updated 1/25/2008 11:47:55 AM ET 2008-01-25T16:47:55

Guests: Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Mike DuHaime, Chip Saltsman, Kevin Madden, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Perry Bacon, Rachel Maddow

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  That was of course the final debate among the Republican candidates for president before Tuesday‘s crucial Florida primary.

And I‘m here with Joe Scarborough and Chuck Todd.  And I have to say the questions I went into this debate were who will be the best leader for this country as we continue to face a war in Iraq and a very turbulent and very unpredictable economic situation in the world.  And which of these gentlemen here would be best at doing that?  Joe Scarborough, your reaction to what you saw?

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC HOST:  Well, the first 30 minutes it was about the economy.  I thought Mitt Romney absolutely dominated that segment of it.  You had John McCain talking twice.  We were sort of scratching our heads watching.  Twice he brought up the bridge to nowhere.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

SCARBOROUGH:  He brought up pork barrel spending, something that‘s important to conservatives, but in economic times like these, you want somebody, I think conservatives probably related to Mitt Romney, talking about tax cuts, talking about being a governor, talking about what he did in the private sector for all those years.  On the economic part of this debate, I don‘t know there‘s any doubt that this was Mitt Romney‘s best performance.

MATTHEWS:  Chuck Todd?  Your sense objectively what can we see in terms of performance value?  If we never saw these gentlemen before, what did we see in terms of leadership tonight?

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  And that‘s the most important thing you just asked.  If we never saw them before, because tonight, look, our NBC affiliates here in Florida were taking this debate.  I think all of these guys realized they were giving a first impression, not a last.

All the other debates we‘ve had were almost their last impression to South Carolina where they‘ve lived or New Hampshire where they lived or Michigan where they spent a lot of time.  Here, because there‘s just millions more people in the State of Florida, they treated this debate like this was their introduction to a lot of voters and it really was.  And I think that‘s why you didn‘t see a lot of contentiousness.

But I want to echo what Joe said, I thought this was Mitt Romney‘s best debate performance.  It was simply because he never came under attack.  He really didn‘t.  When he‘s under attack, he flinches and looks terrible.  It didn‘t happen tonight and it allowed him to look comfortable in his own skin for frankly the first time I‘ve seen in months.

MATTHEWS:  Andrea Mitchell is in Washington joining us right now.  The chief foreign affairs correspondent and also political reporter for NBC.  Andrea, what did you see tonight in terms of leadership had you never seen these gentlemen before?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, I actually thought John McCain did well.  I thought Mitt Romney on the economic issues did, indeed, but that John McCain I think was reassuring to Republican conservatives, maybe not to Joe, but to Republican conservatives that he is one of them.  He sounded Reaganesque.  He seemed to be burnishing his conservative credentials.  Even while acknowledging that he has been independent at times and has worked with Democrats, he was really reemphasizing his conservative roots.

MATTHEWS:  I want to just underline what I think the other people were saying, just a moment ago.  Most people are not journalists, they are not political junkies, they have not been watching this for months as we have.  I was watching the debate tonight and watching Romney particularly maybe because he‘s leading in the polls down here.

And I saw a man who made two or three commanding responses to a question.  And someone else in the room said that‘s part of his stump speech.  Well, darn it.  Most people haven‘t heard the speeches of any of these candidates and it sounded good.  I remember when Ronald Reagan asked the country are you better off than you were four years ago by in 1980?  I remember telling to my dad, when he was still alive, oh Reagan said it before.  My dad said I haven‘t heard it before.

SCARBOROUGH:  And that‘s another great point that Chuck Todd Brings up.  This is the introduction, Mitt Romney, I think you look at the first debate that you had, compare Mitt Romney there to now, boy, it‘s not even close.

MATTHEWS:  I think he‘s done well.  Let‘s take a look at a question. 

We‘ll have some fun to start the ball off here tonight.

Let‘s take a look at one of the more novel bites tonight.  Tim Russert put this question to Mitt Romney.  He said what would it be like if you won the nomination of your party, to run against not just Hillary Clinton if she were the nominee, but also former President Bill Clinton, both of them together coming at you?  Let‘s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR:  If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she‘ll be running as a team with her husband.  Specifically, specifically how would you run against Hillary and Bill Clinton in November?

MITT ROMNEY, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I frankly can‘t wait because the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I just can‘t imagine.  I can‘t imagine the American people can imagine.

RUSSERT:  What does that mean?

ROMNEY:  I just think that we want to have a president, not a whole—a team of husband and wife thinking they‘re going to run the country.  Instead you want to elect a president.  I‘m not going to run on the basis of Bill Clinton—if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, it‘s going to be Hillary Clinton.  It‘s going to be her position and postures on a whole series of issues.

And frankly, she is so out of step with the American people on everything from taxes.  She wants to raise taxes.  She has a plan for healthcare.  Her healthcare plan quite simply is one which says, look, we‘re going to give health insurance to everybody by the government.  It‘s going to cost $110 billion more every single year, trillion-plus dollars over 10 years.

Her approach to the war in Iraq, just get out as fast as you can.  Don‘t even think about the sacrifices that‘ve been made or the need to keep al Qaeda from establishing safe havens.  She‘s exactly what‘s wrong in Washington.  I said before Washington is broken.  She is Washington to the core.  She‘s been there too long.  Bill Clinton has been there too long.  The last thing America needs is sending the Clintons back to Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, when you go to the movies and see the previews, you saw a preview just then.  That was the general election campaign of any Republican.  I can‘t even think about Bill Clinton being back in the White House with nothing to do.  Let‘s bring in one of the presidential candidates right now, candidate Governor Mike Huckabee.  Sir, same question to you that was put by Tim Russert to Governor Romney.  What do you think if you have to run against Bill and Hillary Clinton?

MIKE HUCKABEE, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  You know, Chris, the advantage I have is I‘m the only one who has ever faced the Clinton political machine and ran against it every time I was in an election in Arkansas and actually defeated it four times.  Unlike the other candidates who would be flying into their first headwind against the Clinton machine, I understand what we would be up against.  I can tell you, it‘s a formable force.  These folks like to win, I have a great respect for them.  We even have a cordial relationship.  But don‘t kid yourself.  It would be a rock ‘em, sock ‘em kind of election process to be sure.

MATTHEWS:  Do they compete within the rules?  Do they break the rules?  Do they just play hard ball?  Would you say they play a rougher brand of politics.  Watching them campaign now against Barack Obama, how would you rate their performance looking ahead to the general?

HUCKABEE:  Well, I would just say that it‘s going to be a full contact sport.  And I‘ve always said about politics in Arkansas, if you cannot stand the sight of your own blood, the best thing to do is buy a ticket and watch this from the stands, because it‘s going to be a fairly tumultuous affair to say the least.

MATTHEWS:  You have raised a rather cloying point I think with regard to WMD in Iraq.  You said we didn‘t find it.  That doesn‘t mean it wasn‘t there.  Like just because you don‘t find all the Easter eggs, well, do you believe there‘s WMD in Iraq that hasn‘t been found that would have justified the war had we discovered it?

HUCKABEE:  I think it‘s more likely that the weapons of mass destruction that we know he at one time had, he used weapons against the Kurds, good chance they may have gone to Jordan.  We don‘t know where they are.  But the point is, there was every reason to believe they were there at the time.  And it wasn‘t just the president or the Republicans who believed that and who acted upon it.  It was the Democrats as well.  I think for now people to say, well, we didn‘t find them, no, we didn‘t.  But the other side of that, we‘re there.  Let‘s not make a situation worse by pulling out and leaving Iraq in a very unstable situation and having it erupt throughout the Middle East and giving al Qaeda a base and really betraying the trust that many of the Iraqi people have put in us because they have believed we would not abandon them and leave them to the slaughter that they would likely be subject to.

MATTHEWS:  You know, King Abdullah has great pride in having one of the crack intelligence services in the Middle East and totally allied with the United States government.  Do you really believe he allowed the WMD of Saddam Hussein to come into his country?

HUCKABEE:  I don‘t think he would have allowed it.  I don‘t think it was something he would have been a participant in.  Jordan is a good friend.  It‘s an ally that we treasure and cherish and want to maintain.  But I‘m just saying we don‘t know if there were weapons of mass destruction that may have been moved or where they have been moved.  That really is in my mind, Chris, not the point.  We can second-guess what was done.  We have to try to make sure that we finish the job that we went in Iraq to do and leave them with some level of stability and self governance.

