updated 9/23/2004 11:11:41 AM ET 2004-09-23T15:11:41

Guests: Father Andrew Greeley, Richard Land, Jon Meacham

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Tonight, a HARDBALL/”Newsweek” special report, “Under God: Bush, Kerry and the Faith Factor,” how President Bush and John Kerry are working to attract religious voters and how far religious voters are reshaping America‘s political landscape.  Plus, Senator John McCain on the war in Iraq and the mess at CBS.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I will never relent in defending America!

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE:  For America, the hope is there, the sun is rising.  Our best days are still to come!

BUSH:  We are on the path to the future, and we‘re not turning back!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews, and welcome to this HARDBALL/”Newsweek” special report, “Under God: Bush, Kerry and the Faith Factor.”

With each campaign aggressively courting religious voters, religion is shaping up to be an important factor in this presidential election.  And as “Newsweek‘s” Jon Meacham shows, the debate over the role of religion in politics is not a new one.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JON MEACHAM, “NEWSWEEK”:  America, when you think about it, is itself an act of faith.  Even before Lexington and Concord, the idea of a promised land far from blood-soaked Europe was forged in the fire of two great revolutions, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, settlers, many of them Puritans or Free Thinkers, risked their lives on the stormy Atlantic to live in a place where freedom and faith were not incompatible but intertwined.

It was John Kerry‘s ancestor, John Winthrop, who, preaching a sermon aboard a ship making the journey from fear to freedom in 1630, first evoked America as, “a city on a hill.”  The dance between church and state, between the pulpit and the presidency, has been delicate since those first moments.  And so God was with us in the beginning, and is with us still.  The abolition of slavery grew out of Northern churches.  Lincoln redefined America at Gettysburg, calling us quote, “One nation under God.”  On D-Day, 1944, the hinge of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt‘s only public utterance was a prayer of his own composition, one he had drafted using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, a book whose cadences trace their roots back to the grandeur of Elizabethan England, to the age of Shakespeare and of Milton.

(on camera) The central text of modern liberalism, President Kennedy‘s 1961 inaugural address, is explicitly theological, quoting Isaiah (ph), evoking the Sermon on the Mount and linking us all to the company of heaven.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking his blessings and his help, but knowing that here on earth, God‘s work must truly be our own.

MEACHAM:  And so for a time, it became.  Carrying the torch of freedom through the gloom of the cold war, we won.  Heeding, at long last, the cries of ministers like Martin Luther King and of statesman like Lyndon Johnson, who destroyed Jim Crow.

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  And we shall overcome.

MEACHAM:  After Dallas and Vietnam and Watergate, we turned to a Southern Sunday school teacher, Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian who wore his faith on his sleeve and seemed all the more genuine and decent for it.  In our more recent, more bitterly divisive age, the question of faith in public life has become ever more explosive.  Liberals hated it when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire, even though it was.  Conservatives recoiled when Bill Clinton asked for Christian mercy and forgiveness for his personal transgressions, even though it is a Christian‘s duty to be merciful and to forgive.  After the attacks of September 11, President Bush spoke of good versus evil, and some people worried that America was embarking on a holy war of its own under an avowedly evangelical president.

But sometimes our enemy is evil, and sometimes we are arrayed on the forces of light.  At such times and in such trials, however, it is wisest to walk humbly before God, letting the facts speak for themselves, rather than preaching it too hard.

Therein lies an important lesson.  At its core, America‘s public religion is strongest when it speaks softly, most influential when it is the least prideful and most convincing when it is the least coercive.  We are not and should never become a theocracy.  We are, instead, a democracy of believers, and crucial to a democracy of believers is fighting to the death to protect the right of anyone to choose not to believe.  Crusades are for the insecure, literalism for the weak.  Faith that is forced on others is not faith.  Conviction does not come from compulsion.  The legacy of Winthrop and Lincoln, of Kennedy and Reagan, is that faith matters deeply, but freedom matters even more.

Quote, “Be strong and of good courage” the Lord says in the book of Joshua.  “Be not frightened, neither be dismayed, for the Lord, thy God, is with you wherever you go, even to the end.”  But God willing, there will be no end to America‘s story, a story that began with a sermon at sea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Jon Meacham is here right now, along with NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.  Also with us right now for this important topic, Father Andrew Greeley, a great novelist who‘s a Roman Catholic priest, and Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Thank you, Dr. Land, for joining us.

Jon, a wonderful piece, very soothing and nice, but there‘s some sharp edges here.  There is a we/they aspect to religious fervor.  Is George Bush using religion to cut this country in half?

