updated 3/31/2008 12:17:00 PM ET 2008-03-31T16:17:00

Guests: Dana Milbank, Crystal McCrary Anthony, Chrystia Freeland, Todd Harris, Brian Katulis

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Big week for Obama.  The senator from Pennsylvania says he‘s for Barack.  The senator from Vermont says Hillary has to get out of this race.  And the Gallup poll says Barack is breaking away.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  What a tough end to the week for Hillary Clinton.  The big news, the surprise endorsement for Barack Obama just 25 days out from the Pennsylvania primary.  Pennsylvania U.S. senator Bob Casey today jumped on the Barack bus and announced his support for Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BOB CASEY, JR. (D), PENNSYLVANIA:  I believe in my heart that there‘s one person who‘s uniquely qualified to lead us in that new direction, and that is Barack Obama!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that was a big surprise from my viewpoint.  Anyway, to make matters worse for Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is calling on her to drop out of the race.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT:  There is no way that Senator Clinton is going to win enough delegates to get the nomination.  She ought to withdraw, and she ought to be backing Senator Obama.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And the latest Gallup tracking poll has Obama now opening up—look at that—an 8-point lead nationally.  Finally, he‘s getting some distance, some separation from Senator Clinton.  We‘ll have the latest developments in the Democratic fight in just a minute.

Plus veepstakes, still some speculation out there about a possible Obama/Clinton ticket, or perhaps even a Clinton/Obama ticket at this point.  Could that be just the ticket to heal the Democrats‘ wounds and win the general election?  But is this really a dream ticket, as some still think, or a nightmare, as some fear?  More later.

And Senator John McCain launched a new ad today focusing on his wartime experience in Vietnam, but what about the current war?  Does Senator McCain really want to us stay in Iraq for 100 years?  We dig into his words and his policy in a moment.

Also, we‘re going to do something different tonight with our “Big Number.”  Tonight, I‘m going to tell you what it is right now.  You got to figure out what it means, stands for: 624, 787.  What does 624, 787 mean?  Well, you‘ll find out in just a few minutes if you stick with us.

And we‘re going to take a look at the week in politics, who won, who lost, who defied expectations, in the big Friday “Politics Fix.”

But we begin with the big news out of Pennsylvania, the big news of Friday, Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey‘s endorsement of Barack Obama.  Chuck Todd‘s our political director for NBC News, and we have with us “The Washington Post‘s” great columnist Eugene Robinson.

Chuck, I didn‘t expect this guy—he‘s a very cautious U.S. senator in his first year, his first term, and what did he do, almost a spiritual announcement he made today, I‘ve got to be for Barack.

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  He did.  And in fact, Obama emphasized that he actually didn‘t work Casey over.  If you knew the intricacies of Pennsylvania politics, you knew that Obama would have a shot at it.  You know, wherever Rendell is, you would assume the Caseys are on the other side.

MATTHEWS:  Explain that.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  You know, they ran against each other for governor in 2002, a very nasty primary fight, one that I think the Caseys as a family haven‘t gotten over.  Ed Rendell ran against Casey‘s father in a race for governor 20 years earlier in a campaign that Casey, Sr., won.  So it was a little bit of Rendell payback.  But then we forget also the late Bob Casey was—you know, the Clintons kept him off of the ‘92 convention.  Then he protested and didn‘t go to the ‘96 convention.  So there‘s certainly enough reason for Casey not to be for Clinton.  But you know, he needed something.  He hadn‘t one major endorsement in Pennsylvania.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re so political.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... the spiritual aspect of this.

EUGENE ROBINSON, “WASHINGTON POST,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Oh, Jeez!

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE) to the political announcements.

TODD:  Where are we, are at we at HARDBALL, or...

MATTHEWS:  No, but the idea that he said it like—we‘ve heard this before, like Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said, My kids talked me into it.  You know, we heard this from Caroline Kennedy, her kids talked her into it.  Could this be another generational somewhat of a spiritual arising here, encouraging a guy to do something that‘s not necessarily in the area of political revenge, as you describe?

ROBINSON:  Well, it could be.  And we‘ve seen this phenomenon—we‘ve seen the phenomenon of young people, who have a different experience of race and less baggage about race and who are really energized by Obama‘s message.  But what I want to talk about is Chris Matthews getting spiritual...

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s—let‘s...

ROBINSON:  ... about Pennsylvania politics?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... I heard about what—I talked to a friend of his who really knows him, and he tried to explain this.  And he said it was something he hadn‘t planned to do.  It just sort of—spent the weekend talking to his kids, and he did make this kind of—he is a straight arrow.  We know that.  It‘s not all revenge.

TODD:  No, and he‘s not—and he didn‘t—he‘s the least bitter of all the Caseys.  I‘ve always thought that the bitter Caseys are the ones that had to run the campaign...

MATTHEWS:  Well, here‘s—here‘s Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey, Jr., endorsing Barack Obama today with some attitude, apparently.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CASEY:  I‘m here today for one purpose, and it‘s to endorse Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States.

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

CASEY:  This campaign is a chance for America, a chance for America to chart—to chart a new course, to go down a different path, a path—a path, first of all, of change...

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

CASEY:  ... a path of a new kind of politics, a path...

