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updated 3/1/2012 12:46:43 PM ET 2012-03-01T17:46:43

Guests: Joan Walsh, Seema Mody, Kelly O`Donnell, Tony Perkins, Charlie Black, Michael Hirsh, Charles Schumer, John Hoeven, Russ Feingold


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: It all depends on Ohio -- again.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. Leading off tonight:
The half-people (ph) running for president. Romney knows the business
stuff, but did the guy ever take, say, an American history course? Did he
ever learn anything to say about this country if, you know, just -- if you
just won a presidential primary? You`re running for president of the
United States, Mr. Romney, not for a national consultant.

And yo, Rick. Senator Santorum, you got the stump speech down. It`s
really solid. It`s all economics now, real stuff. Just lose that "throw
up" line about Jack Kennedy for good.

Anyway, it`s on to Ohio for both of them, and no excuses now. They`ve
both got to win. So if neither Santorum nor Romney was the big winner last
night, who was? You could say President Obama, who`s standing in both
states has risen while the GOP candidates were trashing each other.

Plus, what are we to make of Olympia Snowe`s decision to quit the
United States Senate? Yes, it`s become more toxic. She`s saying that.
But from a purely strategic point of view, it means the Democrats have a
much better chance of keeping control of that body.

And did the Republicans not learn in their lesson from the
contraception fallout, or do they just not care? The GOP is pushing an
amendment now, coming up this week on the Senate floor, that would allow
all employers, not just religious organizations, to opt out of health care
coverage on religious or moral grounds.

Well, finally, by the way, "Let Me Finish" tonight with Mitt Romney`s
vision problem.

We start with last night and Santorum`s blown opportunity. Republican
strategist Charlie Black supports Mitt Romney for president, and Tony
Perkins is with the Family Research Council.

I guess the big question, gentlemen -- and I love big questions -- is
this. Did your guy, did -- or I`ll just put it this way. Santorum was
within striking distance. He was above the polls. He was winning the
polls.

Did he boot it away, or is Romney fundamentally a stronger candidate
and will eventually prove that? What happened this week in Michigan? Was
it a one-time-only mistake by Santorum, talking about stuff he shouldn`t
have been talking about, like throwing up over Kennedy`s old 50-year-old
speech and talking about things that weren`t about job creation, or was it
that Romney`s the stronger and better candidate? You both have your
chance.

Let`s start with the interesting thing. Was it just a bad week for
Rick Santorum, or is he too loosey-goosey to run for president?

TONY PERKINS, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: I think he admitted that
getting off on the JFK speech was a distraction.

MATTHEWS: He lost the Catholic vote.

PERKINS: Well, he--

MATTHEWS: My crowd went the other way, by the way. He`s Catholic,
which is a problem.

PERKINS: He got off the central message of both the economy and the
family and those issues. But look, he got half the delegates out of
Michigan. We`re talking about Mitt Romney. It`s his home state. He
outspent Santorum 6 to 1. It shows that he`s not a very strong candidate.
I think this is still far from over because on super-Tuesday, you have--

MATTHEWS: OK--

PERKINS: -- a lot of Southern states that--

MATTHEWS: Are you with him close enough to know that he`s now going
to -- I thought his speech last night was very good. Let`s take a look, by
the way, before we get to Charlie Black. Let`s take a look at what Romney
said last night and what Santorum said last -- let`s start with Romney, the
guy who won the most popular votes by 3 points.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I stand ready
to lead our party to victory and our nation back to prosperity.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: This is a critical time in America. It`s our time for
choosing, and this time, we got to get the choice right. I said it before,
and I firmly believe it, that this campaign is about saving the soul of
America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Rick Santorum last night asked what the -- what he
sees are the big questions facing the country, a fundamental speech from
Rick Santorum. Here it is. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R-PA), FMR. SEN., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It goes down
to the very nature of who we are as Americans. Are we a country that
believes in big government? Do we believe in the smart and elite in this
country to manage us? Or do you believe in free people and a free economy
and building a great America from the bottom up? What do you say?

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: You know, that was kind of a Jimmy Stewart "Mr. Smith Goes
to Washington" speech last night from Santorum. I thought it was very
effective, not quite as effective as the speech he gave after winning Ohio
-- Iowa, rather, but it was good.

Your guy -- is he running for national consultant? There was nothing
in there about American history, nothing about vision, nothing about what
united us as people, what our values are. It was all this sort of, like,
I`ve got a business plan here, and if you invest in me, I`ll cut your death
tax and I`ll cut your alternative income tax and I`ll cut down your rates
if you invest in me.

It was a business proposition, wasn`t it? Is that what his plan is?

CHARLIE BLACK, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Go back and read the speech.
It had some vision at the beginning, but--

MATTHEWS: Did it? Like what?

BLACK: -- the most important thing -- the most important thing was he
gave you a preview of the general election. He said more jobs, less debt,
smaller government, as opposed to President Obama, who`s giving you fewer
jobs, more debt, and bigger government.

MATTHEWS: How`s he cutting the debt?

BLACK: That`s what the election--

MATTHEWS: How`s he cutting the debt? Didn`t hear it in his speech.
I heard more tax cuts. Where`s the speech--

BLACK: Well, you go back -- go back--

MATTHEWS: There`s no debt -- there`s no debt reduction in that
speech.

BLACK: He`s not -- he`s presented plans for entitlement reform,
Social Security, Medicare.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

BLACK: And he`s promised to cut spending on domestic programs. I`ll
go back and add that up for you afterwards--

MATTHEWS: I thought he attacked President Obama for cutting defense
spending.

