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updated 9/8/2011 12:24:58 PM ET 2011-09-08T16:24:58

Guests: Mark Halperin, Bertha Coombs, David Gregory, Peggy Noonan, Jeff Zeleny, Wayne Slater, Mark McKinnon, Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Martin


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: The next voice you hear.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews at the Ronald Reagan presidential
library in Simi Valley, California.

Leading off: Game change. In just three hours, the Republican
presidential candidates will face off here for the first of the fall
debates and the first debate featuring the new front-runner, Rick Perry of
Texas. Behind me, you can see Air Force One, which carried presidents from
1973 all the way to 2001. I happen to have been on that plane working as a
Carter speech writer for President Carter when we learned the night before
the 1980 election that Carter was going to lose to Ronald Reagan.

That plane is suspended over the stage where the eight Republican
presidential candidates will gather for the most important face-off yet of
the political year. The key issues, as Politico reported this morning, can
Perry take a punch? Can Mitt Romney throw a punch? And can Michele
Bachmann get back in the race?

They`ll all be taking aim at the man who isn`t here, of course,
President Obama, who`s looking at the worst poll numbers of his presidency
right now. Whatever happened to hope and change? Can Mr. Obama begin to
turn things around with his big speech on jobs tomorrow night?

The debate begins at 8:00 PM Eastern tonight, and you can only see it
here on MSNBC. Gotcha! And right after the debate, stay with us for
analysis with my MSNBC colleagues Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, the Reverend
Al Sharpton, Lawrence O`Donnell and Eugene Robinson.

We begin tonight with our coverage with David Gregory, the moderator
of NBC`s "MEET THE PRESS." Here with me at the Reagan library the
HuffingtonPost`s Howard Fineman, who`s also an MSNBC political analyst, and
former Ronald Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan herself, who`s a columnist
for "The Wall Street Journal" and the number one reason to read "The Wall
Street Journal" each Saturday morning.

I want to go to my colleague, David Gregory, because I think tonight
is the next voice you hear. My old boss, Tip O`Neill, used to say Ronald
Reagan`s strength was not just the words he spoke or what he looked like,
as a handsome fellow -- and handsome rascal, as Clinton would say -- but
his voice had the timbre of self-confidence, of common sense, of middle
America, as well as being a conservative.

It seems to me tonight Rick Perry`s voice -- everyone`s going to be
listening. Does the man have it? Your thoughts. And by the way, he`s a
hard guy to get, isn`t he, for the Sunday shows.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": We`re still trying.
We`re still trying.

Chris, I think you`re exactly right. I mean, this is a big leadership
moment. We`re still early here. Let`s always remind people of that. Rick
Perry is new on the scene, and boy, has he shot up in the polls.

But this is a leadership moment for everybody on that stage, but
really, you focus on Perry. You focus on Governor Romney, maybe Governor
Huntsman because this is a down economy. This is a real crisis in the
country. There`s so much pessimism. And there`s so much pessimism and
anger toward not just the president -- disapproval on top of anger -- but
also toward Republicans.

So this is about the next voice you hear, but it`s also, Am I
comfortable with this person being the next president of the United States?
Because leadership matters...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

GREGORY: ... especially when there`s a lot on the line, and that`s
what we`re in right now.

MATTHEWS: Peggy, it seems to me that, certainly, 70 percent of the
Democratic base is holding very strong. I mean, that`s not a great
percentage, but it`s there. But everybody somewhat -- to somewhat left of
center all the way to the right is looking for an option play, someone they
can see as president if Obama has to go. My thought about that -- do we
know enough about Rick Perry to say, yes or no, is he a reasonable option
play for the reasonable voter?

PEGGY NOONAN, FORMER REAGAN SPEECH WRITER: I think we`re going to
start seeing that tonight. Starting tonight, there are five debates
between now and October 18th. This is the first one. It`s the first time
Rick Perry has been on this stage with guys who`ve been around for a while
and made a real impression, like Mitt Romney.

I think what Perry will be wanting to do is showing that he is
papabile. He is a possible president.

MATTHEWS: Right.

NOONAN: You know? Papabile, meaning, of course...

MATTHEWS: I know. Could be pope.

NOONAN: ... possible pope. So I think the way you put it is, will he
find his voice and show us his voice? I would say part of tonight`s drama
is, will he look like, seem like, have the bearing and manner of a
potential president?

MATTHEWS: And going back to the question we opened with, can he take
a punch, because he`s not going to be punching. All the other guys will be
coming at him, I guess led by Bachmann, but I don`t know. What do you
think?

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, in
the reporting I was doing today to try to get that sense from the different
camps, there`s no question that he`s going to be questioned right from the
start. First of all, Ron Paul already had his ad up attacking him for the
fact that he -- that is, Rick Perry supported Al Gore a million years ago
for president.

MATTHEWS: That was kind of a pissant ad, wasn`t it?

FINEMAN: Yes...

MATTHEWS: I mean, come on. He was a conservative Democrat back then.
Al Gore was the most conservative candidate. He was a hawk as hell. He
had Marty Peretz behind him.

FINEMAN: I know.

MATTHEWS: It was a reasonable position to take at the time.

FINEMAN: OK. But if you`re going to write a book about your
political history, which Rick Perry did, called "Fed Up"...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: ... and you`re going to attack Al Gore in the book, which he
does...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: ... you might want to at least mention in a footnote that
you once supported him for president.

MATTHEWS: I got you.

FINEMAN: OK. So there`s that...

MATTHEWS: Touche!

FINEMAN: Well, then there`s the whole question of what the Texas
record really is.

MATTHEWS: OK.

FINEMAN: For conservatives, the "dream act" in Texas, which allows
the children of illegals to get a college education, which many people
think is a great idea, is something that`s anathema to the Tea Party...

