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updated 3/28/2011 12:26:27 PM ET 2011-03-28T16:26:27

Guest Host: Chuck Todd

Guests: Richard Engel, Evan Kohlmann, Tyler Mathisen, Chris Cillizza, Ali Suleiman Aujali, James Acton, Liz Sidoti, Ruben Navarrette, David Brooks

CHUCK TODD, GUEST HOST:  Who‘s in charge now?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chuck Todd in Washington, in tonight for Chris Matthews. 

Leading off: Now what?  There are so many unanswered questions now that NATO is preparing to take over the military campaign against Gadhafi in Libya.  How big of a role will the U.S. play now?  Are we still in charge?  And with war fatigue setting in and criticism coming from both sides of the aisle, when does the president fully explain what‘s at stake in Libya for the United States?  The White House is promising, perhaps, Monday or Tuesday of next week.

Plus, fear of spreading terrorism.  There were anti-government demonstrations today, and in some cases violence, in many Arab countries, including Yemen.  Thousands turned out, calling for the ouster of a U.S.  ally there, that president, Salah.  If the president is overthrown, who stops Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from taking over?

And there are increasing concerns of spreading radiation from the crippled power plant in Japan, with even more people now being encouraged to get out of the area, but not ordered.  How great is that danger?

Plus, a little politics.  With Hispanics now making up one of our every six Americans—and one out of every four children, by the way—how long can Republicans be seen as hostile to their interests?  The huge implications of the census report on the 2012 presidential election.

And finally, what‘s the more serious candidates to do?  How does anyone who actually believes they have a chance of winning the Republican nomination get heard if people like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, and yes, even the idea of Donald Trump end up sucking up all the oxygen?  We‘re going to start with that with David Brooks later.

But we start with what‘s next on the Libyan front.  NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is in Benghazi after a harrowing couple of days covering this war in Libya.  And Richard, what happened today on the ground that you‘ve seen?

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Today, we went out of Benghazi.  And instead of going to the rebel front line, about 100 miles south of here, we went to the rebel front line and then went around it, and we were able to get inside the city of Ajdabia.  Ajdabia is partially held by Gadhafi forces and partially held by the rebels themselves.

There is street-to-street fighting in the city.  And in a way, this is progress because the rebels would not have been able to get this far if Gadhafi‘s forces hadn‘t been significantly weakened by the Western air strikes.  There‘s new video today of a British air strike on Gadhafi‘s tanks just outside of Ajdabia.

So the Western and now NATO, or I guess U.S., offensive against Gadhafi‘s army is making an impact on the ground, but it is not very quick-moving.  The rebels are in the city, they are fighting, but street-to-street fighting takes a long time, Chuck.

TODD:  What‘s unclear now is who makes up the opposition?  Who is the leader of the opposition?  There‘s going to be some representative in London, I‘m told, over the weekend for this conference with NATO.  But there was also supposed to be some representatives of the opposition at an African Union meeting, where supposedly, Gadhafi was also going to send representatives.  What can you tell me about that?

ENGEL:  The rebel leaders we‘ve spoken to—and these are both on the political side and on the military side.  The military side aren‘t involved in any of these discussions.  There is a political leadership, and they‘re very wary of entering into any kind of dialogue or negotiations with Gadhafi.  They simply don‘t trust Gadhafi.  They think anything he‘s offering could be a trick, something that could used against them.  Gadhafi was even offering to send 2,000 people here to Benghazi as a peace offering, carrying, literally, olive branches.  And the people of Benghazi said, We don‘t even want them in the city, we don‘t want them near the city because who knows what they might do.

So there is an opposition.  They would much rather talk to NATO.  They‘d much rather talk directly to France, Europe, the United States and not to Gadhafi directly because they don‘t trust his motives.

TODD:  All right, I want to talk to you about two other countries where things heated up today.  One, Yemen, we‘ve been tracking for a while.  But I want to talk to you about Syria because a few days ago, when we hear about this—these protests in Syria, I had some people say, You know what?  This just—this is a—this is a regime that knows how to crack down in brutal ways.  This won‘t be a serious uprising.  And yet today, reports were this was a pretty serious uprising.

ENGEL:  People used to say the same thing about Egypt.  Oh, it could never happen because the Egyptian security forces are so good.  There are a lot of parallels between Egypt and Syria, and I‘ve always thought that Syria was conspicuously quiet in all of this.

Syria has a regime that is very similar to Egypt‘s, perhaps more tightly controlling, a one-family dynasty that the son isn‘t nearly as powerful or as charismatic or brutal as the father.  People don‘t feel that they have political rights and political freedoms.  They have an educated population.  They have an urbanized population.  And these are all the symptoms that have proven to be so explosive and successful in Arab revolutions—educated people, no expression, urbanized population, family dynasty going back decades.  And Syria has all of those characteristics, and there are indications that it will continue to spread in Syria.

TODD:  Explain the game.  I had somebody say to me, if Syria—as important as Egypt was in creating this potential for a domino effect, I had somebody argue to me that Syria would actually be a bigger deal than Egypt.  Explain what you think that person meant to me by that.

ENGEL:  Different dynamics.  Egypt is an enormous Arab country.  In many ways, it is the symbol, it is the capital of the Arab world.  The Arab League is there.  Everyone around the region watches Egyptian movies.  Everyone speaks or is familiar with the Egyptian dialect of Arabic.  So what happens in Egypt, so goes the rest of the region.

