updated 9/29/2004 2:07:43 AM ET 2004-09-29T06:07:43

Guests: Al Sharpton, Bill Owens, Bill Maher

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Tonight, 35 days until the election both candidates are down for debate prep.  But the campaigns remain in full attack mode, launching new TV commercials. 

AD ANNOUNCER:  Strength builds peace, weakness, and breaks those who would do us harm.  Unfortunately, after the first World Trade Center attack, John Kerry and congressional liberals tried to slash $6 billion from intelligence budgets. 

AD ANNOUNCER:  George Bush said Iraq was mission accomplished.  Sixteen months later, he still doesn‘t get it.  Today over 1,000 U.S.  soldiers dead.  Kidnappings, even beheadings of Americans.  Still Bush has no plan on what to do with Iraq. 

Plus, build-up to Miami.  History shows if you want to be elected president, you must win the debates.  So who will win?  We‘ll hear from Kerry supporter, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Bush supporter Governor Bill Owens. 

And new polls show President Bush is lengthening his lead in the horse race.  But they also show his weaknesses on Iraq.  Can Kerry exploit them?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Two days before President Bush and Senator John Kerry square off in the first presidential debate, a new Pew poll shows the president‘s lead over Kerry has grown from three to eight points.  But when it comes to handling the situation in Iraq, President Bush‘s numbers have slipped from 52 percent down to 46 percent. 

If people don‘t like the war in Iraq, then why are they voting for President Bush?  The Reverend Al Sharpton ran against Senator Kerry during the Democratic presidential primary and Colorado Governor Bill Owens is a surrogate for the Bush campaign.  Reverend Sharpton, does John Kerry have to win Thursday night to win the election? 

REV. AL SHARPTON, FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I think it is important.  I don‘t know that he has to just win.  But I think he clearly needs to come off in a very strong way to really come down these last—it would be 33 days then with the kind of momentum that he has closed in races in the past.  And as one who has debated John Kerry more than two dozen times, I can tell you, he is a great debater and I think he will surprise people in these three upcoming debates. 

MATTHEWS:  Governor Owens, does Al—I keep saying that.  What a mistake.  I was going to say Al Gore.  Does John Kerry need to win the debate Thursday night in order to get on the footing he needs to overcome this lead of the president‘s?

GOV. BILL OWENS ®, COLORADO:  I think he does.  I think he does not have any momentum.  I don‘t think the people are with him on the issues.  He is a good debater.  We know that.  The question that remains is, could he be a good president?  I think the American people are going to be watching Thursday night.  John Kerry clearly has to win, especially this first debate. 

MATTHEWS:  Polls show that nine out of 10 American people don‘t want the second Bush administration if there is one to be like the first.  In fact, six out of 10 people want a dramatic change.  Will President Bush, Governor, offer some sign that he‘s going to offer changes in his policies if he gets a second term? 

OWENS:  You know, Chris, what I think he will offer is, he will offer the continued leadership that he has expressed and given us in terms of the war against terror.  I think he will continue to push for tax cuts that help the American middle class, help put more dollars in our pockets.  The economy is coming back.  I believe the war in Iraq, and I was listening to the commander on the ground as well as the prime minister, I think that we‘re turning the corner in the war on Iraq.  I think the American people will have this comparison, versus John Kerry.  And we don‘t really know what John Kerry believes.  That‘s the fundamental question. 

MATTHEWS:  That wasn‘t the question I put to you, Governor.  Do you think the president needs to offer some sign that he‘s learned from mistakes...

OWENS:  No, sir.  That‘s not the question you asked me.  The question was, will he outline new programs in this next debate.  And I don‘t know.  I‘m not part of his debate preparation.  I think that this president does think for the future.  And I think he is looking forward to a second term.  But I also think that with this president, what we know is we‘re going to get lower taxes, strong foreign policy, strong national defense. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me to go Reverend Sharpton.  Reverend Sharpton, the polls show that nine out of 10 Americans, even if the president‘s reelected, want to see some changes.  As I said, six out of 10 want to see some dramatic changes.  Do you expect the president to offer some sign that he will offer change as well as Kerry would offer change? 

SHARPTON:  I think if he is smart, he will.  I hope he does what the governor just said.  I hope he‘ll remind the people about the tax cuts.  Because then they‘ll remember, I was in Michigan this weekend, they‘ll remember all the manufacturing jobs they lost while people were getting these tax cuts.  They‘ll remember how we did not see a bounce back in many areas of the country, some of them in the battleground states.  I hope he will remind them about Iraq.  In fact, everything the governor just said, I hope George Bush says that on Thursday night.  And he will be soundly defeated in this debate and in November.  Because I think unless George Bush can convince the American people that he is going to be different than he has been the last four years, and I don‘t believe he will, I don‘t think George Bush will ultimately win this election.  And he certainly won‘t win the debates. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Governor, do you believe that the president will talk about John Kerry‘s record on Iraq, whether he will actually ask him to explain his record? 

