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updated 12/7/2011 9:57:50 AM ET 2011-12-07T14:57:50

Guests: Dana Milbank, Nia-Malika Henderson, Ron Reagan, Maggie Haberman,
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ron Reagan, Nia-Malika Henderson, Maggie Haberman

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Trump pumps, Romney regrets.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews out in Chicago. Leading off
tonight: Newt Gingrich is surging and Mitt Romney`s not. Newt`s the man to
beat right now. In a bevy of new national polls, he`s the clear front-
runner now in Iowa, in South Carolina, even down in Florida. He`s up
against the Romney machine, however, loaded with cash and highly organized.
And Romney has now shown the mettle not to do Donald Trump`s bidding. So
does Mitt have the muscle to win this fight?

And what about Romney? Politico reports today that some of his
supporters want him to spend that cash of his and hit Newt hard. With just
four weeks until the voting begins in Iowa, can Romney slow Gingrich down?
Can he land a hard punch?

And President Obama`s staking his reelection hopes on rebuilding
America`s middle class. He wants higher taxes on the wealthy, tougher
rules on Wall Street, and everyone else to get a fair shot to succeed.
Republicans can cry "class warfare" if they want, but as the president put
it today, it`s about this country`s welfare.

The president gave that speech today in the same Kansas town where
Teddy Roosevelt gave his "New Nationalism" agenda more than 100 years ago.
In that speech, Roosevelt, a Republican, pushed for stronger regulations,
bigger government, and higher taxes on the rich, all things today`s
Republican Party is dead set against.

And "Let Me Finish" tonight with a "Sister Souljah" move by Mitt
Romney. He stood up to Donald Trump.

We start with Newt`s surge nationwide. Republican strategist Steve
Schmidt worked on the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign and ran the 2008 McCain
campaign. Steve`s also an MSNBC analyst. And Dana Milbank is political
columnist for "The Washington Post."

Gentlemen, I want you to consider this news out right now. Before we
get to the strong poll numbers for Newt Gingrich, let`s start with the news
breaking this afternoon, late this afternoon. On Fox News, Mitt Romney
said he would not be attending Donald Trump`s circus debate later this
month. Let`s listen to Mitt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, I`m not
participating in that. We have two debates in December that I`ve agreed to
participate in. The rest of the month is going to be spent campaigning,
doing the political work you`ve got to do to get the support of people in
Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida. So we`ll be hitting the
trail. I spoke with Donald Trump earlier today, indicated that we just
can`t make this debate.

NEIL CAVUTO, HOST, "YOUR WORLD": And what did he say?

ROMNEY: He understood my perspective and wished me well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, there you go. Let me go to Steve Schmidt for this
act of at least cojones on the part of Mitt Romney. I have to say I`m
impressed by anybody that stands up to this guy. I mean, it`s not exactly
like standing up to Rush Limbaugh these days, but almost.

STEVE SCHMIDT, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well,
good for Mitt Romney for, A, not debasing himself, and also for
understanding that the office of president of the United States is one that
historically has had great dignity to it. And this has just become a joke,
and I think that the candidates who are doing it are doing a great
disservice to the party. It`s a sign of an unhealthy institution.

MATTHEWS: Same view I have on this. Dana Milbank, your view? Could
this have been -- let`s put it this way. Could this have been a disaster
if he`d knelt before the altar of Donald Trump?

DANA MILBANK, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, of course it was a disaster.
It was obviously a trap being set up. You can see that the other
candidates were getting ready to pounce on Romney some more. You could see
Newt Gingrich, who`s a member of Donald Trump`s country club, already
getting together and talking about the new episode of "The Apprentice,"
with the poor kids in the city.

This was a very smart thing to do. He shows that he is the grown-up
in the Republican Party. Even if he loses, at least he should be losing
with some dignity here. But I suspect this will bring the establishment to
rally around Mitt Romney, as I expect...

MATTHEWS: And both of you gentleman, starting with you, Dana, believe
that he cannot flip on this. Once having said no to Donald Trump, he can`t
go back and say, I changed my mind, I`m bowing to the pressure from you.

MILBANK: No, he just told Donald Trump, "You`re fired," and he`s not
going to come (INAUDIBLE)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: You agree with that? You agree with that, Steve, he has to
stick with it? He has to be...

SCHMIDT: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: ... Martin Luther on this one?

SCHMIDT: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s take a look at...

SCHMIDT: Absolutely. No going back.

MATTHEWS: ... the national numbers. Gingrich -- the big news out
besides this is the momentum in a number of new polls nationally. In the
Gallup tracking poll of Republicans, Newt Gingrich is leading the race for
the nomination. Look at these numbers. They`re starting to build -- 37
percent, up 15 points in the national poll in just two weeks, to Mitt
Romney`s stationary 22 percent.

Among Iowa Republicans -- and of course, that caucus comes up the
third of January -- the new "Washington Post"/ABC poll also has Newt
surging ahead of his rivals. He`s now up to 33 percent, while Romney and
Paul -- here`s Mitt Romney tied with Ron Paul at just 18.

