updated 7/20/2007 10:50:24 AM ET 2007-07-20T14:50:24

Guests: Rev. John Hunter, Barbara Comstock, Melanie Sloan, Steve McMahon, Ed Rogers, Lynn Sweet, Michael Wolff, Michael Eric Dyson

MIKE BARNICLE, GUEST HOST:  Barack Obama says kindergartners should know how to spot a pedophile.  Mitt Romney makes fun of him.  Is it funny?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

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

HARDBALL.

Forget a health care plan or a plan to get out of Iraq, could the race for the White House be decided by good old-fashioned cheap shots?

At a forum for Planned Parenthood on Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama said that, quote, “age-appropriate,” unquote, sex education for kindergarten students is the right thing to do.  By “age-appropriate,” Obama‘s spokeswoman later told the Christian Broadcasting Network that Obama meant that children should know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching to protect them from pedophiles.  Fellow presidential hopeful, Republican Mitt Romney, is pouncing on Obama‘s remarks.  So who‘s right here?  Is Obama‘s rationale the correct one?  Is Romney‘s attack fair, or is he just throwing red meat at the conservative masses?  More on this in a moment.

Also tonight, the top diplomat in Baghdad says we‘re making political progress, but what about the politics here at home?  Will Republicans wait until September to jump ship?  That‘s our HARDBALL debate.

But we begin with HARDBALL‘s David Shuster with a report on the sensitive political issue of sex education.

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  There is nothing that makes most parents feel more squeamish than the thought of their children having sex.  A close second might be sex education.  And while sex ed in school has long been a divisive political issue, it‘s usually a debate about teenagers, not 5-year-olds.

This week, however, at a Planned Parenthood conference in Washington, Democrat Barack Obama was asked about sex ed for kids, and he spoke about his Senate race three years ago against Republican Alan Keyes.

Sen. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I remember him using this in a campaign—in his campaign against me, saying, Barack Obama supports teaching sex education to kindergartners.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  And—you know, which—I didn‘t know what to tell him.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  But it‘s the right thing to do.

SHUSTER:  By late Tuesday night, Obama‘s comments had ricocheted across the Internet.  Abcnews.com, for example, ran this headline: “Sex ed for kindergartners right thing to do, says Obama.”  Lost in the headline, though, was any sense of context.  Obama‘s full sentence was...

OBAMA:  But it‘s the right thing to do, you know, to provide age-appropriate sex education, science-based sex education in the schools.

SHUSTER:  Obama‘s spokesman told reporters, quote, “Barack Obama supports sensible community-driven education for children because, among other things, he believes it could help protect them from pedophiles.”  And the spokesman added that Obama has always believed that parents should have the right to opt out.

Still, Obama‘s remarks this week have proven irresistible to some Republicans.  On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, during an appeal to conservatives, tore into Obama and posted the attack on YouTube in case anybody missed it.

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  How much sex education is age-appropriate for a 5-year-old?  In my view, zero is the right amount.  Instead of teaching about sex education in kindergarten to 5-year-olds, let‘s clean up the ocean of filth, the cesspool in which our kids are swimming.

SHUSTER:  Obama himself, in his speech, said he supports encouraging kids to wait before having sex.

OBAMA:  I honor and respect young people who choose to delay sexual activity.  You know, I‘ve got two daughters, and I want them to understand that sex is not something casual.

SHUSTER:  But rhetoric aside, here‘s the debate.  Should the federal government and/or local school boards get involved in telling 5-year-olds about inappropriate touching, or should that be left to families only?  The Obama campaign pointed NBC News to the state of Oregon, which has guidelines for sex education for children in grades K through 3, and it includes helping children understand the difference between a good touch and a bad touch.

Furthermore, the federal government has a Sexuality Information and Education Council that offers a curriculum for kindergarten.

OBAMA:  Some of this is legislative, but some is it also having a president who‘s willing to talk about these issues in an honest and reasonable way.

SHUSTER (on camera):  But some Republicans, including Mitt Romney, say it‘s unreasonable to think a kindergarten teacher should be telling a 5-year-old anything about sex.  Romney, though, had a different position as recently as two years ago.  Then, while governor of Massachusetts, he was under fire and said he supported a more comprehensive approach.  Now he‘s seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  Thanks, David.  Reverend John hunter is the religious adviser to the Obama campaign, and Barbara Comstock joins us by phone.  She‘s a senior adviser to the Romney campaign.

Reverend Hunter, I think that there may be some parents out there watching this program, who just heard Barack Obama talking about the country needing the president to talk about these issues sensibly.  And yet a huge percentage of them, as parents, might be saying to themselves, In a society so satiated with sex, where sex is used to sell everything, please leave my kindergartner alone.  Don‘t be trying to tell my kindergartner anything about sex, I‘ll handle that.

REV. JOHN HUNTER, OBAMA CAMPAIGN RELIGIOUS ADVISER:  As a father of a 6-year-old and three daughters, I want my children, and I want all children, to be equipped to protect themselves.  And I believe this is what the senator has been advocating, information that helps protect children.

BARNICLE:  But from a public school teacher, from a kindergartner, rather than from you, a parent, at home?

