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updated 6/13/2012 5:19:50 PM ET 2012-06-13T21:19:50

Guests: Alexander Burns, Kathleen Kane, Peter Welch, Cynthia Tucker, Dan Lungren

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, GUEST HOST: Obama versus Romney. Whose gaffe is
worse?

Let`s play some HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Michael Smerconish. Chris Matthews is on a shoot
at Mount Rushmore. He`ll be back tomorrow.

Leading off tonight, a tale of two gaffes. The Romney campaign is all
over President Obama for saying the private sector is doing fine. And the
Obama campaign has pounced on Mitt Romney for saying that firemen,
policemen and teachers are akin to big government and we don`t need to hire
more of them.

Which gaffe will resonate the most? Which one will voters remember in
November? That`s where we`ll start tonight.

Plus, the political implications of an election-year investigation
into whether someone at the White House is leaking details about America`s
national security.

And back in 2008, President Obama told Hillary Clinton, "You`re
likable enough." Well, fast-forward four years. Polls show President
Obama is more likable than Mitt Romney, but does the likable candidate have
the advantage?

And today is the first day of the trial of Jerry Sandusky, the former
Penn State football coach accused of sexually abusing 10 boys.

Then, "Let Me Finish" with a president who knew the value of not
bragging on himself.

We begin with the gaffes from both President Obama and Mitt Romney.
Howard Fineman is the editorial director of the Huffington Post Media
Group. David Corn is the Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones"
magazine and the author of the book "Showdown." Both men, of course, are
MSNBC political analysts.

Gentlemen, here`s what the president said on Friday. In context, he
was comparing job growth in the private sector to the less rosy picture in
the public sector, but he gave Republicans a big opportunity to jump on his
words. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The truth of the matter
is that, as I said, we`ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last two -- 27
months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing
fine. Where we`re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state
and local government, oftentimes cuts initiated by, you know, governors or
mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from
the federal government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Later in the day, the president backtracked. He said
that the economy was clearly not doing fine. But it was too late. The
Romney camp had already put up a pair of Web videos showing the president
as out of touch. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We`ve seen layoffs, cutbacks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When it`s all said and done, I`m making $200 a
month.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I`ve been looking for a job for two years,
haven`t found any.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, I had to file my own personal
bankruptcy. I had to close my business.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here I am, no health care and a slashed pension.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just lost my job recently.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have to work part-time in order to make ends
meet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sometimes I feel like I`m a failure.

OBAMA: The private sector is doing fine.

The private sector is doing fine.

The private sector is doing fine.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Howard Fineman, what`s the shelf life of this kerfuffle?

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:
Oh, I`m not sure exactly what the shelf life is. But boy, it was a gift
from the gods for the Romney campaign because they`ve been desperately
trying to show or claim that the president is more out of touch than Mitt
Romney in the sort of out-of-touchness race. And Mitt Romney`s been
leading in that race all year, especially with the elevators and the garage
and the wealth and that kind of stuff. So they want to try to make that
point.

And the other thing is that there`s an oppo guy running the -- running
the Romney campaign, Matt Rose (ph), who`s trained in oppo. They pounced
on this. And Stu Stevens (ph), the media guy, has going around to job
fairs, getting sort of grainy black and white pictures of people
complaining about what`s happened to them in the economy.

So this was a perfect thing for them to try to meet the arguing,
debating points they`ve been trying to set up all year.

SMERCONISH: Well, David, it seems to me that in order for it to be
effective, the Romney campaign has got to convince folks that he actually
meant it -- "he" being the president, that he actually meant it when he
said it and it just wasn`t misspoken words.

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that would
be nice if they had to do that, but politics is a medium of impressions.
It doesn`t have to be accurate for it to work. It just has to resonate
with people. And right now, the economy is not doing well.

And as Howard mentioned, the Romney campaign is trying to, you know,
get this point across, embed this point in the electorate that Obama is out
of touch, he doesn`t really understand the economy, he doesn`t get the
economy. And so when he says the, you know, private sector is doing just
fine, that`s evidence to them.

Now, of course, given the full context of the remark, it`s not what he
really meant to say. It`s not his intention. It doesn`t really show -- it
was a slipup and it was a gaffe. That`s why we call it a gaffe.

What Romney said, which I assume we`ll get to in a moment, was not a
gaffe, it was a policy position. But in the battle of 30-second hit ads,
you don`t have to get it right for the ad to sometimes be effective.

SMERCONISH: We are going to get -- you are right. We`re going to get
to that in just a moment.

