updated 12/7/2007 11:48:57 AM ET 2007-12-07T16:48:57

Guests: David Kuo, Deroy Murdock, Ezra Klein, Chrystia Freeland

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Romney gives a speech worthy of Martin Luther -

Here I stand.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took the biggest risk of his political career today and delivered a highly anticipated speech on his Mormon faith.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.  My church‘s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths.  Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history.  These are not bases for criticism, but rather a test of our tolerance.  Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Romney was forced to answer questions about his Mormon faith for one simple reason: He‘s losing the Christian conservative vote to Mike Huckabee out in Iowa.  Did Romney succeed this morning?  We‘ll have the highlights of Romney‘s speech in just a moment.

Plus, how did Romney‘s speech play in Iowa and in New Hampshire? 

HARDBALL‘s David Shuster will have a report on the reaction.

And tonight‘s big number.  Oprah and Obama know it.  And later tonight, you‘ll know  too.

Plus: Look out for Hillary.  In fact, look out, Hillary.  Here comes Obama again.  A new “Washington Post”/ABC News poll shows Obama is edging up in New Hampshire, and we all know how voters in the Granite State love to make history and take down frontrunners.  The poll shows Hillary holding a narrow lead of only 35 percent to Obama‘s 29 percent.

But check this out.  Voters said Obama was the most inspiring candidate by a 2-to-1 ratio, and most regarded new direction and new ideas as a higher priority than strength and experience.  Will the 2008 race pivot on experience versus new ideas, the past versus the future?  More with our political roundtable later in the program.

But we begin tonight with Mitt Romney‘s “faith in America” speech.  Pat Buchanan is an MSNBC political analyst and David Kuo is with Beliefnet.com.

I want your all to look at this first bite as an American.  This is the bite that got to me.  I thought he hit bedrock here in what we all believe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  We believe that every single human being is a child of God.  We‘re all part of the human family.  The conviction of the inherent and inalienable worth of every life is still the most revolutionary political proposition ever advanced.  John Adams put it that we are thrown into the world all equal and alike.  The consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another, to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God.  It‘s an obligation which is fulfilled by Americans every day here and across the globe without regard to creed or race or nationality.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Pat, I believe and I think a lot of Americans believe in the document of our founding, the Declaration of Independence, which is, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  There is an implicit notion of national law there, an implicit notion in a creator that‘s not sectarian, it‘s not even religious per se, but it‘s natural law.  I think he got to that bedrock today in his defense.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  It is not only natural law, Chris, it is the Mormon faith, it is evangelical faith, it is the Catholic faith that every individual who‘s possessed of a soul is possessed of inherent human dignity that you cannot trample upon that requires the limitation of government.

What Romney did was he defended his faith in a defiant way that John F. Kennedy never did.  He said, I‘m not going to change a precept.  If that‘s going to cost me the election, so be it.  Then he moved up to that higher common ground on which we all can stand.  The ground on which all Americans stand is the dignity of the individual as a child of God.

I thought it was just a terrific speech from every standpoint.  And if he doesn‘t—I mean, if he wins this election, he wins Iowa, I think it‘ll be because of this speech.  This was one of the most formidable addresses and most impressive addresses I‘ve seen any candidate deliver this year.

MATTHEWS:  David Kuo, your thoughts?

DAVID KUO, BELIEFNET.COM:  Wow.  You know, I thought the point...

MATTHEWS:  Take some time.  You don‘t have to agree with either of us.

(LAUGHTER)

KUO:  You know, I think the clip you played was the highlight of the speech, right, because in it, you hit the core of the Christian faith, the core of the American faith, the idea of serving the neighbor, right, love your neighbor as yourself.

You know, where I will disagree is I think that where he went wrong was he went wrong where Kennedy went right.  Now, what he tried to do in the speech was he tried to justify his own theology.  When he got up there and he said, you know, I believe in Jesus Christ, now we may all be different, not all faiths see it alike, what he was trying to do—and I think it was either conscious or subconscious—what he ended up doing is he ended up trying to mainstream the Mormon faith in Christian circles.  And I think that‘s going to lead to a huge theological discussion.

MATTHEWS:  What makes you think that he tried to sell himself as part of the Christian community?  What language do you recall him using?  Because I remember...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Go ahead.

KUO:  No, it was when he said, you know, “Jesus Christ is my lord and savior.”  Now, we might not...

(CROSSTALK)

KUO:  We might not all see Christians...

BUCHANAN:  We might not all see it the same way.

MATTHEWS:  That was clearly defensive and not as impressive as the other...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You agree with that part.  You think he should have said that.

BUCHANAN:  I think he—look, that is the one question he‘s hit with.  What is your view of Jesus Christ?  So he said, Here‘s my view of Jesus Christ, he‘s my lord and savior.  We have different views of Jesus Christ, but here‘s where tolerance comes in.

I think he was exactly right.  But Chris, what I admire about him is his defiance in defending his own Mormon faith, where he stood up and said, I‘m not going to change a precept, I believe it, I live by these principles.  I just find that instantly appealing because it‘s courageous.

