updated 12/11/2006 12:20:28 PM ET 2006-12-11T17:20:28

Guests: Shimon Peres, John Harwood, Michael Isikoff, Mark McKinnon, Sam Brownback

MIKE BARNICLE, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, will the war in Iraq spark a regional conflict in the Middle East?  Or is it already happening?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Mike Barnicle, in for Chris Matthews.  Welcome to

HARDBALL.

As chaos continues to swallow Iraq, Washington is trying to sort out what to do about it.  Will the president implement all 79 recommendations from the Baker-Hamilton report?  Even if he does, is it too late to save Iraq? 

Today, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that the mess in Iraq has increased the chances of a full-scale, regional Mideast war.  Could a diplomatic offensive prevent it from happening?  Will the United States sit down with Iran and Syria, both considered enemy countries? 

One of the key recommendations from the Iraq Study Group calls for concerted effort to bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to save Iraq.  We‘re joined now by Israeli vice premiere and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. 

Mr. Prime Minister, welcome. 

SHIMON PERES, FMR. ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER:  Thank you.     

BARNICLE:  Let me, in reference to the Iraq Study Group‘s report, read you a portion of their recommendation. 

“There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts, Lebanon, Syria and President Bush‘s June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. 

“This commitment must include direct talks with, by and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians, those who accept Israel‘s right to exist, and particularly Syria.”

Do you agree with that?

PERES:  I am not against it.  I don‘t think it depends only upon America, and clearly, not only upon Israel.  The problem is with the Lebanese and with the Palestinians.  They are split. 

They have many governments and no governments.  They have many armies and no army and they don‘t have an address.

So it‘s a recommendation of good will, but it will be very hard to implement, not because of us, and clearly, not because of the United States.

BARNICLE:  Mr. Prime Minister, here in this country, we in the media and ordinary citizens, we read about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  We think about it occasionally.  Some of us study it.  And, yet, you live it each and every day.

It would seem to some people here in this country, Iran is out of the question—in terms of negotiating with Iran right now.  Syria, out of the question in terms of negotiating with Syria.  Hamas.

Who would sit across the table from Israel in any negotiation?

PERES:  Everybody in Israel is ready to negotiate.  We are not split on the issue of having a Palestinian state on the side of the state of Israel.

But the problem is we have tried four times to make peace.  Twice we succeeded, with Egypt and Jordan, because they have a government, an army and a policy.  Twice, we failed, with the Palestinians and the Lebanese because they don‘t have either of the three.

Now, I think they are not fighting, actually, in Iraq, in my judgment. 

The war today is not against the United States. 

It is among the Shiites and the Sunnites like it used to be a year ago, two years ago in Algeria, where you don‘t have Americans, you don‘t have Israelis and hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered during the night until it reached the end.

It‘s more an internal problem than a regional problem.  The Middle East today is divided between two camps in the Arab world.  One political that comprises Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Abbas, the president of the Palestinians; and the other religious.  It comprises Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

The religious trend is not looking for land or peace.  They look for domination in the name of religion.

BARNICLE:  But what has the combustion that is Iraq today—the explosive violence, the continuing and increasing violence in Iraq—what has that done to prospects for Middle East peace in terms of Israel and Palestine?  It certainly has preoccupied the United States government, has it not?

PERES:  Maybe, but not so much the Middle East.  I mean the split among the Palestinians resulted more from Iran than from Iraq. Yesterday, Iran is trying to divide Iraq.  The problem is again in the hands of the Iranians—not the Iranian people, the Iranian ayatollahs.  A group of crazy, fanatic people.

They won‘t win, by the way, because they don‘t have a solution. They are a protest.  They don‘t know how to sustain their own people. They don‘t know how to promise the future generation. 

In the meantime, it causes trouble.

You know, generally, I am asking myself:  Is the world in a mess, are we going (INAUDIBLE) -- and my answer?  No.  The world is pregnant.  Pregnant with the new age. 

