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updated 4/20/2011 10:18:50 AM ET 2011-04-20T14:18:50

Guests: Chris Cillizza, Howard Fineman, Mark Halperin, Chris Chocola, Joan Walsh, Rep. Ron Paul, Steve Gallardo

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Old Trump, new Trump.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews up in Buffalo. 

Leading off tonight: Donald Trump‘s new deal.  Donald Trump once called for universal health care and a huge tax on the wealthy to pay off the national debt and save Social Security.  He was not long ago against laws to ban abortion.

Well, today he offers a new deal.  He‘s against universal health care, against taxing the wealthy and for laws to prevent abortion.  Has he changed, or have the opportunities changed?  Is he a real right-winger?  Would he really punish someone for abortion, or is this just too harebrained to be believed?  What Republicans need to figure out about their favorite new candidate.  That‘s our top story tonight.

Plus, Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, plays HARDBALL tonight on America‘s four wars, the deficit and whether he‘s going to run for president again.

Also, when gasoline prices go up, poll numbers go down.  Just ask President Obama.  But they‘re even worse for potential Republican rivals.

And here is the stunner of today.  Jan Brewer, the very conservative governor of Arizona, has just vetoed a birther bill.  That‘s right, Jan Brewer has vetoed a birther bill.  Did she do it because she thought the bill was bad for Arizona, bad politics or just bad?

Finally, “Let Me Finish” tonight with Donald Trump‘s three big options.

But let‘s begin with Trump‘s born-again conservativism.  Former Indiana Republican congressman Chris Chocola runs the Club for Growth and Joan Walsh is editor-at-large for Salon.com.

I want Joan to pay particular attention to these following contrasts.  We‘re going to show you the old Trump of not long ago and the brand-new, spanking brand-new Donald Trump today.  Here was Donald Trump on the abortion issue when he appeared on “MEET THE PRESS” with Tim Russert back in ‘99.  Let‘s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, TRUMP ORGANIZATION:  Well, look, I‘m very pro-choice.  I hate the concept of abortion.  I hate it.  I hate everything it stands for.  I cringe when I listen to people debating the subject.  But you still—I just believe in choice.  But I am strongly for choice and yet I hate the concept of abortion.

TIM RUSSERT, MODERATOR:  But you would not ban it?

TRUMP:  No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  “Strongly for choice.”  And here‘s the new deal Donald Trump with NBC‘s Savannah Guthrie just today on “TODAY.”  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Is there a right to privacy in the Constitution?

TRUMP:  I guess there is.  I guess there is.

GUTHRIE:  So how does that—

TRUMP:  I mean, my—just out of curiosity, why do you ask that question?

GUTHRIE:  Well, I‘m just wondering how that squares with your pro-life views.

TRUMP:  Well, it‘s a pretty strange way of getting to pro-life.  I mean, it‘s a very unique way of asking about pro-life.  Why are you—what does that have to do with privacy?  How are you—how are you equating pro-life with privacy?

GUTHRIE:  Well, you know about the Roe v. Wade decision.

TRUMP:  Yes.  Right.  Sure.  Look, I am pro-life.  I‘ve said it.  I‘m very strong there and I‘m strong on pro-life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Joan Walsh, please interpret what you get from that.  In 1999, he was strongly pro-choice.  Now he‘s strongly pro-life.  He said he doesn‘t know what the issue of privacy‘s got to do with it.  You know this issue hard.  What is he talking about?  What do you think he should be explaining he‘s not?

JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM:  I mean, obviously, he doesn‘t know that the right to privacy is sort of the bedrock of the Roe versus Wade decision, Chris, and it shows that his complete lack of familiarity with our court system, with our judicial system, with the precedents in this case.  And you know, who knows what the man believes.

You know, I also know that he gave an interview to the Christian Broadcast Network where he talked about why he‘s pro-life now.  Well, it‘s because a friend of his, a man, didn‘t want a baby, but then when the baby came into the world, he was happy to have the baby.  I mean, that‘s ridiculous.  That‘s Donald Trump‘s America, where we will make policy based on what his wealthy friends decide at the last minute.

Abortion is a very tough issue, especially for those of us raised Catholic.  The choice issue is simply about choice.  We can‘t—we can‘t imagine anybody else in the situation who is better equipped to make a very tragic decision than the mother.  That‘s just the bottom line.  He once had it right.  He sounded—you know, he sounded like he believed in what he said to Tim Russert.  I don‘t know what he believes now.

MATTHEWS:  Well, here he is, giving that explanation of his change of heart or change of policy.  He admits he changed his mind on abortion, as you say.  But here‘s his explanation.  Let‘s listen to Donald Trump explaining why he is now basically for outlawing abortion.  I believe that‘s what the pro-life position is, we outlaw it—

WALSH:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  -- that‘s what they want to do, and punish those who do abortions.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  One of the reasons I changed, one of the primary reasons, a friend of mine, his wife was pregnant, in this case married, and she was pregnant.  And he was going to—they were going to—he didn‘t really want the baby.  He ends up having the baby, and the baby is the apple of his eye.  He said it‘s the greatest thing that‘s ever happened to him.  And you know, here‘s a baby that wasn‘t going to be let into life.  And I heard this and some other stories, and I am—I am pro-life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s take a look at—Congressman, I want you to focus on this issue of health care because we got a little time to talk about these big changes.  Here‘s where Trump stood in his book on health care.  He wrote this back in the year 2000.  He said America should have a similar health care plan to the one they have up in Canada, you know, single payer.  He also said, quote, “We must have universal health care.  I‘m a conservative on most issues, but a liberal on this one.  We should not hear so many stories of families ruined by health care expenses.”