Syria is strategic for many reasons.  It is the channel for weapons into Lebanon for Hezbollah.  It is a bridge to Iran.  It is—it‘s traditionally been a stalwart enemy of Israel.  So the—the dynamic—I guess you could call it the Arab/Israeli dynamic, which is always an explosive one, is much more impacted by the events in Syria.  And it wouldn‘t—I would also watch the connections between Syria and Hezbollah and Syria and Hamas.  And there are many senior Hamas leaders who live in Syria.

TODD:  Right, live in Damascus, yes.

ENGEL:  And you could—it wouldn‘t be—it wouldn‘t be surprising to see an uprising or more activity from Hamas, more activity in Gaza or explosions in Israel itself to try and deflect some of the pressure off of the Syrian regime.  So it‘s strategic because of those kind of relations.  Egypt is strategic because it is just the homeland, the home address of the Arab world.

TODD:  All right, Richard Engel, our chief foreign correspondent in Benghazi.  I wish we could clone you sometimes.  I‘d like to have you in Damascus right now, as well—

(CROSSTALK)

ENGEL:  I‘d like to be there.  It‘s—I can‘t believe the region. 

I‘ve never seen it like this.

TODD:  Unbelievable.  And you‘re doing great work.  Thank you.

All right, White House press secretary Jay Carney announced today that President Obama will address the country on the status of the mission in Libya.  We‘re not sure how or when that will take place.  It may or may not be in primetime, more than likely probably Monday or Tuesday of next week.

But we‘re going to talk about the political implications and why he‘s doing that, so we‘re going to turn to our MSNBC political analyst and the Washingtonpost.com‘s Postpolitics managing editor and all-around guru, Chris Cillizza.  Chris—

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yes?

TODD:  -- the political problem that is facing this White House regarding Libya is something that seemed to catch them a little bit off guard.

CILLIZZA:  It did, which is kind of strange in that they know—it‘s

not as though they think Congress is particularly friendly to them.  They

know the Republicans seem (ph) to control Congress.  Now, the partisan

dealings of these sorts of foreign involvements are different than domestic

you know, economy, health care.  We kind of know where everyone‘s going to shake out there.

But there was this bipartisan resistance.  You had Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, you had Dick Lugar, a Republican from Indiana.  And I think it‘s both the bipartisan nature of the resistance in wanting a bigger explanation, as well as kind of the—I don‘t know what other word to use other than anger, though that‘s probably not the word that John Boehner would use, but that letter that he wrote to President Obama was—he was clearly miffed (INAUDIBLE) consulted enough, want more information.  You know, these are things that the president does not want to hear.

TODD:  Where did the White House miss the signals?  You and I were talking earlier.  Could it be when they saw John Kerry and John McCain—

TODD:  Right!

TODD:  -- on the same side of this, both calling for this no-fly zone, that they said to themselves, OK, we‘ve got Congress covered, we‘ve got to deal with this trip, frankly, we got to figure out how to get more Arab nations.  I mean, they had a lot of fires going on—

CILLIZZA:  I was just going to say—

TODD:  -- that they were trying to deal with, and they thought, Jeez, McCain and Kerry, there‘s our cover, Congress, box check.

CILLIZZA:  I was just—you stole my box check metaphor!  That‘s exactly it.  You know, look, a lot goes into this at any time, forget when you‘re about to leave for Latin America on a trip that‘s long been scheduled.  So yes, I‘m sure they did—I guess (INAUDIBLE) due diligence, but they certainly did some diligence in Congress, to your point with McCain and Kerry and said, What would you think of this?

The hard thing is, Congress is a tough beast to predict, and I think what happened—you were on the trip—I think things got a little bit away from them.  And it‘s very difficult for the president to control message when he‘s in a foreign country.  It‘s just very—it‘s hard—the perception is hard.  It‘s hard for him to give a big speech about another country when he‘s in Latin America.

So I think, to your point about a speech early next week—I‘ve heard the same thing—

TODD:  Right.

CILLIZZA:  -- Monday and Tuesday, the goal being, Wrap this up.  You know, it‘s the old, Good morning, good afternoon, good night—

TODD:  Right.

CILLIZZA:  -- you know, the three strikes rule.  Say why we got in, what we did, and why we‘re out.  That‘s the goal—

TODD:  And it‘s already worked.

CILLIZZA:  And the question is, will they be able to say it‘s already worked?

TODD:  Well, today the president briefed the relevant members of Congress, leadership, heads of the key committees, and we‘ll obviously find out in the next 48 hours how well that briefing went.

CILLIZZA:  Maybe 24 hours.

TODD:  But it is the first time the president has updated members. 

Now, Congress has been on recess.

CILLIZZA:  Yes.

TODD:  We do know that Gates and Clinton could go to the Hill and testify next week.  We assume we‘ll have this presidential remarks.  But I want to throw one other thing in here.  Have they underestimated war fatigue?

CILLIZZA:  Yes.

TODD:  You‘re poll, the ABC/”Washington Post” poll, boy, was just a stinging reminder about Afghanistan.

CILLIZZA:  Lowest numbers ever in our poll for Afghanistan last week.  You know, again, we were talking about this earlier.  I think a lot of what you see here is, in the post-Vietnam era, there is almost no patience for foreign involvement by the United States unless it‘s like Gulf war 1 -- it begins, you know, in late January, it ends in early February, we‘re done and we‘re out.  The Obama administration is hoping that they can do that with Libya.  The problem—and—

TODD:  Not even a week.

