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updated 4/6/2012 12:47:33 PM ET 2012-04-06T16:47:33

Guest Host: Michael Smerconish

Guests: Howard Fineman, Mark Halperin, Hampton
Pearson, Michael Eric Dyson, Susan Page, Sam Stein, Todd Harris, Steve McMahon, Clarence page

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, GUEST HOST: Fall into the gender gap.

Let`s play some HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Michael Smerconish in New York, sitting in for
Chris Matthews, who`s in Paris with his wife, Kathleen.

Leading off tonight: Mind the gap, the gender gap. Let`s agree on
this much. The Republican Party has a problem with women, and Mitt Romney
will lose the election if he can`t close a growing gender gap. So enter
Reince Priebus, the head of the RNC, who said today the gender gap exists
only as a media fiction, and then he somehow worked "caterpillars" into his
quote. It`s not clear how caterpillars feel about Republicans, but this
certainly didn`t help with women. And the DNC has been only too eager to
take advantage.

Plus: Mitt happens. How did it come to this? The most conservative
Republican Party, now dominated by Tea Partiers, is about to nominate
perhaps the most moderate candidate in the field. If Mitt Romney goes on
to lose the election, might we see the kind of bloodletting that hasn`t
happened in the Republican Party since the Goldwater wipeout in `64? Could
that send the Republican Party even further to the right in 2016?

Also, Orrin Hatch says the Obama campaign will go after Romney because
he`s a Mormon. Really? Where`s the evidence for that?

And the 50th anniversary of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is being
celebrated with a screening at the White House tonight. Then President
Obama will introduce the movie when it airs on the USA network on Saturday
night. We`ll talk about why the movie and its themes remain so relevant
today.

And "Let Me Finish" tonight with a crime, the death penalty, and a
question of justice.

We begin with the RNC chairman`s comments about the war on women.
Susan Page is Washington bureau chief for "USA Today" and Howard Fineman is
the editorial director of the Huffington Post Media Group. He`s also an
MSNBC political analyst.

Well, here it is. Today, RNC chair Reince Priebus was asked about his
party`s problems with female voters. Priebus used an interesting analogy
to explain what was behind it. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REINCE PRIEBUS, RNC CHAIRMAN: If the Democrats said we had a war on
caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that
Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we`d have problems with
caterpillars. I mean, the fact of the matter is, is it`s a fiction.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Susan Page, it`s all your fault.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: What brought you to this conclusion?

SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": You know, it`s -- I know that the chairman
didn`t mean to compare women to caterpillars in an insulting way, he meant
to compare, you know, the Democratic charge in an insulting way to insects.

But a poor choice of words, I think he would acknowledge. It`s very
Etch-a-Sketch like in that he`s trying to make some other point, but the
image is such that he just gets himself wrapped up in a whole new
controversy.

SMERCONISH: Well, bugs aside, I mean, there`s some substance that
lies behind, you know, the charge that there`s a gender gap. And the
Democrats very quick to jump on the comments, Howard. Take a look at this
tweet from Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, who said, "From the
department of clueless, RNC chair says GOP problems women are contrived by
the media."

How significant an issue is this in the 2012 cycle? I don`t mean
caterpillars per se, but I mean the gender gap.

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:
Oh, it`s hugely significant. And Priebus was clueless. And I was e-
mailing this afternoon with some of those same people at Obama
headquarters, and one reason that they`re pretty confident right now is the
fact that there`s at least an 18-point gender gap between President Obama
and Mitt Romney and between the Democrats and the Republicans in the
polling right now -- 18 points.

That`s huge. And that`s something that gives the Democrats and the
Obama campaign confidence and something they`re going to try to build on
and something that comments like the Republican chairman`s just make all
that much worse.

SMERCONISH: Howard, I have that to which you refer. Look at these
incredible numbers from a new "USA Today" Gallup poll out this week. Men
and women in 12 key battleground states, asked about the presidential race,
there was a big gender gap.

Among men, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in a virtual tie, but look at
this. Women support Obama over Romney by an 18-point margin.

And Susan, my hunch is that this is not a Romney-specific finding, but
this is a GOP brand issue as much as anything else. What specifically do
you think lies behind that data?

PAGE: Well, I think we find men and women have different priorities.
We asked men what their top priority was. They ranked the debt and deficit
there. Women ranked health care. Women have a different view of the
economy. Women are very concerned about the economy, to be sure, but it`s
women who are often dealing with health care, putting gas in the car,
buying food at the grocery store, worried about sending their kids to
college and affording the tuition.

So -- and we also found that the debate over contraception is not the
sole driver of this, but it is one factor. We found one out of four women
in this country say they were paying -- saying that issue extremely
important to determining their vote. Other issues are more important, but
that`s a significant portion of women saying they`re really paying
attention to that debate.

SMERCONISH: Well, and here`s the divide on the issues to which you
refer. According to that recent survey in 12 swing states, men and women
prioritized the issues that are important to them differently.

Howard, take a look at this. For men, the most important issue,
deficit reduction and the national debt, gas ranks second, followed by
health care, international issues, unemployment.

