updated 1/31/2006 2:28:59 PM ET 2006-01-31T19:28:59

Guest: Al Sharpton; Kate O‘Bierne

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  What do Americans worry most about?  On the eve of the State of the Union, what do they most want to hear President Bush talk about?  Who do they trust to solve the country‘s problems, the president or the Congress?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.

Tomorrow night President Bush will tell the world what he plans to do for the American people this year. 

Tonight, Norah O‘Donnell reports on what the president has said and done in the past and decision 2006. 

Former majority leader Tom DeLay is one of the most influential politicians of our time.  He has changed the face of the Republican Party but now faces himself the toughest race of his career.  Later my interview tonight with Tom DeLay. 

But we begin with NBC News Washington bureau chief and the moderator of “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert, to talk about the new, brand new, NBC News “Wall Street Journal” poll that has just been released. 

Tim, the president‘s approval numbers.  Have they gone up? 

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF:  Not at all, Chris.  Frozen in place.  Look at this.  Approve, 39 percent, disapprove, 54 percent.  That is exactly where it was a month ago.  The White House had hoped that it made some movement.  Just not the case. 

MATTHEWS:  What is the deterrent, I should ask here, to the president‘s public relations effort here? 

RUSSERT:  Well, I think we can find it in the following question.  We asked, what should be the top goal of Washington in solving some of the problems confronting the country? 

And leading the list is Iraq.  And it is considerable.  As you can see, 35 percent.  Then comes health care.  Then comes the economy in jobs.  Then comes simplify the Medicare prescription program, cut the deficit and cut taxes. 

But, Chris, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq.  Inside our poll, 65 percent, two-thirds of the American people now say they want to bring the troops home.  That‘s an increase of six percent in one month.  The American people, I think, are very focused on that issue.  And that war is the top priority. 

MATTHEWS:  Could it be that the American people are following this war by themselves not with any help of the major national media?  I noticed, Tim, that there were no questions at the president‘s press conference about Iraq itself.  Yet, here we see the public thinking about it relentlessly. 

RUSSERT:  It is a quiet anxiety out there.  Wherever I go in the country, people come up and say what do you think?  Where is it going?  Are we going to be OK?  And obviously, I think that the—Bob Woodruff of ABC News and his cameramen, Doug Vogt, being injured and wounded, just put that story right back front and center.  And it increases that level of anxiety. 

MATTHEWS:  So who do the people look to lead this country out of its current problems at home and abroad? 

RUSSERT:  You know, it‘s a very interesting question, Chris, that we asked our people all across the country.  And look at this, only one in four of the American people we talked to, 25 percent, believe President Bush should take the lead on policy.  Nearly 50 percent say Congress.  And 16 percent say both equally. 

I think that underscores the apprehension in the country when people are looking around official Washington saying, well, maybe we need a different way to go here, maybe Congress can show it to us. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you interpret whether that means Democrats, the opposition in Congress, Harry Reid, Pelosi, etc., or does it mean the institution? 

RUSSERT:  I don‘t think you can say it‘s simply the Democrats because the Democrats have been very honest, frankly.  I asked the chairman of the Democratic Party, where is the Democratic plan?  He said you‘ll see it next year.  And so it is going to take some time.  That was in 2005.  Meaning ‘06. 

And I think the Democrats have not had a unified or monolithic approach to this.  But it clearly suggests, however, that people are uncomfortable, unhappy with what some of the things they are seeing, coming from the president, from Washington.  And they want Congress to be more assertive. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is winning this big fight here in Washington over domestic spying? 

RUSSERT:  Well, it is pretty interesting.  We‘ve asked people about spying issues.  And a majority believe with the president that you can in fact wiretap without a warrant.  However, when you ask the second question, are you concerned by that policy?  Fifty-six percent say they are concerned by it.  So the president has a slight majority supporting his policy. 

But there‘s a lot of tentativeness underneath the surface that if in fact something goes wrong or they learn more information, those numbers could swing. 

MATTHEWS:  What kind of pregaming are the president‘s people doing this year?  Are they sending out messages to low ball expectations?  What are you getting from the White House people themselves? 

RUSSERT:  The State of the Union message, we sure are.  There‘s a Republican National Committee memo from Matthew Dowd.  The president during the campaign of 2004 saying, you know, presidents never go up in the polls after the State of the Union message.  They sometimes go down. 

The bar has been set very low.  Because the Bush White House realizes that the president now at 39 percent, they don‘t want articles written two, three or four weeks from now saying no bounce, no bounce. 

I think the president kind of gave a preview, Chris, on the State of the Union message in his news conference last Thursday.  He looked out at the American people and said I can keep you safe.  I‘m going to cut your taxes and bring on the mid-term elections.  It is my last campaign. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you figure?  Tim, you‘re very good at this.  Can you tell me what you think will be the headline in “The New York Times” the next day?  Will it be a substantive message like health care?  Will it be stylistic, a review of the president‘s performance?  What do you expect? 

