updated 2/1/2008 12:07:53 PM ET 2008-02-01T17:07:53

Guests: Michelle Bernard; Jonathan Martin, John Neffinger, Debra Saunders

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  McCain accuses Romney of going wobbly on Iraq.  Romney accuses McCain of dirty tricks.  Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews and welcome to a late night edition of HARDBALL. 

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water, look at what happened to night.  Tonight, John McCain rammed home his attack on No.  1 challenger, Mitt Romney.  Again and again, he pounded the former Massachusetts governor for talking about “timetables” for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.  McCain said that Romney was using code language to side with those who oppose the military surge over the past year that has reduced American casualties in the war.  Romney exploded in reaction to McCain‘s charge which tied him with Hillary Clinton and others to what McCain called, “those willing to wave the white flag of surrender in Iraq.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m not using the actual quote.  That‘s not what I said.

JOHN MCCAIN ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The quote is, “we don‘t want don‘t want them to lay in the weeds until we leave.” That is the actual quote. 

ROMNEY:  What does that mean? 

MCCAIN:  And I‘m sure fact checkers—what does that mean?  A timetable for until we leave? 

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST AC-360:  Senator, let me—let me jump in.  The quote that I have...

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY:  Is it not fair to have the person who‘s being accused of having a position he doesn‘t have be the expert on what his position is?  How is it that you‘re the expert on my position? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, because Romney‘s use to changing positions so nobody can be expert on him except Romney.  Anyway, the us of the charge was an example of Romney basically accused McCain of using dirty tricks in the over-the-weekend ploy regarding the statement with regard to timetables that Romney argued gave McCain victory in Florida and drove Romney to a second place finish down there.  So, Romney‘s out there charging McCain with dirty tricks that cost him Florida.  This is interesting politics. 

“Dirty tricks,” that loaded phrase from Watergate days is bound to find its way into the morning headlines and to muddy the waters in what some believe will be a McCain victory cruise in next Tuesday‘s Super Tuesday primaries in 21 states.  Just hours before the debate, New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani officially dropped out of the race and endorsed McCain. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI ®, FMR MAYOR NEW YORK:  John McCain is the most qualified canned candidate, to be the next commander-in-chief of the United States.  He is an American hero, and America could use heroes in the White House.  He‘s a man of honor and integrity, and you can underline both, honor and integrity. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And tonight, the “Los Angeles Times” is reporting that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California will endorse Senator John McCain tomorrow, just six days before the California primary, along with those 20 other primaries next Tuesday. 

Let‘s go to our HARDBALL after-hours panel, MSNBC‘s Tucker Carlson, the president of the Independent Women‘s Voice, that‘s not him, it‘s Michelle Bernard, and “Politico‘s” Jonathan Martin from the Reagan library, who‘s out there. 

Jonathan, you‘re out there.  When I heard the word or the phrase “dirty tricks” out of Romney‘s mouth, I thought, my God, does he know what he‘s saying about his rival?

JONATHAN MARTIN, POLITICO:  Well, I think he‘s getting into a processed argument with John McCain.  But, the problem for Mitt Romney, Chris, is that they spent about seven, eight minutes talking about national security.  Romney wants to keep the message on the economy.  Talking about national security, regardless of the actual text or the context of the charge, is not helping Romney‘s cause.  He wants to be talking about the economy, his role as sort of a Mr.  Fix-it.  When they‘re talking about national security, McCain‘s winning that war every time. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You know what, Michelle, on the very point of national security, he accused of guy basically of turning and running.  He keeps talking about Democrats like Senator Clinton wanting to wave the white flag of surrender in Iraq, now he‘s accusing his fellow Republican, Romney, of basically talking timetables, another word for getting out. 

MICHELLE BERNARD, INDEPENDENT WOMEN‘S VOICE:  Yeah.  There is a slow civil war burning within the Republican Party and we saw it tonight.  Iraq is a huge issue.  It was actually—CNN asked the question in the Democratic debate last week to Hillary Clinton and the other presidential candidates, do you want to win or get out of Iraq or do you want to get out of Iraq, and nobody talked about winning.  So, you know, the Republicans want to distance themselves from the Democrats and for McCain to throw that charge at Romney is a huge, huge blow.  Republicans want somebody strong on national security. 

MATTHEWS:  Tucker? 

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, TUCKER:  It‘s a stupid argument.  Ron Paul was right.  If you‘re going to debate foreign policy, debate foreign policy.  Do we have a moral obligation to improve the lives of foreign populations?  That‘s the argument, not over what one person‘s minor shading was at what time.  Jonathan is absolutely right.  This conversation always benefits McCain because it always ends up where it did tonight, which is who‘s better at leading?  You saw Mitt Romney trying to make the case he‘s more experienced as a leader than John McCain.  That‘s not a plausible argument.  He can never win that argument so he shouldn‘t go there. 

MATTHEWS:  What about this issue of being a good soldier?  I have a sense that people generally don‘t like the war in Iraq.  Our polls here at NBC make that clear.  Two-thirds of the people don‘t like the war policy.  But, among Republican primary voters, I wonder based upon the numbers we looked at in Florida this week, maybe, just maybe, they like good soldiers, like John McCain, Loyalists who are loyal to the cause, even if the cause isn‘t working out. 

