updated 3/15/2010 11:59:49 AM ET 2010-03-15T15:59:49

Guest Host: Chuck Todd

Guests: Mary Thompson, Chris Van Hollen, Thaddeus McCotter, George Lemieux, Chris Cillizza, Bill Halter, Dee Dee Myers, John Feehery

CHUCK TODD, GUEST HOST:  The president clears his calendar for health care.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chuck Todd, in tonight for Chris Matthews, who‘s still traveling with the vice president in the Middle East.

Leading off tonight: President Obama stays for the home stretch of health care.  Under pressure from some frustrated House Democrats, the president decided to officially delay his trip to Indonesia by at least three days to remain in Washington for the House vote on health care.  That vote is expected at the end of next week, perhaps Saturday, March 20th.

But whether or not the Democrats have the 216 votes they need is still in question.  And if the House does pass the bill, do Republicans have anything left in their arsenal to stop what they believe is the steamroll of reconciliation?  Senators Lamar Alexander and Judd Gregg are threatening to force votes on just about every sentence of the bill, creating what could be a parliamentary circus.

Plus, we‘ll continue our look at the contested Democratic primary landscape, today focusing on Arkansas.  Senator Blanche Lincoln, a centrist, is facing a fierce challenge from the left by that state‘s lieutenant governor, Bill Halter.  Tonight we‘ll talk to Halter about why he thinks it‘s time for Lincoln to go.

Also, what did Bill Clinton do right that President Obama is not?  Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers says the president has a thing or two to learn from Clinton, and she‘ll be here to explain why.

And finally, proof that politicians do have a sense of humor.  We‘ve got an early look at the top political ads of this young campaign season in the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

But let‘s start with the House‘s new timetable to pass health care and the president‘s decision to delay his trip to Indonesia.  Democratic congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Republican congressman Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan is a member of the Financial Services Committee and chair of the House Republican Policy Committee.

Thank you, gentlemen, for both being here.  I want to start with something—Congressman Van Hollen, Congressman McCotter, with this from Speaker Pelosi today on news that the president had delayed his trip, leaving for Indonesia, by three days.  Here‘s what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  I‘m delighted that the president will be here for the passage of the bill.  It‘s going to be historic.  And it would not be possible without his tremendous, tremendous leadership, his persistence, his concern for the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  OK.  Congressman Van Hollen, she set the timetable.  “I‘m delighted the president will be here for the passage of this bill.”  Last night on Rachel Maddow, she said, When you have the votes, you have the vote.  The vote‘s not today, so she doesn‘t have the votes.  But she believes she can have the votes by Sunday.  Obviously, this is your leader.  You believe this is true?

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND:  Sure.  I think we could have the votes by Sunday, but we don‘t know exactly when this bill will come up.  We‘re still waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to provide the numbers.  We‘re confident that they will show this will reduce the deficit, as both the House and Senate bills did.  But until our members have a chance to take a look at that, it‘s not going to be fair to ask some of those final votes to make a final decision.

TODD:  Congressman McCotter, you‘re from Michigan.  One of the leaders of the sort of undecided coalition of Democrats is another Michigan congressman, Bart Stupak.  You know, from what you hear on the ground, from what you may hear in your own state delegation meetings, where‘s Congressman Stupak on this?

REP. THADDEUS MCCOTTER ®, MICHIGAN:  Well, I think one of the reasons I respect Bart so much is he can express for himself where he‘s at.  One of the things that we‘re seeing in this debate, which you touched upon, Chuck, is the president staying here.  I do not begrudge him travel at this point in time, as the head of state, as someone who‘s the commander-in-chief in a time of war.  And if he wishes to stay, that‘s fine.

But it does point out that the difficulty in passing the bill is the Democratic centrists that do not support the bill at the present time, such as Bart Stupak, or the American people.  So I think that whether he stays or not, it shows that under a dominated (ph) Democratic congress with a Democratic administration, the inherent flaws in this bill and the public revulsion to it is leading Democrats to oppose the bill.

TODD:  I want to go back to Congressman Van Hollen a minute.  One of the things that‘s going to be taken up in the reconciliation portion of this—you guys—the House on Monday has to start the fixes.  You guys will do it in the House, and then you send it over to the Senate.  One of the items, potentially, in this fix has nothing to do with health care, it‘s a student loan bill that the president is very supportive of.  A lot of Democrats are.  Why put the student loan bill in this reconciliation fix?

VAN HOLLEN:  Well, this actually relates to the Senate procedure, and the Senate parliamentarian has said that the two subcommittees have to make sure that independently, the bill is resolved under the budget—in other words, that there‘s a resolution.  And this is a provision that has been part of the reconciliation package from the very beginning under the budget rule.

Long story short, I think we should look at each of these things on the merits.  And on the merits, what we‘re doing under the education bill is saying we‘re no longer going to provide a lot of money to the banks to essentially be the middleman...

TODD:  Sure.

VAN HOLLEN:  ... in terms of student loans.  We need to make sure that the students get that money.

TODD:  I understand the bill, but this is not about health care.

VAN HOLLEN:  No, this is...

TODD:  I mean, do you wish it were not coming to this, that you didn‘t need to do this in order to fulfill what the Senate parliamentarian (INAUDIBLE)

VAN HOLLEN:  This is as a result of the budget resolution that the House and the Senate both adopted last year.  That budget resolution made provisions for both health care reform, as well as trying to make reform in student loans, so that we could, you know, try and get more money to students and away from banks.