MATTHEWS:  You know what I liked about it?  Ronald Reagan, when he said, “There you go again”—whenever a candidate for office attacks from a defensive position—in other words, You‘re coming at me, I‘m just defending myself.  Let‘s look at this point here, where Mitt Romney talks about defending the faith of his fathers.  In other words, the faith he was born with.  And let‘s face it, 90-some percent of us are the religion we were born with.  So you‘re really defending who you and where you came from as much as your belief.  Here‘s what he‘s doing here, I think.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  There‘s some for whom these commitments are not enough.  They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it‘s a more a tradition than my personal conviction or disavow one or another of its precepts.  That I will not do.  I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it.  My faith is the faith of my fathers.  I will be true to them and to my beliefs.  Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy.  If they‘re right, so be it.  But I think they underestimate the American people.  Americans do not respect respecters—excuse me—believers of convenience.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, here he is, the man who‘s accused of flip-flopping, and fairly so, saying, There‘s one thing I won‘t flip-flop on, who I am, who I was born, the faith of my fathers.  I don‘t know how you can fight with that.  I‘m not sure he‘s proselytizing here.  I hope he‘s not.  He‘s just saying, I am what I am.

KUO:  No, and I think that was great.  Again, I think that in the political context—this is a great political speech.  Where I think he went wrong was he tried to get into the spiritual realm.  And that I think is the single mistake that he made.

MATTHEWS:  You mean that line where he said, I believe in Jesus Christ as my savior.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Pat, that was an attempt—I agree with you on that.  I think he should never try to pass a religious test when you‘re running office that everybody couldn‘t pass.

BUCHANAN:  I agree.  Look, but he—that‘s what he believes about Jesus Christ.  He says, OK...

MATTHEWS:  But why is he saying it in a political speech?

BUCHANAN:  Well, he‘s saying it because that is the political question he gets everywhere he goes, What do you think of Jesus—but Chris...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Take a look at what he just—I mean, I don‘t see how you don‘t stand with a guy that gets up and says, Here‘s where I stand...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I liked that part.  Hey, look, we all have to defend who we were born, and I think that‘s the most attractive and appealing part of it.

BUCHANAN:  Faith of our fathers.

MATTHEWS:  And by the way, nothing is easier to do than to support a guy who‘s being attacked because his religion.  I mean, he didn‘t decide to be a Mormon.

BUCHANAN:  Well, everybody—everybody‘s attracted to come to the defense...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

BUCHANAN:  ... of a guy who‘s standing alone.

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s the American part of this, the truly American part.  I thought he did a really good job.  Someone said he got this idea from Jon Meacham, who wrote, “The American Gospel,” who‘s on this program a lot.  Here‘s Governor Romney referencing the beginnings of our country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  Recall the early days of the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  During the fall of 1774, with Boston occupied by British troops, there were rumors of imminent hostilities and fears of an impending war.  In this time of peril, someone suggested that they pray.  But there were objections.  They were too divided in religious sentiments, what with Episcopalians and Quakers, Anabaptists and Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Catholics.  Then Sam Adams rose and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character as long as they were a patriot.  And so together they pray and together they fought.  And together, by the grace of God, they founded this great nation.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That is the first time I‘ve seen this public man show emotion.

BUCHANAN:  Emotion.  And you know what?  What he did is he wrote—he said—talked about diversity.  He said, We rose above it to become one.  I mean, We are diverse and we became one.  That is what America‘s all about, “e pluribus unum.”  He moved it to—that was a very patriotic sentiment.  You know, it was just beautifully stated.  And I‘ll tell you, it was very moving.

MATTHEWS:  Is there room in there for the atheist, for the agnostic?  Or does he exclude them?  I don‘t think natural law excludes the atheist because I think we all believe—although we may not use the word “creator,” I think Americans do profoundly believe we‘re all created equal.  I think that is our national religion, in a way.

KUO:  A lot of the criticism he‘s getting is whether—is, you know, in the speech for religious tolerance, did he leave room for people with no religious faith at all?  You know, and he had that line about, you know, You need to have religion to have freedom, freedom to have religion.  Well, you know, how about people who have no religion?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... who had so much to do with our beginnings, like Jefferson, who really believed that God set the clock and then got out of the way, that kind of person.

BUCHANAN:  But you know, the Declaration of Independence talks about -

you get Jefferson, he talks about the creator, our inalienable rights come from the creator.  And he used that same line, the creator.

Now, I—there‘s no doubt that he hammered the—here‘s where he went on the offense.  He hammered the militant secularists who conservatives believe are trying to de-secularize...

MATTHEWS:  I get that.

BUCHANAN:  ... or de-Christianize society.  And that is very powerful.  That‘s where you start to get those reactions, political reactions.  This is an outstanding political speech, I‘ll tell you.  He moved off these positions he took and went on the offense against that.  He talked about God in our—you know, God in the public square.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about it.  Back when John Kennedy gave his speech, which was reviewed so well, back on September 12 of ‘60, when he went down to Houston, Texas, and confronted the Protestant ministers down there.  He had a recognized enemy, the people in that room.  He had Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking.”  He had people signing petitions saying, No way in hell a Catholic president.  And he went down and addressed those people.

And as I said last night, Bob Strauss, who set up that meeting, put all the ugly people in the first row to give him somebody to yell at.  Is he basically taking on Mike Huckabee?  Is he basically saying, If Huckabee‘s right, I‘m wrong?  If Huckabee‘s right about circling the wagons of Christianity and leaving me outside that circle, then I‘m wrong.  But if I‘m inside that circle, Huckabee‘s wrong.  Is this a one-on-one here now?

