updated 11/27/2006 11:24:10 AM ET 2006-11-27T16:24:10

Guests: Bernard Trainor, Ken Allard, Eugene Robinson, Ron Christie, Bob Baer, Ken Fisher, Richard Wolffe, Larry Sabato, Craig Crawford

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC HOST:  Violence erupts in Iraq.  Could the country be headed for a full-scale civil war?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in for my friend Chris Matthews. 

Welcome to HARDBALL.

Shia militiamen carried out horrific strikes against the Sunnis today in Iraq, apparently in retaliation for Thursday‘s car bomb attacks which killed more than 200 people in the Shia stronghold of Sadr City on Thursday.  Gunmen raged through a Sunni section of Baghdad, killing dozens of people, including six who were burned alive—listen to this—after being doused with kerosene.  Four mosques and several homes were also destroyed. 

Is this violence the tipping point for civil war in Iraq?  Well, U.S.  military officials have told NBC News that American forces are on full alert.  All this as President Bush gets ready to meet with Iraq‘s Prime Minister Maliki in Jordan next week. 

So we begin tonight in Baghdad and this report from NBC‘s Tom Aspell. 

TOM ASPELL, NBC NEWS:  Well, Norah, in the wake of that horrific attack on Thursday, tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad continue to rise.  Earlier this morning, the funerals of some of those victims from yesterday‘s attack were held, the mourners marching through the streets of Sadr City, escorted by police.  The Iraqi prime minister had asked them to guard the funeral processions against further attacks.

Elsewhere, Shiite militiamen defying a curfew went on a rampage and attacked and burned seven Sunni mosques in Baghdad, four of them in an enclave known as Hurriya where a few Sunnis still remain surrounded by Shiite suburbs. 

According to witnesses, Shiite militiamen there grabbed six worshipers leaving a mosque after Friday prayers, doused them with kerosene and set them alight.  Iraqi troops standing nearby, according to witnesses, did nothing to intervene. 

Now the Iraqi government has held an emergency meeting to discuss the deteriorating situation.  No results yet, but one report says that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is asking American commanders to send troops back to Sadr City to block the main roads leading into that Shia area to prevent further car bombs. 

South, in the holy city of Najaf, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands the Madhi army, the biggest and most powerful militia in Iraq, has issued a call to Sunni imams asking them to issue a fatwah, a religious order prohibiting the killing of Shiites—Norah. 

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you, Tom Aspell in Baghdad.  Let‘s bring in NBC News Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski. 

Jim, is this a civil war now and are our U.S. troops caught in the middle? 

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC NEWS:  Well, I think any number of military experts, foreign policy experts and I think any number of the kind of images we‘re seeing coming out of Baghdad all tell us that Iraq is in a civil war at some level, clearly. 

And the best that the U.S. military can do at this point is to try to just keep a lid on the current violence there in Baghdad, which they call the center of gravity now as to the future of Iraq and to this ongoing of violence. 

Military planners, as Tom Aspell just mentioned, are looking at throwing up those checkpoints again around Sadr City that the Iraqi government had ordered disbanded under pressure from the Shia militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.  U.S. military officials say when those checkpoints were up and running 24 hours a day, there was not a single suicide bombing inside Sadr City. 

They‘re also looking at increasing patrols—military patrols inside Sadr City with Iraqi military forces backed up by U.S. 

Now, among the options also being considered is throwing an additional number of American forces on the streets of Baghdad.  Currently, they number 9,700.  No decision has been made on that, but there is widespread concern that they have to get a lid on this current wave of violence. 

O‘DONNELL:  Mik, you pointed out that it was under pressure from Muqtada al-Sadr to the Iraqi government that the U.S. forces ended these checkpoints in Sadr City.  Then, of course, we have these killings of over 200 Shia and now Muqtada al-Sadr says all of a sudden, well, U.S. troops are to blame for this because they didn‘t protect us. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Well, clearly that‘s political cover for Maliki, but the fact of the matter is that the U.S. was ordered by Maliki to remove not only those checkpoints around Sadr City, but to reduce the number of patrols in Sadr City because, quite frankly, Muqtada al-Sadr saw that as a threat to his militia, the Madhi Army, which, of course, is believed responsible for many of the death squad killings inside the Baghdad area. 

Interestingly enough, you know, the grand plan for the U.S. is to get Iraqi security forces up and running to take over their own security there in Baghdad and in Iraq.  One month ago, the Iraqis had 42,000 of their own security forces on the streets there in Baghdad.  The U.S. wanted more, but couldn‘t get them.  Today, that number is down by some 10,000 to about 32,000 -- Norah. 

O‘DONNELL:  And that‘s part of the problem. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Absolutely.

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you Jim Miklaszewski. 

