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updated 3/2/2012 11:36:10 AM ET 2012-03-02T16:36:10

Guests: Michael Steele, Courtney Reagan, Kirsten Gillibrand, Steve McMahon, Christie Todd Whitman, Blanche Lincoln, Eric Lichtblau, Bob Baer

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Republicans go whole hog on birth control.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. Leading off tonight:
Out on a Limbaugh. The man who leads the Republican Party and speaks for American conservatism showed us all today what he, and by proxy the GOP itself, thinks of young women who use birth control. Rush Limbaugh calls them sluts.

He went further today, the same day Republicans except for Olympia Snow, who couldn`t take it anymore, voted down the line to restrict insurance coverage for women`s health.

Here`s just part of what Rush Limbaugh has to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it.
And I`ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos on line so we can all watch.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: "We want you to post the videos on line so we can all watch." That`s Rush Limbaugh`s view of insurance coverage for birth control. Much more of this (ph) the message the GOP wants to send to women in an election year? Is it? Is this what they want to say? Rush is, of course, the spiritual and intellectual leader of the Republican Party these days. No one in the party dares speak against him. Where are the Republicans condemning what he said today? Nowhere.

And where`s Mitt Romney on this Republican push on birth control?
Yesterday, he was against the Republican position before he was for it later in the afternoon. Here`s what seemed to happen. Romney first said what he believes, he apparently doesn`t like the idea of getting involved in this kind of thing. And then he realized his job now is to parrot what the right wing wants him to believe. He got confused between the (ph) -- which (ph) Mitt I guess he was being asked about.

Plus Olympia Snowe`s departure -- I just mentioned here -- from the U.S. Senate is another example, many believe, of how in today`s GOP, moderates need not apply.

Plus, did some elements of the Saudi government play a helpful role in 9/11? A lot of people have long suspected the answer is yes, and now two U.S. senators are saying it out loud on the record.

Finally, "Let Me Finish" tonight with some tough comments about the Republican Party`s spiritual leader these days.

We begin tonight with Rush Limbaugh and the Republicans who won`t stand up against him. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand`s the New York Democrat.
Thank you, Senator Gillibrand.

It -- right now -- by the way, today on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh showed no remorse for the disrespectful language he used yesterday in talking about that Georgetown student, a co-ed, who testified about the importance of contraception in women`s health. Let`s listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIMBAUGH: So Ms. Fluke, and the rest of you feminazis, here`s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I`ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos on line so we can all watch.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I don`t know. I`ve never heard anything like that. In a nod to -- - nod by Rushbo at Santorum and his fund-raiser, Foster Friess, his comments about -- remember aspirin and birth control? In the old days of Foster Friess, women were supposed to use an aspirin between their knees, as he put it.

Well, here`s Limbaugh using the same colorful reference point. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIMBAUGH: I will buy all of the women at Georgetown University as much aspirin to put between their knees as they want.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Senator Gillibrand, thanks so much for joining us. We`re getting you hooked up there. I don`t know. It`s a strange night to have you on. I`ve been wanting to have you on for a long time. You`re probably one of the most outspoken women senators on issues of importance to women.

Why do the Republican Party -- why are they all running today to avoid condemning this awful commentary by their intellectual leader, Rush Limbaugh?

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: I think his remarks are incredible. They`re so insulting to women. They`re an absolute disregard to women`s health and safety. They`re incredible, really. I can`t -- they`re so inappropriate, I don`t even know where to start.

MATTHEWS: well, let me start with yesterday. Let`s look at a tape of what he said yesterday because this has had -- this has been going on for two days now, plenty of time for the Republican leaders who are pushing this restriction they`re trying to put on health care for women -- they could have said something. They`re not.

Here`s Limbaugh. He started it all yesterday. Let`s listen to what he said then.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIMBAUGH: What does it say that the college co-ed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex -- what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right?
It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, late this afternoon, Senator -- Congresswoman Louise Slaughter of your state in a letter to Speaker Boehner, the Republican, signed by more than 75 Democratic members of the Congress, called on Republican House leadership to repudiate Limbaugh`s comments.

She closed the letter, quote, "As leaders of the House that initially denied this -- Miss Fluke the right to speak, the Republicans have special obligation to condemn the atrocious and hurtful words spoken by Mr.
Limbaugh." Leader Pelosi also called on Republican leaders to condemn Limbaugh`s comments.

Are you hearing from any Republican senators on this? Are you hearing any of them saying, this isn`t us talking, even though we disagree on the policy question?

GILLIBRAND: I haven`t heard a word from the Republicans. And what we had today, Chris, was a vote on something so outrageous, so -- such a complete disregard for the health and wellbeing of women.

The bill today, the Blunt amendment, would basically say that any boss could determine for any reason that he objected to or she objected to that a woman couldn`t have access to basic medicine, basic health care.

And I don`t know why we are debating issues that were long since settled decades ago. It`s really -- it`s quite alarming to me that we are still talking about access to basic medicine and basic health care for women in this country.

