updated 9/7/2006 11:43:42 AM ET 2006-09-07T15:43:42

Guests: Eugene Robinson, Michael Smerconish, Ryan Lizza, Howard Fineman, John McCaslin, Francine Busby, Rep. Brian Bilbray

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  I am Chris Matthews and welcome to HARDBALL: Decision 2006: Battleground America.  All day long on MSNBC, we have been looking at the hottest races across the country.  We will talk to challengers and incumbents who are fighting for the power to control Congress.  Election night 2006 will be a night that spin and propaganda, however, lose out to the crackle of victory and the sorrow of defeat. 

The acid test is going to be the number two thousand—I‘m sorry, 218.  If the Democrats win that number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the news flashing around the globe that night will be that the president of the United States has suffered a massive defeat at home for himself and his war policy in Iraq -- 218, that will be the worldwide score card come election night.

For Republicans, the battle cry will be T and T, taxes and terrorism, you can‘t trust the Democrats on either.  For Democrats, the fight song will be I and B, Iraq and Bush.  Both parties will be running against the horrors of the other.

In addition to this grand decision on Iraq and Bush, terrorism and taxes, this election night will feature some wild, kaleidoscopic results.  Hillary Clinton could roll it up in New York.  Arnold Schwarzenegger could win big in California.  Jennifer Granholm could lose in Michigan.  Republicans could get blown out of the northeast all together with Chafee, Shays and Santorum all losing.  There could be an upset in New Jersey, where Kean could beat Menendez. 

I personally smell an anti-incumbent streak out there and no one is immune to it.  In the House, Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to take control for that magic 218.  If Senate Democrats pick up six seats, they get 51 seats out on 100, they get control of the Senate.

We begin this hour in Ohio, always a crucial battle ground.  HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster is out there in Columbus.  David?

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, this is the Senate rate that is huge.  Both parties are counting on winning the Ohio Senate race.  Republicans of course, to keep control of the U.S. Senate.  Democrats counting on Ohio to take control.  And what‘s so intriguing is that the money is pouring into the state, and the attack ads, 62 days before the election, are already on the air and they are vicious. 

The other thing that makes this race so intriguing is that the national debate is very much on display here in Ohio.  The incumbent senator, Republican Senator Mike DeWine, he is a two term incumbent, he voted for the war.  Like President Bush, Senator DeWine says that Iraq is a central front in the war on terror.  He accuses his Democratic opponent Sherrod Brown of being weak on national security.  And for good measure, Republicans say that Brown, if elected, would vote to raise taxes.

Brown for his part voted against the war in Iraq.  He has repeatedly said that Mike DeWine and President Bush have repeatedly made the nation less safe because of misplaced priorities in the war on terror.  But Brown has also repeatedly accused Mike DeWine of being in the back pocket of energy companies and drug companies.  Energy of course, related to the high gas prices that people here in Ohio certainly have been feeling.

As far as the mood of the electorate, the most recent polls show that voters increasingly see Iraq as separate from the war on terror.  That is bad news for Mike DeWine, that is bad news for Republicans nation wide if that holds up. 

In addition, Chris, when you talk to the voters and you try to figure out what is the overriding issue, as far as their emotions, you get a sense that there is a lot more anger, a lot more anger, about the war in Iraq and how it has gone than there is satisfaction or happiness, with how the president has handled the war on terror.

That of course could change, especially given that the president and other Republicans are increasingly focusing on al Qaeda and the continuing threats after 9/11,  But again, the emotional sense is that voters are very angry about the war in Iraq and that could help Democrats. 

One other issue, Chris.  We‘ve talked so much on HARDBALL about the issue of corruption, the corruption in Washington.  There is corruption here in Ohio that is part of this race.  And that is the outgoing governor, Bob Taft, pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge for getting free rounds of golf. 

There is a scandal involving a coin collector who had access to state/worker compensation funds.  Republicans who control the state have been taking a beating over this scandal.  It is hurting down, it is hurting the senator, Mike DeWine, even though he is not part of it because the Democrats have repeatedly made the charge that Republicans are in the back pockets of this culture of corruption.

You add it all together, you have a very volatile electorate.  And again, Chris, both parties see Ohio as the bellwether, the state that is going to determine what is going to happy nationwide.  Chris?

MATTHEWS:  You know David, there has always been a lot of buzz about the election count out there in Ohio in the last election for president, that there was questions about how the numbers were really put together that night.  I‘m skeptical of the skeptics, but I do wonder whether the people in Ohio are in a mood to correct the situation and come out much more pro-Democratic this time?

SHUSTER:  That is really hurting, Chris, the secretary of state Ken Blackwell, who is running for governor.  A lot of the people blame him for some of the botched problems, at least on the Democratic side.  Democrats are very organized and energetic over that issue.

But again, the other problem that Republicans are seen as having this sort of issue of corruption that may affect Blackwell and certainly being brought into the campaign on the Senate race against DeWine.  So there are problems.  The Republican Party here is seen as in disarray.  And remember Chris, Republicans control the state legislature, they control two-thirds of the House seats from in Ohio.  Democrats think they can make huge gains here in the Buckeye State.

MATTHEWS:  Well I guess what you‘re saying, David, is that we‘ve got Democratic weather in Ohio.  Thank you very much, David Shuster in Columbus.

We are going to go right now to former presidential adviser David Gergen and MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent Norah.  David, you first.