RUSSERT:  I think the president is going to hit very, very hard on the war, the big umbrella war on terrorism.  And that it is still out there, very robust, very active.  And we have to be concerned and have to be supportive. 

And then a lot of subsections saying we shouldn‘t in any way abandon domestic agenda.  He‘s going to move health care way up on top, very much the way he tried to do with social security last year.  Because he knows health care resonates particularly the problems with the prescription drug problem. 

He is also I think going to plead for more patience for Iraq.  And my guess is, Chris, he will have an opportunity to introduce his new Supreme Court justice, Samuel Alito, as a way that Washington can come together.

MATTHEWS:  What do you think—I have got to ask you.  Maybe this is a Hail Mary, but do you think he might put Martha Ann Alito, the woman who left the hearing room in tears during her husband‘s confirmation hearings, up in the gallery next to Laura? 

RUSSERT:  I think it is sort of slam-dunk frankly, you know.  And I think actually Sam Alito could be sworn in by tomorrow afternoon and could be sitting in the front row along with the other Supreme Court justices.  You know, president‘s love to have those props to go to during a State of the Union message.  We saw Bill Clinton do it.  We saw Ronald Reagan do it.  And it is something that George W. Bush likes to do too.

MATTHEWS:  You have got a lot to do with managing NBC‘s coverage tomorrow night.  Tim, I was just wondering, you know, the president‘s speech goes maybe an hour.  And all that time, that camera is wandering.  Are we going to be seeing pictures of Robert Ney of Ohio, Tom DeLay of Texas, some of the unusual suspects of all the discussion about the Abramoff case in the last several weeks, in the audience? 

RUSSERT:  Oh, absolutely.  The president is going to have to address this issue of integrity and corruption.  And I think be very firm in his rhetoric.  And it is interesting in our poll, Chris, we found people say though, it was about 22 percent, think the Democrats are more problems with special interest.  About 33 percent say no, it is the Republicans.  And the rest of the country says no it is both parties. 

And then we asked what if we fix this, what if there were some measures taking lobbying reform, if you will, will that help you out Mr.  and Mrs. America?  And 65 percent said, no, it is not going to make any difference whatsoever.

MATTHEWS:  Is that new, do you think? 

RUSSERT:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  That sense of cynicism of hopelessness about corruption? 

RUSSERT:  Since the beginning of time people think that the politicians are politicians and that‘s just the way they are going to behave.  The Democrats are working very hard to suggest that Jack Abramoff is unique, that the level of the scandal, the magnitude, the amount of money is huge.  And they‘re going to try very hard to make that culture of corruption case. 

And they may make some inroads.  Because sometimes people do get fed up and say, well, you know, it has just gotten to a level now where we are going to have to throw the bums out and put some other ones in.  And that‘s what the Democrats are hoping for. 

MATTHEWS:  I was telling you before we went on the air, Tim, that there was an old poll maybe 20 years ago that the Democrats had taken, and they asked what people think of behavior by congressmen and congresswomen in term of ethics. 

And they came back to their chagrin saying, we think all you people steal typewriters on your way home every night from the Congress.  So I think the bar is fairly low, Tim. 

RUSSERT:  So just update it to laptops, and we‘re right on the money, right? 

MATTHEWS:  Great.  Great to hear that.  Thank you very much.  Thanks for coming on.  Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief of NBC, moderator of “Meet the Press.”  We‘ll see Tim tomorrow night here.

Coming up, much more on the NBC News poll and what it means on the eve of the State of the Union, as President Bush looks to jump start his presidency after a very bad 2005. 

And later my exclusive interview, and it is fun, with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, all the hot issues, he takes them on.  He‘s fighting to hang onto his House seat down in Texas.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  As President Bill Clinton prepared to run for a second term in 1996, he made a political move to the center in his address.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We know there is not a program for every problem.  We know and we have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington.  We have to give the American people one that lives within its means.  The era of big government is over.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  For more brilliance, we‘re joined by HARDBALL political analyst Bob Shrum and MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan.  Let‘s dig into some of these numbers from the brand new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll that just got out tonight.  Interesting question here.  Shrumy, you‘re going to love this one.  If there‘s only one goal that could be achieved this year, what would it be?  The American people say, by an overwhelming majority, bring the troops home from Iraq.

BOB SHRUM, HARDBALL POLITICAL ANALYST:  It finishes first.  And then when you look at the rest of the list, five of the six goals, the first five of the six, are goals where people are going to turn to Democrats and are going to think Democrats are going to do what needs to be done: healthcare, jobs, dealing with the deficit.

