updated 9/20/2004 10:34:21 AM ET 2004-09-20T14:34:21

Guests: Joe Trippi, Chuck Todd

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  And welcome to the debut of HARDBALL: “The Horserace,” our new program on the 2004 election.

This was the week President Bush seemed to lose his bounce, as two new polls show the race tightening again.  But a Gallup poll released Friday gave Bush a 13-point edge with likely voters.  This was the week that John Kerry reshuffled his staff, adding high-powered advisers from the Bill Clinton campaigns.  And this was the week Internet bloggers and ads from independent organizations drove the mainstream press. 

That‘s right.  We‘ve got the numbers, the inside line.  We‘re covering the horserace.  And we‘re off. 

Tonight is the launch of HARDBALL: “The Horserace,” everything you need to know about the 2004 election.  We‘ve asked the NBC News reporters, as well as the MSNBC election team, to join us for a weekly analysis of the presidential election and key state and local elections, the latest on the candidates, the poll, the races, the TV commercials, the money, and the political attacks shaping this battle for the White House. 

Let‘s hit the trifecta, the top three political stories of the week.  NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell is with us, along with NBC‘s Carl Quintanilla, who is covering the Kerry campaign. 

But we begin with NBC News White House correspondent David Gregory in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

David, how are they reading these crazy number in the horserace? 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, there‘s certainly a lot of dichotomy. 

Top Bush political advisers think the race does have an advantage for Bush by no more than four or five points.  They think that‘s why you‘ll see such dichotomy in the polls.  But they think it is more than just the horserace numbers.  They are heartened by the fact that Bush‘s job approval rating is consistently above 50 percent. 

And then on things like strong leader and plan for such issues as Iraq, that they believe the president has an advantage there.  Also, enthusiasm, personal characteristics, they think that Bush is in a much better position than John Kerry is. 

And a final point, Chris.  They think they are putting Kerry on the defensive in Democratic states from 2000, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Oregon,.  States like that where they think Bush is now close or slightly ahead, they think that puts him in a tremendous advantage here as we go into the final stretch. 

MATTHEWS:  What is it that has given the president so much confidence since the Republican Convention? 

GREGORY:  I think it is a view that the president has and certainly his top advisers have that John Kerry is just not acquitting himself and being coherent on Iraq. 

They‘re noticing what everybody notices, and that is that Kerry believes he has got to go back and win the debate over Iraq if he is going to be successful.  They believe—as one top adviser said it, they‘re scratching their head about it.  They think he has been quite incoherent and it has allowed Bush to really exploit that issue. 

They also recognize, however, there‘s a good deal of anxiety with events in Iraq.  But they think the alternative as Kerry is not making Bush that vulnerable right now. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you, David Gregory. 

NBC News‘ Carl Quintanilla is covering the Kerry campaign.  He joins me with the latest.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CARL QUINTANILLA, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, we may be looking at a week just passed where Kerry got back in the race, didn‘t necessarily make a comeback, per se, but he at least seems to have put the helmet back on and the pads back on as well, pretty focused message on the road, his first full week back with his advisers, and hitting the president on a series of issues, gun control, the economy, Iraq, Halliburton today, all of them intended to paint the president as disingenuous, as dishonest, and today especially, disinterested in the little guy. 

Now, is that the reason some of these polls are starting to show the race tighten up?  Even the campaign says probably not.  They think that this bounce eroded naturally and it is not so much the effect of anything they did on purpose.  But given all that, it is not over.  It is far from over right now.  The campaign admits that a lot of states, blue states, are still more tightly contested than they should be.  Pennsylvania, Maine, New Jersey.  Wisconsin, where polls have shown Bush ahead, Kerry has already poured a lot of money and effort into that state as well. 

This week, he‘s be going on “Regis & Kelly.”  He‘s going on “Letterman,” “Dr. Phil,” all of that perhaps an attempt to get back in with women, where he‘s lost a lot of ground lately.  And some say hitting things like gun control means—show that he is still trying to shore up the base and not necessarily go for those swing voters. 

This week, look for him to go back to Florida.  The hurricanes have made it difficult to campaign there.  But that might get washed out by Bush‘s address to the General Assembly at the U.N.

This is Carl Quintanilla for HARDBALL: “The Horserace”—back to you, Chris. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Carl.

The time is fast approaching for President Bush and for Senator Kerry to decide when and how many times they‘re going to debate. 

NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell joins us now with more on that—Andrea.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, there‘s still no agreement on how many debates and what format that they will be in. 

But we do know that there will be debates. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MITCHELL (voice-over):  For the candidates, the biggest test remains, three proposed presidential debates in the battleground states of Florida, Missouri and Arizona, beginning in late September, but yet to be accepted by both sides.  Challenger John Kerry, an experienced debater, has agreed to all three and even proposed weekly debates. 

But the Bush campaign has yet to commit to any.  Leading the negotiations in a rematch from the Clinton-Bush debates, veteran Democratic lawyer Vernon Jordan for Kerry and legendary Republican debate strategist Jim Baker for the president. 

