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updated 3/20/2012 12:37:00 PM ET 2012-03-20T16:37:00

Guests: John Heilemann, Mark Halperin, Hampton Pearson, Eugene Robinson, Chris Cillizza, David Corn, Edward Markey, Jo Ann Emerson


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: A battle of lightweights in the land of Lincoln.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews out in Los Angeles. Leading off
tonight: The lightweight championship of the GOP. Can Rick Santorum really
win this thing? If so, he`ll have to start by taking tomorrow`s Illinois
primary.

Romney`s terrified of another upset loss, and he spent the day calling
Santorum an "economic lightweight." Santorum said Romney would be like
nominating Tweedledum to face Tweedledee. Well, the more these guys tear
each other down, the happier the Obama team must be.

Also, what do Romney and Santorum think the U.S. should do -- our
country should do in Afghanistan? Should we stay? Should we go? Well,
it`s hard to tell. Romney even admitted yesterday he`s not ready to take a
stand. I guess it`s easy to criticize President Obama from the cheap seats
until (ph) they come up with a coherent plan.

Plus, oil production in the U.S. is up under President Obama and
consumption`s actually down in this year. So why do Republicans blame him
for high gas prices? Because they can. And even though Republican claims
are often misleading or even dishonest, make no mistake, the Obama camp is
itself very worried about gas prices and the potential political fall-out
his November.

And it was two years ago this week that +President Obama signed his
law on health care into -- into law, putting an exclamation point on his
most consequential battle with Congress. Well, tonight, we`re going to
look at how the president fought back against Republicans in Congress who
wanted one thing above everything else, to see President Obama fail.

Finally, what can Brown do for you? Not much if you`re Rick Santorum.
I`m talking about Scott Brown, the senator from Massachusetts, and his
dirty little joke about Santorum and contraception.

We begin with the battle for Illinois. Mark Halperin and John
Heilemann are the co-authors of the great best-seller "Game Change," as
well as MSNBC political analysts.

Let`s take a look -- the latest PPP poll shows Likely political voters
in Illinois favor Romney 45 percent to Rick Santorum`s 30 percent, Newt
Gingrich and Ron Paul trail far behind, just barely in the double digits
there.

Let`s take a look right now at what Santorum said on CBS this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R-PA), FMR. SEN., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What I`m
going to do is continue to work hard to make sure that there is a
conservative who`s the nominee of this party. We cannot win this election
-- we have proven in the past, when we nominate moderates and we nominate,
you know, a Tweedledum versus Tweedledee, we don`t win elections.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s go to John Heilemann now. This has gotten to
the high school level. Maybe we`ve gotten to the end of a campaign, where
people really do get embittered and petty. But there you have one
candidate calling the other guy Tweedledum, comparing him to the president,
and then you have the other guy calling the guy a lightweight and calling
himself a heavyweight.

It does seem like a high school student council election, at this
point, John Heilemann.

JOHN HEILEMANN, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: It
does. And look, I mean, I think both these candidates -- I`ve seen them on
TV over the course of the last few days. They look tired. And they`re --
and things are starting to devolve in the way you`re talking about, Chris.

Although I think that Rick Santorum, though the name calling is a
little untoward, he is trying to make a point, which is that Tweedledum and
Tweedledee are like a matched set, right? They are twins.

And I think the point he`s trying to make is an ideological point
about Mitt Romney, which is to say, particularly on health care, that the
problem with Romney is that he is too close to the president on some issues
and that the Republican Party would do better to have a candidate where
there could be starker and clearer contrasts.

In his case, Rick Santorum believes that he would be that candidate,
more conservative than Mitt Romney and more able to draw clear, sharp
distinctions with the president on key issues, health care being one of
them, but there are several others.

MATTHEWS: Well, good point. This morning, campaigning in
Springfield, Illinois, Romney continued his "economic lightweight" theme,
attacking -- or actually tagging both the president and Rick Santorum with
that label. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I`m someone
experienced in the economy. I`m not an economic lightweight. President
Obama is. We`re not going to be successful in replacing an economic
lightweight with another economic lightweight. We`re going to have to
replace him with someone who knows how to run this economy!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Mark Halperin, again, I guess, it`s a measure of taste. It
seems like calling another guy who you consider a colleague and you`ve been
on the debate stage with for years now, it seems -- calling him a
lightweight -- I mean, I don`t know. Is this a new -- well, you`re
frowning at my theory here, but what do you think of this? Does this
surprise you, how personal that is?

MARK HALPERIN, "TIME," MSNBC SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: It really
doesn`t. They`re not that different on issue positions, and so this often
happens in campaigns. It`s -- the discussion (ph) (INAUDIBLE) Neither of
these guys is setting the world on fire. Neither of them has a coordinated
attack that I think`s breaking through on their own message from the
candidate`s mouth, paid media and other voter communication.

And as John said before, I think they`re both pretty tired. Mitt
Romney was supposed to take a little bit of time off in San Juan and
didn`t, in part to make sure he wins Illinois.

