updated 2/1/2008 12:09:07 PM ET 2008-02-01T17:09:07

Guests: Michelle Bernard

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

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to a late night edition of

HARDBALL. 

Just when you thought it was fine to get back in the water: tonight, John McCain rammed home his attack on number one 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 of the past year that has reduced American casualties in the war.

Romney exploded in reactions to McCain‘s charge, which tied him with Hillary Clinton and others McCain said were waving the white flag of surrender in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MITT ROMNEY, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Why do you insist on...

JOHN MCCAIN, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m using the whole quote, where you said “I won‘t”...

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

MCCAIN:  The actual quote is, “We don‘t want them to lay in the weeds until we leave.”  That is the actual quote and I‘m sure...

ROMNEY:  What does that mean?

MCCAIN:  ... fact-checkers—

ROMNEY:  What is the meaning?

MCCAIN:  It means a timetable until we leave.

ROMNEY:  Listen, Senator, let‘s...

COOPER:  Let me jump in, because the quote that I have...

ROMNEY:  Is it not fair—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 VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Romney called McCain‘s use of the charge an example of political dirty tricks, an over-the-weekend ploy that Romney argued gave McCain victory in Florida and drove Romney to a second-place finish there. 

‘Dirty tricks‘ -- that loaded phrase from Watergate days—is bound to find it‘s 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 VIDEOTAPE)

RUDY GIULIANI, FRMR GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  John McCain is the most qualified 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 VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  But the big block buster news tonight—coming tomorrow when it actually happens.  But it‘s already announced—Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, will endorse John McCain tomorrow at a special ceremony. 

We have, joining us right now, Tucker Carlson of MSNBC and Michelle Bernard of the Independent Women‘s Voice. 

Let me ask you, Tucker, the big news tonight, it seems to me, as we go to midnight on the East Coast is, the Terminator—he is going to endorse from California right before the California primary. 

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC:  And it means something—not because millions of Californians are waiting for his voice to weigh in on this question, but because it increases the perception, which is ever more true as we progress toward Super Tuesday, that McCain is the choice of the Republican establishment.  He has been anointed.

MATTHEWS:  This is the crowning.

CARLSON:  On the Republican side, it matters.  It matters a lot more than the Democratic side.  You can see candidates on the Democrat side get endorsed by this, that, the other person, and voters don‘t care.  The Republican side, they do care.  It‘s a hierarchical party, they want to see that. 

MATTHEWS:  The chaos is over? 

CARLSON:  Barring a cataclysm, the chaos is over.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a little bit of a caveat about the cataclysm—

CARLSON:  It‘s America; you never know.

MATTHEWS:  -- and when the chaos is over.

Do you believe there‘s a caveat about whether the cataclysm is over? 

MICHELLE BERNARD, INDEPENDENT WOMEN‘S VOICE:  I don‘t think the cataclysm is over, but the—but I think that the Schwarzenegger the endorsement is important for another reason, also, which is that, in order to win the White House in the fall, if the Republicans really want to do that, they have to remember they lost moderate Republicans to the Democratic party last time.  They lost independents, who used to lean towards Republicans -- 57 percent.  And although there are some disaffected Republicans in California with Arnold Schwarzenegger, he‘s a moderate. 

MATTHEWS:  So, would you both agree, is that this endorsement by Rudy today and by the prospective endorsement tomorrow by the governor of California, is sort of the officiating, the official statement by the party elders, it‘s time to coalesce around McCain, even if he isn‘t our perfect idea. 

CARLSON:  That‘s exactly right.  It‘s the first time in my lifetime that it‘s taken this long.  And I think more significant, even than these endorsements, are the ones you‘re seeing here in Washington from long-time conservatives.

Now, a lot of ideologues outside of government don‘t like McCain—I think for valid reasons—but you saw—I talked to Trent Lott today, and I talked to Dick Armey today, both of whom said, I‘m for McCain.  And these are guys who fought with McCain over the years over policy, and they disagree with him still, but they have decided, in the interest of the party, he‘s the guy.  That tells you a lot. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s interesting—January 3rd was the beginning of this bakeoff, when we went to the Iowa caucuses.  Now it‘s the 30th -- 27 days to reach fruition, here.  And the Republicans are much further ahead of schedule than the Democrats, obviously.  The Democratic fight is still wide open.

