updated 3/13/2006 11:04:40 AM ET 2006-03-13T16:04:40

Guests: George Allen, Bill Frist, Howard Fineman, Trent Lott, Jessie Jane Duff, Lindsey Graham, John Dickerson, Chris Cillizza

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Tonight, it‘s time to start picking.  We‘re talking president live from Memphis, Tennessee.  HARDBALL kicks off the 2008 race for the White House.  John McCain, George Allen, Bill Frist, Mitt Romney, who has what it takes to trump Hillary Clinton?  At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, let the political times roll.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews, welcome to the kickoff of HARDBALL‘s decision 2008 election coverage, picking the next president.  Tonight, we‘re broadcasting live, as you can see, from the historic Peabody Hotel, headquarters of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, your first look at the Republican 2008 contenders.  The candidates are here, the political press is here.  Top GOP leaders from 26 key states are here. 

The stage is set for the red state showdown, in the city that gave birth to the blues.  And Republicans have a lot to be blue about tonight with a new AP poll showing only 37 percent of the people approve of the president‘s job performance.  That‘s only 37, the lowest level of his presidency.  HARDBALL and msnbc.com will give you wall-to-wall coverage of this pivotal political event on-air and online, with live reports and behind the scenes blogs, so you won‘t miss a trick. 

Let‘s begin with HARDBALL‘s David Shuster.  David, let me ask you about the big shots down here.  First of all, John McCain, what‘s he up to? 

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  John McCain is the big ticket tonight, Chris.  He speaks later this evening.  I bet all 1,800 delegates are going to be there listening to John McCain.  But John McCain did earlier is one of the fun events of this weekend that the media is paying a lot of attention to, is the straw poll. 

The idea that everybody who hears these candidates are going to get to make a selection tomorrow afternoon as to what their preference is.  And what John McCain has done is in his speech tonight he‘s going to say there are bigger things to worry about than a straw poll.  If you are thinking of voting for me, please don‘t.  Just write-in President Bush‘s name. 

What this is is this also perceived as a shot against Bill Frist, because 40 percent of the delegates here in Memphis are from Tennessee and Frist was widely expected to walk away with the straw poll.  So now you have John McCain is saying, no, no, no, don‘t vote for me, don‘t vote for Frist, vote for President Bush, and that perhaps has angered the Frist camp. 

MATTHEWS:  And watching this politics, we have McCain as the leader in all the polls of the people here.  And you have Frist trying to get his campaign started.  So McCain had nothing to lose really by throwing it out of bounds, basically, and taking it back to the line of scrimmage.  So he loses nothing, but he screws it, basically, for Frist, and for Allen, too, George Allen, the other candidate. 

SHUSTER:  Well, I think Allen is the one that gains the most, because remember, Bill Frist is widely known by most of the delegates who are here tonight.  John McCain is known because he was previously a national candidate in 2000.  George Allen is something of a mystery.  A lot of people have heard about George Allen, but now maybe if people aren‘t worrying so much about a straw poll, maybe then they are more excited to listen, well, what has actually—what does this guy have to say when he speaks to the delegates tomorrow?  And George Allen, perhaps, has the most to gain as a result. 

MATTHEWS:  So I think I agree with you.  Just—it‘s like a pre-game here, way before the game, which is November of 2008.  And I agree with you, I think the headline coming out of this whole event down here on Sunday morning in most of the papers is going to be George Allen looks strong, because he‘s the guy that hasn‘t got much ink play, but he‘s the son of a famous former coach of the L.A. Rams and the Washington Redskins, a governor of his—a senator of his, formerly governor.  He‘s got all the credentials. 

SHUSTER:  And even the McCain camp, a few minutes ago, I was talking with some of their top advisers.  And they said, look, every campaign has a conservative candidate.  John McCain is not worried about that. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s take a look at the new kid on block—thank you, David Shuster.  Late today—very late today, just a few minutes ago I sat down with George Allen of Virginia.  Take a look at the cut of his jib.  He‘s the new kid on the block. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Senator Allen, it‘s great to have you on.  You‘re one of the contenders for president here in 2008, aren‘t you? 

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN ®, VIRGINIA:  Well, there are some people that speculate about that.  I am running for reelection in Virginia, but it‘s nice to hear encouragement from good grassroots folks, as well as folks who are savvy veterans of many campaigns going back to Ronald Reagan. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s look at the competition, because John McCain is clearly running, Bill Frist is clearly running, Mitt Romney is definitely running, I saw him today here.  Gung-ho speech.  What‘s the Allen difference? 

ALLEN:  I just know what I believe in.  That I have a record of performance, as the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, as a U.S.  Senator, and I think that this country needs to be unified and motivated and inspired to key missions in the future such as securing our freedom, also making sure this country is a land of opportunity for all, and we also need preserve our values, and from that come a variety of issues, from energy security, to tax cuts, to fiscal discipline, to making sure we have judges who understand who understand that their role is to apply the law, not invent the law, and ignore the will of the people in our representative democracy. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you the purist conservative running? 

ALLEN:  I call myself a common sense Jeffersonian conservative.  I trust free people and free enterprise.  And I think people will look at my record as governor, abolishing the lenient, dishonest parole system, welfare reform, high academic standards and accountability, reducing taxes and burdens on government, on business from government.  And we were able to transform Virginia to the Silicon Dominion. 

