updated 10/31/2006 12:31:42 PM ET 2006-10-31T17:31:42

Guests: Vin Weber, Duncan Hunter, Howard Fineman, Chris Cillizza, Susan MacManus

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Tonight, it‘s the home stretch.  With the president‘s poll numbers down in the dumps, can Republicans run away from him fast enough? 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

I‘m Chris Matthews in Tampa, Florida, and welcome to our continuing coverage of “Decision 2006: Battleground America”.  

With only eight days left now until the election, candidates in tight races are fighting to make that final push.  Next Tuesday voters will decide whether to shift the power in Washington or whether or to keep the current crowd in charge.  Today there are 55 Republican Senators, and  Democrats control 45 seats.  Democrats must pick up at least six seats to gain power.  In the House, Democrats need to pick 15 Republicans to win control. 

Tonight we‘ll take on all the issues, the polls, the ads, and all the hot races.  We begin with the most important issue for voters in this election, the war in Iraq. 

NBC‘s Jane Arraf is live in Baghdad. 

JANE ARRAF, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, a U.S. military police officer killed by gunfire Monday morning in east Baghdad became the 101st U.S.  serviceman to die this month.  The military earlier said that a Marine died Sunday of wounds received in combat in al Anbar.  That‘s that province west of Baghdad that includes the turbulent city of Ramadi. 

It‘s been the deadliest month so far for U.S. service people.  And a huge blast broke the relative calm of the last few days in Baghdad.  This one, in Sadr City, where workers, day laborers were lined up just after dawn with their tools, waiting for work for the day.  The bomb, hidden in a plastic bag, ripped through that crowded market, killing at least 30 people and wounding at least 60.  Sadr City has been sealed off lately by U.S.  forces in part, because they‘re looking for a missing American soldier. 

And in the run-up to midterm elections, U.S.-Iraqi relations have been just a little bit strained.  To help improve communication and relations, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley, flew to Baghdad for talks.  In the video conference over the weekend, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to set up a committee to improve that coordination. 

Maliki has complained that the U.S. did not consult with him on a major airstrike in Sadr City last week, and he‘s taken offense that suggestions that the United States is setting timetables for Iraq—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Jane Arraf over there in Baghdad. 

Is it to late for President Bush to get voters on his side when it comes to the war in Iraq?  Vin Weber‘s a Republican strategist and former Republican U.S. Congressman from Minnesota. 

Vin, thank you very much for joining us.  Here we have a week to go before the election and we have this very big question of Iraq.  The president doesn‘t seem to be hiding from it, but it seems like a lot of Republicans are hiding from him. 

VIN WEBER, ® FMR. U.S. CONGRESSMAN:  To the extent that they are, Chris, it‘s a mistake in my judgement.  I understand the motivation.  I mean, I‘ve run for office with unpopular policies that you have to defend.  But you can‘t run away from your president.  The president is the leader of the party. 

Furthermore, this is not an issue that you can sort of just decide you‘re going to change your mind on.  I mean, we Republicans, and I‘m one of them, supported the invasion of Iraq.  We supported it because we thought it was in our country‘s security interests and continues to be so. 

Has it gone well?  No.  Might we need to change strategies?  The president says we might.  But to run away from the president just in advance of an election is not the right thing to do, and I don‘t think it‘s the politically smart thing to do. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you deal with the judgment question?  That the president—according to the latest polls, a plurality, it‘s not a huge plurality, believe it was wrong to even go into Iraq? 

WEBER:  I think you got to just take it directly on.  First of all, it‘s partially because he‘s faced a chorus of criticisms from the Democratic party almost from the time that immediately after the war ended or after the Saddam Hussein government was thrown out of power. 

So the Democrats have not, you know, done anything to help us build a bi-partisan consensus that we need to do something there, even while their top foreign policy leaders say it‘s vital that we succeed in Iraq.  And that‘s what you hear from almost all of the Democratic foreign policy leaders, is that it‘s vital that we succeed.

But the president has to just keep taking it on directly, tell the American people what the stakes are.  I do not think that the Iraq War at the end of the day is going cost Republicans control of the Congress.  I do think it‘s a negative for the party, and it contributes to that wind in our face that we‘ve faced through this whole year.  But it‘s not—it doesn‘t look to me like it‘s producing the big tidal wave the Democrats are hoping for on the other side. 

We‘ve got some other problems, as Republicans, connected with individual members that have gotten in trouble that is probably as important to our bad fortune this year as anything. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the Abramoff scandal that went after—affected Bob Nay, one of your former colleagues, a former member, now he‘s actually—I think he‘s still a member, and of course, Conrad Burns out in Montana—you‘ve got the Foley scandal, which is somewhat tied to him but also to the leadership.  Do you think that metastasizes across the country and engulfs all voting booths? 

WEBER:  I‘m not sure about that.  It might.  The pollsters will tell you it probably does not.  But you know, there‘s an environmental factor here that sometimes is a little hard to measure in the polls.  Certainly voters say what they care about is the economy, and they care about Iraq and they care about the war on terror. 

