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updated 4/5/2012 12:25:44 PM ET 2012-04-05T16:25:44

Guest Host: Michael Smerconish

Guests: Sue Herera, Dana Milbank, Michael Isikoff, Michelle Bernard, Eugene Robinson, David Corn, Joe Williams, Nathan Fletcher, E. Steven Collins

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, GUEST HOST: Tale of the tape.

Let`s play some HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Michael Smerconish, in tonight for Chris Matthews.
Leading off: The 99 percent solution. The FBI is now on the scene in
Sanford, Florida, focusing on whether Trayvon Martin`s civil rights were
violated.

Plus, we may now be able to say whose voice it was screaming for help
on the 911 tape. George Zimmerman`s family says that it was his, Trayvon
Martin`s mother says it`s the sound of her terrified son. Now forensic
experts have weighed in with what they say is 99 percent accuracy, the
screams are not from George Zimmerman.

Also, swing time. A "USA Today" Gallup poll of battleground states
shows a sharp swing from Mitt Romney to President Obama. Where one month
ago Romney was up by 2, now the president leads by 9 points. The big
change, women, who are lining up behind the president. Is the controversy
over contraception finally taking a toll on the GOP?

And good news for Mitt Romney. He`s lining up endorsements. The bad
news, they sound a lot like this note of support from Senator James Inhofe.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: I`ve never been much of an Obama --
of a fan of -- of Mitt Romney. He`s an honest person, a nice person, but
I`ve just not agreed with him politically on a lot of things.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: We`ve got more cases where Republicans sound like they`d
prefer to be doing just about anything other than endorsing Romney.

And while it`s not unusual for a politician to leave his political
party, it is news when a rising star jumps ship. And that just happened in
California, where a promising Republican has decided the GOP is just too
conservative for him.

Finally, even though it`s set in the 1960s, "Mad Men" managed to have
its say about this year`s presidential election.

But we begin with the latest in the Trayvon Martin case. Michael
Isikoff is, of course, the NBC News investigative correspondent. He`s in
Sanford, Florida.

Michael, please give us the latest.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, a pretty significant
development today, Michael. FBI agents showed up at the Retreat at Twin
Lakes gated community where the Trayvon Martin shooting took place, going
door to door, interviewing witnesses, questioning them about what they
might have seen, what they knew about the shooting, and also the background
of George Zimmerman, also taking photographs.

The evidence response team, the CSI unit, was there, all gathering
what one FBI official told me is going to be a meticulous, comprehensive
investigation of everything that took place that night...

SMERCONISH: Did we lose Michael? Yes, we lost Michael Isikoff.
Thank you, Michael. Maybe we`ll be able to get you back.

For more on this story, let me bring in Michelle Bernard, the
president of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy, and
E. Steven Collins, who hosts "Philly Speaks" on WRNB.

Michelle, Steven, one of the questions surrounding the 911 calls made
to police the night of the shooting is just who is heard screaming for
help. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Help!

911 OPERATOR: You think he`s yelling help?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

911 OPERATOR: What is your...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just -- there`s gunshots!

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Two forensic audio experts who analyzed the 911 calls for
"The Orlando Sentinel" now say those screams were not from Zimmerman. One
of those experts interviewed, Tom Owen (ph), also told NBC News that his
technology, like that used by the CIA and the National Security Agency, is
99 percent accurate.

Michelle Bernard, of what significance is this latest development?

MICHELLE BERNARD, THE BERNARD CENTER, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: This
is -- this is an -- this is enormously significant to the case. Assuming
that -- that George Zimmerman is indicted, that we go to trial, you will
see, obviously, that these -- that the prosecutor is going to want to
introduce this evidence because it`s going to go to the heart of the story.

And the story that George Zimmerman has been telling the public, that
he has told, we believe, to the police department is that he himself was
under attack, that he killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense. And if he was
able, for example, to argue that the screaming heard on the tape was
himself, it would lend credibility to the argument that he was acting in
self-defense.

However, if the screaming in the background is, in fact, Trayvon
Martin and a jury hears that, the jury is more likely to believe that
Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman.

SMERCONISH: In other words, Michelle...

BERNARD: It`s a very, very critical piece of information.

SMERCONISH: What I think what you`re saying is that it`s really --
the significance is twofold. One, to the extent that these reports are
accurate, that Zimmerman has told law enforcement, That`s me on the tape,
A, it would make his testimony or his version of events and perhaps soon to
be testimony untruthful.

And B, commonsensically, you wouldn`t expect the aggressor to be the
screamer. You would expect the person who`s under attack to be the one
screaming. And so really, it would be a two-fold blow to him.

BERNARD: It would be a two -- two -- two-fold blow to him. And also,
Michael, if you put together the tape, the audiotape, and any testimony we
get about who`s screaming on that tape, and put that together with the
tapes that we`ve seen of George Zimmerman when he is with the police and
he`s in custody -- he`s handcuffed, he alleges that his nose was broken.
He alleges that he -- you know, that he had a head injury and that he was
bleeding from the back of his head.

