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updated 1/29/2014 11:20:51 AM ET 2014-01-29T16:20:51

HARDBALL
January 28, 2014

Guest: Chuck Schumer


CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: We`ll close that bridge when we come to it.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in New York.

"Let Me Start" tonight with the latest bad news for New Jersey governor
Chris Christie. A report by the state`s "Bergen County Record" shows that
Christie`s top appointment to the New York Port Authority, which controls
the George Washington Bridge, may have committed a conflict of interest in
a major development project.

"The Record" reports today that David Samson, who also served as Christie`s
transition director, approved a quarter-billion-dollar redevelopment
project in Harrison, New Jersey, that benefited a client of his law firm`s.

It fits a pattern in the allegations. Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer has
accused two Christie cabinet officials of pressuring her to back a real
estate deal that would have benefited another client of Samson`s law firm
or else forfeit Hurricane Sandy funds. Christie`s people have denied all
these charges.

Well, this report in "The Bergen Record" comes as Christie suffers a major
falloff in national political support. Putting it bluntly, the nasty
political drop is fast catching up with the nasty news reports. A new NBC
News/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows Christie now underwater politically
with an unfavorable national rating quickly submerging his favorables.

Among Democrats, where Christie once promised to benefit from his
relatively moderate image, his negatives now outweigh his positives by more
than 2 to 1. But it`s among independents that we see the real freefall.
Just 1 in 5 of such self-described voters nationally approves of the New
Jersey governor`s performance, a brutal argument against Christie`s
crossover appeal in a 2016 presidential election in which voters may be
looking for candidates who can bring healing to the country`s politics.

Joining me right now to talk about these developments, Alex Wagner is host
of MSNBC`s "NOW WITH ALEX WAGNER," which airs at 4:00 PM here on MSNBC, and
"The "Washington Post" opinion writer Jonathan Capehart, who`s also an
MSNBC contributor, and a great one.

Let`s start with the Bergen County report. Here it is. The headline
reads, "Questions on Port Authority chairman David Samson`s PATH station
vote." The story notes, quote, "The revelation marks the third time this
month that the role of Samson, a close adviser to Governor Christie, who
named him chairman of the bi-state agency, has come into question."

The first two times being, of course, the George Washington Bridge lane
closures in Fort Lee, on charges by -- and then hard (ph) charges by
Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer of political pressure or muscling to approve a
favorite project.

The article in the paper goes on to say today, "The development in Harrison
touches on recurring elements in the pair of scandals that have jolted the
Christie administration for nearly two months, the power of the Port
Authority of New York and New Jersey, and questions about whether it has
been used as a tool to exact political punishment or advance private
interests. A spokesman for Samson told `The Bergen Record" that with
regard to the train station vote situation, that Samson," quote, "`has
always held himself to the highest personal and professional standards,
including consistently complying with applicable rules adopted by the Port
Authority.`"

Now, Alex Wagner, what`s fascinating here is this is the same David Samson
who notoriously was quoted as saying basically that Pat Foye, who is the
New York official overseeing the George Washington Bridge, was playing in
traffic, was stirring up trouble because he was alerting the public to the
game that was being played there in stopping traffic.

So this is a guy hand in glove -- at least accused of being in the whole
bolixing up of the bridge, and now here he is again, twice now perhaps
again in the problem of Hoboken, where the muscle apparently was used down
there, and now again in this case involving Harrison where a quarter
billion dollars was laid underneath (ph) this construction project, a
client of his, by him in the vote. He votes for the project so that his
client benefits.

Interesting conflict potential there, isn`t it?

ALEX WAGNER, HOST, "NOW WITH ALEX WAGNER": Well, yes. I mean, Chris, at
this point, there are more Chris Christie scandals than there are
Republican responses to the State of the Union, and there are a lot of
Republican responses to the State of the Union.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Well, tonight there are, sure.

ALEX: I am reminded of that thing that happens when someone -- when you
find a termite. And there`s no such thing as just one termite, there is an
infestation.

And with the Christie scandals, you know, in the end, it`s unclear whether
Christie will be found guilty of wrongdoing. But as you pointed out in the
intro, the two things that he had going for him, which were bipartisanship
and strength, have now become liabilities. The bipartisanship looks like
cronyism and the strength looks like bullying.

And given that, I find it hard to believe that he can recover his national
profile after all this.

MATTHEWS: You know, Jonathan, you know what suburbanites hate? Big city
politics. It`s one of the reasons they fled to the suburbs. They can`t
stand this, Oh, we`re going to punish this guy who doesn`t play ball with
us, and then we`re going give a favor to this guy who`s my brother`s friend
or my uncle, or this guy`s got a law partner or this guy`s looking out for
me, or he`s going to come around and help me later on.

This big-time deal making that always ends up being money changing hands
and benefiting your pals who play ball with you. And if they don`t play
ball with you, you muscle them out of the action. And this is what it used
to look like among the Democrats. Maybe it still does in some areas, where
big city politics seem to engender this kind of ilk. And here you have
this guy accused -- all accused here there, but is a pattern of these
allegations that`s become clear.

