updated 8/21/2008 11:25:37 AM ET 2008-08-21T15:25:37

Guests: Chuck Todd, Chris Cillizza, Ron Brownstein, Michael Smerconish, Joan Walsh,  Jeff Johnson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  A new poll shows Obama just 3 points up on McCain.  But will Barack get a bounce from his new VP and an even bigger bounce in the Mile-High City?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Leading off tonight, the latest NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll released just moments ago.  The new numbers confirm what we‘ve been seeing and suspecting for some time, that John McCain is making headway, that the race for president is getting closer.  The landscape still seems to favor Obama, but as the NBC News political blog “First Read” put it this morning, Obama can‘t make many more mistakes and expect to win.  And the McCain camp really thinks it can win now, something that wasn‘t the case a few months ago.  We‘ll have a complete look at this fascinating new poll in just a moment.

Plus, veepstakes Democratic style.  Barack Obama wasn‘t giving anything away today as he walked through a farmers market in North Carolina, batting down reporters‘ VP questions.

Meanwhile, Senator Joe Biden, who‘s believed to be in high contention for the VP slot, gave out bagels and coffee this morning to reporters camped out at the end of his driveway.  But gave no quarter to speculation he‘ll be Obama‘s pick.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION:  No phone conversations this morning, last night, anything?

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  Good talking to you guys.

(CROSSTALK)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And then we go to veepstakes Republican style.  Today, speaking in a town hall meeting in New Mexico, John McCain was asked if he‘d pick a VP that conservatives could rally around.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I will nominate a person to be vice president, my running mate, who shares my principles, my values and my priorities.  And that‘s the best that I can tell you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  The biggest question is whether McCain will risk alienating Christian conservatives with a pro-choice pick like Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, or even Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat, or he will appease them with a pro-lifer.  We just don‘t know.

And in the “Politics Fix” tonight, patriot games.  Obama accused McCain of questioning his patriotism.  McCain countered that it‘s Obama‘s judgment he questions.  So how much will patriotism matter to voters?  We‘re going to see tonight.

And in the HARDBALL “Sideshow” tonight, if lawmakers thought they‘d sit down to big dinners out in Denver or in St. Paul courtesy of a lobbyist at this year‘s conventions, they‘ll have to think again.  Thanks to new ethics rules passed last year, no sitting down and finger food only.  How‘s that going to go over?

Anyway, but we begin tonight with the NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll and small but significant movement in John McCain‘s direction.  The new poll has Obama leading McCain now—look at these numbers -- 45 percent to 42 percent.  That‘s a 3-point lead, of course.  Just one month ago, Obama‘s lead in our own poll, NBC poll, was 6 points, 47 to 41.  That tightening of the race is something we‘ve seen in all the other polls, as well.

NBC News political director Chuck Todd is here with me for much more on the new poll, and we‘re going to get to a real nugget here, coming to the poll.  Let‘s look at this lead here.  Obama leads by 21 points on health care, by 22 points on jobs, by 12 points on the economy.  So on domestic issues, the guy‘s in good shape.

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  He absolutely is getting the Democratic vote.  One could argue that his leads need to be a little bit bigger on improving the economy.  Being plus-12 needs to be closer to plus-15, plus-20, which is what a generic Democrat would be at.

MATTHEWS:  So what I‘m doing is profiling a generic VP he‘s got to pick right now.

Here‘s McCain‘s lead where Obama has a weakness.  McCain‘ ahead by 28 points on the issue of terrorism, by 25 points on dealing with international crises like the Russian situation with Georgia and with Iran, and by 10 points on Iraq itself, which has always been a problem area for Republicans.  So it looks like he needs somebody with a job description of foreign policy.

TODD:  Absolutely.  If you believe that that‘s what you need to do with your vice presidential pick, then this is the hole.  The thing that has to be a little distressing to team Obama is that the trip, overseas trip, didn‘t move these numbers at all, didn‘t budge them.  It didn‘t inch them up in any little nugget.  We couldn‘t find any evidence of it.  So that tells you he really does need to calm whatever this—voters that really believe, Look, McCain‘s ready.  They‘re always going to believe he‘s more experienced than Obama.  Obama now needs to figure out how to pass whatever threshold it is.  That‘s why Joe Biden has risen to the top of this list.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  So team Obama needs strength on defense.  Let‘s take a look at these other numbers because now we‘re getting to the sweet spot of this poll information.  Forty-one percent McCain voters say he‘s the lesser of two evils.  That‘s not very impressive in terms of emotion.  Only 12 percent of the people who are for McCain say they‘re excited about him.

It‘s almost the opposite with Obama voters, where 46 percent are really excited about voting for him, 18 percent say he‘s just the lesser of two evils.  They don‘t like the Republicans.

Let‘s move on to that.  In a hypothetical match-up—now, this is where pollsters get into troublemaking here.  Hillary Clinton had dropped out of the race two months ago, but here it is, she‘s beating John McCain by 6 points.  That‘s a better edge than Barack Obama, the nominee.

TODD:  Well, it is.  And here‘s why, though.  When you look at the undecided number among Obama and McCain, OK, it‘s 13 percent.  That 3-point margin -- 13 percent.  Nearly half of all undecided voters in the actually presidential contest are people that supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries.  So she right now—the vote that‘s left, that‘s left to get, right—McCain and Obama have carved up all the partisan vote.  The vote that‘s left to get is a vote that loves Hillary Clinton.  These are the women under 50.

MATTHEWS:  Catholics.

