updated 1/16/2008 12:39:47 PM ET 2008-01-16T17:39:47

Guests: Rep. James Clyburn, Eugene Robinson, Lynn Sweet, Dominic Carter, Howard Fineman

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Not Nevada, Nevada!  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL, from Las Vegas tonight.  What happens in Vegas won‘t stay in Vegas.  At 9:00 o‘clock, the Democrats take to the stage and debate just days before the Nevada caucuses.  NBC‘s Brian Williams with Tim Russert will moderate the event, and I‘ll be back live at 7:00 PM Eastern.  And immediately after the debate, at 11:00, I‘ll team up with Keith Olbermann, who‘s out in New York tonight, for MSNBC‘s post-debate coverage.

Plus: It‘s a political double feature tonight, a doubleheader, if you will, with the Democratic debate here in Las Vegas in Nevada, and Michigan voters taking to their polls, their primary today.  The big story out there in Michigan is which Republican will walk away the winner tonight and the loser.  Both are going to be important tonight.

Finally: The race card has been tearing apart the Democratic Party nationally.  In a moment, we‘ll talk to one of the most powerful political figures in the country, South Carolina congressman James Clyburn.

Well, this promised to be a wild election year long before these primaries and caucuses.  Everybody figured that.  I figured that.  The reason is that most people think this country‘s been in a rut and we can‘t seem to get the car out of the rut.  Very few of us want to be stuck with the full force of U.S. troops in Iraq five years from now, at the end of the next presidential term, stuck with no health insurance for working people five years from now, no solution to the illegal immigration problem five years from now, an energy, dollar and climate change situation even worse in five years, so most people agree we need to find politicians that can cut the tough deals to get out of this rut that we‘re so clearly in.

It‘s change people want, and never has been there a more diverse list of candidates offering to deliver that change.  A country ruled since 1778 by whites, primarily Protestant men in their 40s and 50s, has now to choose among, well, a former first lady now a senator, a son of a Kenyan father who spent part of his years in Indonesia, a former fighter pilot now in his 70s, who spent five years in a North Vietnamese in a prison camp, a pair of governors unknown to most of us until now.

I can‘t recall a time so predictable, so new to so many, and also so touchy, where many words are being taken as anti, then shouted back as if they were a larger, nastier assault against women, against blacks, against the dream of a country where all get an even shot and what we all grew up to see almost mythically as the highest of American aspirations, running for president.

Here we go again, trying to talk up the importance and excitement of a critical debate and a big election night in Michigan, but this time being damn careful not to put the cart before the horse.  We all saw—I saw—what happened last week.  All the polls forecast one result.  The voters, who decide these things, gave us something very different.

So begin tonight with one of the most respected political voices in the country, South Carolina congressman James Clyburn.  Congressman Clyburn, here we are a few days before the caucuses down—the caucuses here in Nevada, about a week-and-a-half before the big Democratic caucuses in South Carolina.  What‘s the word from you, sir?

REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D), SOUTH CAROLINA:  Well, Chris, there‘s going to be a primary in South Carolina.  We will have the Republican primary while the caucuses are going on in Nevada.  And then we will have the Democratic primary on the 26th.  And we‘ll have a big debate.  The Congressional Black Caucus will be sponsoring a debate at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  I can think of no better way for us in South Carolina to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King than to have this big debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute just prior to the Democratic primaries.

And so I think that now that all of the candidates seem to have gotten these little sidebar issues behind us, we‘re now going to get back to talking about the shared vision they all have as Democrats for this country, as well as talking about their competing visions for what direction they would move into and how.  And I‘m looking forward to a rigorous campaign between now and the 26th of February—January.

MATTHEWS:  Well, one of your colleagues, your U.S. congressional colleagues, who also seems to want to get this spat behind the party and the black community, I guess—here‘s Charles Rangel from New York, of course, yesterday.  And then we‘re going to show what he said just a few hours ago to Norah O‘Donnell here on MSNBC.  Let‘s watch Charles Rangel yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK:  I will challenge anybody to belittle the contribution that Dr. King has made to the world, to our country, to Civil Rights and to the Voting Rights Act.  But for him to suggest that Dr. King could have signed that act is absolutely stupid.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, here, of course, is Congressman Rangel just a few hours ago here on MSNBC.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  You suggest he admitted his drug use in order to sell books.

RANGEL:  Well...

O‘DONNELL:  I mean, isn‘t it possible that he admitted his past drug use out of just honesty?

RANGEL:  Yes.  No question about it.  And that would have been a better statement to have made, and I wished I had said that.

O‘DONNELL:  Well...

RANGEL:  But I think it was wrong for anyone to go back.  That was what I was trying to say.  To go back into someone‘s book and raise that in a presidential race, I think that is wrong.

O‘DONNELL:  You sound very remorseful today about your comments.