One thing we have done well is the tactical operation, quite frankly, the real point where we have not done well is the strategic objective.  Seeing a government that actually is functional.  And that‘s going to be our greatest challenge.  Not the tactical operations that General Petraeus has so effectively done.  But the strategic issues of exactly what it is we‘re going to achieve and how are we going to achieve it in terms of political stability?

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Governor Mike Huckabee, thank you very much for joining us tonight.  NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of MEET THE PRESS Tim Russert was one of the mod raters of tonight‘s debate.  Tim, I really thought the answer that Mitt Romney came back with was witty, it was powerful, and I think it was very partisan, but probably very popular to hear by the Republicans watching tonight.

RUSSERT:  Which one was that, Chris?

MATTHEWS:  Oh, come on.  It was about how would I don‘t like to take on Bill and Hillary Clinton both in a general election .

RUSSERT:  I‘m only teasing you.  I‘m only teasing you.  I‘m teasing you.

MATTHEWS:  I never know about your sly humor.  But go ahead.

RUSSERT:  Sorry, buddy.  No you‘re exactly right.  It was interesting. 

They clearly decided on stage there was going to be a nonaggression pact.  They obviously had watched the Democratic debate and decided they didn‘t want to imitate it.  Although ironically we were being inundated with e-mails from their campaign and campaign staffs during the debate challenging the other candidates.

But I do think Romney tried very hard to stakeout his position as anti-Washington and anti anyone who has been there.  It‘s something that interestingly enough, I‘m surprised he didn‘t do earlier in this campaign.

Secondly, I heard your questioning of Governor Huckabee.  It is interesting to me that all the Republicans other than Congressman Paul would go into the fall election saying that the Iraq War was a good idea and worth the blood and treasure that has been spent on it.  And I think that‘s going to be a really crystallized debate against either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama or Senator Edwards.  And I think that‘s very healthy for the country.

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe that they politically can do a 180 on that between now and the fall, having answered your question so directly?  Could they change positions through some method of argument perhaps?

RUSSERT:  Boy, I think it‘s going to be very difficult.  They will say that Senator Clinton voted for the war, Senator Obama will see he was against it from the beginning.  Up with once they‘ve laid down that gauntlet—Governor Romney said Democrats want to get out.  We‘re not getting out.  I think it‘s a very clear choice to the American people.

Also, on the economic question and the scorecard I talked about, it was quite striking to me that Governor Romney was willing to separate himself from the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress saying that he‘ll have his own record.  But the fact is, all those things I talked about have occurred in the last seven years and I think there‘s going to be a debate about that.  Should there be tax cuts?  How big or small should they be?  And what are we going to do about gasoline prices?  What are we going to do about Social Security?

I think this has a potential to be a big campaign, a big election with differences on big issues.  And I thought we saw all that played out tonight and last week with the Democrats.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Tim Russert.  One of the moderators of tonight‘s debate.  Thank you for staying with us.

Let‘s go right now to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York.  Mayor Giuliani, thank you.  Did you at any point .

RUDY GIULIANI, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  . think “The New York Times,” did they surprise you with your endorsement or were you hoping or not or did you give up on them a long time ago?

GIULIANI:  No, no.  That goes back to when I first became mayor.  I have about 90 editorials.  That was one of the kinder ones.  I have got about 90 that are worse.  It‘s a total difference of opinion about society and how it moves, about taxes, about what to do about homelessness, what to do about welfare, what to do about crime, what to do about Iraq.  I believe we should have victory in Iraq.  “The New York Times” is in favor of what I would consider precipitous withdrawal from Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about you and New York City.  It seems to me, if I look at your record, you came into office, you won an election over Dinkins.  You came in and did a good job and reelected rather handily.  What happened to the liberals that voted for you?  What happened?  What went wrong with your affair with the left?

GIULIANI:  I think when I became a more active Republican, frankly.  And the reality is I often say this, they agreed with the results, but not with the ideas, not with the theories of lower taxes and individual responsibility and moving people off welfare and dealing with homelessness not as a right that people have, but something where you have to intervene and you have to engage.

I mean, there are so many ideological differences which is why I‘m comfortable in the Republican Party.  I am by nature conservative.  And conservative on these issues and “New York Times” has a very different viewpoint.

MATTHEWS:  Do you really feel at home at a party that really believes in—let‘s say it this way—literal interpretation of the Second Amendment?  People like Governor Huckabee who actually believe that everybody should be able to have a gun.  I mean, generally, literally, fundamental right whereas you in New York have had to side with the police against criminals.  Do you really believe in the right of everyone to have a gun?

GIULIANI:  Second Amendment gives you—the Second Amendment gives you a personal right to bear and carry arms.  There are restrictions.  The restrictions have to be limited.  I agree with the Parker decision, Chris, that Judge Silverman wrote.  I think it was a very well-reasoned opinion.  I am comfortable in the Republican Party.

MATTHEWS:  Can you imagine New York City if everybody in the subway or walking down the streets of New York had a gun?  Do you really think that‘s the way the constitution intended the Second Amendment?

GIULIANI:  The reality is you can have restrictions.  In the case of the District of Columbia, the restrictions were so severe, they violated the Second Amendment.  Of course, the whole country is not just about the Second Amendment.  It‘s about having a strong national defense.  I think Republicans are much stronger on national defense than Democrats.

I believe in conservative economics, lower taxes, more money being put into the private sector, more individual responsibility, more school choice on the part of parents.  So on a whole host of issues, I think the Republican Party is far superior to the Democratic Party.  I don‘t agree with everything, but nobody does.  And when I hear these debates .

MATTHEWS:  Weren‘t you feeling squeamish tonight, Mr. Mayor, when these two guys, Huckabee and Romney were outbidding each other on who was more for semi-automatic weapons, who was more against the Brady Bill?  Do you really feel comfortable in that kind of political setting where they‘re outbidding each other for more armaments?

GIULIANI:  I don‘t know how to explain this any better, Chris.  I‘m very comfortable in the Republican Party.  I‘ve been a Republican for a long time.  I believe on national security and on economic security and on homeland security it‘s far the superior party.  It will keep us on offense in the Islamic war against us and it will protect us better at home.  The economic theories of the Republican Party are far superior.  They create a growth economy rather than a dependent economy.

That‘s part of the dispute with “The New York Times.”

MATTHEWS:  You know, John Kennedy, I‘m sure he‘s our common hero, said sometimes party loyalty asks too much.  Thank you very much, Mayor Giuliani.

GIULIANI:  And sometimes it doesn‘t.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Mr. Giuliani.  Let‘s go back to the round table.  I have to say, John, I know you‘re used to this conservative view about the Second Amendment.  Here is a man who had to take guns out of the people‘s hands in New York City, a lot of whom you and I would agree should not be armed.  How do we reconcile this purist view that came off in the debate about the Second Amendment?  It does say the right to bear arms.  We‘ll probably be arguing about this a hundred years from now.  Is that what it means?  Is that what the Republican Party believes it means?

SCARBOROUGH:  For the most part, in northwest Florida when I ran for Congress, it was a pretty absolutist view of the second amendment, obviously very different from Manhattan.  But again, that‘s the ebb and flow, that‘s blue state versus red state.  The Supreme Court is going to reconcile it.  The Supreme Court is going to decide this session on what the Second Amendment means.  And it‘s going to create shock waves.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s not going to make anybody happy.

SCARBOROUGH:  Nobody is going to be happy.  Can I just have a point of personal privilege for a second?

MATTHEWS:  Always.

SCARBOROUGH:  Because Andrea Mitchell was talking from Washington, DC. 

I hope she‘s still listening.

MATTHEWS:  She is.  She‘s part of this.

SCARBOROUGH:  Talking in Washington, DC about how conservative Republicans in Florida probably embrace John McCain tonight, sort of made his bona fides .

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not sure she said that.  But go ahead Andrea .

SCARBOROUGH:  If I can speak as a Republican—what did you say, Andrea?

MITCHELL:  I said he was—I think he did a good job of reasserting his conservative bona fides.

