updated 3/13/2006 11:07:16 AM ET 2006-03-13T16:07:16

Guests: Howard Fineman, Charlie Cook , Mark Leibovitz, Chuck Todd, Carol, Jean Gordon, Ed Saunders, Bill Frist

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight breaking news.  We‘re just minutes away from the results of the first major straw poll of Republican contenders for 2008.  Live from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis, let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to a Saturday night special edition of HARDBALL.  We‘re broadcasting live from the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, host of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.  We‘re moments away from the big announcement of the winner of the straw poll. 

You‘ll hear it here first here on HARDBALL and online at MSNBC.com.  HARDBALL arrived here Friday to watch the Republican presidential hopefuls up on the stage giving speeches and courting party activists to get a head start in the race to replace George W. Bush.  We‘ll go the ballroom for an announcement of the results in just a moment.  And later tonight, my exclusive interview with Senator John mccain. 

I‘m joined now by NBC News Political Analyst Charlie Cook of the “Cook Political Report,” and “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman.  Charlie Cook, the importance of tonight‘s numbers when they come in? 

CHARLIE COOK, COOK POLITICAL REPORT:  Republican officials and state officials, these are the people you need to recruit for an infrastructure for 2008 presidential campaign.  These guys wanted to impress these people to get a leg up on everybody else.  This is an important group. 

MATTHEWS:  This is a battle for the troops? 

COOK:  Absolutely.  This is the first battle.  This will—these people go back to their states and tell the other Republicans, hey, I saw so and so and they were great. 

MATTHEWS: Howard? 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  It‘s also the first place where all the candidates can demonstrate their prowess in front of the national press corps.  We‘re here, we‘re sitting here listening to the speeches.  Speeches do not a campaign make but they are important. 

Bill Frist, this is his home state, these are his people here.  How well did he do? 

Let‘s go to Chuck Todd in the ballroom for the results of the straw vote.  This is the first vote of the presidential campaign.  Here he is.  Chuck Todd of Hotline.

CHUCK TODD, THE HOTLINE:  I don‘t get introductions like that very often.  Before I read the results I want to thank a few people, the Tennessee Republicans for all their help with us making sure that we had all the independence we needed and they didn‘t get in our way.  That‘s what we are more appreciative of. 

I want to thank my staff, Mark Endminder (ph), Ethan McCarthy (ph), Jonathan Martin, Norman Macalvanna (ph) and Mike Mimole (ph), who all served as poll takers.  They‘re normally not doing this for a living and everybody here was very cooperative with them and very helpful to them and you made it so we could do this and feel good about what we did.  Now the results. 

We had over 1,400 people cast ballots, 1, 427.  Third place there was a tie between Senator George Allen and a write in for President Bush.  They got 10 percent.  In second place, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney with 14.4 percent.  And the winner of the straw poll from Tennessee, Senator Bill Frist, with 36.9 percent.  Thanks very much. 

MATTHEWS:  There we have it.  A big winner for the home guy.  Charlie Cook?

COOK:  I‘m impressed with how well Romney did.  If there was anybody here from Massachusetts, I don‘t know how they got here. 

A second-place finish and for McCain, let‘s assume that everybody that said they were for George Bush was a McCain person, that would still put him in third place.  I think the story is that Romney and McCain didn‘t do very well. 

MATTHEWS:  Romney and McCain—

COOK:  Romney did well and McCain didn‘t do well. 

MATTHEWS:  McCain wasn‘t on the ballot.  You mean George Allen? 

COOK:  No.  He was on the ballot, he asked people to write in for President Bush.  So if every Bush vote was a McCain person he was still in third place. 

MATTHEWS:  So he was smart to say vote for Bush not McCain. 

FINEMAN:  It looks like he was doing it out of weakness not strength.  I think that‘s the point.  McCain pulled this maneuver off to cover the fact that he wasn‘t going to get very many votes down here.  Bill Frist brought in kids from Tennessee.  So what, he got 40 percent of the vote in his home state.  It‘s hard to do that with six candidates here. 

I agree with Charlie that Mitt Romney, who didn‘t have much of an organization here, he had kids with hats and stickers and so on. 

MATTHEWS:  Did he have any ringers coming in like Frist has people bused in just for the day? 

FINEMAN:  I saw Romney hats but it wasn‘t nearly as organized.  He didn‘t have that many operatives here.  A long-time buddy of his out of Washington was here working the lobby. 

I think Romney did a good job in his speech yesterday, he impressed a lot of people that had never seen him before, had never gotten a look at him and he gave a good, funny, lively speech and people are impressed with the idea of somebody from a blue state part of the country who is a red state guy. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go through the numbers.  Charlie cook, 40 percent of delegates here are from Tennessee, Frist got about what you would expect, a home state guy. 

