updated 9/25/2008 5:37:16 PM ET 2008-09-25T21:37:16

HARDBALL

September 24, 2008

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

Guest: Chuck Todd, Doug Holtz-Eakin, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Maxine Waters, Jenny Backus, Mike Paul, Bob Herbert, Karen Tumulty

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Delay of game, or is delay the game?

Let's play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I'm Chris Matthews. Leading off tonight: Could Friday's debate be postponed because of the economic crisis or because of politics? Here's what's happened today. The Obama campaign says Barack Obama called John McCain this morning, saying they should issue a joint statement of shared principles and urge Washington to act in a bipartisan manner. Then this afternoon, McCain announced he was suspending the campaign because of the crisis and called for Friday's debate to be delayed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Tomorrow morning, I'll suspend my campaign.

I'm directing my campaign to work with the Obama campaign and the Commission on Presidential Debates to delay Friday night's debate until we have taken action to address this crisis.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: And late today came Obama's response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: With respect to the debates, it's my belief that this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who in approximately 40 days will be responsible for dealing with this mess.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: So is this a genuine attempt on McCain's part to deal with the crisis, or is McCain-simply his reaction to his own deteriorating, plunging standing in the political polls? We'll take a look at the new developments and at the latest NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll out today.

Also, President Bush will address the nation on the economy tonight at 9:00 PM, and MSNBC will have full coverage of that event, again, 9:00 PM Eastern tonight.

All this happened on the second day of tough hearings on Capitol Hill on the increasingly unpopular Wall Street bail-out. In a moment, we'll talk to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

And assuming the debate does happen on Friday night, what do Obama and McCain need to do to win that debate? We'll talk to two people who've prepared Democrats and Republicans for debates about how they would advise both to behave to win tomorrow night.

In the "Politics Fix" tonight, we'll look at today's dramatic developments and whether John McCain has managed to change the national conversation from the crisis, which doesn't help him, to political tactics,

which often do.

And why could superstitious Democrats find themselves rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend and Republicans wind up cheering like mad for the Washington Redskins come Monday night before election day? That bit of political-actually football election trivia in the HARDBALL

"Sideshow" tonight.

But first, NBC News political director Chuck Todd. Chuck, here's a quote from Barney Frank, who's chairing that House Committee on Financial Services which is considering this bail-out package. Quote-in describing John McCain's call to delay the debate on Friday, quote, "It's the longest Hail Mary pass in the history of either football or Hail Marys."

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I think that's the way most people are struck because of the deteriorating poll numbers that John McCain is suffering. He doesn't look like a guy who wants to have a debate on a plunging elevator.

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, look, I think the fact is, when you're 41 days from a presidential election, every decision that is made by a candidate, even if they are trying to make it a statesman decision, is viewed through a partisan lens.

And so no matter what's going to happen, we're going to see this viewed through the partisan lens, where Democrats are going to say McCain is throwing a Hail Mary because he's having a bad couple of weeks, he can't get his footing on the economy, and Republicans are going to say, Look, Leon Panetta, the former White House-Democratic White House chief of staff, said this was an economic 9/11, and if this were a terrorist attack, we'd be saying, Suspend the campaign, do everything it takes to get the country prepared to deal with this crisis. Well, this is an economic version, so of course, you would throw everything aside and deal with this crisis.

So I think that, no matter what, McCain's decision is going to be viewed through a political prism...

MATTHEWS: Right.

TODD: ... because we're 41 days in. However, I think he feels like he's got the cover of the word "crisis," which is everybody is using in the media.

MATTHEWS: Well, the question, of course, is whether it is, in fact, objectively true. We're in a crisis by-in terms of not being able to reach a deal in the next couple of days. Apparently, the White House is not willing to back him up on that point.

TODD: Not only that-and the crisis politically for this deal is inside the Republican Party. This is the bigger issue here. I've talked to a bunch of congressional Democrats on the Hill today and some Congressmen Republicans. It's the Republicans that say, This deal is dead. The Democrats say, Well, this deal is only dead because they can't even get 100 House Republicans to get on board.

MATTHEWS: Right.

TODD: Congressman Democrats are willing to go half and half here, you know, saying, Hey, we'll help get this thing passed, but we're not doing it by ourselves. So the crisis, this political crisis that's taking place on the Hill is inside the House Republican caucus.

MATTHEWS: And also, yesterday, a reporter asked, I thought, a very pointed question of Senator McCain, asking him if his vote were decisive-in other words, if he was one of the 50 votes the president needed to pass his bail-out package-would he be aboard? And John McCain didn't answer the question. He's not comfortable saying he's with the bail-out effort himself.

TODD: Well, you know, Chris-and I don't want too scoop ourselves, but we've been playing this poll number all day. The country doesn't know what it wants to do in this bail-out plan.

MATTHEWS: Right.

