updated 9/27/2007 12:32:56 PM ET 2007-09-27T16:32:56

Guests: Sen. Joe Biden, John Harwood, Chuck Todd, Jill Zuckman, Dan Balz, Elizabeth Edwards, Jeff Zeleny, Jennifer Donahue

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Is Hillary Clinton unbeatable, or is her shoveling in of campaign cash exposing her to her enemies?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  We‘re live from the campus of Dartmouth College up in New Hampshire, where the Democratic presidential candidates debate tonight.  Big question: Was the weekend coronation of Hillary Clinton by big media premature?  Is her wholesale “take what you can get” fund-raising bringing her down?  Will her rivals beat her with the mud from the boots of her own campaign?  Bring in the sleaze.  Clinton campaign money bundler Norman Hsu already dragged the Clintons through some familiar mud, and now another questionable foreign guy, Raffaello Follieri, is accused of stealing money.  That‘s our second story tonight.  Will fund-raising fastball bring Clinton down?

Anyway, We‘re going to start right tonight with one of our top opponents, Senator Joe Biden.  Sir, thank you.  You saw the teleprompter going nuts there, so I got to go right to you.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much.  This is a tough uphill fight.  Let‘s talk about a victory for you today, Senator.  The U.S. Senate passed your resolution today by 3 to 1 that the new government of Iraq ought to be broken up by group, Sunni, Shia and Kurd, and we should end this hopeless campaign of trying to unite those people.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  That‘s exactly right.  I think it‘s the first ray of hope, Chris, in the sense that there was a total refutation of the president‘s strategy of a strong central unified government.  And secondly, you know, I got 26 Republicans to cross the aisle.  And we can‘t get this done unless you‘re going to be able to cross the aisle, unless you‘re going to be able to get a consensus.  And I think that‘s where the hope lies.  And if we do what we propose in this resolution, we‘re going to bring troops home.  We‘re going to be able to bring troops home.  We‘re going to be able to not leave chaos behind and the war behind.

MATTHEWS:  What happens if we don‘t do this?  Because it looks like the president still tries to unite the Iraqi people as if they‘re one country.

BIDEN:  What‘s going to happen, Chris, is there‘s going to be—as our foreign friends point out, there‘s going to be a complete splintering of that country.  You used the phrase, I think, and I wish I had thought of it, that we‘re using American troops as a cork in a bottle here, keeping this venom from spreading out to the region and having regional war.  The rest of the world knows we‘re not going to keep that cork in the bottle for another two years.  And when we leave without a Palestinian solution, that place is going to splinter and there will be chaos like we haven‘t seen.  And we‘ll be back there for a generation.

MATTHEWS:  Somebody told me the other day that although we walked in there and said, Have a democracy here, that means the Shia run the show because there‘s more of them than there are of Sunni or Kurds, that the Sunni are not going to stand for that, that the minute we leave, they‘re going to try to reclaim power.

BIDEN:  I don‘t think so.  I think—I met with the number one Sunni leader, the vice president, Hashemi.  I spent three hours with him in a town called Fallujah.  We sat out there because there was a sandstorm.  Our helicopters couldn‘t get off.  And he looked at me and he said, Senator, explain your plan to me again—the one that won today.  He said, I support it.  He said, I tell you what, he said, for the last three years, there‘s been a battle between my heart and my head.  My heart told me we could control the country again.  My head tells me we will not do it.  Our best bet is to have a fair share of the oil and some autonomy in a united country.  And I think that‘s where everybody‘s figuring out their interests lie, but the Sunnis have to get a fair shot.

MATTHEWS:  So you have an exit strategy.

BIDEN:  Absolutely.  This is the exit strategy.

MATTHEWS:  Does the president have one?

BIDEN:  The president‘s exit strategy is hand it off to the next president.  That‘s the exit strategy.  You know, as an old song goes, the earth moved beneath our feet a week ago when he spoke.  He made it absolutely clear what you‘ve been saying for two years, if I‘m not mistaken, and that is he has no plan but to hand this off to the next president.  And that‘s the plan.  He doesn‘t know how to...

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s talk about this election tonight.  You‘ve got a big debate tonight up here in Hartford—up here in Hanover—Hanover, New Hampshire, not Hartford.  And Tim Russert is going to moderate the debate tonight.  All you Democrats will be here.  Apparently, Barack Obama is feeling sick, but he‘s going to play hurt tonight.  How does this change things?  I was reading in “The New York Times,” I‘m sure you were disheartened by it—“The New York Times” on Sunday said Hillary is going to win.

BIDEN:  Well, you know, they said that Dean was going to win this time.  Almost exactly four years ago today, Dean was leading Kerry by 19 or 20 points.  He was the -- 27 points.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BIDEN:  And look, this is early.  It‘s going to get down to electability, Chris.  I was in—I did one of your sister shows, “The View,” this week, and they have a big audience.

MATTHEWS:  They sure do.

BIDEN:  No, they do have a big audience—in there—and I got asked a question, Well, Senator, you‘re qualified.  Why aren‘t you doing better, by one of those hostesses.

MATTHEWS:  Who was that, Whoopi Goldberg?  Who asked you that?

BIDEN:  No, by—by Joy—Joy—I can‘t think of her last name.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

BIDEN:  And I said, Let me—let me make a pint.  I said, Pan to the audience.  And my staff nearly died.  There were a couple hundred people in the audience, I think 300.  And I said, How many of you have made up your mind so far?  Three people raised their hands.

This is going to get down to electability.  Mark my words, all those senators, congressmen, contenders in those border states, they‘re going to look at who they want at the top of the ticket.  That‘s going to reverberate back through Iowa and New Hampshire.  And that‘s why I think this is wide open.

