updated 9/29/2008 5:05:06 PM ET 2008-09-29T21:05:06

Guest: Robert Gibbs, John Heilemann, Howard Fineman, Eugene Robinson, Pat

Bushanan, Chip Pickering

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Good evening, Keith.  So, my big question tonight, my cold open, so why didn‘t John McCain ever look at his opponent Barack Obama for an hour and a half?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews with a special post-debate edition of HARDBALL live from the University of Mississippi, the site, of course, of the first presidential debate.

Tonight: Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama debated out here in Mississippi.  Which candidate did the toughest job?  Which candidates missed golden opportunities and what about the body language I just mentioned?  Why didn‘t John McCain ever once look over and recognize with some dignity his opponent?

And that, of course, is the great crazy thing about these debates, the asymmetric warfare.  One candidate has strength, the other doesn‘t.  And clearly, John McCain is the veteran here.  He had a rich display of his various talents and knowledge base.  He knew an awful lot, had been through a lot wars, as he reminded us, in terms of politics.

He was very good at the anecdotal, very good at the motive things like the soldiers who fought in the war and suffered for our country and died for our country, very good at reminding us about that emotional aspect of politics.  I thought he was very good at that.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, was a dancer.  He stayed above it.  He didn‘t really get involved emotionally.  He was not good at the anecdotal.  He dealt in abstractions.  He did not go in for the jugular.  He never once went in for the terrible economic straits this country finds itself in.  He should have been listing over and over again the unemployment rate in this country, the jobless rate, the number of people being thrown out of work, the layoff rate, the big companies that have been throwing people out of work.

He never talked about the reality confronting the working guy out there, the working woman out there.  If he wants their votes, why doesn‘t he talk about the world they live in, why doesn‘t he talking about the fact that they‘re losing their pensions?  They‘re losing jobs they‘ve had for years in (INAUDIBLE) industries, industries that hire and fire depending on the economic circumstances.  He never talked about the gritty reality confronting American economic life, people in this country, and what it‘s like to make a living, and how it‘s getting trickier and trickier to keep a job.  He didn‘t talk about that.

He let his opponent, again and again, drive the discussion into Republican areas of strength like tax policy, into McCain areas of strength, spending, government spending, abuses of congressional spending, abuses of earmarking.  Again and again, John McCain was able to focus on those particular areas where he is strong.

Ironically, when they got to foreign policy, I thought Barack Obama was quite able to defend himself, quite able to debate a man who‘s been in public life for many more decades than he has.  He showed equality in terms of the debate.  Maybe on the points you could disagree with him.

I thought John McCain made a terrible point tonight.  He said if someone dies in battle, someone serving their country because they were ordered to do something in battle, out on a particular mission, you don‘t pick your missions, you don‘t pick your wars.  When someone dies for their country they have 0done that, it‘s over.  They have served their country.  They are patriotic.  They deserve forever to be remembered and honored.  It‘s not a question of what happens later in that war or whether that battle was still going (ph) or not, or whether you should continue to fight.

By the definition John McCain gave us tonight, and it was a heinous definition, we must continue every war we every start.  Every time we suffer a casualty, we must support that war indefinitely to achieve the initial objective set by general who may well be wrong.  I think that‘s a very hard argument to make morally, to suggest that war must never end.  It suggests that every war that‘s begun must continue indefinitely until it achieves the political or the military objectives set in the initial context.  Context changed, sometimes wars have to end.

The Korean War ended.  It was not dishonorable for General Eisenhower to come to Korea and end the war in 1953 that had begun in 1950, ending a war without final victory.  There‘s nothing wrong with that, nothing dishonorable about it.

You don‘t have to complete the mission.  You simply have to serve your country honorably when called to do so.

I think John McCain is wrong, demonstratively wrong.  I wish sometime someone would called him on that.  Unfortunately, Barack Obama did not tonight.

Let‘s bring in MSNBC political analysts, Pat Buchanan and Eugene Robinson.

Pat, I think you had a very interesting point tonight, and that is that we don‘t know who won the debate until we know how the, to put it bluntly, the white working-class guy, the regular working stiff out there responds.

I do think Barack Obama could have done a hell of a better job

tonight talking about the world in which that guy and that woman find

themselves right now, economically, a world of endless layoffs in which

Goldman Sachs and the big companies turn out all right.  They get the money

from the government in the end where the guy that gets laid off gets what -

unemployment?

       

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  You know, where was the passion and fire that he should have brought to this when you got a $700 billion bailout of a lot of characters on Wall Street that everybody knows are greedy, many of them corrupt, incompetent, and, you know, masters of the universe who have failed the country.  And people are hurting all over America.

Why didn‘t you get that passion and fire from Barack Obama?  I don‘t know, Chris.  I don‘t know if he‘s got that in the gut.  As you saw, as I say, at least when John McCain talked about the 640 guys re-upping and say, just let us win, that‘s very moving to me.  It‘s a very powerful thing.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BUCHANAN:  And it reached that third dimension, not just cerebral, but the heart and the gut and the spleen and everything.  But I do think Barack Obama did something tonight that he had to do.  And that is those folks out there that say, is this guy some whacko, or all his left wing friends, he‘s got always—what kind of guy is he?

I think he did come off as someone who is in the center of American politics, understands foreign policy.  You may disagree with him.  He‘s knowledgeable in it.  He‘s no wimp.  He‘s going to fight here and not here.  And so, I think in that sense he has helped himself by giving some Americans reassurance that he is not the caricature that some of his own words (ph) and the Republicans have portrayed him as.

