updated 8/6/2008 10:08:33 AM ET 2008-08-06T14:08:33

Guests: Mike Barnicle, Chuck Todd, Pat Buchanan, Eugene Robinson, Ron Brownstein, Mitt Romney, Jim Vandehei, Jill Zuckman

MIKE BARNICLE, GUEST HOST:  Who‘s ahead, who‘s behind, the real state of the race, state by state.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Mike Barnicle, in for Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  Leading off: Forget all those national poll numbers, presidential elections are won state by state.  And tonight, we‘ve got the latest results from the NBC News political unit, what states are leaning to McCain, which ones are looking good for Barack Obama and who‘s got the edge in those key battleground states.  The best political map anywhere in just a few minutes.

Plus: Who did play the race card, McCain or Obama?  Or was it both?  Pat Buchanan and Gene Robinson join us in a debate.  You won‘t want to miss it.  And name that veep.  He topped our “Power Rankings” last night as the most likely McCain running mate.  Tonight, Mitt Romney joins us for a one-on-one interview.

Plus: Here‘s what Bill Clinton said when asked whether he thought Barack Obama was ready to be president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  You could argue that no one‘s ever ready to be president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it.  I‘m pretty sure the Obama campaign would have settled for, you know, “Yes.”  But we‘ll take a look at that and more in the “Politics Fix.”

And did John McCain really just volunteer his wife for a nude beauty pageant?  We‘ve got that story on the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

But first, the new NBC News electoral map.  Chuck Todd is political director for NBC News and Ron Brownstein is with “The National Journal.”  Let‘s start, gentlemen, with Barack Obama.  Here are the states that were likely for Obama or leaning toward Obama last month.  Here we go.  We‘ll take a look at it.  There‘s the United States of America.  And here‘s the map today.  Let‘s take a look at today‘s map.  There you go, couple of blue states—Pennsylvania.

Chuck, what‘s happened here?  What has changed?

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Just a slight shift.  We moved Oregon and New Jersey, which had been two states that the McCain campaign had said they were going to try and compete in.  It‘s pretty clear they‘re not going to contest them.  In Oregon, you have a Republican candidate running for reelection for U.S. Senate, Gordon Smith, who is running as praising John Kerry and Barack Obama, at this point.  I think that kind of tells you where the Oregon electorate is.

And then Iowa.  Iowa was one that a lot of folks thought we were waiting too long to keep in the toss-up category.  It‘s hard to—on one hand, if you look at past results, this was a state that went Gore in 2000, Bush in 2004.  But Obama has spent so much money there.  McCain has spent so much time bashing the state.  It is just this sort of perfect storm of it‘s just probably in Obama‘s column moreso than it should be for any Democrat simply because of the combination of how much money Obama has spent and how little time McCain spends in the state.

BARNICLE:  When you say bashing the state, you mean the whole ethanol corn deal?

TODD:  The ethanol stuff, the fact that he has skipped the state twice now when he‘s run for president.  Look, it has never been a state—he‘s not comfortable in the Midwest in general, the agriculture Midwest.  He does like to beat up on subsidies, so that‘s one reason.

But then you have sort of the region of Illinois, I call it, where literally every single state that touches Illinois, Obama overperforms in.  So you see him with bigger leads in Wisconsin and Iowa than John Kerry or Al Gore ever had.  You see him doing better in Indiana and Missouri—or “Missour-ah,” he does better in Missouri than “Missourah.”  But in Indiana, Missouri, you see him overperforming in those two states.

And that‘s simply that the region of Illinois is a more powerful thing than I think we ever realized.  It‘s been a long time since a Midwestern Democrat has been on the ticket, and we‘re showing why it can be a big advantage.

BARNICLE:  Ron, Barack Obama going from—in New Jersey, going from a “lean” to a “likely.”  That‘s not really a big surprise, is it?

RON BROWNSTEIN, “NATIONAL JOURNAL”:  No.  In fact, every state that you have likely or leaning for Obama, with the exception of Iowa, has voted Democratic at least four consecutive times.  We are in an era, Mike, of extraordinary stability in presidential politics.  In 2000 and 2004, only three states changed hands between Bush, then Gore and Kerry.  Thirty-four states have voted the same way in each of the past four elections.

What‘s really striking about this map, when we sort of look at the totality of it, is that both candidates are trying to expand the map and put different states in play.  But they are battling against a lot of rigidity in the system.  And when you see things like New Jersey and Oregon moving into solidly Democratic terrain, that is, in fact, an accurate reflection of where we have been in American politics over roughly the last two decades.

BARNICLE:  Well, let‘s take a look at the states that are either leaning towards John McCain or listed as likely for John McCain, 189 total electoral votes in these states, and they remain unchanged from last month‘s map.  So Chuck, unchanged—that means not moving, or does it?

TODD:  Well, it does.  And look, obviously, McCain is dealing with a few more vulnerable states in his column than Obama is in his.  Part of this has to do—you have a fired-up Democratic Party, so in states—just as Ron pointed out, in states that have been voting Democrat, they‘re more fired up and they‘re almost—they‘re going to get bigger margins this time.  McCain is having to defend more of his turf than he‘s used to.

