updated 10/26/2006 10:59:51 AM ET 2006-10-26T14:59:51

Guests: Dick Durbin, Bernard Trainor, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, A.B. Stoddard, John Harris, Ron Christie, Kiki McLean

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Tonight, two weeks until the election.  President Bush says no timetables for Iraq, but left open the notion of permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.  Will Americans say, no thanks, come election day? 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews and welcome to HARDBALL. 

With less than two weeks to go before the election, President Bush tried to turn down the heat on Iraq today.  In a news conference on the war, the president reaffirmed his support for embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and took full personal responsibility for the war. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  You‘re asking about accountability?  That rests right here.  That‘s what the 2004 campaign was about. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  But it‘s not 2004.  It‘s 2006 and polls show most Americans are now holding the president and his Republican party accountable for the war in Iraq.  Come election day, will voters punish them severely? 

Republicans are coming out fighting in the airwaves through tough ads and working on their ground war as well, courting conservatives to get out the vote. 

Are the Democrats up to the challenge?  Will they fight back and match the Republicans‘ fourth quarter offense?  Or could Democrats win simply because they‘re not Republicans?  The only sure thing about this election is over the next two weeks, is the fierce battle over power that will only intensify. 

Here is HARDBALL‘s David Shuster with more on what the president said today. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In the midst of the worst Iraqi violence and the greatest number of U.S. troop causalities in 12 months, today, a sober President Bush admitted what most Americans have been saying for a year: that the Iraq War is not going well. 

BUSH:  I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq.  I‘m not satisfied either.  And that is why we‘re taking new steps to help secure Baghdad and constantly adjusting our tactics across the country to meet the changing threat. 

SHUSTER:  But the only change from President Bush today seemed to be his words, not his policy.  The president did not offer a new strategy for stopping the loss of American lives or preventing an all-out Iraqi civil war.  But Mr. Bush denied the U.S. has quietly accepted a new mission for America‘s fighting forces. 

BUSH:  Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions. 

SHUSTER:  The president said America‘s patience is not unlimited, and to that end, he said his administration is now working with Iraq‘s fragile government to set benchmarks for progress. 

BUSH:  What we‘re asking them to do, is to say, when do you think you‘re going to get this done?  When can you get this done?  So the people themselves in Iraq can see that the government is moving forward with a reconciliation plan and plans necessary to unify this government. 

SHUSTER:  A year ago, President Bush repeatedly declared that any sort of Iraq timetable would be a mistake. 

BUSH:  There are not going to be any timetables.  I have told this to the prime minister. 

BUSH:  Don‘t bet on it.  Don‘t bet on American politics forcing my hand because it‘s not going to happen. 

SHUSTER:  Now just 13 days before the Congressional elections, the president is caught between his own party getting bludgeoned over the Iraq war and suggestions he is making changes only because of domestic politics.  So the president explained the new pressure on the Iraqi government this way. 

BUSH:  The benchmarks will make it more likely we win.  Withdrawing on an artificial timetable means we lose. 

SHUSTER:  If Republicans were hoping the president would give them a little more breathing room on Iraq, they were disappointed.  The president heartily embraced Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, even though Maliki today rejected the position of benchmarks.  President Bush left open the possibility of permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, meaning the U.S. may never leave.  And he once again stood by his embattled Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. 

BUSH:  And I‘m satisfied of how he‘s done all his jobs.  He is a smart, tough, capable administrator. 

SHUSTER:  Despite all of the controversies over Iraq, the president said he believes his party will keep control of Congress. 

BUSH:  There‘s a lot of time left.  And these candidates are working hard out there.  And my message to them is, keep talking about the security of the United States and keeping taxes low, and you‘ll come back here. 

SHUSTER:  But polling in most states indicates the Iraq War is the number one issue for voters.  And there was a dramatic new poll today in a Virginia race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate. 

Until recently, much of the focus on Republican George Allen has been over his “macaca moment” and alleged use of the “n” word, not Allen‘s support for the Iraq war.  But Democrat Jim Webb has a son serving in Iraq, and the Webb campaign has been ratcheting up theirs commercials, pledging for a change in course. 

And now, for the first time in this race, the latest polling shows Webb beating Allen. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(on camera):  Allen supporters note that another poll just days ago showed Allen ahead.  In any case, in races across the country, Iraq is now front and center.  The question is, will voters agree with President Bush, who today said the U.S. is winning in Iraq, or will voters reach another conclusion and make Republicans pay? 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David. 

Now for an update on the ground in Iraq, here‘s NBC‘s Jane Arraf in Baghdad. 

JANE ARRAF, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Iraq‘s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made clear that it is not up to the United States to set deadlines, benchmarks or anything of that sort.  He told reporters at a press conference today that it was not up to the United States to tell Iraq what to do, essentially. 

Iraqi officials say they‘re already working as hard as they can on those key tasks that the United States has made clear it expects to get done as soon as possible.  That includes disbanding militias, deciding how to carve up the oil wells in this country, and completing the constitution, essentially deciding who shares power here. 

Prime Minister Maliki also told reporters that a major raid that happened today with the help of the United States in Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad, would not be repeated.  What he was referring to was an operation by Iraqi special forces with their U.S. advisers that ended up calling in air support and killing at least five people. 