And you add to that what Rush Limbaugh has been saying, and again, it`s this continuous slap in the face to America`s women. And it`s just such a disregard and a disrespect for them. And I think every Republican should apologize for his comments and at least separate themselves from them.

MATTHEWS: But there`s a certain educational factor when people speak wrong, when people say it in a wrong way, because then you really hear the emotion behind the words.

It seems to me that Rush Limbaugh has done your party, the Democrats and progressives, especially women, a favor here because for several weeks, they argued on the right very piously this is about religious freedom.
This is about the 1st Amendment and religious freedom we all treasure in this country.

Rushbo`s made it clear, Oh, no, it isn`t. This is about birth control. This is about whether insurance policies, which are basically mandated now by the Obama health care bill, should include birth control or not. He says they shouldn`t.

And it seems to me that`s now the issue on the right. They`ve finally gotten to the point they wanted to raise, We don`t want to pay for birth control because we don`t agree with it. Or what? How do you interpret it?

GILLIBRAND: I agree with your interpretation. And I think that, you know, what we decided in health care reform is that the quickest way to bend the cost curve is make sure people have access to preventive health care, basic preventive health care.

And you have to remember, Chris, 99 percent of America`s women have taken birth control in their lifetime, 98 percent of Catholic women. This is basic medicine. And for at least for 15 percent of women, they take it for reasons other than contraception.


So you`re basically trying to create a law that says a boss can say whether a woman can take medicine that her doctor`s prescribing for her for many reasons, whether it has to do with -- whether it has to do with -- for contraception or not.

And so what I find so problematic here is that they are just trying to deny women basic access to health care. And I think America`s women are watching this debate. They are understanding that these leaders in the Republican Party do not stand for them, their values or their priorities, and don`t care about them and their families.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know, one of the great ironies here, and it`s a tricky subject -- and you and I know each other, and to me, I`m very careful about these issues. I`m worried about saying the wrong thing. But it seems to me that those who do have a concern morally, not legally, about birth control, they are pro-choice because they believe it is up to the individual in a free society.

They would like to see the number of abortions radically reduced in this country because it is usually the result of an unwanted pregnancy. By definition, it is. If you have a lot of people taking birth control, especially young people who are single and don`t want to have a child, this could be a godsend. I hate to use that word, but it is -- all these young people now would be encouraged, subsidized by the health care bill of the president`s to use birth control, if they`re sexually active, reducing dramatically the number of unwanted pregnancies.

It seems to me that this is a win-win for everybody. But that`s my judgment.

MATTHEWS: That`s what the health studies show, Chris, is that when women have access to family planning, they`ll make decisions about when it`s best for them to have children.

MATTHEWS: Right.

GILLIBRAND: And so when they do have children, these are wanted children. These are children they`re welcoming into their lives.

MATTHEWS: Let me talk to you about the politics of this thing. It seems to me that we`re finding on the edges of the two political parties problem areas. Olympia Snowe voted with your caucus today, voted against the -- it`s probably one of the reasons she`s getting out of the Senate right now.

But you have Claire McCaskill out there getting hit. She`s facing a tough -- I know she`s a friend of yours, as well as a colleague. She`s facing a tough reelection in Missouri, which is always a tough state. It`s right down the line politically.

The Missouri Republican Party`s going after her in radio ads already on the health care. Let`s listen to what one of your colleagues is taking for agreeing with you. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: First, they took over the banks. Then they put government in charge of our health care. Now what are Barack Obama and Claire McCaskill focused on? Regulating the Catholic church. Obama and McCaskill want to force the Catholic church and Americans of faith to abandon tenets of their religion. Obama and McCaskill already forced us to pay for government bailouts, a wasteful stimulus and "Obama care." Tell them enough is enough.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: What would you say? What would you say in response to that viewer (ph) in Missouri?

GILLIBRAND: Listen, the ad is outrageous and it`s a bald-faced lie.
So you`re saying that we`re telling the Catholic church what to do? No, we are not. In fact, President Obama made such a reasonable and very respectful compromise. He excluded churches and synagogues and institutions that are primarily for religious purposes, where the people who work there are the same religion.

What is not excluded are large employers, universities, hospitals, who can`t pick and choose what laws they`re actually going to follow. You can`t choose which labor law you think is worthwhile and which one isn`t.
We`ve decided that long, long ago. And in fact, the Supreme Court Justices, the most conservative of them, Justice Scalia, made that point, said you are not allowed to pick and choose what laws you want to follow based on some religious objection.

And so this is long-settled law. And in at least 28 states, Chris, this has been the law of the land for about a decade, where states have made the determination that these larger institution that serve the public at large in commercial ventures actually have to play by the same rules as everybody else.

MATTHEWS: Right.

GILLIBRAND: And so the ad is a lie. I hope they hit back equally as hard. And Claire McCaskill stood up for the women of her state. She -- 99 percent of America`s women -- back to this issue again -- take birth control in their lifetime, many for non-contraceptive reasons.