KUO:  I don‘t think it is.  You know, I think what he was trying to do was trying to hit—sort of hit a reset button about how we see faith and politics.

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t see Huckabee...

(CROSSTALK)

KUO:  Now, wait.  Because Huckabee‘s part of this.  But it‘s bigger than that, right, because we‘ve gotten to the place in our discussion of faith and politics where these theological discussions are helping determine who we elect as president.  It‘s like you have to pass a pastor-in-chief test before you can be considered to be commander-in-chief.  And I think that‘s what he was trying to reset.

MATTHEWS:  Is that a good thing or bad thing?

KUO:  That‘s a horrible thing.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BUCHANAN:  Romney threw it right down to Huckabee.  Now, Hucky went on television.  He was asked, Do you think Mormons are Christians?  Well, he said, Well, I‘m not going to discuss that, whether or not they‘re Christians.  So in other words, he was ruling him out of the circle of Christians.  And Romney was saying, Here‘s where I stand, and we stand with you.  And now Huckabee‘s got to answer the question—suppose he‘s asked again?  You heard his speech...

MATTHEWS:  Well, you heard what he said tonight, didn‘t you, Huckabee?

BUCHANAN:  What?

MATTHEWS:  He said today—as he said today, he‘s a Mormon and also a believer in—a follower of Jesus Christ.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  So he was bigoted to him again.  Huckabee‘s still on the same line of attack, which is he‘s not quite a Christian.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  You‘re right in this sense.  This is what‘s coming—this is what the campaign for the next week‘s going to be about, the editorials, columns this weekend—What about the religious war in the Republican Party?  This is hot stuff, and we got four weeks...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I want to know when the thought police in our society that always correct you when you say something politically incorrect—when is Huckabee going to get called on that?  When is he going to get called...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  When‘s that going to happen??

BUCHANAN:  He will be.

KUO:  No, see, Huckabee is making a spiritual point.  And you talk to the liberal Christian theologians or conservative Christian theologians...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

KUO:  ... and they all come to the conclusion, you know, Mormonism does not fit in historic Christianity.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

KUO:  It does not embrace the Apostles‘ Creed.  It does not...

MATTHEWS:  OK, he‘s neither a Protestant...

KUO:  ... embrace the Nicene Creed.

MATTHEWS:  ... nor a Catholic, so...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... something else?

KUO:  It‘s factual that it is not Christian.

(CROSSTALK)

KUO:  That is not—that‘s not discrimination...

BUCHANAN:  Look...

(CROSSTALK)

KUO:  That‘s a spiritual question.

BUCHANAN:  But if he says it is Christian—if Huckabee says it is Christian, he alienates these hard-line evangelicals.  If he said it is not Christian, then a lot of people in the center are saying, What do you do?  The guy said he believes in Jesus Christ, what do you have to do, Mr.

Huckabee?

MATTHEWS:  Well, he can take him at his word, which is what we always do with everybody.  If I say I‘m a Baptist, you say, OK, you‘re a Baptist.  That‘s how it works.

(CROSSTALK)

KUO:  This is the danger of this discussion.

MATTHEWS:  Of course, you know I‘m not.

(LAUGHTER)

KUO:  This is the danger of this discussion.  This is exactly why there‘s...

MATTHEWS:  It‘s called—that‘s why there‘s Article VI of the Constitution...

KUO:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... which is there shall not be a religious test for office.  I‘m still there, Pat.  You‘re not there.

BUCHANAN:  I like the discussion.

MATTHEWS:  And I don‘t like the discussion, but I do like that speech today.  This was the best speech of the campaign...

BUCHANAN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  ... the most emotional I‘ve ever seen this guy.  And I liked him today.  Anyway, thank you, Pat Buchanan.  Thank you, David Kuo.

Coming up: Will Mitt Romney‘s speech today ease concerns among some evangelicals?  We‘re calling them the “persuadables.”  Some people are too hard rock to be persuaded.  Let‘s talk about those persuadables when we come back.  Can he move the middle?  The reaction when we return.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  No authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.  Their authority is theirs within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Republican Mitt Romney confronted voters‘ skepticism about his Mormon faith this morning.  HARDBALL‘s David Shuster reports on the reaction this afternoon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I am pleased to welcome this good man, our friend from Massachusetts, Governor Mitt Romney.

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At the George H.W. Bush library in Texas, it was a highly anticipated effort by Mitt Romney to confront concerns about his Mormon faith.

ROMNEY:  If I‘m fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest.

SHUSTER:  But most of the reaction came from observers on television, not the candidates in the race.  The only major candidate to speak was Mike Huckabee, who had already been booked to appear on morning television programs and reacted to Romney‘s speech excerpts released in advance.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R-AR), FMR GOVERNOR, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  He said that he is a Mormon, and he also says that he follows Jesus Christ.  I take him at his word.  I take that at face value.  I have no reason to question that.  But I think people are asking me to try to dissect his faith.  And quite frankly, not only am I not going do that, I‘m not qualified to do that.

SHUSTER:  Ron Paul issued a written statement after the speech saying, quote, “Governor Romney should be judged fairly on his record and his character, not on the church he attends.”  There was no reaction from Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Tom Tancredo or Duncan Hunter.

