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updated 2/29/2012 1:11:20 PM ET 2012-02-29T18:11:20

Guests: Howard Fineman, Mark Halperin, Tamron Hall, Joe Klein, Dayne Walling, Stephen Schmidt, Michael Steele, Eugene Robinson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: 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. In just one hour we will start seeing vote total coming in
from Michigan. And then at 9:00 p.m. the polls close across the state in
Michigan and in Arizona.

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 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 this political season and we`ll
have it covered from now until the dusk settles tonight.

In one hour Rachel Maddow and I will be joined by the Reverend Al Sharpton,
Ed Schultz, Lawrence O`Donnell, and Republican strategist, Stephen Schmidt
for full coverage of the Michigan and Arizona primaries.

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

I want to start with you, Joe. And 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: 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 -- 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), 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.

HOWARD FINEMAN, THE HUFFINGTON POST: Yes.

MATTHEWS: If I`m president, they won`t? I mean, I think that`s a pretty
strong statement in terms of incendiary. But your thoughts.

FINEMAN: 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 as -- 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 -- 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 --

FINEMAN: Right.

MATTHEWS: -- 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 of things. First of all, yes, Rick Santorum has
been 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, in 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.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: This last week or so in Michigan and down -- at the NASCAR event
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. It`s just one disaster after another
for both him and his -- 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.

KLEIN: Right.

MATTHEWS: Yes. 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`s become a mess.

MATTHEWS: Well, here he is. Let`s take a look.

FINEMAN: That`s true.

MATTHEWS: He`s done -- you made your point here guys.

FINEMAN: It`s true.

MATTHEWS: 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 so I`m trying to do better and
work harder and make sure that 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 is -- I think they`re disclosures about him. And
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 of 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.

FINEMAN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: 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 --

FINEMAN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: -- 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.

KLEIN: Right.

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 -- 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 raincoat.

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

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: I mean -- OK.

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 VIDEO 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.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

INGRAHAM: So that`s -- you know what I mean?

SANTORUM: I would agree with that. I -- you know, that -- I wish -- you
know, I had (INAUDIBLE) 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 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 and Lincoln Park and the places we`ve -
-

MATTHEWS: Right.

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

MATTHEWS: OK, my question 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 -- you know, 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 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
itself 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 VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michigan Democrats can vote in the Republican primary
on Tuesday. Why is it so important? Romney supported the bailouts for his
Wall Street billionaire buddies but opposed the auto bailouts. 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 hardworking Democratic men and women and paid for
by Rick Santorum for President.

(END VIDEO 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 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 -- 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, MSNBC SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: I`m going to do my best Fred
Armisen doing Joy Behar. Who cares? Who cares? I mean it doesn`t matter.

MATTHEWS: So what matters is --

HALPERIN: 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
side and 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 voters who came out for him were Democrats, 35 percent
were -- 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?

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

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

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

You know, I asked someone who works for Rick Santorum, a 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 for "The Daily Kos"?

HALPERIN: I mean, I think -- I think -- 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`re going to 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 Romney`s campaign tactics as a defense.
Let`s watch this. Boy, what goes around comes around, Mitt. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: You mean -- 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. You know 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. So he is 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 that 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: You know I think there are some people who vote in the process
who sort of 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 -- you know, he had no Michigan
roots, the fact that he`s supporting opposing the bailout the way he did.

MATTHEWS: So he`ll have the brand on him of a guy who lost -- if he loses,
we don`t know what`s going to happen tonight, when we get the full results,
we`ll 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`ll have that
in the general election, too. David Plouffe salivates over that every day.

MATTHEWS: Well, thank you, Mark Halperin and Mayor Dayne Walling of Flint,
Michigan.

When we return, we`ll get some new numbers from our exit polling on who
came out to vote today in Michigan. And also in Arizona.

This is HARDBALL`s coverage of the Michigan and Arizona primaries only on
MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL`s coverage of the Michigan and Arizona
primaries today.

Well, polls in both states will be closed at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, about 90
minutes from now.

Well, let`s go now for our first look at the exit polling tonight. And for
that, we turn to Tamron Hall. Tamron.

TAMRON HALL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Chris. And we`ve got more
information on one of the big questions this evening. We`ve been talking
about whether the open Republican primary could be affected by Democrats
crossing over to vote in the GOP race. And we`re getting some information
on how that`s shaping up in our NBC News exit polls.