Switch over to women, however, health care is the most important
issue. Deficit reduction and the national debt ranks number four. I
recognize that birth control regulation comes in at number six. I can`t
help but think that when some females were saying, Health care is my top
priority, they were encompassing a whole host of -- including female-
oriented medical issues.

FINEMAN: No, it`s because women are the ones who have to worry, for
the most part, about the health care of their families. And that is number
one.

And if I can slice it a little further, in talking to Democrats who
are working on key swing constituencies, like the Hispanic vote, which is
going to be absolutely crucial, just as this whole gender gap thing is --
for Hispanics, and especially Hispanic women, health care is over the top
the most important issue, to the point of, like, 60, 70, 80 percent.

And there are going to be advertisements by the Democrats in Spanish
appealing to Hispanic women about this health care issue, trying to say
that the Democrats are the party that wanted reform, that wanted to spread
health care costs, that wanted to make health care available to all, to all
your families, to all of your kids, et cetera, and that government has a
role in this.

And that`s going to be a consistent message for President Obama.
It`ll be very interesting to see what happens with the Supreme Court, how
they rule on that. But however the Supreme Court rules, it`s going to be
key to the whole Democratic appeal all the way from now to election day.

SMERCONISH: Susan Page, is it the sort of a problem that Mitt Romney
can solve with one decision, meaning his VP pick?

PAGE: No. I don`t think so. We know that -- there`s traditionally a
gender gap of some size. It`s the time -- women tend to be more Democratic
than men. But it becomes very problematic for Republicans when it gets
into double digits. You know, you can live with a gender gap of maybe 5
points, but when you get to 15 points or 18 points, that`s when it becomes
an issue that is going to defeat you at the polls.

It is not something, I think, for which there is one single bullet,
not even the pick of a vice president -- vice presidential running mate
that can fix. It`s a longer-term process and it`s something they need to
start working on now, and I`m sure they are.

SMERCONISH: All right, speaking of women, White House press secretary
Jay Carney was asked today whether the president would weigh in on a hot
button topic -- I can tell you it`s hot on talk radio -- whether women
should be allowed to join the Augusta National Golf Club, the private club
which hosts the Masters Tournament, not under way, and has never had a
female member.

Here`s how Carney responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president`s answer to
this question is yes, he believes -- his personal opinion is that women
should be admitted.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Now, Mitt Romney was also asked to weigh in on the
question of women and Augusta. He agreed with the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, of
course. I`m not a member of August. (INAUDIBLE) don`t know that I would
qualify by (INAUDIBLE) but certainly, if I were a member and if I were --
if I (INAUDIBLE) Augusta, which (INAUDIBLE) could happen, but of course I`d
have women in Augusta.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Susan, everything`s relevant. You know, in a 24/7 news
bubble with a campaign, as we are now facing, everything, I think, is fair
game, including this. Do you see this issue having legs in a presidential
context, or because they loosely agreed, perhaps not?

PAGE: You know, I think it -- I think it goes to -- I do think it has
some -- I think it`s part of this whole debate about women. I would just
note that I am the daughter of a member -- my mother is in the Kansas Golf
Hall of Fame as a former state champion. And the idea that she can`t be a
member of Augusta, it seems ridiculous in the 21st century.

Amy Walter, our friend from ABC, sent out a tweet suggesting that
memberships should be based on your handicap, not on your gender. And I
think that makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.

SMERCONISH: Howard, I believe in the right of free association, but I
got hosed by a country club once.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: Well, I don`t think -- and I`m not much of a golfer, but I
don`t think it should be based on handicap, therefore. But I think in the
department of -- in the department of the clueless, I would put the people
who run Augusta.

If you have Mitt Romney, who sort of sounded like he wanted to become
a member of Augusta, agreeing that women should be admitted, I think it`s
time for the people at Augusta to understand, especially when the CEO of
IBM, which is -- which is a big sponsor of the Masters and which -- and who
is traditionally given membership, invited to membership in the Augusta
Golf Club -- that person happens to be a female right now, and she has not
been invited to join Augusta. If I were she, I would pull the IBM
sponsorship.

SMERCONISH: Well, what I notice is that the spokesman for Augusta
very careful to say that they have no express prohibition. They`ve just
never had a female member.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: And of course, that begs the question, Well, who exactly
are you waiting for? You know, what does she look like and what does she
do for a living?

FINEMAN: Well, I think if she`s CEO of IBM, that`d probably be good
enough. I think they -- those guys need to wake up and wake up fast.

SMERCONISH: I can remember we went through this, Susan, a couple of
years ago -- in fact, by now, maybe a decade ago -- and the culmination was
that, if memory serves correct, they ran the Masters a couple of years with
no commercials.

PAGE: Yes. Well, as you know, I don`t know quite what they`re
waiting for because -- isn`t this a fight we`ve had, that -- and settled?
I mean, I don`t know...

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: I don`t know if we settled it.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: Anyway, thank you, Susan Page. Thank you, Howard
Fineman, as always.