If I could just point out on the health care reform bill, though...

TODD:  Go ahead.

VAN HOLLEN:  ... what we‘re seeing in recent weeks, in the recent polls that are coming out, is the American people are actually—the closer the vote gets, the more support there is for the bill.  People are evenly divided, even after a lot of misinformation‘s been out there.  That‘s what the latest polling is showing.

TODD:  In fact, Congressman McCotter, I was going to point that out, as well.  It does seem as if the poling—if we‘re—if we‘re all going to point to polling—and a lot of times, politicians say, Hey, I don‘t look at polls, unless, of course, people look at polls when they feel like it supports what they believe.  But what do you say to the fact that it does seem these numbers are moving a little bit?  And also, what a lot of Democrats point out is some of the individual things in the bill are popular, even if the idea of the whole brand of the bill is not.

MCCOTTER:  Well, I think that you‘re right about that.  I think that maybe their numbers are moving.  People do tend to pick different numbers that they want.  One of the things we can look at, Chuck, are the actions.  And today we kept the House Democrats—we stayed here today to vote on algae.  Now, I voted for the bill.  I‘m happy.  I‘m from a Great Lakes state.

But what you‘re seeing is that the public is truly coming around to this entire—the bill in its entirety, the Democratic majority should be more than happy to let their members of Congress go home and hear how much this bill is loved by their constituents.

What I‘m worried about is the fact that the American people are saying there are parts of the bill they like.  If we can come to a principled basis for an agreement that empowers patients as consumers of health care, allows the market supply of health care to increase, the costs come down and access increases, something can be done.  And I think why, consistently, you see the people want us to start from scratch, find a good basis to go forward and have common-sense, affordable, helpful reforms, rather than a sweeping overhaul they reject.

TODD:  Are you going to campaign on repealing this if this passes?  Do you believe you have to just—is that how you will campaign in November, that, If you reelect me, Congressman McCotter, I‘m going to vote to repeal health care, anything that‘s passed this year in health care?

MCCOTTER:  Well, I think if it‘s this bill, yes, I will.  But if it‘s anything that‘s passed, if we come together and do something that‘s sane and sensible to the American people, then we‘ll look at that.  But if it‘s this bill, yes, because, again, my position has always been patient-center, wellness, try to increase the supply of health care through free market forces.  So that position will not change, and this bill is not in accordance with that principled proposition.

TODD:  Congressman Van Hollen, what are you telling these nervous—because the wavering Democrats are the ones that are calling you privately and saying, Hey, I‘m going to need a lot of help from the DCCC this year.  What are you telling them that say, Hey, this bill‘s unpopular in my district, why should I vote for this and potentially vote myself out of office?

VAN HOLLEN:  Well, first of all, every member‘s going to independently look at this bill, talk to their constituents and make a decision.  That‘s why you have—the majority of Democrats supported the House bill.  But obviously, we had some that didn‘t.  They will look at the Senate bill.  They‘ll look at the merger.

But what we‘re finding is they‘re going—they are going home and talking to their constituents, and their constituents are getting these envelopes that they‘re opening in the mail from their insurance companies showing 20, sometimes 50 percent increases in premiums.  They‘re hearing that from small businesses.  They‘re hearing it from big businesses.

The current system is unsustainable.  Our colleagues for eight years had an opportunity to do something about this.  They did nothing.  Premiums more than doubled over those eight years, as insurance company profits quadrupled.

Now, look, I don‘t know what my colleague is referring to with respect to government-run health care.  What we‘re talking about is giving individuals, our constituents, the same kind of choices we have under the federal employees health benefit plan that he and I and other federal employees have, where you allow the free market to work, but you have a referee to look out for the consumers‘ interests, rather than throwing everybody to the—over to the insurance industry.

TODD:  Congressman McCotter, is this Senate bill a better bill than the first one the House passed?

MCCOTTER:  No, because it does work from the premise that Chris denies, which is that it is an attempt by the government to increase its control over your own personal health care decisions.  And if it...

TODD:  How does it do that?  Explain...

MCCOTTER:  Mandates, taxes.  You‘re cutting half a trillion dollars from senior citizens‘ Medicare.  You‘re taking and taxing employer-provided benefits to working men and women that are unionized and elsewhere.  These are things you do not campaign on.  And now to say that a massive 2,000-page bill with mandates, with higher taxes, with more government control over what constitutes wasteful (ph), with reductions in entitlement spending for people like senior citizens isn‘t an expansion of the power of a big, broken, bloated federal government over average men and women...

TODD:  Well, this seems to be...

MCCOTTER:  ... that are trying to (INAUDIBLE) is absolutely counter to reality.

TODD:  I‘ll say this.  I mean, this does seem to be the basic split, though, between Democrats and Republicans, is a belief in government doing this, and a belief in not.

VAN HOLLEN:  Well, look...

TODD:  I mean, this is an ideological, philosophical difference.

VAN HOLLEN:  Yes, but let‘s ask the Congressional Budget Office, which is a non-partisan referee, that looked at the plans to weigh in here.  And they have.  There are 31 million Americans right now who can‘t afford health insurance, who are going to get covered.  The plan they put on the table, at best, covers 3 million.  The plan they put on the table does not prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to people who have preexisting conditions.  Ours does.

You know, I—look, the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, I think our constituents should have the same kind of choices as members of Congress.

