updated 2/29/2008 4:26:09 PM ET 2008-02-29T21:26:09

Guests: Andrea Mitchell, Roger Simon, Pat Buchanan, John Harwood, Chris Redfern, Richard Wolffe, Sabrina Eaton, Michelle Bernard

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Two hours and waiting to what could be the last great Clinton/Obama debate. 

Let’s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I’m Chris Matthews.  And welcome to HARDBALL.

Saturday, Senator Clinton said, “Meet me in Ohio.”  And that’s where we are right now tonight, just two hours before Senator Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debate. 

The MSNBC debate moderated by Brian Williams and Tim Russert will be live here on MSNBC at 9:00 tonight.  And I’ll be anchoring with a special post-debate coverage with Keith Olbermann beginning at 10:30, right after the debate.  So stay here all night. 

This is the 20th debate for the two Democrats now in the race for president.  We’ll have a preview in a moment. 

Plus, HARDBALL’S David Shuster will have a viewer’s guide to watching tonight’s debate, as if you need one. 

And we’ll talk to the chairman of the Democratic Party out here in Ohio to find out what the issues are here in the Buckeye State. 

But we begin with our preview of tonight’s debate with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who is covering the campaign and joins me here.  Well, actually, she’s sitting here right next to me.  Roger Simon writes for “The Politico.”

I want to ask you both about this race tonight.  Everybody’s talking about how Hillary Clinton is going to come in either like a ton of bricks, or a charmer, or somewhere in the middle. 

Let’s talk about Barack Obama.  What is the guy who’s now the front-runner, 16 points up in the CBS poll nationally, what’s he got to do to hold onto that lead against somebody who everybody knows is a political survivor? 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS:  He’s got to sit on that lead.  He cannot do anything that will upset what he’s actually built here.  And that is a lead nationally, a lead—a challenge to her in Ohio. 

He’s challenging her in Texas.  He could actually—he could come out of March 4th the nominee of the Democratic Party, and he’s got to avoid making a mistake.  He can’t be too arrogant, he can’t be too smug.  He can’t do what he did in that earlier debate in New Hampshire and say, “I like you well enough.”

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  But Senator Clinton, Roger knows, but probably what Andrea is thinking, is probably what Barack Obama is thinking, and Andrea therefore knows he’s thinking, and she’s saying, wait a minute, this guy is going to try to freeze the ball, in basketball terms, keep the ball, dribble it around the court, run out the clock.  She’s going to try to steal the ball from him, right? 

ROGER SIMON, POLITICO:  That’s the problem.  When you’re behind, when you’re not the front-runner anymore, you’ve got to change the conversation.  You’ve got to mix things up, you’ve got to knock him off his game.  You can’t expect him to, unless, that is, Brian Williams and Tim Russert knock him off his game, which is always something she can hope for. 

But, I mean, she can do scorched earth, she can do high road presidential, or she can split the baby and go down the middle.  She did that last time.  You know, she zinged him on the Xerox line, and then she was lovey-dovey at the end.  But that didn’t especially get her anywhere. 

I think her real secret weapon, if there is one, is going to have to be, she could say, look, he’s not really ready to be commander in chief and I’m just going to come out and say it.  The trouble with that is she’s already agreed to support the Democratic nominee.  So where does that leave her if he wins? 

MATTHEWS:  Pat, somebody said she has to be careful about looking like somebody up in Canada bashing a baby seal.  You know, the image would look pretty strong. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I’m wondering if that’s the image she wants tonight.  It’s kind of tricky to take down the guy who has got such good vibes going for him right now in the country. 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC ANALYST:  Well, he’s not only got good vibes, he’s got a tremendous wave going for him, Chris.  But what she has to do is not say he’s not experienced enough, he doesn’t have what it takes. 

She’s got to sharpen the differences with examples.  For example, look, Barack, it is naive to think that you can talk to the dictators of the world within your first year without preparatory meetings.  That shows a lack of knowledge, et cetera. 

Do it this way.  Find cold examples, Chris, which are not strident and not attacking him so much as you lay out examples that show why he is not prepared and try to knock him off his game and hope that Russert and Brian will do the job for her. 

MITCHELL:  And, in fact...

MATTHEWS:  Well, the problem is, Andrea, that John F. Kennedy came into the White House and talked to Khruschev the first season in office.  Now, it was a pretty rough engagement for him, but the idea of taking on your toughest opponent in your first year is not exactly odd. 

MITCHELL:  Right.  In fact, you could argue that that example is the perfect example for her, because it blew up—the Vienna summit blew up in their face.  Look, Pat is exactly right.  She has to be specific.  She has to expand on the speech she gave in Georgetown—or at GW University yesterday, a speech that was stepped on by either someone in her campaign or another campaign.

MATTHEWS:  Oh yes.

MITCHELL: Leaking that picture to “The Drudge Report.” 

MATTHEWS:  But putting out the wardrobe picture that confused everybody. 

MITCHELL:  Yes, and that stepped on their message.  Whether it came from them or someone else, that took a lot of attention away from the specific example she was trying to establish of what they call the experience gap.  If she does it specifically without the zingers, the sort of made-up one-liners, like the Xerox example, she can perhaps try to penetrate. 

MATTHEWS:  Senator Clinton is not good at set pieces, I’ve noticed.  Let’s take a look.  They’re both better at reaction. 

Let’s take a look here at Senator Obama today in Ohio, out here in this state. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I think things have gotten a little hotter over the last couple of days.  But these things have gone sort of in ebbs and flows. 