MEACHAM:  I don‘t think so.  I think that there‘s all sorts of things that could be going on below the surface, but I think openly, he‘s speaking a language that has been spoken for a long time.  And whether or not we‘re just noticing it or whether we choose to judge it in a context of war and other reasons, other controversies about this president, that may be one thing.

MATTHEWS:  Is it inclusive religion or exclusive?  Is it saying, We are the believers, we go to church or we go to synagogue or we go to the mosque on Sunday, and those other people, those cold secularists out there, are the bad guys?

MEACHAM:  Yes, it is saying that about secularists.  And it is, in fact—remember, church attendance was the greatest predictor of whether you were going to vote for Bush or Gore in 2000, and it may be this again in 2004.  But it is a part of the tradition that we have to be vigilant about, but it‘s also a very important part of where we‘ve been and where we‘re going.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Dr. Land first.  Dr. Land, what is your view about the role of religion in political proselytizing?  In other words, to try to get votes, what‘s fair in using religion?

RICHARD LAND, SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION:  Well, I think a candidate should look to trying to say what they believe, and I think people of religious faith ought to be looking for people who endorse their values and who endorse their beliefs and who endorse their convictions.  It seems to me that religious groups and religious people should be ever vigilant to make certain that they are not taken advantage of and they are not manipulated by political figures of either party.  And that‘s happened in the past, and it happens today.

It seems to me that religious groups should not be endorsing candidates.  We should be looking for candidates who endorse us, who endorse our values, who endorse our beliefs...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

LAND;  -- who endorse our convictions, and not the other way around.  When you allow parties to manipulate, they will manipulate.  That‘s the nature of political parties.

MATTHEWS:  I mean, even during the Civil War, Father Greeley, Abraham Lincoln admitted that both sides prayed to the same God.  He didn‘t like slavery.  He made it clear in his second inaugural he didn‘t like slavery, but he did allow the fact that the other side had devotion.  Do you sense in this debate between the Democrats and the Republicans, between the president and the John Kerry forces, that one side is claiming to be good?

FATHER ANDREW GREELEY, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST:  Oh, I think both sides are claiming to be good, but that‘s in the finest tradition of American politics.  I agree with everything Dr. Land said, and I think the American bishops, while they have every right, freedom of speech, to in effect, attack Kerry—at least, some of the bishops—nonetheless, they don‘t—they have no reason to expect their people will listen to them—how many votes can a bishop deliver? -- or that the bishops won‘t discredit themselves further.

By the way, the strongest predictor of voting for Bush in the last election wasn‘t church attendance, it was wealth.  Bush‘s base is not the evangelicals.  Bush‘s base, as he once called it—said himself, are the haves and have mores.  The evangelicals are not nearly as important a base as the rich and the super-rich.

MATTHEWS:  This weekend, there was an announcement that the Al Smith Dinner in New York, which everybody has loved to watch over the years—it‘s a great roast, a towel snap between the two presidential candidates—they‘re not going to have either of the candidates.  Isn‘t that an example of the church saying, you know, We‘re going to change the political look of this campaign because we don‘t like the views of one of the candidates?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  They don‘t like John Kerry‘s views on abortion.  He is a Catholic and he is pro-choice.  And because of that, there won‘t be the Al Smith Dinner, which is, as you say, an iconic event in—certainly, in New York politics.

GREELEY:  How many votes will John Kerry lose because of the Al Smith Dinner?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Ronald Reagan got a whole lot for doing a great show there in 1980.  He became the home team at the archdiocese of New York back in 1980.  That is a very powerful podium.

GREELEY:  I assume no responsibility, Chris, for the archdiocese of New York.  I simply say, as the mayor of Chicago said a long time ago, Catholics don‘t vote on that issue, and they don‘t.  Seventy-five percent of the Catholics in the country disapprove of the bishop‘s intrusion in the election.

(CROSSTALK)

GREELEY:  ... how many precincts can they deliver?

MITCHELL:  More importantly, in this election, what the Bush-Cheney campaign is doing is sending out memos—and we‘ve got copies of some of them—to fundamentalist groups and Christian evangelicals, to churches, asking for their church directory to help sign up voters.  So there is an interaction, and there is a coincidence of interest between conservative religious leaders and also the values debate.

MATTHEWS:  When we come back, Andrea Mitchell reports on another key religious group in this year‘s election, the Muslim vote.  This HARDBALL/”Newsweek” special report continues on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this HARDBALL/”Newsweek” special report on the role of religion in politics.

Andrea, you took a vote at a voting bloc, the Muslim, Arab-American vote.  Tell us about it.