RANGEL:  No question about it because I‘m just so glad that the candidates have agreed that this should not be an issue, and that‘s far more important than anything that I misspoke.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Congressman Clyburn, there‘s so much static in the air.  There‘s Congressman Rangel in New York, trying to put this thing to bed about what he said in defending the Clinton position against the Barack position about whether Mrs. Clinton was correct in saying that Martin Luther King led the crusade for Civil Rights and got it to the steps of the Capitol, but then Lyndon Johnson was the one who got the bill jammed through the Senate.  Is this going to end this discussion?

CLYBURN:  Well, I think so and I hope so.  You know, when you look at all of this, Chris, I often reflect on that conversation—I believe it was Franklin Roosevelt, who had the conversation with A. Philip Randolph over the issue of Civil Rights, when the president said to A. Philip Randolph, Yes, I agree with all of this that you‘ve laid before me, now go out and make me do it.  And I think that‘s what was taking place in the ‘60s.  President Johnson agreed, but Martin Luther King, Jr., and others went out and made him do it.  And that‘s what he wanted done.

But none of us could have done that—because I was participating in those things with Dr. King in those days—without people like Everett Dirksen, who worked in the Senate and helped to break the logjams that started out in 1957 with the Civil Rights Act of ‘57, when you had Strom Thurmond from our state filibustering that bill.

So Democrats and Republicans did it.  Blacks and whites did it.  Elected officials and political activists all worked together to get this done, and I think that‘s how we have to solve all of our problems in this great country of ours, working together, irrespective of what roles you have to play.  So play your roles real well.

MATTHEWS:  What I‘m amazed by is the virulence, the harshness of this struggle.  Put aside the ethnic factor here and the history of the struggle.  But here‘s Bob Thompson—or Bob Johnson, rather—of course, Bob Johnson, who headed BET all those years, talking the other day.  This surprised me, how strong his feelings are on this issue.  He talked to me on the phone like this, too.  He‘s very strong for Hillary Clinton, and therefore very much fighting the rivalry of Barack Obama.  Let‘s hear Mr.  Johnson here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB JOHNSON, FOUNDER, BLACK ENTERTAINMENT TELEVISION:  As an African-American, I am, frankly, insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood—that I won‘t say what he was doing, but he said it in his book—when they have been involved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, that‘s pretty rough talk in a primary, isn‘t it?  I mean, to go after a guy‘s weakness like that and just rip the scab off it like that?

CLYBURN:  Well, I think in the second clip from Charlie Rangel that you just did, Charlie expressed his remorsefulness, and I know that Bob Johnson is very remorseful about those comments.  Bob is one of the best friends I have in this country.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

CLYBURN:  I‘ve known him since his days working here on Capitol Hill, a long time before he came a billionaire.  He‘s a great guy and who I think got caught up in the moment.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I wonder about this moment.  Let me ask you about the

how would you describe, Congressman, the real sort of—well, the divide between the Obama people and the Clinton people?  What‘s it—if you had to step back and write it for the history books, how do the sides divide?  Is it age difference?  Is it old loyalties?  Is it aspirations of younger people that have more optimism about an African-American being elected?  What is it all about?

CLYBURN:  Well, it‘s all about the pressures that build up in any campaign.  I‘ve been in a few campaigns myself.  I‘ve sometimes misspoken on occasion.  And all the time, when you‘re contesting each other, you tend to go out and try to support your positions as best you can.  And a lot of times, your supporters get carried away.

And we ought to just accept people‘s explanations for why they said what they may have said, and then go forward from there.  I think that we ought not spend a whole lot of time on political correctness in a situation like this but accept people‘s explanations, put it behind us and move forward because what we‘re trying to do in this country is exactly what you talked about at the top of your show.

We don‘t want to see, four or five years from now, 45 million people without health care.  We don‘t want to see, four or five years from now, us still bogged down in Iraq.  We want to see new energy policies that will make us energy-independent.  We want to see a housing market that once again restores the American dream.  We want to see every child with health care, every parent with the opportunity to have a good job, every student with access to post-secondary education.

That‘s what we want to see.  That‘s the vision that we all aspire to.  And these competing visions on how we get there, we need to allow them to go forward unfettered.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think, as a Democrat, that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both have a decent shot to win the general election?

CLYBURN:  Absolutely.  No question about it.  You know, I remember when my good friend, Deval Patrick, first announced for governor of Massachusetts.  You and I both know a lot about the history of Massachusetts on issues such as race.  Nobody ever thought at the time that he would be as successful and do it the way he did it.

When the public has a chance to take the measure of all the candidates, especially when you‘re going one on one, Democrats versus Republicans, one candidate versus the other, they then take a measure.  And they then make a decision as to which one of those candidates will be best suited going forward.

We are going through—we are going through a process now with these primaries, that—Republicans having their contests for four or five people.  We‘ve now got a contest with three or four people.

When all this winnows out sometime around the middle of February, we are going to know exactly who our standard bearers are, and the American public will take a look at these two people and they will take a measure and make a decision.  And I think, whether it‘s Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, whoever it is, I think they‘ve got a good shot.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, U.S. Congressman James Clyburn, dare I say, a great man.  Thank you, sir.