COOK:  They worked very hard on this thing and they said we‘re going with the home state guy.  But let‘s face it, that speech was pretty awful. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you agree? 

FINEMAN:  I thought it was one of the worst presidential campaign speeches I have ever heard.  It was dreadful.  But people recognized that the guy has talent, ability, and that he‘s an honest, decent guy.  They like him here.  If he runs, he will test the proposition you can get elected without being able to give a speech.  If they‘re all like that.

MATTHEWS:  I get the results. 

COOK:  George Allen, 10 percent, that wasn‘t bad. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the fact that Romney beat him? 

FINEMAN:  I disagree with Charlie on that.  I think Allen needed to do a little bit better here. 

MATTHEWS:  But he did no organization I‘m told. 

FINEMAN:  I know but he‘s styling himself as the southern candidate, under the assumption that Frist won‘t either run or make it.  Allen is telling people I‘m the natural, sunny heir to Ronald Reagan, I‘m the son of the south, I know how to talk Reagan southern language and I think it would have helped him had he finished better than third here tied with the write-in candidate. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to know, by Tuesday how people voted in their second preferences.  Here we got the numbers.  I love the numbers.  The raw vote, 526 votes for Bill Frist, the home state senator who organized heavily but gave, according to you two guys, a terrible speech; 205 for Mitt Romney.  Well below 14 percent.  But he gets 200 votes. 

Look at the other numbers.  A dead tie for George Allen and what you guys call the shadow vote for McCain.  McCain said vote for the president, 147 a piece.  Then actual votes for McCain, 66.  McCain you could argue he got the ones for the president and his own which would taken him over 200.

then Huckabee who everybody said gave a great speech from Arkansas got 54 and Pataki got 38.  Condi Rice got 32.  Sam Brownback from Kansas, 22.  Rudy Giuliani just 15.  Newt Gingrich 13.  Chuck Hagel, three.  That covers the waterfront here from .2 percent for Chuck Hagel to 36.9 percent for Bill Frist. 

Let me go to the significance of this in the media.  You‘re running a big piece for “Newsweek.” what‘s the big story here? 

FINEMAN:  I think the big story is the fact that John McCain is running a big national campaign.  He‘s planning, I‘m told, to run a 50-state campaign.  He‘s getting Bush operatives to help him.  And he‘s positioning South Carolina as the place, with the help of Lindsey Graham, the senator from there, that he‘s supposedly going to wrap it all up. 

But you have to do better in a place like this if you are going to be a national candidate.  McCain has the burden of expectation now at least within the national press corps and it may hurt him rather than help him. 

MATTHEWS:  Wherever we have gone in the past primary campaigns, whenever the home state guy wins we go, ho-hum, who came in second.  Bill Clinton lost the New Hampshire primary in 1992 by eight votes to Paul Tsongas from neighboring Massachusetts and everybody forgot Paul Tsongas within two weeks.

Tom Harkin would win the Iowa caucuses that same year and everybody ignored it.  Does Frist get any credit for winning in his home state?  Charlie Cook?

COOK:  I don‘t think so.  There are buses outside this building right this second.

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  Again, I slightly disagree in that maybe he should have gotten a higher percentage.  He avoids disaster by winning by a fairly comfortable margin.  Yes, he bused kids in but the kids in but they were willing to come.  I talked to a number of them from the University of Tennessee.  They came over, but at least they were willing to come.  They got the free barbecue across the street, but so what? 

MATTHEWS:  The big story is Bill Frist wins his home state but the big national story could be that Mitt Romney, a Mormon from Massachusetts comes down to the Bible belt and gives a hell of a good speech yesterday and it worked. 

(CROSSTALK)

COOK:  I thought Romney and I thought Allen did a good speech.  Mike Huckabee gave an excellent speech.   McCain gave a fabulous speech. 

MATTHEWS:  So the only one who gave a lousy speech by your decision won. 

COOK:  The one who gave the best speech didn‘t do so well. 

FINEMAN:  It‘s a combination of charisma and organization.  Frist is light on the charisma end, but he was well organized and the people who know him here like him personally even if he doesn‘t have the stagecraft of a candidate yet. 

