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updated 9/8/2011 12:30:54 PM ET 2011-09-08T16:30:54

Guests: Howard Fineman, Michael Steele, Mark Halperin, David Gregory, David Corn, Peggy Noonan, Bob Shrum, Jim Vandehei, Robert Gibbs, Steve Schmidt


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: We`re 30 minutes away from the Republican
presidential candidates debate here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential
Library. Some big questions tonight: can Rick Perry take a punch? Can
Mitt Romney deliver a punch? And is Michele Bachmann still in this race or
can she get back into it?

What to watch for tonight when we return. All of that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We are back with our incredible panel of people. We got a great pre-
debate group here. We are here at the Reagan Library. It`s where we`ve
been for the last couple hours.

Former Reagan speechwriter, speechwriter nonpareil, Peggy Noonan.
Michael Steele to my right, former Republican National Committee chairman
and an MSNBC political analyst. Howard Fineman over there, "Huffington
Post" Media Group editorial director, and, of course, also an MSNBC
political analyst. Mark Halperin, the co-author of "Game Change." and
perhaps the co-author of the greatest book coming up in the next campaign
and an MSNBC political analyst. And longtime strategist, my close friend
Bob Shrum, who`s sitting back there where nothing is going on, at 30 Rock
in New York. I`m going to give you the last chance here.

Around the table, I`m staying out of it.

Rick Perry, for the first time, this guy who made his name in silent
pictures because we don`t know what he talks like, is going to speak
tonight. What should he sound like when it`s all over tonight? Describe
that voice.

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: One word, president. He`s
got to show that he`s not just a good guy on paper be, that he`s not just
the guy who`s run Texas, which he has as governor for 10 years, but that he
can plausibly and actually be president of the entire United States. It is
a big debut we`ve had a situation quite like this before.

Some guy goes to the head of the polls without ever having really
spoken to all the American people, that`s what he`s got to do tonight.

MATTHEWS: Peggy?

PEGGY NOONAN, FORMER REAGAN SPEECHWRITER: Benign, adult,
sophisticated, accomplished and that people watching get the sense, oh, I
could watch him for four years and it would not make me throw up in my
mouth.

(LAUGHTER)

NOONAN: I mean, it`s very bottom line.

MATTHEWS: That`s right. Channel select as voters.

NOONAN: Presidents are in your face all the time, everyday now.
Bottom line, it`s got to be someone who you think, OK, I can take that.

MATTHEWS: Very smart. Michael Steele?

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Open. He`s got to show the
rest of the country, not just the base of the party, that he is open to
them, that he`s listening to them and that as president, they will be a
part of his agenda. It`s not just what is defined or is defining at the
moment.

MATTHEWS: Mark?

MARK HALPERIN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: The range of possibility here
is enormous. If he makes a major gaffe and the media culture we`re in now,
it would be really bad for him. If he does well, if he does what everyone
here said, presidential, calm --

MATTHEWS: Sophisticated, is that too high a bar?

HALPERIN: No. Sophisticated, someone who is a plausible president --
it would be a very big night for him.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me go to Bobby Shrum. Your answer, what`s the
best way he could present himself tonight, Rick Perry of Texas?

BOB SHRUM, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Everything I heard here is correct.
One thing we have to keep in mind, you don`t get to November unless you win
the nomination. So, I think he`s going to come across as a conservative.

He`s going to try to come across as a reasonable conservative. He`s
going to face some tough questions I suspect on Social Security and
Medicare. It really depends on how he handles those, how he explains that
he said they were unconstitutional and we ought to get rid of `em and I
think he`s going to be given some opportunity by being attacked by some of
his rivals.

And I think -- you know, he could have a very memorable come back to
some of these attacks folks are making on him.

MATTHEWS: Yes, we`ve all learned that the come back, as in, there you
go again, Mr. President, one could be a winner.

Howard, in the case of Mitt Romney who is becoming something of a
case, can this fellow simply watch Mitt Romney -- can Mitt Romney stand and
watch Rick Perry walk pass him as if he`s whistling past the graveyard?
Can he keep doing this silent treatment?

FINEMAN: No, and that`s what I`ve been spending the last couple of
hours trying to do, is get a sense of Romney camp of what their strategy
is. They want somebody to slow Rick Perry down. They don`t necessarily
want to yet to be Mitt Romney. They want to live

MATTHEWS: Do they look good, Chuck Todd suggested to me a few hours
ago, if Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman -- is the one that wields the
torch, she goes after him, does that make Romney look all the weaker that
he didn`t do it?

FINEMAN: No, I don`t know, not necessarily. They want -- they
believe that Rick Perry is thin-skinned. They believe that if he`s asked
enough tough questions by whomever, whether it`s the questioners here at
the debate or other members of the panel or the other candidates, that he
will not do what Mark Halperin says, and what we all think he needs to do,
which is to be calm and in control. That he might make some kind of gaffe
that will then allow Romney to not be the guy who created him.

MATTHEWS: OK. In other words, the perfect HARDBALL guest.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: The one that I wait months for finally show up, the one
that loses it all right on television.