CLYBURN:  Thank you so much.

MATTHEWS:  When we come back, much more on the race card.  Is the issue of race actually dividing Democrats?  And we‘ll come up with some nice debate out here, a two-hour debate here in Vegas among the Democrats.

And later: It‘s high stakes for Democrats tonight, of course, in this debate across the board on all the issues, especially between Hillary and Obama.  They are getting very close in the national polls.  Lots at risk tonight.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, live from Las Vegas on the night of the Democratic debate and the Michigan primary results, which will also be coming in tonight, all on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, just hours before tonight‘s big Democratic debate out here in Las Vegas on MSNBC, of course.  The Clinton/Obama campaigns are fighting about race these days.  Who‘s it all helping?  Who‘s it hurting?  Which campaign is improved by all this talk?  I can‘t figure it out yet, although I have suspicions.

With us now, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson, who wrote about this fight in today‘s “Post.”  Pat, first, Pat Buchanan, who gains from all this talk about race largely within the black community in the last couple of days?  Who wins politically, Obama or Hillary, by all this talk?

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Obama has won in the immediate future, Chris.  There‘s been a dramatic move toward him in South Carolina among the black voters.  Nationally, as well.  He‘s fallen behind Hillary Rodham Clinton.  That‘s where the first effect will come.

The downside of that is I think it tends to taint is South Carolina victory as maybe just another sort of Jesse Jackson-type victory.  And secondarily, to the degree that this turns it into, you know, the black folks in the party taking over, I think you get a recoil among the white folks, which is going to take a little longer but is a lot larger.  So I think Obama‘s got a plus out of it immediately and potentially a real long-term minus.

MATTHEWS:  When are the black folks, as you put it, taking over the Democratic Party?

BUCHANAN:  Well, they haven‘t.  But in some cases in the South, I think they‘re very—they‘re very, very strong, certainly in congressional districts.  But I do believe Obama is now favored and the black community is moving en masse to his candidacy.  I would be surprised if he lost South Carolina now, and I don‘t think he was running ahead a couple of weeks ago or months ago.

And clearly, Hillary‘s vote among African-Americans—let‘s face it, Chris, I saw one poll that had her—him up 66 to 19 among African-Americans in South Carolina.  Clearly, he‘s the immediate beneficiary.

MATTHEWS:  I think, Gene, it was Churchill who said there‘s two kinds of success, initial and ultimate.  Is this going to be an initial success for him but an ultimate failure if he opens it up to becoming a race debate in America?

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, I think that‘s—the question is, does he open it up?  Does this become a racial debate in America?  Barack Obama has been amazingly skillful thus far in being the first black candidate with a real shot at the presidency and yet not making that the central focus of his—of his—of his run for the White House.

And, you know, I have seen nothing that convinces me that he‘s going to lose that touch.  Now, he was a bit off his stride in the last few days, in that the Clintons were setting the agenda, or it kind of felt that way, that he was kind of...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

ROBINSON:  ... responding. 

But this has happened—this is not the first time he‘s been a little off his stride, and he‘s always kind of gotten back, and seized the initiative again.  And I think that the thing for him to do is to, you know, move forward on his terms, not on their terms.  And if he‘s able to do that, I don‘t think it hurts him long term, necessarily. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, Pat, I‘m trying to figure out this, looking at it as a white person, to be blunt about it...

BUCHANAN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  ... trying to figure out how much of this debate is being ignited by dog whistle comments?  and we all know what they are, ways of triggering reactions from the general electorate—electorate that you can‘t be blamed for, because they are sort of subversive and clever.

And also over-touchiness—how much of this fight over Bob Johnson‘s comment yesterday, over Hillary‘s comment that it took LBJ to sign the civil rights bill, and not just Martin Luther King to campaign for it, how much of this is dog whistle politics, just trying to say things without saying them, and how much of this is just over-touchiness? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, I think—let‘s take the over-touchiness first. 

I mean, if Bill Clinton calls Obama‘s campaign a fairy tale, so what? 

We used to call the Democratic campaigns of the ‘60s children‘s crusade.  That‘s fair comment, nothing racial about it.  I don‘t think there‘s anything wrong with Hillary Rodham Clinton saying Martin Luther King was the inspiration, and we needed a president to get the legislation through. 

But, with Johnson, that was a wiseacre comment, in my judgment, that you throw it like mocking Bill and Hillary bringing that into a speech—I mean, not Hillary, but Monica.  And I think he brought that in.  He did it sort of deliberately and non-deliberately, but there‘s no doubt it goes to the cocaine, the drug thing. 

And Billy Shaheen did that deliberately, directly.  So did Mark Penn on your show. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BUCHANAN:  And to see it come up a third time, those things are direct, but they go more to the drug issue than anything else. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

BUCHANAN:  And maybe that is partly the race issue as well. 