But when you have a drumbeat of bad news that links one party with corruption, whether it‘s fairly or excessively, I think it has to have an environmental impact.  So I‘ve been worried about it from the start, for well over a year now.  And I think it‘s hurting us.

Certainly, though, we know that we are being hurt in specific seats in the House, where members‘ problems have put in jeopardy seats should be slam dunks for the Republicans, like Foley‘s seat and Tom Delay‘s seat, you know, and some others around the country where members have gotten in trouble, and we‘re sort of starting out by almost giving some seats to the Democrats that they shouldn‘t be able to win anyway. 

MATTHEWS:  I think some people in the political left, Democrats for life, don‘t understand the propriety with which a lot of Republican voters go to the voting booth.  I hear this from my family, I hear this from other people I know who are very staunch Republicans.  They believe in less government, they believe in fiscal responsibility.  They don‘t believe in pork barrel or earmarking or all those things that come with power.  They do believe in personal responsibility. 

And they really have a problem when people break the rules.  Maybe better than Democrats, they have a real stricture system of, it‘s not important to hold office, it‘s important to hold to your principals.  Is that the way you see it out in Minnesota?

WEBER:  Well, we Republicans certainly believe that our voters are tougher on us than Democrat voters are on them.  I don‘t know for sure if that is the case or not, Chris.  I will tell you this.  The grassroots Republicans are what they say they are.  They believe in family values.  They don‘t believe it‘s a campaign trick or a ploy.  They believe in limited government, and most of them are quite willing to vote to do with less services.  They believe in lower taxes, because they think it‘s good for the economy.  And yes, it bothers them a whole lot. 

Now, I can defend an awful lot of what has angered some of my conservative friends over the last couple of years.  We‘ve had some extraordinary circumstances, the war and Katrina and things like that.  But these are people that take very seriously their beliefs and they are telling the party they‘re not happy where we‘ve been. 

I don‘t know if it‘s going cost us control of the Congress or not,  but I‘ve said for a long time, I think the Republicans are going to come back next year, whether in the minority or majority, with a very chastened attitude about spending and limited government and kind of the traditional conservative view of government issues, because that‘s what they are hearing from their grassroots voters. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the Republican party would have put up with Clinton the way the Democrats did and his behavior at the end, 98 on?

His behavior around ‘97, ‘98, I think we can isolate it there, but the problem  with Monica your party—I don‘t think your party would have put up with it. 

WEBER:  I doubt very much they‘d have put up with it.  I have to say, I‘ve got a little different point of view.  I don‘t think impeaching a president of the United States is almost ever in the country‘s interest.  I think it hurts us around the world, and I was not happy with what we did then. 

But you‘re asking me what the average Republican would think.  I think the average Republican takes a pretty tough attitude.  They‘re willing to throw their own out if they think they‘ve committed wrongdoing.  I think they‘d have been pretty tough on a Republican version of President Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  I think a lot of Republicans were very tough on Richard Nixon, and I remember it well. 

Thank you very much, Vin Weber.

WEBER:  Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Top Republican strategist.

Coming up, Congressman Duncan Hunter of California announced today that he‘s running for the big job, president of the United States and he‘ll be here to tell us why. 

And tonight at 7:00 Eastern, it‘s the 2006 Florida governor‘s debate between Republican Attorney General Charlie Crist and Democratic Congressman Jim Davis.  I‘ll be moderating tonight, right here in this room at 7:00, live from Tampa. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER, ® CALIFORNIA:  I‘ve always laid my cards on the table and I‘ve always told you in October what I was going do over the next two years.  As I finish my final two years as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee and serve you, I‘m also going be preparing to run for president of the United States in 2008. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL on MSNBC‘s “Decision 2006:

Battleground America”, our full day, all-stop --  non-stop coverage of the election home stretch.  That was Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter announcing his White House bid for 2008.  He joins us now. 

Mr Hunter, it seems like a very noble thing you just did.  You told your constituents that if they vote for another term for you, your final term you called it, they‘ll have to know that you‘re also going to be running for president. 

HUNTER:  Yes.  Let‘s lean on them to much here, Chris.  I want them to vote for more on Tuesday. 

MATTHEWS:  But it gives them a chance to recognize that you will be somewhat preoccupied with the presidential race as well as the chairmanship of Armed Services and Constituent Services. 

HUNTER:  Yes, you know, I have always...

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s a good thing to do.  I‘m saluting you.  That‘s a good thing to do. 

HUNTER:  God bless you, Chris.  I have always gone down to the waterfront a week or so before the election, and I lay out what I want to do over the next two years.  This year I had a little something extra for them, and I thought it was important to do that.  And I know people say, you should have hidden it until after the election.  I think it‘s better this way.  I made a one-man decision, and I think it‘s the right thing.

MATTHEWS:  I think it‘s better, too. 

