updated 7/22/2008 11:09:59 AM ET 2008-07-22T15:09:59

Guest: Joe Watkins, Trent Lott, Jennifer Palmieri, Roger Simon, Michelle Bernard, Margaret Carlson, Eugene Robinson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Obama joins the troops.  Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL from Los Angeles. 

Leading off tonight:  The Iraqi government puts out the welcome mat for Barack Obama.  Senator Obama‘s overseas trip moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, where the government greeted him with the news that it shares his view that U.S. troops should leave the country by 2010. 

Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki and took a helicopter tour with General Petraeus.  Is Obama‘s tour of Afghanistan and Iraq a political success?  We will talk to NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell on the ground in Baghdad and politico‘s Roger Simon in Washington. 

Meanwhile, Obama‘s rival, John McCain, has had a couple of pretty tough days.  His top economic adviser, Phil Gramm, stepped down.  He resigned after his “nation of whiners” comment last Friday.  And now, with the Iraqi government saying the U.S. should leave by 2010, where does that leave McCain?  We will talk to a former McCain colleague, Senator Trent Lott. 

Plus, word is that both candidates are getting close to picking their vice presidential running mates.  Later, brand-new poll rankings in the race for running mate. 

And why did John McCain get a rejection slip from “The New York Times” for an article he wrote on Iraq?  We will dig into that with our “Politics Fix” tonight. 

And what did Jay Leno say about John McCain and Social Security? 

That‘s ahead in the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”  I will be on “Jay” tonight. 

But, first, the politics of Senator Obama‘s trip to the Middle East.  NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell is in Baghdad.  There she is.

And Roger Simon is with “The Politico.” 

Andrea, when I heard that al-Maliki had said that he agrees with Barack Obama, that the man who wants to push our troops out there the fastest is the most in tune with reality, it reminded me of Dwight Eisenhower saying, when asked Richard Nixon‘s role as V.P., give me two weeks to think of something. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  It sounds like al-Maliki has pulled the rug out from under McCain. 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, and also under George Bush. 

I think his real target here is not McCain so much as George Bush.  Maliki and the White House have been trying to negotiate an agreement to extend the U.S. troop commitment here beyond the current mandate.  They have not been agreeing.  He wants to get some flexibility out of George Bush.  He‘s running for reelection.  Iraqis want a smaller number of U.S.  troops, even though they want security.  They‘re ambivalent, but they want a smaller footprint. 

So, he goes for it.  He plays the—the play, the long ball.  And Obama gets this embrace upon his welcome, saying, today, 2010 -- 2010 is a good deadline.  Well, 2010 is just about within the framework of the 16 months from Obama taking office, if he would take office.  And that fits the time frame, and certainly not with the White House or John McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  Roger Simon, it seems to me, on the political front, that this word timetable has been almost an obscenity to the Bush administration.  Don‘t talk timetable. 

ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST, THEPOLITICO.COM:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s cut and run.  It‘s surrender. 

And now the host nation, the leader of the government we helped to set up and stand up over there, says, I agree with Barack Obama, the challenger. 

SIMON:  Yes, the White House talks about a general time horizon, instead of a timetable, as if that made any difference. 

Talk about message management.  The Obama campaign seems to have managed the message of the Maliki government.  And the White House has been very helpful, as Andrea pointed out. 

I think most Americans hear 2010, by the way, and don‘t think that‘s particularly a short time frame.  A lot of the Americans went to the poll in 2006 to elect a Congress that they hoped would get us out of Iraq by 2008. 

That—that, I think, is the real problem for John McCain in his response to all this.  When you defend a time frame beyond 2010, most Americans say, when is this thing going to end? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s take a look, if we can, at what the—Maliki, the head of Iraq, had to say and the words today.  Let‘s take a look at the words now.  Here they are. 

This is a translation done by “The New York Times.”  But it hasn‘t really been challenged seriously—quote—“Obama‘s remarks that if he takes office in 16 months, he would withdrawal the forces, the U.S. forces, we think”—now, this is the head of Iraq speaking—“we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.  Who wants to exit in a quicker way, has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq?”

It seems to me, Andrea, that he‘s really sticking it to Bush there, as you say, because he‘s saying the guy who wants to leave fastest is on the right track. 

MITCHELL:  Now, two things about this. 

The translation was done by Maliki‘s translator.  So, all that talk about the translation was wrong is bogus, number one.  Number two, it was Maliki who brought up Obama‘s name.  He was not even asked by “Der Spiegel” the Obama timetable specifically. 

It was Maliki who brought that up in the conversation.  And, number three, today, his own spokesman told us at NBC News after the photo-op today, my colleague Antoine Sanfuentes, he told him 2010.  That‘s as clear as can be. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to the politics just generally.  I hope we can show pictures now of Barack Obama over the weekend in Afghanistan with the troops. 