MATTHEWS:  Gene, did it surprise you that he was so unethnic tonight, that he never once talked about the condition of African-Americans in this country, never once talked about poor people, never once mentioned poor people, never once talked about the underclass, the people that don‘t get a break generation after generation, not once admitted where he came from and what he struggled for as a community organizer, ever once?

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  No, it didn‘t surprise me.  You know, I wrote once that if he is going to become president, Barack Obama has to come across as the least aggrieved black man in America, and I think that‘s true.  You know, it‘s not a winner for him to, you know, recount America‘s racial sins (ph).

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

ROBINSON:   If you want to become president, you know, I mean, that‘s just a fact.  It may be wrong but it‘s a fact.

You know, you asked a minute ago, you know, why wasn‘t he, you know, passionate against Wall Street and in favor of the working guy?  You know, it sounds great.  But, keep in mind that both John McCain and Barack Obama, ultimately, are going to vote to bail out Wall Street to the tune of something like $700 billion.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  In fact, McCain acknowledged that he‘s going to vote that way.  Obama never quite did.  But he left little doubt.  And so, I think, you know, he didn‘t kind of want to go down that path.

You know, I thought it was a fascinating debate and my sense is that our initial decision on who won on points is frequently and dare I say, almost always wrong in terms of how people at home experienced the debate.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Me, too.

ROBINSON:  And I wonder if they didn‘t see, you know, the two different styles of the two men, think about—you know, this election is about change and it‘s certainly now about solving problems.  And you saw two very different approaches to solving problems.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

ROBINSON:  There one was confrontational, one, you know, seeking consensus.  And, you know, I mean, I think, I frankly think Obama did well tonight, even though, initially, we didn‘t think he scored as many points as McCain.

MATTHEWS:  You know, Pat, you and Gene, I remember the boxing days, just to go for stylistic.

BUCHANAN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  I thought we saw Archie Moore out there tonight in the form of John McCain, the Mongoose.

BUCHANAN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  You know, he‘s down there.  He‘s sort of crouched down, he‘s grumpy, he‘s angry, and his—every once in a while he throws a jab up there at the guy, and he keeps his head down.  And I don‘t know if the other guy was Marciano or not, maybe he was floating like a butterfly, but I didn‘t see in the style of Muhammad, I didn‘t see he‘s land any bee stings, either.

Can one guy float like a butterfly and the other guy be the mongoose and give us a good fight?  Maybe that what was missing tonight, we have Archie Moore fighting out Muhammad Ali here tonight.

BUCHANAN:  No, I think it was Joe Frazier fighting Muhammad Ali.

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN:  Remember Smoking Joe?  He kept crowding him and getting in.  I mean, Muhammad Ali was jab him and jab him and Frazier would get in close and kept hooking him with that left and hooking him and hooking him.  And Frazier won one of those three fights.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BUCHANAN:  And I think that‘s when we saw tonight.

MATTHEWS:  Of course, he looked like crap afterwards.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He won the fight but his face looked like the face lost.

BUCHANAN:  That‘s right.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Gene?

ROBINSON:  But you know, Chris, would you agree, though, that, you know, we talked about that long stretch at the beginning about the economy and you say, you know, why wasn‘t Obama tougher, why didn‘t he bring it to the working class?  You know, isn‘t it true, though, that any minute spent on the economy, you know, in the larger sense, was probably good for Obama.  This is not a good issue for John McCain.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  And he certainly tried to turn it back around to earmarks.  But I‘m not sure people were feeling earmarks right now.  They‘re feeling, you know, will I have a job?

MATTHEWS:  Yes, they won‘t.

ROBINSON:  And bank failures and things like that.

MATTHEWS:  I agree.

BUCHANAN:  But, Chris, let me agree with Gene on one thing.

MATTHEWS:  They say there is the old dichotomy, the older you got, I mean, yes, whenever you talk about the state of the economy and how lousy it is, if it is lousy, the Democrats win.  Every time you talk about the nuance of budget policy, whether it‘s taxes or spending allocations, the Republicans win.

Let me go.  Here‘s John McCain tonight blasting Obama.  Let‘s take a look at some of the tapes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R-AZ) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I honestly don‘t believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience, and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas, including his initial reaction to Russian aggression in Georgia, to his—you know, we‘ve seen this stubbornness before in this administration, to cling to a belief that somehow the surge has not succeeded, and failing to acknowledge that he was wrong about the surge, it shows to me that we need more flexibility in a president of the United States than that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Gene, I think that Barack Obama scored huge points with that chuckle.  I think when he laughed at the absurdity of him being compared to George W. Bush on any basis.  His laughter was so spontaneous and happy.  I thought that was a winsome moment on his part.

ROBINSON:  Well, it kind of, that was such—seemed to be such a spontaneous and genuine smile but it was one of several times during the debate when Obama made the choice not to directly respond to a McCain attack but to go off on his own tact and talk about, you know, the future or talk about a solution.  And it seemed to me, as I watched, that that was clearly tactic, that he didn‘t want to—that he saw (AUDIO BREAK) there to get into, you know, into a close-end brawl with Smoking Joe Frazier.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  That, no, his better tactic was, you know, to play his game and to look forward and to be more optimistic and, you know, perhaps visionary.  That‘s a fancy word.  But, you know, you get to know what I mean, about the future, rather than, you know, kind of rumbled in Oxford.  That doesn‘t—that‘s not literative but you get the point.