FINEMAN: Thank you.

PAGE: Thank you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Coming up: The Republican Party is dominated by Tea
Partiers, and somehow, it`s about to nominate a moderate as their standard-
bearer. How did this happen?

This is HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: New poll numbers on the Republican primary in
Pennsylvania, and it`s not good for Rick Santorum. Let`s check the
HARDBALL "Scoreboard."

A new PPP poll has Mitt Romney now in the lead over native son
Santorum 42 percent to 37 percent. This is the first time that Romney has
overtaken Santorum in his home state, and it will no doubt up the pressure
on Santorum to get out before the April 24th contest.

And one more poll number to tell you about, New York, the third
biggest delegate haul in the primary campaign. No surprise here, Mitt
Romney is up big in a new Quinnipiac poll, 54 percent to 21 percent.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Mitt Romney is on the verge of defying a historical trend
in the Republican Party. The GOP is moving sharply to the right, and yet
somehow, the so-called Massachusetts moderate is closing in on the party`s
nomination. How did he manage that? And what kind of political
bloodletting might we see in the GOP if Romney loses in November?

Mark Halperin is "Time" magazine`s editor-at-large and a senior MSNBC
political analyst, and Sam Stein covers politics for the HuffingtonPost.

Sam, is it as simple as, well, there were too many conservatives all
dividing the vote and Romney was able to squeak in?

SAM STEIN, HUFFINGTONPOST: No, I actually don`t think so. I just
think that the template for what is a perfect Tea Party candidate is
unachievable. Every one of these people had their flaws, even the people
who didn`t jump in. Chris Christie would have had his flaws on the social
issues. (INAUDIBLE) would have had his flaws on the budget issues.

They all have certain deficiencies. Even Jim DeMint, for instance,
once backed "Romney care" a couple years ago when he was endorsing Mitt
Romney. So the question then became who do you find more electable, and in
that regard, I think people just gravitated towards Romney.

SMERCONISH: You know, Mark, when I sit here and think about being in
this chair in Chris`s stead in the midst of 2010 and the whole Tea Party
movement and the Gadsden flags everywhere, if you said to me then the net
effect of this is going to be a GOP takeover of the House, and then it`s
going to be Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee? Where is the disconnect?

MARK HALPERIN, "TIME" MAGAZINE, MSNBC SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Michael,
I`m going to risk hurting myself, patting myself on the back while I`ve got
my microphone and (INAUDIBLE) There was an open question going into this
nomination season. How much would the normal rules prevail? How much
would the establishment of the Republican Party, which in the modern era
has always picked the nominee from the person whose turn it was -- how much
would they still dominate the process?

I thought, in the end, they would dominate. They would have less
influence than they`ve ever had. Mitt Romney without a doubt is more out
of step with the Tea Party than many of the people who ran. But he has run
as a Tea Party candidate, talking about being anti the president, anti
"Obama care," anti big spending, and he`s the establishment candidate.

He`s not the perfect establishment candidate by some measures, but of
all the people who ran, he clearly had the profile of the kind of person
who the party always nominates.

SMERCONISH: So yet another victory for the establishment. Mark, by
the way, you were on "MORNING JOE" when Joe Scarborough described the gloom
and doom within the GOP about Mitt Romney`s chances this fall. Let`s watch
this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE SCARBOROUGH, CO-HOST, "MORNING JOE": Let me just say this for
everybody at home.

HALPERIN: He might.

SCARBOROUGH: The Republican establishment...

MIKA BRZEZINSKI, CO-HOST, "MORNING JOE": He might.

SCARBOROUGH: I`ve yet to meet a single person of the Republican
establishment who thinks Mitt Romney`s going to win the general election
this year. They won`t say it on TV because they`ve got to go on TV and
they don`t want people writing them nasty e-mails. I obviously don`t care.

But I have yet to meet anybody in the Republican establishment that
worked for George W. Bush, that works in the Republican Congress, that
worked for Ronald Reagan that thinks Mitt Romney`s going to win the general
election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: As we await the sequel to "Game Change," does that
comport with your reporting? Is that what you, Mark Halperin, are hearing
from the GOP folks?

HALPERIN: Michael, I`ve worked in TV for 25 years. When the host of
a show says something, you have two choices. You can say, That`s exactly
right, Joe...

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: Or nothing!

HALPERIN: ... or you can follow the advice of Bambi`s mother. If you
don`t have something nice to say, don`t say anything at all.

I don`t agree with Joe on that. I do agree that there is pretty
broad-based pessimism among some elements of the establishment. There are
some people who are waiting to see if -- to have Romney prove to them that
he can actually win this.

But look, he signed Ed Gillespie up -- Ed Gillespie, one of the best
strategists in the Republican Party. If he can put his imprimatur (ph) on
the Romney campaign, I think there are plenty of Republicans who are
cautiously optimistic but who believe that Mitt Romney can win this.

SMERCONISH: Sam Stein, what`s your vibe on this whole issue of
whether these will all be bygones when we head toward the fall?

