Thursday, March 8, 2007

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for March 8

Guests: Dana Milbank, James Moore, Chris Cilizza, Clint Van Zandt

ALISON STEWART, HOST: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?


GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: There is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq.


STEWART: That being the insurgency. General David Petraeus paints a grim picture of the mission in Iraq, and says it's too soon to tell if the surge is working.

Back in the States, a mission of another kind. Some Democrats take another stab at finding a way to bring troops home, despite that little thing called a veto.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER: I say to my colleagues, never confine your best work, your hopes, your dreams, the aspirations of the American people, to what will be signed by George W. Bush, because that is too limiting a factor.


STEWART: Once a revered decision and policy maker in the White House's inner circle, now, not so much. A look at the role of the vice president. Is Dick Cheney, as "TIME" magazine points out, indeed the enemy within?

Congress announces hearings to figure out if the White House took the appropriate steps to protect Valerie Plame Wilson's identity. Star witness, Valerie Plame Wilson.

The conservative drumbeats are pounding loud to pardon Scooter Libby, but has the president boxed himself into a legal corner?

Four thousand feet in the air, taller than the Sears Tower, would you take this walk in the sky? A tribe near the Grand Canyon is counting on it.

Oh, the drama. We'll have to wait to find out what exactly killed Anna Nicole Smith. A last-minute decision not to release a toxicology report because of additional evidence. Tonight, key questions remain. Was it Big Mo? Was Howard K. Stern giving her drugs? Where is Sugar Pie?

All that and MOORE, now on Countdown.

And good evening, everyone. I'm Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann.

President Bush has regularly stated he takes his cues what is needed in Iraq from the generals on the ground. One general says, Hey, we cannot do this alone.

In our fifth story on the Countdown, just one month after taking command in Iraq, General David Petraeus saying not only can't military force alone solve the problems, but also that a political solution is needed that includes including some militant groups. He said any student of history knows a military solution will not stop the insurgency. Well, President Bush earned a degree in history from Yale in '68, so maybe there's hope.

Also, a new report written by the second-ranking American commander recommends that additional troops will need to stay in Iraq for another year.

We begin our coverage in Baghdad, with correspondent Richard Engel.


RICHARD ENGEL, NBC BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): David Petraeus, the star general, the Bush administration is counting on to turn the war in Iraq, today was somber, and made no promise of success. He said political talks with some insurgent groups are critical.

PETRAEUS: I think, again, that any student of history recognizes that there is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency of Iraq.

ENGEL: A proponent of the troop surge, Petraeus said American reinforcements should all be in place by June, but will need to stay well beyond this summer.

Petraeus said he said he might even ask for MOORE troops, but has no plans to for now. He asked his deputy, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, to study options.

PETRAEUS: We would like to be considering early rather than as the decision starts to stare us in the face.

ENGEL: "The New York Times" reported today, Odierno has recommended not reducing U.S. troop levels for at least a year.

In his first press conference since taking command a month ago, Petraeus, a normally gregarious media darling, repeatedly tried to lower expectations.

On his third tour, today he acknowledged parts of Baghdad are worse off than when he left.

PETRAEUS: When I left 17 months ago now, there certainly was not the kind of emptiness in some of the neighborhoods of Baghdad.

ENGEL: But the general said so far, a new security plan in Baghdad is reducing violence.

(on camera): But Petraeus cautioned he expects insurgents will continue spectacular attacks, and said little can be done to stop them.

Richard Engel, NBC News, Baghdad.


STEWART: Here in the States, the White House has already said President Bush would veto a new Iraq exit plan being floated by Democrat in Congress. That would remove all U.S. combat troops by the end of next year, Democratic leaders in the House tying the pull-out deadline to the purse strings, attaching it to legislation providing billions of dollars that the Bush administration has requested for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responding that the threat of a veto will not be enough to keep the Dems from trying.


PELOSI: I say to my colleagues, never confine your best work, your hopes, your dreams, the aspirations of the American people, to what will be signed by George W. Bush, because that is too limiting a factor. We have to pass it, show that it has support across the country, take the conversation to the American people. And hopefully, he will hear them.


STEWART: The Senate introducing its own legislation that could cause a d'j... vu with a twist. The Senate's version suggests the deadline to bring troops home should be much sooner. The goal, withdrawing all combat troops by the end of March 2098. Majority leader Harry Reid says he hopes to start a full-fledged Iraq debate on the Senate floor Monday. Some Hill watchers say, good luck with that.

