updated 3/13/2007 1:26:08 PM ET 2007-03-13T17:26:08

Guests: Chris Cillizza, Charles Pierce, Tony Perkins, Richard Land, Dana Priest, Paul Rieckhoff, Tom Hagel

DAVID GREGORY, GUEST HOST:  Tonight, 2008, the big unanswered questions.

Is Senator Chuck Hagel in or out?  Will former Senator Fred Thompson take center stage, or is he just auditioning?

The Christian conservative vote - can you hate the sin, but love the sinner?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, everybody.  I‘m David Gregory, in for Chris Matthews tonight.  Welcome to HARDBALL.

More firings today in the Walter Reed scandal.  The former head of Walter Reed, Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley is now leaving.

Defense Department sources say the Army forced Kiley out.  Kiley is third, top-ranking official to lose his job over the poor quality of medical care for wounded troops at Walter Reed.

Later, we‘re going to talk to Dana Priest, the “Washington Post” reporter who broke the Walter Reed story.

And Republican frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani, has been married three times.  Senator John McCain had a divorce, and Newt Gingrich admitted he had an affair while leading the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Who will Christian conservatives back?  Will so-called “values voters” be able to find a candidate who fits the bill?

But first, all of Washington today was waiting for Senator Chuck Hagel to announce he was getting in to the 2008 presidential race.  But it didn‘t happen.

The outspoken, anti-war Republican said he will make a decision later this year.  We have an exclusive interview with his brother, Tom, in just a moment.

But first, HARDBALL‘s David Schuster with this report.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

DAVID SCHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It had all the trappings of a presidential campaign announcement, including home state supporters and sweeping rhetoric.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL, R-NEBRASKA:  We are experiencing a political reorientation, a redefining.

SCHUSTER:  But today, Nebraska senator, Chuck Hagel, who has literally been begged to run by anti-war Republicans, would only say “maybe.”

C. HAGEL:  I‘m here today to announce that my family and I will make a decision on my political future later this year.

In making this announcement, I believe there will still be political options open to me at a later date.

SCHUSTER:  Chuck Hagel is 60 years old and is finishing his second Senate term.  He has a conservative voting record on social issues, but has been a thorn in the side of the Bush administration.  A day after the president announced a troop surge this year in Iraq, Hagel declared .

C. HAGEL:  I think this speech, given last night by this president, represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it‘s carried out.

SCHUSTER:  When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified that the Iraq civil war is not to blame for most U.S. casualties, Hagel replied .

C. HAGEL:  Buy to sit there and say that, Madam Secretary, that‘s just not true.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE:  Well, Senator Hagel .

C. HAGEL:  That is not true.

RICE:  Senator .

SCHUSTER:  And two weeks later, Hagel admonished his own Senate colleagues for ducking the tough Iraq decisions.

C. HAGEL:  If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes.  This is a tough business.

But is it any tougher, us having to take a tough vote, express ourselves and have the courage to step up, than what we‘re asking our young men and women and to do?  I don‘t think so.

SCHUSTER:  Hagel‘s voice has carried weight, in part, because he‘s a decorated veteran who served in the Army in Vietnam with his brother, Tom.

But Hagel‘s announcement today to table a presidential decision could give fuel to critics who say the Nebraska senator is all talk and no action.

In any case, as Hagel steps to the sidelines, another possible presidential candidate who is more recognizable to voters is edging close to the field.

Fred Thompson is a former senator from Tennessee.  He is also a Hollywood actor, whose style is reflected while playing a tough-talking prosecutor in the NBC television drama, “Law and Order.”

This weekend, Thompson said he is considering a presidential run, and will decide in the next few months after watching the candidates who have already jumped in.

FRED THOMPSON, R-FORMER TENNESSEE SENATOR:  I would be interested in seeing how their message and their personalities resonate with the American people as they campaign, and how effective there are in getting their message out.

SCHUSTER:  When it comes to each party‘s 2008 presidential field, the latest NBC News-“Wall Street Journal” poll shows far more disillusionment among Republicans than among Democrats.

Seventy-seven percent of Democrats said they were satisfied with their field, but only 56 percent of Republicans were satisfied - a 21-point difference.

It‘s one reason Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, is also considering a run.  But his popularity among conservatives may be tested, because of his recent admission that he had an affair while leading the charge for Bill Clinton‘s impeachment.

Arizona Senator John McCain has been hurt by his support for the troop escalation in Iraq, and so, the frontrunner among Republicans right now is former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani.

But conservatives are suspicious of Giuliani‘s social views.  He has a record of supporting gun control, gay rights and abortion.  And this weekend, a YouTube video clip ricocheted across the Internet, showing Giuliani‘s support for abortion rights in the late 1980s.

RUDY GIULIANI, R-FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY:  There must be public funding for abortions for poor women.  We cannot deny any woman the right to make her own decision about abortion, because she lacks resources.

SCHUSTER (on camera):  Fred Thompson and Chuck Hagel are both against public funding of abortion.  But regardless of whether this issue, or any other, provides an opportunity for a candidate to try and get conservative support, all of this underscores that the Republican contest right now is unpredictable and wide open.