Retired Marine General Bernard Trainor is an NBC News military analyst, and retired Army colonel is an MSNBC military analyst.  They are here for our war council.  Welcome to both of you. 

COL. KEN ALLARD (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Thank you.

GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (RET.), U.S. MARINES:  Hello, Norah.

O‘DONNELL:  General, let me begin with you.  We have seen enormous bloodshed over the past 48 hours in Iraq, the worst ever.  Is this now civil war? 

TRAINOR:  Norah, I don‘t know what name you want to put on it, whether you want to call it civil war or sectarian strife, but whatever it is, it‘s a bloody conflict between contending forces over who‘s going to exercise power in Iraq. 

O‘DONNELL:  But, General, would you acknowledge that something has changed in the past 48 hours? 

TRAINOR:  Well, something certainly has changed and that is this thing has become a full-blown bloodbath out there.  While it was bad enough earlier, you have never had the catastrophic results that we have seen here both yesterday and now again today.  So the idea of trying to put a lid on this becomes that much more difficult because the quest for blood revenge is going to be enormous out there. 

O‘DONNELL:  You point out that quest for blood revenge which is exactly what‘s going on between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority. 

Colonel, let me ask you, you just Mik touch on the incompetence or the impotence, if you will, of the Iraqi security forces.  Is this, once again, part of the problem?  They cannot stand up? 

ALLARD:  Norah, yes, it is.  If you have ever tried to push a string, you become aware of what the problem is.  What they clearly need here number one, are more troops; number two, active U.S. presence with the gloves off.  If we don‘t do that very quickly, this thing really will explode even beyond what you have seen thus far. 

O‘DONNELL:  General, let me ask you about our U.S. troops.  Now that we have such terrible violence in Iraq, worse than ever, is this our worst nightmare because our U.S. troops may be put in the middle?  As Mik pointed out, they‘re talking about putting more U.S. troops onto the streets of Baghdad? 

TRAINOR:  No question about that, Norah. 

The game plan was to as quickly as possible train up the Iraqi armed forces so that they could assume the burden of security in Iraq.  That became the main mission of the U.S. military forces, not a combat mission.  It was a training mission. 

And they were racing against time hoping that they could develop those security forces before the lid blew off.  But I‘m afraid, like we have just heard from Baghdad in the last couple of days, that the lid is off and we are caught right in the middle. 

O‘DONNELL:  And so let me ask you, Colonel, there is talk about maybe 20,000 additional troops in Iraq to help stem this sectarian violence.  Would that do the job? 

ALLARD:  Well, let‘s put it this way.  If you don‘t put the troops in right now, the situation becomes ungovernable.  And once that lid really does blow off, you‘ll need many more troops than that just to do anything.  If you do not have the guys in there on the ground, patrolling, providing essentially segregating forces in all those areas, you‘re absolutely going to guarantee the fact that there‘s no political solution. 

People will simply start grabbing for their guns and taking reprisals.  So the answer, as it always has been over there, is to have to more troops on the ground and have them right now. 

O‘DONNELL:  General, let me ask you because we are about to have a pivotal week in Iraq with potential diplomatic efforts.  We know that President Bush heading to Jordan to meet with Iraq‘s Prime Minister Maliki.  Over the weekend, we have Iraq‘s president, Jalal Talabani, heading to Tehran to meet with leaders of Iran and Syria.  We have Vice President Cheney heading to Saudi Arabia. 

What do all of these different movements mean and does it suggest that there could be hopefully some diplomatic breakthrough? 

TRAINOR:  Well, I think the term you use, hopefully, is probably the operative word there, Norah.  Honestly, the outside is the regional powers, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, they really—they have a certain amount of influence, but they‘re not controlling anything.  Right now, nobody is controlling anything. 

The Maliki government isn‘t, we are not.  This thing has broken up and it‘s spinning out of control and you‘re taking every effort to work with the in-country clerics and with the regional countries to try to come up with a some sort of non-military solution to this problem but the prospects are very, very dim at this point. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, General, let me ask you that, you note that it is spinning out of control, we‘re on the brink of a civil war, if we‘re not already in the middle of a civil war.  Is the Maliki government past the point of no return? 

TRAINOR:  Well, the Maliki government is relatively powerless.  You can set out benchmarks or anything else you want by way of milestones for progress and make demands, but if the man doesn‘t have the capability, then it‘s just whistling in the dark and at the present time Maliki doesn‘t have any authority that he can exercise. 

O‘DONNELL:  So, general, what do we do?  I mean this seems like a constant question that we ask.  But what can we do? 