OWENS:  You know, Chris, again, I‘m not part of his debate preparation.  I think what the president will focus on is foreign policy.  Is the progress we‘ve made in Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of winning the war against terrorism.  He will remind Americans again that we were attacked, that it will take strong and forceful leadership to defeat these terrorists.  And again, I think the questions that might be asked would be, Mr. Kerry, exactly where do you stand and is this going to be your final position? 

MATTHEWS:  Is this your final answer? 

OWENS:  Exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask the Reverend Sharpton.  Do you know where John Kerry stands on Iraq right now?  Just two days before the debate.

SHARPTON:  I think that all of this about Kerry being vague and being a flip-flopper is ridiculous.  I think that John Kerry, as well as many in the U.S. Senate, took the president at his word.  I don‘t understand how you take someone at their word and then you become at fault because the word that you took them at proves to be less than credible. 

I think John Kerry took a position.  Then he maintained when the information came up that that was not credible.  Then he then changed that position based on new information.  He has not equivocated in any way since.  If anyone has flip-flopped, it has been the administration and the president who said we‘re going into war because of weapons and he said we‘re not going for weapons.  We couldn‘t prove it.  We were going because of Hussein now we‘re going to bring democracy. 

I think if anyone was teaching a course on flip-flopping, George Bush would be the text case.  It is absolutely absurd to act like Kerry has done anything.  If he made one mistake, it was in believing that the president of the United States, that is sitting, would give us faulty information whether he knew it or not. 

MATTHEWS:  Was going to Iraq a blunder? 

SHARPTON:  I think it was clearly a blunder to go under a false premise.  When you go and tell people that we‘re going because there‘s imminent danger and because there are weapons of mass destruction, and that is not the case.  It is an absolute blunder to mislead the American...

MATTHEWS:  Why are you hedging?  Was it a blunder?  We know all that...

SHARPTON:  I‘m not hedging at all.  Because Mr. Bush didn‘t give us just some undefined reason that we went.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Was going to Iraq a blunder?  Going to war with Iraq a blunder?

SHARPTON:  I think that we could have approached Iraq much differently.  I think Saddam Hussein should have and could have been dealt with differently.  But I think the basis that we went, you cannot divorce from the fact that we went on that basis, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Governor, that seem to be the difference between the two candidates.  Because George Bush, the president of the United States, defends going to Iraq.  He said it was the right and necessary decision to go to war with Iraq.  It is hard to get a declarative sentence from the other side that says he was wrong in going to war.  He was wrong to go to war.  Why is that so hard to get here in this debate?  The president says he was right.  The Democrats won‘t say he was wrong. 

OWENS:  And you didn‘t get it from Al Sharpton just now.  You asked him specifically.

SHARPTON:  You can get it right now.  He was wrong.  You can get that from me.

MATTHEWS:  Will your candidate—Reverend Sharpton.  I appreciate your position.  I‘ve watched it the whole campaign.  You‘ve got a clear position.  Does Al Gore share your clarity? 

SHARPTON:  Al Gore isn‘t running. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean John Kerry. 

SHARPTON:  I think John Kerry does share my clarity.  He has said that he would have done everything differently.  I don‘t know how more clear you can be than that. 

OWENS:  Differently.

Absolutely.  I think that if someone says I will do everything differently, everything differently, I don‘t know how everything becomes a confusing term with all due respect, Governor.

OWENS:  Well, Al, here‘s what I would say, Reverend Sharpton.  I would say that that isn‘t actually what he said.  For some time, he said he would support the war in Iraq except he wouldn‘t have funded.  Other times he said as recently as two or three weeks ago, he thought it was the right thing to do to go into Iraq.  It really is difficult, as you‘ve shown on this show to answer the very simple question.  Do you think that John Kerry supports what we‘re doing in Iraq? 

SHARPTON:  I think John Kerry has made it clear he doesn‘t support what we‘re doing.  I think he has said he supports democracy there.  But he does not support how this administration has handled it.  It‘s like saying, do we support the war against terrorism?  Of course we do.  But do we support how you‘re doing it? 

OWENS:  Al, you‘re doing a good job of defending the indefensible. 

You‘re doing a good job and I respect the fact that you‘re doing your best.  But John Kerry‘s position on Iraq is about as confusing as your explanation of it this evening. 

SHARPTON:  I think that clearly, John Kerry‘s position is clear.  I think what is unclear is how the Republicans think that the American people are going to have amnesia that the Bush administration misled us.  Then they put something else out there and they‘re trying to call the other side the flip-flopper.  That‘s why you want to debate Vietnam 30 years ago and not debate Iraq today.

OWENS:  I didn‘t mention Vietnam. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a tough one, Governor, let me put you down a little bit.  Let me ask you this question.  If you studied the polls, and I know everybody in political life says they don‘t but I‘m sure you do.  The polls keep creeping up on the question, was Iraq worth going to war for.  The negative keeps rising.  It‘s at 51 percent in the poll today I looked at.  How does this administration deal with the fact that over the next five weeks or so, that number will probably keep creeping up?  People don‘t think the war was worth it. 