There were some tensions, you’ll recall, in South Carolina, and we had a pretty hot debate in Myrtle Beach.  And I have to say, you know, just speaking for myself, when I looked in retrospect at that debate, although I think there were some legitimate differences that were put out there, that, you know, I’m not sure that my tone was always the one that I wanted to communicate. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  He’s Senator Clinton today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  There’s a big difference in this campaign between me and my opponent.  See, I believe in quality, affordable health care for everyone.  And some of you may have seen—I got—I got a little hot over the weekend down in Cincinnati, you know, because...

(APPLAUSE)

... I don’t mind having a debate, I don’t mind airing our differences.  But I really mind it when Senator Obama’s campaign sends you literature in the mail that is false, misleading and has been discredited.  That is not the way to run a campaign to pick the Democratic nominee for president.  And...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Roger Simon, should she wave something like that document in the air tonight?  She’s not allowed to bring any paper in with her.  Just, in some way, simulate rage over that pamphlet that she said really distorted her record on NAFTA? 

SIMON:  You know, I’m sure she can try something like that.  I don’t think that—I don’t think specifics on NAFTA, I don’t think specifics in general have worked really well for her. 

I mean, she brought them up before South Carolina.  He won south Carolina by 29 points. 

She whacked him with everything, including the kitchen sink, not in the debate, but on stage and in speeches before Wisconsin.  He won Wisconsin by 17 points. 

I mean, what she prefers to do is just what you saw her do, split the baby.  Whack him a little, say, yes, he’s got this misleading pamphlet.  But on the other hand, I don’t want to be too strident, I don’t want to take on a negative tone. 

Split the baby isn’t such a great strategy.  It’s the strategy you take when you don’t know what to do.  When you’re getting so much advice from your campaign from both sides, that you simply decide to go down the middle. 

MATTHEWS:  You know they go down the middle. 

But Pat Buchanan, you’ve never gone down the middle in your life. 

Let me—let me ask you about this.  This idea that you can—I remember Al Gore, and I’m sorry it didn’t work as well as Senator Gore thought it would—Vice President Gore at the time.

He said he didn’t do too well in the first debate, he was too strident.  He hemmed and hawed and gasped and everything else.  In the second one he was too sweet and too clubby with his opponent.  And then the third he came in and he thought he did it just right.  He called it his Goldilocks debate, because in the words of the nursery rhyme, he was just right. 

He wasn’t just right, because he changed three different times.  Is that a problem for Senator Clinton, to do so many personalities in one weekend—scolding, ridiculing, and then something new this weekend?  And by the way, starting on Thursday, being very charming and congratulatory, and then leading into these too other faces, and now a fourth face in six or seven days. 

Is that a problem? 

BUCHANAN:  It’s a serious problem.  You’ve nailed it there, Chris. 

Every day we get up and we see something different.  We saw that terrific ending in Texas.  All of a sudden, this shrill person yelling at him, “Shame on you!”  And then we get a different person each day.  And it really presents a problem of credibility and a suggestion of a campaign somewhat in desperation. 

I get back to the basic point—she’s got to go in there and sharpen the differences with Obama.  Get off of NAFTA.  That’s Bill Clinton’s legacy.  Get off health care.  We do 30 minutes on that ridiculous subject, which, you know, sounds like theologians debating. 

Get on specific foreign policy questions.  And I would go after him on that first year, because, you know, Andrea is right.  Kennedy went over there, Khruschev ate his lunch.  We got the Berlin Wall two months later and the Cuban Missile Crisis one year later because Khruschev thought he was dealing with an amateur and a weakling.

So I think if she’s goes at him, she’s going to do it on foreign policy, the kinds of issues tomorrow morning we’ll be talking about.  We aren’t going to be talking about that health care difference.

SIMON:  I have to disagree just a little bit. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

SIMON:  I think that’s a great...

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me...

SIMON:  OK.

MATTHEWS:  Go ahead.  Just quickly, Roger.  I want Andrea to respond on the foreign policy—her expertise. 

SIMON:  What Pat said is a great general election argument.  You have to remember these guys are running in the Democratic Party. 

Democrats are not looking for some warrior, commander in chief.  They don’t mind people talking to the heads of Iran and other rogue states.  They think it’s a good, peaceful thing to do. 

You just have to keep in mind that it’s a primary that’s going on here.  The candidate is not running against a Republican yet. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  OK. 

Andrea.

MITCHELL:  There are a couple of things.  I think I do agree that she has to go after him on foreign policy and talk about the experience gap. 

I do think she’s got to hit on NAFTA and jobs, because you’ve got six percent unemployment here, you’ve got 200,000 jobs in eight years, manufacturing jobs lost, some people say partly because of NAFTA.  So she’s got to go after him on that, although they both have inconsistent records on NAFTA and have been increasingly populist as they’ve approached this Ohio primary. 

But the other thing that she’s got to do is look at the clock.  The clock is running.

If she doesn’t win next Tuesday, she knows that she’s going to have to find an exit strategy.  We did an interview with Chris Dodd today and he said, don’t be too negative, think about the party  The elders are going to come to her.  They are already pressuring her. 

She can’t do anything tonight that’s going to jeopardize her legacy and her husband’s and her political future.  She’s got a brilliant political future even if she doesn’t get this nomination. 

MATTHEWS:  It’s so hard to give people advice, you know, when they’re in the 14th or 15th round, Pat Buchanan...