TRAINOR:  Well, you have to obviously the administration has decided to hang tough and possibly even put more forces in there as a temporary way of keeping the lid on.  But the meantime, I think the thing is to work with the Shia clerics to try to get those people to grab control of their constituencies, but in large measure, they too have lost control of their rogue elements and these are the ones presumably that are causing so much of the trouble. 

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you, General Bernard Trainor and of course Colonel Ken Allard, we greatly appreciate it. 

And coming up what can President Bush hope to get done next week when he meets with the Iraqi prime minister in Jordan?  Can they keep Iraq from falling into a civil war?  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, President Bush is heading to Jordan next week to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and Vice President Cheney is off to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with King Abdullah tomorrow.  But is it too late to save Iraq from falling into civil war.  Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the “Washington Post” and Ron Christie was an assistant to President Bush and adviser to Vice President Cheney.  Welcome to both of you. 

O‘DONNELL:  Gene, let me start with you, what is the challenge now for President Bush in what will be even though the White House doesn‘t want it to be, a very high-profile meeting with Iraq‘s prime minister, with Iraq teetering on the brink of civil war. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “WASHINGTON POST” COLUMNIST:  The first challenge is to find out what in the world is going on.  I mean, this eruption of violence, sectarian violence, the last couple of days certainly would complicate this meeting.  And, you know, the president will be doing what anyone would be doing in this situation which is trying to find a handle on some sort of way forward in Iraq.  There appear to be no really good options and the least attractive option in many ways seems to be continuing on the present course.  So I think the president will be looking for some sort of options to go one way or the other. 

O‘DONNELL:  Ron, let me ask you, Vice President Cheney, there were some rumors out there, that he would head to Baghdad for the Thanksgiving Day holiday and you know interesting, and then we learned from the White House that we would be going to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah. 

We were thinking back, this may be the first Thanksgiving that our troops didn‘t not have a high-profile official with them.  Remember President Bush made the surprise visit several years ago.  Of course, he did it again and then last year, and then Vice President Cheney has made that trip.  Is that because the situation now is so bad that not one of our senior civilian commanders, meaning either the commander-in-chief or the vice president can‘t go to Baghdad to thank or troops on Thanksgiving? 

RON CHRISTIE, FORMER ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT BUSH:  Well, Norah, I think we‘re in a very difficult spot right now in Baghdad.  We have seen the worst spat of sectarian violence since 2003 (INAUDIBLE).  And we have to be sure that the commander-in-chief and the vice president remain safe.  But to echo Eugene‘s point right now, we‘re at a very critical stage, the president is going over to Jordan, the vice president in Saudi Arabia.  We need to sit down with our counterparts in the Iraqi government and they need to take strong responsibility of trying to take hold of the reins of their country. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well why is Cheney going to Saudi Arabia

CHRISTIE:  The vice president has always had very strong relations with the king of Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia has been a critical ally in the Middle East for the United States and coupled with the president going over to Jordan to meet the Iraqi leader, we need our two leaders over there.  We need to have face to face conversations to find a way out of the situation that we‘re now. 

O‘DONNELL:  What about people who say wow, this is all well and good, didn‘t the invasion happen three years ago?  I mean, where‘s the diplomacy been before then, Gene? 

ROBINSON:  Well, you know, the idea was, they had another idea where we would be at this point.  The idea now is that talking to the neighbors, talking to the Saudis, talking to the Jordanians, a lot of people would also say talk to Iranians and the Syrians—that that somehow will allow us to get a handle on the sectarian violence.  The Iranians being closer to the Shiites, perhaps the Jordanians and the Syrians can have some influence on the Sunnis.  I‘m not sure that‘s true.  I‘m not sure that that‘s the case that in fact there seems to be a self-perpetuating kind of wave of sectarian violence. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, let me ask you then, as we‘re looking for alternatives as you say it‘s clearly, it‘s not stay the course in Iraq.  Where is the Democratic Party on this?  I mean here was this watershed election, which clearly Americans said we want a change of course in Iraq.  And the Democrats essentially the week after the election spend fighting one another over a bunch of stuff.  Why didn‘t they hold a big summit and say, here‘s what we‘re going to do, here‘s the best military minds, here‘s the best former diplomats, look, here‘s a way forward in Iraq.  And instead, where were they? 

ROBINSON:  As you said, they were arguing about who would be ...

O‘DONNELL:  But was that a lost opportunity for a party that wants to be a governing majority party, now they say they‘re going to do it December 5, they‘re going to have this summit on that.  If they want to be, a majority party, isn‘t that incumbent on them to put forward an alternative strategy. 

