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updated 2/23/2012 11:54:10 AM ET 2012-02-23T16:54:10

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Wars of religion. Let`s play HARDBALL. Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. Leading off tonight: What is Rick Santorum up to? Three stories tonight make you wonder whether Republicans are driving themselves off a right-wing cliff. Story number one, Rick Santorum. Why is he questioning public schools, prenatal testing, contraception, President Obama`s theology, and even now bringing up the old Reverend Jeremiah Wright story? As Erick Erickson of Redstate.com wrote this morning, quote, "We really are a party on the verge of suicide against an eminently beatable president. Republicans are finally starting to realize it, but I fear it may be too late." Well, story number two. Franklin Graham said today that the Islamic world sees President Obama as a fellow Muslim and that Obama himself has, in fact, been favoring Muslims over Christians worldwide. My question tonight: Will they ever stop saying this nonsense? Story number three. Republicans in the Virginia legislator are about to pass a bill requiring that women get an ultrasound test before they get an abortion. Will this add to the Republicans` trouble with independent women? Given all that, plus an improving economy, with the Dow touching 13,000 today, Democrats are feeling pretty good about their chances come November. But as Politico warned today, don`t get so cocky. There`s a lot that could still go wrong and cause Obama to lose in November. Finally, "Let Me Finish" with the hell that the Republicans` negativity has brought on them now. We begin with Santorum`s campaign just one week out from the Michigan and Arizona primaries. Howard Fineman, the pro, is Huffington Post Media Group editorial director, and Chip Saltsman, a new friend of the show, ran Mike Huckabee`s 2008 presidential campaign. Howard, my friend, let`s take a look at a national poll. We know these national polls reflect the latest sort of events, but let`s look, one-on-one matchup between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, latest Gallup "USA Today" poll, Santorum 50, Romney 44. But looking to Tuesday`s Arizona primary in this CNN/"Time" Opinion Research poll, Romney 36, Santorum 32, Gingrich and Paul -- Dr. Paul way behind. Well, let me go to those questions. What are we looking at now going into Michigan?

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what we`re looking at is the possibility of Rick Santorum becoming the confirmed front-runner, if he wins Michigan. And I think the reason for that is that is one of Mitt Romney`s home states. It`s as much a home state as any. It`s the place that he says he learned about America, learned about the auto industry, learned the values of his family life...

MATTHEWS: And the trees being the right height.

FINEMAN: And the trees are the right height. And if he loses in that state to Rick Santorum, who was an asterisk a few months ago, beats Mitt Romney, who`s been running for president actively for five years and -- and deliberately for 20, that`s going to make Rick Santorum, in effect, the front-runner.

MATTHEWS: Oh! Let me ask you, Chip. It`s good to have you on the show. I was reading Gene -- Gene Robinson`s great column this morning. He used a phrase that I hadn`t heard in a while, and it`s really tough. He said that Rick -- that Mitt Romney is basically having a problem beating political has-beens. He refers to your favorite candidate, Santorum, I guess, as a political has-been. I don`t know he is anymore. I think he`s a comeback guy now. I think Santorum, for whatever reason, has found the sweet spot of the Republican right on social issues and is doing quite well, beating the guy with all the good looks, all the money, the family name, the cars, the five homes, and he`s ahead of him nationally right now, as Howard said and we just reported. He`s ahead of the guy who has everything, including those jeans he`s wearing now rather uncomfortably. (LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: What`s going on? "Has-been" beating Romney.

CHIP SALTSMAN, FMR. HUCKABEE CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Well, I think I agree with you. I don`t think he`s a has-been. I think he`s more of a comeback kid story. I mean, look, he got wiped out in Pennsylvania in the `06 election, as did a lot of Republicans. But he`s always been a fighter for those social issues that are important to a lot of people in our party. And he`s always been a very strong spokesman. And like I said all along, most of this campaign, he`s been the happy warrior. And a lot of people are attracted to somebody who knows who he is, what he believes, and not afraid to talk about it.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s talk about that right-wing sweet spot he keeps hitting. Last night on Fox, Rick Santorum brought up the Reverend Wright again -- remember that old tired story -- when discussing President Obama`s faith. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RICK SANTORUM (R-PA), FMR. SEN., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He went to Reverend Wright`s church for 20 years. I mean, now, you can question what kind of -- what kind of theology Reverend Wright has, but it`s a Christian church. He says he`s a Christian. He goes to a Christian church now. Look, I`m not going to question the president`s -- what the president believes in when it comes to his faith, but I am going to question what he`s doing in this country to drive up the cost of energy, destroy this economy, and do so at the behest of a bunch of radical environmentalists! (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: OK, there he is, "I`m not going to question" his religion, which he just did. He trashed it, basically. He went after the religion of Reverend Wright...

SALTSMAN: Right.

MATTHEWS: ... you know, a street religion or whatever he`s trying to imply there. Fine. OK, he does all that. Then he says, Oh, by the way, having not trashed him, which I just did, let`s talk about the environment -- the stuff he`s doing in this country.

FINEMAN: Well...

MATTHEWS: What`d, he just get here? (LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: No, the maneuver that he made around the church issue was positively Nixonian in its sweep.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Yes.

FINEMAN: I`m not questioning...

MATTHEWS: I`m not one of those who believes the Supreme Court is hopelessly communist!