Time now call in our own Dana Milbank, who also has this other gig as the national political reporter for "The Washington Post."

Hi, Dana.


Good evening, Alison.

STEWART: Critics of the surge have been saying all along that Iraq requires a political solution, not just purely a military one. Are there any signs the Bush administration is changing course on the need for a political solution?

MILBANK: Well, they sure are, and this goes to show you that the United States government will, in fact, do the right thing after it has exhausted all other options.

It's not just a matter of, you know, who's talking about it, is Petraeus talking about it, is the president talking about it. They're actually doing it. A U.S. envoy is going, most likely, to sit down with the Syrians and the Iranians, as well as the rest of Iraq's neighbors in Iraq this very weekend.

So it's very much underway right now. Despite all the military operations, I think what you're seeing is, people are putting into place the diplomatic solution that will get them out of there.

STEWART: Now, General Petraeus supports the surge. We now know the surge will last at least a year. So let's talk about this word "surge" that fared even use it (ph) if a surge is a period of intense increase. And does the language even matter?

MILBANK: Well, it's - I - as long as we're going down the track, it probably wasn't making any sense to use "surge" in the first place, because the number of troops contemplated really wasn't the massive flooding of troops into Iraq that the experts say was going to make any sort of difference. So it probably wasn't a surge in the first place.

Now, looks like it may be getting slightly larger, to 30,000 instead of 20,000, looks like it's going to be for an extended period of time. But once again, we get to the situation here, where a lot of is a matter of looking tough, while the stage is set for negotiations to take place.

So this may be strengthening the administration's hand as they deal with the various parties in Iraq, and deal with the Democrats, for that matter.

STEWART: You said talk about looking tough. Let's talk about appearances a little bit. Whether or not HARRY Reid gets his debate in the Senate, and whether or not President Bush vetoes any legislation calling for a withdrawal deadline, will the Democrats score political points just for trying? Or do they run the risk of looking weak if they fail?

MILBANK: Well, they will fail, but that's not necessarily a bad thing for them politically. They will certainly score points with their base, which is clamoring for this. It's something of a free vote, in the sense that they do know that they will never have enough votes to overcome any presidential veto, and likely can't get it out the Senate in the first place.

Now, the Republicans will once again try to pin them as being interested in defunding the troops and hurting the troops in the field, that sort of thing. The argument is getting tougher to make, particularly after the whole Walter Reed scandal, which raises questions about what our government's been doing to take care of the troops in the first place.

STEWART: You brought up Walter Reed. It is such a disturbing story when you think about it. Senator Hillary Clinton spoke out about it today in a speech, saying that the buck stops with President Bush, when you talk about what has been going on at Walter Reed. Of course, this is a runup to a presidential bid for '08. She's proposed what she calls the GI Bill of Rights.

Do you think Walter Reed, what's gone on there, can stick to this president?

MILBANK: Well, to some extent. I mean, the Democrats want to make

this sort of the Hurricane Katrina of this election cycle. It has

something in common with that, in that there's a bipartisan outrage. You -

in these hearings, you can't tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican, they're all furious at the way this has been handled.

On the other hand, there's no real plausible sense that anybody in the White House knew what was going on here, or indeed could have or should have known what was going on here. So that makes it quite a bit different. But it certainly blunts any effort that the administration would like to make to say that Democrats don't care about the troops, because now we find out that the troops most in need of help are in fact being abandoned by the government.

STEWART: We just want those troops to get all the help that they

need. Dana Milbank of MSNBC and "The Washington Post," nice to speak with


MILBANK: Thanks, Alison.

STEWART: Different kind of trouble that starts with a T, which rhymes with C, and that stands for Cheney, Vice President Cheney. In the wake of the guilty verdict against his right-hand man, Scooter Libby, there is open speculation about whether the vice president is hurting the administration MOORE than he's helping it, Libby's conviction coming at the end of a difficult week - well, heck, a difficult year - for the vice president.

You know, the friend that he actually shot while hunting, his almost but not quite endorsement of waterboarding, the blood clot in his leg, the suicide bomber who attacked a U.S. air base in Afghanistan while the vice president was visiting it, that whole insurgency is in its last throes thing, and, of course, the Libby verdict.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald referred to the, quote, "cloud over the vice president" in his summation at the Libby trial. The folks at "TIME" magazine painting that cloud over Mr. Cheney quite literally in their art for the new cover story, going as far as to call him, quote, "one of Bush's biggest liabilities."

Tonight, we call in James Moore, co-author of the book "Bush's Brain," a title that refers to, of course, Karl Rove, and until recently may have been applied to Mr. Cheney as well.

