updated 10/8/2008 11:23:22 AM ET 2008-10-08T15:23:22

Guest: Jill Zuckman, Jonathan Martin, Claire McCaskill, Mitt Romney

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Democrats lead the debates 2-1. Can Obama make it 3-0? Let's play "HARDBALL." Good evening. I'm Chris Matthews. Live from a very noisy Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee; the site of the second presidential debate. In just two hours, John McCain and Barack Obama will face off in the second of their three presidential debates. Tonight's face-off, moderated by NBC's Tom Brokaw could be a last opportunity for John McCain to change the direction of this presidential election. McCain's poll numbers have been headed downwards, along with the economy.And just look at what happened on Wall Street today. The DOW fell more than 500 point, bringing the total one-year decline to an awesome-it's hard to say this -- 5,000-point decline in the DOW Jones in one year; an $8 trillion loss in personal wealth.The question is, what, if anything, can John McCain do or say tonight to turn his flagging fortunes around? A bigger question-what can Americans do to reverse the drop in the stock markets? MSNBC will have full coverage of tonight's second presidential debates beginning at 9:00 Eastern. Then at 10:30, David Gregory joins me for a post-debate analysis. At 11:00, it is "Countdown" with Keith Olbermann. And then at midnight, we're back with one of my favorite events, a late night edition of "HARDBALL." But we begin with tonight's debate. And here with me is NBC's Chuck Todd and Kelly O'Donnell. Chuck, let's talk about the format, let's talk about the environment of the economy tanking, of the stock market dropping; the people in the audience having a chance to drive the debate tonight. What will it be like as you see it now?

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I think it's going to be heavily economy. Let me tell you something, I was talking to a Republican strategist earlier today who said, in the last three weeks, every night that there has been a big drop in the stock market, and we've had quite a few over the last three weeks, it is Republicans, whether it is McCain or a senate candidate or a house candidate, if you have an R next to your nail, you take a beating that night in the tracking polls.

I think that means you will see John McCain tonight have to be empathetic, have to be aware that the market did tank again today. That people are nervous about their 401(k)s, about their retirement, about a lot of those things. And that I think while I never expected a negative tone out of McCain tonight because of the format, I think because of what happened today in the stock market, and the fear that that brings in to people and the response that they've seen in polling over the last three week, almost guaranteed you will see a laser beam-like focus on the economy and probably very empathetic, both McCain and Obama.

MATTHEWS: Your thoughts, Kelly. What do you know from covering John McCain? Will he make his move tonight? An aggressive move to change direction of this campaign?

KELLY O'DONNELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well Chris, they certainly view this as an opportunity and because of the format, advisers are telling me the unexpected, the unpredictable could really be the moment. There's no way to practice for that. But they've studied debates of other town halls of big presidential debates from years past.

Obviously, John McCain knows the format. But it is different because the opponent is standing next to you. There is a time limit involved. In terms of the ferocity of John McCain tonight, expect him to be tough but advisers say he will not be going over some sort a line. It will not be the kind of fierceness you get on the campaign trail where you have a little more freedom in part because you're looking right at voters and your opponent there. So you can be probably be tough on your opponent.

Advisers tell me that they do expect McCain to try to really hold Obama to account on points where they disagree in trying to put forward his own record too. But it is the unpredictable that could be interesting.

That's part of why John McCain likes these events because in his view, and the feelings of his advisers, at those moments are where he can surprise people with humor or with a clever answer.

What we don't see from him a lot on the campaign trail, having covered him, I've traveled with him for about ten months. In these studies, the Bill Clinton moment of "I feel your pain" that has become so iconic over many years; that is typically not the sort of tone that McCain strikes.

But in a setting like this, they know that it is important to recognize the kind of economic suffering people are having, and certainly, McCain talks about that. But looking for that way to connect to a voter is certainly a big part of his mission tonight. And he'll be tough. But if you expect the teeth to show and the real ugliness to come out I will be quite surprised-Chris.

MATTHEWS: Let me go back to Chuck. I guess there's two big questions tonight.

First, let's hear what David Axelrod had to say an hour ago on an earlier edition of what he thinks is going to happen tonight.


MATTHEWS: During the campaign, the acceptance speech, Barack Obama said, he welcomes a debate over temperament as well as judgment; temperament. Aren't you out to make John McCain a kind of a Captain Queeg, in the "Cain Mutiny" kind of a nervous captain, playing with the ball bearings? Kind of a nervous guy you call him uneven.

It seems to me your campaign is to try present him as, according to the "New York Times," you're out to make him kind of cranky and intemperate. You've gone out to do that?