If a jury looks at that and they listen to the screaming of what many
people now believe to, in fact, be Trayvon Martin, you`re going to be
saying to yourself, Did George Zimmerman basically concoct the story,
actually engage in racial profiling, and kill an innocent teenager who was
armed with nothing but Skittles and iced tea?

SMERCONISH: Michael Isikoff is back with us now from Sanford,
Florida. Michael, you talked about the FBI being on the scene today. Is
that independent or in support of the state investigation?

ISIKOFF: This is a parallel investigation, completely separate,
focused on whether there was a civil rights violation. You have the state
special prosecutor conducting that investigation into whether to charge
George Zimmerman for the shooting itself.

What the FBI is doing is a complete report for the Justice
Department`s Civil Rights Division to see whether there is basis for a
civil rights charge. Was this a hate crime? Was George Zimmerman
basically racially targeting Trayvon Martin as part of this.

And one piece -- crucial piece of evidence here is going to be the
history and pattern of George Zimmerman`s 911 calls. He called in the --
since last August seven times to police dispatchers. In five of those, he
was reporting about what he viewed as suspicious activity by young African-
American males They`re identified in the 911 call reports by -- as black
males.

Now, these call reports don`t show whether Zimmerman volunteered this
information or was responding to questions by police, and that`s going to
be something that the FBI is going to be looking at also, the predicate for
those calls. Why was he calling? In one case, the call sheets say he saw
some young black males loitering in the area. Now, was that the basis for
a 911 call or not? That`s the kind of thing the FBI is going to be looking
at here.

SMERCONISH: Michael, I`ve listened to those tapes more times than I
should probably admit, and I think that they`re loaded with curiosities.
To me, one of them is that if it`s true that in the last 15 months, he`s
called 46 times, I find it unusual that when he logged this call, he didn`t
identify himself as a member of the neighborhood watch. Any thoughts on
that?

ISIKOFF: Well, that`s an interesting question. He had been -- the
neighborhood watch only got set up last summer, and that`s the point at
which he acquired his -- put out his neighborhood watch card, which we`ve
seen. He hands it out to neighbors. He was going door to door, Zimmerman
was, saying, I`m your neighborhood watch captain. Call me. Let me know if
there`s anything suspicious going on.

Now, you`re raising a good question. I don`t know the answer to it.
One thing we`ve asked for and we`re waiting for is the actually tapes of
the prior 911 calls to see whether he had identified himself as a
neighborhood watch captain in the previous calls.

SMERCONISH: He -- well, he -- I can tell you that he did.

ISIKOFF: We don`t know.

SMERCONISH: I heard some that he did. And Steven Collins, let me
just bring you in because we`re all...

ISIKOFF: Well, I -- Michael, we haven`t -- we haven`t actually gotten
the tapes of the earlier calls yet. So I don`t know that we can say that
for a certainty.

SMERCONISH: OK, I can tell you that via the "Sentinel" Web side, I
have listened to additional calls where he does identify himself as a
member of neighborhood watch.

Steven Collins, we`re parsing a lot of details here, more perhaps
unknown than known. But with regard to the Trayvon Martin 911 call, common
sense tells me that when he lots it, he says, Hey, it`s George Zimmerman.
You know me from neighborhood watch. Here`s what I`m looking at. He never
says that.

E. STEVEN COLLINS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: It`s interesting because I
don`t really see him as neighborhood watch, Michael. I see him as a guy
who had a predisposition. Again, remember, a 17-year-old boy armed with
what? A bag of Skittles and an iced tea? He wore a hoodie because that`s
what`s hip. He reminds me of my son and all the other kids that I know who
are Trayvon Martin.

This is -- the idea -- here`s the -- here`s my problem with this. The
local authorities never arrested, which meant he -- he got to go free, but
they didn`t get the initial investigation under way. There is DNA evidence
that`s being lost right now because Mr. Martin, 17-year-old, is
decomposing. We don`t know the trajectory of the bullet. We do not know
what kind of physical real damages were done to his physical self.

And in that, we can`t determine certain things. This appears to me to
be a major -- I don`t -- I hate using the word coverup, but it just -- why
wouldn`t the police hold him and do a...

SMERCONISH: Steven...

COLLINS: ... good investigation, solid investigation here?

SMERCONISH: Steven, I`ve been saying for a while now that it`d be
helpful to get a map of the area in Sanford, Florida, to get a clear
picture of the so-called Retreat at Twin Lakes.

And today, "The New York Times" had a great map. And we got our
version -- we have our own version right here, as a matter of fact. This
is an aerial image of the development. On the left, you can see where
Trayvon Martin was staying. And on the top of the map, you see George
Zimmerman`s house.

Trayvon likely entered the development one of two ways, the main
entrance or the unfenced shortcut that "The Times" reports residents
frequently used to cut through to save time.