It all underscores the challenges of balancing religion and politics.  And here‘s what Romney is up against.  According to the most recent NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll, 33 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of evangelicals are uncomfortable or have reservations about a Mormon president.

Romney spoke today about those who believe his faith will sink his candidacy.

ROMNEY:  If they‘re right, so be it.  But I think they underestimate the American people.

SHUSTER:  It‘s an optimistic view not yet reflected in the polling.  When the NBC/”Wall Street Journal” survey asked respondents if voters in this country are ready to elect a Mormon as president, 50 percent said no.  That‘s higher than the 27 percent who said the country is not ready to elect an African-American and 24 percent responded no, not ready, when asked about the country electing a woman. 

ROMNEY:  No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. 

SHUSTER:  Romney‘s refusal today to talk about Mormon theology underscores part of the problem.  More than half of Americans surveyed in a recent Pew poll said they know little or nothing about the faith.  And, when asked to give a one-word impression of Mormonism, 27 percent said something negative, including the words polygamy, bigamy, and cult. 

(on camera):  But for voters hoping to learn something about Mormonism today, Romney offered almost nothing.  He mentioned the word Mormon only once, choosing instead to focus not on what separates us, but on what unites most of us: our faith. 

I‘m David Shuster, for HARDBALL in New York. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  What day in this campaign.  Thank you, David Shuster. 

O. Kay Henderson is news director of Radio Iowa out in Des Moines.  And Jennifer Donahue is up in Manchester, New Hampshire, where she‘s a senior adviser at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm. 

Let me go to Kay.

Kay, what do you make of the speech today? 

O. KAY HENDERSON, NEWS DIRECTOR, RADIO IOWA:  I think there were a couple of interesting moments. 

One, he mentioned placing his hand on the Bible when he swears—you know, takes the oath of office.  That‘s interesting to me, because, in Pella, Iowa, several months ago, a woman directly asked Romney if, in moments of crisis in the Oval Office, if he would refer to the Book of Mormon or to the Bible?  I think he was speaking people think what that kind of throwaway line. 

The other thing that was important about the speech, I think, is that he was speaking not only to people who have questions, but he was speaking to his own supporters.  He was showing them that he‘s presidential, and, in fact, that he may be Reaganesque.  There was really some soaring rhetoric, which you talked about with Mr. Buchanan a few moments ago. 

And, really, I was struck by the references to things he‘s seen in other faiths that are attractive to him.  I think that was a—a very moving passage for people.  I talked to several Christian conservatives, I and don‘t think they were viewing this speech and then making a decision on Mitt Romney or not on Mitt Romney based on this speech alone, however. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree with you.  I think it was a national appeal to the country, and not just to the evangelicals, or even to the persuadable evangelicals, but to the whole country.

HENDERSON:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  I think he‘s setting himself up to survive Iowa, win in New Hampshire, and go on to challenge Rudy Giuliani in the general—I mean, in the later caucuses and primaries...

HENDERSON:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  ... because that‘s what this is about, winning the Republican nomination, not winning in Iowa. 

Let me go to Jennifer. 

Your thoughts about how this will do up there in New Hampshire, where they have so many Yankees and Roman Catholics.  And I don‘t think you got a whole lot of evangelicals up there.  How will it sell up there in the state that really matters to Romney? 

JENNIFER DONAHUE, SENIOR ADVISER FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS, NEW HAMPSHIRE

INSTITUTE OF POLITICS AT SAINT ANSELM COLLEGE:  Well, we do have a growing number of evangelicals here.  They‘re—they just don‘t talk about it quite as loudly.  But there are a lot. 

And Huckabee actually addressed most of them on Saturday, when he pretty much filled a 5,000-square-foot house in Bedford, New Hampshire.  They liked what Huckabee was saying, but I don‘t think they really liked Huckabee, because he‘s more seen as a fiscal liberal. 

Romney is a fiscal conservative.  That‘s what plays out here.  But, moreover, on the issue of faith, I think Romney today was most comfortable in his own skin.  It was the best day of his campaign so far.  He looked like a president.  He looked like he knew what he wanted to say.  He wrote it.  He directed it.  He didn‘t pander. 

He included people.  He talked about humanity.  And I think it was really an effort to reach, not only to sort of shake hands with the religious right, but also to reach out to the center and even the left, and say, we‘re all children under God.  We all believe in different things, but we don‘t make the decision as to who‘s right.  God does. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree. 

Let‘s see what Rudy Giuliani had to say just a moment ago. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDOLPH GIULIANI ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, I thought Governor Romney said everything I agree with.  Everything I—he said, at least the parts that I heard—I think I heard most of it—I agree with. 

I guess it would be better if he didn‘t have to do that.  I mean, it would have—this is no reflection on Governor Romney.  He did what he thought he had to do.  But, I mean, from the point of view of, you would wish that everybody would move beyond—beyond that, I believe his talk helped to put that issue to rest. 

There is no religious test for office.  There shouldn‘t be a religious test for office.  Now, we—we are a country that—a country of toleration.  We‘re a country that was built on religious freedom.  And we‘re a country in which we—you know, we respect each other‘s right to have different views about religion, about God, about belief in God, and how we all look at it.

