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updated 2/28/2012 1:05:02 PM ET 2012-02-28T18:05:02

Guests: Eugene Robinson, Mark Halperin, David Corn, Sue
Herera, John Feehery, Bill Maher, Chellie Pingree, Wes Moore

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Are the Republicans blowing it?

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. Leading off tonight:
Bully pulpit. Maybe both of the top two Republican candidates right now
are like the lead character in "The Artist," better off seen but not heard.

First, Rick Santorum. Not only did he criticize the concept of the
separation between church and state, he said Jack Kennedy`s famous 1960
speech on the subject to Protestant ministers made him want to "throw up."
Throw up. Then he called President Obama a snob for focusing on higher
education.

Well, this may be great gut conservative politics, but what are we
talking about in terms of running for president?

And then there`s Mitt Romney, who can`t seem to get out of his own
way. Yesterday, he was asked whether he follows NASCAR. His answer, "Not
as closely as some of its most ardent fans, but I have some friends who are
NASCAR team owners." Well, that doesn`t help, does it. Mitt is
desperately trying to be a man of the people. The trouble is, those people
are all rich.

And the killings and riots that have convulsed Afghanistan in the wake
of burning of some Korans has a lot of Americans asking, Is this time to
get out of there? Is this effort even worth it?

So who`s the best guest to have when Republicans are getting
themselves into deep doo-doo? Bill Maher. He`s going to join us a half
hour from now here on HARDBALL tonight.

And remember I mentioned that perhaps the GOP candidates might be
better off like silent movie stars, seen but not heard? Well, that (ph)
taught (ph) me (ph). Watch this tonight. We`re going to have a show
called "Mitt, Better Off Mute."

(VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: This is going to be a riot. Anyway, that`s in the
"Sideshow."

We begin with Rick Santorum`s criticism of college, Kennedy, and the
separation of church and state. Why not throw that one in? John Feehery
for the defense. He`s a Republican consultant madly in love with Rick
Santorum. Eugene Robinson`s a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, and a wise
man. He`s from "The Washington Post." He`s also, obviously, an MSNBC
colleague of ours and political analyst.

You know, Feehery, you know, every once in a while, these guys say
things that nobody is willing to defend. (INAUDIBLE) test you on this one.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Yesterday, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Rick
Santorum explained why John Kennedy`s historic speech to those ministers
makes him want to throw up. Let`s watch what he actually said about that
great speech Kennedy gave.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R-PA), FMR. SEN., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don`t
believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.
The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the
operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and
vision of our country. To say that people of faith have no role in the
public square? You bet that makes you throw up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow. Well, in September of 1960, many of us remember, John
Kennedy traveled down to Houston to speak to the Greater Houston
Ministerial Association, a large group of establishment Protestant
ministers. He argued that the Catholic church would not dictate his
presidency.

Let`s watch a bit of that historic speech so we all know what we`re
talking about.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN F. KENNEDY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So it is apparently
necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in,
for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe
in.

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is
absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be
Catholic, how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners
for whom to vote.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow. John Feehery, that was pretty unexceptional. He made
the clear statement that the bishops of the day -- there was a lot of fear
of Catholic bishops in those days -- would not be his bosses. Certainly,
the pope would not be.

Did he say something wrong? Is Santorum right here? Should the
bishops give the orders to Catholic politicians?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: The 1st Amendment protects
religion. I don`t know how many ways we have to say this. But I think --
I think actually that if Mitt Romney gave a speech more like Jack Kennedy`s
speech, he`d be in better shape in the polls right now.

Listen, I think Rick Santorum is wrong on this. I think he`s
completely wrong. I think that the reason religion flourishes in America
is it`s protected from the government, and I wish that Rick Santorum--

MATTHEWS: How many states do you think Jack Kennedy would have gotten
if he gave a Rick Santorum speech back in `60, three?

FEEHERY: He`d probably have got maybe Massachusetts. I think
Massachusetts.

MATTHEWS: Think Massachusetts.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: We laugh because it would have been an absurd statement to
say he wants the church leaders to tell him what to do.

EUGENE ROBINSON, "WASHINGTON POST," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, no,
it would be absurd. And look, what Santorum is doing -- I mean, that
whole statement--

MATTHEWS: Is he a theocrat?

ROBINSON: It`s either dumb or it`s--

MATTHEWS: OK. I`m sorry to interrupt--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- Pulitzer Prize-winner, You can nail this. Is he a
theocrat? Does he believe churches should run states?

ROBINSON: Yes. Yes, I think he is a theocrat.

MATTHEWS: OK.

ROBINSON: I think this is what he believes--

MATTHEWS: I think he is, too.

ROBINSON: -- deep down inside. And I think that`s obviously
dangerous for this country.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: -- we are.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look -- here`s what`s strange about it. Let`s
talk the politics. Let`s go to our strength, I think, here. Here`s the
story. For him to beat the elite guy, Romney, who we all know is well
bred, moneyed and all that, country club -- we know the whole story about
him.

The only way to beat him is to submarine him and to go for the blue
collar, the regular -- what Nixon used to call the -- the cloth coat
Republicans, not the mink coat Republicans. They`re the very people, the
Reagan Democrats and conservative Republicans, who voted probably for Jack
Kennedy, a lot of them.

Why is he trashing Kennedy?