MITCHELL:  Well, it‘s an interesting voting bloc because they are rethinking their political allegiances.  What has made the difference?  9/11.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over):  In the suburbs Detroit, Fatima Sheik Jaffal (ph) is a mother of two.  A full-time employee of a local bank, she describes herself as a conservative Muslim who voted for George Bush in 2000 but now is reconsidering.

FATIMA SHEIK JAFFAL:  I‘m angry at the way our country has gone—has, in fact, taken form in the last four years.  It‘s not—we‘re not living the American dream.  Nobody is.

MITCHELL:  Fatima is one of 3.5 million Arab-Americans, a fast-growing voting bloc who turn out to vote more than the national average and could have a major impact in this year‘s election.  In 2000, the majority of Arab-Americans supported George Bush, but recent polls suggest a big reversal.  Now John Kerry holds an 18-point advantage over the president among Arab voters in key battleground states Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

James Zogby, a Kerry adviser and founder of the Arab-American Institute.

JAMES ZOGBY, ARAB-AMERICAN INSTITUTE:  Bush has lost more support than John Kerry‘s necessarily gained, but by default, Kerry becomes the recipient of a whole lot of support that would otherwise have been split between the candidates.

MITCHELL:  Why the shift?  Many Arab-Americans say administration policy since 9/11, like the Patriot Act, designed to fend off terrorist acts in the U.S. but very unpopular with Arabs, who feel they are targeted unfairly.  The war in Iraq—removing Saddam was a victory but not the post-war occupation, and Arab resentment in the Middle East toward the U.S. remains strong.  And U.S. support for Israel.  The Bush and Kerry campaigns are so concerned about winning Arab voters, they‘ve been courting the support of religious leaders, like Detroit‘s Imam Hassan Kazwini (ph), guide to thousands of Muslims and a big political player who says no candidate stands out.

IMAM HASSAN KAZWINI:  There is no ideal candidate for us, but we have to be realistic.  We have to look and see which candidate can be either good to us, or at least, less harmful.

MITCHELL:  Bush advisers believe they can still win the Arab-American vote.

GEORGE SALEM, BUSH-CHENEY ADVISER:  I think that the Kerry support is soft because on issues that are of concern to the community, there isn‘t a great deal of difference between John Kerry‘s position and George Bush‘s position.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MITCHELL:  But in this post-9/11 world, many Arab-Americans say their most important issue is, Who will protect their civil rights here at home—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Father Greeley on the Iraq war.  It was mentioned there in the context of the Arab vote.  The Catholic church, through the Pope, has said the war in Iraq is wrong.  Is that going to turn Catholics against the administration in this election?

GREELEY:  Well, I don‘t think so because I don‘t think most American Catholics know that the Pope has said this.  I mean, he has.  The Vatican has been very straightforward in its denunciation of unilateral intervention in the affairs of another country, but it‘s not clear that the American Catholic population knows.  Moreover, I don‘t think Catholics—they‘re not going to look to their bishops for guidance on how to vote, and I don‘t think they‘re going to look to the Pope, either.  But I think the Pope is right.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Dr. Land, about the interesting alliance between very conservative evangelicals—and many in the Jewish community are very conservative people.  So it‘s sort of an ideological deal supporting the war.  Where do you—where do you think that‘s headed in an election?  Is that going to have an impact?

LAND:  Well, I disagree...

MATTHEWS:  I mean, it‘s an ideological thing that crosses religious lines in support of Israel and very strong opposition to Arab problems like Saddam Hussein.

LAND:  Well, I think that‘s right, and I think that more and more people in the Jewish community are becoming aware of the fact that the evangelical community is strongly supportive of Israel and Israel‘s right to exist within secure and safe borders.

I‘m one of the people who was critical of the Bush-Cheney campaign seeking out church directories and was publicly critical of it.  I think it‘s a step too far.  I think it violates the sanctity of the body.

And I disagree with Reverend Greeley.  If you look at the exit polls, as much as 40 percent of George W. Bush‘s raw vote in 2000 were evangelical Christians.  There aren‘t that many rich people in the country.  Evangelical Christians are a significant part of the base.  The exit polls show he got about 80 percent of the evangelical vote against a Southern Baptist, Al Gore.  He‘ll get more than 80 percent of the vote this time, and I think he‘ll get a significantly higher percentage—not a majority, but a significantly higher percentage of the Jewish vote.  Look at former mayor Koch coming out in support of President Bush on the question of who will best support Israel.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you...

GREELEY:  The evangelicals gave 62 percent of their vote to Bush, which was only 6 percentage points more than the rest of the American Protestant population.

LAND:  Well, that‘s...

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Dr. Land, is there a problem with...

(CROSSTALK)

LAND:  That‘s if you include African-American evangelicals.

