updated 1/25/2008 11:23:56 AM ET 2008-01-25T16:23:56

Guests: Michelle Bernard, Paul Cellucci, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Barbara Comstock, Paul Cellucci, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Leo Terrell, Dan Balz, Clarence Page

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Tonight, the (INAUDIBLE) debate in Florida.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL, obviously, from the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, one of the prettiest places in the world.  Anyway, tonight at 9:00 PM Eastern, NBC‘s Brian Williams and Tim Russert moderate the final Republican debate before Tuesday‘s big Florida primary.  We‘re going to talk about who could win this thing down here and whether second place even matters.

Also tonight: It‘s war between Hillary and Barack in South Carolina.  That primary‘s on Saturday night.  Tonight, we‘ll have the new MSNBC poll of what‘s happening in South Carolina.

Tonight‘s debate here in Florida could be sudden death.  Last May, I

moderated the first Republican debate for 2008.  That night, there were 10

count them, 10 -- Republican candidates.  In October, I co-moderated the CNBC debate featuring nine hopefuls.  They keep getting lower.  Tonight, the debate features just five candidates, with three fighting it out for victory here in all-important Florida next Tuesday.

Here‘s how I see it.  If Giuliani wins, it‘s a three-way fight heading into February 5, Super Tuesday, with 22 states voting.  If he doesn‘t win tonight, his campaign could die right down here in the sunshine.  If Romney wins, he and McCain are destined to wage a long war of attrition, where money, prestige and winnability in November may not decide the fight until the Republicans hold their convention in September.  If McCain wins next week, he‘s off to the races, perhaps winning that unofficial crown as the Republican sent in by the establishment to save the presidency from the Democrats.

So tonight‘s debate carries big consequences, big stakes, most of all for the country.  The president we elect this year must lead us out of Iraq or else justify keeping us there.  He or she must lead us through the global economic storm stirred by years of shaky borrowing by people and question borrowing by the government.

So are the candidates in tonight‘s Republican debate happy with the leadership this country has had the last seven years?  If so, say so.  Say you‘re happy.  If you‘re not happy with the direction of the country, say why not.  Or are you just going to wait in the bushes, literally and figuratively, and wait for Hillary or Obama or some other Democrat to come along and blast them out of the saddle?  That‘s one strategy.  I‘d like to hear a positive one.

Chuck Todd is NBC News political director, Joe Scarborough is the host of MSNBC‘s highly successful “MORNING JOE.”

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You can say that again.  And Michelle Bernard is up in Washington.  She‘s president and CEO of the Independent Women‘s Forum.  Michelle, thank you for joining us.  There you are, on camera.

Let‘s take a look at this poll down here in Florida.  It‘s got Romney

look at this guy -- 30, doing big TV advertising down here, John McCain at 26, Rudy down to 18.  He had been 36, twice that number, two months ago.  And Mike Huckabee, still in the race, at least technically, at 13.

I want to go now to the favorite son of the Sunshine State.  Joe, you know this state.  Who‘s winning this thing?

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, “MORNING JOE”:  Mitt Romney is, and the reason Mitt Romney‘s winning this type (ph) of state, a couple reasons.  First of all, because of money.  This state is so large, there‘s so many media markets, you define yourself.  There is no retail politicking statewide.

A great example, when Mel Martinez, who‘s, of course, the senator from the state of Florida, was running, Bill McCollum, one of the most conservative guys I served with in Congress—he spent the last five days saying, Bill, you‘re too liberal because he had so—seriously, 14 years of work in Congress, Bill McCollum was painted as a left-wing liberal.  You can do whatever you want on TV.  Romney‘s got the money.  That‘s reason number one.

Number two, look at the Republicans that win in this state, Connie Mack, a conservative with a moderate temperament, Jeb Bush, a conservative with a moderate temperament, Charlie Crist, again conservative with a moderate temperament.  That is Mitt Romney.  He fits Florida like a glove.  That, plus the big buys, is why you‘re seeing him start to move out.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s like Connie Mack, too.

SCARBOROUGH:  He is.

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Conservative with a smile.  No, I mean, look, it‘s interesting because it seems to be splitting up.  You know, there‘s all these different demographics that help both candidates.  The good news for McCain, he does really well with voters over 65.  Last time I checked, the state of Florida‘s got a lot of voters over 65.  And there‘s a significant veterans population.

The problem he‘s (INAUDIBLE) he‘s losing and not winning independents. 

They‘re not (INAUDIBLE) primary.

MATTHEWS:  There are (INAUDIBLE)

TODD:  (INAUDIBLE) registered Republican (INAUDIBLE) it‘s—

(INAUDIBLE) McCain (INAUDIBLE) Right now, the only (INAUDIBLE) group Rudy Giuliani is doing well with is Cuban-Americans.

MATTHEWS:  But is that fading?  Is he fading among Cubans?

TODD:  He might be fading a little bit, and this could be McCain‘s way of catching Romney.

MATTHEWS:  But you‘re suggesting what Joe‘s suggesting, that Romney‘s in a better position right now.

TODD:  Romney (INAUDIBLE) better position because he‘s got the southwest part of the stat.  This is Fort Myers, Sarasota, old money, old Florida money.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  (INAUDIBLE) Michigan.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

SCARBOROUGH:  It is Romney country.  And that‘s why McCain...

MATTHEWS:  The Midwest—everything falls down like a falling chad.

TODD:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  If you‘re from New York, you go to the east coast here.  If you‘re from the Midwest, you go to the Gulf coast.