But today, again on the “TODAY” show with Savannah Guthrie, he bashed the Obama health care plan, which is the first attempt at this kind of health care.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  I want great medical care for people, but I want—I also want it to be affordable.  “Obama care” is a disaster.  Number one, it‘s bad medical care.  But almost as important—

GUTHRIE:  It hasn‘t gone into effect yet.

TRUMP:  Excuse me.  It‘s a bad concept.  But also, and very importantly, this country can‘t afford it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Congressman, what do you make of that change of tune from a guy who‘s basically all the way over to the left, if you will, for single payer, the Canadian plan, and then he can‘t stand something sort of off to the left but not all the way over in the Obama plan?  How do you reconcile that point of view, those two points of view?

CHRIS CHOCOLA (R-IN), FMR. CONGRESSMAN, CLUB FOR GROWTH:  Chris, I don‘t think you can reconcile the two points of view.  You know, that‘s why we have a concern with Donald Trump‘s candidacy.  We think if we‘re going to get beyond the showmanship, if he‘s serious about running for president, it‘s time to pull the curtain back and really examine what he believes and why he believes it.

He‘s changed his views many times.  What we‘re looking for at the Club for Growth is a consistent conservative, somebody that has core beliefs, core principles that they would carry into office and not change them, given the political expediency at the moment.

And so what we‘re trying to do is get people to say, Hey, let‘s recognize the guy‘s a great showman, but if he‘s going to be a candidate, we have to understand what he believes in policy because we‘re all going to have to live with the results of a President Trump and the policy beliefs that he has.  So it‘s hard to understand where he is on a lot of issues that are evolving, but—

MATTHEWS:  Well, where are conservatives—I mean, do you think conservatives are smarter than the average person?  And why are conservative (INAUDIBLE) all the polls being taken the last week or so saying Trump?  All of a sudden, out of nowhere, this guy who‘s moved his positions, as you say—and I think we can—we‘re going to continue to document that tonight.  But if conservatives are smart, why can‘t they see what you see?  Or aren‘t they smart?

CHOCOLA:  Well, I don‘t know—

MATTHEWS:  Aren‘t they smart?

CHOCOLA:  -- if it‘s a matter of smart—it‘s a matter of personality, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Why are they all saying they‘re for him in these polls?  Why are they saying they like this guy, if you say he‘s something of a charlatan, something of a switcher, a guy who‘s flip-flopped?  If that‘s the case, why don‘t they see that?  They know he‘s been a big city guy, sort of a big part of the culture of the East in the United States.  They never saw him as one of their own.  Now all of a sudden, they‘re embracing him.  Aren‘t they smart enough to see this, or are just you smart enough to see it?  Seriously.

CHOCOLA:  Well, Chris, I think if you‘re talking about the recent polls, you know, polling right now is a function of name ID and popularity.  Donald Trump is a huge personality, there‘s no question.  People know his name.  He‘s out there talking.  There‘s a media infatuation with him right now.  And so it‘s a name people know.  I don‘t think you can confuse polls right now—it‘s popularity, it‘s not competitiveness.  It‘s not anywhere near the time when people have to decide who they vote for.  We view that as part of our job at the Club for Growth is to educate voters.  Good voters or impulsive voters—

MATTHEWS:  So you‘re the gatekeepers?  You‘re the gatekeepers?

CHOCOLA:  I‘m sorry?

MATTHEWS:  You‘re the gatekeepers?

CHOCOLA:  Well, we are trying to inform people-

MATTHEWS:  You‘re the gatekeeper?

CHOCOLA:  Well, we want to inform people—

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s take a look.  That‘s what we‘re doing here, too, so let‘s keep it up here.  Here‘s the Trump book back in 2000.  He proposed a tax for people for people who are worth more than $10 million.  (INAUDIBLE) rich man, sock it to ‘em tax.  Quote—that‘s his word here—

“By imposing a one-time 14.25 percent net worth tax on the richest individuals and trusts, we can put America on sound financial footing for the next century.  The plan would cost me”—this is Trump talking—

“$700 million personally in the short term, but it would be worth it.”

And here‘s Trump today with Savannah Guthrie about raising taxes, another big change-a-roo.  Let‘s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GUTHRIE:  Would you raise taxes to attack the deficit?

TRUMP:  I don‘t think you have to.  And let me just tell you, if we get this economy going again—and we can do it by getting jobs, by bringing our jobs back, bringing them back—let the other countries worry about themselves.  By bringing our jobs back, we‘ll have a great, great country again, and you won‘t have to raise taxes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Another switch-a-roo.  Who do you make of that, Congressman?

CHOCOLA:  Well, it‘s just more of the same.  It‘s more of this continuing show.  There‘s no question that his idea before would be devastating to our economy.  Capitalists and capitalists (ph) is mobile.  People would move out of this country.  They would move their capital out of this country.  He says he‘s evolved.  Actually, I talked to Mr. Trump today.  He told me he‘s evolved on this.  I‘ll let him be the one to explain it.  But you know, I think you need to have consistency.  You need to have core beliefs.  We don‘t see that—

MATTHEWS:  Did you tell him that?

CHOCOLA:  -- in his candidacy—I‘m sorry?

MATTHEWS:  Did you tell him that?  Did you tell him that?

CHOCOLA:  Yes.  Absolutely.  I told him what we are looking for is somebody that has core beliefs that are going to carry those core beliefs into office and not change with the political environment and what‘s expedient.

