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updated 3/5/2012 2:31:50 PM ET 2012-03-05T19:31:50

Guests: Joan Walsh, John Heilemann, Bill Karins, David
Corn, Sandra Fluke, Susan Page, Maggie Haberman, Jennifer Donahue, Peter
Kiernan

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: The ditto-head party.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. Leading off tonight:
Party boss. The battle over contraception is one of those rare issues
where both parties are convinced they hold the winning hand. But Rush
Limbaugh just tilted the scales with his big, bad words.

He`s made the issue birth control itself, not a moral or religion
freedom issue. No, it`s about some strange attitude of his toward women,
toward sex, or whatever, and the Republicans` refusal to fight him.

President Obama has weighed into this controversy. He called Sandra
Fluke, the Georgetown law student who was the target of Rush`s commentary,
and she actually took the call right in my office right near here as she
was preparing to be interviewed today by Andrea Mitchell. Sandra Fluke
joins us tonight at the top of our show.

Plus, you know things are going badly for the Republican Party when
George F. Will says it`s time to think about -- well, more about winning
Congress than trying to win the White House. What`s behind this forbidding
sense that the Republicans are blowing this election?

And we have new poll numbers out tonight on the HARDBALL "Scoreboard"
from Ohio, Wisconsin, and Washington state, which happens to hold its
caucuses tomorrow.

Finally, "Let Me Finish" tonight with this ditto-head behavior by the
Grand Old Party.

We begin with the woman whose been the target of Rush Limbaugh`s ugly
attacks, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. And also with us from San
Francisco, Salon`s Joan Walsh, who is an MSNBC political analyst.

Let me ask you about -- just in human interest because I think there`s
a lot of human interest in this, Sandra.

SANDRA FLUKE, GEORGETOWN LAW SCHOOL STUDENT: Seems to be that way.

MATTHEWS: Do you mind me calling you Sandra?

FLUKE: That`s fine. Yes.

MATTHEWS: Thank you for coming on. I think the fact that you were
sitting in -- happened to be right across the hall here in my office, it`s
an honor for me.

FLUKE: Well, I appreciate--

MATTHEWS: You took a call from President Obama. Tell me about the
call.

FLUKE: I appreciate you allowing me to commandeer your office.

MATTHEWS: Anything for the president and you.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Go ahead.

FLUKE: So President Obama called to express concern, make sure that I
was OK, given some of the colorful attacks that have been leveled at me,
and to also thank me for -- an express support and thank me for helping to
amplify the voices of so many American women who`ve been talking about how
important this regulation is to them.

MATTHEWS: So let`s listen -- I want you to jump in on this, Joan.
You and I have very similar views, although you are a woman and I am a man
and there are different perspectives, perhaps. But I`m not sure on this
one here.

JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Not on this one, I
don`t think.

MATTHEWS: Here with Sandra -- Rush Limbaugh learned live on the air
today that the president had called you. Let`s listen to what he had to
say on the air right after that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: So the president has called her
and asked her if she`s all right. She said she was, I hope. Do we know
what she said? She told that to Andrea Mitchell. You know, people -- I
offered to pay for aspirins. I thought I`d been quite compassionate here.
You know, also, one thing is patently obvious is that when the left wants
to pretend they have no sense of humor, they are excellent at it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Sense of humor. "Slut." Later in his show, as Limbaugh
learned more about what the president said to you, Sandra, he mocked it.
Let`s listen to Limbaugh mocking the president for showing compassion
toward you.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIMBAUGH: Apparently, Sandra Fluke told Obama when he asked her if
she was OK -- she said that Obama told her that she should tell her parents
they should be proud. OK. I`m -- I`m -- I`m going to button my lip on
that one. The president tells Sandra Fluke, 30-year-old Sandra Fluke,
parents should be proud. OK. Oh.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: So Joan, you and I are pretty articulate on matters like
politics. I think we`re beyond the range here of just regular Democrat
versus Republican politics. Something strange in the water with Rush
Limbaugh joining in this fight from his high level -- I must say it`s a
high level -- basically attacking an individual for being part of this
debate, and then going after them ad hominem--

WALSH: Right.

MATTHEWS: -- and then making comments like I`ve never heard somebody
really make about another human being in the context of public debate.

WALSH: Right. No. You said that we`re articulate. You`re
articulate, I`m kind of speechless listening to that, actually. I`d only
read the words, but hearing his voice, it`s ridiculous.

I mean, of course the president called Sandra. He`s a father. And
Sandra, I know you`re 30 years old and you`re grown up and I respect you
and admire you enormously, so I`m not condescending, but there`s a certain
reaction that you have if you`re a parent of a daughter. Mine is in her
20s, too, Chris. Well, you`re like, Excuse me? Who could say something
like that? And how do you get away with it and how do you repeat it over
and over?

So you know, he`s crossed a line. I do my best not to listen to him
anymore, Chris. He really is doing a lot of it to rile us up. But I
honestly think that Sandra got under his skin.

He sounds actually slightly frightened to me. He sounds bewildered in
a--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WALSH: -- in a special way. I think something different is going on
here. And I think we`ve reached a tipping point in this country where
people are talking back to this kind of garbage and misogyny.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me talk to you about -- Sandra, I -- you know, I
have daughter who`s in her 20s. And obviously, we have these
conversations. We live in the real world.

