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updated 3/16/2012 1:59:08 PM ET 2012-03-16T17:59:08

Guests: Tyler Mathisen, Steve Schmidt, Eugene Robinson, Ed
Rendell, David Corn, Susan Page, Melinda Henneberg, George Clooney, John Prendergast

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: On to Illinois.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. Leading off tonight:
Bad road trip. Mitt Romney`s forces spent $2 million in Alabama and
Mississippi, only to lose badly in both states. How can a guy claim to be
the people`s choice when spending all that money gets you a couple of third
place finishes?

Well, the question is, the Republican body politic -- is it rejecting
Romney the way the human body rejects a foreign organ? Is Mitt just too
remote, too inauthentic, too phony for conservatives to accept him as their
own? Would they rather take a long shot bet on Rick Santorum, a guy who
feels, at least, like one of them?

Well, the real dead-ender out there now is Newt Gingrich, who has
proven he can lose in all sections of the country. The cries are already
growing louder from conservatives for Newt to just get off the way -- out
of the way.

Plus, Republicans are accused by their enemies of waging a war on
women. Now Mitt Romney says he would end all public support for Planned
Parenthood. Is he giving his enemies the evidence they want that
Republicans are women`s enemies?

And George Clooney`s here with us tonight. The actor/activist just
came back from the border of Sudan and South Sudan, site of all the killing
over there. He`s bringing attention to the crisis. And George Clooney
will be here -- right here with us on HARDBALL.

"Let Me Finish" tonight with the great, big slugfest I`ve been hoping
for for a long time. It`s now going to be Romney versus Santorum, mano a
mano with the big bout coming this Tuesday in Illinois.

We begin with Santorum`s Southern sweep -- won both of those last
night. Republican strategist Steve Schmidt ran the McCain-Palin campaign
in 2008. Eugene Robinson is Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for "The
Washington Post."

Mr. Schmidt -- by the way, they`re both MSNBC political analysts.
Steve, we got to start with you, the inside man. What is your feeling
about this race?

STEVE SCHMIDT, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well,
I think it`s become a two-person race, Chris. For Newt Gingrich, he said
that he was relevant in this race, that he had a Southern strategy. You
have to win states like Mississippi and Alabama if you`re going to put
together a Southern strategy. So I think that he`s effectively finished as
a candidate.

And now Mitt Romney has completely lost the inevitability argument, so
now he`s in a message campaign that`s an ideological contest with a
conservative running to his right. And it`s got to be a process that
continues to go forward because Santorum`s argument that, Neither one of us
may get enough delegates to win to lock this up and it should get settled
at the convention -- if that`s the case, that got a lot of wind behind it
last night, I think.

MATTHEWS: So you think people would like to have this thing go on a
bit, even beyond the primaries and caucuses to a real donnybrook down there
in Tampa?

SCHMIDT: Well, I think there`s a real question about whether either
one of them can accumulate the necessary delegates to be nominated. It`s a
real open question. So I think that barring the ability to be nominated
with the requisite number of delegates through the voting process, it does
go to the convention.

And so Rick Santorum has said he`s not getting out of the race, and I
think he`s got a clear rationale to keep going in this race...

MATTHEWS: I know.

SCHMIDT: ... and will have one so long as he keeps winning. This has
now become a math contest. But the momentum side of this is on Rick
Santorum`s side, despite Romney`s math advantage.

MATTHEWS: Well said. Listen to what Rick Santorum said earlier today
about his chances of defeating Mitt Romney. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R-PA), FMR. SEN., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We think
we`re going to take our results (INAUDIBLE) If we keep winning races,
eventually, people are going to figure out that Governor Romney isn`t going
to be the nominee.

And when you keep getting outspent seven, eight, nine, ten to one and
you win races, it has to tell you there`s something fundamentally right
with what we`re doing and the message we`re delivering, and there`s
something fundamentally flawed about the candidate that we`re running
against.

You can`t -- you can`t look at someone who has that huge money
advantage, all the establishment behind him, all the media singing the song
that he is the inevitable candidate and all we`re doing is slowing this
process down and we`re hurting our chances in the fall -- none of which is
true, but all of which is being out there told to the Republican voter, and
yet Republican voters are overwhelmingly saying no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: So he`s the agent of tissue rejection.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: He`s basically saying, I`m in here to do what the body
politic of the Republican Party wants done. Somebody`s got to do it, chase
this guy out. Push him out.

EUGENE ROBINSON, "WASHINGTON POST," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes,
that`s what he`s saying. You know, he talked about what was flawed in Mitt
Romney. I`m not sure it`s whether it`s what`s flawed in Mitt Romney that`s
his problem or what`s missing. What`s flawed is his record, most
conservatives or many conservatives believe, on abortion, on health care.
He`s apostate. He`s...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

ROBINSON: They think he`s wrong. He was wrong. And they`re not
convinced that he now is on the right side of those issues. What`s missing
is the vision thing, the -- the -- the -- what does he want to do with the
country? What is he really about? What`s at the core of Mitt Romney?

And I think people haven`t yet gotten that. They haven`t figured that
out. He doesn`t communicate it very well.