HUNTER:  I believe that information both in the home, as well as information from other sources that are responsible for nurturing and guiding children, that helps to protect them is very useful in a society where children are increasingly more very vulnerable.  Through the Internet and other means, people are continuing to attack our children.  Information that protects them is wise.

BARNICLE:  Barbara Comstock, Reverend Hunter raises a legitimate point here in that with the Internet, the growth of the Internet, you can‘t watch your child, no matter how old the child is, 5 years of age, 15 years of age, on the Internet and the computers.  It‘s a legitimate point, is it not?

BARBARA COMSTOCK, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER:  No, well, actually, let me put it in the bigger context that actually Senator Obama was talking about.  I know he—Senator Obama has now backtracked and said, Oh, I was just talking about bad touching.  But he was at a Planned Parenthood conference where he was not only bragging about sex education for kindergartners, but he was bragging about being for partial-birth abortion and funding abortion and all kinds of other—you know, and being opposed to the Supreme Court.  And he recommended—his staff put out today, his campaign put out the Sex Education Council, who reference kindergarten through, you know, 3rd grade sex education.  And in their program, in their curriculum, that was recommended by Obama‘s campaign, they talk about homosexuality and masturbation, quite a few other things, not just bad touching, in their curriculum.  So this was much broader.

I understand why Senator Obama is backtracking and doesn‘t want to talk about this because the American people understand this shouldn‘t be a federal issue.  And that‘s why Governor Romney—that‘s why he was stunned, like, Why are we talking about the federal government getting involved with things like this?  It‘s silly.

BARNICLE:  And you know, Barbara...

COMSTOCK:  There are more important issues that we need to be spending our money on, other than kindergarten sex education and funding abortions for everybody, which is the agenda that...

BARNICLE:  Well, Barbara, explain to me...

COMSTOCK:  ... he was pandering to at Planned Parenthood.

BARNICLE:  Explain to me, explain to the audience, please, why in 2002, when Mitt Romney was running for governor of Massachusetts—I clearly recall this, Planned Parenthood questionnaire—he is asked point-blank on the questionnaire, Do you favor public schools getting involved in age-appropriate sex education?  And he lunged for that “Yes” box.  He check it right off, yes, he believed it, he endorsed it.  Why did he change now?

COMSTOCK:  Well, it‘s not a change.  He‘s (INAUDIBLE) age-appropriate for older kids.  And what is...

BARNICLE:  It didn‘t have any age on the kids.  It didn‘t say what age of the kids.

COMSTOCK:  ... what‘s appropriate for 5-year-olds?  Is masturbation,

and you know, homosexuality and things like that appropriate for

kindergarten?  That‘s what SEKIS (ph), the group that Obama‘s campaign has

recommended as their guide—that‘s what they recommend, not just the bad

touching stuff.  And he was reacting to Senator Obama‘s point there, which-

you know, on kindergarten, that seems absurd.  (INAUDIBLE) type of things that that group is advocating is not something the federal government needs to be involved in.

And what he stressed and what he has stressed as governor is we need to have abstinence education, and he‘s worked with groups like Best Friends, which is here in Washington doing a lot of good things in the inner cities with young girls and getting them to abstain and get involved in educational activities and positive things that really change their lives.  And Colin Powell and Alma Powell have been involved in that, Bill Bennett, a lot of folks here in D.C., and it‘s all around the country.

BARNICLE:  Reverend Hunter...

COMSTOCK:  And those are the type of groups that SEKIS—SEKIS, which is what Obama‘s campaign cited as their authority—they oppose abstinence education.  I just think you need to put that in the bigger context because that‘s what...

BARNICLE:  Well...

COMSTOCK:  ... the senator is promoting...

BARNICLE:  Reverend...

COMSTOCK:  ... as his—as something he wants to do.

BARNICLE:  Reverend Hunter, I understand you are not Barack Obama.  I understand that.  But the idea of Barack Obama, as Ms. Comstock alluded to, being opposed to abstinence education?  I mean, do you believe that is the case?  What‘s your view of his campaign...

HUNTER:  No, I don‘t believe...

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  ... of his beliefs.

COMSTOCK:  (INAUDIBLE) does.

BARNICLE:  Well, let Reverend Hunter chip in here.

HUNTER:  I believe that the senator has clearly articulated his position, and his position has been embraced by several states across the country, including Massachusetts.  This age-appropriate sex education, which is designed to inform and protect children, is created because it is needed.  And all of us are aware of the vulnerability of youth, and particularly small children.  And so it is ridiculous to try to misconstrue and to misinterpret what the senator has articulated and has been willing to take leadership on in such a crucial area that affects all aspects and all social groups, all classes, all races in our society.

BARNICLE:  Barbara, I‘ve been around a long time.  Maybe too long, some people think.  But I have never heard in this particular context of kindergartners and sex education involving kindergartners—I‘ve never heard of issues like partial-birth abortion being thrown at kindergartners, nor do I think that‘s the case now.  So why are you throwing it in here?

COMSTOCK:  No, I was talking about the bigger context of the—of the speech that Senator Obama made when he went to Planned Parenthood, which is a very left-wing group that the Democrats have to cater to.

BARNICLE:  Well, Romney...

(CROSSTALK)

COMSTOCK:  ... he not only bragged about sex education...

