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updated 2/7/2012 11:56:40 AM ET 2012-02-07T16:56:40

Guests: David Corn, Seema Mody, Bob Shrum, Michael Scherer, Jim VanderHei, David Sanger, Neera Tanden, Mark McKinnon

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Obama votes.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. Leading off tonight:
An "Uh-oh" moment for Mitt. What happens to a candidate when he says, I`m
not concerned about the poor, when he accepts the endorsement of Donald
Trump, the nation`s number one birther, when he tries to pooh-pooh another
strong jobs report? What happens if you`re Mitt Romney is you find
yourself 6 points behind a newly confident President Obama in an ABC
News/""Wall Street Journal" poll -- actually, ABC News/"Washington Post"
poll just out. The president, by the way, says he reserves -- deserves a
second term. Maybe people are beginning to agree.

Mitt isn`t going to get any help from Newt Gingrich, however, who`s
still pledging to go all the way to the convention. Leave it to his former
colleague in the House, Dick Armey, by the way, to say of Newt that he`s
taking a second-rate campaign and turning it into a first-rate vendetta.

Plus, our colleague Tom Brokaw often says politics is subject to UFOs
-- you know, unforeseen occurrences. Well, this year`s wild card may be in
the Middle East, where Syria, Iran and Egypt all have the potential to
scramble the election in ways we can`t predict.

And if you thought the Clint Eastwood "Halftime in America" ad looked
like a pro-Obama ad, you`re not alone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINT EASTWOOD, ACTOR/DIRECTOR: This country can`t be knocked out
with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do, the world`s
going to hear the roar of our engines. Yes! It`s halftime, America. And
our second half`s about to begin.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Credibility. Was Chrysler saying thank you for the bail-
out? Karl Rove says he was offended by that ad. And the White House, of
course, was thrilled.

And "Let Me Finish" tonight with President Obama`s reelection
campaign. It`s not going to be about who he`s running against, however.
It`s about how he`s doing.

We start with President Obama saying he deserves a second term. Well,
he`s voted! Bob Shrum is a Democratic strategist and David Corn is the
Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones" magazine and an MSNBC political
analyst.

Bob Shrum, that new poll out now is pretty impressive. It`s got the
president at 50 percent approval, 46 percent disapproval. How do you, as a
skilled reader of such numbers, view that number, 50 for the president,
back up to, basically, a high point for him in recent months, back up to
where he was, roughly, when he had the -- when he capture -- actually,
killed bin Laden, and pretty much high for him.

What do you think, 50 percent? What`s that tell you?

BOB SHRUM, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, what counts here is the
direction, and the direction is moving up for him. I think, you know, his
toughest opponent up to now has been the economy. That`s turning. And if
it continues to turn, he`s going to be in much stronger shape.

He`s also got exactly the right tone in talking about it. He`s
optimistic but not triumphal. He`s not making the mistake that George W.
Bush made in 1992, when the recession, he said, was over. Technically, it
was. But he sounded complacent.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SHRUM: And like Ronald Reagan in 1984, he`s drawing a dividing line.
It`s a different dividing line. He`s saying, I stand for fairness. I`m
going to fight for prosperity for the middle class, for ordinary Americans.
That`s my cause. And quite frankly, that`s a great push-off against Mitt
Romney.

MATTHEWS: What do you make of 50 percent?

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Listen, Bob is
right...

MATTHEWS: Half the country now says they approve of the guy.

CORN: With unemployment still high -- even though it`s ticked down,
it`s -- unemployment is still high. A lot of people have given up looking
for work. Fifty percent is really pretty good, given the status of the
economy.

We`ve been talking about this since his jobs speech in September. The
White House came up with an idea, came up with a campaign on what they
could do to convince Americans that the president cared about the number
one issue -- that is jobs -- that he was willing to fight for it and that
he would take it to the Republicans.

He`s done all those three. And over that time period, his numbers
have crept up pretty slowly and gradually, but in the right direction,
while, as you said about Mitt Romney, his numbers have come down...

MATTHEWS: OK...

CORN: ... because ultimately, he`s being compared not just against
the economy but also against...

MATTHEWS: You know, I agree. I think what`s changed in the
president, these numbers reflect the reality, Bob Shrum. It`s not that the
numbers have changed, it`s why the numbers have changed. And it`s not just
why the jobs situation has gotten better and how that`s affected the
president.

This president has changed gears. Since September -- and there was a
great piece by Gene Sperling in the paper this weekend -- that he`s focused
on jobs, not trying to compete with the Republicans on debt reduction,
where he never gets anywhere anyway, but focused on something they don`t
want to talk about, jobs.

And as he began to talk about jobs, serendipitously, magically, it
seems, the job number`s gotten better. Is it the fact of all three? He`s
improved morale, the reality`s getting better, and also, he`s focused on
the right topic, which is jobs, for a Democrat, not competing with the
Republicans on who`s the most fiscally responsible?

SHRUM: Yes, I think -- I think you`re right. I think there`s no
question that saying, Jobs, jobs, jobs, saying it over and over again, has
helped him. But it`s helped him because the jobs situation is actually
getting better.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SHRUM: He`s also created a narrative here, and the narrative is that
he`s the guy who`s trying to stand up for people who are out of work. He`s
the guy who`s trying to stand up for hard-working Americans. And when he
got these recovery numbers the other day, he did a very smart thing. He
went out, he struck that kind of optimistic but tempered tone -- We`ve done
a lot, we have a lot more to do. And then he said, Don`t let Congress muck
it up.