Now, these are amazing pictures.  Just, Roger, give me your sense of how it‘s going to hit the person watching in Iraq.  Here‘s some pictures from Iraq of him with the uniforms and fatigues in camo there, but also those pictures of basketball-playing over there in Kuwait. 

SIMON:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  They‘re pretty impressive.

SIMON:  The optics are all very good at this trip.  The beginning of this trip is so good, Senator Obama may want to call off the end and just keep running the videotape. 

He goes into a gym.  Everybody, all the service people there cheer.  He shoots a basket.  It goes through the hoop.  He‘s obviously standing there with troops.  They seem to like him and smiling.  They don‘t seem to feel that Barack Obama wants to desert them and to leave them in Iraq. 

This is exactly what the Obama campaign hoped for.  And this was supposed to be the tough part of the trip.  The Mideast part of the trip in Jordan and Israel may be tough in terms of foreign policy.  But the back end of the trip to cheering European crowds will certainly be as good, if not better than this.  So, I think he‘s feeling very good right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, I want to get ethnic little bit here. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Yes, go ahead, please. 

MITCHELL:  But let me just say something about the message management. 

He didn‘t have reporters with him.  He didn‘t have a press pool.  He didn‘t do a press conference while he was on the ground in either Afghanistan or Iraq.  What you‘re seeing is not reporters brought in.  You‘re seeing selected pictures taken by the military, questions by the military, and what some would call fake interviews, because they‘re not interviews from a journalist.

So, there‘s a real press issue here.  Politically, it‘s smart as can be.  But we have not seen a presidential candidate do this, in my recollection, ever before. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about access to the troops, Andrea. 

A lot of African-American faces over there, very happy, delighted faces.  Is that a representation of the percentage of service people who are African-American, or did all they choose to join somebody they like, apparently?  What‘s the story? 

MITCHELL:  I can‘t really say that.  Being a reporter who was not present in any of those situations...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MITCHELL:  ... I just can‘t report on what was edited out, what was, you know, on the sidelines. 

That‘s my—that‘s my issue. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MITCHELL:  We don‘t know what we are seeing. 

I have great respect for the military, of what they do best, which is to fight war, keep the peace, do all sorts of economic and civil reconstruction here in Iraq.  I don‘t think journalism is the prime thing that we recruit them and pay them for. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, do you think that the military‘s been too positive towards the Barack trip, Andrea? 

MITCHELL:  They have so—they have tried so hard to be balanced. 

In fact, they keep emphasizing this is not his congressional delegation, not his co-del, to use the slang.  It is Jack Reed‘s.  Jack Reed is the senior senator on this trip. 

(LAUGHTER)

MITCHELL:  Technically, Jack Reed is the person whose staff says, we want to go here, we want to go there. 

I know.  I know you can laugh.  It‘s a pretty good audition for Jack Reed as a potential vice presidential candidate.  They have had a lot of quality time together.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MITCHELL:  But Barack Obama is the junior senator on this trip.  And the military are feeding out pictures that include all three senators. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, Roger, back in Washington...

(CROSSTALK)

MITCHELL:  ... not taking sides here, right. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  I hear you, Andrea. 

Roger, I hear you chuckling there as Andrea remarked. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at Senator Obama with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  We have seen that picture. 

Let‘s take a look now at what John McCain is saying in an advertisement, a new TV advertisement, blasting Barack on the issue of Afghanistan. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR:  Barack Obama never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan.  He hasn‘t been to Iraq in years.  He voted against funding our troops, positions that helped him win his nomination.  Now Obama is changing to help himself become president.  John McCain has always supported our troops and the surge that‘s working. 

McCain, country first. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m John McCain, and I approve this message. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Roger Simon, you have studied these things for years.  Who wins the battle, the TV ad or the news pictures? 

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON:  Oh, I think the news pictures have won this one so far. 

I mean, it‘s not a terrible commercial.  Most political commercials are, by the way, in my opinion, terrible commercials.  But, you know, it does emphasize one thing.  John McCain did goad Barack Obama into this trip, as that commercial just says.  He was the one who complained that Barack Obama hadn‘t gone to Afghanistan ever, hadn‘t gone to Iraq in more than 900 days. 

The RNC ran a time clock saying how many days it had been.  Well, be careful what you wish for.  Barack Obama is there now.  And I think Andrea is absolutely right, that the message is very heavily controlled.  But the optics, the pictures, what the American people are seeing is exactly what the Obama campaign has been hoping for. 

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, I want to get to the political point. 

For months now, if not years, the administration of George Bush and now the campaign of John McCain has—fairly or not—made their case that they‘re the—that they‘re the politicians looking out for the troops.  They are the troops‘ politicians, the troops‘ party.  They have suggested that soldiers, men and women both and all the ranks, and all the outfits, support the Republican policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Does the picture of Barack Obama having a good time among the smiling faces of service people undercut that political statement? 

