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updated 2/29/2012 1:01:18 PM ET 2012-02-29T18:01:18

Guests: Howard Fineman, Mark Halperin, Sue Herera, Joe Klein, Dayne Walling, Dee Dee Myers, Chip Saltsman, Diana DeGette, Majorie Dannenfelser

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Rick versus Romney.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews up in New York. And what an evening
it`s going to be. Tonight we stand watch again at the political abyss of
Mitt Romney. He may win tonight and avoid a devastating fall, but if he
loses, the fall could be deadly.

How does Romney explain losing in Michigan? How does a candidate who
outspends a rival 2 to 1 explain rejection? And more importantly, how does
anyone explain losing to a candidate who makes himself so challenging to
vote for as Rick Santorum?

This may be as big a night as we`ve had in this political season, and
we have it covered tonight now until the dust settles. We`ll be back in
two hours with a new edition of HARDBALL. Then at 8:00 o`clock Eastern,
Rachel Maddow and I will be joined by the Reverend Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz,
Lawrence O`Donnell and Republican strategist Steve Schmidt or full coverage
of the Michigan and Arizona primaries.

We begin our coverage tonight right now with "Time" magazine`s Joe
Klein and the HuffingtonPost`s Howard Fineman, who`s also an MSNBC
political analyst.

I want to start with you, Joe. Tonight, this thing about Mitt Romney
-- I just want your general sense. I`ve been tough on him. I don`t think
he`s a good politician. I don`t think he has the human touch, the bedside
manner, whatever you want to call it. He`s not what we think of as a good
politician. And that`s his problem.

JOE KLEIN, "TIME" MAGAZINE: That`s true. And today -- today was an
incredibly significant day in the history of Mitt Romney. He finally
admitted that there was something that he wouldn`t do to get this
nomination.

MATTHEWS: What`s that?

KLEIN: He would not set his hair on fire--

(LAUGHTER)

KLEIN: -- to get the nomination. Now, you know, as much as I`d like
to see Romney set his hair on -- what a sight that would be. The fact is
that throughout this process, he has sold his soul to the devil time and
time and time again.

And finally today, he said that he wouldn`t criticize the president in
the outlandish way that Santorum and Newt and others have been doing.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s show that right now. Here`s Mitt Romney saying
what he won`t do. Well, we`re finally hearing what he won`t do, what he`s
not even willing to do. Let`s watch it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It`s very easy
to excite the base with incendiary comments. We`ve seen throughout the
campaign that if you`re willing to say really outrageous things that are
accusative and attacking President Obama, that you`re going to jump up in
the polls. You know, I`m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and
get support.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Howard Fineman, is this the same candidate who fairly
recently again and again has said if President Obama is president next
year, Iran will have nuclear weapons, if I`m president, they won`t? I
mean, I think that`s a pretty strong statement in terms of incendiary. But
your thoughts.

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:
Well, he`s already set his hair on fire many times, it`s just not
flammable.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Howard, quote of the day. Now we move on.

FINEMAN: OK. But looking at it from the other way, how much guts
does it take as a politician to stand up for a college education or to
stand up for the separation of church and state? Is that as far as Mitt
Romney is willing to go to take issue with Rick Santorum?

If that`s only as far as he`s willing to go, with that mild and sort
of vague denunciation of incendiary rhetoric, does he deserve it? You`ve
got to have a little bit of guts in politics. Why not take him on.
Santorum -- and that`ll force Santorum even farther to the right. But Mitt
Romney refused to do it.

MATTHEWS: Well, here are the numbers. He`s on the abyss, I said
right now. The latest poll, the PPP poll out today, has Santorum with a
slim edge right now of 38 to 37 in Michigan. So that`s how close they`re
dancing on the edge of the cliff right now. Romney could lose tonight.

KLEIN: He could lose. And even if he wins tonight, what has he won?
Because next week, we have super-Tuesday, which isn`t looking all that
terrific for him now. He`s going to have a tough road in probably the most
important state, which is Ohio. And it`s going to be near impossible for
him down South.

I think he has two little blocks, that little block up in New England
-- he`ll win Massachusetts next week -- and kind of the Mormon stripe in
the west. Idaho has a lot of Mormons.

MATTHEWS: Well, one of the most interesting things tonight, Howard,
is the fact that Rick Santorum, as many things as people in the mainstream
world have said are unacceptable, incorrigible, if you will -- I haven`t
said that, but most people have, and you pointed them out -- he`s still
running head to head with this guy in the guy`s native state.

That to me is the most devastating shot at Mitt Romney. He can`t beat
a guy who has stuck his chin out on so many cultural issues, including
going after JFK in a state that JFK obviously carried back in `60 and has a
lot of Catholic followers to this day, and making these other comments that
most people would say are 1953, at best.

FINEMAN: Well, a couple things. First of all, yes, Rick Santorum in
certain respects has made it difficult for himself to reach out to Catholic
Democrats. I mean, you don`t want to trash Jack Kennedy when you`re
reaching out to Catholic Democrats.

But I think what you`re going to hear from the Romney campaign, on the
off chance that Romney loses tonight, or in the very real chance that
Romney loses -- if he does lose -- and I`ve already been talking to some of
his people about this -- they`re going to blame the Democrats.

