updated 1/29/2008 12:30:21 PM ET 2008-01-29T17:30:21

Guests: Bakari Sellers, Michelle Bernard, Eugene Robinson, Howard Fineman

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: The 2008 presidential election enters a new frontier. President Kennedy‘s surviving brother and surviving child both endorsed Barack Obama. The torch gets passed—the Clintons get passed by.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.

I‘m Chris Matthews.

Welcome to HARDBALL.

Well, the torch is passed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: My friends, I ask you to join in this historic journey, to have the courage to choose change. It‘s time again for a new generation of leadership. It‘s time now for Barack Obama.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Today, Senator Ted Kennedy joined Caroline Kennedy in endorsing Barack Obama. In a speech here in Washington, Senator Kennedy took direct aim, one by one, at the Clintons‘ arguments against Barack Obama. It‘s a major event—perhaps ground changing. And we‘ll have much more on this historic endorsement in a moment.

All this comes just two days after Barack Obama‘s 26 point rout -- 28 point rout of Hillary Clinton in South Carolina the other day.

Will that and the Kennedy endorsement give Obama the jolt he needs to win some big states on Super Duper Tuesday?

Or is the Clinton campaign still too strong?

And the latest polls show tomorrow‘s Florida Republican primary close between Senator John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Plus tonight, a preview of President Bush‘s final State of the Union address.

But we begin with the box office political story of the day—the Kennedy endorsement of Barack Obama.

I know when I look into the eyes of my own children the look of wonder when I speak of life back in the ‘60s. That‘s why The Rolling Stones are such a hit—even in their 60s, why Dennis Hopper is so compelling—even when he‘s making pictures for something so un-hip as long-term financial planning. But all that—the hard rock, the hit of the drug culture, all that came later on, when the 1960s became the ‘60s—that turbulent, wild, sometimes dark era of protest that ended when Richard Nixon was forced from the White House.

Today, we got a glimpse of the early 1960s, when politics was alive.  So here and now in Washington, D.C. , the era of serious commitment, of short hair, white shirts, narrow ties and the Peace Corps. Today, for a brief shining hour, the young got to see what we saw—not the gauzy images of “Camelot,” but the living spirit of The New Frontier.

South Carolina State Representative Bakari Sellers supports Barack Obama for president.

He joins us now.

Take a look—by the way.

Let me go to you—Representative, thank you for joining us.

Why are you for Barack?

BAKARI SELLERS (D), SOUTH CAROLINA STATE REPRESENTATIVE, OBAMA

SUPPORTER: Thank you for having me.

Well, for me, it was a very easy decision. In my district I represent kids who still go to school in trailers. I had a great aunt who had to make those hard discusses between whether or not she was going to get her prescription drugs or whether or not she was going to pay her utility bills. And those are choices that she should not have to make.

In high school, I lost a classmate—or recently I lost a high school classmate in Iraq, in a war where we don‘t know why we‘re there.

So for me the choice was easy. The choice was easy to select Senator Obama as the next leader of this country for the next four years.

MATTHEWS: Let‘s go through those two issues.

First of all, why do you believe Senator Obama is better than Senator Clinton on the economy—in helping regular people, like your audience (ph)?

SELLERS: Well, you know what was amazing is when Senator Barack Obama came to South Carolina and he traveled throughout the state for the individual to actually to have to get a chance to meet him. He went from the Corridor of Shame along the I-95 corridor to the metropolitan cities of Greenville. And he took a message of hope. He took a message of change. And he talked about regular people. He talked about tax cuts for individuals making less than $75,000 a year. He talked about tax cuts for senior citizens. And his message of hope, his message of change resonated. And I think that was amazing. And that‘s why we had a resounding victory on Saturday night.

MATTHEWS: Why do you think—well, I‘ll ask you an obvious question.

I think I know the answer.

Why do you choose Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton on Iraq?

SELLERS: Because he doesn‘t have to apologize for his vote on the Iraq War. That‘s easy enough.

MATTHEWS: OK.

Thank you.

Let‘s stick around, Representative.

Let me go right now to NBC News chief White House correspondent. My colleague David Gregory is with us—David, I watched the speech. You watched the speech. Give me an impact statement.

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I‘m sorry, I missed the very top.

Are you talking about Senator Kennedy‘s speech this morning?

MATTHEWS: Well, it‘s the best speech I‘ve heard in a while. Yes, Ted Kennedy‘s today.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY: I think it was striking, Chris. And what really leapt out at me is not just the face, the figure of Ted Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama.  It was the substance. Talk about experience versus change—here is the brother of JFK saying, yes, they used to say my brother didn‘t have enough experience. Well, he did. He was president. And Barack Obama has the right kind of experience, as well.

And then the pointed language toward Bill Clinton, the fact that this would be an end to the politics of disparagement, and gender versus gender, race versus race, that he can transcend that, Barack Obama, saying that he felt inspired Barack Obama—by Barack Obama. I mean these were powerful words and a powerful rebuke of the Clintons.

MATTHEWS: Well, here it is. Here‘s Ted Kennedy knocking the Clinton campaign tactics as he sees them.

