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updated 11/28/2011 12:28:51 PM ET 2011-11-28T17:28:51

Guests: Cynthia Tucker, Elliott Ackerman

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Getting close now, the big January political
fights.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

I`m Chris Matthews in Washington: Leading off tonight: January
madness. We`ve got big Republican caucuses and primaries coming in
January. We`re going to look at them like a big NCAA elimination
tournament, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Who has to
win and where? Mitt Romney can survive a loss in Iowa, but can Michele
Bachmann? Newt Gingrich can afford a loss in New Hampshire, but for Mitt,
it may be win or go home. The "win or go home" January races.

Next, President Obama`s chances of beating the GOP nominee. Where
does he stand in the crucial battleground states? Historically, how have
other presidents done with approval ratings in the mid-40s one year out?
And that`s where he is.

Plus, we`ll look at potential running mates. Could Marco Rubio seal
Florida for Romney? Could we see a Gingrich/Cain ticket? And most
interesting of all, would President Obama ever consider dumping Joe Biden
for Hillary Clinton if things looked really bad?

And what about a third party run? An independent candidate would
almost surely throw the election to one side or the other, but which one?
This is no fantasy. We`ll be joined by someone who`s making sure that a
third candidate will be on the ballot in all 50 states.

Finally, amateur hour. We`re going to go to the videotape for the
campaign lowlights, if you will, in the GOP race so far. There are a lot
of them, as you know.

We start with January madness. David Corn`s an MSNBC analyst an
"Mother Jones" Washington bureau chief, political columnist Cynthia Tucker,
who`s now a visiting professor at the University of Georgia, and John
Heilemann, national political columnist for "New York" magazine and an
MSNBC political analyst.

First, of course, the Iowa caucuses January 3rd. Mitt Romney`s making
a push in the Hawkeye State. According to "The New York Times" today,
Romney is now playing to win the Iowa caucuses. Television commercials are
on the way, volunteers are arriving, and a stealth operation is ready to
burst into view in the weeks leading up to the caucuses. That`s according
to "The New York Times."

Let`s go to David on that. Is this going to happen out there? First
of all, just get to him.

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Is he entering?

CORN: Well, yes, he`s entering. He`s taking out ads. You know, he`s
opened a campaign office. They didn`t have a grand opening. He`s trying
to have it both ways. He wants to compete. He wants to do well. Maybe he
can...

MATTHEWS: Why is he doing this? Why doesn`t he take a breather?
He`s not a cultural conservative. He`s questionable on abortion rights and
marriage and the other issues. Why doesn`t he just wait until New
Hampshire?

CORN: My guess is that he sees an opening to get an early strike.
There has -- you know, there`s no non-Romney candidate that`s really come
together, that has materialized, that has money, organization, and can
survive scrutiny. It`s all, as you say, a pack of circus clowns. And I
think he sees a chance to...

MATTHEWS: I`ve noticed that.

CORN: Yes, you`ve noticed.

MATTHEWS: Cynthia, does he have to win out there to win? In other
words, if he goes out there, is it really win or lose for him?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, UNIV. OF GEORGIA: In Iowa? I
don`t think anybody really expects Mitt Romney to win in Iowa. He`s not
conservative enough for the people who traditionally caucus.

MATTHEWS: Why does he want to start his race with a possible loss,
then?

TUCKER: Well, it doesn`t hurt him at all. It shows that he is paying
attention to social conservatives. He doesn`t want to start off looking as
if, I`m ignoring you, I don`t need you. And if he places second, it gives
him a little bit of momentum.

MATTHEWS: You`re right. You`re right there. How far down in the
polls does he have to -- how far badly does he have to do in Iowa to really
hurt him? Suppose he pulls a fourth out there, John?

JOHN HEILEMANN, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I
think -- I think that, actually, once they`ve decided to go in, I actually
think they raise the bar very high towards actually having to win. I --
look, I think that you are the front-runner in the race, you have sat out
on the Iowa sidelines the entire year and have kind of tried to convey to
people that you`re not going to compete there. Now at the last minute, you
decide because the field is split among the social conservatives that you
have a chance to win that state, win New Hampshire and put this away
quickly.

If you go out there as the front-runner and now you`re playing in
Iowa, I think the national media narrative is going to very quickly become,
Is Mitt Romney making the same mistake as he made in 2008, when he tried to
do the same strategy, win Iowa, win New Hampshire, put the race away.

I think he`s raised the bar -- he`s going to raise the bar very high
for himself. It`s going to be very hard to lower expectations the way they
think they can.

MATTHEWS: And that`s what we call a dynamic (ph) because (INAUDIBLE)
says, I`m running, I can win, because we know he doesn`t take chances, the
national media, which leans a little to the left, I could argue, could
smash him.

CORN: I think the national media narrative knows that Iowa is
different. You know, we`ve seen in the past -- but also, don`t forget,
there`s a general election, and Iowa may be a swing state in the general
election. He`s going to need these same voters to come out.

MATTHEWS: Bottom line, who has to -- who has to win out there, or
lead the race?

CORN: Who has to -- I -- listen, I think...

MATTHEWS: If Bachmann loses, if Santorum loses, they have any more
claim -- if they can`t win among the Christian conservatives, should they
be in the race?

CORN: Santorum peters out if he doesn`t do well.

MATTHEWS: Right.

CORN: Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain have these non-campaign campaigns.
They can keep on going on fumes.

MATTHEWS: So the two people that have to win -- let me force feed
this on you...

CORN: OK.

MATTHEWS: ... Bachmann and Santorum.

CORN: I think so.

MATTHEWS: One of the two has to win.

TUCKER: And Rick Perry. I mean, for heavens sakes...

(CROSSTALK)

TUCKER: Rick Perry -- listen, Rick Perry has claimed -- his
supporters -- that he has money, he has organization in Iowa, and retail
politics will make the difference for him. That -- you know, forget how
he`s done in the debates...

MATTHEWS: So he won`t be able to compete in South Carolina if he
loses in Iowa.

(CROSSTALK)

TUCKER: No, he can still play there, but I think his supporters start
dwindling even faster.