HUNTER:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Then they can‘t complain about your voting record the way you did it now.  That‘s the key thing for you.  Nobody can say, hey, you just missed that 455th vote on the stem cell issue or anything. 

Let me ask you about McCain.  John McCain, we‘ve been having him on this show now for years, as you know.  And he looks to me like he‘s running for president.  Can you beat him? 

HUNTER:  Well, you know, I think I can win this thing.  And remember, I haven‘t announced.  What I said is, I‘m making preparations to run.  The second announcement comes later so you can get a second press conference, or course.  But you know, I stand up...

MATTHEWS:  I get it.

HUNTER:  I think we got great candidates running, and for the next seven days, John McCain and I and the other candidates are locked at the hip because we are all pushing the fact that the Republican Congress has built a strong national security apparatus.  We think that‘s what the American people should care about. 

We‘ve made America more secure and we‘ve got the strongest military in the world with massive investments over the last eight years.  And we want them to go to the polls realizing that on the 7th.  So we‘re together right now, and all the Republican candidates are together.  After the election we‘ll broaden that discussion. 

MATTHEWS:  I got a Tim Russert question for you: are you a Bush Republican? 

HUNTER:  Well, I think the president has done great stuff in the war against terror, frankly.  And I am on security issues.  I think the reason we haven‘t been hit since 9/11, Chris, is because we‘ve kept them off balance, we‘ve gone after them aggressively, and I think the president should be credited for that. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the argument over the timetable issue?  I was just looking at a new “Newsweek” poll.  And it‘s not overwhelming, but people would like to see—about three out of five people would like to see some sort of timetable for removing our troops out of Iraq.  The president opposes that.  Do you join him in that? 

HUNTER:  You know, I think it‘s one, two, three, Chris.  We‘ve done this for the last 60 years in nations that we‘ve brought freedom to.  You stand up a free government, that‘s one.  You stand up a military that can defend that free government, that‘s two.  Number three, the Americans leave.  We‘ve done that all over the world.  We did that in Japan.  We‘ve done that in Central America when we gave that shield to the fledgling democracies down there. 

We‘re standing up this—we‘ve already stood up the free government in Iraq.  We‘re standing up the security apparatus.  One thing that I did recommend to the president last week was we have 114 battalions of Iraqis that are trained and equipped by American troops.  And I‘ve recommended taking them from some of the easier regions in Iraq and push them into fight in Baghdad.  Give them some combat experience.  That hastens that process. 

But when we do that, we leave.  And I think that‘s an important thing for Americans to remember.  One, two, three.  This isn‘t a complicated thing.  Everything right now hinges on the success of training up the Iraqi military. 

MATTHEWS:  What happens if three is not our departure but three is a civil war where the two sides over there, the Sunnis and Shia, just don‘t want to get together? They would rather have the war than have to divide power, giving the Shia the predominant power? 

HUNTER:  Well, Chris, there‘s always going be at least friction between the Sunni and Shia.  That‘s part of the landscape of that piece of the world, just like there‘s always going to be ancient hatreds in that part of the world.  And that‘s just a fact of life. 

But we‘re giving these folks a running start at freedom, and nobody‘s freedom is guaranteed in perpetuity, including ours.  So we train up this military. 

And incidentally, on that point, Chris, all those people that said we should have left Saddam Hussein‘s army in place I think are now being proven wrong.  Saddam Hussein‘s 11,000 Sunni generals.  Can you imagine us trying to train up an Iraqi military and have them be fair in this situation in Iraq when you‘ve got 11,000 Sunni generals. 

So building their military from scratch was the right thing to do.  Rumsfeld made the right decision there.  This is just a long, tough road, Chris.  And the war against terror is a long, tough road.

MATTHEWS:  I think it‘ fair to call you a Bush Republican, sir. 

Thank you.

HUNTER:  Call me a Reagan Republican. 

MATTHEWS:  Who doesn‘t want to be that as a Republican? 

Up next, NBC‘s Lisa Meyers takes us through some dirty election day tricks.  This will be interesting.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  As this heated political campaign season enters its final week, this is the time we often hear both parties accusing the other of dirty tricks.  But when did dirty tricks cross the line and become criminal?  Tonight, we hear from the first time from an insider who crossed that line and landed in prison.  And there are lingering questions about who else was involved.  NBC‘s senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers joins us now.  Lisa?

LISA MYERS, NBC NEWS SR. INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, Chris.  Both Republicans and Democrats have engaged in dirty tricks over the years, as you well know.  Allen Raymond is among the few who got caught and paid a heavy price.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MYERS (voice-over):  For years, Allen Raymond was a prominent Republican person with a reputation for bear-knuckle tactics.

ALLEN RAYMOND, FORMER POLITICAL INSIDER:  Political campaigns are very aggressive.  The aggressor wins.  When you are aggressive you are pushing the envelope.

MYERS (on camera):  In an exclusive interview, Raymond admits that four years ago, he went beyond pushing the envelope and actually crossed the line.  He spent three months in prison.  Now in a civil suit, Democrats are trying to tie his misdeeds to the White House.