MATTHEWS: Is that red meat for the yahoos?

FINEMAN: Yes. You`re going to hear a lot of that kind of stuff. To
me, the interesting question strategically, or tactically...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: ... is what does Mitt Romney do? Mitt Romney`s going to be
standing right next to him. Mitt Romney has been the "I`m the nice guy who
wears the"...

MATTHEWS: I like the way you do this! Nice guy...

FINEMAN: I`m the nice guy...

MATTHEWS: Arms out like this! But here`s the question...

FINEMAN: But does he go after...

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: ... because he`s standing right next to him.

MATTHEWS: Oh, come on. Who`s he standing (ph) there? Chuck Todd --
I was talking to him, and he`s always right about this. What happens if
Romney`s sitting there like this, watching it, like the referee, and
Michele Bachmann, who`s got a lot of spunk, starts throwing the darts at
Rick Perry and he looks like a wuss because he`s Pawlenty all of a sudden!

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: He becomes Pawlenty, the guy that didn`t throw the punch.
What happens, Peggy?

NOONAN: Well, look, I think one of the questions tonight is, will
Mitt Romney be a little rattled by the presence...

MATTHEWS: Oh!

NOONAN: ... of the big guy immediately to his left? Romney has been
the big guy standing on the line in these debate podium things.

MATTHEWS: Right. You`re right.

NOONAN: He`s been the big, tall guy, and everybody else he`s allowed
(ph) to seem sort of querulous and yappy and maybe a little pugilistic, and
he would stand there and look and smile in this calm, detached way. He
can`t do that tonight. He`s with another big guy who may be taking a few
pokes at him.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... "Toy Story," where the cowboy sees the other guy, see
the new guy...

NOONAN: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: I`m sorry. Go ahead, David. Your thoughts?

GREGORY: I just want to make a couple points. Let`s not forget that
there`s a couple different audiences here that these candidates are playing
to. The principal audience are those Republican primary voters, the
enthusiasts who here in September before there`s even a primary, already --
already dialed in. They`re paying attention. They want to see who`s up
and who`s down.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

GREGORY: And this is who can -- who can best Tea Party the other? I
mean, who can rail against the government and the role of government,
particularly at this time in a distressed economy? Who can outdo Rick
Perry, who is an incumbent governor who`s running against Washington and
the role of government generally?

But there`s a second audience, too, right? There`s an audience out
there of folks who think Washington`s getting it absolutely wrong and is
part of the problem. And that`s Republicans and Democrats, not just
President Obama. They got to think down the road to a general election.

So if you`re Mitt Romney, you`re thinking about both of those things
at once because their whole play is that somehow, Rick Perry, is a
diversion, that it`s absurd. The whole candidacy is absurd, that you can`t
write a book...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

GREGORY: ... like he wrote and be taken seriously. That may be
wishful thinking because Romney`s been in this race for a while, and here
there`s somebody like a Perry who can rise so quickly in the polls. It
says something about the state of the Republican electorate right now.

MATTHEWS: Yes. But let me ask you guys if that`s a reasonable
proposition on the part of -- Peggy, first. You know, the old dog food
argument about the dog likes -- that doesn`t care about the commercial, he
doesn`t like the dog food. The Republican people have been seeing Mitt
Romney now for years.

He says he`s not a career politician. That`s always been -- he ran
against Ted Kennedy, ran for governor, couldn`t run for reelection because
Hey didn`t like him up there, ran for president, lost, is running again.
All that guy does is run for office, and he says he`s against career --
they`ve had a good luck at this guy. And after looking at him for years,
they see Rick Perry and say, Better him.

NOONAN: Well, it`s interesting that a lot of people are still
shopping.

MATTHEWS: They are?

NOONAN: Yes. Up in New Hampshire -- a friend of mine who knows these
things told me that the Republicans up there are showing up in big numbers
at one guy`s event, and then they`re showing up, the same people, at the
other guy`s event. So there`s -- there`s a certain amount of that.

But connected to what David said, as I was driving here through the
suburbs of southern California, I was looking out at a bunch of homes, just
average people homes, and I was wondering if I was going to say -- hear
anything tonight that actually would have an impact on the lives of the
people whose houses I was just passing. This is very base-o-centric, this
part of the campaign. Do you know what I mean? This is...

MATTHEWS: When did Ronald Reagan do that? When did he connect that
way, back in the `80s?

NOONAN: God, it...

MATTHEWS: When he said, "Are you better off than you were four years
ago?" My dad said he thought that was a great line, even though he had
mentioned it before on the trail.

NOONAN: That was in a debate. That happened in a debate. But it was
interesting, when Reagan announced in 1980, put on his shirtsleeves and he
went to Liberty Park and he went in front of the Statue of Liberty and he
said, This is a broad movement, not a narrow one.

It seems to me one of the things the fellows and lady on this stage
want to do is show that they mean it, they`re serious, they`re passionate,
they`re sincere, but they are -- they are not in the thrall of ideology.
Do you know what I mean?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

NOONAN: They can`t make themselves small to win now...

MATTHEWS: Well, and I watched that debate...

NOONAN: ... and then be larger.

MATTHEWS: I watched that on NBC News that night at a bar in
Georgetown because I had written Carter`s speech that day. And I went and
saw your candidate at that time, Ronald Reagan, standing there with the
Statue of Liberty behind him. And I said, My God, he`s rediscovered an
American icon, the Statue of Liberty, which is the statement of all
immigrant Americans...

NOONAN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: ... which is most of us, and he took it back from the
Democrats in one afternoon.

NOONAN: Yes!