So people are going to look at my record and I think the people who pay taxes or if they work for a living or care about their families, they seem to be very supportive of the ideas I‘ve advanced for the people of Virginia and America. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think if it comes down to a conflict between a cultural conservative like Brownback or Frist or a maverick like McCain, you‘re some kind of compromise? 

ALLEN:  Oh, gosh, Chris, I majored in history, I didn‘t take political science at Mr. Jefferson‘s University. 

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t see what I‘m talking about? 

ALLEN:  I know what you‘re saying, but I would leave that to the experts.  I‘m sorry, I‘m just who I am.  I know what I believe in, what my guiding principles are, and I consider myself a common sense conservative.  There are libertarian strains.

MATTHEWS:  You sound a lot like President Bush, and I‘m wondering because President Bush is now running at about 37 percent in a new poll that came out today.  You‘re saying you will do what he‘s done.  You‘re saying that you will perform as he‘s performed on the issues.  You‘ll end up with 37 percent in approval rating.  What would you do different than the president, so you wouldn‘t end up with 37 percent? 

ALLEN:  Might as well get in here and create controversy. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just trying to figure out.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  . how you would improve on the president?

ALLEN:  . at various things that I look at things differently.  I think the president is doing an outstanding job, he can‘t bat a thousand percent, though.  I think in the—No Child Left Behind, good mission, good idea, but what it‘s costing in Virginia and other states is requiring states to dumb down their educational standards. 

We put these in when I was governor of Virginia and I‘d like to see the states and the people of the states have greater flexibility to have champion schools rather than have to lower their standards to meet the requirements of bureaucrats in the Department of Education. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think this president—George Bush, despite all his positive values that a lot of people recognize, do you think he has been a bit out of touch on Katrina, late to act on Katrina, this port deal seemed to have gotten by his people without anybody knowing about it, the oddity of naming Harriet Woods (sic), a woman so deficient in the credentials for the Supreme Court that she‘s already forgotten?  Do you see a problem here? 

ALLEN:  Well, so much forgotten, her name is Harriet Miers, that you didn‘t even remember and you called her Harriet Woods.  At any rate.

MATTHEWS:  Well, Harriet Woods was a senator candidate from Missouri, but you‘re right, she does fly from memory. 

(LAUGHTER)

ALLEN:  So look, I.

MATTHEWS:  You made my point. 

ALLEN:  At any rate, you could (INAUDIBLE) on this stuff.  The Harriet Miers nomination was one that caused a lot of controversy.  I was one who was not convinced that she had the judicial philosophy that you‘d want to have.  And obviously the president came through then with Sam—Judge Alito, and obviously before that, John Roberts. 

The Katrina situation, having been a governor, knowing how you try to preposition assets, get folks prepared, get your boots in the mud as a governor as soon as you can, that was a failure not just at the federal level, it was local and state, as well.  The Dubai Ports World matter, they should have picked this up ahead of time. 

That this is—at least prepare the American people, we are considering this.  I wrote John Snow before all the hoopla started, stating my concerns, please review this.  And I think that if—it could have been handled maybe in a way that people would have more information from the beginning. 

I‘m not sure if it would have been salvageable, but I don‘t think it would have been such a firestorm.  And that‘s off.

MATTHEWS:  And John McCain.

ALLEN:  . the table now anyway.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  I have got to ask you a very hot question here tonight, this first night of this meeting here of the Southern Republican Leadership, John McCain, the senator from Arizona, has asked—will ask tonight that his people who want to vote for him tonight vote instead for the president to buck him up.  Do you want the people who would like to vote for you to instead vote for George Bush to buck him up? 

ALLEN:  They can vote for whoever they want to.  I think it‘s a clever maneuver by, I call him “The Commodore,” John McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what‘s he up to?  What‘s the play here? 

ALLEN:  Oh, look, the play here, we‘re in Tennessee, and there are more people here from Tennessee and Arkansas, which is a bordering state, and Mississippi.  If Haley Barbour were running, he would get the most of these because there are a lot of Mississippians. 

MATTHEWS:  So you figure it‘s a Frist game to lose and that McCain sees that coming, so he says, vote for Bush, I can‘t get hurt?

ALLEN:  I don‘t particularly care one way or the other.  To be honest with you, this is fun.  It‘s a great way to meet a lot of folks from the South and from the Midwest who generally share the same principles.  

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what I would expect from you, affability.

ALLEN:  Well.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Hey, thank you. 

ALLEN:  Thank you, Chris.  Have fun.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Senator Allen, running for reelection and then onto the presidency. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up we‘ll check in with the hometown contender, that‘s Bill Frist, the senate majority leader of Tennessee.  And still ahead, senators Trent Lott and Lindsey Graham. 

And a reminder, our coverage of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference is live all week on our Web site, msnbc.com.  Watch my interviews with the party‘s biggest players plus check out speeches by the top contenders and cast your vote for your favorite Republican in our virtual straw vote. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s courage of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, live from Memphis, Tennessee, on MSNBC and msnbc.com.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL live from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference down here in Memphis, Tennessee.  We‘re joined now by NBC News political analysts Charlie Cook and the Cook Political Report, and News Week‘s Howard Fineman. 

