updated 1/31/2006 2:25:34 PM ET 2006-01-31T19:25:34

Guests: Charlie Cook, Norah O‘Donnell, Tucker Carlson, Ron Reagan

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  It‘s election time.  Will Tom DeLay hold on in Texas?  Will Rick Santorum remain a senator from Pennsylvania?  Will Hillary Clinton confirm her crown as leader of the Democrats?  And bottom line, will George W. Bush, who led the country into Iraq, be punished for an unpopular war?  Tonight it begins.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  Tonight we‘re kicking off our official “Decision 2006” coverage of the midterm elections and the stakes are big for both parties.  President Bush is coming off the worst year of his presidency from continued problems with the war in Iraq, a failed response to Hurricane Katrina and trunks of political corruption within his own party.

Tomorrow night the president will fight for his party‘s future from the bully pulpit in his make it or break it State of the Union address.  MSNBC and MSNBC.com will have full coverage of the speech, from the speeches to the politicians, to the blogs.

The Democrats are focusing on what they call a culture of corruption and point to the Abramoff scandal as proof that the Republican-controlled Congress has been bought off by lobbyists.  But polls show most Americans care more about national security, an issue Republicans continue to control.  With a new “Washington Post” poll showing two-thirds of Americans feel safer now than they did before 9/11.

The bottom line is, Americans may agree with Democrats on the issues, but the party suffers from a lack of leadership and lackluster direction.  More on the political battle lines being drawn in a moment, but first we launch “Decision 2006” tonight with the most important race in the country. 

The Lone Star state of Texas has 32 congressional districts.  This November, one of the most closely watched races in the country will play out near Houston, where Congressman Tom DeLay has won easily for 20 years.  Today the man known as the hammer, however, faces what could be his toughest fight ever.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. TOM DELAY ®, TEXAS:  I am very, very proud of the record of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

GERALD BIRNBERG, DEMOCRATIC CHAIRMAN, HARRIS COUNTY:  If we can get rid of somebody as entrenched as Tom DeLay has been in this 22nd congressional district, that says Democrats can win anywhere in the nation.

ERIC THODE, GOP CHAIRMAN, FORT BEND COUNTY:  Tom DeLay, over the last two years, has re-dedicated himself to making sure that the district knows exactly what‘s going on, what his office is doing, and what his presence in Washington means for district 22.

MATTHEWS (voice-over):  It‘s shaping up to be a heavyweight championship fight for one of the most powerful, most polarizing Republicans in the country.  As House majority whip and later House majority leader, Tom DeLay was a Republican superstar who led the Republican revolution. 

His problems began in 2005, when he was indicted in Texas by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, on charges of money laundering of campaign donations.

RONNIE EARLE, DISTRICT ATTORNEY, TRAVIS COUNTY:  If Tom DeLay has not committed a crime, then he has nothing to worry about.

MATTHEWS:  Republican rules back in Washington forced him to resign from his role as majority leader.  Then came the Abramoff scandal in Washington.  His friendship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who just pled guilty to federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud, is another hot potato for DeLay, as is a trip he accepted to Britain in 2000, with golf at St. Andrews in Scotland, that was underwritten by clients of Abramoff.

In the midst of this political firestorm, Tom DeLay was calm and confident when we met in Texas recently.  He‘s a veteran of some of the toughest political battles in Washington and he says he knows who‘s out to destroy him.

DELAY:  Democrats have been planning this for a long time.  They announced their politics of personal destruction two years ago.  Their character assassination is part of their strategy.  They don‘t have an agenda, and so they‘re trying to get the House back by destroying people in their families.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  How do you feel, Congressman DeLay.

BOB STEIN, POLLSTER, RICE UNIVERSITY:  The number one problem is the congressman, himself.  Any other Republican would probably win this seat, handily.  But right now, Tom DeLay has got a problem and it‘s all about Tom DeLay.

MATTHEWS (on camera):  Do you have to have an acquittal before the election to clear this air?

DELAY:  I would like one, but my constituents know what‘s going on here.  They‘ve looked at this case, they understand it.  They‘ve been very, very supportive.  They know what Ronnie Earle is, a runaway district attorney that‘s abusing his power.

MATTHEWS:  The Abramoff thing in Washington, does that bother you?

DELAY:  I think it‘s really unfortunate that they broke the law and they‘ve been found guilty breaking it.  I had nothing to do with that.  I‘ve done nothing wrong.  I haven‘t broken any laws.

MATTHEWS:  Are you worried that the Democrats will be able to use pictures like golfing in Scotland to bring you down?

DELAY:  Sure, they‘ll try all that.  I mean, they want to lie about what‘s going on.  I‘m very involved in the international affairs against the religious persecution in China or getting persecuted Jews out of Russia.  I‘ve been involved in a lot of foreign affairs.  Yes, when I go over somewhere for that, I take a day off or half a day off, and I play golf.

MATTHEWS:  But there‘s no religious persecution in Scotland?

DELAY:  No, but Margaret Thatcher was in England and I met with a lot of conservative organizations.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that‘s unfair to say that you went over there on a junket?

DELAY:  It‘s incredibly unfair.

MATTHEWS:  Why?  Who paid for the trip?

DELAY:  A legitimate conservative organization.

MATTHEWS:  But wasn‘t there a pass-through?

DELAY:  No, there was no pass-through.

MATTHEWS:  They came up with the money themselves?

DELAY:  That‘s exactly right.  They raise their money themselves.

MATTHEWS:  That public policy group?

DELAY:  Exactly right.

MATTHEWS:  So you don‘t have any problem with that trip?