SCARBOROUGH:  OK.  I don‘t know.  I guess the problem is, though, I think a of conservatives in the State of Florida may think he never established them in the first place, certainly not since 2000.  That being said, what Mitt Romney talked about at one point is what Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain, everybody is trying to do, they are trying to reunite the Reagan coalition.  At one point near the end, Mitt Romney talked about how he could bring together economic conservatives, social conservatives and military conservatives.  I think tonight Mitt Romney did a better job of that than anybody I have seen thus far.  And again, being that sort of Florida Republican .

MITCHELL:  Joe, let me just make .

MATTHEWS:  Let Andrea respond and clarify.

MITCHELL:  Joe, let me make a point.  When John McCain talks about economic conservatism he‘s got a really good record on the Hill and he is surrounding himself with icons of Republican conservatism.  He‘s a social conservative, has been anti-abortion rights forever.  So he is out of that Reagan tradition.  That‘s what I was saying.  He was emphasizing those traits in his own background.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  When you talk about his economic conservative record, I‘ve just got to say, the issue for Republican conservatives, taxes, taxes, taxes.

MATTHEWS:  Back in a moment with more on the republican debate down here in Boca Raton, Florida.  Who won?  I‘ll register my opinion when the time comes.  Our coverage continues of the candidates‘ debate in Boca Raton.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back in the stadium.  Welcome back and good evening to those joining us right now.  I‘m Chris Matthews here on the beautiful temperature, it‘s about 70 degrees.  I guess it‘s down to 65.  I‘m here with David Gregory, White House correspondent for NBC News.  He‘s going to help me try to figure this out. 

We just had three—we had two votes saying Mitt Romney, the governor, won the debate rather handily and then we had—and Andrea Mitchell was speaking well of what John McCain was able to accomplish tonight. 

Well, tonight, the five candidates sparred over the economy, over tax cuts, over President Bush‘s overall record, and the war in Iraq was a hot issue.  But it was Hillary Clinton—Hillary Clinton was the number one target especially of Governor Romney. 

Let‘s listen up here to a bite. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ‘08 PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL:  I know of no military leader, including General Petraeus, who says we can‘t sustain our effort in Iraq.  So you‘re wrong.  The fact is we are succeeding in Iraq.  We are going back down to previous levels and we will be able to withdraw troops over time if we succeed. 

If we do what Senator Clinton said that she wanted to do the night before last and that‘s wave the white flag of surrender and set a date for withdrawal, then we will have expenses, my friends, in American blood and treasury because Al Qaeda will then have won. 

MITT ROMNEY ®, ‘08 PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL:  And one more thing.  What an audacious and arrogant thing for the Democrats to say, as Hillary Clinton did, that they are responsible for the progress that the surge has seen by virtue of their trying to pull out so quickly. 

Look, the success over there is due to the blood and the courage of our servicemen and women and to General Petraeus and to President Bush, not to General Hillary Clinton. 

RUDY GIULIANI ®, ‘08 PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL:  When the polls were 6 and 7 out of 10 Americans thinking it was a good idea, Hillary Clinton was in favor of the war.  And now when the polls are 6 out of 10 are against, Hillary Clinton is against the war. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, this is like—I‘m here with David Gregory.  This is like a weigh-in at one of those heavy weight championship fights where they‘re just waiting to go at Hillary Clinton. 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s as if they think she will be the nominee. 

GREGORY:  Well, I also think there‘s an effort here to rally Republican voters.  You know, if you‘re Mitt Romney—he‘s got sharp lines about Hillary Clinton, in part because he wants those conservatives in this state of Florida and beyond as he looks to February 5th to get energized and says, hey we got to get behind somebody to stop her, we got to stop the Clinton machine. 

This question about Bill and Hillary together, we got to have a strong Republican nominee. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GREGORY:  All we‘re hearing about is chaos on the right.  Let‘s get our ducks in a row here.  And I think Mitt Romney is trying to do that. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that a way of showing that you‘re a fellow conservative? 

GREGORY:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  In your attitude. 

GREGORY:  Absolutely.  To hate the Clintons is conservative. 

MATTHEWS:  I thought it—but I never thought of Governor Romney as witty.  I mean maybe he had it ready, but when he said the thought of Bill Clinton alone in the White House or back in the White House with nothing do. 

GREGORY:  Correct. 

MATTHEWS:  That little extra piece. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  And then he was quoting from Barack Obama, it seems to me tonight, going after. 

GREGORY:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Putting the same people in power. 

GREGORY:  And expecting a different result. 

MATTHEWS:  .and expecting a different result. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  .that‘s when people who‘ve fought alcoholism have always said that.  Doing the same thing over and over again. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s using the lines of Barack Obama to nail Hillary Clinton. 

GREGORY:  That‘s exactly right.  And the idea of going against the Clinton machine, the Clinton team, I think, all of this, you were just making a point a minute ago, for people who have not been tuned into this in Florida and beyond. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GREGORY:  ...they see somebody who‘s making some good points.  They see if somebody who‘s poised on the stage.  Most of all, they see somebody who is making the argument and people aren‘t challenging him on it—on the stage that he can unite the Republican Party. 

And you don‘t—you didn‘t hear his other candidates go after him for flipping on his positions. 

MATTHEWS:  No.  He didn‘t have to do any defense tonight. 

GREGORY:  Not tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  And he also looked like he had a good night‘s sleep.  I don‘t know how he does it in this campaign.  He looks sharp and well rested. 

Let‘s go right now to the reaction from the campaigns themselves tonight, starting with Mike DuHaime from Rudy Giuliani‘s campaign.  He‘s the manager of the campaign.  Also with us from Little Rock is Chip Saltsman who‘s the campaign manager for Governor Huckabee. 

Chip and Mike—well, Mike, you first.  What did you make of your candidate‘s response to the question put to him by Brian Williams tonight about why his numbers are so terrible? 

MIKE DUHAIME, GIULIANI CAMPAIGN MANAGER:  I think the response was great.  I think what people care about really are the issues.  I think that‘s what we‘re seeing in Florida.  It‘s a very, very tight race right now in Florida.  So we feel very good about where we are in Florida. 

A lot of polls bouncing around but you can see right now a very tight race in Florida.  I think more people care about really the issues that face Florida voters and voters around the country. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

DUHAIME:  Rudy is the only person who‘s ever really tackled an economy in crisis and he did it in a Republican way, cutting taxes, cutting spending, and the only one who supports a national catastrophic fund probably because he‘s the only who‘s really dealt with crisis at the (INAUDIBLE). 

MATTHEWS:  But Mayor Giuliani‘s numbers two months ago, Mike—

Michael, two months ago in Florida, Mayor Giuliani‘s numbers were about 36 percent of the Republican likely vote.  And now they are 18 percent.  He‘s lost half his support.  How can that be good news? 

DUHAIME:  Chris, I think what you‘re doing you‘re picking out one poll.  There are a lot of polls that show Mitt ahead.  Some show McCain ahead.  There was one late last week that showed Rudy ahead. 

It‘s a very close race.  I think a lot less people care about the horse race than actually care about the issues.  So I really think when people start to compare the folks on the issues, as you saw on the stage tonight, I really think they‘re going to gravitate toward Rudy. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Chip Saltsman tonight and ask about the governor‘s position tonight. 

You know, he gave a very strong position in favor of the Iraq war.  He didn‘t just say it was a good idea, as Tim led him into answering that very direct question.  But he suggested that there was WMD there or may well have been despite our inability to find it.  In other words, the war was fully justified by the terms of the president. 

CHIP SALTSMAN, HUCKABEE CAMPAIGN MANAGER:  Well, what he was talking about, too, is the war was fully. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a strong case. 

SALTSMAN:  Well, what he was talking about was the war was fully justified on what we knew at the time.  What we knew at the time was that Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction on his neighbors, nerve gas, things of the sort.  He had told people in the region that he had these weapons of mass destruction and he was willing to use them.  And I think that‘s the point the governor was trying to make tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  But he also said—the conversation with your candidate just a few minutes ago that he believes that the weapons may have been shipped prior to the American invasion to Jordan.  A country particularly mentioned.  And I just wonder about that having gotten to know King Abdullah a bit and have seen his pride in his intelligence service, to believe that he would have allowed that to get it to happen. 