TODD:  They‘re—they make less than $50,000.  They‘re Catholic.  They don‘t live in the urban and suburban areas, they live in small town and rural America, the places that Bill Clinton spent all his time campaigning.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  And oh, by the way, they love Bill Clinton.

MATTHEWS:  They love—OK...

TODD:  They hate George Bush.

MATTHEWS:  So these are the people that voted for Hillary Clinton, with the support of her husband, during the primaries.  When they were barnstorming Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, all those states.

TODD:  Well, rural North Carolina, too.  I mean, you look at all those counties that she carried in all those—those April, May, June states.

MATTHEWS:  They‘re sitting out there in a corral, 11 percent, we‘re told, right...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Eleven percent of all the American voters are sitting out there, loving the Clintons, not liking Barack Obama.  What has to happen between now and November to get that critical 11 percent to move into Barack Obama‘s column?

TODD:  Not just now and November, I think it‘s this next week.  This is—look, we got to remember about this convention.  This is the most eyeballs that will be on Barack Obama on any given night that we‘ve seen yet.  No matter how big all of the attention was during those primary nights, it is nothing like a political convention.  Hillary Clinton is going to be on national television, broadcast networks and cable.  She...

MATTHEWS:  Tuesday night.

TODD:  Tuesday night.  Bill Clinton is going to do the same thing on Wednesday night, although just cable.  It won‘t be broadcast...

MATTHEWS:  And then Barack does—he‘s clean-up hitter on Thursday.

TODD:  He is.  But the Clintons are now so important to Obama, they have to make the case not only that they support Obama but that they believe Obama is ready to be president.  This group of voters is going to be actually listening to the Clintons.  They‘re going to watch this convention.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  They‘re Democrats.  This 11 percent, 80 percent of them are Democrats or independents.  They‘re going to watch this convention.  You know, some people want to say, Oh, they‘re low-information voters.  They‘re not low-information voters.  They‘re going to watch this convention.  So Hillary and Bill are people they trust.  That doesn‘t mean that the overall electorate, Hillary and Bill may help or hurt Obama.  But among this slice of voters, the easiest slice of voters potentially for Obama to get because they agree with him on all the issues, they‘re going to listen to the Clintons.  And the Clintons have to make the case, I know this guy, he‘s ready, I like him, he can lead.  And that‘s...

MATTHEWS:  Can they do it?

TODD:  I don‘t know.  You know, I think Hillary—you talk to people around Hillary Clinton, she‘s ready to do that speech.  She will do whatever speech because she knows if she is ever seen as not helping Obama, it will hurt her in the long run, hurt her with African-Americans, and she‘ll never be president herself.  It‘s the Bill Clinton question, I think, that a lot of people are going to watch.

MATTHEWS:  People believe he‘s still angry about the way that the Barack campaign dealt with him in the primaries and will not come in and help him win.

TODD:  Look, he‘s going to speak.  You got to assume he‘s going to do...

MATTHEWS:  Well, nobody turns down a chance to speak.

TODD:  That‘s right.  And you got to assume he‘s going to say and do all the right things.  But how does he say it?  What kind of enthusiasm is behind it?  Look, you know, somebody would say, Geez, just when you think this election is not about the Clintons, maybe the election eventually won‘t be about the Clintons, but this convention, in some says, whether Obama likes it or not, the group of voters he—the group of Democrats that he has yet to unite are Clinton Democrats.

MATTHEWS:  The ball game, isn‘t it.  The ball game.  Eleven percent of voters...

TODD:  He‘s got to get...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... can sit there, still pro-Clinton, pro-Hillary Clinton, very much pro-Bill Clinton, Catholic, working class, less than $50,000 a year on average, pro-choice, they don‘t like the way the country‘s being run by the Republicans...

TODD:  Twelve percent approve of...

MATTHEWS:  ... everything...

TODD:  ... of the job President Bush has done.

MATTHEWS:  Of that—of that 11.

TODD:  These are not somehow hidden Republicans that supported Clinton in the primary.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think I know these people.  I think a lot of them are up in Pennsylvania and Ohio and states like that.

TODD:  And you can‘t, by the way, assume it‘s race, either.  And I don‘t know people to jump to conclude, Oh, these are people—they‘re not on race.  It‘s not there yet.  They just—they don‘t—they don‘t know Obama and they—and for six months, the Clintons told them Obama‘s not one of them.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, they—so in other words...

TODD:  So there‘s that, too, yes.

MATTHEWS:  ... the primary—the afterglow of the primaries remains.  They‘ve still got—let‘s take a look at some other numbers here.  Twenty-nine percent of the voters in our new poll just out today—tonight, actually—believe that John McCain is running a negative campaign.  Only 5 percent believe that Barack Obama—now, here before we jump to the highbrow conclusion that people don‘t like negative campaigning—they always say that—look at this, 60 percent say they can identify with McCain‘s background and values.  Only 50 percent with Obama.  In fact, if you look at that 50 percent, it‘s up against 42 percent who can identify with him.  So all this attack by McCain the last several weeks, where he questions the guy‘s patriotism—let‘s be honest about it, he‘s questioning whether he‘s running a campaign in self-interest, rather than in the national interest—it‘s working.

TODD:  Yes and no.  Actually, that number on the values, it was 47 percent in our last poll.  So Obama‘s actually got it at 50 percent.  Peter Hart and...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... negatives, how high they are.

TODD:  There‘s no doubt, but...

MATTHEWS:  Forty-two percent don‘t think he‘s one of us.

TODD:  We asked another question—we asked another question about whether—if they‘ve heard good news or bad news over the last—you know, over the last few days, over the last month on the campaign, and more said they heard negative on both sides.  So the negative campaign—it‘s been effective for McCain on narrative and a lot of things, but you actually can‘t prove that it‘s hurt McCain and totally hurt Obama because, again, that number went up on values, not down.

