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JOHN KING, USA

Democrats' Dilemma; Campaign Sabotage

Aired October 7, 2010 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. Tonight a closer look at a fear strategy debate within the Democratic Party follow (ph) the president's approach or get more bare-knuckled and more pointed and attack Senate on Medicare, Social Security, and shipping jobs overseas.

Plus stunning allegations of a sleazy double-cross by strategists working in the Massachusetts' governor's race, is it a desperate charge by a fading Independent candidate or did the one-time aide secretly work to sabotage their man and then share his secrets with the Republican?

And what are the lines, if any, in making political ads. Is it OK, for example, to say quote "right here in west Virginia" if the ad is shot in a diner in Pennsylvania. And is it bad taste to send out a casting call looking for trucker hats and quote, "hicky, blue-collar look".

Let's begin with the Democrats and their debate over what message sells best in this tough midterm election climate. At a predominantly African-American college campus today in Maryland President Obama framed the stakes this way.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Maryland, it comes down to this. Lot of folks running in the other party, these are the exact same people who spent the last decade driving this economy into a ditch.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But some top Democratic strategists say the president's pitch is weak and that if embattled incumbents want to claw their way back into contention they need something more hard hitting like this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, POLITICAL AD: Congressman Pat Toomey, he sided with Wall Street, voting for unfair trade deals with China.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Or this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE, POLITICAL AD: He hopes that you will forget that he voted for a Republican budget to privatize Medicare, that since he first ran for Congress he said we should privatize Social Security.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Bet you recognize that voice, and so just what should Democrats do and what should we make of this public rebuke of the president's approach? CNN political contributor and Republican strategist Ed Rollins with us from New York tonight and with me here in studio Democratic strategist Paul Begala. Let's start on this because it's remarkable, your friend, James Carville, your friend Stan Greenberg (ph), Democratic strategist, Democratic pollster put out this blunt memo essentially saying the president's message is OK but we tested it against a whole bunch of other messages and it's a lot weaker than what you should be doing, so let's start -- let's listen one more time to a bit more of an extended comment from the president today at that rally in Maryland.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: They took a record surplus left by President Bill Clinton. They came back with a record deficit by the time I took office. Now they are out there talking about deficit reduction. I bring this up not to relategate (ph) the past. I just don't want to relive the past.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: No in this memo, Mr. Carville and Mr. Greenberg (ph) say they tested this message the president has been using lately and they write this about it. It is very strong with core Democrats and African-American voters but compared to the other messages it falls very short. That message framework -- meaning the president's -- cannot extend the Democratic vote." Are they right?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, they are. Now in fairness to the president, he had a much tougher speech last week when he was in Madison, Wisconsin, so I think it's a little bit overdrawn that the other Democrats are fighting with the president of the United States. I think that's not true.

It's true that Barack Obama is a more elegant, frankly, guy than like me. OK, I don't believe in bare knuckles. I believe in brass knuckles. I think if the other party wants to put Wall Street in charge of Social Security and insurance companies in charge of Medicare and give tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas, well by golly we ought to run on that and make them run on it because that's their agenda. And I understand the president can't always be quite so tough and I'm OK with that. But these Democrats who are out there running, they need to be tough.

KING: Well Ed Rollins, you're not afraid of bare knuckles or brass knuckles on occasion. Does the president need to be tougher?

(CROSSTALK)

ED ROLLINS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I'm much -- I'm much gentler than Paul --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: The kinder gentler member of the panel -- does the president need to be tougher or is there plenty of room for him to do what he's doing and let somebody else do --

ROLLINS: The problem is his message isn't working. He's been trying this for six or eight weeks now. What they need to do and what obviously James and what Paul understands better than anybody because these are two of the best guys in the business, is whatever motivates your voter, you can test it, you can focus group it. Threatening to take away Social Security basically motivates Democrats who are elderly and worried about those kinds of things.

So you got to localize these things. You can't nationalize this with three weeks to go. There's too much clutter. It hasn't worked and you got to do something. I would argue that each candidate has to basically take the issues that matter to them and go out and hammer away on their opponent.

(INAUDIBLE) they can do to get their vote out is what matters. It's not -- you're not going to have a national wave. It's not a presidential campaign, and it's not about bringing young college kids across the country out to vote. You've got to bring college kids in a particularly a community or African-American in a particular community or working people in a community. And whatever it takes to do that is what you want to do.