STEIN: I absolutely think they`ll be bygones. We have seven months
before the election. That`s an eternity. We don`t know how the economy`s
(INAUDIBLE) Obviously, it`s going in a positive direction, but there`s
worries that the recovery will slow down over the summer. And when that
happens, you basically recast (ph) the entire race.

And again, Mitt Romney has always been a more comfortable candidate in
a general election showdown, as opposed to a primary election, where he has
to convince people that he`s, you know, conservative enough.

So there are certain dynamics that we`ve yet to see play out. I don`t
think that the pessimism is warranted among conservatives. And keep in
mind, the ultimate wild card here is super-PAC money. There`s going to be
a ton of it thrown into this race, much more than we`ve ever seen...

SMERCONISH: Well, and I...

STEIN: ... and that could level the playing field in ways we can`t
even imagine.

SMERCONISH: And I still believe, as I`ve believed from day one, that
largely, in the end, it`s a referendum on the president.

Mark, you write in "Time" magazine, quote, "Romney`s prospects rely on
two tracks, abandoning the effort to be likable and settling instead for
awkwardly endearing, though his public image is a long way off from that,
and using a series of upcoming framing speeches to condemn the Obama
economic record."

I guess we just got a little taste of how he`s headed in the latter
direction with the speech before the AP that attacked the Ryan plan.

HALPERIN: That`s right. And the president, I think, in his own AP
speech, did a really brilliant thing of drawing the Republicans in to
debate all these process questions, to make it a debate between the Romney
vision of the economy and the Ryan plan and the president`s vision, rather
than the president`s record.

Now, we`ll get a jobs number tomorrow that everybody thinks is going
to be better, but I think if Mitt Romney has a chance, again, as I say in
"Time," it`s to make this a referendum on the president.

We`ve said this for months. The president wants it to be a choice,
the Republicans want it to be a referendum on the president`s record. It`s
playing out right now as the general election starts. That`s what each of
the -- both sides are trying to do, exactly what they thought.

And I think again, beyond (INAUDIBLE) to come across as -- as
endearing and goofy in a lovable way, I think is (ph) his (ph) best hope to
try to equalize the personal gap, Romney has to make this about the economy
or I don`t think he has a chance to win.

SMERCONISH: The funny thing, one issue that I think both sides can agree
on, they would like to see Paul Ryan be the V.P. pick.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: In that House behind you, Sam, is that the vibe, like,
sure, bring on Ryan, this would be perfect, because we can shoot at that
plan?

STEIN: Of course. Of course.

It wasn`t all too long ago that Newt Gingrich, who still is in this
race, called the Ryan plan right-wing social engineering. I would bet a
lot of money that that quote is played back to Mitt Romney and alongside of
him calling the Ryan budget marvelous.

That budget is very much a conservative budget and Mitt Romney has
embraced it. To go back to the first question, I don`t think conservatives
really lost as much as we think they have lost. They got Mitt Romney to
move very far right on issues that are very critical to them, the budget.

He also had to revamp his tax reform policy in late February to make
it steeper and more aggressive, so they did win some concessions out of
Romney.

SMERCONISH: That would be the most conservative pick -- I don`t mean
conservative in terms of politics, Mark Halperin. I mean safest play, as
far from a game change as you could possibly get.

HALPERIN: Well, I think there are safer picks only because although
Paul Ryan is pretty well known in inside circles, he`s never had the full
cavity search that some of the other people who might be picked have had.

And he`s a young guy, and I think picking a younger guy or younger
person is a bit of a risk as well. I don`t think he`s the safest pick. In
one respect, though, he`s quite safe, which is, you`re right, he would
please probably the most people who pay close attention to politics,
because the left would love him because they could run more foursquarely
against the Ryan budget, and the right would love him because he`s a hero
amongst a lot of conservatives.

SMERCONISH: Mark Halperin...

STEIN: Yes, but he also -- he also -- he also goes against Mitt
Romney`s mantra, which is you need someone who has not been in government
to go into Washington and turn it around. Paul Ryan spent a lot of time in
Washington up from the staff level to the elected.

SMERCONISH: Mark Halperin, Sam Stein, thank you both as usual. We
appreciate your comments.

HALPERIN: Thank you, Michael.

STEIN: Thanks.

SMERCONISH: Up next, you might not know it, but MSNBC`s David
Gregory, he is a master of impressions. His take on some of the Republican
presidential candidates is next in the "Sideshow."

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Back to HARDBALL and now for the "Sideshow."

First up, we saw no shortage of the GOP debates this election cycle,
that`s for sure. But did you ever wonder what the candidates were up to
during the commercial breaks?

Well, NBC`s David Gregory, who moderated one of the face-offs, sat
down with Jay Leno last night and he gave an inside scoop.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO")

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": They`re doing the debate.
And then the commercial starts and they all leave. Nobody wants to be seen
standing at their podium. They think it will make them look weak or
something.

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": Oh, OK.

GREGORY: Everybody has got their thing they want to tell you.

