updated 3/14/2006 11:55:30 AM ET 2006-03-14T16:55:30

Guests: Chuck Todd, Tony Blankley, Al Sharpton, Terry McAuliffe, Rahm Emanuel

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Should the president be censured for spying on the American people?  Did George W. Bush break the law, authorizing an illegal program to invade our privacy?  That‘s the question brought before the United States Senate today.  Let the debate begin.  Lets play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  This weekend, HARDBALL hit the road to Tennessee for the first stretch in the 2008 presidential race.  Two thousand Republicans, the base of the base, gathered for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference to hear the top presidential contenders and to cast their first straw vote for who they think should be the next Republican candidate for president of the United States. 

HARDBALL had all the stake and all the sizzle of the early contest.  We‘ll see how all the candidates did in just a moment.  But first, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has taken the Senate floor late this afternoon to call for a censure of President Bush. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD, (D) WISCONSIN:  Not only did the president break the law, he also actively misled Congress and the American people about his actions and then, when the program was made public, about the legality of the NSA Program.  He has fundamentally violated the trust of the American people. 

The president‘s own words show just how seriously he has violated that trust.  We now know that the NSA wiretapping program began not long after September 11.  Before the existence of this program was revealed, the president went out of his way, he went out of his way, Mr. President, in several speeches to assure the public that the government was getting court orders to wiretap Americans in the United States.  Something he now admits was not the case. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re here with Tony Blankley of The Washington Times and Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of “The Hotline.”  Andrew Jackson, Tony, was the last guy censured by the United States Senate.  Is this for real, what Feingold is doing over the NSA spying issue? 

TONY BLANKLEY, THE WASHINGTON TIMES:  No, it‘s not for real.  It‘s at a minimum premature.  If this got litigated up to The Supreme Court, did the president violate the FISA law, if The Supreme Court said you must now stop your behavior and he didn‘t, at that point you might have an issue of contention.  But at this point, he simply is setting his interpretation of the law. 

At The Washington Times, I‘ve run articles by legal scholars that have a different view than he does regarding FISA.  So on this point, it looks like a political stunt to me. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the politics.  Feingold may go in this race on the left, Evan Bayh on the right.  Has this got the look of a political move? 

CHUCK TODD, “THE HOTLINE”:  You‘re and I‘s heads are completely in 2008 after this weekend, but it‘s hard not to see what Feingold is doing and not think look, this guy wants to desperately make sure he‘s the candidate of the left, that he‘s the guy who gets to run to Hillary‘s left, not let John Edwards try to do it. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did he pick this issue, the NSA? 

TODD:  Because it fits with who Feingold is.  It‘s a way to talk about the war on terror and to sort of be anti-Bush when it comes to the war, on an issue that is very Feingoldesque.  He‘s a rules guy.  He‘s always a by the book kind of guy.  He was the toughest Democrat on Clinton, so this fits his profile. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at how the Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who won the straw vote in Tennessee, here‘s how he handled the censure proposal by Russ Feingold.  Here he is on the floor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BILL FRIST, (R-TN) MAJORITY LEADER:  When we‘re talking about censure of the president of the United States at a time of war when this president is out defending the American people with a very good lawful constitutional program, it is serious business.  And if it is an issue that the other side of the aisle wants to debate, or debate through the night, I guess we‘re willing to do that, as well. 

Censure of the president is important and if they want to make an issue of it, we‘re willing to do just that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FRIST:  Calling his bluff, right, Tony? 

BLANKLEY:  Yes.  They ought to have a quick vote on it, see how many Democrats go with him. 

MATTHEWS:  I thought Harry Reid looked a little nervous about voting to censure this president. 

BLANKLEY:  Harry Reid tends to look a little nervous these days a fair amount.  Obviously, you‘re not going to get any Republicans, you‘re not going to get more than a dozen plus Democrats, so it would be a losing proposition. 

MATTHEWS:  By the way, Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, doesn‘t believe the Senate can censure a president for example.  Let‘s catch up with Republican politics, the first primary I like to say is in the candidate‘s own heart, he or she must decide to make the plunge, to risk all, give all, take all, that comes to a candidate for president. 

One solid product of the Republican Leadership Conference this past weekend is the list we now have in hand of those Republicans who have personally decided to enter the presidential contest for 2008.  We now know which Republicans are running, let‘s take a look at how they did. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over):  Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee had the most to lose, also the best shot at winning.  As they say in real estate, it‘s location, location, location.  Frist did what he had to do in Memphis—win. 

FRIST:  Obviously I‘m pleased with the results tonight, but like everything else, it‘s part of a much, bigger picture. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s harder to read the results for John McCain, for the simple reason he made it hard.  He busted the question by urging delegates to vote a write-in for President Bush in the Saturday straw vote conducted by “Hotline.”  This showed his loyalty to the president, also his refusal to allow a deep straw vote in another candidate‘s home state damage his won prospects. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, ® ARIZONA:  He‘s having trouble right now, we Republicans ALL know that.  That‘s when we need to stand behind him.  He needs us when his numbers are 65.  He needs us now and that‘s my own message. 

