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updated 12/14/2011 12:23:31 PM ET 2011-12-14T17:23:31

Guests: Howard Fineman, David Corn, Chuck Todd, Hampton Pearson, Eugene Robinson, Mike Isikoff, Dan Balz, Michelle Goldberg, Buzz Bissinger

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Newt-ron bomb.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m New York -- I`m Chris Matthews up in New York.
Leading off tonight: The bomb thrower. Here`s why Newt Gingrich is winning
right now. He`s a bomb thrower. He`s willing to pay any price, bear any
burden, say anything as long as the result is that he sticks it hard and
good to President Obama. Newt channels the visceral irrational contempt so
many on the right feel for our president.

And it`s working. He`s running free and clear to the goal line right
now, and the best Mitt Romney can do is hope Newt fumbles. That`s not a
strategy, that`s desperation.

There were two images, by the way, on our TV screens this weekend that
stand out. One was when the circus came to town for the GOP debate. The
other was of a thoughtful President Obama on "60 Minutes" last night
defending his presidency. The contrast with the Republicans was jarring.
Conservative columnist Fred Barnes of "The Weekly Standard" believes the
big winner of the Republican debate so far was President Obama.

By the way, could Mitt Romney be this year`s Hillary Clinton? His
experience -- you know, "I`ve got the experience" argument, like hers, is
falling flat right now. He has to defend his health care law up in
Massachusetts, just as Hillary had to defend her vote for the Iraq war.
And they both had debate gaffes. Hillary got 18 million votes, by the way.
Could Mitt be gone by February?

And we learned over the weekend that the key witness in the Penn State
scandal told a very different story when he talked to his relatives. Why
did he not say he saw that boy getting raped?

"Let Me Finish" tonight with the Republicans` deal with the devil.
And you know who that is.

We start with Newt, the bomb thrower. Howard Fineman is the
Huffington Post Media Group editorial director. David Corn is "Mother
Jones" Washington bureau chief. Both are MSNBC political analysts.

Gentlemen, here are new NBC News Marist poll numbers of Republican
voters in two key states. In South Carolina, Gingrich leads the pack --
these numbers are growing -- 42 percent. Romney comes in a distant second,
23 percent, Ron Paul down at 9.

In Florida, a state that was supposed to save Mitt Romney, Gingrich`s
lead is also strong. He`s up to 44 percent to Romney`s 29, with Paul at 8.

Gingrich`s huge lead in these new polls is testament to his
willingness to be a bomb thrower. He showed it in that debate when he
refused to back off his assertion that the Palestinians are an invented
people. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA), FMR. HOUSE SPEAKER, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Is
what I said factually correct? Yes. Is it historically true? Yes.
Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are
terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools.

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And the last
thing Bibi Netanyahu needs to have is not just a person who`s an historian,
but somebody who is also running for president of the United States stand
up and say things that create extraordinary tumult in his neighborhood. If
I`m president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care,
stability. I`m not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally.

GINGRICH: It is helpful to have a president of the United States with
the courage to tell the truth, just as it was Ronald Reagan who went around
his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an "evil
empire." I am a Reaganite. I`m proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the
truth, even if it`s at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with
the timid.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, that was the most self-congratulatory piece of crap
I`ve heard in a long time, Howard.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I mean, I have to tell you, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet
Union the "evil empire" because it is one. The Palestinians did not think
up the fact they lived in Palestine for several thousand years. They
didn`t create that notion. They happened to be stuck there. And it is a
very unpleasant part of our history, the world history, that we have two
peoples trying to share the same small piece of geography.

Is Newt Gingrich helping the Middle East situation or being
tumultuous, as he intends to be, apparently? By the way, his bomb throwing
could have consequences.

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:
Well, a couple points. First of all, Chris, you`re right. It`s a
ridiculous analogy. The Soviet Union was a worldwide threat. It was evil,
or certainly one out to try to undermine the West, and spent years if not
decades trying to do it. There was a long cold war over that.

Whatever you want to say about the Palestinian people, the last thing
they are is an empire. They`re people struggling for their own rights and
for their own identity in the Middle East, just as other peoples in that
region are. That`s number one.

Number two, it was fascinating to watch Newt`s face and his body
language when Mitt Romney said that some people create extraordinary
tumult--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: --with their comments. Newt Gingrich smiled like the cat
who`d swallowed the canary at that point. He`s proud of that. His whole
appeal to Republican voters is that he`s a guy who will create tumult, that
he will end the sort of Barack Obama period of sort of peaceful
conversation, which they -- that is Republican conservatives and activists
-- think hide (ph) and radical Obama agenda that`s clothed in the language
of reasonableness, and that Mitt Romney is going to be the -- excuse me,
Newt Gingrich is going to be the guy who`s going to be the -- who`s going
to rip that mask of civility off and get down to tumult making.

That`s what they want, and that`s why Newt was proud to give it to
them.

MATTHEWS: Well, it`s a great Yiddish term. I shouldn`t be the one to
join in with that one, but there is one called a tummler, who I--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: --Red Buttons or one of those guys from the old days in the
Borscht Belt would be the guys that shake up--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: --on a rainy day.

FINEMAN: Chris, that was about comedy and having fun in the
Catskills. That`s not like this.