MATTHEWS: OK, Heilemann, let`s start (INAUDIBLE) let`s start with the
bottom feeding here, Bachmann and Santorum.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: If they can`t win among Christian conservatives, where can
they win?

HEILEMANN: Nowhere. And I think you`re right, if they lose there, if
they don`t win out there, I think they -- they may try to continue
campaigning, but their campaigns will be the walking dead at that point.

I think Rick Perry, if he finishes strong second in Iowa and still
holding out the hope of South Carolina with the amount of money that he has
been able to raise so far, he would still be alive.

MATTHEWS: Is that right or wrong?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let`s go to New Hampshire right now. This is the hot one.
It`s always been the decider. Hillary Clinton came back on the Democratic
side last time and won there. Here`s the latest Bloomberg poll in New
Hampshire. Mitt Romney holds a commanding lead over his rivals with --
look at this, the only place in the country he gets 40 percent, I think --
40 percent. Most of his opponents are trailing way down in single if not
double, but including Huntsman at 7. Other polls show a closer race
between Romney and Gingrich up there.

You first again, David. Does he have to win or he loses?

CORN: No, he has to win New Hampshire.

MATTHEWS: Or else what?

CORN: Basically -- well, you know what? he can still stay in the
race!

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... can`t win at home.

CORN: Well, that I`m here. I mean, this is the thing. We can try to
-- the media can try to drive him out of the race, but he`ll still have
money. And at this point, it`s really unclear who can see -- the one big
surprise in New Hampshire might be -- I hate to say this -- Ron Paul. You
know...

MATTHEWS: OK...

CORN: ... New Hampshire`s moving more in a Libertarian direction on
the Republican side.

MATTHEWS: I agree. It always has been, the Granite State. Let me
ask you, does Huntsman have to win up there to be still in this race?

CORN: He has to come in second, third or fourth.

MATTHEWS: OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... wiped out of this race? Because I say Bachmann`s out
if she can`t win in Iowa. I think Santorum`s out anyway, if he loses out
there, and they probably will lose. I think if Huntsman can`t win where he
says he has to win, he loses.

TUCKER: Well, you know, for heaven sakes, Huntsman isn`t going
anywhere anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: But if he wins New Hampshire! Give him a break!

TUCKER: And so -- but if he wins -- if he wins New Hampshire, then
we`re talking an entirely new dynamic in this race.

MATTHEWS: But you don`t think so.

TUCKER: No.

MATTHEWS: OK, let me go to John. John, what do you think? Let`s
talk about the two moderates, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. One of them
will probably win up there. It`s probably Mitt Romney. What happens if
that doesn`t happen?

HEILEMANN: Well, I think it depends on what happens in Iowa, Chris.
I mean, if somehow Mitt Romney wins Iowa, and then somehow New Hampshire
does what it does often and hands New Hampshire to someone other than Mitt
Romney because they don`t want to coronate him...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HEILEMANN: ... I think Mitt Romney could still survive that. I think
if Mitt Romney loses in Iowa, doesn`t come in first, and then loses New
Hampshire, he will be fundamentally crippled and won`t be able to be the
nominee.

Jon Huntsman I think must win in New Hampshire for the reasons that
you just said. I mean, maybe it`s possible that a very, very, very, very
strong second place keeps him in the race. But he has put all his chips on
the table there and he`s bet it all on black, you know?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let`s go -- let`s go south with you. You pick it up here,
John. South Carolina`s been the kingmaker for the Republicans ever since
the party went South and become a Southern-based party. Who has to -- who
has to win down there and stay in the race? It seems to me Perry...

HEILEMANN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: ... and Cain have to do incredibly well down there, or
they`re not really relevant -- among the Baptists.

HEILEMANN: Especially since neither one is going to -- is going to be
competitive in New Hampshire, I don`t think. I think fro both of them,
South Carolina -- they are a regional-based candidacies, and so if you
can`t win the first Southern primary if you`re a candidate who`s going to
win the nomination based on regional strength, you`re in significant
trouble.

And Mitt Romney looks very strong in Florida, which is coming up right
after that.

MATTHEWS: Yes, we`ll (INAUDIBLE)

HEILEMANN: So you`d need to -- one of those guys...

MATTHEWS: So we agree.

HEILEMANN: ... is going to have to...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Does everybody agree that Perry and Cain is two Southern,
more conservative candidates...

TUCKER: If Perry makes it up that far. But I`ll disagree with John
on one thing. If Mitt Romney doesn`t happen to win in New Hampshire, I
don`t think it drives him from the race because the field is so weak.
There`s -- I mean, you can say it should in normal circumstances, but who
is there to pick up the mantle? So far, nobody.

MATTHEWS: Cynthia, who has to win South Carolina?

TUCKER: I think it`s absolutely, again, Rick Perry. Rick Perry is
the one, again, who has raised enough money to try to persuade people that
he is a serious candidate.

MATTHEWS: OK.

TUCKER: He doesn`t win South Carolina, it`s done.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look at this. Going back to Ronald Reagan
back in 1980, South Carolina has always picked the eventual Republican
contender. That`s a forceful fact there.

And I just want to go -- let`s go to Florida right now and finish this
up because I think -- does everybody agree you have to win something in
this first three?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Can you be in this race if you haven`t won anything, John,
or are you out of this race? If you haven`t won anything, are you a
contender?

HEILEMANN: You`re not. No, you`re not. You must win to survive.

MATTHEWS: OK...

HEILEMANN: And David`s right when he says that the race is fractured
in a lot of ways. People will continue to stagger on...

MATTHEWS: OK...

HEILEMANN: ... but I think the question...

MATTHEWS: OK...

HEILEMANN: ... of who picks up the pieces is who wins in Iowa and New
Hampshire. If Mitt Romney`s lost in those two places, someone will have
won those states...

MATTHEWS: OK, I have an argument...

HEILEMANN: ... and it will be incredible...

MATTHEWS: Let me try this argument. We go to Florida. I think
there`s two people that get a bye all the way to Florida. They don`t have
to win anything until then. And that`s Romney and Newt Gingrich because
Newt Gingrich is not expected to win anywhere (ph).