BARNICLE:  Mitt Romney went to them!

COMSTOCK:  ... he bragged about being for partial-birth-abortion and not liking the Supreme Court decision and he bragged about the fact that he would make funding of abortions.  So I‘m not talking about that in the sex education context.  What I was explaining is that Senator Obama was at a very liberal group, Planned Parenthood.  Senator Edwards was also there.  And all of these candidates, including Senator Clinton, too, are all bragging about how they will take this very liberal left turn on all of these social issues.  And I think that was just reflected in his entire speech that he made to that, not just the line that he made about the sex education.

So I‘m pointing out, in the bigger context of this, Senator Obama, Edwards and Senator Clinton, you know, are going in a direction that really has been rejected by the American people.  They support judges like Justice Roberts and Alito, who have said, you know, that we can have a ban on partial-birth abortion, that we don‘t have to pay for abortion...

BARNICLE:  Reverend Hunter...

COMSTOCK:  ... and that state and local schools can decide sex education matters, and they can—state and local folks can decide when that‘s appropriate, not the federal government getting involved in that.

BARNICLE:  Reverend Hunter, what‘s appropriate here right now is that you get the last word.  It comes down to, you know, families being involved in sex education, public schools being involved in sex education.  You heard Barbara Comstock.  What‘s your view?

HUNTER:  Certainly, again, I think that everyone understands it does take a village, it takes a community to raise a child.  Our children are raised by parents in their homes and extended family, but they‘re also greatly influenced by their school, by their teachers, by their places of worship, and those mentors, those persons that are into their lives.

And obviously, I believe leadership that is willing to address this very sensitive issue that Senator Obama is offering, that suggests that we need to do more to protect our children, is, in fact, welcomed by America because we recognize that there is a significant problem with sexual predators preying on our youth and our children, and any law, any means, and any proactive measures that we can take that will protect them and help them to understand the difference between what is appropriate and inappropriate is welcome.

BARNICLE:  Reverend John Hunter, Barbara Comstock, thanks very much to both of you.  I don‘t know what it says about the country that we‘re talking about kindergarten sex education, rather than the war in Iraq, but we‘ll be talking about that, too.

And coming up, CNBC Donny Deutsch drops by to talk about the latest hits in “Vide08.”  He‘s one of our judges for the “HARDBALL Campaign Ad Challenge.”  We‘ll find out what he‘s looking for in a winner.

You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back.  Here at HARDBALL, we‘re giving the audience

you people—the chance to play campaign media strategist.  It‘s the “HARDBALL Campaign Ad Challenge,” and we‘ve asked viewers to submit on-line homemade ads about a presidential candidate or a cause.  We‘ll pick the winners with the help of our judging panel.

Donny Deutsch, legendary adman and host of CNBC‘s “The Big Idea,” is one of those judges.  Donny, thanks for joining us again.  We appreciate it.  Before we get to the ads that have been submitted by viewers, Donny, the Elizabeth Edward‘s ad—it‘s a brand-new ad, out this week from the Edwards campaign featuring Elizabeth Edwards.  take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELIZABETH EDWARDS, WIFE OF DEM. PRES. CANDIDATE JOHN EDWARDS:  I‘ve been blessed for the last 30 years to be married to the most optimistic person that I‘ve ever met.  But at the same time, he has an unbelievable toughness, particularly about other people, and that is his ability to fight for them.  You‘re not going to outsmart him.  He works harder than any human being that I know.  Always has.  It‘s unbelievably important that in our president, we have someone who can stare the worst in the face and not blink.

JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m John Edwards, and I approved this message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  So Donny, this week, in addition to the ad being released, Elizabeth Edwards also had a couple of things to say about Hillary Clinton, as you know.  Does the Edwards campaign—is there a—are they running a risk here running her and the ads, and she seems to be out there banging away at Hillary Clinton? What kind of a risk, if any, is there?

DONNY DEUTSCH, HOST, CNBC‘S “THE BIG IDEA”:  I think it‘s tremendous -

I actually think it‘s a poor ad.  You know, guess what?  His wife is behind him.  Next?  I got that.  You know, give me some meat.  There‘s no meat on the bone here.  You know, I thought it was a mistake when she went after Anne Coulter.  I think it‘s a mistake for her to go after Hillary.  Your guy—fight your battles—spouses don‘t matter here.  They just don‘t.  Obviously, you‘re behind your man.  She‘s a wonderful woman.  We got it.  I need to know more about what you‘re doing, buddy.  This is not doing the trick

BARNICLE:  You know what I like about you?  I understand everything you say.  I mean, you speak English, and there‘s no mistaking where you‘re coming from.

(LAUGHTER)

DEUTSCH:  You know, Mike, you and I are two punks from the street. 

You know, that‘s what it comes down to.

BARNICLE:  So let‘s take a look at some of these ads submitted by viewers.  Here‘s one by Brad Hinton of Studio City, California.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We need to stay the course in Iraq, stay the course with Guantanamo Bay, stay the course with secret prisons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Something‘s not right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Wait a minute.  I knew it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Oh, man, almost got away with it.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Now that I solved this mystery, I‘m going to make out with my smoking hot wife. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Oh, man, that‘s gross. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  OK.  Brad comes in the door and drops that cassette on your desk and you take a look at it.  And he‘s looking for a job.  What do you tell him? 