BUCHANAN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... and the points are going with other guy, and you’re down in points, but people say don’t go for a knockout.  In boxing, just to switch to the Nth sport I’ve used as a metaphor in this fight, you’ve got to knock the other guy out if it’s the 15th round and you’re down in points.  There isn’t any other choice.

BUCHANAN:  Well, exactly.

MATTHEWS:  Wasn’t it Pittsburgh’s Billy Conn that went for the knockout against Joe Lewis? 

BUCHANAN:  It was a mistake. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, it took an Irishman to go for the knockout against the guy who had points.  And it was Joe Lewis he tried to knock out. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  And he was ahead twelve rounds to one or something, and he steps into it. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BUCHANAN:  You’re right, Chris.  I think she should go for that type of what you’re talking about—a straight, hard shot to the head.  But don’t start swinging wildly. 

You know, about the legacy, I do agree—I do agree with that.  But I think she’s got to—I mean, on the NAFTA thing, the problem is he checkmates her. 

She says, look, you’ve got no experience.  He says, well, I’ve got enough experience to know the most important vote I ever cast in the Senate I didn’t give Bush a blank check for Iraq.  How does she answer that?  How does she answer the fact her husband is a NAFTA guy?  I mean, that was his legacy. 

MATTHEWS:  I know. 

BUCHANAN:  And so she’s...

MATTHEWS:  And if that doesn’t work—if that doesn’t work, break into his headquarters. 

Sorry, guys.  Anyway...

BUCHANAN:  Or get Bill Cunningham.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much,  my friend, Pat Buchanan, Roger Simon.  Pat always goes for the big one. 

Anyway, thank you. 

Andrea is sticking with us. 

And up next, which side of Hillary Clinton will we see tonight?  The latest in the infighting in the Clinton campaign.  They are fighting I here inside as to what to put on tonight. 

Much more for Cleveland, home of the Indians and the Browns and tonight’s debate, which begins in less than two hours from now, moderated by Brian Williams, who is wearing the exact same tie I am tonight, and Tim Russert. 

And don’t miss the post-game with Keith Olbermann and me.  It will be a little different tone by then.  We’ll have the analysis starting at 10:30.

You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That’s Ronald Reagan back in 1980, a memorable moment.  A memorable line in a primary debate that helped him win the Republican nomination that year. 

Tonight’s Democratic debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton gets under way here at 9:30 -- or actually 8:30 right here in Cleveland.  Actually, it’s 9:30 here in Cleveland. 

9:30 in Cleveland? 

MITCHELL:  9:00. 

MATTHEWS:  9:00.  Well, who is saying 9:30? 

It’s shaping up to be Hillary Clinton’s last stand before the March 4th primaries in Ohio and Texas and Rhode Island. 

9:00 here.  Not 9:30. 

For more on Hillary’s strategy tonight, what’s going on inside her campaign, let’s turn to John Harwood of CNBC and “The New York Times.”

And NBC’s Andrea Mitchell has covered the Clinton campaign. 

John, you first. 

We’ve been hearing a lot of noise coming out of that clubhouse—that Clinton clubhouse—because when things aren’t going well, people blame each other. 

JOHN HARWOOD, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  They do.  And people who advocated one message are criticizing the messages that in fact were used.  As we’ve seen, pretty much all the messages have been used at one point or the other. 

I think the challenge for Hillary Clinton tonight is to speak in her own voice, to try to be aggressive against Barack Obama, but not be cheap.  You know, the Xerox line, that bombed last week.  The sarcasm over the weekend, that didn’t play very well either about the skies opening and the celestial choir singing. 

MATTHEWS:  When do you think as a reporter—I mean, it’s tough to be judgmental, but there are times—well, I’ll tell you what—I think she’s very good at those rifts, when she shows her excellence on policymaking.  And he’s three or four points from her, not 20, three or four points form her, and nails it, so you know she knows what she cares about. 

HARWOOD:  Well, look, and she’s got a lot of legitimate material to talk about.  She’s been very good in the debates, by and large. 

She can make a claim to superior foreign policy credentials to Barack Obama, she can make a claim to economic credentials based on her husband’s record.  And you know, there’s all this talk about NAFTA he’s going after.  You know the biggest difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on NAFTA?  Barack Obama was fortunate enough not to be in Washington when NAFTA passed during the 1990s. 

MITCHELL:  And not to be married to Bill Clinton. 

HARWOOD:  Exactly.  They are both free traders with reservations.  And I don’t think Barack Obama, who is promising to bring the United States closer into harmony with the rest of the world, is going to do that and then try to shut down free trade. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  You know, this is where it comes—this is where it’s easy to give advice and hard to put it together. 

Every liberal who’s running for president says we shouldn’t slam the door on Mexicans—Latin Americans coming up here.  We should help them to develop their economy.  And very sophisticated person says the way to do that is trade, not aid—NAFTA.

And then the minute they say—but on the other hand, they say we’ve got to stop NAFTA.  So, if they are enlightened about dealing with immigration and they’re enlightened about dealing with jobs here at home, it’s hard to put it together.  It’s not simple. 

MITCHELL:  And the big problem here is Texas and Ohio.  You’ve got the bipolar situation. 

MATTHEWS:  Texans like NAFTA.

MITCHELL:  Texans like NAFTA.  Border communities have actually benefited from NAFTA.  I mean, there’s a lot of murky economics going on here. 

MATTHEWS:  So they hear in Texas what you’re saying in Ohio.

MITCHELL:  Of course.  They’re both voting on March 4th

HARWOOD:  My bet would be, and I think recent history suggests, that either of these two Democrats would be much more pro free trade than many of their union backers. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh yes, but the trouble with debates in primary season is you try to out-left the other person, right?