JONATHAN CAPEHART, "WASHINGTON POST," MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it`s a
pattern of cronyism. And you just defined it very well. And the fact that
Mr. Samson is so close to the governor, and now we have three separate
allegations here about him using -- using his influence or -- to help
clients is something that will eat away at Governor -- another foundation
of Governor Christie`s strength.

And that is, as Alex talked about, you know, bipartisanship, working across
the aisle. I mean, here we have more and more looking like that the
governor is somebody who isn`t all that he seems. And so now you have
"bridge-gate." You`ve got Mayor Zimmer`s allegations. You now have this
with the PATH station. It`s starting to look like a pattern -- for lack of
a better description, a pattern of behavior on the part of Governor
Christie and his friends, his administration, that like you say, will turn
off -- turn off suburban voters, turn off independent voters who want a
chief executive who makes decisions based on the merits, rather than based
on cronyism.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about this core of trust that seems to be something
that Christie talks about, this core of trust that he felt was broken. It
clearly angered -- it angered David Samson that anybody on the New York
side of the bridge would say, What`s going on with this bridge? He didn`t
get angry, obviously -- obviously -- at the traffic jam-up which was done
for political purposes.

ALEX: Yes.

MATTHEWS: He got mad that somebody was outing them, that somebody was
exposing them. And here he is caught in saying, you know, there`s somebody
stirring up trouble here by letting people know what was going on, asking
about it -- "playing in traffic," a little joke there about a kid running
through traffic. Clearly, what bothers this guy is that omerta, that code
of secrecy was violated.

But now his name keeps coming up as a character who`s benefiting from this.
His clients are benefiting. That means he`s benefiting as an attorney.
And he`s also being given constantly these big jobs -- head of the Port
Authority, chairman, head of the transition for the governor. He`s the
governor`s guy!

ALEX: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Can this governor walk away from so many people and say, I don`t
know that guy?

ALEX: Well, I mean, it`s very hard to imagine that all the consiglieres
were acting without the governor`s tacit approval. And Chris, I think
there`s something to the idea that transit is being used as a sort of
political cudgel to punish enemies and reward friends.

I mean, when you think about the moving of people, this is a public
service. This is something that affects every New Jerseyite and New York
City resident who does a reverse commute. This is sort of an essential
function of government.

And the fact that it was bastardized in such a way I think is actually
deeply affecting to the public. Everybody understands what a traffic jam
is. Everybody understands what mass transport is. And that, in
particular, I think, is an aspect of the scandal that is very, very
difficult for Christie.

MATTHEWS: Yes, we don`t have private roads. We have the roads that
they`re supposed to keep open for us.

ALEX: Exactly.

CAPEHART: And you know, Chris, one other thing to keep in mind -- when
these lane closures hatched was right around the anniversary of the
September 11 terrorist attacks.

MATTHEWS: It did overlap that period, in fact, September 11.

CAPEHART: It overlapped. And so the idea that you`re going to bottle up a
major transit point for the world`s busiest bridge and a terrorist target
around the time of a terrorism anniversary, one of the most affecting
terrorist attacks on the country and on New York City, the New York metro
area -- the idea that you were going to do this and then get upset that
your scheme has been revealed, and that`s what you get upset about...

MATTHEWS: That`s what Samson...

(CROSSTALK)

CAPEHART: Right, the people who were impacted by this? Thank goodness,
nothing happened during those days.

MATTHEWS: Well, we`ll learn that.

CAPEHART: But that they would play politics not only with the commuters
and the school kids, but with people`s lives potentially is what`s really,
really offensive.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s dig in to the national numbers here because people
are paying attention to this all -- I was just out in LA and San Francisco.
People are paying attention to this story. The new NBC News/"Wall Street
Journal" poll -- in it, Christie now has lower -- higher unfavorables among
Democrats, independents and women, groups that used to favor Christie. In
fact, among women, Christie`s favorables among women has dropped down to 21
percent, with 28 percent unfavorable.

NBC`s "First Read" puts it this way. "No one should be describing Christie
as a GOP front-runner or co-front-runner for 2016 anymore. Sure, he has
plenty of time to recover, but when someone who was never loved by the base
loses his crossover appeal, that`s like holding a pair of 3s in a game of
Texas Hold `em, which amazes me what that means, but I guess it means
something in Texas Hold `em.

(LAUGHTER)

CAPEHART: It`s bad.

MATTHEWS: I`m from Philly. Anyway, let me ask you, Alex Wagner, this
question here. If Christie can`t sell himself to the middle and to women
and to the Democrats to some lean extent, where is his strength? And
aren`t the Republicans a little nervous that this guy is bopping around the
country now, acting like one of those -- you know those characters in
cartoons where they walk off a cliff but they don`t look down? The moment
they look down, they fall?

WAGNER: Yes, Republicans are -- yes.

MATTHEWS: He has...

(CROSSTALK)

WAGNER: Republicans are familiar with cliff walking.

(CROSSTALK)

WAGNER: ... the Wile E. Coyote...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Here he goes. He just looked down.

WAGNER: There it is. It`s like he`s doing that. But isn`t this hurting
the Republican brand?