DELAY:  None at all.

MATTHEWS:  Nobody‘s asked you about it down here?

DELAY:  Not really, no.

MATTHEWS:  Is Tom DeLay corrupt?

NICK LAMPSON, DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE, 22ND DISTRICT:  I won‘t answer that question, I don‘t know.  I think that‘s up to a court, part of the ethics committee.  I would certainly hope that the values that I grew up with would not bring the kind of challenges to me ever that have been brought before him.

My grandfather bought this piece of land, my mother‘s father did, and farmed it.

MATTHEWS (voice-over):  Nick Lampson is a former four-term Texas Democratic congressman who says he‘s the right person right now to beat DeLay in November.

(on camera):  Would you be running against Mr. DeLay for this seat if he wasn‘t in trouble?  Or is this an opportunity that you jumped on because of all his ethics bad news?

LAMPSON:  I made this decision back in May and it was well before there was an indictment.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ve got a poll that shows that half the people, only half the people who supported Mr. DeLay last time, are going to vote for him this time.  Do you think it‘s that bad for him right now?

LAMPSON:  I can tell you that it‘s very good for me.

I‘ve wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood...

MATTHEWS (voice-over):   ... Though born and raised in Texas, Lampson owns property over 100 miles away from the 22nd District.  He moved here last April, paying rent to his aunt, so he could live in her house and vote in the district.

DELAY:  He lives in Beaumont.  He‘s the only Democrat they‘ve been able to get to run and he claims a local address for his home.  I‘m sure we‘ll be able to explain that to my constituents.

MATTHEWS (on camera):  You‘re a Democrat.

LAMPSON:  I‘m a Democrat.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s talk about that, OK?  Is President Bush an honest man?

LAMPSON:  Certainly.  I‘ve campaigned with him, I believe that he...

MATTHEWS:  ... So he‘s not part of this culture corruption the Democrats are all talking about?

LAMPSON:  I‘m not going to make any kind of an accusation like that.

MATTHEWS:  So you don‘t think there is a culture of corruption—we hear that from Nancy Pelosi, we hear it from the Democratic leaders.  There‘s a Republican culture of corruption in Washington.

LAMPSON:  The culture of corruption has existed, in my mind, among some people.  And it doesn‘t matter to me whether they are Democrat and Republican.  If somebody‘s broken the ethics or the law, then they need to be punished for it.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re asking the voters here to elect a Democrat to Congress, to send a Democrat, a person—will you vote for Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco to be speaker of the House?

LAMPSON:  Likely.

MATTHEWS:  Is there a question?

LAMPSON:  No—if she‘s the one that is...

MATTHEWS:  ... Well she‘s the leader of the Democratic Party in the House, so you will have to vote for her if you‘re going to be a Democrat.

LAMPSON:  I could be comfortable doing that.  I‘m looking for good ideas and I want those ideas not to be to the left or to the right.  If we can move our district forward and do the things for my constituency that will make a difference in their quality of life, which I‘ve already proven I can do.

I am very comfortable trying to stick with issues that—and the values of Texans here in southeast Texas that I was raised with and that I believe I am very much in sync with.

MATTHEWS:  Tom DeLay, you‘re not in this business for the money. 

DELAY:  No.

MATTHEWS:  You live modestly. 

DELAY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  You commute back and forth from Washington to Houston, Texas. 

DELAY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Why?  What drives you ever day?

DELAY:  What I believe in, the Constitution of the United States.  Ronald Reagan got me involved in this.  It‘s—I fight every day for what I believe in.  A strong national security, protecting American family values.  I want to see this country led in a different direction than when I found it, when I got into politics 20 some years ago.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Will Tom DeLay hang on to his seat or will the hammer go down swinging?  Charlie Cook of the “Cook Political Report” will be joining us when we come book.  And HARDBALL‘s coverage of tomorrow night‘s State of the Union gets an early start tonight at 7:00 Eastern.  NBC‘s moderator of “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert will be with us with the results of a new NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll.  It‘s fascinating.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over):  President George H.W. Bush wove some humor into his State of the Union address with a little help from the first lady.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Thank you very much for that warm reception.  You know, the big buildup this address has had, I wanted to make sure it would be a big hit, but I couldn‘t convince Barbara to deliver it for me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Our decision 2006 coverage starts tonight.  It‘s early in this midterm election year, but already there are many hot races shaping up. 

Charlie Cook is a NBC political analyst of course and publisher of “The Cook Political Report.”

Charlie, we just interviewed Tom DeLay down in Texas.  I mean, we had it on tape there obviously.  And a couple points came up.  I want you to tell what you think might be decisive. 

When I asked him about Scotland—let‘s take a look at this tape—when I asked him about Scotland and whether he was over there fighting religious—little sarcastic—religious repression in Scotland, here was his answer. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)         

MATTHEWS:  Are you worried that the Democrats will be able to use iconic pictures—that‘s probably a fancy word—but graphic pictures, like golfing in Scotland to bring you down? 

TOM DELAY, FMR. HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER:  I‘ll bet sure.  They‘ll try all that.  I mean, they want to lie about what‘s going on.  I‘m very involved in the international affairs whether it be Israel or against the religious persecution in China or for Taiwan against China or getting persecuted Jews out of Russia. 

I‘ve been involved in a lot of foreign affairs.  Yes, when I go over somewhere for that I take a day off or a half a day off, and I play golf. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)             

MATTHEWS:  Well, they skipped the part in that tape about where I asked is there religious repression in Scotland.  That is the problem. 