CILLIZZA:  -- Chuck, you know this better than I, though.  When you‘re in a foreign country, when you‘re entangled with a coalition of people, it is not so easy to say, We‘re out, we won, walk away.  Just ask George W.  Bush about “mission accomplished.”  I mean, we know how that turned out.

TODD:  All right.  Chris Cillizza, Postpolitics.com, “Washington Post,” every other title I will mention (INAUDIBLE) get it right.

CILLIZZA:  You got a whole show.

TODD:  Mr. Fick (ph).  Thanks very much.

Coming up: What do we know about Moammar Gadhafi?  Will he fight or flee?  And who are the rebels that the no-fly zone is essentially helping out?  Big questions.  We‘re going to get some answers from the former Libyan ambassador to the United States, who broke with the Gadhafi regime early on.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Well, the world is giving high marks to America‘s leaders.  Check this out.  According to a new Gallup poll, U.S. leaders are doing a better job than those in other world powers.  Forty-seven percent of people in more than 100 countries say they approved of the job performance of, quote, “American leaders,” versus 25 percent who disapproved.  Germany finished second, followed by France, Japan, the UK and China.  Russia was the only country on the list whose leaders were upside-down on approval, 27 percent versus 31 percent.  And a historical note, back in 2008, before President Obama took office, the United States was in sixth place.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  What do we really know about the rebels who are taking on Colonel Gadhafi?  In the past, rebels we‘ve supported one day have become our enemies the next.  Think Afghanistan.  One person who knows all about our new allies is Ali Suleiman Aujali, who recently resigned as the Libyan ambassador to the United States.  He is now supporting the opposition.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

ALI SULEIMAN AUJALI, RESIGNED AS LIBYAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: 

Thanks.

TODD:  So let me—let me ask you, who is the opposition?  Tell us who they are.  And should the United States, who has stopped short of recognizing them, recognize them as the official leadership of Libya?

AUJALI:  Well, the opposition, they are—they are (INAUDIBLE) Libyan who raised against the regime.  They are doctors.  They are professors  They are student.  They are lawyer.  They are normal people in Libya who‘ve been suffering for the last 42 years.  Then they are not al Qaeda, what the regime tried to describe them.

TODD:  Right.

AUJALI:  If there‘s al Qaeda, then the regime is responsible for them that they are in the country.  But the Libyan people, they raised against the regime peacefully.  Unfortunately, they‘ve been killed by the—by mercenaries.  Then, for example, the chair of the council, Mr. Abdul Jalil, he was a former justice minister.  He‘s very known in Libya.  He‘s a very capable man.  He‘s very decent man.  And Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, he‘s a professor.  He‘s working in—before, in the gulf area, in the gulf countries.

TODD:  Right.

AUJALI:  And he‘d been brought by son of Gadhafi to reform Libya and -

-

TODD:  Right.

AUJALI:  Yes.

TODD:  Let me ask you about Gadhafi.  You said in a previous interview you did not believe he would flee, that he would die on Libyan soil, that he didn‘t want to face the threat of the courts.  Is there no safe haven in the world he could flee to, in your mind?

AUJALI:  Well, I think it‘s not matter of the safe haven.  I think the problem—the problem of Gadhafi‘s mentality.  Gadhafi believe until now that the people likes him, the people—

TODD:  He really thought the people supported him?

AUJALI:  That‘s what he believed.

TODD:  He really believes it.

AUJALI:  Yes, that‘s what he believe.  He living in different world, I believe.

TODD:  Right.

AUJALI:  Then he touched—he lost the touch with reality.  Libyan people, they offer him a safe exit.  But until now, we don‘t see anything (INAUDIBLE).  I have heard, like many others—

TODD:  Right.

AUJALI:  -- that there is maybe a chance for him to negotiate, and President Sarkozy of France, he mentioned something that Britain and France they‘re working towards peaceful solution.  That‘s what we want.  Libyan people, they want to get rid of him because if he is there, there is nobody secure.  The problem is not the army, the problem is Gadhafi—

TODD:  Right.

AUJALI:  -- that if you want to save Libyan civilian, then Gadhafi must go.

TODD:  You believe if you cut off—in this case, if you cut off the head, if Gadhafi goes, all of his troops, either the ones that are Libyan join the—join the opposition—

AUJALI:  Of course.

TODD:  -- and the ones that aren‘t, they disappear.

AUJALI:  Of course.  As far as Gadhafi, there is danger there.  If Gadhafi is be removed, then we will be able to get together again and we will be able to—

TODD:  This is not about a regime, this is one person.

AUJALI:  One person.  One person, and the close alliance to him who used them killer to kill Libyan people inside Libya and outside Libya.  And not only Libyan people are victim, Western are victim, too.

TODD:  Right.

AUJALI:  You see the terrorist action in Germany—

TODD:  Right.

AUJALI:  -- and in Britain and many different places.

TODD:  I want to play you something that Secretary Clinton said last night about NATO, and I want to get your response to it.  Here‘s what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE:  In the days ahead, as NATO assumes command and control responsibilities, the welfare of those civilians will be of paramount concern.  This operation has already saved many lives, but the danger is far from over.  As long as the Gadhafi regime threatens its people and defies the United Nations, we must remain vigilant and focused.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  This operation specifically does not target Gadhafi.  Should it?

AUJALI:  Well, I think if this operation is target Gadhafi forces,

then the Libyan people know how to deal with Gadhafi.  The main threat to -

-

TODD:  You believe the Libyan people can handle Gadhafi.