ROBINSON:  Right, and I think you will see Democrats trying to find an alternative strategy.  The problem is, this is not easy.  There are no easy answers.  Try as one might, it is very, very difficult to come up with any sort of scenario, you know, that‘s really optimistic, that‘s really hopeful.  I think the Democrats will ultimately come out with some sort of phased withdrawal kind of plan.  Nobody‘s really enthusiastic about that.  At the same time no even really enthusiastic about staying this course which seems to be leading nowhere.  And there aren‘t all these new troops that John McCain wants to send to Iraq. 

CHRISTIE:  Gene, they squandered an opportunity, the Democrats had an opportunity, there was so much discord, the American people spoke with this election and they were looking for the Democrats to offer some sort of viable alternative and they have spent the entire first week after their election squabbling amongst themselves. 

ROBINSON:  I don‘t think we‘re going to remember that as long as one might think at this point.  They‘ll be given that chance. 

O‘DONNELL:  I‘m going to tell you something here, the Iraqi study group is ready with their first draft this weekend.  They‘re going to be debating it amongst themselves next week.  I bet we‘re going to hear something very, very soon from this commission that certain the White House would like to have, Democrats would like to have if there‘s some good options in that report. 

Thanks to both of you.  Ron Christie and Eugene Robinson are staying with us.   Plus former CIA operative Bob Baer on the mysterious death of that foreign Russian spy.  This story is like out of a cold war spy novel.

And later this holiday season, how the Fisher House, that‘s right, gives a home away from home to wounded troops and their families.  How can you help? 

And this weekend on “Meet the Press,” join Tim Russert for an exclusive interview with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  And now to that fascinating story of the poisoning deaths of a former Russian spy.  Last night the death of the former KGB  agent turned Putin critic, Alexander Litvinenko was caused by a radioactive substance known as pulonium 210.  And on his deathbed, the former spy accused of Russian president Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder.  He said, quote, “you have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.  You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protests from around the world will reverberate, Mr.  Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”

Bob Baer is a former CIA officer who was stationed in the Middle East. 

He‘s the author of “Blow the House Down.”  And he joins us by phone. 

Bob, let me ask you, do you believe, as Litvinenko believes, that the Kremlin may have been involved in his assassination?

BOB BAER, FRM. CIA OPERATIVE:  So far there‘s no evidence that the KGB was behind this.  But on the other hand, I can tell you that they are capable of carrying out an assassination like this.  They have done this across the Soviet—former Soviet Union.  They have gone after dissidents in Europe and other places. 

O‘DONNELL:  How much of that threat was Litvinenko to Russian president Vladimir Putin? 

BAER:  He was a threat, another ex-KGB officers are, because they have

been spilling a lot of secrets.  There‘s been a mass exodus from the KGB

working for private companies, going out and talking to the press.  And if

Putin intends to put this toothpaste back into the tube, he‘s got to do it

now.  And this man was a likely target

O‘DONNELL:  Boy, we have been showing these before and after pictures of Litvinenko within days, of course, loses his hair and looks like he‘s been on chemotherapy, but clearly was poisoned by pulonium, which is a highly radioactive and toxic material.  In fact 250 million times as toxic as cyanide.  And yet Vladimir Putin says today on live television, he doesn‘t believe it was a violent death? 

BAER:  I think it‘s just denial.  The Russians are in denial.  You have Russia is becoming more and more by the day a criminal state.

This guy was clearly assassinated.  And he was probably some sort of state involvement, because you just don‘t buy this stuff at the local drugstore. 

O‘DONNELL:  Absolutely.  In fact, the British government today calling this an unprecedented murder.  Scotland Yard is looking into this.  What are the international implications for this guy‘s death?  You know, you have had the Ukrainian President Yushchenko.  He, of course, was poisoned and blames the Russians as well. 

What are the international implications?  What‘s the burden on the U.S. government now in terms of it‘s relationship Russia? 

BAER:  Well, the burden is, what do we do about Moscow?  What do we do about Putin?  Put has just delivered surface to air missiles to Iran which effect our troops in the Gulf as well as the air force.  What is this man doing?  Are we losing control of Russia as well as Iraq and everywhere else?  And this is a serious threat to American national security. 

O‘DONNELL:  All right.  Bob Baer, author of “Blow the House Down,” and former CIA agent.  Thanks so much. 

BAER:  Thanks for having me on. 

O‘DONNELL:  Absolutely.  And we‘re back with “The Washington Post” Eugene Robinson and former assistant to President Bush.  And Ron Christie, welcome to both of you. 

We talked about this, pulonium 210.  This material, by weight, it is about 250 million times as toxic as cyanide.  So a particle smaller than a dust moot, too small to see, could be fatal.  It was used in the Soviet‘s moon rovers.  I mean who has access to this kind of material? 

ROBINSON:  This stuff is so toxic, that this afternoon the British medical examiners were still debating whether it was safe to do a full post mortem on Litvinenko because of potential radiation risk to the doctors who‘d be doing it. 