At issue, not only how many debates, but also style and format.  For instance, John Kerry at 6‘4“ has a four-inch height advantage over George Bush.  Instead of standing at podiums, Republicans may insist that the candidates remain seated.  Just how important are the debates?  Experts say they are critical. 

JAMES FALLOWS, “THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY”:  In the course of however many debates there are, one or the other of these people will reveal something that, when we see it, we‘ll know, yes, that‘s it.  That‘s what we like about him.  That‘s what we don‘t like about him. 

MITCHELL:  Voters didn‘t like the way Richard Nixon looked in 1960, too much 5:00 shadow, compared to John F. Kennedy, who was tanned and well-powdered.  Gerald Ford lost and eventually the White House when he mistakenly insisted Poland was free. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 1976)

GERALD FORD, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  And when the cameras caught the first President Bush checking his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton in 1992, voters decided it was time for a change. 

On the other hand, debates can become campaign turning points when candidates come equipped with one-liners like these. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 1984)

RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent‘s youth and inexperience. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  Despite low expectations for the president as a debater, neither Bush, nor Kerry have ever lost one. 

FALLOWS:  The first to be clear about with both these people, Bush and Kerry as come into the debate is, they both come in as essentially undefeated champions. 

MITCHELL:  As an underdog against Ann Richards in the Texas governor‘s race 10 years ago, George Bush exceeded expectations and won.  And four years ago, Bush was the unexpected winner when Al Gore kept sighing. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 2000)

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Alaska.  There‘s a lot of shut-in....

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  At least 17 times.  Senator Kerry built his reputation as a debater by hammering his Senate challenger, Massachusetts Governor William Weld in 1996. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 1996)

WILLIAM WELD ®, MASSACHUSETTS SENATORIAL CANDIDATE:  You accuse me of distorting your record.  I couldn‘t possibly make it worse than it is. 

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  You talk out of both sides of your mouth more than the Budweiser frogs. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  And Kerry proved his toughness again in Iowa this year in his showdown with Howard Dean.   

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY:  Are you going to slow the rate of growth, Governor, yes or no? 

HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We‘re going to do what we have to do to make sure that Medicare lasts.

KERRY:  Are you going to slow the rate of growth, Governor? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MITCHELL:  The one thing you can be sure of, Chris, is that Jim Baker, negotiating for the Republicans, will keep the Democrats guessing for as long as possible on the exact number and format of those debates, just to keep them off balance—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  So are they going to be standing up or sitting down, Andrea? 

MITCHELL:  I would bet on sitting down, because one of them is 6‘4“.  The other is six 6 feet.  And, historically, candidates do not like to be towered about—towered above by their opponents. 

MATTHEWS:  Does Dick Cheney want to stand up to John Edwards? 

MITCHELL:  They want to sit down as well, for obvious reasons.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What a schmooze we‘re going to see. 

MITCHELL:  I know.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you very much, Andrea Mitchell.

MITCHELL:  You bet.

MATTHEWS:  Still to come on “The Horserace,” Campbell Brown on the battle of the political books, plus, Chris Jansing, who is in Ohio, the ultimate toss-up state, and the Republican Party‘s not-so-secret weapon, Steve Moore‘s Club For Growth.  He has a $25 million war chest and he is spending it. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL: “The Horserace” on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, we‘ll get the latest from the closest states in the presidential race, Ohio and Florida, when HARDBALL: “The Horserace” returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m Chris Matthews.  And this is HARDBALL: “The Horserace,” your guide to the finish line on November 2. 

Now let‘s turn to the states, beginning with Florida, the state that decided the 2000 presidential race.  It promises to be a swinger again this year. 

MSNBC‘s Ron Reagan has this report on how the hurricane has blown away the pollsters and turned up the political pressure in this prime battleground. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RON REAGAN, NBC CONTRIBUTOR:  Human beings can survive about three days without water, maybe three weeks without food.  But how long in the middle of a presidential campaign can you survive without polling data?  Well, here in Florida, after nearly a month, we‘re already into uncharted territory. 

(voice-over):  After weathering Hurricanes Charley, Frances and now Ivan, the residents of the Sunshine State are bracing themselves for yet another unwanted distraction, the return of political pollsters. 

PAM IORIO (D), MAYOR OF TAMPA:  I‘m sure the political professionals are already beginning to suffer the shakes and the withdrawal symptoms.  And I bet they can‘t hold out much longer. 

PATRICK MANTEIGA, EDITOR, “LA GACETA”:  They‘re kind of out of sight, out of mind at the moment.  They don‘t have anything to crow about. 

REAGAN:  It‘s been 24 days since anyone has been able to conduct a statewide poll in Florida.  And after a month of disastrous weather, it‘s no surprise that presidential politics has taken a back seat. 