FINEMAN: The interesting thing about this is...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: ... we have a story up on the Huffington Post right now that digs into his background, going back to when he first ran for Congress in the Pittsburgh area. He did not stress religion then. He did not stress the abortion issue. Now, this may have been privately held beliefs, and I think they probably were, but they`re not anything he dared talk about. But over the years, he`s taken on the aura not of a campaigner but a crusader. What he`s running now is not so much a campaign as a crusade. His people think that by sticking to his guns the way he has on these issues, by making these kinds of statements, he`s impressing the Republican base...

MATTHEWS: OK. But you`re not saying...

FINEMAN: ... with his sincerity and his passion.

MATTHEWS: ... he`s faking it, are you?

FINEMAN: No, I`m not saying he`s faking it.

MATTHEWS: No, I don`t think he`s faking it.

FINEMAN: He`s unpacked -- he`s unpacked what was inside and showing it to everybody.

MATTHEWS: So unpack what`s inside. Chip Saltsman, from the first time I heard about this guy running for Congress against Doug Walgren, and using the residence issue against Walgren, saying he was living in Virginia, knocking him off with that charge, which he later got knocked off with, as you know, he was a right-to-lifer to the core. This was a big part of his motive. Your thoughts. Here`s a guy who keeps hitting the political sweet spot, the far-right cultural issues, even contraception, issues that go way back to the `50s and `60s. Is it just a coincidence that what he believes deep down, this old church basic philosophy, is now working for him? Or is he missing a point? Is he smart to keep hitting these points over and over again -- contraception, questioning sort of women`s role in the world today, in many ways, being able to work outside the home, going back to these old verities? Are they winners or mistakes?

SALTSMAN: Well, it`s -- it`s a double-edged sword. I mean, that`s where he`s most comfortable. That`s where his space is. And look, there`s a big part of our primary people that are listening to that, understanding and cheering him on. It`s his comfort zone. It`s his... (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: That women should stay home, for example? How`s that one? Women shouldn`t be going out into the workplace to get -- to win the prizes they don`t need because, basically, they`re needed at home. That kind of an argument that he`s still out there with, is that something that wins or what? Or what? I don`t think it does.

SALTSMAN: I don`t think that wins long-term.

MATTHEWS: No.

SALTSMAN: It does not win long-term. I mean, look, most people in this country are worried about jobs and the economy. We`ve seen every poll say that. We`ve got a little bit of good economic news. We`ve got to build on that. And if Rick Santorum`s going to be successful long-term, he needs to focus on kind of his blue-collar background, not so much on the social issues...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SALTSMAN: ... but about job creation and manufacturing and things that he knows because he`s been talking about it for a lot of years.

MATTHEWS: How many people that have daughters now in their 20s, Howard, like you and I do, think, Oh, some guy`s going to take care of them some day? They don`t have to have a career. They don`t have to work.

FINEMAN: But he -- but Rick Santorum...

MATTHEWS: I mean, that`s kind of ridiculous today.

FINEMAN: OK. To be blunt about it, in the Republican primaries and caucuses, Rick Santorum isn`t worried about that.

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: He`s worried about getting evangelicals and conservative Catholics, male and female...

MATTHEWS: So this is... (CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: He`s worried about blue-collar workers. And I think he figures if he ever gets to the general election, women who would be insulted by that were never going to vote for him anyway. I think he`s miscalculating because I think a lot of otherwise conservative women in the Republican Party are not going to go for a guy who questions contraception, who questions women`s role in the workplace. It`s just too antique, aggressively retroactive a notion to sell even to moderate Republican women...

MATTHEWS: OK...

FINEMAN: ... in the general election.

MATTHEWS: You know -- you know the slogan of this network is leaning forward, or "Lean forward." It seems like his is lean backward. Chip, is that a winner...

SALTSMAN: Well...

MATTHEWS: ... lean backward?

SALTSMAN: Look, I said long-term...

MATTHEWS: I think "Lean forward`s" been a winner for us...

SALTSMAN: ... it`s not a winner.

MATTHEWS: ... but I think "Lean backward" may not be a winner for him. Just guessing.

SALTSMAN: Well, I`m certainly -- I`m certainly on your show, and I think you`re a big winner. So I think it works for you.

FINEMAN: Oh!

MATTHEWS: You`ll be back!

SALTSMAN: Look, if Rick Santorum...

MATTHEWS: You`ll be back a lot now... (CROSSTALK)

SALTSMAN: Rick Santorum, to be successful long-term, has got to move beyond that. Howard`s exactly right. The blue-collar issues that he can really articulate in an interesting way because he`s from a Midwest-type state that`s got a lot of those type jobs...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SALTSMAN: ... he can be successful on those issues. He`s got a strong manufacturing plan that I think`s excited a lot of the manufacturing base. That`s what he needs to hit on in Michigan in this closing week if he`s going to be successful.

MATTHEWS: You know who`s afraid of him is Mitt Romney and his new friend, Dr. Ron Paul, his new "bromance" brother here because here`s Dr. Paul with a new ad out, taking on not the previous front-runner, taking on the new front-runner, Rick Santorum, maybe at the behest of his bromance buddy, Mitt Romney. Let`s listen to Dr. Paul trashing Rick Santorum.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is this dude serious? Fiscal conservative? Really? Santorum voted to raise the debt ceiling five times, doubled the size of the Department of Education, then supported the biggest entitlement expansion since the `60s. Not groovy. Santorum voted to send billions of our tax dollars to dictators in North Korea and Egypt and even hooked Planned Parenthood up with a few million bucks. Rick Santorum a fiscal conservative? Fake! REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I`m Ron Paul and I approved this message. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Why is he out attacking his other opponent as "not groovy"? (LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Is this some deal he`s got with Romney to trash the guy... FINEMAN: Well, I...