SALTSMAN:  Well, I think the point again that Governor Huckabee was trying to make is we don‘t know.  But we know this that the region is safer and the world is safer, that Saddam Hussein was taken out in Iraq.  And that‘s the bigger point that he was trying to make.  And the fact that the president was justified in going to war because today we are still safe in this country and that is a bigger reason. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  And you accept—Tim Russert was just on.  He believes when I asked him, did the candidates‘ answers to the question he put to them about whether the war in Iraq was a good idea or not, he believes nails them into that position.  They cannot get out of it by November. 

Your candidate, your boss, you are hoping in this campaign Governor Huckabee will stick to his position that the war in Iraq was a good idea in order words. 

SALTSMAN:  What he‘s always says is he supported the president in making that decision at the time.  Again, what he talked about tonight about not knowing exactly about the weapons of mass destruction but justified in the fact that we knew that Saddam Hussein was saying that he had those weapons, we know he was a danger to the region and the world, and we are very confident in going into the election in November when Mike Huckabee is the nominee to bring those issues to the American people.  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  Chip, thanks a lot.  Good luck in the campaign. 

SALTSMAN:  Thank you, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Thanks for being with us late tonight. 

Let‘s go right now to Kevin Madden, a familiar guy on our show. 

Kevin? 

KEVIN MADDEN, ROMNEY NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY:  How are you, Chris? 

It‘s good to be with you. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s talk about this.  Same questions.  Romney, everybody seems to think he did a good job tonight.  I haven‘t rendered my judgment. 

MADDEN:  I have. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I can guess.  You‘re on the payroll. 

Let me ask you this, Kevin.  I don‘t want to disrespect your commitment to the man.  But it seems to me that he was very effective in rolling out pieces of his stump speech, as we call it. 

Did he think tonight a lot of people were watching who hadn‘t watched him before and therefore it‘s appropriate to use the “A” material? 

MADDEN:  Well, I think what was important was that right now the economic issue being on the front burner, many voters are looking at that and they want to see Governor Romney‘s leadership on that.  They want to hear from the Republicans about what they‘re going to do to address a lot of the economic anxieties that we have in the country right now. 

You know, it‘s kitchen table issues that are really important to a lot of the voters here in Florida and across the country.  There‘s rising health care costs, there‘s rising energy cost, and with the housing crisis, people right now are worried about their bottom line.  And Governor Romney is probably the best candidate to address those issues right now. 

MATTHEWS:  He seems to be loaded for bear as we say, the go campaign that gets both Bill and Hillary Clinton. 

MADDEN:  You know, I think so.  I think that the. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, tell me about it. 

MADDEN:  Well, I think. 

MATTHEWS:  Why does he relish that complex? 

MADDEN:  Because I think that fundamentally contests—elections are contests of ideas.  And they‘re contests of world views.  And we have a very distinct and different competing world view than Hillary Clinton does.  And. 

MATTHEWS:  But that‘s not what he said tonight.  What he said tonight, he took a joke and he said—and he definitely gave us perhaps the line of the night, which was, “I can‘t think of anything worse than having Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do.” 

MADDEN:  Wow, that was a moment of. 

MATTHEWS:  That nothing to do with policy. 

MADDEN:  It was a moment—I think it was a moment of levity, but I really do. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh levity. 

MADDEN:  I do believe that the governor is making a point that he wants to run against Hillary Clinton because we have very different views about where we want to take this country. 

Governor Romney believes in lower taxes.  He believes in getting people more affordable and more accessible health care.  The—without having to have the government come in and intervene in a way that‘s going to create big government.  And those are very different approaches that we want to take in this campaign. 

MATTHEWS:  Kevin, you are great.  I like you being on the show.  I am so hard on this guy and his candidate so, of course,.  I better be nicer to him.  What do you think? 

GREGORY:  May I add one thing? 

MATTHEWS:  Sure.  Jump your piece of it. 

MADDEN:  Sure.  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  You got a piece of Madden here. 

MADDEN:  Yes. 

GREGORY:  If Governor Romney says that Washington is broken. 

MADDEN:  Right. 

GREGORY:  .why is it that when he talks about taxes and the war, he sounds precisely like this president? 

MADDEN:  Well, look, I think what Governor Romney is doing is running against a Washington status quo.  And I think Washington is. 

GREGORY:  But the president of the United States is Washington. 

MADDEN:  But Washington—look.  I don‘t think that the American people are looking for an assignment of blame to one person and they probably are not looking for an assignment of blame to one party. 

What they are looking for is solution oriented approach.  And I think that‘s why Governor Romney‘s message is resonating because he‘s looking at these complex problems, he‘s looking at them in a way where he designs solutions, and it‘s against the status quo.  Washington hasn‘t gotten it done. 

GREGORY:  Right.  That does sound like the president. 

MADDEN:  Well, you know, I think that‘s up for people to judge.  But I think Governor Romney is running against a system that‘s broken in Washington that hasn‘t delivered on the big problems that the American public faces. 

MATTHEWS:   Does he claim to be smarter than President Bush? 

MADDEN:  Well, I don‘t think it has to do with anybody being smarter. 

No. 

MATTHEWS:  He doesn‘t claim that, he doesn‘t claim that, does he? 

MADDEN:  No.  Look, this isn‘t a contest of IQ.  I think it‘s a contest right now of vision and where you want to take the country, recognizing that probably having to find solutions. 

MATTHEWS:  I thought for a minute there he was claiming to be smarter

he‘s using the same policy but he defter at using them. 

MADDEN:  Well, no. 

MATTHEWS:  And so that‘s what you‘re saying? 

MADDEN:  Well, I think it‘s more about the—it‘s more about the issues.  It‘s not about any contest of smarts. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s not about IQ. 

MADDEN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Not IQ. 

MADDEN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much for clearing that up. 

Kevin Madden who was—speaks very effectively for Governor Mitt Romney, who was in the debate tonight.  Did quite well by a lot of measures. 

Let‘s go back to Andrea Mitchell. 

Andrea, let me ask you first, then I‘ll give David a break on this.  He‘s staying with us.  What do you think the headline is coming out of this tonight?  The news that was made tonight here in Boca Raton? 

MITCHELL:  I think it was the attack by the Republicans on Hillary Clinton, the way they went after her and the fact that they. 

MATTHEWS:  I do so.  Personally. 

MITCHELL:  .and the fact that they also that they—also that they would go farther than George Bush on the stimulus package.  They‘re bidding up the stimulus package already. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s go to each of those points with David, because, boy, that‘s smart.  I definitely think the shots at Hillary suggested perhaps either a canny attempt to rally the legions.

GREGORY:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  .against the Democrats and show you‘re a bona fide as a real visceral conservative.  But also it must have suggested that they believe the voters‘ eyes are already on Hillary, the Republicans. 

GREGORY:  Well, I think no question about that.  But I go back to the earlier point which is this is an attempt also to unify the base of the party, and to play it safe, frankly tonight.  I think they wanted to play it safe. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s something they could all agree on. 

GREGORY:  That they could agree on.  Tim made this point earlier.  They didn‘t want to antagonize each other and see what the Democrats have been doing to each other.  I think they want to try to unify the base.  And I think they also were struggling to make sense of the economy which is going to be a huge issue and it‘s going to really weigh down on Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  And it‘s a fair assessment that they figure that no matter what President Bush‘s package, passed in line with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid on the Hill. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  .will do enough fast enough.  They‘re better off always saying, “I would have done more.”  That‘s a safe position. 

GREGORY:  What‘s happening in Washington right now is to Mitt Romney‘s point.  What‘s happening to Washington is the Republicans and the Democrats are working together.  There‘s ideological positions the White House has taken with regard to the economy. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GREGORY:  .that now they are dropping.  They need a stimulus plan. 

These guys have to be change agents to some degree now. 

MATTHEWS:  So just in the middle where we all agree we‘re not getting along, they‘re getting along. 

GREGORY:  They‘re getting along. 

MATTHEWS:  What a revolting development. 

GREGORY:  Yes, you‘re right. 

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you.  We‘re going to be—David and Andrea, thank you both for that analysis. 

When I come back, I want to know who you think won the debate.  So here‘s a little technology to use, a little novelty.  Use your mobile phone right now to text the number of your choice to 622639, 622639. 

