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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

John McCain Under Fire; Clinton Campaign: Where the Money Went; Texas Youth Voters: Key Bloc, if They Show Up

Aired February 22, 2008 - 20:00   ET

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


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: And thanks for joining us on this Friday evening.
February is running out, and with the March primaries and caucuses just around the corner, some important campaign bank accounts may be running out of as well.

Tonight, in the ELECTION CENTER, campaign veterans join the best political team on television. We're going to take a look at the money and management issues in the McCain and Clinton campaigns and what it might tell us about how they would run the country if elected president.

First, though, a grim reminder that in politics as in life events can take unexpected tragic turns. This morning in Dallas, an accident claimed the life of a motorcycle officer as he escorted Senator Clinton's motorcade.

Police say he was riding near the end of Clinton's escort patrol when he hit a curb, lost control of his motorcycle, and went down. No one else was involved in the wreck. Dallas Police Senior Corporal Victor Lozada-Tirado was a 20-year veteran of the force and leaves behind a wife and four children.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are just heartsick over this loss of life in the line of duty. And I have asked that my condolences be conveyed to the family. I'm going to call them as soon as it's appropriate and I have the information to do so. I have placed a call to the chief of police expressing my sympathy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: It has been an up-and-down 24 hours for Senator Clinton starting with last night's debate at the University of Texas. Listen to how quickly the audience turns on her when she tries to attack Senator Barack Obama for borrowing part of a supporter's speech without attribution.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: If your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words. That's, I think, a very simple proposition.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: And, you know, lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in. It's change you can Xerox.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Well, the boos followed that. But, if that was her low point, this is the high one ...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: ... The standing ovation she received at the end of the debate.

But this morning the front page of "The New York Times" carried an unflattering story dissecting her campaign's spending. Based on reports filed with the federal government, the Clinton campaign started January with $19 million on hand. It ended the month in the red, blowing through money at the rate of about $1 million a day.

January's expenses range from, take a look at this, nearly $13,000 on pizza and $1,200 on Dunkin' Donuts to $25,000 for staff hotel rooms at the swanky Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas before the Nevada caucuses.

But that is small change compared to the $5 million the Clinton campaign paid its consultants in January. That total includes $3.8 million in fees and expenses for the firm that includes her chief strategist, Mark Penn, and $267,000 to her communications director, Howard Wolfson -- all of this in January, the month she finished third in Iowa, first in New Hampshire and Nevada, and then a distant second in South Carolina.

Since the start of the campaign a year ago, team Clinton has spend a grand total of $106 million, only to find itself in the midst of an 0-11 losing streak.

Well, you think of a proving ground for how a candidate will manage the country. And when you think of that, all of this raises an awful lot of questions.

One of the people raising them is Joe Trippi, who joins us tonight from Washington. He is not supporting any candidate now. But he was a senior adviser to John Edwards' campaign, and his online fund-raising efforts for 2004 Howard Dean's presidential run is the stuff of which political legend is made.

And here in New York with me, two members of the best political team on television, CNN senior analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and from the conservative end of the political spectrum, CNN contributor Amy Holmes. Joe, start us off tonight. You're very familiar, a veteran of these campaign wars. The amount of money that the Clinton has been going through, how does it strike you?

JOE TRIPPI, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, it strikes me that they just underestimated how long this process was going on. They built this thing like a Cadillac, spent lavishly trying to go for an early kill in Iowa and New Hampshire, probably thought they could put this thing away by South Carolina. It looks like they spent that way. And now they find themselves upside down. They built this top-down campaign that raises money the old-fashioned way.

It maxed out contributors who can't give again. And they have just spent themselves into a hole. And I don't know that they are going to be able to get out of it.

ROBERTS: Well, Amy, what do you think? Is this an extraordinary amount of money to spend? I think it turns most people's heads, most people who might not be familiar with how campaigns spend money.

AMY HOLMES, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure. This is very typical of campaigns. But I think the problem here with the Clinton team is that they spent lavishly on themselves, $267,000 in one month. I'm in the wrong business. I could become a multimillionaire giving bad political advice.

For the big donors, if Hillary were winning, this wouldn't be a big deal. But think about those small donors who sent $50, $100. Did they send that money to the Clinton campaign so staffers could stay at the Ritz and the Bellagio? I think that they expected a lot more from their money.