ADAM SMITH, POLITICAL EDITOR, “ST. PETERSBURG TIMES”:  It is hard enough, getting harder and harder to poll with so much polling going on and people getting annoyed by the calls.  You do it at a time when you‘re preoccupied with getting plywood and water and that sort of thing and you are just not going to get very good answers. 

REAGAN:  The last poll of Florida voters, conducted in late August, showed the candidates neck and neck, with President Bush leading Senator Kerry 48 to 46.  But as hurricane recovery begins, there‘s no telling where voters will lean. 

MANTEIGA:  I think the hurricane works for Bush at the moment.  But this could also turn against him in a few weeks when people start receiving their checks from FEMA and they‘re smaller than what they thought they were going to be. 

REAGAN:  Another factor that is driving political junkies crazy, the August poll was taken before the Republican National Convention.  And though President Bush‘s convention earned him a substantial bounce in national polling, history has shown us, when it comes to Florida, nothing is guaranteed. 

SMITH:  In some ways, Bush‘s convention was—almost didn‘t happen in Florida.  In a lot of markets, even his speech didn‘t air.  It was preempted by the local weather. 

REAGAN:  But even if Floridians missed out President Bush‘s appearance in the Big Apple, they‘ve certainly seen him on the local news, that is, of course, if they still have power.  John Kerry has also toured the damage, and with the memory of the 2000 election lingering in the minds of both candidates, count on a sprint to November 2. 

SMITH:  Next week, it is a good bet we‘re going to see both Kerry and Bush back in full campaign mode crossing through the state. 

REAGAN:  Another candidate to keep your eye on, Ralph Nader.  He siphoned off 97,000 Florida votes in 2000, but is still trying to secure his place on this year‘s ballot.  Ivan may have passed, but we‘ll just have to wait to see if hurricane Ralph will blow ashore. 

This is Ron Reagan for HARDBALL: The Horserace. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  From Florida to Ohio, another of the big swing states, where both candidates are using football to win votes. 

MSNBC‘s Chris Jansing is reporting from Westerville, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus—Chris.

CHRIS JANSING, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hi there, Chris. 

Well, the Westerville South team getting ready to play Grove City tonight.  One thing that football and politics has in common is the importance of a good ground game.  I was just over at Kerry headquarters in Columbus.  And they told me that key phone calls are made between 5:00 and 9:00 p.m. on Sundays.  Why not the rest of the weekend?  Well, the answer, in a word, is football. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JANSING (voice-over):  On fall Friday nights in Ohio, football isn‘t just a game.  It is an obsession.  One high school game attracts more than 12,000 fans, 104,000 screaming believers at the Ohio State game, millions more at home watching on TV. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Hi, little buckeye fan.  I‘m out looking to register voters.  Are you registered to vote?

JANSING:  This would not be the time to interrupt those fans with talk of the presidential campaigns. 

BOB BENNETT, OHIO GOP CHAIRMAN:  Forget about it for Friday evening.  We‘ll pick it back up on Sunday.  You have got to watch Ohio State football. 

JANSING:  So, if weekends are the best time to reach out to voters, what is a campaign to do? 

HEATH ACKLEY, STUDENTS FOR KERRY:  They‘re all here, so we thought, hey, let‘s come to them.  Let‘s show them we‘re around, too. 

JANSING:  Students for Kerry are doing tailgates, canvassing, handing out literature. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Everybody registered to vote? 

JANSING:  Bush fans are registering new voters. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I came for football, but I got registered to vote. 

JANSING:  It‘s given the term college recruiting a whole new meaning. 

CALEN BYERS, OSU COLLEGE REPUBLICANS:  They‘re willing to get out there and root for their guy, whether it is their team, whether it‘s the Buckeyes or whether it‘s our president. 

ANTHONY MUNOZ, BUSH-CHENEY ‘04:  I‘m just thrilled to be on the team of the Bush-Cheney campaign. 

JANSING:  And that‘s why the campaigns are also using pro athletes to get out their message this fall, especially in sports-crazed states like Ohio.  Anthony Munoz, former Cincinnati Bengal, Hall of Famer, on the road for the president. 

MUNOZ:  There‘s enough for me to believe in this man that I‘m hanging my hat on his campaign. 

JANSING:  It‘s become a pattern in football-loving swing states like Wisconsin.  Legendary Green Bay Packer Bart Starr with Vice President Dick Cheney. 

JOHN ELWAY, FORMER NFL PLAYER:  The man who is leading our team with courage and conviction, President George W. Bush. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

JANSING:  The Broncos‘ former superstar quarterback, John Elway, with George Bush in Denver. 

But Pittsburgh may be torn.  Two of the most famous players from the Steelers‘ glory years are now on opposing teams.  Lynn Swann was a speaker at the Republican Convention for George Bush, while Steelers‘ four-time Super Bowl-winning running back Franco Harris is now helping John Kerry‘s run for the White House. 

Of course, the candidates have to be sure not to fumble. 