The only one of those that might have an advantage for the president, which is only at six or seven percent, is cutting taxes.

MATTHEWS:  Is that one thing you can guarantee the Democrats won‘t do?

SHRUM:  No.  I actually think Democrats—I‘ll tell what you Democrats would do and will do when we get the chance.  We will repeal the Bush tax cut for people at the top and we‘ll make middle-class tax cuts to help the hard-working people of this country who don‘t believe that they have really gotten the tax cut.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s try to find a common ground here.  Pat, bring the troops home, No. 1.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  It is No. 1 and I think the president‘s got about six or eight months to accomplish something.  But Chris, the fact that Iran is in the news, that we have al-Zawahri, we have bin Laden on T.V., that young lady on T.V. today, very gripping.  In fact, we‘ve got Hamas.  All of these...

MATTHEWS:  Jill Carroll.

BUCHANAN:  ... Jill Carroll.  All of these things, these foreign policy issues, America versus Islam.  When the people focus on these things, they don‘t turn to Democrats.  They turn to the president of the United States.  Even if we‘re in a very, very tough situation, NSA wiretaps, I think all of these issues, to the degree that the president focuses on them, he wins the battle against the Democrats.

MATTHEWS:  But why do people say in this new poll that all things considered, it was not worth it to go to Iraq?

BUCHANAN:  I think by and large, most Americans think it was not worth it.  But at the same time, the Democrats are split.  They don‘t have any program.  And if you asked—who do you want to lead us out of Iraq?  Do you want Hillary Clinton or do you want George W. Bush, I think Bush does well.

MATTHEWS:  But Hillary‘s not against the war.  But Shrum, is there a problem, Bob, in the fact the Democrats don‘t have a clear policy on Iraq?

SHRUM:  Look, as you know, Chris, there‘s never a single clear policy that come from the party that doesn‘t control the presidency, except in a presidential election year.  But I think Pat‘s smoking something if he actually believes the country wants to turn to Bush on Iraq. 

The truth is the country wants to turn away from what Bush has done on Iraq.  The company doesn‘t want to turn to Bush on healthcare.  They want to turn away from what he‘s done, for example, on prescription drugs for the elderly.

Our foreign policy in the Middle East, especially, is in a shambles right now.  And I think the country is looking for a new direction.  It‘s looking for new leadership.  And quite frankly, the president would be a lot better off if he took a lead from Bill Clinton‘s book and got up and said, “the era of unilateralism in foreign policy is over.”

MATTHEWS:  Pat, one strength the president has, notwithstanding that argument, separately—two-thirds of the American people believe, according to a poll that came out today, that they‘re safer now than they were before 9/11.  And the president must get the benefit of that.

BUCHANAN:  Oh, he gets the benefit of that.  And I think he gets the benefit in the war on terror.  But I‘m surprised that had two-thirds think they‘re safer.  But what he does have going for him, Chris, is he‘s a tough customer.  As I mentioned, He‘s Jack Bauer in the war on terror.  He‘s not ACLU, and that‘s what the American people want in the war on terror.

So I disagree with Shrumy.  To the degree that you‘re talking about foreign policy, defense policy, and even a war that‘s not going as well as everybody thought, I think you look to the president of the United States.

MATTHEWS:  Are you saying that every time that the president or the vice president comes out and seems to be positioning themselves in defensive torture, in defense of domestic surveillance, of spying on Americans, that still gives them the impression, “Hey look, these guys are looking out for us.”

BUCHANAN:  Torture, no, but I do think the president ruled that out.  But I do think if you‘re talking about whether or not he should be listening in to phone calls of people talking to Kandahar, Afghanistan, the average guy‘s going to say yes, do it.

MATTHEWS:  Do you know what the code—the area code is for Kandahar?

BUCHANAN:  No, I‘ve talked to Kabul, maybe, but not Kandahar.

MATTHEWS:  OK, Shrum, why is that?  Why is that, Bob, that the president seems to still win on security even though most Americans said they‘re not happy with this question of surveillance.  They‘re not happy with the torturing, obviously.

SHRUM:  Well, first I‘m glad Pat‘s against the torture.  Secondly, I think Pat‘s engaged...

MATTHEWS:  ... Did you say that, Pat?  Are you against torture?

BUCHANAN:  Of course I‘m against—I‘m against a policy of torture, but I will say this.  There are some circumstances.  You had a nuclear weapon in the New York harbor and you caught a guy that was involved with it, I think you‘d do everything you can to get the information.

I think that‘s where Bush is at.  But a policy of torture, no.  But are there circumstances in which you‘ve got to use some measure of force?  Anybody who understands common sense will do that.