I‘m David Schuster for HARDBALL, in Washington.

(END VIDEO)

GREGORY:  David, thanks very much.  And with us now, Senator Hagel‘s brother, Tom.  He‘s a law professor at the University of Dayton.

Chuck and Tom Hagel served together in Vietnam and took different political paths after the war.  Tom is a Democrat, and in 2004 he helped the Kerry-Edwards campaign organize veteran support in Ohio.

Tom, thanks for being with us.

TOM HAGEL, BROTHER OF SEN. CHUCK HAGEL:  Thank you.

GREGORY:  So, what was this about today?  Is your brother in or out?

T. HAGEL:  You know as much about it as I do.  I talked to him last week, and he told me what he was going to say.  And I think that his inclination is to be in.  And to be quite frank with you, I would expect him ultimately to throw his hat in the ring.

GREGORY:  So, why not do it today?  What else is he waiting for?

T. HAGEL:  That I don‘t know.  I don‘t know the specifics.  But if I had to guess, I would say that he ultimately will do it.

GREGORY:  So, why does he want in?  As he looks at this landscape on the Republican side, what opening does he see for himself?

T. HAGEL:  That‘s the question I have.  You look at the reality of the situation, and I think that you have a number of people that are already out there, that seem to represent representation for, you know, certain segments of the Republican Party, and maybe for the electorate in general.

But I think that he sees himself as a candidate who can rise above the run-of-the-mill political babble that goes on.

GREGORY:  All right.  But what does that mean exactly?  Because one of the things that does set him apart right now, he is conservative.  There‘s a lot of talk about who‘s the true conservative in this race.  But he is running away from this president, and fast, on the war.

Is that really what is going to define a Chuck Hagel campaign, is that he was the Republican who stood up to Bush on the war and said, this is wrong, this isn‘t working, you botched this?

T. HAGEL:  I don‘t think it could be any other way, because of the place that the war is in the public mind today, that that is the key concern, apparently, with society.  That if he enters into this race, based on the positions he‘s already stated, I don‘t see how it could not set the context for his entire campaign.

GREGORY:  What does he think about not only the war, but about the political standing for Republicans?  Does he think that Republicans will pay a price for having stood by Bush on the war?

T. HAGEL:  I think he does.  But I don‘t think that that has anything to do with his position.

If you look at historically, you can go all the way back, and he has been a pretty consistent critic of this war, where I think there‘s some .

GREGORY:  But he did vote for it.  But he voted for the war.

T. HAGEL:  That‘s true.

GREGORY:  He voted to give the president the authority.

T. HAGEL:  That‘s true.  And I remember watching that speech, and I thought it was going to be a run-up to all the reasons why he was not going to vote for it, and then he did.  And I think he did that, quite frankly, out of party loyalty, or maybe he actually believed what the president was saying.

GREGORY:  But he thinks that vote was wrong now?

T. HAGEL:  Somebody‘s going to have to ask them that, and I‘m sure somebody - if they haven‘t already - will.

But again, the problem, that problem is going to be confronted by him, just like it is by Senator Clinton, about the concern about flip-flop, which is - I think maybe that defines how frivolous some people look at the process of political debate in this country.

GREGORY:  Well, Tom, let me ask you this.  You‘re a Democrat.

T. HAGEL:  Yes.

GREGORY:  So, this is going to serve some of your - be a little bit self-serving.  But you‘ve talked to your brother.  Your brother‘s an astute political analyst, as well as a senator.

How hard does he think it‘s going to be for a Republican to win next year?

T. HAGEL:  I mean, he has not confided in me any great details that probably are not available to everybody else.

But I don‘t think he is even focused on that.  I think he is solely focused - to be real frank with you right now - I think he is solely focused on doing what he can to provide leadership to get out of this war.

GREGORY:  Right.

T. HAGEL:  Secondly, of course, I believe - I‘m not, I don‘t have any inside information - but I believe he‘ll ultimately throw his hat in the ring.  And I think that is going to be the primary, leading subject, if you will - goal, maybe - of coming up with some plan to get out of this mistaken war that we‘re in.

GREGORY:  You talk about war.  Your life, your brother‘s life, very much defined by your service in Vietnam.

T. HAGEL:  Yes.

GREGORY:  Take me through that, serving with your brother, and your experience in Vietnam and how it has colored both of your views about this war.

T. HAGEL:  It can‘t help but color a person‘s view, regardless of what their service was.

But our service was, we were infantry riflemen in the Mekong Delta in 1968 - a bad year over there - and we saw a lot of the worst of it.

And that‘s why I think his position on the war deserves so much more credibility than most other of his colleagues.  Because when they talk about the war in Iraq, putting it on ground level, the best they can do, and rightfully so, is look at it in the abstract.

He is maybe the only person in the Senate who actually knows what those folks are confronting each and every day.

GREGORY:  He‘s been in the mud .

T. HAGEL:  Yes, he has.

GREGORY:  . and seen the hard reality of battle.  He saved your life there, didn‘t he?

T. HAGEL:  Yes.

GREGORY:  Tell me about that.