You know, he‘s a business guy.  He‘s looking for expedient solutions to the problem he has now.  What we think we need as a presidential candidate is someone that is a pro-growth champion, someone that has these core beliefs, not a pro at self-promotion and business expediency.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

CHOCOLA:  So that‘s why we‘re trying to educate the public on the concerns that we have about his candidacy.

MATTHEWS:  Joan, he was saying for a while now that he can‘t wait to announce for president so he can give us a full financial disclosure.  George Stephanopoulos asked if he was going to release his tax returns.  He said, yes, when Obama releases his birth certificate.  What do you make of that?  Let‘s watch that little clip.  Here it is.  Let‘s listen.

WALSH:  Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  I have a great company.  I‘ve done a great job, which, if I run, you‘ll see what a great job because I‘ll do a full disclosure of finances—

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, “GOOD MORNING AMERICA”:  Including your tax returns?

TRUMP:  We‘ll look at that.  Maybe I‘m going to do the tax returns when Obama does his birth certificate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I don‘t know how to read that, Joan.  Is he going to do it or not?  Because all the other candidates in recent history have released their full tax returns.

WALSH:  It sounds like he‘s probably not going to do it.  But really, what‘s most important in that clip, Chris, is that he takes another opportunity to drag American politics down into the sewer of birtherism.  And that to me is the most disgusting and preposterous aspect of his candidacy so far.

And this is also—when we‘re talking about flip-flops, he praised Obama as amazing in his last book.  He was all for the Obama phenomenon.  And now he‘s turned around and said he shouldn‘t even—he‘s not even eligible to be president.  He‘s hoaxing us, he‘s hiding his birth certificate.  And this is really, really the lowest place you can go in American politics today.

We can debate taxes, we can debate spending, but to assault the president‘s reputation in this particular way by someone who has to know better—I say that.  I‘m probably optimistic.  I believe he knows better.

MATTHEWS:  I know.

WALSH:  It‘s despicable.

MATTHEWS:  Chris, I‘m just telling you, I‘m stunned by this.  I always do believe that conservatives are fiscally responsible to some extent.  They care about issues.  They pay attention, the people on the right.  They have completely got round heels for this guy.  What is going on?  You can mock their lack of knowledge, but you know what we‘ve just been showing you and we‘re going to keep showing it.  They seem to like him.  What‘s going on here, Chris?

CHOCOLA:  Well, I think it‘s a question of media attention.  He‘s a master showman.  You‘ve got to give him credit.  He understands how to do self-promotion.

MATTHEWS:  You keep acting like it‘s a carnie act and it—you are mocking your own people.  You‘re saying the conservatives out there are a bunch of imbeciles, rubes, and he‘s P.T. Barnum just doing card tricks.  You‘re—

CHOCOLA:  Chris, I don‘t think you—

MATTHEWS:  You really think—

CHOCOLA:  I don‘t think you can—

MATTHEWS:  -- they‘re that light (ph), that—

CHOCOLA:  I don‘t think you can reach any conclusion on polls this far out.  I think it is a show at this point, and that is clearly what we are trying to get beyond is the showmanship.  And so I don‘t think you can make any conclusions at this point as to what people are thinking—

MATTHEWS:  OK.

CHOCOLA:  -- what their opinions will be and what the outcome of the election will be after the primary.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, we watch polls here every night.  We‘re going to keep watching them.  I‘ll tell you, something‘s going—I think they‘re so bored out of their keisters with the Republican candidates running so far, they‘re willing to go for Henry Hill with his boys band or whatever.  Anyway, they‘re willing to go with Donald Trump.

Anyway, thank you, Chris Chocola.  And thank you, Joan Walsh.  I agree with you, it‘s very hard to switch on abortion because of one story.  And by the way, that was a story of choice.

Coming up, Congressman Ron Paul of Texas.  We‘re going to find out what he thinks about Donald Trump, among other things, what he thinks of the four wars our country‘s fighting, what he thinks of the gamesmanship of the debt ceiling.  And big question tonight—maybe we‘ll get some news.  Is he going to run again for president?  By the way, I‘m up here at Buffalo to give a speech at the big college crowd up here at Daemen College.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  An investigation by the inspector general of the Defense Department has found no evidence of wrongdoing by retired general Stanley McChrystal.  McChrystal was the subject of a “Rolling Stone” magazine profile entitled “The Runaway General” in which he and his top aides were quoted saying disparaging things about the military‘s civilian command.  At the time, McChrystal was the commanding general over in Afghanistan.  He was recalled by President Obama and forced to resign.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  My next guest was the inspiration behind the Tea Party movement.  U.S. Congressman Ron Paul of Texas is a hero to fiscal conservatives and to Libertarians everywhere.  He‘s been an outspoken critic of the wars we‘re currently fighting.  He‘s known for clashing with leaders of his own party.  And he had a rabidly loyal following on the presidential campaign trail back in ‘08.

Congressman Paul, thank you for joining us.  What do you make of the extension of our military now to four fronts, Iraq, Afghanistan, the drone attacks in Pakistan, which are quite heavy, and the new war front in Libya?  How do you put it all together?

REP. RON PAUL ®, TEXAS:  It‘s an outrage, and I can‘t understand why the American people are tolerating it.  Matter of fact, if you do poll them on this, about 70 percent think we ought to get out of Afghanistan.  Of course, my position is we shouldn‘t have gone in and we should come back from all those regions.

But you know, a lot of people voted for the president because he had indicated maybe he would have a different foreign policy, and I think they‘re very disappointed because he has expanded the wars, rather than diminishing them.  So yes, this is terrible.

