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updated 3/29/2011 12:41:08 PM ET 2011-03-29T16:41:08

Guest Host: Chuck Todd

Guests: Charlie Cook, Eugene Robinson, Richard Engel, Pat Buchanan, Shibley Telhami, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Jonathan Martin, Jeff Zeleny

CHUCK TODD, GUEST HOST:  Making the case.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chuck Todd, in today for Chris Matthews, who‘s on assignment in Israel.  Leading off tonight: Why we fight.  The White House is calling it a policy speech, not an action speech, which typically comes from the Oval Office.  Whatever you call it, President Obama will get yet another opportunity to explain to the nation why we‘re in Libya, what the end game is, and how the U.S. found itself fighting in a country that even the defense secretary says is not a vital United States interest.  We‘ll break down the challenge President Obama faces tonight.

Plus, there‘s a lot at stake in Libya—for President Obama, that is.  Is it possible that, politically, failure in Libya hurts a lot more for the president than victory would help him?

Also, just when Republicans thought it was safe to get back to talking about smaller government, this weekend‘s Conservative Principles Conference in Iowa has some Republicans worried that the state is becoming a social conservative outpost and the wrong place to vet candidates for 2012.  And once again, it was people with very little chance of ever being nominated, like Michele Bachmann, who had all the applause lines.

And newly elected governors, mostly Republicans, gave the voters what they asked for, spending cuts, and hoped that they‘d see their poll numbers move.  Well, they‘re moved, all right, downhill.

And then finally, HBO‘s Bill Maher will be here on HARDBALL tomorrow night.  So tonight, bring you his idea of what the perfect presidential primary candidate will look like.  It‘s in the “Sideshow.”

But we start with the war in Libya.  NBC chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, is in Benghazi tonight, and he‘s been following all the developments.  Richard, the opposition has had a pretty good set of 48 hours.  That‘s been clear just watching your reporting, the progress that they made.  What is the latest?  Where are they—how successful have they been at pushing Gadhafi‘s troops back?

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  They‘ve been very successful the last 48 hours because they didn‘t have to push Gadhafi‘s forces anywhere.  They had already been pushed out of the way, defeated or forced to defect and retreat by Western air strikes.  Now they are on the outskirts of Sirte, and they are having to fight.  They are having to fight to take territory.  And this will be a real challenge not only of the rebels‘ strength but also of the resolve of the United States and other Western powers to push this war forward.

It has been up until now a defensive war, to give the rebels some sort of cover.  If the air strikes continue and pound Sirte, then the tide will be clearly different and changing, and it will be allowing the rebels to make their advance to Tripoli.  So Sirte is in many ways a crossroads in this conflict.

TODD:  Richard, one thing we can‘t get out of the White House in questions that we‘ve been asking, and yet it‘s a topic that I know you‘ve been asking questions about and you hear from the opposition, is this idea of arming the opposition, right?  The White House is not wanting to get near that topic.  We don‘t expect President Obama to address it tonight.  How badly does the opposition need arms?

ENGEL:  Well, aren‘t we really arming the opposition already?  We‘re flying aircraft over the sky.  We‘re firing Tomahawk missiles in the rebels‘ defense, helping them make an advance.  One could argue that we have already provided them with $100 million-plus in arms.  Small arms, giving them AK-47s?  There are plenty of AK-47s here.

What they need is helicopters.  That would be a different kind of military support.  That would be close air support, probably necessitate some troops on the ground, some advisers.  They also need anti-tank weapons.  And that would be, again, a political decision because you can‘t just give people sophisticated anti-tank systems.  You have to figure out who‘s going to get them, who ends—could they fall into the wrong hands, how do you use them?  That could go back to having troops on the ground.

So I think the U.S. has been happy to arm them from afar...

TODD:  Right.

ENGEL:  ... but actually showing up and handing them sophisticated weapons would be very different.  And Chuck—and I know you cover this so intimately—when you‘re here in Benghazi, all this political debate in the United States about why is the United States at war...

TODD:  Right.

ENGEL:  ... what‘s the end game?  That is very clear when you‘re here.  This is a city of about 700,000 to a million.  People think this city would have been devastated had the war not started.

TODD:  What is it that the opposition not only wants to hear from President Obama tonight in a few hours, but what is it that they want out of this conference that some representatives of the opposition are going to in London the next day?  What promises are they hoping to get out of NATO and out of the president tonight?  And take a minute to clear.

ENGEL:  Excuse me one second.  Let me just (INAUDIBLE) water.

TODD:  That‘s fine.  I mean, I can tell you quickly what we heard from the White House today is they‘re not making any—they‘re not making any major promises when it comes to exactly who the opposition is, who is it that they‘re supporting.  They clearly want Gadhafi out, but there seems to be this uncertainty around who is it that represents the opposition.  So who‘s representing them at NATO?  And is the United States ready to back them?

ENGEL:  Well, right now—and excuse my throat.  It‘s still (INAUDIBLE) a little bit.  I think I‘ve got a bit of a cold here.  We haven‘t been getting a lot of sleep.  But anyway...

TODD:  No.