MATTHEWS: So there you have it, Stephen. You`re the inside man.
Again, I rely on your knowledge, having ran the campaign for John McCain
last time so well, I think, given the odds against you. And here you have
a guy that doesn`t seem like he belongs. He has problems -- as Gene said
well, it isn`t just a set of flaws he has, it`s his essence and his failure
to offer up some reason why a smart business type can offer deliverance to
the Republican Party in their souls.

Can he be a soulful Republican to the people who really want a soulful
deliverance to get out of this mess? They don`t feel happy. Republicans
are not happy in this country right now. There`s something wrong with the
way the country`s going. What can he offer to solve that problem, Mitt
Romney?

SCHMIDT: Look, I think at the end of the day, Chris, in this process,
you are revealed to be who you are. And he`s not a back-slapping urban
politician, you know, who can go down there and pull off the "y`alls" and
the cheese grits and all of that stuff. He`s a serious man with a record
of accomplishment. And he particularly has a record of accomplishment in
making broken things work right.

And I think being able to communicate that through the prism of, This
is how it benefits you, the voter, in a primary context and then
ultimately, in a general election context, convincing people that he has
the core competence to restore prosperity to the country, for instance -- I
think that he`d be on much firmer ground than being in a fight with Rick
Santorum about who`s an authentic conservative on the basis of who has what
level of support for Planned Parenthood.

I think that`s a very tough issue for him.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SCHMIDT: And I think it drives...

MATTHEWS: You know, it sounds...

SCHMIDT: ... attention to this inauthenticity argument.

MATTHEWS: But Steve, it sounds colonial, like, I`m not one of you
people, but I can come in and I run your country better than you can. I
know I`m not one of you, but I`m really good at this business sense. You
know, a colonial -- that was the colonial argument, by the way, in Africa.
We`re going to come in. We may not belong here. We don`t belong -- we`re
not one of you, but we got this economic sense. We know how to run
businesses better.

I`m sorry. These metaphors never work, but...

ROBINSON: I think Romney does belong to a wing of the Republican
Party...

MATTHEWS: Right.

ROBINSON: ... that is out of fashion, and a lot of them out of the
Republican Party now. But I think the point...

MATTHEWS: Oh, you think he`s an old Republican liberal?

ROBINSON: Well, in some ways, yes. But I think the point Steve made
is right -- is absolutely right. If that`s what he is, he should be that.
He should be what he is and not try...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You`re laughing. But you`re laughing. Would that sell?

ROBINSON: Well, I think it would sell better than cheesy grits.

MATTHEWS: OK, would the real Mitt Romney sell...

ROBINSON: I think it would sell better than what he`s...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Steve, would the real Mitt Romney -- because you had a
candidate like John McCain, who`s not even as real in that direction. He
would never -- I mean, McCain`s probably a hybrid somewhere between the old
East Coast moderate Republican and the right-wing crazy Tea Partier. But
Mitt Romney is well beyond the Tea Party stage, well distant from it.

SCHMIDT: Yes. Look, I think that the party has changed a great deal
over the last four years. I think that there`s a real argument to be made
that, you know, Mitt Romney may be the last person, you know, who`s got a
fairly moderate record on a number of issues from a state like
Massachusetts, could compete as well as he`s competed...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SCHMIDT: ... in the Republican primary if the party continues to
evolve at the rate it`s changed over the last four years.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SCHMIDT: But nevertheless, Chris, he does have a substantial lead in
the math. The inevitability argument is out the window. They didn`t want
the math argument, but now that they`re in it, they`re winning that math
argument. And so he does have advantages going forward in this contest,
but there`s no doubt he`s going have to fix some elements of his messaging.

MATTHEWS: Just imagine that convention. You may not like me, but
look at these numbers! I got numbers that prove you got to take me!
That`s going to be awful.

Anyway, today on Fox News, Mitt Romney was asked in person, live
television, whether his losses in Alabama and Mississippi underscore the
fact that the conservatives in the party do not want him to be their
nominee. Here`s how he answered. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I`m
sorry, they have to go back and look at some other states that actually are
kind of important. Let`s say Florida, for instance, where I won, and
Michigan and Ohio and Nevada and New Hampshire. The list goes on.

Last night, by the way, they`re forgetting there were a couple other
contests, including Hawaii, where I won. Oh, and by the way, last night I
got more delegates than anybody else. Some who are very conservative may
not be yet in my camp, but they will be when I become the nominee when I
face Barack Obama.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I don`t get it, Gene.

ROBINSON: You know...

MATTHEWS: He doesn`t seem like a guy who`s got the people`s choice
going for him.

ROBINSON: That clip reminds me of that great aria from "Dream Girls,"
you know, "You`re going to love me."

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: He`s telling Republicans, I`m staying. I`m staying, and
you`re going to love me.

MATTHEWS: Is that Hudson (INAUDIBLE)

ROBINSON: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: OK, let me -- let me go back to this question. Let`s look
at this more. Here is -- let`s take a look at some more of the things that
have been going on here. Here`s Richard Breeson -- or Beeson from the team
Romney on the mathematical realities because this is what it`s come down
to, the argument that they`ve got the numbers.

Here it is. According to "Politico" once (ph) -- "While Rick Santorum
is taking a victory lap after Alabama and Mississippi, the fact remains
that nothing has changed or advanced his chance of getting the Republican
nomination. Tuesday`s results actually increased Governor Romney`s
delegate lead, while his opponents only moved closer to their date of
mathematical elimination."