MATTHEWS: It was so dramatic. Howard, let me respond to this
(INAUDIBLE) We got a new poll that shows Republicans -- (INAUDIBLE) by "The
Washington Post" and ABC -- look at this number now. It`s about who people
think is most likely to beat President Obama. This is the name of the
game, you could say. David Gregory was just saying you have to think to
the future of this general election.

Here`s Mitt Romney. He`s 10 points behind him right now -- I`m sorry,
let`s get it straight. Rick Perry is ahead by 10 -- 30. Romney at 20,
Palin down at 8, the rest in single and lower digits, down about half lower
digits. It looks to me like they think right now, based upon this very
veneer (ph) look at him, that Perry is more electable than Romney.

FINEMAN: Well, at first blush, that`s a devastating number for Mitt
Romney, whose whole argument is based on, I`m the reasonable guy, I`m the
calm guy whose circumstances will allow to be president because I`ve got
the business background, I`ve got the demeanor. I`m the guy.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: Yes, you may temporarily be fascinated by these other
people, but you know, like it or not, I`m your guy. Provisionally, what
people in that poll are saying is, Nah. We`d rather not have you unless we
have to have you. I mean, that`s sort of the Romney strategy -- You`ll be
distracted by these other people, but you`ll come back to good, old Mitt
Romney...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: ... because he can get it done in the context of running
against Obama. But right now, I think Republicans at the grass roots are
really interested in Rick Perry. Some of these numbers for Rick Perry are
just, We`re curious about you, Rick Perry. We really want to know.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

GREGORY: Hey...

FINEMAN: So that`s -- that`s...

MATTHEWS: Go ahead, David. Go ahead. Jump in. And David, I think a
part of this -- we don`t like to talk too much about it, but I`ll do it,
darn it. Part of this may be Southern conservatives, Christian
conservatives, people in the religious right, who have been shopping
around, looking for a candidate like them, and Romney isn`t like them.
He`s a member of the LDS church. He`s obviously a Northeastern guy...

GREGORY: Right.

MATTHEWS: ... a Harvard guy -- rather, a St. Paul`s guy, whatever.
He went to one of those schools up there. And he`s not one of them. Isn`t
it as simple as geography and tribe maybe, if you look at it that way?

GREGORY: Well, in part. I mean, look, there were some very
influential Republicans back in 2008 who felt that Mitt Romney would have a
Mormon problem, particularly in the South among Christian conservative
voters. He`s going to put that to the test. It`s, I think, very difficult
to poll for that, very difficult to know about that.

But I wanted to add another element, too, which is I think there are
some shades of 2004 here, as well, when you think about the candidacy of
Senator Kerry. Look, there were no weapons of mass destruction found in
Iraq, and George W. Bush was reelected president. I always point that out
to make the point that it`s not easy to dislodge a president of the United
States. The guy you worked for had it happen to him under pretty
precarious and extreme circumstances, and that may...

MATTHEWS: Right. True.

GREGORY: ... yet be what we face here for President Obama. But part
of this is voters in this kind of economy looking and making a competence
judgment. So I think that the difficulty for Perry and part of the test
here is, what kind of political skills does he really have in the forum of
a debate? What kind of competency does he look like he has? This is where
they`re going to have to be careful about appealing to the Tea Party
sentiment, the anti-government sentiment, and then thinking about, OK,
well, what the heck are going to you do when you actually get into office
when you got this kind of difficulty facing you?

MATTHEWS: Yes, is he a credible president. Good thought. David
Gregory of "MEET THE PRESS," Howard Fineman of everything, especially the
HuffingtonPost...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: ... and us, and Peggy Noonan, who really is the reason I
read "The Wall Street Journal" religiously and tribally every Saturday
morning. You write the best column of any newspaper.

And remember, Brian Williams and John Harris will moderate the
Republican debate. It`s coming up here, right down there at the Reagan
library tonight, 8:00 o`clock Eastern. By the way, you have to watch it on
MSNBC tonight. Can`t watch it anywhere else. So watch it here. Enjoy it.
And stick around for a couple hours afterwards as we go through it.

And then join us tomorrow night for the president`s big jobs speech,
also on MSNBC, 7:00 PM Eastern, well before the NFL opener. Coming up, by
the way, with his big job approval at a new low. So it`s a big night for
the president.

What`s happened to President Obama? That`s what we`re going to talk
about coming back here in a second. Can he recapture the hope and change
he showed us all about and talked all about in his campaign? That`s the
big question tomorrow night.

You`re watching HARDBALL from the Ronald Reagan presidential library,
where the Republican candidates debate tonight, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. The Republican candidates right now are
certainly going to go after President Obama tonight. He`s preparing to
give his own big speech tomorrow night back in Washington. But the
president might have a bigger problem than his detractors on stage.

The latest poll numbers paint a grim picture, obviously, with 53
percent of Americans disapproving his job performance right now, according
to the latest "Washington Post"/ABC poll, 62 percent disapprove his
handling of the economy -- wow! -- 47 percent strongly are in that category
of disapproval, and 77 percent this the country -- boy, this is a powerful
number, 4 out of 5 -- heading in the wrong direction, which is up 11
points. These are the worst numbers ever I think for President Obama.

Even more problematic, the White House is having a difficult time
branding the president. Who is he, the pragmatic compromiser who came into
office promising a post-partisan era, or the champion of the working and
middle class, willing to take on conservatives and big business? Is he a
populist, a pragmatist or what?

Joining me right now to discuss that is MSNBC senior political analyst
and "Time" magazine editor-at-large, Mark Halperin, and "The New York
Times" Jeff Zeleny.

And these are the questions that I`ve spent, like -- I`ve had two
weeks off. What a great time. You go out and you listen to people, the
East Coast, I was out in Wyoming, I was back in Massachusetts.

