33 percent, one in three, say they are dissatisfied. This is a 20-point satisfaction gap and a 20 percent dissatisfaction gap with Democrats.

MR. BUCHANAN: Listen, I think a lot of conservatives are deeply dissatisfied that they've got no real true conservative out of the movement that's in the race. And secondly, John, there is no populist conservative in this race at all.

MS. CLIFT: Maybe that was one trying to call John on the set right now. (Laughter.) What it says is there's likely to be an independent candidate. Whoever the Republicans come up with --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Really?

MS. CLIFT: -- there will be a lot of dissatisfied people. Yeah, I think there's going to be an independent candidate no matter what because of the long period of time between when the nominees are selected and when votes take place.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Are the Republicans demoralized?

MR. BLANKLEY: You don't --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They don't have the intensity that the Democrats have -- (inaudible) -- really want it.

MR. BUCHANAN: That's because -- look, they're in a malaise, John. It's because the war is hanging over them, the election. Nothing is going right.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is that a handicap?

MR. BLANKLEY: Of course it's a handicap.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It's a big handicap.

MR. BUCHANAN: It could cost them the White House.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It's a big handicap.

MR. WALKER: And economic growth is down to, what, 1.3 percent lately.

Not even that's working for them right now.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The market is good.

MR. BLANKLEY: Look, you don't need a poll to know the Republican Party is in the worst shape it's been in since after Watergate. The issues are all cutting -- national issues are all currently cutting against them. We don't have a single legitimate conservative running in a party that is still fundamentally conservative. And in that light, it's not surprising that half the party wants to see another candidate.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: With Obama closing hard, is Hillary still the front-runner in the Democratic primaries -- not the Democratic general election, not the general election, but in the primaries? Yes or no.

MR. BUCHANAN: Hillary is a stronger favorite today than she was at the beginning of the week, and she's a stronger favorite to be the next president.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: For the primaries.

MR. BUCHANAN: For the primaries.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Are you talking general election too?

MR. BUCHANAN: I'm talking both.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They're different elections, Pat.

MR. BUCHANAN: Yeah. I'm talking about both of them. (Laughs.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: She has higher positives and lower negatives with the primary voters than she does with the voters at large.

MR. BUCHANAN: If she handles herself in that debate, in the presidential debates, the way she did the other night, she can win the presidency of the United States.

MS. CLIFT: As I said earlier, she's the clear front-runner. But her negatives are worrisome. And I think Barack Obama still has a lot of room to grow in this race, and he is very appealing to young people, to rich people, to black people, to white people. I mean, he's a phenomenon, and I think that's still the case.

MR. BLANKLEY: I did a column a couple of months ago saying I thought the nomination was hers to lose, and she is not losing it. And I think Obama has a lot to prove and sustain himself after his first act, which was a good one.

MR. WALKER: Yeah, she's certainly withstood that first thrust of Obama's fresh momentum. And I think he has now got to recover his lost momentum, because I don't think he did terribly well on this week's debate. But for Obama, what he has got is twice as many donors, contributors, as Hillary has got. He's got a great grassroots appeal. And I think the sheer excitement of somebody who is African- American, competing at this level is really going to -- it's going to give her a real problem.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I think in the primaries Hillary right now is quite secure.

Issue Three: Wiccans Welcome.

Deceased U.S. military have long been awarded military headstones free of charge at any cemetery in the world. This week the Department of Veterans' Affairs announced that in addition to 38 approved religious engravings, headstones can now be engraved with the Wiccan pentacle.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs has received requests for the Wiccan pentacle for 10 years, but until now those requests had been denied. The 1,800 practicing Wiccans in the armed forces will now be granted the same status as other mainstream religions.

Question: Is the Pentagon going pagan?

MR. BLANKLEY: No, I don't think so. I think what happened probably were the witches got into a coven and threatened a hex on the Pentagon officials. (Laughter.) And, fearful of the hex, they granted their wish.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think that witches can help us get out of Iraq?

MR. WALKER: I think if we can call on the spirit of Merlin the Mighty to help us get out, that's just what we need.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think there will be chaplains appointed by the Pentagon to serve the Wiccans? There are 1,800 Wiccans in the Army.

MS. CLIFT: I'm for religious tolerance, especially when it gets expanded to people who are areligious. So whatever the motivation, I'm for it. (Laughs.) MR. MCLAUGHLIN: If the Pentagon will go for Wiccans in foxholes, do you think they'll go for gays in barracks?