It`s been true for a while that Santorum has to knock Romney out to be
the nominee. He`s not going to beat him in delegates, I don`t think.

And so he`s trying to do that, and it`s a measure of, again, how
little he`s been able to drive a consistent message and break through --
there are no debates, he doesn`t have much TV on the air compared to Romney
-- that he`s resorting to trying to break through by using pretty
hyperbolic language and the kind of name-calling that you are correctly
identifying as unusual, but unprecedented.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I love the boxing terminology, I just admit,But the
idea of calling the other guy a lightweight and then you`re using the term
knockout. It`s interesting.

Here`s Rick Santorum, by the way, defending himself yesterday --
actually, later this morning, in Rockford, Illinois. Let`s listen to his
defense against the lightweight charge.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: I heard Governor Romney here call me an "economic
lightweight" because I wasn`t a Wall Street financier like he was. Do you
really believe this country wants to elect a Wall Street financier as the
president of the United States? You think that`s the kind of experience we
need, someone -- someone who`s going to take and look after, as he did, his
friends on Wall Street and bail them out at the expense of Main Street
America?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, maybe everybody here is getting punchy, John
Heilemann, but calling him a "financier" -- I think it`s financier -- but
anyway, the point is not -- he also said justly recently, this afternoon --
in fact, just a few minutes ago, that the unemployment really doesn`t
matter in this campaign. He`s not watching it that closely.

Well, everybody knows this campaign`s probably going to end up about
the unemployment rate. Why would he say such a thing?

HEILEMANN: Well, I think he...

MATTHEWS: Heilemann.

HEILEMANN: I mean, I think he`s trying to -- he`s trying to rebut the
charge. But it is interesting, you know, to Mark`s point, neither one of
the candidates is driving much of a positive message at this point. They
are just trying to tear each other down.

So you heard Romney in your earlier bite. You know, after Santorum
says Romney is too much like Obama on a lot of issues, I`m the real
conservative, he`s too liberal, he`s like Obama, you have Romney returning,
in a sense, to his experience message. He`s saying, Well, I know something
about the private economy, Rick Santorum is too much like Obama in that he
doesn`t understand how the real economy works.

Now you have Santorum replying to that by sort of saying -- by echoing
Democratic talking points that you`re going to hear all fall if Romney is
the nominee, saying, you know, This guy is -- he`s a 1 percent guy. He`s a
guy who`s a Wall Street guy.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HEILEMANN: And you have Mitt -- neither side is driving a positive,
coherent message for themselves. They are at the point now where all they
can do is knock each other, and one way or the other, reiterate the talking
points of the Democratic Party, or attack each other either on ideological
terms or on experience terms.

But it`s all about, This guy is worse than me, not I have a positive,
forward-leaning message that the party should rally around.

MATTHEWS: It`s "So`s your old man," at this point. As I said, just
in the last hour, campaigning in Illinois, Rick Santorum said he doesn`t
care what the unemployment rate will be. He doesn`t care what the
unemployment rate will be. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: I don`t care what the unemployment rate`s going to be.
Doesn`t matter to me. My campaign doesn`t hinge on unemployment rates and
growth rates. There`s something more foundational that`s going on here.
We have one nominee who says he wants to run the economy. What kind of
conservative says that the president runs the economy? I don`t know, but
we conservatives generally think that government doesn`t create jobs. What
government does is create an atmosphere for jobs to be created in the
private sector!

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Mark, it`s so interesting, and I wish we had somebody
translating these guys. But somewhere in this, is there a populist
argument? Is -- I mean, I was just checking the numbers (INAUDIBLE)
Republican Party, yes, if you take all the Republican Party members in this
country against all the Democratic Party members, they something of an
economic advantage, a significant one. They`re better off economically.

But they`re certainly not all in the 1 percent. Two thirds of them
are not above $100,000 a year. The Republicans are packed with people like
my parents, "cloth coat" Republicans.

Is there some kind of populist anger that Rick Santorum can still grab
and use against Romney?

HALPERIN: There`s two messages that Rick Santorum is trying to propel
himself forward with, and they`re not in contradiction, but they`re both
difficult to make, and certainly at the same time.

One is the populist argument, that Romney`s a creature of Wall Street,
that we need a president who is -- who is -- understands the real lives of
working people better than Mitt Romney does.

The other message -- and this is what he means, I believe, when he
talks about how he doesn`t care about the unemployment rate -- is a message
about morality. And Rick Santorum has sort of taken on himself, and made
himself the vessel, of all the conservative suspicion of Mitt Romney, that
he`s about balance sheets, that he`s not about flesh-and-blood
conservatism, that he`s not about trying to beat the president because the
president is immoral, when it comes from the conservative point of view, to
big government.

Those are the two messages he`s trying to drive, authentic
conservative and economic populism. And again, they`re complicated
messages. They`re both complicated to pitch within the Republican audience
that`s voting in Illinois.