Good evening to you, James.


STEWART: You know, President Bush stood behind Donald Rumsfeld right up until the very moment the defense secretary resigned. I know it seems like a slim possibility, but what would have to happen for the vice president to resign? Is it even a possibility?

MOORE: I don't think it can happen. But this is another indication of yet another bad choice this president has made. Or maybe he didn't make this choice. Those of us in Austin who watched Dick Cheney be picked to go look for a vice president, and then find himself as a candidate, weren't surprised by that.

Now, if the president, in fact, decides that Cheney has to go and brings in someone new, say a Condoleezza Rice or someone like that, these last critical 20 months or so of the Bush administration, where he wants to accomplish something, or at least put in motion something positive, it's a complete distraction, because, at this point, everyone will start writing about who the new VP is, and is that new VP presidential timber in the next election cycle.

And if that happens, or if the vice president should happen to stay, which I think is probably most likely, then the vice president remains what he is at a moment, a liability. So the president has yet another catch-22 that he's brought upon himself.

STEWART: Would bringing in a new vice president (INAUDIBLE) help in on the PR front, the way Robert Gates taking over as defense secretary seems to have helped the Pentagon, especially during this Walter Reed scandal?

MOORE: I think you get a good, positive blip up front, and reporters writing about what a refreshing change this is, and the dark star that has been Dick Cheney is gone, and there's a fresh new wind blowing in the Bush administration, but that's a temporary thing.

What the president would want is for all of those troubles to go away, and all the speculation about the future of this individual to go away, and to concentrate on the few things that he either wants to put in motion, or to accomplish in his remaining time in office. And I don't think that would happen. I think there would be way too much attention to the removal of Cheney, to the Libby conviction, and upcoming Libby appeals, the Libby sentencing.

And these kinds of things are going to continue to detract. So I believe that the vice - that the president has made a choice that has simply cursed himself.

STEWART: All right. So let's assume the vice president is remaining in his job. Let's talk about the inner workings with him still in the inner circle. Now, over at the State Department, Secretary Rice now reversing course from some of the neocons by opening lines of communication with the remaining members of the, quote, "axis of evil." Why is this happening on Cheney's time? Wouldn't he be able to make this new policy go away?

MOORE: Well, I think what you're seeing is a manifestation of something that existed from the beginning, which is a sort of power struggle or an uneasy relationship between the president's political adviser, Karl Rove, and Vice President Cheney.

Now, when Vice President Cheney was a policy horse and was driving things, everything had to go through Karl's prism to see whether it helped the president politically. In the short term, the war was a good answer to some of the president's problems. In the long term, it's been a huge problem, obviously.

Now, the vice president is still wanting to do the things that he's always wanted to do in terms of dealing with Iran, but the vice - the president is getting his advice from Karl, who's whispering in his ear at the moment, You can't do that, you've already got have huge problems, we don't have the military strength, politically it's going to ruin the Republicans for the '08 election, stand down. But the vice president still wants those things. He just doesn't have the strength any more, after this Libby trial and this Libby conviction, to make those things happen.

STEWART: James, you brought up one of the most interesting points, I think, about Dick Cheney, and perhaps one of the most telling. When he was tapped to go out and find a vice president for George Bush, he went out and looked around and said, You know what? It's me, I'm the guy. Should we not count this gentleman out?

MOORE: Well, you ask a good question. But I think his time has passed. What - and he has put himself in a situation where he believed that he had so much influence, and when he was driving policy with this administration, he did. He believed that he and the neocons and his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, could accomplish just about anything they wanted to.

But I don't think that he actually believes, after this conviction, in all of the dark clouds that are hovering over his office, that he can actually pull something like this off. I think that Mr. Cheney's bus has left the station.

STEWART: James Moore, co-author of "Bush's Brain," coming from one of the best cities in the whole world, Austin, Texas. Thanks for being with us.

MOORE: Thank you, Alison.

STEWART: The outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame goes from the courtroom to Congress, the House looking at what the White House did or didn't do to protect a covert agent's identity.

And the race for the Republican presidential nomination. If the tough-talking senator from Nebraska gets in the fray, what will candidate Chuck Hagel mean for the current field of contenders?

You're watching Countdown on MSNBC.


STEWART: If you thought the end of the Lewis Libby trial brought an end to what we might learn about the White House leak of Valerie Plame's name and CIA status, welcome to the number four story on our Countdown. Congress is stepping in, with hearings about the leaks slated to start in just eight days.