The four states that I want to highlight in particular there—North Carolina, Indiana, North Dakota and Montana.  In all four of these states, we have seen polls, both privately that I‘ve seen and publicly, where, frankly, Obama or McCain have both been ahead in different polls.  And the question is going be, At what point does the Republican Party and John McCain say, OK, I give in, I have to start defending this turf?

Obama is advertising in all of these states that we have in that light pink.  The question is, Are they—will North Carolina be the first one that they feel like they have to start defending?  A lot of whispers.  The RNC did send a victory campaign chair down there to start putting together a staff.  That‘s the first sign that it looks like North Carolina‘s the one they‘re most concerned about.

But look, the reason—there is a reason why John McCain went to Sturgis, South Dakota, and it wasn‘t just to hang out with motorcycle guys.  It was because the Dakotas, for some reason, Obama is overpolling there, overperforming.  I think they wanted to see if a little free media in the Dakotas would at least snap back some Republicans, and I think they‘re going to test this out over the next three or four weeks, and we‘ll see for sure if they—if they believe it‘s a problem.

BARNICLE:  There‘s nothing wrong with a Harley rally, you know.  We should point that out.  But you know, Ron, to your—what you were just talking about, the rigidity of the electorate over the last couple of decades, I guess...

BROWNSTEIN:  Yes.

BARNICLE:  One of the things on that map that stands out to me, a novice looking at the map, is Indiana just leaning towards McCain.

BROWNSTEIN:  Right.

BARNICLE:  That‘s kind of surprising to me.  Am I correct in being sort of surprised that he didn‘t does have it locked up?

BROWNSTEIN:  Absolutely.  Well, you know, it is the kind of state, as Chuck said, that has been very solid Republican, where Obama is overperforming.  But in the end, most of these “lean Republican” states—and the reason why the McCain campaign and the RNC would resist spending money there is that they are still unlikely to be in the first 270 Electoral College votes that Barack Obama wins.  Another way of saying that is, if Obama wins a state like Indiana or even North Carolina, it‘s likely that the national tide has moved sufficiently in his direction that he‘s already won other states that are more evenly balanced between the parties, and those would be kind of his 310th or 320th or even higher Electoral College vote.

And so the competition between the parties—between the campaigns is, Obama, with his resources, wants to force McCain to spend money on states that are not really right around that 270th Electoral College vote.  And if you can force the other side to do that, to defend a state like North Carolina or Indiana, that‘s one less dollar they have for states like, potentially, Colorado or New Hampshire that they could be closer to that tipping point state when you get down to October.

BARNICLE:  So Chuck, sticking with Ron‘s theory as he just postulated it, Indiana—let‘s take Indiana—let‘s take two states, Indiana and Virginia, two fellows sort of being mentioned as potential vice presidents.  Does Evan Bayh—is he the tipping point in Indiana?  Is Tim Kaine the tipping point in Virginia?  Would that be ball game?

TODD:  Look, Virginia is going to be a swing state, no matter what.  Obama‘s trying to change the electorate.  It doesn‘t matter if Tim Kaine is on the ticket or not, and there‘s some that argue Tim Kaine really doesn‘t help more than maybe a point, maybe around the Richmond area.  Mark Warner would be the game changer in that state.  If somehow, Obama convinced Warner to come on the ticket, he‘s got the popularity in the southwest part of the state to tip that.

But look, I‘ve talked to plenty of Republicans who just say flat out, Look, Evan Bayh on the ticket, Indiana‘s in play.  Forget it.  They know it, that it‘s enough.  Obama‘s competitiveness in the state is close enough that Bayh is a tipper on that front.  And they‘ve said, Look, we go in, it becomes one of the battleground states.  We know it.  They‘re not even playing games anymore.

But the question is, in these four states that I was highlighting—

Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota and Montana—they‘re really actually trying to change the way the electorate looks in three of those states, North Carolina, Indiana and North Dakota.  And that is the Obama gamble, that they actually change the demographic.

So instead of, you know, 17 percent African-American turnout in North Carolina, it‘s 21, you know, something where they radically shift numbers in a state by 3 or 4 points.  North Dakota, it‘s a same-day voter registration state.  Can they somehow get a younger turnout model in North Dakota that they‘ve never seen before?  That‘s how they‘re rolling the dice on these states.

BARNICLE:  There‘s a total 132 electoral votes in states that you‘ve identified as toss-ups.  Let‘s take a look at the toss-up map.  Ron, Florida, a toss-up.  Doesn‘t bode well for John McCain, does it?

BROWNSTEIN:  No, but again, I think Florida is somewhat—in my mind, anyway, is a little closer to Indiana in that it‘s unlikely to be in that first 270 Electoral College votes.  The real—for Obama.  The real story in your toss-up is you basically got 2 to 1 Bush states over Kerry states.  In other words, if you look at the list of states that John Kerry won and Al Gore won, that—at least that John Kerry won, that McCain is seriously contesting, New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania are really those top three states.