Let‘s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNEDY: With Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion.

(APPLAUSE)

KENNEDY: With Barack Obama, we will close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethic group and straight against gay.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, you‘re so right, David. It‘s so pointed. It wasn‘t an all occasion endorsement. It was a very particular, almost customized point by point rebuke—I think that was your word...

GREGORY: Right.

MATTHEWS: ...there‘s been others—of the Clinton campaign tactics as Kennedy has seen them take place.

GREGORY: I mean misrepresentation versus distortion. But I think even beyond the tone of the campaign that Kennedy appeared to be saying he didn‘t like, that he didn‘t like Bill Clinton‘s attacks on Barack Obama down in South Carolina, I think you have to go to the issue of street cred here. And you look forward to February 5th.

The experience argument seems to be the most important one. If Ted Kennedy is out there saying this guy did not only inspire you, he inspires me, he inspires the daughter of JFK, but he‘s got the right sort of experience and I can vouch for him as this lion of the Democratic Party, as, you know, the senior senator of Massachusetts and a senior statesman of the Senate.

There‘s a lot of credibility that he was conferring upon Barack Obama with this speech today.

MATTHEWS: Well, I‘m going to show this clip from the speech. And I want Senator Sellers, who has joined us from South Carolina, to respond to what he thinks of this moment in the speech today.

Senator Sellers, here it is. Take a look at what Senator Kennedy said about Obama—Barack Obama‘s position on the Iraq War.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNEDY: We know the true record of Barack Obama.

(APPLAUSE)

KENNEDY: There is the courage. When so many others were silent or simply went along, from the beginning he opposed the war in Iraq.

(APPLAUSE)

KENNEDY: And let no one deny that truth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: God. And let no one deny that truth.

Senator Sellers, he‘s talking to somebody there.

SELLERS: Yes, he is. He‘s speaking directly to the distortions that were attempted here in South Carolina. He‘s speaking directly to the vain (ph) of the American people and he understands, as we understood here in South Carolina, that truth should rain out and truth shall rain free, hopefully, on February 5th.

MATTHEWS: Let me go back to David Gregory about this speech and the impact of it. It seems to me—you‘re as good at this as anybody—if you look at the next week, Ted Kennedy‘s laid out for himself quite an itinerary, hasn‘t he?

GREGORY: Right. He really has.

Can he help Barack Obama win Massachusetts?

That‘s question one—a state that a lot of people would have given to Hillary Clinton.

Can he help in Connecticut?

I mean a lot of people think that she‘s got the strength in the Tri-State there in New York, in New Jersey and Connecticut.

Can he eat in (ph) as a popular figure in Massachusetts, where the media market bleeds into Connecticut, of course?

Can he help there?

Can he help out in California?

Can he help out in some of the states like Missouri, which appears to be a toss-up state now between the two?

There is the tactical and then there is the larger point about credibility and where Senator Kennedy can legitimize Barack Obama.

Can he also light this fire—the idea that change is sweeping the country—can he create this kind of momentum that Barack Obama can seize on?

I mean the only reality check in all of this is that Hillary Clinton is incredibly well-financed and no matter—you know, people will disagree about the strength of the former president. In her camp, he helps in a lot of places. And there‘s a lot of people who believe that. And you still go into Super Tuesday and this thing is still very much a toss-up, even with Senator Kennedy in the mix now.

MATTHEWS: Let me bring in Doris Kearns Goodman.

Doris, thanks for joining us.

You‘re the great historian of the Kennedys, as well as so many others.

But it seems to me that the Kennedys, Bobby in particular, Bobby Kennedy discovered the Chicano cause back in the ‘60s, the mid-‘60s. He went out there to the grape pickers and the workers in the fields and found them politically. But it was Cesar Chavez, their leader.

And now Ted Kennedy is heading out—did you see his itinerary—New Mexico, Arizona, California?

He‘s going out to talk to Latinos and Latinas about his friend and his candidate, Barack Obama.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: And, clearly, those memories of Cesar Chavez are so strong. He is their leader, as Martin Luther King was the leader for African-Americans. And to the extent that Kennedy is able to help Obama take away some of the Latino support, which people assumed was going to be Hillary Clinton, that‘s huge.

You know, but I think, Chris, there‘s something even bigger that‘s happened, which is that before when Barack Obama talked about a politics that was above divisiveness and uniting people, it seemed rather soft and idealistic.

But now, because he‘s been put on the defensive, he came out defiant and strong. And it‘s an illustration of what he meant by what Bill Clinton did in these last few days.

I think it has given him a much more powerful voice as Kennedy talk.  They had a dance today. Barack Obama talked about how Kennedy stood for a politics above disparagement. He talked about how Barack Obama stood for that. It‘s almost as if they had mimeographed this thing or choreographed it‘s a better word.

MATTHEWS: Well, I‘m sure they did.

Let me go back to Senator Sellers in South Carolina.

Senator, when you listen to Barack Obama, he gives these almost aloof, Olympian speeches. They‘re very grand and sweeping. And I‘m as taken with them as anybody in the audience, I must say. But he doesn‘t have that particularity that we like in politics—when you take the big thing and you take it home to something specific so you know what we‘re talking about.