For Giuliani text 1, for Huckabee text 2, for McCain text 3, for Ron Paul text 4, and for Mitt Romney text 5.  Standard text messaging rate apply. 

We‘ll be right back in a moment with much more including a look at what you said, including a hot debate, by the way, a pair of Florida Congress people with very different opinions on this presidential race. 

You‘re watching MSNBC‘s continuing coverage of one hot debate down here in warm Florida among the Republican presidential candidates.  Flying from Boca Raton, Florida, only on MSNBC. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  I believe in a head to head with Hillary Clinton.  The difference is in our perspectives on how to get America going again and how to get us on the right track are as different as night and day.  She takes her inspiration from the (INAUDIBLE), big brother, big government, big taxes.  I take mine from Republican ideals, smaller government, small taxes. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  What I‘ll do is I‘ll run away from the record of Washington.  You see Washington is fundamentally broken.  They said they live by high ethics, they haven‘t.  They said they‘ve solved the problem of illegal immigration.  They haven‘t.  They said they‘d get us off of foreign oil.  They haven‘t. 

Issue after issue that‘s been raised over the past couple of three decades, have been—those have been spoken about and Washington has failed to deliver.  And I‘m not going to. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Both parties? 

ROMNEY:  Both parties.  And change is going to have to begin with us, in our party.  We‘re the party of change.  We are the party of fiscal responsibility and when Republicans act like Democrats, America loses. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back in Boca Raton, Florida here at Florida Atlantic University where the Republican presidential candidates faced off in their final debate before Tuesday‘s very important Florida primary. 

We‘re joined now by two members of the United States Congress from Florida.  Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a famous family name from Cuba, of course, who joins us from Miami, and here with me is Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. 

I know you both quite well. 

Let me ask you, Congressman Diaz-Balart, I don‘t know whether it helps the Republican Party or not, but John McCain has been endorsed today by “The New York Times.”  Does that have any value for you and your party and your candidate? 

REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART ®, FLORIDA:  Well, I still love him, despite that. 

MATTHEWS:  Despite. 

DIAZ-BALART:  The reality of the matter is that, yes, “New York Times” is not too popular.  Not too popular in Republican Party circles, nor in our community.  And—but, you know, we‘re working hard for McCain and it‘s a close race here.  And McCain‘s been making—John McCain has been making a lot of progress.  And we feel really confident about Tuesday. 

MATTHEWS:  Who won tonight? 

DIAZ-BALART:  Well, I think McCain did very well.  And I think he made points that he had to make. 

The bottom line is that, you know, he‘s ready to be president.  It‘s a difficult era we‘re in.  And, you know, I think the people are giving him, and it‘s evident, ever since New Hampshire, a second look.  They certainly are giving him a second look in Florida and that‘s why he‘s leading.  And, you know, it‘s—he stands up, confronts the tough issues, straight talk characterizes him, and people respect him.  And so you know, that second look is really paying off.  I think he‘s going to win the nomination and he can beat Hillary Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz. 

You know, I just kept hearing the name over and over again tonight. 

Hillary Clinton.  Hillary Clinton.  I mean such advertisement.  It went on

I mean Romney went after her.  McCain, I think, went after her.  There‘s one of them called her General Hillary Clinton with ridicule.  The other one talked about Bill being back in the White House with nothing to do at an obvious allusion to his problems in the past. 

Is this going to be a pasting of the Clintons personally from now until November? 

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D), FLORIDA:  I think it‘s pretty clear that the fistful of Republican candidates tonight, which are basically different packaging in—George W. Bush in different packaging, demonstrated that they all fear Hillary Clinton the most. 

I mean they‘re most concerned because she‘s the most—has the most experience, has the most detailed proposals and is the most ready to lead on day one.  And so you didn‘t hear them firing at any of the other Democratic candidates.  You heard them targeting Senator Clinton because she‘s the one they are most concerned about and she‘s the one that will win Florida‘s primary on Tuesday and have a huge bounce since the super Tuesday is following. 

MATTHEWS:  Congressman, was it out of fear her name was mentioned so many times? 

DIAZ-BALART:  No, but it‘s out of the fact that the perception is that the probability is that she will be the nominee.  That‘s what we‘re seeing.  Obviously, there was a great, you know, great momentum for Obama coming out of Iowa.  But the perception is pretty clear now that the inside track in the Democratic process for the nomination is the one that the Clintons have.  And that‘s why we‘re hearing a lot about the Clintons. 

And there‘s no doubt that that does motivate the Republican voter and the base.  And we‘re going to see extraordinary turnouts. 

MATTHEWS:  Does it motivate you? 

DIAZ-BALART:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Does it motivate you, Congressman, personally?  How so? 

DIAZ-BALART:  Yes.  Yes, yes, because, you know, really I don‘t want to see a return of the Clintons to—I mean, you know, my first eight years in Congress, every day, you know, going to work, I didn‘t know, you know, what the shoe was that was going to drop, you know, what Clinton would be—what we would hear was going to happen that day. 

Really, I—in answer to your question, I definitely would not want to see the return of the Clintons.  But you know, that‘s something that, across the board, no matter who you are with now in the Republican Party, there‘s consensus. 

Good thing about John McCain is, you know, he‘s going to unite the Republican Party and he can appeal to independents.  He can appeal—he can bring that Reagan coalition back together and appear to the great—appeal to the great center of American politics.  That‘s why I think he can win. 

SCHULTZ:  You know, Chris, my good friend Lincoln Diaz-Balart is just making some understandable points because he‘s doing his job as a Republican member of Congress, but I‘m not sure why he wouldn‘t want to go back to the surplus that we had during the Clinton administration.  Wouldn‘t want to go back to the time when we were actually creating millions of jobs, when we actually had an economic situation that was second to none in the world. 

And, instead, when compared to today, where we‘ve turned a surplus before the Bush administration into the largest deficit in history, when we have—are hopelessly mired in the war in Iraq, when we have absolutely no vision and no respect from around the rest of the world, that that‘s a time that he doesn‘t hearken back to and wishes that it wouldn‘t occur. 

DIAZ-BALART:  Well, we‘ll see. 

SCHULTZ:  The American people (INAUDIBLE) 

(CROSSTALK)

DIAZ-BALART:  I have great respect and admiration for my friend, and she is my friend, Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz.  But I remember, for example, 1998, when Saddam Hussein expelled the inspectors, the inspectors from Iraq.  And I remember President Clinton saying, well, the problem is we‘ve got all these sanctions and the—all these resolutions from the U.N. Security Council.  But, gosh, we have to fudge them.  We go to fudge them.  You know. 

SCHULTZ:  Lincoln, what I remember is that there are no weapons of mass destruction that have ever been found.  We are continuing to be hopelessly mired in a war in Iraq that all of these Republican presidential candidates would continue to lead us in. 

DIAZ-BALART:  No, no, Debbie, Debbie. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome to the 2008 presidential elections as being fought right here. 

DIAZ-BALART:  Reviewing the record the other day, do you know how many times Saddam shot at our planes that were complying with the 17 resolutions of the U.N. Security Council in (INAUDIBLE) past year? 

SCHULTZ:  Lincoln, we are in a war that we have no hope of getting out of if any of the candidates on the stage tonight get elected when you can make sure we elect a Democratic president lead this country in a new direction. 

DIAZ-BALART:  Five hundred times, 500 times.  It was an unsustainable situation and the reality of the matter is that national security is going to be a key issue in November and that‘s why. 

SCHULTZ:  The economy is the most important issue right now. 

DIAZ-BALART:  .someone like John McCain is going to be—also the economy as well.  I agree. 

MATTHEWS:  I want you both back. 

DIAZ-BALART:  And that‘s why we have to keep taxes down and not increase taxes. 

MATTHEWS:  I want to have you both back. 

You know what, Congressman Diaz-Balart?  Thank you, sir, for coming on tonight.  It‘s late at night.  Thank you for coming.  We want you back as many times as we can get you.  And of course, one of our favorite guests is to my left, Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz. 

Anyway, “The Washington Post”.

DIAZ-BALART:  And she‘s a dear friend of mine and a favorite member and colleague as well of mine. 

SCHULTZ:  The feeling is mutual.  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you. 