ENGEL:  There is no real, clear leadership of the opposition.  They have these technical committees, mostly, that are—there‘s a committee in charge of telecommunications.  There‘s a committee in charge of finance, trying to keep this city running.  The political leadership doesn‘t have a single ideological leader, and that‘s been one of the real weaknesses that the opposition has been facing.  They don‘t have a public face.  They don‘t have a clear goal beyond removing Gadhafi.

TODD:  And what is it exactly they want from the president tonight?  That was the second part of the question, because they‘re very much aware that the president is speaking to the nation tonight, from—I noticed—gathered from your reporting earlier today.

ENGEL:  Well, you remember—and I think I‘ve got my—getting my voice back—excuse me.  You remember when Cheney (SIC) was out there singing off-mike “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”—I think they would like to hear President Obama saying, Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Tripoli.  That is what they want.  They want a military message.  They want a very strong message of military support.  They want it to be unwavering, and they want the air strikes to continue so that they can push their advance to Tripoli.  Outside of that, I don‘t think the rebels are too concerned.

TODD:  All right.  Richard Engel in Benghazi for us on the ground.  And you do need to get some sleep, or at least try, but not for another three hours because I think we have you on quite a bit over the next few hours.  Thank you, Richard.

All right, well, President Obama presents his case to the American public later tonight.  Yesterday, Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Clinton made their case.  Here‘s Gates on what the U.S. interest is in Libya.  Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY:  No, I don‘t think it‘s a vital interest for the United States, but we clearly have interest there, and it‘s a part of a region which is of vital interest for the United States.

DAVID GREGORY, HOST, “MEET THE PRESS”:  I think a lot of people would hear that and say, Well, that‘s quite striking, not in our vital interest, and yet we‘re committing military resources to it.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Then it wouldn‘t be fair as to what Bob just said.  I mean, did Libya attack us?  No, they did not attack us.  But what they were doing and Gadhafi‘s history and the potential for the disruption and instability was very much in our interest, as Bob said, and seen by our European friends and our Arab partners as very vital to their interests.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Well, there it is.  There‘s the challenge in a nutshell for President Obama.  Shibley Telhami was an adviser to former congressman Lee Hamilton, and he‘s also served on the Iraq Study Group.  He‘s now a professor at the University of Maryland.  Professor, let me start with that.  To some ears, it was a complete—it was almost a contradiction.  But it was certainly two almost contradictory characterizations of what America‘s interest is in Libya.  What did you hear from that exchange between Secretaries Gates and Clinton?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, FMR. ADVISER, U.S. MISSION TO THE U.N.:  Well, you know, Gates is clearly a realist, and he‘s always been.  This is not new.  And that‘s how he‘s been able to serve two presidents well, both Bush and Obama.  But you know, the notion of what is vital interest is something that one can debate.

But if you had asked me—and I come out of a realist background myself.  If you had asked me six months ago, Do we have an interest to intervene in Libya, I would have said, Probably not.  And I would have to scratch my head to see whether we did or not.

But things have changed dramatically over the past few weeks.  Libya is not just about Libya.  We see all these revolutions are connected.  We see that public empowerment in the region is connected.  We see that the message that is sent in Libya is heard in Damascus and heard in Yemen.  So there is a very important American interest in the revolutions, and particularly in seeing that peaceful revolutions that are seeking primarily freedom and dignity succeed because that is the best antidote to militant extremists.  We have an investment, we have an interest in making sure that that succeeds.

TODD:  Well, look, the White House today, though, Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, wanted to say Libya is a special case, this isn‘t—it‘s not a precedent.  You know, it‘s not—we‘re not setting a precedent here to intervene in Syria or intervene in Yemen or intervene in Bahrain.  It was mostly Syria, was the conversation in the White House press briefing room today.

And yet you are making the case that all of this is connected, and they seem hesitant to do that publicly.  Do you think that‘s just pure domestic politics, not wanting to back themselves into a corner when it comes to military intervention?

TELHAMI:  No, the issues are connected, but the intervention in Libya is in some ways a special case.  And Let me tell you why.  I mean, I think, first of all, nobody would have doubted that Gadhafi was capable of the worst possible atrocities had he taken over Benghazi.  He‘s been saying as much.  No leader calls their people “rats.”  No leader says, I‘m going to purify my country house by house, individual to individual.  No one would have been surprised if something horrible happened in Benghazi.

We don‘t hear that in any of the—a ceiling has to be set.  This is truly exceptional.  He‘s an exceptional man.  The scale is different.  You have to set a ceiling somewhere.  Yes, you can‘t intervene in every place, but a ceiling has to be set.

And the second way in which this is exceptional, in the sense that—

this is unique in the sense that you have Arab support almost universally -

opposition to Gadhafi, at least, if not support for the U.S. to intervene.

TODD:  Right.

TELHAMI:  The opposition to Gadhafi is unprecedented in the history of the Arab world not just among governments but also among the publics who are seeking to overthrow these governments in the Arab world.  This is really unusual.  And in that sense, it makes it easier for the U.S. because had...

TODD:  Right.

TELHAMI:  ... if Gadhafi stays in power, he‘s going to remain isolated anyway.  If the public in the Arab world was on his side...

TODD:  Right.

TELHAMI:  ... and he stays in power, we lose.  In this case, he has no win.  He has no win even if he stays in power, he‘s a loser because everyone else is against him.

