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updated 3/7/2012 2:14:23 PM ET 2012-03-07T19:14:23

Guests: Joe Scarborough, Steve Schmidt, Joan Walsh, Jon
Fortt, Alex Wagner, Howard Fineman, Chris Cillizza, Erin McPike

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews up in New York. And a big night in
politics. Leading off tonight: The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.
We are now used to election nights in which either Mitt Romney or his
nearest rival is threatened with massive defeat. Well, finally tonight,
that could happen.

If Rick Santorum can`t win in Ohio, he`s probably busted. If he`s
beaten in Ohio and Tennessee, he`s clearly busted. If Gingrich wins in his
home state of Georgia but nowhere else, he saves his diggity -- dignity,
that is, but probably only that.

After weeks of heavy, expensive negative campaigning by Romney super-
PACs, he stands on the verge of effective victory. It`s super-Tuesday, 424
delegates at stake, 11 states tonight and four candidates.

MSNBC will provide complete coverage beginning at 6:00 Eastern, an
hour from now. Rachel Maddow joins me, along with the Reverend Al
Sharpton, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O`Donnell and Republican strategist
nonpareil Steve Schmidt.

With me right now is the host of "MORNING JOE," Joe Scarborough, going
for the full day today, batting for the circuit, and MSNBC political
analyst Steve Schmidt, who I just mentioned, who was chief strategist and
chief star of "Game Change." He, of course, ran the McCain-Palin campaign
and is a star for that. You come across so good in this, Steve, that
movie. I just got a screener.

Well, 11 states ahead in the polls right now today, counting over 400
delegates. You can see them on the map on this screen. Let`s take a look
at it -- Alaska, way up there on the left, Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota,
Oklahoma, Tennessee, Ohio, Vermont, Massachusetts, Virginia and Georgia.

Let me start with Joe Scarborough, my colleague from the early
morning. Joe, what are you looking at tonight for something to be truly
effective, meaning for keeps?

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, "MORNING JOE": Well, obviously -- well, I
actually think that Santorum`s one chance to knock out Romney and knock out
the death star, as a lot of people have been calling the Romney campaign,
was Michigan. It passed him last week. This week, this is where we`re
looking for it to be a fait accompli that Romney is going to win and go on
to -- go on, obviously, to Tampa.

I`m looking at Ohio. If he wins there, it`s over for Santorum. The
cake is baked, as they say. Also obviously, Tennessee. Here`s a state
that Santorum was ahead by double digits just a week ago. You`re looking
at momentum. He was up by 7 points just a week ago in Ohio.

If Romney comes back and goes ahead and wins one of those two states,
I really do think that it`s just about over, and we`re going to be -- we`re
going to start talking about the matchup between Barack Obama and Mitt
Romney.

MATTHEWS: I think we`re also in for a new kind of national politics.
You go into politics, raise a ton of money in your super-PAC, spend it all
on negatives, destroy your opponents, you`re the last man standing.

Last night, campaigning in Ohio, Rick Santorum talked about being an
underdog -- he sure is -- from the start. Well, let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R-PA), FMR. SEN., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: -- when all
the money, all the big endorsements, all the power players in Washington,
D.C., and you know, all the -- all the party chieftains have lined up
behind the guy next in line with the most money. And the people of America
saw a guy from a little steel town in southwestern Pennsylvania go out and
take his message on the road in Iowa, driving around in the "chuck (ph)
truck," a Dodge Ram pickup with about 200,000-and-some miles on it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, he reminds me of Jerry Lewis after the telethon, you
know? The next morning, when he`s exhausted and has to sing that song,
"You`ll Never Walk Alone." That`s where he`s at, isn`t it?

STEVE SCHMIDT, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well,
I, you know--

MATTHEWS: He`s going to walk alone after this.

SCHMIDT: I think that he was on the edge of controlling this race
after Missouri, Colorado, Minnesota. Then people started listening to him
when he started speaking, and his candidacy collapsed. Electability has
driven the ballot in all of these contests. That`s why Mitt Romney is
coming back.

When people listen to Rick Santorum talk about that the separation of
church and state makes him want to throw up, his insistence on--

MATTHEWS: Actually, he said Jack Kennedy`s speech about it made him
throw up--

(CROSSTALK)

SCHMIDT: -- his insistence on sharing with the country how he uses
contraception and his opinion about how everyone else should use it, all of
this has led to him being rejected by Republican primary voters.

So I think Mitt Romney is right back to where he was after Florida.
He`s on the edge of being the de facto nominee of the party. He has to win
in Ohio tonight. And if he wins in Tennessee, I think he seals the deal.

MATTHEWS: And somebody famously said recently the only person they
know about their birth control habits is themselves, right? Wasn`t that
you?

SCHMIDT: Yes, (INAUDIBLE) literally 330 million people in the country
aside from -- outside of my family, the only other person I know how they
use birth control or not. It`s amazing why he--

(CROSSTALK)

SCHMIDT: -- insists on talking about this.

MATTHEWS: By the way, we now find out where Mitt Romney actually
lives. We have a picture of live voting tonight up in Massachusetts now.
There he is. He`s voting. So we know where he lives.

Joe, we know where he lives. He`s a Massachusetts voter. It`s nailed
-- not Santa Barbara, not Lake Winnepesaukee, not Michigan, not all those
homes he`s claimed, but just the one he`s allowed to vote in.