And it underscores a conservative point is that, when you're spending other people's money, it's funny money. That's why you want smaller government, lower taxes. You will be a lot more responsible

ROBERTS: Jeff, let's take a look at a couple of other expenditures that they made during the month of January. We remember the strategy that they had to try to get people out to the caucuses early, thinking that maybe more Hillary Clinton supporters would come out. And they were looking for those new supporters as well.

They spent $100,000, just about $100,000, on the so-called party platters, the sandwiches that they entice people out with. And take a look at this, $275,000 to Sunrise Communications in South Carolina, an organization that was tasked with turning out black voters, who went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, a total there of $106 million in campaign expenditures so far.

Jeff, if she were winning, if she had gone 11-0, rather than Barack Obama, would anybody be making any noise about this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: No. And Obama put out his expenditures, and we're not going over theirs in detail because he's been succeeding. So, whatever he's doing is working. I think, you know, of course, over the last summer, John McCain had terrible money problems. And there actually is a lot in common between the two campaigns in that period. They were very top heavy with consultants. They were based in Washington.

They spent a lot of money on the big-money people, the pollsters, the strategists. And it didn't work out well. You know, George Bush won in 2000 based in Austin. Bill Clinton won in '92 based in Little Rock. Being outside the beltway has its advantages.

ROBERTS: Yes. We're going to be talking about John McCain's finances coming up in a few minutes time, as they relate to this idea of taking matching funds from the federal government and how much money he can spend between now and September if they hold him to that.

But, Joe Trippi, if you're a donor to the Clinton campaign, how are you feeling right now? What kind of questions are you asking?

TRIPPI: Well, again, you know, because they have been losing, you're looking at how they spent. And it doesn't look like that they have been very smart about it.

The bigger problem again is it's the donors on the other side. The Obama campaign built its campaign bottom up, $25, $75, $100 contributors. So, when they push the button here, they can raise $37 million more bucks in February, like they did in January. All these people can give again.

The problem the Clintons have now is, having built this thing top down, they can't reload. It's very difficult for these donors. Even if they're excited, they can't give more money because they have maxed out already. They have got to go try to talk a friend into giving $2,300 to the Clinton campaign. That's tough to do when you're losing 11 states in a row.

ROBERTS: I guess the question, Amy, a lot of people have is, are these donors saying, what did I spend all this money on?

HOLMES: Certainly. And for the big donors, if she were winning, this would be a small price to pay for an ambassadorship, a commission, some great post in the government.

But when you are looking at all of these numbers and you're looking particularly at Mark Penn, some of the top political consultants, who are enriching themselves at the expense of these donors, and, you know, running a campaign that, as you pointed out, is 11-0 over this past -- last month, big donors are going to be looking at this, saying, you know, I think we could have been a lot smarter about this.

ROBERTS: Jeff, do these things exist in a bubble or are they an indication of how she might handle the budget, should she become president, how she would handle taxpayers' money?

TOOBIN: I think that's a bit of a stretch to draw too much of an analogy between them. These campaigns in broad terms spend their money in similar ways. They all have pollsters. They all have strategists. They all have -- the big expense -- and I think it is fair to say it -- is paying our salaries, because it's television commercials. That's where most of the money goes for. But I don't think it's much of a direct analogy between one and the other.

HOLMES: But I have got to disagree. This definitely -- this undermines Hillary Clinton's claim of fiscal responsibility. And it also is in contradiction and hypocrisy when she is railing against big corporate titans who are enriching themselves on the backs of the small guys. Well, again, talk to those small donors and ask them what they think about Mark Penn and these other guys enriching themselves on those small checks?

ROBERTS: Joe, one quick final word here?

TRIPPI: Yes. I think the real strange thing is that the $5 million that they went to consultants is exactly the same amount Hillary Clinton loaned to the campaign. She loaned $5 million. And so she may be the one that is really asking what's going on here.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: All right. Well, everyone, stay where you are, because we're going to switch subjects and take a look at John McCain a little bit later on and a particular issue that makes him a little bit touchy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't have any more comment about this issue. I had a press conference yesterday morning. I answered every question. I'm moving on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Well, maybe so, but will questions about the senator's relationship with lobbyists keep hounding him?

Also ahead, we're going to check to see if conservatives like Rush Limbaugh are warming up to McCain because they just despise "The New York Times."

And we're "Uncovering America," introducing you to people who have never voted before. But there is a first time for everything.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: On the McCain campaign today, the focus is still on that "New York Times" story that McCain's campaign and many conservatives are saying was an outright hit job. It outlined a close relationship between John McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman, who is 30 years younger than he is, and even hinted at a romantic relationship.