So, again, as Bob said, this is not stuff that you get at the local drugstore.  There would seem to have to be some state involvement. 

CHRISTIE:  And that‘s the scary thing about it, too.  You would like to believe there would not be state sponsored assassination, or state sponsored taking out people who are adversaries.  But you look at case like this, giving the toxicity of this and you have to ask questions, was there state involvement? 

And looking at the Russian government, we‘re at a very critical stage with them - the relationships between the United States and Russia.  Russia for goodness sakes, are they providing SAMS to Iran.  Are they helping to destabilize the region by supporting Iran and blocking sanction efforts in the United Nations Security Council. 

So, President Bush when he went over to Indonesia and went over to Asia last week, he made a quick stop over to meet with Vladimir Putin.  We need to shore up our relationship with Russia.  That‘s something I think that with a lot that‘s going on in Iraq, people are overlooking what‘s going on in Russia. 

ROBINSON:  There‘s one common theme here, if you put North Korea aside for a second and look at the regimes with which this administration is having the most difficulty, you‘ve got Russia which is rich in oil and natural gas, you‘ve got Iraq—you‘ve got Iran, you have got Venezuela with Hugo Chavez. 

But the energy-rich states with oil at $60 a barrel are able to kind of play outside the normal rules of behavior knowing that nobody‘s going to do anything because they need the oil and they need the natural gas. 

All right.  Well, thank you to Eugene Robinson and Ron Christie. 

And up next, helping America‘s bravest—how the Fisher House helps

wounded American troops and their families heal.  You‘re watching HARDBALL

on MSNBC

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  This is an important story.  Since 1990, the Fisher House Foundation has been giving wounded military and their families a home away from home while they‘re being treated for their injuries.  To date, over 8,500 families have stayed in one of the 35 Fisher Houses located on military installations and V.A. medical centers for little or no cost. 

I interviewed the chairman and CEO of the Fisher House Foundation, Ken Fisher. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  The Fisher House began in 1990.  How much has it grown? 

KEN FISHER, CHAIRMAN & CEO, FISHER HOUSE FOUNDATION:  Well, Norah, in 15 years, there are now 35 houses.  And we have estimated that we have offered two million nights of lodging and have saved these families that have benefited from the program some $70 million in associated lodging costs. 

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s amazing.  Explain to people who are not familiar with Fisher‘s House exactly what you do to help our men and women who are serving in the military and their families? 

FISHER:  Right.  Fisher House basically offers a home away from home for families of sick or injured servicemen and women for as long as they need to stay while their loved one is recuperating.  The program itself has benefited these families in more ways than just lodging.  One of the benefits of the houses also is the fact that within the walls, kind of a...

O‘DONNELL:  A community, a family. 

FISHER:  Yes, it‘s like a support system that is formed within the houses.  The families support each other through bad days, they help each other out on good days.  They support each other, they share in the joy.  And it‘s just a magnificent, magnificent thing. 

O‘DONNELL:  It is a magnificent program.  Tell me what has changed over the past couple of years, because I understand you‘re making some modifications to actually the size of the houses? 

O‘DONNELL:  Yes.  When the program began, the houses were eight rooms.  Then they grew to 11, and because of the need right now and, obviously, because of the outpouring of support that we have received from the nation, we have been able to increase the size of the houses to 21 rooms.  So this enables more families to stay, again, while their loved ones are recovering. 

O‘DONNELL:  And how are these Fisher Houses paid for? 

FISHER:  The Fisher Houses are primarily paid for by private donations.  We receive government funding, but in respect to our capital program right now, mostly private donations. 

O‘DONNELL:  You once said that it is your dream to maybe go out of business but, in fact, you‘re busier than ever.  Is that because of the state of the war and the number of wounded that are coming home? 

FISHER:  Yes, that‘s true, Norah.  We are very busy right now.  It is not just because of the casualties in our action right now, but these young men and women, in many cases, are coming back catastrophically injured.  The world-class healthcare that they‘re receiving from the military has increased the survivorship rate to over 90 percent. 

But that will tax the V.A. system going forward because these are young men and women in their 20s that are going to rely heavily on rehabilitation through the V.A. system.  So, yes, it‘s... 

O‘DONNELL:  Ken, I think many people who may not know may not understand.  I mean, if you have a family member who has been injured and is staying in the hospital, in the past, maybe families don‘t have the resources to stay in a hotel for extended period of time, to get meals for them for an extended period of time, to have a sense of community for an extended period of time, you provided those with these houses.  What is the response that you get back from many of these family members who stayed at a Fisher‘s House? 