TODD:  Right.

SCARBOROUGH:  You would think that everybody should attack Romney tonight, but if I‘m McCain or Giuliani, I savage each other.  They have to get the votes from each other.  I...

MATTHEWS:  Because?  Explain that.

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, because there‘s a—they appeal to the same people, whether it‘s the Cuban-Americans or whether it‘s...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

SCARBOROUGH:  ... the people that are tough on defense.  A lot of people in northwest Florida, they care a lot more about radical Islamists than they do about Roe v. Wade, and they care a hell of a lot about Roe v.  Wade.

MATTHEWS:  Now, let‘s take a look—let‘s bring in Michelle Bernard.  Looks, Michelle, like if Romney does win down here next Tuesday—and anything can happen in four or five days—this election by the Republicans, the selection of a nominee, is wide open again between McCain and Romney again.  It looks like those (INAUDIBLE) race and race and race across the country for two or three weeks.

MICHELLE, INDEPENDENT WOMEN‘S FORUM:  Look, I think this is going to be absolutely fascinating, and the debate tonight is absolutely critical because it is the last chance.  Florida‘s voters are going to get a chance to take a look at all of these guys at the same time.

And you know, I want to throw a monkey wrench into the analysis that you guys are doing over there.  And I got to tell you, I think for Florida‘s Republican voters, it is electability, electability, electability.  Romney is still in the race because he has a lot of money.  But McCain, you know, after last week, is sort of the comeback—is sort of the comeback kid.

And I think that Republican voters have given up looking for someone who is a, quote, unquote, “reliable conservative.”  In this very fractured Republican Party, it doesn‘t exist with these candidates.  So voters are going to be pragmatic and they‘re looking to see who can win against Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards.  And right now, that‘s looking like it‘s McCain.  A lot of polls are showing that Mitt Romney gets trounced against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in November.

SCARBOROUGH:  You know what?  That‘s like telling Democrats back in the 1990s to vote for Sam Nunn.  The Republican base—and this is what Chuck touched on before—they don‘t like John McCain.  McCain wins in New Hampshire because of independents.  McCain wins wherever he goes in South Carolina because of independents.  Am I wrong, Chuck?

TODD:  Yes, no, and...

SCARBOROUGH:  Republicans viscerally don‘t like him.  It‘s shocking!

MATTHEWS:  Explain why they don‘t.  I know, I think, but why do you say they don‘t like him?

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, he‘s thumbed his nose.  You know, you can go against the president if he‘s not conservative enough.  Every time McCain votes against the president and the Republican orthodoxy, it‘s because they‘re not liberal enough, whether it‘s on campaign finance or the environment or taxes or torture.

You know, Joe Klein was saying, on waterboarding, his waterboarding answer in one of these debates, the lowest rated in one of the Luntz twist-turn things, lowest rated.  Every time he breaks against the White House or against the Republicans, it‘s because they‘re not liberal enough.

MATTHEWS:  We should put together a lunch with waterboarding and see if we can get to the truth.

SCARBOROUGH:  You mean waterboard Luntz?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s a concept!

SCARBOROUGH:  Is that right, Chuck Todd?

TODD:  I‘m not going there, but...

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

SCARBOROUGH:  It‘s a tough crowd!

MATTHEWS:  I think you‘ve got something!

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Chuck Todd.

TODD:  No, I mean, the thing that, you know, McCain—it‘s funny you say that, it is—I‘m hearing from more and more Republicans (INAUDIBLE) look, Limbaugh‘s been taking after McCain.  I mean, look, he‘s got to get this victory because if he doesn‘t get out of here, you do wonder if the conservative establishment is finally going to rally around Mitt Romney.  Romney has tried to get these folks to rally around him, they haven‘t quite done it.  If he wins in Florida, they may rally around him, and it may be enough to stop McCain.

MATTHEWS:  You know, a lot of people are talking this up who aren‘t Republicans.  You know, Joe Scarborough, a lot of Democrats, people in the media, want to have a close race in the general.

SCARBOROUGH:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  And so a lot of people in the media would like to see a Republican nominee who they can imagine voting for, right?

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, you know...

MATTHEWS:  And the reason they want that is because they want an option come next November.

SCARBOROUGH:  (INAUDIBLE) Sam Nunn.

MATTHEWS:  But if you get a Romney, a lot of people that are Democrats and middle-of-the-roaders will say that‘s not an option.

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, you sometimes talk about how you feel as a Philadelphia Democrat.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

SCARBOROUGH:  You talk about—let me tell you how people in my tribe (ph) feel.  When every single editorial board in America endorses a guy, there is something fatally flawed with that guy.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

SCARBOROUGH:  And John McCain gets newspaper endorsements—seriously, even...

TODD:  Cleaning up.  Cleaning up the newspaper (INAUDIBLE)

SCARBOROUGH:  He gets every newspaper endorsement.  And these are the same newspapers...

MATTHEWS:  And what...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  ... and I went back and checked, so many of these

newspapers endorsed Kerry.  So many of the newspapers never—and when

they endorse, they go, John McCain was open-minded enough on immunity, he

was open-minded enough to vote against George Bush.  And I sit there in my

tribe, and every time NBC News and Chuck says another endorsement, I just -

I just...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He‘s growing as a candidate.

SCARBOROUGH:  I just squeeze my Blackberry.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s growing as a candidate.

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  He has grown, and we Republicans...

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me go to...

SCARBOROUGH:  ... don‘t appreciate it.