DAVID AXELROD, OBAMA CAMPAIGN CHIEF STRATEGIST: Here's what I believe. I think people watch these campaigns very closely; they get most of their information not from our ads but from what they see.

MATTHEWS: What do they see when they see him at the debate? What do they see when they see him not looking at your candidate? What would you see as a voter?

AXELROD: Well, I think we've heard from a lot of people that they weren't particularly-they thought that was an odd thing that when one person was looking at the other and talking to him, the other person wasn't looking back. That's a decision that Senator McCain-

MATTHEWS: Do you think that's a controlled-like behavior by John McCain?

AXELROD: I think I'm less concerned about his behavior than his policies.


MATTHEWS: That's a big question. Chuck, do you think this is going to be a move to try to get either candidate shaken tonight? Will Barack Obama try to expose the angry, perhaps, image that we've heard about of John McCain? Will John McCain try to rattle Barack Obama who has been so calm in these debates?

TODD: Well, I think they would love to try and do it. I just think this format makes it very difficult to do it. I can't imagine that either one of them-when a voter looks you in the eye and asked you a question, the viewer is going to expect to you respond to that question.

A viewer doesn't care if you don't answer Chris Matthews' question or my question or Kelly's question. You remember the media. They don't care.

But you don't answer a voter question, and you instead use this to pivot to attack your opponent or make your opponent uncomfortable on a personal level, I think you get punished on that. And I think they know that. And that's why-I can't imagine-if the opportunity comes, and one of them fumbles, I think they're both going to be ready to see the other one make a mistake with a voter, but I don't think either one of them feels that they can cause the turnover, to beat up this sports metaphor.

MATTHEWS: Kelly let's talk about-you're with a candidate-you're covering both the defense, avoiding getting shaken up himself, and trying to shake the calmness of the other candidates. You see him doing-how do you see his strategy?

O'DONNELL: Well, I think McCain will try project a warmth and an accessibility because he is certainly aware of the (inaudible) of the angry old man or some of the words that you used in your David Axelrod interview about the Obama campaign calling him erratic. He is going to try to be the person that you know.

Yesterday in a speech in Albuquerque, he over and over again tried to send a message that America knows me, in the words of John McCain. That he is familiar. That his chances that he takes politically are ones often at his own expense.

He will try paint Barack Obama as someone who wants to win too much. And by that, I mean, advisers say that they will try to say that Obama has put the needs of the campaign ahead of the country. And that when-and you've heard him talk about this on the campaign trail. When has he challenged his own party?

Those kinds of ways puts him, Obama, perhaps make him a bit uncomfortable. But there isn't the real harshness in that. He will try to do it in a rather matter of fact way.

Now the looking in the eye that was so absent in the first debate, I totally expect that we will see John McCain look Barack Obama in the eye. And advisers have told me that one of the things they had really instructed McCain to do was to listen when Barack Obama was talking in debate number one; to be ready for comebacks, to be prepared.

And his focus in writing things down and being prepared, perhaps, may be carried too far. And who knows maybe there was a real intention of never looking him in the eye, but that got so much attention, I would expect that there will be not just a hearty handshake but definite some glances. And the format helps in that way too-Chris.

MATTHEWS: That's interesting.

Do you think, Chuck, that Barack Obama will be ready for the attention of John McCain where he actually shows him some, at least, some personal regard tonight, rather than indifference?

TODD: You know, I think they probably do expect it.

On one hand, they thought they would go negative. That's what Sarah Palin's been doing. But, it's funny, I can almost envision McCain embracing Obama at some point tonight. Laughing a little bit more. I think he almost has to.

But I go back to the theme setter for tonight. And I go back to that sort of chilling fact that I got from the Republican strategists, showing me some tracking polls about how every night that there has been a big drop in the DOW, Republicans have taken a hit hard in polling; in that night's polling whether you're a senate candidate, a gubernatorial candidate or a presidential.

I think McCain has to be mindful of what happened today. Not of what Sarah Palin did today, or somebody else on the trail did today, but what happened on Wall Street today.

MATTHEWS: I think his job is to not only change the view people have of him and the other candidate, but to basically change the standard American score card in politics, whereby we punish the party in power when something goes wrong. And reward the other party with at least a chance to serve. That's how our scoring works in American politics.

If you're in, you pay price for bad news. If you're out, fairly or not, you get a break. If he is asking the American people to change the score cards and to say they won't operate that way, that is a challenge to him.

Anyway thank you Chuck Todd. Thank you Kelly O'Donnell.

Coming up, our strategists on what Obama and McCain need to say in tonight's debate. More of the inside, we'll preview the debate sides from both candidates tonight here in "HARDBALL" live in Nashville for the Second Presidential Debate only on MSNBC.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to "HARDBALL" live in Nashville.