And I can tell you, American women want to know that Claire stands up for them, and that`s exactly what she`s done. She stands up for their values, their access to basic health care--

MATTHEWS: Right.

GILLIBRAND: -- their access to medicines and for the basic principle that bosses should not decide what medicines an employee should be eligible to take. It`s really quite simple. And so I hope that--

MATTHEWS: And not only did they -- I`m sorry to interrupt, but I think you missed a point important to me. And that is not only did he compromise by excepting churches and synagogues, he went further later on and made it clear that the insurance companies would have to pay for this coverage and not require the churches or synagogues to sign onto something they can`t within their own religious beliefs do so. I think he really went the extra yard here.

You`re great to come on the show tonight. I didn`t know you`d be coming on in the face of Rush Limbaugh, but I think you did a good job on that character, the new spiritual grand pooh-bah of the Republican Party.
Anyway, thank you so much, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of the Empire state, New York.

GILLIBRAND: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Coming up: Mitt Romney was against the Blunt amendment.
That`s the one that basically said no coverage for birth control in this health care bill. He says, by the way, he was confused by the question that was put to him the other day. But maybe he`s confused about who`s he supposed to be today when he was answering the question, the moderate governor of Massachusetts or the new conservative hell raiser that he`s trying to pretend he is.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, Ohio is the big prize on super-Tuesday next Tuesday.
We`ve also got new polling data from the other super-Tuesday states. Let`s check the HARDBALL "Scoreboard."

In Tennessee, a new poll from Middle Tennessee State University finds Rick Santorum holding a big lead over Mitt Romney -- catch this -- Romney 19, but look at Santorum, up at 40, a 21-point spread in the Volunteer state.

In Vermont, a poll from Castleton State College shows Romney in the lead, but Santorum within striking distance. Amazing. Look at this, Romney 34, but Santorum right up there at 27 up in Vermont. Don`t you love the publicity that gives all these colleges with their polling?

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Contraception has been a hot issue on Capitol Hill, but it`s also spilled into the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney`s under fire today from Rick Santorum and the Obama campaign, from both right and left, for his changing, very odd position on the Blunt amendment. That`s the amendment that basically says that you don`t have to have birth control as part of the insurance coverage of your employees.

And speaking of the Obama campaign, "The New York Times" reports on their theme for reelection. It sounds awfully similar to Reagan`s "Morning in America" back in `84. Do voters think the country is on a "Morning in America" track already?

Those are our two topics with the HARDBALL "Strategists" tonight.
Number one, how does team Romney try and spin another flip-flop by Mitt?
And can team Romney (sic) sell America`s comeback if the economy stops improving? You don`t want to get ahead of that curve.

With us are our two strategists. They`re the experts, Democrat Steve McMahon and former RNC chair Michael Steele, who`s also an MSNBC analyst.

Mr. Steele--

MICHAEL STEELE, FMR. RNC CHAIR, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, sir?

MATTHEWS: -- here`s Rush Limbaugh that started it all with his show yesterday. Well, he`s the spiritual leader you guys are all afraid to offend. So here he is. Let`s listen to him on this issue of who`s a slut and who isn`t. Let`s go.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIMBAUGH: What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex -- what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right?
It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: You know, this cost Don Imus a lot of career--

STEELE: Yes?

MATTHEWS: -- you know, a lot of career, this kind of talk, calling people sluts, whores, this kind of stuff.

STEELE: Well, I`m sure--

MATTHEWS: I just wonder about this guy who you guys all bow before--

STEELE: No.

MATTHEWS: -- as the great -- the great Alexa (ph) Hente (ph), the guy who approves or disapproves your crop of thinking every year. Are you going to take him on or are you going to (INAUDIBLE) out there all alone, or what?

STEELE: Well, you know, I`ve already gotten in trouble on that front point (ph) -- that front point. And remember, you know, I tried to put in context when asked as chairman, you know, what does Rush Limbaugh mean to the party? Well, he means a lot of different things to people. And I think, in this instance, I think a lot -- a lot of people have a problem with it.

I mean, I`m sure his lawyers are having a conversation with him about the fact that this young woman may have something to say about what he called her on national radio.

Now, you put it in the context of hyperbole and entertainment, and you know, free speech. But there are lies. And when you`re having a national political discussion--

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Wow.

STEELE: -- you know, the political parties have to be sure that they clearly distinguish where they are and where the entertainment picks up.
And I think in this particular case, that line`s been crossed.

I don`t think Republicans are standing here saying, yes, we agree with Rush on this, because I think it`s above the pale. It`s not part of advancing the public discourse right now, the name calling and all of that.
So I have to put it in the category of entertainment because--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I understand why you`re doing that. I think you`ve got a -
- I think you`re a great guy, obviously, Michael, and I think you do know the difference. But I think -- let`s bring in Steve. I don`t think every
Republican--

MCMAHON: Wow.