Howard, when I heard what the president had said, I thought, It`s deja
vu all over again, for many of us. His comments were reminiscent of some
unfortunate things that John McCain said four years ago in the face of
growing economic crisis, when he had this to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), NOMINEE FOR PRESIDENT: There`s been
tremendous turmoil in our financial markets and Wall Street. And it is --
it`s -- people are frightened by these events. Our economy, I think, still
-- the fundamentals of our economy are strong, but these are very, very
difficult times.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Howard, compare the two and contrast them.

FINEMAN: Well, I think the similarity is that both speakers were
trying to make a -- to leverage a point by overstating, to some extent,
something else.

The president wanted to point out the fact that there`s been a
disaster in public employment in part because of the failure of Republicans
or the refusal of the Republicans to go along with pumping more money into
state and local governments to pay for police, for fire, for teachers and
other government workers. And there`s been an absolute wipeout in terms of
public sector employment.

That`s the point he wanted to make. But he colored it a little too
deeply on the other side in order to jujitsu in that point, if I can mix my
metaphors horribly.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: And John McCain was trying to do the same thing. He wanted
to be a reassuring -- he wanted, on the one hand, to say that he understood
how deeply troubled we were as a country economically, but that we were
strong as a nation. And that -- you know, that`s a Republican talking
point. And after all, he was coming after two terms of a Republican
president. He didn`t want to completely say the country is a disaster
because he was following George Bush.

SMERCONISH: Let`s shift the other side of the aisle now because as
David mentioned, last week, as Mitt Romney was trying to keep the attention
on Obama`s poor choice of words, the Republican candidate said something
that he, himself, has now raised eyebrows with. Let watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He wants
another stimulus. He wants to hire more government workers. He says we
need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the
message of Wisconsin? The American people did! It`s time for us to cut
back on government and help the American people!

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: And of course, David Axelrod and others were then quick
to criticize Romney. Yesterday, Axelrod said that Romney must be living on
a different planet if he thinks that we don`t need more teachers,
firefighters and police. And he continued the attack this morning. Here
it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID AXELROD, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: We`ve lost 250,000
teachers the last 27 months as we were gaining these public -- these
private sector jobs. Does anybody really believe that we don`t need more
teachers, that we can keep whacking teachers and that we`re going to
advance as a country?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: David, the mistake here is that the GOP playbook says,
Talk about bureaucrats, faceless, nameless bureaucrats. You may or may not
talk about teachers. They`re in a category all themselves. But you
certainly don`t talk about firefighters or police if the issue are
positions you`re going to cut.

CORN: Well, yes. The Republicans and conservatives for decades now
have attacked government, but when they attack government, they don`t talk
about it being, say, nurses in a public hospital or teachers and
firefighters, rescue workers, police officers because they know those are
popular positions and that people want those things.

People in cities want more cops if there are high-crime areas, even in
rural areas. People want more teachers. But yet, you know, Mitt Romney
went out there and acted as if that was a bad thing, not just to lift
employment but a bad thing overall.

It was just a week or two back, he was in your town, Michael. He was
in Philly, and he was disputing the need for more teachers to get smaller
class sizes. You know, my 5th grader just graduated from elementary school
today, and I was there. I was looking at some of these big classes, a
public school, and I`m saying, you know, it`s just pretty obvious that we
could compete better in our educational needs with other nations if we had
more teachers out there, good teachers, of course.

But yet for Mitt Romney to just sort of blow that off? The difference
between what he said and what Obama said was Obama`s was a gaffe. This
really seemed to indicate what Mitt Romney is thinking and what he would
like to do to this country.

SMERCONISH: Howard -- Howard, I know you gave a 4.5 on the Howard
Fineman Richter scale in terms of the president`s gaffe.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: On a 1 to 10, where would you place this poor word choice
from Mitt Romney?

FINEMAN: Well, I would put it at a 5 for the reason -- a 5 for the
reason that David said.

SMERCONISH: Really?

FINEMAN: Well, it was intentional. It was -- and so I give him extra
points for that. And also, there were divisions within his own party over
it. Scott Walker...

SMERCONISH: Well, as a matter of fact, I can -- I can -- allow me to
make your point. And you can react to this.

FINEMAN: Yes.

SMERCONISH: The governor of Wisconsin...

FINEMAN: Yes.

SMERCONISH: ... to whom you were just referring, distanced himself
from Romney`s statement on Friday. On Sunday, Walker was asked if Romney
was right about what he called the, quote, "message of Wisconsin." He
emphasized that his state has tried to protect firefighters, police
officers, teachers. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST, "FACE THE NATION": Well, do you think Governor
Romney is talking about getting rid of more teachers and firemen?

