updated 3/30/2006 10:33:59 AM ET 2006-03-30T15:33:59

Guests: George Allen, Chris Cillizza, Michael Isikoff, Tony Perkins, Al Sharpton, Trent Lott, Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, Steve Jarding

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL":  Is Bush out of touch with conservative Republicans?  First it was the hopeless Harriet Miers nomination, then the Dubai ports deal, now it's illegal immigration.  It's the sixth year of the Bush administration.  Do conservatives know where their president is?  Let's play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I'm Chris Matthews and welcome to HARDBALL.  Tonight with his top aide out and illegal immigrants in, President Bush headed south today for a spring break meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox. 

But the president's problems in Washington are not going away.  The battle over illegal immigration threatens to split him from his party.  The war in Iraq rages on, of course, and his polls numbers are no day at the beach. 

We'll talk about all of that, all the president's problems with the man who wants to succeed him, Senator George Allen, in a moment.  And later Christian Conservatives are claiming they're victims—they are victims in a war against their religion.  Can their battle hymn get the party faithful from the pews to the polls?  Or are they preaching to the choir? 

But first, is the president now paying attention to the paper, the polls and the pundits?  HARDBALL's David Shuster has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  George W. Bush has put a new act together and he's taking it on the road.  Floundering with low approval ratings, the president is now listening to respective Republican strategists outside the White he has long ignored.  And unlike speeches about the Iraq war a month ago, today the president did not call his critics defeatists, instead...

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  ... In the wake of recent violence in Iraq, many Americans are asking legitimate questions.

SHUSTER:  The president pointed to the sectarian militias in Iraq, who have infiltrated the Iraq army and he acknowledged it's a major problem, even as he repeated his conviction that Iraq is capable of democracy.

BUSH:  Now people may not agree with the decisions, I understand that, but I hope after this talk, those of you who didn't agree, at least know I'm making my decisions based on something I believe deep in my soul.

SHUSTER:  On domestic politics, GOP strategists last year warned President Bush his Social Security reform plan was too ambitious.  They were right and the overhaul failed. 

This year the president is pursuing smaller proposals.  Many GOP strategists have been urging the president to bite the bullet and improve his relationship with the media, a group the president has long dismissed. 

This week, President Bush conducted a series of private, off-the-record chats with White House reporters.  And it was just last week when the president dismissed suggestions he should shake up his senior staff.

BUSH:  I'm satisfied with the people I've surrounded myself with.  We've been a remarkably stable administration, and I think that's good for the country.

SHUSTER:  But yesterday under continued pressure from Republican strategists and GOP members of Congress, the president showed his chief-of-staff the door.

BUSH:  After five and a half years, he thought it might be time to return to private life.  And this past weekend, I accepted Andy's resignation.

SHUSTER:  Republicans on Capitol Hill say the efforts are a good start but note they might be too little too late to lift the president's anemic approval ratings, that are weighing heavily on Republicans in Congress.

BILL INTUFF, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER:  That's the first time the majority of people in this country have ever said they want a Democrat House since 1995. 

SHUSTER:  And with many Republicans seeking ways to distance themselves from the president for the midterm elections, a few Republicans are trying to chart their own course for the 2008 Republican presidential primaries.

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN ®, VIRGINIA:  I will and I respectfully urge you all to always stand strong for freedom.  Because with you, freedom and justice will prevail.

SHUSTER:  This week, Virginia Senator George Allen has been calling the president's immigration reform plan too weak on border security.  Arizona Senator John McCain supports the president's plan to give immigrants a path towards citizenship.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  McCain and Allen both represent the shifting political terrain in Washington and the question as to whether it's wise to be close or far away these days from President Bush.

All of this comes as the president himself now seems to understand that his low approval numbers carry an impact, and that his long indifference to Washington's political and media culture, may now have to be pushed aside.  I'm David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David.  Senator George Allen of Virginia is a Republican and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.  Senator Allen, thank you.  You're running for re-election, right?

ALLEN:  Yes, Sir.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I think you're going to end up being, later on, the biggest challenger to John McCain for the Republican nomination for president in 2008.  I think it's going to come down to you two guys and you'll be the voice of the regular conservative Republican party and McCain will be the maverick, trying to pretend he's Bush's best friend.  Do you think that might turn out to be that way?

ALLEN:  Who knows?  Who knows, Chris?  I don't follow it that closely.  John is a good friend, I call him a commodore.  I'm friends with him.  We don't agree on every issue, but I admire him a great deal.

MATTHEWS:  You call yourself a common sense Jeffersonian conservative. 

What is that?

ALLEN:  It means I trust free people and free enterprise.  I don't like limits, I don't like restrictions on people.  I think they ought to be only limited by their own hard work, ingenuity, imagination and their character. 

I many times will reference back to Mr. Jefferson's 1801 inaugural address where he defined the sum of good government as a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, but otherwise leave them free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement and that the government should not take from the mouths of labor, the bread they have earned.  And I think that is still the sum of good government today.

MATTHEWS:  Where would Jefferson be on gay marriage?  It sounds like he's a libertarian.