FEEHERY: Yes, I don`t--

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: When Rick Santorum was talking about manufacturing jobs,
when he had his plan to help blue-collar people, you know, I think it was -
- and the other thing, when he was talking about education, you know, this
idea that people in the blue-collar don`t have aspirations to go to
college--

MATTHEWS: OK (INAUDIBLE)

FEEHERY: -- is absolutely insane.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s get to this because I know he`s talking about -
- and by the way, there`s a great role out there for people of high skills.
We need them to fix cars, to build our cars. We need engineers. We need -
- we need electricians. We need people of genius who know how to work with
their hands and get things fixed.

Here it is. On Saturday, Rick Santorum ridiculed President Obama`s
education policy by calling the president a snob. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to
go to college. What a snob.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

SANTORUM: There are good, decent men and women who go out and work
hard every day and put their skills to test that aren`t taught by some
liberal college professor that tried to indoctrinate them.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

SANTORUM: Well, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He
wants to remake you in his image.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Now, there`s a conspiracy theory.

ROBINSON: Yes, that`s a conspiracy--

MATTHEWS: What`s he saying?

ROBINSON: It`s nuts. It`s loopy. Look, who`s a snob? He`s sending
his kids to college. So it`s good enough for him--

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: -- it`s not good enough for the people he`s talking to?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let me try to be devil`s advocate--

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: Do you know what the unemployment rate is--

MATTHEWS: Among college graduates.

ROBINSON: -- for college graduates? It`s 4.4 percent. For those who
have high school but no college, it`s 9.5 percent. Do the math.

MATTHEWS: So it`s better to go to college.

ROBINSON: (INAUDIBLE) go to college. Doesn`t it enrich your life?
He has an undergraduate degree. He`s got a law degree. He`s got an MBA.
My goodness.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You know what I like to do? And I`m not arguing with you
because I think you agree with us on this. I love nothing better than to
go to college graduations and speak at the graduation and see the parents
whose first -- whose kids are the first in the family to go to college, a
lot of them African-Americans. And it is the most exciting day in the
family`s history, to have those first kids go to college.

And here he is saying, OK, you parents that want your kids to be the
first in your family to go to college--

FEEHERY: Let me -- let me -- let me--

MATTHEWS: -- you`re snobs.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: What is he talking about?

FEEHERY: Well, I guess on this one, I`m with the snob.

MATTHEWS: OK.

FEEHERY: I think that, you know, people -- that`s still an
aspirational thing. And I think President Obama--

MATTHEWS: By the way, the immigrants -- the minute they get off the
boat in this country, whether they come from Vietnam or Korea or--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- first thing, get the kid in the best possible school.

FEEHERY: If I were -- if I were attacking President Obama on college
education, I`d say, Listen, he`s done nothing to deal with the cost of that
college education. The costs are out of control and people in blue-collar
families can`t afford it. That`s where I would attack him. I wouldn`t
attack him on the idea to go to college. That is -- it`s insane.

MATTHEWS: OK, translate. You know the Republican psyche. He has to
beat one guy, the elitist, the guy who has NASCAR owners as best buddies--

FEEHERY: Right.

MATTHEWS: -- the guy that, what is he, owns two Cadillacs for his
wife. He doesn`t know where the cars are. I guess they`re not in the same
garage, meaning different houses. Fine. He`s rich. How do you beat the
guy who`s rich?

FEEHERY: Well, this is--

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: This is not how you do it. What you do is you talk about
manufacturing jobs and you talk about why the cost of college education is
too high and how you try to help the middle class.

MATTHEWS: You talk about your--

FEEHERY: You don`t -- you don`t talk about--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- big hands.

ROBINSON: You can only be -- if you say something like that, you can
only be trying to talk to people who themselves did not go to college,
right?

MATTHEWS: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: -- tell them that they shouldn`t wish that for their
children?

MATTHEWS: Well, this is who he`s talking to.

ROBINSON: It`s -- it`s--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Remember George Wallace, who talked about the bureaucrats,
the pointy-headed bureaucrats with their peanut butter sandwiches in their
attache cases? Remember that kind of anti-elitism? Well, I got his point.
We all got the point.

FEEHERY: Well, we all -- we all--

MATTHEWS: If you`re from Washington, you`re no damn good and we get
your -- you know. But this idea is so anti-intellectual. And W. used to
do this.

FEEHERY: Well--

MATTHEWS: You know he did.

FEEHERY: Yes, but he was -- he was pro-college. And he was also pro-
improving schools, and--

MATTHEWS: And then he hung out with the wrong kind of intellectuals,
the neo-cons.

FEEHERY: And there`s -- the anti-intellectualism--

ROBINSON: Right. But John`s right.

FEEHERY: -- has always been a huge strain--

MATTHEWS: Right.

FEEHERY: -- in politics, all politics. Used to be--

MATTHEWS: OK, explain this--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: This one I need to know.

FEEHERY: But -- but--

MATTHEWS: Explain the anti-intellectualism that Santorum`s trying to
sell here.

FEEHERY: Well, (INAUDIBLE) attack the universities. Attack the
pointy heads who -- and frankly, there`s a lot of kind of Washington, Wall
Street, all these people who thought they knew what they were doing, and
all of a sudden, the country has gone off the wrong track because these
smart people--

MATTHEWS: OK--

FEEHERY: -- have screwed things up.

MATTHEWS: Did your dad--

FEEHERY: Well, I get that.

MATTHEWS: OK, let me ask you guys. Did your dad ever say, Where`d
you learn that? Who told you that? I used to get this all the time coming
back from college, Where`d you learn that?