The star witness, Wilson herself, who will testify before the House Oversight Committee next Friday. Chairman Henry Waxman announced the hearing today to determine whether the White House violated any procedures in spilling Wilson's identity, Waxman's office today telling us they have not yet decided whether to seek testimony from any current or former White House staffers about their role.

Covering the story since it began, MSNBC's David Shuster.

Hey, David.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Alison, good to be with you.

STEWART: Now, Plame today told Countdown she looks forward to testifying next Friday. What can you tell us about this hearing?

SHUSTER: Alison, it's going to be dramatic, largely because so many people have never heard Valerie Wilson's voice before. She has not given any interviews, she's given a few statements here and there and a hello or two at a Washington party, but nobody has really ever seen the personal impact of the CIA leak, and the fact that an articulate, dedicated woman who had 20 years of work and contacts tracking nuclear materials, essentially saw all of that flushed down the drain, all because the Bush administration wanted to discredit her husband.

So even one Republican said tonight the hearing Waxman has organized is shrewd political move. It is said it will take the spotlight away from whether Scooter Libby is a nice guy who deserves a pardon, and put the spotlight on the actual damage that administration officials caused Valerie Wilson, and on the harm that was done to the CIA.

In addition, by bringing experts in to testify about how classified information is supposed to be handled at the White House, it will underscore the extent to which the office of the vice president used intelligence to score political points.

For example, the evidence that came out of the Libby trial established that White House officials knew early on that Valerie Wilson worked in the counterproliferation division. In Washington, anybody familiar with the intelligence agencies will tell you that this division is the most sensitive at the CIA, and that most people who work there are classified or covert.

The point Waxman is trying to make is that White House officials, including Vice President Cheney, could have assumed that, based on where they knew Valerie Wilson worked, there was a strong chance her work was classified or covert.

And again, this could underscore the argument that the Bush administration didn't care about how it handled classified intelligence, as long as that intelligence was a tool they could use to hit back at an administration critic, Alison.

STEWART: David, you mentioned in your report this idea of Lewis Libby being a nice guy. We've heard from several of the jurors. They felt sorry for him, they think perhaps a pardon wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. What can you tell us about the ongoing pardon debate?

SHUSTER: Alison, even a few Republicans in Congress are now joining the call Scooter Libby to get a pardon. One of those Republicans, Lindsey Graham, told "The Washington Post" that a good candidate for a pardon is Scooter Libby. That is the same Lindsey Graham who charged that the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice against President Clinton warranted impeachment. Democrats are accusing Republicans like Graham of being hypocrites.

In any case, convincing President Bush to pardon Scooter Libby may not be as easy as some conservatives think. Just last month, in a television interview, President Bush refused to pardon two Border Patrol agents, citing Justice Department procedures and pardon guidelines.

So if the president pardoned Libby, that could cause a political firestorm among people who care most about illegal aliens. Secondly, the guidelines themselves are such that the president would have to essentially throw them away to pardon Libby. One guideline says, quote, "A petitioner should be generally desirous of forgiveness rather than vindication," in other words, Libby would have to apologize.

Another guideline says, "When an offense is very serious, a suitable length of time should have elapsed in order to avoid denigrating the seriousness of the offense or undermining the deterrent effect of the conviction. In the case of a prominent individual or notorious crime, the likely effect of a pardon on law enforcement interests, or upon the general public, should be taken into account."

Justice Department officials take that to mean a pardon should not be given unless the conviction happened more than five years ago, and certainly not in a situation where it might send a public message. Libby was convicted, of course, just this week, and the Department of Justice does not want the public to think that lying under oath is just fine.

One other strike against Libby might be a question that felons are asked on their pardon application, quote, "Provide a complete and detailed account of the offense for which you seek commutation, including the full extent of your involvement." Presumably, that would mean Libby would have to detail conversations with Vice President Cheney that Libby's memory was foggy on at trial.

In any case, President Bush has the constitutional authority to simply ditch the guidelines and protocols if he wants to, and yet the president told an interviewer yesterday, quote, "I'm pretty much going to stay out of it until the case has finally run its final course it's going to take."

So, in other words, it sounds like the president wants to allow the appeals process to go forward and see how Scooter Libby does. That appeals process, Alison, could take more than a year.

STEWART: David Shuster, thank you so much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome.

STEWART: And the White House has backed down on a newly acquired power allowing the administration to appoint interim U.S. attorneys without any oversight. The shift came after Congress started investigating why eight high-profile U.S. attorneys were suddenly and seemingly inexplicably fired last year.