So he`s got a narrative that`s very powerful at the same time that
Mitt Romney is running out of a narrative. I mean, if you listen to
Romney`s victory speech in Nevada the other night, he sounded deeply
pessimistic. Pessimism doesn`t usually work, as you both know, in American
politics.

MATTHEWS: Especially when you`re running up against the numbers.
Let`s take a look at the president`s approval number here. It`s reflected
in the matchup numbers, the latest head-to-head with Romney, and also, just
to be fair, with Newt.

Now, here it is with Romney, ABC/"Washington Post" poll, 51-45, 6-
point spread for the president. Pretty strong. Newt Gingrich much
stronger, a 9-point spread -- actually, 11-point spread there. David Corn?

CORN: Yes, and...

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the guy who`s the front-runner now, 6
points.

CORN: Well, Barack Obama is making gains amongst blue-collar, non-
college-educated workers, which were his weakest -- one of his weakest
demographics. And so...

MATTHEWS: That`s common sense.

CORN: Yes, but Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio -- if you look at the recent
polls, he`s creeping up again, as Bob says, going in the right direction.
That`s where a lot of this pick-up is, and I it`s directly attributed in
part to how Mitt Romney is coming across as Donald Trump`s sidekick.

(LAUGHTER)

CORN: I mean, that`s what -- that`s what he`s been this past week.
And so...

MATTHEWS: That`s the price he pays for standing next to him.

CORN: While he`s talking about jobs, Mitt Romney`s saying he doesn`t
care about the poor and he`s hanging out with Trump. I think the contrast
is getting very stark.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I don`t think that helped him at all. In an
interview, by the way, with Matt Lauer last night before the Super Bowl,
President Obama made this case for reelection while addressing the budget
concern of many -- the biggest concern of many voters, the economy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I deserve a second
term, but we`re not done. Look, when you and I sat down, we were losing
750,000 jobs a month. In fact, we had found out just a few days before we
sat down that we had lost that month 750,000 jobs. Now we`re creating
250,000. We`ve made progress, and the key now is just make sure that we
don`t start turning in a new direction that could throw that progress off.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: You know, I`m looking at these polling numbers, and they
are positive for the president, Shrum. But I want you to get deeper on
this than people that just look at the paper today. It looks to me like
the president is hedging the bet here. He reads the numbers from Goldman
(ph). He reads the numbers from CBO.

And they basically say unless Congress gets its act together and
basically keeps the cut going in the payroll tax -- makes some adjustment
downward, or actually, keeps the Bush tax cuts for the middle class there,
a lot (ph), don`t cancel those, in other words, plays ball with him a
little bit -- that he can -- they can screw it up themselves. He used the
phrase the other day, Congress can muck things up.

It seems to me he`s got to have a plan B. Sure, if the unemployment
rate keeps going down below 8.3, goes down to 8, goes below, he`s going to
get reelected. If it goes the other direction, doesn`t he need to have a
hedge?

SHRUM: Well, he has a plan B, and his plan B is to say, Don`t muck it
up, to put the Republicans in a very difficult position. If they`re seen
to be blocking the payroll tax cut renewal, if they`re seen to be blocking
the renewal of unemployment compensation, if they`re seen to be rooting for
recession and downturn -- which, by the way, is almost how Romney sounded
the other night -- they`re going to pay a price. And I think Republican...

MATTHEWS: How did he do that? Do you think he was rooting for the
economy to go down? Did you hear that?

SHRUM: No, I -- I -- look, the first good jobs numbers come in a long
time, I mean, spectacularly good jobs numbers that had almost -- that had
very few things in them that you could quarrel with, and he suddenly starts
talking about the underemployed. Obviously, we have a problem of
underemployed people. He himself, when he ran Bain and Company, used to
get people out of full -- part-time -- full-time jobs and into part-time
jobs.

(LAUGHTER)

SHRUM: So he knows about that.

MATTHEWS: You never miss a chance, do you, Bobby!

SHRUM: He knows about that stuff.

MATTHEWS: You never miss a chance to put the fork in. Here it is,
"The Washington Post"/ABC poll more -- I love this question, provided this
interesting nugget on how damaging the Republican race has been so far.
Fifty-two percent said the more they hear and have heard about Mitt Romney,
the less they like him. Sixty percent said the same thing about his
traveling partner, Gingrich. David?

CORN: You know...

MATTHEWS: They don`t like this debate that`s been going on.

CORN: Politics is Einsteinian. It`s relative. And if Barack Obama
was running against a Republican with no name and no positions, he probably
would lose, given the economy. But these guys, Mitt Romney and Newt
Gingrich, the more people see of them, and the more -- this is what we`ve
seen from the beginning of this campaign, parody. (ph) Michele Bachmann...

MATTHEWS: What is happening in this campaign...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK, what`s happened in this campaign? We watch it every
night. We cover all the caucuses and primaries here relentlessly. What
have you seen that the average middle-of-the-road voter, who`s open to this
election, has not liked about Romney?

CORN: I think he`s not been able to talk about his own money, his own
taxes. He talks -- he does -- you watched those speeches -- the speeches
he gave in Florida after winning that big victory, was as vapid as it gets.
He didn`t mention one idea, one policy about moving the country forward.