DEUTSCH:  I tell him, stop smoking what you‘re smoking.

But I didn‘t even understand what the hell that ad was about, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

DEUTSCH:  Anybody can—that‘s one of the YouTube problems we have in the world now.  Be as stupid as you can be.

I‘m not the smartest guy in the world.  I literally don‘t even know who that ad was for.  So, he‘s getting tossed out of the office. 

BARNICLE:  Now, I saw this next ad earlier today.  And I—well, I will tell you what I was struck by after you watch the ad.

It was submitted by James Edouard of South Portland, Maine. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(MUSIC)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Now, the soundtrack sounds to me like Enya, Donny.

But when I was watching the ad earlier this afternoon, the scroll of the honored dead, the honor roll of the dead, I was struck by the fact that I had written about one of the casualties, Lance Corporal Travis Desiato of Bedford, Massachusetts, whose name was included there.  And I found this to be a truly powerful ad. 

What did you think? 

DEUTSCH:  You know, it‘s powerful, but, once again, I think any great ad, I want to say, brings news to the table.  It‘s almost too easy. 

Yes, we are losing our boys over there.  Whether you‘re for the war or against the war, it‘s a tragedy.  We know what these families are suffering.  They‘re paying the ultimate price.  It‘s not giving me any news.  It‘s not moving the ball further.  I think we already feel that. 

And I think it‘s simply exploitive.  Mike, you have a personal relationship, so you know that.  So, it hits further even home.  And, yes, it does hit home.  It‘s too easy.  It‘s exploitive, and it doesn‘t push the ball further. 

BARNICLE:  But what about—what about the fact, though, that, Donny,

we live in, as you know—I‘m not telling you nothing that you don‘t know

we live in such a visual nation, and the idea that the Bush

administration has gone out of its way to preclude shots being taken at Dover or other Air Force bases where—where caskets come in, where... 

DEUTSCH:  OK.  Now, you—now you have got a great ad now, because, once again, say, by the way, what‘s really wrong with this war is—the main thing, we are losing the boys, but you have got an administration that won‘t even show you those pictures.  We think, as Americans, you have a right to know that.

So, I think he buried the lead there.  And I think that—what you just said, Mike, intuitively, is a very compelling message which goes beyond the obvious—we‘re losing our boys—and takes it one step further. 

BARNICLE:  Donny Deutsch, always a pleasure, thanks very much. 

“The Big Idea” airs weeknights at 10:00 Eastern on CNBC.

And keep the campaign ads coming at HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

Up next:  A federal judge throws out Valerie Wilson‘s civil suit against members of the Bush administration.  So, what‘s next? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Valerie Wilson‘s lawsuit against Vice President Cheney and members of the Bush administration over the leaking of her identity as a covert CIA operative has been dismissed by the judge in the case today. 

Melanie Sloan is Valerie Wilson‘s attorney.  She‘s also executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.  And Ed Rogers is a Republican consultant and a former aide to the first President Bush, President George H.W. Bush.

Valerie Plame, I guess—I‘m sorry—Melanie, I guess I should ask you first off—there‘s something that occurs to me—why should we care about this at this stage? 

MELANIE SLOAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CITIZENS FOR RESPONSIBILITY AND

ETHICS IN WASHINGTON:  Well, this is an important case because it‘s about the abuse of government power, bringing the full weight of the government against regular citizens who are just doing their jobs. 

And it‘s a significant issue that the government was abusing its power so substantially.  And now this case is going to continue to go forward.  This is not over by any means. 

BARNICLE:  Well, how is it going to go forward?  Tell me about the dismissal in terms of legalese, if you can explain it to me, as a layman.  What happened today? 

SLOAN:  Well, I think what is really important here is to know that John Bates, the judge in the case, didn‘t reach the merits of the claims. 

No defendants were vindicated here with this case today.  The case was dismissed on very narrow technical legal grounds that said that this was—there was no constitutional remedy that the Wilsons could use to bring their case forward. 

And we are going to appeal on that issue. 

BARNICLE:  Why? 

SLOAN:  Because we believe that this is—this case poses important, significant issues that all Americans should care about, because Valerie Wilson was working for her country as a covert operative...

ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT:  Wrong.

SLOAN:  ... trying to protect our national security. 

ROGERS:  Come on, Melanie.

SLOAN:  And she was—that is, in fact, what her job was, according to the CIA.

ROGERS:  Please.  Not according to the special prosecutor that looked into this for six months or—or longer. 

Come on.  Finally, a judge has now looked at this.  We have heard from the partisan left.  Joe Wilson, her husband, has written a 400-page book about himself and the trauma of all this.  Finally, a judge has looked at this and said, forget it, no case here.  Take this fight elsewhere.  It‘s over. 

Now, Melanie and her crowd, they make it a business—Melanie is a good lawyer, but she makes it her business to engage in partisan warfare in the courts.  That is what they do.  And that is what this is about. 

But, like I said, finally, it‘s gotten to a hearing that‘s not about the media.  It‘s not about the biased supporters they have in Congress in the Democrat Party.  A judge has looked at it and said, forget it.  It‘s over, no case here.