MATTHEWS:  Placing second in the straw vote behind Frist, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney showed that a Mormon can wow a crowd in The Bible Belt. 

GOV. MITT ROMNEY, ® MASSACHUSETTS:  Every child in America has the right to a mother and a father. 

MATTHEWS:  Virginia Senator George Allen, who‘s been its winner in “Hotline” polls of political insiders before, played to his strengths and the conservative Republican base, delivering a sunny speech to a Reagan loving crowd. 

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN, ® VIRGINIA:  Thank you all so very much.  Let‘s keep winning, keep smiling, and standing strong for freedom.  Thank you all. 

MATTHEWS:  And Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, the healthy preacher, rocked them with his calls for healthy living and religious values and along with McCain, stood with the president on the war. 

GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE, ® ARKANSAS:  Let the Democrats say what they want to on the war for terror.  I‘d still rather us be fighting the battle if Baghdad rather than Boston any day of the week. 

MATTHEWS:  The conference was just as telling for who wasn‘t there.  Rudy Giuliani, who places first in national polls wasn‘t there.  Condi Rice, the subject of endless speculation wasn‘t there. 

Will Iraq loom over the 2008 election?  Here‘s longtime Bush adviser Jack Oliver. 

JACK OLIVER, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  I think people want to be reminded of why we‘re in Iraq, what the long-term strategy is in Iraq.  Why it‘s important that we win in Iraq.  This is a party who is united behind the president. 

MATTHEWS:  Most candidates steered clear of Iraq altogether. 

KEN MEHLMAN, RNC CHAIRMAN:  The two most important things I think to a candidate running for office are their record and their temperament. 

MATTHEWS:  As the field takes shape, the big question for Republican voters is whether they rallied behind the most conservative candidate or one who is most likely to beat the perceived Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. 

A smart assessment might be that Republicans will pick the most electable conservative they can muster.  For the definition of that, here are the concerns I heard addressed in Memphis with the most frequency and passion.  Protection of traditional marriage, support for life, lower taxes, conservative Supreme Court justices, tough enforcement of immigration laws, end the big spending by Congress.  The candidate who cannot push those issues with passion and spontaneity need not apply. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Let‘s run down the results of this weekend‘s big straw vote down in Memphis.  Bill Frist‘s came in first with 36.9 percent, followed by Mitt Romney of Massachusetts with 14.4 percent.  George Allen tied for third with the write-in George Bush.  John McCain had 4.6 percent.  After Frist‘s wind, I caught up with Senator Frist for an exclusive interview at a local barbecue joint. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

Senator Frist, congratulations on winning tonight.  How did you do it? 

FRIST:  You know, what it shows, Chris, I think is really the active organization of our parties.  Each of the states had the party organization and it is the grassroots, it is where the energy is, and it is where the really heart and soul of my party is.  Obviously, I‘m pleased with the results tonight, but like everything else, it‘s part of a much, much bigger picture. 

What is important is the issues that we are governing with and that is lower taxes, more prosperous growth, staying on the issues itself and, as I said a few minutes ago, it‘s the 2006 election that we‘re all focused on. 

MATTHEWS:  You said also in your statement that the party has to have an agenda for 2008.  What would that be what would be the top item on the agenda? 

FRIST:  Securing America‘s prosperity, we have to be creating jobs out there.  Securing America‘s health, right now the health costs are just too high, sky rocketing costs.  And securing America‘s freedom.  We have to win this war on terror, we have focus on our borders, tighten those up. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you running for president? 

FRIST:  You know, again, eight months from now I‘m going to come back to this great state of Tennessee and make a decision. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you want to be president? 

FRIST:  I‘m going to come back and make a decision. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you. 

FRIST:  I of love being in the United States Senate... 

MATTHEWS:  Dr. Frist, Mrs. Frist, thank you very much.  We‘re sorry to interrupt your dinner here.  A healthy dinner. 

FRIST:  We‘re going to get some ribs right here. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘ll be back later. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that was Karen Frist sitting there at that barbecue place, the Rendezvous Barbecue Place.  I have to tell you, we were like paparazzi this weekend.  We tracked down John McCain in a kitchen somewhere in a hallway.  We tracked down this fellow at a barbecue joint.

The question is what comes out of it all.  My feeling is issues came out of it, not winners and losers.  And all I heard was, Chuck, this weekend were marriage, the sanctity of marriage, male and female, no gay marriage, abortion, no abortion, immigration, lock it up, stop the illegals coming into this country and keep cutting taxes and keep appointing conservative justices.  I‘m not sure John McCain meets that bill in terms of passion. 

TODD:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  Those are not the issues he talks about.

TODD:  And that‘s why the most important thing for McCain are coming up in the future, and that is, do the Republicans win or lose the 2006 elections?  They have a poor night in November 2006, that‘s a good night for John McCain for president of 2008.

MATTHEWS:  Why?

TODD:  Because then Republicans are going to worry about electability suddenly that‘s going to jump. 

MATTHEWS:  So they are going to go for somebody who is not actually one of them?

TODD:  If that‘s the case.  That‘s how George W. Bush was able to break away from the pack in 98.