Let`s go back to Florida with you.

CORN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Florida -- can that be the one for Romney to really prove
he can win with -- this, by the way, is the first national state, really
representative state of all the ones we`ve talked about. Is that the one
that really decides this thing, Florida? The guy who wins or woman who
wins down there is, in fact, the key front-runner has to be beaten?

CORN: I think if Romney doesn`t win Florida and Rick Perry has not
had a miraculous revitalization, then the party starts to come in and says,
What else can we do? Because it`s known in the field who anybody is going
to want to see get the...

MATTHEWS: Wow! You see an intervention then?

CORN: I see an intervention of some sort. I don`t know...

MATTHEWS: I love this! I love this!

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Cynthia, who wins Florida -- Does Florida make or break
having a nominee that`s a front-runner, having a front-runner?

TUCKER: Well, it is, you know, a big pile of delegates, that`s
certainly true. But if Mitt Romney has lost New Hampshire, I don`t see how
Florida helps him very much. So assuming he`s won New Hampshire and then
Florida, he`s looking pretty good for the nomination.

MATTHEWS: What about the intervention thing that he just mentioned,
that the party just says, We`re not getting anything done here?

TUCKER: Well, if they`ve got four -- three different nominees by the
time they -- three different winners by the time they get to Florida, yes,
I think...

MATTHEWS: Same as 1964.

TUCKER: ... there`s going to be a lot of angst...

MATTHEWS: Last question...

TUCKER: ... among the establishment.

MATTHEWS: I hate to keep pushing. There`s so much to do here, John
Heilemann, do you think there could be an intervention by the party
grandees, such as they are?

HEILEMANN: Unless Herman Cain is about to be nominated, I think the
answer to that is no.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: OK. Everyone`s staying with us right now.

Coming up, we`re going to talk about the president of the United
States, Barack Obama. What are his chances of beating whoever wins this
Republican roundabout here we`re talking about? And where does the
president stand right now? And how does he stack up to last -- past
presidents, actually, with approval ratings like he has right now, in the
mid-40s?

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Now we want to compare President
Obama`s approval rating currently one year away from election day with that
of past presidents. We also want to look at the effect of the unemployment
rate on past presidents` quest for reelection. What does the past tell us
about President Obama`s future? I love this stuff, obviously.

Our panel joins us again -- David Corn, Cynthia Tucker and John
Heilemann. Let`s look at this. President Obama`s most recent weekly
approval rating average -- this is the Gallup poll -- averaged for the week
of November 7th through 13th is 43 percent. Remember that number. And
that number has been on the rise.

Let`s look now to how Obama compares to past presidents in the
November of their third years in office. George W. Bush`s approval rating
was 52 percent at this time and just starting to rise. That`s George W.`s.
He, of course won reelection. Bill Clinton`s approval rating was 53
percent and rising, too. He won reelection. George Bush 41`s approval
rating was 55 percent but dropping. Ronald Reagan`s was 53 percent and
rising. He won reelection.

Jimmy Carter`s approval rating in November of 1979 was 40 percent and
rising, although he got a spike in popularity when Americans were taken
hostage in Iran. By November of 1980, his approval rating was back in the
30s, and he, of course, lost reelection.

Richard Nixon`s approval rating was 49 percent and rising. He won
reelection.

So Cynthia, read the tea leaves. What do you see there?

TUCKER: Well, not only is Obama`s approval rating closest to Jimmy
Carter`s, which Republicans are ever fond of pointing out because they want
him to repeat that trajectory -- Carter, of course, was a one-term
president -- but I think one of the most telling things is that you
mentioned an episode far outside of Carter`s control which greatly affected
his reelection chances, and that was the taking of hostages in Iran. We
have no idea what is going to happen with the euro and the European Union.

MATTHEWS: That`s true.

TUCKER: That mess can...

MATTHEWS: Nothing good, though.

CORN: Yes!

(LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Nothing good.

MATTHEWS: It`s hard to imagine a wonderful serendipity going on out
there.

TUCKER: And that will greatly affect the economy here in the United
States, that is something outside forces that could have a big effect on
Obama`s reelection chances, and perhaps bring his approval numbers back
down again.

MATTHEWS: Should he say, We found the real bin Laden...

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: We killed the wrong guy. We got him again.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Let me go to John Heilemann. Looking at you -- you write
these historical books now, like Teddy White did. When you look at the
pattern, mid-40s, sort of gaining but really minimally, it`s not fair to
say Obama`s getting better off -- the economy`s not really substantially
improving, but he`s sort of inching up a little. How do you read that in
terms of history?

HEILEMANN: Well, the first really -- the most -- one of the most
obvious but also important historical points is that incumbent presidents
get -- on election day, they get what their approval rating is in the vote.
I mean, they don`t -- they don`t -- you don`t deviate very much. We have a
pretty good idea of what we think about presidents and we track that pretty
closely.

So right now, President Obama`s on track to win about 43 percent of
the popular vote. That`s pretty far from what it takes to win.

And the second thing that`s true historically is that this trajectory
question is almost what matters most of all. And this period of time in
the fall and winter leading into an incumbent reelection...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HEILEMANN: ... tells you a lot about what`s going to happen. If you
can get the polls moving in the right direction -- and that obviously is
also premised on the economy moving in the right direction. If you`re
headed in the right direction right now, you can be pretty sure you`re
going to get reelected. If you are either stagnant or dropping from a low
point, you have a lot of problems. And that`s where the president`s in
trouble.

MATTHEWS: OK. John, I`ve got to stick with you because you said
something very evocative there. You said the president`s number is his
number. At the same time, you said the next several months are critical.

Suppose he beats -- using a figure of speech here, he beats Mitt
Romney, the front-runner purportedly, over the head with a frying pan for
the next five months, I mean, does nothing but bash him, negative,
negative, negative, negative, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang -- is he still
at 43 percent, even though the other guy looks worse?