TODD: And it goes to the heart of the bigger issue here and why, about 10 days too late, arguably, but the president of the United States is finally going to speak in primetime tonight-he might have done this three or four days ago, when they announced this thing-but to try to make the final sales pitch.

Chris, over 60 percent of people in our poll either disapprove of this plan or have no opinion. The "no opinion" thing should scare the living daylights out of the White House right now, and Hank Paulson and this plan, because it's those folks who are throwing up their hands going, We don't understand this things. Explain to me why we need it now.

MATTHEWS: Right. And by the way, when you're asked-when you're asked-a doctor says you need an appendectomy, you don't argue with him. You don't say, What's that all about? You say, OK. If there's a trust factor out there, as there has been in America's past, people would say, Let's do what we have to do.

TODD: Hey, if President Bush...

MATTHEWS: But in this case, I think there's a lack of trust...

TODD: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: ... on the part of the public going towards all politicians, but especially this administration. I think that's an objective thing.

TODD: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: Let's take a look right now at what's happening right now, our own poll, the NBC poll. Lead us into this. It looks like 48 to 46, a bit of a bump, just 2 points down for Barack up of-it was 47-46 weeks ago. Anything significant in that? Do you think that poll is telling us what's going on, or does it miss something, do you think?

TODD: Well, look, I think the one thing about our polling you got to understand is we have a very stable-we believe the electorate is a fairly stable thing right now between the partisan make-up of what election day's going to look like between Democrats and Republicans. And that 48-46 is a good measure of-if the election were held today, you really would get probably a 48-46, and that would be where we were sitting, inside the margin of error on this stuff. I know there are other polls out there that have been discussed all day today that show a giant lead for Obama. That one doesn't feel right, either. Maybe it's somewhere in between, when you start messing around with margin of error.

But go inside our poll a little bit, Chris, and you realize there is an unease with the electorate right now because of this economic crisis, and it's very well that they're hitting the pause button on the presidential candidates. They have a higher negative view of Obama and of McCain than they did two weeks ago. They have a more negative view of the Republican Party, of the Democratic Party, of Bush, of Sarah Palin, of Joe Biden.

This goes to what you said earlier in a question to me, which is-they're angry at Washington. They're upset. They've thrown their hands up a little bit.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: And when they're in that mode, well, who do you pick between Obama and McCain right now, when both of them have actually been fairly cautious on how to react to this thing, although for the first time, we're seeing somebody without caution.

MATTHEWS: Well, let's take a look at all three polls together. The NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll, which is our poll, shows a 2-point advantage for Obama, as opposed to a week or two weeks ago, when it was a 1-point advantage.

Now, here's the one you mentioned also. The ABC/"Washington Post" poll, also out today, earlier today, shows Obama up among registered voters 10 points, 52 to 42, as opposed to a very narrow poll two weeks ago they put out, which was 47-46. So they show a big spike for Obama during this economic crisis.

The Fox poll-the Fox poll, a 6-point advantage for Barack Obama, up 45-39, as opposed to being down 3 points two weeks ago. So overall, these polls seems to show a big shift. If ours is a bit behind, generally, the polls show a shift towards Barack Obama.

Let's take a look at this. I think this question is interesting. The NBC poll, this question, "Do you want a president who's good at dealing with progress and moving the country forward or do you want a president who's good at protecting what made America great"-the more traditional values, obviously. This one would seem to benefit Barack. Look at this, 63 percent worried about the future, moving forward, 33 percent about guarding what has been ours. How do you read that?

TODD: Well, here's what's interesting. We first started asking that question in November of '07, so almost a year ago. Do you know, it was 50-46 a year ago, when we were in the midst of the two primary campaigns.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: We had the Republicans arguing about immigration, and frankly, protecting what's made America great. Now because John McCain has become a change candidate and he's made his message about change, you know, now you have half of the Republican side saying progress and moving forward, and all of the Democratic vote.

The Obama vote, voters had always been sort of pulling that lever on that question in our poll. Now you're getting about half of the McCain voters saying that. And the reason being because McCain's telling them that. McCain is saying, Hey, guys, we got to move America forward. And picking Sarah Palin is seen by some inside the Republican Party as a forward-looking pick. So I think it means McCain has rejected this idea that you can't be a protectionist, you know, do that whole traditional values, protect what's made America great, right now.

MATTHEWS: Interesting. They (INAUDIBLE) reconsider their-we just got the word-I just got in my ear right now, the debate commission, which is running the debate Friday night and will run all four debates, including the vice presidential debate, have said, We're going ahead full speed. We're going to have the debate Friday night at Ole Miss as scheduled. So the commission says, We're going. Barack says, We're going. And to be fair, John McCain has not said he won't go, if there's a debate.

He simply advised there not be a debate.