CARLSON:  Exactly right.  It doesn‘t need to be an argument, an affirmative argument in favor of the wisdom of going to Iraq.  It‘s a hard argument to make, almost nobody makes it, only when pressed.  The argument is, should we be further humiliated by running away?  Do you want people hanging off the struts of the helicopters leaving the roof of the embassy?  Nobody wants that and Republicans really don‘t want that.  So, if the debate remains in that territory—what do we do next, how do we minimize damage to the country—McCain can make that case. 

MATTHEWS:  It seemed to me, Jonathan, that there was a difference in method of life of that debate.  And I don‘t want to get too profound here, but John McCain is a politician, let‘s face it, he‘s in the business.  And part of the business is to be sort of like Tim Russert on Sunday, find something that somebody said before and make them defend it.  I don‘t care if it‘s two years ago, six months ago.  Say he found something, John McCain did, that Mitt Romney said back in November or whatever of 2006 and said:  you were for timetables back then.  Romney, who‘s a business guy, said:  wait a minute, I‘ve updated since then.  You‘re not keeping up with my inventory.  Why don‘t you ask me my current position?  And McCain says:  why should I bother asking your current position, I‘ve nailed you on your old one?  It‘s just a different method of life, here.

MARTIN:  No, McCain‘s an old pro, Chris.  And the fact is, the quote that he used was a pretty thin reed, but the fact is, is that Mitt Romney took that bait on Saturday.  Look, last week Romney was dominating the message in Florida, talking about the economy every day.  McCain realized he had to change the narrative.  On Saturday, he tossed his lure in the water, Romney bit it.  You toss in the endorsements of Mel Martinez and Charlie Crist and McCain won the weekend news cycle.  Folks vote Tuesday, McCain wins. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask you, Michelle, is that as simple as that?  I think Tucker and Jonathan both argued it‘s about topic selection.  As long as John McCain can select a topic of national defense, where he‘s been on armed services for 20 years and served his country in hell in Hanoi, he wins the argument because of what we‘re talking about. 

BERNARD:  Well, he wins the argument on national security, but if you look at the Florida exit polls, all of the voters—the vast majority of voters that came out of the exit polls said that the economy was the No.  1 issue and they surprised me, they vote... 

MATTHEWS:  It wasn‘t the No.  1 issue was when these guys voted. 

BERNARD:  Well, not tonight, but McCain surprised me because he actually won Floridian voters on the economy over Romney. 

MATTHEWS:  You said that last time.  Let‘s look at Governor Romney going back at McCain, here. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  We‘ve had 10 or 12 debates.  He‘s never raised that issue with me.  He‘s never said, are you for a date specific?  I‘ve been asked that question, time and again.  Last debate we had, I said:  I will not leave Iraq until we have secured Iraq, make sure it will never become a safe haven.  And what‘s interesting here is, it‘s an attempt to do the Washington-style old politics which is lay a charge out there, regardless of whether it‘s true or not, don‘t check it, don‘t talk to the other candidate, just throw it out there, get it into the media, in the stream.  There‘s not a single media source that I‘ve seen that hasn‘t said it was reprehensible.  Even the “New York Times” said it was wrong.  The “Washington Post,” they endorsed you, the “Washington Post” gave you three Pinocchio‘s for it. 

(LAUGHTER)

It‘s simply wrong.  And the senator knows it. 

COOPER:  Senator McCain, final comment on this subject and then we have a lot more about Iraq.   Then we‘re going to talk to the other candidates about it, as well. 

MCCAIN:  That was a critical time in the debate.  It wasn‘t—it wasn‘t - when he said what he said in December, it was after the election, President Bush fired Rumsfeld and we announced that we were going to have a new strategy.  That was the critical time.  “Timetables” was the buzz words.  Timetables were the ones. 

And as far as Washington top politics is concerned, I think my friend, Governor Huckabee, sir, will attest, the millions of dollars of attack ads and negative ads you leveled against him in Iowa, the millions of dollars of attack ads you attacked against me in New Hampshire and have ever since.  A lot of it‘s your own money, you‘re free to do with it what you want to, you can spend it all.  But the fact is that your negative ads, my friends, sir, have set the tone, unfortunately, in this campaign. 

I say to you again, the debate after the election of 2006 was whether we were going to have timetables for withdrawal or not.  Timetables were the buzz word.  That was the Iraq Study Group.  That was what the Democrats said we wanted to do.  Your answer should have been no. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s like a mongoose and a cobra going at it.  There‘s John stooped over, and this much taller guy next him, an he just waited in that debate for like 45 minutes as Anderson Cooper‘s going through all this economic information and answering.  And then John McCain says, timetables, timetables, timetables.  He rubs it in the guy‘s face, timetables.  And you‘re right you guys, you know, in politics, this guy, Mitt Romney, may be a brilliant businessman, but he doesn‘t know how to get out of the goo, out of the mess he‘s in, here. 