MITCHELL:  To a certain point, I think it does.  And the images are very powerful. 

I have to tell you that the military feels very uncomfortable about being used in any way as helping one side or the other in a political campaign.  This is something that is against their rules.  It‘s against the law.  And they don‘t want to be, you know, part of this. 

But they have no choice, because congressional delegations are carried by the military.  So, they‘re trying to play it down the middle.  It‘s very hard for them to be put on the spot this way. 

I do think that Obama has some vulnerability when you really drill down on these issues, because the surge—clearly, the surge has worked, and not only in terms of security.  There is some level of political reconciliation.  The Sunnis rejoined the government on Saturday. 

We saw 1,700 police recruits only yesterday being sworn in, the first and largest—or the largest, I should say, graduating class.  So, there are some positive things happening on the ground that you have to attribute to the surge.

Where Obama has an argument is, people could say, you know, what happens when—as these troops from the surge leave, as they now have, what happens next, when there is a glide path down?  And is the Iraqi security and police forces, the military and police, are they really ready to take other? 

Clearly, the Bush White House and the Pentagon don‘t think they‘re ready to take other.  Barack Obama thinks they‘re ready in 16 months, depending, of course, the caveat on what he now says, the conditions on the ground. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

You know, Roger, sports fans everywhere make judgments about political figures.  When George Bush threw that strike at Yankee Stadium at 9/11 right down the right over the plate...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... you didn‘t have to be a screaming, outlandish right-winger to think, wow, that‘s great for the country.

And then you see this guy, lean and mean, hitting that three-pointer from way outside.  Could this be the bookends we‘re looking at, the—the athletic bookends of this—this whole contest over foreign policy? 

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON:  I‘m amazed, looking at him, how he played that shot for everything it was worth.  He must have bounced the ball four or five times before he took that shot.  It went in.  And then he made a cutting motion, saying, that‘s hit.  I‘m not going to do it again.  I have done everything I have come for. 

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON:  He understands, you know, and his campaign understands visuals.  It understands optics. 

And—but, later on in this trip, we‘re going to see how well they understand huge screaming crowds of supporters in Europe.  Now, things can turn around.  He can make a bobble.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

SIMON:  He could say the wrong thing. 

But, in terms of the pictures—and pictures are powerful—in terms of the pictures, you can‘t beat this trip so far. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, American voters like confidence.  And they don‘t mind a guy who can hit a three-pointer. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Andrea Mitchell, for that report from over there.  Thank you. 

MITCHELL:  You bet.

MATTHEWS:  Because I think you raise some very interesting questions about news management we will be talking about—and you will—for days ahead, probably.

Thank you, Roger Simon, for joining us from Washington with the politics. 

Coming up:  With Obama making headlines and making outside shots overseas, I should say, is John McCain at risk of losing his edge on his great strength, foreign policy? 

And what‘s McCain doing to counter the crush of attention Obama‘s getting with his hoop ability?  We will talk to former McCain colleague Trent Lott. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up later: the power rankings.  Who are the top candidates right now to be running mates for Barack Obama and for John McCain?

More HARDBALL coming up after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

How will Obama‘s overseas trip to all those countries in the Middle East and Europe affect the dynamic of the Iraq debate between McCain and Obama?  And how can McCain combat what so far looks like a pretty successful tour of the world? 

I‘m joined by McCain supporter and former Senate Leader Trent Lott. 

Senator Lott, you and I live in the TV age.  We know the power of pictures.  I want you to take a look at these split—this split-screen.  I think you can see it.  It‘s a split-screen.  On one side, you have got former President Bush up in Kennebunkport hanging out with John McCain—or the other way around.  Then, you see this young guy in khakis and a nice sports—a casual shirt, shooting baskets with the troops over there. 

Which side wins? 

TRENT LOTT ®, FORMER U.S. SENATOR:  Well, first of all, I think it‘s high time that Senator Obama, if he hopes to be president, go to this part of the world, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and to Europe, to better understand what‘s going on over there. 

But it takes more than one trip for a foreign policy and defense to understand and make.  The shot—it was a good shot, by the way.  It looked like a left-handed shot.  But I don‘t think this is going to help him anymore in his campaign than not being a good bowler did. 

But it—the visual, you have got to give him credit.  That was a good shot, man.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You are so partisan. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I‘ll tell you. 

But don‘t you think one on one—I mean, it was one for one.  He didn‘t get a second shot, unless there was some editing there.  He had to hit that baby.  And as Roger Simon said a minute ago, he did a lot of dribbles to get that—set that thing up, and the drama.  Then she shot from way in the corner—it wasn‘t the corner.  It was way outside.  And he hit it.  And then it did bounce around a little bit.  If that had been a rim shot, it hit the back and bounced away, what would have been the news story?

LOTT:  Well, he probably...

MATTHEWS:  He would have looked like an average politician blowing a shot.