And Jeff, you report this all the time. And this sense -- it`s no
longer, What`s he doing wrong? It`s, Who is he? Did we get the guy wrong?
Did we miss something? Is he a political animal? Is he someone who
connects with people organically, like political leaders do, or is he just
a disconnected soul?

JEFF ZELENY, "NEW YORK TIMES": I`m struck by how much the
conversation and the questions right now about President Obama are the same
ones that were being asked four years ago when he was a candidate. Is he
experienced enough? Is he tough enough? Would anyone ever be afraid of
this guy? Who is he really? Is he, you know, a hard-core liberal...

MATTHEWS: So he`s the same guy.

ZELENY: I think he`s the same guy, but I think his -- you know,
reality has struck him in the face here, and they`re having a very hard way
navigating around that, and he`s frustrated because of it. You can tell.

MATTHEWS: He`s frustrated with his own people? Is he happy with the
people around him? He`s got David Plouffe, he`s got Axelrod, he`s got
Billy Daley as his chief of staff. Does he feel that he isn`t being served
well by the people around him, or what?

ZELENY: I think that he`s happy with those people. He has always had
such a tight set of advisers. These people, with the exception of Bill
Daley, have been with him since the beginning. But in terms of other
advice he`s getting about what to do about the economy, sort of like the
next circle of advisers, he has been frustrated, I`m told, with the advice
and specific policy proposals that he`s been getting throughout the summer,
throughout the debt ceiling debate certainly.

MATTHEWS: Sometimes, I wonder if he isn`t counting on this kind of
what seems to be the -- my intuition of what Mitt Romney is up to. He
seems to think there`s something fundamentally flawed about Rick Perry, so
he can wait him out. In other words, don`t jump at the jugular now. Let
Perry stumble himself and then he will eventually be the last man standing.

Does Obama figure because he seems so debonair still that the
Republicans are going to blow it, they`re going to step on it?

MARK HALPERIN, MSNBC SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He thinks they are
going to nominate someone who is so controlled by the, beholden to the Tea
Party, that he is able to win.

The project he faces now and with his advisers is the same as Bill
Clinton in 1995, George Bush in 2003, which will culminate at the
convention next summer. How do you tell a story about the same guy,
because he is the same guy, in a different way that takes into account the
troubles of his first term and contrasts him with the Republican?

He looks in very bad shape. The poll numbers you cite put him in bad
shape.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HALPERIN: The minute there is a Republican nominee, he will look to
be in stronger shape than he is today, no matter who that is, no matter how
they emerge, once he has the ability to contrast. George Bush, 2004,
contrast with Kerry, won him the election.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HALPERIN: Clinton did it with Dole. Obama will at least try to do it
with whoever the Republicans...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a paradigm. John Lindsay of New York, an elite
mayor of New York, very attractive candidate, but very unpopular mayor for
a while in New York. He was able to get reelected against a strong
opposition, ethnic -- no, people in the boroughs, by saying second toughest
job in the world. He was able simply to lower the bar on expectations,
simply saying this job is so tough, mayor of New York, that I have done an
OK job. Keep me in the job.

Can Obama say, I walked into such crap, such horror left behind by the
President George W. that I did pretty well given that? Can he lower that
bar? Are is the public still going to say wait a minute, buddy, it`s 9.1
percent unemployment, it`s your fault? Can he change that question?

ZELENY: He can maybe lower it a little bit, but not entirely.

The reality is, some voters who voted for him still have these deep
questions about him that I think are different than President Bush faced
and maybe even President Clinton faced. Some are just not sure who the guy
is. So I think the next few months are critical.

MATTHEWS: You keep going back to who he is.

What are the options? Does anybody deep down believe, except for the
far right, that he is a deep-down, gut lefty? Do people really believe
that in the middle?

HALPERIN: Yes.

ZELENY: No, I don`t think people...

MATTHEWS: Do they believe that?

HALPERIN: I think some do.

ZELENY: I`m not sure that people in the middle believe that
necessarily, but it seems sort of different than them.

The people on the left certainly don`t believe it and that is another
problem that the White House has.

MATTHEWS: So the left doesn`t believe he is a left, but the right
thinks he is a left. Do you believe the middle thinks he is a left?

HALPERIN: I think the people like the Massachusetts voters who voted
for Scott Brown think that he has gone off track by being too much of a big
spender on some of the things.

Health care, the country is still divided on. The stimulus is not
seen as a big success. He doesn`t get much credit for the auto bailout
having saved jobs in that way.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HALPERIN: So I think he -- if the battle is to define himself as a
good steward of the economy or someone who is not a big-spending liberal, I
don`t think he will win that election. But if the battle is to define
himself against the Republican -- take Rick Perry.

If Rick Perry is the nominee, what he has said about Social Security
is something that in the past we`d have said no one could win a general
election with that kind of position on Social Security.

MATTHEWS: Yes. But I learned with Ronald Reagan a president who has
a voice, a candidate who is competent can update his views and change them
back to the middle because he`s live and he`s there and the rest is on
paper somewhere.

Let`s take a look. Here are some of the troubling numbers. Well,
here are a few things we can expect from the president`s job plan tomorrow
night. That`s what we`re hearing. There will be something in there of the
magnitude of $40 billion injected into the economy, a mix of tax cuts and
spending. "The New York Times" reported today -- that is your paper -- the
plan`s centerpiece will be a proposal to extend for another year the
payroll tax fund break actually paid by workers which is due to expire at
the end of the year. That could mean as much as $200 billion being
injected into the economy.

There will also likely be an extension of unemployment benefits, which
are also due to expire this year. Obama will -- the president will also be
likely to talk about spending on projects to repair roads, railroads,
airports, and schools. And he will probably propose direct aid to local
governments, which will focus on halting layoffs of teachers and first-
responders, Bloomberg has reported.