TODD:  We‘re going to—I‘m guessing we‘re going to find out in November, this November, possibly the following two Novembers, who‘s right on this one.  Congressman McCotter, thank you for joining us tonight, Congressman Van Hollen.  We‘ll see you guys on the campaign trail and elsewhere.

Coming up: What will Senate Republicans do to try to derail the Democrats‘ plans to use reconciliation to pass those House Democratic fixes to health care reform?  I‘ll ask Florida Republican senator George Lemieux next.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The president and Democrats are going full speed to the finish line on health care reform.  What can Republicans do to stop them?

Joining me, Republican senator George Lemieux of Florida.  So Senator Lemieux, what do you understand as going to be the Republican strategy starting—it‘ll probably be a week from Monday, when the baton is handed off from the House to the Senate on these fixes to health care?  What is the Senate Republican plan?

SEN. GEORGE LEMIEUX ®, FLORIDA:  Well, we‘re going to do every...

TODD:  The strategy.

LEMIEUX:  Chuck, we‘re going to do everything we can to make sure that the American people know that this is a bad bill, that it‘s being shoved down the throat of the Senate using a process, this reconciliation, that was never intended for a bill that‘s going to affect such an important part of people‘s lives in this country.

So we‘ll be on the floor of the Senate.  We‘ll be trying to make amendments.  We‘ll be trying to make sure the rules are followed.  And we‘re going to expose this process to the American people, just like we did back in December.

TODD:  What‘s—what‘s wrong with a 50-plus-1 vote?  What‘s wrong with that on its merits?

LEMIEUX:  Well, two things.  One is this reconciliation process was never intended for something as substantive as health care, that affects every person‘s lives, that‘s—depending on who‘s counting, one sixth or one fifth of the U.S. economy is impacted.

TODD:  The bill‘s already passed the Senate.  These are some legislative fixes, whatever you want to call them, but it‘s a much smaller portion than what you‘re describing on the Senate health care bill, correct?

LEMIEUX:  Well, let‘s see what it is.  We don‘t know what it is yet because it hasn‘t materialized.  But if it‘s going to affect everything from Medicare Advantage to how Medicare works, to how health care works in this country, it‘s still an issue that is not intended for reconciliation.

The second point is, the Senate is not supposed to be the body that passes things on an up-or-down majority vote.  That‘s not what our founders intended.  The Senate is supposed to be different from the House.  George Washington said it was the saucer that would catch the hot coffee and let it cool down a little...

TODD:  Right.

LEMIEUX:  ... and where we‘d have sober and deliberative debate.  We should have the opportunity to offer amendments, to discuss these issues, and do it in a way that‘s going to benefit the American people.  If it‘s going to be some crammed-down process of only 30 hours of debate, and take it on an up-or-down vote, you‘re basically turning the Senate into the House.

TODD:  But I guess (INAUDIBLE) you had a shot at filibustering this vote, this bill, the health care bill back in December, correct?  And you had a shot at doing amendments back in December?

LEMIEUX:  Well, we had a shot at doing some amendments.  And remember, this bill that‘s coming over is not that bill.  That bill will be the one that the House will take up.  If they vote on it, it will pass.  This will be a new bill.

We have the opportunity and we have the obligation—you know, look, I represent 18 million people in Florida.  They want me to come up here and offer ideas.  I‘ve got a fraud prevention idea that some of the folks think might save $20 billion a year.  I should have the right to bring that amendment forward.  We should have a right to make this better.

Traditionally, a piece of legislation this important would have lots of amendments, lots of debate, and we‘d have 70 or 80 senators vote for it, in favor of it.  This bill‘s not like that.  The Democrats have handled it very badly.

TODD:  I want to go to this issue of Medicare Advantage because it‘s an issue that is very important to a lot of Floridians.  Do you think it‘s been fair to conflate Medicare, the government-run insurance program, with Medicare Advantage, which is a private sort of insurance subsidy that comes from the government?

LEMIEUX:  Well, they‘re both parts of Medicare.  Medicare Advantage is a program that people in my state enjoy.  We have more than a million people on it.  And what it does more than...

TODD:  But it‘s not Medicare, correct?  I mean, it‘s an addendum, sort of—it‘s an extra policy...

LEMIEUX:  No, it‘s Medicare.

TODD:  ... you can purchase in addition to Medicare, though, correct?

LEMIEUX:  No, it‘s another part of Medicare.  You know, you have Medicare part A, part C, part D.  It‘s a part of Medicare.  You can opt into it.  And it is a program that provides a lot of wellness benefits independent of, and better, I think, than normal Medicare—health care—hearing care, rather, vision care, wellness care.  And seniors in my state like it.

Now, can it be run more efficiently and effectively?  Sure.  Most everything in government can be.  But the idea that we‘re going to eliminate it, potentially, is not going to have the seniors in my state very happy.

TODD:  I want to move on to...

LEMIEUX:  You know that, being from Florida.

TODD:  I want to do some local politics there.  Obviously, Governor Crist appointed you.  I would assume you are in favor of Governor Crist in this primary.  What kind of advice have you given Governor Crist on how to come back from what is turning out to be a very, very deep deficit to Marco Rubio?

LEMIEUX:  Well, I think Governor Crist is going to be fine.  This race is just beginning.  The election isn‘t until the end of August.  This isn‘t like the Kentucky primary in two months. 

This election is held the last week of August.  There‘s still a lot of time.  And Governor Crist is a formidable campaigner.  And if he is underestimated, whoever underestimates him would be at their own peril, because...

TODD:  Do you—do you...