So I think people are seeing perhaps a bit of an empty suit, a rich
guy who`s out of touch, like the cliche goes. He`s done nothing to beat
back that obvious image. And that`s kind of what`s been stunning. And
Newt just looks mean.

MATTHEWS: OK, we`ve got a couple things here to clash (ph) right now.
I`m going to talk about this at the end of the show because I see problems
down the road that have nothing to do with Romney. They have to do with
the economy.

Bob Shrum, the president only gets 44 percent approval on the economy,
handling the economy, only 43 percent on jobs. It seems to me those remain
his vulnerabilities.

SHRUM: Sure.

MATTHEWS: If you`re running against him.

SHRUM: Sure, they remain his vulnerabilities, but they`re coming up.
Those numbers are coming up, too. And the real problem that Romney has is
he comes across as cold and callous and indifferent. He`s a gaffe machine.
At least once a week, he provides a new incident that makes him the guy
who`s not going to fight for ordinary people on the economy, who`s not
going to fight for jobs.

So I think when you look at this whole picture, it`s emerging in a
very good shape for the president in a way that a lot of us wouldn`t have
predicted necessarily. First, the economy may get better. It may very
well be getting better. And we`re not going to change horses in the middle
of a recovery.

And secondly, in terms of the contrast with the Republicans and with
Romney, the president, I think, is in a really good place. He`s defined a
narrative that fits Romney and that you can use to push off against Romney
and against the Congress.

MATTHEWS: I like the fact that he said the longer you`re president,
you get better at it, which I think is something has to make that case
because people want it to get better.

CORN: And you know, the payroll tax fight, which is coming up...

MATTHEWS: It sure is.

CORN: ... is going to be really important. You saw what happened in
December. The president was able to totally isolate John Boehner and the
House Republicans from other Republicans. And the Republican Party still
has this conflict inside that`s going to come out again, give Obama the
chance to...

MATTHEWS: High ground, though...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He`s on the high ground because he`s talking jobs and he`s
talking ways to create jobs, not fighting over the debt issue with the
Republicans, where they do have an advantage over -- they had...

CORN: Well, they lost...

MATTHEWS: ... a history of being fiscally responsibility for years...

CORN: ... that advantage, too, though. They`ve lost that advantage.

MATTHEWS: Jobs are still the Democrats` job number politically.
Thank you, David Corn. Thank you, Bob Shrum.

SHRUM: Thank you.

CORN: Thanks.

MATTHEWS: Good numbers all around for the president, but still some
interesting questions out there.

Coming up: Newt Gingrich is vowing to stay in this race until the
bitter end. You like that word, "bitter"? But is this about winning the
nomination or is it a vendetta against Romney? Is he just raining on
Romney`s parade, which could help Obama, too? Could this guy be Obama`s
best friend from here to Tampa?

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, so far, we`ve seen a disappointing turnout,
disappointing for the Republicans in the GOP primaries and caucuses.
Saturday`s Nevada contest was, in fact, the second consecutive where
turnout was down from 2008. Here are the numbers. In Iowa and New
Hampshire, the turnout was slightly higher than in `08, while in South
Carolina, the turnout was significantly better. But in Florida, the
turnout was down 13 percent, in Nevada down 26 percent compared to four
years ago.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. After a big win for Mitt Romney
Saturday in Nevada, a brazen Newt Gingrich took to the stage to announce
he`s in this fight for the long haul, all the way to the convention. He
also used the opportunity to knock his chief rival. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FMR. HOUSE SPEAKER, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am a
candidate for president of the United States. I will be a candidate for
United States. We will go to Tampa.

I also believe that the vast majority of Republicans across the
country are going to want an alternative to a Massachusetts moderate who
has in his career been pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase and
who ranked third from the bottom in creating jobs in the four years he was
governor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: But is Newt`s campaign about winning the nomination or
simply tearing Mitt Romney down and keeping him from winning the election?
Well, perhaps both.

Jim VandeHei`s executive editor for Politico and Michael Scherer is
White House correspondent for "Time" magazine."

Michael, let`s talk about that. It seems to me we were talking before
we came on in the break -- sure, he`s mad at the other guy. Who ain`t?
And we`ll get into that in a minute because he refuses to answer the --
nobody wants to admit they`re mad.

But he may have a couple shots here. One is to win. Something could
happen to Mitt. Mitt makes mistakes. The other is he could do him some
damage and make sure he`s never going to be president. That seems to be...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Give me some other thinking (ph) -- thinkings (ph) you
might (ph) going on here.

MICHAEL SCHERER, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, if -- if -- if Romney gets
the nomination in the end but doesn`t win, Newt can say, I was right all
along. Look, we can`t nominate a moderate. If -- if -- if they take it
all the way to the convention, that means a lot more headlines for Newt
Gingrich. I mean, he`s running now, basically, or a tie. There`s not
really a...

MATTHEWS: And no loss in staying in. No cost...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He`s not going to be vice president, right?

SCHERER: He`s an historian running for his place in history.

MATTHEWS: Right.

SCHERER: No, he`s not...

MATTHEWS: He`s not getting...

(CROSSTALK)

SCHERER: There`s no cabinet position there.

MATTHEWS: Is that fair, Jim, to start off on the negative here, which
I like to do, that this guy we`re looking at now, Newt Gingrich, is going
to get nothing, not peanuts, not crumbs, nothing from Romney if he quit
right now and said he`s the greatest thing since sliced bread. It`s over
for those two together. No friendship there.