I look at this six pack of Senate races out there.  Pennsylvania with of course Santorum against Casey.  Ohio, DeWine, we‘re just talking about against Sherrod Brown.  Rhode Island with Linc Chafee up for reelection; In Montana, with Conrad Burns; Missouri with Talent; Tennessee with Harold Ford trying to be one of the first ever African Americans elected.  Then these other races, Virginia, where you have George Allen up for reelection, Menendez against Tom Kean‘s son in New Jersey, and of course Washington state with Maria Cantwell possibly in trouble.  Do you see a pattern here?  Do you see the Democrats rolling up perhaps a net gain of four or so here?

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER:  Clearly the Democrats are moving at this point toward a major pick-up both in the House and the Senate.  I think the big, big question overlying this election, Chris: has a conservative tie that we have seen in the country since 1994, you know, where they brought in Newt Gingrich and gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in basically a half a century—has that conservative tide run its course?  And is the tide now going to reverse?

And this election, if—we have to remember that while George W. Bush has been president, he is the first president since Franklin Roosevelt whose party has actually gained power in the House and Senate while he has been president. 

This could be the election that reverses that.  And if so, as you well know, it would be not only a major reversal in Iraq, on taxes and other issues, but it would defeat President Bush and Karl Rove on their central objective coming in.  One of the legacies they wanted to leave was a durable Republican majority, basically a conservative majority.

MATTHEWS:  You know David, I love the way you say, as you well know, and it always warms my heart when you do that.  But let me go to Norah on this for that question.  It seems that David raises a great moment.  When there was that tsunami back in ‘94, 12 years ago, and Newt Gingrich completely surprised the Clintons and the Democrats and won those enormous numbers of seats, taking over the House after 50 years, they had a positive campaign.  Less taxes, less government, the conservative agenda.  Is there a Democratic agenda out there right now that people are reaching for?  Or is it just negativity towards the Republicans?

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Well remember, some people are calling this C election.  Of course, Democrats want change and the Republicans are saying that this will be a choice election.  That‘s the sort of way that we frame.

MATTHEWS:  People that flush the toilet want change.  What is the positive aspect of this party?  I‘m just—I‘m sorry, where did that come from?

O‘DONNELL:  I don‘t know, but it was great.  I rather enjoyed it.

MATTHEWS:  But what do they want from the Democrats?

O‘DONNELL:  The Democrats have put out a six-point plan, which few people know sort of the details about.  But you have to remember the Republicans in 1994 when they put out the contract to America, that came just one month before the elections.

The Democrats still have an opportunity to do that.  But it‘s still on the burden of the Democrats to put forward what they want.  At this point, a lot of the Democrats that I‘ve talked to sort of say, listen, we can run against Bush.  That is enough.  There is so much discontent in this country because of the war in Iraq that it is dragging everything else up down.  Right now, if the election were held today, they‘d win the House.  The Senate, it‘s not clear.

MATTHEWS:  Let me get back to David.  It seems to me the way I set up the show today, thinking about this and trying to figure out the basic way you could look at this election.  If you‘re a Republican, you want to talk about the thing that‘s always delivered for Republicans, especially in the House, which is most middle class voters, all voters—not all voters, but most voters would like lower taxes.  The Republicans are good at that, they‘ll cut taxes at the federal level.  They are also tougher on terrorism.  We see that in all the polls. 

The Democrats on the other hand would rather talk about how tired people are and distrusting and frustrated with the war in Iraq and they don‘t really like Bush any more.  Can the two parties—is there going to be a clear-cut win in this?  Who gets the focus, the Democrats or the Republicans on their favorite issues?

GERGEN:  To go back to your question to Norah now on what you just said, Chris, I think the problem for the Democrats is very much different from what the Republicans had in ‘94.  In ‘94, even though they put up late, the Republicans made the contract for America a mandate in the election. You know, after that election was over, all the journalists, you know, said wow, the Republicans won the house back, but they have a mandate to govern.  And here there is no ...

MATTHEWS:  Did they put that out the way the track house put out their results after the races are run?

GERGEN:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t remember any Contract with America.  That thing seemed to emerge some day around election day at 4:00 in the afternoon. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘d bet on war paint and war paint won, but he put the thing out of after the race was held. 

GERGEN:  Well listen Chris, if you look back on that race, I thought the one big mistake that the Clinton White House made was to take the bait, to go out and campaign against the Contract for America when they knew they were going to go down and lose a lot of seats.  As a result, it allowed the Republicans a claim after the fact that they got this mandate.  Now I don‘t think most people who voted in 94 voted for the mandate, but the Republicans were able to convince the press that they had a mandate.  Now here there is no Democratic mandate coming out of this, where they are right now. 

O‘DONNELL:  Chris, it is simple politics.  Who defines the agenda.  Who defines the discussion and then who is playing on the defensive.  And again, the White House is defining what the agenda is. 

MATTHEWS:  T.N.T. 

O‘DONNELL:  T.N.T. 

GERGEN:  At least it is not T and A. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what I tried to avoid David, but you hurt me there.  

O‘DONNELL:  In part why today was so fascinating, not just the coverage here on MSNBC, but what the president did, giving the third in a series of speeches on the war on terror, which the president says are not political speeches.  He is giving a fourth again tomorrow.  Once again they are calling it security September up on Capitol Hill, defining this election in terms of national security. 