MATTHEWS:  ... Michelle.  So Michelle, do you have this same attitude of (INAUDIBLE) if the establishment and the middle of the road seems to like somebody, especially the press, the conservative grass roots go, Uh-oh?

BERNARD:  No, I completely disagree mostly because we‘re forgetting that we don‘t know what we mean when we say conservative.  There are the social conservatives.  There are the fiscal conservative.  There are the national security conservatives.  The Republican Party is all over the map on this.

And there are still some problems with Mitt Romney.  For example, he didn‘t become conservative on a lot of social issues until he left the governor‘s mansion in Massachusetts.  And I think to social conservatives, that is a problem.  And they sometimes look at him as someone who is being politically—as being a political panderer.  I mean, none of the Republican candidates are perfect, and that‘s why it will be very interesting to see what happens on Saturday.

BERNARD:  There are a lot of positives, a lot of negatives which...

SCARBOROUGH:  I know what it means to be conservative.

BERNARD:  ... which—well, it depends on what arm of the conservative party you align yourself with.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Well, that‘s the weird thing.

SCARBOROUGH:  The Reagan arm.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the weird thing, Joe.  Your party may end—the Republicans may end up picking a candidate who many people believe is a mood ring.

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, they aren‘t going to pick a candidate, I believe, that supported what we think is an amnesty bill with Ted Kennedy, was one of two Republicans to vote against the Bush tax cuts, which is one of the few things conservatives can be proud of, of George Bush, that and the Supreme Court.  And certainly, you know, you can add them all up.  And he went around talking about tax cuts for the rich.  I‘m telling you, there‘s a visceral reaction from, I will say, the Reagan wing of the conservative Republican Party.

TODD:  The problem is authenticity for Romney.  He has flunked the authenticity test in previous primaries.  They don‘t know if they believe him as a believable sort of hardcore conservative.  Against McCain, maybe he thinks he wins that argument, and that may be the good news for Romney.

But back on this debate, I‘ll say this, watch McCain tonight try to—try to get common ground with these same conservatives who want to do in his candidacy, to try to reach across.  I think McCain is going to do everything he can to show that he can unite the conservatives.

MATTHEWS:  I wonder if we aren‘t getting very close to, on the Republican side, the old rule of, If you‘re not with the one you love, love the one you‘re with.

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes!

MATTHEWS:  You may have to get used to whoever we find as the winner here.  Thank you, Joe Scarborough, for those—well, somewhat emotional views.  Anyway, thank you...

SCARBOROUGH:  No, no.  Not my views.  I‘m a cool, calculating...

MATTHEWS:  You‘re speaking for the people.

SCARBOROUGH:  I‘m speaking for the tribe, my tribe, like you speak for those Philadelphia...

MATTHEWS:  I try to speak for the peeps, as well.  Thank you very much, Michelle.  It‘s great having you on.  Thank you, Chuck Todd, our expert.  Thank you, Joe Scarborough, the winner of the morning.

Coming up: What the Republican candidates need to say tonight in the big debate tonight that Brian and Tim are moderating.  And we‘re going to talk to their top honchos about that in about a minute.

And later: Barack Obama‘s radio ad says that the Clintons will say anything—say anything—to take back the White House.  The latest on the ad wars in South Carolina.  That‘s coming up, too, very soon.

You‘re watching HARDBALL from Boca Raton, the campus of Florida Atlantic University (INAUDIBLE)

(CHEERS)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDOLPH GIULIANI ®, FMR NYC MAYOR, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m going to continue my campaign.  I have no plans to end my campaign.  Of course, I anticipate winning in Florida because I don‘t go into a campaign anticipating losing, and I have no reason not to anticipate winning.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re just a few hours away from the showdown in Boca Raton, right where I‘m at right now, in this building.  So what do the Republican candidates have to do in tonight‘s big debate here with the Republicans in Florida to ensure that they win this crucial state next Tuesday?

I‘m joined by McCain support and Florida U.S. congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, and by Romney campaign senior adviser Barbara Comstock—we‘ve had her on so many times before—and also with us, Giuliani campaign senior adviser, former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci.

I want to ask each of you in a row, lady first.  Barbara, will Mitt Romney change course from the last seven years or will he continue the course of this administration, generally speaking?

BARBARA COMSTOCK, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER:  Well, I think what he has shown throughout the campaign is that he is going to—on low taxes.  He wants to have less government.  I think maybe that‘ll change course a little because he wants to cut back the government, not grow it at all.  And then on the war on terror, I think he will be consistent.  He does not want to close Gitmo.  He wants to preserve the presidential authority for things like enhanced interrogation techniques.  And you know, he‘ll be pro-life and pro-family.  So I think those things are consistent.  I think the idea that if you keep...

MATTHEWS:  So if you like Bush, you‘ll like Romney.

COMSTOCK:  Well, look, he‘s his own man and...

MATTHEWS:  Is that a fair statement?  If you like Bush, if you‘ll like

what‘s wrong with the question?

COMSTOCK:  Well, yes, I—no...

MATTHEWS:  If you like Bush, you‘ll like Romney.

COMSTOCK:  Sure.  I think that‘s true.

MATTHEWS:  Is that a fair question?

COMSTOCK:  I think that‘s true.  But you‘re also looking at an election where people want things to change in terms of Washington.  We have a Democrat Congress, so I think one of the unique things that Governor Romney can do is—he‘s had the experience of cutting government, even when he had a Democratic legislature.  So I think he brings a different look at that.  And so I think that‘s something we need to get changed.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I guess want a clear answer.  If you‘d like to direct

see, we just have—we can‘t release the numbers until tonight...