LEMIEUX:  ... the people of Florida like him. 

TODD:  ... think Marco Rubio—do you think he‘s ready to be a U.S.  senator? 

LEMIEUX:  Well, I will let the people of Florida decide that. 

I have worked with Marco Rubio when he was speaker of the house.  His merits will come through, and the people of Florida will decide whether or not he‘s ready.  This is a contest between him and the governor and who is the best pick.  And I think the people of Florida...

TODD:  That‘s not a ringing endorsement.  There are some—you know, Senator Martinez the other day, who you replaced, said they were both qualified.  Are you—you‘re not ready to say that he‘s ready to be a U.S.  senator? 

LEMIEUX:  Well, he—look, yes, he—he is—he was the speaker of the house in Florida.  That is a qualification to be a United States senator.  That‘s legitimate. 

It‘s not a question of qualification.  It‘s a question of who‘s going to bring a better vision, of who the people trust, who they think is going to do a better job in Washington.  And I think the people will vote for Charlie Crist. 

TODD:  All right.  Senator LeMieux, thanks very much. 

University of Miami today actually advanced in the ACC Tournament, so a little Florida love out there today. 

LEMIEUX:  Yes, you know, the Hurricanes, it‘s all good. 

TODD:  There we go.  All righty, thanks for joining us. 

LEMIEUX:  Thanks, Chuck.  Bye-bye.

TODD:  All right. 

All right, joining me now, “Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza. 

Before I get to health care...

CHRIS CILLIZZA, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Yes. 

TODD:  ... did he not give a ringing endorsement to Marco Rubio at all? 

CILLIZZA:  Well, no, he didn‘t give a ringing endorsement.

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  But, Chuck, you and I are not—you and I are not going to be that surprised by that. 

George LeMieux is Charlie Crist‘s guy.  He‘s very clearly with Governor Crist.  One interesting thing about that race, if you look at when the governor‘s poll numbers started to dip, it started to happen when his number-one guy, his lead strategist, George LeMieux, got appointed to the Senate. 

There are a lot of people who say, without LeMieux there, sort of guiding Crist, he‘s gotten off track.  It‘s very...

TODD:  Nobody is there to run the race. 

CILLIZZA:  There‘s no one there—no one there to run the race and no one there who really knows Charlie Crist like George LeMieux knows him, in the way that Karl Rove knew George Bush, and the way that, you know, you see a singular strategist know that politician. 

With him up in Washington, he can‘t manage the strategy down in Florida. 

TODD:  OK.  Let‘s go to the health care debate. 

The president says delaying the trip.  Clearly, he‘s got to stay here for the House vote.  We had all heard behind the scenes House Democrats screaming at this idea, hey, we need more than Thursday.  Are Senate Democrats going to be OK, though, if he leaves? 

(LAUGHTER)

CILLIZZA:  That‘s a very good question.  You know, I think we have a tendency to focus on whatever‘s right in front of our faces, the real challenge for health care. 

TODD:  Right. 

CILLIZZA:  Remember, it was, well, the Senate is the real challenge now, because Scott Brown got elected. 

TODD:  Sure.

CILLIZZA:  Well, now it‘s back to the House being the real challenge. 

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  Look, if the House passes it, my guess is, they will probably find the votes, come hook or by crook.  They will find a way to get to that number. 

I do think it‘s going to move back to the Senate.  I do think you‘re going to have potential problems there.  I...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  What becomes a problem?  Because I was talking to one Senate Democratic leader who said, you know what?  Look, we‘re going to sign—we‘re going to get some sort of assurance to the House that we have the 51 votes done...

CILLIZZA:  We‘re going...

TODD:  ... so that they can make their vote. 

And, then, at that point...

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  Here‘s the only thing I will say, Chuck.  I do think politics changes over 24, 48, 72 hours.  I do think there are a lot of nervous Senate Democrats, the Blanche Lincolns, the Michael Bennets of the world.

Can they get them all in line?  Can Harry Reid herd all those cats, get them in line?  Maybe he can because the White House is going to say, we have to have this.  There‘s no debate.  If the House gets this done, we have to get this, and we have to get it through promptly. 

Maybe—I‘m not saying that I have reporting that suggests that‘s not happening.  I‘m just saying, if you look at the process that we have been through, I think assuming that things are going to happen has gotten all of us into some trouble, as—as we have seen, this bill would have been passed in August of 2009, we thought.

TODD:  I want to—I want to ask a very “Fix”-ish question...

CILLIZZA:  Sure.  Oh, I‘m glad to answer it.

TODD:  ... something that I have a feeling that you will—you will love to do...

(LAUGHTER)

CILLIZZA:  ... love to talk about, which is, number one, the litmus tests.  Will the vote for reconciliation be a litmus test for Blanche Lincoln, Michael Bennet, and Arlen Specter in those Democratic primaries? 

CILLIZZA:  I think it will.  You know...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Not voting—if a Blanche Lincoln decides not to go with reconciliation, that‘s a—that‘s a—that‘s going to be a talking point...

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  You know, I think Blanche Lincoln—the problem for Blanche Lincoln is, she—she may be already too far down that road.  This is the same problem with—if she decides somehow she doesn‘t want to vote for reconciliation, and she can say, well, I wasn‘t for that, but I voted for health care. 

You can‘t be half-pregnant in politics. 

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Right. 

CILLIZZA:  We both know that.  It‘s the same reason that she‘s not going to ultimately, I don‘t think, vote against final passage, because she‘s already voted for something very similar one time.

