updated 3/5/2008 10:45:24 AM ET 2008-03-05T15:45:24

Guests: Sybil Wilkes, Kevin Keane, Michelle Bernard, Eugene Robinson, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean, Joan Walsh

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Is tonight the last dance, or will it be seven weeks of the Pennsylvania polka?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL, tonight from NBC News headquarters in New York.  Today‘s judgment day for Senator Hillary Clinton, who has it all on the line in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont.  Tonight we find out if her “kitchen sink” strategy—hitting her rival hard with anything handy—worked.  New polls show that the contests are too close to call.  So what states does Senator Clinton need to win to stay in and go all the way to Pennsylvania in April?  We‘ll rate the various outlooks in a moment.

Plus, there‘s a new “Washington Post”/ABC poll out on what most Democrats think Senator Clinton should do if she wins only Ohio tonight or only Texas.  We‘ll talk to Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic national party, about whether Hillary hurts or helps the party if she continues to campaign.

And if Hillary Clinton is victorious tonight, the real winner could be Senator John McCain.  Most Republican professionals say they want to run against Clinton, not Obama.  And even if it is Obama, if the Democratic race drags on, it gives McCain more time to build a strong national campaign against him and more time for the Democrats to feed (ph) McCain dirt.  More on the GOP race, and we‘ll talk about it tonight.  Could it turn into Mike Huckabee‘s last stand?

And MSNBC is, of course, your place for politics.  Keith Olbermann joins me at 6:00 o‘clock tonight for our all-evening primary coverage, and we won‘t call it a night until the winners are called.

We begin now with DNC chairman Howard Dean, who is in the primary state, his home state of Vermont.  Mr. Chairman, Governor, Governor Dean, did you meet a week ago with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the Senate leader, to discuss terms for the end of this campaign?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The number you have reached...

MATTHEWS:  OK, we‘re going to Howard Fineman.  This program, live as it is, depends on technology, the most recent of...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... like telephones!

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you all for staying with us.  Howard Fineman, let me ask you...

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Ask me the question.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘m going to ask him the question because he‘s in the know in this and you‘re only a reporter, right?

FINEMAN:  That‘s true.  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about tonight.  If you were to look at it—

I think we‘re going to start now and do what we planned to do right after Governor Dean.  Let‘s take a look at this scenario.  Suppose Senator Clinton has a good night and she wins Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island.  What happens?  What‘s the consequence of that triple victory?

FINEMAN:  Well, if she hits that trifecta, there is no doubt whatsoever that she goes flat-out all the way.  Her fund-raising, which has been impressive the last month, will increase.  She‘ll say, See, my strategy worked.  It will validate the “kitchen sink” strategy that you‘ve been discussing, the attacks on commander-in-chief-iness, on NAFTA, on Tony Rezko, the developer in Chicago...

MATTHEWS:  Even undermining of his religious question—the religious question.

FINEMAN:  Everything they used, from clean to dirty...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

FINEMAN:  ... will be validated as a strategy if she wins all three.  So she‘ll have a strategy.  She‘ll have the money.  She‘ll have a rationale.  And you‘re going to have chaos and civil war in the Democratic Party all the way to Denver.

MATTHEWS:  I think it‘s been a brilliant strategy, if it works, because she‘s not only been able to hit him hard, the “kitchen sink” strategy, which somebody in the campaign called it, but she‘s almost on the stations of the cross, going around these softer talk shows, like “SNL” and Jon Stewart, acting as if she‘s getting hit hard with the kitchen sink...

FINEMAN:  Right.  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... when, in fact, she‘s the one lobbing it is.

FINEMAN:  Well, she simultaneously made herself more available, more vulnerable, more human while her campaign becomes more remorseless.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  That is smart politics!

FINEMAN:  And that‘s why she‘s doing it.

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t want to defend it or attack it, simply to note it‘s a very clever strategy.  Let‘s take a look at what happens if she wins only Ohio, and as they used to say in the song, the—Michael Feinstein‘s favorite song, “Little Old Rhode Island.”  What happens then?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think it‘s hardly different.  I think it‘s a tougher sell.  I think she‘ll have more people like Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean behind the scenes, or maybe out front, saying, Look, enough is enough.  You‘re not really back (ph).  You have no chance to win.  And if you look at the mathematics, by the way, of pledged delegates, there‘s virtually no way that Hillary Clinton can end up with a lead, a majority of pledged delegates, no matter how well she does from here to the end.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  That doesn‘t mean she has to quit.

FINEMAN:  No, no.  It doesn‘t...

MATTHEWS:  She can simply lose later.

FINEMAN:  No, it doesn‘t mean she has to quit, and she won‘t.  I think

as a matter of fact, I think she‘s in it to try to win it, even if she just wins those two states.  What I‘m saying is she‘ll have more open opposition from leaders of the party, if she does so.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go back to Governor—Governor Dean.  We couldn‘t hear you on the phone—you couldn‘t hear us, rather.  Let me ask you, Governor, did you meet this past week with Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, and the Senate Democratic leader about terms of ending this campaign?

HOWARD DEAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN:  No.  We did meet

and we talked about how to keep the Democratic party together.  But you know, I know that was reported by somebody who leaked it, but that is not the—the tone of the meeting was, How do we keep this party together as we go forward?

MATTHEWS:  Well, how do you do that if Senator Clinton loses the delegate fight but decides to stay in this race just to hope that something breaks her way or because she wants to get closer to the convention or because she doesn‘t want Barack Obama to win the general?  We can‘t get into motive here.  We have no idea why she might want to stay in the race.  But isn‘t it up to her?