And I think the governor made that point very clearly today.  I can‘t imagine anybody disagreeing with that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What is this, good news week or something?  Hugo Chavez gets his butt kicked.  Iran doesn‘t have a nuclear weapons program. 

And now I hear the best speech in the life of this campaign, the best speech certainly by anybody that I can think of, and Rudy Giuliani being a complete gentleman about it. 

Kay, this is glory day, as far as I‘m concerned, glory week. 

(LAUGHTER)

HENDERSON:  It is. 

And what struck me was that one of the things that Romney accomplished by giving this speech was, he stopped all of this discussion about the Huckabee surge, the Huckabee momentum, Huckabee as a candidate.  That has completely stopped today, because everyone is talking about Mitt Romney and his ability to give a very positive speech and a speech that speaks to a topic that a lot of Americans are interested in. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it was a good day for America, I think, especially from my point of view. 

Jennifer, I agree with every word you spoke tonight.  Thank you very much.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  O. Kay Henderson, thanks for joining the show. 

Jennifer, as always.

Up next;  Bill Clinton talks about what role he may have if his wife wins the White House.  We can‘t wait for that one.  Big Bill, where is he going to sit at the Cabinet table?

Plus, Oprah gets ready to campaign with Obama, the big O. weekend. 

And, when you put all those two together, you get one very “Big Number.” 

We‘re going to stick around and tell you that one.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Let‘s look at what else is going on out there politically. 

Well, we will start with the HARDBALL “Big Number” tonight. 

Politicians always prefer standing room only to empty seats.  For a big campaign moment, a room that‘s too hot is better than one that has got a draft.  So, for Barack Obama‘s big swing with Oprah Winfrey this coming weekend, everybody is waiting to see how big it will be.  Well, we already know that thousands of tickets got gobbled up in Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. 

In South Carolina, Obama and Oprah were planning to appear at an 18,000-seat indoor stadium.  Tickets went fast for that venue.  And now they‘re headed to the football field. Its seating capacity is more than four times the size of the original site, which brings us to tonight‘s HARDBALL “Big Number”: 80,250 -- 80,250, that‘s the seating capacity of Williams-Brice Stadium at the University of South Carolina -- 80,250, tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

In other news, Bill Clinton made Barbara Walters‘ list of fascinating people for the year 2007.  She asked him if he would sit in on Cabinet meetings, an obvious effort by the great Walters to raise the heat, in the wake of Judith Nathan‘s comment that she would sit in on Cabinet meetings if her spouse, Rudy Giuliani, were to win the election. 

Here‘s Bill Clinton‘s carefully worded response—quote—“Only if asked.  And I think it would only be wise if it were on a specific issue. I think it‘s better for me to give her my advice privately most of the time.”

Translation:  I ain‘t no Judy Nathan. 

Fascinating. 

And, finally, I showed you the talking Larry Craig doll this week. 

Well, here‘s James Spader‘s character on “Boston Legal” defending William Shatner‘s character, after Shatner‘s character gets arrested in a bathroom sting. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “BOSTON LEGAL”)

JAMES SPADER, ACTOR:  Homophobia has run amok, Judge.  It‘s the reason we‘re all gathered here.  And it‘s preposterous. 

We‘re actually sitting in a courtroom wasting tax dollars because my client had gas.  He was constipated.  He went to remedy his problem in a bathroom—imagine that—where, lo and behold, three undercover police officers were lurking, waiting to interpret a tapping foot as a call for gay sex. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, Shatner‘s character got off, by the way, legally.

And here‘s George Clooney and Brad Pitt in a tribute to Julia Roberts that aired last night on AMC. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AMC)

GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR:  Fans outside are crazed.  I‘m hiding in the bathroom right now, just so I could talk to you.  But I wanted to say, congratulations.  It‘s a huge night for you.  And I‘m so proud.  And I really wish I could be there with you. 

(LAUGHTER)

BRAD PITT, ACTOR:  I have a wide stance. rMD-IT_

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP) 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s Brad Pitt, of course. 

Isn‘t it great how we Americans can laugh at—even at the most desperate of human acts? 

My own response to the Craig story is to side with gay marriage.  If we don‘t respect people, how do we expect them to respect themselves?  Anyway, that‘s just my reaction. 

Up next:  Mitt Romney is in the spotlight today, but there‘s plenty of action on the other side of the aisle.  How are the Democrats stacking up now, just four weeks before New Hampshire? 

By the way, it‘s getting real tight in New Hampshire right now, with Obama on Hillary‘s tail. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks surging amid signs of strength in the economy, with the Dow Jones industrial average gaining 176 points—the -- 174 -- the S&P 500 up 22, the Nasdaq up 42 points. 

And one of the reasons for optimism here, President Bush announcing a deal with the mortgage industry that could help more than a million borrowers.  It includes an interest rate freeze on some subprime adjustable-rate mortgages.  The deal helped boost shares of homebuilders, banks, and other mortgage lenders.  It also came amid news that foreclosures hit a record high in the third quarter.  In addition, more homeowners fell behind on their monthly payments. 

And the nation‘s retailers reported mixed November sales figures. 

Wal-Mart and Costco sales topped analyst estimates, while Target and J.C.

Penney shares fell short of expectations.

And oil prices surged, climbing $2.74 in New York‘s trading session, closing at $90.23 a barrel. 