And I`m very happy about birth control as an institution, as an
American, and I think it`s one of our rights. And it`s a life reality.

And for him to attack you on this because you think that should be
part of health insurance -- are you stunned or what? Health insurance.
We`re talking an insurance issue here.

FLUKE: Yes, and it was pretty surprising. And I really appreciate
your use of the word "reality" because we`re talking about federal
government policy, and that has to be focused on reality and not ideology.

And the reality is that this is a basic health care need that women
have in order to prevent terrible medical consequences and unintended
pregnancies. And that`s reality.

MATTHEWS: Yes, and also -- you don`t have to make the case that I
make because I`m quite willing to make it -- it reduces the number of
abortions in this country dramatically. It`s one reason why we don`t have
as many or more.

Let me ask you about the Republican Party. Joan, you may want to
comment on this. I want to go to my colleague, Joan, immediately on this.

Joan, the Republican Party is not an evil party. It`s not made up of
evil people. It has people that may have views which I disagree with, you
disagree with, and sometimes it`s dead wrong. Dead wrong.

WALSH: Right.

MATTHEWS: But it has not spoken against this man, Rush Limbaugh. It
has not spoken. The only words we`ve got is this peep from Santorum about
his words being absurd and being basically an entertainer. They`re falling
back to the joke that he`s just an entertainer.

WALSH: Oh.

MATTHEWS: Normally, day to day, he`s their spiritual mentor and
ideological leader. They`re afraid. I hear from what`s his name, Boehner,
the so-called leader of the Republicans in the Congress, saying something
like -- what? I don`t even get it. "Inappropriate" language -- he used
the word "slut" instead of "prostitute," or what, hooker? What`s the word
he did think was appropriate?

I mean, it`s not inappropriate language, it`s inappropriate thought
and certainly inappropriate attack on an individual who`s a private
citizen.

What do you think about the Republican Party here? Absolute ditto-
heads.

WALSH: I can`t believe it.

MATTHEWS: They`re doing what he wants them to do. Your thoughts.

WALSH: I can`t believe it. I mean, you`re right, inappropriate is a
word you use for a prank, for a whoopee cushion, you know? It`s not word
that you use in a context like this.

And you know, Chris, I want to give you credit. You and I disagree
periodically, but I have to say you were on this. A week after the
inauguration, Rush Limbaugh said he hoped the president failed. And I
remember -- I think it was Phil Gingrey peeped up and said maybe that`s not
the nicest thing to say. And he had to go apologize to Rush and go on his
show and kiss his butt.

MATTHEWS: Right.

WALSH: And these guys have been afraid to stand up to him for the
longest time. And now their remarks -- OK, they`re speaking. That`s a
good thing. But they`re saying what needs to be said. This is misogyny,
this is abusive, this has no place in the public sphere. I hope they say
more. I think they`re going to have to.

MATTHEWS: Sandra, have you heard any Republican leader of any sort
say anything to you about they apologized for this conduct by this right-
wing commentator?

FLUKE: No one has said anything to me directly. I understand that
Mr. Boehner made some comments distancing himself. But one thing that I
want to jump in with is that--

MATTHEWS: Sure. Go ahead.

FLUKE: -- it wasn`t just one person who made these comments on the
airwaves.

WALSH: Right.

FLUKE: There were multiple commentators who used this kind of
language and these types of characterizations--

MATTHEWS: Who are they? Do you know their names?

FLUKE: Glenn beck for one. And they weren`t the only two. And so I
really just hope that we can take a stand and decide that this is the point
when this is going to be unacceptable discourse in all sectors of our
society.

MATTHEWS: You`re a law student. You`re going to be a lawyer. You
talked to me beforehand about being a public interest lawyer. Do you think
you`re getting the Anita Hill treatment here?

FLUKE: Well--

MATTHEWS: You know that history.

FLUKE: I do. I do. Anita Hill was a very strong woman, and I don`t
want to characterize what--

MATTHEWS: But the kind of attack you`re getting.

FLUKE: It`s certainly in the same spectrum, and it is how women have
been treated when someone wants to silence them. So it`s certainly
related.

MATTHEWS: Let`s listen to some more of Rush Limbaugh to get a greater
sense -- by the way, he said all those awful words yesterday, and today he
basically doubled down. Here he is today on why he`s feeling insulted by
the criticism. He`s making himself the victim. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIMBAUGH: Somebody asked me, Why are you so insulting? Me? I`m --
can anybody understand that a whole lot of us are insulted by this, that
all of a sudden, we are told that people who want to have sex without
consequence, sex with no responsibility, we got to pay for it, we`re told
we have to pay for it, if we object, that somehow, we`re Neanderthal. Just
out of nowhere this comes up. Now, that to me is insulting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Have you got any idea what he`s talking about?

FLUKE: Not most of the time.

(LAUGHTER)

FLUKE: But it does seem that he is looking just at the use of
contraception to prevent pregnancy, which is very important--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FLUKE: -- but there are so many other medical needs--

WALSH: Right.

FLUKE: -- and medical reasons why women need it. And this policy
affects those needs when they don`t have access to it.

MATTHEWS: This isn`t about you. I`m not going to join in his ad
hominem -- this is just a general commentary. Joan, you and I can talk a
little more freely than this younger person. But let me just tell you
something.

