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updated 2/27/2012 1:41:52 PM ET 2012-02-27T18:41:52

Guests: Chuck Todd, John Heilemann, Tyler Mathisen, David
Corn, Major Garrett, Steve Rattner, Jennifer Donahue, David Edelstein

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: It`s in the trees.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews down in Washington. Leading off
tonight: Tree hugger. Nothing Mitt Romney has said during the campaign has
generated more ridicule than his comment that the trees in Michigan are the
right height. So what did Mitt do today in Detroit? He said it again.

Then to show that he was a regular guy, he added that he owns a
Mustang, a Chevy pickup -- and here it comes -- that his wife drives a
couple of Cadillacs -- a couple of Cadillacs. That`ll endear him to blue-
collar voters, won`t it? Republicans like Jeb Bush fear the election is
slipping away from them, and the new NBC News Battleground map suggests
they may be right.

Mitt was in Detroit today to push his new economic plan, but the
optics didn`t help. Check out the scene -- 1,200 people there at Ford
Field where the Lions play football, which means Romney addressed 65,000
empty seats. Who`s the guy`s advance man on this one? Anyway, it doesn`t
help that Romney opposed the bail-out, and that`s wildly popular in
Michigan.

Plus, culture wars. The ultrasound bill in Virginia, not to mention
the recently-dropped personhood bill there, threatens to reaffirm for
millions of independent women that the GOP has lurched too far to the right
on issues important to them.

And the Oscars are Sunday night. This year, it looks like liberal
Hollywood plans to stick it to the right wing by celebrating a French
movie, another one about Paris, and a third one spotlighting white Southern
racism in the 1960s.

Finally -- finally, "Let Me Finish" tonight with a tribute to a great
comedian who was the first actually to mimic the silent movie era.

We begin with the 2012 race and Mitt Romney`s connection problem.
Chuck Todd is NBC`s political director and chief White House correspondent,
and holds innumerable amount of other titles.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: And Major Garrett is White House correspondent for
"National Review." (sic) You poor man, with one title.

MAJOR GARRETT, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": "National Journal"!

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You have a couple of titles.

GARRETT: "National -- National Journal"...

MATTHEWS: What`s this?

GARRETT: ... not "National Review."

MATTHEWS: What`s this? I just got to start on the idiom. Mitt
Romney`s had a problem delivering a large message (ph) as to what he`ll do
for the next five years or four years. But he also seems to have a problem
with the simplest thing of talking to people. He talked about the trees
being the right height, and everybody thought he was, like, Chauncey
Gardiner from "Being There."

Let`s watch him -- then he did it again today. Well, anyway, at his
big economic speech today at Ford Field in Detroit, mitt Romney spoke to an
audience -- well, we`ve got a -- of 1,200 people in a football stadium that
holds 65,000 people, not the ideal message of a thunderous, overflowing
crowd you`d want to see heading into a critical primary, would you.

And incredibly, Romney brought up the Michigan trees again and his
family`s multiple cars. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It just feels
good being back in Michigan! You know, the trees are the right height.

(APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: The streets are just right. I like the fact that most of the
cars I see are -- are Detroit-made automobiles. I drive a Mustang and a --
and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: "A couple of Cadillacs, actually." The very poor, severely
conservative -- English.

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIR./WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, I
don`t -- it`s -- it`s funny. This is an issue -- the campaign itself knows
this is an issue. He has this awkwardness about him. You know...

MATTHEWS: Well, what`s a couple of Cadillacs mean to a guy who has no
cars? What does "a couple"...

TODD: Look, of all things to pick, you know, it could have simply
been a couple of GM cars, you know, or a couple of other American cars and
it wouldn`t have felt so odd, obviously, with the Cadillac.

But you know, we do this too much. And I`m not crazy about putting
politicians on the couch...

MATTHEWS: "I like to fire people."

TODD: However...

(LAUGHTER)

TODD: ... I get the sends that Romney has been uncomfortable with the
message he`s had to sell for the last year-and-a-half, that he is running -
- he is having to run in a way that wouldn`t be ideal for him if -- where
his comfort zone is. I mean, he`s sort of a Republican technocrat, if you
will. That isn`t where he is. He`s a business -- you know, and he can`t
run that way. And I just feel like all of this has -- and that`s what gets
these weird ad libs (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS: Let me try something by you guys...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You are a fair man. Both of you are. Suppose he was
sitting in a boardroom with a bunch of other people in the boardroom, and
he was talking about, Well, we own a couple of Cadillacs. No probably.
You know, "I like firing people." That sort of sounds right among that
crowd. He is really used to talking to people with a lot of money, or
people under him, who are used to the fact that he`s got a lot of money.
And he comes from a lot of money.

Now he`s out there trying to sell himself as Joe bag of donuts, Joe
sixpack. It`s -- what do you say? It`s not translating.

GARRETT: Well, there is and has always been for Romney a disconnect
issue. And there`s two dynamics in this primary and caucus process.
You`ve had notional voters. The notional voters have gone after every
front-runner, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain. The notion of
someone who`s not Romney has attracted them. They fall in love. They fall
out of love.

Then you`ve had the rational Republican voters. Now, I`m not saying
those who`ve been notional are irrational or those who`ve been rational are
only rational. But they look at Romney and say, This is the best we got.
This is, following the William F. Buckley rule, probably the most
conservative Republican who can get elected, not the most conservative
Republican but the one who can get elected.