SCARBOROUGH: No doubt about it. But Massachusetts and his
governorship in Massachusetts, what he did there with health care reform is
going to come back and haunt him not just tonight but moving forward.

I think the biggest news, certainly, for the conservative base in
quite some time has been what`s been revealed over the past week, an op-ed
that he wrote for the "USA Today" back in 2009, statements he made to
"Human Events" back in 2006, a "Meet the Press" appearance that he made
back in 2009, where he very clearly called for a national individual
mandate.

The fact that Mitt Romney is going to put it away as he finds himself
compromised on the right with the single issue that a lot of conservatives
believed over the past two-and-a-half years would define the 2012 race --
that has now effectively been taken off the table. The Obama team knows it
and Mitt Romney`s team knows it.

So here we are, Chris, tonight. We finally get to a point, I believe,
where you have a long list of Republican wannabes, starting with Sarah
Palin and then Donald Trump and then Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and
Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. All of these -- and Rick Santorum, of
course. All of these people had one thing going for them, they were not
Mitt Romney.

And yet we end up at the end of the day, at the end of this ugly, ugly
campaign, with Mitt Romney probably locking it up, for the most part,
tonight. And it comes with the shadow of what he said in 2009 hanging over
him and a lot of conservatives scratching their heads, saying, What was
this entire process about? We ended up with an incredibly flawed candidate
moving forward. And it`s going to be hard to put this party back together.

MATTHEWS: Steve Schmidt, I just want to follow up on that because I
hadn`t thought of that. If this guy is flawed on the right because he`s
seen as an imperfect vessel, to put it lightly, to carry the case against
"Obama care" because he basically created it -- he was the genesis of it --
does that help him in the center?

SCHMIDT: Well, I think there`s a strong argument to be made that the
ideological challenge for Santorum has moderated Mitt Romney in a number of
different ways that he can be a stronger general election candidate than he
was a primary candidate.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SCHMIDT: And certainly, I think they have a case to make in that
space.

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s take a look at what you were saying, Joe. Let`s
take a look at these numbers now about what it`s done to the Republican
Party right now. I think we`re going to look right now -- taking a
beating. You said it was taking a beating. Our NBC/"Wall Street Journal"
poll shows 40 percent of adults now say their opinion of the Republican
Party has suffered as a result of this long primary season. Just 12
percent say it`s improved.

Did you sense that before you saw these numbers, Joe?

SCARBOROUGH: Yes, no doubt about it. I`ve been talking for the past
three weeks about how my pro-life wife, her pro-life friends who are all
conservatives, who are all Republicans, who have lectured me in the past
for not being sufficiently pro-life because I believe in the dreaded
exceptions -- we`re sitting around breakfast tables over the past couple of
weeks, calling each other on the phone, saying, What`s happened to our
party?

I mean, this is not about being pro-life. This is about being pro-
Griswold v. Connecticut.

MATTHEWS: Wow.

SCARBOROUGH: We are not debating what happened with abortion. We are
debating what happened in 1965. And when my wife, a social conservative,
and when my first chief of staff, a Republican woman, very conservative,
very pro-life, are saying that the Republican Party seems like they`re
moving further and further away from them, we`re a party that`s in a lot of
trouble.

I don`t know how Mitt Romney puts that back together. This is not
about finding the mushy middle because as Steve can tell you, Republicans
win when we have candidates that are like Ronald Reagan, who actually
believe in what they say.

Mitt Romney, it seems -- I think he`s got the worst of both worlds.
He is tainted by this Republican primary process that`s dragged on too long
and has been too ugly. And he`s also tainted from conservatives for flip-
flopping on one issue after another, the latest, of course, being "Obama
care."

MATTHEWS: Well, we all know that sometimes moderate people on either
the left or the right, either Democrat or the Republican Party, tend to
offset that by being very zealous in their partisanship. In other words,
they overemphasize areas where they can go very far to the right or very
far to the left. I know all about this.

Well, speaking via satellite to AIPAC, the American Israel political
action committee (sic) today, Mitt Romney criticized the president`s
Iranian policy. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hope is not a
foreign policy. The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our
resolve, backed by our power and our readiness to use it. Of course, the
administration`s naive outreach to Iran gave the ayatollahs exactly what
they wanted most. He gave them time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Excuse me, Steve. This guy`s never been in the military.
His father was never and his sons are never. Where does he get talking
like he`s Curtis Lemay? What is this talk, this -- this, I`m a big hawk.
I love war. I can`t wait to go to war, which is what we`re talking about
here. Where`s this coming from?

SCHMIDT: I think--

MATTHEWS: This militarist attitude.

SCHMIDT: I think after a decade of war that it`s important for our
leaders to have circumspection when they talk about the use of military
force.

MATTHEWS: How about some experience in what they`re talking about?

SCHMIDT: And I think -- and I think in the case of Mitt Romney today,
I don`t think he`s plowing fertile ground on the attacks. I do think that
there are legitimate areas of criticism of the president`s foreign policy,
but when you come to talking about the use of military force in the way
that he is, I think the criticisms need to be specific, not rhetorical like
they were in that (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS: What do you think, Joe, of these -- these guys? I`m not
calling him a chicken hawk yet, but these guys who have never joined ROTC,
who`ve never been a schoolyard fight, and all of a sudden, they`re
(INAUDIBLE) Let`s go to war in Iran.