AUJALI:  Of course.

TODD:  As long as they have the protective military cover.

AUJALI:  That‘s right, because the force is not equal.  Gadhafi has professional soldier.  He has the latest technology.

TODD:  Right.

AUJALI:  The people who are forced to fight him, they have the traditional weapons. 

And even the range of weapons is completely different.  How can they fight?  They need the help of the international community.  And this is a historical chance to get rid of this man.  This man, he has no place on the Earth as far as believe—we are concerned. 

And the Libyan people, they will not go back, they will not negotiate. 

There is no negotiation, only for safe exit for him, if he wants to go.  But, otherwise, if the world left—leave Gadhafi in power or leave him behind, believe me, the Western countries, they will suffer more than the Libyans -- 

TODD:  All right. 

AUJALI: -- because he‘s a man of revenge.  He will never forgive. 

TODD:  Ambassador Ali Suleiman Aujali, thanks for coming in.  And best to you and your family and the brave people that you represent. 

AUJALI:  Thank you very much.  Thank you.  I appreciate it. 

TODD:  All right, and now from Libyan to Yemen, where anti-government protests continue, despite President Ali Abdullah Saleh‘s announcing that he will step down if the government is left to what he calls trustful hands. 

So, what‘s next for that country and the threat that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses there? 

Evan Kohlmann is an NBC terrorist analyst.

Evan, I have got to ask you, if Saleh goes—

EVAN KOHLMANN, NBC NEWS TERRORISM ANALYST:  Yes. 

TODD: -- who replaces him?  And what does that mean for the U.S.  counterterrorism operations that take place in Yemen, frankly, every day? 

KOHLMANN:  Well, there is the very optimistic way of looking at this, which is that, well, eventually this might lead to pro-democracy movements and maybe a democratic government.  But I just think that is a naive way to look at things.

Right now, the major opposition is being led by a guy by named Ali al-Ahmar, who is known to be sympathetic to Islamist movements.  In fact, he‘s known to be associated with the people that formed the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, which was the precursor to al Qaeda in Yemen. 

And he‘s someone that I don‘t think we can necessarily count on in order to really be aggressive against AQAP.  The reality is, is, right now in Yemen, large parts of Yemen are out of the control of Yemeni security forces, including key areas the AQAP is inhabiting.

As far as we understand it, there may be actually areas where petroleum production has been entirely shut down.  So, I—right now, the picture is very negative, is very pessimistic.  And we have got to—you have got to wonder what‘s going to happen next there.  Who is going to follow Ali Abdullah Saleh? 

TODD:  But tell me—tell me this.  So, if the American government, who obviously has a relationship with Saleh—

KOHLMANN:  Yes. 

TODD: -- that is enough so that they feel as if they‘re—they‘re able to deal with the—the roughest parts of AQAP—

KOHLMANN:  Yes. 

TODD: -- if the U.S. government doesn‘t look like it‘s fully behind a reform movement—

KOHLMANN:  Right. 

TODD: -- doesn‘t that potentially radicalize AQAP even more and give them—give them new recruits among people that want Saleh to go? 

KOHLMANN:  Yes, I think that‘s an obvious point, the idea that, look, if the Yemeni people don‘t have a democratic outlet for their anti-government sentiments, that they might turn to al Qaeda. 

The problem, though, is Yemen is not Kansas, Yemen is not Texas, and it‘s not Egypt either.  Yemen is a very complicated country that is torn apart by a number of different, as you call it, fissures, everything from tribal fissures, religious fissures.  There is Shiite-Sunni rifts.  There‘s rifts between the tribes.

TODD:  Right. 

KOHLMANN:  There‘s rifts between the North and South Yemen.

It isn‘t as simple as democracy and autocracy.

TODD:  Right. 

KOHLMANN:  And I—I don‘t think that simply removing Ali Abdullah Saleh, you‘re going to simply immediately transition into a democratic government.  I think—as attractive as that sounds, I just think—

TODD:  Right. 

KOHLMANN: -- that‘s terribly naive. 

TODD:  All right, there is—there‘s reality and there‘s what the U.S. wishes it could have there.  So the reality is, it‘s going to be dealing with some disparate group of leaders in the coming months in Yemen.

KOHLMANN:  I think the—

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  I mean, that seems pretty obvious.

KOHLMANN:  Yes. 

TODD:  How do you do that?  How does it complicate this counterinsurgency?

KOHLMANN:  Well, look, I mean—

TODD:  This counterterrorism?

KOHLMANN:  Look, the U.S. is launching drone strikes in Yemen right now.  We‘re trying to pursue American operatives who are over there and other Western operators.  We know the AQAP right now is planning operations targeting the continental United States. 

If we have a regime that is less friendly, that is less cooperative,, well, look, I mean, this is exactly what happened back in 2000 after the Cole bombing.  And that‘s exactly why there‘s an al Qaeda network there today. 

I think we have to be very concerned about this.  There‘s been a lot of attention paid to Libya in the last few days.  I don‘t think nearly enough is being paid to Yemen. 

TODD:  All right.

Evan Kohlmann, NBC terrorism analyst, thanks for joining us today on

HARDBALL. 

KOHLMANN:  Thank you. 

TODD:  All right. 

Up next: the troubling news out of Japan, where that damaged reactor core may have been breached.  It could mean much larger amounts of radiation are already leaking out.  We‘re going to get the latest on that crisis when we return. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Let‘s go to another continent.  The radiation leak in Japan‘s crippled nuclear reactor could signal that the reactor core has been breached, although it‘s still unclear where the radiation is leaking from. 