Let me ask you this one here. I find this fascinating, what you said before. Let's go to the bail-out question because I think it shows what your-your point-it sort of backs up John McCain. It backs up the situation we're all in. Look at this number. "Are you for the bail-out plan?" Thirty-one percent say yes, they're with it. Thirty-three percent say they disapprove of it. And 28 percent say, "No opinion."

Again, I'm going to say this because I keep asking the experts and the best people in the world to explain it. It's hard to explain it. It's almost unfathomable to most people, what's going on in the financial markets. What do you make of that number, 31 four, 33 against, 28 no opinion? It just tells you, We don't know, right?

TODD: Exactly. When you get a result like that on a plan that is supposed to be universally sold to the American public-obviously, if you're wanting to get Congress to approve this thing...

MATTHEWS: Right.

TODD: ... it tells you haven't explained it very well. You haven't sold it. When you get a result like that, when a third of the respondents have no opinion, this is-again, this was the failure of the president to not go out immediately. And if this had been a natural disaster, if this had been a terrorist attack, President Bush...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: ... would have gone primetime a week ago, Chris. We're now 10 days after this collapse last Monday...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: ... two Mondays ago, and now he's going into primetime. Why? Because this thing's dying in Congress, and it's dying because of the House Republican caucus. So had they gotten out sooner, that number might have been better. People do listen to their president.

MATTHEWS: Right. I also think it's-I mean, Franklin Roosevelt in his "fireside chats" was able to explain the inexplicable. This is a hard one to explain because I kept trying to get it...

Let's go right now to Douglas Holtz-Eakin. He's, of course, a senior policy adviser with the McCain campaign. He's on the phone. Douglas, thank you for joining us. What is the position of Senator McCain, now that the debate commission says the debate will be held Friday night? Will he appear in the debate?

DOUG HOLTZ-EAKIN, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN SENIOR POLICY ADVISER: Well, I mean, Senator McCain will work with both Senator Obama and the debate commission about the scheduling of that debate. But the most important thing right now for the American people and for the future of this economy is to get into Washington and get something done on this great crisis that faces our nation. You know, we are 10 days into a crisis. It's clear that action is necessary. All the experts say so. It's clear that the first cut...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: ... at getting this done is failing. It's failing with the American people...

MATTHEWS: How-how-where has...

HOLTZ-EAKIN: ... and on Capitol Hill.

MATTHEWS: Where has Senator McCain been the past week physically? Where's he been geographically the last week? Has he been in Washington on Capitol Hill, working on this, or has he been elsewhere?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: Senator McCain has been both traveling, but also, as he said today in his statement, he's been in consultations with his economic advisers and (INAUDIBLE) members of Congress, and it became clear that there's an enormous divide between what is needed to get done on the ground we have a 9/11-style situation in our company...

MATTHEWS: Right.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: ... and what's actually happening on Capitol Hill. So it's a call for action. He reached out to Senator Obama to try to arrange for that action. Senator Obama interested in putting out...

MATTHEWS: Right.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: ... a statement of principles. So he has suspended his campaign to be in Washington.

MATTHEWS: But he's been out of town all week, campaigning, and he's been up with the Clinton Global Initiative. He's had time to do other things. Why is he not able to appear at the debate, if he's had the time for other things?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: He has been spending his time laying out, for example, last Friday, his plans to address this financial crisis.

MATTHEWS: Right.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: He talked again yesterday about the five things he thinks could improve the kind of plans that are going through Congress now. We're not seeing any action. And we can't let this keep going. We are endangering the American people. Time is of the essence. It's time to stand down from partisan politics, get together, solve the problem. Everyone agrees it can be solved, should be solved, needs to be solved. So let's just sit and do it. Senator McCain is returning to lead that effort.

MATTHEWS: Is he willing to allow the debate to go on without him? In other words, would he allow the commission to hold an empty chair debate, which is the kind of you hold if one of the candidates doesn't show up. Would he allow that to happen, or would he show up? If it's not in his hands, in other words.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: I think that gets ahead of where we are. I mean, obviously, he wants to join Senator Obama in the debates for the American people. He's invited him to join town halls, which Senator Obama has declined.

MATTHEWS: Right.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: So it's time for the American people to see them side by side, no question. But we don't want them to be side by side in the midst of an economic crisis, where we-the payrolls won't get met, the businesses won't be able to buy the supplies they need...

MATTHEWS: But wouldn't...

HOLTZ-EAKIN: ... and we have a meltdown on Wall Street continuing unabated.

MATTHEWS: But wouldn't it be helpful for the American people to see the two men, one of whom will be the next economic commander-in-chief, to offer their views before perhaps 100 million people this Friday night? Wouldn't that be useful for us to all hear where the two of them are coming from? We'd all hear it, a tremendous audience like you've never seen. Why would he turn down a chance to speak his mind on the most important issue of our time, the economy, if it's coming right to his face? I mean, how does he turn down an opportunity like that?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: Chris, wouldn't the greater opportunity would be for Senator Obama to join Senator McCain in fixing the great problem that faces our economy in front of not 100 million but 300 million people who are relying on it desperately...