MR. BUCHANAN: No, the military would say that that's not consistent with military morale. But I will say this. The ACLU would certainly be able to get these chaplains. My guess is if it's recognized religion, and they're doing that, they would get their chaplains.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, as an exponent of the religious right, Buchanan, how is the religious right accepting Wiccans' insignia --

MR. BUCHANAN: They're looking for --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- on tombstones and military graves?

MR. BUCHANAN: They're looking for a new Republican candidate in 2008. (Laughs.) That's how they're accepting it. (Laughs.)

MR. BLANKLEY: They want to go witch hunt.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You mean, not the --

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, they're unhappy. Look, their ideal is Normandy, the graveyard there.

MS. CLIFT: I hate to break it to you, Pat, but there are gays in military barracks.

MR. WALKER: Well, one thing's for sure. It's always been said there are never any atheists in foxholes.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is this an enlightened move, yes or no? Serious question

MR. BUCHANAN: Necessary --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yes? Yes?

MR. BLANKLEY: No.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: No?

MR. BLANKLEY: Witches in the Army? Good heavens!

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The answer is yes.

(Commercial break.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Predictions, Pat, fast.

MR. BUCHANAN: Ukraine and Georgia will not come into NATO. MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: Hundreds of antiwar protests around the country after Bush vetoes the spending bill.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Tony.

MR. BLANKLEY: French intelligence worried about a terrorist attack before the election in France, a la the terrorist attack in Madrid before theirs.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You just got back from France.

MR. WALKER: Chancellor Merkel is coming to Washington next week. We will get, I think, a really big transatlantic free trade deal.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I predict that nationalists in Scotland will fail in their attempts to create an independent nation.

Bye-bye.

END.

pectations. And I think his momentum has been slowed, if not stopped.

MR. BLANKLEY: Look, I agree with the analysis, but that was Obama's worst moment of the night. MS. CLIFT: Yeah.

MR. BLANKLEY: And he also has a learning curve. Hillary has been debating for many years. And Obama is a very smart guy. I mean, I thought he did a perfectly serviceable job, with that as the worst example, and I think he's still a very formidable foe. So I don't think he's been hurt. He didn't get momentum, but he didn't hurt himself.

MR. WALKER: The real loser was number three. It was Edwards, who I think is now going to be permanently nailed with the $400 haircut. And I think it -- he clearly lost his nerve. He clearly lost his rhetorical skill. He didn't look like the kind of populist he's been campaigning as. And that's bad news for Hillary, because she counts upon Edwards to be splitting the anti-Hillary vote with Obama.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, good news for Obama. In a head-to-head match-up between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, Obama is ahead 45 to 39 percent. What does that tell you? Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: It tells me John McCain's having a real problem, John. He's losing the independents. McCain is --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why?

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, one thing is he's all-out pro-Bush on the war. He's been solid there.

Secondly, he's not the candidate, the Straight Talk Express full of fire and energy, independent now. He had a soporific announcement. I had thought McCain would be close to locking this up by now, but he continues to fall, John. And I frankly do not know at this time who's going to get the nomination, because I don't think Giuliani can pass muster.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You know, Obama says, and he's correct, that he did not vote for the war. And that helps him.

Okay, experience matters. Here's Bill Richardson, the most experienced man ever to run for president of the United States.

NEW MEXICO GOVERNOR BILL RICHARDSON (D): (From videotape.) What would I want from Russia? Number one, I want them to control some of the loose nuclear weapons in their domain. Number two, I'd want them to be more humane in dealing with Chechnya. Number three, I'd want them to be a stable source of energy for this country. Number four, I would want them to promote more democracy in their own nation.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: How impressive was Richardson, Tony?

MR. BLANKLEY: Not very. And I was surprised. I think well of Richardson. He is very experienced, not as experienced as Nixon was coming into the White House in 1968, but he looked nervous. His gestures were sort of awkward. And I don't quite understand it, because he's a very worldly and suave man. This was a poor performance by him.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you have thoughts on Richardson?

MR. WALKER: Yes. I was struck this week by the way in which he quite openly said, when he was asked, "Why haven't you been calling for Gonzales to resign?" Because he's Hispanic. (Laughter.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, he said for a while it was his Hispanic --

MR. WALKER: There's a frankness of that that I find appealing.

MS. CLIFT: I also think that Richardson comes across as a very genial guy and kind of open and candid. MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is that good or bad?

MS. CLIFT: I think it's good. And I think he will tell you he's the star of the second tier -- (laughs) -- which is not a bad place to be.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, here's Joe Biden, the accidental comic.