WAGNER: Yes! I mean, yes. He`s dropped 42 points among African-
Americans. He has an 11 percent approval rating with Hispanics, who he won
by a margin of 6 points in the last election. It really -- it atrophies
this notion that he has this broad coalition. And I think, you know, that
was the sort of last best hope for the Republican Party, was someone like
Chris Christie who could have a bipartisan coalition, a colorful coalition,
and someone who didn`t alienate minorities.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WAGNER: Here he is, head of the RGA. And Chris, you know, I don`t think
it`s surprising that you`re getting calls from the Republican Party for
Chris Christie to step down as head of the RGA. Is this the guy you really
want raising money for you and the face of your party for 2014, 2016 and
beyond?

MATTHEWS: Well, it tells you something, Jonathan, that they don`t have a
backup quarterback, do they.

(LAUGHTER)

CAPEHART: No.

MATTHEWS: This is the guy that was supposed to score for them. And they
don`t have -- there`s nobody even on the bench that I can think of as a
serious front-runner at this point, although I think it may resort to
somebody on the further wackier positions, someone like Rand Paul. I
really do think this is a real forfeiture on their part of an opportunity
to go down the middle.

CAPEHART: But here`s -- but here`s the thing, Chris. Chris Christie is a
fantastic general election candidate. He is someone who could go up
against a Hillary Clinton or a Governor O`Malley or Governor Cuomo, whoever
runs on the Democratic side, and really fight them vote for vote across the
country.

The only problem is, and as "First Read" I think accurately points out,
Chris Christie can`t get the Republican nomination. He is not loved by the
Republican Party base, the far-right base. Those are folks who viewed him
with suspicion because of what he did at the Republican convention in
Tampa, speaking more about himself than the nominee, Mitt Romney, who they
didn`t really like to begin with.

But also, they don`t like him because of what happened in the final days of
the campaign, when Sandy hit, devastated New Jersey, and the governor
wrapped his arms around President Obama. That made Christie more of a
national figure because he put politics aside and put the people of New
Jersey first. But it really riled the base.

So the notion that Chris Christie was going to walk to the Republican
nomination and be the nominee is a stretch, has always been a stretch.

MATTHEWS: OK. Well, I agree. I don`t think he looks good in either the
beginnings of the campaign or the end.

Anyway, thank you so much, Alex Wagner and Jonathan Capehart, for opening
up the show tonight.

CAPEHART: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Coming up: From Chris Christie`s political problems to his
coming legal problems.

And later, we`re going to get to the high stakes facing the president
tonight in the State of the Union.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. The legal mushroom cloud surrounding
New Jersey governor Chris Christie continues to grow. His polls are
tanking, as we just said. Subpoenas are out there flying, more than 20 of
them. Investigations are broadening, the house, the senate of New Jersey
and the U.S. government. And according to "The Washington Post," the big
guy in Trenton is telling his supporters nonetheless, he can still win in
2016 for the presidency. In other words, he thinks he can get through the
mess. He`s laying the groundwork so if he can beat the legal rap, he can
still run, he thinks.

But isn`t that a daunting "if" for Christie? Here`s what would have to
happen for him to get through scot-free here, that there`s nothing to link
him to the chain of events in either the bridge scandal or the Hoboken
case, or any of the other cases, that there`s nothing to cast doubt on his
assertion that he really did believe his staff when they told him traffic
was shut down for four days because of some hastily concocted traffic
study, that there`s no conflicting testimony from his aides, including
Bridget Kelly and David Samson, who have recruited some of the fiercest
defense attorneys in the country, that there`s nothing in an ocean of new
documents, e-mails, et cetera, to turn up further leads, and that there`s
no truth to that "Wall Street Journal" story from the fall that he
personally tried to shut down the Port Authority`s investigation into the
matter by calling up the governor of New York.

Well, these are the big questions. What are the odds he`s clean on all
fronts? And what are the odds he can still be a viable presidential
contender? What are the odds he`ll even make to it 2016?

Mark Halperin`s the co-author of "Double Down" and David Corn is the
Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones." Both are MSNBC political
analysts.

You know, I`m looking at the numbers. We`ll get to them for a minute,
Mark, and you study these numbers better than I do. But in New Jersey,
they think where there`s smoke, there`s fire. They`re used to New Jersey
politics, usually Democrat, but in this case Republican, and they do assume
that if a guy`s running the show, he knows -- he has something to do with
designing the show. They just believe that. And there we have these
numbers that it`s unlikely, a majority of voters in New Jersey say, he
didn`t know anything about this.

So here we have this problem of the stink, the stink around this question.
If he doesn`t get indicted, but there`s still the stink because all this
stuff went on and some people -- other people are indicted and convicted,
can he still run for president with some indictments floating around in New
Jersey, even if it`s not indicting him? Let me see where the bar lies.

MARK HALPERIN, "DOUBLE DOWN" AUTHOR, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well,
whether he`s indicted or not I think is a distant question. The U.S.
attorney, who`s Christie`s successor in the job, Paul Fishman, is by all
accounts a very cautious guy. I don`t think we`re looking at an indictment
of Governor Christie any time soon, if ever.

I think it`s more about his credibility. A lot of the things you laid out,
almost every one, Chris, is not a legal question, although it will be
picked over by the prosecutor and by the investigative committee in the
legislature. I think it`s all about Governor Christie`s credibility.