Somebody said that the Stone Age is over not because there is no more stones; there is no more age.  The same will happen to them. They shall have to pass through a difficult period of time.  We know it—painful, costly, but we have a future, they do not.

BARNICLE:  To continue with the pregnancy metaphor, this is either going to be a very difficult birth or there‘s going to be the need for a Caesarean section with regard to Iraq.

PERES:  I think it will be a natural birth in historic terms. More than nine months, what I mean.  It takes time.

But, you know, I am looking at the Arab or Israeli citizens. Israel today is 7 million citizens, 1.2 are Arabs and they talk the same way but it‘s not the same society.  Among the 1,200,000...

BARNICLE:  What do you mean by that?

PERES:  I‘ll tell you.  Among the 1,200,000 Palestinian Arabs who are citizens, there are already 50,000 academicians.  Nineteen thousand Arab youngsters are attending university every day.  Half of them are women.

There is a quiet revolution—that‘s what I mean by pregnancy—taking place.  It may happen soon.  It may take a little bit longer, but they don‘t have a future.  They cannot adopt themselves, which they have to, to a new age. 

Today, the new age is global, humane, not national, not religious. 

You can be religious and you can be modern like in Turkey.     

BARNICLE:  So with the demographic that you‘ve described...

PERES:  Yes.

BARNICLE:  ... the increasing numbers of young people in the Middle East among Arab nations, also could you draw the conclusion that, given that demographic, given the way governments in the Middle East are now in Arab nations, that there could be more explosions within those cultures?

PERES:  You know, the communists used to say religion is an opium for the masses.  Clearly, opium has a certain effect, but you cannot feed your children with opium.  You have to provide them with food. You have to answer the real needs of the people.

And Iran is not a problem for Israel, it‘s a problem first of all for Iran and then for the rest of the world.

They are driving crazy.  Iran is in a terrible shape, poor, corrupted, divided.  The only strength that Iran possesses is the weakness of the international community because there is no answer, so they make a mockery of it.

The minute the nations will unite and have a clear line we will not need a war, even, because then Iran will return their real size.

BARNICLE:  You sound like an optimist.

PERES:  I am.  I think you have to be an optimist and dissatisfied at the same time—an optimist because of the future and dissatisfied because of the present.  You cannot be satisfied with things that are happening.  But when you look, “Where does it go and what are the options not only for us but for them,” then you can become an optimist.

BARNICLE:  Are you optimistic that the United States will get back into the business or more so in the business of helping Israel sit down with your neighbors?

PERES:  We don‘t have any disagreements with the United States. We are in full agreement.  We accepted the so-called road map.  We accepted the vision of President Bush.  We accepted the vision of the former President Clinton.  We want peace.

You know, it‘s funny, the dispute is of a minor nature.  We gave back to Palestinians all of the Gazan territory.  We took out all of our soldiers.  We dismantled by force all of our settlements.  We paid $2 billion compensation to them.  We hand them over the full land. 

Why are they fighting?  Why are they shooting?  What do they want to escape? 

When it comes to the other part of the West Bank, we indicated that we‘re ready to give them back 90 percent, and about the rest of it‘s (INAUDIBLE).

So what are they fighting for?

BARNICLE:  Well, now one of the obstacles, it seems, is a single POW, a single Israeli soldier being held by Hezbollah that seems to be somewhat of an obstacle...

PERES:  No.

BARNICLE:  No?

PERES:  We are ready to release all of the prisoners that we have promised.  No problem. 

The problem is:  To whom shall we release it?  Who will get the credit?  Mr. Abbas, who is for this, or the Hamas that is against this? 

That‘s the problem.  Because our prime minister promised already to Mr. Abu Mazen, as we call him—or Mr. Abbas—to release the prisoners.  But they want to shout because they have captured a single soldier, we shall give it to them.  That‘s the only thing.  And we are not going to support the Hamas.