MATTHEWS:  We have to keep trying to figure it out for the next hour and show you a lot of debate, a lot of speeches from the candidates here and we have interviews with them as well starting with John McCain.  You‘ll get a look at the candidates.  But I believe in simple results.  Frist won.  We‘re coming back with Charlie Cook and Howard Fineman. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this special edition of HARDBALL.  We‘re at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis.  Moments ago we announced the winner of the 2206 straw poll.  The winner is Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee.  Mitt Romney came in a weaker second and third place was a tie with George Allen and a write-in for President Bush endorsed by John McCain.  He suggested that they write in the president‘s name instead of voting for him.  Only a small percentage voted for McCain himself.  Last night I spoke to Senator McCain in this exclusive interview. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Were you surprised, sir, at the strong reaction you got from a pretty conservative group here for your call, you thought that basically the challenging of the president over the ports issue wasn‘t the right thing to do? 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, ® ARIZONA:  I was pleased.  A lot of people expressed their dissatisfaction, but I think public opinion may be swinging back even in our party. 

MATTHEWS:  You made the case that this was potentially hurting our relationships with moderate governments? 

MCCAIN:  Sure.  This is a friend of ours.  These people, we‘re flying missions into Iraq and Afghanistan out of the UAE.  They are doing other things, too. 

MATTHEWS:  Does the president notice the pattern of your extreme loyalty to him?  I mean, you backed him on the Dubai ports thing. 

MCCAIN:  I call him every day and try to remind him. 

MATTHEWS:  You endorse him in this election he‘s not even running. 

You endorsed him for write in tomorrow at your own expense.

MCCAIN:  Let me be serious a minute about him.  He‘s having trouble right now.  That‘s why we need to stand by him.  He doesn‘t need us when his numbers are at 65.  He needs us now.  That‘s my only message. 

MATTHEWS:  Is your hope that he‘ll win here tomorrow? 

MCCAIN:  I hope so. 

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAIN:  I said, I told people about Bill Frist here tonight.  He‘s a fine man and a fine leader. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you for your time. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Back with NBC News Political Analyst Charlie Cook and Howard Fineman.  That was a strange interview.  The camera angle made him look like mini me there.  Charlie Cook, McCain‘s still going to be leading the polls after this, right?

COOK:  He‘s still the front-runner for the nomination, this is a chink in the armor that makes you wonder if he‘s the inevitable nominee they would like everybody to believe. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s that strong? 

COOK:  All these other people are in single digits.  Like Bill Frist in a national poll is at five percent.  They are largely unknown outside of their home state.  They have to break through.  That will take time. 

MATTHEWS:  I think McCain threw it away the other night and did it right before that interview he said don‘t vote for me, that‘s a sign he didn‘t want to win and didn‘t expect to win. 

FINEMAN:  They‘re busy telling us just how serious McCain is about wanting the support for president in order to make us believe this wasn‘t just a maneuver for the straw poll.  So you find out some interesting things. 

For example, McCain called the president the other night, Tuesday night, unsolicited, long phone call, I‘m with you, Mr. President, I know things are not going well.  I know you‘re down.  I‘m with you all the way.  I don‘t know what the expression was on the face of the guy on the other end of the line, but there‘s that. 

There‘s the fact, as I said before, that the McCain people are trying to draw in the Bush base.  This is the Bush base here.  The confusion is they are drawing in the operatives but these are the people who should like the fact that he‘s wrapping himself in the flag of George W. Bush.  I don‘t think they liked it that much. 

As Charlie was saying off-camera, people from 26 of 50 states are here.  This is mostly the South and mostly strong Bush people.  If he‘s running as a successor to George Bush, they should like it more than they did.  They remember 2000 and they remember the fights. 

MATTHEWS:  I have heard for years now the Republican base, by which I mean not the people who vote Republican but people who show up for these things, most people don‘t show up for this, you have to come on a bus to get in the door.  They do it because they‘re professional politicians.  They don‘t like McCain.  We‘ve known that for a long time.

Charlie, I want to ask you the tough question.  Why don‘t they like McCain?

COOK:  I think the party regulars in general and Republican party regulars in particular don‘t like mavericks or independents.  They like team players.  But I also thing reform doesn‘t sell with party regulars.  I don‘t care if you are a Republican or Democrat.  They are ideologue.  They don‘t want reform.  They love politics.  They don‘t want reform. 

FINEMAN:  I don‘t have they are ideologues anymore.  They started that way.  These are people from the Reagan revolution that have now grown up into power, they want to keep power. 

The McCain calculation is that these people will make a practical decision to swallow their reluctance and embrace McCain because he‘s the most practical way for them to keep power.  But they‘re looking at him and they‘re not sure that that‘s true and they‘re not ready to overcome their reluctance at that point. 

COOK:  Or that he can best stop Hillary Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a long way off. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you Charlie Cook and Howard Fineman.  When we return, more announcements of votes here at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on this special edition of HARDBALL on MSNBC.  Tonight on MSNBC.com, check out Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee playing bass with his band.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re watching Huckabee here on stage.  He‘s the governor of Arkansas believe it or not.  That‘s the fellow moving around quite a bit there with the electric bass guitar, there he is a candidate for president. 

