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updated 3/6/2012 1:16:26 PM ET 2012-03-06T18:16:26

Guests: Michelle Bernard, Chuck Todd, Amanda Drury, David
Corn, Eugene Robinson, Claire McCaskill, Jonathan Martin, Rob Portman, Marc Morial


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Rush week.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Chicago. Leading off tonight:
Rush hour. Rush Limbaugh`s on the defense. He said today he`s sorry for
calling Sandra Fluke those two words. He said nothing about that on-air
demand that Ms. Fluke post sex tapes for his amusement or what words he
meant to say instead of "slut" or "prostitute."

The number of companies suspending their ads on Rush`s show is up to
nine, including AOL. Rush and the failure of Republicans to challenge him
is our top story.

And where`s Mitt Romney in all this? Silent as a lamb. Mitt takes a
beating in the new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll, and that`s no surprise.
He has run a campaign of carpet bombing his opponents that`s destroyed them
state by state and left him down in the process. This may get him the
nomination, but it`s poison in November.

In fact, the whole Republican field is being damaged in this primary
process. Our new poll found that 40 percent say the race has given them a
less favorable impression of the GOP. One of our pollsters called the
process corrosive. The poll`s also filled with good news for President
Obama, who is at or above 50 percent against every Republican candidate.

And a report argues today that African-American voters are being
disenfranchised by Republicans seeking to hold down the Democratic vote
this fall. We`re going to talk to the head of the National Urban League.

Finally, "Let Me Finish" tonight with Mitt Romney`s deep fear of Rush
Limbaugh.

We begin with Rush Limbaugh`s partial apology today and the failure of
Republicans to challenge him. Senator Claire McCaskill`s a Missouri
Democrat.

Senator, hold on. After issuing a statement this weekend, Rush
Limbaugh led his show today with an apology to Sandra Fluke. Let`s listen
to what said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I descended to their level when
I used those two words to describe Sandra Fluke. That was my error. I
became like them, and I feel very badly about that. So those two words
were inappropriate. They were uncalled for. They distracted from the
point that I was actually trying to make. And I again sincerely apologize
to Ms. Fluke for using those two words to describe her.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Right before Rush`s show this afternoon began, Sandra Fluke
was on "The View," where Barbara Walters read her part -- read her,
actually, a part of Limbaugh`s written apology. This was her reaction.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDRA FLUKE, GEORGETOWN LAW SCHOOL STUDENT: I don`t think that a
statement like this issued, saying that his choice of words was not the
best, changes anything, and especially when that statement is issued when
he`s under significant pressure from his sponsors, who have begun to pull
their support from the show.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Senator McCaskill, it looks like the real boss of the
Republican Party these days is Rush Limbaugh. They`re all afraid to say
anything about the guy. He can parcel out his mini-apology while making
his point, that this woman who dared to speak up for women`s rights, for
women`s health, is something like a slut or a prostitute, although he said
he could have used different words, and said she ought to have her tape of
her sexual activities, as he put it, on the air so he could watch them.

He didn`t apologize, and the Republican Party seems like they`re
lemmings here supporting him.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: I wish people would speak out
more against what he said and how he said it, especially the leaders in the
Republican Party, and frankly, my opponents for the U.S. Senate.

The unfortunate thing is that sometimes we are all are not anxious to
step up and say, That`s wrong, to talk that way. I did it when David
Letterman said bad things about Sarah Palin`s daughters. I said, Hey, he
should apologize to Sarah Palin. That was way out of bounds. I said that
publicly back several years ago.

And the Limbaugh family in Missouri -- I mean, you have to understand
that there are some great members of this family. I supported naming the
federal courthouse after his grandfather. I supported his first cousin to
be a federal judge.

But I will tell you this. I draw the line, Chris. Rush Limbaugh
should not be in the Hall of Fame of famous Missourians, and I hope people
will go on my Web site, Clairemccaskill.com/rush, and sign the petition.
He shouldn`t be in this Hall of Fame right next to Harry Truman, Mark
Twain, and General Omar Bradley.

MATTHEWS: Well, speaking of Harry Truman, one of our heroes across
other country, there`s no Harry Trumans in the Republican Party right now.
Columnist George F. Will said that Republicans are afraid of Rush Limbaugh
-- afraid of him. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE WILL, ABC "THIS WEEK": Mr. Boehner comes out and says Rush`s
language was inappropriate. Using the salad fork for your entree -- that`s
inappropriate. It is the responsibility of conservatives to police the
right and its excesses, just as the liberals unfailingly fail to police the
accesses on their own side.

And it was depressing because what it indicates is that the Republican
leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh. They want to bomb Iran, but they`re
afraid of Rush Limbaugh.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: They want to bomb Iran -- that`s easy to talk -- but
they`re afraid of the guy on the radio. Providing the perfect example of
George Will`s point, Mitt Romney was asked about Limbaugh`s comments on a
rope line in Ohio late Friday night. Let`s listen to his pusillanimous
response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: (INAUDIBLE)
it`s not the language I would have used. I`m focusing on the issues that I
think are significant in the country today, and that`s why I`m here talking
about jobs in Ohio.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Senator, you mentioned earlier, a couple minutes ago, that
your -- you`ve got three potential opponents come November. It seems like
they`re as equally mealy-mouthed as Romney.