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

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

The latest “Washington Post”/ABC News of Democratic primary voters up in New Hampshire has Hillary ahead now by only six points.  Look how close that is.  That‘s 35 to 29.  And look at the other fellows.  They‘re a bit behind, but that race is getting very close. 

And, of course, with the momentum coming out of Iowa, with Obama right neck and neck with Hillary, this thing could be a twofer. 

Roger Simon joins us right now from Politico.

You know, it looks like, if he wins one, he wins two. 

ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST, THEPOLITICO.COM:  I think Hillary Clinton‘s forces have decided that, if they‘re going to win, they better win in Iowa.

MATTHEWS:  Really?

SIMON:  That they better stop him in Iowa, because, if she is the candidate—the candidate of organization, and he is the candidate of inspiration, Iowa is the place where organization trumps inspiration. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, once—these—these shots at the kneecaps that her people have been doing, like going after Obama the other day for what he said as a kindergarten student about how he had presidential ambitions back there, Howard Wolfson, who is a real pro and a tough guy, actually admitted today he made a mistake, that they should not have done that.

SIMON:  It was...

MATTHEWS:  This is the first time the Clintons have admitted a tactical mistake. 

SIMON:  It was a terrible mistake.  I believe I said that on this show. 

It was—it was schoolyard taunting.  It was, oh, you know, who do you think you are?  When you were 10 years old, you lived overseas.

That‘s just dumb.  Nobody cares about that when they think about Barack Obama.  If anything, it‘s a plus that he knows about other cultures.  But, in any case, it...

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what I think. 

SIMON:  It wasn‘t...

MATTHEWS:  Do they—do most people think that? 

SIMON:  Well, yes, I think they do. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

SIMON:  I mean, there‘s a whole part of the world that—that are—you know, are—is not white. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

SIMON:  And he‘s lived among them—and is not Christian—and he‘s lived among them, too, even though he is a Christian.  And there‘s some value in that.

And he‘s not saying, most importantly, that he‘s running for president because he once lived overseas. 

MATTHEWS:  I feel, sometimes, we‘re as isolated in the world these days as the Eskimos, like we‘re just surrounded by everybody way out, and they‘re all part of them, and we‘re...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re part of a gradually decreasing us. 

SIMON:  Right.  And, if we close our borders, all our problems will dissolve.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s look at this latest—a new ad from Obama.  Let‘s take a look.  It was based on the J.J. speech he gave, the Jefferson Jackson Dinner. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, OBAMA CAMPAIGN AD)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m Barack Obama, and I approve this message. 

We are in a defining moment in our history.  Our nation is at war.  The planet is in peril.  The dream that so many generations fought for feels as if it‘s slowly slipping away. 

And that is why the same old Washington textbook campaigns just won‘t do.  That‘s why telling the American people what we think they want to hear, instead of telling the American people what they need to hear, just won‘t do. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

OBAMA:  America, our moment is now. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

OBAMA:  I don‘t want to spend the next year or the next four years refighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s.  I don‘t want to pit red America against blue America.  I want to be the president of the United States of America. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Roger. 

SIMON:  A very strong ad.  This is Barack Obama at his best, inspirational, attacking Hillary Clinton not as a taunt, but as saying we don‘t want to go back to the fighting of the ‘90s.  We don‘t want the old Washington ways.  This is JJ speeches, as you a point out.  I‘m sure the next one will have his other winner line, which is I‘m not running out of long-held ambitions or because I think this job is owed to me.  Who could he be talking about there? 

MATTHEWS:  I was wondering if he could hear the music.  I don‘t mean that sarcastically.  It was like he was speaking to a soaring symphony.  He speaking in a way that he knew was almost musical. 

SIMON:  It was a good commercial.  This is what a political ad should be.  It should inspire people. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the latest poll that shows that people—I believe it‘s up in New Hampshire—I was studying the polls today—that shows that two to one people find him more inspiring than Hillary. 

SIMON:  It‘s not surprising.  That‘s the kind of campaign he‘s running.  That‘s the kind of figure he is.  But where she does much better than he does is on electability.  Every step we take closer to the nomination, voters think more and more can this candidate beat the Republican? 

MATTHEWS:  Once you win one, your electability notion goes through the roof.  I think especially  -- I‘m not African-American, but I would bet that the people who are African-American in this country, who are watching this program right now, are watching to see whether Barack can win or not.  If he wins in Iowa, and does well in New Hampshire, the people down in South Carolina are much more likely to vote for a guy who looks like he can actually win the thing. 

SIMON:  It can. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m thinking. 

SIMON:  Or once you win one, the rest of the party wakes up and says, hey wait a second; is this guy really going to beat Rudy Giuliani in November?  Is he really going to beat Mitt Romney in November. 

MATTHEWS:  Rude looks a lot easier to beat this week than last week. 

SIMON:  They may say yes.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Roger Simon.  Up next, can Mitt Romney quiet his critics?  Will his speech today do the job and help him turn the corner?  I think it was the first sound of what could be a winning campaign today.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  I believe in my Mormon faith.  And I endeavor to live by it.  My faith is the faith of my fathers.  I will be true to them and to my beliefs. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.  Let‘s bring in the round table, the “National Review‘s” Deroy Murdock, Chrystia Freeland of the “Financial Times,” and Ezra Klein of the “American Prospect.”  All eyes now on New Hampshire, which is going to follow by just a few days the Iowa caucuses, and could be conclusive in many regards for this campaign for both sides of the political fight. 