MATTHEWS:  I know, I think very time he used the word future he was killing his opponent.

But let‘s take a look at a flurry of punches here.  I set up a combination—as they say in boxing—from Barack aimed at John McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D-IL) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007.  You talk about the surge.  The war started in 2003.

And at the time, when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy.  You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were.  You were wrong.

You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators.  You were wrong.

You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni, and you were wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That was a combination of punches, Pat, right there.  I guess he could have done more of it but that seemed to work.

BUCHANAN:  That was Ali, one, two, three.  Now, it worked very well.  I tell you why it worked, too.  Sixty-five percent of the American people now believe the war was a mistake, 65 percent want, they don‘t want to lose it but they want to get out of the war.

And that is Barack Obama talking directly to those people in very nice terms in saying you were wrong, you were wrong again and you were wrong about this.  And these mistakes got us into this war.  And that is pushing against an open door with the American people and it was done well.  And, frankly, it was done in a way McCain would have had a much more cutting look on his face when he was doing it than Barack did.  I think that was his most effective moment of the debate.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask Gene about it, before I lose you tonight.

What do you make of the—what I take as contempt, and I‘m not sure contempt is an admirable trait when you‘re up against the opponent who has every right to be there against you, in fact, his equal footing, he won the nomination of the other party, to treat your opponent with such contempt, that not once throughout the evening you give him the courtesy of looking at him.

He was supposed to, as part of the format of this debate, five minutes with each exchange, to exchange a discussion with his opponent, to share thoughts, to challenge the opponent.  He never looked at his opponent.  What is that about?  Is that inferiority complex?  Is that embarrassment?  Is that guilt or is it contempt?  What is it?  It‘s something.

ROBINSON:  You know, look, it‘s something only John McCain knows whether it‘s genuine contempt.  Here‘s my theory, is that this is part of John McCain‘s style, that he has to make an opponent into an enemy, you know, in his mind to kind of, you know, to kind of get up for this.  He personalizes conflict as we all know, and tends to put himself at the center of it.

And, you know, it‘s a window into his style.  He almost has to demonize the enemy in order to get into that fighting stance.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  You know, I think it came right through the screen, you know, it looked like contempt and anger.  And that usually does not play well in these debates.

BUCHANAN:  Yes.  McCain clearly thinks that is the way of beating an opponent.

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE), I remember -

BUCHANAN:  But I agree with Gene here.  McCain thinks that‘s the way to beat an opponent, keep at him, keep at him, don‘t smile at this guy, take him down.  But I wonder if that is the way with the people in the country.  There‘s an awful lot of people who won‘t like that.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BUCHANAN:  There are many who will like that.  The question, again, Chris, is those folks in central Pennsylvania, those hard-working guys with their wives, they had tough lives, is that what they want to see done?  Some of them will say, yes.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, you‘re right.  Some of the tough guys, the ones—the tough guys who like to pound the other kid into the cement after they beat him up.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Pat, they‘re the kind of guys like you used to be, I think, in the old days.  But I‘ll tell you—the biggest mistake that Barack made up against Senator Hillary Clinton is when he said she‘s likable enough.  When he showed contempt for her that time—people.

BUCHANAN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  . even people who like him a lot didn‘t like him that night.  I think contempt makes you look bad, but you‘re right, with the toughies out there, being tough is always good.

Eugene Robinson, and, Pat “Smoking Joe” Buchanan, thank you for joining us tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, reaction from both the Obama and the McCain camps.  You‘re watching HARDBALL.  We‘re getting a late-night edition in here from University of Mississippi.  You know this show ain‘t taped.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM LEHRER, DEBATE MODERATOR:  Say it directly to him.

OBAMA:  John, 10 days ago you said the fundamentals of the economy

are sound.  And -

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN:  Are you afraid I couldn‘t hear him?

(LAUGHTER)

LEHRER:  I‘m just determined to get you all to talk to each other. 

I‘m going to try.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate.  It‘s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back from Ole Miss on the night.  In fact, thereafter, of the first presidential debate.  Let‘s get some reaction right now from Republican U.S. Congressman Chip Pickering on this state of Mississippi.

Kind sir (ph), it‘s may be a small point to some but anyone who‘s ever engaged in debating those, you must address your opponent.  If you‘re an attorney, a prosecutor, you must point to the defendant, you must do it.  You can‘t ignore them physically.  John McCain did not look at his opponent tonight.  How do you explain that?

REP. CHIP PICKERING, ® MISSISSIPPI: Well, at Ole Miss, the name rebels with a cause.  I think that John McCain was focused on the fight and completing the mission that he has, of winning in Iraq, winning Afghanistan, reforming the government.  And I think his focus was on those issues and not on his opponent so much.

I thought he did a great job tonight.  I thought Barack Obama, if I count up, he said that he agreed with John McCain eight different times.  He would make a great vice president.  The commander-in-chief was clearly John McCain tonight.  He dominated and he controlled the tempo of the debate.  I thought he did a very good job of showing his experience and depth on national security and foreign policy.

MATTHEWS:  Well, what do you make about the format?  The format was supposed to be five minutes on each topic.  Every time a question came up they were told to talk to each other, have a debate between each other.  Why couldn‘t John McCain do that?  Why did he choose not to do that?