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R), WISCONSIN: No. I think, in the end, the big
issue is that the private sector still needs more help, and the answer`s
not more big government. I know in my state, our reforms allowed us to
protect firefighters, police officers and teachers. That`s not what I
think when I think of big government.

I think the bigger sense is more government regulations, more
stimulus, more things that take money out of the private sector and put it
in the hands of the government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Howard, that`s the clip to which you were referring.
What point did you want to make?

FINEMAN: Well, I wanted to make the point that not just the governor
but others that I talked to can -- pretty sharp conservative strategists
like Steven Law (ph), who runs American Crossroads for Karl Rove, said,
Look, we have to be very careful on this issue of public employees.

If we can go after some lavish pensions from some faceless
bureaucrats, great. That`s a winner for us. But as we learned elsewhere,
including in Ohio, if it`s framed in terms of police, fire and teachers --
and that`s what Steve said to me -- then we`ve got to be very careful.
We`re probably going to end up on the wrong side of that.

SMERCONISH: Right.

FINEMAN: So if that is, in fact, Romney`s strategy that he`s going to
pursue -- and seems he was pursuing it because they put out their number
one surrogate this morning, John Sununu, on television to double down on
the Romney line -- then it seems like something like -- the rule of holes
is when you`re in one, stop digging. I`m not sure that Romney`s going to
stop digging on this one.

SMERCONISH: Gentlemen, thank you both. Wish we had more time for
Howard Fineman and David Corn. Coming up...

FINEMAN: Thank you.

CORN: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: ... what does it mean for the White House now that
Attorney General Eric Holder is investigating whether top secret national
security details were leaked? That`s ahead.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: So you might not have known the name of the commerce
secretary, but chances are, you do now. John Bryson was cited for felony
hit-and-run after a pair of car crashes in southern California over the
weekend.

Bryson allegedly rear-ended a car stopped for a passing train, talked
briefly with the people in the car, then hit it again as he pulled away.
Minutes later, he allegedly hit another car, and police found him alone and
unconscious.

The Commerce Department said that Bryson had suffered a seizure.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: The notion that my White House would purposely release
classified national security information is offensive. It`s wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That, of course, was President
Obama on Friday. And about seven hours later, Attorney General Eric Holder
assigned two U.S. attorneys to look into possible leaks.

In the past months, major stories involving national security have
given rise to leak questions. One, a report on the U.S. effort to damage
Iranian nuclear capabilities with a computer virus. Two was a report on
Obama`s role selecting terrorist targets for drone attacks. Three was a
report on an al Qaeda bomb plot foiled with the U.S. with the help of a
double agent.

How will this investigation affect the Obama administration and the
presidential race? Republican congressman Dan Lungren of California is on
the Homeland Security Committee. Democratic Congressman Peter Welch of
Vermont is on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Gentlemen, in this weekend`s "New York Times," Charlie Savage reports
that leaking is not illegal. And he wrote, quote, "Many people are
surprised to learn that there is no law against disclosing classified
information in and of itself."

Congressman Lungren, I am one of those individuals who was surprised
to hear this news. What is the law in this regard?

REP. DAN LUNGREN, R-CALIFORNIA: Well, you don`t have a right to
declassify information. There are strict rules set up for classified
information, particularly of the level that we`re talking about, revealed,
if true, in these articles, particularly the one dealing with the effort on
cyberattack with Iran. So there are criminal laws that can apply.

We don`t know all the facts involved here. But the thing that is most
disturbing is that if that program went forward as was described, if that
is true, that was good for this country, but no good comes of revealing it
and revealing facts with respect to it, no moreso than when you`re talking
about something that could reveal a double agent.

These are serious issues. These are deadly issues. These are issues
that go to the national security interests of the United States, and no one
should take it lightly. And frankly, I`m pleased that we have two
prosecutors that have been named.

I`m not a big fan of special prosecutors because I`ve seen that abuse
in the past, but I applaud the attorney general for appointing these two.
And frankly, it`s their reputation at stake, not the attorney general`s, as
to how they follow the leads in these particular cases.

SMERCONISH: And Congressman Lungren, is the suspicion -- do you share
the suspicion that there`s a political, perhaps, motivation here to make
the president look strong with regard to the war on to terror?

LUNGREN: Well, as someone who`s investigated criminal cases in the
past, you have to look at what the evidence is. And thus far, that which
appears, at least in public, can lead to no other conclusion than this
helped in a political way the president of the United States.

That doesn`t mean the president was involved, but there is no...

SMERCONISH: Right.