(voice-over):  It all happened during a hard-fought battle for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire between then Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen and Republican John Sununu.

Raymond was running a telemarketing firm.  He says an old friend from the Republican National Committee, James Tobin came to him with an idea.  Use non-stop hang up calls to tie up democratic phone lines on Election Day.

RAYMOND:  He gave me a call and outlined the program and asked me if it was something that could be done.

MYERS (on camera):  So you were trying to create chaos and keep Democrats from getting out their vote.

RAYMOND:  That is right.  We were trying to create chaos and prevent the Democratic Party from operating efficiently.

MYERS (voice-over):  On Election Day, the plan worked, until nervous state Republicans pulled the plug.

BILL CLAYTON:  That day because our phone lines ended up being jammed, the people that count on us to get rides to the polls, were not able to get the rides they needed.

MYERS:  And the Republican candidate won, though there‘s no evidence that they had phone jamming made the difference.

(on camera):  Do you believe that only Republicans engage in dirty tricks?

RAYMOND:  No, I believe that both parties engage in dirty tricks.  I think it happens all the time in one way or another.  Dirty tricks in politics are like UFO sitings.  You see them every once in a while, you know they exist, but you can‘t necessarily point to what it really is.  So yes, they occur.  But let‘s be clear on something.  New Hampshire phone jamming was not a dirty trick.  It was criminal.

MYERS (voice-over):  Raymond cooperated with authorities and pleaded guilty to conspiring to make harassing phone calls.

RAYMOND:  The difference between myself and my co-conspirators in this case is that I didn‘t hesitate to take responsibility and tell the truth. 

MYERS:  RNC operative James Tobin denied any involvement.  In this FBI report obtained by NBC News, he told agents that he informed a state party leader at the time that he would not support or endorse the idea.  The Republican National Committee spent an estimated $3 million to defend Tobin, who nevertheless was convicted of telephone harassment.  Others charged in the scheme, including Raymond, did not get the RNC‘s financial support.

(on camera):  A lot of people think that because the Republican National Committee paid $3 million to defend this guy, that they have something to hide.

RAYMOND:  Well, that‘s a very fair assumption to make and they need to answer for that.

MYERS (voice-over):  The RNC declined to comment.  Raymond said he initially assumed the RNC had approved the phone jamming operation.

(on camera):  On Election Day, you thought this had been endorsed by the Republican National Committee.

RAYMOND:  Well I certainly knew that it had been endorsed by an agent of the Republican National Committee.

MYERS (voice-over):  But now he says he‘s seen no evidence that others at the RNC or the White House signed off.  In New Hampshire, a lawyer for the state Republican Party denies others were involved.

OVIDE LAMONTAGNE, COUNSEL:  To the best of my knowledge, there was no discussion at the White House, no one at the Republican National Committee or the New Hampshire Republican state committee about this phone jamming.

MYERS:  Both the RNC and the White House also deny authorizing the operation.  Still, New Hampshire Democrats have filed a civil suit and a judge is allowing them to question Republicans all the way up to the White House about what they knew and when.  This month, former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie was deposed in the case.  Allen Raymond says his once bright political career is over.  He is now shunned by his party and is the felon unable to vote.

RAYMOND:  In the end, it accomplished four years of scandal, lots of legal bills, people going jail.  Was it worth it?  Absolutely not.

MYERS:  A cautionary tale, he says, for Republicans and Democrats.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MYERS:  And this may not with be the end of the story, Chris.

Sources tell NBC News that the Justice Department has had lawyers and FBI agents attending various hearings and depositions in the Democrats‘ civil suit, which would seem to indicate at least a passing interest in this case.

MATTHEWS:  Lisa, there are so many—you said I know about dirty tricks and I do.  There‘s so many, I mean people who buy all the buses, all the buses in some county or state.  People that used to order a billion pizzas for some Democratic fundraiser to spend them and have them arrive, and then keep calling them back, saying please bring back those pizzas, inviting entire delegations from every African country to show up at some Democratic fundraiser so the liberals would have to give these people in all their revenue seats.  I mean, these are the old tricks.  This is illegal though, right?

MYERS:  It is illegal.  They got tripped up in a state law—it will be interesting to see if this civil suit does go trial in December, as is now scheduled.  If so, it could be an interesting few days.

MATTHEWS:  God, there‘s so many tricks.  I‘m glad there are some laws out there.  Anyway, thank you very Lisa Myers, great report.

Up next, how are the Democrats planning to counter the Republicans wanted get out of the vote, 72 machines -- 72 hours they can say they can do anything.  It‘s like the two-minute drill in football.  Plus, HARDBALLers Pat Buchanan and Bob Shrum are coming up.  And don‘t forget next Tuesday is the day to get out and vote.  And if you personally experience any problems voting, we have a national voter hotline for you.  Call 1-866-MYVOTE1.  It‘s one number for everything you need from finding your polling place, to sending an alert about voter fraud.  So go vote, it‘s your right.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

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MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That was a real donkey and a real elephant.  I wonder what happened to those characters running along the beach with people inside them. 