MATTHEWS: -- thinks of this guy as entertainer of the year. They listen to his spiritual, ideological comfort three hours a day on the radio and (INAUDIBLE) his act.

STEELE: Every Republican? I don`t think that`s true. Not every Republican.

MATTHEWS: I`m waiting to see--

MCMAHON: Michael, Michael--

MATTHEWS: -- one Republican elected official go after this guy.
Steve?

MCMAHON: Yes. Michael, listen -- listen to Michael. I love you, man. But he sounded today like a vile, disgusting pervert who had come completely unglued on the radio. You know, I cannot believe what he said.
I cannot believe that he`ll get away with it. And I cannot believe that it won`t cost him millions of dollars in a slander suit that, if this woman is smart, she will bring tomorrow morning.

It was outrageous. And I -- I can`t believe frankly he hasn`t apologized for it already. There`s nothing entertaining about disparaging misogyny. And that`s exactly what it was. And it was appalling, it was disgusting.

(CROSSTALK)

MCMAHON: It wasn`t entertainment in any sense, in any sense of the word.

STEELE: I`m not disagreeing--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He said he wanted to see videos of her performing sex on TV.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What`s that about?

STEELE: Fellows, fellows, fellows, I`m not disagreeing with you. I agree exactly with what you`re saying.

That is why I`m saying this crosses a very, very bright line. And he will probably have to answer to it. As you said, Steve, her lawyers -- if she doesn`t have one, she will have one soon -- will have something to say about this.

MCMAHON: OK.

STEELE: But in the back and forth of the national debate, this has no place. That`s the bottom line.

(CROSSTALK)

MCMAHON: Michael, I think you would agree--

MATTHEWS: OK. We`re beating a dead horse here, I think. I hope it`s a dead horse.

STEELE: Yes, we are.

MCMAHON: Well--

MATTHEWS: Let me go to Michael on this.

You called Rush Limbaugh entertainment. Here`s what I do for entertainment. I try to keep up with Mitt Romney. OK? I try to keep up with this guy. That`s my entertainment.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Here he is in an interview with Jim Heath on Ohio News Network yesterday. Mitt Romney was asked a direct question. Where do you stand on this Blunt amendment? The amendment was voted down today on a party-line vote, basically, that basically said you shouldn`t apply the health care bill of Barack Obama to coverage of birth control.

He said very directly he was against the bill and laid out why. Let`s listen to the presidential front-runner I guess still yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: -- is being debated I believe later this week that deals 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: So there`s a principled statement. A presidential candidate should not get involved in a relationship between a man and woman whether they`re use birth control or not. OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: A short time later in another interview with the very friendly Howie Carr, a good buddy up there on the right with "The Boston Herald," I guess he called him and got in there fast. Romney said he misunderstood that question. Let`s listen to him with Howie Carr, a friendly interviewer.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I didn`t understand this question. Of course I support the Blunt amendment.

I thought he was talking about some state law that prevented people from getting contraception. I thought it was some Ohio legislation where employers were prevented from providing contraceptives. It`s why I talked about contraceptives and so forth. So I really misunderstood the question.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: You know, you have to wonder about leadership here, Michael. Is this guy a leader or a follower? He`s taken to the woodshed.
Two hours later, he flips, flips.

STEELE: I think -- Chris and Steve, I think Mitt Romney gave a very honest answer in the first instance. I think he spoke as someone who is a former governor has had to deal with these types of issues. And he spoke in a very honest way.

And I think the pressures of a campaign and the fact that his main guy, his legislative liaison is Mr. Blunt himself, caused this retreat, if you will, on the subject.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: This is what I mean by entertainment. In other words, the candidate for president of the United States now leading in your party`s polls has to check with his lobbyist--

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: Chris, come on. Chris, stop it, stop it.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- to fill him in on where he stands on a matter of conscience.

STEELE: Chris, I`m not going to let you get away with that.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Go ahead. You put it in context.

STEELE: You know -- Chris, you act like you`re a nubile person to politics, you`re new to politics here.

This is the reality of it. He spoke in an honest moment. And then--

MATTHEWS: And then?

STEELE: Wait a minute. Hold up. Boom, boom, wait a minute.

They have to go back and they fix it. That`s the bottom line. I`m just telling you that is what happened.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Michael, who is going to be president of the United States if he gets elected, should he get elected? It`s always possible. Which guy is going to be president of the United States, the honest guy we heard first or the flip-flopper?

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: You act like Barack Obama hasn`t had to go check through some
stuff--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Your witness, Steve.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: You act like the ebb and flow of a campaign doesn`t matter for anything. When Hillary Clinton made the mistake in South Carolina, what was that?

(CROSSTALK)

MCMAHON: Michael--

STEELE: What? Yes, sir.

MCMAHON: This isn`t the ebb and flow of a campaign.