The U.S. military says that they went in looking for someone affiliated with the Mahdi Army, loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a key power broker who they believe is linked to death squads.  Maliki says he was not informed of the raids, not consulted, and that sort of lack of coordination won‘t happen again. 

For HARDBALL, I‘m Jane Arraf in Baghdad. 

MATTHEWS:  For an opinion of events in Iraq and the president‘s press conference today, we turn to Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. 

Good evening, Senator. 

Let me ask you about your reaction to the fact that the Republican National Committee is putting out the word late today that they‘re going to drop that ad that they were running against Harold Ford, Jr. in Tennessee that showed the very attractive, sexy white woman basically making a date with the senator. 

SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D-IL):  Well listen, Chris, politics ain‘t bean bag.  We know that.  But some of the ads that are up on the air now on the Republican side really go way beyond the pale.  Running ads against Tammy Duckworth, a disabled veteran from the Iraqi war in the Chicagoland area.  The ads that they‘ve run against Sherrod Brown that have been totally discredited.  Now I think they‘ve reached to the bottom of the barrel with this ad against Harold Ford.  I‘m glad they had the good sense to pull it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, was it good sense or was it pressure? 

DURBIN:  Both.

MATTHEWS:  Were they embarrassed by it, or was the plan—let me give you a third option.  They knew they could get a one or two-day run out of this stuff.  And they knew they could get their point across to, perhaps, angry white voters or people that had a problem with the black senator already, and exploited the hell out of it.  And then they pulled it, making themselves look like they had bowed to public pressure, when they‘d already gotten their point across. 

DURBIN:  That could be the outcome of this.  But, you know, when those ads finally are exposed and the American people take a look at it, it doesn‘t help Republicans anywhere.  To think that they‘re reaching to these desperate levels at this point tells us this is going to be a close election. 

MATTHEWS:  That may be. 

Let me ask you about the president today at his press conference.  Did you see any change in Iraq policy today with the president? 

DURBIN:  The only change I saw is the president started to acknowledge the position that the Democrats have held for a long time, a position which suggests this would be a year of change, that we would be talking to the Iraqi government in no uncertain terms about their responsibility to defend their own country, talking about timetables. 

But it was a lot of brave talk two weeks before an election, but no real change in strategy, in terms of where he‘s going.  I just have to tell you, when Prime Minister Al-Maliki is rejecting timetables, when the military is suggesting they may need troops and the president said they may not, there‘s no clarity now in this position by this administration in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Yesterday the president called a press conference, or the administration did, over in Iraq where George Casey, our commander over there, and Khalilzad, our ambassador over there, called a press conference to tell us, the American voters, how the government over there of Iraq is going to behavior in the next year and a half or so.  Do you think it was an accident they did not have a representative of the Iraqi government at that event? 

DURBIN:  No, I don‘t, because you know what happened immediately afterwards?  The Prime Minister of Iraq came out and said, we‘re not going to be held to any U.S. timetables.  We‘re a sovereign nation, a sovereign government. 

Wait a minute.  2,780 American lives, 20,000-plus who have been seriously injured and disabled, $350 billion and the fourth year of this war, you know, it‘s about time the Iraqis accepted responsibility for their own nation, and it‘s certainly time for American troops to start coming home. 

November 7th is a chance for voters to say to the Bush administration, no more rubber stamp Congress.  We‘re going to put in a Congress that‘s going to hold you to changing the course in Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s been a difficult time for the Democratic party.  They‘ve had a hard time saying where they stand on Iraq.  About half the Senate Democratic caucus voted to approve the president‘s right to go to war, about half voted against it.

Have you ever reached any unity on this?  Do the members who voted to give the president the blank check to go to Iraq, have they apologized to you, have they said you guys were right who said no?

DURBIN:  Chris, I don‘t expect an apology. 

MATTHEWS:  Why don‘t do they do it if they‘re wrong?

DURBIN:  Many of them have said publicly they wish they would have voted the other way.  I never heard a senator who voted against the war say I wish I would have voted for it, not one of the 23 of us who voted no.

But what‘s clearly happening here is there are people on the Republican side who were accepting the president‘s strategy, which is, quote, “stay the course” despite what Tony Snow says. 

And the fact is the American people are no longer there.  They don‘t want this war to go on indefinitely.  When I was there just a couple of weeks ago, we lost 27 American soldiers in one week.  The day I came back, we lost nine more.  This is totally unacceptable.  The president‘s approach in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people.

MATTHEWS:  What do you think of the judgment of your fellow Democrats who voted to approve the war?  Their judgment?  Were they smart, were they visionary?  What were they? 

Why did they support a war that turned out to be so bad?  That seems to be so misconceived that anybody who studied history for two weeks would have known that third world countries don‘t like being invaded by white people from the West, Europeans or Americans. 

They have always resisted invasion.  They have always turned nationalistic against any outside occupier.  It‘s absolutely predictable.  And this president didn‘t know it, but why didn‘t the Democrats know it?

DURBIN:  The American people were misled by this administration.  And many of my colleagues in the House and Senate, both parties, were absolutely misled about weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, connections with 9/11. 

All of these things turned out to be totally false, and many of them discovered later.  I had the good fortune I guess of sitting on the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors during that debate and hearing the debate that was going on within the administration. 