SLOAN:  Just because one judge has said it‘s over so far doesn‘t mean that a whole panel of judges will.  And this case is going to go to the court of appeals and, if necessary, the Supreme Court.

ROGERS:  Who is going to pay those bills?  Who is paying those bills? 

So, do you—do you report who your contributors are?

SLOAN:  My organization is a nonprofit 501©(3) organization. 

ROGERS:  Have you ever brought a claim against a Democrat, ever? 

SLOAN:  Sure.  We have, in fact.

ROGERS:  Name two. 

SLOAN:  But we are not here to talk about the Democrats that we have gone after, although there are several. 

(CROSSTALK)

SLOAN:  We‘re here to talk about this case. 

ROGERS:  Let‘s be honest, then.  Let‘s be honest about what this is about and who is supporting this.

(CROSSTALK)

SLOAN:  Yes.  And what this case is about is the abuse of high-ranking government officials who abused their power. 

ROGERS:  Are you talking about Wilson?  Did he abuse his power? 

SLOAN:  No, I would say that would be Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, and Richard Armitage.  They‘re the people...

ROGERS:  No Democrats.

SLOAN:  ... who approved—they‘re the ones who are in power.

BARNICLE:  What—what are the grounds of the appeal going to be? 

SLOAN:  The grounds of the..

BARNICLE:  I mean, I have no—I have no dog in this fight, with all apologies...

SLOAN:  Sure.

BARNICLE:  ... to Michael Vick.  But, I mean, it sounds like...

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  It sounds like a bumper-sticker campaign to me, you know?

SLOAN:  Any district court case can always be appealed. 

(CROSSTALK)

SLOAN:  So, we will appeal, saying that the district court judge got it wrong, and he made mistakes.  And we have grounds for appeal on that alone.  There are a large number of issues that will be brought up in front of the court. 

BARNICLE:  Who are the defendants—who are the defendants going to be? 

SLOAN:  The defendants will be the same defendants as they are now, Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, and Richard Armitage.

ROGERS:  They should countersue for harassment.  That‘s all this is. 

This is about partisan politics.  And...

(CROSSTALK)

SLOAN:  It‘s not about partisan politics.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  Yes, it is.  It‘s totally about partisan politics.

SLOAN:  This is about government officials who abused their power. 

ROGERS:  That‘s all it is.  And it‘s about menacing and trying to criminalize or at least bring into the court system...

SLOAN:  It‘s the civil suit, so there‘s no criminal action here.

ROGERS:  ... bring in—bring into the court system our political differences.  And it‘s wrong.  And it‘s over.  And, finally, a judge has said so. 

BARNICLE:  Last—last turn, quickly.

SLOAN:  It‘s far from over.  There are many more days to be fought.

BARNICLE:  Yogi Berra—it‘s not over until it‘s over.

Melanie Sloan, thanks very much. 

Ed Rogers is staying with us about for the HARDBALL debate.  The U.S.  ambassador to Iraq says we are making progress there.  Is he right?

And be sure to watch “COUNTDOWN” at 8:00 Eastern tonight for Keith Olbermann‘s special comment about the Pentagon‘s assertion that Hillary Clinton is boosting enemy propaganda by asking how the U.S. plans to eventually withdraw from Iraq. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERTHA COOMBS, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Bertha Coombs with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

They just keep making history on Wall Street—the Dow Jones industrial average closing for the first time at 14000 even today on the back of strong earnings from IBM and others, gaining 82 points—the S&P 500 also closing at a record, after gaining almost seven, and the Nasdaq up more than 20 points. 

After the closing bell, Google reported quarterly earnings.  The profits, they said, rose 28 percent.  But the earnings actually missed estimates by a penny.  Google shares are down 7 percent in after-hours trading.

Microsoft also reporting after the bell that quarterly profits rose more than 7 percent, and earnings were right in line with analyst estimates.  Microsoft shares are slightly lower in after-hours trading as well.

Oil rising another 87 cents in New York trading, closing at $75.92 a barrel. 

And 30-year mortgage rates holding steady this week at a nationwide average of 6.73 percent.

That‘s it from CNBC, America‘s business channel—now back to

HARDBALL. 

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Time now for tonight‘s big debate. 

Today, General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker briefed Congress on the state of the war in Iraq.  Crocker said that, although fear is dominating Iraq right now, progress is being made. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RYAN CROCKER, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ:  As a result of the surge, which, as you know, just hit its full stride in the middle of June, about a month ago, levels of violence, sectarian violence, particularly in Baghdad, have come down, to a fairly notable degree. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Presidential candidate Joe Biden followed up with this tough response. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I promise you, old buddy, forget what Joe Biden says.  Listen to the Republicans.  We ain‘t staying.  We‘re not staying.  We‘re not staying.  Not much time.  Political benchmarks better be met or we‘re in real trouble, because we will have traded a dictator for chaos, notwithstanding all your incredible efforts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  So, what‘s the real deal?  Are reports of progress simply not enough?  Will the country sit by and see what happens in another three months or three years or more? 

Here to debate it, Democratic consultant Steve McMahon, the Republican consultant Ed Rogers.

Ed Rogers, let‘s start with you. 

ROGERS:  Sure.