Now the Democrats are engaged in this big tug of war where they are trying to separate and say Iraq is separate from that.  Look at the record in Iraq.  It is bad.  On the Senate floor trying to debate that Secretary Rumsfeld should resign and get a non-binding resolution on that.  But again, the White House is still in control of the debate at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, shaping the battlefield.  Right guys, shaping the battlefield.  Both sides want to do it their way.  David Gergen thank you for joining us.  Norah O‘Donnell, as always. 

Coming up, much more of our special day-long coverage of Decision 2006.  I think we are shaping the battlefield right here. 

And later, a HARDBALL debate between Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray and his Democratic challenger Francine Busby.  Bilbray, Busby coming up here.  It is going to be a hot one.  A special election they are holding down there in San Diego.  Duke Cunningham country, unfortunately.  You are watching HARDBALL‘s coverage of Decision 2006. 

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MATTHEWS:  Coming up, if the president‘s party looses control of Congress, will the world see it as rejection of his war in Iraq?  When HARDBALL‘s coverage of Decision 2006 returns. 

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MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and today‘s all day MSNBC stories on electoral politics coming up in November.  Back when it was called battleground America.  Let‘s go straight to the pivotal House and Senate races, the ones that could change the balance of power in this country.  To break down the key races, especially in the East Coast, from Philadelphia radio talk show host Michael Smerconish is joining us right now.  And here in Washington, the “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson. 

Thank you Michael, thank you Eugene.  Let‘s talk about the East Coast right now.  We are early, it is 5:00 at night.  We are talking about the races that may swing big.  I have a sense Michael and Eugene that the northeast could swing big against the Republicans because of the war in Iraq and the president being so unpopular in the northeast corridor?  What do you make of that Michael?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, WPHT TALK RADIO:  Possibility and I know that‘s the conventional wisdom, but my own state is a bell weather and whereas most of the national pundits are weighing and they‘re saying that it‘s Bob Casey‘s to lose, I don‘t see it that way.  I thought that Rick Santorum hammered him in Russert‘s debate on “Meet the Press.”  I think that they are all individual races, that Ohio race could go either way.  The Pennsylvania race could go either way.  I think that all of these candidates are going to win or lose on their own merit and that it will not be, and I know that I‘m unique in this regard, simply a referendum on the president.   

MATTHEWS:  What happens if you are wrong, Michael?  Do you have to pay for this, I mean is this just speculation here?  I mean, suppose everybody is right and you are wrong.  Do you have to pay somebody for that? 

SMERCONISH:  No, I think I get disinvited from HARDBALL in the post election.

MATTHEWS:  Well that is first thing that is going to happen.  But you really think honestly, put apart your feelings, because you know all these guys, do you really believe that someone as politically conservative on the right on all the cultural issues, especially things like gay marriage, where he‘s said some pretty tough things about gays, do you think he is actually going to win? 

SMERCONISH:  Let me say it this way.  I love being on your program to really talk about the real issues and not the hyperbole.  I disagree with Rick Santorum on abortion, stem cells, plan B, an Iraq exit strategy, because he doesn‘t think we need timetables.  So I‘m not here drinking his Cool-Aid, but I was looking for more from Bob Casey.  I wanted substance from Casey.  I didn‘t want to hear buzz words, and that‘s all I got. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, THE “WASHINGTON POST”:  I think Michael has a point in that Casey hasn‘t been quite as strong a candidate as I think Democrats would have hoped and Santorum may have gained some ground back, but I still think Santorum‘s going down.  

MATTHEWS:  I like Casey‘s answer when Tim asked him, this is a favorite of Tim‘s, and a lot of people who think about these things, you wait for a Democrat to come along and say I am very upset about the big federal deficit and then you always ask them the obvious question, to which he was not prepared to answer, but Tim nailed him.  He said name one frigging program you are willing to cut?  Just name one government program?  And all Casey could do was name new taxes? 

SMERCONISH:  Yeah he said we‘re going to grow our way out of the deficit.

MATTHEWS:  Where did he get that old Cinnard (ph) from?  That‘s about 30 years old, that one.   

SMERCONISH:  You know, Chris, the very first question of the debate, it was a lay-up.  It was if you knew back then what we know today about the lack of WMD, Bob Casey, and if you were in the Senate, how would you have voted?  He either misunderstood the question or outright refused to answer it, even when Russert went after him four times. 

MATTHEWS:  The other thing Tim got him, got Santorum on was where do you live.  Now, I sympathize with a guy who‘s a Senator, a woman Senator, who lives on their salary.  It is hard to maintain two homes and the fiction that you work in Washington five days a week but you somehow live out in Omaha somewhere, or even in Pennsylvania.  It is a fiction.  You work in Washington.  That is what you got elected to.  Good for him.  But Tim got him to say how many days he spent in this shotgun apartment he has, wherever it is, somewhere in Penn Grove or Penn Hills or whatever, that he obviously has as a mailing address that doesn‘t even receive his mail, and he said I have been there a month.  Do you think that is going to get him in trouble, to make a statement like that if not‘s true?  

SMERCONISH:  It has gotten him in trouble in western Pennsylvania and there is a home schooling issue and a tax bill that corresponds with it that I think is a real problem for Rick Santorum. 

MATTHEWS:  Then he said that he is charging a little county in western Pennsylvania for the education of his children online when they live in Virginia. 

SMERCONISH:  Yes.  That‘s the issue.  The issue is the school district in western Pennsylvania writing the check for that. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about Ohio.  It‘s probably the most classicly middle America state in the Union.  It‘s a red state because it votes Republican, but it‘s so close.  It‘s the most anti-Bush red state, if you poll people there, just like Pennsylvania is the most pro-Bush blue state. 