Aren`t you -- don`t you find it somewhat of a hoot -- I mean a really
nasty hoot -- that he thinks that if you take -- you have to take one pill
for each sexual event, that if you -- if you take the pills, you have to
pay more for them if you have more sexual activity. I mean, he thinks it`s
Viagra. I mean, he`s -- he doesn`t even know -- he doesn`t even know what
he`s talking about numerically. It`s--

WALSH: All right, you got me. You got me there. I hadn`t thought
about it, that he`s thinking it`s Viagra and you have to use it every time.

MATTHEWS: He was running through the bills that a student might -- a
young student who`s single might have for birth control, and he`s saying,
Well, if it`s that high, you must be having a lot of sex. It must be -- I
mean, what is he talking about.

WALSH: It`s a great -- it`s a great point. And also, I`m sorry --
Sandra`s a really nice woman and I`m not as nice. The man has been married
four times. You know, he`s not somebody to lecture anybody about their
personal lives.

And Sandra also makes the excellent point we`re entitled to privacy.
We`re entitled to contraception for sex. But many, many women are using
this medication for other medical reasons and not for sex. I think
something like only 40 percent of women who are on the pill are on it
exclusively for contraception.

MATTHEWS: I know. But--

WALSH: So you know, he knows nothing. He knows nothing about--

MATTHEWS: That`s not his--

WALSH: -- about the reality of women`s lives.

MATTHEWS: That`s not his interest area, as you know.

WALSH: No. No, obviously not.

MATTHEWS: He`s talking about videotapes and how he wants to watch
them and all. This gets more graphic and crazier than I`d like -- I`m not
talking to you, Sandra, I`m talking to Joan. This is crazy talk, and crazy
talk--

WALSH: He sounded like a pervert. The stuff about--

MATTHEWS: Yes. Thank you.

WALSH: The stuff that he said, he sounded like a pervert. I`m sorry.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, my colleague, for sharing our views tonight.
Thank you, Sandra. Good luck with everything.

WALSH: Thanks for having me.

MATTHEWS: You don`t need good luck. You`re going to be a strong
lawyer.

WALSH: Thanks, Sandra.

MATTHEWS: Your clients are going to be lucky to have you. If you can
get through this, you can get through some tough law cases.

WALSH: Really.

FLUKE: Thank you very much.

MATTHEWS: Good luck with your career, seriously. Move on to
greatness.

FLUKE: Thank you very much.

MATTHEWS: Greatness requires greatness. You`re showing it already.
Thank you so much. Joan, thank you. Have a nice weekend.

WALSH: Thanks.

MATTHEWS: Coming up: Why do Republicans think limiting birth control
is a political winner? What are they thinking about here exactly? We`re
going to get some answers, if there are any.

You`re watching HARDBALL on a Friday night on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: All the attention nationally is on Ohio, that big state
which votes this Tuesday. But tomorrow, there`s a caucus in Washington
state, way out west. And we have new poll numbers from both states.

Let`s go to the HARDBALL "Scoreboard." I love this. In Washington
state, it`s Mitt Romney with a 5-point lead over Rick Santorum in a new PPP
robo-poll. Romney`s taking the state seriously. He campaigned there
today. Don`t bet on that margin. I think Santorum might pull it.

Now to Ohio. The new Quinnipiac poll shows Santorum still holding a
lead out there, but it`s shrinking. Santorum`s at 35, 4 points ahead of
Romney. That`s going to be a squeaker, although a lot of rural parts of
Ohio are very religious and conservative. Last week, Santorum`s lead was 7
in that Quinnipiac poll.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Rush Limbaugh`s outrageous -- I
think that`s fair to say -- comments largely overshadowed what otherwise
would have been the headline yesterday. The Senate voted 51 to 48 to
reject that Republican effort to allow employers, any employer or health
insurer, providers, to deny coverage for contraceptive -- well,
contraceptives.

Republicans tried to frame their objection on the grounds of religious
freedom, but thanks to Rush Limbaugh, the debate has been sharply focused
on the issues of contraception, birth control, if you will, and women`s
rights generally. And those are the issues that Democrats think are big
winners for them.

So is the GOP, the Republican Party, hurting itself with women and
independents with this fight? And what besides firing up the base is the
Republican Party getting out of this all this discussion of, of all things,
birth control?

Well, Susan Page is Washington bureau chief for "USA Today," and John
Heilemann is national affairs editor for "New York" magazine and an MSNBC
analyst.

Susan first. You know, it`s -- we want to start with women on this
always because although birth control is generally because of heterosexual
sex, it involves both partners, and the idea that only women care about
birth control is insane, OK? But they do care about it because they are
the ones who can get pregnant, obviously, and when they don`t want to get
pregnant.

So why do you think Republicans -- let`s start with the obvious one.
Let me give you some numbers here. Who supports the requirement that
private health insurance plans cover the cost of birth control? Just two
thirds of the American people, 63 percent, an incredible, overwhelming --
very few things are this dramatic -- 63 to 33. Who supports contraception
coverage by insurance companies generally? Democrats, 83 percent.
Independents, 62 percent. Republicans even 42 percent.

Susan, this is not a winner statistically for Republicans.

SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": You know, the debate about contraception--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

PAGE: -- is not a winner for Republicans. Talking about respect for
religion, religious freedom -- that`s an argument they can make, or talking
about mandates by the Obama health care plan that seem intrusive or
extensive or too much (INAUDIBLE) That`s an argument they might be able to
make. And that was the argument they were trying to make yesterday. Rush
Limbaugh has kind of hijacked that argument and made it about
contraception. And Republicans--

MATTHEWS: Not about the church. He`s not exactly speaking for the
church.