MATTHEWS:  Gene, do you believe that the Clintons are engaging in race politics? 

ROBINSON:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  Or is it dog whistle politics or is it just over-touchiness?  I think, from your column, you do think they are. 

ROBINSON:  Well, yes, I think her initial remark was essentially inadvertent.  I don‘t think she meant anything in particular by her initial remark. 

I think, once that became an issue, it seemed to me that the Clintons were happy to have it percolate for a few days, because I think...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

ROBINSON:  ... they did see a political advantage in having the subject be on race.  It does, you know, focus on the obvious, that Barack Obama is a black candidate.  But, again...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

ROBINSON:  ... you know, I don‘t think there‘s necessarily a long-term damage. 

One thing that‘s really interesting about this whole incident, to me -

you were talking about Bob Johnson‘s comments—the generational gap, divide, among the black leadership is really interesting.  And I wonder if that might not become more acute and more obvious as...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Chris, we are not above blame ourselves here in the press. 

Look, we were up in New Hampshire.  And, all of a sudden, Hillary Rodham Clinton pulls this upset none of us anticipated.  And, frankly, that very night, we were on the air speculating about—quote—“the Bradley effect.”  Now, that wasn‘t the Clintons doing that. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BUCHANAN:  That was us.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we‘re going to find out more about that. 

ROBINSON:  That was me, actually.  No, that was me.  That was me.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  It wasn‘t just you.  It wasn‘t just you. 

MATTHEWS:  That was me. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  And I thought of it.  It occurred to me.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, we still don‘t know, Pat. 

BUCHANAN:  But we brought it up. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t know yet. 

BUCHANAN:  But you‘re—you‘re blaming Hillary for bringing up stuff, when we brought up stuff before she did. 

MATTHEWS:  But we were trying to analyze why a poll was so dramatically wrong that showed on average...

BUCHANAN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  ... an eight-point advantage for Obama that day, and he loses by three.  These things didn‘t happen on the Republican side of the ballot.  We‘re trying to figure it out.  Apparently, the pollsters are doing a re-polling of all the people that were polled. 

BUCHANAN:  But...

MATTHEWS:  Within two weeks, we will have an autopsy of what went wrong. 

We will also be able to look at the polls ahead.  I take—look, my job is try to figure out what these polls mean. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  I know it is. 

MATTHEWS:  We made the mistake of believing them on the surface. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not going to do that again. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m going to try to figure them out.

BUCHANAN:  I‘m not saying we did anything—we didn‘t do anything immoral, but we immediately started speculating.  And one of the speculations was, the sisters came out and saved her, and another was the Bradley effect, and what—were the polls wrong.

And that‘s what we do for a living.  But all I‘m saying, we introduced this thing, the Bradley effect, into the debate right here on MSNBC. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  OK.

ROBINSON:  Well, guess what?  The race and gender are...

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

ROBINSON:  ... inescapable in this society.  And we‘re going to deal with them during this campaign. 

We have got the first woman, the first African-American.  We‘re going to have to talk about it and work our way through it, and not pretend that that—that race and gender don‘t exist. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

ROBINSON:  They do exist. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

If we don‘t talk about anything, we won‘t talk about anything, Pat. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Eugene Robinson. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Pat Buchanan. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Up next: our HARDBALL—our “Big Number,” and there‘s big excitement.  If Mitt Romney manages to win in Michigan, what is that going to mean? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, live from Las Vegas, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

So, what else is new out there politically? 

Well, Hillary Clinton has scored big points in recent days for showing a human, vulnerable side.  Here she is doing it again, this time in an interview with supermodel and talk show host Tyra Banks. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TYRA BANKS SHOW”)

TYRA BANKS, HOST:  If you were a contestant on a reality show, would you rather be on “Dancing With the Stars,” “American Idol” or “America‘s Next Top Model”? 

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)  

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, you know, in my dreams, I would be on “America‘s Next Top Model.” 

TYRA BANKS, HOST:  Oh, nice.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

H. CLINTON:  But, in reality, I would have to choose between my limited talents.  And, of them, dancing is better than singing.  You do not want me to sing. 

BANKS:  Yes?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well done. 

Is Nancy Pelosi imposing paternalistic rules on the House of Representatives?  That‘s what Michigan Congressman Thaddeus McCotter thinks.  Capitol Hill smokers, like Congressman McCotter, are angry about a new rule that bans the sale of any tobacco products anywhere in the House of Representatives. 

It seems to me Congress should focus things on ending things like—oh, I don‘t know—the Iraq war, not the right of an elected lawmaker to buy a pack of cigarettes. 

Anyway, hats off to France.  New census figures show that France has overtaken Ireland as the fertility capital of Europe.  The average French woman has 1.98 children right now.  The European Union‘s average is 1.52 children.  Vive la France. 