TODD:  All right, but you talked about the potential possibility that he could end up staying in power, though isolated, which brings us to the quote, “exit strategy” from where we‘re going.  I want to play a sound bite from earlier today from General Michael Hayden—he‘s a former CIA director—and what happens after Gadhafi leaves, if he leaves.  Here‘s what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, FMR. DIR., NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY:  Let‘s assume that he leaves, and I think that‘s the only way to get to phase 2, is if he leaves.  Now phase 2 is a very difficult part.  How do you take a society that, frankly, has had four decades of the destruction of all elements of civil society and try to construct a meaningful government out of that?  We take an operational and an ethical responsibility for the final outcome here that wasn‘t ours two weeks ago.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Professor, who builds this nation?  That seems to be what he‘s asking.

TELHAMI:  And also let me just add one thing.  I think—let‘s be honest, most of us don‘t know exactly what‘s going on in Libya internally.  We don‘t know much about its society.  We don‘t know much about its politics.  This has been one of the most isolated places.

TODD:  Right.

TELHAMI:  And when it came out, the story that was coming out was mostly of the ruling elite.  So yes, there are a lot of unknowns.  But you see, you have to think about it in terms of the opposite.  What would have happened had we not intervened?  Aside from the moral issue, what may have happened in Benghazi and the message that would have been sent to demonstrators in Yemen who are braving the bullets and remaining peaceful despite the bullets?

What would have happened in Libya?  Well, he may have been able to level much of Benghazi.  But what‘s going to happen to the millions who are empowered by this information revolution who tried it peacefully?  They‘re going to go militant.  We‘re going to face a civil war, maybe a prolonged civil war.  We would have had al Qaeda finding opportunities there.

TODD:  Right.

TELHAMI:  He may have had incentives—he certainly would have expected to be isolated by the international community.  And he would have tried to meddle in places next door...

TODD:  All right...

TELHAMI:  ... in Tunisia, where he actually thought Ben Ali should have stayed for life.  So the issue is not just about—there is no good option.  No one...

TODD:  Right.

TELHAMI:  War is not a good option.  This is not a good option.

TODD:  Right.

TELHAMI:  The question is, would the alternative have been better?  I think not.

TODD:  All right, Shibley Telhami from the University of Maryland, former adviser to Congressman Lee Hamilton, member of the Iraq Study Group, thanks for sharing your expertise with us on HARDBALL tonight.

All right, coming up: Libya and 2012.  Does failure in Libya hurt President Obama a lot more than any success can help him?  We‘re going to get into the political stakes for the president for tonight and beyond.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Well, Another setback in an effort to contain the nuclear crisis in Japan.  Officials say highly contaminated water is leaking from the damaged reactors an could soon reach the ocean.  In addition, power company officials say low levels of plutonium have been detected in the soil outside the plant.  Big mess over there in Japan.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The president is set to speak to the country tonight about the mission in Libya in a little more than two hours.  His decision to intervene there has created a whole new set of political risks as he starts to gear up for 2012.  Would failure in Libya cost him more politically than victory would help him?

Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of “The Nation” magazine and Pat Buchanan is an MSNBC political analyst.  Katrina, let me start with you.  What do you need to hear from the president tonight about Libya that you have not heard from him over the last two weeks?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, “THE NATION”:  A plausible exit strategy.  I mean, I think going to the Security Council, to the United Nations and getting a mandate to protect civilians was a worthy step.  But we are now in many ways engaged in a civil war.  And if this is going to be a protracted, long civil war intervention, I think it is going to be very costly to this country, to the president and to America‘s role in the region.  So I think the president needs to lay out very clearly moving forward what our priorities are.

And I believe that in America, which now may be involved in two quagmires, one in Afghanistan, one in Libya, needs to find a way out because we are a country that needs nation-building at home and a way out of what the president has said is a time-limited action.

TODD:  Right.  Well, Pat, I want to put up some interesting poll numbers here about where the public is on these interventions.  And you know, the conventional wisdom is the public‘s always most supportive at the beginning.  Well, OK, that was true early on after the first Iraq war.  But if you look at this—and it was true right after 9/11.  But this one, only 47 percent approve in the Gallup poll.  That‘s still more than 37 disapproved of this action.

And when you break down the numbers, Pat, it goes to what Katrina just said about nation-building at home.  Democrats approved of it, a majority of them.  A majority of Republicans approved of this.  But it was independents in the middle who a plurality disapproved of this.

You think this has to do with the bad economy, that it doesn‘t help making people thin, What are we doing in Libya when we‘ve got problems here at home?

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I think what it is, is—it‘s

we‘ve had these two interventions, Afghanistan and Iraq, and they were enormously popular at the beginning.  Both Bushes were up around 90 percent.  And then it faded.  But what we got here, Chuck, is—the country didn‘t want to go into Libya.  This is Obama‘s war now, and Obama has to win it.

He can‘t walk away from this with Gadhafi still in power, or he‘s risking another Lockerbie.  And he will be excoriated, quite frankly and crucified if he does. 

I think, if he wins this war, I think his polls go up.  But he has got a hellish problem, as Katrina pointed out.  You—these rebels didn‘t win this war.  The Americans are winning the thing for it.  They can‘t run the country.  So, who comes in?  The Turks can‘t come in, because the Ottoman Turks were in there for centuries. 

