updated 1/25/2008 11:26:54 AM ET 2008-01-25T16:26:54

Guests: Howard Fineman, Charlie Crist, Perry Bacon, Tre Tailor, Tom DeLay

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  (INAUDIBLE)

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews and welcome to HARDBALL live on the campus of (INAUDIBLE) in Boca Raton, Florida.  Well, I don‘t think I can talk after that.  But tonight at 9:00 p.m.  Eastern, the MSNBC Republican debate on the eve of Tuesday‘s big Florida primary.  Also, it‘s war today between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in South Carolina.  That primary is on Saturday.  And by the way, we‘ve got the latest polls to show you tonight from there. 

Another casualty on the Democratic side today, Dennis Kucinich has dropped out of the presidential race.  He‘ll remain a member of Congress. 

Tonight‘s debate for Republicans could be sudden death.  If Giuliani, Rudy Giuliani wins tonight, wins the debate rather on tonight, wins the debate tonight and the election on Tuesday, he could create a three-way race between him, among him and Mitt Romney and John McCain, going all the way into super Tuesday when 22 states will have their vote.  If he doesn‘t win tonight, most people think Giuliani will die down here in the Sunshine State. 

If Mitt Romney wins down here next Tuesday, he and McCain are destined, I think, to wage a long war of attrition, that‘s where you run until you run out of money, over money.  prestige and winnability in November to decide that long fight.  If Romney wins down here on Tuesday, a long fight coming up between he and John McCain. 

If John McCain manages to pull it out down here Tuesday night, and a lot of that will have to do how he does here tonight in the debate with Brian and Tim, he‘s off to save the presidency from the Democrats.  That‘s the way the Republican will see it.  I think he‘ll get the crown. 

So, tonight‘s debate could answer some big questions.  Are the candidates in the run really happy with the leadership this country has had the last seven years?  If so, let‘s hear them say so.  If they are not happy with the way things have been going for seven years, let‘s hear how they would change it. 

Florida‘s own Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC‘s MORNING JOE.  “News Week‘s” Howard Fineman is an MSNBC political analyst and NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell is, of course, covering the Clinton campaign.  Ladies and gentlemen, I have to ask you about this.  Today Sylvester Stallone of “Rocky” fame endorsed John McCain for president, sticking it to Chuck Norris who has endorsed who?  Mike Huckabee.  Here is the reaction from Senator McCain to the great news that he has been embraced by Rambo. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN MCCAIN ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Sylvester Stallone, I‘m sending out.  look out Chuck Norris, Sylvester is coming after you.  He‘s coming after you and he‘s going to get you.  So, you better run. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s the start of it—later on, Joe Scarborough, he‘s said he‘s going to go running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, wave his arms in the air as everybody does, these days, to celebrate the endorsement of “Sly” Stallone.  This campaign is getting really intellectual, isn‘t it?  “Sly” Stallone against Chuck Norris. 

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC ANCHOR:  He‘s a little late.  That may have worked in Iowa, but now in Florida on Super Tuesday, it‘s about cash.  Mitt Romney has it, nobody else does.  I talked to all of my relatives, I talked to all of my friends, I talked to all the political people in the state, they say Romney has been up on TV non-stop for the past week.  Nobody else is close.  McCain may spend half a million dollars in Florida.  That‘s like going out to the Atlantic when a hurricane comes along and spitting in the wind. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you saying in Florida, the Sunshine State of your career is buyable. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yeah.  It‘s rentable.  Well, it‘s rentable, but the thing is, I brought this up before.  You had Bill McCollum for 14 years, one of the most conservative members in the United States Congress, the last five days of the campaign for Senate, last time, Mel Martinez said Bill McCollum was too liberal to be in the Senate.  He ran the commercial so much that people believed it... 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  You mean to say that in Florida, if Hillary Clinton had said that Barack Obama was deep down a Reaganite, they would believe it. 

SCARBOROUGH:  If she went on TV for a week and had money and Barack Obama didn‘t.  Listen, Mitt Romney in the state of Florida...

MATTHEWS:  You‘re hesitating. 

SCARBOROUGH:  No, I‘m just saying in the state of Florida, Mitt Romney can basically... 

MATTHEWS:  Is it like Pennsylvania, Howard, it‘s a state with so many media markets you‘ve got to buy it.  You can‘t reach out, you can‘t meet everybody. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  You can‘t.  You can‘t and it depends on waves.  And the fact that Mitt Romney is making a real run here is fascinating and I think could turn out to be the story of this race down here. 

MATTHEWS:  The big win by Mitt. 

