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updated 2/17/2012 1:17:13 PM ET 2012-02-17T18:17:13

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Stag party. Let`s play HARDBALL. Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. Leading off tonight: The missing witnesses. How do you hold a hearing on birth control without anyone on the panel who might actually give birth? Well, that`s a question Democratic women were asking today when a House hearing on the HHS contraceptive rule led by Republicans included no women this morning as witnesses. The Republicans argue this is not about women`s health, it`s still about religious liberty, even if it`s not about churches or even religious institutions anymore. Both sides think they`re holding the winning hand on this fight, so it`s not going to go away. Voter city -- Michigan is the first of Mitt Romney`s many home states, you know, the state he assumed would propel him to a big super-Tuesday. But right now, every poll there shows Rick Santorum with the lead in Michigan. And the quiet talk has now begun. If Romney can`t win there, he may not be able to win anywhere. So then what? Santorum becomes the nominee? Really? Well, Romney will try to do to Santorum what he did to Newt Gingrich in Iowa and Florida, carpet bomb him with negative ads. But Santorum may have the money to fight back this time against Romney`s Dresden-style strategy. And not only doesn`t Mitt Romney know how to talk like a conservative, he doesn`t even know how to talk to conservatives. And commentators on the right now are wondering, Does he even want to talk to us? Finally, "Let Me Finish" with those missing witnesses today, women. We begin with the gender war on Capitol Hill today. It broke out today. U.S. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia walked out of today`s hearing. We want to talk to her first. Tempers flared, by the way, at that House Oversight hearing called "Lines crossed, separation of church and state." That was the name of the hearing. Has the Obama administration trampled on freedom of religion and freedom of conscience? That title alone will give you the tone of the hearing. New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney criticized both the promise -- the premise of the hearing and the makeup of that all-male panel. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. CAROLINE MALONEY (D), NEW YORK: Where are the women? When I look at this panel, I don`t see one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning. Where are the women? Of course, this hearing is about rights, contraception and birth control. It`s about the fact that women want to have access to basic health services, family planning, through their health insurance plan. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, U.S. Congresswoman, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia took on committee chairman Darrell Issa on the witnesses listed there. And watch this picture, by the way, of an all-male panel there. Let`s listen to the delegate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (D), DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: One thing, Mr. Chairman. We`ve been denied the right to have a witness... REP. DARRELL ISSA (R-CA), OVERSIGHT & GOVT. REFORM CMTE. CHAIR: The gentlelady... NORTON: I want to have... ISSA: The gentlelady... NORTON: ... the right to make a parliamentary inquiry! (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, the chairman of that committee, Issa, Darrell Issa from California, who`s a Republican, defended the witness selection, all males on that first panel. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ISSA: Since only yesterday, two days after what would be the appropriate time for the minority to name their witness request, we were given it. With the short notice, final schedule was determined based on the unusual circumstances of the minority not in a timely fashion submitting any valid request for any witnesses, even though on a daily basis, actually multiple times per day, the majority requested that. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, also with us now is U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California, who boycotted the hearing altogether. Let`s hear first from Delegate Norton, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who`s a friend of mine. Thank you, Congresswoman, for coming on. You were very strong today. When did you find out that they were going to be an -- it was almost like one of those cigarette hearings, where all the leaders of the tobacco companies shows up. We`re showing a picture of it now, all the men there. What -- when did you first realize this was going to be such a deadly visual for the guy holding these hearings?

NORTON: I realized it -- I realized it this morning when I saw our witness as she was there in the audience. We wanted her to be added to the panel. Here we had five men sitting across the line. To have one woman sitting there, apparently, the committee thought, would really have turned the tables on what they wanted to do because that woman would have talked about why contraceptives were important. And she would have told a very poignant story. Instead, they wanted to relitigate the health care law. They wanted to make this a hearing in the abstract on religious liberty, when, of course, there would have been no hearing in the first place except for the controversy about religious liberty and contraceptives last week, which by the way, we settled to the satisfaction of most of the American people. You can`t get a better win-win than what the president found. You can get your contraceptives. You won`t have to pay for them any more than you would have had if you hadn`t worked for a religious-affiliated institution.

MATTHEWS: Right.

NORTON: And the religious-affiliated institution doesn`t have to pay for it. I mean, what more could we have done?

MATTHEWS: I thought -- by the way, I happen to agree with you, which makes it easy to do this show tonight. I thought the issue was resolved last Friday to the satisfaction of people like Catholic Charities and Sister Keehan, who are most active in the good work of religious organizations. Let me go to Congresswoman Speier about this. You`ve been very dramatic on this topic. You didn`t show up at all today. Tell me about when you got the word that Darrell Issa was going to run an all-male panel of witnesses on an issue of birth control.

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), CALIFORNIA: You know, Chris, it reminded me of what happened when we had an all-male U.S. Senate talking about sexual harassment with Anita Hill.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SPEIER: That`s when American women just blew up and that was...

MATTHEWS: That was the year of the woman. SPEIER: ... the year of the woman for...