CHARLIE COOK, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  You know, there might be a good answer for your question, but that wasn‘t it.  I mean, I hope the next time somebody asks him that question, there‘s a little bit better answer because that just didn‘t make any sense. 

MATTHEWS:  He said he met with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who‘s been out of office for more than—well over a decade and is a very elderly woman.  And that‘s England, by the way. 

COOK:  Not Scotland. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a little weak.  Well, we‘ll see.  Let me ask you about the other guys with problems.  Nick Lampson is a former Congressman.  He was knocked out of his seat largely, I guess, through the redistricting by Tom DeLay.  He‘s traveling 100 miles for this seat. 

He‘s established his residence, his voting residence, his tax residence, I suppose, at his aunt‘s house.  That is where he received us, and, by the way, told us that was his home.  Is that going to be a problem, carpet bagging? 

COOK:  It can be.  It can be.

The thing is right now this race is Tom DeLay against Tom DeLay, and when it is DeLay versus DeLay, DeLay loses.  You ask if in a poll DeLay versus a Democrat and he‘s way ahead.  You ask DeLay against Nick Lampson and Lampson, the Democrat, is ahead. 

But when it becomes really a race between DeLay and Lampson and they start making Lampson‘s voting record in Congress an issue and basically the opportunism and carpet bagging and all that, this is going to be an awfully, awfully close race.

MATTHEWS:  I asked him if he was comfortable, Mr. Lampson, in casting his first vote as a new member of Congress for Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.  I got to imagine that‘s a problem in Texas. 

COOK:  Yes, and the answer was kind of a blur.  Yes, you do want to do that.

MATTHEWS:  But don‘t voters know that if you elect a Democrat, they vote for Pelosi, they vote for Harry Reid if they are Senators, that comes with the business? 

COOK:  Actually, I‘ve seen southern Democrats who didn‘t vote the first vote.  Remember Buddy Roemer refused to vote for Tip O‘Neill?  I mean, sometimes...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but that is the formal way you identify your party is who you vote for leader.  That‘s how it‘s done. 

COOK:  But somehow Roemer got committee assignments. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

COOK:  So, I mean, you know, where there‘s a will, there is a way.  But the point is these kinds of questions are going to come out in the campaign, and it‘s not going to be Tom DeLay versus Tom DeLay.  And that‘s why I think this is going to be a lot more competitive race than some of the polls today suggest. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about the House right now.  Do you think the House can go Democrat after this is all over with? 

COOK:  I think the Republican majorities are solid enough for a Category 1, 2, or 3 hurricane.  If it gets to a four, it might go. 

MATTHEWS:  A four gets 15 seats. 

COOK:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think it‘s so difficult for a Democrat to win in a year that there is a lot of concern about the war in Iraq—it‘s not going to get much more popular probably—there‘s a lot of concern about a lot of things, mainly—you know, corruption may not be the big issue, but I would just go back to the war. 

Just in “The Washington Post” today there‘s pictures of all those Marines and soldiers that were killed.  Again, all of these guys and women look like a million bucks, all dead now, sacrificed for their country.  Can that continue for another year, all the way through November?

COOK:  I don‘t know.  I mean, I think, everyone‘s chosen up sides on the war in Iraq, and I think that when Democrats started talking about withdraw versus why are we there, how did we get there and the president‘s decision to go in and whether the president and the administration exaggerated, when they made that switch, that shift of focus, over to should we get out now, withdrawal, I think that was a huge mistake. 

MATTHEWS:  That was a tactical mistake.

But the question applies and obtains, are we staying in that war so long that people are getting tired of the war? 

Look at the poll and we are going to show it tonight.  I can‘t give away the numbers, but the polling again suggests that people think the war is not worth it now.  They want the war to end faster than the president wants it to end.  All the numbers suggest an earnestness to get out of this situation in Iraq. 

COOK:  But don‘t you sense that the edge is off?  The edge that was there back in October and November, the anger, it‘s subsided a little bit. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, could it be that the Democratic Party has just fallen down as an opposition? 

COOK:  I think that the...

MATTHEWS:  Did you see that press conference last week? 

COOK:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘re at war and there wasn‘t one damn question about Iraq.  Is that responsible?  We‘re at war and there‘s no question about the war to the commander in chief. 

COOK:  Yes.  But, I think, you know, they‘ve made mistakes. 

MATTHEWS:  Five questions about Abramoff‘s pictures or more, maybe, and not one about the fact that our guys were getting killed over there.  I thought it was irresponsible.  But then I‘m just judging, and I‘m not a media critic. 

COOK:  Go to the press conference, Chris.  Do you think he‘d call on you? 

MATTHEWS:  I wasn‘t here that day.

COOK:  Do you think he‘d call on you?

MATTHEWS:  I know.  He might.  Yes, he might.

COOK:  You ought to go. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s get back to other hot races because we‘re going to be using you throughout this year, and you‘re great at picking elections. 

Santorum, we‘re going to be talking about him this week.  We may be able to get a debate going between he—right here on HARDBALL—between he and his Democratic rival Bob Casey.  Is he still an underdog in that race, Santorum in Pennsylvania? 

COOK:  Absolutely.  The last poll showed Senator Santorum about ten points behind Bob Casey.  The only incumbent senator I have ever seen to ever come back from that kind of deficit was Jesse Helms. 

Having said that, I think Santorum is a very, very effective candidate and certainly the more experience candidate.  I think this race is going to close up a lot. 

MATTHEWS:  And Jesse Helms ran that ad that showed the white hands ripping up the rejection notice saying you needed that job attacking affirmative action? 