CARLSON:  This is exactly what Al Gore did to Bill Bradley in 2000.

MATTHEWS:  How‘d he do it?

CARLSON:  Well, he implied he was a racist and he drove Bill Bradley crazy.  Bill Bradley was getting red in the face.  He‘s—your Social Security plan, why does it affect African-Americans disproportionately?  Is there a reason for that?  And Bill Bradley would be like, what are you saying?  What are you saying?  And he would get so mad and Gore did exactly what McCain is doing now, he kind sat back and kind of grinned this sort of self-satisfied grin like I got you... 

MATTHEWS:  You know, Jonathan, it‘s like he‘s jamming the business model back in his face:  your business model was timetables, secret conversations with Maliki‘s government, of course, not setting a goal, but a timetable.  Just the use of that word, which is probably pretty weak, to say the guy wanted to bug out within a certain month or two, but he said no, back then, it was a code word.  You were in with the lefties, you were in with Hillary and all those people, the bad people, the sellout crowd, as he would say. 

MARTIN:  Right, there‘s no question, it was a political ploy, he set the trap and Romney walked right in.  Tucker is absolutely right; this is very, very similar to what happened in 2000 with Bill Bradley.  And just like Bradley then, Romney now expresses indignation, and he responds on the merits, and that‘s the problem is that, you know, he‘s sort of playing into Romney‘s trap—or McCain‘s trap, rather. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, not that I like to do this all the time, but starting with you, Jonathan, then Michelle, then Tucker, who‘s actually right here?  Did Mitt Romney sell out our troops by talking timetables behind the backs of the troops?  Did he actually have a plan to yank out of there rather than go with the surge that McCain has pushed? 

MARTIN:  I think every Independent sort of fact-checking person who has looked into that has found McCain is stretching it quite a bit. 

MATTHEWS:  Michelle? 

BERNARD:  I think he‘s kind of gilding the lily here a little bit.  I mean, you can want to win, but you can also have a timetable to get out.  Actually, you‘ve got to have both. 

MATTHEWS:  And what do you think, you think Romney was waffling, somewhere in the middle? 

BERNARD:  Somewhere in the middle. 

MATTHEWS:  Playing to the newspaper Liberals because they want to talk timetable and what he really wanted to do was what?  What id he really want to do, stay or fight? 

BERNARD:  No, he wants to win.

MATTHEWS:  Stay and fight or leave? 

BERNARD:  He wants to win and he wants to leave. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, he wants to win the war? 

BERNARD:  He wants to win the war. 

CARLSON:  I mean, they‘re both right.  Obviously, Romney never called for timetables, that‘s ridiculous.  On the other hand, when the debate was raging, he could have weighed in on one side, he didn‘t, which is his M.O., he waits to find out what happens.  He‘s not stupid. 

MATTHEWS:  But, I think the funny part is, Romney‘s begging for John McCain‘s understanding by saying, just ask me my position is now, I‘ll tell you, because he‘s used to changing his position.  It‘s so funny. 

CARLSON:  Because the presupposition there is McCain cares what his real position is.  Of course he doesn‘t.

MATTHEWS:  McCain thinks you have a right to change your position once you‘re stuck in the bushes, there.  Anyway, Jonathan Martin, thank you very much.  Tucker and Michelle are staying with us.  And thank you very much, Jonathan.  A little more than a cursory thank you, a big one this late at night. 

And when we return, we‘re going to talk to Mitt Romney‘s campaign about the debate.  This is going to be great.  We‘re going to get Kevin Madden back here to defend the position of his candidate.  Boy, he was like a tackling dummy tonight.  Anyway, more with that and we‘re coming back with more of the coverage of what looked to be, I thought, a dull debate until this firefight, tonight, on the war of Iraq, of all issues, top of the burner, tonight on HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I‘m proud of the people that have surrounded me and are supporting me, and whether they come from one part of the spectrum or the other, strong conservatives are ones who are supporting me, and I‘m proud of their support.  And I‘ll rely on people to judge me by the company that I keep. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GOP>

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  These individuals are free to get in line with everyone else that wants to become a permanent resident or citizen, but no special pathway.  No special deal that says because you‘re here illegally, you get to stay here for the rest of your life.  And that‘s what I found to be so offensive with the “Z” visa which was in the McCain/Kennedy bill.  It said all illegal aliens, unless you‘re a criminal, you‘re all allowed to stay here for $3,000 for the rest of your life.  And that‘s a mistake. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL‘s coverage of the Republican debate out of the Ronald Reagan Library, here‘s the “Associated Press” lead on the debate, tonight.  Republican Mitt Romney said John McCain used dirty tricks by suggesting shortly before the Florida primary, which was yesterday, that the former Massachusetts governor wanted a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.  As the two men squared off in a spirited debate Wednesday night, “I have never, ever supported a specific timetable for withdrawing troops,” Romney said, “McCain‘s accusation on the eve of Tuesday‘s presidential primary,” Romney said, “sort of falls into the dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found reprehensible.”

NBC‘s Ron Allen joins us from Simi Valley, California, he‘s covering the Romney campaign. 