Well, that was the juicy part that the media just couldn't resist. McCain denies it. But could the bigger part of the story be really damaging to John McCain? "The Times" and "The Washington Post" point out that some of the top people in McCain's campaign staff or have been big-time lobbyists. How does that look when the candidate has spent years raging in public about the evil influence of lobbyists?

Here is how the White House came to his defense today, a spokesman saying, "During the course of the campaign seemingly on maybe a monthly basis leading up to the convention and maybe a weekly basis after that, 'The New York Times' does try to drop a bombshell on the Republican nominee."

Well, joining me now to talk more about this from Washington is CNN's Brian Todd.

And, Brian, this idea of lobbyists working for campaigns, you compiled a list today. Who is working for who and what are they doing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it will shock you to know that no campaign is above reproach in this equation. Everyone is under the influence at least of some lobbying interests.

And we will tick through some of the more notable examples. We will start with John McCain's campaign. And it is right at the top. Rick Davis, his campaign manager, he co-founded a lobbying firm. The clients of that firm include BellSouth and Verizon. And also a top campaign adviser to McCain, Charlie Black, still an active lobbyist, head of a powerful D.C. firm whose clients include Lockheed Martin and AT&T.

But on the other side, no one above reproach there either. Hillary Clinton, among her top advisers, Harold Ickes. He is a registered lobbyist. His firm represents Verizon, among other clients, and also Steve Ricchetti, an adviser to Senator Clinton. His group has worked for Anheuser-Busch and GM.

On Barack Obama's side, one of his top advisers is a gentleman named Steve Hildebrand. He has worked -- his group has worked for environmental interests in Washington. So, clearly, every single campaign has some lobbying connection at or near the top of it -- John.

ROBERTS: So, Brian, you spent the day talking to the campaigns today about the involvement of lobbyists in the campaigns, mostly on an advisory basis. I don't think any campaign has got anybody running -- lobbyists running the campaign, as had, if you remember a few weeks ago, Mitt Romney defending himself against some charges that one of his campaign managers was actually a lobbyist. What have they been telling you?

TODD: Well, various things.

First, we will go to what John McCain said earlier today. He was pressed on this by CNN and some others at a news conference. Here's what he had to say, defending the role of some lobbyists.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: These people have honorable records, and they have -- they are honorable people. And I'm proud to have them as part of my team.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: And we tried to get specific comment from Rick Davis, Mr. McCain's campaign manager. The campaign said Mr. Davis would have no comment. But they did stress a couple of things to us.

They said that Mr. Davis is not paid by the campaign, he is a volunteer, and that he has not actively lobbied in at least two years, that he's on a leave of absence from the firm. So, they say that there is no tangible connection right there.

Charlie Black, I spoke to him on the phone today. He said he is also not paid about it campaign, does say he is active in his lobbying firm still, but he says he does not lobby McCain. He makes sure that there are no conflicts. And he has said extensively that John McCain is not influenced by lobbying interests.

On the Democratic side, we were told that Steve Ricchetti, his group has worked for Anheuser-Busch and GM. But they say that he does not lobby Senator Clinton or President Clinton at the moment.

And on Steve Hildebrand on the Obama campaign, they said he is not currently working as a lobbyist, similar to Rick Davis. He's either on a leave of absence or is just not active with his firm. So, they are defending the role of these people.

You know, one thing to keep it in perspective, John, there are 35,000 lobbyists in D.C. Analysts say these are the people who really know the most about politics. It's a natural kind of symmetry that they would work for campaigns. And also a very important point, it's not illegal, nothing illegal about this. It does raise questions, however.

ROBERTS: All right, Brian Todd for us tonight from Washington -- Brian, thanks very much.

Now I want to turn to Chris Cillizza, who is also in Washington. He contributed to a piece in today's "Washington Post" about McCain's adviser lobbyists. He also writes "The Fix" for WashingtonPost.com.

Chris, as Brian was saying, there are so many of these lobbyists in Washington. They're so plugged into the political process. Is this stuff really unavoidable? And where do these candidates run into trouble?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, "THE WASHINGTON POST": You know, John, I think it is unavoidable. I think what you see is that there is sort of a -- there's a campaign season and then there is the off-season.

And in the campaign season, virtually every person who's had any experience running a national campaign come out of the woodwork and joins whether it's John McCain or Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, their chosen candidate.

