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updated 3/21/2012 1:55:34 PM ET 2012-03-21T17:55:34

Guests: Chuck Todd, John Heilemann, Eugene Robinson, Hampton Pearson, Howard Fineman, Michael Steele; Emanuel Cleaver, Arlen Specter, Pat Brady, John Brabender, Nia-Malika Henderson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: The financier and the lightweight.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews down in Washington. Leading off
tonight: Is the 28th time the charm for Romney? There have been 27
primaries and caucuses so far in this Republican race, and that`s not
including the territories. And every time it looked as if the loss could
spell the end of Mitt Romney`s front-runner status, he`s pulled off a win.
And every time Romney`s had a chance to put the race away, he`s whiffed.

Tonight in Illinois, all the advantages are Romney`s. It`s a vintage
(ph) home of suburban moderate Republicans. Romney`s people have outspent
Santorum an unbelievable 7 to 1.

The polls close at 8:00 Eastern tonight. MSNBC is providing full
coverage of the Illinois primary here on HARDBALL, "THE ED SHOW," "THE
RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" and "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."

The other story we`re watching tonight is the case of Trayvon Martin,
the African-American teenager who was shot to death by a man on a
neighborhood watch. The Justice Department Civil Rights Division and the
FBI are now on the case.

But we begin with tonight`s Illinois primary. Chuck Todd`s NBC`s
political director and chief White House correspondent, and John Heilemann
is national affairs editor for "New York" magazine and an MSNBC political
analyst, as well.

I want to start with Chuck, our expert in house. We`ll go to the
other expert, out-house. Tell this the story here. Is this going to be
the end of it, money against true believer, if you will? I`m sure we can
match it up a number of ways, the guy with all the money without the
authenticity with the guy with all the authenticity without the money?

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIR./WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I
think -- if it were that black and white, I think then we would have more -
- there would be more of a definitive opportunity for Santorum. I think
Santorum`s -- but we can debate that in a minute.

The bottom line tonight is nothing`s going to change after tonight.
You know, Romney needs an exclamation point somewhere. He didn`t get it in
-- tonight could have been big for him had he won Mississippi. Had he won
Mississippi last week, tonight would have been the exclamation point, and
then you would have seen -- you would see people come out and say, It`s
time to basically bring this airplane in for the landing, bring in the
Romney nomination for a landing.

That`s not going to happen tonight. Instead I think a win tonight --
and I think Romney -- anything -- 8, 10, 12 points, a big win like that,
then Wisconsin April 3rd, is the moment of truth for Santorum, do or die
there. If he dies there, then that`s the moment where Romney gets to bring
it in for the landing.

I had Charlie Black on this morning. He said, Talk to me again after
-- he`s a Romney guy. And he said, After April 3rd, then it is appropriate
to start asking Rick Santorum, What`s your viability?

MATTHEWS: Let me go to Heilemann, your view on this thing. It seems
to me that Romney can`t land the plane with all the money he`s got. He`s
got the looks. He`s got the background. It`s his turn. The usual
Republican rule, you wait your turn. It`s his turn. Something`s not
there. When`s it going to be there?

JOHN HEILEMANN, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well,
Chris, I`m not sure it`s ever going to be there in the sense that -- it`s
very clear -- and again, we`ve been saying this now for so long, but I
guess it bears repetition. This is a guy who does not have a deep or
meaningful or visceral connection to the Republican base.

It has been the case throughout his entire front-runnerhood that he`s
not been able to motivate the people who now make up the Republican Party -
- in the Republican electorate. And they have not -- they are not in love
with Rick Santorum, either. They really weren`t really in love with Newt
Gingrich. They have -- they`ve tried on every possible suit of clothes and
none of them have really fit.

Eventually, Romney seems, because of his resources, because of the way
the calendar now lays out, not just with Illinois but heading into April --
he`s got a lot of races that he should be able to put Santorum away -- it`s
going to be hard for Santorum.

As Chuck said, if he doesn`t pull off a big surprise in Wisconsin, he
won`t win anything in (ph) Wisconsin besides Pennsylvania, which is his
home state. I don`t know how he survives going straight through all the
way that month without winning anything.

You know, he`s winning a war of attrition. That`s what he`s doing.
But he`s not winning the hearts and minds of the Republican electorate.

TODD: You know, Chris, here`s the deal. The Republican Party is
going through a transformation. They`re looking for a transformational
leader. The problem they have is Mitt Romney is a transitional leader, and
he`s a transitional figure inside this Republican Party where it is today.

He is not there to transform the party. He`s not even promising
transformation of the Republican Party. He`s not trying to bring it back
to the days of where he and his father would have been more comfortable
inside the old Republican Party. If he were, then you could say he was
trying to be transformational.

Rick Santorum is at least -- he`s the one trying to be -- make the
case that he`s the transformational leader that a party that wants to
transform itself needs. And that`s Mitt Romney`s, I think, struggle.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me get to the heart of this thing. I think --
"The Wall Street Journal" op-ed page today, one of the writers there, wrote
this -- McGurn (ph). "If Mr. Romney could speak about `Obama care" the way
Mr. Santorum does, not simply as a policy disagreement but as a threat to
our freedom, he`d be locking up the nomination." Is it that? If he could
talk like Reagan...