MATTHEWS: Right. SPEIER: ... elections across this country, more women elected that year than have been elected in all the years since then. But more importantly, you know, there was -- this was a sham hearing. It was a biased hearing. And there was not the opportunity to have a balanced discussion on it. And you know what else is very interesting? No one talked about vasectomies. Are vasectomies going to continue to be covered? It`s not an issue that the Catholic church wants to raise. But that`s a form of contraception. That`s covered.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, while you`re still on -- this issue, I think men need a -- look, I think men and women have the same values. I think they have different perspectives. I think that`s fair. And women, who can bear children, who can get pregnant, especially when they don`t want to get pregnant, and live in that fear sometimes -- talk about that, why men ought to hear from women on this topic of contraception, ought to hear from it a lot. Tell me what -- just give me the basics here because I think that the Republicans and a lot of the men on the Democratic side don`t get the perspective women offer, deserve, and are now demanding. (CROSSTALK)

NORTON: ... the women were necessary, too, because when they denied us the right to have a woman on the panel, they then added -- this was my parliamentary point. They added two witnesses to the panel, to the second panel. Both of these were women, and they were from religiously-affiliated institutions, which, of course, reinforced the men on that second panel. And they were dealing with the optics then. They weren`t dealing with the issue.

MATTHEWS: Yes. I got you. Congresswoman Speier, your thoughts about it. Give me some education, why women -- let`s do it again and do it dramatically, if you wish. You`ve been involved in this as a woman. You know all about these issue of abortions rights and things like that. Men are involved secondhand. Or I`m not sure I`m going to say it right, but women can give birth, men can`t. That`s as simple as it gets, I gets.

SPEIER: Well, that`s right. And I think what is most disturbing is that, you know, contraception is something that is used by women for many purposes besides not getting pregnant. It`s used for purposes of endometriosis. It`s used for uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, for acne, for migraine headaches. And it`s almost like we are treated like we`re chattel when this issue comes up, that somehow, it is going to be given to us. We`re being told what we can do and what we can`t do. And I must say, I`m a deeply devout Catholic. I lector (ph) in my local parish. I respect the church`s position on this issue. But once you become secular in your activities -- the largest health care system in this country, Ascencion (ph), has a venture capital fund. Now, where do we go? Do we allow the venture fund to also espouse their beliefs and prevent their employees...

MATTHEWS: I know.

SPEIER: ... from accessing contraception?

MATTHEWS: I`m with you. I don`t know if it matters, but I am with you. And I`m so glad liberal Catholics are speaking out. Earlier today -- people like yourself. Earlier today, Andrea Mitchell asked Rick Santorum, who`s running for president -- his benefactor, rather, Foster Friess, about his candidate`s comments on social issues, including women in combat and contraception. Now, this is going to rock some people, what you hear now. You probably haven`t heard it in 50 years. Now you`re going to hear it from Rick Santorum`s big guy here, Foster. Let`s listen to something from the old days here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) FOSTER FRIESS, RICK SANTORUM SUPPORTER: And this contraceptive thing, my gosh, it`s so -- it`s such inexpensive. You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptions. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn`t that costly. ANDREA MITCHELL, HOST, "ANDREA MITCHELL REPORTS": Excuse me, I`m just trying to catch my breath from that. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, I can`t catch my breath. I don`t think that was ever the thought process among thinking people, but he said the old days, Congresswoman Norton. What do you make of a guy who`s actually a big shot, backing a guy for president, who talks like he`s -- who? Who is this guy?

NORTON: Well, you know, the last thing women need is to be insulted on this issue. Most women use contraceptives, even most Catholic women. We ought to tread lightly when we`re talking about something that is important to women`s health as contraceptives. But the way they wanted to avoid the issue altogether is just have no women there. And they expected us to sit there and listen to it and ask our questions in our usual way, when, in fact, it seemed to me we had to make more of a statement about the exclusion of women from an issue that affects primarily women.

MATTHEWS: Have you ever walked out of a -- Congresswoman, have you ever walked out of a hearing before this?

NORTON: Never. And I`ve been in Congress more than 20 years. But never have I seen such high-handed dealings with the other side. Remember, they refused our witness, and then decided who was qualified to be the minority witness. That`s -- nobody does that. No chairman does that. So he overreached in a very long way, and he insulted the committee. He insulted the House. We don`t even -- even in this polarized House, do business in that grossly unfair way.

MATTHEWS: Let me go back to Congresswoman Speier. And again, I respect your views so much on this because of your -- the fact that you are who you are. And I want to ask you this. I didn`t put that on lightly, what Foster Friess said. He is a major spokesman now for -- for former senator Santorum. He`s out there a lot all the time. And he is now representing a candidate, Santorum, who said it would be fine for him if states outlawed the sale of birth control. I mean, you`re talking about a guy from the Cro Magnon era in terms of politics. And there he has his guy up there making a joke about women. I mean, talk about an insulting comment, as Congresswoman Norton -- that was insulting, clearly. What do you make of this that we`re still in a world where this is still going on, that point of view?