FINEMAN:  If he can do it.  And he‘s buying it.  He‘s spent at least $40 million, some estimates, of his own money overall so far and he‘s got another hundred million to go. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, based on the track record in New Hampshire, we could jinx this guy right now.  Let‘s say it all together, “Mitt has it in the bag.” Let‘s hear it, a big chorus.  Will that do it?  That‘s like a cover of “Sports Illustrated.” You‘re going down after that. 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC ANCHOR: Well, you know, John McCain doesn‘t have the money.  And you earlier played one of his Web ads, he‘s up on the Web, that isn‘t the same as buying television time.  That‘s why the stakes are so high for him in the debate tonight.  He has to do well in the debate and he is not a natural debater, let‘s face it.  This debate could be critical, a really important turning point.  This is free media, and this is what he needs because going retail, as my friends and colleagues down there are suggesting, is really tough in these media markets. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at the new mason Dixon poll, it‘s the latest poll out of Florida, it‘s pretty hot for Romney, 30 points, McCain 26, Giuliani 18, Huckabee, now it looks to me, if you look at the bottom of that card, right there—Joe, you know this state better than anybody, if Giuliani continues to fade, he‘s already gone from 36 two months ago to 18, if Huckabee doesn‘t put any money into this state, because he doesn‘t have any, will those two fading at the bottom, who will they help? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, obviously Huckabee fading is helping Mitt Romney. 

You combine Huckabee fading and Fred Thompson getting out of the race... 

MATTHEWS:  All helps Romney. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Huge.

MATTHEWS:  Rudy taking a run at McCain.

SCARBOROUGH:  Yeah, all the Romney people have always wanted is Mitt Romney against John McCain, because then it‘s the 60 percent of the conservatives against the 30 percent of the moderates versus the 10 percent of the confused. 

FINEMAN:  By the way though, it‘s John McCain, at least right now who runs strongest against the Democratic candidates, not Mitt Romney.  But Romney has shown an ability to keep at it.  To just keep at it, to keep spending the money, to keep shifting around, to calibrate his message. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you this.  If everybody says the great unifying figure, the great unifying persona for the Republican Party come November, if it is Hillary Clinton, Hillary Clinton.  But, if they‘re not thinking strategically now they may well have a candidate in the field against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards who‘s not there to win. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I always love people that underestimate—I‘m just saying, I always love people that underestimate Mitt Romney.  Let‘s step back for a second.  This is a Mormon.  This is a Republican who got elected in Massachusetts.  Please.  Underestimate Mitt Romney at your own peril.  This guy has been underestimated time and again.  We heard after Iowa he was done.  We heard after New Hampshire he was done.  We went up to Michigan, he won and everybody said, yeah, he won, but he lied winning.  I mean, everybody underestimates this guy.  You watch, he‘s going to keep being underestimated.

MATTHEWS:  But he was running against someone who wanted to make the age of consent three.  OK? 

(LAUGHTER)

I mean, there was quite a liberal running against him. 

SCARBOROUGH:  At the same time, it was Massachusetts.  And Mitt Romney has been underestimated.  He will do well. 

FINEMAN:  He‘s got a relentlessness to him that, if not appealing, can just make people give up at a certain point.  The guy was famous for his ability as a businessman, as a negotiator, and he‘s continuing to negotiate and negotiate.  Interestingly tonight, McCain has got a decision to make, because they are going to have time during the debate to ask questions of each other. 

MATTHEWS:  Do they ever take that seriously?  Do they ever really do it? 

FINEMAN:  I think McCain may want to do it. 

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, get in here and analyze this if you can.  You‘ve been following the Democrats, let‘s look at the Republicans tonight.  We‘ve would got an hour and a half to basically finish this out.  This is about the end game for all of them.  They may not have many more opportunities of free airtime to reach an entire market of Florida.  What do they do with this?  Does John McCain have a Sunday punch, for example?  Can he come out and knock out Romney or is he just going to have to suffer the loss of all this advertising time.

MITCHELL:  I think he‘s going to be tough against Romney and tough against Romney on Romney versus Romney.  What he‘ll do is point out all of the inconsistencies that he will claim in Romney‘s record.  The argument, though, is going to have to be framed around territory that is not that inviting for either Rudy Giuliani or John McCain and that‘s the economy.  That is the big issue that is overwhelming everything else. 

And after the stimulus package agreement today in Washington, and with a lot of questions as to whether it will work, won‘t work, in a state that has had so many mortgage foreclosures, that‘s where these candidates really have to prove themselves tonight.  Not on 9/11, not on terror, perhaps on the issue of Cuba, yes, on other foreign policy issues and there are a lot of veterans and military people in the state that John McCain can appeal to, naturally.  But they really do have to prove their economic credentials.  And Mitt Romney has some advantages there. 