DEAN:  Well, you know—Chris, I—no, actually, I think it‘s up to the voters.  Consistently, I think, the voters have a lot of wisdom and I think they‘re going to make a decision.  You know, there‘s a lot of angst about this, partly to fill cable shows, and the truth is, John Kerry clinched the nomination on March 2 four years ago.  Today it‘s March 4.  So it‘s not like this is—is some interminable campaign.  You‘ve got two very, very strong candidates.  We‘ve been in front of 20 million voters so far, and now, of course, Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont.  We‘ve—our turnout is 50 percent higher than the Republicans‘.

Look, I think we‘re in very good shape.  I really do.  Would I like a nominee?  Yes.  But the voters are going to have to make up their own mind about what they want to do, and the voters control this process.

MATTHEWS:  So you don‘t think there‘s any advantage in the Democrats finishing this up?

DEAN:  I think there‘s an advantage in knowing who the nominee is before we get into the convention, but it‘s not finished for a while.  After this, we‘ve got Mississippi next week.  Then we‘ve got Pennsylvania, and we‘ve got North Carolina.  I‘m going to sound like my speech four years ago...

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

DEAN:  ... and South Dakota, too, and all that kind of stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

DEAN:  We have a long way to go here.  There‘s a long way to go here.

MATTHEWS:  But you know, Senator Clinton has been tagging her rival pretty hard.  She‘s going after him on “Who do you trust at 3:00 o‘clock in the morning, which certainly will be re-used in the general.  She‘s even sort of given a hesitant, sort of a hiccup answer to the question, Is he a Muslim or not, a little slow on the draw on that one.  She‘s gone after him on his initial speech back in 2002 opposing the war in Iraq, undermining his credibility in that regard.  Isn‘t that all useful fodder for John McCain?

DEAN:  My job is to go after John McCain and talk about his ethics.  Just today, we found out that he withheld some information that would have affected the Alabama governor‘s race so he could get his endorsement a couple years later in the Abramoff case.  We find out that he‘s violating campaign finance laws, that he took $100,000 in campaign contributions and vacations to the Bahamas during the Keating scandal, that he‘s totally out of touch with America on Iraq, on the economy, on children‘s health care.  That‘s my job, is to make sure that John McCain out of the race, not worry about what the voters want to do with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

MATTHEWS:  OK, you‘re on offense, but you don‘t believe that the Republicans are picking up useful material in these weeks of combat between Clinton and Obama.

DEAN:  I can‘t imagine that what we‘re seeing now between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, yes, is anything but a—a tea party compared to what the general election‘s going to be like in the fall.

MATTHEWS:  Well, since you hesitate to call this quits, here the ABC poll and “The Washington Post” poll that‘s come out, and it shows that that two thirds of the voters, basically, believe that the race should continue on.  So I guess you‘re with the voters.  I thought you wanted this thing to end.  I was misinformed.

DEAN:  It‘s always better to be with the voters.  And I...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m being sarcastic, Governor.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  When I get sarcastic is I smile because I do think you want this thing to end and clean it up and have a nominee and move on to attack McCain, which is what you‘re already doing.

DEAN:  If we get—well, we‘re certainly going to do that.  But if we could, have a nominee before the convention, that would be helpful.  But we‘ve got a long way to go between now and the convention.

MATTHEWS:  Are there any rules that are being broken?  The Republicans have this “11th Commandment” that Reagan sort of codified.  Is there anything that‘s improper in the way you‘ve watched this campaign?  Is either side, Clinton or Obama, getting a little too dirty for you?

DEAN:  Chris, four years ago, my opponents got together and had a political action committee, all four of which contributors contributed to the thing, which morphed me into Osama bin Laden.  So this is pattycake.  This is a tough campaign between two well—well-spoken, smart people, either of whom is capable of being president of the United States.  But this is not, by and large, out of bounds.

MATTHEWS:  Are you a big enough ref to blow the whistle when you think it‘s time enough for this to end?  Are you going to wait for Senator Clinton or Obama to say when it‘s over?  In other words, the referee is the party chair.  Can‘t you just say, Lady and gentleman, it‘s over, or don‘t you have that authority?

DEAN:  Well, look, I think the voters have that authority.  And...

MATTHEWS:  Well, wait a minute.  The numbers suggest one person will win by the end of tonight, won‘t they?  Won‘t the numbers be the way the people speak, by how they vote?

DEAN:  I don‘t think any one person is necessarily going to win by the end of the night.  It would be nice to have a nominee, but as long as we have one by Denver, we‘re fine.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You finally said what I thought you believe, which is it‘d be nice to have a nominee.  Governor, thank you, sir.  It‘s always nice to have candor.

DEAN:  Thanks for taking me out of context, Chris!

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  No, it‘s called a clear, simple statement with an active verb.  Anyway, thank you, sir.

Let‘s bring in again “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman, who‘s an MSNBC analyst, and also Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of Salon.com.  Joan, I‘ve got to go to you, so there‘s time for you.  You‘re sense of the various options tonight.  I left Howard the option of looking at if Senator Clinton wins three tonight, all but Vermont, if she wins two, if she wins one.  What‘s really her minimal daily requirement to keep the fight up?

JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM:  Well, clearly, if she lost Ohio, I really do think the game is over and she would have to find a way—a way to go home.  If she lost all four states, I think her argument that she‘s got momentum going, all of her arguments in the last few days would have fallen flat.  She‘ll be unable to raise money.