TODD: He uses that language. John, correct me if I`m wrong.
Actually, I`ve noticed Romney tries to use this language...

MATTHEWS: Tries to talk like Reagan.

TODD: He tries to say this is a -- this is -- this election is about
freedom. He tried this the other day, this speech at the University of
Chicago, Freedom is on the ballot. He has tried this.

It`s just not in him. I think you can do all the language crafting in
the world, this is not who he is. It`s not -- he is a -- he is a fix-it
guy. There`s nothing wrong with that. That`s who he is.

MATTHEWS: Right, John, we`ll finish up quick, then I want to get to
the ads and all the elements here tonight. Is that the way you see it,
he`s a fix-it guy, he`s not a deep ideologue, he isn`t a man of heart and
gut, he`s a man of the mind who will fix things and meet problems as they
occur, but don`t ask him for a big philosophical reason to exist.

HEILEMANN: His presidency would be an in-box, out-box presidency, I
think. And I don`t even mean to demean that. He`s a pragmatic guy and
he`s a problem-solver. He`s not -- he does say the words, as Chuck said,
but there`s no poetry in him. He`s a guy who campaigns in prose and will
govern in prose.

MATTHEWS: Wow, an excitement to look for there. Anyway, the Romney
campaign and super-PAC have outspent the Santorum force, as I said, 7 to 1
just in Illinois.

Here`s an example of the advertising campaign they`ve been putting on,
a Romney campaign ad launched Friday in Illinois. It goes after Rick
Santorum using the tag -- and this is pretty ad hominem -- "economic
lightweight," something he`s repeated on the trail.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who can turn around the economy and defeat Barack
Obama? Not Rick Santorum. Santorum`s real weakness is the economy. He`s
never run a business or a state. His plan? Economic illiteracy.
Inexcusable. The worst idea of any GOP candidate. Rick Santorum, another
Economic lightweight.

Mitt Romney ready to lead the nation to a new era with the boldest GOP
agenda since Reagan.

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I`m Mitt
Romney, and I approved this message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: You know, it just sounds like street corner talk. After
all the money they put into this, paying millions of dollars -- how much,
$100 million so far in advertising -- and they`re talking like two guys --
Hey, you frickin` lightweight. Lightweight. You know, the kind of way
they talk now, this is the way kids talk to each other when they`re really
mad at each other in school -- You lightweight.

Is this how far we`ve gotten in civility, they call each other this
stuff?

HEILEMANN: Well, yes...

MATTHEWS: John Heilemann.

HEILEMANN: Chris, yes, I think so. And you know, we discussed this
on the program yesterday. They are now at the point in the campaign where
neither one of them has a very powerful, positive message, and they`ve
resorted to tearing each other down.

I will note that in long primary fights, this often happens. It`s not
just these guys and...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HEILEMANN: ... it`s not just the Republican Party. Remember, Hillary
Clinton, "Shame on you, Barack Obama." That was her version of the same
kind of street corner talk, and it took place at roughly the same place in
the campaign.

When you`re tired, you get mean and petty, and that`s where these guys
are.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look at Rick Santorum. He drew criticism last
night for saying he doesn`t care what the unemployment rate will be. You
know what he`s talking about. It`s about bigger stuff than that. But he
got trouble with this. He got trouble. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R-PA), FMR. SEN., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need a
candidate who`s going to be a fighter for freedom, who`s going to get up
and make that the central theme in this race because it is the central
theme in this race. I don`t care what the unemployment right`s going to
be. It doesn`t matter to me. My campaign doesn`t hinge on employment
rates and growth rates. There`s something more foundational that`s going
on here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, that was the tit, here`s the tat. Romney was quick
to jump on the line. Within a couple of hours, he was out there talking it
on the stump. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: One of the people who`s running also for the Republican
nomination today said that he doesn`t care about the unemployment rate,
that doesn`t bother him. I do care about the unemployment rate. It does
bother me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: One of the other people...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: One of the other people?

TODD: Just come up. Just say, Hey, look, I heard Santorum say this.

MATTHEWS: Can`t he talk?

TODD: Right. Exactly. Don`t -- they`re trying to -- he`s trying to
pretend that he`s not punching down, and I get it. That was so January.

(LAUGHTER)

TODD: This is March. You know what I mean?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Late last night on FOX, Santorum tried to clarify what he
meant. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: What I said was that the unemployment rate -- it didn`t
matter what it was between now and election time because the fund issue
that`s causing the unemployment, that`s causing the economic distress in
our country, is the fact that the government is imposing its will and
mandating things on people and creating a yoke on top of businesses that
makes it hard to employ.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: OK, the difference -- for the average person who just came
here from the moon...

TODD: Yes.

MATTHEWS: ... what`s the difference between Santorum and Romney?

TODD: Philosophical and tactics. I mean, that`s what you saw right
there, where he -- what Santorum is trying to say is, Look, this isn`t
about -- the unemployment rate is high and I`m the best guy to run in this
environment at this moment in time. And Santorum saying, Whoa, whoa, whoa,
whoa. We`re a Republican Party that`s got a philosophy, an ideology.
We`re trying to bring conservatism -- let`s think from 60,000 feet. Let`s
not just have a tactical conversation about who`s best equipped to run
against Barack Obama if the unemployment rate is above 8 percent.

MATTHEWS: So this is about religion, not whether to stop at stop
signs.