Ted Kennedy did that today on point after point after point.

Do you think Senator Obama has to start doing that in his debate with Senator Clinton?

SELLERS: Well, I think Senator Obama has illustrated that he can go point to point to point, especially when he came and spent time in South Carolina. And I think that is what won over voters.

What you‘ll see between now and February 5th is you‘ll see that people, when they begin to have more and more contact with Senator Obama, will see that his hope transcends race and transcends gender. And they‘ll be moved just as we were here.

Here in South Carolina, the results were undeniable. And that speech today by Senator Kennedy, it brought home the same fact that we all knew here in South Carolina about Senator Obama, that he is the person that leads this new generation of change.

And I‘m so excited just to be a part of it that I‘m kind of shaking here in front of you.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I think you are part of it...

SELLERS: So I‘m looking forward to February 5th.

MATTHEWS: You are part of it.

Let me—let me go to David Gregory here for a second—David.

GREGORY: Yes, I just think that‘s an important point that you make. I mean I think what Barack Obama has done so well to date is offer the poetry. And he‘s got the poetry of this campaign down. And I think it gets even sharper, as did it after South Carolina, his victory speech very pointed toward the Clintons—very strong, very hard edged. He‘s actually trying to draw on the unity of his campaign, based on the hard part of his political experience in this campaign alone.

But I think that you‘re onto something in that the particularity of political speak now, to speak to this experience question. He may have some wind at his back now with Senator Kennedy behind him. But he‘s going to be speaking to a lot of voters who still think he has not closed the deal on whether he can handle the tough stuff, can handle the crisis, can go deep on policy...

MATTHEWS: Yes...

GREGORY: And that‘s going to matter, because she certainly can and she‘s demonstrated that, I think, to a lot of voters.

MATTHEWS: Doris, you know the Kennedys so well. I was struck by a couple of things. I think they were legitimately inspired, Vicky and Ted Kennedy, by what they‘ve seen of Barack Obama. He‘s not a family friend.  He‘s not a relative, an in-law, a nephew. He‘s a person like we all know him, as a public figure.

And, secondly, I think he‘s legitimately concerned or personally concerned about the break between the Democratic Party establishment and black America. That‘s always been, under the Kennedys, a very tight bond.  African-Americans are the base of the Democratic Party. They use that word perhaps too freely, but it means the people who are most reliable in November.

And he obviously had—well, let me ask you, what do you think his reaction was to the way this campaign is going between the Clintons and Barack Obama?

KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, think about it. One of the great achievements of John F. Kennedy was to have introduced the Civil Rights Act, which then eventually got passed the next year under Lyndon Johnson, but in large part, in part, because of people‘s feelings about John Kennedy.

Teddy Kennedy—one of his first speeches was about the poll tax and the importance of undoing the poll tax. He has fought for civil rights his whole time, feeling, too, that health care was part of civil rights, which he talked about.

And so I think the idea that somehow if he can believe Obama can rise above those race/race, gender/gender things—and the pointed criticism, as we‘ve all said, of the Clinton campaign in these last weeks for seeming to use race in a negative way, I think that finally turned him over. He had been, obviously, as you know, talking about doing this for the last couple of weeks. But the timing, for Barack Obama‘s sake, could not have been better.

If he had done this a week ago, it would have been much less meaningful than right now...

MATTHEWS: I hear you.

KEARNS GOODWIN: ...given the momentum and the chance to make that momentum go stronger.

MATTHEWS: I got the whisper on Saturday and I couldn‘t believe it was going to happen. Let me tell you, I think it‘s just a—this is the debut of Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy. And I think what we have to watch is the road show—how impressive are they between now and next Tuesday, nine days from now—or, rather, eight days from now—heading toward Super Duper Tuesday?

If he‘s on the road the whole eight days, that is power.

Anyway, thank you very much Senator Bakari Sellers from South Carolina.

Sir, thank you.

Please come back on the show.

David Gregory, sir, thank you.

We‘ll see you later tonight.

GREGORY: You bet.

MATTHEWS: Doris Kearns Goodwin is staying with us right now.

And coming up, now that the Kennedys have passed the torch to Obama, how will the Democratic race shake out?

It‘s only got like eight days until the big day.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNEDY: Now, with Barack Obama, there is a new national leader who has given America different kind of campaign—not just about himself, but about all of us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNEDY: We know the true record of Barack Obama.

(APPLAUSE)

KENNEDY: There is the courage, when so many others were silent or simply went along, from the beginning he opposed the war in Iraq.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

How important is Senator Ted Kennedy‘s endorsement of Obama?

How about Caroline Kennedy‘s endorsement in “The New York Times” yesterday?

And what will it do for him, Barack Obama, as he heads to Super Tuesday, eight days from now?

Charlie Cook is the editor and publisher of “The Cook Political Report” and an NBC News analyst, as well.

And Doris Kearns Goodwin, the great historian, stays with us right now.

Thank you, dear.