TODD: (INAUDIBLE) conservative

GARRETT: Even with all of Romney`s otherwise visible rhetorical
maladies, which are whenever he goes off script, whenever he tries this
organic authenticity, it falls...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: And by the way...

GARRETT: ... it falls flat.

TODD: ... we`ve seen this before. I...

GARRETT: But the dynamic rational notional will play out in Michigan
and Arizona. And the notionals will have brought Santorum close, but I
predict Michigan and Arizona will both be a rational...

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s watch...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: ... a little bit in 2000 with Al Gore, where Al Gore was
uncomfortable running...

MATTHEWS: It`s true with him, too.

TODD: ... in his own -- there was something about how he had to run
was not the way he wanted to run. And he himself later admitted it. You
get that sense that that`s what...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... get tired of trying.

GARRETT: Right...

(CROSSTALK)

GARRETT: ... those of us who analyze constantly badger these
candidates, whatever it`s Gore or Romney, about whatever it is that their
central rhetorical defect is, the more they focus on it. And the more they
focus on it, the bigger problem it becomes.

MATTHEWS: Is he walking back into the room and having his handlers
saying, What are you talking about, Governor? Or are they afraid to talk
to him?

TODD: Well, that`s a good question. I think this -- I don`t -- I get
the sense that there isn`t somebody that -- this feels oddly disjointed
sometimes. I`m not 100 percent convinced that there is somebody that goes
to him and says, Boy, you really messed that one up. I don`t -- I don`t
get that...

MATTHEWS: What`s McKinnon do? What does Stuart Stephens (ph) say?

TODD: Well...

MATTHEWS: Those guys seems to be very vocal people.

GARRETT: Obviously, we`re not privy to the most important
conversations along this line.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

GARRETT: But what you have seen and what you can note consistently is
there has not been a noticeable ability for Romney to shift and shift
effectively in this realm.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Well, let`s take a look at this. Governor Job Bush,
former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, who is always the guy on the bench now
-- he told a Dallas audience yesterday, quote, "I used to be a
conservative. And I watch these debates, and I`m wondering -- I don`t
think I`ve changed, but it`s a little troubling sometimes when people are
appealing to people`s fears and emotion, rather than trying to get them to
look over the horizon for a broader prospective. And that`s kind of where
we are. I think it changes when we get to the general election, I hope."

Now, here he is more concerned about the other kinds of candidates
that seem to be -- he also told a local reporter he wouldn`t jump into the
race, that one of the candidates apparently currently running would be the
nominee. I think that`s true. But he stressed the importance -- this is
Jeb Bush again -- of not forgetting independent voters. Let`s watch Jeb
Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEB BUSH (R), FMR. FLORIDA GOVERNOR: It`s important for the
candidates to recognize, though, that they have to appeal to primary voters
and not turn off independent voters that will be part of a winning
coalition.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Now, Major, it seems like he`s more there talking about the
Santorum and sort of the stuff you`re getting from Newt Gingrich about the
moon and some strange things. It`s almost like there`s two guys you`re
talking about, the rational guy -- that`s certainly Mitt Romney -- and the
more notional, the ones who just -- Let`s try this guy, kind of thing.

What a strange campaign this is.

GARRETT: It`s been a strange campaign. I think the most important
takeaway from what Jeb Bush said is, Don`t get the white horse ready for me
because I`m not your white knight. I`m not coming in to rescue...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

GARRETT: That`s the bottom line, most important takeaway from that,
Don`t look to me to rescue this situation if you think it needs rescuing.
Point number one.

Point number two, remember, within the Bush family and that Tea Party
aspect and activist wing of the party, there`s always been antipathy. It`s
grown since 2006. Tea Partiers do not consider themselves Bush
Republicans, hold Bush Republicans and Bush Republicanism, even under
George W. Bush, somewhat in minimum high regard.

So Jeb Bush is not exactly the spokesperson for that wing of the
party. When they hear him say that, they don`t say, There`s something
wrong with me. They are more inclined to say there`s something wrong with
Jeb.

TODD: Well, there`s a little bit of Jeb was more of trusted
conservative of the two, especially now...

MATTHEWS: Well, he`s much more philosophical than W.

TODD: ... in hindsight. But it is fascinating how all of the most
effective hits on Santorum by Romney at that debate the other night were
for things that Santorum supported that were Bush...

GARRETT: Initiatives. Exactly.

TODD: ... initiatives. It was as much bashing of the Bush
administration Republican years...

GARRETT: Right. And so...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Yes, why did you support No Child Left Behind? Because
you`re...

TODD: Why did you support the steel (ph) bailout?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: That was a W thing. I mean...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: We got to get to the map here. This is Friday. Chuck,
you`ve got your new...

TODD: I do.

MATTHEWS: ... NBC Battleground map...

TODD: I do.

MATTHEWS: ... of which way states are leaning right now for the
general election. Remember, the magic number to win the presidential
election is 270 electoral votes.

Let`s start with the Democrats. This map shows the 18 states and the
District of Columbia in blue that are either solidly, likely or leaning
Democrat Those electoral votes add up to 227 right now. So put that down,
227 for the Democratic side as of now, Leaning or likely or there solidly.

Now to the Republican side. This is the red map. This map shows the
24 red states that are either solidly, likely, or again, leaning
Republican. These states amount to 197 electoral votes.