BLACK: Hey, Chris, Mitt Romney had a huge day yesterday.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

BLACK: Don`t forget Arizona, a landslide, 29 delegates. Mitt Romney
got 78 percent of the delegates selected yesterday. He`s now won 7 of the
12 contests that we`ve held, 40 percent--

MATTHEWS: OK, but he won by 10 points last time, and it`s his native
state. You think winning your native state by 3 points is a big win?

BLACK: Rick Santorum got high (ph). He got the momentum from winning
three events in one week. He targeted Michigan. He stayed there and
campaigned, and almost defeated Romney in Michigan, but he didn`t. In the
end, he didn`t.

Now, there are 20 states, 20 events in March. Rick Santorum can`t
target each and campaign heavily in each. Romney has an organization in
each. Romney`s going to have a very good March--

MATTHEWS: OK, that gets--

BLACK: -- and continue to be the front-runner.

MATTHEWS: That`s back to the big question. Does Romney have so much
strength in terms of ground organization, infrastructure, and money that
your guy, Santorum, just can`t match him even if he has a good week coming
up?

PERKINS: Well, first of all, I have not endorsed a candidate, so it`s
not necessarily my candidate. Rick Santorum more aligns with our issues at
the Family Research Council.

I think you get into the Southern states, it`s going to become even
more difficult for Mitt Romney. If you think -- he`s running a general
election in a primary. Primary voters, 44 percent of those tend to be
evangelical social conservatives. That`s why I think he hasn`t locked this
up. He hasn`t convinced them that he`s their guy, that he will represent
them--

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s look at the map right now (INAUDIBLE) Good point.
You can see the map here, the 11 states that`ll vote on super-Tuesday next
week, accounting for more than 400 delegates.

Look at them all. They`re around the country, but you got up there in
the Northwest, Alaska and Idaho, Wyoming out in the West, North Dakota up
there, as well, Oklahoma down there, Tennessee down there, Ohio up in the
Northeast, and Georgia down there, Virginia down there, Massachusetts up
there, Vermont up there. So it`s a mixed bag.

But if you look at the bottom there, do you think your candidate will
do well in the South? He never did before. Last time around, he got
booted in the South.

BLACK: Well, Florida is a Southern state. He did pretty well there
and--

MATTHEWS: Well, not in the southern part of the state.

BLACK: No, I think--

MATTHEWS: He lost the southern part of the state.

BLACK: Every one of those states is proportional. You know, all four
of the candidates, might win at least one state on super-Tuesday. Even Ron
Paul`s strong in a couple of these states, especially Alaska.

But what I will predict to you is this, that next Tuesday, with 10
states, Romney will get more delegates out of that day in the proportional-
-

MATTHEWS: That`s the way you count it, right?

(CROSSTALK)

BLACK: -- than anybody else--

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the big states--

BLACK: -- and widen his already large lead of delegates.

MATTHEWS: But let me ask -- suppose it goes like this. This is the
way everybody thinks it might go. We do politics here. Let`s take a look.

Newt wins Georgia, OK? There`s a real close fight for Tennessee.
Nobody really walks away with it. Ohio goes to Santorum, right? Virginia,
because nobody else is running there, goes to Romney. Vermont goes to
Romney. But you`ve got all kinds of action for Oklahoma, North Dakota,
Idaho. Idaho`s LDS, right? He could win there.

BLACK: He has a good chance to win there.

MATTHEWS: Yes, because he has some Mormon support there.

BLACK: I predict -- I firmly predict he`ll win Massachusetts. And
Ohio is going to be very close. Santorum--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- admitting to being governor of Massachusetts now,
finally. Finally, he`s running on his record in Massachusetts.

BLACK: I don`t think he`s got a problem in Massachusetts. Ohio is
going to be close. Santorum started this week ahead, and it`s going to be
a close race.

MATTHEWS: Let`s look at--

BLACK: Romney may well win. But let me -- let me tell you something
else. Rick Santorum made a huge mistake by playing ball with the Obama
campaign in a cynical--

MATTHEWS: How did he do that?

BLACK: -- effort to get liberal Democrats to come into the Republican
primary and cast malicious crossover votes, and it worked.

MATTHEWS: They were malicious?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: How do you know a lot of those people didn`t just prefer
Santorum to Romney?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, then it`s not malicious.

BLACK: -- a weaker opponent. He`s a weaker opponent--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: But wait a minute. That`s what your candidate said he did
up in Massachusetts. Is that--

BLACK: A competitive network--

(CROSSTALK)

BLACK: One of your competitor networks did dozens of interviews with
these guys, and they were union organizers and other--

MATTHEWS: I know that, but--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let`s go back to -- you`re calling that -- your candidate`s
calling that a dirty trick.

BLACK: -- for President Obama.

MATTHEWS: How can it be a dirty trick if Mitt Romney did the same
thing when he voted for Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primary in
Massachusetts in `92?

BLACK: Well, I wasn`t there. I don`t know what--

MATTHEWS: Now, he said he was there and he said he did it. If it`s a
dirty trick, is your candidate--

BLACK: I don`t remember--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- that a dirty trick?

BLACK: I don`t remember him saying he did it because he thought
Tsongas was the weaker opponent.

MATTHEWS: He did say that exactly.

BLACK: OK, well, I`ll go back and check on that.

MATTHEWS: Is that a dirty trick?

