updated 1/16/2007 4:13:51 PM ET 2007-01-16T21:13:51

Guests: Bill Richardson, Joe Sestak, Dan Lungren, Howard Dean, Howard Fineman, Chris Cillizza, Mike Allen, Frank Luntz

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Can Congress stop Bush from expanding the Iraq war?  Will anyone stop Bush from starting an Iran war?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening I‘m Chris Matthews and welcome to HARDBALL.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that despite President Bush‘s threat to, quote, “hunt down and destroy terrorists networks attacking U.S. troops in Iraq, the U.S. military would not cross the border into Iran.”  But, big question, is Bush trying to gin up a war with Iran? 

As Democrats prepare to condemn Bush‘s plan, we‘ll talk to the chairman of the Democratic Party Howard Dean later in the show. 

But first it‘s been another tough day for administration officials on Capitol Hill all trying to explain the increase in U.S. troops in Iraq.  HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has a report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Fresh off the hammering they got from lawmakers in the House...

REP. NEIL ABERCROMBE (D), DELAWARE:  This is the craziest, dumbest plan I have ever heard in my life. 

SHUSTER:  Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Peter Pace tried today to defend the president‘s Iraq escalation plan before the Senate. 

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Mistakes certainly have been made by the United States in Iraq.  But however we got to this moment, the stakes now are incalculable. 

SHUSTER:  The ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee is John McCain, frontrunner for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.  He supports the troop increase, prompting Democratic rival John Edwards at every opportunity to label the Bush plan, the McCain Doctrine. 

Today McCain offered this. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  We should make no mistake, potentially catastrophic consequences of failure demand that we do all we can to prevail in Iraq. 

SHUSTER:  One by one, Democrats aggressively tried to pick apart the new mission.  They argued it relies too heavily on promises from Iraqi political leaders including the prime minister.  Senator Carl Levin read back the list of promises made just months ago. 

SEN. CARL LEVIN, (D) MICHIGAN:  In more than 12,000 additional forces on the city streets.  Did that happen? 

GATES:  No, sir. 

LEVIN:  The initial date that we have set for disbanding the militias is the end of this year or the beginning of next year.  Did that happen? 

GATES:  No, sir, it did not. 

LEVIN:  A deadline to lay down their arms, did that happen? 

GATES: To my knowledge, it did not, sir. 

LEVIN:  The Democratic leaders urged Gates and Pace to say that there would be consequences, such as the start of a troop withdrawal, if the latest effort failed.  They refused. 

LEVIN:  That is not a change of course.  That‘s a repetition of the path that we‘re on. 

SHUSTER:  And General Pace acknowledged that military success is going to rely on political and economic breakthroughs. 

GEN. PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN:  I am confident that given the Iraqis delivering on their promises and the economic legs of this stool—that the military part of this plan is sufficiently resourced. 

SHUSTER:  Yet another Republican today seemed to abandon the Bush administration‘s strategy in Iraq. 

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, ® MAINE:  But I‘m very skeptical that the prime minister‘s really bought into this plan, because just three weeks ago, when I was talking to him, he did not seem to welcome the prospect of additional troops. 

SHUSTER:  All eyes, though, were on Virginia Senator John Warner.  A few weeks ago, the Republican veteran said the mission in Iraq has changed so dramatically, the administration may need to get a new resolution from Congress. 

Warner did not repeat that point today, but stressed it is not the place of U.S. troops to referee sectarian tensions. 

SEN. JOHN WARNER, ® VIRGINIA:  That‘s not our responsible, that‘s the Iraqi forces‘ responsible to settle that. 

SHUSTER:  Many of the questions today focused on Iran.  On Wednesday night, President Bush spoke of disrupting networks linked to Iran and with a carrier battle group in the Arabian Sea and Patriot Missile batteries being set up to defend against Iranian missiles, the senators were blunt. 

SEN. ROBERT BYRD, (D) WEST VIRGINIA:  Mr. Secretary, will our forces cross the border into Iran? 

GATES:  We believe that we can interrupt these networks that are providing support to actions inside the territory of Iraq, that there is no need to attack targets in Iran itself. 

SHUSTER (on camera):  The concern in Congress however prompted a White House spokesman this afternoon to go out of his way to try to knock down the speculation about Iran.  Tony Snow declared there are no war preparations underway and that the administration is dealing with Iran through the U.N.  That statement, however, may not satisfy members of Congress who keep pointing to Iraq and argue the Bush administration has no credibility. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Great report, David. 

Governor Bill Richardson is an international peacemaker and troubleshooter, he just brokered a 60 day cease-fire on Darfur between the Sudanese government and rebel factions there.  He served as ambassador to the United Nations, as U.S. Energy Secretary, U.S. congressman for years, and many people believe a soon to be contender for the presidency.

Congratulations governor, and welcome to HARDBALL.  It‘s great to have you.  I‘m a big fan as you know.  The latest Gallup Poll says -- 2-1, this poll, just came out, it‘s up to the Democrats to take the lead in getting control of this war.  Do you believe the Democratically controlled Congress will begin to take a roll in the direction of this war, or will they just be critics? 

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON, (D) NEW MEXICO:  They will start out being critics, and that is manifested by probably a resolution that opposes the president‘s surge, or increase in troops.  Then, Chris, as the opposition hardens and the nation turns against the policy as it already has, and as more Republicans express skepticism—I just heard in your program, you‘re going to see appropriations writers that restrict troop funding, that restrict all kinds of financial support for the war.  And that should be the proper role. 

The president is not listening.  It‘s not a partisan issue.  This is national.  The Iraq study group.  The American people want a different course in Iraq.  And what does a president do?  He has a surge.  The only surge that should happen is a surge in diplomacy, a surge in a political solution.  A withdrawal that I believe is necessary this year that is tied to a political solution, a reconciliation conference.  And you deploy those troops where we need them, in Afghanistan, to fight international terrorism. 

Nuclear proliferation, loose nuclear weapons, those are our interests.  And instead of saying that we‘re now going to look at Iran, we should be talking to Syria, we should be talking to Iran. 

Hard bargaining, but look at a comprehensive solution that also deals with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  Because there‘s ferment in the whole region, and it‘s not just Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  What was your reaction watching the president, when instead of following the advice of the Iraqi study group to begin to engage diplomatically with Iran, he basically shot a warning shot to them saying we‘re going to intercept any efforts by you folks to get involved in the Iraqi situation.  It looked to me like the stepping stones to war with Iran.  How did you read it? 

RICHARDSON:  Well, I hope that‘s not the case.  But certainly it was very provocative language.  And that‘s the kind of language that has gotten us in trouble with North Korea.  Not that we should not be hostile to North Korea, but you don‘t have to go out of your way to draw a line in the sand to Syria, to Iran. 

The last thing we need to do is provoke another military conflict anywhere.  We don‘t have the resources, the military.  There is really no military option towards Iran. 

We should be engaging Iran.  We should be conducting tough bargaining. 

On the other hand, Chris, I don‘t support other moves in the Congress that basically say the president should be prohibitive from going into Iran.  That restricts presidential power to conduct war which I think is a prerogative of the executive branch even though I was a Congressman for many years. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it a prerogative of this president, or any other, to begin ginning up a war?  For example, if we do pursue the Iranian forces wherever, we go into Iranian territory, bomb some sights, Ahmadinejad, of course, out of his own indignation will fire off some missiles or do something like that.  Then we have a justification for invading, attacking Iran and bombing it‘s nuclear sites.

And then the president can say, oh, I was really only protecting our troops in Iraq.  I guess part of our defense was to go in there and blow the hell out of their nuclear installations.  That makes President Bush a hero, to his people on his side of the argument.  You don‘t think that‘s going to happen what I just described? 

RICHARDSON:  Chris, I don‘t believe that‘s going to happen.  Because militarily, our military is going to say there really is right now no military option.  We don‘t know where these sites are.  Here Iran is a major power in the region.  In four or five years, they‘re going to be possessing nuclear weapons.  They‘re the second largest producer of OPEC --  of the oil supply they could disrupt. 

So I believe the options are diplomatic.  And there, I think we have been pursuing the right course, with the Europeans, looking at the United Nations for financial and economic sanctions.  I believe that would squeeze them, call their bluff.  But looking at a military option does not make sense.

On the other hand, I don‘t believe that there should be speculatively a prohibition on any country.  You don‘t want to restrict any president at any point to do that. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I don‘t know whether the movie about you is going to be starring Charlton Heston or not, but you certainly have carried back from the Sudan some of the aspect of Chinese Gordon himself.  How did you get together over there to bring those parties together, including the government, to a 60-day cease fire in the Sudan? 

RICHARDSON:  Well, I knew this previous—the president of the Sudan, and I had dealt with him before.  I got an American journalist out there about four months ago and I leveled with him.  I said, you know, you‘re getting terrible press all over the world.  You‘re a country that has more sanctions that anybody else. 

And I was traveling with a group called the Save Darfur Coalition that‘s about 800,000 Americans that want to do something about that war, about that famine there, about the numerous rapes that occur. 

And I said, look, it makes sense for you to reverse course.  And we‘ll go to the rebels and get them to agree to a cease-fire.  You agree to a cease-fire and then the next step should be allow U.N. peacekeeping troops which he so far has refused to do. 

And I believe, Chris, that talking to your adversaries, negotiation, diplomacy with, you know, North Korea, with Iran, with Syria, now with Sudan, if you engage them and conduct hard bargaining, you get things done. 

And in Darfur, I think we have got some progress.  There‘s 300,000 that have been killed in that war, 2.5 million displaced.  And through the generosity of the Save Darfur Coalition and philanthropists like Danny Abraham that paid for the trip, we have actually improved the lives of people. 

Maybe the cease-fire will have glitches, maybe it won‘t hold totally, but at least people are talking to each other.  Bad guys are talking to bad guys and we may get something done. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, thanks for your service to the country and the world on that, Governor.  It‘s a great honor to have you on the show.  Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico. 

Coming up, will Congress condemn Bush‘s escalation in Iraq?  Will Republicans join Democrats in voting no confidence?  Congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and Dan Lungren of California are coming here to battle it out.

And later, Democratic Party chairman himself, Howard Dean, to join us in just a few minutes.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  What‘s Congress going to do about President Bush‘s escalation in Iraq?  Can the president attack Iran without congressional approval? 

Freshman Congressman Joe Sestak is a retired Navy vice admiral who‘s now on the House Armed Services Committee, appropriately enough.  And U.S.  Congressman Dan Lungren is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.  Mr. Lungren was, of course, attorney general of California.

Well, I guess the two questions are at large right now.  Admiral Sestak, Congressman Sestak, do you think that Congress will, in any way, thwart, adjust, modify the president‘s proposal for 20,000 more troops in Iraq? 

REP. JOE SESTAK (D), PENNSYLVANIA:  Dan I—excuse me.  Chris, thanks for having me aboard. 

I‘m not sure exactly what the Democratic Caucus is going to do.  But as an individual, I first think the president‘s plan violates exactly what we shouldn‘t be doing.  And because of that, I do think that the Congress should vote and it should be a vote not to increase the troops that are in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you bring it up to a vote? 

SESTAK:  A resolution can come up and you can vote for that.  You can

there‘s a number, a variety of things that we can do.  You can shape the deployment, you can tap the deployment, or you cannot fund the effort that‘s going forth. 

But let me be clear.  I believe we‘re on the road to nowhere.  And putting more troops on that road in order to protect those men and women on the road to nowhere I‘d do in a heartbeat.  The president didn‘t make that case.

He wants to go back in, despite the evidence that it hasn‘t worked before.  And he‘s doing exactly what we shouldn‘t be doing and that‘s not letting the Iraqis shoulder more of the political and military responsible. 

But the primary purpose I‘m opposed to this, is because it‘s going to hurt our overall security.  Look at Afghanistan.  It‘s going back down the drain.  Look at North Korea.  It exploded a nuclear device.  Look at Iran, who‘s focused upon that until recently because we outsourced our leadership to the European Union? 

We‘ve got deeper strategic security interests in this world and staying in the house of Iraq is hurting our security.  We must cease that effort. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Congressman Lungren.  Your view when you heard the president call for 20,000 more troops, 17,000 of them going into the city of Baghdad, basically, on a door to door security mission, do you think that‘s the best use of American firepower? 

REP. DAN LUNGREN ®, CALIFORNIA:  Well, I would disagree with your characterization of what the president suggested.  He suggested the Iraqis are going to shoulder most of this, we‘re going to be in a support position.  It‘s not going to be Americans in the first instance, number one. 

Number two, the question is, where do we go from here?  Do we just stay doing what we‘re doing?  Everybody seems to agree that that is not appropriate.  But I‘m confused by what Congressman Sestak suggests.  He criticized the president for having a multilateral approach for Iran and yet, at the same time, offers no real solution to what we are embarked on at the present time.

I happen to think we have to understand that defeat in Iraq would be devastating for us.  I‘m not just talking about the millions of people put at risk in Iraq itself, the Iraqis themselves, I‘m talking about further an increased and more acute instability in the Middle East, number one. 

And number two, whether we like it or not, this is a major front in the war on terror.  We can argue about how we got where we are, but we need to do something so that we have a chance to win. 

What the president has said is that the Iraqis have to step up.  We will support them in stronger numbers, but he‘s made it very clear to the Iraqi government we expect certain things to be, including not interfering with military action, number one; and number two, making sure that the militias that, unfortunately, have been on the loose particularly in Baghdad and within 30 miles of Baghdad are no longer allowed to do that; and number three, that they professionalize their military and their police force and while we have some staying power, we are not going to have a patience that‘s unlimited. 

I think the president laid out all of those things, and we have one of the outstanding officers in the United States military, General Petraeus, who‘s really one of the major authors of our new counterinsurgency strategy to actually take off there and take over there. 

Those are changes.  At least the Democrats have said to the president make some changes.  He‘s made changes.  If they disagree with them, tell us what they would have us do. 

MATTHEWS:  How would you vote, Congressman Lungren, on a resolution criticizing the president‘s handling of the war or his surge in particular?  Would you vote against it.

LUNGREN:  Of course I would vote against it.  I mean, to bring up a no confidence resolution before the Congress really does nothing.  If we have a vigorous oversight, if we have questions both on the record and in private, talks between both members of the committee and the administration.  If we have an opportunity to really go into this, that‘s one thing. 

But to have a resolution on the floor that suggests we have no confidence in the president.  What does that do to our morale?  What does that do to our position with respect to our allies?  What does it do in terms of our putting pressure on the Iraqi government to do the things they promised to do?  I think on all those counts it fails. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me start with Congressman Sestak on the second question raised by the president the other night, if briefly.  He talked about the need by the United States to intercept any flow of arms or other support to the various sides in the battle, obviously the Shia side in the battle in Iraq. 

I suspect there‘s more here than meets the eye, that the president is also trying to get the country used to the fact that we‘re going to be pursuing Iran in terms of the Iraqi theater.  Do you think the president might be planning to gin up a war with Iran, which allows us to then go in and knock out their nuclear?

SESTAK:  I hope not.  Do we have to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon?  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  How do we ensure that if we don‘t knock it out?  There‘s no other way to ensure it, is there?

SESTAK:  We are years, according to the reports, from having Iran actually having a nuclear device.  We have some time. 

And unfortunately, this administration and the failure of Congress to try to push this issue, decided to outsource of leadership, as I mentioned, of Iran diplomatically and economically to the European Union.  We should have taken leadership into this issue.  We should impose economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions.  We should have been doing this for a while.  There is still time to try to do this. 

But to get us into another conflict at this time as the first option is exactly what we did in Iraq.  We do need a strategy, as the representative from California mentioned, to get us out of Iraq so that we can properly confront, with our full attention and resources remaining in the theater, Iran. 

And that‘s why the only leverage we have over the prime minister, the prime minister of Iraq, is not where we just accept his word he‘s going to do better, where last time he only sent two of eight brigades to Baghdad, but to give a date certain at the end of this year, so that they know that we‘re very serious that they must accept the responsibility, not the United States by putting more men and women in there, to say cease the violence so that we can properly redeploy in the region and focus on what we have to. 

We can‘t afford right now to have a third war while we‘re losing to Afghanistan, we‘re not winning in Iraq and now to take on Iran when we do have time to do it properly, to confront a peaceful solution towards this, if we bring diplomacy in, including talking with Syria and Iran. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, we‘re completely out of time.  I‘m sorry, gentlemen.  Congressman Lungren, we‘ll have you back again to have further thoughts as we develop this question, which I have, about Iran and what‘s going on there. 

Congressman Sestak, thank you, as well.

Up next Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, what can his party do to get U.S. troops out of Iraq‘s civil war?  He‘s been against the war from day one.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

What will Congress do to stop President Bush‘s escalation in Iraq, if they choose do?  Can Democrats shame Bush into a change? 

Howard Dean is chairman of the Democratic National Committee. 

Governor Dean, first question is Iraq; the second question is Iran. 

What do you think?  Where are we headed?

HOWARD DEAN, CHAIRMAN, DNC:  I think the American people made it really clear where we‘re headed in the midterm elections.  And the Democrats, and actually now a fair number of Republicans are now saying, “No, we should not add more troops to Iraq.  And we need to find a way out of Iraq and not add more troops.” 

So I think it‘s pretty clear where we‘re headed in terms of Iraq.  I think the president‘s going to resist that.  He wants to go in a different direction. 

But, you know, staying the course is what the American people voted against, and I think in the House and the Senate, members of both parties led by the Democrats are clearly going in a different direction than the president.  I think that‘s a good thing.

MATTHEWS:  Will your party stand up against a war with Iran?  It looks like the president‘s sort of edging towards military action against Iran. 

DEAN:  You know, the great shame among many shames of going into Iraq was we picked the wrong enemy.  Iran is a danger.  We‘ve got our troops pinned down in the wrong place.  Saddam Hussein is a terrible person but not a danger to the United States.  Iran is a danger. 

Obviously, I don‘t think there‘s much stomach among the American people for a war with Iran, given what‘s going on for the last three and a half years in Iraq, but we are clearly going to have to stand up to Iran. 

MATTHEWS:  Does that mean attack them?  Are we going to have a war against Iran?

DEAN:  I think there‘s absolutely no stomach for that whatsoever, either in the Congress or among the American people after what‘s gone on in the last three and a half years. 

MATTHEWS:  So therefore, what do we do if they do develop and continue to move towards a nuclear weapon?

DEAN:  Well, I think the administration did something very good.  I rarely have the opportunity to say that.  The other day when they cut of some of the major banks in Iraq from any financing using American dollars.  That‘s the kind of thing that has begun to turn North Korea around, and I think that those kinds of approaches are far better than having 135,000 troops on the ground without knowing what you‘re getting into. 

MATTHEWS:  What happened with your labor negotiations in the mile-high city of Denver?  How did you finally get them to do the right thing to allow the Democrats to meet there for your next convention in 2008?

DEAN:  Well, we still have plenty of negotiations to do.  Look, I‘m very sympathetic with the labor movement on this issue.  We‘re going to an arena that‘s nonunion, although we‘ll be union when we go there.  But it will be union when we go there because we require that. 

MATTHEWS:  How many hotels do you have to unionize to make it legit for you guys?

DEAN:  Well, more than we have now.  I‘d like to get some more unionized.  Because look, a quarter of our delegates are union.  Many of the people who are not delegates are very sympathetic.  We believe that unions have created the largest middle class in the world and that the labor movement is a good thing for America. 

So many of our folks are much more comfortable staying in union hotels because we know they pay good wages.  We know they pay good benefits, and we know that the people who are working there are being treated well by the management. 

So of course, we prefer to go to union hotels and union arenas and so forth.  I think this is an opportunity for us.  The west has not traditionally been as friendly to unions as other parts of the country, but the west is changing and America is changing. 

Under this—under this president, the average middle class person has lost $2,000 in income in the past six years.  So we‘ve got to figure out a way to get that back, and I see the labor movement as historically a good thing for ordinary working people.

MATTHEWS:  My colleague, Tim Russert, have a theory that the Democrats in 2008, looking ahead, have a better shot at perhaps winning states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, Nevada included, than they may have in some other parts of the country.  In other words to make up the margin of difference and win the general election.

DEAN:  I believe that‘s true, Chris.  I think that—that the battleground is going to be in the west.  We—look, Bill Clinton at one time or another, won virtually all those states that you just mentioned.  I think he won New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Colorado once, I think Nevada once.  I can‘t remember all the...

MATTHEWS:  He won Arizona the second time, I know, in ‘96.  That‘s for sure.

DEAN:  Right.  Right, and so we can win in the west.  Now we‘ve had some—we have some great governors, including the governor of Colorado, Governor Ritter, who was just elected.  Mayor Hickenlooper, Senator Salazar, who—all of whom have really worked hard to get this thing on track and have done everything they can to make it—make it clear that they‘re going to make sure that this convention works well.  It‘s a great team, and it‘s a new day in the west.

And really, frankly, it fits in with the 50-state strategy.  We everywhere.  We want to be in the west and the south and in areas the Democrats haven‘t gone before.  Because we know we can win in the west and the south, and we shouldn‘t shy away from going to those parts of the country. 

MATTHEWS:  Can Hillary Clinton win in the middle of the country?  Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, states that are gun toting states?  Can she sell, a senator from New York, the woman who‘s had a pro- -- anti-gun position, can she take on the gun-toting center of the country and win there?

DEAN:  The—the answer to that is, first of all, I don‘t discus the ‘08 election, because if I say anything good about one candidate, everybody‘s going to wonder why I didn‘t say anything about them. 

MATTHEWS:  No, if you say something good about Hillary, people will be happy, I think. 

DEAN:  Well, let me just say this.  I don‘t think there‘s any candidate that can‘t win the presidency.  We have a really strong slate, and I believe that.  It‘s true.  Some of them ran last time.  I know them.  They‘re good people. 

There‘s not—I don‘t think there‘s one person who‘s a serious candidate on the Democratic side that can‘t win, particularly with what‘s going on, on the Republican side and what.... 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m going to call Dennis Kucinich the minute you‘re done and tell him the good news.  Can I do that?

DEAN:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you, Governor Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Up next, we‘re just a week away from the presidential primaries and caucuses.  Who‘s coming up in the polls?  Barack Obama is coming up in the polls. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(STOCK REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

It‘s time for picking the next president.  Our weekly wrap up of the 2008 race for the White House.  Every Friday we‘re going to pick apart the campaign politics which have already begun. 

The polls, which are certainly already out there, and the money that‘s being gobbled up by these candidates. 

Here to dig into all of this, “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman, of course;

“The Washington Post‘s” Chris Cillizza; and “TIME” magazine‘s Mike Allen. 

First of all who‘s up, who‘s down?  Let‘s take a look at how the contenders stack up against each other. 

On the Democratic side, the latest Gallup poll shows Hillary leading the pack with 33 percent, a fat lead, followed by Barack Obama, who‘s coming up fast with 20 percent, Al Gore with 12 percent.  We don‘t know if he‘s running, of course.  And then to John Edwards and John Kerry. 

On the Republican side, John McCain at the top, then Rudy Giuliani.  They lead with 29 -- 28 percent each, followed by Condi Rice.  We don‘t know if she‘s running.  Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. 

Howard, looking at those races, it looks to me like Hillary is way up there, but Obama is catching. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  I think it‘s remarkable.  He‘s really been only on the national scene as a presidential possibility—and by the way, I think he is going to run—for a few months, really.  He gave that big speech at the convention. 

But he‘s fully competitive with her in the polls in the key early states, especially Iowa and New Hampshire.  That‘s remarkable.  Ad he‘s putting together staff. 

MATTHEWS:  So word is he‘s already even with them.

FINEMAN:  I think where it counts, conceptually for the Democrats inside the beltway, he‘s dead even with them.  Amazing. 

MATTHEWS:  I saw those numbers in New Hampshire, and they‘re gaining, and in Ohio they‘re gaining.  Of course, John Edwards is ahead in Iowa. 

FINEMAN:  Right.

FINEMAN:  Chris, I just want to...

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Mike first.  I‘m sorry.

MIKE ALLEN, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Senator Obama has denied Senator Clinton her biggest asset, which was inevitability.  People in the party now realize they don‘t have to go that way; they do have choices. 

And you see Senator Clinton off in Iraq today.  She‘s a member of the armed services committee.  She‘s seeing for herself firsthand.  People look at the ‘06 election results, and they realize that they may like somebody like Senator Obama.  They don‘t know what‘s inside, but they like what‘s on the outside.

MATTHEWS:  Chris Cillizza of “The Washington Post”, is the low estimate of their belief in her electability low enough that they believe an African-American guy has a better shot than she does?  That‘s a statement of, I would say, pessimism about her shot, if you shift to him for electability reasons, not for quality reasons.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  See, I think that—I think that at least at least the focus on this race, really, is her and questions of her electability.  I think once Senator Obama gets—and I think Howard is right, he‘s going to get in. 

It‘s going to shift a little bit more to say, well, if we don‘t think a woman who was the first lady can get elected, do we think an African-American man who was in the Illinois state Senate four years ago can get elected?  You know, I mean, I think that‘s a debate that we‘re going to see.  I just want to...

MATTHEWS:  You‘re not so old to pull this—the seniority number here.  Do you really think people are counting?  I mean, does anybody think if Barack spends 10 more years in the U.S. Senate, has—as Durbin said, has 1,500 more roll calls, gains another 10 pounds in his neck, that he‘s somehow going to be a more attractive candidate?  Do you really believe that?

CILLIZZA:  No, I don‘t.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

CILLIZZA:  And in fact, I think there are times in history when you sort of—the window is open.  Politics has shown throughout.  I mean, this is Senate, presidential, all over the place.  They‘re showing that, if you don‘t jump sometimes, that window closes and you don‘t have any more.

There are a lot of people who wish that they had taken the risk that Bill Clinton, a little known governor of Arkansas, took in 1992 when—when it looked like George H.W. Bush was unbeatable.  That window passed.  We saw eight years of Democratic administration. 

Those eight years, a lot of people on the Democratic side who wanted to run weren‘t able to, and sort of their time passed.  I think Barack Obama is looking at that, saying this is a unique time in history.  Do I let it pass and hope it comes up again?  And in politics, you never know if it will come up again. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me tell you, Mike.  I want to switch to the Republican side here.  Despite all the C.W. experts in this town, the conventional wisdom people who don‘t really think with any novelty.  There‘s so many of them in our world here.

ALLEN:  Not at this table.

MATTHEWS:  Not that this table.  But it‘s brutal how many people show so little novelty in thinking.  Every time that there‘s a national opinion poll Rudy Giuliani wins it.  And the people have cognitive dissonance.  The don‘t see that, because they don‘t want to see it. 

But he does keep winning the polls among people who say they are Republicans who are identified as Republicans.  Why does he keep winning every poll, despite all the smell that comes out about Bernie Kerik, the usual prejudice against New York and ethnics up in the big cities, he keeps winning every poll.  Why?

ALLEN:  I don‘t have the wisdom of James Haggarty.  I watched last night.  But I can tell you, there‘s two reasons.  The first is 9/11, people know there could be another attack.  The smells in New Jersey, people made a joke about it.  But I think a lot of people wondered were terrorists testing something?  Was something going on there?

And the second is, more than anyone else, Mayor Giuliani can point to specific accomplishments.  He can run an ad showing Times Square, everybody knows what that means.  While other people are in Washington banging their big gavel...

FINEMAN:  Can I add something different?

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

FINEMAN:  He‘s not Washington.  Even though he worked here for a time. 

He‘s a leader who‘s not Washington.  And Barack Obama has only been here for a little while, he‘s not really Washington either.  Another big attraction of Rudy Giuliani is he‘s not from the Senate, he‘s not from this crowd.  He‘s not from Washington.  People are looking for something outside the box of the usual political thinking. 

ALLEN:  And, Chris, after the great New York Times story this week saying that Senator Clinton was going to have her office inside the Belt Way in D.C. or Virginia, Senator Obama let it be known that his headquarters will be Chicago and Mayor Giuliani‘s will be in New York.  And they joked, maybe Senator Clinton thought New York would be a little crowded for her. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. Up next, the White House and the war.  As congress figures out how to deal with the president‘s plan to escalate the war, the White House contenders for 2008 are jockeying for position.  Today, John McCain strongly defended the president calling the troop increase necessary. 

Rudy and Romney also support the troop increase.  On the Democratic side, Edwards said that congress has to stop President Bush, Obama said the escalation has already been tried and has already failed.  And Hillary who is currently visiting Iraq, issued a press statement, a paper statement saying as our commanders have said repeatedly, Iraq requires a political solution not a purely military one.  And we did not hear such a proposed solution tonight. 

Chris allegedly that Hillary Clinton is off in Iraq this week and checking things out, but she‘s at the front of this battle.  Why is she avoiding taking the usual position the other Democrats are taking against this troops surge? 

CILLIZZA:  Well, I think the problem that Hillary Clinton faces in this whole election, not just about Iraq, is that being seen as too political.  I think there‘s always—there‘s already that impression out there in the American public that she and her husband take positions because polls say they should take it. 

In the beginning, she was someone who voted for the use of force resolution and was not the loudest critic when it came to Iraq.  She did say the war wasn‘t being prosecuted in the way she would like, she did criticize, but she wasn‘t a leading critic. 

I think her concern now is that anything she does looks like she‘s flip flopping, looks like she‘s switching positions.  I think over time she‘s going to have to move more to the left of the party, because the reality is, it‘s not the left of the party anymore, it‘s sort of the center of the country no longer views the war is worth fighting. 

MATTHEWS:  She‘s got to catch up to Sam Brownback.  You know, Sam Brownback is to her left on this issue. 

CILLIZZA:  I think at some point, she‘s going to realize that if you‘re in a race against Barack Obama and John Edwards among other people, but two candidates who are definitely running, people who are to her left on the war, she‘s going to have minimize the difference between their positions.  She‘s not going to get to the left of them, but she‘s got to minimize that gap between the two positions. 

MATTHEWS:  Mike Allen.

ALLEN:  Yeah.  And Chris, to switch to Republican side, I think Senator McCain and President Bush are in the same place.  It‘s in for a dime, in for a dollar.  All that President Bush has left is that he‘s steadfast, that he doesn‘t change.  If he does that, he doesn‘t have anything left.  This is the—the 30 percent, 40 percent—well, it was a very elliptical, as you well know.

FINEMAN:  He didn‘t claim them for his own exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  So they rest with him? 

FINEMAN:  They rest with him.  He was—take them on.

But the Democratic Party is moving, and they‘re moving together en masse.  And Hillary will be with them as full out, flat out opponents of the war.  That‘s going to happen.

MATTHEWS:  She will join them in the end?

FINEMAN:  Yes, she will.  She will join them.  She‘s going to do her fact-finding.  She‘s going to do the usual laborious thing.  But she will be there at the end.  She‘s got to be, because the whole party is there. 

The people who are the neocon Democrats, the hawk Democrats are gone.  The only one left is Joe Lieberman.  And he‘s a, quote, “Independent” Democrat.  There isn‘t a single one—Evan Bayh is not running for president.  He dropped out.  I surveyed the Hill all week, you don‘t find those people in the Democratic party anymore. 

MATTHEWS:  And by the way, the Democrats who vote in the primary—the independent (ph), the unaffiliated, they‘re anti-war too.

We‘ll be right back with Howard—everybody is smart tonight.  Mike Allen and Chris Cillizza.  In those seats over here.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL‘s picking the next president.  Up next, the electability factor—will Democrats and Republicans pick the nominees they want, or the nominees who could be the best bet for them in November? 

On the Democratic side, who would have the best chance of winning the general election in November, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards or Barack Obama? 

On the Republican side, who will sell best to the national audience,  McCain, Romney or Rudy? 

Chris Cillizza, who‘s the best, most electable Democrat if you‘re an old style, cigar chomping Democratic Paul? 

CILLIZZA:  I think that if Iraq continues to be in roughly the same shape that it‘s in and the president‘s position maintains sort of the sameness, I think any Democratic candidate, barring a few maybe Congressman Kucinich, but I think almost any credible Democratic candidate...

MATTHEWS:  Who is the best bet in November.

CILLIZZA:  ...is going to be enter to be the favorite. 

The best bet in the general election, I still think it‘s Hillary Rodham Clinton.  I know she‘s divisive but she‘s going to have the money, she‘s going to have the organization and I still think, I know a lot of people disagree with this, I still think that when women go into the polling place and have a chance to cast a historic vote for the first credible woman to be elected president, I think that‘s going to sway a lot of minds. 

I know there‘s a lot of people who are against it, who don‘t agree with that idea, but I really think that‘s a powerful motivator.  And until you get into that voting booth, you don‘t know sort of how you‘re going to feel and how you‘re going to act. 

MATTHEWS:  That man is not afraid to stand up for women‘s rights on national television...

ALLEN:  Well, he‘s not.  And I never disagree...

MATTHEWS:  ...from day one...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That was a profile in courage, Chris.  A profile in courage

Howard, I know it puts you guy in a tricky position of saying, he‘s all wet.  But do you really think?

FINEMAN:  Well, I never disagree with Chris Cillizza, because he knows more about these things than me.  But I will say, I‘ll tell you something you don‘t know, I predict that the story will be that Senator Clinton has more trouble with women than the real American than she does with men. 

MATTHEWS:  Who do you think is the best bet for the Democrats?  Let me ask you as a reporter, who do they think is their best bet in November? 

ALLEN:  Well, I—you know, picking up on a point that Chris made, which is that... 

MATTHEWS:  How about picking up on the question I asked?  Who‘s the best bet—and I‘m being asked to clip along here, so let‘s do this.

ALLEN:  All right.  We‘re clipping along, and I will tell you that no Republican is going to be in the game if things look in 18 months the way they do now.  This weekend the president is having House and Senate leadership at Camp David. 

They‘re going to give him some tough love and they‘re going to remind him that in only a few months it‘s not going to be about him.  It‘s going to be about the Republican Party surviving in ‘08.

MATTHEWS:  All right, let‘s go to that question.  McCain is basically

he is doing synchronized swimming with the president on the war.  Is that a dangerous position, Howard? 

FINEMAN:  Yes, I think it‘s a sinking position, to follow the metaphor. 

MATTHEWS:  For a synchronized swimmer.

FINEMAN:  But as Mike said, in for dime, in for dollar, I think McCain, number one, believes the policy and he deserves credit for that.  He believes it. 

MATTHEWS:  And he has got a kid over there.  He‘s got a kid fighting in the war. 

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  And he has to have believed it because politically it‘s very dangerous.  I think, again...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What are you rolling your eyes about? 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m rolling my eyes at something else.  Go ahead.

FINEMAN:  Outside the beltway, again, that‘s what people are looking for.  An on the Democratic side, they‘re going to go with their hearts this time.  The Democratic voters in the primaries are not going to be thinking about calculation because the Democrats are in a strong position to win, and I think that means the Democrats are going to go with their hearts in the primary. 

MATTHEWS:  Go with Hillary or go with Obama.

FINEMAN:  No, I‘m not—I don‘t—I‘m fudging here, I don‘t know what that means, but it‘s going to be a hard, hothead decision.  

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Democrats go in hard.  That sounds consistent with their history.  The Republicans, will they go with seniority, which would be McCain?  Are they going to go with what they think the cultural candidate, who right now looks like Mitt Romney?

ALLEN:  To answer your question, for once, they‘re going to go for electability because people saw in November the consequences of not.  I think primary voters will see they don‘t have the luxury of ideological purity.  And that‘s why I think something that will be different...

MATTHEWS:  You think that?  You think they get...

FINEMAN:  Calculating.  They‘ll be very calculating.

ALLEN:  I do.  I think something that will be different in this primary process is that the candidates will be freer to move toward the middle to be more general election candidates because their primary bases understand that they have to win.  That‘s why Rudy Giuliani has a chance. 

FINEMAN:  So a big calculating thing like the Democrats thing in ‘04.

MATTHEWS:  You think—let me start with Chris.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  The Democrats go with their heart.  Does everybody accept that?  They go with either Obama or Hillary, somebody they really love. 

(CROSSTALK)

ALLEN:  Why do you call her Hillary?  She‘s Senator Clinton. 

CILLIZZA:  Absolutely, Chris.  Remember, they went with their head in with John Kerry over their hearts last time. 

MATTHEWS:  What is that, political correctitude?  Have you blown the whistle on me?  I call her Hillary because there‘s only one Hillary in the country.  That‘s why.  Go ahead.  I‘m sorry.  Who do they go with?  Their heart?

CILLIZZA:  I was just going to say, I think just to add to Howard‘s point, I think they do go with their heart this time.  They went with their head last time, John Kerry.

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  Their heart was Howard Dean and it didn‘t get them the presidency. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s so smart.  And on the Republican side, is it anybody who beat Hillary?  They‘ll pick anybody can beat Hillary? 

CILLIZZA:  I think that‘s right.  I mean, I think if Mike is right and Howard are right that we‘re going to see a more pragmatic Republican electorate than we have seen in the past, I think McCain has got to be smiling quite broadly at the moment. 

MATTHEWS:  Head against the heart.

CILLIZZA:  There are still a lot of conservatives—there are a lot of conservatives who still are not comfortable with him, but they do see those polls and they do recognize that he is probably the person, the closest to what they believe who can win. 

MATTHEWS:  Where we are right now, Republicans go with their head, they probably pick McCain.  Democrats with go with their heart, Obama or maybe more likely Hillary.  They go with their heart.  Chris Cillizza said it well.  Anyway, thank you Howard Fineman, Mike Allen, Chris Cillizza. 

CILLIZZA:  Happy weekend.

MATTHEWS:  Up next, did President Bush win the argument over Iraq?  Has the country stopped listening to the words he‘s speaking?  We‘ll talk about it with Republican pollster Dr. Frank Luntz. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Politics has always been about smart words and snappy slogans.  Remember Kennedy saying “Let‘s get this country moving again” and Ronald Reagan talking about creating a morning in America?  And then, of course, Bill Clinton saying “Don‘t stop thinking about tomorrow.”  Well, pollster Dr. Frank Luntz has written a new book, “Words That Work: It‘s Not What You Say, It‘s What People Hear.”

Dr. Luntz, I have to ask you, where did the word surge come from vis-a-vis Iraq?  It was meant to do what?

FRANK LUNTZ, AUTHOR, “WORDS THAT WORK”:  It was meant to move the discussion away from that awful word escalation, which reminds people of Vietnam.  The problem is, surge is too close to escalation.  It suggests numbers rather than a new strategy. 

If I had been advising the president, I would have told him to take a look at the words like realignment, reassess and reset.  They‘re more precise.

MATTHEWS:  Would they have the lift of a driving dream though?  Would they sound like a crackling new strategy had they used those longer, Latinate words you‘ve just mentioned?

LUNTZ:  But those re words are very powerful in the English language.  And in the research I did for “Words That Work,” it had—those re words actually caused people to reexamine how they feel about things, which is what the president was trying to do.  The problem with the word surge is it took all of the wind out of the sails of the speech.  Everybody focused on troop numbers, and so nobody really heard what he was talking about. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the word mistake.  The president said mistakes were made in that usual passive voice and he said, of course, the responsibility for that “rests upon me.”  He didn‘t quite say blame me, but it was pretty strong.  What did you make of that?   Do you think he should have said mistakes in the middle of a speech that was basically a call to arms?   

LUNTZ:  It‘s a mea culpa.  You have to do that, you have to say to the American people, I hear your anger, I hear your frustration, I understand it, I‘m going to acknowledge it and then let‘s move on.  If he had not acknowledged that he had made mistakes, then the public would have turned off the speech while it was still on. 

MATTHEWS:  What did you make of Condi‘s description of the surge as an augmentation? 

LUNTZ:  Nobody speaks—it‘s the same way as using the phrase stay the course.  Chris, in your lifetime, have you ever looked at your wife or your wife and said, guys, let‘s stay the course.  It‘s just not part of our English lexicon and augmentation is something that you add to a steak.  It‘s not something that you do in times of war. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, the only time you want to stay the course is when your family is on vacation and you want to stay there.  I‘ve heard the Democrats said decided to use—I know you didn‘t give them this advice, but they say that—instead of saying the word investigate, which wounds like wasting the public‘s time, their word is exercise oversight.  What do you think of that? 

LUNTZ:  Oversight is something the public—investigation is the process, oversight is the result.  I have got to tell you that the language that‘s coming out of most of the Democrats over the past couple of months has actually been very effective.  It‘s very mainstream.  It‘s very  mellow. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Well, I‘ve always thought this.  Dr. Luntz, you are a freaking genius.  I‘ve said this before.  Dr. Frank Luntz, we‘ll give you the full appellation there, and that‘s the right word.  Dr. Frank, I‘m going to call you from now on, like Dr. Phil.  The book is called “Words That Work” and you‘re always right.  Thanks for joining us on HARDBALL.

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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