KERRY:  I just go for Buckeye football.  That‘s where I‘m coming out.  But that was while I was in Ohio.  Now I know I‘m in the state of Michigan. 

Michigan voters are still talking about that one way back in August. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is the battleground.  And there‘s 104,000 people here today.  Clearly, people have a passion for things in this state.  So I think both guys are trying to harness that passion. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JANSING:  John Kerry also recently called the Green Bay Packers field Lambert instead of Lambeau Field.  So a couple of lawyers have formed a tongue-in-cheek organization called Football Fans For Truth.  In places like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, you do not mess with football, even if you‘re running for president—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Chris, what‘s the feel out there?  Is the president‘s sort of superior campaigning right now picking up speed against Kerry, who was in the lead in Ohio? 

JANSING:  In Ohio, the feeling in both campaigns is, the president is still a little bit ahead.  He‘s lost some of that margin he picked up after the convention, but this is really a ground game here. 

And I‘m telling you, they have so many people on the ground, they‘ve never seen anything like it.  In the end, it is going to be that 6 percent of undecided voters and what they call GOTV, get out the vote, who gets those people to the polls. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, Chris Jansing.  Ohio remains the battleground state in this election. 

Up next on The Horserace, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster takes us behind the scenes of one of the most powerful special interest groups.  They‘ve already made their voices heard with a neat $10 million spent so far. 

This is HARDBALL: “The Horserace” on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to The Horserace. 

TV commercials have played a central role in this presidential campaign, from the swift boaters to the MoveOn.org attack ads against the president.

Election correspondent David Shuster has the latest on the ad wars. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC ELECTION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  We always dissect and fact-check new television commercials, but today we‘ve got a closer look at the most powerful Republican-running ads independent of the Bush campaign. 

STEPHEN MOORE, PRESIDENT, CLUB FOR GROWTH:  I wanted to put a memo together that has like, you know, here‘s five projects.

SHUSTER:  His name is Stephen Moore.  And he is the president of the Club For Growth, an organization comprised of conservative donors who want lower taxes and smaller government. 

MOORE:  The left jumped out there first with groups like MoveOn.org.  We—suddenly, it just became very clear to us that somebody had to respond to those kinds of ads on the right. 

SHUSTER:  Moore used to work for conservative think tanks and was the economist behind Congressman Dick Armey‘s proposed flat tax.  For this election cycle, his Club, founded five years ago, has already raised and spent nearly $10 million. 

MOORE:  The club is a club of people who are like-minded ideologically.  But it is also a club like a baseball bat that we hold over the head of politicians if they misbehave. 

SHUSTER:  Politicians like moderate Republican Arlen Specter. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, CLUB FOR GROWTH)

NARRATOR:  He voted for higher gas taxes, higher income taxes, higher gas taxes, higher Social Security taxes.  Arlen Specter, surprisingly liberal. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  But the Club‘s most famous ad this year targeted Democrat Howard Dean. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, CLUB FOR GROWTH)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Well, I think Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, “New York Time”-reading...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOORE:  We tried to put out an ad that would stick out.  And I think, in that case, it really succeeded. 

SHUSTER:  The irreverent style of Stephen Moore‘s ads have helped fuel his organization‘s Republican popularity. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, CLUB FOR GROWTH)

NARRATOR:  Sometimes he is for welfare reform.  Sometimes he is against it. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  But the Club is just one of more than 30 independent organizations on both sides running campaign commercials.  On the left, there are ads about Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

NARRATOR:  He said mission accomplished.  Yet, almost every day, more soldiers die. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  And ads about the president‘s priorities. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  When President Bush says that he is going to help companies outsource jobs, it is infuriating. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Altogether, 527s, as the independent organizations are called, have raised a total of $230 million.  And when you add that to what the candidates brought in and spent before officially being nominated, plus the federal funds they have down the stretch and other moneys raised by other candidates during the primaries, the 2004 four presidential election cash flow adds up to over $1 billion. 

MOORE:  The future of our country is at stake.  Is $1 billion too much to spend to determine the outcome of these things?  I don‘t think so.

SHUSTER (on camera):  Democrats don‘t think so either.  And next Friday, we‘ll get a closer look at Stephen Moore‘s counterpart on the left, Harold Ickes, who started a group called The Media Fund. 

I‘m David Shuster for The Horserace—Chris.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster.

MATTHEWS:  Up next, Campbell Brown on the rising popularity of political books.  And Ron Allen takes a look at the pros and cons of early voting. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL: “The Horserace” on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL: “The Horserace,” the rising popularity in political books, how will they affect the presidential race?  Plus, why is there such a wide disparity in the latest polls? “The Horserace” is coming back. 

But, first, let‘s check in with the MSNBC News Desk. 

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL:  “The Horserace”, your weekly guide to Election 2004.  Moviegoers flocked to see Michael Moore‘s documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11” and readers are rallying around political books pushing them to the top of the bestsellers‘ list.  Unusual politics or has the pop culture turned partisan?  NBC‘s Campbell Brown has this report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CAMPBELL BROWN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  While the race for the White House is still over a month away, one clear winner in ‘04 has broken out of the pack.  Book publishers. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Let me see what else we have. 