How does this sound on the hustings, Steve, to hear, if you`re a voter
in Illinois this Tuesday, Well, you don`t really matter because the numbers
here say you`re finished if you want to vote for Santorum?

SCHMIDT: Well, that`s not an argument that is penetrating to voters
in states like Illinois. You know, that`s an argument for the inside
Washington and the donor community that`s funding the campaigns.

And one of the interesting things, Chris, on the Republican side, you
have Rich Beeson for Romney then you have and John Yob for Santorum, and
they`re hugely respected inside the Republican Party and they`re both
making arguments that people find confusing. They don`t know which side to
believe and who is exactly where because we`re in uncharted territory with
the proportional allocation of the delegates. This is a rule change for
the Republican -- for the Republicans.

So we`re in a -- we`re in a new space with this. So you know, the one
thing that`s clear is that Santorum argument that, I`m not getting out of
the race, no matter where the math is on this right now, that if I keep
winning, I have as good a shot to get this nomination as Romney does, even
if it`s decided at the convention -- his argument was strengthened last
night. Romney`s argument was weakened last night.

MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you very much. Gene, last word. It looks to me
like it`s a two-man race right now. It looks to me like we`re not going to
be talking much Newt anymore, nor should we, because the voters now have a
real clear-cut mano-a-mano here.

ROBINSON: Yes. I think Newt Gingrich`s performance goes way down in
primaries, even if he stays in the race. And I...

MATTHEWS: He is Buddy Roemer now, isn`t he?

ROBINSON: Yes. Yes.

MATTHEWS: He`s Buddy Roemer.

ROBINSON: (INAUDIBLE) still in there.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Steve Schmidt. Remember Buddy Roemer?
He`s also in the race and he doesn`t matter, either. Anyway, Steve it`s
great to you have on, as always. And by the way, I`m more impressed with
you every time I watch that movie. I`ve seen it three times now, "Game
Change." I`m going for the record!

Coming up: Newt Gingrich failed to win either Alabama or Mississippi
last night. So why is he still here? What does he plan to do? At least,
what`s his rationale for sticking around? We`re going to hear him out one
more time. What`s his case? I don`t think much of it, but we`re going to
hear it.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Fresh off his sweep of Alabama and Mississippi, Rick
Santorum`s up in a new poll in his home state of Pennsylvania. Let`s check
the HARDBALL "Scoreboard" -- love to do it!

According to a new Quinnipiac poll, Santorum`s up 14 points now over
Mitt Romney, 36 -- that`s a good number, actually -- to 22. Pennsylvania
holds its primary April 24th. Can`t wait.

And how does Santorum do against President Obama in the Keystone
state? Well, look at this. I never would have expected this, Obama 45,
Santorum 44, too close for comfort.

By the way, Obama beats Romney by 6 points in that Quinnipiac poll in
Pennsylvania.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. With a twin defeat on his home
turf last night, Newt Gingrich is standing up to increasing pressure, I
think smart pressure, to get out of the race and let Santorum have that
one-on-one he`s always wanted -- in fact, everybody`s wanted -- against
Romney.

Not surprisingly, Newt vowed to take the fight to Tampa -- what else
is new -- while getting in a dig at Romney, of course. Here he was
speaking to supporters last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FMR. HOUSE SPEAKER, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I
emphasize going to Tampa because one of the things tonight proved is that
the elite media`s effort to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is
inevitable just collapsed.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

GINGRICH: The fact is -- the fact is, in both states, the
conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote. And if you`re
the front-runner -- if you`re the front-runner and you keep coming in
third, you`re not much of a front-runner.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, I`m not part of the elite media because I don`t think
this thing is over and I`ve not wanted it to be over! I like this fight.

What is keeping, however, Newt Gingrich in the race, even in his own
mind? Is this a campaign trip or an ego trip? Former Democratic
Pennsylvania governor, the great Ed Rendell, and "Mother Jones" D.C. bureau
chief David Corn are both MSNBC political analyst of a different type, each
having his own area of expertise.

The governor -- yours is practical. Why is this guy in the race? Why
is Newt -- is it just there`s nowhere else to go? Is it just personal?

ED RENDELL (D), FMR. PA GOVERNOR, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I think --
it`s funny because I think Newt craves attention, as many of us in politics
do. And if he drops out, he`s history. If he goes to the convention,
people will still listen to him to some degree.

But he`s got to balance that against his sworn desire to defeat Mitt
Romney. If he really wants to defeat Mitt Romney, he`s got to know in his
heart that the best way to do that is to get out.

MATTHEWS: That`s what I say.

RENDELL: And interesting...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Yes, but he has to -- there`s a different point of view,
Governor. I want you to respond to. Here`s what Byron York, who I almost
always think is smart -- he wrote this today.

"Newt Gingrich`s presidential campaign has changed. In the past, the
campaign was about winning, or trying to win, or at least claiming to be
trying to win. Now it`s about keeping Mitt Romney from winning. Well,
Gingrich no longer says he can capture the 1,144 delegates required to wrap
up the Republican nomination. Instead, he now speaks frankly about a new
plan, keep Romney from getting the 1,144 delegates by the end of the GOP
primary season in June, and then start what Gingrich calls `a conversation`
about who should be the Republican nominee. That conversation, his plan
goes, would lead to a brokered GOP convention in which Gingrich would
emerge as the eventual nominee."