Rick Santorum, he looks a little stressed out and he kind of walks up
and he said, David, you didn`t come back to me on the Medicare -- on the
exception on the Medicare. I want to be able to respond on the Ryan plan.
Gingrich comes over and after he attacks the press, and then he will say, I
only got one question. I should get two questions every segment.

And then there was Rick Perry who came back and said, Gregory, this is
great. Having a great time.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Pretty solid impression, though I notice Romney didn`t
get a nod there.

Next up, the Obama campaign has officially declared a game on with
Mitt Romney, and the proof is in the ad wars. Team Obama got a new theme
under way yesterday, Mitt Romney vs. reality.

It`s turned into something of a miniseries, and here`s what they dug
up for part two.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He went around the world and
apologized for America.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will not apologize
for our way of life.

ROMNEY: He has also failed to communicate that military options are
on the table.

OBAMA: I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to
defend the United States and its interests.

ROMNEY: In his State of the Union address, he didn`t even mention the
debt or the deficits.

OBAMA: When it comes to the deficit, we have already agreed to more
than $2 trillion in cuts and savings. Debt. The deficit. Deficit.
Deficit. Deficit. Debt. That`s how we will reduce our deficit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: I`m not sure which is worse for the Republicans, that or
ads where Mitt Romney contradicts Mitt Romney.

And finally in yesterday`s "Sideshow," we took a look back at some of
the greatest hits, if you will, that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum
leveled at Mitt Romney. Take this one, for example.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And there`s something so
grotesquely hypocritical about the Romney campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: So, last night, Newt Gingrich was asked the very same
question we had. Will team Obama use biting comments like that one to slam
Mitt Romney in the general election? Newt seemed less than concerned.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: When the time comes that somebody wins this nomination, can
those of you who have been running stand on stage together and honestly
with a straight face say, I support the...

(CROSSTALK)

GINGRICH: Absolutely.

QUESTION: But aren`t the Democrats going to use your words against
each other?

GINGRICH: Yes, but it doesn`t matter, because they just make stuff up
anyway.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: OK. So once the Obama campaign gets ahold of Newt`s own
statements about Mitt Romney, they lose any shred of truth. I would say
it`s more likely that we`re going to see some backpedaling from those soon-
to-be-Romney backers.

Up next: Republican Senator Orrin Hatch says the Obama campaign will
play the Mormon card against Mitt Romney. But is Hatch forgetting who went
President Obama claiming he`s a Muslim?

By the way, you can follow me on Twitter so long as you can spell
Smerconish.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks search for direction ahead of Friday`s jobs report. The Dow
shedding 14 points. The S&P was off a fraction, the Nasdaq gaining 12
points. Weekly jobless claims continued their downward trend, falling
6,000 to their lowest level since April of 2008. Retailers posted solid
gains last month thanks to warmer weather. And Facebook will reportedly
list its shares on the Nasdaq when it makes its trading debut next month.

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

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Our HARDBALL strategists are back tonight to discuss two trending
topics on the campaign trail this week. Number one, Rick Santorum met with
conservatives today to try to bring together the conservative vote and that
also meant discussing how to get Newt Gingrich to drop out. And second,
Utah Senator Orrin Hatch predicts the Obama campaign will use Romney`s
Mormon faith used against him in the general election, a charge Democrats
deny.

With that, we welcome our HARDBALL strategists, Democrat Steve
McMahon, Republican Todd Harris.

Todd, give some advice to Senator Santorum. If you had his ear today,
what would you be telling him to do?

TODD HARRIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Two words: Drop out.

The legacy of the Santorum campaign is going to be -- it`s going to
boil down, really, to one of two things. There is everything that has
happened until this moment, and then everything going forward. If he were
to get out now, I think the legacy of his campaign would be, look, this is
a leader who came from behind, he went from also ran to near front-runner
status virtually overnight. He ran a hell of a race.

If he stays in and runs a smear campaign against the guy that
everybody knows is going to be the nominee, Mitt Romney, he risks his
legacy being that of a petulant politician who put self-interest ahead of
defeating the president.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: Well, I argued -- I argued here last night that I thought
the reason he was hanging tough for three more weeks was because he wanted
to erase that part of his legacy, which is an 18-point loss to Bob Casey
Jr.

And now, bad news for Rick Santorum in the form of new PPP polls from
Pennsylvania that show 42 percent chose Mitt Romney as their choice for the
nominee to just 37 percent for native son Santorum.

So, Steve, that option might be off the table, that option of, hey, I
win in Pennsylvania and then back -- when we come back in 2016, at least
nobody is going to ask me about the Casey loss anymore.

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, I think you just said
something that`s very important to remember, when we come back in 2016.

And that`s really what`s going on here. It was a group of
conservative leaders who obviously want to defeat Mitt Romney, and they
have wanted to from the beginning and they haven`t been very successful so
far. They hold a secret meeting that`s promptly leaked to "The Washington
Post" and everybody else who write about it.