Ronnie, is that the headline for the “Today” show tomorrow, just guessing, “dirty tricks?”

RON ALLEN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Yeah, it‘s certainly a word that stays with you, Chris.  It was really interesting to watch the two of them sit side-by-side because they are in some ways a very stark contrast and that‘s what Romney has certainly been trying to do was portray himself as a very different kind of individual, an outsider as compared to McCain. 

It seemed like Romney, had all week, he really wanted to let go on McCain about this stuff about the war.  And tonight, you know, Romney‘s a very reserved, gentlemanly person, somewhat low-key, I mean, he was really, really angry, I think, in a way that—and he did it in as careful a way as he probably could.  So, as they went back and forth, you could see just the emotion coming up.  And so yeah—and that‘s probably what‘s going to happen as we go into February 5, it certainly happened last week in Florida. 

The other thing I want to point out is that, you know, Romney, if you were judging this debate, the International Debating Society that we‘re looking at, he probably scores a lot of points for facts and he rattles off details and information, but, you know, McCain comes back with these one-liners:  Oh yeah, but you always change your position.  And a lot of that probably is what sticks with people who are just watching this casually. 

You know, the other thing that is a concern for the campaign is that coming out of Florida, there were exit polls that showed that most voters who are concerned about the economy went for McCain, not Romney after a week of pounding and pounding the message that I can fix the economy, and he has said that he doesn‘t know anything about the economy. 

So, as we go forward, they‘re being a little cagey about their strategy is, trying to be strategic, but it‘s going to be an interesting week here, east to Massachusetts.

MATTHEWS:  Well, a surprisingly exciting night.  Thank you very much, Ron Allen out at the Reagan Library.

Well, Kevin Madden, a familiar face on this program, he‘s national press secretary for the Romney campaign. 

Have you been promoted, Kevin, national press secretary?  Is there a lower level of press secretary than you were before? 

KEVIN MADDEN, NATL PRESS SECY FOR ROMNEY:  I actually—Chris, actually, I prefer the term spokesmodel. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, how about—what do they call those things, I‘ll think of it in a minute, the ones—Ed McMahon used to name them on “Star Search,” I forget what they are.  Let me ask you about this fight tonight, the firefight between your candidate, Mitt Romney, and John McCain.  McCain kept pounding him on this phrase:  timetables, timetables, timetables.  It was like precious bodily fluids of Dr.  Strangelove.  He kept going over it and over it and over it.  Why does that bug your candidate so much, that word, “timetables?”

MADDEN:  Well, I think what bothers us most is that it‘s an absolutely stunningly false assertion for John McCain to make.  And what I find most disconcerting about that charge, Chris, is that I really think that deep down, Senator McCain knows that the charge that he‘s making against Governor Romney, the assignment of a position that Governor Romney does not have, he knows that that‘s not true. 

And I will give Senator McCain this, he was—and I believe a lot of people have respect for him on the fact that he took a position on the war, and he was very strong with it.  And, in fact, he tried to bring together the Republican Party and the Democrat Party behind our men and women in Iraq, and he did so by talking about why it was important to achieve success there.  And then to go and assign a position that the governor does not have in a blatantly false way by treating the truth for a campaign tactic, it just does not sit very well.  It doesn‘t sit well with voters.  And we have to make sure that we make very clear that this is a false assertion by Senator McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this the reason he won the Florida primary?  I thought I heard that from the governor tonight. 

MADDEN:  Look, I think the Florida primary was, that was not due to any one issue, but instead, it was about, you know, a very strong competition between folks down there to try and bring together people in a way that would help them win.  And I think Senator McCain did a good job, we also did a good job.  We started at zero in Florida, not many people, when we began this campaign, even knew who Governor Romney is, but we worked our way up to a strong level of support in Florida. 

Senator McCain had 100 percent name identification in places like Florida now for eight years, so it was a competition, Senator McCain won.  But, now we have exactly what we want coming out of Florida, Chris, which is mano-a-mano, this is a two man race between us and Senator McCain and this is going to be a campaign about the future.  And if it is a campaign about the future, I think Governor Romney‘s going to be the nominee. 

MATTHEWS:  But about the past, your governor, you candidate brought back the past by accusing John McCain, tonight, of dirty tricks with regard to his weekend claim that Romney had been for a timetable to get out of Iraq.  Now, I‘m just going to ask you as the national spokesperson, national representative model, whatever, do you speak for Romney tonight, and say again as he did tonight, that that was a dirty trick by John McCain? 

MADDEN:  I do.  I agree that what Senator McCain did was...

MATTHEWS:  A dirty trick. 

MADDEN:  I don‘t believe it was—I believe it was a dishonest assessment of Governor Romney‘s campaign, and it was one that he should not have made.  If we‘re going to have a debate about Iraq, let‘s have a debate about the future and how we achieve success there.  And do so in a way that deals with the facts and not make false assertions about other people‘s positions. 

MATTHEWS:  So, the phrase “dirty tricks” wasn‘t inappropriate?  It was appropriate as far as you‘re concerned?  In other words, it‘s not something you‘re going to have to pull back from tomorrow and say he used a little untoward language or a little over the top, you‘re comfortable that your candidate was correct in assigning the term “dirty tricks” to John McCain? 