MATTHEWS: Right.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: ... and then get together and face the cameras. Let's get priorities straight. This isn't about thoughts, it's about action.

MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you very much for joining us, Douglas Holtz-Eakin with the McCain campaign.

Coming up: Can President Bush and Congress agree to a bail-out plan, and how long it will take? As I said, the president is addressing us tonight at 9:00 Eastern on all channels. Those are the questions for the two members of Congress coming up, by the way. We're going to get that right away, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Congressman Maxine Waters. I can't think of a more of a 180 point of view coming up between the two of them. And if the debate goes on as scheduled Friday night, which the commission says it will, I'll be there with three editions of HARDBALL, two before the debate at Ole Miss and one after the debate right here on MSNBC, a great place to watch the debate.

You're watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: President Bush is set to address the country tonight on his proposed bail-out package after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson endured a second day of criticism from Congress members over the plan. And John McCain wants the first presidential debate delayed so he can focus on the rescue package on Wall Street. That's John McCain's-well, what is his motive? We have to get to that.

Republican senator Orrin Hatch of Utah is a member of the Finance Committee. Let me ask you, Senator Hatch, why does John McCain want to call off the debate Friday night?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH ®, UTAH: Well, he knows that this is rug-cutting time here, and we're not making a lot of headway here in Washington. And you know, I think it's-this is the John McCain I know. He's willing to risk the election to be able to do what he thinks has to be done for the country. And I think it's good that he's willing to come. We have three senators in this race. And, you know, he is the only one that seems willing to come here and help with this problem. And it's a problem, because both Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, and Harry Reid have said-they challenged him to come, if you will recall.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HATCH: They challenged him to come.

MATTHEWS: Well...

HATCH: And he said, "OK, I'm going to take up the challenge."

Like I say, John is an unstoppable force once he gets going.

MATTHEWS: Well, he had a spokesman on our network a couple of hours ago, right before he made his announcement about putting off the debate, saying he would only come back if his vote was critical to the decision.

Are you sure-when is the last time you saw Senator McCain? He hasn't been in Washington.

HATCH: No, I have seen him a couple of times in the last couple of months. But the fact is, there is no question all three of those senators are out there campaigning full-bore. But I think John realizes that, unless we solve this problem, and solve it soon, because, like I say, it's rug-cutting time-this is the last few days of the Senate-he wants to get it solved before next Monday we're going to have a lot of troubles in this country.

Look, we have a financial crisis on our hands.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HATCH: The underlying economy as of last quarter was actually plugging along pretty good.

But let's face it. If that financial crisis comes into the underlying economy, it could hurt this country for years. And I think this is the kind of leadership that I like to see in John, I would to see in the other...

MATTHEWS: Right.

HATCH: ... in Barack, and also Joe. I think they ought to all come back, and they ought to all work with us, and let's get this doggone thing taken care of.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: The debate has been scheduled...

HATCH: What?

MATTHEWS: The debate has been scheduled, Senator, for months now. It's going to reach perhaps 100 million people. Isn't it a good time, between 9:00 and 10:30 Eastern time this Friday night, for the candidates for president to let the public know where they stand on this critical issue?

HATCH: When you are in the last couple of days of a session, let me tell you, you are going day and night. Even-even in your sleep, you are thinking about what can I do to help get this thing over with and help get it resolved?

MATTHEWS: Right.

HATCH: Now, I think, look, he was challenged to come. He is coming.

When Barack was-what Barack is, he talked to him and said, let me know if I can help.

Now, contrast the two approaches towards leadership, and I think you have got to say, this is typical of John McCain. He gets on some people's nerves because he is so aggressive.

MATTHEWS: Right.

HATCH: When he gets a bit in his teeth, boy, he's a racehorse that isn't going to be stopped until he wins.

MATTHEWS: Why do you think he is plunging in the polls? In the FOX poll, he is all of a sudden down-all of a sudden down six. He was up three just two weeks ago. That's a nine-point drop in two weeks. He has lost-he is down 10 points in the ABC/"Washington Post" poll.

The poll-our poll has him only two points down, but everybody else has got him plunging in the polls.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What is that about? Why are we blaming-the public blaming John McCain for this crisis?

HATCH: Well, I don't think he is plunging.

I think you are going to see both of them go up and down over the next five weeks-plus, and you're going to see an awfully good race between the two. But, no, I don't think he is plunging.

I think he will be down one week, but Barack will be down the next. And I think the key here is to-let's look and see which one of these two fellows is going to be the best leader for our country at this time.

Naturally, I think John McCain is going to be the best leader. I have only been here 32 years. Now, I know them all, and I respect all three of our senators.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HATCH: And I certainly love Sarah Palin. But, by gosh, if you want leadership, this is a perfect example of what John McCain really is.