If he`s going to run in 2016, he`s going to have to come out of this having
looked everybody in the country in the eye and said he didn`t know about
stuff. If people close to him did dumb things, he`ll pay a price, but he
can survive that. If his credibility is torn at, I think that`s a very big
problem for him.

MATTHEWS: So you`re saying he doesn`t have to be indicted to be basically
scratched from the list, but he has to be what? How bad does he have to be
stuck to these various charges?

HALPERIN: Well, look, a big problem he has now is -- it`s clear that the
U.S. attorney is going to aggressively broaden his investigation. He
broadened it to deal with Hoboken pretty quickly. You know, a day after
the mayor appeared on MSNBC, he broadened the investigation. I think he
will be under some pressure to follow new leads places.

But, to me, I say again, whatever culpability people close to Governor
Christie has, it`s about credibility. It`s about, did he tell the truth in
December, when, in a series of events, it strains the credulity of a lot of
people, even people who like Governor Christie and would like to support
him for president, that he told the truth in December?

If he told the truth then, if he`s continued to tell the truth, even if
there were bad judgments made, he can survive that. This is an
extraordinarily weak Republican field.

MATTHEWS: Yes. You`re saying, against that field, anybody can get in,
basically.

Let me go to David on this.

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

MATTHEWS: It seems to me he faces a number of vulnerabilities. If any one
of his serious associates, whether it`s Bridget Kelly or Samson or any of
these fellows, or women, if any one of them comes out and becomes the John
Dean of this event, a la Watergate...

CORN: Yes. Yes.

MATTHEWS: ... and states credibly that they had a conversation with the
governor in which he was clearly aware there`s games being played about the
bridge or there`s games and muscle being used with regard to Hoboken and
the relief money, it seems to me it just takes one bullet basically
politically and legally to bring him down.

CORN: Chris, his presidential effort, whatever you want to call it at this
stage of the game, has to be in a state of suspended animation.

MATTHEWS: But it`s not.

CORN: But, actually, I think it is.

I would be very surprised if a lot of big money people are going to start
opening their pockets up soon. Why? Because he and his associates are now
targets, subjects of interest, topics, whatever you want to call it, for
several investigations, not just Bridgegate.

And as long as this -- these things can take months, if not years, to
resolve themselves. You know, I thought his chances as a presidential
prospect in the Tea Party Republican Party were already lower than a lot of
other people thought, but one thing. I`m electable. I can appeal to the
other side.

But now people are going to look at him and say, hey, your numbers are
terrible with Democrats and independents, and there is still this
investigation going. Today, a story that you haven`t gotten to yet, there
is a story in the New Jersey media that money from Sandy relief funds went
to a senior citizens center that had nothing to do with Sandy recovery in a
town where the mayor had endorsed Chris Christie.

Is anything wrong with that? I don`t know. But anything that has happened
under his watch in the last two, three, four years...

MATTHEWS: Does that look like favoritism? Does that look like cronyism?

CORN: ... is going to be investigated.

And if there`s any -- listen, what happens when you start getting criminal
investigations run by the U.S. attorney, people start telling you things.
It may not even be about the subject at hand, but people start scurrying.
Self-preservation, self-protection kicks in.

So, as long as there are these active investigations of Chris Christie, I
think he is spinning his wheels, and we won`t know for half the year, if
not a year or longer, whether he can get any traction ever again as a
presidential candidate.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s go back to Mark on that.

First of all, look at these national polls. They`re even worse for
Christie than they are in Jersey. According to a new "USA Today"/Pew poll,
58 percent say they do not believe Christie had no knowledge of his aides`
involvement in the bridge closing. But only just 32 take Christie`s word
at it. That`s probably his political base there.

But I do think New Jersey probably doesn`t help him. And I do think the
idea of big city politics, Eastern state politics, people say, yes, did he
play some games there? Yes, probably. It looks like he did. This doesn`t
seem like above a politician there, below a politician there.

And I just get the feeling, how does somebody out in Wyoming know the guy
is guilty? Your thoughts?

HALPERIN: Well, if the case -- if these cases get resolved and he is told
-- and he`s shown to have told the truth and he is not indicted or facing
any criminal threat, I think the polls will turn around.

MATTHEWS: And if Bridget Kelly swings and -- or Samson swings.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: In other words, his coterie can go down, and he won`t?

HALPERIN: I think it depends on how close it gets to him. It`s going to
get closer to him, almost definitely, because she could not have acted
alone. No one I know who knows her thinks she acted alone.

CORN: Right.

HALPERIN: The investigation is going to get bigger and broader and closer
to him. But I will say again, it`s a weak Republican field. I think David
is right. Today, Chris Christie cannot be as aggressive as he was going to
be. I think he was going to become the de facto front-runner.

I think the Tea Party thing is overrated. The problem now is he simply
must focus on governing, much more than he would have wanted to. He does
not have a strong group around him. His lieutenant governor can`t govern
the state in his absence effectively for any length of time.

MATTHEWS: Wouldn`t he be the biggest pinata in history if he were the
nominee of a political party?

HALPERIN: He faces a lot of questions now. But we have got to see if it`s
resolved.

