updated 4/2/2007 11:44:18 AM ET 2007-04-02T15:44:18

Guests: Jill Zuckman, Jay Carney, Madeleine Albright, Mike Huckabee, John Fund, Ron Reagan

MIKE BARNICLE, GUEST HOST:  In a flurry of fund-raising, the 2008 contenders make a mad dash for campaign cash.  New polls show Fred Thompson coming up on Rudy.  And Obama takes George Clooney‘s breath away.

Let‘s play hardball.

Good evening.  I‘m Mike Barnicle, in for Chris Matthews.  The conditions at Walter Reed hospital have come under criticism for weeks, and today President Bush paid a visit to the Army Medical Center.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The system failed you and it failed our troops.  And we‘re going to—we‘re going to fix it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  But can a presidential visit fix this problem?  More on this later.  Plus, it could be the first billion-dollar presidential campaign in history.  You need hundreds of millions to run, and the first quarter ends at midnight Saturday night.  Who will win the cash contest?  Who will win and who will spin?  We‘ll talk to one presidential candidate later in the show.

Plus, the king of Saudi Arabia slams the United States over Iraq.  Are we losing our closest allies in the Middle East?  Former secretary of state Madeline Albright will be here.

But first, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has this report on today‘s top political news.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  On top of the campaign speeches...

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m proud to say, over 32 years, I have stood with unions, for 26 years in the Senate and the House of Representatives before it.  I‘m proud to say it here.  I say it everywhere~!

SHUSTER:  ... and in between all of the rhetoric about Iraq...

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D-NM), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I think this war is a mistake.

SHUSTER:  ... the 2008 presidential candidates in both parties have been raising money, lots of money.   And this weekend marks the end of the first three-month fundraising period.  The results will signal who is off to a strong start and who is doing poorly.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is expected to report having raised between $25 million and $50 million.  She is ending the quarter with a fundraiser featuring Timberland (ph), a hip-hop artist known for songs including “Promiscuous” and “Maneater.”

Barack Obama is ending the quarter on Saturday with 5,000 house parties, and if each party raises just $1,000, that‘s an additional $5 million for the quarterly report.

Arizona senator John McCain is lowering expectations for his first fund-raising report.  So is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.  Rudy Giuliani is finishing the quarter with a fund-raiser in Utah, but his campaign is in damage control mode today over a string of rough news stories.  Giuliani‘s strength is his image from 9/11, but several New York firefighters say he handled 9/11 badly and now oppose his candidacy.  The campaign is also having to explain a Giuliani comment that if elected, he would invite his wife to sit in on cabinet meetings.

And “The New York Times” reported today that before Giuliani appointed Bernard Kerik to be New York City‘s police commissioner, Giuliani was warned about Kerik‘s relationship with a company suspected of having ties to organized crime.  Two years ago, on Giuliani‘s recommendation, President Bush nominated Kerik as director of Homeland Security.  Kerik withdrew one week later.

The news for Giuliani has not been all bad.  He just picked up the endorsement of former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes.  And speaking of endorsements, Jesse Jackson is now officially on board team Obama.  “The Los Angeles Times” says actor George Clooney, an Oscar award-winner and Hollywood heartthrob, also wants to help Obama, but quite, “At the moment, Clooney is playing it close to the vest, waiting to see if he can play a part without becoming a distracting sideshow.”

And the Associated Press is reporting that on Monday, New Jersey governor Jon Corzine will endorse Hillary Clinton.  Monday will also see another presidential announcement.  Colorado Republican congressman Tom Tancredo, a hard-liner on illegal immigration, is expected to declare he is running while appearing on a Des Moines, Iowa, radio show.

Meanwhile, the speculation continues to grow over actor and former Republican senator Fred Thompson.  Thompson‘s first debut on the national stage came 34 years ago, during the Nixon and Watergate hearings.  As a committee lawyer, he asked a memorable question and got a headline-grabbing answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRED THOMPSON, COMMITTEE ATTORNEY:  Were you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I was aware of listening devices.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  In the 1990s, Thompson was elected to the U.S. Senate.  He left four years ago to resume his acting career and has lately been playing the tough-talking prosecutor on NBC‘s “Law and Order.”  Thompson says he is considering a presidential run and will make a decision soon.

(on camera):  Two other Republicans, Newt Gingrich and Chuck Hagel, are considering a run.  And with polls showing Republican voters are dissatisfied with the GOP frontrunners, hanging back might not be such a bad idea.  The question is, though, how long can anybody afford to stay behind as the focus on fund-raising begins?

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Thank you, David.  What a great country.

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  Let‘s bring in “Congressional Quarterly‘s” Craig Crawford, “The Chicago Tribune‘s” Jill Zuckman and “Time” magazine‘s Jay Carney.

Well, first of all, before we begin asking questions, let me ask each of you your reaction to David‘s report.  I mean, the whole panoply—I mean, Hillary with Timberland and Fred Thompson and “Law and Order”...

JILL ZUCKMAN, “CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  And don‘t forget George Clooney.

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  Jill, lead off.

