updated 2/8/2008 12:23:00 PM ET 2008-02-08T17:23:00

Guests: Chrystia Freeland, Tom DeLay

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  ... now stands alone between the Democrats and the presidency.  That‘s the news from Washington this evening.  He‘ll be the Republican nominee.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews, and welcome to HARDBALL.  Tonight, huge political news.  John McCain has pulled the most stirring comeback since the big screen come-from-behinds of Rocky Balboa.  With today‘s dropping out of Mitt Romney, the senator from Arizona looms as the Republican presidential nominee of 2008.  Whoever the Democrats nominate, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, she or he will face McCain come November 4.  The huge list of possible successors to George W. Bush has narrowed to just these three, all three U.S. senators, one from New York, one from Illinois, one now from Arizona.

As for Mitt Romney, after investing tens of millions of his own fortune into a presidential bid, he called it quits today at a meeting of conservative activists in Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  If I fight on on my campaign all the way to the convention, I...

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY:  ... I want you to know, I‘ve given this a lot of thought—

I‘d forestall the launch of a national campaign.  And frankly, I‘d be making it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win.

(BOOS)

ROMNEY:  Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I don‘t believe politicians when they say “frankly,” but I do believe it when they say “I‘ve given this a lot of thought.”  You can bet he has.

Anyway, Romney may well be already looking ahead to 2012, but for right now, his exit from the campaign means just one thing: McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee now.  And while Mike Huckabee is still in the race, McCain‘s biggest problem now may be with conservatives generally.  Can he finally win them over?  Can they accept John McCain, or are conservatives willing to stay home in November and lost it to a Democrat, then try to come back in 2012?

And what about those Democrats?  While McCain watches, could the seemingly never-ending fight between Clinton and Obama hurt the Democrats come November?  We‘ll dig into all of that tonight here on HARDBALL.

But first, NBC News political director Chuck Todd, HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster and “The Financial Times‘s” Chrystia Freeland.  Chuck, let me ask you about this, the Romney decision to quit this race now.  To what extent—give me a probability now that McCain will win this nomination?  Is it 95 percent, 98 percent?  Where is it?

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Look, I think it absolutely is in the 90 percent range.  I mean—and on the technicality scale, we added up the delegates—if he wins every delegate between now, the soon—the soonest he can get the nomination officially on delegates is after the March 4 primaries because of a big chunk is Texas, a winner-take-all.

But just let‘s—I mean, let‘s see how—the first test for McCain is going to be in Virginia, an electorate that could be very conservative because all the moderates or independents who might have been lured into voting in the Republican primary might decide it‘s time to vote in the Democratic primary.  It‘s an open registration in Virginia.  Then you have all the evangelicals.  There‘s a big evangelical base in Virginia, a big home schooling population in Virginia.  That‘s something Huckabee‘s had a lot of luck tapping into.

It is the place that Huckabee has the chance to prove whether he can be the conservative alternative to McCain, I mean, maybe—you know, he can—whether he can stop him, whether he can be a vehicle for conservatives to slow down McCain.  Maybe it‘s the Jerry Brown scenario back in ‘92...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I remember that.

TODD:  ... when Jerry Brown would win a couple primaries when disaffected liberals didn‘t like what Clinton was offering them.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, he did the same thing in ‘76.  Let me ask you this.  Is it more than a “Screw you” vote, at this point, though, for someone to vote against McCain?  Isn‘t it pretty clear he will be the nominee?  In fact, let‘s be clear, he is going to be the nominee.  I‘ll say that.  You don‘t have to say it.

TODD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Doesn‘t it sort of just—just sort of—just sort of sneer at him and—and mock him, rather than stop him?

TODD:  Well, what‘s interesting, this is the odd problem that McCain finds himself in.  Normally, when you‘re the presumptive nominee of your party, be it the Democrats or the Republicans, what‘s the first thing you do?  You start steering toward the middle.  McCain does not have that luxury right now.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

TODD:  He still has to steer to the right a little bit, perhaps moreso than he has before, because he doesn‘t want news stories about—in these primaries and caucuses between now and March 5 to be, Oh, look at the protest vote against John McCain.  I mean, he doesn‘t want to have that start.

MATTHEWS:  OK...

TODD:  So he‘s got this awkward—he‘s got to steer to the right still in order to placate his potential protests.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s listen.  Let‘s listen to him do just that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I am proud, very proud, to have come to public office as a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.  And if a few of my positions have raised your concern that I‘ve forgotten my political heritage, I want to assure you I have not, and I‘m as proud of that association today as I was then.

(CHEERS APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN:  My record in public office taken as a whole is the record of a mainstream conservative.  I believe today, as I believed 25 years ago, in small government, fiscal discipline, low taxes, a strong defense, judges who inform and not make our laws, the social values that are the true source of our strength, and generally, the steadfast defense of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which I have defended my entire career as God-given to the born and the unborn.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What does it tell you, David Shuster, that John McCain, after all these years as a conservative Republican from the state of Arizona, which is itself a conservative state, and the Republican Party is itself a conservative party, to have to do this pledge of allegiance over and over again?