PAGE: And this is--

MATTHEWS: (INAUDIBLE) imagine that being credible.

PAGE: It is hard to imagine Republicans thinking this -- even Rick
Santorum, who`s really comfortable talking about these conservative social
issues, wanted not to talk about this today, wanted to dismiss it and move
on to other things.

MATTHEWS: He`s getting into the jobs issue again, where he belongs.

PAGE: Well, where he -- where he ought to be, where he`s been trying
to be, and he keeps for some reason--

MATTHEWS: I think he said this absurd--

PAGE: -- falling back (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS: You know, John, you know, even -- you know, he`s about the
only one that said anything today, and he`s, of course, using the lingo,
basically, of, Oh, he`s an entertainer, don`t take it seriously. He said
it was absurd. He just dismissed it. They do retreat to that.

But let`s talk about the politics of this thing. These cultural
issues -- will they drive up the Republican base next November? Will they
help them when they need to get the -- if Romney`s the nominee -- he may
be, probably will be at this point -- he`s the nominee and they need to
hold the -- grab the center, and this brings in the base.

Is there any logic to why they keep talking this stuff up?

JOHN HEILEMANN, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I
think there`s logic to it, although I think it`s flawed logic. I think --
you know, look, I have been convinced for the past two or three years that
the Republican base was going to turn out in November of 2012. They have
been motivated by hatred of, animus towards President Obama.

And I think that -- that even though we`ve seen some poor turnout
numbers in some of these Republican primaries and caucus states, I think
that in the end, that Republicans are going to turn out.

I know the White House believes that Republicans, the Republican base is
going to turn out, strictly on the grounds that they want to get Barack
Obama out of office. And I think it`s what -- Susan makes the correct
point, which is that Republicans did think at the beginning they could win
this argument on religious freedom grounds.

And they also thought they could extend the argument to try to make it
look like President Obama was trying to being too intrusive, government
trying to tell you what to do, a big-government issue.

The problem is that once you open the Pandora`s box of these social
issues, the Republican right on the far cultural extreme is so loud that it
overtakes the debate and you can`t make those kind of fine distinctions.
You end up talking about contraceptives, and that`s a dead, dead loser with
women voters. Barack Obama won--

MATTHEWS: OK.

HEILEMANN: Go ahead. Sorry.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the front-runner. Here`s the Republican
conundrum right to our face here.

Here in an interview with Jim Heath of Ohio News the other day, Mitt
Romney was asked about this Blunt amendment, the amendment that basically
says if you have a moral objection, you don`t have to provide health
insurance for birth control. Here he is following what I think most would
say is his instinct. He says let`s stay out of this one. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM HEATH, OHIO NEWS NETWORK: Blunt-Rubio 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: That`s so Romney. That`s who he really is, I think, the
guy who says you`re crazy to get involved in bedroom issues between a man
and a woman on contraception.

A short time later after doing that interview, Romney said the
following. He misunderstood what he was asked. Let`s listen to his
correction just a few hours later.

(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: Heilemann, Blunt is his liaison with Capitol Hill. It`s
his guy on Capitol Hill, and he thought it was a state issue. That was
like a top spinning around so fast.

And it went from -- well, you`re the expert on this. Is that Romney,
the real Romney, the first one, and the second one is the political person,
or what? What are we talking about here, these two different people?

HEILEMANN: Yes, you got it right. You hit the nail on the head,
Chris.

The first Mitt Romney is the real Mitt Romney, I think, and the second
Mitt Romney is the one who is trying to get himself out of trouble. Look,
the Romney campaign understands. They can read the polls as clearly as we
can. President Obama won in 2008 the women vote by 13 points. That`s a
big gender gap.

And now he`s up 10 points with women right now on issues of the
economy over the course of the last two months alone. They are looking
down the barrel of a huge problem if female voters get more alienated from
the Republican Party. Mitt Romney does not want to be in that place. It
will doom his campaign.

And so he`s trying to get ahold of a barge pull and push this issue
away from him, both because of what he really believes and because he sees
the politics of it. But the party keeps trying to pull him back in, like
the "Godfather" thing. It`s bad.

MATTHEWS: Well, the entertainment in this industry of politics and
commentary is to catch people like Romney just then. That`s the -- when
you catch a guy so -- in this pure way he just did from what he is to what
he`s supposed to be politically.

PAGE: And, of course, it tells you why a lot of conservatives in the
Republican Party don`t trust him and have trouble warming to him.

But it also tells you why he would be the more formidable candidate,
the most formidable of the Republicans against Obama.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Because they all believe the first--

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE: Because they all believe he`s the first.

And so when you want to be the first Romney, the guy who doesn`t
really think this is a role for the government to get into the
contraception debate, in a general election, Romney is going to be --
Romney has in fact done pretty well with women.

In the Michigan primary, he split men about evenly--.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Compared to Santorum. OK.

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE: His margin of victory -- so I`m saying--

MATTHEWS: If you`re a sparring partner with Rick Santorum among
women, you`re probably--

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE: Well, you make a good point here.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look at these numbers, because you alluded to
them, women and Obama. We have a new AP poll out here. Basically, Obama`s
job approval among women is 53.