You can‘t have the Italians, who ran the place under Mussolini for 20 years.  Americans can‘t do it. 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  Yes. 

BUCHANAN:  You‘re going to have British and French. 

We have got a terrible problem on our hands, because you‘re going to need people in there to run that place, Chuck, after, quite frankly, we win that war.  And there is no substitute for victory now. 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  But, you know, the U.S. cannot occupy...

TODD:  Go ahead, Katrina.

VANDEN HEUVEL:  The United States cannot occupy Libya.  I mean, you could have...

TODD:  So, who does? 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  Well, you could have the Arab...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  No, I mean, nobody‘s arguing that. 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  Yes. 

TODD:  I mean, yes, who would do this? 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  Yes.  But you could U.S.—U.N.—I‘m sorry—you could have British, French, Arab League. 

But here‘s—here‘s what Obama could say.  He has the opportunity to find a way out of Libya and to seize the Arab democratic awakening, to realign this country‘s foreign policy, which has been based on autocracies and repressive military apparatuses in the Middle East, and lay out of a new path forward for this region that will be more secure, because our support for those autocratic regimes has bred terrorism. 

And he could say, we need to find a way, at a time of massive budget deficits and bloated Pentagon budgets, find a way to realign our politics and foreign policy based on diplomatic, political...

TODD:  Right. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  But...

VANDEN HEUVEL:  ... and economic issues, which will be central to the rebirth of this region. 

BUCHANAN:  But, you know, Katrina, look, Bush I—or Bush II tried that.  He tried elections in Egypt and elections in Lebanon...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  ... democracy, yes.

BUCHANAN:  ... and elections on the West Bank. 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  I‘m not...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  And we got Hamas and Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood.  You really want elections in Saudi Arabia?  You really want them in Bahrain? 

behind I believe in the power of democracy from below, not through the

not through bullets, and not the way George W. brought it to Iraq. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  But Obama is the president of the United States.  He‘s running a country with interests, some of them are grave and serious in the Persian Gulf especially. 

TODD:  OK.

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEN HEUVEL:  But, Pat, our presence there has bred more instability and, I would argue, has bred more terrorism. 

BUCHANAN:  All right. 

TODD:  All right.  Let me...

VANDEN HEUVEL:  We have the ability to realign our positions with those who are more representative of the region, Pat. 

TODD:  All right, but the—I mean, the—let me—let me go back to the fundamental question that Pat brought up...

BUCHANAN:  Sure.

TODD:  ... Katrina, and that is, can the president ever define success in Libya that somehow leaves Gadhafi in power?  I mean, at this point, is the U.S. forced, is the Obama administration forced to stick with this until they have driven Gadhafi from power? 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  I think there are possibilities of mediation, of finding ways, I think, to find a way of exile for Gadhafi, this brutal dictator. 

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEN HEUVEL:  And I would define success, again, as a new role for America in a world in which it has been the ally of the most autocratic governments. 

But I think President Obama tonight will lay out a strategy.  And it has to be an endgame, because this country has no stomach for more foreign occupations, quagmires, and the cost of that, both in terms of our treasure of men and women and our treasury. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  All right, Chuck, Chuck...

TODD:  And, Pat, I know—I know that you‘re a...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  ... what I would say is a principled isolationist in some cases, if I may throw that tag on you...

BUCHANAN:  Right. 

TODD:  ... when it comes to foreign interventions.  But let me ask you this.  If British—if the Brits and the French are asking us to do this, which essentially is what has happened...

BUCHANAN:  Right. 

TODD:  ... but the U.S. has the military...

BUCHANAN:  Right. 

TODD:  I mean, could the U.S. have ever said no to the British and French in doing this? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, I think what we should have done, quite frankly, we could have stopped Gadhafi‘s army from reaching Benghazi and bring in the Egyptian army.  We have given them $60 billion.  It would take 10,000 of their 450,000 troops...

TODD:  Well, they‘re building their own country.

BUCHANAN:  Oh, for heaven‘s sakes.  If that army can‘t do anything, 450,000 troops, what good is it?

VANDEN HEUVEL:  So, you...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  We ought to get in—let me just say this.  I‘m against these interventions.  I think it was a mistake.  I think we could have handled it differently.

But, once in, in for a dime, in for a dollar.  You can‘t walk away from a fight you have started or gotten into.  You have got to finish and end it.  I do believe this.  It‘s probably going to take British and French.  And then the—the Arab League, they should...

VANDEN HEUVEL:  Yes. 

BUCHANAN:  ... provide the troops to police this place. 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  The Arab League supported it.  They then said they thought the Security Council mandate had been violated and abused. 

BUCHANAN:  They have got to man up.

VANDEN HEUVEL:  But they supported it, which was one of the reasons the Obama administration, unlike George W. and the calls from McCain and even Senator Kerry—they were calling for unilateral intervention.

And to go to Security Council—civilian protection, that has been accomplished.

TODD:  And, Katrina, let me follow up really quickly on one other part.  You don‘t want to see nation-building there.  You want to see it here at home. 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  I do. 