This is distressing to me. This looks like a stimulus package from
back in 2009. It looks like what I`m calling sundries and notions, like
they used to have on drugstores, sundries and notions, no oomph, no big
bang, no something a cab driver can say, hey, guess what he is going to do
now? I`m so thrilled. He is finally going to do something about jobs.

Is this that? Is this what you`re reporting, this motley crew of
usual suspects?

ZELENY: What we`re reporting is that it is very much a moderated-
sized...

MATTHEWS: But it`s so familiar.

(CROSSTALK)

ZELENY: ... package.

The question is, though, are Republicans going to oppose even this?
We saw what happened with his last stimulus plan. From the very beginning,
they lockstepped in opposition to this.

MATTHEWS: But this is so obvious. This is stuff that`s been on the
street for years -- for weeks at least, right?

ZELENY: It has been on the street for weeks. There is nothing fresh
in there.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: So, why go to Congress? Why ask for a joint session?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Why ask for a joint session and go down to the Congress and
stand up on the Hill with everybody in America watching across the world
and say, here is what you have been talking about for weeks?

ZELENY: They certainly have raised expectations for this. They want
to reset the conversation. We will see if they can do it in another
speech.

MATTHEWS: OK. I have to ask you something.

You confuse me sometimes, Mark, because you have said something really
tough about the president. And they may both be true. You say he should
go to the Senate with something like we`re seeing here, a motley crew of
usual suspects, but they are still going to dump on it, the Republicans.

HALPERIN: I -- again, what I care about is helping the country and
turning things around.

MATTHEWS: Would this work?

HALPERIN: If you believe in spending and tax breaks to stimulate the
economy, given the scale of the problem now, $300 billion or $400 billion
is not enough.

MATTHEWS: OK.

HALPERIN: It`s just not enough, if that`s your theory.

MATTHEWS: So, go little or go big? What should he do?

HALPERIN: Well, I still think he`s going to have to get anything
through John Boehner. And...

MATTHEWS: Should he go big or small?

HALPERIN: He should go with something that John Boehner and he can
agree on.

MATTHEWS: Big or small? Big or small?

HALPERIN: As big as possible under those circumstances.

MATTHEWS: OK, as big as possible.

OK. Mark Halperin, who I`m going to keep working to find out what
this guy is thinking.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Mark.

And thank you, Jeff Zeleny, the "New York Times" reporter, the best
out there.

Up next -- along with Dan Balz.

Up next: Tim Pawlenty lets loose now with what he is like. Boy,
these guys are so funny after they get beaten. He is really a card right
now. Wait until you hear what he has to say about his erstwhile opponents,
the Republicans who beat him.

And moments ago, Michele Bachmann arrived here at the Reagan
Presidential Library. Did she come in to take a look, to walk through?
There she is taking a look at her mike stand. I saw Rick Perry, the
governor, do that a moment ago. There she is, Marcus, her husband, with
her. They`re all doing that. They`re getting a physical sense of what it
is like to stand in front of that audience tonight.

And there is -- there is Huntsman now, who has had a cold today. But
he has got a good voice. I think he might be something tonight. He said,
call me crazy if I believe in evolution. Well, that sets him apart.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. And now for the "Sideshow."

First up: He may have been dubbed one of the more bland candidates of
the 2012 race, but now that he`s out of the running, former Governor Tim
Pawlenty of Minnesota showed he can actually let loose a little on "The
Colbert Report" last night. Pawlenty explained his reasons for stepping
out after the Ames straw poll.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Why did you drop out
after Ames?

TIM PAWLENTY (R), FORMER MINNESOTA GOVERNOR: I was out of money. And
the -- I came in third place behind Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul. I think
that is enough for any one person to endure.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Wow. Well, these candidates always look better after
they`re out of the race. Remember what Kris Kristofferson said in those
lyrics, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

COLBERT: Let`s make some news.

PAWLENTY: All right. Let`s do it.

COLBERT: Is there someone you would like to endorse in the 2012 race?

PAWLENTY: You.

COLBERT: I`m not running.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

COLBERT: I`m not running.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

COLBERT: I`m more like Sarah Palin. I`m a television personality.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, leave it to Colbert to get the last word in on that
one.

Anyway, and now to tomorrow night`s big event, President Obama`s big
jobs speech. Last week, Republican Representative Joe Walsh opted to
boycott the speech, deciding to spend this Thursday night, tomorrow night,
in his home state of Illinois.

Well, he now has got some fellow Republicans following his lead. What
does Louisiana Senator David Vitter have planned for tomorrow night?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DAVID VITTER (R), LOUISIANA: I`m going to be watching from my
family room in Metairie, Louisiana, because I have a Saints game party
there, and I`m absolutely going to be there for the big game, kickoff of
the Saints season and the whole NFL.

As a fanatic, I have my priorities.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, of course he was known for different kinds of parties
in the past.

And if that is not enough, where will Georgia Representative Paul
Broun be during Obama`s address tomorrow night? Well, in his office across
the street.

Well, I say, rather than joining his colleagues on the Capitol, Broun
will be sitting in his office posting comments about the president`s
address on Twitter. The Georgia congressman did the same thing during this
year`s State of the Union address.

And here`s what I think. If these people refuse to respect public
office, they should stop calling themselves "the honorable" before their
names. Just dump the whole pretense of shared public duty. That`s what I
say.

By the way, speaking of Twitter, I will be tweeting tonight during the
GOP debate in real time, and you can follow me @HARDBALL_Chris. I will be
doing round by round. It`s going to be fun from right up here.

Up next, we saw Rick Perry do this -- his walk-through of the debate
stage earlier today. Tonight, we will see him for the first time in a
debate. What can we expect from the Texas governor? What a big show
tonight. The next voice we`re going to hear is his.