COMSTOCK:  OK.  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  ... at 7:00, in our next edition.  But we always ask at NBC and “The Wall Street Journal,” Are you happy with the direction of the country?  What I can tell you, people aren‘t happy with it.  Do you like the direction of this country, Barbara Comstock?

COMSTOCK:  Well, no, when you look at...

MATTHEWS:  Do you like the direction this country‘s been taking for the last seven years?  It‘s an easy question.  Do you like the direction this country‘s been taking?

COMSTOCK:  There are some things that I like, there are some things I would like to change.  I don‘t like that we‘ve had a bigger government, that we‘ve had more spending.  No, I don‘t like that.  And we throughout the year in the campaign have been saying that does need to change.  But in terms of having a strong foreign policy and fighting the war on terror and keeping taxes low, that I like.  But I think we do need to change things in Washington with the spending problems we have, and that is a very different direction for both Democrats and Republicans, I believe.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well said.  Thank you.  Let me ask—let me ask you, Governor, Cellucci.  Will Giuliani offer a change in course for this country the next four or eight years, or will he say, Let us continue, like Lyndon Johnson said?

PAUL CELLUCCI ®, FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR:  No.  I mean, I would say, if you like George Bush, you‘re going to love Rudy Giuliani, because he‘s going to go much further. 

He not only wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent.  He has proposed...

MATTHEWS:  A third term for George W. Bush. 

(CROSSTALK)

CELLUCCI:  He‘s proposed...

MATTHEWS:  Ladies and gentlemen, what an opportunity. 

CELLUCCI:  He‘s...

MATTHEWS:  What an opportunity, a third term for George W. Bush. 

CELLUCCI:  Rudy has proposed the largest tax...

MATTHEWS:  Is that what you are offering to people? 

CELLUCCI:  I‘m saying he‘s going to go much further, particularly on taxes, the largest tax cut in the history of this country.  It was filed in this Congress just yesterday. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

CELLUCCI:  The congressmen are already talking about it.  People are worried about the future because we have economic uncertainty. 

(CROSSTALK)

CELLUCCI:  One of the ways you solve that economic uncertainty is to make us competitive.  Cut the corporate tax rate.  Cut the capital gains.  Cut the personal tax rates.  Get rid of the inheritance tax. 

Rudy Giuliani...

MATTHEWS:  Well, if we want a third term of Bush, why don‘t we do what this young guy just yelled out here, Jeb Bush?  Let‘s go all the way.  More Bushes. 

CELLUCCI:  Well, we like—we like Jeb Bush, too.  But I‘m just saying...

MATTHEWS:  Why not more Bushes? 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

CELLUCCI:  ... that Rudy Giuliani...

MATTHEWS:  More Bush!

CELLUCCI:  Rudy Giuliani is going to make this economy strong. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  So, basically, more, but better?

CELLUCCI:  He did it in New York. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

CELLUCCI:  He took a city that had 10 percent unemployment.  He cut it.  He put 400,000 people back to work. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m getting the drift here, basically.

Barbara Comstock, speaking for Governor Romney, said same tough foreign policy, different fiscal policy, more—less spending by the Congress. 

You‘re saying basically more, but what? 

CELLUCCI:  More tax cuts. 

MATTHEWS:  More tax cuts.

CELLUCCI:  And we all know that Rudy will keep America...

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

CELLUCCI:  ... on the offense against terrorism.  There‘s no doubt about it. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go Congressman Diaz-Balart.

How would you define your candidate, McCain, John McCain, as more of a change agent or more of a “let us continue” guy? 

REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART ®, FLORIDA:  Chris, you know, the thing about John McCain is that he has a very extensive record.  He has an extensive record of fighting from within, of fighting to improve the country, of fighting to secure the country. 

The best example of that, by the way, is when he stood up to Rumsfeld and said, look, the way that you are running this war is not working.  And he did that early on, when nobody else had, frankly, the courage to do so.  And he was proven right. 

Usually, John McCain is proven right.  You know, your question, I think, is a very good question.  However, when you look at John McCain, here‘s a man who has a history of being an American hero, of being a fighter...

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Right. 

DIAZ-BALART:  ... of being a man who knows, has the experience. 

So, look, John McCain, there‘s no surprises here.  Everybody knows who he is.  I have to tell you, I don‘t agree with everything about John McCain.

MATTHEWS:  So, he will be different than Bush?  But he will be different than Bush, you‘re basically saying?

DIAZ-BALART:  But he‘s a man of principle.  He‘s a man who is ready to lead.  And he can be president tomorrow. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

DIAZ-BALART:  And, by the way, he‘s the one guy who will beat Obama and Clinton.

MATTHEWS:  But you are not answering my question. 

But will he continue or will he change, basically?  If you have to vote, you want a big, strong answer.  Does this guy like the way things are going the last seven years, is going to basically keep them the way they are, or is he going to make some big changes?  Which is it? 

DIAZ-BALART:  He will improve—he will improve the way things are, Chris.  He has a record of doing that. 

He‘s not a person of great rhetoric.  He‘s a person of getting things done.  So, if you want somebody who can beat Hillary, who can beat Obama, who can get things done...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

DIAZ-BALART:  ... who can secure this country, who can keep taxes low, hey, everybody knows that‘s John McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do the Republican rank and file have a problem with John McCain? 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

DIAZ-BALART:  Well, because, look...

(CROSSTALK)

CELLUCCI:  Well, he opposed tax cuts, one reason.