PICKERING:  You know, the format, I think that‘s the first time we‘ve ever had one of those formats in the presidential debate.  I do think that John McCain was focused on the issues, focused on the fight.  He is a fighter, Joe Frazier, with a name like HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

PICKERING:  I would think that you would like the fighter more than the butterfly.  But it was a great night for Ole Miss.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I actually -

PICKERING:  It was a great night for Mississippi.

MATTHEWS:  It was definitely great night for this state and a great night for this campus, this university.

Let me ask you—what do you make of the polling that came out tonight, there‘s a CBS Poll that‘s come out tonight based on people who are undecided, uncommitted.  Forty percent say Barack won, 22 percent say McCain won, 38 percent say it was a draw.  What do you make of that?

PICKERING:  Well, I thought for those of us that were here -

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of that?

PICKERING:  For those of us that were here, we saw it on the national security foreign policy that John McCain clearly took the fight, clearly won, showed the experience, showed the depth, has the understanding.  If you were going to ask the question who is best qualified to be the commander-in-chief from day one, I think John McCain answers.  If you‘re an independent, you‘re going to answer John McCain.

I think that if you‘re looking at the economic recovery, do you want someone who‘s going to raise your taxes and cut spending—or raise spending and raise taxes, I don‘t think that‘s the right policy for the prescription that we need to recover during the crisis that we face.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it was bothersome that John McCain targeted different interest groups, specifically throughout the evening and knew what he seemed to be doing, in each case going back to certain groups and say, I‘m going to fight for you?  Do you think that‘s OK in a debate to simply push buttons that way?

PICKERING:  You know, he finished his convention speech with, you know, stand and fight with me.  And to say that to veterans or to the soldiers that are serving today, or those who are trying to cut out wasteful spending, you know, I think that you do have to get your message out to those that you want to stand with you, fight with you, and win this campaign.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  It‘s been great being down here.  By the way, I appreciate completely your salute to this campus.  I love it down here, only been down here today.  What a great place.  I definitely want to come back again and again.

Thank you, very much, U.S. Congressman Chip Pickering of Mississippi.

PICKERING:  Good to be with you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Up next: Reaction from the Obama campaign.  We‘ll have their spinner.  You‘re watching HARDBALL from Oxford, Mississippi, the home of William Faulkner and Grisham and all kinds of good people.

We‘ll be right back on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this special edition of HARDBALL.  Let‘s go right now to Robert Gibbs who is director of communications and a senior advisor to Senator Obama.

Robert, thanks for joining us.  This is supposed to be a debate tonight.  So, I was taken with this sprawling (ph) series of bytes.  I‘m going to show you right now.  Listen up to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Well, I think Senator McCain is absolutely right that we need more responsibility.

Senator McCain is absolutely right that the earmarks process has been abused.

John mentioned the fact that business taxes on paper are high in this country and he‘s absolutely right.

But, John, is right that we‘ve got to make some cuts.

Senator McCain is absolutely right that the violence has been reduced.

John, you‘re absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent.

Senator McCain is also right that it‘s difficult.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Hey, Robert, what‘s with the “amen chorus” tonight?  Every time that McCain said something, your candidate said, absolutely right.  What was this, rope-a-dope?  How do you explain this?

ROBERT GIBBS, OBAMA COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR:  Well, Chris, would you have had Barack Obama debate that presidents should be prudent?  That didn‘t seem like a good land (ph) for us to debate.  But look, I think what you saw tonight were two differences, on how to get this economy moving again, how to create jobs.

And look, you great differences in the foreign policy that each of these two men would pursue.  Look, I think, you saw if you watched that split screen, you saw that angry face of John McCain.  I think that‘s because he knew he was losing a debate on foreign policy to Barack Obama.

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think your opponent tonight, your candidate‘s opponent never gave him the courtesy of a glance?  Like, “Hi, I‘m here.  I see you‘re here, too.”  I mean, he never did that.

GIBBS:  Yes.  Look—I can‘t explain the actions of John McCain, whether it‘s—over the past two weeks thinking that the fundamentals of this economy are strong or thinking that it was the right decision to go into Iraq in 2003.  But what I know tonight is that Senator Obama laid out a forceful case for change.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

GIBBS:  We can‘t have eight more years of the same George Bush policies.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I may be old school, Robert, and I know there‘s all new ways of doing politics, but why—when the economy sucks, you should talk about the economy sucking.  Why didn‘t you guys talk about it tonight—the number of layoffs, list the number of companies throwing people out of work, the airline pilots lost their pensions, one industry after another, one business after another is having people thrown out of work, people 50 years old going (ph) in their careers, over and over again in the newspaper headlines—and you let this debate go around earmarking for 45 minutes of earmarking.

Why did he let it happen that way?

GIBBS:  Chris, I think you were only listening to half the debate.  There was only one candidate that used the actual phrase middle-class in this race.  You heard Barack Obama talked about ending tax breaks or sending jobs overseas, and instead investing in companies that are hiring people right here in America.

Barack Obama talked at a passionate level about getting this economy moving again and ending eight years of what got us into the biggest financial mess this country has ever been.in. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Why did he say that Carly Fiorina was such a great CEO?  They just lost 26,000 jobs in Hewlett-Packard.  Why did he go through each one of the business people backing his opponent and say they fired 50,000 people this week?  That auto company fired 50-75,000 people.  Why did get particular about the health facing the average working guy in this country?  And then he‘ll get the average working guy‘s vote. 