If you go to the other side of your toss-up list, you‘ve got places like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, Ohio and Florida that Bush won.  And again, we had more—we had a number of those red states, those Bush states that were also just in the “leaning Republican.”  And what this tells you is that Obama currently is pressuring McCain on broader terrain than vice versa.

Now, if Obama is able to swipe, you know, a number of those states that you wouldn‘t put at the top of your list, you‘d say that was an excellent distribution of money and campaign resources.  If it turns out that in October, he wished he might have spent more times in the states that were actually closer to the Democratic side, we might—you know, people might look back and say they were too ambitious or they overestimated their capacity to turn some of these states.

But right now, they are playing on a much broader playing field and forcing McCain to defend turf the Republicans simply have not had to do in many recent elections.

BARNICLE:  All right, Chuck, take it up from what Ron said.  Put on your campaign strategist hat.

TODD:  Right.

BARNICLE:  If you‘re running Obama‘s campaign, where do you want John McCain wasting his time and money that he might not have had to have done four years ago (INAUDIBLE)

TODD:  Well, you—I—frankly, you do want him in Florida.  Florida‘s one of those states that‘s just a bottomless pit of money.  And so you do want him trying to spend money there.  But I want to take one more—when you look at this toss-up map, this is where toss-up states, as of August 5.  If this were October 25, based on where we think some of these states would lean, we probably would have Florida in “lean McCain.”  We probably would have Pennsylvania in “Lean Obama.”  That‘s a state that I think that the McCain folks wish they could put more in play.  They—it‘s just—for some reason, there seems to be a ceiling on there for Republicans.

Where the states that feel like are the purest of toss-ups, you know, in the states that you‘re—that if you‘re Obama, you‘re trying to keep McCain out of, and if you‘re McCain, you‘re trying to keep Obama out of, it‘s Colorado, it‘s Ohio, it‘s New Hampshire, and Virginia, at least in my book.  Those are the four that really are—feel like coin flips, feel like what Ron keeps saying, those tipping point states.

The rest of them—Michigan feels like it has a slight tilt still toward Obama.  New Mexico feels like a slight Obama.  Nevada feels like a slight McCain.  Missouri feels like a slight McCain.  So you could sit here and push some of these states.  The four that I can‘t feel comfortable pushing—Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire—those four feel that close.

BARNICLE:  Ron, any of these toss-up states surprise you for either candidate?

BROWNSTEIN:  Well, look, I think—I agree with Chuck.  I think—largely.  I think Colorado is a state right at the tipping point.  I mean, you know, we‘re looking in some of these cases at the intersection of these candidates‘, their strengths and weaknesses, and longer-term trends in the state.

Colorado is a place that was very—it was divided between the parties in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  It gave us Gary Hart and Tim Wirth.  In the ‘90s, moved sharply to the Republicans.  Since 2002, the Democrats have gained a lot of ground in the state, controlling the state legislature, a majority of the congressional delegation.  Governor won in a landslide in ‘06.  If I had to pick a state that is most likely to be at 270 for one or the other, I think it is—Colorado.

I mean, you can tell a similar story about Virginia and you can tell a similar story about New Hampshire.  These are three states that have been trending Democratic, Ohio perhaps more in a short-term way, that Obama has to be able to either hold or tip over.  McCain is fighting against some longer-term trends in those places.  But Obama ultimately has to be able to take these longer-term trends and concentrate them into a tip from places that have been going the other way in presidential races.

No Democrat has won Virginia since ‘64.  Only Clinton has won in Colorado since ‘64, in 1992.  So these are place that are still uphill for Democrats, although the trends are heading in their direction.

BARNICLE:  Two human political almanacs, Ron Brownstein, Chuck Todd, with kudos to Rand-McNally for the map.  Thanks very much.

Coming up: Who played the race card first, Obama or McCain?  And is this any way to pick a president?  MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and Gene Robinson face off over race in the race.

And a reminder.  All day long on MSNBC, we‘ve been asking which presidential candidate you think would be better for the economy.  Text “A” for McCain or “B” for Obama to 622639.  Standard text messaging rates apply.  We‘ll have the results later in the hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Race is definitely in this race for the presidency.  Both the Obama and McCain campaigns are accusing the other of playing the race card.  So who‘s right and who‘s wrong?  Pat Buchanan is an MSNBC political analyst, as is “Washington Post” columnist Gene Robinson.

Now, here‘s what Pat Buchanan wrote today.  “Obama has become an object of mockery in much of middle America.  Though his media allies may howl racism, most Americans tend more and more to dismiss this.  That card has been played so often, it‘s dog-eared.”

Gene Robinson in this morning‘s op-ed page of “The Washington Post” wrote, in part, “Obama has taken great pains to sanitize his campaign of even the faintest whiff of victimhood.  Obama understands that in order to be elected president, he has to come off as the least-aggrieved black man in America.”