BLACK: But I`ll tell you what--

MATTHEWS: If he did say that, Charlie--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Charlie, if he said, which we can prove, that he did it in
order to pick a weaker candidate on the Democrat side, rather than Clinton,
is that a dirty trick? By your definition, it is.

BLACK: He did not go pay for telephone calls--

MATTHEWS: Oh, OK.

BLACK: -- to turn out 30,000 or 40,000 Democrats--

MATTHEWS: Oh, I thought--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I thought it was the principle of crossing over to the
other party. You`re caught here, Charlie.

(CROSSTALK)

BLACK: -- a huge mistake.

MATTHEWS: You`re caught in a conflict here.

BLACK: This was a huge mistake--

MATTHEWS: You`re caught--

BLACK: -- for Rick Santorum.

MATTHEWS: -- calling your candidate a dirty trickster.

BLACK: No, my candidate cast one vote privately. Rick Santorum paid
for--

MATTHEWS: OK.

BLACK: -- phone banks to turn out--

MATTHEWS: OK.

BLACK: -- liberal Democrats to cast malicious votes--

MATTHEWS: He only had one vote then. That`s why he only cast one
vote. But he was playing dirty tricks by (INAUDIBLE)

Let`s take a look at the Quinnipiac poll right now coming. It is
fascinating. In Ohio, Santorum up 36 to 29. That is a great race. He
better hold it, right? We both -- all three of us agree, if Santorum can`t
hold his lead in Ohio, he`s in big trouble, right?

BLACK: He`s already in big trouble--

MATTHEWS: OK, well--

BLACK: -- but it`d be nice for Romney to win Ohio.

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s look at the national Gallup poll. National
Gallup poll has your candidate ahead, Romney, 33-25 percent, Gingrich 16.

Let`s talk about Gingrich. He`s not represented here in any manner or
form. Is he still a candidate that matters or just a spoiler?

PERKINS: Well, I -- he says if he doesn`t win his home state of
Georgia that he`s going to get out. Now, if he keeps his word and gets out
and you add up the numbers--

MATTHEWS: Well, of course he`s going to carry Georgia.

PERKINS: Well, I don`t know. It`s--

MATTHEWS: He owns the doughnut--

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS: I expect him to carry Georgia. I also expect him to
continue on for a long time. He`s entitled to. There`ve been a lot of
surprises--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You love him in there, don`t you.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, how`s that bromance going with your guy, the other
guy, Ron Paul? You like him?

BLACK: Oh, I`ve always liked Ron Paul.

MATTHEWS: Well, he never lands a glove on your guy anyway. That`s a
sweetie relationship.

BLACK: We have a very civil campaign and--

MATTHEWS: Talk about corruption.

BLACK: -- we like everybody.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Charlie Black, dirty trickster--

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Supporting a dirty trickster, I mean. I can`t believe
you`re guilty of that crime--

(CROSSTALK)

BLACK: -- one vote versus 50,000.

MATTHEWS: OK, hey, not small potatoes here, not here, where count
morality as very important here. Don`t we, Tony.

PERKINS: That`s right, and I know when to be quiet--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Coming up, the big winner so far in the Republican race may
well be -- well, I think if you look at the numbers, who`s in and who`s
out, the President looks like he`s gained in all this mess, this mishegoss,
if you call it out there.

Anyway, Santorum and him trashing each other, the two guys hitting
each other and the president`s standing keeps going up. Is this good for
the Republicans, they keep doing this thing? Or should the Democrats keep
it going?

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, this is big news and good news, I think, for the
Democrats. Former United States senator Bob Kerrey has changed his mind.
He`s running for the United States Senate out of Nebraska after all.
Earlier this month, Kerrey actually ruled out a run, leaving Democrats
without a strong candidate in that race to replace the retiring Ben Nelson.
He`s the only guy going into -- what`s the name of that place? The Alamo.
That`s where politics (INAUDIBLE). But Kerrey`s change of heart, along
with Olympia Snowe`s retirement in Maine, gives Democrats new hope they can
keep control of the Senate.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. When the headlines out of last
night read, "Mitt Romney averts a disaster," it`s hard to claim you`ve had
a major victory, isn`t it. Well, the Republican front-runner has survived,
but he`s certainly a weakened candidate from where he began the month of
February.

So who was the big winner in February? Well, maybe it was the
president himself, President Obama, who didn`t run for anything this month.

While his Republican opponents were shooting themselves in their feet
with independent voters and women over the auto industry bailouts, which
they opposed, and contraception, which they opposed, the president has seen
his numbers rise among these groups and he`s now the strong favorite to win
in Michigan.

And even Arizona is in play right now, according to the latest polls
out there. So how has the dynamic of the race shifted since the start of
February?

Well, Michael Hirsh is the chief correspondent for "National Journal,"
and Salon`s Joan Walsh is an MSNBC political analyst.

I don`t want to feed more ammo to your -- than you need already, Joan.
I didn`t mean to say these two candidates are necessarily against
contraception, as well as the auto bail-out, but they certainly are
partisan-wise on the wrong side of this baby, aren`t they, Joan.

JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: They are. They
certainly are. And you know, they`re wiggling around, but they clearly --
they want to defund Planned Parenthood. They`re clearly making these
cultural war issues key to the campaign.

And you know, you really understand why they`re doing it, Chris,
because you look at what happened last night, and they`re losing on the
economic arguments. I mean, you asked who the winner was. I would say the
winner yesterday was whoever scheduled that speech for President Obama on
the day of the Michigan primary.