Zimmerman called 911 when he saw Martin near the clubhouse and
identifies the clubhouse as a point of reference. And here`s where
Trayvon`s body was found by Sanford police as he approached the home in
which he was staying.

Michael Isikoff, you`re there. Is there any element, once you`re
there and you study the geography, that you think would help those of us
who are at home understand what went on here?

ISIKOFF: Well, actually, Michael, I was there over the weekend, and I
sort of retraced the route where Trayvon Martin came in and George
Zimmerman followed him. And you`re right, it`s the -- it begins -- the
spotting (ph) begins at the clubhouse, which is near a gate. And then he`s
watching -- he appears to be watching from his car at a distance.

And at some point, as Trayvon Martin continues, there`s sort of a back
path where -- which turns behind a row of houses. So Zimmerman would no
longer have been able to see Trayvon Martin.

He gets out of the car and then follows him there. That`s where the
confrontation takes place, in a spot where he could not have seen Trayvon
Martin originally watching from the car.

SMERCONISH: Final question, if I might, for Michelle Bernard.
Michelle, I`ve been saying that I need to know two things. I need to know
who`s crying for help at the end of that 911 call. I also want to know,
was a racial epithet said by Zimmerman under his breath at a time when he
appears to be, by audio, in pursuit of Trayvon Martin. You know what I`m
referring to.

BERNARD: I absolutely know what you`re referring to. I have listened
to that tape over and over and over again. If you listen to it closely, I
have absolutely no doubt whatsoever, beyond a shadow of a doubt...

COLLINS: There`s no doubt.

BERNARD: ... that under his breath -- that George Zimmerman called
Trayvon Martin an "F-ing coon." If you listen to it closely, there`s no
doubt about it whatsoever.

And I got to tell you, when you put all the evidence together, this is
an enormous travesty of justice!

SMERCONISH: The radio...

BERNARD: If you go back to that map -- Michael, if you go back to the
map that we just took a look at, George Zimmerman had to have followed
Trayvon Martin for quite a distance and quite a period of time after the
police told him that they did not need him to follow him. And it ended --
and it ended up -- the end result was that this child was -- is dead.

SMERCONISH: I have to leave it there...

BERNARD: He was killed...

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: I wish -- I wish we had more time, but thank you, Michael
Isikoff, Michelle Bernard and E. Steven Collins.

Coming up: President Obama`s got a 9-point lead over Mitt Romney in
key battleground states, and he`s building his big lead in large part
because of women. Could it be that the controversy over contraception is
hurting the Republicans?

This is HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: We`ve got new poll numbers out tonight. Let`s check the
HARDBALL "Scoreboard."

First, in tomorrow`s Wisconsin Republican presidential primary, a new
PPP poll has Mitt Romney up 7 over Rick Santorum, 43 percent to 36 percent.

Next, to that hot Senate race in Massachusetts. A new "Boston Globe"
poll has Republican senator Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth
Warren in a virtual tie. Brown`s at 37 percent, Warren at 35 percent.
That`s within the poll`s margin of error.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL. The latest "USA Today" Gallup
swing state poll shows a big shift from Romney to Obama. The states polled
are the dozen that will be crucial in the presidential election. You`re
seeing them here.

In these 12 states, President Obama beats Mitt Romney 51-42. Now,
since "USA Today" and Gallup began polling these swing states back in
November, Mitt Romney has won every prior match-up. As this chart shows,
the trend changed pretty dramatically in the past month.

One possible reason, women. Among women who are registered voters,
President Obama leads by 18 points. But why the switch? It would seem
logical that the contraception controversy played a role, but when women in
this poll were asked to identify issues that are extremely important in
their vote for president, health care was number one, government policies
on birth control last at number six.

Eugene Robinson is a columnist at "The Washington Post." David Corn
is the Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones" magazine and the author
of a new book, "Showdown." Both are NBC political analysts.

Eugene, this is why they pay you the big bucks.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: Explain this to me if it`s not contraception. Or is it
contraception?

EUGENE ROBINSON, "WASHINGTON POST," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well,
who knows, Smerc? I think perhaps health care is number one, the number
one issue that women say they are concerned about in these swing states,
and I suppose you could subsume some of these reproductive issues under the
rubric of health care and maybe you have an answer there.

But maybe you don`t. Maybe it`s an intensification of this sort of
male/female polarization that`s been happening between the two parties for
a while now.

SMERCONISH: Yes, I thought the same thing, that maybe by answering
"health care," that to the female respondents encapsulated much of what
they`ve been hearing.

David, this is not a Romney-specific issue. This is really a GOP
issue because other candidates in the Republican Party poll equally poorly
among women.

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: And remember,
the contraception debate took place in the context of health care. And
it`s quite clear that whether you`re talking about contraception, health
care, and a lot of other issues, the GOP, Mitt Romney and others who`ve
played to the far right of their party, are losing them.