MATTHEWS: Let's talk about leadership in the White House right now with the president.

HATCH: Sure.

MATTHEWS: You know, you and I know, having grown up and read history, that Franklin Roosevelt was pretty good at explaining complicated issues to the public in his fireside chats.

Why hasn't the president come on at some point in this critical time, as you have recognized and pointed out, and explain it in basic English to us, so we, as a people-I keep asking people coming on this show, journalists, experts, explain this to me. How did we get here? Why can't the president do that?

HATCH: Well, I can tell you how we got here.

Go back to that 1999, September 30 "New York Times" article, where the Clinton administration wanted to get subprime loans, so they could get more people into homes, whether they could afford them or not.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HATCH: And, even in that article, it was predicted that we would wind up in this kind of mess.

So, let's be honest about it. The president will be on, I think, tonight. And let's also be honest about it. He hasn't been treated very fairly by the media. And a lot of people are more interested in what John McCain and Barack Obama have to say about this.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HATCH: And John McCain is going to come here. And he's going to say:

"Well, I have this to say. And this is what we got have to do, and let's

see what we can do to resolve this problem."

And I just hope-I just hope, for the sake of the country, that these Democrats and these Republicans and all of us will get together and do what's in the best interests of our country. It's a tough time. We are tough people. We ought to be able to do it. But we have so much partisanship here, it's just pathetic.

And I think John, he has been known to be able to bring both sides together. That is something that other-you know, that Barack is not known for.

MATTHEWS: True enough.

HATCH: But he has had a limited time here. And I'm not meaning to find fault with him.

But, to make a long story short, this is typical John McCain. It's typical leadership. He's willing to risk being president in order to help this country in what really is a very, very trying time.

MATTHEWS: Thank you very much, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. Thank you very much for coming on tonight, Senator.

Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters is from California. She's on the Financial Services Committee.

Congresswoman, what do you make of John McCain's call for a delay in the debate Friday night?

REP. MAXINE WATERS (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, I was pretty shocked when I heard that he had suggested that they put off the debate.

And I'm suspicious. I believe that John McCain does not want a debate because he is not prepared to debate Barack Obama. I don't think he is ready. I don't think he is confident to talk about the economy. I don't think she confident to talk about the subprime meltdown and what that means and how to help these homeowners with modifications and, you know, assistance to them, working with the services. I don't think he understands all of this.

MATTHEWS: What do you make of Senator Hatch's comment just now that the reason we are in this mess financially is because, under the Democratic government back in the administration of president Clinton, there was an effort to try to make everyone a homeowner?

WATERS: Well, I...

MATTHEWS: Was that too aggressive?

WATERS: No, I think that's a cheap shot.

As a matter of fact, President Bush has been known to tout how much they have done to help minority homeowners and poor people get into homes. Everybody had known for a long time that there was red-lining at one time in this country, where people who could afford to purchase were not allowed to.

Literally, these communities were just drawn out of the economic possibility of owning a home. And, so, everybody was anxious to see what could be done to correct that. And Democrats and Republicans alike pushed for homeownership, talked about homeownership not only as the American dream, but amassing resources and capital, so that they could have equity, and take that equity, and invest in businesses.

So, it was something that everybody worked on, Republicans alike. And I don't blame Fannie and Freddie for doing what they were organized to do. They just didn't do it right. They got too carried away, came up with all of these exotic products, you know, no-documentation loans, these ARMs that were resetting and quadrupling the amount of the interest rate.

So, it's-it's not that, you know, low-income people cannot afford homes. Many of these people pay their rent, pay all of their bills on time. They cannot afford the down payments. But if they had been given the products with 30-year fixed mortgages, they would have been able to stay in the homes they got. And to all of these exotic products, the regulatory agencies should have stopped them.

They should have known about the no-documentation loans.

MATTHEWS: Right.

WATERS: They should have known about the teaser rates. They should have known about the resets. They should have stopped that. They are the ones who are supposed to be doing the auditing and have their eye on the ball.

MATTHEWS: OK.

WATERS: And they did not do it.

MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you very much for joining us tonight, U.S.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California.

Up next, so, you want to know who is going to win the election? Check the NFL schedule. We have got some interesting superstition to enjoy with you tonight, a little comic relief on a very grim night.

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL.

Time for the "Sideshow."

We know that, when it comes to political capital, the Bush administration is pretty close to broke these days. Just take a look at David Letterman's top 10 list last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LARRY KING LIVE")

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Top 10 George W. Bush ideas for fixing the economy.

Here we go.

Number 10: Why fix it if it ain't broke?

Thank you, George.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number seven, flip all them charts upside down.

Excellent.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

LETTERMAN: Number two, put on a pair of glasses and shoot a moose.

What? I don't-what is that going do?

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

LETTERMAN: And the number-one George W. Bush idea for fixing the economy: Is Hillary still available for a 3:00 a.m. phone call?