We have never had a crowd like this. I don't know. There must be a thousand people here tonight overwhelmingly, as you can see from Barack Obama. I have never seen so many people. On the other side here that's all around us here.

I have never seen a crowd so excited here in all the time we've been on the road for "HARDBALL." By the way, they just shouted down some nut jobs out here which I think is great. Congratulations out there.

Time now for the strategists. Steve McMahon is a Democratic strategist, Todd Harris is a Republican strategist. Gentlemen, I want you to be corner men.

Todd, you're a good sport to come in here. I think Governor Palin keeps saying it, go take off the gloves. Would you advise that of John McCain? To take off the gloves? Tonight? That means showing-bloodying the guy.

TODD HARRIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think it's going to be a lot of, not a lot of blood but maybe a lot of bruising. Tonight is going to be about creating contrasts. It's going to be some straight talk to the American people that were in very difficult times right now.

In difficult times, do we really want turn the White House over to someone who doesn't have the experience and frankly doesn't have the record to be president of the United States? And the limited record that he does have is a bad one; it's a record of higher taxes, of supporting bigger government. That's the contrast piece.

The other thing, hold on, Steve. The other thing he needs to do which I think is probably even more important, is literally reach through the television and make that emotional connection with middle class voters. Paint a picture of what a McCain administration would look like for middle class voters.

I think that's critical for him to do. And it is something that he can do. He's done it before.

MATTHEWS: You believe Todd, just to stick with you for a minute, that John McCain can make personal attacks on what he calls the deficiencies, the personal deficiencies of Barack Obama and still win the hearts and minds of the studio audience tonight. You believe he can do both. Be mean and also be lovable. It is possible to be both.

HARRIS: The big contrast is not being mean. I think saying Obama supports higher corporate taxes. He supports higher capital gains taxes. I don't. I want to lower taxes for working Americans. Obama believes fundamentally in higher tax for working Americans. That's not mean.

I would be very surprised if all this stuff about associations played a big role; the William Ayers and all that. I don't think he's going to get into that because it is a bad format for that. I do expect him to very aggressively make the case that Obama is not ready to be president. In that the limited record he does have is a bad prescription for where this country needs to go right now.

MATTHEWS: So he's going to let the barracuda do the biting.

HARRIS: There's a reason she's got that name.

MATTHEWS: I know. It's her nickname; the governor of Alaska is known as the barracuda. And I think she is proving how she got that name.

Let's go now to Steve McMahon. Playing defense tonight-is that the strategy? Play defense, do no harm, try to fight off McCain's attacks. Is that the strategy?

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think the strategy for senator Obama is just to be himself and remember that how he looks is as important as what he says. To appear presidential, confident, to appear in control; and I think he'll do that.

And I think he also needs to be careful not to debate John McCain but to actually talk to the audience, to demonstrate empathy and to talk about his policy will benefit average working class Americans. Remember, it wasn't the Democrats and Barack Obama who ran economy into the ditch. It was John McCain and George Bush and all of their pals.

I think Barack Obama needs to make that case clearly. And I think what he needs to do is to sort of diffuse some of the attacks that he knows are coming. Senator McCain is going to say that he want to raise taxes. But the fact is, for 95 percent of American families, unless you're Senator McCain's family, you get a $1,000 tax cut.

And right now, after everybody is watching their 401(k)s disappear and private pensions are leaving the scene, $1,000 in the pocket of an American family is actually a very good thing.

And I don't think that the scare tactics or anything else that John McCain has up his sleeve, or the grouchy and temperate nature that he has displayed lately are going to serve him very well.

MATTHEWS: Ok, I heard that. That grouchy temper. Let me ask you this Todd. The way Steve set it up, it is a bull fight; a classic Spanish bull fight with the elegant matador looking like a million buck, skinny as hell, amazingly agile, with the snorting, angry, hoofing, angry charging bull coming at him. Is that what the fight is going to look like? A matador stepping aside, letting the bull charge again and again until he is worn out? Is that the picture tonight?

HARRIS: I think people who go in tonight expecting that are probably going to be a little disappointed. My guess is that tonight's debate, or town hall is going to be far more substantive-

MATTHEWS: I'm hoping for a bull fight.

HARRIS: I know you are.

MATTHEWS: I'm hoping for your candidate to be pawing the earth, charging, heading towards that matador with everything he's got. I'm expecting the red cape to distract him and Barack to just step aside elegantly again and your guy to turn around and come at him again and again and again until somebody wins and somebody loses. I want a fight tonight don't you Todd?