BROWN:  Four years ago, the “New York Times” bestseller list only had one political book.  This year, seven of the 15 nonfiction books are political.  And by Sunday, that total goes to nine.  This week alone, two more politically charged books are in the stores.  Kitty Kelley‘s “The Family, The Real Story of The Bush Dynasty,” hit the book stores, Kelley hit the airwaves. 

KITTY KELLEY, AUTHOR, “THE FAMILY”:  I didn‘t ambush anybody.  Anybody that I approached knew that I was doing it for this book.  So it wasn‘t a matter of seductive cocktail conversation and then going back to them.  It wasn‘t that way at all. 

MATTHEWS:  It just stuns me that a 700-page book can‘t have one on the record bit of testimony.  On the record testimony when of course, all the noise about this book will be caused by the words you use. 

KELLEY:  I think you have just—you have just underlined the power of this family, Chris. 

Sy Hersh‘s “Chain of Command” came out this week and the acclaimed investigative reporter was out promoting his book on “THE TODAY SHOW.” 

KATIE COURIC, HOST, “THE TODAY SHOW”:  Republicans will probably see this because we‘re right before an election, as another partisan broadside on the part of an author. 

SEYMOUR HERSH, AUTHOR, “CHAIN OF COMMAND”:  Look, I didn‘t do what happened in Abu Ghraib.  I got the photographs, I got the reports, I wrote stories about them in May.  Since then, many more people inside the White House, people who worked for Condoleezza Rice have come to tell me about this meeting I wrote about.  This didn‘t come from me.  This came from people inside the government. 

BROWN:  So why are more Americans turning the page before casting a vote?  Blame the media.  Sales for bestsellers like “Unfit for Command, A Critical Look at John Kerry‘s Swift Boat Service,” were fueled by conservative talk radio, cable shows and Internet sites.  The cable news shows jumped at the rare chance to interview A-list usually camera-shy guests such as presidential adviser Karen Hughes, and “New York Times” columnist Maureen Dowd who suddenly become available when they have a book to sell.  And in the case of Mrs. Hughes, a candidate to sell. 

*

KAREN HUGHES, BUSH ADVISER:  Well, there are big stakes in this election.  And frankly, he sat there for two months during January and February.  And you watched it, too.  My specialty is message.  The predominant message that came through in the Democratic primary was that all 10 Democratic candidates seemed to be engaged in a competition to decide who didn‘t like George Bush the most. 

BROWN:  The big question remains, will these political books influence voters?  The final page of that political potboiler is still being written and it looks like we‘ll all just going to have to wait for the final chapter on election day.  This is Campbell Brown for HARDBALL: “The Horserace.” 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Campbell Brown.  Now has President Bush lost his bounce?  After the Republican convention, President Bush led John Kerry in most polls but two new polls show that lead has evaporated and the race is once again a dead heat.  Friday Gallup released a poll showing Bush beating Kerry by 13 points among likely voters. 

Joining me now, MSNBC political contributor and columnist for “Congressional Quarterly,” Craig Crawford.  Craig, who‘s winning?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY” COLUMNIST:  Bush is ahead, Chris, probably five, six points.  There is another poll, just to confuse things, coming out tonight, that I’ve seen.  I can’t release the details, but it’s a high single-digit lead for the president.  He’s got the momentum.

MATTHEWS:  What’s the difference among methods used by these pollsters, to explain these disparities, from, you know, dead even to 13 points?

CRAWFORD:  Yeah, one thing to look at, Chris, is go back to 2000, and some of these pollsters on the eve of that election, they didn’t call it right.  Only one, our pal John Zogby, got it right in 2000.  They predicted Bush would win the popular vote, and as we know, Al Gore won the popular vote, although lost the electoral college.

And what happens is, in these polls right now, they’re assuming much higher numbers of Republicans turning out, in their likely voter samples, than actually turned out in 2000.  They’re also underestimating the number of minorities who are going to turn out in this election, as they did in 2000.  That’s one explanation for it.

MATTHEWS:  Could the polls themselves produce results which back up the polls?  For example, if you’re a pollster and you go out and assume very few minorities are going to vote, very few Democrats are going to show up, a lot of Republicans are going to show up, therefore you show a huge lead, like Gallup is showing this week, for the president.  Does that demoralize a lot of the people in the Kerry camp from not showing up?

CRAWFORD:  I think what’s dangerous about a lot of these polls is how they can affect the view.  I mean, one thing we’re seeing in a lot of the polls now is so many voters think, even if they’re voting for Kerry, many of them think, about 30 percent at least, think that Kerry can win.  Two-thirds think that Bush will win, and this is a lot of Kerry voters saying this.  And that is happening because of a lot of the coverage of the polls.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the events of recent weeks—recent days, rather.  Just take this week.  Do you think all the focus on George W. Bush’s performance or non-performance as a member of the Air National Guard 30 years ago is changing anyone’s mind?