TODD:  She‘s the only one here.  We assume Bennet and Specter are...

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  Bennet and Specter are going to vote for it.  Arlen Specter has been—Arlen Specter has been a more liberal Democrat than almost other—any other Democrat. 

TODD:  Very quickly, the other R-word, repeal.

CILLIZZA:  Yes. 

TODD:  To be successful in a Republican primary, you have to say you‘re going to repeal? 

CILLIZZA:  I don‘t know about that, because I think if—to be successful in a Republican primary, maybe, but I‘m not sure that that‘s what people want.  Remember, people want to believe that the Republican Party has solutions, whether or not the Republican Party offers them. 

Repeal sounds a lot like the party of no, which they want to stay very far from. 

TODD:  Interesting. 

Chris Cillizza, Mr. “Fix” of “The Washington Post,” thanks for being here. 

CILLIZZA:  Thank, Chuck.

TODD:  Up next: from the funny to the downright weird.  That‘s right, demon sheep alert.  We have got the best political ads of the 2010 campaign season so far.  Stick around for the “Sideshow.” 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on the demon sheep network, MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  All right, back to HARDBALL, and why I enjoy guest-hosting so much, because it‘s “Sideshow” time. 

First, a special treat. 

We have got a look at the top ads of the midterm cycles so far from our friends at the political unit.  Oh, yes, I work there. 

The number-three spot involves the race for New Orleans coroner.  Got to love that they still elect coroners down there.  This morbid ad from challenger Dwight McKenna depicts his opponent, Frank Minyard, as a deranged Dr. Frankenstein.  Can‘t make it up. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Igor, Igor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, Doctor? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We need a heart, a spleen and a liver for tonight‘s sale. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, Dr. Minyard. 

NARRATOR:  Say no to Dr. Minyard and yes to Dr. McKenna. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  By the way, Dr. Minyard ended up winning reelection, so the ad didn‘t quite work. 

In the runner-up spot, it‘s Michigan‘s Rick Snyder.  He‘s the former Gateway executive.  And his slogan for the gubernatorial primary?  One tough nerd. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, POLITICAL AD)

NARRATOR:  Growing up in Battle Creek, Rick Snyder started reading “Fortune” magazine when he was age 8.  By 23, he completed college at the University of Michigan and his MBA and his law degree. 

Rick Snyder for Michigan, he‘s  one tough nerd. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Well, that‘s one way to make a mark in a crowded primary.  And it‘s actually worked.  He‘s really shot up in the polls. 

And the number-one ad of the midterms has not really been on TV, but there‘s still no contest.  It‘s Californian Carly Fiorina‘s viral Web video making out a Republican primary opponent, Tom Campbell, to be—that‘s right—a demon sheep. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, POLITICAL AD)

NARRATOR:  The man who literally helped put the state of California on the path to bankruptcy and higher taxes.  Fiscal conservative, or just another same old tale of tax and spend, authored by a career politician who helped guide us into this fiscal mess in the first place?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Well, there you go.  It‘s our top three ads so far of the midterms.  By the way, those first two are both ads by Fred Davis, the Republican media consultant.  He was pretty proud of his number-one and number-two showing on our list. 

Next: a blast from the past.  Remember, in 2008, when then candidate Obama parted ways with his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, over Wright‘s controversial sermons and public comments?

Well, Reverend Wright is speaking out again, saying he doesn‘t hold a grudge against the president.  He told “The Washington Post”—quote—“I have not stopped loving him because of what the press did.  And to see him beat up on because of things he is not responsible for is even—is painful.”

Reverend Wright added that he doesn‘t expect to see the president again until after he leaves the White House. 

I‘m guessing that‘s also a pretty safe bet, too—or at least after reelection. 

Finally, settling a score.  That‘s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at this afternoon‘s briefing making good on a bet he made with his Canadian counterpart, the press secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, over last month‘s Olympic gold medal hockey game. 

Not longer after, Gibbs took the Canadian jersey off to reveal he had a USA jersey on underneath.  And he actually did it for a little while longer, the press briefing, a while longer, even after some members, some of my colleagues there complained, wait a minute, can‘t you just take it off?  It‘s too hard to explain on TV tonight.  But, hey, he made good on a bet, and, you know, a little USA, USA.

Speaking of sports, it‘s time for the “Big Number.” 

Today, we learned the president will delay his trip to Indonesia by

three days to work on health care.  He will now leave on March—he‘s not

he was supposed to leave on March 18.  Now he‘s leaving on March 21. 

What‘s the silver lining? 

Well, how many NCAA games will the president and the traveling press corps—hint, hint—now be able to catch stateside before we leave?  Forty. 

Forty games that will now not be missed by the traveling press corps, that‘s tonight‘s “Big Number.”  Frankly, it‘s simply my “Big Number,” so I‘m thankful for that. 

All right, up next:  One of the hottest primary races in the country is in Arkansas, where senator Blanche Lincoln faces a primary challenge from the sitting lieutenant governor there, Bill Halter. 

Bill Halter joins us after the break. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MARY THOMPSON, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Mary Thompson with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks struggling today, but edging higher for the second week in a row—the Dow Jones industrial average up almost 13 points, the S&P 500 down a fraction, and the Nasdaq finishing less than a point in the red. 

Investors digesting some mixed readings on the economy today, like a

surprise jump in retail sales, this despite February‘s crippling snowstorms

on the other hand, a surprise drop in consumer sentiment likely due to the still sluggish jobs market—one analyst describing these recent indicators as meandering. 