FINEMAN: If they could all pay to have you spend an hour with Rick
Perry.

MATTHEWS: Oh, I`m sorry. I love to be his sparring partner.

Anyway, Peggy Noonan, does Romney have -- does Romney have to put his
fists tonight?

NOONAN: I think Perry will be physically literally on one side of the
-- maybe given him a jab now and then. Michele Bachmann will be on the
other. She may be giving Romney a few jabs too. Just to show Perry`s
people, you know, I`m on your side and I`m pretty good and you want to keep
liking me.

Romney, should, I think, be a little bit sharper. Little bit more on
the balls of his feet. He tends to sit back on the heels of his feet and
watch and comment now and then. I think he ought to be a little bit
sharper. I think he ought to acknowledge the fact that Rick Perry is here.
That would mean a change of strategy on the part of Romney.

MATTHEWS: OK. Could say career politician again or should he say
career politicians like Rick Perry?

STEELE: If it were me, career politicians like Rick Perry. But
that`s me.

Now, for Romney, it`s a little bit different. I think the reality is
going to be for him to bring it down a little bit, to show that he is
connecting with the audience and people out there. And to show these guys
don`t bother me, you know?

You say he is the number one. I am the number one.

MATTHEWS: Thank you.

Hi, everybody.

(APPLAUSE)

HALPERIN: I think Mrs. Reagan is coming in.

MATTHEWS: OK. Now, we go to Mark Halperin. Mrs. Reagan, by the way,
is coming into the room right now. We are watching that.

HALPERIN: Neither the Perry camp nor Romney camp wants to or plans to
initiate a very tough exchange. But both of them say if there is a little
bit of an attack, the counter response will be pretty (INAUDIBLE)

FINEMAN: Yes.

HALPERIN: I predict that`s going to happen.

NOONAN: Oh, there she is.

HALPERIN: I think one of them will say something and the other one
will come back ferociously and then you`ll see a counter punch and I think
that will --

MATTHEWS: We all want to know, Mrs. Reagan is coming in. We will get
a shot of her when she sits down.

FINEMAN: I just want to say, as Mrs. Reagan comes in, don`t forget we
are in the Reagan Library. And the (INAUDIBLE) of Ronald Reagan -- Ronald
Reagan`s old commandment -- 11th commandment about don`t speak ill of other
Republicans.

MATTHEWS: Will that be honored tonight?

FINEMAN: That will be invoked. It`ll be honored in breach.

MATTHEWS: Who will invoke it? Will it be Rick Perry saying you can`t
break that commandment?

FINEMAN: Someone will say, let`s remember Ronald Reagan, but I have
to answer that question.

MATTHEWS: By the way, that`s a great commandment for a front-runner.
Let me ask you about Michele Bachmann and I want you to start -- oh, I`m
sorry, Bob Shrum, let me ask you this. You`ve been in campaigns where you
go at each other. Should Governor Romney go on the offensive?

SHRUM: I don`t -- you know, listen, I think if he says some of the
stuff he`s been saying out in the campaign trail, he`s going to set Perry
up with a great opportunity. If he starts talking about career
politicians, Perry is going to look at him and he`s going to say, you`ve
been trying to be one since 1994. The only problem is you lose most
elections. Republicans don`t want a loser.

And he can say it kind of lightly and I think it would be a
tremendously devastating moment for Romney. Romney in last few days has
sounded almost frantic in his attempts to identify with the Tea Party.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SHRUM: I think it just increases his phoniness. I think he has to be
presidential tonight. And he has to look a little more real. He looks
like an animatronic figure. You know, one of those things from Disneyland
that you go stands up and they give the famous speeches.

MATTHEWS: You mean the hall of the presidents.

SHRUM: Yes.

MATTHEWS: You know, I`ve been on live television in politics, talking
about politics for 17 straight years, I consider it my career really, and
in those 17 years, Mitt Romney has been running for political office in all
these years.

So, you ought to call it a career at some point. What about Michele
Bachmann? Because I found her weeks ago to really be a star politically.
I want Howard to start here again about her career tonight.

FINEMAN: Well, having covered the Iowa straw poll which she organized
fairly well. All of her support and organizational ability was focused on
that. But she hasn`t really broadened her reach beyond that. In the
moment that Rick Perry got it, as he did today, ironically, of the Iowa
straw poll may have been her high point. I think, tonight, what she`s
going to do and having talk to her people, is that she`s going to try to
take the case to Rick Perry and all the other candidates and say, I`m the
original Tea Party person here. If you want a Tea Party person, I`m the
Tea Party person.

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: So, that`s her audience. It is not the wider world here
today. This is an expanded version of the Iowa straw poll for her.

MATTHEWS: Has she been mis-served by our friend Ed Rollins who`s
encouraged her not to talk that ideologically?

FINEMAN: Well, Ed Rollin is now been kicked upstairs and, ironically,
they are walking around downstairs with a banner so you can locate Ed
Rollins tonight and all the other candidates. So, I don`t know. I think
she`s going to do it the way she wants.