HARWOOD:  Exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  And therefore, we get what kind of policy out of that? 

MITCHELL:  Bad policy. 

HARWOOD:  Well...

MITCHELL:  You get wing policy and you can’t get any legislation out of a Congress. 

HARWOOD:  Well, what was the big gamble that Bill Clinton took in September of 1992 running against George H. W. Bush in a bad economy?  He came out in September after the primaries and said he was for NAFTA with certain conditions on labor and the environment.  He ended up getting it done. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about Harold Ickes today.  I mean, I don’t know whether this is connected to reality or not, but it’s what you do when you have problems. 

This is her top adviser, basically.  “We’re on the way to locking this nomination down.  We’re going to nail this thing.  We think we’re on the verge of our next up cycle.”

“This race is very close.  This is tight as a tick.  I think if we lose in Texas and Ohio, Mrs.  Clinton will have to make her decision whether she goes forward or not.”

So, President Clinton, former President Clinton, just a couple of days ago, said she has to win both.  Now, here is Ickes saying, if you just don’t lose both.  I mean, the goalposts are moving. 

MITCHELL:  Look, Ickes has been in charge of the delegate strategy, and he’s had to face some criticism for ignoring some caucus states that were rich in delegates.  They won New Jersey and, you know, lost—ignored Idaho, and netted one fewer delegate when you compare those two states. 

They got 11 out of New Jersey and he got 12 out of Idaho.  So he’s been criticized a lot internally.  So you can understand, he’s at a breakfast with print reporters and he’s being a little bit defensive and a little bit aggressive about this delegate strategy, which so far hasn’t added up.  They’re 115 behind and they have to catch up. 

(CROSSTALK)

HARWOOD:  Chris, I think this is a situation where you invest superior credibility in the former president of the United States, who happens to be married to the candidate.  If he says she’s got to win both, pretty good reason to think that she does have to win both.

MATTHEWS:  Why is that sound thinking on the former president’s part, that Senator Clinton has to win both here next Tuesday and in Texas?  Why do they have to win both? 

MITCHELL:  Because it’s perception, as well as delegates.  She’s behind on delegates, and has to actually win big, by 20 points or so, out of these states to catch up on delegates.  But it’s also perception.  The superdelegates are going to absolutely bolt if she loses one or the other, Texas or Ohio. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You and I know Pennsylvania pretty well. 

You know it too.

Suppose she squeaks Ohio here next week.  So the polls are moving against her, but she hangs in there and wins by a point or two.  She loses Texas delegates and popular down there.  She holds on her wins in Rhode Island.  I hear she’s doing well up there. 

She loses Vermont, but everybody assumes that’s so left, it’s not going to go for her. 

OK.  She wins Rhode Island and Ohio, sweeps them both.  She says I’m going to Pennsylvania, where she could easily win as well. 

MITCHELL:  Ed Rendell says...

MATTHEWS:  What?

MITCHELL:  I think at that point Ed Rendell, if she loses in Texas, but squeaks in Ohio, Ed Rendell does a sit-down.  And he says, I can’t hold this together.  What do you want me to do for you?  Chris Dodd was saying it today. 

HARWOOD:  See, if she loses Texas, Chris, she loses the ability to make the argument, which she’s been able to do so far, after winning California by nine points, to say, you know what?  When you get out of these little caucus processes, which I mostly ignored, and you talk about the big battlefields, that’s where I have got the advantage.  If she loses one of these two big states, she loses the ability to...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let’s talk about something really tricky.  You and I talked about gender a lot.  Everybody talks about gender.  Everybody talks demographics. 

I’ve never seen more demographic discussions—younger Latinos, older Latinos, younger—you know, everybody—older blacks, younger blacks, younger whites, white guys, white women.  I’ve never heard a conversation like this.  It’s like we’re in the Balkans. 

OK.  That’s how we talk now.  Talk.

I noticed today in a new poll from CBS/”New York Times,” for the first time that among women voters she’s even. 

MITCHELL:  Which is—it started in Virginia, and you saw it proceeding in each of the subsequent races.  Wisconsin was a terrible blow to her. 

Wisconsin I think was a turning point, because they didn’t go in soon enough, they didn’t go in big enough, they didn’t spend enough money, and her lead in key demographic areas eroded.  What started in Virginia really came to pass -- 17 points in Wisconsin.  She never should have lost it by 17 points. 

I thought in watching her speech that night, the speech where she never conceded, I thought she knew right then how much trouble she was in.

MATTHEWS:  The trouble is, again, we give advice from the sidelines.  We don’t give advice, we give (INAUDIBLE) information, basically.

If she  appears in front of women’s groups, who are her strongest base all along, it looks like that’s who she has for her.  And that may turn off men.  They go, wait a minute, that’s who she’s working for, not all of us? 

And yet she has to do it.  You always work your base.  It’s very hard to figure out how she could have done it better. 

HARWOOD:  Well, sure.  And in some of the earlier states, before the bottom dropped out, as Andrea was talking about, in Virginia, in Maryland, in Wisconsin, she was doing pretty well with blue collar men.  It wasn’t just blue collar women.  But the danger right now is, if you look at these national polls, if he’s got a double-digit lead, she’s in big trouble with every group. 

MATTHEWS:  I still think she can win here.  I think she can win in Pennsylvania because I think—I think these older states like Ohio and Pennsylvania still have older values. 