We‘re talking reality here.  Mike DeWine has been around for awhile.  Sherrod Brown is a labor Democrat, you know, doesn‘t like trade, for working people, for minimum wage, those usual old Democratic issues.  Can he win that thing? 

ROBINSON:  You know, I think Brown can.  What is the latest poll, like 46-41 or something like that? 

MATTHEWS:  46-40. 

ROBINSON:  Yes, you know, Ohio is a pretty good state to be affected by a tsunami or a wind all blowing in one direction, if that happens. 

MATTHEWS:  As goes Ohio, so goes the union.

ROBINSON:  Well, something like that, I guess.  I mean, that‘s kind of happened in the past.  So—you know, and I think Brown can win.  I think DeWine can go down.

MATTHEWS:  I am going to jump on something that Michael said because I agree with it.  I think this election is going to be anti-incumbent as well as probably anti-Republican.  And I say that because of the Jubelirer vote up there, all of those local Senate people up there in Stanton, Pennsylvania, when they gave themselves a pay raise and Rendell was for it and all that stuff. 

Let me go to a state where that could be a shocker.  I think Menendez can lose to Kean in New Jersey?  What do you think, Michael?

SMERCONISH:  I‘m going to disagree with you.  If for the same reason, from a political standpoint, that I give Santorum an edge in Pennsylvania, I give Menendez an edge in New Jersey.  He is a scrappy guy.  And you know, Chris, in Jersey—I‘ve seen this in so many of the recent cycles where you are 90 days out and the Republicans look like they have a shot even though there‘s been all this scandal and mismanagement, the Democrat ends up winning. 

I mean, that whole Torricelli debacle, what did it leave us with?  It left us with Corzine in the Senate, and then in the gubernatorial mansion.  And I‘ve got to say this, because this is HARDBALL.  Tom Kean, he has been weak.  I have had him on my radio show on countless times, and on the issues, there is no there there. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We just heard, by the way, from Sherrod Brown.  He is not anti-trade.  Well, we‘ll talk about that at some point.  I‘m sure has a right to say what he wants to say. 

Let me ask you about—it seems like New Jersey has the gist of electing these old wasps, these old clean old millionaire families that have been around forever.  That is the safest vote for them because they figure they won‘t steal any money. 

ROBINSON:  And that might be the only thing Kean has going for him, I guess.  But, you know, it is a pretty close race right now, isn‘t it. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  I think of his father.  He always said he was from New Jersey.  I always like it when he said it. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Please stay with us.  Michael Smerconish and Eugene Robinson, coming back with us. 

And later, we will check into the Senate race in Connecticut.  Joe Lieberman lost his primary, but he is still running as a independent Democrat.  You are watching HARDBALL‘s coverage of decision 2006, battleground American on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We are breaking down the hot races of these upcoming midterms—they‘re in November, by the way—with the help right now of Philadelphia‘s radio talk show‘s Michael Smerconish, and the “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson. 

Michael and Eugene, let me ask you, there is a pattern I would argue of anti-incumbency.  Forget partisanship.  People just don‘t like some of these characters that have been around too long that haven‘t really gone home enough. 

Now, the knock against Lieberman was not just he was anti—or he‘s pro-war in a state that was anti-war, but that he hadn‘t spent a whole lot of time mending fences at home in the last 10 or 15 years, and that comes from his own people in that race. 

Well, let‘s talk about Lincoln Chafee here, another one of these races coming up, an established figure, Lincoln Chafee, son of John Chafee, senator from Rhode Island, very moderate to liberal Republican.  Is he going to get bopped off this time, Michael, in the primary next week? 

SMERCONISH:  In the primary by Steve Laffey? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, the real reform-type guy up there.  The real maverick. 

SMERCONISH:  Listen, I have met Laffey and have spent a little bit of time with him.  I find him to be a very bright, tough candidate.  I think he is going to give Chafee a run for the money.  The question then becomes is he electable in the general election.  I think he has less of a chance in the general than he does in primary. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree.  I think he‘s going to win the primary.  What do you think?

ROBINSON:  Yes, I think he might win the primary, but I think agree that he ...

MATTHEWS:  Have you met this guy?

ROBINSON:  I have not met Laffey yet.

MATTHEWS:  He is so gung-ho.  He talks faster than I do.

ROBINSON:  Well, that would be something.  That would be something.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s smart.  And he‘s got some juice, and he‘s literally running around the state, Michael, door to door—and it takes a state the size of Rhode Island to pull this one off, but he‘s running door to door, and he says if anybody else comes by, vote for them.  But they won‘t.  It is a great challenge. 

You know, let‘s talk about America may be getting a little broader in its acceptance of candidates.  I think everybody in the media knows Harold Ford, Jr.  His father was in politics.  He has been around here for awhile.  He‘s active in things like the creative coalition. 

You see him around town and he is very active in terms of all the business of politics and social business of it.  People like Imus seem to be in love with him.  That is a tough race though, for senator in Tennessee.  There he is running against Corker, the Republican. 

ROBINSON:  It is a rough race.  It‘ll be really interesting.  I mean, he ought to win this race.  Harold Ford ought to win this race.  The history has been many black candidates who should have won races at the last minute do not. 

MATTHEWS:  Tom Bradley.  He was elected twice as governor of California if you look at the polls.