SPEIER: Well, the ignorance is really breathtaking. To say that contraception doesn`t cost a lot of money -- I mean, it costs from $60 to $100 a month for a prescription for birth control pills. Aspirin doesn`t cut it. And I just find it appalling that women are being thrown around like they`re pieces of property here. This really is taking us back in time to a point that I don`t think any of us want to go to. And in California, not only has this issue been legislated -- and I carried the legislation in California -- we`ve actually had a Supreme Court decision that said to Catholic Charities that when you are secular in activities, there is an overriding state interest to make sure that women do have the kinds of benefits relative to health care and that they are not discriminated against because of their gender.

MATTHEWS: Yes. I think it`s one of those "Render under Caesar, render unto God" things. I think the line is pretty clear. I think it was clarified -- as Eleanor Norton pointed out a moment ago, Congresswoman Norton, it was clarified on Friday. The line`s been drawn and I think it`s been done fairly. By the way, if any woman votes for Rick Santorum after that comment today by his number one spokesman, I`ll be surprised. I think if he doesn`t fix this thing within a few hours -- I`m talking to you, Rick Santorum. if you don`t fix this in a couple hours, you can kiss off all the women voters in this country, and a lot of men. Anyway, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of my District of Columbia neighborhood, thank you both for coming on. And U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier, thank you for coming on. Coming up here on HARDBALL: Michigan`s the first of Mitt Romney`s many home states. You know, he`s five homes he`s claiming right now. He`s like McCain, who couldn`t even count his homes. Anyway, getting much of his home state love? No. "Voter city" is not liking Romney right now. And if Romney can`t win in Michigan, Republicans will be looking around for that big, fat panic button and start pushing it. You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, President Obama`s leading each Republican contender now in a new Fox poll of 10 swing states across the country. The swing states are grouped by region. Nevada and New Mexico and Colorado in the west, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania in the Midwest, and Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in the south. Well, let`s check the HARDBALL "Scoreboard." Overall, the president leads Mitt Romney by 8 points in those 10 states, and he leads Santorum by 9. But when you break it down by region, President Obama does best in those southern states, where he leads Romney by a whopping 14 points, 51- 37. He leads Santorum by 18, 53 to 34. In those western states, Obama`s up by 7 over Romney, 47-40. He has a 14-point lead over Santorum, 51-37. But things are much tighter in the Midwest. Look here, where Romney`s within 1 point of the president, 42-41. I`ve said it for a long time, Scranton to Oshkosh -- watch that crescent. And Santorum manages to tie him there in that area at 43. That`s where it`s happening. We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Do you need more evidence of the Republican Party that it refuses to fall in love or in line with Mitt Romney? Look at what`s going on there. If there was a state most suited for an easy Romney victory, Michigan would be it. He was born and grew up there. His father served as governor there, even called his campaign event there yesterday a "Welcome home" rally. He won the state in 2008. All that, and yet by all accounts, Mitt Romney is going to have one of his hardest fights so far this year right there in Michigan. The latest polls have him losing to Rick Santorum in Michigan, believe it or not. What does it mean if the front-runner in the race can`t pick up his home state? Is it time for Republicans to start panicking? Howard Fineman is an MSNBC political analyst and the editorial director for the Huffington Post. And Joe Klein`s a columnist for "Time" magazine. First of all, two heavyweights here, let me take advantage of your brains. I`m sorry, let`s go to a poll that puts it in perspective. Take a look at the latest poll in Michigan from "The Detroit News" and WBIV. Santorum now beats Mitt Romney -- And this is a very respected poll -- 4 points among likely primary voters. So first to you, Howard. This is something I didn`t expect, but it`s a Godsend to reporters and anybody who loves this political battle. Romney for a long time looked like the front-runner, looked like -- every -- every time you get around the table with smart people, they say, Well, eventually, Romney`s going to win this thing. You ask everybody, Who`s going to be the Republican nominee? No matter who you asked, who watches politics, the junkies all say, Well, after all the excitement and the -- you know, the kerfuffle and everything and the mishegoss and everything else goes wrong, it`s going to be Romney. Is that still true? Is it still the thought... (CROSSTALK)

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: That conventional wisdom is teetering on the edge of extinction at this point. And it will go away for good if he loses Michigan. That will no longer...

MATTHEWS: How about -- OK. That`s true.

FINEMAN: It will no longer be the default assumption.

MATTHEWS: OK, Joe, take that wisdom. If he squeaks it there by 2 or 3 points -- how can it still be that he`s the front-runner if he has to squeak it in his home state because he -- you know, he does another Dresden bombing of negative advertising the next 10 days.

JOE KLEIN, COLUMNIST, "TIME": Well, we`re in mid-kerfuffle here, maybe mid-mishegas. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Mishegas in Michigan, which means disaster. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: It`s a Yiddishism. Go ahead.

KLEIN: That`s right. That`s what my grandmother called Michigan. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I`m the ham between the rye between you two guys right here. Anyway, go ahead -- in more ways than one.