LUNGREN: There`s no reason for someone to reveal it. It doesn`t help
our interest. It hurts our interest. It harms people involved. It makes
us less secure, rather than most secure.

And one of the things that`s most troubling is, if you read these
reports, they suggest they had multiple sources. And if you read the level
of detail that`s involved, these facts, if they are, in fact, facts, would
suggest that you had to have some people at the highest level to either
initiate that information or to confirm it. That`s what`s very troubling,
as far as I`m concerned.

SMERCONISH: Congressman Welch, I guess if I`m reading the tea leaves
from a distance, I say the president doesn`t need help in this regard. In
other words, his record relative to the war on terror, the successful
mission to kill Osama bin Laden, the increase of the drone attacks, the
willingness to go into Pakistan despite the sovereign status of that
country -- it`s illogical to me that someone acting on his behalf would
think that they need to trump up his muscles in that regard.

What are your thoughts?

REP. PETER WELCH, D-VERMONT: Well, that`s exactly right.

I half agree with Dan, and, in fact, the president agrees with Dan.
And the point is that you cannot be leaking classified information. That`s
number one.

Number two, this president has been extremely aggressive -- actually
to chagrin of many Democrats -- because he has initiated six prosecutions
for leaks. And all the presidents who preceded him only did three. And
then the third thing -- this really goes to the point you just made.

Senator McCain is calling for a censure or I guess a resolution in the
Senate. Basically, that`s to divert attention from the fact that the
foreign policy has been very aggressive in the Obama administration. Iraq,
we have brought our troops home. Afghanistan, they are coming home. Osama
bin Laden has been taken out.

And, of course, the president has an aggressive policy on the use of
drones. So if you can`t criticize the policy, make something up that`s a
diversion.

SMERCONISH: Senator -- or Congressman Lungren, Senator John McCain
commented on the possible source of the national security leaks. Here`s
what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It`s obvious on its face that this
information came from individuals who are in the administration. The
president may not have done it himself, but the president is certainly
responsible, as commander in chief.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: And then, this morning, Obama campaign senior adviser
David Axelrod pushed back. He said the following.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR OBAMA CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST: Well, I don`t know
where they came from, Charlie.

QUESTION: Was it in the White House?

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: Absolutely not. The last thing that he would want, the last
thing anyone in the White House wants is to do anything that would
jeopardize those missions or jeopardize those Americans. So, he is as
outraged about it as any...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: So, Congressman Lungren, what are the politics of this?
Might the investigation that`s about to take place cool this situation,
politically speaking, or can you see it inflaming it?

LUNGREN: Well, look, this is probably not the answer you want, but I
frankly don`t care about the politics.

I care about the actual facts, the substance of what`s happened. This
has hurt the national security interests of the United States. Now, either
"The New York Times" was lying when they say that the kinds of things that
they put in there were -- they received from people within government and
had it confirmed by people in government, or, in fact, they are telling the
truth.

If you look at the level of detail, if you look at the decision-making
that is articulated in here, described in here, it has to come not just
from mid-level officials, but from higher-up officials. That`s what`s so
concerning to me.

Politically, you look at it and you say, why would someone do this?
It is not -- it doesn`t advance the interest of the United States. It does
make a more personal political positive for the president. And so I`m not
saying the president did it, but somebody did it for some reason.

They didn`t just seek out "The New York Times" or someone else to let
them know for no reason whatsoever. I presume there was some motivation
involved. I happen to think that is the grossest kind of political
nonsense that harms this nation and we ought to get to the bottom of it. I
don`t care how high it is.

We ought to find out who it is and they ought to be punished because
this does, in my judgment, risk lives of Americans and particularly risks
lives of those who assist Americans around the world. It is going to put a
negative impact on those who wish to help United States or would wish to
help United States if they don`t think that we can keep our mouths shut.
It is that simple.

SMERCONISH: Congressman Welch, please take 30 seconds for a quick
response, and then we are out of time.

WELCH: Well, the president agrees.

I mean, he is absolutely adamantly opposed to any leaking of
classified information. And he said very explicitly that that can
jeopardize operations and jeopardize national security and jeopardize
safety. So, he is on the job there.

And the attorney general has two crack assistant U.S. attorneys to do
this -- or U.S. attorneys to do this. So there`s agreement there. Where
it goes off the rails is when you get into this motivational speculation
that is obviously self-serving, and where you`re saying that the president
or somebody on his behalf did it to bolster a reputation that actually
doesn`t, on foreign policy, need bolstering.

SMERCONISH: Thank you. Thank you both.

Thank you, Congressman Dan Lungren and Congressman Peter Welch. We
appreciate your time.