ZUCKMAN:  It‘s—I would describe this as a very fluid situation right now, and very early.  If you go back and look at what was going on four years ago, eight years at this time, people hadn‘t even really started serious fundraising until the second quarter of this year.  And now we‘re all speculating how many millions and millions of dollars is Senator Clinton going to report, and is she going to blow everybody else out of the water?

BARNICLE:  Jay?

JAY CARNEY, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Well, I love Shuster‘s report because it really—you wouldn‘t—you don‘t need to know anything else than what David packed into that few minutes of reporting about what‘s going on politically across the country.  And it is an incredible amount of activity.

You know, the thing that strikes me about this fundraising flurry is that we‘re talking numbers upwards of $50 million in one quarter.  The previous one quarter record is something like $9 million.  I mean, this is an amazing amount of money this early in the campaign.  And you know, I think there will be a lot of winners, but the people who might be really in trouble are the ones who come in very low because if you‘re down there with $5 million and you‘ve got Hillary with $40 million or something like that, you‘re in real trouble.

BARNICLE:  Craig Crawford, how many Republican delegates or potential Democratic voters in Iowa do you figure—rough guess—have ever heard of Timberland?

(LAUGHTER)

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

Right!  You know, and the numbers—you know, you mentioned Iowa—I mean, let‘s just think about it.  You know, it only takes about 25,000, 30,000 votes to win the caucus in Iowa.  So you know, we look at all these big national numbers and all these things going on in Hollywood and everywhere else, and it really does come down to, at least in that first state, a very small number of people, about a third the size of the average national football stadium.

BARNICLE:  Let me ask each of you again, off of something you said, Jill, and Jay, you alluded to.  It‘s so early compared to past presidential campaigns both in terms of candidates‘ appearances and certainly in terms of the money they‘re raising.  Does being out front, like Hillary and Obama are, and Giuliani and McCain are—does it help or hurt frontrunners, the length of this campaign?

CARNEY:  Go ahead, Jill.

ZUCKMAN:  I think it‘s hard to be a frontrunner.  If you are a frontrunner in March of 2007, think how long you‘ve got to keep that up.  You‘ve got to stay ahead of the game for a solid year in order to lock up the nomination.  And remember what happened to John Kerry last time.  He was the frontrunner.  He was the inevitable guy.  And then he just fell apart, and at the last minute was able to pull it together.  I think there‘s a lot that can happen between now and then, and in some ways, it might be better to be the person in second place, just kind of pacing yourself until you can try to overtake the frontrunner.

CARNEY:  The thing about it, though, is if you ask all these frontrunners—especially, say, John McCain, who‘s probably had the worst time of being a frontrunner—you know, would you trade positions—or if you asked any of the people who are further back in the pack, Wouldn‘t you rather be the frontrunner who‘s raking in more money, I think the answer is yes.  It‘s hard being a frontrunner, but especially when money matters this much, the frontrunner status is what gets you a lot of fundraisers flocking to your campaign and bundling contributions and bringing in the dough.

And if we‘re looking at a situation where we‘re going to have 20-odd states completed by February 5, you know, you need all that money and that ability to advertise across the country early and often.  So it stinks being a frontrunner in many ways, but it‘s better than the alternative.

BARNICLE:  So...

CRAWFORD:  Mike, I think we‘re seeing the difference between the parties, actually, because, you know, there are some new numbers getting circulated from Republican pollsters today showing that front line, that top tier of Republicans faltering a bit, which is one reason there‘s an opening for a Thompson and an opening even for Newt Gingrich down the road.  On the Democratic side, there seems to be less dissatisfaction with the field of choices they have.

BARNICLE:  And all this talk about Fred Thompson jumping in.  But before we get to Fred Thompson, Craig just referenced one poll—the “Time” magazine poll, despite what has happened in this country in the past six or seven years—Abu Ghraib, Iraq, Walter Reed, Katrina—

Republicans, “Time” magazine poll—what is going on here?

CARNEY:  Well, it‘s very interesting because—and we‘re not alone in

our poll.  But things really couldn‘t be worse for Republicans.  You‘ve got

a sitting president who is wallowing in the low 30s job approval rating, a

war that he‘s the commander-in-chief of that is wildly unpopular, and yet -

and a Congress, Republicans in Congress who continue to be unpopular in the wake of the November mid-terms, and yet in head-to-head match-ups, in our poll and in other polls, between the top tier candidates, the ones with total name recognition, Republicans always win.  McCain, Giuliani, always beat Hillary, Obama and Edwards.

Now, there are a couple of reasons for this.  One is McCain and Giuliani—and this alludes to what Craig was talking about is—they‘re appealing general election candidates in a lot of ways, so when you have these match-ups nationally that invite all voters to choose, you have a lot of crossover from Democrats and independents who like Rudy because he was “America‘s mayor.”  They like McCain because he was that maverick from 2000.  They have bigger problems within their own party than they do in the general election.

The other thing that I think is a factor here is that in spite of how unpopular the Republicans are, and in spite of everything that George W.  Bush has done to—to tarnish the image of Republicans on national security, I think in a time of war, Americans still have that sentiment that they‘ve had since Vietnam, or the post-Vietnam era, that they feel a little more comfortable with a Republican in the Oval Office, or there has been that advantage that Republican candidates have had on national security, except in the ‘90s...