MCCASKILL: They`ve said nothing. In fact, the man who selected Rush
Limbaugh and defending that decision today for the Missouri Hall of Fame
is, in fact, one of my opponents` campaign chairman.

So I would think that the three candidates that are running for the
Republican nomination in Missouri ought to step up, like I did when Sarah
Palin`s daughter was criticized, and say this is wrong. It`s wrong for
anyone to be using this kind of language. Sarah Palin was in the public
eye. This was a poor law student who was just using her 1st Amendment
rights.

But regardless, we`ve got to get back to some civility. And by the
way, along the way, I`d like -- I`d like, Chris, for us to get back to
talking about some jobs. Let`s get this highway bill done.

Let`s get off the subject of trying to take contraception away from
women in the workplace and get back to making sure that we have jobs in the
workplace. And I think the Republican Party has really lost its way right
now, and I think the folks running against me in Missouri are also an
indication of that.

MATTHEWS: Well, just to remember, if anybody asks you why we`re
talking about contraception, it`s because Rick Santorum said he wanted to
talk about it at length in this campaign. Then the Republican leadership,
Blunt and Rubio, all put out the word this weekend -- they put out the
story on the Hill. They had to fight for it, their bill for all last week.
They fought for it and they lost by a couple votes. And then, of course,
Rush Limbaugh picked up the baton.

So isn`t it true that they`ve been the ones that want to talk about
it?

MCCASKILL: That`s what I`m saying. I think that the Republican
Party, all responsible leaders ought to come together and work on the
economy and work on jobs. We got a highway bill right now that we need to
be passing. We need to get it passed here in the Senate, which I`m hopeful
we will this week.

It is completely off track over in the House. I mean, they can`t even
get the Republican caucus to agree on a highway bill. And these are jobs.
This is infrastructure that we need for our economy. That`s what we should
be talking about.

I`ve got a bill to take some of the money out of Afghanistan, where
we`re building highways over there, Chris, and paying off the bad guys for
the security to build the highways -- let`s take that money and build that
highway here in the United States, here in Missouri, instead of building
the highways and the power grid over in Afghanistan right now.

MATTHEWS: Well, I guess you`re the kind of Missouri senator that
cares about highways, and the other Missouri senator is the kind of guy
that cares about contraception.

Anyway, thank you. It`s good to have a lot of women in the U.S.
Senate. Thank you so much, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

MCCASKILL: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Our new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows suburban
women, by the way -- a crucial voting bloc, we know that -- want Democrats
in charge of Congress. When asked who should control Congress, 48 percent
say Democrats, 37 say Republican.

That number has completely flipped, by the way, since the middle of
last year. Just last year, suburban women then wanted Republicans to
control Congress by a 7-point margin.

What does this mean for the Republican Party? Let`s bring in -- let`s
bring in Michelle Bernard. She`s an independent and is president of the
Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy, a think thank.

Michelle, thanks for coming back on the show once again. Tell me what
you think all this talk about contraception, all this Rush Limbaugh
obnoxiousness, I guess you`d have to call it, is doing to the party label
of the Republican Party.

MICHELLE BERNARD, BERNARD CENTER PRES., MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: This
is a complete disaster for the Republican Party label. It is a throwback
to literally hundreds of years ago. There`s absolutely no reason to be
having this discussion within the Republican Party.

And I would imagine that if I were President Obama and I`m getting
ready for my reelection campaign, I`m thinking what an incredible gift.
Are you really giving me this gift, and giving it to me in March, which,
incidentally, Chris, is International Women`s History Month?

If you think about all the strides that women have made throughout the
world, and particularly here in the United States over the years, to be
talking about contraception, to be calling women sluts, to be asking for
videotapes, and to not have one single person who is running for the
Republican -- you know, running to be president on the Republican ticket,
to come out strongly and say, This is immoral, this is wrong, women matter,
women are important, it is a huge disaster for the Republican Party,
particularly when you think about the fact that in our country, we always
have a gender gap.

Women vote. Women are always one of the most...

MATTHEWS: OK...

BERNARD: ... one of the most important voting blocks. And all women,
Republican or Democrat, are going to be looking at this and thinking, What
are you -- what are you doing? What`s next?

MATTHEWS: Well, stupidity can only go so far as a motive. Why are
the Republicans choosing to avoid a fight with Rushbo but are willing to
take on women, who are the majority voter?

BERNARD: Well, I`ll tell you, from my own experiences in saying
things about Rush Limbaugh that I frankly didn`t feel were negative but
just repeating statements that he has made, what you will see is that his
20 million listeners start e-mailing you. They start calling you.

Rush Limbaugh -- Rush Limbaugh -- a lot of people feel when he speaks,
he speaks for the Republican Party. He is a very, very important man. But
given -- in the Republican Party in that sense.

But given what he stands for, again, I have to come back to the
statement I made earlier. Be strong (ph). Rush Limbaugh is not the
Republican Party. He should not be the Republican Party.

MATTHEWS: OK...

