Thursday, May 3, 2007

Two episodes for this date.
Click to go directly to:
Pre-debate, 7 PM
Post-debate, 9:30 PM
Post-GOP Candidates Debate Coverage for May 3, 9:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m. ET

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR: A few trip-ups, a few laughs, perhaps more Iran than Iraq. Certainly more Iran than Iraq that we expected, and perhaps some criticism...

MATTHEWS:... for being our partners tonight. Thanks, also, to the people of NBC News and MSNBC. And, of course, thanks to the 10 Republican presidential candidates here tonight. From the Ronald Reagan presidential library, good night.

OLBERMANN: And no matter the candidates, no matter the party, Chris Matthews will always have the last word.

A few trip-ups, a few laughs, more Iran than Iraq perhaps. More criticism, although not by name, of President Bush's policies in Iraq.

Certainly that expected. And those open questions: Who looked presidential? Who did not? Who got their points across? Who seemed to be trying too hard to get their points across?

You've been watching the first in the nation Republican presidential candidates debate here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Chris Matthews, who moderated tonight's debate, will be joining us momentarily, after the obligatory handshakes and back slaps.

I'm Keith Olbermann, above the crowd and above the fray here, alongside the "Chicago Tribune's" Jill Zuckman and "Newsweek's" Howard Fineman.

And we bid you, again, a good evening from the library. Howard, there are many of those huge points and many extraordinary policy statements that we heard here. We'll go through them throughout the course of the next 90 minutes. But that biggest point: Who looked presidential? Who sounded presidential? Who did not?

HOWARD FINEMAN, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK": I think that Rudy Giuliani did not quite. He came in as the frontrunner. I think this was not a situation that he could dominate, and he didn't dominate it, because he had to talk about abortion, stem cell research, a lot of social issues that he was not on firm turf with, with the base of the Republican Party.

I think Mitt Romney came off looking presidential, although perhaps a little too calculated and a little too fine in the cuts that he was making on the issues, on stem cell research, for example, raising a phrase that most Americans had never heard of.

And John McCain was Popeye once again. Love him or not, he was the guy that came to prominence in the Republican Party and on the national scene. For better or worse, that's who McCain is and was tonight.


JILL ZUCKMAN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": I think the bottom line is that the top three are still the top three. Giuliani, McCain, Romney, nothing upset the apple cart tonight.

Now, Giuliani went from flip-flopping to waffling, I would say, when it comes to abortion. He was a little bit all over the place. It is not an easy issue for him. But, at the same time, nobody did anything so disastrous that they're no longer in the top tier. And anybody who was below the top tier, well, no one has the label that Mike Gravel won in the Democratic debate last week, as comic relief.

OLBERMANN: To talk about, as we noted, Howard, as we sat here and watched this, we expected a lot about Iraq. And there were slams on Mr.

Bush's execution of the war. Obviously, Congressman Paul, Dr. Paul referred to the war itself as a mistake.

But McCain seemed angry about the reaction in various political quarters. Governor Huckabee said we had not listened to the generals.

Congressman Hunter was talking about the Iraqi military needing a greater build-up. Senator Brownback, the misuse of allies, which seemed to be fairly pointed.

Obviously, this was not going to be like the Democratic debate last week in South Carolina. We're not going to the pinata effect we discussed about beforehand. But the point was made that a lot of these Republicans wanted to stand away, at least from President Bush's execution of this war.

FINEMAN: Very clearly. And I think, to one degree or another, all of them did so. I think, when John McCain said, "We're on the right track now," the exact quote was, "Now I think it's on the right track,"

that is a phrase, that is a piece of videotape that he may, come the general election, if he gets that far, come to regret.

But all of the others, in one way or another, including McCain, were critical of the handling of the war, the military execution, the lack of diplomatic finesse, and so forth. I thought that was significant, if low-key. It was significant.

OLBERMANN: But, Jill, McCain was not low-key about Iraq, by no means?

ZUCKMAN: No, no, not all. In fact, while he said - this was the most limited I've seen Senator McCain in saying, "We're on the right track." He said we're on the right track, and then he immediately segued into "but horrible mistakes have been made," you know, "books have been written about what a disaster this has been." So, clearly, he feels like, if he had been running the show from the very beginning, this would have been waged completely differently.

OLBERMANN: Jill, Howard, stand by. We're going to go to the spin room, where NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory has been here at the Reagan library and joins us now from there. Has the spinning already begun, David?

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Already. I can see Giuliani advisers and McCain advisers beginning to congregate behind me and talk to reporters about how they did. I mean, it's word pointing out, as Howard and Jill know, this is a lot about enthusiasm and generating enthusiasm, creating a moment in the debate that they can use as they go out on the stump to get activists and donors excited about their campaigns, to give more money so that they can generate more momentum going forward in the second quarter, Keith.

And I just want to pick up on the conversation, what I thought was most notable right off the bat. You know, John McCain has been criticized in the past couple of months for being kind of lethargic on the trail. He was certainly impassioned tonight. I think their intent was to look presidential, to look forceful, to project that passion and vigor, and he did that. I mean, detractors of McCain may see other adjectives and apply them, but when it came to talking about following Osama bin Laden to the gates of Hell or attacking the Democrats, McCain came out firing early.

OLBERMANN: David, was there a moment - did you hear a moment in that, that will stand out?

GREGORY: Well, I think, as Howard suggested just a moment ago, McCain will still face the difficulty of supporting the surge strategy while at the same time saying that the war was terribly mismanaged. And so there are going to be moments from that, from his defense of the war and criticism at the same time, that will begin to stand out.

But, you know, he even laid it out there, which is going to, I think, presage what he may have to go through in a general election, if he goes that far, which is that it will depend upon events in Iraq. He is very much beholden now, and his support of the surge strategy beholden, to how things go in Iraq. And so his positions, you know, may have to change as events on the ground change and the situation becomes more fluid.

I will say, from Rudy Giuliani's perspective, he was able to talk about his record, his conservative record on taxes in New York, able to talk about his record of cutting crime in New York. He wasn't able to be as expansive as I think he may have liked to have been, because of the format on fighting the war on terror, though he did say early, "This is something that we can never retreat from as a country."

OLBERMANN: David Gregory in the spin room. Stand by. We'll get back to you.

Senator Sam Brownback and his wife, Mary, are now joining us from the debate stage.

Senator Brownback, thanks for your time.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), KANSAS: Good to join you.

OLBERMANN: Did you, without mentioning the president, did you mention - did you criticize President Bush's handling of our allies, in relation to Iraq, without mentioning the president? Or were you being more critical of the execution of the war by others?

BROWNBACK: What I was being critical of is, I don't think we have a political solution moving forward as aggressively as we do a military.

We cannot set a deadline to pull out. The day we set that deadline, Al Qaeda declares victory, and much of the world will agree.

But we've got to get a political solution on the ground that works.

And I think that really involves a three-state, one-country solution, where you have a Kurdish area, which already exists, a Sunni area and a Shia area, with Baghdad as the federal city.

And I don't think we're pushing enough on the Sunni and Shia in particular in Iraq to get that moving forward. We've got to do that to get it stabilized in Iraq.

OLBERMANN: Senator, did you feel that - David Gregory had just suggested that, in some quarters, this might have seemed like the debate moved too fast for people to actually get their opinions out and their positions out on many key issues, not just Iraq. Did you feel you got a fair shot at airing your opinions?

BROWNBACK: No, not really, but it's a long debate. And we're at the 1st of May, and there will be other chances to do it. I did think you saw clear differences start to come forward on basic issues, like life, taxes, some on foreign policy, not particularly much there, but hopefully that will develop as we move on forward in the campaign.

It did go very fast. I thought, though, Chris did a nice job and the other moderators of trying to get as much coverage on a lot of topics as they could, in a short time frame.

OLBERMANN: Senator Brownback, great thanks to you, great thanks to Mrs. Brownback for your time.

BROWNBACK: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: We're going to now be joined by Governor Mike Huckabee from Arkansas, who is also on the debate stage in the wake of this first Republican debate.

And, Governor, you might have had the - call it the Joe Biden moment, but you might have had the laugh of the night, I think, in discussing the possibility of amending the Constitution to permit Governor Schwarzenegger and others who are not born here to run for president, but only after you had served both your terms. Were you prepared for that, or was that spontaneous, sir?

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), ARKANSAS: Well, it was spontaneous.

I had no idea the question was coming. In fact, we had no idea of any of the questions, and it was a very interesting debate. I agree with Senator Brownback. It's very tough to get a full thought across, and I think we spent so much time talking about things that we largely agree on, more on the war in Iraq.

I wish we would have had more time to talk about things that may really distinguish us, on taxes - and, for example, I got to advocate for the fair tax, but didn't really get to go into it and talk about it like I would have loved to have done.

OLBERMANN: Was there, in your opinion, as there was at this desk, veiled criticism of the president's execution of the war in Iraq? You specifically referred to whether or not the generals on the ground had been listened to.

HUCKABEE: I don't think it was veiled criticism. I think it was an honest assessment of the fact that we're running to be our own president. We have great respect and admiration for this one.

Unlike the Democrats, we don't think everything this president has done is wrong, but we're also honest enough to say not everything is right. And that's why all of us are out here on this stage, all of us vying for the opportunity to tell the American people why we ought to be president.

OLBERMANN: Governor, did you and Governor Romney have a disagreement, an alteration, or just an energized discussion of the subject of faith during the debate tonight?

HUCKABEE: Actually, I don't even think it was a disagreement. I don't recall ever specifically mentioning Governor Romney. I was speaking to George Stephanopoulos, and maybe it came in that context.

But I've always been very clear - and I don't mean this about Governor Romney or anybody - a person's faith ought to be up for discussion, because I think it helps to sort of frame our values system. And sometimes when politicians are asked the question, Keith, they'll say, "Oh, I don't ever let it get in the way. I just keep that separate."

Well, I don't think that's possible. And if it is possible, then it means that our faith is so marginal and compartmentalized that it really doesn't have a big impact on us. It's if real faith, it should have an impact.

I've also said I have a great respect for Congressman Pete Stark of California, who came out and said, "Hey, I'm an atheist. I don't really believe anything." He's honest about it. I think that's better than a person - and I'm, again, not speaking to any of the candidates here - but just in general, a person saying, "I'm a person of deep faith, but I don't want to talk about it."

OLBERMANN: Governor Huckabee, great thanks for stopping by after the debate. We appreciate your time.

HUCKABEE: Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Congressman Tom Tancredo now joins us from Colorado, of course, now from the debate stage, as well.

And, Congressman, thank you for your time.

REP. TOM TANCREDO (R), COLORADO: I'm sorry. I don't hear you.

OLBERMANN: Did you feel you got your chance? Well, we don't have Congressman Tancredo yet. I could possibly yell at him from the position we're at, but that would not be good television, would it?

We'll continue on the stage here with Howard Fineman and Jill Zuckman, as we continue to wire up the congressman.

Did it go too fast? Was there substance in here? What would you have pulled out this?

FINEMAN: I think there was a lot of substance in it. And, as Jill said, there was some strong criticism of the way the war was handled in Iraq, but it was balanced in tone by most of these candidates. You've got to leave Paul to the side, but balanced by a lot of saber rattling on Iran.

As you said in your intro, they were critical about the handling of Iraq, but it's not like they were expressing an unwillingness to use military force elsewhere in the region, including Iran. I mean, there was some tough statements by, I think, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani and others, I think Duncan Hunter, as well, about Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and a lot of saber rattling that I think they think the Republican base will like.

And around the world, as opposed to right here, that is the headline out of this debate. If you're elsewhere in the world, looking to see where America is headed, you're seeing a Republican Party talking to its base and still talking about the use of military force, even after what most people in America now regard as a mistaken war in Iraq.

OLBERMANN: Let's put that question now to Congressman Tancredo, who we have been able to reestablish audio contact with.

We apologize for that, Congressman. Thank you for your time. This subject of Iran came up rather prominently. Were you surprised at the depth of emotion about this on the stage with you among the other candidates tonight?

TANCREDO: No, I don't think I was surprised at it, because, of course, I think it's probably the most serious threat we face. What I was unable to say is what I think should happen in Iraq, in terms of where we go from here, and that is this, that, you know, I started to say, in 1787, Benjamin Franklin came out and said, when he was asked, "What have you given us?" He said, "A republic, if you can keep it."

It is the time that we now have to tell the Iraqis that very same thing. We have birthed a republic there. It is up to them to keep it.

I believe in a policy of disengagement, and not withdrawal, not withdrawal from the region, but disengagement.

And because we actually are, I think, in a global war on - it's not just terror. It is against radical Islam. One might even say it is a clash of civilizations.

I mean, this is the reality. I wish it were not the case. I wish that my colleague, Dr. Paul, for instance, was right and that we really had the ability or the opportunity to just look at the world and say, "There are no real threats out there, not anything that we have to actually go outside of the United States to meet." I just don't think that's true.