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, let‘s take a look, and everybody take a look new NBC poll, just out, Wall Street Journal poll, our partners.  Look at this, 19 percent of the country says the country is headed in the right direction.  Joe, that‘s always been a pretty objective look at the happiness level of the country, a pretty good indicator, leading in the cater of who will win the next election.  Can a Republican offer himself up, they‘re all three men, one of them and say I can get us on the right direction, I know we‘re on the wrong direction.  Can they shift directions? 

SCARBOROUGH:  No, you they ever win running against a president of your own party. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, then you have to say, keep going in the direction that 80 percent of the country doesn‘t like. 

SCARBOROUGH:  What you saying is—but then again, George bush has a 70 percent approval rating among Republicans.  We aren‘t in open states anymore, these are Republicans that are going to vote.  Primary voters like George Bush.  John McCain...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, sell Bush this Spring and this Winter, but sell change in the Summer. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Exactly.  You say the tax cuts were the most effective tax cuts.  They got us past the funk. 

FINEMAN:  And that‘s what they will do in the debate tonight because McCain‘s weakest point in a Republican only primary, he voted against the tax, about as close to religion as you can get in the Republican Party on this. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, take a minute.  Everybody has to bow for the local guy, here.  You‘re the favorite son, tonight, Mr.  Joe Scarborough and someday this state will realize it.  I think they will march to the polls for you at some point. 

Let me ask you this, again, give me a kind of a finger-painting look at the state of Florida.  I can‘t figure it out. 

SCARBOROUGH:  OK, it‘s very easy.  The old saying is the further south you go, the further north you go.  So, you get below the I-4 corridor, which splits the state, a lot of Yankees.  On this side they are all from the northeast, they‘re from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, New England.  On the west side of the state they‘re all from Ohio and Michigan.  Mitt Romney is going to tear through the western part of this state. 

MATTHEWS:  To be blunt, the east coast of Florida is ethnic and the coast is WASP.

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, they‘re Midwest.  The west coast is Midwest, you have Ohio and Michigan people settling there.  They‘re all Mitt Romney... 

MATTHEWS:  They all look like Mitt Romney. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And then, as you go to north Florida, that is the south. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I came down here to cover a rally for President Bush when he was running back in 2000, and I thought he might lose Florida and we can argue about whether he did in terms of voter intention.  All I saw in the crowd were pinks or limes.  Everybody was in a pink or lime outfit.  They‘re all rich.  Is that the Romney crowd? 

FINEMAN:  Don‘t forget...

SCARBOROUGH:  No.  They‘re not all rich.  Actually the people on the coastlines are rich, people in the middle—Howard started to say something earlier that‘s fascinating, when McCain asks that question, does he ask it of Romney.  If I‘m McCain, I ask it of Giuliani, because Giuliani is the guy that‘s taken all of my support on national security. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s intramurals, right there.

FINEMAN:  Yeah, that‘s intramurals, but I don‘t think McCain is going to aim down I think he‘s got Romney on the brink. 

MATTHEWS:  What he doesn‘t like.  According to the “New York times,” today, he doesn‘t like the man... 

FINEMAN:  He said campaigning against Mitt Romney is like wrestling with a pig.  You get dirty and the pig still likes it. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And the pig likes it.  But the problem is, conservatives...

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, are you surprised that the “New York Times,” the “Grey Lady,” dared to talk about personal attitudes in the paper, today?  So high up in the paper, that these guys just don‘t like this guy, Mitt Romney. 

MITCHELL:  It tells you a lot also about the media as well, the “New York Times” and everything else, because Mitt Romney with his record of changing positions, he would say adjusting to new realities, whatever, has created this persona for himself and they really went after him. 

It is true that the other candidates really don‘t like him.  That‘s why I think that John McCain will go after him going up, as Howard just said.  But, the other thing he has to be careful about is looking mean.  McCain when he gets too fierce can appear unappealing and that isn‘t the John McCain a lot of us know and a lot of people see in the Senate.  But, he‘s got to watch his sort of tone tonight if he goes after Mitt Romney as hard as he wants to.

MATTHEWS:  That is what he we used to call in the old days, Andrea, a spontaneous demonstration on the floor of the convention—Joe. 

SCARBOROUGH:  If I can say this, John McCain‘s problem is that the conservative base does not like John McCain.  The conservative base, right now, is beginning to embrace Mitt Romney.  If he shoots at Mitt Romney... 

MATTHEWS:  Have you voted yet? 

SCARBOROUGH:  No, I haven‘t.  No, I‘m telling you. 

MATTHEWS:  I know you‘re speaking for a base, but it‘s a combination of big money and attitude.  Right?