HARRIS: I think tonight is going to be-

MATTHEWS: You have 70 million people looking for a fight.

HARRIS: Yes. It's going to be more substance than it is character attacks. And I think that there will be a real attempt frankly by both candidates to make that emotional connection with the voter.

You remembered, Chris, that debate in New Hampshire. I think it was in June of last year where the woman stood up and asked the question; talked about how her brother had been killed in Iraq. And John McCain stood up from his chair, walked to the edge of the stage, and talked directly to her thanking her for her brother's sacrifice.

That in many respects, a lot of people look at that moment as the beginning of John McCain's road back to victory. He can make those kinds of connections with voters. And I think people will be looking tonight for him to do that.

MATTHEWS: Ok. We'll see tonight whether it's a bull fight or it's a compassionate conservatism.

Steve McMahon, thanks for joining. Thank you, Todd Harris.

Up next, we'll hear from the huge crowd here at Belmont University from Nashville. We'll find out what they're looking for in tonight's debate.

You're watching "HARDBALL" only on MSNBC.


MATTHEWS: We're back here in Nashville, Tennessee at Belmont University with this crowd. Can everybody quiet for a minute? What do you think about this election, young lady?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Elect Obama is-I have a good future and with Obama, and have a great time with Obama.

MATTHEWS: Ok, we'll have a great time. What do you say?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is going to be a good election.

MATTHEWS: What do you say?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that Barack Obama should win.

MATTHEWS: Let's take a look. What about here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The national debt, when Bush came into office, was $3 trillion and some change. It is now almost $11 trillion. This is the Reagan-Bush-McCain economic policies we are living today. It has to change.

MATTHEWS: What do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Obama's going to win the debate tonight because America is behind him and he's going to win the election.

MATTHEWS: Okay. Look at this sign up here; Matthews and Olbermann.

I don't know about that.

What do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have voted three times, Gore, Kerry, I want the third time to be a charm. I want Obama to be the next president.

MATTHEWS: Ok. I need a Republican here. This is totally Obama people here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Prepare for middle class Americans now. Who is going to make the fat cats pay for their greed?

MATTHEWS: You're a deep sort, aren't you? What do you think about this election?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it is time.


Let's go to the-we're getting more questions here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We can't afford eight more years of this.

MATTHEWS: I'm looking for some McCain people? Where are the McCain people? What happened here? You guys are totally ridiculous. I had bunch of McCain people here and now they're gone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is like in Michigan, man. They left. I'm sorry. The McCain folks are gone. Bye.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bring my husband home.

MATTHEWS: Where is he?


MATTHEWS: What is his duty? What's his outfit?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's a helicopter pilot. 6101.

MATTHEWS: And where are you in this election?


MATTHEWS: Ok, thank you very much.

We'll be right back with more "HARDBALL." Be back in a minute.



MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. We're an hour and a half away right now from the second presidential debate. As you can see we're surrounded by thousands now of people on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville. John McCain heads into his debate as new polls show him falling behind Obama in key states.

Let's take a look at them. These are all states that the Republicans carried four years ago. A Mason-Dixon poll in Florida has McCain two points behind Obama, 48-46. In Ohio, a big state for Republicans last time. A CNN poll shows them three points behind Obama.

And North Carolina, this is a southern state. This is the Tarheel State. Even now at 49 percent. And the only place where McCain is ahead is Indian by five points.

Jill Zuckman, you're with the "Chicago Tribune"? And Jonathan Martin is with the Politico, which is the hot new political organ that covers everything. I'm not sure what to call you guys.

You-you're in print. I can get you in a box. I can get you in a box.

Let's talk about this. It seems to me that-I said before my metaphor was the bullfighter and the bull, that John McCain is going to be the bull tonight, all testosterone, coming out there snorting, you know, pawing his dust on the ground like a bull that's ready to fight. And once again, Barack Obama will be in the role of the elegant matador, stepping aside at the attacks. What do you see it as?

JILL ZUCKMAN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": If John McCain is the bull, bulls are angry. He can't be angry. He can be angry about the situation, but he can't come across as being an angry old man. That's a problem.

MATTHEWS: Is he going to play Fernando the bull, the one who gets him in the fight? Is that-I don't think so.

ZUCKMAN: He's got to show caution for the plight that voters are in right now as the Dow keeps dropping.

MATTHEWS: The emotive judge (ph). We saw all of that in the first debate.

JONATHAN MARTIN, THE POLITICO: He's constrained by the format. How do you stick a knife in somebody's back when you're standing right in front of them? This is a town hall debate. There's not going to be lecterns here where these candidates can sort of rip and sort of stand behind. They're going to be close to each other, and there's a live audience.