OLBERMANN: Congressman, did you get to address your issues, the ones that you have become known for nationally? Did you feel that there was a question in there that allowed you to discuss the subjects that are particularly important to you?

TANCREDO: I tried. God knows I tried. You know, of course, the whole issue of immigration and immigration reform, I think, throughout the campaign up to this point in time has really been brushed aside by most of these folks that were up here.

They keep talking about the fact that they're not for amnesty, but each one of them has in the past said, "But we have to do something with the people who are here." That means, if you stay here, if you've broken the law to come into this country, and we tell you, "You can stay here," that's amnesty.

And, you know, we shouldn't keep trying to redefine the words. I think that's one reason people are so cynical about politics. I mean, say what you think. If you believe that we should, in fact, give amnesty to 12 million to 20 million people who are here, say so.

And then explain to the hundreds of millions of people who are waiting to come into this country or who have come into the country the right way, explain to them why that's not a slap in the face. That's what I really wish we could have gotten into. And, of course, boy, this was - it went so quickly, each little minute segment there, and, no, I did not feel like we could cover that adequately, I'm sorry to say.

OLBERMANN: I believe your nine colleagues out there and all of the interrogators and those of us up here would agree with you on that.

Thank you, Congressman Tom Tancredo.

Congressman Duncan Hunter of California is joining us now from the debate stage.

Congressman Hunter, thank you for your time. I'm wondering, again, about this point of the - several of the candidates, yourself included, criticizing, to some degree, the execution of the war in Iraq, if not the president by name. Were you doing so when you discussed the need to, in your terms, further stand up the Iraqi army?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), CALIFORNIA: Actually, not criticizing the president. What we need to do is build on the Baghdad plan that's being undertaken right now, where Iraqi brigades are being moved into Baghdad. They're being put into the fight.

You've got about 129 Iraqi battalions. About 50 percent of them don't have a lot of combat experience. We need to get those guys up, rotate them into a three- or four-month combat operation. That's how you stand up a military force.

And after we've done that and they're combat-hardened, they will be able to start rotating in and displacing American heavy combat troops throughout Iraq. And that's when Americans can come home or be sent to other places in CENTCOM, in that command, where the commanders so designate.

That's the right way to leave Iraq. And if we build on the Baghdad plan, I think we'll be able to do it. And I think that this Iraqi government is going to hold. And I think that the Iraqi military, which I saw just a few weeks ago in Iraq, has improved tremendously, but they've got to get them in the fight. You build a football team by playing football games. You build a military with military operations.

OLBERMANN: Congressman Hunter, there is - Howard Fineman suggested this, and I would concur with his analysis, that one of the headlines that might be taken from this debate, if not necessarily just nationally, certainly internationally, would be that your party and the members of your party, even after what has not been certainly, minimally defined this way, an easy series of events in Iraq, was being very belligerent and very willing to turn to military solutions, at least keep them on the table, on the subject of Iran. Do you think that was also one of today's headlines?

HUNTER: Well, I think, very clearly, my position is this, that Iran is right now sending military equipment into Iraq. That's very clear.

That equipment is being used to harm American soldiers. Right now, we have license to take military action, whether we take it with intelligence capability, or we take it with precision, or we take it with special operations.

You know, when you have a foreign country which is sending in the equipment that's being used to hurt your soldiers in a theater that you're fighting in, at that point, you have license to undertake operations to stop them.

And the other point, which is the fact that Iran is walking down the path to develop nuclear weapons, they're doing that by refining this weapons-grade material, which, when it gets to a certain level, can be used for a nuclear device, is this: You don't wait until you get to the edge of the cliff. And I think we're going to need to make that decision sooner rather than later.

OLBERMANN: Congressman Duncan Hunter of California, joining us from the debate stage. Great thanks for your time again, sir.

Let's check in with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough in the spin room, as we begin to hear more of the comments and analysis of some of the upper tier, if you will, candidates involved in the debate - Joe?

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC HOST: All right, thank you so much, Keith.

Greatly appreciate it.

Right now, we have with us the policy chairman of Mitt Romney's campaign, former Congressman Vin Weber.

Vin, I tell you what, it looked like Mitt Romney really had a strong introduction to the Republican Party tonight. Talk about his performance.

VIN WEBER, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN ADVISER: I couldn't be happier. The Governor Romney that America saw tonight is the Governor Romney that convinced me that I was going to back him for president.

This is a guy that really has a mastery of the issues. He showed that tonight. He's a guy that's got a sense of humor, and he's a guy that people would feel comfortable coming into their living rooms, that old test that they say people apply to the president of the United States. He gave people some insight into his character and values, talking about the role of faith and helping to make people make decisions.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, and that was an interesting part of the debate, when he got a chance to talk about faith. When he talked about faith, he never talked about his Mormonism. He never talked about his own religion, but he did about, though, faith in general and that America was basically a big tent.

WEBER: Yes, he talked about the American people being the strength of this country and the heart of the American people being formed by many things, including their faith. I think that's an insight into the character of this man, and in some ways is more important than all the specific issues we check off the box.

And I just couldn't be more pleased with what the American people saw tonight, nothing against any of the other candidates. We did not come here, Governor Romney did not come here to snipe at John McCain or Rudy Giuliani or anything like that. He came to introduce himself to the American people, and, boy, I'll bet you they liked what they saw.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, the big issue with Mitt Romney for the base has been, before this introduction, has been the issue of abortion. Has he flip-flopped on abortion? Is he saying something now that he didn't say back when he was governor of Massachusetts?

He had a chance to address that tonight. He said he changed his position, just like Ronald Reagan changed his position. Are you confident that the conservative evangelical base that still elects Republicans for presidential primaries are going to be able to check off that box and say, "I'm OK with Mitt Romney"?

WEBER: I think so. And, you know, we'll have to explain that to additional audiences as the campaign goes on. But beyond explaining that he has become a pro-life person, the governor's explanation of why he changed his mind is credible. He didn't just put his finger to the wind and decide it was blowing a different direction. He had to deal with the issue of cloning and stem cell research as the governor of Massachusetts. And in the course of educating himself on that issue, he came to the conclusion that we had seriously degraded human life and that that was directly a result of Roe v. Wade, and it led to the change in his position on abortion.

I think that, when people hear that, they'll understand, "Yes, there's a reason, a solid well-rounded reason why he came to that change of position," which is, after all, what pro-life people want. They want people to change their position toward the pro-life point of view, because they understand the issue more deeply.

SCARBOROUGH: All right. Thank you so much, Vin Weber.

WEBER: Thanks, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH: I'll tell you what, I get a lot of e-mails throughout this debate from Republicans, conservative Republicans across the country. They were telling me they thought Mitt Romney was the clear winner.

And I've got to tell you, Keith, that's the view from a lot of people inside of here right now. Back to you.

OLBERMANN: Joe Scarborough in the spin room, great thanks.

Chris Matthews has now made his way up. Great job.


OLBERMANN: Superb job.

MATTHEWS: Isn't this great?

OLBERMANN: And they even answered some of your questions, and you even let them answer some of your questions.

MATTHEWS: I think they had a pretty good average, but there were a few handoffs. But I liked the way that they all participated in the down-the-line questions. You know, we think it's somewhat humiliating as a candidate for president, in many cases a former governor or something, to be able to just have to just say, "Yes or no?" They hate that. They hate yes or no.

What I thought was interesting, there's interesting divisions about a national I.D. card, because the libertarians and the other guys, the big-named candidates. I thought it was an interesting division on abortion rights. It wasn't simple, even in the Republican Party or either party.

I think, if you sit down and look at that transcript, I think you're going to learn an awful lot about this political race.

OLBERMANN: All right, take a breather. We're going to take a break. You already heard Joe Scarborough anoint Mitt Romney the winner. We're going to go through the panel's estimations of that.

We'll be back in a moment for another hour of coverage from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on MSNBC.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC CO-HOST: The library in Simi Valley, California, where not half an hour ago, the very first Republican debate of the 2007-2008 presidential race concluded.

Alongside Chris Matthews, who moderated tonight's debate, I'm Keith Olbermann.

And tonight we saw 10 men battling against each other to try and keep the White House in GOP hands. And unsurprisingly the other elephant, besides the logo in the room, was the current occupant of that White House, George Bush and his strategy for the war in Iraq.

The frontrunner's unwilling certainly to directly criticize the president. Only Senator McCain choosing to acknowledge previous mistakes in Iraq, but still saving his strongest words for someone else - Osama bin Laden.


JOHN MCCAIN, (R), ARIZONA: The war was terribly mismanaged The war was terribly mismanaged, and we have to now fix a lot of the mistakes that were made.

On the subject of Osama bin Laden, he is responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans. He is now orchestrating other attacks on the United States of America. We will do whatever is necessary. We will track him down. We will capture him. We will bring him to justice. And I'll follow him to the gates of Hell.


OLBERMANN: Likewise Mr. McCain's fellow frontrunners, seeking to emphasize their own toughness against terror, with a jab at the competition.


RUDY GIULIANI, (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: We should never retreat in the face of terrorism. Terrible mistake. When you had this debate last week, and all the Democrats were up here. I never remember the word Islamist fundamentalist terrorism being spoken by any of them. This is a worldwide jihadist effort. They ultimately want to bring down the United Stats of America. This is a global effort we're going to have to lead, to overcome this jihadist effort. It's more than Osama bin Laden, but he is going to pay, and he will die.


OLBERMANN: Governor Romney adding that he did not buy the Democratic pitch that is was all about one man. The seven other man on that stage aware that they are not leading the poll, seeking to persuade that they are alone true conservatives, that they alone are the heirs to the legacy of the man whose library they were standing in.


JIM GILMORE, (R), FORMER GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA: I'm a consistent conservative that keeps his word.

TOMMY THOMPSON, (R), FORMER GOVERNOR OF WISCONSIN: I'm a reliable conservative. I vetoed 1,900 things.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK, (R), KANSAS: I believe in the Ronald Reagan principle, that somebody that's with you 80 percent of the time is not your enemy.


OLBERMANN: And here is Chris Matthews, who moderated tonight's debate to such a success. Congratulations on that.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC CO-HOST: I am looking at the clips. You have to see the clips, since, you know, follow it as a continuum, and the real noise is these clips. it's how the debates rule out lives. It's the bicentennial moments, if you will.

Rudy Giuliani trying to explain his abortion position. The strong argument by John McCain we just saw in terms of we're going to get the bad guys.

I think some of it was a competition as to who is going to be toughest against terrorism. That can be expected.

Certainly there was a bake-off of ideas to cut taxes. I mean, that really was the free-fire zone.

OLBERMANN: Would you want to be working for IRS right now?

MATTHEWS: I wouldn't want to be trying to balance the books either. But you know, I have to tell you, is there a Democratic variation that we just can say - well, when you guys like to show your best at - I'm not sure if have they an actual - don't have the joyous opportunity, the parade of opportunities that came by on that one. They all had an opportunity on cutting taxes they were looking forward to.

But I thought it was interesting. I thought they were absolutely useless on the subject of Scooter Libby. One of my favorite banjos to play, and obviously they did not want to play that banjo.

OLBERMANN: You tried.

MATTHEWS: They didn't like that, and they just didn't want to be against or for, it seemed. It was one of those areas you didn't want to get a division of opinion. They were very careful about not offending the more hawkish position on the war, including Scooter Libby. So I guess you didn't hear a single person say thumbs down on this guy.

OLBERMANN: Well, there did seem to be a thumbs down on the prosecution. There were some willing to...

MATTHEWS: That was Patrick Fitzgerald.

OLBERMANN: That was much more. That was beyond the...


MATTHEWS: I guess it's interesting, but we kept trying to be fair among the frontrunners, and the other candidates. There are 10 of them. And they have equal rights to be out there, and it's was a challenge to myself and the producers to keep it going. But we also, let's face it, And the viewers at home have a say. They want to hear from certain people, and people who have a chance to really run the whole thing.

But I thought it was interesting, somebody said to me afterwards. I'm not going to say exactly what they said, because I don't want to do it. Let me them say it. They thought that the fact that Romney was in first place in order, gave him - which reminded me, one the biggest old political tricks among the street corner politicians is when they're getting their pictures taken in a group, always stand to the right because your name gets mentioned first in the captions below.

OLBERMANN: Yes. Stand on the right, yes.

MATTHEWS: You always stand over here, and if you stand on the left always put your hand over the shoulder so they can't crop you. These are old street corner tricks.

OLBERMANN: If you are on the far right, then you're the one who gets to answer last theoretically.

MATTHEWS: Tancredo was ready to play. He picked it up there.

I like the guy who did clean up. Was it Tommy Thompson? He, like, accumulated three for four questions.

OLBERMANN: I'm going to do this. I'm going to do that.

MATTHEWS: He whacked them out of the park.