Look, this is a three-ring circus.  The president gets his butt handed to him on this port issue this week by his own party.  We have got new poll numbers showing he‘s down in the toilet, to be blunt, 37 percent in approval.  Imagine somebody working for you and they are at 37 percent approval, you wouldn‘t keep them too long. 

And then along comes the good Samaritan, John McCain, and he says, let‘s vote for the president in this straw vote for the next president, even though he can‘t run again, let‘s show we‘re behind this guy when he‘s in trouble. 

Howard, you‘re chuckling, because you‘re chuckling at what I‘m chuckling at, the “revoltin‘ development” here. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  Yes.  Well, first of all, this is hardly an altruistic move by McCain, who wanted to screw up the poll, because he is putative frontrunner and didn‘t want to mess with these Southerners who might not all vote for him. 

But also, this is not the White House‘s idea of the kind of help they want White House.  What, for example, will happen in the straw if George Bush doesn‘t win?

MATTHEWS:  Suppose he comes in third? 

FINEMAN:  Yes, suppose he comes in third?  Then what does it say about the White House? 

MATTHEWS:  McCain wins? 

FINEMAN:  And also this notion of McCain suddenly over the last year or so sort of grasping George Bush at every turn, some people here buy it, some people don‘t.  The Georgia sate chairman, who I talked to here, he was told first thing this morning, all right, here‘s the plan, don‘t vote for McCain, and this guy is for McCain, vote for the president.  He was not particularly pleased, this guy. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I talked to a couple of people here a minute ago.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  . during the 5:00 show, a couple of young people here said

I said, well, if your guy Frist doesn‘t win, would you vote for McCain if he won the nomination?  No.

CHARLIE COOK, COOK POLITICAL REPORT:  Well, the thing is, this is a party that is despondent.  Their president is not doing well.  He has disappointed them a little bit.  They want to be up about something.  And the idea of the 2008 race, all these new contenders, they were getting up for something, and now someone snatches the ball away from them and, as you said a few minutes ago, throws it out of bounds.  I mean, so it‘s a little, oh, gosh, why did he do that?  This was going to be fun.  Why don‘t we look forward rather than backwards? 

MATTHEWS:  Is this, Charlie, why Republicans don‘t trust McCain?

COOK:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  This lone-gunning.

COOK:  You know, look, the Navy didn‘t put him in a single-seat fighter for nothing. 

(LAUGHTER)

COOK:  I mean.

MATTHEWS:  You are cruel.

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  The other thing about it is we may look back on this and wonder if McCain, in his new role as a sort of semi-frontrunner, isn‘t over-managing things a little.  The charm to McCain as a candidate in 2000, I think we would agree, was that he was a freelancer, he was making it up as he went along.  He wasn‘t cutting it fine.  He was going out there on the bus, saying when he meant.  That was very attractive.  But now he‘s in a different position, where he‘s playing this chess game, where they are trying to get pieces off the table. 

MATTHEWS:  You can see the seams of this candidate. 

FINEMAN:  There are too many seams—yes, there are too many tricks. 

It‘s too cute by half, not typical of McCain, frankly. 

COOK:  A really smart guy I know, a guy named Howard Fineman, said a little while ago, this is a College Republican move.  And I thought that was absolutely dead-on.  I wish I had thought of that myself.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at what Senator Bill Frist—we just talked to him this afternoon, like a lot of these guys, late this afternoon when they got here.  Here‘s what he thought of the McCain move to basically throw the ball out of bounds and say, vote for President Bush, who can‘t run for president. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about Senator John McCain‘s move, he‘s going to move tonight to ask the delegates not to vote for him, if they‘re thinking of doing so, but of voting for George W. Bush as a symbolic support for the president. 

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER:  Well, I think that‘s interesting.  I hadn‘t heard that, but I think it shows the importance of all of us Republicans sticking with those basic principles of President Bush, lower taxes, voting for lower taxes, fiscal responsibility, individual accountability. 

So I think that‘s a nice idea.  I think our activists are going to sort of react in a different ways.  A lot of them like to get in and compete.  But I think rallying around the president is not a bad idea. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that John McCain may be trying to cut his losses if he is expecting to lose to you? 

FRIST:  Oh no.  Listen, I don‘t think so. 

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t think there‘s a game here, possibly? 

FRIST:  No, no, no, well, you know, when you said that—because I didn‘t know about it, you think of this sort of Music City miracle that we had about five or six years ago when Tennessee welcomed everybody to Tennessee where you kind of take the football and you throw it to the side, so that may be what‘s happening, but still, it‘s  a lot of fun.  The excitement is there, everyone has got those ideas, we‘re putting them forward.  A lot of debate, a lot of listening. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We‘re back with Howard and Charlie.  Howard, it seems to me that every poll that we look at, and you and I look at every poll, every poll, shows Rudy Giuliani, the guy that‘s not southern and he ain‘t here, leading every poll for president. 

What it is this face about?  Excuse me, Howard. 

COOK:  Well, every poll I see shows you‘re tied with McCain, he‘s tied with McCain. 

FINEMAN:  But certainly on who do you like, Rudy is number one. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh yes, you have 64 percent in the new poll.

COOK:  Somebody that‘s pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, why do they keep saying they like him?

COOK:  Because they don‘t know.  They don‘t—in a race, Giuliani has a zero chance of getting this nomination. 