In South Carolina, a state whose primary has been won by the eventual
Republican nominee in every election that it has mattered, back in 1980, a
Winthrop University poll now shows Newt on top in that state, too. He
takes 38 percent, with Romney and his usual 22 percent and Perry well
behind them both, down at 9.

Steve Schmidt, your assessment here of this surge by Newt. Will it
carry through Christmas, on to January 3rd?

SCHMIDT: Well, Newt Gingrich has the ball right now. He is in
control of his destiny. One of those things that in the Iowa poll that I
pointed out is there`s not a lot of awareness yet, for example, that Newt
Gingrich, while railing against the politicians who benefited from Fannie
and Freddie, in fact, took millions of dollars from Fannie and Freddie.
Will that reality drop his numbers I think is anyone`s guess.

But at this moment in time, Chris, he`s like a maestro. He is playing
the Republican base like a Stradivarius violin. He`s saying exactly what
they want to hear. He`s, you know, delivering...

MATTHEWS: OK. OK...

SCHMIDT: ... Alinsky, delivering Ayers...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: A little -- OK...

SCHMIDT: He`s playing it perfectly.

MATTHEWS: OK, a little "bicentennial moment" here on HARDBALL. Here
we go. Here we go. Steve, people like me have been blasted, and perhaps
fairly, for believing so much in Barack Obama`s rhetorical skills back when
he ran for president. Perhaps those skills have yet to be met by his
executive skills. OK, fair enough.

But here`s the Republican Party with round heels for anybody who says
the right thing at the current moment. Regardless of their record,
regardless of their character, and regardless of who they are, it seems
that if you say the right stuff now to the Republican ear, Steve Schmidt,
they will say yes, no matter who you are.

You can be Mitt Romney (SIC) with three marriages and a disastrous
speakership, kicked out of the speakership, being reprimanded by the House
of Representatives and fined and all that stuff, it doesn`t matter if you
sing the right tune with the right tone these days.

Is that what`s going on? In other words, they`re just as guilty of
what we have been accused of in the past on the progressive side, of being
-- of swooning over good rhetoric. Is this the same deal they`re going
for?

SCHMIDT: Well, the -- the late -- I mean, the late -- the late -- the
late, great Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that everyone`s entitled to their
own opinions, but not their own facts. I`m not sure that`s true anymore.
In a social media age, it seems that everyone lives in their own reality
and that when you give consideration to Newt Gingrich, he exists in an
alternate reality, at some level, where the things he says are so
diametrically opposed to the record.

And we talked about the Donald Trump debate. A lot of people who
should have known better for the last three-and-half years have -- you
know, have -- have supported, have encouraged this Republican whack-pack
out there.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHMIDT: And it could be that the bill`s now becoming -- that the
bill`s now coming due because sometimes when you ride the tiger, you wind
up inside the tiger.

MATTHEWS: Well, I agree (INAUDIBLE)

SCHMIDT: And that could be the issue that the party -- that the party
faces as we get ready to potentially nominate someone who`s utterly
unelectable in a general election contest.

MATTHEWS: Well, that would be Newt Gingrich, I guess. Let me go down
to Dana on this. Dana...

SCHMIDT: Of course.

MATTHEWS: ... you`re a pretty satirical guy, but it`s hard to beat
the satire -- or come up with satire to beat this stuff. Newt Gingrich
says, The reason I had unfaithfulness in one of my marriages is because I
was too patriotic. Does that mean people -- is this the "Stepford Wives"
political party now? Are they the body snatchees that they fall for this?
You can actually say garbage like this and people -- Oh, that`s pretty
interesting. It was patriotism that led you to cheat on your wife. It was
patriotism.

What -- what kind of lingo is this that people are falling for these
days?

MILBANK: Chris, this has been a maddening race for me to cover
because you can`t parody a parody, which is what this has been so far. But
I think I`m going to give the Republican primary voters a little bit more
credit than that and say, in the end, I still suspect they`re going to get
it right because they did get it right with Rick Perry. They did get it
right with Herman Cain, with Michele Bachmann.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MILBANK: Now, it looks like Newt`s got it here, but there`s still
plenty of time for that to be exposed during the debate. Look, I`ve
covered this the guy for the last 16 years, so I just say, whatever the
polls say, I know that this is impossible, that the Republicans are not
going to be so suicidal as to hand the election to Barack Obama. They`ve
still got a month or so to figure that out, and you just have to think
they`re going to do it. But it sure would make it interesting if they
don`t.

MATTHEWS: Here`s Rush Limbaugh joining this rush off the cliff, the
sheep heading off the cliff, however. Here`s Rush Limbaugh. He seemed to
be heading towards Newt Gingrich support here, praising him yesterday for
his skills at cutting the size of government. Let`s listen to Rush --
well, Rush over Newt.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Who was the last person to
actually cut government? Who was the last person who actually led a
movement that balanced the federal budget? Who was the person that did
that? (HUMS) You`re not going to take a guess? OK (INAUDIBLE) It was Mr.
Newt! The last guy that gave us a balanced budget. Now, there were a lot
of other Republicans -- John Kasich was key -- a lot of -- but Gingrich was
speaker the last time this budget was -- the last time there was true
Welfare reform, the last time government was cut, Gingrich did it!