OLBERMANN: Let's go back to the "Spin Room." MSNBC's Joe Scarborough is in there with one of those candidates, the former Virginia governor, Jim Gilmore - Joe.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, "SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY": Thanks, Keith. I wish I would have learned those tricks from Chris Matthews before I went to Congress.

We're here with Governor Jim Gilmore.

Governor, I thought you put on a masterful performance tonight, a very strong performance. The question is, though, how do you use a successful debate performance in front of American and turn it into some momentum, which you haven't had thus far?

JIM GILMORE, (R), GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA: Well, I think we're picking up momentum, Joe. We haven't been in the race as long as some of the guys that have been in it. We just got in the race the beginning of the year. We're going to come through Joe, because of principals, because of solid positions, because of a track record.

And I had wanted to say two things, tonight, one I did successfully, which is I am a real conservative, I have a long track record of doing it. I'm reliable. I keep my word. That I think came through.

The other challenge that this nation faces right now is national security, and there's a lot of issues to be dealt with in that. It was hard to get into that debate here tonight.

SCARBOROUGH: Let's expand on the flip-flop issue. Of course I am not anointing anybody the winner. But I heard a lot people talking about your strong performance, and I kept hearing Mitt Romney over and over again from Republicans across the country, e-mailing me throughout this debate. Is Mitt Romney a flopper?

GILMORE: Well, I think he's changed a lot of positions. Historically in politics people know that can rely based upon what you have done and you have said in the past, and I'm running on that basis. I've always been a conservative, been consistent through my entire life. I have done things in policy as the chief executive of a very major state, the wonderful Commonwealth of Virginia, and I think the viewers and voters can rely upon that.

Now, if a person is going to changes their positions on gun control, on abortion, on a variety of issues, if they're going to put forward socialized medicine in their home state, and then come to a debate and say they're a conservative, I think the American people have a right to examine that.

SCARBOROUGH: And you are talking about Mitt Romney there.

Let's talk about Rudy Giuliani. You talked about how you're a true conservative. You've got a conservative record. Is that your way of saying that Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are not true conservatives?

GILMORE: I don't think that Rudy Giuliani asserts himself as a conservative, as a matter of fact.

SCARBOROUGH: Is John McCain a true conservative?

GILMORE: I don't think he's made his reputation that way. And what he said tonight is he has sort of explained away his opposition to the Bush tax cuts.

One thing the president has done right is to cut taxes so that he can build up this economy, create more jobs and more opportunities, and put money back in the pocket of regular people. That's what I did as governor, and I think that's what the president is looking to do, and Senator McCain opposed that.

But you know, all these men that were on the stage tonight have great attributes. Everyone on this stage tonight would make a better president than Hillary Clinton, and I said so in the debates.

SCARBOROUGH: Would you make a better president than George W. Bush, on issues like Katrina, on issues like Iraq, on these issues over the past two years where even Republicans believe this president has come up short? Would you provide - let's talk about Katrina. Would you be a better president than George W. Bush in that type of situation?

GILMORE: Let me say very quickly that in 1999 I was approached by the United States government and asked to chair the Commission on Homeland Security and Terrorism for this country. We did it for a total of five years, three years before the attack and two years after. And in that commission report, we absolutely asserted, and I assert tonight to the American people, that we must have a Homeland Security system that is a complete community of preparedness so we know what we're doing in advance, and we're prepared to deal with things correctly, whether it's a Hurricane like Katrina, or whether it's a terrorist attack or whether it's a lunatic gunman. We have to be prepared to deal with these issues. That's what I have asserted all along and what I will assert again tonight.

SCARBOROUGH: All right, Governor James Gilmore, very good job. Thanks so much for being with us tonight.

GILMORE: Thank you, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH: And, Keith, I'll send it back to you. And by the way, the way you know if someone is a true conservative or not - and of course that's being debated on John McCain - is when you say you're going to follow somebody to the gates of Hell, and then crack a smile as John McCain did. An interesting moment tonight at the debate.

Back to you, Keith.


And, Joe, the governor just raised a point here. We not have a bogey man for the Republicans quite to the degree that the Democrats did last week in South Carolina with President Bush. But once Chris unleashed that question about Hillary Clinton, we did got open season on one of the Democrat leaders, did we not?

SCARBOROUGH: Well, we really did. And as a guy who was around in 1994, who got elected to Congress running against Hillary health care, I must say those attacks sounded stale, sounded a bit old. I think there are a lot of people who voted for Bill Clinton twice, who also voted for Ronald Reagan twice, who just aren't going to be swayed by name calling against Hillary Clinton. But there is no doubt that the Democrats may have had George W. Bush last week, but this week, the villain, the person with the black hat in the Ronald Reagan movie was Hillary Rodham Clinton. I think Hillary Rodham Clinton, circa 1993.

OLBERMANN: Eyes lit up across that room. Thank you, Joe.

Let's bring in our panel. From "The Chicago Tribune,"/ Jill Zuckman, and of course "Newsweek's" Howard Fineman and "The Washington Post's" Eugene Robinson, who was is in Washington. Again, of course, Chris Matthew is here with me.

Boy, did you sense that that room - whether those answers were stale - when you mentioned Hillary Clinton's name were people listening to the microphone.

MATTHEWS: It was pin the tail on the donkey. My reason for raising it was, I have a sense - remember I had the question, what would unify the Republican Party? That was the same question. I think in the end they're going to run against, if she's the nominee; the possibility of her being president will be their campaign message - if we lose, she wins. I think it will be a negative campaign.

OLBERMANN: Of course that question was phrased as Bill Clinton's return, and it was rather quickly turned to...

MATTHEWS: Turned it around. I'm surprised they didn't have some fun, because almost all those guys voted to impeach him.

OLBERMANN: As Dr. Paul pointed out.

MATTHEWS: He said he wanted to be consistent. That was a funny one.

HOWARD FINEMAN, "NEWSWEEK": They moved onto the other Clinton. Chris is right, if this party is going to be unified that's what will unify them.

And by the way, on the other side, the Democrats know that full well, and among sophisticated Democrats, who are looking at who they're nominee is going to be, they're thinking about that. They don't want to give the Republicans an excuse to be in (INAUDIBLE). If you look at Hillary's numbers, that's what you see.

OLBERMANN: Did they give them an excuse to be unified.

JILL ZUCKMAN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": I'm not so sure, but I just have to say that when you mentioned Bill Clinton, it was like they all giggled. You know, they all thought a bunch of things and then nobody wanted to say anything, and they turned...

OLBERMANN: A bunch of cheap jokes they didn't want to make.

ZUCKMAN: It was like pushing a button.

MATTHEWS: It is such a cultural question, because if you said Bill Clinton to, say, an African-American crowd, it would be devotional, the response. If you said it to a group of sophisticated big city liberals, it would be, look what he's doing for world AIDS, fight world AIDS.

FINEMAN: I thought it was significant.

MATTHEWS: It's a different cultural reaction. They think it's comical, the name Bill Clinton. That's a different reaction.

FINEMAN: But also I think it might be significant that they didn't bother trying to attack Bill Clinton. It shows you the relative standing of the current and previous president. They don't want to waste their time making fun of Bill Clinton, who actually has high approval numbers now as people look at him compared with George W. Bush. I thought that was also interesting.

ZUCKMAN: I think they recognize that Hillary Clinton is a formidable candidate if she gets the nomination, and they need to keep their sights trained on her.

OLBERMANN: We have a lot to go through. We didn't get to the statement about Mr. Ahmadinejad being totally irresponsible and has to be stopped, which we heard from Senator McCain, but there were a couple of contradictory positions for Mr. Giuliani, and have not discussed whether or not there was a clear winner. We're also going to go inside the spin room to get reaction from the McCain camp, from Joe Scarborough.

We'll be back with our panel and more from the campaigns. You're watching MSNBC's coverage of the first in the nation, Republican presidential candidates debate from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library here in Simi Valley, California.


GIULIANI: The reality is the use of military force against Iran would be very dangerous. It would be very provocative. The only thing worse would be Iran being a nuclear power. It's the worst nightmare of the Cold War, isn't it? Nuclear weapons in the hands of an irrational person, an irrational force. Ahmadinejad is clearly irrational. He has to understand it's not an option, he cannot have nuclear weapons, and he has to look at an American president, and he has to see Ronald Reagan. Remember they looked in Ronald Reagan's eyes, and in two minutes, they released the hostages.




MCCAIN: The war was terribly mismanaged. The war was terribly mismanaged, and we now have to fix a lot of the mistakes that were made, but we have a new strategy and a new general, and these men and women are committing to winning.


OLBERMANN: We rejoin you from the Reagan Library, site of the first-in-the-nation Republican debate.

Alongside Chris Matthews, I'm Keith Olbermann.

Let's go to Joe Scarborough, who's in the Spin Room with the director of Homeland Security, secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, who is here on behalf of Senator McCain - Joe.

SCARBOROUGH: Thanks a lot, Keith. And thank you, Chris.

I've got to tell you, I thought John McCain was tentative tonight and he stumbled at times. Do you think he turned in a strong performance.

TOM RIDGE, MCCAIN SUPPORTER: Well certainly I think he turned in a very strong performance. I think there was a lot of energy, a lot of passion. He continues to take very courageous stands on issues that are very controversial, Iraq, immigration. Tonight I think he demonstrated for the first time, I think, aloud his domestic agenda, much broader in scope, very aggressive when it came with trying to deal with fiscal problems that plague this country right now, particularly the deficit.

So I thing, again, among 10 candidates and sometimes awkward form, not too much time, I think, answer as much as you like. I think perform and you can't answer what you like. I think his performance was impressively strong.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, you're a political pro, obviously. Before Homeland Security, you were one of the top governors from Pennsylvania. I remember the 2000 campaign. You were a real superstar there. So you understand politics. You understand the dynamics of debates.

Let me ask you, and I know we're in the spin room, but did John McCain look comfortable to you up there.

RIDGE: Oh, yes, but maybe it's because I have known him for 25 years.

I mean, I've know John since he got elected back 1982, and I think he - his energy and his passion, particularly with the first couple of questions that he was asked, came through. And I think as always in a debate like this, because I have been in politics, when you've got 30 seconds or that minute, sometimes there's a tendency to rush your answer. But I think he compressed his answers, kept on message, established his priorities, continued his courageous stand on a lot of these very difficult and controversial issues. I think he did well.

SCARBOROUGH: Governor, you bring up a good point, John McCain is known, by the press certainly, as a guy who will sit on a bus and talk to you for hour after hour after hour.

If he did not do as well stylistically as, let's say, say Mitt Romney would that be because he is used to a free stage of ideas. He's used to talking, not in soundbites, but used to talking in expansive prose.

RIDGE: Well, I think all 10 candidates articulated very clearly their ideas tonight. There was a sprinkling of humor.

I thought John - I'm sure there are people who are going to give style points for not electing the president (INAUDIBLE), and so a determined style maybe the other candidates, they did just as well.

But I think, clearly, when you take a look at the kinds of questions that was asked, go back and review some of those questions and how well he took them head on, I think at the end of the day you're seeing he was very strong.

SCARBOROUGH: You're in a unique position - you came in with John McCain in 1982.

RIDGE: Correct.

SCARBOROUGH: This is a man that Ronald Reagan introduced to the political process. John McCain is a man. He asked Nancy Reagan, where do we find such men. And yet John McCain has been struggling in the early part of this Republican primary to establish himself as a true, bedrock conservative. He comes to the Reagan library tonight. Do you think he was he able to grab the mantle of Ronald Reagan?

RIDGE: I don't really think he needed to grab it; I think he's already had it. I mean, when people - as this campaign evolves - the word "conservative" is used by a lot of candidates and by a lot of people, but as the campaign this evolves and people take a look at who has clearly the most consistent conservative record, coupled with the ability, when appropriate, to reach across the aisle in a bipartisan way to try to fashion the kind of solutions that Americans prefer, bipartisan solutions, John McCain's the man. So I don't think he had to break out tonight, because the record exists for all to see.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, there is no doubt. It's not a subjective conclusion; it is objective. If you look at records, going back to 1982, there is no doubt John McCain is the most conservative consistent candidate out there, was tonight, and has been for some time.

Thanks so much, governor. Greatly appreciate it.

Keith, back to you.

OLBERMANN: Joe, thanks. Back here with the panel, Jill Zuckman of "The Chicago Tribune," Howard Fineman of "Newsweek," and of course Chris Matthews. I attributed this wrong, let me correct this, the punch to the thorax comment about Ahmadinejad. I think I attributed that to Senator McCain; it Rudy Giuliani who said that this was the worst nightmare of the Cold War, an irrational man with a nuclear weapon. And Ahmadinejad is irrational. And we talk about what the headline's going to be out of here. That's going to be the headline in a couple of places, isn't it?