SCARBOROUGH:  It‘s big money and attitude, but also it‘s Fred Thompson getting out of the race, it‘s Mike Huckabee fading.  And Chris, we‘ve said this before.  I‘m not knocking John McCain, I‘m telling you that Republicans—editorial page writers love him.  Republicans don‘t trust anybody that runs an editorial page... 

MATTHEWS:  As they say in Massachusetts, the shape of the field defines the victory.  And as long as there‘s a couple of moderates, if you will, coming at each other, they divide the moderate vote.  One conserv gets it all.  Thank you.  That‘s how it works in Massachusetts.  It works the same way here, right?  Thank you, everybody.

It‘s mathematics, it‘s arithmetic.  Thank you, Joe Scarborough of the Panhandle.  Andrea Mitchell, Howard Fineman.  Coming up, which one of the Republican candidates is going to carry the party in November?  (INAUDIBLE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, less than two hours away right now from the Republican debate.  I‘m here at Florida at Atlantic University, down here in Boca Raton, Florida.  The stakes, of course, couldn‘t be higher for the presidential candidates.  Let‘s look at what the stakes are tonight with a real Republican out here, DeLay, former House majority leader, he‘s the foundation for Coalition for a Conservative Majority. 

Mr.  Delay, thank you for joining us.  What—well, just a minute, we got to get some water here.  What‘s your position on the Republican nomination?  Who should get it?  Who will win?  What‘s the best candidacy? 

TOM DELAY ®, FMR HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER:  Well, that‘s hard to say.  I haven‘t taken a position.  I‘m probably not going to take a position on the candidates until I have to vote on March the 4th.  What‘s going on right now, though, is the party, as you well know, Chris, is redefining itself or finding itself, so to speak, and it‘s using the primary process to do that.  And it‘s coming down to four candidates, two moderates and two conservatives and the party is beginning to shake all this out.  I hope we get to a brokered convention, because I think that will make this be a party stronger.

MATTHEWS:  What happens, though, if we have—let‘s try—let‘s game this out.  Suppose Mitt Romney, who is leading in the poll we just showed, wins on Tuesday, does he then go into a war of attrition against John McCain, for example?  Do they go around the country and try to—is there anybody else in the race at that point? 

DELAY:  Well, I think if Giuliani doesn‘t do well in Florida, it‘s really going to hurt him.  If he can continue to raise money, maybe he can hang on until February 5.  I think Huckabee will stay in and he‘ll be a player in February the 5th.  Romney, obviously, will get a big bump if he wins.  McCain will get a big bump if he wins.  But, February 5 is 22 states that are completely different and I just think it‘s going to be very difficult, if you get down to actually counting delegates, it‘s going to be difficult for anybody to pull out and be the odds-on winner even after February the 5th

MATTHEWS:  Suppose Mitt Romney starts writing $10 or $20 million in checks to spend on February 5.  Could he just win the nomination that way, just win the nomination by, purchase basically, personal wealth? 

DELAY:  I don‘t think so.  I think that‘s not enough money for 22 states, No.  1, but I think if he wins in Florida, he‘s going to be able to raise a lot of money outside his own fortune.  So, I think he obviously is going to go the distance and he‘ll be able to go the distance was he has the money.  What‘s key here is how well do the others do in Florida.  If they look like they are hanging therein, I think Huckabee, certainly in the southern states, McCain in some of the Midwest states, might be able to hold on at least until March the 4th, the next Super Tuesday. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s hard for me to figure out what‘s going on.  I mean, rush Limbaugh, who has some weight, says THAT if either Huckabee, who‘s on the cultural right, I thought, or McCain, who was hard to read on cultural issues, and obviously a maverick on just about everything, he says if either one of those candidates wins, “it will destroy the Republican Party.” Do you accept that from rush Limbaugh? 

DELAY:  I don‘t agree with Rush on Huckabee.  I think Huckabee is a good man, he‘s a man of character and he‘s obviously more of a conservative than McCain.  But, I do believe that with McCain.  If McCain becomes president of the United States or even the nominee of the party, I think the party will be just fractured for many years to come. 

MATTHEWS:  So, really you‘re looking at Huckabee or Romney, yourself. 

DELAY:  Yeah, I could—I can‘t vote for Giuliani as a nominee, but I can vote for him for president.  But, if I have to pick, I‘m getting down to Huckabee or Romney because they have shown me to be two of the more conservatives, and they understand that the party is the conservative party and they are running to lead the party and the nation and not just themselves, like McCain is. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you worried at all by going the root of orthodoxy, picking somebody that you do like to cover their (inaudible), then you leave open the center to Hillary Clinton or even a Barack.  Let‘s talk Hillary.  Could Hillary sweep the suburbs, for example, from your party if you run these two conservatives? 