Looking at stocks, it was General Electric leading the Dow higher today, after teaming up with a Chinese appliance maker to bring GE‘s wares to rural parts of that country. 

GE is the parent company of CNBC and MSNBC.

And a two-day run-up for Citigroup came to a screeching halt today—share of the bank down more than 5 percent on speculation the Treasury Department could begin selling its bailout shares of the company as soon as early next—or as early as next week. 

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

HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, POLITICAL AD)

SEN. BLANCHE LINCOLN (D), ARKANSAS:  I‘m Blanche Lincoln, and I want to show you what it‘s like in Washington these days. 

And your tax dollars?  This is why I voted against giving more money to Wall Street, against the auto company bailout, against the public option health care plan, and against the cap-and-trade bill that would have raised energy costs on Arkansans. 

None of those were right for Arkansas.  Some in my party didn‘t like it very much, but I approve this message because I don‘t answer to my party.  I answer to Arkansas.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That was Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, and it was her first TV ad for the 2010 campaign.  She faces Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter in a primary on May 18.  That‘s turning into a Super Tuesday for primaries. 

Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter joins us now from Little Rock. 

Well, Lieutenant Governor, let me start with a very simple question about the health care bill.  With what you‘re seeing now, would you vote for this health care bill as it is? 

LT. GOV. BILL HALTER (D-AR), ARKANSAS SENATORIAL CANDIDATE:  You know, I‘m inclined to—to vote for it, Chuck, but I want to see what they fashion in the reconciliation fix before giving you a final determination on that. 

But I do think there‘s a very clear distinction between Senator Lincoln and myself on this.  You know, she was for the public option, and until she went down to the floor of the Senate and indicated that she would filibuster a public option. 

And, of course, at the same time that was going on...

TODD:  Sure.

HALTER:  ... on our Web site, she still had an op-ed that showed that

that said—by her—that said she was for the public option.  So, there‘s been some indecisiveness there. 

I would like to see the final draft of the reconciliation bill.  But I do think that we need health care reform, and there‘s a—and there‘s a lot of good things that we need to get done.  And I‘m hopeful that the Congress can finish the job. 

TODD:  Well, this is a bill that Senator Lincoln has voted for, and she may likely vote for it in reconciliation. 

So, what do you tell Arkansas primary voters that—you know, well,

she voted for health care.  So, it‘s going to be—I mean, how do you make

this distinction?  Yes, the public option—the public option is—is not

is not a part of this debate.  Speaker Pelosi‘s made that clear. 

President Obama‘s made that clear. 

HALTER:  Well, look, I—I think there‘s a number of things that you can reference back on health care.  But basic indecisiveness about—about the bill is one. 

But there‘s going to be a whole host of other issues in this race as well, Chuck.  This is not just about health care.  It‘s about Senator Lincoln‘s vote to bail out Wall Street, without—without very much accountability at all. 

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Well, she says she voted against it, that she was against the bailout. 

HALTER:  Well, just—just go look at the record.  She voted for the first Wall Street bailout.  It‘s on the record.  I don‘t think she will even deny that. 

TODD:  So, going at—would you have voted—so, you would have voted against the bailout and you would have voted against the auto company bailout as well? 

HALTER:  Well, what I‘m telling you is, on the—the Wall Street

bailout, I would have made sure there was a lot more accountability in that

in that bill. 

You know, we—here in Arkansas, what people are waking up seeing is that you had hundreds of billions of their—of their tax money spent on a bailout.  You‘ve got unemployment at a 25-year high.  You have still got a situation where there‘s no—there‘s not sufficient amount of credit available to Main Street. 

And then they wake up and they see literally headlines that tens of billions of dollars are being paid to Wall Street executives in bonuses.  It is no wonder that there‘s frustration out here about that. 

So my position on that Wall Street bailout bill is I would have wanted a lot more accountability in the bill.  There are some other distinctions that are going to come forward between Senator Lincoln and myself.  She continues to push for either the complete elimination of the estate tax, or sharp reductions in the rates.  This at a time when we have a 1.4 trillion dollar deficit, she‘s proposing to give a tax break that literally only goes to individuals with wealth above 10 million dollars. 

I think there‘s a lot of things that we‘re going to be able to talk about in this race, beyond just the health care bill. 

TODD:  One of the issues that comes up in Washington, one of the issues that comes up with President Clinton supporting Senator Lincoln, and with Wesley Clark supporting Senator Lincoln is the simple e-word, electability.  The knock on you says you are running at her from the left, and if you win the primary, you‘re going to be too—you‘re not going to be able to win the middle in Arkansas.  Is that a fair criticism? 

HALTER:  Well, I just point back to my election in 2006, where I beat a Republican opponent by 15 points, the same candidate that Senator Lincoln had run against two years prior to that.  She beat him by 12 points. 

TODD:  I mean, in all fairness, when you‘re running for lieutenant governor, you‘re riding the coat-tails of a very popular Democratic governor in Mike Beebe. 

HALTER:  Well, actually, Chuck, I would point out to you, I actually got more votes in that election than Governor Beebe did.  We both did very well.  It‘s a separate election.  We‘re separately on the ballot.  So I was paddling my own canoe at the time. 