MATTHEWS:  But how do you beat the champ?  I mean, Hillary Clinton‘s coming in here, leading in all the polls by 20 points, up here in New Hampshire by 20 points, nationally by 20 points.  She‘s even a hear or two ahead in Iowa.  Don‘t you have to, let me be blunt, bring her down?

BIDEN:  Well, I think that two things are going to, in a sense, bring her down.  And that is that what‘s going to happen is, she‘s going to have to make the case that she‘s electable nationally, number one.  These Democrats—well, these are—I don‘t know how many live in New Hampshire, but these Democrats here, they want to win more than anything else.  They want to win.  Mark my words, whether it‘s me or not, it‘s going to be about electability by the time January rolls around.

The second thing is, the New Hampshire—I hate to use the University of New Hampshire here on Dartmouth campus, but they‘re the poll of record.  They did a poll not long ago.  They asked a question, forced people to make a choice, and then asked the follow-up question.  Dr. Smith, I think was his name.  Do you really have any choice, any preference?  Forty-eight percent said no.  Forty-two percent said they‘re only leaning.  This has a long way to go, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask everybody here, how many of you want a big change in this election?

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

MATTHEWS:  How many of you believe that bringing back the Clintons is a big change?

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

MATTHEWS:  How many of you don‘t think that‘s a big change?

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

MATTHEWS:  I didn‘t sense a real consensus there.  I‘m not sure we got a lot of clarity out of that.  Is that your reaction?  I noticed everybody wants a change, a little bit divided on the opinion as to what the change ought to be.

BIDEN:  Well, there is division.  That‘s why this is still wide open.  Look, you go out there—and again, just look at the internals of those polls, Chris.  You know how to read them.  There are no strong preferences right now.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you this.  How does a candidate like you get past Obama?  Now, here‘s my problem with Obama.  He‘s inspiring.  He‘s great.  (INAUDIBLE) for the whole world.  But he isn‘t fighting with Hillary.  He just lets her get away with everything!  She‘s raising all this money.  She‘s doing her thing.  She‘s getting these endorsements one after another.  And he won‘t throw a punch.  But he‘s in the way between you and her.  He‘s the dog in the manger.  He‘s keeping you guys from getting at Hillary.  And I include you with Edwards.  How can you get to her if he‘s standing in the way and says, I won‘t fight?

BIDEN:  Initially, by making the point that he won‘t fight even with ideas.  Look, ideas matter in these races.  You know, what are they going to say tonight, Chris, when they were all were against the Biden plan, now 75 senators voted for it and they voted for it?  Are they going to say this doesn‘t matter or are they going to say these ideas don‘t—look, this is about ending the war.

Here‘s what it‘s going to get down to, in my view, whether it‘s me or not.  When power is handed from Bush to the next president, everybody gets it.  No margin for error for the next president.  I don‘t think Obama is going to meet that test in the meantime, and I think Hillary‘s going to be viewed as more divisive, fairly or unfairly, than they‘re ready to take.  So I think it‘s wide open.  I think I can still win this.

MATTHEWS:  Can Hillary win the general if she gets the nomination?

BIDEN:  I‘m going to say any Democrat can win the general because—but I think—put it this way.  The idea that we‘re going to win the general without having someone who the American people believe on national security and homeland security, physical security, anybody who thinks that‘s still not the fundamental underlying concern of the American people, thinks all we can do is move to domestic issues, is making a gigantic mistake.

And I do not discount—I do not discount the Republican contenders.  Everybody is saying, Well, anybody we nominate can beat them.  Let me tell you something, man.  Mark my words, watch this race.  People are still concerned.  They want out of Iraq, but they want someone to manage the world.  They know the world is at stake, in addition to at home.  And I just think that‘s the test that they‘re going to be applying.

MATTHEWS:  You have said that you should not have supported the resolution in 2002 to go to war with Iraq.  Hillary Clinton has yet to recant.  Is that a problem for her?

BIDEN:  I don‘t know, but I‘ll tell you, my...

MATTHEWS:  This Sunday with Tim, she wouldn‘t take it back again.

BIDEN:  Well, my concern is this.  I said I would—if I had known how absolutely incompetent this administration was going to be, if I knew they were going to misuse the resolution we gave them, I would have never given them the authority, which at the time, everybody forgets, was designed to force the international community...

MATTHEWS:  But Senator, at the time that you voted to give the president the authority to go to war, 80 percent of the American people believed he was taking us to war.  Weren‘t you part of that 80 percent?

BIDEN:  No, I wasn‘t part of the 80 percent because he personally told me that‘s not what he was going to do.  And look at his reaction, how he responded to Afghanistan.  Everybody was giving him high marks.  This is the guy who did it the right way.  He went in, he worked the international community, he did everything.  So the idea that everybody knows, from “The New York Times” on, talking about how they all should have known—guess what?  You may have known.  You may have known.  And you should have been running.

MATTHEWS:  I did know.

BIDEN:  I know you did know.  You said it.

MATTHEWS:  But let me ask you about this about the issue tonight.  Is Hillary Clinton vulnerable to the charge that she‘s been sloppy about taking money from be Hsu, from dealing with this guy Follieri?  Is she too loose when it comes to the people she hangs around with and lets her people hang around with?

BIDEN:  Look...

MATTHEWS:  Is there a problem of corruption in the front-runner‘s campaign?

BIDEN:  There is a problem of the perception that she‘s going to have to deal with because some of the people who did give to her campaign were corrupt.  So you know—and whether she knew it or not...

MATTHEWS:  Do you know this guy, Norman Hsu?

BIDEN:  I don‘t think I do.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN:  No, I‘m serious...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... amazing business!

BIDEN:  No, it is amazing...

(CROSSTALK)

BIDEN:  Remember Jimmy Carter?  He stood there and had his picture taken with Wayne Gacy.  Who the hell knows?  You know, if I ran into him, I‘m unaware of it.