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  ... been in a coma for the past...

(LAUGHTER)

CARNEY:  I mean, it‘s stunning.  I agree with you, Mike, it‘s stunning.  And I don‘t think it‘ll necessarily last if Iraq continues to be a terrible situation for the next year.  But the only—you know, the only time since Carter won in ‘76, barely, that you had a Democrat who‘s win the White House was in a time of incredible peace and prosperity in the ‘92 and ‘96 campaigns.

ZUCKMAN:  I‘ve got to say, though, I just think—wonder how meaningful could a poll like this be before everybody has gone through and done what they needed to do...

(CROSSTALK)

ZUCKMAN:  ... win their nomination.

CARNEY:  Yes.  Right.

BARNICLE:  Our panel is staying with us...

CRAWFORD:  Well, the other factor here is...

BARNICLE:  Hold on, Craig.  Hold on, Craig.  You‘re coming back. 

We‘re going to let you talk.

And coming up, Craig will be here and the panel will be here.  And George Clooney said this about Barack Obama, “I have never been around anyone who can literally take someone‘s breath away.”  We‘ll talk about that when we come back, too.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  We‘re back with “The Congressional Quarterly‘s” Craig Crawford, “Chicago Tribune‘s” Jill Zuckman and “Time” magazine‘s Jay Carney.

All right, Craig, you‘re leading off.  You wanted to talk about the “Time” magazine poll before we rudely interrupted you.

CRAWFORD:  I thought it was a very interesting poll, and I do not want to discount it at all, but I need to point out, I have a feeling Senator Clinton and possibly Senator Obama will underperform in these national polls.  For example, I think Senator Clinton will lose red states by historic margins, thus skewing these national polls.  And after all, you don‘t have to win the national popular vote to become president.  We‘ve learned that recently.

BARNICLE:  The both of you are nodding your head in agreement.

CARNEY:  That‘s an excellent point because we forget that, you know, you win the presidency by winning state—you know, enough states and putting together Electoral College votes, 270, to win.  If you—if in these national polls, you sample—you know, sprinkle the respondents around the country and you get, you know, 10 to 1 in Alabama against Hillary, well, that‘s going to skew the outcome.

But I think also that Hillary—there‘s a Hillary factor here, too, which is—you know, she has a ceiling.  It‘s clear in every poll you see that there is a large percentage of people who simply—or say they will not vote for her.  So her top number is not that high.

ZUCKMAN:  The other thing you have to remember is when you go through an election, your opponent is spending all of their time trying to shape an image for you, to try to make you seem—like, remember how they made John Kerry seem in the general election.

BARNICLE:  (INAUDIBLE)

ZUCKMAN:  He remembers that well.  Because by the time you get to the end, what are people going to think of you?  What they think of you right now, in March 2007, may be just completely different a year from now.

BARNICLE:  That begs the question about the Obama campaign with regard to Mrs. Clinton‘s campaign—I mean, he has never said anything negative about her.  Will he?  Does he realize...

CRAWFORD:  He better.

BARNICLE:  ... it‘s a campaign?  Well, yes, Craig, I mean, he better if he wants to win.  I mean, it‘s a campaign, isn‘t it?

CRAWFORD:  I mean, these Democrats fascinate me because I almost—they almost act like they‘re pretending she‘s not there.  And they‘re not going to beat the Clintons by pretending they‘re not there.  At some point, Obama‘s got to do a couple things.  He‘s got to do that.  I think he‘s got to start doing the positive, negative, the contrasts with Senator Clinton.  And I think he‘s got to start putting some meat on the table.  I mean, I was struck when he went out to Las Vegas and talked about health care and basically had nothing substantive to say, which he has not had to say on just about any topic.  I think that‘s his next priority is to put some meat on the table.

ZUCKMAN:  Well, here‘s what‘s going on between the Clinton campaign and the Obama campaign.  Senator Obama says, I‘m running a different campaign.  So the Clinton people say, OK, and they taunt him until they blow up and say something kind of mean.  And then they say, I thought you were running a different campaign!

CARNEY:  Right!

(LAUGHTER)

ZUCKMAN:  And so they‘re trying to knock him off his pedestal.  And I think the Obama people are maybe a little bit conflicted.  Do we want to, you know, be really great, nice people and run this different campaign, or do we want to play tough, hardball politics, which is I think, as most people who work there know, what you have to do.

BARNICLE:  You know, it‘s March of ‘07.  Do you think any normal person is paying attention to any of this?

(LAUGHTER)

CARNEY:  Obviously, not in the way that we are.

CRAWFORD:  Yes, but those 30,000 people in Iowa are paying attention, and that‘s what matters.

CARNEY:  That‘s a good point.  The people who are going to vote on those early primaries are paying a disproportionate amount of attention.  And actually, the average American is paying more attention than in previous cycles because of—you know, this president has basically been written off by Americans as—you know, His presidency is over, we‘re ready to move on.  And it‘s an exciting year, an open race on both sides.  You‘ve got firsts everywhere you look, a first woman, first African-American, first Mormon running.  You got a war hero in John McCain.  There‘s a lot of reasons to be paying attention.