But look at this. He beats Romney 54-41. That`s pretty good, Susan.

PAGE: You can`t win a national election with that kind of gap among
women. There are more women voters than men voters. You need to fix that.

MATTHEWS: OK. OK.

Here`s how the Democrats are exploiting the old Rushbo and what he has
been saying. Let`s take a look at this thing. Here`s the latest
Democratic Senate Campaign Committee ad. Just take a look at this.

They are calling the Republicans -- they`re saying they are launching
a war on women.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, DEMOCRATIC SENATE CAMPAIGN COMMITTEE AD)

NARRATOR: It`s an assault on women`s health and freedom, and
Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate all across the country are
pushing extreme legislation that threatens health care for women. It`s
time to end the culture wars and get to work for the middle class.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: So we know where that`s headed, right, Susan? The
Democrats are going to dance on this one for awhile.

PAGE: That`s right.

And with all those senators having voted on it, it`s an issue that can
work in a lot of those Senate races.

MATTHEWS: OK.

Hey, Heilemann, thank you so much. Have a nice weekend, John
Heilemann of "New York" magazine and MSNBC.

HEILEMANN: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: I`m one of your biggest fans. Good luck for next week when
your movie comes out.

HEILEMANN: Thanks.

MATTHEWS: What a week to be able to be the man behind a great
American movie. Woody Harrelson. Who else? You got Ed -- who is the
other guy in it? You have got Ed--

HEILEMANN: Ed Harris.

MATTHEWS: You have got Julianne Moore, Ed Harris. What a cast.

HEILEMANN: Julianne Moore. Yes.

MATTHEWS: What a cast.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Anyway, you`re big-time. You`re a movie-maker now.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Up next -- thank you -- actress Julianne Moore doesn`t just
play Sarah Palin in that new HBO movie "Game Change." There she is. Isn`t
that Palin? She becomes her. And she explains how she did it next in the
"Sideshow."

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. Now for a hot "Sideshow" tonight.

First up, crowd control. President Obama traveled to New York City
yesterday for a quartet of fund-raising events. While the president`s
dress room was packed with enthusiastic supporters, it wasn`t all smooth
sailing.

Let`s watch how the president reacted when interrupted while talking
about his foreign policy achievements.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We ended torture. We
promoted human rights.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: We made it clear that America is a Pacific power. And we are
leading, again, by the power of our moral example. That`s what change is.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: None of this change -- none of -- nobody has announced a war,
young lady.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: So -- but we appreciate your sentiment.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: You`re jumping the gun a little bit there.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s hope so.

Anyway, he was responding to a woman yelling out "no war with Iran."

Of course, the question is, how does that square, what he just said,
with the president`s own statement in this new "Atlantic" article that he`s
not going to bluff when it comes to keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran`s
hands?

Next up: becoming Palin. We`re now just about a week away from the
premier of "Game Change" on HBO, an inside look at that 2008 presidential
race. So how did actress Julianne Moore tackle the challenge of playing
Sarah Palin? There she is.

Here she is on "The Tonight Show."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO")

JULIANNE MOORE, ACTRESS: I listened to her book on tape, her book
"Going Rogue."

I went on YouTube and we found all of her appearances, all of her
media appearances, all the speeches and debates, the convention speeches,
and put it all on my iPod, wiped everything off except for "Ice, Ice Baby,"
which is the song that my daughter ice-skated to.

(LAUGHTER)

MOORE: My 14-year-old son was really embarrassed by that, because
nothing worse than having a man who has nothing but Sarah Palin and "Ice,
Ice Baby" on their iPod.

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": Right.

MOORE: I would put it on in the car. I would listen to it when I was
running. Listen, I had it on constantly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, talk about bringing a job home with you. That`s what
Darrell Hammond did all those years. That`s how you do it. You hear it
over and over again. I think she`s going to nail that part.

Up next, George F. Will says Republicans should think more about
winning Congress than winning the White House. Well, what does that say
about Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum having even a chance?

That`s ahead. You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BILL KARINS, NBC METEOROLOGIST: I`m NBC News meteorologist Bill
Karins.

Tornado outbreak and devastation with fatalities in southern Indiana.
These are pictures coming in from Henryville, Indiana, where the high
school took a direct school. Students were in the high school at the time
when it went through. There are still some people missing in that town.

And the town of Marysville, Indiana, is said to be wiped off the map
with a population of 1,900 people. The severe weather threat continues as
we go throughout the rest of this afternoon and this evening. The concern
now is further to the west in areas of western Kentucky and also western
portions of Tennessee. Nashville saw a very strong storm go through over
the last hour.

We will have more updates throughout the evening here on MSNBC -- now
back to HARDBALL WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, you know things are looking bad for the Republicans when
conservative columnists like George Will and the others talk about the grim
chances, if any, of winning the White House. Will Republicans have to --
win the White House in 2012? They don`t think so and using words like
awkward and dull to describe one of their top candidates, meaning Romney.

Is it time for conservatives to forget the executive branch altogether
in 2012, as George F. Will suggests in his column this weekend, or is this
just a bleak week in the primary?

"Mother Jones" D.C. bureau chief David Corn is an MSNBC political
analyst. And Maggie Haberman is Politico`s senior political writer.