And Rick Santorum and his campaign, with limited resources, and as
good as Santorum is at times, and inconsistent performance on the stump, I
don`t think he`s breaking through with either of them, although again, I
know what he means. And they both represent potential vulnerabilities for
Mitt Romney that no one has been able to break through on. Santorum`s done
the best so far. But so far, not good enough to overtake Mitt Romney.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s take the other side, John Heilemann. Are the
people who are voting perhaps tomorrow, in the majority perhaps, in the
majority tomorrow in Illinois and elsewhere for Mitt Romney -- are they
basically challenging those premises?

Are they arguing that the man is authentic as a person, his character
is authentic, that he is who he says he is? Do they believe he`s really a
conservative? In other words, do they challenge the premises of Rick
Santorum, or do they simply say, Damn it, we need a winner and this guy
looks like a better bet?

HEILEMANN: Well, I think two things, Chris. First of all, I don`t
think they challenge the premise at all. I think most of Mitt Romney`s
vote in Illinois, which is going to be mostly a northern Illinois suburb of
Chicago, the collar (ph) counties around Chicago -- that`s where those
Republicans are -- they`re basically moderate.

So number one, they`re voting -- they`re behind him because they think
he has the best chance to beat Barack Obama in the fall. That`s true.

But they also, I think, on some level -- they suspect that Romney is
not a real conservative and they approve of that. They don`t want a Rick
Santorum conservative. They themselves are not Rick Santorum
conservatives.

They think that there is a phoniness that is around Romney in terms of
his presentation as a hard-core conservative. They actually -- they sort
of say, yes, he`s a little phony, and that`s OK with us. We`re all right
with a moderate Republican who was a successful pro-business governor of
Massachusetts.

That`s the kind of Republicans that we are in the collar (ph)
counties. They like that.

MATTHEWS: But they don`t mind the deceit in his campaign.

HEILEMANN: Well, I think they -- I think they are sophisticated
enough, and there are a lot of voters like this, who look at that and say,
yes, it`s all right. He`s winking to the right, but in the end, he`s going
to come back to where I am, which is closer to the center.

MATTHEWS: Wow, it`s getting too sophisticated! Anyway, thank you,
Mark Halperin. Thank you, John Heilemann.

Coming up, we`re going to break down the misleading charge by
Republicans that President Obama is personally and politically to blame for
the fact that you`re looking at those kind of numbers at the gas pump.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Mitt Romney won all 20 of Puerto Rico`s delegates last
night with a commanding victory over Rick Santorum. The former
Massachusetts governor carried Puerto Rico with over 80 percent of the vote
there, adding to his string of victories in the island territories.

By the way, Romney`s won them all -- Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands,
American Samoa, Guam, and the Mariana Islands. He`s great offshore.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Mitt Romney has been focusing
lately on the rising gas prices and placing the blame squarely on the
shoulders of the president. This weekend, he went a step further, saying
the president has said he wanted to see higher gas prices. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: One promise he`s kept. When he campaigned, he said he wanted
to raise the price of gasoline. He said that under him, energy costs would
skyrocket.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Romney seems to be referring to comments the
president made way back in 2008, when he was still a candidate. He
actually told the editorial board of "The San Francisco Chronicle" that his
cap-and-trade policy would cause electricity rates to, quote, "skyrocket" -
- electricity rates. The president did say that.

But unlike what Romney has implied here -- or actually said -- the
president was not talking, as he claimed, about gas prices. It`s just one
of the many myths the Republican candidates engage in when talking about
gasoline prices, like the idea that the president, any president, could get
gas prices down to $2.50 right now, as Newt Gingrich has promised, or if he
could just drill more, gas prices would somehow decrease. Romney suggested
that last week.

So what is the reality when it comes to gas prices? Jo Ann Emerson a
U.S., congresswoman, Republican from Missouri, and Edward Markey is a
Democratic congressman from Massachusetts.

I want to start with Congressman Markey about this. As I understand -
- and correct me if I`m wrong -- everything we look at tells us that our
gasoline prices we pay at the pump are a result of global oil prices, that
our prices go up and down with Germany`s, France`s, Britain`s. Everything
moves up together because we`re all buying oil from the same world market.

If that`s the case, how can he drilling here at home or doing anything
here at home change the price of gas at the pump?

REP. ED MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: You`re right on the mark, Chris.
This is not about Obama, this is about OPEC. The price of oil is set by a
cartel of OPEC sheikhs who determine how much oil is available on the
global marketplace on an ongoing basis because, honestly, our consumption
has gone down 7 percent in the United States over the last year during the
Obama presidency, but the price keeps going up.

We`re at an eight-year high in oil production in the United States.
We`re at a 39-year high in natural gas production in the United States.
We`re at a 12-year low in terms of how much oil we import into the United
States.

When George Bush left office, that year, 2008, we imported 57 percent
of our oil. This year, under Obama we`re only importing 45 percent of our
oil.

So this complete misunderstanding of how the global energy markets
work -- that is, how OPEC dictates the price of oil -- is something that
Mitt Romney just doesn`t understand. And he`s holding himself out as some
kind of macroeconomic -- economic maestro, but in fact, this central fact
of life on the planet is something that he does not understand at all.