No one is going to get ahead of him. Unless Jeb Bush gets in this race
aggressively and starts lining up people in early states and donors, there
is not another name out there of somebody who at the end of this year, if
Chris Christie does nothing, is going to be far ahead of Chris Christie, so
far ahead of Chris Christie that he can`t catch up.

MATTHEWS: OK, last point for you, David.

CORN: Let me disagree slightly with Mark, just slightly.

MATTHEWS: Well, you`re disagreeing more than slightly. You totally
disagree with him.

CORN: On this particular point, I do think that Christie needed to spend
this year making some inroads to the primary electorate base of the
Republicans, which are Tea Party folks, just to sort of give him a better
chance. He has the establishment. He had the money lined up.

(CROSSTALK)

HALPERIN: The Tea Party is weaker than it was four years ago, when Mitt
Romney got nominated.

CORN: Well, I still think that`s where the voters are.

I still think when it comes to the caucuses and early primaries, he needed
to have some foothold there, not a lot. He didn`t have to win. But he had
to make some progress. And I think, because of what you just said, Mark,
now, he is going to have no ability to do that.

I think jumping in, if he`s cleared at the very end, you know, may happen.
He may still have a shot, but it would be less strong, weaker than if he
had spent this year doing what he needed to, to make...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Everybody who stands -- everybody who sits in an audience from
now until these indictments come up or don`t come up is going to be looking
at this guy with a question mark.

That`s what they`re going to be doing.

(CROSSTALK)

HALPERIN: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: They`re going to -- is this guy part of it?

CORN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Mark Halperin. Thank you, David Corn.

HALPERIN: Thanks, Chris.

CORN: Sure thing.

MATTHEWS: Up next: The State of the Union tonight, the stakes are high
for the president. But history hasn`t been kind to Republicans who have
delivered their party`s official response. Did you notice? This is
HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL, and now for the "Sideshow."

Expectations are high for President Obama`s State of the Union address
tonight. The event, which we will carry here on MSNBC at 9:00, is an
opportunity for the president, obviously, to lay out his agenda for the
country and to try to get Congress on board.

But it`s also a tradition for the party that is out of the White House to
deliver a rebuttal after the State of the Union each year. While those
speeches lack the setting and spectacle of a real presidential address,
they can be a good way to use the media`s wall-to-wall coverage to reach
the large audience that traditionally tunes in. We know all that.

But, in recent years, Republican responses have been ineffective and
clumsy, don`t you think, overshadowed often by unforced errors and shoddy
performances.

Let`s take a look back at the big three, the top three highlights since
President Obama took the presidency.

First up is Bobby Jindal`s response in 2009. At the time, the Louisiana
governor was widely seen as an early front-runner for the Republican
nomination in 2012. But his awkward body language, forced delivery, and
some say cheesy laugh lines earned him criticism from Republicans and
Democrats alike.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R), LOUISIANA: Like the president`s father, my own
parents came to this country from a distant land. When they arrived in
Baton Rouge, my mother was already four-and-a-half months pregnant. I was
what folks in the insurance industry now call a preexisting condition.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Hmm.

Next up is Michele Bachmann, of course, who delivered the first Tea Party
rebuttal to the State of the Union in 2011.

Better remembered for its problematic staging, the congresswoman`s
performance felt disconnected and vapid, some say, in part because her
entire speech was delivered to the wrong camera.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: And I believe that America is the
indispensable nation of the world. Just the creation of this nation itself
was a miracle. Who can say that we won`t see a miracle again?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Why didn`t somebody say, look at the right camera?

Anyway, finally, it`s not often that a single moment can effectively detail
-- or derail an entire speech, but that`s exactly what some people say
happened to Marco Rubio last year, when that thirsty young senator from
Florida suddenly lurched for a bottle of water way off stage right, all the
while keeping his eye contact with the camera. See? It was like he is a
golfer. It quickly became the only highlight from that speech.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: In the short time that I have been here in
Washington, nothing has frustrated me more than false choices like the one
the president laid out tonight. The choice isn`t just between big
government or big business. What we need is an accountable, efficient, and
effective government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow.

Anyway, this year, the Republicans plan to give not one, but three
rebuttals to the State of the Union, the official Republican response, a
Tea Party response, and one from Senator Rand Paul. We will see how they
do.

Anyway, up next, the very high stakes tonight for President Obama. He`s
got to do something big to get Democrats energized again and to save the
Senate. He could lose it this November.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Milissa Rehberger. Here`s
what`s happening.

A winter blast is slamming the Southern U.S., bringing snow, ice, and
freezing temperatures to the region. The conditions closed schools from
Texas to the Carolinas and canceled thousands of flights. Louisiana has
declared a state of emergency, as did three other states, including
Alabama. Authorities in affected areas have asked people to stay off of
the roads.

Virginia Beach could get as much as a foot of snow, and Ocean City,
Maryland, could see half-a-foot by Wednesday -- now back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back.

Mr. President, go big. That`s my message to President Obama tonight as he
gets set to deliver his State of the Union just about 90 minutes from now.
The stakes are incredibly high. The president faces the prospect, of
course, of a devastating year politically, with the possibility, a real
one, he could lose the U.S. Senate this coming November.

I could go over the numbers with you if you want. His challenge tonight is
to excite Democrats ahead of those elections in November. How does he do
it? Well, he can reestablish himself as the president of the United
States, stop going for the politics of small, propose something big.