KING: If -- you talk about race by race, but if you go race by race, as we do, and you look at all of the ads that are going up on television, we do see a lot of similarities and one, and this closely tracks the message that Stan Greenberg (ph) and James Carville talk about in their memo. Joe Sestak, the congressman, he's the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, he is losing by some polls it's six or seven points, in others it's 10 or 12 points. He is losing and he has a very tough message about his opponent. I want you to listen, a couple of interesting things. Let's listen first.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, POLITICAL AD: Congressman Pat Toomey he sided with Wall Street, voting for unfair trade deals with China. They made a fortune while Pennsylvania lost 90,000 jobs. But Toomey wants even more trade deals. In his book Toomey admitted he doesn't care if American workers lose their jobs to cheap Chinese imports.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We can stop -- I think you get the picture there. Number one, they've got a good gong. The point here, Ed, these guys are down and they are doing this and they're playing to something that is very right, right now across America -- "A" job losses, but "B", the idea that these jobs are being lost and that China is becoming more powerful.

ROLLINS: Well, it's a power -- it's an emotional message and I'm a great believer in not running electoral campaigns. I believe in touching the emotional hot buttons and this may very well in a place like Pennsylvania has lost a lot of jobs and obviously I'm sure they've tested it and I'm sure it works. And that's why they're doing it. I think it's a good spot. They know how to beat Toomey. They've beat him before. He's a very tough candidate and he's ahead but an ad like this is going to have some impact.

KING: It's also interesting they call him congressman. He was a congressman once. Joe Sestak is the incumbent congressman in this race, running for Senate now, but it's clever in this anti-political environment to say Congressman Pat Toomey. It works here.

Paul, I want you to listen to this one. This is your good friend and your old boss Bill Clinton. Blanche Lincoln is losing in Arkansas. Most Democrats think this race is lost, but again, this is right out of what Stan and James say do is to get very, very tough, very, very hard bare knuckles on Social Security and Medicare. Here's Bill Clinton.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, POLITICAL AD: Now Blanche's opponent is not saying much now. Have you noticed that? That's because he's depending on you to be mad so he hopes that you will forget that he voted for a Republican budget to privatize Medicare that since he first ran for Congress he said we should privatize Social Security.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's stop that one as well, but the question is this is right out of the Democratic playbook. You know outsourcing jobs in the Sestak ad, Social Security and Medicare in this Clinton ad for Blanche Lincoln. The question is sometimes it works. Sometimes no matter what you say it doesn't --

BEGALA: That's right.

KING: What kind of year are we in?

BEGALA: But -- a year where we are actually voting on these things, John. If you look at the votes in Congress, Congress many times has voted on this issue of canceling the tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas. All of the Republicans save maybe one or two always vote to protect tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas. If you look all across the country, Republicans are campaigning, saying things like Social Security should be privatized, from Alaska to Delaware.

Republicans are running on this. This is the debate we need. Do we want to privatize Social Security, which means put Wall Street in charge of it? Do we want to put insurance companies in charge of Medicare? Republicans do? That's what they believe in. Democrats believe in something different. This is about ideas and this is exactly what a campaign should be about.

KING: You're talking about ideas here. We're going to have a quick time out. When we come back we're going to talk about the inner workings of what both of you guys do. What is the code of ethics for campaign workers because there are shocking allegations of campaign sabotage in the Massachusetts governor's race. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Shocking allegations today in the governor's race in my home state of Massachusetts. The Independent candidate Tim Cahill (ph) has been fading in the polls and his running mate recently quit the ticket. In a brand new ad Cahill vows to keep fighting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, POLITICAL AD: The insiders have tried every back room deal they can to make me quit this race. Well, they got the wrong guy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But it's what Cahill says in a new blockbuster lawsuit that is so shocking. He alleges several former top aides secretly worked to undermine his effort while still on the payroll and then after quitting not only lobbied his running mate to quit, but also discussed sharing Cahill campaign secrets with the Republican candidate and the National Republican Organization.

Let's continue our conversation with Paul Begala and Ed Rollins and our contributor Roland Martin has joined us as well. Among the aides who have resigned and are now accused in this lawsuit, Ed Rollins, of sharing secrets is John Weaver (ph), who many people might remember he worked for the McCain campaign. He's been involved in several other Republican campaigns, his partner, John Yab (ph) and what they are accused of doing is essentially deciding you know Cahill can't win, let's quit that campaign because we don't want to get blamed by Republicans if the Republican loses, and then one of the e- mails mentioned in the lawsuit is John Weaver (ph) e-mailing essentially saying that the running mate, Tim Cahill's running mate will be offered a life line, up to him to take care or not, essentially hinting that if he drops out and causes more chaos in the campaign if the Republican wins, he'll take care of him -- ethical?

ROLLINS: In Boston -- by Boston ethical standards, you know what the politics are. John Weaver (ph) -- John is one of the great strategists, worried about being an Independent. He was the master of John McCain when he was an Independent. The bottom line is you never want to do anything. Ethical standards are you never want to do anything to hurt your candidacy. And any strategist that ever does that, then they basically ought to be run out of the business. I don't know what the story is here. It sounds like a bunch of nothing to me.