Lets go to the Democrats first.  Look at this number now.  This is likely Democratic voters, a good poll put out by the “Washington Post” and ABC.  This is a solid poll here.  And it‘s 35, 29, which means a three-point shift there could decide it.  Ezra, this is close.  It‘s just a month away from now and look who‘s got the projectory, it‘s Obama. 

EZRA KLEIN, “THE AMERICAN PROSPECT”:  Obama‘s definitely got the momentum.  With him going to an 80,000 seat stadium with Oprah, it will get bigger.  But I‘ll tell you what, I don‘t trust New Hampshire polls until Iowa happens.  You never know what‘s going to happen there until Iowa goes down. 

MATTHEWS:  Why?  Why does Iowa matter?

KLEIN:  Because where was Kerry before he won Iowa last year?  What was he, in fourth place in New Hampshire.  The momentum, what we in the press do as soon as anybody takes that state, it‘s huge and it changes everything in New Hampshire. 

MATTHEWS:  So if Obama wins in Iowa, he‘s more likely to win in New Hampshire?   

KLEIN:  If Obama won in Iowa, I would pick him in New Hampshire. 

MATTHEWS:  If Hillary wins in Iowa is she the same?  

KLEIN:  She‘ll win in New Hampshire. 

MATTHEWS:  So it‘s a double.

KLEIN:  I think, by the way, that Obama could win in Iowa and Hillary could still win in New Hampshire.  I don‘t think it can go the other way around.  I would be very surprised to see Obama take New Hampshire if he does not take Iowa. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s well thought, I think.  Let‘s go to the other people here.  Chrystia, what do you think?  That‘s smart thinking, I think, that Hillary can get both.  Obama can get one.  He can get both too, but Hillary can get the second one if she loses the first? 

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, “FINANCIAL TIMES”:  I think that‘s right.  And I think, Chris, you were right at the beginning to point to the fact that Obama has been moving up.  I think we‘ve really seen in recent weeks a revived Obama.  He‘s much sharper in the points he‘s making about Hillary.  And in response, we‘ve been seeing that Clinton machine, that looked so perfect going into the fall, starting to make some fumbles. 

I think, for example, that point about Obama‘s Kindergarten essay just made them look really petty and mean. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I think that‘s also true.  I mean, why is it that

Deroy, why is it that you‘re hearing Barack give these soaring speeches in his commercials and at this J.J. dinner, where he really seems to be going the high road, and at the very moment, the Hillary people, whoever the staffers are writing her stuff, are writing the lowest bottom feeding kind of attacks on him? 

DEROY MURDOCK, “THE NATIONAL REVIEW”:  Yes, you‘re seeing this gap between this very, very passionate sort of approach on his part, almost preacherly, in every good sense of that word.  And on the other side, you‘ve got sort of gutter sniping from Hillary Clinton.  You know, when she said that when things tightened up and it looked like she would go negative, she said, here comes the fun part, as if she took great glee in going after him. 

Then she made the comment about Barack Obama that he‘s been running for president since he got to the U.S. Senate.  My question is, how long has she been running for Senate, since she got to the Senate or even before that?  I think of all people, for someone who came in and sort of parachuted into New York state and became senator from the Empire State, it‘s a little cheeky for her to accuse him—

MATTHEWS:  Cheeky is right.  You know what it strikes me as, Deroy? 

That the people around her felt they were entitled to win this election.  They‘re the elite of the Democratic party, the best and brightest.  It should have been theirs.  Who‘s this guy to come along and think he can beat her? 

MURDOCK:  How dare he? 

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to show him.  We‘re going to spank him and send him back to Kindergarten.  In fact, we‘re going to give him a Kindergarten report card.  They‘re going after, Ezra, what he said back when he was five. 

KLEIN:  It made them look terrible.  By the way, I hate this whole line of attack.  I have never heard of anyone attack a doctor because he wanted to be a doctor since he was 12 or 14 or even ever since they went to medical school.  The idea that our president shouldn‘t have ever wanted to be president, that they should have accidentally woken up one morning to find themselves in the Oval Office, it‘s very bizarre.  Hillary‘s whole argument, she‘s been preparing for this for a long time.  If he has too, that undercuts her argument against him. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Chrystia, about this Obama campaign.  What do you feel about this?  I mean, I think there‘s something there.  You know, race has been the San Andreas fault of American life since its beginning, since well before the American revolution.  We‘ve had a race situation in this country because of the slavery—the enslavement of Africans and bringing them to this country against their will.  And the world that we‘ve lived in because of slavery, the guilt because of it, the anger because of it, the call for reparations by some, justified, I think, in the main, justified, and the guilt of white people. 

The way we vote in big cities along racial lines.  Here comes this guy, an incredibly good looking guy, you would have to say, young, incredibly well educated.  And it seems like we‘ve pushed aside the racial divide that‘s been in our face since we were born.  Is that because Hillary Clinton is so polarizing, so magnetic as a focus of emotion, positive or negative, that it‘s taken the heat off this guy.  Explain to me why people don‘t talk about Barack in racial terms at all, it seems? 