T. HAGEL:  I don‘t know if I want to get into all that.

GREGORY:  It was a tough .

T. HAGEL:  Yes.

GREGORY:  . tough period.

T. HAGEL:  Very difficult.

GREGORY:  It was remarkable, wasn‘t it, that you two were even serving in the same place.

T. HAGEL:  Yes.  It‘s - neither one of us can explain it.  We were in, in fact, totally different ends of the country, and we end up not only in the same infantry division, but the same battalion, the same company and the same squad.

And we were tighter in the field, I think altogether about seven or eight months of our time over there.  So, we saw a lot of awful things.

GREGORY:  And you both came out with different views about the war in Vietnam.

T. HAGEL:  Initially, yes.  When I left, I was absolutely frustrated and angry, because I felt that we had been lied to and misused, and that a lot of people lost their life and were affected through various types of wounds that would affect them the rest of their life - for nothing.

And Chuck took the other end.  And he believed that it was a justified war, justified conflict, our involvement was justified.  And he held that position for a long time.

But as he may tell you - I know he‘s talked about this with other people recently - that he has changed his mind dramatically on that.

GREGORY:  Just in case people are just looking up now, I just want to be very clear.

Your view after this announcement today that left some people shaking their heads, is that this was just a precursor to your brother, Senator Hagel, getting into the race for president.  That‘s your view, that that will happen in time.

T. HAGEL:  My gut tells me that is correct.  I don‘t have any inside information.  But knowing Chuck, I think that he is - it‘s just a matter of time.

GREGORY:  Do you think he‘d win?

T. HAGEL:  I‘ve talked to him about that.  And I told him that, even though I‘m a Democrat, if he wants to throw his hat in the ring, more power to him.

I‘m not going to be involved in the campaign, but I said that .

GREGORY:  Would you vote for him, though?  Can he get his brother‘s vote?

(LAUGHTER)

T. HAGEL:  Well, who knows who will be running, right?

GREGORY:  You‘re not going to commit yet?

T. HAGEL:  No, because I don‘t want to turn our relationship into, you know, I guess subject it to all the political problems that could arise.

But one thing I told him is that, it‘s my belief that his biggest problem will be getting the nomination.  Because the people who run the political - or, the Republican Party today, are the type of people who will punish him for being honest and taking a stand.

GREGORY:  All right.  Tom Hagel, Senator Chuck Hagel‘s brother, coming on the program tonight, exclusively.

Thanks very much.

T. HAGEL:  Thank you.

GREGORY:  And coming here on HARDBALL, will actor Fred Thompson follow in Ronald Reagan‘s footsteps?  And what exactly are Chuck Hagel‘s chances, if he is indeed in the race?

Later on, another resignation in Walter Reed.  This time it‘s the Army surgeon general.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Big news today on the Republican presidential front.  Chuck Hagel, as we have been talking about, makes a non-announcement about his political future.

Plus, is senator-turned-actor, Fred Thompson, jumping into the race, as well?  For all of that, plus Giuliani and Clinton, we‘re joined by Esquire‘s Charles Pierce, who wrote about Hagel in the April issue, WashingtonPost.com‘s Chris Cillizza.

And we begin with our own NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell.  Andrea, what was this today?  You just heard Tom Hagel say he thinks his brother is in.

Here Chuck Hagel has got all the attention, and it‘s to say, not quite.  I‘m in it to win it here.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  And he could have had even more attention, because he had many offers to go on television .

GREGORY:  Right.

MITCHELL:  . and major shows.

GREGORY:  So, what‘s he doing?

MITCHELL:  Well, I think, knowing Chuck Hagel and talking to some of his people, he does not want to come out and overtly criticize John McCain, whom he holds very dear, but is privately rather disappointed in, because of the war.

And doesn‘t want to come right out and say it, but it‘s very implicit in everything that he‘s doing, is that he doesn‘t think you can really work hard in the United States Senate and pursue all of the big issues that he thinks are out there, without doing - you know, without dropping out if you‘re going to run for president.

You‘ve got to run for president wholeheartedly, full-time.  And you can‘t also do what you need to do in the United States.

GREGORY:  All right.  So, Chris .

MITCHELL:  I think he wants to see what the field shape up, before he decides whether to make the plunge.

GREGORY:  Right.  And so, Chris, what does he see on that landscape right now, on that checkerboard?  What opening does he see?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM:  Well, I was going to say, I agree with Andrea about everything she said.  The problem is, if you don‘t have an announcement to make, why say that you have an announcement to make?

What does Chuck Hagel see on the chessboard?

I think he sees what Fred Thompson, what a lot of people see, which is that the three frontrunners - Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain - all have problems with social conservatives of one form or another and of sort of differing depths.

I think everyone wants to get into that race and say, why not me?  Why can‘t I be the candidate that social conservatives line up behind?  Why can‘t I be president?

I think everybody is still bitten by the Bill Clinton bug.  If you remember back to ‘92, all the big-wig Democrats didn‘t get into that race, because they thought George Herbert Walker Bush was unbeatable.