FINEMAN: Well, I don't think it's any news that the world think he's irrational, but the news out of here is that the candidates, as I said, to compensate for their tiptoeing away from the president on Iraq, were really saber rattling on Iraq, and you had Rudy doing it. You had McCain doing it. Two of the frontrunners. Interestingly, Romney stayed out of that one. Duncan Hunter to be expected.

But I thought that was significant, because it shows that this Republican Party, as unpopular as it is, as behind in the generic ballot as it is. With a war that most Americans don't like, is willing to talk tough about another war.

MATTHEWS: They are doubling down on war.

FINEMAN: They are doubling down on war.

ZUCKMAN: There are a lot of voters out there who look at Iran and here the Republicans saying this, and wonder, are they making it up again? Do they really have nuclear weapons there? Is this another excuse to just shift the focus from Afghanistan to Iraq to Iran?

MATTHEWS: We'll have to get to the notes, but when I asked Senator McCain what his tripwire was, (INAUDIBLE) from the Cold War in Berlin, we cross this line, we go to total war. What was the tripwire? It sound like he had a fairly early one. It wasn't going to require that they launch or...


MATTHEWS: It was preventative war rather than preemptive war.

OLBERMANN: But it required the actual nuclear weapons.

MATTHEWS: Because I think country In terms of our history would probably be more comfortable with preemptive war. Somebody's about to strike you, strike them first. That makes perfect sense. But strike them before you think they might think about doing it.

You know what I like, when was Giuliani giving a tough - I love information questions, like tell me prime minister of Canada, right now, see how many would get it. Somebody asked him to - it was a caller, explain the difference between a Sunni and a Shia, which of course is very much in our world know; we have to know that. And at one point he said, of course.


MATTHEWS: I had a kid in school, Brian Delaney, went to school with me, who every time you asked him a question, he would say, obviously. You wanted to punch him out. Obviously. It wasn't obvious. It wasn't of course. Nobody knows in this audience, but everybody's learning as he was talking.

ZUCKMAN: You remember Andy Heller (ph), the TV reporter in Boston, who made that famous...


ZUCKMAN: And then everybody got to say, OK, now we know.

MATTHEWS: The question was, who's the president of South Korea? I knew it would be Li. That would be a good bet.


FINEMAN: More importantly and prophetically Andy Heller asked him who ran Pakistan, which turned out to be very important, turned out to be very important. I thought Rudy's answer no that, he got a passing grade on that.

MATTHEWS: Did he get it right?

FINEMAN: I think he got it fundamentally right. I'm no expert. He could have gone into greater detail. But at that point he wasn't going for extra credit; he just wanted to hand in his blue book at that point.

MATTHEWS: It shows where we are in the history of our country that that's not considered a exotic question.

SCARBOROUGH: I have a question about two statements from Giuliani that need to be reconciled in my mind, which we will get when we return, because we will be hearing from the Giuliani campaign.

You're watching MSNBC coverage of the first-in-the-nation Republican presidential candidates debate, from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.


OLBERMANN: Continuing from the Ronald Reagan presidential library in the wake of first Republican presidential debate, let's go back to Joe Scarborough in the spin room with Rudy Giuliani's campaign manager - Joe.

SCARBOROUGH: Hey, thanks so much Keith.

I'm here with Mike Duhaime. He is Rudy Giuliani's campaign manager.

How did your man do?

MIKE DUHAIME, GIULIANI CAMPAIGN MANAGER: I think he did very well tonight. I think what people saw is somebody who's ready right now to be president. This somebody who had a very tough job. Maybe one of the toughest jobs in America is mayor of New York, somebody who not only a great leader on some of the toughest days our country has ever seen, but also but somebody who, while he was mayor, cut taxes, cut spending, got people from welfare into work. This is somebody right now who could be president.

SCARBOROUGH: I'll tell you what, though, they weren't talking about welfare to work, they weren't talking about welfare about fighting against terrorism. It seemed for this man, for your candidate tonight, there were three issues - abortion, abortion and abortion. He's going to hear this everywhere he goes for the next year, isn't he?

DUHAIME: Well, Mayor Giuliani is somebody who says what he means and means what he says. I mean this is somebody - that's what American deserve in a leader. They deserve somebody who's going to say what he believes all the time. This is somebody whose made his position clear. He personally hates abortion. While he was mayor of New York, adoptions went up, abortions went down, and this is somebody who really delivered on those things. This is somebody who ultimately - has (INAUDIBLE), and he believes ultimately (INAUDIBLE).

SCARBOROUGH: But he's also talked funding abortion. He supports funding of abortion. If the government wants to fund abortion that's fine with him. Isn't that dramatically out of step? Again, by judging the candidates we heard tonight on the stage, and many would suggest that these candidates are far more conservative than the mainstream America, but judging by these 10 candidates on the stage, your guy does seem to be a step back (INAUDIBLE) the rest of them.

DUHAIME: In terms of funding, he said that he's in favor of the Hyde amendment. If the Democrats control Congress, tried to change the Hyde amendment, he would veto that. And so people can judge for themselves in terms of what is in step or out of step. We heard Senator Brownback saying my 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy. What most Republicans will see is somebody who's an economic conservative, somebody who's going to keep us safe from terror, somebody who's a great leader, and hopefully they will certainly judge his record as a whole.

MATTHEWS: And you know, Mike, If abortion was the top issue talked about tonight, certainly debated back and forth, that Chris has to go back to time and time again, because that seemed to be what everybody was talking about, Iran was near the top of list also, as Keith and our panel were suggest. Does Rudy Giuliani believe that if Iran continues to develop a nuclear weapon, that that is in fact the worst-case scenario in the sort of United States would have to intervene to take that nuclear weapon away?

DUHAIME: What Mayor Giuliani was clear about tonight was that Iran, when they look across the table they need to see somebody with the strength of Ronald Reagan, and Mayor Giuliani is that person. He is somebody who's a strong leader, takes decisive action, and somebody who's dealt with terrorism firsthand, somebody who would be a great leader. He will not let nuclear arms fall into the hands of Iran and could obviously...

SCARBOROUGH: Does that mean by not allowing arms to fall into the hands of Iran, that you use military force if necessary to stop that from happening?

DUHAIME: I think every options is on the table.

SCARBOROUGH: All right, thanks so much.

DUHAIME: Thank you.

SCARBOROUGH: We appreciate your time.

Keith back to you.

OLBERMANN: Joe, great. Thanks.

Let go back to Gene Robinson of "The Washington Post," who has been patiently standing while we've all been yapping out here. Gene, my apologies for that.

Did Giuliani get the 80 or the 20 percent, do you think, if you're a Republican conservative really hearing him for the first time tonight?

EUGENE ROBINSON, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, you know, there's one thing Rudy Giuliani won tonight - he won the contest to invoke Ronald Reagan's name. By my count, on three separate questions he invoked Ronald Reagan. That's much more than any of the other candidates. The late president's name was only mentioned about a dozen times by any of the candidates. Aside from that, I think his campaign will is going to be the one that most wants kind of a do-over.

I didn't quite get the answer to the Roe v. Wade question, which was basically indifferent - if the Supreme Court overrode Roe v. Wade that would be OK Giuliani said, and that didn't exactly sound like a candidate, you know, who says what he mean means or means what he says in a forceful way. So you know, I think it was problematic for his campaign.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, but don't you think that's reasonably in its vagueness consistent with his - let's use a kind word - evolving position on the subject of abortion? The quotes can be read from any time in the last 10 years, and they're all a little bit different on the subject certainly. And maybe the first one is huge hugely different than the last one.

ROBINSON: I think evolving is a very kind word.

I think if I were a social conservative who cared very, very deeply about the abortion issue, I think it would bother me that the latest evolved step in the position kind of had to be dragged out of him in a way in this debate. It wasn't really expressed forcefully, and it seemed to open discussion really to wanted to be talking about something else, like Ahmadinejad or something. But it was I think not his greatest moment in the debate.

SCARBOROUGH: Do you think also there is - this is the point I keep saying. I'm going am going to ask about this, and I'm finally going to ask about it. Early on in this we heard something that seemed to be an olive branch from Rudy Giuliani to the Democrats, which of course is the last thing you think conservatives and Republicans tuning in to watch this, certainly at this stage of this campaign, want to hear. He mentioned that neither party has a monopoly on virtue or vice, and later on came back, when Chris raised the question about Hillary and Bill Clinton. He said that of course Bill Clinton being in the White House again would mean Hillary was elected president, and that would mean we're back on defense on terrorism, again, again, saying that - complimenting President Bush about being of offense in September 20, 2001 onwards.

Was there a - did Mr. Giuliani correct course in the middle of the debate. Did somebody send him a note under his door that said, don't go out there and be nice to the Democrats under any circumstances?

ROBINSON: I actually took the virtue and vice reference as an attempt at inoculation, not as an olive branch. I took it as a way of saying, well, gee, many of us have been married three times and have these messy private lives, and also many of us dress up like women and get photographed doing it. So that's the way I took that, not so much as a peace offering.

OLBERMANN: Gene Robinson of "The Washington Post," great. Thanks.

I think there is only one person on the panel here who regularly dresses up as a woman.


OLBERMANN: What was that? Those two things, looking at them on the same piece of paper next to each other, really don't look like they resemble the same guy.

ZUCKMAN: I don't they have to be at odds. I think if you ask voters, do you have want partisan bickering? Do you want your congressman and senators to be each other throats all the time, because they know we want them to work together. We want them to solve big problems. So you can say something that, and you know, I respect Democrats or I respect Republicans, but they say, I completely disagree with you, and if the Democrat was in the White House right after September 11th, God knows what would have happened.

FINEMAN: There was a tentativeness to Rudy's performance tonight, which lead me to react immediately after it was over, to say that he hadn't really made his moment here. He was on tough terrain on abortion and so forth, and you said give him credit for taking a position different from most of the others and different from the audience here. But he did it as Gene was saying, in a kind of, eh, kind of way, like I wish I didn't have to deal with this at all.

If he's going to be the Rudy Giuliani of 9/11, then he's got to seize the questions and use for his own purposes, not try to punt, and that's what he didn't do tonight, and his staff told me before the debate that they were concerned that he hadn't been in this kind of debate situation for many years, and indeed as mayor he didn't have to listen to anybody ask anything.

And It thought they were just spinning the alluring (ph) expectations, but I think that's part of what happened tonight.

OLBERMANN: All right, so there's the question, if you didn't know that the three leading guys in the polls here were Romney, and McCain and Giuliani, would you be able to say from the performance that Giuliani was one of the three?

MATTHEWS: It's hard for me to distinguish from what I really know. It's hard for me to pretend I don't - I think that this thing about abortion rights it is one of those, even for us regular people, you don't have to run for office or even take a position in a newspaper column, it's a hard one because it isn't like, well, we'll give $2 million a year more to the Peace Corps next year, $2 million less. Are you for it, or against it? Should a person have a right to end a pregnancy? And what would be the conditions that would requite them to be allowed to do it or not? These are tough questions, of philosophy, of metaphysics, of deep religion, and believe about human life. They are not open to a clever one-liner to get you out of trouble.

Rudy Giuliani is pro choice. I don't like the phrase pro-choice. It sounds too frivolous. He believes ultimately - I think he said this, but it's ultimately the women's decision. And I think a lot of America is probably - a majority of Americans believe that. They don't like abortion. But ultimately the decision is not going to be made by the government but by an individual, and I think it's a hard thing to say, knowing you're going into a campaign where at least half the people you're trying to win over disagree with that position. That's a hard thing. It's hard.

ZUCKMAN: I think that John McCain ought to be feeling very good tonight when it comes to the issue of abortion. He's been consistently opposed to abortion throughout his political career.


ZUCKMAN: Well, he's not like Senator Bob Smith from New Hampshire, who stood out on the Senate floor, stabbing the back of a baby doll.

MATTHEWS: OK, you know what he's like. I think McCain is like Ronald Reagan, against abortion in principle, speaks to the rallies, the right-to-life rally, but no one really thinks that this guy coming out of Hollywood, a tolerant community, is ever going to actually change the Constitution and outlaw it.

ZUCKMAN: But look at who his two biggest threats, at least at the moment?

MATTHEWS: By the way, the president here, he's honored here in this building, selected Sandra Day O'Connor, who did not like abortion either, and said so, but also supported a woman's right to choose abortion. Do you understand that there's a difference here?

ZUCKMAN: But if you look at McCain and you look at Giuliani and Romney?

MATTHEWS: They think like a lot of Americans - they think abortion is terrible, but they also want to live in a free society. It's not that complicated, but you have to take a position.

ZUCKMAN: Well, McCain has taken a position and Giuliani has taken a couple of positions and Romney has taken a couple of positions, and I think for McCain that's got to make him feel pretty good tonight.