ALLEN:  He's a libertarian, but I think he understands the important foundational aspects of our society and that marriage should be between a man and a woman.  I think Mr. Jefferson would be stunned that they would have anything other than between a man and a woman.

MATTHEWS:  I'm sure he would.  Let me ask you about this immigration issue.  You gave a very strong statement when we were down covering immigration.  We were covering the Republican meeting in Memphis and it certainly sinks with the majority opinion in this country.  Overwhelmingly, people think we should tighten up the border and stop the illegal flow over the border.  That's your position, right?

ALLEN:  Yes, sir.  And I think it's been neglected.  We need more border security personnel, but even when they do catch those who are coming in illegally, the detention centers are so inadequate that they have to release them on their own recognizance.  So we need detention centers, you need an actual fence.  You can have a virtual fence with unmanned aerial vehicles as well as sensors to help stem the flow of people coming in here illegally.  We can find a consensus on that.  This should have been done years ago.

MATTHEWS:  What about people who build tunnels underneath, they dig these incredibly complicated long tunnels with lighting and air conditioning and all that stuff.  How do you stop those people?

ALLEN:  Well, you do need more personnel and I suppose to the extent that you can have some underground sensors, so to speak, you want to make sure that you're not allowing people to tunnel under.  Apparently, there's some way that that's not against the law.  That should be against the law.

MATTHEWS:  What, to tunnel under?

ALLEN:  Yes.  I guess some creative criminal defense attorney found out that there's some loophole, so to speak, in the law.  So that—look, there is nothing more important in this whole immigration reform issue than securing our borders. 

It is what is expected of our federal government.  It has been neglected, and I know there's a lot of other issues on employer sanctions and all the rest. 

But the fact that people would want to handle that sort issue should not stop or preclude us from acting on securing the borders, which needs to be done and the sooner the better.

MATTHEWS:  And you believe it would work, it would stop the flow of illegal people coming in?

ALLEN:  You'd probably still get some, but I guarantee you, it won't be the thousands that are coming across.

MATTHEWS:  What about the lure of jobs and how do you stop that from being a reality.  The fact that if you or I were desperate and we were making two bucks an hour, a buck an hour and our family was starving and you heard you could make $15 as a sheet rock worker—by the way, the word is plaster board, up in Philadelphia, I got that from somebody.  We have different terms for it everywhere.  Don't you think you'd try to get here?

ALLEN:  Of course.  I want America to always be that shining city on the hill.  There's a good reason why people want to come to this country, we have freedom, we have opportunity, we have a great entrepreneurial spirit.  That's the essence of America. 

However, people should come in here if they want to be a temporary worker, legally.  If they want to become a citizen, they ought to come if legally.  My mother came to this country after World War II, she came in legally. 

MATTHEWS:  Where did she come from.

ALLEN:  Tunisia, North Africa. 

MATTHEWS:  Really?  So you're part Arab.

ALLEN:  No, she's Italian, French and a little Spanish. 

MATTHEWS:  I thought you might have an interesting ethnicity.

ALLEN:  She speaks Arabic, as well as French and Italian.

MATTHEWS:  That's a fascinating background.  Let me ask you about the president, because you seem to be for a strong border patrol, a much tougher system of keeping people out of the country that don't belong in the country.

You're also talking about—I guess you go along with sanctions if they're part of the package.  Why is the president completely out of step with that point of view you just expressed?  He only wants to do is to let people come in easier, it seems to me.

ALLEN:  Well, the second principle, in addition to—the first principle is secure the border.  Second principle is we should not reward illegal behavior.  If you reward illegal behavior, you'll get more illegal behavior. 

MATTHEWS:  Why doesn't he know that?

ALLEN:  I don't know, you'll have to ask him.

MATTHEWS:  Is he pandering for Hispanic votes?  Is that what he's up to?

ALLEN:  No, I wouldn't say that.  People have different views on all of this.  But my view is that if you reward illegal behavior, you're going to get more of it.  And in fact, in the last several years, the evidence is more people are streaming across this border thinking there's going to be amnesty and you might as well get in before this law passes.

MATTHEWS:  And they're not stupid to think that?  That is what will probably happen. 

ALLEN:  They're not—look, the vast majority of people coming into this country, even if they are coming in here illegally, want to work.  They want a better life for their families, but we need to match up those employers and entrepreneurs in this country who can't find Americans to fill a job, match them up with those who have been checked out from another country. 

MATTHEWS:  Seventy-one percent of the American people, according to a recent poll, will vote for the candidate for Congress or Senate who believes in stricter enforcement of the border.  The president of the United States is supposed to be the top politician in your party and is supposed to know the politics of your party.  Why is he taking the opposite view, the softline view, when the public wants the hardline view? 

ALLEN:  I don't know. 

MATTHEWS:  Your public especially. 

ALLEN:  I don't know.  I have any point of view, my guiding principles that will determine my vote as this is presented in the next several weeks on the Senate floor, and I'm not going to be supporting anything that rewards illegal behavior. 