KLEIN: Or the aspirin between the knees. Who knows? (LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: That will not be forgotten. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: We will go back to that in a minute.

KLEIN: The thing is, I don`t know whether a couple of points are enough. You look at the polling in the Super Tuesday states, Santorum is clobbering Romney in Ohio. Gingrich is going to do well in the South. I think that the Romney campaign has now reached critical mess, because what can he do at this point?

MATTHEWS: What about just going negative again like he did before?

KLEIN: I think that Santorum came up with a pretty good antidote to that with that ad of the phony Mitt Romney going around shooting mud at everybody. I think that that`s become part of Romney`s baggage at this point, that he`s a mudslinger and he has nothing positive to say. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Here he is trying to offset this. He is trying to offset that. Let`s go, Joe. I want you to react to this. Here he is trying to nice it up here. Mitt Romney made a pitch to Michigan residents today that he was their native son. Listen to how he talks about this state where he was born. Again he`s about to say something so weird, like "severely conservative," I sometimes wonder if he`s been reintroduced to this planet from a long visit extraterritorial, out of the solar system. He doesn`t speak our exact language here. Now, listen and watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was born and raised here. I love this state. It seems right here. Trees are the right height. (LAUGHTER) ROMNEY: I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes. There`s something very special here, the Great Lakes, but also the inland lakes that dot the parts of Michigan. I love cars. I grew up totally in love with cars. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Joe Klein, you have been covering politics since I have been interested in it. Look at this. Here`s a guy who has been running for president since he was born and he talks like this in the state he claims to be born in. He was born -- we think he was born here. "I was born and raised here. I love this state," even though he left it rather early. "It seems right here. The trees are the right height." I`m waiting for him to start talking about precious bodily fluids here. What is he talking about? The trees are the right height. Help me. (CROSSTALK)

KLEIN: It`s hard to be convincing about a state, about your home state when you have five of them. You know, he was talking -- he`s not good at geography, Romney.

MATTHEWS: But what about the trees?

KLEIN: You remember when he called corn and the amber waves of grain. It`s just -- it`s part of his -- the big problem that he has right now is that he just seems wall-to-wall phony every time he opens his mouth. And there`s no way of getting around it. The interesting thing -- I was thinking about this, Chris -- is that the one way he could go after Santorum now would be to run to his left on social issues. But Mitt Romney has not run to anybody`s left on anything in this campaign. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He`s so scared. Let me ask you this. He talks about hunting, but then he says actually I never hunted. I just killed small varmints. Who is he, Gabby Hayes? Who talks about varmints? (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Did he see a cowboy movie 50 year ago? Trees are the right height. Help me with that one.

FINEMAN: OK. Well, that`s a Conehead-like statement. (LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: From another planet, the Coneheads.

FINEMAN: That`s a Conehead like -- your trees are the correct size here. (LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I`m sorry. This is a hoot. This is a hoot.

FINEMAN: Every once in awhile, he recognizes that he`s sounding like a Conehead, so he throws in a varmint, like...

MATTHEWS: He saw an old movie. (CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: ... Warner Bros... (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He`s like E.T., who starts imitating characters he sees on TV. It`s strange. Let`s get back to the reality here. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: His problem, Joe, is connecting not with us. We`re the wise guys. Fine. He can`t connect with us. Maybe he doesn`t want to. But why can`t he connect to conservatives and people he`s trying to get to vote for him out there in the people, the real voters on the conservative side? He can`t seem to talk to them.

KLEIN: Personally, I have to give Howard kudos for the Conehead get. That was brilliant. (LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: Thank you.

KLEIN: But the fact is that he isn`t one of them. And it`s really, really hard to...

MATTHEWS: Is he one of us?

KLEIN: ... do something as intimate as run for president. And the presidency is the most intimate office we have.

MATTHEWS: So well-said.

KLEIN: They live in our kitchens. They live in our kitchens. They live in our living rooms.

MATTHEWS: That`s right.

KLEIN: And it`s really hard to do it when you`re not being yourself.

MATTHEWS: The best of our presidents could talk to us as if they are on the telephone with us. That`s right.

FINEMAN: Chris, here`s -- the other thing is that people who know him well and who have participated with him as a leader in the Mormon Church, I think there -- in there somewhere, there is a Mitt Romney...

MATTHEWS: That is real.

FINEMAN: ... that is real. But because he`s been afraid for the last several years to talk about his Mormonism because of questions that some people have, especially in the Bible Belt, probably the area where he could most touch hearts and most testify to his humanity, he`s kind of blocked off from doing because he never wants to talk about it. At least, I give him the benefit of the doubt. I give him the benefit of the doubt. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You`re like that part of the article when you say, on the other hand.

FINEMAN: To be sure. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: We ought to do that more on this show. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Go ahead, Joe.