And I think the foreign policy is a major contributor to our financial problems.  I also, of course, believe the domestic spending is a problem, as well.  But you know, to me, the foreign expenditures in the wars should be the easiest place to cut.  And we are now spending $1.2 trillion a year maintaining our current foreign policy.  And I could find hundreds of billions of dollars there, and I wouldn‘t have to cut programs at home, programs that, basically, I don‘t agree with, but I don‘t feel like that‘s where we should cut first.  I think we should cut out all this war mongering and bring our troops home.  And I think, politically, it would be a smart thing to do.

MATTHEWS:  Can you run for office in this country and get elected in most parts of the country by saying, I don‘t think we need to be the number one superpower of the world.  We don‘t have to have the biggest army.  We don‘t have to have the greatest weapons in the world.  We don‘t have to have all this stuff that takes us into so many fronts.  Can you get elected for president, for example, talking like that?

PAUL:  I—I think it would be more difficult, but one thing is, if people understand what I‘m saying, I want to be—

MATTHEWS:  Well, then that‘s the point, isn‘t it? 

PAUL:  Wait.  No, wait, wait, wait, Chris. 

Let me say there‘s two different ways.  One is military presence around the world and forcing our views on—but I want to be number one.  I want to set the example for the cause of liberty, to have peace and prosperity and trade with people, and then we will be a number-one force, but it will be a philosophic force; it will not be a military force. 

But people had pushed our—push us overseas get it mixed up.  They say, we are a great nation and we are going to go over and we are going to force you to live like we do.  And they go over and they say, we‘re going to spread American democracy. 

We have been doing that since Woodrow Wilson.  My approach and the approach of many of the libertarian conservatives is quite different.  It is to set an example, where people would want to emulate us.  And that means spreading ideas.  It‘s much more valuable than spreading weapons, wasting our money, making us more vulnerable.  And it all comes to end badly, as far as I‘m concerned. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you the two philosophical questions.  What do you make of it when you hear that there‘s been a stoning over in Afghanistan, where a whole village has killed a woman because of infidelity?  What do you think of backing that kind of a culture?  That‘s what we seem to be doing.  We‘re supporting that—that country. 

PAUL:  Well, it‘s terrible.  We shouldn‘t be supporting.  We should, you know, set an example and do better.  So, setting an example might mean that we not allow the president to get away with the position now that he has adopted to assassinate American citizens. 

You know, just, oh, he‘s a bad guy and we can‘t find him, he‘s to be assassinated, and have military tribunals in peacetime, have the Patriot Act invade the privacy of the American people.  So, I would say that‘s what we should do.  And then maybe we will influence others. 

But, no, it‘s atrocious when other countries do this, and especially when we support them.  So, we—we claim we‘re spreading our goodness.  At the same time, we support countries like Saudi Arabia, and they have those kind of laws. 

At the same time, we‘re supposed to go to war against the Iranians, because they practice these things as well.  So, it‘s the inconsistency—

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

PAUL:  -- and the contradiction of what we‘re supposed to be doing under our Constitution that makes the people so upset, especially now that we‘re totally bankrupt. 

MATTHEWS:  What do we do in the face of genocide?  If it looks like Gadhafi makes a statement, I‘m going to go from house to house looking for insects, as he called them, human beings, I‘m going to kill everybody in my way, and he‘s ready to attack Benghazi, and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, and some other people go to the president and say, we can‘t let there be slaughter like this on our watch, what would you have done if you had been in the White house? 

PAUL:  Well, I wouldn‘t have made—I wouldn‘t have made a case for preventative war for humanitarian reasons.  That‘s one extension of the Bush doctrine. 

He establishes preventive war, which is aggression.  So, no matter how noble it may sound to promote aggression, but now in Libya, we‘re promoting this preventative war to prevent humanitarian problems.  At the same time, they have never even been proven, let alone legitimate. 

So, I would say, yes, it‘s horrible.  All these things are horrible around the world, but I don‘t think us getting involved and using violence and bombing and killing innocent people—you know when we drop these bombs and we launch these missiles and—

MATTHEWS:  I know. 

PAUL:  -- and drones into Pakistan, and a lot of innocent people die.  So, no matter well—no matter how well-intentioned it is, you know, there is a blowback, there is a consequence, and most of the consequence are unintended, and they make our problems much worse for ourselves. 

MATTHEWS:  You understand the fiscal situation.  Do you think it‘s something we should risk, not passing a debt ceiling?  Will that shatter the fiscal markets around the world?  Will we have a real credit problem we have never had before if it goes down, the debt ceiling? 

PAUL:  Well, you know, they used a similar article—argument when they wanted to do the bailout in ‘08, saying there would be a grand depression if we didn‘t do it.  And all they did was prevent the grand depression for the—for Wall Street and gave the depression to the poor people. 

So now they‘re saying once again, another fear.  No matter what happens, use fear after 9/11 and, you know, Osama bin—or—

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

PAUL:  -- Saddam Hussein.  We had to scare the people.  But now they‘re scaring again.  If you don‘t pass it, there‘s going to be another disaster. 

It is going to be a problem, no doubt.  But if you don‘t get our house in order, the disaster is a dollar crisis.  And we‘re in the early stages of it.  That‘s why the bond rating is going down and the confidence in our money—

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

PAUL:  -- in our bond system is going down.  That is much worse than facing the consequences of saying, you know, we have to change our way.  And it is not near—just a budgetary problem.  It‘s dealing with what we just got done talking about, changing our foreign policy. 

Are we the policemen of the world?