This is Mitt Romney. And the problem here for Mitt Romney is this reinforces a perception that is persistent and repetitive that he wants to have it both ways on every issue that`s controversial, and that he will say as a venture capital guy whatever it takes to close the deal.

And today he -- your Republican nominee for president, or who you want to be the Republican nominee for president, if somebody says Blunt-Rubio amendment, first of all, you should know what it is. And, secondly, your political instinct should say, let`s see, Blunt and Rubio, I`m for that.
They`re Republicans. They are guys that I want to have support me. I`m for that bill.

This is something that`s been on the front pages of every major newspaper for the past three or four weeks. And he doesn`t know what the Blunt amendment is?

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: Again, I`m not disagreeing with you here. I said the man answered honestly in the first instance.

And then the politics set in and he`s made the course correction.
Now, to your point, Steve, I would agree. This is part of the problem that the base has with Romney up until now. We don`t know where that anchor comes to rest. And that`s what he`s got to fix.

(CROSSTALK)

MCMAHON: There isn`t one. It`s getting pulled along the bottom--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Never mind. Anyway, you gave me an excellent explanation of what to expect if we get a President Romney. You laid it out quite well, Michael, how he`s going to behave.

He will tell us the truth. And then when he gets a call from his top guy on the Hill, he will tell us what that guy believes.

STEELE: All right, whatever.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Steve McMahon.

Thank you, Michael Steele. Your defense was as weak as I have ever seen one.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Anyway, by the way, Sandra Fluke, by the way, that Georgetown law student insulted by Rush Limbaugh so brutally, will be Ed Schultz`s guest tonight. Well, that`s what we call a good get, good for both of them.

By the way, Georgetown University is one of the great institutions of this country with a fine student body of great people. I`m so lucky to live in the same town as that great school. It`s a Jesuit school. It`s the first Jesuit school in this country. It`s a great university.

I personally am offended by what Rushbo has to say about it.

Up next, remember when Mitt Romney said he has always been a hunter?
You know, varmints and all that stuff? Well, Romney`s position on guns has, shall we say, evolved. Wait until you hear him. He gets so, well, just like he was a minute ago about birth control. He`s not really comfortable with the issue. He doesn`t cling to guns exactly.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Anyway, back to HARDBALL. Now for the "Sideshow." What a show tonight.

First up: master of disguise. Remember back in 2007, when Mitt Romney got caught, well, stepping all over himself when he tried to strike a chord with gun owners? Well, here`s what he said during that 2008 race when he tried to talk up his hunting skills and then again at a debate last month.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I`m not a big game hunter. I have made it very clear. I have always been, if you will, a rodent and rabbit hunter, all right, small varmints, if you will. And I began when I was, oh, 15 or so, and have hunted those kinds of varmints since then, more than two times.

I`m not going to describe all of my great exploits. But I went moose hunting actually -- not moose hunting -- I`m sorry -- elk hunting. I`m not the great hunter that some on this stage, probably -- Rick Perry, my guess is you are a serious hunter. I`m not a serious hunter, but--

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: That may be the only time in history when any person has ever said varmints, if you will.

Anyway, it might be one case where Rick Perry of Texas had the upper hand. With those unconvincing statements behind him, you might think Romney would have something else scripted by now. Not quite. Here`s how he fared yesterday on the issue again of gun control.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I believe in the Second Amendment. I will protect the Second Amendment. I have guns myself. I`m not going to tell you where they are.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: Don`t have them on myself either, all right?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I guess he was worried someone might to want frisk him.

Anyway, finally, the United Auto Workers continued their convention today with former President Bill Clinton taking on the stage. Clinton had nothing but praise for the auto industry bailout, but it`s what he said about Mitt Romney`s lack of support for the bailout that hits the issue hardest. Let`s listen to the former president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I happen to think this auto industry package is the most important thing that was initiated by President Obama and the administration.

The president could have walked away from this. The government would have walked away from it. And we wouldn`t be here in the humor we`re in today. Every time I hear Mr. Romney talk about this, I think his daddy must be turning over in his grave.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow. There`s the most popular man in the country, by the way.

The candidate`s father, of course, Mitt Romney`s father is George Romney. He was the three-term governor of Michigan and most importantly the longtime president, the man who saved American Motors. But just in this case, I would be careful about using family issues with a political rival. You should never talk about the father to the son.

Anyway, up next, is there any room for moderates in the Republican Party anymore? That`s a good question. You could say this thing about the Democrats. The big question after Senator Olympia Snowe, however, left the Senate -- she`s leaving at the end of this term -- raises the question, is there any room for the old Republican Party of Jack Javits and Nelson Rockefeller and people like that?

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COURTNEY REAGAN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Courtney Reagan with your CNBC "Market Wrap."

The Dow gains 28, S&P up eight, and the Nasdaq adding 22. It was a big day for the automakers, as they reported February sales. GM sales rose
1 percent, while Ford saw a 14 percent gain, Chrysler sales up 40 percent.