When that race ends, either when the candidates runs for the White House or when they lose and drop out of the race, the candidate -- the consultants, the lobbyists usually go back into the off-season. They go back into firms where they do political consulting, they do public relations, and oftentimes they do lobbying.

So, you know, there is sort of a very thin membrane that separates that off-season from that campaign season. And I think you see people going back and forth quite a bit.

ROBERTS: Is it problematic for a candidate like John McCain, though, at least from a perception perspective, to be out there railing against lobbyists and then have them working for you?

If you go to McCain's Web site, he says -- quote -- "McCain has fought the revolving door by which lawmakers and other influential officials leave their posts and become lobbyists for the special interests that they have aided."

According to Public Citizen, though, he has got 26 lobbyists working either in an advisory capacity for his campaign or out there raising money for him.

CILLIZZA: Yes. You know, I think it's dangerous I think for any of these candidates. I would say the same for Barack Obama. I would say the same for John Edwards when he was in the race. I would have said the same for Hillary Clinton as well.

They all have lobbyists in either an advisory capacity. Many of them have lobbyists who raise money. If they don't directly give to the campaign, they help raise money for the campaign.

But for all of these politicians, especially in an election year like this, where, in exit poll after exit poll, the voters cite change, where they want change, they think Washington is broken, they want things to be different, you have to be very careful. If you are presenting yourself as a change agent, as Barack Obama and John McCain have done, if it looks like you're just doing politics as usual with lobbyists, it gets at the core of what appeals to people in you. And that's always dangerous.

Any time the sort of core principles that you're holding up in this -- in a campaign are raised questions about, that is dangerous from a political perspective.

ROBERTS: So, Chris, what is John McCain's reputation there in Washington? Is he seen as being susceptible to the wiles of these people?

CILLIZZA: You know, I haven't heard that, John. I haven't talked to every lobbyist on K Street. So, I can't give you a full recounting. But what I will tell you is -- and John McCain makes this point many times -- he's one of the leading opponents of earmarking, basically taking money and setting it aside for constituent groups for your district, for your state. That is something that thousands and thousands of those 35,000 lobbyists Brian mentioned are employed doing.

So, I don't think he's the most favored politician in Washington in terms of lobbyists. But he is someone who has been in the Senate for more than 20 years. He's had any number of senior-level staffers go through his committee when he was on the Commerce Committee as well as his Senate personal office. He's got a lot of connections in the city, as anyone would, frankly, who spent more than two decades as a senior-level politician here in the nation's capital.

ROBERTS: These lobbyists certainly are heavy contributors to political campaigns. According to opensecrets.org, in 2007, Hillary Clinton was actually the top recipient of lobbyist money, with some $823,000. John McCain had $416,000. But these lobbyists, they contribute, expecting payback, do they not? They're trying to buy access here, aren't they?

CILLIZZA: I think every donor, though they wouldn't probably tell you this, is interested in some level of access.

I think the genius of the 2004 and 2000 Bush campaigns is, they didn't just say, hey, give us checks. They created these Pioneers and these Rangers. And they said, if you can raise us $100,000 or $250,000 from your friends and associates, we will give you special briefings. We will bring you inside the political world that we exist in. For a donor, that is red meat.

Remember, most of these people have plenty of money. They don't need more money. But they are interested in knowing more, feeling like they're on the inside. And, so, I think that's what you're seeing going back and forth here.

ROBERTS: All right, Chris Cillizza for us from "The Fix" at WashingtonPost.com, Chris, as always, good to see you. Thanks for joining us tonight.

CILLIZZA: John, good to see you. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Well, there is an old saying. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Does it hold true for John McCain and conservatives like Rush Limbaugh whose least favorite newspaper is "The New York Times"?

And a ghost from elections past may rise up to haunt the Democrats again.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: What started out looking like a nasty blow to the McCain campaign courtesy of "The New York Times" could actually end up helping McCain where he really needs it, with conservative Republicans.

Even Rush Limbaugh is defending McCain against "The Times" story about McCain and lobbyists. And a source tells CNN's John King that, in the past 24 hours, McCain's campaign has raised a startling $2 million after sending out an e-mail saying: We need money to help defend ourselves against these attacks. Well, joining me now from Washington is Alfred Regnery. He is the publisher of "The American Spectator." He has not endorsed a candidate yet, but he has contributed to McCain. He has also written "Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism." And from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for us tonight, Tony Perkins. He is president of the Family Research Council and author of "Personal Faith, Public Policy."