LOTT:  Well, he would have—well, look, politicians should be able to do more than shoot a good shot or shoot a good bowling game or throw a good pitch.  I mean, we‘re talking leadership in a very dangerous world. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

LOTT:  And, look, I...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

LOTT:  I went through a process, myself.  When I came from the House of Representatives to the Senate, I thought I knew a little bit about the foreign policy and defense issues, and I found out how little I knew. 

It takes time, Chris, to understand the players, to understand the dynamic between countries, within regions, the relationships between different leaders. 

Foreign policy and defense is complicated. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

LOTT:  And, when you‘re dealing with a world that‘s got terrorist threats still there alive and very dangerous—look, the visuals are good.  I think it‘s an important part of his educational process.  But I‘m also convinced from brutal experience, Chris, that some things only come with experience and time and age—number one, wisdom, the ability to understand fully all the interlocking parts of a foreign policy in a dangerous world.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the week and what has happened this weekend.  Senator McCain has been tough, for months saying that those who want a fairly rapid pull-out of troops from Iraq are guilty of cutting and running, of surrender.  He didn‘t even—he said we shouldn‘t even have a timetable because that alerts the enemy to our schedule.

And along comes Maliki, the head of the government we set up over there, got elected over there, coming out and saying, I‘m with Barack, the guy with the fastest withdrawal of troops is closer to the truth.  What do you make of it?  Did he undercut McCain‘s message and the president‘s policy?

LOTT:  Well, I think he maybe overspoke himself, or maybe even was misquoted, as I understand, you know, subsequently.

MATTHEWS:  He was?  How was he misquoted?

LOTT:  Well, look, he‘s not for setting a time schedule.  He understands the delicacy of, you know, the advances that have been achieved.  It has been successful.  The surge worked  Senator McCain was right about that, and I‘m proud I supported it.  Senator Obama was wrong about that.  But—and even Senator Obama is saying, Well, you know, we might need to keep a residual force.  Well, how much is that, 50,000, we hear?

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

LOTT:  For how long?  Look, in this area, making it so political I think is dangerous.  The surge has worked.  We still have commitments.  We don‘t want to move precipitously, where we could lose what we have earned.  And I think we need—do we want to begin to find a way to end our involvement there?  Everybody does, and should.  But it should be based on the advice of people like General Petraeus.  That‘s what Senator McCain says...

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s...

LOTT:  and I think I hear Senator Obama saying that in some respects, right?

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s hear McCain say that very thing.  Here he is talking to Meredith Vieira on the “Today” show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEREDITH VIEIRA, CO-HOST, “TODAY”:  If the Iraqi government were to say, if you were president, We want a timetable for troops being removed, would you agree to that?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘ve been there too many times.  I‘ve met too many times with them, and I know what they want.  They want it based on conditions.  And of course, they‘d like to have us out.  That‘s what happens when you win wars, you leave.  We may have a residual presence there, as even Senator Obama has admitted.  But the fact is that it should be based—that‘s the agreement between Prime Minister Maliki, the Iraqi government, and the United States, is it will be based on conditions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Senator Lott, when you were undercut by the Bush White House over that Strom Thurmond remark of your a couple years back, and they threw Frist in there to replace you—you were quoted in “The New York Times” front page today as expressing gratitude to John McCain for sticking with you in a tough fight.  Your thoughts?

LOTT:  Well, you know, it‘s obvious that Senator McCain and I haven‘t always agreed.  You‘re very much aware of that.  But throughout it all, John and I maintained a friendship, a relationship.  John and I fought like brothers, but I‘ve seen, you know, him be loyal.  When I‘ve had some difficult patches or when I was trying to take on some tough things, I saw him weigh in and be helpful.

Look, I‘m for John McCain because he will take a stand, even if I may disagree with him sometime.  It‘s called character.  It‘s called leadership.  I admire a man or a woman that will take a stand as best they can determine it‘s the right stand and fight for it.  And I may be on the other side fighting against him, but when—you know, when I had my ox in a ditch, John McCain offered me encouragement, you know, said I should stay and try to make a positive contribution to the Senate.  I appreciated that.  I think John knows that sometime, when he had a tough time, I tried to be helpful to him.

That‘s what life is about.  It‘s not just about being two politicians in the Senate, it‘s about trying to be decent human beings and to be respectful of each other, even if you disagree.

MATTHEWS:  Is he a better man than Bush?

LOTT:  John McCain is a better man today than he was in 2000, and I think that he has—I‘ve seen a growth and a maturity and a change in John that I like very much.  You know, I don‘t—even though I‘ve had my—you know, my problems along the way with President Bush, I still view him as the president of the United States.  I want him to succeed.

But in the case of John—you know, John is a tough guy.  He‘s had a lot of tough experiences.

MATTHEWS:  OK...

LOTT:  But I do think that sometime, you are a better person when you experience a loss.  You learn what it‘s like and you are able to identify with others better, and I think John has had that experience.