MATTHEWS:  John McCain‘s birthday is coming up week after next, right?

TODD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s going to be 73?

TODD:  Seventy-two.

MATTHEWS:  Seventy-two.  OK, I‘m not pushing him.  He‘s 72.  The voters in this poll were asked, in our poll, What would you say if he said, I‘m only going to serve one term?  In other words, run for four years, not run for eight, like most presidents do.  Looks like it has no positive impact -- 81 percent say it doesn‘t make any difference.  At least, they say that.  Ten percent are actually less inclined to support him, rather than 8 percent are more inclined.  So denying that you‘re going to be a real eight-year president doesn‘t help.

TODD:  Well, I think it means that the voters—we in the Beltway, I think, get ourselves caught up in assuming that voters assume we‘re electing a president for eight years.  I think voters realize there‘s elections every four years, and they are thinking about this four years at a time.  If for some reason, they told the voters, Hey, this guy might be 80 at the end of his second term, well, then, that might be an issue.  But it doesn‘t matter.  They know this is four years at a time.  So I think this is one of those cases where—look, we thought we were putting on a smart question, Let‘s take a look, let‘s see what it is.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  I think voters are smarter than us. They know, Hey, we have elections every four years.

MATTHEWS:  He looked—I mean, this gets into cosmetics, but I thought he looked very strong in the Rick Warren night last Saturday night.

TODD:  He did.

MATTHEWS:  He didn‘t look—obviously, people always can have (ph) a look on a bad day.  I thought McCain looked resilient.  He had a lot of pep.  He was sparking.  He was hitting the marks, hitting the points, and he seemed to be enjoying himself, which I think is another way of saying, I‘m not too tired for this job.  I actually relish it.

TODD:  No, there is, and it‘s almost as if somebody got to him—you know, there was always a trick that Reagan did that they were very good at, is any time—you know, you always leap up onto a stage.  You always make sure you...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  ... give an extra jump...

MATTHEWS:  Spry.

TODD:  And I think that they know that McCain always needs to do—he already is that way.  He already is sort of an Energizer bunny...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  ... type of guy.  He needs to show it all the time.  And in fact, he‘s feeling so good that our own Kelly O‘Donnell was saying earlier this week McCain was pushing back on the idea of even taking time off.  He‘s feeling good.  He wants to keep going.  And he‘s kind of on a roll.  Why stop if you‘re—if you‘re on a roll?  And of course, he‘s an old gambler.  Gamblers don‘t like to stop when they‘re on a roll, when things are going good, so...

MATTHEWS:  Well, this is an amazing election.  Chuck Todd, thank you.

Coming up: Everyone‘s waiting to see Barack Obama‘s pick for VP.  Who‘s he going to pick?  That‘s coming up right now.  By the way, a lot of talk, a lot of people in the driveway at Biden‘s house over there in Wilmington, Delaware, a lot of people hanging around out there.  Maybe that‘s a sign of what we think.  We got the Irish betting odds coming up.  I‘ll tell you where they stand on Biden.  A lot of indicators that it‘s going to be him, but of course, that guy right there knows, and he‘s keeping it secret.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  So how close is Barack Obama to picking his number two guy, and who‘s it going to be?  Ron Brownstein is the political director for Atlantic Media, and Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix” for Washingtonpost.com.

Well, you know, I like the way “The New York Times”—and it is very good at this, but they did (INAUDIBLE) the other night—it could be as early as Wednesday.  And the only thing they were really announcing is it‘s not tomorrow, you know, when they put out the paper that day.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM:  I just feel like, for my own personal life at this point, I want it to be over with because everywhere I go, if I tell anyone what I do, they say, Who‘s it going to be?  And then I have to—then I have to say over and over again, Well, I don‘t know.

MATTHEWS:  Chris, you young guy, two years into an administration, when nothing‘s going on...

CILLIZZA:  I‘ll be begging for...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... chasing the Chandra Levy story and you‘ll be dying for a VP pick.

RON BROWNSTEIN, ATLANTIC MEDIA:  You know, I was talking to Walter Mondale...

MATTHEWS:  The junkies have left us by then!

BROWNSTEIN:  I was talking to Walter Mondale last week for something that we were doing in our “National Journal On Air”...

MATTHEWS:  What a name dropper!

BROWNSTEIN:  And he—no, no.  This was an interview.  And he reminded—he reminded that he was not notified by Jimmy Carter that he was the selection until 8:30 in the morning on the day his name was put into nomination.  And the only reason he had an acceptance speech was because they had done a little kind of, you know, preparatory work, just in case.  He had to put in a separate phone line in his hotel room, in the Hotel Carlyle (ph), to get the call.  So I don‘t think it‘ll go quite that far, but Obama certainly is...

MATTHEWS:  Who wrote the speech, Marty Kaplan (ph), right?

BROWNSTEIN:  Probably Marty Kaplan.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And you know why he didn‘t pick Muskie, why he picked Mondale?  Muskie was about two times as tall as he was.  Nobody picks a VP...

BROWNSTEIN:  There you go.

MATTHEWS:  ... that‘s dramatically taller than they are.