SHRUM:  Every expert will tell you, by the way, that when you try to get that kind of information under torture, you get inaccurate information.  But Pat is demonstrably wrong over the last month or six weeks, we have talked and talked and talked about domestic spying, about foreign policy, about national security.  And this president has the worst approval ratings since Richard Nixon.

BUCHANAN:  Well look, I know that.

MATTHEWS:  Would you torture Bob Shrum if he would agree to manage the next Democratic presidential candidate?

BUCHANAN:  Well no, you don‘t need to torture a guy who thinks an Alito filibuster is a good idea.

SHRUM:  I think Democrats were absolutely right to stand on principle on this.

MATTHEWS:  OK, so let me ask you both.  This is a killer question.  Who do you trust to lead the country on policy?  And not withstanding what you said, I want to ask Shrum here.  Bob, why do you think the American people trust the Congress after all this taint of Abramoff and scandal and corruption, they still trust the institution of the U.S. Congress more than they trust the White House to lead this country on policy?

SHRUM:  I think it‘s because of the choice they were given.  Congress is the choice that‘s not Bush.  And right now, people don‘t trust Bush.  Only 25 percent of the people want to see Bush take the lead on these issues.  I mean, right now—this guy is going into a speech tomorrow night where despite all of Matt Dowd‘s spin, president usually do get a bounce.  He‘ll be lucky if he gets a blip.    And if he gets a bounce, it is from a deflated basketball.  Because the words don‘t matter as much as the reality. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s shocking that the American people trust this Congress after it has done nothing except have bad news.  And they trusted it more than they do the president of the United States.  Aren‘t you amazed by that? 

BUCHANAN:  Shrummy stumbled into the truth. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Let me say this.  Look, this is why the Democratic party— if it wants to do well this fall simply get out of the argument.  Because the country is looking for an alternative to Bush.  They‘re not offering one, but they are it. 

MATTHEWS:  And that poll number is proof. 

BUCHANAN:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back with two men who agree on the issue the Democratic party should stand for nothing and accept victory.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with HARDBALL political analysts Pat Buchanan and Bob Shrum.  Let‘s take a look at an amazing number here.  Who was the voice of the Democratic Party?  This just came out tonight. 

Beating out Nancy Pelosi, the house minority leader, Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, and John Kerry, who just ran for president, and Howard Dean, the head of the party, the 800-pound gorilla—I shouldn‘t say that it is infelicitous—Hillary Clinton. 

Are you amazed, Shrum, that the number one person who people think of when they think of the Democratic Party is someone who has never run for national office, the senator from New York, Hillary Clinton? 

SHRUM:  Well, she‘s been very visible in several national campaigns  I would be surprised if 31 percent of Democrats didn‘t say that.  I think it is an interesting list.  It basically consists of people, who while they infuriate Pat, actually stand up for things the Democrats ought to believe in.  That‘s Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Howard Dean. 

I think people in the Democratic Party are hungry for someone who is going to go out there, say this is where I stand, and fight on the issues. 

BUCHANAN:  All right.  Let me tell you something, Shrummy. 

SHRUM:  More advice, Pat? 

BUCHANAN:  Yes.  Not one of those people could be elected president of the United States.  Two have run and failed.  Dean has bankrupted the party. 

And Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to a recent poll, I think in Los Angeles, only something like 16 percent of the country said they wanted to see her president.  And about 50 percent said under no circumstances would they vote for her, nominate her. 

SHRUM:  Pat, look, I think we very well may nominate her.  But right now—and we don‘t have any data on this.  I think when you look at these dismal disastrous Bush numbers, Hillary Clinton would beat him.  I think John Kerry...

BUCHANAN:  He‘s not running again.

SHRUM:  ...if you could rerun.  Pat, you just got to talk.  Let me finish. 

I think John Kerry if you could rerun this election, would pick up those 60 or 70,000 votes in Ohio, and Bush would be back on the ranch chopping cactus. 

BUCHANAN:  Do you think John Kerry or Hillary Clinton can beat John McCain and George Bush?  Not George, I mean Jeb Bush. 

SHRUM:  There‘s a lot that is attractive about John McCain.  Although I wasn‘t aware, Pat, that you ever liked him at all.  But, let me tell you this, he is a promoter of the foreign policy of unilateralism, of interventionism. 

And I think that is going to be a real problem for him in the election.  Because I think the American people are reacting against Iraq and are reacting against what‘s happened there. 

BUCHANAN:  You know, I‘m inclined to agree with you.  I don‘t think interventionism is going to work.  But Hillary Clinton is the strongest of those four, as would you agree.  She got no foreign policy whatsoever, and when she does have it, she‘s pushing Bush for not being tough enough on Iran. 

Your party is going to split over foreign policy, and you know it as well as I do. 