You`re watching HARDBALL from the Reagan Presidential Library, where
the Republican presidential candidates debate right here tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERTHA COOMBS, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Bertha Coombs with your CNBC
"Market Wrap."

Stocks come storming back on better news out of Europe, breaking that
three-day losing streak, the Dow Jones industrials soaring 275 points, the
S&P 500 adding 33, and the Nasdaq up 75 points. Germany`s highest court
ruling that the country`s participation in bailouts for its struggling
neighbors is constitutional. That went a long way toward easing fears
about the debt crisis there.

And we saw companies with significant international exposure beating
today`s rally, investors shrugging off a Beige Book report from the Federal
Reserve that showed the pace of recovery slowing in lots of areas in the
country, but financials surging, with Bank of America out in front after it
makes some major changes at the top its executive list.

And a solid rally for some of the smaller banks as well on an analyst
upgrade out of Deutsche Bank. Finally, Yahoo! gaining after firing CEO
Carol Bartz amid relentlessly sluggish ad sales, had a falling out with its
Chinese partner Alibaba, that firing coming in a phone call.

That`s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide -- now back to
HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Tonight`s debate is right here, and all eyes are going to be on Rick
Perry. He`s the clear front-runner in all the polls right now. And this
is going to be his first big appearance or first appearance of any kind in
a debate with his fellow candidates.

And what does Perry need to do tonight or avoid doing?

Wayne Slater is the senior political writer for "The Dallas Morning
News," and Republican strategist Mark McKinnon is a former adviser to W. to
President George W. Bush, and to John McCain. He`s also co-founder of No
Labels, an organization dedicated to putting party labels aside in
politics.

Well, we are not going to do that tonight. This is the Republican
debate, Mark.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK MCKINNON, FORMER MEDIA ADVISER TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Of
course not.

MATTHEWS: Both of you gentlemen, I want you to listen or watch the
following. Here are some of Rick Perry`s most talked-about comments in the
past month, starting with his criticism of Fed -- Federal Reserve Chairman
Ben Bernanke. Let`s all listen to Rick Perry.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If this guy prints
more money between now and the election, I don`t know what you all would do
to him in Iowa, but we would -- we would treat him pretty ugly down in
Texas.

(LAUGHTER)

PERRY: I mean, printing more money to play politics at this
particular time in American history is almost treacherous -- or treasonous,
in my opinion.

I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized. I
think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated
data, so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.

And, you know, it`s a theory that is out there. It`s got some gaps in
it. But, in Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our schools,
because I figure...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ask him why he doesn`t believe in science.

PERRY: ... because I figure you`re smart enough to figure out which
one is right.

I`m actually -- I`m actually for gun control. Use both hands.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Mark McKinnon, I guess the question is, will that kind of
raw meat for the right, which does work with the churchy Republicans and
the people on the fundamentalist right, who don`t believe in evolution,
don`t like climate change, like guns, that sort of person -- and there`s a
lot of them -- is that risky business for a guy who wants to run for
president?

MCKINNON: It`s a little bit risky.

And I think that both Governor Perry and his aides know that he needs
to dial it back about five or 10 degrees, that he came out of the chute a
little hot.

But, Chris, I think that this is one debate where the hype is actually
merited. There is so much at stake for Governor Perry, that all eyes are
on him tonight. And it reminds me of the debate where Pawlenty, you know,
was with Romney and didn`t take the shot when it was teed up. And as a
result of that debate, Pawlenty`s fortunes plummeted and that`s why he`s
out of the race now.

So, those are the stakes that Rick Perry has tonight. If he does
well -- just does well, then I think he`s in for the long run. But if he
has any big problems tonight, it could sink his campaign fast. So, a lot
at stake -- big stakes, big spotlight.

And as Wayne can tell you, he`s only done four debates before. So --
and, by the way, I remember when Governor Bush had his first debates, you
know, how much was at stake there. I remember the very first press
conference in New Hampshire and you were there, Chris. I remember him
calling you out across the room. But it`s big stakes and I know they`ve
got to be nervous --

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Yes.

MCKINNON: -- because it`s a big deal.

MATTHEWS: You know, I guess the best position to be in in any debate
is the under dog. You`re not going to do well. Pawlenty`s problem was he
hyped up. He`s going after him, go after Romneycare and Obamacare and all
that. He didn`t do it. He became a wuss and lost the whole thing.

Do you buy the fact that Mark just said that Rick Perry has to do
anything tonight or just be a reasonable, slow-talking Gary Cooper-type and
not screw up?

WAYNE SLATER, DALLAS MORNING NEWS: I think the second. That`s what
he has to do.

Mark`s right. His aides said, you got to turn down the cowboy a
little bit. Turn that down a little bit. Look a little more presidential.

MATTHEWS: He`s got his boots on by the way.

SLATER: I saw that.

MATTHEWS: Going to be that much of a cowboy.

SLATER: There you go. But the deal is he knows that you have to be
a fighter. This Tea Party crowd wants somebody who goes against Barack
Obama.

And Perry`s instinct, natural instinct is there is a saying in Texas
that if you`re burning bridges behind you it`s not a problem if you don`t
retreat. And he doesn`t retreat.

MATTHEWS: Do you think he could be a success tonight if he simply
puts a couple hard zingers at the president and deflects all the attacks
against him from the right?

SLATER: I think he has to deflect those attacks. I mean, obviously,
you have to go after Barack Obama. That`s easy. It`s going to be easy
right here.

The other thing he`s got to do is if he`s punched or perceived as
being punched, say, Romney is going to talk about either the in state
tuition issue where Perry signed a bill, he may mention that, to help
children of illegal immigrants, or if he talks about, which, of course, he
will, the career politicians, Perry needs to show I go after him.