And here was Gingrich referring to that conversation that he wants to
begin this summer last night. This delusion continues. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: I believe after the primaries are over, it`ll be obvious
that the so-called front-runner, in fact, didn`t get there. And from that
point on, we`ll be in a whole new conversation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Your argument is that if he stays in, he divides the anti-
Romney vote, which is my thinking...

RENDELL: No question.

MATTHEWS: ... and most normal, rational people`s thinking. His is
something about, if you divide up the delegates a number of three ways,
then nobody`ll get a majority. But Romney keeps winning primary after
primary, in that sense, in that situation.

RENDELL: And the problem is, Chris, first of all, that -- what Newt
Gingrich just said there is a solid basis for a mental health commitment,
number one.

(LAUGHTER)

RENDELL: Number two -- number two, does he possibly think that even,
let`s say Romney doesn`t get the 1,144, that a deadlocked convention is
going to turn to him?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, he does!

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: He`s crazy!

MATTHEWS: Tell me that scenario. There is no scenario.

CORN: I think that`s -- you know, you said delusion. I think that`s
what he does believe, that at that point in time...

MATTHEWS: Why?

CORN: ... they`re going to look around and the guy who got 12 percent
of the delegates, they`re going to say, Newt, where have you been all
along?

(LAUGHTER)

CORN: You know, We`re so sorry we didn`t vote for you...

MATTHEWS: I know. I hate to say this, Governor. He`s like a good
defense attorney. You know, you were a prosecutor -- a good defense
attorney. One time a kid stole my car in D.C. He got convicted. But his
young -- you know, public defender came up and said in court, Do you know a
guy named Joe, to me on the stand.

I said, "No, I don`t know a guy named Joe."

The only reason she did this was so that she could then go back to the
kid who had sold the car and said, "And Joe told me to take the car."

That was her way of saying that somebody believed somebody did -- some
ridiculous theory of the car being stolen was not this kid stealing the
car.

Doesn`t Newt need, as a prosecutor, doesn`t Newt, as the defendant
here, have to come up with some even delusional theory, if you`re caught,
basically? There is no reason to be in the race.

RENDELL: Sure. Sure.

But I don`t believe in his heart of hearts Newt Gingrich actually
believes that. I think he wants the attention of staying in. Everyone
listens to him. What about his speech last night? He was talking about
all these different issues. He loves having the audience.

And that`s why he`s staying in. He`s too smart to believe he has a
chance.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: By the way, his other issues are the $2.50 gas.

He`s like a lot -- I don`t want to fight with the LaRouches, but
LaRouche. Lyndon LaRouche will come on television -- Governor, you know
this -- every once in awhile, he will come on television and spend $75,000
to talk for a half-hour with a set of books he wants you to read, something
to distract from you the campaign, whether it is Jane Fonda or whatever it
is.

This guy is now talking about something called $2.50 gas. He thinks
he can attract our attention with it.

CORN: Well, I think he also worries if he`s not elected president, we
won`t have a lunar colony in the next five years.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: I disagree with the governor. I really think that he believes
he is a historic, transformational character and that eventually the rest
of the world will come to see that.

MATTHEWS: Well, that is called a delusion.

CORN: Yes, I believe so.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Governor, at the beginning of this race, he thought it was
Winston Churchill coming back after the Gallipoli disaster.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: And backing the king in the abdication fight. He was
coming all the way back. He was de Gaulle coming back from exile. I mean,
this guy, he is really probably Napoleon on Saint Helena right now.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Last night in an interview with Rachel Maddow, CNBC`s John
Harwood said he was hearing the Gingrich super PAC funding from Sheldon
Adelson -- now this is where the money is -- drying up -- is drying up.
Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I talked to one of
-- he analysts. You mentioned the super PAC donor. I talked to one of --
Sheldon Adelson, you mentioned, the super PAC donor of Gingrich -- I talked
to one of his friends last night who said that I think Sheldon has written
his last check.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, "The Washington Post"`s Greg Sargent asked Winning
Our Future`s Rick Tyler about the super PAC`s funding. Should Adelson, the
granddaddy of that fund, stop donating? And Tyler said this. Governor,
you will love this. "Fund-raising will be challenging."

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: He has got one Daddy Warbucks looking out for him, Adelson
with his Middle East concerns, giving this guy tens of millions of dollars.
We don`t know why. When is Adelson going to get a phone call from one of
his friends saying Newt is out of this race, you`re wasting your money?

(CROSSTALK)

RENDELL: The interesting thing is, Chris, if he decides Newt is out,
who will Adelson go to? He says he`s going to spend $100 million. Will he
do it for Santorum or -- he has said nice things about Romney. Who does he
go to?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: He`s not going to President Obama.

RENDELL: That`s for sure.

(LAUGHTER)

CORN: Does the Republican establishment now really want Newt out,
which will give Santorum more...

MATTHEWS: Well, so what? So what...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Who is the establishment?

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: When we talk about Sheldon Adelson and others, you know, having
an impact here, also, there are no more debates scheduled.

Newt Gingrich, he can run on fumes. But he`s going to have to get
even more extreme in his rhetoric to get free media attention if he wants
to stay in the mix.