Michele Bachmann is a very strong-willed focused person.

NOOGAN: Can I note something about tonight? This is the beginning of
a five-debate cycle between now and October 18th. This is part one. By
the end of it, by October 19th or 20th, we`re going to look back and we`re
going to see the shape, we`re going to see the reality, we`re going to see
what happened. It`s going to be huge. This is only the beginning of that
this. This is a very intense time?

MATTHEWS: I agree. But there is our night.

Anyway, thank you.

All right, coming back with Mark Halperin, Howard Fineman, Michael
Steele, Peggy Noonan, who just spoke so well about us, and Bob Shrum.

You`re watching HARDBALL from the Reagan Library.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back to the Reagan Library. And, by the way, down
there, we`re going to see the hosts of tonight, that`s former First Lady
Nancy Reagan. There she is in red down there. She received tremendous
applause as we came in earlier.

Anyway, the debate tonight I want to get our panel, which is really a
great panel. We got about 12 minutes before the debate begins. I really
want to hear from you about the importance of this debate.

Peggy and I agree on this. I think we all agree that elections are
decided not by the people who already made up their minds, but the people
who make up their minds. That`s the Reagan Democrats, if you will, who go
back and forth. The suburbanite, if you will, the Michael Smerconish
crowd. You know, in the big cities and the suburbs.

What are they think of tonight and what are they looking for?

FINEMAN: Well, again, we`re in Reagan Library. Ronald Reagan was
able to speak to those people. That`s why they`re called Reagan Democrats
in Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. I think this is the chance for some
candidates to speak to those people. Rick Perry has it make an impression.

And a name we haven`t mentioned tonight, Jon Huntsman. If he is going
to have any chance of breaking through at all, he has to speak specifically
to those people. Otherwise, if he doesn`t make an impression on a big
network stage like this one, then I think can you pretty much forget it.

MATTHEWS: Yes. We`re watching the candidates take the stage. There
is Rick Perry, by the way. They are all coming in right now. Ron Paul.
There`s Jon Huntsman.

We`re going to see a very interesting set-up by the way, who`s maybe
in the middle. But I think NBC is pretty smart about this. Maybe it was
by accident I doubt it.

There`s Governor Romney and Governor Perry right next to each other.

NOONAN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: So the mano-a-mano aspect is going to be very pretty
visual.

NOONAN: They cannot avoid each other now. Some very interesting
person decided to line these folks up, based on most popular, according to
the polls in the middle and then going down on each side. So they can`t
avoid each other, which means somebody is hoping for a little drama.

MATTHEWS: And, of course, we are watching Michele Bachmann who is
also still very much in the running there, Michael. Those three guys in
the middle are the ones who are going to be the focus on.

STEELE: I think they`ll be the focus. But I think Michele has an
opportunity to steal a little thunder and I think to Howard`s point, I
think someone like a Huntsman has an opportunity to really kind of send out
a different kind of call. Now, whether he does it remains to be seen. But
people will be listening and if it resonates --

FINEMAN: If he doesn`t do it now

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Who are you looking for among the also runs, outside of
that magic three?

HALPERIN: None of the also runs have so far, in the previous debate
has done what Joe Biden did at times, Chris did at times in the last
debate, which just presented themselves very well and present and show an
attitude and position to drive straight from above, the more plausible
candidates. I think the speaker has had some strong performances, she
could do that.

Rick Santorum had tried very hard (INAUDIBLE).

MATTHEWS: You know who do that well, our new colleague, Al Sharpton.

Bob Shrum, who can do something from the back benches tonight? Who
can jump into center ring?

SHRUM: Well, several of these people by going after Perry or going
after Romney can play a major role in the dynamic of this.

Look, one of the problems that Romney has and Michele Bachmann really
has it, is both of their strategies, as I listen to the rest of this panel
talk about them, kind of depend on Perry making a mistake, being thin-
skinned, losing control. One of the worst things that could happen to you
in politics is when your strategy puts your fate in someone else`s hands.

MATTHEWS: Well-said.

SHRUM: So, I think the secondary players here are going to try to do
things -- some of them are going to try to go after the two guys at the
top. Huntsman has a rift that`s very interesting. You know, his problem
is he`s my favorite among the Republican field. That`s a big problem for
him.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I wonder what that`s about, why is he even running?
Why is he running?

FINEMAN: Mark`s point here is a good one. Some candidates sometimes
kind of stand out on an island all their own, seem reasonable and the
viewers say, gee, I wish this weren`t set up so that guy didn`t have a
chance.

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: I kind of wish that guy had a chance, that`s something that
Huntsman could do tonight.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: By the way, that disillusionment, I`m going to ask this,
are there people in the middle, because they will hear that tonight from
somebody and say too bad I can`t be a candidate?

HALPERIN: The last four Republican nominees were people who the right
suspected who appealed to the center throughout their careers. And that`s
why I take a little issue with the way you discussed Huntsman earlier with
Jim Vandehei. I don`t think this is just appealing to the upper west side
in the "New York Times." This is who the Republican Party has nominated in
the past. Maybe it`s different because of the Tea Party --

MATTHEWS: You think he`s still in the running?