Several of them reported feeling threatened by members of the GOP. One of them was asked to step aside so Karl Rove's ex-aide, Tim Griffin, could become an interim U.S. attorney in Arkansas. Under a change to the PATRIOT Act, Griffin wouldn't have to face Senate or judicial confirmation of his position, and could stay there at the president's pleasure indefinitely.

But after Congress began scrutinizing the new law and the dismissals, the White House agreed not to oppose legislation in the Senate to retract the law. And the Justice Department also agreed to let five more employees testify to Congress about the firings.

Ahead on Countdown, new thrills at the Grand Canyon, a piece of glass the only thing that separates you from a 4,000-foot drop below.

And the animal kingdom's latest odd couple. What's behind this newfound friendship?


STEWART: I'm Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann.

And once again, we take this break from the real news of the day to check in on the weird news of the day.

Let's play Oddball.

We begin in Hersh (ph), Texas, with the Countdown Cow Chase of the Week. We got a steer on the loose, (INAUDIBLE) on the scene. The bull had escaped from a nearby pasture, then clearly refused to cooperate with authorities.

(singing): Bad bull, bad bull, whatcha gonna do?

Police tried numerous times to lasso the fugitive, but in the end had to resort to the tranquilizer gun to bring the big fellow down. All in a day's work. He'll wake up with a hangover, but surrounded by all the other cows, who will worship him as the one who almost made it.

To Mozambique, where dog has got a monkey on his back, and we are not talking about his 1,000 dollar a day milk bone habit. It's Billy and Kiko, a dog and monkey who helped each other survive raging floods five years ago and have been inseparable ever since. The odd couple is not very sociable with people or other animals. In fact, Billy has had to fight off other dogs who want to eat Kiko. Be strong Kiko.

Finally, to Newton Massachusetts for the remarkable story of a baby born at the gas station. It seems the hospital was just too far away, and the mother began delivering in the backseat of the car with dad at the wheel. The father, after pulling into the route nine Getty Station, got a little woozy at the sight of blood and walked away, leaving gas station attendant Rafeate Aleniza (ph) to, you know, check under the hood, as it were.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today, we had a complete different meaning to full service. It included babies.

STEWART: Forgot to do the window though. As for the father who walked away, he is so not getting any ever again. Really, that kid is going to be an only child.


STEWART: Who will be the Republican nominee for president? And can any of these gentlemen make it through the general election with their political and personal baggage? And will the possible entrance of Chuck Hagel in the race completely upset the GOP apple cart?

And intriguing delays in the Anna Nicole investigation. The toxicology report was not released today or tomorrow because of new information. The police looking into the events around her death. Details ahead, but first time for Countdown's top three news makers.

At number three, an unidentified seven-year-old girl in Bernet (ph), Wisconsin. Police say they responded to a 911 call placed by the girl, who was calling to report that her grandfather was cheating during a card game. Cheating a seven year old playing go fish. OK Grandpa, just tell her there is no Santa right now. You know you want to do it.

Number two, Juan Catalan. You may remember his story, he was charged in a California murder in 2003, spent five months in jail for it, but he had an alibi. He swore that he was at an L.A. Dodgers baseball game at the time of the murder, and not only that, they were filming an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" in the ballpark that day. Catalan was cleared of all changes when authorities reviewed the HBO tapes and actually spotted him in the stands. This week he agreed to a 320,000 dollar settlement from the L.A. City Council.

And number one, OK, we're not doing Worst Person in the World tonight, but if we were, this unidentified man in Boulder, Colorado would take first prize. Police say the man is still on the lose. He paid for girl scout cookies by giving the eight year old girl a counterfeit 50 dollar bill. Not only did he get away with the cookies, but he took 40 dollars in change, a real 40 dollars. Go to hell, go directly to hell, do not pass go. Do not collect 200 dollars, and don't even think of snagging a thin mint.


STEWART: He is anti-tax, anti-big government, anti-abortion. He's also anti the war in Iraq. Our third story on the Countdown, could that blend of positions give Senator Chuck Hagel a chance to become the Republican's best shot at keeping the White House.

The Vietnam vet, who is a fourth generation Nebraskan, is planning to make some kind of announcement about his future on Monday at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska. While he has not said he will be throwing his hat into the ring of GOP candidates, he has agreed to appear with nine other presidential hopefuls at a firefighter convention on Wednesday. OK smoke, meet fire.