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I think it was Merv Griffin who wrote that melody, by the
way, Steve Schmidt and Dana. But here he was singing the "Jeopardy" song,
or humming it there. But "Jeopardy`s" a good name for a quiz show, but
it`s not a very good slogan for a campaign.

Do you think -- Steve, to get back to your point a moment ago, do you
think that Rush Limbaugh is going to join this cattle stampede off the
cliff for Newt?

SCHMIDT: I don`t know. He went all in against John McCain, didn`t
make much of a difference four years ago. But what I find interesting
about it is that he assails Mitt Romney, for example, for all manner of
conservative heresies, but I guess it`s OK for Newt Gingrich to have been
in commercials talking about global warming with Nancy Pelosi three years
ago.

There`s a fundamental disconnect between what Newt Gingrich says on
the trail and what Newt Gingrich has actually done with his record. And
it`s amazing when you consider the scope of the intellectual dishonesty by
the people who police the definition of conservatism today.

MATTHEWS: You know, I have to go back to the picture we`re watching.
You guys can`t see it on the screen, I don`t think, but there`s a picture
of Donald Trump, sort of as the grand vizier here, overlooking his new
pupil, or his new disciple, I should say, Newt Gingrich. It`s amazing.
Look at this picture! It`s an amazing -- if you had to say a year ago or
two years ago, or 15 minutes ago -- what is happening here?

Here`s Newt Gingrich standing before the guy who`s he`s accepted as
sort of -- not just his grand marshal of his parade, but as some kind of
judge of who should be fired and who should be made one of -- one of Donald
Trump`s apprentices, in other words, a presidential candidate, Dana. You
can`t make this up.

MILBANK: No, you can`t. The Republicans have the Tea Party to thank
for this. They wanted somebody who`d be the very opposite of Barack Obama,
and by extension, the very opposite of Mitt Romney, which is what created
this whole circus in the first place. Now the only alternative to Mitt
Romney for the Rush Limbaughs of the world is Newt Gingrich.

On the other hand, you have the likes of Glenn Beck saying, The heck
with all of them. He`s sort of going, you know, a lost cause of Michele
Bachmann. There`s a lot of disillusionment on the right now, but they`ve
essentially caused it by eliminating all these legitimate candidates in the
first place.

MATTHEWS: Yes, well, in the country`s suburbs, millions of people in
the suburbs of Philadelphia and New York and Chicago and Cleveland and all
around the country, middle-of-the-road voters who thought they were going
to have an option in the upcoming presidential campaign, if they were a
little bit disappointed with President Obama, perhaps still hopeful but
disappointed, they thought they might get a choice.

It looks to me like the Republican Party`s in no mood to give them a
reasonable choice with this clown show going on right now from the likes
of, well, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump. What a duo. Thank you, Steve
Schmidt. Thank you, Dana Milbank.

Coming up: No matter who the Republicans actually end up nominating,
President Obama is betting now on a campaign strategy of fairness. He
wants the middle class in this country to get a fair shake, he wants Wall
Street to play by the rules, and he wants the wealthy to pay their fair
share, all reasonable proposals. But can he put some bite into this,
though, not just good talk but bite and fight?

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Some breaking news now. The administrator of the Federal
Aviation Administration is resigning after a DWI arrest. Let`s go right
now to NBC`s Tom Costello in Washington.

TOM COSTELLO, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Chris, you may recall that on
Saturday night, Randy Babbitt, the head of the FAA, was arrested in
Virginia and accused of driving under the influence for driving on the
wrong side of the road. He did not notify the Department of
Transportation, and specifically the secretary, until yesterday midday. He
was then suspended, and now he has resigned. He resigned and his
resignation has been accepted.

This was really untenable for Mr. Babbitt. He runs the FAA. Of
course, they have been dealing with drunk pilots and sleeping air traffic
controllers. The FAA is part of the Department of Transportation, which
has a zero tolerance policy on drunk driving, has been working to eradicate
it. And so his arrest on Saturday night on charges of DWI really was
something that the Department of Transportation simply could not continue
to allow, and he -- he knew that his time was up. The writing was on the
wall yesterday.

He had an illustrious career, of course, 25 years as a pilot, and
then he came to run the FAA under President Obama. And now he is out. No
word yet on who his replacement might be.

Back to you.

MATTHEWS: Tom Costello in Washington. Thank you, Tom. We`ll be
right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe that this
country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their
fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: These aren`t Democratic values or Republican values. These
aren`t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They`re American values, and
we have to reclaim them.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Today President Obama gave a
hint, as you just heard, of the framing of his 2012 election message. It`s
about fairness, as you just heard. And Obama`s location was the same
Kansas town where Republican president Theodore Roosevelt delivered his
"New Nationalism" speech, in which he called for increased corporate
regulations and federal help for the poor and middle class. Can President
Obama win with this message more than a century later?

Nia-Malika Henderson covers politics for "The Washington Post" and Ron
Reagan is a political commentator and author of "My Father at 100."