MADDEN:  I‘m not only comfortable in it, with it, Chris, but I think if you look at all of the news organizations that have covered this, they‘ve come up with the exact same position that we have. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s tough. 

Michelle, do you want to ask Kevin a question?  This guy has got the case tonight.  John McCain‘s guilty of dirty tricks, and he‘s got the evidence.  He‘s got a strong charge, Michelle.  I‘d like to ask him some more questions, but I want to share this.  Go ahead. 

BERNARD:  Well, but I do have a question because I kind of feel like this whole notion of “dirty tricks”—I mean, we haven‘t had anyone come out and say, at least recently, that maybe governor Romney was playing dirty tricks when he sort of remembered walking down the streets or marching down the streets with Martin Luther King.  Dirty trick or not I mean this is presidential politics... 

MADDEN:  Come on.  No. 

BERNARD:  It was not entirely true.  I mean, I think this is—I think that people need to realize that this is part of the game when you‘re running for president, people are going to play hard.  If anyone can reunite a fractured Republican Party, it‘s Hillary Clinton, and I think that Senator McCain is saying “dirty tricks,” “dirty tricks,” “dirty tricks” just to throw Romney in the same camp as Hillary—Hillary Clinton.  And I think it should be expected. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, do you think...

MADDEN:  I think the parallel—I think the parallel that you tried to draw there between those remarks and everybody can go back and look at the tape of the conversation I already had with Chris on this, but I think the parallel you‘re trying to draw is not accurate at all. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s not renew that conversation at this point. 

CARLSON:  May I ask you a question, Kevin...

MADDEN:  If we‘re going to deal with the facts here—go ahead.  I‘m sorry.  Go ahead. 

CARLSON:  Well, I‘m sort of on your side on this.  I mean, I don‘t think—it‘s not clear to me that Romney ever called for a timetable for withdrawal and I think McCain is overreaching in this.  My question is, though, why do you think this conversation helps you in any way?  We wound up tonight, as we were talking about a minute ago, with Romney trying to claim he has more leadership experience than McCain, that‘s laughable.  Do you really think they‘re talking about national security helps Mitt Romney? 

MADDEN:  Well, look, here‘s what I think, Tucker, I think that most important to us is we focus on the issues.  I think a large part of the debate tonight was focused on the economy.  It was focused on making this debate about where we take not only the party over the next 20 years, but the country over the next 20 years.  So, that was most important to us.  But, on your specific question about whether or not it helps, look, I don‘t think it helps John McCain. 

I really truly don‘t believe that when the American people who always afforded him a grudging respect for the fact that he spoke with straight talk, when straight talk absolutely evaporates in front of your eyes as he sits there and tries to make and insist on a false assertion of truth, I think that that hurts the John McCain “straight-talk” brand and governor Romney instead, dealing with the facts, dealing with the specifics, talking about the future, making the case for his leadership, I think that that fits perfectly with what we want to do during this campaign.  Make this a contest between a competing vision and a debate about the future of this party over the next 20 years and not... 

CARLSON:  Yeah but, may I just say something very quickly, it seems to me, I‘m not arguing with the merits of what you‘re saying, again, I don‘t think Romney called for a timetable for withdrawal, so I think in some ways you‘re right.  But people think they know McCain is a strong leader and that Romney is a flip-flopper.  So, whenever they get into a debate where he is calling Mitt Romney a flip-flopper and Mitt Romney saying I‘m a stronger leader than you, it cuts against people‘s preconceptions to such an extent, I don‘t think they buy it, if you see what I mean. 

MADDEN:  Well, I absolutely think—I think what people do, Tucker, is they take a look across the whole spectrum of the issues they‘re going to judge candidates on and they do make the case that the governor is a strong leader.  On the economy, on national security, issues related to strengthening of the family, Governor Romney, he has a record he can point to, a record of accomplishment, a record of success.  That is the message that we have to Republicans right now is that governor Romney is the best person to lead that coalition, be the standard bearer for the party for the future and win in November.  So, that‘s where we‘ve made the specifics. 

MATTHEWS:  Just to get this finished up—Kevin, I‘m sorry.  We‘ve got to finish this up.  Just to make it clear, Governor Romney has no timetable for withdrawing from this campaign. 

MADDEN:  Absolutely not.  Governor Romney‘s focused on achieving success in Iraq and Afghanistan and leading the fight against the radical global Islamic Jihad across the world. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, Kevin Madden. 