(CROSSTALK)

DIAZ-BALART:  The reality—is the reality is, if you look at New Hampshire and if you look at...

CELLUCCI:  He repeatedly opposed tax cuts, particularly the Bush tax cuts. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, sir.

Congressman, why do they have a problem?  I keep hearing this from Joe Scarborough, who—who is from down here.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He says Republicans don‘t like McCain.  It‘s the independents that like him. 

DIAZ-BALART:  Yes, but the interesting thing is that, if you look at the elections, for example, in New Hampshire, he actually split the Republican vote. 

If you look at South Carolina, he split the Republican vote.  So, you know, you hear a lot of things, but the results aren‘t those. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

DIAZ-BALART:  Let me tell you what I think Republicans are concerned about. 

They want lower taxes.  They want efficient and small government.  They want a secure country.  And they want to make sure that the person who will be their next—the next commander in chief is ready to do so, understands the threats, is ready to lead, and, again, who can win in November, because there are great candidates.  I have nothing negative to say against the other Republican candidates. 

But all the polls have consistently shown...

MATTHEWS:  Except they can‘t win. 

DIAZ-BALART:  ... that the one person who can win in November is John McCain.  That‘s what it‘s all about. 

MATTHEWS:  You are shaking your head, Barbara.  Do you believe that Mitt Romney is the best bet to throw against Hillary or Barack or Edwards? 

COMSTOCK:  Yes, I do, because the first thing you need to do in politics is, you need to unite your base and then you expand. 

And the way we have won, Republicans...

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

COMSTOCK:  ... is we bring together the coalition.

And, unfortunately, as Joe Scarborough and others have pointed out, McCain has gone against most of his Republicans, whether it‘s McCain/Feingold, or immigration, or voting against the tax cuts, or voting against killing the death tax, or even on things like closing—wanting to close Gitmo. 

So many times, he‘s been with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, instead of being with his fellow Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  I love the way—I love—Barbara, I love the way Republicans talk compared to Democrats.  They use words like death tax. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  And they use Democrat as the adjective.  You Democrat voters. 

Anyway, thank you.  I‘m learning how to speak English here.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you. 

Congressman, sir, thank you for joining us.  I‘m sorry it‘s so short tonight for you.  You made your points.

Barbara, as always.

Governor Cellucci, thank you, sir.

CELLUCCI:  Thank you, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s good to have a Massachusetts man down here in the heat.  You will probably move down here next week.

Anyway, up next:  Who is the most disliked among the Republican presidential candidates?  We now have it in, and “New York Times” reports it. 

Tonight‘s “Big Number,” by the way, coming up.  It‘s about pushing the wrong button. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”)

JAY LENO, HOST, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”:  It looks like Rudy Giuliani having a rough time in Florida.  Man, I will tell you, his early lead evaporated quicker than those wedding vows, didn‘t it?  Whew. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

So, what else is new out there on the campaign trail? 

Well, how about a little brotherly love for Mitt Romney?  “The New York Times” reported this morning that, among the small circle of remaining GOP contenders for president, Romney is the most disliked by his fellow candidates.  Isn‘t that a nice thing to read in “The Times”? 

Anyway, and what‘s it all about?  Well, the article cites Romney‘s relentless attacks in TV ads, the reception—or, rather, the perception that he‘s an ideological panderer, and also resentment by the other candidates over his bottomless campaign coffers. 

I love the comment by my friend Dan Schnur (ph) in the paper today that said that Mitt Romney is the kind of guy that John McCain and his friends used to beat up in school back during recess. 

Anyway, take a look at this incredible moment on the trail.  It‘s a 5-

year-old girl named Chance McKenna asking President Bill Clinton—quote -

“What do you do when you get married?”

That‘s an interesting question.  Here‘s his answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  What do you do when you get married? 

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

B. CLINTON:  Look at that.  See all the press people back there. 

(LAUGHTER)

B. CLINTON:  They put me through the wringer this morning.  And everything I said is about to pale compared to what I‘m now facing. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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

Hillary Clinton whacked Barack Obama in Monday‘s presidential debate over the—his Illinois voting Senate record. 

Take a look and a listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  In the Illinois state Senate, Senator Obama voted 130 times present.  That‘s not yes.  That‘s not no.  That‘s maybe. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  He voted present 100 times. 

But not only did Obama take heat for voting present back in the Illinois legislative days.  He‘s also taken heat for bungling the votes he did cast. 

Here‘s the story, courtesy of “The L.A. Times.”  On several occasions back when he was a state legislator, Obama angered his fellow Democrats by voting one way back in Springfield, then declaring that he had literally pushed the wrong button in the chamber, that he had made a technical voting mistake in one case.  Obama voted in one case to strip millions from a child welfare office all because of what he calls a failure to push the right button as a state senator. 

Well, skeptics might say that there‘s more here than meets the eye.  The Illinois State Senate allows a lawmakers to clear up his intention after he makes a mistake like this.  However, the original vote still counts.  That allows the state senator to say, OK, I gave the vote to one side; I gave my intention to the other side.  He gets it both ways. 

Anyway, how many times back in the state legislative days did Obama declare a botched vote by himself?  At least five different times.  A handful of times, Barack Obama admits to having made a mistake, simply mechanically voting the wrong way as a state legislator.  He wanted to vote one way, but he voted the other. 

It reminds us all, by the way, of being down here in Florida, and those poor folks back in the year 2000 in Palm Beach who wanted very much to vote for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, but accidentally voted for our colleague Pat Buchanan.  Isn‘t that what got George Bush elected in the first place? 