TODD:  But doesn‘t—isn‘t the United States now committed to some form of nation-building in Libya, if it succeeds in driving Gadhafi from power, but there‘s nothing to fill in, there‘s no sort of...

BUCHANAN:  Right. 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  Chuck, the most important nation-building that the United States can do in the Middle East is reset its economic relationship with that country. 

Part of the uprising we have seen has to do with the despair of millions of young people without jobs.  We have got problems here at home.  This is a global problem, not military solutions. 

TODD:  All right. 

BUCHANAN:  Chuck...

TODD:  Very fast, Pat.

BUCHANAN:  ... we can‘t walk away when you have smashed the country up. 

TODD:  Right. 

BUCHANAN:  We‘re the ones smashing it up.  And, quite frankly, we have got an obligation to help rebuild it.  We ought to get the money from the Arabs, however.  But they are going to have to rebuild that country, and there‘s going to be an occupation. 

TODD:  All right. 

Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Pat Buchanan, I have got to leave it there. 

But it was a spirited discussion, which...

(CROSSTALK)  

TODD:  ... is exactly what we were hoping for.  Thank you both. 

Up next: Bill Maher‘s idea of what he says is the perfect presidential candidate for 2012.  The “Sideshow” is next. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Well, back to HARDBALL.  Now to the “Sideshow.” 

First, so what does a comedian‘s dream candidate look like?  Here‘s Bill Maher on “Real Time.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER”)

BILL MAHER, HOST, “REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER”:  If the Republicans‘ idea of governing is just being against everything the president is for, then they have to change their name to the I Know You Are But What Am I Party... 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  ... and nominate for 2012 a man who is the exact opposite of Obama, a fat, white, small-eared idiot...

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  ... who angers quickly, overreacts to everything, and can bowl 300... 

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MAHER:  ... and who carries only one form of I.D., his original birth certificate...

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  ... a man so the antithesis of our current president that even his name is Barack Obama spelled backwards.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  So, say hello to the Republican Party‘s 2012 presidential candidate, Karab Amabo. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  Temperamentally, Karab Amabo believes America has had enough of no-drama Obama and his measured Vulcan logic.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  And at the first sign of crisis, Amabo will pray, scream, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) his pants, and fly Air Force One into a mountain. 

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Well, we‘re going to get more of Maher‘s thoughts on the 2012 field and some other news in politics on HARDBALL tomorrow.  He‘s going to be right here. 

Next up:  Just how plugged in is President Obama?  We have got a clue today at today‘s Univision town hall.  The president was asked what sort of technology he uses day to day. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  You know, I took my BlackBerry off for this show, because I didn‘t want it going off, and that would be really embarrassing.  But—but, usually, I carry a BlackBerry around.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator):  Do you have an iPad?

OBAMA:  I do have an iPad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator):  Your own computer?

OBAMA:  I have got my own computer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator):  Very well.

OBAMA:  You know, I mean, I—Jorge, I‘m the president of the United States.  You think I have got a...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  You think I have got to...

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  You think I have got to go borrow somebody‘s computer? 

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  Hey, man, can I borrow your computer? 

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  How about you?  You got one?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Well, what‘s interesting there is that the last time he was asked if he has an iPad, he said, no, I have an iReggie, referring to Reggie Love, and that he was an walking iPad for him.  So, that has changed. 

And, as for that BlackBerry, he never takes off his belt.  The fact that he did for that tells you something.

Now, in entertainment news, we know actor Ed Harris is playing John McCain in HBO‘s adaptation of “Game Change,” the bestseller on the 2008 election.  Well, here‘s Senator McCain‘s reaction to that casting news. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “FOX NEWS SUNDAY”:) 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  I think he‘s a very fine actor and a great actor.  I obviously haven‘t read the book, so I don‘t think I will be watching the film. 

(LAUGHTER)

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, “FOX NEWS SUNDAY”:  You know how it—you know how it turns out anyway, right?

MCCAIN:  I—I‘m very—been made very aware about its depiction of me.  And it is what it is. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  There it is, tough words.  By the way, HBO just announced its cast, actor Woody Harrelson to play top McCain adviser Steve Schmidt. 

Boy, Steve Schmidt‘s got to be happy about that.  That‘s the last—and I‘m sure he‘s very excited that Mr. Harrelson doesn‘t have any hair anymore. 

And now for tonight‘s “Big Number,” we turn from politics to the other big story this March, March madness.  It‘s been a crazy two weeks.  No number one seeds are left standing.  No number two seeds are left standing.  So, ready for this?  ESPN got almost six million entries for its bracket contest.  And how many correctly picked the final four?  Two. 

Two people must have randomly filled out brackets, because that‘s how they must have gotten Butler, VCU, UConn, and Kentucky, two out of six million.  Those two people ought to go play Mega Millions right now—a very unlikely “Big Number.” 

OK.

Up next:  Michele Bachmann brings down the house at this weekend‘s conservative confab in Iowa.  Can she turn the enthusiasm she‘s getting into some caucus support? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANDA DRURY, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Amanda Drury with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

A late-day reversal leaves stocks slightly lower, the Dow Jones industrials slipping 22 points, the S&P 500 falling 3.5, and the Nasdaq giving up 12.  Stocks spent much of the day in the green, though, turning negative in the final hour as investors locked in profits after last week‘s big gains. 