JIM VANDEHEI, POLITICO.COM: Yes. I mean, Romney wouldn`t want him,
and I don`t think Newt Gingrich would want part of a ticket or even
probably a place in a White House. I can`t imagine that you`d want
Gingrich, who`s such a freelancer and such a free spirit and thinker in
your White House anyway.

So he`s in it because I still think he believes in his own mind he has
a plausible chance of winning. And if you look at the numbers, certainly,
he does have mathematically a plausible chance.

It`s just hard to see the mechanics of how he would orchestrate a
victory, short of conservatives all of a sudden deciding, Yes, he`s our
guy, and everybody from Sarah Palin to the conservative media outlets all
sort of bless him as the alternative to Mitt Romney. But if that hasn`t
happened yet, why would it happen tomorrow or two weeks or a month from
now?

MATTHEWS: Michael, before we go on in this, why have they given up,
the conservatives, and they look like they`re laying down for Romney now?

SCHERER: I don`t know what happened...

MATTHEWS: What happened to the juice in that -- what happened to the
Tea Party? What happened to the anger and the excitement that they really
want a real winger out there for them, instead of outsourcing it to this
guy?

SCHERER: Well, I`d agree with Newt. I think you can`t say they`ve
given up because of Florida, where he was outspent 5 to 1. You can`t say
they`ve given up because of Nevada, which is a very peculiar caucus state.
I think they`re still out there. In that "Washington Post"/ABC poll, it
said a quarter of all people who don`t support Mitt Romney say the reason
they`re supporting somebody else is they don`t like Mitt Romney. These are
Republican voters.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SCHERER: You have a quarter of the non-Romney vote there who is
actively against Mitt Romney. I think they`re still there. We have C-PAC
later this week. We`re going to have other rounds.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SCHERER: If you look at the polls, you know, these things bounce
around. And I -- Jim`s right, there hasn`t been that unity yet. But what
we know about the Republican Party is this tends -- does tend to happen,
that that unity does come at the end. Mitt Romney, at this point last
cycle in 2008, was the conservatives` conservative going into...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SCHERER: ... C-PAC. And there`s a -- there`s a real chance that that
could happen to Newt.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Go ahead, Jim.

VANDEHEI: There`s no organizational -- there`s no organizational
structure for anti-establishment conservatives. There`s not one or two
leaders who can rally the troops or who have that kind of stature. Sarah
Palin has a -- has a niche following. Rush Limbaugh has a niche following.
Fox News, different folks on -- in primetime have niche followings.

But there isn`t one figure who can rally the anti-establishment
conservatives.

And so -- and the fact that you have Santorum in there, who pulls from
social conservatives, makes it almost impossible for Newt Gingrich to do
that.

MATTHEWS: OK.

VANDEHEI: A lot of those anti-establishments have serious questions
about his viability as a general election candidate.

MATTHEWS: Well, I can tell you, they are very good at being negative.
And Rush Limbaugh is excellent at forcing politicians, elected politicians,
senators and congressmen, to come and kiss his knee whenever they say
something he doesn`t like.

Here`s Newt defending his attacks on Romney as a result of the
negative ad onslaught he faced starting in Iowa, but not ending there.
Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You can`t unilaterally
disarm in a world where someone is willing to be as aggressive -- I stayed
relentlessly positive in Iowa, and I lost 22 points.

But, unfortunately, it`s a fact. And if you`re not willing to stand
and fight, then you have to get out of the race.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look, gentlemen, at the places where Newt
Gingrich hopes to win. He`s talking about winning in Georgia and Tennessee
on Super Tuesday, in Alabama and Mississippi, then Missouri when they have
the caucus, and then in Louisiana.

Michael, he`s red hot. If you look at just where he did in the
Panhandle in Florida where all those people -- that old Southern part of
the state, Confederacy part of the state, if he can replicate that around
the Deep South, he will have one heck of a number of delegates going to
Tampa.

SCHERER: That`s right.

Let`s just take a moment, though, to cherish Newt Gingrich, Newt
Gingrich, the man who brought nasty politics in the 1990s, talking about
how he just wishes we could be more polite in the political system.

But you`re absolutely right. He`s going to do well in the South.
It`s mostly proportionally voting in the South. So he`s not going to be
able to sweep it, like Huckabee swept it last time. But the numbers, to
get to 1,144 is going to take awhile. There`s no way he can just get out
of the race right now.

Like I said, he`s running right now for a tie. If he can get to the
convention close to what Mitt Romney has, then he can make the case that
this was the front-runner who wasn`t able to actually close the deal and
that`s why you have to nominate me.

MATTHEWS: He`s got to win some.

On CNN yesterday by the way former House Majority Dick Armey, his
number two -- that`s Newt`s number two man -- criticized Gingrich and his
campaign. Listen to this sarcasm coming here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK ARMEY, FORMER REPUBLICAN HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: I think he`s
digressed into a state of taking a second-rate campaign and turning it into
a first-race vendetta.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Jim VandeHei, that`s the kind of well-crafted shot that the
other guy knows you thought about before you delivered it, taking a second-
rate campaign -- there`s the personal shot -- and then the coup de grace --
into a first-rate vendetta.

Whatever bad blood is between these two guys, the former leaders of
the House of Representatives in the `90s, it`s getting spilled right now.