That may be the president's proposal or his views, but I'm just one that, if you look at the amnesty that was presented back in the 1980s and what has happened, more have come in, more people have come in illegally.  We need to have a workable, legal temporary worker system, but not reward illegal behavior, nor have anything akin to amnesty. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Senator George Allen of Virginia.

Up next, two people who have very different plans for Senator Allen are coming here.  They're advisers to his challenger's campaign.  I'll talk to Mudcat Saunders—that's his real name—and Steve Jarding when we return.

And later, Christian conservatives say they're victims in a war against Christianity.  Does this battle hymn ring true?  We'll ask the Reverend Al Sharpton and Tony Perkins, president the Family Research Council. 

This is HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We just heard from Virginia Senator George Allen.  He's a conservative Republican who is up for reelection this year and is testing the waters for a presidential bid in 2008.  I say he's running, I say he's one of the two top guys to watch, he and McCain. 

Anyway, two guys looking to stop him, Senator Allen, on both fronts are Democratic strategist Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders.  They are advisers to former Navy secretary Jim Webb.  He's running for the Senate against Senator Allen.  They're also authors of a brand new book, “Foxes in the Henhouse:  How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland.”

Mudcat. 

DAVE “MUDCAT” SAUNDERS, CO-AUTHOR, “FOXES IN THE HENHOUSE”:  Yes, sir. 

MATTHEWS:  I remember going up, that the South was the solid South.  And it even voted for Adlai Stevenson, a liberal Democrat, that it was so solid it would go for Stevenson, that it was so solid it would go for a Catholic most of it in the '60.  It was a Democratic stronghold.  Why not now?  Is it just the Civil Rights rMD+IN_rMDNM_Bill? 

SAUNDERS:  Well, you know, the Republicans have done a good job of using—of polarizing the issues, Chris.  You know, it started out, you know, of course, with Strom Thurmond in '64 joining the Republican Party, I think was the first step in it.

And when Lee Atwater, you know, introduced wedge politics in the 1980s, the Democrats just seemed to rolled over.  I think that there is a wuss factor in our party, the fact we do not, you know, fight back. 

MATTHEWS:  Steve Jarding, I was just trying to count the total number of U.S. senators from the Dixie part of the country, the old confederacy.  I'm counting four.  Maybe I missed them, but you have two in Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, and then you've got Mary Landrieu down in Louisiana. 

You've got Bill Nelson, but you've lost the Carolinas, you've lost Georgia, you lost Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi.  There's no Democratic senators and that used to be all Democratic country. 

STEVE JARDING, CO-AUTHOR, “FOXES IN THE HENHOUSE”:  Well, and it can be again, Chris.  The reason I think we lost in a part is because we quit going there.  I mean, John Kerry announced at Dartmouth College in January 2004, I'm not going to go south. 

Well guess what?  When you don't have a message there, when you don't spend money there, when you don't go listen to people and their problems, and their fears, and their insecurities, and all they hear is one side, we shouldn't be surprised. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Isn't that what somebody calls the 17 state strategy, where the Democrats simply list 17 states where they can win, if they only win there.  Isn't that the sickness?   

JARDING:  Yes, and it is a sickness, because both it's politically shortsighted, it's also morally shortsighted.  I mean, you have a moral obligation to represent a democracy, to represent everybody.  And it's getting worse.  I mean, in 25 years, the south is going to pick up another 45 electoral votes. 

MATTHEWS:  Because of air conditioning and other reasons. 

JARDING:  Well, because of ...

MATTHEWS:  Air conditioning is a big part of this, guys.  Nobody wanted to live in Florida year-round until the 1950s. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Or Houston.  These are killer temperatures. 

JARDING:  No, well, they are, but 40 million more Americans are going there and Democrats, I don't know when you want to stop conceding this, particularly, by the way, when the issues are all in our favor. 

MATTHEWS:  Not all of them. 

JARDING:  Well, I'll tell you—which ones? 

MATTHEWS:  OK, where do you stand on immigration? 

JARDING:  Well, the Democrats are going to have to sort it out and sort with the Republicans.  My guess on immigration is they're both—neither party wants to deal with them. 

MATTHEWS:  You're waffling.

JARDING:  No, I'm not.  Neither party wants ...

MATTHEWS:  You're waffling.  Where do you stand on immigration?

JARDING:  Where do I stand?

MATTHEWS:  Would you stop illegal immigration or not? 

JARDING:  No.  Here's what I would do. 

MATTHEWS:  You wouldn't stop illegal immigration.

JARDING:  Here's what I would do.  Here's what I would do.

MATTHEWS:  Here's the problem. 

JARDING:  No, we have got 11 million illegal immigrants in this country now.  We have to do something about that, but what I would do is I would turn this into a jobs issue, which is exactly what it is, Chris.  Republicans, they want cheap labor with no benefits and the Democrats don't want to upset the Latino vote. 

MATTHEWS:  I'm just asking a simple question.  Do you want to answer the question Mudcat?  Do you want to stop illegal immigration or not? 