There you go.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, I guess Letterman's New York writers are still punting for their home state senator.

Next, who is going to win in November? According to the American Enterprise Institute, the answer can be found in the final score of a Washington Redskins game. It turns out the incumbent party, the party in the White House, keeps the White House if the Redskins win their last home game before the election.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, the predictor has been wrong only once since 1948. It was wrong in '04, by the way.

This year, that Skins game is November 3 against the Steelers. Who is your money on?

Time now for the "Big Number."

Elections are often decided by pocketbook politics. This year, Democrats on Capitol Hill want voters to know they are keeping all their options on the table when it comes to high oil prices. How so?

Yesterday, the Democrats announced that they would allow the ban on coastal oil drilling to expire. How long had that ban been on the books? Twenty-six years. That's amazing. It's amazing what $4-a-gallon gas can do to your politics, especially in an election year. A 26-year-old ban on coastal drilling falls to election-year politics, a huge reversal.

And that's tonight's "Big Number."

Up next, McCain/Obama, Friday night, they are meeting in Oxford, Mississippi. If that debate goes on as scheduled, perhaps 100 million people will be watching. With Obama holding an edge in the newest polls, what does each candidate need to do to win that fight Friday night? We will ask two strategists, one Republican, one Democrat. Both have been involved in preparing candidates for such debates.

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks closed mixed, as congressional leaders and the White House negotiate over the Bush administration's $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan. It's wait and see on Wall Street, and the market really just tread water here, down 29 points on the Dow Jones industrial average, down by a little over two, and the Nasdaq eked out a two-point gain.

Meantime, sales of existing homes fell 2 percent in August. That's down from the previous month. But, in a promising sign, the inventory of unsold homes fell 7 percent.

That's it from CNBC, first in business worldwide-now back to MSNBC.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

John McCain wants to delay Friday night's debate, but Barack Obama wants to debate. And the Commission on Presidential Debates is planning on move forward as scheduled.

Joining me right now to talk about the debates, should they occur, two strategists who have prepared candidates for debates, our own Jenny Backus, and-who is a Democratic strategist, who is the network TV debate coordinator. And Mike Paul is currently a public relations consultant who has worked for Republicans Al D'Amato and Rudy Giuliani.

Well, you have got a couple of fighters in your corner. What a corner.

Do you have a towel over your shoulder, Mike? Do you have-and a bucket? Is that how you do it there in the corner with these guys?

MIKE PAUL, PUBLIC RELATIONS CONSULTANT: I brought the gloves for you, Chris. We got the gloves.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: What are you talking about? We take them out.

MATTHEWS: Oh, my God, you-oh-oh, God, a prop man.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Mike, about this debate.

Do you think it is a tactic on John McCain's part to say he doesn't want to go? And will he keep that tactic right through Friday night, or will he show up anyway?

PAUL: I think it's actually just who John McCain is.

I think he is just being the maverick man that he has always been. And I think that he's going to continue to move forward from that perspective. He has some strong advisers.

MATTHEWS: But he's going down in the polls. His tactics have taken him down 10 points in the ABC poll, six points in the FOX poll. He's not doing well with these tactics.

PAUL: You-you say it's his tactics that are taking him down. I think it's a very...

MATTHEWS: Well, what is taking him down?

PAUL: Well, there's a lot messages that are being shared around the country right now. Obama's numbers go up, McCain's numbers go down. It is going to be fluctuating for the next few weeks. The bottom line is this is an opportunity for him to show leadership and he took it. If Barack had made that point this morning, we would be saying something very different this morning.

MATTHEWS: Jenny, make your point. If Barack were going up in the polls, that's one thing. When you are going down in the polls, you are pulling the plug.

BACKUS: This is John McCain, who is all of a sudden waking up six days after this crisis happened and saying, oh my god, I've got to go to Washington.

MATTHEWS: Orin Hatch, who was great to come on the show-I ask him when is the last time you saw McCain. They're both in the Senate together. When's the last time you saw him? He said, I saw him a couple times in the last couple of months.

BACKUS: April.

MATTHEWS: You have to whiz back to Washington. He hasn't been here.

BACKUS: Mike, hold on. Let's just talk about the fact that everywhere John McCain goes, he talks about he wishes he could do town halls. He wants to compare with Barack Obama. Look, he wants to be president of the United States. We are not stopping the Iraq war because we are having a financial crisis. You have to be able to walk and chew gum.

PAUL: Hear me out on the point here. Number one, the reason why he made a stand-and leadership is about taking a stand. It's something that Chris talks about on this program all the time. He took a risk. It's to go back to Washington now. You can talk about what he did last week. We can talk about what he did two weeks ago. I heard Chris' questions earlier.

The bottom line is the guy took a chance. He put a line in the sand. I'm sure some of his advisers said, you know what, this is very risky. He said, we need to do it.