DELAY:  No, I don‘t think so at all.  First of all, neither Huckabee nor Romney are too conservative.  That may be true if it were me running, but no, I don‘t think so at all.  I think if Romney or Huckabee is the nominee, it‘s going to be a philosophical debate going into the general election.  You could only get more liberal than Hillary Clinton if you‘re Barack Obama.  So the two of them are so liberal and so far on the left that this is going to be a philosophical debate as to where the nation should go, the liberal or conservative way.  And the centers are going to have to pick one or the other and the country, I think, is center right, it‘s not center left. 

MATTHEWS:  How would you feel if you got up the morning after the election this year and Hillary Clinton were president of the United States? 

DELAY:  Well, I would be worried for the country for the next two years, but it would bittersweet, I‘d be afraid Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid would do a lot of damage to the country over the next two years.  On the other hand, Hillary Clinton as president of the United States, probably more so than her husband, will do more to build the Republican Party and take back the majority in Congress than anybody else that I know of. 

MATTHEWS:  You know what might make that true, back when Bill Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas, he came in rather elitist, he brought in best and brightest, behaved basically like an elite Northerner, an Ivy Leaguer and then when he got to the presidency he basically did the same thing.  In both cases he learned his lesson, came back a centrist.  He fixed up his governorship, politically, was elected five more times, he picked up his presidency, thanks to you guys who helped balance him out, and he ended up being a pretty popular guy throughout his presidency, notwithstanding the Monica problem.  Do you think Hillary has a particular danger of coming into office and being elitist and too liberal her first two years? 

DELAY:  Absolutely.  She will be—she cannot help herself.  She will overreach in those two years and the American people will see what the affects of having a liberal as president of the United States will have on the country.  Where Bill Clinton was so popular, is he was signing legislation that was designed and pushed by the Republican Congress, so he was basically a Republican-like president. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Do you think that you are really telling me, Mr.  Delay, and you know what you‘re doing, that your team would like to kick rather than receive in this bad weather game?  It‘s no time to be president in the next couple of years.  You‘d rather kick the ball to the other side, have them pick up the ball on the third yard line and then you rush then into the end zone.  Is that what you‘re really telling me? 

DELAY:  No, Chris, not at all. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, yes you are. 

DELAY:  Not at all.  No

MATTHEWS:  Yes you are.  You‘re delighted at the idea the Clintons will get the presidency and suffer. 

DELAY:  No, no.  I would love to have a conservative Republican as president to take on Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.  The results would be the same. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, thank you very much, sir, for joining us down here in Florida for the big Republican bakeoff tonight, here.  Thank you very much, DeLay. 

Up next, who is the most disliked among the Republican candidates, among themselves, among the ones they don‘t like.  And tonight‘s big numbers coming to you.  It‘s about pushing the wrong button, believe it or not.  You‘re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY LENO, TALK SHOW HOST:  Looks like Rudy Giuliani having a rough time in Florida.  Man, I tell you, his early lead evaporated quicker than those wedding vows, didn‘t it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So what else is new out there on the campaign trail? Well, how about a little brotherly love from Mitt Romney?  “The New York Times” reports today that among the small circle of remaining Republican candidates for president, Romney is the most personally disliked by his fellow candidates.  Isn‘t that a nice thing to read in the “New York Times?” 

And what‘s this all about?  Well the article says that Romney‘s relentless attacks and television advertisements, the perception that he‘s an ideological panderer and resentment over his bottomless campaign money is the reason for that hatred.  I love the comment by my friend Dan Stern in the paper today that said Mitt Romney is the kind of guy that John McCain and his friends used to beat up in school back in recess time. 

Anyway, take a look at this moment on the trail.  It‘s a 5-year-old girl named Chance McKenna (sic) asking president Bill Clinton what do you do when you get married?  Well here is the question, here is the answer. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  What do you do when you get married?  Look at that.  See all the press people back there.  They put me through the ringer this morning and everything I said is about to pale in comparison to what I‘m now facing. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Yeah and no comment.  And now it‘s time for the HARDBALL big number tonight.  Hillary Clinton whacked Barack Obama in Monday‘s presidential debate over his old Illinois Senate voting record.  Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY 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:  Well not only is Obama taking heat for voting present back in his Illinois legislative days, he‘s also taking heat for bungling his Illinois votes.  Here is the story, courtesy of the “LA Times.” 

On several occasions back then, Obama angered his fellow Democrats by voting one way back in Springfield, then declaring that he had literally pushed the wrong button as a legislator, that he had made a mechanical voting mistake.  On one case, Obama voted to strip millions of dollars from a child welfare office all because of what he then called a failure to push the right button. 