ROBINSON:  Exactly, he was elected if you look at the polls, and he ended up losing.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think people are dishonest when they talk to pollsters—go ahead, Michael?  What did you say to yes?

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  Oh, definitely.  I think you get a lot of folks who want to tell a pollster because it‘s a stranger at the end of a telephone line while they‘re standing in their kitchen, absolutely I am for a African-American candidate, when in fact they go in and they close that curtain and perhaps are not voting that way. 

MATTHEWS:  But why are they doing that?  Why don‘t they just tell the guy who calls them up or the woman who calls them up, no, I have got problems with that candidate? 

SMERCONISH:  I wish that they would.  I don‘t understand the duplicity that exists in that kind of ... 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe they know what they should be saying and they really

well, I don‘t want to get into too much psychobabble, but how often do you lie to pollsters? 

SMERCONISH:  Well, listen, when they call me, Chris, I do the “Seinfeld” thing.  I ask them for their number and tell them I‘ll call them back at their place later. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, you ask for their home number.  That‘s the “Seinfeld” one.

ROBINSON:  It is not that unusual that people would have a public face and a private face, though, and I mean, publicly people want to represent themselves as open-minded, and tolerant, and liberal in these matters, and in the privacy of the voting booth they may not be that way. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, well I think it‘s fair that most of us agree we should have a more representative United States Senate.  That‘s a policy position and I take it.  Anyway, thank you Michael Smerconish.

SMERCONISH:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  And thank you, Eugene Robinson, as always.

Up next, we will talk about the U.S. Senate race up in Connecticut.  Can Ned Lamont pull everything together on the Democratic side and beat the man he beat already, Joe Lieberman?  And be sure to check out the hot races across the country at MSNBC.com, a new election map.  You can roll your cursor over the map and get information about that race.  It‘s coming up right now.  Just pick your favorite race.  Just go to www.ElectionMap.MSNBC.com

You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

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MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL on our day long coverage of Decision 2006, Battleground America.  We are spending the whole day talking about the battle to control Congress.  One month ago Ned Lamont pulled off a shocker in Connecticut, beating Joe Lieberman in the state‘s Democratic primary.  Lieberman pressed ahead and saying that he would run as an independent.  Ned Lamont beat him once, but can he beat him again?

And will Republican Allen Schlesinger have any impact on the race at all?  MSNBC‘s Chris Jansing is in Connecticut today.  Chris I saw you up there talking to the gambling man today.

CHRIS JANSING, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Yes, I‘ll tell you, Mr.

Schlesinger, is that who you are referring to?

MATTHEWS:  Of course.

JANSING:  He would like to think he is the wild card in this race.  Right now, if you look at the polls, Chris, he gets anywhere from 2 to 6 percent.  It‘s the big guys in round two, Lieberman versus Lamont.  And I‘ll tell you, you would think, with everything that‘s going on this week, you know, school is getting back, we‘re changing seasons, people coming back from vacation, some of the passion that caused twice as many people to go to the polls as normally do during a primary would have cooled.  I haven‘t seen that. 

As I was walking around today and talking to people, it only took one line from me to get a debate going, a debate about the war on Iraq, which is driving this race.  Many people have seen this as a bell weather, a bell weather for where this country is headed, for its support for President Bush and the war in Iraq.  And that‘s on thing we didn‘t find any separation in. 

Once people started talking about the war in Iraq, they kept talking about President Bush.  What does that mean for this race?  Well, Ned Lamont interestingly has been going out and, according to his campaign, wants to be seen as more than just a one issue candidate.  He just doesn‘t want to be seen as the anti-war candidate and has been out talking about issues like education.  The only other issue I have heard brought up though, and I talked to a couple of veteran political reporters in Connecticut, and they say the same thing, the only other thing people are talking about here besides the war is the economy.  Electricity prices have gone up about 21 percent.  People still concerned. 

They talk to me about gas prices.  As you may recall, Chris, the Groton submarine base was saved here, but the company that makes those submarines is laying off.  So there is a little bit of lingering concerns her about whether these so-called mortgage moms could play into this race as well, people who are worried about where the economy is going.  Clearly that is going to be another one of the issues here.  But the number one issue, according to everyone I talked to on the street and the long-time political supporters here, no surprise, remains as it was in the primary, the war in Iraq.  Chris? 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, Chris Jansing is up in Connecticut.  Howard Fineman is of course a MSNBC political analyst and chief political correspondent for “Newsweek Magazine.”  John McCaslin reports for the “Washington Times,” and Ryan Lizza is senior editor of the “New Republic.”  Gentlemen thank you all.  I want to ask you for a across the board assessment of this campaign.  You can start Ryan.  Are the Democrats going to win big in the Senate?

RYAN LIZZA, “NEW REPUBLIC” SENIOR EDITOR:  Not just the Connecticut campaign, in general.  I think they have a good chance of winning.  Everyone says they have a better chance of taking back the House than the Senate.  I think if you look at what happened the last two election cycles, all the close races, or the majority of the close Senate races went one way or the other. 

MATTHEWS:  Where are they going to go? 

LIZZA:  I think the majority of the close Senate races will go to the Democrats.  And I think they will either come up one race short or they will take it back by one.   

MATTHEWS:  John?

JOHN MCCASLIN, “WASHINGTON TIMES” COLUMNIST:  I think the Senate. 

They have a better chance in the Senate.  You know it‘s incredible. 

MATTHEWS:  You think they have a better chance of taking the Senate?