And Wild (ph) Bill Clinton gets in.  He winds up winning the presidency, and a lot of people watched their chance of the presidency go by.  I think a lot of Republicans are wizened up to that, and they don‘t want to let this chance go by.

GREGORY:  Charles Pierce, you have profiled Chuck Hagel.

What do you think is going on in his mind?  Is this partly a tactical decision about running as an independent down the road, or what?

CHARLES PIERCE, ESQUIRE:  I think he‘s smart enough to know that independent candidates don‘t go anywhere.

I think what Andrea said is probably correct.  I think a lot of what Chris says is probably correct.

But you‘ve also got, I think, what you‘re looking at is an authentic American political eccentric.  I really believe he doesn‘t know.

And I think he believes it‘s too soon, and I believe he knows that the one overriding issue over the next two years is going to be the war.  And I think that‘s partly what Andrea was talking about.  When she talks about issues that have to be dealt with, he‘s talking about things like Walter Reed.  He‘s talking about, you know, extricating us from this disaster.

And I think that he‘s actually taking a step back.  I think this is a legitimate step back.

And I have to admit, today, it was a lot of fun watching him make everybody jump.

GREGORY:  Right.  I mean, Andrea, there was secrecy all weekend long and then .

MITCHELL:  Right.

GREGORY:  . a (ph) moment (ph) afterward.

But let me ask you this.  There are - you know, covering the White House you get the eye roll every time you bring up, well, Republicans like Senator Hagel criticized you on this or that.

Vice President Cheney said there‘s that old maxim in politics that Reagan said, you know, don‘t criticize your fellow Republican.  It‘s really hard when it comes to Chuck Hagel, he said.

How is he going to do anything on the right, even though he‘s got a strong, conservative record .

MITCHELL:  That‘s the problem.

GREGORY:  . when he‘s been so far out there on the war now, against the war?

MITCHELL:  The problem is that, even though he has voted with this president more than anybody else in the Senate, because he‘s been so critical, so out there on the war, on John Bolton, on all of these issues, so tough on Condi Rice, he is anathema with the mainstream Republicans, including the base, the conservative base, whom he appeals to on social issues.

He can‘t really capture that.  He can‘t run as a Republican.  He isn‘t really an authentic Republican, as much as he‘d like to be.

And that‘s why I think someone like Fred Thompson we may be talking about, it can move into this vacuum, which you all have defined.

GREGORY:  Right, well, Chris - but let me flip this on its head, which is to say, why can‘t I be a Republican if I‘m Chuck Hagel and buck Bush on the war?

I mean, there are Republicans out there who are so mad at this president over the war, and Chuck Hagel may say, the only way we‘re going to win is by bucking him on the war.

CILLIZZA:  Right.  There‘s no question.  I think, you know, long ago, I think we‘ve left the idea that this is a partisan issue, that Republicans all support the war and Democrats all oppose the war.

If you look at the numbers for the war in public polling, it‘s impossible that, you know, 65 percent of the people all happen to also be Democrats.

I think the concern is, you have to remember who votes in these primaries.  This is not a broad, national election.  This is specific states where conservatives vote.

And most conservatives - we‘re talking about the conservative wing of the Republican Party, not just the Republican Party broadly - most conservatives still want to see this thing forward in a way that they believe will achieve victory.  And they don‘t think that Chuck Hagel‘s rhetoric gets them to that.

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to take a quick break here.  We‘ll talk about Fred Thompson on the other side, and some other political news, as well.

We‘ll be back with Andrea Mitchell, Charles Pierce and Chris Cillizza.

And coming up later, will conservatives find the perfect candidate for 2008?  We‘re going to talk about what they‘re looking for with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell, Esquire‘s Charles Pierce and WashingtonPost.com‘s Chris Cillizza.

Chris, Fred Thompson - for real here?  In the race?  What do you think?

CILLIZZA:  I‘m skeptical.  I think that Fred Thompson - he served in the Senate from ‘94 to 2002.  Left the Senate, largely because I think he enjoyed acting.  He enjoyed being out of the public eye in that regard, in the political sphere.  Liked being in the public eye in the acting sphere.

I‘m skeptical about him running.  I think he likes his name out there.  There is a lot of money in Tennessee that went away when Bill Frist decided not to run.

So, he would have something of a funding base, and he is a well-known personality.

But I just don‘t know.  To run for president now, this kind of commitment and daily commitment, 24-7 every day, I‘m not sure that that‘s the kind of commitment he wants to make.

GREGORY:  Let‘s turn to the Democrats.

Listen now to Hillary Clinton talking about JFK in New Hampshire this weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, D-NEW YORK, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  A lot of people back then said, well, you know, America will never elect a Catholic as president.  But those who gathered here almost half a century ago knew better.  They believed America was bigger than that, and that Americans would give Senator John F. Kennedy a fair shake.

So, when people tell me, or one of the pundits says it, “I don‘t think a woman can be elected president,” I say we‘ll never know unless we try.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Andrea Mitchell, the Clinton campaign doing a lot of explaining today .

MITCHELL:  That‘s (ph) right (ph).