LUNGREN: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: And I mentioned at the top of the show that Chris is out
at Mount Rushmore. He is doing a promotional shoot for MSNBC. And we have
got some pictures of him there beneath the heads of Washington, Jefferson,
Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln. He will be back here hosting HARDBALL
tomorrow night.

And we will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First off, doughnuts, anyone? Mitt Romney doesn`t have the best of
luck when it comes to accepting treats on the campaign trail. You remember
when he inadvertently insulted a small bakery owner and 7/Eleven during an
event in Pennsylvania?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I`m not sure about these
cookies. You know, they don`t look like you made them.

Did you make those cookies? You didn`t, did you?

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: They came from the local...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bakery.

ROMNEY: ... 7/Eleven, bakery, or wherever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Well, the bakery owner behind those cookies was less than
pleased.

Anyway, here is what when down when Romney asked an aide to grab a few
snacks for the road at an event in Iowa on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: Derek (ph), would you see that one of those chocolate --
those chocolate goodies finds its way to our ride? I will be doing some
testing on that one right there.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: When was the last time that that you heard the D-word,
doughnut, referred to as a chocolate goody? It is right up there with
Romney being surprised that a guy who is seven feet tall was not -- quote -
- "in sport," sport, as in basketball.

And now for some veep watch news. Some Republicans came as close as
they are ever going to get to casting a ballot specifically for a vice
presidential candidate. Friday marked the vice presidential straw poll at
CPAC in Chicago.

The top three contenders? Well, Marco Rubio in first with 30 percent
of the votes, followed by Chris Christie with 14, and Paul Ryan with 9
percent. Noticeably absent from the top of the list, Ohio Senator Rob
Portman.

Now, a lot of folks think that he is the guy we are going to see on
the ticket with Romney. Mike Huckabee also didn`t rack up support, but
apparently he is not anticipating a call from team Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: I have not been asked.
I think there`s a greater likelihood that I will be asked by Madonna to go
on tour as her bass player...

(LAUGHTER)

HUCKABEE: ... than I will be picked to be on the ticket.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: You know, that wasn`t totally out of left field.
Huckabee has been known to show up at political events with his guitar in
tow.

Finally, move over, Ronald Reagan, and George Herbert Walker Bush as
well, for that matter. Last week, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said
that, even though 2012 might have been his opportunity to run for
president, his willingness to compromise on issues like revenue increases
could have been a deal-breaker for the GOP base.

Well, today, he went back another generation while speaking with
reporters in Manhattan -- quote -- "Ronald Reagan would have, based on his
record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground -- as
would my dad -- they would have had a hard time if you define the
Republican Party as having an orthodoxy that doesn`t allow for
disagreement, doesn`t allow for finding some common ground. Back to my
dad`s time and Ronald Reagan`s time, they got a lot of stuff done with a
lot of bipartisan support."

We all saw the 2012 Republican candidates make a big show of invoking
Reagan throughout the primary season, but were they kidding? If Reagan had
been a contender this time around, according to Jeb, he would have been
drummed out early on.

Up next, is President Obama`s likability enough to overcome the
struggling economy? That`s ahead.

And remember, you can follow me on Twitter, if you can spell
Smerconish.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

The Dow slides 143 points late in the session. The S&P falls 17 and
the Nasdaq loses 49.

An aid package for Spain`s banks sparks protest there and it does
little to reassure U.S. investors, sending stocks into a skid.

Apple shares sank 1.5 percent after new offerings unveiled at the
World Developers Conference failed to impress.

And gas prices are down once again. According to the Lundberg Survey,
they are off 15 cents a gallon over the past three weeks.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He is
very likable. I -- I agree with that. I don`t think I`m that bad.

(LAUGHTER)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You are likable
enough, Hillary, no doubt...

(CROSSTALK)

CLINTON: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was Hillary Clinton and then-candidate Barack Obama in the 2008
New Hampshire debate. Hillary proved herself to be likable enough. She
won the state and resurrected her campaign. Obama took the hit for what
many thought was a patronizing dismissal of her.

But candidate Obama remained very likable and the goodwill is holding
throughout his first term. Can it carry him to reelection amid a
challenging political and economic climate?

Cynthia Tucker is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia
and a syndicated columnist. Alex Burns is a national political reporter
for Politico.

Ladies, here are the numbers. According to the latest NBC News/"Wall
Street Journal" poll, President Obama`s personal favorability rating is
eight points higher than his unfavorable. But his job approval numbers are
much closer, at 48-46. That is a statistical tie.