MATTHEWS: ... challenging Romney?

FINEMAN: I think Ron Paul`s strategic imperative from the very beginning -- and maybe it`s a wish, rather than a plan -- is to knock out all the other foes of Mitt Romney and have him be the last man standing. But it`s too late for that.

MATTHEWS: So what`s he up to?

FINEMAN: What he`s up to now is, I don`t know, being head of the Fed so he...

MATTHEWS: That`s what I was thinking!

FINEMAN: ... can close it down? I don`t know.

MATTHEWS: He gets Bernanke`s job to close it down...

FINEMAN: To close it down... MATTHEWS: ... the last head of the Fed!

FINEMAN: God knows what Mitt Romney (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS: Chip, you know this right-wing crowd. What is he up to on the libertarian side? Obviously, it`s aimed at young people, all this term, like -- well, maybe young people from the `60s, "groovy" and terms like that -- I mean, he said every word but "neat." (LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: What`s going on here with this ad, this hip new ad of his?

SALTSMAN: I think Dr. Paul`s in delegate collection mode. And he`s trying to get as many delegates as he can to take to Tampa...

MATTHEWS: OK.

SALTSMAN: ... see what happens when we gets there. And then he wants a prominent spot speaking. And I think if he continues this path, he`ll probably get it.

MATTHEWS: So this is for 20 minutes of primetime. Thank you very much. Boy, is it -- but for Wales (ph)? Anyway, thank you, Howard Fineman, and thank you, Chip Saltsman. Coming up: It`s the big lie the right wing refuses to let go. They`re still at it, and guess who`s carrying it out? Franklin Graham, son of the wonderful Billy Graham, and this guy ain`t wonderful, again questioning whether President Obama really is a Christian, saying, by the way, his policies favor Muslims, and then throwing in the fact that Muslims think he`s one of their brothers, a fellow Muslim. What is this about? This is ahead. You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney continue to fight it out for the nomination. We`re talking about that tonight. But a new survey of registered Republicans and independent voters asked, Who should be the vice presidential running mate on the Republican ticket? Well, topping the list, Florida senator Marco Rubio. He got 66 mentions, the most in the open-ended survey. Placing second, Rick Santorum, proving if you can`t beat them, you might have to join them. And third, New Jersey governor Chris Christie. And rounding out the list, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. I don`t think so. We tried that one before. We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. The cultural right just can`t seem to stop questioning President Obama`s religion. Reverend Franklin Graham, the evangelist and son of Billy Graham, appeared on "MORNING JOE" today and refused to say that President Obama`s a Christian. But went further, but start with that one. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REV. FRANKLIN GRAHAM: You have to ask him. I cannot answer that question for anybody. All I know is that I`m a sinner and that God has forgiven me of my sins because I put my faith and trust in Jesus Christ. That`s all I know. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Alex Wagner`s host, of course, of MSNBC`s very successful "NOW" that`s on a noon East Coast, and MSNBC political analyst John Heilemann writes for "New York" magazine. He`s one of our experts. I want to go to both of you, but I want to start with John because you were pretty tough this morning, and I liked it, looking at the tapes of it. Let me ask you this. I have things that he said today that really bug me after discerning through the trash of some of the stuff he said, that really bothers me.

JOHN HEILEMANN, "NEW YORK," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. MATTHEWS: But I want to know what bothered you the most of what the Reverend Graham said this morning, the son of Billy said today.

HEILEMANN: Well, Chris, how do I count the ways? You know, the thing that I called him out on today was for a double standard and for being hypocritical. You know, he just -- we just got that bite just now where he said, I can`t answer this question for anyone. But in fact, he did answer the question. When he was asked whether Rick Santorum was a Christian, he said, Oh, absolutely, of course. And when we asked him why, he said, Well, he`s told me so. And when he was asked about Newt Gingrich, he said, Yes, of course Newt Gingrich is a Christian. You know, he goes to church. He`s lived a life that I can discern that from. You know, and when it came to President Obama, that was the only person who he couldn`t just affirm on the basis of the president`s statements, on the way -- the president`s attendance at church...

MATTHEWS: And why do you think he said that?

HEILEMANN: I -- I...

MATTHEWS: What`s his motive here?

HEILEMANN: I think that he has, obviously, some doubt about the question, number one. He`s clearly unconvinced, for a variety of reasons. Today he said that he thought that President Obama had only taken up Christianity because of -- for political reasons. I think there`s also a -- has been a concerted effort among some on the right and some particularly on the Christian right to advance this narrative about the president. He advanced it even further by talking about the president`s "pro-Muslim" policies around the world...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HEILEMANN: ... saying that the Muslim faith might still claim President Obama as one of its members, although he`s never been one of its members.

MATTHEWS: Yes, that`s the one that got to me.

HEILEMANN: That got to me, too.

MATTHEWS: Oh, by the way, we just checked that out. According to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, "Being born a Muslim in a Muslim family, even with a Muslim father, doesn`t make you a Muslim."