KING: Well Paul, when you guys sign on for campaigns, do you sign confidentiality agreements? Do you have to take any kind of an ethics pledge or --

BEGALA: No and maybe they should -- you know honestly in my day, it was a handshake agreement. I had a handshake agreement with Bill Clinton. We didn't have a contract and he honored it and so did we. And you can't -- there ought to be some honor among thieves and even among political consultants. You know my view was if someone is smart enough to hire me, I need to be smart enough to respect them and not betray them.

KING: Roland, we've got to be clear. Innocent until proven guilty, they've just filed this lawsuit and nobody has been convicted or proven anything, but if you do look at the e-mails that are quoted from here that one of the guys involved kept getting his e-mail through a Cahill campaign server, so even after he left they had access to his e-mails. And it does say in these e-mails, it pretty clearly suggests, number one, they want to get this guy to drop out and number two, they are having conversations with the Republican Governors Association and the campaign manager for the Republican candidate saying, maybe we know some things that might help you guys. That's really going to make people inspire and give faith in politics, right?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: From a voter standpoint, do you care? I mean, look, Cahill can sit here and he can complain about his former aides. He should be focusing on trying to get as many votes as possible. OK and so if you're drawing attention away from the campaign by talking about a lawsuit, that doesn't help you. OK (INAUDIBLE) was the Republicans nationally they want to defeat Governor Deval Patrick because they would love nothing more than a pickup in Massachusetts after Scott Brown beat Coakley (ph) for the Senate race and of course Patrick very close to President Barack Obama as well. So, again, Cahill, focus on the voters. Nobody cares about the backroom or what happened with your campaign.

KING: I think as he fades though, "A", he wants some attention here, but, "B" he wants people to say, wait a minute. If you're starting to trend toward the Republicans and moving up in the polls, I think he's trying to stop him there, but we'll see how this lawsuit plays out.

Gentlemen, hang on one second. When we come back, imagine you were thinking of being in a political ad and you got a casting call looking for somebody with a hicky, blue-collar role. Where is the line in political ads? When we come back we'll talk about that.

Also still ahead a conversation with Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer about a proposal in New York City to say if you get food stamps no soda and later in the program Bill Maher will be with us. We'll talk to him about the change from "Politically Incorrect" to "Real Time".

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The National Republicans Editorial Committee says don't blame us for a controversial new ad in West Virginia's U.S. Senate Race. Republicans paid for the ad but the production company that shot it in Philadelphia put out a casting call for actors with a quote, "hicky, blue-collar look". Here's the result.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE POLITICAL AD: Obama is messing things up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Spending money we don't have.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stimulus, Obama care.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Joe Manchin supported it all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe is not bad as governor, but when he's with Obama --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He turns into Washington Joe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Washington Joe does whatever Obama wants.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, well we better keep Joe Manchin right here in West Virginia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So where do we draw the line? Is there any such thing as truth in political advertising? We're back with Roland Martin, Ed Rollins and Paul Begala. The first question is I guess they do this in Hollywood, you know they shoot things in Hollywood and they say they're on Mars or they say they are anywhere in the world. Can you shoot something in a diner in Philadelphia and say here in West Virginia?

BEGALA: No. No.

KING: You've never been at a campaign --

BEGALA: No, not that I know of, seriously. I always believed and I always did -- I didn't make the ads, but I would certainly advise those who did -- we have real people. Real people are always going to be more credible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

BEGALA: Maybe they are not as smooth and slick as professional actors, but I think that's an advantage. We always want real people. And this was an insult. I have to say as somebody who grew up in a small town in Texas, not West Virginia, what an insult to call us hicks and rednecks and that kind of --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Roland is shaking his head. You know Roland is very real. Roland, let me read you something from this casting call. "These characters are from West Virginia, so think coal miner/trucker looks. Each character should bring several options and stay away from all black or all white or thin stripes. Thicker stripes and plaid are good."

It went on to say Dickie's type jacket with a t-shirt underneath, a down-filled vest, John Deere hats and they spelled John Deere wrong -- no E at the end so there is a city slicker did that one. And trucker hats, not brand new, preferably beat up.

MARTIN: OK, so if it was a campaign in Texas, do you not think somebody would probably have a cowboy hat on? Also, let's talk about the Harry and Louise ads. Paul you remember those ads, were they real people? Look here's the deal. You can talk about somebody on a set in Philadelphia or are they actually in West Virginia, if we didn't know this company actually put this out those (INAUDIBLE) shot in West Virginia. So the whole point of is not where it was shot, if it's actors. It's really what are they actually saying in the ad. And so look we see it all the time, so I'm not shocked there are actors in political ads -- not shocking at all.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Ed Rollins -- Ed do you have a John Deere hat that is a little beat up?