We`ve already -- and by the way, the neocons always have one war in
the on deck circle, have you noticed? They`re always one war away from
being happy. You know, in Afghanistan, oh let`s got to Iraq, let`s go to -
- these guys have their lists, by the way. They all have a list.

SCARBOROUGH: Right. Right. Right.

MATTHEWS: Well, what is it? How does he get to be Mr. Curtis Lemay?
How did he get to be five stripes and a general here all of a sudden?

SCARBOROUGH: I -- well, I don`t know. I can`t -- I can`t speak to
that. I can speak to the fact--

MATTHEWS: Well, you`ll have to by November--

SCARBOROUGH: -- though, that this is--

MATTHEWS: -- because this guy is running as the hawk.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, I don`t know that I`m going to have to speak for
him. But I can speak to the fact that, Chris, it won`t shock you that a
lot of times, you exaggerate issues, especially on national security,
during presidential campaigns.

John Kennedy in 1960, of course, you remember, he famously talked
about a missile gap that wasn`t there. There wasn`t space between Nixon
and Kennedy on the missile issues. And it`s the same thing in 2012.
There`s really no space between what Mitt Romney has said he wants
President Obama to do and what President Obama is actually doing.

What Mitt Romney is depending on right now, relying on -- and I think
it`s a very -- I think it`s a very dangerous thing for him to do, given the
state of international relations in the Middle East right now at this
particular moment with Iran. But he`s going back to some preconceptions
that some Americans and conservatives had based on what President Obama
said in 2008, where he was naive--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SCARBOROUGH: -- about how you address -- how you address Iran, and in
2009, where he did wait too long to criticize the brutal crackdown in the
streets of Tehran.

But three years later, this president has self-corrected. And I`ve
spoken to some of the top Republicans regarding foreign policy who are a
little concerned about Mitt Romney`s tack right now because in all
actuality, just like the missile gap in 1960, there`s not a lot of space
between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney`s position on Iran.

MATTHEWS: Well, I think you`d be a better candidate anyway, Joe
Scarborough, who`d be a far better Republican candidate -- I`ve been saying
that for months, and I`m dead serious about it. That man, I -- it was
unexceptional, what you just said, that wonderful statement you just gave,
Joe, about--

SCARBOROUGH: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: -- summing up both candidates` position. I really do
appreciate working with this guy. He`s a smart guy. Anyway, thank you.
This guy - wait til you -- have you seen the movie yet, Joe? Have you seen
"Game Change" yet?

SCARBOROUGH: Oh, it is -- I saw it last night. I was joking this
morning that we got a bootleg from Canal Street. It is an incredible
movie. And you know, I know Schmidt, and I was actually impressed by
Schmidt`s character in the middle of the--

MATTHEWS: Me, too.

SCARBOROUGH: I was, like -- Woody Harrelson, man, he -- you forget
that you`re looking at Woody Harrelson and --

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH: -- you`re looking at Ed Harris. It`s incredible. It`s
an incredible movie.

MATTHEWS: I agree. Exactly my reaction. Woody Harrelson steals the
show. I mean, of course, Julianne Moore`s fabulous, but -- and Ed Harris,
but the guy playing you has all the nuances of conflict when you`re trying
to win a presidential campaign and it`s just you and your candidate and the
rest of these crazies.

Anyway, coming up: The Republicans women problem. That`s coming up.
This is a party, by the way, the Republicans, facing a major gender gap.
We`re talking about 55 percent. They`re at 37 percent against Obama`s 55
percent. How do you win a presidential election like that? Also Rush
Limbaugh helping out, of course, every day now. That`s ahead.

You`re watching HARDBALL`s coverage of super-Tuesday, that`s tonight,
on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, Mitt Romney and his unofficial allies in the super-
PAC world have spent four times as much money now on TV ads just in Ohio
than his closet rival, Rick Santorum, has. Look at these numbers. The
Romney campaign and the pro-Romney super-PAC have spent $4 million in the
state of Ohio. Santorum`s campaign and its super-PAC that supports him
have spent less than a million.

This is what Romney does. He spends big money to carpet bomb the
other guy, and it usually works. It may pay off for Romney even tonight,
but it may hurt him long-term because he doesn`t sell himself.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: The Republican Party is
conducting a war on women. Now, what`s the objective of the Republican
Party? To win elections, is it not? We think. That may be even a matter
of doubt. But theoretically, the purpose of the Republican Party is to win
elections. So what sense would it make for the Republican Party to conduct
a war on women?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That`s a good question. While
Rush Limbaugh may say there`s not a Republican war on women, there`s
polling evidence to suggest they`ve had the effect of having one,
especially upon suburban women, who often determine elections. They`re
shifting their support away from the Republican Party right now.

And then there`s the gender gap in the presidential race overall. Our
NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows President Obama leads Romney by nearly
20 points among women. And when you dig into the poll, a shift away from
Republicans becomes clear. When suburban women were asked who should
control Congress, 48 percent said Democrats, 37 percent Republicans. Not
good for the Republicans.

In mid-2011, those numbers were flipped. Suburban women wanted
Republicans to control Congress at a rate of, like, 46 percent. How will
this affect the 2012 race? A lot.