Maggie, this sense we`re getting from -- especially from George Will,
that things aren`t looking even really hopeful at all, that the Republicans
have to circle their wagons and grab Capitol Hill and live with stymying
Obama, rather than beating him, what`s that about?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, POLITICO: Yes, I -- this is actually about a growing
and private whisper among Republicans who are getting very concerned right
now watching the poll numbers.

They are seeing Obama not doing great, but he`s actually doing better.
With the exception of gas prices, there have been some indicators that are
going in the president`s favor. There is concern about this very nasty
primary on the Republican side. And there`s concern, as George Will said,
that Romney will not be able to get it done.

I personally think we`re a long way away from a general election. I
think things have a chance to reset, at least somewhat. But there is
concern that Republicans ought to essentially make the best with what they
have got, try to take the Senate and try to keep the House. These are
going to become major priorities.

MATTHEWS: David?

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I agree with Maggie.

I think it`s premature to be forecasting any gloom or doom yet. But I
think that column was written for the benefit of Republican donors, because
at this point in time, the media, the operatives, they are not going to
shift their focus from the presidential race to the congressional and
senatorial races, but there are people out there with money, lots of money.

We see that--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, why would Will want to do that?

CORN: Well, maybe some whispered in his ear.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He`s pretty independent. I don`t know about that.

CORN: I don`t mean it in a conspiratorial way.

But the people now who are looking to invest in Republican politics
may be the ones who say, listen, we have got to start setting up super PACs
and getting money to get the Senate back and to protect the House.

MATTHEWS: OK.

CORN: That`s where this sort of talk might have a real world impact.

MATTHEWS: Let me give you a more sober column. It`s by Charles
Krauthammer, a very close friend of George Will`s.

He`s what he wrote today -- quote -- "once again, the smoke clears,
and Romney remains slow, steady, unspectacular, the tortoise in the race,
dull and methodical, with an awkward, almost endearing -- note, almost --
endearing stiffness, in short, a weak front-runner in an even weaker
field."

Hear that phrase, "a weak front-runner in an even weaker field"?

"Hence the current Republican gloom, the growing Democratic cockiness.
But the game is young. True, given the national mood and the state of the
economy, Republicans should be far ahead. They`ve blown a significant
lead. But the race is still 50-50."

That`s my religion right now, Maggie. I believe this race could go
either way depending on objective factors like the economy, like the
jobless and growth rates. This president is not beloved by more than 50 s
even blown a significant lead. But the race is still 50-50.

HABERMAN: Yes, I think that`s a pretty-straight on religion.

I think that this president has a long slog ahead of him. I think
that what Krauthammer wrote is absolutely right. I think that Republicans
right now are feeling very gloomy about what they see as a wasted
opportunity of the last few months. And I think this is something of a--

(CROSSTALK)

HABERMAN: Well, I think this is something of a rallying cry.

CORN: And what I think they also are worried about is what`s going to
happen in the next month or two.

Romney has dug himself in a hole by getting tied down, bogged down by
the extremism of his own party. And no one sees him getting out of the
tunnel yet. Maybe Super Tuesday will give him that glimmer of hope or that
light at the end of a long tunnel, but it looks like this could go on for
weeks. And so he`s missing this chance to make the race about Barack
Obama.

MATTHEWS: OK.

Here`s the game-changer. I want you to read something. I`m going to
read something you all that nobody has read yet. It`s in the "Atlantic"
magazine coming out later. It`s by a very important interview the
president gave to Jeff Goldberg, a very serious reporter.

The president chose to give this interview for a purpose. Let`s
listen to this: "I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as
president of the United States, I don`t bluff. I also don`t, as a matter
of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are.
But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that,
when the United States says it`s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear
weapon, we mean what we say."

Maggie, this to me sounds like pretty close to an ultimatum, pretty
much a statement: Don`t worry about Israel. We have got better plans. We
have got more plans. We have got bunker- busters. You know, we can do
this job later on. Trust us. They`re not getting that nuclear weapon."

This is a hell of a statement by the president, I think. Your
thoughts.

HABERMAN: No, I think that`s absolutely right. I think that this is
meant to make the clearer statement that he`s made so far on this issue.
This is coming obviously in advance to his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu.
I think there is concern about the Israeli-U.S. relations. I think he is
sending a message ahead of time.

But I think that this was the strongest that we have heard this
president be on this topic.

MATTHEWS: Has he trapped himself in a position where if the Israelis
relent -- for all I know, this is policy and tactics by Bibi, who is a
smart guy. He may be saying I`m giving you the hot potato, but it is a hot
potato. But if I don`t do it because you say not to, you have to. We
cannot have a nuclear weapon in the hands of Ahmadinejad.

CORN: What he`s saying is don`t do it yourself and don`t do it right
now. And he also in the same interview said that that is the very final
step. He praised his own sanctions which have gotten tougher and harder,
and he talked about trying to let them work.

And he made a very important point, which is if we go in there, or
anyone goes in there and takes out their nuclear facilities, that doesn`t
stop Iran from wanting and still pursuing weapons down the road. They just
get back up and do it.

MATTHEWS: In fact, the people will say, if we had a nuclear weapon,
they wouldn`t be able to do this to us.

CORN: So, what he`s saying is what we need to do in the long run, he
thinks in long-terms for a lot of problems. We have to make sure to put
pressure on the government so they eventually come to the same conclusion.
But don`t worry. I have your back.