Today‘s news is certainly another setback in efforts to get the nuclear plant under control.  Also today, the Japanese government said that people living up to 19 miles from the reactor site should consider a voluntary evacuation.  Earlier, they had suggested people in that zone just stay indoors. 

So, how bad is it? 

James Acton is the associate with the nuclear program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  And he joins us now. 

James, let me start with the evacuation notice.  It‘s still voluntary. 

Is the Japanese government making a mistake here by making it voluntary? 

Why say, you probably should go, but not make it mandatory? 

JAMES ACTON, ASSOCIATE, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: 

Chuck, I think what is important to understand about the position of the Japanese government is, is there‘s already 500,000 displaced people in Japan.  They have been hit by a massive earthquake.

TODD:  Right. 

ACTON:  They have been hit by a massive tsunami. 

And there are real costs to evacuating more people, costs to those people.  I mean, if you‘re an evacuee from that region, you‘re going to be going to a sport hall with inadequate sanitation—

TODD:  Right. 

ACTON: -- with inadequate food, with inadequate water. 

So the Japanese government, because it‘s been hit by this triple catastrophe—

TODD:  So, you‘re saying this would be mandatory if they had the room?

ACTON:  I‘m saying they absolutely have to factor in the fact—

TODD:  Right. 

ACTON: -- they have 500,000 people who are already displaced. 

And I don‘t know whether they have made exactly the right call.  I don‘t know whether the zone should be 20 miles, or 25 miles, or 15 miles. 

TODD:  Sure.

ACTON:  What I‘m saying is, the terrible state that Japan has been hit after this triple whammy has to feature in their calculations. 

TODD:  All right, this new radiation—

ACTON:  Mm-hmm. 

TODD: -- at this point—and we already know about the workers that -

that at this point are incredibly ill. 

ACTON:  Yes. 

TODD:  Does this mean all work stops again?  If this regulation leak has happened, there‘s nothing that could be done while they‘re trying to get this reactor back under control?

ACTON:  Well, based on the latest information that I have, the radiation levels on the site as a whole are not increasing right now., which is actually very good news. 

There is locally very high levels of radiations in the basement of the turbine hull of reactor three, which is—

TODD:  So, the one where they think it‘s leaking out of?

ACTON:  Yes. 

TODD:  OK.

ACTON:  Which is—which is—which is the place where the workers stumbled into this highly radioactive water. 

TODD:  Right. 

ACTON:  And I have also heard it reported, but I haven‘t had this confirmed yet—I simply don‘t know if this is right—that there is similarly highly radioactive water in the basement of the turbine hulls of units one and two. 

TODD:  OK.

ACTON:  Now, work in those areas is clearly going to be massively hampered, if not stopped entirely.

TODD:  Mm-hmm.

ACTON:  But if radiation levels on the site as a whole don‘t rise, then work across the site can presumably continue. 

TODD:  If you can‘t do any work in these three reactors, if this is—if what the information we‘re getting and—and work basically gets hampered or haltered or halted completely, what does that mean for the likelihood that you could—we could end up with a full meltdown? 

ACTON:  It‘s not entirely clear to me exactly whether the reason they were laying power lines into the basement of the turbine hulls was for crucial cooling systems.  You know, just details of the plant schematics that you would need to answer that question are not available at the moment. 

But I think it‘s fair to say they would not have been laying these cables if it wasn‘t—if they didn‘t consider it highly important to do so. 

TODD:  And at what point do we think they can get this under control if they can get back to work?  Are we still a couple—are we still—are we weeks away? 

ACTON:  Potentially.

TODD:  Are we months away? 

ACTON:  Potentially.  I mean, the answer is, you know, this was a news story that was dying over the last few days, but the almost unanimous consent of the expert community was, we weren‘t out of the woods yet.  These—this is still a volatile situation.  It‘s still a dangerous situation.  It‘s still a situation that could change on a day-by-day basis. 

There‘s no obvious time frame for ending this.  This is a crisis that could drag on for weeks longer.  It could be over in days.  It could drag on for weeks.  It could even go on for a month or two. 

TODD:  All right, James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, thanks very much. 

ACTON:  Thank you. 

TODD:  We look forward to, unfortunately, seeing you on our programs all over the place.  You have been very helpful.  Thanks very much. 

ACTON:  Thank you. 

TODD:  Up next: another feud for Sarah Palin.  Ready for this one? 

It‘s with Bill Maher.  That‘s ahead in the “Sideshow.” 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TYLER MATHISEN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  And good afternoon.  I‘m Tyler Mathisen with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks ending higher today, despite all the global concerns of mixed economic news here at home, the Dow Jones industrials up 50 points.  S&P 500 added 4, Nasdaq tacking on 6.5, a good day all around. 

The markets looked surprisingly resilient this week, with investors shrugging off jitters about Mideast unrest, European debt, and of course the nuclear crisis in Japan—volume, however, extremely light.  Next week could be a different story, as we get info on income and spending, home and auto sales, and jobs numbers for the month.  That‘s the biggie next Friday.

Today, we heard about a big drop in U.S. consumer sentiment.  It plunged 10 points in February on growing concerns about inflation.  Banks were mostly higher, despite some reservations about hefty dividends OKed by the Fed after the latest round of stress tests. 

And BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion shares continue to tumble big-time on a weak outlook and a couple of analyst downgrades. 