HEILEMANN: Of course.

MATTHEWS: "A person has to make an active choice to become a Muslim."

HEILEMANN: Of course.

MATTHEWS: That`s a complete lie. I should say complete untruth. Here`s "MORNING JOE`s" Willie Geist, followed up by a suggestion by Graham that President Obama is a Muslim by birth. Let`s listen to that very point which got to me. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) FRANKLIN: Under Islamic law, under sharia law, Islam sees him as a son of Islam because his father was a Muslim. His grandfather was a Muslim. Great-grandfather was a Muslim. And so under Islamic law, they -- the Muslim world sees Barack Obama as a Muslim, as a son of Islam. That`s just the way it works. That`s the way they see him. But of course, he says he didn`t grow up that way. He didn`t believe in that. He believes in Jesus Christ. So I accept that. But I`m just saying the Muslim world, Muslim world, Islam, they see him as a son of Islam. WILLIE GEIST, MSNBC: But you do not believe he`s a Muslim. FRANKLIN: No. No. GEIST: Categorically not a Muslim. FRANKLIN: Well, I can`t say categorically. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: See, this is where it gets to me, Alex, my colleague. What really gets to me, what this guy is planting is that same old seed that the right wing has been planting about our president -- and he is our president -- from the first time he emerged as a national figure, that he`s foreign, that he`s exotic, that he`s not one of he`s us, not patriotic, he`s loyal to other people. In fact, he went on to say he`s backing the Muslim world against the Christians around the world, even though he`s killing bin Laden and doubling the number of troops in Afghanistan...

ALEX WAGNER, HOST, MSNBC`S "NOW": Yes. Yes.

MATTHEWS: ... and all that good stuff, working with the special forces. No matter what this man does for this country, they still want to write him out as not really one of us.

WAGNER: Yes, I...

MATTHEWS: This is what he`s doing here. Your thoughts?

WAGNER: I`m surprised he didn`t keep saying Barack Hussein Obama, Barack Hussein Obama.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WAGNER: The point of that sentence was to string together "son of Islam," "sharia law" and "Barack Obama." These are conservative dog whistles. They`re exactly what you say they are, Chris. They`re an effort to paint Obama as an other, this mysterious Islamic figure who was never born here, who doesn`t -- whose presidency is illegitimate. I mean, and it`s fear-mongering, as well, to say nothing of the fact that, you know, Kenyans think Obama is Kenyan because they feel an affinity towards him. So what if the Islamic world thinks Barack Obama is Islamic? I mean, since when did it become so bad to be a Muslim in this country, setting aside the fact that he isn`t? He`s a Christian. I think there`s so much to unpack there. But, obviously, the main point is, it`s an effort to fear-monger around the president, his religion, and his -- his citizenship.

MATTHEWS: Well, here`s Franklin Graham again this morning implying that the president`s policies favor Muslims. Let`s watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REV. FRANKLIN GRAHAM, SAMARITAN`S PURSE: Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama. Islamists are taking control of the Middle East. And people like Mubarak, who was a dictator, but he kept the peace with Israel -- and the minorities, the Christian minorities in Egypt, were protected. Now those Christian minorities throughout the entire Arab world are under attack. And in "Newsweek" magazine last week, cover story was the massacre of the Christians in the Islamic world from Europe all the way through the Middle East, Africa, into Asia and Oceania. Muslims are killing Christians. And we need to be forcing -- and the president could come out and make a statement demanding that if these countries do not protect their minorities, no more foreign aid from the United States. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, I`m all for him on that point, because he`s saying we should protect minorities. And Christians are a concern to us since most of us are Christians. Fair enough. That was a good point. John, when he went beyond that and suggested the president is somehow on this -- his motive here in not acting and not doing what he says he ought to be doing, which I agree he ought to be doing, is that he sides with the Islamists, with the Brotherhood, that he somehow wanted to overthrow Mubarak, that he`s always on the side of the Islamists, that he`s somehow part of the enemy attacking the West. With all the evidence of being raised by a mixed family -- actually, a white family in this country, by his mother, by his grandparents, the way he was raised, the way he came up in our American system, where`s the evidence of loyalty to the Islamist world? Where`s the evidence?

HEILEMANN: Well, there`s no evidence for it whatsoever, Chris. And it`s incredibly sinister what he did right there. He`s saying -- first by saying that the Muslim world calls Barack Obama its own, and then by saying that the Muslim world is slaughtering Christians around the world due to President Obama`s inaction, he`s essentially trying to say that President Obama is in some way implicated in a direct way in the slaughter of Christians around the world. Talk about a dog whistle. That`s not a dog whistle. That`s a horse whistle. That`s standing on top of the mountaintop and screaming out something as directly as you can. And it`s incredibly mendacious and it`s incredibly pernicious. It`s not based on any kind of evidence whatsoever. And I think it`s actually also dangerous and obviously wrong.