So take a look. This year, 10 percent of voters in Michigan call
themselves Democrats compared to 7 percent four years ago. So not much of
a big change there. But the number of independents is up by six points to
31 percent from 25 percent, and that leave a nine-point drop in the number
of self-described Republicans, 59 percent this year from 68 percent which
we saw in 2008.

We`re also seeing some similarities in the size of some other key groups in
each state. Now take a look, 38 percent in Arizona and 30 percent in
Michigan call themselves very conservative. And a similar number of people
said they are strong supporters of the Tea Party. And our last number,
take a look at this, 38 percent in both states describe themselves as white
evangelicals.

So, Chris, we`ll keep watching these numbers closely throughout the night
to see how these (INAUDIBLE) vote and we`ll keep an eye on them and bring
it to you on our exit polling.

MATTHEWS: Tamron, thank you so much.

When we return I`ll be joined by Republican strategist Steve Schmidt,
former Republican Party chairman Michael Steele, and "Huffington Post`s"
Howard Fineman, and the "Washington Post`s" Eugene Robinson. What a crew
of experts.

You`re watching HARDBALL`s live coverage of the Michigan and Arizona
primaries today. We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, I love the crack of an election night and welcome back to
HARDBALL`s coverage of the Michigan and Arizona primaries tonight.

Let`s bring in our panel of MSNBC political analysts. We`ve got Republican
strategist, Steve Schmidt, who`s famous now. He ran the McCain/Palin
campaign and more importantly he`s going to be in a big movie coming up,
"Game Change," as played by Woody Harrelson.

And we got Michael Steele. He was chairman of the Republican National
Committee. We always rooted for him. Howard Fineman is the editorial
director of the "Huffington Post" media group and Eugene Robinson is a
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the "Washington Post."

First, though, I want the two Republicans here to really work us through
what you think about the state of this contest. Bring us right up to date.
We don`t know what happened tonight yet in those two big states tonight,
but where is this primary, with the looks of Santorum up there arguing the
cultural issues? Mitt Romney coming off as -- well, I would say a bit of
an elitist? How would you see the two candidates right now?

STEVE SCHMIDT, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I think inside the Republican
Party, especially in Washington, Chris, where people are deeply, deeply
unhappy and becoming very, very pessimistic about the chances of any of
these candidates to defeat the president in November. And the fact is, if
you look inside the polls, you know, what`s happened is the Republican
Party`s base is fractured, Democratic base is uniting.

The middle of the electorate, those independent voters, a couple of months
ago, they had soured on the president, they`re back squarely with the
president. Mitt Romney is bleeding out among those independent voters, his
unfavorables are rising. And you see the president is open to five or six-
point lead which is still a structurally close race but it`s a significant
lead at this point.

So I think that as you look at this contest right now, we`re talking about
issues, whether it be the president wants your kid to go to college so they
can be indoctrinated, about contraception, relitigating the President
Kennedy speech of 52 years ago, which there`s been a consensus on in this
country for a very, very long time, and Rick Santorum, we have a candidate
who takes three paragraphs to explain every controversial sentence he
utters three times a day.

So, I think people are pretty down right now and there is still a lot of
talk about the mystery candidate who is going to jump into the race. And I
think it`s a fantasy, but nevertheless, people are still talking about it.

MATTHEWS: Michael Steele, if you were still the chair of the Republican
Party, would you be saying now is the time to find a replacement for these
candidates?

MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN: No, I would not, and I want to be
consistent with what I have been saying from the very beginning, to pick up
where Steve just left off, I think that is a fantasy that some knight in
shining armor is going to come in and save the party from itself.

I think Steve has laid out a very accurate indictment of how we`ve gotten
to where we are. Where I still have a glimmer of hope and I`ve always held
out is that the base of this party is going to bring this thing into its
own conclusion at its own time and its own way and I think that that`s the
important thing for me. You know, whether the Washington crowd is happy or
unhappy, I could care less about.

What I`m more concerned about is the point that Steve touched on about the
base fracturing along lines where we can`t recover, we can`t bring
ourselves together to go into the big and most important battle this
November. So let`s deal with the, you know, bodies on the ground and it
comes from Newt campaign and Mitt`s campaign and Santorum`s campaign as
well as Ron Paul`s, but let`s now let`s think about how we pull this
together, rally behind one of these guys over the next few weeks as we get
ready into the big fight.

MATTHEWS: That`s right.

Let talk about the collateral damage. Today, the "Boston Herald," they
talked -- John McCain warned about the damage to party`s nominating contest
could do to the nominee once he is decided upon. Here`s what McCain said.
"This is like watching a Greek tragedy. It`s the negative campaigning and
the increasingly personal attacks. It should have stopped long ago. Any
utility from the debates has been exhausted and now it`s just exchanging
cheap shots and personal shots followed by super PAC attacks."