BERNARD: And if you are Mitt Romney or Mr. Santorum or Newt Gingrich
or Ron Paul, you need to come out and say that, I am not the Republican
that -- that -- that Rush Limbaugh is.

MATTHEWS: OK, let me for sake of argument, because you and I like to
argue and I enjoy it immensely -- here`s the question. Let`s do this.
This is what the Republicans say. They love Rush Limbaugh. They treat him
as the grand poobah of their existence, as almost like the grand vizier who
tells them the secret truths of life. He speaks to and from traveling
salesman all the time. He gets them in the car.

Politicians love this guy. And the minute he says something
obnoxious, they say, Oh, he`s just an entertainer. Did you catch Rick
Santorum the other day? Oh, it`s just entertainment. It`s just absurdity.

What do you think of that dodge?

BERNARD: Well, you know, they say he`s an entertainer, but I mean,
it`s just a little teeny voice that says it. We haven`t seen anyone come
out really strongly and say, He doesn`t speak for me, he doesn`t speak for
the Republican Party.

You know, Mitt Romney the other day saying, Well, those aren`t the
words I would have used -- well, what does that mean? Would you have
called her a prostitute instead of a slut, or do you think that women
matter and that this is just wrong, regardless of the fact that you both
are registered Republicans?

MATTHEWS: And I have to say this just to remind people. First of
all, when he said those words, he also said, I`d like to see her do a
videotape so we can put it out there on line for everybody to see of her
sexual behavior, which is beyond words. It`s a statement.

By the way, my advice to Rush Limbaugh is, again, as I said over the
weekend, take back every single word you spoke on this subject. LaGuardia,
Fiorello LaGuardia, the great mayor of New York, once said when he made a
mistake, When I make a mistake, it`s a beaut.

Just take it. Take it on the chin. He`s quibbling. He`s doing
rolling disclosure. He`s breaking all the rules any smart person -- I
don`t owe him advice. He just got some. Thank you, Michelle Bernard, for
coming on the program...

BERNARD: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: ... as an independent.

Coming up: The longer the Republican presidential race goes on, the
worse it is for the Republican Party. We`ve got the numbers to prove it.
It`s one of the things we learn from this new NBC/"Wall Street Journal"
poll -- Plenty of good news, actually, for the president. President Obama
is riding pretty high right now.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Ohio`s the big prize tomorrow, of course, on super-Tuesday.
We`ve got new Ohio polls coming up right now. But right now, we`ve got
more numbers from other super-Tuesday states. Let`s go to the HARDBALL
"Scoreboard."

In Tennessee, a new PPP poll shows Rick Santorum holding a 5-point
lead over Mitt Romney, with Newt Gingrich a close third. In Georgia, the
home state of Newt Gingrich, it`s Newt with a 23-point lead over Romney,
with Santorum in third. In Virginia, where Santorum and Gingrich aren`t on
the ballot, a new NBC Marist poll has Mitt Romney up over Paul, 69 to 26
over Ron Paul.

We`ll be right back with Ohio (ph).

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, it`s super-Tuesday tomorrow, finally, and it promises
to be a very big day in the Republican nomination contest. Eleven states
and more than 400 delegates are up at stake.

But the nasty primary fight among the GOP has proven very damaging to
Republicans and their party. According to the NBC/"Wall Street Journal"
poll, while President Obama`s job approval seems to be ticking upward
rather regularly now, the economy is improving, two good things for the
president.

Here to break down the numbers and give us a preview of tomorrow`s
primaries and caucuses are Chuck Todd, NBC`s chief White House
correspondent and political director, and Jonathan Martin, who`s Politico`s
senior political reporter.

Chuck, let`s start with the damage the Republican Party has suffered
by itself as a result of its never-ending primary fight. Forty percent of
adults right now in the new NBC poll say their opinion of the GOP has
soured as a result of this process. Only 12 percent say it`s improved.

When asked which party does a better job appealing to people who
aren`t in its base, aren`t among its hard-core supporters, 55 percent of
adults say the Democratic Party`s done a better PR job, just 26 percent say
the Republicans.

Your sense of this brand name defeat of the Republican Party the last
several months.

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIR./WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is
amazing. And you know, think about it. We`re actually in no different of
a place than we`ve been 4, 8, 16 years ago, right, on the cusp of super-
Tuesday. A potential nominee to be could come out of super-Tuesday. No
different than any of the Republican races in the past.

Yet it was interesting -- you just said something -- you know, this
long, drawn-out fight -- that`s the way Republicans in our poll viewed the
race. We asked them to give one word or phrase to describe the Republican
process. We didn`t say is it negative or positive, just give us a word or
phrase. And a majority of the words they gave us were negative words.
This is Republican primary voters.

So whether the race has actually been longer than before, which it
hasn`t, it feels this way to the party. And you can see this damage inside
the party in those numbers.

You put up that one number, that 55-26 about which party reaches out
to its non-hard-core supporters...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: You know what was amazing there, Chris? Thirty-five percent of
self-identified Republicans picked the Democratic Party. That is...

MATTHEWS: Yes, because...

TODD: And think about when -- now, think about when we conducted this
poll, right in the middle of this Rush Limbaugh controversy in addition to
all the conversations about contraception, a pretty low period for
Republicans as far as independent voters are concerned.