And I think Rick Santorum is caught in between, as Todd suggests, a
legacy of a sore loser and perhaps a spoiler, and someone who wants be the
conservative choice in 2016. So he`s playing footsie with all the
conservative leaders who can put him in that position four years down the
road. And he`s worried about his legacy. And I think it`s a very
legitimate concern. If he loses Pennsylvania, he may have nothing left.

SMERCONISH: Hey, Todd, I want to change my strategy question to this
one. You`re in the room today with the conservatives, with Santorum. Now
advise the group. If the objective here is conservative policy going
forward, what should they as a group be doing?

HARRIS: Well, look, if -- just because they`re not wild about Mitt
Romney, this group of conservatives, A., compared to President Obama, I
think that every person in that room would probably agree that Mitt Romney
is a far better option.

But if they can`t get excited about Romney, then go get excited about
some of these House races that are really competitive. Go get excited
about trying to take over the Senate. There are all kinds of avenues where
the energy of the conservative movement could be flowing and could be
channeled that are much more productive than this quixotic dream of somehow
getting Newt out and that would somehow put Santorum over the top.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: Well, I`m not convinced that would change the dynamic at
all.

Let me show you this. Campaigning in Pennsylvania yesterday, Santorum
again made the point that the GOP needs to go with a real conservative
nominee this time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The best chance for us to
win is to put up a candidate like we did in 1980, not like we did in 1976.
And that`s what the focus is going to be. Let`s try to make sure that we
have the strongest possible candidate to be able to win a very, very
critical election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: And, Steve McMahon, after a lot of well-paid-for speeches
and maybe a stint at FOX, it`s now 2017. And he says, I told you so. You
nominated the moderate. That`s why we lost. This year, we need a real
conservative.

MCMAHON: That`s exactly what he says. And you can actually take that
clip and you could change the date in it and refer it back to 2012 and
that`s what he will be saying in 2013 and `14 and `15 leading up to the
next race.

The Republican establishment believes, I think, for the most part --
they won`t say it publicly, but Jeff Scarborough is right -- they`re
worried that Mitt Romney is going to lose this time. And after he loses,
Rick Santorum is going to rise and say, if we had nominated a true
conservative, given people a real choice, we would have been successful.

There are a lot of people in the Republican Party who believe that.
And Mitt -- for Rick Santorum, the question is how do you get out and
preserve that opportunity and preserve that viability for the future?
Staying in and getting beat 10 more times isn`t going to make the case that
you`re the best nominee next time.

SMERCONISH: Well, a differing interpretation, and we can save this
debate for later, would be that the party went off the rails, lost all the
moderates, and consequently should have moved back to the center before
they drove all those folks away.

I want to move on. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Mormon,
predicted earlier this week that the Obama campaign will use Mitt Romney`s
religion against him. On Tuesday, he said -- quote -- "You watch, they are
going to throw the Mormon Church at him like you can`t believe it."

And Wednesday he said -- quote -- "For them to say they aren`t going
to smear Mitt Romney is baloney. It`s way out of bounds, but that is what
is going to happen."

The Obama reelection campaign said The Huffington Post earlier this
year -- quote -- "Attacking a candidate`s religion is out of bounds and our
campaign will not engage in it."

And here`s what Democratic Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman
Schultz had to say yesterday on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D), FLORIDA: That is just
preposterous. That suggestion is utter nonsense. I mean, let`s remember
that President Obama has had so many things hurled at him, birth
certificate questions, whether he is or is not a Christian.

I mean, for them to suggest that religion will be injected by
President Obama and the Democratic Party, I mean, they need to take a look
inwards at the accusations that their party and their supporters have
hurled before they take that step.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Todd Harris, I don`t expect that to happen, but, you
know, the media is everybody in P.J.s, some of which have feet in them.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: Somebody is going to play this up, and then it is going
to be a question of whether you can tie it to a campaign. How do you see
it?

HARRIS: Well, Senator Hatch is in the middle of a tough primary
battle back home in Utah, and my guess is that he was looking to fire up
his base a little bit.

I don`t think there`s a lot to this story. I would be shocked if, in
any overt way, the Romney -- or the Obama campaign or the DNC did anything
to challenge Governor Romney based on -- on his faith. That doesn`t mean
that -- that there won`t be whisper campaigns and, say, people talking
about, see, he`s just not like us for this whole host of reasons.

I would also be shocked if that didn`t happen. But, as far as openly
making Governor Romney`s faith an issue, I just don`t think it`s going to
happen.

SMERCONISH: I -- I thought that David Gregory said something wise,
David Gregory, of course, from "Meet the Press," when he was on "The
Tonight Show with Jay Leno" last night, and described Mitt Romney`s faith
as being, you know, his core, central to who he is. Here`s how he said it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": Let`s be honest. This
is the core of who Mitt Romney is. He was a missionary in France for two
years. He was a bishop in the church, which in the Mormon Church is
effectively like the police.

Philanthropically, he`s made huge contributions. He`s had a big
impact on the church, and yet he doesn`t talk about it. It`s a core of who
is and yet he doesn`t feel like it`s safe to talk about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: I think there`s a lot of truth to that, Steve. Advise
the other side of the aisle. If you were whispering in Mitt Romney`s ear,
would you be saying to him, if you had his best interest at heart, hey,
it`s OK, go out and address some of these things?