If the Republicans say no, make them the bad guys. Don`t say no to
yourself. Make them say no to you. And that could be the winning strategy
for next year as well.

By the way, Rachel Maddow will be joining me. We will be joining each
other actually at 9:00 tonight Eastern time, along with the Reverend Al
Sharpton, Chris Hayes and Steve Schmidt, for full coverage of President
Obama`s State of the Union.

And then at midnight, we will have a special late-night edition of HARDBALL
to go through all the politics of what happened tonight, including who won
and who lost.

Well, joining me right now is Robert Gibbs, former press secretary to
President Obama and an MSNBC political analyst, and Howard Fineman,
editorial director for The Huffington Post. He is also an MSNBC political
analyst.

I want to go to Howard because he has -- he has got a bit further outside
position than you, Robert.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I want him to know that he gets the first full blast at this,
because I have read his pre-interview.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: In short language, when loyalists to this president tune in at
9:00 tonight and listen for an hour or so, what will they expect to feel
emotionally from this president, emotionally?

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: That he is still in the ball
game.

Chris, you -- I think you want him to go big. My sense from being over at
the White House today and getting a feel for things is that their intent is
to put one foot in front of the other, do things that the president can do
on his own, be busy, be active, be concrete, tangible things like
unemployment -- excuse me -- like the minimum wage for federal workers
increase and so forth.

And rely on what everyone expects to be a better economy this year. Rely
on Republicans to get caught up in their own internal struggles. Make a
virtue of necessity here, because the Congress is going to be difficult for
the president to work with. If he pounds the table, paradoxically,
Republicans run the other way.

I had an aide tell me today that, well, the president is not going to go
big and go strong and go table-pounding on extending unemployment
insurance, because, if he does that, there is even less of a chance of a
deal. So, you may want him to go big. You may want him to be Teddy
Roosevelt all over again in 2014. I don`t get the sense that`s what he is
going to do.

Some Democrats may be disappointed, but this president plays a deep game,
and he is hoping that kind of thing and a rising economy will keep the
Democrats in decent shape come the fall. I don`t know if it`s going to
work, but that`s their strategy.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me give you my position.

Robert, you have plenty of time to respond to it.

My position is everybody -- the people who like the Republicans, who say
the country is going in the wrong direction, and all root -- whether it`s
the Koch brothers, the regular guy or woman on the street corner who needs
a job, they`re rooting against the president because the big no to them
sounds like a big yes. It means, if we get rid of this guy, we get rid of
the demographic changes in the country, we get rid of government spending,
we get rid of taxation, we get rid of -- we get rid of all kinds of things
we don`t like. All of the sudden, it`s nirvana.

That`s what the Republicans promise by not being specific. Get rid of this
guy, and all your dreams will be answered.

I think the president has to be just as big and say, if the Republicans
would get the hell out of my way, we would rebuild this country big-time.
And here is my proposal. And the only reason we`re not doing it is them.
Make them say no. As I say to kids at graduation, never say no to
yourself. Make the other guy say no to you.

That`s my philosophy. What`s the president`s?

ROBERT GIBBS, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think one of the concerns
that you have to have if you`re the White House is if your -- if your
agenda seems overly modest, then your presidency will be seen as overly
modest.

And I think there is a huge danger that -- in the White House for something
like that. Look, I think the biggest thing, one of the biggest things the
president has to do tonight when he is speaking to the American people is
give them a real sense that what he is talking about is not only what they
care about, but there is a pathway to getting some of that done.

And, as you said, if there isn`t a pathway to getting all of it done, then
there is a villain for why that didn`t happen.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

GIBBS: I think that has to be what sets up the rest of 2014. But I think
the president`s got to give a real sense to the American people that he`s
got a focused plan. I think last year was in many ways an unfocused year,
a lost year in his presidency. And quite frankly, with the clock ticking
as it is, he simply can`t afford to repeat in 2014 what happened in 2013.

MATTHEWS: OK, Howard, let`s go through the next couple of weeks, the next
couple of months, the next year. In the next couple of weeks, will
something get done? Will he do an executive order among minimum wage among
federal contractors?

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: Yes. Oh, yes, Chris.

MATTHEWS: The government has to pay at least 10 bucks an hour.

FINEMAN: And in terms of what Robert is saying, in terms of focus.
Everything the president is going to talk about tonight pretty much is
going to be focused on concrete steps that he can do as president that will
try to do things for working people in America. Jobs, job training,
education, outreach to other countries to bring jobs here.

MATTHEWS: How is he going to create jobs?

FINEMAN: Well, he is going to -- first of all, he`s going to -- it`s
interesting. He`s going to try to draw on the private sector and the
nonprofit sector and colleges and so forth to train people, to hire people,
to look for new ways to spur manufacturing and so forth through research.

I mean, that`s what he is going to do. I`m struck by the fact that there
is not going to be any big talk tonight about grand bargains on
entitlements, about sweeping tax reform, about climate change, about all
that other stuff.

My sense of it is it`s going to be very specific and narrowly focused to
give the president small incremental achievements that he can brag about to
try to lift himself out of the mess he is in with the 43 percent approval
rating.