MATTHEWS: Jonathan, you get in here. I have a very negative view
about TV advertising for politicians. It`s almost always negative. It`s
nasty. It isn`t the kind that Reagan put on, for example, a Republican
back in the `80s, where you felt better after watching the ad.

They`re stinkin` ads. They attack the other guy personally, or woman
personally. They go on and on in negativity. You can`t get away from it.
You can watch "Entertainment Tonight," "Access Hollywood," sports -- you
can`t get away from them.

And they just make you feel terrible about this country. Is that why
the Republican Party, which has been stinking itself up now for all these
months, is in trouble?

JONATHAN MARTIN, POLITICO.COM: That`s a huge part of it, but it`s
more complicated than that. You not only have negative ads that you have
in every campaign between candidates, you`ve got the candidate`s negative
ads and the negative ads of their super-PAC. So you`ve got even more
negativity saturating the airwaves.

Chris, I was in Ohio the last few days, driving around in a car,
listening to the radio and then watching the news shows in the morning.
You cannot get away from negative ads. And it`s mostly from these super-
PACs that are not accountable to the campaign. So you`ve got double or
even more, actually, now, than -- the negative activity going on, bashing
Republicans. And it has no question hurt the party in the short term.

MATTHEWS: You know, to use a bad term, but it`s something we always
say in politics, don`t get in a peeing match with a skunk. I mean, these
skunks -- these ads are putting -- are making them all look bad.

Let`s take a look at who has avoided the bad news. Here`s the
president, good news for him in our poll that has just come out. His
approval rating is up to 50 percent. That`s the highest percent he has had
since the killing of bin Laden on that great operation over there. The
voters believe the economy is on an improved path and 57 percent believe
the worst of the recession is behind us.

I think that is a powerful number -- 57 percent think it`s behind us,
just 36 percent think it`s still ahead of us. In a head to head, look at
this, with Republicans, the president leads Romney six points 50-44. He
leads Santorum even wider, 53-39.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... with Ron Paul.

Here`s the one that grabs me, my friend Chuck...

TODD: Yes.

MATTHEWS: ... 50-42 against Ron Paul, which tells me all Romney can
do after the millions and millions and millions he`s spent, tens of
millions of dollars, he`s 50-44 to Obama, down at the 44 end.

Ron Paul, who is a nobody basically in terms of being the next
president, in terms of really having a chance, is at 42 percent. He has
hardly any advantage over the guy who nobody thinks will be the next
president.

TODD: It weird. Paul steals some of parts of the Democratic base,
believe it or not, or the Obama base, younger voters.

But if you take him out of the equation, let`s just look at the
Obama/Romney issue for a minute. The thing about this poll that`s
unbelievable, Chris, is Romney`s personal negative rating. It`s upside-
down, 28-39. Among independents, it`s even worse. Only 22 percent of
independents give Romney a positive rating right now.

And that`s where the president has shown some improvement, but the
Republicans have gone in the wrong direction. Here you have the president
showing again some improvement, 50 percent. That`s good. That`s not
great. That`s not insurmountable at this point. It`s enough, 50 percent.

But what you have is a Republican Party that`s been turning off
independents. And what was amazing in our poll, another amazing stat is
the fact that more people said they were less enthusiastic about voting
than -- let`s interested in this election than they were last month.
That`s not supposed to happen in an election year. It`s just turning the
entire public off right now.

MATTHEWS: I think so too.

In tomorrow`s all-important battleground state of Ohio -- this is the
big enchilada tomorrow -- the NBC/Marist poll of Ohio Republicans shows
Santorum and Romney within the margin of error to lead the pack. Santorum
is at 34 and Romney is at 32.

Nationally, our NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows Romney with a
six-point lead over Santorum 38-32, with Gingrich and Paul tied at 13
percent.

Let me go to this all-important question with you, Jonathan. Let me
ask you this about this question of Ohio. The stinking negative
advertisement of Romney through a group called -- what`s it called again?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Restore Our Future, Restore Our Future -- over and over
again. He`s spending a total of like $4 million just in Ohio, a
combination of his super PAC and his own campaign spending.

This negative attack on one candidate after another -- he did it to
Newt Gingrich in Iowa. Then he did it to Santorum in Michigan. He`s going
to do it to him again. Then he`s going to get Newt down -- he`s also going
after Santorum in Tennessee and Oklahoma. This nasty negativity, is this
going to help Romney be ready to run against Obama if he`s the nominee?

MARTIN: I think the strategy of going after your opponent and
defining your opponent is actually pretty effective. It has been certainly
in this primary period.

If Romney gets the nomination, and it appears he`s on track to do so
right now, it`s going to be in no small part because he has very
effectively defined his rivals, who have had these ragtag operations and
have not been able to fight back. Give Romney and his allies credit.

MATTHEWS: But who is he?

MARTIN: They have done an effective job in going after the opponent.

MATTHEWS: But who is he? Who is Romney in the eyes of the public
right now? Besides a guy who commits crazy gaffes and who seems like an
elitist?

MARTIN: Well, look, I`m talking about what his campaign has done on
their way to being on the cusp of winning their party`s nomination.