VANDEHEI: Well, the reason that Republicans in Washington get so
unnerved when Gingrich starts to surge is the fact that it`s very hard to
find anybody who served under him in the House of Representatives,
certainly served at that leadership table, that thinks he should be
president of the United States.

It`s very hard to find people who have worked for him at think tanks
or people who worked in his campaign even six months ago who think he
should be president of the United States. These are the people who worked
most closely with him. These people are conservatives. These people want
to win and want conservatism to prevail. And if they are frightened of the
thought of Newt Gingrich being president, they worry that independents will
be exponentially more frightened by that prospect.

MATTHEWS: The trouble is he`s like an old Polaroid film. He`s
starting to develop. We`re getting a look at the old Newt here and that is
looking him.

Anyway, thank you -- although I always root for the underdog in almost
every fight. I want a fight. Obviously, thank you.

And this country deserves a good fight for both nominations -- well,
not both nominations -- that`s pretty one-sided -- I think for the
Republican nomination.

Jim VandeHei, thank you, sir.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: And thank you, Michael Scherer. I love "TIME" and I love
Politico.

Up next, you knew this one was coming, a spoof making fun of Newt
Gingrich`s promise to build a colony on the moon. Next on our "Sideshow,"
the moon colony.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First up, taking it all in stride. The Nevada caucuses didn`t bring
good news for Newt Gingrich. But that wasn`t the only topic he was dealing
with when Sunday morning rolled around. Here`s one he faced. What did you
think of "Saturday Night Live"?

Well, the show did a spoof on Newt Gingrich`s promise that we will
have an American colony on the moon if he gets elected president. Let`s
watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The year 2014 is a time of turmoil for America.
Comfortably serving his second term, Barack Obama no longer hides his
socialist agenda. The unemployment rate skyrockets and foreign armies
gather their forces for an attack.

Chaos reigns, but from the darkness, a visionary emerges and leads a
group of pioneers to pursue a better future in space. He is Newt Gingrich,
moon president.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, you think he enjoyed the attention? Well, Gingrich
was shown the clip during his appearance on "Meet the Press" yesterday
morning. Does the whole idea take away from the seriousness of his
campaign? Well, let`s hear how he responded to that question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "MEET THE PRESS")

GINGRICH: I proposed a fundamental reform of NASA to engage the
private sector in very bold and very dramatic ventures. This wasn`t some
slip. This was a deliberate effort to start a conversation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, he`s done that.

Even among his opponents, the moon colony talk has been more an
opportunity to get some laughs than to launch into any heated debate about
the subject.

Well, today Gingrich said he can hardly complain about getting
attention from "SNL."

Next up, leveling expectations. It may be getting late in the game,
but religious conservatives have yet to coalesce around a single candidate
for 2012. Will that change as primary season continues? Well, according
to the evangelical leader and our pal here Tony Perkins, who also heads up
the Family Research Council, there`s still a long road ahead. Let`s hear
what he said on CNN yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: We`re not looking
for a candidate that can walk on water. We`re looking for a candidate who
doesn`t sink under the weight of their own baggage. I think it may be
August before this is a done deal. We may go all the way to the convention
before we have solid support behind a nominee.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: So, how`s that for a campaign slogan? Vote for me, I won`t
sink under my own baggage.

Perkins also says his base is slowly warming up to Mitt Romney.
Remember, Republicans don`t fall in love. They slowly fall in line.

And finally how does President Obama view the nasty Romney-Gingrich
nomination fight? Well, in last night`s pregame interview, Matt Lauer
asked the president to size up how the race will affect the general
election this November. And he had -- Matt had this visual aid to help
him. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: There is the cover of "The New Yorker," the
most recent "New Yorker," and it has a picture of you watching the big game
on TV. And there you are sitting there and up on the screen it`s not the
Patriots and the Giants, it`s Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, same team, and
they are pummelling each other.

And look at the smile on your face there. Is art imitating life here?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, you know, look, I
have been through these primaries. They`re tough. You know...

(CROSSTALK)

LAUER: But does this help you?

OBAMA: You know, I think ultimately this will be forgotten by the
time they make a decision on who their nominee is. And the American people
are going to make a decision on my platform and where I want to take the
country and where the Republican does.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I think that smile of his is worth five to 10 points in the
general.

Anyway, I think his campaign strategists might feel differently about
it, what we were just talking about.

Up next, the U.S. is closing its embassy in Syria after another
violent weekend there. And tensions are rising, with more talk of a
possible Israeli strike against Iran. And we`re all talking about that
one. How will this Mideast turmoil affect the 2012 race here in the U.S.?

You`re watching HARDBALL. And that`s coming up only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SEEMA MODY, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Seema Mody with your CNBC "Market
Wrap."

The Dow shed 17, the S&P 500 is off about half-a-point, and the Nasdaq
is lower by 3. Medco and Express Scripts were both sharply lower today.
Opposition to the planned merger of the pharmacy benefit managers is said
to be building. Regulators are looking into the deal.

And Boeing shares sank 1 percent after it said some of its 787
Dreamliners need repairs. The aerospace giant is inspecting the planes to
see how many need to work.

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

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, the economy is obviously expected to be the main issue in the
coming campaign. It`s the economy, stupid. But there are several major
flash points in the world that will affect the economy. Certainly they are
centered in the Middle East now. Look at what the president is facing
right now just in recent days.