TODD: I think it`s about...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK, thank you, guys. Well, we`ll see tonight what he said,
about 8 points tonight for Romney?

TODD: I think 8 to 10. I mean, I don`t want to -- but that`s my gut.

MATTHEWS: I`ve seen your head shaking up and down.

HEILEMANN: I never disagree with Chuck Todd.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Oh, you`re laying it all on him. I hear from smart guys
around here...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: All I know is third -- be careful of whatever the exit poll
data that`s going around...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I haven`t heard it.

TODD: Neither have I, and don`t...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK, and I`m going by what I`ve hearing for days now about
8. But you know, I always root for the underdog in this business, even
when people can`t stand them, I root for the underdog.

Anyway, Illinois closes tonight 8:00 o`clock Eastern time. That means
7:00 o`clock out there in Chicago. At 8:00 o`clock Eastern, we`re going to
maybe have results here. Maybe, maybe, maybe. We`re certainly going to
have analysis throughout the night beginning at 8:00.

Coming up: The horrific case of Trayvon -- well, Trayvon Martin. It`s
a horrific case. He was the unarmed African-American teenager we`ve been
hearing all about. He was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain
who says he acted in self-defense.

This is murky as hell. The Justice Department and the FBI have
launched investigations, and now a grand jury is looking into it, as well.
It`s no longer a local matter.

You`re watching HARDBALL, on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, good news for President Obama in nearby Virginia, a
key battleground state. Let`s check the HARDBALL "Scoreboard."

According to a new Quinnipiac poll, President Obama does now lead Mitt
Romney in Virginia by 8 points, 50 to 42. That`s significant. And against
Rick Santorum, the president`s lead stretches to 9, 49-40. Obama turned
Virginia from red to blue last time around, hopes to keep it in his column
this time. This could have a big impact on who the VP is on the Republican
side.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Well, the fatal shooting of an
unarmed black teenager in Sanford, Florida, has now attracted the attention
of the U.S. Justice Department and a local grand jury.

On February 26th, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was returning home from a
convenience store when he was noticed by a neighborhood watch volunteer
named George Zimmerman.

Here`s part of the 911 call Zimmerman placed.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN, NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH: Hey, we`ve had some break-ins
in my neighborhood, and there`s a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like
he`s up to no good, or he`s on drugs or something. It`s raining, and he`s
just walking around, looking about.

911 OPERATOR: OK. And this guy, is he white, black or Hispanic?

ZIMMERMAN: He looks black. He`s got his hand in his waistband. And
he`s a black male. Something`s wrong with him. Yes, he`s coming to check
me out. He`s got something in his hands. I don`t know what his deal is.

911 OPERATOR: Yes, we`ve got them on the way. Just let me know if
this guy does anything else.

ZIMMERMAN: OK. (EXPLETIVE DELETED) They always get away.

911 OPERATOR: Are you following him?

ZIMMERMAN: Yes.

911 OPERATOR: OK, we don`t need you to do that.

ZIMMERMAN: OK.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Zimmerman followed Trayvon and an argument soon
erupted, apparently. Several other 911 callers by neighborhoods (ph)
picked up some things which captured screams and the fatal gunshot sound.
You can hear it now.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

911 OPERATOR: 911. Do you need police, fire or medical?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Maybe both. I`m not sure. There`s just someone
screaming outside.

911 OPERATOR: Is it a male or female?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It sounds like a male.

911 OPERATOR: And you don`t know why?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don`t know why. I think they`re yelling help,
but I don`t know.

911 OPERATOR: So you think he`s yelling help?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

911 OPERATOR: All right, what is your (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There`s gunshots.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, as days and then weeks passed without charges being
filed, almost 500,000 people signed an on-line petition in protest. And
late last night, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the
case of the neighborhood watch volunteer.

Did he feel threatened, as Zimmerman claimed, or was it a case of
vigilante justice against an innocent young man?

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri is chairman of the
Congressional Black Caucus and Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning
columnist for "The Washington Post," as well as an MSNBC political analyst.

Congressman Cleaver, I don`t know what to say here except to ask you,
how did you get involved in this case? What do you think we`re looking at
here?

REP. EMANUEL CLEAVER (D-MO), CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS CHAIRMAN:
Well, a group of law students from colleges and universities all over
Florida went down to Jacksonville after the incident to offer assistance.
One of the young women, who is in law school, was a parishioner in the
congregation I pastored in Kansas City, and so the family asked her if she
would call me to get the Congressional Black Caucus involved. We then made
an immediate request for a Justice Department investigation.

And you know, it`s one of the great tragedies. I think every African-
American man with children can understand this, particularly male kids. I
mean, this kid was killed essentially because he was armed with Skittles.

And it`s just one of those sad moments that causes all of us, I think,
to realize that we still have some major problems in this country.
Suspicion is so easily received if it`s based on skin color.

MATTHEWS: Yes, but this wasn`t an officer of law involved. And I
think I want to ask you about a couple elements. You`ve been looking at
the case. So what is your main concern now for bad behavior, in fact,
perhaps serious criminal behavior on the part of Mr. Zimmerman and the
police down there?

Was it the fact that a non-police officer, a civilian in a
neighborhood watch organization, was armed? Was it your concern that he
followed what he thought was a suspicious person and perhaps confronted the
person, or was it that he used lethal force in some kind of confrontation
of some kind, or he simply executed the person?