SAUNDERS:  I think the word is illegal is what I believe. 

MATTHEWS:  You want to stop it.  I don't understand why the Democrats can't say—I know why, because they want Hispanic votes, or as you guys call them, Latino votes. 

SAUNDERS:  There's ...

JARDING:  And the Republicans want cheap labor. 

MATTHEWS:  But they also want Hispanic votes.

JARDING:  Well, they want them if they can get them, but right now they want the labor and they don't want to upset the Chamber of Commerce. 

MATTHEWS:  You've changed the subject there, Steve, to the question of how many people are in this country illegally.  Well, that's like arguing when the Titanic is going down, how much water is already in the boat.  No, you argue about the water coming in the boat. 

Do the Democrats have a strategy, whatever it is—just tell me what it is—to deal with illegal people pouring into the country, over a million a year?  What do they have?  What's their strategy for that? 

JARDING:  Well, the Democrats I don't think have a strategy.  Neither do the Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, how come labor unions—pick up here, Mudcat.  It used to be the labor unions would want to keep labor scarce and the value of labor high, like you do with jewelry or anything else.  You want to get people to pay you more an hour.  Why do they let this cheap labor come in and reduce the prices that they get for labor by the hour?  I don't get it. 

SAUNDERS:  Well, obviously, it's we're creating a new system of indentured servitude in this country.  There's no question in my mind about that.  I believe that we have to stop the flow of illegal aliens into America as a southern Democrat, you know, that's my position. 

MATTHEWS:  I think it's a populace issue and I don't know why ...

JARDING:  It is a populous issue, and I think Democrats can embrace it, but I'm telling you that the reality is right now that the Democrats don't want to deal with Republicans.  They have—we have to deal with it. 

There's 11 million more, it's growing.  We can't ship 11 million people out of here, but we can change our policy that says in the future—now, whether somehow these are grandfathered in, but we're going to stop this.  We're going to decide what do we want to pay people for their labor. 

SAUNDERS:  Can I say something?  I'm from a part of NEVILLE: e world where the industrial revolution moved people from the country to the city, and now we have a technological revolution which naturally should move people from the city back to the country.  Instead, we're sending jobs from Costa Rica to India, outsourcing jobs.  It's a situation where, I hear people say these guys are doing jobs that nobody else will do.  Well, if you would pay a living wage—

JARDING:  If we paid you $3 an hour, you wouldn't take the job either. 

MATTHEWS:  There are people if this country that can do sheet rock, they can do carpentry, they can do painting, if you get the salary above the minimum wage. 

SAUNDERS:  Bingo. 

MATTHEWS:  I don't understand it, do we still have labor unions in this country?  I say we don't.  Too many sweetheart contracts, too many deals, too much liberalism and not enough labor.  Please come back.  Especially if you win this race.  Dave Saunders, Mudcat.  And thank you, Steve. 

Up next, senator from Mississippi, Trent Lott, on what the president needs to do to straighten up the White House.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  One of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate is calling the decision to replace Andy Card, White House chief of staff yesterday, to Josh Bolten, the new chief of staff, was more of a light shuffle than a serious shakeup. 

Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi says more of President Bush's inner circle needs to be replaced with people of experience and gravitas.  That's a Mississippi term.  Good evening, Senator.  Gravitas, what are you looking for?

SEN. TRENT LOTT ®, MISSISSIPPI:  I think they need people that do have experience and maybe even former members of congress.  People that can deal with congress on an eye-to-eye basis.  Just some new blood.  I never said that they should replace people.  I just said that they should bring in some new experienced hands in a variety of places.  I suggested Slade Gorton would be an excellent counselor, policy adviser. 

MATTHEWS:  He's one of your singers, isn't he? 

LOTT:  No, Slade can't even carry a tune.  Former senator from Washington Sate, a former attorney general out there.  Very smart.  Dan Coats, former senator, great guy.  Karen Hughes, I miss Karen, I think she was a powerful, positive influence in the White House and on the president.  But again, I thought Andy Card was very loyal, dedicated, worked hard over five years, he deserves a rest.  That's a tough job, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Did he anything to do with messing around with the Senate leadership a few years back? 

LOTT:  I don't know. 

MATTHEWS:  Karl had something to do with it.

LOTT:  I don't know if I could ever pin the tail on that donkey or elephant if you will, but I think Josh Bolten is a good man.  What is a chief of staff supposed to be at the White House, and if you look at what you really expect from a chief of staff, the fact that he's been there, he understands how it operates, he'll be good, but I think they need some more people.  It happens in every White House, Chris, you've watched White Houses. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me tell you what I know, Senator.-

LOTT:  They sort of step down a notch or two as the years goes by.  When somebody leaves, they just promote somebody in the office up and the next thing, you look around and you don't have the people of real strong character.  I just want to make sure the president is hearing advice from a variety of voices and I'm not sure he is all the time. 

MATTHEWS:  When I work for the Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, for all those years, he had one question he asked me every morning, anything I ought to know?  Every morning.  And we were supposed to be there before him, we were supposed to have read all the papers, know what happened in the cloak room that day, who is out to get him.  And if we didn't know, he would rip at us. 