They like—they care about Social Security.  They are older people.  They care about Medicare.  Bread and butter Democrats.  They’re not—no celestial choir.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But they’re not celestial choir Democrats, OK?

MITCHELL:  But it’s the women that will bail her out.  If she’s going to win Ohio, it’s going to be the women. 

MATTHEWS:  I still the crowds for her.

Anyway, thank you, John.

Thank you, Andrea. 

Up next, if you think the race between Barack Obama and Hillary has gotten ugly, wait until you hear about this fight in Pennsylvania.  It was not merely rhetoric. 

And don’t forget, tonight’s debate begins at 9:00 Eastern only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

So what else is new out there in politics?  Well, according to the Web site thesmokinggun.com, which has the police report, Jose Antonio Ortiz (ph), in the Philadelphia suburbs, allegedly stabbed his brother-in-law in a fight about the relative merits of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. 

Ortiz (ph) allegedly stabbed Sean Shirells (ph) after Shirells (ph), an Obama supporter, said that Barack was beating Hillary.  Ortiz (ph) angrily replied, Obama was not a realist and allegedly stabbed the Obama backer, his brother-in-law. 

The victim was brought to the hospital in critical condition but is expected, thank God, to recover from a political debate that ended up in a stabbing. 

Anyway, speaking of political passion, the office of Senator Larry Craig sent out this press release this afternoon.  Parents, get ready for this one. 

Craig accepting applications for summer internships.  Who is knocking on that door?  Guess what, mom and dad, I just got an internship with that senator from Idaho. 

Anyway, speaking of young people, a new study from the American Enterprise Institute shows that less than half of high school students know that the civil war was fought sometime between the years 1850 and 1900.  When do they think we fought North and South, between the first and second world war? 

And now it’s time for the HARDBALL “Big Number.”

“It’s the economy, stupid.”  That was true in ‘92.  It’s true in 2008, obviously.  Not only is it the economy, it’s more precisely—it’s job, stupid.

With plants moving overseas and with major layoffs, it’s tough times for a lot of people.  For proof, one need only look at the Ford Motor Company in tonight’s “Big Number.”

How much money is the motor company offering some of its workers to take a buyout?  $140,000.  $140,000 to give up your connection to Ford. 

The downside is you give up your health care.  $140,000, tonight’s “Big Number.”

Coming up, everything you need to know to get ready for tonight’s big debate, which gets started at 9:00 Eastern here in Cleveland, Ohio, moderated by NBC’s Brian Williams and Tim Russert. 

And don’t miss the post-game show with Keith Olbermann and me.  We’ll have all the analysis starting at 10:30, running to midnight at least. 

You’re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That, of course, is Walter Mondale with his famous zinger he used in a primary debate against Gary Hart back in 1984. 

Tonight’s debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton gets started at 9:00 Eastern.  And amid all the tough talk we’ve heard over the last couple of days, there are some key issues facing this state and the country, things to talk about and look for tonight. 

Here is HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CLINTON:  I am so pleased to be here. 

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice over):  While the Clinton approach tonight remains to be seen, the top issues in Ohio are clear. 

First, the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.  Most Ohio voters hate NAFTA because they believe it has cost them jobs. 

And this Obama mailer has gotten under Clinton’s skin.  On the cover, Obama quotes his rival, saying, NAFTA was “a boon” to our economy.  Actually, Clinton never said that. 

But Clinton did encourage the trade agreement and Barack Obama opposed it. 

OBAMA:  I think things have gotten a little hotter over the last couple of days.  But these things have gone sort of in ebbs and flows. 

SHUSTER:  Another top issue, health care.  Look for Obama to talk about how his expanded coverage plan will cover working families and union households.  Look for Clinton to argue Obama will leave 15 million behind and that her universal plan is better. 

Another issue will be experience.  Hillary Clinton has been arguing that Obama is unprepared. 

CLINTON:  The American people don’t have to guess whether I understand the issues or whether I would need a foreign policy instruction manual to guide me through a crisis. 

SHUSTER:  Today Obama picked up a counterpoint to that with the endorsement of former candidate Chris Dodd. 

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), CONNECTICUT:  Having spent a quarter of a century in the United States Senate, I made a strong case on the basis of experience.  And look at the results I got in the campaign. 

SHUSTER:  According to Dodd and Obama, the larger issue is judgment.  Clinton has long been vulnerable over her vote supporting the Iraq war. 

Finally, there’s the more immediate judgment issue, and that is tone.  Going into the debate, Clinton has toughened her attacks by going at Obama directly. 

CLINTON:  So shame on you, Barack Obama.  It is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public. 

SHUSTER:  Obama wants to remain above the fray. 

OBAMA:  You know, I would expect her to argue vigorously her case for why she should be president, and I’m sure she’ll point out the differences that she has with me.  I will do the same.  But I’m sure it will be conducted in a civil fashion.

SHUSTER (on camera):  Nobody else is sure, however, and that’s another reason this debate is so intriguing.  Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is on the line, whether the issues and the focus favor her or not. 

I’m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David. 

Chris Redfern is the chairman of the Democratic Party here in Ohio. 

Well, Ohio is everything this week. 

CHRIS REDFERN, OHIO DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIRMAN:  How about that?

MATTHEWS:  Everything is about Ohio.  Texas is moving towards Obama, we think, in the polling.  But Ohio, it’s right there.  It’s on the fulcrum.  

REDFERN:  Could win the national championship of football this year, too. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but let’s talk about politics. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  It seems to me that your state is up for grabs now.  The polling is showing it tightening, it’s getting very close to almost being even. 