MATTHEWS: Congresswoman, I want you all -- and Congressman Markey --
look at this chart. We`ve got this chart up on the screen now. We`ve
passed it around. It`s evidence, I think, that oil is a global product and
prices are set based on factors outside the United States.

Look at the chart. The price of gas in the U.S., here at home, runs
almost exactly in sync of the prices in all those European countries,
Britain, France and Germany.

The difference is a lot less than because of lower prices -- or lower
taxes. In fact, the only reason they`re paying a lot more for gas is they
tax more, Congresswoman. See the blue line compared to the red line. It`s
moving almost like a -- you know, a heart (ph) meter or something, exactly
in sync.

How can a candidate for president say they can change the price of gas
here at home if it`s moving with the world market price?

REP. JO ANN EMERSON (R), MISSOURI: Well, I do think it is moving,
Chris, with the world market price to some extent. But I do believe truly
that if we were allowing more permits for oil drilling here, so we could
increase the supply, as opposed to the demand, that we could perhaps bring
some downward pressure on the world price.

Obviously, too, we know that events in the Middle East are impacting
negatively the price of oil so that it keeps going up.

And I will tell you that this is a real hardship for folks in my very,
very rural district. Last week when I was home -- I`ve got my receipts
with me here -- gas prices went up 35 cents from the 9th of March to the
14th of March. And that`s problematic because when you`re in a huge
agricultural district, like I am, when folks drive traditionally 30, 45
minutes to and from work every day, it starts making a big difference
whether or not they can put food on the table...

MATTHEWS: Right.

EMERSON: You know it`s tough.

MATTHEWS: I understand a challenge, and I understand the politics
completely, Congresswoman. And it`s true in every election.

Let`s take a look. We`re producing more than we have in the past.
Take a look at the numbers. In 2005, we produced 8.3 million barrels a
day. We`re up to 10 million barrels a day in 2011.

EMERSON: But, Chris...

MATTHEWS: We`re importing less and less foreign oil right now. We
down -- as Congressman Markey said, down to 45 percent. Most of what we`re
consuming here at home, we get here at home, compared to 60 percent. We
were taking away -- three-fifths was coming from abroad in 2005.

So we`re moving in the right direction.

(CROSSTALK)

EMERSON: But, Chris, what you haven`t said is that we`re only
producing here in the United States half of what we produced in the 1980s.

If you go back and look historically, we are only producing half.

MARKEY: No.

MATTHEWS: Is that right, Congressman Markey? I have got different
numbers.

(CROSSTALK)

EMERSON: Ed, we got that information from the economic -- the Energy
Institute, so I think that is correct. And everything that we have read
backs up that we were producing twice as much in the 1980s.

MARKEY: That is completely inaccurate.

We produced 10 million barrels of oil a day last year, and we imported
approximately 8.5 million barrels of oil a day.

EMERSON: Well, I`m not talking about importing. I`m talking about
what we produced in the `80s.

(CROSSTALK)

MARKEY: What I`m saying to you, we are very near right now our all-
time high for production in the United States.

If we produce twice 10 million barrels a day, that would be 20 million
barrels a day, which would be 100 percent of our consumption. And that
definitely was not true in the 1970s, `80s, `90s, or today.

(CROSSTALK)

EMERSON: As you said earlier, that we are consuming less, Ed.

So, anyway, needless to say, it is a problem and I think it`s
absolutely critical that we try to exploit more resources here in the
United States. And I think we have that opportunity.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I think it sounds intuitively correct, what you say,
Congresswoman, except that the more we learn and we look at these charts
and we look at facts, it shows we have a global price for oil and we suffer
from that fact.

If the United States went to ANWR, if it went everywhere in Texas,
went back to Pennsylvania and discovered oil in Titusville again, if we
went up to Eureka, if we did it all, all that gasoline, all that oil would
go in the world market and the Chinese and the Indians would start bidding
for it against us. We don`t lower our price. We slightly lower the world
price. Isn`t that correct, slightly by a few cents lower the world`s oil
price?

(CROSSTALK)

EMERSON: But, Chris, if, in fact, you increase supply, and if world
events aren`t impacting price, in addition to the speculators out there who
obviously are betting on the fact that there is going to be a lot of
problems in the Middle East, which means that they`re speculating up the
price, it still is to our advantage to become more energy independent, even
in the North American continent.

MATTHEWS: But that doesn`t lower the price of gas at the pump.

EMERSON: Well, it certainly does make it easier for us to pay for it
here in the United States, as opposed to anywhere else.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Congressman Markey, about Newt Gingrich.
You used to serve with Newt Gingrich when he was speaker. What does it
mean for a presidential candidate to point blank say, I can give you $2.50
a gallon gas?

MARKEY: Well, for that presidential candidate, for Newt Gingrich, I
would say that he`s breaking a record for political hyperbole that will
never be matched, because, in 1995, as soon as he took over as speaker, and
for every year thereafter, he actually added an amendment to the
transportation bill prohibiting, prohibiting the increase in the fuel
economy standards of the vehicles which we drive in the United States.