He‘s so ethereal. 

GIBBS:  Well, look.

MATTHEWS:  Isn‘t he?  Isn‘t your candidate ethereal?. 

GIBBS:  Chris, Chris—I‘m a working person.  I don‘t even know what ethereal means. 

Look, Barack Obama is the only candidate tonight.

MATTHEWS:  It has to do with the ether.  It has to do with being up in the sky. 

GIBBS:  Yes, exactly.  I think your question is up in the ether.  But look, Barack Obama is the only candidate that talked about changing our economy tonight. 

John McCain wants more of the same.  That‘s what—that‘s what America‘s working families understand that we can‘t afford.  Only one candidate is going to cut taxes for working families. 

And you know what, Chris? 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

GIBBS:  We‘re going to win those working families in the hills of Pennsylvania on November 4th and be the next president of the United States. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me ask you this, what‘s the unemployment rate right now in this country? 

GIBBS:  6.1 percent. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Why didn‘t he ever say that tonight?  It was 4.2 percent when this president took office.  Why didn‘t you mention the fact that unemployment has gone—has zoomed under this presidency? 

GIBBS:  But, look, you know what, Chris, voters at home aren‘t going to be impressed that you know the unemployment rate is 6.1 percent.  But what Barack Obama did tonight was talk about the fact that Main Street families are hurting and they‘ve been hurting for a long time. 

We‘ve seen, on the front pages of newspapers the past two weeks, an economic crisis that faces Wall Street.  But Barack Obama is the only candidate that talked about the Main Street economic crisis that he‘s been hearing about for years. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, one thing is for sure.  You know the unemployment rate.  And it‘s coming out again in about a week.  So keep your eye on it.  We‘re going to get a September number. 

GIBBS:  It is coming out in a week. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s probably going to 6.5 -- it‘s going to be about 6.5, I predicted.  If you guys don‘t pounce on it, well, you‘re practicing a new kind of politics. 

Anyway, Robert Gibbs, thank you for coming on tonight. 

GIBBS:  I promise you we will, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Stick around in the spin room.  I‘m sure you‘re...

GIBBS:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  . smarter than me.  You got this whole new thing figured out. 

It has something to do with YouTube or something, I don‘t know. 

Up next, we‘re going to look at the hurdles each candidate is up against tonight, what he faced.  The virtual view, the latest NBC poll numbers.  Much more from the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DAN KLOEFFLER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Dan Kloeffler and here‘s what‘s happening. 

Congressional Democrats report progress in talks on the Wall Street bailout.  Negotiations are due to continue over the weekend.  It is hoped a deal can be reached by Sunday night. 

Senator Ted Kennedy is back in his home in Cape Cod in Massachusetts after a brief hospital visit Friday night.  His office said that it was prompted by a mild seizure that doctors think was caused by a change in medication.  Senator Kennedy is being treated for brain cancer. 

Now, let‘s go back to “HARDBALL.” 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE:  This notion that by not talking to people we are punishing them has not worked.  It has not worked in Iran.  It has not worked in North Korea. 

In each instance, our efforts of isolation have actually accelerated their efforts to get nuclear weapons.  That will change when I‘m president of the United States. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re still live at the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss.  Of course, it‘s call for the first presidential debate.  It‘s after midnight on the East Coast right now. 

Now for our virtual view of the latest NBC poll numbers on where things stood heading into this crucial first debate. 

Let‘s go to Norah O‘Donnell, NBC‘s—MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent.  She‘s up in New York. 

Nora. 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Hey, good evening to you, Chris. 

You know Barack Obama and John McCain went into these debates with voters already having sized up these two men.  The debates are often about perceptions.  Each candidate tries to exploit their opponents‘ weaknesses. 

We asked voters about their perception of the candidates in our NBC news/”Wall Street Journal” poll. 

First, we asked them what concerns they had about John McCain‘s candidacy.  Well. more than a third -- 36 percent—told us they are concerned that McCain will continue the policies of George W. Bush. 

That‘s why we heard Obama, tonight, repeatedly, tie McCain to the policies of Bush and the war in Iraq.  21 percent said that McCain‘s policies would only benefit the wealthy.  Almost 1 in 5 voters, 19 percent told us that McCain is too committed to keeping troops in Iraq, and 12 percent tell us that at age 72 they worry whether McCain will be able to serve four years as president. 

When we asked about Barack Obama, we found significant concerns as well.  One in four -- 26 percent—think Obama is too inexperienced and is not ready for the job.  That‘s why we heard McCain repeatedly questioned Obama‘s readiness tonight, saying Obama just doesn‘t understand. 

19 percent say Obama would not be strong and forceful enough in dealing with America‘s enemies and 18 percent think Obama is too liberal and social and moral issues.  Again, that‘s why McCain accused Obama of having the most liberal record in the Senate. 

And Obama responding, well, that‘s because he was voting against the policies of President Bush. 

Finally, 15 percent think Obama flip-flops and changes his mind too much on the issues. 

Now, Chris, with only 39 days to go before the election, there are two key questions.  One, who is able to exploit their opponents‘ weaknesses, and second, how independents, swing voters, felt about tonight‘s debate.  Chris? 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Norah O‘Donnell.  Of course, that‘s a preview of coming attractions.  What we‘ll be able to do between now and election day, all the new—the latest electronic genius stuff out of NBC with Norah O‘Donnell leading it to us. 