GREGORY:  . after getting some criticism about this.

Talk about that.

MITCHELL:  Well, I think it‘s actually an unfair comparison.  This is not a Lloyd Bentsen, Dan Quayle, “I knew JFK” moment.

She was at the 100 Club.  In 1959, that‘s where Kennedy spoke.  He was their first speaker.

She‘s trying to say - and perhaps not artfully - she‘s trying to say, you know, we broke the barriers back then for the first Catholic.  Now let‘s break the barrier for the first woman.  And, you know, obviously, the bloggers have gone crazy on this, and other columnists, as well.

But the bottom line is that, they‘re saying she wasn‘t trying to compare herself to JFK, nor was she trying to claim that she supported JFK, because, as she has written in her autobiography, she was, in fact, a Goldwater Girl, when she was back in junior high school or high school, back in 1959 and 1960.

GREGORY:  Charles Pierce, which label is going to stick here?  The comparison to Kennedy or the Goldwater Girl?

PIERCE:  Well, I‘m not sure anybody remembers Barry Goldwater anymore.

I would point out, however, that, as much as we all are happy that America elected a Catholic in 1960, he‘s still the only one we have.  So, I don‘t know how important that precedent is.

Look, this is really - this is now the silly season.  We‘ve already had Barack Obama‘s middle name, Barack Obama‘s middle school.

The season is now so long, that we‘re going to have exhibition games.  You‘re going to have exhibition games where you wind up with guys playing shortstop with the major league team that‘ll be in single A ball down the road.

Everybody should just settle down.  This was a clumsy, if somewhat apt comparison.  We should all move on.

GREGORY:  All right.  A couple of other quick takes here, while I‘ve got all three of you here.

Halliburton is now moving to Dubai from Houston, Chris.

Senator Clinton‘s already been out criticizing this, saying, you know, they get all the advantage.  They take this out of the country.  They‘re not going to pay taxes here anymore.

CILLIZZA:  Well, Halliburton is and has been and will continue to be sort of a whipping boy - if a company can be a whipping boy - but a whipping boy for the Democratic Party.  Big oil, which it symbolizes .

GREGORY:  Cheney ran it.

CILLIZZA:  Right.  I mean, this is something that any Democrat running for president would be crazy not to highlight.  I mean, this is something that really revs their base up, the idea that this administration, and Republicans more generally, are in bed with big business.

So, you know, this is a smart political tactic, without question.

GREGORY:  And Andrea, let me turn this - another topic on the CIA leak front.

Now we‘re hearing from Democrats on Capitol Hill they may try to get White House officials, like Karl Rove, to testify on the Hill about their role in the leak case.

What‘s interesting to me about this is that the president has said, I‘m going to deal with somebody who put out this kind of information.  There is a lot to be learned about exactly what was going on inside the White House to discredit Joe Wilson, at a time when they were trying to defend their rationale for going to war.

MITCHELL:  Well, I think that they are going to resist those

subpoenas, if those officials are subpoenaed, because they can dodge behind

the appeals are still in play, the request for a new trial is still in play.

I think they are going to try to really tamp this down, and appeal to the polling, which indicates that most people think, in fact, that he should be pardoned - Scooter Libby should be pardoned.

There isn‘t a whole lot of American public sympathy in this whole thing, but it still will be a political issue for the Democrats.

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to leave it there.

Thanks very much to Andrea Mitchell, Charles Pierce and Chris Cillizza.  Thanks to you all.

Up next: Who will conservatives back in 2008?  Are Rudy Giuliani‘s divorces a problem?  Conservative leaders Richard Land and Tony Perkins will be here to talk about it.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Twenty-seven years ago, Ronald Reagan became the first and only divorced candidate to be elected president.  So will divorce be an issue in the 2008 presidential election?  Some conservatives think so.  Both Republican frontrunners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have been divorced, and Giuliani‘s family troubles have become an issue with the Christian right.

Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council and Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention‘s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  He‘s also author of the upcoming book, “The Divided States of America.”

Welcome to you both.  I want to get to this issue of divorce and the impact on “values voters.”  But first of all, Tony, what is going on, on the Republican side of presidential politics?

TONY PERKINS, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL:  Not much.  Actually, as you can see, the talk today about Fred Thompson thinking about getting in the race shows that no one has settled yet.  No candidate out there has captured the imagination and the hopes of the Republicans, let alone the social conservatives.

GREGORY:  Right.  What—and so what‘s really what this is about.  You look at a Hagel, you look at a Thompson, they look at this landscape, Richard Land, and they say, You know what?  Nobody‘s got a lock on conservatives yet.  They‘re unhappy out there.

RICHARD LAND, SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION:  Well, that‘s right.  They say that conservatives are looking and searching, that conservatives are just not happy.  They‘re looking, and they haven‘t—they haven‘t made a purchase yet.  In fact, I was—I came in from Nashville this morning, and as I was pulling into the airport, there was a handwritten sign in the rear window of a car, said, Run, Fred, run.  So obviously, there are people in Tennessee who would like Fred Thompson to run, and it‘s because there‘s just such an unsettled field.