(Begin videotaped segment.)

BRIAN WILLIAMS (NBC News anchor): Senator Biden, words have in the past gotten you in trouble, words that were borrowed and words that some found hateful. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times said, "In addition to his uncontrolled verbosity, Biden is a gaffe machine."

Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?

SEN. BIDEN: Yes. (Laughter.)

(End of videotaped segment.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What did you think?

MR. BUCHANAN: I thought Biden had a very good debate. I really do. And he benefited from the fact that he had a clock on him, a shot clock that was going to go off if he went beyond a minute. So he tightened his answers. I thought he showed humor and I thought he showed knowledge and intelligence. I would rank him third, I think, in the debate, or maybe even second after Hillary.

MS. CLIFT: He ought to carry that timer around him -- (laughs) -- to keep him in check. And also, the way he --

MR. WALKER: He's also the only guy with a distinctive policy on Iraq.

MS. CLIFT: -- excuse me -- also, the way he handled the question about his loquaciousness. Why didn't John Edwards have a joke about his $400 haircut? That was the perfect moment to be self-deprecating.

MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah, but Biden --

MS. CLIFT: And he also -- poor John Edwards. When asked who his moral hero was --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Nobody.

MS. CLIFT: -- he struggled for quite a long time. His wife was -- no, finally he said -- yeah, after nobody he said his wife.

MR. BLANKLEY: When John Edwards was asked that question, it took him 12 seconds of silence before he came up with an answer. MS. CLIFT: That was painful.

MR. BLANKLEY: Then he said his lord, his wife and God -- and his father. It was a very embarrassing moment for a trial lawyer to not have any moral guidance.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He sounded exhausted.

MR. BUCHANAN: He did. He sounded --

MS. CLIFT: It's as though the zest has gone out of his campaign.

MR. BLANKLEY: But Biden not only had a good night. Biden, as Martin was going to say, is the only Democrat up there who's actually talking about a serious policy in Iraq other than the president.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, let's throw the net wider. Are Democrats generally satisfied with their party's contenders? The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 78 percent -- that's almost four out of five -- of Democrats are satisfied with their choices for nominee. Only 13 percent say they are unhappy with the Democratic field, as opposed to Republicans, which I'll get into in a minute.

What does that tell you?

MR. WALKER: Well, it tells us that we've got a real horse race among the Democrats, that they've got almost an embarrassment of riches. They've got two, three, four, perhaps even more, credible candidates. And that's not a bad position to be in this early, particularly when you've got -- one of them is an African-American, Barack Obama, one of them is a woman, and they're both of them looking entirely presidential.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Pat, listen to this and weep. Republicans' level of satisfaction with their field of contenders. Only 53 percent of Republicans say they are satisfied, and fully 33 percent, one in three, say they are dissatisfied. This is a 20-point satisfaction gap and a 20 percent dissatisfaction gap with Democrats.

MR. BUCHANAN: Listen, I think a lot of conservatives are deeply dissatisfied that they've got no real true conservative out of the movement that's in the race. And secondly, John, there is no populist conservative in this race at all.

MS. CLIFT: Maybe that was one trying to call John on the set right now. (Laughter.) What it says is there's likely to be an independent candidate. Whoever the Republicans come up with --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Really?

MS. CLIFT: -- there will be a lot of dissatisfied people. Yeah, I think there's going to be an independent candidate no matter what because of the long period of time between when the nominees are selected and when votes take place.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Are the Republicans demoralized?

MR. BLANKLEY: You don't --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They don't have the intensity that the Democrats have -- (inaudible) -- really want it.

MR. BUCHANAN: That's because -- look, they're in a malaise, John. It's because the war is hanging over them, the election. Nothing is going right.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is that a handicap?

MR. BLANKLEY: Of course it's a handicap.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It's a big handicap.

MR. BUCHANAN: It could cost them the White House.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It's a big handicap.

MR. WALKER: And economic growth is down to, what, 1.3 percent lately.

Not even that's working for them right now.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The market is good.

MR. BLANKLEY: Look, you don't need a poll to know the Republican Party is in the worst shape it's been in since after Watergate. The issues are all cutting -- national issues are all currently cutting against them. We don't have a single legitimate conservative running in a party that is still fundamentally conservative. And in that light, it's not surprising that half the party wants to see another candidate.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: With Obama closing hard, is Hillary still the front-runner in the Democratic primaries -- not the Democratic general election, not the general election, but in the primaries? Yes or no.