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT:  I think it says, Chris, that he recognizes that things have changed for him, that he can‘t be the maverick who talks about “agents of intolerance” in referring to conservative leaders of the religious right and the Republican Party.  McCain knew that he had to go through this routine if he was going to unite the party and essentially coalesce around his nomination.

But Chris, one other thing, is when I was in Arkansas yesterday talking with Huckabee supporters, they agree with the math that Huckabee would have to sweep all the remaining contests in order to get the nomination.  But they don‘t believe that Huckabee is causing any damage by staying in for a few more weeks...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

SHUSTER:  ... because what they want to do is show that Huckabee is needed by John McCain, that McCain needs Huckabee, that the Republican Party needs Huckabee either this year, or if John McCain were to lose the election, four years from now.

MATTHEWS:  So what is Huckabee, the steak you put on your black eye? 

What is he?  What‘s his role in this campaign?

SHUSTER:  His role is to rally people like Rush Limbaugh.  Rush Limbaugh today said that...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

SHUSTER:  ... if John McCain wants to win the presidency, he‘s got to put Mike Huckabee on the ticket.  That‘s music to the ears of the Huckabee supporters, and they want to show John McCain that, Look, you need us.  If you want to carry the South, if you want to get evangelicals behind your candidacy, put us, put me, Mike Huckabee, on the ticket, or at least recognize some of the issues that we care so deeply about.

MATTHEWS:  Chrystia, is Rush Limbaugh now Boss Tweed?  Is that his role, King Caucus?  Does he now dictate these things?  Is he the kingfish of the Republican Party now?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, “THE FINANCIAL TIMES”:  Well, I think he would certainly like to be, and I think he needs to be a little bit careful not to overstep the mark.  You know, for one thing, John McCain historically has not been that good at listening to Bosses Tweed.  His personality is a little bit a-verse to that sort of thing.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  I know.

FREELAND:  So I think the more pressure that is applied, the more likely I think it is that we might see a McCain rebellion.

The other point that David made, which I think is a really good one, is I think the Republican Party as a whole, if it wants to be smart about this, needs to be careful not to push McCain too far to the right right now, when he‘s going to have to tack back a little bit to the center for the general election.

And the Republicans really—you know, something remarkable is happening.  I think if you had said a year ago that there was a plausible Republican candidate who could plausibly win after the war in Iraq, at a time when the U.S. economy is slowing down and may be already in a recession, we would have been astonished, but McCain is that guy.

MATTHEWS:  I agree.  Let me go back to Chuck Todd.  It looked to me, Chuck—let‘s take a look now at a back-and-forth between what John McCain, who is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party this year to run against either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton—let‘s look at an exchange, basically—it wasn‘t intended to be an exchange, but here‘s John McCain, the senator from Arizona, speaking yesterday, and then Laura Ingraham, who‘s been on this show once in a while, the talk show host, conservative talk show host, responding to that.  Let‘s look at this back-and-forth because I think it tells you what the mood of the conservative of the Party is right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I do hope that at some point, we would just calm down a little bit and see if there‘s areas that we can agree on for the good of the party and for the good of the country.

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  I don‘t think it‘s enough to say that, you know, you were a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.  I think the question is, What have you been doing for conservatism lately?  I ask all of you, should all of us calm down instead of pointing out that it‘s important for a Republican candidate to draw the important connection, the vital connection, between liberty and limited government?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of that, David Shuster, that exchange between the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party as of today and a very successful talk show host on conservative radio?

SHUSTER:  No, I think she turned this against John McCain very effectively.  Imagine, Chris, what John McCain‘s reaction would have been, if when he was opposing the Bush tax cuts, the White House said to John McCain, Hey, John, just calm down.  He would have exploded.  And why should the conservatives react any differently when John McCain is telling them to calm down?  I think it was—I think it was a mistake for him to say that.

MATTHEWS:  You know how you get people to be defensive?  Tell them not to be defensive.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s been my experience.  Chrystia, let‘s talk about—let‘s talk about this thing now—the Democrats are still in a battle royal, and I don‘t know how you can predict who‘s going to win between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.  I can think of a number of ways to score it, if you want to decide who‘s going to win.  But if you really don‘t know, you really don‘t know.  And I don‘t know.

On the Republican side, they have now followed their usual pattern of being the organized political party, as the opposite of what Mark Twain said about the Democrats years ago.  They seem to have got their act together, to some extent.  They‘ve got a nominee, the Democrats do not.  Here it is February whatever, it‘s not even halfway through February, and they‘ve already got their nominee.

Does this give them an advantage, the fact that they have a guy, a person, in place, and the Democrats are still fighting?

FREELAND:  Sure.  I think it is good for the Republicans and contributes to this sort of odd turnaround, where the Republicans actually are showing a little bit of life and a little bit of political momentum.  I think on the Democratic side, it‘s really interesting what this sort of near-crowning of McCain as the Republican candidate will do.  And it could be good news for Barack Obama.  In the match-up against McCain, he fares a little bit better than Hillary Clinton does.

MATTHEWS:  A little bit?