And I would walk out of those doors and think I can‘t believe the statements that are being made by President Bush and Vice President Cheney and Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld.  And that‘s why I voted no.  But many others were misled, as the American people were misled.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think Vice President Dick Cheney who you mentioned, do you think he honestly could have passed a lie detector test when he said there was a connection to 9/11, that there was some meeting in Prague, that there was some sort of deal, a cabal put together by the intelligence services of Iraq?  And the al Qaeda group—in fact, Mohamed Atta, the lead pilot to attack the United States?  Do you believe he was telling the truth when he said that?  Do you believe he was telling the truth when he said they had a nuclear weapon program underway with a vehicle that could deliver that nuclear weapon to the United States?  When you put it all together, do you believe he was telling the truth?

DURBIN:  I just have to tell you, when you take a look at the public statements made by the vice president, not only leading up to the invasion of Iraq, but since, you just see a litany of falsehoods.  Now whether he intentionally deceived the American people or was misled himself, the point is he would cling to some of these positions long after everyone had abandoned them.  It was only yesterday that he finally acknowledged that maybe the insurgency was not in its last throes, something he said a year ago.

MATTHEWS:  You allow him to pass it off when Lori Melroy, some of these people on the fringe, and Ahmed Chalabi, who had his own agenda to                get us in there.  Do you really believe he listened to people that he believed or he wanted to use them as his witnesses?

DURBIN:  Let me tell you, the neo-cons with Vice President Cheney and Pearl and Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld and this whole gang, they had an agenda here.  It was the invasion of Iraq and any excuse would do. 

And sadly, we end up in a position today having lost so many soldiers, in a position where we‘re continuing to lose our soldiers because of this failed foreign policy.  What we heard from President Bush today is no departure from what we have seen in the past.  It doesn‘t tell me that he gets the message.  And the message is clear.  There is no end in sight if we stick with the Bush strategy in Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go back to the anti-Harold Ford commercials.  They were racially tinged to put it lightly.  They were playing on white sensitivities about losing good-looking white women to black guys.  It was so obvious what they were doing there.  Do you think that‘s the kind of thing that Barack Obama will expect if he does go into this presidential election?

DURBIN:  Well, I can tell you that I hope Barack Obama does get involved in this presidential race.  He‘s an extraordinary person.  I think he would really do something very positive for this country and start bringing us together. 

MATTHEWS:  Will he have to face this kind of crap from the Republican ad writers?  Will he have to take that kind of stuff?

DURBIN:  Unfortunately I‘m afraid he will, because we have just seen it chapter and verse repeated so many times.  Whether the victim is Max Cleland or the victim was John Kerry with the swift boat ads or now these terrible ads that they have run against Harold Ford in Tennessee, there are some voices within the Republican strategy, and I don‘t know at what level who frankly prevail when they should be rejected.  This party of Abraham Lincoln with its proud tradition shouldn‘t sink so low in the midst of a campaign.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.  Coming up, President Bush says he‘s not satisfied with the situation in Iraq.  Will he do anything to change the U.S. policy?  We‘ll talk about that when we come right back.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  This is a sovereign government.  It was elected by the people of Iraq.  What we‘re asking them, when do you think you can get this done, when do you think you can get this done?  So the people themselves in Iraq can see they are moving forward with a reconciliation plan and plans to unify this government.  That is substantially different, David, from people saying we want a time certain to get out of Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s President Bush telling NBC‘s David Gregory his distinction between the benchmarks his administration has given to the Iraqi government and setting a fixed timeline for us withdrawing. 

Rajiv Chandrasekaran spent a year and a half in Baghdad as the bureau chief for the “Washington Post.”  He is now the author of “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.”  It‘s about the Green Zone.  He‘s now an assistant managing editor, by the way, an AME of the “Washington Post,” a very high title at that newspaper.

Also with us is retired lieutenant general Bernard Trainor, we call him Mic, who is an MSNBC military analyst.  General, first question. 

What‘s the difference between telling al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, is telling him, the president, that we‘re going to set benchmarks—we want benchmarks from him about how they are going to take over the security situation in Iraq and setting a timetable?  What‘s the difference?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR, MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  I don‘t think there is much of a difference, but I really think it‘s irrelevant.  You know, we are pretty late in the game on this thing.  And we‘re losing the game.  I wish the president and I wish al-Maliki well.  But at this particular time Chris, the ground is crumbling from under us in Iraq. The place is starting to look more like Somalia than any sort of a nation-state that we‘re familiar with. 

MATTHEWS:  Why doesn‘t George Casey tell the president that?  Do you think he has? 

TRAINOR:  Oh, I think they have to—in their confidential conversations, I presume he has painted the picture as it really is, which is bad.  We‘re late in the fourth quarter and we‘re losing. 

MATTHEWS:  Rajiv, by the way, congratulations.  You‘re now engaged. 

Isn‘t that great? 

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, “WASHINGTON POST” ASST. MANAGING EDITOR:  Yes, thrilled Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you look thrilled.  Let me ask you this about the technical questions over there.  You have been reporting over there.  You know the situation in Iraq.  What is it right now, in terms of this civil war we keep hearing about?  Is it afoot?  Is it already on?  What stage are we at, in terms of the sectarian fighting? 