Let me go just to Charlie Cook for a wet blanket.

Sir, lay it on.

CHARLIE COOK, NBC NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: The thing is, any Democrat would love to have an endorsement from Ted Kennedy or Caroline Kennedy. I mean these are—they‘re big endorsements. They‘re important.

The key thing is can it help Barack Obama break through in the white vote?

He got 36 percent of the white vote in New Hampshire, 34 percent in Nevada, 24 percent in South Carolina. He‘s got to do a heck of a lot better than that.

I mean only getting 20...

MATTHEWS: Doesn‘t this help?

COOK: Well, I don‘t know. We‘ll see.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you—Tim was making—Tim Russert was making the point this morning on “Morning Joe” that this will help, well, obviously, with Latinos, with Hispanics. That‘s where he‘s going out to work. He‘s going out to work in New Mexico, Arizona, California—obviously targeting that large community out there‘s that‘s been a problem for Barack.

What about white working people, regular people?

How are they going to react to Ted Kennedy and the Kennedys coming out?

COOK: Well, we‘ll see if it helps with Hispanic voters. I mean the thing is, there is a black/brown rivalry over which is going to become the dominant—which is going to be the dominant minority group in the Democratic Party.

It‘s been the African-American vote. Hispanics say we‘re the fastest growing, we‘re getting just as big or going to be bigger, it should be us.  And there‘s a rivalry there. There‘s a push back.

And you see Barack Obama winning the African-American vote huge and you‘re seeing Hillary Clinton, at least in Nevada, the one place we saw, she got, what, 68 percent of the Hispanic vote?

Now, we‘ll wait and see on Super Tuesday, when there are other states that have big Hispanic votes. But if that‘s going to offset part of Obama‘s advantage in the black vote and Obama doesn‘t close the gap significantly among whites, he‘s not going to be the nominee.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask Doris about the establishment Democratic Party, which often lets us down, all Americans, I think—the establishment of both parties, you might argue.

The—will they be a little more free now to resist the Clinton intimidation that‘s been going on around the country urging and pushing people to endorse them out of pressure?

Will the Kennedy endorsement of Barack give some of them the sense hey, look, if I don‘t endorse Hillary, I‘m still going to be able to live in this party afterwards?

KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think he does give cover for that. I mean, when you think about it, Barack has had some red state senators and governors endorsements. And he‘s had—he had John Kerry last week and now Ted Kennedy.

It probably does make it easier for them to not feel I‘ll be undone, because they know that even if Mrs. Clinton were to win. She‘s going to need Ted Kennedy. He‘s in charge of that committee that will be so important for the legislation that she‘ll want to get through, the progressive legislation. So if he was willing to go out on a limb, they may feel that he can cover them.

MATTHEWS: What do you think it looks like for the general, Charles?

COOK: I think John McCain is looking more and more like the Republican nominee. And I think, increasingly, he‘s the only—he looks like the only Republican that would have a fighting chance. He would have a very good chance. I think either McCain/Obama or McCain/Clinton, either one would be a nail biter race.

MATTHEWS: Who wins McCain/Clinton?

COOK: Well, right now, in the NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll, McCain is up by 2 against Clinton and dead even with Obama. I think both—all in the margin of error. I think if it‘s McCain on the Republican side, we‘re going to look at a—we‘re going to see a really, really close general election no matter what.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Doris, do you think Hillary Clinton could beat Mitt Romney—not Mitt Romney, the other guy—McCain?

What kind of race would that be?

KEARNS GOODWIN: I still think Hillary Clinton has a very good shot at the nomination and the election. I mean I think that to the extent that she can incorporate the goals of progressive Democrats that have been stymied for the last decade and go forward into the future—I think women, if she were to be elected as the nominee, would feel much stronger about the idea that the first woman was going to become president. I think we haven‘t even seen the power of the woman thing until she becomes the nominee, if she were to do so.

MATTHEWS: Wow!

KEARNS GOODWIN: Yes, I think it will be tough against McCain, but I think that will be a huge power that we haven‘t even understood yet.

MATTHEWS: Well, these turnout numbers are amazing—and sometimes over 60 percent, I think in South Carolina, were women voters. It‘s not just like in California, where it‘s about 60. In some states, it seems to be even higher participation.

COOK: I think in a general election situation that Hillary Clinton is like a stock that‘s—that‘s got a very narrow trading range. She‘s got a high floor, a low ceiling, low variability and she‘s already discounted for all of her problems.

If somebody told me that a Democratic, in a two-way race, was going to get 54, 55, 56 percent, I would bet it was Barack Obama. If somebody told me that a Democrat in a two-way race was going to get less than 45, I‘d bet it would Barack Obama. I think he‘s got the ability to win bigger than she could or to lose bigger than she could, just because that stock is not completely discounted or factored in.

MATTHEWS: High floor, low ceiling—Hillary Clinton.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: That‘s what you‘re saying?

COOK: Yes. Yes. High floor, low ceiling.

MATTHEWS: This is like inside...

COOK: Narrow...

MATTHEWS: That‘s like inside John Malkovich.

COOK: A narrow trading range.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you very much.