BARNICLE:  And by God, we‘re going to make them pay attention...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  Craig Crawford, Jill Zuckman and Jay Carney, thanks very much.

Up next: Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on how his fund-raising is going.  And later, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

This weekend, presidential candidates are making their big fund-raising push, hoping to amass as much money as possible before the March 31 first-quarter deadline.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee wants to be the Republican nominee for president.  And he joins us now.

Governor Huckabee, thanks for joining us.  How are you?

MIKE HUCKABEE ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m doing great, Mike. 

Thanks for having me on today. 

BARNICLE:  You know, with all due respect, you are the former governor of Arkansas, a small state.  You go to Iowa.  You go to New Hampshire, places where people are actively involved in politics.  What do you say when they come up to you, if anybody does, and says, well—well, who are you, Huckabee? 

HUCKABEE:  I do the same thing I did in Arkansas when I started there and they said, who are you, Huckabee?

I shake their hand.  I look them in the eye.  And I tell them who I am.  Then I tell them what I stand for.  And that‘s when they join the team. 

BARNICLE:  And why are you running? 

HUCKABEE:  Because I don‘t want to wake up 20 years from now and have my own image looking at me in the mirror, and say, why didn‘t I do something to help lead this country forward and upward, and—and try to improve the life that we all live?  I think I can provide positive, optimistic, visionary leadership for America.

I think I can help bring this country together, away from all of the liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, left, right, kind of horizontal politics, and bring vertical leadership, where we really look at how do we improve the way that we live and education and health, better infrastructure, less energy dependence upon the Middle East, and have self-sustaining energy that‘s environmentally friendly. 

BARNICLE:  That‘s a big program. 

HUCKABEE:  That‘s a big answer, isn‘t it?

BARNICLE:  Yes.  That‘s a big program you have just outlined.

You‘re—you are a Christian.

HUCKABEE:  Yes. 

BARNICLE:  You have got a deep faith in God.  You have told several people in the past that you are a grace Christian, not a law Christian.

HUCKABEE:  Mm-hmm. 

BARNICLE:  What does that mean? 

HUCKABEE:  It means that the focus of my faith makes me be reminded that God is a god of love.  He is a god of forgiveness.  He‘s certainly been willing to forgive me.

And, rather than apply God‘s judgment and the law against people, it‘s a matter of putting the emphasis on supplying God‘s grace and forgiveness. 

We all are—are frail.  One of the things that I have learned, as a Christian, is that every person out there struggles to make things work.  And, therefore, we have got to be patient with each other, because I really do want God to be patient with me. 

I am going to be treated in the way that I treat others.  God is going to treat me in the manner in which I treat others. 

BARNICLE:  There have been, in the past couple of weeks here in Washington, D.C., a bill passed by the House of Representatives, a separate bill by the United States Senate, appropriations, supplemental appropriations, for the war in Iraq. 

Do you think God would be patient with politicians who, in addition to saying they‘re for the troops, and we need funding for the troops, say, oh, by the way, toss that fire truck cost for Little Rock, Arkansas, into the bill?  What about the patience on that score, your patience? 

HUCKABEE:  Yes. 

Well, my patience is that we ought to separate those.  We ought to be honest about the things that we do.  And one of the reasons so many people across America are cynical about government, particularly as it‘s run here in Washington, is that they lump these things together.  And, therefore, they can sort of hide behind some bill with pork spending.

What they need to be doing is saying, this is the war expenditure.  This is how we stand on it.  This is the whole list of things that may even be valid, but they have nothing to do with the war. 

That‘s why I also think that someone like me, outside this Washington beltway, is going to be the next president. 

BARNICLE:  How are you going to get us out of Iraq, if you‘re the next president?  What are you going to do that is different?

HUCKABEE:  The first thing we‘re going to do is to make sure that we do what started three weeks ago.  And that‘s the involvement of those other nations in the region.  When those 13 countries came together in Baghdad, it was one of the most positive signs we have seen.

To get the Turks, and the Kuwaitis, and the Saudis, and the Jordanians all together to start talking about their role, and, Mike, their responsibility to try to create a safe neighborhood, that‘s critical, because the United States can‘t do this—and the fact that, if Iran goes up in—if Iraq, rather, goes up flames, the first houses to get scorched are the ones next door. 

BARNICLE:  How does Mike Huckabee raise enough money for president, to run for president, when you‘re running against Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani, who are grabbing all sorts of dough in their candidacies? 

HUCKABEE:  You know, that‘s not intimidating to me, because I have great faith in the American people. 

When they see us on the same stage, and we‘re all there, we are not going to be wearing cards with a big amount of money, how much we have raised, around our chests.  We are going to be focused on our ideas and communicating those to the American people.

I think that is when people are going to go to the Web site and start saying, Huckabee is my guy.  I‘m going to support him. 

That‘s what I‘m believing will happen.  And I am not the least bit intimidated by how much money a person raises now.  I‘m going to be more focused on how the money is being spent, and particularly, are we going up in that process over the next few months?