Cynthia, what`s the story behind those numbers?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA: Well, I think it`s pretty
clear. The economy is still not in great shape. And that has been
dragging down the president`s job approval rating for some time now.

The good news for him is it isn`t as bad as it might have been.
Having said that, it is clear that people still like the president very
much. Now, that certainly doesn`t apply to hard-core Republicans, who hate
him. But many Americans like the president.

SMERCONISH: Right.

TUCKER: He`s a good guy. He is a good father, a good husband. He
projects warmth on the campaign trail. And so that has helped him, I
think, some.

SMERCONISH: And, Alex, you wrote about this for Politico.

I think Cynthia is right in terms of characterizing what drives the
personal favorability numbers. The question is, is it enough? You know,
it presents that old beer question. Many people think we select presidents
based on with whom would you rather have a beer. Well, if that is the
decision in this case, it will be to the benefit of the president.

ALEXANDER BURNS, POLITICO: It sure will, Michael.

And this really goes to the heart of just one of the big interpretive
debates between Republican and Democratic pollsters in this election. If
you go to the Democratic side, to the president`s team, they will say these
favorability numbers show that there is still a level of trust, a residual
affection from the president from 2008, that people are willing to
basically give him the benefit of the doubt on most big issues.

The way Republicans interpret those numbers that Cynthia was talking
about is that you are sort of starting to see Americans give themselves
permission to vote against a president they like, that you are seeing
people say to pollsters, I like the guy, he`s a good father, seems like he
would be a good neighbor, trustworthy guy, cares about people like me, but
he is not up to the job.

And the truth is, I don`t think we really know which one of those
interpretations really hits the nail on the head at this stage in the
campaign.

SMERCONISH: Alex, I am a knucklehead. I changed your gender because
I didn`t have a monitor.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: And I apologize to you.

BURNS: It happens.

SMERCONISH: Maybe it is for the better. Who knows.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: Hey, Mitt Romney`s favorability is four points below his
unfavorable number, but a quarter of the nation is still making up their
minds.

Cynthia, same question. Go behind that data. What is going on with
regard to the Romney numbers? Is it because he was beat up all during
primary season?

TUCKER: That certainly has something to do with it, but it is also
true that Mitt Romney is a geeky, awkward candidate on the campaign trail.
He doesn`t project a lot of personal warmth. He doesn`t seem the kind of
guy you would want to sit down and have a beer with. So, that hurts him,
too.

And the fact that so many voters have not yet decided whether they
like Romney, they don`t know enough about him yet, helps explain why the
Obama campaign is getting out there early and often trying to define him.
One of their strategies is define Mitt Romney negatively before he has a
chance to define himself.

Define him as a guy who doesn`t relate to average folks. Define him
as a guy who doesn`t even treat his dog very well. Define him as a guy who
is building another huge House With an elevator for his cars in it. So,
that`s one of the things that the Obama campaign is focusing on. If people
don`t yet know what to make of him, let`s tell them he is not a good guy.

SMERCONISH: You know, Alex, there is a school of thought out there
that says it is all an irrelevancy, meaning the numbers on the Romney side
of the equation, that, in the end, this race will be a referendum on the
president, pure and simple. What do you make of that?

BURNS: Well, I think that`s certainly the hope among many
Republicans.

And, Michael, I think you have seen Romney keep a very low-profile
schedule, just a couple public events a week, since he won the Republican
nomination, and a lot of that is about just sort of letting the president
sink on his own with the bad economic numbers.

But, as we get into the fall, particularly as we get into the
conventions and the presidential debates, you know, Americans are going to
see these two guys right next to each other. And I do think it has to be
troublesome to some degree for Republicans that Romney came out of the
primary with a very high unfavorable numbers that he did. You have seen
those numbers come back to a more manageable area as conservatives come
around to supporting him but still, a little bit too high for comfort.

SMERCONISH: Hey, thank you both, Cynthia Tucker and Alexander Burns.
We appreciate you being here.

BURNS: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Up next, we will get a report on day one of the trial of
Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach accused of sexually
abusing 10 young boys.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Voters in Arizona go to the polls tomorrow for the
special election to fill the congressional seat vacated by Gabby Giffords.
And this weekend, Giffords campaigned for the Democrat in the race, Ron
Barber, who was a long-time Giffords aide. Giffords went to a get out the
vote concert and visited a phone bank, where she was greeted with cheers,
hugs and kisses. Barber faces Republican Jesse Kelly in tomorrow`s
election.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: We are back.

The trial began this morning for former Penn State assistant football
coach Jerry Sandusky, who faces more than 50 criminal counts of sexual
abuse against 10 boys during a 15-year span, charges that Sandusky has
denied.