And in the end, I mean, sadly, that‘s who votes.  If she can‘t raise money anymore, things change.  She has to fight with a band of brothers or sisters who are unpaid.  Mark Penn decides he wants to volunteer.  It becomes very grim.  So that‘s a clear scenario.

MATTHEWS:  You are so funny!  You are so funny.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s a guy that works for nothing.  Howard, can you see that team working for nothing?  Maybe they will.  I mean, I don‘t want to be completely cynical.

FINEMAN:  I don‘t see them as volunteers.  They‘re passionate but paid.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you both—Howard, first, then you.  How do you read tonight based as we—what are the expectations of the political community, as if it is a community?

FINEMAN:  The political community?  I would say they‘re expecting Hillary to win at least one.  They‘re looking at Ohio and Texas.  Those are obviously the big ones.  It all depends on what the numbers are.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

FINEMAN:  And Joan‘s right, if she doesn‘t win any, if Hillary doesn‘t win any of them, then it is going to be over, I don‘t care what Hillary says.  But Hillary...

MATTHEWS:  Howard, you‘re so much better than that.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  That bar is so low.  How about if she wins—if Senator Clinton wins Ohio and nothing else, what happens next?

FINEMAN:  If she wins Ohio and nothing else, it‘s going to be tough for her because, as I said before, people publicly will be out there saying, Enough is enough.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Same question to you, Joan.  If Senator Clinton only wins Ohio tonight?

WALSH:  I agree.  If she lost, say, Rhode Island, that would mean that she probably lost women, older voters and Catholics from her hand of cards.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

WALSH:  So that would be pretty gruesome.  She still might fight on and say Ohio‘s a swing state, it‘s crucial.  But I think then she‘s up against she lost 11 out of 11, 3 out of 4, and again, the momentum starts to be really impossible to fight.

MATTHEWS:  I think you, Joan, and I are together.  I think if she wins Ohio and little old Rhode Island, as they say in the song, that‘s good had enough to get through the night.

FINEMAN:  I agree with that.

MATTHEWS:  But ironically, if she only wins Ohio, it‘s probably not good enough.

FINEMAN:  I think...

MATTHEWS:  Isn‘t that ironic after all this?

WALSH:  Yes.

FINEMAN:  We‘re only going to know it when we see it.  But I can—no, but I can...

MATTHEWS:  What are you, on the Supreme Court?

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN:  Yes.  Well, it‘s like pornography...

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  What do you want me to say?  But I think we‘ll know it when we see.  I know she‘s going to want to continue if she only wins Ohio, and that‘s their mindset inside the campaign.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I know.

FINEMAN:  But I think, publicly, people will come forward, whether it‘s Pelosi whether it‘s possibly even Rahm Emanuel, who is sitting on the fence between the Clintons and the Obama camp...

WALSH:  Right.

FINEMAN:  ... as a leaders in the Democrats in the House.  I would bet that if she only wins that one state, even if it‘s Ohio is the one...

MATTHEWS:  The meeting.

FINEMAN:  ... then the meeting...

(CROSSTALK)

WALSH:  The meeting that didn‘t happen.

MATTHEWS:  The meeting will happen if what?  How do you see the scenario working its way out, Joan?

WALSH:  I was saying the meeting that didn‘t—that supposedly didn‘t happen...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, right!

WALSH:  ... will happen.  I also think it would be interesting—I‘m not—I‘m not saying this would be dispositive at all, but if she won the popular vote in Texas but lost the delegate count, that‘s going to give her some arguing points.  I‘m not sure it‘ll carry the day.

MATTHEWS:  I agree.

WALSH:  But in the end—you know, I was happy to hear Governor Dean say what he said.  Maybe I‘m the only person in America who feels this way genuinely.  But I feel like this is an exciting race.

MATTHEWS:  Me, too.

WALSH:  Let it go to Pennsylvania, your state.  Let it go to my brother up in Oregon.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

WALSH:  You know, let the people vote.  I don‘t see what the big hue and cry is to just pound her out of the race...

MATTHEWS:  So the ringing cry from this area is Pennsylvania polka!

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I just remember the Ktel (ph) record thing they used to sell.  They‘d say, Roll out the barrel, then they‘d go, Pennsylvania polka!

FINEMAN:  Well, but that number in “The Washington Post” poll is fascinating...

WALSH:  It is.

FINEMAN:  ... 67 percent say they want it to continue.  Presumably, a lot of Obama supporters—I think there are a lot of people around the country, Democrats, who want the opportunity...

MATTHEWS:  Well, I...

FINEMAN:  ... to vote for Obama.

MATTHEWS:  You know what?  When people drive by car accidents, they do stare.

FINEMAN:  Well, this isn‘t...

WALSH:  Oh, Chris, that‘s dark!

(CROSSTALK)

WALSH:  That‘s awfully dark.

MATTHEWS:  Joan, this race is getting very tough and bruising, am I right or wrong?

WALSH:  I think you‘re wrong.  I agree with Governor Dean on that one, too.

MATTHEWS:  You think it‘s been positive?  OK.

WALSH:  I don‘t think it‘s an ugly race at all.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

FINEMAN:  This is hardball.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s that.  It‘s at least hardball.  OK, we‘re going to...

WALSH:  It‘s hardball, absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t mind being outvoted.  You‘re a brilliant panel. 

I‘m just the interlocutor.

WALSH:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, Howard Fineman, on the night of—Joan Walsh, thank you for joining us on the night of this big election in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Coming up, what to watch for tonight.  We‘re going to give you the “Smart Viewer‘s Guide” to watching tonight‘s results.