Let‘s take a look right now at John Heilemann of “New York” magazine.  I like your gritty approach.  I‘m not going to completely turn the tables on you. 

JOHN HEILEMANN, NEW YORK MAGAZINE:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Honestly. 

HEILEMANN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Sodium pentathol time.  What surprised you in Barack Obama?  What was weaknesses you were surprised by?  What didn‘t he show you thought he would show? 

HEILEMANN:  I thought he would be actually tougher on McCain.  I thought he would be more on the attack.  I thought—I think there are weaknesses in McCain on foreign policy.  I thought they were very confident with this debate. 

You know Obama wanted to debate about foreign policy first.  They changed the order of the debates.  I thought he would go harder at McCain‘s bellicosity, that McCain wants to get us into more wars. 

MATTHEWS:  He did bomb, bomb Iran.  That stuff. 

HEILEMANN:  Yes, that‘s right.  I mean he kind of alluded to it but he didn‘t really hammer that hard so I was a little surprised about that. 

The other thing I was surprised about, though, was on the positive side.  I thought Obama was sharper and more focused tonight and less professorial that he‘s been in any other debate. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean he got to the point? 

HEILEMANN:  Yes, right.  And he was straight on. 

MATTHEWS:  Were you impressed by John McCain‘s ability to use practical anecdotes, almost like Reagan, constantly using the emotive thing, you know, the soldier that‘s died for his country. 

HEILEMANN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Reference points like that, real people, real concerns? 

HEILEMANN:  I wasn‘t surprised by that.  I mean, McCain is often quite effective at doing that and I think he was effective at it again tonight. 

Although to get to Norah‘s point, thought, which I think is really the strongest thing—I mean McCain kept hitting on this, he doesn‘t understand, he just doesn‘t get it, he doesn‘t understand, he doesn‘t understand. 

And I thought that in the moment that Obama seemed like he had command of these issues, right?  And so—to make that argument over and over again and then have your opponent seemingly as on top of the issues as you are.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

HEILEMANN:  . it seemed to kind of miss the mark to me.  You need to have more of an opening.  If you‘re going to keep hammering that point and your opponent is not really giving you anything to strike at, it seems—it seemed to be kind of fall flat after the ninth or tenth repetition because, Obama did seem like he was—he disagreed McCain and McCain disagreed with him. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

HEILEMANN:  But they didn‘t seem to be on unlevel footing in terms of their grasp of the issues. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk TV values, because, in many ways, subconsciously, when you pick a candidate for president, you only pick him on not just on issues, but who do you want to listen to for four to eight years. 

HEILEMANN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean it really is part of the way we look at these things. 

HEILEMANN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think—let‘s start with John McCain.  Do you think he was too troll-like tonight?  You know too much of a troll? 

HEILEMANN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Too much.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  No, seriously. 

HEILEMANN:  No, no, I understand. 

MATTHEWS:  Do people really want to put up with four years of that?  I‘m sitting there angrily, grumpily, like a codger?  Like—I may be pushing too far, but didn‘t he seem really contemptuous of his opponent? 

HEILEMANN:  He did.  He did.  And you know.

MATTHEWS:  Do you want to put up with four years of that? 

HEILEMANN:  And he hates Obama and maybe.

MATTHEWS:  But wait a minute. 

(CROSSTALK)

HEILEMANN:  Maybe Obama is not on stage that we won‘t have to put up with that anymore. 

MATTHEWS:  Excuse me. 

HEILEMANN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what he thinks of the press. 

HEILEMANN:  I know.  It‘s what he thinks of almost everybody who‘s not John McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  Is every press conference going to be like that?

HEILEMANN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  A troll-like performance, angry at the world? 

HEILEMANN:  What—I think it‘s interesting, but he tries to use some of the words of Reagan like optimism.  But none of the tone is there.  So he says I believe in the American people, our work force is strong. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  OK. 

HEILEMANN:  But all of the tone is harsh and scratchy. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, turn the tables. 

Is Barack Obama too Stevensonian?  Too much the college prof?  The guy who seems to be elegantly moving and flowing, hovering above the problems of the poor, the problems of the middle class? 

Does he seem like he‘s born free of problems to the point where he doesn‘t connect with the average person‘s problems? 

HEILEMANN:  Well, this.

MATTHEWS:  Does he hover too much? 

HEILEMANN:  This has, obviously, been a problem for him throughout.  Right?  He‘s not made the emotional connection with voters in the way that if he had, the sale would be done by now. 

MATTHEWS:  Has he had a bad week in his life?  It doesn‘t seem like he has. 

HEILEMANN:  Well, I think there‘s a question of what his actually his life has been like versus what the appearance is. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

HEILEMANN:  I mean he‘s a guy who has to struggle through and through. 

MATTHEWS:  Exactly. 

HEILEMANN:  I mean he‘s from a—you know, from a broken home, et cetera, et cetera, but none of that comes through.  He comes as though he‘s to the manor born, even though he‘s not at all.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

HEILEMANN:  .. to the manor born. 

MATTHEWS:  Does that mean the guy working in Scranton who‘s been laid off can connect with this guy? 

HEILEMANN:  It seems a little effortless for him. 

MATTHEWS:  Exactly. 

HEILEMANN:  And maybe it just.