MATTHEWS: Well, here`s another shot across the bow against another candidate for president. Alex, you asked Graham about Mitt Romney`s faith, his Mormonism. Let`s watch this response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER: What about Mitt Romney? GRAHAM: I like him. WAGNER: Is he a Christian? GRAHAM: He`s a Mormon. WAGNER: But he said that he`s part of the Judeo-Christian faith. Do you take him at his word? GRAHAM: Well, no, but most Christians would not recognize Mormonism as part of the Christian faith. WAGNER: So he`s not a Christian? GRAHAM: I`m just saying most -- most Christians would not recognize Mormonism. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, actually, a majority of Americans, many of us Christian, do recognize Mormonism as part of the Christian world. I think his definition -- and fair enough, it`s his definition. In this case, I think he does have some wiggle room because it`s his definition of what a Christian is, Alex. He means evangelical fundamentalists. He doesn`t include mainstream churches like Episcopalian, Presbyterian, whatever. He doesn`t include probably Lutherans. He probably -- he certainly doesn`t include Roman Catholics. He includes his notion of born-again fundamentalists. And in that group of white, evangelical, basically Baptist people, that group does not accept Mormonism.

WAGNER: Sure.

MATTHEWS: But that`s his way of talking.

WAGNER: Yes. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: It`s hardly a pollster`s way of talking. (CROSSTALK)

WAGNER: And if you become a Christian apparently after you have been working as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, that`s not a valid form of Christianity either. Look, it`s no surprise, I think, that he sort of distinguished his own Christian theology from that of Mitt Romney`s. There are a lot of -- there are differing tenets, I think. This is not necessarily a good thing for Mitt Romney who has said over and over again, has tried to underscore the linkages between traditional Christian tenets and that of Mormonism. I think it`s very telling that of all the candidates who could really talk about religious persecution, Mormonism faces a lot of uphill battles in terms of being accepted as a viable religion in this country. And Mitt Romney has been uncomfortably I think in many cases silent on the issue.

MATTHEWS: I think we should stop inviting this guy to talk about politics.

HEILEMANN: Yes. MATTHEWS: He should stay out of the -- I love the bookings on "MORNING JOE." I love the guests. In this case, I think this should guy should not be in the public square talked politics. He`s got his own little thing. And he ain`t his father`s son. I don`t believe in some magical projection of blood that makes him a second Billy Graham. There is no evidence of that. Talk about the religion coming through the father, the seed, if you will. It ain`t done too good a job with him. Thank you, Alex Wagner. Thank you, John Heilemann. WAGNER: Thank you.

HEILEMANN: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Up next: There`s four candidates in the Republican race right now . It`s really narrowed down. But that`s not stopping the comparisons with a famous comedy trio. Which ones do you think that might be, the trio of comedians that worked together? You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. Now for the "Sideshow." First up, thank your lucky stars. That`s not what a lot of Republican voters are thinking when they look at the choices for their party`s presidential candidate these days. But for those in the comedy circuit, it`s pure gold, a gold mine, if you will. Hollywood veteran David Steinberg, who had made the rounds directing hit comedies like "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," appeared with Steve Carell on CNN last night. What legendary comedy trio does Steinberg think has a place in presidential politics? Here`s what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT") DAVID STEINBERG, DIRECTOR: This is a gift from God to comedians the likes of which we have never seen. It`s a ship of fools that is -- it`s just unbelievable. I used to have a theory that I took almost through all of -- all the presidencies. It`s like the Three Stooges. You`re either a Moe, who`s in charge, or a Larry, who wants to be a Moe, or you`re Curly, who is nuts and totally just off the page. STEINBERG: This is all Curlys. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, think about it. You know it`s a bad sign when being compared to Larry or Moe of "The Three Stooges" would be a step up for a candidate. (LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: And next up, it`s comparisons like that that still has some people thinking, isn`t there anyone else out there? Well, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is one of the names that`s been floated as a potential late entry to the Republican race this year. Any chance he would reconsider after initially choosing not to take the plunge? Well, here`s what he told reporters in his home state yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. MITCH DANIELS (R), INDIANA: I would like to participate. I would like to help fashion a winning race. (CROSSTALK) QUESTION: ... turn to you? DANIELS: Well, A., it`s very unlikely to happen. And, B., my advice would be, let`s find somebody else. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow. Well, Daniels says his phone is still ringing with requests that he step in. Well, the response, though he says he`s -- quote -- "aware of the noise out there," Daniel remains a firm no on the question of running this year. It doesn`t sound like he`s hedging. And, finally, playing to the crowd. In one of the latest lines of attack against President Obama, the Republican candidates have taken on high gasoline prices and energy policy. During a speech in Oklahoma yesterday, Newt Gingrich related the president`s push for electric cars to -- get this -- an anti-American agenda. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Obama administration is dedicated to an anti-American energy, expensive gasoline policy. This is not an accident. The president has said, you know, you ought to buy smaller cars. Now, let me start with a simple premise that most Oklahomans will understand. You cannot put a gun rack in a Volt. (LAUGHTER) (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: What an asinine comment. So, fuel-efficient vehicles are no answer to high gas prices? Well, the team at Chevrolet caught wind of Gingrich`s asinine comment. And a spokesman for the company had some choice words for the candidate -- quote -- "Fuel-efficiency, not the availability of a gun rack, is one of the top purchase considerations for all new vehicles. If accessories for the Volt are that important to Newt Gingrich, we will gladly send him a product brochure." Well, there`s a reason this latest jab seems a tad desperate. Saving the auto industry is shaping up to be a cornerstone of the president`s push for reelection. And that one is more important than the talking point you just heard. Up next: Republicans in Virginia are about to pass a bill requiring that women seeking an abortion get an ultrasound first. Republicans are fighting the culture wars again, as you can see, and it may cost them independent women voters come November. And they decide the election. You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TYLER MATHISEN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Tyler Mathisen with your CNBC "Market Wrap." The Dow gained 16, the S&P higher by one, and the Nasdaq was down by three. Rising oil prices put the brakes on today`s rally. On the earnings front, home Depot reported that profits were better than expected, at least the expectations of Wall Street analysts. But discounts hit results at Wal-Mart, which missed expectations. Revenue at Dell was slightly higher than estimates, but earnings fell a little bit short. And Johnson & Johnson chief Bill Weldon is stepping down as CEO, but he will remain as chairman of the board. And that will do it from CNBC, first in business worldwide -- now back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Right next door to here -- I`m in D.C. -- in Virginia, nearly 1,200 protesters descended on the state capitol yesterday down in Richmond to protest legislation working its way to the governor that would require a woman to get an ultrasound before having an abortion. Opponents say that legally requiring an ultrasound violates the doctor-patient relationship. Supporters say the ultrasound is a tool for informed consent before having an abortion. Well, Virginia is now the focus of this fight and could join seven other states at least where women are already legally required to have an ultrasound before an abortion. Texas, law down there states the provider must display and describe the image. In Virginia, the bill as written now would require the ultrasound be done, but not that the woman view it. Coming on the heels on last week`s fights over access to contraception, is the Virginia fight another example of efforts to place an undue burden on women seeking medical care? Well, Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and visiting professor at the University of Georgia. Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which is a pro-life political organization. Cynthia, you go first. What`s wrong with this legislation requiring ultrasound -- an ultrasound before an abortion?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA: Everything, Chris. You know, Republicans have been bludgeoning the Obama administration with this idea of government intrusiveness. The Affordable Care Act is supposed to be so intrusive. Requiring contraception from insurers is supposed to be so intrusive. What is more intrusive than mandating a medical procedure for a woman, one that is not medically necessary? What is more intrusive of government than getting in the relationship between a woman and her doctor? I can`t imagine an episode of greater government overreach than that.