Anyway, “Decision 2006: Battleground America” coverage just eight days before the midterm elections.  The Republican “Get Out the Vote” effort has helped the party maintain control of Congress in the last two elections, but Iraq the number one issue in the minds of voters, can Democrats counter the Republican ground gain? 

HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has more—David.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, the Democratic Committee Chairman Howard Dean has acknowledged that his party‘s voter database is not as sophisticated and complex as the Republican party‘s.  However, Democratic officials repeatedly talk about enthusiasm.  And they believe the enthusiasm in this election is on their side, and that it will translate into “Get Out the Vote” activists and organizers who are better connected than ever. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over):  Eight days until the elections and Democratic organizations like MoveOn.org are calling tens of thousands of voters every hour.  Canvassing groups are following up on the calls with personal pleas door-to-door.  But Democrats are quick to point to something else.

KAREN FINNEY, DNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR:  There‘s also a lot that we‘ve actually been doing online through—we built something called “Party Builder” that enables people to use the web as a tool for organizing and activating volunteers and motivating them towards events. 

SHUSTER:  It was Howard Dean‘s 2004 presidential campaign that first exploited the potential of online communities and like-minded activists.  And the Internet has been a central tool in the Democratic party‘s “Get Out the Vote” operation. 

FINNEY:  Part of what we‘re trying to do is help people have a place online where they can organize around the issues that they care about, and hopefully, you know, use that to help our party win some elections. 

SHUSTER:  For both parties a key to this election will be turning out the so-called drop-off voter, somebody who votes in a presidential election but tends not to care about a midterm Congressional.  From the 2000 presidential election to the 2002 midterms, the Democratic drop-off vote numbered nearly 20 million. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Hi.  We‘re volunteers with the..

SHUSTER:  In targeting these voters, the Democratic National Committee does not control the entire voter mobilization program, and campaign experts say that compared to the GOP, the decentralized efforts involving a wide variety of groups can be inefficient. 

CHUCK TODD, EDITOR IN CHIEF, “THE HOTLINE”:  The Democrats are less coordinated than the Republicans.  That‘s a disadvantage.  Is it one point in Missouri?  Is it two points, you know?  In a close election, it‘s a problem—and a close election is one or two points in this case.  When you start getting to three or four points, then your turn out program doesn‘t matter any more. 

SHUSTER:  In this election, the Democratic party‘s counting on a big lift from organized labor, a traditional Democratic “Get Out the Vote” machine.  And as it stands, the toughest campaign battles are being fought in heavy labor states. 

TODD:  Under the current battleground, you can say that there‘s probably a pinky on the scale for an advantage for Democrats. 

JIM WEBB, (D) U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE:  From the state of Virginia, Jim Webb.  Give it up.

SHUSTER:  The other advantages are raw energy and enthusiasm.  Because of President Bush and his administration‘s handling of the Iraq War, polls show Democrats are especially angry and eager to take action.  And officials say that has translated into a massive number of “Get Out the Vote” volunteers. 

FINNEY:  Democrats are motivated and just organized and ready to go for this election because people recognize just what‘s at stake in this election.  So I think people are really taking this maybe more seriously than they may have taken previous midterm elections. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER (on camera):  And Democrats say one of the ways they are already seeing this, Chris, is with the record number of absentee ballots.  In some places, one of every four ballots expected to be cast are expected to be absentee ballots.  Democrats, like Republicans, have a massive effort to try to make sure that people who are not going to be in their district on election day have access to the absentee ballots.  But again, that‘s just another part of the massive “Get Out the Vote” operation for both parties—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster. 

Let‘s bring in right now the Hardballers.  We have got with us tonight Pat Buchanan and HARDBALL political analyst Bob Shrum. 

Welcome, gentlemen, to you both.

Pat, what is it about the pitchfork brigades and the regular Republicans that makes them more organized voters?  They know how to get to the voting booth, they know how to get other people to the voting booth.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Chris, Republicans have really been working on these things for 20 or 30 years and getting better and better at it to the point now, where folks like Rove, they‘ve got it down.  They can virtually send a piece of mail to your house, it hits the four or five issues you‘re concerned about.  This has been something, a process that has really taken decades, not just years. 

MATTHEWS:  And Bob Shrum, do the Democrats suffer from the fact they were the majority party for so many years and didn‘t have to do this? 

BOB SHRUM, HARDBALL POLITICAL ANALYST:  Sure.  And I think a lot of what we‘re hearing now is spin city in the run-up to the election.  I think the Republicans are right, that this is worth about 1 percent of the vote, this organizational effort.  I think Democrats will catch up and counteract a lot of it this year. 

But there‘s something really fundamental going on in this election.  This election is about Iraq, where a hundred American soldiers have been killed this month.  It‘s about corruption.  It‘s about two economies, where the average family is making $2,000 less a year than they were when Bush took office.