In that spirit, let‘s go back to journalists who like each other as well.  “The Washington Post” Perry Bacon is with us from the spin room.  I love—why do they have to have a spin room?  And MSNBC‘s Tucker Carlson is with us from Washington. 

Perry, what are you doing in that room?  Why do you hang around with bad company down there? 

PERRY BACON, THE WASHINGTON POST:  Well, I learn something from talking to the other journalists, of course.  But more importantly all the campaign staff come here after we hear them talk about how their candidate won, which is what they are all doing right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, who‘s saying he‘s won with conviction? 

BACON:  The Romney staff has conviction.  Huckabee‘s staff has conviction.  All of them have conviction. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me go to Tucker Carlson for an objective view of everything on the planet starting with this. 

Tucker, who won? 

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, MSNBC‘S “TUCKER”:  I actually thought Huckabee did a better job than I expected.  Well, look.  I mean the bottom line is, I don‘t think anybody changed positions in the rankings.  But Huckabee took the time to articulate an argument which I think people were tuning in this. 

If you‘re taking the time to tune into this, a primary debate, you care, you care about the issues.  You really haven‘t made up your mind yet.  And he was the only guy who actually took the time to explain why his idea made sense.  The fair tax.  I don‘t personally know if it does make sense.  I do know Huckabee took a lot of time trying to win me over.  And I thought he did a really nice job with that. 

I thought McCain probably stumbled on the economy.  McCain is not a detail man.  That came out.  Everyone is saying, you know, Romney seemed the most presidential.  I‘m not totally won over by that analysis, but I thought he did fine. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about—are you downplaying what you think happened tonight?  I guess so many people here, I believe, as I watched the debate, felt that Romney had a very strong night.  Especially among those viewers who don‘t normally pay attention, and that he did sort of the thing that Ronald Reagan was able to do when he sort of came before the American public halfway through the 1980 campaign, and was able to put together his talking points in a coherent fashion.  That seemed to have some sweep to it, some promise to it. 

CARLSON:  Well, because he wasn‘t challenged.  I mean that—really the story tonight, I though, is what didn‘t happen.  The format gave ample opportunity for the candidates to attack one another.  We were all primed for an attack on Mitt Romney by Huckabee and McCain.  Knowing as we do, they don‘t like him personally.  They both have so many gains by going after him.  Both for tactical reasons decided not to. 

So I think, by default, he benefited there.  I thought Rudy Giuliani will get an unexpected bump from “The New York Times” question when—I mean, this is a Republican group. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

CARLSON:  So when the question is, “The New York Times” doesn‘t like you. 

MATTHEWS:  I know. 

CARLSON:  .every Republican watching is thinking, really, they don‘t like you?  You must be more reasonable than I expect. 

MATTHEWS:  I know.  I know. 

CARLSON:  He should have demagogued that more.  He should have said, “I have that article laminated over my desk.” 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

CARLSON:  Because “The New York Times” is (INAUDIBLE) but he didn‘t. 

MATTHEWS:  Perry, let‘s talk about the Democrats for just a minute. 

David first and then Perry. 

David, it seems to me if you are Hillary Clinton watching tonight—first of all, you get the endorsement of the “New York Times”. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  .which really helps the Democratic Party.  It‘s great to have that endorsement if you‘re a Democrat because everybody in the country who is a liberal reads it practically. 

Number two, to have everybody talk about you tonight as if you are the villain of their lives, but from a Republican perspective.  Doesn‘t that lend to her prestige as a Democrat? 

GREGORY:  Well, yes—no, I think, look, Republicans don‘t know any more about whether she‘s the probable nominee than any of us do.  The voters are sorting this out in ways that nobody is being able. 

MATTHEWS:  They never mentioned Barack tonight, I don‘t think. 

GREGORY:  Right.  Well, no, they didn‘t because—but they are doing it for very self-serving reasons.  They want to get Republicans out to vote and nothing motivates like talking about the Clintons and talking about Hillary Clinton.  That‘s why Mitt Romney had those ready lines. 

It‘s not to say that I‘m—you know, he‘s going to crystallize the differences with Hillary Clinton.  What he‘s going to talk about is the fact that raised the specter of impeachment. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

GREGORY:  .of Monica Lewinsky, which is what he did tonight.  And that‘s how he motivates people to come out and vote. 

I mean, I think, what‘s interesting what Tucker said struck me as well.  They didn‘t use this opportunity to create these wedge issues with each other.  You know, tax is a big issue here in Florida.  And the question was asked tonight by Tim, do you trust your rivals to cut taxes?  And they didn‘t try to drive that point home. 

So there was a conscious decision made not to do that. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

Let me go to Perry.  Are you still there? 

BACON:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, thank you.  Yes, Perry, what do you think the Democrats benefited from tonight?  They are all watching.  A lot of them.  Hillary Clinton‘s name was invoked so many times tonight on the same day that she won the endorsement of the “New York Times.”

BACON:  I think the important thing is eventually what they‘ll benefit from is that the candidates, the Republicans, Huckabee and Romney particularly, were very explicit about being—about supporting the war and thinking it was a good idea more so than they‘ve been in previous debates. 

So I think that‘s good for whoever is the Democratic candidate because the war is so unpopular.  I think Romney particularly was explicit.  McCain has always been there.  Giuliani always been.  I think that‘s an important element to watch as well. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you, Perry Bacon. 

Let‘s get one last word from Tucker.  Tucker, who won tonight?  You believe it was Huckabee? 

CARLSON:  Yes, I think probably in the end it‘s Huckabee.  I mean, look, the elites who run the Republican Party despise Huckabee.  They—you know, they hate him because he‘s religious and they think he‘s a lefty on economic issues.  I don‘t think he necessarily has a future as the Republican nominee.  But I personally thought, yeah, charming guy.  He‘s the one guy who could make, I think, independents like the Republicans more even if he loses.

MATTHEWS:  I thought John McCain was build him up tonight not just as a potential running mate but to suck votes away from Romney.

GREGORY:  And he also was very complimentary of Mayor Giuliani, don‘t forget.  Also Democrats benefited by all this talk about the economy.  These candidates agreed with George Bush on the stimulus package but also had to sit there as this litany was presented to them about the Bush economic record, not good for the Republicans.

MATTHEWS:  Yeah.  I noticed.  We‘ll be back.  Thank you very much, Tucker.  Thank you MSNBC‘s Pat Buchanan and Rachel Maddow are going to fight over who won tonight.  They‘re coming on in a second.

And later we‘ll check the veracity of the candidates this evening with David Shuster and the truth squad.

You‘re watching continuing coverage of the Republican presidential candidates debate here only on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  You can be sure if you watch the Democratic debates that they will increase spending, they will increase taxes and they will expand the size of government and they will continue this spending spree which to a large degree the Republicans have greater responsibility.  I‘ll give you some straight talk.

And they will not restore the stability of the entitlement programs which are becoming more and more unfunded in their liabilities in the future.

The Democrats have already run and told us they will increase our taxes, they will increase spending.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR:  If Hillary Clinton is the democratic nominee, she‘ll be running as a team with her husband.  Specifically—specifically, how would you run against Hillary and Bill Clinton in November?

MITT ROMNEY, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I frankly can‘t wait because the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I just can‘t imagine.  I can‘t imagine the American people can‘t imagine it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back from Boca Raton, Florida, where the Republicans just held their debate here at Florida Atlantic University.

Let‘s go to two people who might disagree about tonight‘s results.  MSNBC political analysts Pat Buchanan and Rachel Maddow.  Rachel, I think Pat is in a good mood tonight because Romney did well and he stuck it to the Clintons.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I think that you are right.  Sitting near Pat, I‘ve got waves of joy coming off of him.  I mean, I will say that I am not an enthusiast for Mitt Romney‘s long-term chances but I definitely think this was his best performance.  Also we‘ve got to take account of the fact that he just got a ton of time.  He was—he was on camera for more time than any other candidate, I would venture by quite a bit.  It seemed like he really dominated just in the amount of the number of questions he was asked and the amount of time he took up in answering them.

MATTHEWS:  Patrick?

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yes, I got to say that I think clearly Mitt Romney dominated tonight.  His performance was flawless.  He looked presidential, as you said yourself.  He looked rested and ready.  I don‘t know how you get that way.  And he‘s got two or three of the best sound bites of the night.  We just played that witty line about Bill Clinton two or three times already.  That‘s going to be played now all the way up till Tuesday.