CHANDRASEKARAN:  You know, all this talk here in Washington, is it civil war, is it not?  Are there benchmarks, are there timetables?  It‘s all semantic.  There is clearly really nasty fighting going on between Sunnis and Shiites.  That‘s incontrovertible.  It doesn‘t look like it‘s going to stop any time soon. 

The real issue here, in General Casey‘s remarks yesterday, President Bush‘s remarks today, is that the U.S. strategy now seems to be predicated on the Iraqis doing things that they have been unable to do thus far; the Iraqi army standing up.  You know, it‘s been now months, years, in trying to get the Iraqi army to stand up and fight the fight and we still hear now that units are AWOL, units aren‘t showing up in numbers. 

You know, the commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, which has control of Baghdad, put out a call for several thousand more Iraqi troops to come and help with the sectarian fighting, help put it down.  He only got a few hundred.  And now there is this talk of this national compact, getting the Iraqis to get together on national reconciliation, on dividing oil revenue, on all sorts of other points. 

They have had months to deal with this, and the government there has been unwilling to do it.  There is no clear indication, other than the fact that maybe now we in the United States are getting more desperate and are going to try to put a little more pressure on them, there is no indication that Iraq‘s leaders are actually going to move forward with any greater alacrity in dealing with these issues, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, general, you have been in combat, you have led men in combat.  It seems to me to go into combat, you have to have a real will to risk your life, maybe know you have odds against you.  You go into one of these fire fights in the cities like Baghdad or Fallujah, you have to really want to fight.  Why do we think that putting uniforms on guys, giving them three squares a day and some kind of a salary will make them want to fight? 

TRAINOR:  I think we were hoping that they would get motivated, but you‘re absolutely right.  You have to look them in the eye and see if there is fire in there and if they have fire in the belly.  And if they don‘t, you know, they are just not going to do it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, why do we think we can instill that?  I mean Americans do it because they love this country and they believe, as soldiers, fighting people, that you have to fight for your freedom.  They believe it.  You can talk to anybody in the military, whether they have two arms missing or whatever, they still believe it completely.  They believe in this country. 

Why would somebody believe in something called Iraq that we created?  In other words, you know, the British created Iraq back in the 1920‘s.  Now we‘re trying to re-create it again without a tyrant.  Well, they have only known tyranny.  Why do we think we can create something called Democratic Iraq that people will die for?  What makes us think that? 

TRAINOR:  The simple answer to that, Chris, is we don‘t have any alternative.  In order for us to get out of there, we‘re going to have to stand up some sort of an army that‘s going to be able to exercise control over that particular state, whether it‘s a fiction or not. 

MATTHEWS:  But for how long?  I have been asking this question since the beginning.  We walk out of that country, the day we leave, there is a military coup.  We look back and realize everything we created is gone.  There is some general who‘s 35 years old, with a big rifle, waving it in the air, running the country. 

TRAINOR:  Well, you know, that may be the best outcome we can hope for.  Right now, nobody is in control.  As I say, it reminds me of Somalia, because all you have these various factions fighting and they are fighting within each of the factions.  Ever since the statue fell in Alferdo (ph) square, back in April, 2003, there has been a power struggle going on, as to who is going to run this political fiction called Iraq at the end of the day.  We, the United States, have been incidental to this and remain incidental to it. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me go to Rajiv.  Who are the people—if we walked out of there tomorrow, took all our guns with us, tanks, humvees, whatever, walked out the door, who would win? 

CHANDRASEKARAN:  Well, there would be two big fights.  First there would be a fight among the Shiites.  Moqtada Sadr would be going up against the established Shiite parties, the party of Prime Minister al-Maliki and others.  And then the Sunnis and Shiites would fight each other.  It would be incredibly bloody, incredibly messy.  It‘s hard to game it out.  I think ultimately what would happen is both sides would go into their corners and the Shiites would retreat to areas south of Baghdad and perhaps control the capital.  And the Sunnis would have Anbar province and areas near Tikrit and areas to the, sort of, north and west. 

MATTHEWS:  So, it would be like Cyprus or Lebanon, something like that? 

CHANDRASEKARAN:  Yes, a bunch of green lines criss-crossing the country. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back with Rajiv Chandrasekaran and General Bernard Trainor.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re talking Iraq with former Baghdad bureau chief of the “Washington Post” Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and with Retired Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, who is an MSNBC military analyst. 

General, the idea was breached today—I think it was Jim Rutenberg of the “New York Times,” asked the president, are you talking about permanent U.S. bases in Iraq?  To me it‘s a frightening notion.  It puts us back in the sand forever.  It puts us where we were in Saudi Arabia before this war.  It gives another big reason for the Arabs to hate our guts.  Do you think it‘s in the military mindset to put permanent troops, like the foreign legion, over there? 

TRAINOR:  Well, I don‘t think the president was really happy with that question, to begin with.  But, in terms of the U.S. military, they want to have a footprint somewhere in the area, you know.  We are in that area right now.  And I don‘t think that they would be opposed to being in Iraq, if that was a feasible sort of situation, which I‘m not so sure it is. 

MATTHEWS:  But wouldn‘t the government look like one of those former French colonies in North Africa?  It always looks like whenever they get in trouble with the opposition or some sort of insurgency, in come the French troops to defend them. 