BARNICLE:  This is like “Groundhog Day.”  I mean, they say the same thing over and over and over, out of the White House and out of Iraq, don‘t they?

ROGERS:  You‘re right.  It does appear that there could be a better variety of talking points than:  Progress is being made. 

(LAUGHTER)

ROGERS:  I have been saying that for years, at the instruction of my friends in the government.

But—but—and they shouldn‘t...

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Say it another way.

ROGERS:  And they shouldn‘t say it. 

What they should say is, the fight matters.  The fight is worth it.  In an era of where we‘re having to pick the least worst option, leaving Iraq to our enemies does not do anything to make America more safe.  Abandoning our allies there is not good policy.  It will have a lot of bad consequences for us.  We need to say the fight is worth it and explain to people why. 

BARNICLE:  So—but, Steve, I mean, you have got the August recess coming up.

MCMAHON:  Right. 

BARNICLE:  Congressmen, senators are going to go home.  If they go home and start telling people what Ed has just suggested they say, I think they are going to hear something very different from the people they‘re talking to. 

MCMAHON:  Yes, it‘s going to be one of these? 

BARNICLE:  Yes. 

MCMAHON:  That‘s what I‘m thinking, too. 

ROGERS:  Hey, the war is unpopular, but are the alternatives less popular?

MCMAHON:  But here‘s—but here‘s the thing.  The administration keeps saying that progress is being made, and the television news tells a different story.  The—the bodies that are coming home from Iraq tell a different story. 

And the American public has already reached a judgment about this.  And Republican politicians are now starting to listen, especially those who are up for reelection.  The only person who hasn‘t seemed to have gotten the message is the president. 

And the president is now in a position where, after—after taking his party into—into an election and losing 30 seats in the House and majority control of both houses, he is perhaps going to do the same thing. 

And John McCain has ruined his campaign because he stands with the president.  And I don‘t think there are a lot of Republicans up on Capitol Hill who are prepared to ruin their campaigns and their careers by standing with the president either.

ROGERS:  I agree.

MCMAHON:  The jury is—the jury is out.

ROGERS:  I agree with what a lot of what Steve says. 

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  Come on.  That‘s true.

But the Democrats aren‘t being held to account for what—what withdrawal, what running, what surrendering, what admitting defeat—or declaring defeat, not admitting it, because we‘re not defeated.  We aren‘t defeated.  We would be declaring defeat.

What are the consequences of that, and does it matter?  Are we going to protect our allies?  Do the Democrats want to see the Vietnam-era helicopter on the roof and the mad shuffle of people trying to get out?

How many Iraqis are we going to let in?  What will be the consequences for our allies, the Kurds, our allies in the south?  There—there—there‘s real consequences to just running, like the Democrats want us to.  And nobody is holding them to account, and nobody is making them say, does it matter?

BARNICLE:  But...

ROGERS:  But do we have any obligation here that‘s worth keeping?

BARNICLE:  You—you are listing these things and you are stating your argument in a country and a culture where people literally beep at the car in front of them in a McDonald‘s drive-through window.  I mean, it goes so fast in this country.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  Yes. 

BARNICLE:  And you‘re talking about, think about something...

ROGERS:  Hey...

BARNICLE:  ... five years down the road.  That‘s a tough sell.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  Henry Kissinger‘s whole point is, there is no question we can win in Iraq.  There is no question we can mold Iraq to our making. 

We cannot do so in a timeframe that is allowable by the American people or the American political process.  And, so, that‘s the environment that we‘re in.

BARNICLE:  Steve, Henry Kissinger says it.  It must be so.  I mean, he‘s been so right. 

MCMAHON:  Kissinger said it; for god‘s sake we got to absolutely bow and worship at the altar, be respectful.  If you look at the mission—we‘ve got a little case of mission creep here and time creep.  If you look at what we were going over there to do, it was rid the country of weapons of mass destruction, which didn‘t exist to begin with.  It was overthrow that terrible despot, Saddam Hussein. 

ROGERS:  That part went OK. 

MCMAHON:  That part went OK and that part is done.  And it was to bring democracy and they‘ve now had two elections.  That country—they are going on vacation after their two elections while we‘re over there fighting.  They ought not do that and we ought to get out of there. 

BARNICLE:  All right, and we got to get out of here.  Ed Rogers, Steve McMahon, thanks very much.  Up next, our HARDBALL round table breaks down all of today‘s big headlines, including Bill Clinton speaking out about Iraq, and that criticism that Hillary is hearing from Elizabeth Edwards.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  It‘s time to go behind the headlines with tonight‘s HARDBALL panel.  Joining us now, “Vanity Fair‘s” Michael Wolff, the “Chicago Sun Times” Lynn Sweet and Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson, the author of “Know What I Mean; Reflections on Hip Hop.”

First up, Oprah and Obama.  Oprah Winfrey is planning to host a star studded fund raiser for Barack Obama on September 8th.  Oprah made it known a while ago that Obama was her pick for the presidency.  But only now is she trying to get her wealthy and famous friends together, reportedly including Beyonce and Jamie Foxx, to support Obama.  Can the richest and possibly the most famous woman in the America help Obama beat Hillary? 

Michael Wolff, you‘re up there in the media capital of the world.  Who cares or does this matter?  Is it going to be huge? 