Gentlemen, thanks for joining us tonight.

Mr. Regnery, let's start with you. Is this story going to help John McCain with conservatives?

ALFRED REGNERY, PUBLISHER, "THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR": Well, you know, among conservatives, you can't have any better enemy than "The New York Times." And actually I wrote a piece for "The Wall Street Journal" a couple of weeks ago. They asked me to suggest some of the things John McCain could do to get conservative support.

One of the things I mention was pick a fight with the press. Well, "The New York Times," I guess, came up and picked a fight first. But I think John McCain very effectively turned it around. And what he's done is made it a story about "The New York Times," instead of a story about John McCain.

ROBERTS: And, Tony, what do you think? Do you agree with Al that this is going to help John McCain?

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: Well, I do think that people are seeing this as a case of drive-by journalism, that the story lacked substance.

But I don't think that, at least among the ranks of social conservatives, that they are going to circle the wagons in defense of John McCain. I think they're more interested in his stand on the issues and policies. And there are some policy differences that remain between social conservatives and John McCain.

I don't think this is going to be a high hurtle that is going to keep them away if he makes those policy moves. I do think, when you look at the way the American people view politicians, they have a lot of distrust for politicians, but they distrust the media even more. And this story really was a case of poor journalism. And I think people see that.

ROBERTS: It's interesting that you say that about, you don't know that they will really circle the wagons here, because Charlie Black said in response to this, in talking about conservatives, "Even if they want to quibble within our own tribe, they will circle the wagons when we're attacked by 'The New York Times.'"

Is that just wishful thinking?

PERKINS: I don't -- I mean, I don't think they're going to turn and shoot at John McCain over this. I think they are going to see it for what it is. It was a poor case of journalism and I think trying to dredge up issues from 2006 that suppressed social conservative turnout, the innuendoes of unethical behavior that clouted the congressional races in 2006 and caused the Republicans to lose the majority.

ROBERTS: Right.

PERKINS: But I don't think they're going to turn on John McCain because of this, but I don't think that they're going to flock to him.

They are focused -- and we're seeing increasingly -- polling data is showing that evangelicals in particular are kind of cooling to the Republicans. The numbers have shown that they are not walking lockstep with the Republican Party. John McCain is going to have to reach out to them on the issues.

This may ultimately help him with fiscal conservatives and defense conservatives, who are already with him. But I don't think it's going to be a natural draw just because this happened to him.

ROBERTS: Al, for people like at home who might not fully understand that this level of animosity from conservatives toward "The New York Times," why is "The New York Times" such a bogeyman for conservatives? And who do conservatives dislike more, John McCain or "The New York Times"?

REGNERY: Oh, clearly "The New York Times." I mean "The New York Times" is the most powerful journalistic enterprise in the country. Conservatives don't trust it. They've been reading it for years. "The New York Times," they've had this battle going on for 50 years, I suppose, between conservatives and "The New York Times."

The battle that John McCain has with conservatives is not new either. I mean, it first probably arose in 1952 when Eisenhower got the nomination over Bob Taft, and it's happened time and again. But I think -- in contrast to what Tony Perkins says, I think that when conservatives including social conservatives come along up to the general -- in the general election to the election itself, and they see the choices between John McCain and Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, I don't think they're going to quibble for a minute as to who they support.

It's fine to say they may not be in lock step with the Republican Party, maybe not, if the Democrats have a moderate candidate. But these are two very hard core left-wing people. Whichever one of them is the candidate is going to be one of the most liberal nominees in Democratic Party history.

ROBERTS: Certainly, the McCain campaign has been trying to turn it to their advantage. They sent out a fund-raising e-mail in response to this. Rick Davis, the campaign manager, saying, "We can only expect these sorts of baseless attacks to continue as we move into the general election cycle.

We are going to need your help today, and your continued help in the future to have the resources to respond. We'll never match the reach of a front-page 'New York Times' article, but with your immediate help today, we'll be able to respond and defend our nominee from the liberal attack machine."

Tony, according to the sources inside the McCain campaign, they've raised almost $2 million in 24 hours. So it seems to be pretty effective and is helping McCain.

PERKINS: Well, I wouldn't argue that it's not helping with some Republicans, especially ardent, you know, partisans that are really pushing the Republican Party and see him on the defense issues and on the fiscal issues as somebody that they are really behind. So there's no question it's going to help him to some degree. I'm just saying from social conservative standpoint, I don't think it's going to be a natural draw people are going to lay down their policy differences and say, oh, OK, let's rush to his defense.