MATTHEWS: Looking at the race next Tuesday, how do you see it,
Governor? Because without this guy we`re looking at now having any role up
there, I can`t see anybody in Illinois in the suburbs, anybody wasting
their vote on this guy. I certainly wouldn`t advise it.

How does the battle look between the two left standing? The more
establishment businessman, that`s what he is really, Romney, or the sort of
Christian conservative crusader, your guy? You know Santorum. All your
life, you have known the guy. For 20 years, you know the guy.

What does the race look like?

RENDELL: Well, Illinois is a strange state.

Paul Kirk, a moderate, won a Republican primary for Senate. But the
extreme conservative candidate won the primary for governor. And, of
course, that, was the only reason that Pat Quinn got reelected. I think
it`s going to be a close race. I think in Illinois the money could make a
difference. And I think you could see Romney do what he did in Michigan
and Ohio, sort of a narrow victory.

But, Chris, this is deja vu all over again. Remember in March and
April and May in 2008, Hillary won all the primaries and she won some of
them by staggeringly large margins. And, yet, Barack kept piling up
delegates and kept holding his delegate lead.

MATTHEWS: But that`s a tough shot against Obama, because Obama, who
I, of course, was supporting in those days, you were supporting Hillary,
Governor. We all know whose side we were on. And quite honestly, had a
spirited campaign behind him, people who really believed in him.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: No, before you lodge that unfair metaphor there comparing
them, do you really believe that there is a similar amount of spirit and
excitement behind Mitt Romney as there was behind Barack Obama?

RENDELL: No, not at all. Not at all.

But to be very practical -- and you said I was a practical politician
-- the math is the math. And Romney won more delegates yesterday.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: But your love of the Clintons goes beyond practicality.

CORN: And Illinois is a very expensive media market, because of
Chicago and other places. So that will give Romney a big advantage.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Can I ask one last question to my colleague, Mr. Big Stuff?
Who is going to win in Illinois?

(LAUGHTER)

RENDELL: Romney will win.

MATTHEWS: Who is going to win, Governor?

RENDELL: Romney by a very narrow margin.

MATTHEWS: I think, as I said last night, just to cause trouble,
Cardinal George out there, the most conservative...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... in the country, will encourage those in the pews this
Sunday to go with their fellow religionist just to cause trouble in my
religion.

Anyway, thank you both, Governor Ed Rendell, the practical man, and
David Corn, the ideologue -- next -- and reporter.

CORN: Oh, come on.

MATTHEWS: Up next, David Axelrod tweets Mitt Romney on his big
victory last night in American Samoa. There`s a victory for the Mittster
up next in the "Sideshow."

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Republican Will Cardon is hoping to be the next senator from Arizona,
but if you want to represent your home state, you have got to know the
major cities. Take a look at this new campaign ad highlighting his Arizona
childhood.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILL CARDON (R), ARIZONA SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: I`m Will Cardon, I
approve this message.

Hi. I`m Will Cardon. I grew up working in a family business and hard
work was the bedrock.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, oops there or catch that there in the photo album the
misspelled Tucson, Arizona`s second largest city. The ad was quickly fixed
and replaced with a correctly spelled version of Tucson. As Ross Perot
once advised, measure twice, cut once.

Back to the national campaign trail. Mitt Romney send out a tweet last
night hoping for better results in the Pacific than he got last night in
the South -- quote -- "Will be a late night waiting for results from
American Samoa and Hawaii, but a big thank you to everyone who voted in
Mississippi and Alabama."

Well, David Axelrod of the Obama campaign was quick to get in a dig --
quote -- "Mitt Romney, you know what they say. As America Samoa goes, so
goes the nation."

Speaking of Romney, Steve Colbert had some fun with the old story
about strapping that Romney family dog to the roof on a family vacation.

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Of course, Romney also
knows how to make complex subjects simple. Watch him punch holes in the
president`s so-called energy policy.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look at his energy policy.
What is his energy policy? You can`t drive a car with a windmill on it.

COLBERT: That`s right.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: You can`t drive a car with a windmill on it, because if you
put a windmill on top of your car, then where does the dog go?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: That dog trip is going to be told as long as Romney`s in
public life.

Time now for tonight`s "Big Number." According to ThinkProgress, the
United States Army is joining the ranks of advertisers who will be no
longer buying time during Rush Limbaugh`s radio program. Just how trouble-
producing were Rush`s recent remarks on law student Sandra Fluke?

Well, a new Bloomberg poll shows that 53 percent of those polled say
that Rush should be fired for calling her a prostitute and a slut. And 56
percent of women and 30 percent of Republicans agree Rush should go for
those comments -- 53 percent say Rush should go. That is tonight`s very
"Big Number."

Up next, Republicans are accused by their enemies of waging a war on
women, so why is Mitt Romney now saying he`s going to get rid of Planned
Parenthood? That`s ahead.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TYLER MATHISEN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Tyler Mathisen with your CNBC
"Market Wrap."

The Dow gained 16, the S&P is down one, and the Nasdaq is up about
one. Citigroup, one of the few losers in the financial sector this day,
shares slid more than 3 percent after it failed a so-called stress test by
the Fed. Goldman Sachs also shed more than 3 percent following a scathing
op-ed in "The New York Times" by a former vice president there.