MATTHEWS: It was a good speech.

WALSH: And it was a beautiful speech. It was a wonderful speech.
His heart was in it.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s--

WALSH: He talked about caring about people.

MATTHEWS: Let`s compare it to the consultant`s report we got from
Romney last night.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I mean, we`re talking about two very different kinds of
speech. One`s had music and lyricism and history in it and wonderment and
happiness. The other one--

WALSH: Right.

MATTHEWS: -- was dead as a doornail. Let`s take a look at the two
very different speeches we heard yesterday from out there. First of all,
Mitt Romney after his victory in Michigan. He focused on the president in
his speech. Let`s watch Mitt Romney first.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: When he`s not spending our money or infringing on our rights,
he`s busy running for reelection. Today, we`re $15 trillion in debt and
real unemployment stands at 15 percent. You`ve heard that old saying
about, I need a vacation from my vacation? Well, we need to have a
recovery from this so-called recovery.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Earlier in the day, the president gave what Joan mentioned
was certainly a rousing speech to the UAW here in Washington. He strongly
defended his decision to rescue the auto industry, which didn`t need much
defense, given the fact that it`s been rescued. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know why I knew
this rescue would succeed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How you knew?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: You want to know? It wasn`t because of anything the
government did. It wasn`t just because of anything management did. It was
because I believed in you.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: I placed my bet on the American worker. And I`ll make that
bet any day of the week.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: The recovery is speeding up. Now is the time to keep our foot
on the gas, not put on the brakes. And I`m not going to settle for a
country with just a few who do really well and everybody else is struggling
to get by.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, if that wasn`t a tour de force, I don`t know what
was. It had a little bit of Baptist preacher. It had a lot of rah-rah.
And most importantly, he was on the right side of history.

MICHAEL HIRSH, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": I think it was a remarkable
preview of what is almost certain to be the general election, you know,
Romney getting the nomination but fighting an uphill battle.

The difference in style and tone, as you yourself alluded to, Obama
almost, you know, in the tradition of the happy warrior, confident, yet he
still has that style and charisma. He`s not as popular among his base
after a few years as president, but he`s still got the campaign style that
people so admired in 2008.

And Romney, again, you know, hesitant even in victory, you know,
stepping all over his laugh lines, just--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HIRSH: He`s got a long way to go to defeat this president.

MATTHEWS: But Joan, how about the real music (INAUDIBLE) you know,
there`s that great musical that`s back on Broadway called "How to Succeed
in Business Without Really Trying."

WALSH: Yes.

MATTHEWS: The main song in it is "I Believe in You."

WALSH: You know--

MATTHEWS: Michele Lee (ph) sang it when I was in high school, I saw
that -- or maybe it was in college. I forgot when I saw that musical. But
there he is, saying, I believe -- in other words, giving credit to the
workers, men and women, not to himself.

WALSH: It could be a campaign slogan. It really could because I
think the contrast is that the president has come out being so optimistic--

MATTHEWS: "I believe in you."

WALSH: -- really talking about "I believe in you" and I believe in
this country. And for the last few months, Chris, it really has felt like
the Republican message is, I don`t believe in you and I don`t believe in
this country. I don`t believe in a land where people can climb. I don`t
believe in a land where we have enough resources to create the engines of
prosperity that created the middle class.

The middle class wasn`t just born here. We created it. And the
president is now using that language of opportunity and optimism. And they
have given it up. They`re just -- they`re just all fear and negativity.

MATTHEWS: Let`s listen to something -- or let`s read something -- I
have got it in front of me -- from John McCain, a Republican, who ran last
time against this president.

Here he is talking about the primary process and what harm it`s done
to his party`s eventual nominee. He told "The "Boston Herald" this week --
that`s a Republican newspaper, by the way -- quote -- "This is like
watching a Greek tragedy. It`s the negative campaigning and the
increasingly personal attacks. It should have stopped long ago. And
utility from the debates has been exhausted. And now it`s just exchanging
cheap shots and personal shots followed by super PAC attacks."

Now, that`s pure John McCain.

HIRSH: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Because he hates this big money in politics, he hates the
PACs, the super PACs, and he doesn`t like this kind of talk.

HIRSH: Well, and this coming from a guy who, if anything, was even
more mistrusted by the Republican base when he was at this point in the--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Because he was a reformer.

HIRSH: Well, maverick.

MATTHEWS: And, by the way, we`re having Feingold on tonight. We`re
having them both on in a sense.

HIRSH: So I think it does say a lot that McCain would say that.

Look, large chunks have been taken out of Romney`s hide. And if he
does become the nominee, he starts off weaker because of these really
intense unprecedentedly negative attacks on him. And the extent to which
all of this has moved him further to the right on any number of issues.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Look at the Hispanic vote. We mentioned women.

WALSH: Right.

MATTHEWS: We mentioned -- these have been -- Joan, talk about that.

He`s gone so far with this self-deportation thing he created. You
just gave a slogan to the president, which I think they ought to be
listening. They do watch this show, I believe.

I believe in you has got to be one of the best I have ever heard.
That may be better than hope. But I`ll tell you, when you start talking
about self-deportation of grandma who may have been here 30 years, and
she`s learned English, and gotten you through college, and, by the way,
let`s kick her out of the country -- I`m sorry, tell her to leave on her
own bus ticket -- what are we talking about here?

WALSH: Right.