On the economic front, jobless claims fell by 2,000 to a near-four- year low. And retail was a bright spot for most of the country, most of the nation`s retailers, as February sales figures came in stronger than expected.

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

MATTHEWS: We`re back with an issue close to my heart.

Moderates are an endangered species in American politics in both parties. The latest example, a really good senator, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, has decided this week not to seek reelection. Her exit and her criticism of what she calls the toxic environment in Congress today has many people wondering whether moderates can survive in today`s polarized political climate.

Blanche Lincoln was a Democratic senator until recently from Arkansas.
And Christie Todd Whitman, a pal of mine, was a Republican governor of New Jersey. Both are moderates.

Thank you, ladies, for coming on.

I`m going to step out of the way, because I`m just a television commentator. You guys have ran for office, won election, difficult elections, lost some. I don`t think Christie Todd Whitman ever lost any.

CHRISTIE TODD WHITMAN r, FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: I did.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You lost that first one for governor up there.

WHITMAN: No, Bradley, Bradley. Senate. I lost the one for Senate.

MATTHEWS: Bradley, that`s right. Tell us -- and that was a close one.

Tell me your views about the two political parties. And I know you want to hit both. Hit both of them. Why is there no room for people crossing the aisle, making deals with the other side, being close to the aisle in your own politics so that you can be one of those people that helps make those deals work?

BLANCHE LINCOLN (D), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Well, I will just jump in there.

WHITMAN: Go ahead, Senator.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Senator, you first.

LINCOLN: Yes, sure.

And, hello, Christie. It`s great to be with you.

WHITMAN: Hi.

LINCOLN: It`s because it`s all about politics. It`s all about who is going to win and stay in charge. It`s not about what are we going to get done and what are we going to do for the country.

And that`s why it`s so sad so see Olympia leave. Olympia was amazing.
She was always about hard work, solving the problem, and getting down to making a difference.

MATTHEWS: I wonder, Governor Whitman, who is supposed to represent a state like Maine, which is sort of a middle of the road state to begin with? Do they have to have a lefty or a right-winger there, when the state is neither?

WHITMAN: No. And most of the country is neither, Chris. You know that. We know that.

As the senator said, what we have had now is we have put politics ahead of policy. And it`s damaging. And it`s time for the American people to stand up and say enough of this. We have had it. We`re not going to allow this to go on anymore, because we have serious issues in this country that are not being addressed, because the senator is absolutely right.

It`s all about what`s going to get me another vote in caucus, what`s going to get me another percentage on my reelect, not about how do I solve the problems and do what I have been elected to do, which is represent the people.

And I think we have an opportunity in this election cycle with Americans Elect. That`s a new Internet way of nominating a bipartisan team that will be on the ballot in every state in the nation for president.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WHITMAN: But we are going to have to do things like that to get people to sit up and say, enough already.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the vote today.

It was very interesting. You had Olympia Snowe joined the Democrats.
OK? And you had, I believe, Bill Nelson of Florida and Manchin, the new senator from West Virginia, and my friend Bobby Casey of Pennsylvania join the Republicans.

What do you think of that? That seems to be getting back to the older way, where there was spillover.

Your thoughts, Senator Lincoln?

LINCOLN: Well, there`s got to be spillover, but there has got to be a conscious effort at really going through these issues and figuring out what the middle ground is, so you don`t just have one or two crossing over in that sense, but that you`re building a consensus in the middle.

We have got to change people`s perspective and make sure that they know that they are never going to get 100 percent of everything they want -
- that that 90 percent is critical because it helps us move the ball from the 10-yard line to the 50-yard line.

MATTHEWS: Is a lot of this fundraising, Governor, where you just -- you know, the parties have to play to their base, what they call a base.
It`s not always the base. It can best jus the wealthy people on the Democratic side, you got all the way on certain issues.

And you know how the fundraising goes. The same issues are raised in every fundraiser in both parties. You know, they have automatic ones. And then they don`t have to make any deals. I mean, I was thinking of the tough race of Claire McCaskill is facing in Missouri now, for example.

WHITMAN: You know, it`s about -- they are playing to the base. But the problem is the base is a small percentage in each of the parties.

And the issue that we have, the American people started turning off because they are so disgusted by what they see going on. That`s why independent registration is starting to surpass Republican or Democrat.
But that`s the wrong response. They don`t vote.

We have a 10 percent average voter turnout in primaries, which means that you`re leaving it to the very most partisan people to vote. And they tend to be the ones that are excited by the red meat issues.

And those are the issues that are not the things that are most important to peoples` everyday lives. They are all the social issues.
We`re not talking about the economy the way we need to. We don`t have an energy policy in this country. I mean, you can go down the list of things that we need to solve. And compromise has become a really dirty word.

But if you go back to our Founding Fathers, finding consensus is what it was all about. And why we have the separation of powers in the Constitution, why we are set up the way we are.