And AAA says gas prices are now above $4 a gallon in four states and
in Washington, D.C.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: My test is pretty simple. Is the program so critical, it`s
worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? On that basis, of course
you get rid of Obamacare. That`s the easy one. But there are others.
Planned Parenthood, we`re going to rid of that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: We`re going to get rid of that, Planned Parenthood.

Welcome back to HARDBALL.

There was Mitt Romney in that interview on Tuesday afternoon. That is
a day ago with a local Saint Louis TV station. Within 24 hours of his
comment there, the Democratic National Committee turned it into an attack
ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, Democratic National Committee ad)

ROMNEY: Planned Parenthood, we`re going to get rid of that. Planned
Parenthood, we`re going to get rid of that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, that was lethal. Funding for Planned Parenthood is a
potent issue of course at the state level as well.

Today, in Texas, a Republican-backed law that would have essentially
shut down Planned Parenthood was due go into effect. Well, following angry
protests in Austin and nationwide criticism, Texas lawmakers gave the
clinics an extension to keep treating patients through April 30. That is
another month or so.

Have Democrats struck political gold by portraying Republicans as
anti-women? And how will Mitt Romney fare if and when he makes his
inevitable pivot to the center for the general election?

Melinda Henneberger is a "Washington Post" political writer and
columnist and Susan Page is the "Washington Post" bureau chief for "USA
Today" and often sits across the table from me, except tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about this politics here.

Look, the president is taking a hammering over gas prices with men and
women. But on these social issues, these issues that women are
particularly politically focused on, although they affect both men and
women pretty darn well, is getting in trouble, Mitt Romney, Susan?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": Well, clearly the
Democrats think this is a great issue for them, because I got 115 e-mails
today from Democrats decrying what Mitt Romney said about Planned
Parenthood.

But the fact is, if you look at the data in both the Gallup poll and
the Pew Research Center poll out just today, there isn`t evidence that this
issue cuts disproportionately with women. We have seen the president`s
approval rating go up a bit in both polls, but not because of increased
support among women.

On the other hand, of course Democrats rely on support from women.
There`s a big gender gap at the moment. And it`s to the advantage of
Democrats, who are about 20 points ahead in the Pew poll -- and Obama 20
points ahead among women over Romney. That`s an advantage Democrats
certainly want to protect.

MATTHEWS: Well, Melinda, it`s astounding to me after all the talk on
television, here especially, about what happened with regard to the --
going after Planned Parenthood, right?

MELINDA HENNEBERGER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Right.

MATTHEWS: And all this talk about Rush Limbaugh and all this talk
about the Catholic Church and all this talk about contraception and all
those issues which you would think would have put the Democrats with an
advantage over the conservatives, not a big, powerful impact yet in terms
of big changing in how people are voting yet.

HENNEBERGER: I do think that it`s a very powerful, good issue for
Democrats because of it energizes the base, it energizes women and they`re
raising a lot of money on it.

And I think in the end it is a winner for them. But to quote Ann
Romney, women are concerned about other things besides contraceptives, too.
So, you know, I mean a friend of mine who is an independent voter said, you
know, I am worried -- the top issue on my mind is not who`s going to be
paying for contraception with my tax dollars. Oops, I`m unemployed. I`m
not paying taxes.

(CROSSTALK)

HENNEBERGER: So I think it goes back to jobs. It`s -- I thought it
was interesting he lost a lot of ground, Obama, recently with low-income
Americans. I mean, jobs really are -- are...

MATTHEWS: I saw those numbers. I saw those numbers.

And, by the way, when you go to the gas pump, I don`t know whether I
see more men or women pumping gas. It`s about the same, probably.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: And, really, and that`s a lot more money than contraception
or anything else, when you look at the price of gas now, $50 when you go in
and out of that gas station.

HENNEBERGER: That`s right.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: The progressive organization MoveOn.org made a national
cable TV buy, however, for an ad highlighting Republican positions on
contraceptions and abortion. They`re on that issue and they`re running
hot. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MOVEON.ORG AD)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If we`re going to pay for your contraceptives,
and thus pay you to have sex, we want you to post the videos online, so we
can all watch.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A woman impregnated through rape should accept
that horribly created gift, the gift of human life, accept what God has
given you and make the best of a bad situation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These aren`t our words.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They`re all real things said by prominent members of
the Republican Party.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Judging from their comments, the GOP must have
a serious problem with women.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Well, there you have it. Susan, covering
politics now and now having it very definitely defined that the leaders of
the Republican Party, prominent leaders include Rush Limbaugh. He`s now --
he might as well be Mitch McConnell because -- or John Boehner, the
speaker, because he`s now among their number in terms of influence and
prominence.

SUSAN PAGE, USA TODAY: Well, that`s right. Democrats -- we hope
that`s the case, because here`s an ad that really goes to energizing the
Democratic base, especially among women, raising money, getting that side
of the -- side of the political field ginned up for the election.

But I agree with Melinda. It doesn`t persuade independent minded
women in the middle who are probably more concerned about jobs and economic
growth and maybe even the federal deficit. Those are issues that I think
are higher on the list of concerns for Americans in both genders.

MATTHEWS: You know, the question in politics is always do they care
about people like me?