Tonight‘s “Big Number”: five, the number of times Barack Obama admitted he pulled the wrong switch. 

Up next: Clinton vs. Obama.  The attacks in South Carolina get very tough.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

The rally continuing for a second day on Wall Street, the Dow industrials gaining 108 points, the S&P 500 tacking on 31 points, while the Nasdaq gained 44.   

Congressional leaders announcing a deal with the White House on an economic stimulus package.  It includes rebates for individual taxpayers, plus tax breaks for businesses.  Rebate checks could go out in May, if it‘s approved by the Senate. 

First-time jobless claims fell for a fourth straight week.  They‘re now at the lowest level in four months, but the woes continuing in the housing market.  Sales of existing homes fell by a larger-than-expected 2.2 percent in December.  Prices also continued to fall. 

And after the closing bell this afternoon, Microsoft reported quarterly earnings rising 79 percent.  Earnings easily beat analyst estimates.  The software giant also issued a rosy outlook for the rest of the year.  In after-hours trading, Microsoft shares are up another 4 percent. 

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

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

We‘re just two days away right now from South Carolina‘s Democratic primary, and a new MSNBC/McClatchy poll has Obama leading Hillary by eight points, 38-30.  That‘s 38-30 for Barack in the state, after having Bill to fight.  By the way, Bill is in there fighting.  And she‘s been out of the state.  Bill Clinton, the former president, has been in there hitting real hard. 

And here are the radio ads that they are running. 

Let‘s start with a Hillary ad, and then we will hear a Barack ad. 

These are tough. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, CLINTON CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR:  Listen to Barack Obama last week talking about Republicans.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years.

NARRATOR:  Really?  Aren‘t those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we‘re in today?  Ideas like special tax breaks for Wall Street.  Running up a $9 trillion debt.  Refusing to raise the minimum wage or deal with the housing crisis.  Are those the ideas Barack Obama‘s talking about?

OBAMA:  The Republicans were the party of ideas.

NARRATOR:  Hillary Clinton thinks this election is about replacing disastrous Republican ideas with new ones, like jump-starting the economy, putting an immediate freeze on foreclosures and mortgages, cutting taxes for the middle class, and creating millions of new jobs.  With the economy in crisis, we need a president with the ideas, the solutions that get our economy working for all of us. 

Hillary Clinton, solutions for America. 

Paid for by Hillary Clinton for President.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m Hillary Clinton, candidate for president, and I approve this message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, the big question—let‘s take a look.  Here‘s Obama responding to that same ad.  Let‘s get it all together here. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, OBAMA CAMPAIGN AD)

OBAMA:  I‘m Barack Obama, candidate for president, and I approved this message. 

NARRATOR:  It‘s what‘s wrong with politics today.  Hillary Clinton will say anything to get elected.  Now she‘s making false attacks on Barack Obama.  “The Washington Post” says Clinton isn‘t telling the truth.  Obama did not say that he liked the ideas of Republicans.

In fact, Obama‘s led the fight to raise the minimum wage, close corporate tax loopholes and cut taxes for the middle class.  But it was Hillary Clinton, in an interview with Tom Brokaw, who—quote—“paid tribute to Ronald Reagan‘s economic and foreign policy.”

She championed NAFTA, even though it has cost South Carolina thousands of jobs.  And, worst of all, it was Hillary Clinton who voted for George Bush‘s war in Iraq.  Hillary Clinton, she will say anything, and change nothing. 

It‘s time to turn the page. 

Paid for by Obama for America.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Leo Terrell is a radio talk show host out in L.A.  And Cynthia Pryor Hardy is the host of a radio talk show—“On the Point,” it‘s called—in South Carolina. 

Let me go to Leo first. 

Is that ad by the Clintons fair, to tie in Barack Obama with the Reagan economic program? 

LEO TERRELL, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY:  I‘m sorry, is that ad what, Chris?  I didn‘t hear it. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it fair?  Or is it Mickey Mouse? 

TERRELL:  No, it‘s not fair.

MATTHEWS:  No, what do you make of the ad?  That‘s all.  I want your view. 

(CROSSTALK)

TERRELL:  Yes, I will—the ad is misleading, because it takes a snippet of what Obama said. 

Obama did not agree with those policies.  And what that ad has done—does, it‘s misleading and it does not tell the truth.  The Obama ad neutralizes that by questioning Hillary‘s credibility.  The ad is not fair because it‘s untruthful, because it does not give the fact that Obama criticized the Republican policies.  And that‘s why it‘s misleading. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Cynthia.  Let me ask you to make a judgment.  Why would any Democrat—they‘re all pretty liberal Democrats.  Why would one Democrat say about another that they truly believe their opponent is a Reaganite?  Why would they say that?  Do they really believe that? 

HARDY:  Because it‘s—well, I think people are saying what they think people want to hear so that they can be turned off.  Let‘s face it, each of the candidates wants to win.  And unfortunately, what we‘re seeing is a level of mud-slinging that has escalated to the point where there‘s a lot of untruth that is coming out on both sides.  And so it leaves a number of the voters here in South Carolina, quite frankly, in a quandary, because we have to dig and find out for ourselves what the actual truth is.  And sometimes that can be a challenge. 

MATTHEWS:  Give me an example of where Barack Obama has engaged in untruthful advertising?  One example. 