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Mike. Everybody here is on the same page, by the way. We argue and look at things differently, but it's the same page.

PAUL: I hear you.

MATTHEWS: When you are not winning, the default button, every time the economy stops talking-the public goes back to the economy. If the economy looks as bad as it does not, they go we want to change and we want the other party to come in. So what he has to do is keep distracting the public from that default position. That default position always comes up after the conventions, when people go back to normal. Normal is we want an economic change in this country, a new party to take over.

Every time that's about to happen, John McCain, he gets a very exciting vice presidential running mate. That was a good move, surprise move, a razzle dazzle, a big surprise. They had their convention, about to hold the convention. No, let's put it off for a couple days. They are trying to reset the clock, distract the attention from the normal default position of the American voter, which is we want the other party to have a chance. You know what's going on, Mike. I want to ask you to respond. Isn't that the tactic? Change the subject when the subject is the economy.

PAUL: Some say it's a tactic. Some say this: there is a something that is very serious going on right now and it's an economic crisis. He has two choices. He can continue on the road. You can't beat him up and say he hasn't been in Washington and then he makes a decision to go back to Washington, and suddenly say, hey, how come you haven't been there.

MATTHEWS: Why didn't he go to the Clinton Global Initiative today if he's so busy biz to get back to Washington? He has other ambitions out there.

(CROSS TALK)

PAUL: He wanted to make sure that he separated himself from the president. And I don't think that's a tactic as well. I think there was a reason why he did that.

BACKUS: Mike, he said he wants to come back and meet with the president. This is a president who is dedicating 14 whole minutes tonight to talk with us. The Republicans in Congress are freaking out.

PAUL: -- that it's the Republicans who are not doing a good job with the bill. John McCain says, you know what, I'm not just going to go and vote Republican line on this. I am going to make sure I get back there and tell our guys and tell the other side, we need to do better.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you both-

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS: he made his stand. He has taken a position. Is it important to him politically not to give now, not to show up to the debates? Does he have to stick to his guns now and not show up? Or if he buckles and shows up, will it look more tactical on his part? I'm asking, if you are advising him, his corner man-you have the towel over your shoulder and a bucket in your hand-would you advise him to stick to your guns, call up the debate commission and say I'm not going? Or would you say, I'm buckling to the interest of the public. They want to watch this debate. I'm going to show up. What would you do?

PAUL: There is an opportunity for him to do both, quite frankly. There's an opportunity for him to go to Washington over the next couple of days and try and make sure something happens. He has to go to Ole Miss, of course.

MATTHEWS: That's my question. You don't think he can say I'm not coming?

PAUL: I think if Barack said that he is going no matter what, and the commission continues to say that we are going to have this debate, I think it would hurt McCain not to be there. He needs to have a dual message if that were to happen. He needs to spend at least a day in Washington before the debate. I think he needs to then come back and say, you know what, I'm here. I would rather not be here. I would rather be back in Washington. I got a message out. I might have even gotten a meeting with the president or at least his staff and some of those on the hill. And I came back because you guys decided that we are still going to do it. I made a commitment, but I would rather been in Washington.

BACKUS: Mike, I have to say that I completely agree. That is probably where we're going to end. I do think that what really is happening is that John McCain is coming back to whip up Republicans to vote for the president's plan.

MATTHEWS: Good for him. Get it done.

BACKUS: I think the bill's in trouble. I think what we haven't seen from McCain is any specifics on how he is going to fix the economy. And this is a debate he doesn't want to have.

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS: John McCain was asked yesterday if he was going to vote for the bill if the president needed his vote. He said, I don't know. He dodged the vote. Jenny Backus, thank you. Mike Paul, it's great to have you back.

Up next, the politics fix. John McCain says he is coming back to Washington, wants to postpone Friday night's the debate. The debate commission says we are going forward as planned. Barack Obama says he will be there. We just heard from Mike Paul. He thinks John McCain will have to show up. We will see. Will voters see leadership or politics in all of this? We will see. This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL and the politics fix. Tonight's round table, Bob Herbert of the "New York Times" and Karen Tumulty of "Time Magazine." Bob, I don't know about you, but I was shook today. I said, wow, John McCain is, once again, pulling a razzle dazzle play, saying turn off the debate. I have something more important to do for the country. What do you make of it? Will it work or not?

BOB HERBERT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": It's a razzle dazzle play. Whether it works or not I think depends on whether he shows up at the debate or not. I'm not sure whether that's clear yet or not. Going back to Washington is not that big a deal. He is getting some big headlines, but he's a U.S. senator, as Barack Obama is. It would be a very big deal, obviously, if does not show up at the debate on Friday night.

MATTHEWS: Is it your bet the debate commission-does the debate commission have the fiber to say, if you don't show up, we're going on with an empty chair, like it or not? In other words, they have to stand up to him as well. Somebody has to give here. Somebody has to say, I'm showing up.