You know, you can get all the letters you want that are sent to you by Karl Rove, but if your family‘s making $2,000 less a year in this sixth term of a two-term presidency, I think Republicans are going pay a price. 

BUCHANAN:  Chris, let me describe what I think of the politics right now.  I do believe the Democrats are tremendously energized.  I‘ve never seen independents swinging so much toward the Democrats as we see right now.  And the Republicans are not well motivated.  If this was a referendum on Bush and the Republican Congress, there would be a wipe out here.  I don‘t think the anti-Pelosi stuff is working that well, there‘s just not that great a fear of Pelosi and Conyers and all the rest.  So I think the Democrats have a real natural advantage here. 

I think that one or two points or even three points Rove can give you, that will not stop a wave.  And from what I‘m hearing lately, is there‘s been some real slippage on the part of the Republican Senate candidates in Tennessee and in Virginia, which is two races I thought the Republicans would be winning.  So I think you‘re back to a possibility of both houses being gone. 

SHRUM:  I think...

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to the reason why that may be the case. 

Bob Shrum, you talked about Iraq.  I‘m trying to think about what changed the nature of the war in Iraq from acceptable war to what looks to be like an increasingly unacceptable war from the American point of view. 

Was it the combination of the obvious failure of Katrina at home that took away from the president his image of competence and caring, and then the people reapplied that to what was going on overseas, which was somewhat vague to them.  And they said, wait a minute, we‘ve been trusting our president to be making the right decisions and to be competent.  We just saw that he‘s not doing that at home.  He‘s probably—why do we keep thinking he‘s it abroad? 

I‘m trying to figure out why the war went from being what I said was an acceptable to unacceptable war.  What happened?

SHRUM:  Well, I think that‘s very perceptive about Katrina.  But I think we also have to remember that in 2004, the Iraq War was barely acceptable, and Bush did everything he could to wrap it in the clothes of 9/11.  In 2002, we had a 9/11 election, in 2004 we had a 9/11 election, and this year, we have an election where the third ranking Republican in the Senate, Rick Santorum, is trying to tell the voters of Pennsylvania they should reelect him because he gets along with Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton.  That tells you how right Pat is and how dire the Republican situation is.

BUCHANAN:  Here is what I think happened on Iraq, Chris.  In 2004, the Democratic Party has always been deeply split on Iraq.  Half of the Democratic Party did not want this war at all.  Terry had to draw a fine line there.  What‘s happened now, we‘ve had two years since then.  And in those two years, the American casualties, the Iraqi casualties, have grown and grown and grown.  We are two years further down the road and you‘ve got 100 casualties or a little more than that in October. 

And I think what‘s happened is the independents who backed the president, because he is a strong leader.  He has got the right judgment, even if folks disagree with the war.  He is the guy leading us.  They are now moving away to the point where you‘ve got 65 percent believe the country made a mistake going into Iraq.  Very hard for me to see how the Republicans can turn that issue around at all this election.  It depends on just how many people they can hold and I don‘t think it is a majority.

MATTHEWS:  Well I just think I just heard two thumbs down from Buchanan and Bob Shrum on the war in Iraq and its impact on the Republican ticket.  Up next, “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman and the “WashingtonPost.com‘s” Chris Cillizza on the battle for power in the US Congress.  We‘re going to talk more about that in a minute.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and MSNBC‘s Decision 2006 coverage.  With the president‘s poll numbers still down in the thirties, how much damage will he do to his party come November, November 7th?  Could Karl Rove have come back, come back now with an Election Day surprise?  And have Democrats figured out how to fully exploit Republican weaknesses?  Here to answer these questions are “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman and the “WashingtonPost.com‘s” Chris Cillizza.

First to Howard, the simple question, does Karl Rove have something up his sleeve?

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  I don‘t think so, Chris.  They sent the president out to—the president is going out to Montana supposedly to help rescue that Senate race.  But the significant thing is that when he‘s in the neighborhood, the president isn‘t going to Idaho.  Right next door where there happens to be a very close House race, I am not sure where Karl thinks he can put the president.  Yes, he‘s got this great turnout machine, but this doesn‘t feel—even though it may make a point or two difference, like it‘s going to turn the election.

MATTHEWS:  What about the issue of the gay marriage decision up in New Jersey by the Supreme Court requiring the legislature to come up with equal rights for gay couples?  Is that going to stir the base?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think that matters in Tennessee and Virginia.  But Tennessee and Virginia, two states that have that issue on the ballot, Chris, have a whole lot of other things going on between Allen and Webb on the other hand, and Ford and Corker on the other.

I don‘t see that one issue turning things around.  And if the Republicans at this late are still worried about getting their base together, even in Tennessee and Virginia, two Bible belt states, that just shows you what kind of a fix Karl Rove and George Bush are in right now.