MCCASLIN:  I think the Democrats if they can get—I think they have four states that they can take better than others right now.  I‘m talking about Tennessee, we will see what happens in Connecticut.  I‘m interested to see what the latest poll numbers are, after this latest debate on Sunday.  Montana is a very close race, Tennessee is a very close rate.  But what is interesting is years past, so few incumbents have ever lost office, and this year I think we are going to see some historic numbers. 

MATTHEWS:  I am with you.  I think there is blood in the water out there.  I think people are going to knock off Lieberman.  They are going to knock off Chafee.  They knocked off Jubelirer up in Pennsylvania.  They are going to look for people to nail.  You know, after we came out of World War II—you are laughing at me. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  There were a lot of heroes out there.  We won the war against the bad guys.  Everybody that came out of World War II was a hero.  When was the last time we won something that you wanted to thank everybody in government for?  Oh, great job you guys.  You don‘t sense that sense of joy about the success of our public sector. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  Let me explain my laughter.  You were talking about a leader in the Pennsylvania legislator who got knocked off because there is anger throughout Pennsylvania about a pay raise that they gave themselves in the state legislature at a time when Pennsylvania is hemorrhaging jobs.  That is a symbol of why and a reason why voters are so angry.  They are looking at the leadership class in America, here in Washington.  They are seeing the results, Katrina, Iraq, mounting debt, runaway spending, no answer on immigration.  They have got a million reasons to be angry at the incumbents generally, and the incumbents are Republicans for the most part. 

LIZZA:  And it‘s also a few of these Democrats who are not that safe. 

(CROSSTALK)  

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the thing, because you put together, I think, this magic thing that connected the way a lot of people think about politics.  Now the president did a swell job today.  He talked about the prosecution of a lot of these evil guys that went after us at 9/11, great.  I am not sure that is a political debate.  But I do think what you just mentioned, with some addition from me, some value added, says this, a lot of people thought it was complicated in Iraq. 

Our foreign policy is complicated.  We face a potpourri of enemies, the al Qaeda, you know, Hezbollah, the bad guys, the Shia militia, the insurgent Sunnis.  I mean it gets complicated, but you trust the leader and then along came Katrina and people say wait a minute he‘s asleep on the ranch, he doesn‘t even show up for the job, how do we trust him on other stuff?  I think those two went together.

FINEMAN:  Don‘t forget a lot of Republicans are going to stay home. 

This is going to be a low turnout election on the Republican side. 

MATTHEWS:  They‘re not coming out to vote for immigration.

FINEMAN:  They‘re mad because the president hasn‘t moved the party on immigration and a lot of the grassroots don‘t like the way Bush wants to move it.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s put this template to work here.  Will—let‘s be pundits.

MCCASLIN:  I just want to say with regard to what Howard said, I think they will come out for immigration in the border states. 

MATTHEWS:  Against us?

MCCASLIN:  Well because that‘s an issue that needs to be—look at Schwarzenegger—Schwarzenegger right now has popularity he‘s not enjoyed in a long time. 

MATTHEWS:  Because he switched.

MCCASLIN:  I know in Arizona it is going to be a decisive issue. 

MATTHEWS:  What is?

MCCASLIN:  Immigration, in getting something passed.  Something—well, it depends who‘s got the best proposal.

MATTHEWS:  Will people be angry about too many Mexican American—to many Mexicans crossing the border? 

MCCASLIN:  Well the Democrats seem to be more than the Republicans have, at some points.

MATTHEWS:  Really?

LIZZA:  Here‘s the question on immigration.  Does Bush hold tough and demand a comprehensive bill?  Does he stand up to the Republicans and say no?  It doesn‘t sound like it, because he‘s from the cave, right?  I mean, he‘s been pretty tough.

MATTHEWS:  He punted on social security reform.  He dropped the ball on immigration.  He let the House have hearings all August.  Everybody knew what the results of those would be.  What is his legislative program?

LIZZA:  There is nothing left.  The one thing he had left was a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

FINEMAN:  Here‘s the point.  You add up all those things.  You add up Katrina, and immigration, and the complexity and failures in Iraq, the bad pictures people see on T.V. all the time.  You have got a country looking at the leadership class, I use that term again, and saying these guys, these woman are not performing.  They‘re just not.

MATTHEWS:  I say, and I ask you all, will we see a lot of incumbents defeated, mostly Republicans?

LIZZA:  Yes, absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  John?

MCCASLIN:  I agree.

MATTHEWS:  OK, we‘ll be right back with Howard Fineman, John McCaslin and Ryan Lizza.  And later, a HARDBALL debate between Congressman Brian Bilbray, who just got back in the House and his challenger Francine Busby.  Bilbray/Busby, the big fight coming up here, the fight for that seat in San Diego.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman, the “Washington Times” John McCaslin and the “New Republic‘s” Ryan Lizza.  Let me go to Howard and then I‘m going to ask the other guys about your favorite races.

Howard, Pennsylvania: Santorum.  Michael Smerconish was on tooting the horn for Smerconish.  I think there was some partisanship there. 

FINEMAN:  He was tooting the horn for Santorum.

MATTHEWS:  Oh yes, give me an objective assessment.

FINEMAN:  I think Santorum‘s goal was to show that he was sharp, that he was clear, that he was a man who believed in things.  As a tactic, I think it‘s true, but also it‘s a tactic to try to make Casey, who is a very laborious and finely tuned politician look weak.  That was the plan.