Let me ask you about that fight tonight.  We talked earlier in the evening about the fight between McCain and Romney, about the question of whether Romney had ever really called for a timetable.  McCain thinks that‘s his wedge.  Let‘s take a look at this—McCain clearly thinks that he‘s headed for gold here by being able to claim that Romney was a man who wanted to wave the white flag, as he says so often of the Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROMNEY:  We have had ten or twelve debates—he‘s never raised that issue with me.  You 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 in 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 Pinnochios for it.  It‘s simply wrong, and the senator knows it.

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

MCCAIN:  That was the critical time of the debate.  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 word.  Timetables were the ones, and as far as Washington politics is concerned, I think my friend, Governor Huckabee, sir, will attest, the millions of dollars of attack ads, the 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 friend, 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 VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  He‘s driving it home, Tucker.  He will not get off that.  Timetables—this guy wants timetables to get out of Iraq, he is a quitter.

CARLSON:  You want to hear the truth?  Old-style Washington politics work.  That‘s why people use them.  Ron Paul—

MATTHEWS:  ‘Gotcha‘ works.

CARLSON:  Of course.  Ron Paul had the smartest line of the night,

which was, What a stupid argument.  Why don‘t you argue about foreign

policy.  But that‘s not—I mean, the truth us, this is not the forum for

arguing about foreign policy.  This is about moving the ball forward in the

electoral process.  And by that measure, McCain wins.  Even if he is wrong

and he is wrong—Romney never brought up a timetable.  That‘s ludicrous.

MATTHEWS:  Is this year true (ph) politics, where you say, What matters is whether you said one word once, and you‘re going to pay for it as long as you live, because it‘s always in the universe. 

BERNARD:  That‘s exactly what‘s going to happen.  Were you watching McCain‘s body language?  Not to bring up body language, but he was looking at him like, I got you, I got you, I got you. 

MATTHEWS:  He was giggling.

BERNARD:  I‘m thinking, it‘s like—I‘m thinking, Muhammad Ali—it‘s rope-a-dope.  You‘ve got him there, he‘s stuck, he can‘t get out of the ring.  And Romney just keeps going for it.

MATTHEWS:  He was pounding him in the corner, there.  But the thing you keep asking is, why doesn‘t Romney change the subject? 

CARLSON:  Because any time—the most telling moment by far was at the very end when Romney said—when he was asked something like, well, would you be a better commander-in-chief than John McCain, and he tries to make the case that he has more leadership experience than John McCain.  Maybe in some academic sense you could argue that, but in real life—huh? 

Are you kidding?

MATTHEWS:  Yeah, Donald Trump leadership.

CARLSON:  That‘s an unwinnable argument.  Most people look at that and laugh.  And so he‘s losing ground.  He‘s fighting uphill.  McCain is in a sniper position.  He‘s charging up a hill.  He‘s never going to win in that terrain, ever.

MATTHEWS:  Did you hear that McCain commanded the largest air wing in the country when he was down in Florida. 

BERNARD:  No.

MATTHEWS:  I never knew that he commanded this—he had a huge command responsibility.  He wasn‘t just some lone jockey out there, flying his own plane.

CARLSON:  Something he never mentioned in 2002.

MATTHEWS:  He never mentions command, and command is a very impressive claim to fame. 

CARLSON:  He was a leader among his comrades in North Vietnam.  Sorry to get back to that.

MATTHEWS:  Why doesn‘t he say that?

CARLSON:  It‘s because Romney is a very logical person.  Romney‘s an impressive person in his forecasts (ph).

MATTHEWS:  No, I mean, why doesn‘t John McCain, who we‘ve all known for years on this talk show circuit, and yet has never come out and said, Look, buddy, I‘m not just a lone fighter pilot after they got shot down, I‘m this guy that commanded all kinds of men in combat.  I had to lead men, I had to impress them, I had to convince them to have guts.  I had to take them into hell. 

CARLSON:  I know the answer.  Do you want to know the answer?  Because

the McCain campaign is—and I love them, great guys, my favorite people -

it‘s totally ad hoc.  They make it up day-to-day—they don‘t even have a pollster.  I mean, there‘s something charming and great about that, but the bad part of it is, they don‘t think of obvious things like, why not use that every day? 