As you know, this Saturday, Democrats are scheduled to caucus here in Nevada.  Two groups not happy about the Saturday caucusing—you might guess it—observant Jews and Seventh-day Adventist, who celebrate the Sabbath that day of the week, the Sabbath day. 

There are roughly 7,000 Adventists in Nevada and 60,000 Jewish people.  And leaders in both of those religious groups say many will not be able to participate in Saturday caucusing. 

Well, Kirsten Searer, a Nevada Democratic Party spokeswoman, told “The New York Times”—I love this quote—that voters observing the Sabbath would only have to walk a few miles. 

And now it‘s time for the HARDBALL “Big Number.” 

In the Republican field, Mike Huckabee has won a big win in Iowa, we know about, and John McCain won a big one in New Hampshire last week.  Imagine for a moment, if you will—and I mean imagine, no predictions here—if Mitt Romney wins tonight in Michigan.  That would mean three big contests, three big winners, a wide-open field. 

It might be a long shot, but, at the very least, it begs the question, it offers the question, could we wind up with a brokered convention later this year?  Talk about political excitement.  When was the last time something like that happened?  Not since 1952, 56 years ago, 56 years since the last brokered convention of smoke-filled rooms.  Who knows.  It might happen this time.

Tonight‘s “Big Number: ‘56.  But will they let them smoke? 

Still ahead:  What‘s at stake for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards in tonight‘s debate here in Vegas?

Plus, it‘s do-or-die time for Mitt Romney.  Who has the edge, perhaps

who does have the edge in tonight‘s Michigan primary?  I‘m not saying.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, live from Las Vegas, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MIKE HUCKMAN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I am Mike Huckman with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

And stocks plunged after a record quarterly loss by Citigroup and a surprise drop in retail sales in December.  The Dow industrials dropped 277 points.  The S&P 500 fell 35 points, and the Nasdaq lost 60 points. 

Citigroup says an $18 billion write-down for mortgages resulted in a fourth-quarter loss of almost 10 billion bucks.  That‘s nearly twice what analysts expected.  The nation‘s largest bank also announced that it‘s slashing its dividend by 41 percent and it will cut 4,200 jobs. 

Meantime, retail sales plunged four-tenths-of-a-percent last month.  That‘s the worst showing in six months.  And, at the same time, the Labor Department reported that wholesale prices surged 6.3 percent in 2007.  That‘s the biggest annual gain in 26 years. 

And, after the closing bell this afternoon, computer chipmaker Intel reported earnings and sales that failed to meet analyst estimates.  In after-hours trading, shares of Intel, which is a Dow component, are down more than 15 percent. 

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

HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I will go to Washington to stop the bickering, the sniping, the partisanship, the score-settling.  I will go to Washington to actually get the job done for the people of America. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow, it‘s the year of the poplin jacket.  Everybody is wearing them now.

Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re out here in Las Vegas, awaiting the big debate tonight.  It‘s the Democratic debate here.  Of course, we have got a big Republican fight out in Michigan. 

And we‘re go to great right now to NBC reporters who are covering those candidates in Michigan. 

First of all, let‘s go to Ron Allen, who is covering the Romney campaign in Southfield, Michigan. 

Ron, to be blunt about it, is this the night?  Is this the Super Bowl for Mitt Romney? 

RON ALLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, it—I was just thinking it

feels a lot like deja vu all over again here, Chris, another stage, another

being set up for a victory speech or another silver medal, as Romney has said, in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

And I have to believe that, if he comes in here and has to say that again, or worse, it‘s going to be really difficult to see how he goes on in a very credible way with any momentum. 

He has made a big point of this being his home state.  His father was governor.  He grew up here.  He thinks that is going to help him. 

And a lot of people who were watching this thought that he felt—he looked more comfortable here, because the issues were about economics...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

ALLEN:  ... about business, about the 7.4 percent unemployment rate, not about abortion and Christian conservative issues. 

So, some people, to use a phrase, are saying that he may have found his voice here.  And we will see.  But, again, it—yes, it is.  It is really a big opportunity for him to—to say something positive or something very negative to happen to him. 

MATTHEWS:  Ron, do those folks out there think he can beat Toyota; he can beat the foreign competitors of American industry, bring back the American auto companies to the fore? 

ALLEN:  Well, I don‘t think most people think Detroit and Michigan are ever going to be what it was before.  I think there‘s a lot of skepticism about bringing those old jobs back.  That was one of the debates going on here.

Romney seemed to be saying that:  I am going to bring a lot of those jobs back.

McCain was saying:  Well, you have got to look to the future, to green technologies, and forget about those old jobs. 

I think that one of Romney‘s problems here is that some people may think he‘s over-promising, that he‘s pandering, that he‘s coming in here with a quick solution -- $20 billion investment, he was talking about yesterday, at the auto show and Detroit Economic Forum. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

ALLEN:  So, that‘s one thing.  Some of that sounds like, you know, typical promises that a politician would make before an election. 