ROBINSON: No, I didn`t, but you know--

MATTHEWS: I used to get, Where`d you learn that? I think a lot of
people are suspicious of--

FEEHERY: Well, my dad--

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: My dad`s a Loyola guy, so he is a good judge of education.
He would tell -- he would lecture me on things, the finer points of
theology.

ROBINSON: Yes, my dad`s a Michigan (INAUDIBLE) so--

MATTHEWS: Oh, snobbish.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Thank you. Holy Cross all the way here. Thank you, Gene
Robinson. This was a great discussion. I don`t know, this guy may be
blowing it, but I still think he might pull it out tomorrow.

Coming up in about 20 minutes, Bill Maher will be here. Boy, this is
like the drive-in movies. You -- 10 minutes, get your French fries now,
Bill Maher`s coming. You might want to get a large Coke. Go to the snack
bar, back in time for -- well, don`t go to the snack bar.

Latest, by the way, missteps by Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Bill
Maher is going to be here to enjoy them.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: The Michigan and Arizona primaries are, yes, tomorrow, and
super-Tuesday`s only a week ahead from Tuesday. We have new poll numbers
now from super-Tuesday states. Let`s check the HARDBALL "Scoreboard."

In Ohio, a new Quinnipiac poll finds Rick Santorum leading among
likely Republican voters 36-29. He did have a bigger lead. In Tennessee,
Santorum leads Romney 33 to 17, almost 2 to 1, in the new
Vanderbilt/Princeton poll. In Georgia, Newt Gingrich has a 13-point lead
in the latest Channel 2 Landmark poll. Newt`s at 38 in his home state,
Santorum down at 25. Romney`s further back at 19.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. The Republican nomination fight
appears to be having an unintended consequence. It`s making Obama look
better every single day, and that`s what we can take away from new poll
numbers from the Politico Battleground poll.

Look at these. The president`s approval rating is at 53 percent.
That`s pretty high, well above 50 for the first time, up 9 points since
November, and above the important 50 percent threshold in a 50 -- in a
head-to-head matchup with the Republican contenders. President Obama beats
Romney now -- catch this -- by 10 points, look at that, 53-43 -- and beats
Santorum by about the same amount, just one more point.

So these are real developments. It`s good news for the White House,
obviously, bad news for the Republican Party per se.

Mark Halperin is "Time" editor-at-large and senior political analyst
for us here at MSNBC. And David Corn is Washington bureau chief for
"Mother Jones" and is also an MSNBC political analyst.

Mark, thanks for joining us tonight. I love to get you on when we
look at the big picture here. And here we have with Obama getting more
popular. We`re going to get into his personal popularity in a minute here.
But here he is, edging significantly now above the 50 percent mark in a
significant poll here, and also shifting to what may be moving into a
double-digit lead over the strongest candidate for November, most people
think, Romney.

What`s going on?

MARK HALPERIN, "TIME," SR. MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the
Republican nomination fight is clearly hurting the Republican brand, the
Republican Party. The president`s handled his own role in most things
pretty well.

This is a snapshot, though, Chris. And I`d tell you, if the
Republican nominee is determined in March, April, May, June, or maybe not
until the convention, if the eventual nominee handles things well, we`re
back to 200 electoral votes each side--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HALPERIN: -- and a few states determining who wins this. So it`s
good news for the president today--

MATTHEWS: Why do you -- what do you base that -- because I`m with you
on that, but let -- you`re better at explaining it. Why is it, basically,
if they do get their act together eventually, still a 50/50 country?

HALPERIN: Well, because -- because there`s still a lot about the
president`s record that Republicans, if they execute well, can go after.
As well as the president is doing for the last couple weeks and maybe even
months, go to the Electoral College, which is how this is decided.

And there are very few states that McCain -- Senator McCain won where
you`d say today that the president has a real good chance to win.
Arizona`s one. After that, there`s a big dropoff.

And so again, if the Republican nominee emerges from the contest,
whatever month it is, handling him or herself well, then I think they get
back to, basically, those 200 electoral votes and can build off of that.

And I think you`d hear the same description of what`s likely to happen
in Chicago. If the Republican nominee handles it poorly, then I think the
president`s numbers will really help him to get maybe even a bigger win--

MATTHEWS: OK.

HALPERIN: -- than he had four years ago.

MATTHEWS: The fundamentals are even-steven. (INAUDIBLE) Republicans
just have to get competent again by November.

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. You know,
gas--

MATTHEWS: You buy that?

CORN: I do because gas can still hit $6 a gallon. Unemployment is
still high. I mean, Romney should be up by 20 points, given those external
circumstances--

MATTHEWS: Fundamentals, yes.

CORN: -- on those fundamentals. But yet the campaign has been so
awful for him and the whole Republican brand, as Mark just said, he`s
falling behind.

The risk here for the Republicans is that there`s no opportunity to
bounce back later, that the impressions being formed are close to
indelible. If you look at the independent numbers in this poll, 49-27
percent in favor of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. So the gulf is getting
really wide, and the -- and the wider and deeper it gets -- not just the
size, but the deeper it gets, the harder it will be for Romney or whoever
the Republican--

MATTHEWS: I think that`s especially true--

CORN: -- is to bounce back.

MATTHEWS: By the way, real quickly, is that especially true for women
voters, who`ve had -- really been on the defensive with this Republican
policy rate (ph) on them, Mark?