We`re talking about making the climate so horrible for immigrants that
they will leave. There`s a whole theory around it. And that`s quite
right-wing. It`s not even just a funny word. It`s an actual policy and
program where, you know, they`re passing all these laws to make people`s
lives miserable.

MATTHEWS: I agree with you.

WALSH: And they`re not going after the Latino vote.

They really are -- it is their last stand. It`s like they`re writing
off women, they`re writing off Latinos, they`re writing off Asians, they`re
writing off young people. It`s really the party of old white men.

MATTHEWS: Yes, and I`m not sure if Romney believes a word of it.

(CROSSTALK)

WALSH: No.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you. We don`t know. Anyway, they should
still have -- maybe we ought to have lie-detector tests for these
politicians. Wouldn`t that be interesting?

Michael Hirsh, thanks for coming on, sir.

And thank you, Joan, as always.

Up next: Is Mitt Romney`s bromance with Ron Paul on the rocks? You
know what a bromance is, between two guys who seem to be working on the
same team.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL and now for the "Sideshow."

First up, a walk down memory lane. While Romney and Santorum battled
it out in Michigan and Arizona this week, Newt Gingrich had already moved
on to his home state of Georgia, where he might have an advantage over his
rivals come Super Tuesday next week.

In a speech he gave yesterday, Newt -- wasn`t long before the
candidate was gushing about those Georgia roots of his, and I mean roots.
Here`s one of the stories he recalled about him and a fellow college
professor. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: A really big tree that was
dying, and it was angled towards his house. How hard can it be to cut down
a tree?

What we`re going to do is, we`re going to tie a rope about 15 feet up.
And then we`re going to cut the tree until it`s almost ready to break, and
then we`re going to pull the tree in the direction we want it to fall.

Now, remember, I said, it was leaning towards the house. We`re
standing there. We`re pulling. And we suddenly realize that we`re being
pulled.

(LAUGHTER)

GINGRICH: The top of it hit the roof of the house. It`s a concussion
effect, dropped the plaster in the master bedroom onto the bed. And the
last thing we saw of Kip (ph) that night was him running up the street with
his wife chasing him with a broom.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, I guess Mitt Romney is starting to trend with all
that talk about trees up in Michigan being the perfect height.

Anyway, next up -- what a strange story to tell, even for Newt.

Up next, no exceptions. After taking a look back at the 20 Republican
debates we have seen so far, ThinkProgress reported that Ron Paul has
leveled attacks on all his rivals except for Mitt Romney. But Ron Paul has
a new ad out now that could quash talk of a Romney/Paul bromance.

Let`s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, RON PAUL CAMPAIGN AD)

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: One is a serial
hypocrite, another a counterfeit conservative, finally, a flip-flopper
who`s been on all sides, supported TARP bailouts and provided the blueprint
for Obamacare.

Three men, one vision.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow. There`s also speculation out there of whatever worth
that Ron Paul has been laying off Romney, not hitting him hard, to somehow
pave way for his son Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky to be in the front-
runner`s good graces down the road.

Well, here`s the candidate himself taking on that question in an
interview last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have my job, and he
has his job. And that just doesn`t seem to be appropriate.

The last thing I have done is talk to Mitt Romney. Besides, he
wouldn`t talk to me about that. It`s mostly been promoted by somebody I
guess who`s super involved in conspiracy theories. That`s Santorum`s doing
that. My son can take care of himself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Oh, God. Well, every man for himself, I guess, and that
includes father and son in this case.

Up next, Republicans are pushing an amendment out there that would
allow all employers and employees, not just religious ones, to opt out of
health care coverage on religious or moral grounds, if you say you have
moral grounds, at least.

That`s ahead.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

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HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: When will my colleagues
understand this very nondebatable fact, that the decision of whether a
woman takes one medicine or another or what type of health care she should
have access to should not be the decision of her boss.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That`s New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand previewing the fight to
come tomorrow when the Senate votes on legislation sponsored by Missouri
Republican Roy Blunt that would let anyone, employee or employer, opt out
of parts of the health care plan that are inconsistent with their religious
beliefs or their own moral convictions.

Well, this gets to the heart of the fight over whether free
contraception coverage should be required in the health care law.

New York Senator Charles Schumer opposes the legislation to basically
give people the opt-out.

Why do you oppose this? And explain why you do, Senator.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Well, let me say this, Chris,
that this legislation would allow any employer to decide what parts of
health care he wanted to provide or she wanted to provide and what parts
she or he didn`t.

And that is just totally against what we have had all along. It is an
overly broad amendment. The president has come up with a fair compromise
on contraception, which doesn`t impinge on people`s religious beliefs, but
lets the woman decide whether she wants contraception, not her boss. And
that makes eminent sense.

MATTHEWS: Let me go to Senator Hoeven.

Thank you for joining me, Senator Hoeven from South (sic) Dakota, a
Republican.

He`s not here.

Well, I guess the question about this is the politics of it, Senator
Schumer. Do you think this is a winner? Not that you want to be crude
about it, but is this something Democrats could be happy to run on?

SCHUMER: Well, look, we think that the Republican Party has made a
huge mistake.

This issue has such force that it forced their leading presidential
candidate to first say he was against the Blunt amendment and then retract
it because I`m sure he got a lot of pressure and say he`s for it. This is
so far over that the overwhelming majority not just of Democrats, but of
independents are on our side on this issue.

They understand that women have the right to decide what they want in
their health care, not their employer who claims a religious conviction.
And, yes, I think they ought to do what they did on the payroll tax cut,
realize their mistake, realize that they`re so far over to the right that
they`re losing the middle, and back off.