ROLLINS: I have a lot of John Deere hats. One thing I think is very important to correct. This was not the National Republican Senate Committee. This was not the campaign in Virginia. This was an independent expenditure and one of the dilemmas you face is you get some benefits sometimes with independent expenditures you pay a price. And they paid a price.

Jim Dormer (ph) who's managed the campaign, is one of my old buddies, he is a great, great campaign manager and would never make this mistake. But the message is a pretty strong message. And I think if it runs, it will have some impact that will go beyond the one or two day story where they shot or didn't shoot it.

BEGALA: I disagree with that. They have to take responsibility for this. If it's your campaign --

(CROSSTALK)

ROLLINS: How can you take responsibility for --

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Who hired them? Who hired them?

(CROSSTALK)

ROLLINS: Independent expenditure.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: No and by the way, here's my --

(CROSSTALK)

ROLLINS: Paul, you know independent expenditure --

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Can you zero in on this? I actually have a John Deere tractor and I got free with that tractor --

(CROSSTALK)

ROLLINS: Independent expenditure and you do them, we do them.

BEGALA: I'm a real redneck.

ROLLINS: You can't coordinate them with the committees. You can't. That's the law and you know that.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Independent expenditures --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- put this thing up there.

BEGALA: People though at the National Republican Senate --

ROLLINS: They did not pay for it. They denounced it. They said they did not pay for it. This was an independent expenditure against the governor.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: The thing is they are patronizing and insulting the people of West Virginia --

KING: That's what Manchin has said --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: The message in the ad -- the message in the ad has stuck, regardless -- before what we knew about the ad -- Dana Bash was in that state earlier this week and that message is sticky. Let's move on.

Christine O'Donnell is out with her second ad. The first one got a lot of attention because she started off by saying, I am not a witch. But the other signature line in that ad was I am you. Listen to round two.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE POLITICAL AD: I didn't go to Yale. I didn't inherit millions like my opponent. I'm you. I know how tough it is to make and keep a dollar. When some tried to push me from this race, they saw what I was made of and so will the Senate if they try to increase our taxes one more dime. I'm Christine O'Donnell and I approve this message. I'm you. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: It's an interesting approach in that she's down double digits in most polls -- all right, Roland (INAUDIBLE) you had the good laugh. (INAUDIBLE) first, but she's down double digits in most polls and this is a relatively positive ad. She does say I didn't go to Yale. I didn't inherit millions like my opponent, but then she goes onto this, I'm you. The idea and some people mock it, but the idea that in this anti-establishment, anti-politician mood that you say yes, I'm not rich and I'm not terribly polished. I'm normal.

MARTIN: OK, I get that. But when you say I didn't go to Yale, when there are questions saying that you went to two different universities you didn't go to, you might not want to bring up the college issue. OK, also she's been criticized even by former campaign workers for using campaign money for personal expenses, so you might not be a millionaire, but you might want to explain if you actually used the money for personal use.

You know what? Focus on the issues. The reality is the videos are out there. She made the comment about the witch and so it's ridiculous to try to refute that. It's there. You said it. Focus on the issues at hand, the economy, all that I'm not you stuff and painting people as elites it's just nonsense. Issue is what matter. Not this whole notion if you're an elite or not.

KING: Well let's listen a little bit more before Ed and Paul jump in here. Jim Acosta got an exclusive interview with her today. Her campaign originally had said no more national interviews, but Jim was up there and in talking to her she did explain to him why she's using this I'm you theme.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (R), DELAWARE SEN. CANDIDATE: I'm not a career politician. I'm not someone who has been groomed for office. I'm not someone who has been hand picked by her party elite by the party bosses, obviously.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Right.

O'DONNELL: I'm an average American citizen. I'm an average Delawarean. I want to go to Washington, D.C., and do what most Delawareans would do. I would not have voted for Obama care. I would not have voted for the bailouts. I would not have voted for more of the spending bills that are putting us into bankruptcy and neither would you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Right --

O'DONNELL: That's what my message I'm you means. I want to do what you would do in Washington, D.C.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Ed Rollins, you've advised a lot of candidates who are behind in a race. She's new to this -- she's run before but she's new to this level of attention. How would you rate that?

ROLLINS: She looks very young. She looks like she's running for high school student body president. The "I am you" part bothers me. You can do it the first commercial. It's over done now. She needs to talk about some substance, her own substance. And I think that it's a mistake to basically kind of do the class warfare thing. I think it won't work on her.