So here`s how the complete map looks right now with red and blue
together. There it is. It`s almost filled out -- plus the eight toss-up
states that could go either way, 118 electoral votes there currently in
those "grab your state (ph)" list there. Nevada, Colorado, Florida, North
Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania -- Wow! -- Pennsylvania and New
Hampshire. Well, what do you know, Pennsylvania`s a tossup state.

TODD: Well, right now. We`ll see if it hangs...

MATTHEWS: It`s always been Democrat.

TODD: But the shift -- the shift in our map for us was the industrial
Midwest, Wisconsin and Michigan. And this is all...

MATTHEWS: Heavy (ph) Democratic.

TODD: ... all as much -- we had both of those in tossups a couple
months ago -- both of those shifts. The only thing that shifted from
Democrat -- shifted the Republican way in our map is Iowa. And part of
that -- and you talk to some folks in team Obama and they will tell you,
you had for six months...

GARRETT: Right.

TODD: ... Republican messaging, anti-Obama messaging sitting there.
And it has taken a toll, and it`s both in public and private polling that
we`ve seen. It has taken a toll. And Iowa was -- it`s not -- they`re OK
with the social conservatism a little bit more the sort of the...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: ... the rural white, blue-collar vote that could be up for
grabs.

MATTHEWS: OK.

TODD: Less so in a Michigan...

MATTHEWS: Let`s go really big picture, really big picture. This
election has always struck me as basically about binary. Keep it going or
change. In the end, after all the personalities and the crazy kerfuffles
with Santorum and Newt Gingrich, when they`re off the table and you have
this sort of sound, somewhat boring, but you know, not scary Mitt Romney,
and maybe Chris Christie is his running mate -- who knows -- to play to the
right, and you end up having what seems to be a solid business mechanic as
an alternative to this more -- well, more charismatic, if you will,
president we have now, Barack Obama.

In the end, isn`t it going to turn on a simple gut decision by most
middle-of-the-roaders, Do you think this guy`s got control of the economy
and he`s taking it somewhere or don`t you? If you don`t, you go with
Romney. Is it still that basic situation of yes or no about Obama, not
about all these interesting characters on the right?

TODD: Oh, I think it is -- I think it`s -- I think we`re shifting to
a choice. I mean, part of the shift here...

MATTHEWS: Really?

TODD: ... is...

MATTHEWS: So you disagree with me.

TODD: ... is that it is shifting to a choice. Look, I think voters
make -- and I think they`ve done it -- in `96 and `04, there were a
majority that said, We`re interested in somebody else, but it wasn`t a
majority yet to fire either Clinton or Bush. They were looking somewhere
else. But then it`s those -- there is still a slice that it will be about
a choice, and I think that ultimately...

MATTHEWS: So you don`t think it`s, like, the pitcher on the mound,
How`d he doing? You don`t buy that theory.

TODD: No. I don`t buy that it`s a full-fledged...

MATTHEWS: It`s an option.

TODD: ... referendum.

MATTHEWS: You think it`s an option.

TODD: Yes.

MATTHEWS: What do you think?

GARRETT: I think the two words are consolidate or eradicate. If
Obama wins reelection, he consolidates that which he has put in force his
first two years, the health care law, Dodd-Frank, the architecture of a new
relationship between the federal government and the American people.

If Mitt Romney, if he`s the nominee, or the Republican wins, they have
all pledged to eradicate the central pillars of what Barack Obama achieved
in his first two years.

MATTHEWS: Well, what will the decision be based on?

GARRETT: Consolidate, meaning do you want this architecture to stay
and grow and thrive, from your perspective, or do you want it completely
wiped away and replaced?

MATTHEWS: That`s true.

GARRETT: Consolidate or eradicate. That is the central...

MATTHEWS: That is the reality.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: ... consequential.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: ... and how we regulate American business. That`s all.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: You know, that`s it.

GARRETT: Consolidate, eradicate.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I`m sticking to my theory. Go in that voting booth, yes or
no. And it`s a hard one. Yes or no. It`s still...

(CROSSTALK)

GARRETT: ... is consolidate or eradicate.

MATTHEWS: OK. We have three different views here.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Chuck Todd. Thank you, Major Garrett.

Coming up: Mitt Romney spoke to a crowd of 1,200 today in a football
stadium that held, well, 65,000, potentially. But the bigger challenge for
Romney might be explaining to Michigan voters why he opposed the auto bail-
out, which saved the auto industry, which, by the way, explains what you
were just talking about, Chuck, that shift in the industrial states back to
Obama because of this stuff, opposing the car industry, except for the two
-- well, the "couple of Cadillacs" his wife`s got. That`s ahead.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, here`s a totally unfair comparison of duelling
stadium speeches and the crowds attending. Take a look. On the left, you
see the packed crowd at Invesco Field at Mile High back in 2008, when
Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president. It was a
full house that night in Denver.

And there on the right, well, that`s Romney`s little crowd today at
Ford Field in Detroit, all 1,200 of them, and a lot of empty seats in that
huge stadium.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. Mitt Romney has a tough sell to make in
Michigan, you might say. He has to convince voters that he opposed
President Obama`s bail-out of Detroit, while at the same time arguing that
the bail-out worked because the president did exactly what Romney said he
suggested all along.

Well, here`s Romney taking a stab at that argument at Wednesday
night`s debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: And I wrote an op-ed in the paper and I said, Absolutely not.
These companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy, just like airlines
have, just like other industries have, go through a managed bankruptcy...