You know, it`s very simple, Chris. A president of the sixth year with a 43
percent approval rating isn`t taken seriously by anybody around town. You
got to get out of that one step at a time. That`s the White House`s
theory.

MATTHEWS: OK.

FINEMAN: And they`re also relying on an economy that they think is going
to get better during the course of the year.

MATTHEWS: You know what it sounds like, Howard, and tell me if it`s right,
Robert, is the White House is like a really skilled veteran baseball
manager who says you got to get a runner on, bunt him on or whatever it
takes. Get the walk. Whatever it takes, and then advance him to second.
Put him in scoring position, and hope somebody can hit a strong single and
bring him in. And up against strong pitching, that may win the game, if
that`s all you got.

Is that the way it`s going? He is not going to swing for the fences. He
is not going to be Babe Ruth this year, not going to be Hank Aaron. He`s
just going get a single like Richie Ashburn or something. Just get on
base.

FINEMAN: I knew Richie Ashburn was going to get mentioned here.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: A Philly guy we get in there. Last guy I remember, I`m just
kidding.

Robert, explain this strategy of this baseball manager called president
right now.

GIBBS: Well, I think the analogy is an apt one. Look, largely because the
Republicans are not going to give him big pitches to hit home runs with.
So, whether it is Richie Ashburn or whether it`s the modern version of
Moneyball, a walk to first means a runner on first.

You know, a single means a runner on first and maybe you can move a runner
to third. I think what Howard is describing is exactly as he said rightly,
this president needs to instill confidence in the American people that what
happened in 2013, disarray, buffeted by crisis, indecision on Syria, a Web
site on health care that was a disaster isn`t going to be repeated in 2014
because with a very small amount of time with which to accomplish
something, if those kind of things transpire in 2014 as they did last year,
the last grains of the sand will go out of the hourglass in terms of any
time the president has to accomplish anything substantive.

MATTHEWS: The scorecards is easy, if he holds the Senate this year, he has
won. If he loses the Senate by a single vote, it could be Arkansas, it
could be North Carolina, it could be Alaska -- if he loses six senators
this year, he is out to lunch with the U.S. Congress. Then, he will have
to do things by executive order.

Thank you, Robert Gibbs, for coming on.

Thank you, Howard Fineman --

GIBBS: Yes, sir.

MATTHEWS: -- for the great homework today.

Up next, how Democrats can beat Republicans and save the Senate. We`ve got
the expert coming here, Chuck Schumer. Yes, he is on deck.

And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

As President Obama takes to podium tonight, he`ll be carrying the mantle of
the Democratic Party that is fighting for its political future, if not its
life. The Republican Party`s mainstream infrastructure, the strategists,
the RNC`s army, the billionaires who fund the attack ads, they all have one
mission this year, grab the Senate.

If they do, it`s game over for the president`s agenda, of course, and his
party`s agenda. Republicans need to pick up six seats to pick up the gavel
of the Senate to control it. And as of this moment, the battlefield is
tilted in their direction.
Take a look at this. According to the respected "Cook Political Report",
Democrats could lose nine seats this year, while Republicans could lose
just two. That`s a net seven pickup. On the Democratic side, one race is
rated likely Republican in South Dakota. Two races are currently rated as
leaning Republican, and that includes Montana and West Virginia. In all
three states, the Democratic incumbent is retiring.

In Arkansas, Mark Pryor`s trailing Republican challenger Tom Cotton, the
congressman, in some polls, and Senator Carl Levin is retiring up in
Michigan. Both of those races are rated as toss-ups. Imagine Michigan
being a toss-up.

And Democrats are holding on to tenuous leads in four states. They`re Mark
Begich up in Alaska, which is red, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, which is
red, Kay Hagan in red North Carolina, and then Iowa where Tom Harkin is
retiring. All these races are listed as leaning Democrat. That`s scanty.

On the other side of the ledger, Democrats have their eyes on two
Republican seats. Of course, the biggie up in Kentucky. Mitch McConnell
is facing a formidable Democratic challenger in Alison Lundergan Grimes,
and in Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn has emerged as a strong contender to
pick off a seat there, where Republicans -- Republican Saxby Chambliss is
leaving.

Now, as much as Democrats are relying on President Obama tonight to help
level the playing field, they`re also pinning much of their hopes on the
vision of this guy, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. He is the top
leader in party. He`s considered by many as the party`s top political
guru.

I do. I put you on a pedestal, Senator.

And here`s my question for you -- what`s the best thing the president can
do tonight to save the Senate?

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Focus on the middle class like a laser.
The number one issue in the 2014 elections is not going to be Obamacare and
it`s not going to be the deficit -- the two issues that have dominated the
last two years.

It`s going to be, which party can best give the middle class hope that the
American dream is alive and well. That if they work hard, they`ll be doing
better five years from now than they`re doing today.

And right now, I think we have the edge. I think that`s where the
president will focus as you said. It won`t be grandiose, it will be very
specific and it will divide the two parties. It will show which side
people are on. Who`s for the minimum wage? Who`s for the federal
government helping out families get their kids to college? Who`s for a
trade policy that is for fair trade, not free trade alone?