Now, those of you at home, we don‘t advice you to try what you‘re about to see.

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  We just want you to strap your seatbelts on and watch these two gentlemen take on the issue.  We‘ll begin with Patrick J. Buchanan.  Pat, who, in your estimation, dropped the race card on the table first?

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Last week, in this episode, clearly, it was Barack Obama, when he said the McCain and Bush folks have no answers, what they‘re going to do, they‘re going to make you think I‘m risky and dangerous because I don‘t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.  The implication here was that McCain was saying he‘s risky and radical because he‘s black.

Now, that was grossly unfair to John McCain, who has run away from any imputation of that.  But clearly, what Rick Davis did—this was like a false start at the line of scrimmage, and Rick Davis knocking the guy on his butt and then throwing the quarterback on the ground.  He overreacted, and deliberately, I think, and roughly, and McCain backed him up.  But there‘s no doubt that the false start was on the move of Barack Obama himself.

BARNICLE:  Gene, I mean, Pat just gave him a 15-yard penalty anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  And I don‘t want to have to come down there and break you guys up, by the way, OK?

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  What‘s your estimation for this?

EUGENE ROBINSON, “WASHINGTON POST”, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  No, what happened was that Barack Obama delivered what is essentially a throw-away line that he‘s used before, and that happens to be true.  He‘s the first major party African-American candidate, and you know, I seem to recall campaigns in which Republican candidates have tried to make people nervous about Democratic candidates who happen to be black.

But all the McCain campaign had to do was say, You know, we‘re not going to do that, and maybe add, We resent the implication.  What they did was, in fact, deliberately, as Pat said, try to make race an issue to make Barack Obama look like he was portraying himself as some sort of victim, which is a word that Lindsey Graham used on Fox on Sunday, to make him—to portray Obama as if he were calling McCain a racist, which he did not do, but which Lindsey Graham accused him of doing on Sunday.

And that way, that‘s a—that‘s a way of—of creating a kind of scratchiness about Obama‘s personality, and, frankly, alienating white voters. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  All right, let me—let me—here‘s where we got a problem now, Gene. 

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN:  Look, the McCain strategy is quite clearly, Obama‘s got to be made the issue.  And they‘re going to portray him as radical and risky.  And they have got a lot of associations in the past, a lot of positions, and a lot of votes and things like that, that can paint him out there. 

What Barack was signaling the McCain people is, don‘t push this too far, or we‘re going to accuse you of coming after us because we‘re black.  And, so, what the McCain people did, said, don‘t give us that crap, fellow. 

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN:  Here‘s what our answer is to that.  You‘re doing it.  You‘re playing it.  What they‘re saying is, we are not going to let you disarm us by intimidation from using our strongest, toughest positions against Obama. 

In that sense, McCain‘s folks did exactly the right thing, because, frankly, there is a double standard here in dealing with Barack Obama.  Bill Clinton is no racist.  He said this—Barack‘s campaign is a fairy tale on Iraq.  He went to South Carolina and he tried to demean and diminish the South Carolina victory, justifiably, by saying, look, you know, Jesse Jackson, in South Carolina, because it‘s heavily African-American, rolled through here twice, no big deal. 

He did compare him to Jesse Jackson, but that is a truthful statement to diminish the victory of Obama.  There‘s nothing wrong with demeaning somebody‘s victory.  All of us who have won victories have seen them demeaned. 

ROBINSON:  There, you did it again, Pat.  You did exactly what Lindsey Graham, as a surrogate for McCain, did in his talk show appearance on Sunday, and what seems to be the talking point of—of the campaign. 

You said, Bill Clinton is no racist.  Barack Obama is calling John McCain a racist. 

He didn‘t use the word racist.  He didn‘t use the word victim.  He didn‘t call anybody a racist.  There‘s a difference, which I think you understand and should acknowledge...

BUCHANAN:  All right.  Well, let me ask you a question.

ROBINSON:  ... between saying, this—this remark—this approach...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  Just a minute.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  This remark, this approach, this tactic is insulting, or inappropriate, or demeaning, or whatever, and saying, you are a racist.  It‘s a different thing.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  All right.  You say it‘s different. 

Explain this.  Barack Obama says, the McCain folks don‘t have any answers, but what they‘re going to do is, they‘re going to tell you, I‘m risky, because I don‘t look like the other guys on the dollar bill. 

What Barack is saying, they‘re going to tell you I‘m risky because I‘m black. 

Now, that was unfair to McCain.  McCain had never done it.  And, yet, he raised it.  And what he‘s saying is, the McCain people are indeed calling me risky because I‘m black, which they were not doing. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Now, what do you call that, if not the race card? 

ROBINSON:  He said, they‘re going to do it.

They could have said, we would never think of doing such a thing, end of story. 

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN:  We wouldn‘t ever think...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  That‘s politics.

ROBINSON:  As you acknowledged—as you acknowledged at the beginning, at the opening, what they did was seize on it...

BUCHANAN:  Yes. 