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

CASEY:  ... and finally, a path of hope and healing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And here‘s the right cross from Senator Pat Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  He‘s, of course, a Vermont senator, which Vermont‘s, of course, very heavily for Barack Obama.  Here he is talking on Vermont Public Radio, which I‘m sure is listened to by quite a few Barack Obama fans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEAHY:  There is no way that Senator Clinton is going to win enough delegates to get the nomination.  She ought to withdraw, and she ought to be backing Senator Obama.  John McCain, who has been making one gaffe after another, is getting a free ride on it because Senator Obama and Senator Clinton have to fight with each other.  I think that her criticism is hurting him more than anything John McCain has said.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And here‘s Senator Leahy has a follow-up again today.  That was a bit earlier this week.  Here he is with his follow-up today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEAHY:  I think she may well want to consider doing what others who are running, who are also well qualified to be president, who stepped down, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, among others, who stepped down.  This is not an attack on Senator Clinton, whom I like and whom I admire.  I‘m just trying to get to the point where, in a year where I would hope that the Democratic candidate would win, that we take the steps necessary for the Democratic candidate to win.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, I have to ask you all—Eugene first.  It seems like we‘re fighting a war where neither side hears the other.  One side, he is obviously a fan of Barack Obama‘s.  They look at the numbers and say, Barack‘s ahead, he isn‘t going to get caught.  There‘s no way he can get caught.  The other side says, Well, neither side has enough to declare victory, so why don‘t we just keep going?  They have both reasonable arguments here.  It seems.

ROBINSON:  Right.  Right.  And look, you know, we—we‘ve all listened to Chuck‘s explanation of the delegate math, so—so it is highly unlikely that she catches up, but she‘s close enough that she doesn‘t want to give up and her supporters don‘t want her to give up, or certainly most of them don‘t.  You know, Senator Leahy had another great quote, though, that she has every right to stay in the race, but she doesn‘t have a particularly good reason to stay in the race and...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sorry, Gene.  You know, for a while there, I think her toughness really was helping her, certainly up in New Hampshire, certainly her toughness in Ohio.  She comes off as kind of a middle-class regular person, fighting it—duking it out with the bad guys, as she sees it.

And yet I look at the polling this week, our own polling, which you‘re the master of, the NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll, which shows her in huge decline on favorability, just that attitude not for or against her, but, I don‘t like her right now.  What‘s that about?  Is that because she‘s staying in the fight too long?  What is that about?

TODD:  You know, that‘s something I wish we knew exactly.  I mean, we took it during the whole Bosnia episode and the whole fish story that...

MATTHEWS:  Did it pick up on all that?

TODD:  ... and you wonder if it did pick up and people said, Oh, my God, that‘s just like the Clintons that I—the bad part of the Clinton years that I remember.  That‘s the stuff.”  Then suddenly, it made them want to, you know, quote, unquote, “turn the page,” which is what Obama likes to talk about.  So you know, I wonder if that‘s what it caught.  And you know, that‘s been the whole problem of Clinton during this campaign, is that she hasn‘t—she hasn‘t tried to fix the likability aspect.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  You know, she‘s trying to beat him on issues, and it‘s not a contest over issues.  It‘s a contest over style.

MATTHEWS:  Another theory we‘ve heard, that African-Americans particularly are outraged at the performance of the Clintons these days.

ROBINSON:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  There‘s something called the “hillbilly firewall” I‘ve been reading about in the paper today...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... where Bill‘s out there campaigning in rural, more culturally conservative white areas.  Not saying anything wrong, but just...

ROBINSON:  Doesn‘t have to say anything wrong.  He just has to be Bill.  He has to—has to lay on the Southern accent really thick and the kind of—kind of bubba demeanor and—and perhaps that can send the right kind of message.

MATTHEWS:  Giving a license to people to vote for his wife against Barack, which fair game.  That‘s what he does.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He‘s campaigning for her.  It‘s just—does it hurt her—does it hurt him—if Barack wins the primaries, does it hurt him in the general down the road?

ROBINSON:  Well, yes.  Yes.  I mean, I think he‘s being wounded by all these attacks, if he gets the nomination.

TODD:  They‘re both wounded.  They‘re both wounded right now.  But I think that it‘s recoverable wounds for another month or so.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  The question is, you know, she‘s not—this idea of pushing her out now...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  Not there yet.  He didn‘t win in Texas yet.  He doesn‘t done it yet.

MATTHEWS:  You know what it looks like?  One of those old middleweight fights from the ‘50s.  Remember there was Carmen Basilio (ph) and Gene Folmer (ph), both beat each other to hell.  They both had scar tissue at the end of the 12-round fights.

TODD:  And what is it—and Obama can win this thing on points, but nobody likes a boxing match like that.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  They want a knockout.

MATTHEWS:  A split decision, too.  (INAUDIBLE) decision.  Anyway, thank you, Chuck Todd, for bringing it home to me in a way I enjoy, pugilistically, Eugene Robinson.

On Wednesday, it‘s the return of the “HARDBALL College Tour.”  Barack Obama‘s our big guest, and for the full hour, at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.  I get to join the students in asking him some good questions.  That‘s Wednesday at 5:00 and 7:00.  I can‘t wait to get back on the college tour and hear the sound of the band!