Another movie reference for those of you out there.

Anyway, Charlie Cook, sir, thank you—often right, often cautious.

And thank you, Doris Kearns Goodwin.

KEARNS GOODWIN: You‘re welcome.

MATTHEWS: Up next, Romney gets casual and Ted Kennedy slams Hillary, of course. And “The New York Times” takes aim at Bill. They call him Wild Bill.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL for a look at some other political news.

Well, as you‘ve noticed by now, Mitt Romney has shed his stiff consultant suits for a more laid back, outdoorsy look—no jacket, rolled up sleeves. You know the drill.

Well, in preparation for tomorrow‘s Florida showdown, he‘s taking his sartorial splendor to the next level.

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is an honor, to be wearing this guayabera. This is—was given to me by the members of the Museum of the Bay of Pigs Veterans. And given the honor that they have made for our nation and the sacrifice they‘ve made, I wanted to wear this today in their honor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, yes, that‘s Mitt Romney wearing a traditional Cuban shirt at a Florida youth center over the weekend. Cuba, si. Brooks Brothers, no.

Speaking of Florida, insurgent Democrat Joe Lieberman is working the state for his buddy, John McCain. Of course, Lieberman couldn‘t deliver Florida for Al Gore back in 2000 as his running mate, but perhaps 2008 will be different.

But what‘s fascinating here is what fellow Democrats are saying about Lieberman out there stumping for a Republican—nada. Nobody is saying anything about it. I guess this comes from the point—or we‘re at the point where Lieberman‘s crossing of the aisle is just not even noteworthy.

Not only is Bill Clinton causing some trouble for his wife, he‘s also feeding those hungry New York tabs these days. Take a look at the front page of today‘s “New York Post.” That‘s today‘s paper. They‘re still doing it to him up there—“Wild Bill Furor At Latest Dis of Obama.” The paper calls him “the big mouth of the South.”

Anyway, now it‘s time for the HARDBALL big number.

As we talked about earlier in the show, Ted Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama today and he used his big speech to confront all the Clinton campaign‘s attacks against Obama.

Take a look at his point by point counterpunches.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNEDY: Trapped in the patterns of the past.

Demonizing those who hold a different view.

There is the courage. When so many others were silent or simply went along, from the beginning he opposed the war in Iraq.

And let no one deny that truth.

The old politics that parses us into separate groups and puts us at odds with one another.

The same kind of hunger to move on and move America forward.

What counts in our leadership is not the length of years in Washington.

We will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion.

We will close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group and straight against gay.

(APPLAUSE)

KENNEDY: With Barack Obama, we will end a war in Iraq that he has always stood against.

Let us reject the counsels of doubt and calculation.

Find a way past the stale ideas, stalemate of our times.

The politics of fear.

I know that he‘s ready to be president on day one.

Harry Truman said we needed someone with greater experience.

To go beyond the divisions of the past.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, that‘s 16 times he took a direct shot -- 16 counter-punches against the Clintons. It was King Arthur coming back from the Crusades to endorse Robin Hood. That‘s what I say. Sixteen—tonight‘s big number.

Up next, the battle for Florida. We go to the front lines where the Republicans are fighting it out in a state where no one can afford to finish second. Winner, I think, takes all.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The Republican race in Florida is neck in neck between John McCain and Mitt Romney.  HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster is in Florida right now with the latest.  David?

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT:  Well Chris, on this the last full day of campaigning here in Florida, the rhetoric by the Republican presidential candidates was in overdrive.  Mitt Romney and John McCain hammered each other today, and Rudy Giuliani pleaded with his supporters to shock the political world and give him a victory.  But first, Mitt Romney.  Today he used some of the harshest language to date in attacking John McCain.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  McCain/Feingold has not reduced the impact of money in politics, it‘s made it worse.  McCain/Kennedy is viewed by virtually all as an amnesty bill.  And McCain/Lieberman would cost the families of America as much as $1,000 apiece.  All three are bills which evidence a lack of understanding of our economy, the very lack of understanding which Senator McCain has admitted on numerous occasions. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  John McCain has been hammering Mitt Romney over Iraq and to the extent that this debate focuses the voters on foreign policy, that would be to John McCain‘s advantage.  But McCain is also trying to erase any doubts about his Republican loyalty.  Today in Orlando, McCain praised President Bush. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m happy to tell you tonight, the president of the United States is goes to throw down the gauntlet to these pork-barrel appropriators and say we‘re not going to spend any of that money that‘s in these committee reports.  And I‘m proud of the president of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Again, that‘s McCain talking about the earmark proposal that President Bush is coming up with tonight. 