To walk us through how Hagel might fare in the GOP field, I am joined by Chris Cilizza, a political reporter and author of "The Fix" on the Hi, Chris.


STEWART: None of the front runners in this race so far really fit that mold of the traditional Christian conservative candidate. You have Senator McCain, been pro choice in the past, Mayor Giuliani, anti-gun and pro-choice, Governor Mitt Romney is a Mormon, but sort of a born again profile. Then there is Hagel, an Episcopalian, my people, the frozen people, who has consistently supported conservative issues, but not the war in Iraq.

Could he appeal to the Republican core constituency, as well as hard core conservatives?

CILIZZA: You know, I think he as problem there. And it's not, as you point out, his voting record. This is somebody who, down the line, has largely been a conservative voice in the Senate. In fact, "National Journal," a magazine here in D.C. does ratings of who votes the most conservative each year. Chuck Hagel has the most conservative voting record out of any senator running.

The problem for Hagel is what you mentioned, the war in Iraq. He has been so out spoken in opposition to the war, that that is an issue that really still resonates with social conservatives. These are not people that vote on abortion and gay rights. They care about other things and still, by and large, they are supportive of the war in Iraq.

So, even if Hagel is with them on some of the social issues, I think his outspoken criticism of the president, criticism of the way in which the war in Iraq is playing out, will hurt him in terms of trying to appeal to that segment of voters.

STEWART: And the idea of security trumping all social issues?

CILIZZA: Yes, I just think Hagel is so identified as the voice, the Republican who is in opposition to President Bush's plans in Iraq, that I think that issue dominates his whole profile when it comes to people being introduced to him. It helps him in one regard, because look, there are many Republicans who do not support what the president is doing in Iraq.

Hagel is a natural home for a lot of those people. The question is, are there enough people like that, given the other candidates running, that he could win in a big state?

STEWART: Let's take a look at some of those other candidates. Only eight percent of people in the latest NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll say they would vote for Mitt Romney, but he won a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend. Tell me why we should or should not pay attention to that CPAC straw poll?

CILIZZA: Well, I think it's something interesting. It's something we wrote about. I followed it relatively closely. I was there. But it does not have a huge amount of resonance. Straw polls come and go, and none of them, I don't think, matter that much, until we get to August. There is a straw poll in Aimes, Iowa. There's going to be almost every single serious Republican candidate is going to try and win that thing.

That's the one that I think is really going to matter for a number of things, not the least of which, it's Iowa, who votes first in the country, and it's in August. So we're getting along in the process. But look, Mitt Romney has clearly got some support among social conservatives. He's working very hard to build more, whether through signing on activist in that community, taking conservative positions on social issues, but as you pointed out, his record in the past suggests on that, these issues - he's moved on each issue from more liberal to more conservative.

Will social conservatives buy that is a real conversion, or will they look at it as a political switch?

STEWART: Before I let you go, I have to ask you about Senator John McCain. We look at the same NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll, you would think McCain would be the front runner. It would be conventional wisdom. But he is trailing Rudy Giuliani by 14 points at this point. I saw one columnist describe him as this election cycle's Bob Dole. And "Radar Magazine" said some of his staffers have quit because of his performance on Letterman, that that was unscripted. Allegedly, he went off script announcing his candidacy.

Are the problems - are they for real for McCain, or is it too early to tell?

CILIZZA: I think that they are somewhat for real. There is no question, if you talk to his campaign privately, they will admit that he's been in something of a dip lately. Now that doesn't mean all that much. You'd rather be in a dip in March, 2007, than in January, 2008. Remember, all the way into December, 2003, John Kerry looked like he was dead in the water, when it came to the presidential race. He bounced back to win Iowa.

These things tend to go in cycles. Obviously John McCain would prefer to be 20 points ahead of Rudy Giuliani rather than 10 or 15 points behind, but I don't think we should read too much into it. It's still very early.

STEWART: Chris Cilizza of, thanks for spending some time with us.

CILIZZA: Thank you Allison.

STEWART: A view of the Grand Canyon you have never ever seen before, and perhaps never hoped to really see; 4,000 feet, a long way down. And will Mrs. Tom Cruise be the next reality TV star. Tabloid reports say Katie Holmes wants to be featured with her BFF, Posh Spice, but, surprisingly enough, Tom is not exactly embracing the project. Details ahead.

But first, here are Countdown's top three sound bites of the day.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The 52-year-old truck driver that lives with his mom won 116.5 million dollars. Ed Nabors remembers where he was when he realized he won, in his truck on the job.