MATTHEWS:  Unbelievable.  Thank you.  You‘re a great man.  Thank you, Senator.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Good luck tonight.  We‘ll have you on afterwards, hopefully.

BIDEN:  All right.  Good.

MATTHEWS:  Good luck in the debate tonight.

BIDEN:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Senator Joe Biden.

The big story here in New Hampshire: Can anyone land a punch at Hillary Clinton?  Can she be even slowed down tonight, or is she on her way to that coronation “The New York Times” gave her this Sunday?  When we return, a tough story for the Clinton camp in today‘s “Wall Street Journal” about how an aide to Bill Clinton—his body man—arranged some shady deals.  Interesting story close to home for the Clintons.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, live in New Hampshire for the Democratic presidential debate tonight, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, live in New Hampshire.  We‘ve got the big presidential debate right now.  And the question is, Will sleaze stop Hillary Clinton?

Here‘s today‘s “Wall Street Journal” front page headline, “How Bill Clinton‘s aide”—that‘s A-I-D-E—“facilitated a messy deal.”  In a nutshell, an Italian businessman named Raffaello Follieri found his way into Clinton land, claiming that he could help Hillary‘s presidential campaign with Catholic voters.  Follieri got into business with Bill Clinton via Clinton buddy and body man—well, actually, his buddy, Ron Burkle‘s, investment firm.  Now Burkle is suing Follieri, and according to “The Journal,” Follieri‘s relationship with the Clinton camp is in tatters.  Will this latest episode of a foreigner looking to buy influence open up Hillary to more charges of corruption?

John Harwood is chief Washington correspondent for CNBC and political editor for “The Wall Street Journal.”  Your paper really put that up front today.  What‘s the importance of this story?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CORRESPONDENT, “WALL STREET JOURNAL”:  Well, I think the importance of this story, in a macro political sense, is it heightens, like the Norman Hsu story, questions about how much is really going to trail Bill Clinton and thus trail Hillary Clinton into this race?  How much of a problem is that going to be for her?  How much is it going to feed the notion among Democrats that we need to turn the page, been there, done that with the Clintons, and try to get something new?  But this one doesn‘t touch Hillary Clinton directly, like the Hsu story does.  So I‘m not sure how exactly how it‘s going to play out.

MATTHEWS:  What is it about the Clintons‘ world that is more connected with big money people, a lot of foreign people, a lot of people with particular interests and kind of seedy people, as opposed to Barack‘s campaign?  Is it the fact that he gets small contributors, idealistic contributors, and they deal with the old interest people or what?

HARWOOD:  Well, let‘s separate it out.  Bill Clinton—think about who he is—brilliant politician, strategist, celebrity, money maker, world leader.  A lot of people want to get to him.  One of the key figures in this case is his so-called body man, who is the gatekeeper to seeing Bill Clinton.  And when you get a lot of beautiful people, rich people trying to get to the president, sometimes, if you listen to Ron Burkle, they turn out to be conmen.  And that seems to be what happened in this case.

MATTHEWS:  But in this case, the president‘s body man, this guy who gets him his milk and cookies at night, or clean shirts or whatever (INAUDIBLE) body men do in politics, they take care of you physically—he apparently used his gatekeeper role to start sending up finder‘s fees.  He got $400,000 to introduce somebody to somebody.  And now there‘s a question, though, are these relations now going to be Clinton‘s fault?  When this guy walks off with the money, somehow you say, Wait a minute, that‘s Clinton‘s fault I lost all that money—Ron Burkle losing a million, some other guy losing $400,000.

HARWOOD:  Well, I don‘t think you can absolve the president from responsibility for this and lay it off all on the body man.  The president‘s responsible for the operation that he‘s running.  And what the body man did was connect him to Ron Burkle, this big fund-raiser who runs an investment firm, and they made some connections and made some deals that seemed to have a political element.  One of the things that Follieri was promising was that he could help Hillary Clinton with Catholic voters because part of this deal was buying Catholic church properties.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the peculiar nature of the Clintons fund-raising operation.  They are—let‘s try to use the right word—notorious for the wholesale manner in which they haul people in and shake them down for lots of money.  This reached a head during the 1990s, when they were hauling people into the Lincoln Bedroom, letting people stay overnight in droves, one after another.  They called it Motel 6.  Senator Fred Thompson was the man who led the committee that investigated that.  They couldn‘t prove anything to put the Clintons away.  Is there something about the Clintons that‘s different than the usual sleazy fund-raising in politics?

HARWOOD:  I think Bill Clinton is unusually aggressive and resourceful for a Democrat.  Remember John Harris‘s book about Bill Clinton?  It was called “Survivor.”  One of the reasons—sort of the flipside of what he represented as a new Democrat, somebody—after a period in which Democrats couldn‘t win a presidential race, he came up with the policies, the message to win, but he also came up with the practical political apparatus, including the fund-raising, and he worked it to the max, especially in the 1990s, after Newt Gingrich and the Republicans seemed to be roaring back.

MATTHEWS:  So the Democrats began to match the Republicans in fund-raising, but at a cost.

HARWOOD:  There‘s no question...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... take money from people they shouldn‘t have taken money from.

HARWOOD:  And Democrats are the party of campaign finance reform.  It looks worse within the Democratic Party when you have this sort of scandal.

MATTHEWS:  Bottom line.  You‘re a political reporter.  I guess you have to make this analysis.  Hillary Clinton has a guy named Norman Hsu, this questionable guy who‘s in big legal trouble now, bundled $850,000 for her, huge amounts of money.  She must know the guy.  This is a lot of money coming in the door.  Is this going to hurt her?