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: ... and to say go through that managed bankruptcy and shed
the excessive costs that`s been put on them by the UAW and by their own
mismanagement. Then if they need help coming out of bankruptcy, the
government can provide guarantees and get them back on their feet.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, just to prove, by the way, that he had that audience
stacked out, they applauded the word "bankruptcy." No audience in America
applauds the word bankruptcy unless they were cued to do it by a bunch of
whips out in the audience, which is what he had going there.

Anyway, Steve Rattner was the leaded adviser on President Obama`s auto
task force, and John Heilemann is NBC political analyst and writes for "New
York" magazine.

Gentlemen, I want to start with -- with Steve. Let`s take a look at
something you wrote in today`s "New York Times," an opinion piece. You
write that Romney`s managed bankruptcy plan, quote, "sounds like a
wonderfully sensible approach, except that it`s utter fantasy."

I`ve heard you say this before, but remind us, what is his plan and
would it have killed the auto industry?

STEVE RATTNER, FORMER OBAMA LEAD AUTO ADVISER: Well, you just heard
him say that he wanted them to go through bankruptcy, and then if
government needed to help on the way out, they could.

The problem with his idea is that if the auto industry had gone into a
so-called managed bankruptcy, it would have never come out because in late
2008, when President Bush actually first gave the money, and then in 2009,
when President Obama did, there wasn`t a penny of private capital anywhere
in the system that had any interest in financing these companies. They
would have shut their doors, laid off their workers and liquidated, and put
over a million people out of work.

MATTHEWS: So the reason the government had to cough up the money,
with the guarantees or whatever, was because there wasn`t anybody out there
saying, I`d love to invest in the auto industry.

RATTNER: Correct. Look, nobody -- none of us, anyway, liked the idea
of government intervening in these industries. We didn`t do it because we
wanted to. We did it because we had to. It was a unique moment in time, a
unique moment in American business and financial history, when there simply
wasn`t any private capital available.

And our view was that that`s what government was there to do, to step
in when markets fail.

MATTHEWS: Let me go over to John on this. It seems to me that the
success of the auto industry right now is really -- I have to tell you, one
of those things that you never expected to happen. I mean, I`m, obviously,
a civilian in terms of the economy out there, but the fact that it came
back so big -- we`ve got three auto companies. We`ve got cars -- what is
it, ford now number one? I mean, it`s unbelievable. They`re taking on the
foreign challengers. They`re doing so well. This is a victory for Obama,
isn`t it, politically?

JOHN HEILEMANN, "NEW YORK": Well, yes.

It certainly is. I mean, Steve makes the point -- and the correct
point -- that there really was -- people try to take this out of context.
It was an extraordinary moment. It wasn`t just that people wanted to
invest in car companies. There was just no private capital at that period
given the state of the economy and the financial system after the near
collapse.

Barack Obama and his team with Steve and others felt like this was the
necessary thing to do. It was a huge gamble in some ways because if it
hadn`t worked out as well as it has, as well as it has, it could have been
a huge political albatross around his neck.

But instead, he has got a great club to beat Mitt Romney with, or
whoever the Republican nominee is, because Rick Santorum also opposed the
auto bailout. He opposed, he says, all bailouts. Barack Obama won
Michigan in 2008 without this kind of success behind him. He won even
places like Macomb County, famous home of the Reagan Democrats, won that by
seven points.

With this as his main calling card, it`s going to be very hard for a
Republican to beat him in Michigan, I think.

MATTHEWS: I think it will also help him in Ohio and Missouri.

But let me show right now President Obama`s super PAC, Priorities USA.
This is its ad here. It`s released this ad, hitting Romney this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, PRIORITIES USA AD)

NARRATOR: His message was clear.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Let Detroit go bankrupt,
bankrupt, bankrupt, bankrupt.

NARRATOR: Mitt Romney, there`s no question he made a fortune from
businesses he helped destroy.

ROMNEY: Bankrupt, bankrupt, bankrupt, bankrupt.

NARRATOR: Romney pocketed huge fees shortly before companies
collapsed.

ROMNEY: Bankrupt, bankrupt, bankrupt, bankrupt.

NARRATOR: Even when the businesses failed, Romney came out ahead.
Are those the values we want in an American president?

ROMNEY: Bankrupt, bankrupt, bankrupt, bankrupt.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Steve, you really have done the country a service
here working for President Obama on this.

I just want to ask you a little secret. Maybe you can`t tell. What
gave you the -- you remember after World War II -- you don`t remember, but
you know from history how all that you had to do was reopen the trading
zones in Europe. That is really was the Marshall Plan was about. Get the
countries that had gone through World War II on both sides, get them
trading again. Recreate what`s already there, the strong financial
structure and economic trading structure of Europe, get it back on its
feet.

How did you know there was still fundamentals there in the American
auto industry that could compete?

RATTNER: We didn`t know for sure, but we did the work that you do.
We treated this like a private equity investment exercise that I had done
in the private sector and my colleagues had done.

And we went in there and we tore these companies apart through due
diligence and put them back together, consulted a lot of experts. And we
believed there was nothing fundamentally wrong with these companies. They
were actually quite efficient. They were starting to make better products.
They simply had too much debt and too many liabilities and frankly they had
some costs, including some for labor, that were not sustainable.

And it was a restructuring exercise. And we felt very confident about
General Motors. We felt pretty confident about Chrysler. But frankly,
they have actually exceeded our expectations. They have done a fabulous
job.