KLEIN: It`s not just Mormonism, though. A couple of years ago, back when he was governor, I had a couple of conversations with him about health care. And he was really impressive. He really knew what he was talking about. He was passionate on the subject and very convincing. But he hasn`t been able to do that because he can`t run on the things he actually believes in, in this party.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Well, he`s talking crazy now with things like that tree is just about the right height. I don`t know what he`s talking about. Anyway, thank you. That varmint is just about the right size, too. Thank you, Howard Fineman. Thank you, Joe Klein. Up next: Romney tries hard, too hard, to play to the hometown crowd out in Michigan. And it just ends up being, as we say, more evidence of the awkward coming up. Stick around for the "Sideshow," where we find Mitt Romney. You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. And now for the "Sideshow." First up: a change of scenery. Usually, it only takes one late-night comedy host to get us laughing, but last night, "The Daily Show"`s Jon Stewart joined David Letterman to talk presidential politics. Here he is summing up the race last night on CBS. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN") JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART": I don`t know if he`s going to reelect us. I worry about Obama. He`s the only president I have ever seen that begins every press conference with a heavy sigh. Bush was all -- everything was here. He was that kid in sixth grade that gave the book report about a book he clearly hadn`t read. Obama is the kid who has read the book in first grade. (LAUGHTER) STEWART: And he can`t believe you idiots are just getting around to it. (LAUGHTER) STEWART: The guy I feel worse for is Romney. He`s the guy you know is like -- considers himself next in line. DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Sure. STEWART: The guy at the deli who is like, but I`m number six. Like... (LAUGHTER) STEWART: But they don`t like him, the voters. (LAUGHTER) STEWART: He wants to be a regular guy, but he can`t just be himself because he really -- he puts on jeans, but you know he has got his suit pants underneath it. Like... (LAUGHTER) (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Can you imagine a debate really out there between Jon Stewart and Mitt Romney? Now, that would be something to watch. That`s the debate I want to see. It`s no secret that with the Michigan primary coming up in 10 days now, Romney is going all out to make sure we know he`s in his old stomping grounds in that state. It looks like Romney might have actually paged through his old high school yearbook before a rally last night. Let`s listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROMNEY: I`m just delighted to be back in Michigan to see some old friends. Gosh, I have lots of old friends here. Oh, there`s another guy from my old high school. I see another -- and a gal from my -- there are a lot of high schoolers here. And I`m just -- this really does bring back memories. Any old girlfriends here? (LAUGHTER) ROMNEY: Have to be careful. (LAUGHTER) ROMNEY: Ann is not here today. (LAUGHTER) ROMNEY: Don`t tell. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Oh, God. Is that for real? Anyway, Romney can`t bank on the hometown advantage anymore. Santorum might just yank Michigan out from under him. We`re watching those polls. Up next: Mitt Romney is spending big bucks on negative ads out there in Michigan, where he thinks he`s so beloved, but he has got to run negative ads. But Santorum is fighting back this time. We will look at the latest ad war with the HARDBALL strategists. Two pros, two mad men will tell us how this is done. And the big question, can Santorum survive the onslaught, the carpet-bombing of negative ads against him in Michigan? You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BRIAN SULLIVAN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Brian Sullivan with your CNBC "Market Wrap." The Dow surging to its best close since may of 2008. The Nasdaq rising 44 to its best finish since late 200. Weekly jobless claims fell 13,000 to 348,000 and a four-year low. Housing starts rose 1.5 percent last month. And profit at GM came in at the highest level ever at $7.6 billion, good day on the Street. That`s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide -- now back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL and the big showdown in Michigan. Rick Santorum may have momentum on his side, but Mitt Romney has the cash. And his cash-infused super PAC, Restore Our Future, is hoping to eliminate Santorum and the threat from him and his ads like this. Take a look at these ads in Michigan. They`re meant to destroy Santorum.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD) NARRATOR: In a single session, Santorum co-sponsored 51 bills to increase spending and zero to cut spending. Santorum even voted to raise his own pay and joined Hillary Clinton to let convicted felons vote. Rick Santorum, big spender, Washington insider. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: But, today, Santorum got much-needed help. His own campaign and his aligned super PAC announced they are pouring in cash to run ads to rebut the Romney onslaught. Will this early counterattack allow Santorum to remain a threat, or will he be outspent and written off as Newt Gingrich was in Florida? The HARDBALL team is here. The strategists just happen to be two political ad makers who know the game. They`re mad men, really, from the early `60s. (LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Democrat Steve McMahon and Republican Todd Harris. Gentlemen, I want to talk about this. Todd, when you run a really -- when you`re confronted with a guy like Romney, who has got all the money in the world and is out to basically erase you, because you`re doing too well, is there any way to stop them?

TODD HARRIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think to go after Romney, because since -- his record has been just legislated over and over and over again. And people are generally aware of it. So you have got to turn it into a characterological fight and really get after who he is, says one thing one day, says something else. What`s he going to say the third day and the fourth day?

MATTHEWS: Go at his very soul.

TODD: Yes, yes, because the...

MATTHEWS: In other words, Santorum has to go negative. He can`t defend. He has to go on the attack.