BARNICLE:  Given—given the—given the base of the Republican Party, the delegates who go to these conventions...

HUCKABEE:  Mm-hmm. 

BARNICLE:  ... and given who you are, and given what you have been saying out in Iowa and...

HUCKABEE:  Sure.

BARNICLE:  ... out in New Hampshire, some of it, do you worry that they‘re looking at themselves and looking at you, saying, you know, who is this guy?  I mean, you have actually talked about poor people, the need...

HUCKABEE:  Yes. 

BARNICLE:  ... to feed the hungry in this country.  That doesn‘t sound like a Republican candidate for president to me.

HUCKABEE:  Well, Republicans need to be talking about the poor.  We need to be talking about the environment.

I talk about the value of music and art education in our schools.  And I am passionate about that, to have a curriculum that really does touch the talents of every child.  I talk about health vs. just spending money on health care.  Some people would say, those are not—those are not Republican issues.

I would argue those are very Republican issues.  Republicans like kids, too.  We like to take good care of the Earth, because I love to hunt and fish.  I like to be outdoors.  I want my kids to have a better world and a better environment than even the one I had.  It‘s the old Boy Scout rule:  Leave your campsite in better than shape than you found it. 

And, Mike, if we don‘t talk about those issues, we won‘t be electing the next president of the United States either.

BARNICLE:  Well, thanks for coming to this campsite, Governor Mike Huckabee.

HUCKABEE:  Thank you. 

BARNICLE:  Up next: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on what the U.S. can do about Iraq and Iran.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MARGARET BRENNAN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I am Margaret Brennan with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks closed mix on this final trading day of the first quarter.  The Dow Jones industrial average gained more than five points, and the Nasdaq gained almost four points, while the S&P 500 lost more than a point-and-a-half. 

The Commerce Department reported strong gains in both personal income and consumer spending in February.  Both figures were double what analysts expected.  Construction spending also rose by the largest amount in 11 months.

Novartis is pulling a popular drug, at the request of the FDA. 

Zelnorm has been linked to higher-than-normal heart attacks and stroke.  The drug is given to women with irritable bowel syndrome and chronic constipation.

And corn prices fell, after a government report showed farmers will plant more corn this spring than any time in more than 60 years.  Farmers are trying to cash in on the boom in alternative fuels like ethanol, which is made from corn. 

That‘s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now back to

HARDBALL. 

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Iran released a new video today of three British military personnel that shows one of them apologizing for entering Iranian waters without permission.  And, as Iran continues to escalate tension with Britain, Saudi Arabia‘s King Abdullah told Arab leaders that Iraq is under illegal foreign occupation by the United States. 

What message is Saudi Arabia sending the Bush administration?  And are they really our ally?

Madeleine Albright served as secretary of state during the Clinton administration.  Her latest book is called “The Mighty and the Almighty:

Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs.”

Madam Secretary, thanks very much for joining us. 

Iran, the British, the hostages—why is Iran doing this?  Why now? 

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE:  Well, it‘s great to be with you, Tim (sic).

I think that what is happening is that all the unintended consequences of the Iraq war are coming to fruition at the moment.  I think—and I have stated in my book—that I am afraid that Iraq is going to go down in history as the greatest disaster in American foreign policy, because of those unintended consequences.

And a major one is the fact that Iran feels emboldened and empowered to take such action as with the British military people, and generally to keep threatening.  So, I think that‘s why this is happening.  And it‘s most, most difficult and unfortunate. 

BARNICLE:  Do you think they are trying—through the provocation with the British and the British army personnel, are they trying to engage us?  Do they really want the United States of America to lob a couple of missiles into Iranian territory? 

ALBRIGHT:  I don‘t think so, but I think that they have the possibility at the moment of miscalculating in a major way, because I think that we have two aircraft carrier groups in the Persian Gulf doing military exercises.  That‘s a lot of ships.

The Iranians are also moving around with some exercises.  And I think that there could be a very dangerous thing that happens with an escalation. 

I think that they basically are taunting us in a major way and the British.  And what has to happen is, we have to be patient, and not, I think, be goaded into a military action.  We don‘t need another war.  We are having enough problems with the ones that we have. 

BARNICLE:  Staying in the Middle East, it was announced earlier today that Speaker Pelosi, in the Middle East right now, I believe in Israel this evening, is going to Damascus, to Syria, during her Middle Eastern trip. 

The White House has—has said that this is not a wise move, that she should not be visiting Syria.  Syria is a sponsor of state terrorism. 

What do you think of Speaker Pelosi‘s trip to Syria? 

ALBRIGHT:  Well, I—I think that what she‘s trying to show is that we need to talk to the countries that we disagree with.  And I think it‘s important that we maintain contact with a variety of countries.

Syria is clearly an important player, as far as Iraq is concerned.  There have been meetings in Baghdad where the regional powers met.  It was something that was an innovation.  I have always thought this was regional issue.  And Syria does need to be involved.

So, I think it‘s perfectly fine that she‘s going. 

BARNICLE:  And King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia, nominally a strong ally of the United States, announces earlier this week that he thinks the United States is involved in an illegal occupation of Iraq.

What was your—what was your reaction when—when you heard what the king said, our...