HARDY:  Well—well, you know, I‘ll just take you to the debate, you know, when he took a—a swipe at Hillary Clinton for sitting on the board of Wal-Mart at a time when he was working in the trenches.  Well, that characterization actually is a little bit misleading, because at the time that he‘s talking about her being in, say, in an Ivory Tower, sitting high and looking low, she actually was doing the work of children at the same time.  So, that‘s an example of how each of the opponents will try to color what the other has done so that it casts a disfavorable light. 

What we have to do, as informed voters, is to—to know and be able to discern what the actual truth is.  And we also depend on shows like this one and guests like Leo and myself to assist in helping the voters to kind of know what‘s going on.  You know, no one would have anticipated—

MATTHEWS:  Let me—let me—

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you both—Leo, I want you to start with this question.  I got to ask you this question.  We‘re almost short on time here.  It seems to me to the dispiriting thing to someone like me, and I‘m a white guy, you‘re both African-Americans, but look at these numbers coming out of South Carolina tonight.  They are dispiriting because it shows polarization again. 

A while ago Obama was getting about 20 percent of the black vote.  He‘s now—here it is—beating Hillary with the black vote by 30 percent.  But Hillary wins in the white vote.  What‘s going on right now, to make it simple, is that the vote on the white side is going to Hillary and Edwards, and the vote on the black side‘s going increasingly to Obama.  What we hoped this campaign would be is something that was a bit more open, that the old line of division was gone. 

It seems like it‘s been rebuilt, where people are voting white or voting black.  Cynthia, whose fault is that? 

HARDY:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Cynthia, first, you‘re down there.  You‘re in South Carolina. 

MATTHEWS:  I think both sides—both sides, and I think it‘s partially the fault of the media, let‘s face it.  In Iowa and New Hampshire, Obama came across as colorless, of sort.  He hit South Carolina and all of a sudden he he‘s black.  And then you find comments that are coming out of the Clinton camp that seem to color him even more. 

He could not run a colorless campaign, which is what he was trying to do. because, you know, in a way he marginalized himself with some of the voters here in South Carolina, because there is such a strong, strong African-American vote here.  But once he hits the south, then all of a sudden he‘s African-American.  It‘s harmful when the electorate has to make a decision based on race. 

TERRELL:  Chris, let me be clear—

MATTHEWS:  Leo? 

TERRELL:  Obama was a colorless candidate in Iowa.  Iowa voted for Obama because of his issues.  Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton played the race card in the south.  They took him from a guy who wasn‘t black enough to being a black candidate.  They have injected race in this case—in this candidacy.  And you know what‘s embarrassing?  The African Americans of the Democratic party should have a wake-up call, because racism is alive and well within the Democratic party. 

And I can assure you this, Chris Matthews, a lot of African Americans, if Hillary Clinton gets the nomination—in the general election, African-Americans will stay home, because she played the race card and black Americans knew that what happened the last week.  It‘s disgusting when race was not an issue in Iowa.  It‘s an issue now in South Carolina. 

HARDY:  But I think—I think—I think, too, Leo, that the media has something to do. 

TERRELL:  Bill Clinton did.  Bill and Hillary marginalized Obama. 

HARDY:  But you cannot—yes, yes.  You cannot—

TERRELL:  Yes, that‘s true. 

HARDY:  You cannot also discount the fact that media reports coming into South Carolina—

MATTHEWS:  What did we do? 

HARDY:  What we did, as media, coming into South Carolina, we talked about the fact that the electorate in South Carolina in the Democratic party was 50 percent, more than 50 percent African-America, and we honed in on the African vote. 

(CROSS TALK)

TERRELL:  Hillary Clinton—Hillary Clinton used a black surrogate—his name is Robert Johnson—to bring up the issue of cocaine.  That was an embarrassment.  And B.E.T. is an embarrassment.  Robert Johnson was used to play the race card for Hillary Clinton. 

HARDY:  Robert Johnson allowed himself to be used in what—Robert Johnson allowed himself to be used and what we got was the—what we got from that was the—what we got from that is the Bill-ary factor.  The Bill-ary factor is what we have right now, what we see throughout the state of South Carolina, going around and solving these things on behalf of his wife, who frankly has become a put-down to individuals. 

MATTHEWS:  Cynthia, let Leo respond.  A final word from Leo.  I‘m sorry, Cynthia.  Leo, last word. 

TERRELL:  Thank you.  You brought the issue up.  What happened?  What made the change?  The change is that Hillary and Bill used the race card to marginalize Obama.  And I can guarantee you this one fact, if he wins in South Carolina, oh, that‘s because he‘s black.  They have created wedge issues between blacks and whites, and more importantly, between blacks and Hispanics. 

The—Mr. Black president, Bill Clinton, used the race card against a black candidate, and the blacks will not forget this in November. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, Leo Terrell.  Thank you, Cynthia. 

HARDY:  No one win.  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  That sounds like a good assessment.  Thank you, Cynthia Pryor-Hardy for joining us from South Carolina. 

Up next, we‘ll get back to the Republicans in the HARDBALL politics fix tonight. what do the candidates need to do in tonight‘s debate?  We‘re putting it on here at 9:00 Eastern time.  Let‘s watch the remaining five Republican candidates duke it out in preparation for next Tuesday here in Florida, which could be make or break for Rudy Giuliani or perhaps Mitt Romney. 

This is HARDBALL, live from Boca, on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and the politics  fix.  Our round table tonight, Clarence Page of the “Chicago Tribune,” Andrea Mitchell of NBC News and Dan Balz.  We have never had so much firepower assembled in one trio.  Dan, let‘s take a look at this new poll that‘s coming out tomorrow.  It‘s according to the NBC/”Wall Street Journal.”  It‘s going to be in the paper tomorrow.  Two-thirds say Barack Obama can unite the country.  A similar number, about two-thirds, say John McCain can.  Then you get down to a bit above 50 percent and you get Hillary and Edwards.  Is that significant in primaries, who can unite the country politically? 