I mean, women tend to care more about the social safety net than do
men. In fact, they live longer. They do more of the, you know, health
care responsibilities of families. So if you`re talking about Medicare and
going after Social Security or Medicaid, it may affect them more.

And we`ve had in the last month or two a revival of the Ryan budget,
which is a war, in a lot of ways, on the social safety net. So I think
there`s a lot going in here. And I think that, in general, women tend to
be turned off more than men by political extremism, and the whole
Republican 2012 campaign has been a cavalcade of extremism.

SMERCONISH: Well, I have said on the radio that -- that every day
where the narrative is social issues, and not the economy, the president is
one step closer to being reelected.

CORN: Yes.

SMERCONISH: And maybe that is what the president was thinking,
because, earlier today, sensing an opening, he recorded this video for
members of Planned Parenthood. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let`s be clear here.
Women are not an interest group. They`re mothers and daughters and sisters
and wives. They`re half of this country.

So when some professional politicians casually say that they will get
rid of Planned Parenthood, don`t forget what they`re really talking about,
eliminating the funding for preventive care that millions of women rely on
and leaving them to fend for themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Eugene, how do you see it?

You heard my statement about the social issues breaking toward the
president if that`s the narrative.

ROBINSON: Oh, I think that`s absolutely true, and I think that`s one
-- one reason, one of several reasons why the Republican establishment is
so eager to get Rick Santorum out of this race, so that Mitt Romney can
start talking exclusively about the economy because they -- that`s a better
issue for the Republican Party than these social issues, which, you know --
and I think the term of art is, it freaks a lot of people out.

CORN: Yes.

SMERCONISH: David, listen to this. Vice President Joe Biden hammered
home the point that Mitt Romney is too wealthy to relate to average
Americans. React to this after you hear it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "FACE THE NATION")

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think Governor
Romney is a little out of touch. I can`t remember a presidential candidate
in the recent past who seems not to understand by what he says what
ordinary middle-class people are thinking about and are concerned about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: And then the response today in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was
from Mitt Romney. When asked about the vice president`s comments, he said
this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How would respond to that, that you`re out of
touch with an average American?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, my guess is I get a
chance to be with a lot more average Americans every day than he does.

And as I go across this country, and as my wife does, we understand
something I think this president and this vice president don`t. And that
is that their policies have not succeeded.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: David Corn, react to that exchange.

CORN: And that was right after they talked about the car elevator
they`re building. I think if you look at the social issues and the vice
president`s comment about him being a 1 percenter, it all fits the same
pattern, that he is not in touch with modern-day Americans, at least in
terms of recommendation troubles, in terms of policy.

And he`s running for the nomination of a party that seems to be
looking to the 1950s as their model for social policy. The president -- I
the president has believed since after November 2010 election that was
terrible for his party that the Republicans would give him an opening.

In fact, I know this for the reporting for my book that they would go
too far in economic supply theory or social conservative policies and that
he would be able to sort of maneuver he and the Democrats back to
resurgence. And that is exactly what is happening. And I think Mitt
Romney is giving him more and more of an opening to do that almost every
day.

SMERCONISH: Eugene, something else happened today very interesting.
At an event in Green Bay, Mitt Romney was asked about his religion. The
questioner, our producers on the ground, by the way, tell us was a Ron Paul
supporter. Listen to this exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, in the Mormon book, it says there were a
blackness came upon all the children of Canaan.

ROMNEY: I`m sorry. We`re just not going to have a discussion about
religion, in my view, but I could -- if you have a question, I will be
happy to answer your question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe it`s a sin for a white man to marry
and procreate with a black...

ROMNEY: No. Next question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Eugene, I think he`s been missing an opportunity here.
When contraception and religion became an issue in the presidential race,
it was the perfect opportunity for Mitt Romney to say this is not a
theocracy, this is a democracy. Religion and religion litmus tests they
should play no role in Americans electing a president.

It frankly would have been a double knockout for him. But he punted
and instead he toed the party line. What thoughts do you have?

ROBINSON: Well, I think the question he faced was, how do you say
that in a Republican primary and not alienate the evangelicals?

He is walking a very fine line. I think what is happening is that
Mitt Romney is digging himself a hole out of which he will have to climb
during the general election campaign if he hopes to be elected president.
And to do that, he is going to have be an adroit politician, because he
will have to frankly go back on a lot of stuff without seeming to go back
on a lot stuff.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: So far he hasn`t been able to do that.

SMERCONISH: The harm I think posed continually by Santorum staying in
is that it delays his opportunity to do so.

Thank you, Eugene Robinson and thank you, David Corn, as always.

Up next, will Hillary Clinton run for president four years from now?
Bill Clinton has got some insight next in the "Sideshow."

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Now for the "Sideshow."

First up, "Mad Men" enters the fray. We all know the hit AMC show is
a throwback to the 1960s. So how did the name Romney come up during a
heated exchange in last night`s episode?