Well skeptics might say that there‘s more to this than meets the eye.  The Illinois State Senate rules do allow a lawmaker who makes the mistake to clear up his intention after the fact.  However, the original vote always stands whether it‘s a mistake or not.  This allows the Senate to give a little something to both sides.  He can say I voted your direction to side, say I wanted to vote your direction to the other side.

Hmm, how many times back in the Senate legislative days did Obama declare a botched vote by himself?  At least five times.  Five cases of voter error. 

Let me get this straight.  He wanted to vote one way but voted the other.  Reminds me of the folks down here in Palm Beach County back in 2000 who wanted to vote for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman but ended up voting for our own Pat Buchanan.  Isn‘t this what got George Bush elected in the first place?

Tonight‘s big number, five.

Up next, the governor of Florida, Charlie Crist.  This state‘s critical.  You‘re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re in Boca Raton, Florida where the big debate tonight is coming up in about an hour.  It‘s going to be the Republican debate.  Many say perhaps the last big Republican debate of this fight for the presidency.  I‘m sitting here with one of the - well, the most immensely popular politicians in the state, Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida. 

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST ®, FLORIDA:  That‘s the kiss of death. 

MATTHEWS:  No, it is true.  Let me ask you, what do you make of Rudy Giuliani‘s catastrophic insurance fund?  Do you really believe the rest of the country is going to pay for people to live in this gorgeous state?

CRIST:  Well I think what‘s important to remember about the CAT  fund idea is that it‘s not just to help Florida, it‘s to help people in California with mudslides and earthquakes, people in the Midwest where they have tornadoes or in the Northeast where blizzards occur.  This is not uniquely a Florida thing where we have catastrophe. 

MATTHEWS:  OK well let‘s what Giuliani explaining his plan here last night on HARDBALL, governor. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We‘ve also been more involved in the whole issue of the National Catastrophic Fund from the point of view of homeland security.  I think we understand it better than the other Republican candidates, realize the need for it and would fight for it if I were president of the United States. 

MATTHEWS:  How would you fund that fund?  Let‘s talk about that fund, that catastrophic fund.  How do you fund it?  Where does the money come from?

GIULIANI:  You‘re funding it anyway, Chris.  John McCain is not in favor of it, he says FEMA should do it.  Well FEMA is paying out billions and billions of dollars.  So you set up a backstop and it would only be used if there was a once in a lifetime, one in a generation occasion.  And therefore it would allow insurance companies to have accessible insurance.  It may never get called on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What I can‘t understand is how you can create a big program of underwriting insurance and backing up with guarantees et cetera and honestly say it won‘t cost anything.

CRIST:  Sure it will cost something.

MATTHEWS:  Well he‘s saying it doesn‘t have to be funded.

CRIST:  Well look what Katrina cost our country.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, I know.

CRIST:  And you think about the millions that we spent there. And it comes in late.  Wouldn‘t it be better to be organized, have some premiums to be charged, make interest in the interim and have a plan that‘s in effect so when that these disasters hit our country, we‘re ready, prepared and respond more quickly.

MATTHEWS:  Was this individual insurance?

CRIST:  Is it individual insurance?  Well, sure it would be for individual people.

MATTHEWS:  So a guy who is driving a truck up in Buffalo, New York, when there‘s five feet of snow, and he‘s digging himself out in the morning and he‘s paying taxes that morning so that somebody can live down here.

CRIST:  Well, we have a catastrophic fund already in Florida.

MATTHEWS:  Why should we have to spend a nickel to help you guys down here?

CRIST:  We would help each other is what the idea is.

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to help him dig out his snow in the morning?

CRIST:  Absolutely, why wouldn‘t we?

MATTHEWS:  What, are you going to send a truck up there to help him deliver the snow off his driveway?

CRIST:  Well I think the serious point is we want to help our fellow Americans.

MATTHEWS:  No, seriously.  We live in weather.  And weather can be brutal. And in people live up in the cold parts of the country have to put up with weather too, every day of their lives to live in cold weather.  They‘ve got to drive through it, they‘ve got to get through it, they‘ve got to dig their way through it.  Down here in Florida you‘ve got weather too.  Why should the guy in the tough neighborhood that can‘t afford to live in Florida help you guys?  I‘m just asking as a political - what I‘m merely asking is do you really think it‘s going to ever pass the Senate?

CRIST:  I don‘t know if it would or not, but I think it should. And I think it‘s the right thing to for our country.  I think it‘s good to protect our fellow Americans, whether they‘re in the north and in the blizzards, whether they‘re in California where my sister lives and they have earthquakes and mudslides or in the Midwest where they have these horrible tornadoes.