Why doesn't the president have somebody like that, who told him this Dubai deal is going to be a real problem, this Harriet Miers thing isn't selling, this Katrina thing is hurting you, you got to get down there.  How come he doesn't have people around him like that, President Bush? 

LOTT:  I don't know and I don't think he has anybody like that right now.  You know, Andy's job was not to do that.  I think he just had a different job description.  Maybe he could have or should have, I don't know.  But I think the only voice he hears frankly quite often is Karl Rove and I don't think that's enough. 

MATTHEWS:  You would recommend a former senator or congressman? 

LOTT:  Former governor, you know, we've got some great governors around here.  John Engler from Michigan, great guy, smart guy.  He might not want to leave.  But it could be somebody like Ed Gillespie, very thoughtful, very articulate, very experienced, good political instinct, highly respected.  Ken Mehlman, Bill Paxton.  Lots of people.  Women, I've suggested some very capable, good policy women of maturity and experience, that would be glad to come in, help the president of the United States. 

MATTHEWS:  What's the president say when you make this recommendation? 

LOTT:  Well, you're not supposed to say what you say to the president, but you know, I suggested something to him one time that this would be helpful to him perhaps, I just want to make sure he wasn't home alone.  To his credit, he said who would you suggest, and I think he—I think he is a little surprised I had actually thought about that and I threw out four names real quick, bam, bam, bam, then total silence. 

MATTHEWS:  Did he write them down? 

LOTT:  I don't know. 

MATTHEWS:  How about Don Evans? 

LOTT:  I think he misses Don.  Don is not just so much his counsel, as just the closeness and the friendship, the bond that they have.  I think he misses that.  Used to when I would really get nervous, I'd call one of two people, Don Evans, Karen Hughes.  And they would always—they just seemed to—you know, they had the thumb on the pulse, they knew the man.

After all, I'm not insinuating this president doesn't have a good antenna and good judgment, but we are all human beings, we need good people around us. 

MATTHEWS:  That's great.  I remember Mac McCarty was like that with Clinton.  The kind of guy you could call who was a grown-up.

LOTT:  Clinton had a lot of them.  I had a great relationship with Leon Panetta. 

MATTHEWS:  Is the president in a bubble right now? 

LOTT:  Every president, I think, winds up in a bubble at least for a while.  Some of them have realized it and they break out of it, but it's a natural.  I mean, look, there are bubble in Senate offices and leaders' offices.  You get euphoric, you get sort of above it all.  Leaders don't always like to hear things. 

MATTHEWS:  You're outside your bubble now. 

LOTT:  I'm free. 

MATTHEWS:  You're free at last. 

LOTT:  Singing like a canary. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you.  Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi.  Up next, Congressman Tom DeLay says there's always been and always will be a war against Christianity.  Is he right?  The Reverend Al Sharpton and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council are coming here.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

This week, evangelical Christians met up for a Washington event called War on Christians and the Values Voters of 2006.  Speakers gave impassioned testimonies about Christian persecution across the country. 

Here's headliner Tom DeLay. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)         

REP. TOM DELAY ®, TEXAS:  We are, after all, a society that abides abortion on demand, has killed millions of innocent children, degrades the institution of marriage and often treats Christianity like some second-rate superstition.  Seen from this perspective of course there is a war on Christianity. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)             

MATTHEWS:  Al Sharpton is a former presidential candidate and the president of the National Action Network, and Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council. 

Well, you first, Tony, do you believe that Christianity is under active assault politically right now? 

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL:  It's not just me, Chris.  A poll by the anti-defamation league end of last year, 64 percent of Americans say religion in America is under attack.  Eighty percent of evangelicals agree that religion in this country, in particular, Christianity, is under attack. 

MATTHEWS:  What are the specifics of that charge? 

PERKINS:  Well, clearly, it's not a war on Christianity like we talked about last week with Abdul Rahman and what he was under, but it's a hostility nonetheless.  I mean, just last week in San Francisco, 25,000 young evangelicals gathered there for a rally, and the board of supervisors passed a resolution. 

It's first time I've ever seen a legislature pass a resolution condemning them as a right-wing Christian fundamentalist group that spreads hate.  That was the official language.  I mean, you see that.  You see Indiana were the legislature there no longer allowed to open their sessions in prayer, if they pray in the name of Jesus. 

I mean, you ask any parent if America today, they're concerned.  Their kids cannot pray in school, graduations, football games, no prayer.  Even the pledge because... 

MATTHEWS:  But those are court decisions, aren't they? 

PERKINS:  They are court decisions, but nonetheless it is a branch of government and most of the time spurred on by the ACLU, that, you know, many times is funded with taxpayer dollars. 

MATTHEWS:  Reverend Sharpton, do you think that Christianity and religion as such are under attack by our secular institutions? 

REV. AL SHARPTON, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK:  I think there's a difference when you say that polls say religion is under attack and saying Christianity is under attack and then acting as if Christianity and the right-wing are synonymous.  I think that the right wing has got Christianity under attack or Christianity that was the basis of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement. 