MICHAEL WOLFF, “VANITY FAIR”:  She certainly isn‘t going to hurt him.  And yes, she‘s going to raise a lot of money.  She‘s going to raise a profile, certainly among the black community, but then among the Oprah community even more importantly.  It‘s a great thing.  Who would turn down Oprah? 

BARNICLE:  Lynn, I mean, this has got to be big in terms of the cash register for the Obama campaign.

LYNN SWEET, “THE CHICAGO SUN TIMES”:  Well, there‘s big and big.  Right now it‘s kind of routine to have million dollar fund raisers.  We are working at mega levels with Hillary and Obama so you would expect the haul to be much more than a million.  It depends on how they tier it.  It depends on how long she wants to keep her house open.  There is a VIP level and a super VIP level of giving—bundling on this thing. 

The point is, there is no down side.  Oprah is very close to Obama and she is very, very stingy with her political capital.  This is very rare for her.  She never in Chicago gets involved in local politics, no matter how worthy.  So this is—her involvement with Obama has always been a big deal. 

BARNICLE:  Professor Dyson, there has been this—it has been out there; is Obama black enough?  Is he really black?  Does this help him with black women?  What do you think?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, AUTHOR, “KNOW WHAT I MEAN”:  His bona fides have been very well established.  He is married to a black woman.  He has two black daughters at home he tucks in every night.  He‘s on the south side of Chicago, which is pretty black.  The reality is that some of those questions have been driven by the media fascination with his biracial identity. 

At the end of the day, that is balderdash.  The question is, how black are his politics, in the sense of being concerned about the issues that concern African American people.  I think so far he has proved himself of being quite capable of speaking bilingually, to the black community, but winking and nodding and saying, look, I‘m dealing with this larger issue as well. 

Oprah brings tremendous political capital, as Miss Sweet has said.  The reality is that most powerful black woman in—arguably women in America has now brought her bully pulpit to the service in Mr. Obama.  Early on in his career, she saw him and seized upon him as a worthy vehicle to express her view points and the view points of many people who want a new direction in politics.  I think he offers that and I think there is a win/win situation with Oprah and Obama. 

BARNICLE:  Michael Wolff, is Oprah the most famous woman in the United States?  Is she the most powerful woman in the United States?

WOLFF:  No, she‘s not the most famous woman in the United States.  Hillary Clinton is the most famous woman in the United States.  Whether she is the most powerful, you know, she is a television performer.  How much power do television performers have?

SWEET:  She is far more than that.  I have respectfully interrupt here. 

DYSON:  Yes, I would have to say the same thing. 

WOLFF:  It‘s very important to note, she is not far more powerful.  She is not far more than that.  She is a television performer.  So whatever that—television performers are very powerful.  But they don‘t go beyond that.  When people look at Oprah, they say, hah, the woman is on television.

DYSON:  Oprah just established a school in South Africa.  She is globally recognized.  If you are talking about power as the ability to get something done once you have in intention, Oprah‘s influence is enormous.  I just that Oprah Winfrey represents the cutting edge of female power exercised in defense of her own kind of politics.   

WOLFF:  I think you are seriously over the top here.  I think you are seriously underestimating how people look at television performers, emphasis on performer. 

SWEET:  You‘re taking this to another level maybe here.  Let‘s just look at the narrow question of, in the political context, can Oprah do a lot for Obama, raise a lot of money and bring a lot of people under the tent that might not otherwise be there?  Yes.  She runs one of the major companies in the country and is one of the richest CEOs in America—

(CROSS TALK)

DYSON:  Let me get something in.  I‘m saying that when you said it‘s over the top, we are dealing with America.  The inability of America to distinguish between the cult of celebrity and the exercise of power, a la Paris Hilton, is manifest.  Number two, Oprah‘s manifest of power has nothing simply to do with official office.  Arguably, she is more powerful than Hillary Clinton. 

Hillary Clinton is a public citizen.  Oprah Winfrey is a private citizen wielding enormous influence. 

BARNICLE:  They are both celebrities though.  Michael Wolff, off of what you said, and off of your belief that Oprah, as a TV personality, celebrity, is not as powerful as Hillary Clinton, let me ask you, and you two as well, what if the two of them looked into a camera and each of them said, independently, I want this war in Iraq to stop.  I want us out of Iraq. 

Hillary Clinton has said that in some manner of speaking.  What if Oprah did it?  Whose statement do you think would have more of an impact?

WOLFF:  Well, that‘s the Walter Chronkite moment, when Chronkite said the Vietnam War is unwinnable.  That‘s the moment, in many estimations, when the war collapsed, when we couldn‘t really fight it anymore.  Would that have the same effect now?  No.  The answer is, it wouldn‘t because there are too many people on television saying too many things.  Even Oprah.  Also, her audience is not that big, certainly big as it‘s compared to what Walter Chronkite‘s audience was.  Celebrity is significantly devalued since that time.   

DYSON:  I don‘t know where you‘re living, brother.  Oprah is a huge multi-millionaire, but not on that, she—let me finish.  She‘s a significant political and social—let me finish. 

WOLFF:  How come I always have to let you finish?  You don‘t have to let me finish.