And don‘t forget, in just 45 minutes, at 6:00 o‘clock Eastern, I‘ll be joined with Keith Olbermann for MSNBC‘s primetime coverage of the primaries in those four states, Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island.  That‘s all right here at 6:00 o‘clock right through the evening until late at night tonight when we get the results.  I guess we‘re not leaving until we have them.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We think we‘re going to do really well here in Texas and in Ohio.  And I‘m feeling, you know, very optimistic.  But we don‘t quit working until, you know, the last votes are in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  You know, the—what my head tells me is that we‘ve got a very sizable delegate lead that is going to be hard to overcome.  You know, you‘ll recall that when we were winning those 11 races in a row, the theory was they had to blow us out in Texas and Ohio, and I don‘t think that‘s going to happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Here with the “Smart Voter‘s Guide” on what to look for tonight is NBC News political director Chuck Todd.  I think we were watching Senator Obama there lower his own bar tonight, with Michelle there watching.

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Right.  Yes, well, no doubt about it.  He knows that the good news he‘s got is the delegate math tonight.  And if all else fails and he only wins one out of four, and you know, only loses 51-49 in the rest of these states, the delegate math does favor him.

So we‘ll start off, Chris, at 7:00 o‘clock, when polls close in Vermont.  And the magic number to watch for in Vermont is 64.  And that‘s the percentage that either candidate would need—but this is considered a likely Obama state—that Obama would need to win the delegate split 10-to-5, rather than 9-to-6.  And when you look at that ratio, plus-3 and plus-5 is a big deal.  If he gets the 64, it goes to plus-5.  Why does this matter?  Because this is a pad he‘s going to need going into the rest of the night.  So the number folks should watch for, 64 percent, as far as Vermont‘s concerned.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  What‘s the next result coming in?

TODD:  Then we have got Ohio, which is, you know—look, as we know, Ohio always gives us long nights, always gives us heartburn. 

What makes Ohio even more complicated for the Democrats is, all the delegate-rich congressional districts, where this thing is decided, is all up here in northeastern Ohio.  There‘s a big eight-congressional-delegate district there, Stephanie Tubbs Jones‘ district.  That‘s a district Barack Obama—it‘s an African-American district—he expects to win big.

Then you have got the old Jim Traficant over here in Youngstown.  That‘s a seven-delegate district.  That‘s one that Hillary Clinton hopes to win big and get 5-2 split for her, you know, or, in the case of Obama in that eight one, is 6-2. 

Then, when you look at sort of where each of them and—and sort of watch for—see how they‘re doing, how much does Obama run up the score in Cleveland, in Cincinnati, two places he hopes to do well?  And then what about Clinton?  How well does she do here in southern Ohio?  Has to be big.  Youngstown, Toledo—Toledo will be interesting one to watch, because the Obama people think, you know, Toledo is very much a working-class town, but that‘s one of the few of the working-class towns in Ohio, they think they can do well. 

Folks should watch those returns.  It might give them a clue as to where Ohio is heading. 

MATTHEWS:  So, what are we going to hear from Rhode Island tonight? 

Isn‘t that a state that‘s been very hard to pick? 

TODD:  Well, it has, because, on paper, it‘s a—it‘s a Hillary Clinton state, Catholic, working-class, looks like—looks like Boston, South Boston, or it looks like Manchester. 

MATTHEWS:  Sure. 

TODD:  But Obama‘s outspent her 5-1 in the state.  He went there this weekend.  He went to Providence.  He wants to try to keep this close.  He doesn‘t want to let her do in Rhode Island what he‘s doing in Vermont, which is automatically finding himself extra delegates to deal with the night.

And with the amount of money he‘s spent, he‘s probably at least prevented her, while she may win Rhode Island, he‘s prevented her from getting a huge delegate net out of it.  There‘s 21.  It‘s likely to break maybe 12-9.  Could be 11-10, even, if it ends up this close as we think. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I hear it‘s going to close up there, based upon the late surge, late surge, 10,000 this weekend coming out for Barack Obama.  They couldn‘t even get into the arena, a lot of excitement among young people.  But, then again, it seems like it‘s so familiar, doesn‘t it...

TODD:  It does.

MATTHEWS:  ... the young people against the establishment. 

TODD:  It does.  And Rhode Island—you know this—is very much an establishment Democratic Party. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go to Texas. 

TODD:  All right. 

Now we have got Texas, which is the craziness of the night, because we have got two events in one.  As far as the primary is concerned, Obama has been concentrating on these big cities, Dallas, Houston, Austin.  We will leave San Antonio out there a minute.  Hillary Clinton has obviously concentrated on the border, tried to do well in some of these rural area, but then wants to do well in San Antonio and wants to try to run up the score with Latino voters. 

Now, the problem she‘s got is, as far as delegates are concerned, she can win a lot of these Latino districts all she wants; she‘s only going to get 2-1 delegate splits, 3-2 delegate splits.  They are very much—because a lot of Latinos didn‘t turn out for Democrats in 2004, a lot of them voted for Bush, they weren‘t Democratic-performing voters, and they didn‘t get rewarded with voters. 

But who did?  It was voters in the Dallas area.  It was voters in the Houston area, and it was voters in the Austin area.  These are the three areas that Obama has done very well in.  He could get—Chris, he could lose the popular vote, say, 52-48, win the caucuses 52-48, net more delegates out of Texas than she does.

And, of course, the big challenge for our friends in the graphics department, what color do you paint Texas...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

TODD:  ... if she wins the popular vote and he wins the delegate?