DAN BALZ, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I‘m not sure that it‘s terribly significant.  I think we‘ve known all along that Barack Obama has potentially more appeal to Democrats and independents than Hillary Rodham Clinton does.  I think the issue for Democrats is who would be the tougher general election candidate and who in the end could unite.  At this point I don‘t think that‘s the real choice. 

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, does it matter who looks like the unifier in a campaign that seems more polarized every moment? 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  I think right now, among Democrats, it probably doesn‘t.  I agree with Dan.  If they want someone who can fight back against Republicans, they might opt for Hillary Clinton over someone who is a unifier.  So I don‘t think that that is the key determinate this year so far. 

MATTHEWS:  Clarence, it seems to me—I just read George Packer‘s piece in the “New Yorker.”  And apparently these two candidates are offering something very different.  One is the inspirer of the country, and one says I‘m going to go in and fight the bad guys for you.  That is Hillary. 

CLARENCE PAGE, “CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  I can guess, because that is indeed her mantra, that she‘s the fighter that knows how to go up against the Republicans, while Barack Obama‘s put himself forth as the come-together candidate.  This has made their little clashes over the last week or so somewhat problematic, I think, for Hillary Clinton in particular, although both of them.  The fact that they‘ve been making attacks at each other troubles Democratic voters, because the voters basically like both of them and don‘t like to see them slamming each other. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

PAGE:  But that‘s become the new trend. 

MATTHEWS:  But, Andrea, I guess this is pretty—I wonder how they can get together in a couple months if they have to, maybe not form a ticket, but form a political party for the fall.  Look at this, Obama‘s radio ad running in South Carolina—or rather his running ad and he is keeping this one on the air.  The Clintons are pulling theirs, which got pretty tough.  “The Clintons will say anything to get elected.”  I don‘t know how you walk back from that in November and say, what I meant to say was or that was just politics. 

Once you say a person will lie or distort or do anything to win an election, how do you come back and say, but otherwise they are a swell guy or a swell woman? 

MITCHELL:  I agree with you, Chris.  I was struck by that tone in that ad and, of course, the Clinton ad that went up, attacking, vilifying and taking out of context his comments about the Reagan record.  They pulled that one down.  They said it was beyond the normal rotation.  It was only up for one day.  They got a new one going up—

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MITCHELL:  -- which is Bill Clinton saying vote for my wife, especially if you are African-American.  You suffered in this economy, especially in South Carolina, and she can pull people together, which, of course, is disputed by the latest poll findings. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MITCHELL:  But I don‘t know how they come together.  This has gotten meaner, uglier than anything I‘ve seen in a long time and we all know that John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson, but I can‘t even imagine people coming together.  More and more Democrats whom I know are saying to me, after what we see going down, we could never get together with the other guy or woman. 

MATTHEWS:  All that Johnson—all that Johnson and John Connally did was drop the fact that Kennedy had Addison Disease, which had the dishonor of being true. 

We‘ll be right back with the round table.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, live from Boca, down here in Florida, right before the debate tonight. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE)  Dan, it looks to me like Romney is putting a lot of air ads, a lot ads on TV right down here, spending millions of his own dollars down here.  He could win this thing because Giuliani and McCain are splitting up the centrist conservative vote. 

BALZ:  You‘ve hit on both the key things, Chris.  One is the Romney money.  He made a decision right after Michigan to buy a million dollars worth of television in Florida, which they started last week.  I was told yesterday that they upped that by almost half a million. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s his money. 

BALZ:  Most of that in south Florida, which is Giuliani territory.  He‘s prepared to write the checks.  He‘s the only one who can do it at that level.  So that‘s important down here. 

The second is the McCain people coming out of South Carolina had hoped to make this a race between them and Romney, with the idea of diminishing Giuliani.  They know that the key to victory for them is for Giuliani to keep going down, down, down, down, because they are splitting that. 

MATTHEWS:  Clarence, do you see that happening, Giuliani becoming marginalized by Tuesday so that McCain can take on Romney? 

PAGE:  Do I see Giuliani getting marginalized? 

MATTHEWS:  Do you see Giuliani disappearing, melting into the sand? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, if he does not score well in Florida.  He staked so much on this high-risk tactic of putting all of his eggs in the Florida basket that now he‘s got to come out of that state with some kind of a bounce.  Otherwise, I don‘t know where he goes from there. 

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, seems to me if you‘re go to play rope-a-dope, sooner or later, you‘ve got to start punching.  He‘s got to do it here this weekend. 

MITCHELL:  I think he‘s got to do it tonight.  I think that‘s one of his advantages.  Rudy Giuliani could be a better debater than John McCain.  John McCain doesn‘t have enough for the ad buy.  Rudy Giuliani has to score tonight.  If that happens, then he can perhaps stop this free fall. 

MATTHEWS:  Got to go.  Thank you very much.  We‘ll all be back, Clarence Page, Andrea Mitchell, Dan Balz, thank you.  Join us again in one hour for another live edition of HARDBALL.  More about this big debate coming up tonight at 9:00 Eastern.  It‘s the Republican presidential candidates debate, moderated by Brian Williams and Tim Russert.

I‘ll be back at 10:30 tonight all the way to midnight.  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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