Yes, it`s not been against the toughest opponents in the world, but
you have to give them credit for the fact that they have gotten to where
they are right now. And he`s seemingly on the verge of wrapping up the
nomination.

Chris -- everybody, Chris, that I talk to in Ohio who is not
affiliated with either candidate thinks Romney probably pulls it out there.
If Romney wins in Ohio tomorrow, I think Romney is going to be in very good
shape here in terms of getting nominated.

MATTHEWS: OK. We look at things differently, Jonathan. I look at it
this way. This guy, it was his turn to win the nomination. He could have
won it clean. He`s won it negatively. He`s come off as nasty and
undefined.

MARTIN: But he had to.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: I`m not sure he could have won it clean.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: He could not have won this in a one-on-one fight with a
conservative.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: He had to disqualify -- Chris, he had to disqualify his
conservative challengers, and he did it. He survived the process. It
wasn`t pretty, but he`s got a nomination, and it`s still worth having.

MARTIN: In the Tea Party era, Chris, he had no choice but to run to
the right and try to really take out his opponents.

This is not the...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You`re right.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You guys are much tougher than I am. I don`t think this is
the right way to run American democracy, totally negative.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: You may be right. And he may pay for it in the general.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: But this was the only way to get the nomination.

MATTHEWS: No, the country is paying for it.

MARTIN: With the party where it is right now, I don`t think he had a
choice.

MATTHEWS: OK. The end justifies the means. I disagree.

Thank you, Chuck Todd and thank you, Jonathan Martin. You`re probably
both right, but it stinks.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Up next: It was the perfect height of the trees in
Michigan. So what`s Mitt Romney got for the good folks of Tennessee? Davy
Crockett. That`s ahead in the "Sideshow."

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First up: Hit or miss? Did Mitt Romney think he was on to something
when he treated campaign rally attendees to performances like this one?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (singing): For purple
mountains majesty above the fruited plain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, that one went back into the stack of golden oldies.

But this weekend, Romney dug up a classic from his childhood to take
its place. Let`s hear how Romney kicked off an appearance in Tennessee on
Saturday. By the way, he spares us the melody this time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: This place always has a special feeling in my heart, because
when I grew up, I was thinking about Davy Crockett.

Remember the song? Born in a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state
in the land of the free, raised in the woods so he knew every tree, and he
killed himself a bear when he was only 3, Davy, Davy Crockett. Remember
that -- that...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, actually, according to the song, Davy Crockett killed
himself a "bar" when he was only 3. That`s how real Tennesseans talked
back then.

Next up: "Game Change." Sarah Palin says she doesn`t plan on seeing
that HBO film "Game Change," which premieres this weekend. The film
dramatizes what went down when Palin entered the scene back in 2008.

But don`t think team Palin is ignoring the release altogether. They
are out with a revamped version of the trailer for it. Let`s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: This is Sarah.

Well, I`m not a member of the permanent political establishment. I`m
not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I`m going to
Washington to serve the people of this great country.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PALIN: I may not answer the questions the way that either the
moderator or you want to hear, but I`m going to straight to the American
people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She is a once-in-a-generation politician who
just has that something.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, I actually got a screener of the real "Game Change"
this weekend. The movie on HBO is irresistible. It`s fabulous.

And now for tonight`s "Big Number." Do any of these words come to
mind when you think of how the Republican nomination process has gone so
far? Uninspiring, painful, discouraged? How about the lesser of two
evils? If you answered yes to these opinions, join the club.

According to a new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll just out today, most
people see this race in a negative light. What portion of respondents
offered up a negative phrase when asked to describe the Republican contest
so far? Almost 70 percent. We`re not just talking Democrats and
independents. More than the half the Republicans polled gave negative
descriptions of the race for their nominee -- 69 percent overall. That`s
tonight`s big, bad number for the R`s.

Up next:. Mitt Romney has destroyed his opponents, carpet-bombed them
with negative ads. And our new poll shows he`s doing nearly as much damage
to himself in the process.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANDA DRURY, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Amanda Drury with your CNBC
"Market Wrap."

Well, the Dow fell 15 points today, the S&P lost five, and the Nasdaq
hit of 26 points and the biggest decline of the year so far. All the
negative pressure on tech also weighed on Apple shares. The company said
its app store downloads reached 25 billion. But the stocks still sank.
Meanwhile, Yelp fell 15 percent on its second day of trade. And according
to a report, Yahoo! may soon be restructuring, a move that could include
thousands of layoffs.

Well, that`s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide -- now it`s
back over to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

There`s more bad news for Mitt Romney from that latest NBC/"Wall
Street Journal" poll just out today. After months of negative campaigning
in the primaries, Romney`s favorability is at -- you might call it the
collateral damage of all those ads of the campaign he`s run.

Take a look at how he stacks up to previous nominees. Right now,
Romney is about -- well, he is at 28 percent favorable right now, 28
percent. That`s a lower score than almost all the recent party nominees at
the same time of March of the election year. And that includes John
McCain, John Kerry, George W. Bush, and Bob Dole.

So what`s behind this low favorability?

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is a backer of Romney`s. He`s campaigned
with him today in the state.