TODD: Oh, there`s no question. But you can`t just go negative by saying, oh, well, Romney used to support this, but now he supports this. You have got to cut underneath all of that.

MATTHEWS: OK. There he is saying -- in other words, it`s like the old Jimmy in the movie "Untouchables." You come back with a gun if the guy comes with a knife. In other words, hit him even harder than he hits you is the only way to do it.

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Right. But he is also right about this. It has got to be about character. Mitt Romney`s changing position means that he is somebody who you cannot trust when the chips are down. (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Santorum has held back from that all-out attack on the guy`s soul, I have always thought because in the end he would like to be on his ticket.

MCMAHON: Well, I think that may have been true before, but, right now, he sees an opportunity to win the nomination. The ad that they`re running right now, that Rombo ad, where the guy comes in and he sprays mud at Rick Santorum, is a very, very smart ad because it`s about character. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Before we watch it, why is this a good ad, to make fun of a guy`s negative advertising?

MCMAHON: Here`s why. Because when you`re desperate in a campaign and you begin to say almost anything to win, people smell your fear. It`s not attractive. And they don`t like voting for a presidential candidate who behaves that way.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look. I want to react to this, Todd. Here he is trying to deal with the negative onslaught he knows is coming.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, RICK SANTORUM CAMPAIGN AD) RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I`m Rick Santorum, and I approve this message. NARRATOR: Mitt Romney`s negative attack machine is back on full- throttle. This time, Romney`s firing his mud at Rick Santorum. Romney and his super PAC have spent a staggering $20 million brutally attacking fellow Republicans. Why? Because Romney`s trying to hide from his big government Romneycare and his support for job-killing cap and trade. And in the end, Mitt Romney`s ugly attacks are going to backfire. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow, Todd. So that`s the first time I have seen a guy sort of try to -- neuterized a negative attack coming at him. TODD: Yes, a preemptive negative attack attacking his negativity.

MCMAHON: A blanket shield. No matter what he says, it`s not true and it`s desperate. TODD: Yes. And I told you he would do this.

MCMAHON: Right.

MATTHEWS: OK. So right now, we have got three experts here, right. I want you all to agree with me. Why don`t we all tell the people of Michigan watching right now, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain? Don`t buy any negative ad if you watch it because it`s all just malarkey. You want to say that? (CROSSTALK)

MCMAHON: No, it`s not about -- it`s not malarkey. (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Oh, it`s not. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: See, you guys do this for a living. (CROSSTALK)

MCMAHON: It makes a legitimate point. It makes a legitimate point. This is part of the conversation. (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: These negative ads depress voting. They turn voters into non-voters. You know that is what they do.

MCMAHON: Well, they certainly move voters away from your opponent. (CROSSTALK)

MCMAHON: That`s what they are designed to do. And that`s what they do very effectively, which is why they keep running them. You can run positive ads all day long, and you can do focus groups showing people 10 positive ads. They remember the negative ones every time. (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Well, it`s what -- it`s what killed Newt in Iowa, badly, I mean, it took him from way ahead to way behind. What killed him I guess to some extend in Florida was a series of super PAC ads that didn`t have any fingerprints on them. Mitt Romney never had to say like Rick Santorum says, I`ve paid for this ad.

MCMAHON: Right. MATTHEWS: By running this kind of defensive ad, will you say this guy has got the spray gun, does that help you put the guy`s name on the negative ads against you?

HARRIS: I think –

MATTHEWS: Does it matter, you think? HARRIS: I think that Mitt is being tarred with his super PAC`s ads as much as everybody else is being tarred with theirs. In fact, the voters have no idea who -- you know, what a super PAC is. MATTHEWS: But they know it`s a Romney ad. HARRIS: Sure. MATTHEWS: Here it is. Look at an ad from yesterday with Romney talking about his Michigan roots. So, this is positive. Well, let`s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I grew up in Michigan. It was exciting to be here. I remember going to the Detroit auto show with my dad.\ (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, here`s a full screen image of that photo of Romney you just saw with his father there so you can get a better look. Think Progress and Daily Kos point out today that photo was not taken at the Detroit auto show, as the ad writers just said. It`s at the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York City. Actually, I was at that. And this thing, progress map, shows the fairgrounds with the elder Romney actually seems t be pointing to is that the car down there. It`s a Chrysler. Does this matter that there`s technical dishonesty in these ads? Saying there`s part of me growing up in Detroit, but actually as part of me being a rich kid, being in New York at the world`s fair.

HARRIS: I don`t think that`s going to matter. Romney`s Michigan roots are not under dispute here.

MCMAHON: Yes, they are.

HARRIS: Well, sure by someone who wants to think that.

MATTHEWS: Why did he leave?

HARRIS: I don`t know.

MCMAHON: After he loses Michigan, he will be like, I was never really from Michigan. He`ll flip-flop even on that.

MATTHEWS: He`s saying he lived in Massachusetts, he lived in New Hampshire, he lives -- has a home in California. How many homes can he have and say he`s from there? I mean, multiple homes, but do they always say they`re from where they have a home?