That‘s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now back to

HARDBALL. 

TODD:  Well, the news has been heavy, so let‘s do a little light stuff back here at HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.”

First up: Michele Bachmann deja vu.  Remember the congresswoman‘s much-talked about State of the Union response, the one where she seemed to be looking at the wrong camera the whole time?  Oh, did I just do that, too?

Well, yesterday, amid all the 2012 buzz, Bachmann hosted an hour-long town hall on Facebook.  The production value—well, let‘s just say it wasn‘t quite yet presidential campaign material. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN ®, MINNESOTA:  Thank you to all of our Facebook fans for participating today.  I apologize for the noise in the background.  This is live in Des Moines.  That waterfall noise that you‘re hearing in the background. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  I don‘t see a waterfall.  I saw a sneeze guard in the background. 

Anyway, waterfall noise (INAUDIBLE) a term for audio trouble.  We have not used that one before.  Maybe we will. 

Next up, here‘s a good one.  There she goes again.  Sarah Palin famously took on David Letterman over his joke about her teenage daughter.  Well, Palin‘s latest target, “Real Time” host Bill Maher.  He called her something we can‘t repeat on television.

Well, the governor hit back on Facebook yesterday—quote—“I have been inundated with requests to respond to petty comments made in the media in the past few days, including one little fella‘s comment which decent people would find degrading.  I won‘t bother responding to it, though, because it was made by he who reminds me of an annoying little mosquito found zipped up in your tent.  He can‘t do any arm, but buzzes around annoyingly, until it‘s time to give him the proverbial slap.”

Huh.  But she did respond to this annoying little mosquito.

Well, we‘re going to ask Maher to respond to that comment here on HARDBALL next Tuesday.  By the way, Bill Maher still has a show tonight.  That should be an interesting little new rule that he may come up with. 

Finally, the name game:  The White House has painstakingly avoided the word war to describe the situation in Libya.  On my other show, I call this WashSpeak. 

Just check out the dance from Deputy NSA Adviser Ben Rhodes when pressed on this point on war—quote—“I think what we are doing is enforcing a resolution that has a very clear set of goals, which is protecting the Libyan people, averting a humanitarian crisis, setting up a no-fly zone.  And, obviously, that involves kinetic military action, particularly on the front end.”

“Kinetic military action,” believe it or not, the term may be catching on, because what‘s the new hands-free Xbox?  It‘s Kinect.  “Kinetic military action”—all right.

Now time for the “Big Number.”

“The New York Times” just came out with its list of the most followed personalities on Twitter.  So, where does our president, leader of the free world, come in, Mr. Social Networking himself?  Only at number four.  Who is he behind?  Britney Spears, the Bieber, and, number one, Lady Gaga. 

President Obama, who does have his own poker face, the number-four most-followed Twitter account, tonight‘s not-so “Big Number.” 

I will take some more Twitter followers, too, @chucktodd.  I‘m just saying.

Up next:  New census data shows one in six Americans are of Hispanic descent.  That‘s a 32 percent increase from a decade ago.  Hispanic voters right now are tending to favor the Democrats.  So, how does this demographic shift change the political landscape in this country?  We‘re going to get into that.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords continues to make process as she recovers from being shot in the head.  Her colleague Shelley Berkley of Nevada visited her at her Houston hospital and says Giffords can conduct normal conversations, though she speaks just a bit slowly.  Giffords is hoping to watch her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, blast off on the second to last space shuttle mission next month.

This is HARDBALL.  We‘ll be right back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Well, we are back.

New census numbers show enormous growth in the U.S. Hispanic population in the last 10 years.  This is not shocking, but the numbers still are astonishing.  Hispanics are now 16.3 percent of the U.S.  population, more than 50 million Hispanics in total.  The population grew 43 percent since 2000.  There are 1 million or more Hispanics now in eight states.  And there are now 14 million in California alone.

The other seven states with a million or more Hispanics: Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and, of course, Arizona and Colorado—two potential truly spring states, including Florida, of course.

So, what does this mean for Republicans and Democrats?  And where will it matter most going into the 2012 elections?

Liz Sidoti covers politics for the “Associated Press” and Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with “The San Diego Union Tribune.”

And, Ruben, let me start with you.  You‘re in California, 14 million Hispanics.  You‘re the Republican Party today.  If you‘re Reince Priebus, he‘s the chairman of the Republican Party, you‘ve been watching these demographic numbers—I mentioned those eight states.  I didn‘t start talking about what‘s going on in the Deep South, which is a whole other story.

What do—how bad is—could this be for Republicans if they‘re continued to be seen negatively by Hispanics overall?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE, THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE:  Chuck, let me just note one thing, I‘m with “The Washington Post” writers group, and from perch there at “The Washington Post” writers group in Washington, I see this story playing out very significantly—bad news for the Republicans across the board in all the states you mentioned and in other states because they‘re perceived as being anti-Hispanic.

But while it‘s bad news, very bad news for Republicans, it also sort of bad news for Democrats because the support for Democrats and Barack Obama among Hispanics is like a mile wide and an inch deep.  They‘re very much disillusioned with this administration.  The big question is not whether you get defections to Republicans.  That‘s not going to happen.  But if they just shrug and stay home and not vote—that‘s bad news for the White House.

That‘s the real game, I think.  It‘s a way—that‘s why you see the president trying so hard to energize that base because he knows that he‘s very weak on that bench.

TODD:  All right.  But, Ruben, who is the leading Hispanic in the Obama White House?