Florida has become do or die for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and today Giuliani said whoever wins Florida will win the nomination, raising questions, of course, about Giuliani‘s future if he doesn‘t.  To supporters, Giuliani continues to talk about having already been tested.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘ve been tested.  I‘ve done it before.  The kinds of challenges that we face are challenges that are bigger than the ones that I faced before, but they‘re like them.  We need a president—when you look at my 12 commitments to the American people, you can see the program that we need and the future that we need.  We need a president who can keep us on offense in the terrorist war against us.  Never again shall we go back on defense like we used to be before September 11th.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Finally, Mike Huckabee is looking ahead to Super Tuesday and

campaigned today in Tennessee, but last night, Huckabee spoke in his own

unique style about the Florida primary and offered this -

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  You‘ve already voted for me once, but this is Florida.  Would you go back and vote two or three more times?  We aren‘t finished until we‘ve counted your vote at least four more times.  Hang those chads and get out there and vote. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  An intense but also funny day in some measures today, Chris, here in Florida, in a race that all the Republicans seem to acknowledge that whoever emerges victorious is going to have rocket fuel as far as momentum carrying them ahead.  Chris?

MATTHEWS:  OK, it‘s just there‘s nothing funny about screwing up an election.  Anyway thank you, David Shuster. 

Michelle Bernard is with the conservative group Independent Women‘s Choice.  Joe Scarborough is host of MSNBC‘s “MORNING JOE.”

Joe, you‘re my guru for Florida.  Can the grand seer tell me what‘s going to happen tomorrow when we count the ballots?

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC HOST:  I think Mitt Romney is going to win by a few points.  But I‘ll tell you, there‘s going to be a much bigger story coming out off Florida Chris, and that is we are going to have a Republican side that is looks like a Democratic side. 

It‘s going to be down to two candidates.  I‘m hearing from the Republican voters all across this state, people who are making calculated decisions.  There are people in north Florida that like Mike Huckabee, but they say a vote for Huckabee—and I heard this time and time again from Evangelicals throughout the day—a vote for Mike Huckabee is like a vote for John McCain.  Those people are breaking Mitt Romney‘s way. 

I‘m hearing from moderates.  It ain‘t going to be Rudy, I don‘t want to it be Romney, so I‘m going to break for John McCain.  So you‘re going to see this race after Florida, just a race between Romney and McCain.

Very interesting.  I was talking all morning this morning, Chris, about how it was fascinating if you looked at the Florida polls, they were so close with John McCain ahead in a few polls by a point or two.  But it was McCain that started this attack on Friday, who has been hammering points home and even saying some things that just aren‘t true about Mitt Romney according to most published reports. 

MATTHEWS:  All right. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Mainly about him being like Hillary Clinton.  However, what‘s so interesting is, I kept asking, why is he doing this?  If you‘re ahead, you usually don‘t go on the attack.  It‘s very interesting, though, Cindy McCain earlier today said in a rally with 150 people listening said, if Florida is make or break for our campaign.  So maybe the McCain campaign knows something that we don‘t. 

MATTHEWS:  OK let me—let me go over to Michelle Bernard here.  First of all, let‘s look at the poll here for everybody here—everybody watching.  John McCain leads Mitt Romney in the newest Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll.  That‘s got McCain up by three points, which isn‘t that significant.  He got a little bump apparently in the last couple of days from the Governor Crist endorsement.  It bumped up three points just because of that.  Michelle?

MICHELLE BERNARD, INDEPENDENT WOMEN‘S VOICE:  You know, Florida‘s—

MATTHEWS:  I‘m hearing crosswinds of arguments.  Joe gives me one side.  I‘m getting another side, the other ear. 

BERNARD:  I don‘t have a dog in the pony, but this is what I‘ll say. 

It is very, very, very close.  Florida, it‘s not just that Florida has 57

delegates, but this the first opportunity that McCain is going to be able

to have to prove to Republicans across the country what he really can do

without Independents bolstering him like they did in New Hampshire and

South Carolina.  It will be -

MATTHEWS:  It‘s an all-Republican fight. 

BERNARD:  It‘s an all-Republican fight.  It‘s winner take all.  It will be interesting to see what happens with U.S.-born Hispanics, how they vote.  What happens with Spanish-speaking immigrants in Florida, who are they going to vote for?

And whether or not Floridians are more concerned about the economy or national security.  If it‘s the economy, people are going to overwhelmingly vote for Romney.  If it‘s national security, I think you‘re going to see Floridians overwhelmingly voting for Senator McCain.

But also what‘s going to happen with people that have given up on Rudolph Giuliani? I‘m hearing, for example, that senator—that Governor Romney has been spending a lot of time with Jewish voters who are New York transplants that were originally staunch supporters of Mayor Giuliani and now they‘re saying you know what, Romney‘s our guy. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll see.  Let me ask you, Joe, what are the stakes, what‘s the purse here as they say in the racetrack business? Is a win in Florida as Giuliani says a win? You win the nomination, you win down there?

SCARBOROUGH:  I really think it is, for a couple of reasons.  Because John McCain, if he can get out of Florida with a victory here and a victory in South Carolina and a victory in New Hampshire before that, he‘s going to have the momentum going into Super Tuesday.  He‘s not going to have the money that Mitt Romney‘s having. 

If Mitt Romney wins here, then Romney‘s going to storm into Super Tuesday with an awful lot of money.  He won‘t have the built-in advantages that John McCain has, but you‘re starting to see national polls break Mitt Romney‘s way. 