CILLIZZA:  So we can rule out...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me—let‘s take a look at this.  Here‘s Senator Obama last night in North Carolina on who he wants and why for VP.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I want somebody who is—is independent, somebody who is able to say to me, You know what, Mr.  President?  I think you‘re wrong on this, and here‘s why.  I want somebody who‘s not in it just because they want to have their name up in lights or end up being president.  That‘s the kind of person that I want, somebody who, in their gut, knows where they came from and believes that we have to grow this country from the bottom up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I like the last part, We have to grow the country from the bottom up, because it‘s really what we got to do this century, and everybody knows it.  We got to get back in the economic game with the world by doing things over again.

But when he said, I want a “No man,” I want a Dutch uncle—do they really want someone to say, you know—you know...

BROWNSTEIN:  I actually think Obama, his experience, what we know of him is that he does like being exposed to dissenting views.  But you know what‘s interesting?  The names that he‘s talking about now, by and large, might be people who could help him with governing, Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, Tim Kaine.  At the moment, except for the one who shall not be named, none of them really seem to me likely to have a big electoral impact.

MATTHEWS:  And the ineffable name is Hillary.

BROWNSTEIN:  Hillary Clinton.  I mean, Hillary Clinton is probably the one person on the list who could have an electoral impact.  The others might, in fact, be very good on the criteria he set out, but not necessarily helping him get to the point where he has to worry about it.

MATTHEWS:  Fresh evidence on that, we have a new NBC poll out, we were just describing, that shows 11 percent of the entire American electorate—one in nine, basically—who are Hillary-ites, Bill Clinton-ite, down the line Democrats, even pro-choice, Catholic pro-choice, working people not making a lot of money, all the way against Bush, want to vote Democrat and aren‘t going to vote for Barack Obama now.

CILLIZZA:  I‘ve always thought...

MATTHEWS:  Hillary could deliver them.

CILLIZZA:  ... that the only way that Barack Obama would pick Hillary Clinton, if it is—if it became abundantly clear to him and his political team that not picking her would seriously jeopardize his chances of being president.  I do not think, in his heart of heart, he wants to pick her.  I think he does not believe it is consistent with his messaging, changing the faces of people.

But he‘s also—and he has shown this—I feel like this is important with Obama—the guy is a pragmatist in his heart of hearts.  He opts out of public financing, even though he knows the left is going to—is going to beat him up over it.  He goes back on domestic wiretapping, because he knows that it‘s just not a great issue for him as a general election candidate. 

If it is demonstrated to him in a clear and concise way...

MATTHEWS:  But can he get that information by next week or by...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s too early.

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  I also don‘t think—just very quickly, it‘s hard, I think, if you have not seriously vetted Hillary Clinton—and I would put in parentheses Bill Clinton, her husband, which—who would also need to be seriously vetted.

It‘s hard, even if Barack Obama says today, you know what, this “Wall Street Journal”/NBC poll shows that we have to pick her.  He‘s running out of time to do that.  And to vet people like the Clintons, who have been in public life for as long as they have, in 48 hours, gets into murky territory. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s watch the guy who is probably going to get it, just based on the Irish betting odds and where all the cameras are right now.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  A lot of people in this business that is running out of money sometimes, journalism, are putting their stakes at the Biden house. 

Here they are today, and the senator passing out, I think, bagels at this point. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION:  Senator, anything to report?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  Successful dump.  Dropped everything at the dump.  It all worked out. 

And, by the way, I have a second load, guys, coming.  Anybody who wants to help me unload, let me know.  Those stumps weigh about 150 pounds.  So, my son—by the way, this is my nephew.  You‘re going to read about him playing baseball, great baseball player, heading off to college.

That‘s all I have got to report, guys.  I know nothing.

(CROSSTALK)

BIDEN:  I know nothing.

(CROSSTALK)

BIDEN:  I don‘t—I have not had another single thing I could tell you. 

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION:  Could you tell us about your trip to Georgia?

(CROSSTALK)

BIDEN:  Yes, I should, but I will do that after—after this is all over.  Thanks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, what do you know, a regular guy hauling off tree stumps off to the local dump.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN:  A good Irish pol handing out bagels like a one-man unity breakfast. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  They‘re probably green bagels.  No, that was the earliest stop-by.  They had three stop-bys today.  The first one was, he handed out bagels and coffee, a bag of them, at least.

The second time, he was heading off to make his first dump, which was successful, he points out, of tree stumps.  The third time, he was going to get some other guys to help him. 

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN:  Biden bring as lot of assets on a day-to-day basis as a vice president nominee.

He is—he can be very effective at carrying the argument.  He knows McCain‘s record.  He has no hesitation about going after McCain.  And he does reinforce Obama in an area where he‘s weak.  But he‘s not someone who is going to change the contours of the election. 

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t think he‘s going to be a game-changer? 

BROWNSTEIN:  The exact phrase that one Democratic strategist was saying, none of the people we are talking about are game-changers. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But, you know, he may be the first who person in American journalistic history who enjoys having people stake out his house. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Usually, it‘s about being indicted, you know.

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  Reporters everywhere looking for a story between September and November are anxiously awaiting Joe Biden, because Joe Biden is a guy who will stop over and over again. 

One quick point on him.  You played that Barack Obama clip earlier, where he said, here‘s what I want in my V.P.  One thing he said that I thought was interesting, not someone who is looking to have their name up in lights in four or eight years to be president.

MATTHEWS:  And who would that be?

CILLIZZA:  That could fit, frankly, Evan Bayh, who has had—who has had—made no—thought about running this time around, clearly would like to be president of the United States or vice president of the United States.

Joe Biden is more in the Dick Cheney mold of a pick. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

CILLIZZA:  An older statesman within the party, not a guy who is going to spend every single day figuring out, do I need to separate myself from the nominee?  Can I support Barack on this?  Well, how will this affect my future.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Just to remind me, who was head of the selection committee for vice president when they got Cheney? 