MATTHEWS: Well, Senator Snowe, she`s the most important topic of this conversation right now. She`s leaving as senator from Maine and she could have won with 70 percent if she wanted to.

Her cousin Georgia Chomas tells "The New York Times" the pressure was beginning to be too much for the senator. Quote, "Social conservatives and Tea Party activists in Maine were hounding her at home, while party leaders in Washington had her hemmed in and steered the legislative agenda away from matters she cared about. There was a constant, constant struggle to accommodate everyone, and a lot of pressure on her from the extreme right."\

We were talking before we went on. If I were get elected to anything, I know I`d be a maverick, and I`d like to be a maverick, I like to go to into the cloakroom and says, if you guys don`t like me today, tough. You need my vote. OK?

That`s pretty hard to do, isn`t it, Senator?

LINCOLN: It is, but if you want to get something accomplished and that`s what you`re here to do -- I mean, we`re moving to politicians instead of public servants. I mean, you got to be able to stand up and say, this is not going to get us where we need to be.

MATTHEWS: You know, I think progressives love watching my show, I`m in many ways a progressive myself. I have to tell you, in many ways, 21 percent of the country calls itself liberal -- 21 percent. You don`t run the presidency or hold it for long if you don`t get moderates and a few conservatives to see your way in terms of who they think should be the president. You will lose every election if you only vote ideologically.

By the way, your party is dominated now by the right, 41 percent of the country calls itself conservative now, Governor. So that base is getting pretty scary for you guys, you moderates.

Anyway, thank you for coming on. You`re always -- don`t get mad.
Don`t leave mad.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Governor Christie Todd Whitman, and, Senator Blanche Lincoln.

Up next, was the government in Saudi Arabia involved in anyway with the September 11th attacks? It`s very interesting. We`ve always thought there are some interesting stuff coming out of this. We`re going to find out on the record what happened. A lot of people have thought this for a long time. Now, we got two senators saying it did happen.

And this is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey vetoed that bill to allow same sex marriage in his state of New Jersey, saying he wants the issue put on the ballot for a referendum.

Now, a new Quinnipiac poll shows same sex marriage has broad support in the Garden State. Take a look -- 57 percent of New Jersey voters say they support same sex marriage. Well, that`s interesting. It`s a new high for the poll. Only 37 percent oppose it.

It looks like he`s off base on this one.

We`ll be right a back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, 10 1/2 years after the September 11th attacks, one of the most nagging questions to some remains the possible role of the Saudi government in the whole thing, or at least elements of it in what happened that horrible day in our country.

Well, former Senator Bob Graham, a smart, serious guy, led a joint inquiry into the attacks and served as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee back then. Here`s what he said in an affidavit filed in the lawsuit against the Saudi government brought by families of the victims of
9/11 and others.

Quote, this is the senator quoting, "I am convinced there was a direct link between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the September 11th attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia," close quote.

Well, what exactly did that line look like and why after 10 years are there still so many unanswered questions?

Well, Eric Lichtblau is an investigative correspondent for "The New York Times." We`ll lucky to have him today. And we`re also lucky to have Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who worked in the Middle East. He`s also "Time" magazine`s intelligence columnist.

Eric, you first. Delineate what you think we know now about the possible role of the Saudi government establishment in the hell of 9/11.

ERIC LICHTBLAU, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, there have been 10 years of questions now about the Saudi`s possible role. The point of Senator Kerrey and Senator Graham who were both in the middle of investigations is that those questions have never really been answered. And what role did charities play, Saudi charities?

There was a very suspicious character in San Diego who knew two of the hijackers, provided them money and had links to Saudi officials and getting money from Riyadh. Of course, 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and bin Laden himself, his family had roots there for generations.

So there has been this percolating effect for the last 10 years. But now, you have two very big names in 9/11 investigations.

MATTHEWS: Are they saying that the Saudi establishment that we see as an ally, the president -- remember W. walking hand in hand with the guy
--

LICHTBLAU: Sure.

MATTHEWS: -- who we kiss up to when they deal with us, because they
want our protection, we want their oil. Are we -- are these two senators saying that those people who pretend to be our friends had a clear hand in 9/11?

LICHTBLAU: They are suggesting that members of the royal family and royal institutions may have had a role in at least financing the attacks.

MATTHEWS: Purposefully?

LICHTBLAU: Purposefully. That`s certainly their implications. The Saudis, of course --

MATTHEWS: OK. Where do you come ought on this, Bob Baer. We hear you all the time. I trust you so much.

Do you think, based upon this, there`s evidence that the royal family, the one we deal with as friends, are really our enemies here?

BOB BAER, FORMER CIA AGENT: Oh, I think there`s a real problem here.

Look at it, Chris. These two guys get off an airplane at LAX. They run into a Saudi official who takes them under his wing to San Diego, pays for `em. The same official is getting money from the Saudi embassy. He is spirited out of the country. He`s unavailable for an investigation right now.