BEGALA: Let me just aggregate (ph) it. It's just two words, I'm you. Who comes first? Me. It's all about her. And my question for her is why did she mislead voters about her college education? How come it took nearly two decades to pay her college bill so she could get a college degree? How did she make a living? Why is she so well known conservative think tank? Oh, those aren't my questions. Those are Karl Rove's. This is what Karl Rove says about -- Karl's of course probably a preeminent (ph) Republican strategist in America. He says she says nutty things and has a checkered background. Now that's not you America. You don't say nutty things and have a checkered background and you didn't take two decades to pay your college bills --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: -- campaign is going to roll on this and use Paul Begala in their ads. All right --

BEGALA: (INAUDIBLE) Karl Rove --

(CROSSTALK)

ROLLINS: Paul has a wonderful way of using words --

(LAUGHTER)

ROLLINS: He just pounds you in the --

BEGALA: I love Karl.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: -- Begala thank you Ed and Roland as well. When we come back, strong push back from the White House after accusations it deliberately didn't tell us how bad the BP oil spill really was.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. Let's check in with Jessica Yellin for the latest political news you need to know right now -- Jess.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John. President Obama is at a Chicago fund-raiser right now and we've learned he'll also make a three-day campaign swing to Washington, California, and Nevada just before the election in an effort to help vulnerable Democratic senators.

Well the House Ethics Committee will not hold trial-like hearings on allegations against Democrats Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters until after the November election.

The White House is pushing back against an embarrassing report from the National Commission investigating the BP oil spill. That staff report accuses the White House Office of Management and Budget of deliberately not putting out worst case estimates about how much oil was spilling even though scientists had better information.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No information was altered. No information was withheld. We always sought to provide the best information as we were engaged in the most robust federal response that we've ever seen to an accident of this magnitude ever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Back to you, John.

KING: All right, Jessica has made her way over here, our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry as well. You snuck over during that Mr. Gibbs speech. This is an important question. Gibbs says no way, he did not withhold. We were fully transparent. Let me go to the magic wall for a second, just to underscore why this is so important. Early on, BP and the administration, the first line was about 1,000 barrel as day. We realized within a few that was not quite right and they went up to 5,000. And then scientists started to say wait a minute, this is a lot worst than that, 12,000 to 19,000 but look, a big month there. A month that the government estimate was here and then jumped from 12 to 19 and then only a couple weeks after that we got even a bigger estimate of the outflow and then by the middle of June we were way, way out here in a disaster zone.

But the question facing the administration, we can get this to turn on here, let me get this to turn on here, it's what did they know in this period right here. In this period here, universities were saying it's higher, did the administration have any indication that it was higher than this number and it was embarrassing. You just heard Robert Gibbs say no. They would have to be nervous about that. Remember how far this pushed back when they said this is Obama's Katrina. They are not competent, they did not respond as quickly as possible. They say, you can't make that comparison.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely and to answer your direct question, what did they know in that first week or so when they were saying it was 1,000 to 5,000 barrels, this new report from the commission, preliminary, by the staff, it's not the final report, nevertheless, they alleged that the White House knew in the first week or so that BP was saying, this could be up to 60,000, 70,000 barrel as day. Much more than they were saying publicly. On the flip side though in the administration's defense, you have to say, it's sort of interesting that critics are now saying, why didn't you listen to BP early enough? Because months ago people were saying, why are you listening to BP too much? You can't trust what they are saying. In some ways I think the administration is going through a buzz saw here with what the critics are saying. But at the end of the day, this is a commission appointed by this president. It's hard for them to say, the Republicans are saying this or that. No, this is your own commission. They are raising questions about your credibility. That's tough for the White House.

KING: Two questions. Were they transparent? They said they would always be transparent. Did they have documents that said maybe it's this high and release and say you know we don't agree with this one, I'm sure it's right but some people say it's this high. That's one question and the other question is the competence question which so undermined Bush during Katrina. Did one piece of the government maybe have a document but didn't share it with another piece of the government. Then you get into the competence.

YELLIN: And I think that's one of the more glaring problems here because I remember at the time you can talk to people working for these agencies and they were frustrated that the White House was not getting out the message that they felt need to be true. There was a lot of competing information and one of the things that's astonishing, when you cover the White House and government is you realize how slow and hard it is to communicate within this government system. It can be really, really horrifying troublesome.

KING: A lot of politicians to talk about just ahead but one quick thing before we go, Ed. The president is in Chicago tonight. That's his home base. He's raising money for the guy running for his seat right there. There you can see the president right out there right now. This has to worry the White House a little bit. The Obama seat, if you will, is at risk.