GREELEY:  No, it‘s...

LAND:  If you use just white evangelicals, it‘s almost 80 percent -- 78 percent.

GREELEY:  No, we did not include black evangelicals.

MATTHEWS:  Have we gotten past religion as a test in America?  In other words, is it still relevant that John Kerry is Catholic or—in this election at all, Dr. Land?

LAND:  I don‘t think so.  I think—I think that the question of Kerry‘s Catholicism is only controversial among Catholics.  I think it‘s an absolute non-issue among non-Catholics.  I think that that was shown—the polls showed that the fact that Lieberman was Jewish and was an observant Jew was just a totally non-factor in the 2000 election.  I think that the days of John F. Kennedy‘s Catholicism being a controversial issue in the general public—those days are long gone, thank goodness.

MATTHEWS:  Well, there‘s an optimistic...

LAND:  Thank goodness.

MATTHEWS:  ... assessment.  Thank you very much, Dr. Land.  Thank you, Father Greeley.  Thank you, Andrea Mitchell.  Thank you, Jon Meacham.

When we come back, MSNBC‘s Chris Jansing takes a look at how different religious groups vote and how that will affect this year‘s presidential election.  You‘re watching a HARDBALL-“Newsweek” special report on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this HARDBALL/”Newsweek” special report.  Why are frequent church-goers more likely to vote for President Bush?  Here‘s MSNBC‘s Chris Jansing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS JANSING, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Sunday at Grace Episcopal Church in the swing state of Michigan, prayers and predictions of presidential politics.  For which candidate is the bell tolling?  Polling tells us that, these days, voting has less to do with where someone goes to church than how often.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE, ETHICS AND PUBLIC POLICY CENTER:  What the polling data has shown us there is that Americans who go to church most often are the people who actually vote more Republican.

JANSING:  In 2000, people who went to church once a week voted overwhelmingly for George Bush, 57 percent to 40 percent.  More than once a week, Bush by 63 percent to 36 percent.  Al Gore supporters?  Voters who seldom or never attended services preferred the Democrat almost 2 to 1.  So it would be nothing short of miraculous for Kerry to have a shot at winning Utah, AKA “Bush Country.”  The dominant Mormon church is the fastest growing in the country, and 88 percent voted for Bush in 2000.

But then, there‘s what‘s been disparagingly referred to as “the Godless Northwest.”  In Washington state, just 31 percent of residents belong to a church, and in Oregon, 33 percent.  The city of Medford‘s numbers are the lowest in the country.  These states haven‘t voted for a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Believe this, North and South Dakota are all about Bush.  Church-going there is strong, 70 percent of Dakota residence have a religious affiliation.  More than 60 percent voted for the president last time around.  Down South, it‘s devotedly Baptist.  The faith predominates in 8 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy.  George Bush may be Methodist, but his born-again status plays into the conservative field here, and Kerry‘s forays into this territory haven‘t made these voters believers.

The Northeast is home to many members of the country‘s largest denomination, Roman Catholics, 60 million strong.  Among them, Boston‘s John Kerry, a former altar boy who once thought of becoming a priest.  But in 2000, the Catholic vote split at just about 50-50.

JOHN PODESTA, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS:  The Catholic vote is a critical swing vote.  Middle-class values, family values—those are things that motivate Catholic voters.

JANSING:  This religious divide helps the parties track who they want to get to the polls.  Consider Christian evangelicals, core Republican voters.  Here‘s a shocker.  Republicans estimate that four million of them didn‘t vote in 2000.  Ralph Reed, former leader of the Christian Coalition, who now runs the Bush campaign in the Southeast, says that‘s going to change.

RALPH REED, BUSH-CHENEY ‘04:  I am confident that we‘re going to do much better among voters of faith in ‘04 than we did in ‘00.

JANSING:  What‘s clear in 2004 is that the search for votes is intersecting with America‘s search for meaning in a troubled and complex world and victory may just go to the candidate who delivers that.

ROBERT FRANKLIN, EMORY UNIVERSITY SOCIAL ETHICS PROFESSOR:  At a time of enormous uncertainty and fear, people rely on those primal resources for comfort, for meaning, for order.  And I think religion provides precisely those goods.

JANSING (on camera):  There is one more change worth noting.  Research shows that voters of all religions are becoming more tolerant.  The lesson in that for the candidates?  To avoid the appearance of extremism, whether talking about secular or religious issues.  I‘m Chris Jansing for HARDBALL in Washington, D.C.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  When we come back, Senator John McCain will be here to talk about the war in Iraq, Dan Rather‘s mess at CBS and the battle for the White House.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half hour on HARDBALL, Senator John McCain on the war in Iraq, the message, CBS and the fight here at home between President Bush and John Kerry.