Just a warning to our viewers, some of the testimony today was
disturbing. The first witness called by the prosecution, now an adult,
described repeated alleged incident of fondling and oral sex when he was a
teenager involved in Sandusky`s Second Mile program.

For the latest on this case, let me bring in NBC`s Michael Isikoff,
covering the trial in Centre County, Pennsylvania.

Michael, what`s the takeaway from day one?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NBC NEWS INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Pretty gripping
testimony. We had victim four, always believed to be one of the strongest
witnesses right off the bat, describing over 40 acts of sexual contact
between him and Sandusky, starting from when he was a small little kid,
barely in his teens and continuing for years, often in the shower, the
sauna. Sandusky attempting to use horsing around as sort of foreplay for
sexual contacts.

And it was -- it was pretty, pretty eye-popping testimony. The young
man who testified seemed very straightforward, almost matter of fact on it
-- about it. And then when Joe Amendola, Sandusky`s lawyer, trying to
cross-examine him, he got very testy, very combative, might have lost a few
points there by being that sort of combative. But Amendola really didn`t
nick him, asked him a few questions that seemed to indicate he might have
some blockbuster piece of information that could undermine the witness`s
credibility, but he didn`t really have it.

SMERCONISH: Michael, you`re reporting that more charges could be
possible against Penn State officials. The word "humane" pops up in some
e-mails. Could you give us the cliff`s note version of that?

ISIKOFF: Yes, this is the -- this maybe the largest story in this
case. Prosecutors recently got hold of a cache of e-mails and documents
from 2001, discussing that Mike McQueary allegation about having seen
Sandusky in the shower with a young boy. And you know, the officials,
Carly Schultz and Graham Spanier, the former president testified they
didn`t view it as that serious they can viewed it as horsing around. In
fact, these e-mails showed they took it very seriously, they debated
whether they needed to report this to local authorities.

And one e-mail exchange, the officials agreed it would be humane to
Sandusky not to report this allegation to local authorities. It never gets
reported. And according to prosecutors, Sandusky`s abuse of kids continued
for another seven years.

SMERCONISH: Michael, thank you for your report. We appreciate it
very much.

ISIKOFF: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Kathleen Kane is the Democratic candidate for
Pennsylvania attorney general. She is last former sex crimes prosecutor.

Kathleen, there are 10 alleged victims, as you know, eight of them
are known, two of them run known. One of the two is the alleged victim in
the Mike McQueary incident, for lack of a better description. As you know,
the defense opening statement today spent a lot of time beating up on Mike
McQueary.

I want to ask you, with your prosecutorial expertise, doe s it make
sense for the prosecution to have dropped that case and instead proceed
with nine and take off the table the baggage that McQueary perhaps will
bring to this trial?

KATHLEEN KANE (D), PA ATTORNEY GEN. CANDIDATE: No, I don`t think it
makes sense to do that. I would have kept all of the cases and all of the
victims for this reason -- because the defense is starting to make the case
that all of the victims got together and created this mass conspiracy to
come up with a virtual lies against Jerry Sandusky, all to file civil
suits. Mike McQueary is an independent witness who saw these sexual
contact and sexual acts taking place in the shower.

The fact that he is there and able and willing to testify that he saw
these events occur, independent of any of the other witnesses` testimony,
even without victim number two, goes to the credibility of the witness and
to the prosecution`s case and also diminishes the defense`s argument that
is this mass conspiracy against Jerry Sandusky.

SMERCONISH: OK. Another question for you. I think very apropos for
you, given your knowledge of the state and the political dynamics here. At
the end of the defense opening statement, Joe Amendola talked and raised
questions about why wasn`t Sandusky wasn`t Sandusky arrested in `08? Why
wasn`t he arrested in `09? In 2012, et cetera?

I thought he was weaving together a political argument and pointing a
finger without naming the current governor, the then attorney general of
Pennsylvania. Is that how you interpreted that portion of the opening
statement?

KANE: Yes. That`s exactly what it sounds like. I believe what the
defense attorney is trying to do is to say to the jurors, don`t look at
what Sandusky did. Don`t look at the facts against Sandusky. We want you
to look over here. We want to give you an extraneous argument so that
we`re taking your attention off all the facts and evidence that goes to the
guilt of Mr. Sandusky.

So, what they`re trying to do is create almost a side show. That
sometimes happens in criminal cases. And it sounds like that`s what
they`re going for here.