MATTHEWS:  You know Chris, I have been hearing for years about ground game.  And I heard about it back in ‘80 when Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter in that primary, in that caucus out in Iowa and the word went out—it was basically put out by a Carter guy, Ed Jesser, a friend of mine, who said Kennedy‘s got the best ground game, the best game on the ground in the country.  And then I heard that Gephardt was going win in Iowa last time around, he was going to beat John Kerry and Howard Dean.

We keep hearing about these organizations on the ground, said with such brilliance and depth of belief, on the ground.  And nothing ever comes outs of these on the ground claims.  Is this another one by Karl Rove? 

CHRIS CILLIZZA, THEWASHINGTONPOST.COM:  Well look, I think actually something, sometimes does come out of them.  Go back to the 2004 election.  John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator in Ohio, had set a vote goal.  If I can get two million votes, I‘m going to win Ohio and I‘m going to win the presidency.

Well he hit his vote goal and he found out that George W. Bush had found more people to turn out.  And so even though John Kerry got every vote that he thought he needed, well more than Al Gore had gotten four years before, he still didn‘t win the state. 

So I think there is some evidence that this works.  That said, I think the key thing to understanding how this voter turnout operation works, it is motivated by volunteers.  It‘s motivated by energy and intensity and excitement.  If polls are to be believed, Republicans don‘t have that same level of excitement and intensity that they had in 2002 and 2004.  So can a machine work if the plug is unpulled?  You know what I mean?  If there‘s not enough electricity, can the machine still work?  I think that‘s an open question.  We‘re going to see if it will.

MATTHEWS:  You know Howard, I watched that press conference last week with the president.  I thought he did—I mean, I couldn‘t do what he is doing.  Most people couldn‘t do it.  He had the talent to go under and take an hour of questioning from a lot of very sometimes hostile, but certainly militant reporters and he handled it pretty well.  But I don‘t see how he got anything out of it.  Does he have nothing left to say basically in this go-around?

FINEMAN:  I don‘t think a whole lot.  I think in our poll, in the “Newsweek” poll, it showed a little bump up in the president‘s approval numbers.  But he‘s still in the thirties, Chris.  That‘s still toxic, that‘s still why there is no place for Karl Rove to send him really, where the president wouldn‘t do in many cases more damage than he would do good. 

And Chris is right about the intensity.  In our poll when you ask likely voters their generic answer, Democrat versus Republican, likely voters are more heavy in the Democratic direction than all registered voters.  And that means is that there is greater intensity on the Democratic side.  That‘s Bush‘s problem.  Iraq is the reason, Katrina is the reason, and in the suburbs among independent voters, stem cell research is the reason as well.

CILLIZZA:  And Chris, remember back in the campaigns in the ‘90s when

Republicans would morph Democratic candidates into President Clinton?  He

was not as popular back then.  I saw an add today in New Mexico‘s first

district that the Democratic congressional campaign committee is running

that has George Bush saying “stay the course,” then Heather Wilson, the

Republican incumbent, saying that exact same thing.  Now it‘s not a morph

ad, but as one operative put me, it‘s as close as you can get without

actually changing George Bush and Heather Wilson.  So it‘s just reflective

we‘re seeing that all over the country, reflective of how problematic the president is in these races for these incumbents.

FINEMAN:  I guarantee, if Heather Wilson had been a man, it would have been a morph ad.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much Howard Fineman, as always.  Chris Cillizza, thank you for joining us.

Up next, across the country, George Bush may loom large in the minds of voters this election, but in Florida, the fight is on to replace Jeb Bush.  We will get an update on the Florida governor‘s race. 

And a reminder: Join me at 7:00 Eastern tonight, live from Tampa, for the Florida governor‘s debate.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The race over who will replace Governor Jeb Bush down here in Florida is heating up.  Democrat Jim Davis and Republican Charlie Crist will meet in Tampa tonight for their final debate, which I‘ll be moderating.  You can watch it here on MSNBC at 7:00 Eastern. 

And for more on the Florida governor‘s race, we turn now to NBC‘s Mark Potter, who is in Miami.  Mark, how important is tonight‘s debate here in Tampa? 

MARK POTTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, both sides consider this to be critical, and the political analysts say a lot of people will be watching tonight.  You can just tell from what the candidates did today, they both took the day off to prepare for this debate.  Charlie Crist did not even campaign over the weekend.  Davis campaigned one day. 

This race has new energy, because the polls are coming a little closer, the election itself is coming closer.

For a while, the Democrats pretty much wrote off this race, thinking that Davis just did not have a chance against Charlie Crist, who was so far ahead and so well financed, but now they believe that he might actually have a chance, and so for him particularly, this debate tonight is all the more important. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

POTTER (voice-over):  For most of the governor‘s race, Charlie Crist, Florida‘s Republican attorney general, has been the clear front runner, with an effective and well financed campaign.  While Democrats focused mainly on the state‘s congressional races. 

But last week brought a big surprise: A poll showing the Democratic candidate, Congressman Jim Davis, statistically neck and neck with Crist.  Over the weekend, “The St. Petersburg Times” poll had Crist six points ahead, but still down from the earlier double digits.