FINEMAN:  Charlie, I disagree with you.  I think if Rudy Giuliani were to show up in this lobby, with these delegates.

MATTHEWS:  They‘d go nuts. 

FINEMAN:  He would knock it out of the park.  They‘d worry about the details later.  They would worry about the details later.  You know, South Dakota just did this thing, wild thing on abortion, a lot of people here don‘t like that particularly.  And Rudy benefits from something like that, with the uncertainty that some people have here about going too far on the abortion issue. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Who‘s in, if he‘s out?  Who is eligible to win the Republican nomination?

COOK:  Well, I think you are going to see.

MATTHEWS:  No, I want to push you on this, Charlie, because you basically say it ain‘t going to be Rudy Giuliani.  Who‘s eligible? 

COOK:  I think what you are going to see is McCain is going to be the secular candidate.  The candidate for the people that don‘t.

MATTHEWS:  And the Republican Party will accept John McCain as a regular Republican.

COOK:  No, he‘s the secular candidate, the candidate for people who don‘t care about cultural issues.  Then you‘re going to have like George Allen, Mitt Romney, you‘ll have Newt Gingrich, these guys in the middle, and you have Brownback sort of being the sacred candidate.  

MATTHEWS:  It seems to me that you don‘t think Brownback can win, either?  . 

COOK:  No, no.  But I think.

MATTHEWS:  I want to—I like the way you‘re going here, you‘re opening—because usually you hold back on who you think is going to win.  It seems like you‘ve narrowed it down in your mind two years out to McCain, who‘s still seen as a maverick by people here, to a real centrist Republican—conservative, I should say, George Allen, is Frist still in the running? 

COOK:  I.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  He‘s not in the running.

COOK:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  So it‘s Allen versus McCain.  I love this kid.  And you‘re the best in the business. 

COOK:  And the two honorable mentions out there, I get a lot of buzz out there all for Newt, to be perfectly honest.  (INAUDIBLE) Romney, Romney‘s good. 

MATTHEWS:  Can I say no?  At least, I don‘t think so. 

COOK:  Those two guys.  No, I think it‘s Allen and McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  I love it.  You think it‘s Allen and McCain already? 

FINEMAN:  I‘ve never heard him be so categorical.

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve never see him go this—well, it‘s too early.

COOK:  What‘s interesting to me is that Bill Frist, even in the lobby of this hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, does not strike sparks with most people. 

MATTHEWS:  No, you don‘t hear his name, good point.

COOK:  They‘re walking around with buttons that say “Frist is my leader,” but it doesn‘t have a whole lot of passion to it.  And George Allen, actually his expectations to do well here are higher than they perhaps they should be. 

MATTHEWS:  So this Frist thing here is kissing your sister. 

COOK:  Yes, it‘s out of.

MATTHEWS:  You like that phrase?  Can still say phrases like, Charlie?

COOK:  It‘s more out of obligation than anything else. 

MATTHEWS:  Frist is kissing your sister.  Rudy Giuliani ain‘t even in the picture.  Brownback‘s gone.  It has come down to, two-and-a-half years before the election, to George Allen and to McCain.  We‘ll be right back with Charlie Cook who is the gatekeeper, and Howard Fineman, our live coverage from Memphis continues here on HARDBALL, only on MSMB.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back.  Live from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, we‘re here at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, we‘re back with NBC News political analyst Charlie Cook and Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman. 

So we‘re basically are stuck with the situation here where—well, let‘s look a look at what Bill Frist had to say.  This is a piece of an interview we did with him just about an hour ago about the number one Democratic opponent to beat, the name is always in the backdrop here, Hillary Clinton. 

Let‘s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  I want to ask you about Hillary Clinton.  She is leading in all the polls of Democrats.  Is she someone that the Republicans have their eye on as the probable opponent? 

FRIST:  Yes.  I think there‘s no question.  You talk to all these, indeed thousands of people who are here, and everybody gravitates towards what Hillary Clinton has represented.  Health care costs, I just mentioned, we know that we need to lower our health care costs by giving individuals a health care plan that they can own and take with them. 

That‘s a huge contrast to the “Hillary-care” that we saw put on the table about 10 years ago.  That contrast is playing out in all the activist discussions that are going on. 

MATTHEWS:  Have you ever looked at a map of the United States and figured what states you would beat Hillary in? 

FRIST:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  No?

FRIST:  No, no.  You know, My focus.

MATTHEWS:  Cross your heart, you have never looked at a map.

FRIST:  No, I promise, I promise.  It‘s great to be here in Tennessee, welcoming 2,000 people here from 26 states. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

FRIST:  And so right now, I‘m concentrating on those 26 states.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Charlie Cook, do you believe that Bill Frist, he has been wanting to run for president for a good many years, has never looked at a map of the United States and figured out where he can beat Hillary?  I think he has, but he said he hasn‘t. 

COOK:  You know, the question is now who can beat her.  And I think that‘s probably the strongest thing going in John McCain‘s favor.  A lot of party regulars, a lot of conservatives don‘t like McCain.  But if they conclude that he‘s the only one that can beat her, then, you know, I think the alternative is to leave the country if you‘re a conservative, you know? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  So they will give up the presidency to guy, at least she don‘t get it. 