TRAINOR:  That‘s right.  That‘s the down side of the thing.  But, if they are going to have any sort of presence within the region, I think the most likely place, and the one that would be the least complicated, would be up in Iraqi Kurdistan, up in the north, to give the Kurds assurance that the Turks aren‘t going to coming in, give the Turks assurance that the Kurds aren‘t going to break away. 

MATTHEWS:  And they wouldn‘t hate us for being there?

TRAINOR:  No, that‘s right. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think, Rajiv, is there any place in the Middle East where the United States could put a huge garrison, like 10,000 or 20,000 soldiers, without being more trouble than they are worth? 

CHANDRASEKARAN:  Well, I agree with the general.  I think Kurdistan is probably the best possible option within the borders of Iraq, but I think what the Iraqi people want to hear is an unequivocal statement from the president of the United States that there will not be permanent bases, at least south of the Kurdish line.  I think that if we, as Americans, are hoping to at least win over the Iraqis in the next 12-18 months, a clear, unambiguous statement about what American long-term intentions are militarily, vis-a-vis Iraq, is incredibly important here. 

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t think the president was prepared to give us that certain statement.  Anyway, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you for joining us and congratulations again, sir.  And General Bernard Trainor.

Up next, we‘re going to talk about the battle for power with the “Washington Post‘s” John Harris and the “Hill‘s” A.B. Stoddard.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Only two weekends now to go to election and you can tell the polls are close and the attacks are getting tougher and tougher.  This morning, the president faced the White House press corps to answer the many looming questions about the war in Iraq. 

Here to dig into all of it is the “Washington Post‘s” John Harris, co-author of “The Way to Win,” that‘s about this upcoming election.  And the “Hill,” which is the Capitol newspaper, is A.B. Stoddard, speaking for them now. 

Here is controversial new ad targeting Tennessee candidate Harold Ford Jr. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Harold Ford Jr.  He‘s slick.  He‘s smooth.  But his record, a little shaky. 

Ford is Tennessee‘s most liberal Congressman.  He campaigns in a church, but took cash from Hollywood‘s top X-rated porn moguls. 

Ford talks values, but voted to recognize gay marriage, voted for taxpayer funded abortions 10 times, and wants to give the abortion pill to our school children. 

Harold Ford, smooth talk, Hollywood values. 

The Republican National Committee is responsible for the contents of this ad. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that was a tough one.  That‘s what they put on to replace the one with the good-looking chick in it, to put it lightly.  What do you think? 

A.B. STODDARD, THE “HILL”:  I thought that it replaces the one that is completely below the belt and really tacky. 

MATTHEWS:  That was below the belt.  This one here is just dancing around. 

STODDARD:  This one is actually, sort of, the average ad these days.  The attacks are on policy.  I think the abortion pills for school children might have crossed the line.  I think that you hear that and you wonder if it‘s really true, but the rest of it is saying this is why he is too liberal. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this how it‘s done these days, John? 

JOHN HARRIS, WASHINGTONPOST.COM:  Chris, it‘s working.  I wrote this book, as you know, “The Way to Win,” and a lot of Democrats say look, you know, Republicans are just tougher than us.  They wring their hands, they wine.  The fact is it‘s true.  And you can see in the polls that this kind of very tough attack does have impact. 

MATTHEWS:  I have heard it read a couple of years ago, somebody said it‘s not that the Democrats don‘t know how to make these ads, they just feel they have gotten above it, that this is really bad stuff.  It‘s like they are like Michael Corleone.  They have gotten out of the business of running dirty ads.  The Republicans are still in that business.  They say, look, I have left that behind.  That‘s the Democrat‘s attitude.  We‘re not going to run that kind of campaign.  Is it the mentality?   

HARRIS:  I think they just don‘t have the stomach for it. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s another way of putting it.  Let‘s take a look at this ad.  It‘s put up by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The high cost of health care, record oil company profits, family incomes falling, a war in Iraq that‘s gone from bad to worse, while Republicans in Congress like Rob Simmons and Nancy Johnson continue to back George Bush, telling us to stay the course. 

Rob Simmons, Nancy Johnson; before they let the president steer us into an iceberg, maybe we should think about a new direction. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Would somebody explain to me what that ad is about?  Icebergs are supposed to be 90 percent below the water.  It‘s all above the water and everything‘s listed above the water.  What‘s the point of an iceberg?  

STODDARD:  You know what I thought about that ad, I was so focused on the iceberg, I actually didn‘t hear what they were telling me.  And I watched it several times to make sure that that was what was happening.  The image is so distracting that you can‘t really absorb the information. 

HARRIS:  Iraq is clearly a huge, huge problem. 

MATTHEWS:  Why don‘t they show the fighting in Iraq and the hell of it?  Why an iceberg? 

HARRIS:  Your right, it doesn‘t have the searing personal effect that that other ad did. 

MATTHEWS:  Democrats watching, don‘t pay for that ad.  Here is an ad from embattled Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICK SANTORUM ®, PENNSYLVANIA:  I‘m Rick Santorum and I approved this message. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  North Korea close to a nuclear missile to reach America, yet Casey opposes deploying a missile defense system now. 

Iran also close, yet Casey opposes creating the bunker-busting bombs that may be needed to stop them. 

China, drilling oil just 50 miles off our coast.  Yet Casey opposes us doing the same, putting our energy at risk. 

Terrorists trying to enter our country, yet Casey comes out for amnesty for illegals. 