We‘re down here in Memphis reporting on the Southern Leadership Conference and we have joining us here Tom Kerry who is our chief political correspondent at MSNBC.com and or course David Shuster our regular reporter on HARDBALL.

I want to be honest here and not play the game some people play and talk about moral victories.  Let‘s go by the numbers, which is a fair way to do it.  Bill Frist, how does this help him? 

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT:  I think it does help.  Even though you suggested about the buses.  A lot of people didn‘t take a bus in and they are loyal to him.  For a guy that may not have delivered the most incredible speech, he did what he needed to do to inspire his own people. 

MATTHEWS:  What does this do for him?  He got some headlines? 

TOM CURRY, MSNBC.COM POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:  It sends it back to Washington. (inaudible) 

MATTHEWS:  It puts the burden on him to be a legislator. 

CURRY:  Yes.  The immigration bill.  He has to get something done. 

It‘s a win that most people expected. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the guy that no one expected to come in second here, Mitt Romney from Massachusetts.  He‘s not running for re-election.  He‘s a member of the Latter Day Saints, he‘s a Mormon, he talks about being a Mormon. 

SHUSTER:  I‘m not sure that helps him.  That could be a negative for him. 

MATTHEWS:  Down here in The Bible Belt. 

SHUSTER:  Right, but the other thing that works for him is when he talks in his speeches he says every child in America deserves the right to a mother and a father, it‘s a straight shot against gay marriage, it resonates well. 

MATTHEWS:  Or as Senator Brownback said today, a marriage is between one man and one woman.  I thought it was interesting that Brownback thought in necessary to give us the number of partners in a sexual relationship or a marital relationship.  I never heard anyone say before one of each as a definition of marriage.  He said one man and one woman.  We‘ll see if Brownback‘s up to something here. 

Let me ask about you Romney‘s chances to win the presidency in 2008. 

Go ahead, Tom. 

CURRY:  Well, the stump speech is very smooth and self-assured.  He‘s very comfortable with the crowd.  He conveys comfort that some of these other candidates don‘t.  (inaudible)  But commander-in-chief, governor of Massachusetts, he has to prove that that equates that he meets that task. 

MATTHEWS:  He doesn‘t have a foreign affairs or national security background. 

CURRY:  (inaudible)  That is a challenge for him.  But I have seen him on other occasions.  He‘s totally comfortable in a crow.  He‘s very smooth. 

His delivery is very smooth.  Something must have clicked here.  We‘re

talking about a small sample of people, 200 people out of 1400, but still -

MATTHEWS:  I‘m reading off the prompt, Senator Frist, who won here tonight, came in first by a long shot.  Here‘s what he said, quote, we are gratified at the result of all the hard work.  The leader is focused on ‘06.  That‘s him, talking about the leader, and the party is clearly focused—that‘s Bill Frist talking about his big victory here. 

SHUSTER:  A couple of things about Frist and Romney. 

MATTHEWS:  You like how they refer to him as the leader? 

SHUSTER:  Frist is one of these guys who doesn‘t translate so well on television, but what was so interesting about Romney when you listen to his speech, you think does it connect does it not connect.  When we look at the tapes, on television Romney is electrifying.  Far more so than he seems in person.  He‘s one of these candidates that comes across well on camera.  In a television battle Mitt Romney may have an edge.  He looks great and sounds terrific. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he did well in Massachusetts when he ran up there?  He ran against a weak opponent, Shannon O‘Brien, whose idea of the age of consent was like three. 

CURRY:  The news here is that for Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, this result, a second-place finish, makes people curious.  They want to find out more about him.  If he comes in second in a Southern state, on the home turf of the majority leader, it raises the curiosity factor.  They might go out to the next speech he gives in Des Moines or Cedar Rapids, they might show up. 

MATTHEWS:  Thanks.  If you can make people interested in a guy two an a half years out, he can build support in those years.  Thank you David Shuster, thank you Tom Curry.  You can read Tom‘s latest report on the candidate‘s here in Memphis on our Web site, MSNBC.com. 

And on Monday Tom will join me with a Web exclusive analysis of all the events here in Memphis this weekend.  You can watch that only in one place, hardball.msnbc.com. 

Coming next, by the way, Senators George Allen, Sam Brownback.  Plus, will the Bush administration‘s response to hurricane Katrina hurt Republican chances in ‘06 and ‘08, especially in this part of the country that was hit so hard.  You‘re watching a special edition of HARDBALL live from Memphis on MSNBC and msnbc.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NATALIE ALLEN, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Hello.  I‘m Natalie Allen with your headlines this hour.  A moment of silence in Spain.  Today marked the second anniversary of the Madrid bombings.  Two children placed a wreath at a column erected to honor the 191 people who died in that attack. 