MATTHEWS: OK. Marjorie, your thoughts about why it would be important for the congress -- for the legislature in any state to require this ultrasound before an abortion?

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER, PRESIDENT, SUSAN B. ANTHONY LIST: Really, this is a matter of giving a woman more information that she needs to make a decision that`s fully informed. It`s -- listen, these ultrasounds are standard procedure. Planned Parenthood -- Planned Parenthood`s hot line in Virginia says that as well. All that is involved here is saying that, 24 hours ahead of time, that that ultrasound be available and offered to the woman.

MATTHEWS: Offered? (CROSSTALK)

DANNENFELSER: Offered.

MATTHEWS: I thought the requirement of the law says they have to have it.

DANNENFELSER: The information. You have to have the ultrasound, yes, because it`s also not true that there`s no medical value in it. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: No. (CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Just so the person watching the show understands the issue here....

DANNENFELSER: Right.

MATTHEWS: ... is the issue whether this is required by law or not?

DANNENFELSER: It is required by law, the actual...

MATTHEWS: If you win.

DANNENFELSER: And... MATTHEWS: If you win.

DANNENFELSER: That is right, if we win. And the actual ultrasound image is offered to the woman. She doesn`t have to look at it. But it`s not true there`s no medical necessity. That`s why it`s a standard procedure for abortions.

MATTHEWS: What`s the medical advantage in having an ultrasound before an abortion?

DANNENFELSER: Gestational age is key and vitally important. (CROSSTALK)

TUCKER: Well, hang on.

DANNENFELSER: And women have died and had all sorts of complications from abortions when gestational age wasn`t accurately determined.

MATTHEWS: Cynthia?

TUCKER: Hang on just a minute. If in fact Planned Parenthood already does this, why is the law necessary? If -- if a doctor believes that the procedure is medically necessary, a doctor will do it.

DANNENFELSER: Because a woman deserves to see it.

TUCKER: There is no need for a law. But if -- if it is not medically necessary, the government has no business telling a doctor he or she must perform this intrusive procedure, when it`s not medically necessary.

DANNENFELSER: The -- the information is vital. There are all sorts of other standard procedures that are required by government. This one is certainly vital for her health and for her fully informed decision.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you a question, Marjorie. I`m not going to take Cynthia`s side here, although I do agree that this is a concern that people should have about what they`re required to do by any law, why do you have to pass a law. There ought to be an onus on the people that one that want a law, rather than people that don`t need a new law. We have enough laws you could argue. A woman decides to have an abortion. She makes the decision, right? It`s legal, under the law in the first trimester. Why should you get in the way of that decision once she`s made it? If she`s made that decision, why should you require to jump over any more hoops, or through any more hoops to do it?

DANNENFELSER: The reason the majority of women in Virginia and across the country support this is that they believe in that vulnerable spot in a very difficult place, that more information is better. And making -- there are two decisions to make. One decision is a medical decision. One is about the very contentious, very difficult decision about what is actually happening in an abortion. And that ultrasound speaks to that. It`s science. It`s a scientific opinion backing up a medical reality. And a moral –

MATTHEWS: What percentage of women after having an ultrasound decide not to have an abortion?

DANNENFELSER: I don`t know the answer to that. I know –

MATTHEWS: Then why are you pushing the bill that you don`t understand the implications of?