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  ... our—our longtime ally? 

ALBRIGHT:  Well, I must say, I was surprised with the kind of statement that he made.

The Saudis are very complicated.  And their relationship with us has been complicated for a long time.  I know, when we were in office, they did a lot of things behind the scenes that were very helpful. 

The problem is that there is this general sense the American presence in the Middle East has obviously complicated life for everybody around.  And the Saudis, who are under some pressure from their internal opposition, as well as problems with Iran, are clearly worried about what is happening with the American forces there, and the antipathy that it‘s creating towards anybody who—quote—“is on our side.”

And, if you remember, Osama bin Laden is a Saudi, who originally felt that it was the presence of Western troops and the kind of corruption that he pointed out in the Saudi royal family that made him an extremist. 

So, it‘s quite a statement, though, for the Saudi king, who has been, and I think continues to be, a good friend, to make a statement like that. 

BARNICLE:  But, given—given the antipathy, the Sunni-vs.-Shiite antipathy, wouldn‘t Saudi Arabia, technically, be better off with us in Iraq than they are without—with us bailing from Iraq? 

ALBRIGHT:  Well, technically, but I think that part of what is happening is, there is a sense that the American presence is, to some extent, a solution, but also a problem, because we—they‘re—even Secretary Rumsfeld, at a time, said that there were more terrorists being created. 

And, so, I think the kind of reaction to our forces there is creating a sense of disquiet and a sense of—of everybody being out of control. 

And, then, I think one of the things that happened was, Secretary Rice started talking about the people that were on our side vs. those who were on the other side, the moderate Arabs.  And I think that that made some of them that we wanted with us so visibly quite uncomfortable. 

BARNICLE:  What—what do you—do you think of one of your successors, Secretary Rice?  I mean, she‘s racked a lot of up air miles going back and forth to the Middle East—clearly, not much accomplished.  What do you think of her—of her role as secretary of state?  How do you think she is doing? 

ALBRIGHT:  Well, I have to say—I have always said this—being secretary of state is a much harder job than it looks.  And she‘s been working very hard.

I am very glad that she is now taking such an active interest in the Middle East, because part of the problem has been that we have kind of stepped aside.  And that‘s one of the main jobs of the secretary of state, is to really be involved in the Middle East .

I think she‘s trying to pick up a lot of pieces.  It‘s not easy to be secretary of the state at a time that the United States is so unpopular.  I didn‘t have that problem. 

BARNICLE:  But, if someone comes up to you at a cocktail party, or, you know, after you teach a class or something like that, and says, about Secretary of State Rice, you know, kind of late in the game to be doing this, isn‘t it, what is your reaction to that? 

ALBRIGHT:  Well, I agree with that. 

But I figure that she—it‘s really not fair to criticize one‘s successor.  It‘s a very hard job.  And she works for a president who, in fact, I think, has made some very serious mistakes. 

BARNICLE:  Madeleine Albright, you are a kind person.

Thank you, Madam Secretary.

Up next:  Can Alberto Gonzales survive?  And is Fred Thompson for real?  We will talk about it with radio host Ron Reagan and columnist John Fund.

And, this Sunday on “Meet the Press”: two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy, and Senator Orrin Hatch.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  President Bush is confident that the problems at Walter Reed will be fixed, but how confident is he that Alberto Gonzales can fix his problems, and what should we make of the spin that will come with the presidential fund raising reports?  Let‘s bring in our HARDBALLers.  John Fund is a columnist for OpinionJournal.com and Ron Reagan is a radio talk show host, and MSNBC contributor.

Gentlemen, this afternoon, the president of the United States visited Walter Reed, apologized for what has happened at Walter Reed.  John Fund, do you think the combination of Walter Reed, Alberto Gonzales, is it having any impact on a president who is already at such a low point in the polls that he can hardly believe it.  How much lower can he go? 

JOHN FUND, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM:  Well, I think there is a competence issue now in the Bush White House, which is can these people play the game.  And I think the president did do some good work last year.  He shook up his chief of staff, replaced Andy Card with Josh Bolton, replaced Scott Mcclellan with Tony Snow.  That righted things for a while. 

So some of these things are happening outside of the White House, but it shows that the administration‘s reform efforts have spread beyond there.  I think he‘s eventually going to have to have a new team at Justice.  And the Walter Reed situation, obviously, needs to be cleared up.  I think that some of the problems were exaggerated, but they were bad enough that they were a political black eye for the administration. 

BARNICLE:  Ron Reagan, you are out on the left coast, the west coast, out in Seattle.  Gonzo, Gonzales, whatever you want to call him, is he gone?  Is he going to stay?  Do ordinary people, the people that you interact with out there, each and every day, do they care about this?

RON REAGAN, RADIO SHOW HOST:  Well, they don‘t follow it as closely as most of us do.  But yes, they do care.  And it‘s one of many things.  You mentioned Walter Reed.  There‘s Alberto Gonzales.  There‘s the continuing travesty of the Katrina recovery.  There‘s Iraq, et cetera, et cetera. 