An autopsy will be performed tomorrow on the so-called “Butcher of the Balkans,” Slobodan Milosevic.  He was found dead in his prison cell earlier today. Some say he comMitted suicide. He claimed he was being poisoned but officials say he suffered from a heart condition.

In Iraq, a grisly discovery, the body of an American peace activist was found. Officials say Tom Fox had been shot in the head and chest.  He was one of four aide workers who were taken hostage last November. 

In California, snow, a winter storm blanketed San Francisco to the mountains near San Diego.  More than 11 feet of snow has fallen in the Sierra Nevada mountains since March 1.  Now back to a special edition of HARDBALL live from Memphis. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this HARDBALL Saturday night special report on MSNBC, msnbc.com.  We‘re at the historic Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis where only steps away from here expect we might get an answer from Bill Frist, as the winner of the (INAUDIBLE) straw poll.  He might be coming out. We‘ll catch that when it occurs.  And in a HARDBALL exclusive, Senator Frist‘s chief of staff told us, quote, we are gratified the result of all the hard work the leader, that‘s Bill Frist, who‘s focused ‘06.  The party is clearly focused on a strong positive agenda for 2008.  Chuck Todd (ph) by the way joins us now. He‘s the editor and chief of the hotline who was in charge of the straw poll and Mark Leibovitz (ph) is a reporter for the “Washington Post.”  (INAUDIBLE) feature of this kind of stuff. So what‘s the big color (ph) feature Mark, about this?

MARK LEIBOVITZ, “WASHINGTON POST”: The big color feature is that Mike Huckabee (ph) is going to get out of the race tomorrow.  His supporters are so distraught. He‘s meeting with his staff and his family and I think tomorrow we might have an announcement.

MATTHEWS: (INAUDIBLE)

LEIBOVITZ:  No. 

MATTHEWS: Sudden death for Mike Huckabee. 

LEIBOVITZ: Sudden death. No, that‘s a joke. They won‘t let you do it.  Romney‘s people are euphoric.  It‘s a great party for the weekend and the basic realization is, it‘s too early to be (INAUDIBLE) New Hampshire so Memphis in ‘06 is going to do just fine with a better barbeque. 

MATTHEWS: So Chuck Todd (ph), you‘re going to be reporting on this camp (ph) every day. I read your hotline every day.  Does this sort of build the credibility of Mitt Romney?

TODD: I think it does.  I mean no matter how Romney got his votes, it‘s interesting. We were able to look at the votes (INAUDIBLE), where people came from.  He got a lot of support in Tennessee. So he clearly organized people in this state to get over here to this straw poll.  No matter how he did it, he got them here in some form or another. 

MATTHEWS: Do you think it‘s the Mormon network?

TODD: I don‘t know if it‘s the network per se, but it may have been.  More importantly they‘re trying to beat down that Mormon thing, right, this whole thing. 

MATTHEWS: But they‘re also likely to use it. 

TODD: And use it when you can.  And what people forget, what we learned the other night, the fastest growing religion in the south is Mormonism. So there are (INAUDIBLE) and it is a way to organize core things specifically like this, very possible he did.  I mean we don‘t know. 

MATTHEWS: Let‘s find out. We want to leave that as an open question, but certainly that‘s a network. Everyone uses their network. 

TODD: Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS: Everybody you went to school with, everyone you were in the army with, everyone you‘ve worked with, ask them all for money.  It would be logical if he did.  Let me ask you about George Allen. You know him pretty well from Washington.  He‘s right across the river. Did Allen make a mistake in coming here and not organizing? He came in third?

LEIBOVITZ: A lot of his supporters upstairs were pretty—I wouldn‘t say distraught, because that‘s too strong a word, but clearly I think they were surprised by certainly Romney‘s performance and Allen, he performed well in the straw poll in DC last month.  And I think he might have had some higher expectations, but I don‘t think it was a mistake.  I mean I think it would have been a mistake if he‘d finished fifth or sixth. 

TODD: It‘s worth noting, Allen got the most, of all but Frist, we were able to break out who the Frist supporters‘ second choices were and among  Frist second choice Allen was the top. 

MATTHEWS: What about the other candidates?

TODD: We (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS: . very well as a second choice simply because he‘s so, you know, unexceptional.  He doesn‘t bother you. 

TODD: There‘s no reason to be upset.  He‘s the least offensive when you‘ve got a Republican party that it is a coalition of about eight or nine different sort of sub-ideologies.  He‘s the guy that offends the least amount of those sub-ideologies.  Every other guy, Romney, all of them, have two or three that just can‘t stand him.  Allen is not a can‘t stand him kind of guy in this field. 