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

PAUL:  Can we take care of everybody from cradle to grave? 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You‘re—

(CROSSTALK)

PAUL:  As long as we do that, we‘re not going to solve our problems. 

MATTHEWS:  Ron Paul—Ron Paul, you‘re a very popular guy because you‘re an honest guy. 

Is there anything to this birther thing?  Give me an honest answer.  Is it worth our time talking about it, the birther thing?  Is it worth our time?

PAUL:  No, I—I have no idea—I have no idea whether there‘s anything to it.  It doesn‘t interest me.

MATTHEWS:  Is it or not—is there something—is there something to it, based on what you have heard?  Is there any question that our president is legitimate?

(CROSSTALK)

PAUL:  Well—

MATTHEWS:  Any question? 

PAUL:  -- from my view—from my viewpoint, obviously not, because I never bring it up.  So I‘m going to leave it to talk show hosts and to Donald Trump, and let you guys argue it out. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  No, no, but, no, be a—no, be a little more—no, this is a dodge.  Is there anything to it? 

PAUL:  Not that I know of.  

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Is there any doubt in your mind—OK, thank you very much.  You‘re not a birther, sir.  Thank you.  We have given you the stamp of approval.  You‘re not a birther.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Ron Paul.

Up next—

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s important to me. 

Up next:  What does Donald Trump have in common with Steve Martin?  A lot.  Remember, “Excuse me”? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL and to the “Sideshow” tonight. 

First up:  Did you ever hear the old line from a reporter to a politician?  It goes like this.  Have you stopped beating your wife yet, sir? 

Well, here‘s the new version from an ABC affiliate down in Dallas, Texas.  It‘s the same kind of setup. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Why do you think you‘re so unpopular in Texas? 

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Well, I—look, the—

Texas has always been a pretty Republican state for—you know, for historic reasons. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  However, he inferred his election meant Texas politics were changing. 

OBAMA:  We lost by a few percentage points in Texas. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Oh, you—well, you lost by about 10. 

OBAMA:  Well, hopefully, the—

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Fifty-five/forty-four. 

OBAMA:  I understand.  The—I mean, if what you‘re telling me is Texas is a conservative state, you‘re absolutely right. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  After the interview, Mr. Obama pointed out that he doesn‘t like an interviewer challenging his comments. 

OBAMA:  And let me finish my answers next time we do an interview, all right? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that makes me think that that particular anchorman just snagged his last presidential interview for a long while. 

Time for the “Big Number.” 

During Savannah Guthrie‘s interview with Donald Trump, we learned how to tell if the Trumpster doesn‘t like a question.  Here it is. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  OK.  Now—

DONALD TRUMP, CHAIRMAN & CEO, TRUMP HOTELS & CASINO RESORTS:  Excuse me, excuse me.  Excuse me, Savannah.  You brought this up.  Excuse me.

If he wasn‘t born—

GUTHRIE:  I was going to ask you about that.

TRUMP:  Excuse me. 

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP:  That‘s another—

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP:  Excuse me. 

GUTHRIE:  Right. 

Frankly, let me just tell you—

(CROSSTALK)

GUTHRIE:  -- natural born—

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP:  Excuse me.  Excuse me.  I have..

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP:  Excuse me. 

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP:  Excuse me.  Excuse me.  Excuse me.  I told you exactly what I do. 

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP:  Excuse me.  Excuse me. 

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP:  Savannah, excuse me.  Excuse me.  Excuse me.  Excuse me. 

(CROSSTALK)

GUTHRIE:  How do you attack the deficit, and how does that go to the -

-

(CROSSTALK)

GUTHRIE:  -- U.S. default on its obligations would be grave for the economy? 

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP:  I don‘t think you have to default. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  All in all, 18 “Excuse me”s from Donald Trump today in one show interview.  Wasn‘t that Steve Martin‘s line?  Eighteen, tonight‘s very “Big Number.” 

Up next—excuse me, Don. 

Up next:  President Obama is not doing great in the new “Washington Post” poll, not at all, but his Republican rivals are doing much worse.  All the latest numbers on the president and the 2012 race coming up. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks bounce back from Monday‘s substantial declines, the Dow up 65 points, S&P 500 added seven, and Nasdaq gained 9. 

Johnson & Johnson led the Dow higher as rebounding sales gave them an earnings beat.  Goldman Sachs‘ earnings lighter than last year, but still well above estimates. 

And a trio a tech profits after the closing bell, Intel, IBM, Yahoo!  all beating expectations on the top and bottom lines. 

That‘s it from CNBC—now back to HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  We can‘t just tell the wealthiest among us, you don‘t have to do a thing.  You just sit there and relax, and everybody else, we‘re going to solve this problem. 

This is not a trade-off that I‘m willing to make.  It‘s not a trade-off that I think most Americans think is fair, no matter what party you belong to.  That‘s not who we are as a country.  We‘re better than that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That‘s President Obama today with some lines that are sure to be part of his reelection bid. 

Some new poll numbers out today from “The Washington Post” and ABC show how tough work he has to face right now.  The president‘s job approval is down to 47 percent.  That‘s a nine-point swing from a month ago.  And asked whether they would vote for President Obama in 2012, just 28 percent of the people in this country say definitely will.  Twenty-five percent said maybe.  That adds up to 53, but 40 -- 45 percent say definitely not going to vote for him, not terrific numbers. 

But are the numbers worse for the Republicans? 

Howard Fineman is the editorial page editor of the—editorial page director, rather, of The Huffington Post, and Chris Cillizza is managing editor of PostPolitics.com.  They‘re both MSNBC political analysts. 