On Syria, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution this weekend that
would have called on Bashar al-Assad to step down. Today, the United
States closed its embassy in Damascus over security concerns. So we`re
already stepping back from that fight.

In Egypt, the 30-year-old alliance with the United States is on shaky
grounds after officials said yesterday that 19 Americans connected with the
pro-democracy NGOs over there would be put on trial. And one of those
Americans is the son of Ray LaHood, who is our secretary of transportation.
This is getting personal.

And certainly most troubling, Israeli leaders now continue to hint
strongly that military action by them is coming against Iran, and that is
coming soon. Could that be an ultimate October surprise or sooner?

David Sanger is chief Washington correspondent for "The New York
Times." And Neera Tanden is the president of the Center for American
Progress.

Thank you.

David, first, let`s go through the once relatively easy Syria. Why
are we worried about the Syria thing so much? How did we get to take sides
against Assad`s kid Bashar Assad?

DAVID SANGER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, this has been a huge
humanitarian disaster, when you think that up until the beginning of
January, the estimates were already 5,000 killed by the Syrian regime.
They have lost count now.

MATTHEWS: But from the beginning, we wanted to topple this guy,
right?

SANGER: Well, I think there was a strong sense during the end of the
Bush administration and even the beginning of the Obama administration that
Assad might be someone they could work with in a difficult way.

Remember, he had tried to build a nuclear reactor that one assumes was
for a nuclear weapons project. That was destroyed by the Israelis. He
seemed to be a little bit easier to deal with it after that. But as soon
as the Arab spring came, he really showed his true stripes.

The problem now is, we`re not in the land of lousy options with this
one. We`re in the land of no options. Without a U.N. resolution, without
a military option, there`s very little the United States or others can do
to stop what`s happening.

MATTHEWS: Why did Susan Rice get so emotional today? I was watching
her over the weekend when she was really like calling it despicable,
talking about -- they`re all professionals up there in New York. Why is
she getting so enraged, as the United States -- and I think she`s been
fabulous, by the way, taking on the U.N. guys, who she knows are always
playing games up there. Why did she get so angry?

(CROSSTALK)

NEERA TANDEN, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: I think it`s precisely as
David said.

There`s a humanitarian crisis. The fact that Russia and China were
unique in blocking this, I think there are a lot of folks at the U.N. who
were really surprised that Russia and China would be the ones to just say
no to this.

MATTHEWS: Why are they just saying no?

TANDEN: Because, I think -- I think, you know, the argument they use
is that they are concerned that, given the Libya resolution, they are
concerned about military strikes.

And that`s not what the resolution said. That`s not what was at
stake.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TANDEN: But that was, in my view, the excuse they were using.

MATTHEWS: OK.

TANDEN: But it`s not -- it might be an excuse.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Here`s Secretary Clinton using some very strong language as
well on this topic. Let`s listen. This is yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: What happened
yesterday at the United Nations was a travesty. Those countries that
refused to support the Arab League plan bear full responsibility for
protecting the brutal regime in Damascus.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I get the sense that the Russians are still loyal to the
old ties with the Baathists over there. Is that this -- it`s one of those
Cold War residue things?

SANGER: It`s got a little bit of that, but it`s also got a lot of
anti-Americanism to it.

There`s a bit element here of they`re feeling as if they were duped in
the Libya resolution.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: The Russians were.

SANGER: The Russians were -- that the resolution was about protecting
the population and that it was turned to use in regime change.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: It`s true.

SANGER: And it was. And it was.

MATTHEWS: That was mission creep.

SANGER: That certainly was mission creep.

That said, what this has created a clear division of is those who are
supporting a responsibility to protect the citizens of Syria. And that`s
included the entire Arab League. And I think what the secretary was
getting at and the oddity here was that it was the other Arab states who
you could never imagine separating themselves from Bashar Assad calling for
this action.

MATTHEWS: OK.

Let`s go to the real hot button. In his interview with Matt Lauer
yesterday, the president said the United States and Israel were in an
agreement on the threat from Iran. The president said the United States
had successfully gotten other countries to increase sanctions against Iran.

Let`s watch the president on the hottest issue in the world right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: We have been relentless in sending a message that it is time
for Assad to go, that the kind of violence that we`ve seen exercised
against his own people over this weekend and over the past several months
is inexcusable.

I think it is very important for us to try to resolve this without
recourse to outside military intervention, and I think that`s possible.

My sense is, is that you`re seeing more and more people inside of
Syria recognizing that they need to turn a chapter, and the Assad regime is
feeling the noose tightening around them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: The big question I have got is what we`re going to do here.
David Sanger of "The New York Times" -- what are we going to do? Israel
keeps sending signals. Bibi Netanyahu we know is a hawk. Ehud Barak is a
smart hawk. He seems to be reasonable Hawk.

Is Israel basically feeling it has to do something this spring?

SANGER: Israel says that it cannot allow Iran to get into what Mr.
Barak calls a zone of immunity, a place where the nuclear facilities are
down so deep they could never strike them militarily.

The United States has a different view of where that zone begins and
where it ends. So, the U.S. position is there`s a lot more time, and a lot
of other options. Remember what else hit Iran in recent times: Stuxnet,
the computer worm, sanctions that are just now beginning to be felt in the
big way, and the U.S. argument is --

MATTHEWS: And the assassinations, regime --

(CROSSTALK)

SANGER: The assassinations of the scientists which people assumed
was Mossad and that`s probably a pretty good assumption.