That`s I think what Romney tried to do, but then he got pressure and
had to first be against it before he was for it.

MATTHEWS: Actually, the latest word we`re getting -- well, we`re
getting the latest word actually. We will get it clarified perhaps in the
next couple minutes. But here it is, and here`s Romney talking about it
now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: -- with banning or allowing employers to ban providing
female contraception. Have you taken a position on it? He has said he`s
for that. And we will talk about personhood in a second. But he`s for
that. Have you taken a position on it?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I`m not -- I`m not for the
bill.

But, look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions
about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, a
husband and wife, I`m not going there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, now we`re getting more recent reports than that
saying he`s for it, he`s for the Blunt amendment. So that`s already out of
date, that he`s changed his mind on that baby already, Senator Schumer.

SCHUMER: Exactly. Exactly. He had to flip-flop.

I think his original instinct when he was asked the question was
correct. Most -- it would resonate with most American people, that it
shouldn`t be the Congress here deciding or empowering an employer to decide
whether a woman gets contraception.

And make no mistake about it. This amendment, if it passes, will, if
the employer so chooses, ban contraception for millions of American women.
That`s going back to the 19th century. And it`s fueled by a hardcore
belief of a few. And unfortunately too many Republicans are afraid to
resist it.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look at what Scott Brown said about this.
He`s a Republican up in Massachusetts. He`s here -- in this radio
interview, he`s trying to cite Ted Kennedy`s position on this in the past.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. SCOTT BROWN (R), MASSACHUSETTS: Like Ted Kennedy before me, I
support a conscience exemption in health care for Catholics and other
people of faith. I believe it`s possible to provide people with access to
the health care they want while at the same time protecting the rights of
Americans to follow their religious beliefs.

For me, the conscience exemption is a matter of fundamental fairness.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, then Patrick Kennedy, obviously the son of the late
Senator Ted Kennedy, put out a statement subsequent to that saying: "My
father would have never supported this extreme legislation."

By the way, just to clarify what Scott Brown said there, it doesn`t
just give a religious exemption, as you know. It says a moral exemption.

SCHUMER: Correct.

MATTHEWS: Anybody, regardless of non-affiliation, can simply say, you
know, I don`t really believe in that, and then you don`t have it for your
employees.

SCHUMER: Correct.

MATTHEWS: They`re all out to lunch.

SCHUMER: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: No birth control protection.

SCHUMER: Exactly. It goes beyond contraception.

The motivation, I think, was contraception. And we`re happy to debate
that issue. But the legislation goes so far. If an employer says, I don`t
believe in vaccination, then you can`t get insurance for vaccination.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SCHUMER: It`s way beyond contraception.

MATTHEWS: In fact, you used the moral -- you could say I think
vaccination is dangerous, therefore, it`s a moral issue.

I mean, this is--

SCHUMER: Correct.

MATTHEWS: You`re right. It`s all across the board.

Senator Schumer, thanks for coming on.

SCHUMER: Chris--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Earlier today, by the way, Andrea Mitchell asked Republican
Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, who is retiring at the end of this term, by
the way, whether she supports this Blunt amendment to give this opt-out to
any employer or employee based on any kind of moral concern.

Here`s what she said, Senator Snowe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), MAINE: It`s interesting we`re having the
whole debate on contraception and, you know, what should constitute
coverage and what kind of role does the federal government play, because I
know -- I was involved in this issue more than a decade ago, and I did
support a conscience clause.

And I was drafting one in the process. We never got to consider the
legislation. So I do think it`s important. I think -- with respect to the
Blunt amendment, I think it`s much broader than I could support.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Let`s go to North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, who is a co-
sponsor of the Blunt amendment.

Sir, are you concerned that this language is so broad that any
employer could simply say, you know, I really don`t like birth control, I
really don`t like inoculations, it`s just something that sticks in my craw,
I`m going to exempt it from my coverage in my insurance programs for all my
employees?

SEN. JOHN HOEVEN (R), NORTH DAKOTA: No, Chris, that`s not the case.

Look, this is to give someone or an organization that truly has a
concern from a religious standpoint the ability not to have to provide
contraceptives or sterilization or abortifacients against their religious
beliefs. That`s -- that`s what it does. And as far as--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, why does it say or moral? Why does it say religious
or moral? Why does it throw in a completely a secular morality? It could
be a humanist sort of point of view.

Is that OK with you as an opportunity to opt out on this?

HOEVEN: It`s religious or moral beliefs, but they`re going to have
to demonstrate that under reasonable criteria. And again, back to the
point on contraception, this is not about not having contraception
available to women that want it. That`s certainly there. They can either
get a rider on the policy to provide it or they can certainly get it from
county social services if their income situation is a concern.

So, it`s not a contraception issue but a religious freedom issue.

MATTHEWS: If a woman is working for Domino`s Pizza or Comcast or
General Motors would like to have insurance coverage which includes birth
control free without a co-pay and her boss says no because he says I`m
against that morally, do you think that`s OK? Because the boss says so.

HOEVEN: Again, there`s got to be reasonable criteria, and that`s
exactly what we`re talking about. And furthermore, it`s again, not about
access to contraception. That`s getting confusing.

MATTHEWS: I know.

HOEVEN: That`s not the case, Chris.