SHRUM:  No, actually, Pat, I think the party is going to, as the primaries wear on, the party is going to become a party that stands up against this Iraq war, that says that we need a different kind of foreign policy and that stands up against the excesses of George Bush.  I think Democratic primary voters are going to demand it. 

And, let me tell you one other thing.  You cannot take numbers right now and extrapolate from them.  The truth of the matter is John Kerry was written off as dead for the nomination just weeks before he came on and won virtually every primary in the country. 

So let‘s look at these poll numbers as they develop.  Let‘s look at what your guys put up because they‘re bankrupt.  They‘re out of ideas, and their foreign policy is a disaster. 

BUCHANAN:  And they‘re not my guys.  I disagree with their foreign policy, but I will say this.  You run an anti-war candidate, as did you in 1972.  And you run down that road even Kerry did not do it.  You‘ll lose this election because the Democratic Party is perceived as a bunch of weak sisters on national defense. 

MATTHEWS:  In other words, they agree with you.  Didn‘t they agree with you on the war?

BUCHANAN:  On the war, I think, quite frankly I agree with the anti-war...

MATTHEWS:  Are you a weak sister?

BUCHANAN:  Well, look, I could not win a—nobody that has got my views is going to win a Republican nomination.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ...on a war that you don‘t like?

BUCHANAN:  I said they would be portrayed as weak sisters, and you know as well as I do that they will.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s take a look at Ted Kennedy.  We‘ve got a little shot of Ted Kennedy today, amazing performance on the Senate floor today, Ted Kennedy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  What is more important to the United States Senate than a vote for the Supreme Court for the United States?  What is more important?  Oh, we‘re going to deal with the asbestos issues. 

Oh, well, isn‘t that important.  Sure, it‘s important to some people but not in this bill.  This is the issue.  This is the time.  This is the nominee.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Bob Shrum, you know him very well.  You‘ve written speeches for him in the past.  You didn‘t write that one.  That‘s his heart speaking.  Why is Senator Kennedy so against the confirmation of Sam Alito for the court?

SHRUM:  I think he believes he is fundamentally outside the mainstream.  That he is, as “The New York Times” wrote yesterday, the product of a long process on the right wing of the Republican Party designed to put people on the Supreme Court to undue the progress of the last 20 years.

And I am very proud of the fact that Senator Kennedy stood up and fought on this and put the issue to the country.  And sometimes, you know, it is better to be right and lose than it is to be wrong and win, you know.

Remember the 1972 election.  With the exception of Pat a lot of the people who won didn‘t spend the next four years in the White House.  They went somewhere else.

MATTHEWS:  Are you saying that sometimes you have to sail into the wind, Shrum?

SHRUM:  I think sometimes you have to sail against the wind.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what I mean.

SHRUM:  Yes.

BUCHANAN:  Look, Teddy Kennedy—let‘s face it, Teddy Kennedy is so far out of the mainstream of America.  He may not realize it, but Shrum is right.  We have been working on this project, and it goes back more than to 1980.

MATTHEWS:  What‘s your goal?

BUCHANAN:  And the goal is to recapture the Supreme Court for constitutionalism, Chris, so the decisions will be made by the American people through their elected representatives and not on elected judges and on elected justices.

MATTHEWS:  How far back do we got to take the constitution?

BUCHANAN:  I think you take—the constitution is written in film.

MATTHEWS:  Plessy, Ferguson, how far back are we going?

BUCHANAN:  Well, Plessy, Ferguson was a decision of the Supreme Court that was overturned.

MATTHEWS:  You want to go back to that one?

BUCHANAN:  No, I don‘t want to go back to that one, but I will tell you this.  There are decisions like Roe v. Wade I would like to see it overturned.  Look at the Georgia decision on gay rights.

MATTHEWS:  How about Griswold, go back that far?  No privacy on birth control.

BUCHANAN:  Privacy is in the constitution, but it is not in the ninth amendment.  Chris, if you want to do all of these things do them with elected representatives.  You can beat us in a number of states.  We‘ll beat you.  Isn‘t that the way to do it democratically?

SHRUM:  No, it‘s not.  There ought to be fundamental constitutional rights that are not subject to popular vote. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the Bill of Rights would pass?  The whole thing?  The gun rights, the free speech.  The free religion. 

BUCHANAN:  The way the Warren court interprets the First Amendment, it should not pass. 

SHRUM:  Now e know why Ted Kennedy did the right thing standing up against Alito. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s always interesting.  It‘s always exhilarating.  Pat Buchanan, Bob Shrum.  Up next, Thursday is the day House Republicans vote on their new leader.  When we return my interview with the former majority leader, Tom DeLay, who is in the political fight of his life down in Texas.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NATALIE ALLEN, MSNBC ANCHOR:  I‘m Natalie Allen.  In the news this hour, al Jazeera broadcast new video of kidnapped American journalist Jill Carroll.  It shows her crying.  There was no audio but al Jazeera said she appealed for the release of all Iraqi women prisoners.  Her captors had threatened to kill her unless those prisoners were freed a week and a half ago.  Al Jazeera says no new deadline was set. 