MATTHEWS: Can we do this across the board? Ed Schultz, my colleague,
talks about it a lot. I care about it a lot.

This whole area between Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that I call
Scranton to Oshkosh, can we rebuild American manufacturing the way we
rebuilt the auto industry? Is it big enough, this idea here to go across
the board?

RATTNER: No. Unfortunately, I don`t think this model fits
completely. This was a unique set of circumstances with companies that had
been mismanaged for a long time, that built up liabilities for a long time.

The fact is that we can do better in manufacturing. We are doing
better. But we have to remember that we`re competing against a lot of
countries that are also doing better at much, much lower wages. And so
what we want to do is do the best we can in manufacturing while we build up
in other areas where we have a comparative advantage.

MATTHEWS: One last thought quickly to you, John, buddy.

It seems to me that there`s a number -- if you have a 63-28 advantage
now among the way people look at this -- they love this bailout thing. I`m
looking at the map we just looked at with Chuck. You take that advantage,
63-28, people really like the bailout. And then you take it to states like
Michigan and Ohio and Missouri, maybe not Indiana, because it`s tough to
get, but there`s a lot of states at stake here on this issue.

HEILEMANN: Yes, there is.

And, look, Chris, you remember in 2010 when Republicans swept through
those Midwestern industrial state governorships, and we looked at President
Obama`s approval ratings in those states, we pointed it out as one of the
biggest political problems he was going to have in 2012.

Now his numbers are looking really good in most of those states. It
makes the map a lot easier for him. If he can -- and as you pointed out,
there are a lot of states, not just Michigan, that had suppliers, parts, a
lot of related industrial activity that feed the auto industry, they are
all benefiting from this too. It`s a big part of the reason why President
Obama looks so much better across that region now is the fact that the auto
industry has rebounded in the way it has. It`s a huge, huge electoral
asset for him going forward into November.

MATTHEWS: Well said.

Thank you, Steve Rattner.

Again, a great service to the country by Steve Rattner in bringing
back the American auto industry.

And, John Heilemann, sir, as always.

Up next: Jon Stewart takes issue with Newt Gingrich`s description of
himself as, who would have thought, cheerful. Well, that`s Newt for you,
cheerful. What a guy. The "Sideshow" is next.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First up: strategy session. It may have sounded like the most
straightforward of questions at Wednesday`s night when the four GOP
candidates were asked to simply describe themselves in just one word.
Still, some of us were a bit thrown when Newt Gingrich went with cheerful.

Well, here`s Jon Stewart weighing in on the debate and Newt Gingrich`s
one-word description of himself. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")

JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART": Believe it or
not, the 20th debate of this campaign season. One more, and the debates
will be able to drink legally.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: Mostly to forget about the terrible things they have heard
in these debates.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

STEWART: Newt Gingrich, who throughout the night articulated a world
view that made him sound up like he had grown up during some combination of
the Great Depression, several world wars and had the bubonic plague.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Virtually anywhere in the
world could be in danger at virtually any minute. We`re now looking at an
abyss. All of us are more at risk today, men and women, boys and girls,
than at any time in the history of this country.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

STEWART: All right. After all that, I`m almost afraid to hear
Gingrich`s one word for himself.

(LAUGHTER)

GINGRICH: Cheerful.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, maybe Newt Gingrich`s cheerful because he likes it
when things go bad. Think about that, Jon.

Anyway, next up, what a difference four years makes. Arizona Senator
John McCain may be backing Romney these days, but that was the farthest
thing from the truth back in 2008. And progressive super PAC American
Bridge 21st Century is out with a new ad -- there`s a title -- giving us a
flashback to some of McCain`s favorite descriptions of Mitt Romney when
they were both vying for the presidential nomination.

Let`s watch -- well, let`s watch John.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: One thing I think we should really
give Governor Romney for, he is consistent. He`s consistently taken both
sides of any major issue. He`s consistently flip-flopped on every issue.

On cap and trade, he supported it. He supported it. So he`s
consistent, and then he has flip-flopped.

I haven`t changed my position even -- on even-numbered years or have
changed because of the different offices that I may be running for.

I don`t how to respond to a lot of his charges because tomorrow he may
have a difference position.

I just want to say to Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues,
but I agree you are the candidate of change.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: What`s with that insane giggle he has there? It doesn`t
help if he keeps downright giggling every time Romney shows up to be
inconsistent.

Anyway, up next: In a year that`s supposed to be about jobs, jobs,
jobs, why are the Republicans talking about birth control, abortion, and
gay marriage? They are reminding everyone how far to the right they have
gotten.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TYLER MATHISEN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Tyler Mathisen with your CNBC
"Market Wrap."

And it wasn`t much market to wrap up there, the Dow shedding two, the
S&P was up two, and the Nasdaq gained six. Not much momentum going into
the weekend.

A report on consumer sentiment shows Americans are increasingly
confident about the economy. The University of Michigan`s index rose to
its highest level in a year. Meanwhile, new home sales were off 0.9
percent last month. That decline followed four straight months of gains.

And oil prices up for a fifth week in a row, ending near $110 a barrel
on those ongoing worries about Iran.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you feel? How do you feel, Bob Marshall?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Doesn`t it feel great?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Shame. Shame on you!

(SHOUTING)

CROWD: Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!
Shame!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow. Well, that captures the scene. Welcome back to
HARDBALL.