I would -- I agree with Al that they're going to vote, but it's not an issue of social conservatives voting for John McCain. It's how enthusiastic they will be in working for him and how much they believe in his candidacy. He's going to have to reach out on very specific policy issues and connect with them.

And then I think that if these attacks continue throughout the course of this campaign, if they see him as someone they identify with that represents the values they care about, yes, they will join the campaign and circle the wagons to defend someone who is being attacked by "The New York Times" or any other media outlet.

ROBERTS: And so, basically again, Tony, there's still a lot of work to do, I guess. Tony Perkins and Al Regnery, thanks very much for joining us tonight. Gentlemen, good to see you.

REGNERY: Thank you.

ROBERTS: John McCain's deal for a cap (ph) or zeal for campaign finance reform may be coming back to haunt him. We're going to see if it could cause his spending to hit a wall, though. Speaking of campaign dollars, listen to this --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HEATHER EICHLING, TEXAS VOTER: The fact that like I've actually contributed -- I mean, I don't make a lot of money. And the fact that I've given to him I think says something.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Where are young people so excited about politics that they're actually reaching into their wallets?

Stay right there. We'll tell you, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Well, John McCain has got another problem to deal with -- money. You see, last year he signed up for federal matching campaign funds but as a condition of that, he had to agree to spend no more than $54 million during the primary campaign. He has already spent approximately $49 million, and the $5 million that's left has got to last him until the convention, and that's not until September. Neither of his potential Democratic opponents is limited in how much they can spend.

According to "The Washington Post" today, McCain is asking election officials to let him out of that deal so he can spend as much as he wants. So far, though, the answer from the FEC is no. So could this hurt McCain as he launches a national campaign during the primary season? Let's bring back our panel, Joe Trippi, Jeff Toobin and Amy Holmes.

Jeff, lay this out for us. Do you think the FEC is going to let him off the hook here?

TOOBIN: John, you know, there is nothing sexier or more exciting than Federal Election Commission regulations.

(LAUGHTER)

TOOBIN: So I know everybody is really on the edge of their seat about this.

ROBERTS: But you're the attorney.

TOOBIN: No, no. It is very exciting for me. But the issue here is he wants to get out of the federal funding and just raise as much money as he can. But the FEC says not so fast. We don't have a majority -- we don't have a quorum. There is not a full FEC, so we can't even vote to allow you --

ROBERTS: Yes. He needs to get four to six votes, and four positions are vacant.

TOOBIN: Are vacant. Plus, there is some question about legally whether he is entitled to do this, so it's a huge mess. He could simply defy the FEC and just do it himself. But for a guy who's built his career, as we were discussing earlier, on campaign finance probity, that would be very difficult. So it's a big mess at best and a disaster at worst.

AMY HOLMES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's a huge disaster, and it's one of those moments that you might uncharitably call I told you so. That he's getting tangled up in the campaign finance laws that he helped -- that he crafted and passed. And conservatives were saying, you know, we're against it, opposed to this for all of these same reasons.

His own adviser, Trevor Potter, who is the former chairman of the FEC, is now saying that this is unconstitutional, that would restrict McCain's free speech. And conservatives are saying that's what we were saying all along. You know, I find it really hard to believe that two FEC members would actually basically determine the outcome of an American presidential election by limiting John McCain spending to $5 million.

ROBERTS: We should point out here that the legal issue is the FEC is not clear on whether or not a $4 million loan that McCain procured was collateralized by the promise of this federal money. If it was, they're not going to let him out.

So Joe Trippi, if he can only spend $5 million between now and September, if they hold his feet to the fire here, what kind of limitations does that put on him?

TRIPPI: It means that sooner or later he's going to be under house arrest because what happens -- it's the truth because what happens is once he spends anywhere near that cap, a $99 Southwest Airlines ticket breaks the cap. So he has to literally do press conferences from his front yard, the rest of the campaign through September. This is very, very serious.

And, frankly, one of the things, you know, the Edwards campaign that I was part of, we were in the public financing system. And it knowingly bust the cap is a criminal offense now.

ROBERTS: Yes. Well --

TRIPPI: So there are very strong penalties. This is going to be -- I mean, this is really a problem, and there is no FEC in existence right now, no quorum to even decide this. It is really serious.