Up next, we heard what the candidates said, tonight.  What do we really mean?  We‘re going to analyze—I love this part, I love this—we‘re look at their body language.  I thought it was fascinating the way McCain was hunched over like this and the other guy was sitting bolt upright and everyone saw he‘s bolt up and jump him.  Anyway, we‘re going to analyze what their body language meant tonight.  You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s coverage of the Republican debate from the Reagan Library here on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Ronald Reagan had a deal (INAUDIBLE) that everybody wanted him to take, but he stuck with his principles.  I think he knows that I stick with my principles.  I put my political career on the line because I knew what would happen if we failed in Iraq.  I hope that the experience I had serving as a foot soldier in his revolution would make him proud for me to continue that legacy of sticking to principle and doing what you believe in no matter what.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Now we‘re going to look at the republican candidates, what they said tonight with their bodies and not their words.  It‘s wonderful to go to the tone, the style, as we said, the body language, not just their words.  John is so good at this, he makes a living coaching people on how to talk in front of groups, talk and the importance of how to say something.  John, you‘re great.  I wait for this, for you to come back.  His clients are mostly businesspeople.  This is a disclaimer, but he‘s also coached some democratic candidates. 

JOHN NEFFINGER, BODY LANGUAGE ANALYST:  True. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at an early exchange tonight between Romney and McCain. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I guess I‘d also note that if you get endorsed by “The New York Times,” you‘re probably not a conservative. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Senator McCain?

JOHN MCCAIN ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Let me note that I was endorsed by your two hometown newspapers who know you best, including the very conservative “Boston Herald,” who know you well, better than anybody.  I‘ll guarantee you “The Arizona Republic” will be endorsing me, my friend. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I love it, John.  What does this mean, you know, the hand, the fingernail, like this.  What is that saying?  Like this guy over here, you know. 

NEFFINGER:  Yeah, “my friend”?  That was just cruel.  In the beginning of the debate tonight, once again, McCain totally had Romney‘s number.  In this case, Romney actually started the fight, right? He was the one who brought up the endorsement of “The Times,” and he was sort of chuckling, heh, heh, I got you.  McCain put it to him, with the body language, he‘s chuckling along with Romney and sticks him with that line about “The Herald” and the Arizona paper.  What you don‘t see at the end of that clip there is that Romney is left, heh, heh, chuckling.  It really called for a response, and he had nothing to come back with. 

MATTHEWS:  Sometimes Romney is obviously a brilliant guy in many ways but sometimes runs out of dialogue.  In politics you‘ve got to go back two or three times to win it.  McCain keeps coming at him.  He runs out of words, and McCain looks like he won, even though you can‘t follow it at that point. 

NEFFINGER:  You get the sense McCain is doing the give and take and Romney maybe came armed with a couple times but wasn‘t thinking three step as head. 

MATTHEWS:  John, does it help to hate the guy?

NEFFINGER:  To hate whom?

MATTHEWS:  Does it help for one competitor to hate the other guy in these debates?

NEFFINGER:  That‘s a very interesting question you ask there, Chris.  If you look at McCain‘s body language throughout, in the beginning, he looked tough and like we saw there, he scored some points, but the tight-lipped smile that McCain wore, through the entire rest of the debate, really made him look, yes, like he hated Romney, but also kind of unpleasant to the point where—

MATTHEWS:  Yeah. 

NEFFINGER:  -- to the point where Romney actually seemed more likeable here than McCain, which is very different than what we‘ve seen in the past. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s the issue of Iraq which sparked a heated exchange between both those gentlemen. 

NEFFINGER:  Absolutely. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Timetables was the buzzword for withdraw.  You said—

ROMNEY:  I‘m not using the actual quote.  That‘s not what I said. 

MCCAIN:  The quote is we don‘t want them to lay in the weeds until we leave.  That is the actual quote. 

ROMNEY:  What does that mean? What does that mean?

MCCAIN:  It means a timetable until we leave. 

ROMNEY:  Senator—

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Let me jump in. 

ROMNEY:  Is it not fair to have the person who‘s being accused of having a position he doesn‘t have be the expert on what his position is?  How is it that you‘re the expert on my position when my position has been very clear?

MCCAIN:  I‘ll tell you.  I‘m the expert on this.  You said I‘m a governor.  You couldn‘t weigh in because you were a governor.  The fact that we were having the fight over it. 

ROMNEY:  That‘s a separate point. 

MCCAIN:  The point is that I have fought for this surge.  I have said we need to have this succeed.  I know the situation in Iraq.  And I am proud to have supported this president and supported the fact that we are succeeding in Iraq today. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  There you have it, John.  He looked like Romney had a big argument to make against him.  He didn‘t mean that or doesn‘t think it explains his position now but he just stopped talking and John kept pulverizing him. 

NEFFINGER:  That‘s right.  McCain takes over the exchange and goes right back to laying out very clearly, slowly making his case.  But very interesting there, if you saw earlier on in the exchange, Romney actually has at least a little bit of backbone, even though he lets McCain run away with it later, he does this where he turns to the side and hooks his arm over the corner of his chair, very traditional power move kind of thing as if to say, yeah, I‘m very comfortable here.  So what do you got for me here? So Romney actually doesn‘t do too poorly in this exchange in the sense that he‘s more gracious.  And McCain really is pushing it almost to the point where it seems like, all right, enough already. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, television news directors and people like me just love these scenes because you don‘t have to explain much.  The body language of those two guys, you almost can go without sound.  They are arguing dramatically as equals.  It‘s dramatic stuff.  Thank you very much, John Neffinger.  Please come back again and again and again. 