Gene Robinson, that seems to be a damage assessment by a loyal Republican
right there.

EUGENE ROBINSON, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, you know, John McCain talking
about intraparty peace and love, I mean, he hasn`t always been about that.
He has been a maverick at times, but he certainly has a point. This has
gotten personal and look, the underlying fact that`s going to continue
giving the party problem I think is that the majority of the party isn`t
yet sold on Mitt Romney, still isn`t sold on Mitt Romney.

And until the party accepts him as a nominee or rejects him in favor of
somebody else there is going to be this uncertainty, there`s going to be
this continuing rancor and the party`s prospects are going to look somewhat
dimmer.

MATTHEWS: Howard, I want you to come in here after you listened to Rush-
Baugh go after Romney. Romney of course said he`s not willing to go as low
as the other candidates, he will not play to their emotional erogenous
zones. Here is Rush Limbaugh talking exception to that comment by Mitt
Romney today. As I said Romney said he wasn`t willing to set his hair on
fire, as he put it, to excite the base. Well, here`s what Rush-Baugh had
to say about that. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: So Romney`s not willing to say
incendiary things, quote, "about Obama" to excite the base. Well, what
does he say? Nice guy, just in over his head. What does this tell you
that Romney thinks of the base? That it takes incendiary comments to turn
you on.

And all you want is somebody beating up on Obama. Somebody to come along
and beat up Obama or set their hair on fire to get attention, then that`s
all you care about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: God, Howard, I think he`s figured out Romney that that he`s an
elitist who looks down on the base. I think Rush-Baugh is saying that
here.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: Yes, well, first of all, I think it`s interesting that Mitt
Romney actually has tried in his way to be incendiary. He started out the
campaign a year ago saying Barack Obama`s a nice guy, the president`s a
nice guy, he is in over his head. That doesn`t didn`t work. So, in recent
months, he`s been very, very incendiary, it just hasn`t lit any fires
anywhere. But now he is getting it from the other direction because Mitt
Romney seems to be looking down his nose at Rick Santorum and refusing to
engage him on things I think there`s very little risk in engaging him upon.

If Mitt Romney wanted to stand up and bravely defend college education and
separation of church and state, I think he could probably get away with it
but he`s too timid to try.

MATTHEWS: You know, it seems to me, Steve, that when you accuse a guy,
you`re saying rather -- let me put it the right way, the Romney put it, I
refuse to be a rabble-rouser that intuitively is saying the Republican
party is rabble.

SCHMIDT: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Exactly. I think we can agree on that.

SCHMIDT: He doesn`t need to -- he doesn`t want their passions to be too --

MATTHEWS: Right.

SCHMIDT: You know, inflamed. Look I think the first step in getting help
is admitting there`s a problem. So it was good today to hear Mitt Romney -
-

MATTHEWS: Who`s chuckling out there? Somebody is.

SCHMIDT: Mitt Romney, Mitt Romney talking about the fact that he`s has
made a lot of he`s going to try to do better. A couple weeks ago there`s
story trying to explain why he breaks into verse of "American the
Beautiful" and all his campaign rallies.

That`s what he wants to talk about. That`s what he wants to do. And so,
maybe there`s a -- maybe there`s a growing recognition that with some of
this stuff, whether it`s the NASCAR quote, the poor people`s quote, that
there needs to be a greater discipline, a greater focus, maybe the need for
a positive vision out there on the campaign trail. See what happens.

MATTHEWS: You know, Gene, you were laughing, I just don`t buy the fact
that these are mistakes by Romney.

ROBINSON: Right.

GINGRICH: They are revelations. They`re giveaways. I mean it`s not like
-- what it`s called -- the Joker comes in like in a batman movie, and it
interrupts your transmission, that is the transmission. That is Romney.

ROBINSON: I think he is who he is.

MATTHEWS: Right.

ROBINSON: I mean he said, you know, I`m not as ardent a NASCAR fan, but I
know a couple of guys who were team owners. I mean, that is his life and
he is not hiding it and, you know, people who like it will vote for him and
people who don`t like it won`t, I guess. You know, but if -- to follow on
Steve`s comment, if Mitt is now -- Mitt Romney is now entering some sort of
12-step program to right hits campaign, and you know, step two and three
are probably going to have to be -- raise some money, we will see how he
does tonight, but if it`s perceived as a weak performance, he is going to
soon I think get to the point where funders, maybe a little wary, maybe
sitting on the sidelines, and that he can always write himself a big check.
But he`s going to have some decisions to make given the rate at which he`s
spending money.