MELINDA HENNEBERGER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk -- there`s two -- well, I hate to say it, but
there are two kinds of women. There`s married women and unmarried women,
OK? I think I`m safe on that one. Things change rapidly.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: But let`s say there`s two kinds of women. Single women
and birth control, single guys and birth control. It`s a big issue.

Birth control is a big issue of responsibility, I personally think.
It`s a big part of your life, avoiding irresponsible pregnancies.

Married women, you have a certain number of children, or certain
pacing. You reserve the right to decide in our modern society when to have
children, right? These are fairly common positions people take.

HENNEBERGER: Right.

MATTHEWS: Are the Republican Party -- is the Republican Party
cognizant of these facts I just laid out?

HENNEBERGER: I`m not --

MATTHEWS: Are they fighting --

HENNEBERGER: Unlike Rush Limbaugh, I`m not a spokesman for the
Republican Party. So, I`m not going to do that.

But I think that, you know, the debate now has moved from abortion to
this much larger issue of war on women. The more they play into that
narrative that`s been around for a while -- it`s not really even about
contraceptives per se. It`s all these things taken together. It`s the
Rush Limbaugh comment. It`s, you know, even Planned Parenthood under
attack from Komen.

I mean, all these pieces of the conversation over the last couple
months, I think all feed into this idea that Republicans are unfriendly to
women. Whether that`s unfair or not, I do think it`s a potent thing for
Democrats.

MATTHEWS: Powerful statement by Secretary of State Clinton
yesterday, don`t you think, Susan? Very powerful. It`s a worldwide
problem, as she pointed to here as well.

PAGE: Absolutely. And I just want to say, Chris, you said something
quite wise, as you so often do, about the difference between married women
and single women, because pollsters tell thus is one of the fundamental
divides in the American electorate that married women tend to vote
Republican. Single women who have lives that are a little more fragile,
they feel more on edge and more concerned that they might need the
government`s help at some point are much more likely to be Democrats.

And the challenge for Democrats in the past is getting single women
out to vote.

MATTHEWS: Yes. I did notice that over the years. Thank you so
much, Melinda Henneberger. And thank you, Susan Page.

HENNEBERGER: Thanks.

PAGE: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Hot topic.

Up next -- thanks for always being here. Up next, actor George
Clooney joins us today. He`s coming here and he`s in Washington trying to
bring attention to the horrific humanitarian crisis going on in South
Sudan. He`ll be right on in a minute.

You`re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, earlier in the week, we saw two polls where
President Obama`s job approval was down. Well, today, we got two polls
where he`s up.

Let`s go back to the HARDBALL scoreboard. The good news for him,
according to a new Bloomberg poll, Obama`s approval rating is up to 48.
His disapproval 47. That`s a close one.

Even better numbers for the new Pew poll with the president up in 50
percent approval, just 41 percent disapproval. That`s about the best of
them.

And how does this stack up again the two Republican rivals? In the
Bloomberg poll, Obama is tied with Mitt Romney at 47 percent. And the
president leads Rick Santorum in that Bloomberg poll by six, 50 percent to
44 percent.

In the Pew poll, it`s Obama with a 12-point lead over Romney, 54-42.
And against Santorum, the president`s lead is 18 points, 57-39.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Far away from the political headlines in this country, a humanitarian
crisis is developing in the North African country of Sudan.

Actor George Clooney got back from mission there and testified today
before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the atrocities he
witnessed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR & ACTIVIST: We visited Abyei in January 2011.
At the time it was estimated to have 120,000 Ngok Dinka inhabitants.
Today, there are none. They`re either dead or they`re refugees, all
because they had the bad luck of being born on the border, being born in
oil rich land or being born black. That is a fact.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, tomorrow George Clooney`s scheduled to meet with
both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

George Clooney joins us now, along with human rights activist John
Prendergast, the cofounder of the Enough Project, a group that works to
stop genocide.

George, thank you for joining us.

You`re really starting at the beginning of educating us on what`s
going on over there in the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Who`s
committing genocide against whom? And why?

CLOONEY: Well, maybe too soon to call it genocide. What we do know
is it`s certainly war crimes and atrocities. But what we -- what it is
it`s the same people. It`s the same people who did it in Darfur.

It`s President Omar al-Bashir, it`s Harun, it`s the defense minister,
Hussein. Three men charged with war crimes at the International Criminal
Court are the exact same people who are indiscriminately bombing innocent
civilians all through the Nuba Mountains.

And they are causing -- and it`s a campaign of fear and death and
starvation that we`ve seen before, and rape, quite honestly, that we have
seen before in the beginnings of Darfur.

MATTHEWS: Is there a meant -- is there a recognizable motive, or is
it just tribalism, it`s just hatred?

CLOONEY: Oh, no, there`s the recognizable motive. The motive is you
want to get the people out. You want them to get off the land.

First of all, there`s -- it`s good farming and they would like it.
So, they would like to sell that off. But a lot of it is, there is a rebel
infighting going on. There is a war going on.

But they`re not bombing where the war is going on. They`re bombing
the people. They want to get the people to leave. But when the people
leave, then the rebels will leave. That`s the theory.

MATTHEWS: John Prendergast, the good buddy, is this about oil? To
some extent, does this affect us in any way, the geopolitical aspect of
this thing?