And coming up: Some call it the only way out for the Democrats.  Well, this is getting harder to believe, a ticket with both Barack at the top or the bottom with Hillary Clinton.  But is that a dream ticket or a nightmare for the Dems?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I get people say, I wish I could vote for both of you.  Well, that might be possible some day.

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘ve won twice as many states as Senator Clinton.

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  I‘ve won more of the popular vote than Senator Clinton.  I have more delegates than Senator Clinton.  So I don‘t know how somebody who‘s in second place is offering the vice presidency to the person who‘s in first place.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Of course, Barack Obama was there pushing back on Hillary Clinton‘s idea of being her running mate, him being number two, of course.  But as the bruising nomination battle goes on, wages on, rages on, is the Democratic Party‘s only solution to put these candidates on the same ticket?  Is the that only way to heal the wounds.

Let‘s turn to NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell, who loves to heal the wounds, who‘s been covering the Clinton campaign, and MSNBC political analyst Craig Crawford.  You know, let‘s talk about this possibility, Obama/Clinton.  That seems to be the most ripe idea this week.  Doable, not doable?  Good or bad for the Ds?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  I think it could be good for the Ds, but I‘m not so sure it‘s the right thing for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

MATTHEWS:  What would be the downside of him putting Hillary on the ticket?  Because it would be his call.

MITCHELL:  He would have to live with this...

MATTHEWS:  Mr. Bill?

MITCHELL:  ...  extraordinarily ambitious politician, and I mean Hillary Clinton, who would not, I think, accept easily a second-banana role.  And Bill.

MATTHEWS:  Craig, your thought about a ticket of Obama on top, Hillary as number two.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: 

Well, I get past the political analysis to what kind of presidency that would be, and I think of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Dick Cheney.

(LAUGHTER)

CRAWFORD:  Imagine her back there in the West Wing, running things, working the hill.  I mean, I do think she could be very effective, if they could work together, Andrea‘s right about the issues, but I mean of the personalities, the high-octane personalities involved.  But imagine Hillary in there, like Dick Cheney, behind the scenes, working the Hill and getting the legislation through.

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  She could be his...

MATTHEWS:  Let me interject here.  She‘s on the ticket, it puts a lot of people at rest about Mideast policy.  She‘s a much more predictable,pro-Israeli politician.  Barack‘s an unknown.  She could help in that department.  She‘s solid on health care, on domestic issues, especially with women, concerns of child development, education, the whole array of domestic issues most importantly, generally, to women voters.  She gives him a lot of protection among the traditional Democrats who never heard of Barack Obama.

CRAWFORD:  And among Republicans...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s your case—not your case, but I know you understand this analysis.

CRAWFORD:  Think about Republicans.  I mean, look at how she was worked across the aisle in the Senate in ways that he really has not.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re warming to this.

CRAWFORD:  I‘ve been warm to this for a while.

MITCHELL:  There are obvious advantages, and we‘ve all seen how presidents and vice presidents make these alliances.  I still think it‘s an awkward alliance.  I think the bitterness is deep.  I think she‘s got...

MATTHEWS:  Who (INAUDIBLE) the most?

MITCHELL:  ... other options in the Senate.  It‘s a close...

(CROSSTALK)

MITCHELL:  It‘s a close call.

MATTHEWS:  Ha!

TODD:  Lawyers and senators can always get over these things.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s go.  Because one thing about her joining the ticket, she gets to defend him against all the charges she‘s made against him.

MITCHELL:  How about that?

MATTHEWS:  OK.  And by the way, there aren‘t a lot of other great candidates for VP for him, by the way.  I‘m straining myself thinking (INAUDIBLE), and she may be the best of the pack that‘s available.

Let‘s go to the other possible—I know this it doesn‘t look this week, but times change.  I think as one of the characters in “Batman” said, Things change.  So let‘s look at this one.  Maybe this will be abounding as a possibility a month from now.  You first, Craig.  Does that make sense?

CRAWFORD:  Clinton/Obama?

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

CRAWFORD:  I think—you know, first of all, I think that the worse it gets, the uglier it gets between them, the more they have to run—I called it...

MATTHEWS:  Even if he gets...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  I wrote about this in back in January and called it a shotgun wedding, you know, either way, but...

MATTHEWS:  She wins in an upset because she wins the last couple of primaries, she sweeps Pennsylvania, wins a big upset in North Carolina, wins Indiana, gets the superdelegates.  African-Americans as a group, liberals, young people are in an uproar.  The only way to calm it is put him on with her, right?

MITCHELL:  And as Bill Clinton said, unstoppable.

CRAWFORD:  And that is the team that wins Florida and Michigan.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s talk about the other side of the aisle.  Let‘s take a look at the Republicans.  This is a race that was not—well, it‘s a marriage that was never made in any heaven I know about.  That‘s this guy.  I think we all can read that grin.  That‘s not a grin of love from John McCain there, is it.

MITCHELL:  I think there are some obvious virtues to this...

MATTHEWS:  OK.

MITCHELL:  ... for John McCain.  I think it helps him get elected, or it gives him a real shot at it...

MATTHEWS:  Because it gives him a business...

MITCHELL:  It gives him the business credentials.  He may not be that young, Romney, but he looks young and vigorous.  It gives them Western virtues in a couple of important states, New Mexico and others, Colorado, where he may not be an obvious...

MATTHEWS:  Mormon money, too.

MITCHELL:  And Mormon money and Romney money.

