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updated 12/16/2011 10:41:01 AM ET 2011-12-16T15:41:01

Guests: David Gregory, Hampton Pearson, Howard Fineman, Simon Conway, Steve McMahon, Todd Harris

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: No joy in Mudville.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. Leading off tonight:
The big pushback. If Mitt Romney can`t knock Newt out, the Republican
establishment has decided it will do it for him. A conservative "who`s
who," including George F. Will, Michael Gerson, David Brooks, and today
"The National Review" itself, among others, are essentially sticking their
heads out of the window and screaming, I`m scared as hell and I`m not going
to take this anymore. Can they stop Newt? That`s our top story, can they
stop Newt?

Plus, who knew? WHO is the 50,000-watt station that dominates Iowa,
and the host to see if you want to win the Republican nomination is Simon
Conway. His radio show is a must stop for GOP candidates. Tonight, we`re
going to simulcast with him -- we`ll be on his show and he`ll be on ours --
and find out what voters are really thinking in Iowa.

Also, two days ago, we gave you the Obama campaign`s many projected
paths to victory. Well, tonight, what state does the Republican nominee
have to take back from Obama to win the White House? We`ll ask the
HARDBALL "Strategists."

And the American war in Iraq is officially over, after nine years,
4,500 American lives, and thousands of wounded. Was it worth it?

And "Let Me Finish" with my thoughts on whether the Republican big
shots can stop the stampede toward Newt.

We begin with the Republican establishment and their struggle to not
have Newt on the ticket. NBC`s David Gregory is moderator of "MEET THE
PRESS" and Howard Fineman is the editorial director at The Huffington Post
and an MSNBC political analyst.

Let`s take a look at that question generally, with you two gentleman.
Here we are going into a big weekend. It`s the first weekend where it
really looks like Newt is going to be the front-runner, going through --
right to January 3rd. And all of a sudden, we`re hearing from all across
the board, especially the intellectuals like Peggy Noonan and Kathleen
Parker -- a lot of them are starting to write up now, Oh, my God, oh, my
God, in the modern lexicon, this guy, Newt, might win the nomination.

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": Well, I think there`s a
sense, yes, that he`d do that, that he`d be bad for the party. If you look
at our poll, the "Wall Street Journal"/NBC News poll that showed that
ceiling, it gets Republicans to focus here on the fact, Can he really beat
Obama?

And don`t forget, the anti-Obama vibe, that sentiment is really what`s
driving Republicans more than anything else. They want to beat Obama. Who
best can do that? There`s a sense that Newt Gingrich has this ceiling, and
it`s dangerous to a lot of establishment Republicans.

MATTHEWS: But yet -- and this is part of my close tonight, my
question, how can they close that stampede down, having started it?
Because the leaders, the writers, the columnists, the big talkers in the
party have been really saying how much they dislike Obama. They have fed
that animus to the point where now they`ve picked a candidate, it looks
like, who now shares that animus, Newt Gingrich.

GREGORY: Who shares it, yes, but I talked to a Republican today, a
prominent Republican, who said, you know, that broadside about Bain Capital
against Romney was indicative of two problems that Gingrich has. One, that
he will issue, you know, the sharp rejoinder without thinking about the
consequence because the consequence here is it was a real broadside against
free market capitalism.

MATTHEWS: Which -- the broadside being, You give back all the money
you make from the chop shop you ran, the equity chop shop, of cutting up
companies and throwing people out of work--

GREGORY: Right. Then I`ll give that Freddie Mac money back.

MATTHEWS: -- which is what the Republicans want the freedom to do.

GREGORY: Right. But one thing we`ve got to be careful about. I
don`t think the establishment is speaking with one voice. And Republicans
I talk to say, By the way, if it ever gets too centralized, that only helps
Gingrich.

MATTHEWS: Yes. I know.

GREGORY: It does not help Romney per se if the, quote, unquote,
"establishment" does it. The feeling is that Romney`s got to step up.
Paul is stepping up. Perry`s doing it. And I think we`re starting to see
in the polls a little bit--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

GREGORY: -- that it`s starting to have an impact.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me read one of these for Howard because -- well,
you get in here -- generally, just before we have this other -- I give you
more material to work with -- generally, do you think the establishment is
out to get Romney? I mean out to get Newt?

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:
Well, first of all, it`s not like the old days. The establishment is not a
unified entity. And to the extent that there is an establishment that
descends from Ronald Reagan and George Bush, father and son, it`s largely
behind Romney.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: Has been behind Romney, and that`s the problem. Romney
can`t -- Romney has a ceiling also.

But talking to one of the biggest fund-raisers in the Republican Party
earlier today, a centrist, as much of an establishment guy as there is, he
says, Yes, we will try to stop Newt Gingrich at all costs, even if Romney
fails. But the problem is, if Gingrich wins the first bunch of primaries,
we`re not going to be able to do it.

That`s why all the money is being spent now. That`s why in Iowa, Newt
Gingrich is undergoing a carpet bombing from Sioux City to Dubuque, and his
numbers are falling a little bit.

GREGORY: But bear in mind, the calendar--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: They`re falling a little bit now.

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: Well, according to some polls. The Rasmussen poll and the
PPP poll, one sort of more leaning toward the Republicans, one more
Democrat, both show Newt losing a little altitude in Iowa. He`s taking a
tremendous pounding out there both officially from candidates and
unofficially from--

MATTHEWS: Let`s read some of the editorial opinions. Here`s a
scathing editorial by "The National Review," the old conservative magazine.
The editors write, quote, "Gingrich has always said he wants to transform
the country. He appears unable to transform or even govern himself. He
should be an adviser to the Republican Party, but not again its head. At
the moment, we think it important to urge Republicans to have the good
sense to reject a hasty marriage to Gingrich, which would risk dissolving
in acrimony."