HALPERIN: I think it requires Perry or Romney to collapse for him to
be in the running.

MATTHEWS: The difference is, Chris, when George W. Bush was running,
he got the John Ashcroft, his attack guy on right, out of the race early
on. He ended up as attorney general.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I want to go to the -- I want to end with the keeper of the
flame, Peggy Noonan.

You wrote some of the -- you helped Ronald Reagan presents some of the
best speeches he ever gave, of course, the Columbia speech, Challenger 7
speech, broke my heart, and, of course, most of America. And, of course,
at the Point-du-Hoc, the speech at Normandy.

The heart of the Republican Party -- what is it today? Where is that
heart? Not the person, but what is it?

NOONAN: We can forget the heart of the Republican Party. It`s broad
and it is not necessarily the base. It`s not necessarily Tea Party.
That`s very much part of it, but it`s broader than that.

The people who are going to elect the next president in the middle who
are kind of Republicans but also kind of independent, they are watching,
and they want to make sure they like what they are seeing. So, I think
this is not just about the base.

However, good news for the Republicans, this, what you see tonight,
this is what draws the lightning. What`s happening in Washington is not
drawing the lightning, the eyes, the sense of attention, the sense of
drama. This is actually the exciting political thing happening in America,
not what`s going on in the White House. That`s interesting.

MATTHEWS: So, this carnival we watch with Cantor and McCarthy and
Boehner and all this going on for weeks and weeks has not been the
lifeblood of conservative politics or American politics.

NOONAN: The life blood will show itself in 2012 when people in the
middle of the party come forward and say I like that guy or I don`t like
that guy, ain`t going to work for me.

STEELE: I think she`s right, remember, 47 percent of the base still
hasn`t made up its mind. That`s a big number when you look at the guys and
the lady standing on the stage.

MATTHEWS: Anybody going to join this group?

STEELE: No.

HALPERIN: Maybe Palin.

MATTHEWS: Bob Shrum --

NOONAN: I always wonder about a third party. I`m not sure.

SHRUM: No one is going to join that group.

MATTHEWS: Christie`s not getting in.

NOONAN: No.

SHRUM: One thing I have to say about this is they are at the Reagan
Library but these guys are mostly Reaganites in name only.

MATTHEWS: We got to go, Bob. I`m sorry. Michael, Bob Shrum, Mark
Halperin, Michael Steele --

NOONAN: It was a sweet thought though, Bob. Thank you.

MATTHEWS: -- Peggy Noonan, Howard Fineman and Bob Shrum who tried to
get in on the wire.

When we return, let me finish with a debate that started all of this,
the 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

You`re watching only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish with an event that started all this, the
presidential debates of President John F. Kennedy Democrat versus Richard
Nixon, Republican. It`s the NBC studios in Washington, the site of the
second Kennedy/Nixon debate of 1960. Nixon looked terrible in the first
debate with Kennedy, he suffered from his recent hospitalization for a leg
infection. His white skin, his fairly used makeup, but most of all, his
tendency to sweat profusely under the television light. Look at his upper
lip in that picture.

The Kennedy people wanted history to repeat itself. They wanted Nixon
to be sweating again in the second debate. Hours before that second
debate, Jack Kennedy, his brother Bobby and their TV adviser Bill Wilson
(ph), walked into the front door of the NBC studio. It was freezing in
there, it was a freakin` meat locker.

Jack Kennedy wanted to know what was going on. His brother Bobby knew
exactly what was up, he goes racing to the control room. Kennedy`s TV
advisor Bill Wilson knows better, he heads down to the basement where the
air conditioning system is. There he finds a Nixon man standing guard over
the thermostat and threatens to call the police if the guy won`t get out of
the way.

Think this is fun and games? Think again. The Kennedy people wanted
Nixon sweating again. They wanted to make sure that the heat for the
second debate was back up to the 70s before the lights went on. They
wanted to Nixon to cook out there under the lights.

Kennedy won those debates and with them the presidency. Even his
people played every angle. You won`t believe how many angles they played
from the form of the lecterns, the timing of his arrival, bolting in at the
last minute, ignoring a rival. Nixon had been friendly with for years,
most of all, his aggressive style of debating.

His brother, Bobby, had given him, Jack Kennedy, the signal, he had
five words for his beloved older brother: kick him in the balls.

Let`s see who does it tonight.

Tonight, I`ll be scoring the debate round-by-round on twitter. Follow
me @Hardball_Chris. There it is, Hardball_Chris.

And coming up next, the Republican presidential candidates debate live
from the Reagan library, moderated by NBC`s Brian Williams and Politico`s
John Harris.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Fight night. Let`s play hardball.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. Actually I`m not in
Washington. I`m at the Reagan library. And leading up tonight, game
change in just one hour, the Republican presidential candidates will face
off here for the first of the fall debate and the first debate, featuring
the new front-runner Rick Perry of Texas.