U.S. intelligence said it probably is Osama bin Laden‘s top deputy Ayman al Zawahiri on a new video broadcast day.  He called President Bush a quote, butcher and a failure because the U.S. air strike failed to kill him. 

The Senate voted overwhelmingly to cut off debate on Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.  That ends an attempt to filibuster the nomination.  A final vote is set for tomorrow. 

And a jury has been chosen in Houston for the fraud and conspiracy trial for former Enron chiefs Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling.  Opening statements are expected tomorrow.  Now back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS:  Tonight HARDBALL kicks off its coverage of Decision 2006 with one of the most closely watched races in the country.  Congressman Tom DeLay has won his house seat near Houston easily for 20 years now.  Today, the man known as The Hammer faces what could be his toughest fight ever. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TOM DELAY ® 22ND DISTRICT, 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 who is entrenched as Tom DeLay has been in this 22nd Congressional District that suggests Democrats can win anywhere in the nation. 

ERIC THODE, GOP CHAIRMAN, FORT BEND COUNTY:  Tom DeLay, over the last two years, has rededicated himself to making sure that the district knows exactly what is going on.  What his office is doing.  And what his presence in Washington means for District 22. 

MATTHEWS:  It is 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 Republican superstar who led the Republican revolution. 

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  If Tom DeLay has not committed a crime, he has nothing to worry about. 

MATTHEWS:  Republican rule 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 fire storm, Tom DeLay was calm and confident when we met in Texas recently.  He is a veteran of some of the toughest political battles in Washington and he says he knows who is out to destroy him. 

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

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

MATTHEWS:  Do you have to have an acquittal before the election to clear this air? 

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

MATTHEWS:  The Abramoff thing in Washington.  Does that bother you? 

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

MATTHEWS:  Are you worried THAT the Democrats will be able to use picture 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 a half day off.  I play golf. 

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

DELAY:  It is incredibly unfair. 

MATTHEWS:  Who paid for the trip? 

DELAY:  A legitimate conservative organization. 

MATTHEWS:  Wasn‘t there a pass-through? 

DELAY:  No, there was not pass-through. 

MATTHEWS:  They came up with the money themselves. 

DELAY:  That‘s exactly right. 

They raised their money themselves. 

MATTHEWS:  A public policy group. 

DELAY:  Exactly right. 

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

Nobody has asked you about it down here? 

DELAY: Not really. 

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 or the Ethics Committee.  I would certainly hope that the values I grew 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 Texan 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? 

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

MATTHEWS:  We have 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 believe it‘s that bad for him right now?

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

I wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood.

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

DELAY:  He lives in Beaumont.  He is the only Democrat they‘ve been able to get to run.  And he claims the 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? 

LAMPSON:  OK.

MATTHEWS:  Is President Bush an honest man? 

LAMPSON:  Certainly.  I have campaigned with him.

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

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

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

LAMPSON:  Culture of corruption has existed in my mind among some people.  And it doesn‘t matter to me whether they are Democrat or Republican.  If somebody has broken the ethics part of 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:  It‘s likely. 

MATTHEWS:  Is there a question? 

LAMPSON:  No.  If she‘s the one that is indeed the one...

MATTHEWS:  She‘s the leader of the Democratic Party in the House.  So you‘ll have to vote for her if you are 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 have already proven I can do. 

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

MATTHEWS:  You‘re not in this business for the money. 

DELAY:  No.

MATTHEWS:  You live modestly.  You commute back and forth from Washington to Houston, Texas.  Why?  What drives you every day? 

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Fascinating story there.

Joe Scarborough‘s the host of MSNBC‘s “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY” obviously.  It‘s on week nights at 10:00 Eastern on this network, and he‘s a Republican member of Congress for many years.

What‘s going to cut deeper in that, the question of Scotland where he didn‘t really have a good explanation, the carpet bagging of his opponent or this identification of his opponent with Nancy Pelosi the other liberals in what is a conservative Republican district? 

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, “SCARBOROUGH COUNTY”:  I think at the end of the day people are going to—and they usually do vote ideology.  At the end of the day, DeLay is probably going to be able to hammer somebody like Nick Lampson who doesn‘t live in the district, who is going to have to vote for Nancy Pelosi, who hems and haws when asked is George Bush an honest man.

You know, I keep going back to...

MATTHEWS:  He hemmed a little bit when I said are you going to vote for Pelosi. 