FISHER:  Well, it‘s a very humbling thing, Norah, when you go down to see these families and these servicemen and women who have given so much and thank you.  And my response is—after I wipe a tear away is, is that I have the easy part.  You have the hard part.  And so what I do is my way and my family‘s way of saying thank you for what you have done for this country. 

O‘DONNELL:  How—are you getting enough contributions? 

FISHER:  Oh, yes, we‘re doing very well to the point where we have been able to go or undertake our largest expansion ever.  We have—within the next four years, we will be building five houses a year, which will bring the total by 2010 up to 56 houses. 

O‘DONNELL:  Wow.  Tell us about the Intrepid Heroes Fund at Brooke Army Medical Center, which, of course, they‘re building that really landmark center to take care of our soldiers. 

FISHER:  Yes.  That‘s going to be a 60,000 square foot—my father calls—state-of-the-world facility. 

O‘DONNELL:  State-of-the-world, yes. 

FISHER:  Yes.  Again, that was completely privately-funded.  It was spearheaded by my father who‘s the honorary chairman of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, Arnold Fisher.  And to support that will be two 21-room Fisher Houses, which is going to open in January, 2007. 

It‘s going to be, you know, kind of a bittersweet thing because, you know, we‘re very proud and happy that these facilities will benefit these young men and women that have given so much but, again, we wish we wouldn‘t have to do it. 

O‘DONNELL:  We—it is a holiday season and we do think about our men and women who are overseas, we think about their families because they can‘t be together at this time of year.  What is your wish for those families? 

FISHER:  Peace.  Peace and, of course, a speedy recovery.  But mostly peace. 

O‘DONNELL:  And many of these families that stay at the Fisher House, how long are they there at the house and do some come back for multiple stays? 

FISHER:  Well, the typical stay was two weeks, prior to your actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now it‘s really as long as they need to be there.  There are families that have been there for months.  I think in some cases over a year. 

And as far as coming back, you know, again, if their rehab requires them to, you know, to come back, then they do.  In other words, when they go through the active military and then are discharged, then they go through the V.A.  So there are many cases where they have been through a Fisher House at an active base and then have gone through the V.A. system where we have Fisher Houses and are building more. 

O‘DONNELL:  And I was amazed to learn, not only are you providing housing, which also provides a sense of community, of course, for these families.  But you‘re also helping in some ways in airfare so that families can actually travel to where their wounded family member is being treated.  How is that—how does that work? 

FISHER:  Well, it‘s called hero miles.  And it was—it started about four years ago, David Coker (ph) our president and James Wisecopf (ph) were responsible for spearheading this. 

How it works is, is that it‘s a partnership with Fisher House and the airlines where people will donate frequent flier miles and then we have been able to help facilitate families getting to the bedside of the sick or injured personnel. 

To date—these are staggering numbers—to date, there have been some 330 million miles.  And we have given out our 7,500th ticket.  So 7,500 tickets. 

O‘DONNELL:  So someone who is just watching and says how can I help? 

How will they be able to find out more information and help? 

FISHER:  Well, you can visit the web site which is www.fisherhouse.org.  That will point you in the direction, whether you want to contribute to the capital program or donate frequent flier miles, it‘s very much need and it‘s very much appreciated not only by the foundation, but by the many, many people that it‘ll help. 

O‘DONNELL:  Ken Fisher of the Fisher House.  Thank you so much for you time and all you do.

FISHER:  Thank you, Norah.  Thanks for having me.

O‘DONNELL:  A great American.

And up next with the ink barely dry on decision 2006, the candidates are off and running in the most wide-open election in half a century.  Who, if anyone, can challenge Hillary Clinton and John McCain.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Violence is raging through Iraq.  Both sides are waiting for James Baker‘s report on where to go from here.  And the 2008 presidential candidates are already out of the gate.  Let‘s dig into the headlines with the HARDBALLers—Congressional Quarterly‘s Craig Crawford, Newsweek‘s Richard Wolf and Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia.  Welcome to all of you. 

Let me go around the horn first and get each of you, just quickly, to name who you think the top three contenders are on the Republican side -- 

Craig.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY:  Well, John McCain is an early front-runner.  And I would say Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts are the challengers to the front-runner. 

O‘DONNELL:  Richard? 

RICHARD WOLFFE, NEWSWEEK:  Same three, no question. 

O‘DONNELL:  Larry? 

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA:  We‘re probably wrong on at least two of the three. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, let me show everybody then the polls, because that‘s the quote, unquote, conventional wisdom by all of our experts here.  But the latest Gallup/USA Today poll, of course that was out this week, shows in fact that the front-runner is Rudy Giuliani, 28 percent and John McCain 26 percent—Condoleezza Rice actually comes in third at 13 percent.  Gingrich and then Romney. 

Interesting—Romney is down there at the bottom, but all of you think that he is a top contender. 