But, again, you know, I think that people like the fact that he‘s smart, that he‘s a businessman, and that‘s what a lot of people think that this place needs.  And they don‘t see that in McCain, although, of course, McCain‘s national security credentials are—you know, attract a lot of attention. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

ALLEN:  He‘s still got something of an immigration problem here as well from way back, this whole path to citizenship thing, that people remember. 

Yes, but if Romney is going to have an upper hand, it‘s going to be here, it would seem. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you, Ron Allen, with the must-win Mitt Romney campaign.

Let‘s go to David Shuster, who is covering the Mike Huckabee campaign. 

He‘s in Lexington, South Carolina. 

Let me ask you about Huckabee.  Does he have a shot in Michigan tonight?  Is he really working for that?  Or did he get out of town? 

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, it—no—no, he does not.  They acknowledge that‘s one of the reasons they left Michigan today, Chris, is because they are almost certain that it‘s either going to be McCain or Romney.  They want to do well in Michigan.

But, Chris, their must-win, they say, is in South Carolina here on Saturday, the Republican primary here.  And, to that end, Mitt Romney—

Mike Huckabee is now running very hard, Chris, on issues of faith and immigration. 

Last night, at his last rally in Michigan, he said:  We should amend the Constitution so it‘s in God‘s standards.

That may play very well here in South Carolina with the evangelical crowd.  And, then, at his first event today in South Carolina, he talked about immigration, not illegal immigration, but legal immigration, saying that maybe we shouldn‘t allow people into the United States from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Jordan.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Every one of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came here legally.  Our government welcomed them in.  Well, there‘s a couple of things we‘re going to do differently.  I say we ought to put a hiatus on people who come here and give them permits if they come from countries that sponsor and harbor terrorists. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Now, that may be an extreme policy, Chris, as you know, the idea that you won‘t allow people to this country from places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, or you might have an extra burden like a permit, but it‘s the kind of politics that does pretty well in South Carolina.  The Huckabee campaign is going to run very hard to the right of John McCain on immigration and that today was Mike Huckabee‘s first step in that direction.  Chris? 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, David Shuster.  Sitting me in Las Vegas here are correspondents covering all three of the top Democrats in the race out here.  We begin with Andrea Mitchell, who is covering the Clinton campaign, and Lee Cowan, who is covering the Obama campaign.  Well, Hillary Clinton and Obama tonight, two hours going at it. 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Hillary Clinton has got a real problem tonight, in that she has to show that she can be tough, that she can go after Barack Obama on his record, as she wants to do, but she has to avoid going after him in such an aggressive way that she then reignites this racial issue. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MITCHELL:  So she‘s got to be very, very careful.  That is a tough walk—tough rope to walk. 

MATTHEWS:  How about voter suppression out here, this whole effort by the NEA to shut down these at-large caucuses at the casinos this Saturday night, Saturday afternoon? 

LEE COWAN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  I think what the Obama campaign would say is that, you know, we shouldn‘t be trying to figure out a way to keep people from the polls; we should figure out a way to get everybody to the polls. 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe there‘s another assessment here besides voter suppression.  How about equal opportunity?  I‘ll be kind.  But there‘s two different issue, one people‘s group said let‘s have more opportunities to vote, especially for people that have to work Saturday, and the other group says, if they get to vote where they work, then everybody should get to vote where they work. 

COWAN:  That‘s what it comes down to, really—

MITCHELL:  Well—

COWAN:  Go ahead. 

MITCHELL:  I was going to say, Hillary Clinton‘s supporters in the Teachers Union, Lee, did not go against the Culinary Workers having these caucuses in the casinos until the Culinary Workers endorsed Barack Obama. 

COWAN:  And then it became an issue, a big issue. 

MATTHEWS:  They changed the rules in the middle of the game. 

COWAN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve never heard of such a thing!  Let me bring in—right, Kevin Corke is with John Edwards.  I want the third man here to have a shot.  It‘s so hard, it seems, Kevin, for John Edwards to get in the door here, this two-person national debate.  We don‘t have Kevin.  That makes it easier.  He doesn‘t get in here. 

MITCHELL:  I came back from an event that John Edwards was at, and basically you can‘t really believe caucus polling.  Caucus polling is notoriously bad.  But there is a well-regarded poll out here which says John Edwards has 27 percent, almost one-third, and that it is really a tightly-knit three-way race.  He could do well here. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s bet on surprises tonight here, since I was dead wrong last week. 

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  I was worse than anybody.  I had gone to those rallies for Barack Obama, as many of us had in New Hampshire, and I thought, wow, this must be the whole state.  It turns out there were a lot of people who weren‘t at those rallies, a lot of people who may not be political, really, as we know it, junkies, if you will, who don‘t go to rallies.  They just go and vote. 

COWAN:  Right.  I think that‘s true.  And I think we‘ve even seen a difference in the way Barack Obama‘s campaigning now.  He‘s not just going out and doing the rallies, because a lot of folks don‘t know him as well here.  So he‘s really taking a lot more time to take questions from the audience so they can get to know him.  When he asks people how many are going to caucus, most of them do raise their hands.  But when he asks how many people are still undecided, a lot of people raise their hands as well. 