DANNENFELSER: I understand that women -- I know that women think they should have that information. And if they want the information, they should have it. And their doctor –

MATTHEWS: Why don`t they ask for it if they want it? (CROSSTALK)

DANNENFELSER: They are in a difficult spot. Listen. They get all kinds of other information about every other aspect of appendectomy, about everything that`s going to happen. This is arguably -- arguably -- another human being.

MATTHEWS: Do you think abortion should be outlawed?

DANNENFELSER: Of course, I do. I think that`s another human being. But that`s not what we`re talking about here.

MATTHEWS: Is this another way of beginning the process of outlawing it?

DANNENFELSER: This is about –

MATTHEWS: As you see it, politically?

DANNENFELSER: This truly is about giving a woman a fully-informed decision about what`s actually going on.

MATTHEWS: Cynthia, last thought here, because I want to move on to a larger question about women`s health here. Your thought on this. Is this -- what do you think this means, Cynthia, that this is now being pushed, this kind of thing in all these states? And actually -- (CROSSTALK)

TUCKER: It`s harassment because -- it is harassment because the groups who are pushing this don`t want women to have the right to decide. It is extremely condescending to suggest that women have not already thought deeply about this, prayed about it, talked to friends and family before they go into an abortion clinic. And if they wanted more information, they could certainly ask the doctor for it.

DANNENFELSER: Why should an abortionist in the first place do it? Why should information that he`s going to get not be offered to the woman? That`s all that`s happening in Virginia.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about another question. Nothing to do -- Obamacare program, the health care program. The insurance companies are required to carry without co-pay coverage for birth control. Isn`t that going to radically reduce the number of abortions in this country? Birth control? The fact that women -- poor women, working women will get it free and therefore will be very inclined to provide themselves with birth control and avoid abortions? Would that be good for people who want to avoid abortions?

DANNENFELSER: I would say, regardless of the answer to that question, the ends don`t justify the means. And this is actually what this presidential debate, this is actually what this freedom of information is about. It`s about freedom. And for women –

MATTHEWS: So the idea of radically reducing the number of abortions in this country is not a good end?

DANNENFELSER: Of course, it`s a good end.

MATTHEWS: Well, it could be achieved by birth control.

DANNENFELSER: But a mandate to require abortions?

MATTHEWS: Not to use birth control, the availability at no cost will encourage women to use it. It would seem to me because it`s free and made available in their insurance programs. Won`t that radically reduce the number of abortions in this country?

DANNENFELSER: No.

MATTHEWS: It won`t.

DANNENFELSER: Look. A hundred percent access is what women have now, requiring -- mandating that on individual consciences that don`t believe in abortion-causing drugs is a restriction of religious liberty and conscience and it should not be about it. And that`s what we`re talking about in the presidential –

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s the debate we`re having. Cynthia, thank you always for your having -- showing your knowledge and passion as always. And, Marjorie, it`s great to have you on.

DANNENFELSER: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: I disagree with you on this one. But, generally, we`re going to keep debating these things obviously in this country. Up next, everything is going well for President Obama and the Democrats. Right? Not so fast. Just when you think everything is cool, check that gas pump. We`ve got reasons why this election could be very tricky for the Democrats just because the economy and the impact of gasoline prices going up. This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, things are looking pretty good for President Obama right now. But we`re coming back with a couple reasons why Democrats shouldn`t count their chickens before they are hatched. There`s a new phrase. HARDBALL back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back. Last but not least, there`s no doubt Democrats delight in watching the fractured GOP fight. I`m enjoying it. It`s a heck of a good show, by the way, in the race for the Republican nomination. When you couple that with the climbing stock market, almost at 13,000, maybe tomorrow we`ll be there, and lower unemployment rate down to 8.3 percent, from way up of 9 percent, it looks pretty good for the people in the White House. But, not so fast. Here`s a "Politico" headline just out today, "Dems Warn: Let`s not get cocky." Well, Chris Cillizza is managing editor of the PostPolitics.com and MSNBC political analyst. Jonathan Martin -- J. Martin is at "Politico". You know, I hate to waste two big heavyweights for the end of the show, starting ending better that could possibly end tonight with you two young guys. Look, Chris Cillizza –

CHRIS CILLIZZA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: All right. All right.

MATTHEWS: No, no. You are the best. I listen to you guys all the time. I learn constantly. I mean it. Let`s go with this. Now, I`m going to prove you wrong. No. (LAUGHTER) MATTHEWS: What is -- let`s get to this. I know you got it guys, a lot of good things going on. We`ve got the stock market going up. We`ve got the unemployment coming down, I mentioned. What is the thing if you`re sitting in the White House, you`re David Plouffe, the guy with the propellers on his head, the smartest guy on earth we`re told, who the president looks up to, looks across the table to. What`s he most worried about between now and November, Chris?

CILLIZZA: The economy. You know, Chris, this has been probably the best three months of the Obama presidency, these last three months, since the first three months of the Obama presidency in 2009. But the economy is this thing that -- if you ask David Plouffe, if you ask Barack Obama candidly, they would admit they don`t have that much control over how it turns out. So, he is worried -- look, have we had a couple good months? Absolutely. If we have a couple bad months, now all of a sudden, this energy, this excitement, this feeling that things are turning around, now it looks like, well, had double dip, things not getting better.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CILLIZZA: So, he can`t -- I think it`s the hardest thing, too, Chris, it is something that could change the electoral dynamic and something that everyone recognizes you probably can`t control.