What is your sense of what happened here? And what do you think was
done wrong here point by point?

CLEAVER: Everything. First of all, once the police department told
the gentleman, through the dispatcher, We don`t need you to do that, we
don`t need you to get involved in this, that`s the point that the average
citizen, the average man or woman of good will, would stop.

The kid is screaming for help. We hear the gunshots. I even hate to
hear it anymore. And then maybe the worst thing that I heard the man say
was, "They always get away with it."

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CLEAVER: And so I`m thinking, you know, he`s determined now not to
let this kid get away. I mean, I think that was the point that he was --
had made the decision of what he was going to do. And I think the Justice
Department is going to find out what happened and what the sheriff did
wrong.

Let me tell you one other thing, Chris, very quickly.

MATTHEWS: Sure.

CLEAVER: I was mayor of Kansas City for eight years. We have not had
an incident like this in Kansas City, Missouri, in a couple of decades.
One of the reasons is we`ve had good police chiefs. But the other -- if a
police officer shoots a civilian, a person -- even if it`s justifiable, if
it`s a justifiable shooting, the police officer is immediately suspended
with pay.

This man was able to shoot and kill a kid and then walk away with his
gun.

MATTHEWS: I know. I know, sir. I used to -- I even watch police
stories I see and (INAUDIBLE) northern cases, like Philadelphia, New York,
administrative leave is the normal MO in these case -- a police officer
using his -- his professional discretion.

Gene, we have got something down there. As you know, in 10 or 12 states
now, we have got -- actually 16 states now, we have something called a
stand your ground law, which means that if you`re in a confrontation with
somebody else, regardless of the circumstances, and you feel threatened,
you don`t have to try to get out of it, talk your way out of it, run away,
do anything. You can pull your gun and kill the guy. And that`s the
defense.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

And I think that`s one of the main things that turned this from an
ordinary racially charged, I would say racist encounter between this guy
and Trayvon Martin into a tragedy was the fact that he could, with
basically impunity, at least thus far, shoot the guy if he could credibly
say, I felt threatened.

And he can credibly say that because, apparently, at least according
to local authorities, there were not witnesses. Well, now we do know that
there were people who might have heard something that was going on, and we
will see what the investigation comes up with.

MATTHEWS: Well, yesterday -- let me go with -- we have to get all
this in here.

Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin`s mother, spoke with Matt Lauer and
described what she believed motivated Zimmerman`s attack. Now, this is
what she believes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, "THE TODAY SHOW": What do you think he was
reacting to?

SABRINA FULTON, MOTHER OF VICTIM: He was reacting to the color of his
skin. He committed no crime. My son wasn`t doing anything but walking on
the sidewalk.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: You know, go back to this, Congressman. When you
investigate this, is this a -- do you think there is abuse done by the
local police authorities in not pursuing this case aggressively or what?
Where do think the federal role here fits?

CLEAVER: Well, first of all, I need to say this because we don`t say
this enough. The things that should have happened a few weeks ago are
happening now. And I`m thankful for that.

The Justice Department responded. They are down there. We have
people on the ground from the Human Relations Division of the Justice
Department trying to make sure that we don`t have an explosion of emotions
in Sanford.

And, Chris, about two hours ago, I stood beside the white Republican
mayor of Sanford, Florida, who, along with myself and Corrine Brown, the
congresswoman from the area, spoke at a press conference about the need for
the Justice Department to come in and conduct an investigation, not only of
the shooting, but of the police department.

And, so, the things that we -- 25 or 30 years ago, if this had
happened, we would only have had black people out trying to get justice.
But now I think people of goodwill from all walks of life are saying
something unjust happened.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Another element here, the 16-year-old girlfriend of Trayvon
Martin -- this is the guy who was killed -- was on the phone with him
during the incident and she described what she heard in an interview on
"Good Morning America" earlier today. Let`s listen to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said this man was watching him, so he put his
hoodie on.

Trayvon said, what are you following me for? Then the man said, what
you doing around here? Somebody pushed Trayvon because the headset just
fell.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, there is more evidence -- if it`s -- this is all
being brought into the case. It all has to be determined in court what
happened. It`s so complicated.

But there`s evidence at least or testimony that there was kind of
shoving or some kind of altercation going on there at the time. And I
think everybody is fairly trying to figure out if race is involved because
of the way he is talking, but also, this is a guy trying to act like a
police officer.

ROBINSON: Yes, obviously -- or apparently. This should have been
investigated. This should have been investigated then and there, and maybe
we would have had a somewhat different outcome. But, again, you have got
this legal setup.

Anybody can get a gun.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Gene, you have raised the question. As a good journalist,
you have given -- a good journalist -- I hope, a question for Mr. Cleaver.

Mr. Cleaver, do you think there is fundamentally something wrong with
the stand your ground law? Does it create an impetus for gunfire?

CLEAVER: Well, I think when you have a gun on you, it gives you a
sense of strength and power that you would not feel otherwise, and I think
that people, being human beings, will tend to use guns when normally they
would have walked away.

And I think the stand your ground law is absolutely asinine, that you
can declare a confrontation almost with anybody and shoot them down. And
if they`re the only witness, you walk away. I think something has got to
be done.