COOK:  Right.  And Helms looked dead and came back and won twice like that.  So I wouldn‘t count Rick Santorum out, but it‘s going to be close.  And certainly he‘s the underdog. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of this race up in Rhode Island where the Republican Linc Chafee just today announced that he was going to vote against Judge Alito to try to save his skin perhaps? 

COOK:  I was surprised he did that. 

MATTHEWS:  Does it look desperate to you? 

COOK:  Yes, it does.  And it‘s such a Democratic state, but the thing about it is only Democratic activists, only the hardcore, really care a lot about, on each side, care a whole lot about the Supreme Court nomination. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he going to look like he‘s nervous?

COOK:  Absolutely.  And anybody that really cares about the Alito nomination on the Democratic side they are not going to vote for a Republican senator.  They‘re really not.  If I were him—I think he really shot himself in the foot.

MATTHEWS:  Just to be fair, do you think that Bob Byrd, the long-time Senator from West Virginia did the same thing to protect himself in conservative West Virginia by saying he‘s going to vote for Alito, even though he‘s a Democrat? 

COOK:  I think that a lot of people, when you get into small-town rural areas, unless someone is patently offensive, they‘re going to support a Supreme Court nominee.  Alito looked fine.  Whether you‘re talking about in West Virginia or in South Dakota, where Tim Johnson announced he was going to support the Alito nomination.  There‘s just was not the smoking gun for someone that‘s not an ACLU member.

MATTHEWS:  So you don‘t think it‘s a coincidence that all three Democrats that are talking about voting for Alito are from red states? 

COOK:  Absolutely not.  And there are probably three or four more that if they took any advice, they would, too. 

MATTHEWS:  I just hope the voters are watching carefully these men of courage and profiles in courage and watch how they manipulate their votes to catch up with the electorate. 

COOK:  Maybe they didn‘t. 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe it‘s for reel. 

COOK:  Maybe it‘s for reel. 

MATTHEWS:  Keep open that possibility that it‘s a vote on merit.  Here on HARDBALL we‘re going to be looking at tomorrow‘s State of the Union a lot of different ways including by the numbers.  HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster joins us with a preview when we return.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Tomorrow night we‘ll be covering the State of the Union address in a lot of different ways, including by the numbers.  HARDBALL Correspondent David Shuster is here to talk about what he‘s going to do tomorrow night.  I just love these gimmicks. 

Everybody‘s watching a long-winded speech by the president that could go an hour.  We‘re looking at a way to do it that makes it interesting, like keeping score.  What are you going to do?

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT:  That‘s right, Chris.  As you know as a former speech writer, the more you pound a particular issue or particular phrase, that‘s the way you frame the national agenda. 

We‘re going to be looking at a couple keys tomorrow night.  We‘re told the president will focus on health care, energy, Iran.  What‘s so interesting about tracking the number of times the president refers to Iran is when you look at the 2005 State of the Union, the president only mentioned Iran three times.  He talked about Social Security 18 times which was his big domestic agenda. 

This year, being the big agenda, health care, how many times does he talk about health care and how many times does he not talk about Social Security.  That will be fascinating. 

MATTHEWS:  You make it sound like he‘s not giving a speech, he‘s playing the vibraphone, like Lionel Hampton, he just hits certain notes. 

SHUSTER:  I think the political strategy is wise.  Think about it, the number of times the president can say we need to stay in Iraq because it‘s necessary, we need to keep troops there because it‘s necessary.   He mentioned necessary eight times in the press conference last week.  When the people hear the president say something is necessary, it becomes difficult to argue against. 

Likewise, the president has an opportunity this time in the State of the Union speech to hit themes over and over.  We‘ll be counting how many times he hits the themes.  Remember there won‘t be much of an opposition except in the Democratic response.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m thinking back in the year 2002 and the year 2003.  In 2002 he said Axis of Evil.  It made the front page of every newspaper in the country.  That was basically a trumpet blow for we‘re going to Iraq. It was surrounded by a bodyguard of lies, Iran and North Korea.  We‘re going to Iraq.  Then the year after that he said that‘s there is British intelligence tells us there‘s a uranium deal under way, whereby Saddam Hussein‘s—none of this was true.  So in other words, is the president held to account for the number of times he gets something wrong? 

SHUSTER:  He will.  I think what‘s going to happen in this case.  It‘s not only going to be was the president factually accurate, and you think the White House is going to be far more careful this time, but when he talks about the Iran, what are the main themes and how often does he repeat those themes?  Does he talk about Iran being a nuclear threat, having weapons we don‘t want them to have, or does he mention Iran in the context of democracy, liberty, three people having more of a vote as far as reformist issues. 

The way he frames that and the number of times he repeats that I think is going to be very telling and our viewers should find very telling.  Was the speech effective?  How many people thought the speech did what it was supposed to do?

MATTHEWS:  How many times do you think he‘ll say the word corruption? 

SHUSTER:  I think he‘ll say the word corruption maybe four or five. 

MATTHEWS:  How many times Abramoff? 

SHUSTER:  I would be surprised if he mentioned Abramoff at all. 

MATTHEWS:  How many times Tom DeLay? 

SHUSTER:  I don‘t think he‘ll talk about DeLay at all.  If you look at previous speeches, you avoid talking about people you don‘t want to talk about. 

MATTHEWS:  How does he back down from the strong push in the number of times he mentioned Social Security last time? 

SHUSTER:  I think he mentions it by saying, he mentions it at least a

couple times so he can suggest it‘s still a priority, he still want to

improve the solvency of Social Security.  But, over and over, I think when

we see the numbers tomorrow night, I think we‘ll see health care have the

sort of numbers that Social Security had last year, 18 or 10 times

MATTHEWS:  What headlines does he want in the papers the next day? 