NAVARRETTE:  The leading—let me think about that.

TODD:  I know.  I know.  I mean, that‘s the point.

NAVARRETTE:  That‘s one of the points—it‘s one of the points, Chuck.  It‘s also the fact that they keep going around the country bragging about how many they deport.  They fortified the border.  They‘re trying to out-enforce the Republicans.  It‘s just a bad look all the way around.

TODD:  All right.  Liz Sidoti, you know, one of the more fascinating statistics of the 2008 campaign is that if no Hispanics had voted in the state of North Carolina, John McCain would have carried North Carolina.  Because of the Hispanic vote, it is why Obama carried North Carolina.  That is one of the eight states we just talked about.

This—there is a new South, if you will, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia.  We think with the South, the Deep South, we think Florida and Texas.  This is a big story enough.

LIZ SIDOTI, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS:  Yes, I‘ve got to tell you.  This is a real problem for Republicans.  But let‘s look backwards a little bit.  In 2000, you know, George Bush really made inroads with Hispanics and didn‘t win—

TODD:  Out of necessity.

SIDOTI:  Right, correct.

TODD:  And also comfort.

SIDOTI:  Correct.

TODD:  As governor of—a basically majority—almost a majority of Hispanics—

SIDOTI:  Of course.  But didn‘t win Hispanics, but made enough inroads that he was able to win because of support among Hispanics.  So, the opposite was true, then.  But since then, Republicans have all but ceded Hispanics to Democrats.  There really isn‘t a huge effort out there on the Republican side to win what obviously is going to be the—not just the largest minority group now, but it‘s growing and growing and growing and growing.  They‘re political players, they‘re power houses.

The Republicans have to figure out a way to bring some of them into their fold.  Whether that means, you know, putting a Marco Rubio or putting a Brian Sandoval, or putting a Susana Martinez on the ticket in 2012.  I mean, those are real possibilities.  They‘ve got to do something to stop this trend.

TODD:  Ruben, if you‘re Mitt Romney and you‘re the eventual Republican nominee and you don‘t put one of those three Republicans on the ticket—aren‘t you almost guaranteeing that you‘ve made your path to 270 so narrow that you have no margin for error?

           

NAVARRETTE:  Yes, I think that‘s absolutely right.  And, you know, think of it another way.  In order for a Republican to do well with Hispanics, they‘ve got to get 35 percent of the Hispanic vote or north of that.

Bush in 2000, got 35 percent.  Four years later, he blew the doors up the place at 44 percent.  But if Mitt Romney or whoever the nominee is, if they don‘t get at least 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, it‘s sort of game over.  They‘ve got—they‘ve got to have a nice, decent showing in there.

The way to do that if I were talking to Mitt Romney is you can have a

nice, strong support of borders and security and immigration policy, and

all that.  Law and order‘s a good thing, that‘s great.  But just really

take out that anti-Hispanic component, that nativism component that‘s so

incredibly repellant that it has turned off even conservative Republicans -

even Hispanic Republicans can‘t get excited about the Republican Party these days.

           

TODD:  You know, Ruben brought up a good point, though, about the Obama administration.  We‘ve been talking about this as Republicans.  But they have struggled reaching out to Hispanics in a way that there is—

I‘ve had some Hispanic Democrats say to me, I don‘t even know who I‘m supposed to pick up the phone to.  Nobody contacts me, you know?  They‘re not—and as he brought up, they‘re not going to go to the Republicans.  They might just not go out and knock any doors.

SIDOTI:  Look, this is a—this is a fickle group.  And it‘s changing.  And so, I think nobody really knows exactly how to harness the Hispanic vote, court them, reject them, and keep them in their fold.  I mean, what Hispanics have proven is that they‘re fickle.  And their opinions are changing.

I don‘t think you can any more say that all Hispanics feel this way or stereotype and such given the explicit growth of their children.  You know, first generation Hispanics, who have grown up and were born and raised here, different opinions.

TODD:  No, that‘s very important—

(CROSSTALK)

NAVARRETTE:  They‘re not just fickle.  It‘s also a question about really steep learning curve with regard with the parties, Chuck.

TODD:  Right.

NAVARRETTE:  The fact is neither one of these parties knows how to reach out to Hispanics.  There are people who know how to do it, but they‘re not being included in the mix.

TODD:  No.  Liz Sidoti of the “Associated Press,” Ruben Navarrette, “Washington Post” writers group and “San Diego Union-Tribune” I will get both plugs in there—thank you both on this.  It‘s a topic I think we‘re going to be talking about a lot.

SIDOTI:  Thank you.

TODD:  All right.  Coming up: Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, what if they suck up all the oxygen to the point where the other Republican presidential contenders, you know, the guys like Pawlenty and Romney, can‘t even break through?  “The New York Times” columnist David Brooks will be here with us to talk about that.  His perspective will be fascinating.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  We are back.

The Republican presidential field for 2012 is slowly taking shape.  Several of them are going to be in Iowa tomorrow for another one of these cattle calls.  The state senior Republican Chuck Grassley said this, said, there‘s “only two or three of them that are qualified to be president.”  They got a heck of a lot more to run.

And is it bad for Republicans that people like Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are going to suck up all the oxygen out of the room?

“New York Times” columnist David Brooks—he is the author of the new book called, “The Social Animal.”

And I tell you, David, when you saw the one—you know, “The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement,” we easily threw that in a presidential primary in trying to figure out some of the mind games that some of these candidates are playing.