(LAUGHTER)

CILLIZZA:  I believe it was Dick Cheney, was it not? 

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  So, that would suggest Caroline—Caroline Kennedy, then, is the nominee.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN:  One quick thing to keep in mind.

Your poll today is the fourth poll in the last week that shows Obama running only around 80 percent among Democrats, compared to McCain doing 85 percent to 90 percent of Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

BROWNSTEIN:  So, one of the things that he‘s got to look for in this next week—I mean, job one, really, and—and perhaps why he be able to have a successful convention is because his numbers are somewhat artificially depressed by having this very low performance in his own party. 

Is there a vice president who will excite Democrats, to begin with, maybe as the first step?  Again, you think Hillary Clinton has a better chance of doing that than anybody else.  But Biden is certainly someone who has run for president, known in the party...

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

BROWNSTEIN:  ... and may be able to give you some ground along that...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  This is tricky to talk about, because it‘s totally unfair, but when you ask people, does this—can you identify with this person‘s background, and we have got a poll that shows only roughly half the people don‘t really identify with Barack‘s background.  He comes from a biracial background.  His father is from Kenya.  He spent a lot of time overseas in Indonesia when he was growing up. 

A lot of say, I don‘t—and he‘s also extremely well-educated, from quality Ivy League institutions, so Columbia and Harvard Law.  So, maybe people quite can‘t get along with him.  But Biden is sort of your classic, isn‘t he? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Scranton, working...

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  Always, I mean the legendary story of Joe Biden is, goes back to Delaware every single night on Amtrak, knows the names of the conductors, knows the names of the people who take the tickets. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

CILLIZZA:  Biden, despite the fact that he‘s been in the Senate since he was 30 years old, 1972, does have that common touch. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You know what else?  The 1960s, a black swimming pool in Wilmington, Delaware, everybody in the swimming pool on a hot summer is black.  Everybody—the life guards are all black, except for one guy, Joe Biden. 

He‘s had a little bit of experience with regular people and dealing with cross-racial situations, which I was very impressed by.  Dug that up in his book.  And he had a few fights with people, too. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s very interesting.

Anyway, Ron Brownstein, Chris Cillizza.

Ahead: the leading contenders to be John McCain‘s running mate.

And, up next, the HARDBALL “Sideshow” and new evidence the McCain campaign may successfully be luring Clinton supporters to their side.  Wow.  That‘s interesting. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only here on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Time now for the “Sideshow.” 

The liberals are coming.  Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh rang the conservative four-alarm fire bell on word that John McCain might pick a—for V.P. Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman, people that don‘t really support—or do support abortion rights. 

Listen to Rush Limbaugh warning about this. 

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

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  If he picks a pro-choice running mate, it‘s not going to be pretty.  If the McCain camp does that, they will have effectively destroyed the Republican Party and pushed the conservative movement into the bleachers. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  The bleachers.

Anyway, when‘s the last time you sat in the cheap seats, Rush? 

Next: Clinton drama around.  We know top McCain Carly Fiorina is out mining Hillary land right now, hoping to pick up votes from disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters.  Yesterday, she was doing it among Democrats in Pennsylvania coal country. 

But get this.  “The Scranton Times Tribune” report that Senator McCain‘s—Senator Clinton‘s brother, Tony Rodham, showed up at Fiorina‘s private gathering, along with other former Clinton supporters.  So, is Hillary her brother‘s keeper? 

And hold the extras.  “The New York Times” reports that party planners for Denver and Saint Paul have been forced to do away with chairs and forks, in favor of finger food.  Why?  Because members of Congress and senators passed new ethics rules last year banning any gifts from lobbyists, including meals.  The rules only allow them and their staffs to eat snack food that you can eat standing up, like at a reception, but strictly forbids the taking of an actual sit-down meal. 

Welcome to the world order.  A political action committee can make a $10,000 contribution to a senator, but has to make sure he or she eats their meatballs one at a time off toothpicks, not in a plate with spaghetti.  That‘s the difference. 

Now for tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

It‘s crunch time for Barack Obama, obviously.  Earlier in the show, we brought the expert picks on Obama‘s number-two guy.  Now we turn to the oddsmakers.  So, who are the traders over at Dublin-based Intrade.com putting their money on?  Joe Biden, who they say has a 44 percent chance of getting the call from Obama, almost even money now on the man from Delaware for Democrat V.P.

Forty-four percent on Biden, that‘s tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Up next:  Could John McCain really pick a running mate who is pro-choice?  Or would that get him into big hot water with the conservatives?  We will look at names on the McCain short list coming up right away.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILISSA REHBERGER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Milissa Rehberger.  Here‘s what‘s happening. 

Officials say at least 153 people were killed when a Spanish airliner crashed during and burst into flames during takeoff from Madrid.  About 175 people were reportedly on board the Spanair flight bound for the Canary Islands.  The plane was an American-made MD-82. 

There is late word that Ohio Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones has died after suffering a brain hemorrhage yesterday.  She was first elected 10 years ago and was one of Senator Hillary Clinton‘s biggest boosters during the primaries.  She was only 58 years old. 

Russian forces built sentry posts and dug trenches today in Georgia.  They showed few signs that they would pull back later this week, as promised.

And Tropical Storm Fay has resumed, heading north along Florida‘s Central Atlantic Coast, after stalling for hours near Cape Canaveral.  Fay has been dumping torrential rain and flooded hundreds of homes today in Brevard and Saint Lucie counties.  Fay is expected turn to the northwest tomorrow and move slowly across northern Florida—now back to HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Stephanie Tubbs Jones, I will have a word on her later.  What a wonderful public service—servant—I have to tell you, someone who really was happy serving the people.  All the time we have had her on, I always remembered her charm and her happiness in serving the public.