HEILEMANN: Well, I mean, the relevant precedent there George W. Bush
precedent, and George W. Bush`s approval rating rose a little bit while he
was taking John Kerry out in just such a fashion. You get a little bit of
a reflected approval rating bump from seeing your opponent -- by mashing
your opponent and making him unacceptable.

But it`s hard to do that starting at 43 percent. That`s the
difference.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HEILEMANN: You can move those numbers if you`re at 47, 48. You can
creep over 50 percent. Hard to -- hard to get from 43...

MATTHEWS: That`s what I`m worried...

HEILEMANN: ... to 51.

MATTHEWS: That`s what I`m worried about. And that opens up to
something we`ll talk about later in the show, which is a third party,
because it seems like Obama can beat the heck out of whoever`s the nominee,
but he`s still not making himself likable.

CORN: Whatever Obama does, if he wins a year from now, it will be
historic, just on the basis of the numbers we seen. He`s going to have to
use that frying pan again and again and turn this election into what the
consultants call a "choice election," where it`s me and the other guy.
Usually, elections -- particularly I think on incumbents -- are
referendums. People decide they want to keep the guy there who...

MATTHEWS: But there`s another choice beyond that -- not voting.

CORN: Well, there is...

MATTHEWS: Not voting and looking for a third...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Free will and free choice -- once somebody in a philosophy
class described to me as, free choice is you`re limited in your options,
you know? And that`s why I like free will with regarding abortion because
there are other things you can think about doing, you know, besides having
sex, you know, maybe if you can.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: But how about with free will? Free will?

TUCKER: Well...

MATTHEWS: Free will.

TUCKER: ... Obama certainly has to worry about the so-called
enthusiasm gap. He did extremely well under (ph) young voters last time
around. This time, a lot of those young voters don`t have the enthusiasm
because a lot of them don`t have jobs.

MATTHEWS: So what happens if he`s stuck at 43 percent and he beats
the brains out of whoever runs against...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What happens to the vote? Does it just stay home?

(CROSSTALK)

TUCKER: We will have to see who voters are most scared of. Are they
most scared of Obama again or most scared of whoever...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Can you imagine a 22-year-old kid, African-American or
white or whatever, a regular 22-year-old, who I have some experience with,
my kids, and you`re telling the kid -- he`s not always going to vote or
vote most of the time -- you have got to get out there and vote against
Mitt Romney? Does that work?

TUCKER: I don`t think it works for that 22-year-old.

CORN: But, remember, Obama`s numbers have gone up marginally in the
last month or two, not on the basis of bashing Mitt Romney, but on the
basis of taking what happened after the debt ceiling and turning it into a
program and policies that people like, jobs and having...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: There he is.

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: He`s had success doing that.

MATTHEWS: I think he`s got to talk about the future. I have said it
a million times.

Let`s take a look at how Obama compares to past presidents in November
of their third years with respect to the unemployment rate. This is key,
the economy, stupid. Currently the unemployment rate is 9.0 percent and
has remained stagnant at 9 percent for a long time.

The unemployment rate at this point in George W. Bush`s presidency was
5.8 percent and dropping. He won reelection. The unemployment rate for
Bill Clinton in November of his third year was 5.6 percent and had been
fairly stagnant. It dropped by the way to 5.4 percent in November of `96.
So he was getting better off there. Clinton of course won reelection.

The unemployment rate for George Herbert Walker Bush, Bush Sr., was
7.0. It rose to 7.4 in November `92. And he lost because it was going the
wrong way. The unemployment rate for Ronald Reagan -- catch this baby --
was 8.5 percent, but trending downward. A year later, it was 7.2 percent
on reelection day and he was reelected. The unemployment rate under Jimmy
Carter was 5.9 percent a year out and rising. He lost reelection.

The unemployment rate under President Nixon was 6.0 percent and
dropping, and he won reelection.

There you see it, Cynthia. It`s are things getting better or aren`t
they? It`s so simple. The voters like it getting better. They keep the
guy.

TUCKER: Well, even if Obama is trending down, 8.7 percent is still
historically a very high unemployment rate. So, yes, he can argue things
are getting better, but...

MATTHEWS: What do you think, a hunch, that he needs to get down to
convince us he`s on a downward, he`s on a better, blue skies perspective?

(CROSSTALK)

TUCKER: Well, heaven knows something under 8 percent would help him a
lot, but that`s not going to happen.

MATTHEWS: Right.

CORN: You`re right. It`s about the future.

MATTHEWS: And 8.2 percent would look pretty good right now.

CORN: Yes, 8.2 percent would look great.

Voters have to have some confidence that what he is doing is moving
the country in the right direction, so that they don`t want to change...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: That his policies are working. No, not just good luck, not
just we have survived this recession or depression, but that his policies
are working because they want those policies to continue.

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: Continue, exactly.

MATTHEWS: I`m selling too much here.

John Heilemann, it is about the future. People do vote on what they
want. Does he have to be a really successful guy and engineering a lower
unemployment rate to get reelected?

HEILEMANN: Well, look, I think this does go back to David`s point
before about a referendum vs. a choice.

And I think that there`s a lot of people in America who do want the
president to succeed and they do think that probably he had been dealt a
bad hand and played it as best as he could. But Mitt Romney or whoever the
Republican nominee is going to be is going to argue that, look, he`s done a
lot of stuff. He`s passed health care, he`s passed stimuluses, all those
things, and we`re really not better off than we were four years ago.

And for a lot of Americans who are pretty sympathetic to the
president, they`re still going to be very persuadable that we have just got
to try something else.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I think the toughest line I`m sure they`re ready for,
guys like Axelrod, the president getting slammed, the haymaker, the Sunday
punches, you had your chance. We tried it your way. That`s a hard one to
come back to, even though it`s not entirely fair, as we know.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Up next: from Herman Cain on Libya to Michele Bachmann on
the founding fathers and their hatred of slavery to Rick Perry`s oops, we
have got the campaign lowlights coming so far. If you just want to enjoy
this for the silly season, here they come again.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. Ready for a look back?

It`s still over a month until the first votes are cast, but one thing
is well under way for the 2012 campaign season. You know it, the
Republican clown show, I have been calling it. And we have got a special
highlight or lowlight reel of all the moments which left us thinking, did I
just hear that correctly?