I want to start with Ron on this. It looks to me like the president -
- and everyone seems to be saying today -- is testing a vehicle for
reelection, and that is to restore the strength of the shrinking middle
class, which is under tremendous pressure in terms of salaries being held
down, some inflation, tremendous job insecurity, high unemployment, housing
problems with the homes values of most people now below their mortgage, all
the pressures you can think of, from elderly they have to take care of to
kids they`re still worrying about who have failed to launch.

Think of all the problems, we have got them, and the middle class has
them the worst.

RON REAGAN, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He`s very good at identifying
problems. And I think it was not a bad idea to wrap himself in the mantle
of Teddy Roosevelt. He`s been assuming a sort of progressive mantle, and
he ticked off some large and systemic problems that this country faces.

The quibble I have with President Obama is -- and I think some other
people will have it, too -- is that the rhetoric is fine, and identifying
the problem is fine. But it`s -- to use a football analogy, he sort of
pushes it into the red zone, and then tends to settle for a field goal.

Now, I know this wasn`t a policy speech or anything, but I kept
waiting, when he was talking about politicians, essentially, who were on
the take, you know, from special interests or bankers who were playing fast
and loose with the rules and all that, and I was waiting for the, so we`re
going to do what?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

REAGAN: What are we going to do? It`s not enough to just encourage
people to be better.

MATTHEWS: Yes, where are the teeth marks?

REAGAN: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, same question to you, Nia. A little -- I expect
some attitude from you on this, as well as reporting, Nia.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: It seems to me that the president is saying -- he`s almost
tacking against the wind here, though. I have never heard a president in
bad times running against -- let`s face it, that`s what he`s doing here --
running against bad times, when he`s the presiding officer. Isn`t that a
bit tricky?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON
POST": Yes, it is tricky. And I think Ron`s absolutely right on this.
This was heavy on rhetoric, not big on solutions.

He talked about education being important. He talked about some
regulations against banks making bad bets. But a lot of it was something
that we`d heard before. Again, he`s wrapping himself, obviously, in the
mantle of a Republican president, although I`m not quite sure that
Roosevelt was really a Republican at that time.

But this is something that we have seen from this president before.
He will please his base in a lot of ways. But I think, in some ways, we`re
past the point of big speeches, and it`s time for this president to
actually do something. And I thought he was great out on the stump when he
was able to do something and talk about these executive actions that he was
making around student loans and around mortgages.

But I think one of the most positive things that he did for Democrats
in this is really lay out a contrast between his party, the Democrats, vs.
the Republicans. Right before this speech, you had Nancy Pelosi send out
this e-mail that said, basically, the Republicans were the party of the 1
percent. In this speech, he very much co-opted Occupy Wall Street and I
think, in some ways, implicitly cast Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney as these
characters and these figures of the rich and of the 1 percent.

So, I think, in that way, he was able to really, you know, paint a
real big picture, a real contrast between himself, the Democrats, and what
the Republicans might want to do.

MATTHEWS: Well, we had -- we had Debbie Wasserman Schultz on last
night, the chair of the party, as well as a member of Congress from
Florida. And it looks to me like they`re beginning to work together.

If former Speaker Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, and the
Democratic national chair are all working with the president, coordinating,
they`re beginning to act like they`re in the same political party, which is
a good sign for them and perhaps the country.

President Obama emphasized that the stakes couldn`t be higher for the
middle class these days. Let`s listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But, Osawatomie, this
is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our
time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all
those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what`s at
stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn
enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their
retirement.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, there you go again, Ron, all the good things for a
party based on the middle class. And yet you hear these stories that
they`re going to give up on Ohio, perhaps Pennsylvania. They`re headed
towards the new economy people in North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado.

Is this a bread-and-butter Democrat speaking here or what, or not?

REAGAN: Well, that remains to be seen. You know, time will tell, and
his actions will tell much more than his words.

We have all heard the speeches before. As Nia said, you know, we have
heard this rhetoric before. And it`s all fine. As I said, he`s
identifying, correctly, some of the problems. But these are big systemic
problems that have to do with corruption and basic -- with the financial
sector, health insurance, and our political system.

This is not going to go away because you jawboned somebody or got on
the bully pulpit. This -- this requires that the entire paradigm be re-
thought, if you will, fundamental changes be made in the system. And I`m
not sure that -- well, I know that rhetoric alone is just not going to do
that.

On the other hand, he is -- he`s tied into the Zeitgeist the right
way. Like I said, you know, the -- poll after poll has shown that -- that
most people want taxes on the rich to go up, and most people identify
Republicans with a party that is all about favoring the rich.

HENDERSON: No, I think you`re right.

I think, in some ways, he did still have trouble channeling some of
the passion. I mean, he was more Woodrow Wilson in this speech than he was
Teddy Roosevelt, in terms of his spirit and emphasis and passion. And I
think that`s going to be a challenge for not only him, but also, obviously,
whoever`s on the other side.

MATTHEWS: Well, I guess a lot of people watching right now are hoping
he will take that ball across the goal line, Ron, and not settle for the
field goal.

But I do love your notion there, because I have seen some football
teams around where I live playing that way, and it`s -- nothing`s more
depressing than first and three and having to kick.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Anyway...

REAGAN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Ending up having to kick.