And, as John Fund said, this speaks to the competence of the administration.  It‘s not just a question of whether they can play the game well.  The American people are not worried about the White House playing a game.  They want an administration that can actually govern effectively and govern competently.  And this administration, time and time again, is proving that it can‘t do so. 

BARNICLE:  Hey John, on that score, govern effectively, in the House and Senate over the past two weeks, there have been two separate supplemental appropriations bills passed, aimed principly at funding the war in Iraq, supporting the troops, as every politician in Washington likes to say.  And yet the internals of both bills not only support the troops, but they buy bird seed for Sacramento, California, fire trucks for Little Rock, Arkansas. 

Why do you figure?  Is it our fault in the media that this hasn‘t been explained effectively?  Because when you mention it to people, they get very angry and wonder who can lead this country.  What‘s your sense of that? 

FUND:  The problem here, Mike, is everyone is playing the political game.  No one is governing.  We are two years out from a presidential election, almost, and all of this is positioning for 2008.  The Democrats had to satisfy their base, which was very upset with Iraq.  A lot of their base wants the troops out immediately.  Democrats didn‘t want to be seen as that, so they put these supplemental appropriations bills forward.

They knew they were going to be vetoed.  The only way they could get the votes is to load them up with pork.  That was what got the Republicans in trouble last year, loading things up with pork and trying to buy votes.  So I think the Democratic Congress has solidified its base.  On the other hand, it has a black eye, because this pork barrel project that is loaded up with these bills, it looks like business as usual, or shall we say, malpractice as usual. 

BARNICLE:  Yes, I mean, Ron Reagan, I mean, it‘s outrageous when you look at these bills, outrageous. 

REAGAN:  Well, you know, John and I don‘t agree on everything, but I tend to agree with him on this.  If only for symbolic value, the Democrats should have put forward legislation that wasn‘t larded with this sort of pork, but old habits die hard. And this is the way business is done in the Capital.  And that‘s a shame. 

BARNICLE:  John Fund, I haven‘t heard any of the presidential candidates come out and drop the hammer on this bad behavior?  Have you?

FUND:  Oh, I think you are going to hear more about it.  The “New York Times” today had a gigantic op-ed piece listing all of this pork.  And clearly liberals, who I think many of them want a clear break in Iraq, they want an honest vote, shall we get the troops out or not, are looking at this and saying, you know, this is a mess.  This is not what we voted for.  And you‘re falling back, as Ron Reagan says, in the old habits of the past. 

If you are going to have reform, let‘s have reform.  Let‘s have honesty in government. 

BARNICLE:  And speaking of the presidential campaign that we are now involved in already, thickly involved in, even though it‘s only March of 2007, former Senator Fred Thompson from Tennessee, star of the huge syndicated hit, “Law And Order,” is thinking of running for president, I guess.  Ron Reagan, what do you think about the idea that an actor might become president of the United States? 

REAGAN:  You put that question to me for some particular reason, Mike?  Listen, Fred Thompson has many talents.  He would be a formidable candidate if he decides to get into the race.  If I were Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani now, I would be questioning the strength of my support, because as soon as Fred Thompson mentions that he might get into the race, their support seems to begin evaporating rather quickly. 

This is all part of the larger Republican problem of what do they do.  They are a party in transition now.  Can they still rely on the base of the religious right to carry them into the White House?  I don‘t think they can anymore.  Rudy Giuliani certainly isn‘t going to win that base for them.  Maybe Fred Thompson can, but it remains to be seen. 

BARNICLE:  We will be right back with John Fund and Ron Reagan.  You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with OpinionJournal.com‘s John Fund and radio talk show host Ron Reagan.  We were just talking about former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, the “Law and Order” candidate, potentially.  John, you wrote a piece about him within the last week or ten days, didn‘t you?  Tell me about Fred Thompson.

FUND:  Well, it‘s astonishing, because there‘s a market niche in the Republican party for a new candidate.  Fifty seven percent of people in a CBS poll said they are dissatisfied with current field.  So when Fred Thompson merely mentioned he was interested in running, you had a real grass roots uprising of support.  It was astonishing. 

I mean, he hasn‘t spent a dime.  He hasn‘t been in Iowa or New Hampshire in years, as far as I know, and he is already in third place in several polls, nationwide and several state polls.  It‘s astonishing.  I think that what you are seeing here is a real desire for a candidate who can bridge both wings of the Republican party, the moderates and the conservatives.

Fred Thompson has a very moderate image.  He is a protege of Howard Baker, the distinguished former Senate majority leader, and he has a conservative voting record.  In addition, I think Fred Thompson has real star power.  I mean, you look at the Internet and people are talking about how it‘s not just the fact that he‘s an actor and well known.  He‘s been a senator for eight years. He is right now chairman of a security advisory committee.  He has obviously been a prosecutor.  So there is a lot of texture to Fred Thompson. 

I think if he runs or if Newt Gingrich runs, and I think that may be the case for both of them, it will really shake this race up and change the dynamics completely.   

BARNICLE:  Boy, Ron Reagan, that says a lot about the present field in your father‘s party, does it not? 