MATTHEWS: Well, this guy seeks to be a real one. Let me go back to
you, David Corn, about this -- this guy being a bomb thrower. I just keep
thinking the Republican Party -- do they really want somebody this bad that
they`re willing to take him because he is so bad?

And I use those words carefully here. He is bad news for the country.
He was divisive when he was around the first time. He likes -- boy, you
pointed that out well. When he chuckled there in that grimacing little
chuckle if his because Romney called him out, he seemed to really enjoy
being the bad guy here.

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: A word, yes. We
talked about this last week. I think he likes to be the joker character
from the "Batman" movies--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CORN: -- creating chaos. And I think the most important statement of
the night was what we just heard, when Mitt Romney said, I am not a bomb
thrower. Actually, that`s too bad for Mitt because I do believe that the
Republican primary electorate wants a bomb thrower.

And you know, Michele Bachmann looked like a bomb thrower at the
beginning, but then -- then Rick Perry came along, and he was a gunslinger,
but he just didn`t have the brains upstairs to pull that off, and people
soured on him.

MATTHEWS: Right.

CORN: And now they`re looking at Newt, who really is, in politics,
Peck`s little bad boy. You know, for 30 years, he`s been calling his
enemies the most atrocious names. They`re treasonous. They`re traitors.
They`re betraying the country. He`s called anyone -- even if he gets his
dry cleaning late, he calls the person in charge Neville Chamberlain.

MATTHEWS: Right.

CORN: He`s all about excessive rhetoric--

MATTHEWS: OK--

CORN: --guised in these intellectual metaphors and historical
analogies that often don`t hold water, but it sounds good. So anyone out
there looking to, you know, really take it to Obama -- he doesn`t feel
their pain, he feels their anger and he gives it right back to them. And
that`s what they`re loving right now.

MATTHEWS: OK. Looks like we`ve got a contract with the devil
replacing the "Contract with America."

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Today in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney was asked about the
idea that people like Newt Gingrich because he is a rhetorical bomb
thrower. Let`s listen to Mitt Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I know that among some folks, just saying outrageous or
incendiary things will get you a lot of kudos and drive your numbers up.
But it`s not going to win us the White House, and it`s not going to win us
the respect of people on the other side of the aisle that we have to bring
together to overcome the extraordinary challenges we have.

Look, I think this president`s been an extraordinary failure. I think
this president has taken on a job, and he`s way over his head. But I don`t
think he`s an evil person. I don`t think he`s a bad person.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Boy, Howard, it`s rare we get -- this is a real morality
play, the way these two guys -- this isn`t complicated. One guy wants to
be civilized and the other guys wants to be a troglodyte, or you know, a
caveman. It`s really different approaches, to be -- to be -- it isn`t hard
to be a pundit this year, is it.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: No. No, it isn`t. But --

MATTHEWS: To discern the differences between these guys.

FINEMAN: The problem is Mitt Romney hasn`t figured out how to be a
compelling nice guy.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: He just comes off as a boring and somehow a little too
contrived nice guy. And because he seems so contrived, it elevates the
contrast between him and Newt.

I mean, Newt`s been all over the lot on every conceivable issue, but
yet he somehow seems to be a genuine flip-flopper compared to the contrived
flip-flopper. Maybe they`re both the same, really, in many ways. In many
ways, Newt Gingrich has taken more positions on more sides of more issues
than Mitt Romney has. But yet he comes off somehow as more genuine than
Mitt Romney, and that remains Mitt Romney`s problem.

The other thing about Newt Gingrich is he does sometimes say
interesting, provocative, thought-provoking things, and they`re salted in
there with all the other craziness --

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: -- and it makes it hard to separate one from the other. I
mean, I`ve covered -- David and I, you know, have decades worth of having
covered politicians. I dare say there are few more thought-provoking
political figures that either of us have ever covered than Newt Gingrich.
Often, it`s maddening. Often, when you follow the trail of his thoughts,
it leads nowhere. But it gets you thinking in a way that few other
politicians do.

MATTHEWS: That means it`s the perfect place for him in our world.
It`s called Fox News, as a commentator--

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: -- right where he belongs. His Peter Principle is showing.
Here in a clip -- by the way, we`ve got a clip that`s gone viral from the
debate. Mitt Romney is so sure he`s right, and he is right and Rick
Perry`s wrong, and he is wrong. But look who lost this rhetorically.

FINEMAN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Mitt Romney offered a $10,000 bet. Most people don`t have
that in their wallets. That`s not table stakes for most Americans. Here
he is. Today, Newt Gingrich chided Romney for the big bet. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: He must have been really sure.

(CROSSTALK)

GINGRICH: Well, I wouldn`t bet that amount of money.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How much do you want to bet you`ll win New
Hampshire?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That`s me. That`s me. Buddy.

GINGRICH: Not more than $10.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, there -- you know, David Corn, the brilliant
opportunist, acting like he`s small beer compared to this guy.

FINEMAN: Yes.

CORN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Newt`s got -- Newt was bragging two weeks ago, or was it
five days ago, he was making $60,000 a pop.

FINEMAN: Yes, $60,000 a pop.

MATTHEWS: He was out there bragging wholesale, and now he`s Mr., you
know, Uriah Heep all of a sudden. I mean, this guy`s ability to turn on a
dime is frightening. He`s now poor.