MATTHEWS: I was just thinking that you‘ve got three people who gave speeches this weekend, pure conservatism, Brownback of Kansas, Huckabee of Arkansas and Allen of Virginia.  Then you had the people who were somewhat apostate, who had little wrinkles, you know, like Frist on stem cell.  He believes in Federal funding. He‘s a doctor.  McCain, who is by nature apostate. He‘s always challenging the way things are. And Romney, who‘s LDS. He‘s a Mormon. He‘s a little different.  I notice the three guys (INAUDIBLE) got nowhere here tonight.  Why do you think Chuck?

TODD: This is a politically savvy group of people.  You got to remember these people are - these are political junkies with a view.  These are people who want to think about winning first, who‘s somebody they can get elected and as (INAUDIBLE) always liked to say this over at “National Review,” the Republican party nominates the most electable conservative they can find.  They want to try to get as conservative as they can but they still want to win.  And that‘s always the dividing line, that electabality factor.  I think we saw in this result. The top five, McCain, Allen, Romney, Frist, none of them as you describe, Allen is the closest to being more pure and even he is not a pure... 

MATTHEWS: (INAUDIBLE) even at this early date with Hillary being so dominant in the Democratic Party, that they‘re going to have to face her and they better have somebody can beat her. 

LEIBOVITZ: There certainly could be, although as Chuck just said, I mean there‘s a tradition of them nominating the best and most electable conservative and Hillary is certainly the most unifying force in this party right now.  And (INAUDIBLE) motivating force—

MATTHEWS: I got you. So they are not will to put up somebody who is not a conservative to win, but they will pick the most winnable of the conservatives. 

LEIBOVITZ: Well, I guess the question is will they nominate John McCain then, who is clearly if you look at any way of slicing it (INAUDIBLE) he‘s the most winnable of the Republicans (INAUDIBLE) call him a conservative. 

MATTHEWS: What stops him from being a conservative in the minds of these people here?

LEIBOVITZ: It‘s in the minds of these people here.  (INAUDIBLE)

TODD:  I‘ll give you one reason, the media likes him.  And if the media likes him, so he must not be a conservative. 

LEIBOVITZ: By the votes -- 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s more hawkish than Bush.  He says he‘s pro-life but I don‘t think -- 

LEIBOVITZ: He said he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned.  He has said all the right things. 

MATTHEWS: He says it, but nobody‘s (INAUDIBLE)

TODD: Forget Hillary Clinton. 

MATTHEWS: (INAUDIBLE) Brownback, for example, when he talks about life out there, you completely believe he‘s committed on it. 

TODD: (INAUDIBLE) Bush‘s language, even more.  But the single most important factor that‘s going to affect this is not Hillary. I think it‘s going to be the ‘06 elections.  Republicans have a horrible time. They have a terrible time.  McCain is going to get a bump, because then there is going to be that sort of desperation, oh my God, we could lose everything.  If Democrats win one or two. 

MATTHEWS: They need a reformer too, not just a conservative.

TODD: That‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  Chuck Todd, he‘s been talking here and know his stuff, Mark Leibovitz, an interesting guy too for the “Washington Post.” (INAUDIBLE) and we‘re happy to have with us Elizabeth Willer (ph) and the entire NBC news political unit.  You can sign up for the first read, NBC‘s indispensable e-mail guide for all things political. Just go to our website, there it is, hardballguidemsnbc.com.  This is a special Saturday night edition, Saturday night live edition of HARDBALL in Memphis on MSNBC, msnbc.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We‘re back with Mark Leibovitz of the “Washington Post.” And the hotline‘s Chuck Todd.  I want to have a couple minutes conversation about the guy who leads all the polls who showed up.  Rudy Giuliani leads a lot of the polls, but he didn‘t show up. He‘s not running, but McCain is definitely running, right?

TODD: Yes. 

MATTHEWS: Let‘s talk about McCain, big strong support among the regulars down here, Haley Barbour, powerful man down here, governor of Mississippi, Trent Lott,  legendary this one has been around so long, senator from Mississippi, JC Watts from  Oklahoma, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. (INAUDIBLE) is here for McCain.  That‘s a big change from about eight years ago. 

TODD: I think it‘s huge. I think the biggest thing we will look back on this conference by saying this is when we found out that Haley became McCain‘s southern Sherpa, that he‘s the guide that‘s going to give McCain his southern bona fides and who knows, maybe it‘s a place on the ticket for Haley, a McCain Barbour ticket.  McCain is going to need somebody, a southern conservative to please the base.  I think a Haley McCain coupling from this weekend is gigantic, I think that‘s sending gigantic shock waves at Republicans. 