Howard, thank you.

I‘m still—I‘m such a print guy. I keep calling you page and all that stuff. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:  It doesn‘t matter. 

We will take that.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You are the editorial director. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I keep saying editorial page.

FINEMAN:  I still have ink on my hands, don‘t worry.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  No, where—where you‘re going, you won‘t need pages. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of these numbers?  They‘re so—is this just April blues and the weather and the rain that‘s gotten people down to 47 for approval? 

But I‘m stunned by this definitely won‘t vote for Obama, 45.  I think that puts his ceiling pretty low.  Your thoughts. 

FINEMAN:  Yes, I—I would agree. 

I think, obviously, it‘s the economy in general, which people are beginning to have second thoughts about in some sectors, even as some big employers, like McDonald‘s, are talking about big hires.  But I—if I were the president and his aides, I would be a little bit worried, because this poll took place after basically round one between Representative Paul Ryan, the conservative Republican and his budget battle—his budget proposal, and then the president coming back with a speech.  This poll took place after that. 

And based on some other numbers in this poll, I think the president really lost some standing at the end of this week.  And if that is specifically because of the conversation that was just had last week, that‘s going to be something that‘s got to worry the White House. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you—do you agree with that, that—

CHRIS CILLIZZA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  -- the fact that the Republicans look strong on budget cutting, even if they‘re—they‘re making a big risk in terms of Medicare, hurting Medicare?  Are they better off, or looking strong this week? 

CILLIZZA:  Chris, I think—

MATTHEWS:  Chris Cillizza.

CILLIZZA:  I think—and this is not true, you know, forever, but I think, at the moment, people still on debt, spending, tax issues, it‘s more of a home game for Republicans than it is for Democrats.  So, I think a little bit of it is that. 

But one just piece of historical context, look, Barack Obama did win something close to a landslide Electoral College-wise in 2008, 365 Electoral College votes.  He only won 53 percent of the popular vote.  So, I think—I agree with Howard.  I think what we‘re headed toward, almost no matter what happens with the economy, we‘re headed toward a closer election than we saw in 2008. 

That said, 2008 popular vote-wise wasn‘t—

MATTHEWS:  Yes, if he wins. 

CILLIZZA:  If he wins.  But it‘s going to be—look, the Obama people will tell you this.  They are not going to win either Electoral College or popular vote the way in they won in 2008. 

This is more of a traditional battlefield, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

CILLIZZA:  We‘re back a little bit to 2000 and 2004, I think, Chris, at the moment. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m with you. 

Let me take a look at this one.  Here‘s some numbers I find fascinating, however.  We were just saying it was a tough week for Obama.  But look at this now -- 43 percent of Republicans say they‘re satisfied with the presidential field that‘s out there right now, including Trump and everybody else, the regular candidates.

But, four years ago, 65 percent, almost two-thirds of them, were happy with the field.  Look at the matchups right now between the president and the Republicans.  Romney and Huckabee do the best on that.  They‘re close, trailing by only single digits.  Trump and Bachmann both trail the president by 12 points. 

Then you go further down.  Gingrich and Pawlenty by 15 points, they trail the president.  Palin is definitely fading.  She‘s down to 17. 

Howard, these numbers are interesting because they show that, despite all the excitement about Trump—and I think there is some real excitement about him out there—that Mitt Romney remains a better bet up against Obama, and so does Huckabee, who always does better outside the media circles of the East—

FINEMAN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  -- than he does back here in the East. 

FINEMAN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Your thoughts. 

FINEMAN:  Well, my thoughts are that it—it shows that, despite all the attention being given to media-friendly and sensational candidates, if you will, the sort of plain—

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

FINEMAN:  -- down-the-middle-of-the-field thing of—of Romney and Huckabee is as probably—that type of thing is as strong as the Republicans are going to get. 

Now, you can‘t really tell from these numbers.  Somebody like Tim Pawlenty or somebody else could jump up.  But the sort of Palins, the Bachmanns, and I would say even the Trumps, et cetera, you know, they‘re—they‘re not the ones who are going to make it. 

Let me also say, Chris, that another number in the polls shows that the president‘s favorable/unfavorable ratio is down to a plus-seven.  He lost almost 10 points in one week.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

FINEMAN:  And that‘s the closest favorable/unfavorable that he‘s had since he began as president.  That‘s got to be a concern to them, it really does.

MATTHEWS:  So, he‘s better off.

FINEMAN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you—these numbers are getting tricky.  Let me

Chris Cillizza, you‘re a numbers guy as well.  I‘m just trying to figure here—Romney, I don‘t—I think he is, like they said of Mondale years ago, they called him polenta, a boring Italian food.

           

I mean, I‘m serious.  I think the whole excitement about Mr. Trump, and I know it could be quick silver, I don‘t know, but it seems to be really a statement of these other guys bore them out of their trees.  And they can‘t stand the idea of what they‘re facing running up against an exciting candidate like Obama who is quick on his feet, who‘s very good in the news cycle, to put these stiffs up against him.  And they‘re saying we‘ve got to at least try this guy, Trump, because maybe somebody else will come out of the woodwork if we talk Trump for three weeks.

CILLIZZA:  You know, Chris, two things -- 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just figuring this thing out.  Maybe it means Chris Christie will come in.

CILLIZZA:  Right.  One thing I think you‘re right—absolutely right about is the dissatisfaction in the field is real.  I was in New Hampshire last week with Haley Barbour.  Every Republican strategist I talked to, here was their answer to who was going to be the nominee.  Well, somebody has to win.  That‘s not exactly a huge vote of confidence.