Telecom giants Verizon and AT&T leading blue chips higher for most of the day on an analyst upgrade.  Shares of Nokia and telecom equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent both surged on an upgrade from Goldman Sachs. 

Eastman Kodak‘s shares spiked after a U.S. trade panel agreed to review claims that Research In Motion and Apple are infringing on its patents.  RadioShack ended higher on word it will be offering Apple‘s iPad for sale starting on Tuesday.  And on the M&A front, eBay will buy e-commerce company GSI Commerce for about $2.4 billion. 

And that‘s it from us at CNBC.  We‘re first in business worldwide—and now it is back to HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN ®, MINNESOTA:  That‘s my question to you today here in Iowa.  Are you in?  Are you in for 2012? 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

BACHMANN:  Are you in? 

(APPLAUSE)

BACHMANN:  Are you going to make it happen? 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BACHMANN:  Are we going to take our country back? 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BACHMANN:  I agree with you.  I say, we do.  I‘m in.  You‘re in. 

(APPLAUSE)

BACHMANN:  We will take this back in 2012. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That was Congresswoman Michele Bachmann firing up a crowd at the conservative forum in Iowa Saturday.  Interestingly, it was Bachmann and Herman Cain who seemed to soak up the attention of social conservatives in the audience, not the two more well-known figures that were there, Newt Gingrich and Haley Barbour. 

For more on the direction of the Republicans right now as they head towards 2012, I‘m joined Jeff Zeleny of “The New York Times,” who reported this weekend from Iowa, his old stomping grounds, and Jonathan Martin of Politico.  He joins me here in studio.

Jeff Zeleny, you were there.  It felt as if—and our reporter on the ground said, Cain and Bachmann had all enthusiasm and energy.  Fair?  Is that the way you saw it? 

JEFF ZELENY, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  I think that is fair. 

I mean, you saw the clip right there.  The applause and the energy followed Congresswoman Bachmann into the room.  It stayed with her throughout the speech.  She actually gave a bit of a wonky presentation with a PowerPoint with numbers and things.  And she closed it with the clip you just saw. 

So I think she‘s definitely tapping into something that—a feeling that‘s alive out there in the Republican Party among these caucus-goers.  But I think it‘s important to note as well Iowans are very protective of their first-in-the-nation status like this.  So they look at these decisions very carefully. 

And, at the end of the day, they—a lot of them like to pick people who can be seen as winners...

TODD:  Right. 

MARTIN:  ... because if the person who wins the Iowa caucus ultimately goes on and wins the nomination, it‘s good for their process and the own—history of the caucus. 

TODD:  Right. 

MARTIN:  So, it‘s—it‘s far too early to say if she will have that reception for the next months going forward.  But this is one of the reasons that she‘s going to get in probably, you know, in the next six weeks or so, because she wants to tap into this enthusiasm. 

TODD:  But, Jonathan Martin, it is—it is a mixed legacy in Iowa from what—how I look at it.  While you always have a front-runner or two that does—that gets into the top three...

JONATHAN MARTIN, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, POLITICO.COM:  Right. 

TODD:  ... you always have the surprise that also busts into the top three, whether it was Pat Robertson back...

MARTIN:  Right. 

TODD:  ... in 1988 or Mike Huckabee.in 2008.

MARTIN:  Sure.

TODD:  There is one of these, quote, gadflies is going to move from gadfly status to contender because of Ohio.  Bachmann—was Saturday a bad day for Rick Santorum essentially?

MARTIN:  Yes, I mean, what Saturday means for Santorum is that there are more folks now crowding into his space.

TODD:  He got it by himself for a (INAUDIBLE).  Yes.

MARTIN:  Herman Cain, with Santorum and Michele Bachmann all, Chuck, competing for a chunk of that caucus vote.  It may be 30 percent.  It may be as high as even 40 percent.  But it‘s probably about 30 percent.  Maybe a tad less, and could be even more.

But there‘s still a space if that vote is cut up for somebody that‘s more of an establishment-type candidate.  2000, keep in mind, Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Allen Keyes combined, got 45 percent of the vote.  George W.  Bush still wins easily because the vote is all split among the folks in the right.

TODD:  The only establishment candidate.

MARTIN:  Right.

TODD:  Speaking of one of the guys who‘s trying to have one foot in the Tea Party and one foot in the establishment seems to be Newt Gingrich.  He did a Sunday interview, he spoke on Saturday, did a Sunday show where he‘s been trying to clean up some comments he‘s made, not just on Libya, on his back and forth on this, but on his own personal foibles from the ‘90s.  Here he is on “FOX News Sunday” being asked about impeaching Clinton while he was also having an affair.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS:  At the very same time that you were leading that charge, you were having an affair.  Isn‘t that hypocrisy?

NEWT GINGRICH ®, FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER:  No.  Look, obviously, it‘s complex and, obviously, I wasn‘t doing things to be proud of.  And the question I raise is very simple: should a president of the United States be above the law?  I mean, I don‘t know what you would have had me do because I think the notion that the president of the United States committing perjury—remember, he‘s a lawyer.  This is not an accidental thing.  I thought the outcome was about right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Jeff Zeleny, the Newt Gingrich rollout, whether it‘s been on this back and forth that he had on Libya last week where he had to put up this Facebook posting that frankly seemed to confuse the situation more than it clarified it, to his answers to about his personal life, both to the Christian Broadcasting Network and then just this Sunday to Chris Wallace—he‘s had a tough start.  Is this tougher than he even expected?