Well, here`s some fun. Watch and remember.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our founding fathers
never meant for Washington, D.C., to be the fount of all wisdom. We fought
the revolution in the -- the 16th century.

HERMAN CAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: OK. Libya.

BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST, "FACE THE NATION": You owed between $250,000 and
$500,000 to a jewelry company. What was that about, Mr. Speaker?

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, first of all, it was
about obeying the law.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What I love
about New Hampshire and what we have in common is our extreme love for
liberty. You`re the state where the shot was heard around the world in
Lexington and Concord.

CAIN: President Obama supported the uprising, correct?

PERRY: I would do away with the Education, the....

(CROSSTALK)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Corporations are people, my
friend.

CAIN: I do not agree the way he handles it for the following reason.

PERRY: Commerce and -- let`s see -- I can`t. The third one, I can`t.
Sorry.

CAIN: Nope, that`s a different one.

BACHMANN: We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the
nation began. We also know that the very founders that wrote those
documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.

SCHIEFFER: Did you owe $500,000 to a jewelry company at one point?

CAIN: How do you say delicious in Cuban?

GINGRICH: Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood.

CAIN: I`m not sure what you mean by neoconservative.

GINGRICH: It was an interest-free account.

SCHIEFFER: Who buys a half million dollars worth of jewelry on
credit?

GINGRICH: go talk to Tiffany`s.

CAIN: I`m not familiar with the neoconservative movement.

BACHMANN: Men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until
slavery was extinguished in the country.

CAIN: I have got all this stuff twirling around in my head.

BACHMANN: I haven`t had a gaffe or something that I have done that
has caused me to fall in the polls.

CAIN: We need a leader, not a reader.

PERRY: Oops.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Now, there`s a stocking stuffer.

Anyway, who`s the real winner in all this? You bet they`re laughing
in the White House. And he`s living there maybe for another five years
because of that clown show.

Up next, name that veep. Could Marco Rubio put Mitt Romney over the
top, especially in Florida? And would President Obama ever consider
dropping Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate for Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton?

Our panel is coming back after this with some hot questions and
answers.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILISSA REHBERGER, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Hello. I`m Milissa Rehberger.
Here is what is happening.

Stun guns, pepper spray, bloody noses and arrests, and we`re not
talking about Occupy protests. More than 150 million shoppers are hitting
the stores today, trying to snap up bargains, but violent incidents are
being reported across the country, including a woman pepper spraying a
crowd, a shopper stun-gunned, a grandfather tackled for allegedly
shoplifting, and one shopper shot and critically wounded in the parking lot
of a California Wal-Mart.

Three American students arrested for taking part in an anti-government
protest in Egypt are flying out of Cairo tonight after authorities dropped
all charges against them.

Police in Ohio say another body found in a shallow grave near Akron
could be the third killing connected to phony Craigslist job postings.

And a shortened day of trading on Wall Street -- the markets finished
slightly lower for the day, but the Dow and S&P both posted their worst
Thanksgiving week since the Great Depression, losing nearly 5 percent each
-- now back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

My panel of colleagues -- I love that word -- David Corn, Cynthia
Tucker, and John Heilemann, are back with us to talk 2012 veepstakes.

I love this because it`s pure speculation. If Mitt Romney wins on the
Republican side, who will best serve him politically as vice presidential
candidate? And we do hear those rumors -- I`m not sure where they`re
coming from -- about Joe Biden not being on the ticket, but Hillary Clinton
being on the ticket. Would that make him look like -- the president look
like a leader or a refugee? And that`s a tough one for what it says about
the president. But we will get to that.

And everybody, by the way, I know has an attitude about that one.

David Corn, I just think Marco Rubio was on this program a week ago
and he struck me as a young guy who`s bright, positive, and despite all
those questions about when his family came from Cuba, a pretty impressive
character.

Your thoughts?

CORN: Yes. Yes.

You know what`s good about him? He hasn`t been in the Senate too
long.

MATTHEWS: He doesn`t talk like them.

CORN: You`re exactly right. He doesn`t talk about a senator. He
talks like a real person. He is thoughtful. Actually, and he`s tried to
reach out to the other side and come up with some policies. And he hasn`t
been hard-line.

MATTHEWS: Brutal question. Is he too young? He looks very young.

TUCKER: No, I don`t think his relative youth would -- is
disqualifying.

What I think, though, is conservatives are very excited because they
think he could help bring along the Latino vote. In fact, Rubio is Cuban.
That`s a conservative vote that`s going to be with the Republican Party
anyway.

MATTHEWS: OK. You`re in New Mexico and you hear a guy speaking in
perfect Spanish with a Cuban accent. Do you like it or not?

TUCKER: Well, you like it just fine. But I would be more excited
about somebody like the new governor of New Mexico, Martinez.

MATTHEWS: What`s her first name?

TUCKER: Can`t remember the first name, but she`s of Mexican heritage.

MATTHEWS: Susana.

Yes, she`s getting a lot of buzz, getting a lot of buzz. And she
would be from the right corner of the country.

Let me go to -- what about -- just run through a couple of names here.
We`re having some fun here. The names I have got here on the sheet which
make sense to me, certainly, Rubio, John, and then Huckabee because he
gives -- we get, for example, Mitt Romney some Christian conservative
support there. And then, of course, Bob McDonnell, who actually is a Roman
Catholic governor of -- not that he`s a Roman Catholic governor, but he
happens to be Roman Catholic. He`s the governor of Virginia.

Or Rob Portman, who is from Ohio, and normally delivers the bill of:
I can deliver one state.

What are you thinking here?

HEILEMANN: Well, I`m thinking, Chris, as I always do every time we
ever discuss this matter, that there is only one qualification to become
the vice presidential nominee in either party, which is, are you ready to
be president from day one?

And I think that`s true not just substantively, but, politically.
It`s the main thing that people, voters look for. It`s a test of judgment.
And so I think that Marco Rubio`s an incredibly skillful politician for a
man of his age. I think he`s got a bright future in the party. I don`t
know that he passes that test, not because he looks too young, but just
because he is a little bit too inexperienced.