Up next, what the McCain camp is saying about John McCain‘s performance tonight.  We‘re talking spin time. 

The big endorsement late today by Rudy Giuliani of John McCain.  Of course, tomorrow comes the terminator.  He‘s going to terminate perhaps Mitt Romney. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s coverage of the republican debate on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  We all know the American people want the border secured first.  We will security borders first when I am president of the United States.  I know how to do that.  I come from a border state where we know about building walls and vehicle barriers and sensors and all of the things necessary.  I will have the border state governor certify the borders are secured, and then we will move on to the other aspects of this issue. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and our coverage of the republican debate tonight at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.  John McCain got a big boost hours before the debate when Rudy Giuliani, who had just left the campaign a second before, endorsed him.  NBC‘s Kelly O‘Donnell‘s covering the McCain campaign and joins us now.  Boy, what a big two days, a win in Florida, an endorsement from Rudy this afternoon and one promised tomorrow by the governor of California. 

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS:  Well, that is a trio of hits which John McCain certainly need.  And we have been told and we‘ve had multiple sources tell us that Arnold Schwarzenegger will go ahead and he will support McCain tomorrow.  He‘s got two celebrity republicans, Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, moderate appealing to a broader base.  Maybe that‘s not so helpful for McCain right now, but big star power coming off Florida.  And especially as we travel from Miami to California with Senator McCain of his switching into a front-runner mode ever so carefully. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

O‘DONNELL:  Still not wanting to be overconfident, but trying to really take the lead here.  We really saw that today, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that what those two endorsements by relatively moderate republicans mean, their valedictions, their statements that this guy is almost inevitable now?

O‘DONNELL:  Very much.  I think they want to show the sense he‘s marching towards this nomination, more work to do because of Romney‘s very deep pockets and Mike Huckabee‘s appeal especially in the south, but they want to convey that.  When you talk about republicans who have this bigger-than-life stature, Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, certainly fit that bill.  Endorsements are important, but a lot of times around the country, other citizens aren‘t aware of who are those local state senators or even the governors of other states.  These are two big names, and they hope especially in the west where John McCain thinks he will do well, but both will help.  And Rudy Giuliani will be hugely helpful in the northeast corridor where he has some strength.  And both of them perhaps open pocketbooks from their supporters and people who have been aligned with each of them, and that‘s something that John McCain is certainly welcoming.  And one more point, they‘re really trying to put the welcome mat out to Giuliani staffers.  They‘re saying they would like to hire them and bring them into the fold and have their expertise going forward as well. 

MATTHEWS:  I saw one of the big republicans sitting behind Governor Schwarzenegger tonight, Jerry Parski of southern California, a major moderate republican.  Kelly O‘Donnell, thank you very much. 

Right now Michelle Bernard and Tucker Carlson are staying with us.  We‘re joined by NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell and Debra Saunders of “The San Francisco Chronicle.”  I have to go to Debra from my old newspaper, which I once worked for fondly and lovingly.  Debra, does Schwarzenegger‘s endorsement carry swag out there, some clout?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE:  I don‘t think it does carry a lot of clout, Chris, because this is a closed primary.  Independents can‘t vote in it.  The GOP base is angry at Schwarzenegger right now.  Having said that, they weren‘t going to vote for McCain anyway.  So I think it won‘t make a big difference.  But it can‘t hurt, and it adds to that aura of inevitability. 

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s going to win? Are you suggesting McCain will lose to Romney in California next Tuesday?

SAUNDERS:  No, I‘m just saying I don‘t think the Schwarzenegger endorsement will make a big difference.  This state was already turning toward McCain anyway.  I just think it‘s only going to get bigger.  I think he has momentum.  I think he‘s going the right way.  I think it‘s probably going to be—of course, you know, you make predictions, you can be wrong.  But it‘s probably going to be—

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve learned that the hard way in New Hampshire.  Let me go right now to Andrea Mitchell, my colleague.  Andrea, are you out there already?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS:  No, I couldn‘t get there that quickly.  We did “NIGHTLY NEWS” and HARDBALL from here tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well let me ask you, Andrea, about this whole debate tonight.  You‘re a foreign policy expert.  You know, Tucker Carlson makes the point that this is kind of Mickey Mouse to be arguing about what somebody said a year or two ago about timetables in the context of conversations between the Maliki government and our president, secret conversations where timetables might be applied to all sorts of things.  John McCain has leapt on to that word, accused Romney of wanting to wave the white flag of surrender alongside the democrats like Senator Clinton in his accusation.  Is this real or faux as the French would say?

MITCHELL:  Maybe a little bit of each in that, you know, I‘m not sure it rises to the level of dirty tricks because it was really out front there, but it was a late charge, a late hit in the rounds of this pre-Florida debate.  And what it did for McCain was to turn the conversation, as you‘ve pointed out, to Iraq, to foreign policy.  You know, why Romney is permitting himself to get trapped that way, I don‘t know.  But it is very interesting, though.  The exit polls from Florida, Chris, which we‘ve been talking about, showing that the people who care about the economy first were voting for John McCain.  So someone has bought into his argument that as a spending, you know—as someone who fights to cut spending as hard as he does, that that‘s somehow being interpreted as the right approach for the economy.  I don‘t know. 