So those have all been underway. And the U.S. has said give this a
little bit of time to work, particularly the cutoff of revenues to the
Iranians.

MATTHEWS: Is there any way -- I want to go to you on this. Is there
any way to know who is right -- our intelligence or the Israelis -- how
much time we both have?

NEERA TANDEN, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Well, in a sense, I
think they are both right. I think David`s point it, the issue is that the
American military has greater capabilities and can -- has a longer time.

MATTHEWS: We`ve got the bunker buster. We can go deeper.

TANDEN: We can go deeper than they can. So, that`s the issue.

Now, we are two different countries with two different national
security interests. Although as the president said yesterday, our
interests are very aligned with Israel`s, and that`s the incredibly
important point.

But I think the issue in terms of time horizons, is we have different
times because we have different capabilities.

MATTHEWS: Yes, one big difference, in terms of consequences. We`re
exposed all around the world, the United States.

If the Iranians decide to strike back, they have an amazing virgin
forest around the world they can strike at us. They can go after
missionaries, businesspeople, tourists, anywhere in the world. They can
strike with all kinds of weaponry. It`s very asymmetric.

But if they decide to go to war with us for a long period of time,
they can do a lot of things against us. I always one to ask one question:
Is there something worse than Iran having nuclear weapons? Think about
that. And if there isn`t anything worse, strike `em.

Anyway, thank you, David Sanger. Thank you, Neera Tanden. It`s
easier for me to say.

Up next, millions of Americans watched the Super Bowl last night. I
think millions and millions of people probably. But is it one television
ad that is causing a stir? Look at it.

This is the big one. This is the one to watch. Clint Eastwood`s.

And this is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Wow, a former White House intern is coming forward a half
century later, actually, describing an affair she has said she had with
President John F. Kennedy. In a new book, Mimi Alford describes in some
detail her 14-month alleged affair with Kennedy, whom she always referred
to as Mr. President, even while involved in that intimate relationship.

Mrs. Alford, by the way, has given an exclusive interview with NBC`s
Meredith Vieira. And actually, I`m going to be part of that segment on
NBC`s "Rock Center." Catch it on Wednesday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern. It
should be interesting.

And we`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINT EASTWOOD, ACTOR/DIRECTOR: It`s halftime. Both teams are in
their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the
second half. It`s halftime in America, too.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, welcome back to HARDBALL.

Those are the first few seconds of a Super Bowl ad that lit a fire in
the political world. It was a two-minute ad airing in a prime commercial
slot in which (INAUDIBLE) Clint Eastwood says Detroit is showing the rest
of the country how to make a comeback. Here`s more.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EASTWOOD: All that matters now is what`s ahead. How do we come from
behind? How do we come together and how do we win?

Detroit is showing us it can be done. And what`s true about them is
true about all of us.

This country can`t be knocked out in one punch. We get right back up
again. And when we do, the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.

Yes. It`s halftime, America. And our second half is about to begin.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I like that guy.

Anyway, "National Journal" headline summed up one take on the ad.
Clint Eastwood makes Obama`s day. While Republican strategist Karl Rove
says he was offended by the ad, Obama`s strategists praised the ad and the
CEO of Chrysler says the ad has zero political content, viewed through a
political lens however.

And the question is could the ad that celebrates America`s resilience
be seen as pro-Obama? That`s our big question tonight.

Mark McKinnon is vice chair of Hill & Knowlton Strategies. That`s a
P.R. firm, and was advertising director for President Bush`s 2000 and 2004
presidential campaign.

So, Mark, you`re on all alone, except for me. And the question is

MARK MCKINNON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, we all like it.

MATTHEWS: -- when I saw the ad, I had a unique response to it. But
what was yours?

MCKINNON: Well, first of all, I thought it was a great ad. It
reminded me of "Morning in America," one of the great political ads of all
time.

But it`s great because it invokes optimism, it invokes confidence and
it invokes hope. But I didn`t see it particularly political as being one
side or the other. I mean, it`s like a Rorschach inkblot test. People
read into it what they wanted to, but I could easily make an argument that
it could be a Romney ad. You just say shift it up a little bit and say
it`s halftime, we`re falling behind and we need to put in a new
quarterback.

So, I think it`s just as easy that you can make that a Romney or
Republican version.

MATTHEWS: You know, I`m with you completely, Mark. I think we`re
being both very nonpolitical. I heard it, I thought, well -- because -- I
guess because I know Clint Eastwood is a libertarian and a Republican,
pretty much to the right, that he was --

MCKINNON: Right. Exactly.

MATTHEWS: Well, who knows? He obviously was getting -- is working
here. But, you know, I agree with you. I think it was a Rorschach test.

Anyway, today on FOX News Channel, Karl Rove said he was offended by
the Chrysler ad and said it`s a political payback for the auto bailout.
You would expect a nefarious from him. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: This is a sign of what happens
when you have the government getting in bed with big business, like the
bailout of the auto companies. They begin to -- the leadership of the auto
companies feel they need to do something to repay their political patrons.
I was frankly offended by it.

I`m a huge fan of Clint Eastwood. I thought it was an extremely well
done ad, but it`s a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style
politics and the president of the United States and his political minions
are in essence using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising, and the
best wishes of the management which is benefited by getting a bunch of our
money that they`ll never pay back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Chicago-style politics. He won`t quit.