It`s a complicated nuance message. Not just --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK. I`m bringing this up not just because it`s news, but
because it`s political, Maggie. This could change everything.

If Israel attacks and we have to back them if they do attack and we
will back them because they`re our ally, we will back them, hell or high
water, whether we like to or not. If on the other hand we commit to doing
what they would like to do but they feel, we could do better and could do
later, they honestly accept we can do it later, if that becomes a reality
before the election, isn`t that the ultimate game changer? You can`t
accuse Obama of being soft if he attacks Iran with our U.S. fire power?

HABERMAN: Oh, without a doubt, it actually changes policy in a
couple of ways. It changes the shape of this election in a couple of ways.
The Republicans have been hitting this president repeatedly as soft on
Israel as you suggested. There`s also going to be the issue of gas prices
and how this relates to what`s happening in the Middle East.

So, I think you are looking at a vastly different election. This was
supposed to be fought solely on the economy. This has the potential to be
very, very different.

CORN: Gas prices will go up if Israel attacks Iran and there`s a
wider war in the Middle East. So, you know, it works -- it cuts both ways
here. And --

MATTHEWS: Is this -- I`m using the word "game changer" the most
frightening way. Could this be the issue that throws everything else off
the table because it`s so powerful between now and November?

CORN: If there`s a wide war in the Middle East, yes. But as we have
seen with Egypt, the Bin Laden raid, and even the Libya military attacks,
the president can be very strong. It doesn`t always have a political
impact one way or the other.

MATTHEWS: You know what I understand. Let me tell you something I
know that maybe you don`t know. This American foreign policy is very
bipartisan.

The people who carry our foreign policy, from our intelligence to our
military operations, are very nonpartisan. We will do I believe what`s in
the interest of this country, not politically. It`s going to be a smart
decision that the president makes because it`s going to be a bipartisan
decision. With all the intelligence he`s got. And, by the way, Leon
Panetta is not a partisan guy either. So, watch out. Whatever we do, it
could probably be the right thing, but it could be very scary and very
influential here at home.

Thank you so much, Maggie Haberman, as always.

David Corn, enjoy next week as we will, watching this movie.

Up next, Congress -- well, is at an all-time low in approval. We all
know that. Even its own members can`t take it anymore. Apparently, why do
they want to get out? People are leaving that place.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, Rick Santorum may be a better candidate than Mitt
Romney in those Midwestern states that could help decide the general
election. We`ve got some new numbers from Wisconsin. Let`s go to the
HARDBALL score board.

According to a new PPP poll, President Obama leads Mitt Romney by a
whopping 14 points in Wisconsin, 53-39. Now look at what happens when
Santorum is the Republican nominee. Look at this -- Obama leads only six.
It`s Obama, 49, Santorum, 43.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

Polls show nearly nine out of 10 Americans disapprove the job of
Congress -- nine out of 10 of us don`t like Congress.

And now, it seems its own members -- members of Congress are joining
the ranks of those who don`t like it.

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe announced just this week, she won`t
run again. And today, she described how bad things are on Capitol Hill.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), MAINE: What has changed, regrettably, is the
partisan, all-or-nothing atmosphere in Washington. I do not see the
polarization that now stands in the way of getting things done changing any
time soon.

To the contrary, what I like to call the sensible center has now
virtually disappeared in Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Jennifer Donahue is a "Huffington Post" contributor
and a fellow with Eisenhower Institute up at Gettysburg College. She`s a
familiar face here, thankfully.

Jennifer -- there she is. Looking gloomy appropriately for this
topic.

And Peter Kiernan is the author of provocatively titled new book, I
don`t even say, there it is. You can read. I don`t have to say it. There
it is on the screen, which takes aim at political partisanship and details
how America can get back on track.

Well, are you surprised, Peter, this actually, are you surprised, in
an introduction to your book, you write that compromise has become a dirty
word up there.

PETER KIERNAN, AUTHOR: It has and I`m disappointed. I won`t tell
you I was surprised that Olympia left, but she`s graced Congress since
1978, with the kind of balance and fortitude necessary to make compromise
happen. And we`re going to miss her.

And I think the challenge is going to be that I`m not sure this is an
inside job anymore. It`s got to be done by the American --

MATTHEWS: You know what, Jennifer? You know politics like I do. It
seems like all the great things on the hill, that have ever happened up
there, like the most important thing they ever did was civil rights,
remember? Where Everett Dirksen got together with Lyndon Johnson and they
did something magic. They said no more Jim Crow.

JENNIFER DONAHUE, THE HUFFINGTON POST: Yes.

MATTHEWS: No more discrimination.

A magical thing they did together. It could only have been done
together.

Don`t people know you can`t do it one party? Even on health care, it
would have been so much better if there had been a compromise and they all
gotten together. Your thoughts?

DONAHUE: I agree with you and I think what`s interesting is that the
public is at a total disconnect with where Congress is right now. The
parties have so much disproportionate power I think because of current
finance reform laws. Campaign finance allows you to give $2,500 to a
candidate during the primary, $2,500 to a candidate during the general
election. But you can give as much money to each party as you want to.

So the parties are controlling who gets chosen as primary candidates.
They set the agenda. And they are way far to the left and right of where
their constituents are. So, we`re seeing the parties control the process.
I think that`s unprecedented.