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  How does “USA Today” put that headline together tomorrow at dawn? 

Anyway, by the way, so, just to work for the house, as we both do, Chuck and I, we‘re going to get results all through the evening tonight, starting with Rhode Island—or, rather, with Vermont, as early as 7:00, right? 

TODD:  Vermont‘s at 7:00.  We have got Ohio closing at 7:30.  But, you know, the history of Ohio, some polls will probably stay open an extra half-hour, because that‘s what Ohio does. 

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  Then we have got, at 9:00, all the polls will be closed by 9:00 in Texas, though a lot of them do close at 8:00 Texas Central time.  Everything closes 7:00 local.  And there‘s some Central time most of the state, and then we have got some Mountain time in... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  When do we hear from Rhode, little Rhode Island? 

TODD:  Rhode Island is at 9:00.  They love—Northern state, they love to let people vote as long as they want. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, that‘s the one I have been watching.  I think Rhode Island, it may be a small state, but, if Hillary Clinton holds on to that and wins Ohio, she‘s had a good night.  If she only gets Ohio, she‘s had a bad night.  Of course, if she wins Texas, she will probably win Rhode Island and have a super night, a trifecta.

Anyway, Chuck Todd, it‘s great, always, to learn at your service.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Up next:  Rush Limbaugh reveals his strategy for beating the Democrats in November.  It has something to do with keeping this race going. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Whether we will have a limited amount of experience in national security issues or one who has served and had intimate involvement and knowledge and background and judgment on every national security challenge this nation has faced for the last 20 years.  I‘m prepared for that debate.  I eagerly look forward to it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

So, what else is happening in politics? 

Well, is Hillary Clinton doing what her husband did so well back in 1992, working the entertainment circuit? 

Here she is last night on “The Daily Show.” 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE DAILY SHOW”)

JON STEWART, HOST, “THE DAILY SHOW”:  This election is about judgment.  Tomorrow is perhaps one of the most important days of your life.  And, yet, you have chosen to spend the night before talking to me. 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  Senator, as a host, I‘m delighted, as a citizen, frightened. 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  Your response? 

(LAUGHTER)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I—it is—it is pretty pathetic. 

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... perhaps a brilliant strategy on her part, hit Obama with the kitchen sink; meanwhile, pose as a good sport with Jon Stewart. 

Now the “Rush” to beat Obama—on his radio show yesterday, Rush Limbaugh came out of the closet on his “strategery” to beat the Democrats. 

Here‘s how he‘s thinking. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, “THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW”) 

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  The strategy is to continue the chaos in this party.  Look at—there‘s a reason for this.  Our side isn‘t going to do this.  Obama needs to be bloodied up. 

Look, half the country already hates Hillary.  That‘s good.  But nobody hates Obama yet.  Hillary‘s going to be the one to have to bloody him up politically, because our side isn‘t going to do it.  Mark my words.  It‘s about winning, folks. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not sure what it he means when he says “our side” isn‘t going to do this. 

His side has something of a track record in that department of bloodying people.  Ask Mike Dukakis.  Ask John Kerry. 

Now the merchandising part of the show, two things that go together this month, politics and Saint Patrick‘s Day.  When you put them together, hot stuff. 

Take a look at the new Saint Patty‘s Day Obama T-shirt created by the campaign itself -- 700 sold in the first day.  You have got to love it.

Anyway, and now it‘s time for the HARDBALL “Big Number” tonight.

I have been ruminating for months now, as you know, about how excited this country is about this election, young, old, rich, not rich, black, white, Latino, everyone.  And to add more proof to the pudding, I offer you tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

The Topps—T-O-P-P-S—baseball card company—we all know that one growing up—has a new presidential candidate series.  There they are.  And, apparently, it‘s a big hit, a home run, in fact.  It may or may not surprise you that one particular candidate is especially popular.  That candidate is Barack Obama. 

How much did he autograph—his autographed Obama trading card go for?  Three thousand, one hundred and twenty-two dollars, not as much as the 1909 Honus Wagner loose tobacco card, which went for $2.8 million, but pretty good -- $3,122 for a baseball card signed by Obama, that‘s our hot number tonight. 

Up next:  We have got some early exit poll issue results with Norah O‘Donnell.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERTHA COOMBS, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Bertha Coombs with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks closing mixed, after recovering from heavy losses earlier in the session.  The Dow Jones industrials fell 45 points, but they had been down as much as 200 points earlier in the day—the S&P 500 losing four points, while the Nasdaq actually gained more than a point-and-a-half. 

Stocks bounced back after CNBC reported a deal to bail out bond insurer Ambac is progressing.  And the head of tech bellwether Cisco Systems said any bumps in the U.S. economy would be short-lived. 

The sell-off was triggered by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke urging mortgage lenders to do more to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.  His advice included forgiving at least a portion of some mortgages. 

And oil plunged $2.93 in New York, closing at $99.92 a barrel—or, rather—I‘m sorry -- 52 -- $99.52.  Oil traded at a record high near $104 a barrel just yesterday. 

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

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

In tonight‘s crucial contests, we have got an early look at issues in the exit polls with MSNBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell. 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening to you, Chris.

Well, as you mentioned, tonight, it‘s a critical night for the Democrats.  And, in our first wave of exit poll data, we have found that there is, again, deep concern among voters about the state of the economy. 

First, let‘s talk about Texas and Ohio, the two big states tonight, where the economy is the number-one issue.  In Ohio, 61 percent say the economy is the number-one issue.  That is a higher percentage than in any of the other 25 official Democratic primaries with exit polls that have taken place so far this year, so, a huge number in Ohio. 