So I think he really did himself good.  I thought they all did OK tonight.  No one was hurt.  I agree with Tucker to this extent.  I think Mike Huckabee, when he speaks, speaks in concrete terms.  He used anecdotes and quotes and references.  He speaks in real language more than any of the others.  So I think he helped himself.

But overall, I‘ve got to say that, if Romney is in the lead tonight, and people are looking at this.  He looks to me like a man quite frankly that can beat Hillary Rodham Clinton and be president of the United States.  I think that‘s what folks will take away from this debate as the primary lesson.

MADDOW:  I would say that I don‘t think there was any damage inflicted by the candidates on one another tonight.  But I do think one thing that was interesting is that there was some self-inflicted wounds by both McCain and Giuliani.  McCain I do think looks not all that together when talking about the economy.  Challenging Tim Russert on the veracity of that quote when we all read it in “The Wall Street Journal” in 2005.  That was not a good move.

Also, Rudy Giuliani, this was his real chance to shine.  Florida is his chance.  I took voluminous notes of all the notable things I thought the candidates said.  I wrote down Rudy Giuliani‘s name once because I didn‘t understand what he was talking about with the Japanese buying Brian Williams‘ building.  Giuliani just didn‘t surface.  He didn‘t make an impact tonight and he really needed to.

BUCHANAN:  And McCain was stressed one time and that‘s when Romney took a very light shot at him that you voted against those tax cuts.  And it‘s a very tough thing to explain when you are arguing you are a tax cutter.  But you can see McCain is at his best when you go into the Middle East and you go into the war on terror.  You can see the passion come out.  The energy.  And he‘s really in his groove.

He is not on the economy, and, frankly, Mitt Romney looked there and, Chris, I‘ll tell you.  The best thing Romney has done and he started in Michigan.  He has pivoted away from being another Republican candidate to being the outsider running against Washington.  Against the establishment.  Against the failures of both parties.  He listed the failures of both to deal with the oil crisis, to deal with the border crisis, to deal with this, to deal with that.  He‘s frankly taken the mantra of one Barack Obama.  And he‘s been running with that inside the Republican Party in a very Republican image.

MADDOW:  I think those things are resonating with you.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sorry.  He was very particular.  In fact, he shadow danced Barack by using the very phrase.  He said you can‘t expect doing the same thing over and over again to produce a different result.  That is verbatim Barack Obama.  And Romney was out doing it tonight.

And I think that, you know, honestly, the way that John McCain and Mitt Romney looked the best tonight was when they were naming Hillary Clinton and going after Hillary Clinton.  Hillary Clinton took the most shots of any of the candidates, any of the people involved tonight.  And, therefore, I think that Barack Obama, not just because he‘s having his best line stolen, but because Hillary Clinton is getting attacked this way, I think Barack Obama may be the biggest beneficiary.

Because Democrats watching this debate tonight don‘t want to go back to the Republicans irrationally salivating with their hatred of the Clintons, either.  That was boring for us, too.

MATTHEWS:  I know.

BUCHANAN:  But .

MATTHEWS:  Hillary Clinton, will she be able to say, the pleasure was all mine, Rachel?  Will she be able to say, I love all that punching?

MADDOW:  No, because even though it‘s unfair to blame her for the way her critics treat her, Democrats don‘t like .

MATTHEWS:  I wonder if she likes having her named mentioned.

MADDOW:  No, no, they don‘t.

MATTHEWS:  I think it helps her politically.

MADDOW:  I don‘t think so.

MATTHEWS:  Last word, Pat.

BUCHANAN:  My feeling is Hillary Clinton .

MATTHEWS:  Did she like hearing her name used tonight?  I say yes.

BUCHANAN:  I think—well, let me say, I didn‘t hear your comment but I think Romney clearly won tonight because when he hit Hillary, he did it in a light way.  Everyone sort of laughed and sort of agreed with him.  But he did not have one of those, what is it, slum landlord Rezko moments, so it was not quite as exciting a debate as the other night, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  I know.  I‘m sorry to deny you, Pat.  Anyway, thank you, Pat Buchanan, Rachel Maddow.  Pat missed his red meat tonight.

We want to thank everybody who watched.  Tonight‘s debate, by the way, use our mobile phone, your mobile phone to text the number of your choice.  Here is the number again.  622639.  622639.  For Giuliani, text 1.  For Huckabee, text 2.  For McCain, text 3.  For Ron Paul, 4 and for Mitt Romney, text 5.  We‘ll be right back with the truth squad report on some of what we heard here tonight and whether it was true or not with David Shuster to tell us whether it was true or not.

You‘re watching MSNBC‘s continuing coverage of the Republican presidential candidates‘ debate from Boca Raton, Florida.  Back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Turns up the game so they won‘t be heard by the FBI.

Welcome back to MSNBC—Welcome back to MSNBC‘s continuing coverage.  We‘re talking about “Godfather II” which guys always talk about.  Coverage of the Republican presidential debate from Boca Raton, Florida.  We‘re back with NBC‘s David Gregory.  “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman.  In a minute, the results of our little text survey.  I‘m sure we‘ll say we don‘t even presume it to be scientific but it will be fun.

And now let‘s get a check on the truthfulness of what the candidates had to say here tonight.  We turn to HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster and his truth squad.  David?

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Well, Chris, let‘s start with that point Rachel Maddow was making about John McCain.  John McCain was asked a question that included a quote about McCain talking about economics.  And McCain denied the quote.  Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSSERT:  Senator McCain, you have said repeatedly, quote, “I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues.”  I still need to be educated.  Is it a problem for your campaign that the economy is now the most important issue, one that by your own acknowledgment, you are not well versed on.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Actually, I don‘t know where you got that quote from.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Well, actually, NBC News got that quote from last month.  John McCain was heard saying on December 17th in the “Boston Globe” and “Time” magazine.  Quote, “The issue of economics is not something I‘ve understood as well as I should.  I‘ve got Greenspan‘s book.”

And you heard Rachel Maddow refer to 2005.  John McCain said something very similar to “The Wall Street Journal” in 2005.  Now, Mitt Romney made a fairly controversial statement tonight talking about the cost of universal health care under Hillary Clinton‘s plan.  Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Her health care plan quite simply is one which says, look.  We‘re going to give health insurance to everybody by the government.  It‘s going to cost $110 billion more.  Every single year.  A trillion-plus dollars over 10 years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Now the Clinton campaign would argue and several independent analysts have agreed that that trillion-dollar figure is only if health care costs continue to rise at the current rate.  Part of the Clinton goal and part of the plan of universal care is to take the for-profit motive out of it.  And most independent analysts say the figure would not be a trillion dollars, would actually be far less than a trillion dollars, although you could argue the quality would go down.

Mitt Romney also made a very debatable claim tonight about his record of governor as Massachusetts on issues of life.  Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  On the issue of abortion, for instance, I came down on the side of life consistently as governor in every way I knew how I could do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Every way I knew how to do that.  In fact, Mitt Romney signed a health care bill that allowed a seat to Planned Parenthood on the payment board.  And part of the plan, the measure allowed Massachusetts citizens to defray the cost of certain procedures using taxpayer funds.  And the citizens could choose to defray the cost of certain procedures, including abortion.

So when he says that he did everything he could, and was consistent on life, that is an issue debatable.  Romney was hit by that by the Huckabee supporters in South Carolina in some of the direct mail literature.  It‘s one reason why Romney‘s record on abortion is controversial in Republican circles.

Chris?

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, David Shuster.

We‘re joined right now by NBC‘s David Gregory, “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman and “The Washington Post‘s” Perry Bacon.  Howard, the straight talk express.  Did it stall tonight?  Was it derailed?  His denial of a quote that‘s on the record.

FINEMAN:  I think he straight talked him right over that bridge to nowhere that he kept talking about.  You can‘t pretend that you didn‘t say something you said.  You just can‘t wish it away.  And it‘s an easy point for his rivals to attack.  Everybody was really nice on the stage tonight pretty much.  Very calm because they knew they were introducing themselves to the people.  But the e-mails were burning up on that and several other things that McCain said.  Including what he said about tax cuts.  And about his support or lack of support for the president‘s tax cuts.