ED NABORS, LOTTERY WINNER: And I set there for probably 15 or 20 minutes. And the computer in the truck beeped, and it was my dispatcher, wanting to know why I was sitting still so long.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did you tell them?

NABORS: I never did get back to him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hey, "Today Show" is doing it right, because it's almost all women on today's show, except you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually, I am wearing a thong.

STEVEN COLBERT, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Tonight, I am sad to be thrilled to have to bring you 2007's first installment of Easter Under Attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does the Easter bunny, or Easter eggs, have anything to do with Easter?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it has everything to do with tradition.

COLBERT: Well, I think Runsler's (ph) right to fight for the Easter Bunny. I have to strongly disagree with him that it's not a religious symbol. I seem to remember that on Easter Sunday, Jesus road out of the tomb on a giant rabbit that laid colorful pastel eggs. I believe that is the Gospel of Cadberry.


STEWART: Acrophobics, our next story may not be for you. Or maybe, if you want to get over your fear of heights, and just face your depth perception demons, then grab your anxiety meds and watch the number two story on the Countdown.

A platform with a view, imagine you're 4,000 feet in the air above the Grand Canyon, with nothing holding you up but a pain of glass beneath your feet. Breath deep, settle down and watch this report from Jennifer London.


JENNIFER LONDON, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Each year millions walk through Grand Canyon National Park, but few venture 90 miles down stream to this remote stretch of the Grand Canyon's western rim, and the Native Americans who own this land hope this horseshoe structure will bring desperately needed tourist dollars.

It's called the Sky Walk. It's a glass walk way over the Canyon's edge.

(on camera): Although engineers moved the Sky Walk into it's final position, there's still a lot of work that needs to be done, and for safety reasons, you cannot walk out there just yet. But from a helicopter, we can give you an idea of what the view will be like for visitors who walk out 70 feet beyond the canyon rim, on a glass walkway, look through this glass floor to the canyon, 4,000 feet below.

(voice-over): The Sky Walk is taller than the Gateway Arch, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, even Chicago's Sears Tower.

MANUEL MOJICAR, ENGINEER: It's a non-moving ride that gives you the feeling that you are walking on air.

LONDON: If all goes according to plan, the Sky Walk will also provide a much needed economic boost to the struggling Wallapie (ph) Indian tribe, for the 2,000 tribe members that live in this part of the Grand Canyon, poverty is a way of life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't have casinos. We don't have any other industry. But we have a beautiful reservation, and we want to share it with the world.

LONDON: But this former park superintendent says the Sky Walk is a colossal mistake.

ROBERT ARNBERGER, OPPOSES SKY WALK: If it fails, in fact, look what we are left with, something hanging off the edge of that canyon forever more.

LONDON: It's a 40 million dollar gamble, with the future of the Wallapie Indian tribe and the Sky Walk itself hanging in the balance.

Jennifer London, NBC News, the Grand Canyon.


STEWART: From the Grand Canyon to the Hollywood Hills, leading off our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, Keeping Tabs, Katie homes, reality TV star? "Life and Style Magazine" reporting that Holmes is interested in being featured with Posh Spice on the famously gaunt soccer wife/former pop star's new show. A friend tells the magazine that, quote, Katie thinks this is a great break for Posh and she would love to be her sidekick on the show.

According to that same friend, Tom Cruise is against the move, saying, why would you want to be Ethel is Posh is Lucy? Of course, that would make Tom Cruise Fred Mertz. Tom, think about it, people love Fred Mertz.

And on a related note, that show will be on NBC, that's right, coming soon, Posh Spice's reality show, possibly featuring Katie Holmes, on your local NBC stations. Please watch. You may save our jobs. Please do.

Speaking of the bread line, Kevin Federline's 29th birthday party just around the corner, and the former Mr. Spears is in serious negotiations to sell the exclusive coverage rights for 25 grand. I tell you, that kid has a set.

According to the "New York Post," Federline is asking weekly tabloids for 25,000 dollars for exclusive coverage rights to an intimate cocktail and dinner party. For that low, low price, you get a logo on the red carpet and exclusive coverage inside the March 21st throw down. However, quoting a Federline insider, quote, who cares, everyone will have access to the red carpet, and there won't even be any big celebrities there.

Apparently that Federline insider doesn't consider K-Fed a big celebrity. At least someone around K-Fed has sense.

And finally, at long last, the one and only Star Jones has found work again, back to her television roots this time. The former attorney began her career at Court TV, and now returns there to host a daytime talk show. Jones left her gig at "The View" last summer amid a flurry of controversy, after some verbal fisticuffs with co-host Barbara Walters.