HENRY: Right. And the symbolism matters. I talked to a very senior Democratic official today who told me, it's not just tonight that he's going to be in Chicago. He's going back again between now and November 2nd. That's big because, as you know, better than anyone, a president's time is so valuable. He has a lot of states he could go to. Going to his home state is not one that the White House wanted to do in the final three weeks. It shows this seat is up for grabs and they are worried that on election night if it goes down, even if his seat goes down, he's working hard to keep it.

YELLIN: David Club who ran the president's campaign in 2008 held a briefing for some reporters today saying, we think he can win this in Illinois. It's not the phrase that he wants to be saying, which is that Alexi is going to be winning this but they are emphatic that the president being there can make a difference and that this playing field is going to help him in 2012.

KING: Think as they say. When we come back, who at the White House is a secret admirer of Sarah Palin?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Senate majority leader Harry Reid is locked in a very tough race for re-election in his home state of Nevada. Sharron Angle was the tea party candidate who shocked the Republican establishment, won the nomination. We had a poll last night showing that race essentially is in dead heat. Sharron Angle is a little bit ahead. Ed Henry, Jessica Yellin still with us. We're going to look now at this very new tough ad from Sharron Angle.

SHARRON ANGLE: I'm Sharron Angle and I approve this message. Want to know how out of touch Harry Reid is? Spending 787 billion on a stimulus that failed is a start or re-voting to give illegal aliens special tax breaks and social security benefits is another big clue. Here's the kicker. Reid actually voted to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders. What else do you need to know?

KING: The blockbuster in that is the idea that Harry Reid voted to use taxpayer dollars to give Viagra to child molesters, and so on and so forth. There is no such vote explicitly to do that. This went down at the end of the healthcare bill. You remember this. Tom Corbin, a whole bunch of Republicans that made no secret about it. Democrats went to the floor and one of those amendments would have explicitly forbidden the state insurance exchanges from giving those taxpayer benefits. This one tilts the truth meter a little bit.

YELLIN: I remember being on the show when that happened and somebody saying this was just a vote so you could run a political ad during the political season. It turns out it's used in an ad. What she's trying to do is turn the attention in that ad from her. Remember, Harry Reid is unpopular in Nevada. The issue is can she distract others from her problems and that's her ticket to winning, reminding people the bad votes that he's taken is one way to do that.

HENRY: Here's the bottom line. Democrats have known for a long time he was in trouble. The president is now going back to Vegas the end of the month. The reason is Democrats are saying privately, they think it's getting worse for Senator Reid because they say it's a dead heat but he's down 42/40. He's been beating on Sharron Angle for weeks and weeks saying she's extreme, out of the mainstream and yet he can't break the low to mid-40s as an incumbent.

KING: Forty percent among likely voters boy ouch.

YELLIN: Ouch but he knows how to turn out the vote. He has the unions you never know what happens on Election Day.

KING: We're having a technical issue so we can't play the tape but this is David Axelrod last night on David Letterman. Is Sarah Palin going to run? I don't know. I think she's enjoying. Look she has her own special kind of charisma, I have a soft spot for her. She was at the vice presidential debate and he says that she -- are you ready?

HENRY: Are you ready?

YELLIN: You can't wink.

HENRY: I was watching you on TV. I thought she winked at me.

YELLIN: That's what all of the men thought.

KING: So Axelrod is wrong? She was winking at you?

HENRY: Yes, I think so. You said there was a secret admirer inside the White House.

KING: It was at this briefing when they thought they would give Palin the 2012 and not get that lucky?

YELLIN: Yes.

KING: Ouch.

YELLIN: He also said that they are having a colossal failure.

HENRY: Unless Republicans are in the World Series, the Super Bowl, the House, the Senate.

KING: Jessica and Ed, thanks a lot.

When we come back, if you get food stamps, should you be able to buy drinks with sugar? The New York City mayor says no. Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker weigh in when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: New York City wants to keep people using food stamps to buy sugary drinks. Now we all know too much soda is bad for you. But just what role should the government have in running your life, even if it's looking out for your best interest? Let's head up to New York, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Kathleen Parker and New York's former Democratic governor and attorney general, Eliot Spitzer. Their new program "PARKER SPITZER" just ahead at the top of the hour. Too much breach of government or the right idea to get people off soda if they are on food stamps?

KATHLEEN PARKER, CNN ANCHOR: You know, I'm of the school that you can do more with education and volunteerism than you can with government imposition of rules. I've just recently moved to New York and I was told by the fellow that installed my cable, he had to go to New Jersey to get a decent donut.

ELIOT SPITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Wait a minute. New York City has the best donuts in the world. I'm not going to put up with that.

PARKER: We understand what it is. Food stamps make sense to me. They shouldn't be used for alcohol and cigarettes but at some point you have to stop directing everybody's decisions.