See, they`re afraid of the internal Newt, not how he`ll sell, but
whether he`ll just erupt again and just show this -- you talked about the
example of him -- somebody said the other day, when he`s challenged or he
feels he`s being upstaged, look out, he`ll grab whatever`s handy and throw
it at the opponent.

GREGORY: That`s what a good debater does. I mean, he can think in
your presence. He can think on his feet. The problem is, he doesn`t
necessarily think it through on his feet.

MATTHEWS: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY: And that actually comes to hurt him. And that`s the
difference between governing--

MATTHEWS: Well, remember Jack Germond long ago used to say, This
candidate lives off the land. He sees something on the ground in front of
him, he hears his opponent say something, and he uses it in that moment.

I`m not even sure Barack Obama has that skill, to use something
learned in the course of that debate to use in that debate.

FINEMAN: Well--

GREGORY: And you know, when I -- when he was on "Meet the Press" back
in Maine, he got into so much trouble for talking about "right-wing social
engineering" about Paul Ryan`s plan. What he said in the course of that
interview, what he acknowledged, was that it was his lack of discipline
that was a problem, his ability to think and talk more like a professor
than a presidential candidate that gets him into trouble. Can I--

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY: -- one other point about the calendar? February -- February
is what could stop Newt in his tracks, if he`s doing so well, the way the
calendar rolls out on the primaries.

FINEMAN: Well, partly because there`s kind of a -- what`s happening
with all the primaries having been moved up from February to January,
there`s now kind of a little bit of a dead zone there in February. And if
Newt is the guy, then everybody`s going to go after him for an
uninterrupted period of time, which he can`t really necessarily answer with
primary victories, if he`s going to have them.

A couple things about him, though. He can see around corners. It`s
not just that he lives off the land. He does have a strategic mind. He
attacked Paul Ryan for social engineering. Well, the fact is Paul Ryan now
is offering a different plan. He`s now, in effect, confirming what Newt
said.

Newt`s problem is that the people who know him best, who worked with
him when he was in the Congress--

MATTHEWS: Sure.

FINEMAN: -- who worked with him on drafting the "Contract with
America" -- most of those people are not with him.

MATTHEWS: Let`s read that--

FINEMAN: Why are they not with him?

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: Why are they not with him?

MATTHEWS: -- a real conservative, Peggy Noonan, who wrote for
President Reagan and writes beautifully in "The Wall Street Journal" every
Saturday -- in fact, that`s the reason I read it on Saturday is her --
quote, "What is striking is the extraordinary divide in opinion between
those who know Gingrich and those who don`t. Those who do are mostly not
for him, and they were burning up the phone lines this week in Washington.
Those who know him fear or hope that he will be true to form in one
respect, he will continue to lose to his number one longtime foe, Newt
Gingrich. He`s a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the
pin, saying, Watch this!"

That`s pretty striking. And in "The Washington Post" last week,
columnist Kathleen Parker wrote, "No one other than Callista Gingrich
thinks her husband can prevail in a general election. No one. The
consensus on Gingrich is so overwhelming that conventional wisdom has taken
a holiday. That is, no one in Washington thinks he can win, and Washington
is where Gingrich is known best. Instead of rallying to support him,
former colleagues are going out of their way to politely say he can`t
lead."

Howard, speak for that because it seems to me that writers like you --
you`re in the middle. You`re a straight reporter. But the writers on the
right, who are the best of the writers, those two women especially, openly
saying, Beware of this guy. Those who know him think he`s a disaster.

FINEMAN: Well, that`s true, except for the fact that Washington
conventional wisdom is almost always wrong.

MATTHEWS: But when it`s about itself. This isn`t about thinking big,
this is about --

FINEMAN: This is about --

MATTHEWS: -- remembering personal behavior.

FINEMAN: That`s true. And when you talk to person after person who
was in the leadership in the Congress when Newt was speaker, they all say,
We would agree on a policy and a plan for the weekend, then we`d go out
home, and Newt would go back to Georgia and say something completely
different. Newt would have all these great plans to do things, and he
wouldn`t follow through. Newt would undercut people around him. Newt was
not reliable. Newt couldn`t get things done.

But you know, the other point I would make is, though, that people are
in such a foul mood about the Congress and about Washington and about the
insiders that the Republican establishment better be careful -- and David
made this point also -- that if it looks like Newt is the only alternative
to business as usual, Newt could still win.

MATTHEWS: That`s how he won the first time --

FINEMAN: Exactly. Exactly.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: People like Lynn Martin (ph), who are moderate Republicans,
from Illinois said, Rather than lose again, we`ll go with him.

I want you to comment on this be this is really pitchfork fighting.
Here`s Ron Paul going after Gingrich getting all those deferments from the
military back in the `60s. Now, this is -- when you go after people`s
military deferments, this is in the gut. Let`s listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He`s probably as
aggressive with the military as anybody. He supports all the wars in the
Middle East a thousand times more than I would. But you know, when -- in
the 1960s, when I was drafted, you know, into the military, he got several
deferments. He chose not to go.

Now he`ll send our kids to war, but at that time, he said that one
person wouldn`t make a difference. He didn`t know how he could make a
difference. So I see that as important information. People show know
that. And it reflects on him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, that rips the scab off, doesn`t it. You go after a
guy`s personal lack of courage in backing the very wars he likes to
support.