Michael Steele`s an MSNBC political analyst and former chairman of the
Republican National Committee, and Joan Walsh is also an MSNBC political
analyst and editor-at-large at Salon.

I want you to start, Joan, on this, just on the reaction. It seems to
me we know that most voters are women. We keep forgetting that. Men like
me do forget it because, obviously, there`s more men out there talking all
the time.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: And that`s just a fact of life. They`re out there talking.
And women, of course, just quietly vote. And they make -- and I don`t
think they are single-issue voters, but they have concerns that men don`t
have. I think they`re much more concerned with health care, Social
Security, Medicare. They take care of their older parents. They worry
about themselves, they`re going to survive longer, just self-interest, you
know?

JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

MATTHEWS: Ever go to an old folks home? There`s, like, one guy
there, you know--

WALSH: He`s very popular.

MATTHEWS: -- he`s got big ears and he`s very funny.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: But there`s a lot of women there. Men say, With any luck,
I won`t need Social Security. You`re right. With any luck, you won`t need
it.

But Joan, on the issue of these issues like contraception and birth
control, and of course, abortion rights, they do ring (ph) (INAUDIBLE) And
here`s my suggestion. It`s about the question, `Does this candidate care
about people like me?` The fundamental political question.

WALSH: Right.

But, you know, men are asking this question, too, Chris, because I
think the thing that Rush Limbaugh did is make a lot of us remember that we
also have daughters. And this just reached such a horrible low in terms of
attacking a young woman that most people just went yuck.

And I think the real problem for the Republican Party at the
presidential level is that three out of these four guys -- God bless Ron
Paul, he kind of said the right thing -- three out of these four guys did
not know what to say and did not respond really with their hearts.

They are so used to looking for some kind of advantage either over one
another or over President Obama. Mitt Romney is looking at the polls
saying, please, somebody help me. Tell me what to say.

And it created a kind of character gap. There`s now a character gap
where these guys cannot say what has to be in their hearts and cannot say -
- cannot even search their souls and say, wow, how did we get here? They
just have to say, well, we`re on stage and we`re just going to double down
on this crazy retro policy.

It`s really, really going to hurt them.

MATTHEWS: For a long time, Michael, I have been looking for who the
leaders of the Republican Party are. I used to call it the white boys club
the -- white boys clubs that meets somewhere, usually governors.

I found out who the leader of your party is, by the way. It`s either
Donald Trump or Rush Limbaugh. Which one would you--

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: These are guys that -- Romney genuflects before Trump out
in Las Vegas. He treats him like he`s Boss Tweed from the old days, the
old big city boss.

And now they are treating Rush Limbaugh like -- I don`t know what --
try treat like he`s the holy of the holiest. Are they your true leaders?

(CROSSTALK)

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Not in the sense that they
are political leaders within the party. They have not been elected to
office. They hold no rank or constituency per se from a political level.

But from -- in terms of messaging and connecting with a lot of
Republicans of all stripes around the country, yes, these guys are
personalities. And they do have a resonance there.

But I think the most important question and the broader question for
the presidential candidates is, at some point, you assert yourself as a de
facto leader. If you go on to be the nominee, you then become the de facto
head of the GOP. You take over the operations of the RNC. You have got
your hands now on all the mechanisms of power and control.

But it`s that spirit, that sense of who you are in your leadership
that defines you. And I think this was a definable moment that was lost.
It wasn`t just missed. It was lost by the Republican candidates, because I
thought they all faced a Sister Souljah opportunity, especially A Mitt
Romney, to make it very clear that this kind of hyperbole and rhetoric has
no place, not just in the body politic, but in our society, when we`re
particularly denigrating someone for expressing their points of view,
whether it`s right or left, because we have seen the same thing from the
left during the Bush years. We know that.

But this kind of cut in a different way for a lot of voters, male and
female, Republican and Democrat alike. And I think it was a missed moment.

MATTHEWS: You know, it`s so interesting.

Joan, you and I have become such good friends over the years. I
sometimes think people like to start a battle of the genders, like that
women care about birth control, men care about Viagra. They`re both in it
together. We do like to make love. It`s sort of what we do. It`s a
coming together. It`s a nice thing.

Men care about birth control as much as women do. I think they got --
oh, guess what, dear? I`m pregnant. Oh, well, that is significant to both
of you.

WALSH: My might change--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You`re both the parents, potentially. So the idea that
somehow women are the only ones that care about birth control, how did that
start? I mean, that seems so weird.

WALSH: I don`t know.

(CROSSTALK)

WALSH: That`s what`s at the heart of the battle over health care
reform.

And here`s a place where Michael and you and I may disagree. Michael
is more conservative on this. But basically what President Obama said is,
hey, gals, you have been shouldering this all by yourselves for time
immemorial. And we have this thing called health insurance and we pay for
a lot of stuff. We`re saying you`re the only ones in our society who can
have babies. And God bless you. We`re going to help you with all the
costs that go along with it, because you`re keeping our whole species alive
and we love you for it.

MATTHEWS: Right.

WALSH: And we`re going to equalize this thing right here, right now.

And he did that, and these guys went crazy. They went crazy. And I
don`t entirely get what that was about.

MATTHEWS: Michael, quick response to that, because I think we`re all
in this together, by the way. I think birth control is not a female issue.
It`s a human issue.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: This is the problem I have with the description that was just
laid out there.