They`re going to say that if you look at the numbers, Mitt Romney has
a decent lead among Republicans, but Rick Santorum is going to the
Democratic side to get the Democrats in.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: Romney will blame everybody else. But the problem is -- and
Joe and I have all -- we`ve covered I don`t know how many campaigns between
us -- and you, too, Chris -- I`ve not seen Mitt Romney improve as a
candidate or as a campaign.

This last week or so in Michigan and down at the NASCAR event for Mitt
Romney was a nightmare. You had Ford Field, you had him making fun of the
people with the cheap rain slickers, you had him bragging about the NASCAR
owners that he`s friends with, just one disaster after another for both him
and his campaign.

And for the professional Republican politicians, they`re wondering,
Wait a minute, we thought this guy was at least technically competent. But
he isn`t even that right now.

MATTHEWS: And what`s wrong with -- what`s wrong with being able to
prove you can reach across the aisle and get some Democratic votes? What`s
so awful about that?

KLEIN: I`d go Howard one further. I think that he`s gotten worse as
a candidate.

FINEMAN: I agree.

KLEIN: When he first came out, he was making a very disciplined case
against Obama in terms of the economy, in terms of jobs, in terms of
regulations, and so on. He -- he -- he`s become a mess.

MATTHEWS: Well, here he is.

FINEMAN: That`s true.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look. He`s done -- you made your point here,
guys. Here`s Mitt Romney conceding he has made some mistakes during the
campaign. Let`s watch him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I`m very pleased with the campaign, its organization. The
candidate sometimes make some mistakes. And -- and so I`m trying to do
better and work harder and make sure that we -- we get our message across.

I think in the final analysis, I anticipate becoming the nominee
because I think what people want to be talking about is the economy and--

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Are these mistakes, Howard, or are they disclosures? A
mistake, according to Michael Kinsley years ago, was when you tell
something you really believe. This guy`s -- I think they`re disclosures
about him. The reason we have campaigns is to learn who the real Mitt
Romney is.

The real Mitt Romney looks at the world -- I like being able to fire
people, My wife`s got a couple Caddies. He made fun of a person at Daytona
the other day for not having sort of upper-class raincoats on, made fun of
them for wearing ponchos. That`s him. That`s not a mistake, that`s him.
He may be a mistake.

FINEMAN: Well, it`s a mistake if you`re running a campaign designed
to show you have a connection to real people by going to NASCAR event and
then you make fun of the clothes that the people are wearing.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: I mean -- and it`s a mistake to--

MATTHEWS: I have never heard of a politician making fun of people for
the clothes they`re wearing.

FINEMAN: Yes. And you know, so they had a $3 poncho on, you know,
they can`t afford -- they can`t afford a Brooks Brothers or a Barbour coat,
you know?

MATTHEWS: One reason why Romney may be going after Santorum for his
snob comment is that he has his own image problem as a snob. Here`s what
he did say to that group of fans wearing plastic ponchos at the Daytona
Speedway. Quote, "I like those fancy raincoats you bought. Really sprung
for the big bucks, the big bucks, didn`t you?"

He`s making fun of people wearing those clear, see-through plastic
ponchos you buy, usually when you get caught in the rain.

FINEMAN: And they`re already in a bad--

MATTHEWS: And he`s wearing this very sporty kind of abbreviated--

FINEMAN: Chris--

MATTHEWS: -- raincoat.

FINEMAN: Plus, they`re already in a bad mood because the race is
being delayed.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: I mean--

MATTHEWS: I don`t get it.

Anyway, on Sunday, Rick Santorum said John Kennedy`s historic speech
on religion back in `60 made him, quote, "throw up." Well, today he
backtracked it. But he was on Laura Ingraham`s radio show today. Let`s
listen to his backtrack. This is Rick.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I probably wouldn`t have gone
down that road with JFK and I was going to throw up. I mean, I think -- we
don`t generally want to hear presidential candidates talking about throwing
up at all in any context. So that`s -- that`s -- you know what I mean?

RICK SANTORUM (R-PA), FMR. SEN., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would
agree with that. I -- you know, that -- that -- I wish, you know, I had
that -- that particular line back. If you read President Kennedy`s text,
while there were certainly some very important things and good things he
said in that, there were some -- there were some things that triggered, in
my opinion, the privatization of faith. And I think that`s -- that`s a bad
thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, I don`t know why he went after Kennedy on what many
people believe to be the best speech of his campaign, which is to try to
explain the fact although he`s a Catholic, he wasn`t going to take his
religion into the office and become a theocrat.

KLEIN: Well, you know, the thing about Santorum is that he`s the
exact opposite of Mitt Romney.

MATTHEWS: And the exact opposite of Jack Kennedy.

KLEIN: You know, I was out in Michigan over the weekend. And you
know, Mitt Romney is those wonderful kind of sterile suburbs that surround
Detroit. And--

MATTHEWS: Wonderful, sterile.

KLEIN: Yes. Santorum is Hamtramck (ph) and Lincoln Park--

MATTHEWS: Right.

KLEIN: -- and the places -- you know, and -- and so he doesn`t
premeditate this stuff, he just lets it -- let`s it rip. And he really is
kind of the Legion of Decency 1953 Republican--

MATTHEWS: OK, my question to -- to those who are on the other side --
Howard, speak for them, those in the center and on the left, the
progressives out there. What should they fear more, Romney`s elitist
attitude towards the economy, where he looks at everything from the top
economically, or Santorum`s sort of gut sense that his religion should
trump the Constitution, if necessary?