CRAWFORD:  The social conservative problem is still there.  I mean, Romney did not win that vote.  And the Mormon problem is still there.  I don‘t—I mean, I tend to agree, but I also see the down sides, you know, not to mention...

MATTHEWS:  But from a Romney point of view, it‘s all up side.

CRAWFORD:  Oh, of course.

MATTHEWS:  Take it, right?

CRAWFORD:  Absolutely.

MITCHELL:  Yes, and...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  I mean, that‘s a very attractive job, to be McCain‘s running mate...

MATTHEWS:  Puts him in line.

CRAWFORD:  ... because if McCain only gets one term, given his age...

MATTHEWS:  He gets the next term.

CRAWFORD:  ... that‘s a very big job.

MITCHELL:  And John McCain needs economic credibility.  This would be instant credibility...

MATTHEWS:  Would he trust Romney sitting behind him?

MITCHELL:  No.

CRAWFORD:  No.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you. (INAUDIBLE)  Thank you, Andrea Mitchell.  Great being with the pros.  I love working for NBC.  There‘s so many smart people around here.  Craig Crawford.

Up next: If you thought John McCain was going to run away with the war

run away from the war in Iraq, think again.  We‘ve got his first commercial in his general election campaign.  Wait until you catch this.  He‘s GI Joe, and proud of it.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

So, what else is new out there in politics? 

Well, earlier this week, President Bush and the first lady hosted a high-profile White House summit with none other than the Easter Bunny and his wife, Mrs. Easter Bunny.  Tension was low, and spirits were high, as the president yukked it up with a six-foot-tall rabbit. 

Today‘s “Washington Post” tell us why.  The Easter Bunny was played by none other than White House counsel Fred Fielding.  Well, after trying to make one White House counsel into a Supreme Court justice—that was Harriet Miers—I think we all agree that getting this guy into a bunny costume was a better fit. 

After serving nine months of a seven-year sentence, former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, a Democrat, was set free by a federal court today, pending his appeal of a bribery conviction.  Siegelman was convicted almost two years ago of giving a health insurance bigwig a seat on a state board in exchange for arranging $500,000 in contributions to a state lottery campaign. 

Siegelman said it was a political persecution and said that Karl Rove was behind it all.  Well, congressional Democrats are drooling for Siegelman to come tell everything he has in front of the national TV cameras. 

Anyway, Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese has a new film coming out soon that documents a 2006 Rolling Stones concert up in New York.  Check out who makes a cameo in the trailer and in the movie. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARTIN SCORSESE, DIRECTOR:  Do we kind of know, if at all possible, what they are going to play? 

We have to make sure that we‘re covered (INAUDIBLE)  

I don‘t know what‘s going on. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  If Mick stands in front of the light for more than 18 seconds, he‘s going to burn. 

SCORSESE:  You mean like flames? 

This is rock ‘n‘ roll.  So, don‘t be nervous about anything. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s right.  Former President Bill Clinton was there that night at the Beacon Theatre, along with Senator Hillary Clinton. 

But Stones drummer Charlie Watts—you know him—told “The London Times”—quote—“I don‘t know why the Clinton bit is in the movie.  That was a bit dull, for me, because they weren‘t really rock ‘n‘ roll people.”

Well, I caught that Stones concert at FedEx Field, where the Redskins play.  It was the best show I have ever seen, ever. 

Finally tonight, the HARDBALL “Big Number.”

While Senators Obama and Clinton keep whacking each other, Senator McCain is pushing hard full steam ahead as his party‘s standard-bearer.  His campaign launched a new TV spot today that gives us a clear idea of his main message for the next seven months. 

Here‘s a clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR:  What must a president believe about us?  And what must we believe about that president?  What does he think?  Where has he been?  Has he walked the walk? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What is your rank?   

LIEUTENANT COMMANDER JOHN MCCAIN, U.S. NAVY:  Lieutenant commander in the Navy. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And your officer number.

MCCAIN:  Six-two-four-seven-eight-seven. 

NARRATOR:  John McCain, the American president Americans have been waiting for. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  That‘s tonight‘s “Big Number”: 624787. 

McCain isn‘t running away from the war.  He‘s running on the war and his combat credentials -- 624787, John McCain‘s serial numbers in the U.S.  Navy. 

You will be hearing a lot more of that number this summer and also through the fall—tonight‘s HARDBALL “Big Number.” 

Up next:  John McCain suggests that U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 100 years, a century, perhaps after the shooting stops or whatever.  What does McCain really mean by that number, 100 years?  And how long does McCain think we will be in Iraq? 

And, on Tuesday, the HARDBALL “College Tour”—I‘m so proud of this -

it returns.  Barack Obama is our first big guest live from West Chester University in Pennsylvania.  That‘s Wednesday night, an hour of Barack Obama, me, and the students at West Chester University, at 5:00 and at 7:00 Eastern. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MARGARET BRENNAN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I am Margaret Brennan with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks finishing this week lower, after falling for the third straight day, the Dow Jones industrial average closing lower by about 86 points, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also in the red, with the Nasdaq down about 19-and-a-half. 

A down day for retailers, as J.C. Penney issues a profit warning today.  The department store chain says first-quarter sales, including Easter holiday shopping, will be lower than originally forecast, amid slumping consumer confidence. 