That`s a pretty low favorability rating for a candidate, Senator, who
has spent millions, maybe tens of millions of dollars either directly or
through his super PAC.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: Well, it`s about the primary, Chris, as
you know.

And once we`re through this primary, and he`s the presumptive nominee,
which -- happen pretty soon, things will be different, because then he will
be talking more about Barack Obama and there will be fewer negative ads
about him. So this is typical of a primary.

Republicans have sort of formed the circular firing squad and we`re
firing at each other right now. And pretty soon, when Super Tuesday is
over, I think we will see more and more people jumping on board the Romney
campaign, as we saw yesterday with Eric Cantor and Tom Coburn. And I think
then you are going to see more focus on not just the Obama record and what
he`s doing, but also our positive agenda going forward.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me show you some numbers here that must be
dispiriting to a guy like yourself who knows politics.

Look at this number. Look at how your candidate, Romney, is doing
among women voters nationwide. The latest NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll
shows President Obama leads Romney among women by 18 points.

That`s a heck of a gender gap for a guy in a country in which most of
the voters are women.

PORTMAN: Well, again, it`s very early.

And a lot of what voters are hearing is negative, because it`s
negative about Mitt Romney and actually about all the other candidates. I
would think, if you were to look at the other candidates, the numbers would
be even worse.

But this will change. This too shall pass, Chris. I know it worries
you, but I think when you get to a situation where you are really focused
on the general election, which should happen soon, then I think you will
see those numbers shift.

MATTHEWS: But look at the topic selection. You may not want to talk
about it because nobody in the Republican Party does, but this Rush
Limbaugh brouhaha, which is getting hotter every hour, that began a couple
weeks ago, actually began months ago, when Rick Santorum said, I`m going to
make this a big issue of the campaign, contraception.

He said it. He began it. Then the Republican Party in the Senate,
led by Roy Blunt, is pushing this vote all last week. And you lost the
vote, but you kept it up front. Limbaugh jumped on it.

So it`s a combination of sort of the Republicans have been passing the
baton on this, keeping that story of contraception alive, as opposed to the
economy. Why?

PORTMAN: Well, I think you`re right.

And I think the message has got to get back to the economy, and it
will. Rush Limbaugh has apologized. I think he has pretty much said it
was a dumb thing to say. And Mitt Romney has said he said the wrong thing.
So I think this too shall pass. And that is not the issue that was
addressed in the Blunt amendment. The issue was about religious freedom,
as you know. And it`s a legitimate issue.

I`m up here in Cleveland tonight, and there are a lot of folks who are
concerned about it. About 25 percent of the people up here get their
health care through religious organizations. And so that religious freedom
issue is very important to them.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: But this is a student at Georgetown, a Protestant student.

(CROSSTALK)

PORTMAN: I think the issue ultimately will come back to jobs and the
economy.

MATTHEWS: Well, this is what you`re talking about, though, a
Protestant student at a Catholic law school, Georgetown, which has a lot of
non-Catholic students. She wants to have birth control covered as part of
her health care.

For that, she was called a slut and a prostitute by Rush Limbaugh. He
took back the words, but his intent was to trash her and to say she ought
to have videos online of her having sex if she wants the government -- or
the health care to cover her.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I mean, it isn`t just the words he chose. He maliciously
maligned this woman. I think it probably libelous.

But he went after her in such a way, made fun of her as a person. It
isn`t just a couple words, is it?

PORTMAN: Chris, I think -- yes. No, and you and I can agree on that.
And I think it was a dumb thing to say.

And, again, Rush has said pretty much that. And so it sounds like
maybe you`re keeping it alive here more than...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: No, no.

PORTMAN: ... in the eyes of the -- of the voters.

I mean, I -- Mitt Romney...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: No, no. No, I want -- I want -- I want -- I want Romney to
say something. Romney didn`t get to this until Friday night. Romney let
four days pass. Romney only responded and he said something like these
weren`t the words I would use.

He seems more scared of Rush Limbaugh, according to George Will
yesterday, than he is of our enemies in this world. Why is your party so
afraid of Rush Limbaugh?

PORTMAN: Well, I think what the party is, is focused on jobs and the
economy. If you listen to what he`s been saying the last few days, and
I`ve been there with him, I went to two plant tours with him today --

MATTHEWS: Right.

PORTMAN: -- and a couple rallies, it`s all about the economy. You
know that, you`ve heard his message.

In fact, he`s --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Hey, look, I`m with you on that.

PORTMAN: We`re talking so much about jobs and the economy and not
talking about other issues.

And he`s got very specific proposals on tax reform, on regulatory
relief, on energy policy, on health care costs. And that`s what people
want to hear about.

I was talking to a lot of workers after the visits these last few
days. And, look, they are concerned about their jobs. They`re concerned
about what`s going on in the economy.

They are concerned about what`s going on with energy in particularly
here in Ohio because we want to develop our energy resources. We`ve got
this two big shale finds here. And this means jobs.

So, that`s his focus. That will be his focus going forward.

Once you get through the primary process, as we saw with the
Democratic process last time and now we`re seeing with Republican process,
there will be a focus on the general election and that`s going to be who`s
got the better plan for the deficit and the debt and the economy. It`s all
going to be all about jobs and the economy and the fiscal issues.