FINEMAN: Well, I think Rick Santorum is posing a more fundamental
challenge to the modern world. So -- and on the assumption that it`s going
to probably be a tight race regardless -- and I think it will because of
polls showing that there`s still a lot of unhappiness with President
Obama`s leadership, especially on the economy -- I would say be careful
what you wish for, if you`re wishing for Rick Santorum, because the
campaign, I think, would be one of surpassing ugliness probably on both
sides, and something even more divisive than anything we`re already
prepared to expect in this coming election.

MATTHEWS: Could he win the presidency, Howard?

FINEMAN: Yes, he could win the presidency. If you get in the finals,
if you get in the big game, you can win. It`s -- I wouldn`t say no.

I wouldn`t say no because as we all know, we`re talking about the area
of, you know, 10 states. You`re talking about 10 battleground states. You
could say it`s unlikely, but I don`t think you can say it`s impossible, by
any means. And of course, you never say that in politics.

MATTHEWS: Joe, you agree? He could win the general?

KLEIN: Probably not, but -- but of course, he has a shot, as Howard
said.

The thing about Romney`s campaign that`s so crazy is that if you run
on electability, which is a stupid thing to run on in the first place, you
have to prove that you can be -- that you`re electable to the people in the
middle who are going to put you over the top. And he has done none of that
in this campaign going back to the very first thing we started with.

MATTHEWS: What I`ve learned in this business is that when people hear
the word "Santorum," for better or worse, they listen. They`re interested.
When they hear the word "Romney," they`re bored. There`s something
fundamentally boring about that name and what he has to say.

Anyway, thank you, Joe Klein. Thank you, Howard Fineman.

Coming up: The Santorum campaign is robocalling -- that`s automatic
calling -- all kinds of people, especially Michigan Democrats, urging them
to vote for him in the open primary today. He`s looking for Democratic
votes. It`s driving Romney crazy.

You`re watching HARDBALL`s coverage of the Michigan and Arizona
primaries today, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: For those who like to follow the money, look at this. Mitt
Romney and his allies have outspent Rick Santorum 2 to 1 in Michigan. The
Romney campaign and the Restore Our Future super-PAC have spent a total
$4.1 million in that state, versus $2.1 million for the Santorum campaign
and the pro-Santorum Red White and Blue Fund super-PAC.

And not to be left out of the action, Newt Gingrich, who got another
big money infusion from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson -- Newt`s super-PAC is
spending that money on TV ads in seven states this week, hoping to win a
few contests on super-Tuesday, a week from today.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. In Michigan, Democrats are able
to walk up to the polls and vote in today`s Republican primary, something
Rick Santorum hopes to use to his big advantage.

Listen to this robocall that went out to Democrats today in hopes of
getting them out to vote.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michigan Democrats can vote in the Republican
primary on Tuesday. Why is it so important? Romney supported the bail-
outs for his Wall Street billionaire buddies but opposed the auto bail-
outs. That was a slap in the face to every Michigan worker, and we`re not
going to let Romney get away with it.

On Tuesday, join Democrats who are going to send a loud message to
Massachusetts Mitt Romney by voting for Rick Santorum for president.

This call is supported by hard-working Democratic men and women and
paid for by Rick Santorum for President.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, tonight, we can report new exit poll data on just who
voted in Michigan today. Ten percent of the voters in the Republican
primary say they`re Democrats, 31 percent say they`re independents, 59
percent say they`re Republican. And that Democratic number hasn`t changed
a whole lot since 2008.

But take a look at the combined number of Democrats and independents
and the decline in Republicans from four years ago. And that`s notable.

Today in Michigan, 27 percent of voters say they`re moderates, 13
percent say they`re liberals, and 14 percent say they`re members of a
union. Those numbers are about on par with those that were there four
years ago in the balloting.

But are these Democrats the kind of Reagan Democrats who honestly want
to pick an Obama alternative, or are they toying with the vote, hoping to
nominate the most electable -- or actually, the most beatable Republican
for the presidency?

Mayor Dayne Walling is the Democratic mayor from Flint and Mark
Halperin writes for "Time" magazine and is MSNBC`s senior political
analyst.

Mayor, I want your thoughts about this. I don`t know -- Romney`s
throwing around the word -- the term "dirty tricks." It seems to me that
under Michigan law, you`re perfectly within your rights to pick up a
Republican ballot, if you choose to do so, under the law and sign for it.

Is that a dirty trick for a Democrat or an independent to vote in the
Republican primary today?

MAYOR DAYNE WALLING, D-FLINT, MICHIGAN: No. This is how it`s been
in Michigan for a long time, and Governor Romney knows that well. There
are Democrats and independents, and vice versa, in the primaries in
Michigan for president. And I think he`s just trying to prepare for a
shock tonight and find someone to blame.

MATTHEWS: What do you think of that, Mark? Is that a fair
assessment, that dirty tricks are in the eye of the beholder and maybe it
was a clean trick, get the other side to vote if you can`t win with
Republican votes?