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

(NEWSBREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  41 days to go until the election now.  And this week, the war of words escalated between President Bush and Senator John Kerry on the issue of Iraq.  Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

I asked him whether the debate over the war in Iraq is finally sharpening.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  I think so.  I think that it is very clear that John Kerry believes that we would not have been better off with Saddam Hussein removed, which is a remarkable statement.  Also, he has set a date certain, which is not a time of victory, and cannot be in my view defined by time.  And third of all, he seems to believe that if he were president, that there would be a number of our European friends who, quote, “haven‘t been asked.” 

Maybe I can take the last one first.  We‘ve asked, we‘ve begged. 

We‘ve...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You‘re smiling with confidence, Senator, so I am going to ask you to see if you can back that up.  Do you think the million people watching this show, this show we‘re doing right now, do you think those people should decide this election on the basis of the war in Iraq?  If they like the war in Iraq, they think it was a necessary policy decision to go to Iraq, overthrow Saddam Hussein, do what we have to do there, as opposed to those who think it was a bad decision.  Should they vote on that issue or not? 

MCCAIN:  I think it is part of the major issue of the campaign, and that‘s the war on terrorism.  Now, I‘m not tying terrorists and al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.  OK?  I‘m not saying that.  But I am saying that a war on terror is best led by President Bush.  The war in Iraq has made America, the world and Iraq better off.  Is it tough?  Are we in a tough fight?  Are we in a death struggle with the enemy?  Will the next two months be critical in whether we‘re going to succeed or fail?  Absolutely yes.  Have mistakes been made?  Yes. 

But the necessity of winning, I believe, is overwhelming.  And I think that President Bush is presenting a clear picture of the benefits of success and the consequences of failure. 

MATTHEWS:  Should a person who believes that the president was right to take our country into Iraq, overthrow the government there, begin to put up another government, a democratic government, should that person vote for President Bush? 

MCCAIN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Should a person who believes that was a bad idea, it wasn‘t smart, that they took us into the quicksand.  We‘re going to be stuck there for years, and people are going to hate us around the world.  Should that person vote for John Kerry? 

MCCAIN:  Again, as part...

MATTHEWS:  I want symmetry here. 

MCCAIN:  I don‘t know...

MATTHEWS:  If you disagree completely with the president‘s policy, you think he was wrong, he wasn‘t wise to take us in there.  Should you vote for Kerry? 

MCCAIN:  I think in both cases, the overriding issue is the war on terror.  But the war in Iraq is an important component of it, because those who oppose the war in Iraq say it diverted our attention from the war on terror, et cetera.  I don‘t see how you exactly separate the two.

MATTHEWS:  How do you register your disapproval as an American of American policy toward Iraq?  How do you register it?

MCCAIN:  I think you vote against the president. 

MATTHEWS:  Last week, Senator Joe Biden said, quote, “The president has frequently described Iraq as the central front of the war on terror.  Well, by that definition”—this is Senator Biden—“success in Iraq is a key standard by which to measure the war on terror.  And by that measure, I think the war on terror is in trouble.”

MCCAIN:  I think the war on terror is in itself so far, knock on wood, a success, because we haven‘t suffered another attack.  There may be one tomorrow.  I pray God—I pray every night there is not going to be one.  But we have succeeded.  Any objective observer will tell you this country is safer than it was on September 11.  Is it safe yet?  No. 

On the war in Iraq, I believe that we have great difficulties, but I believe we are going to prevail.  And I believe we must prevail.  And I believe that when we do, that the country, Iraq, and the world are better off with Saddam Hussein gone. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, you as a United States senator, got to vote on whether to authorize the president to take the action he did. 

MCCAIN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the American people have a chance now to vote in this election, whether they thought it was a wise decision or not? 

MCCAIN:  Sure, they do.  Sure, they do.  And if in the eyes of the individual it is only the war on Iraq—to some people, unemployment is the major issue.  Somebody who has lost their job, maybe outsourcing is a major issue.  It depends on how it affects each individual American.  There are some states where unemployment continues to be a serious issue. 

But if you are—I believe that the future of our society and America and the free world rests on us winning the war on terror. 

MATTHEWS:  Right, but the president‘s decision to go to Iraq, most people would acknowledge, was the single distinguishing characteristic of this administration.  Other presidents might have done it—might not have done it, and he went to Iraq, and that decision, should he be judged by the effectiveness of that that decision? 