HALPERIN: I think--

MATTHEWS: (INAUDIBLE) really offended by the way the Republicans have
been talking about issues important to them, most important to them.

HALPERIN: I think women voters, Hispanic voters, younger voters. The
Republican Party, in the process of trying to pick a nominee, is I think
maybe doing irreparable harm to the party this year and to some extent
longer term.

But a strong nominee who skillfully starts to deal with all those
issues pretty soon and emerges strong has a chance to do -- to come back.
But the trajectory they`re on with independents -- with women, as you -- as
David said, with independents, as you said, and I`d add Hispanics to that -
- the trajectory they`re on is going to make it mathematically impossible
maybe not to be blown out but to get an Electoral College majority.

MATTHEWS: OK, let me show you some things that`ll bring into doubt
their ability to get their act together. This weekend, Mitt Romney tried
to burnish his "regular guy" credentials by going to the Daytona 500. But
when asked if he followed NASCAR racing, he blew his "average guy" cover.
Let`s listen to his own words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have
some great friends that are NASCAR team owners.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: You know, David, he keeps doing it. He keeps talking like
he`s in a boardroom.

CORN: Well, he keeps talking like he`s a 1 percenter. And, like,
everything that Mark just said is right, theoretically. But these are --
the ifs he points out are becoming bigger and bigger -- if there is a
competent Republican, if Mitt Romney, say, can get his act together. Every
chance he`s had in the last few months to get something right, whether it`s
his taxes or talking about NASCAR, he keeps blowing it.

MATTHEWS: OK--

CORN: So even if he gets clear of the Santorum tar pit, he`s still
going to be burdened by his own baggage. And that`s the one thing he can`t
escape.

HALPERIN: Chris--

MATTHEWS: Yes, he keeps doing this over and over again. We know this
-- go ahead, thoughts -- because this whole question, does he have the
chops? Does Romney, who keeps talking about 1 percent, he keeps talking
like he`s the rich guy and talks about the very poor, talks about the cars,
talks about the way--

CORN: The trees.

MATTHEWS: -- normally, very rich people, I imagine, talk among
themselves. But he doesn`t know he`s talking to a country that`s 99
percent-99 percent.

HALPERIN: Chris, I think it`s a totally -- total cheap shot to go
after Romney on that NASCAR thing. For instance, I love NFL football
because I used to go out with Jack Kent Cooke on his yacht, and fantastic
times out there, great hors d`oeuvres--

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

HALPERIN: It is a mindset that we know can`t say is accidental, nor
can we say that he`s going to stop it, that he`s learned his lesson.

There`s just too many of them. It may not keep him from getting elected
president, but through the media filter at least, it`s lethal. And it
takes up so much space in the narrative about him. And he`s doing nothing
to replace it. He`s not going on "The Tonight Show." He`s not going on
"The View."

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- "Meet the Press."

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He refuses.

HALPERIN: I would love it if he did, but I`m not sure that would
replace the narrative. It might only compound it.

He needs to erase the narrative with something else. And again if
he`s going to say these types of things and reflect that mind-set from now
through November if he`s the nominee, it`s going to make it harder for him
to be elected. There`s no question.

MATTHEWS: And imagine the ads when the Obama super PACs spend October
and going into November over and over again pointing out this guy`s
plutocratic mentality of only the elite.

Well, in Michigan, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are virtually tied --
let`s talk about tomorrow -- with Romney at 39 percent, Santorum with 37,
the latest PPP poll, which is an automated poll.

What do you make of this tomorrow? We just did a poll among our
producers, Mark and then David. Just because I always root for the
underdog, almost always, even tomorrow. I want the underdog to win for a
lot of, well, reasons you can all imagine. I want this to be a race.

CORN: Good for business.

MATTHEWS: Do you think there is a good chance that the voters who
show up will be those Christian conservatives, those culturally
conservative people who like everything about Rick Santorum that we sort of
don`t or criticize as bad politics?

(CROSSTALK)

HALPERIN: You mean the outcome in Michigan?

MATTHEWS: Yes. Can Santorum -- is there a decent chance he can pull
it out tomorrow?

HALPERIN: I`m going with my favorite cop-out, Chris. My head says
Romney should win this. My gut says Santorum will win it.

He`s not been the momentum candidate for the last three days, but I
still think the size of his crowds and the intensity of his crowds, the
message he`s driving that appeals to that base, if you made me bet, I would
bet on Santorum. But logic suggests Romney--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You do enthuse me because Mark is analytical more than I
am. And I am a gut person.

And because I love a really good show and I think the country benefits
so much from this debate -- I think the more this goes on, the better it is
for our country. We`re getting a really good look at Mitt Romney. Mitt
Romney can`t hide. And Santorum is exposing the cultural belly of this
Republican Party that we ought to understand if we`re going to put a
Republican back in the White House.

CORN: This has been a much more revealing race than anybody
anticipated at the beginning. I think it`s certainly clear that his voters
are more motivated. He`s been to northern Michigan finding these pockets
of conservative voters who probably feel a lot of resentment towards elites
and buy everything he`s selling, while the people who come out for Romney
are there--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What scares you more? I know you can`t answers this, Mark,
because you`re very analytical. But what scares you more, the belly
religiosity of the Republican Party, which is so theocratic, Santorum, or
the intellectual superiority, the moneyed, plutocratic mentality of Mitt
Romney? What scares you, David Corn, more? What would be more scary to
you?