FREELAND:  A little bit.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s dramatically better.  And I just wonder with that—let‘s get back and talk about that with all three of you experts.  I want to talk to you about whether, like they do in football and basketball and every sport we know, you check the other side‘s offense and defense when you try to figure out what you‘re going to do.  They react to each other.

How will the Democrats react—I‘m talking about voters—when they see the inevitability of a John McCain, who‘s running at least even with Hillary Clinton in these match-ups and significantly behind, I think, Barack Obama?  Does that tell Democrats, If you want a winner, pick Barack, or does it?  And the bigger question, are voters even that strategic, or do they just vote their preference, they don‘t vote strategy?  Anyway—or “strategery,” a word made famous by the president.

Chuck Todd, David Shuster, Chrystia Freeland of “Financial Times,” they‘re all staying with us.

Coming up: Now—now Romney‘s out, as I said, the pressure is on the Democrats.  What are they going to do now if they‘re facing McCain, the war hero?  Can they take this guy on?  Can they beat him?  Can Hillary beat him?  Who‘s got a better shot??

We‘ll be right back on MSNBC, the place for politics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  And Barack and Hillary have made their intentions clear regarding Iraq and the war on terror.  They would retreat, declare defeat.  And the consequence of that would be devastating!  It would mean attacks on America, watched from safe havens that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like child‘s play.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  Senator Clinton and Senator Obama will withdraw our forces from Iraq based on an arbitrary timetable designed for the sake of political expediency.  Senator Clinton and Senator Obama will concede to our critics that our own actions to defend against its threats are responsible for fomenting the terrible evil of radical Islamic extremism, and the resolve to combat it will be as flawed as their judgment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.

Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Now that Romney has dropped out of the race, are the Democrats under pressure to pick a nominee sooner or avoid—perhaps to avoid a brokered convention, whatever that is?  It‘s been so long since we‘ve seen one.

We‘re back with NBC News political director Chuck Todd, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster and Chrystia Freeland of “The Financial Times.”  I want to start with Chuck.  What is so bad about the Democrats meeting in Denver this summer, in August, and sort of smoothing things out, settling their fish, as it is, between the two frontrunners, giving one the—one wins, one comes in second, they divvy up the cabinet posts or whatever?  What‘s so wrong with that?

TODD:  You know what?  The problem the Democrats have is the amount of time after the last primary in Puerto Rico on June 7, which I can‘t believe I‘ve now committed to memory...

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  ... and the start of the Democratic convention, which actually is in the last week of August.  That is the time that‘s so potentially damaging to the party, where you have two-and-a-half months of what will look like back room dealing.  If they were the old days and the convention was back in July, like it belongs for the out party, then you‘d have only had three or four weeks, maybe five weeks, and then you would have had four-and-a-half months to heal the wounds.

Instead, Chris, you‘re not going to have this figured out—if you let it go to a brokered convention, it‘s now the 1st of September, and you have two-and-a-half months or two months or 60 days to figure this out.

This is—this is why it‘s so—this is why Howard Dean said what he said.  He‘s not saying he doesn‘t want to have all the primaries happen, all the caucuses, all these states have their say.  He‘s panicked about the fact that they thought it was a good idea to have their convention late because the last 24 years, that‘s proven to be a better thing.  But now, having that—that time in between the last event and then the convention itself, the loser will feel like—the supporters of the loser will feel like some back room deal was done to—and somehow...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD: -- half the Democratic Party was left out of the loop.  So I think that‘s the fear that the party has.  It‘s that gap in between June 7 and the start of the convention, an enormous amount of time.

MATTHEWS:  I think the biggest argument to make—David Shuster, the

biggest argument to make will be to explain to Barack‘s people, if he loses

if he wins the most elected delegates and then loses because of these things called super delegates—wait a minute.  You had to tell people there was an Electoral College.  Then you had to tell them the Supreme Court could screw around with elections.  And now you‘re going to tell them no matter how they voted or who got the most votes, there‘s this group called super delegates they never even heard of...

SHUSTER:  Yes, and...

MATTHEWS:  ... to decide you don‘t win?

SHUSTER:  Yes, and then it comes down to, you know, which of these super delegates, who are essentially—half of them are party officials, not elected officials.  Are we going to find out that some of them are going to become the ambassadors to Luxembourg and France, that that‘s how they were bought off?  I mean, the potential here, Chris, is enormous and the potential anger on whoever loses because of that I think is even—is even huge.

MATTHEWS:  God, I was mentioning Boss Tweed.  I think we may be headed back to Tammany Hall.

Here‘s Senator Clinton today, talking in reaction to Senator McCain being the inevitable Republican nominee as of today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  It appears as though Senator McCain will be the Republican nominee.  And I have the greatest respect for my friend and my colleague, Senator McCain, but I believe that he offers more of the same—more of the same economic policies, more of the same military policies in Iraq.  He said recently he could see having American troops in Iraq for 100 years.  Well, I want them coming home within 60 days of my becoming president of the United States!

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a good argument.