GREGORY: But it`s also -- it`s taking Gingrich on a flank, this anti-
government flank, because it`s not just like liberal anti-war views, it`s
real libertarian anti-war. It`s, like, we`re broke--

MATTHEWS: It`s isolationism.

GREGORY: Yes. I mean, we can`t be involved in this. And that`s --
and I think that`s where he -- because I think what`s gotten underreported
is what Gingrich talked about -- remember we talked about the nuclear
weapon -- If we survive Iran, a nuclear Iran, if we survive, people like
Rick Santorum will be, you know, held in high esteem. I mean, it`s pretty
apocalyptic--

MATTHEWS: Yes, I know.

GREGORY: -- when he talks about the prospect of some of the things
(INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS: Well, I do think, though, looking at the numbers on Iraq,
as we -- many people celebrate the end of the American war in Iraq, it
looks like, there`s a tremendous sense of buyer`s remorse about that, not
that Iran in any way parallels it because it`s a different kind of
strategic threat. A nuclear weapon in the hands of an Ahmadinejad is
different than fearing a regional threat from a pain in the butt like
Saddam Hussein, right?

FINEMAN: Yes. Yes.

MATTHEWS: That`s what I think. Anyway, thank you, David Gregory.

GREGORY: Thank you. Appreciate it.

MATTHEWS: Good luck on Sunday.

GREGORY: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: It`s coming up fast, "Meet the Press." Howard Fineman, as
always.

Coming up: Let`s find out what voters in Iowa are thinking just 19
days now before the caucuses. Sounds like we`re fighting in Russia, "the
caucuses." When we return, we will simulcast on WHO -- H -- WHO -- W-Who -
- radio and talk to talk show host Simon Conway. God, he sounds like
somebody on "American Idol" -- Simon Conway, whose show has become an
essential stop for the Republicans who want to be president out in Iowa.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Independents are increasingly frustrated by the gridlock in
Washington, and according to a new Pew poll, they blame Republicans by a
margin of 54 percent to 30 percent. Independent voters say the Republican
Party, not the Democratic Party, is more extreme in its views. And
independents also say Republicans by a 2 to 1 margin are less honest and
less ethical than Democrats. Wow!

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. With 19 days until the Iowa
caucuses, the Republican presidential candidates will hold their last
scheduled debate tonight before the voting begins now on January 3rd. The
latest Hawkeye poll, by the way, from the University of Iowa has Newt
Gingrich leading in the state of Iowa with 29.8 percent of the vote, with
Mitt Romney at 20, Ron Paul just over 10.

But the poll may show that support for Gingrich is beginning to
dissipate. A University of Iowa pollster told Reuters, quote, "Gingrich
has spent little time in Iowa. While Gingrich is polling well, his minimal
staff and grass roots organization in Iowa suggests he may be unable to
turn out supporters on January 3rd to the same degree as the others."

Well, Simon Conway is an Iowa radio talk show host who has spoken to
each of the Republican presidential candidates, except Mitt Romney and Jon
Huntsman, who`s not competing in Iowa.

Simon, thank you so much for coming on and doing this simulcast. I
see you at the mike there.

SIMON CONWAY, IOWA RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well--

MATTHEWS: What`s it smell like -- what`s it smell like to you out
there? What`s the sense? Just -- if I`d ask you to do a little peroration
now on which way it`s going, what`s it feel like, what is it?

CONWAY: Well, first of all, it`s always a pleasure to welcome a
Democrat to "The Simon Conway Show," Chris, so you`re very welcome--

MATTHEWS: Well, what is that? Are we all giving our party labels out
here? Is that -- are you giving me yours or what? Or you don`t want to
give one.

CONWAY: Well, I--

MATTHEWS: No, you want to give me one, but don`t give yourself one.
That`s fair enough.

CONWAY: Well, no, Chris, I`m not a Republican, never have been and
never will be. I keep my independence--

MATTHEWS: So you -- so you give out labels, but you don`t assign one
to yourself. That`s very clever.

CONWAY: Well, there isn`t one. I just want to make sure we`re
starting with some honesty.

MATTHEWS: No, I want to make sure--

CONWAY: You`re clearly working for the reelection of Barack Obama--

MATTHEWS: I want to make sure--

CONWAY: -- and that`s OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: This isn`t going to go very long here if you`re going to go
into this game of assigning -- what is your political voting record, then?
How did you go last time?

CONWAY: I have only voted once. I`m a fairly new citizen to the
United States. And I voted--

MATTHEWS: And who did you vote for?

CONWAY: I voted for John McCain while holding my nose.

MATTHEWS: You voted Republican.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- how we should identify you, sir, based upon your record.

CONWAY: Well, if you -- if you wish -- if you wish to do that. But
look, the bottom line--

MATTHEWS: No, no. You`re doing it to me, so why don`t we do it to
you and have some fun?

CONWAY: Fine! If you want to do that, Chris, you can go ahead and do
it. It`s untrue, but you can go ahead and do it. But that`s OK. I just
want to be clear that we`re going to be honest here. You`re clearly
working for the reelection of Barack Obama, and I`m OK with that. I just
want some honesty here.

MATTHEWS: Well, what are you working for, sir?

CONWAY: I`m working for the election of a conservative.

MATTHEWS: And who would that be?

CONWAY: Well, we don`t have an individual yet. We`ve still got an
open field, and it`s very interesting. And certainly, Iowa is not -- is
not done yet. I think we`ve got -- we`ve got plenty of time. I think we
can still see this race change.