CORN: He could put on the table his wife`s jewelry for several
million dollars, if he wanted to. But I think what -- you just hit it --
you just hit it on the nail there, Chris. It`s not that he`s a flip-
flopper, he is a gyrator. He will say whatever comes into his head at the
moment that gives him an advantage, no matter whether it`s true or not.

He has this great penchant for attacking people on the very things
that he himself is vulnerable for. So he`ll say, you know, Barney Frank
and Chris Dodd should go to jail because of their associations with Freddie
Mac and Fannie Mae, even though he made $1.6 million from those same
government entities.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CORN: Nothing holds him back. He`s entirely situational--

MATTHEWS: But isn`t that about our medium?

CORN: -- and this is--

MATTHEWS: David Corn, that`s our medium.

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: And Romney doesn`t.

MATTHEWS: Every six hours, the news cycle changes. As long as it`s
good for that news cycle, fits in that particular box, six hours later,
he`s got a new line.

FINEMAN: Chris, it`s all about buzz. It`s all about buzz.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: I would say that cable TV is now even too slow for what`s
really going on.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: We`re talking about Twitter -- we`re talking about a Twitter
universe here, where every jab, where every cut and thrust is immediately
retweeted all over the planet. And that creates the buzz that people are
following, almost as if mesmerized in the instant-by-instant of the
campaign.

And I`ll say this for Newt Gingrich. When he came to town, nobody was
using C-Span as a platform for attack.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CORN: Yes.

FINEMAN: Newt Gingrich figured out how to use C-Span. He figured out
how to use cable TV. He`s sold all these 24 books. He`s done this
futuristic stuff--

MATTHEWS: I`m doing that tomorrow!

FINEMAN: -- and he`s been--

MATTHEWS: I`m going on C-Span tomorrow--

FINEMAN: History--

MATTHEWS: -- to sell a book. It still works!

FINEMAN: Well, far be it from me to criticize that, but you know,
that`s what he`s doing and that`s what he`s very good at.

CORN: You know, the interesting thing--

MATTHEWS: You know, by the way, I think our medium`s pretty
fascinating. I mean, when you talk about slow-moving media, don`t include
HARDBALL.

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: HARDBALL excepted.

MATTHEWS: -- only criticized on one front, we`re too darn -- would
you slow it down? Would you stop interrupting people?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Nobody`s ever said we`re too slow. You guys are the best.
Thank you, Howard Fineman. And I can`t keep track of the brilliant pieces
of analysis you two guys come up with in just--

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS: -- in just 10 minutes. I need -- I need a -- I need some
sort of a chronicle to keep up with your genius.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Hey, guys, thank you. Happy holidays, but I`ll see you
sooner than that.

CORN: See you soon.

MATTHEWS: Coming up: Mitt Romney`s campaign for president this year
seems to have a lot in common with Hillary Clinton`s. And this is no
knock. They`re both people running on tried and true record, have done
great things in the past and very accomplished, but may not be caught up in
the zeitgeist, the sense of what their parties want. Hillary was on the
wrong side of the Iraq war issue, and this guy`s on the wrong side of the
health care issue and perhaps the anger issue. He`s not nasty or angry as
Newt is, and that`s what the right wing wants, contempt for the president,
and he won`t show it. You just saw that.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`ve got new poll numbers on a hypothetical general
election matchup, and for that we go to the HARDBALL "Scoreboard." Let`s
start in Florida. According to our new NBC News Marist poll, President
Obama leads Mitt Romney by 7 down there, 48-41. That`s good for Obama.
Against Newt Gingrich, the president`s lead is 12, 51-39. So he`s still
strong in Florida.

In South Carolina, which is reliably Republican, the president has a
3-point lead, if you believe it, over Romney, 45-42, in that new NBC Marist
poll. He also has a 4-point lead over Gingrich, 46 to 42 down there. Keep
in mind, Jimmy Carter is the only Democrat to carry South Carolina in the
last 12 elections.

Finally, to Pennsylvania, and a Muhlenberg College poll that shows
President Obama leading Mitt Romney again there by 4. That`s not enough to
carry the usual margin up there. You need to win nationwide. Against
Gingrich, the president`s lead is much bigger, 52-35. That`s a strong lead
in Pennsylvania. These polls are somewhat varied, as you`ve noticed, in
the last week or so.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Mitt Romney was seen, actually,
as almost the inevitable nominee just a short time ago. Remember? A
couple weeks ago. But the surge of Newt Gingrich has Romney on the
defensive, gearing up for a long nomination fight now. Here he was earlier
today in an interview with Politico`s Mike Allen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE ALLEN, POLITICO.COM: Governor, is Newt Gingrich the front-runner
in this race?

ROMNEY: He is right now. I`m not in trouble. I`m in a great spot.
Of course I want to win. I`m fighting hard to win. This is not going to
be decided in just a couple of contests. I certainly have to be in a
position to run the full campaign, just like happened last time with the
Democrats.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, he drew the comparison. We`ll talk about it. The
Republican Party questioning the long-time front-runner seems an awful lot
like Hillary Clinton trying to win over Democrats four years ago while
getting a challenge from Barack Obama. Are there parallels actually
between the Romney and the Clinton candidacies?