And then all of way through the 12 years the Republicans controlled
the House and the Senate, they just kept that prohibition in place. And we
put 70 percent of the gasoline which we consume into oil tanks. We have
been backwards year after year in terms of our fuel-efficiency.

What Obama has now done is increase the fuel-efficiency of the
vehicles which we are going to drive between now and 2026 up to 54.5 miles
per gallon. If you want to keep an oil sheik over in the Middle East
sleepless at night, just tell him that we`re going to double the fuel-
efficiency of the vehicles which we drive.

Who opposed it? Almost every Republican on the House floor last year
is seeking to repeal the authority of the EPA to increase fuel economy
standards. By the way, in the Ryan budget, the sacred Ryan budget, they
pretty much slashed wind and solar down to zero in their budget last year
as well. In terms of the future, the Republicans keep looking at it in a
rear-view mirror back towards the oil industry, as though that`s our
future.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Congresswoman?

EMERSON: You`re not even talking about a transition.

First of all, I think it`s unrealistic to talk about having a green --
totally green future here, particularly if we have resources available and
we can still cleanly develop those resources, much like you would like to
do.

But the fact is, is that it`s unrealistic to expect that we`re going
to have green energy totally in this country in the next five or 10 years.
And so, I mean, it`s a wonderful idea to have, but let`s be realistic and
let`s discuss what it`s going to do, what can we do to help people pay for
the cost of food, medicine and the energy and the gasoline that it costs
for them to get from home to work, and what about our producing the crops
and agriculture?

It`s very energy-intensive. We provide the safest and most abundant
food in the world for everybody in the world. And so the higher the energy
costs, the more difficult it is for our agricultural producers to give us
food that we can afford.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know, thank you, Congresswoman. You are pointing
directly at the political problem that everybody in office faces today,
rising gasoline prices.

The tricky question is in a world market situation, what can we do
about it? Thank you so much for helping us get at that...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Congressman Markey, 10 seconds, that`s all I got.

MARKEY: Ten seconds.

The Keystone pipeline coming down from Canada, my amendment on the
House floor said all that oil should stay in the United States. Almost
every Republican -- almost every Republican voted not to keep it in the
United States. If we`re going to build the Keystone pipeline, take the
environmental risk, that oil should stay here. We should send a message to
Iran as they rattle the markets. And every Republican, almost without
exception, voted against it.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK.

Congresswoman, quickly.

EMERSON: Well, we need to have the Keystone pipeline as it is, Ed.
And the fact that the president is for an all of the above approach and
then says we`re not going to have the Keystone pipeline doesn`t make sense
to me, especially in an election year.

MATTHEWS: OK.

MARKEY: What`s the point of building it if you`re not going to keep
the oil in the United States, Jo Ann? Keep the oil here. Don`t vote
against that.

(CROSSTALK)

EMERSON: I don`t really disagree with that notion.

MATTHEWS: OK. We`re in agreement.

MARKEY: Well, almost every Republicans voted against it.

MATTHEWS: We`re in agreement.

MARKEY: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: The Republicans voted the wrong way when they voted not to
put that oil back in our hands from the Keystone pipeline.

MARKEY: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson, and thank you,
Congressman Ed Markey.

Interesting development there.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Up next: Senator Scott Brown`s rather, well, little joke
about Rick Santorum, that`s next in the "Sideshow." You decide if it`s
dirty or not.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First up: Seamus strikes again, and now he`s hit the big time.

This weekend, Mitt Romney`s chief rival, Rick Santorum, was asked to
weigh in on Romney`s decision to have Seamus the dog ride out a trip, a
road trip to Canada on the roof of the car. Was he willing to cut Romney
some slack on this? Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: As far as Seamus the dog,
look, all I would say is the issues of character are important in this
election, and we need to look at all those issues and make a determination
as to whether that`s the kind of person you want to be president of the
United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Ah, the character issue. It sounds like Rick wants Seamus
to be famous.

Bet you team Obama will, too.

Next up, so much for keeping it clean. Senator Scott Brown joined in
the Saint Patrick`s Day spirit this weekend speaking at an event up in
Boston decked out for the holiday. Brown hasn`t entered the fray too much
when it comes to presidential politics, but he seriously strayed from that
rule during this speech and on the topic of contraception, no less. What
do you make of this?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SCOTT BROWN (R), MASSACHUSETTS: I see that both Newt Gingrich
and Rick Santorum now have Secret Service with them on the campaign trail.
And in Santorum`s case, I think it`s the first time he`s actually ever used
protection, so...

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, it sounds like Mr. Brown may have gotten some help on
that one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "CONAN")

CONAN O`BRIEN, HOST, "CONAN": As of tomorrow, Rick Santorum will be
assigned Secret Service agents. Did you know that? Yes, this is historic.
It`s the first time Santorum has agreed to use any kind of protection.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, that was back on February 27, as you saw the timeline
there. Perhaps Senator Brown should have left that to the late-night crowd
back in February, in fact.