Behind me you can see air force one that carried presidents of course
of 1939 to 2001. I was on that plan working as a speech writer for
President Carter when learned the night before the 1980 that Carter was
going to lose to Reagan. Well, the plane is suspended over the stage where
the eight Republican presidential candidates, you can see the stands there,
will gather for the first 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
into the race? One by one, candidates have been arriving here at the
Reagan Presidential Library, high up on the mountain here in southern
California. They`ve been checking out stage and lighting and getting ready
for what is the biggest night of campaign so far.

They will all be taking aim at the man who isn`t here, President
Obama. Who is looking at the worst poll numbers, we must admit, of his
presidency. What has happened to hope and change? Can Mister Obama begin
to turn things around? With his big speech on jobs, tomorrow night, the
debate begins tonight here at 8 eastern at the end of this program and you
can only see it here on MSNBC.

And right after the debate, please stay with us for analysis of my
MSNBC cogs, all of them actually, Rachel Maddow, Ed Shultz, the Rev
Sharpton, Lawrence O`Donnell and Eugene Robinson.

We begin our coverage right now, in this hour, with David Gregory.
Moderator of MSNBC`s "meet the press." And here with me at the Reagan
Library, Politico`s Jim Vandehei and also Republican strategist Steve
Schmidt who ran John McCain`s 2008 presidential campaign. He joins us from
30 Rock in New York.

I guess, David, if you had to pick right now, The New York Times front
page, top of the fold, right-hand side story, who would it focus on? As
you put that together as an editor tonight? Is it about Romney? Is it
about Perry? Is it about Bachmann? Who is the story about?

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, MEET THE PRESS: I think it is about
Governor Perry. I think it`s about the GOP front-runner and whether he
took some tough shots from his rivals trying to create some new opportunity
for themselves in the race. This is a new dynamic. We have been watching
these Republican debates up until now. And we have been focused on Romney.
We`ve been focused on Pawlenty. Pawlenty is now gone. And there`s a new
frontrunner. And the question is whether Romney is really going to start
engaging. And not just hunkered down and tried to ride this thing out or
riding you as a today`s editorials and issuing position papers but really
starting to mix it up. He wants it take on President Obama, we know that.
He`s been doing that. He`s been doing it pretty, in a pretty organized way
and in a pretty thoughtful way. But now he has to start to separate
himself from somebody who has got into this race late and shot up into the
polls and seems to have captured the real fighting spirit, the anti-
government spirit right now that`s going on.

MATTHEWS: So well said. That spirit, that gut feeling of why you are
a conservative. Why you are Republican. It seems like Rick Perry speaks
the language, if crudely to some people where Mitt Romney sort of handles
the issues. He doesn`t seem it feel them.

JIM VANDEHEI, POLITICO: This guy`s got a huge personality and he is
going to fill that stage.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

VANDEHEI: He does something that Mitt Romney is constitutionally not
able to do. He delights conservatives. They love his rhetoric. You read
that book, "fed up" which is I do think is an opposition researchers dream
come true. For us in the press, it is interesting, it`s fascinating. We
are going to dig into it. Most primary voters love that stuff. They love
his rhetoric. They love that he`s calling into question Social Security
and Medicare and to say the states should have authority and federal
government should be squeezed in to this very small significantly less
powerful institution. That`s good stuff for a Republican.

MATTHEWS: He said today what Obama was to progressives back four
years ago? Someone who speaks the language, if we don`t like w., we think
he is not that right. We hate the war in Iraq, we got attitude.

VANDEHEI: If he was from Texas, I would say yes. I think there`s
still a large number of conservative who have some doubts. They want to
make sure that the guy is bright. They want to make sure he can come on
stage and he is different from George W. Bush. Then he is a winner. They
want to win over they hate the president. They want him out of office.
They want someone who can beat him. They see in him someone would who can
win.

MATTHEWS: Steve Schmidt. Let me ask you about what I find it
interesting back story here as Hemingway said, the back story is very
interesting. Sarah Palin isn`t running. Is she holding back, planning to
be the big king pin or queen pin of this race, by endorsing Perry at a
critical moment? Is that her game plan?

STEVE SCHMIDT, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I wish I could tell you with
any certainty what she is going to do or what she`s not going to do in the
race. I mean, the bottom line is, just have no idea and I think that she
is delighting in keeping the press and everybody else guessing. I mean I
do think that tonight, Chris, that Rick Perry comes into the race as a
fairly soft front-runner. He is untested on the national stage. He is
going to be tested tonight. If he does well tonight, He`s going to emerge
tomorrow morning as soiled front-runner for the Republican nomination and
Mitt Romney is going to run a race where he has to come from behind and
pass him. It`s going be very interesting in the Republican primary.