MATTHEWS: But suppose the boss of a company is Catholic and most of
the employees are Protestant, for example, or non-churchgoers. You`re
saying that boss has the right to call the shots on whether birth control
is covered by the insurance? You`re saying that? That`s what this bill
does.

HOEVEN: If it goes against religious or moral beliefs --

MATTHEWS: The boss.

HOEVEN: They can`t be required by the government to provide it.
The employees have the option either to acquire a rider or get it from
another source.

So, again, the effort by those opposed to the legislation, they want
to make it about contraception. That`s really not what the issue is. It`s
about religious freedom.

And you could extend this argument to many other things, not just
contraception.

MATTHEWS: Yes, inoculation. Well, you know what you`re talking
about, Senator. Thank you so much. Please come back on the show --
Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota.

HOEVEN: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Up next, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine is leaving the
United States Senate at the end of this term. She says the Congress has
gotten too toxic. Don`t you agree?

And now, Democrats have a much better chance in this partisan sense
of winning a Senate seat. We`ll be joined by former Wisconsin Senator Russ
Feingold, a real reformer, coming up next.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, those delegates have been allocated now in Michigan
after last night`s vote. And Romney and Santorum each won 15, a tie vote
for delegates. So, Romney`s three-point win turns out to be a draw on the
delegate count. Too bad we didn`t know this late last night.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, yesterday, Maine`s moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe
shocked everybody in the political world by saying she`s quitting at the
end of this term. After serving 33 years in the U.S. Congress, she will
not run for re-election.

Well, Snowe was expected to easily win her Senate race. She wins by
huge majorities all the time. But she told Andrea Mitchell, our colleague,
early this afternoon she`d grown frustrated with partisanship on Capitol
Hill.

Let`s listen to Senator Snowe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), MAINE: I`ve made the decision not to run for
re-election in the United States and to pursue other opportunities outside
the Senate that perhaps I can give voice to the frustrations that, you
know, exist with the political system here in Washington where it`s
dysfunctional and the political paralysis has overtaken the environment to
the detriment of the good of this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Kelly O`Donnell is a Capitol Hill correspondent for us.
She joins us right now.

Kelly, boy, does that speak a lot? What do you -- as a person who
covers the Hill, and I`m not asking you to make a partisan judgment, you
never do -- but what does it say about the fact that moderates, whether
it`s Bill Nelson, Ben Nelson rather from Nebraska, who`s a moderate
Democrat, or a moderate Republican, doesn`t fit anymore, doesn`t like it
anymore?

KELLY O`DONNELL, NBC NEWS: Well, it`s interesting. By observation
and by hearing members talk about this, something that might not come to
mind right away is the experience of being someone like Olympia Snowe on
Capitol Hill means you spend a lot of time sort of out on your own island
politically speaking.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

O`DONNELL: Well, Republicans would be frustrated with her, Democrats
would be trying to put a lot of pressure on her, even encouraging her to
switch parties, always counting on her as a deciding vote. All of that
pressure. So, some of the collegiality and some of the sense of being able
to get things done has probably been very hard for her to have here for a
long time now.

She`s a very reasonable person to talk to. I`ve spent time with her
back in Maine in her home state -- very popular, as you point out. It was
a real stunner.

We often use hyperbolic language covering politics. This really
shocked Senate Republicans who were counting on her.

MATTHEWS: Because she couldn`t lose -- couldn`t lose re-election.

O`DONNELL: Well, I won`t be absolute, but she was expected to win,
yes.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this. Now, this is calls for
analysis. If you take away -- if you say there`s no fun up on the hill
being a moderate Democrat or moderate Republican, someone close to the
center, that seems like if they`re not even going to like their own people
in their party because they`re too close to center, it certainly argue
against them liking any kind of compromise across the aisle.

O`DONNELL: It`s been one of the thins we`ve noticed over time, is
the sort of space that moderates in both parties occupy keeps shrinking.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

O`DONNELL: And those who are left have even less coalition to build,
making them even more isolated. We`re just in a period now where it is
very, very difficult.

When Olympia Snowe is gone, imagine the pressure on her state
colleague Susan Collins, who often votes in a moderate way, or Scott Brown,
if he wins re-election, he`s in a tough fight in Massachusetts. Ben Nelson
of Nebraska, a Democrat on the more moderate site side, he`s not seeking
re-election.

So, it really talks about the atmosphere of the mood of getting
things done. And Olympia is one person who likes to try to get things
done.

MATTHEWS: Exactly. I agree.

O`DONNELL: Her frustration I think is genuine.

MATTHEWS: And a lot of these guys are leaving, like Johnny
(INAUDIBLE). They`re all leaving.

Anyway, thank you, Kelly O`Donnell for your expertise on Capitol
Hill.

O`DONNELL: Good to see you.

MATTHEWS: Let`s bring in former Senator Russ Feingold, a legitimate
reformer out there, who`s a real reformer. He`s also author of a great new
book out now, "While America Sleeps."

I want to get to your book. But first your reaction to people like
Snowe quitting.

RUSS FEINGOLD (D), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Chris, good to be talking to
you again.

It`s a real loss. She`s one of the finest senators. She`s was model
of bipartisanship. She was a key to getting McCain/Feingold passed.

And I served with her on the intelligence committee. There`s a
person who always worked across party lines where appropriate. She would
co-sponsor amendments with me that had to do with national security or
civil liberties.

And it`s a terrible sign when a person like that who was reasonable -
- she was not an easy mark. She`s a person that was hard to persuade. But
once you got her on your side, it was enormously valuable.