MATTHEWS:  Casey was briefed for this by a bunch of people, where as Santorum is naturally who he is.

FINEMAN:  Santorum‘s who he is.  Casey‘s who he is too.  Casey is a naturally cautious guy who is a cultural conservative.

MATTHEWS:  OK, where is he on the after morning pill—morning after pill?

FINEMAN:  He‘s hemming and hawing on too things, on the war, on abortion, and so forth, because he had been in the lead in a state that is naturally Democratic and it was sort of don‘t blow it, just stay out of the limelight.  When I was up there covering a Casey event, he had the crowd at the beginning.  By the end of the event, the Casey crowd was dribbling away.

He‘s not a great fiery grab them by the throat politician.  Santorum is.  Santorum‘s problem is that his positions are unpopular, especially on the war.  And Santorum is doubling down on the war, he‘s sticking with the president on the war.  He‘s doing it...

(CROSSTALK

MATTHEWS:  He certainly did that on Sunday.  He said I‘m with Rumsfeld, I‘m with President Bush.  He is what he is.  You know, I have to tell you, one thing about Santorum, he is the genuine article for what he is, and that is a rarity, because so many of these politicians cultivate and groom themselves to be acceptable.  He doesn‘t give a damn what people think.

FINEMAN:  He‘s counting on that to bring him through.  It‘s a fascinating test of the larger question.

MATTHEWS:  Except he is a pretty conservative guy for Pennsylvania, which is a blue state, purple state.

FINEMAN:  It‘s a big test.  If he pulls it out, it‘s amazing.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s go to Virginia.  We talked a lot around here about that—Ryan, about macaca and all that, a new word we don‘t want to know.  You were there?

LIZZA:  I was there on Labor Day, actually.  I went to a couple of parades with Allen and some people that were sitting in for James Webb, because Webb‘s son is deploying to Iraq, so he isn‘t complaining.

But honestly, macaca, I was wondering, is this just an obsession of the Washington media?  Everyone is talking about.  You walk up to voters, you ask them about the race, the first they say about Allen is, it‘s really weird, that whole macaca thing, what was that all about?  It penetrated deep into the state.  Having said that, the other thing that Democrats say is Chuck Schumer, is the DSC of the National Democrats actually going to fund Webb?

MATTHEWS:  I get the feeling they haven‘t exploited the opportunity they have, where as the money—apparently, I‘ve heard from Charlie Cook‘s people, the expert, that for the next three months—or two months now, Allen is going to have all the money he needs to put on television.  Webb doesn‘t have it.

LIZZA:  You could see it at this parade.  Allen bussed people in, he had signs everywhere.  Webb had absolutely no presence.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s talk about that hot one and the ethnic factor down in Tennessee.  African American, well-schooled, bright guy, Harold Ford Jr.  Can he win statewide?

MCCASLIN:  I think he can win state-wide, running against a guy named

Bob Corker, a Chattanooga mayor.  I was over there a couple of weeks ago in

the state and I woke up one morning and I was surprised.  I turned on, you

had your choice on Sunday morning of all these televangelists and it‘s

great to get outside the Beltway for me when writing‘s mostly done inside

the Beltway, to see how the other side lives and looks at what‘s going on

in the world.  And your choice of televangelists in the morning, Jimmy

Swaggart had this big map, like MSNBC has, of all the Middle East, and he

obviously had a huge audience watching him in the cafe I was in, talking

about how this was all part of the Book of Revelation, and these countries

are rising up against Israel.  I am digressing to say that

MATTHEWS:  He wants the rapture?

MCCASLIN:  Harold Ford comes out today with a new ad, his first major ad, in which he specifies two things to the voters.  He tells the young people especially as you grow up, follow the rule of law and put your faith in God.  So he is speaking to a constituency there where they are not leaving any stone unturned to get this election.  

MATTHEWS:  OK, we got to go.  Howard Fineman, thank you.  John McCaslin, Ryan Lizza, thank you all.  Up next a hot HARDBALL debate and the rematch for disgraced former congressman Duke Cunningham‘s old seat.  Republicans won the special election to fill that seat last June.  Can they keep it?  You are watching HARDBALL‘s coverage of Decision 2006, Battleground America, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  When Republican Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham pled guilty to accepting more that $2.4 million in bribes, he forced a special election out in San Diego.  That was last June.  In the Republican rich fiftieth district Brian Bilbray defeated Democrat Francine Busby by four percentage points and now they are at again in the general election this November.  It‘s a Bilbray/Busby rematch.  And both are here to debate the issues this evening.  Let me ask you a simple question.  I hope I can get a simple answer.  Should we stop the flow of illegal people coming across the border into the United States, yes or no? 

FRANCINE BUSBY (D), DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE FOR THE HOUSE:  Absolutely. 

REP. BRIAN BILBRAY ®, CALIFORNIA:  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  Stop the illegal people from coming in.  What is the best weapon for stopping a person from coming in illegally? 

BILBRAY:  Well the first thing is you don‘t reward those ...

MATTHEWS:  No, what is the best weapon? 

BILBRAY:  The best weapon is enforcing the law. 

MATTHEWS:  Enforcing which law? 

BILBRAY:  Enforcement of employer enforcement, I mean ...

MATTHEWS:  OK, employers, you can‘t hire illegals.  

BILBRAY:  Can‘t hire illegals.

MATTHEWS:  Would you like to see a tough enforcement Miss Busby of illegal hiring? 

BUSBY:  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  So where do you disagree?  Miss Busby first. 