Chuck Todd`s an NBC -- well, he is NBC`s chief White House
correspondent, host of "THE DAILY RUNDOWN" on MSNBC. Dan Balz is the
national political correspondent, and the best of them all, for "The
Washington Post."

Let me go to Chuck. You started this.

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIR./WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

MATTHEWS: The parallel, Hillary Clinton, experience counts, it`s all
about having a proven track record, not go for the hot kid just new to the
block, against -- comparing that to what`s happening right now between Mitt
Romney, the long-time candidate, against Newt, who even with all his years
in the past, looks like he`s just off the bench.

TODD: Well, and it`s an establishment/anti-establishment argument,
right, and where the party is today. Timing has to do with a lot with
this. Throw in the fact that, you know, Mitt Romney had one big -- has one
big negative with a lot of primary voters that sort of defines the other
negatives, right, and that is this issue of the health care mandate. For
Hillary Clinton, it was that Iraq war vote. She chose to own it. Mitt
Romney`s chosen to own at least a part of his health care support, that
mandate, at least for the state of Massachusetts.

And so -- but I think the biggest factor here is simply in timing,
right? Where the Democratic Party was in `07 and `08, they were looking
for something new. They were looking for change, not continuity.

Where the Republican Party is today, I would say, rhetorically --
they`re looking for somebody who`s going to be confrontational, who`s
really going to take it to President Obama. And even again today -- we saw
it in Saturday`s debate, where I think the most clarifying answer and
difference between Newt and Romney had to do with their answer about Israel
and this issue of the Palestinians, if they`re an invented people.

And Mitt Romney used sobriety as saying -- describing himself: You
know, I`m going to be sort of the steady guy at the wheel. I`m not going
to use that hot rhetoric. He said it again today on the trail. Newt
Gingrich made no apologies. That`s what the Republican Party, base of the
party, I think, wants to hear, confrontational, no apologies.

MATTHEWS: You know, Dan, do these guys -- it`s -- they do have a
responsibility. They`re running for president of the United States. This
is a pregame, if you will, to what their presidency will -- for Newt to
declare war on the Palestinians as a people, calling them terrorists, as a
people, it doesn`t look like he`s auditioning to be the traditional
American president. Even W. recognized that we have a peacemaking role, as
well as a support of Israel role.

BALZ: Well, we have seen this in Newt Gingrich`s career time and
again, where he will stake out a seemingly outrageous position, and then he
will figure out ways to pull back from it.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

BALZ: He does that for a couple of reasons. One is he knows how to
get attention. Another is, he likes to be provocative.

And then at the same time, he does have some -- often some pretty good
political antennae when he gets in a situation like that. And I suspect
that you will see him vacillate back and forth or oscillate back and forth
in the way he tones that out. But this is what you get with Newt Gingrich,
that kind of provocative statement that puts him way out on the edge, and
then an effort to try to ameliorate it afterwards.

MATTHEWS: Let me stay with you for a second and then back to Chuck
with the same question.

I`m thinking of all the paradigms. You and I, Dan, have been through
all these different cycles, all four years. I keep looking, like we all
do, I think, for the classic example of what`s happening now having
happened before.

And my question is, do you think this is one of those campaigns where
a guy like Mitt Romney can withstand some real explosions for two or three
events, or Hillary all those -- but in his case, come back like Mondale
came back after some very early defeats?

BALZ: Well, there is a difference, I think, both in the analogy with
Clinton and Romney and also with Mondale and Romney.

In both cases, Clinton and Mondale had deep roots within the
Democratic Party.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

BALZ: Mitt Romney doesn`t have that.

And I think that`s a substantial difference. I don`t know whether
that`s going to be decisive in this race.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

BALZ: But I think you`re dealing with a different kind of candidate
when you look at Romney this time. He has been, I would say, a nominal
front-runner, but never an inevitable front-runner, and never a dominant
front-runner in the way that Hillary Clinton certainly seemed to be in
September into October, until she made that mistake at the Drexel debate at
the end of October in `07.

Romney`s got a problem about having struggled throughout the year to
enlarge his constituency. And he hasn`t been able to do that. It`s not as
though he`s lost a lot of ground the way Hillary Clinton seemed to at a
certain point. It`s that he`s had trouble enlarging the constituency, as a
front-runner ought to be able to do.

MATTHEWS: Chuck, does he have the resources, personal or financial,
to fight a long fight, as he suggests he`s ready to now?

TODD: Well, I think he does. And, you know, four years ago, you
know, Mitt Romney was at a point he could have put in more of his own money
in the state of Florida. That was his last stand vs. McCain. He narrowly
lost, but he chose not to put his own money in. It was sort of like, well,
if it was meant to be, then he`d do it to on to Super Tuesday and really
take this fight. If not, he would hold back four years.

There is no next time for Mitt Romney.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: so, A., I think the likelihood that he would put in his own
money, if necessary, is there. And then don`t -- two, I would say, these
super PACs really change the game. I think the super PAC right now, the
pro-Romney super PAC is up with over a couple million dollars worth of
negative ads in Iowa against Newt Gingrich.

And you will see more of that I think in the next few weeks.

MATTHEWS: Will Florida be his firewall? Is that where he will make
his stand, where he puts all the money he`s willing to put in the campaign,
in a media campaign, in diverse Florida, with the belief that if he loses
Florida and he finishes out January with no victories really except a
squeaker in New Hampshire, he`s not really in this game anymore?