We just can‘t take a chance on Bob Casey. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s not a very attractive picture of Bob Casey.  He looks like he might be headed to the looney bin, or not too smart.  Is that what that message is, the way they have him looking there, kind of confused, his eyes blinking. 

HARRIS:  Chris, more people already saw that ad, just now, than are going to see it in Pennsylvania.  The Pennsylvania press today had him pulling his ad buy time, apparently because he is out of money.  I think, with the latest polls, you can basically get a fork out.  This race is just about done. 

MATTHEWS:  Have they pulled the money out of Pennsylvania, the Republican leaders? 

HARRIS:  I believe so, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a good sign. 

STODDARD:  I think that if you‘re Rick Santorum, you have to pull out all the stops.  This is essentially the same amount as Harold Ford.  He is trying to paint his opponent as weak, weak, weak, and try to make it seem really scary. 

MATTHEWS:  How many Americans are really horny to have bunker busters or SDI again, high frontier.  Isn‘t that kind of yesterday, that stuff?  I mean, it seems to me a very untimely ad.  Go after him on other things. 

STODDARD:  Yes, I mean I—whenever people talk about missile defense, this is under the same thing, but I think generally North Korea and Iran, it‘s in the news, it is scary, and it is. 

HARRIS:  -- talked about national security, without talking about Iraq, the one thing that no Republican wants to talk about.  You have got the national security, but not Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Smart parsing.  Michael J. Fox taped this ad for Missouri Senate candidate Claire McCaskill. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL J. FOX, ACTOR:  As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research.  In Missouri you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. 

Unfortunately, Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research.  Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. 

They say all politics is local, but it‘s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans, Americans like me. 

CLAIRE MCCASKILL, (D-MO) SENATE CANDIDATE:  I am Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that‘s an OK ad? 

STODDARD:  I think it‘s appealing to everyone‘s emotion, and it‘s involving a very serious matter, though.  And I think it‘s hard, stem cells have sort of divided the Republican party, the issue of stem cell research.  And I think that when people are hanging their hopes on a cure, I don‘t think—it‘s really hard to come out and say, no fair, he‘s exploiting his illness...

MATTHEWS:  But there‘s another side to this, which is the people who believe it‘s the taking of a human life.  Whatever you think of the argument, it‘s there. 

HARRIS:  The politics of this are pretty clear, and they are on the Democratic side or on McCaskill‘s side on this.  What‘s interesting in 2004, cultural issues, almost always, these things that are on the ballot helped Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

HARRIS:  Gay marriage was the issue in 2004.  This year, this is on the ballot in Missouri and in other states, and it‘s helping Democrats. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s Rush Limbaugh‘s take on that ad. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH:  They are saying that I said Michael J. Fox was acting.  Some of them got it right and said I said he‘s either acting or off his medications.  I said he was off his medications, I speculated, because he‘s admitted that he does that in order to show the ravages of the disease.  Which I said, by the way, is not a bad thing to do when you‘re trying to raise consciousness BROWN: out it.  I was not even critical of it. 

I‘m just suggesting that if he‘s done it once, done it twice, could he have done it again in the McCaskill ad?  I speculated.  I‘ve never seen a Parkinson‘s Disease patient that—I‘ve seen Parkinson‘s Disease patients a lot.  I have never seen that kind of behavior—and I am not an expert in it, but I‘m just explaining to you why I had the reaction that I had. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  There‘s an old expression, when you‘re in a hole, stop digging.  Is Rush Limbaugh in a hole there, trying to rationalize what seemed a pretty wise guy response the first time around? 

HARRIS:  A little bit of tap dancing. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s saying that the guy is off his meds, that‘s a phrase used in conversation that‘s kind of a joke, are you off your meds?  You don‘t usually say that about somebody who‘s seriously on meds who has Parkinson‘s Disease. 

HARRIS:  It was below the belt. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

STODDARD:  And it‘s fine with the listeners of Rush Limbaugh.  He‘s insulted everyone else.  And I think, if you insulted painkiller addiction and Rush Limbaugh personally, it wouldn‘t bother him. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a little close to home for him to be playing in this area of meds, isn‘t it?

STODDARD:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  A little close to home.  I like the guy, but, you know, I don‘t like that ad—or that comment, rather, about the ad.

We‘ll be right back with John Harris and A.B. Stoddard. 

This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s our ad.

We‘re back with the “Washington Post‘s” John Harris and “The Hill‘s” A.B. Stoddard. 

Do you think that‘s a clean enough ad?  We got the Republican taking the first shot, the Democrat whacking the guy in the neck as they cross the finish line.  I think we have another version of that, where the Democrat takes the first shot, then the Republicans takes the second shot. 

When you‘re looking at this campaign, John Harris, which ad‘s right?  Are the Republicans going to have the final shot at the Dems right before the election?  Is there going to be an October surprise?  Or a November surprise? 

HARRIS:  They‘ve been on the defensive.  I just don‘t see how they could stop being on the defensive, because they‘ve tried everything to get of the defensive... 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s Karl Rove doing now? 

HARRIS:  He is exactly trying to draw those sharp lines that have worked for him in 2002, 2004.  You see it, that kind of politics we saw earlier on the race down in Tennessee, a good example.  Rove‘s been consulting closely on that.  The question is, can that work on a national basis? 