MCCAIN:  To me, the central aspect of the presidency was when he stood in the rubble of the World Trade Center and put his arm around that hero and said, we‘re—the world is going to hear from us.  And then we went to Afghanistan, where al Qaeda was, which was the right decision.  And...

MATTHEWS:  Well, by that definition, he should get 80 percent of the vote.  Because everybody agrees with those decisions.  But half the country disagrees with the war with Iraq.  And shouldn‘t they register that by voting against him? 

MCCAIN:  If they believe that the war in Iraq is a larger question than the entire war on terror, then yes.  But if they viewed the war on terror, of which this is a part of, which have not failed yet, Chris.  We have not failed yet.  There are certain things, the good things that have happened.  Is it a tough struggle?  Yes, it‘s tough.  And we‘ve made mistakes.  Yes.  But in every war, there‘s been mistakes. 

And I don‘t mean to drag this out, but one of the greatest generals in our history was General Douglas MacArthur.  He told Harry Truman, looked him in the eye and said, don‘t worry, the Chinese will never invade. 

Mistakes are made in wars.  Mistakes are made...

MATTHEWS:  Right, he was fired. 

MCCAIN:  The key is to adjust.

MATTHEWS:  But Douglas MacArthur was fired.

MCCAIN:  He wasn‘t fired because of that.  He was fired because he wanted to use nukes.

MATTHEWS:  Well, because he crossed the Yalu.  OK, let me—and (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  Let me ask you this, do you think that the situation in Iraq is getting better or worse, right now?

MCCAIN:  Right now at this moment, I think that it is in a serious situation, worse than it was a year ago, in many respects.  There are some better things.  For example, northern Iraq is rather quiet, and things are going pretty well there.  The Sunni triangle and Fallujah being sanctuaries is an unacceptable situation.  I think it‘s very, very tough.  

MATTHEWS:  Are we putting off the worst until after the election, by

not going into Fallujah and all those difficult areas?  You think there‘s a

·         you‘re an expert.  You know what the military is up to.  Do you think there‘s been an implicit decision to say, look, these are going to be bloody, horrible situations when we go into these places.  Let‘s not do them before November 2. 

MCCAIN:  No.  I don‘t think that that decides—drives that decision,

because if we wait much longer, and wait too long, then—every day we

wait they are getting stronger.

MATTHEWS:  Well, why are we waiting?

MCCAIN:  I think they‘ve tried several other things, other methodologies and other avenues.  But the general, the Marine general in charge there, General Conroy (ph), said in “The Washington Post,” one, that he didn‘t think they needed to go in when they went in.  But he said once they went in, they should never have pulled out. 

MATTHEWS:  Right, Fallujah. 

MCCAIN:  In Fallujah.  And that was a mistake.  But again, mistakes are made. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  And elections are held.  And we have to judge the success of a policy.  And I‘m just—I think your point is that the president should be judged on the whole performance in this war on terrorism. 

MCCAIN:  Yes, and I‘d also like to point out that John Kerry is saying that America and the world are not better—are not safer with Saddam Hussein‘s removal. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, he‘s clear. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s get back to that.  This is the first time—we‘ve been on this show many times, you‘ve been on—we‘re lucky to have you.  For the first time, John Kerry is stalking out an anti-war position.  He said, if there was no imminent threat—and there wasn‘t one—if there was no WMD—and there weren‘t any—if there was no connection to al Qaeda, we shouldn‘t have gone into Iraq.  He said it this week and I believe he‘s sticking to it. 

We‘ll come back and talk about this new decision by the senator from Massachusetts to make this issue of the Iraq War a fundamental difference

with the president. 

We‘ll be right back with more on this, and also about the CBS mess. 

More on that, coming back with Senator John McCain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL with Senator John McCain.  You know a lot of people in the media and you‘re in politics, Senator.  What‘s the impact of the Dan Rather mess? 

MCCAIN:  I don‘t think it is huge.  Obviously, it has damaged Dan Rather and all of us are fallible.  And he apologized.  I think we should move on.  I think the most important thing about this is, we‘ve got to stop refighting the Vietnam War.  The Vietnam War was over 30 years ago.  We are not going to be able to erase a single name on the Vietnam War memorial.  And we should be talking about Iraq, as you and I were talking about earlier in the program. 

MATTHEWS:  So even if you had known—even though the CBS report had turn out to be true, this is what I wondered about, I want your view on it,  even if it turned out to be true that the president had not got a physical he was supposed to have 30-some years ago, would that have mattered to anybody‘s vote? 