MATTHEWS: ... if somebody goes negative?

MARTIN: I think it's possible. It's possible. Who would want to risk that, you know?

ZUCKMAN: You can tell them as many rules as you want to tell them about being quiet and everything. But if they feel like one candidate has gone too far, they can let everybody know.

MARTIN: And the physical proximity. Standing next to somebody. It's a lot tougher to go on the attack when you're this close to a person.

MATTHEWS: You know, I know Brokaw a bit, and I think he will go in and do follow-up, no matter what the rules are.

MARTIN: I think so, too.

MATTHEWS: I don't think he will let a candidate dance away. I'm just guessing. I haven't talked to him about it. What do you think?

ZUCKER: I-I mean, I hope so, because I think we saw from the last debate there was too much going off on their own.

MARTIN: Right.

ZUCKER: Too much talking about whatever they wanted to talk about and not enough answering the question.

MATTHEWS: Jon, do you think he'll go out there and make them follow-up or the audience might?

MARTIN: I think that Brokaw certainly will. But I would just add, it's going to be challenging for McCain and Obama, Chris, to talk about anything other than the economy. This story continues to dominate. The Dow is down today how many points? How many points?

If these guys go up on other tangents, it's going to seem almost dissonant, given the crisis that's still taking place even after the bailout in this country.

MATTHEWS: Will McCain switch to Iraq and talk about the Iraq war?

MARTIN: If the question's asked, yes.

ZUCKMAN: I mean, if asked a direct question, he would have to. But I agree with Jonathan. I mean, you can't say, "Hey, that guy is lying about my record," when people are worried that their retirement is gone.

MATTHEWS: The reason I suggested he might is I looked at the NBC poll this morning. On every single issue: the financial problems we're facing, the general overall economy, anything to do generally with the economy's domestic policy, Barack is way ahead by double digits.

The only area where McCain enjoys more credibility is on Iraq. I'm just wondering-there may well be someone in the group tonight who has a service person on duty right now. That would bring it up.

MARTIN: There could be a moment, certainly, where it comes off. But the fact is, what's dominant right now on the minds of most folks in this country is, like Jill said, it's their savings. And to sort of pivot to anything else besides that, I think it's going to be a real challenge, given what has still happened with this economy.

MATTHEWS: If I were Barack Obama, I would remind everybody, but it was the Republican strategy, backed wholeheartedly by McCain, to take a portion of our Social Security check and put it in the stock market. And had that been the case, had we now faced the scenario going into this election...

MARTIN: Right.

MATTHEWS: ... imagine what people would be doing.

MARTIN: You would have-in Florida, as you know, Zogby's had that message aimed at the seniors down there. And given how close we just saw that poll, the Mason-Dixon poll, given how close...

MATTHEWS: Are they using this issue?

MARTIN: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE) now in Florida. And Obama mentioned he was down there. Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: The Republicans want to...

ZUCKER: Have you seen the latest Gallup poll? Sixty-nine percent of Americans, more than ever before in the history of Gallup, said the economy is the No. 1 issue on their minds. And next to that, 11 percent are concerned about the Iraq war.

MATTHEWS: Does Barack Obama, who is the front runner now, have a responsibility to tell people tonight that they're going to have to face some pain even if he's elected? That the next president's going to have to lead through a difficult economic time and have to make some sacrifices?

MARTIN: Well, I think he has to be...

MATTHEWS: Does he have to do that as a responsible candidate?

MARTIN: He has to be candid. I think he'll try. But Barack Obama's a politician. He's a politician who wants to be president in 28 days. He's not going to say to the American people, "It's going to be hard."

MATTHEWS: Still, if he does win, he is going to face the American people with a very unhappy message.

MARTIN: His entire message is hope. How to you run on hope for two years and then say in the final 28 days, "Not so much"?

ZUCKER: Frankly...

MATTHEWS: Jon, you're not old enough to remember. Kennedy did it that way. And he did it great. You offer a challenge at the same time you offer hope. You do both at the same time.

ZUCKER: That is more like the John McCain message.

MARTIN: It's more bold.

ZUCKER: He is someone who is more likely to tell you something that you don't really want to hear.


ZUCKER: Which is this is going to hurt for a long time.

MARTIN: And Obama's more cautious. He's safe. He's benefited, Chris, during this whole crisis, not by diving in so much but by being the alternative. He's the alternative.

MATTHEWS: Can I ask he magic question, though?

MARTIN: Go ahead.

MATTHEWS: For the last several days, Governor Palin has been the attack dog. She's been the barracuda. That's her nickname.

MARTIN: Right.

MATTHEWS: She's been going after...