ROBINSON:  ... to amplify the issue and to use it in their favor.  And, as you well know, part of what they‘re trying to do is to alienate voters from Barack Obama by—by portraying him as someone who considers himself a victim...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  ... the great African-American victim...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  ... by portraying him as someone who cries racism at every turn, which he has taken pains not to do during the entire campaign.  There‘s no way he would be where he is now if he hadn‘t.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  His guys knew he did that.  They made him—his guys knew he made a mistake there, and they backed off. 

And, now, “The Wall Street Journal” on Saturday ran a—had—showed polls.  It showed that 8 percent of white voters were very concerned about the race issue.  It‘s a very important issue.  And something like 15 percent said it was somewhat important.

But the white vote, that 23 percent broke down, 57 McCain, 23 -- 30-something for Obama.  However, 20 percent of African-Americans said race was very important, and 15 percent somewhat important.  Every one of them went for Obama. 

BARNICLE:  Yes. 

BUCHANAN:  Now, let me ask you, when we‘re talking about racial implications here, it seems to me, if somebody is winning the black vote 94-1, you can‘t say, well, that‘s pride, and they‘re...

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  Let Gene answer quickly, because we got to go.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  ... that‘s racism.

BARNICLE:  Quickly.

ROBINSON:  But, Pat, this race is between Republicans and Democrats.  And, in fact, Barack Obama will do a bit better than your average Democratic candidate, maybe, among black voters by increasing the turnout. 

But Hillary Clinton, were she running on the Democratic side, would also be enjoying a huge lead among African-Americans. 

BARNICLE:  All I—all I have to say... 

BUCHANAN:  Why does John McCain have zero votes among African-Americans, Zero among African-Americans?

BARNICLE:  All I have to say to—all I have to say to end this, gentlemen...

ROBINSON:  That‘s two fewer than George Bush got.

BARNICLE:  All I have to say to end this is I would much rather watch you guys than another Paris Hilton whatever—you know, whatever that ad was. 

BUCHANAN:  The early Britney—the early Britney Spears was better than us. 

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  You guys are much more attractive and make much more sense. 

ROBINSON:  They should use us—one side will use us in the next ad, I guess.  I don‘t know. 

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  I hope so. 

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  Gene Robinson, Pat Buchanan, thanks very much.  And stay away from each other for a few minutes.  Calm down.

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  Up next:  Did John McCain really intend to enter his wife Cindy in a nude beauty pageant?  You will want to stick around for the HARDBALL “Sideshow”—straight ahead. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Time now for the HARDBALL “Sideshow.” 

First up, they‘re both done “Saturday Night Live,” but now Barack Obama and John McCain think they‘re ready for prime time.  So, they have taped dueling ads for NBC‘s “Last Comic Standing.” 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

A president has to be funny.  They just have to be.  Unfunny presidents only serve one term, if they win an election at all.  I may not be the last comic standing, but I‘m definitely the funniest candidate for president. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, funny looking. 

MCCAIN:  Who said that? 

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Hi.  I‘m Barack Obama.  And I‘m running for president of the United States. 

Remember to vote for me in November.  And, if you don‘t think I‘m funny, you have obviously never seen me bowl. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALES AND FEMALES:  Aww. 

OBAMA:  I‘m not going to deliver this line any better than that. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Well, America does love a president that can take a joke, even despite that, and laugh at himself.  So, let‘s hope they both remember that going forward into the campaign. 

Next up, John McCain stopped by the infamous Sturgis biker rally in South Dakota yesterday, where he tried to sweet-talk the locals.  Check this out. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  You know, I was looking at the Sturgis schedule, and noticed that you have a beauty pageant.  And, so, I encouraged Cindy to compete. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MCCAIN:  I told her—I told her, with a little luck, she could be the only woman ever to serve as both the first lady and Miss Buffalo Chip.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  OK, slight problem here.  The pageant that John McCain‘s talking about, it has some nudity in it.  Naked wife votes may work in Sturgis, but probably won‘t help him win over these evangelicals. 

Now for “Name That Veep.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave a colleague a huge boost this weekend, saying people should be aware of this nine-term congressman‘s—quote—

“extraordinary credentials.”  He‘s a moderate Democrat whose district just happens to include President Bush‘s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

So, who is this dark horse pick?  Texas Congressman Chet Edwards.

That‘s right, the other Edwards in the race for vice president. 

Time now for tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

It‘s been a tough couple years for Republicans.  And the proof is in the voter registration rolls.  Today‘s “New York Times” reports that, since 2004, the number of Democrats increased by more than 200,000 where there is party registration.  That‘s in 26 states and the District of Columbia.  In those same four years, what happened to Republicans?  No increase.  Big decrease.  How bad? -- 1,407,971.  That‘s tonight‘s HARDBALL number.  Republicans have lost more than 1.4 million voters in 26 states since 2004. 

Not good.  That‘s not good at all -- 1,407,971, tonight‘s HARDBALL “Big Number.” 

Up next:  Who will join John McCain as his running mate?  Could it be our next guest, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney?