Mark was right on that one point absolutely. Don`t be a pawlenty
here and look like when you`re standing next to the guy and Romney and
Perry will be standing next to each other, don`t look like a wuss.

MATTHEWS: Yes, another --

MCKINNON: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about political tactics. It seems to me, Mark,
that one of the most successful political tactics in warfare or political
warfare is the attack from a defensive position. Your best position in a
debate is to wait for your opponent to take a shot. At the moment he takes
a shot or she takes a shot, she`s exposed. You come back with a thundering
counterpunch whether it`s there you go again or something like that it just
levels the person.

MCKINNON: Right.

MATTHEWS: Isn`t that the great opportunity that Rick Perry has
tonight? He knows they`re coming for him.

MCKINNON: I think it is and I do think that, (a), the premium is on
being reasonable, calm, and assured and confident, but I also think the
surprise could be that Perry will wind up and throw a few, and maybe not
just offensively either. I mean, as Wayne said, it`s his instinct to be
very aggressive.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MCKINNON: And he doesn`t shy away from a fight. He likes to start a
fight.

MATTHEWS: Well, here he is. Here is an example of Rick Perry in
action at the Tea Party rally this April -- actually April two years ago --
on the possibility of Texas seceding from the union. By the way, he is
running for president of the Union right now. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Texas is a unique
place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was if we
would be able to leave if we decided to do that. You know, my hope is that
America and Washington in particular pays attention. We`ve got a great
Union. There is absolutely no reason to dissolve it.

But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American
people, you know, who knows what may come out of that?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, of course, it`s all historic nonsense as you know.
And Mark knows. There was no agreement when Texas joined the Union that it
could flip out whenever it wanted to. That was what the Civil War was all
about. It was allowed to break into smaller states if it wanted to but
that was part of the agreement.

But how does he get away with this sort of horse manure?

SLATER: What are you talking about? It`s great.

MATTHEWS: Most of that is considered sedition.

SLATER: No. Basically this is tough talk. It`s basically --

MATTHEWS: That`s all it is. Malarkey.

SLATER: His problem, it`s malarkey -- but historical malarkey.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SLATER: But basically, the guys who listen to it don`t listen -- I
mean, they listen to you.

MATTHEWS: Ha!

SLATER: They listen to you, but they don`t -- what they care about
is that somebody is talking tough and saying this kind of stuff. I was
there at that rally. They loved every bit of what he said on the stage
when he yelled state`s rights, state`s rights, state`s rights.

MATTHEWS: OK. Mark, is any candidate for office at any level ever
lost because of something they said before the campaign? In this era, even
of videotape, when you`re able to fix things as you go along, isn`t it
possible that he can modulate, moderate, move to the center successfully --
or not?

MCKINNON: This is something I really agree with you on, Chris. You
know, I hear people --

MATTHEWS: Well, I`m asking. I don`t know the answer really. I
honestly don`t.

MCKINNON: Well, I thought I heard you say it on another program or
earlier. But I do believe that Perry and other candidates, I hear the
attacks on his record and I can easily see how he`s going to be able to
deflect a lot of this like the secession issue. I think people are going
to judge him based primarily on his performance and his plan for the
future.

You know, there`s a lot out there on his record. No question about
that. And Wayne knows all the specifics and there`s a lot to chew on.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MCKINNON: But I just think that people are going to largely give
that a pass and look at what he`s talking about going forward.

MATTHEWS: Especially if he`s running against Pawlent or Pawlenty,
either one. Pawlent is still in the race. Pawlenty is gone.

Thank you, Wayne Slater. Thank you, Mark McKinnon.

Up next, the three things to watch in tonight`s debate. We`re going
to make it very simple right now, the way people think about it.

You`re watching HARDBALL from the Reagan Presidential Library --
actually, a very beautiful part of the country where the debate begins in a
little over two hours from now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

The debate here at the Reagan Library is coming up soon. It`s set to
begin in just a couple hours. The expectations are high. And, by the way,
it is going to be a big night, as Mark McKinnon said a few minutes ago.
This is going to be the one that matters.

It`s about the newly minted front runner Rick Perry and how he does
against the rest of the candidates who are all out to try to catch up to
him. So, can we expect a sharp attacks on tonight`s face-off and this
final chance? Actually, for someone who actually to get into the race and
break through as candidates -- some of them aren`t even there yet.

Joining me right now to talk about three things we should all be
looking for tonight for "Politico" -- we got the political reporters, we
got Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, both from "Politico" -- which
really has become a key organ of this political year.

Maggie, your thoughts on Perry. I watched him walked out here. He
has his cowboy boots on. He looks good. He`s got all his hair. He`s in
pretty good shape. He`s the right age to run for president.

He seems to have the right -- a little bit of that Texas sort of
swagger, but that`s not a negative.

What do you think he has to do tonight besides just sort of look
good?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, POLITICO: He`s got to put a little bit of the
swagger away. He can`t hear the violence against Ben Bernanke and those
types of comments that he`s made on the trail.

He needs to look presidential. He needs to deliver a message. He
needs to stick to that message.

He needs to push back on any about the attacks. And he will get some
tonight. But he mostly just needs to surprise. This is the first time
people are meeting him on a national stage.

MATTHEWS: So dignity?

HABERMAN: Dignity would be a high point.

MATTHEWS: Let`s move it around fast. Romney, doesn`t he stand in
danger of -- if he continues to these last couple days of saying I don`t
even notice that this guy is killing me.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He`s acting this debonair manner of saying, oh, yes, fine.
. Does he run the danger of being Pawlenty here, the guy who lost the
race, got knocked out a couple weeks ago by not fighting?