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: This is another heart-stomach--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What scares you more, religious wildness or eliteness?

CORN: I think if the social conservatives of the type that Rick
Santorum is speaking to gain power, they will probably do more damage than
the plutocrats that Mitt Romney represents. But it`s a tossup.

MATTHEWS: I think the mentality is more frightening than the gut,
because you can always spot the--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Anyway thank you, Mark Halperin, for a great analysis,
because I believe it in as often.

Thank you, David Corn, for coming on.

Up next, just like "The Artist," that movie that won last night after
about five or six hours, Mitt Romney might be better off seen but not
heard. We have a great satire. This is worthy of the old days. This guy
is the artist. You`re looking at him right now. He can`t talk, but he
looks good.

Right after the "Sideshow," we`re going to have Bill Maher. Our star
is coming on tonight.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. And now for a big "Sideshow" tonight.

First up, the sound of silence. This just premiered, by the way, on
this weekend`s "The Chris Matthews Show." It`s a political version of "The
Artist," the movie which won best picture last night

Here`s the trailer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I love this state. It seems
right here. Trees are the right height.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Mitt better off mute. Well, that`s a tough one. He was
out again this weekend however talking about having the right friends,
people who own NASCAR teams. Don`t ride in those cars.

Next up, a friend of the Cabinet? Secretary of State Hillary Hillary
Clinton is getting some flak, a little bit, for telling a group of students
over in -- actually, Tunisia, that President Obama will be reelected and --
quote -- "not to pay attention to some of what is said on the campaign
trail by the president`s opponents."

Well, Clinton has made a point of staying largely above the fray of
election politics in her current role, but, apparently, there are times.
Now, here`s Clinton, Secretary Clinton, explaining it all on CNN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Probably my
enthusiasm for the president got a little out of hand.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: No political juices flowing?

CLINTON: Well, I have tried to dampen them down. I have tried to
have -- you know, I have tried to have them taken out in a blood
transfusion, but occasionally they rear their heads.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, actually, that`s what Hillary is usually like when
you meet her. She`s very likable.

Does that mean she`s considering a full reentry into politics, you
know, running for president again after this all over in secretary of state
land? Well, that`s still a no, she says.

Up next: the one and only Bill Maher joins us from Los Angeles. He
has got plenty of material, thanks to Rick Santorum`s latest and Mitt
Romney`s latest.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SUE HERERA, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Sue Herera with your CNBC "Market
Wrap."

The Dow ends down one point, the S&P 500 gains two, and the Nasdaq is
up two, pretty much flat. Encouraging news about the health of the housing
market, however. An index of pending home sales rose 2 percent last month
to a nearly two-year high. Meanwhile, profits at Lowe`s rose 13 percent in
the fourth quarter, easily beating all expectations.

And a breather for oil. Crude prices finished lower today for the
first time since Valentine`s Day.

That`s it from CNBC. We are first in business worldwide -- now back
to Chris and HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL MAHER, HOST, "REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER": I would like to
tonight announce a donation to the Obama super PAC, which has the very
unfortunate tongue-twister named Priority USA Action. I know. It was
named by Borat.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER: But, tonight, I would like to give that PAC $1 million.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MAHER: This is the wisest investment I think I could make on a
selfish level, because I will tell you something, folks, who I know look at
these Republican clowns and think it`s in the bag. No, it`s not. Obama
could lose.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, well said by a smart man as well as a funny man.
That`s Bill Maher, the host of HBO`s "Real Time with Bill Maher,"
announcing that he`s donated $1 million to President Obama`s super PAC,
which has no relation of course to the president. It`s no joke.

Bill Maher joins us from L.A.

You know, this is going to be remembered -- are you going to be
watching how much money they collect from that PAC to know what percentage
you owe -- own of that thing?

MAHER: You talking to me?

MATTHEWS: Yes, I`m talking to you.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER: I think it`s -- I think -- I think, at the moment, it`s
probably too big a percentage.

I mean, was trying to throw a snowball to create an avalanche and let
the liberals who do think that this is already in the bag for Obama,
probably because, like me, they watch HARDBALL every day, and they see what
idiots these Republicans are.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MAHER: But that`s not how the whole country sees it.

And I promise you, when it comes to election night, it`s going to be
neck and neck. It`s going to be a very tight race, where Republicans--

MATTHEWS: Tell me about why you -- why you think that, why you think
that, because that`s what we just heard Mark Halperin say, what we hear
other people say. Despite the president being up by 10 points over Romney
now, by moving up above 50 percent in favorability, up to 53 percent now,
and it`s now February, late February, why do you think it will be different
in November?

MAHER: Well, one reason is because of this issue of money, because
Obama had a giant money advantage last time, because the most anybody could
ever give was I think $2,300. Now Sheldon Adelson talks about giving $100
million.

The game has changed from small contributions to large contributions
in the millions, the many millions. And he`s going to have, I think, a
tremendous financial disadvantage. That`s one.

The other reason of course is because this country is divided. I
always talk about the Republican bubble that they live in, but there`s a
bit of a liberal bubble too. They hear Rick Santorum talking about the
father of lies and how college is bad and they think these people are nuts.
But half the country doesn`t think it`s nuts. And on election night, I bet
you it will be a very tight race.