MATTHEWS: And of the conservatives in the field right now, which ones
do you think are the most conservative, the best by your own standards?

CONWAY: The most -- well, the most conservative -- I think the most
conservatives are quite clear. I think you`ve got Michele Bachmann.
You`ve got Rick Santorum. You`ve got Governor Rick Perry. I think they`re
all very, very conservative.

MATTHEWS: And which of them do you think would be the most prepared
to be a good president for the country?

CONWAY: I think they could all be very good presidents for the
country, Chris. I don`t endorse anybody on my own show. I`m not going to
endorse anybody on yours.

MATTHEWS: But who do you like -- I mean, let`s look at field now as
you listen to your listeners out there. Which -- which -- which -- who do
you think is the best fit -- of the Iowa culture you`ve begun to learn
about in the years you`ve lived out there, which -- which of the candidates
seems to be the best fit, if you were looking at the way the culture runs
out there, the political culture right now, going into the caucuses on the
3rd of January?

CONWAY: Well, you know, Chris, the -- both the Democrats and the
Republicans love Iowa to be first in the nation because it`s a great size
for lesser-known candidates with less money to get around a whole state.
They don`t have to spend some money to burst through.

A prime example of that is Mike Huckabee four years ago. He didn`t
have much money and suddenly burst onto the scene and he was able to do
that in Iowa. The Democrats like it for exactly the same reason.

And the second reason is there is such a diversity of opinion here
that you really have to appeal to all sides. So you`ve got people that are
obviously very concerned about the economy. The economy is always going to
be the number one issue in our elections.

But here on the conservative side, you certainly have people that are
very interested in the social issues, as well.

I had Rick Santorum in my studio yesterday. I actually asked him if his
campaign had made a mistake by focusing on the social issues, and he turned
that right around on me, and he said, look, social issues actually are
about the economy, because if we don`t take care of the family, then
government is stepping in, and we`re spending money to support single
parents. And so that`s why social issues are also about the economy. He
made a very valid point, I thought.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Simon, let`s take a crack at the foreign policy issue.
We`re winding down the American war in Iraq right now, hopefully. And I`m
thinking about that war.

And I`m thinking about a candidate like Ron Paul, who`s very much
against those -- against those kinds of foreign policy adventures in Iraq
or in Iran. And then you have a much more hawkish person in Newt Gingrich,
for example.

Who do you think would have the upper hand in that debate tonight, for
example, as you have another debate out there, the hawkish or the more
dovish position of Mr. Paul?

CONWAY: I have absolutely no doubt at all that, not just Newt
Gingrich, but the other candidates on that stage are going to go after Ron
Paul on that very issue.

And, actually, I`m on the record as the one candidate I guess I have
kind of ruled out myself personally, because although I love Ron Paul
fiscally, and I absolutely adore him fiscally -- And if we`d have listened
to him 30 years ago on that particular subject, we`d all be far better off,
I think, right now, Chris -- but he does scare me when it comes to foreign
policy.

In fact, you have already played one of my videos on your show, when
in this very studio I asked him three times, and he said he would not have
given the kill order for bin Laden.

MATTHEWS: What about the war in Iraq? Do you think it`s popular in
Iowa right now, the fact that we fought the war, beginning -- well, it`s
now eight-and-a-half years. We`re winding it down, leaving the last combat
troops. Do you think that was a wise war in the eyes of the Iowa voters?

CONWAY: I think we`re beyond that now. I think people are very glad
that we`re coming home. I think a lot of people feel that, right after we
took out bin Laden, we should have come home from Afghanistan as well.

I`m not even sure what the mission is in Afghanistan anymore, to be
honest, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Why do you think we went to war in Iraq?

CONWAY: I think we went to war in Iraq because, as the president told
us, we believed -- and I do believe that he believed -- that they were a
very serious threat.

Right now, I think the biggest threat however to the world is Iran.
And we need to pay very close attention. And it`s embarrassing when the
president of the United States goes on TV and says, please, Iran, can we
have our plane back?

MATTHEWS: Yes. So you think the war in Iraq made sense?

CONWAY: I think the war in Iraq, based on the intelligence that they
had at the time, made sense, yes.

MATTHEWS: No. Well, do you support -- do you think it was a wise
policy to go to war in Iraq, to intervene in that country, take it over?
Do you think that was a smart move? And do you think Iowa agrees with you
on that?

(CROSSTALK)

CONWAY: I think it was a smart move at the time. And Iowa will agree
or disagree and they will let me know on my show, as they do every single
day, Chris.

I do think it was the right thing to do, based on the intelligence
that we had at the time, yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK. Do you think..

(CROSSTALK)

CONWAY: And I think we need to be paying close attention to Iran.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What role should we play with Iran?

CONWAY: What role -- we absolutely should support our closest friend
probably in the world, which is Israel. We need to support our ally. We
need to stop attacking our ally. We actually need to move our embassy to
Jerusalem, which is a travesty that we don`t recognize that we should have
an embassy in Jerusalem right now.

We should certainly do that. We need to support our ally. We need to
recognize how dangerous Iran actually is if they get a nuke. And I
actually think we`re probably doing some covert things. There has been
some very interesting satellite imagery. I think we`re probably partially
responsible for some of that satellite imagery with nuclear facilities
showing blown-up buildings.