HARWOOD:  Yes, it‘s going to hurt her.  The question is how much.  I think right now, if you look at the big picture, how strong she‘s doing on so many fronts, it is a speed bump, maybe even a significant speed bump, but it‘s not slowed her down so far.  And she‘s probably going to be able to get past it, unless we find out there are a lot more Norman Hsus.  And one of the problems is, with this fund-raising rush, we don‘t know how much other shady operators there are...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... but I do see this story building.  It looks to me like the one big weakness of Hillary Clinton is not that she‘s a woman, not that she‘s not smart, not that she‘s not hard working, not that she‘s not experienced, not that she‘s too middle-of-the-road, but that she‘s too establishment.  She‘s too much a part of the old way of doing things, and it‘s very hard to say she‘s the candidate of change.

HARWOOD:  And what‘s Barack Obama and John Edwards going to do with that message tonight?  How aggressive are they going to be tonight?

MATTHEWS:  They have to convert that into:  This woman is yesterday. 

HARWOOD:  Exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  We will see if they can.

Thank you, John Harwood of “The Wall Street Journal.” 

Up next:  Bill Clinton sells tickets—we‘re talking about him right now—here he is—to share a couch with him.  This is how they raise money, the Clintons.  It‘s kind of funny.  Wait until you catch this story.

More political headlines coming up. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, live from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire...

(CHEERING)

MATTHEWS:  ... up in MSNBC land.  Get the accent right.  Dartmouth. 

New Hampshire.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Now for some debate-night politics. 

Barack Obama‘s campaign is out there saying it‘s got 75,000 brand-new contributors.  But he‘s got almost as many people lining up as all the Republican candidates put together.  Well, his big challenge tonight, again, is to take all that excitement and money and show it in debate. 

He‘s the guy who has to put his mouth where his money is. 

A couple of other Democrats got some good news today and some bad news.  Today, the U.S. Senate resolved, by a vote of 75-23, as I said, that Iraq should be split up into three parts, Sunni, Shia, and Kurd, in a loose federal system, rather than that tight centralized government that was ruled over by Saddam Hussein. 

Joe Biden sponsored the bill, along with Republican candidate for

support Sam Brownback.  And the bill won the aye vote, by the way, of

Hillary Clinton.  Biden is putting everything he‘s got, by the way, into a

strong showing in that first big test in Iowa this January.  He said it‘s

make-or-break for him.  If he doesn‘t make it in the top three out in Iowa,

he‘s getting out

Meanwhile, a big blow to John Edwards today.  The SEIU, one of the most politically powerful unions, has decided to hold off endorsing any candidate in 2008.  Edwards had been courting the service employees aggressively. 

Today, Larry Craig‘s lawyers attended a court hearing in Minnesota to withdraw his guilty plea in that airport sex sting.  Craig released his written statement—here it is—late this afternoon: “Today was a major step in the legal effort to clear my name.  The court has not issued a ruling on my motion to withdraw my guilty plea.  For now, I will continue my work in the United States Senate for Idaho.”

Craig had said he would resign in September unless he could reverse his guilty plea.  He‘s not about to give up his fight, apparently. 

And here‘s a great scene today from an old anti-war lion in the Senate. 

Here‘s Robert Byrd and the war protesters from the group CODEPINK. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), WEST VIRGINIA:  Let‘s clear the room.  Let‘s clear the room.  We have had enough of this.  Clear the room.  Clear the room.  Clear the room.  Clear the room.  That‘s enough of this. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We have had enough of the war. 

BYRD:  I have tolerated all I can stand. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Stop the killing.  We can‘t tolerate...

(CROSSTALK)

BYRD:  I stopped it before you were born.  I said stop it before you were ever born.  I said, don‘t go into it before you were ever born. 

Get out of this place.  Here.  Let‘s go.  Clear this room. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, he actually was against the war before they were born.

Anyway, finally, Bill Clinton thinks he‘s the best company money can buy.  Take a look at this little treasure.  The former president sent out this e-mail invitation to supporters—quote—“Hillary‘s campaign will pick three people, each invited with a guest, to watch one of the upcoming presidential debates with me.  We will sit down in front of a big TV with a big bowl of chips, watch the debate and talk about the race.”

Well, maybe this is how I get my interview with Bill Clinton, along with some potato chips. 

Anyway, up next:  Can anyone slow down Hillary Clinton tonight?  We will preview the big fight coming here in New Hampshire. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, live at Dartmouth College...

(CHEERING) 

MATTHEWS:  ... for the Democratic presidential candidates debate, only on MSNBC. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HAMPTON PEARSON, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Hampton Pearson with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks rose, helped by the end of the General Motors strike.  The Dow Jones industrial average gained nearly 100 points.  The S&P 500 jumped eight points, and the Nasdaq climbed 15.5 points. 

General Motors and the United Auto Workers union reached a tentative agreement early today, ending a two-day strike.  The agreement would set up a union-administered health care trust fund aimed at reducing GM‘s medical costs.  GM shares rose more than 9 percent today. 

Meantime, Bear Stearns shares surged more than 7 percent following a report Warren Buffett and other investors are in talks to buy up to a 20 percent stake in the firm. 

And durable goods order fell a larger-than-expected 4.9 percent in August.  It was the biggest drop in seven months.  But investors took it as a reason for the Fed to cut interest rates. 

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

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back.  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re just a few hours away right now...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MATTHEWS:  ... from the Democratic presidential candidates debate here at Dartmouth College. 

So, who‘s going to win tonight?  That‘s what I would like to find out.

Right now, to give us a preview and to do some touting of this big event tonight, Chuck Todd, “The Washington Post”s Dan Balz, and Jill Zuckman of “The Chicago Tribune.” 

And I have to go to you, Chuck Todd.  

Are you allowed to make predictions? 

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  I don‘t know why not. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Predict who is going to—is somebody going to—let‘s just do this.

And, Jill, thank you for joining us, because I think this might be the boys against the girl again tonight...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... the way this is set up. 