What`s the problem with that is that you have effectively absolved the
male of any responsibility in the relationship with this woman, whether
it`s a sexual nature or beyond that. And I think that that`s something
that is fundamental to this argument, this discussion as well.

It`s not just about giving women access to contraception. It`s about
the responsible behavior that goes with that access.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: Let me finish my point. It`s nice for Barack Obama to tell
women, I got your back. Here, have a pill.

But it`s also equally important--

WALSH: That`s not what he`s saying.

STEELE: That`s what you just described.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: Let me finish my point.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let Michael finish, because I think he`s wrong.

(LAUGHTER)

STEELE: The point is this--

WALSH: Finish being wrong, Michael.

STEELE: -- that men have a responsibility here, that it`s not just
about Viagra. It`s about when you come together in that fashion, that
there`s a responsibility that kicks in that you just don`t want to be
absolved because the woman has a pill.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: That`s not what Joan said, though, Michael.

WALSH: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Joan can speak for herself, but she said it`s just the
general concern about childbearing that we all share together, the whole
reproductive issue.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: That`s not -- I agree with that.

But I`m saying it`s also this other piece that doesn`t get talked
about in terms of the responsibility of fathers, or potential fathers, in
this relationship.

WALSH: But that`s between two people. And that`s between the two
people who come together.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: Well, government seems to have inserted itself in between
those two people by offering up the pill.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me tell you the bad news for Republicans. The
Republicans are going to have to vote. The men are going to have to vote
something like 65 percent Republican this time to make up for the trouble
they have caused with women.

(CROSSTALK)

WALSH: The white men are going to have to vote 85 percent.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK.

Thank you, Michael Steele. Thank you, Joan Walsh. It`s great to have
you both on.

WALSH: Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS: We`re all in this together.

Up next: former first lady`s Barbara Bush`s not-so-positive review of
this year`s Republican campaign. She`s helping Romney, but whacking the
whole field of them at the same time.

You`re watching HARDBALL`s coverage of Super Tuesday, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Love that big night music.

Anyway, back to HARDBALL. Now to the "Sideshow."

First up: the endgame. Chances are we will wake up tomorrow morning
having witnessed the beginning of the end of this process. Even though
this Super Tuesday might not mark the end of the brutal ads and the nasty
back and forth between the candidates, it could be only a matter of time
from here on out for Republicans to settle on Mitt Romney.

Well, here`s Stephen Colbert with the latest on the inevitability
factor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": It looks like it`s going
to be Mitt Romney`s night. He has strong leads in Massachusetts, Vermont,
Virginia, and Idaho. No surprise. It`s the potato state.

And Mitt is nothing if not pale and starchy.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: From a purely mathematical standpoint, I and my fellow
conservatives will eventually yield to the inevitability of Mitt Romney.

Let`s put the countdown to loving Mitt clock up. How I got? Oh, God-
-

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: -- 23 hours, 58 minutes. I can`t breathe. It`s just bad
luck for the bride to see the man you agreed to marry before you want to.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I thought conservatives wanted to protect marriage. Sounds
like they are giving it a bad name.

Next up: No one is denying that the Republican candidates have been
dragged through the mud by their opponents in the heat of this race. But
for Rick Santorum, there`s glory in the struggle, a real David and Goliath
fight, especially in Ohio.

Here he is in an interview with ABC News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We`re winning. Whether we
end up with the most votes, we`re winning.

I`m being outspent 12-1 here in Ohio. It`s David and Goliath. I feel
like that`s not even suitable for the amount of pounding that that super
PAC -- just negative ad after negative ad 24/7, and yet here we are hanging
in this race.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, as Lee Atwater once put it, David is still getting
good P.R. for beating Goliath, but, Rick, David has got to win for it to
work. And that`s for you.

And, lastly, former first lady Barbara Bush was asked to comment on
the current presidential race during a conference at SMU, Southern
Methodist University, yesterday. It seems the former first lady has seen
enough to offer up her review of the crew on the Republican side. Let`s
watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARBARA BUSH, FORMER FIRST LADY: It`s been, I think, the worst
campaign I have seen ever seen in my life.

I just hate it. I hate the fact that people think compromise is a
dirty word. I think the rest of the world is looking at us and thinking,
what are you doing? Why aren`t you getting along? Why aren`t you working
together?

I`m optimistic, but I would like this campaign to be over.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow.

Well, she doesn`t exempt any of the candidates in that attack, even
Romney, who she recently did some robo-calls for.

Up next: Mitt Romney says he would repeal President Obama`s health
care reform if he got elected. One problem: He`s repeatedly, repeatedly
supported health care reform at the national level in the past. What does
he really believe?

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JON FORTT, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Jon Fortt with your CNBC "Market
Wrap."

The Dow slides 204, its first triple-digit decline of the year. The
S&P drops 21. And the Nasdaq sheds 40. Worries about Greece and fears of
a potential default weighed on stocks. Thursday is a deadline for
creditors to agree to terms of a bailout.