FINEMAN: Chris, can I say having --

MATTHEWS: Sure.

FINEMAN: Having covered movement conservatives for 30 years, they can
smell condescension.

ROBINSON: Yes.

FINEMAN: They can smell when they`re being sort of patted on the head and
told to go stand in the corner. And what Mitt Romney doesn`t understand is
that`s the Republican Party of today.

MATTHEWS: Yes, and how so?

FINEMAN: Yes, he`s emerged --

MATTHEWS: When did it occurred?

FINEMAN: Yes, he just doesn`t get it. I don`t think he understands the
party. I really think he sees the party and the conservative movement,
which are now pretty much won, they overlap substantially, especially at
the grassroots, especially in the primaries and caucuses. I don`t think he
really understands who he`s talking to and I think, you know, all the money
in the world, all the negative attacks, all the mechanics, all the
corporate campaign, the $65 million has spent so far may keep inching him
down the road. For all we know, he may win both of these events tonight,
but it will be grudging, it will be against.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: It` will be essentially against the base of the party. That`s
the only reason Santorum`s even in this. Santorum`s done everything he can
to make himself unpalatable or unelectable. Mitt Romney may be barely
palatable in the end but that`s all he will ever be.

MATTHEWS: You know, Michael, it reminds me of "The Last of the Mohicans."
You know remember Colonel Hayward was the sub.

STEELE: Yes.

MATTHEWS: And you had these very well poofed up French officers that had
the Indian Iroquois allies and then go out and take scalps, but they were
all perfectly dressed and they would never do anything like that. It`s
like -- it`s like -- I hate to use the word French because I like them but
it`s like the French officers are people like mitt Romney and they`re
going, it`s too bad I have to fight on the same side as these coarse
Indians but they`re the ones making you win the war against the English,
you know? He needs them to win but he doesn`t really like their company,
am I wrong, Michael?

STEELE: No, I don`t think you are. And I think Howard again has put his
finger on it that condescension, that sense of disconnection has been a
theme throughout this presidential campaign.

Let`s put this in context for everyone, this man, Romney, has been running
for this office since 2008 and the fact that we are on a night like this in
his backyard, talking about the possibility of his losing Michigan, talking
about the fact that the base isn`t with him, say everything you need to
know about the difficulties he`s had in making that connection, that full-
throated connection with the base of this party.

And until that happens, this saga is going to continue, and to your point,
yes, it may be begrudging, you know, coming together at the end in Tampa
but my concern is how does that translate into the effort in November?
We`ve already seen the numbers down and GOP primary turnout in the contest
so far.

MATTHEWS: OK.

STEELE: This does not bode well for the -- for those rabble-rousers who
you`re going to need to go do some rousing this November if they are not
feeling it.

MATTHEWS: This last point, I think I have to correct you, you said he`s
been running for president since 2008. Mitt Romney has been running for
president since 1968 when his father lost and a lot has happened to your
party in those 40 years.

Let`s try to catch up, when we come back with Steve Schmidt, Michael
Steele, Howard Fineman and Eugene Robinson.

This is HARDBALL`s live coverage of the Michigan and the Arizona primaries,
both here on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL`s coverage of the Michigan and the
Arizona primaries both today. Let me start with Howard Fineman.

You look at this as a track tout. When you look at this tonight and you
look at a good night for Romney what would it be?

HOWARD FINEMAN, THE HUFFINGTON POST: Well, a good night for Romney is to
win Arizona, which I think he`s got a good shot at doing. And to win
Michigan by more than a hair`s breath. To do it by what he can describe or
can plausibly be described as a real margin. Because this is a -- Michigan
is a state that he should win, that he should win comfortably, he`s in the
fight for his life up there. He`s got to win it and he`s got to win it I
think by more than a few votes. If it`s -- if it`s a hair`s breath then he
will not have -- will not have quelled any of the doubts about him at all.

MATTHEWS: Stephen, the question comes to the fact we`re leading into Super
Tuesday. This is sort of preliminary. Next week is the big one, the big
enchilada, 10 states are going to vote. How much does tonight affect that?
Will people really change their minds?

SCHMIDT: Well, I think -- I think if Santorum wins Michigan or it`s a very
close contest, it`s devastating for Romney to lose in Ohio or to have to be
in a close contest in Ohio. I mean I think the reality is, is Michigan is
not going to be on the target list in the general election. I think the
president is going to be in a pretty solid position there. Not the case
with Ohio.