MATTHEWS: How do you get that knowledge? You do have a bigger world
view than a lot of people on left, right, or center. How do you keep it?
Is it going on the road, where you feel it? How do you -- because your
audience is pretty liberal. I have been on your show. It`s fabulous, but
it a liberal audience.

How do you find that other audience? How do you connect with them?

MAHER: Well, I don`t really want to connect with them.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I mean find out they are there, I`m saying. Count them,
let`s put it that way. How do you get to count them?

MAHER: Yes, I mean -- yes, I mean, you`re right. I`m on the road
quite a bit. I do a lot of stand-up dates all around the country. I`m
going to Huntsville, Alabama, on march 3. Then I`m going to San Antonio.
These are not liberal places.

And even though the liberals come out to my show at the auditorium or
the theater that I`m in, when you`re in airports, when you`re in bars,
wherever you are, you talk and see people. And, yes, there`s a whole
different -- I mean, I talked to Tim Tebow last night, Chris. It was
thrilling at the "Vanity Fair" party after the Oscars.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER: If you can`t talk to Tebow and come away with a different
point of view, you`re not listening.

MATTHEWS: What is the -- for our progressives and liberals watching
the show, what is the legitimate, if there is one, bitch, if you will,
against Obama? What is it they have deepest -- besides maybe the ethnic
thing or the ideological -- is there something about Obama that they think
is going to -- that you think is going to drive them into that voting booth
no matter what hell happens between now and November?

MAHER: Yes, Chris. He`s a Muslim socialist out to destroy America.
Haven`t you heard that?

MATTHEWS: But they are the crazies.

MAHER: This is the bubble -- well, you know, this is the bubble that
they live in.

It`s very hard to get actual facts into this impermeable membrane.
They think Obama -- they are running against a fictional president, a
president who has slashed defense, who has raised taxes, who goes around
the world apologizing to different countries, who coddles terrorists, all
of which of course never happened. But that`s who they think the president
is.

And it`s very, very hard. That`s why we have this bubble we built on
this show every week to physically illustrate this.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s talk about possible cracks in that bubble.
This guy caught bin Laden in one of the most interesting -- it`s almost
Alistair MacLean kind of stuff. He did it brilliantly, at minimal loss of
life. He got bin Laden. They got him killed in the action, which is the
neatest way to do it, if you`re honest about it.

His family is picture-perfect. His daughters are right out of Tricia
Nixon. They don`t do anything wrong. They turn themselves out perfectly.
They act like almost a royal family in a good democratic way. Everything
his wife does seems perfect. It`s about obesity, things that everybody
knows is a problem in this country.

What more do they want from this guy as a human being? We do have a
number out, by the way, that we`re going to show later in the show where
something like 75 percent of the country says they like the guy personally.

MAHER: Well, Chris, first of all, you`re using reason, which, as we
know, is a faulty way to derive at any sort of truth.

Rick Santorum will tell you, it`s probably, Chris, because you went to
college. And people who go to college, they are the types who are suspect
to this virus of reason. And that`s probably why you`re thinking the way
you are, logically.

No, what Rick Santorum would tell you is, homeschool your kids. Stay
away from college, because people who go to college want to be like Obama,
you know, successful. We don`t want that here in America.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Well, what do you think about him going to war with Jack
Kennedy?

Here`s a guy who is trying to get the Reagan Democrats, eventually, I
think, Santorum, because they are the ones that decide elections,
conservative Democrats, your Irish, Italian, people that generally are more
conservative. than most Democrats. But they are still Democrats.

But you try to grab them if you`re a Republican, because that`s how
you win. Trashes Kennedy. I -- I guess I don`t get it. I don`t know who
he is trying to win over. He trashes the college people, which is a lot of
people.

Almost anybody that comes here as an immigrant wants their kid to go to
college, and they do most of the time.

He trashes the sort of conservative Catholics, who still treasure
Kennedy. African-Americans still treasure Kennedy.

Who is he looking for not in those two groups of either college or
ethnically conservative Democrats? Who`s he after?

BILL MAHER, COMEDIAN: I don`t know. I mean, you`re asking the wrong
guy, because I can`t see into his mind. I never thought anyone in American
politics would come out against college. I can`t even -- I can`t write
this stuff.

In fact, with all the material that Rick Santorum is giving me, I
should write him a check for a million dollars.

But I think what`s interesting about the Kennedy thing is that
Kennedy in 1960, of course, had to make a speech that said I`m not going to
be taking my marching orders from the pope. Here we are in 2012, and it`s
almost the opposite. Rick Santorum is throwing up because the president is
sort of not saying the reverse. Yes, I will take my marching orders from
the pope.

MATTHEWS: Ha. Exactly. That`s what he`s saying.

MAHER: It`s so through the looking glass. And I loved that thing
you did last week where you showed the statement that the Pope Benedict
made and made that point that Rick Santorum doesn`t even follow his own
pope.

MATTHEWS: I agree. Well, that`s what I said.

Let me ask you about the other guy, Romney. I have a theory about
Romney that backs up your case, why it`s still a 50-50 country. I believe
that nobody believes Romney and that`s going to help him in the general
election if he gets that far. Nobody believes this protestation of his
that he`s a right winger, that he believes in all this Tea Party crowd. He
would be caught dead in a Tea Party.

Nobody believes he is sort of pragmatic about these things like
abortion rights, things like. They think he`s a pragmatist. Nobody is
afraid of the guy. And I think that may be a great help to him if he goes
up against Obama. Do you agree?