HARRIS: His dad was governor of Michigan. His dad was head of AMC. I think the guy has got legitimate Michigan roots.

MCMAHON: By the time this is over actually, I think Todd`s right. He`s a legitimate Michigan guy.

MATTHEWS: Michigander.

MCMAHON: Michigander. By the time this is over, though -- I mean, Rick Santorum is nine or 10 points ahead of him. He`s going to beat him in Michigan.

MATTHEWS: You think?

MCMAHON: I do think.

MATTHEWS: You think?

HARRIS: No.

MCMAHON: Because conservatives are going to come out. Democrats are going to come out.

HARRIS: The spot that you showed before the attack on Santorum, the way that it started out, it said how did Rick Santorum actually vote? That was the key line. It`s saying he`s not who he says he is.

MATTHEWS: You know what I think? I think a lot of the Catholic Democrats and independents in Michigan are going to cross over and vote in the Republican primary like they did in McCain back in 2000. I think they`re going to like Santorum. Anyway, thank you, Steve McMahon. And thank you, Todd Harris. Up next, is your guy Marco Rubio is still out in the running for V.P.? I think he looks good.

HARRIS: No. You got to take him at his word.

MATTHEWS: OK. Anyway -- up next: conservatives find Mitt Romney disengaged. This is going to be fun. Maybe it`s because Romney can`t talk their language. It`s like he`s wearing someone else`s clothes. Romney doesn`t even like to talk to conservative commentators. Why is that? Why doesn`t he want to hang out with the guys who agree with him or women who agree with him? That`s an extra problem. This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Remember this controversial ad that aired in Michigan during the Super Bowl?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LISA CHAN, ACTRESS: Thank you, Michigan Senator Debbie Spend-it-now. Debbie spent so much American money, you borrow more and more from us. Your economy will get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie Spend-it-now. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow. Well, that`s part of an ad by Republican Pete Hoekstra who`s running for the Senate against Debbie Stabenow. And that ad was harshly criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for being racist and xenophobic. Well, now, the actress in that ad is apologizing for the role there. Lisa Chan wrote on her Facebook page that "she`s deeply sorry for any pain that the character I portrayed brought to my communities. I feel horrible about my participation and I`m determined to resolve my actions." Wow, she`s likely not the only one who is sorry. A new PPP poll shows Stabenow is now leading Hoekstra by 14 points. We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Does Mitt Romney have a problem with the community of conservative pundits, the actual conservatives are supposedly with him? Report today in the "New York Times" -- a great report -- suggests he does. It reads, in part, quote, "From the television studios of FOX News to the pages of the `Weekly Standard,` the refrain of the conservative opinion machine is virtually the same. Mitt Romney doesn`t talk to us, doesn`t get us." And Romney`s awkward phrasing about his conservative credentials at CPAC didn`t help matters at all.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROMNEY: I fought against long odds in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican governor. (APPLAUSE) (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Jeremy Peters of "The New York Times" wrote that article. And Robert Costa is a contributor to CNBC`s "Kudlow Reports" and the "National Review.` Well, let`s start with Jeremy for the straight report on this. Where did you start picking up on the story that even the pundits were at him like Rushbaugh and people like that, and Krauthammer weren`t even talking to the guy? Or he was talking to them?

JEREMY PETERS, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I think it`s a problem that you hear echoed a lot by not just journalists covering the campaign, but commentators who are -- you would think would be loyal to Republicans and Governor Romney. There isn`t a lot of outreach going on. There`s outreach in select cases, Laura Ingraham for example is a friend of the campaign. Sean Hannity, Governor Romney loves to go on his show. But, by and large, there seems to be a real disconnect with the campaign and these opinionators.

MATTHEWS: Do you think it`s possible, Bob, that he just doesn`t like their company? And I say that because Ronald Reagan really liked the company of Bill Buckley and people like that. I mean, he was very loyal to them, they were loyal to him. He would go to their fundraisers and read the "National Review" openly and make a big deal about it. President Obama is not particularly friendly with people like us on our side. He doesn`t hang out with pundits on the center left or left that I know of. Maybe I`m not been invited. But I don`t think he hangs out with us. So, what is it about his personality that says I don`t like hanging around with people that I am supposed to agree with?

ROBERT COSTA, NATIONAL REVIEW: He has that cool detachment. When you look at the CPAC conference over the weekend, Santorum, I was with him –

MATTHEWS: Was he a fish out of water there or what?

COSTA: Romney?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

COSTA: Sure. Santorum, though, was walking around the college students, the gray-haired activists. He`s going to the basement of the Marriott Hotel talking to people.

MATTHEWS: Yes. I was over there, too. That was a young crowd and Santorum hooked up well with them.

COSTA: He hooked real well with them. Romney was backstage giving a speech but Santorum was mingling with the conservatives. It was a connection with them that Romney just doesn`t have.