MATTHEWS: You know, there`s two ways to be a congressman or a
senator, Peter. I`ve thought about this a lot in my life. Career
decisions I`ve had to make.

It seems to me you go out there and be yourself. Vote the way you
think is the right way for the country. Take on your party leadership.
Don`t listen to the whips. Have a mixed voting record, maybe 70-30, 60-40.

Or make life easy for yourself -- go in the room, vote the way whips
tell you. Vote 100 percent ADA or 100 percent ACU, right or left. Have a
lot of friends in the cloakroom. Be one of the boys, one of the girls, and
everything is fine.

That`s the tenancy they all follow. It`s easier to be one of the
boys, one of the girls. Just take it. Do what they tell you.

There are still more people like that.

KIERNAN: My book is about fighting the path of least resistance. We
have to fight that. We are literally frozen. And until we understand why
we`re frozen, we won`t be able to thaw out.

MATTHEWS: How is it killing us internationally? You talk about
being China`s bitch, to use your word.

KIERNAN: Oh, I think -- yes. The essence of it is, there`s a cost
to all this delay. There`s a cost of all this procrastination. If we were
asked to lead in uncertain times, we would make 30 challenges, a list, and
we pick 10 and we`d focus on those 10, no matter what -- hunger,
homelessness, health care, immigration, energy. We would force ourselves
to do that.

That`s not what we`re doing today. We`re getting diverted by little
parlor tricks that have nothing to do with the challenges facing America
today.

MATTHEWS: Mitch McConnell started off this presidency by saying his
number one goal, Jennifer, is to destroy this administration -- number one
goal. I mean, I`ll be partisan in this regard. I`ve never heard anything
so miserable as that. That means his purpose for his existence was to
destroy this presidency?

DONAHUE: And the entire party has followed suit. I think it`s to
their peril because I think what`s happening now is that we have a very
bloody primary race going on on the Republican side.

And if I were to give an edge to anybody today, Chris, I`d give it to
Obama. The reason he has no primary opponents tearing him down. And
whoever comes out of this as the nominee on the Republican side is going to
be bloody and they`re going to have to make Obama bloody.

So, Obama can go the high road, campaign for a different kind of
politics like he did in 2008 and that resonates with voters. I think
that`s a huge plus for the president.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know, the most popular politician in the world
today? Bill Clinton.

KIERNAN: Bill Clinton.

MATTHEWS: With all the problems he had with Monica and all that mess
-- that was embarrassing to us all. He`s the best. You know why? Because
he cut compromises.

KIERNAN: He also had a passion for the issues. He would get to the
heart of the issues. He would cut the wheat from the chaff and he could
get a deal done.

You sat on the ringside seat, one of the great partnerships in
history, Tip O`Neil and Ronald Reagan -- couldn`t have been more different.
Look what those two gentlemen worked out there.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you -- Jennifer, back to you, this
question. Are we going to see a change in our lifetimes? Or is this going
to be left, right, get nothing done?

DONAHUE: I think we will because I think what we saw in 2010 was a
lot of Republicans basically choosing primary candidates that were further
right from the electorate. We could see that correct itself. I think that
was an overreach.

I think leaders will be punished until they get the message.

MATTHEWS: OK.

DONAHUE: And I think we`ll see flips in Congress.

MATTHEWS: Your point is, Peter Kiernan, is our country is going to
keep getting punished. The name of your book entitled "Becoming China`s B-
I-T-C-H." Boy, you`re a tough guy.

Thank you for coming on.

KIERNAN: Unfortunately.

MATTHEWS: I hope you didn`t hear that terrible word, Jennifer.
Thank you for coming on, Jennifer Donahue and Peter Kiernan.

DONAHUE: I didn`t hear it.

MATTHEWS: When we return, "Let Me Finish" with the Republicans`
assault on women and birth control and what it`s going to mean from --
well, coming November. Why are they choosing this fight?

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

There are certain issues that transcend the latest news that get into
you, into your being and stay there for a long, long time. This Republican
assault on women who use birth control is one such issue. Come November,
women are going to be walking into that voting booth, some of them still
undecided, until they remember where the Republican Party stood on them.

Does he care about people like me? That old question, that`s the one
that will come tumbling back when it`s time for the independent voter to
make her choice. Does this guy know what I`m facing in the world? Is he
ready to stand by me?

Think about how you`re going to make that last-minute decision come
November. If you are a woman and you have second thoughts, you`ll be
asking, I assume, which candidate gets it about your circumstances as
either a single or married woman and what you need to do to protect
yourself.

We know where Obama stands. He`s with you. He`s proven that in the
long often heated discussion about health insurance and its coverage of
birth control.

So what about Romney or whoever gets the nomination? OK. We know
where Santorum stands. He said it would be perfectly constitutional for a
state to ban birth control outright.

As for Romney, when he got asked about the birth control issue this
week, his first answer was smart.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 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 -- I`m not going there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Then he went back to the party line and said he was with
those who wanted to let employers drop coverage because they believed it
was immoral to practice birth control.

And what pray tell has Romney said about Rush Limbaugh who said he
did what he did about that young woman who made the case for birth control
coverage? Well, after two days of this, he has yet to say anything.

You know, we`ve been waiting for a long time, for months even, for
the leaders of the Republican Party to get involved in this presidential
election. Now, at least we know who the top leader is. It`s Rush
Limbaugh. And it certainly isn`t Mitt Romney.

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

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.

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

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