HERBERT: Yes. They need to stand up to him and Barack Obama has indicated that he will as well. It is important for Senator Obama to do so. I think the critically important point here is we understand that there is a financial crisis in this country. There are all kinds of other problems as well. In this presidential campaign, the public, the voters have a right to see and need to see these folk who are on each ticket as much as possible. They really need to look at them, hear their responses and that sort of thing. That goes for McCain. It goes for Palin, Biden, as well as Barack Obama.

And it does seem like the McCain ticket has been trying to keep both Senator McCain and Governor Palin away from the media and away from the public as much as possible. And I just can't understand that.

MATTHEWS: Who else do we have right now with us?

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME MAGAZINE": Karen Tumulty.

MATTHEWS: Karen! I'm sorry. My buddy, Karen. My mind slipped. I was just thinking about the fact that I was in a Greek restaurant last night, the Parthenon up on Connecticut Avenue here in Washington. And Pete, the guy who runs the place, said that he is getting a lot of people calling him up saying, are you going to have that debate Friday night? So there's a lot of interest, anecdotally. We might have 100 million people who want that debate to occur Friday night. Is it possible that John McCain will not show, just say, I'm not coming?

TUMULTY: I think that in the end he is going to be there. There is a role for him in this package. The fact is, it is going to be a lot harder for the Republican leadership to get rank and file Republicans on board if they don't see the man who is the de facto leader of their party is also on board. So I do think there is a role for McCain as a voice in this debate over this package.

But at the same time, it seems like, Chris, you've been in these rooms on Capitol Hill during very difficult and delicate negotiations. In some ways, the last two people in the world you want in those smoke-filled rooms at this moment would be the two guys who are running for president.

MATTHEWS: Yes. I wonder, is it the issue, not the candidates, Bob-but is at the issue whether the Senate Republican caucus can put together enough senators and the House Republican caucus can put together at least half their caucus, so the other party can meet them halfway? I understand that is the state of play here. It's not about the two candidates for president.

HERBERT: That's exactly right. I think Karen makes a really terrific point. I've been on the phone this afternoon after this news broke, because I got to start changing what I'm reporting. The word on Capital Hill is that they don't need an awful lot of presidential politics sort of coming in and muddying up the water. People are fine to hear from Senator McCain and Senator Obama and they can make a contribution.

But they believe they are making progress down in Washington and they do-the negotiations are very delicate. And they don't want presidential politics to upset the apple cart.

MATTHEWS: OK. I'm going to come back with two pieces of poll data, a one good for McCain, one good for the other team. We'll be right back with Bob Herbert and Karen Tumulty for more of the politics fix. The new numbers, they're coming in. We'll be right back with them.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We're back with Bob Herbert of the "New York Times" and Karen Tumulty of "Time." let's take a look at a couple of these polls. The first one helps John McCain. According to the new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll, just out tonight, Obama has the double digit advantage on the question of who will bring real change. But look at these numbers and Karen. Look at these, 70 percent say Obama will bring change, but 57 percent say that so will-you first here, Karen. So will John McCain. Change agent, same party as the president, but 57 percent say he'll bring change.

TUMULTY: I think that does suggest that while Obama continues to have the advantage on the thematic that seems to be the main one in this election, that John McCain, I think, has made some progress in the last few weeks of reminding people that he has a career here of breaking some China himself.

MATTHEWS: Let me go to Bob on that. Somebody once said, in writing about this weekend, Obama's problem was he designed his uniform change so that McCain could fit in it as well. He didn't offer enough radical alternative yet, to make it clear the other guy can't promise the same thing.

HERBERT: I think there was always a limit to the radical alternatives that Barack Obama could offer in terms of policies. He's got to worry about people seeing him as a candidate as a radical alternative. I'm skeptical of all the polls that have been coming down. They flip-flop, McCain is up, Obama is up. What I think you have to look at is what happens especially after the first debate or the first couple of debates.

And then I also-I believe strongly that the Bradley effect is still with us. So if Obama-if the polls are to be believed at all, I think you have to shave a little bit off Barack's numbers.

MATTHEWS: I think it might be a little more than a little bit. We'll see. According to the new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll, by three to one, voters say Joe Biden is qualified to be president. Less than half are happy with Sarah Palin. Less than half think she may not be. The really do-people are paying attention, Karen, here. They really like, I think, the vice-presidential nominee of the Republican party? On the question of whether the governor of Alaska is ready to be president, they do have a differential with Joe Biden.

TUMULTY: That's why I don't think the campaign is necessarily serving her well by sending her into these meetings foreign leaders and with Henry Kissinger and then treating her as though she's made of some very fragile China and can't take any questions. For one thing, it goes against their message, which is that this is also a woman who is an agent of change.

MATTHEWS: The president calls that the bigotry of low expectations. Thank you very much, Bob Herbert. Thank you, Karen Tumulty. 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.

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