BARNICLE:  You mentioned working with several former presidents. A former president with whom you worked, Jimmy Carter, has a new book out that‘s created some controversy.

PERES:  Yes.  I am surprised by the book, you know?  It‘s not like him.  He knows the details.  We are for apartheid?  How?  We gave back all the land to the Egyptians, to the Jordanians, to the people of Gaza.  We are ready to give back the land to the Palestinians.  We gave back all the land to Lebanon. 

I don‘t know on what he bases it.

BARNICLE:  What are you going to say to President Carter, former President Carter when you see him?

PERES:  In the most polite way, that he is wrong, totally wrong, and I‘m surprised by his position because he knows the facts and he knows that nothing concerning peace depends upon us. 

Would it be upon us, we would have had peace already a long time ago.

BARNICLE:  How can he be so wrong?

PERES:  That‘s a good question which I don‘t know really the answer. 

The answer for Israel is that we have to be as great as the danger we are facing, and we are ready to be as small as the size of our land.

BARNICLE:  Shimon Peres, thank you very much for joining us.

Coming up, we‘ll discuss what will happen with the study group‘s advice with CNBC‘s John Harwood and Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

So what will happen with Iraq?  President Bush won‘t take all of the Iraq study group‘s advice, but will he take any of it?  And will Democrats be able to force major changes with what‘s happening in Iraq when they officially take over Congress in a few weeks. 

John Harwood is political editor of the Wall Street Journal and chief Washington correspondent for CNBC.  And Michael Isikoff is an investigative reporter for Newsweek and the author of “Hubris” which tells the story of how the Bush administration cherry picked intelligence to go to war in Iraq.

So, is this deja vu all over again?  Are they going to cherry pick this report?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NEWSWEEK:  Hubris II.

They will at best, the president and his people will cherry pick some of these recommendations. 

If you take a step back, it is a bit extraordinary that we have a commission that wasn‘t named by the White House or even people selected by congress—Baker and Hamilton were, but not the members of the commission -- sort of essentially rewriting American foreign policy and handing this report over to the president and Congress saying here do this. 

I mean, there‘s certain, sort of, basic questions of governance, who elected these guys to do this?

Now, certainly, nobody questions we are in an extraordinary mess and nobody has any good answers. 

You read the report and there is a large element of hubris to the writing of the report itself.  These things shall happen, they are recommendations for what the Iraqi government should do, they make—their exhortations about what the Iranian and Syrian governments should do—

Syrians should control the borders, the Iranians control the borders.  To imagine—the basic point is to imagine that any report or any plan written in Washington can seriously effectively affect the facts on the ground like Iraq...

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  By Jim Baker.

ISIKOFF:  Certainly, like I said, some people may see this as Hubris II itself. 

BARNICLE:  Let me ask you about the reaction in this city to the report.  Of course it‘s been a tsunami of a reaction.  One of the things that strikes me from the hinter lands, and it‘s rather disconcerting John, at least to me, is that one of the reactions, one of the principle reactions, is the politics of this report.

Does Jim Baker get along with Condoleezza Rice, is the attention there?  The polls, you know, run after the report is issued. 

And yet, since the report was issued, I think 19 Americans have been killed in Iraq.  Does anybody really think about that at the top level here today, in terms of—you know, the report?  Is it all just the politics of it? 

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  No, no.  I think people do think about that.  And, you know, the most poignant moment, dramatic moment of that press conference the president had with Tony Blair yesterday was when he went into his riff on I understand.  I understand how tough it is.  I understand what‘s going on right now with so many families without their loved ones during the holidays, and that sort of thing. 

I think he gets it.  The question—and the other thing is, stepping back, taking the big picture as Michael said, what is everybody saying, everybody in the discussion?  They‘re saying, this isn‘t working, we need something new. 

So the question is, how much of it is going to come from this report, how much is going to come from whatever the president hears from the Pentagon or State Department? 

Changes are going to be made.  The question is how big and how fast. 