SPITZER: Here's the thing. When the state stepped in and said we're not going to let kids buy cigarettes and then started saying women who are pregnant should not be buying cigarettes, people said the same thing. We don't want you involved and I understand that perspective but the magnitude of the problem of childhood obesity, that Michael Bloomberg is trying to deal with and the fact that we are saying to folks who are getting taxpayer money, we're saying use it for good nutritional food. I understand what Mike Bloomberg is saying and I think he's doing the right thing.

PARKER: I don't even believe he means it. KING: Hold on. I want to get the mayor involved because Eliot brought up the mayor. I want to say just what he says. He says, "In spite of the great gains that we've made over the past eight years in making our communities healthier, there are still two areas where we are losing ground. Obesity and diabetes. This initiative will give New York families more money to spend money on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment." You say no but should it be --

PARKER: It's a great idea. It's a great idea. And what it does to us, it let's -- the assumption is poor people are too stupid. It's insulting.

SPITZER: This is not paternalism.

PARKER: Yes, it is.

SPITZER: If taxpayer money is being used, we want it to be used for the right thing. I would think the tea party folk who certainly don't like big government would say, if it's our dollars being used, let us buy nutritional food rather than junk stuff that's really not going to be good for our kids. I don't see any problem with that.

PARKER: I stay clear of sugar because it's bad for me and would make me fat and I think money is better spent on education and letting people make decisions for themselves.

KING: It is interesting because this is essentially having the government say you can't get this if you get this benefit. There are other ways in which the government does incentivize things. We get a mortgage deduction if we buy a home. That is the government incentivizing us to buy a home. How do you draw a line between a punitive step saying don't do this if you do this or saying here, do this, where they encourage you?

SPITZER: There's a level of invasiveness where they say, I don't want the government telling me in such detail what to do. The nanny state has to go away. The government is not going to let you use food stamps to buy liquor or cigarettes. Sugary soda for kids is the same thing. It's a balance so there is no pure right or wrong. It's a judgment call. I think Mike Bloomberg is trying to do the right thing here.

PARKER: There was a study out of Berkeley a few years ago, if you eat enough broccoli, it will cause cancer. We should look into whether poor people should be allowed to eat broccoli.

KING: Here's another one. The Republican candidate for governor from South Carolina says if you get unemployment benefits, you should have to take a drug test. Good idea or bad idea?

PARKER: If you get unemployment benefits you should have to -- I think everybody who issues any ruling like that should have to take a drug test.

SPITZER: You know, that's a tough one. I would have to sit down and think about that. I think what -- Kathleen always has this commonsense approach. I'd like to see the candidate take the drug test there. There are certain areas where we feel pretty good about requiring drug tests, people who are driving buses, people where there is a safety impact. It seems to me giving people unemployment benefits is a statement about economic circumstances and we're not in that context going to start monitoring every little piece of their lives. These are not people on probation. I think that's wrong.

PARKER: If you are doing something, handling machinery or you are responsible for other people's lives, when I applied to the Orlando Centinal many years ago, I had to go behind a curtain to provide a specimen. The health care program has created this idea that if you're going to eat something that is going to cause you health problems, then we have a right to direct whatever that consumption is because ultimately your bad health is going to cost us money. I think it's a very slippery slope.

KING: We started about sugary drinks. Let's end with a caffeinated note. Now Kathleen, you're known for having a five-hour energy drinks. I don't see one in front of you today but --

PARKER: I had to give them up.

KING: Christine O'Donnell, the Republican Senate candidate in Delaware was doing a forum last night. At the end there was a lightning round and she was asked this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O'DONNELL: OK. This is my last one-liner for you. Five-hour energy drinks. I don't drink them, believe it or not. I don't drink them. Diet Rockstar.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A little plug for diet Rockstar from Christine O'Donnell.

SPITZER: When you're a witch you don't need to get energy from five-hour energy drinks. Energy drink. You look up to the lightning, strikes, boom, you're set.

PARKER: All I can tell you John is they work.

KING: Have a great night. See you in a few minutes.

Up next here, Christine O'Donnell says a subject she won't talk about in this campaign is her past friendship with Bill Maher.

O'DONNELL: Why? What I did or said on a comedy show, you know, over a decade over ago is not relevant to this election.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: As we pass 26 days until the midterms, we are hearing a lot of complaints that the country's political discourse is getting too coarse. Here to talk about it politely maybe is Bill Maher. Let's start on that point. Remember when you started "Politically Incorrect" in July of 1993 you called it the McCoughlin Group on acid and said you like getting people upset. Give us a little then and now in terms of not only the talk show world but the political discourse.