MATTHEWS:  By the way.

HEILEMANN:  . excessively effortless. 

MATTHEWS:  Some people who‘ve had it tough in life always send off the signal that it‘s been easy for them. 

HEILEMANN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And it really ticks people off. 

Anyway, thank you, John Heilemann. 

HEILEMANN:  Thanks. 

MATTHEWS:  Much more from the University of Mississippi when we come back. 

HARDBALL special coverage, our third edition tonight.  You‘re watching—by the way, you can tell we‘re not taped, can‘t you?  We‘re coming back more with what happened to the debate.  We‘ll be right back. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE:                  I have a record of being involved in these national security issues which involve the highest responsibility and the toughest decisions than any president can make, and that is to send our young men and women into harm‘s way. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  John, it‘s been your president whom you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending, this orgy of spending and enormous deficits. 

And you voted for almost all of his budgets.  So to stand here after eight years and say that you‘re going to lead on controlling spending and, you know, balancing our tax cuts so that they help middle-class families when over the last eight years that hasn‘t happened, I think just is—you know, it‘s kind of hard to swallow. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.  Of course, you see the good crowd out here staying here late tonight.  It‘s passed midnight.  Well past midnight on the East Coast. 

Joining us now our MSNBC‘s Howard Fineman and, of course, Norah O‘Donnell, who straight giving us all that news. 

Norah, you had all that new gear out there tonight.  But what about you tonight?  I have to tell you, I am so terrible at predicting who wins these debates.  I always get the wrong hunch.  I look at certain things, have different expectations. 

O‘DONNELL:  I know. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you—what do you think of these poll numbers that say that Barack 40 percent, McCain 22 percent.  That‘s pretty clear.  And I—I didn‘t sense that clear cut reality in that direction. 

What did you think?  Or can you say? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, I—you know, I agree with you.  I think it‘s different too (INAUDIBLE) so I‘ve gone back and sort this out with what my initial expectations were. 

I think McCain had to do well on tone and temperament.  Barack Obama had to pass the commander in chief test tonight.  So if you judge it from that, I think McCain had a very strong night. 

I think expectations were low because he had had a very tough week.  His campaign was sort of in flux, flying to Washington, pretending to call off the debate or calling off the debate and then flying to Washington.  He was holding a debate prep.  Just this afternoon, he was holding one late last night. 

So my expectations were low for how McCain would do tonight.  Just thought that maybe there would be too much going on and he would be off.  But in fact he was on.  He—John McCain, he gave one of his best debate performances I have seen on tone and temperament. 

He may have failed to score some points because he did not look at Barack Obama.  And he will be judged and perhaps made fun of on “Saturday Night” because of that. 

In terms of Barack Obama, commander in chief, I think he wasn‘t as strong as he could have been on the economy in the first 30 minutes, that John McCain may have gotten the better of him on the first half of that debate. 

But when it came to foreign policy, which is what this debate was originally supposed to be about, Barack Obama was very, very strong on that. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree, I agree completely with that assessment. 

Howard, your thoughts?  Take a minute. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I thought everything Norah said was absolutely right on. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, thank you. 

FINEMAN:  I, too, was impressed as Norah—you‘re welcome. 

MATTHEWS:  And by the way, I think.

FINEMAN:  It‘s not the first time, by the way.  You‘re right, and I have to say, you‘re right, Norah, you know, it‘s like Obama said.

MATTHEWS:  Absolutely right. 

FINEMAN:  You‘re absolutely right, Norah. 

MATTHEWS:  The way you said it—you have to say absolutely tonight. 

FINEMAN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  By the way, his voting record was 90 percent for Barack.

FINEMAN:  Yes, Obama, it‘s like he endorsed John McCain. 

MATTHEWS:  Everything. 

FINEMAN:  But I—you know—I was impressed with the way McCain took the fight to Obama. 

O‘DONNELL:  Yes. 

FINEMAN:  You know, whatever it is John McCain was born with, I want an injection of. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

FINEMAN:  I mean the guy‘s stamina is really remarkable, that I think the reason if he lost the debate on points to the viewers, it‘s because Obama was able to get the main message out that his strategists were saying before—they telling me before the debate, we want to make—do three things. 

One, hit the change argument.  We want to hit the middle-class mantra and we want to stand toe to toe with McCain on the details of foreign policy. 

And Obama managed to do all these things, even though McCain was coming at him with punch after punch after punch.  And Obama weathered it pretty well.  I agree with Norah, that on the economy, Obama‘s problem is that he still doesn‘t know how to speak. 

And you‘ve harped on this, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  I harped on it.

FINEMAN:  He doesn‘t know how to speak in vivid, meat and potatoes terms about the economy.  Somebody like Don Regal who used to be a senator from Michigan—a congressman from Michigan. 

He said what Obama needs to do is go stand in an unemployment line in Michigan all day and listen to their stories.  He needs to do that kind of things so he can then talk about those things on the air. 

It was a missed opportunity for Obama on the economy. 

MATTHEWS:  You know the irony, as both of you, is that he got started in the community organizer with the plants that he‘s closed. 

FINEMAN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  He got to talk about plants that closed. 

FINEMAN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean in our industry we know about that.  People we know getting laid off all the time. 

FINEMAN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Even television industries who were pretty fat financially.  All these places getting laid off, Hewlett-Packard. 

You pick up the finance pages and there are big thousands of numbers, Norah.