CRAWFORD:  I think it might bring up his unfavorables again.  That’s what happened with John Kerry.

You know, what’s happening in this race, Chris, which I find quite incredible and why I think it‘s going to stay close to the end is neither candidate is really running on their own.  They‘re running against the other guy.  It is all about the other guy is a louse.  And the Kerry campaign sat on their haunches during the summer thinking they had it won with the anybody but Bush vote and they didn‘t take advantage of that moment to define their man. 

I actually think the Bush campaign is running that danger now thinking that the crack hit of attacking Kerry and drawing up his unfavorables is all they need to do.  And they don‘t need to fill in the blanks on what is the president going to do in his second term?  I don‘t think he has gotten a clear message out about that at all.  And that is running a risk on their side for later on when the numbers aren‘t so good and they don‘t have anything to fall back on. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Craig Crawford.  We‘ll be talking to you every week on the HORSE RACE.  Still to come on this week‘s “Horserace,” MSNBC political analyst Joe Trippi on the way that bloggers have been driving the mainstream media this week. 

But first let‘s get an update on the running mates.  There‘s been a lot of talk about where John Edwards has been.  Well, it‘s no secret to MSNBC‘s Tom Llamas.  He‘s been traveling with Edwards and has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM LLAMAS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In the battleground and on the attack, Senator John Edwards mixing his message of hope with tough talk this week.  Joined through Ohio and West Virginia, Senator Edwards slammed the Bush administration over the issues of health care, Iraq, and the economy.  But the campaign woke up on Thursday morning to find a front-page story in the “New York Times” quoting supporters like Donna Brazile, who ran Vice President Al Gore‘s presidential campaign, advising Edwards to pump up the volume. 

The campaign dismissed the criticisms, maintaining their candidate is out on the trail aggressively holding the Bush-Cheney campaign accountable.  They cite Senator Edwards‘ new stump speech which no longer details John Kerry‘s service in Vietnam.  Now Edwards spends over 50 percent of his speaking time blasting the president and vice president.  This weekend Senator Edwards will take some time off the campaign trail to prepare for the vice-presidential debate.  Next week he‘ll take his campaign into the battlegrounds Florida and Ohio.

Traveling with the Edwards campaign, Tom Llamas for HARDBALL: “The Horserace.” 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PRIYA DAVID, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Priya David traveling with the Cheney campaign.  After weeks of attacking John Kerry on the stump, Dick Cheney‘s campaign is finding themselves on the defensive today.  John Kerry‘s campaign launched several attacks against the vice president today, including one by an ad in which they accuse the vice president of making a profit off the war in Iraq through no-bid contracts with his former company, Halliburton. 

On Air Force II, on the way here to Oregon today, an aide said that those attacks are baseless, they are false, and that they are old.  His campaign has also said they have as much credibility as a Kitty Kelley novel.  They‘re trying to put down these attacks as quickly as they can. 

Looking forward to next week.  The vice president will be heading back out to the east coast, going to battleground states there.  Lots of rallies, town hall meetings, small group discussions.  We can also expect to see the vice president coming back out to the Pacific northwest in the not too distant future.  They lost here in Oregon by just under 7,000 votes last time around.

They don‘t want that to happen again.  You can expect them to be spending a lot of time out here.  I‘m Priya David traveling with the Vice President Cheney‘s campaign.  You‘re watching MSNBC‘S HARDBALL: “The Horserace”. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL: “The Horserace.”  In a moment, MSNBC political analyst Joe Trippi on how bloggers have led the way on the story of CBS News using disputed documents and it is recording on George Bush‘s military service record.  But first NBC‘s Ron Allen with the report of the pro‘s and cons of voting early in this election. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RON ALLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Most people think of election day as November 2, but that‘s really only the final day to vote.  An increasing number of states now let voter cast ballots in October, or even now in September.  It started when Oklahoma sent out ballots last week.  That‘s because the rules for casting absentee ballots have change.  In another tight race for the White House, early voting provides another way for John Kerry and President Bush to try to gain an edge.

(voice-over):  The idea is to make voting easier, increase turn-out, more democracy.  In some 30 states you can vote well before election day, no questions asked.  At least 5 more than in 2000.  And many other states have eased the traditional requirements.  Oregon votes entirely by mail. 

It‘s estimated that 1 in 4 voters will cast absentee ballots for president, an increase from the last general election.

In California, some 30,000 seniors have made their absentee status permanent.  Anyone can do it.

ERNIE POWELL, AARP:  There‘s a lot of issues on the table that older voters think about and care about, and so we want to facilitate their participation.

ALLEN:  Both campaigns direct their ground troops to encourage early voting to lock up their bases.  One downside, money for get out the vote efforts get spread over a longer period of time.