MCMAHON: I actually think that he probably would benefit from doing
that. Remember, John Kennedy went and gave a speech in Texas, I think, at
a religious group where he basically said, I`m a Catholic. It is part of
the core of my being. I believe in the tenets of my church, but I`m
perfectly capable of being president of the United States and recognizing
separation of church and state.

I honestly don`t think Mitt Romney has a religion problem, but I do
think that people would be reassured if they heard that from him. And
because it is such a big part of his core -- and this will surprise people
because many of us thought he didn`t have a core -- he ought to at least
address it and make it part of his narrative, because people are wondering
who he is, he has this awkward way about him.

And his wife who fell in love with him and says he`s not only funny,
but witty and charming and all those things we haven`t seen -- if people
saw a little bit more of that from him, including his core, he probably
would be better off.

I still think the president would beat him because he`s wrong on the
issues, but it would be a much more difficult race if people had a better
understanding of him as a person.

SMERCONISH: I agree with you, for what it`s worth, and I also think
self-deprecation works. He ought to be the guy cracking up about himself,
you know, before waiting for all the late night comedians.

Anyway, thank you, Steve McMahon. And thank you, Todd Harris. We
appreciate it.

MCMAHON: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Up next, President Obama screens the classic film "To
Kill a Mockingbird" tonight at the White House and will introduce a special
airing of the movie this weekend on USA. The film has been around for 50
years but these days, it`s as relevant as ever.

This is HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Nevada is one of those key battleground states that will
help decide the presidential election. And right now, the Silver State is
looking golden for President Obama.

Let`s check the HARDBALL scoreboard. Right now, if the election were
held today, President Obama would beat Mitt Romney, 51-43, in Nevada.
That`s according to a new PPP poll. That eight-point margin, the same
margin Obama won the state by back in 2008.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And so, a cry of humble, respectable Negro who
has had the unmitigated temerity to feel sorry for a white woman has had to
put his word against two white peoples. This defendant is not guilty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: That, of course, is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in "To
Kill a Mockingbird," the classic story of race and the struggle for justice
which is set in 1930s Alabama.

President Obama is honoring the film`s 50th anniversary by hosting a
private screening at the White House tonight and with a televised
introduction to the national broadcast on Saturday.

MSNBC political analyst Michael Eric Dyson and "Chicago Tribune"
columnist Clarence Page join me now.

Michael, this resonated so much with my wife, that Atticus made the
short list for first names for our firstborn, but Smerconish and Atticus
just didn`t roll off the tongue.

ERIC MICHAEL DYSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

SMERCONISH: Why does it have so much staying power?

DYSON: Well, I think it speaks, Michael, to very moral conscience
that is at the heart of the struggle over black and white, over right and
wrong, and over the self definition of America as a great nation, able to
rise above the weight of its legendary and an often storied past, also
sorry past, to go into a great future.

And I think when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about appealing to the
consciences of white people, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch was a stand in
within the white community to speak volumes about the ethical necessity to
treat one`s brother and sister regardless of color as an equal.

And I think in this case, it appeals to so many white people, and it
appealed to them because it wasn`t a message coming from the outside, from
an African-American, but being generated from within the culture itself.

SMERCONISH: Well, did that make it easy to broach some of these
subjects, Clarence, given the fact that Harper Lee, who wrote it, was a
Caucasian female? And by the way, still with us, I`m happy to say.

CLARENCE PAGE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: She is, indeed. And she was very
much in the middle of that kind of situation. They`re real life people,
including her own father, and the character of Scout that leads the story.

That corresponds to her up in the colored balcony at the courthouse
back when her father used to be a trial lawyer, and he had a couple of
unsuccessful cases of trying to save the lives of black defendants who are
innocent and he stopped practicing trial law after that. I mean, there are
so many layers to this story.

But Michael is right. This really depicts a narrative that haunts
America`s memory. And throughout American history, you can see books like
this. "Uncle Tom`s Cabin" is the perfect example of one which black
readers will also ambivalent about, but that really struck white leaders at
the time. It was the biggest best seller of that era. It helped lead to
the Civil War, according to Abraham Lincoln.

You see this kind of story recurring, and it`s also what made the
O.J. Simpson verdict so shocking, because in the eyes of many people,
especially white Americans, this was upside of that narrative, you know?
It turned it on its head.

SMERCONISH: Yes.

PAGE: And black folks were relieved that a black man got a fair
trial, white folks were alarmed that a possible double murderer got off.

SMERCONISH: Here is a scene, gentlemen, from the movie where Bob
Ewell, the father of the young woman who`s accused the black man of rape,
learns that Atticus Finch isn`t willing to play by the town`s unspoken
rules. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Captain, somebody told me just now that they
thought that you believed Tom Robinson`s story. You know, I said -- I said
you`re wrong, man. You`re dead wrong. Mr. Finch isn`t taking his side.
Well, he was wrong, wasn`t he?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I`ve been appointed to defend of Tom Robinson.
Now that he`s been charged, that`s what I intend to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Michael, the president screening the movie tonight, rate
him -- meaning President Obama on matters of race. Are you satisfied with
the way in which he`s engaged the nation in dialogue on these sensitive
issues?