No, really.  I think that might be one reason why nobody wants to tackle this woman. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  She‘s a woman. 

“The New York Times” this weekend, for whatever reason, at the top of the fold, left-hand side, decided to coronate or crown Hillary Clinton, and, also, to some extent, Rudy, but mainly Hillary, as the nominee of the Democratic Party.  It‘s over. 

Is that going to be the moment of this campaign, sort of like Steve Schwarzman‘s birthday party, when, afterwards, everything is down, because it is like one of those moments?  She peaked too early; she had it in the bag in September; and she lost it in December; is it going to be like that? 

TODD:  I will say this.  I think this is the first debate where it is her vs. the field. 

You know, every other debate‘s been framed, oh, Edwards, Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Obama, Clinton.  This is the first time, because of what “The Times” did, I think, a little bit. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Will it be king of the hill, then?  Will everybody go after her, or will they fight among themselves? 

TODD:  Well, see, I think there‘s going to be a little bit of both.  I think that Edwards has to figure out how to get past Obama. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

TODD:  And I think that you‘re going to have Biden and Richardson have this weird new rivalry, because they‘re fighting for fourth in Iowa, for some odd reason. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

TODD:  And, so, I think...

MATTHEWS:  These guys are dying, because Obama is sitting out there on the tracks, and they can‘t get past him to get to Hillary. 

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Right. 

So, that—they might go after him.  Look, if everything we hear, that he‘s not feeling well tonight, that he‘s got the flu or something...

MATTHEWS:  Oh, that really helps.  So, he‘s playing hurt, and they have got to play around him. 

Let me go to Jill Zuckman.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Is—is the—is the female nature of Hillary Clinton preventing her from getting nailed by these guys, because they do not want to go after her?

JILL ZUCKMAN, CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, “THE CHICAGO

TRIBUNE”:  Well, you don‘t want seven against one or have—whatever the number is.  It just will end up benefiting Senator Clinton. 

And I think she‘s shown in every other debate that she‘s managed to handle everything that gets thrown at her.  But I wouldn‘t be surprised if at least one of them takes her on, on the question of electability, which seems to be the issue out there for Democrats. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, the word—the new word in our lexicon in the last several years—I don‘t know when you first used it—dynamic, it drives me crazy.  But it‘s the new word.

But there is a dynamic.  To get to first place in this campaign, you have got to get to second place or to third place.  Biden and all those guys have a problem getting to third place.  Edwards has a problem to get to second place, because, unless you get to second place, you‘re not really up there to take on Hillary in a way, mano a mano. 

How do these candidates shake up this field, Dan Balz?

DAN BALZ, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, I think two ways, Chris. 

I think one will be through these debates.  We will see whether it starts tonight.  I mean, you have the—you have the sense that something has changed since midsummer, which is to say there was—I think there was a feeling, when this campaign began, that, certainly, you had two dominant candidates in Clinton and Obama, with Edwards fairly strong in Iowa, and, therefore, a factor. 

I think what‘s happened in the last 30 days is that she has moved herself into a tier by herself.  She‘s now the top tier. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BALZ:  Everybody else is now trying to become the real alternative to her. 

One way that begins to happen is through debates.  You have to have a real argument to make against her.  You have to make it effectively.  And you have to hope that she doesn‘t handle that very well.  So far, in these debates, she‘s handled it. 

I think the second thing that‘s a realistic factor in this is that a

lot depends on Iowa.  And, in Iowa, there‘s a real race under way.  Put the

put the national polls aside.  Put aside the poll...

MATTHEWS:  All three at the top, right?

BALZ:  Put aside the poll...

(CROSSTALK)

BALZ:  ... that came out here yesterday that showed Clinton way ahead of everybody. 

In Iowa, at this point, everyone‘s assumption is that it‘s a tough three-way race. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you still—well, I haven‘t asked you this before.  But do you believe that—that Iowa still is the great slingshot opportunity, that whoever wins in Iowa will get slung into the—into the front ranks, with a real chance to win in New Hampshire and then a real chance to run the board?

BALZ:  I don‘t know that I would put it that way.  I think that, if she wins Iowa, she‘s going to be very, very difficult to stop. 

If Obama beats her in Iowa, or if she ran third in Iowa, she‘s in real trouble.  She may have the resources and the wherewithal to recover.  If Edwards wins Iowa, it‘s a question of whether he can then convert into support in a state here where he‘s had trouble in the past. 

ZUCKMAN:  Chris...

MATTHEWS:  Right, because he has a—go ahead, Jill. 

ZUCKMAN:  Chris, New Hampshire has a long history of completely ignoring what Iowa does. 

And I know people always talk about the bounce out of Iowa or the big mo‘, as George Bush used to say, but it‘s just not always there.  A lot of times, New Hampshire goes its own way.  And Edwards may be banking on a bounce from Iowa, if he‘s able to win it.  But New Hampshire voters have not embraced him.  They really weren‘t crazy about him four years ago. 

MATTHEWS:  When have they done that on the—when have they done that on the Democratic side, though? 

ZUCKMAN:  On the...

MATTHEWS:  I keep thinking of what—of what Gary Hart did in Iowa.  And I keep thinking of what Jimmy Carter did in Iowa, and Bill—you know...

(CROSSTALK)

ZUCKMAN:  I guess I‘m thinking about—I‘m thinking about Bob Dole in particular, who was never able to make it happen. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m talking about Democrat.  Let‘s stay to the Democrats here though.  Doesn‘t Iowa hold sway with Democrats?

TODD:  I think...

MATTHEWS:  Chuck.

TODD:  ... yes, it does, and this calendar. 

Don‘t forget, there used to be weeks between Iowa and New Hampshire. 

There‘s no longer going to be weeks. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

TODD:  It‘s going to be days, maybe hours. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

TODD:  And, so, the slingshot effect is going to be potentially greater. 