Early voting also helps determine where to spend the big bucks for TV ads. 

TAD DEVINE, KERRY/EDWARDS CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST:  Iowa‘s a good example, people can start voting much earlier there than in other states.  That‘s one of the reasons we chose that to be one of the first states where we broadcast paid media.

ALLEN:  Iowa, Arizona, Michigan, Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all contested states where you can vote this month.

Both sides admit early voting tends to benefit the Republicans who spent more time and money taking advantage of the opportunity.

KEN MEHLMAN, BUSH/CHENEY CAMPAIGN MANAGER:  We think it‘s an opportunity to reach out to people that support you, but are unreliable in whether they turn out.

ALLEN:  The Kerry and Bush Web sites even help voters download absentee applications, or ballots.

(on camera):  But as more people leave the secrecy of the voting booth behind, there are critics who worry about fraud, ballot tampering, coercion, bribery to vote a certain way.  And whether the added convenience really increases turn out at all.

(voice-over):  According to this published report, criminal cases have brought in 15 states for fraud in absentee voting since 2000.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We have a low motivated electorate.  And this doesn‘t—just offering convenience doesn‘t provide the motivation.

ALLEN:  Curtis Gans of the committee for the Study of the American Electorate insists early voting has not improved voter turn out.  And, he says, what is there an October surprise?  The capture of Osama bin Laden, a terror attack, things getting much better or much worse in Iraq?  And millions of people could vote before the candidates debate.

CURTIS GANS, DIR. STUDY OF THE AMERICAN ELECTORATE:  That, in theory, doesn‘t make sense.  We ought to be able to hear the candidates against one another before cast ballots.

ALLEN:  And in California, there‘s the case of Terri Larronde and the governor‘s recall election.  She voted early for long shot Arianna Huffington.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, COLUMNIST:  And together, we can really take this state back.

TERRI LARRONDE, CALIFORNIA VOTER:  I sent my ballot in before she pulled out of the race.  So, in essence, I threw my  vote away.

ALLEN:  Of course, neither presidential candidate is likely to drop out before November.  Between now and then, they‘ll be trying to collect votes early and often.

(on camera):  There‘s seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence that early voting does increase turn out, especially in close, hot races. A lot of state election officials apparently are encouraging more early voting, hoping to avoid becoming the scene of the next ballot controversy on election day.

This is Ron Allen for the Horse Race.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you Ron Allen.  How do the new media bloggers break the story of the allegedly fake files featured on the proudest of TV news magazines, “60 Minutes.”  Let‘s ask Joe Trippi, the former Howard Dean campaign manager and a regular blogger at Hardblogger.msnbc.com.

Joe Trippi, tell me about the role of bloggers as we get closer to the election.

JOE TRIPPI, FRM. DEAN CAMPAIGN MANAGER:  Well, Chris, it‘s either man bites dog, or how the Internet turned politics of the media upside down.  But when “60 Minutes” aired their story questioning George Bush‘s National Guard service, they had no idea what was coming next.  Within minutes, I mean before their show was even off the air, on conservative sites like freerepublic.com you had guys with nicknames, online nicknames like TankerKC and Bunkhead raising really valid questions about the documents they used in that report.

That jumped to the Drudge Report, which is viewed—read by millions of people.  And immediately got to the mainstream media in a bout 12 hours.

MATTHEWS:  How do they know?  How do they know, Joe, that there was a problem with that documents would show that the president had not fulfilled his obligations as a guardsman?

TRIPPI:  Well, the net.  All this—we‘re all experts in a lot of things.  And there are a lot of experts in software, in Windows software, in Word.  And these experts were on the net, they went—they‘re conservatives, many of them, they went and looked at the documents, and immediately that there were problems.  That these documents were things—that had to have been made by a word processor and not a typewriter, at least that‘s what they alleged.

The interesting thing is that CBS, and the whole thing come around, CBS, begin attacked by these experts on the Net, where did they find their IBM Selectric expert, from a post he made on a blog.  They read his post on a blog, they called him up, and they have been using him to defend themselves.

It‘s very—it just shows you how everything being turned upside down by, not just things that happened in the Dean campaign, but this whole Internet and blogging is really changing the media.

MATTHEWS:  How much of this is a chance to knock off Dan Rather?

TRIPPI:  I mean, I think this is a real problem.  It is certainly a black eye that—you know, it is unclear which side is going to win.  I actually got an e-mail from somebody who said that the possibility was that this thing was printed in ‘72 but scanned into a modern computer system.  And when it printed out, that changed the font.  So you‘re having this whole debate go on with computer experts and typewriter experts on the net.  And it is playing itself out in the mainstream media.  It is really man bites dog.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thanks a lot, Joe Trippi.

When we come back, the five top U.S. Senate races this year.  By the way, you can keep up with the presidential race on Hardblogger, our election blog Web site.  Just go to hardball.msnbc.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Just a reminder, everything you need to know about in this year‘s campaign is on “First Read,” the NBC News daily political memo, check it out at politics.msnbc.com.  Here to tell us about the top U.S. Senate races is our own handicapper for “The Horserace,” Hotline‘s editor-in-chief, Chuck Todd. 