BILL MAHER, HBO, "REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER": Well, you know, I was asked this question recently. What do you have to do to get thrown out of a race? You are correct. In the last couple of decades, that -- that's really changed a lot. And it came to mind because of this guy running for governor in New York on the Republican ticket, Palladino. Because he got caught forwarding e-mails that were so blatantly racist and sexist, a woman having sex with a horse. I mean, I understand in Russia, Katherine the great, but here in America, we never did that kind of thing. And he's OK to stay in the race and yet George Allen, remember George Allen four years ago?

KING: Macaka.

MAHER: Yes. And he had to go immediately. I just don't understand what the rules are or take Newt Gingrich versus John Edwards. John Edwards had to leave the race because he cheated on his wife. Is that the rule, you've got to leave the race? Because lots of guys have done that. Oh no, he cheated oh his wife when he was sick. Newt Gingrich did that but he's on the Sunday morning talk shows all the time. I'm very confused at what the rule is of who has to go away and why.

KING: The language is interesting, too. The Republican candidate for governor in Maine quoted saying the message to the president would be to go to hell. Not that oppose you and listen and I know you are not a fan but listen to Rush Limbaugh who uses some interesting language from time to time in describing the president of the United States.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO SHOW HOST: This neophyte genuinely is an economic ignonoramus. Mr. Obama, our Imam child, they have already taken their trillion ball home and sitting on it you jackass.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KING: I guess that's in now?

MAHER: Yes. You will not convince me, although it very much angers the right wingers, to hear this said that it is not a racial thing. I truly believe that if he was a white president that people would not be talking about him that way. And I know the tea baggers absolutely hate it when you say they're racist even though 99.999 percent of them are white and the president that drives them insane is black. Of course, the other thing they hate is black people or maybe they don't hate them but --

KING: Tea party people watching might get mad at you. They would say we are tea party members or tea party activists and Americans and they don't like the word tea bagger.

MAHER: They're the ones who chose it. They chose for their name, something that previously been -- something that described a gay sex act. So they're not very bright people.

KING: Now, calling the president a jackass I would say is out of line. You should call him the president of the United States and make the difference crystal clear. Argue with him about any policy issue you want. I think that's out of line. Sometimes Democrats use interesting language, too. This is the vice president this week at a fund-raiser in Minnesota. If I hear one more Republican tell me about balancing the budget, I am going to strangle them. He was smart enough to go on to the press, that's a figure of speech. Do we need that kind of rhetoric?

MAHER: I don't think -- you know, John, I really don't think that's equivalency. To say I want to strangle people, it is a figure of speech. That's a lot different than calling the president of the United States who also represents the office. He's not just a person. We're all supposed to be patriots in this country, I thought. I think that's a real different thing and I think that's a problem in the media. We're always trying to make things equal. Fair and balanced. This side does it and this side does it. You hear it all the time. It is not always fair and balanced. We should go after the truth and not this false equivalency. For example, in campaign finance you always hear corporations and unions -- well, unions are very weak right now and corporations are very strong. They're not equivalent.

KING: One of the great debates in the country right now, I'm going to hold up the cover of "The Weekly Standard," it's a conservative magazine and it says on the front page this week "Gone to Pot, The Medical Marijuana Charade" and oppose the debates where you live in California. Where's that one going and how's Bill Maher going to vote on that?

MAHER: That's a very well-guarded secret, John. How will I vote on prop 19? These people who are working for "The Weekly Standard," "The Weekly Standard," "The National Review," the godfather of them, "The National Weekly" was William F. Buckley and would have voted yes on Prop 19. He was a true libertarian and Barry Goldwater. I don't know how this party drifted so far from their roots. And, you know, marijuana. That's a real no-brainer. If you can't get behind that issue you haven't done your research. Administration after administration has kicked this down the field because they're too afraid to act. And done studies, studies, studies. The studies always say the same thing. It makes you eat cookie dough. That's probably the worst thing it does to you. You know? We all know that cigarettes and liquor are worse. You know, it's boring to go through these arguments because we have heard them for decades.

KING: So if --

MAHER: When I was in college, we thought -- go ahead.

KING: If "Real-Time", then, if "Politically Incorrect" --I'm sorry, was the McLaughlin Group on acid, is this the McCoughlin Group on medicinal marijuana?

(LAUGHTER) MAHER: Well first of all, I never said that. Some reviewers called it the "McLaughlin Group" on acid. But - I bet you a lot of our viewers don't remember the McLaughlin Group.

KING: Issue one, Issue two. Thanks, Bill. Appreciate your time. We'll see you tomorrow night as well. That's all the time we have tonight Thanks for stopping by and we hope to see you tomorrow night. But that's all for us for now. "PARKER-SPITZER" starts right now.