In this scene, an aide to New York`s mayor refuses a request that his
boss make an appearance in Michigan. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "MAD MEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Do you want me to turn down the TV?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It`s fine.

Henry Francis. Well, tell Jim His Honor is not going to Michigan.
Because Romney is a clown and I don`t want him standing next to him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Romney`s a clown? Well, that, of course, was a jab at
George Romney, Mitt`s father, who served as Michigan`s governor back in the
`60s. But, of course, if Romney wasn`t running for president today, that
line wouldn`t have been in the show.

And even though we`re in the thick of this year`s election cycle, a
lot of people are wondering what`s to come in the 2016 face-off? Will
Hillary Clinton be on the ticket?

Former President Bill Clinton weighed in during an interview with
NBC`s Luke Russert.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: She wants to
come home, get a little rest, do some other things. She`s told you and
everybody else that she thinks she will probably never run for office
again.

But I have been there. I know what happens when you go through this
decompression after years of relentless high-pressure activity. And I just
think she needs to rest up, do some things she cares about. And whatever
she decides to do, I will support.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: So it might be no for now, but perhaps we should take it
with a grain of salt.

Up next, Mitt Romney is lining up endorsements from fellow
Republicans, but a lot of the endorsers sound like their arms are being
twisted, and hard.

By the way, you can follow me on Twitter, if you can figure out how to
spell Smerconish.

This is HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SUE HERERA, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Sue Herera with your CNBC "Market
Wrap."

The Dow gains 52, the S&P is up 10, and the Nasdaq adds about 28
points. Stocks gained ground despite a much weaker-than-expected report on
construction spending which fell 1.1 percent in February.

Meanwhile, a gauge of manufacturing activity rose strongly last month.
Groupon tumbled nearly 17 percent after it said its fourth quarter was
actually weaker than initially reported.

And Express Scripts closed its $29 billion deal for Medco Health.

And that`s it from CNBC. We are first in business worldwide -- and
now back to HARDBALL.

SMERCONISH: Hey, we`re back.

Having scored some of the biggest Republican endorsements over the
past few weeks, it appears as if the Republican Party is finally beginning
to line up behind Mitt Romney, but it`s safe to say that many of those
endorsements, they sound like more reluctant concessions to reality than
anything else.

Take a look at this bracket which has been put together by Yahoo!
News. It`s part of an online competition where readers are invited to vote
for Romney`s most tepid endorsements, in honor of course of college
basketball`s Final Four championship games.

Dana Milbank is a political columnist for "The Washington Post" and an
MSNBC political analyst. Joe Williams writes for Politico.

Gentlemen, though he didn`t endorse, here`s conservative Senator James
Inhofe reluctantly admitting that Romney looks like the inevitable nominee
just yesterday. Listen to this.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: I have never been much of a fan of
Mitt Romney. He`s an honest person and a nice person, but I have just not
agreed with him politically on a lot of things.

We have got to defeat Obama. I cannot allow that to happen to my
family. So whoever is in the best position to win, it appears that
probably Mitt Romney is in the best position to win right now.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Dana, maybe we shouldn`t be surprised because we have
been hearing that from a number of Republicans who have gone out to the
polls, some of whom have voted for Mitt Romney.

DANA MILBANK, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Michael I think if you could
have actually seen the audio of that radio interview, his eyelids would be
tapping out Morse code saying he was making this statement under duress.

(LAUGHTER)

MILBANK: And that is what is going on with these guys.

Now, they`re not exactly profiles in courage. They`re saying, this
guy is going to be the nominee. I better be on his good side. I have got
to get out there. And even then, they have got to stick a clothespin on
their noses and say, in case things go wrong and he`s not everything we
wanted him to be, I`m telling you now, I`m doing it reluctantly.

SMERCONISH: Joe, Senator Marco Rubio is another who endorsed Romney
in his case just last week. But listen to how he couched his endorsement
to "The Daily Caller -- quote -- "There are a lot of other people out there
that some of us wish had run for president, but they didn`t. I think Mitt
Romney would be a fine president and he would be way better than the guy
who is there right now."

Your reaction?

(LAUGHTER)

JOE WILLIAMS, POLITICO: Well, with friends like that and a ringing
endorsement, who needs political attack ads?

Basically, this is another chain in the continuing link about Mitt
Romney not being an authentic conservative. Stop me if you have heard this
before, but this is where all the Tea Partiers and all the arch-
conservatives in the party stop. They know that they have to do something,
they know that it`s getting late, they know that Mr. Right is not going to
come along, so they are accepting Mr. Right Now, sort of like an arranged
marriage almost.

And they know they have to do it because time is waning and the longer
this thing goes on, the more his negatives continue, the more the White
House`s positives improve. So they knew they had to do something and
that`s why you see these certain conservatives coming out in support and
trying to coalesce the party behind this guy.