Up next, what do Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum think we should do
about Afghanistan? Serious question. It`s hard to tell based on the
things they have been saying. For the Republicans running for president,
it`s easier to take cheap shots, apparently, than to come up with a real
plan about life and death, war and peace.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HAMPTON PEARSON, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Hampton Pearson with your
CNBC "Market Wrap."

The Dow gaining six points, the S&P up five and the Nasdaq adding 23
points. One of the factors boosting the Nasdaq, Apple. Shares rose nearly
3 percent after it initiated a quarterly dividend and announced a buy-back
program. UPS is going to pay $6.9 billion for its Dutch rival, TNT
Express. And a measure of homebuilder sentiment was flat in March, holding
steady at 28, its highest level since June of 2007.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If the game plan is we`re
leaving irrespective of whether we are going to succeed or not, then why
are we -- why are we still there? Let`s either commit to winning or let`s
get out.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What`s happening right now
is that there`s an example of failed leadership. The president put out a
specific timetable for withdrawal of our troops, a timetable for the end of
combat operations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The leading Republican presidential candidates have plenty of
criticisms for President Obama`s handling of the war in Afghanistan, as you
just saw, but ask them for their plan, their specific plans, and they have
got a whole lot of nothing.

In a moment, we`re going to get to some of their non-answers, but do
Republicans have a potent issue to use against the president, and with the
next troop withdrawal -- drawdown scheduled for late summer, how will our
engagement in Afghanistan affect the presidential race?

We have got Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at "The
Washington Post," and Chris Cillizza, managing editor of PostPolitics.com
and author of "The Fix" in TheWashingtonPost.com. Both are MSNBC political
analysts.

Let`s look at this. Three times, FOX News` Bret Baier tried to get a
concrete answer from Mitt Romney on Afghanistan. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS: President Obama, as you know, has publicly said
to stay the course until a withdraw at the end of 2014. Would President
Romney do anything different, and, if so, how?

ROMNEY: Well, first of all, I would exercise leadership. And, by
that, I mean I would work with President Karzai. I would speak with
President Karzai regularly.

BAIER: But would you accelerate the withdrawal?

ROMNEY: Well, the timing of withdrawal is going to be dependent upon
what you hear from the conditions on the ground. That, you understand by
speaking with commanders there.

BAIER: So are you taking a stand here while much of your party is
souring on Afghanistan?

ROMNEY: Well, before I take a stand on a particular course of action,
I want to get the input from the people who are there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: So that`s leadership. That`s what he saw -- that is what
that guy calls leadership. Pay attention to that one.

On "This Week" this weekend, Jonathan Karl tried to lock down Rick
Santorum on what he would do in Afghanistan. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THIS WEEK")

JONATHAN KARL, ABC NEWS: OK. So what does President Santorum do? Do
you commit to winning, and what does that take? Or do you say it`s time to
get out?

SANTORUM: Well, I think if you commit to winning and you change --
you change the entire dynamic in the region. You change the dynamic with
respect to the Taliban and you recognize that we are going to stay there
and we`re going to finish the job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Boy, those guys are out of gas.

This morning, Andrea Mitchell tried to get an answer from Santorum on
a withdrawal timetable. Let`s see how she did. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Would you
accelerate the withdrawal then?

SANTORUM: Again, my feeling is that we should commit ourselves to be
successful. But if the president is not going to commit himself, then I
don`t see any reason for us to continue to be there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: You know, Gene, I want to -- here`s an opportunity for you
to -- to show your brains, compared to these guys.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: They don`t know what they`re talking about.

After the horror of the last weekend, with the killing of the 16
Afghans by the man who is apparently deranged, because he`s been in there
for his fourth tour, three in Iraq and now in Afghanistan -- it seems to me
the Republicans don`t have much to say here.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what that translates
as is we have no idea. Santorum sounds as if he wants to say, no, let`s
double down on Afghanistan, let`s stay in there, let`s finish the job, as
he says.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

ROBINSON: But he doesn`t quite come out and say, you know, I want to
stay in Afghanistan because he knows that`s a terribly unpopular position.

Romney tries to have it both ways by essentially saying, I`d do it
differently from how the president is doing it, but he doesn`t say he`d do
a different thing, he would just do it differently. There is nothing
substantive there that I can hear.

MATTHEWS: You know, Chris, it`s just like the people who chickened
out about debating the Vietnam War. They wouldn`t say they`re against it
or for it. So, they`d say, well, if we`re going to get in there, we got to
win it. Well, what do you want us to do? Stay in there and so-called win
a battle, which is basically a civil war.

Here`s what the president says he wants to get done in Afghanistan:
dismantle al Qaeda -- I guess we`ve almost done that. Break Taliban`s
momentum -- well, that`s a hard thing to read. And third, train the
Afghanistan forces so they can take the lead and our troops can come home.

These are relevant discussions. The president says we can get that
done over the next two years. What are the Republicans saying they want to
do and over what timetable?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think Gene is right.
There is no plan -- certainly not one I`m aware of -- by Romney or
Santorum.