MATTHEWS:  But don‘t you think Rudy Giuliani is pandering saying something will pass the Senate knowing it never will?

CRIST:  No, I really don‘t think so. I think it‘s in his heart. You have to take these people at their word. And I certainly do.  I know it‘s grueling what they‘re going through right now and I have enormous respect for them.

MATTHEWS:  Joe Scarborough who of course is from Florida here, he says THAT the way Florida works out geographically is there‘s so many media markets, it‘s such a big state is that the only way you can really win a contest politically down here is to be able to put television ads on, you can‘t get around and meet people. And therefore Romney is in the best position next Tuesday.

CRIST:  Well certainly television is powerful. There‘s no question about it.  We had to run an enormous amount of television ads back in 2006 in the governor‘s race.  But it‘s important to be on the ground too.  I mean grassroots and television, any way that you can communicate with the voter, it‘s important to do that, use every ounce of energy you have to get your message across.  And it looks to me like all of them are trying to do that in the very best way they can.

MATTHEWS:  Well I moderated the debate that you won.  No, you did win it.  And I‘m just asking you if you think a debate win tonight is important for the guy running. Will it help offset big advertising, will it match it?  What will it do?  Will it be a big success tonight by one of the candidates?

CRIST:  A lot of that depends on how people like you interpret it - candidly.  And the media impact of it has an enormous impact.  How they do and who does well tonight will make a difference, there‘s no question about it. 

MATTHEWS:  I used to ask a producer, I still do, would you go down to the media mall with all the print reporters and see what they are all saying because it is a group of people that get together. You‘re right.

CRIST:  That‘s what matters, it really does.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re a great guy. Thanks, Charlie Crist.

CRIST:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Up next, the final debate before the Florida primary on Tuesday.  Will the debate change their minds?  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIULIANI:  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.  In our Politics Fix, the Republican debates here in just a few minutes in Boca Raton, just an hour from now.  Our roundtable tonight, MSNBC host Tucker Carlson, South Carolina radio talk show host Tre Tailor and Perry Bacon of the “Washington Post.”

Perry first, then Tre, then Tucker, same question.  The Clintons have called Barack Obama a Reaganite. Barack Obama‘s ad comes back and says the Clintons will say anything to win this election.  How does this take in the Democratic Party?

PERRY BACON, WASHINGTON POST:  I think it shows both sides are getting very intense.  I think what we‘re seeing also is that because these two candidates, Clinton and Obama have very little differences on actual policy issues, they‘re sort of getting more personal on their attacks and both sides are getting close and they‘re dialing it up, but not a lot of difference on issues like on the Republican side.

MATTHEWS:  OK Tre, do you think this is going to cause permanent damage?

TRE TAILOR, SC RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  I really do. I think South Carolinians, Americans are really tired of the dog fights, the cat fights.  We really want to know what the issues are and how the candidates feel about the issues. It‘s not a schoolyard fight, it‘s about who is going to be the best person for America. And I think it is. I really think Americans and South Carolinians are really tired of the back biting, especially within the party.

MATTHEWS:  Tucker, what happens if Barack Obama come April or May when they are trying to settle this thing up, he looks Bill Clinton in the eye, he looks Hillary Clinton in the eye, “You said I was a Reaganite. Do you believe that? And if you don‘t, why did you say it?”  I don‘t know how they get past this.

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Well, that‘s not what they have to get past. They have to get past the racial stuff. Here is the story.   Obama has lost half his white support in South Carolina in the past week. He‘s lost it because there is a campaign underway by the Clintons to pain him as the black candidate. Robert Reich, his former labor secretary said it today.  He said Clinton is injecting race into this race. And that‘s true.  And it‘s hurt him among white and Latinos.  He‘s not getting 8 percent of white female voters in South Carolina.

John Edwards, who has no chance of winning, is beating Obama among white voters in South Carolina three to one.  That‘s the story, the racial polarization on the Democratic side.  This has ramifications that will last a very long time. I think it hurts the Clintons over the long haul.  In the short-term, I think it ends Obama‘s candidacy. It‘s an amazing story that nobody is paying attention to for some reason.

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe take that?  Do you buy that, Perry?

BACON:  I think it might be a little overstated.  I think that whoever wins this campaign will get mostly black support.

MATTHEWS:  No, but what Tucker says about the Clinton strategy here, to re-divide America racially.

BACON:  No, I don‘t see it that way.  I think they are trying to win.  I think Bill Clinton mentioned today that Obama is an African-American candidate, will get most of the black vote.

MATTHEWS:  I know they are trying to win.  What are they doing right or wrong? Don‘t hedge here.