DYSON: Well, President Obama is in a very difficult situation. Most
white Americans don`t want to hear anything about race, especially from a
primarily African-American perspective that seeks to even bring some calm
and restore some order to what is often a chaotic and undisciplined affair.
At the same time, the president knows he has to speak to serious issues
that matter most, not only to African American people but to American
people -- 17.5 percent unemployment between African-American people is not
a black tragedy, it`s an American tragedy.

And yet, when he speaks out on issues of race, he is lambasted. Look
at what happened when he spoke out in regard to Professor Henry Louis Gates
at Harvard. Look at what happened even he said, "If I had a son, he`d look
like Trayvon" -- and the right wing made mincemeat of that statement.

So, the president has to walk a very genuinely delicate line on the
one hand between offending the masses of white Americans. And by the way,
not just the right wing, but many liberals don`t engage on issue of race
either. We`d all rather just not deal with it rather than confront it head
on.

And so, I think in that sense, President Obama has not been the
educator-in-chief when it comes to issues of race, because he realizes he
doesn`t have as much as white privilege as a guy like Bill Clinton, who can
engage us more robustly on the issues and matters of race than he can, even
as president of the United States of America as a black man.

SMERCONISH: Clarence, is that an assessment that you share? How do
you assess the president`s handling of matters on the sensitive issues of
race?

PAGE: Well, it`s certainly, whenever Barack Obama has spoken on race
off the cuff, he`s run into problems. There are only a few teachable
moments available to him, and I think "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a perfect
example of it.

When Chicago started their read a book program, they pushed for every
child in Chicago to read "To Kill a Mockingbird." That was the first novel
that was picked out for the very reasons that it has sold so well. I`ve
read that it`s the best selling book on race, best selling fictional book
on race in American history if that`s possible, because it`s certainly very
popular these days.

And yet, it touches these very, very sensitive issues that we`re
afraid to talk about here in the real world, but maybe this would be a
launch pad for it.

SMERCONISH: Well, one subject I think we can all agree on, it`s a
sensational movie, and it`s timeless. And hopefully, this will prompt
folks to go and rent it and watch it again.

Thank you very much, Michael Eric Dyson, and, Clarence Page, for your
time tonight.

PAGE: Thank you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: You can watch "To Kill a Mockingbird" with a special
introduction by President Obama this Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on
the USA Network.

When we return, "Let Me Finish" with a matter of life and death.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

Early this morning, Connecticut took a big step toward becoming the
17th state to abolish the death penalty. At 2:00 a.m., the state Senate
passed the measure largely along partisan lines, that would replace capital
punishment with life in prison and no chance of release. Now, it goes to
statehouse where it has support and Governor Dannel Malloy has pledged to
sign it.

Any time a state makes a change in course on the death penalty, it`s
significant. But even more so in Connecticut because of what happened on
Cheshire in July 23rd, 2007. That day, two criminal recidivists broke into
a Dr. William Petit`s home, bludgeoned him with a baseball bat and tied him
up in the basement.

Over several hours, Petit`s wife Jennifer was taken to the bank to
withdraw money, raped and ultimately strangled to death. Daughter
Michaela, age 11, sexually assaulted, tied her to bed, and another daughter
also tied to their bed. Daughter Hayley, age 17, also died to her bed.
The girls died of smoke inhalation when the two attackers poured gasoline
throughout the house and set it on fire.

Now, both assailants were captured. They were convicted and they
were sentenced to death. Yesterday, Dr. Petit was among those who oppose
the death penalty repeal, despite the measure`s perspective nature, meaning
the bill stipulates that the 11 men currently on Connecticut`s death row,
Dr. Petit`s torturers among them, would still face execution.

Capital punishment would only be abolished for those convicted of
capital offenses in the future.

I happen to think that the men who killed Dr. Petit`s family should
pay with their lives. When a jury imposes such a sentence, it`s important
that it`d be carried out.

I doubt, however, that caveat is comforting to Dr. Petit, especially
where Connecticut has executed one man since 1960. And by waiving his
appeals, that inmate essentially asked for it.

That`s similar to my home state of Pennsylvania, where we too have
the death penalty in name only. Since capital punishment was reinstated in
the commonwealth back in 1978, only three people have been put to death,
and again, they each gave up their appeals.

The state`s last contested execution was carried way back in 1962.
In the intervening five decades, the justice system has been gradually
manipulated into a process that coddles its worst offenders at the expense
of real victims. Men like Dr. Petit are victimized twice when they lose
loved ones, and then watch helplessly as their legal issues devolved into a
never ending cycle of appeals because the court system will not act upon an
outcome that a legislature permitted and a jury selected. And that is the
greatest injustice of all.

That`s HARDBALL for now. Thank you for being with us.

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.


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