MATTHEWS: You know David, everybody in the media, not everybody,
that`s a generalization, but say, a certain The New York Times point of
view, I would have to say, which is keep Huntsman in this race. Keep his
name to the top four. For obvious intuitive reason I think of keeping this
race open to somebody who might be acceptable to the middle. Not that it
is closed again so it is a right wing festival. It seems like everybody
wants him in the race, in the establishment. Because if he leads this
race, a guy who says, call me crazy, I believe in evolution then it does
become an almost unacceptable victory for the right. In other words not
ever going be not transcend and moving over to the left, enough to gets to
the election.

GREGORY: But you know look, I think Huntsman still has a problem
getting off the mat here. I think tonight is important for him to be able
to do that as well. And it is partly about drawing some distinctions. And
I think, look, I think Steve Schmidt is a pro. He`s been at this for a
couple of different administrations and candidates. And he offers good
insight.

I mean I think the reality is that there is still the Republican
primary voter who is making a decision about where they want their party to
be. Do they want a real antigovernment conservative who sorts out of the
last decade by moving the party much further to the right or do they want
an Establishment figure and we will have a race like we is seen in the last
couple of cycles where a more establishment figure has to prove himself to
the right wing of the party which is a lot more organized this time around
and not about social conservative issues?

It is about fiscal conservative issues and kind forced principles of
the constitution and all the rest. And that debate is literally playing
out. It will play out on the stage where you are. But it will play out
over the course of this primary for that reason. Huntsman as a more
moderate conservative, moderate Republican though he probably doesn`t like
the label of moderate, wants it stay in the race as a real alternative
knowing he has a shot in the state like New Hampshire.

MATTHEWS: Well, Jim, and then Steve. I got get this question. But
it seems like we`re watching it like one of old like Agatha Christie play`s
"Ten Little Indians," the people disappearing in this race, and from the
left are disappearing. Rudy is not really going to get in this, I don`t
think.

GREGORY: No.

MATTHEWS: And Rudy Giuliani, even though he is in the polling, and it
looks like, well, Pawlenty is already out. So, moving from left it right,
they are dying off here. It looks like Romney may be almost beaten already
by this guy. And you wonder is it anyone who even smells establishment
using David`s language. Even looks like a figure that might appear to the
center, center right is an acceptable.

VANDEHEI: It is not. Not in the Republican primary. Think about
Huntsman. Never has a candidate with so little support got so much
attention. In the polls I`m running one percent behind, I`m running one
percent behind them.

MATTHEWS: But the media likes talking about him. Why is the media
talking about him then?

VANDEHEI: Because he is the type of candidate that main stream
reporters love. He is a sensible conservative. He is sensible. That`s
why conservatives don`t like him. They don`t think he is an authentic
conservative. They don`t like having a Republican get up there having a
campaign manager say that there is a bunch of crazies that he is running
against. There is no marketplace for that inside Republican Party.

MATTHEWS: Steve Schmidt, has Sarah Palin won the argument even if she
isn`t the nominee? Has she converted the Republican Party into a tea party
where only people like Rick Perry and Bachmann and her are really in the
team?

SCHMIDT: I think at the end of the day Chris, for a Republican
candidate to be elected president, you have to perform well in the middle
of the electorate. And so, if you look at her as a political figure, she
is unelectable to the broad majority of the American people. And I think
the Republican Party, if it is a winning party, is going to have to appeal
to the middle of the electorate. And I think that`s part of Rick Perry`s
test tonight. And one of the things that you should be looking for is as
the race you know unfolds.

Does Rick Perry start to take a piece out of Romney`s lead in New
Hampshire? Does he begin to a trip to what is stable numbers in that state
for Mitt Romney for a long time? You know New Hampshire is going to, like
it always is, is going to be a key state. Independents get to vote. They
will have a voice. And I think after New Hampshire you will have the
winner of Iowa and the winner of New Hampshire really proceeding forward
and two-person contest.

And if you look that dynamic going forward and you have to guess that
contest is going to be between Rick Perry and between Governor Romney. It
has the potential because we are operating for the first time now under no
winner take all rules. The delegates will be proportionally to the vote
count. So, you could see a nomination contest though quite a ways down the
road like you saw for Democrats four years ago.

GREGORY: Can I just add?

MATTHEWS: Go ahead, David.

GREGORY: I think Chris I it is important to remember. That Mitt
Romney has more staying power than he has maybe given credit for right now.
We are at a moment in time where Rick Perry burst on to the scene and why,
because a lot of conservatives don`t love Mitt Romney. And a lot of
primary voters have shown that they are still shopping because it is still
early. But as Steve just said, Romney`s got the experience that running
for office as you have pointed out earlier this afternoon. He`s got lots
of money. And he`s got a really keen message about the economy that he can
use under these circumstances.

That`s a recipe at least, if you put it all together for some staying
power in the course of this race. Don`t forget tonight is also about
answering the question, who can beat Obama, not just who can get Sarah
Palin`s enforcement.

MATTHEWS: OK, Steve Schmidt, Republican. What is harder for Romney
to appear to the right or Perry who appeal for the Senate?

SCHMIDT: I think it`s a totally open question and it`s going to start
to be settled tonight and going forward. Bottom line is if Rick Perry is
going to be a successful candidate in a general election, he has to appeal
to the center. And for Mitt Romney to get into a general election, he is
going have to appeal to the right.