OLBERMANN: All right, much more ahead. We've got a report from David Shuster and our truth squads. We'll check out on that Sunni and Shia evolution. We'll talk to Jim Vandehei and John Harris, who are our online partners,

You're watching MSNBC's coverage of the first-in-the-nation Republican presidential candidates debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.


OLBERMANN: And we rejoin you from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where the Republican candidates for president met tonight for their first debate, which you saw right here on MSNBC and our online partner,

MATTHEWS: We're joined right now by Jim Vandehei, our partners tonight, and John Harris. It was a very fascinating experience out there, to share the stage with these two professional print guys. So what was your total immersion in the world of television like tonight, gentlemen?

You first, John.

JOHN HARRIS, POLITICO.COM: Chris, I come away with a lot of respect for you who goes out in front of the camera every single day, but it was a lot of fun. Thanks for doing such a great job. It was very well done.


JIM VANDEHEI, POLITICO.COM: I thought it was a very lively debate.

MATTHEWS: Jim, were you surprised by the questions that came in?

VANDEHEI: I wasn't that surprised, because we had had some ability to know what question were coming in, and the one that's won, they were good questions for the most part, and a lot of them really threw the candidates off. I think it's a good model going forward, because it allows a different type of question to get involved into these debates.

MATTHEWS: What was the most interesting one you rejected?

VANDEHEI: There were a lot. The evolution question that we did ask, I think (INAUDIBLE), because we had a first round of voting, had over 10,000 votes for people who wanted evolution question asked. I thought that was really interesting. And then a show of hands as a follow up was interesting as well.

MATTHEWS: I think it was interesting that John McCain was - he gave a Joe Biden quick answer. He said, I do believe in evolution. And then he asked for extra time to evolve his question - his answer. The other guys, it looks like we had three sets of hands up there quickly, that wanted to say that they were believers in creationism of some kind. We didn't get a chance to get through it, but I think the tape recording of the night of that will show that three of them demurred.

HARRIS: Roll the tape.

VANDEHEI: We'll want to look at that photo.

MATTHEWS: OK, John, let me ask you this - were you surprised that they were so docile in those down-the-line series of questions? I thought that one was going to say, I'm a former Senator, I'm a U.S. senator, I'm going to answer yes or no to a down-the-line question.

HARRIS: Well, they were intimidated by the strong moderation, would be my guess.

MATTHEWS: I'd like to think so.

HARRIS: We kept it under control. Yes, I was surprised actually. All these guys were a little bit tentative. You could definitely tell that this was the first time out. There was nobody who was ready just to command that stage and take over, either in the second tier, sort of fighting his way in, or the first tier, who was really ready to say, look, I'm by far the most commanding person on this stage.

MATTHEWS: John, were you getting the looks of the candidates when they weren't getting enough time? They were looking at me like, well, they were angry at some point. They were all friendly afterward, but during the moment I thought a lot really wanted to respond, and there just wasn't enough time.

HARRIS: Absolutely, and they were looking at me and I was more than happy to pass the buck. A lot of dirty looks.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you. It was a great partnership. I hope it augurs well for the future of our relationship. Thank you, Jim Vandehei and John Harris of, two first-rate, top-rank print reporters.

Let's go to now Joe Scarborough in the spin room with Republican strategist - I love that word strategist - Mike Murphy.

SCARBOROUGH: It is a great word, Chris. We are here with Mike Murphy.

Mike, I'm going to break this up?


SCARBOROUGH: Let's about - we won't talk about who one.


SCARBOROUGH: But as two guys who know a little bit about politics, who did well? Who did well stylistically? Who stood out for you?

MURPHY: I thought all the big three did well. I thought Romney, who people hadn't really seen, had a bit of a national debut today, and he's a great performer on television. So I think people who wondered what all the fuss was about looked at Romney and said, oh, I get it.

SCARBOROUGH: And this really looked like his format. Some guys are good standing on top of piles after 9/11, some guys are good talking on the bus for an hour, and some people like Ronald Reagan pop in these type of debate settings. It looks like Mitt Romney popped inside this setting.

MURPHY: An interesting story. I ran his campaign for governor of Massachusetts, and he originally hated to debate, but Mitt - this is very indicative of who he is - He decided he wanted to get good at being able to communicate his ideas on television, and they worked at it and worked at it and worked at it, and he's got those skills now.

Let's talk about substance. John McCain stuttered at times. He started off very shaky. And yet, as far as substance goes, he positioned himself pretty well, didn't he?

SCARBOROUGH: Yes, I thought McCain's got better as it went on to pretty good at the end, but I was watching McCain's substance, because I think they're doing something very smart. McCain is moving back to the center. He was the guy tonight who looked at the camera and told the truth about there had been a lot of mistakes in the war and that's hard for a Republican to say.

But McCain's getting back to that straight talk, tell the truth, take the consequences style that really made him a darling of independents, and made him a guy who would be a very strong general election candidate. I think they have had some trouble. The campaign has been misfiring a little bit, and this is, to their credit, they're doing, they're letting McCain be McCain, and I thought you saw a bit of that shift tonight, which I think is a smart move from McCain.

So I thought both Romney on breaking through on style and crispness as CEO as communicator, and McCain on getting back to that authenticity, that honesty, both played to their strengths, and did pretty well with.

SCARBOROUGH: I think they did, too. And I'll tell you what, Rudy Giuliani, and I think we both agree on this, he needs to figure out an abortion answer.


SCARBOROUGH: Thanks so much, Mike.

MURPHY: Thank you.

SCARBOROUGH: And that's certainly something that Chris Matthews figured out and kept going back to it time and time again. Thanks so much.

Back to you now, Chris.

OLBERMANN: We want to remind you, in case you were doing something this evening, that at 11:00 Eastern, 8:00 Pacific. You can watch the re-air of tonight's debate, and you get everything you need to get done out of the way beforehand, because as we used to say in my sports day when a broadcast went particularly quickly and well, it moves like a rocket.

SCARBOROUGH: Right now let's turn to MSNBC's David Shuster, who as usual has been looking at the truthfulness of some of the statements made by candidates here tonight. He joins us now with the much-anticipated, to this end, Truth Squad Report.

David, good evening.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC: Keith, good evening to you.

One of big issues, of course, tonight, hanging over Republicans, is the issue of electability and whether or not Iraq is going to cost Republicans in the general election. And so John McCain had a novel way of dealing with that. Here is his explanation for why Republicans got swept out of Congress this past fall:


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R) ARIZONA: On the issue of why we lost the election in 2006 is because be did lose our way. We began to value principle over power and spending got out of control.


SHUSTER: Spending out of control - he said it lurched completely out of control, and that may be true, but every poll found that the reason Republicans were swept out was not because of spending, but because of the Iraq war and also corruption.

Now, on the issue of abortion, you've already heard that both Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani seemed to be little bit tripped up in their positions on abortion, as far as clarifying it, but they both also made some mistakes as far as explaining their evolution in their thinking.

First, here is Mitt Romney.


MITT ROMNEY, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I have always been personally pro-life, but for me it was a great question about whether or not government should intrude in that decision. And when I ran for office, I said I'd protect the law as it was, which is effectively a pro-choice position. About two years ago, and we were studying cloning in our state, I said, Look, we have gone too far. It's a brave-new-world mentality that Roe v. Wade has given us, and I changed my mind. I took the same course that Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush and Henry Hyde took.


SHUSTER: Actually, that's not a course at all that George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan took. Both were consistent. George H.W. Bush particularly so on the issue; he was always pro-life. Furthermore, Mitt Romney's position, actually he says that he was supportive of abortion back when he was running for Senate, and that was not a question, in any case.

Now let's look at Rudy Giuliani and how he dealt with his shifting position on abortion. Watch.


RUDY GIULIANI, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But ultimately, since it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman's right to make a different choice. I support the ban on partial-birth abortion, I support the Hyde amendment. But ultimately, I think, when you come down to that choice, you have to respect a woman's right to make that choice.


SHUSTER: A lot of people would suggest that simply is an incompatible statement. The Hyde amendment, for example, refers specifically to government funding, government payment, for women to get an abortion. Giuliani initially said, several years ago, he supports government funding, then a month ago he said he is against government funding. Then he told an interviewer he is for government funding, and then again tonight you heard him say, "I support the Hyde amendment," which is against government funding.

Now, there were a number of shots tonight at Hillary Clinton, and specifically Bill Clinton, and whether or not he should be back in the White House. Congressman Duncan Hunter said that some of the military shortfalls that we're facing in Iraq can be blamed on the Clinton administration. Watch.


CONGRESSMAN DUNCAN HUNTER (R) CALIFORNIA, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, Bill Clinton cut the U.S. Army by 50 almost percent. In this war against terror, he's the wrong guy to have in there.


SHUSTER: Fifty percent - well, that's not actually right. It was about 35 percent - they cut the number of active duty divisions from 18 to 10, but again, this was at the end of the Cold War, these cuts had Republicans support, and furthermore, the Clinton administration is widely credited with modernizing the military to the extent that the military was able to sweep in Iraq, early in the invasion, and have the kind of success it did, early on.

Finally, there were no major gaffes tonight that might cost anybody in a campaign, but Governor Tommy Thompson seemed to come awfully close to seeming out of touch with Iraq, when he was asked specifically for the numbers, as far as casualties and injuries in Iraq. Here's how he responded.


TOMMY THOMPSON, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's been over three thousand who've been lost, and several thousand have been injured.


SHUSTER: Actually, it's not just several thousand - 24,314 U.S. troops have been injured. The actual number killed so far: 3,354 - Thompson was off by 10 percent.

OLBERMANN: Who is in the lead?

All right David, and I did one inspired by your fact checking. The answer that Mr. Giuliani gave about the Shia and the Sunni - the Sunnis believed, after the death of the prophet Mohammed, that a new leader should be elected, and the Shia believed it should stay in Mohammed's family, so Mayor Giuliani got that one exactly right.

SHUSTER: He did.

OLBERMANN: And for no particular reason, on that point, I want to - and at that point, I want to thank Howard Fineman, of Newsweek and MSNBC, and Jill Zuckman, of the Chicago Tribune, who have been great contributors tonight. Always a pleasure - thank you both.

ZUCKMAN: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: And Chris and I will return in a moment, with this reminder before we go, you can go online and rate the candidates' performances in tonight's debate. Just go to So far, we have received nearly 2,000 votes. The highest rated candidate at the moment - Ron Paul, with 39 percent. And a mighty roar has just gone up from Ron Paul's supporters.

You're watching MSNBC's coverage of the first in the nation Republican presidential candidates' debate, from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.



MCCAIN: I believe in evolution, but I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.


OLBERMANN: Answer number two on that question from John McCain.

Back at the Reagan Library, alongside Chris Matthews, I'm Keith Olbermann. And Joe Scarborough is with us in the spin room.

And we now have the answer to the question of who raised their hands when you asked, Who does not believe in evolution.

MATTHEWS: Senator Brownback, Congressman Tancredo, and who was the other one?

OLBERMANN: Governor Huckabee.

MATTHEWS: Governor Huckabee. They all wanted to demur - we didn't have enough time. But I thought McCain was pretty clear on that. I mean, most Americans believe in evolution, they also respect the bible. But he had a clear answer.

OLBERMANN: And those were two-part answers, although he did ask for the extra time to come back, just to make sure he didn't miss it the first time.

Joe, before we -

MATTHEWS: He didn't want to be too cold about it.


MATTHEWS: I understand why he did that.

By the way, these are questions of nuance and sensitivity. You don't want to come off on any of these cultural questions and say, I'm for one side, forget the other side - those people can go somewhere else. You want them all to vote for you.

OLBERMANN: Joe, 15 seconds to wrap it up from the spin room.

SCARBOROUGH: You're going to find out, over the next couple of days, that Mitt Romney is a guy that exceeded expectations. And John McCain's a guy that didn't quite meet expectations. A lot of the Republican base may start moving to Mitt Romney. Rudy Giuliani just was a little more flat than people expected, didn't show the type of leadership that people expected him tonight.

And of course, this is just a debate, but certain people pop in a debate, certain people don't. Tonight it was Mitt Romney who seemed to break out of the pack.

OLBERMANN: Coming up next, a special commercial-free rebroadcast of tonight's Republican Presidential Candidates Debate.

For Chris Matthews, I'm Keith Olbermann, good night.
Pre-GOP Candidates Debate Coverage for May 3, 7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m. ET

Guests: Eugene Robinson

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR: From the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, this is MSNBC's continuing coverage of the start of this historic and, in the life spans of all the candidates present, this unprecedented debate and primary season.

I'm Keith Olbermann, and this is our countdown to the Republican debate, where, at the start of the next hour, the three front-runners, former New York Governor - New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain of Arizona, former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, will face not just each other, but try to stave off the longshots, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, Representatives Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Duncan Hunter of California, Ron Paul of Texas, former Governors Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, Jim Gilmore of Virginia, all 10 looking to use this public platform of debate to portray himself as the heir to Ronald Reagan's presidency.