GREGORY:  So why is that?  What are you upset about?  What are you unsatisfied about?

PERKINS:  I don‘t think it‘s people being upset.  I think what Social conservatives, in particular, are looking for in a leader is someone who can address really what they see are the twin threats facing our nation.  Externally, terrorism through Islamic radicals, rogue states, and then internally, the moral decline of our country.  They want a candidate that can boldly and courageously address both, not one or the other but both.  We had that in Ronald Reagan.  George W. Bush same way.  I think that is what has made the party successful in the past.

GREGORY:  But you don‘t see that in this current crop?  You don‘t look at Giuliani...

LAND:  Not the frontrunners.

GREGORY:  ... McCain and Romney...

LAND:  The frontrunners all have problems.  In the case of Giuliani, three divorces—three marriages is two too many for most social conservatives.

GREGORY:  Why is that?  How did we get to a certain number being too many and one is...

LAND:  Well, look...

LAND:  ... acceptable?

PERKINS:  ... character.  I mean, if we turned around and said, Oh, it doesn‘t matter that Giuliani‘s is in his third marriage, or if Gingrich gets in the race, is in his third marriage.  People in the media would justifiably fry us up in a pan and serve us as hypocrites of the century for making character an issue with Bill Clinton.

When it comes to presidents, in particular, social conservatives think that character is an issue.  And as Harry Truman once said, a man that will lie to his wife will lie to me, and a man that will break his marriage oath will break his oath of office.

Now, in this country, where divorce is so rampant, I think most people will give people—depending on the circumstances—they‘ll give them a pass on one divorce.  But two?  That‘s one too many for most social conservatives.

GREGORY:  What about Newt Gingrich, Tony, who seemed to be making a preemptive step to say that he committed adultery during the impeachment scandal?  Is that enough, to say, I‘m repentant, I‘ve—you know, I realize this was wrong?

PERKINS:  I think it‘s a sad commentary when you look at the fragile state that marriage is in our country today.  Politicians are no exception to that.  They face even tremendous more pressure than the average family.  I do think, with Newt Gingrich, there is a difference here, where he has acknowledged it was a mistake, he was wrong, it shouldn‘t have happened, and that‘s not something we have heard from some of the others.

So will it make a—the difference?  I do not know that, but he has certainly acknowledged that it was not a good thing.

GREGORY:  But what does it matter whether you think the press will give you guys a hard time because you‘re being hypocrites?  This is an individual thing, isn‘t it?  I mean, maybe after impeachment, a candidate who comes up and says, yes, you know, I had some real problems, but what‘s more important, the fact that I couldn‘t get my love life straight or that we are in this war on terror?

LAND:  Well, I think this goes to the character issue that was pointed out in a recent poll saying that‘s what matters most among candidates.  But I will say, David, I think, actually, we‘re not there yet where people are analyzing the character and the personal lives of these candidates.  I think the first or the top three—the frontrunners, if you will, in the Republican Party have position problems.  It‘s not—we‘re not even getting to the personal problems yet.  I mean, you got Giuliani—I mean, tell me, do you think a candidate who says that he wants to take money out of the paychecks of social conservatives to fund abortion can count on their vote?  I don‘t think so.

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Let‘s see if we can get that tape ready, as a matter of fact.  This was a—this was a speech from back in 1989 that got posted on YouTube—the YouTube effect—and this is what Giuliani said back then.  Let‘s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI ®, NEW YORK:  There must be public funding for abortions for poor women.  We cannot deny any woman the right to make her own decision about abortion because she lacks resources.  I have also stated that I disagree with President Bush‘s veto last week of public funding for abortion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  He has since said, when he talks about judicial nominations, that he supports somebody in the line of Roberts or Alito.  You don‘t buy that.  You think this...

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS:  ... Larry King asked him about that and put it in the context, Does that mean that these would be judges who would not support abortion, would overturn Roe v. Wade?  And he backed away, said, No, no, that‘s not what I mean by that.

So—but we‘re talking about a very fundamental issue of taking taxpayer money to fund abortion.  We‘re not talking about, you know, where he believes, you know, personally or what he thinks about abortion as a policy.  He‘s talking about funding it with the taxpayer—with taxpayer dollars, taking it out of the family budgets of people who are totally opposed to abortion.

GREGORY:  Let me ask you, Richard, when it comes to divorce, adultery, there‘s has been something made about, It depends sort of how you did it, you know, how you—how you treated your wife and how all of that played.  Do you buy that?

LAND:  I do.  I think that a lot—you know, a lot depends on circumstances.  I mean, you know, look, John McCain has acknowledged that he is primarily responsible for the failure of his first marriage.  He‘s been in a second marriage for more than 20 years.  By all outward appearances, it‘s a very stable, committed marriage.  That‘s a horse of an different color than Rudy Giuliani‘s second wife having to take out a restraining order to keep him from bringing his mistress to the mayor‘s mansion for official functions.  That‘s a horse that looks more like a donkey.

GREGORY:  But obviously, he knows about his own background and maybe he thinks—he sees criticism like yours and he says, You know what?  Guess what?  I don‘t need Richard Land‘s support, or those who think like he does, to get this nomination.  Does he just simply not get it?