MATTHEWS: Right. Same question to you. What`s tougher?

VANDEHEI: I think it is tougher for Romney to appeal to conservatives
because I think he`s kind a ceiling. Remember this guy has been running
for president for six years. That is his full time job.

MATTHEWS: He is a career politician, by the way. He is running for
office ever since he ran against Ted Kennedy.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Every time he says, I think I will tweet on this, every
time he says career politician, I say, you mean you? Because he ran
against Kennedy for governor, he lost. Anyway, he didn`t realize for this
as governor because he was 60 percent negative in the polls.

Anyway, thank you David Gregory, good luck this weekend with a "Meet
the Press", what am I saying? The great show! The number one show, "Meet
the Press." David Gregory thanks for joining us. Steve Schmidt of course,
we are waiting it see which candidate you mount up with as this campaign
progresses and Jim Vandehei at Politico.

Ryan Williams and John Harris will moderate the Republican
presidential debate at the Reagan Library here at the top of this hour, 8
Eastern, here on MSNBC.

You got watch MSNBC tonight. You have to no choice.

Coming up, with his job approval rating at a new low, what has
happened to President Obama? Can he recapture the vote and change he
promised in tomorrow night`s speech before the congress? You`re watching
"Hardball." from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library where the
Republican candidates debates tonight only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to "hardball." The Republicans candidates
right now will certainly be going after President Obama who`s preparing to
give his big job speech of course tomorrow night. But the president might
have a bigger problem than his detractors on stage tonight.

Here are the latest poll numbers that paint a grim picture. Fifty
three percent, majority of Americans, disapprove of the president`s job
performance. That`s serious business, in the latest Washington Post ABC
poll. Sixty two percent disapprove of how he is handling the economy. And
47 percent strongly disapproved. Seventy seven percent think the country
is heading in the wrong direction which is up 11 points just since June.

Since even more problematic than that, the White House is having a
difficult time branding the president, if you will. Who is he right now?
The pragmatic compromiser who came into office promising a post partisan
era or the populist champion of the working in middle class willing to take
on conservatives and big business. Which of the two is he?

Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, he is an Obama
campaign surrogate. David Corn is Washington Bureau Chief from mother
Jones Magazine. He is an MSNBC political analyst.

And so, I want you Robert Gibbs, thanks for joining us. I want you to
answer that question. Is the president a fragment`s or man of the century
whose above partisan politics or is he a fire breathing Harry Truman whose
willing to take the fight to the Republicans in Congress this next year?

ROBERT GIBBS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, Chris, I
think what he is going to have to be is both because we are going to have
to take the fight to Congress so that Congress will stop playing the same
old Washington political games that we have seen over and over again and
then have prevented action on plans that will help this economy grow and
create jobs.

That`s what the president`s going to outline tomorrow. But it`s got
to be more than a speech. It has to be Congress putting their party aside
and putting their country first to get something done.

MATTHEWS: Do you believe as a political person that Eric Cantor,
Larry McCarthy, all those Republican hot shots, Joe Walsh, the ones we see
on television all the time, basically thumbing their nose at the president?
They want him to get re-elected? They want to give him a solid economic
program to run on?

GIBBS: No, I don`t - I`m not under the he lugs that Eric Cantor might
vote for Barack Obama in 2012 nor that he voted for him in 2008. But each
of those individuals took an oath to do what was best for this country and
to uphold the constitution. And I think that it is not good for our
economy and it is not good for them politically to simply say no, no, no.
And to stand in the way of things that they have supported in the past.

I mean, let`s take some of those examples. Not six months ago, those
candidates or those officials that you just mentioned, all supported a
payroll tax cut to get our economy moving again. Now that we have a middle
class tax cut, they are balking that but have no problems ensuring tax cuts
for millionaires and billion airs keep right on going. That just doesn`t
make sense to the American people. And it shouldn`t make sense because it
doesn`t make any sense to anybody.

MATTHEWS: Let`s go to "the New York Times" columnist, rather front
page writer, he wrote today "the White House is in the midst rebranding the
president as a pragmatic problem solver, a reasonable man in an era
dominated by extreme views. But they also emphasize that he is willing to
draw distinctions with conservatives reflecting a central tension defined
him as a candidate and as president that in trying to lay claim to a broad
swath of electorate, as he succeeded in doing in 2008, he risks pleasing
neither the center nor the left, the story of much of his time in office."

I guess I go back to you, David Corn, my friend with that same
question I put to Robert Gibbs. Is this president a populist, a man
willing to take the left side of the issue, the populist side, and fight it
right down the line against the Republicans even if it means losing the
fight but staking out the issue? Or is he a man who wants to find common
ground and wants to basically offer up proposals that Republicans will
eventually say OK to?

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Now, I agree with Robert. I
think that he needs to do both. Far as -

MATTHEWS: Both?