Number two, here‘s what I think Trump is tapping into—someone willing to stand up and fight the president, be confrontational now.  I‘ve said this.  You‘ve said this.  Howard said this.  Picking the birther fight to me makes no sense, but it‘s the idea that he represents.

We‘re not going to just take it.  This country is too important. 

We‘ve got to stand up.

That‘s the mentality.  To be honest, you mentioned Chris Christie.  Chris Christie is kind of a more establishment version of what Donald Trump is doing.  We need to face these problems.  We need to speak truth to power.

So, I‘ve said this before.  I mean, I think there is a clear slot for Chris Christie to run in.  I don‘t think he‘s going to take it.

But Donald Trump is showing even someone with his background, he‘s past flirtation with the reform party, his past take on universal health care, he‘s still tied for first place in these polls.

FINEMAN:  Hey, Chris, you mentioned—

MATTHEWS:  Howard, we still live in a world where—can we have a Wendell Willkie?  Can we—I‘m going to talk about it in the end of the show tonight—is the Republican Party still wide open enough, at least in its heart, and hoping they can run a really good candidate against the president, who they really want to run against.  Will they possibly break loose and go for a Christie or if not for Trump, somebody out besides these boring guys that they know have been running all their lives?

FINEMAN:  Well, I don‘t think—

MATTHEWS:  Is it possible they could break loose, the Republicans?

FINEMAN:  It‘s possible, unlikely but possible—if somebody shows up in Iowa and turns things upside down.  But right now, it‘s funny that you mention Walter Mondale, Chris, because even though Barack Obama is nowhere near as popular as Ronald Reagan, don‘t forget President Obama always admired Reagan as a politician.  And I think that Mitt Romney, as worthy as he might be to some people, as deeply political as he might seem to others, is sort of a Mondale-esque kind of candidate—

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I agree.

FINEMAN: -- in that he might be the guy that they settle on just out of exhaustion because they can‘t find anybody outside the box who makes any sense.

MATTHEWS:  You know what that‘s called?  It‘s called giving up.

CILLIZZA:  Though people, Chris—though, people who win are the pizzazz candidate.  You know what I mean?  Barack Obama had substance, but the reason—he was the pizzazz.  He was more exciting than Hillary Clinton.  You know, usually the, not always, the most boring guy doesn‘t always win.

MATTHEWS:  You and I, us three guys could talk all night about this, next to the Cracker Barrel, I mean it. 

Chris Cillizza, thank you.  Howard Fineman, that‘s why I like you both.

FINEMAN:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Up next, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoes the birther bill.  What do you know?  She can do it.  The one that requires anyone running to produce baptism or circumcision documents.

She says a bridge too far.  Isn‘t it great?  She‘s finally said enough, no mas.  Although she doesn‘t exactly speak Spanish.  Anyway, we‘re getting back to the Republican—back to the big question, maybe she‘s helping out the Republicans by taking out the trash.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa is one of the right wing‘s most outspoken voices.  Now, he‘s facing a challenge from a pretty big name, Christie Vilsack, wife of agriculture secretary and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, is expected to run against Congressman King next year.  According to “Politico,” Vilsack has been considering a congressional campaign for some time but narrowed her options in recent days to zero in on King.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with a stunner.

Governor Jan Brewer last night vetoed a birther bill and a bill to allow guns on school campuses in Arizona, defying both her state‘s Republican-led legislature, which passed these bills, and her party‘s right wing base.  The state‘s birther bill would have required presidential candidates to present their original birth documents or some other document like baptismal or circumcision certificates in order to run for president.

In her veto message, Governor Brewer wrote, “This is a bridge too far.”  Did Governor Brewer realize what‘s good for the Tea Party might not be good for the Republican Party or Arizona?

Democratic State Senator Steve Gallardo opposed the bills, and he joins us from Phoenix.  And “Time” magazine‘s Mark Halperin is MSNBC‘s senior political analyst.

Senator, thank you for joining us.

STATE SEN. STEVE GALLARDO (D), ARIZONA:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Is this a gold star for Jan Brewer?  Is this a good thing she did?

GALLARDO:  Oh, definitely.  This particular bill is silly.  And I think the governor is smart enough to know this is a non-winner.  When you start looking at trying to get mainstream Arizona, particularly independents, this is a loser bill.  Why do you want to put your name on a loser bill?

The folks in Arizona want to focus on the economy, health care, jobs.  Those are the issues for the state of Arizona—not where President Barack Obama was born at.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we know he was born in Arizona, the same people here.  He‘s Governor Brewer with FOX‘s Greta Van Susteren last night.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JAN BREWER ®, ARIZONA (via telephone):  Bottom line is, is that I just have to call them as I see them and it doesn‘t help Arizona.  This bill is a distraction and we just simply need to get on with the state‘s business.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GALLARDO:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  Mark, I‘m so impressed that Jan Brewer—I was at the airport this morning in Washington and I came across a woman, a very nice lady about my age, she came up to me and she said, I‘m proud of the fact that Arizona, this governor finally did this.  It was the business community, just couldn‘t stand any more whacko things coming out of Arizona.  It was killing business.  Is that what you hear?

MARK HALPERIN, MSNBC SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, it certainly would be in keeping with what her responsibility is to the state, the legislature has passed a number of measures, mostly related to immigration, that have hurt the reputation of the state and also cost it a lot of tourism, which it needs.