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t George McGovern, back in ‘72, who saw real combat in World War II leading these planes into Yugoslavia.  He was fighting on the side of the partisans with Tito.  This incredible career in the military, and he never mentioned it the whole time he was campaigning against Nixon.

BERNARD:  I think what—

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what‘s amazing, these guys.  Maybe the World War II mentality is, Don‘t brag.  Part of that is that.

BERNARD:  No, or maybe it‘s—maybe he‘s feeling this is like Jesus taking his stripes.  I mean, I think there is an emotional argument to be said for being a POW.  That is the argument that is working with the American public.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at a piece of the debate.  This was a great question by Anderson Cooper and the folks there at the other network, I should say.  They asked the old Reagan question to the candidates, are you better off—are we as a country better off than we were eight years ago?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER:  Tonight, in terms of the economy, are Americans better off than they were eight years ago? 

ROMNEY:  I‘m pleased with what I did while I was—as governor and happy to talk about that record. 

COOPER:  Are you running for governor or are you running for president, though? 

ROMNEY:  But I‘m not running on President Bush‘s record. President Bush can talk about his record.  Washington is badly broken.  I think we recognize that. Washington has not dealt with the problems that we have in this nation.

MCCAIN:  I think you could argue that Americans overall are better off, because we have had a pretty good prosperous time, with low unemployment and low inflation and a lot of good things have happened.  A lot of jobs have been created.

But let‘s have some straight talk.  Things are tough right now. 

HUCKABEE:  I don‘t think we are.  And the real issue, though, let‘s not blame President Bush for all of this.  We‘ve got a Congress who sat around on their hands and done nothing but spend a lot of money and they‘re spending, leaving us $9 trillion in debt that we‘re passing on to our grandchildren.  

I don‘t blame the president solely for that.  So I think if we‘re asking, is George Bush responsible for all this, no.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t they just say, We were better off a year ago than we are now? 

CARLSON:  I‘ll tell you why—because both Romney and Huckabee have been stung in this primary process—when they said anything mildly critical about George W. Bush they got landed on.  And the truth is, Republican primary voters like Bush.  Everyone in the media hates Bush, so it‘s hard on see that, but they really like Bush.  They think he‘s a pretty good president.  You don‘t profit from attacking Bush.  So Romney looked so uncomfortable and so phony.  He should have just said, No, come one!

MATTHEWS:  He wasn‘t a standup guy for Bush. 

CARLSON:  No, but he can‘t criticize Bush, is the bottom line.  And it makes him uncomfortable, and you can see it.

MATTHEWS:  I like it when people say, I don‘t like the question.  I got an answer to something you didn‘t ask, which is, I did a great job as governor.  We didn‘t ask that question. 

BERNARD:  I would have punted the question, and if they‘d asked me the question, I‘d have said, You know what, America is better off because we have not had a terrorist attack since 2001, and if you don‘t have your freedom, you have nothing.

MATTHEWS:  How about, We are better of than we were eight years ago, but we were a lot better off two years ago.  I don‘t know—it‘s a hard question.  It was a well-phrased question by our competition.

Anyway, Tucker Carlson, Michelle Bernard—one last question.  Will we be seeing in the headlines tomorrow morning the phrase ‘dirty tricks‘ or the phrase ‘timetables‘?

BERNARD:  Timetable:  Romney equals Clinton.  That‘s what we‘ll see in the headlines tomorrow.

MATTHEWS:  Will we have dirty tricks or timetable?

BERNARD:  I think it‘ll be both.

MATTHEWS:  Both.

What do you think?

CARLSON:  I think ‘dirty tricks‘ is more memorable, as you just proved.

MATTHEWS:  I think dirty tricks.  It‘s got that old Watergate tang to it.

Anyway, Tucker Carlson, Michelle Bernard—thank you very much for staying with us.

And when we return, we‘re going to talk to Mitt Romney‘s campaign about the debate and where he thinks his guy went tonight on this big fight, and whether he can beat McCain on Super Tuesday. 

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(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   

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.

transcript

Watch Hardball each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,