Chuck, tell me about South Dakota.  Could Tom Daschle, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, get beaten this year?

CHUCK TODD, THE HOTLINE:  I think he very much can get beaten.  You know, he‘s testing a lot of history there in South Dakota.  And one is this is the first time a Democrat for U.S. Senate has really had to fight a tough race in a presidential turnout year.  Republican John Thune, he already ran, lost by a handful of votes in 2002 to Tim Johnson which was really sort of a shadow Tom Daschle organization.

This race has basically rolled over into Thune versus Daschle, never really stopped this campaign.  Daschle just recently ran a TV ad showing him hugging the president right after 9/11 -- right after that first speech to Congress that the president made.  Made a lot of people out here wonder that Daschle must be  really nervous.  The Daschle people swear they will still eke this thing out but it‘s very tight.

MATTHEWS:  Oklahoma.

TODD:  Oklahoma is one that has been a very interesting one over the last week.  I think Republicans felt pretty good about it.  But Tom Coburn, the nominee there, has suddenly been hit with a ton of terrible headlines.  One having to do with this idea that he may have sterilized a woman without her consent.  And then he has been offending—potentially offending Native Americans.  Just a barrage. 

Meanwhile, though, he hasn‘t actually been raising money.  That has been another problem.  The Democratic, Brad Carson, a conservative, been on the air for a couple of weeks, caught up in the polls, now has a small lead.  Democrats feel very good about it. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that case clear as you make it, the case regarding the Medicaid? 

TODD:  No, I don‘t think...

MATTHEWS:  What did that woman say, that she did go along with it?  How does it stand as we go to the end of the week? 

TODD:  Well, it‘s not that clear.  And she admits that Coburn may have saved her life.  And the mother may have been involved with having to make the decision about the sterilization.  Just the word, Chris, sterilization, is not good headlines and it has put Coburn on the defensive all week.  You know, Senate races don‘t get a lot of coverage locally unless they—this early out, unless the stuff is bad for a candidate.  And that is what‘s wrong for Coburn, is that it‘s bad for him. 

MATTHEWS:  How about Mel Martinez, the Republican favored in Florida, is he going to win that?

TODD:  You know, I felt like he was going to win it up until the last couple of weeks.  First of all, the hurricanes have completely taken politics off the table.  There is a fourth one coming.  It may hit the northwest part—northeast part of the state, is the latest talk on that.  It has really pushed all politics aside and there is a theory out there that says when the voters do tune in, they are only going tune into the presidential, making this Senate race almost go on a coattail level, where no matter—you know, if Kerry wins the state, Betty Castor, the Democrat nominee, wins.  If Bush wins the states, Martinez.  I think a lot of people thought Martinez was going to be able to be his own candidate here.  But it‘s not clear that he is going to have the breathing room to do it. 

MATTHEWS:  How about that Coors beer guy out in Colorado?

TODD:  Well, Colorado has got a similar thing going on as Florida.  I think the presidential race is very tight in Colorado, 1-point Bush lead according to the last two polls that we‘ve seen.  Peter Coors is obviously the big name, but a lot of people tell me that he‘s from the Denver area and that if you are a Denver millionaire, it doesn‘t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat, the rural voters in the rest of the state in Colorado are going to reject you. 

The Democratic nominee is Ken Salazar.  He‘s from the San Luis Valley.  His family goes back to the 1500s, before Colorado was even part of the United States.  So that‘s a real native there.  Coors has a ton of money.  This thing really could be decided on whether—if John Kerry doesn‘t play in Colorado, I think Salazar is in trouble.  I don‘t think he can withstand the turnout machine on the Republican side if Coors and Bush are going up just against Salazar on his own. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We‘ll talk about Barack Obama next week.  I think he‘s pretty safe, isn‘t he?

TODD:  He is very safe.  It‘s only “Top 5,” Chris, because it‘s entertaining. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you. 

Barack Obama looks like a winner in Illinois already.  And this Sunday, “MEET THE PRESS” will kick off their Senate debate series with that hot race we talked about in South Dakota.  Tim will have an exclusive one-on-one debate between Tom Daschle, the top Democrat in the Senate, and John Thune.  That‘s this Sunday for a full hour on NBC.

Thank you for watching “The Horserace.” We‘ll be right here every week until Election Day.  Next week we‘ll have reports from  battleground Michigan and ‘The Horserace” tracking poll.

Coming up in one hour, at 9 Eastern, a special presentation of HARDBALL, I‘ll be joined by author Kitty Kelley whose new book is about the Bush family.

And join us on Monday night for a HARDBALL/”Newsweek” special report on religion and politics. 

I‘m Chris Matthews and this is MSNBC.  Stay tuned now for the  “COUNTDOWN” with Keith.

END   

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