TOM FIEDLER, MIAMI HERALD:  We‘re starting to see the Democrats come home, and I think we are seeing the beginning of this governor‘s race taking on some national complexion. 

POTTER:  Political analysts say the now close race may have less to do with Crist and Davis and more to do with national midterm politics, which helps the Democrat. 

ROBERT WATSON, FLORIDA ATLANTIC UNIVERSITY:  The state of the economy, the war, Mark Foley, turnout—it seems that this selection might be one of those where the candidates are almost secondary to the results. 

POTTER:  As the governor‘s race tightens, the attack ads sharpen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Jim Davis has the second worst attendance record in the entire Congress. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘ve seen his chair.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You‘ve seen his chair?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  His insurance plan, another empty promise.  Pay, hope and wait.  Sorry, Charlie, we‘ve paid too much and waited too long. 

POTTER:  In their bids to succeed Governor Jeb Bush, who can no longer run because of term limits, Crist and Davis are focusing on three issues affecting Florida.  After eight hurricanes in two years, both offer plans to tackle the staggering cost of insurance. 

CHARLIE CRIST (R-FL), GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE:  We shouldn‘t have profiteering on the backs of Floridians, and if I‘m governor, I‘ll stop it.

POTTER:  They also propose different means to reduce property taxes and improve education. 

REP. JIM DAVIS (D), FLORIDA:  I want our schools to be first in the country, not last, and SAT scores and graduation rates.

POTTER:  It‘s a race attracting national attention, with an eye toward 2008. 

WATSON:  Political parties benefit during a presidential election by having their person in the governor‘s seat. 

POTTER:  Especially in Florida, as everyone learned so clearly in the year 2000 race. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

POTTER:  Now, in the first debate, which was held in the Ft.  Lauderdale area last week, the candidates concentrated more on state issues, but some national topics did come to the fore, including abortion and their reaction to the handling of the Terri Schiavo case.  But what came out of that, analysts say, is that it appears that these two candidates, who are both moderates, despite all the debates and the finger pointing and the accusations, on these core issues are actually not all that far apart, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Mark Potter for NBC in Miami. 

Here now to talk about some Florida politics is professor Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida.  Welcome to you, Susan.

So, Susan, you just heard Mark Potter say they are getting closer and closer.  They agree—their health care plans aren‘t that different.  Their position on marriage, gay marriage, is civil unions, apparently. 

Where are they strikingly different? 

SUSAN MACMANUS, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA:  They‘re really trying to cast themselves as different on the key pocketbook issues, which is property tax relief and home owner‘s insurance. 

MATTHEWS:  I love the way you say that with a Southern accent, the insurance.  But today—well, we‘re going to get to it tonight to see if they have got a good solution. 

Are the voters in Florida going to break on those two issues, home owner‘s insurance and property taxes, or are they going to break on ideology, what do they think of Jeb Bush, what do they think of George Bush? 

MACMANUS:  I think they are going to break on which one of these candidates they believe can actually get something done if elected in Tallahassee, because polls have shown that they are really kind of confused about who is on what side on key issues, including these property tax issues.  And they don‘t really understand each of these candidate‘s approaches to it.  It‘s a very, complex confusing issue. 

MATTHEWS:  Do the candidates have clear-cut arithmetic to present to the voters in what they‘re up to? 

MACMANUS:  Confusing arithmetic on a complex issue, and so voters are going to come back, again, to the one that they think—they believe can actually do something about the problem in Tallahassee.

MATTHEWS:  Do people in Florida—I know they like Jeb Bush as a governor.  Do they like him as a future presidential candidate? 

MACMANUS:  Well, they have always liked him as a future presidential candidate.  They have always liked him better than his brother, who‘s currently in the White House.  And most people in Florida, if you ask them should he run?  Will say maybe not in ‘08, but at some point, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Do they think he is smarter than George W? 

MACMANUS:  That‘s sort of the word on the streets here, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And why do they think that? 

MACMANUS:  Because he is an ideological governor.  He has well-thought out policy positions, he sticks to them, and he really proved himself in terms of leadership in a bipartisan fashion, nonpartisan fashion, when it came to critical emergency management issues.  Eight hurricanes in two years.  That was enough to impress people.

MATTHEWS:  I agree.  I always thought he was philosophical, as opposed to his brother.

MACMANUS:  Definitely.

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s more non-philosophical. 

Anyway, thank you, Susan MacManus. 

MACMANUS:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  In one hour, I will moderate the Florida governor‘s debate between Republican Charlie Crist—he‘s the attorney general down here—and Democrat Jim Davis.  He‘s a U.S. congressman from this area.  We‘re going to be live from Tampa right here in this studio.  Join me at 7:00.

And on Wednesday at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, Tim Russert will moderate the Florida Senate debate between Bill Nelson, Democrat, and Katherine Harris, Republican.  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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