MATTHEWS: ... Barack Obama on his associations with that guy, Bill Ayers.

MARTIN: Right.

MATTHEWS: The association began basically in the mid-'90s. Bill Ayers back in the '60s had been involved, in the early '70s, with the Weathermen group, the bombing group. They were domestic terrorists.

MARTIN: Right.

MATTHEWS: Twenty-six years later, they met together at a meeting. Barack Obama had nothing to do, obviously, with this guy's earlier behavior.

ZUCKER: Right.

MATTHEWS: But he associated with him later. Is that going to be an issue that McCain's going to bring up tonight? Bring it up?

MARTIN: I think the answer is no to that, unless it comes up.

MATTHEWS: Palin's been bringing it up. The same team.

MARTIN: The strategy has been to have McCain talking more about issues, Palin doing the sort of dirtier work, talking about the associations, like with Bill Ayers.

MATTHEWS: Is that acceptable to have-in gender politics today, have we reached a point where a guy can have a woman do his dirty work? Have we reached that level? Have we reached that level?

ZUCKER: The vice president, that's her job.

MATTHEWS: And she should be able to-that's not-that would have years ago been considered...

MARTIN: Spiro Agnew.

MATTHEWS: No. The fact is that we're so gender blind that it's OK for the barracuda to do the really tough work.

MARTIN: Why not?

ZUCKER: Maybe I'm not old enough to see it.

MATTHEWS: It certainly changed.

MARTIN: Why not?

MATTHEWS: You think it's OK.

MARTIN: Of course it is. Fair if fair. She's Spiro Agnew.

MATTHEWS: So he's the good cop, and the other guy's the bad cop?

MARTIN: That's how it sort of seems right now.

MATTHEWS: Well, times are changing. Maybe for the better.

Jill Zuckman, thank you. Jonathan Martin.

Up next, can John McCain slow down the momentum of Barack Obama that he's been showing over the past couple of weeks? We'll talk to the supporters of both, McCain and Obama, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, coming up next.

Our coverage of the second presidential debate continues from Belmont University in Nashville right after this.


MATTHEWS: We're back from-it's getting loud here, live from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, getting ready for the big presidential debate tonight between Barack Obama and John McCain. Let's check in with a couple of supporters, their surrogates tonight. Senator Claire McCaskill, Missouri, a big supporter for Barack Obama. She joins us now. We'll have Mitt Romney on in a minute.

Senator McCaskill, tonight's bout, I want you to give us a preview. Will McCain go in like a bull? Will your candidate be the matador and try to step aside when he comes in with his charges on things like Bill Ayers and other such stuff?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: Well, I don't know if there's any question that John McCain thinks there's only one play left in his book, and that is to tear up Barack Obama personally. I think it's not going to work. I think, frankly, it will have the opposite impact on Americans that are watching this today.

And I do think that Barack Obama will step to the side and talk about the things that the American people really care about right now. And that is, how do we get ourselves out of this economic debt?

MATTHEWS: Well, how do you explain his relationship with Bill Ayers? What would you say to explain it so people, older people in Florida, who have obviously been targeted by the McCain campaign to scare them? How would you put them at ease about your candidate?

MCCASKILL: They don't know each other well. They're not friends. He has condemned what this man did. And by the way, people need to realize Barack Obama was 8 years old.

They served on a not-for-profit board together, along with a lot of other distinguished people. This man is not close to Barack Obama. He's not his friend. He's not his confidante. He's somebody he's met a couple of times. That's it. It's just that simple.

MATTHEWS: Senator, didn't he hold a fund-didn't he hold a-

Senator, didn't he hold a fundraiser for him back when he was running for state senate?

MCCASKILL: You know, when I ran for the state legislature, there were probably 40 or 50 people that had coffees for me. And that doesn't mean that they are close friends of mine now or, frankly, that I could tell you much about them.

And John McCain knows this. These guys don't really believe Barack Obama coddled terrorists. They know better. I can't believe that they're not embarrassed of this. John McCain cannot feel good about doing this in their campaign right now.

MATTHEWS: They're obviously not-they're capable of wanting to win, perhaps.

But let me ask you this. The stock market went down 500 points today. It is scaring me and scaring other people. It's dropped 5,000 points since last October. If Barack Obama becomes our economic commander in chief, what in the world can he do about this situation?

MCCASKILL: Well, I think he has some really good answers. One is a different kind of economic philosophy and policy that are going to do a tax code that helps companies keep jobs here in the United States. We've got to grow jobs, Chris.

And Barack Obama has understood that all through this campaign. I mean, John McCain said just a couple weeks ago: the fundamentals of our economy are strong.