SHUSTER:  I think the president wants the headline to be, “Terrific

Speech—“

MATTHEWS:  No.  The headline says “Calls for health reform?”  Will it be on Iran?  Warns Iran?

SHUSTER:  I think it will be warns Iran and calls for a new push to solve health care.  In fact, you talk about Texas and Pennsylvania, which we‘re going to be talking about later this week, health care is a huge issue, especially for the suburban Republican voters that have been with the president, that supported his presidency for the last five years.  The top issue when he looked at those voters is health care.  So the president, obviously he‘s going to talk about it in his speech, but the more he talks about it, the more he puts it on his agenda, the better. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve seen a poll recently of Pennsylvania that shows that the biggest concern, and this is to people at home are thinking, this is not about Washington or the government, it‘s about them.  The biggest issue in Pennsylvania is people‘s personal finances.  In other words, you‘re saving for retirement, your saving maybe for college tuition for the kids and you‘re thinking how much you can save.  Maybe a vacation this summer for a week.

So you‘re thinking about dollars and cents.  That‘s the biggest concern on people‘s own personal agenda.  Is Bush going to get to that? 

SHUSTER:  That‘s right.  I think the other thing we‘re going to try to do in addition to by the numbers, a lot of people, in addition to the hundred million that may watch this on television or read about it in the newspapers, a lot of people now are getting their information about the speech from the Internet.  There will be more blogs and Web sites dedicated to the accuracy of the speech and the number of times he talks about various issues. 

So another of the things we are going to be tracking is what are these particular Web sites, Republican and Democrat, what are they saying about the president‘s speech, what are the issues important to them.  Because that reflects the overall politics of the equation.

MATTHEWS:  David, I can‘t wait for your analysis.  Up next, on the eve of the State of the Union we look back at the first five years of President Bush‘s presidency and the lessons he can learn from President‘s Reagan and Clinton who both stumbled in the sixth year of their Presidencies. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(STOCK MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Here to break down the highs and lows of the Bush administration and to set the stage for tomorrow night is MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent Norah O‘Donnell. 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Thank you, Chris.  Well tonight the president‘s advisers say that his speech tomorrow will be more visionary and more directional than it will be sort of a laundry list of proposals.  It‘s going to be less ambitious, because of course it is an election year. 

But the president begins this sixth year and the stakes are enormous.  In part because this speech will shape, in many ways, sort of the midterm elections, if you will, how the Republican Party will do.  And also his final years in office.  So we decided to take a look back at his high points and low points.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I, George Walker Bush, do solemnly swear...

O‘DONNELL (voice-over):  Five years after first taking office, George W. Bush prepares to address tens of millions of Americans.

BUSH:  The State of our Union is confident and strong.

O‘DONNELL:  Each speech, year after year, provides a timeline of his presidency.  It was his first State of the Union, that was just months after the 9/11 attacks. 

BUSH:  I can hear you.  The rest of the world hears you.

O‘DONNELL:  At the time, the president received a 90 percent approval rating, the highest ever recorded in Gallup poll history.  But since then, there has been a steady decline, culminating this year with some of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.  One reason, Hurricane Katrina. 

BILL MCINTURFF, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER:  Katrina kind of took the underpinning of the presidency, the perception of his being a strong leader, his perception of being able to handle a crisis, and it eroded those ratings.  And when it eroded those ratings, it left the president vulnerable.

O‘DONNELL:  Republican pollster Bill McInturff says the war in Iraq has also defined Bush‘s presidency.

MCINTURFF:  His presidency will be stronger should the situation in Iraq allow us to begin withdrawing troops in 2006, I think you‘d see his approval go up.

O‘DONNELL:  The president‘s advisers acknowledge it has been a rocky start for his second term.  With record gas prices, the collapse of his Social Security plan and the firestorm over his decision to authorize targeted domestic spying without court warrants.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  This is a president who‘s always said that “ultimately what I care about is history.”  And he knows that especially this year, in a way, this is the last chance that he‘s going to have the full attention of the American people and the Congress to do the kind of things he‘d like to do.

O‘DONNELL:  Now he faces another challenge that has foiled the best-laid plans of other presidents.  Some call it the six-year curse.  It was in the sixth year of their presidency‘s that Bill Clinton was impeached, Richard Nixon was forced to resign, Ronald Reagan faced Iran-Contra and Franklin Roosevelt faced resistance to New Deal legislation.

BESCHLOSS:  The best thing that George Bush can learn from recent history is that the successful second-term presidents are those who basically say, “Look, I‘m going to concentrate on something that‘s really close to my heart and try to get it done.”  Reagan did that in ending the Cold War.  Clinton in the end did that by trying to bring about peace in the Middle East.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  Now no matter what the president says tomorrow night, his legacy will be based on what happens in Iraq and what happens in the larger war on terror, because this president has staked his credibility and his legacy on being wartime commander-in-chief.  Chris?

MATTHEWS:  Norah, thank you.  We have also joining us right now, we‘ve got Tucker Carlson, the host of MSNBC‘s “THE SITUATION.”  And we also have joining us, political analyst from way out in Seattle, home of the Seahawks, Ron Reagan.  Sir, there you are.

RON REAGAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  That‘s right, go Seahawks.

MATTHEWS:  There you are.  We will not make any bets until later this week on that one.  Let me go with you first, Ron.  It seems to me that the problem the president has is to direct the direction of the viewing audience, maybe 40 million people, based upon the trend tomorrow night, to what he wants to talk about.  What is that that he wants to talk about that he doesn‘t want other people distracting from?