MCCAIN:  It shouldn‘t have.  The president of the United States served honorably in the National Guard.  John Kerry served honorably in the United States Navy.  We have to move on.  And for us to reopen all those wounds, I think, is a very, very damaging thing to older guys like me. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re a Republican from the west, from Arizona.  You must have that sort of westerner‘s view of the East Coast establishment media.  Do you think this feeds into that idea that we have a case where a top producer for “60 Minutes” calls up Joe Lockhart and says, will you call up this guy and help us get the piece? 

MCCAIN:  You just don‘t understand those kinds of things because, one

·         somebody said about Napoleon after he had done something really idiotic, he said, worse than a crime, it is a mistake.  I don‘t get it. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this campaign.  Predict the results. 

MCCAIN:  Bush by a sizable majority. 

MATTHEWS:  Four or eight?

MCCAIN:  Pardon me?

MATTHEWS:  Four percent or 8 percent? 

MCCAIN:  I think somewhere between the two.  I think—the reason why I don‘t think we can be definitive, I think we‘ve still got to have three debates.  I believe that three debates won the election for George W. Bush.  I think Americans saw that here was a guy who really believed what he said against a guy who they really showed up as three different people in three different debates. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is your (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?  Kerry or Gore? 

MCCAIN:  I think Kerry.  The reason why is because Kerry has always surprised people.  Kerry...

MATTHEWS:  You know him.  You know him better than I know him. 

MCCAIN:  And you‘ve had Bill Weld on the show.  Bill Weld, the governor of Massachusetts who is a very articulate, attractive guy.  And Kerry beat him in debates.  If I were the Bush campaign, I would be raising the expectation bar for John Kerry as high as I could...

MATTHEWS:  God, he‘s smart.

MCCAIN:  He has a record of great debate performance. 

MATTHEWS:  How much does personality matter here?  Is it Bush‘s charm that makes him difficult to beat because even if he isn‘t the expert on something, he seems to have that facility to sort of win. 

MCCAIN:  I‘m not sure it is his charm as much as it is the belief that this guy really believes what he says.  And when he says it, I can take it to the bank.  And he‘s my leader.  I may disagree or agree with him, but I sure know where he stands.  I think that‘s the impression that he gave Americans in his debate with Gore and I think that‘s what he is doing on the stump where he‘s by the way far more relaxed and I think doing pretty good. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think, you or Giuliani in 2008?  What do you figure?  Someone has to take on Hillary so I‘m wondering who it‘s going to be.  It‘s got to be you, right?  You can do it.

MCCAIN:  But I think that Rudy Giuliani is great.  I think Mitt Romney is great.  I have at least 10 or 12 colleagues...

MATTHEWS:  Great vice presidents.

They‘re all great.  You‘re playing that old pyramid play. 

MCCAIN:  Listen, we‘re going to change the constitution and it will be the Terminator. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, god.  I think Bill Clinton after that heart stop, maybe he can come back.  Anything is possible in this world.  Comeback Kid. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

When we come back, I‘ll ask Senator McCain what President Bush and Senator Kerry have to do to win the presidential debates next week.

And don‘t forget, you can keep up with the presidential race on Hardblogger, our election blog web site.  Just go to hardball.msnbc.com.

And on Friday, 7:00 Eastern, join us for HARDBALL: The Horserace.  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The first of three debates between President Bush and Senator John Kerry is scheduled for next Thursday in Coral Gables, Florida. 

And I asked Senator John McCain about the challenges facing both candidates. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Is Kerry in trouble in this election because of what‘s perceived to be a lack of clarity, a wobble? 

MCCAIN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  What can he do about it? 

MCCAIN:  I think he started out by making a definitive statement on Iraq.  That‘s the first we have heard.  And that‘s probably a step in the right direction. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about next week‘s debate.  Who has got the skill to win? 

MCCAIN:  If I were the president of the United States, I would always be presidential, and, as he was in his debates in 2000.  What you see is what you get with President Bush, a man who believes in what he says and says what he believes. 

In John Kerry‘s case, I would keep my answers short and I do whatever it is that he did when he defeated Governor Weld, who was running against him in the state of Massachusetts for the Senate.  And neither, neither, should underestimate the abilities of the other. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the debate last time. 

President Bush defeated Al Gore the last debate, most people think.  Do you agree with that? 

MCCAIN:  Yes, without a doubt. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  How did he beat him?

MCCAIN:  Because he projected an image of a person who had an inner sense of his purpose and principles and how he would behave as president of the United States.  I believe that Al Gore showed up as three different people in three different debates. 

MATTHEWS:  Will John Kerry do the same or will he be consistent? 

MCCAIN:  I don‘t know.  I don‘t know.  I think he obviously will learn from having observed the Gore-Bush debates.

But I think that President Bush still has and has developed even more this ability to project an image to the American people of a person who shares deep convictions, who holds deep convictions. 