SMERCONISH: Joe, maybe at least we would give them marks for
credibility, because if they had glowing, if they had been effusive in
their praise, I think we would be frankly sitting around and saying, did
you hear what Rubio said about Romney? He can`t possibly mean it.

WILLIAMS: Well, yes.

But, on the other hand, here we are talking about tepid endorsements.
The political world is full of people who fake it well, people who are able
to set aside partisan differences. A certain secretary of state and
president come to mind. When push came to shove, Hillary Clinton mouthed
the right things and went through the right motions.

But at the end of the day, she knew she had to get on with it, and at
the very least it wasn`t anything couched. It was like, I`m going to work
my heart out for President -- for candidate Obama. I will do my best to
bring my party together, and quiet a lot of the critics that came along
with President Obama when they had the big delegate fight.

They could have done a better job here and not made the arm-twisting
so obvious.

SMERCONISH: Dana, I have one more. Here`s former New York Governor
George Pataki throwing his support around Romney after listing all the
reasons to not support him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE PATAKI (R), FORMER NEW YORK GOVERNOR: And I think it`s time to
rally around the presumptive nominee.

Now, Mitt is not a perfect candidate. He has a number of problems.
It`s hard for him -- for blue-collar families like mine to identify with
him. It`s hard for economic conservatives to identify with him. He needs
to do more to reach out to the Latinos. But I think he has to focus on
that and on defeating President Obama, as opposed to winning the next
primary and the next state.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Dana, maybe -- as I said to Joe, maybe it`s genius,
because maybe these are tailored statements so that people who are sitting
at home say, yes, I don`t like the guy much either, but, OK, I`m going to
do the same thing.

(LAUGHTER)

MILBANK: Well, it`s certainly -- I think it`s much more self-
interested. It`s saying, don`t blame me if and when things go wrong, it`s
not what I wanted to have happen.

But the one good thing about this for Romney is these endorsements
almost never actually matter, even when it`s a big name. There are
occasional rare exceptions. But certainly at this late stage, everyone
knew the establishment was with Romney anyway. So the fact that a few more
establishment guys come out here and very bravely announce their support
after it`s inevitable anyway doesn`t really change things either way.

But I suspect you won`t be seeing, say, that Pataki statement in a
Romney ad any time soon.

SMERCONISH: No, I don`t think so.

Hey, Joe, let me just ask you about a piece that was posted at
Politico earlier today on the subject of endorsements. Where has W. been?
The handling of President George W. Bush, it is going to be very
interesting to see the way in which the Romney campaign handles him moving
forward. Your thoughts?

WILLIAMS: Well, and the way they handle him moving forward is by not
handling him at all or trying to not handle him at all.

President Bush`s half-life is still very much in act -- I mean, still
very -- a long time before you will get to the point where he is a guy you
will want to have a conversation with or the guy whose endorsement will
matter on the campaign trail. A lot of people in the Republican Party have
distanced themselves.

They know that the public still blames President Bush for a lot of the
bad things that have happened over the last eight to 10 years, and the
economy that we`re still trying to dig out from.

So I think if they do bring President Bush along, it will be kind in
the tepid, it will be Romney returning the favor for these tepid
endorsements, handling him a pair of tongs and a radioactive shield,
knowing that people view him as a very divisive public figure.

SMERCONISH: It`s just odd to me that you had Jeb, then you had
George Herbert Walker Bush -- frankly, the solution, they should have put
all Bushes together at the same time and they have defused any of the
concerns that the campaign would have had about W.

Anyway, thank you, Dana Milbank. And thank you, Joe Williams. I
appreciate your thoughts.

WILLIAMS: Sure.

SMERCONISH: Up next: giving up on the GOP, a rising Republican star
in California quits that part and he`ll explain why when we return.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Earlier, we heard former President Bill Clinton talking
about the possibility that Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016.
One more nugget from the former president, he set the campaign alongside
President Obama this year. Here he is with NBC`s Luke Russert.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LUKE RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: Are you excited to go back on the campaign
trail for President Obama?

BILL CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Oh, yes.

RUSSERT: Which states do you think you`re going to focus on?

CLINTON: I don`t know. You know, going to do these fundraisers,
three, I think, together. But, you know, I think that the general
direction of, excuse me, his policies have been good for the country.

(END VIDEO LCIP)

SMERCONISH: There you have it -- Bill Clinton in for three Obama
fundraisers.

We`ll be right back to HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

A growing number of Americans describe themselves as independents.
So where are the politicians that speak to them?

According to an August 2011 "Wall Street Journal"/NBC News survey, 40
percent of Americans said their general approach to the issues was
moderate. Since the 2008 election, more than 2.5 million voters have left
the Democratic and Republican parties, according to "USA Today". And
earlier this year, Gallup announced that 40 percent of Americans consider
themselves politically independent. That`s the highest ever measured by
the polling company.