CRAWFORD:  Well, you know, if polls at this point were correct, Ed Musky would be president.  So I think polls right now—I‘m actually not even reading them.  I don‘t think they tell us much. 

O‘DONNELL:  What is Mitt Romney‘s biggest challenge, governor of Massachusetts, Mormon. He‘s Certainly trying to be the conservative in that field.  He called John McCain this week disingenuous when it comes to gay marriage. 

WOLFFE:  Well, the Mormon thing—nobody thinks you can poll for it.  No Republican thinks he can really measure that in any way.  But what really sets him apart here is his organization, the way he‘s got a structure moving, financing in the key states, Michigan, New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, he‘s already up and running. 

O‘DONNELL:  And he‘s got a lot of former Bush people on his team. 

WOLFFE:  Exactly.  But his big problem, name recognition.  You cannot underestimate how difficult it is—or rather overestimate how difficult it is to get that name recognition out there. 

Mitt Romney, you know, he‘s a big guy out in Massachusetts.  Do other people know him?  Not yet. 

O‘DONNELL:  Professor, let me ask you about that.  What about Governor Mitt Romney who I think many people think of as the dark horse candidate --  of course, he is a Mormon.  He‘s from the state of Massachusetts.  But I have heard conservatives, evangelicals say being a Mormon is not like being an evangelical.  And they are a little worried that he was a little bit wishy washy on abortion in the past. 

SABATO:  Well, I do think the Mormonism question is a serious one.  I actually just spent several days out in Utah where Mitt Romney‘s fan club is very, very strong and very large.  And even they admit that‘s a big problem because 35 percent to 40 percent of the delegates to the Republican National Convention are fundamentalist Christians.  How do they look at Mormonism? 

I‘m quoting them.  I‘m not saying this myself.  I‘m quoting them. 

They call Mormonism quote, “a cult,” unquote.  So, it‘s a big problem.  Though I think Romney can overcome it much as John F. Kennedy overcame the questions about his Catholicism in 1960. 

CRAWFORD:  And he decided to deal with it with a bit of humor.  I don‘t think it helped it so much with evangelicals, but at one point he said I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.

O‘DONNELL:  Let me ask you about John McCain who many people think has a hold on perhaps the national security candidate, although at the same time Rudy Giuliani is so closely associated with the images of 9/11 and certainly if the Iraq war continues as its going today, this next commander-in-chief is going to have Iraq at the top of their agenda?  Do the two of them battle for that mantle best war-time potential commander-in-chief, Richard?

WOLFFE:  Well up to a point.  I mean, Giuliani hasn‘t got national security experience.  He‘s an iconic figure from 9/11.  And he carries the whole, sort of emotional baggage of that period.  But national security, clearly McCain is out front.

Now, that cuts both ways, remember.  Right now, you‘re looking at a war that has, what, 30 percent approval ratings, where really—everyone thinks we‘re going to be in Iraq over the next couple of years.  How are people going to feel about Iraq then?  How are they going to feel about a candidate who says he wants more troops, not less?  Really hard to judge at this point, so it could cut both ways.  Maybe they‘ll want a clean break rather than someone who has this experience that has put us there in the first place. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, the field is wide open on the Republican side, assuming Dick Cheney does not run as he has said, and the field is wide open on the Democratic side as well. 

Let me start with you, Larry.  Let‘s do the same thing, top three contenders on the Democratic side. 

SABATO:  Oh, everybody names Hillary Clinton first.  I‘m one of the people who is a doubter, and I‘ll believe it when I see it, as far as the nomination is concerned.  Btu I would throw in Barack Obama if he runs, John Edwards, who‘s clearly running, and maybe as a dark horse with real potential, Evan Bayh.  

O‘DONNELL:  Absolutely.  And let‘s show you the latest Gallup-“USA Today” polls that show Hillary Clinton is at 31 percent, Barack Obama, 19 percent, and John Edwards at 10 percent. 

Craig, how do you explain Barack Obama, this new man on the scene right ahead of John Edwards, and has this sort of national name recognition?  Usually, like, a candidate like that, they‘re not up there, because many people don‘t know who he is.  And he does have a strange name, as he even acknowledges. 

CRAWFORD:  He‘s winning the media primary.  We have the money primary and the media primary in these early stages of campaigns, and the media is falling in love with him.  And that can matter.  I saw that happen with Bill Clinton in 1991 before that race.  You see that sometimes. 