And, at any time now, they will get the first visual opportunity to align themselves with the Gipper, meeting with the former first lady Nancy Reagan, who, in announcing tonight's debate, said, in a statement, "Ronnie always hoped the library would be a place where policy-makers will debate the future" - end quote - though exactly how these 10 candidates plan to harness the optimism for the future that suffused Reagan's candidacy then, given the country's current weariness, after four-and-a-half years of war in Iraq, remains to be determined.

In a little less than an hour, the candidates will take their place on the rostrum, and face 90 minutes of uninterrupted questions provided by tonight's moderator, our own Chris Matthews, from John Harris of, as well as from selected viewers.

And you can vote on which questions should be asked of each candidate at

Waiting here with me for the start of the Reagan Library GOP presidential candidates debate, our own Howard Fineman, "Newsweek" magazine's senior Washington correspondent and political columnist.

Great thanks for being here.


OLBERMANN: It is an extraordinary setting, is it not? There's a regal quality that the Democrats, for good or for ill, don't try to attach to themselves.

FINEMAN: It is beautiful. It's historic. And it couldn't be more appropriate, because the memory and the image of Ronald Reagan hangs over this place, as does that of George W. Bush.

And, in the case of Ronald Reagan, that is an unalloyed blessing for Republicans. In the case of George Bush, it's a - it's something of a burden that they're going to have to deal with tonight because of the war in Iraq.

OLBERMANN: Is it the same standard for these - these 10 as it was for the eight in South Carolina last week? Is the principal thing - as much as we might talk about what they're going to say on that stage, is the principal thing, do they make no mistakes; do they look presidential; do they act presidential; do they convey, yes, you can see me as president.?

FINEMAN: Well, I think, for the front-runners, for the triumvirate of front-runners, that's important.

I think, for the seven others, who one of the strategists for the top three referred to me as the ankle-biters, ankle-biters have to get in the news. The front-runners need to show that they can almost literally climb on that airplane and fly right out the window and off into the sunset as president of the United States.

OLBERMANN: And pilot the thing, too.



FINEMAN: Well, in the case of John McCain, he could do that.

OLBERMANN: And we have used that analogy before. And four years ago the other day, I don't think perhaps it is a good imagery.

Obviously, Congressman Paul of Texas is going to buck on this principal subject of Iraq. Is there any chance that anybody else is going to deviate from the administration's stance tonight?

FINEMAN: Well, I think it is important to listen to John McCain, because it is clear that John McCain both has the most to gain and most to lose in terms of identifying himself with the war in Iraq.

He's steadfast in his support for the president's overall policy, but is becoming increasingly critical about the way the president has handled it.

So, Ron Paul, who is a libertarian, who is going to say, we shouldn't have gone in and we should get out yesterday, will push McCain. It will be interesting to see what McCain does. I think the other top front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, are going to not risk criticizing the president on the war, because they have their own problems with the Republican base.

It will be interesting to see what McCain does on that point. And that's what all the people in the press room are going to be listening for, because Iraq dominates everything, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Is this ultimately for the base, and for the base alone? Are there things going to be said tonight that whoever winds up with the nomination is going to be later forgetting that he said, or denying that he said, or not being able to recall if he said?


FINEMAN: I think, for most of them, the base is what is important.

And you have one form of the base right here in this building.

These are Reagan Republicans. These are people, if you know this landscape here, who believe in the idea, or even the mythology, of independence, who think that government has a role, but not a very big one.

Those are people that these people, these candidates, need to impress.

And that's their primary mission. They want to do it without getting thing

anything on the MSNBC videotape that is going to function as an advertisement in the general election later on. That's their primary mission.

Ironically, it is even more of a primary mission for the top candidates, for Rudy, for Mitt, and for McCain, or, as they're referred to by the others - let's see. That would be Rudy McRomney.

OLBERMANN: I see. The ankle-biters call them Rudy McRomney.


FINEMAN: Rudy McRomney vs. the ankle-biters.

For Rudy McRomney, you have to speak to the base almost more than the ankle-biters do.

OLBERMANN: Yes. There's no difference among Rudy McRomney, that's a fallacy, too.

We mentioned what the expectations are of Senator McCain. What are the expectations of Mayor Giuliani? What does he have to do here? Is this almost a continuing part of the "Let me introduce myself to you" campaign for Rudy Giuliani?

FINEMAN: Yes. I think - Rudy still leads in the polls.

The latest polls, I think he's fallen back in the pack a little bit, but he's ahead. He's ahead on the idea of a hope. He's ahead on the idea of one image, which is his image after 9/11 as the can-do mayor who brought the city back together, put it back on its feet.

The Republicans who support them - him - and there are some surprising ones - are doing it without knowing much about him. So, this is his first opportunity on a national stage to talk to Republican conservatives, and tell them why they should follow their hope with detailed knowledge of him and support him.

And he has got to tell them: Look, I can lead. And I'm with you in heart, as well as on the stage of leadership.

OLBERMANN: Is there a - is there someone like Mike Gravel last week? Is there somebody who serves not merely as the guy with the flamethrower out here, but also who makes the other Republicans look really centrist by comparison? Is there somebody out there who is going to do that? Is that Ron Paul, or is there somebody else?

FINEMAN: Well, it is confusing on the case of Paul, because...


FINEMAN:... he's as left as you get on the war.

But I think there will be several of those. I think, on the abortion issue, Sam Brownback, the senator from Kansas, views himself as the ultimate supporter of the pro-life movement. And he's going to try to identify himself as such and put the others on the defensive, if he can.

In terms of taxes, former Governor Jim Gilmore of Virginia is going to say: I kept taxes from the Internet. You know, I'm the anti-tax guy.

But the problem here is that the old conservative coalition, which was built by Ronald Reagan, in whose building we are, and really perfected, if not over-perfected, by George W. Bush, is now falling apart. It's falling apart on defense. It's falling apart on government, because George Bush has been a big-government conservative. So, a lot of them dislike him for that.

And a lot of evangelical Christians don't find any of these candidates to their liking, so that those three parts of the conservative movement have fallen apart before our eyes, and, with it, the Republican Party, over Iraq.

OLBERMANN: We will get into that subject of conservatism, and defining it, and re-defining it, with Pat Buchanan later on. And we are brining you back towards the end of the hour for final comments.

Let's just sit here a moment more, as we watch this. And this touches, again, on this idea of regal qualities that were not seen in South Carolina.

This is the procession. This is the parade. These are tonight's debaters, the 10 candidates, filing out, just, in fact, to our right. We can see them from where we are seated. And there is a - there is a coronation quality that just was not present in South Carolina.

FINEMAN: Keith, if you look that the picture, and took away all of the writing and all of the words, and just had the image, could the American people tell that those were Republicans?

I think the answer is yes. There is a hierarchical, there is, dare I say it, male, there's an old-line quality to them that some voters, indeed, a lot of voters, find reassuring. And this is something that the Democrats need to understand. The Democrats are the "We are family" party, which is great.

But this is the other side of the conversation. And you - this is their home here. We really are in Reagan country.

OLBERMANN: And they're about 35, 40 feet to our right - Governor Romney going past now, and, behind him, Senator McCain at the corner, as you see on the left, and, in the back, with Governor Huckabee, Mayor Giuliani.

And they will now go through their final walk-through in the next hour. The convivial conversation is taking place now. Will there be anything but convivial conversation down there?

FINEMAN: I think they will - you will be - we are going to lapse away from conviviality periodically.

But that procession there, they don't - I know it is just a run-through, but they don't look all that excited, I must say.


FINEMAN: And the reason they don't look all that excited, in addition to the fact that there are 10 of them, and they don't like to be in each other's company, particularly, is the fact that the Republican Party, as a whole, is, depending on the poll you read, 10 to 20 points down in terms of overall general affection among the American people.

You don't want to overstate this, but the Republican Party really is at a low point. And, even though this looks like a coronation, it also looks like they may be marching off to an uncertain future, as they go down the hallway there. And they're all aware of that. They're all aware of that.

OLBERMANN: And that's the only part of the staging that we probably did not think of in advance, was that we would get this long shot of their backs as they walked away from us, with Mr. Giuliani in the rear there.

FINEMAN: Good shot. Good shot.

OLBERMANN: Howard Fineman of "Newsweek" and MSNBC, we will talk to you later in the hour.

FINEMAN: Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Thank you, sir.

It was the British politician and author Michael Dobbs who put the phrase into the mouth of his extraordinary creation, a fictional prime minister named Francis Urquhart. Events, the politician's enemy. For all the planning, for all the anticipation, you can still wind up being preempted.

That won't happen tonight. But the spotlight is a little blocked for the Republicans. And the news coverage tonight and tomorrow night will be shared with a Democratic candidate.

Within the last few hours, word that the Secret Service now has under its official protection Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, not just the first Secret Service declaration for the 2008 campaign, but the earliest in American political and protective history. And it comes amid confused reports as to why.

Our justice correspondent Pete Williams has been all over this today, and joins us now from Washington with what he has gathered.

Pete, good evening.

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Keith, there's no question about this. It has been confirmed by officials at the Secret Service and Homeland Security, that Senator Obama has been authorized to receive this protection as a candidate.

And they say this is the earliest that Secret Service protection has ever been given to a presidential candidate. And, by my calculations, it is about five months earlier than ever.

Now, we're told that Obama's campaign requested this protection, but that this was not in response to a threat. Apparently, the Obama campaign and the Secret Service had a number of concerns about the size of the crowds that were showing up at his events. And some of Obama's fellow senators have been urging him to seek more security.

So, the request was reviewed by Homeland Security. That's where Secret Service is now. It used to be in the Treasury Department, now Homeland Security. He, as he must under law, referred it to a congressional advisory committee. And they all approved the protection -


OLBERMANN: His wife, Michelle, is scheduled - was scheduled - to attend an event at the Harvard Club in Manhattan tonight, Pete. But this does not extend to her, does it? What are the rules relative to family members at this point in a campaign?

WILLIAMS: Two things about that. Number one, as we understand it, it was not requested for her. And, secondly, even if it was, under the normal rules of the law, she would not be eligible. Spouses of candidates are not eligible to receive protection more than 120 days before the election.

Now, there can always be exceptions, but they have to be extraordinary circumstances. And, because there aren't any here, this doesn't apply to her.

OLBERMANN: Interesting timing on the revelation of this story today.

Pete Williams, NBC's chief justice correspondent - great thanks, Pete.

WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.

OLBERMANN: Back to why we are here: How will the GOP candidates vying to be the next commander in chief handle the issue of the current self-described commander guy? Will we see an erosion of support for President Bush happen live on a debate stage?

You're watching MSNBC's coverage, the countdown to the first Republican presidential debate.


OLBERMANN: We're counting down to the debate of the Republican presidential candidates, the first in the nation for them.

The Democrats, in their first debate, exactly one week ago tonight, may have had it easy in one respect. They had President Bush to kick around forever more.

What the Republicans face this evening is the task of trying to differentiate themselves from the president without alienating the conservative base that still largely supports him.

One prescription for this has already been offered by Senator McCain, who criticized the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina when he formally announced his candidacy last week, without ever mentioning President Bush by name.

But an adviser to Senator McCain predicts that the candidates will stick with the president, for now - quote - "The general election is another matter. Whoever it is will be facing a damaged brand, an unpopular president, hopefully not that unpopular."

But will Republican contenders have the luxury of waiting until after their own battle to take issue with the president's policies, especially since time is not exactly standing still? The fluidity of the war and public opinion on it, the obvious example.

Let's turn now to our chief current foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, who joins us from Washington again.

Andrea, good evening.


OLBERMANN: So, last week, the Democrats could portray Mr. Bush almost as Goldstein from "1984." It is all his fault, from their point of view.


OLBERMANN: Do the Republicans defend him? Do they distance themselves from him? A little of each? What happens tonight?

MITCHELL: Well, as you pointed out, John McCain, in his announcement speech, began to separate himself a little bit from George W. Bush.

But, knowing that that embrace has been seen over and over again, and also that McCain was one of the original authors of the surge strategy - he, in fact, was calling for more troops to go in - he can hardly do that, and hold his head up. So, he's wedded to the war in Iraq.

And the other candidates, those like Giuliani and Romney, have been not at all shy about embracing George W. Bush. Look, they're trying to win the Republican nomination. And they have a conservative constituency. And it is the last redoubt of support for George Bush. And they're going to stick with the guy who brung them.

OLBERMANN: Andrea, the other top-tier candidates, former Mayor Giuliani, former Governor Romney, do not appear willing to go even as far...

MITCHELL: Exactly.

OLBERMANN:... perhaps as Senator McCain, in taking issue with the president.

If they're still betting on the current model, nail down the nomination first, does that work? Or, as Howard Fineman suggested earlier, is there some clip that is going to appear from this debate tonight in the Democratic campaign against whoever wins?