So what we're going to do is we're going to grow jobs in the green sector. We're going to grow jobs by giving tax breaks to companies that keep jobs in this country.

And by the way, you cannot get out of a ditch with the same team that got you there. You know, maybe a different quarterback, but it's the same economic philosophy. You know, give to the very wealthy and, hopefully, it trickles down. Well, it trickled down all right, and got us in this mess.

MATTHEWS: Well, we have a $500 billion deficit right now. It's just been recalibrated by the Congressional Budget Office. How would he reduce that without raising taxes on most people? I mean, how would he reduce the deficit? He'd have to spend less and tax more. Would he do that?

MCCASKILL: Well, he absolutely will spend less. In fact, his plan is paid for. The people who are very wealthy are going to pay the same tax breaks they paid under Ronald Reagan. A little bit more than they pay now.

But at the same time, he's going to cut money to the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies. They're going to need a big give-away from the government right now, Chris. That Medicare damage program is $15 billion a year. We're giving to the insurance companies. All of those are on the chopping block.

And that's going to be where we're going to be able to pay for this plan which is going to also stimulate the economy, because we're going to reduce the deficit.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you about the two candidates' temperament. John McCain has been accused of being a bit cranky in this earlier debate, of not looking at your candidate. That your candidate has challenged him to a debate over temperament. To what extent are the two candidates' temperaments or tempers going to play in tonight's face-off?

MCCASKILL: Do you know what the American people want from a president? They want somebody who is inspirational, who is friendly, who is knowledgeable and steady. They don't want somebody who's erratic and impulsive, somebody who flies off the handle. Somebody who suspends his campaign one day and says, "I won't debate" and then campaigns the next day and ends up debating. And you know, he's been all over the map.

I think what people want is a steady hand right now. And Barack Obama has shown for the last 18 months that he is thoughtful, that he listens, that he's willing to take other people's ideas and that he is steady.

MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you very much, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

We're going to be hearing in a moment from Mitt Romney, of course, lost the Republican nomination fight to John McCain, but he's been out trooping for him.

I guess one of the themes we've been getting from the Democratic side is they, according to the "New York Times" today, that they really are trying to raise the issue of John McCain's temperament or temper, if you will. Really focusing on the possibility that he might be a cranky old man, to put it lightly.

They're working on that theme. They worked on it. You just saw Senator McCaskill hit that point there with a little prodding from me but not much. They clearly like the idea that their candidate is cool, calm, and collected. And he will prove that again tonight, they hope, and that John McCain is a bit too edgy, a bit too temperamental to hold down the office of the presidency at a time of tremendous stress.

And of course, that-these personal matters do become part of our politics, and they do become part of the way we look at these debates.

Think about the last presidential debate when John McCain hardly even recognized his opponent. It was a strange thing when you think about it. I noticed that during the debate last time, two weeks ago, and we've been talking about it a bit since.

Let's bring in a big McCain supporter now, Governor Mitt Romney.

Governor Romney, what do you make of John McCain's temperament?

MITT ROMNEY, FORMER GOVERNOR OF MASSACHUSETTS: Hey, John McCain has the kind grit and determination that our nation needs at a critical time. His temperament has been proven and tested time and time again. So, you know, I think he's the kind of leader that America needs at a tough time.

And frankly, given the kind of challenges we face economically, militarily, the last thing you need is an untested, unproven leader. John McCain is the real deal. He's been there time and time again.

MATTHEWS: It's been said that the way John McCain gets himself up for a political fight is to begin to hate his opponent, to have absolute contempt for him.

I was watching one-I don't know what his feelings are toward you, Governor, but I remember one of the debates you had when you were sitting right next to him. You were sitting to his right. And the way he was talking to you was so contemptuous. I know you must have felt it. Do you think that's appropriate behavior for a presidential debate?

ROMNEY: Chris, you know, you were the guy that led us in our very first debate. I thought it went really well. You know, John and I shook hands each time and had pleasantries before and after the debates. We got along fine before. He actually campaigned for me a couple of times. I've been to his place in Sedona since then. We get along fine.

I think a lot of this talk is way overblown. John McCain is a very focused, determined, capable individual and, given the kind of challenges America faces, I think that's the kind of leadership we need.

MATTHEWS: Well, I do remember now that you reminded me, I did moderate that first presidential debate on the Republican side where I believe you won that debate in the eyes of many viewers. I guess that's why you remember that particular debate, Governor.

Let me ask you about Barack Obama. Do you believe he is vulnerable on his past...?

ROMNEY: I won them all.

MATTHEWS: OK. Well, well-argued, at least.