Anyway, Team Obama praised the Chrysler ad. Dan Pfeiffer, the White
House communications director, tweeted, quote, "Saving the American auto
industry, something Eminem and Clint Eastwood can agree on." In a
reference to Eminem`s pro-Detroit ad in last year`s Super Bowl campaign.

Anyway, campaign manager David Axelrod for Obama tweeted, quote,
"powerful spot. Did Clint shoot that or just narrate it?"

And Bill Burton, a former White House aide who co-founded the pro-
Obama super PAC Priorities USA, tweeted, "Clint Eastwood #winning."

Anyway, number one. Anyway, what do you make of this? I think it`s
both ways. And I just -- isn`t it amazing to listen to Rove find some
nasty way of describing this thing? He actually calls this some sort of
payback for the bailout and that`s why they -- where does he think these
conspiracy meetings are held anyway?

MCKINNON: Well --

MATTHEWS: You don`t want to comment on that?

MCKINNON: Well, I break with Karl on this. I think he`s reading too
much into it.

But the key to the ad that makes it so powerful is it has a really
optimistic vision to the future. That`s what`s key to politics and key to
winning. And that`s what John Kerry never got as a challenger. That he
always painted a really bleak vision of the future. This is something that
George W. Bush always understood.

And that is that you can`t go out and campaign whether you are the
challenger or the incumbent and say the future looks terrible. Follow me.

MATTHEWS: You know, Dukakis and Al Gore when he ran in 2000 and
Kerry, you`re right -- I don`t know what`s in the Democrats` blood stream
that makes them do that.

Anyway, in 1984, Ronald Reagan evoked exactly what you are talking
about, Mark, in that America on the road to recovery ad, the famous ad
known as "Morning in America." Let`s watch and listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: It`s morning again in America. Today, more men and women
will go to work than ever before in our country`s history.

It`s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President
Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever
want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: That was the great voice of Hal Riney, brilliant
advertising.

Mark, why don`t Democrats put ads like that on television? What is
it? What is it? Go ahead.

MCKINNON: You know, I went to kiss the ring of Hal Riney because he
was such a god in our business and I went lunch with him. And over lunch,
he had four whiskeys and smoked a pack of cigarettes. I realized where he
got that great voice.

MATTHEWS: Well, I`ll tell you what? That`s optimism. I don`t know
if that would still be healthy.

Anyway, it`s great having you on, Mark McKinnon. And who is going to
have the best ads this year? On the political side?

MCKINNON: Well, I think both -- the team that produces ads like
Clint Eastwood last night is the team that`s going to win. I`ll tell you
that.

MATTHEWS: And will optimism sell? Is the American people down so
much that --

(CROSSTALK)

MCKINNON: It always sells. Like I said, whether you are the
challenger or incumbent, you have got to paint an optimistic future and a
vision for the future that is better. And whoever does that best and most
persuasively will win this election.

MATTHEWS: OK. Well, that`s why you`re working for Hill & Knowlton.
The great Mark McKinnon serving Hill & Knowlton, as they must be served.

When we return, "Let Me Finish" with President Obama`s re-election
campaign strategy. It`s going to be, I think, about how he`s doing, not
who is running against him. I disagree with a lot of this talk about it
matters who he is running against. I think it`s all about him and he can
still win or lose this campaign.

You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

Lots of talk tonight about this new poll number that shows Obama six
points ahead of Romney in a face-off. Well, I`d be careful with that
number. People love talking about elections being a choice. The way you
hear it, oftentimes, is it`s not going to be a choice between the president
and the Almighty, but one between the president and an alternative.

Well, in other words, it`s going to be better to beat someone than to
beat the ideal.

Well, if that prospect gets you, the voter, through the night? Fine.
If that prospect gets you the president and those working for his re-
election through the night? You better stay awake a little bit and listen
to this:"

Elections are about the incumbent. Think of a Major League Baseball
game and you are the manager. You keep your eye on the pitcher and see how
he`s doing.

If he`s throwing hard, mixing up the pitches and getting them out,
you keep him in. If he starts letting the other side scatter some hits,
you get a little jittery. If he gives up some runs, you get him warming up
in the bull pen. If you he looks like he just can`t get the other side
out, you walk out there and take the ball from him.

And that`s what good managers do. And we American voters are good
managers. We don`t keep pitchers in the game when they can`t finish the
job.

Look at Gerald Ford. Look at the senior George Bush. We yanked
them. We liked them. But when it came to it, we had no problem pulling
them.

Why? Because it`s not about who is in the bull pen. It`s not how
hard that guy out there is throwing. It`s about the guy on the mound, the
pitcher in the game. If we figure he`s got the stuff to get the job done,
we keep him in. If not, we don`t.

So, it`s not about Romney or anyone else who gets to run against the
president. It`s about the president. And just as we`ve said all along
that Romney solved his Newt problem and now he`s got to solve his Mitt
problem, the president has to meet his own challenge, before focusing on
Romney.

President Obama will be re-elected if he convinces a majority of the
voters that he`s got the stuff to finish the job and get this country up
there on its feet again. Will he get us back to the kind of economy, the
kind of employment outlook we had before all that happened in the last
administration? People want it back.

If Obama looks like he`ll get it back for us, he`ll get re-elected.
If he looks like he can`t, he won`t, and the country will put a reliever
like Romney in there. It`s not about the challenger or the matchup. It`s
about the incumbent.

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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