It's certainly not the Christianity that they are talking about.  So I think that we've got to really narrow in what we're talking about, and to say that someone stops a prayer that makes others that may pray a different way feel like they're being imposed upon and then to act like the symbol of Christianity is Tom DeLay is a great leap.  And I think that is where many of us that are Christian are offended by this group trying to misuse these kinds of situations. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe, Tony, that you feel under attack?  Or is this a clever marketing tool to get people...

PERKINS:  No.

MATTHEWS:  You know, if you say circle the wagons to anybody, that's a great way to get them rallied, that's a way to get them juiced up, and they may vote more frequently.  They may get out there and vote, where if they don't feel under attack they're not going to vote.  It's human nature. 

PERKINS:  Well, one writer criticizing this claim of Christians being under attack said there are no Christians today being thrown to the lions.  Well, I agree, there's none being thrown to the lions today, but I'm not for allowing those cubs to grow up to become adult lions.  And that's what we're talking about is addressing these issues.

And the Reverend Sharpton is incorrect.  It is Christianity that is the target.  The county of Los Angeles, the seal taken to a court case by the ACLU.  They had to remove the cross from the top of the mission that is part of the emblem of the city.  It is Christianity. 

SHARPTON:  But that is not because they're attacking the cross.  They're saying that there are those citizens that don't believe in the cross.  And I would have that position if there was a different religious symbol in a city that I lived in and paid taxes.

But I would like Tony to tell me how what Tom DeLay is facing has anything to do with his religion or any religion at all.  I mean, I think it's an insult to Christians to act like because of his religion, he's been charged with what he's been charged with.  It has nothing to do with his religion. 

PERKINS:  I don't think anybody ever said that, Al. 

SHARPTON:  I think everyone said that at this meeting this weekend that was cited when we came on.  He was introduced as a man that was being persecuted because he stood up for Jesus.  Tell me how Jesus and being accused of embezzling funds is the same thing.  What chapter did you get that out of the New Testament? 

PERKINS:  What you find is that just in this case or whatever, there is a concern that those that identify with evangelical Christianity—and Tom DeLay was very closely affiliated with that as the House majority leader.  And there are those that say that was part of the motivation for going after him because he was an effective leader, in particular on issues as related to pro-life.

But on the issue of where Americans feel the country is moving, clearly there is a growing hostility toward Christianity.  I mean, think back when FDR, Chris, was president, and he led the nation in prayer from the White House.  If President Bush were to do that today, before I could get back to my office I would be run over by ACLU attorneys on their way to file suit in federal court.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, that is a legitimate issue.  I mean, how religious of a life do we want in our public square?  And we are going to be debating this as long as anybody watching, Al, lives and probably for another hundred centuries after that because it is a legitimate debate, in a free society how much religion you have in the public square.

I mean, I don't think most people care about creche scenes in front of public libraries, but some people do, and we're going to debate this, right?

PERKINS:  But shouldn't it be a fair debate?

MATTHEWS:  Because it could get out of hand.

PERKINS:  I agree.

MATTHEWS:  If every kid in school is forced to read the King James Bible, they might feel a little bit out of it.

PERKINS:  But nobody is calling for that.  What you have today is you simply have people wanting to display their faith publicly, and it's not being decided through the legislative branches of government.  It's being driven by the ACLU through the courts with the people having no voice in it.  That's what causes conflicts.

MATTHEWS:  So you want to identify with Rick Scarborough's, Reverend Rick Scarborough's claim that the reason Tom DeLay is in trouble with the courts, with the Democrats, with the media, is because he's a Christian.  Are you going to identify with that argument?

PERKINS:  I would not say that in total.

MATTHEWS:  But he did.

PERKINS:  I'm just saying that I think that that has made him a target.

MATTHEWS:  It has?

PERKINS:  I think it has.

MATTHEWS:  His religion?

PERKINS:  The fact that he has been so out front on many of these issues.  Now in terms of his legal problems or what he's facing today, those stand on their own.  But I think that clearly anyone who stands up and identifies with the evangelical community if a very pronounced way as he has and ...

MATTHEWS:  ... Is Abramoff in trouble because of his religion?

PERKINS:  No.

MATTHEWS:  He just got five years and 10 months today.

PERKINS:  No, and he's pleaded guilty to committing crimes.  Tom DeLay has not been convicted of anything, nor has he said.

MATTHEWS:  Last word, Reverend.

SHARPTON:  I think that it clearly is a misuse of those of us that believe in something to act as though a man who has operated to the extreme right, who has tried to redistrict people of color out of office in Texas, is operating as some Christian missionary.

PERKINS:  Red herring.

SHARPTON:  I think that it is absolutely insulting to the intelligence of Christians.  You're not going to meet anyone that believes in Christ more than me, but I believe in converting people, not forcing people to following my religion.  We are living in what we want to be a democracy, not a theocracy, and it is dangerous to try and move in that direction.