MATTHEWS:  What is the rejection in the Republican Party about John McCain?  Why doesn‘t it quite seem to be them comfortable with him, him comfortable with them?

BLANKLEY:  Well, certainly with the regulars—and that‘s who were down there—he‘s a gadfly.  Regulars never like gadflies.  He doesn‘t do the party line.  He has undercut the party on a number of key issues, McCain-Feingold...

MATTHEWS:  Torture.

BLANKLEY:  ...and others.  So that you wouldn‘t expect party regulars to be a fan of a gadfly.  You know, that‘s I think is fundamental.  And just to say about what came out of this.  I think two things, from my point of view. 

One, I thought McCain made a mistake in doing the vote for Bush, for this reason.  His strength is straight talk, the image of a straight talker.  Inevitably, when he made that play, people had doubts, whether he was—and you mentioned it on your show prominently, was he motivated by trying to cover the fact he was weak? 

It didn‘t matter whether he won or lost.  No one expected him to get many votes in that particular event, but I think he let a little ding—sort of a big deal—a little ding of his image from being a straight shooter by taking that ploy. 

MATTHEWS:  Too clever by half.

BLANKLEY:  Yes.

On the other hand, I think, there‘s no question that Romney popped out of the box.  I mean, as a result, ilks such as me—I mean, I asked one of my writers, are we going to do a review of where does Romney stand on all the issues?  Are we running that in editorial this week?  And editors all over the country are going to be saying, let‘s do a little focus on Romney. 

MATTHEWS:  Back to where he was in Massachusetts when he ran for governor compared to where he stands now.

BLANKLEY:  Well, sure, but my points is, that by his second place—unexpected second place win for a moment in the south, suddenly he‘s the one that I think people give a little scrutiny too, so he gets a little leg up. 

MATTHEWS:  The funny thing down there, Chuck and Tony, was that after he gave his speech, saying I think every child has a right to a female and a male parent, which is a nice way of saying, I don‘t have anything against gays, I just like straight—or marriage, I guess is the right phrase.  And then Brownback came up the next day and said I believe that marriage is between one male and one female. 

BLANKLEY:  No polygamy.   

MATTHEWS:  Was that his shot at Mormons?  I didn‘t know there was an issue of numbers here in the question of sexual identity. 

TODD:  And this whole Mormon thing, I mean, last night you watched “The Sopranos,” the new show that came on right after “The Sopranos,” this new show on HBO called “Big Love,” which is all about this polygamist family and sort of the conflicts that the current Mormon church has had with these run away sex.

Anyway, when a shows on HBO becomes hits in the pop culture then suddenly Mitt Romney has to deal with that, and it just brings in the whole religion.  Any time he‘s talking about that, I don‘t think he‘s going having a good day on the presidential campaign trail. 

BLANKLEY:  Let me talk about the issues for a second.  You are talking about the issues that weren‘t there. 

MATTHEWS:  Iraq wasn‘t mentioned very often.

BLANKLEY:  Yes, right.  And while I understand why at this early stage, the politicians are going to be talking about these base issues.  Unless the world gets a lot better than we think it is going to be, the candidate for Republicans and for Democrats had darn well better be able to talk powerfully to the question of the chaos and violence in the world, regarding Iraq, Iran and all the rest. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think the Republican Party was so mute this long weekend about foreign policy? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, I mean, obviously if you‘re running in the southern pre-primary like this, you are going to hit the button issues.  But at some point when you get to the short list of candidates, the person who cannot just talk about those issues.  They have got to address...

MATTHEWS:  Commander in chief.

BLANKLEY:  ...the great world crisis. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  It was amazing—it was almost like an all-time Democratic get together where they never talked about foreign policy.  We‘ll be right back with Chuck Todd and Tony Blankley. 

And my exclusive interview with Senator John McCain, that‘s coming up. 

And later on in the show we‘ll get the Democratic response to that first GOP straw poll.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

This past weekend, Republican candidates, as I said, running for president showed their stuff at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference down in Memphis.  I stop—as you remember that little clip, I stopped Senator McCain in the kitchen of the Peabody Hotel for a late-night exclusive. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)       

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

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

MATTHEWS:  And you made the case that this was potentially hurting our relationships with moderate governments. 

MCCAIN:  Sure.  I mean, this is a friend of ours.  These people—we‘re flying missions into Iraq and Afghanistan out of the UAE. There are 700 ship visits.  I mean, these people—and they‘re doing other things, too. 

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

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

MATTHEWS:  You endorsed him here in an election he‘s not even running in, which is this southern leadership issue.  I mean, you endorsed him for a write-in tomorrow at your own expense. 

MCCAIN:  Let me be serious a minute about him.  He‘s having trouble right now.  We, Republicans, all know that.  That‘s when you need to stand by him.  He doesn‘t need us when his numbers are at 65.  He needs us now, and that‘s my only message. 

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

MCCAIN:  I hope so.  I hope so. 

MATTHEWS:  That will sure dash Frist‘s dreams, won‘t it? 

MCCAIN:  Look.  I said—I told people about Bill Frist here tonight. 

He‘s a fine man.  He‘s a fine leader. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, thank you. 