Now, he‘s taking to only taking questions from those people who are undecided. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go now to Kevin Corke.  How is it going with Edwards?  Because it seems to me undecided becomes a reality right up until people actually cast their votes now, everybody is undecided. 

KEVIN CORKE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Absolutely.  Here‘s the deal, Chris.  We talked with Joe Trippi today and he told me, without any hesitation, it‘s tough to break through, Kevin.  You got two stars out there in Clinton and Obama.  What we have to focus on is a strong finish here.  Look, they are well positioned.  Keep in mind, labor has been very strong behind Edwards here in Nevada. 

But eventually they have to come up with a first-place finish.  Look, a second would be great.  They‘d love to have that springboard into South Carolina, but you got to start lining up some victories, because, as a great American once said, money is the mother‘s milk of political campaigns.  I mean, he‘s going to have to have those dollars continue to flow in, and that will take some wins along the line, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, I think that was Phil Burton of California.  Thank you, Andrea Mitchell, Lee Cowan and Kevin Corke.  Thanks for joining us. 

Up next, it‘s a double header, a double feature, if you‘re a movie-goer, on the politics fix tonight, the Democratic debate out here in Las Vegas, plus the Michigan primary back there in Michigan.  A hot one for the Republicans.  This is HARDBALL, live in Vegas.  What stays in Vegas—well, it doesn‘t stay in Vegas tonight.  It comes to you, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  It‘s time now for the politics fix with our round table, “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman, Lynn Sweet of the “Chicago Sun Times,” and Dominic Carter, the senior political reporter for New York One, a local New York City news network. 

Let me start with Lynn Sweet, who is sitting right next to me.  Lynn, it seems to me, as I quoted Churchill earlier, Winston Churchill, who said that there are two kinds of success, initial and ultimate.  If this issue turns on racial identity and solidarity and the usual historic disputes in this country, does that help Barack in the short run and perhaps out here, perhaps in South Carolina, more especially, but hurts him in his national effort to end this racial divide in American politics. 

LYNN SWEET, “THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES”:  I agree, it does hurt, because one of the things he‘s tried to do is be this transcending figure that straddles many worlds at one time.  If the discussion becomes about race and it becomes too personal, too much about him—I would say this whole back-and-forth we‘ve had in the last few days has been a potential major distraction to the campaign if it continues.  It‘s probably a big reason he tried to downplay it last night. 

MATTHEWS:  Dominic, you talked to Charlie Rangel, who will be here for the 7:00 p.m. Eastern tonight show, leading off our show.  He‘s obviously the U.S. congressman from New York, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the most powerful man around, in many ways, on money issues.  He‘s a Clintonite, all the way.  He seems to want to disengage in this fight as of a couple hours ago with his interview with Norah O‘Donnell. 

Do you think the Clinton people have had enough of this dust up? 

DOMINIC CARTER, NY1 POLITICAL ANCHOR:  No doubt about it, Chris, they want this issue to go away.  It can only hurt both candidates at this point.  I would agree with the initial point you made, as well as Lynn, that it hurts Obama.  It may help in the short term, in terms of South Carolina, but he‘s run a mainstream candidacy and it hurts in the long run. 

And for the Clinton folks, if she is indeed the nominee, this could only hurt her in terms of the base, the African-American base, possibly staying home and not voting for her in the general election if she‘s the nominee.  So Rangel, I believe, is going to tone it down.  I believe all parties involved are going to tone it down. 

MATTHEWS:  Howard, one of the things I would fear if I were a Clinton person and rooting for her, would be, and thinking for her would be, damn it, even if we beat this amazing young Turk and beat him in the primaries and we get the most votes, the most delegates come the summer, if we don‘t put him on the ticket, we may have a problem, because the fight is getting so severe that the only way to heal it, to seal it is to put the ticket together, if it gets any hotter. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  I think you‘re right, Chris, and I think this is an insurgency unlike any other I‘ve seen.  As a matter of fact, it‘s hard really to say at this point who the front-runner truly is, Chris, and that gives the Obama supporters an emotional investment in his candidacy beyond anything I‘ve seen, maybe since Ted Kennedy a generation ago, was taking on the sitting president, Jimmy Carter, in the Democratic primaries.  And you remember how nasty that convention was. 

I think we‘re headed in that direction unless they cut this out now. 

And it only helps Obama to the extent that he doesn‘t talk about race.  What makes him appealing as a trans-racial figure is he doesn‘t talk about it that much.  He lets his actions and eloquence speak for themselves, as it were.  And this has done him no good, and it will do Hillary no good, either. 

MATTHEWS:  They can‘t run—Lynn, they can‘t run a scorched-earth policy.  They can‘t run a campaign that hurts this guy and leaves the party feeling that they‘ve beaten him up and therefore have to give him back a dramatic gesture, like ticket, on the ticket. 