MATTHEWS: I love politics.  Of course I go way back to ‘68. It was Strom Thurmond who did that for Richard Nixon.  He said, he‘s the guy.

LEIBOVITZ: Well, clearly, Haley would love to be a king maker.  I mean this is someone who absolutely revels in the role of operative. I mean yes, he‘s a governor.  He‘s all statesmanlike and he obviously is playing to that role also. But this would be I think perfect for him and he came really close to running for president.  So this is something of the next best thing for both the men from the neighboring states. 

MATTHEWS: So Haley could sit on the porch in that beautiful mansion in Jackson with a white belt, white shoes in the middle of a hot summer, with a bourbon or something and say I think it ought to be --  (INAUDIBLE)  I think it ought to be.

LEIBOVITZ?: No, actually Haley is not a sweet tea guy. 

TODD: . always will be Kentucky bourbon, not Tennessee bourbon.

MATTHEWS:  As played by Orson Wells. I‘m endorsing this guy.  He‘s going to be the next president. 

TODD: But I think it‘s one step further. I think Barbour in some ways could end up being the most logical running mate choice.  McCain would want a governor who did something domestically that helped clean up a state after a huge natural disaster.

MATTHEWS: After George Bush didn‘t do so well. This is even better. 

TODD: That‘s right.  It would be the (INAUDIBLE) McCain‘s got to fix the Middle East and Haley‘s got to fix the domestic Katrina. 

MATTHEWS: I find it interesting that Chuck here who does this for a living is already projecting ahead, sees the scenario, no I‘m serious, imagines the scenario whereby John McCain is the Republican nominee and most people in Washington think he will be and then he has a running mate situation already developing, which is a clear, developing picture, like an old Polaroid. It‘s clearly coming into view here at the same time the Democrats are coming into view with the inevitably of Hillary where they‘re raising $200 million. Are we seeing now the development of the picture here? 

LEIBOVITZ: Well, certainly, the inevitability factor around Hillary and McCain has been in play for several months now.  I‘m going to actually defer to the hotline vice presidential straw poll which is what a few weeks away now.

TODD: Just so you know, we had a few write-ins for VP and that was always (INAUDIBLE) the Louisiana guys would write in David Vitter (ph) for VP and they‘d put it down there. 

LEIBOVITZ: (INAUDIBLE) southern.

MATTHEWS:  So you think it‘s going to be still McCain as the front runner coming out of this.  (INAUDIBLE)

TODD: McCain‘s still the front runner.

LEIBOVITZ: Absolutely.

TODD: And then Allen and Romney are part of that first tier. 

MATTHEWS: I think McCain wins a double victory because not only does he avoid a loss down here which he could have suffered by switching to endorsing the president. But he makes sure that Allen doesn‘t do well here.  He avoided two losses. If Allen had come out of here the winner, the headlines in your paper would be, strong showing by Allen. That‘s your headline. He killed that. He stopped this guy.

LEIBOVITZ: Well and the worst nightmare of Bill Frist is that he‘s been speaking here for about 20 minutes and we barely (INAUDIBLE) 

MATTHEWS: I think McCain is doing a great (INAUDIBLE) here in a place he wasn‘t  going to win.  Anyway, thank you Chuck Todd, thank you Mark Leibovitz.

When we return, we‘ll wrap things up, the night here tonight, the night that Bill Frist won on home turf.  We‘ll check out our progress (INAUDIBLE) our political blog website for behind the scenes action here in Memphis.  Our team of bloggers is tracking all the contenders here this weekend. Just go to hardblogger.msnbc.com.  You‘re watching a special Saturday night live edition of HARDBALL from Memphis on MSNBC and msnbc.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We‘re back at the ballroom here.  In fact, we‘re back at the

Bill Frist is in the ballroom. We‘re down here in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis, Tennessee.  Tonight, we‘ve been watching the successful campaign here of Bill Frist, the home state senator.  He has won the first straw poll of the campaign. He‘s followed in the results by of course, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the governor of Massachusetts come in second.  In third place is George Allen, who‘s tied with George W. Bush, the president of the United States.  What do you think of these results?

I‘ve got joining me here a couple of political people here, Carol Jean Gordon (ph), who‘s from Florida.  Ed Saunders (ph), who is from Michigan.  Carol, you first, what‘s your impact here? What do you think the impact of this is tonight?

CAROL JEAN GORDON: Well, I think it‘s certainly obvious that the hometown candidate, Bill Frist, leader of the United States Senate did a great job.  It‘s fun to see everybody come together.  And the interesting result I believe was Mitt Romney from Massachusetts. 

MATTHEWS: Who did you vote for?

GORDON: Well, we‘re not going to discuss that. 

MATTHEWS: Why? Why not?

GORDON: Because party chairmen really don‘t.  You‘re not going to find.