And, frankly, my book "While America Sleeps" is partly about this,
which is you start driving people like that away who are willing to work
across party lines on international and security and intelligence issues,
we`re losing something very important for the protection of our country.

MATTHEWS: What do you make of these super PACs? I mean, you`re
McCain/Feingold. You are the classic guy that wants to clean up this
business of politics. And it`s not a business. It`s about our democracy.

What do you make about the fact the president is going to go to a
billion-dollar campaign, the other party is going to a billion-dollar
campaign? And all this loose money coming, it`s all coming in in big
amounts. We used to call it soft money. Now, it`s just big super PAC
money.

FEINGOLD: Well, I support the president for re-election. I`m a co-
chair of his campaign. But I made it clear that I don`t agree with this.

I think it`s a mistake for the president and his people to go down
this road. He is a person who really fights for the 99 percent. And when
you go and associate yourself with this kind of unlimited contribution, you
are undercutting your message and you also end up with something even
worse. You`re going to end up at the congressional level with corporate
Democrats again as well as corporate Republicans.

We saw this movie before, before McCain and I banned soft money to
the parties. You get trade agreements that ship our jobs overseas. You
get consolidation of the media. And, yes, you get the deregulation of Wall
Street.

This all comes when people end up raising this kind of money, and I
think it`s a disaster for the country.

And I hope the president moves away from this approach. He doesn`t
need it. He can win without this unlimited money. People know who he is
and know he`s doing a good job.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the Democrats and the way they are
running. You know, there`s a lot of evangelical Christians out there that
see the Middle Eastern almost iconic terms. They don`t really want the
details. They just want -- you know, it`s always a big fight. It`s almost
a biblical fight with them all the time.

And then you got this guy Romney who seems like a cerebral fellow
making an ultimatum kind of statement. I don`t know where I stand on this
or maybe I don`t know where you stand, but saying if I`m president of the
United States, Iran won`t have a nuclear weapon. Well, what does that
mean? And if this guy we have as president today, it will have a nuclear
weapon.

This absolutist language, I don`t know what it means. I guess it
means: vote for me. I`m tougher than the other guy.

FEINGOLD: Well, it shows he`s not serious about actually doing the
job of a president. He may be cerebral. But why would he write a book
that`s about how he claims that the president is always apologizing for
America? That`s simply ridiculous.

That is not what the president of the United States has been doing.
He`s taken a serious approach. He`s gotten some of the worst people in the
world through military and other actions, but he`s also reached now the a
positive way to the Arab world, in Cairo, in India, and in Indonesia.

And so, what you have here is a race where the Republican Party is
basically made a mockery of foreign policy. They mocked the president.
They mock his foreign trips.

And my book talks in great length, "While America Sleeps," about this
sort of sleeping quality that you put the American people and our
government in when you don`t take these other countries and these
situations seriously. And there are serious threats out there including al
Qaeda or al Qaeda-like threats in many places in Africa. We saw this movie
before.

MATTHEWS: I know. Senator --

FEINGOLD: How does this happen that we end up not seeing the signals
again and having candidates for president who don`t seem to care about it?

MATTHEWS: Russ, you`re a great guy. Russ Feingold, I hope you come
back into politics. Your book is called -- it was not "While England
Slept." Actually, it`s "While America Sleeps." It`s not Winston
Churchill. It`s Russ Feingold, our current version.

Anyway, thanks for coming on again.

FEINGOLD: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with Mitt Romney`s vision problem
such as it is.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

People keep wondering why Mitt Romney won`t say what he`d do, I mean,
in simple terms to cut the debt. You know, the vision thing. Just lay it
out there -- his big vision on how to attack what he keeps insisting is the
country`s big problem. The reason we haven`t moved with a faster recovery,
he says.

Well, it`s really quite understandable. It`s called arithmetic. If
you want to cut the debt, I mean really cut it, you have to cut spending
big time. If you got to chop off government programs big time.

What`s he`s going to chop off? Defense? Are you kidding? He
attacks Obama for shrinking defense spending.

Chop off federal interest payments on the debt? Can`t do that. It`s
called default. Default is what we`re afraid is going to happen in Europe.
What do you mean we can`t pay what we owe?

Well, OK, eliminate Social Security and Medicare benefits. Can`t do
that. The government owes that money.

And nobody is going to refuse to pay it. Nobody. Certainly not a
Republican given that party`s record on Social Security.

So what`s Romney talking about? What`s he talking about right now?
Earmarks. Another Mickey Mouse stuff.

Again, why doesn`t he come out with a big plan to cut the debt?
Because he doesn`t want to. In fact, he`s ready to go the other way and
add to the debt.

Look at him last night. Last night, he went on television after the
primary results to say he wants to eliminate what Republicans call the
death tax. What he wants to get -- he also wants to get rid of the
alternative minimum tax, get that out of rich people`s hair.

He wants to bump a 20 percent across the board cut in the tax rates
to boot. That`s also for the rich people.

You know what that is? It`s offering a sop to the big money people
he wants to start ponying up to his campaign. Did you notice how he laid
out all that right before he read out the name of his Web site for campaign
contributions?

Get it? It was a business deal. Give a few thousand bucks to get
him in office and he`s going to save you millions in taxes.

But didn`t he say the big problem was the rising debt? Well, last
night he went the opposite direction. He pandered to the big boys to get
campaign money to smother his opponents next week.

The debt Mitt Romney is really worried about is the one his campaign
might leave him stuck with.

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.
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