That`s the Virginia delegate right trying to talk there who sponsored
a personhood bill being shouted down at the state capitol in Richmond the
other day. That bill, which defines a fertilized human egg as a person, it
was tabled, in other words, put aside until next year, in a big win
actually for Virginia Democrats and a big rebuke to Virginia Republicans.

Sex and politics are colliding now in three big states right now run
by three high-profile governors in a way that could tilt the national
political balance. In Virginia, it`s abortion politics with a Republican
legislature overreaching and a Republican governor having to backpedal.

In Maryland, it`s same-sex marriage with a Democratic governor poised
to make his state the eighth to legalize same-sex marriage. Opponents say
they are going to challenge the law and get it on the ballot in November.
And in New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie, who is very well-
known -- there he is -- he vetoed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage and
says he wants to put it on the ballot in November.

At a time when most people thought the economy would dominate all
political fights this year -- remember the economy, stupid, back in the old
days? Well, cultural issues have come creeping back, you might say roaring
back.

And what does this mean for 2012 politics? Let`s find out.

Jennifer Donahue is a contributor to The Huffington Post a fellow at
the Eisenhower Institute up in Gettysburg College. And David Corn is an
MSNBC contributor and Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones" magazine.

I want to start with Jennifer.

It`s great to have you on, on this Friday, Jennifer.

Let`s just look at it with general terms, but let`s start with this
whole thing that is going on in Virginia, Virginia state politics there.

Why is it -- is it the Republicans that are pushing it there?
Ultrasound was picked up, their own -- well, let`s take a look at that.
Why are they pushing like ultrasound and personhood and issues like that in
2012?

JENNIFER DONAHUE, THE HUFFINGTON POST: I think the party has moved so
far to the right in so many states, Chris, around the country that you see
in Virginia, a state that`s a must-win for Republicans if they are going to
win the election, in the general election, going so far right with a bill
like this that McDonnell, Governor McDonnell, looked at it, at first glance
thought it was OK, then remembered he might be a running mate for Mitt
Romney and realized maybe it`s not OK, and said it`s not acceptable.

I think what you`re seeing is a real takeover on the right, maybe an
overreach on social issues, where they think maybe we have gotten this far
in the primary race. Maybe we keep this thing going and we go for the
gold.

MATTHEWS: Yes, David, your thoughts as a male.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: As a male.

MATTHEWS: We have to be careful. I`m serious. It`s a women`s --
women`s primarily concern. You`re talking about birth control. You`re
talking about abortion rights here.

And it does seem like the Republicans in Virginia have felt the
precipice, have felt the abyss, and are pulling back in terms of denying
rights.

CORN: Well, it`s not just in Virginia.

You think back a year ago, when the Tea Party House Republicans took
control of the House and took the gavel from Speaker Pelosi. Some of the
first things they did were to come up with abortion bills, redefining rape,
and all these things. After talking about where are the jobs, their
natural impulses seemed to come out.

I think the thing is on the jobs issue, they don`t have a lot to say.
Cut taxes, cut regulations, the same old, same -- so, but they are so
driven by these social issues that, once they get into power, they can`t
help themselves.

MATTHEWS: I agree with you.

CORN: They can`t help themselves.

MATTHEWS: They run on lowering taxes. They run on lowering taxes.
And once they get in, they do all this thingamajig here.

Anyway, Virginia state politics went national when the ultrasound bill
was picked up on our own Rachel Maddow`s show. And late-night comedy shows
skewered the state. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: The Virginia House of Representatives this week
passed a bill that required women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before
having an abortion.

Really? Now, don`t get me wrong. I love transvaginal. It`s my
favorite airline.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: I have so many miles on transvaginal that I
always get upgraded to lady business.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Really? Huh?

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: But Virginia wasn`t done. They also passed a
bill saying life begins at conception. What`s next? Life begins at last
call?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow.

Anyway, they are making light of a subject that matters to a lot of
people, obviously, there.

Jennifer, let me ask you about the other -- let`s swing up from
Virginia, where they obviously felt they might have gone too close to the
precipice for their own electoral good, especially of the governor down
there, who wants to be on the ticket.

Let`s look at another Republican guy, the big guy up in Virginia -- up
in New Jersey, who clearly wants to get on the ticket, too, but he wants to
make sure they don`t get the idea he`s some Northeastern liberal, I guess.

So, here`s New Jersey Governor Chris Christie defending putting gay
marriage up for a vote in his state and, by the way, vetoing it to get it
there. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Put it on a referendum, and I
will be ruled by what the people of New Jersey want to do.

But I`m not -- I vetoed the bill. And if they passed it again, I`d
veto it again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you not suspect that the reason they would put
it on the ballot is because there`s assessment is that there`s a reasonable
chance that it would lose?

CHRISTIE: I think it`s a jump ball in New Jersey, as it is in most
places.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Basketball terminology, but it`s political reality.

Jennifer, I think what Chris Christie wants to do is convince the
rest of the conservative country and his party that he`d be a great rock
`em, sock `em running mate for Mitt Romney if he runs. And this is his
issue. He`s staked out a very culturally conservative position for an East
Coast guy for one purpose -- well for many purposes, but for primary
opportunity here. It gives him the opportunity to be Mr. anti-gay marriage
and get on the ticket that way.