JEFF ZELENY, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  He has had a tough start.  I think that Chris Wallace, you know, sort of said it pretty well.  He said, you‘ve had 10 years to think about this.

I think one thing we‘re really seeing here is that, you know, Newt Gingrich has spent a lot of time on television ever since he stepped down as speaker.  He‘s talked about this.  I wonder if he didn‘t think that all of this was in the past for him, was history for him.  But now, people are talking back to him.  Now, people are asking questions of him and having people explain himself.  That‘s not something he‘s dealt with in a long time.

And as savvy as he is and as high—you know, high tech as he is, he tweets, he makes movies, et cetera, I‘m not sure that he fully realizes the speed of these campaigns right now.  We saw it in the 2008 primary on the Democratic side with Bill Clinton.  He wasn‘t quite used to how fast things moved.  I think we‘re seeing a similar thing with Speaker Gingrich.

TODD:  And very quickly, I mean—go ahead.

MARTIN:  Chuck, 1990 was the year he had his last competitive campaign.

TODD:  He almost lost that race before redistricting.

MARTIN:  It tells you a lot about—yes, he‘s been on FOX for the past 10 years.  Yes, he‘s constantly given speeches.  That‘s a very different thing than being in the heat of a campaign and having scrutiny with the media, if you‘re a challenger.

TODD:  Does he make to it Iowa?

MARTIN:  He‘s—I think he‘s going to grind it out because you know why, Chuck, this is it if—

TODD:  He‘s going to lose.

MARTIN:  -- this is it, if you‘re Newt right now, when else are you going to run?  It‘s now or never.

TODD:  All right.  Jonathan Martin and Jeff Zeleny, I‘ve got to leave it there.  We have Haley Barbour to talk about and there‘s also a guy named Mitt Romney who‘s apparently still running for president.  I think he‘s kind of happy that we don‘t bring him up at moments like this.  Anyway, thank you both.

Up next: Senator Harry Reid, he‘s trying to put the mainstream Republican Party against the Tea Party, saying the Tea Party‘s demands are preventing a long-term solution on the budget.  That‘s ahead.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Well, “New York Magazine” interviewed Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.  And here is what he had to say about slavery and the civil war, quote, “Slavery was the primary, central cause of secession.   The Civil War was necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery.  Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary and it‘s regrettable that it took the civil war to do it.  But it did.”

Southern governor, Mississippi Governor, Haley Barbour, on the Civil War.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Well, we are back.

Congress is back and it‘s gearing up for maybe the real and final budget showdown, perhaps even a government shutdown.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went on the offense today with a tough statement.  Quote, “I am extremely disappointed that after weeks of productive negotiations with Speaker Boehner, the Tea Party Republicans are scrapping all the progress we have made and threatening to shut down the government if they do not get all of their extreme demands.  The division between the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans is preventing us from reaching a responsible solution on a long-term budget.  It‘s time for mainstream Republicans to stand up to the Tea Party.”

Well, can Democrats get the upper hand by trying to turn Republicans on each other?

NBC News political analyst Charlie Cook is the editor and publisher of the “Cook Political Report.”  And “The Washington Post‘s” Eugene Robinson is an MSNBC political analyst.

Charlie, let me start with you.  Clearly, Harry Reid is trying to frame the debate.  It is a similar framing that I‘ve heard behind the scenes at the White House that, hey, we can cut a deal with Boehner, Boehner‘s ready to cut the deal, he just doesn‘t have the support of his caucus.

How much truth is there to this and how much of this is just old-fashion gamesmanship?

CHARLIE COOK, NBC NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, the Washington Nationals have opening day on Thursday.  I think this is just a high and inside pitch that you and I and all three of us have seen a lot of over the years.  The thing is, the narrative of a more mainstream Republican leadership—Boehner in the House, McConnell in the Senate—having to fight with some of the more—even more conservative elements of their party, you know, we knew that was going to happen.  It‘s happening now.  It‘s not a surprise.

I mean, to me, ultimately what happened—the key thing is, you know, is a deal done by April 8th or maybe April 9th where if there‘s a shutdown, it‘s only a few hours or a day and nobody really notice, whether that happens or not.  And a lot of this is gamesmanship.  And we‘ll see a lot of that from both sides.

TODD:  You know, what was interesting about this to me today, though, Gene, was the fact a Democrat was playing offense on the budget talks because, really, up until now, when you realize the debate has been about numbers and not about policy, it means the Republicans have been winning the message fight on budget up until today.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Absolutely, they‘ve been winning.  I mean, and still, you know, he went on offense today.  But, ultimately, we‘re talking about the difference between smaller cuts and bigger cuts, right?

TODD:  Right, which that means the Republicans are already winning the bigger narrative.

ROBINSON:  The Republicans are already winning the bigger argument.

TODD:  Right.

ROBINSON:  He‘s having a bit of fun.  And he‘s, you know, just making that little wedge between the establishment and the Tea Party.  And that could be to some political advantage.