MATTHEWS:  Yeah, that‘s in our poll data.  You know that.  Andrea, you and I saw the poll data this morning; we saw last night that people who think tax cuts are the solution may have voted for Romney.  Those that thought spending cuts were the appropriate measure to bring about recovery voted for McCain.  I think that voters, Andrea, are so aware of this debate, they know who‘s moderate on immigration, who‘s really moderate no matter what he says about abortion policy.  They seem to know everything about these candidates.  They are the most—one thing I think all this cable television discussion has achieved, for those who vote, people who watch this kind of program, I can tell you, vote.  And they know all the issues.  It‘s amazing. 

MITCHELL:  Do they .

MATTHEWS:  They do.  It‘s amazing how it matches up. 

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, MSNBC‘S TUCKER:  They know the issues, but I wonder if the issues are brought up.  Six and a half years after 9/11, where is the debate on either side about America‘s role in the world?

MATTHEWS:  You and I have been trying to get that debate for seven years. 

TUCKER:  When do we have an obligation to act, to intervene? Nobody even mentions it.  If you do, you‘re a crackpot. 

MATTHEWS:  The Democratic Party is taking the position that the war was a mistake, a good soldier to back the president.  It‘s very hard to get them to leave their—they don‘t want to leave their partisan line. 

TUCKER:  I don‘t like it. 

MATTHEWS:  We have to avoid doing it again.  Debra, you‘re there for it.  Go. 

SAUNDERS:  I‘m freezing.  Well, you know, I think there is a debate that‘s going on in the Republican Party, and it‘s whether or not the party wants to be this all-or-nothing party where only the pure can be the nominee or whether this is going to be a party where people compromise and they bend.  If you say you want all or nothing, guess what you get.  You get nothing.  And I think that‘s why John McCain did so well in Florida; you had McCain and Giuliani, only 51% of the vote with republican voters.  I think the debate on whether the party is going to be absolutist or whether it‘s going to be broad and we can bring in the term “Reagan democrat.”

O‘DONNELL:  In fact, having the debate there, I think Debra‘s absolutely right, and having the debate there in the Reagan library, what could be more apt? Because Ronald Reagan for all of his bedrock principles knew when to say the concrete around his feet was cracking.  I covered the man for eight years in the white house.  You saw him from the other side of the Pennsylvania Avenue, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  I did. 

O‘DONNELL:  You know he knew how to be flexible when he needed to be.  He sometimes hated to, but he knew he had to make compromises.  That‘s the kind of republican I think John McCain is framing himself after. 

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, as always.  Anyway, Debra Saunders, get inside. 

Are you out in Simi Valley? It looks like somewhere in the North Pole. 

Thank you for being here. 

SAUNDERS:  Or Alaska. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you. 

The panel‘s staying with us, and that includes Tucker Carlson and Michelle Bernard.  This is HARDBALL‘s coverage of the republican debate tonight.  Lots of fireworks, dirty tricks accused.  Worse things than that, timetables.  This is HARDBALL‘s coverage of the republican debate.

ROMNEY:  I‘m sure that there are those who say, you know, to be the commander in chief; you have to serve in the military.  And one of the two great regrets in life is I didn‘t serve in the military.  I‘d love to have.  But I don‘t believe that you have to have served in the military to be a great commander in chief.  Abraham Lincoln was not a military expert but turned out to be one of the best in the history of this country.    

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MCCAIN:  I‘m sure that, as I say, he‘s a fine man.  And I think he managed companies and he bought and he sold, and sometimes people lost their jobs.  That‘s the nature of that business.  But the fact is, but the fact is, we‘re at a time in our history, we‘re at a time in our history where you can‘t afford any on-the-job training.  And I believe that my experience and background qualifies me to lead. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, there you have it.  And we‘re back with Tucker and Michelle.  Michelle, I‘ve got to ask you, the power play.  Tonight‘s event, what‘s its importance going into next Tuesday?

MICHELLE BERNAND, INDEPENDENT WOMEN‘S VOICE:  What‘s important to remember is that the 2006 midterm elections were a wake-up call for the Republican Party.  And if the republicans don‘t want to spend the next four years being very lonely, they‘ve got to think moderate and electability.  That‘s where the nation is. 

MATTHEWS:  Tucker?

TUCKER:  These guys are really talented.  I think Romney blew it tactically, but you step back and think this guy is a talented politician.  I think Huckabee did a fantastic job.  You‘ve got to remember it‘s a hierarchical party.  There‘s a feeling around John McCain that everybody in charge is with John McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  When did that start?

TUCKER:  It started about a week and a half, two weeks ago.  The republicans have always been in search of that guy, the guy that the elders have anointed.  And once that process begins it‘s irreversible, short of some cataclysm. 

MATTHEWS:  People think Mike Huckabee is his running mate and torches him with flirtation.  Michelle Bernard, you‘re great.  Thank you.  Tucker Carlson, my colleague.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 eastern for more HARDBALL. Good night.

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

END   

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