REAGAN:  Well I think Karl Rove said it in his recent appearances. 

It‘s going to be the war on terror.  It‘s going to be “I keep you safe.  You cannot trust the Democrats to appreciate the foe that we face in the Islamist terrorists.  I‘m the only one that can do that and I‘m the only one that is going to protect you and your families.”

MATTHEWS:  Well Tucker, is that the same as focusing on Iraq, or does that take away from Iraq when you visually have the country focus on homeland security, on fighting terrorism generally.  Does that distract from Iraq, which is a problem for the president?

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Well of course the White House wants to conflate the two.  Let me just say at the outset, you know, I‘ve watched probably 15 of these speeches.  Every single time the president, no matter who it is, says this is not going to be a laundry list, this is a big think speech.  And every single year, point by paint, oh, it‘s always a laundry list.  That‘s a total lie.  And I think it will be...

MATTHEWS:  ... Why? because the interest groups get in there and say...

CARLSON:  ... Because they can‘t help it.  You know, they‘ve got this constitutionally-mandated speech.  People have to pay attention.  They just can‘t control themselves.  They are laundry-list kind of guys, that‘s why they went into politics.

REAGAN:  But what I don‘t understand is Norah said it‘s going to be a visionary speech, but not ambitious.  How can it be visionary, yet not ambitious.

O‘DONNELL:  What I think—what I think what they‘re trying to do is lower expectations because last year‘s State of the Union address was very ambitious in terms of policy proposals, social security reform.  Where is that now?  Dead.  Tax reform, where is that?  Shelved.

Immigration reform, still on the back burner.  So all of these things, these bold initiatives that the president said, “I have political capital, I‘m going to spend it this year.”  Lo and behold, what happened this year was the war in Iraq still got worse, Katrina, the tsunami, and he wasn‘t able to do all those things.  And the White House has said, “We know this is a midterm election coming up, the president just can‘t do all that.”  They know that.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it‘s possible, Norah, that the president has lowered the bar through his people, all the people telling every reporter they can find that it‘s going to be baby steps.  And he comes off tomorrow night with vavoom, some big proposal that sticks it to the Democrats?

O‘DONNELL:  Well, clearly one of the bigger proposals of the speech is going to be about health care reform, we know that, that‘s been leaked.  But it‘s going to be more about expanding tax credits to different people, not giving necessarily more coverage to people.  But no, I think that the president‘s got to sort of set this tone and I think he‘s going to, again, talk once again about the war a lot, because as Karl Rove said, they want to draw the distinction this year, these midterm elections.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, the terrorists are who they want to talk about.

O‘DONNELL:  Terrorism.

MATTHEWS:  They don‘t want to talk about Iraq.

O‘DONNELL:  No, that‘s a very good point.  You‘re right.  Terrorism. 

CARLSON:  But, wait, if I get to say one word in defense of Karl Rove, that is the dividing issue.  That is the most important question.  How will a president, an president, protect the country?  Sure, of course, it‘s a political calculation. 

It is the one thing Republicans have going for them, sort of, to the extent they have still have it going for them.  But it‘s still, politics aside, the central question of our time.  So, yes, maybe expedient for the midterm, but that does not make it less real.  It is real. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s not a rhetorical argument.

Go ahead, Ron. 

REAGAN:  Oh, the other problem for big visionary kinds of things is there‘s just no money for it.  We‘ve got record deficits.  We‘ve got a huge trade deficit, and we‘re spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq now.  There‘s no money for big programs. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back with more on that friendly note from Ron Reagan.  There‘s no money left in the cash drawer.  Tucker Carlson, Norah O‘Donnell, we‘ll all be coming back.

And don‘t forget, a new HARDBALL at 7:00 Eastern tonight, as Tim Russert joins us to preview the State of the Union with the results of a NBC poll “Wall Street Journal” poll as well.  It‘s got some hot stuff in it.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

               

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with MSNBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell, Tucker Carlson and Ron Reagan. 

Let‘s talk about what President Bush is going to say tomorrow night again.  But I want to ask about a couple things. 

First of all, the setting is interesting.  It‘s the House of Representatives, which just happens to be the belly of the beast in terms of current corruption. 

Norah, you know how the camera moves.  You know, the camera can be more important than any word the president speaks.  If the camera turns on Tom DeLay, he‘ll be there, or if it turns Robert Ney of Ohio, it goes after Doolittle, it will go after every name in the vocabulary of the latest scandal.  Won‘t that hurt the Republicans? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, I...

MATTHEWS:  The pictures of their suspects.  It will be like a lineup. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, that‘s an interesting point.  I think more interesting, however, is that the president is very fortunate, as a two-term president, to have both chambers controlled by Republicans.  And he has had them controlled by them.

So he has an opportunity to get a lot done.  But he hasn‘t been able to.  And he‘s going to have more trouble this year, because the party is deeply divided. 

In the House, just this week, just after the president‘s State of the Union, they are going to be electing the successor to Tom DeLay, and that‘s a big fight going on. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We‘ll go to Roy Blunt as well.  Talk about the visual tomorrow tonight.  You‘ve seen these problems before where like Hillary Clinton sitting there chatting away with somebody, disrespectfully. 

CARLSON:  I love that stuff, yes.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I love that because it show the secondary characteristics of people, which gives away their personalities. 