If I look at that list, I say Rob Portman is a guy who has been a
United States congressman, a United States trade representative, headed the
Office of Management and Budget, and the governor of Ohio. He`s a guy who
could be president from day one and that`s really the only test that
matters to most voters. And in addition to that, as you say, he carries
some weight in Ohio. That`s a pretty important state electorally.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I don`t think he was governor.

HEILEMANN: He -- no?

MATTHEWS: No, I don`t think so.

CORN: But I -- that test should be the test in the perfect world.
But as we saw, as John wrote about in his last book, it wasn`t the test
they used the last time the Republicans got to pick a vice presidential
nominee.

MATTHEWS: No, they picked Sarah Palin. They picked Dan Quayle. They
went for these wild Hail Mary pass, and they didn`t work.

(CROSSTALK)

TUCKER: Well, Dan Quayle actually did work in terms of...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He made George Herbert Walker Bush look mature.

TUCKER: And George Herbert Walker Bush got elected with Dan Quayle on
the ticket.

MATTHEWS: Right, despite Quayle, despite Quayle. Give me a break.
He didn`t...

(CROSSTALK)

TUCKER: No, no, I`m saying I`m with David on this.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He`s senator out there. He`s got the statue.

I`m with you. By the way, doesn`t Romney seem like a very orderly guy,
like a 9:00 to 5:00 guy, who would pick by the old rule, which is not only
does he look presidential or she look presidential, the running mate, but
somebody who will give you their own state, which will be Ohio, which is an
essential state for a Republican candidate?

HEILEMANN: Look, David Corn made my point by talking about Sarah
Palin. It`s just you run a huge risk when you put someone on the ticket
who causes voters to mistrust your judgment by choosing someone who is not
self-evidently from day one ready to be president.

And as you say, Chris, I think when it comes to Mitt Romney, you look
at Rob Portman and you can see a kind of simpatico-ness the those two guys.
You can imagine them standing on a ticket together.

MATTHEWS: I agree with you.

Let`s follow your rule which tells you more about the candidate for
president than the candidate for V.P. when you pick that person. It says
who you are.

So let`s talk. I want you to pick up here, John. If President Obama,
whatever he says when he does it, if he drops Joe Biden and brings in --
and brings in Senator -- Secretary of State Clinton to replace him and they
give a switcheroo even, even giving him a promise of the secretary of state
job in her place, does that make him look strong or weak?

HEILEMANN: Well, I think it would provide an incredible jolt of
excitement to the ticket. And I think there`s a good political -- if you
were just doing this on purely political basis, I think you could make the
case for why it would make sense.

But I think that the president feels as though it would make him look
weak. And I think that`s the reason why it will never happen. I don`t
think that Barack Obama will do this. I think in some ways, he would
rather lose.

MATTHEWS: Well, what would be his motive if it weren`t weakness?
Let`s be completely fair here.

HEILEMANN: Right.

MATTHEWS: Would there be any reason in terms of loyalty or
performance to drop Biden? Would there be any reason to bring her in?

(CROSSTALK)

HEILEMANN: No.

CORN: None.

Biden`s been a great vice president for this president. He`s the one
who has dealt with the Senate and the House, when the president, that`s not
his strong suit. His policy team works, you know, in parallel with the
president`s team.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CORN: It`s been a great team, I think, from the president`s
perspective.

The only reason to do this would be if there was sort of a life-and-
death political reason to do that, which would be an admission that he`s in
trouble, which I agree with John.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me ask Cynthia.

When is his image going to go through a change? People who know Biden
think he`s got more political chops than the president. He understands
people, he`s a good one-on-one person. He`s very likable, and these gaffes
are really superficial 90 percent of the time.

But he`s known by the "Saturday Night Live" image of him. You know,
these things hector you. I know, everybody -- it`s what you get named for.
You know, it may not be the most salient part of you, but it becomes the
handle. His handle is still the gaffes.

CYNTHIA TUCKER, POLITICAL COLUMNIST: Yes, but it didn`t hurt him in
2008. He has performed very well so far as David just said. Not only
that, let`s remember that one of the reasons that Obama picked Biden is
because Biden could help him with those working class, white voters in
states like Pennsylvania.

MATTHEWS: My crowd, too, geographically.

TUCKER: Exactly. And Biden helped deliver those votes.

MATTHEWS: But can he deliver the really hard ones to get the
Appalachian whites? The ones in southwestern Pennsylvania?

Once you get in that part of the country -- Ohio, you get a little
further west, they`re tougher to get than the Irish-Italian guy living
around --

TUCKER: And they`re going to be tougher this time around because the
economy`s so bad and I`m not sure that Hillary Clinton could help any more
than Joe Biden.

MATTHEWS: You know, I always wonder when people voted for Hillary
Clinton for that primary in Pennsylvania, places like that, were they
voting for her or against Obama?

CORN: I think they were voting for her at that point.

MATTHEWS: I don`t know.

CORN: That`s my guess. Most people want to vote for someone they
like and they feel good about. Not to stop somebody else.

MATTHEWS: OK. She has looked so good as secretary of state. I
don`t want to get in the way of anything that would work because we should
always get the best candidates. But I do think the role of secretary of
state is the greatest job in the world, first of all. It`s better than any
other job because you don`t have to do all the deadly. You get to do the
good stuff and you don`t have to run for anything.

But the other thing about it, which in all fairness to her, you don`t
have to attack the opponents. And that makes you very likable. Just do
your job and she`s done it well -- very well, obviously.

Cynthia Tucker, thank you.

And, John Heilemann, as always, sir, as you write you book, you share
it with us.

David Corn staying with us.

And up next, what about a third-party run? And, you know, the more
these guys attack each other, the more it looks like they`re creating
space. We`ve got an organization out there working right, not me but the
country, to put a third party candidate or third candidate, I should say,
on the ballot in all 50 states.

But is there anybody big enough to actually be that candidate and
challenge, perhaps, the president? Well, certainly the president and
perhaps Mitt Romney. Who is equal to that task?