Liberals might get angry with me on my moderate position with guns,
but on this law, and the way guns are used, I think that there`s no excuse
for what happened. And that law needs to be changed quickly.

ROBINSON: If you have both, you have a problem, if you have both
readily available guns and a law that essentially takes away accountability
for a shooting. If nobody saw it, there`s no accountability.

MATTHEWS: And you have a neighborhood watch situation where a guy
thinks he should bring a gun when he goes out on watch.

ROBINSON: You are asking for trouble.

MATTHEWS: I know. It`s just toxic.

Anyway, thank you.

U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, thank you so much for coming on the
program today.

And thank you, as always, Eugene Robinson.

And a programming note: The parents of Trayvon Martin will be on "The
Today Show" tomorrow morning.

Coming up, much more on the Republican race in Illinois tonight.
Polls close, as I said, in Illinois at 8:00 Eastern. That`s right here.
We are going to be reporting on that.

You`re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: So what does the strength of Rick Santorum`s candidacy say
about the state of the Republican Party? What has become of the moderate
wing of the GOP?

Arlen Specter was a member of that wing for many years before
switching parties in 2009. He served alongside Rick Santorum as a fellow
senator from Pennsylvania for 12 years.

Senator Specter, welcome to HARDBALL.

FORMER SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Nice to be here.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Someday, we could have been debating, but here we are
discussing civilly.

Let me ask you this. You were a classic moderate Republican, the kind
I grew up with, Hugh Scott, John Heinz, all over the place, Jack Javits,
Keating, all over New England. They`re all gone practically. Olympia
Snowe just quit. Orrin Hatch is even being threatened as a liberal, as a
moderate. Your party has become a right-wing party.

SPECTER: No doubt about it. The moderates have been exiled.

You have somebody with a 93 percent conservative rating like Bob
Bennett, he is not pure enough. Mike Castle loses to a woman who has to
declare herself to be a witch. And when Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins
voted against disclosure of these corporate and union expenditures, there`s
no moderate left on the Republican side of the United States Senate.

MATTHEWS: And so the party of Lincoln has become the party of Strom
Thurmond, hasn`t it? Is that too rough?

SPECTER: Well, it won`t become the party of Rick Santorum, however.
It`s gone very far to the right, but I don`t think it will go so far as to
make Rick Santorum the nominee.

MATTHEWS: Well, here`s a little dispute, a little kerfuffle between
yourself -- here was -- Rick Santorum was asked about his endorsement of
you in your presidential race back in `96. I remember when you ran.
Here`s what he says now. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Why did you support Arlen Specter for president?

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, you know, when your
colleague is running for office, and I was his colleague in the United
States Senate -- he asked me to stand with him. That certainly wasn`t one
of my prouder moments I look back on.

But, look, you know, you work together as a team for the state of
Pennsylvania. And, you know, I felt that Senator Specter had stood up and
supported me when I was running in 1994, and I did likewise.

I certainly knew that Arlen Specter was going nowhere. I certainly
disagreed with a lot of the things that he said, and it was something I
look back on and wish I hadn`t done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome to the Star Chamber. And now we have inquisitions
in the Republican Party. You have to recant like in a medieval church.
You have to say, I did not believe that. That wasn`t my proud moment.
That wasn`t me.

And that`s all these guys do now. Anything that sounds moderate or
reasonable -- you know, Charlie Crist hugged the president and lost his
seat, he lost the Senate race, because he contacted the president
physically once down in Florida. This is what`s going on in your party.

SPECTER: Well...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: It is.

SPECTER: It hasn`t gone so far as to make Rick Santorum the
Republican nominee.

When Rick takes positions that women don`t belong in the workplace,
when he takes positions that the gay issue is bestiality, man on dog, and
the contraception ought not to be followed, he is so far out of the
mainstream that I think even the Republican Party won`t take him.

MATTHEWS: Do you think there is going to be a whip-back, a pushback
on the far right?

SPECTER: Well...

MATTHEWS: Because the Tea Party seems to be calling the shots in
Congress, and Boehner doesn`t seem to be able to control them, and Cantor.
Those guys are at the top, but they`re not running the show. Guys like
Mitch McConnell stay on the top by playing to that crowd.

SPECTER: Well, you can go to the right, far right, but you can`t be
far out. And when...

MATTHEWS: Look, Senator, you`re trying to have it -- look, you`re
trying to have it both -- these clowns don`t believe in revenue. They
don`t believe in government taxation. They think there is something evil
about taxing people. They don`t believe in government.

How can you believe in government and not taxes?

SPECTER: Well, I`m not going to dispute with you, but their policies
are wrong.

When I supported the stimulus package, there were irreconcilable
differences between the Republican Party and me. And it is true that they
have driven Olympia Snowe out. And Susan Collins is very afraid of a
primary when she comes up.

MATTHEWS: Up in Maine, yes.

SPECTER: So that, in the presidential race, the potential nominees
have gone to the extreme right. And that`s not going to be satisfactory
with the American people. Listen, when the people of Pennsylvania found
out about Rick Santorum, he lost in his reelection effort 59-41.

MATTHEWS: Well, I will say it now. You as a moderate Republican fit
Pennsylvania like a glove for 30 years. There is such a thing as a state
that likes having moderate Republicans like you and Tom Ridge and Jack
Heinz and Hugh Scott. And the Northeast should represented by moderate
Republicans.