LAND:  Well, if he was running as a Democrat, he might not.  But if he‘s running in the Republican primaries, George W. Bush, 40 percent of his raw vote in the general election in 2004 came from self-identified evangelicals.  And those people in large numbers are not going to vote for Rudy Giuliani.

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to come back, talk more about this, talk about “values voters,” what‘s most important, when we come back, with Dr. Richard Land and Tony Perkins.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Let me ask you about Mitt Romney, a Mormon.  Is that acceptable to evangelical Christians?

LAND:  It can be.  To some, it won‘t be, but it can be to a lot.  What I‘ve advised him to do—and by the way, I‘m an equal opportunity adviser.  I had a meeting with Howard Dean this week at his request to talk about Southern Baptist concerns.  Mitt Romney asked me to come and meet with him, and I strongly urged him to do what John Kennedy did, to seek out a venue like the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and to go and say, Look, I‘m not the Mormon candidate for president, I‘m the Republican candidate for president.  I mean, the president—President Kennedy‘s speech was tone-perfect.  It was tone-perfect.  Now, he‘s...

GREGORY:  (INAUDIBLE) I don‘t speak for the Vatican...

LAND:  That‘s right.  I don‘t speak for the—I don‘t speak for the church on matters of faith, and they don‘t speak for me on matters of public policy.  Now, he‘s going to have to find his own formulation, but it is an issue he needs to address.  I would encourage him to address it proactively, rather than reactively, and to do it earlier, rather than later.  But it is—it is not an insurmountable obstacle, depending on how he handles it and whether he closes the sale.

GREGORY:  Tony, final point on “values voters” because here‘s the bottom line, and it‘s kind of a reality question.  If out of the current crop you‘ve got a Romney, a Giuliani or a McCain, particularly those latter two, McCain or Giuliani, and they are the favorites—I mean, there‘s a question about, Well, where are “values voters” going to go?  They may be unhappy, but where are they going to go?  And this could be a cycle where “values voters” don‘t have the potency they had in the past, no?

PERKINS:  I think if you have those three—and I would say the field‘s far from settled.  It just seems...

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS:  I think it is.  But I do think it‘s going to go—the support of social conservatives will go to the candidate who most clearly addresses their issues and identifies with them and endorses the pro-family agenda.  That is the candidate that will get the support.  You have Romney that‘s out there talking very broadly and very strongly about those issues, staking ground that the others have not staked, McCain, somewhat, Giuliani refusing to talk about them, saying they‘re not even important.

GREGORY:  All right.  A lot more debate to go.  Thank you both for coming in, Dr. Richard Land and Tony Perkins.

Up next: Yet another resignation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. 

This time, it‘s the Army surgeon general.  Who else will go?

When HARDBALL returns only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  As President Bush sends 8,000 additional troops to Iraq and Afghanistan on top of the 21,000 so-called “surge” already under way, another military official is, quote, “out” over the poor treatment of wounded vets at Walter Reed.  Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley was asked to step down this week.

Dana Priest, who‘s the “Washington Post” reporter who uncovered these abuses at Walter Reed and Iraq war veteran Paul Rieckhoff, who‘s executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.  Welcome, both.

DANA PRIEST, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Thank you.

PAUL RIECKHOFF, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA:  Thank you.

GREGORY:  Dana, take me through this today.  What happened, and what does it mean, in your judgment?

PRIEST:  Well, apparently, over the weekend, the acting Army secretary, Geren, asked for Kiley to—this is the surgeon general—submit his retirement, which is a little—it‘s like submitting your resignation, only you don‘t resign, you just retire.  And I think they did that because they not only lost confidence in Kiley, but he had become a lightning rod for criticism.  After they fired the commander of Walter Reed, Major General Weightman, who had only been there for not—just about six months, Kiley had been the commander at Walter Reed for two years and he lived on post, and as the Army surgeon general, he was Weightman‘s commander.

And he was not exactly—he was not exactly on the Army talking points when he—when he said he was sorry for Walter Reed and didn‘t know what was going on.  He kept sort of going back and forth, saying, Well, I didn‘t know this, but it wasn‘t as bad.  And at one point, the defense secretary actually had a press conference the day after he seemed to be making excuses and said, The Army leadership cannot act defensively.  We are going to change the culture here.  And al to of people thought he was speaking directly to General Kiley at that time.  So I think that‘s—that‘s a lot of what you saw was really what Gates had planned all along when he heard his reaction.

GREGORY:  Paul, do you think this is done now, or you think there‘s—there‘ll be more?

RIECKHOFF:  I hope it‘s not done.  I think holding General Kiley accountable is an extremely important statement because he was clearly a failed leader.  He was very dismissive the whole time, extremely defensive, talked about commanding through his commanders.  He said he didn‘t do barracks inspections.  Well, that‘s a failure of leadership.  It‘s his job, as a commander, to get down to the lowest level.