MATTHEWS:  Would you say to historians that George Bush has grown in office?

(LAUGHTER)

LOTT:  Well, I guess it depends on one‘s point of view.  There are people that, you know, felt like—you know, I had my difficulties with him, but I still support the administration‘s positions on a lot of important issues, including the...

MATTHEWS:  Would you—would you say that George Bush has grown in office?

LOTT:  I wouldn‘t go that far.  You know, I think that the office, sometime, you know, you grow, and sometime it whittles you down both at the same time.  Eight years is a long time when you‘re in the toughest position in leadership in the world.  And there‘s no question now that there‘s an effort to diminish him in the job.  But in many areas, obviously, I agreed with him and fought with him to try to get something done for the good of the country.

I haven‘t always agreed, obviously.  I think one of the big problems is we have not controlled the growth and the spending of the government.  I think now we‘re paying a price for that.  And that‘s one place where I think Senator McCain will make a difference.  He will really take a stand.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think...

LOTT:  Go ahead.

MATTHEWS:  Bush isn‘t that popular right now.  That‘s not a partisan statement...

LOTT:  No.

MATTHEWS:  ... it‘s a fact we have to live with.

LOTT:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  People want an election.  They want a new president.  Do you believe that John McCain will be a better president than George Bush?

LOTT:  I think—as of right now, I think he will be.  And I think that people feel that way.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

LOTT:  You look at the polls.  I think that people admire the strength of John McCain.  They even admire the fact that he will work with both sides of the aisle.  He has been a maverick.

You know, the main thing people want right now is action—do something about the deficit, do something about gasoline prices, do something about health care, but don‘t have the government take it over.  I think that they want action, and they‘ll get it from John McCain.  And by the way, some of the entitlement programs you‘re going to have to come together and work in a bipartisan way to save those programs for our children and our grandchildren.  We can only delay it so long, and the time is coming we‘re going to have to act.

MATTHEWS:  You speak the hard truth.  Senator Trent Lott...

LOTT:  Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  ... long-time senator of Mississippi.  Sir, thank you for coming on.

LOTT:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Up next: What one-time rival and big-time baseball fan got chummy with John McCain this weekend?  Stick around for the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

You‘re watching it, HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Time now for the “Sideshow.”  John McCain took a shot at Social Security last  week, and the “Tonight” show‘s Jay Leno shot right back.  Let‘s take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY LENO, HOST, “TONIGHT”:  John McCain said that Social Security is broke and we‘ll soon run out of money.  And in fact, today McCain even told reporters his Social Security number.  It‘s 8.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Actually, Jay Leno has me on tonight on the “Tonight” show.  You might want to stay up late.

And skipping out.  Former Bush deputy Karl Rove ignored a congressional subpoena this morning, refusing to attend those House hearings into whether he and others in the Bush administration interfered in Justice Department hirings and fires.  Rove apparently had been told by the White House not to show up.  So what did he do instead?  He flew to a Ukrainian resort town on the Black Sea.  That‘s right.  “Newsweek” reports that Rove went to a paid speaking engagement in Yalta as part of a panel on the ‘08 election instead of appearing before Congress.

Here‘s what Rove‘s lawyer‘s defense of the whole deal was.  Quote, “What was he supposed to do, sit at home with his lights off?”  Wow, this guy‘s something!

Next: What‘s in a name?  Well, “The Washington Post” picked up on this interesting nugget.  Apparently, President Bush avoids referring to Senator Barack Obama by name, saying his name only a handful of times over the past year.  In fact, when President Bush was specifically asked about the senator just last week, he referred to Obama as, quote, “an elected official.”  And here‘s a favorite, quote, “a particular presidential candidate.”  That‘s what he called him.  It‘s the oldest political tactic in the book, of course.  Don‘t give your political opponent any more name ID than you have to.

Catch this one.  His Honor, Rudy Giuliani of New York, hosted John McCain at Yankee Stadium Sunday.  There they are talking to some of the fans.  And be sure to tune in HARDBALL this Wednesday, two days from now, when the former New York mayor joins me on set back in Washington.  We‘ll try to get to the bottom of his future plans.

Now for tonight‘s “Big Number.”  Senator Hillary Clinton is still on the fund-raising circuit, it seems, trying to retire millions of dollars in campaign debt, including that $12 million in personal loans she and Bill made to the campaign.  Well, bad news for her.  That hole just seems to be get bigger and bigger.  At the end of June, weeks after Senator Clinton had dropped out of the race, how much more money did Senator Clinton end up lending her campaign for president?  A million dollars.  That‘s right, Senator Clinton needed to lend her campaign an additional million to stay ahead of the bills.  Not exactly chump change, even for the Clintons.  One million dollars, tonight‘s “Big Number.”