BACON:   don‘t think they are doing anything wrong.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me get down to you, Tre.  Do you believe the Clintons purposefully re-divided the country, not that it needed a lot of help, ethnically and racially here?

TAILOR:  Well you know what, the fact is he is the black candidate, he is an African-American candidate.

On the flip side, they say Bill Clinton was the African-American president.  So I would hate to think that they are trying to divide racially when the Clintons have so much African-American support. It would not be wise to split the country, because then it would split it for them also.

CARLSON:  Well, wait a second.  Let me ask just a very simple question.  Why exactly did Obama‘s support among white voters in South Carolina drop so dramatically over the past week?

It‘s not that he said anything to alienate white people specifically.  He didn‘t come out for Malcolm X.  The answer is that the Clintons reminded everybody systematically this guy is black.  And it was a part of a campaign that we‘ve watched.  It‘s been out in the open.  Bill Clinton said today as Perry just said, my wife may lose because Obama is getting the black vote.  He‘s a black candidate.

That‘s the strategy. There‘s no other explanation for the loss of white support in South Carolina.

TAILOR:  So Tucker are you saying that people didn‘t—I was going to say are you saying that people didn‘t recognize that he was black? They didn‘t know they were in some kind of - had some kind of utopic view that he‘s the best candidate, not just the black candidate?

Are you saying that people didn‘t know he was black? They didn‘t realize it? 

CARLSON:  Barack Obama has always been black.

TAILOR:  This is not about him being black and white, it‘s about what he‘s talking about.

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s appealing to the blacks and who isn‘t?  And whites hear that, they don‘t like the sound of it. I‘m assuming human nature here.  Nobody likes another group being worked at their expense.

CARLSON:  And that‘s the Clintons who did that.

MATTHEWS:  This like a cavalcade of trying to compete for black votes.  But whites are obviously going to feel left out.  This isn‘t racism, this is just human nature here.  And I think the question is, I leave it open to the table.  Did they play this to make it happen or did it just happen this way?

CARLSON:  I don‘t even think that‘s an open question. I think it‘s so obvious.

BACON:  I don‘t think I agree. I think part of the reason why Hillary is doing better with the white vote is because she‘s been winning states.  And I think Obama once he won Iowa in part is doing better among African-Americans because they think he can win now. I‘m not surprised the racial polarization.

MATTHEWS:  But why is he losing the white part?

BACON:  I‘d be curious about that.  I haven‘t seen the polling on that. I‘m curious.  But Hillary is doing better. That might be one reason.

MATTHEWS:  Well my anecdotal information is focusing the whites are watching the competition for black votes.

CARLSON:  That‘s not what the numbers say.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, let me ask you about the Republicans, Tucker. You first. Down here, it looks like Romney has put all this money on the air down here.  It looks like he might have the juice. What‘s the impact, if that‘s true?

CARLSON:  Well, the impact is enormous. I think John McCain is right when he says “I‘m the best position to beat Hillary Clinton.  I‘m the best general election candidate.”

That can lull you into forgetting how deeply unpopular McCain still is with the base of his party, with conservatives.  They don‘t trust him. You just had Tom DeLay on saying some remarkable things about John McCain.  He‘ll destroy the party.

A lot of people feel that way. And I think McCain really is the front-runner, but his foundation is made of sand. It will collapse I believe if he loses Florida. That‘s not what I want to happen, but I believe that‘s what‘s going to happen.

MATTHEWS:  Perry, thoughts?

BACON:  I agree.  I mean, Romney all the polling throughout has shown that Romney has done better among actual Republican conservatives and McCain has won Michigan and New Hampshire with a lot of Independents here.  This will be a big test for him.  If he can win here among Republicans, it will be a big important test for him.

MATTHEWS:  Ten seconds, Tre.

TAILOR:  We‘ve had our day of reckoning here in South Carolina as far as the party is concerned. It will be interesting to see what happens down there now.

MATTHEWS:  It sure will.  Thank you all for joining me, Tucker, Tre and Perry.

We‘ll be back from Boca Raton in a moment as we get ready for the Republican presidential candidates debate right here in Boca Raton in Florida Atlantic University.  You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to Boca Raton.  In one hour is the Republican presidential debate here moderated by NBC‘s Brian Williams and Tim Russert.  Then at 10:30, the best part of the night, join us for the post-debate when we carve through this and tell you who won. If we‘re lucky, if we can figure it out by then.  Anyway, COUNTDOWN with Keith Olbermann is next.

But we leave you now with something sublime, the National Anthem.  It will be sung by this fellow right before the debate tonight.  Here‘s a preview of the National Anthem, our National Anthem sung by Philip Alongi, Jr.

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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