MATTHEWS: So, what`s it -- what number does it come down to Jonathan? Is it the number of the unemployment rate, the last report we get in October, which is the October number, right on the weekend that Friday right before the election, that October number better be around 8, is that what it comes down to? Is it the growth rate better damn well be around three, not two? What are they looking at? The real smart guys, as I said with propellers on their head, in the White House -- what are they looking at?

JONATHAN MARTIN, POLITICO: I think they are looking for trends. I think it is not just that final number there the first Friday in November. It`s going to be -- I`m sorry, in October. It`s going to be the trend over a period of months -- summer into the fall -- is the unemployment rate steadily falling? If that`s the case, if there`s real, real strong campaign to make, that things are turning around, I think they are going to be in better shape. If I could add one other dynamic here, Chris, now we are talking about spreadsheets and we are getting wonky into the weeds here, that is -- not just unemployment, but looking at demographics. Uneducated -- those are non-college-educated white voters, what are they doing? Can Obama get a certain threshold? Doesn`t have to be a majority, can reach a certain threshold of non-college-educated whites? If that`s the case, he`s got a good shot to win re-election.

MATTHEWS: And that`s the vital importance of one person, Bill Clinton, probably you in the end, right? And Joe Biden?

MARTIN: Yes, because you are going to see Clinton and Biden spending a lot of time in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, absolutely.

CILLIZZA: And can I add, Chris -- MATTHEWS: Let me go back to the race. Let`s go look at the internals, the big thing they are worried. We are all worried about Europe, but the Greek deal looks like it`s going through that solid. We are worried about the Straits of Hormuz. We`re worried about the Israel attacking Iran, or not attacking, whatever, what the Iranians might do about it. What is the big explosive event that could drive unemployment back up to 9, Chris?

CILLIZZA: Well, I don`t know if it is an event. I think gas prices are -- certainly, look, Republicans are look for something at the moment because if -- they have premised the entire time of their attack against the Obama presidency on the economy -- this is a guy who doesn`t know how to make the economy work.

MATTHEWS: Sure.

CILLIZZA: It`s the famous Mitt Romney line -- he`s never signed the front of a check, he`s only signed the back of one. So, if the economy starts getting better, it`s tough. But I would say gas prices, because it`s so personal, Chris. You know the issues that I think really hit home and are persuadable for voters, is when you go and fill up -- I mean, I went and filled up my gas tank yesterday. It was $52 that`s $8, $10 maybe more dollars than it normally is. That is a potential problem because it is so very personal. So, my guess is that`s what Republicans latch onto.

MATTHEWS: Five dollars for regular, this side, a $5 for a regular -- can he get beaten on gas prices alone, Jonathan?

MARTIN: If -- yes, look. If you`re seeing gas prices up to about 5 bucks a gallon, the stock market being at 13,000, unemployment rate falling, those things still matter. But folks are feeling it in their pocketbook once every couple of days from going to the tank and spending 60 bucks, 70 bucks, it is going to be a harder sell for them.

MATTHEWS: It`s all about Iran -- it`s about Iran, still about Europe. It`s about gas prices. In the end, it is about the unemployment rate and, of course, it is about the demographic figures. We got it all to worry about. Thank you, Jonathan Martin. Thank you, Chris Cillizza.

MARTIN: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: And we don`t have propellers on our head. When we return, "Let Me Finish" with the toxic pollution from the Republicans who want to be president. This is a smeared up campaign, nobody is looking good. This is not a good environment for Republicans to have their convention or have a nominee. You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this: Do you know what a brown field is? It`s what left when an old factory is torn down, the land has been torn up, beaten up, burned into the soil from a long period of having giant furnaces and factories spewing soot and heating up the ground. It`s where hazardous waste and pollution has beaten up the land. Well, the reason I mention a brown field is because this is what the Republican Party`s becoming, a land that has been contaminated by too much soot in the air, by the dumping of endless hazardous waste. Night after night, day after day, the air waves are filled with this lethal, nasty demolition of one Republican by another. Romney`s the worst of them, he and his super PACs. He`s dumped so much hazardous material on his rivals that would take a 21st century super fund to clean it up. Try watching television in Michigan today. You can`t escape the contamination. It is everywhere you go. And what will be the cost? Well, that will be the deterioration and the desire of millions of regular Republicans to become involved in this process. People don`t like getting dirty or living in an environment that`s been contaminated and is covered in hazardous waste. Romney, again, is the worst and he, ironically, could end up paying the most for this contamination. If the normal voters turned off by the foulness in the air, and the filth in the electoral environment, the only people who will show up to vote will be the wild ones, those of most primitive of passions, people driven to vote out of a hatred so deep they can`t live with themselves without pulling the lever against whatever it is that`s bothering them the most, about the times they are forced to live in. But no matter which Republican survives living in this brown field, he will carry with him the polluted, beaten down tarred look of the stricken earth this Republican campaign fighting field has become. Having spent a year or more in this place of televised horror and on-the-ground nastiness, he will look like a survivor from some factory disaster, a fugitive from an industrial horror movie, a joker cackling that life has been good to him, but who no one else can imagine wanting to be in the same room with, let alone want to pick and then watch for four years as their president. Well, 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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