Meanwhile, shares of Merck were off 2 percent after an earnings
warning. And gas prices moved lower for the first time in 27 days, but not
by much. They are off a penny to $3.76 a gallon.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I need an emphatic yes from you that you will
repeal Obamacare.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Why would I not? All right.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I need -- I need--

(CROSSTALK)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: There`s no -- there`s no -- earlier on, we were asked, is
what you have done in Massachusetts something you would have the entire
government do, the federal government do? I said no from the very
beginning. No. This is designed for our state and our circumstance.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s what he said yesterday. Welcome back to
HARDBALL. That was Mitt Romney yesterday saying he would not use the
Massachusetts plan that he created as a model nationwide.

Well, there`s only one problem. He has said he would in the past,
repeatedly, it turns out. Let`s watch him do it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: How do you insure the 45 or 50 million Americans who are
not on the books?

ROMNEY: Well, that`s what we did in Massachusetts. And that is, we
put together an exchange. And the president`s copying that idea. I`m glad
to hear that.

We have a model that worked. One state in America, my state, was able
to put in place a plan that got everybody health insurance. And,
therefore, the right way to proceed is to reform health care. That, we can
do, as we did it in Massachusetts, as Wyden-Bennett is proposing doing it
at the national level.

We need health care reform. And, you know, we took that on in
Massachusetts. We decided we wanted to get everybody insured. We have
done that. I understand that the president considers his plan in some
respects following the model of Massachusetts. Let`s learn from our
experience.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, who has been hiding that under a bushel basket?
Three pictures in a row of him definitely saying, I`m going to take
Romneycare and make it basically Obamacare. Can you follow that?

Well, it`s exactly his position on health care, and will it fly with
the Republican ranks now that they get a good look at it? Is this going to
be the signature issue of this guy`s problem in the coming campaign?

Alex Wagner is host of "Now" -- great title -- "With Alex Wagner" --
it`s not as good as HARDBALL -- weekdays on MSNBC.

(LAUGHTER)

ALEX WAGNER, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: What is?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: And Howard Fineman is MSNBC political analyst and editorial
director of The Huffington Post.

Alex, it just seems to me -- you and I were talking before we went on
-- this is staggering research, but it`s not that hard to find, Harry Smith
on the morning show, the other big broadcasts. These are big broadcast
network interviews in which well-known anchor-people, and sitting next to
Lindsey Graham, who is shaking his head, saying how great this is.

WAGNER: Shaking his head.

(CROSSTALK)

WAGNER: A little show called "Meet the Press."

(LAUGHTER)

WAGNER: Yes, Chris, this is not digging into some bedrock mountain of
opposition research. This is ABC, CBS, and NBC.

What is surprising, of course, is why it`s taken this long for anybody
to bring this up. I think, for all of us on the sidelines, we have
wondered why anybody hasn`t gone harder at Romney on his record for health
care.

And I think, to some degree, it`s because there`s a mixed -- it`s a
mixed bag. Right? Rick Santorum supported government -- government
involvement in health insurance when he was running for Senate. Newt
Gingrich has come out for the individual mandate. It`s treacherous waters
for them.

And so I think that sort of explains some of the reticence, as well as
the volatility of this campaign. Rick Santorum has been so distracted
about Satan attacking America, he`s almost forgot -- he`s kept his eyes off
the prize.

MATTHEWS: Howard, it seem to me it`s pretty easy work for a good ad-
cutter for the Democrats, for the president, if Romney ends up being the
nominee. All you have to do is just cut the tape and show it back and
forth until people are dizzy trying to figure out who this guy is.

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That`s
right, Chris.

And I think at his press conference today, which the president called
in the midst of discussion of Super Tuesday -- you could almost hear the
campaign music in the background.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: I think he was, without naming him, going after Romney time
and time again.

He said he that he is not the kind of -- he, the president, is not the
kind of guy to let the foreclosure situation hit bottom, using Mitt
Romney`s phraseology.

And they are going to go after Mitt Romney time and time again on the
health care issue.

And Alex is right. Some of the Republicans had tough time getting at
him because their own complications with the issue. The president won`t
have that. It will be emblematic of the attack that the Democrats and the
Obama people are already mounting, which is just an expansion of what
Republicans have been doing, which is that Mitt Romney`s word can`t be
trusted.

MATTHEWS: Here`s something for everybody watching now. It`s what I
call takeaway in our business, which is if you watch shows like this, you
should be able to walk away with something.

Here`s the quote, the walk away, with dinner today, wherever you`re
reading, at home especially.

Jonathan Chait in "New York Magazine" summed up one of the biggest
ironies of this whole race for the Republican nomination. Quote, "Romney
is now on the verge of escaping with the party nomination having embraced a
program his party considers inimical to freedom itself and blatantly lied
about having done so without any major opponents pointing this out. It`s
pretty incredible."

Not only did he do it, not only that he did the very thing they`re
attacking and going after with all their might in this general election,
but he basically is still saying, "I didn`t do it."

WAGNER: Again and again.

MATTHEWS: I didn`t never say go national, which he now did -- we see
him three times said it.

WAGNER: There are op-eds in "USA Today" where he`s talking about,
you know, this plan and the fact that it should go national. I mean, to
think -- look. The race isn`t over, right, Chris? I mean -- and Rick
Santorum has definitely been launching more barbs in Mitt Romney`s
direction specifically on this.

The one thing that is a guarantee and Howard touched on it, is
President Obama is going to wrap his arms around Mitt Romney and Romneycare
--

MATTHEWS: What he`s going to say, thanks for giving me the best --

(CROSSTALK)

WAGNER: Over and over and over again. Death by a thousand hugs.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Mitt.