SPECTER: Yes, but the moderates left the Republican Party. When the
Clinton-Obama race came up in 2008, 200,000 moderate Republicans left.

MATTHEWS: You`re making my case, Senator.

SPECTER: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Thank you for coming on HARDBALL and agreeing with me.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Any time you want to come on here, Senator Specter, and
agree with me -- we`re going to talk about that book. There it is, "Life
Among the Cannibals."

And who are the cannibals?

SPECTER: The cannibals are the Tea Party, which has devoured Susan
Collins, Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter, Mike Castle, and Bob Bennett.

MATTHEWS: You`re part of the lean forward movement here.

Anyway, up next, can Rick Santorum pull off an upset tonight in
Illinois? We will talk to supporters of both the Romney and Santorum
campaign.s

This is HARDBALL`s coverage of the Illinois primary today, only on
MSNBC.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

The Dow falls 69, the S&P loses four, and the Nasdaq also shedding
four points. Worries about an economic slowdown in China weighed on
stocks, with mining and raw materials companies among the biggest losers
today. Housing starts slid 1.1 percent in February, while building permits
surged more than 5 percent. And after the closing bell, Oracle said it
earned 62 cents a share in the third quarter, beating analyst estimates.

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

MATTHEWS: Big political story tonight. Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Polls in Illinois will be closed at 8:00 Eastern and the contest
between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum is getting more and more heated.
Romney called Santorum an economic lightweight, while Santorum said Romney
was a Wall Street financier. Both have a lot at stake tonight in Illinois.

But the candidates are running very different campaigns. As Politico
put it -- quote -- "Listening to Santorum and Romney speak, it is as if
they`re speaking -- or seeking entirely different offices."

"The Chicago Tribune" today wrote that Romney is attempting to woo the
fiscal conservative wing of the Republican Party, while Santorum is going
after the social conservatives.

Who will win out?

Pat Brady is the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. And he
supports Mitt Romney. John Brabender is a strategist for Rick Santorum.

Gentlemen, let`s take a look at these elements. The candidates
exchanged attacks yesterday. Here was Mitt Romney hitting Rick Santorum as
an economic lightweight. That`s big-time thinking. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), 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 are going to have to replace them with
someone who knows how to run the economy.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Santorum came back with this, using a class-based
technique.

Let`s watch.

(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? Do you think that`s the
kind of experience we need, someone -- someone who is 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, is that true? You`re working for a financier, Mr.
Brady, a financier running for president of the United States? A Wall
Street financier, is that who your guy is?

PAT BRADY, CHAIRMAN, ILLINOIS REPUBLICAN PARTY: I`m not even sure --
I don`t know what financier means. But I don`t like that argument. It
doesn`t appeal to the voters in Illinois.

MATTHEWS: Well, as an equity -- as an equity, as a turnaround guy.

BRADY: Yes, I understand it. Yes, it`s a turnaround. But, anyway,
the way to win in Illinois is an economic message as a moderate like Mark
Kirk did, winning overwhelmingly all throughout the state. That`s the
message that Governor Romney`s had. He`s going to have a big night here,
big win. He`s on the ballot on all the congressional districts.

So, I think you`re going to see a big change tonight here in
Illinois.

MATTHEWS: Do you like the phrase lightweight? Do you think that`s a
nice way to talk about a political opponent when you`ve been fighting it
out after 24 primaries and caucuses this year? You`re calling your
opponent after 24 fights a lightweight -- is that improving the dialogue or
reducing it?

BRADY: I`ll let the political consultants answer that. But I don`t
think --

MATTHEWS: No, your candidate is calling that. That`s your
candidate`s lingo. Do you like it?

BRADY: Well, he`s comparing him to President Obama.

MATTHEWS: Oh, they`re both lightweights?

BRADY: And the reality is, when President Obama is elected -- I
would say so. I think that`s why we`re going to get somebody in the White
House who actually has some hands on business sector experience, you know,
four years -- two years in the Senate and eight years in Illinois Senate
didn`t exactly qualify to make these big financials.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You -- had you ever met the president where you have
talked about issues? Do you ever get the sense he`s a lightweight? That`s
the one thing -- I can understand a philosophical debate where the guy is
lightweight, this guy, our president, is a lightweight? That`s the least
effective categorization of him, I would think.

BRADY: Experience-wise, yes, he is a lightweight. We lived with him
for a long time, Chris. We had a lot of respect for him, we all liked him.
But don`t call him a heavyweight on economic issues and we`re paying a
price for it.

MATTHEWS: OK, let me talk to Mr. Brabender.

Your guy is a lightweight. You know, this is so high schools. I`m
sorry. Go ahead.

JOHN BRABENDER, CHIEF STRATEGIST, RICK SANTORUM CAMPAIGN: Well, I
think --

MATTHEWS: The other guy is a financier.

BRABENDER: Well -- but look, what it really comes down to is
records, and what`s a maze to go me is that Romney is trying to present
himself as a successful businessman and nobody has really looked at his
record hard enough. As --

MATTHEWS: He`s rich.

BRABENDER: He is rich, you got to give him that.

MATTHEWS: Then he must be successful.

BRABENDER: Well, as governor in Massachusetts, they were third worse
in job creation. He had to raise taxes --

MATTHEWS: Did your guy ever make a quarter of a million bucks?