Mitt Romney joins us when we return. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks soaring as oil prices drop again, and the Fed left interest rates unchanged.  The Dow Jones industrials surged 331 points, its biggest one-day gain since April 1.  The S&P 500 climbed almost 36 points.  The Nasdaq jumped 64. 

As expected, Federal Reserve policy-makers decided to leave interest rates unchanged for a second straight meeting.  In its statement, the Fed expressed concerns about both economic growth and inflation.  Many experts now expect the Fed will hold rates steady for the rest of the year. 

Meantime, oil fell another $2.24, closing at $119.17 a barrel.  Since hitting a record high above $147 on July 11, crude prices have now dropped 19 percent. 

And after the closing bell, tech bellwether Cisco Systems reported quarterly earnings that beat analyst estimates by a penny.  Cisco shares are sharply higher in after-hours trading. 

That‘s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now back to

HARDBALL. 

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is at the top of the short list as a possible running mate for John McCain.  We spoke with Governor Romney late today. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  Governor, there‘s been a lot of buzz about you joining the ticket as a vice presidential candidate under John McCain.  You‘re a man of considerable holdings.  You have got a lengthy record in public service.  How long does it take to vet someone like you? 

MITT ROMNEY ®, FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR:  I can‘t imagine having to do that.  And I don‘t know whether the McCain people are doing that or not.  You know, they‘re—they‘re going to follow their own process. 

But, as to the V.P. sweepstakes, I‘m not expecting to be part of the ticket.  I‘m expecting to campaign for the ticket.  So, time will tell what he does—what he does in this election process. 

BARNICLE:  So, you have no knowledge of your being vetted?  You haven‘t been asked to be vetted?  You haven‘t asked for any materials, income, or whatever? 

ROMNEY:  Well, I‘m—I‘m directing anybody that has any questions about the McCain vetting process or their selection process to the McCain campaign. 

I‘m—I‘m not adding or subtracting from—from that discussion at all.  But I‘m just saying that my expectations are that John McCain will choose someone to be a V.P. that I will be ending up working for and helping get elected as a president and vice presidential team. 

BARNICLE:  You know, one of the great discussions in this country right now has to do with energy, our resources, our lack of resources, whatever.  Yesterday, in Lansing, Michigan, the state where you were born, Barack Obama gave a speech on energy, outlining his energy proposals. 

What are yours, not as a candidate, but what are yours as a guy who knows a lot about energy, a lot about putting together business plans, your energy proposals? 

ROMNEY:  Well, if you‘re really serious about becoming energy-independent, as I think we have to be, you‘re going to have to say, we‘re going to pursue every possible source of new energy that America can find, and, at the same time, every source of energy efficiency we can achieve. 

And that means more nuclear power.  It means more drilling.  It means more natural gas.  It means liquefied coal.  It‘s, if you will, all of the above.  And, of course, wind power, nuclear, solar power, take every single one of them, and pursue them to the max, and invest in new technologies. 

Create incentives for enterprises to develop these new technologies.  And if you do all of those, you can become energy-independent.  Now, by the way, that happens to be John McCain‘s proposal.  He wants to become energy-independent, will pursue all of those avenues.

Barack Obama says no to nuclear power, no to more offshore drilling.  And—and those two are essential if we‘re going to become seriously independent of our dependence on foreign oil. 

BARNICLE:  On the offshore drilling element, Barack Obama seems to have come back a little.  Some people are saying he‘s flip-flopped a little on it.  Whatever.  There‘s an idea in some people‘s minds, American‘s minds that if we engage in offshore oil drilling that the price of gas will come down within two or three weeks.  That‘s just not realistic.  So what you do about getting the price of gas to a manageable range in a relatively short period of time? 

ROMNEY:  Well, actually, announcing that we‘re going do substantial offshore drilling and going after some of the reserves that are available would have an immediate effect on price, because the expectations of those that trade in oil futures would be that more supplies will come on the market down the road.  But you are right.  Most of the impact is going to be longer term and it would be substantial. 

And what you have to do to effect global and U.S. energy prices immediately is to have the largest consuming nation, that‘s us, lay out a course that says we‘re going to do what‘s necessary for us to get off of foreign oil.  Doing that, just announcing that, having that in place would have the effect of lowering gasoline prices almost immediately. 

BARNICLE:  You know, when you look at John McCain‘s energy‘s plan, when you look at Barack Obama‘s energy plan, they‘re filled with all sorts of proposals, as you just indicated, offshore oil drilling in one case, a look at nuclear, a look at wind power, a look at solar, things like that.  It‘s rare to see the word conservation right up top on John McCain‘s plan, I think.  Yet, we‘re surrounded—you‘re about to go to China for the Olympics, a huge nation, a nation that‘s become increasingly greedy for energy resources, along with nations like India.  What do we do as Americans to conserve energy with risking our lifestyle?  Or are we just too spoiled to conserve? 