Anyway, now the Republican veepstakes tonight.  Will McCain swing way right or down the middle?  Is it going to be Joe Lieberman, a Democrat who‘s pro-choice?  Is it going to be Tom Ridge, who is pro-choice? 

Joining me right now, radio talk show host Michael Smerconish from Philadelphia, and MSNBC political analyst Joe Watkins, also in the City of Brotherly Love, with a different backdrop.

Let‘s look at what McCain said here.  I think it‘s food for thought.  Here he is at a town meeting in New Mexico, where he got a few questions about his V.P. prospects. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Are you going to pick a vice president that conservatives can actually rally around in the future, or are you going to give us someone who will cause us to want to stay home, perhaps? 

Thank you. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, sir, may I say, at least according to the polling data we have, we are doing very well with our base. 

We have a lot more work to do to energize our base.  We also have to energize our base who cares a lot about our lack of fiscal responsibility, who are very angry. 

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN:  We also are...

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN:  We also are going to have to energize our base that cares about this nation‘s security, which is probably, and when we look at the challenges we face, probably very significant. 

I will choose a president—a nominee—I will nominate a person to be vice president, my running mate, who shares my principles, my values and my priorities. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow. 

Let me go to Michael Smerconish. 

You know, that was an interesting Freudian slip there.  He said, “I‘m picking a president,” Because many believe That the person he picks, more so than the person that Barack Obama picks, is really his prospect to be his successor.  At his age, he‘s really looking down the line to the future.  And, of course, he must consider, if he picks a much younger person, man or woman, that they would be a prospective successor to him.

What did you make of that statement by Senator McCain?  

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  I may of that statement that he need not focus only on the base.  He needs to focus on the middle, because the base, represented by folks like my good friend Joe Watkins...

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH:  ... they are coming out for John McCain.  And no vice president selection, in my view, is going to afford them the opportunity to sit at home. 

And I‘ll tell you why, Chris.  

REVEREND JOE WATKINS, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  That‘s right.  I agree.

SMERCONISH:  In the end, this is a referendum on Barack Obama.  Me, I‘m of the opinion that he should look at someone like Tom Ridge, because the folks he needs to reach are those who are pro-choice.  The pro-life vote will be John McCain‘s on Election Day.

MATTHEWS:  What do you think, Joe?  Do you agree with that? 

WATKINS:  I do.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... shake the base a little bit and go for the middle? 

WATKINS:  I think that Michael is absolutely right.  I don‘t think that conservatives and evangelicals will stay at home.  I mean, folks might be angry if he picks somebody who is pro-choice. 

But, remember, because in 1980, Ronald Reagan angered the base for a moment when he chose a pro-choice to be his—person to be his running mate.  And Tom Ridge said it so well the other day.

He said, you know what?  Whoever the vice president is...

MATTHEWS:  Who was that?  Who was that?  You mean when he picked Schweiker the first time?

WATKINS:  No.  In 1980, Ronald Reagan picked George Herbert Walker Bush to be his running mate.

MATTHEWS:  But Bush is pro—he was pro-life by then. 

WATKINS:  Well, but, earlier on, he had been pro-choice. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Right. 

WATKINS:  And, so, there were some people in the pro-life community that protested, of course. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

WATKINS:  But—but Ronald Reagan knew what John McCain knows, which is that, whoever the running mate is, that person is my person.  They support my views on all the issues. 

MATTHEWS:  Here is another indication of what John McCain is thinking right now.  Here he is talking about the limited role of a vice president.  I thought it was an interesting comment. 

I want your gentlemen—both your gentlemen‘s response to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I would remind you that the vice president of the United States really only has two duties, when you think about it.  One is, in case there‘s a tie vote in the Senate, he comes to the floor—or she comes to the floor of the Senate and casts the tie-breaking vote.  That‘s the constitutional duty.

The other duty of the vice president is to inquire daily as to the health of the president. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  There he is again talking about his successor. 

Michael, he can‘t get off of that.  It‘s like “No Country For Old Men.”  He keeps going back to this. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Michael, I know you‘re rooting for the home team guy there.  Maybe Joe is, too.  But Ridge gets picked, is he already circumscribing his role, saying, don‘t worry; I will keep him out of abortion issues; he‘s not going to be an all-powerful V.P., like Dick Cheney, who is my Dutch uncle; he‘s going to be a guy with a limited role?

SMERCONISH:  I think that‘s probably what Senator McCain had in mind. 

And the sound bite to which Joe was referring over the weekend was Tom Ridge saying all the right things, essentially, “I‘m going to buy into the program if I‘m the vice president of the United States.”

I will tell you something, Chris.  I think that if Biden is selected, as you seem to be prognosticating and your friends across the pond seem to be predicting, I think that enhances a selection of Ridge.  I‘ll tell you why: here we are in Philadelphia.  This media market is the Delaware media market.  Southeastern Pennsylvania is going to dictate how Pennsylvania will to go.  Biden is popular here.  In other words, the pick of Biden, I think, is with Pennsylvania very much in mind.  The way to counteract that, Ridge. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, because, Joe, as you guys both know, Joe Biden is often called the third senator from Pennsylvania, because Delaware really is tucked up against Philadelphia on the border there.  Do you think that would be the strategic response by McCain? 