WAGNER: A thousand hugs for Romneycare.

MATTHEWS: Howard, does he attack him or thank him? I mean, this is
the craziest election in history. You made me a historic present. You
give me the dream of transformation. You made me a transformational
president. You say, thank you, Mitt.

FINEMAN: Well, at the press conference today, the president was
asked about some nasty crack that Mitt Romney had made about him. And the
president was asked, "What would you like to say to Mitt Romney tonight on
Super Tuesday?" The president said, "Good luck."

MATTHEWS: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Was that ironic? In other words, oh, yes, man -- I mean I
want to run against you.

FINEMAN: Yes, I sort of -- I sort of took it that way. Let`s step
into the ring. That was -- that was a campaign press conference today.

And this issue -- I do think some of the Republican campaigns did --
candidates did try to attack Mitt Romney on this issue, but for the most
part, they were too busy trying to answer the carpet-bombing level of
attacks that Mitt Romney was aiming at them. That kind of numerical
superiority, air superiority that Mitt Romney has had against these
candidates in the Republican race, he`s not going to have in the general
election. It`s Barack Obama who`s going to have air superiority.

MATTHEWS: I love it when you`ve come up with a new phrase for it. I
love when you do it.

FINEMAN: It`s going to change the nature of things.

MATTHEWS: Air superiority, this guy has destroyed one opponent after
another, beginning in Iowa, he destroyed Newt Gingrich, completely erased
him from history.

FINEMAN: Right.

MATTHEWS: Then he goes into Michigan and does the same thing, half
the job on Santorum. He`s going to do the other half the job tonight in
Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Ohio probably, while ignoring Newt down in
Tennessee -- Georgia giving him at least his dignity to walk away with --
but to walk away with.

WAGNER: Well --

MATTHEWS: Now, the same air superiority -- I love the phrase -- is
now going to be directed at him.

WAGNER: It`s going to be Sparta versus Sparta, Chris. Some said, I
don`t know if you like that as much as air superiority.

MATTHEWS: Did you root for Athens in school? Smart.

WAGNER: Come on. I --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Did you -- Howard, did you root for Sparta and Athens in
the Peloponnesian War, I want to know.

FINEMAN: I`m Athenian guy all the way.

MATTHEWS: Me too. I like the (INAUDIBLE) books.

WAGNER: It`s always good to bring up the Peloponnesian War when
talking about 2012.

MATTHEWS: You were with the jocks.

WAGNER: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Alex. God, you`re great.

Anyway, thank you, Howard Fineman.

FINEMAN: Take care.

MATTHEWS: Up next, President Obama held his first conference of the
year today. I don`t know if you call it news conference. It sounds so
sophisticated, press conference -- to remind everyone that he`s the
commander in chief and his warmongering Republican rivals are just playing
games. I`m with him on this one.

And this is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: President Obama is crushing his Republican rivals among
Latino voters by a margin of six to one right now. According to a new FOX
News Latino poll, three-quarters of Latinos approve the job President Obama
is doing. And none of the Republicans running for president polled higher
than 14 percent -- one in seven in a head to head matchup with the
president. Wow.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back.

President Obama stepped on the Republican Super Tuesday by giving his
first news conference of the year today. He kicked it off by lashing out
at Republicans regarding Iran. Let`s watch the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I see the
casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I`m reminded of
the costs involved in war. I`m reminded of the decision that I have to
make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle. This is not
a game. There`s nothing casual about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, the optics were clear today for those who watched.
President Obama is commander-in-chief, explaining the situation with Iran
and making an appeal to women voters, while Republicans were fighting for
votes in Super Tuesday.

Erin McPike is a political reporter for "RealClearPolitics"; and
Chris Cillizza is managing editor of PostPolitics.com and an MSNBC
political analyst.

Erin, this kind of political rhetoric in a wartime situation where
you have Mitch McConnell today, let`s have a declaration of war. You have
Mitt Romney talking about the Palestinian as if they are the bad guys --
the Palestinian people are the bad guys.

I have never seen a presidential candidate talk like that -- talking
about nothing about American interests, our American interest. It`s all
about Israel. It`s all big time pander. I have never seen it done so
indecently as I`ve seen these guys like Romney perform.

Your thoughts -- on the Iranian issue, pure politics.

ERIN MCPIKE, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Sure. Well, look, you know,
President Obama said today that he has put in place crippling sanctions on
Iran, and he`s been enforcing them.

And I would tell you this, Chris, the Iran sanctions act was put into
place in the late 1990s but Presidents Clinton and Bush did very little to
enforce those Iran sanctions and President Obama done quite a bit.

When Mitt Romney talks on the campaign trail about Iran, he
effectively says, you know, we don`t really have Iran sanctions in place
aimed and I would be the one to put them in and enforce them. But he`s
wrong on that because President Obama has done and that is the point he was
making today.

MATTHEWS: You know, I agree. You know, I think that`s right. I
didn`t know that. But thank you for telling me that, Erin. It`s very
smart. The sanctions regime has been real under this president.