CARLSON:  I‘m not sure—I mean, I think Bush will be judged on Iraq, and I think it‘s possible he will be judged harshly.  I don‘t think this corruption stuff sticks to Bush.  The critique of Bush in his relations with Congress is he hasn‘t kept Congress under control.  He‘s vetoed nothing because there are from his own party, he is allowed to go crazy and has not really exercised his own duty as president to reign them in. 

People don‘t think Bush is a cheat though.  They don‘t think Bush is dishonest.  Look at the polling on this.  I‘m not saying—and I actually don‘t think Bush is dishonest either.  There are a lot of criticisms of Bush... 

(CROSSTALK)    

REAGAN:  I think the polls disagree with you Tucker. 

CARLSON:  I would be interested in knowing what polls you are looking at. 

REAGAN:  The ABC News poll, 53 percent consider George Bush to be dishonest and untrustworthy, 76 percent think that the White House should disclose its contacts with Jack Abramoff, which the White House now is refusing to do.  I think this is a big issue for them. 

CARLSON:  I have not seen—I don‘t believe that Bush‘s position in the polls right now is a reflection of how people feel about the corruption in Congress.  I think people believe falsely that Congress is always corrupt.  That this is kind of the state of Congress.

REAGAN:  Well, that‘s true.

CARLSON:  And I don‘t think that‘s true at all.  But I actually don‘t think Bush is going to be as hurt by this as one would think. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the press cameras, the network cameras, will enjoy highlighting these campus characters? 

CARLSON:  I hope so.  I hope they do.  That‘s like the most interesting thing of the whole event.  I love it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, another visual I want to suggest the possibility that the president will be on top of his game.  His people like Dan Bartlett and such will be on the top of their game.  And then Martha Ann Alito will be up in the gallery, the woman who was... 

O‘DONNELL:  But not crying. 

MATTHEWS:  The president will say something—well, Norah, you follow the White House you know how it works.  Won‘t they say something very upbeat and bucking up like isn‘t she a great woman, and then they‘ll put the camera right on Ted Kennedy.  And show how he was the guy that molested her basically.  That‘s the way they‘ll play it. 

O‘DONNELL:  Sure.  The president always uses his box and those who sit next to the first lady to sort of symbolize some great moment, and clearly one of the high points for this president over the past year has been the fact that he got Chief John Roberts confirmed and potentially Sam Alito.

(CROSSTALK)    

MATTHEWS:  ...the way they beat up Judge Alito to make his life cry. 

REAGAN:  Norah, will Mrs. Alito be the hero that is featured in the grandstand there? 

O‘DONNELL:  I don‘t know.  But I would imagine that they would pick a  what is called sort of a more regular American, if you will. 

CARLSON:  That‘s my least favorite part.  They always have—it‘s either an Indian chief or a female firefighter.

(CROSSTALK)    

MATTHEWS:  Can I make a prediction for you Tucker?  It won‘t be an Indian chief this year.  OK? 

CARLSON:  I‘m not against Indian chiefs, but, I mean, this whole like Mr. And Mrs. America, and then the person stands.  I mean, it‘s just—remember Dickey Flap (ph) when Phil Graham (ph) used to always talk about his friend the printer, Dickey Flap, with the ink stained hands?  I mean, you know, come on. 

REAGAN:  And you know who else won‘t be there.  You won‘t see any parents of a trooper that was killed in Iraq there like we saw, I think, it was two years ago.  I don‘t think you‘ll see any of that. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, that was one of the more moving moments, as you know, several years ago, where the mother hugged Mrs. Bush and the dog tags got caught. 

MATTHEWS:  Will there be moments—I want to get back to substance, but I love the visual because I think it is a television event now.  It is a studio audience basically.  Will there be a moment where the Democrats sit on their hands dramatically and the Republicans stand up and roar? 

CARLSON:  There always is.  Absolutely.  I think people are always surprised by—and every year not just this year—but they are always surprised by how partisan it is.  I don‘t even think most people at home know that the parties sit in different places. 

I mean, I think it is shocking to people who don‘t follow Congress that one side, you know, won‘t respond at all to the president, and the other side goes crazy.

MATTHEWS:  Do they look bad when they don‘t?

CARLSON:  I think they do.  I mean, I‘m not shocked by it.  I have lived here for a long time.  But, yes, I don‘t think the public likes that. 

MATTHEWS:  Suppose the president says I am going to make my tax cuts permanent, and the Democrats sit on their hands... 

MATTHEWS:  Do they look bad when they don‘t? 

CARLSON:  I think they do.  I‘m not shocked by it.  I‘ve lived here a long time.  I don‘t think the public likes that. 

MATTHEWS:  Suppose the president says I want to make the tax cuts permanent and the Democrats sit on their hands.  That‘s good for the Republicans, right?

O‘DONNELL:  The president begins this speech tomorrow night with approval ratings lower ratings lower than any post-war president except for Richard Nixon.  So he has a very tough time in the approval ratings.  It‘s been a tough year for him and he has to try and seek—that‘s why he‘s going to kick this—

MATTHEWS:  Does he like it down there? 

O‘DONNELL:  In the well of—

MATTHEWS:  In the low numbers? 

O‘DONNELL:  I think this president likes a good fight. 

MATTHEWS:  Until Congress changes hands.  It doesn‘t matter what his ratings are, he‘s not running again and Cheney‘s not running.  If Congress changes hands in this next year, these numbers spell disaster.  You‘re going to have investigation after investigation. 

MATTHEWS:  Because the subpoena will be in the hands of the Democrats. 

CARLSON:  It will be a nightmare. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And Richard Nixon learned that the hard way in 1972.  We‘ll be right back with Norah O‘Donnell, Tucker Carlson and Ron Reagan.  Who said subpoena power, brilliant assessment. 