MITCHELL: Oh, I think absolutely.

If these are the nominees, if we're not talking about Fred Thompson down the road or someone else coming in, these guys are going to be really caught on what they say tonight. And they are, I think, going to stick with George Bush, because they can't distance themselves, other than what McCain has tried to do in a very delicate way.

They can't really distance themselves from his policy and from this president and still win the nomination. If anything, the Republican supporters, the - the loyalists, are unhappy that this crowd isn't conservative enough for their tastes. So, they're going to have problems in the general election campaign.

It is sort of analogous to the problems Hillary Clinton and other centrist Democrats, if you will, are having in trying to withstand pressure from the liberal left to come out stronger against the war. They know they have to be more centrist in order to win a general election campaign - particularly, she does, as the only woman in the group - and, yet, they're having trouble going up against some of their more liberal competitors in the Democratic fold.

Well, that's exactly what is happening on the Republican side. They have to stick to the right, but that is going to create problems for them in the campaign to come.

OLBERMANN: And, Andrea, as we watch live pictures of the candidates and staff following through on this tour of this extraordinary facility, once again, I'm not sure this is exactly how they would have planned it, but they seem to be swarming our location in both directions. They went past us one way and now come back the other...

MITCHELL: They're coming after you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: And that's...


OLBERMANN: Well, you might very well think so. I could not possibly comment.


OLBERMANN: Mr. Giuliani now having moved more or less to the front of the pack, and returning the wave of Howard Fineman.

FINEMAN: Waving...


OLBERMANN: We appreciate that, Howard.

Andrea, to the point, we just saw the former mayor there. Mr. Giuliani, in New Hampshire last week, threw out some true red meat to the conservative base, at his own peril, I guess, something we heard from President Bush prior to the midterms last year, the idea, this construction that the country will be safer with a Republican president, specifically him, than it would be with a Democratic president.

Is Mr. Giuliani strenuously aligning himself with Mr. Bush on that, since he's obviously not aligned with him on abortion or gay rights or many of the other cultural issues?

MITCHELL: Absolutely. This is Giuliani's attempt to try to wrap himself around conservatism.

And, frankly, it is his real campaign platform. If he's not America's mayor, connected to 9/11 and the post-9/11 Rudy Giuliani, who, as you know, as a resident of New York, is very different from the way he was perceived before 9/11, he has very little to commend himself, other than that record, that persona, which is completely connected to the war on terror and 9/11.

And, so, that will be the way he keeps trying to define himself. You would like to think, though, that, tonight, as they try also, of course, to be Reaganesque, that they could try to have the - the wit and perhaps the political agility of the Gipper himself, who managed to be both beloved by conservatives, and also pragmatic when he needed to be, and still not viewed as a hypocrite.

It was an extraordinary performance by the actor president. And I'm not sure any of these candidates are quite up to that standard.

OLBERMANN: Andrea Mitchell, NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent

always a great pleasure to talk to you, Andrea.

MITCHELL: Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Take care.

How will President Bush react to his treatment by the candidates of his own party tonight, especially if it's any of it is negative?

David Gregory joins us from the spin room with more on the White House reaction from the almost certain criticism that could come, at least from some quarters - the Republican Party gathering here in Simi Valley tonight. The candidates have been everywhere in this library in the last half-an - hour, except for the gift shop.

There is the collection, the official photograph of the debate in the replica Oval Office, with Nancy Reagan, the moment of association with the 40th president, Mr. Reagan.

You saw Chris Matthews in the group, too, a picture you will no doubt see on "HARDBALL" at some point as well.

Can anyone, as they honor Ronald Reagan, fit that bill? How tonight might spark a sea change in the conservative movement.

This is the countdown to the Republican presidential debate here on



OLBERMANN: We rejoin you with MSNBC's coverage of the countdown to the Republican presidential debate, the first face-off among the 10 declared candidates vying for the GOP nomination right here in Simi Valley, California, in the impressive, daresay daunting, venue of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library - the pack of candidates already greeted by Nancy Reagan tonight.

Some political insiders say that, after four years of war, the GOP is at a crossroads tonight. Pat Buchanan joins us on the future of the conservative movement.

We will also discuss the long shadow cast by the Republicans not on the debate stage tonight. Fred Thompson polling better than three-fourths of the declared candidates - will tonight impact his decision to run or not? And what about Senator Chuck Hagel and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich?

Speaking of long shadows, the George W. Bush effect - David Gregory joins us to talk about how the president and the administration might handle any criticisms that could come from their own party tonight - all ahead in the final half-hour before the first Republican presidential debate, moderated by Chris Matthews, here on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN: Tonight's Republican presidential debate is the first clash not merely in a battle to lead the nation, but also a battle to lead both the Republican Party and the conservative movement that is its engine.

First, however, the hopefuls will have to answer a burning question on the right these days: What the heck is conservative, anyway?

Once upon a time, everybody knew what defined conservative politicians. They were serious, thoughtful, and competent. They championed fiscal prudence, distrusted government sufficiently to rabidly defend the checks that our founders placed on governmental power. They sought, famously, to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub.

They opposed pie-in-the-sky utopian idealism about transforming the world. They rejected calls for America to engage in nation-building. They honored the troops. They fought crime.

Today, after six years of self-professed conservative leadership, violent crime is on the rise. Soldiers lack equipment and health care. America is mired in a war to rebuild not just a nation, but an entire volatile region. Government competence is in scarce supply whether you look to Iraq, New Orleans, the halls of Justice, or the halls of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

But government itself is larger than ever, and so is spending, so is debt, and the Republican Party has come to trust government so much, they gave a single politician the power to throw Americans in jail, a power that, as conservatives, would have screamed under the last administration, virtually defines the concept of un-American.

We turn now to MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan, perhaps uniquely qualified to comment on tonight's battle for the conservative soul, as a conservative of the classic mold. Communications director for conservative icon Ronald Reagan, former presidential contender himself.

Pat, thanks for your time tonight.


OLBERMANN: It bears noting that the first two presidential primaries, the one here and the one last night - last week, six months after those midterms, which seem to put the sort of final - I don't know, airplane propeller to the deck of cards, about defining this. What is conservative, conservative right now, and what is not conservative, and how does it relate to this debate tonight?

BUCHANAN: Well, no one can really define what conservative politics is today, Chris. There are a lot of people that are trying to. I think I'm more of a traditionalist conservative in the Goldwater-Reagan tradition.

But you're exactly right, the neoconservatives, who are really the strongest supporters behind the invasion of Iraq, are considered by many conservatives not to be conservative at all. They're into nation building. I mean, Woodrow Wilson, idealism, all the rest of it.

On the issue of - let's take immigration, you got a clear division between the conservative base, which wants the border secure, which wants the laws enforced, and President Bush, who is very much in line with Edward Kennedy on this.

And you take trade, the loss of manufacturing jobs in Ohio and Michigan, because of free trade and because of the enormous trade deficits, has cost us the Reagan Democrats.

There is a real division. The house of conservatism is a house divided.

OLBERMANN: Of the serious contenders this evening, Pat, is there one who adheres closest to your conception of classic conservatism?

BUCHANAN: I think the closest, candidly, is probably Ron Paul, who is pro-life libertarian, who does not vote for big spending, who opposed the Medicare expansion, who opposed No Child Left Behind, who opposed the war in Iraq. And he was the Libertarian candidate for president years ago.

I think Tancredo and Duncan Hunter are very good on immigration. I think Duncan Hunter has the new idea of conservatism on trade, in the sense that the first concern should be the standard of living and welfare of working Americans, not some ideological idea.

In foreign policy, the battle is between traditional conservatives and neoconservatives, who are very much on the run now that Iraq has turned out so badly.

OLBERMANN: Flip that question. Tell me who offers either the most foresighted vision of what conservative is now coming to mean or might be able to best offer his own vision of a new kind of conservatism.

BUCHANAN: I don't think there's anyone among the front three, Romney, Giuliani, or McCain, who really represents, in my judgment, a traditional conservative. McCain is very good on spending, there's no doubt about it. I think Rudy Giuliani in the law-and-order situation, the way he ran New York, that would be conservative. On social issues, he's off the mark. And Governor Romney, of course, is a - I mean, he's a - he's an act in progress here. And he's moved his position on an awful lot of things.

I don't think there's a Ronald Reagan there, because we're not in the 1980s, anticommunism defined us, tax cuts. We've already got them. Conservatism on social issues. That was Ronald Reagan. But he was a man for his times, and these are much different times, Keith.

OLBERMANN: You know my argument that the last six years have been through the looking glass in all sorts of respects. I won't bore you with it or anybody else with the whole jazz again, Pat. But if you put the proverbial paper bag over these candidates' heads, and you altered their voices, would the average Republican still be able to identify the true conservatives, or would they simply pick the name-brand conservative, the one who sounded the most like George W. Bush?

BUCHANAN: I think it depended upon the issue you asked about. If you ask about immigration, they would take Ron. On the other, conservatives tend to be very loyalist. They stand behind the president, they stand behind the troops in battle, even when they are skeptical of this war. about the war (INAUDIBLE), which is the most divisive issues.

I think what they would say is, Look, we may not have liked the war, but the president's the commander in chief. We don't want to walk away, we don't want to lose the war. And we don't - we want to give the troops what they need and give them a chance to succeed.

That's a natural conservative Republican instinct whether they were opposed to the war or not.

OLBERMANN: And there is, Pat, the icon of the natural conservative instincts in the Republican Party and in the nation, Nancy Reagan being escorted to a standing ovation by the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, with 24 minutes-plus to go until the start of the debate here in the library.

But, of course, this magnificent facility, that bears her husband's name, the welcome being completed, and the applause continuing until Mrs. Reagan is in her seat.

Howard Fineman?

FINEMAN: Well, I think it's interesting that Arnold Schwarzenegger is escorting her. Not only is he a Republican governor, but he shows how a Republican can survive in the current circumstance. He's governed as a moderate here in the state. And that's something that is both a lesson and a caution to the Republican candidates.

OLBERMANN: Howard, thank you.

Pat Buchanan in Washington, thank you.

We've talked about how the Republican candidates will deal with President Bush, but in assessing how the president will deal with them. We might get a sense of that from those midterms of last year. The president then did what he could to help Republican candidates, even when it meant not appearing with them on the campaign trail.

But with the stakes this time around so closely tied to his legacy, will the president himself act differently: Let's now turn to NBC's chief White House correspondent, David Gregory. He is in the Spin Room. Nobody spinning there yet.

David, good evening.


OLBERMANN: How does the president help candidates who may be pushing back, and more than ever so, as the general election approaches?

GREGORY: Well, it's a different question when it comes to the general election. When it comes to the primaries, and that's what we're still in the middle of, the president can help a bit, insofar as he's still very popular among Republicans. Our polling indicates that three out of four Republicans still support and approve of the way the president's doing his job.

That changes dramatically when you start to look at and factor in independents and Democrats in the country at large. But among Republicans, conservatives, this president is still popular. And that's the difficult line.

All of these candidates want to position themselves on a national stage as conservatives, but they're also trying to be palatable in a general election context. So they want to differentiate themselves from the Iraq war, from this president, try to emulate Ronald Reagan and speak in those terms. But they don't want to go so far that they're actually overtly critical of the president. It's a very tight, a fine line to walk.

OLBERMANN: David, (INAUDIBLE), what about the scenario, it's not difficult to imagine, fall 2008, U.S. troops still in Iraq, largely the same numbers, same situation is in progress, or perhaps a worse one. If the Republican nominee at that point is ready to take a stand about withdrawal, does that definitively sideline the president from the 2008 election? I mean, it's not likely to be Ron Paul carrying the Republican mantle. But what if it were, or someone with his opinions?

GREGORY: I think that there's no question, as you get into the general election in 2008, that the president does become sidelined. But he still ran two successful campaigns, notably in 2004, that was about getting the base out, getting conservatives out. And that's something that he can be helpful to do again.

But the conduct of the war, and even the recession you see in support among conservatives, it used to be about 94 percent, now it's come down to 75 percent, that can continue to erode, the worse things go in Iraq.

OLBERMANN: NBC's chief White House correspondent, David Gregory, in the Spin Room, where the spinning will begin later on. And then we'll see how the spinning goes during the campaign, when we get to that stage. I guess we're in that stage now.

We're waiting for the 10 candidates to take the stage. The polls show that the Republican voters they are trying to woo are not exactly excited about the options in front of them, potential candidates like Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich, Chuck Hagel, conceivably, any or all waiting in the wings, the impact of those who are not here on those who are.

You are watching MSNBC's continuing coverage, the countdown to the first Republican presidential debate.