JOHN PRENDERGAST, THE ENOUGH PROJECT: Yes, it has a direct effect on
us, Chris. I think we -- China gets 6 percent of its daily imports of oil
from Sudan directly. And just six weeks ago, South Sudan cut off all of
its -- it turned off the taps of its oil flow in a dispute with its
neighbor Sudan through which the pipelines the oil from the south flows.

So China suddenly has had to wade in international markets to buy --
to replace that 6 percent of the oil. That drives up the global price of
oil. So, it affects us directly. And that`s -- so there was a
humanitarian imperative, but there`s also an economic reason and rationale
for us to get more deeply involved in trying to forge a diplomatic solution
there in Sudan.

MATTHEWS: You know, we`ve got -- George and John, you know, we`ve
got a lot of pans on the fire right now. We`re worried about Iran. We`re
worried about this continuing horror over in Afghanistan. We`re still
trying to clean up the mess and get out of Iraq. We`re worried about
Syria, of course. We`re still worried about what`s going to happen in
Libya and in Egypt.

Do we have the capacity to extend our foreign power to try to
influence events in Sudan? Do we have the power?

CLOONEY: Sure. Look, here`s the thing -- we ought to be able to do
certain things, even when a lot of other things are going on. When we know
that there is an emergency, we know that in the next couple of months, if
these people don`t get some humanitarian aid -- and remember that these are
people that are being attacked, they didn`t have a drought and suddenly
they`re poor. They`re being attacked and hiding in the hills so they can`t
grow their food.

And they`re about to have a rainy season. And when they have a rainy
system, then we`re not going to be able to get food to them and a lot of
people are going to die.

Here`s the truth. The truth of the matter, Chris, is this: it
doesn`t take a lot. We`re not talking about American lives. We`re not
talking about money, really. What we`re talking about is good old-
fashioned American diplomacy. What we`re good at when we set our mind to
it.

We have a moment in time, for the first time, we can go to China, at
an executive level, perhaps the president who`s meeting with President Hu,
that you can sit with China, and instead of appealing to their better
angels or some humanitarian cause, you can sit with China and say, listen,
you guys are -- this is costing you guys money, it`s costing us money. We
can work -- China has all the levers in the Sudan, because they have all of
the infrastructure, they have $20 billion worth of oil infrastructure in
the Sudan. So they have the levers.

So we can sit with China and say, both of us would benefit
economically for your involvement in bringing a peaceful end to all of the
problems that are going around in the Blue Nile, in Abyei, in South
Kordofan, all of -- and Darfur.

MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you so much, George Clooney, for the good work
you`re doing.

And good buddy, John Prendergast -- congratulations on your marriage.
I`m sure you`re a happier guy for it. I have to say that.

And, George Clooney, this is such a trivial matter, but I did vote
for you in SAG for the best actor. I did think it was worth it.

CLOONEY: If you want to know, I actually voted for you, because I
thought you played Chris Matthews in "Ides of March" better than anyone
possibly could have done.

MATTHEWS: It was true. A very similitude, I think we call it.

Anyway, thank you. Not like Julianne Moore did Sarah, but pretty
close.

Anyway, thank you for that. It really was. I loved the way you
played that character over in Hawaii. Anyway, thanks for joining us on a
serious matter, and we`re going to take it seriously.

Thanks so much, John Prendergast, and, of course, George Clooney, for
coming on HARDBALL.

CLOONEY: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: When we return, "Let Me Finish" with the mano-a-mano slug
fest we`ve been waiting for -- Romney versus Santorum, beginning in
Illinois.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

Ladies and gentlemen, the main battle is about to begin. We`ve been
through the preliminary bouts. We`ve met Michele and Herman and the rest
of the long shots. Now, it`s come time for the main event of the year.
The fight between the long time heavyweight contender Mitt Romney fighting
out of Belmont, Massachusetts, and Rick Santorum, the light heavyweight
from Pittsburgh.

The stakes are huge. The winner goes to Tampa as the presumed
Republican nominee. He gets to face Barack Obama in a 3 1/2-hour debate,
in fact, three of them -- three 1 1/2-hour debates.

But this fight between Santorum -- and this one between Santorum and
Romney will decide something else, the immediate future of the Republican
Party, the meaning of political conservatism in this country.

I`m looking to Illinois next Tuesday to give us the first big look at
that answer. Think of all the Catholics in Chicago who will vote
Republican. Think of those who live in Chicago and the suburbs who will go
out for Santorum in this David versus Goliath fight of guts against money.

Will they root for the little guy in the race? We`ll see. Or will
they go with the former moderate governor of Massachusetts, the guy with
his shot to grab the center in the race against Obama, and thereby knock
him off?

Well, this much we know from experience -- Romney will use his
connections and money backing to put a negative TV ad campaign around the
clock in Illinois. He will engage in the same saturation bombing he`s done
everywhere else.

Santorum will fight with what he`s got, hard-right religious beliefs
and a stick-to-itiveness that puts Romney`s talk of being the resolute
campaign to shame. Hardly anyone but Santorum thought that Rick was going
to go this far, but he has.

Count me with those left, right, and center who want a good fight
between these two. No longer distracted by others who run out of vengeance
or vanity, or simple vulgarity -- we need a clean fight with a clean
winner. And thanks to the thoughtful citizens of Alabama and Mississippi,
we`ve got one.

And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being 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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