Here‘s Senator Obama responding to the McCain inevitability as well. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  My reaction to Mitt Romney‘s comment, that‘s the kind of poorly-thought-through statement that led him perhaps to drop out. 

And, you know, it‘s a classic attempt to appeal to people‘s fears that will not work in this campaign.  And I think, you know, that‘s part of the reason why he was such an ineffective candidate. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, it‘s amazing, Chrystia, to have these guys, and woman, two guys and a woman, all know each other.  They all work in the same building.  They work in the same office structure, the United States Senate.  They see each other almost every workday.  They are friends with each other, it seems.

It was refreshing, I must say, as a political junkie, to hear Senator Clinton say right up front, John McCain is a friend of mine. 

That‘s a good start, I think, in this republic. 

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, “THE FINANCIAL TIMES”:  I think it is. 

I think it‘s also very tactical on her part.  I think that one of the things she is going to be emphasizing, in a way to take a line from Barack Obama‘s playbook, is to say, look, we are friends.  This can be a more civilized political discourse.  And thanks to my relationship with Senator McCain, you can see a battle that plays out more in that way. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I wonder whether, Chuck, they‘re going to be friends afterwards. 

I remember Jack Kennedy once being told that Rockefeller liked him. 

He said:  That‘s all right.  He won‘t at the end of the campaign. 

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  Well, you know what‘s interesting?

MATTHEWS:  I mean, these are pretty rough events. 

TODD:  You know what‘s interesting, though, is, I—look, McCain is going to want to pick his opponent, don‘t forget.  And McCain is going to have a lot easier time rounding up a conservative vote if Clinton is the opponent than if Obama.  And I think...

MATTHEWS:  OK.  How does he play “Boss” Tweed? 

TODD:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  How does he pick Hillary Clinton? 

TODD:  I don‘t know.  I don‘t know how he‘s going to do that. 

Maybe it‘s, he will try to, you know, start doing oppo dumps on Obama.  You know, that‘s what I‘m trying to figure out.  I assume McCain would rather face Clinton than Obama.  So, he‘s got to figure out, you know—I mean that‘s what the polls are showing.  Obama cuts into the independent vote.  That‘s something that‘s hurt McCain in some of these primaries, where you have had independents being able to pick which ballot they want to go to. 

So, they‘re going to try to play here.  The question is how.  And then what is interesting to me, by the way, is, remember, Hillary Clinton‘s biggest talking point on her electability has been this idea that she can fight the Republican machine, that they will throw everything at them. 

OK, but will Democratic voters believe that John McCain will run a campaign like that?  You know, I think that McCain‘s nomination will hurt that one part of Clinton‘s argument that said, you know, I‘m tested.  I‘m battle-tested.  The Republicans are likely to throw all this dirt at me, and there‘s nothing more that they can throw at me.  They have tried everything. 

Well, McCain‘s going to probably run a different type of campaign against her.  Maybe he won‘t.  But, you know, I think it‘s going to be harder for some of those voters who may be thinking about electability and thinking about toughness in the general...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

TODD:  ... to buy into that part of Clinton‘s argument. 

SHUSTER:  And, yet, Chris, I don‘t think...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You know, push the sort of Norma Rae, I‘m going to be the fighter at the barricades, I‘m going to be the tough union organizer, almost, I‘m going to fight like heck, that image doesn‘t work against a candidate you say seems to come across as a reasonable person, or what?  What are you saying here? 

TODD:  Well, right.  I mean, I think that doesn‘t come—to somebody who—you know, how many times have the Clintons and other Democrats, you know, defended John McCain against the tactics of the Republicans...

MATTHEWS:  Oh, I got you. 

TODD:  ... back in the 2000s?

So, all of a sudden, they‘re going to somehow apply that he would do those—use those same tactics.  It will be harder, I think, for some of...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

TODD:  ... the middle to believe that and some of the Democratic voters that are assessing electability to buy into that argument. 

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  And, yet, listening to the language today, I don‘t think it‘s going to be civilized at all. 

I mean, Chris, you just—you played the sound bite.  There‘s John McCain moving towards Mitt Romney, who said the Democrats want to aid a surrender to terror?

MATTHEWS:  Surrender is the word.  That‘s a strong word. 

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  The Democrats could then come back and say, OK, well, if that‘s what you really believe, then the logic applies that the Republicans are aiding the terrorists by taking our eyes off the ball in Afghanistan. 

I mean, I think that‘s the debate that we‘re headed to with this, whether it‘s John McCain or whoever.  That is the direction John McCain is going. 

MATTHEWS:  And—and speaking of picking your opponent, I worry about bin Laden and that company over there wanting to get their hand in this by an attack on us before the election and what they think that will do our voting in this country. 

It may have an opposite effect of what they intend, as it certainly had the effect they wanted in Spain.  They may get us wrong in this, or they may get us right.  But that‘s the thing I worry about, too.  I don‘t want the enemy trying to influence how we vote.  Anyway—but they—I‘m sure they are thinking about it. 

Thank you, Chuck Todd. 

Thank you, David Shuster. 

Thank you, Chrystia Freeland.