The other issue for Romney culturally in the Republican Party, he`s yet to
demonstrate the ability to win in the south. So we`re going to have a
number of southern states, one of them is excusable because it`s Newt
Gingrich`s home state, but how does Mitt Romney fare in the south? And I
think that`s an open question.

MATTHEWS: Well, Newt can win in Tennessee, he can win in Georgia, where
else?

SCHMIDT: When you look at Tennessee, whenever there`s been a -- you know,
a candidate who`s been perceived more moderate versus more conservative,
the more establishment candidate has typically carried Tennessee in these
contests. So Tennessee should be a contest that Romney does well in, but
you know as you start to look out ahead on the remaining schedule here, you
know, Romney hasn`t demonstrated an ability to connect culturally with the
base of the party, which is in the Republican Party is in the south.

And I think he can be the nominee without connecting with the base of the
party in the south but it means it`s going to be a very turbulent
relationship.

MATTHEWS: OK. And the only test we`ve had are the LDS connection, the
Mormon connection. I don`t want to push it hard tonight. But the only
connection so far is the panhandle in Florida and he got blown away there.

SCHMIDT: Right. And --

MATTHEWS: By Newt.

SCHMIDT: And you see it in some of these other states. I mean it helped
him in Nevada, didn`t help him in the panhandle.

MATTHEWS: Howard, your thoughts about tonight looking forward to next
week? What is this tie? Is this a slingshot to next week? Is this a
prelim? Impact statement?

FINEMAN: Well, first of all, you have to understand that next -- the Super
Tuesday isn`t going to settle anything. That`s my mistake on it. I think
it`s going to be a divided result. That`s most likely. Given what we know
about the likely results tonight. I think Newt Gingrich as you said is in
a strong position to do well in Georgia and by the way the most delegates
are at stake in Georgia because the Republicans reward states that do well
for Republican presidential candidates by tilting the delegates in that
direction.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: So he will do well there. I think Newt Gingrich has got a shot
in Tennessee to be competitive. I think Rick Santorum is going to give
Mitt Romney everything he can handle in Ohio. Don`t forget he`s from
Pittsburgh, he knows the eastern Ohio area, he knows Ohio, that`s one in
the same with western Pennsylvania. And Mitt Romney is going to win
Massachusetts and Vermont, his home territory, and -- but who knows how
he`ll do, and I agree with Steve 100 percent, Tennessee is a really good
indicator. In certain ways Tennessee will be the kind of Ohio of the south
for Super Tuesday.

MATTHEWS: Because this guy Corker and (INAUDIBLE) Alexander as examples of
the kind of moderate Republicans that wins there.

SCHMIDT: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

MATTHEWS: Let me go to Gene on this. How will the press react? And
former editor that you are, who will the press play this if Romney does
sort of what was said tonight if he does, if he wins -- he wins in Arizona
and pulls a squeaker or something like that in Michigan, what happens then?
Is that not good enough?

ROBINSON: If it`s a squeaker, then the headlines I think are Romney
basically still a question mark. I mean if it`s a squeaker. If he wins by
an ample margin, then I think it`s a genuinely good night for Mitt Romney.
And I think you have to -- you have to give him that. I think it does give
him some momentum going into Super Tuesday.

And as you look ahead, you know, he still has the money advantage. It`s
not that Michigan is certainly not going to settle this nomination battle
but if he does really well in Michigan, it does give him a boost.

MATTHEWS: OK.

ROBINSON: He`s then -- you know, if he gets the nomination he`s got to
make it worth something. That`s going to --

MATTHEWS: Well, we want a Wild West next Tuesday. That`s what we want.
Lots of different surprises, lots of different fights and lots of winners.

Anyway, thank you, Steve Schmidt, the wild, wild west next week. Michael
Steele, Steve Schmidt, Howard Fineman, Eugene Robinson.

When we return let me finish with "The Trouble" with Mitt Romney.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this, what is a politician? Is it 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 that 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, the 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?

Now think of that second definition, the politician being someone who will
say anything, 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`s 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 boardroom 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`s sporting something
just right.

Look, this campaign is a real teaching moment. And not just for
Republicans. It`s 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 Romney sees the country from a comfortable seat -- in the
boardroom.

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 from 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.

That is HARDBALL for now. Stay tuned for MSNBC`s live coverage of the
Michigan and Arizona primaries starting now.

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

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