MARK HALPERIN, "TIME," MSNBC SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: I`m going to do
my best Fred Armisen doing Joy Behar. Who cares? Who cares?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

HALPERIN: It doesn`t matter. If Romney loses, that`s all anybody`s
going to care about. Some Democrats are going to vote for Santorum because
they`re Reagan Democrats and they like his message and there`s no contest
on the other side. I think some will be mischief makers driven by unions.

It doesn`t matter. The robocalls, as far as I`m concerned, are
totally fine. If you want to become president of the United States and
you`re a Republican running in the Michigan primary, you want Democratic
votes because you`re going to need them if you`re going to win the general.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know, Mayor, back in 2000, when I was very much
happy with the candidacy of John McCain, I was thrilled he won up in
Michigan. And I thought a lot of those Catholic voters went over to the
Democratic (sic) side, independents, because they liked him. He was a war
hero. They didn`t have a war hero running on their side, they had one
running on the other side. So they did what most people do, vote for a
hero. What was wrong with that? In other words, there`s a precedent for
you.

WALLING: Yes. There`s nothing wrong with it. This is how elections
work. People go to the polls, they get to vote for who they like for
whatever reasons that they choose. And I think for Governor Romney to
suggest that anyone is somehow hijacking the process just shows his
disrespect for how our democracy works.

MATTHEWS: OK. Well, back in that 2000 Michigan primary, John McCain
had a lot of crossover votes who took part in the primary to vote for him.
Seventeen percent of the voters who came out for him were Democrats. 35
percent were independents. And among the Democratic voters, McCain
trounced George W. Bush 82 percent to Bush`s 10 percent.

Let me ask you -- I might as well have some fun here.

Mark, what does it tell you that looking at the numbers coming in
right now, does it like it`s good for the crossovers to have a pronounced
effect here?

MARK HALPERIN, MSNBC SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It could. Although,
if you`re focused on the mischief makers, it`s hard to know how they have
answered the exit poller`s question, right? They may not answer absolutely
honestly.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let`s go with the legitimate conservative Democrats.

HALPERIN: It`s good enough -- it`s good enough for Santorum, I think,
particularly if he gets the bulk of them, which I suspect he will.

Now, I asked someone who works for Rick Santorum, senior official in
his campaign. You clearly want the Reagan Democrats, but how do you feel
about the mischief makers? If Rick Santorum is getting votes from Michael
Moore supporters, union members, how do you feel about that?

And his answer amounted to homina, homina, homina. They don`t really
have a good answer for that.

MATTHEWS: Well, do they have to answer to The Daily Kos?

HALPERIN: Well, I think the state party has denounced them. I think
Rick Santorum probably will and should denounce them in the sense of party
politics.

You don`t want to come out of this having got elected on the back of
Michael Moore and Daily Kos. But I don`t think we will know what
percentage is that. And these Reagan Democrats, Mitt Romney would have
welcomed them under different circumstances.

MATTHEWS: Well, this is news flashing right before us with these
exits now. After the robo-call news broke on "Hannity" last night,
Santorum defended the robo-call and brought up [Romney`s campaign tactics
as defense. Let`s watch this.

Boy, what goes around comes around Mitt. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You mean when he runs a
robo-call of my voice from four years ago saying good things about him,
that`s not a low moment? It`s interesting that we criticize me for
attracting Democrats, because one of the things that Governor Romney and
his people say is, oh, he can`t attract Democrats.

Well, guess what? We will wait and see.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Mayor, there`s so many goes around, comes around pieces,
it`s hard to keep track of them.

Romney defended himself for having voted for Paul Tsongas back in `92
in a Democratic primary by saying he was basically mischief making. He
wasn`t even defending voting for the lesser of two evils or for the more
moderate Democrat, Tsongas. He was saying he was over there to screw with
the other party. He`s admitting his behavior in the past is the worst
possible interpretation of voting today if you`re a Democrat for Santorum.

Isn`t that amazing?

WALLING: Right. He`s trying to flip-flop again on this. It`s right
for him in one case and now it`s wrong for somebody else.

And I think the voters at the end of the day, when you have a million-
and-a-half people go to the polls, you`re going to see them vote for the
people who they think are best positioned to lead this country forward.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about something in the gut out there.

In the gut, when you talk to UAW families and people who care about
whether in the supply business or the auto business itself or they just
care about the economy of your state -- is there a sense that Romney is
particularly guilty because he voted to bail out Wall Street and not the
auto industry?

WALLING: Yes.

Governor Romney should have known better. He talks about his
connections to Michigan. His family obviously has deep roots here. He
should know how important the American auto industry is to our country, to
our state. And for him to get into that overheated rhetoric and talking
about letting Detroit go bankrupt, that sent a clear and strong political
message that he just has disdain for the voters and the working families in
Michigan. And it`s coming back to haunt him.

MATTHEWS: By the way, if he loves Michigan so much, why doesn`t he
live there?

WALLING: Yes, that`s a good question.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: It`s a free choice. It`s not like he has a job somewhere
else.

Your thoughts, anyway, about the whole question of the bailout. How
does it work politically out there?

HALPERIN: I think there are some people who vote in the process who
agree with him about markets and the way it should have been handled.

Clearly, though, to the extent he does win this on the backs of
independents and Democrats flocking to Santorum, I think the bailout issue
is such a hot button.