Still ahead:  Now that John McCain is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party this year, can he win over those conservatives?  Tom DeLay, Mr. DeLay, is coming here to be with us later in the show.  He‘s coming very soon, in fact.

And up next:  She says she has got a crush on Obama.  But Obama—did the Obama Girl actually vote? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Well, John McCain looks like he‘s got it.  That means only one of three people will succeed George W. Bush, either John McCain, who has wrapped it up today for the Republicans, or Hillary, or Barack. 

So, what else is new out there politically, now that we have three people as our possible next president?  As you well know, the vice president of the United States, remember, Dick Cheney, he loves to pull the trigger, bagging 70 birds a day, even if it means on occasion nailing a fellow hunter. 

That explains why he goes to all lengths to make sure that his Labrador retriever, Dave, who has the job of going out and grabbing what our V.P. has killed, is in tip-top health. 

In fact, just yesterday, at roughly 4:00 in the afternoon, Dave the Labrador got his own vice presidential motorcade, including Secret Service, motorcycles, limousines, to take him for a checkup at Friendship Hospital for Animals in D.C.  As Harry Truman once said, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. 

Cheney gives his animal better treatment, you might think, even than his former chief of staff, Scooter Libby.  By the way, what kind of person calls his dog Dave and his chief of staff Scooter? 

Now to some interesting Senate theater.  After Harry Reid referred to fellow Senator Dick Durbin as “you,” Senator Robert Byrd, the keeper of the protocols in the Senate, went after him thusly—quote—“Let senators be aware that we senators must and should address one another in the third person.  Is the senator from Timbuktu aware of that rule?”  That was Byrd speaking.  And, yes, the third person, some like it, others, as today‘s “Hotline” notes, do not. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “SEINFELD”)

JASON ALEXANDER, ACTOR:  Hey, Jimmy.  Great game. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Oh, yes.  Jimmy played pretty good. 

(LAUGHTER)

ALEXANDER:  Hey, you know, I—I felt like we a synergy out there, you know, like we were really helping each other. 

MICHAEL RICHARDS, ACTOR:  What do you got there? 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  These? 

RICHARDS:  Yes. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  These are Jimmy‘s training shoes. 

(LAUGHTER)      

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Chris Matthews like “Seinfeld.” 

Anyway, by now, you are all very familiar with this face on the campaign trail. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(MUSIC)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What is going on?  That‘s, of course, the so-called Obama Girl, self-styled, of course, self-named, who graced the set of this very show once. 

Well, guess what?  She may have a crush on Obama herself, but she didn‘t vote for him.  “The New York Times” again comes through with a report that today Obama Girl didn‘t make it to the polls, after all.  After all the dancing she did for Obama, she didn‘t get to bother voting for him. 

I love keeping tabs on the tabs up in New York.  No one writes headlines like “The New York Post” and “The New York Daily News.”  Take a look at today‘s “New York Post” cover, wood up front—look at it—which takes a shot at the Clinton campaign—quote—“No Wonder She Cried.  Hill‘s $5 Million Loan.”  That‘s the loan, of course, Senator Clinton made to her own campaign.

Well, that‘s what she just wrote.  That was the size of the check to juice up her campaign. 

But, speaking of juices up campaigns, it‘s time for the HARDBALL “Big Number.”

It‘s hard to keep track of who has raised how much in this presidential campaign, but, today, a remarkable fund-raising story.  As you know, Super Tuesday left the Democratic race for president pretty much even between Hillary and Barack.  How are their backers responding?  Pretty well, by pouring money into their campaigns through the Internet.

In the last couple of days, how much did Obama and Clinton raise?  Catch this: a total of roughly $14 million in just two days.  No black-tie dinners or anything like that, just good old point-and-click online donations -- $14 million to these front-running Democrats, that‘s tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Up next:  John McCain tries to win over conservatives, but will they come out to help him come November?  Former House Republican leader Tom DeLay has a cautionary note for the presumptive nominee.  And he‘s going to bring it here with him in just a minute. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

REBECCA JARVIS, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I am Rebecca Jarvis with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks closing higher for the first time this week, the Dow industrials gaining 46 points, the S&P 500 up 10, the Nasdaq gaining 14 points. 

The nation‘s retailers led by Wal-Mart reported weak sales in January.  And the Senate has passed an economic stimulus package that adds rebates for Social Security recipients and disabled veterans.  Final approval for the House is expected later today. 

That‘s it from CNBC, America‘s business channel—now back to

HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  I don‘t think it‘s enough to say that, you know, you were a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.  I think the question is, what have you been doing for conservatism lately? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Radio talk show host Laura Ingraham there taking some shots at John McCain at the Conservative Political Action Conference, called CPAC. 

But can John McCain, now the presumptive Republican nominee today, given the dropping out of the campaign by Mitt Romney, convince conservatives that he‘s their man? 

Joining us right now is former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. 

Mr. Delay, thank you. 

TOM DELAY ®, FORMER HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER:  Hello, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you want John McCain—do you want John McCain...

DELAY:  Wish you were here, Chris.  This is your people. 