REAGAN:  It‘s wide open in the Republican party.  The Democrats, you know, you can pretty well figure that it‘s, you know Obama and Clinton and Edwards, but the Republicans are wide open now.  Fred Thompson, listen, he‘s got talent.  He‘s a great deep voice.  He‘s got a sense of gravitas there.  But then he‘s got the James Dobson problem.  James Dobson, the big evangelical Christian, has come out and announced, basically, that Fred Thompson isn‘t a Christian.  Well, that‘s a message—

FUND:  But Ron, I don‘t think that—I don‘t think that is a problem.  I think that clearly shows Thompson‘s independence, that he is not in the pocket of the religious right, as some people will claim other candidates might be, and he is someone who is his own man, and people don‘t feel that he‘s beholden to any one group within the party. 

REAGAN:  That may please you and me, but it doesn‘t please a lot people down in the southern states that are essential for a Republican candidate to win if they‘re going to get to the White House.  Those people care whether he‘s a Christian or not.   

FUND:  Ron, there has to be truth to it.  Fred Thompson grew up in the Church of Christ.  That‘s a very devout—

REAGAN:  There doesn‘t any truth to it. 

FUND: That dog doesn‘t hunt. 

REAGAN:  Of course it doesn‘t hurt in reality.  But since when does reality matter to these people?  They don‘t believe in Darwin, John . 

FUND:  Pardon me, I think you are short selling a lot of people who are going to pay a lot attention to these races.  And look, Fred Thompson is clearly a devote Christian.  That‘s not going to hunt.   

REAGAN:  I‘m not arguing with that.  Tell this to James Dobson.  He‘s the one that‘s telling all his followers.

FUND:  By the way, he‘s retracted all of that.  I think Dobson has retracted that and said he misspoke.  So we‘re back to the drawing board.

BARNICLE:  John Fund, let me ask you, what is your sense would happen to anyone of the Republican candidates, whether it‘s Rudy Giuliani, with his third wife, John McCain with a couple of marriages, anybody with what some Republican delegates would claim to be issues, Fred Thompson, whatever, what would happen to any of these candidates if they said the following to James Dobson:  Who are you?  Who do you think you are to dictate your morality into the political system?  What would happen to them?

FUND:  I think the issues have fundamentally changed since 2000 when John McCain had that dust up with some leaders in the religious right.  I think right now the religious right is an important component of the Republican coalition. But it‘s clearly not going to dominate.  I think voters are more and more interested in making up their own minds, and judging candidates not by what others think of them, so called self styled leaders, but by what they think of them. 

I think that‘s what the Internet and everything is transforming politics into, something in which more and more voters are making up their own minds.  

REAGAN:  Well, let‘s hope so.

BARNICLE:  Ron Reagan, what is your sense of that, in terms—I mean, you know the Republican party, in a sense, what is your sense if a candidate said that to James Dobson?  Who are you Mr. Dobson?  We‘re at war with Iraq, and you worried about whether I look at “Playboy Magazine?”  What‘s wrong with you? 

REAGAN:  Well, they should say that to James Dobson.  Who is James Dobson to make these sorts of claims?  But the problem is the Republican party has painted themselves into a corner over the years.  They‘ve spent all this time snuffling after people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and James Dobson, and the voters that those people bring with them, and now they are stuck with that.  They need them to get to the White House. 

FUND:  Well Ron, if it‘s become a political liability, and I think in some quarters it has, you will see a distancing from them.  I think they‘ll say, we welcome your support, but we‘re not going to tail after you and beg for it.

REAGAN:  John McCain hasn‘t gotten that word yet. 

(CROSS TALK)

REAGAN:  John McCain has not gotten that word yet.  He‘s visiting Jerry Falwell.  He‘s talking up these people.  Next thing you know, he‘s going to be strolling hand in hand through a neighborhood in Baghdad with Pat Robertson, a spring stroll in Baghdad.   

FUND:  You know, Ron, when they fight the last war, they often use tactics that are outdated, and they don‘t work for John McCain.  Look at his poll numbers. 

REAGAN:  I agree with you.

BARNICLE:  Hey John Fund, I mean, Hillary Clinton is having a big fund raiser in Florida, I believe, this Sunday, and she is going to have the rap star Timberland appearing there.  Do you figure James Dobson knows who Timberland is?  Do you figure any Republican delegate knows who Ludicrus or Timberland are? 

FUND:  Well, let me tell you, Hillary Clinton is going to scoop up more cash than anyone can possibly imagine when the reports come out in a couple of weeks.  I had coffee with Terry McCaulliffe recently.  He says it‘s going to be a 10 million dollar haul.  Hillary Clinton is going to have all the money in the world.  But I tell you, things like that 1984 video add that a Barack Obama supporter put up, that can transform the race too.

We are in a whole new kind of campaign.  Everything that happened in 2000 and 2004 has set us up for what I think is going to be one of the most fascinating transformational campaigns, in which the new media and individual citizens and the Internet are going to play a much bigger role than old fashion political cash alone.   

BARNICLE:  John Fund, Ron Reagan, thanks very much.  Play HARDBALL with us again Monday.  Guests include Tennessee and Fred Thompson friend Lamar Alexander.  Right now though, it‘s time for “TUCKER.”

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

END   

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