Do you think Barack Obama faces a vulnerability on his relationships such as the one with Bill Ayers, who was a member of the Weathermen back in the '60s?

ROMNEY: Well, you know, that's probably a question for the American people to answer, you know? I think Barack Obama is vulnerable on his economic plan. I think people are angry and want change, but I don't think they want change that says, "Look, we're going to spend money on universal free care and universal health care-universal pre-k, that is, universal health care, universal community college, at-a national service plan."

These kinds of plans are expensive. The last thing we need right now is the government to spend more money. We need to reign in government spending and hold on taxes. That's how you get the economy going.

So I think he's more vulnerable there. But you know, people are going to ask questions about who Barack Obama chose to associate himself with. That's a fair-that's a fair point of inquiry. But I think the stronger point is that his economic plan is just not right for America.

MATTHEWS: What is your-you're an economic guy. You understand business as well as any of the candidates for president this year.

We've lost $8 trillion in wealth on the Dow Jones, apparently, since last October, a 5,000 point drop in the industrials. That's an incredible amount of wealth lost. Personally, most of the people with any kind of money in the market have felt it deeply. What do you-what would you do about it?

ROMNEY: Well, it's a terrible tragedy for many, many, many people. And it's very unfortunate, and it's the result of people becoming very concerned that we're going to have a recession or a severe or prolonged recession. And so they're fleeing the market sometimes in fear.

My expectation is that, well consistent with history, every down turn is followed by an upturn and, painful as they are, we will come out of this.

And the right action to take is that that was taken by the president and Congress. I know it makes me unpopular with a lot of my conservative friends, but it was necessary to put in place a stabilization emergency fund, as was done.

And likewise, the very aggressive actions the Fed is taking to put capital in the marketplace, to keep interest rates low. That's the right course to be taking right now, and we're going to have to weather this, if you will, storm of concern on the part of many, many citizens.

But I, for one, haven't changed my investments. I still believe in America and in our future. But I want to have a president who's willing to keep taxes down to keep jobs here, who's willing to reign in unnecessary spending and who when he's asked, like Jim Lehrer asked Barack Obama, what things he'd cut back, isn't at a loss for words.

Instead, he said he's going to freeze or would consider freezing all of the discretionary nonmilitary accounts.

MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you, well said. Thank you very much Governor Mitt Romney, joining us tonight as the surrogate for John McCain.

Much more from Belmont University in just a minute. The second presidential debate now is just about an hour away. You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back. After tonight's debate we're going to get to see what voters thought about what they heard from McCain and Obama. We assembled a group of voters in suburban Philadelphia.

MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell joins us now with a preview from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

Norah, how did you like your ride on the Schuylkill Expressway today?

Tell us what we're going to see tonight?

NORAH O'DONNELL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: It was great. Well, we're here in the suburbs of Philadelphia. We're going to be joined by dozens of voters tonight so that we can give you instant feedback: who won this debate, who lost this debate.

We're going to be using this thing called a perception analyzer, and actually, it's got a dial on it. And you can turn it all the way to zero, the voters will, and they can say whether they totally disagree with the candidate or whether they totally agree with the candidate and turn it towards 100.

The point is we're going to be able to give you moment by moment analysis from these voters here in Pennsylvania, about whether they agree with Barack Obama or John McCain, whether they're connecting on some of the issues that they're talking about.

This is really important in a state like Pennsylvania. As you know, a blue-a blue-ish state that John Kerry won in 2004, but this is a state that John McCain wants to win very, very badly. In fact, he's sending Sarah Palin here tomorrow to this state.

But we've checked some of the numbers, actually, Democrats, Barack Obama has outspent John McCain by nearly a million dollars in the past month.

And the registration, Chris, is unbelievable. Democrats have registered 500,000 new voters this year. Republican registration actually sunk by 28,000 voters, so John McCain faces an uphill battle.

But he wants to try and win the 21 electoral votes. That's why we assembled this group here. That's why we're in Pennsylvania, because we're going to get a real sense from the people gathered here tonight of whether it was Barack Obama or John McCain who connected, whether they changed anybody's minds, whether they convinced any of the decided voters that we're going to gather here tonight and watch the debate with-Chris.

MATTHEWS: Well, from King of Prussia, up near Philadelphia, right north of Philadelphia on the Schuylkill Expressway, we will hear from Norah O'Donnell after the debate.

I can't wait to hear how people react to some of the comments tonight, especially if they go into those cultural areas, not just the economic areas.

Anyway, the second presidential debate begins right now in one hour. I'll be back at 10:30 Eastern after the debate and then again at midnight for a special edition of HARDBALL.

"COUNTDOWN" with Keith Olbermann starts right now.



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