MAHER: That`s right. And that`s -- I do agree with that. I think,
you know, this idea that they go after him as a flip-flopper -- that could
backfire because being a flip-flopper perversely in this weird world we`re
living in could be an asset to him, because people who don`t like what he
is saying will just say to themselves, well, of course, when he gets into
office, he`s going to switch right back.

They are actually going to have to flip-flop on flip-flopping. It`s
a very funny election. But, yes, I agree with you. Romney -- yes, go
ahead.

MATTHEWS: Yes, my hero, Winston Churchill said, when he switched
parties for the second time, he said, anybody can re-rat. Anybody can rat.
It takes somebody special to re-rat. Maybe he`s going to re-rat and go
back to being the governor of Massachusetts.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Hey, Maher, you`re best.

MAHER: Yes, it will be a little hard.

MATTHEWS: You`re the best.

MAHER: Thanks, Chris. Thank you. I appreciate that.

MATTHEWS: You`re the funniest smartest guy around. Yes, maybe both,
I think they`re true.

Thank you, Bill Maher. You`re an Irish guy, too. Thank you for
coming on.

Bill Maher, "Real Time" returns this Friday at 10:00 p.m. on HBO.
And for some reason, all these people that say they have a social life, for
some reason, are always home Friday watching this guy. So, you explain.

Any way, he`s going to be at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in
Nashville on March 18th.

Up next, we`re going to shift gears and talk about what`s really
going on in Afghanistan. Scary stuff, with the Koran getting burned over
there, probably accidentally. Violence and riots. These guys are just
spawning for a fight against us.

Should we still be there? Big question.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Wow. President Obama`s likability remains one of his
strongest poll numbers right now in the new "Politico" battleground poll.
When asked their impression of Barack Obama as a person, and the way they
approved of him, nearly three quarters said they approved. That`s three
quarters, 74 percent; 59 percent, they approved of him strongly as a
person. This is serious business and a big plus for the president.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

There was more violence today in Afghanistan which insurgents have
called revenge for the burning of that Muslim holy books, by the way, those
Korans, by NATO troops last week. A suicide bomber killed nine Afghans
outside the gates of a NATO airbase today.

U.S. officials called the burning of those Korans a mistake and
President Obama apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But at least
40 people are now dead because of the burnings of those books since the
news broke, including four American G.I.s. The United States said it was
temporarily pulling civilian and military advisors from government
ministries, that`s from the offices, after a number of attacks by Afghan
soldiers targeting American troops.

So, what does this latest episode say about the mission in
Afghanistan? Is it time to get out there?

Chellie Pingree is a U.S. congresswoman from Maine. She serves on
the House Armed Services Committee.

And Wes Moore is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He`s also
author of "The Other Wes Moore."

Thank you so much for joining us. I have to start with the
congresswoman who`s been elected. And I always give preference to elected
officials in our democracy.

You know, Biden, Secretary -- Vice President Biden said a better plan
over there, when this was being reviewed, Afghanistan, a couple of years
ago, was counterterrorism. Don`t try to go in there with counterinsurgency
with a big army. Keep aware of the fact that al Qaeda could come back,
focus on terrorists and get out of the country.

Wasn`t he -- doesn`t he now look smarter than the policy we have now
of this surge of almost 100,000 troops in there?

REP. CHELLIE PINGREE (D), MAINE: Keep in mind that Biden has made
many trips over to the country. And I think he`s right. I`ve been a
strong advocate from removing our troops. And I think incidents like this
only exacerbate it.

The president did the right thing, but there will be continued
turmoil. And this is just one more signal that we spent too much money and
we`ve lost too many troops.

MATTHEWS: Why do they hate us so much, that all it takes is
something that`s clearly, or it`s no worse than done by -- imagine a couple
officers that were bad and did this. They hate the corps. OK, that`s a
couple of guys.

The worst case scenario, it`s probably something like they say it is
where they were passing messages with these books. But why has the whole
country turned against us? They were just -- it looks like they were
spoiling for an issue.

PINGREE: There`s a lot of turmoil over there. And I think many
people in the country appreciate what we have done. But this is a hard
place to, quote-unquote, "win." It`s just one more example, I think, of
why we don`t belong there.

MATTHEWS: Wes Moore, thanks for joining us. And thanks for your
service.

WES MOORE, U.S. ARMY CAPTAIN (RET): Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Is this an example of just people rubbed raw with
nationalism? They don`t like people in their country and they just don`t
like them, so they do something wrong, there`s their issue?

MOORE: Well, I think it`s a bigger issue than that, Chris, quite
honestly, because I don`t think this has to do with the fact they hate us,
per se. I feel like the fact they saw this holy book and they saw the
Koran as their holy book and they saw this desecration of the Koran.

And the fact is, you know, President Obama is correct. This is an
inadvertent mistake, but it`s a mistake that`s turned daily. So, with
President Obama coming in and making an apology, this is not about
emasculating America. This is about force protection.

And President Obama is trying to look out for the best interest of
the soldiers who have to be on the ground fighting this every day and also
the civilians who actually have to do their jobs in a hostile work
environment.

So I think -- I think this is about something that`s much bigger than
simply about why do they hate us. But then that`s why I think President
Obama was so forceful in the way he tried to address this.

MATTHEWS: But why are they running around the streets like this
going nuts? Don`t they have places they have to be? Don`t they have
something else they have to do?

I`m serious about this. They have devoted their entire beings now to
going nuts against us because of what a couple of guys did, you know,
intentionally for some reason that may have been justified or
unintentionally.