MATTHEWS:  So cultural conservatism, really the rough kind, afraid of change, racial issues.  Real tough to stir up the base. 

STODDARD:  Terror, terror, terror.

MATTHEWS:  No, the president—they didn‘t push terror.  The president today pushed sort of an accommodative mode on Iraq, like maybe we‘re going to have benchmarks, we‘re going to—he seemed to be soft-soaping Iraq today. 

STODDARD:  No, what he‘s doing is trying to open up a conversation and tell the American people that he‘s open to change, he‘s open to a shift in policy that will come after the elections, it‘s too risky to talk about it now. 

But you know what?  If you focus group your college roommate, your cousins, and your neighbors, anyone who‘s not in the media, not in politics, they don‘t—this is a rhetorical shift, not a policy shift.  And it‘s circular and contradictory statements that the public has now tuned out.  Because when I ask people in my life about what‘s happened in Iraq, they say nothing.  It‘s just more bad news, more bad news. 

You can keep talking turning points, landmarks, milestones.  They are not listening anymore.  They are waiting for something solid.  And what happened today is nothing.  By the way, Nouri al-Maliki says after the press conference, “I am positive this is not the official policy of the American government, but rather a result of the ongoing election campaign, and that does not concern us much.” 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, he said that this morning, actually, before the press conference. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  In other words, he‘s saying, it‘s just for show. 

STODDARD:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  This is the prime minister of Iraq we set up over there. 

Let‘s take a look—one more byte of the president, if we can. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  Any decisions about permanency in Iraq will be made by the Iraqi government.  And frankly, it‘s not in much of a position to be thinking about what the world‘s going to look like five or ten years from now.  They are working to make sure that we succeed in the short term.  And they need our help.  And that‘s where our focus is.  But remember, when you‘re talking about bases and troops, we‘re dealing with a sovereign government. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Are the American people, John, going to be stirred by the fact that the president of the United States here opened the possibility of a permanent U.S. base in Iraq?  Not phased withdrawal, but a permanent gendarme role over there to protect that government? 

HARRIS:  I don‘t think that is what they are proposing.  So I don‘t think this is going to be a big issue there.  At a news conference today, there was an awful lot of nuance in that news conference today, benchmarks, but not timetables.  You know, with respect, nuance is Bill Clinton‘s game.  You could imagine him up there, sort of classic difference splitting. 

Clarity and sort of black and white has been typically Bush‘s politics. 

I saw him up there doing some sort of tap dancing, a very nuanced presentation.  That is not classic Bush politics of the sort, you‘ll forgive me, Chris, that we write about in “The Way to Win”. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Well, that‘s the name of your book. 

HARRIS:  That‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, John Harris, you‘re a great writer.

Thank you, A.B. Stoddard, you‘re a great a great writer.

Anyway, when we come back, Democratic strategist Kiki McLean and former Bush-Cheney White House adviser Ron Christie.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Did President Bush reduce the heat on the political issue of Iraq today with his press conference?  Did he help Republicans who are fighting for their political lives?

We turn to our HARDBALLers tonight to answer that in much more.  Kiki McLean is a Democratic strategist who served as press secretary for Al Gore‘s presidential campaign.  And Ron Christie‘s been here so often, he‘s served as a special assistant to President Bush and prior to that, he was deputy assistant to Vice President Cheney, that‘s how I like to pronounce it, on domestic policy.

Let me start here with a couple of these issues.  We‘ve done a lot on the Tennessee thing.  We‘ve exercised our judgment here, which is that the ad shouldn‘t have been run and they pulled it.  Do you agree, the ad should have been pulled?

RON CHRISTIE, FORMER ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT BUSH:  No, I don‘t think the ad should have been pulled.  It wasn‘t racist, for goodness sakes.  This is a—I happen to like Harold Ford Jr. personally—but this is a guy who went to a Super Bowl party with playmates, then goes and runs an ad where he‘s in a church and he‘s running on values.  You run an ad where you have a woman who says, Harold call me.  Then all of the sudden it‘s racist.

MATTHEWS:  Are you talking about the reception that “Playboy” magazine held at the last Democratic convention in Los Angeles?

CHRISTIE:  No.  I‘m talking about a 2005 Super Bowl party in Jacksonville.  Chris, why is that racist?  Why is it racist to have a white, blond woman say...

MATTHEWS:  ... Did you watch the ad?  She sneaks around and does a peek-a-boo in the end and says, “I‘ll call you a later.”  Give me a break.

CHRISTIE:  So how is that racist?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not going to fight this Kiki, you‘re a blonde woman. 

Go ahead, let‘s watch the ad.

OK, good.  Kiki?

KIKI MCLEAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Look, this pushes the edge of the bounds of taste.  You know it, I know it, Chris knows it, Harold Ford, Jr., knows it and Ken Mehlman at the RNC knows it and his weak attempt to actually defend this ad was laughable. 

For a guy who‘s been a pretty decent chairman for his side of the team, it wasn‘t good, it wasn‘t right.  It shouldn‘t be up on the air and everybody knows it.  we can debate it, you can I can spin it all day.

CHRISTIE:  But see, you guys are rich.  But you guys are so rich.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why are they dropping it today?

CHRISTIE:  The Democrats are rich.

MCLEAN:  What are we so rich about?