MATTHEWS: Did you vote? Did you vote?

GORDON:  Yes, sir, I voted. 

MATTHEWS: Are you happy with the results? 

GORDON: Certainly, I am. 

MATTHEWS: OK, so, you voted for Frist. 

GORDON: I‘m not saying that. 

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you Saul (ph). Who did you vote for?

ED SAUNDERS: I‘m not going to say. I‘m state chairman and we try to stay neutral with respect to what‘s going on in our states as well. 

MATTHEWS: Who would win in Michigan? McCain won it last time in 2000.  Could he take on and defeat Romney, the son of the former governor of Michigan?

SAUNDERS: I think those are the two leading candidates in Michigan right now.  But Bill Frist showing here I think will draw a lot of attention and he‘s come to Michigan several times as has Senator Allen and Brownback. So we‘re going to have an interesting race in Michigan. I think it‘s going to be wide open. 

MATTHEWS: Is John McCain seen as a northerner or a southerner?

SAUNDERS: From our perspective, a southerner. 

MATTHEWS: John McCain?

GORDON: Westerner, Midwest. 

MATTHEWS: What do you think were the issues here that decided the successful effort by Frist and to somewhat, lesser extent, the success by Governor Romney?

GORDON: I think you had serious campaigning going on here.  I think it‘s politics 101. I think the people that brought their people to the dance were able to get their numbers out.  I think they were very serious about what they wanted to do.  They had team work. They had people working the group.  They had hats, t-shirts. They had special events. They talked to different people, met with different people and asked for their support. 

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you.  Do you think that the straw vote here is going to have a lot of impact?

SAUNDERS: I think it‘s an indication of where some of the candidates are going.  I think it was very interesting for the activists to see how, some 2,000 activists from around the country (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS: (INAUDIBLE) reported on HARDBALL has caught up with Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader who won here tonight. Let‘s go to David. 

SEN. BILL FRIST, (R-TN) SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: It‘s been a great three days.  We‘re all focused on 2006.  The poll was fun, the straw poll was fun, but really it‘s the excitement of moving toward 2006. 

SHUSTER: Senator, where do you go from here? What‘s next? How do you build on this?

FRIST: Listen. We‘re going back to governing with meaningful solutions for the American people.  Right now, we‘re focused on the Senate. 

SHUSTER: What about your organization today.  You were able to get the people here satisfied with how they did?

FRIST: The whole Republican Party is enthusiastic. They‘re excited about the elections of 2006 and we‘re charging ahead towards those elections. 

SHUSTER: Is there more responsibility on you over the next couple of months as a result of this. Your profile is being lifted?

FRIST: No.  Our focus is on supporting the president‘s agenda, pro-growth, less taxes, limited government.  We got a budget to pass next week.  So we‘re going to be out there governing. 

SHUSTER: All right. Congratulations, senator. 

FRIST: Thank you very much.

MATTHEWS: That was David Shuster down in the ballroom, of course with the winner tonight, who won it rather handily with about 40 on percent of the vote. Bill Frist, the Senate Majority Leader. Tom Kerry (ph) was just on a moment ago. He made the point that now, this puts the onus on the back, the burden of the back of Senator Frist to begin delivering as Senate Majority Leader.  He‘s going to have to get some tough legislation past his body and on to the president. Immigration reform one of the hottest issues in the country. He‘s going to have to deal with that. 

The victory down here this weekend is going to put the spotlight certainly on Bill Frist.  It hasn‘t been on him for so long, but this puts him back in the race.  So we have three or four candidates right now vying for the Republican nomination. Coming out of here, Bill Frist the winner, Mitt Romney the number two guy and the number three guy, George Allen, all one, two, three down here in Memphis.  Lots happened here this weekend.  We‘ve got a place and we‘ve got a show and we‘ve got a winner.  Bill Frist. 

It‘s not over yet. You can keep up with all of the action here in Memphis on our website, hardball.msnbc.com. The conference delegates have all voted on the hotline‘s presidential straw vote, but you can still vote for your candidate on msnbc.com‘s virtual straw vote.  Go to hardball.msnbc.com and pull that lever. I want to thank all of these venerable people here at msnbc.com, the NBC political unit, especially with Elizabeth Willer and the HARDBALL election team and their hard work this weekend to bring you this story. Also, I‘d like to thank the Peabody Hotel and Doug Brown who runs it. We‘ve had a wonderful time here at a wonderful hotel.

On Monday, on noon Eastern, exclusive web only version of HARDBALL.  Watch us again. HARDBALL‘s back at 5:00 and 7:00 o‘clock on Monday. Good bye from Memphis.

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Transcript

Watch Hardball with Chris Matthews each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,