PERKINS:  And that's what we're saying.  Let us live as we want to live.

SHARPTON:  Well then you don't put your cross up on public emblems that don't have ...

PERKINS:  ... That's parts of our history.

MATTHEWS:  Well I don't agree with the stuff about Tom DeLay, but I do believe there is a campaign against religion in this country and we hear it all the time.  I think you're right, that's true, it's just true. 

And Reverend Sharpton probably agrees with me, but not in the partisan part of it.  Anyway, thank you Reverend Sharpton, thank you Tony Perkins.

Up next, disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is sentenced to five years and 10 months today.  I think he's been nicked for a fine for about $2 million.  I don't know where he's going to earn that in prison.  That's today in Florida.

Meanwhile, Democrats say they will eliminate Osama bin Laden and destroy al Qaeda.  Look out for the Democrats, bad guys.  Real HARDBALL politics when we return, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Today the Democrats tried to out-bush Bush on national security, saying they'll be tougher on terror, but preserve your civil liberties. 

Does it sound fierce or phony?  Good question.  I'm joined by Chris Cillizza, the washingtonpost.com political reporter and Michael Isikoff, “Newsweek's” top investigative correspondent, maybe the best investigative reporter there is today. 

Let me ask you about—we'll get to that national security thing because it's kind of, almost funny.  Funny that came out with this, I mean it, it's a little late.  Abramoff, five years, 10 months, huge fine, how does that affect other people?  Is there any other shoes to drop there?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, NEWSWEEK:  Well that's what we're all waiting for.  Remember, this is the Florida case.  This is separate and apart from the—the SunCruz Casino and the fraud connected with that. 

The main action, that people in Washington care about is the congressional stuff and the separate guilty plea which he's entered in that and the cooperation he's providing for the government.

Look, it's been some months now and when the indictments—when his plea first came, we were all expecting, your know, the indictments were all tee'd up and bam, bam, bam, they'd be coming, Robert Ney in Ohio, the other staff members.

We haven't seen any yet.  That perhaps is a cautionary note.  You know, it's—this investigation is far from over, but one key thing to watch is May—May 29 I think it is. 

The Safavian trial starts, that's the White House procurement guy who got arrested by the FBI for lying about his connections with Abramoff.  Abramoff is going to be a central witness in that case.  It's going to be the first time he's going to take the stand and get cross-examined by Safavian's defense lawyers.

It's going to be very important to watch to see how well he holds up as a government witness in that case, because that's going to tell a lot of people, you know, on all these other cases down the road, how strong a witness is Abramoff going to be.

MATTHEWS:  Well what's going on here?  I mean, I don't want to sound like I just arrived in this city, I've been here a third of the century, but you get that domestic policy chief for the president.

That was Stu Eizenstat's job, this is (inaudible) who gets arrested for some complicated sort of shoplifting by complication thing, he was pulling off at some store.  And you've got Safavian arrested in the White House—the procurement guy arrested in the White House.  You've got the vice president's chief-of-staff facing 30 years potentially.  There's a lot of criminal activity floating around a White House that was brought in here to clean up after Monica.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, POLITICAL WRITER, WASHINGTONPOST.COM:  And I think the point that Mike makes that's a good one with this May trial is what we're seeing, unfortunately for Republicans, is an unfortunate confluence of timing.  Regardless of what ultimately happens with Abramoff, with Safavian, these kind of people, we are talking about May, June, July, August of an election year, where these trials are going to get considerable coverage. 

Jack Abramoff's name is going to continue to stay in the public eye, whether and if indictments come down of members.  All of these things are going to be happening as members are going to their constituents asking for reelection. 

MATTHEWS:  We'll be right back with Chris Cilizza and Michael Isikoff.

And a reminder, for the best political debate online just go to hardblogger, our political blog web site.  Just go to our web site, hardball.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We're back with Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post.com and “NEWSWEEK's” Michael Isikoff. 

Let me ask you about this Democratic plan that's just come out today. 

You have a smile on your face already.  Is this just too little too late? 

The Democrats pretending that they're G.I. Joe all of a sudden? 

CILIZZA:  I think it is something as they view that they have to do, and that they can't simply say the president isn't doing the job.  Period.  They have to say, the president isn't doing the job, and we can do it. 

Polling has shown them creeping up when voters are asked...

MATTHEWS:  That's right.  And let's look at this poll.  We've got it.  It is a CNN “USA Today” Gallup poll number.  It shows that overtime, Republicans have dropped from about 55 percent approval and now it is down to 45.  Meanwhile, the Democrats have climbed slowly, going from right to left actually, 29 up to 41.  So they are closing. 

CILIZZA:  I think what you see in that is not necessarily that Democrats have done such a great job, is really that people don't trust the Bush administration on these things anywhere.  Whether it is the Dubai World Port's deal, whether it is other things, there is a skepticism there that was not there in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist act.

One thing I will share that was amusing, I was at the event and Nancy Pelosi gave a rousing speech to close the event.  And she held up a pamphlet at the end, which was the pamphlet they handed out.  And she said, we favor real security.  She held it just like this. 