MATTHEWS:  And this is just the kind of thing the Clinton organization is very good at slicing and dicing.  If they get a hold of a quote like this in a general election, they‘ll say in the midst of economic turmoil, this guy admits he‘s hapless.  That he‘s reading Greenspan‘s book.

GREGORY:  Right now—right.  That he‘s relying on Greenspan‘s book.  I‘ll say it again.  The fact is that he is siding with the Bush prescription on stimulus but having to deal with the litany of the Bush economic record which when you look at it and look at the current circumstances is not a pretty record.

FINEMAN:  Also, his answer on taxes is completely illogical.  He said that he voted against the Bush tax cuts because he was concerned about runaway spending.  In the meantime we‘ve had seven years of runaway spending and now he‘s for making the tax cuts permanent.  That‘s just completely illogical.  It makes no sense.  And it‘s clear he‘s doing it for political reasons or it seems that way to too many people.  For the straight talk guy, that‘s not a good position to have.

MATTHEWS:  I just wonder whether the whole McCain pitch for reform in government may be what we call track B in Washington and the country.  When the country is facing a crisis, whether it be terrorism or an economic crisis worldwide, you don‘t sit around and figure out how to fix the machine in the long haul.  You figure out what to do now in the crisis.  Does this Teddy Roosevelt appeal of his match up to with reality?  This is something people want to do, fix up the system.  Or do they want to fix a problem?

FINEMAN:  I think so.

GREGORY:  I think there‘s a lot of desire for fixing the system.  It just becomes a credibility matter of who can get it done.

But I think what people really want to fix, they want to see government get involved in doing something about the economic anxiety in their lives.  That‘s why—one of the things the Democrats will do.  You think back to Bill Clinton in 1992.  He comes into office and says I‘m going to focus like a laser beam on the economy.  Mitt Romney did some of that tonight.  He was very detail oriented.  Republicans have to be able to do that because Hillary Clinton is going to do it.

FINEMAN:  More important than that is Romney, I was talking to some Democrats who were in the spin room tonight helping to run this thing.  They are worried about Romney because if Romney gets the nomination and let‘s assume either Barack Obama or Hillary gets the Democratic nomination, the Democrats are senators.  They are stuck on the hill.

Suddenly you have an almost parliamentary democracy kind of system where the presidential candidates are going to have to work closely with the Congress to put forth an agenda, a sweeping one on the economy.  If they don‘t, the, quote, “outsider,” Mitt Romney, if he‘s the nominee, can run against Washington.  This is the one thing that the Democrats don‘t want to have happen.  They don‘t want to be attack from the outside.  That‘s why they are interested in Obama.  But if he doesn‘t get it .

GREGORY:  It is also a lot easier for Mitt Romney who does sound a lot like President Bush on the war and even on the tax cuts.  But it is easier for him to run as a change agent by saying I‘m not going to run on Washington‘s record on the economy.

It is something he‘s able to do.

MATTHEWS:  Perry, I thought the strongest case that Romney made tonight was his litany of attack on Washington.  And you are with “The Washington Post.”  But I thought it was very effective.  If let‘s say Barack Obama said the same thing, it would have been effective.  He said on every single issue, the energy crisis, fiscal crisis, terrorism.  He went through the whole list and said they‘ve never gotten the job done.  Ever.  That‘s a harsh indictment.  But if you are from outside Washington, it seems to be a case for your election.

BACON:  I think it helped him win Michigan.  The sort of anti-Washington message, too.  It‘s the same thing Obama is talking about, this change message.  But in some places Romney has more detailed on the economy.  I think that‘s helping him in a race against McCain particularly.  So I think you‘ll hear more of that on February 5th as well.

MATTHEWS:  I thought—I didn‘t say he won yet but I‘ll say it now.  I thought Romney came out of the chute tonight with that first answer on the stimulus package which showed a great deal of confidence and sophistication.  It‘s what everybody wants now.  They want to believe that somebody is smarter than we are that can figure out this global crisis.

FINEMAN:  When George Bush won in 2000, he won because he said he‘d never dishonor the office.  Now we‘re always correcting for the past mistake.  George Bush clearly doesn‘t pay that much attention to the details as John McCain says and so forth.  So now, Romney thinks that wonk sells and his first answer was wonkish in the extreme.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sorry to interrupt.  Look at this.  We asked you to take part in our text survey and tell you who you thought won tonight.

GREGORY:  Ron Paul.

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t know why I‘m looking at this down here.  More than 15,000 of your votes came in.  Two big winners tonight.  Romney and Ron Paul.  I love it.  It shows our wonderful tapestry .

FINEMAN:  They were in the hall, by the way.  The Ron Paul people are packed in the hall tonight.

MATTHEWS:  I think the Ron Paul people are legion.  I heard the applause tonight.  Strong anti-war sentiment in the Republican hall tonight.

FINEMAN:  That was the Ron Paul people.

MATTHEWS:  Also in single digits by the way, Huckabee at eight.  McCain at seven, Rudy at four.  The big winners tonight, the men at two ends of the spectrum, the anti-establishment libertarian, Ron Paul and the very establishmentarian Mitt Romney.

GREGORY:  What‘s important in Florida is Mitt Romney will get attention for what we‘re talking about.  His talk about the economy.  Detailed talk about understanding the global economy and how to tackle it. 

I think Howard is right.  This has to be about .

MATTHEWS:  And I‘m right, too.  I agree.  We all agree on this.

FINEMAN:  He‘s the host.  He‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  No, but I agree with you.

GREGORY:  And the attack on Hillary Clinton.  If his strategy is to outperform among Republicans, conservatives in Florida, you know, Fred Thompson supporters and others.  If he can outright John McCain.

MATTHEWS:  If Bob Rubin were running for president right now, the genius treasury secretary, he‘d be popular.

FINEMAN:  Yes, he would.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, go ahead, Perry.

BACON:  I wonder if we should mention one thing.  I wonder how voters will see how he wouldn‘t answer a question Russert asked repeatedly about, how much money did you put in your campaign.  It‘s not as if he forgot about it.  I wonder how voters saw that.  It‘s the one thing that‘s interesting that we haven‘t mentioned it yet.

FINEMAN:  Can I answer that?

Well, I asked the McCain people about this because I know McCain hates running against rich guys.  I mean, he had to do it against George Bush in 2000.

MATTHEWS:  Self-financing.

FINEMAN:  I kept waiting for McCain to sort of get that foot in there.

MATTHEWS:  I thought I was going to see McCain cross the camera and dive over and deck Romney at one point.

FINEMAN:  The fact is the McCain people said we‘re not really going to do that because nobody has ever shown that people really object to that.  The candidates don‘t like it, but a lot of people buy the fact that the guy‘s success when he wants to spend his money running for office, fine.

MATTHEWS:  Another story that the pundits, the better people always get it wrong.  They say the people don‘t like movie stars.  Yes, they do.  Schwarzenegger, Reagan, George Murphy.  They do like them.  They don‘t like rich people running, paying their own way.  I think Jay Rockefeller is still there, I think Frank Lautenberg is still there.

People of great wealth are sort of liked.

FINEMAN:  That was one of the great bumper stickers down in West Virginia when Rockefeller was running the second time.  His opponent had a bumper sticker .

MATTHEWS:  “Make them spend it all.”

FINEMAN:  “Make them spend it all.”

MATTHEWS:  You know what‘s less popular than rich people, that‘s us having to pay the costs of these campaigns.

GREGORY:  One of the disadvantages for McCain tonight is he didn‘t get to play his Iraq card.  Which he is the strongest.

MATTHEWS:  I know.

GREGORY:  He‘s trying to convince Republicans that the number one issue is terrorism.  And I don‘t think he got into that in much depth.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, David Gregory, Howard Fineman, Perry Bacon.  On Saturday, my colleague Keith Olbermann will have live coverage of the Democratic primary in South Carolina along with David Gregory.

And then Monday, the State of the Union address.  We‘re going to be doing that.  In Tuesday we‘re doing the Republican primary.

And tomorrow, join us from HARDBALL at 5:00 and 7:00.  See you then.  I‘ll be in Philadelphia Saturday night appearing with the great renowned Philadelphia Orchestra.  The chance of a lifetime for a guy like me.  I‘ll be performing on the flute.  Anyway, see you then.

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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