FINEMAN:  Which makes more interesting the fact that the White House and Karl Rove are constantly talking up Hillary Clinton, because I think Charlie is right, the more you talk up Hillary Clinton, it makes the people here worry and wonder who can beat her.  Who can beat her?  And by the way.

MATTHEWS:  And you think that‘s the question they want to have answered?

FINEMAN:  I think that‘s one of the main questions they want to ask.  This isn‘t about philosophy anymore.  When Charlie and I first started covering this, these people in this room were amazing ideological.  They had a whole agenda against the welfare state and the Carter presidency and you name it. 

Now a quarter century later, they are the establishment, it‘s less about ideology and more about maintaining power.  These people have a big thing.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  That‘s a big question.

FINEMAN:  They have a big thing going here.

MATTHEWS:  If they had to choose.

FINEMAN:  . and they don‘t want to blow it, which is why Rudy Giuliani is not necessarily out of the ballgame. 

MATTHEWS:  If they have to choose between going after abortion rights, big in the next year or two, and giving up the presidency, what will they to do? 

FINEMAN:  Well, I think they are skittish about it right now.  I think the statute passed in South Dakota, a small state but one reverberating around the country, where they basically wiped away—Republicans did, virtually every exception for abortion, it‘s something that I have been talking to people about here as I‘m writing about it for Newsweek.  The people here are worried about it.  They are a little worried about it.  It‘s not on the tip of everybody‘s tongue, but it‘s in the background. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I agree.

FINEMAN:  They have won by seizing the cultural mainstream here, they don‘t want to lose it. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you, Charlie Cook, thank you, Howard. 

Up next, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, he‘s a local from this region.  Our coverage of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference is live on weekend—all weekend on Web site msnbc.com.  Watch my interviews with the party‘s biggest players.  Plus check out the speeches of the top contenders for president and cast your vote on virtual straw vote.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, live from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference down here in Memphis, Tennessee.  Late today I spoke to a real southern Republican, Senator Trent Lott of nearby Mississippi. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Let me is ask you about the Deep South, Hillary Clinton, does she have a prayer down here if she runs for president? 

SEN. TRENT LOTT ®, MISSISSIPPI:  Not much. 

MATTHEWS:  Any state in this whole area she could carry? 

LOTT:  I don‘t think so, no, not even Arkansas.  You know, I know here, have gotten to know her well, in fact, I was doing an interview last night with Wolf Blitzer, I believe it was—no, Anderson Cooper, talking about we are together on a bill to take FEMA out of Homeland Security. 

So she‘s a good legislator, very capable, but her positions and her image in this whole part of the country, she would not be able to carry it. 

MATTHEWS:  And she is seen as a liberal. 

LOTT:  Oh, absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  So all this positioning and voting for the war and everything doesn‘t convince anybody down here? 

LOTT:  Not down here.  It might work in some places.  She is making some (INAUDIBLE).  I mean, she joined Trent Lott in a bill to remove FEMA from Homeland Security.  So, you know, she‘s working with all of us.

MATTHEWS:  So she‘s a dealmaker? 

LOTT:  Yes, I think so.  And I don‘t think that‘s a dirty word, either.

MATTHEWS:  No, no.  I meant it, I mean, that‘s one of the positive aspects of being a senator, getting things done. 

LOTT:  That‘s right, that‘s right. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, is your party worried about her in the general election?  In other words, could it be your party will make a strategic decision to pick somebody who could beat her? 

LOTT:  I think that will be a consideration.  You might have a personal favorite, somebody your heart is with, but in your mind, if you think that person probably can‘t pull it off or there‘s somebody that would be stronger as a Republican nominee, you might go with that nominee.  Because people are really afraid that Hillary Clinton, Senator Clinton is liable to be the nominee of the Democratic Party and she would be formidable.  And they are really worried about what would happen if she won. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  I have been thinking about—being down here today, like people want to feel comfortable with who they nominate.

LOTT:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  But they also want to deal with the fear of Hillary. 

LOTT:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  So does that mean they are more likely to think about—it may come that they might nominate a McCain, who‘s kind of a party renegade? 

LOTT:  I think so.  I think John McCain is doing a good job getting around the country and working with the party and with the president.  And I think that one of the biggest things he has going for him right now is people think, well, you know, if he gets the nomination, he will probably be able to be president. 

So we had better think about do we want to get involved in helping him win the nomination, so we can be—you know, our strongest candidate—have our strongest possible candidate in November?  Yes, I think that‘s playing in his favor. 

MATTHEWS:  Are Republicans different than Democrats in the terms of the way they organize?  Are they more harmonious?  I mean, you grew up in the Democratic Party.  You know the difference.  Is the.

LOTT:  Oh yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Is the Republican Party more of a.

LOTT:  The Democratic meeting, it‘s chaos all the time.  But that‘s sort of their strength, as you know, Chris.  You know, they grow strength from their diversity and their different positions.  But Republicans, I think, are a little bit more homogeneous, we are more inclined to be conservative, more inclined to—you know, to be—want to be fiscal conservatives and family values and that sort of thing.  And it pulls us together. 

But I think we draw our strength from being that way, and we believe in grassroots organization, getting that soccer mom involved.  And the Democrats go about it completely differently.  They do build their victories by putting together different coalitions.  We have not always been as good at that. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the Republican Party and the president.  John McCain said—he‘s going to say tonight, we got the word on it from a very good source, I mean, very good source, he‘s going to say vote for the president, like you are doing there, writing President Bush down here. 