MCCAIN:  Thanks. 

MATTHEWS:  Thanks for your time. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Chuck Todd of “The Hotline” and Tony Blankley of “The Washington Times.”

You know, that camera angle made it look like I was 5,000 pounds and he was about two.  That was a weird angle.  It was a handheld camera.

But what is he up to?  He‘s almost the peppermint twins now with the president.  He defends him on Dubai ports.  Nobody defends him.  He defended him this weekend to the point of saying vote for him not me.  What is all this sacrificial I love Bush about? 

TODD:  Well, you know, it is interesting, and it was something that Howard Fineman put in his “Newsweek” that was on MSNBC.com.  And it was from a McCain strategist talking about how hard it is to try to figure out how McCain is trying to be both a front-runner and an insurgence still, right? 

Still sort of keep his maverick image while still trying to be—also create the aura of inevitability and be a front-runner.  He has never been a front-runner before.  He was always the insurgent.  So right now rallying around the president is the maverick thing to do.

MATTHEWS:  Well is he more impressive as the Lone Ranger or as Kemosabe?

TODD:  Well he‘s always...

MATTHEWS:  ... because he‘s playing Kemosabe now and it doesn‘t seem very convincing.

TODD:  No, he‘s being Lone Ranger, and I think that that‘s where he‘s most comfortable.  So right now, if this is—if he can be the guy that‘s etching out that place, nobody else is there, that‘s where he‘s...

MATTHEWS:  ... Do you buy this act that he likes Bush now?

BLANKLEY:  It‘s not a question of like, but at the risk of being

naive, seen as naive, I think that McCain genuinely cares about these

issues of Iraq and Dubai, which relates to Muslim attitudes around the

world.  And that he is utterly sincere in supporting the president on that

because he thinks the issues are too important.  I mean, I‘m not a great

McCain fan historically,

MATTHEWS:  But give me the McCain picture then.  What‘s the baseball card of John McCain?  He supports the war more than the president.  He‘s a total neo-conservative in terms of policy.  Why does he care about the Dubai ports?  Why does he take the president‘s position on that one?

BLANKLEY:  Well I think he‘s convinced of the danger of the rise of radical Islam and the terrorism and therefore he has supported the war.  He saw the downside of the Dubai port deal, which is it might alienate friendly non-radical Muslims.  That was a downside.

There‘s a balancing side to it, but he saw the downside of it.  I think he‘s just utterly sincere on that point and I don‘t need he got beyond that analysis.

If you want to get beyond it, then I also happen to think that it‘s wise for a person running for president to think nationally and not think partisanly or divisionally.  And so he looks like a man ready to be president, because he‘s acting presidential, even as senator.

MATTHEWS:  All right, you‘re the pundits, I want to ask you this.  After this weekend, the first real straw vote, you guys ran it, the “Hotline.”  Who is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president right now?

TODD:  John McCain.

MATTHEWS:  And he‘s definitely running?

TODD:  I think he‘s definitely running.

MATTHEWS:  Tony, who‘s the front-runner?

BLANKLEY:  I mean, he‘s ahead in the polls, then but so is Rudy Giuliani.  I don‘t think there‘s a front-runner.

TODD:  But he‘s ahead in polls, fund raising.

BLANKLEY:  I understand.  I don‘t think there‘s a front-runner.

MATTHEWS:  Who do you see down the road as McCain‘s—the alternative to McCain, the ultimate alternative?

BLANKLEY:  There will be one alternative, whether it‘s Romney or Allen.  It‘s too soon to tell.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think you know enough about the South than the rest of the country, whether the Mormon thing‘s going to hurt big or not.

BLANKLEY:  Well traditional it‘s believed that some conservative Christians don‘t think that Mormons are Christians.  And so, is that going to bite?  I don‘t know, this 14 percent vote down here looked pretty impressive to rebut that proposition.

TODD:  Bigger problem is he was for abortion before he was against it and he‘s from Massachusetts.  Abortion and being from Massachusetts is going to be a bigger problem just for Romney.

BLANKLEY:  It has been for awhile.

MATTHEWS:  You know what I came away from, fellows, I don‘t disagree with either of you.  But I came away from the experience with really the base of the base of the Republican Party.  Abortion is a major issue.  It‘s a no deal, if you‘re for legalizing abortion.  It‘s a no deal.  You have to be pro life to be the Republican, in the same way in the Democratic Party, you have to be pro choice. 

On the issue of gay marriage, dead with these people, the base.  I don‘t think civil unions was even mentioned, no compromise.  On immigration, they‘re tough and they‘re angry with the president about immigration.  They don‘t feel he‘s with him on this one, right?

TODD:  I think that‘s right, but I‘ve always thought that that‘s an issue that‘s down the list.

MATTHEWS:  Southwest.  What about taxes?  That‘s the unifier.

BLANKLEY:  You‘ve got to be for lower taxes.  Now Huckabee is not, although he was a tax cutter, but as governor, he started proposing some tax increases.  So, but traditionally, that‘s been the one issue that candidates are told, pick a way where you want to attack the president, but be for tax cuts.