But let‘s start with that—Bachmann, Trump, Palin.  They‘re the cable catnip.  They‘re the media‘s catnip.  What do you do if you‘re Romney and Pawlenty when you‘re dealing with that?

DAVID BROOKS, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  Just try to stay ahead of that circus.  Yes, and I think it will be easy, actually, you know?  You‘ve got to distinguish between the conservative media industry and the people who are actually running for office.  And there‘s been very little evidence, I think, in past elections that one has really affected the other.  So, for example, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin and a lot of the conservative radio jocks spent two years attacking John McCain.

TODD:  Right.

BROOKS:  And yet, John McCain still won the South Carolina Republican primary, the Florida Republican primary.  One Republican consultant once told me, Rush Limbaugh can‘t deliver a pizza.

TODD:  Right.

BROOKS:  And so, people like listening to Rush, they like listening to that stuff.  But it doesn‘t really affect how they vote.  They want somebody who they can plausibly see as president.

TODD:  But it does seem this is progressively getting more and more of a powerful voice.  And then this idea that you can run for president as a money-making venture sort of takes the whole Andy Warhol aspect of this.  Everybody gets their 15 minutes where John Bolton is thinking about running for president, right?  And he‘s—is he thinking about running for president or is he thinking about getting a better TV contract or a better book deal?  Mike Huckabee became a multimillionaire after running for president.

BROOKS:  Yes.  We‘ve got to start punishing people who run for no reason.  I don‘t know how we can do that.  We can exile them to some desert island for a year.

But yes, that‘s the thing—it‘s like a no loss situation.  Some people, their reputation gets hurt, but, you know, maybe Alan Keyes.  But he was on the self-destruction express anyway.

But for most people, it‘s good for business.  And somehow, people who organized the debates and maybe those of us in the media have got to just pay a lot more attention to people who are plausible.  And I agree with Grassley.  I really think it‘s down to two, three—maybe three and a half.

TODD:  Well, when you say that, the three and a half, I assume the half means it‘s Mitch Daniels who you‘ve been wanting to see get in.  I know you‘ve written about that.  But he‘s showing no evidence that he‘s going to run.

BROOKS:  Yes, and my heart still beats, you know?  And I think, for the Republicans, he‘s a good—he‘s not the most sexy guy in the world, but he‘s a good manager.  I‘m insanely impressed by the fact that he took the Department of Motor Vehicles wait times down from about an hour to seven minutes.  I think the country would like a leader who could do that sort of thing.

Actually, my half is for Haley Barbour.

TODD:  You don‘t believe he runs?

BROOKS:  I think he runs, I just not sure he‘s going to be plausible for people—you know, my joke, it‘s a little unfair, is that he‘s the kind of guy Michael Moore would cast as the Republican nominee.  And so, I think—he‘s been a very good governor.  But for background reasons, I‘m not sure he‘s really a plausible nominee, despite his personal talents.

TODD:  It‘s funny you said.  I have visions of Phil Gramm in my head, right?  All the operation in the world, all of the smart people, the smart money, and yet, when the stump speech, I feel a person of the third and the seventh grade—it didn‘t quite work.

Let‘s go to your book “The Social Animal” because we‘re now seeing a lot of—and you‘ve done a lot of writing about sort of how the brain works and how it makes us do certain things or make choices.  So, apply it to politics, apply to ideology.

BROOKS:  Yes.  So, all our choices—whether we fall in love or select a candidate.  Some of it is conscious and some of it is unconscious.  And, so, for example, some research at Princeton, they gave people a one-second look at candidates in races far from where they live.  And they said, you‘re looking at these people for one second, who do you think is more competent?  And those people could predict with 70 percent accuracy who is going to win that election.  So, we make these snap judgments about people—

TODD:  But did they pick competent people?  Did they actually pick competent people?

BROOKS:  Yes.  And this is the thing—Americans aren‘t really knowledgeable about a lot of facts.  Often in government, they think foreign aid takes up 25 percent of the budget.

TODD:  Right.

BROOKS:  But what do we do every day?  We check out the competence of the dentist, of the plumber, of the teacher.  We‘re actually reasonably good at looking at people and making evaluations.  Is this person like me?  Do I trust this?

And those evaluations are mostly unconscious—just a feeling of how I feel good.  And what the scientists are now doing is looking and figuring out how does all that happen and the book is really an explication of all that.

TODD:  And applying it a little bit more to the presidential primary season, let me ask you this: do you think it‘s better—even though we make these short judgments—is it better if the season is short or long, as far as trying to decide who the Republican nominee is this time?

BROOKS:  It‘s better if it‘s long I think for all of us.  We make very quick judgments, but one of the ways we educate our emotional reactions toward people is overtime.  And so, people who have studied something.

There are soldiers in Iraq—they can look down a street after having served there for a year and they can tell whether there‘s a land mine on the street.  They don‘t know how they can tell, they just feel a coldness inside.  And that sort of unconscious expertise doesn‘t happen overnight.  It happens over the long haul.

And so, I think the more we get to look at a candidate over a whole, long series of primaries, the more we sort of educate ourselves both consciously and unconsciously about who they are.

TODD:  All right, the book, David Brooks, it‘s “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement”—I know you‘re on a book tour now.  I‘m sure that means not enough sleep and a lot of talking.  David, thanks for coming on HARDBALL.

BROOKS:  Hey, thank you.

TODD:  You got it.

Well, that‘s HARDBALL for now.  Thanks for being with us.

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur, coming up.

           

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