And that`s great. When the president took out bin Laden, I was
actually on the air. I had been here a week, and I made a decision to take
this station live, and we stayed on the air live after the president`s
announcement until midnight that night because I had waited two-and-a-half
years to say, well done, Mr. President.

And I was very pleased -- I was very pleased he did it. But now we
need to come home and we need to focus on the one that matters, which is
Iran.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: How would you feel about Newt Gingrich as president of the
United States?

CONWAY: Well, again, you are asking me to endorse or not endorse
someone. The only position I have taken--

MATTHEWS: No, how do you feel? You said you wanted the most
conservative candidate or a true conservative. How would you feel about
Newt Gingrich?

(CROSSTALK)

CONWAY: I could -- if Newt Gingrich ended up as the nominee, I could
happily vote for Newt Gingrich.

MATTHEWS: OK, thank you very much, Simon Conway on WHO Radio in Des
Moines, Iowa.

CONWAY: Thank you very much, Chris, any time.

MATTHEWS: Up next: Now that he`s out of the presidential race, what
Cabinet position does Herman Cain want? His surprising answer next in the
"Sideshow."

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First up: game-changer? Think again. Last night, we reported that
Mitt Romney had won the endorsement of failed Delaware Senate candidate
Christine O`Donnell.

Well, let`s look at how "The Colbert Report" covered the Tea Party
favorite`s return to the national scene.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Boom!

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Mitt Romney is back in it.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Christine O`Donnell`s endorsement will cast a spell over
primary voters.

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTINE O`DONNELL (R), FORMER DELAWARE SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: I`m
not a witch.

COLBERT: OK, I`m sorry, that`s a bad metaphor.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: In fact -- in fact, this endorsement proves that she is not
a witch, because a witch would have gone for the eye of Newt.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

COLBERT: What about Mitt brought O`Donnell around to Romney?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He`s changed his mind about big, important
issues over the year.

O`DONNELL: You know, that`s one of the things that I like about him,
because he`s been consistent since he changed his mind.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: How did she lose?

(APPLAUSE)

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Romney`s response: "I`m pleased to have her on my team."
Wow.

Well, next up, swept off her feet. ABC News journalist Barbara
Walters recently released her annual list of the 10 most fascinating people
of the year, which included former GOP candidate Herman Cain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HERMAN CAIN (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When they ask me
who`s the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I`m going to say,
you know, I don`t know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: And now to the interview with Barbara Walters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS: What kind of Cabinet position might you
like, if it were possible?

CAIN: We are speaking totally, totally hypothetical, right?

WALTERS: Yes.

CAIN: Department of Defense.

WALTERS: What? Why Department of Defense. If you were secretary of
defense, it would be important to be familiar with the various countries
around the world, and you have had some difficulty with that, Mr. Cain.

CAIN: Yes. Yes, but I have been doing my homework ever since that
difficulty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: He`s been doing his homework. Herman Cain should
manufacture a pill, I think, that gives you his self-confidence. It would
really sell.

And, finally, it looks like someone neglected to think this one
through. Any visitor to the campaign Web site of Newt Gingrich, Newt.org,
can glance through a number of news articles plucked by the candidate`s
campaign team, well, obviously, the ones that shed a positive light on
Newt.

But how about this headline from CBN News that recently joined the
lineup -- quote -- "A Tale of Three Wives: Life on the Campaign Trial"? Is
that a reminder that Gingrich himself is on his third marriage? Why put
that in the spotlight? Well, not quite, as it turns out. The article is
actually a piece on Callista Gingrich, as well as the wives of two of
Newt`s opponents, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman. But, still, the headline
points in a very different direction, don`t you think?

Anyway, up next: the race to two -- well, to 270. President Obama has
several projected paths to win the number of electoral votes he needs, and
tonight we are going to look at what the Republican nominee, Gingrich,
Romney or whoever, needs to do to win. The HARDBALL strategists join us
next.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

The Dow Jones industrials ending the day up 45, the S&P 500 up four,
the Nasdaq gaining two points. The Dow had been up as much as 144 points,
but it turned around following disturbing comments from the head of the
IMF. She said Europe`s debt crisis is not just unfolding, but escalating,
and that no country`s economy would be immune.

As for the U.S. economy, weekly jobless claims dropping far more than
expected. They fell by 19,000 to 366,000, the lowest level since May of
2008. The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage fell back to
historic lows in the most recent week. It`s now 3.94 percent, a low set 10
weeks ago.

FedEx reporting earnings that far exceeded expectations, the company`s
profits soaring more than 30 percent, thanks to higher shipping rates and
cost controls. Shares finished 8 percent higher.

Another bright spot today, luxury retailer Michael Kors. The stock
ended up 21 percent on its first day of trading.

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

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

After employing a strategy of laying low, Mitt Romney`s now in
trouble. Newt Gingrich has taken center stage. Today, Newt released a new
ad in Iowa that stays positive and criticizes others for attacks -- well,
you know he`s talking about Mitt. And looking ahead to November 2012, Karl
Rove today outlined his projected path to victory for the Republicans.

It`s a single path, as opposed to the Obama team`s multiple paths to
winning 270 electoral votes. We will break it down for you.

So those are the topics our strategists will tackle tonight. Number
one, how does Romney win the nomination? He seems to be losing right now.
And, number two, how does the Republican Party, generally, whatever the
candidate, have a viable path to victory in the general?

Steve McMahon is a Democratic strategist. Todd Harris is a Republican
strategist.

Thank you, gentlemen, both.

So, here, I ask you to do the gymnastics here. Mitt Romney seems to
have lost his mojo and Newt Gingrich has got it for the time being, through
the holiday season.