MATTHEWS:  Tony and Chuck, the best reason to go down this weekend was to learn what the people on the inside say when they‘re with each other, not for the national press, but when they‘re talking to each other, the issues that really matter.  And the same thing when you go to a New York liberal Democratic hangout, you hear what they care about and it‘s the opposite of this. 

Anyways—our elections are for real things, real different looks in America.  Thank you, Chuck Todd of “Hotline” and Tony Blankley of the “Washington Times.”

Up next, much more on Senator Russ Feingold‘s introduction of a formal censure resolution against President Bush for his domestic wiretapping program.  And later, the Democrats respond to the big Republican weekend in Memphis.  We‘ll hear their side.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  In the midst of a horrific stretch of news for the Bush White House, a Democrat is now pounding away at an issue that started the slide last December, the president‘s domestic spying program and the attempt to force a censure vote in the U.S. Senate comes as the administration on several fronts is already under siege.  HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  After months of attacking President Bush over the domestic spy program, today Democratic Senator Russ Feingold put his money where his mouth is, asking Congress to censure the president.

FEINGOLD:  This president has done wrong.  This body can do right by condemning his conduct and showing the people of this nation that his actions will not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

SHUSTER:  Feingold is a possible 2008 presidential candidate.  And his move, which requires a Senate majority and would amount to a rebuke of the president, could force Republicans and Democrats running for the White House to either condemn or condone President Bush.

Criticism over the wiretap program began late last year, when “The New York Times” first revealed the Bush administration had bypassed the courts, and conducted wiretaps on Americans without a warrants.

The president repeatedly defended his actions in the name of supreme security.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I believe I‘ve been hired by the people to do my job and that‘s to protect the people.

SHUSTER:  And White House officials today dared Democrats to attempt a censure.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  The enemy is the terrorists and al Qaeda members, not the president.  And we ought to be focusing our efforts on going after the enemy and doing everything we can to prevent attacks from happening.  And that‘s what this president has done and will continue to do.

SHUSTER:  The Senate has approved a censure resolution only once, in 1834 when President Andrew Jackson refused to turn over a document to lawmakers. 

On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist described Feingold‘s effort as...

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TENN), MAJORITY LEADER:  A crazy political move.

SHUSTER:  ...and Frist doubted that Republicans who run the Senate would allow a vote.  Still with the president‘s falling approval numbers and many in Congress looking ahead to the midterm election and then 2008, the censure debate is just the latest episode in this raw political environment. 

Another issue is Iraq.  Three months ago, President Bush tried to turn around his plummeting poll numbers over the war by introducing a new plan for success.  Since then, the president‘s approval ratings have dropped 12 points and now in the wake of new sectarian violence, the president is trying again.

BUSH:  The situation in Iraq is still tense and we‘re still seeing acts of sectarian violence in reprisal.  Yet out of this crisis, we‘ve also seen signs of a hopeful future.

SHUSTER:  The president pointed to Iraqi political leaders who denounced the attacks and the growing Iraqi security forces that in some instances helped restore civil order. 

But in Memphis this weekend, the GOP‘s top 2008 presidential contenders treated Iraq like it was a four-letter world.  And when Arizona Senator John McCain tried to show solidarity with President Bush through the event‘s straw poll...

MCCAIN:  Just write in President Bush‘s name. 

SHUSTER:  ...the president finished tied for third. 

And now on top of everything else, the White House is facing an embarrassing personnel issue.  Claude Allen was the president‘s top domestic policy adviser.  On Friday, police arrested Allen on charges of theft. 

In January, Allen allegedly stole electronic items from a department store while working at the White House.  Chief of Staff Andy Card and counsel Harriet Miers were told about one incident but allowed Allen to stay on. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  I think he was given the benefit of the doubt.  He assured them that he had done nothing wrong and that he was working to get the matter cleared up. 

SHUSTER (on-camera):  The Allen episode came out of left field, as opposed to Senator Feingold‘s censure resolution of the president that many Republicans had been expecting. 

If there is a silver lining, said one Bush supporter, it‘s that Feingold now gives White House officials a target they can attack. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL at the White House. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)       

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster. 

Up next, what do Democrats think about the first Republican straw poll?  We‘ll ask the Reverend Al Sharpton and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The Republican faithful gathered in Memphis, Tennessee, this weekend to vet the potential candidates for president of the United States at the Southern Republican Leadership Council. 

HARDBALL covered the must-see event all weekend long from the speeches to the photo-ops to the hot lines, presidential straw poll of people attending the meeting. 

Bill Frist won the straw vote, and Mitt Romney placed a surprising second, thanks to a show-up of supporters, both bust-in people I think.  John McCain, the front-runner in many polls, downgraded the early test of support, asking all to vote for President Bush as a write-in. 

The president ended up tied for third with George Allen of Virginia. 

So what do Democrats make of all of this?

Democrats.  Here with me is a big Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, who ran for president. 

Terry, this issue, you know, all the issues—what struck me was the power of the cultural issue in this country, the divide between Republicans and Democrats.  It‘s hard to imagine coming out Memphis that the Republicans would ever run somebody like Rudy Giuliani, who is pro-choice or accepts gay marriage or accepts civil unions.  It‘s unimaginable based upon being down there. 