Is there anybody trying to fill that void in the political system and
speak to those voters? Well, in California last week, something rare
happened. A rising star of the Republican Party said he was leaving the
GOP to run as independent for mayor of San Diego.

Nathan Fletcher is a decorated Marine veteran who served combat
duties in Iraq. He was elected in 2008 to the California assembly, but ran
afoul of his party for his willingness to work with Democrats.

Here`s what he said when he announced his defection.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STATE ASM. NATHAN FLETCHER (I), CALIFORNIA: I believe it`s more
important to solve a problem than preserve that problem to use in a
campaign. I`m willing to work or share or give all of the credit to
someone if the idea is good. I don`t believe we have to treat people we
disagree with as an enemy. I think we can just say some times, we
disagree. Maybe we`ll agree on the next one.

I have fought in a war, I have seen the enemy. We don`t have enemies
in our political environment here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Nathan Fletcher is joining us now.

So, Mr. Fletcher, what has changed since you were elected to the
California assembly? And I guess by that, I mean, have you changed or has
the party changed? What`s gone wrong here?

FLETCHER: Well, I think, you know, in so many ways, I feel like what
you see in today`s political world is just that. It`s an environment that
isn`t fixated or focused on solving problems. It is to the clip just
played, it`s how do you preserve them to campaign on them.

And we`ve -- our politics has evolved to a point where I feel like
it`s just a game. And this isn`t a game. If you`re a small business owner
who`s struggling, if you`ve lost your job or your health care, or your
home, it`s not a game.

And I`m trying to send a message to San Diego voters that if I`m
elected as their mayor, I`m not going to be here to play games. I`ll take
your good idea, regardless of party. But our focus will always be how do
we solve a problem and move forward into a better future. I think we need
more of that in our politics today.

SMERCONISH: Did you misjudge where the party was in 2008 when you
ran, or has there been a sea change just in the last four years from your
perspective as to what the Republican Party, at least in San Diego,
represents?

FLETCHER: Well, there`s always been issues I agreed on, particularly
more on fiscal issues and some issues I disagreed on -- maybe on social, or
environmental or immigration issues. But I think the real change that`s
taken place in the last four to six years in American politics, not just
here in California, has been a trend away from having principle positions,
and you should never back down from your principles.

But at the end of the day, some members of each party need to sit
down. They need to negotiate in good faith and they need to actually get
teachers in the classroom, they need to actually build a bridge, they need
to actually have a competitive environment for job growth.

And that`s where I feel we`re lacking and we`re missing, is that
focus on how at some point you actually sit down and govern, and figure out
how to make it work and negotiate in good faith and care less about the
politics of it and more about actually doing the right thing.

SMERCONISH: Let`s talk about some of the reaction to your move.
Both Republicans and Democrats have accused of you playing politics. They
note you left the GOP after the local party decided to endorse somebody
else.

Here`s what Jess Durfee, the chair of the San Diego Democratic Party
said. Quote, "Not even a month ago, Mr. Fletcher wanted to be the endorsed
Republican candidate in this race. When that didn`t work, he decided to
paint himself as an independent. Voters will recognize that he is just
another leopard trying to change his spots in an election year."

Your response?

FLETCHER: Well, I mean, what do you expect? I mean, it`s silly.
You know, any time you have the head of the Democratic Party and the head
of the Republican Party both saying you`re wrong, maybe you`re actually
right. And these are the same folks that have broken the system today.

When you talk to those colleagues of mine that I`ve served with, when
you talk to the Democratic speaker of the assembly, he said Nathan`s always
been an independent voice for what he believes is right. When you talk to
my colleagues in the Republican Party I served with, they said, we know
that he`s always been focused on solutions and frustrated by the system.
And we applaud his courage in making the move.

But most importantly, when you just talk to regular San Diegans, you
hear people who are fed up with politics as usual. They are fed up with
that`s the way it`s always been done. They are fed up with the extreme
right and the extreme left.

SMERCONISH: Well, I think because of some of the --

FLETCHER: They are focused more on preserving chaos than solving it.

SMERCONISH: I think some of the polling data that I set forth at the
outset of this conversation is the reason why many are interested in seeing
what`s going on in San Diego. David Brooks has written about you very
favorably in "The New York Times". I`ve read about you recently in "The
L.A. Times" and I took note of the fact that apparently the Romneys,
meaning Mitt and Ann Romney, have maxed out for you.

First of all, is that true? B, have they asked for their money back?

FLETCHER: No, nobody asked for their money back. I think our
supporters across the board came from a broad base -- Republicans,
Democrats. And what I`m hearing from a lot of them is that same
frustration. You know, party insiders are there to really preserve the
extremes or preserve the chaos maybe frustrated. And I don`t know what
they are so afraid of.

You know, you have choices in an election. In this one, you have the
far right and the far left. And someone in between we`ll have that debate.