We`ll be -- I`ll be speaking about -- by the way, I`m going to be
speaking about my book "Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero" next Tuesday at the top
political bookstore here in Washington, Politics Approach, which everybody
hangs out at, who loves politics.

And on Wednesday, I`m going to be up in Boston at the John F. Kennedy
Library. What an honor to go to the John F. Kennedy Library and talk about
my book.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

With the Republican Party fractured, it seems right now, and
President Obama struggling in the polls, could a third party candidate or a
third candidate do well in 2012?

Elliott Ackerman is the chief operating officer, the COO, if you
will, of Americans Elect 2012 -- a political group aimed at nominating a
political candidate over the Internet in 2012. And David Corn is still
with us.

What do you do for a living? You run this thing for a living, right?

ELLIOTT ACKERMAN, AMERICANS ELECT 2012: I work with Americans Elect.

MATTHEWS: But you get paid. That`s how you make a living?

ACKERMAN: Actually, I work there, volunteer.

MATHEWS: Oh, you don`t get paid --

ACKERMAN: I don`t get paid by them.

MATTHEWS: Where does the money come from that goes to Americans
Elect?

ACKERMAN: Well, we have a variety of donors.

MATTHEWS: Do you ever identify them?

ACKERMAN: Some of them --

MATTHEWS: Will you tell us your major donors?

ACKERMAN: Sure. One of my major donors is actually my father, Peter
Ackerman. He gave some of the seed money.

MATTHEWS: How much did he give?

ACKERMAN: He`s given $5.5 million.

MATTHEWS: So, this is basically a couple of people with a lot of
money giving money?

ACKERMAN: No, we actually have about 4,000 donors right now.

MATTHEWS: Do you list that donor list? Can we get access to it?

ACKERMAN: You do. Go to AmericansElect.org.

MATTHEWS: It`s public.

ACKERMAN: It`s streaming live on our Web site.

CORN: But you`re not -- you`re set up as a group that can keep its
donors secret, right? You can take some money in that doesn`t have to be
revealed, right?

ACKERMAN: Let`s talk about what that money`s going to.

CORN: No, no --

MATTHEWS: Is it true some of your money`s blind?

ACKERMAN: Some of our money, which are loans have come in and those
folks have the opportunity to disclose those loans --

MATTHEWS: Why don`t -- two political parties you`re up against have
to disclose their contributions.

ACKERMAN: We`re not a political party, Chris.

MATTHEWS: But you`re running a candidate for president with secret
financing.

ACKERMAN: Well, that`s what you seem to be saying --

MATTHEWS: What do you say?

ACKERMAN: We`re getting 50-state ballot access. We`re not giving a
cent to the candidate. We`re --

MATTHEWS: But in terms of setting this political opportunity for a
third party or third candidate, are you being transparent?

ACKERMAN: I think we`re absolutely being transparent. You can see
our form 990 is on our Web site as well as our audited financials --

CORN: But, still, the bottom line is that not every donor is being
identified. You could get $5 million from somebody and not reveal that.
You don`t have to, is that correct?

ACKERMAN: Well, you`re classifying us as a third party. We`re --

CORN: No, no, I understand --

ACKERMAN: We`re getting 50-state ballot ballots.

CORN: Just concede this point.

MATTHEWS: I think we made our point.

Let me ask you about the third party. Are you looking for a profile
of a candidate someone in the middle politically?

ACKERMAN: We`re looking for a nonpartisan ticket.

MATTHEWS: What does that nonpartisan mean?

ACKERMAN: In 2012, every registered voter in the United States will
be invited to take part in the first nonpartisan convention for the
presidency. The ticket that comes out of the convention is going to be on
the ballot in all 50 states. We`re introducing more competition into a
political system that quite frankly, Chris --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What are you looking for? Obviously, your dad`s put all
this money into it and all these people have put money into it. What do
they want that`s not there? Do they want somebody to the right of what we
have now or to the center of what we have now?

ACKERMAN: At Americans Elect, we`re going to see a ticket come
forward that can be a Republican or Democrat, a Democrat with an
independent, or an independent with a Republican. We`re opening up the
space and inviting every registered voter --

MATTHEWS: I`m looking at the people identified with this, Christy
Whitman is pro-choice. Is anybody on this list pro-life? Do you have any
culture conservatives? Big backers that are cultural conservatives?

ACKERMAN: You can see we`ve got a great group who`s working with us.
Christy Whitman, former --

MATTHEWS: Yes, I mentioned her, she`s pro-choice.

Are these people -- are there any cultural conservatives? Are they
establishment big city liberals?

ACKERMAN: I can`t tell you exactly how every single person weighs on
the abortion issue, but we have people working on this project who have
worked in every administration since the Ford administration. So your
accusation --

MATTHEWS: I`m not -- I`m asking if these are people that represent a
different point of view than Obama and Mitt Romney, for example. Do they -
- what different point of view is being reflected in your candidacy here?

ACKERMAN: We see a wide variety of views that are represented at the
folks who come to Americans Elect. The one unifying treat is they want to
see solutions-based governments come forward in a political system right
now that`s run by the fringes of either party.

CORN: It seems to me right now we have a pretty active debate in
Washington about taxation, the role of federal government --

ACKERMAN: Is that -- is that solutions, though? It`s not.

CORN: No, it`s not producing solutions because people have to decide
which way they`re going to go. I think compromises are being held up I
think by one party.

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: But being in the middle, does that give you any sort of
success of bringing together the two sides together --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I want to get back to something that affects my feeling
about this.

ACKERMAN: Sure.

MATTHEWS: My problem with third-party candidates, and if I saw the
right one, I`d probably get excited about the person, but what they often
do is give people an opportunity to avoid a choice, where they voted for
John Anderson, which was avoiding a choice. And I really resented people
voting for him because what they often did was they didn`t like Carter,
they didn`t like Reagan, so they took a buy. And they basically took a day
off, politically. They voted for somebody who was not going to win. With
Ross Perot, they were voting for somebody who was not going to win.

So, they`re basically against the candidates among whom there would
be a victor. So, I don`t like people avoiding a vote. I think you have to
choice.