CORN: He needs to do both in a way, yes to govern and be a strong
political leader. If you look at what he has been the past year, he has
tried to be the pragmatic compromiser who brings the other consensus and
make things happen and get results. What he did last December, a lot of
progressives did not like it. But he had good result on the ground and it
was popular with liberal Democratic voters and with independent voters.
But if you know you fast forward to this past summer and ends up in cutting
a deal, a some sort of compromise with hostage takers of congress on the
debt ceiling, that was a deal that nobody liked he was a tar pit. And for
that, neither the people from the left nor people in middle liked.

So, at some point it is not being the pragmatist, it is what you get
by being a pragmatist. So, If you are going to do that, you have to get
result that resonate both with your base on the left, the progressive
people be who you need their enthusiasm and it has to resonate with
independent voters who are quick fickle. Year from now if the economy is
in the same state now, people want to vote for change. That means that
Barack Obama is going to be in a hard position as any incumbent would be.
So, he has it find way to make convince, to convince people that he still
can be an agent of change in making the economy good. And to do that he
has to, you know, do things different in the coming year than we have seen
in the past few months.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Robert Gibbs. Is president Obama liberal?
No, I want to ask you a question. Is president Obama a liberal, yes or no?

GIBBS: I don`t know that the president has really strong feelings
about political labels on any sides. I think the president -

MATTHEWS: What do you think he is? What do you think he is? What
would you call him? You`re a political expert. Is the president a liberal
or conservative?

GIBBS: I call him Mister President, Chris. I call him a friend. I
call him somebody who is going to fight for the middle class to make sure
that they get ahead because for years and years they have been falling
further and further behind. Let me build off of what David said though.
We are not taking into account at least half of this equation and that is
the way the American people view Eric Cantor and all the people you just
listed, they didn`t come out of this debt fight smelling too great either.
And imagine can you imagine anybody standing up on that stage tonight,
saying anything that Eric Cantor disagrees with? Can you imagine that
happening? It is not going to happen tonight. It`s not going to happen on
any day between now and Election Day.

CORN: But Robert isn`t the issue -

GIBBS: Hold on, let me finish my point. Independents don`t want to
see games. They don`t want to see more partisan back and forth. They
don`t want to see Republicans that supported infrastructure spending six
months ago who now oppose it, who supported a payroll tax cut six months
ago and now oppose it. They are tired of those games. Independents want
to see change and Democrats want to see change. So I think what we are
entering into is a time in which, Chris, the choice you put to David and
myself I don`t think the president has to be one of the other. I think the
success is to bring everybody together and to scold anyone r anybody in
Congress that stands in the way.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I just don`t think the American people know what
President Obama would do if no one were standing in his way. What would he
do if he had the power to set policy? Would we cut the cost of government?
Reduce the size of government? Would be radically change Medicare? Do any
of the things we argue about? We don`t know, because he hasn`t told us,
Robert. He hasn`t told us what he wants to do.

GIBBS: Chris, I think it`s clear -

CORN: Not true at all.

GIBBS: Hold on, David. Because Chris is making some crazy unfounded
accusations that somebody needs to answer.

MATTHEWS: Crazy and unfounded accusations?

GIBBS: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Tell me what the president wants to do with Medicare.

GIBBS: The president wants it make sure that the Medicare is there
when you get old enough to be 65, when I get old to be 65.

MATTHEWS: OK. Everybody says that.

CORN: Chris, I think it`s clear that Barack Obama is a progressive-
minded person. I think you look at his career, his record, what he talks
about with passion. It comes down on the side of progressive values. I
think he has had this dilemma, challenge of having to govern in
conservative hostile times with hostage takers and he hasn`t always known -
put it this way, the calculation on his part, on what to do in order to
appeal to independent on the left while dealing with Republicans. And it`s
a very, it is a hard game theory to work out.

But at the end of the day I would say this to Robert. Next year
Barack Obama won`t be running for an election against Eric Cantor or John
Boehner. He will run against a Republican, who will be dealing probably
following your advice Robert, all he can, to distance himself from those
crazy Republicans in the house. And so it may not be a good enough
campaign strategy to say, hey the Republicans are doing even worse than we
are when you are up for election next November.

GIBBS: I`m not suggesting that`s the campaign strategy, David. I
think you`re totally right. But imagine this, imagine, is one of the guys
on that stage or one of the women on that stage, going to do anything that
the house Republicans aren`t wanting to do right now?

Every one of them supports their idea to decimate Medicare. Every one
of them supports more tax cuts for millionaire`s an billion airs.

MATTHEWS: OK, we have to go.

GIBBS: I don`t think they will run against Eric Cantor because I
think they are all a lie.

MATTHEWS: OK. I think Robert do you me a disservice when you say
that my questions are crazy when I want clarity from this president. I
think most Americans you talked to outside the renumber around the
president want to know clearly what he stands for, if he could do what he
wants to do.

Anyway, thank you very much Robert Gibbs and thank you for coming out
here and as always David Corn. We`ll be right back. You`re watching
"Hardball" from the Reagan Library. We`ll be right back.

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

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