How does Mitt Romney get it back in time to win enough in the
beginning not to get blown out?

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Someone has to take him in the
corner and smack him around a little bit and tell him, look, Mitt, you will
have to work for this thing, it`s not inevitable.

That`s the first thing is a change of attitude. The second thing is,
when you`re drawing contrasts with your opponent, they have to be
contrasts. You don`t attack Newt Gingrich for being rich or for changing
his position if you`re the richest guy in the field and you have changed
your positions more often than anybody else.

And, third, he`s counting on the late states now to bail him out. And
he is saying, if I lose -- the Democratic nominee last time--

MATTHEWS: Like a rope-a-dope strategy.

MCMAHON: Yes -- didn`t win New Hampshire and he won the nomination.

MATTHEWS: Right.

MCMAHON: If Newt Gingrich gets momentum in these first four states
and Mitt Romney`s hoping the Giuliani strategy of waiting for Florida and
the later states to save him is going to work this time any better than it
did last time, he`s crazy.

I honestly can`t figure out--

MATTHEWS: We will paint this positively. How does he do it? You are
giving me all the don`ts.

MCMAHON: Well, that`s what he has to do. He literally has to
recognize he can`t send John Sununu there to do his dirty work and have a
conference call--

MATTHEWS: You`re saying he has to be aggressive?

MCMAHON: He`s got to engage Newt Gingrich. He`s got to tell people
what this is all about. And if they really -- Newt Gingrich channels the
anger and rage that Republicans feel towards President Obama better than
anybody else in the field, but he can`t win.

And you said it while we were just talking before the segment. He`s
got to make that the central focus of this thing.

MATTHEWS: That he can win.

MCMAHON: Who can beat Barack Obama? If you look at the polls, it`s
clear Newt Gingrich can`t and Mitt Romney`s very competitive.

MATTHEWS: That seems logical. I don`t know if it gets to the gut of
the Republican Party.

Your take on how Mitt Romney can turn it around and be the front-
runner in two or three months now.

TODD HARRIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, similar to what Steve said,
I would boil it down to two things.

Number one, you have got to do something that he`s been unwilling to
do this entire year, which is to take the fight directly to his opponent.
At each -- whether it was Bachmann, Perry, all of these others have their
15 minutes of fame, and Mitt just sort of stood back and let it all unfold.
You`re starting to see them do this now.

I think, yesterday, he called Gingrich`s ideas zany. So they are
doing this. The second thing is to gird for the long haul. Right now,
you`re seeing this classic battle of intensity vs. organization, and the
intensity seems to be on Newt`s side. But Newt really has very little
organization.

If this becomes a protracted slog, no one can stay white-hot for
months and months at a time. That means it does come down to organization,
very mundane things about like, did you file a complete delegate slate in
order to be awarded all the delegates that you would get if you won the
state?

MATTHEWS: Right.

HARRIS: The Romney folks have that stuff down to a science. I`m not
so sure on the Gingrich side.

MCMAHON: But, Todd, don`t you think that there -- there may not be a
long haul. If Newt Gingrich pops off four quick victories, Mitt Romney
isn`t going to be looking like anybody. Not only will he not look
inevitable; he might not look viable.

HARRIS: Or, conversely, if Ron Paul wins Iowa, or does so well there
that he takes any wind out of Gingrich`s sails -- you know, right now Mitt
is still the front-runner in New Hampshire, but if Gingrich doesn`t go into
New Hampshire with a certain amount of momentum, you know, I think what
Mitt needs to prepare for is either a quick knockout, which starts with Ron
Paul winning Iowa, or the long slog. That`s how--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the possibility of -- the more
interesting, to me, the more compelling case is that Mitt Romney -- that
Newt wins Iowa. And he then goes on and challenges Mitt Romney in New
Hampshire, to the point of coming in second, and then kills him in South
Carolina and goes on and beats him in Florida, right?

HARRIS: Right. That`s right.

MATTHEWS: The other possibility is that Ron Paul pulls a big upset by
either winning or coming in close second in Iowa on the 3rd of January,
does very well in coming in second to perhaps to -- or -- well, comes in
second to Mitt Romney up in New Hampshire, and then, finally, Newt gets his
first narrow victory down in South Carolina, they all go to Florida
together, and Mitt Romney wins there.

That`s the ideal for him, right?

HARRIS: Yes, yes, absolutely.

MATTHEWS: And is that still feasible?

HARRIS: I think -- sure. Look at -- I think Ron Paul`s got a real
shot in Iowa. You know, there`s a lot of intensity on -- around Gingrich,
but Paul`s got the intensity and the organization. So, people ought to be
paying a lot of attention.

MATTHEWS: Here`s the guy that I think is getting a little hot right
now. It`s because this war in Iraq`s ending, and it`s not a popular war,
even among Republicans. Here`s a video called "Let`s Get This Done."

It`s Karl rove who heads up the Republican PAC of American
Crossroads. It charts a path for Republican victory.

It starts with a Republican nominee winning all the states that
McCain won in a bad year of 2008, which are now worth 180 electoral votes.
Then he wins Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia -- the three outlying
states that Obama was able to pluck from God knows where. And then it goes
on to the traditionally Republican states, they pick up the close wins, the
always -- the deciders all the time, Florida and Ohio, both of which Obama
won in 2008, and then they went through, they lost the Republicans in 2008.
And finally, to win, the Republican nominee has to win any single one of
the swing states you see here in yellow, the usual states.