But my supporters across the board, it`s really been reassuring and
comforting to say it`s time to get our city moving. It`s time to start
solving problems. It`s time to get things done. And we`re going to go out
and have this debate with the public.

SMERCONISH: All right. Let`s talk about whether it`s going to be a
successful strategy. You were out of the mainstream of your party when it
came to social issues. You have spoken of that, especially gay rights. In
2010, you strongly supported the repeal of "don`t ask, don`t tell".

Let`s ask what you said then.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FLETCHER: I didn`t think the policy of "don`t ask, don`t tell" made
sense when I served in peacetime. I didn`t think it made sense when I
served in combat. I don`t think it makes sense today.

There is nothing in someone`s sexual orientation that affects their
love of country, that affects their patriotism, that affects their
commitment to fellow marine or servicemen, or our great nation, and there
is certainly nothing that affects their ability to give their life.
Indeed, many already have.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Mr. Fletcher, I just have 30 seconds left with you.
Some would listen to that and they`d say, does he pick the wrong party to
begin with, he would have been better suited as an I from the outset or a
D?

FLETCHER: Well, both -- my mom would agree with this. She`s been a
life long Democrat. But, you know, I have always been an independent
voice. When I took the position, party insiders said, hey, we need you not
to do that. I said, I can only do what in my heart I believe is right and
what my conscience tells me is best. And that was true when we spoke out
on issues like that and it`s true now when I say I will reject the partisan
extremities of what we`re doing.

And I hope San Diegans come together and rally. I have Americans say
we are frustrated with politics as usual. We have had tremendous traffic
on our Web site.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: A lot of folks want to see if it`s going to work. Thank
you, Nathan Fletcher. Good luck to you.

When we return --

FLETCHER: Hey, thank you for having me. Have a great day.

SMERCONISH: All right. "Let Me Finish" with some embarrassing
Smerconish family stories that may give Mitt Romney`s dog on the roof a run
for his money.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

Despite my love for our miniature dachshund, Mr. Lucy (ph), I refused
to pile on the story concerning Mitt Romney`s treatment of his Irish setter
Seamus. By now, the facts have been widely circulated. In 1983, then 36-
year-old Romney packed his wife and five sons into the family`s station
wagon for a 12-hour drive into Ontario, Canada, to his parents` cottage.
Romney had fashioned a windshield to a dog carrier and then strapped the
crate to the roof of the car.

Midway into the cry, there was a cry of gross from the eldest son
Tagg who had seen brown liquid running down the rear window. So, Romney
pulled over, hosed down the dog and the car and got back on the road.

We know this because Neil Swidey wrote about it was in "The Boston
Globe" as part of a pre-election profile five years ago. And it was
Swidey`s recent explanation to me as to how he learned of the Romney
recital that causes me to cut Mitt some slack. He said he`d gone looking
for the Romney versions of the stories that every family has that are both
embarrassing and usually shared only among one another.

Embarrassing family stories? Like the night when my mother didn`t
like the looks of the crowd outside a student dance where she`d just driven
my old brother. So, after circling the block, she decided to march inside
wearing her bathrobe and removed him from his peers. Or when my dad got so
excited while winning "Wheel of Fortune," that host Chuck Woolery told him
he was concerned he was going to have a heart attack.

Growing up Smerconish, the Romneys had nothing on us when it comes to
such tales. And today, with my family of my own, it means my
embarrassments are still being recorded. Mention dogs to my brood and
someone will surely tell you about the day we lost our cocker spaniel
Winston. I was devastated, totally overcome. So, my wife wifely decided I
needed some grieving room and she took the kids out for a drive.

By the time they had returned, I`d taken an antique chest which once
belong to her deceased mother out of our living room and use it to bury
Winston in the backyard. She still complains about my use of a family
heirloom. I tell her not to worry, we know right where it is.

Our sons never let me forget the time I badly misjudged the opening
night demand for movie tickets to see "Talladega Nights". I was so sure
the Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen would sellout that I drove to the box
office in advance to beat the rush before later returning with my family to
a nearly empty theater.

According to our middle son who has taken the writing down some of
the more ridiculous things I often say, I give him plenty of material. I
confessed to once having tried to impress a gallery owner in Soho who`s
trying to sell me album art that I was, quote, "a nationally syndicated
radio host." The man was a stranger and I was a blow hard. And I`m
reminded of it constantly.

Now, if you think my stuff is simply embarrassing whereas Romney`s
was potentially dangerous, my wife begs to differ. She reminds me that I
once took our then 4-year-old on the space mountain ride at Walt Disney
World even though the safety harness barely fit him. And just last year, I
was intent on taking a 27-foot pontoon boat with our kids aboard into the
Gulf of Mexico despite a storm until I saw a fisherman standing on the
neighboring docks swaddled in quilts and shaking their heads.

Neil Swidey told me that he printed the Seamus the dog story for a
particular reason as part of a larger story as to how the guy operates in
big ways and small. I think many of us have plenty of our own material.

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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