CHRISTIE:  Here you have somebody who is running for lieutenant governor in Maryland, Michael Steele, who‘s had—who‘s running for Senate, he‘s the lieutenant governor, who‘s had Oreos thrown at him.

MCLEAN:  Inappropriate.

CHRISTIE:  You have the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Steny Hoyer, saying oh, slavish.  And we‘ve talked about it on this very program.

MATTHEWS:  I think somebody apologized for that.  Didn‘t somebody apologize for that?

CHRISTIE:  Sure, but what I‘m saying if you want to talk about race biting, you want to talk about people injecting race in to the campaign, it‘s the Democrats.

MCLEAN:  Ron, we can go right down the list.  But the question Chris asked today, in a Senate race that has the potential to draw the line between who gets the majority and who doesn‘t, did the RNC step in and go too far and begin to do what—wait a minute.  Did they begin to do what they announced to the world three weeks ago that they were going to do, that they were so desperate they were going to do whatever it took, got as dirty as it took, in any of these races to win.  People don‘t give up power easily, Chris.

CHRISTIE:  Kiki, this is what I‘m talking about, how rich you guys are.  Oh, how dirty it is and how they‘ve stepped into it.  You have a woman—so let me see.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Ron, I‘m going to try one more time.

You‘re in a regular bar in Tennessee, some bar, a road show, right along the road, one of these old roadhouses.  And it‘s about midnight on Friday night, and everybody‘s had a few beers, right?  They‘re smoking cigarettes, whatever, they‘re having a good time, and that ad comes on.  What do you think the reaction is to people who are in that ad?  Black or white audience, both, what do you think the reaction is going to be?

CHRISTIE:  They‘re going to say, oh look, there‘s a woman there who happens to be blonde.  This is what kills me, Chris, you‘re saying oh how racist that is.

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s what‘s wrong, she has no clothes on in both shots of her, no clothes on her.

CHRISTIE:  Chris, you see a woman‘s head and she says, “I met Harold.” 

Where were you looking there, Chris?

MATTHEWS:  Nothing on.

CHRISTIE:  So under this view, would you rather have a black woman?

MATTHEWS:  Oh, we‘ve got some stupid script down there.  The Republican National Committee paid for this ad.  I love that part.  They‘re covering it up in this shot, for some reason, all that wordage.

CHRISTIE:  See, that‘s what I‘m talking about.  Oh, she‘s naked. 

Chris, get over it.  It‘s an ad.

MCLEAN:  Wait a minute.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not over it.  Ron, not only will I not get over it, I will not forget it, OK?

But let‘s move on here, let‘s go, because I think it is an example of

how low politicians can get.  And they must be desperate, and it‘s a credit

it‘s a credit to Harold Ford Jr., win or lose, how close he came that the other side had to do this crap.

CHRISTIE:  Well, I would say it‘s a testament to Harold Ford Jr. then, an African-American can run for a major statewide office in a state in the south and have a very competitive chance and a very strong likelihood to win.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Will the president of the United States successfully lighten up or cool off the Iraq war issue as a major concern on the American people today, Ron Christie?

CHRISTIE:  I think what the president of the United States did was underline our firm commitment and our goal to have a safe and stable Iraq and make sure that the Democratically-elected government in Iraq remains in tact.

MATTHEWS:  Politically though, did it help him today to make the case he made, the president?  I thought he was very courageous, very smart, but I think he didn‘t have—well tell me, did he have a case?

CHRISTIE:  Yes, he has a case.

MATTHEWS:  What was his case?

CHRISTIE:  The president of the United States represents all Americans, whether they‘re Republicans or whether they‘re Democrats and he took something to the American people and said, our goal has not changed, but some of the objectives to reach what we‘re trying to achieve in Iraq has changed.

MATTHEWS:  What has changed?

CHRISTIE:  What has changes is the president outlined that there are certain guidelines and certain benchmarks that he has established for the Iraqi government, which he says that they should come back to the American people and say, when are you going to fulfill these certain benchmarks?  The goal of having a Democratically-elected Iraq and having a safe Iraq has not changed.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what an employer says to an employee.  When are you going to sell this?  It was the boss talking.

CHRISTIE:  It wasn‘t the boss talking.

MCLEAN:  This was like Groundhog Day.  How many times is he going to have the same press conference?  I guarantee you that if you ran a poll of all the Republicans on the ballot across the country who wanted him to come out and do that press conference and say the same old stuff, except to make sure all the advisers were on TV saying, “But we‘re not going to say stay the course anymore,” you would have gotten an absolute no.

The only person who wanted to do that press conference was George Bush and maybe Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.  Maybe Rumsfeld wanted him out there.  But here‘s the bottom line.  He did nothing to provide any guidance or leadership to the American people.  Ron, he gave no indication to the American people what he was going to do to get us through this.  And frankly, the political...

CHRISTIE:  ... What press conference were you watching?

MCLEAN:  Ron, wait a minute, let me finish.  What he did was he came out and he said, in a feeble attempt, say blame me, don‘t blame the other guy.

MATTHEWS:   I have to interrupt.  Hey Ron, it‘s great having you both on the show, even though you and I disagree.  Play HARDBALL with us Thursday.  International firefighter union president Harold Schaitberger is going to be here.  He‘s a big Democrat.  Right now it‘s time for “TUCKER.”

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

END   

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