TODD: Yes, see, I think he can keep going. If you look at the
calendar, look, I have no -- that is the worst-case scenario, right, which
is he finishes, say, a distant second or, worse, third in Iowa, goes into
New Hampshire, sees his length shrink to single digits, but pulls it out,
doesn`t win South Carolina, goes to Florida, loses a squeaker.

Then what do you do? Well, the good news for Romney is short-term the
calendar then gets a little bit better for him. In five days, he can go
win Nevada. He`s got a couple of other places that should be more Romney
than Newt, a place like Maine, so a New England state. So he could put
together a couple of wins, regroup, and then make that end-of-February
Michigan/Arizona push, where we could be in a whole new ball game.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Wow. Thank you.

It`s great to have you both on.

Thanks, Dan Balz, so much for coming on HARDBALL, and thank you,
Chuck.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Up next: The best thing about Donald Trump`s ego is
getting Darrell Hammond to play it on "SNL." And I mean it. That
performance Saturday night was a big winner. That`s in the "Sideshow." If
you watched it -- if you missed it Saturday night, it`s here.

Donald Trump better than Donald Trump, because he`s played by Darrell
Hammond.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. And what a "Sideshow."

First up, loved "Saturday Night Live" this weekend. Nobody does
Donald Trump better than Darrell Hammond, not even Trump himself. And here
he is, Darrell as Trump in the cold open with all the wild self-referencing
of Trump on display.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Gentleman, welcome.

Donald, let`s start with you. How did you come to moderate this
debate?

DARRELL HAMMOND, ACTOR: Well, I`m an obvious joy choice, Greta,
because, as you know, I`m been very successful. I`m not sure if you have
seen the recent article in "Forbes," but the magazine just reported my net
worth at $7 billion.

Also, I have got the number-one show on television, which is seen
every week by something like five billion people. It`s huge.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: It sounds like you`re going back and forth,
like, will I run, won`t I run?

(LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: Well, you know, Greta, I have been very successful in my
life. And my wife is very hot and very young.

(LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: Also, I own many properties, and they`re all very large. So
in terms of square footage, they have been quite successful as well.

(LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: I`m the obvious choice, born in the USA, "The Apprentice,"
NBC, bing, bong, boom. You`re fired.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: That`s Darrell Hammond. You can`t believe that guy, he`s
so good. That`s a tough act to beat.

And speaking of showbiz taking on politics, one of my favorite
actresses, Julianne Moore, got candid with `The New York Daily News" the
other day.

She spoke about playing Sarah Palin in the upcoming TV miniseries
based on the great book "Game Change."

In addition to having Palin`s speeches rolling on repeat on her iPod,
Moore said she watched interview after interview of Palin in order to
prepare for the role. Think the Palin overload gave the actress a new
perspective on the former Alaskan governor? Not exactly.

A "Daily News" interview with Moore reads -- quote -- "When we asked
Moore if she`d developed a newfound respect for Palin after delving deeper
into her life, the actress, 51, raised an eyebrow and sighed deeply. `No,`
she said completely -- she said quietly."

Anyway, I`m sure she did some digging, but let`s face it, how deep can
you dig with this character?

And, finally, setting the bar and setting it pretty low. With
approval ratings for Congress currently in the single digits, it shouldn`t
come as much as a surprise that the American people are also rather under-
impressed with the standards of honesty and ethics up on Capitol Hill.

But to put the numbers in perspective even more, let`s take a look at
who Americans put ahead of Congress when it comes to standards for honesty
and ethics in a new Gallup poll. Here goes -- 64 percent of Americans said
that the honesty and ethical standards were either low or very low. Next
in line, lobbyists are close behind with 62 percent. These are negative
numbers.

But here`s the kicker. Telemarketers are in third place, with 53
percent of people saying they have low standards of honesty, and behind
them, car salesman, these poor guys and women, 47 percent. God, they have
got to move the cars.

I love what Jerry Seinfeld once said about telemarketers. He said,
ask them for their home numbers next time they call, since they`re calling
you at home.

Up next, those two big TV events, the Republican debate and President
Obama`s interview on "60 Minutes." The president say sit may take more
than one term, even more than one president to get this country on the
track again. Well, that`s humility. Will voters give him a second term if
he says he needs one? He is saying it.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HAMPTON PEARSON, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Hampton Pearson with your
CNBC "Market Wrap."

A low-volume, low-intensity sell-off to start the week, the Dow Jones
industrials falling 162 points, the S&P 500 slipping 18, the Nasdaq giving
up 34.

Investors apparently rethinking Friday`s positive reaction to that
E.U. summit in Brussels after Fitch and Moody`s said the commitment to
tighter fiscal integration will have little impact on the current crisis.
That pushed gold and silver prices lower, as investors shifted money into
dollars and bonds and wait on the big banks with Morgan Stanley and
Citigroup skidding more than 5 percent.

Intel plunged after slashing its profit outlook, blaming hard drive
supply shortages due to flooding in Thailand. Diamond Foods cratered on
reports of accounting irregularities involving questionable payments to
walnut farmers.