TERRY MCAULIFFE, FMR. DNC CHAIRMAN:  Yes, I agree.  I have always said, you know—people talk about Rudy Giuliani.  He could never make it through a Republican primary.  I don‘t think John McCain could ever make it through a Republican primary.  You saw it this weekend down in Memphis.  What I was shocked at is how few W signs people had or you didn‘t see any W signs at all. 

MATTHEWS:  I saw one.  I saw a guy with a baseball hat.  There were a lot of cheers when his name was brought up, but I did notice that Iraq was almost never mentioned. 

MCAULIFFE:  Yes, a year ago everybody would have had a W on.  This is why two-thirds of Americans have given up on Bush.  They‘ve given up on the war in Iraq, and they want to change.  And doing Bill Frist, who is involved in an insider trading scandal up here in Washington.  You‘re talking about change?

MATTHEWS:  What‘s that insider trading scandal? 

MCAULIFFE:  Oh, his stock sales.  Saying that he didn‘t know anything was going on with his stock when it was blind to everybody but him.  It was blind to the American public. 

MATTHEWS:  The Reverend Al Sharpton joins us. 

Thank you Reverend Sharpton.  Did you watch any of this on TV?  Did you sense the feelings down there of the strong conservative cultural feelings on issues like gay marriage, abortion, immigration?  Those kinds of issues seemed to be the ones that rocked that room. 

REV. AL SHARPTON, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK:  I think so.  I frankly thought that Terry had put the thing together, because I thought they played into the Democrats‘ hands beautifully.  Because I think they began to really go so far right that they‘re going to lose the middle of even those that were sympathetic to them in the past. 

I think that the clear challenge is going to be how we on the Democratic side interpret those moral issues and deal with other moral issues, like unnecessary war, like health care, like education.  So I think it‘s going to be a battle to define what are the real moral issues in the country, as it relates to president. 

President has very little to do with marriage.  And I think this time, we‘re not going to let them take a premise that should not be in the middle of a presidential campaign. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you, if the Republicans choose to fight on this turf, the cultural stuff—they‘re opposed to gay marriage or civil unions or anything like it.  They‘re against abortion, except if the life of the mother is involved.  They‘re for lower taxes, but immigration is another hot one. 

How does a Democratic candidate for president respond to those issues

when they‘re raised by the Republicans?  You can‘t say you‘re for illegal

immigration.  You can‘t say you‘re for gay marriage, can you?  Can you say

I guess you can say you‘re pro-choice, but isn‘t this a hard front to fight on for a Democrat? 

MCAULIFFE:  Absolutely not.  First of all, in 2008, the framework we‘re going to be dealing with is a failed presidency, George Bush‘s presidency, from misleading us or whatever you want to call it to the war in Iraq, not sending in enough troops, more terrorists in Iraq than we had before making us less safe. 

You have got to remember, Chris, that the 02 and 04 elections were all fought in the framework 9/11, in a post 9/11 world.  And we can talk about all these cultural issues.  First and foremost, they want to make sure your commander in chief is going to keep them safe. 

And today now the Democrats for the first time since 9/11 lead on the issue of who will keep you safe.  Why?  Because George Bush has made so many mistakes, and our soldiers are paying the price today all over the world.  You‘ve seen in America, our high esteem has now gone down because of George Bush.  Our soldiers are paying the price. 

So first, national security we win that.  Then, as Reverend Sharpton says, we get to all of these other issues.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Now I have got you pinned here.  Reverend Sharpton, if they run somebody who doesn‘t run on these cultural issues, someone like John McCain, who runs the tough security guy, a hawk in many ways—a hawk I should say, clear and simple.  And he doesn‘t talk about abortion rights and gay marriage and immigration issues.

In fact, he is a moderate, if not supportive of immigration issues. 

What happens then?  Doesn‘t he take the middle away from your party?  

SHARPTON:  No he doesn‘t.  When he goes to Memphis and stands behind George Bush and identifies with a man who has clearly made this nation feel vulnerable, who clearly failed in Iraq, clearly failed in the aftermath of Katrina.

I mean, John McCain went to Memphis and order the presidential suite in The Titanic.  This is absolutely ridiculous of a man thinking he can get a hold of George Bush and go anywhere if a general election when he‘s at the lowest poll numbers that we‘ve seen him at. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘d like to see in a minute if we have the George Allen comment on illegal immigration, if we could show that now. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALLEN:  Protecting our homeland also means securing our borders.  And securing our borders is the first principle of immigration reform.  And the second principle is, you do not reward illegal behavior with amnesty. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That got the crowd hot, Terry.  How does your party respond to that call to arms? 

MCAULIFFE:  First of all, you want to talk about swing voters, these are not swing voters that you had down in Memphis.  These are the tried, true, committed, ultraconservatives that you had down there.  Theses are not the swing voters that you talked about before. 

You want to talk about protecting our borders, you bet, Chris.  Bring it on, I‘ll take that fight any day of the week.  First of all George Bush has not done anything to keep our borders safe.  Only 5 percent of the cargo coming into the United States of America today—

MATTHEWS:  We‘re talking immigration. 