(CROSSTALK)    

SCARBOROUGH:  Contrast this to 1994.  Again, politics hardball, as you said.  Look what the Republicans did.  They took out the speaker of the House then Foley.  They took out Jack Brooks out of Texas.  They took out all these powerful—and they did it without hemming and hawing. 

We did it without hemming and hawing.  We went after these people. 

And we attacked them.  And we said they‘re out of touch with America. 

They‘re wrong.  Bill Clinton is wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  So the Democrats don‘t have a good right punch.  They don‘t know how to hit. 

SCARBOROUGH:  They don‘t know how to hit.  I mean, my gosh, listen, if I decided to be a Democratic consultant they have got ten seconds.

MATTHEWS:  You could beat Tom DeLay with these issues.

SCARBOROUGH:  I could tell them how to take down Tom DeLay and probably 30 of these Republicans.  But, Lampson, he is a great example of what is wrong with the Democratic Party.  They never see—it‘s like John Kerry last year. 

John Kerry, the war in Iraq is the issue and God help me I work this case every day, I still can‘t tell you what his position was on Iraq.  There was hemming and hawing.  How would you be different?  And they just don‘t seem to still have a clear coherent message.  And you can‘t beat something with nothing.  Republicans had something ‘94.

MATTHEWS:  So we are going to hang your shingle out there.  Joe Scarborough available to save the Democratic Party.  We‘ll be right back with Joe Scarborough, who usually thinks the other way.

When we return we will be joined by “The National Review‘s” Kate O‘Beirne and former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton.  He‘s coming here tonight.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

We‘re previewing tomorrow night‘s State of the Union and giving a little pregame here with Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC‘s “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.” 

And let me bring in a couple other people.  Former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton.  The Reverend Al Sharpton joins us from New York. 

And MSNBC‘s political analyst, Kate O‘Beirne who is the Washington editor of “The National Review,” and author of the new book, “Women Who Make the World Worse.”

Speaking of which, no we will get to Hillary in a minute.  Let me go to the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Sir, what do you think that the people you know, who are open to hearing it, want to hear from the president tomorrow night?

REV. AL SHARPTON, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK:  I think they want some reasonable explanation on what is going to happen with Iraq.  I think they want to hear what he will do to rebuild the Gulf Coast states in New Orleans. 

You know, Reverend Jesse Jackson said, and I think he is right, that the 2006 midterm elections will be on Katrina and Iraq.  I think that we want to hear a lot about what he is going to do with health care and of course education. 

But I think that he will be made or broken with the people I talked to about how he deals with a definitive plan on Iraq, whether we agree with it or not, but a real plan, and a real plan on Katrina, whether we agree with it or not, not just shifting back and forward, no this, no that.  I‘m not giving up emails.  He has to say something that really, really answers the questions.

MATTHEWS:  Well clearly the numbers, if you read through the polling, show people no matter what‘s in the news and no matter what the lack of journalists did at that press conference last week, not one question on the war we‘re engaged in in Iraq.  The American people still think about it.  Kate O‘Beirne, should the president say something definitive?  Like the Reverend says, something about a timetable, something about hope, light at the end of the tunnel, what?

KATE O‘BEIRNE, NATIONAL REVIEW:  He cannot—he cannot talk enough about the mission in Iraq, the progress in Iraq.  And what will start seeing our troops coming home. 

When the public says that they want the troops home, so does George Bush, so does the supporters of the war.  He of course, won‘t do it until the Iraqis are able to step up and take charge of more of their own security.

And the White House is resigned to the fact that the public won‘t see real progress in Iraq, although the president will remind us again about the elections and the government forming—that the public really won‘t appreciate progress in Iraq until they start seeing those troops coming home.

MATTHEWS:  So Scarborough, is that the bottom line?  Not words, but troops home.

SCARBOROUGH:  I don‘t know about that.  I think the president—I think the president needs to be very forceful.  I think he needs to draw a contrast.  As you know, in politics, it‘s all about contrasting yourself with another party, which is what I‘ve been saying the biggest problem of the Democrats has been.  If the president continues to contrast himself as a strong powerful leader, saying “This is what we‘re doing in Iraq, we can‘t get weak-kneed, we can‘t get McGovern-type Democrats.  This is where we‘re going.”

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he should take on Jack Murtha‘s position and say, “I don‘t think we should bring the troops home expeditiously?”

SCARBOROUGH:  No doubt about it because Americans agree with that.  I think he also needs to hammer home on wiretapping.  I mean, again, I‘m more of a libertarian than most of my Republican friends, so I‘m a little squeamish about it.  But I can tell you, Americans in middle America want the president to have that authority.  And it is shocking as that may be to people in Georgetown, as shocking as that may to be people in Manhattan, that sells in middle America.  Americans are more concerned about Osama bin Laden than George Bush or Rumsfeld or all these other people.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re shaking your head.