What we have to understand that there‘s been a system-wide failure, not only at the Department of Defense and Walter Reed, but also at the VA, where most veterans are actually going to receive care.  And the bottom line is that our country is not ready to receive the over 1.6 million veterans who‘ve been through Iraq and Afghanistan.  And what we‘ve seen at Walter Reed may only be the tip of the iceberg.

GREGORY:  And is that more significant in some ways, to really get into the VA system, particularly at some of these facilities that are around the country, in smaller towns, that really are in need of repair?

RIECKHOFF:  Absolutely.  That‘s where we see the major shortfalls.  The VA has been underfunded by billions of dollars for years, and it‘s where most veterans are in their local communities that are going to for post-traumatic stress disorder counseling or other medical issues that they‘ve suffered as a result of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And as I‘m sure Dana can tell you, reports have been flowing in from all over the country from veterans who are having problems about wait times, lack of resources and lack of adequate funding at those VA hospitals nationwide.

GREGORY:  Yes, Dana, I mean, there seems to have been a kind of floodgate that‘s been opened here, right?

PRIEST:  Right.

GREGORY:  You‘ve—I saw you on “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert yesterday talking about your voice-mail being...

PRIEST:  Yes.

GREGORY:  ... constantly full.  What kind of impact have you had?

RIECKHOFF:  Well, you know, it‘s just—it is a floodgate and it‘s not ceasing.  And between the VA right now and the Army and the Department of Defense, they are revisiting, either through their inspector generals or their commanders, every Army post that has these outpatient holding groups, and all the VA hospitals.

For one thing, they want to know what are the problems out there? 

We‘d like to know them before the next, you know, news report comes out.  But secondly, the Army leadership is making it clear that they can get the money now to fix the problem because this has become a political issue and Congress is willing to fund it.  So they are asking, What do you need?  Do need more case managers?  So they‘ve really gone out and done a complete survey, if you will, very quickly, of the issues both in the VA hospitals and on the Army posts, to find out what is the need.  And they‘ll be presenting lists and they‘ll be presenting plans ahead, ways ahead.

And then, of course, you‘ve got this new presidential commission led by Bob Dole and Donna Shalala, the former Clinton Health and Human Services secretary, who are also going to be looking at this.  So it is not going to be over for a long time.  And that‘s—you know, that‘s how long it—it‘ll take a while to fix these issues.  They‘re big, complicated issues.

GREGORY:  And that‘s the question, whether, Paul, you have confidence now in Secretary Gates that he‘s got a different attitude and a new commitment to do—to really dig pretty deep in this bureaucracy to fix some of these issues.

RIECKHOFF:  Absolutely.  He‘s making heads roll.  He‘s fired more people in the last week than Donald Rumsfeld fired I think through his entire tenure, and that‘s important for veterans because they want to see a high level of accountability, like the one we have in the military.  So Secretary Gates is showing personal outrage.  He‘s firing people.  He‘s demanding investigations.  And he‘s trying to get ahead of this story and be proactive, rather than just reactive.  And I think across the spectrum, from veterans, the reaction has been very positive.

GREGORY:  But Dana, what‘s the reality?  You can have blue ribbon commissions and investigations.  Wholesale change takes a long time.

PRIEST:  Right.

GREGORY:  And the U.S. does not have that kind of time.  We‘ve got a surge strategy in place, additional troops over there.  What about this gap, where you‘ve got more troops who are returning in dire straits?

PRIEST:  Well, certainly, more people in certain areas will help.  For instance, at Walter Reed, they had wounded caring for wounded, and now they‘re going to get regular Army troops, and they‘ve already put some of that in place, some—many of them in the leadership positions have seen combat, so hopefully, they‘ll be more empathetic towards the plight of the wounded soldiers.

But you also—so while you have changes at the top, you know, the harder issue will be to make changes at the bottom, to change a culture that has really become neglectful in some cases and indifferent.  And one of the most heart-rendering stories that I heard from many people is how they were actually treated by outpatient support staff, who were there—who are supposed to help them through this process but really, you know, wanted them to take a ticket and wait.  And this is while they‘re, you know, trying to battle some of the really hard mental health issues, as well as physical problems.

GREGORY:  Right.  And Paul...

PRIEST:  And how you change that is going to be hard.

GREGORY:  And Paul, talk about that, as a final point here, a new report out about the full scope of these mental health problems that a lot of veterans are having.

RIECKHOFF:  Absolutely.  That‘s a tremendously huge number of people that are going to be coming home.  Roughly one in three returning veterans are going to face post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.  So that‘s hundreds of thousands of people.  And the VA so far has only seen about 200,000.  So we talked a lot about the surge in Baghdad, but there‘s a huge, tremendous number of people who are going to be coming soon, and their first stop likely for mental health issues is going to be the doors of their local VA, and they‘re not ready.  They don‘t have the money.  They don‘t have the resources.  And they‘ve been crying for help for years.

GREGORY:  All right.  A lot more attention on this now.  Thanks to both of you, Dana Priest and Paul Rieckhoff.

Play HARDBALL with us Tuesday.  Our guests include Republican presidential candidate Duncan Hunter, just back from Iraq.  I‘m David Gregory.  Have a good night.

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

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