Executives at Northwest Airlines want to go ahead with a proposed merger with Delta, despite objections from pilots.  Northwest hopes to get the deal done before a new administration takes over the White House next year.  Delta executives are still mulling it over. 

Oil fell $2, closing above $105 a barrel.  Today‘s drop came after the oil flow in Iraq was restarted after yesterday‘s attack.  The country‘s southern pipeline normally pumps 1.5 million barrels a day. 

That‘s it from CNBC, America‘s business channel—now back to Chris and HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

John McCain said American troops could be in Iraq for 100 years, but he said that‘s only if Americans are not taking casualties.  Well, when would that be? 

Republican strategist Todd Harris is a former McCain spokesman.  And Brian Katulis is with the Center for American Progress. 

I guess I have got to ask you, Todd, the—the senator was clear.  He said he would should stay there for up to 100 years.  He put no time limit on it.

TODD HARRIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Well, that‘s not what he said.

MATTHEWS:  But he said if—but he said, if we‘re not taking casualties at all or anybody getting wounded.  When would that be? 

HARRIS:  Well, that‘s not what he said. 

What he said was, we need to have an honest discussion about what our long-term commitment to this region is going to be.  Look, recommendation number 34 of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group says, the question of long-term force presence in the region has to be on the table.  And, as long as it‘s on the table, our long-term chances for success in Iraq are going to improve significantly. 

But to just say, in the context, the middle of a political campaign, no, absolutely not, that is not on the table, that‘s not straight talk, and that‘s not John McCain‘s style. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s watch him now.  Let‘s watch John McCain.  Here he is answering a question up in New Hampshire about whether he supported the idea of us staying there 50 years or so, and his answer was—well, you will hear it here. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Maybe 100. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Is that...

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAIN:  We have been in South Korea—we have been in Japan for 60 years.  We have been in South Korea for 50 years or so.  That would be fine with me, as long as Americans—as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. 

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAIN:  Then it‘s fine with me.  I hope it would be fine with you, if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world, where al Qaeda is training, recruiting, and equipping, and motivating people every single day. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Brian Katulis, how are we to receive that response by the senator? 

BRIAN KATULIS, SENIOR FELLOW, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS:  Well, look, I think he‘s pretty clear. 

He is running for a third term for George W. Bush on foreign policy.  He‘s trying to distance himself.  And we have a lot of whining from conservatives right now, who are saying, oh, well he said it in this context or that context or it‘s been taken out of context. 

Look, it‘s clear.  There‘s a choice here: more of the same of what we have had for the last five years with George Bush—and that‘s what McCain‘s offering you—and the progressives and the Democrats are giving you a choice.  And I think he‘s been crystal clear, and he‘s demonstrated to the world that he doesn‘t understand that—and he‘s not learned the lessons of the mistakes of the Bush administration on foreign policy. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You know, 100 years does jump out at you and he does say without taking any casualties at all, no Americans being injured.  However, you have to wonder, when does the period of nonviolence in Iraq commence?  When does it begin, that 100 years? 

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  That‘s a great question, Chris, and these are tough questions. 

But to say, unilaterally, in the middle of a political campaign, I have already got the answers to these questions, that is not honest foreign policy.  That‘s not looking out for the honest interests of our national security.  That‘s trying to make cheap political points, which is why the Annenberg Center, factcheck.org, said all of these baseless distortions of his remark, that they are rank falsehoods.  This is a serious distortion.

(CROSSTALK)

KATULIS:  I love the whining.  I love the fact that conservatives...

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  Brian, Brian, I have really bad news for you.  You don‘t get to run against George Bush again.  John McCain is going to be on the...

(CROSSTALK)

KATULIS:  That‘s what he is running here.  And I love the whining, that you are on the defensive.  You are on the defensive when it comes to national security policy. 

(CROSSTALK)

KATULIS:  You‘re on the defensive here.  And you can‘t explain why he wants to stay there to fight Iraq civil wars, to foster this culture of dependency.

(CROSSTALK)

KATULIS:  And it‘s amazing.  I mean, you have lost control of national security in the last...

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  See, this is exactly my point.

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  You‘re talking about making...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I want you to study this quote. 

HARRIS:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s Rick Hertzberg of “The New Yorker”—quote—

“McCain wants to stay in Iraq until no more Americans are getting killed, no matter how long it takes and how many Americans get killed achieving that goal.  That‘s the goal of not getting any more Americans killed, and, once that goal is achieved, we will stay for 100 years of no casualties.”

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It doesn‘t quite make sense. 

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  Do you know who else supports a long-term commitment to the region?  General Merrill McPeak, Barack Obama‘s top security adviser.

When we invaded Iraq, he said, you know what?  I hope we are there for a century.  This is not John McCain.  This is Merrill McPeak.  This is the military.  This is General Petraeus.  This the Iraq Study Group, saying, we need a long-term commitment to a violent region. 

MATTHEWS:  Brian, your thoughts? 

KATULIS:  Look, conservatives have demonstrated that they don‘t know how to fight this century‘s battles in the war on terror.  They simply want us to get embroiled in Iraq‘s civil wars.

And you see this today, today in Basra and Baghdad.  We‘re fighting. 

We‘re in the crosshairs of a civil war between different Shiite groups.  How is that making Americans more secure?  They can‘t explain that.  They can‘t explain what their end state is. 