BRABENDER: What`s that?

MATTHEWS: Quarter million bucks? Your guy ever made quarter a
million bucks?

BRABENDER: Well, let`s do it different way then. Romney so far has
paid $13 for every vote he`s got. Rick Santorum has paid $3 for every vote
he`s got. Romney is either the worst businessman that he`s overpaying, or
he`s the worst candidate that he has to pay that much to get votes.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me ask, Mr. Brady, if -- this is something from
"`The Wall Street Journal" op-ed page today. I think it speaks well to
this campaign, or speaks well to it. "If Mr. Romney could speak about
Obamacare the way Mr. Santorum does -- not simply as a policy disagreement
but as a threat to our freedom -- he`d be locking up the nomination."

Does your guy lack the ability to speak with heart?

BRADY: Now, I don`t agree with that. I`ve been a Republican my
whole life and been this party my whole life. We don`t go to rallies and
cry. We want someone who can fix the economy and lays out a specific
agenda to do that.

I mean, all this -- he doesn`t have a spark, he`s not emotional,
nobody cares. You know, we have a really bad economy nationally. We have
a worse one here in Illinois. We just want someone that`s a competent
manager of our economy.

MATTHEWS: Your response to that? He just said your guy cries.

BRABENDER: Yes, I think that these people are reducing the
presidency to the commerce secretary or the labor secretary. We have Iran
moving quickly to create a bomb. We have China closing our manufacturing.
All these things that were going on, this ridiculous debt, freedom is taken
away, and all Romney wants to talk about is what labor statistics are.
Those are important but that`s not what being --

MATTHEWS: So, he`s the bean counter. Your guy is a big thinker?

BRABENDER: I think there is no doubt about that.

MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you, Pat Brady. Thank you. No doubt about it,
he`s a bean counter against a big thinker.

BRADY: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Brabender.

Thank you, Mr. Brady. By the way, welcome to the show, sir.

Much more on the race in Illinois. Polls close at 8:00 Eastern
tonight, Eastern that is. And our panel is going to be there to preview
all the action in about a minute.

You`re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`ve got new poll numbers from two of the hottest Senate
races in the country. Let`s go to the HARDBALL scoreboard.

In Massachusetts, a new PPP poll has the Democrat Elizabeth Warren
with a five-point lead now over Republican Scott Brown. What a turnaround,
46 to 41 for Warren. Other recent polling shows Brown with a lead in that
race, of course.

Next to Virginia. That race between former Governor Tim Kaine and
former senator ands governor, George Allen. According to a new Quinnipiac
poll, it`s Kaine the Democrat with a 3-point lead. Not a lot.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Tonight in Illinois, we`re going to see the closest thing in a head
to head contest between Romney and Santorum. We`ve seen so far.

Romney`s got the chance to change the perception he can`t seal the
deal tonight. We`re also going to see if Santorum plays in a major state
with a diverse population. Polls close at 8:00 Eastern tonight.

Here to preview the action, "Huffington Post" editorial director,
Howard Fineman, and former Republican national chairman, Michael Steele.
Both of them are MSNBC political analyst. And "The Washington Post`s" Nia-
Malika Henderson.

Thank you all.

Let`s take a look at some information just coming in from the exit
polls. We`ve got brand new exit poll information out of Illinois and the
Illinois primary voters. We asked which candidate out there today was most
likely to beat Barack Obama. Not surprisingly, nearly all of Romney
voters, 93 percent, said they thought their guy, Romney, was most
electable. But 28 percent of Santorum voters also saw Romney as most
likely to beat Obama.

Howard, speaking of sports, that means people would rather vote for
the guy, at least in some marginal cases, they deeply believe in, rather
than the guy who`s the best beat for November.

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I think that`s true, Chris,
and I think also, some of those people buy Santorum`s argument, that you
have to solidify the base, and if the base isn`t really excited, isn`t
ready to walk through walls, then that`s a weak position to be in against
the president.

MATTHEWS: Tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee argument, does it work? Too
close together, the president and the moderate Republican former governor
of Massachusetts -- in the end, they`re too close to excite the public
against the president.

MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well; I
think there`s some truth to that. And I know that`s a fear for a lot of
the base is that when you get the two of them stacked up, despite all the
arguments that you can make on healthcare and other things, that the
similarities are too real for the base to stomach. And so, that`s why you
see this bifurcation in the polls right now. They are still pushing to get
a conservative to the front of the line and to push through and to be the
challenger in November.

MATTHEWS: It just seems that -- this is a great sort of human case
of people, do I do what we are supposed to do to win or do we do what makes
me feel really good when I walk out of the polling booth?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. No, it`s the heart
versus the head. That`s where Santorum is doing so well, with those people
who finally see a chance to have a real conservative, a nominee for, you
know, in this party. And lead this party. They didn`t have that chance
with John McCain and they don`t have it with Bob Dole.

MATTHEWS: Now, it was the good guy here, who really has the heart.
He is really pure. Now, we`re going to find out what purity is.

Pastor Dennis Terry -- let`s look at what he is preaching from the
pulpit he shares with Rick Santorum.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DENNIS TERRY, PASTOR: As long as sexual perversion is becoming
normalized, somebody needs to stand up and say, God forgive us. God have
mercy upon us. As they continue to tear down traditional marriage.