BARNICLE:  Well, the other question that seemingly everybody in this city asks is will the president of the United States read this thing?  Will he listen and ponder what‘s in—what do you think? 

ISIKOFF:  I think he‘s been briefed on it.  Whether he reads the whole 96 pages or whatnot...

BARNICLE:  It‘s not that long.

ISIKOFF:  It‘s not that long.  It‘s not that hard to read. 

But, you know, when you look at the proposals, you know, the recommendations—I mean, the first part of the report is actually dead on in terms of analyzing just how catastrophic the situation on the ground is and how nothing has worked.  When you look at recommendations and put them under a microscope, there‘s a lot of mush there. 

Just take the question of troop levels.  You know, the big headlines were, we should drawdown and get combat brigades out by the early part of 2008.  You had at least one commissioner, Chuck Robb, who actually was pushing for an increase in troops, much like John McCain has been done.  There was a debate about that.  And he got language in there that said we could support a temporary increase in support, giving the president cover if he so chooses, to actually put more troops in right away into Iraq to help stabilize Baghdad. 

BARNICLE:  Speaking of coverage, John Harwood, how many Democrats can hide behind this report?  Will they hide behind this report?  Do they have a position as a party? 

HARWOOD:  I think they absolutely will hide behind this report. 

Remember, what is the mantra of Democrats as they take over the Congress?  We‘re going to be polarizing and partisan like they are, we‘re going to be bipartisan.  And what do they have to hold right now is a big fat bipartisan report saying, Mr. President, your policy is not working.  You need to change.

They don‘t need, really, as a party to come up with a whole lot of specifics beyond wielding that report against them.  Some Democrats are going to use the report to define themselves.  Joe Biden wants to run for president is saying I don‘t like this report because it‘s not for the federal solution that I outlined. 

So, some people will push off against it, but most Democrats in congress are going to hide squarely behind this thing. 

BARNICLE:  We have about 20 seconds here.  Jane Harmon, no longer chairwoman of House Intelligence, the new appointee, Congressman Reyes, favors more troops.  How does that factor? 

ISIKOFF:  Yeah, he said that in an interview.  He since—Nancy Pelosi has since spoken to him.  He‘s softening that down.  He gives the president‘s—the Democratic radio response today and he leaves that out. 

HARWOOD:  But it‘s politically useful for the Democrats to define them as tough. 

BARNICLE:  John Harwood, Mike Isikoff, thanks very much.

Up next, we‘ll talk with General Barry McCaffrey about the options for Iraq.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Today, the House ethics committee released its report on the Mark Foley page scandal.  NBC‘s Mike Viqueira is up on Capital Hill—Mike.

MIKE VIQUEIRA, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Mike, it was perhaps a fitting end on this the last day of this 109th Congress as the ethics committee came out with an 89-page report that was at times scathing, all up and down the chain of command on the House Republican side. 

They say that people should have known what was going on with regard to these Mark Foley e-mails, even the ones that were deemed merely overfriendly.  If people had looked at them in context, it should have raised some red flags, not mention the more salacious instant messages that precipitated Mark Foley‘s sudden resignation in late September. 

The report says that too many people up and down the chain of command exhibited a disconcerting unwillingness, and that is a quote, to take responsibility and do something about what was going on. 

They say there was insufficient diligence, another phrase from this report, that steps were not taken to make sure the appropriately handled.  Almost no one followed up adequately, said the report. 

Some may have been concerned about raising too aggressively in risking exposing Mark Foley‘s homosexuality, this report alleges.  And therefore, there were political considerations that came into play. 

However, you take all of it together, and what conclusion does the ethics committee reach?  That no rules were broken in the House of Representatives.  Rule 23 of the House says that all members shall act in a manner that reflects credibly on the House.  Other governmental ethics rules say that corruption must be reported immediately.  The ethics committee concluding unanimously, I might add, Democrats and Republicans, that no rules were broken, but there was negligence in handling the Mark Foley matter, Mike. 

BARNICLE:  Mike Viqueira, thanks very much.

While deadly days continued to plague Iraq, Washington is still sort out what to do with the Baker commission report.  Will president Bush do what his father‘s friends wants?

Plus, decision 2008 is already heating up.  Let‘s dig into all of it with the HARDBALLers—former Bush adviser, Mark McKinnon who is also a co-founder of hotsoup.com.  And HARDBALL political analyst Bob Shrum.

Gentlemen, if we could—if you could listen to this sound bite that we‘re going to play here, last night on the floor of the United States Senate, Senator Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, speaking to an empty Senate, actually.  And kind of an emotional speech about Iraq.  Just listen to what he said and we‘ll talk about it. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. GORDON SMITH, ® OREGON:  I for one am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day.  That is absurd.  It may even be criminal. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Mark McKinnon, a Republican senator from Oregon.  “It may even be criminal.”  What does this do, do you think, to any cohesion that there is within the Republican ranks with regard to President Bush and standing behind him on Iraq? 

MARK MCKINNON, HOTSOUP.COM:  Well, I think everybody is frustrate, including the president.  And we‘ve got a lot of reports coming out.  This one.  We‘ve got some more coming from the Pentagon is looking at all the options.  Everybody wants to find a way to improve the situation on the ground, including, and especially the president. 

BARNICLE:  Bob Shrum, I mean, tough language from Senator Smith. 

BOB SHRUM, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yes.  I think it‘s been a tough week for the president. 

Look, Jim Baker who purloined the presidency for George Bush in 2000 has now written the epitaph for the Bush presidency, and it‘s a damning indictment of a colossal foreign policy failure.  I think it‘s very hard personally for the president to turn around and change course here, except in a cosmetic sense because Iraq is his legacy. 

He‘s not Lyndon Johnson.  He doesn‘t have capacity to say look at all the other things I‘ve done.  His presidency is going to be defined by Iraq.  But his legacy, at least as I see it, is not as important as American lives and the long-term interests to this country. 

BARNICLE:  Mark McKinnon, Bob Shrum said epitaph for the Bush presidency.  You know this president better than most, there‘s always been talk about the president‘s isolation in office, his removable from reality.  Yesterday in the press conference with Tony Blair, he addressed the issue of what the casualties in Iraq that Bob Shrum just mentioned, do to him, the effect they have on him. 

Can you talk about that with us?  What does this president feel at night when he‘s home in the residence at the White House, on a day when there have been 10 Americans filled killed in Iraq? 

MCKINNON:  He‘s a deeply emotional human being.  And he sees those soldiers‘ families, and it crushes him.  Human fatality, and losing soldiers is something that he thinks about all the time.  And as I said, he‘s more frustrated than anybody in terms of wanting to get some progress here, but he thinks a lot about that. 

BARNICLE:  Bob Shrum, in terms of this town, Washington, D.C., people are walking around saying you know, the president will either cherry pick one of the 17 - or, you know, several of the 79 recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report, or maybe not listen to the most important elements of it.  What do you think is happening within the Bush White House now with regard to the report? 

SHRUM:  I think when you listen to the president, he clearly has not changed his objective.  His objective, whatever words you want to use, is victory in Iraq, the vindication of his policy. 

I think he‘s going to look for different ways to do it.  He may look for ways cosmetically to dress it up, but if he keeps going straight down this road, you‘re going to begin to see the congress push very, very hard, including Republicans, which was the importance of Gordon Smith, for a change in course. 

You know, in the end, we got out of Vietnam because the Congress made us get out of Vietnam.  That may be what happens here in Iraq, because we may have a president who simply in the end will not change course in a fundamental way. 

BARNICLE:  Mark McKinnon, Bob Shrum just mentioned the Congress edging the United States out of Vietnam.  Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, a fellow Texan.  One of his great friends, Senator Richard Russell, the late Senator Richard Russell from Georgia, a Democrat, went to the White House and said, you know, basically it‘s over, Lyndon, we have got to get out of here. 

Is there anyone in the Republican Party, in the United States Senate capable, with enough clout, to approach this president, president George W.  Bush and say the report, the Baker commission report, read it, pay attention to it, it‘s time to go?

MCKINNON:  I don‘t think anybody has to tell him that.  I think he‘s read it carefully.  I think he‘s listening—he‘s listening to James Baker, he‘s listening to Lee Hamilton, he‘s listening to all the other members in the commission.  He‘s listening to his friends.  He‘s listening to his generals. 

He wants to leave an Iraq that can defend, sustain and govern itself.  And we‘re looking at all the options that will allow us to do that.  But what we don‘t want to do is leave that country in a bloodbath. 

BARNICLE:  You know, but you can make the argument that if that‘s what he‘s listening to, an Iraq that can sustain and govern itself, we‘re going to be there for an awfully long time. 

MCKINNON:  We may be.  You know, we still have got 50,000 troops in Korea.  So we may be here for a long time.

SHRUM:  I think the whole notion that we‘re going stay indefinitely as a way to get stability and order is already bankrupt.  The fact is that we need to let the Iraqis know that we‘re going to leave at some point.  At some point within a time certain, so maybe they‘ll get their act together.  Otherwise, the presence of U.S. forces is going to be an eternal safety net for factional politics in Iraq. 

BARNICLE:  Mark McKinnon and Bob Shrum are staying with us.  And later, 2008 hopeful Senator Sam Brownback.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  We‘re back with the HARDBALLers.  Former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon of HotSoup.com and HARDBALL political analyst Bob Shrum.

Mark, what is HotSoup.com? 

MCKINNON:  HotSoup.com is an online platform, a friendly one, for people who want to engage in politics and discourse on cultural issues, political issues.  It‘s kind of a Disneyland online platform for politics. 

BARNICLE:  OK, well, let‘s engage in politics right now, both of you. 

Both of you guys.  Expert consultants.  Play the consultants game for me.  Help me out here.  Barack Obama going to Manchester, New Hampshire Sunday, pretending he‘s running for president or about to announce.  How do you maneuver him?  What do you do with Barack Obama?  Let‘s start with you, Mark McKinnon. 

MCKINNON:  Well, he‘s one of the most exciting personalities to pop up on the political stage in a long, long time.  It‘s a real challenge for him because he‘s going from zero to 60 in a nanosecond. 

So what is going to be interesting to watch is just how he handles the white hot heat and glare of the presidential spotlight.  But he‘s for real, and I think that he‘s got everybody in the Democratic Party who are thinking about running scared. 

BARNICLE:  Bob, what do you do for him? 

SHRUM:  Well, first, he‘s really interesting, because not since John Kennedy in 1956 has someone that young given a speech at a convention which had such huge impact and immediately made him a presidential possibility the next time around. 

I think he has to decide whether he wants to do this.  And then I think he has to decide what he‘s going to say. 

I think on Iraq, it‘s pretty clear that he‘s going to be an opponent of the Iraq war if it‘s still going on in 2008 -- and I think it will be.  And I think he has to decide how he‘s going to respond to this huge feeling in the country and the Democratic Party that we need real action on issues like health care and energy independence. 

BARNICLE:  Mark, pretend you‘re a consultant for Hillary Clinton‘s presidential campaign.  And after you break down in tears over Barack Obama, what do you do? 

MCKINNON:  Well, you build yourself—you build your campaign for the long run, which she‘s doing.  I think she‘s putting together a strong team, a lot of resources, much the way that we did in 2000.  We built our campaign to withstand an insurgency, and we got one from John McCain.  And so I think that‘s precisely what she needs to do.  Fifty-state network, a lot of resources, a lot of people on the ground, and just build a campaign that can withstand an insurgent run at her. 

BARNICLE:  Bob, Hillary comes to you and says help me, help me, help me, Bob.  What do you do? 

SHRUM:  I think with her, with Obama, with everybody who‘s thinking of running, you known, whether it‘s Chris Dodd or somebody else, what they say and what they go out and argue for, the message is going to be very important.  We‘re so focused on the personnel, the consultants, the polling.  These voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada at the beginning of the process are actually going to sit there and they‘re going to say, where do I think the Democratic Party ought to take this country in the next four years?  And that message is going to be key. 

BARNICLE:  Mark, Mitt Romney.  You take him right on cultural issues with a message—conservative message? 

MCKINNON:  Well, he‘s going right on cultural issues.  And there is a real sort of vacuum there on the right spectrum of the Republican primary that a number of candidates are looking to full.  Sam Brownback, who you mentioned earlier in your program, is one. 

Because we thought Senator Frist would be there.  We thought Senator Allen would be there, and they‘re not.  So it will be interesting to watch what people like Newt Gingrich might do, because there‘s some space there to fill. 

BARNICLE:  Bob Shrum, literally 15 seconds.  Mitt Romney, great hair. 

Other than that, what do you do?  Fifteen seconds.

SHRUM:  I don‘t think Mitt Romney can be the Republican nominee, and I think Mark McKinnon, working for John McCain, would love to have Newt Gingrich filling that vacuum. 

John McCain is conservative enough for the Republican Party.  They always nominate the next guy in line.  He‘s going to be the nominee and Mark is going to do fine. 

BARNICLE:  Bob Shrum, Mark McKinnon, thank as always. 

Up next, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas wants to be president.  Will he be the conservatives‘ choice for 2008?  You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Tonight, Senator Sam Brownback is going to prison.  But just for the night. The Republican presidential hopeful is going to talk with inmates and sleep in a cell to bring attention to the problems facing the criminal justice system.  Could he be the dark-horse pick for conservatives.  Before he went to prison, he talked with us about Iraq, 2008, and more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  Senator Brownback, the Baker-Hamilton commission strongly suggested that the first quarter of ‘08, staring in January of ‘08, would be a good time to begin removing our troops from Iraq.  Senator Hagel, your colleague, suggested that any future strategy with regard to Iraq ought to include time frames.  What‘s your thinking on Iraq? 

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK ®, KANSAS:  I think the Baker-Hamilton commission gives us a starting point to put together a bipartisan approach that hopefully both political parties in this country and—that can gather global support, particularly important regional support. 

I think these are some good points for us to move forward on is what they are suggesting.  I also think you‘re going to have to look somewhere down the road to get to a political equilibrium in Iraq.  You‘re going to have to have dominant—probably Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish areas. 

BARNICLE:  But timeframes, not setting a date, that‘s not in your plan?  That‘s not in your thinking?

BROWNBACK:  I think the way Baker-Hamilton did it is about right.  It‘s not cut and run.  It‘s not stay the course.  It is that before we face the electorate again in 2008 there is a substantially different situation and it‘s conveyed to the Iraqis, look, we‘re not in this forever. 

There is coming a time very soon, you have to run this place.  Ready or not this is going to happen.  Ready or not this is going to happen. 

BARNICLE:  Seemingly with each page of the report you can hear the clock ticking on Iraq.  It‘s a terrible dilemma for this country.  Your home state of Kansas, you‘ve had 29 people killed in action, nearly 300 wounded in action. 

Given the state of Iraq, given the daily drama out of Iraq, what does one say to the family of someone who is killed in Iraq?  What would you say? 

BROWNBACK:  I met with a lady who had lost her husband of 27 years last Thursday, Kim Flouse, Leavenworth.  Her husband was a colonel, had volunteered for service in Iraq and she lost him.  Four children, youngest of which is 11.  And all you really can say is thank you very much for the service to this country, for protecting us, and providing freedom for somebody else.

And we‘re going to move this on forward to a political equilibrium solution and you thank them profusely for their contribution to this country. 