I think it is tied up, Chris, with the fact that the politics of this
-- this is true for the president as well as for Romney and Rick Santorum.
The politics are not particularly good. "The Washington Post" and ABC News
did a poll recently. More than half, the majority of people said, we
should get our troops out of there regardless of whether the Afghan troops
are ready to take over. You`ve got large numbers of people in polling
suggesting that. They don`t know what the ultimate goal is, they don`t
know if the Afghanistan war was worth fighting.

Now, President Obama is trying to walk a very fine line between what
he views as responsible policy and the political reality of this thing.
When you`re a candidate for president, you don`t have to walk as fine a
line because the truth of the matter is, Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum is
not the president of the United States right now. They can say and do
whatever they like, or in this case, not say or do whatever they like and
not have the responsibility.

MATTHEWS: You could call them irresponsible. They weren`t willing
to take responsibility for anything.

And a Gallup poll, by the way, saying -- this is good news or
interesting news, taken after the news of the U.S. serviceman alleging
killing those Afghan civilians, the 16 of them. Fifty percent say
President Obama should speed up troop withdrawal. A follow up question,
asked if the recent events in Afghanistan caused a change of opinion.
Twenty-seven percent said it made them think troop should withdraw sooner.

So, people aren`t even willing to admit, Gene, how much they want us
to get out. But it gets down to that question of winning. And if you
throw that word out, I think it does put the whole thing in perspective.
What do you think Santorum means by winning?

ROBINSON: I don`t think Santorum necessarily knows what he means by
winning. Is it to wipe out the Taliban or destroy --

MATTHEWS: Yes.

ROBINSON: -- the possibility of the Taliban? Because the fact is
that the people we call the Taliban, it`s a group of Pashtun, ethnic
Pashtun, Afghans, who live there, who are going to live there no matter
when we pull out. So this question of whether we stay, we`re going to pull
out in two years or in 10 years, guess what? They`re still going to be
there. They`re still going to be able to --

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: -- themselves as a militia if they want.

MATTHEWS: So he`s basically suggesting, although I don`t really
mean, he means to do it. In effect, the only way around getting his
achievement or victory is to get rid of the people somehow, move them out,
kill them all, fight them all and shoot them all. I mean, how do you
remove what is clearly a civil war -- potential civil war among people who
just don`t agree with each other? It`s a tribal battle.

CILLIZZA: You know, Chris, I think in some way, this is still both
politicians and the American public trying to come to terms with what
modern war, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, means.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CILLIZZA: I mean, I think you`ve hit at the heart of it. What is
winning? How do we define winning? And is there a way that we as an
American people can agree on the criteria where we can leave and say, we
did what we set out to do.

President Obama is clearly laying those things out, as you mentioned.
But I would say, look, the reason that the Republican candidates aren`t
leaning on it, they don`t have to, and they know laying them out in any --
picking any three things that say this means winning means that 55 percent
to 60 percent of the American public probably disagrees with you because
the issue is just so freighted with, as you pointed out, Vietnam and Iraq,
and all of that.

MATTHEWS: And this is between the hard hats and the long hairs and
all that stuff going on Vietnam. Gene and I remember, it is the cultural
difference of the solemn majority. Nobody is happy with this war.

Anyway, thank you, Chris Cillizza. And thank you, Eugene Robinson,
as always. Great reporting.

Up next, it was two years ago this week that President Obama signed a
big health care reform law into law. Well, tonight, how the president
fought back against Republicans in Congress whose number one goal from day
one, from the day he got elected was to get rid of this guy as president.

Let`s get a shout-out, by the way, to my friend Michael Smerconish.
He premiers tomorrow night his new book club at local movie theatres
tomorrow around the country. And in turn, he features my interview with
him -- actually, his interview with me about my book, "Jack Kennedy:
Elusive Hero."

We`re now in theaters in your neighborhood. Check it out. Michael
Smerconish`s book club.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Republicans across the country have proposed legislation
restricting access to abortion and birth control. And now in Tennessee, a
new bill in the state`s House of Representatives would require the state to
public the name of every doctor who performs an abortion and detailed
statistics about the women who have them.

Supporters say the bill would allow people on both sides of the
debate to see how prevalent abortion is in the state. Critics say it`s a
dangerous bill that can put doctors at risk and be used to identify women
who have abortions. I don`t think it`s a good idea.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

This week marks the two-year anniversary of President Obama signing
into law the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. The health care fight was the
president`s biggest with Republicans in Congress who have opposed him at
every turn and have said from the start their aim is to make him one term
president. We all know that.

But MSNBC political analyst David Corn is author of a brand new book,
"Showdown," which chronicles Mr. Obama`s battles with the Republican
Congress now dominated by the Tea Party.

So, you`re carrying basically the burden of explaining to us how the
president reacted to the horror that beset him when those 200 Tea Party
types showed up in Congress to disrupt any chance he had of progressing
forward.