MATTHEWS: If he loses.

HALPERIN: If he loses, the bailout issue is such a hot button, not
just because of the Michigan angle, but just he had no Michigan roots, the
fact that he`s supporting opposing the bailout the way he did.

MATTHEWS: He will have the brand on him of a guy who lost Michigan --
if he loses -- we don`t know what will happen tonight -- when we get the
full results, we will know.

If he loses Michigan tonight, he will have the brand on him of a guy
who had basically betrayed the auto industry.

HALPERIN: And even if he becomes the Republican nominee, he will have
that in the general election too. David Plouffe salivates over that every
day.

MATTHEWS: Salivates. Wow. There`s a thought.

Anyway, thank you, Mark Halperin, who does know about these guys, even
to the point of their salivation.

Anyway, thank you, Mayor Walling. Thanks for joining us from Flint.
Please come back again throughout the election.

Up next, Steve Colbert on Mitt Romney`s obsession with the height of
trees. This is really bizarre. This guy said this now twice. I like the
height of the trees in Michigan. Is this Chauncey Gardiner from "Being
There"?

You`re watching HARDBALL, live coverage of the Michigan and Arizona
primaries, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First up, making their case. With Romney out measuring the height of
trees and Santorum calling Obama a snob for pushing college, who has done
the better job of convincing voters they should be calling the shots in the
Oval Office?

Well, here`s Stephen Colbert last night first taking on the number of
empty seats at Mitt Romney`s speech at Ford Field on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Yes. I mean, there were
a lot of empty seats, but the important thing is, Mitt really connected
with those empty seats by also being plastic and uncomfortable.

(LAUGHTER)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This feels good being back
in Michigan. The trees are the right height.

COLBERT: If he wants to win, he should do more of this regular guy
stuff that he obviously loves.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I mean, he should eat hot dogs and say, I love hot dogs,
they are just the right length.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: The mustard is yellow. That`s the right color. The bun has
the right breadiness.

Rick Santorum is confident. He`s already looking past Michigan to his
real opponent, President Obama.

SANTORUM: He wants everybody in America to go to college. What a
snob.

COLBERT: Yes, what a snob.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Obama thinks everybody should go to college like he did.
Well, pardon me, your highness, but some of us weren`t handed a ticket to
Harvard by being the biracial son of a single mother on food stamps.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Must be nice.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Great. That`s right, another banner week for the clown
show.

But if that`s not enough, how is this for a negotiation? You can`t
have a successful campaign rally without the right music to amp up the
crowd, right? Well, Mitt Romney wanted to bring it to them live at an
event last night and called on Michigan native Kid Rock.

Apparently, Romney had to make a hard sell to get the rock musician to
sign on. Here`s Romney recounting the ordeal last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He said, Mitt, if you`re
elected president, will you help me help the state of Michigan? I said I
would. He said, if you`re elected president, will you help me help the
city of Detroit? And I said I would.

I turned to him and I said, by the way, given the fact that I`m
willing to do those things, would you come here and perform a concert
tonight for my friends?

Well, I`m happy to introduce a son of Detroit, Kid Rock.

(MUSIC)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: That just makes it worse, doesn`t it?

Anyway, and now for the "Big Number." We have heard rumblings about
the bromance, if you will, between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Well,
ThinkProgress took a look back and here`s its accounting.

Ron Paul leveled a total of 39 attacks at his Republican rivals over
the past 20 debates. How many were a direct hit at Romney? Zero. Compare
that to the 22 times he went after Santorum, the 39 attacks and zero
against Mitt Romney. It sounds like an antitrust to me.

And that`s tonight`s "Big Number."

Up next, regardless of who wins tonight, Democrats feel pretty good
about President Obama`s reelection chances right now, especially after the
barn-burner of a speech he gave today to the United Auto Workers. Wait
until you hear it. It`s about the rebirth of the American auto industry.
And he did better than in a long time. Do the Republicans have an answer
to this argument? He saved that industry.

You`re watching HARDBALL`s coverage of the Michigan and Arizona
primaries tonight, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

The Dow gains 24 points to close above 13000 for the first time since
May of 2008. The S&P 500 up five points, and the Nasdaq adds 21. Apple
says it is holding an event in San Francisco next week, leading many to
believe the company will unveil its new iPad. Shares rallied on that news.

And an index of consumer confidence hit its highest level in a year.
However, orders for durable goods slid 4 percent last month, the biggest
decline in almost three years.

And that`s it from CNBC. We`re first in business world -- and now
back to HARDBALL and Chris.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I got to get inside a
brand-new Chevy Volt fresh off the line -- even though Secret Service
wouldn`t let me drive it.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And five years from now, when I`m not president anymore, I
will buy one and drive it myself.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

AUDIENCE: Four more years. Four more years. Four more years.

OBAMA: All right.

AUDIENCE: Four more years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, look who has wheels on his feet.

Welcome back.

That was a fired-up President Obama being cheered on -- cheered on, I
should say, during a barn-burner of a speech at the UAW meeting in
Washington earlier today.

While Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were out fighting to win Michigan,
the president was reminding everyone out there that he rescued the auto
industry. Can this fiery, populist message fuel Obama`s chances in the
2012 race? You betcha.