Look, this is what we will saw in ‘04.  Whoever won Iowa—Joe Trippi used to say it with Howard Dean‘s campaign.  Whoever won Iowa was going to win it all.  And that is what happened in ‘04.  I‘m not declaring that that is what is going to happen this time, but Iowa will influence the rest of this race. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Let‘s start with Dan on this and then go around on this.

What is Hillary‘s weakness.  What is her Achilles‘ heel, if you will? 

Is it that she authorized to authorize the war in 2002?  Is it that she‘s involved in traditional fund-raising, which she is bringing in by the barrel, whoever has some—and ethnic money, they‘re worried about something, take the money you can get, move on.

What‘s her vulnerability?

BALZ:  I think there are several potential vulnerabilities.

One is what you allude to, some scandal of some sort...

MATTHEWS:  On money.

BALZ:  ... of money or something else.  Who knows what it could be.  But she‘s—she‘s vulnerable to some sort of a scandal.  Money seems to be the likeliest, just because of what‘s already happened. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And Ron Burkle could be involved in any number of ways. 

(LAUGHTER)

BALZ:  Who knows.  Who knows what could happen on that. 

(LAUGHTER)

BALZ:  I think another is, to what extent do people really want to go back to the Clinton era?  We—we know that Democrats love the former president, but there‘s a lot of other Americans who question whether they want to get thrown back into that cauldron...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

BALZ:  ... of ‘90s politics.

MATTHEWS:  So, the yesterday factor. 

BALZ:  And I think the third is, how electable is she?  And I think her opponents...

MATTHEWS:  Will that be an issue here?  Will that be an issue here? 

BALZ:  I think it has to be in one form or another. 

MATTHEWS:  Jill, do you think the fact that Hillary is a woman, that she‘s married to Bill, and they have had the history of Motel 6 and raising money in the White House, the fact that she voted to authorize the war, adds up to a vulnerability?

ZUCKMAN:  Yes, it does. 

I mean, I think Democrats are really worried about electability.  They want someone who can try to erase some of what‘s happened over the last eight years.  And, if they—if they start thinking that maybe she can‘t overcome all the Republican antagonism, they might back away from her. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

You know, Joe Biden made a point here a few minutes ago.  And I thought it was really sharp.  He said, until the Democrats realize that they can lose this general election, they‘re not going to get serious who to pick.  If they harbor this notion, oh, no matter who we run, it‘s time for a change; we‘re going to win. 

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Electability is the only thing that will stop her. 

MATTHEWS:  When do they begin to worry they can‘t beat a Rudy Giuliani or someone else? 

TODD:  I think this next three months, now that she‘s been identified as the front-runner, in a tier by herself. 

MATTHEWS:  Will the Celinda Lake poll that showed that a lot of people in swing districts are more for Rudy than Hillary, is that going to turn things?

TODD:  Yes.  I think it hurts a little bit.  There‘s a whisper campaign on the Hill among Democratic members of Congress, Democratic senators, some who have endorsed Clinton, who sit there and say, boy, I don‘t want her campaigning in my state, because I‘m running for reelection in ‘08. 

They—there‘s this worry about it.  Maybe it‘s not true, but they have to figure out how to disprove the argument. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Dan Balz, you‘re one of the—you may be the new dean of this whole business.  Do you think there‘s any way to measure the gender issue in the fall?  Or do you have to wait until next fall?

BALZ:  I think you have to wait until next fall, although I would say, I think we have seen evidence that, on balance, the gender issue is helping Senator Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  In Democratic politics. 

BALZ:  In Democratic politics. 

MATTHEWS:  And how about when you get out there in the rural areas, where people are more Republican, more traditional?  Gun owners, people like that, are they going to be an uncountable vote against her? 

BALZ:  I don‘t know we—I don‘t know we know that at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what I‘m asking.

BALZ:  I think that the Clinton campaign believes that, on balance, over time, even in a general, that‘s a weapon that‘s going to work for them, and not against them.  We will have to see if that works. 

TODD:  By the way, I think electability is code with some voters for the gender thing.  Sometimes I think -- 

MATTHEWS:  Jill Zuckman, did you hear that?  Do you think when they say electability, they‘re really saying she‘s a woman, don‘t risk it. 

ZUCKMAN:  I think there‘s a lot more wrapped up in it than gender.  I think it also has to do with just Clintonism and her husband and will he embarrass her again, and all those things that happened over the eight years that people don‘t remember so fondly. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘ll say one thing, Elizabeth Edwards is never going to embarrass her spouse.  We‘ll be right back with her.  She‘s sitting over here shaking her head at my ridiculousness.  Anyway, Elizabeth Edwards will be here.  Dan Balz, thank you, sir.  Thank you Jill Zuckman up in New York.  And thank you Chuck Todd.  We‘ll be right back from New Hampshire.  This is HARDBALL, live from Dartmouth College, on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, live from Dartmouth College.  A few hours from this big debate.  We‘re having some fun with the great Elizabeth Edwards.  Elizabeth, let‘s look behind here.  It‘s so fascinating to look at these signs.  Look at all those Edwards‘ signs.  We got some—and I would say that your people are so polite.  They don‘t push their way to the front. 

I see two Rudy girls over here.  They were right up front.  They don‘t have any problem pushing their way to the front.  Rudy‘s tough.  Let me ask you about the debate.  What‘s it like to be the spouse of a candidate in the room when have you those butterflies in the locker room, you know, big night—

ELIZABETH EDWARDS, WIFE OF JOHN EDWARDS:  I trust him actually. 

MATTHEWS:  Does he get nervous. 

EDWARDS:  He doesn‘t any more.  There was a time when he did, the first debates last time.  But now, he‘s used to it.  He‘s done thousands of town halls. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you say break a leg or what do you say, break a neck or what do you say?  What do you say to cheer on hubby? 