By the way, in the Western religions, when you have a religious
article, the proper way to dispose of it is burning it. So that`s not a
desecration.

MOORE: No, that`s right.

MATTHEWS: So it`s their interpretation of what they see as a
desecration. We don`t look at it that way. An American would never burn
something to desecrate it. That would be a way of treating a holy object.
That is the appropriate way to do it.

So I don`t -- this whole thing looks like they just don`t like us.
They don`t like the West. They think we`re still the Soviets. And we`re
never going to be their friends.

MOORE: Well, here`s the thing, Chris. I think -- and this is a very
important distinction about Afghanistan is the fact that over in
Afghanistan, and I know we saw this when we were fighting over there, there
is a very slim distinction between the actions of individuals and
government intent.

And the reason that President Bush was so -- you know, used this
argument of force protection in 2008. The reason Secretary Gates spoke out
against the burning of Korans by Terry Jones. The reason that Obama has
spoken out about the burning of the Korans in this case is the fact we can
see the actions of individuals and know that that is not necessarily the
actions of the government or the intent of the government.

That is not the case in Afghanistan. They are looking at this and
wondering, is this not the way the entire government feels about us, is
this not the way the entire -- the entire -- all the coalition forces feel
about us and feel about our holy book.

So that`s why I think it`s an important distinction to draw about
Afghanistan and the way we feel over here as well.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know -- go ahead, Congresswoman. Go ahead.

PINGREE: Well, I was just going to say, I have to agree. I think
Wes has laid it out very well.

This is the holy book of the majority of people in that country.
They don`t know if an individual did this or this is the policy of the
United States.

I think it`s not surprising that there`s a tremendous amount of
uprising. I think the president handled it in the right way. And it`s one
more challenge that we have to face.

I don`t think this is surprising and says that everyone hates us.

MATTHEWS: Well, what`s all that crowd about we`re watching here?
What are they -- thousands and thousands of people not working, spending
all their time screaming and yelling. Is this just for the cameras?

PINGREE: I think --

MATTHEWS: This looks like real passion here. Look at this multitude
of people here raising their arms, yelling and screaming like nothing else
matters to them on this planet except that we burnt their holy book.

Nothing is as important to these people as this fact. Not they`re
fighting the Taliban. That al Qaeda is waiting to come back in. Not that
they are facing Sharia law.

That this -- do you, Congresswoman, really believe this is the most
important thing in the world, these people? What they`re doing?

PINGREE: Let`s face it. I think it`s an angry country that`s tired
of being at war, that many people are out of work and they`re frustrated
and tired about the situation that they`re in. But they still have the
right to be angry --

MATTHEWS: OK.

PINGREE: -- about what`s going on with their holy books.

MOORE: And in addition to the fact that we have to understand it`s
the Taliban who also has been behind a lot of the riling up. They have
really been some of the leading cheerleaders and the ones spreading out
around the country as well.

MATTHEWS: I don`t like the looks of this.

Thank you, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine.

PINGREE: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: And, Wes Moore, thank you again for your service, sir.

MOORE: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: When we return, "Let Me Finish" with why it`s not smart
politics for Rick Santorum to criticize President Kennedy the way he`s done
this weekend.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

Rick Santorum has a strange way of winning over those blue collar
Catholics he needs to beat the elite Mitt Romney. He attacked John F.
Kennedy.

Because his record shows JFK was far from perfect in his personal
morality, I question deeply and, yes, passionately Santorum`s attack on his
public role. Kennedy was an out and out war hero who risked his life in
the South Pacific. No president in history, no politician I can think of
showed such selfless courage in the way Kennedy did in saving his crew in
the South Pacific.

Santorum ought to do a little study on the matter before making
charges about who makes him throw up. Second, he ought to take a good look
at John F. Kennedy`s record of public service and elective office.

He was the first president to stand up for civil rights, declaring it
a moral issue as old as the Scriptures, as clear as the American
Constitution. He sent federal troops in the Mississippi to integrate Ole
Miss. He forced the door open at the University of Alabama past the
resistance of Governor George Wallace.

And today, the sister of that woman he got into Alabama that day is
married to the attorney general of the United States.

Why do you think Kennedy was down there in Texas, by the way, in
November of `63? He was trying to hold on to Texas and maybe Georgia
because he knew his historic stand for civil rights was going to cost him
the rest of the South.

Kennedy created the Peace Corps to send young people around the world
to teach and in other ways help the poor. He created the Alliance for
Progress to create a partnership with Latin America. He saved the world
from nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis when American generals wanted
to attack Cuba, and Khrushchev was ready to fire those missiles at New York
the second we did.

Santorum said he wanted to throw up when he read Kennedy`s speech
declaring his commitment to keep church and state separate. But is there
something wrong with saying that no Catholic cleric (ph) should tell the
president, should he be a Catholic, how to act? And no Protestant minister
should tell people how to vote?

Perhaps before retching, Rick Santorum ought to consider that there
are ways in which doing good might be possible without being sectarian,
without dividing the country along lines of religious difference. Perhaps
before retching, he might have considered what Kennedy said in his
inaugural address -- that here on earth, God`s work must truly be our own.

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

Tomorrow, I`ll be New York for MSNBC`s live coverage of the Michigan
and arizona primaries. Coverage begins at 8:00 Eastern here, right after
HARDBALL.

"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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