OLBERMANN: In just about 17 minutes, the 10 Republican candidates will begin debating on this stage in Simi Valley, California, their reflection gleaming off the underside of an Air Force One that just happens to be looming above them here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

What they reflect has many Republicans, especially conservatives, as we noted before the break, wondering why they won't feel represented tonight, as we watch Fred Ryan, the chairman of the board of trustees of the Reagan Presidential Foundation, introduce there NBC News president Steve Capus to talk about the rules of the debate for the benefit of those in the house.

Back to our point here. Just as Al Gore still looms silently over the Democrat field, Republican candidates who spent years of their lives and millions of other people's dollars to get here tonight find themselves still laboring under the shadows, not just of the late icon's plane, but of men who have spent neither a day nor a dime to run, officially, at least.

The next hour and a half might change all that, if any of the preeminent noncandidates spies what appears to be an opening open tonight, be it of ideology or personality.

Three men mentioned most often are former senator Fred Thompson, perhaps best known as the crusty "Law and Order" DA, who better not catch you kids playing on his lawn, appealing to Republicans yearning for Reaganesque charisma, or at least a reminder of the good old days of "The Hunt for Red October."

There's Newt Gingrich, who left his position as House speaker under, at best, embarrassing circumstances, but who still enjoys significant support from both the religious right and conservative policy wonks.

And, of course, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, the antiwar war hero, who has broken with his party over Iraq and over presidential powers, and who could be, to this year's race, what John McCain was in 1999 and 2000.

Let's turn now to "Washington Post" columnist Eugene Robinson.

Thanks for your time tonight, Gene. Thanks for being with us.


OLBERMANN: The Republican Party has held the presidency for six years, held the Senate for most of that time, the House for more than a decade, few parties at any point in our history seemingly better positioned to cultivate a perfect presidential candidate. You got 10 guys getting ready to go on the stage right now. Why do many Republicans still seem to feel their ideal man is not in that group of 10 here?

ROBINSON: Because nobody on that stage, I think, has the perfect combination, the, you know, the charisma, the bedrock conservative credentials, the track record, the voice. Nobody has - quite has it all.

And the three men you mentioned who are looming over the race, Gingrich, Thompson, and Hagel, are very substantial figures. And you could see why they would be very attractive to the Republican Party, you know, depending on how events break.

OLBERMANN: Does this debate tonight, will it, do you think, affect whether Fred Thompson or Gingrich or Hagel jump in?

ROBINSON: You know, I doubt that it will. I mean, someone could emerge tonight. Someone could surprise us tonight and kind of take command of the moment, and gather some momentum in this race.

OLBERMANN: Let me interrupt you just for a second, Gene, to explain what we're seeing. Here it is, the actual introduction by Fred Ryan, the chairman of the board of trustees of the presidential foundation here, the official introduction of the 10 announced candidates, as Governor Schwarzenegger leads the applause here alongside Mrs. Reagan. There they are, for the second big photo-op of the night.

The choice of clothing seems remarkably similar and consistent.

All right, as the applause dies down, I interrupted Gene Robinson on this subject of whether or not this is going to impact what happens tonight, what those 10 gentlemen do, whether or not that impacts those other three.

ROBINSON: Yes, Keith, and I was just saying that I think those other three will make their decisions independently, unless something really unexpected or surprising happens tonight. You know, they seem to be on their paths. I think Thompson, most people think he's going to get in the race. Gingrich is really unpredictable. And with Hagel, you know, it's kind of hard to tell, because of his position against the war. But if Iraq continues to go really, really badly, you know, the race could become almost irresistible to him.

OLBERMANN: Howard Fineman made this point earlier, and I think it's a subtle, salient, and relevant one. Is it possible that someone could actually say, I'm not going to get in at this point, because it's so early that anything I say to the base can and will be used against me later in a general election, if I win the nomination?

ROBINSON: You know, I think that is possible, because you have to get the attention of the base now. And, you know, candidates, you know, have a lot of explaining to do to the base at this point. So, you know, that could keep somebody out.

Also, you could just wait for the field to thin out a bit. Not every one of these 10 candidates is going to be able to raise enough money to keep going, you know, deep into the fall. And so then it, you know, the - some of the undergrowth might be cleared out, and you'd have a clearer path into the race and into prominence.

OLBERMANN: We know Hagel had some serious indecisions several weeks ago, a not too productive news conference. Mr. Thompson is evidently going to run, hasn't done it yet, as we watch Chris Matthews come to the podium to address the house here. And Mr. Thompson thinking of his own health.

But about Newt Gingrich, I mean, I doubt he would see the comparison. But I keep thinking, he's a little reminiscent of Al Gore, that each would run, would serve, but only if they were summoned, either by overwhelming crisis in the country or in their party, or if they got a guarantee that nobody would vote against them. Do you think that's a fair analogy for these two guys?

ROBINSON: Yes, I think that's fair. I think that if we, you know, approach on our knees as a grateful nation, either would - you know, might deign to get into the race.

You know, one week Newt Gingrich sounds like he really wants to run. The next week, he sounds like he doesn't. The next week he says, you know, he tells somebody, I will be the next pr. So, you know, it's hard to tell. I think they want us to say pretty please.

OLBERMANN: And what of Mr. Hagel? What happened to Senator Hagel (INAUDIBLE) who was so much confusion when he held a news conference, at which he would announce, simply, that there would be a news conference later on? Do we know where he stands?

ROBINSON: I personally don't know, really, much more than what we saw. I gather he really hasn't made up his mind. But I think his political standing right now is so tied to his views on the war that, you know, he's got to be thinking about that, and thinking about the implications of getting into the race as a strong antiwar candidate. And that's not just a political calculation, it's a calculation about what he thinks would be good for, you know, good for the party, good for the country, good for him. So, you know, maybe it's complicated for him.

OLBERMANN: Eugene Robinson, columnist of "The Washington Post," able to hold his own there against both Chris Matthews' voice echoing throughout a hallway, and, in fact, all the 10 Republican candidates tonight.

Thanks for joining us tonight, Gene.

ROBINSON: Good to be here.

OLBERMANN: We are less than 10 minutes away from the first Republican presidential debate for the 2008 campaign, 10 men, with 90 minutes to persuade GOP voters and independents, and maybe Democrats, that they are the best hope for the party to keep the White House. All live, right here, only on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN: We rejoin you from Simi Valley, California, soon to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the wise decision to change the name back from Simiopolis, California.

We are literally just eight minutes away from the very first opportunity for Republicans running in 2008 to square off one on one, or, more correctly, one on nine, the Library GOP Presidential Candidates' Debate.

The three current front-runners, increasingly familiar faces to the American public.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, trying to claim the candidacy after having lost it in an epic head-to-head battle with George W. Bush in 2000.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who raised more money in the first quarter than any other GOP candidate, and is hoping to become the first-ever Mormon president, and the first-ever former Olympic organizer president.

Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, who, despite his liberal record on social issues such as gun control and abortion, is leading Republicans in the national polls.

All three facing off, of course, not just against each other, but against seven other current contenders for the GOP nomination, including former governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and Jim Gilmore of Virginia, also the current congressmen Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Duncan Hunter of California, and Ron Paul of Texas, and current Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, all just minutes away from their very first live debate right here on MSNBC, and all hoping to somehow claim the mantle of the man whose library they appear in, and whose memory almost shouts from every corner here, the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

Joining me again here in the final countdown to the debate - forgive the pun - our own Howard Fineman, also, of course, of "Newsweek" magazine.

So to my last point here, is there somebody here who can evolve into the man who lays claim to the Reagan legacy?

FINEMAN: Well, that's what this debate is about and what's - that's what these candidates are going to try to do.

I think John McCain is going to say, almost literally, I was a pilot, I know how the fly the craft. He's going to do the commander in chief routine and say, You may disagree with me on some issues, but I'm the one to lead.

Rudy Giuliani is going to say, I led under the most difficult circumstances, and I led Democrats in New York. I led in a Democratic city the way Ronald Reagan led in a Democratic state.

And Mitt Romney is going to cite Ronald Reagan, I'm told, if he's asked about abortion, because when Ronald Reagan was governor, he signed a liberal abortion measure before Roe v. Wade, and then evolved into the pro-lifer that he was.

So everybody in their own way is going to try to claim the mantle of Reagan, while at the same time distancing themselves, to one small degree or another, from Ronald - from - excuse me, from George W. Bush's war, because, Keith, the stock market is at record levels. Unemployment is low. And yet, if you look at the polls, the American people say over and over and over again that they think, by a two-to-one margin, that the country's going off in the wrong direction. That's got to be about Iraq. That's what looms over this whole debate on this beautiful day in this beautiful part of California.

And don't forget that Ronald Reagan, when he was president, took a look at the mess in the Middle East, had sent Marines into Lebanon, hundreds of them were killed. Ronald Reagan said at that point, We're out of here. We're not going to try to remake that region. That's not the tradition of Republicanism and conservatism that has been holding sway the last eight years. That's what's on trial here, subtly, and behind the scenes in this debate.

OLBERMANN: And as you and I are almost the only people speaking in these very tense last five minutes before the debate, there's a lot of shifting of feet, the audience is pretty silent, but you can see the candidates, with understandable nervousness, as they're really being shown off here like the heifers at the county fair at the moment.

You invoked the possibility that Mr. Romney, Governor Romney, may invoke Mr. Reagan's name. Is it possible we could have a redux of Lloyd Bentsen? Could whoever follows him turn around and say, You know, Governor, I knew Governor Reagan, and you're no Ronald Reagan?

FINEMAN: Well, put it that - put it this way. If that subject comes up, Romney won't be the first to raise it. OK.

But every - they all have their defense lines, as well as their offensive lines. I mean, nobody wants to really take anybody else down here, not in the presence of Nancy Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is really a remarkable event, Keith, to be taking place so long in advance of the first actual votes. I mean, it - you mentioned regality before. This has a nobility to it as an event, with Nancy Reagan, with the governor of California here in this beautiful place. This shows the stakes in this election.

Every American election is of interest to the world. This election, I would submit, is crucial for the world, because it involves America's attitude toward the world, and that's what makes it so important.

OLBERMANN: As early as we are, as you mentioned, we refer to the 2008 race, and it's nowhere near 2008, is this one going to tell, because we've had this recent uptick in polling for McCain that suggests a bounce back in certain of the key primary states, is this debate going to tell us, if nothing else will tell us, if there's an up arrow or a down arrow next to McCain's name?

FINEMAN: Oh, I think so. I think so. I think the package known as Rudy Giuliani is slowly but surely being opened, and he's come down slightly in the polls because the rest of his story is becoming known.

These characters will be all filled out in detail if they have any chance of winning. The American people are going to know them. And this is really where the process of getting to know them begins. And as I say, it's early, but it just bespeaks the importance of the election.

If this weren't so important, this wouldn't be happening now. I mean, we could be asking to stage such a thing, Nancy Reagan wouldn't be here, the governor wouldn't be here. I just think it shows how important it is, and also the stakes for the Republican Party are enormously high, because the Republicans are down now, there's no question about it.

OLBERMANN: If there's one thing Giuliani has to do, is it to try to convey himself properly to social conservatives among his - this Republican group that, as you said, he can say, I ran a Democratic city, and they can say, Well, yes, that's because you look a lot like a Democrat?

FINEMAN: I think that's what he has to do. And this is a crowd in which he can do it. These are Republicans here. These are Reagan Republicans from this part of Reagan country. These are not the evangelical part of the Republican base here in this audience. So he's going to be with people who at least want to give him a chance, literally.

OLBERMANN: There, you just heard the two-minute warning.

Mitt Romney has raised so much money, but maybe not as much consciousness as he would have liked at this point. Is this still an infomercial for him?

FINEMAN: I think so. The aides of his that I spoke to said they want to show him off as the CEO tonight, the guy who knows his stuff, the guy who ran a big company, the guy who's competent in leadership and comfortable in his own skin. He did the Leno show last night, and he did a good job. He was comfortable, he was in command, and he actually got a laugh or two, which is not in his repertoire, at least so far as we knew.

OLBERMANN: Are those who are here fighting off the image of those who are not in Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich and Chuck Hagel?

FINEMAN: Well, I think those three characters are a measure of doubts and dissatisfaction about this group, as much as they are saying anything positive about those other three. My understanding is that Fred Thompson is going to get in the race. He's going to do it in July. I don't know about the other two. And why wouldn't he? He's at 17 points in some of the polls without having campaigned a bit.

But those people are for a later time. Tonight is about these 10 here, and especially about Rudy, McCain, and Romney, and whoever among the others makes a positive impression.

OLBERMANN: Howard Fineman of "Newsweek" and MSNBC. And great thanks for joining me here in this hour before we get started to preview this debate. We will be talking again at length when it's all over, as Chris Matthews and I will be back at 9:30 Eastern, 6:30 Pacific, for reaction.

But now the hour has arrived. It is time for tonight's Library GOP Presidential Candidates' Debate, the first in the long campaign of 2008, live from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library here in Simi Valley, California.

You are watching it live, and exclusively on MSNBC.