MCAULIFFE:  Do you want to talk about that point.  I‘ll say great, George Allen, of course we want to keep our borders straight, but why don‘t you start working with George Bush and making sure we don‘t have some suitcase bomb coming into the United States of America, instead of dealing with all those other issues. 

Secondly, we believe people coming to this country, man, woman, coming over here to better their lives, they‘ve worked hard, they‘ve paid their taxes, we ought to do something.  We are a land of immigrants.  We came from Ireland, people came from all over the world we shouldn‘t forget them. 

MATTHEWS:  George Allen was not talking about legal immigration, he wasn‘t talking about illegal immigration.  He wasn‘t talking about bombs, he was talking about people who come to this country illegally and he‘s very tough on it, he got a big response.  Isn‘t this an issue that the Republicans can win on, opposition to illegal immigration? 

SHARPTON:  No because I think when you listen to what you just played he frames it around security and it‘s going to be hard for a party that was getting ready to give ports to foreign interests that they demonized, not the Democrats, turn around and tell us about we‘re insecure, to allow people come into this country that are only looking for a better life. 

How do you say secure the borders against people trying to find jobs but let‘s give the ports to people that may have connections to interests that were involved with terrorism. 

MATTHEWS:  So you, Reverend Sharpton, have no problem with illegal immigration? 

SHARPTON:  I have a problem with the way the Republicans talk out of both sides of their mouth.  I think that—

MATTHEWS:  Just answer my question.  You have no problem with illegal immigration? 

SHARPTON:  I have problems with a dichotomy in how we apply the immigration law. 

MATTHEWS:  This the Democratic party‘s problem right here. 

MCAULIFFE:  We‘ve got a lot of problems, Chris, that we need to deal with first and foremost as it relates to securing our borders and our ports. 

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t want to talk about illegal immigration, do you? 

MCAULIFFE:  We will, but I‘ll let our candidates who are going to go out there and run for erection.  You‘re excited that George Allen got this response.  You come to a DNC meting with Reverend Sharpton and myself and we‘ll talk about the Dubai ports deal and they‘ll be yelling and screaming too.  Big deal.  It‘s not going to help you win an election. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back with Reverend Al Sharpton and Terry McAuliffe.  You can keep up with all the action like here in the race for the White House.  Check out biographies of the contenders and cast your ballot in our virtual Republican straw poll.  Just go to our Web site, hardball.MSNBC.com.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, can any Democrat lead the party to victory in the 2008 presidential race.  More with Al Sharpton and Terry McAuliffe when HARDBALL returns. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with the Reverend Al Sharpton and former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe.  Terry, would you share with me your private belief as to which of the Republican candidates would be the most difficult for your party to beat? 

MCAULIFFE:  I would say probably John McCain.  I think in a post 9/11 world, I think John McCain, who appeals to some moderates, this weekend I have to tell you I thought that ploy of his didn‘t work, I thought it was too sneaky, too tricky, too cute. 

MATTHEWS:  I will venture that opinion because I heard it all the time down there.  Let me go to Reverend Al Sharpton.  Do you think the Republicans have a candidate who could be difficult to beat for your party? 

SHARPTON:  I mean, I think that a McCain-Rice kind of ticket would be problematic.  I don‘t think it‘s unbeatable, but I think it would probably be the best scenario they could come up with to give us a problem. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think an African-American woman could win a national office? 

SHARPTON:  I really don‘t know.  I think that a lot would be determined by how determined they were, the platform they ran on and what kind of base they would go after.  I don‘t know. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s interesting.  Let me ask you about the issues that you think, do you think that the campaign we‘re getting into is going to be about commander-in-chief and security? 

MCAULIFFE:  National security first and foremost.  We take the lead on that again, then all the other issues where voters support us, Chris, on the economy, health care, education.

MATTHEWS:  There‘s a lot of Republicans in trouble here.  If it‘s about who can be the best commander-in-chief, on the Republican side, you‘ve got Mitt Romney with no foreign policy.  He doesn‘t even talk about it really.  You‘ve got Frist who‘s not known as a foreign policy guy.

MCAULIFFE:  Right, right.

MATTHEWS:  So on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has got to prove that she has the medal, Reverend Sharpton, to be a commander-in-chief, a woman Democrat, to some extent liberal politician, has to prove that she can defend this country.  Is that doable?

SHARPTON:  I think that any number of the Democratic candidates can prove that, not only Hillary Clinton.  I think first of all she could prove it.  And if you‘re saying the fact that she‘s a woman, Margaret Thatcher was a woman who was considered a hawk by most of the world.  I mean, I don‘t think that her agenda would be the problem.  I think her agenda shows that on my cases, she has been tougher than some of the Republicans on some of the hard issues that has gotten her in problems with even people like me in her party.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, are you going to run, Reverend?

SHARPTON:  I haven‘t decided, I haven‘t talked to Terry McAuliffe.

MATTHEWS:  Are you thinking of running, did you like running?