So, if she did it for business purposes, that was probably the right thing to do because the state needs more moderate and less controversial image around the country.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s take a look he at the gun issue.  Let‘s take—by the way, I‘m sorry, here is governor—Senator McCain.  He tweeted today, “Proud of Governor Brewer for her veto of the birther bill.  It was the right decision.”

Let me go back to Steve Gallardo, the state senator, out there.

Are you willing to say that this might be the end—is this like the high water mark of zaniness in your state?  Do you think it‘s finally topped out, tapped out here?

GALLARDO:  Well, no, until we change the makeup of the actual state legislature, probably not.  But the end of the day, this type of legislation has put a black cloud over the state of Arizona.  It has made us the laughingstock of this country.

This is a type of legislation we do not need.  We‘ve already tried to overcome the black cloud of Senate bill 1070.  It has hurt our economy.  It has hurt our tourism.  We don‘t need this type of legislation.

So, I was glad she actually put the veto stamp to it.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask Mark one big question.  I want to stay national here.  Let‘s leave Arizona for a minute here, Senator.

Mark, do you think that these guys, like Trump, who obviously have brains.  They make a lot of money in business.  They got rational brains when it comes to making business decisions.  Do you think if you put them under sodium pentothal, these guys, all these top people, even Bachmann, would they be birthers?  Do they really believe there was some incredibly complicated conspiracy that got this guy into the country secretly, and made him an American lookalike but not really one?  Do they really believe this birther conspiracy theory, or are they just pandering to the yahoos?

HALPERIN:  Chris, I‘ve been on this show before and you have asked me a fair number of questions.  This is the first one I‘m going to say I don‘t know.

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t know whether they are for real or not?

HALPERIN:  I just don‘t know.  Would you like to see my circumcision certificate?  I have it.  I have it here.

MATTHEWS:  I have—I just think the whole thing is based upon a crazed kind of conspiracy that people were willing to believe the worst about this guy.

Let me go back to Steve Gallardo, the state senator.  When you talk to your colleagues on the floor, they come up to you—you guys probably socialize a bit.  Do they actually say they believe Obama is an imposter?  That he is somehow—his parents or somebody had him born over in Kenya so they can say he was born here and all the paperwork way back in ‘61 was forged?

I mean, the newspaper accounts back then of his birth, they were all forged?  What do they say to you?

GALLARDO:  Well, you know what, unfortunately, it‘s a small hand group of folks at the legislature that actually believe in this stuff.  They actually believe that President Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

GALLARDO:  One of the things that I think we need to ask ourselves is what exactly is a long-form birth certificate?

I‘m a fourth generation Arizonan.  I was born here in the state of Arizona.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

GALLARDO:  I have a birth certificate.  What is a long-form birth certificate?

MATTHEWS:  OK, we got to go.

GALLARDO:  Nobody has been able to show me.

HALPERIN:  It‘s not a small group.  It‘s half Republican Party.

MATTHEWS:  Half the Republican Party wants to see more documentation? 

They want to see the circumcision certificates?

Anyway, thank you, State Senator Steve Gallardo.

GALLARDO:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  You got an interesting governor out there.

Mark Halperin, thank you, sir.

When we return, “Let Me Finish” with a challenge for Donald Trump.  I think he set his own challenge.  It‘s fascinating the future he now faces politically.

You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  “Let Me Finish” tonight with the big question facing Donald Trump.  What‘s the man‘s exit strategy?  How does he intend to conclude this wild incursion into Republican presidential politics?

There are just three possible exits: he quits, he loses, he wins.

The first option is the only one he controls himself.  Anybody can quit.  That only takes one person, whatever the contest.

So, between now and the Iowa caucuses next year, one man will decide whether Donald Trump remains a prospective Republican nominee or ceases to remain one.  That‘s Trump himself.  The second and third options are for the voters.

Donald Trump could do well in Iowa next winter, finish in the money and decide to push on to the convention in Tampa.  Nobody can tell him to quit, anywhere along the route.  He‘s got the money to pay for the plane ticket.  He‘s got the fame to get a seat at the debate table.

Again, only Trump can quit.  Only Trump can say to himself, “You‘re fired.”

So, this is what he‘s gotten himself into.  From here on out, there are only three ways this ends for him: he quits, he loses, he wins the presidency.

So, what‘s it going to be?  Will Trump risk the rough stuff or pull out before it gets serious?  What‘s he got in mind here?

Well, I don‘t know the answer.  I don‘t know if Trump does.

What I know is he‘s taken this campaign of his to a new level.  I don‘t like what he said about the president.  I‘ve made that clear enough here and will keep on doing it.  Our best investigative reporter has checked out the birth information.  It‘s there—the original certificate, right where it‘s supposed to be, in the state files in Honolulu.

But Trump‘s obviously taking this to a higher level.  He‘s proven the established Republican Party is no match for him—at least in the short run.

So, what‘s he going to do with his early win?  Is he going to invest what he‘s won and go for it, or walk away from the table?

Obviously, I‘m challenging him here.  I think he would shake up an otherwise desultory Republican fight.  I think there‘s something missing in the Republican field right now—Trump may have the historic role of simply proving it.

I think the Republicans may be on the verge of relieving that exciting convention they had in Philadelphia in the months right before World War II.  They may well be on the verge of ignoring the usual set of candidates and picking someone they think actually could win.  Then it was Wendell Willkie in 1940.  He won the Republican nomination and ended up giving Franklin Roosevelt a great fight.

Next summer, it could be—let‘s be honest—at this point, just about anyone.  So, who is going to be the surprise presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 2012?  Ask yourself: is this a show Donald Trump would want to miss?

That‘s HARDBALL for now.  Thanks for being with us.

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

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