Who has got the drift of power here?  Who is going up and who is going down? 

REDFERN:  Hard to push back on a tidal wave, but there’s a lot of time between now and Tuesday.  How well Hillary performs tonight, how well Barack Obama responds to her charges, her claims, it’s going to be an interesting six days.  But it’s awfully hard to push back on a tidal wave. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this a hip state, a state-of-the-art state...

REDFERN:  We get it.

MATTHEWS:  ... where it moves with the national trends?

REDFERN:  On campus here at Cleveland State, sure.

MATTHEWS:  Is it an isolated Midwestern quiet area that doesn’t participate in the national zeitgeist? 

REDFERN:  No.  We tend to pick presidents here in Ohio.  I don’t know what the rest of the nation does, but this March we’re going to pick the nominee and then we’re going to pick the president. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, you picked Nixon in ‘60, didn’t you? 

REDFERN:  We picked George Bush twice, too. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let’s go to this—what are—if Senator Clinton tonight raises an issue that will be useful to her campaign and gets the headline tomorrow, makes—I know this is on broadcast as well as cable tonight, our debate tonight in this state—what is the issue you would recommend if you were in her corner that she pounce on tonight? 

REDFERN:  Every question should end with jobs, should be answered with jobs.  Every question, the war in Iraq, education, health care, it all comes back to economic security in this state.  And Hillary Clinton needs to differentiate herself from Barack Obama as it comes to jobs and trade. 

MATTHEWS:  Can you do what Mitt Romney did in Michigan and promise the restoration of an industrial Midwest?  Can you say those jobs that I grew up with, where kids could leave high school and get a real job and provide for their family at a big factory job, semi-skilled or skilled, can you promise that those jobs are coming back? 

REDFERN:  I’ll tell you what I can promise, not to wave the white flag of surrender when it comes to standing up for manufacturing jobs.  Whether it’s in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, voters are listening. 

If John McCain wants to abdicate his responsibilities to stand up for working class families, that’s fine.  We’re going to pounce on that. 

The choices are clear between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the policies of George Bush for another four years with John McCain.  Jobs front and center tonight and through the next six days. 

MATTHEWS:  Democrats have been talking about national health care since Harry Truman.  Every Democratic candidate, every Democratic president since 1940-something, has promised health care for all Americans. 

Senator Clinton is arguing with Senator Obama over the details.  When are they going to deliver, your party, a national health care plan for all working Americans?  When is it going to happen?  Is it going to happen now or is it just more talk? 

REDFERN:  And with an overwhelming Congress, with 60 votes in the Senate, we’ll be able to... 

MATTHEWS:  When is that going to happen? 

REDFERN:  It’s going to happen...

MATTHEWS:  When is that going to happen?

REDFERN:  It’s going to happen after November when we sweep the country with a blue tide of Democratic voters. 

MATTHEWS:  You’re going to win 60 U.S. Senate seats? 

REDFERN:  Absolutely.  What the heck, Chris?

MATTHEWS:  Were you at that breakfast this morning with the Clinton people? 

REDFERN:  No, I wasn’t. 

MATTHEWS:  I’m just kidding, because that sounds pie in the sky. 

REDFERN:  No.  I think if you ask a lot of people whether or not we would pick up so many seats in the Congress last time, we surprised some folks.  We’re going to do it right here in Ohio as well.  You know, there’s a movement afoot.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

REDFERN:  Whether it’s for change or some other slogan, there’s a movement afoot. 

MATTHEWS:  If Senator Barack Obama wants to raise the flag again on the war issue, and why Senator Clinton voted to authorize it, will that score with the people out here tonight? 

REDFERN:  No, no, of course not.  John McCain has promised us 100 more years of war in Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  No, I’m saying will it score for Barack if he comes out against the war tonight? 

REDFERN:  It won’t.  You want to score points tonight?  You talk about jobs, economic security. 

MATTHEWS:  You don’t talk about the war? 

REDFERN:  Absolutely not.  Ohioans know where they stand on the war.  Whether it’s with Barack or Hillary, there’s little in the way of a divide now going towards the future.  We could think about why...

MATTHEWS:  Are you afraid of that division, that’s why you want to change the subject?  Because within your party there’s a division over the war?  It sounds like you’re trying to...

REDFERN:  No, I wouldn’t do that to you.

MATTHEWS:  How many people here like the Iraq war, think it’s a great war? 

(BOOING)

REDFERN:  How many people are going to vote for Hillary or Barack based on that vote? 

MATTHEWS:  How many like Barack because he’s against the war? 

(CHEERING)

REDFERN:  Same thing.  It’s Hillary against the war. 

MATTHEWS:  I’m just asking.  I’m just asking.

REDFERN:  Is Hillary against the war?  How many are with you, Hillary? 

(CHEERING)

MATTHEWS:  That was one guy with a high-pitched voice.  I’m sorry.  That was one guy.  Sorry, you made a lot of noise, but it was just you. 

REDFERN:  That was Olbermann. 

MATTHEWS:  Just you. 

So you don’t think that’s the issue.  Well, let me tell you...

REDFERN:  No.  I think it’s jobs.

MATTHEWS:  Let’s talk about tone and division in your party. 

There’s a lot of talk about the party needing to get together.  This campaign needs to end soon.  There needs to be a decision by the party, they’ve got, what, a scorched earth policy. 

What do you think as chairman of the party?  Should this campaign end relatively quickly, should it stretch out all the way to the Puerto Rican primary?  Should it go to Denver?  When should it end? 