DONAHUE: To your point, I think you`re right. He neutralizes some
of the criticism that Romney has gotten from the right for having supported
in some ways same sex marriage in Massachusetts. And that would inoculate
both himself and Romney from that charge. But I also think Christie is
making a longer term play in 2016 where I think Christie thinks the party
is going to stay to the right for that long.

So, I think it tells you about where one very keen political mind
thinks the party may be going in four years.

CORN: There`s a danger here for the Republicans --

MATTHEWS: Oh, there`s a danger for him getting reelected in New
Jersey, too.

CORN: Again, what is he talking about? He`s talking about sex or,
you know, gay civil rights or not civil rights, depending upon on your
perspective, rather than talking about the economy.

Why did they elect him in New Jersey? It wasn`t because of social
conservative issues. They thought he would deal with the deficit issues,
deal with financial matters. You know, he`s a big, tough guy. Take these
things on.

New Jerseyans did not elect him to be --

MATTHEWS: He`s a tough prosecutor, too.

CORN: -- to be Pat Buchanan of New Jersey.

MATTHEWS: So, why did they do it?

CORN: So, why is he doing it?

MATTHEWS: Yes. What`s your conspiracy theory? Why do right
wingers, when they get in office, stop talking bread and butter, stop
talking jobs and taxes, and go into this cultural fit?

CORN: I think he`s trying to protect himself and Mitt Romney because
they see -- I`m not sure Jennifer is right that it`s going to stay this far
right in 2016. It kind of depends on what happens in 2012 and whether
there`s any sort of counter balance if they lose badly, if Republicans lose
badly.

MATTHEWS: Part of it may be, yes.

CORN: This is really getting to his appeal as an independent-minded
thinking guy.

MATTHEWS: Attitude, as we say in Philly. Attitude, like I can stand
up against the gays, I can stand up against the establishment, "The New
York Times."

But I don`t know. I just think going against the gays, Jennifer, my
thought is it`s a bad political move. In "Godmother" terminology, not the
smart move.

DONAHUE: This is the problem, Chris. What you`re saying is exactly
right.

I mean, basically, what the Republican Party is opening itself up to
is looking like hypocrites. They are anti-government invention. They are
pro-civil liberties until it comes to the politics of sex. At which point,
they become interventionists. And that`s a really bad mark on the party
for most electoral votes and for most of the people in the middle of the
party and in the country.

MATTHEWS: In my little opinion, we`re all God`s children. God made
us the way we are. And this anti-gay stuff is bad.

Anyway, thank you, Jennifer Donahue. And thank you, David Corn.

Up next, HARDBALL goes Hollywood. We`re going to have some fun now
at the end of the week. The Oscars are Sunday night. I never missed it.
Hollywood is about to stick it to the American right, by the way,
celebrating France.

And this is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: On Wednesday night`s Republican debate, Rick Santorum said
he endorsed Arlen Specter in 2004 over the conservative Pat Toomey as part
of a deal. Santorum said Specter promised he`d support then-President
Bush`s nominees for the Supreme Court.

Well, now, today, Specter denied it all. Here`s what he told our own
Chuck Todd this morning on "THE DAILY RUNDOWN."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARLEN SPECTER, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: That`s flatly not true. We
never had any such conversation. It would be improper to make a commitment
on a vote before I knew who the nominee was and whether I thought the
nominee was qualified. I`ve got a very strong reputation and the record
behind it not to make deals like that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: And nobody has a voice like Arlen Specter. Specter, by
the way, who famously left the Republican Party in 2010 because he thought
it would help him get reelected. Also says he wouldn`t endorse Santorum
today even if he were still a Republican.

We`ll be right back. What a --

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

I`ll be watching the Oscars this Sunday night, where one of the best
movies of the year, "The Artist," is up for 10 awards.

David Edelstein is the film critic for "New York" magazine and CBS
"Sunday Morning."

Let`s look at this right now. Keep moving.

Here`s a clip from "The Artist," movie star George Valentin at the
height of his career. Let`s watch.

(MOVIE CLIP PLAYS)

MATTHEWS: Oh, David, I venture to ask you what you thought of the
movie, I`m afraid. But go ahead, your thoughts on why "The Artist" was
such a hot movie?

DAVID EDELSTEIN, CBS SUNDAY MORNING FILM CRITIC: Silent movie. You
hear that music, it was so loud. I mean, it was like watching Captain
Kangaroo.

I mean, look, the movie is a charming pastiche (INAUDIBLE). It`s
very entertaining. It`s a love letter to Hollywood. I don`t know anyone
who thinks it`s more than a trifle, but there`s nobody out there who hates
it. So -- and I think the Academy loves it because, you know, their
demographic is over 50 and white and male.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

EDELSTEIN: And it`s about a kind of aging guy who is pushed aside by
a young tootsie and it really appeals to their self pity out there and the
thought of the tootsie coming back and saving the male. I mean, it`s just
a wonderful fairy tale.

MATTHEWS: Well, just to restore the romance from your criticism --
I`m sorry. A star is born. It`s got the great romance of Hollywood. And
it`s about Hollywood.

EDELSTEIN: True.

MATTHEWS: And people like me love this stuff. We love the idea of a
star being born, the young woman in there that was a superstar. We love
watching her grow up. I have a heart and I love this movie.

So here`s the thing despite your brilliance. Let me go -- David, let
me ask you this about this movie. About this French piece of it. It
wasn`t until late in the movies I realized everybody in the movie is
French. But it seems like a nice kick in the face to the old W. crowd, the
sort of the chauvinist of the last presidency and his freedom fries crap we
put up with. And just, damn it, we`re going to pick a French movie as best
movie.