MATTHEWS:  I have been there before.  I was there.  I spoke there once before. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, do you think John McCain should pretend to be what he‘s not or should he be what it is?  In other words, should he do cartwheels to appeal to the right in the Republican Party, and be a fraud, like so many people have been in this campaign?  Or should he be what he is, and you guys just have to learn to live with him, or what? 

What would be the ideal?  Is there one? 

DELAY:  Well, I don‘t know about the ideal. 

I do know that the speech he gave did not address the issues that conservatives have with John McCain.  He laid out a good treatise on what conservative principles are, but then he didn‘t apply those principles to the issue of global warming, for instance.  He‘s—he‘s very supportive of one of the most massive regulatory schemes, using global warming as—as an excuse, the fact that he has closed down—he wants to close down gun shows, that he supports the International Criminal Court. 

He made a joke out of immigration, but didn‘t tell us how—what he‘s going to do about immigration.  So—so, I don‘t think he really made a whole lot of friends here today. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think—well, I can‘t resist.  You know you have hooked me into this, Mr. DeLay. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  What is the conservative position on climate change, now that you have broken that subject?  I just need to know the answer to that one. 

DELAY:  It‘s very good.  A man is not causing climate change.  Climate change may be a phenomenon, but there is no science to suggest that man is the cause of climate change.  And, therefore, you do not have to undermine our economy, nor take people‘s freedom away on—on something that the science has not proven yet. 

MATTHEWS:  So, that latest report from the Rocky Mountains that the snowpack is disappearing out there is what?  Even though they said that that was their result of what‘s going out there, manmade climate change, you don‘t believe in it? 

DELAY:  Manmade climate change.  It is arrogance to suggest that man can affect climate change...

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

DELAY:  ... and no science that supports such a notion. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

What is the conservative position on gun ownership?  The Second Amendment says the right to bear arms.  Are there any restrictions permissible on the right to bear arms, under your philosophy? 

DELAY:  Well, there—not—not by my philosophy, no. 

MATTHEWS:  No restrictions? 

DELAY:  You ought to be able to bear arms, no restrictions, absolutely not. 

Now, we have some.  And we—we abide by the law.  But we‘re talking about John McCain supporting the shutdown of gun shows. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

DELAY:  He‘s got to answer that—for that. 

It‘s—it‘s not a matter—it‘s amazing to me, as I saw people introducing John McCain today that are the same people that criticized people like myself for not standing on principle wanting us to support a man that‘s not standing on principle.  So, I mean, there‘s a little conflict or a little hypocrisy going on here. 

MATTHEWS:  So, just to get your philosophy, because I‘m fascinated about it, because I come from a different part of the country than you, you think it‘s all right for somebody to drive through north Philadelphia, up and down North Broad Street, with a hummer and a bazooka coming out of the window?  That would be all right for you? 

DELAY:  Well, you always do that.  Make it—

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just asking!  Do you believe in gun control at all? 

DELAY:  Hey, Chris, I do support anybody in Philadelphia to carry a concealed weapon to protect themselves.  Yes, I certainly do. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask you about John McCain—

DELAY:  -- as we do in Texas. 

MATTHEWS:  I know you do.  Let me go down the road here to September, when the Republican party meets in St. Paul, Minnesota.  How do you see this working out?  Is there someone John McCain has to put on the ticket?  Is there some statement he has to make?  How does he clear himself with the Republican right?  Is there a way for him to do it? 

DELAY:  Well, he speaks to their issues.  He‘s got many weeks, if not months, right now.  He said in his speech that he knows he has to have the conservative support in order to become president of the United States.  If he—if he wants that support, then he‘s going to have to reach out to them and have a dialogue with them so that they feel comfortable with him as president of the United States. 

All that has to happen before he even announces his intentions for a vice president candidate.  There‘s a lot of work that needs to go on.  Chris, the turn outs are already proven that—turn-outs of Republicans are low because they don‘t—conservatives don‘t have a standard-bearer.  And if he wants to get those turn-out numbers up, he‘s going to have to reach out to the conservative—the conservatives in this country.  He‘s going to have to build a base within the party.  If he chooses to ignore them, then he‘s not going to be president. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at Senator McCain, Mr. Delay.  Let‘s look at Senator McCain talking about what he would do in terms of accepting the counsel from your end of the party.  Here he is. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  We‘ve had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won‘t continue to have a few.  But even in disagreement, especially in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives.  If I am convinced my judgment is in error, I will correct it.  And if I stand by my position, even after benefit of your counsel, I hope you will not lose sight of the far more numerous occasions when we are in accord. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So, he‘s offering you, Mr. Delay, marriage counseling, if things don‘t work out as smoothly as you‘d like for him.  What do you think of that? 

DELAY:  I like that.  I like hearing that.  And the—but the proof is in action.  Rhetoric is cheap.  And to conservatives action is everything.  You cannot bamboozle us or buffalo us.  So let‘s see if he‘ll actually do that. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, I‘ll watch in action here.  You‘re watching Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton loading up the luggage up in Chappaqua.  They‘re driving the car, the SUV, the hybrid, I should say, all the way down to Washington.  The only thing that‘s going to stop them from moving back into the White House, both of them, is you, as you vote.  Will you vote for John McCain to keep the Clintons out of the White House, Mr.  Conservative? 