It just seems to me so obvious. This is so uncreative by Rove. All
he does is he says we`re going to pick up the ones that Obama got, take the
swing states, and pick up a Democrat state or two. Well, you could -- an
eighth grader could have done what Rove just did here.

What is the originality in this?

MCMAHON: It`s not original, but you know what? History is repeating
itself in this sense. This isn`t going to be 2008, where the president
wins by 95 electoral votes. It`s going to be one of these kinds of races
where --

MATTHEWS: Where the usual states go the usual ways?

MCMAHON: The usual states go the usual ways. But, you know, what
you`re looking at now is instead of the Democrats needing to steal a few
states in order to be successful, which is what it was eight or 12 years
ago, it`s now -- the shoe`s now on the other foot. Ron Brownstein wrote a
great piece, "The Blue Wall," about how the Democrats have now have some
structural advantages, and the Republicans with what they`re doing on
immigration and driving away the Hispanic vote, is making the structural
advantage for Democrats even greater.

If the Obama campaign is smart and they are, they`ll go to Virginia
and Florida they`ll say, you can maybe have these, but you`re going to have
to spend $1 billion to get them. And that`s going -- it`s going to be very
difficult for the Republican --

MATTHEWS: Give me your mind`s eye. Suppose Newt really cleans up
his act and runs almost an Eisenhower campaign or a second Reagan campaign
right through now, OK? Or Mitt Romney comes back and grabs the center-
right back, and then therefore the center, how do you win? You pick up
Ohio. You have to win Ohio, right? And you win Florida, your state,
right?

HARRIS: Yes.

MATTHEWS: It`s the normal way?

HARRIS: Look, for Republicans to be successful in 2012, we almost
have to treat whoever our nominee is. I mean, obviously, we want to pick
the best one, but they`re the placeholder.

This election is a referendum on Barack Obama and the Obama economy.
If we allow the Obama campaign to turn this election into a choice between
him and somebody else, it`s going to be, I`m not saying we won`t win --

MCMAHON: That`s what $1 billion does, Todd.

HARRIS: It`s a much harder campaign.

I think the Rove map makes a lot of sense in an economic referendum
kind of election, because you start looking at some of those states that
the Republican nominee would need to pick up, and like, of Ohio, Florida,
North Carolina -- these states have terrible unemployment.

And so, it`s an unfortunate fluke for President Obama that so many of
the swing states this time around seem to have such higher unemployment
rates than the national average.

MATTHEWS: Can the Democrats -- can the Republicans win without Ohio?

HARRIS: It starts getting tough. But --

MATTHEWS: Can your state -- can Democrats win without Pennsylvania?

MCMAHON: No.

MATTHEWS: OK. Some of this is traditional.

Anyway, thank you, Steve McMahon.

Who -- are you betting on Newt right now or betting on Romney?

HARRIS: My money`s still on Romney, but I`m not willing to bet less
of it.

MATTHEWS: Who are you betting on?

MCMAHON: I`m betting on Obama.

MATTHEWS: No --

MCMAHON: I think Gingrich`s going to get it. By the way, I didn`t
mean no about Pennsylvania. I just mean it gets a lot more difficult.

MATTHEWS: I think Gingrich has got the hot hand right now and his
timing is unbelievable. And I think he`s a great performer and will
perform appropriately now. He`s not going to blow it.

HARRIS: He`s a brilliant candidate.

MATTHEWS: He`s not going to jump around there like some jumping bean
like he did all those other years.

Anyway, thank you, Steve McMahon. Thank you, Todd. Have a nice
holiday if I don`t see you.

Up next, after nearly nine years, the American military -- well, the
American war in Iraq has ended. That misguided war is officially over.

And the big question, what did we really accomplish? It`s a fair
question and I think a heartfelt one. That`s ahead.

And this is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, one endorsement that might carry some weight for the
Republicans who want to be president is that of Mike Huckabee. Huckabee
won the Iowa caucuses last time around, remember, but decided against
running again this year. But the former Arkansas governor says he won`t
endorse anyone before the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd. And that he might
not endorse until the primary fight ends, the whole primary fight ends.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

The war in Iraq officially ended today for America. In Baghdad,
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta thanked the more than 1 million
Americans, believe it or not, who have served in Iraq over the last nine
years. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEON PANETTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: To all of the men and women
in uniform today, your nation is deeply indebted to you. Your dedication,
your commitment to this mission, has been the driving force behind the
remarkable progress that we`ve seen here in Baghdad and across this
country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, the war was initially justified for some as an
effort to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. I never believed all
these cases, anyway, which, of course, the country didn`t possess in the
first place.

About 4,500 Americans gave their lives in that effort over there. An
additional 32,000 were wounded. The war cost nearly $1 trillion for us.

To this day, it`s impossible to look at these numbers and not ask the
simple question: was it worth it? Was it the right war to fight?

Kimberly Dozier covered the war for CBS News. She was severely
wounded by a car bomb -- an experience she writes about in her book,
"Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Survive and Get Back to the Fight." She
now covers the intelligence community for "The Associated Press".

And Bob Herbert is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos. He was a
longtime columnist for "The New York Times".

Kimberly, thank you for joining us.

I guess, is there any way to answer that question objectively if you
-- I look back at the polling that went on back at the time we went into
the war. It sort of was against it. Let`s go the diplomatic route. There
maybe a poll or two that showed we should go in if the casualties are light
and it`s a short war.