JONATHAN MARTIN, POLITICO: I think you`ll see with Romney, Chris, is
you will see some subtle lines of contrast with Perry. He`s not going to
mention Perry`s name out of the gate, but I think you`ll hear the words
career politician from Romney, which what he`s been doing in the last week
or so, to sort of start --

MATTHEWS: Wait, OK. Career politician -- you, buster, tried to be a
career politician. You ran for the Senate, you lost. You ran for
governor, and you couldn`t get re-elected again. Now, you`re running for
president for the second time. You`ve been running for office for 20
years. Career politician.

MARTIN: But you`ve run four times in the last two decades. I think
what happens --

MATTHEWS: How is he not a career politician? He`s been running for
office all his adult life.

MARTIN: I think what happens is, when Romney starts going down that
road, Perry hears that. It sets off bells in his hears. Perry is not
going to take that. He will respond.

And once Perry responds, then you`re going to have, I think, a real
back-and-forth between those two. Do Romney folks expect Perry to throw
that punch? But I think Romney is going to make it easier by going to that
career politician, to sort of --

MATTHEWS: Yes. But isn`t that a Maggie, what we call, I got the
right word for television -- isn`t that kind of wussy to use career
politician when every single person watching television knows you`re
talking about the other guy.

HABERMAN: Well, he`s hoping that he can fall back against his
business record. He is hoping that everybody out there doesn`t know that.

Perry is going to be sure to remind them and other people on stage
well.

MATTHEWS: Perry says he lost jobs in Massachusetts.

HABERMAN: That`s true. And I think that Romney will have a come
back for that. And I think that he`ll hope to get around it.

MATTHEWS: This has the makings of maybe the year of the woman for
the Republican Party this year in the beginning. Sarah Palin who may still
get in it, doesn`t look like she`s in it right now and she`s not here
tonight. And Michele Bachmann came on like gang busters a couple weeks
ago, maybe a month ago, when she entered the race. What`s happening?

I`m looking at these poll numbers, they`re not doing well. The two
women are still sort of talked about in the debate. And the polling are
down below 10 percent.

Is Michele Bachmann really fading out of this campaign at this point?

HABERMAN: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think tonight is a pivotal
evening for her. She needs some kind of a break-out performance to prove
that she has the strength to keep going into the fall. Otherwise, I think
her donations are going to fall off. They`re already falling off.

I think Rick Perry is just taking her Tea Party support and sucking
it all up.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let`s talk about her. They have a lifter down there
for her, a little platform to get her high up to the other guys up there.
That`s fair enough. It happens all the time.

MARTIN: Sure.

MATTHEWS: But then you have -- she is two guys away from the action
because the way it`s set up tonight, you got Perry next door to Romney and
then there`s somebody in between. I don`t know who it is. Somebody is in
between.

How does she get in that fistfight between the two guys? How does
she break in there?

MARTIN: Well, I think for her, she got to find a way to draw a
contrast with Perry because she needs to have a strong showing in Iowa.
Perry is the one standing in her way there. How does she outflank Perry on
the right?

MATTHEWS: So, you look for that fight tonight?

MARTIN: Is it immigration? Is it -- I don`t know tonight. But if
she wants it make a move, I think that`s where she`s going to go.

MATTHEWS: I can`t wait for that.

MARTIN: But, Chris, as Maggie reported first this week, she lost two
of her top campaign aides. Her campaign needs a second act

MATTHEWS: Ed Rollins.

MARTIN: -- a second and fast.

MATTHEWS: Who`s going to hire Ed Rollins? Which network?

Anyway, thank you, Maggie Haberman. And thank you, Jonathan Martin.
It`s great to have you on.

When we return, let me finish with the debate that started all this,
the 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
That`s what started all this business.

You`re starting HARDBALL from the Reagan Presidential Library where
the Republicans meet tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with the event that started all
this. The presidential debates of Senator John F. Kennedy, Democrat,
versus Vice President Richard Nixon, Republican, back in 1960. It`s the
NBC studios in Washington which is to be the scene of second debate. Three
men come walking into the front door and into Studio A.

They realize the room is freezing. It`s a freakin` meat locker in
there. John Kennedy wants to know what the heck is going on. In fact, he
quickly knows exactly what`s going on. He remembered how bad Nixon looked
in the first debate and why.

Realizing what was up and why, Kennedy`s younger brother and
protector, Bobby, he decided what was going on. He went racing to the
control. Kennedy`s TV adviser knew better. He headed down to the basement
where the air conditioning system was. And he finds that a Nixon man
standing guard over the thermostat who threatens -- and then he threatens
to call the police if the guy doesn`t get out of the way.

Well, you think all this is fun and games? Think again. Nixon
looked terrible this n that first debate, with Kennedy under the harsh
camera lights in those days. Look at the picture there. And after his
recent hospitalization for a leg infection, his white skin and his fair
make up all contributed to a very bad night for Nixon in that first contest
with Kennedy. The Kennedy people wanted him sweating again in the second
debate. They made the heat for the second debate was back up to 70s even
before the lights were on. They wanted Nixon to cook out there on the
stage in the second debate.

Kennedy won those debates and with them, the presidency. He and his
people played every angle. You wouldn`t believe how many angles they
played. From the form of the lecterns, the timing of his own arrival,
bolting in the at last minute, involving a rival he had known and been
friendly with for years. Most of all, his aggressive style, Kennedy style
of debating.

His brother, Bobby, had given him the signal just minutes before they
went on air. He had just five words of his beloved older brother: kick him
in the balls. Let`s see who does it tonight.

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

I`ll be back an hour from now tonight live for another edition of
HARDBALL leading into the night`s Republican presidential candidates debate
here at the Reagan Presidential Library at 8:00 Eastern. And tonight, I`ll
make my debut on Twitter with round by round scoring of this debate as it
goes. Follow me @Hardball_Chris.

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.

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

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