Up next, the HARDBALL “Power Rankings.”  We name—I name—the top three presidential running mates, the ones we think are on the list, the short list for John McCain and Barack Obama, led by the ones we believe is in his heart, the guy each one of them wants to pick, if they could pick the one they really, really wanted and overrule their advisers.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET WRAP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Time again for the HARDBALL “Power Rankings.”  Tonight, we rank the top three possibilities for the vice presidential slot on both tickets.  One caveat.  Tonight‘s top picks are the ones we think—I think—the candidates themselves want to pick.

Jennifer Palmieri is with the Center for America Progress Action Fund, and Joe Watkins—there he is—is an MSNBC‘s political analyst in Philly.

Let‘s go to the first one.  Hillary Clinton hit back on the list tonight because of the following reason, a quote in yesterday‘s “New York Times.”  Here it is.  Let‘s take a look.  Quote, “Democrats said they thought it was less likely now than it was a month ago that Obama would choose Clinton as his running mate, though they said she remained in consideration and that she was being vetted.”

Jennifer, how significant is it that they‘re vetting Hillary, checking her out?

JENNIFER PALMIERI, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS:  I don‘t know that it

I mean, I think they may be doing it as a—as a matter of course. 

They might feel they need to do it.  I agree that I don‘t think that he needs to pick her.  I think that in the past month, the party has come together probably even better and quicker than most people thought.  And you know, I think Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket probably could have won.  I don‘t know at the bottom of the ticket if she really helps him all that much.

MATTHEWS:  Joe, your thoughts on why Hillary‘s still getting her papers checked through.

JOE WATKINS, FORMER AIDE TO PRES. GEORGE H.W. BUSH, MSNBC POLITICAL

ANALYST:  Very simple, 18 million votes that she got during the primaries.  I mean, she got a huge part of the country to back her.  She won handily in a number of states even after it was clear that Barack Obama was going to be the Democratic nominee.  So she‘s got a real draw in a whole lot of states, like Texas and Ohio, and the list goes on, New York, of course, where she has served so well as a U.S. senator.

So she‘s got a lot of attraction to Barack Obama.  Biggest liability, of course, being Bill Clinton, who‘s a master politician, but maybe not so for Barack Obama.

MATTHEWS:  I agree with you.  He‘d win states like Pennsylvania—she‘d win states for him like Pennsylvania, but possibly lose a lot of those other states.  Who knows?

PALMIERI:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at Evan Bayh.  His name just stays on my list, Jennifer.  He‘s safe.  He‘s in the middle of the country.

PALMIERI:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  He comes with a long pedigree of his father.

PALMIERI:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Is he still on that list?

PALMIERI:  I think he‘s—I don‘t if he is being vetted or not.  I do think he should be on that list.  He did a really great job; this weekend he was on Sunday shows defending Obama.  I think people are always interested to see how people who were Hillary Clinton supporters—how they do defending and promoting Senator Obama.  He was terrific. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you buy that, Joe?  He seals the bond between Hillary and Barack without putting her on the ticker? 

WATKINS:  Absolutely.  Those Hillary people will be happy to see a guy like Evan Bayh on there.  He brings Indiana with him, solid Midwest credentials.  He‘s a conservative Democrat, at least a centrist Democrat.  That really helps Barack Obama, who really has a 95 percent ABA rating, somewhat to the left of the party.  So helps bring Barack back to the center.  He‘s a very, very good name, very attractive possible running mate for Barack Obama. 

MATTHEWS:  You like to stick that in there, didn‘t you?  Let‘s take a look at that 95 percent.  Let‘s take a look here at number one.  This is the one I belief, and I‘m told, is in the heart—the heart is pumping for this guy.  This is the guy Barack wants to pick.  Here‘s what he said about Biden at a debate among the presidential candidates last December. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I just want to make the comment, I‘ve worked with Joe Biden.  I‘ve seen his leadership.  I have absolutely no doubt about what is in his heart and the commitment that he‘s made with respect to racial equality in this country.  So I will provide some testimony, as they say in church, that the Joe is on the right side of the issues and is fighting every day for a better America. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Jennifer, apparently, Joe Biden has devoted his early career and his later career to fighting for civil rights.  His heart‘s with the cause that Barack Obama obviously emblemizes.  Is this a heart to heart team here? 

PALMIERI:  I agree with you.  I think he would be an excellent pick.  I think he‘s even a likely pick.  I do think it‘s important that the running mate feel comfortable with the person that you pick.  I think how you work as a team and as a unit really matters and personalities really matter more than people appreciate. 

But moreover, I think Biden is a terrific defender.  He has—he had the great line in the primary about Rudy Giuliani, all he ever said was a noun, a verb and 9/11.  He‘s not scared to a take on McCain on McCain‘s perceived strength of national security, and has been very tough on him on reaction.  And I think he would be a really, really good pick. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s also about an inch taller than Joe Biden.  That always makes men happy, to have at least an inch.  Let‘s take a look—you know, they‘re both tall guys. 