In Texas, you can see the economy also the top issue by 48 percent.  But, in Texas, where there are also a lot of military families, the Iraq war was also a key issue there, see, a quarter saying that it‘s very, very important, more so essentially than in Ohio. 

Our exit poll also asked voters in Ohio and Texas about the degree to which they worry about their own financial future.  And, in Ohio, where the average family income has actually been going down in recent years, 40 percent say they are very worried about their financial future, 37 percent somewhat worried. 

As we do with polling, you add those numbers together, that‘s 77 percent worried about their own financial future.  In Texas, voters are not quite as pessimistic, 31 percent very concerned, 34 percent somewhat concerned. 

There are two other contests, of course, on the Democratic side today.  And we asked about their concerns in Rhode Island and Vermont.  Fifty-four percent say the economy is the number-one issue in Rhode Island.  In Vermont, of course, which is the liberal bastion, the Iraq war—look at that—rates nearly as high as the war in Iraq.  Thirty-six percent of Vermont Democratic primary voters name Iraq as the top issue.  Forty percent name the economy. 

So, that‘s very interesting in the state of Vermont. 

And, Chris, coming up in just about half-an-hour from now, I have got some more information for you on the huge number of Democrats in Ohio who think international trade and NAFTA has cost them jobs—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you, Norah O‘Donnell. 

So, what‘s the word on the ground?  What‘s the buzz in Ohio and Texas right now? 

Joining us right now from radio talk show land is Sybil Wilkes from Dallas, Texas, and Kevin Keane from Cleveland. 

Sybil, you‘re smiling.  I don‘t know what you‘re happy about, but maybe just being on television tonight. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  What is the feeling?  Is this economy issue driving against Barack Obama, simply because, when people are nervous, they are not in a risk mood; they are not even in a generous mood?  What do you think‘s going on? 

SYBIL WILKES, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  I think that the people are in a mood for a change. 

And whoever they decide to go into the polling place and vote for today, that‘s what they‘re going for.  And the economy is felt, the depth of it is felt, here in Texas.  And they‘re looking for somebody to make a change here.  And I don‘t think that‘s going to go against either of the Democratic candidates. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me go—let me go to Kevin. 

Your thoughts about up in—up in colder country? 

KEVIN KEANE, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Well, I mean, there‘s no question, here, the economy is number one.  We have factory jobs that have been leaving for a long time. 

You know, as far as the two candidates on the Democrats‘ side, I don‘t see a whole lot of difference in their policy.  And I think that most Ohioans, at least up in the northeast part of the state, I think they feel that way. 

And, you know, to me, you know, Hillary Clinton, just the way that she has come across during this campaign, you know, yes, she‘s the one that people know more.  But, yes, I got to tell you, my people up here on my show, Barack Obama is—he‘s got a lot of momentum.  He‘s like a runaway train. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do I get the sense that a bad economy helps Hillary? 

Am I wrong, Kevin? 

KEANE:  I—I think probably.  I think just because of perception. 

I think, when this thing started, a lot of Ohioans, anyway, looked at and it.  And they said, man, we were doing a lot better during Bill Clinton‘s administration. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

KEANE:  And, you know, I—I think that that—that helped her at the beginning.  She had a wide lead at the beginning of this thing. 

But I really believe that—that, you know, early on, when she brought Bill into the contest more, I think it rubbed a lot of Ohioans the wrong way, especially women, because it—it was kind of a sign of weakness, I think.  I think it was perceived that way, anyway. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask Sybil, how is the kitchen-sink so-called strategy of Senator Clinton the last couple of days, wherein she‘s gone after her opponent on NAFTA and perhaps a side wink to Canada, not really being against NAFTA, going after him on his initial vote against the war in Iraq, saying that was only one speech, even being a little slow to disown the idea that he‘s a Muslim? 

Do you think all of that has hurt—I mean, helped Hillary in this—in her war against—against Obama? 

WILKES:  Not according to our listeners.  They get the whole kitchen-sink idea.  And they‘re—they‘re picking up on all of the things that she‘s throwing at him to see what sticks, and that‘s what they‘re telling us.  They—primarily, they are not being fooled by this.  So they get what she is trying to do and they look at it as a desperate move. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the ethnic factor down in Texas.  I know nothing about it except what I hear.  Browns versus blacks, is that real? 

WILKES:  In some cases it can be.  I think in southern Texas

especially.  In the northern part of the state, not so much.  I think it‘s

a lot of it is overblown, however. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

WILKES:  I think there are some differences, but for the most part, I think that it‘s—it‘s contrived. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Kevin on the question of generation.  In every state until tonight, until today when you‘re voting there, we‘ve seen this generational difference.  Kids generally for Barack, older people for Senator Clinton.  Is that the pattern that you see and hear in Cleveland and throughout Ohio? 

KEANE:  Absolutely.  I think you can break it down even more to the women.  I think that—the thing that I‘ve found amazing about the support for Barack Obama here is that women, say, under 35, maybe, a lot of people that I talk to on my show—it amazes me, because you would think that women would be looking at this and saying, wow, an opportunity for a woman to be the president of the United States.  But quite frankly, what I hear is, you know what, a woman, that would be great, but the women that are under 35 are telling me, I—just not this woman.  I don‘t like her much, you know. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go—Sybil, you are laughing.  Are you laughing out of pain or happiness with that? 