So he‘s sort of getting out of this competition.  Is there a sense that the president needs a little help right now and your party needs to circle the wagons? 

LOTT:  Listen, hey, Chris, the last couple of weeks haven‘t been great.  The Dubai Port issue was not handled well all around.  I think that is going to go by, and will be aberration.  It won‘t be a long-lasting problem. 

But I do think right now, for Republicans, particularly here, to show that, hey, we are with this president.  I‘m glad John McCain is here.  I think it took courage for him to come here.  I mean, this is not his natural territory, this is the home turf of, you know, Bill Frist, one of his potential opponents. 

So he‘s here because, you know, he believes that it‘s important we come together.  I think, you know, he‘s right that this meeting shouldn‘t be ‘08.  We have got time to work through that.  It should be about ‘06. 

MATTHEWS:  So you have seen the speech, haven‘t you? 

(LAUGHTER)

LOTT:  Well, Haley Barbour is the one who was talking to me about it. 

I don‘t know where this idea came from, actually.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I have seen part of it.  I have seen part of it.  That is the point, the focus on ‘06, rather than ‘08. 

LOTT:  Yes, focus on ‘06.  I think that is something Haley really made

I don‘t know, it might have been Haley‘s idea.  And I got this from a guy that got it from Haley, but—Barbour. 

But also I think for us to show our support for this president right now, this is—we are—you know, Mississippians are one of the reddest of the red states.  This is—you know, President Bush carried this state against Al Gore in 2000, Tennessee.  So for us to say, Mr. President, you are our man and we are with you, that would be good. 

MATTHEWS:  The president‘s polls have been coming down in job performance almost since 9/11.  It‘s fairly—it‘s an uneven line but it goes like this.  I guess it‘s like this if you are watching on television. 

LOTT:  I was looking at them today. 

MATTHEWS:  If that continues through this November election, can he lose—can your party lose the Senate? 

LOTT:  I don‘t think it could lose the Senate, because in the end, you know, it depends do you have a strong candidate, are they going to be well-funded, where are your vulnerabilities? 

You know, we have some senators that are obviously incumbents that are in difficult races.  We have a couple of three seats around the nation where we could have a chance.  But they would have to sweep the table to take the Senate.  I just don‘t think that will happen. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s right.  All six winnables—they would have to win all six and not lose any of those questionable ones. 

LOTT:  That‘s right.  That‘s—I guess it could happen.  We have had these big sweeps, you know.  But.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you had one back in 2000-what, when did you take the Senate back? 

LOTT:  Well, we took it in ‘94 and then we took it back in 2002.  But we only picked up a net gain of two. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

LOTT:  So I mean, usually in the Senate a net gain of one or two is sort of normal.  You know, there are those years, like 1980, when we had—you know, we picked up a net gain of 12 with the Reagan coattail. 

MATTHEWS:  You also picked up some guys that just couldn‘t stay the distance. 

LOTT:  That‘s right, they were gone six years later. 

MATTHEWS:  Hey, thank you, Senator Trent Lott. 

LOTT:  OK, Chris, always a pleasure.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s good to be in your neighborhood. 

LOTT:  Welcome to Memphis, Mississippi.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s right, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  There‘s a movement here in Memphis to recruit Condoleezza Rice to run in ‘08.  Jessie Jane Duff is the national chairperson of Americans for Dr. Rice.  She‘s retired, Jessie is, from 20 years in the Marine Corps, where she was a gunnery sergeant. 

Well, you were top woman, you have done that and kind of worked for the country, why do you think you can talk Condi Rice into running? 

JESSIE JANE DUFF, AMERICANS FOR DR. RICE:  Well, Condoleezza Rice, is the most powerful woman in the United States and in the world today.  And not only do we believe that she is the best candidate to become president of the United States, she is the only one that can compete with any Democrat, and the only Republican that can take the entire state of California. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think that she has that kind of electoral strength?  She has never ran. 

DUFF:  Well, I don‘t think she needs to run.  When we look at her record, you will see that she has international support, she has, across the world, about 90 percent name recognition.  And when you are the most powerful woman in the world, why would you need to take a backstep and run for some small office such as senator or governor? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘m not saying that, but, I mean, there was talk, Ed Rollins usually goes that she should have been appointed for the United States senator when Pete Wilson left the Senate seat in California all those years ago.  But that (INAUDIBLE). 

DUFF:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you get her to do it?  I mean, I don‘t know how you get her to do it.

DUFF:  Well, I do believe that.

MATTHEWS:  She could be president of Harvard tomorrow.  That job is open.

DUFF:  Well, she is already fourth in line to become president of the United States.  And she is the most qualified, and we say, no training required.  So I believe that Condoleezza Rice will recognize that her nation is calling her when she sees what our draft movement puts forward. 

The America people are answering our call.  We have had over 4,000 people come to our Web page and volunteer. 

MATTHEWS:  Suppose you run two women for president, Hillary and Condi, and some guy comes along, some joker, Peewee Herman for all I know, he runs third party and beats them both? 

DUFF:  Oh, that couldn‘t happen.  Condoleezza Rice.

MATTHEWS:  Some mean will be looking for a candidate.

DUFF:  Absolutely.  But Condoleezza can beat any Democrat, Hillary or otherwise. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I admire your spunk... 