And then they fumble over themselves now and are on the defensive right now in terms of, oh, well, you know, Senator McCain didn‘t say 100 years.  Well, there‘s what the sum total of his policies demonstrate, an open-ended commitment to a divided Iraqi government that is not standing up, that is actually at war with itself.

And we‘re supposed to stay there and referee this civil war?  I mean, come on.  This is not the best way to make Americans more secure. 

MATTHEWS:  Well...

KATULIS:  And I think most Americans understand that.  And this is why John McCain, I think, is really going to go the way of Bob Dole and a number of other conservatives, who demonstrated they don‘t know... 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about this.  How long do you think—how long, Todd, do you think the American people will support us taking casualties in Iraq?  How many years?

HARRIS:  I don‘t know the answer to that.  And neither does Senator McCain, and neither does anyone else, which is why Senator McCain is willing to have an open, honest, straight-talk dialogue about this, not political demagoguing, not serious distortions of his record, as the Annenberg Center...

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the distortion again?  I keep trying to figure out what the distortion is.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He said 100 years. 

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  Chris, the DNC is trying to raise money...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just asking you about the 100 years.  What did he mean

by 100 years? 

HARRIS:  He said that he would be willing to have U.S. forces—there‘s difference between a troop presence and a combat presence.  He‘s not advocating a 100-year combat presence.

(CROSSTALK)

KATULIS:  But he‘s talking about Japan.  He‘s talking about Korea.  He‘s talking about models that are completely inappropriate for Iraq, that‘s in a civil war.  It‘s a civil war.

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS:  So, Brian‘s view, then, is to close our bases in Korea, pull our troops out of Japan, pull our troops out of Kuwait, pull our troops out of Germany.

(CROSSTALK)

KATULIS:  Absolutely not.  It‘s apples and bicycles.  It‘s apples and bicycles. 

(CROSSTALK)

KATULIS:  There was actually not a civil war in—in Korea or in Japan.  We actually—we actually went in there, and we stabilized the country.  We didn‘t waste billions of taxpayer money, $12 billion a month.  This is what Senator McCain is proposing.  We should have this open-ended commitment, while oil, you know, is at $110 a barrel, and the Iraqis aren‘t even spending their own money, and we‘re going to continue to pay in blood and in treasure.  For what?  For a policy that has no clear end date. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

KATULIS:  And this is what conservatives are offering. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s get past the Talmudic analysis here to some simple questions.  Is it fair, if you‘re a voter, to look at it this way?  The Democrats have a short string on how long they are willing to stay in that country, maybe a year or two, basically, and then get out. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  The Republicans are not—the Republicans are not putting a time limit on our commitment. 

HARRIS:  I think that that‘s fair.  Republicans are saying, we‘re going to look and see what the facts are on the ground.  We‘re going to take the recommendation of the bipartisan Baker/Hamilton commission that said, leave this on the table.  Leave the presence...

MATTHEWS:  OK, we‘re going to thank you guys. 

Thank you very much, Todd Harris. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s been a great debate.  This debate will continue. 

Todd Harris and Brian Katulis. 

Up next: the Friday “Politics Fix.”  Who has had the best week and who has had the worst week in the presidential race? 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up:  Senator Pat Leahy says it‘s time Hillary Clinton got out of the presidential race.  Is the clock ticking on the Clinton campaign?

HARDBALL returns with the “Politics Fix”—next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.  Joining me now for the politics fix tonight, Chrystia Freeland of “the Financial Times,” Crystal McCrary Anthony.  She‘s the host of “My Two Cents” on BET-J.  And Dana Milbank is with the “Washington Post.”

Let‘s look right now at some of the big stories.  This week has ended with a bang.  Here‘s Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, talking on Vermont Public Radio today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT:  There is no way that Senator Clinton is going to win enough delegates to get the nomination.  She ought to withdraw and she ought to be backing Senator Obama. 

John McCain, who has been making one gaffe after another, is getting a free ride on it because Senator Obama and Senator Clinton have to fight with each other.  I think that her criticism is hurting him more than anything John McCain has said. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Now, let‘s take a look at Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania endorsing Barack Obama. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BOB CASEY (D), PENNSYLVANIA:  I‘m here today for one purpose, and it‘s to endorse Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States. 

This campaign is a chance for America, a chance for America to chart -

to chart a new course, to go down a different path, a path—a path, first of all, of change, a path of a new kind of politics, a path—and, finally, a path of hope and healing. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And, of course, we‘ve got the new Gallup Numbers, the tracking poll, which now shows a substantial lead of eight points for Barack Obama.  Look how that right—that light green line is growing over the Hillary line there, and opening up to a significant, well beyond the margin of error, 50-42, for Barack Obama.  Something is in the air.  Let me start with Dana Milbank. 

What is happening?  Why is this thing starting, perhaps, to gel for Obama? 

DANA MILBANK, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, there are two things happening, Chris.  One is sort of on the public side of things, and there‘s the perception that Obama has weathered the Reverend Wright controversy.  But what‘s happening, what you see with these nominations is what happened this week with the Clinton fund-raisers, basically threatening the finances of the Democratic party if they didn‘t do things their way.  I think that really alienated a lot of elected Democrats who just happened to be super delegates, who just happened to be the people Hillary Clinton needs if she‘s going to stay in this at all. 