SMERCONISH: The testimony of one of the 10 alleged victims is now
concluded. He`s put on his direct testimony and he`s been cross examined.
It also becomes obvious, Kathleen Kane, that the defense strategy is going
to drill on the fact these young men continued with their relationship with
Jerry Sandusky as if to challenge their credibility because they were on
friendly terms.

Given your background in prosecuting these sexual predator cases, is
it unusual you would find a victim maintaining some decorum of relationship
with a perpetrator?

KANE: It is not unusual at all. The way the perpetrator gained
their victims was by gaining their trust. They`d give them things. They
make the victims believe they can`t survive without the perpetrator even
though they`re getting these heinous acts convicted against them.

So, it`s hard to get beyond that circle of trust and to get out of
that bubble and to feel safe with anyone else. And don`t forget. Nine
times out of 10, child sexual assault victims know and trust and love their
-- the perpetrators or the predators. That is a very hard thing for a
child to overcome. They are trusting by nature. The fact that --

(CROSSTALK)

KANE: Go ahead.

SMERCONISH: We have just 30 seconds left. Do I need to eat crow? I
was predicting that this case would end in a plea where trial has now begun
earnest, it would appear we`re headed to verdict.

KANE: I wouldn`t eat crow just yet. I believe that at any point as
long as the prosecution agrees to it -- at any point, there could be a
guilty plea. At sometimes, the defendant has to have the jury seated and
the witnesses` testimony before they decide to plead guilty. I wouldn`t do
it just yet.

SMERCONISH: Well, Amendola made it hazy as to whether Sandusky would
testify in his own defense. I could never see him doing so after the Bob
Costas interview. Thank you very much, Kathleen Kane.

When we return --

KANE: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: -- allow let me finish with a birthday tribute to a
president who knew the value of not bragging on himself.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Tomorrow is President George Herbert Walker Bush`s 88th
birthday.

First, my bias. In college I had the amazing experience of traveling
across the country and sometimes around the globe doing advance work for
the vice president. In his term as president, I was appointee to a sub
level cabinet position in his administration.

And now, the facts. When he ran for the presidency in 1980, his
slogan was: a president we don`t have to train. That was a reflection of
the by that point in his career, he`d already been a war hero, member of
Congress, U.N. ambassador, envoy to China, and head of the CIA. Soon
thereafter, he would add the credentials of vice president and commander in
chief.

History will record him as the man who signed into law the Americans
with Disabilities Act, who did raise taxes, who instituted a ban on assault
rifles and later renounced his lifetime membership in the NRA. He
president over the fall of the Berlin Wall, signed with START I with
Gorbachev, drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and began the NAFTA
negotiation.

When he ran and won in 1988, he offered six words that would come
back to haunt him four years later. Funny thing, he would later form a
close personal bond with the man who beat him, Bill Clinton.

I admire much about George Herbert Walker Bush, mostly how he`s lived
his parents` edict of never bragging on himself. Let me give an example,
when he left the White House, he did not write the memoir. Instead this
traditionalist, having been raised in a year of letter writing and not
texting, decided to assemble his life in correspondence. Letters written
to him and by him were put together chronologically. And those accounts
created in real time became the record of his life titled "All the Best,"
they are unvarnished and offer a portrait of the man.

Here`s a sampling. On September 2nd, 1944, Bush`s plane was shot
down off the island of Chichi Jima. It was rescued by the USS Finback.

The next day, he wrote to his parents, quote, "Dear mother and dad,
this will be the first letter you`ve gotten from me in a good long while.
I wish I could tell you that as I wrote this, I`m feeling well and happy.
Physically I`m OK, but I`m troubled inside and with good cause."

He then proceeded to tell his parents what had happened on what he
described as a bombing hop, including the loss of two colleagues. Bush was
able to bail from the burning airplane and while parachuting towards sea
saw the smoldering craft hit the water.

Some other lines from that long letter, "I`m afraid I was pretty much
of a sissy about it because I sat in my raft and I sobbed awhile. My heart
aches for the families of those two boys with me. And it was funny how
much I thought about Bar during the whole experience. Much much love to
you all, your ever devoted and loving son, pop."

George Bush had enlisted on his 18th birthday. He postponed the
start of his college education at Yale so that he could serve his country
and was for awhile the Navy`s youngest aviator.

Maureen Dowd wrote glowingly of him yesterday. And on Thursday, HBO
will televise a 90-minute documentary celebrating his life aptly named "41"
produced by Jerry Weintraub.

It`s nice to see him receiving accolades while he`s with us. Too
often we offer praise only in eulogies. As we would say here in Chris`
hometown, George Herbert Walker Bush is good people. He was a president we
didn`t have to train.

Happy birthday, Mr. President.

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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