But, Chris Cillizza, one thing that offends me this war talk. I know
I have this thing in my head about chicken hawks. It`s people that have
never been in a school yard fight talking about starting a war with such
calmness, that was the president`s term over and over again -- the casual
way they talk about war, these guys who run against them.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Well, look, you
know, Chris, I think this was -- for lack of a better phrase, I hate to
fall back on cliche, but this was kind of an adult in the room moment --

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CILLIZZA: -- for President Obama, which is to say, you can all talk
a big game -- he didn`t say this -- but in a way, look, I have been a
candidate, too, myself, but I will tell you when you are in the Oval
Office, when you are making decisions. Not just to say, well, we should go
in militarily here or here or here in various world hot spots, but when you
make those decisions, it means American lives at risk, it`s a different
burden, it`s a different decision.

He was very much owning that. I would say, Chris, if Mitt Romney
wants to be the Republican nominee, I would bet that you Barack Obama works
to make Mitt Romney`s relative lack of foreign policy experience.
Remember, this is a guy who has been a governor and business executive in
the past, an issue in the campaign.

This is a time of, you know, significant world conflict all across
the world, the Middle East and elsewhere. And Barack Obama, I think, will
say, look, here`s what I have done, I`ve got more experience and we can`t
take a risk -- fascinating, because that was the exact argument that John
McCain tried to make against Barack Obama, then-candidate Obama, in 2008.

MATTHEWS: Let`s switch directions here to the women`s issue, which
is obviously the most important issue in the presidential campaign because
most voters are women. Let`s take a look at what the president said today
about that issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I believe that Democrats have a better story to tell to women
about how we are going to solidify the middle class and grow this economy,
make sure everybody got -- has a fair shot, everybody is doing their fair
share.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Erin, he`s not just saying choice, abortion rights. He`s
not saying contraceptives. That`s a current issue. He`s talking across-
the-board, health, education, issues that women particularly have shown an
interest in, a concern with.

MCPIKE: Yes. Well, let me point something else out to you, Chris;
He talked about Malia and Sasha, his daughters, today when he was talking
about women and the women`s issue because of the Sandra Fluke issue with
the -- and the controversy with Rush Limbaugh.

Here is some trivia: there has been no U.S. president since Dwight D.
Eisenhower in the 1950s who has not had a daughter. In other words, every
president has had a daughter since the `50s.

Now, in this election, President Obama has two daughters and Mitt
Romney has five sons. When he was talking about Malia and Sasha, he can
talk about women`s issue in a very personal context. Mitt Romney cannot do
that.

The other thing I would point out about that is he said being married
to Michelle, I know she`s a very strong woman, you know, and I don`t have
to tell her what`s important to her, she`ll tell me.

When Mitt Romney talks about his wife, Ann Romney, he talks about how
much he loves her, how she is the most important thing in his life. Is
that important? Absolutely.

But what Barack Obama was saying in that press conference is going to
go a longer way with women voters.

MATTHEWS: Well said. I love bring the stuff to the game like you
did, Erin. He knows about as much about young women today as he`s knows
about war today.

Thank you, Erin McPike from Clear Channel.

Anyway, Chris Cillizza, thanks. Sorry, "Real Clear Politics".

When we return, "Let Me Finish" with why I think President Obama is
doing the smart thing with regard to Iran now.

You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

I think President Obama`s handling this Iranian situation as well as
any president can -- while his rivals are behaving without honor.

Let`s keep in mind, even in a heated election year, that an American
president has to wear three hats in the Mideast. One and always number
one, he must attend to America`s interests. Two, look out for our allies,
including Israel. Three, perform the role we had played since the modern
state of Israel was declared -- that of Mideast peacemaker. Without the
U.S. pushing for peace, it is hard to see it ever having much chance.

There have been breakthroughs, Camp David in 1978, which brought a
peace between Israel and Egypt, and more recently, peace between Israel and
Jordan, and, of course, the difficult but essential push for peace between
Israeli and the Palestinians.

You would think listening to the Republican candidates for president
that the only policy that matters right now is the bombing of Iran and how
fast to do it. You hear nothing about them - or from them about protecting
America`s interests, nothing about role as peacemaker. Nothing.

In fact, Romney now speaks to the Palestinians as if they,
themselves, are our enemy -- America`s enemy. When did that become U.S.
policy? I thought both parties, Republican and Democrat, believed in the
right of the two people, Jewish and Palestinian, to their own countries.
It was President George W. Bush who enunciated that policy.

Well, the current crop of candidates makes Bush seem like Woodrow
Wilson. President Obama said today in his press conference that he has to
worry about the consequences of what he says and does, his potential rivals
seem to think they can say anything and now, Mitch McConnell, who swore to
destroy the Obama presidency from inauguration day on, talks of having the
Senate pass a declaration of war on Iran, just in case.

Well, that would be helpful, wouldn`t it? The more talk there is,
the more the Iranians circle their wagons around their leaders, the more
nationalistic sentiments are ginned up over there, the more war talk, the
more the price of oil spike, as people hoard as an anticipation of a cutoff
of traffic in the Strait of Hormuz.

So, the president acts as president. Romney, whose family`s military
experience is a giant goose egg, a big fat zero, talks like bombs away,
Curtis LeMay.

Fact check, if you accept Donald Trump as your political kingmaker,
genuflecting before him in Las Vegas and you fear the wrath of Rush
Limbaugh, where do you get all this bluster or do you save it for special
occasions where you can`t get hurt, only your country can?

That`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

MSNBC`s live coverage of Super Tuesday begins now.

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

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