She‘s lost sort of the elites and losing ground in public opinion at the same time. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Crystal on that Crystal, welcome to the show.  Your view of the Zeitgeist, if you will, if there‘s something in the air this week that makes it different from weeks before. 

CRYSTAL MCCRARY ANTHONY, BET-J‘S “MY TWO CENTS”:  Well, a lot of things.  It‘s a perfect storm for things not necessarily going the way Senator Clinton would like them to go.  I certainly think the Bosnian comments of her recollection were—unfairly hurt her.  It‘s interesting, I was talking to a friend of hers just this morning who was on that plane that day, and is as disgusted with the way this has been played out, because she said it was a military plane. 

The pilot actually asked them to sit on their flak jackets as they were coming in for a landing.  They made a military drop and there was every indication by the pilot of that plane that there was, indeed, you know, some danger upon landing.  That being said, it has certainly been over blown.  It certainly didn‘t help Hillary Clinton that a federal judge ruled that there is not going to—a federal judge in Michigan ruled that there was not going to be a Michigan revote.  That didn‘t help her.

It didn‘t help her Senator Barack Obama coming to New York with Bloomberg, and, you know, as usual being their non-partisan and charming.  Just so many things, you know, have not necessarily worked her way.  But what is still in her favor is she still does have the battleground states behind her.  You know, what Barack has won has been the traditional red states.  She still does have a lead in Pennsylvania.  And Indiana‘s not looking too bad. 

As far as Senator Leahy‘s comments, I mean, that‘s his opinion.  I mean, he‘s not a neutral party telling her that she should drop out.  This is somebody that endorsed—

MATTHEWS:  What about Bob Casey?  I watched Bob Casey‘s career for a number of years now, and I thought him as a cautious, very cautious politician, for him to make this move now on the eve of the primary, what do you make of that, Crystal? 

ANTHONY:  Well, I think that, as you said, there is certainly something in the air, thinking about there being something in the air.  I do think a bit about Senator Barack Obama‘s appearance on “The View” today, not that Senator Casey‘s watching that, but it shows, again, Barack Obama‘s appeal to the masses, and him probably coming up behind Senator Leahy to a certain extent in wanting to, you know, put his, you know, stamp of approval on Barack Obama as well. 

I mean, listen, Barack Obama‘s, you know—he‘s had an impeccable

campaign for the most part, and he did weather the Jeremiah Wright scandal

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

ANTHONY:  And it‘s—it‘s something that Hillary and her team, from Mark Penn to James Carville, which, by the way, his comments calling Bill Richardson Judas also was something that did not work in her favor this past week, as well.  They have a big fight ahead of them, and it‘s not in their DNA to drop out, but with good reason, because neither one has enough votes, delegate votes, to get to 2024, that magic number. 

MATTHEWS:  Not without getting the super delegates to go along with the elected delegates.  Let‘s go to Chrystia Freeland.  Chrystia, you put it all together.  There is so much news.  We‘ve got the Leahy announcement.  We‘ve got the Casey announcement.  We‘ve got whatever you want to call it, the thing with regard to Bloomberg.  You‘ve got the poll data.

By the way, the eight-point spread in the Gallup tracking is, in fact, out-matched, in fact, by a ten-point spread in the new Pew Poll that just came out today.  So something might be breaking here.  Maybe it‘s because we haven‘t had a contest in a couple of weeks. 

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, “FINANCIAL TIMES”:  Yes, I think that Dana put it really well, what we have seen this week is public opinion shifting back to Barack Obama.  I think, in a way, the whole pastor scandal is maybe playing in his favor right now, and people are seeing that he‘s not Bambi.  He can be tough.  He can respond in a crisis.  The really crucial thing, though, that I think happened this week is elite Democratic opinion really turning towards Obama, partly, I think, with some sort of a sense of anger at the Clinton machine, and a sense of anger at the really hardball tactics. 

I think there is a feeling among some of the senior Democrats, even people who have worked with the Clintons for a long time, that there is a putting of Hillary Clinton‘s personal political career ahead of the chances of the Democratic party.  And I think that‘s making some people really angry. 

Having said that, I wouldn‘t count on Hillary to drop out. 

MATTHEWS:  No, but let me go back to Dana, then to Crystal again.  The question I‘m raising and really want to get now, not just the poll data showing a shift perhaps in the national direction towards Barack again, but this big decline in Hillary‘s favorability rating in our NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll, a really precipitous drop in her personal favorability. 

Dana, that came out before the full vent of this Bosnian question about whether she was really coming in under—with duck-and-cover conditions there under sniper attack. 

MILBANK:  Well, Chris, she started off this whole race with extraordinarily high negatives.  We have to remember that.  And basically what‘s happened is each time she‘s defied death, as she did in Ohio and Texas, most recently, she bounces back.  But I think what you‘re seeing is a lot of the elite opinion, which has been against her for some time, is beginning to infect the masses to a greater extent. 

There‘s less of that divide there.  And the poll numbers are starting to reflect what the opinion makers and what the elected officials are saying. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think, Crystal, of the mood?  Maybe you‘ve mentioned this already.  Do you think it was a smart move by Bob Johnson, formerly head of B.E.T., Black Entertainment TV, to basically threaten Nancy Pelosi with the purse strings, saying, if you don‘t get out of this race and support the super delegates‘ right to over turn the elected delegates, we‘re going to cut off the water? 