WILKES:  I‘m laughing because he‘s—what he‘s saying is what we‘re hearing as well.  A lot of women who initially probably were for Senator Clinton have moved towards Senator Obama and are, if you will, feeling him a little bit more.  And probably will react that way in the voting booth today. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the press coverage has changed, Kevin, from what was perceived to be a tough approach to Hillary Clinton to something a little more hesitant?  How would you read the press coverage lately down there in Texas—up there in Cleveland for you?  And then I want to go to Sybil for Texas and the reading down there? 

KEANE:  Chris, I don‘t know how you‘ve seen it, but we‘ve following this in other states.  We‘re excited to get our chance up here and this day has been a big one for us.  But when I see Hillary Clinton speak, and obviously you‘ve lost 11 primary or caucuses in a row, I just—I think that the explanation for Barack Obama‘s charisma is that when he speaks, and you know this from TV, there‘s a passion that‘s there, that‘s real, that you can feel.  And with Hillary, you get the feel of desperation, like she‘s trying to generate that passion.  But it‘s not real.  It‘s not coming across. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, sometimes she can be self-generating as a political presence.  The Clintons, by the way, have been able to deal with definitions of is in the past and have been very successful at changing the definition.  When Bill Clinton—I thought it was so impressive—he lost the New Hampshire primary back in 1992 by eight points and declared himself the Comeback Kid.  It works sometimes. 

Your thoughts on that, Sybil, down there, the perception on the media coverage in Texas on this campaign as it gets to the count tonight? 

WILKES:  I think that the coverage has been pretty fair regarding Senator Clinton.  I think that the issues have been raised, ala “Saturday Night Live” and things like that.  But I don‘t think it‘s been particularly hard on her as the last several weeks or so. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, it‘s great to talk to you both here. 

WILKES:  I think she‘s—

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sorry, I‘m out of time.  You know what that means, Sybil, you know that world.  We‘re out of time.  Thank you very much Sybil Wilkes for joining us and thank you Kevin Keane, from both ends of the spectrum tonight.   

Up next, the stakes couldn‘t be higher tonight.  By the way, they really are high tonight.  This isn‘t high, this will decide the future of this campaign.  We‘ll get the lowdown from our panel in the up coming politics fix.  It‘s coming at you in a minute.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  We know that there‘s not going to be a huge shift in delegates one way or the other, just given the math, which means, you know, that either way we‘ll go on to Mississippi and Wyoming next week. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  These are two really critical states.  Obviously, you don‘t get to the White House as a Democrat without winning Ohio, and we‘re going to put Texas in play. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and the politics fix.  Our round table tonight, Michelle Bernard of the Independent Women‘s Voice, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and Eugene Robinson of the “Washington Post.”  I want to go in order here and work my way to Michelle, starting with Gene. 

Let‘s take a look, by the way, here‘s former President Bill Clinton on February 20th, not 100 days ago, fairly recently, on the importance of Texas and Ohio. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  If she wins in Texas and Ohio, I think she‘ll be the nominee. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And here‘s senator—

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Do you agree with what Bill Richardson said the other day, that whoever has the most delegates on Wednesday morning should be the nominee? 

CLINTON:  You know, this is a long process, as some you have heard me say before.  My husband didn‘t get the nomination wrapped up until June. 

That has been the tradition that it usually lasted, you know, longer, into

the early summer.  This is a very close race.  And we‘re just taking it day

by day. 

It‘s a long road to the nomination.  And I feel good about where we are. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So, it‘s like the Stanley Cup, huh, we got to wait until June?  I never heard that one before, Gene Robinson. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I think that‘s the position the Clinton campaign has to take at this point.  It‘s—you know, she‘s unlikely to catch up in pledged delegates unless she blows him away in the states—remaining states that she possibly can win, including Texas and Ohio.  So, she has to find some way to keep this going, and then hope either he stumbles or she eats away at his support, or, you know, the kind of magic dissipates or something that puts her back on top.  And what else can she say? 

MATTHEWS:  When you look at all the states that are left, Pennsylvania being the largest one, Pat, the numbers may not be right, but if they‘re not right, can she still continue the campaign even if it‘s brazenly against the numbers? 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Sure she can.  Ronald Reagan went all the way to the convention against Gerald Ford and he was behind, a probable loser, trying all sorts of games to try to win it.  I think she wants to, Chris.  That‘s the sense I get from her lately.  I think she‘s pretty much resolved to do it.  She‘ll be looking for something tonight to justify it.  I think a win in Ohio and she certainly would go ahead. 

I think she would a real problem if she lost three out of four tonight.  She‘d have a real problem.  But I think she wants to go ahead, because she‘s looking for what Gene says, and also the possibility of an implosion.  This  is why, I think, Huckabee stayed in.  They were talking about what might happen to McCain, that story.  Now, you‘ve got the Rezko thing and you‘ve got the Farrakhan thing and all these things floating out there.

I think she‘s going to hold on and see and go as long as she can and as hard as she can and wait for a break. 

MATTHEWS:  Michelle, can Senator Clinton create the break or does she have to hope for it? 

MICHELLE BERNARD, INDEPENDENT WOMEN‘S VOICE:  She can do her best to create it but, you know, I‘ve been looking at different analyses, some of the stuff Chuck Todd has done and some of the things other people have done with other organizations.  Let‘s assume that Senator Clinton wins the next 16 primaries; on the delegate count alone, that still puts her 57 delegates behind Senator Obama. 

So, really what is going to happen if she decides—decides to take this to the convention, she‘s going to have to convince the super delegates that the she is the legitimate choice and that she should be the Democratic nominee.  I think that‘s going to be a very tough sell for a lot of the super delegates.  You know, people have to be asking themselves; do they vote the way their states voted?  Do they vote the way their Congressional districts voted? 