As for Jones' new vehicle, we don't know a whole lot about it, other than it will debut later this year. She has a new styly look, some nice glasses. It will cover some legal stuff. And we are not sure how good it will be, but there's one show we know is going to be a smash hit, NBC's new Posh Spice new reality show, possibly featuring Katie Holmes, only on NBC. Check your local listings, maybe.

To the top of the Countdown, and the growing intrigue in the Anna Nicole case. New information from the local police, and Smith's bodyguard raising questions about the actions of Howard K. Stern. We'll walk down that slippery slope when Countdown returns.


STEWART: As with everything in the case of Anna Nicole Smith, there's a delay. It took nearly a month to bury the poor woman. But this time, in our number one story on the Countdown, it comes with an ominous tone. Florida police have delayed the release of the coroner's autopsy findings because of additional evidence. The medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper, said his findings will now be held up for a week or two and that a turn of events was unexpected.

Dr. Perper also said that the new evidence may or may not influence the autopsy results.


DR. JOSHUA PERPER, MEDICAL EXAMINER: They indicated that there were two additional new pieces of evidence, which might be significant or might not be significant. But they might be important to us to the view before releasing our determination of cause and manner of death.


STEWART: Police made the decision, reportedly, after talking yesterday to Smith's bodyguard, known as Big Mo. And according to, Big Mo told police that Ms. Smith was in a cloud of prescription medication the day she died, that Howard K. Stern had been giving Ms. Smith some type of drug in the months before her death. also has new details of the timeline the day Miss Smith died.

Let's call in former FBI profiler and MSNBC analyst Clint Van Zandt.

Good evening to you Clint.


STEWART: This autopsy from the medical examiner was complete and it would have been released possibly today. Now police have asked the doctor to delay it. What would be the reasoning behind asking him for the delay? What are the possibilities here?

VAN ZANDT: Well, when a person dies, Allison, it's a homicide, it's a suicide, it's an accident or it's natural causes. Let's say, hypothetically, the medical examiner says it was either an accidental or intentional drug overdose. It was either an accident or it was suicide. And he perhaps was going to write that hypothetically on her death certificate.

Now the police come forward and they say, doctor what if we came up with information that perhaps someone gave her the drugs, and what if they gave her, hypothetically, a excess amount of drugs? Could that be homicide? Well, you'd have to sit back and say, depending on the circumstances, it could.

So, that's one reason amongst many, many that the police could have brought forward to the ME and caused him to scratch his head and take a step back a little bit.

STEWART: There's been so much reporting from various sources about Ms. Smith's prescription drug use, about Mr. Stern supposedly giving her some kind of drug in the months before her death. Wouldn't the police have already spoken with any person making claims? Why is there new information now?

VAN ZANDT: Sometimes you circle around. You talk to everybody who's a suspect or witness, initially, and then you lay all the facts down and you say, wait, some of these things just don't jive. Let's go back and talk to these people a second time. If they have inconsistencies, let's confront them with the inconsistencies. If he we have cameras that show people who were going in and out of Nicole's room at the hotel and the time doesn't jive with the time people said they went in and out, let's go back and talk to them again, and find out why there's a difference.

STEWART: There's also been reporting on that this bodyguard, Big Mo, said that Howard K. Stern had a normal pattern of checking on Miss Smith constantly. But that he did not do it the day she died, that he was supposedly AWOL for a period of time. How important are patterns to those closest to the deceased, especially someone who dies in circumstances like Miss Smith's?

VAN ZANDT: If Howard K. Stern, for example, like clockwork appeared and left at the same time every day, as a care giver, care taker of her he helped her with her medication, he helped her get dressed, whatever he did. If he did that with regularity every day and then the day she died, he wasn't there, then you have to say, well, did he have an appointment that he had scheduled for two or three days before? Or did he just not show up that day?

If he didn't, or the bodyguard or whoever it was, if they didn't show up, police need to go back and say, why weren't you there the day she died when you were there the previous seven, 15, or 25 days before?

STEWART: All right. Clint Van Zandt, thank you so much for walking us through this latest development in the Anna Nicole Smith case. We appreciate it.

VAN ZANDT: Thanks Allison.

STEWART: And that does it for this Thursday edition of Countdown. I'm Allison Stewart, in for the vacationing Keith Olbermann. I hope to see you again tomorrow at noon eastern on "The Most." I'll also see you back here tomorrow nigh. Our MSNBC coverage continues now with "SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY."