updated 3/5/2007 1:47:03 PM ET 2007-03-05T18:47:03

Guests: Dana Priest, Tom Ridge, Jim VandeHei, Robert Baer

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  A big head rolls in the Walter Reed Army scandal.  Yesterday it was the hospital‘s top general, today it was secretary of the army himself, forced to resign.  No more excuses, no more defenses, no more rats, the new secretary of defense makes it clear, wounded soldiers will now get the treatment they deserve.  Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  U.S. Army Secretary Frances Harvey was forced to resign today after a week of devastating reports about facilities for wounded U.S. troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates had this to say. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Earlier today Secretary of the Army Dr. Fran Harvey offered his resignation.  I have accepted his resignation.  I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We will have much more on this in a moment with NBC‘s Jim Miklaszewski and The Washington Post‘s Dana Priest who broke this story about terrible conditions at Walter Reed. 

Also, tonight, top conservative leaders and activists in the country are gathered here in Washington.  All of the major Republican candidates are there except for Senator John McCain.  We‘ll talk to one of his supporters, former Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.  And Norah O‘Donnell‘s interview with presidential candidate Barack Obama.  That is coming up here on HARDBALL.

But we begin with NBC‘s Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon.  Was Secretary Harvey sacked, Mik?

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Absolutely.  There is no question about it.  Pentagon officials say that Secretary Harvey was forced to resign in light of this scandal at Walter Reed outpatient facilities.  And you know, from day one, Secretary Gates has been demanding accountability.  He wanted to see those responsible for some of those deplorable conditions that wounded soldiers had to suffer at the Walter Reed outpatient facility, and today he got it.

But we are told that the straw that broke the camel‘s back and forced Harvey‘s resignation was the fact that after the commander at Walter Reed, Major General George Weightman, was relived of his command, the Army then put a former commander at Walter Reed, Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, who is the Army surgeon general, in to command. 

But many see Kiley as one of the problems in the conditions out there at Walter Reed.  And just last week, Kiley, when he was escorting reporters around that infamous Building 18, appeared to play down the seriousness of the conditions that were found there, that some of those soldiers recuperating from fresh wounds had to suffer. 

There was another announcement on the heels of the announcement of the forced resignation of Harvey in that the a major general, Eric Schoomaker will now be the commander at Walter Reed Hospital, not Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley.  Eric Schoomaker, by the way, is the brother of General Pete Schoomaker, who is the chief of the staff of the Army. 

And we are also told that this will probably not be the last head to roll.

MATTHEWS:  So the first head to roll was the commander out there at Walter Reed.  And then when Secretary Gates saw that the new man coming in was the old man, the guy who even before the current guy who was knocked off was the guy who was holding up the problem, apparently back to what, 2003, when he first got complaints about the situation out there? 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Exactly.  2003-2004.  And in his statement today—in a statement yesterday, actually, it was sort of the precursor.  You got the signal from Gates yesterday that he wasn‘t happy with the way the Army was handling this.  And today, he said that he was disappointed that so few people were willing to step forward and take responsibility and that he thought the Army was being much too defensive over the situation at Walter Reed.

Instead of, you know, taking the bull by the horns and saying, look, this is not right, we‘re going to fix it and we‘re going to hold those people responsible accountable.  One of those, you know, the rumors are rampant among Army officials, is that Lieutenant General Kiley himself may be forced to step down. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, this is one of the advantages of bringing in a new guy like Bob Gates, isn‘t it?  He‘s able to come in and be the guy with the broom. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  We were talking about that earlier on the heels of this Harvey resignation.  It seems like this wouldn‘t have happened during the Rumsfeld reign.  That there would have been too many attempts, many here in the building believe, to try to spin it, to try to show that yes, indeed, the military and the Pentagon does care about the wounded. 

And there‘s no question that across the board, particularly in Walter Reed, the primary care for these wounded has been exemplary.  But as we find too often, once they get out of that first cycle of medical care, that too many of these wounded and veterans alike simply fall through the bureaucratic cracks. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s your Friday HARDBALL question, Mik.  Could it mean that Bob Gates has enough swag over there at the Pentagon as the new guy that he can make other big changes?  Perhaps in the war effort against Iraq with as much crackle as this one? 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Well, so far he appears to be onboard with the war effort in Iraq.  We haven‘t seen him deviate too much from the war plan—the surge war plan that was really put together even before he took office.  So I think until the time that that surge plan in Baghdad is either proven or proven not to work, I think Gates is going to stick with the game plan that is now on the books. 

MATTHEWS:  Great story.  Thank you very much, NBC‘s Jim Miklaszewski.  Dana Priest of The Washington Post first broke this story about the conditions at Walter Reed.  She joins us now. 

Dana, thank you for joining us—oh, I think we just lost her, anyway, thank you, Dana Priest  That was an amazing interview with Jim Miklaszewski over there. 

Jim, let‘s me take it back up with you.  I think we communication with you again.  Mik, this story, it had two levels.  Run through this again.  It has two stories.  The first story was The Washington Post story that Dana Priest broke, that showed the conditions over there in treating people after their initial treatment.  And then the second story was the bureaucratic failure to respond.  Is that right? 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  That‘s absolutely right.  And you know, it appeared to me—because I was actually off during that time period, and I was watching it as an observer from afar, and it looked to me like this was an old Army at work.  This is the way the old Army would have responded. 

I thought that they had learned quite a few lessons in terms of putting down scandals.  Abu Ghraib, for example, the Army stepped up and really stepped forward and was out front on—once the scandal broke, on delivering the information that the public needed to know. 

But then I saw them responding to this Walter Reed scandal, and it seemed like it was the old Army at work.  And as a matter of fact, one senior military official who I hadn‘t seen in a while, I said hello and without even broaching the subject of Walter Reed, he just declared we‘ve really screwed this one up, haven‘t we? 

MATTHEWS:  I think we noticed that here on this program yesterday.  We thought on HARDBALL it was odd that the top guy was bopped and then the new guy who came in was the old guy, the guy who was there when he should have dealt with the thing earlier, and that is Kiley, as you point out.  We‘ll hear more about Kiley in the days ahead. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  What was interesting, Chris, is that Gates was sending signals out all along, hey, get on top of this, get control of this, get accountability, and the Army dragged its feet. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s a lot easier to fire people when you‘re the new guy, as we‘ve seen so many times in our business. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Jim Miklaszewski.  Let‘s go right now, we have a clear line down to Dana Priest who is, of course, the great reporter at The Washington Post who broke this story wide open. 

Dana, thank you for this.  This story seems to have a dynamic to it.  It‘s not just that you uncovered the disastrous treatment of those people out there, but the bureaucratic laxitude (ph). 

DANA PRIEST, THE WASHINGTON POST:  Well, you know, Chris, you have not asked the question I thought you were going to ask, which is the political one, because really, this thing has legs for two reasons.  One is that people in the country who write us, have been writing the White House outraged at the treatment of soldiers, but the other thing is that the Democrats have really seized this as an issue. 

And they have lined up two investigations, one on Monday at Walter Reed, and one on Tuesday in the Senate Armed Services Committee.  And I have heard from Republicans who are calling me, who doesn‘t cover politics, that there is a scramble within the Republican Party and that the White House is feeling some heat on this. 

And that is part of this.  In fact, Pentagon people in the civilian ranks over there have told me the same thing, that they‘re trying to get ahead of this.  And as you know, the president is going to announce a new commission. 

The other thing is, not to forget about who this is all about, which is the soldiers, I‘ve been trying to keep in contact with those people I can.  And they really feel, a large extent, emboldened by what they are seeing swirling around them.  And they are a number of them preparing to testify.  These are people that are not public figures, that are maimed in some cases from war and never thought that they would be in the spotlight and are stepping up to be in the spotlight and to tell about the conditions there. 

So I think people in general that I‘m hearing from at least are very strong-willed now about the changes.  And I think they‘re going to hold the command‘s feet to the fire as best they can as well. 

MATTHEWS:  How does that square with the word we got in your paper the other day that they are being told they have to be up at 6:00 in the morning to be ready for these assemblies, and they‘re being gagged when it comes to speaking to the press.  Where does that stand? 

PRIEST:  Well, they have now stood down on the daily inspections and now they‘ve said they‘re going to do random inspections.  I don‘t know if that is any better.  But it does mean that not everybody has to get up every day at that early hour. 

As for the gagging, you know, I do think that they are going to try to do that.  And you may see fewer names—new names in the paper as a result.  But again, from what I‘m hearing, people are steadfast about getting things changed and they‘re very happy that there is all of this attention. 

The staff at Walter Reed, I think, are more—feel more mixed about it.  Many of them respected General Weightman.  You know, he hadn‘t been there all that long.  He got there in August.  And so a lot of people were sad that he had to take the fall first.  And again, as you have pointed out, and we have heard earlier that General Kiley is really the subject of lot of their angst and criticism. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, there are two towers that have fallen here.  The first tower was General Weightman who went down because of the overall scandal.  He was resigning—he resigned the other day.  And now Kevin Kiley—that was because of a Washington Post story—your story, the scandal itself and the bad treatment of these prisoners (sic) who had been there for several months. 

And now the second story was, I believe it was your reporting that led to the fact that General Kiley, who was the previous top man out there, he was getting reports as of 2003 as to a problem out there, and he kicked it down to his master sergeant.  And that was the end of it.  Isn‘t that your story and isn‘t that what led to the second action, the firing basically today of the secretary of the army? 

PRIEST:  Well, I do think that upset Secretary Gates.  And yes, he had

General Kiley had heard things as far back as ‘03.  And as best we can determine, he had dismissed a lot of those.  And so he was not seen.  And then he came out as pretty defensive when the stories broke. 

And as you saw today, Gates used the word “defensive” to speak about the Army.  But again, I will point out that what Gates did today is really a political move because the president appoints the army secretary.  He‘s responsible to the president.  And so I think they have jumped in this now. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me read this to you, to make your point, this is what Secretary Gates had to say later, he said: “I‘m also concerned that some do not properly understand the need to communicate to the wounded and their families that we have no higher priority than their care.”

So a lot of this is the sense I guess of dissatisfaction and anger and frustration by the families.  And he doesn‘t like the looks of that, Secretary Gates. 

PRIEST:  Right.  And on The Post, I think if you looked at what

General Kiley during his one news press conference that he held over at

Building 18, he all but dismissed the accounts, not completely.  And

there‘s this general feeling in the Army, at Walter Reed in particular, but

elsewhere throughout the country where these outpatients exist that this is

you know, to put it in their words, you know, you have to suck it up. 

I mean, we hear that over and over again from people that that‘s what they get from their commanders.  And it‘s really a meshing of cultures that don‘t go well together.  One is the soldiering culture and the other is the patient culture, wounded people who need to feel like they need to put that first. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you‘re the one that blew the lid off of this Walter Reed story.  I guess we‘ll call it Walter-gate.  Anyway, thank you very much, Dana Priest.

Up next, reaction from former Pennsylvania Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who has endorsed, by the way, John McCain for president.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Tom Ridge is the former governor of Pennsylvania and the first ever U.S. secretary of homeland security.  He‘s now the national co-chair of John McCain‘s presidential committee. 

Thank you very much, Governor, for joining us.  What do you make of these quick firings and the resignations?  You‘ve got Weightman, who is kicked out as the top guy at Walter Reed.  Now you have got the secretary of the army getting pushed perhaps.  He‘s gone as of today.

TOM RIDGE, NATIONAL CO-CHAIRMAN, JOHN MCCAIN FOR PRESIDENT:  Yes.  It says the secretary of defense is in charge.  A new broom sweeps clean.  Absolutely horrible, deplorable, reprehensible, unacceptable conditions. 

Put a new team in, rectify it, make damn sure it doesn‘t happen again. 

MATTHEWS:  What does this tell you about Bob Gates, the new—the secretary of defense? 

RIDGE:  He‘s in charge.  And I think it says that when we get these veterans back, these men and women back from Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, we‘re going to start paying as much attention and use the resources and the focus on them when they return as we did when we sent them over there in the first place.  And it really says—it is great leadership on his part.  And it‘s about time somebody rectifies... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think we might get rid of Cheney and bring in McCain as vice president as far as this clean sweep? 

RIDGE:  Well, actually, my service on John, I want to get him elected president. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, tell me about John McCain.  Why do you support John McCain? 

RIDGE:  I have known John McCain for 25 years...

MATTHEWS:  Because this is a big fight.  Tell me what—it is a big fight in the Republican Party right now.  You have got McCain and you‘ve got Giuliani leading in all of the polls.  And you have got, of course, Mitt Romney out there and Huckabee, a few others.  Why do you stick your neck out so early and say you‘re with McCain? 

RIDGE:  A 25-year relationship, know him probably as well—not as well as some of the friends he has served with in the Senate, but I have always admired his courage, his conviction.  He doesn‘t seek to curry favor.  A lot of people may disagree with him.  He and I disagreed from time to time on issues.  But he‘s not judgmental about other people‘s point of view. 

I think from day one he has prepared to lead.  He has been conditioned and informed based on his variety of experiences he has had as a soldier, as a prisoner of war, as a congressman, as a senator.  I think he‘s well-respected around the world, not just in this country.  And I think he was ready to lead from day one. 

MATTHEWS:  Has he got a hot temper? 

RIDGE:  Well, from time to time, a little temper is not necessarily a detriment, I don‘t think.  I‘ve seen him get very—I know he‘s funny.  He‘s engaging and I know from time to time, if he feels strongly about an issue, he‘ll let you know about it. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you ever go head to head with him? 

RIDGE:  From time to time—well, the toughest I have had with my friend John McCain was when I told him that in the close choice, I was going to support my other friend George Bush for president, which might have been the most difficult conversation I have ever had with another political figure.  And this one was a friend. 

And he was about as gracious and as accommodating and as understanding as anybody could possibly be under those circumstances, because I think he was really hoping that his friend at that time would support him.  I didn‘t.  But it did not impair our friendship.  We continued to be.

MATTHEWS:  Were you wrong to not—to pass over John McCain in the year 2000 for Bush? 

RIDGE:  I made the right choice and I‘m making the right choice now. 

MATTHEWS:  Tell me about the kind of guy you see as McCain.  He is a conservative.  He‘s for this war.  Will being for the war hurt him in winning states like Pennsylvania in the primaries? 

RIDGE:  Well, I think he as positioned himself—I mean, not trying to curry favor politically, but he said from the get-go, we need more troops on the ground.  This who shock and awe is about technology, but at the end of the day, when you‘re trying to battle an insurgency or counterterrorism, you need more boots on the ground.  He said that consistently. 

And he also said—and I think he said—a show a couple of weeks ago, I would rather lose the election to win the war.  And we can stabilize the capital, we can stabilize Baghdad.  Let the—Maliki and his government actually have a peaceful environment which they can build a coalition government.  That will go a long way to bring stability to Iraq and that part of the world. 

So you never walk away from a conversation.  You‘ve interviewed him I don‘t know how many times. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  No, he‘s very clear.

RIDGE:  . as to where he stands. 

MATTHEWS:  But are you with him on that issue?  Are you as far out as he is in supporting the surge and the campaign right now in Iraq? 

RIDGE:  I think it‘s our last best chance.  Everybody admits we‘ve made some mistakes in the past.  And clearly we didn‘t have enough boots on the ground.  If we are going to bring stability anywhere—and remember, there is like (INAUDIBLE) with stability in other provinces, Baghdad continues to be the problem.  And at the end of the day, if we embed several thousand Iraqi troops in time to bring some stability and safety and security to that region, there‘s a chance that they can—a good chance that they bring stability to the government. 

MATTHEWS:  Strong leaders change their minds and make corrections.  We are seeing that today with Walter Reed, with the—perhaps the rough resignation of Harvey as secretary of the army.  A lot of moving around by Bob Gates, the new secretary of defense.

Do you think there is an outside possibility that at the end of this year, some time next year, that John McCain will say, you know, I wanted a lot of troops in the beginning, I thought we could have won that war, but clearly we are too little too late, I‘m going to change my policy, I think we had better get out of there?  Could you see John McCain doing—pulling a Nixon and saying, I know I was the biggest hawk in the world, but I think we have got to change policy now? 

RIDGE:  No.  The only thing I predict about John McCain is that if he has a point of view based on change of circumstances, he will tell you, and you won‘t back away from a different point of view based on what he said before. 

MATTHEWS:  So he‘s not locked because of emotions here?  He is not saying this.

RIDGE:  Well, I think is locked because.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he sees this as another—you were in Vietnam.  Do you think there a possibility that he‘s locked into a very strong hawkish position on this war because he felt the last war wasn‘t ended right by the American people? 

RIDGE:  I think he‘s locked in—not to that operational point of view, I think he‘s locked into the view that this is probably the best—last and best chance we have to bring stability to the capital to give the government a chance to really build a coalition and to resolve this in a self-determining kind of way.  Not that the institutions are going to look like us.  But I think he‘s locked into that point of view. 

If we can‘t provide stability to the capital, we will never provide stability to the country. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s take off your American hat and your policy hat and put on your Republican hat.  Now, can a Republican win the presidency on a hawkish position next year? 

RIDGE:  It depends on the outcome, doesn‘t it?  I mean, there is no Republican candidate that has more at stake with regard to the outcome in Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  He has got all of his chips on this war. 

RIDGE:  . and Baghdad—and he does.  But you know what, the point of it is, he is not packing away from his previous statements.  You will never see John.

MATTHEWS:  But are you worried that in Pennsylvania—look at what happened this year.  Santorum was entrenched.  He was headed towards the presidency.  He lost by about 20 points.  People like Menendez got elected in New Jersey.  I mean, weak candidates were able to win.  You are laughing, but any Democrat won who ran east of the Mississippi. 

RIDGE:  But I‘m thinking about a conversation I had with a taxi driver in New York City, and I think it really applies to John McCain.  This was when Ronald Reagan was running for reelection.  And I said to the taxi driver, not the guy that I would necessarily think would vote for Ronald Reagan, I said, are you going to vote for Ronald Reagan for president again and reelect him? 

He said, I don‘t agree with him a lot but, he said, I‘m probably going to vote for him.  And I said, well, help me get to the conclusion you just drew from that statement.  He said, one, he makes me—I know where he stands on the issues and he makes me feel proud to be an American.  Well, people always know where John McCain stands on the issues.  And we are certainly proud of his services in America.  And I think.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What about the age issue?  It is going to come up.  It‘s coming up in the polls.  I mean, I don‘t think it is a problem, I know the guy.  But people who don‘t know him, 72, he‘ll be 80 by the end of his second term.  Reagan went in at 70.  And he showed some erosion at the end.  Let‘s face it.  It happens.  It happened with Ike.  It happened to every one of these guys.  Even Bush looks a little tired sometimes.  What do you think about that?  A president who‘s 80 years old? 

RIDGE:  Well, I think anybody that thinks that age is a factor that‘s going to slow John down should spend a month with him before they write that conclusion. 

(CROSSTALK)

RIDGE:  You know, he‘s an Energizer Bunny. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But do you think—in other words, you‘re saying he will prove his hustle? 

RIDGE:  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  In this campaign?

RIDGE:  He has got to pace himself.  I mean, the man probably did more in terms of campaigning for candidate in the ‘06 cycle, campaigning for people that agreed with him, campaigning for people that disagreed with him, a strong Republican base.  He has got the energy.  He has got the ability.  And more importantly, he has got the leadership that we need. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s look for—let‘s get back to where we started from tonight, Governor Ridge.  We saw the—perhaps the forced removal of Harvey as secretary of the army.  He quit right in the middle of this mess.  It doesn‘t look good for him.  We had Weightman dismissed as head of Walter Reed just a day ago.  Do you think this new secretary of defense has enough crackle, enough whip in his hand that he might make some big changes over there in Iraq? 

RIDGE:  Well, it‘s pretty clear that he has been empowered to do whatever he thinks is right.  And clearly in this circumstance he did the right thing.  You know, sometimes when you take a look at what they‘ve done in the past when there have been allegations of contrary to what we consider to be a threshold of activity or behavior within the Department of Defense, they don‘t go up the chain of command very far.  He went all the way to the top and made some changes.  And I think.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  That‘s why it is advantageous to have a new guy.  Abu Ghraib, you know?  Gitmo?  A lot of problems that weren‘t dealt with this quickly.  This thing is being dealt with very quickly. 

RIDGE:  Yes.  And he‘s holding people accountable in the chain of command and I think very appropriately so. 

MATTHEWS:  God, he‘s going right down that chain.  Anyway, thank you, Governor.  Great, great guy.  Thanks for coming on tonight. 

RIDGE:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  We will have much more on Walter Reed and that scandal over there and the heads that are rolling in a moment. 

Up next, though, MSNBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell talks to Senator Barack Obama. 

Plus, the latest on the Republican candidates at the big Conservative Political Action Conference being held right now here in Washington. 

And later, former CIA operation Bob Baer on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Democratic presidential frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will both travel to Selma, Alabama, this weekend to commemorate the 1965 civil rights march in that city. 

MSNBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell spoke to Senator Obama about the civil rights milestone and the Clintons.

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, a surprise to report Bill Clinton will join his wife Senator Hillary Clinton this weekend.  It will be his first major public appearance with her since she launched her campaign.  He‘s bringing some star power just as Senator Barack Obama is gaining on Hillary Clinton in the polls. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL (voice-over):  Senator Obama, who could very well be the first African-American president, on Sunday will journey to Selma, Alabama. 

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Personally, this is important because I trace my involvement in public life to the inspiration of the civil rights movement. 

O‘DONNELL:  With Senator Clinton also commemorating the march from Selma, it will be the latest showdown between the two frontrunners, this time to win over black voters. 

OBAMA:  I don‘t take it for granted.  I don‘t think Senator Clinton or any of the other candidates should take the African-American community for granted. 

O‘DONNELL:  A month ago, African-American voters heavily supported Clinton but now favor Obama.  Since his announcement, Obama has barnstormed 19 cities, raised millions, and sliced in half Clinton‘s once sizable lead.

OBAMA:  You know, I always am cautious about polls this early.  I think they‘re volatile.  You never know.

O‘DONNELL:  His rise in the polls comes after Hollywood mogul David Geffen suggested Obama‘s strength is that he‘s not from the Bush royal family or the Clinton royal family, who have held the White House for the past 20 years.

(on camera):  Do you believe that there is a fatigue out there among the American people?

OBAMA:  I wouldn‘t personalize it in that way.  I do think that we‘re in a moment where the country is looking for something different.

O‘DONNELL (voice-over):  Geffen‘s remarks caused the first big fight between the Democrats, and now for the first time, Obama admits his campaign may have gone too far.

(on camera):  So what did you learn from that?

OBAMA:  What I told my staff is, is that I want all our statements to sound like me.  And you know, I tend—you know, I can—I can mix it up.

O‘DONNELL:  You seem to indicate that you‘re ready to hit back hard, but now you‘re saying maybe your campaign shouldn‘t have done that.  I mean, how are you going to defend yourself?

OBAMA:  You know, the best way to respond is with the truth, firmly and persistently.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  Obama also tells me, when attacked, he plans to come back

hard with the truth, and one way to do that is with money.  And next week,

he‘s got two big fund-raisers in Senator Clinton‘s back yard, Wall Street -

Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Norah O‘Donnell.

Will more heads roll over the conditions at Walter Reed hospital?  The HARDBALLers are coming here next.  And this week on NBC‘s “Meet the Press,” Congressman Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania against Senator Lindsey Graham, South Carolina.  The issue will be Iraq, you can bet.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the resignation late today of Army secretary Francis Harvey after “The Washington Post” broke the story about poor conditions at the Walter Reed Medical Center, the Army‘s premier medical facility.  We‘ll have more on that with the HARDBALLers in a moment.

But first: The Republican presidential candidates are wooing conservatives today right here in Washington at the Conservative Political Action Committee‘s conference.  But John McCain isn‘t among those speaking.

NBC‘s Kevin Corke has been there all day.  Kevin, was the absence of John McCain felt today by the conservatives meeting here in Washington?

KEVIN CORKE, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Absolutely, Chris, a real snubbed feeling among the real conservatives here.  I mean, look, you can talk about all the big names that were here—Tom Tancredo here, a real love fest with him when he‘s walking around the halls.  You have a Brownback, and obviously, the headliners in Giuliani and Romney.  But a lot of people in the back halls are still talking about John McCain, saying, Look, where is he?  He cannot win the nomination from this particular party without the conservative base.  His absence was certainly felt.

However, it‘s fair to point out that the current president, George W.  Bush, had a couple of opportunities to address this group and he also passed on his chance to do it.  And it certainly did not affect him, ultimately.  And so you could make the argument that, Look, he‘s not here, it may not affect him long term.

MATTHEWS:  Well, offsetting that absence was the fact that just the other day, we‘re just hearing now, John McCain won that straw vote down in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Is John McCain seen as a conservative at that conservative convention down there?

CORKE:  I‘ll give you my gut...

(CROSSTALK)

CORKE:  Yes, my gut just says absolutely not.  I think they‘re really trying to be pragmatic about this.  Look, a lot of people here, Chris, would love to have a Reagan Republican, a Reagan conservative.  You‘re just not going to get that, not among the top three contenders right now.  McCain certainly is not.

You know, I heard an older gentleman say, Look, I‘ve been a conservative for a long time, 30 years, 40 years, 50 years of my life.  And I assure you, he‘s no Ronald Reagan—you know, the old Lloyd Bentsen trick there.  So the fact is, they know they‘re not going to get that out of McCain, Giuliani or even Romney.  But the fact is, they may have to be pragmatic about it, ultimately, and hold their nose a bit come 2008.

MATTHEWS:  OK, Kevin.  Thanks a lot for reporting from the CPAC convention.

Joining us now are the HARDBALLers, MSNBC political contributor Craig Crawford and “The Politico‘s” Jim VandeHei.

Craig, how do you see this convention of conservatives?  Rudy Giuliani just gave a speech.  They‘re going to have a straw vote out tomorrow.  Who‘s going to win?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: 

Giuliani might just win.  He got a lot of enthusiastic support, I‘m told.  And then I wonder, though, how—we might see a surprise in someone like Mike Huckabee, who was very, you know, funny...

(CROSSTALK)

CORKE:  ... got a lot of jokes in there.  He maybe cracked one line, talking about how the front-runners in the Republican race are not conservatives, they‘re social conservatives.  He said to these conservatives, they might ask, Dude, where‘s my candidate?  And he naturally offered himself as that person.  But I think Huckabee‘s kind of interesting.  Brownback‘s making an effort, Senator Brownback of Kansas, to...

MATTHEWS:  You—do you believe...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do they have a shot at the presidency, Huckabee?

CORKE:  Sure.  I think there there‘s a wide open race on the Republican side.  I even have a hunch at times, I think that this front-runners, these top three, that we‘re going to see a nomination that‘s not from this first tier.

MATTHEWS:  Jim VandeHei, the Republican Party‘d be looking at the Stats.  They‘re different than the Democratic Party.  They have their—

“wait your turn” party.  And people who are front-runners at the beginning of these cycles, even if it‘s two years out, tend to win.  Whereas the Democrats always have topsy-turvy, crazy results.  Could it be that history will change here, as Craig said, and we‘ll get somebody come back from way back in the pack, like Huckabee or Brownback?

JIM VANDEHEI, “THE POLITICO”:  Here‘s why he could.  I just think that politics has changed dramatically.  Yes, there‘s usually an heir apparent for the Republican Party.  It‘s usually a member of the club, and it‘s usually pretty clear early on who it‘s going to be.

MATTHEWS:  The names in the bowl...

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEHEI:  Here‘s where—things have changed, though.  I think even what Republicans are looking for has changed.  It is pretty remarkable that Giuliani‘s doing as well as he is in the South Carolina straw poll and every national poll because on every single litmus test issued from conservatives, he doesn‘t pass it.  That‘s unheard of.

The reason is, I think maybe that issue (INAUDIBLE) is changing for Republicans.  Maybe strength and electability, where there‘s this much uncertainty in your party, is a lot more important than where you are on abortion, as long as you can commit to, you know, appointing the right judges and doing the right thing and—despite the fact that that might not be what your personal beliefs are.

MATTHEWS:  Could it be the foxhole test is telling Republicans, Craig, that they need to have a guy in the foxhole with them, and Rudy Giuliani can help them win this fight, this war.  You don‘t decide whether the guy in the foxhole has blond hair or is right-handed or left-handed.  You don‘t worry about details.  You want to know, Can he win the battle for you?  Can he get you out alive?

CRAWFORD:  He may be.  Getting onto the social conservative stuff—abortion, gay rights, et cetera—you know...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  ... he did make the case that, Hey, I‘m—you know, I‘m 80 percent with you.  You know, That‘s better than most marriages—pretty good line.  But at the end of the day, these are important issues to these people, and I just really wonder, the more they learn about him and just how really liberal he is on those issues...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Hasn‘t he kowtowed a bit by saying, I‘ll pick strict constructionist judges?

CRAWFORD:  I mean, look, we might be looking at a campaign where conservative voters, social conservative voters, are not going to be the players...

MATTHEWS:  But isn‘t he...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I know he‘s a true blue a guy for what he is, Jim, but isn‘t he out there saying things like, I‘ll pick guys like Scalia and Clarence Thomas and Alito?  I mean, he‘s talking conservative judges.

VANDEHEI:  Right.  But at the same time, Ben Smith, a reporter over at “Politico,” had a great story this week in our publication that looked at the judges that Giuliani appointed when he was in New York, and they‘re very liberal...

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEHEI:  That‘s when he had the chance.  They weren‘t...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... explain to you why I think he has a good shot at winning this nomination, not why I would be for him.  He‘s able to say to conservatives, Hey, you guys know New York.  I‘ve got to be for gun control in New York.  When I get out to El Paso, I‘m not going to have the same gun control attitudes that I have in New York City.  You can own a shotgun in your house.  You can be a sportsman.  You can be a hunter.  You can have fun shooting up old cars, if you want, with automatic weapons or semi-automatics.  I‘m telling you, when I was in New York City, with the crime rate we faced in New York, I had to keep the guns off the street.  Get it?  And they...

Let‘s watch Giuliani speak for himself here at CPAC today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We don‘t all see eye to eye on everything.  You and I have a lot of common beliefs that are the same, and we have some that are different.  You just described your relationship, I think, with your husband, your wife, your children.  We don‘t all agree on everything.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  He‘s saying evening in marriages, you don‘t agree, Craig.

CRAWFORD:  But I still have to come back to—I mean, maybe I‘ve just covered these social conservatives and these Republican (INAUDIBLE) for too long to believe that they‘re just suddenly going to forget about that stuff, no matter how much they like Giuliani.  But it‘s really a matter of...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You really think you‘re going to put Huckabee up there against Hillary Clinton or Obama and risk...

CRAWFORD:  What I‘m saying is...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  ... if Giuliani wins this nomination, and he well could, conservatives—social conservative voters are not going to play in the general election, and that‘s going to...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I couldn‘t disagree with you more.  When they get a look at the Democratic nominee, they‘re going to vote like they‘ve never voted in their lives because the Democratic nominee‘s going to...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  ... Chris, I really do believe a lot of these voters and a lot of these groups are losing interest in politics.  They‘ve been burned so many times...

MATTHEWS:  They‘ll get it back again.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... getting African-Americans to vote.  You know what the number one voting registrar in Philadelphia, when I was growing up, among African-Americans, that got blacks to vote to the point where more blacks were voting per capita than whites in Philly?  You know what it was?  It was Frank Rizzo.  It was the other side.  That‘s what shakes people up because American voters vote against.  They don‘t vote for, they vote against.  And when they see Hillary or Obama coming, a lot of these Republicans are going to say, God, that Rudy‘s pretty cool.  I like him.

What do you think, Jim?

VANDEHEI:  Well, I think that that conventional wisdom must be wrong. 

I mean, this idea that once conservatives get to know Rudy Giuliani‘s record...

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEHEI:  How can they not know what his record is?  I mean, everybody‘s...

CRAWFORD:  Oh, I think...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  I mean, I don‘t think they‘ve heard all the details of his personal life and a lot—you know, the judges you‘re talking about...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Sometimes I wish, Craig, I was in the gambling business.  I could stop talking to guys like you and put some money on the table, and I‘d get rich.  Wait year from now.  We‘ll be right back with Craig Crawford and Jim VandeHei.

This is HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the HARDBALLers, MSNBC political contributor Craig Crawford and “The Politico‘s” Jim VandeHei.

Here‘s more, by the way, of Rudy Giuliani today at the Conservative Political Action Committee‘s meeting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIULIANI:  I began being mayor of New York City thinking I could reform the New York city school system, and I—OK.

(LAUGHTER)

GIULIANI:  I made mistakes.  I‘m willing to admit them and apologize for them.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

GIULIANI:  I don‘t know if they got it, but in any event—in any event, that was a mistake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What is he talking to there with that joke?  We‘re always trying to figure out these guys‘ jokes.  Was he saying George Bush can‘t admit a mistake or Hillary Clinton can‘t admit a mistake?

VANDEHEI:  I think it‘s Hillary Clinton...

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEHEI:  ... her Iraq vote and, Will you say it‘s a mistake, not say it‘s a mistake.  Clearly, it‘s a dig to try to fire up the conservative...

MATTHEWS:  Even though they agree on the war and they both would have supported the resolution...

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEHEI:  He‘s not making a dig at Bush.

MATTHEWS:  It took a while for that joke to sort of cascade.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  Kind of reminded me of Hillary‘s joke about her husband—you know, we thought it was about her husband.  She was talking about dealing with bad men, and it kind of rippled.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about Hillary.  She‘s bringing her husband down to Selma with her this weekend.  Is that to show that he‘s, like—he‘s, like—he‘s there, to show that he‘s around on weekends?

CRAWFORD:  I think—I think...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Hey, look, Bill‘s here with me now.  He‘s always with me.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I know where he is.  It‘s 9:00 AM.  Do you know where your husband is?  I mean, he‘s out there campaigning with her.  But also, Toni Morrison said America‘s first black president.  Is that reason for her to bring him down?  Wouldn‘t she want to have the sunlight on her?

VANDEHEI:  No.  I think this is about—I mean, look at the poll that was out, ABC/”Washington Post” poll...

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEHEI:  ... a ton of African-Americans...

MATTHEWS:  It shows...

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEHEI:  ... moving away from Hillary Clinton...

MATTHEWS:  Not a ton, a plurality.  Most of them are now backing—most blacks (INAUDIBLE)

VANDEHEI:  There‘s a huge shift in the polls going to Obama.

MATTHEWS:  Well, how does Bill change that?

VANDEHEI:  Because he‘s very popular with African-American...

MATTHEWS:  But he he‘s not running.

VANDEHEI:  I know, but his appearance there certainly will add even more star appeal to both Clintons being on stage, whereas it was going to be the Obama show, so...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  ... down in Florida last week...

VANDEHEI:  It wasn‘t on the schedule initially.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Imagine (INAUDIBLE) Dodge City.  It‘s tough, right?  Are we going to make Kitty Russell (ph) the next mayor?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  The next marshal?  I mean, why does it—why does it transect?  Do you think it transfers?

CRAWFORD:  I don‘t—I don‘t think it transfers in this particular context.  I think it‘s probably not such a good idea.  For one thing, I don‘t know if he‘s going to speak yet.  It‘s not...

MATTHEWS:  He‘ll blow her away.

CRAWFORD:  And that—if you remember the Martin Luther King...

MATTHEWS:  Oh!

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  ... King‘s funeral...

MATTHEWS:  He‘s never given a bad speech...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  ... he spoke and she spoke.  It was not a good thing for

her, to see that comparison.  Now, I got to say, I did see her in Liberty

City, down in Miami last week, and she chose as her very first Florida

event with black leaders, about 150, 200.  She got a couple of endorsements

Alcee Hastings.  She spent two hours with them...

MATTHEWS:  How did she do?

CRAWFORD:  She did Very well.

MATTHEWS:  Did she have a...

CRAWFORD:  It was town hall setting.  She took questions.

MATTHEWS:  Did she have a grating nature to her voice or was it positive?

CRAWFORD:  No, I didn‘t think—I thought—I actually thought it was...

MATTHEWS:  It wasn‘t fingers on a blackboard?  It wasn‘t like that?

CRAWFORD:  I mean, I‘m not sure she proved she‘s black enough yet, as

as...

MATTHEWS:  But you thought—you think she can give a stump speech thing, because that‘s a big question.  Can she do it?

CRAWFORD:  I think she‘s better in these town hall environments, where she takes questions and works the crowd.  I think she still needs work on the big stump speech...

MATTHEWS:  You know what you can learn in this business?  John Kennedy took years to learn to give a speech.  You can get better and better if you have the right coaching and the right people saying, Slow it down a little.  You know, Don‘t yell.  All you need is somebody to help you.  Michael Sheehan (ph) is good at this.  He helped Clinton.  Maybe he‘s helping her.  But she can get better, and she‘s got a year to get really good at this.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Jim VandeHei, I‘m trying to be positive, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Craig Crawford and Jim VandeHei.

Up next, former CIA operative Bob Baer‘s coming here to talk about how we stop the Taliban again.  They are coming back in Afghanistan.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

A day after Vice President Cheney pressed President Musharraf to crack down on the Taliban and al Qaeda militants in Pakistan, a suicide bomber struck the very military base where Cheney was staying in Afghanistan.  Why have al Qaeda and the Taliban been able to regroup and set up camps in Pakistan?  How vulnerable is Afghanistan to a Taliban resurgence?  And is President Musharraf really on our side?

Bob Baer is a former CIA officer who was stationed in the Middle East.  He‘s the author of “Blow the House Down.”  He‘s also intelligence columnist for Time.com.

I guess we start with the toughest question first.  Is Musharraf with us?

BOB BAER, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE:  He‘s with us.  But frankly, Chris, there‘s not much he can do.  He‘s lost control of the tribal areas.  He‘s lost parts of Karachi, major cities throughout Pakistan.  We can push all we want, but he cannot close the Taliban down or capture bin Laden.  It‘s beyond him.

MATTHEWS:  Is this like the Viet Cong was in Vietnam?  If you don‘t beat them, they eventually win?

BAER:  Oh, they‘re absolutely winning.  I mean, we will see an offensive this spring in Afghanistan.  It‘s coming.  The Taliban has announced it.  Large parts of the country NATO can no longer hold onto.

MATTHEWS:  So where do we stand at the end of this spring?  If there‘s 10,000 troops out there fighting for the Taliban against our central government, led by President Karzai, where does it end at the end of this spring offensive?

BAER:  Karzai remains mayor of Kabul.  That‘s about it.  We‘re going to have to pour a lot more troops in there.  The British army is already pulling out of Basra. sending troops into Afghanistan, because they know they can‘t hold Helmand Province without more troops.

MATTHEWS:  Well, that...

BAER:  It‘s pretty much up in the air.

MATTHEWS:  That southern province which you say is vulnerable to being taken over completely by the Taliban and by al Qaeda, could that become a major international center for terrorism?

BAER:  Oh, absolutely.  We‘re going to see this come back.  As the Taliban retakes Afghanistan, which they probably will, we‘re going to see bin Laden coming back, setting up bases.  It‘ll be a rear base for Qaeda again.

MATTHEWS:  You believe bin Laden will show his head?

BAER:  No.  I think he‘s too smart for that.  I think that he‘s going to always be in the background, living out of sight, no DVDs, staying away.  He‘s going to be a symbol for this movement, but not actually in control of it.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s talk American interests.  What are they here? 

Where do we stand vis-a-vis Afghanistan?

BAER:  Chris, the problem is, we continue to fight these wars that are getting worse and worse.  We‘re in quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq.  And this is not the intention of this government, but we are killing Sunni Muslims, and they‘re going to come back at us.  We have to come to some sort—I hate using this word—closure in Afghanistan and Iraq fairly quickly, or else they‘re going to be coming our way and we‘re going to get hit in Europe or in the United States.

MATTHEWS:  Well, how—do we deal with the Taliban or kill them?

BAER:  You know, my feeling is right now that this is—you know, this doesn‘t actually go in Washington.  We got to deal with the Iranians.  The only people that can actually control Afghanistan, or most of it, and Iraq are the Iranians.  We have to deal with somebody in the Persian Gulf.

MATTHEWS:  Well, if we get the Shia on our side—we already have turned over Iraq to the Shia—do we then turn and turn face against the Sunnis, who have always been our friends?  I mean, how do we establish a permanent alliance with any major force in that part of the world besides Israel?

BAER:  Chris, the problem is we have lost Saudi Arabia, in a large sense, when we went into Iraq.  We went to war with a Sunni regime.  We overthrew it.  The Saudis look at us like—as unreliable partners.  That‘s why King Abdullah has gone to China to do an arms deal rather than the United States.  We have to take one side in that area.  We can‘t fight...

MATTHEWS:  OK, help me out.

BAER:  ... both the Shia and the Sunni.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ve only got a minute.  Be president of the United States.  What‘s the smart move right now for us?

BAER:  Send Condoleezza Rice to Teheran.  Find out what they want. 

Cut a deal.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Bob Baer.

Play HARDBALL with us again Monday.  Our guests will include Giuliani supporter and California congressman David Dreier.

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   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2007 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2007 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

transcript

Watch Hardball each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,