DUFF:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  . sergeant—gunnery sergeant. 

DUFF:  Gunnery sergeant.

MATTHEWS:  . Jessie Jane Duff.

DUFF:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  I can‘t argue with that kind of patriotism.  Thank you.

DUFF:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  When we return, more on John McCain‘s gamble today to have supporters write-in President Bush‘s name in the big straw vote here tomorrow afternoon.  And we will have live coverage of the results of the straw poll tomorrow night at 9:00 Eastern, only on MSNBC and then also msnbc.com.  This is HARDBALL‘s live coverage from Memphis as Republicans gather to pick, you wouldn‘t believe it, the next president.   

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, live from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis, Tennessee.  We are back msnbc.com political correspondent Tom Curry. 

Tom, you were standing there watching one of the big candidates, that‘s Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts make his speech today.  What was your impression? 

TOM CURRY, MSNBC POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:  My impression is he is very smooth.  It was the usual Mitt Romney stump speech, but this is a much bigger audience than he has been in front of before.  And the biggest applause line he got a standing ovation was the line about same-sex marriage, when he said every child in America as has a right to a mother and father.  This crowd loved that message.  They know that he has fought the battle in Massachusetts over same-sex marriage.  And that‘s an advantage for him with this socially conservative crowd. 

MATTHEWS:  And he says he‘s against even civil unions of any kind. 

He‘s basically a hard-liner on this one. 

CURRY:  And he has also become more hard-line on abortion in the last year.  He has changed his position on that.  It was an interesting speech.  Like I said, it was his usual stump speech.  He had a big applause line about requiring immigrants to learn English.  He said, if you want to succeed in America, you have to speak the language that‘s spoken in America. 

So I think there was some potential there.  He‘s not a Southerner, he‘s not a Midwesterner, but he came across pretty well to this crowd.  I wouldn‘t say he blew them away, but it was a good reception. 

MATTHEWS:  I thought it was a good applause at the end.  Do you think he is really playing—taking some risks out there by being so hard on abortion, so tough on gay marriage and so tough on immigration that he‘s going to look too tough for them—too hot to handle? 

CURRY:  No, I think there‘s a purpose in him going to the right on this.  He also can make the argument that he knows Democrats, he knows how to beat Democrats, he comes from a state that‘s.

MATTHEWS:  Well, he knows how to beat Shannon O‘Brien.  I‘m not sure he knows how to beat Teddy Kennedy.  Anyway—because he did—let‘s take a look at Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina talking up his friend, his candidate, John McCain, who‘s speaking tonight here in Memphis. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAH ®, SOUTH CAROLINA:  I‘m in the tank for John McCain.  That‘s the worst keep secret in Washington. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to be in the tank for him come the South Carolina primary 2008?

GRAHAM:  If he runs, I‘m going to be there as hard I can.  He‘s one of my best buddies, I know him, faults included. 

MATTHEWS:  Can he win it this time? 

GRAHAM:  He can win it.  It‘s his to lose.  But having said that, he has got to decide if he‘s going to run next year.  If he runs, I believe he‘s the best person in our party to continue the Bush legacy of winning the war on terror by being aggressive. 

MATTHEWS:  That dirtball kind of campaign that was waged to get him last time, would that work again? 

GRAHAM:  It won‘t work again.  It was worse than you have even read about.  You know it, I was there.  It was terrible.  It will not be repeated.  John McCain was the president‘s best ally on his signature issue, the war.  He went all over the country with him in ‘04. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  In fact, I think he‘s further right than the president on the war. 

GRAHAM:  If you are a Bush person and you want it to turn out well for the president in history, the next Republican nominee needs to believe in the Bush policy when it comes to the war as much as Bush does.  John McCain and George Bush are inseparable on the signature issue, fighting terrorism. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a man who fits his Senate seat like a glove.  This guy has learned how to be a senator, and the generosity  of spirit of a guy endorsing a fellow senator is so unusual, Tom, I‘m taken aback by it.  Usually these guys are so self-serving, and here‘s a guy saying, this guy John McCain can do it. 

CURRY:  I remember back in 2000 when McCain was running against Bush up in New Hampshire, a bitter cold night in Bedford, New Hampshire, I was there with Lindsey Graham, who was famous at that point for his role in the Clinton impeachment, the judiciary hearing—the House Judiciary Committee, but he was there campaigning all over New Hampshire for John McCain.  So they go—you know, this alliance goes back a long way. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the mood in the room tonight as John McCain, the maverick Republican, the reformer, the lone gun, walks into that room tonight?  What kind of a room is he walking into? 

CURRY:  Well, I think there will be a little bit of confusion.  I talked to one party official from North Carolina who is not entirely happy about this apparently gambit of asking people to write in President Bush‘s name on the straw ballot—straw vote ballot tomorrow.  She said, you know, why would anyone want to throw away their vote?  He wanted—you know, why don‘t we have a real legitimate vote? 

MATTHEWS:  But he‘s trying to put the kibosh on this vote by saying, vote for the president.  That kills the contest. 

CURRY:  Right.  Well, she felt that it would be better to have a—you know, let the legitimate candidates who are in this, just let it happen and then see how it ends up. 

MATTHEWS:  Is—do you—Tom, you are a well-educated guy, is he going to give a Mark Antony speech tonight for Caesar? 