And as Eric said, 15 of the Saudi hijackers were recruited inside the kingdom. We don`t know how, how they were vetted and the rest of it. And Saudi Arabia has simply refused to answer those questions. They are covering up something. This is not one of our best allies.

MATTHEWS: Well, the truthers, those who believe that our own government was involved in 9/11 have an absolutely opposite view. They believe we did this to get us in war, to justify a war with Iraq or whatever over there. Make us more hawkish.

This seems to be -- this is our -- people over there who didn`t want us involved in that war. Isn`t that the case?

BAER: Wait, Chris. These are the crazies. These are ones that marginalize the argument by getting involved in.

This government was not involved. What this government did was afraid of losing Saudi Arabia as a near ally and closed off the investigation. And I -- these are two very serious senators that have brought these allegations up.

MATTHEWS: Do they believe -- do they believe as you -- as far as you can tell what they believe, do they believe the Saudi establishment had a hand in the 9/11 hell? Saudi establishment?

BAER: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Unbelievable.

Eric?

LICHTBLAU: Well, I think the interesting thing now is where this goes in court because these declarations from the two senators are coming in the midst of a multibillion-dollar lawsuit which has now --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: From the relatives of those who lost their lives are suing the Saudi government.

LICHTBLAU: -- 9/11 families and survivors, and they`ve been stopped from suing in court for years now. They`ve just gotten a green light from appellate court. Basically, more than the money, what they want to do is find out what happened. This may be the best avenue through court to actually get some --

MATTHEWS: But don`t -- I mean, what happened. We know al Qaeda did it. We know al Qaeda is tied in with that --

LICHTBLAU: Well, they are suing Saudi institutions, dozens and dozens of Saudi institutions that they say the families claim, along with insurance companies that paid out billions of dollars, claim were behind this.

And Kerrey and Graham are now saying, we`re on your side. We think the Saudis may have been more deeply involved than they say.

MATTHEWS: Why did the Bush - administration of George W. Bush rush those Saudi people out of the country so expeditiously and mysteriously right after 9/11? Bob?

BAER: We needed Saudi Arabia`s help on invading Iraq, one. I think that was in the cards of 9/11. We were looking for allies. And it was really unthinkable that our -- you know, the country that is the world`s reserve tank for oil could be on the other side. It was just something too terrifying for people to look at.

And I think there`s a lot of FBI agents that are very angry about this that weren`t able to pursue this. They`d have a lot more to say, why specifically the investigation was cut off.

MATTHEWS: So, where is it headed right now? You first, Bob. Where do you think this new development here, the two U.S. senators, former senators, credible people, highly credible, now believe that there`s something to the Saudi connection. Where is it headed?

BAER: I don`t think it`s going anywhere. We`re on the verge of a war with Iran. We need Saudi Arabia. We`re going to need it if we do get dragged into this.

MATTHEWS: OK, more cover-up.

BAER: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Bob, thank you so much. More cover-up. That`s sad to know. We like to know what happened here, especially when it involved so many of our people we care about.

Bob Baer, thank you. And, Eric Lichtblau, thanks for coming, from "The New York Times." We love "The New York Times" here.

And when return, "Let Me Finish" with Rush Limbaugh. While you can`t finish him off, let me just try to finish with him and his way back machine. This guy is from another -- well, decade at least.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

I think the Republican Party has gotten trapped in the way back machine that Sherman and Mr. Peabody used in the days of Bullwinkle and Rocky the Squirrel. They and Rush Limbaugh seem to think that young women using birth control is a matter for hot debate, that they can score points attacking those young people protecting themselves from pregnancy during their college years.

Well, are they crazy? Are they politically nuts enough to think the way to win votes in 2012 is to head deep into the long ago territory of attacking people for using birth control? I have not heard a priest give a sermon on this topic since I was in grade school. Why are politicians and their radio ringleader out there in the church tent riling up people about something they put to bed a half century ago at least?

Well, if it`s only about an old fuddy-duddy argument -- that would be one thing. But listen to Limbaugh calling a young college student a slut -
- just listen to him -- this man who leads the Republican Party spiritually.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO HOST: What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: And he continued today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIMBAUGH: So Miss Fluke and the rest of you Feminazis, here`s the deal -- if we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I`ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch. I will buy all of the women at Georgetown University as much aspirin to put between their knees as they want.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I get it, Rush. You think this battle isn`t about religious liberty but about birth control, pure and simple. And you don`t like young women wanting to have birth control. That explains that language.

Well, this is strange that Rush Limbaugh doesn`t want young women to have birth control provided in their insurance policy.

Why is he getting into this? Why is he so hot to trot to use this kind of language on this stuff? Why is he attacking people here, reducing them to something very low, calling a young woman he`s never even met, a law student, a slut? Talking about her making her perform sexually for a video shoot all because she wanted to testify on behalf of college students getting birth control as part of their health insurance before the United States Congress.

Well, this ladies and gentlemen is the guy Republican members of Congress treat like a pharaoh.

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

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.


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