Dee Dee Myers is a former press secretary for President Bill Clinton.
And Chip Saltsman is a former strategist for Mike Huckabee`s presidential
campaign.

Dee Dee, the man has wheels on his feet, if not wings right now. He
thinks this issue will help him. Can you tell from the razzmatazz if it
will?

DEE DEE MYERS, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, it
certainly puts him in a good position at the moment. You would much rather
be playing President Obama`s hand than other of the Republican candidates
at this point in Michigan.

Certainly, it was fortuitous that he was at the UAW today talking
about how he saved the auto industry. And you still have the two
candidates, the two top candidates in Michigan fighting each other over who
would have let Detroit go bankrupt more quickly.

So that`s a very good place for the president to be. You can see him
feeling quite confident and having a good time and getting a lot of love
back from those UAW members, many of whose jobs he saved.

MATTHEWS: Well, Chip Saltsman, he has an ally out there campaigning
like mad who may well do well tonight, who knows, in Michigan, in the home
of the auto industry especially, Michigan, saying that Romney was dead
wrong in bankrolling Wall Street and basically dissing Detroit.

CHIP SALTSMAN, FORMER MIKE HUCKABEE CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Well, I
disagree with that obviously.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You disagree with Santorum?

SALTSMAN: Well, I disagree with -- I wanted to say I want to disagree
with the president talking about his Chevy Volt. I want to get him to that
Chevy Volt as quick as possible, not in five years, maybe next year. I
would be happy to buy it for him if he`s out of a job. I would be happy to
pitch in and help the Chevy Volt.

MATTHEWS: OK. Nice rhetoric. But bottom line, let`s get back to the
facts, Chip.

Do you think Santorum is right when he said it was a bad move for Mitt
Romney to bankroll Wall Street and give nothing to Detroit? That`s what
he`s saying in the campaign today and all the last several weeks.

SALTSMAN: Well, and I`m not Santorum`s spokesperson. I`m trying to
call this like I see them.

And I think it`s important to talk about the bailout kind of in more
general terms. As you know, Chris, I wasn`t for the bailout on any level,
a Wall Street bailout or an auto bailout, simply for this reason. I think
it`s government choosing winners and losers.

And I think the president probably made a good political move in
talking to the UAW tonight and kind of getting some of the TV time as we
talk about the Michigan primary. But I think it`s a short-term gain, not a
long-term gain, because why is a union worker in Michigan more important
than perhaps a non-union worker in Tennessee who didn`t get a bailout?

MATTHEWS: Dee Dee.

MYERS: The bailout, as President Bush said, that sometimes you have
to put ideology aside and do what`s in the best interests of the country.

That`s 1.4 million jobs that were saved. Those aren`t just
autoworkers, but they`re people who support the autoworkers, whether they
are supply companies or the restaurant on the corner that provides lunch
for those workers. So certainly, there`s that. And it would have had a
devastating effect not just on Michigan, but on the auto industry around
the region.

So clearly the president did the right thing. And the results speak
for themselves. GM is back. It`s the biggest auto company in the world
now, Hugely profitable, as is Chrysler. And Ford is doing great. So the
auto industry is looking better has it has in quite a while, thanks to the
president`s willingness to take a political risk and do what he thought was
right.

MATTHEWS: Well, Obama did take advantage today of Michigan`s primary
battle to remind everyone he was fighting for the bailout of the industry
while Republican candidates were not.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: The other option was to do absolutely nothing and let these
companies fail. And you will recall there were some politicians who said
we should do that.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(BOOING)

OBAMA: Some even said we should let Detroit go bankrupt.

(BOOING)

OBAMA: You remember that?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Chip, suppose it had gone bankrupt. What would you be
saying right now? What would Republicans be saying?

SALTSMAN: I don`t think -- I don`t think Detroit would have gone
bankrupt.

Look, I think if you`re going to a free market person, you should
believe in the free market. If you believe that government should take
care of everybody`s problems, then you do a government bailout, which Obama
did.

Look, we don`t know what it would have been like on the other end
because we didn`t get a chance to go through that. President Obama made
the decision to put in $80 billion of the government`s money into Detroit.
I would have much preferred, I know a lot other more conservative folks
would have concerned -- to let the free market work, working through a
managed bankruptcy.

I know the Democrats say that didn`t work, or what -- we don`t know
that because we didn`t have an opportunity. And again --

MATTHEWS: Who was out there to loan money? Who was out there to
loan -- we had Rattner on, Steve Rattner, who was the auto czar, the other
night. He said where was the money you guys? Was anybody out there who
want to offer $80 billion to save the industry that you know of? Private
sector money, where was it?

SALTSMAN: I think at the end of the day, if you would have put this
up for the private sector, I think the money would have been there. It may
not been exactly what it looked like today. It wouldn`t have been a $80
billion check, because nobody`s got that much money. I don`t think you
have $80 billion, Chris.

But I think at the end of the day, you got to let -- if you believe
in free market, private sector philosophy, you`ve got to let the market
work itself out. And you can`t have government picking winners and losers.

It`s unfair for the government to pick a winner or loser in Detroit
and let somebody fail in Atlanta, Georgia, or Nashville, Tennessee.

MYERS: So, you know, I think that`s the creative distraction that
sometimes comes with the markets.