FREELAND:  I think that it‘s a taboo subject, actually.  We will see if people are racist or not only when they go into the voting booth.  But I do think one of the appeals of Barack Obama, maybe particularly, actually, for people who are white—for white Americans, is this idea that maybe America has moved beyond race.  And the possibility of in voting for a black candidate saying, you know what?  Our country isn‘t divided and we aren‘t racist. 

The other thing that I think Obama has touched on, and maybe we haven‘t paid attention to enough yet, is the message that that would send to the rest of the world.  I do really think America‘s credibility in a lot of parts of the world—America‘s standing is quite low.  And the idea of someone called Barack Obama, who looks likes Barack Obama, being the American president would really send quite a radical and positive message about America to a lot of world. 

MATTHEWS:  A very positive message, especially in parts of the world where his middle name would carry a lot of weight as well.  Let me go to Deroy, your thoughts about my little parade a minute ago about how come we‘ve just become color blind?

MURDOCK:  Well, I think if you go back a few years to when Colin Powell was more visible on the scene, he was, according to most measures, about the best respected or most respected man in public life in America.  I think there a lot of Americans of good will who want to have the opportunity to vote for someone for president who is black and, in that sense, perhaps have a collective expiation of guilt, if you will, in the society about all the different racial issues we‘ve dealt with since 1776. 

I think he may be benefiting from that underlying conscious or unconscious current in people‘s minds. 

MATTHEWS:  I think we Catholics call that a general absolution. We‘re trying to get it. 

MURDOCK:  Absolution‘s a good word for it. 

MATTHEWS:  I completely accept that analysis.  Anyway, we‘ll be right back with the round table.  Let‘s talk about the Republicans and Mitt‘s big day today.  Has he turned the corner on this religious test he shouldn‘t have had to take.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  Almost 50 years ago, another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president.  Like him, I am an American running for president.  I do not define my candidacy by my religion.  A person should not be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith. 

Let me assure you that no authorities at my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.  Their authority is theirs within the province of church affairs, and it ends when the affairs of the nation begin. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Chrystia, I thought it was an amazing speech this morning. 

What were your thoughts about it?  What struck you?  I know you watched it. 

FREELAND:  Yes, I agree with you.  I think that it was a very strong speech.  Mitt Romney evoked, obviously, Kennedy and Kennedy‘s very famous speech about his Catholicism.  I think, in way, actually, Romney had a more difficult job than even Kennedy did, because he had to two things.  First of all, he had assure us—he had to assure voters that his faith, that the elders of his church, that Salt Lake City would not govern him were he to be elected president of the United States.  He did that and that was important to do. 

But he was also appealing to voters, particularly in the primaries, who believe that faith is an important part of politic.  So he had to say, at the same time, that faith was an important part of his political vision.  It‘s complicated to do both things and I think he did a really good job. 

MATTHEWS:  Deroy?

MURDOCK:  I think it was a very well-written and crafted and delivered speech.  I give him a lot of credit for that.  I think, in a certain sense, he may have changed the subject a little bit, and not focused specifically on the tenets of Mormonism, with which some people have questions, but talked more broadly about faith and freedom of religion. 

Having said all that, I think it would be really nice if, for the rest of this campaign, we gave God and Jesus a break, and let them focus on other things.  I don‘t think Jesus is going to be voting in the Iowa caucus.  I‘m not a believer.  I‘m not a religious person.  I was left a bit cold by the comment that freedom requires religion.  I don‘t think that‘s so.  I would really like to have somebody focus on things like taxes and health care and so on, and leave God and Jesus alone, and let them enjoy Christmas in peace. 

MATTHEWS:  You are one nervy guy this time of year.  Let‘s go to Ezra. 

KLEIN:  My understanding is that Jesus actually votes in South Carolina.  I thought Romney had a great political moment today.  I thought he recaptured the conversation from Huckabee.  I do want to say that the clip we keep showing, that was a Kennedy portion of the speech, in the first 846 words.  And then he said, my faith is not the issue because I have it, but others lack of faith is.  And that unsettled me too. 

I thought that this was a speech that was spurred because he felt others were being intolerant of his religion; and he said, OK, don‘t be intolerant of me, but you can be of others. 

MATTHEWS:  He shouldn‘t have talked about the empty Catholic cathedrals in Europe, in other words.  Let‘s take a look at this.  Here is the president of the United States lighting a traditional American event.  This is the Christmas tree lighting down on the ellipse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  And Demarcus Offins (ph) gives his time as part of the Discovery Creek Children‘s --. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s an observance of a Christian event.  Who wants to take this on?  Deroy, the non-believer, does this offend you that the president of the United States is doing this on national television? 

MURDOCK:  It doesn‘t bother me, because I enjoy Christmas and all of the Christmas traditions.  I see it really as a cultural holiday, not just a religious holiday.  I enjoy the egg nog and the trees and the wreaths and all of that, but more as something which is a cultural and family celebration than something that is necessarily religious. 

MATTHEWS:  Can I submit you—Deroy, I want to submit you to a religious test, as we look at the national Christmas tree.  Do you believe in Santa Claus? 

MURDOCK:  I used to. 

MATTHEWS:  Chrystia, thank you very much.  Thank you, Ezra.  Thank you, Deroy.  That‘s down on the National Mall tonight.  Join us again tomorrow night for more HARDBALL.  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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