EDWARDS:  You know, I guess I need a little saying.  I don‘t have one.

MATTHEWS:  Break a leg. 

EDWARDS:  Break a leg, well, I guess I could say that. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not sure why they say that, some old Shakespearean thing they said.  Let me ask about this race, if you were a voter and you didn‘t marry John Edwards, and you were looking at this race, what would you objectively, looking at it, say it‘s about between or among John, Obama and Hillary?  What‘s the race about at the top. 

EDWARDS:  I think it‘s about—I realize this is the frame the campaign puts it in, but I think it probably is right.  We need real change, real fundamental change.  Or we can stay on the same path.  I think John thinks—I actually think Senator Obama thinks as well that what we need is fundamental change.  Senator Clinton, though she uses the word change so much, really most of what she‘s proposing is pretty much straight down the path the way things have been always done. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the Clintons wallow in the old fund-raising methods of hanging around with the most endangered ethnic groups?  It‘s the oldest trick in the book, you find somebody like Norman Hsu or somebody that‘s new to the country, you squeeze them for all you can.  You charm them up, 850,000 dollars in bundled money.  You meet this new guy Follieri and you start cutting deals with him and your body man cuts deals with him and you sell relationships.  This is old style big city politics.  Are the Clintons guilty of it? 

EDWARDS:  Well, I sometimes travel in a news free zone.  But it did bother me—not—that stuff I don‘t know much about, don‘t know many of the facts about, except what you just said.  The fund-raiser she had in Washington where government contractors had breakout sessions afterwards with members of Congress, it seemed to me was implicitly saying you donate to the Clinton campaign, we‘re promising you special access to government.  And that actually bothered me a lot. 

MATTHEWS:  In other words, they‘re saying pay to play. 

EDWARDS”  I mean, they may not be saying it, but if it looks like a rose and smells like a rose, it may be a rose. 

MATTHEWS:  So you think that‘s worse than the usual fund raising of saying I‘ll help you with your general cause.  I sympathize with you.  When you actually put them in the room and say here‘s the committee chairman who‘s going to get your bill passed that you write.  If you give me enough money, I‘ll sit you down with these people. 

EDWARDS:  The truth of the matter is if a teacher is running, teachers are likely to support them, because they think they‘re going to think the same thing.  Senator Frist probably got a lot of support from doctors.  John gets a lot of support from people who know he‘s—believes courtrooms work the way they should in most cases. 

MATTHEWS:  Geoffrey Fieger is a big supporter.  You trial lawyers stick together.  Thick as thieves. 

EDWARDS:  An idea is not responsible for the people who believe in it. 

MATTHEWS:  Wasn‘t he Kevorkian‘s lawyer?

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  Tonight, you—do you tell John Edwards, Senator Edwards, your husband, as he goes into that fight tonight for two hours, do you say give them hell or do you say careful out there? 

EDWARDS:  Be yourself.  You know, don‘t listen to anybody but the voice you‘ve got inside you.  I mean, the voice—it‘s the voice the American people are going to have to trust or not trust.  They ought to hear it when he‘s up there. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it‘s a safer bet to go with a southern guy, a white guy, than take a risk on an African American or a woman? 

EDWARDS:  John said plenty of times, if you‘re not going to vote for a woman, don‘t vote for me.  If you‘re not going to vote for an African American, don‘t vote for me.  I heard you say that Joe Biden has said Democrats can‘t take this election as if it‘s a gimme for us. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree.  That‘s what I think. 

EDWARDS:  It‘s not a gimme. 

MATTHEWS:  He made the point that don‘t get the idea just because this war is vastly unpopular, and this president is unpopular, that you won‘t face a ferocious Republican challenge next year. 

EDWARDS:  Absolutely will, which is why—the reason I think John is the better candidate is because he‘ll be competing everyplace.  People write off North Carolina, did it in 2004, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas—

MATTHEWS:  Arkansas is one. 

EDWARDS:  Oklahoma, Kansas, Montana. 

MATTHEWS:  But he didn‘t carry North Carolina last time though, did he.

EDWARDS:  We ran not a single ad.  If you‘re not going to play the football game, you don‘t win the game.  The truth is all those states have Democratic governors.  We can win in those states if we have a candidate who talks to the values of the people in those states.  John does.  My view as a—

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to come right back.  This is Elizabeth Edwards, ladies and gentlemen, a really nice lady.  I like her, even if she weren‘t in politics.  Anyway, great.  Coming up the round table is going to join us for a big preview of tonight‘s fight.  We‘re getting close to the big debate tonight, live in New Hampshire here from Dartmouth College, site of the big debate only on MSNBC.  We‘ll be right back with some last words. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. big question tonight, it isn‘t complicated; how vulnerable is the front-runner, Hillary Clinton?  Could she take some self-criticism tonight?  Will she get some.  Joining us right now is Jeff Zeleny of the “New York Times” and Jennifer Donahue of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselms. 

So let me ask you about this state.  Do the people up here care about campaign sleaze?  Do they care about the Clintons wallowing in pre-Watergate fund raising. 

JENNIFER DONAHUE, NH INSTITUTE OF POLITICS:  They care and it makes them have Clinton fatigue.  When Hillary Clinton comes up with her husband on a day when this news is out, it makes them look old, not new, and it makes change something hard to convey. 

MATTHEWS:  It smacks to me—you‘re at the Times—of Torricelli running around with foreigners, strange people with strange needs, big-time politicians.  It makes me feel like I live in a third world country, like all you‘ve got to do is butter up some pol, hang out with them, go antiquing with them in New Hope; and all of a sudden, you‘ve got some clout. 

JEFF ZELENY, “NEW YORK TIMES”:  One thing the Clinton campaign did not want are all these old pictures from the Clinton White House. 