MATTHEWS: Let`s speak to your chair. Mitt Romney`s comments about the poor turned into a big campaign gaffe. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROMNEY: I`m in this race because I care about Americans. I`m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If that needs repair, I`ll fix it. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I care about Americans, not the very poor. That`s an interesting comment. Well, even conservative syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer criticized Romney. Let`s listen to Charles.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it`s not just that it strengthens the stereotype of Romney as the patrician who is only aware of the poor as people who clean the streets and wash his car. The real problem here is that it shows he doesn`t have a fluency with conservative ideas. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I find it hard to believe that a guy of his education, Harvard business and Harvard law and all that stuff, he had on the school, to talk about -- to be so unfamiliar with our language to use words like severely conservative and -- let me go over to Jeremy again on that. I mean, just as a journalist, it must seem odd covering a guy who seems so unfamiliar with our idiom -- American idiom, not just right wing idiom.

PETERS: Well, I think it`s political idiom. I think that he`s just not all that comfortable speaking political language. This is a guy who was not a career politician and as "The Wall Street Journal" editorial page pointed out recently, you know, they are happy to help translate for him.

MATTHEWS: Ha!

PETERS: But -- you know, he is a businessman. But now, his business is politics. And he needs to have a better fluency in speaking in the political sound bite or else he`s going to keep getting himself in these traps.

MATTHEWS: That`s true. I mean, talking about how the trees are the right size. I mean, that goes beyond -- as Howard Fineman said earlier on the program tonight, it`s cone head talk. It`s alien coming into this universe of ours. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Go ahead. It`s what you`re here for. COSTA: It`s OK to be square. Conservatives are OK if you are a square guy. They wonder if you are a conservative. I think -- MATTHEWS: So it`s all right to be square but –

COSTA: That`s right. You got to speak the policy ideas. You have to speak the message of Reagan. MATTHEWS: I love it. You can be a little dorkish, but as long as you are a right dork.

COSTA: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: In the October debate, Romney basically defend himself on the issue of hiring illegal immigrants by pointing out how politically stupid it would be for a guy running for president. He`s openly admitted he`s something of a fraud. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROMNEY: We hired a lawn company to mow our lawn and they had illegal immigrants who are working there. And when that was pointed out to us, we let them go. And we went to them and said -- you have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking. And I suggest if you want to become president of the United States, you got to let both people speak. So, first, let me speak. (CHEERS) ROMNEY: So we went to the company and we said, "Look, you can`t have any illegals working on our property. I`m running for office for Pete`s sake. I can`t have illegals." (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: You know, mostly in journalism, we don`t say illegals, as coldly as that. We might say illegal immigrants. We normally say undocumented workers. But his use -- doesn`t he even have like a prep session where he`s told how to talk?

COSTA: He doesn`t seem to have those prep sections.

MATTHEWS: And not offending people.

COSTA: I think conservatives like when he`s tough in debates. But you`re right, when a general election comes around, if he is the nominee and he`s using this kind of language, it could be trouble.

MATTHEWS: Well, I just want to get back to Jeremy Peters. A hell of a column today, a hell of a news item and I think you`re on to something.

PETERS: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: And I think "The Times" had a great story which I read every single morning, the "New York Times." Thank you, Jeremy Peters. After I had a warm-up with some less sophisticated newspapers to get me ready for you guys. Anyway, Robert Costa, please come back. When we return, "Let Me Finish" with the missing witnesses today -- women. You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this: In politics, topic selection is everything. You talk jobs which the president is doing now and it`s a winner for him. You talk the growing national debt, however, as the Republicans are doing and it`s a solid issue for them. Well, sometimes the same discussion can involve a number of different topics. One can be a winner. Another can be a sure loser. We`ll take this issue of religious organizations and birth control. When religious organizations, especially the Catholic Church, were being told to pay for birth control, two issues were prominent: the right of churches not being forced to act against their deep beliefs and the concern of women for readily accessible birth control. Well, last Friday, that first topic ceased to have its prominence when the president decided that insurance companies, not religious institutions, would finance birth control coverage. Now, the issue sits squarely on the question of birth control itself -- should women have it as part of their health insurance coverage or not? Should the government require that they do as President Obama has decided they should? Well, the Republicans held a hearing on that today and their first bank of businesses, including a group of religious leaders, but here on a question of birth control, they had not one of that highly visible group, not one of them, could possibly give birth. They were all men. And not surprisingly, several women members of Congress noticed the selection of first witnesses and demonstrated their objection by either boycotting the hearing today or walking out of it once it started. I get it. Most voters certainly get it -- for the ample reason that most voters are women. Most voters, that is, are born with the possibility of giving birth, a reality that men, including me, don`t. They, therefore, know that life may well include the possibility of getting pregnant -- pregnant, in fact, when they don`t want to get pregnant. And this is the reality that women in politics are bringing to national attention on this day, February 16th, 2012. Not exactly early in the game, but early enough to warn the Republicans that if you want to get the most votes this November, remember where the most votes lie -- with that rather large majority group that you left out of that first group of witnesses today on the issue they know best. 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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