MATTHEWS:  Keep that up.  So it was upside down?

CILIZZA:  Yes, unfortunately, a little upside down might give Republicans an opening to say Democrats are upside down in their policies when it comes to security.  But an amusing moment in what they wanted to be a very serious fact. 

MATTHEWS:  But guys—and Michael first—isn't that really a problem for the Democrats?  They don't have a consensus on the war.  They have a Jack Murtha element, which may be 80 percent of the Democratic rank and file.  But the leadership are very nervous about becoming McGovernite (ph), very nervous about looking like they are doves. 

ISIKOFF:  Right.  Right.  Well, this is why so many supported the war to begin with and voted for it.  Every Democrat who has considered running for president voted with the president... 

MATTHEWS:  Because... 

ISIKOFF:  ...in October 2002. 

MATTHEWS:  ...Bill Clinton and Al Gore did that back in 1990, and it put them on the ticket and gave them the White House. 

ISIKOFF:  Right.  Right.  Right.  And, yes, the whole idea of national security Democrats, strong muscular on national defense, key to electoral success.  The problem is now we're actually in.  That's the sort of post-Vietnam paradigm for Democrats, but we're back in, you know, the equivalent of the Vietnam era, when, you know, a lot of people, the public is moving toward exit strategy. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, Nixon was moving toward exiting.  He got us out more or less by 72, 73, in a nasty way.  Thirty some thousand guys were killed under his presidency, but at least it was over.  Let me ask you about this White House thing.  Is there any more intrigue here, Michael, about somebody else getting canned?  I don't think it is fair to say Andy Card was canned.  But he is out.  Is anybody else going out? 

ISIKOFF:  Hard to say.  I mean, you know, maybe on the margins.  But, look, I mean, this was not, as has been pointed out, not exactly a Saturday night massacre, not exactly bringing in fresh blood, which is what a lot of people were looking for.  It's a little bit of reshuffling.  It is hard to know what to make of it. 

You know, to me it is indicative that Bush didn't seize the opportunity to bring in some fresh blood.  An indication, I think, of his, you know, stay-the-course stubbornness.  I am going to, you know, stick with what I've got. 

CILIZZA:  And I think—just to add on to Mike's point.  I think that barring the leaving of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, the American public is largely not paying attention to this kind of thing. 

I used my parents test on a lot of things like this.  My parents, I don't think, have a real close knowledge of Andy Card versus Josh Bolten.  You know, I think this is really internal politics in the White House and within Washington.  And we're bringing in one Bush loyalist for another Bush loyalist.  It is like Mike said, I mean, it is not as though we're not seeing a seat change here in swapping Card for Bolten. 

MATTHEWS:  Why doesn't anyone at the White House ever pay the price for screwing up?  They didn't warn the president about Dubai being a problem.  Bob Kimmett never came to him and said Mr. President this is a ticklish one, the public won't like this, an Arab country running our ports. 

Nobody warned him in time to do anything about Katrina.  If he had been down there in the first helicopter plane with blankets and water, he would have been a hero, instead of the goat of this affair.  And Harriet Miers, who thought that was a great idea? 

ISIKOFF:  Look, I mean, that's, you know, one of the signatures of this presidency is loyalty to his people sticking with him.  I mean, you know, of the national security team, the top national security team, the only that is different from the first administration is Colin Powell, the guy who was trying to warn against what they were doing in Iraq. 

Everybody else is still there.  So, you know, it is not—we're not talking about a reflective, you know, president who is willing to, you know, change things. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me say something about Caspar Weinberger.  He just passed away, a great patriot.  He warned us.  He said don't go into a situation in the world where we're not the strongest power on the scene.  Put in all the troops you need to do the job and if it takes a half a million put them in there.  And have a plan to get out. 

He was the real author of the Powell doctrine.  And I think it is time, in his passing, that we recognize he was a smart patriotic man who knew how to protect the interests of this country. 

Thank you very much, Chris.  It is great to have you.  And Michael, as always.

Anything hot out there? 

ISIKOFF:  A lot is hot. 

MATTHEWS:  Can you give us anything? 

ISIKOFF:  No.  Not now. 

MATTHEWS:  Feed us.  Feed us something.

ISIKOFF:  Not now. 

MATTHEWS:  Not now?

ISIKOFF:  No.  We'll be back. 

MATTHEWS:  Will we have an immigration bill? 

ISIKOFF:  Oh, I don't think so.  I don't know. 

CILIZZA:  I don't think so either.  In an election year passing sweeping change in immigration?  I think unlikely. 

MATTHEWS:  Nobody want to do anything that bothers anybody, and that means we are not going to do anything on anything.  That's our big problem now. 

Anyway, thank you for that.  I don't know why I got philosophical.  Chris Cilizza, thank you, of the Washington Post.com.  Mike Isikoff, the best investigative reporter in the country.

Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more

HARDBALL.

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

DAN ABRAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Coming up, breaking news that closing arguments are over now.  A jury will decide whether al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui will be put to death in the 911 attacks. 

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