MATTHEWS: Well, a little birdie told me today the president really
believes the stimulus of some kind. He doesn`t have a plan for it. But he
does believe we need more demand in our economy.

You`re a Keynesian, I`m a Keynesian. I do believe this economy needs a
little push. How the Democrats give it that in a big sense between now and
November? How do you push the economy further if it`s lagging still?

SCHUMER: Well, we do need a stimulus, but I`m afraid that our Republican
colleagues have been against that. So the ideas are going to be a little
smaller, but ones that are so popular, not only popular with Democrats and
independents, but with rank-and-file Republicans, that he`ll be able to get
a few of them through.

And, again, Chris, what`s so interesting here is the American people are
crying out for someone to talk to their needs. Not to be meshed in the
Washington game of who`s wrong, who`s right, pointing fingers. Whoever is
able to connect with them and say, I have some plans to help you that get
out of this morass, get out of this uncharacteristic lack of American
optimism will succeed. That`s what the president`s going to do. That`s
what we Democrats are going to do for the next six months in the Senate.

I don`t think the Republican plan, free up the corporations, let them lower
their taxes, get red of their regulations, let them go move businesses
overseas. Let them pollute the environment. Let them treat their workers
poorly is going to work.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you -- let me throw a hardball down the middle.

SCHUMER: You bet.

MATTHEWS: What`s your party going to do for the parent whose kids are
graduating from school, early 20s, they`re walking into a job market that`s
pretty rough. How does the Democratic Party position itself to help those
young men and women try to get started in this country?

SCHUMER: The president will be able to do some programs. Hopefully,
they`ll pass the Congress, that give people the training they need for the
jobs.

Let`s say you got out of a community college. There`s a desperate shortage
of welders, of people with some mathematical skills who can do these jobs
and companies that are going thirsty. We`re going to provide programs to
give them those jobs. We`ve done it in New York state.

We got a grant for community colleges to survey businesses. See what jobs
they wanted. And then train people. And it`s been hugely successful.
Programs like that are going to be replicated nationally.

And they`re common sense. The average person understands that that`s
what`s needed.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look at President Obama`s approval ratings in some
of the states Democrats have to defend in the Senate. Arkansas, 35 percent
approval for the president in the Gallup. In Alaska, 34 percent. Montana,
33 percent. South Dakota, 32 percent. West Virginia, 25 percent.

Isn`t that the biggest challenge the president has to re-elect senators in
his party --

SCHUMER: Yes.

MATTHWES: -- in states that people won`t vote for him? In fact, vote
against him 3-1.

SCHUMER: That is a big challenge. But I would predict if the president
does what I said, will his numbers be spectacular, sky high? No. But
they`ll be certainly better than they are now, and able to sustain good,
strong candidacies.

The one thing that we have going for us, every one of those incumbents you
named is a good candidate.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SCHUMER: They`re really strong. They know their states. They have much
more popularity than others.

Kay Hagan had $6 million of negative ads thrown at her. She hasn`t spent a
nickel in response and she`s ahead of her opponent. Imagine when she goes
on the air and is able to answer some of these ads with a specific plan for
the middle class.

MATTHEWS: Well, I hope she does well because for some weird reason, North
Carolina, which was moderating over the last few years, has gone hard right
again. I don`t know what the hell is going on.

SCHUMER: Yes. But we think it`s gone too hard right and the pendulum is
swinging back this year.

MATTHEWS: OK. It`s great to have you on, Chuck. You are the mind of the
Senate.

SCHUMER: Good, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Thanks for coming on tonight.

We`ll be right back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this:

President Obama is going to focus tonight on opportunity. He`s going to
push and promise what he says will remove obstacles to the American dream.
He`ll make it easier for those ready to make the effort to reach their
life`s goals.

Well, part of it has to do with the workplace, as Chuck Schumer just said.
The president is going to issue an executive order raising the government-
honored minimum wage above $10. He will then push the Congress to
legislate the same wage rate hike for the private sector. He will also
push to restore jobless benefits to the long term unemployed.

There`s more, of course, coming tonight. But the gist of it is to help
people move up the economic scale. It`s not about the safety net tonight,
it`s about a pathway to something better.

And I think this is the president`s compromise with taking a much tougher
stance tonight against what looms now as a vast and growing inequality,
economically in this country. The exponential growth of those at the very
top and then that 47 percent still struggling to keep things together in
their lives.

There`s the concern, I guess, on his part that to talk powerfully about
inequality is to invite the premise that he`ll fight for the next three
years not to help people at the bottom and the middle, but to raise taxes
not just on the better off or best off, but also the better off. And that
could scare voters. He needs to get improvements in the lives of those who
most need a boost in their basic prospects, who need their wages hiked, may
need income some support, unemployment benefits that gets them out there
looking for a job.

This is going to be a big night for America and the American dream. It`s
going to have a lot going for it in terms of viewer interest for the basic
reason that it`s about what people watching tonight generally spend their
nights and days worrying about.

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

Join me and Rachel Maddow in one hour for coverage of the president`s State
of the Union Address at 9:00 Eastern. And be sure to stay up late tonight
for a special midnight Eastern edition of HARDBALL. We`re going to look at
all the politics tonight, who won, who lost in our usual crisp way, as well
as Chris way.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.


END

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