And that`s, I think, where Mitt Romney is going to do really well.
And I think most independent voters here in Ohio are going to agree with
him.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s come back and talk about this once the cloud
has passed over the heads of the Republican Party. I agree with you. I
think this election will be decided come the first week of November,
depending on the state of the economy.

Thank you, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.

PORTMAN: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Now, we`re joined by MSNBC political analyst David Corn.
He`s the Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones."

David, this is a cloud over the Republicans head for the reason they
don`t want to attack Rush Limbaugh. They could have gotten rid of this
problem last Wednesday if they`d all stood up and said this guy is a
horse`s ass. He shouldn`t be talking on anything, let alone women`s rights
and health care. They don`t want to do it.

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: They sold their soul to Rush
Limbaugh many years ago. And now they can`t even buy it back. It`s
probably not worth much either these days.

And, you know, remember back in `92 when Bill Clinton had his Sister
Soulja moment which might have been artificially created. But, you know,
it was designed at least to show that he could stand up to one element of
his own base, and when she said something that people took issue with.

I mean, the words that Mitt Romney used were weasel words because he
knew if he said anything stronger, he`d have a fight on his right, which is
something he just can`t afford to do now as he`s trying to keep the
Santorum threat at bay.

MATTHEWS: "Saturday Night Live" had some fun. I`m not sure it`s
appropriate. Here they have some fun with the lighter side of Mitt Romney,
his constant verbal gaffes about being rich. Let`s watch "SNL."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I`m focusing on the victories. And as we say in
the Romney house, I`m happier than a poor man eating a can of beans from a
dumpster. Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your shoes must made of chocolate because you
keep putting your foot in your mouth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, my shoes aren`t made of chocolate, Shepard.
No, they are made of a fine Italian leather. They are $1,200 a piece.
That`s -- yes, they cost more than most Americans make in a month. Uh-oh.
I`m doing it again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, there was Kristen Wiig, who`s dynamite there.

The whole thing I`m thinking about is Romney is only memorable when
he commits a gaffe or when he goes silent and chickens out. Not a single
one of his prepared speeches is remembered by -- anybody watching now can`t
think of anything a this guy every said in this whole campaign except the
stupid stuff and when he`s been chicken.

CORN: Well, this goes to the point the senator was just trying to
make. He said, well, you know, the reason his unfavorable ratings are so
low is just that there`s been a lot of shooting in this primary. It`s what
always happens.

I don`t think that`s the full story. I don`t think the senator is
being honest here in that one reason his favorable ratings are low is
because he`s made these mistakes. People have been watching him for not
just for months, but for years. He`s running for president for five years
now.

And he`s developing this impression of being a true 1 percenter who
doesn`t have the touch, who can`t really, you know, talk about issues
outside of platitudes, and who keeps putting his foot in his mouth so that
it`s a joke that doesn`t even need a punch line on "Saturday Night Live."

And that`s the problem he had, and that`s the thing that won`t go
away. You and I don`t know what`s going to happen with Super Tuesday.

MATTHEWS: I got to go.

CORN: But that`s going to stick around.

MATTHEWS: David, the tragic comic reality is the man we just had on,
Portman of Ohio, seemed like more of a grown up and more of a serious guy
than the guy he`s backing for president.

Anyway, thank you, David Corn.

CORN: That`s true with all of them.

MATTHEWS: Up next, new details about the Republican effort to hold
down the vote. We`re going to talk about voter suppression here. A new
report says or argues you might say that African-American voters are being
systemically disenfranchised, making it harder for them to vote. That`s
ahead.

And this is HARDALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, new poll numbers in two of the hottest Senate races
in the country right now. Let`s go to the HARDBALL score board.

In Virginia, that race between former Governor Tim Kaine and former
Senator George Allen, has the Democrat Kaine with a nine-point lead now,
according to our new NBC/Marist poll -- 48 percent to 39 percent. That`s
an unusually large margin compared to other polls that we`ve seen, but it`s
nine and it`s a big one.

In Massachusetts, Republican Senator Scott Brown has opened up an
eight-point lead over Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the challenger. It`s
Brown, 49, Warren, 41. In a new poll from Western New England University,
still 10 points undecided.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

Civil rights activists say black voting rights are now under attack
in this country. They argued that Republican-led state governments have
instituted unnecessarily restrictive voter ID laws. They have shortened or
eliminated early voting or absentee voting and made obtaining absentee
ballots more difficult.

The net effect is to restrict ballot access to blacks, where of
course the most loyal of Democratic voters.

Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League,
which has just released its annual "State of Black America Report." And
Eugene Robinson, of course, is a columnist with "The Washington Post," and
an MSNBC political analyst.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us.

MARC MORIAL, PRES. & CEO, NATIONAL URBAN LEAGUE: Great, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Mayor, I want you to come on here first and tell us, you
are making a case here. Do you believe the motivation is political in the
part of these Republican-led legislatures to deny Democrats the chance to
vote? Or is it a racial intent to just repress the power of black America?

MORIAL: Well, here`s the evidence. All of a sudden in the last 18
months, there are 34 states that have either -- that have introduced far-
ranging legislation to restrict early voting to require a specific type of
voter ID, to make it more difficult to conduct registration drives

And when you look at the ID issue alone, one in 10 Americans do not
have the ID contemplated by these laws. And one out of four African-
Americans do not.