Did that look good? 

ANTHONY:  I certainly don‘t think that looks good.  And it‘s, again, one of the things that was against Senator Clinton in this somewhat forgettable week on her behalf.  But regarding that poll and regarding the Democratic elite, you know, sort of turning a bit towards Hillary Clinton, I still don‘t think—

MATTHEWS:  You mean towards Barack? 

ANTHONY:  -- turning against Clinton and toward Barack.  I still don‘t think that that addresses the working class who frequently tend to rally behind Hillary Clinton.  One thing that was in her favor this week I think is the 30 billion dollar plan to attack the sub-prime mess head-on.  I do think that her plan to come up with immediate action to deal with—to deal with eliminating—putting a mandatory stop on foreclosures for a three-month period is a sound plan that does speak more to the working class. 

MATTHEWS:  Crystal, hold there.  We‘ll be right back with your thought.  We‘ll be back with the round table with more on the Politics Fix.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the politics fix.  Let‘s catch a look at an unusual picture.  Here‘s Barack Obama on “The View” today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARBARA WALTERS, “THE VIEW”:  Were he still there, would you then have left the church or have said,rMD+IN_rMDNM_ I just can‘t anything to do with them? 

OBAMA:  Had the reverend not retired and had he not acknowledged that what he had said had deeply offended people and were inappropriate, and mischaracterized what I believe is the greatness of this country. for all its flaws, then I wouldn‘t have felt comfortable staying there at the church. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Chrystia Freeland is that a decoupling that‘s sufficient for the problem he faces?  Has he separated himself from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright enough to get him through not just the nomination fight, but if possible through the general election? 

FREELAND:  Well, I think that is really hard to say.  I think the obvious thing for him to have done quite a while ago would have been to denounce and reject and to say, you know, I totally separate myself.  He has been very reluctant to do that for reasons that I think a lot of people will respect.  But it does leave him open.  And I think particularly if he is the Democratic nominee, that is going to be an area of real vulnerability for him, even following this morning‘s comments. 

MATTHEWS:  Was that too suspect there, Dana, for him to say I would have if he had stayed on?  I would have left the church?  I would have not attended his sermon, et cetera? 

MILBANK:  It was a question that never got to him, and it probably was in effect, the truth.  He‘s weather this for now.  But, of course, it will come back and haunt him again.  This was, after all this curfoffle (ph) over Wright, this did bring him out.  I think it‘s because they told him he looks very sexy.  I think you ought to start saying that to the guests on your show, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Not here.  Anyway, I want to ask you, Crystal, about—I want to ask you, the whole question, Crystal, of Jeremiah Wright; how big of an issue will this continue to be on the festering count come November, should he be the nominee? 

ANTHONY:  First of all, I also want to reiterate that I respect the fact that he didn‘t renounce and reject his pastor, who is—as he said, no more than you can reject your own father.  But I do think, unfortunately for Senator Barack Obama‘s sake, that it will come back to haunt him.  It hasn‘t gone away.  But where it is still living alive and well is in the blogosphere.  You still have a lot of blogospheres, for instance, that were questioning some senior Barack Obama advisers.  Apparently there was some issue with Israeli, that they were making anti-Israel comments. 

What‘s circulating around, does Barack Obama have issues with Jewish people in this campaign. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is pushing that. 

ANTHONY:  In the blogs. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is pushing it? 

ANTHONY:  The Republicans pushing it. 

MATTHEWS:  You tell me.  You just told us about it.  You just put it on the television.  Are you going to tell me where it came from?

ANTHONY:  Do you want to give me an exact—

MATTHEWS:  It didn‘t come from Sandman.  It didn‘t come from Jesus.  It didn‘t come from anybody good.  It came from somebody meaning to do him harm.  Who was it? 

ANTHONY:  People who are not supporters of Barack Obama, people who have serious issues with Jeremiah Wright‘s comments, and that Barack Obama was a member of that church for 20 years.  

MATTHEWS:  I like to know the source of these when you throw them on the air like this. 

ANTHONY:  Of course.

MATTHEWS:  Crystal, you‘re new to the show.  Don‘t put something on the air unless you give me a source for it.  Where did this come from?  

ANTHONY:  One place that it was mentioned today was in—should I mention the “New York Post”—no, “The Daily News,” when they had a lineup between who won this week, and who lost this week between Hillary and Barack.  Check it out.  I may have it in my bag, actually. 

It‘s out there, though.  It won‘t be very difficult to find. 

MATTHEWS:  Chrystia, have you heard this buzz? 

FREELAND:  Chris, what I was going to say is I think your question about who is putting that out is a really important one, because I think the question for Barack Obama with the Jeremiah Wright stuff is, is it going to be a concern just for that group of people who were never going to vote for Barack Obama, or is it going to become a wider issue?  Will it mean that those cross over voters say, hey, maybe he is not patriotic. 

MATTHEWS:  This stuff has been pushed out for month.  I just like to have some signature on stuff being pushed on the candidates.  I want to know where it‘s coming from.  Chrystia Freeland, Crystal McCrary Anthony, thank you for joining us.  Dana Milbank, as always.  Right now it‘s time for RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE with David Gregory.

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

END   

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