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, the book picks up really
with the midterm elections, which he called a shellacking, in 2010, and
shows what he did in the lame duck session, and even more importantly, the
strategy he adopted with the help of his aides in 2011, all last year, to
try to get back the moral high ground, fighting against Boehner, Cantor and
the Tea Party.

So, there`s a lot of inside the White House strategizing and
meetings, as they kind of went through the battle of the budgets and the
debt ceiling fight, and, finally, that final pivot that you and I talked
about towards the more populist and confrontational approach against the
Republicans that started with the jobs bill last September.

MATTHEWS: You know, I`m all for that, by the way. Personally, I
think that`s a great approach. I think this campaign is going to be a lot
about the 1 percent.

Let`s take a look at how he might adapt and follow through with what
you reported. Let`s look at this new ABC/"Washington Post" poll right now
about the health care law that faces the Supreme Court. It`s just out
today, this poll. It`s very informative and a bit scary for the
president`s side.

Forty-two percent of the people would like to see the Supreme Court
throw out the health care law entirely. That`s two out of five. Another
quarter would like the mandate to be thrown out. That`s, of course, the
individual mandate that requires us to participate. And another quarter
would like to see the law upheld by the court.

CORN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Now, that`s bad news for the president, isn`t it? But
what does it do? Maybe it flips. Maybe the Supreme Court, which is a
Republican court, certainly the court that put George Bush into the White
House, W, if they look like they`re partisan here, throw out the big thing
he did, will this be like Roosevelt back in the `30s when people would say,
damn it, these guys are screwing up what we elected?

CORN: Well, you know, no one knows how the court is going to will
handle this, because there are a lot of conflicting issues between judicial
activists and judicial restraint, sticking with precedent on the Commerce
Clause.

But the interesting thing which I found in talking to people involved
for the Obama campaign for the book is that they really believe that they
can win a head-to-head fight when it comes to presenting the benefits of
the health care law.

MATTHEWS: Right.

CORN: Do you -- you know, do you want Mitt Romney, if you`re the
nominee, to take away free vasectomies and colonoscopies from Americans?
Do you want to take kids off of the insurance plans of their parents? Do
you want to go back to letting companies throw you out for pre-existing
conditions?

They`re willing to have this fight. They realized -- they realized
and they talked to me, they told me this time and time again when I was
doing interviews for this book that they realized they had screwed up on
the messaging about health care. That they were so involved in the process
--

MATTHEWS: I agree. Well, can they win the messaging if -- well, it
won`t matter if the court throws it out, right? They have to win the
battle in the court first.

CORN: Well, yes and no. The court can do a lot of things. This
just focuses on the individual mandate. There`s a lot of parts to the law
beyond that, and the court can come up with a lot of types of split
decisions that can will make it kind of muddy, murky outcome --

MATTHEWS: I agree.

CORN: -- with plenty of argument between Obama and his showdown
against Mitt Romney.

MATTHEWS: OK. We`re going to keep talking about your book in the
weeks ahead, best of luck. You`re one of our great partners on this show,
David Corn. And one of my pals, I can tell you. "Showdown" by David Corn,
great inside look at politics and how it`s fighting it`s way into this
election.

"Let Me Finish" tonight with the Republican death march when I get
back. The death march we`re watching in this campaign.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

I have never witnessed a more desultory campaign for president than
the death march now proceeding in the Republican Party. It`s become
downright spectral. Why are the Republicans moving toward the nomination
of someone who elicits emotions ranging from zero to the nerve center
usually requiring serious anger management?

Let`s put on the table. The only people excited about Mitt Romney
being the Republican nominee for president are those ticked off at the very
prospect.

Let`s go further. Do those who are banking the Romney campaign
really want him in the White House, with even a shred of the motive they
possess for getting Barack Obama out of it?

Of course not. The one shared observation of those watching this
campaign with any degree of interest is that it runs against, not with, the
national inclination. Americans even want to take another bet on Obama or
they deeply wish the opposite.

Where is Romney in all of this? Because if he truly does have a
series of historic problem with the president, it`s hard to see where.

He created the model for the Obama health care plan. He is a fiscal
moderate and a social moderate as well. When he was in office up in
Boston, the only time he was ever in office, he was an old-style New
England moderate.

So, clearly, within the 40-yard line, you could hardly call him a man
of the right. He was barely even a man at the center right. Now, he is
clawing his way to prove something that is manifestly not true, and
everyone on the planet can see it.

What stands in his way? It`s not clear. Rick Santorum is running a
gutsy campaign based on the fact that he is not Mitt Romney, as is Newt
Gingrich. These two fellows seem to be offering themselves less as
Romney`s rivals than his pallbearers. They want him out of contention.

But whom do they offer as alternatives? It`s not so clear.

Rick Santorum now speaks to the dire need for Republicans to simply
run a conservative. Him? Well, maybe.

Newt Gingrich can`t be seriously offering himself for anything, not
as the actual candidate, anyway. He is not, after all, insane.

So the death march continues through Illinois and on to the rest of
the country, increasingly sure of only one thing -- it doesn`t want what
the Republicans are offering. Perhaps history will tell us why.

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

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.

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

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