Anyway, thank, Nia-Malika Henderson and Ron Reagan.

HENDERSON: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Up next -- of course, the stakes are a lot higher here than
in a football game.

Mitt Romney knows a flip-flopper when he sees one. We have dug up
video of Romney back in 2004 using the same kind of critique most people
use against him against somebody else, John Kerry.

Stick around for the "Sideshow."

You`re watching it, HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. Now for the "Sideshow."

First up, from speaker to speaker. Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi
were definitely not kidding in the opening lines to the ad they worked on
back in 2008 to raise awareness about global warming.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: We don`t always see
eye to eye, do we, Newt?

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Not always eye to eye? Sounds like an underestimation,
given the war of words that got under way late last week.

On Friday, Nancy Pelosi spoke with Talking Points Memo about the
implications of Newt winning the GOP nomination, saying -- quote -- "I like
Barney Frank`s quote the best, where he said, I never thought I would live
such a good life that I would see Newt Gingrich be the nominee of the
Republican Party. One of these days, we will have a conversation about
Newt Gingrich," Speaker Pelosi said. "I served on the investigative
committee that investigated him, four of us locked in a room in an
undisclosed location for a year, 1,000 pages of his stuff, four of us
locked in a room in an undisclosed location for a year, 1,000 pages of his
stuff."

Well, Gingrich was quick to pounce on that one with an interesting
choice of words. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: I want to thank Speaker Pelosi for what I regard as an
early Christmas gift.

Well, she is suggesting she is going to use material that she
developed while she was on the Ethics Committee. That is a fundamental
violation of the rules of the House, and I would hope that members would
immediately file charges against her the second she does it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, so does Nancy Pelosi intend to release a trove of
secret information about the former speaker?

Well, here`s her official answer -- quote -- "Leader Pelosi was
clearly referring to the extensive amount of information that is in the
public record, including the comprehensive committee report with which the
public may not be fully aware."

Well, this is the sort of sharp, pointed, threatening counterpunch
Newt Gingrich would deliver -- let`s face it -- in a presidential debate
with Barack Obama. Pay attention, everyone.

And, finally, which GOP candidate comes to mind when it comes to
waffling on both sides of key issues? Mitt Romney, maybe? Well, back in
the 2004 race, Romney was the one going after a Democratic candidate for,
get this, flip-flopping.

Here`s what he said about John Kerry back in 2004. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR: When you`re running
for office, you -- you look at your opponent`s record and you find
someplace where he or she has changed position, and you say they`re a flip-
flopper. And that`s a pretty standard thing.

But, in this case, this guy really is. I won`t go through that whole
list, but it`s just extraordinary. I have tried to think why it is that he
has changed so often, why he finds it so difficult to come down on one side
of an issue, instead, sort of floats between both issues.

He`s with an audience, he gets to -- he wants to identify with and
satisfy that audience, and will say what he thinks they want to hear. We
laugh and joke about that kind of inconsistency and vacillation. And yet,
as we look at the times that we face, it`s really not a joking matter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, the pot calling the kettle black, lessons from an
expert. It sounds more like a personal reflection, doesn`t it, about
himself?

Up next: As Gingrich surges, Romney and his supporters are starting
to sweat -- although I have never seen Romney sweat. With just four weeks
to go before Iowa, should Mitt hit Newt hard now?

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANDA DRURY, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Amanda Drury with your CNBC
"Market Wrap."

Stocks struggling to hold on to gains after a report that E.U.
officials are considering aggressive moves to contain the euro crisis. The
Dow Jones industrials climbing 52 points, the S&P 500 up just a point, and
the Nasdaq, as you can see, slipping by six.

"The Financial Times" reporting today that the Eurozone ministers are
discussing a three-pronged approach to restoring financial confidence.
They`re looking at having two bailout funds running simultaneously, instead
of replacing the original EFSF with a new version called the ESM. They`re
also considering beefing up that newer version with speedier initial
payments and easier access to funds from the IMF and the ECB.

In stocks, General Electric surging on an analyst upgrade that
predicted solid results from its financial services arm, GE Capital, but
Netflix slipping after Verizon announced plans to launch its own video
streaming service that could reach as many as 85 million households in the
United States.

And that`s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide. I`m going to
hand you back over to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

As we discussed earlier, Mitt Romney said no to Donald Trump this
afternoon. The candidate said he won`t attend what promises to be one of
the silliest political circus events of the campaign, Donald Trump`s so-
called debate later this month.

Well, Romney`s decision stands in contrast to his chief rival and the
front-runner in the current polls, Newt Gingrich, who, of course, plans on
attending that circus up with Donald Trump.

Some Romney supporters have come to view Gingrich as a serious threat.
According to Politico today -- quote -- "Romney`s backers aren`t panicking
yet. But, to many, especially among the GOP donor elite, Gingrich looks
like Romney`s most formidable opponent to date, and a rival who requires a
much more serious response than the previous conservative alternative,
Herman Cain."

Well, there are four weeks until the Iowa caucuses right now. Does
Mitt Romney have the time to turn the corner and wage a more aggressive,
hard-hitting campaign against Newt Gingrich to stop him in his tracks? And
how will his decision not to attend Donald Trump`s event play with
Republican voters?