Now, my concern about a third party is if you can`t get 37 percent or
close to 40 percent, you can`t get the 270 electoral votes. You`re not
picking a winner. You`re basically denying somebody a vote that you
normally would give it to.

So, how do you know you`re not going to throw the election to one of
the two candidates?

ACKERMAN: My response is you say that you don`t like people spoiling
the vote. I would say I don`t like a system that tells me my only choice
is a Republican or Democrat. Even when you look at the field right now.

MATTHEWS: But do you really offer the voters a choice of who`s going
to win or simply a choice of who is going to spoil?

ACKERMAN: We offer the voters the choice to come and put forward
candidates they would like to see run, to support candidates who are
running --

MATTHEWS: What happens if the candidate you put forward is not
getting up to 35 percent or 40 percent? And you see it in October, they`re
clearly not going to win. They`re not getting the numbers up in the polls.
Are you going to pull the candidacy is clearly --

ACKERMAN: Why would we pull a candidacy?

MATTHEWS: But it`s going to be a spoiler.

CORN: But also, here`s the scenario. What`s to prevent someone like
Ron Paul, whose people are very organized working on the Internet, after,
you know, coming out of the Republican race, coming in and flooding your
event and becoming the third-party ticket -- in which case you`ve not
really expanded the choices out there that much.

ACKERMAN: What`s obviously is there`s a lot of fear in the
establishment to see any entity to come forward that could be credible
that`s outside of Republican and Democratic Party.

CORN: I`m talking about --

(CROSSTALK)

ACKERMAN: Let me finish.

CORN: I`m talking about somebody who already had a chance.

ACKERMAN: Let me finish. We got a two-party system that is failing
spectacularly this cycle. The genius of our country is that last self-
correcting mechanism we have left is the American people. There`s nothing
on our founding documents that says the two parties have to exist. And
when they`re failing in the manner they are and we`re sitting at
Thanksgiving weekend with no solutions to the problems solving debate, why
can`t the American people self-correct?

CORN: Why do you think having Ron Paul on the ticket will change the
things that you worried about?

ACKERMAN: Why are you so scared of Ron Paul?

CORN: I`m not scared of him. I`m using it as an example. Why would
this make --

ACKERMAN: If competition is good in ever other facet in our lives,
why isn`t it good in our democracy?

CORN: Well, actually, I don`t believe it`s good in every facet in
our lives.

ACKERMAN: Then we differ on that.

CORN: But I`m saying --

ACKERMAN: I`m American and I think competition is good.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask about the financing of this, because my main
concern is the American people in the recent poll said 86 percent of the
American people said too much influence from big business in Washington.

ACKERMAN: I agree.

MATTHEWS: But your dad threw in 5 million bucks.

ACKERMAN: We are removing the barrier to entry.

MATTHEWS: Just throwing money in, influencing politics.

ACKERMAN: Let me answer the question.

MATTHEWS: Sure. Go ahead.

ACKERMAN: We have a system where the parties own a ballot and
there`s a significant barrier to entry. You know about this, that the only
reason you could ever see a third-party candidate come forward is because
they had the resources to remove the barrier entry which is 50-state
ballot.

In American Elect, all we`re doing is removing the barrier to entry,
which is 50-state ballot access.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: We`ll have you back.

I think it`s interesting. I just want to know more about the
transparency issue.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: David, we`re going to keep talking about it. There are no
barriers to entry on this show, but I do worry about spoilers. I do worry
about what Nader did back in the 2000 race who gave the Florida.

ACKERMAN: Let`s talk about it.

MATTHEWS: That was not good.

Thank you. Thank you, Elliott Ackerman, for coming on, accepting our
invitation.

Thank you, David Corn, who`s always welcome here and always a good
guy.

Up next, "Let Me Finish" with the stakes for the Republicans running
for president, this January and beyond.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" with this:

January does promise to be make-or-break for many, if not all, of the
Republican candidates hoping to be the November challenger of President
Obama. But it`s more likely to break candidates than make them. That`s
true even if Mitt Romney pulls a big upset by winning the Iowa caucuses.

Here`s an early line for me on what could happen this coming January:
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick
Santorum both make strong appeals to the religious and cultural right,
which is strong in Iowa. Both need to do well there, very well on Tuesday,
January 3rd, if they are to win recognition as real presidential
contenders.

The same goes for different reasons for Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman
the following Tuesday, January 10 up in New Hampshire. Romney was governor
of Massachusetts and enjoyed overwhelming press coverage in New Hampshire
during his time in office. He`s also a New England Republican. He needs
to win New Hampshire, or it would be damage beyond recognition.

Jon Huntsman, for his part, needs to be the candidate who does the
damaging.

This is zero sum. If Romney wins New Hampshire, Huntsman is not
really in this thing anymore. If Romney loses New Hampshire to anyone,
he`s in deep doo-doo. If he loses to Huntsman, one man would be delirious
with victory, and other, delirious in defeat.

South Carolina, its primary which comes next has become the make-or-
break state for Republicans, period. This year, it`s the last chance for
the Republican conservatives on the right to show who is tops. If Perry
loses, he`s probably well on his way out of the race. If he wins, he
becomes the number one challenger to Romney again. Same goes for Herman
Cain.

I`m not talking yet about Newt Gingrich. He can win anywhere or lose
anywhere, but he needs to come in among the top three in the couple of
these early January races. He`s primarily a debater candidate. Therefore,
he can hang in there and become the anti-Romney after the others are
knocked out.

Florida, the last of the big four contest comes at the end of the
month and could be the decider. If Mitt Romney holds on and wins there in
Florida, this could be the guarantor that he goes right to the convention
in Tampa, still battling it out however with Gingrich or either Perry or
Cain.

It`s just possible that this fight for the Republican nomination this
time is not going to be settled until the actual convention, for the basic
reason that while Romney may be the spinach this the Republican Party needs
to win, he`s just not its cup of tea.

That`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us. Join us again
Monday for more HARDBALL. Have a great weekend.

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

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  1. Jason Merritt / Getty Images

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