I think it‘s a tough sell.  I firmly believe that she‘s going to hang in there until the very end.  But I think it‘s going to be very—it‘s going to be a tough sell to get 700 or so super delegates to say that if Barack Obama has won the majority of the pledged delegates, that they‘re going to hand this over to Senator Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  Somebody very close to Bill Clinton, he‘s an African-American—it‘s relevant here—believes that if Barack Obama is perceived to have been robbed of this nomination late in the game by super delegates that Denver will be worse than Chicago was in ‘68. 

ROBINSON:  That‘s quite a prediction.   

MATTHEWS:  The people will just rebel against it.  They‘ll stand up against it and say, you can‘t do that to us. 

ROBINSON:  Well, I think more likely would be a lot of apathy among—perhaps among African-American voters, among Barack Obama voters in general, including young voters. 

MATTHEWS:  Young people of all kinds. 

ROBINSON:  When it comes to November.  Here‘s where we are were, I got a question on my Internet chat today, what‘s the magic number?  How many delegates does Obama have to lead Clinton by going into the convention in order to, you know, preclude some sort of super delegate shenanigans? 

MATTHEWS:  The way the Clintons are playing it, unless you‘ve got a majority of all delegates, including super delegates, you haven‘t won. 

ROBINSON:  Super delegates are not committed yet.  So in pledged delegates, does he have to be ahead by 50, by 100? 

MATTHEWS:  They aren‘t going to tell us that!

ROBINSON:  No, I don‘t. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re asking a leading question because I think you‘re suggesting—or are you?  Is this a hortitory question?  Are you leading them into saying they never are going to say they lost? 

ROBINSON:  I don‘t think they will ever say they lost. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just thinking here what you‘re thinking. 

ROBINSON:  This process is two months old from the Iowa caucuses to today.  There are six months between now and the convention. 

MATTHEWS:  I see the Buchanan smile.  I see the smile.  You want the blood.  There will be blood.  You want this. 

ROBINSON:  The Republicans are going to redefine Barack Obama.  What will—only thing that can turn the super delegates and not have another Chicago is if something explodes here with the super delegates and others say, we just can‘t go ahead with Barack Obama.  And that is the Clinton hope.  As I say, it was probably the Huckabee hope. 

MATTHEWS:  What would be an impediment to his nomination? 

ROBINSON:  Some kind of connection to Rezko or something like that really looks seedy and looks like falsehoods were involved.  They caught him in this little minor thing with the Canadians and I don‘t think Barack knew what this fellow and what he said to the Canadians.  They are counting on the Republicans, who are really going to go to work and are going to define Obama now. 

They‘re not going to wait around and they‘re not going to be as gentle as Hillary was. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Michelle Bernard on that question.  Is there anything on the horizon that would suggest a 180 turn on the delegates, the super delegates, on what they see as the strength of Barack Obama, vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton? 

BERNARD:  I don‘t see anything on the horizon, but then again, you know, this is just a moment in time and who knows what‘s going to happen?  But, you know, Chris, I wanted to go back to the original question you asked, because I think it‘s very, very important.  For a long period of time, many African-Americans have looked at the Democratic party as sort of the party that had a respect for, you know, African-Americans and equal opportunity for all.  And if you listen to black radio right now, you know, radio station after radio station, people are calling in and saying, if Barack Obama wins the pledged delegates and there is the appearance that—that pledged—the super delegates are handing this—handing the election over to Senator Clinton, people are talking about, you know, a, quote-unquote, black-out, not voting in November, registering as independents, voting for John McCain. 

I mean, I think this could cause very serious damage in the Democratic party.  And I got to tell you, Republicans would love it.  Republicans have been working very hard to reach out to African-Americans, to reach out to Latinos, and this could be the beginning of the end for that, that strong voting bloc. 

MATTHEWS:  Are the Clintons insisting on this, Pat?  They must know what we‘re talking about as a possibility. 

BUCHANAN:  Did you see the “New York Times” about the split with the Jewish vote and the black vote?  I mean, that—there‘s going to be wedge-driving there, Chris.  This is in the Democratic party.  You‘ve already seen the race card played moderately already.  I think you‘ve got the Jewish thing with the preacher out there.  They‘re going to drive wedges right through the various seams of the Democratic party, the Republicans are, and the Clintons are going at it gently themselves. 

That‘s where it‘s coming. 

MATTHEWS:  Are they seeding any ground here?  Are they creating it? 

BUCHANAN:  No, it‘s stuff that‘s out there with the preacher and Farrakhan and all that stuff, and they‘ll capitalize on it, and they‘ll exploit it, and they‘ll move it. 

MATTHEWS:  Remember, it was Al Gore who dug up Willie Horton.  It was Al Gore who did that, not a Republican. 

ROBINSON:  But what happens if some large bloc of super delegates, for example, later this week comes out for Obama and says, enough is enough?  That can change the atmosphere. 

MATTHEWS:  I think we‘ll know a lot more by midnight, gentlemen—gentlemen and lady.  Thank you very much, Michelle Bernard.  Thank you Pat Buchanan.  Thank you, Eugene Robinson. 

Do not go anywhere.  I‘m working for the house tonight.  We‘ve got a lot of news tonight.  I‘ll be joined by Keith Olbermann in just a few minutes now for MSNBC‘s prime-time coverage of the primaries in Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island.  Results come in as early as 7:00.  That‘s right here at the top of the hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2007 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2007 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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