SWEET:  That‘s why the debate tonight I think is so important, because it will touch on race matters.  It‘s sponsored on—today‘s Martin Luther King‘s birthday.  The sponsors of the debate tonight include a consortium of minority organizations.  So, in terms of timing, it‘s not an issue that they can run away from, because it will be on center stage, too.  So how they handle it, I think, is a signal as to how they might go ahead.

It‘s also important—and this is what the campaigns have been saying

they are telling their surrogates to cool it.  Chris, it‘s very

important, because that‘s where a lot of the talk is being done. 

MATTHEWS:  Dominic, do you think they can seal this deal after it‘s all over, and both sides agree to be the same political party? 

CARTER:  Well, I think, Chris, at the end of the day, they‘ll have no choice, no matter what happens.  We‘ll see Senator Obama and Senator Clinton united in terms of no matter who the nominee is.  But they‘re on fragile ground right now, in terms of they‘ve got to be very careful—

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

CARTER:  but, you know, I just don‘t understand—and I‘m just throwing this out there—I fully don‘t understand—I was with Senator Clinton in New Hampshire in Salem when she followed up with these comments.  I want someone to explain to me what is racist or condescending and against Dr. King, in terms of the comments that she made?  I‘m just not getting it.  So it leads me to believe that perhaps the race card is at play and possibly by the Obama folks here. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  It‘s hard for me to decide not being black, but still trying to figure it out.  Who is using the dog whistle and who is being over touchy?  It‘s a big question, because sometimes people are calling fouls that aren‘t fouls and some people are sneaking the fouls in there when we‘re not supposed to be looking.  I‘ll tell you one thing, lady and gentlemen, I watched the Democratic divide in ‘68, in ‘80, because the loser didn‘t like the winner, whether it was Ted Kennedy or Gene McCarthy.   

We‘ll be right back from Las Vegas with more of the politics fix. 

You‘re watching, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The big Democratic debate, it‘s two hours to the debate out here.  The Michigan primary—we‘ve got a double feature.  The big debate out here that MSNBC has sponsored, of course, moderated by Brian Williams and Tim Russert, with Natalie Morales bringing in questions from the audience and e-mail. 

But we also have some exciting election results coming in a week after that debacle coming out of New Hampshire.  Howard, speaking of sports—

I‘ve got to talk to you, Howard.  I‘m in a good mood.  I don‘t know about

you.  The reason I‘m in a good mood is I realize there‘s a possibility in

the air of complete insanity.  What I think might happen is—remember how

every good Democratic convention you and I have covered, the best speech

was always given by the loser.  There‘s is a history of this, where it was

let‘s see—Teddy Kennedy in ‘80, Jesse Jackson in ‘84 and ‘88, Mario Cuomo in ‘84. 

All the best speeches.  We already had an occasion of Barack Obama giving the best speech.  Are we going to have another one where the loser of the best speech contest gets the nomination?  Is that where we‘re headed? 

FINEMAN:  It could happen that way.  It will be emotional drama one way or the either, Chris, because this is a contest in the Democratic party that I think is going to go a long way.  You‘ve got at least two well funded candidates competing over a lot of the same voters.  It‘s going to be emotional regardless. 

If the Democrats are going to get their act together, it‘s going to be a very emotional thing.  Sometimes reconciliation can help.  We‘ll see how it goes.  But that‘s the big story line from now all the way through the convention.  

MATTHEWS:  What lasts longer, the Democratic fight for the nomination or the NBA season?  What will last longer?  Or the Stanley Cup.  Will we still be arguing at the time of the Stanley Cup? 

FINEMAN:  We‘ll be playing ball all through the summer. 

MATTHEWS:  I like those.  Lynn sweet, this is jock talk.  But you know the story here.  Is this going to be a long fight? 

SWEET:  I think it probably will extend past February 5th, even if there is a decisive winner in Nevada and in South Carolina. 

MATTHEWS:  You think this goes well into March. 

SWEET:  What I‘m saying is the meaning of South Carolina and Nevada, for some reason, is not going to be determinative. 

MATTHEWS:  Dominic, last word, will this go on? 

CARTER:  It will go on.  Conventional wisdom is out the window.  We don‘t know when this is going to be over with, Chris.  We‘ll see what happens on February 5th

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I don‘t even know what‘s going to happen tonight. 

Howard Fineman, Lynn Sweet—I‘ll say that every week from now on—

Dominic—I don‘t know.  I‘ll be back right back from Las Vegas in one hour for a live edition of HARDBALL.  We‘ll keep it cool on the polls until we get the real ones.  This is at 9:00 Eastern tonight, the big Democratic debate tonight.  Come and watch it with Brian and Tim.  And at 11:00 Eastern, Keith Olbermann and I are coming back for our “Huntley-Brinkley Report” for two hours of us talking about what really happened, with real results.

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2007 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2007 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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