There is something out there, Chris, and I know you‘ve seen it by

in following elections, at least in the state of Florida, so much of it is anecdotal.  But over the past 24 hours, everybody that I‘m talking to on the phone said, let‘s say right of center, seems to breaking Romney‘s way.  They may not be in love with him, but it‘s their practical choice, certainly more practical, they think right now than voting for Mike Huckabee.  And I suspect the same thing is happening nationally. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  What I think is the topic selection determines who wins.  If the topic is the economy, it helps Mitt Romney.  I think the topic right now in most people‘s minds no matter what Giuliani or McCain says, is the economy.  Anyway thank you, Joe Scarborough, thank you as always Michelle Bernard.

Up next, the HARDBALL power rankings.  We‘ll rank the candidates and tell you who‘s No. 1.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Time now for the HARDBALL power rankings, my favorite time of the week although it is scary.  I will tell you who I think has the best shot right now as being the next president of our country. 

Here with me is “Newsweek‘s” senior political correspondent Howard Fineman who‘s also an MSNBC analyst of course.  Also, MSNBC‘s own Andrea Mitchell.  Up in New York, “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson. 

Well, it‘s the final hour, final four tonight.  It‘s like the NCAA.  We‘ve got down to four teams tonight, here we go.

At number four, the least promising, break our hearts, Senator John McCain, a regular of this circuit.  Coming off a big win in South Carolina.  Last week he wanted to bump off Rudy Giuliani in Florida.  That may be easier done than said as it turns out.  But Rudy is not the problem.  It is Mitt, running neck and neck with McCain in Florida right now.  McCain keeps picking up endorsements from newspapers and lawmakers, but will he win in Florida tomorrow and set himself to go national a week later on February 5th?  We got him in fourth.  I‘m going to go Howard on him.  Howard?  How are John McCain‘s chances?

HOWARD FINEMAN, SR. POLITICAL ANALYST, NEWSWEEK:  Well, I think -

-

MATTHEWS:  Of winning tomorrow and going on to win the nomination on Super Tuesday, winning the general.  That‘s the way we‘re looking at it, who‘s got the best chance to win, win, win, win it all?

FINEMAN:  Well, he‘s got to win tomorrow.  He has got to win tomorrow.  And if he doesn‘t, then whatever momentum he may have had is gone.  Mitt Romney needs to win also.  But Mitt Romney has one thing that McCain does not have.  And that is money of his own.  And Mitt Romney is capable of spending another $30, $40, $50 million if he wants to.  And that in addition to his what shall we say, adaptability, makes him a very tough faux for McCain right now.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s look at McCain on “MEET THE PRESS” yesterday.  I thought he had a very tough time with Tim Russert.  Here is he talking about what he says is the top concern of Republican voters.  I‘m not sure he is right.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I believe that most Republicans‘ first priority is the threat of radical Islamic extremism.  Now I know the concerns about.

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  More than the economy?

MCCAIN:  More than the economy at the end of the day.  We will get through this economy.  We are going to restore our economy and many of the measures we‘re taking right now, although it‘s very difficult now.  This transcendent challenge of radical Islamic extremism will be with us for the 21st century.  We are in two wars.  We are in two wars.  have young Americans sacrificing as we speak.  I‘m most qualified to be a commander in chief with the knowledge, the experience, the background and the judgment.  Part of that judgment, I was the only one that said Rumsfeld‘s strategy failed.  We got to do the Petraeus strategy. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know I wonder Andrea, is he right when he says we will get threw the economic crisis, no problem?  I think they are scared.

ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Look how well the 9/11 fear and radical Islamic fascism worked for Rudy Giuliani in Florida so far.  That‘s not the number one issue.  It does play to his strength because of his experience. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go, I want Eugene to weigh in on this one.  At number three, I‘m putting Senator Barack Obama.  Coming off a round with Hillary Clinton down in South Carolina on Saturday.  Obama, today was handed the Kennedy torch.  The question is whether Ted Kennedy and he, Barack Obama, can carry it Olympic style right across the country?   What do you think, Gene? Can he carry that torch across the country with Teddy at his side?

EUGENE ROBINSON, WASHINGTON POST:  Well, I think Teddy will be a big help.  You know, Ted Kennedy can help him among a number of groups if you want to look at the Democratic Party that way. 

He could probably help him with Latinos.  He could probably help him with blue collar Democrats.  He can help him with older voters were Obama doesn‘t do that well.  He does very well among the young.  HE doesn‘t do that well among older people.  And you got to be older to really remember, you know, the Kennedy brothers and the Camelot magic and all that, you know, is special and evocative about Ted Kennedy.  He doesn‘t give namby-pamby support.  He‘s going to be out there campaigning.  We‘ll see how much.  I agree with you, if he‘s out there all week, you know, he can shake things up a bit.

MATTHEWS:  It seems to be it‘s not the Broadway opening we saw today, it‘s the road trip, the road show.  Can Ted Kennedy go out there every night and do one of these tub thumpers for him in every state?