And that will matter.  I mean, there is a big movement among the media for Obama, and a lot of it is because reporters are going out on the road and seeing crowd reactions to him, so they‘re not making it up. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, Richard, I have seen Barack Obama in south Philly, when he was campaigning for Bob Casey, who is now the new senator from Pennsylvania, who beat Rick Santorum.  And I must tell you, there was a cult-like following.  He‘s got this new book out, “The Audacity of Hope.”  He needs to work on his stump speech just a little bit in terms—to be a political candidate.  But there is a feeling out there that there‘s a freshness there, that there is a newness to him, that there is an anti-politician there.  I mean, can he keep it up?  Can he last another year?  Can he run with only a couple of years experience in the Senate? 

WOLFFE:  Well, he can run, but if he was really smart, and he was doing the book just for presidential reasons, he would have released it next year.  The timing could have been better in that sense.

But look, this is one guy who is a game changer for both parties.  If Barack comes out—sorry, Senator Obama comes out, he not only makes Hillary look like a very different kind of candidate, he really makes John McCain look like a very different kind of candidate.  Because of that skipping a generation, you‘ll be moving not just from the pre-boomer generation, which is John McCain, past the boomers, the Clinton folks and the Bushes, and into a whole new realm.  And I think in the sense that we had from the last election, people were ready for change, that‘s what he represents. 

Now, will that mood stay the same?  Again, hard to predict over two years.  But you can see why the buzz is there; people want something different.

O‘DONNELL:  And he‘s clearly got the bug, you can sort of tell. 

And we‘ll be back with Craig Crawford, Richard Wolffe and Larry Sabato.  You are watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  We are back with “Congressional Quarterly‘s” Craig Crawford, “Newsweek‘s” Richard Wolffe and Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, and talking 2008 politics. 

Richard, let me start with you.  How worried are Senator Hillary Clinton‘s people, worried about a challenge from Senator Barack Obama?

WOLFFE:  Well, it‘s the first person, the first time they are concerned.  Because remember, they have locked up the best operatives, the biggest fund raisers, and he does present a sort of a game-changing prospect for them. 

I was speaking to a big fund-raiser for them out West just a few weeks ago, and they—the one person they are excited about, other than Hillary Clinton, was Barack Obama. 

O‘DONNELL:  Why? 

WOLFFE:  Because he is different.  Because he is untainted by the two big things coming out of this last election—ethics and Iraq—and they are looking for, again, a change, someone who is exciting, someone who is different. 

Elections are all about hope.  And he has this great phrase, the audacity of hope.  You know, maybe it will all fade, but right now he is definitely getting that excitement there, and that‘s inside the sort of Hillary machine, as it were.  

O‘DONNELL:  Larry, what about that?  Of course, he did not have to vote on the Iraq war, so he is not caught like Senator Clinton is, which is defending her vote, and at the same time trying to move away from it and propose some sort of alternative.  And of course, John Edwards voted for the war, Evan Bayh voted for the war.  Of course Edwards now says he regrets it.  I don‘t know what Senator Bayh says, but does that inoculate him to some degree?

SABATO:  Well, it‘s interesting.  I think it does help him.  You know, a lot of people point out correctly, my God, he has very little experience.  He‘s only been in the Senate a couple of years. 

Having said that, remember, John F. Kennedy had a very thin Senate record.  He had been in for longer, for eight years, but he was sick much of that time. 

You know, the funny part of it is, today, you actually have an advantage with less experience, because there is less for your opponents to attack. 

O‘DONNELL:  Yes.  That was John Kerry‘s problem, right, is that he had that long Senate record, with all of those votes that they just tore him apart on his record, and he really could never really get out from under that. 

CRAWFORD:  You know, that is the one thing I will say about the polls that fascinates me is these incredibly low numbers for John Kerry.  I have not seen a single one—any of them out of single digits for John Kerry.  I mean, this was the Democratic nominee just a couple of years ago, and he is at 7 percent.  He‘s got his running mate beating him in every poll I‘ve seen, even within states especially—even in New Hampshire, which is his neighboring state. 

O‘DONNELL:  And one other thing that I felt was interesting is, we had been saying for such a long time that Senator Hillary Clinton, of course, was unchallenged in her Senate race this year, that she would raise $50 or $60 million, that she‘d only spend like $20 million, and so she‘d have this huge campaign war chest and nobody would ever be able to challenge her.  And now we know she spent a lot of it in her Senate race, Richard. 

So you talked to some of her former fund-raisers, looks like they‘re still looking around.

WOLFFE:  Yes, but you know, she just has to flip the switch.  This money is going to pour in for her.  She is a truly formidable candidate, and she does have the experience that Barack Obama lacks.  So the fund-raising, the operatives—it‘s way too early to start minimizing her. 

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  And Bill Clinton is there—Bill Clinton is there helping. 

Thank you, Craig Crawford, Richard Wolffe and Larry Sabato.  Happy Thanksgiving, and right now it‘s time for “HEADLINERS & LEGENDS:” John McCain. 

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

END   

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