WATKINS:  It would be a great strategic response by McCain because Pennsylvania is so important.  Tom Ridge brings along the rust belt as well.  Other states nearby, Ohio and others, by virtue of their proximity to Pennsylvania.  Let‘s face it, Ridge was a very popular two term Pennsylvania governor, was reelected by 57 percent of the vote in running for reelection in 2002.  That was in a four-man race, by the way. 

He‘s a guy that‘s got a great fiscal—he had a great record as governor of Pennsylvania.  Now, he has the national security bona fides as the first homeland security chief.  So he‘s a very, very attractive candidate for vice president. 

MATTHEWS:  Is America ready for a popular vice president?  I mean, the numbers on Cheney today, guys, in our new poll are unbelievable.  The president, he has the support of like one out of seven people.  Cheney has even less support.  Do you think likability for the VP might just be a benefit in this battle between the Pennsylvania alternatives here? 

SMERCONISH:  It‘s not the way it began.  The Cheney numbers, when it all began seven or eight years ago now, was a lot different.  I also want to give a plug for Mitt Romney.  If the economy is going to dictate the issue, Romney is a heck of a pick for John McCain as well.  In my view, it‘s got to be one or the other. 

WATKINS:  I agree.  I wish I could say that Michael doesn‘t know what he‘s talking about, but Michael is right on point here.  If economy is the most important issue, you got a guy who ran a couple of companies, did a great job at Bane Capital, took over Bane and Company when Bane and Company was having a tough time, had an incredible internal rate of return on investments, really provided a return on investment for investors. 

He‘s a smart guy, understands the economy.  He did a great job with the Olympics a few years back.  He did a great job as governor of Massachusetts.  Very, very strong on issues of economies and also is a strong conservative. 

MATTHEWS:  To quote that great political action figure from Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics, Peter Turpelac (ph), the real game changer here is the selection.  The real game changer—you guys both know him.  He was the ambassador of Luxembourg.  You can tell our situation over there got better and better—

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  Peter Turpelac believes that the selection of Tom Ridge is a game changer in this election.  It brings the middle, it brings Pennsylvania clearly in play.  It shakes the Democrat board game upside down.  It‘s 52 pick up.  Anybody can win, if it‘s Ridge.  Does he have the stuff to pick Ridge and take on the Tony Perkins of this world and the religious right.  Yes or no, Michael Smerconish? 

SMERCONISH:  Absolutely, yes, he does. 

MATTHEWS:  Joe Watkins, same question.  Does he have the stones or whatever you want to call them these days? 

WATKINS:  Absolutely.  John McCain is his own man and is not at all hesitant about making strong decisions.  He‘s a very decisive guy.  We witnessed that Saturday at the forum in California. 

MATTHEWS:  I want to say thank you, gentlemen.  It‘s great having you both on, Michael Smerconish and Joe Watkins.  I said something about it a moment ago, because it‘s a tragedy.  I want to say something about Ohio Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones.  We got to know her throughout this campaign.  As we reported earlier in the program, she just died after suffering a brain hemorrhage.  I believe it was an aneurysm.  She was a guest on this program often, especially during the incredible presidential race out in the Ohio race there. 

She loved serving the people of her district.  You could tell it.  She sparkled when she talked about her job.  It‘s Cleveland.  The Cleveland area must be in real sadness tonight.  She relished her job, you know.  There she is smiling.  That is her in life.  That‘s the way we‘re going to remember her.  What a great public servant, one of the nice people you get to meet in this business, because, again, it seems like an odd thing to say, there‘s something about a person that loves their job.  It just radiates.  That woman did.  I think the people she served benefited so much from Stephanie Tubbs Jones.  What a funeral that‘s going to be in Cleveland.  We lost her today at the age of just 58.  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and the politics fix.  Tonight‘s round table, host of BET‘s “The Truth”—I like that—“the Truth” with Jeff Johnson, and Joan Walsh, who is joining us as well.  Jeff, take a look at this poll.  There‘s Joan.  They are all coming together, Joan and Jeff.  Here‘s a new CBS poll just out tonight.  It‘s fascinating.  It shows Barack Obama stayed at 45.  But McCain has come up from 39 to 42.  Jeff, what do you make of that?  These are all congealing, these polls.  They‘re showing a race that‘s all within the margin of error. It had been an Obama advantage. 

JEFF JOHNSON, BET:  I think a couple things.  I think starting from coming back from Europe, the Obama campaign didn‘t have the energy that they wanted coming out of that.  In the last few weeks, McCain has done a miraculously better job at messaging than he had been doing before.  Lastly, I think this last piece with Pastor Warren at Saddleback Church was incredibly more beneficial for McCain as a candidate than it was for Obama. 

MATTHEWS:  Joan?

JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM:  I totally agree with Jeff.  I think Obama is off his game.  McCain is on it.  McCain has been running a really negative campaign, Chris.  I don‘t care what he says.  He is attacking his patriotism.  It‘s nasty.

On the other hand, Obama said he‘s going to swing back.  But really what he‘s saying is, please don‘t attack my patriotism.  That‘s not being aggressive.  Finally, I was really disappointed with both his going to Saddleback, but also with his performance there.  If you‘re going to go, if you‘re going to go into the lions den, be on your game.  Instead, he was very, kind of, you know, warm and sweet, but he didn‘t deliver any punches. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at John McCain—I think we have the tape right now of John McCain saying he‘s not attacking Barack Obama‘s patriotism, and then we have a tape of him actually doing that very thing. 