O‘BEIRNE:  The White House was angry about the leak, about the NSA eavesdropping program.  But now that it‘s there, it‘s out, they‘re utterly convinced that they are on solid legal ground and they‘re also convinced that it‘s winning politically.  Polls show, of course, people don‘t want warrantless eavesdropping on average citizens.  But you ask terrorist suspects, and you get a majority of the public.

MATTHEWS:  You know what I think?  That may be one point tomorrow night where the Republicans cheer and the you actually hear some boos from the other side.  We‘ll be back with Reverend Al Sharpton, Joe Scarborough and Kate O‘Beirne.  This is HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Joe Scarborough, the “National Review‘s” Kate O‘Beirne and the Reverend Al Sharpton.  Reverend Sharpton, you‘ve raised the issue of Katrina.  Is there anything President Bush could say tomorrow night in his State of the Union that would make you believe that you were wrong or anyone else was wrong in thinking he didn‘t care about those poor people down there and what happened to them?

SHARPTON:  I don‘t think there would be anything he could say that would make me believe he didn‘t care, because he can‘t rewrite history.  I think if he apologized for the insensitivity and then rescinded his decision to not release the e-mails and the information that they had, I think it‘s sort of hypocritical to say that we want the right to hear what everybody‘s saying, but we don‘t have the right to know what the White House is doing on public policy.

And then gave a definitive statement that the people can return and the government would do all they can to return those people that want to return and rebuild New Orleans as we know it.  He could score points.  I think the problem we have—and I‘m agreeing with Joe Scarborough on this is that the Democrats have to be firm. 

I mean, we have a Super Bowl Sunday.  You can‘t say that you‘ve got a great team just because the tackles are sitting on the side when they should be running out to the guy with the ball.  We need to tackle him.  We need it hit him on Katrina.  He has no plan, including Baker (ph) from his own father‘s plan he won‘t go with, and he‘s not saying anything definitive on Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  What would you rather give up, the Michael Brown e-mails or the Abramoff pictures?

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, the Reverend‘s right.  If you‘re the Democrats you hammer him on Katrina, lack of leadership, the insensitivity that the president wasn‘t watching T.V. for the first 72 hours of this crisis, that he was disengaged.

I mean, you know, Republicans lost so much during Katrina.  So you hammer him there, you hammer him on the budget deficit, you hammer him on some of the other issues.

And again, I just don‘t see the Democratic leaders stepping forward that can do that.  It‘s certainly not Hillary Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  Kate?

O‘BEIRNE:  I don‘t know, though, Joe.  The public seems to have a fuller perspective on Katrina now, although certainly the administration initially got behind the response.  But there‘s now a whole lot of blame to go around and I think the public now appreciates the mayor and the governor played a role in it.

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, there‘s no doubt, but when you‘re talking national politics, nobody cares about Blanco.  Everybody knows she‘s an idiot.  That‘s not going to effect elections in those states.

MATTHEWS:  You mean the governor of Louisiana?

SCARBOROUGH:  Oh, there is no doubt.  Let me say it again for the record.  She‘s an idiot.  She bumbled it around.  But you know, you get the president of the United States who‘s held to a higher standard, the FEMA director, who is a held to a higher standard, and when people are dying on the streets, when 15-month-old babies are dying on the streets of New Orleans, it doesn‘t matter whether the governor and the mayor, idiots or not.  It‘s a president who pays for it in the fall.

SHARPTON:  And the president is responsible.

MATTHEWS:  Go ahead, Reverend.

SHARPTON:  If you have a Gulf port crisis, three states—one governor is not responsible for a regional crisis.  The federal government is and the president is.  And I think when you have babies, as Joe Scarborough said, dying on national television and the president acts like he didn‘t know, I think that you can‘t just throw that to Blanco or Ray Nagin.

O‘BEIRNE:  Chris, here we go again.  The advice from the Democrats—bad faith from the Democrats on so many issues is, what we really need is an apology from President Bush, invariably for something the man didn‘t do.  And then they look for some e-mail that‘s going to prove something.  This is all a substitute for having a coherent position on national security or on Iraq or on the economy or on health care, on something.

MATTHEWS:  That was it.

SHARPTON:  Unfortunately we‘re not making the State of the Union address tomorrow night, Kate, he is.

MATTHEWS:  Well, there‘s a reason you‘re not.  You don‘t win any elections.  You‘ve got to win the election to be the president.  Anyway, thank you, Reverend Al Sharpton, Joe Scarborough, Kate O‘Beirne.  Tomorrow night, State of the Union night.  It‘s HARDBALL, by the way, on 5:00 and 7:00 tomorrow night.  Then huge coverage of the State of the Union by us.  Coming up right now, Keith Olbermann starts right now.

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