ROMNEY:  No, actually, I think you‘re going to see, in this country and hopefully around the world, a far greater effort to become energy efficient than we‘ve ever seen before.  That‘s going to be in our automobiles, first and foremost.  John McCain has, in fact, been a supporter of the CAFE fuel standard tightening.  And that has had a major impact—or can have a major impact on our use of gasoline and oil products.  But also it‘s going to have to be in our homes.  Energy usage in the homes, from the type of furnaces we use to heat our homes to the type of air conditioning and our insulation systems. 

Probably the least expensive and most immediate impact we can have on energy prices in this country and in our homes is by taking advantage of new energy efficiencies.  And that‘s something I think that John McCain will pursue with the same kind of aggressiveness he‘ll pursue with every addition of energy.  That combination is what gets us to a point where we say, thanks very much, but we don‘t need your oil, to the Middle East. 

BARNICLE:  You know, I know that you know this from spending a lot of time, more than a year, out on the campaign trail.  A lot of Americans are fearful for the future.  And a lot of Americans are hurting economically.  Gas prices are particularly gouging American families.  In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter and phrased the question that many Americans responded to.  The question was are you better off today than four years ago?  A lot of people voted no, that they weren‘t better today than they were four years ago. 

Do you think we‘re worse off today than we were four years ago? 

ROMNEY:  You know, with regards to the threat of radical violent Jihad, I think we‘re in a better position.  I think the success we‘ve seen in Iraq, by virtue of the surge which John McCain has pushed for for a long time, has made us a safer nation.  We‘re better off in that regard.  But with regards to the economy, the credit crisis, the mortgage crunch, the higher prices of gasoline have made the American family less well off and less better off.  So we‘re not in as good a position economically.  Families in this country are not as they were four years ago. 

And that‘s why you have John McCain standing up and saying, look, I‘m an independent-minded guy.  I‘m a maverick.  I have fought for what I believe in from the very beginning.  And he will take the action necessary to get our economy running again on behalf of all the families that are feeling the pinch.  And job number one in that regard is to get us off our dependence on foreign oil and get the prices of energy down.  And there, John McCain will do everything it takes.  He‘s not taking anything off the table.  He will drill offshore.  He‘s in favor of it.  He will build new nuclear power plants.  He‘s in favor of it. 

It‘s a very stark contrast with Barack Obama, which of course is a candidate that has to listen to the extreme environmentalists in his party. 

BARNICLE:  Nothing off the table includes raising taxes? 

ROMNEY:  Well, raising taxes doesn‘t provide more sources of energy. 

It‘s an entirely different topic.  That‘s one place where John McCain is

saying, no, I‘m not going to raise taxes.  As a matter of fact, he‘s also -

look, to try and help families over the summertime, saying we should have taken off the federal gas tax during the summer so we could help families that are hurting. 

BARNICLE:  Governor Mitt Romney, thanks very much. 

ROMNEY:  Thanks, Mike.  Good to be with you. 

BARNICLE:  Up next, wait till you hear what Barack Obama says to Republicans who have mocking him about keeping tires inflated.  The politics fix is next.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and the politics fix.  Tonight‘s round table, Jill Zuckman of “The Chicago Tribune,” and the Politico‘s Jim Vandehei.  Ladies and gentlemen, earlier in the week, John McCain—it was a pretty funny line.  He could deliver the line fairly effectively.  It had to do with the fact that Barack Obama had suggesting, in talking about energy and low gas prices, that one way to help lower gas prices or to keep energy costs down was to do things—the average American do things like inflate your tires and get tune-ups. 

He didn‘t suggest it as a be all and end all.  But McCain, in his retort to Barack Obama, then said, you know, his idea of an energy plan is to inflate your tires.  Ha, ha, ha.  Got a pretty good laugh.  Take a look at this.  Here is Barack Obama today in Ohio, fighting back against Republicans who have been mocking him about just that, keeping tires inflated. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  They know they‘re lying about what my energy plan is.  But the other thing is they‘re fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption by three to four percent.  It‘s like it‘s like these guys take pride in being ignorant. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  “Take pride in being ignorant.”  Jim, do you think this issue, gas prices, energy costs, fuel consumption, our lust for more gas, more driving in this country; does this issue threaten to obliterate all other issues, the war in Iraq, everything else? 

JIM VANDEHEI, “THE POLITICO”:  It‘s a huge issue because it‘s just something that everybody understands it.  Everybody has to fill up their car once a week.  They‘re paying more money.  It bothers them.  It‘s so ripe for being politicized.  It‘s really one of the saddest issues that gets debated in Washington, because so much of it is bunk that they put out there.  There‘s no doubt that actually putting more pressure and having your tires all at the same pressure actually does help fuel the economy, actually does reduces oil consumption.  It‘s obviously not the end all, be all and needs to be part of a much bigger package to have any affect on US oil consumption.

At the same time, this idea of drill, drill, drill, certainly, it has a very small short term effect on gas prices.  Over the long term, maybe a couple of cents here and there.  But nobody, no serious expert thinks that either of those two are the solution to our energy problems.  It‘s going to take big, drastic steps that most policy makers are afraid to do in the short term. 