Let‘s go, now.  I want you to pick up on the Republican—let‘s go to the Republicans.  We‘re running out of time.  Let‘s take a look at Pawlenty.  I kidded about this ticket, the guy from Minnesota.  They‘ll call the ticket Good & Pawlenty, what do you think? 

WATKINS:  Look, Tim Pawlenty is the national co-chair of McCain‘s campaign.  He‘s somebody who came out early for John McCain‘ He‘s a very attractive politician.  He‘s somebody who was raised a Catholic, is now an evangelical.  He‘s had a great record as the governor of Minnesota, now in his second term as governor of Minnesota.  He‘s strong on fiscal matters.  He‘s strong, certainly, on social matters.  He‘s got a very interesting immigration policy. 

He‘s somebody who is well traveled.  Even as governor, he‘s been to a lot of countries, including Bosnia and Iraq a number of time, to be the delegations from his state.  He‘s very attractive as a running mate for John McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  You say he converted away from Catholicism? 

WATKINS:  He did. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a big plus, huh?  We‘ll take a look at that one, Jennifer.  We‘ll check that.  That cuts both waits.  Let‘s take a look at now Governor Mitt Romney, a name that keeps popping up.  Jennifer, Mitt Romney won the Michigan primary.  Is he the answer to Michigan?  Could he get him Michigan and maybe Pennsylvania. 

PALMIERI:  I think it‘s really difficult for running mates to even carry their home state if the head of the ticket can‘t do it.  But I do think Romney seems to be a really good pick for him.  He‘s a great fund-raiser.  He‘s probably close enough to the conservative base.  He‘s not—doesn‘t have perfect record for them.  But—and I think he‘s a face that America‘s comfortable with.  He‘s charismatic. 

He‘s younger than McCain, but he‘s not so young that there‘s a dramatic contrast that draws attention to McCain‘s age.  So he‘s good, not that I want to advise them. 

MATTHEWS:  Joe, here‘s a quote from the “New York Times;” it says “something approaching warmth seems to be entering their relationship.  At a fund-raiser in Albuquerque this week, McCain even aimed a gentle jibe at Romney, raising eyebrows among veteran McCain watchers who know that his irreverent teasing and sarcasm are often his way of showing—I love this word—affection.” 

Are they warming up, this duo? 

WATKINS:  They are warming up, absolutely.  You got to face it, Mitt Romney had a very, very fine record as a businessman, as somebody who was chosen to lead Baine Capital, as somebody who was chosen to lead Baine and Company when Baine and Company was having trouble.  As the head of Baine Capital, he had a record of 113 percent internal rate of return over 14 years as CEO of that company.  That‘s a great record.

He brings a lot of confidence when it comes to business issues, especially given this lagging economy.  Mitt Romney can raise money.  He‘s a good looking guy, charismatic.  He‘s right on so many conservative issues.

MATTHEWS:  We know who your candidate is.  You‘ve already given your - you gave him away.  That‘s your guy.  Let‘s take a look at the top prospect, I think.  This is who I believe and hear John McCain really wants to pick if he could, Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania, a combat veteran of Vietnam, a real guy from that world of fighting on the front for the country.  What do you make of that, Jennifer?  Could this guy add to the ticket and win Pennsylvania? 

PALMIERI:  I think he could add to the ticket.  He‘s had sort of a bipartisan past.  He‘s something that Democrats could work with, which sort of goes back to the essential tension of McCain‘s campaign, which is trying to appease the conservatives and independents at the same time.  Of course, the problem for Ridge is he‘s been pro-choice.  That would probably be a problem for McCain.

As head of the Department of Homeland Security, there hasn‘t been the greatest-run agency.  There‘s a lot we probably don‘t know about that.  There could be a lot of vulnerability for the McCain campaign that it might not anticipate. 

MATTHEWS:  Joe, I know you have your heart set on Romney.  But what do you think of Ridge?  Is it possible? 

WATKINS:  I know Tom Ridge and I like Tom Ridge.  I think he‘s a great guy.  He‘s a great possible candidate for vice president.  He certainly helps John McCain with the center.  He‘s a guy that‘s strong conservative fiscal.  But at the same time he‘s pretty much—he‘s a progressive on a number of social issue and very attractive to people in the center of the country, in the center politically. 

And at the same time, there are some things that are just magic; he helps McCain win Pennsylvania.  In Pennsylvania, there are magic names like Ridge, like Rendell, like Matthews.  Those are magic names in the state of Pennsylvania. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, that could be the case.  You know what, I think that—I think that you get me confused when you talk like that.  Thank you very much, Jennifer Palmieri and Joe Watkins. 