ROBERTS: Right. As Jeffrey pointed out now, Joe, he only asked -- he only sent a letter to ask to get out from public financing on February the 6th, and we just said he spent $49 million. Was it bad management to spend that much money by that point knowing that perhaps he might have a problem or maybe he didn't know that he had a problem? Maybe he just thought that he'd be able to get out scot-free.

TRIPPI: But his first problem was he was coming from so far behind and a miraculous come back here, and they probably had to spend a lot of that money to get to where they are. But now, the problem is if that loan was collateralized by a promise of FEC money, of matching fund money, I don't know that the FEC is going to let him out of it. And like I said, I mean, that means you're going to see John McCain, you know, doing press conferences on his front yard.

ROBERTS: Yes. I just want to change gears a little bit here and look toward the general election. John McCain has been whacking Barack Obama pretty hard for what he says may be waffling here a little bit on this idea of taking public financing for the general election. Let's listen to what McCain said then we'll talk about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He is talking about other outside money, about working out -- look, that's -- that's Washington double speak. I committed to public financing. He committed to public financing. It is not any more complicated than that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: So he's saying --

(CROSSTALK) TOOBIN: It's a great deal more complicated than that.

ROBERTS: He's saying it's just Washington double speak because they both signed a pledge to take public financing and now Obama is saying, well, I'm not so sure.

TOOBIN: And McCain, too, is saying he doesn't want it. So, I mean --

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: And McCain is issuing public financing here now in the primary.

HOLMES: Right.

TOOBIN: Right. Exactly, yes.

HOMLES: He seems to be zigzagging on this issue, let's face it. But what's really catching him in it unlike Barack Obama is that bank loan that Joe is talking about. And here's my prediction, a pass (ph) of the lawyers are going to get him out of this, you know, complete disastrous situation. It may be that he can go back to that bank and renegotiate that loan so that it's not collateralized against potential FEC future funds. But again, as I say, I don't think two bureaucrats are going to decide the outcome of a presidential election.

ROBERTS: But, Jeff, take us back to this idea of public funding for the general election and what kind of a leg McCain has got to stand on considering that he's also issuing a caveat about whether or not he'll take general election funding, and the fact that he's opted out of primary funds.

TOOBIN: The public doesn't care much about where the money comes from. That's been the record. But the key point here is that Obama is going to have a lot more money if he's the nominee than McCain is. He's raised more. He's capable of raising more, and that's never happened for a Democratic nominee in the modern era.

ROBERTS: Oh, we'll see if the game changes or if it stays the same. Amy Holmes, Jeff Toobin and Joe Trippi, thanks very much for joining us tonight.

Whoever is elected president will confront a world full of problems. Our current president had a new one waiting when he got back from Africa. His response to raw fury in tonight's "Raw Politics."

And "LARRY KING LIVE" is talking politics, too. Randy Jackson stops by to talk about the "American Idol" candidates. And as we go in and out of the break, check out where the candidates stand on health care.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Flames in Belgrade in a classic board game have something in common tonight.

"Raw Politics" now and Tom Foreman has tonight's edition.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: President Bush is back from Africa, but he's landed right in the middle of an international fistfight. Bare knuckles and raw emotions lead off "Raw Politics."

The president must be exhausted from all that dancing, but his administration is complaining strongly to the Serbian government, that not enough was done to keep protesters from setting fires at the American embassy in Belgrade. The crowd was furious that the United States has recognized Kosovo's bid for independence. Bigger problems may loom, however. Russia is also upset saying Kosovo belongs to Serbia.

In Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, a questionable land deal has Republican Congressman Rick Renzi in a hole. Indicted for conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and more. He says he did not do it.

Guess who might do it? He's alive! Ralph Nader has been considering yet another third party presidential bid, expected to announce this weekend whether he will jump in. And Hasbro has a problem. The toy maker's new global edition of Monopoly includes Jerusalem. But when they listed that city's country as Israel, complaints rolled in like dice.

Palestinians and Israelis, of course, both lay claim to the old city so important to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Hasbro is citing another of its famous board games and says sorry. That's "Raw Politics."

ROBERTS: "Raw Politics" as only our Tom Foreman can tell it. "LARRY KING LIVE" coming up in just a few minutes time.

Larry is with us now. Who's with you tonight, Larry?

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": John, our political panel will be here tonight to debate the debate that took place last night in Austin. And "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson will stop by to tell us if the talent on this year's show is as big or as small or as Texas sized as before. Get the hook?