Well, Chris Cillizza is managing editor of PostPolitics.com and an
MSNBC contributor, and Maggie Haberman is a senior political writer for
Politico.

I want to start with Maggie.

Maggie, you know, it`s very interesting to try to find the power in
the Republican Party. You know, in the previous cycles, I would refer to
it, like a lot of us, sarcastically, as they`re the white boys club, a
group of governors, perhaps, who would meet somewhere, at some club
somewhere, and sort of give the official OK to whoever the candidate was,
particularly George W. or someone like that, or his father.

Now the power vortex seems to be coming either from radio in the voice
of Rush Limbaugh or this Manhattan Project of Donald Trump. I mean, where
is the Republican power base today that seems to be, well, influencing the
selection process?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, POLITICO: Well, you know, what`s very interesting is
you`re seeing, I think, that power in places like "National Review," and
certainly you`re seeing Karl Rove go on FOX News and say what he thinks. I
think that`s where you`re seeing the power structure.

You had openly Republican elites urging Mitt Romney not to take part
in this Trump debate, as you have called this circus. They have described
it similarly. I think that if he didn`t do it by today, it would have
started to have diminishing returns.

And this is the first clear contrast point you`re seeing with Mitt
Romney to Newt Gingrich. I think that this is the attempt to show Newt
Gingrich as sort of not serious. I think you`re going to see other things
like that. But I think that, you know, the risk for Mitt Romney is that he
is giving in, essentially, to what the elites wanted, and he`s already seen
as the elite candidate, but I don`t think he had much of a choice.

MATTHEWS: I guess it`s the way we look at it. I guess -- well, you
might be right. You believe that the establishment in the Republican Party
is still the Bush household guy retainer, Karl Rove, it`s still that.
That`s the new establishment.

I`m looking at the media power, maybe because I`m on it, Maggie, and I
look at people like Limbaugh and his power to get these people to eat their
own words. You know, in month after month -- well, you know, we have heard
people say things that don`t square with Limbaugh`s thinking, and then they
have got to go crawling back to him and say: I`m sorry, Rush. You`re the
greatest man on Earth.

And, this time around, I thought that Mitt might do it to Donald
Trump.

Let me go over to Chris on this, Chris Cillizza.

Do you think -- who do you think he was feeling the heat from? The media
power of New York, in the face of Trump, unfortunately for New York,
perhaps, but it is definitely -- he is Mr. Manhattan, or the power from the
Texas crowd and the power of George W. and his people?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTON POST: Well, I think if either of those,
Chris, it`s the latter, which is kind of the establishment saying, don`t do
this. But I would say -- I would give Mitt Romney some credit here in that
I think he looks at this debate, and I use that word lightly, because right
now I think you only have Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. So, it`s kind
of a conversation --

MATTHEWS: I think Bachmann`s a more -- I think Congresswoman
Bachmann --

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA: So, you have three people involved. But if you`re Mitt
Romney`s campaign, I`m not sure you need the establishment or the Rush
Limbaughs of the world to put that much pressure on you, to be honest,
because why would you do this? We all know what this is going to turn
into. A vehicle for Donald Trump to talk about Donald Trump --

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CILLIZZA: -- and what Donald Trump wants to talk about.

So it seems to me that this is a no-brainer, if you`re Mitt Romney,
not to do -- I mean, I think if he had done it, there would no doubt be
tut-tutting among the party establishment. But I`m not sure that`s what he
was afraid of. I think they just look at it and said, this makes no sense
for us to do. It`s two days after Christmas. It`s sponsored by Newsmax.
It`s running on a network lots of people don`t get.

Why would we -- why would we raise the possibility that if we`re
going to put our fate in the hands of Donald Trump five days before or six
days before the Iowa caucuses.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, POLITICO.COM: Well, you know, Chris --

MATTHEWS: And what`s wrong, by the way -- you`re right, Maggie, or
Chris, whoever said, there`s only two entrants right now, officially, and
that`s, of course, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Bachmann says, in her
words, her people`s words, are looking at it.

Go ahead, Maggie.

HABERMAN: Oh, no, sorry. I was just going to say that, you know, I
think there was some downside in the mind of the Romney advisers, which was
that Donald Trump and you put it this way in terms of sort of the approach
that gets taken on conservative radio, et cetera, Donald Trump also follows
that. He goes on television and he`s very critical of candidates, if he
doesn`t think they`re doing the right thing.

And I think there is a fear of that. You know, Donald Trump in his
own book referenced that Herman Cain left a meeting with him and said to
someone, well, I`m just afraid he`s going to trash me, so I want him to
like me.

(CROSSTALK)

HABERMAN: Yes, I think that was a concern for the Romney people,
that it was not outweighed by the negatives of taking part.

MATTHEWS: I guess it`s because, guys, it`s always -- I see Romney
bowing to whatever wind seems to be blowing, or to whatever golden idol
they`re supposed to worship at that moment. In this time, he said, no,
thank you.

Here`s Mitt Romney, by the way. He didn`t totally ignore Newt
Gingrich. Here he is this afternoon on FOX News taking a swipe at him.