BARNICLE:  Jill, that‘s what I was going to ask you.  As Jim raised the issue of off-shore oil drilling.  You hear both candidates, but especially the Republicans, talking about off-shore oil drilling.  We have to drill in Secaucus, New Jersey, off the Gulf of Mexico, in my backyard, and gas will go back to 2.25 a gallon by this Friday.  The lack of real dialogue, real debate on energy policy, it‘s demeaning to the voter, don‘t you think? 

JILL ZUCKMAN, “THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  Absolutely.  The fact is, Mike, both candidates are trying to minimize the other.  They are trying to say, isn‘t that a silly plan, that one thing.  You think it‘s going to solve the whole problem, no.  Both candidates have detailed, vast plans.  John McCain doesn‘t just want to drill for oil.  He‘s just saying it‘s one thing we ought to do.  Barack Obama doesn‘t just want to fill up our tires.  He‘s saying it‘s something you can do for now. 

I just got back from a trip to Michigan, talking to voters.  So many of them actually were saying to me they like the oil drilling plan.  They said, I know it won‘t produce oil for at least ten years, but at least we‘ll be starting and trying to do something.  I think that‘s the sentiment out there that they are both trying to tap into. 

BARNICLE:  Do you think John McCain has any traction when he continues to talk about the gas tax holiday?  Summer is almost over, Jim, but it resonated in the spring, I can tell you that. 

VANDEHEI:  It resonates, but so much of this is bogus when it comes to reducing prices.  If you want to actually start to dramatically change oil consumption, slap a huge tax on gasoline.  Dramatically raise the fuel efficiency standards on automobiles.  This idea of a gas tax holiday or releasing oil from the strategic petroleum reserve, none of that has a big affect on the short term prices of oil and gasoline.  Everybody knows that.  It‘s just so easy to say in short sound bites on TV and in these campaigns. 

It makes people feel good.  I‘m sure drilling is popular, because people think, oh, drill for more oil, we‘ve got more oil, gasoline prices will go down.  Most people don‘t realize it will take forever to work its way into the marketplace.  By the time you actually see the difference, the markets will have adjusted the price of gasoline anyway.  There‘s no serious solution that‘s going to be talked about when it comes to energy until you get away from the campaign, and people start to really deal with what is a crisis.  I think experts on both sides know it is a crisis. 

BARNICLE:  Or read David Halberstam‘s “The Reckoning,” written in 1983.  We‘re going to be back with more of the politics fix and what Bill Clinton thinks of Barack Obama.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  We‘re back with Jim Vandehei and Jill Zuckman.  Bill Clinton on whether Barack Obama is prepared to take the Oval Office.  Take a listen to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Is he ready to be president? 

CLINTON:  You can argue that no one is ever ready to be president.  I certainly learned a lot about the job in the first year.  You could argue that even if you‘ve been vice president for eight years, that no one can ever be fully ready for the pressures of office, and that everyone learns something.  It‘s something different.  You could argue that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You think he‘s completely qualified to be president? 

CLINTON:  The Constitution sets qualifications for the president.  Then the people decide who they think would be—I think we have two choices.  I think he should win and I think he will win. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Jim, is this an angry, resentful guy unable to say yes? 

VANDEHEI:  Absolutely, yes, you just saw the clip.  That is unbelievable, the fact that he can‘t just say emphatically, yes, he‘s ready and qualified to be president of the United States.  It just captures exactly what‘s going on behind the scenes.  There‘s so much tension between the Obama camp and the Clinton camp, particularly Bill Clinton. 

BARNICLE:  Jill, you‘ve been around.  You‘ve covered a lot of campaigns.  You‘ve covered presidencies, campaigns.  I mean, this is amazing. 

ZUCKMAN:  Mike, what do you think he would have said if Kate asked him, is your wife ready to be president?  Absolutely.  He would never have hedged like that.  He wouldn‘t have relied on the Constitution.  Just his body language alone was so contorted.  He looks like a very unhappy person right now.

BARNICLE:  Jim, what do you think it bodes for the coming months with President Clinton coming back into the country as a potential surrogate for Obama. 

VANDEHEI:  There‘s a lot of healing that has to happen between those two camps.  It‘s ridiculous for it not to take place.  They need the Clintons.  The Clintons can raise a lot of money.  They are both very popular with huge segments of the Democratic party.  I‘m surprised that there‘s only been one phone call between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and that there hasn‘t been more effort to repair the damage that was clearly done and done pretty badly during that primary. 

BARNICLE:  Boy, off that comment, I don‘t know when the second call is going to come, after what he just said.  Jim Vandehei, Jill Zuckman, thanks very much.  Before we go, we have the results of our text survey.  We asked you to text message who you think would be a better president for the economy.  Here are the results; 83 percent say Barack Obama, 17 percent say John McCain. 

Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 eastern for more

HARDBALL.  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   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2008 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2008 ASC LLC ( www.ascllc.net) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and ASC LLC‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Watch Hardball each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,