TODD:  Hey, Charlie, how much concern should the White House have of having enough Democrats.  You know, do they threaten Boehner saying, look, you better get—you better get a majority of your majority and we‘ll fill out the rest?  Or can Boehner come to the White House and say, look, I‘ll bring you 70 votes if you handle the rest?

COOK:  I think if I were—if I were the White House, I think I‘d be saying, look, if you were confident that a shutdown would be flamed on Republicans, fine.  But we have—we don‘t have any confidence in that.  We have no reason to think you should be confident of that.  And if we are seen, if Democrats are seen as triggering the shutdown, that means that the losses in the Senate are—could be horrific for Democrats next year.

And they could go even further down in the whole—in the House.  And so, I don‘t—I don‘t know any reason why either party should have any degree of confidence that a shutdown wouldn‘t depend on them.  And, if I were the White House, I‘d be saying, you really don‘t want to do that.

TODD:  Who wants a deal more though right now, the White House or Senate Democrats?

ROBINSON:  I think—I think the White House wants a deal.

TODD:  They want to get this done.

ROBINSON:  They want to get this done and they want to move on.

TODD:  Senate Democrats kind of want to have a little bit more of a fight, don‘t they?

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  Yes, maybe a little bit (ph).

TODD:  All right.  We‘re going to be back with Charlie Cook and Eugene Robinson to talk about what‘s going on in the states and these Republican governors who have been winning some spending cut fight against unions and these budget crises are now getting hit hard negatively in the polls.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  All right.  We are—we are back with Charlie Cook and Eugene Robinson.

And we just talked about the federal budget fights in Washington, but there are a bunch of state budget fights unfolding out all over the country.  Some Republican governors are following the lead of Wisconsin‘s Scott walker.  But is it working?

Gentlemen, I want to put up a few poll numbers.  One of John Kasich in Ohio.  He‘s poll numbers, upside down, approval ratings, 30 percent, disapprove, 46 percent.  And then you look at what Chris Christie in New Jersey, was sort of the first Republican governor to have these budget fights go after some of these public sector unions.  His favorable rating basically went from a net positive of 10 point down to a net positive of two points.

Charlie Cook, you‘ve got Walker, Kasich, Christie—if you‘re a Republican governor, not in one of those three states, or if you‘re a Republican on Capitol Hill and you‘re watching the sort of backlash that voters are feeding back to these governors—is that a warning sign to Republicans to be careful on how far they go on government shutdown?

COOK:  Well, I think—I think Republicans and Democrats ought to be worried about government shutdowns.  But I think you have to put Governor walker in Wisconsin in a different category to everybody else because the other governors haven‘t taken it to nearly that degree, the confrontation hasn‘t gotten nearly as much.

But let‘s face it, governors and state legislatures, they‘re not allowed to print money.  At the end of every year, their budgets have to balance.  They‘re not in the same situation that presidents, Democrat and Republican, and Congress, Democrat and Republican, have.

And it‘s fairly normal.  The normal pattern we‘ve seen is oftentimes governors take their tough medicine very early in their four-year term and then turn around.  And by the time—I mean, the question is, has it turned around, while they get up for re-election four years later?  And, you know, I think—I‘d like to watch that.

But I think for some of these other folks, I doubt if there are many governors in the country, Democrat or Republican, that were elected last November or in Christie‘s case, one year earlier, that have the numbers today that they had three months ago.

TODD:  And is that just the case, you‘re going to be cutting education, popular things, and, you know, that‘s the number one thing that a state budget seems to do.

ROBINSON:  Voters love budget cuts that don‘t affect me.  They affect somebody else.  And then there are no such budget cuts.

TODD:  Not in state budgets.

ROBINSON:  Not in state budgets.  No, they affect people and people react to that.  You know, there is a question of how far you got, how aggressive you are and portray yourself as Saint George coming to slay the dragon and make a big deal of it, then you make a bigger target to yourself, I think.

TODD:  Hey, Charlie, what about the political climates that are being created in some of these swing states?  If you‘re David Plouffe sitting in the White House, are you happy that John Kasich is creating a confrontational atmosphere with labor in Ohio?  Happy with what Scott Walker is doing?  Or is that making you more nervous because you‘re going to get drawn into these fights in these states?

COOK:  Well, I don‘t—Chuck, I don‘t know what to think about Wisconsin.  I think we just have to let this thing sit and percolate for a while.  But, frankly, if I were in the White House, and this isn‘t state specific, I‘d be feeling cautiously more optimistic now than four or five months ago.  I mean, I think the president‘s odds of getting re-elected a heck of a lot higher today than they were four or five months ago.  And, frankly, when I talk to Republican campaign consultants and pros, to the person, they are not as optimistic about things in 2012 as they were a few months ago, at least in terms of the presidential race.

TODD:  All right.  Charlie Cook, Eugene Robinson, we‘ll have to leave it there.  Two fascinating fights, state, national.  It‘s good stuff.

We‘ll be back in one hour for the live edition of HARDBALL, then at 7:30 Eastern Time, we‘ll bring you live coverage of President Obama‘s address to the nation on Libya.

Right now, though, it‘s time for politics with Cenk Uygur.

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