REDFERN:  Tomorrow, the day after, as soon as possible.  But it may not end tomorrow. 

You know, if we can build towards the November election, as chairman of the party I’d much rather do that.  But I understand that we have two qualified candidates that could take this thing all the way to San Juan. 

But I’m not counting on that.  I think we’re going to come together sooner rather than later, and we’re going to focus on November and John McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  Remember the great line...

REDFERN:  I’ll see you in San Juan.

MATTHEWS:  I know a boat to San Juan.  I know a boat you can get on. 

Anyway, thank you, Chris Redfern. 

That’s from “West Side Story.”

Ohio state Democratic chairman.

Thank you, sir, for joining us.

REDFERN:  Glad to be here.

MATTHEWS:  Up next, “The Politics Fix” as we continue our look ahead to tonight’s Democratic debate, what may be the final debate in this campaign. 

This is HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  Celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  We can do these things if you are ready for change.  But I’ve got to say in the waning days of this campaign, a lot of people are saying oh, no, no, don’t believe. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Time for “The Politics Fix” right now.

Michelle Bernard, president of Independent Women’s Voice; Sabrina Eaton is the Washington correspondent for the “Cleveland Plain Dealer”; and Richard Wolffe is with “Newsweek.” 

A very strange thing happened this afternoon.  Let’s take a look at the series of events.  Let’s listen to radio talk show’s Bill Cunningham at a John McCain rally today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CUNNINGHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Obama just came back from meeting with Ahmadinejad.  He’s got a meeting the next week with Kim Jong-il in North Korea.  Then he’s going to saddle up next to Hezbollah.  They’re going to have a little cookie and cream party.

All is going to be right with the world when the great prophet from Chicago takes the stand and the world leaders who want to kill us will simply be singing “Kumbayah” together around the table of Barack Obama.  It’s all going to be great.  Things are going to be wonderful. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  It’s “Kumbayah.”

And here’s John McCain’s swift apology. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Any comment that is disparaging of either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama is totally inappropriate.  And I have never done that in any of my campaigns. 

And I have a long record.  And I absolutely repudiate such comments.  And again, I will take responsibility. 

It will never happen again.  It will never happen again. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And here is round three.  Here is Bill Cunningham reacting to the McCain apology on his radio show. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

CUNNINGHAM:  He just threw me under the bus to the national media.  I’ve had it with McCain and the whole—I’m going to endorse Hillary Clinton. 

I want Hillary Clinton to become the next president of the United States.  I’m going to throw my support behind Hillary Clinton.  She’s been fully vetted. 

And guess what?  Barack Hussein Obama has not been vetted one bit.  But Hillary Rodham Clinton has been.  She’s been vetted. 

We know all of her dirt.  And it’s a lot.  We don’t know about the dirt under the fingernails of Barack Obama. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, there’s a voice to lift all votes. 

I mean, what is his point of view, Richard Wolffe?  He’s saying Hillary has got all this dirt on her, she’s no damn good, but I’m going to endorse her because I’m having a tiff with John McCain today.  Meanwhile, I’m just going to louse up completely Barack Obama on the way to this point of view.

RICHARD WOLFFE, “NEWSWEEK”:  ; It’s going to be an interesting general, isn’t it?

MATTHEWS:  Well, why would anybody listen to that guy?

WOLFFE:  With John McCain on one side, with friends like that...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I know.

WOLFFE:  ... and Barack Obama on the other side. 

Look, if that’s a taste of what’s to come, it’s going to be a wild ride. 

MATTHEWS:  It’s the silly season, with that fellow leading it, I think.

WOLFFE:  Sure it is.  But listen, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh this afternoon, and he had his Barack Obama critic, an African-American guy, who spoke “ghetto” about Barack Obama.  This is going to be an incredible election, and a lot of it’s going to be pretty distasteful, just like Cunningham was earlier. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Sabrina, about covering this campaign out here. 

Are people focused on the bread and butter piece of the election, who is going to be better for jobs?  Is it bigger, sort of macro, who is more hopeful?  What is going on with the voters out here in this area of Cleveland? 

SABRINA EATON, “CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER”:  Well, I think voters here want to hear specific ideas on what can be done to bring in jobs, to deal with trade agreements that they feel have cost jobs, to help alleviate the foreclosure crisis. 

I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to get out and about in some of the neighborhoods in Cleveland, but there’s a lot of them where every other house is boarded up.  And it’s really sad.  So I think they want specific solutions. 

These types of things like Mr. Cunningham’s, you know, outbursts, I mean, they are entertaining, to an extent.

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

EATON:  I’m sure Hillary Clinton will be really welcoming that endorsement. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

Let me go to Michelle Bernard, because, you know, this country is trying to deal with ethnicity and divide, and then you have somebody like this character who sort of rips the scab off. 

I don’t know.  What do we make of it? 

MICHELLE BERNARD, PRESIDENT, INDEPENDENT WOMEN’S VOICE:  I’ve got to tell you, I am just absolutely horrified at this.  We saw in South Carolina the sort of—the Clinton campaign was putting it out there that, if Barack Obama is elected president, you’re going to be electing a drug dealer to run the White House.  And now we’ve got this fellow in Ohio who is basically saying—you know, he keeps repeating Barack Obama’s middle name, which is Hussein, you know, unfortunately.  But he’s sort of saying, you’re going to be electing a suicide bomber to the White House if you elect Barack Obama. 

It is race-baiting.  It is racist.