MR. BUCHANAN: Hillary is a stronger favorite today than she was at the beginning of the week, and she's a stronger favorite to be the next president.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: For the primaries.

MR. BUCHANAN: For the primaries.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Are you talking general election too?

MR. BUCHANAN: I'm talking both.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They're different elections, Pat.

MR. BUCHANAN: Yeah. I'm talking about both of them. (Laughs.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: She has higher positives and lower negatives with the primary voters than she does with the voters at large.

MR. BUCHANAN: If she handles herself in that debate, in the presidential debates, the way she did the other night, she can win the presidency of the United States.

MS. CLIFT: As I said earlier, she's the clear front-runner. But her negatives are worrisome. And I think Barack Obama still has a lot of room to grow in this race, and he is very appealing to young people, to rich people, to black people, to white people. I mean, he's a phenomenon, and I think that's still the case.

MR. BLANKLEY: I did a column a couple of months ago saying I thought the nomination was hers to lose, and she is not losing it. And I think Obama has a lot to prove and sustain himself after his first act, which was a good one.

MR. WALKER: Yeah, she's certainly withstood that first thrust of Obama's fresh momentum. And I think he has now got to recover his lost momentum, because I don't think he did terribly well on this week's debate. But for Obama, what he has got is twice as many donors, contributors, as Hillary has got. He's got a great grassroots appeal. And I think the sheer excitement of somebody who is African- American, competing at this level is really going to -- it's going to give her a real problem.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I think in the primaries Hillary right now is quite secure.

Issue Three: Wiccans Welcome.

Deceased U.S. military have long been awarded military headstones free of charge at any cemetery in the world. This week the Department of Veterans' Affairs announced that in addition to 38 approved religious engravings, headstones can now be engraved with the Wiccan pentacle.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs has received requests for the Wiccan pentacle for 10 years, but until now those requests had been denied. The 1,800 practicing Wiccans in the armed forces will now be granted the same status as other mainstream religions.

Question: Is the Pentagon going pagan?

MR. BLANKLEY: No, I don't think so. I think what happened probably were the witches got into a coven and threatened a hex on the Pentagon officials. (Laughter.) And, fearful of the hex, they granted their wish.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think that witches can help us get out of Iraq?

MR. WALKER: I think if we can call on the spirit of Merlin the Mighty to help us get out, that's just what we need.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think there will be chaplains appointed by the Pentagon to serve the Wiccans? There are 1,800 Wiccans in the Army.

MS. CLIFT: I'm for religious tolerance, especially when it gets expanded to people who are areligious. So whatever the motivation, I'm for it. (Laughs.) MR. MCLAUGHLIN: If the Pentagon will go for Wiccans in foxholes, do you think they'll go for gays in barracks?

MR. BUCHANAN: No, the military would say that that's not consistent with military morale. But I will say this. The ACLU would certainly be able to get these chaplains. My guess is if it's recognized religion, and they're doing that, they would get their chaplains.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, as an exponent of the religious right, Buchanan, how is the religious right accepting Wiccans' insignia --

MR. BUCHANAN: They're looking for --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- on tombstones and military graves?

MR. BUCHANAN: They're looking for a new Republican candidate in 2008. (Laughs.) That's how they're accepting it. (Laughs.)

MR. BLANKLEY: They want to go witch hunt.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You mean, not the --

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, they're unhappy. Look, their ideal is Normandy, the graveyard there.

MS. CLIFT: I hate to break it to you, Pat, but there are gays in military barracks.

MR. WALKER: Well, one thing's for sure. It's always been said there are never any atheists in foxholes.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is this an enlightened move, yes or no? Serious question

MR. BUCHANAN: Necessary --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yes? Yes?

MR. BLANKLEY: No.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: No?

MR. BLANKLEY: Witches in the Army? Good heavens!

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The answer is yes.

(Commercial break.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Predictions, Pat, fast.

MR. BUCHANAN: Ukraine and Georgia will not come into NATO. MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: Hundreds of antiwar protests around the country after Bush vetoes the spending bill.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Tony.

MR. BLANKLEY: French intelligence worried about a terrorist attack before the election in France, a la the terrorist attack in Madrid before theirs.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You just got back from France.

MR. WALKER: Chancellor Merkel is coming to Washington next week. We will get, I think, a really big transatlantic free trade deal.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I predict that nationalists in Scotland will fail in their attempts to create an independent nation.

Bye-bye.

END.