DYSON:  You were talking brother.  She expressed an extraordinary articulation of power of a new phenomenon too, that you seem unwilling to concede the legitimacy of.  That is to say that she has leveraged her authority on television to become a philanthropist of an extraordinary order, and a social activist through her own charity.  I think at that level, we don‘t want to down play that. 

WOLFF:  I understand that you like Oprah. 

DYSON:  You know what, that‘s condescending.  Don‘t be condescending to me, brother. 

(CROSS TALK)

DYSON:  Please don‘t be condescending to me. 

(CROSS TALK)

DYSON:  You‘re condescending skills are not sufficient to condescend to me. 

WOLFF:  I‘m merely making fun of you because what you are saying is ridiculous. 

DYSON:  What Oprah faces is this same thing, the inability to acknowledge that a black woman could be the face of American society, and this same inability to acknowledge as you see manifest in Mr. Wolff, is what we‘re dealing with here.  

WOLFF:  Is that what you are saying that that this is now a racial issue? 

BARNICLE:  Michael, he will answer as soon as we come.  We have to take a break.  We will be right back with the panel, so stick around. 

By the way, Chris Matthews handicapped the Republican field last night on the “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.  Take a peak. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Try this out there.  Close your eyes and think of Rudy Giuliani.  You see him walking through the grim dust of World Trade Center horror day, 9/11.  He‘s walking through the crowd.  He has this stuff all over his face.  That‘s still him.  That helps, because we think of him in a time of crisis.

You think of poor John McCain; you think of a guy in a flak jacket, getting older, walking through the marketplace in Iraq somewhere.  People don‘t want that.  They go, oh, that‘s more of the same.  So his numbers are going down. 

You think of Fred Thompson; you think of a guy almost guy like Art Linkletter (ph) in one of these commercials, a guy in an E-Z Boy recliner, leaning back.  Yes, I bet Michael Moore ought to meet Fidel Castro.  Kind of like this old yesterday guy. 

And then when you think of Mitt Romney, you think of the man from Glad, you know, just perfect guy in a perfect place doing a power point presentation, untouched by reality. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  That‘s Chris Matthews thinking visually again last night on the “Tonight Show.”  You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back.  We are with “Vanity Fair‘s” Michael Wolff, the “Chicago Sun Times” Lynn Sweet and Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, the author of “Know What I Mean, Reflections on Hip Hop.”  Michael Wolff, you were interrupted.  Go ahead.

WOLFF:  I was interrupted, but I‘m not sure I remember what I was saying.  Except that yes—no, what I was saying is that Oprah obviously has a huge platform.  She has a huge bully pulpit.  How much different does that make in a world filled with bully pulpits, in a world filled with his or her endorser—

SWEET:  I can be very specific in answering that.  I think when it—depending on what she wants to do besides just spend money on, she could be invaluable in a get out the vote drive, especially getting out her viewers if they live in the key states—

WOLFF:  Her viewers are not necessarily voter in the Democratic primary.  As a matter of fact, I would say bet the bottom dollar that that‘s not an efficient way to reach those voters. 

SWEET:  We‘re talking about primary voters.  If they‘re Democrats there, she can turn out.  I said turn out, not convert.  Turn out your voters.  That‘s all.  I‘m not doing a demographic.  You and I don‘t have the break down of her show.  We‘re trying to make other points here.  

DYSON:  Let me say this about Oprah.  The point I was making before—you brought up the issue of race.  I didn‘t bring it up.  But since you brought it up, it looks curious for you to deny the obvious. 

(CROSS TALK)

DYSON:  Let me finish. 

WOLFF:  Just go back and forth. 

DYSON:  You know what, let me finish.  The inability to see the legitimacy of Oprah is manifest even in your inability to let me finish talking.  You brought up the issue of race.  I think that in a country like this, where the broad trans-racial appeal of a figure like Obama and Oprah Winfrey operates in this country to prove that we have made enormous progress.  But there is the inability to see the legitimacy of what she does. 

All we‘re saying is that Oprah Winfrey is more than a super star on television.  She has leveraged her influence authority in ways that have global impact.  Nelson Mandela has acknowledged her genius.  People in America who have been poor have acknowledged her genius.  When she turns her identity toward a particular issue—

WOLFF:  Oh, please. 

DYSON:  She makes a big difference.  All of this ad hominem, oh please kind of discourse and parenthetical remarks don‘t deal with the substance of the issue.  And maybe there is an inability of a white to guy to acknowledge that black people might possess some serious power. 

WOLFF:  I‘m going - I‘m speechless that I have to sit here and take Oprah Winfrey that seriously is—

DYSON:  No, it‘s just that you‘re going out of your way to dismiss her.  That‘s what we‘re talking about. 

WOLFF:  I‘m not dismissing her.  She‘s an important television star.  She‘s a big performer.  Is she—How much beyond that, how much does she influence?  Frankly, I don‘t think she influences all that much beyond the other major endorsers that each of these people have. 

BARNICLE:  Michael Wolff, thanks very much.  Boy, Oprah and Hillary, who know.  Michael Wolff, Michael Eric Dyson, thanks very much.  Lynn Sweet, thanks very much.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL. 

Don‘t forget to send in your videos for the HARDBALL campaign ad challenge.  Right now, it‘s time for “TUCKER.”

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

END   

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