FINEMAN:  The answer to that is yes.  And Teddy will be energized.  You know Teddy, he will be energized by it.  He is a great campaigner.  And also there are multiple Kennedys.  What Hillary has got to be wanting do is for the clock to run really fast.  Super Tuesday can‘t come fast enough for her because Obama is coming on.

MATTHEWS:  Here is a bit of Ted Kennedy for Obama.  Actually, here is Obama with the Kennedys. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES:  Make no mistake. 

The choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders.  It is not about rich versus poor, young versus old.  And it is certainly not about black versus white.  It is about—it is about the past versus the future.  It is about looking backwards and marching forward. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Ted Kennedy indicted and convicted Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton today.  He said everything, dishonest, distorting, you know, everything.

MITCHELL:  He said we have to reject the politics of distortion, the politics of the past.  He said this is the change agent.  He said this is the man with the experience to take over on day one.  This was a passing of the torch.

MATTHEWS:  I think it was King Arthur coming back from the crusades endorsing Robin Hood.  You heard that.  Our numbers four and three, we‘re going to get back and give you two and one, who I think are still the best bets to win the presidency this year.  We‘ll be right back with the power rankings.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We are back with the panel and more of the power rankings.  We gave you four and three.  I gave you McCain in fourth, best chance to be the next president.  Obama, the third best chance.  I know this hurts.  Sometime the truth does hurt. 

Then we go into Mitt Romney.  I think Mitt Romney has got the second best chance, so I‘m going to read it off now.  At number two, Mitt Romney.  He‘s coming on strong in Florida.  He‘s hammering McCain down there and Rudy is looking weaker by the hour down there in Florida.  If Romney pulls out a win in Florida, then he and his saddle bags of cash will be riding high into February 5th.  It‘s been pointed out by our own colleague here, Howard Fineman.  This guy has all the money he needs to be elected president, doesn‘t he?

FINEMAN:  Well, that‘s not all he needs but he does have that.  I interviewed him down in Pensacola the other day.

MATTHEWS:  Did you ask him how much he has in his wallet?

FINEMAN:  I didn‘t ask him that, but I sort of know.  He has got at least $250 million of his own money.

MATTHEWS:  But he wouldn‘t tell Tim the other day how much money he has. 

FINEMAN:  There is another $100 million in the trust fund for the five boys so don‘t worry about them.  They are taken care of.  And the thing about him is, there is a remorseless salesman‘s drive to this guy - a remorseless salesman‘s drive.  He is in a feedback loop with voters.  He‘s telling them what he wants to hear.  He‘s doing it shamelessly.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Give me the leads, give me the leads.

MITCHELL:  You‘ve got to know the territory.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s go.  What do you think Gene—Eugene Robinson of the “Post?”  What do you think about Romney having a better shot than McCain?

ROBINSON:  I think he‘s got a better shot because I think he‘s got a good shot at winning Florida.  It‘s a closed primary and I think McCain is wrong.  I think the economy is going to be the big issue, not just for Republicans, but for Democrats as well.  I think that is Romney‘s big push.  I think he is going to eke out a victory. 

MATTHEWS:  Speaking of the big push.  Finally the big number one spot, the person I think is most likely to be our next president, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.  With Bill at her side, she still has the best shot of being our next president, I believe.  After a tough week in South Carolina, she didn‘t waste any time moving on to Tennessee and other February 5th states.  She‘s reinventing the situation down in Florida. 

Tomorrow night she is going to be in Florida to convince voters that it matters that they voted for her, even though it wasn‘t official down there.  Tonight her campaign issued an e-mail announcing that she will quote, “visit Florida tomorrow night to thank her supporters.  She will visit the state after the polls are closed in the Florida primary in accordance with her pledge to not campaign there in the state before its primary.”

This is so good.  And the Clintons are putting the pressure on every establishment Democrat in the country to back them up.  But could this all backfire, what do you think Andrea?

MITCHELL:  Well the Florida gambit, it is really quite phony, but they could get away with it. 

MATTHEWS:  Claiming a real victory there.

MITCHELL:  Claiming a real victory.  I‘m going to be on a plane to Florida tomorrow morning.  I‘ll call you. 

MATTHEWS:  Even though they didn‘t contest the campaign.  Gene, Florida, Hillary get the headline in the “Washington Post” the next day, even though it wasn‘t official?

ROBINSON:  Probably.  She gets some sort of headline, not a very big one. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, somewhere around the fold, how about a half inch above the fold?

ROBINSON:  One column maybe or so.

FINEMAN:  Here is my rule.  If they can force Andrea Mitchell to take it seriously, it will be taken seriously.

MITCHELL:  There is an election form night and it is a good place to be.

MATTHEWS:  We need a Democratic angle because we have Republican angles.  A big night tomorrow night.  I think it is Romney tomorrow night.  I think he got has the second best chance after Hillary of being our next president.  So there you have it.

Hillary Clinton the best bet, then Romney the second, Barack the third best, John McCain the fourth best.  I could be wrong.  So anyway, thank you Howard Fineman, Andrea Mitchell and Eugene Robinson.  Join us again at 9:00 Eastern for the State of the Union.  “COUNTDOWN” with Keith starts right now.

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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