So this clearly a political motivation, I believe, and I think this
is about the defense of democracy in saying a nation that`s fighting to
defend democracy abroad cannot erect barriers to democracy here in the
United States in 2012. And we have to speak out against it.

MATTHEWS: Let`s stick with the ID issue right now. Is getting an ID
something that`s hard to do? Can you mail in? Do you have to show up and
get your picture taken at some government office? How much of a burden is
it, say, for an older person in their 80s?

MORIAL: I mean, it`s burdensome. The typical voter, the typical
identification card is a driver`s license. And many states offer a non-
driver`s license ID.

MATTHEWS: Sure.

MORIAL: You have to show up. You have to bring certain papers -- in
some cases, even though it may be free.

But the idea is why? Why do we need a voter ID law at this time in
American history? What`s the motivation behind these 34 states? Who is
orchestrating this?

I don`t think it`s coincidental. I don`t think it`s serendipitous.
I think it`s highly intentional and it has the effect of, perhaps we think,
disenfranchise some 5 million voters across the nation.

MATTHEWS: Gene, the normal way you and I vote -- in fact, everybody
votes you go to a neighborhood facility, often a school or local community
center. You walk in. You say who you are. I don`t think you have to show
an ID, but do you? I mean, is this all brand new? This is just Republican
trouble-making for the minority voter perhaps?

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, I`m not
sure. I seem to recall actually last time I went to the polls, I may have
had to produce an ID. This is -- these are onerous new requirements. I
agree with Marc, Chris.

The intent, I think, is political, clearly, to depress the Democratic
vote. And -- but the impact is -- will turn out to be racial. And that
should be terribly worrisome, I think, to -- well, to all who believe in
the Constitution. And I hope it`s worrisome to the courts as well.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know, I have to tell my grandmother never had a
driver`s license. She lived in a city in a row house. You know, row house
people live in big cities don`t always have cars, by the way.

Here`s the Reverend Al Sharpton, our colleague here, saying he
believes there are ulterior motives for the wave of new laws. Here he is
on MSNBC earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL SHARPTON, MSNBC HOST: What will happen when election time comes
and people that don`t have state IDs that have voted historically, voted
throughout their lives, are blocked from voting? What will happen in terms
of the congressional races and the Senate races and the presidential race?

So we`re coming before there is a problem to say, wait a minute,
people are being disenfranchised. There`s no widespread fraud. There`s no
reason to do this other than to suppress the vote.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: We`re watching, by the way, historic spots there of --
pictures there of violence back in the `60s.

Let me ask you, Mayor Morial, the big question. Absentee balloting
used to be to preserve the rich. It was people who had money to go travel,
take vacations, move around the country, right? Now, how is it important
to black voting and minority voting, poor people voting?

MORIAL: Well, I think that early voting has caught on in African-
American in urban communities. People who work, people that have family
obligations are more prone to take advantage of the chance to vote early.

And it`s pretty coincidental because when you early vote or when you
vote by mail, which is the way most absentee voting is conducted, you don`t
have to show a voter ID. So, there`s also a lack of consistency in many of
these laws.

But early voting -- anything, Chris, that expands democracy and
expands the ballot is what we ought to be doing in the United States. We
ought to be encouraging people to vote, and we ought to remind people that
this argument about fraud is a smoke screen. Most voter irregularities
take place because of elections officials. Not because of voters.

So, people shouldn`t be tricked by the smoke screen of fraud.

MATTHEWS: OK. Well, thank you very much, Marc Morial. It`s great
having you on. I love the Urban League.

MORIAL: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: And thank you, Gene Robinson, as always. By the way, we
should tell everybody: make sure your kids vote this year.

When we return, "Let Me Finish" with Mitt Romney running scared of
Rush Limbaugh. He`s afraid of the guy.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

Politics is about impulse. What do you do when there`s not a lot of
time, when there`s nothing to go on but your own personal human gut
reaction?

Last week, President Obama was on the phone to Sandra Fluke,
expressing his support in the face of Rush Limbaugh`s assault. It took
Mitt Romney until Friday night to answer a question of a reporter and say
Rush`s words were not the ones he would have used.

What words would he have used to express Rush`s venomous insults if
not slut or prostitute? What words did Mitt Romney, would he have chosen?
Is there a finer vocabulary to casting such an insult? A more mellifluous
couple of words to make the same point?

Back to the impulse at work here and what it says. Obama`s was to
champion the cause of the woman being assaulted. Mitt`s was to champion
the assault of Rush if with softer words.

People and not just women remember such moments. So does history.
Jack Kennedy once called Coretta King to express his sympathy. It changed
history.

Mitt Romney`s performance reminds me of the old Jack Benny routine.
"Your money or your life?" the robber demanded. "Your money or your life?"
"Just a minute," the (INAUDIBLE) Benny at last responded, "I`m thinking."

Well, Mitt Romney has to think about which side he`s on here, Rush or
the woman he was insulting. Just a minute, I`m thinking.

My guess is that the women of this country are going to remember.

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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