Up next, the politics fix.  Will Barack Obama‘s overseas trip help him improve his national security credentials against John McCain?  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and the politics fix.  Tonight‘s round table includes MSNBC political analyst Michelle Bernard, Eugene Washington of the “Washington Post” and Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg.  OK, we only have a little time here, ladies and gentlemen.  Here‘s the question: has John McCain been undercut by Maliki?  the government he supported standing up, the government the surge was allowed to create, the whole deal?  Did Maliki undercut John McCain and help Barack Obama by agreeing with Barack Obama that we should have a time table and the guy that says we should get out fastest is the closest to the truth, Michelle Bernard? 

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yes, this absolutely hurts Senator McCain.  He cannot be happy about it at all.  The question for Maliki is does he concentrate on the surge or does he concentrate on withdrawal.  And his timing last week really helped Senator Obama.  He was in Afghanistan over the weekend.  He‘s in Iraq today.  He looks very presidential.  And then, also, to have the Iraqi government basically reiterating what Senator Obama has said, which is that the United States needs to withdrawal from Iraq sooner rather than later, it really undercuts Senator McCain‘s message. 

MATTHEWS:  Eugene? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Yes, it leaves McCain, essentially, hewing to what has become almost an extremist position.  Even President Bush is now talking about a time horizon for Iraq.  Now, I‘m not sure the difference between a time horizon and a timeline, a time frame, you know, a time table.  But in any event, it‘s a time-something, and McCain is almost left out there by himself, saying, you know, no time-anything. 

So I think it definitely hurts him.  And one wonders why Maliki did it, because he‘s not an unsophisticated man and he kind of did it twice in the Der Spielgel interview and again today when his spokesman came out and said, well, actually, we would really like to have a timetable, kind of like Obama. 

MATTHEWS:  Margaret, does this make him look like one of those Japanese soldiers that held out on one of those islands long after the war was over? 

MARGARET CARLSON, BLOOMBERG:  And just about as old, Chris, is that the question? 

MATTHEWS:  No, I am asking.  They were young soldiers at the time the war ended. 

MARGARET CARLSON, BLOOMBERG:  The surge for McCain means we stay indefinitely.  And he will not have the word time in my proposal that he‘s behind.  So both Maliki and Bush have hurt McCain Because they‘re both using the word time with different nouns, one‘s horizon and one‘s table. 

But Obama‘s idea is that the surge give us time to successfully get out of

carefully get out of Iraq.  McCain thinks that the surge give us time to stay in until we have a Jeffersonian democracy. 

And I don‘t think the American people are there.  As much as Americans like to win, I think they‘re happy now to declare victory and get out. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it was Eisenhower that ended the war in Korea.  Maybe that‘s the new standard for winning war, ending them.  We‘ll be right back with the round table for more of the politics fix.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the round table for more of the politics fix.  This just in late today, quote—this comes in from “Human Events” in the old Evans and Novack column, obviously written by Bob Novak, quote -sources—Eugene, you‘re an old editor.  I want you to vet exactly what Bob Novak is saying, with all the hedges and caveats.  And Margaret, you‘re a pal of that guy.  So, I want you to vet and see if there‘s anything here: quote, “sources close to Senator John McCain‘s presidential campaign”—in other words, not a source in the campaign, a source or sources close to the campaign—“are”—here‘s the great verb—“suggesting he‘ll reveal the name of his vice presidential selection this week while Senator Barack Obama is getting the headlines on his foreign trip.  The name of McCain‘s running mate has not yet been disclosed,” apparently not to Bob Novak, “but Mitt Romney has led the speculation recently.” 

OK, you‘re the editor, get out your blue pencil.  Is there anything here, Eugene Robinson? 

CARLSON:  I could have written that, I could have written that. 

ROBINSON:  Not yet.  Not yet, no.  He may do it, he may not do it.  I don‘t think they‘re saying anything there that you can hang your hat on yet.  You know, if he did it, he‘d get a big headline and take some of the thunder away from Obama. 

MATTHEWS:  I know Bob deserves that.  He‘s a great reporter in many ways.  Let me ask you Margaret, is he pushing Romney?  Is that what he‘s up to? 

CARLSON:  He‘s a great reporter, but any one of us could have written that.  And I think he is pushing Romney.  However, if it‘s a quick choice, relatively quickly, it is Romney because he doesn‘t need vetting.  He‘s been out there and everybody knows him.  The other one that would be a quick choice would be Governor Pawlenty, who, by the way, was so on message for McCain about the Obama trip; every word out of his mouth was the words out of the McCain campaign.  So Pawlenty, a team player.  Romney, McCain doesn‘t like him, but we know who he is. 

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, Bob Novak out here, Michelle, pushing the name of Mitt Romney, who I‘ve got to believe, knowing Bob Novak, that lovable fellow, Romney must be for lower marginal tax rates, especially if it‘s capital gains, the only thing Novak cares about.  Anyway, Michelle Bernard, Eugene Robinson and Margaret Carlson.  Thank you all for joining us.  Join us tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern.  Watch “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.  I‘m on tonight.  Now it‘s time for “RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.”

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

END   

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