SHARPTON:  I think that the ‘06 midterm election will determine a lot of people, whether they‘re going to run.  I think that if we can make tremendous gains, that it changes the scenario.  If we don‘t, with all going for us now, I think it also makes a lot of people stop and pause. 

So I think it‘s too early to tell who all is running.  Right now I think that we need to deal with the problems that we‘re facing under this current president.

MATTHEWS:  Terry, do you think he ought to run, Reverend Sharpton?

MCAULIFFE:  I think anybody who wants to get out there, and I worked very closely with Reverend Sharpton in ‘04, we had 10 candidates running.  When he was up on that debate, I got to tell you, I thought he was one of the best folks we had in our debates up there, out there getting the message out there.  Anyone who can lay out their agenda, put their positive message out there, ought to get out there and run.

MATTHEWS:  Well the big plus for you Reverend is, when you come up to speak, everybody listens.  I guess that‘s a start, because nobody ignored you. 

SHARPTON:  Well I think the other thing is that—see I think on getting back to what you were saying, on domestic policy, we‘re in post-Katrina and I think when you look at the fact there was a meeting today at the Justice Department, Reverend Jesse Jackson.

When you look at voter rights violations, when you look at a lot of Americans of all communities, are looking at the domestic policies of this president failed in a disaster like Katrina, you‘re going to have a different mentality among voters in 2008 and I think 2006 will show us and that will usher in who the candidates will or will not be in ‘08.

MATTHEWS:  Interesting, thank you very much Reverend Al Sharpton and thank you Terry McAuliffe.  Up next, what about the 2006 races?  Can‘t skip past the next game.  Can the Democrats win back one or both of the Houses?  Congressman Rahm Emanuel is out there trying to get the Democrats elected to run the House.  He‘s going to be here, he‘s chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  This weekend the Republicans had their first look at potential 2008 candidates at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis.  What do the Democrats have in store and what are they planning for the crucial midterm elections this November?  Congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois is the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  Rahm, thank you for joining us.  What did you make of the weekend?

REP. RAHM EMANUEL (D), ILLINOIS:  You mean, the Republican trip?

MATTHEWS:  Right.

EMANUEL:  I love the fact that after running up $3 trillion of additional debt over the last four years, all of a sudden, they said we‘ve got to get our fiscal house in order. 

I mean, if you could sue for false advertising in this business, they‘d be sued for it.  All of the sudden, you know, they‘re all interested in fiscal discipline.  And yet under Republican stewardship of the economy, we‘ve added $3 trillion to the nation‘s debt in less than five years.

Incomes have actually gone down for the median incomes for the average family and yet healthcare costs, education costs and energy costs are all up.  And now all of the sudden they‘ve woken up to the fact that—they‘ve realized they‘ve run the economy into the ditch.

MATTHEWS:  Well here‘s Bill Frist on what he sees happening in the economy. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRIST:  So as the Democrats called out to raise your taxes, Republicans responded with tax cut after tax cut after tax cut.  We cut tax cuts on income and marriage, we doubled the child tax credit and we slashed taxes on capital gains and dividends in half.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What was wrong with that statement, Rahm?

EMANUEL:  Well because he left out the fact that 19 million American families are about to have the AMT tax increase that‘s been left by the Republicans. 

And the fact, and he left out most importantly, that our fiscal house is in a mess because of their stewardship and the cost for basic fundamental improvement of American lives in investments and education, healthcare and energy independence and technology independence, have all been wayside by the Republicans. 

And we Americans, if this is the best of times and what they‘ve said to you is, the economy is growing, and yet for Americans, in their pocket books, in fact, the economy is stagnant and costs are rising.  And I think they‘ve met...

MATTHEWS:  ... Why do people—excuse me.  Why do people trust Republicans more than Democrats on tax cutting?

EMANUEL:  First of all, if you look at even your own data and your own polling, they don‘t.  Democrats are gaining and not only holding their lead on traditional Democratic issues of education and healthcare and other types of investments. 

We now hold an advantage over Republicans on fiscal discipline, taxes, and stewardship of economy.  And because of what they‘ve done, they‘ve seen six years of Republican stewardship and they want a change.  They want new priorities and a new direction that again, invest in American people while putting our fiscal house in order.  We can do that, it‘s just they‘ve now seen six years of Republican stewardship and they want to change directions. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, this weekend it came clear to me, Rahm, that—

Congressman, that the Republican Party will never nominate a pro-choice candidate for president.  Is the Democratic Party a mere reflection of that?  They‘ll never nominate for president a pro-life candidate?

EMANUEL:  Well, I think the short answer is I just don‘t see a process where our party would do that.  But I do think like President Clinton, who I work for, they‘ll nominate somebody who believes that it should be safe, legal, and rare.  And that is, I think is exactly where mainstream values are for this country.  And I think that‘s where we are on the issue of choice, which is to be safe, legal and rare.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, thank you very much, Rahm—Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL. 

And don‘t forget to vote on our virtual straw poll.  Right now, John McCain‘s in front with 36 percent—that‘s you voting now—followed by Rudy Giuliani in second at 15 and Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who‘s tough on illegal immigration in third, ahead of Condoleezza Rice.  Cast your vote, your ballot, on HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

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

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