MATTHEWS:  How many points are in play when you go into a debate?  Can Kerry pick up his losses? 

MCCAIN:  I don‘t know the answer to that.  It would have to be, I think, some very large gaffe along lines of President Ford talking about the people of Poland.  But both of them are good.  But both of them are skilled.  So I wouldn‘t expect any major mistakes. 

MATTHEWS:  But do you think that the president could put it away with debates? 

MCCAIN:  Yes.  Yes, I do.  I think he has got to hold his lead. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  In other words, he‘s ahead now.  If he wins the debates, he‘s insurmountable in his lead. 

MCCAIN:  Yes, but he can‘t play—he can‘t sit on a lead.  In other words, I think that would be his worst mistake, to say, I have a got a six-point lead, so I am not going to make any mistakes.  I think he has got to be himself.  And sometimes his persona is pretty aggressive, in other words, very forceful. 

MATTHEWS:  So he can‘t win it with charm? 

MCCAIN:  I think he wins it the same way he won in the year 2000.  You can take what I say to the bank, American people, and you can believe that I will do exactly what I told you that I am going to do. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the secret to winning a debate?  Do you wait for the over guy to go over the top and then you nail him?  That‘s what Reagan did with Carter.  It‘s what Bentsen did with Dan Quayle.  The other guy goes after you and you say, wait a minute. 

MCCAIN:  Yes, but, you know, Chris, I am the loser, so I‘m probably the wrong guy to ask, but I think people have gotten a little more sophisticated than that. 

They can tell if your handlers gave you a line to throw in.  I don‘t think that that quite works.  I think, nowadays, if you had the Bentsen line, I knew Jack Kennedy I don‘t think that would work nearly as well as it did back then.  I think people are a little more sophisticated.

MATTHEWS:  They figure you had that in the bag the whole time.

MCCAIN:  People are more sophisticated. 

I think that if they believe that it‘s unscripted moment, that that can probably have an effect, but if it was something, your guy said, now, remember, as soon as the issue of weapons of mass destruction come up, say—you know, I don‘t think that works. 

MATTHEWS:  How did Dick Cheney beat Joe Lieberman last time around? 

MCCAIN:  Joe was too nice.  Joe was too nice.  Joe sort of took it as kind of congenial, convivial encounter, when Joe should have gone for the jugular, which is not Joe Lieberman‘s nature.  He is one of the nicest men I have ever known. 

MATTHEWS:  Will John Edwards go for the jugular against Cheney this time? 

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAIN:  Yes.  But, see, I think that Edwards has a bit of the...

MATTHEWS:  The jugular‘s name, by the way, is Halliburton. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I think he is going to go in that direction.  What do you think?

MCCAIN:  I think Edwards may have a little expectation issue here.  People are going to expect a lot of a very accomplished and talented trial lawyer, whereas the expectations level for the vice president is going to be much lower.  All this stuff is based on expectations. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this going to be the mongoose and cobra?  Dick Cheney is the mongoose.  When the cobra attacks him, the mongoose always wins? 

MCCAIN:  I don‘t know, but I think both of them are very smart and recognize both their strengths and their weaknesses and will attempt to emphasize their strengths. 

MATTHEWS:  What happens if we come out of the debates next week and it‘s perceived as a tie?  Both men did well.  That‘s good for the president, right? 

MCCAIN:  Sure, because he is in the lead now.  He has a very solid base on the issues that will define the election. 

The success of the New York convention was that we framed the issue, the war on terror, not unemployment, not outsourcing, not health care, on the war on terror and all the issues associated with it.  That‘s where Bush‘s greatest strengths are.  And because of his performance and others, it strengthened the view of the American people in his leadership. 

MATTHEWS:  So the strength of the president—as you see it, the president‘s strength is, don‘t judge me by one theater.  Don‘t judge me by Iraq.  Judge me by the whole piece starting 9/11. 

MCCAIN:  Exactly.  And judge me on my steadfast commitment to see this thing through for as long as it takes. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this campaign about character or policy? 

MCCAIN:  Character always enters into it. 

I think that it‘s clear we all know that Kerry has hurt himself by not taking a specific stance on specific issues.  The president takes specific positions, and you know where he is coming from.  That gives some people comfort, whether they agree with him or not. 

MATTHEWS:  So you are voting for Bush? 

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN:  Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Senator John McCain. 

MCCAIN:  Thanks, Chris. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL. 

And on Friday, it‘s HARDBALL: THE HORSERACE, our weekly update on all the polls, the fights, the speeches, and all the other inside stuff on this week‘s electioneering. 

Right now, it‘s time for “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.”

END   

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