O‘DONNELL:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  . of people getting laid off, and he doesn‘t seem—he talked about—I mean who cares about earmarking and that stuff.  And he let that go on for, what, a half hour tonight? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, it seems that John McCain.

MATTHEWS:  Norah? 

O‘DONNELL:  . sort of dominated and set the agenda, set the.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

O‘DONNELL:  . the substance of it.  And McCain—excuse me, and Obama constantly wanted to defend his record on that.  And he got caught up in that instead of being on the offense about what his message was. 

So I think if you see a change in the next debate or the next two debates, it will be that his advisers, Obama‘s advisers, will get to him and say we‘ve got to hit harder on these things about connecting. 

And connecting with those voters who are concerned about the economy is what Barack Obama had to—he‘s ahead on McCain, 12 points, on issue.  But remember all that stuff we saw during the primaries?  He still can‘t connect with the white working class voter.  He‘s got to do that to win Pennsylvania and Ohio. 

FINEMAN:  He has to do it.  And you know, just because.

MATTHEWS:  Let me.

FINEMAN:  Yes.  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  John McCain can‘t connect with Barack Obama.  He can‘t even look at him.  I still think it‘s the most strangest.

FINEMAN:  Well, he doesn‘t want.

MATTHEWS:  . strangest body language in the world. 

FINEMAN:  Well, because McCain, by that body language, was saying, I don‘t acknowledge your presence on this stage, meaning I‘m the only commander in chief here. 

MATTHEWS:  Wow. 

FINEMAN:  And I‘m not going to admit you as an equal by looking in the eye. 

O‘DONNELL:  Do you think that threw.

FINEMAN:  I think that‘s—that‘s what it was. 

O‘DONNELL:  Do you think that threw.

FINEMAN:  Yes, I think that‘s what.

O‘DONNELL:  . Barack Obama a little bit? 

MATTHEWS:  I want to (INAUDIBLE) that threw—I bet his advisers are saying next time give him a little bit of recognition.  He deserves to be there as much as you do.  Don‘t kid yourself. 

Norah, it‘s great to be with you tonight.  Thank you, Howard. 

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you. 

FINEMAN:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  By the way, you‘re missing the beautiful weather.  It‘s still about August 16th right now. 

O‘DONNELL:  Great. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll head down to the crowd when we come back.  You‘re watching HARDBALL from Oxford, Mississippi, only on MSNBC. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge that we are winning in Iraq. 

They just passed an electoral.

OBAMA:  It‘s not true.  It‘s not true. 

MCCAIN:  An election law just in the last few days.  There is social economic progress and a strategy, a strategy of going into an area, clearing and holding and the people of the country then become alive with you. 

They inform on the bad guys and peace comes to the country and prosperity. 

That‘s what‘s happening in Iraq. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m here at Ole Miss.  It‘s getting there midnight here in Central Time.  It‘s past midnight on the East Coast.  This is my favorite time of night.  The weather‘s perfect, it‘s about 73.  It‘s gorgeous out. 

So what are you doing?  What are you standing around so late for? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Well.

MATTHEWS:  Who won the debate? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I really think McCain did.  I expected that they both would be confident.  I think different reasons for their confidence.  I think that McCain has the reality version of it down.  He likes reality. 

MATTHEWS:  I said he was practical, very common sense. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And I think that.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  . that style was.

MATTHEWS:  But what did you think of his grumpy behavior of not even ever looking at his opponent tonight? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn‘t think that was grumpy. 

MATTHEWS:  He did look troll-like, wasn‘t it? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I really didn‘t think that was grumpy.  I just thought that he appeared confident. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh come on.  You‘re standing next to the guy, you‘re debating them, and you‘re supposed to look over and debate the guy.  He never once looked at him. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I think he‘s confident that he‘s in charge.  And he didn‘t have to yield to tactics. 

MATTHEWS:  Who was he talking to? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I think he was talking to the public.  I don‘t think he was really talking.

MATTHEWS:  I think he was talking to Jim Lehrer. 

Anyway, what do you think?  Why didn‘t—why didn‘t John McCain look at his opponent tonight? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I thought he was embarrassed. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  What did you think? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Well, you know, I heard Mr. Fineman said that he didn‘t look at him because he wasn‘t acknowledging his presence.  But it didn‘t come off that way to me.  To me, it was obvious, afraid to look because I might lose my temper. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh?  You think it was self-protecting? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I think—yes.  I think so.  I think so. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, it‘s hard to read.  Yes, sir. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Although McCain didn‘t look at his opponent that will hurt him.  However, he did stand his ground and he did give one of his best debates yet. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree.  And you know what surprised me I think that was John McCain at his best.  And if he‘s losing these polls tonight about who won the debate, I wonder if he can win. 

Hey, I got to talk to you.  Who won tonight? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I got to say Obama won. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it.

(CHEERS)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Truth serum, if he had lost, would you have said so? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you.  We got—“RACHEL MADDOW SHOW” is coming up next.  It‘s been great here.  I love Ole Miss.  It‘s been wonderful here tonight.  The weather‘s perfect. 

If you liked last month in New York, it‘s here.  This is the nicest weather in the world.  Thank you.  Let‘s go on—say good night.  I‘m saying good night.  It‘s been wonderful to be here in Ole Miss.  We‘ll see who won in a couple of days when the polls.

(CHEERS)

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

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