Look, what the people who worked on that auto restructuring will tell
you is that they were mostly from the equity business. They -- private
equity business, they called everybody. They went to everybody they knew.
And they know everybody in the business. All the money was on the
sideline.

So, there was not going to be, you know, a lot of private, you know,
partners jumping in to save the industry.

And so, I think -- Chip is exactly right. It looked very different,
as in 1.4 million people would have lost their jobs.

So, I think it`s just fantasy as Steve Rattner has said that there
was going to be some kind of a managed bankruptcy process. It wasn`t going
to happen.

SALTSMAN: I couldn`t disagree more.

MATTHEWS: Let`s listen to the president here. He`s stated what
sounds like his general election strategy. Let`s see how he plays this
one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I promise you this.
As long as you have an ounce left of fight in you, I will have a ton of
fight left in me.

We`re going to keep on fighting to make our economy stronger, to put
our friends and neighbors back to work faster, to give our children even
more opportunity, to make sure that the United States of America remains
the greatest nation on earth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Chip, here`s your party`s conundrum right now. You had a
very shot at winning Michigan this time, as well as right across the Rust
Belt. We know that. Dee Dee and I, everybody has been watching this
thing. It`s a very difficult time for that part of the country.

And now you got a situation where the latest polling out of Michigan
is something like a 17-point spread for the president. Doesn`t that answer
the political analysis right there? He`s won on that issue out there.

SALTSMAN: Again, Chris, I think it`s a short-term win for the
president. Look, he gave a great speech today. He`s a great speech giver.

But at the end of the day, I think when you talk about the economy
and the private market, you`re talking about jobs being created by private
industry as opposed to government. People are going to rally around the
conservative message, not the president`s, which is government picking
winners and losers. It`s a long-term loss for our country if we do that.

MATTHEWS: You know what you`re holding in terms of the poker right
now, Chip? You know what you got in your hand?

SALTSMAN: I think I know what I have in my hand, but I`m not going
to show, Chris.

MATTHEWS: A couple of threes. Anyway, thank you very much.

Dee Dee Myers, you`ve got four aces. Thank you so much, Dee Dee
Myers, for playing your hand very well.

And, Chip, to you.

Up next: one big reason President Obama is doing so well among women
is the Republicans have turned hard right on issues like birth control and
abortion rights. That`s ahead.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Here`s a big chance for the Democrats to pick up a seat in
the United States Senate. Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine said
today she will not seek reelection this year. Snowe has been a moderate
voice, one of the last in her party. And she was thought to be a lock for
reelection up there in Maine despite Tea Party opposition there. Well, the
Republicans were counting on her as they made plans to try to win control
of the Senate.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, SECRETARY OF HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES:
Congressman, I think that the issue of religious liberty is one that I and
one that the president take very, very seriously. The issue of women`s
health coverage is also one that I take very seriously.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDALL.

Again today, the white hot issue of religious liberty and women`s
right was fought on the Hill today. And that was HHS secretary, of course,
Kathleen Sebelius, testifying earlier today in front of the House Ways and
Means Committee.

We just learned, by the way, on Thursday that the Senate will vote on
the Blunt amendment this Thursday. It`s a bold challenge the Obama
administration`s birth control rule and would allow all employers, not just
religious based ones, to reject parts of the health care law that run
counter to their religious and moral believes.

What are the politics in play here and who benefits from a fight?
Today`s "New York Times" headline says Democrats see benefits in battle on
contraception. And adds, quote, "This is a fight Democrats are perfectly
pleased to have."

Well, a new "Associated Press" poll shows President Obama`s approval
rating among women has gone up 10 points since December among women. How
much did women`s health issues play a part in that rise and how will this
fight affect the politics of 2012?

Well, joining us right is Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette of
Colorado, who`s co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus. And
Marjorie Dannenfelser, who is president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an
organization who works to elect pro-life candidates.

So, I`m going to pull back here and let both of you discuss this
issue. I want to start, as I always do, with elected officials, with
Congresswoman DeGette. Let me ask you why it looks like to the press
covering this, the Democrats are not running away from this fight. They
are quite willing to get out there at the edge of this fight and face it
down?

REP. DIANA DEGETTE (D), COLORADO: Well, Chris, the last I heard, it
was 2012 -- a year when 99 percent of American women have used or use right
now birth control. They use birth control for family planning. They use
birth control to do things to, like, prevent ovarian cancer.

And really, out there in the hinterlands, out where I live in
Colorado, and every place else around the country, women are saying, of
course, birth control family planning are part of my health care services.
Not just for family planning, but also for a whole variety of other
reasons.

And they are really kind of surprised that anybody would say that
they shouldn`t be provided that as part of their regular medical care.

MATTHEWS: Let`s go to the other side.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, I assume you are here to make the case for
these moral amendments, these opportunities by Blunt and the others on the
House, both sides of the Hill, to offer the opportunity for employers to
say, no, they don`t have to pay for this kind of health coverage for women?

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER, SBA LIST: That`s right, Chris. You know, the
gender war machine is revved up whenever is possible. But this is an
inappropriate time because really, actually, the language that the feminist
movement used to use, who decides, is a very appropriate question to ask
here. Should be a small group of federal bureaucrats along with President
Obama that decide what religious institutions and private institutions, for
that matter, define as conscientious and a good thing to provide? Should
they be dictating what an appropriately formed conscience looks like?