And some M&A activity on M&A. Materials firm Martin Marietta is
proposing a stock-for-stock merger with Vulcan Materials, sending both
stocks higher.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "60 MINUTES")

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I always believed that
this was a long-term project, that reversing a culture here in Washington
dominated by special interests was going to take more than a year, it was
going to take more than two years, it was going to take more than one term.
It probably takes more than one president. I`m a persistent son of a gun.
I just stay at it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was, of course, President Obama last night on "60 Minutes."

If you were home this weekend watching TV, you saw a fascinating
contrast, we think. First, you had the GOP debate Saturday night in Iowa,
six candidates standing on stage, all bashing the president and each other,
fighting over who present the most extreme defense of Israel, for example,
who could level the most unfair charge against President Obama, and who
could unnerve their opponents the most.

Then you had President Obama last night making a thoughtful case for
his reelection. Could the differences be any more stark? Even frustrated
conservative critics of Obama concede the barrage of pettiness out of the
debates are taking a toll on their team.

Here`s what Fred Barnes writes in "The Weekly Standard" -- quote --
"Republicans are paying a high price for allowing their presidential race
to be dominated by nationally televised debates. The GOP candidates have
reduced themselves to supplicants who weak points are probed by media
questioners. The president has concentrated on fleshing out a self-serving
narrative for his reelection and now is trying to impose it on the
campaign. Whose time was spent more productively this weekend?"

Eugene Robinson is an MSNBC political analyst and a columnist for "The
Washington Post." And Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for "Newsweek" and
The Daily Beast.

Let me go to Michelle first over here.

Michelle, what do you think? Who won the weekend bake-off here?

MICHELLE GOLDBERG, CONTRIBUTOR, THE DAILY BEAST: Well, I think it`s
obvious that you have kind of Obama seeming, if a little bit weary, also
very dignified and serious.

And then you have the latest episode in this ridiculous clown show.
The idea -- it`s actually not the fault, you know, contrary to what Fred
Barnes said -- he kind of blames it on the liberal media for setting up
these debates to make the Republican candidates look bad.

The Republican candidates are making themselves look bad all by
themselves. And kind of -- they are diminished, I think, by this process,
because it is such a race to the bottom. But that`s where their base is.

MATTHEWS: Eugene, I wonder if the debates haven`t served one purpose
of finding the most ferocious combatant, Newt Gingrich. If this was like
"Survivor," a reality show, it has succeeded.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: They have got what looks to be the toughest customer they
could run against, the president, out of all these nightly -- these almost
every-other-week debates.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that would be one way
of looking at it, Chris.

I think it`s really the -- who can appeal more to the red meat
conservative Republican primary base. And that is a rather small subset of
the electorate that`s going to vote in the general election. And what the
Republicans are doing with these debates, in addition to not looking very
presidential, to setting up the contrast that you talked about with the
president`s appearance this weekend, in addition to that, they really are
boxing themselves into a corner on the far right that`s not going to play
well with -- and certainly not with African-Americans, not with Hispanic
voters, not with the general voting electorate that comes out in November,
I think.

MATTHEWS: I agree with you.

I`m not so sure, though, because I think among the 40 percent or so of
the angry right, which is a pretty burgeoning group of Americans, they do
like this all-out sort of infinite fighting here.

Here`s the president taking subtle jabs at his leading Republican
opponents on "60 Minutes" last night. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "60 MINUTES")

OBAMA: It doesn`t really matter who the nominee is going to be. The
core philosophy that they`re expressing is the same.

STEVE KROFT, CBS NEWS: What do you make of this surge by former
Speaker Gingrich?

OBAMA: He`s somebody who`s been around a long time and is good on TV,
is good in debates, and, you know, but Mitt Romney has shown himself to be
somebody who`s good at politics as well. He`s had a lot of practice at it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: That`s not much, is it? For a president who
you would think is really watching carefully his opponents develop, he`s in
the country which might be against him right now, marginally, just
marginally, but he`s got an uphill battle. He didn`t have much to say.

GOLDBERG: But what does he really have to gain by taking them on at
this point? I mean, right now, I think that this interview makes it look
like he`s above the fray, he`s kind of concerned with serious problems,
while these kind of, you know, kind of very small figures diminish
themselves in this --

MATTHEWS: Yes, I wonder whether, Michelle, whether he`d be advised -
- I`m not his adviser -- to talk in the way he`d like to see his surrogates
talk, to say things he`d like to have the Democratic Party faithful here.
I mean, these are important -- "60 Minutes" gets a huge audience, a very
smart audience. And it seems to me here`s his chance to say, here are the
differences between their approach and mine. Let me lay it out for you
right now at the beginning of this year.

GOLDBERG: But he`s been making that pretty clear on "60 Minutes." I
mean, not by taking them on individually, but by taking on their insane --
you know, insane obstructionism, their desire to raise taxes on the middle
class through refusing to renew the payroll tax cut. He`s been, I think,
framing it, much to Fred Barnes` dismay, he`s been framing it pretty
effectively as a battle between the plutocrats and the middle class. You
know, so he doesn`t have to really personalize this and make it about Newt
Gingrich or Mitt Romney.