MATTHEWS:  Johnny Chu—Johnny Chang.

ZELENY:  That was not an image that the otherwise pretty well run Clinton campaign wanted out there.  This is a moment for her, can she get past that.  At the debate tonight, we‘ll see if one of the other Democratic rivals brings that up. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this—let me ask you, Jeff, when you think about a battering ram it‘s going to take to bring her down, is the vulnerability in her wall of defense the fact that she voted for the war authorization in Iraq, a very unpopular position?  Is it that she‘s a woman and therefore, always going to be a question mark until a woman wins?  As Bill says, Bill Clinton, you never know you‘re going to break a barrier until do you it.  It‘s a question mark.  Or is it sleaze, old style politics, play the game the way it‘s been played before?  Jeff, what‘s Hillary Clinton‘s biggest vulnerability?  I need to know. 

ZELENY:  Up until now, it‘s been all of the above.  But we‘ll see.  It seems that she‘s done a fairly good job answering the war question.  Not so many months ago—

MATTHEWS:  She‘s bored us to death with the answer.  She has never answered the question.  Eighty percent of the American people knew that will Bill Clinton was—George Bush was taking us to war.  When she signed that authorization, 80 percent of the country says we‘re going to war and she says she didn‘t know it. 

ZELENY:  Coming up on Tuesday, is the fifth anniversary. 

MATTHEWS:  She‘s getting away with that. 

DONAHUE:  I don‘t think she‘s going to continue to get away with that.  The bottom line is Hillary Clinton is not going to make it this far through the process if Democrats don‘t think she can beat the Republican nominee.  Obama is apparently going to come out tonight differentiating himself between himself and Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, really. 

DONAHUE:  That‘s what I‘m hearing.  If he does do that—

MATTHEWS:  He‘s going to engage in this debate? 

DONAHUE:  He‘s going to engage, apparently.  If he does that, he‘s going to show Democrat who are uneasy with her in the first place that maybe he can fight her and thus a Republican general election nominee. 

MATTHEWS:  It seems to me that every great leader in our country needs three things to be president, a basic curiosity about human life, real curiosity, wants to know what people‘s lives are like, wants to know what the world is like, what the third world is like, real curiosity.  We‘ve had a president without it. 

Number two, they want somebody with deep well-founded optimism.  Right?  And third, they need somebody who enjoys the contest, who loves taking on rivals, loves beating them and smiles when he does it, as Churchill says grins when he fights or she fights.  Do we have anybody out there that can do all three. 

DONAHUE:  Edwards can do those things, except he‘s got to find an opening.  He‘s got to see Hillary lose and Obama take some gains so they can have a two-man race. 

MATTHEWS:  So he‘s curious about human life on this planet?  He‘s optimistic and he relishes the fight. 

DONAHUE:  It seems that way.  The Hillary bubble right now is going to burst at some point. 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe he‘s an old Polaroid film right now that hasn‘t developed yet, but I haven‘t seen this yet. 

ZELENY:  I‘m not sure that John Edwards knows how hot he can get on debates like this tonight.  We heard a month ago he was going to come out swinging.  He really didn‘t in Iowa.  Part of his selling point is his sunny optimism.  So he right now is trying to walk a fine line.  All of these guys put out tough statements.  He has gone the farthest, in terms of taking her on. 

I would not look for Senator Obama tonight to do much swinging, if you will.  He is going after the independent voters of New Hampshire.  All of them are.  But that is essential to his candidacy.  There are three months to go.  It‘s a little too soon to be too hot. 

MATTHEWS:  How does he engage this campaign and get from being a ten-pointer to a 30 pointer. 

DONAHUE:  I think you can‘t do that without showing that you can fight.  If he‘s an articulate man like a Bradley or a Dean, who can talk, but can‘t fight, Democrats will not back him.  Hillary can fight.  She can have a street fight with Giuliani.  She can have a street fight with Romney.  Barack Obama needs to show he can do it too. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s start with the candidates from the bottom, ready? 

What‘s Mike Gravel going to do tonight of any significance. 

ZELENY:  Give me my lead.  He‘s been great at every debate, in terms of spicing things up.  I think what he adds is he—in one debate, he asked Senator Obama a question that kind of like threw him off guard a bit.  He‘s a good sort of—a good guy to mix things up. 

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  What about Kucinich?  What role will he play tonight?

DONAHUE:  I think he‘s good for laughs.  He‘s cute and people like his wife.  Other than that, he shouldn‘t be there. 

MATTHEWS:  What about Richardson? 

DONAHUE:  Richardson had a chance.  But I think it‘s diminishing.  His experience looks good, but he doesn‘t perform on the stump.  He‘s not appropriate.  I think people are realizing he may not even be appropriate for vice president. 

MATTHEWS:  Because he‘s what? 

DONAHUE:  Because he‘s overly engaged with people in a one-on-one basis, and underly engaged the with the electorate as a whole.  He doesn‘t connect. 

ZELENY:  If you talk to A lot of voters, they are still somewhat intrigued by Governor Richardson.  I wouldn‘t count him out yet in terms of being involved in the mix.  You see a lot of young people excited about him and his position on the war is the farthest to the left. 

MATTHEWS:  He says a complete pullout, get all the troops home. 

DONAHUE:  But he‘s sort of tactical, because that wasn‘t his argument when he wrote his book two years ago, where he argued the opposite. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, if he wanted constancy from these people, we would be finished.  Anyway, thank you, Jeff.  Thank you, Jennifer.  I‘ll be right back an hour from now for another edition of HARDBALL.  We‘re getting closer and closer to the big Democratic debate tonight from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.  And afterwards, we‘re going to come back and do some dissections and—review of won with a number of the candidates.  They‘re joining us here in the outside with sweaters on, at 11:00 tonight.  We‘ll see who won this darn thing.  We‘ll be right back.  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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