CURRY:  Apparently, he is.  I mean, he is.

MATTHEWS:  I think he‘s going to go out there and give a speech.

CURRY:  But there are some people who I think would prefer to not have the write-in for Bush and to—let‘s see what the competition is like between McCain and Frist. 

MATTHEWS:  I think it‘s classic McCain.  It‘s his own idea.  It helps him, but it suggests a larger purpose, which is perfect.  Anyway, I don‘t want to be too cynical, it is a party unity thing, too.  Thank you, Tom Curry. 

You can read Tom‘s article about Republican contenders on our Web site, hardball.msnbc.com.  And vote for your candidate on our virtual straw vote.  This will be some fun.  When we return, what‘s behind John McCain‘s move to urge voters here to write in President Bush in tomorrow‘s straw poll? 

This is HARDBALL‘s live coverage of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference down here in Memphis, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, live from Memphis at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.  We are joined right now by the washingtonpost.com‘s Chris Cillizza and the Slate—boy, Slate must be hot to have you, John Dickerson. 

Dickerson, let me ask you this, you have been covering these presidential campaigns, this is the earliest one to start.  Has it started? 

JOHN DICKERSON, SLATE.COM:  Yes, it has started.  John McCain has to be here.  He‘s the front-runner, he couldn‘t blow this off.  It has started.  The candidates who are here are positioning.  You know, a lot of this is already—it‘s over.  They have got their money man, they have got their activists working for them already.  In a lot of ways, the nuts and bolts of the ground game have been, you know, covered at least by them. 

MATTHEWS:  So this is chapter one, Chris? 

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM:  What I was going to say.

MATTHEWS:  No, is it chapter one of the campaign... 

CILLIZZA:  Yes, this is—I would say it‘s—no, I think we are beyond that.  I think we are in chapter two or three.  I think it‘s appropriate with the ducks here at the Peabody that they are famous for.  These presidential campaigns are like a duck sliding gracefully on top of the water, pedaling like crazy underneath the water.  That‘s what we are seeing. 

I mean, John‘s right.  This has been going on for months and even years to get the staff in-line, to get the top money people in-line, all these things.  So these speeches are a part of it but I don‘t think it‘s chapter one.  I would say it‘s chapter three or four now.  It‘s a long book, but... 

MATTHEWS:  John McCain earned his spurs through his war service, his service as a POW, his account of what happened over there when he got back, his generous support for Vietnam normalization, his service as a reformer in the Senate, very tough defeat in 2000.  He started a long time ago running for president.  Is this really the shape-up of a race between Hillary and John McCain, two people who for many years plotted their way to this point? 

DICKERSON:  I think so.  McCain certainly hopes that‘s the case.  Because McCain can then make this case.  If you are worried about me, you have got to really be worried about Hillary.  And I‘m the only one who has the crossover appeal in the general election.  If you want to—if you talk to people here in the crowd, and you would say, well, what do you think about Hillary?  They don‘t like her, and that makes them then change their views about McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  So you argue.

DICKERSON:  . if they were wobbly on him.

MATTHEWS:  . the fear factor is stronger here than the comfort factor. 

They will pick a guy probably who can beat Hillary, Chris. 

CILLIZZA:  I think John is exactly right there.  And I think—I talked to a consultant for another potential candidate who said if I was John McCain and his staff, I would be out today talking to folks, saying, I‘m the only one who can beat her.  You may not agree with me on everything, you may not like me.

MATTHEWS:  OK, but why did he call this maneuver of saying, don‘t vote for me tonight, I‘m sacrificing in the interest of being supportive of the president?  Why is he doing that? 

DICKERSON:  Well, because straw polls are silly.  And they are particularly silly for the frontrunner because they always get the frontrunner in big, big trouble.  But here‘s the thing about straw polls.  I may say they are silly, but I‘m going to write about them the minute they happen because they do have some meaning.  And as a candidate, you never know what meaning is going to attach to these straw polls. 

So McCain did something clever, he threw the votes to President Bush.  He needs to show he‘s a team player because all these activists are worried about.  So this is an attempt for him to play to his narrative, and now he has forced the other candidates to try and play to theirs. 

CILLIZZA:  I think the danger he runs by doing that, though, is that unlike in 2000, when John McCain was the upstart, he skips Iowa, he runs in New Hampshire, he wins in New Hampshire, all of a sudden he‘s viable.  John McCain is the favorite now. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We have got to go.  Chris Cillizza, thank you.  Thank you, John Dickerson.  We will be back tomorrow night at 9:00 with the results of this big poll down here from Memphis.  I will be on “THE TODAY SHOW” tomorrow, it looks like, and also I will be “NIGHTLY NEWS” with more reporting on this. 

Let‘s find out who is the frontrunner coming out of Memphis at the end of this week.  We are looking at—and your coverage, by the—our coverage continues, by the way, throughout the weekend on msnbc.com where you can catch the top candidate‘s speeches plus my interviews with the movers and shakers of this party, and our virtual straw poll.  All this online. 

And you can vote for the candidate you like best.  Right now McCain leads our straw vote with 35 percent, then Giuliani and Condoleezza Rice both tied at 15.  Send your votes in.  The polls are open, ours are, all weekend.  “COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN” starts right now.

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

END   

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