Let me say this, though, on electability.  The fact is that Senator Lincoln is down by 15 to 21 points against four or five different Republican opponents.  I‘ve still got plenty of room to grow.  You know about internal polls.  I‘m not going to bog us down in that.  I‘m just going to tell you that I feel very good about running a race that can win this primary and win the general election. 

And in fact, it‘s a race that‘s designed to put Washington back on the side of Arkansas‘s middle class families.  And we‘re going to take on special interest groups in the process.  Senator Lincoln voted for that Wall Street bailout, as did Congressman Bozeman.  We‘re going to be talking about a lot of the same issues going forward. 

With respect to all the pundits, I don‘t think this is going to be a right-left race.  I think this is going to be determined by who‘s on the side of middle class Arkansans. 

TODD:  I understand that.  Rick, has Wal-Mart been good or bad for the state of Arkansas?  I only ask this because you‘ve got a lot of support from labor unions who do nothing but fight Wal-Mart. 

HALTER:  Well, I will tell you this, Wal-Mart has been good for the state of Arkansas.  It‘s a great employer in the state of Arkansas.  Wal-Mart has been a supporter of me, not only in my previous elections, but also we work very well together with that company on some philanthropic initiatives and some other initiatives. 

I know that people are looking for easy labels to grab on this race. 

And I know that folks are looking to simplify this down to one-word levels.  That is not what‘s going to happen here in this race.  We‘re going to do our best to keep it focused on what‘s in the best interest of middle class families. 

I‘ll point out also to you, I‘ll stand on my record of working for fiscal responsibility in the United States.  I spent six years of my life working in the White House Budget Office, working with a team of people that balanced the federal budget for the first time in 40 years.  I will contrast that with the votes that Senator Lincoln has taken, that have helped to put us in this fiscal mess. 

TODD:  Well, it‘s going to be quite the two-month sprint to the May 18th primary.  Lieutenant Governor Halter, thank you.  I know we‘re going to be hearing from Senator Lincoln sometime next week.  Thanks very much.

HALTER:  Fabulous.  Thanks, Chuck.

TODD:  Up next, what can President Obama learn right now from former President Bill Clinton?  Former Clinton White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers says there are a few things that Clinton could teach Obama.  The politics fix is next.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I see people in my state, middle class people, their taxes have gone up in Washington, and their services have gone down, while the wealthy have gotten tax cuts.  I have seen what‘s happened in this last four years, when—in my state, when people lose their jobs, there‘s a good chance I‘ll know them by their names.  When a factory closes, I know the people who ran them.  When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them.

I‘ve been out here for 13 months, meeting in meetings just like this, ever since October, with people like you all over America, people that have lost their jobs, lost their livelihood, lost their health insurance. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  We are back.  I didn‘t know that Bill Clinton‘s voice got deeper as the administration went on.  That was Bill Clinton‘s 1992 memorable debate moment.  His former White House political adviser Dee Dee Myers writes in “Politico” today that President Obama should be careful not to sacrifice empathy, “the I feel your pain connection that sustained Clinton.  This connection is the shorthand that people use to measure their leaders‘ intentions.  Obama has become too dependent on formal speeches and set town halls.  His idea of mixing it up is taking off his jacket.”  As Dee Dee writes, here‘s President Obama this week in Pennsylvania and Missouri.  Let‘s listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I‘m a little warm here.  All right. 

It‘s a little hot up here.  It‘s good to see you.  I know you guys have been waiting a little bit here.  It‘s a little warm in here.  You all are fanning yourselves off.  It is good to see everybody here today.  How‘s everybody doing? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Dee Dee Myers joins us now.  She‘s a contributing editor for “Vanity Fair.”  Also with us, Republican strategist John Feehery, who used to be a top aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert. 

This issue of backdrops came up earlier this week as well.  It‘s not just message in connection personally, and the words he says, but also with what was behind him, that backdrop.  So is this an entire message element that you think this Obama White House is missing? 

DEE DEE MYERS, FMR. CLINTON WHITE HOUSE POLITICAL ADVISER:  Yes, I think they have left a play out of their playbook that is important, not because—it‘s not because it‘s manipulative, but because it‘s the opposite.  It let‘s people see you in a genuine moment, hearing from people, listening to people, as opposed to always talking to them.  

Look, no one gives a set speech better than President Obama.  No one has done more to write his own speeches since President Lincoln than President Obama.  But there‘s a whole other way of communicating, which is sitting down across the table, or visiting a place where people are doing something that is important to them, or they are just telling you about their lives.  And we rarely see him in those kinds of settings.  And I think he‘s sacrificing something by not doing more. 

TODD:  John, the argument that they will make, and the argument that I‘ll hear from some Republicans on this same issue—because your party has been criticized for not being good at this either, this whole empathy issue—is that we are now in this next mode of campaigning, this sense authenticity.  And that trying to create these town hall moments is inauthentic, even though they were probably inauthentic 20 years ago, but they were new and seemed authentic. 

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  I agree with that, especially when you‘re trying to legislate.  Town halls don‘t work when you‘re trying to legislate.  I read your piece.  I really liked your piece, but one key element was missing.  That is, in 1994, Republicans took over and helped drive President Clinton to the center.  He had someone to run against.

Then what happened?  We had—unemployment went down dramatically, and we also had a balanced budget, and we also had some policies that actually worked.  So the president has a little bit of a style problem, although I would say he‘s a really stylish president. 

I also would say that if unemployment were at seven percent, and if the—he weren‘t spending ourselves into bankruptcy, he would be—I wouldn‘t be talking about the Obama style and how great he is.  Part of this is the substance is not really working that well for him.