You know, we saw in South Carolina the Clinton black magic sort of turned into the “Nightmare on Elm Street.”  And that’s exactly what I would warn conservatives on the Republican side if they start going after Barack Obama as a “Muslim.”  They’re going to be—they’re going to see the same fallout. 

This is not the way to get your candidate elected. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I think we keep forgetting just on this name is the same routine here, one of our strongest allies in the last 50 years in that part of the world was King Hussein of Jordan. 

WOLFFE:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  I mean, the idea that somehow this is like a bad name is a little infantile. 

But let me ask again—let’s start talking about this thing here.  We talked about Cunningham, we talked about McCain. 

He looks pretty good in this, right, McCain?

WOLFFE:  Sure he does.

MATTHEWS:  He lost himself a wacky supporter but he gained a little more respect, perhaps. 

WOLFFE:  He took the high road.  He showed that he was willing to buck (ph) important voices in the party, although Cunningham, who is he?  But, you know, conservative talk radio, I think that’s an important mark in the sand for him. 

But, you know, these are the people—this is the echo chamber.  This is the Republican attack machine that Hillary Clinton keeps talking about.  Are they going to go out and fight for him? 

EATON:  You also need to vet these people a little more carefully before they have them on stage embarrassing them.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

Well, everybody has supporters they don’t like. 

EATON:  But they don’t all have them on stage introducing them, do they?

MATTHEWS:  I mean, Mr. Farrakhan the other day endorsed—he didn’t endorse, but said very nice things about Barack Obama.  I’m sure that wasn’t wired. 

EATON:  But did Barack—was Barack Obama on stage with him? 

MATTHEWS:  No.

EATON:  No.  There’s a difference.

MATTHEWS:  It’s not his fault, it’s not our fault who people like these days. 

Let me ask you about—let’s start with—stick around here with the Ohio debate tonight.

This may be the last debate of the season for all we know.  There could be more in Pennsylvania, we don’t know. 

But out here in Ohio, are things like this going to affect voters?  I mean, this thing like—this thing where somebody put out a picture of Barack Obama the other day wearing an East African costume, a Kenyan costume, I personally find that totally normal. 

Every time a politician goes somewhere he puts on the local dress and acts local.  That’s what politicians do.  Prince Charles does that.  And it’s not considered a problem. 

Is this an issue with people or not?  What is this? 

EATON:  Well, I hope it’s not an issue, but I think that there are—you know, perhaps there’s some latent racism out there that whoever distributed that photo hopes to capitalize on.  So that’s—I mean, I really do think and hope that the voters are Ohio are more focused on issues.  But you know, like I said, those things do provide some entertainment. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Well, they also provide some dread. 

We’ll be right back with the roundtable for more of “The Politics Fix.”

As we go to break we’re going to talk about our last segment tonight.  We’re going to talk about what Hillary Clinton is likely to do tonight.  We have to do a little preview right coming up on this fight tonight.  It is going to be a fight. 

Hillary Clinton’s behind in points.  She might have to go for a knockout in the 15th round. 

You’re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We’re back with the roundtable for more of “The Politics Fix.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to bring to your attention—in the last five days, Senator Clinton has expressed herself in a number of ways. 

Last Thursday, in the last debate, the CNN debate, she spoke about what an honor it was to debate with Barack Obama.  It was a very touching moment.

Two days later, she said he ought to be ashamed of himself for the kind of literature he’s putting out in Ohio.  And then yesterday—or rather on Sunday, she talked about with ridicule the way he talked about celestial choirs of angels, basically, singing a new era of American “Kumbayah,” whatever. 

Which face can she present tonight credibly after those so many different versions, Michelle Bernard? 

BERNARD:  Hey, this is like watching “The Three Faces of Eve” or “Sybil.”  I don’t know what we’re going to see next. 

It has been—you know, her message changes every single week.  I have to just personally say I have got Clinton fatigue big time. 

I don’t know which face she’s going to put on tonight.  I’m assuming she’s going to come out attacking him.  But, you know, after the diatribe over the weekend, I literally thought to myself, who is advising her?  Because who in their right mind is going to vote for someone who actually looks like they’re having a huge meltdown on national television? 

MATTHEWS:  Sabrina, tone is the question tonight, as well as substance. 

EATON:  I suspect that her tone will be somewhat more subdued than the whole “Kumbayah” thing that you were discussing.  I think it’s because, you know, a direct confrontation like that probably wouldn’t play in her favor, although typically candidates tend to go negative when their poll numbers are sliding. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, that’s true.

EATON:  She has been—she’s been ahead in Ohio by quite a bit historically, but he’s gaining on her.  I think the last—the last poll, like, he was up by like 6 or 7 percent.  I think her lead is about, you know, 8 or 9 percent.  And that was a couple of days ago. 

MATTHEWS:  Richard, give me some tonal coaching and some substantial tone—both. 

WOLFFE:  I think the most effective moments for Hillary Clinton throughout this campaign have been the most personal and when she’s above the fray.  So that’s really what she needs to do tonight. 

But the biggest, most telling slip of the tongue in this whole campaign was when she described being negative, going on the attack, as being the fun part.  I think that’s a default mode for her. 

MATTHEWS:  Well...

WOLFFE:  But, in fact, if she can resist it, stay above the fray, be the party unity figure, the authoritarian figure, that’s going to be important for her. 

MATTHEWS:  Richard Wolffe, Sabrina Eaton, thank you for joining us.  And Michelle Bernard. 

In one hour, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, face to face in what could be their final debate, what is their final debate before Ohio and Texas. 

And then at 10:30, I’ll be back with Keith Olbermann for the post-game show.

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