Regardless of what you think on the political situation, our military has shown brilliantly in Iraq and they have done a marvelous job.  Now, we‘ve got to get the situation to some form of political equilibrium. 

BARNICLE:  Senator, in terms of seeking that political equilibrium, and you just mentioned the need for bipartisanship, the country, both sides, Democrats and Republicans, have just gone through a particularly brutal sometimes bitter campaign.  Where is this bipartisanship going to come from now? 

BROWNBACK:  I think we get a chance with Baker-Hamilton, a Republican, a Democrat, both well respected on foreign policy.  I think it‘s a chance for the Democrats to say, OK, we can move forward with you this way.  Plus they control now the purse strings after the new Congress comes into place. 

They have to decide are he going to pull funding from the war or support funding for the war.  I think this really is a route that gives us a chance to start building together and a regional chance around Iraq to push the regional players who play in the politics and all the other activities in Iraq to tell them, look, you don‘t want a civil war in this region.  Work with us on getting this to a political equilibrium.

BARNICLE:  You are running for president of the United States.  Two of the men supposedly might end up running against you in the primary, Senator John McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.  Given the ideological nature of the Republican Party, do you think that either Senator McCain or former Mayor Giuliani can get the nomination of your party? 

BROWNBACK:  Well, that‘s the beauty about the process.  It‘s a lengthy campaign and people examine the positions and then they decide.  And  don‘t think you can judge that question at this point in time.  They are both great Americans, they‘re great heroes in this country, but elections are about ideas and the future and that‘s what I hope to present. 

We‘re in the exploratory phase.  We haven‘t moved this on forward past that yet, but I‘m going to be traveling and presenting a lot of ideas and I love the battle and the competition of ideas.

BARNICLE:  And some of that competition apparently is going to come from the state of Massachusetts—Governor Mitt Romney.  He‘s a pretty attractive guy. 

BROWNBACK:  He is.  Wonderful American, very accomplished.  Still, I say campaigns are about ideas and ideas for the future and where you stand and I will put those ideas forward and I look forward to that competition. 

BARNICLE:  So out there on the campaign trail, you‘re running for president and a month from now, six months from now, somebody comes up to you and says you‘re a United States senator, Iraq is still a huge issue let‘s presume, and someone asks you—do you favor inserting more American troops in Iraq right now, what do you say? 

BROWNBACK:  I don‘t favor doing that and I don‘t think the American public supports doing that.  I think we are going to have to push forward with a transition of getting this more to the Iraqis, both their military and their police force. 

I think that‘s the way forward for us and the way forward for us as a country.  And I think it‘s also the way that we communicate to the Iraqis, you must take control of your own destiny and your own future and you can do it.  We‘ll have embedded forces for a period of time.  We‘ve got to continue to let them ride the bike and ride it on their own. 

BARNICLE:  What about the level of dysfunction that seems to exist within the government and I use that word loosely—the government of Iraq?  How do Americans on the ground in Iraq, no matter what we do—stay in there, slowly withdrawing—how do we protect the people on the ground there given the dysfunction that exists in Iraq? 

BROWNBACK:  Well, it is a tough question and it is a difficult situation because you have that Sunni-Shiite conflict that‘s taking place.  And that‘s why I point towards at some point in time I think to get to a political stable situation you‘re going to have a dominant Sunni, a dominant Shiite, a dominant Kurdish area. 

A weak Federal government and a strong state, if you will, federalized type of system to get there to where you can provide a secure, stable  atmosphere.  The Kurds have been running their region for years in a pretty stable situation and there‘s been growth taking place.  That‘s not a bad model within the country of Iraq. 

BARNICLE:  Senator Sam Brownback, thanks very much. 

BROWNBACK:  Thank you.  All the best, Merry Christmas. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  Play HARDBALL with us next week.  Tuesday is the HARDBALL college tour with John Edwards at the University of North Carolina.  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.

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