BUSBY:  Because what Mr. Bilbray is talking about is just more of the same policy that has already failed. 

MATTHEWS:  Well they never enforced employer sanctions.  Well how can you say it has failed.  I‘ve never heard of enforcement yet.   

BUSBY:  No, they are not enforcing it and all he wants to do is do more enforcement.  

MATTHEWS:  When have you ever heard of somebody fined for hiring somebody illegally?

MATTHEWS:  That‘s why we need comprehensive reforms.  San Diego would be a disaster without a guest worker program, and we need to give the boarder patrol the virtual fence that they want to help them smartly scan that border, see where the activity is and they can be more effective in stopping it at the border. 

MATTHEWS:  So you are the liberal in this issue? 

BUSBY:  You know what we need to stop.

MATTHEWS:  I am just asking, are you the liberal and he is the conservative?  Just give me the information here.

BUSBY:  I am giving you, I am a realist.  We have a real situation here.  In San Diego this is not some theoretical issue.  We have people crossing the border here.  We have people living here.  We have people working here.  We have people in our health clinics and our hospital and in our schools, and we need to address every aspect of that, and Mr. Bilbray only talks about enforcement and that‘s not going to solve our problems in San Diego. 

BILBRAY:  Chris, what is happening is you have got Miss Busby and others proposing to do another amnesty like Simpson-Mazzolli.  My position is that and the House position is before we talk about anything like that, we have to go back and do the enforcement part.  Busby may talk about the hospitals and about crime, I was a county supervisor.  I was chairman of San Diego County.  I saw the costs of $50 million a year for law enforcement, $100 million a year just in hospital and Medicare cost.  So the real difference here is the fact this is an issue that I know I have worked, I have been fighting for for a long time.  And we don‘t need to go back and give amnesty and reward people who are here illegally. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you.  Let‘s switch to Iraq right now because it‘s a hot issue.  If there is a measure on the floor next year, when the new Congress meets, and either one of are there voting for San Diego, and the vote is to extend the U.S. mission in Iraq, to give the president another couple of years, to the end of his term to keep our troops here, would you vote for it, Miss Busby? 

BUSBY:  You know what those troops are ...

MATTHEWS:  Would you vote to give the president two more years in Iraq so he can do what he said he wants to do is keep our troops there through the end of his term?  Would you give him that authority?

BUSBY:  I am going to make sure Congress works with that president to have a plan.  We need to have some benchmarks.  We need to have a time line, and we need to get to make sure that we have a plan here. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, if he simply says I want a resolution of support to do what I have been doing since 2003.  Let me have the authority to stay in Iraq with the troops and be commander in chief, would you vote yes on that vote or no? 

BUSBY:  What he is doing now is not, staying the course is not an option, so I would not give him a blanket double-check. 

MATTHEWS:  Would you give him that?

BILBRAY:  I would tend to vote yes, unless there were some extraordinary reasons to basically pull the carpet out on support of the effort, I would give him the benefit of the doubt. 

MATTHEWS:  Will you vote, let me ask you about the other issue of Republicans, which you always win on, would you vote to raise taxes in any way? 

BILBRAY:  I wouldn‘t raise taxes. 

MATTHEWS:  In any way? 

BILBRAY:  In any way, no. 

MATTHEWS:  Would you vote to extend the Bush tax cuts all the way?

BILBRAY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Miss Bilbray, what is your position on the Bush tax cut?  Would you extend it?  Would you limit it?  Would you cap it?  What would you do with it? 

BUSBY:  That Bush tax cut has got us looking at $9 trillion in debt.  It‘s completely irresponsible to talk about more tax cuts without putting it into that context, so what I am going to do is try to work with people to reduce this deficit and, you know, keep taxes to a reasonable amount, but we need to look at that deficit before we talk about more taxes. 

BILBRAY:  The problem with the deficit is we are spending too much money.  It‘s not that Washington isn‘t taking in, we are taking in more money than we ever have.  The problem is we are spending too much. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, you have grown up in the United States.  You have grown up in the United States.  I want you to rate this president and look at the big boys, Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, whoever you want to put at the top and then put the other ones at the bottom.  Where would you put this president on a scale of one to ten Miss Busby?

BUSBY:  At the bottom.  I think that his failed plans, this Iraq, this preemptive war in Iraq that has led to chaos and destabilization in the Middle East has made this world a more dangerous place.  We are not safer here.  We have this tremendous amount of debt. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, at the bottom.

BUSBY:  At the bottom.

MATTHEWS:  Where would you put him, one to ten sir.

BILBRAY:  I would put him between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, which would be about a five or a six. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s a middle of the road president. 

BILBRAY:  Middle of the road president. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s a mediocre president. 

BILBRAY:  Well I mean he‘s ...

MATTHEWS:  Well, come on, give me a verb, give me and adjective? 

Mediocre, average?

BILBRAY:  I think that he is a sign of times, and he is during tough times. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he a great president? 

BILBRAY:  He‘s not great upon my issues.  I mean immigration I‘m very upset with him about.

MATTHEWS:  Is he great on defending America?

BILBRAY:  I think he is very good on defending America.

MATTHEWS:  Is he a great president?

BILBRAY:  He‘s great for defense.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you Congressman Brian Bilbray.  Thank you Francine Busby, his opponent in this upcoming general.  HARDBALL returns in one hour at 7:00 Eastern.  We‘ll be right back.  It‘s time for “TUCKER” right now.

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

END   

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