TODD:  Is that fair?  I‘ve heard the same thing.  Last week, I had a former Clinton staffer—not yourself, but another one that was high level, who said, I can‘t believe, everybody seems to be jumping on Obama.  This person, by the way, was also jumping on him—on various things, backdrop, speeches, this, that, this trip.  They delayed this trip.  Is this all sort of nit-picking?

MYERS:  Well, no, look, you have to keep a lot of balls in the air as president, and you have to use ever resource at your disposal in order to succeed, because it‘s an incredibly difficult job, as we all know.  So my point wasn‘t Obama is doing terrible.  It is like, here, you have—in selling health care after it passes—and I do believe it will eventually pass. 

TODD:  Selling health care it passes?  OK.  Because I always believe this is something that nobody is thinking about.  How much do you think the White House needs to spend selling after, because this was the criticism with the stimulus, that they didn‘t sell it after?  You would spend a lot of time? 

MYERS:  Well, you know, their hope is to pivot back to jobs and to people‘s economic security.  But I think health care will be part of that.  They have to tell people—remind people—for example, your 26 year old kid can now be on your health care policy.  That‘s a benefit that wouldn‘t have existed before this passed, if it passes. 

FEEHERY:  Dee Dee is absolutely right, and I‘ll tell you why.  The Republicans are going to say you‘re going to raise taxes and you‘re cutting Medicare.  So all of the pain comes first.  Most of the game comes later.  So they‘re going to have to sell it very, very hard.  We did the same thing with prescription drugs, after it passed.  It took a while.  It was not easy to sell it.

TODD:  Both of you, hang on.  We‘re going to do a quick break, try to make some money, somehow.  We‘ll be back with Dee Dee Myers and John Feehery for more of the politics fix.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  All right.  We‘re back with Dee Dee Myers and John Feehery for more of the politics fix.  John, since we let Dee Dee do all the taking, very quickly, president made this decision to delay his trip.  Is it going to be odd for him to leave while after House passes this bill, assuming—it looks like the calendar is working out that way.  The House will pass it on Saturday the 20th.  He‘ll sign it that night, because they have to legislatively.  Then he leaves while Vice President Biden takes over that seat in the Senate, and we have the reconciliation fight.  Is it odd for him to be leaving? 

FEEHERY:  I hate to give too much advice to the president because maybe he‘ll take it some day.  He‘s leaving too much.  He‘s going—he‘s doing a lot of traveling.  People don‘t want to see the president—

TODD:  Wait.  When was the last time he‘s been over seas?  He hasn‘t been over seas since December.  Trust me, I‘m on all these trips.  For us, it‘s been a long time. 

FEEHERY:  But at this critical moment, when you‘re doing health care, all of these things—none of this is a done deal yet.  He has to sign one bill, and then do reconciliation and sign another bill.  I don‘t know how quickly you can unroll a bill—if you can do it that quickly. 

So I don‘t think that the president leaving is a really good idea. 

He should probably just cancel. 

TODD:  Did he give a hint, though—there‘s always a couple things going on.  You could Robert today.  Some people heard what he said and said, OK, they are definitely still going on this trip.  And others heard it as, he‘s setting up in Indonesia, Australia to say, we think you‘re important allies, but now we‘re going to have to totally go.  What is the balance that they are fighting? 

MYERS:  I think they‘re going to let events unfold a little bit.  There‘s no anchor event on this trip that is too important to change.  The one thing we have seen in the past couple of week, the change in fortunes of health care is completely because Obama has taken ownership of it.  When he came out with this ten-page, here‘s a summary, here‘s my plan, it changed everything, and the bill finally had a chance to pass. 

So he has to stay.  We know it‘s going to be happening in the next week.  He‘s going to be on the phone with individual House members. 

TODD:  You think he has stay during the Senate bill?

MYERS:  I think he has—look, his presence, his ownership of this has made all of the difference in the world.  If he‘s going to get it across the finish line, it‘s going to be because he asks for those final votes. 

TODD:  Very quickly, is repeal a good strategy or not?  You hear conservative groups are saying, you‘ve got to be for repeal.  But if this thing passes, is that a realistic message? 

FEEHERY:  I remember when Nancy Pelosi kept saying we‘re going to repeal that prescription drug bill.  They campaigned on that.  Of course, it‘s hard to repeal.  Although, it‘s happened in 1989 with Catastrophic.  I always point to Catastrophic.  You can repeal a health care bill that—a lot of the pain in Catastrophic came first, all the gain came back second.  They repealed it.

TODD:  The president still has a veto pin, right? 

FEEHERY:  He does.  No question about that.  But it‘s still a viable option if it proves to be so completely unpopular that Republicans think it‘s going to be. 

TODD:  Very quickly, on this ethics issue, obviously hasn‘t been good for Democrats this week.  But did John Ensign just totally muddy up any shot the Republicans had of taking advantage of this?  I‘ll let you go first on this, and then Dee Dee. 

FEEHERY:  I think that ethics are bad for Democrats.  I think ethics are bad for all congressmen.  I think people want to drain the swamp.  And they don‘t like politicians, no matter who they are. 

TODD:  John Feehery, Dee Dee Myers—

MYERS:  I agree.

TODD:  I‘m going to have to stop you there.  Chris Matthews returns Monday night at 5:0 and 7:00 Eastern.  Right now, it‘s time for “THE ED SHOW” with Ed Schultz. 

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

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