Listen, God intended for marriage to be between a man and a woman.
And as long as they continue to attack marriage, somebody needs to take a
stand and say, no, no, no with, no.

(APPLAUSE)

TERRY: Enough. Enough is enough.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: That`s the raw seed of the hurricane. That`s what people
are afraid of when they think of Santorum -- the raw theocracy coming their
way, perhaps. Here the pastor went on to say that Christians are key to an
American revival. Let`s listen, same guy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TERRY: Listen closely. I tell you my friend, I believe that
Christians in America are the key to revival. I believe that Christians in
America is the key to the economy, turning around. I believe that
Christians in America is the key to the jobless rate, continuing to go
down.

I believe it`s a spiritual thing. If we put God back in America, put
God back in our pulpits, put God back in our homes and in our state house
and vehemently in Washington, then we can have revival in America and the
Holy Spirit will show up and break in (INAUDIBLE) what happens for this
country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: This guy goes on to say, if you don`t love America, don`t
like the way we do things, get out. We don`t worship Buddha, Mohammed,
Allah. We worship God. We worship God`s son, Jesus Christ.

This guy is selling it. The question is, how close to the pulpit can
a candidate get without looking like he`s part of it?

FINEMAN: Well, I don`t think Rick Santorum`s case he really cares.
I think he`s as close to the pulpit as he can get. His Secret Service
nickname is Petrus.

MATTHEWS: For Peter.

FINEMAN: For Peter -- which has everything do with the foundation of
the Catholic Church and the papacy. He is a member of Opus Dei. He
believes in a really strong role for religiosity in politics.

He`s had the blessing, laying on of hands repeatedly. He embraces
almost every religious symbol, and all of the religious rhetoric.

MATTHEWS: But, Howard, but, Michael, you and I are religious --

FINEMAN: I`m just reporting it.

MATTHEWS: -- we see it time and again in these pollings. Catholics
are not voting in numbers for him. They are voting against him -- voting
for Romney.

STEELE: Well, they are. I mean, keeping in mind, though, a lot of
Catholics are in these polls are Democrats, too.

MATTHEWS: No, I`m talking about in the Republican primary.

STEELE: Well, in the Republican primary, there is truth to that
because there is an evangelical element of what you just saw there that
does not appeal to traditional Catholics. Even though Rick considers
himself, and is a traditional Catholic that you just pointed out.

HENDERSON: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Nia, pick up on that when we come back. I don`t want to
change the topic. I like this topic, because there`s essentially what we
believe in in this country.

Howard Fineman, Nia-Malika Henderson, and Michael Steele are all
staying with us. We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back with MSNBC political analyst Howard Fineman,
Michael Steele and "The Huffington Post`s" Nia-Malika Henderson.

Let`s take a look right now at Rick Santorum`s response to Pastor
Terry`s comments we`re all pointing to. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: He is allowed to believe when a wants it believe. But I
believe in freedom of religion and all religions are welcome and should be.
And I think I`ve made that pretty clear throughout my campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Would you say he`s made that pretty clear he believes in
the separation of church and state, Nia-Malika Henderson?

HENDERSON: No, he has not quite made that clear.

MATTHEWS: OK.

HENDERSON: I mean, it was -- yes, it was the comment he made about
JFK speech, he wanted to throw up. But he is walking hand in hand with
these Pentecostal preachers, these partisan preachers. He`s going to be
down in Louisiana on Wednesday and Thursday, speaking at a church,
worshiping there with Pentecostals.

And you go to some of his events, and he`s introduced by pastors who
talk about lifting him up in the name of Jesus Christ.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HENDERSON: And so, he knows what he`s doing. This is his base.
They are responsible for his surge. The question is: can he sustain it,
and can he grow it in states like Illinois with a more complicated
electorate?

MATTHEWS: Excuse me. Is this a reality in your party, the
Republican Party, as we go through this general election? This
religiosity?

STEELE: No.

MATTHEWS: Is it going to play a role? If Romney wins the nomination
eventually, will this all retreat?

STEELE: No more than it was in 2008 with Romney.

MATTHEWS: They can`t demand -- they won`t be able to demand in a
role in this? You think, Howard, they have the power to demand a role in
this --

FINEMAN: I think it is somewhat wishful thinking on the part of the
former chair.

MATTHEWS: It is going to be part of this.

FINEMAN: It`s going to be much more a part.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: This is going to be a religious revival meeting.

FINEMAN: I guarantee you there will be an argument of what the stage
looks like and whether it looks too much like a church or not. We already
had that argument --

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: What`s in the party`s platform? That`s going to be an
argument, too.

STEELE: I don`t think it`s going to rise to that level. Wishful
thinking on the part of my colleagues here.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: It`s going to be pretty prayerful.

STEELE: Where is that coming from?

MATTHEWS: Santorum --

HENDERSON: Santorum, yes.

MATTHEWS: -- is a guy with nothing going for him except this.

STEELE: Except Paul is not going to --

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: But you think Romney is going to have to pick up the
phone and ask Santorum what he wants.

MATTHEWS: You can`t silence the noise that they made in this
country.

Howard Fineman, Nia-Malika Henderson and Michael Steele, who hopes
for silent prayer.

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

Polls close at 8:00 Eastern tonight, Eastern.

"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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