MATTHEWS: I just wonder, Gene, you have enjoyed the sport of
politics, as I do, occasionally. Wouldn`t it be better to put a little
sharp elbow into it and say, you know, Newt is with me one day, against me
the next day, I can`t tell which way he is? And the same with -- I`m sorry
-- Mitt, he`s always over the place, either with me or against me. And do
the same thing in a little bit tougher way to Newt Gingrich.

Newt Gingrich is going to be pretty sharp elbowed in this debate if
he wins the nomination. Shouldn`t the president be beginning to do some of
that pre-fight taunting, if you will?

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: You may see that in the
coming weeks. But I think the calculation was not to do that yet, to fire
up the Democratic base in the speeches that he`s giving. But in an
appearance like "60 Minutes," you know, Sunday evening, a kind of more
reflective time to kind of use to it speak to the nation in that calm,
presidential tone, which, in itself, serves as a contrast between what, if
they listened, they heard on Saturday night.

MATTHEWS: So, you think he`s actually setting it up to go against
Newt, because he`ll be the reasonable guy appealing to the center, and let
Newt get the crazies on if far right, but not poach too many from the
center?

ROBINSON: I think clearly they figured Newt into their calculations.
Now -- before, it was all about Romney. Everything you heard from the
White House was Romney, Romney, Romney. Now, you know, they`re looking
over their shoulder. It could be Newt.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

ROBINSON: So let`s, you know, make sure --

MATTHEWS: Well, I`m one of those who believes the president pays
strict attention to everything we do maybe not verbatim from this kind of
program, but he knows what`s going on politically.

Here`s "60 Minutes" -- here`s Steve Kroft, the correspondent, asking
the president, what have you accomplished? Boy, this is a great question,
his first term. Let`s watch the president`s very important answer here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Not only saving this country from a Great Depression, not
only saving the auto industry, but putting in place a system in which we`re
going to start lowering health care costs and you`re never going to go
bankrupt because you get sick or somebody in your family gets sick. Making
sure that we have reformed the financial system so we never again have
taxpayer-funded bailouts and the system is more stable and secure. Ending
"don`t ask, don`t tell"; decimating al Qaeda, including bin Laden being
taken off the field.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Compelling argument for re-election yet, or not?

GOLDBERG: I think -- I mean, obviously, I think it is. But, you
know, I don`t know how much any politician gets credit for what doesn`t
happen on their watch. So, a big part of his argument, which happens to be
true, even though I don`t know if it`s effective, is that he forestalled a
second Great Depression.

MATTHEWS: Things could have been worse.

GOLDBERG: Things could have been worse. I don`t know if that works,
but I think it`s right.

MATTHEWS: That`s a hard way. But, Gene, do you think that`s a
compelling argument for re-election or is he still working at it?

ROBINSON: I think that`s an impressive record. He`s still working
at it and I think the central argument of the campaign is going to be,
look, you may not be tremendously happy about the way things are going, but
I`m better than those guys. And, you know, better with me than with those
guys.

MATTHEWS: Yes, he can say, if you want Newt Gingrich as your
president, you`re insane. He could say that, too.

Anyway, thank you, Eugene Robinson. It may not be presidential, but
we can say it.

Michelle Goldberg, thank you both for coming on.

Up next, the Penn State scandal continues. And by the way, it gets
crazier. It`s always a horrible story, but now it`s getting weird. The
key witness against Jerry Sandusky told relatives at the time that he
didn`t actually see that rape of a boy in 2002.

But what does that mean in the case against Sandusky when, in fact,
McQueary said under oath that he did see it? So what do we believe here?

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: I`m completing my book tour for "Jack Kennedy: Elusive
Hero" this week in New York. I`ll be at the famous 92nd Street Y tonight
here in New York. And tomorrow, I`ll be back in Washington to speak at the
National Archives. It`s been an honor to encourage people to get out and
bring a great American people hero back to life this Christmas.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back now.

New developments in the Penn State story over the weekend could make
the prosecutor`s job more difficult, as the credibility of their star
witness is now being questioned. Mike McQueary, the former graduate
assistant who says he was an eyewitness to the encounter between Sandusky
and a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State shower reportedly told his father and
his family and a family friend a different variation of that shower story
immediately after the incident in 2002.

Mike Isikoff is MSNBC`s national investigative correspondent and Buzz
Bissinger is a "Daily Beast" contributor.

Let me start with Michael.

Give us an update on what this new conflict and count is all about.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NBC NEWS NATIONAL INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT:
Well, first, Chris, it is potentially very important, but it`s probably not
all that important for what`s going to take place tomorrow, which is the
preliminary hearing against Jerry Sandusky.

There`s going to be multiple victims testifying in public for the
first time. Jerry Sandusky facing his accusers and the problems with Mike
McQueary`s testimony, most legal experts say, is probably not going to
materially affect the case against Sandusky, because that`s going to rest
on the victims. But for those two Penn State officials, Tim Curley and
Gary Schultz, who are charged with perjury in this case, and failing to
report knowledge of sex abuse, McQueary is a critical witness. In fact,
the testimony against -- the case against them rests very centrally on what
Mike McQueary said he saw that day when he walked into the locker room in
March 2002.

According to the grand jury report, he says he saw Jerry Sandusky
sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy and he left distraught. He was shocked,
and then reported it to Joe Paterno, and then Paterno told him to report it
to Tim Curley and Gary Schultz.