I don`t think anyone proposed the idea of a decade long war with
these kinds of casualties.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: I think you`ve got to look at it
in a different way. Instead of was it worth it going in, what did we
salvage from it? Once military commanders were this there, what did they
learn from the mistakes we made? The way they tried to solve it with brute
force and learn, can`t work that way.

You got to work by, with and through the local population, something
that was an old Special Operations dictum for years. Now, they are
applying that in Afghanistan.

Another lesson they learned was how you catch terror suspects. The
way General Stan McChrystal and the intelligence community worked the
system to learn, work together, and hunt terrorists from hiding spot to the
next hiding spot to the next hiding spot, sometime in a single night, that
science is now being used to catch, hey, track down Osama bin Laden. It`s
the way they got call Anwar al-Awlaki.

So, you have to say, not "was it worth?" going in, but what did we
make of what many people now say was a mistake.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s look at these statistics from a CBS poll last
month. It asked whether the outcome of the war was worth the cost of lives
and treasures. A strong majority said, no, it was not worth it. Look at
those numbers.

Bob, I do remember the polling at the beginning of the war and it was
never for a hawkish position. My question to you is philosophical -- I`ve
always taken pride that this country was not an aggressive country. We
don`t start wars, we defend ourselves. The Department of Defense is just
that, an institution to defend this country, not in an isolationist way, a
thoughtful way.

But we`re not an aggressive power. This war always looked like to me
an invasion of another country that never attacked us, overthrowing the
government at our will, using our force, forcing the people of that country
at gunpoint to do what we wanted them to do for many years. I considered
aggressive action.

The American people didn`t like it. I think there`s more to this
than just the data. I think it gets down to values, too.

What are your thoughts?

BOB HERBERT, DEMOS: Chris, I couldn`t agree with you more. I
believe that 100 percent and said that before we invaded Iraq. And that`s
why -- that`s the starting point for everything going so haywire. I think
the war was a world class disaster for the United States, not to mention
for Iraq, from day one. In addition to 4,500 Americans, men and women,
that we lost, you know, we took our eye off of Afghanistan, which is the
reason why we stayed in Afghanistan for more than a decade.

And Joe Stieglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, estimates that
ultimately, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost the U.S. more than $4
trillion when you take in the long-term care, for example, for all of the
wounded soldiers and marines and the impact on the American deficits. It`s
just been an immense tragedy and a world class disaster, I think, no matter
how you look at it.

MATTHEWS: We`re looking at footage of the American military
beginning the processor are actually carrying out the process of leaving
that country.

Here`s Senator John McCain with a different view than the one we just
expressed here, or I just did and Bob just did. He`s been one of the
president`s toughest critics on the policy.

He said, President Obama should have promised to keep a residual
force for the foreseeable future. Keep in mind the timeline for troop
withdrawal goes back to an agreement reached with the Iraqi government back
in 2008 when George W. Bush was still in office.

However, here was Senator McCain yesterday with some very strong
words on President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It is clear that this decision of a
complete pullout of United States troops from Iraq was dictated by politics
and not our national security interest. I believe the history will judge
this president`s leadership with this scorn and disdain that it deserves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Kimberly, I think one of the questions -- I want to get to
Kimberly first -- this whole question, can we engage in a war and actually
end it? The old question to Colin Powell, can you have an exit strategy?
We left. Is that in itself a good exercise, being able to leave?

DOZIER: Well, there was an independent Iraqi government that told us
to leave.

MATTHEWS: That`s a good sign.

DOZIER: So how could we stay?

MATTHEWS: I think that`s a good point. We keep telling Senator
McCain, we don`t own these countries. They tell us when to leave.

Bob Herbert, have a nice vacation. I`m sorry, a nice Christmas
coming up.

And, Kimberly, thank you for your service to journalism all these
years.

When we return, "Let Me Finish" with why the Republican wise men want
to stop Newt with everything they`ve got -- and wise women, I should say.
Some of the best columnists in the right now are women, center-right that
is.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Well,
the English poet Samuel Johnson actually put it this way: when a man knows
he needs to be hanged, he concentrates his mind wonderfully.

Well, the emerging prospect of Newt Gingrich as the party`s nominee
for president late next summer has concentrated the Republican mind. To
those who have a big stake in winning the election and returning to the
White House, to all the power and perks of the presidency, Newt Gingrich
looms as a greater threat than Barack Obama.

Top Republicans believe the difficult economy offers them a real
chance at beating the president. The far harder problem now is beating
Newt Gingrich who is now riding at the top of the Republican polls. And
they can`t beat him, the party suddenly looms as the under dog in next
fall`s race for the presidency.

But how do the Republican leaders and wise men and wise women free
the caucus and primary voter from the killer instinct that`s setting them
to vote for Newt? How do they start the hard charges from voting for a guy
who promises in word and attitude to do to Obama what they most want done
to him, attack him -- all the while debasing him -- doing everything but
spit at him? How do they stop the voter from wanting their party`s
candidate to show the same hatred towards the president that they, the
party`s thinkers have?

If contempt is what they, the party leaders and thinkers, voice
toward Obama, how can they rightly deny their voters the right to have a
candidate who does just that? Well, it will be interesting to watch the
Republican leaders and thinkers find ways in the next several months to
measure and modify their words to avoid the anger of the party`s base
itself. Otherwise, they will be condemned to repeat what the party did in
1964, run a presidential candidate who said, "Extremism in the defense of
liberty is no vice."

And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

And I`ve got great news for HARDBALL fans. My wife, Kathleen, the
queen, is going to join me here with us a week from now, that`s next
Thursday, to talk about the year that was.

"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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