We don‘t have that.  We‘re going to show that because it‘s fascinating.  This whole thing about—there was an old rule of Pennsylvania politics, Jeff and Joan, which is in the first day of the campaign, hitting the other guy where he‘s week.  You can use whatever metaphor you want for that, but hitting him hard below the belt.  And then in the second half of the campaign, while he‘s playing defense from his reputation being torn to shreds, you talk about the future of the state.  Is that the game that the Republicans are playing?  Hit Barack Obama on his patriotism, on choosing politics over his love of country, nailing him on that—

Here he is.  Let‘s do it.  Let‘s watch John McCain.  Everybody judge this form themselves.  Here he is talking about this patriotism issue. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Yesterday, Senator Obama got a little testy on this issue.  He said I‘m questioning his patriotism.  Let me be very clear.  I‘m not questioning his patriotism.  I am questioning his judgment.  I am questioning his judgment. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t we have a tape of him actually do that very thing? 

JOHNSON:  Well, I think, you know, what we have here is him having to say judgment—

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve seen it about 5,000 times, so I hope we can get it on the air tonight.  Let‘s go, Jeff? 

JOHNSON:  We hear him so convinced about what he‘s saying that he has to read it twice.  He‘s saying judgment on one end, but clearly the rhetoric, over and over again, has been about how much Obama does or does not love America, and how much do the people connected to Obama love or not love America.  We can call it judgment all day long, but it clearly is a synonym for patriotism. 

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  I think we have it now.  Here he is at VFW, John McCain taking a shot at Obama. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Even in retrospect, he would choose the path of retreat and failure for America over the path of success and victory.  Behind all these claims and positions by Senator Obama lies the ambition to be president. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, he‘d say—he said I‘d rather lose an election than win a war.  He says Barack Obama would lose a war so he could win an election.  If that‘s not attacking a guy‘s patriotism, I don‘t know what is, Joan. 

WALSH:  Right, and he also said today, I think later in that clip, Chris—he said, I‘m not attacking his patriotism, but Obama doesn‘t care if America wins or loses in Iraq.  That‘s close to treason, if it‘s close to true.  Of course, it‘s not true.  So it‘s an outrageous thing to say.  It‘s a nasty thing to say.  But the problem is, it‘s working.  So, you‘re seeing Obama‘s negatives come up.  You‘re seeing his poll numbers fall.  And they don‘t really seem to have a plan to counteract that. 

MATTHEWS:  Jeff, could it be that McCain knows he‘s so strong on his own personal patriotism that this is turf from which he can attack the other guy as hard as he wants to, as nastily as he wants to know, and knows that there is no way that Barack can swing back. 

JOHNSON:  Yes, I don‘t think this is an issue of McCain.  McCain is walking out the playbook that he‘s been playing.  The Obama campaign has not been able to counter the way that they need to.  So McCain has been consistent.  What has to happen in the next few—really today, is that the Obama campaign has to find a better message than the one that they‘re using, and they have to hit as hard as McCain is hitting. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve seen this campaign before.  I think it was 1988. 

We‘ll be right back with the round table.  It‘s what happened with Dukakis.  He wouldn‘t support the pledge of allegiance in the classroom.  What‘s he up to?  What‘s his problem with the flag?  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the round table.  Jeff and Joan, let‘s just size up where we are right now in this election.  Democrats are meeting in Denver next week.  They have to pick a president and vice president to win the next presidential election.  How‘s it going?  Joan?  Big question, I know.  How‘s it going? 

WALSH:  It‘s not going as well as it could be.  I think that by dragging out this vice presidential decision, you know, I think people are waiting for a big bounce.  They‘re waiting for excitement.  I think if it‘s Evan Bayh and it‘s Tim Kaine, there‘s not going to be a lot of excitement.  I think Biden could provide excitement.  And then he‘s also, I think, created the situation where people are starting to talk about Hillary Clinton again, because, you know, I listen to the whole—I watch the whole show, Chris.  I saw all the poll numbers.  How do you not say, wow, Barack.  You have to think about her at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  Jeff, if this election gets close—I‘m sorry, go ahead, Joan. 

WALSH:  No, I just think it‘s not going as well as it could, but next week will be better. 

MATTHEWS:  If this election comes down to 50/50 proposition and the deciding 10 percent, who are going to decide which way to go in this thing, are Hillary people, Bill Clinton people, doesn‘t he to have to think about picking Hillary, even if he has to deal with the unsolved mystery of how to deal with Bill down the road? 

JOHNSON:  I think the most uncertain aspect of this DNC is the Hillary factor.  Not only where he is in the polls, but what is she going to say?  Is she going to say the things necessary next week that really push her supporters behind him, whether they‘re hecklers there or not.  What is she going to say?  I think you‘re right, Chris, at some point, the campaign has to seriously consider, can we win the way things are going now without Hillary to give us that extra bump? 

MATTHEWS:  Can she say anything that will convince her people, the hard core holdouts, if you will, the toughest people to convince?  Is the only way to convince them to pick her, Joan? 

WALSH:  I‘m not sure.  It would certainly help to pick her.  I noticed a lot of improvement in the tone of the way some people were talking in the last week, Chris.  That negotiation around getting her into nomination, it all went very well.  The two campaigns said really nice things about each other, not only on the record, but even off the record.  It went well.  So that was great.  I heard a lot of her supporters kind of feeling better.  OK, she‘s being respected.  She‘s going to Broward County.  She‘s in Florida for him all day tomorrow, in the heat of summer. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you.

WALSH:  I have no doubt she‘s going to do what‘s necessary.

MATTHEWS:  OK, Joan, thank you very much, Jeff, as well.  By the way, that‘s Michael Young right behind you there, the floor director.  Great guy there.  Thanks for the fruit, Michael.  Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann starts right now.

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