Look, 2,000 years of religious doctrine have gone behind the Catholic
Church`s view that abortive drugs, which this includes, and sterilization
and contraception, is not within those moral bounds? No one is getting --
no one is getting in the way of women having contraception.

MATTHEWS: OK.

DANNENFELSER: It is only a question of whether institutions should
be required to provide that. And for Sebelius to say you get a year to
adapt to -- adapt your thinking to us is not in any way --

MATTHEWS: Congresswoman, what do you think is the politics of this?
Who do you think wins this argument with the American people? And it is an
election year, it is 2012.

What do the American people want to come out of this debate, do you
believe?

DEGETTE: I think the American people want reasonable health care for
everybody. The Institutes of Medicine concluded that on a scientific
basis, birth control was part of a women`s regular medical care and that`s
why it was ordered to be part of every insurance plan.

Now, listen, the Obama administration made a very wise compromise, I
think, and they said religious institutions don`t have to pay for
contraception.

But the question is, who`s decision is it? I agree in one way with
Marjorie. She says she doesn`t want a small group of people making
decisions on women`s health.

I agree. I don`t think that the U.S. bishops should be able to say
whether millions of Americans make the conscientious choice themselves to
say I want birth control or not.

And, by the way, 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control
in their lives, too. So, that`s really what the issue is.

I`m sorry that -- that it`s being politicized too, because the way I
feel, the way my daughters feel, the way every woman I know feels is that
birth control/pregnancy prevention, is part of a women`s regular health
care. We should be able to get it as part of our insurance.

MATTHEWS: Explain this part to me, Marjorie. Suppose the CEO of a
major American corporation was against birth control. He didn`t believe it
should be covered by health insurance.

Could he decide on the behalf of his corporation that they wouldn`t
provide health care coverage of this kind, under your proposal?

DANNENFELSER: At this point, the only exemptions would be for --

MATTHEWS: No, but under your proposal?

DANNENFELSER: Under the -- under the Blunt bill in the Senate?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

DANNENFELSER: CEOs would still -- they would be -- the exemption
would be provided for anyone within any institution.

MATTHEWS: Any president, any CEO could just say --

DANNENFELSER: The answer --

MATTHEWS: I just want the fact here. Any CEO could say because I
don`t like birth control, nobody that works for me is going to get that
coverage. You think that`s fair legislation?

DANNENFELSER: I don`t think that`s actually what the legislation
says.

MATTHEWS: What is it?

DANNENFELSER: Right now, the exemption is for, and this what the
Blunt bill does, it provides religious and privately -- private
institutions to exempt themselves.

MATTHEWS: Right. That`s what I`m saying.

DANNENFELSER: I do not believe this applies to corporations. Let me
just say this.

DEGETTE: Then, it applies to anybody.

DANNENFELSER: Let me just say this -- no matter what the
institution, it should --because if you --

MATTHEWS: OK. Fine.

DANNENFELSER: I`m just saying that the --

MATTHEWS: I think the public understands this issue. Ladies, thank
you so much. I think they get it right now.

Thank you, U.S. Congresswoman Diana DeGette for coming on. And,
Marjorie Dannenfelser, as always.

When we return, "Let Me Finish" with the trouble Mitt Romney is
having with Mitt Romney.

You are watching HARDBALL`s live coverage of the Michigan and Arizona
primaries tonight, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

What is a politician? Is he or she someone who has the natural touch
with people, someone who can get people to go along with them, or is it a
person who will say anything to get along, someone who will hide their
beliefs, their strongest commitments in order to get people to like them?

Now, think about who meets that first definition, a person who can
get other people to go along with them, because he`s so good with people,
they find themselves liking what he has to say. Well, I`d say Bill
Clinton, wouldn`t you?

Nothing of the second definition, a politician being someone who will
say anything and admit nothing about their beliefs in order to get people
to accept them, who doesn`t want to lead voters, just get by them? Mitt
Romney. Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney.

I think this is the reason why he is having so much trouble getting
anyone excited about him. He doesn`t like this thing, this campaigning,
this asking people to vote for him. He wants to be back in the board room
where he can talk the way he normally talks, about having a couple of
Cadillacs, about liking being able to fire people who don`t deliver for
him, or he can rib somebody for wearing some cheap raincoat when he is
sporting something just right.

Look, this campaign is a real teaching moment -- and not just for
Republicans, it is teaching all of us the way these candidates look at
things, the way Ron Paul doesn`t believe in government, the way Newt
Gingrich calls himself cheerful, even if he basks in his imaginings of
world calamity, the way Rick Santorum sees the dominion of religion over
the state, the way Mitt Romney sees the country from a comfortable seat in
the board room.

Politics isn`t for everyone. Some learn to lead, some learn to be
led. Romney spends these days learning not how to lead the voter but
struggling to get by him and that has made all the difference.

It`s why President Obama, who has led this country through difficult
times and taken the heat for tough decisions, will never be taken for a
Mitt Romney.

Politicians at their best use their skills to lead. They let you
know who they are, not who they are not, because only if you get to know
someone, with all their faults, will you take their word on those matters
important to us all.

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

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY
BE UPDATED.
END

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