What this new witness, Dr. Jonathan Dranov, a friend of the family of
McQueary, says McQueary told him that night, the night of the incident, was
something very different. That he didn`t see any sexual activity, he heard
sex sounds in the shower and he saw the boy emerging from the shower, an
arm grabbing him back in and then Sandusky emerging from the shower in a
towel. It`s something less than what is in that grand jury report.

And so, therefore this could undermine the case against Curley and
Schultz. It doesn`t, by the way, absolve them of what a lot of people
think is the moral obligation to have done something when hearing about
this.

MATTHEWS: OK.

ISIKOFF: But in terms of the legal case against perjury, it could be
very significant.

MATTHEWS: There`s a Rosherman (ph) aspect to this potentially, Buzz.
I mean, one person says, another person says another. If it`s not clear
what McQueary said in the first instance when he was telling his relatives
about this, how do we know what he told to the athletic director? How do
we know how he couched it -- how he got couched finally to Joe Paterno?
Buzz?

BUZZ BISSINGER, THE DAILY BEAST: Well, you know, that`s the problem.
I mean, the thing is we all know as these trials unfold, you get a tidbit
here, a tidbit there. We`re going to have to listen in hear to what
McQueary said to the grand jury.

And the thing is, what he said to the grand jury did him no favors.
He admits he`s seeing sodomy and runs from it and does nothing, which made
him a national disgrace.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Right.

BISSINER: So, he`s not doing himself any favors by saying that. You
know, are there inconsistencies? Yes. Are those two guys, are Curley and
Schultz, going to be held for trial on Friday? Definitely.

What puzzles me is why the prosecution would put on the victims.
It`s a very dangerous strategy. It is unnecessary because it gives the
defense attorney another shot to drive a hole through their credibility. I
don`t know why they`re doing it.

MATTHEWS: I`m just asking you about Paterno. Do you have confidence
now that he got a clear account of this horror? In the first instance?

BISSINGER: We don`t know. We know what Paterno said. He said it
was something of a sexual nature. It may have been fondling. It may have
been horseplay.

I still find it hard to believe that if McQueary is telling the truth
-- and I believe that he is -- that he wouldn`t have said to Joe, "Joe, you
won`t believe what I saw," that he would have --

MATTHEWS: But he didn`t see according to what he told his relatives,
Buzz. He says -- we`re getting this account in the first instance he
didn`t tell any kind of eyewitness account. He wasn`t an eyewitness. He
was sort of an eyewitness, but he didn`t see the rape, if you will, itself.

Let me go to Mike on this.

Mike, what do we know about the account now? The first account?

ISIKOFF: First of all, a couple of points. What Buzz says is
absolutely correct. We need to hear the full testimony. We need to hear
what everything the prosecutors have when they went before the grand jury
because at the end of the day, they believed and the grand jurors believed
McQueary. They didn`t believe Curley and Schultz.

So, they may well have other evidence that supports McQueary`s
version of events. It`s also worth pointing out that Dr. Dranov, the
individual whose testimony is key here, also has his own self-interest in
not saying he heard that Sandusky was seen doing this because then he would
have had an obligation in this as well.

MATTHEWS: I know. Well, we get this court under oath.

Thank you very much, Michael Isikoff, and Buzz Bissinger, as always.

When we return, "Let Me Finish" with a Faustian deal with the devil
the Republicans are on the verge of striking. You know what I`m talking
about.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

The Republican Party is about to seal a Faustian deal with the devil.
Every observer from left to farthest right knows what`s going on here. The
Republicans led by the angriest among them are about to give away their
partisan souls for one, all-consuming political purpose: the destruction of
Barack Obama.

They`re about to begin the nomination for president, a figure who
represents the Mephistopheles of what they preach. He is nasty, brutal,
ready to fight and kill politically -- a man of no discernible commitments
or values who has nothing to offer but a sharpest intellect and a wicked
rapier of words.

For the right price and a presidential nomination is his, Newt is
ready to jump on a dime and hit any opponent where he shows weakness.

Why are they on the verge of enlisting in the army of Newt because he
voices in cold, nasty, deadly tone the words of their contempt? Because
he`s an opportunist ready to seek any route to his opponent`s heart and
thereby kill it. He`s a political killer, a gun for hire.

But he offers a price so precious he cannot be resisted. This --
this is the Faustian deal at hand: Newt Gingrich`s promise of vision of
which they on the right have set their hearts -- the few minutes of
national television of which the president and his wife stand before them
in defeat. That`s why they`re offering up their partisan souls, why
they`re ready to bow down before this full stop of hatred.

They will give their souls to Newt, their compact with devil that
give them what they must want: pain on their enemy. They want it more than
yet another tax cut, more than another wild, unwarranted war, more than
love or freedom or joy, they want the president`s head and have cut a deal
with Mephistopheles to get it.

What they`re doing isn`t good. They know it, as well as we, we know
it -- deep down, it is wrong to run someone who is so different from what
you value. They know it`s wrong and they`re doing it still.

They`re willing to give up all the values and hopes and claims to
goodness they`ve ever professed. They`re willing to strike this deal with
the devil because they want to hurt Obama, because the most enticing
prospect of this entire campaign is the chance to bring down this
president. And in the prospect and act of doing so, they imagine how damn
good it will feel.

And 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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