Let`s watch him perhaps beginning to go to blow with the Newtster.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Speaker Gingrich is a
friend. I respect him, but we have very different life experiences. And
if the American people believe that what we need is someone who spent the
last 40 years or so in Washington, D.C., working as an insider, why, he`s
the right guy. If they, instead, want someone from outside Washington to
come into that place and fix it and get America on track once again to move
away from a government-dominated society to a people-dominated society,
where people and freedom get to choose their course, then I`m the right
person.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I don`t think that`s the theme or the tone of Republican
anger right now, Chris, and then, Maggie. This guy`s got the tool kit --
I`m going under the hood to fix the car, doesn`t seem like the mood of most
rabid Republicans and Tea Party people. They`re angry. They want to go to
blows with Barack Obama, even before they knock him out. They want to go
to blow with him.

CILLIZZA: And, you know, Chris, I think it`s so -- first of all,
you`re right. And I think it`s indicative -- Newt Gingrich`s success in
this race has been largely defined by his success in these debates. His
rise has been entirely fueled by the fact that while Herman Cain has
collapsed, Rick Perry has collapsed, Michele Bachmann has collapsed,
conservatives don`t want Mitt Romney, and in these debates, Newt Gingrich
looks like a reasonable alternative.

Why has Newt done so well in the debates? Because he throws red meat
like it`s going out of style. We need to fire Ben Bernanke. The media is
against us. The fundamentals of your question are stupid.

Republicans love that. Go back -- remember when Rick Perry was
calling Barack Obama a socialist in one of the debates a few weeks back, I
can`t keep track of them, there`s too many, but in one of the debates. The
moderator went right to Newt -- excuse me, to Mitt Romney and said,
Governor Romney, do you agree, is President Obama a socialist? Is his
administration, you know, guided by socialist principles? Mitt Romney did
not say the word, kind of moved along, because he`s not willing to throw
that kind of red meat.

They`re making a gamble that the Mr. Fix-it will work. I think to
lots of people in the Republican Party, it`s fueled I think by Newt
Gingrich`s rise want the red meat-thrower. They want the guy who`s going
to take it to President Obama.

MATTHEWS: Last word to you, Maggie, can you win the Republican
nomination if you talk like you`re going for the general election voter?

HABERMAN: I think it`s really hard. I think what Chris said is
absolutely right. And as you`re saying, it`s right. I think you have to
have passion. I think that`s what primary voters have wanted to see.

They want a combination of someone who is throwing red meat, but also
seems presidential. And right now, GOP voters are saying they can see Newt
Gingrich in that role.

MATTHEWS: Yes, he`s winning on that question of who`s likely, who`s
a better bet to win, which I think is a critical question. If electability
becomes the strength of Newt Gingrich, I don`t know what to say anymore
about politics.

Anyway, thank you, Chris Cillizza. I`m out of words, anyway.

Thank you, Chris Cillizza. Thank you, Maggie Haberman.

CILLIZZA: Thank you, Chris.

HABERMAN: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Up next, President Obama tried to channel Teddy Roosevelt
in his speech today in Kansas. Let`s see how well he did. We`ve got an
expert here.

Roosevelt`s a favorite of Republicans, but he also called for bigger
governments in many ways. Taxes on the rich, graduated income tax,
graduate tax on inheritance -- all kinds of things that sound a bit more
like today`s Democrat.

By the way, let`s hear from an expert on him coming up right now,
Doris Kearns Goodwin. She`s joining us. She`s writing a book on Teddy
Roosevelt. She`ll be on HARDBALL in just a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, even the best have fallen. Former Utah Governor Jon
Huntsman has been a voice of reason in the Republican field, most people
think, but it hasn`t gotten him anywhere in the polls. So, now, he`s
changing his tune about climate change.

Let`s listen to what he said today at the Heritage Foundation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON HUNTSMAN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I`m not a scientist, nor
am I a physicist. But I would defer to science in that discussion. And I
would say that the scientific community owes us more in terms of a better
description or explanation about what might lie beneath all of this. But
there`s not enough information right now to be able to formulate policies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Is he going to give up on evolution next? By the way,
that`s a stark contrast to the position he took, Mr. Huntsman did, in
August, fairly recently, when he tweeted that he trusts scientists on
global warming and he said, "Call me crazy, back then, I believe in
evolution and climate change."

He`s joining the pack. He`s joining the clown show.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And we still believe
in the words of the man who called for a new nationalism all those years
ago. "The fundamental rule of our national life," he said, "the rule which
underlies all others is that on the whole and in the long run, we shall go
up or down together."

And I believe America is on the way up. Thank you. God bless you.
God bless the United States of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

That was President Obama earlier this afternoon in Kansas evoking the
spirit of Teddy Roosevelt in the same Kansas town where T.R. himself gave
his powerful new nationalism speech 100 years ago. Obama`s speech is an
attempt apparently to make clear the middle class is facing a make-or-break
economic moment right now as he continues to fight Republicans on his
agenda items, like the payroll tax cut.

And invoking Roosevelt -- in invoking Roosevelt, a Republican
Roosevelt, by the way, is a clear attempt to paint his opponents as far
right extremists outside the Republican mainstream.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is the presidential historian. She joins us now
to talk about Obama and Teddy Roosevelt.