EDELSTEIN: Well, you know, the Frenchies hate Americans, too. They
certainly always hate me. They make fun of my accent which admittedly is
terrible, but I try.

But, you know, they have always loved Hollywood movies. They love
Ford. They loved Wells. They love Jerry Lewis.

MATTHEWS: They love Jerry Lewis?

EDELSTEIN: They do. They do. Jerry. Jerry.

And so, I think that because of that, they are perfectly happy to
celebrate Hollywood without necessarily celebrating Americans -- you know,
certainly the modern American political system. However, it`s interesting
--

MATTHEWS: Well, Trofoe (ph) loved Hitchcock. And a little romance -
-

EDELSTEIN: Sure.

MATTHEWS: It`s a great movie about a kid who loved the whole thing.
And I`m with the French, by the way. I love France.

Anyway, let`s take a look at --

(CROSSTALK)

EDELSTEIN: Chris, we have an American director right now who`s made
a love letter to French movies, Martin Scorsese. And he`s not going to
win. It`s the French man making a love letter to Hollywood.

MATTHEWS: And what about Woody Allen making his love letter, sending
his love letter to Hemingway and everybody who lived in France in the `20s.

Let`s talk about "The Descendants" because I`m a big George Clooney
fan. Here it is, "The Descendants," where Hawaiian land baron Matt King
meets his daughter`s boyfriend for the first time. This is George Clooney
playing a regular guy, not a stud for once, and I think it really works.
Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dad, this is Sid.

GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR: Hello, Sid.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What`s up, bro?

CLOONEY: Don`t ever do that to me again. Get ready. We`re going to
go see your grandparents.

And, Scotty, Auntie Esther is going to come watch you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dad, Sid is coming with us.

CLOONEY: Yes. Listen, Sid, what`s going on this week is really a
family matter. You understand.

Sid is not going to be interested in meeting your grandparents. He`s
going to be bored stiff.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dad, I told you he was going to be with me.
I`ll be a lot more civil with him around.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What can I say?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: OK, David. I loved it. What did you think? Is this guy
going to win best actor?

EDELSTEIN: I know.

MATTHEWS: George Clooney?

EDELSTEIN: You know, "The Artist" might sweep and Jean Dujardin with
his rakish grin might end up taking it.

But, you know, Clooney`s performance is a triumph over miscasting.
You`ve got a handsome schmoozer, a politico. I know he charmed you. He
put you in his movie "The Ides of March."

You know, and here he`s playing a guy who is kind of twisted. He`s
estranged from his family. He`s estranged from Hawaiian culture in which
he`s grown up. He`s a workaholic.

You know, he`s everything that George Clooney is not. And, frankly,
I didn`t quite buy it. But I love the effort. I love the performance. It
made me laugh all the way through. I love the movie.

I`ve talked to more people who hate it. I don`t quite understand
why.

MATTHEWS: I`m with you on this.

(CROSSTALK)

EDELSTEIN: The tones --

MATTHEWS: We only have a minute, David. Let`s talk about the -- we
have -- I loved "The Help" and I think Viola Davis is going to win best
actress.

Anyway, thank you, David.

EDELSTEIN: Sure.

MATTHEWS: It`s always great to have you and to argue with you. You
belong to HARDBALL.

When we return, "Let Me Finish with a tribute to a comic giant I was
reminded of when I saw "The Artist."

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

The Academy Awards are on Sunday night. And everyone will be paying
tribute to "The Artist" -- this wondrous movie about the silent film era.
It`s a movie about an old silent film star who falls because he can`t
adjust to the arrival of the talking pictures.

When I watched the movie and loved it, I couldn`t help but think of a
showbiz figure, the great NBC star who pioneered all of this -- who did the
whole bit about the silent film star who couldn`t adjust back in the golden
age of television. I know a lot of people watching will know who and what
I`m talking about and those who don`t, please pay attention. This is about
greatness.

Back in the 1950s, there was a television show called "Your Show of
Shows." It had writers like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks and Neil Simon. It
had supporting comics, second bananas like the great Carl Reiner and Howie
Morris. But most of all, it had the incredible Sid Caesar who I never
missed, who I worshipped back in those days.

Some of Caesar`s most memorable skits were those in which he mimicked
old-time silent film stars, the matinee idols of early Hollywood. I
remember one show he played someone modeled on John Gilbert who was a giant
in the silent movies but whose high-pitched voice killed him when the
talkies arrived.

But fortunately for our star, he is saved in true Hollywood style by
his own misfortune. Ready to give up on life itself, he catches a cold.
His voice magically drops to a resonant baritone and he`s once again a
star.

Well, the comedy comes in and the old Sid Caesar show because he can
only keep his voice resonant, the studio bosses figure this out, by having
a cold, which someone had to continually pour a buck of water on him,
thereby giving him yet another cold.

Well, all these years later, I still remember Sid Caesar as that old
Hollywood star from the silent era trying to get back to the top. And I
keep thinking of that skit of his when I watch "The Artist," which is just
what the movie is all about, the struggle of a silent film star to get back
on top, back to when he could hear the applause one more time.

So all I can say is -- if you are watching today, you who did all
this back then and did it first, here are a couple of words of tribute:
Hail Caesar.

And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us -- including
you, Sid Caesar.

"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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