Tonight‘s special guests include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, that‘s tomorrow night, Senator John McCain and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.  What do they all have in common?  They‘re all running for president.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER:  In 1982, President Ronald Reagan paid tribute to federal employee Lenny Skutnik (ph) who had jumped into the Potomac River in a heroic effort to save the victims of a plane crash. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT:  We saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  Since then, every president has followed suit, honoring ordinary Americans with extraordinary stories of bravery and accomplishment. 

MATTHEWS:  As I said, a picture is worth 1,000 words.  And Ron, your dad doing that probably is one of the few times people actually remember a State of the Union event more than a year or two later. 

REAGAN:  It‘s true.  Well, the other thing my father had going for him was he was an excellent public speaker.  You think of F.D.R., Kennedy, Clinton and my father as being the great sort of war-time to post-war presidential orators. 

And this president, unfortunately, does not match up to that.  That‘s one of the things he has going against him. 

MATTHEWS:  You couldn‘t resist going around with the round house punch. 

One more shot at bush. 

REAGAN:  We‘re running out of time, so you know. 

I wanted to stay on that positive note.  That‘s Lenny Skutnik, he worked in the Congressional Budget Office when I worked on the hill.  He would come by with envelopes and stuff and somebody would say, you know who that guy was?  The messenger, it was the guy.  And he couldn‘t swim.  He doggie paddled into the ice why water just on instinct. 

REAGAN:  Do you remember that footage of him clawing his way over the ice to get to that woman? 

MATTHEWS:  No swimming ability.  Just sheer, I want to save these lives.  I get chills.  I am chilled thinking about it.  But you say you don‘t like—

CARLSON:  Look.  Lenny Skutnik was an actual hero.  A real hero.  That had just happened.  It was shortly right before that speech.  That was a gimme, a totally appropriate.  I just hate the phoniness, the cloying phoniness of a politician, this president, the president before him, was an egregious offender, grabbing some random person saying this person represents America.  Spare me.  You don‘t even know his name. 

REAGAN:  Tucker is right.  It has become a cliche. 

O‘DONNELL:  Let‘s not.  We can all be cynic here.  Realize this State of the Union is not really a State of the Union.  It is not an address about what is the state of our union. 

(CROSSTALK)

It is a political speech.  And it is an opportunity for the president to have the largest audience of the whole year.  Which is why it is so important, why we all get excited about it, and why we‘re all going to be sitting here tomorrow night until 1:00 talking about it.  He is setting the tone for the year and setting the tone for the rest of the presidency. 

We judge him.  We judge him by what he tells the American people he‘s going to do.  We judge him by the vision he sets forth, the direction he thinks the country should be set, and how he looks back at his term.  That‘s how we judge this president.   

MATTHEWS:  What are people, we can expect the number to be about 40 million people who can do anything they want tomorrow in a free country, choose to sit and watch this for at least an hour. 

Let‘s start with you Norah, what you think the average American in a country at war, with the economy looks a little better than it did, troubles about a lot of fronts, on a lot of fronts, what they looking for? 

O‘DONNELL:  First and foremost, optimism.  I think people expect that from the president.  A tone.  Which this president always tries to do.  Then I think they want to hear about Iraq which is clearly the number one concern if you believe the poll.  And then two, health care.  Health care is a major crisis in this country. 

MATTHEWS:  Because? 

O‘DONNELL:  Because people are paying more out of pocket.  Anecdotally, we all know that we‘re paying more.  People on the other end of the line are really annoying. 

MATTHEWS:  So the insurance policies we‘re lucky to have don‘t cover enough. 

O‘DONNELL:  Right.  But unfortunately what the president will propose will not probably not address all of those problems.  People will be looking for something on that. 

MATTHEWS:  Tucker, what do you think?

CARLSON:  I think they‘re looking for one thing.  I think health care is important.  I don‘t think the president can assuage the fears about it in a speech.  What they‘re looking for is a sense that this guy is in control.  We are at war. 

Bush‘s taking us to Iraq, this is not a slight at all, it‘s just true, a faith-based pitch.  I know what I‘m doing.  Follow me.  People did. 

MATTHEWS:  When will his day of reckoning be on Iraq? 

CARLSON:  That‘s almost an historical question.  What they want now is they want to be eliminated the feeling that maybe he didn‘t know what he was doing.  That scares the heck out of people.  They want Bush to seem like he knows what he‘s doing, he‘s in control and he‘s keeping them safe.  Bottom line.

MATTHEWS:  Ron, Will there come a moment when this president on this point of Iraq has to say, or have people say for him, we made a mistake?  Or will it always be this optimistic, there‘s a light at the end of the tunnel? 

REAGAN:  I think it will always be optimistic.  To play off a little of what Tucker was saying, I think what else they want to hear from the president is reality.  They want to see whether what he is saying comports with what their view of reality is.  So far, through most of his term, that hasn‘t happened with this president.  And really, the reality for the viewers is, that it almost doesn‘t matter what the president says.  The smaller half of the public watching will believe anything he says.  The larger half will not believe a word he says. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Street cred.  I agree.  It‘s the number one thing we want in our leaders.  do you connect with the events before our eyes.

Thank you Norah O‘Donnell, Tucker Carlson, Ron Reagan.  In one hour, I‘ll be back for a brand new HARDBALL tonight as we preview the State of the Union with the results of a new NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll with Tim Russert.  He‘ll be my guest as we start the hour at 7:00.

Right now it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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