DELAY:  I‘m not—I‘m not sure I can answer that right now.  I‘m—I want to see the John McCain—I want to see who is John McCain on the election day when I go to the polls.  I don‘t have to decide that right now.  And I—I‘m going to be pushing the conservative cause, and let‘s see what John McCain does reaching out to conservatives, because, you know, if he continues down to be the same old John McCain that has—used to have disdain for conservatives, then I‘m not sure who is the most dangerous to be in the White House. 

MATTHEWS:  Wow!  That‘s the lay of the land from the conservative right of the Republican party from the CPAC convention floor, Mr.  Conservative.  Tom Delay, thank you, sir, for coming on HARDBALL and putting the message to the presumptive nominee. 

Up next, our politics fix; while McCain is in the driver‘s seat, Hillary and Obama still fight to see who has the steering wheel.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Now, it‘s time for the politics fix.  And what a day for politics, big news, of course, today is John McCain will be the Republican nominee thanks to the withdrawal from the campaign of Mitt Romney.  Joining me now is Jeanne Cummings of the Politico.com, sort of an online newspaper.  It‘s also in print.  It‘s a big thing in Washington now, to the dismay of the “Washington Post.”  Clarence Page of the “Chicago Tribune,” and Mike Duffy of “Time Magazine,” one of the premier writers of our time, joins us here from “Time Magazine.” 

OK, you first, Clarence, what is so wrong with a brokered convention, where the candidates are so close in numbers, nobody‘s got exactly 50 percent?  So they work—they sit around the table and they decide if we‘ll give the cabinet members this; we‘ll have diversity on the cabinet; we‘ll have liberals; what is wrong with the deal? 

CLARENCE PAGE, “THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  Nothing is wrong for us in the media.  We love it.  It‘s great drama, a great story.  You remember that Gore Vidal play, “The Best Man?”  It‘s a wonderful play.  This is the real drama politics.  It‘s why I got in this business. 

MATTHEWS:  But that was all about this guy is gay and that guy cheated on his wife.  That was all the dirty stuff.  But what‘s—at that time.  What is what—this is just about who has power, who wins the close race. 

What‘s wrong with negotiating that? 

PAGE:  What‘s bad is, it‘s back to the backroom, which Democrats hate.  That‘s why the reform rules came out of the ‘68 and ‘72 conventions, because they wanted to bring everything out into the open.  And what‘s happened—what happens now is that you suddenly get a lot of angry people who aren‘t cut in to the process.  You also got more emotions built up.  In short, Chris, one thing that—

MATTHEWS:  Should this negotiating session be on—

PAGE:  You‘re going to need more than Oprah.  You‘re going to need Dr.

Phil. 

MATTHEWS:  Gene, I put it to you, madam, what‘s wrong with the brokered convention, where you sit around and you argue about the fact that nobody has quite 50 percent, so we have to negotiate? 

JEANNE CUMMINGS, POLITICO.COM:  The problem with it is at least half of the Democratic base is going to feel like their votes didn‘t count and they will not tolerate it. 

MATTHEWS:  Why? 

CUMMINGS:  Because they are all impassioned this year.  And that would be the really bad thing for the party. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s wrong with a negotiation between Hillary—you always assume that Hillary‘s going to come out on top, maybe.  Suppose it‘s Barack who is a couple points ahead, but not quite at 50 percent, and he has to deal with the Clinton forces.  What‘s wrong with that? 

CUMMINGS:  Well, I think that if it‘s viewed as an agreement reached between the two candidates, with the other candidate bringing along their supporters, they might be able to pull it off.  But if it‘s viewed as a bunch of Congressmen and—

MATTHEWS:  You are talking about the Super Delegates, these people that don‘t seem like they have a right to a vote.  Mike Duffy, what‘s the fear that people are all expressing?  Why did Howard Dean, the chairman of the party, come out and say he doesn‘t want a brokered convention; he wants somebody to win this thing in the spring and get it over with? 

MIKE DUFFY, “TIME MAGAZINE”:  Because a lot of what is powering the Democratic party right now is the notion that something can be different and can be unlike the past.  If we get into a situation where we‘re headed toward a brokered convention, we are going to have an explosion of deal-making, jobs, favors, appearances at conventions, you know, guest shots on HARDBALL during the convention!  There will be nothing that will not be brokered, sold, or bartered away in order to capture these Super Delegates and it won‘t look like a new kind of party.  It will look like a very old-fashioned kind of party. 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe it will give us a boost this year instead of putting us out on the square where Zell Miller can attack me. 

DUFFY:  Just ask them.  You‘ll get it. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to—let‘s take a look at the schedule coming up here.  We‘ve got it on a graphic right now, just a sense of where we‘re headed at after big Super Tuesday.  February 9th, Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington, the Virgin Islands.  February 10th, Maine.  February 12th, right around here, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.  Then a week later, Hawaii and Wisconsin, a liberal state in many ways. 