"LARRY KING LIVE" coming up at the top of the hour -- John.

ROBERTS: Looking forward to it, Larry. Thanks. See you at 9:00 Eastern tonight.

KING: Yes.

ROBERTS: When you think about the average voter, you probably don't think of young people. However, you'll be surprised. We're uncovering America to reveal a new generation of political junkies.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHRIS WELCH, CNN PRODUCER: I'm Chris Welch with the Obama campaign in Corpus Christi, where the Illinois senator is continuing his push in Texas a day after a debate that included more criticisms from Hillary Clinton. Last night, she again hit Obama for what she's called his preference for speeches over solutions. This doesn't appear to have fazed Obama, though. He had time to have a little fun with the issue.

After his first rally of the day, Obama stuck his head through the press room door, smiled, and just said, "Words matter. Don't listen to Hillary." But just to be on the safe side he added, "It was all a joke."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: On the state of Texas, the Democrats are dead even, less that two weeks from the presidential primary there. Just look at the latest poll out today. Clinton at 48 percent, Obama at 47 percent. Within the margin of error, too close to call.

Obama is counting on young voters to put him over the top, but history may not help him there. Ted Rowlands has tonight's edition of "Uncovering America."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Young people ages 18 to 29 make up one-fifth of eligible voters in Texas. They would be a large and important voting block if they voted, but they have a dismal record of not voting. In 2006, the state had the second lowest turnout in the nation among this age-group. But in this year's Democratic primary battle where every vote and every delegate counts, the candidates are counting on people like 18-year-old Brendan Chan.

BRENDAN CHAN, TEXAS VOTER: They're going to gear their messages toward us because they know that we're listening.

ROWLANDS: Chan, a freshman at the University of Texas in Austin, says the presidential race has turned him and his dorm buddies into political junkies. In part, he says, because the candidates are specifically targeting them and talking about issues important to young voters.

CHAN: Things like Social Security and economics. Those are important to us because it's our future.

ROWLANDS: Ben Torres is a 26-year-old music teacher who along with hundreds of other young people stood in line for hours to see Hillary Clinton at a campus rally in San Antonio.

CROWD: Hillary! Hillary!

BEN TORRES, TEXAS VOTER: Obama's inspirational, but Hillary has the substance that I'm looking for. And I believe in everything that she stands for. ROWLANDS: 28-year-old Heather Eichling works for a San Antonio nonprofit. She says she is so moved by Barack Obama, she donated money to his campaign.

EICHLING: The fact that like I've actually contributed -- I mean, I don't make a lot of money. And the fact that I've given to him I think says something.

ROWLANDS: Are these excited young voters just extreme examples, or will they actually buck the trend in Texas and turn out to vote?

ROWLANDS (on camera): Which has been happening already around the country, in states like Iowa and Georgia and in Tennessee, where they saw young voter turnout quadruple compared to the year 2000.

James Henson is an expert in state politics at the University of Texas. Are you optimistic they're going to show up?

JAMES HENSON, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS, AUSTIN: I think we're going to see an increase. I don't think we're going to see as big as an increase as we've seen in other places, but the campaigns are pulling in young folks.

ROWLANDS (voice-over): One way they're pulling them in is through the digital world that many of these young people grew up in, like first-time voter Allison Huerta.

ALLISON HUERTA, TEXAS VOTER: I've gone on their Facebook and MySpace to look at their positions on each issue. I mean, it's a big help.

ROWLANDS: If these young Texas voters change their ways and actually show up to vote, experts say it could change the race. Ted Rowlands, CNN, Austin, Texas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: And at the top of the hour, the king of politics, Larry, isn't talking just about the presidential race. "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson joins him to talk about the new crop of idol candidates.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Well, for the "Most News in the Morning" and the "Most Politics in the Morning," join Kiran Chetry and me for CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING" on Monday.

It's not even in the mail yet, but scam artists are already trying to get their greedy little hands on your tax rebate. Join us at 6:00 a.m. Eastern for a warning that every taxpayer needs to see. And stay with CNN for around the clock political coverage all weekend long, including "BALLOT BOWL" on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons. So you want to tune in for that.

With an all-important Texas and Ohio primary coming up on March 4th, and we'll run into that for all the candidates.

I'm John Roberts in the CNN ELECTION CENTER. That's all for tonight.

"LARRY KING LIVE" starts right now.

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