Well, are you doing to him what I`m doing to him with Jack Kennedy,
saying, be more like Jack? I think somebody whispered in his ear, maybe
somebody I know, he ought to begin to talk like the Republican Roosevelt,
the guy who really invented basically progressivism, and that word has
become so popular among people along for years who called themselves
liberals.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, HISTORIAN: Well, you know, it could be that
I`m living with Teddy Roosevelt right now, but I do think there`s a real
message that can be gotten from Teddy Roosevelt because really what Teddy
Roosevelt had to fight after decades of laissez-faire being the ideology
that the country was dominated by, to argue that government had a role in
dealing with the rising inequality, the rubber barons, the mammoth mergers,
the trust that we`re developing, he had to persuade them, that was the
threshold argument that he had to persuade them in order to regulate
corporations and do the antitrust and get food and drug, and get child
labor laws through.

And in a certain sense, Obama today facing similar kind of turmoil --
the squeezing of the middle class, giant mergers, antitrust problems, very
big situation between the inequality of the rich and the poor, has to re-
persuade America that government, all of us, have a role to work on these
things together. If he can`t do that, then none of the programs that he`s
going to argue for are going to have any real legitimacy.

MATTHEWS: Do you think the Republican Party is as bad now in terms
of being owned by Wall Street as the Republican Party that Teddy Roosevelt
inherited and warned against?

GOODWIN: Well, the incredible thing is you think about here we are
100 years ago and Teddy Roosevelt has to fight a party where at that time
you had guys who were actually representing the sugar trust, representing
the copper trust. They would be called the senator from Maine is the
copper trust guy. The senator from Virginia is the railroad guy. So it
was much more blatant than it was then.

But that argument that government has a role in order to deal with
these inequalities had to be fought then and still has to be fought right
now.

And I think what was so interesting about the speech is that Teddy
Roosevelt used to talk about the fact that some of his Harvard buddies
thought that he spoke in too commonplace, too simple language, but he knew
he could reach the farmers and the working men with that kind of simple
language.

I think Obama was not professorial today. I thought he spoken
simple, declarative languages. He said, this is wrong, this is right, this
is inexcusable. And it reached the audience in a way that sometimes
previous speeches that were great to read like paragraphs had not done.

So, I think he`s on the track. I also think in a certain sense he
extended the time frame for the election. Think about what the main
question is everybody is asked: are you better off now than you were four
years ago?

He was saying look at the last decade. Two tax decades, are we
better off? Did we have more growth? No, the worst in 50 years.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

GOODWIN: So I think that`s his strategy.

MATTHEWS: Put on your political analysis hat, not the historian hat.
Can a president win with rhetoric after four years, or are you judged by
performance not the angle with which you enter the debate?

GOODWIN: Well, clearly what he`s going to have to do is to have the
big stick to follow the rhetoric, as Teddy Roosevelt did, which means he
may have to exercise the veto power, he may have to make certain threats.
He doesn`t have control of the Congress right now, but he`s going to act
strongly and fiercely in those last months of his presidency.

But we`re into a time now where it is rhetoric. What do we have in
the next 12 months because not much is going to get done in that Congress,
except the veto power, and he can exercise that. That`s his big stick.

MATTHEWS: Doris Kearns Goodwin, making the case for her book.
When`s the book coming out? Teddy Roosevelt?

GOODWIN: Oh, God, I wish it were now. But it probably won`t be for
another year, year and a half. I`m always way behind the time.

MATTHEWS: Well, you`re the best. Thanks so much, Doris Kearns
Goodwin. Great American historian.

When we return, "Let Me Finish" with why Mitt Romney is right to
reject Donald Trump`s circus show.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

The Republican Party is in the midst of a convulsion right now.
Reasonable people are standing back and watching as the party is being
taken away from them. Blame the Tea Party, blame the times, but the fact
is, and we can see it happening. Much of the political opposition out
there to President Obama is being bamboozled into believing that its only
future lies in bowing to the dictate of a selection process that is leading
it right now to the tender mercies of Donald Trump.

For this not to happen, Republicans of sound mind and personal
dignity must refuse to participate in Trump`s big night, refuse to let him
become the Grand Old Party`s grand grazier (ph), to not be at his beck and
call, to resist all the P.R. and the New York hype and say, you`re not
going to let him play host, judge, moderator -- or whatever the word is --
on this vital eve of the Republican caucus and primary season.

For Romney especially, this presented a challenge and an opportunity.
If he`d shown up at Donald Trump`s beckoning, he might as we will have
arrived wearing a hat with bells jingling from it. He would have become
one of the clowns, in this case a self-professed clown.

This was Mitt Romney`s Sister Souljah moment, a chance to place his
feet squarely on the ground somewhere miles from the Donald Trump tower of
power. And now, he can say, in the words of Martin Luther, "Here I stand."

Had he chosen otherwise and bowed for the winds blowing hard from
Manhattan, we would know now who is running the party now seeking the White
House. We now know who the boss was, because the boss is the one calling
when you have to come.

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

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.

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

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