Clarence, that looks to me like a good run for Obama, the whole run. 

PAGE:  I‘m humbled since New Hampshire about making predictions, but yes, I would venture to say those are the kind of states where he did very well on Super Tuesday. 

MATTHEWS:  Big African-American populations, big liberal, young collegiate-type populations.  We think of Madison, Wisconsin.  Yes, Jeanne. 

CUMMINGS:  There was a conference call today with the Clinton campaign and Mark Penn acknowledged—

MATTHEWS:  In other words, he spun it.  

CUMMINGS:  It could be a tough couple of weeks because the chess board has tilted now. 

MATTHEWS:  Mike, is this going to be what we look at now, Hillary had a pretty good day, in other words she saved California; she held New Jersey; she won a couple she had to win and she won them.  She lost a couple like Connecticut and Missouri.  But it‘s basically no worse than a draw for her right now.  Next month she loses for a month, but then she comes back in Ohio, Texas, and maybe Pennsylvania after that. 

DUFFY:  That‘s right.  I think, you know, these caucus states, favor Obama, at least for the start.  We‘ve seen anywhere he goes and can spend some time and draw the crowds, he—he makes an impact.  And so he has time to do these states between now and the time we get to Texas and Ohio.  And I do think after that it becomes harder for him because they are more traditional Democratic parties.  They are places where there aren‘t a lot of upscale whites. 

MATTHEWS:  Older states. 

DUFFY:  They tend to be more working classes.  That‘s right, Ohio, too.  And those places are going to favor Clinton over him.  But we‘ll see.  That‘s just as it starts. 

MATTHEWS:  I can‘t wait to see how these politicians line up.  There‘s still a lot of people out there that haven‘t, Bob Casey, a senator from Pennsylvania, hasn‘t decided wait.  I‘m waiting to see how these guys go, because I also think the Super Delegates are going to make a decision too.  They‘re going to have Elizabeth Edwards.  I‘m watching to see how she goes. 

We‘ll be right back with the round table for the politics fix.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I‘ve noticed as this campaign has proceeded and we‘ve done better than people have expected—and when you do well, suddenly folks start coming after you.  They like you when you‘re down 20 points, but when you start actually challenging the status quo, then suddenly the claws come out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the round table for the politics fix.  Joining right now is Jeanne Cummings of Politico.com, Clarence Page, one of the most famous face in journalism, and Mike Duffy, should be the most famous.  He‘s got the new issue—who is your cover? 

There it is. 

DUFFY:  We put them both on the cover. 

MATTHEWS:  Look at them both.  That‘s a careful move.  I guess it is a draw, Mike.  That‘s where you‘ve got them, nose to nose. 

DUFFY:  It is for now.  We‘ll see.  I think it could go quite sometime at this pace. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you the question.  Do you expect two months from now, as we sit here—I don‘t mind this a bit.  A look ahead to the pro-Obama states, and I look at the pro-Clinton states, and I look at the Super Delegates, who are going to shift maybe to about a three to two Hillary at the end of it.  I think they will be weary of voting against their constituents.  We could have an Even Stephen going into June, which is usually playoff time for basketball and hockey.  We could have playoffs going on in June.  This could still be going on? 

DUFFY:  Howard Dean has been talking about redoing the Michigan and Florida primaries, because that‘s about 150 delegates that are supposedly disqualified.  It‘s weird, but those 150 delegates could be important by the end of this.  They might be the most important delegates there are.  There‘s no telling how this could go.  The Super Delegates could split.  They may actually have to restage the elections, which is almost impossible to imagine.  So, I don‘t think there‘s really any scenario we could rule out at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  I think that‘s a pro-Clinton move, what do you think?  You start holding elections over again, because you want—it seems like you are trying to help the person who won them the first time. 

PAGE:  That‘s true.  It‘s very touchy.  We are on untraveled ground here.  It‘s important that they resolve this in some quiet and equitable way. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s what I think, the Democrats have been taught proportionality.  They know that if you get 49 percent, you get 49 percent of the delegates, roughly.  What happens when the people who are backing Barack, and he loses a close one, they are told you get nothing, not the vice presidency, nothing—doesn‘t he almost have a claim to the VP job based upon the notion of proportionality,  49 gets you the VP job? 

CUMMINGS:  Maybe it would get him, but I don‘t think he would take it.  I think these two have long tired of each other.  One thing, this is a perfect Democratic year.  It would be just like them to blow it up in the end. 

CUMMINGS:  Eight years later, how old is he, 53.  Gosh, why jump in now. 

MATTHEWS:  Take it if you can get it.  What do you think, should he take it or not, if he doesn‘t win the top one? 

DUFFY:  Now he won‘t and he can‘t.  But you never know how this is going to feel and look in August.  It‘s six months away.  Whoever emerges on top doesn‘t have to make the decision or calculate his or her weak spots until almost the end of that month. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re selling magazines.  That‘s what you‘re doing.  You‘re selling magazines.  Thank you Jeanne Cummings, Mike Duffy and Clarence Page.  Right now it‘s time for “TUCKER.”

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

END   

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