OWENS:  Chris, I think that‘s a good question.  I actually believe the war was worth it.  I know the president does.  I think that people are able to disassociate themselves from what the future is.  And here‘s what I mean.  They trust this president.  They know that over the last couple of years, there‘s been some significant challenges.  They know he had to make decisions on imperfect intelligence in real-time, not able to change his position over the months and years since.  So I think the American people are able to say, look, we may have questions about Iraq, but we trust George Bush to lead us for the next four years, compared to John Kerry. 

MATTHEWS:  And you still believe it was a good decision to go to Iraq, notwithstanding the information we‘ve had about the bad intel, no clear evidence of a connection to 9/11.  The fact that the people have not exactly greeted us with flowers, and fourth, they‘re not paying for the war as we were promised they would by the administration with their oil.  We‘re paying for it.  All those things turned out to be the opposite of what the administration promised, but you stick to your belief that it was still the right decision to go to Iraq. 

OWENS:  Absolutely.  And here‘s why.  I think Saddam Hussein was a danger to the world.  I think that Saddam Hussein was a danger to the region.  I think Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who in fact needed to be replaced.  I think if he had ever complied with any of those 17 United Nations resolutions to let us in as he promised he would, some of this might not have happened.  But you can‘t rewrite history.  Knowing what the president knew when he knew it, he did the right thing.  The world is safer today because Saddam Hussein is not in power. 

(CROSSTALK)

SHARPTON:  ... defender of Saddam Hussein, but I think that we‘ve got to be clear, we‘ve replaced him with what?  We‘re paying for it ourselves.  We were misled as to how it was going to happen, how it would be executed, who would pay for it.

OWENS:  We replaced him with a very brave prime minister. 

SHARPTON:  I think that the American people would have much preferred that we go and deal with Afghanistan and finish al Qaeda.  The only reason some of the American people went behind the Iraqi war is because we were told there was imminent danger.  Not that we were dealing with things that could be dealt with at another time, or in another way.  And I think that to continue to say that, I think George Bush will be defeated if that‘s what he comes on stage as saying. 

MATTHEWS:  Governor, would you rather have—would you rather have Osama bin Laden in jail right now or Saddam Hussein in jail right now? 

OWENS:  Well, actually, I would like to have both in jail right now, but Chris... 

MATTHEWS:  But if you had to choose between the two, you‘re saying it is better to have Saddam Hussein. 

OWENS:  Clearly Saddam Hussein.  Saddam Hussein was in fact capable of building nuclear weapons.  He had tried to do so earlier.  He had used chemical weapons on his own people and others. 

MATTHEWS:  Yeah, but he hadn‘t attacked us like bin Laden had. 

OWENS:  Well, we‘re not exactly sure what he would have done in the future, and he was a threat to world peace. 

SHARPTON:  But we know what bin Laden did.  Governor, we know what bin Laden did.

OWENS:  And we know he was a threat—he was a threat to the region. 

SHARPTON:  But we don‘t to have to guess about what bin Laden would have done.  He did it.  Three thousand people died.

MATTHEWS:  We got to break now.  We got to break.  Please come back.  We‘re coming back with more of the Reverend Al Sharpton, here for John Kerry, and Governor Bill Owens, here for the president.  You‘re watching HARDBALL here on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Colorado Governor Bill Owens, handicap this Thursday‘s presidential debate, when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re having a debate here tonight as well with Governor Bill Owens, who is here for the president, and Al Sharpton, Reverend Al Sharpton.  He is here for John Kerry, who he debated back in the primaries. 

You know, Reverend Sharpton, I am stunned by the number of concessions made by the Kerry people for the debate.  And I‘m sure you are.  No direct questioning by one candidate of another.  No challenges of the other candidate, like why don‘t we do this.  No real roaming away from your designated spot.  Very short time limits, extremely short.  In fact, allowed alarms go off, or buzzers go off, or whatever, lights flash.  Why did the Kerry people buckle to such a restricted format? 

SHARPTON:  I was not part of those decisions.  I‘m not in the campaign in that way.  But I can say this.  As a boxing fan, sometimes you make all kinds of concessions when you know if you just get other guy in the ring, you‘re going to win no matter what concessions you make.  And I think when Mr. Bush has to finally get in that ring, not Karl Rove, not Dick Cheney, and have to answer the questions to the American people, he will not be able to explain how we went after a man who didn‘t have weapons—we didn‘t go after North Korea.  We didn‘t go after bin Laden the same way that I think we should have.  I think that I don‘t care what concessions we made, the only concessions left will be his concession speech on November 2. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, why do you think, Governor, that Jim Baker, who was the advocate for the president, was so insistent on strict, in fact, punishable time limits?  If you go over your time, there‘s all kinds of lights flashing, you‘re kind of embarrassed.  Why did they push for that so hard? 

OWENS:  You know, Chris, I think a lot of that reason is in earlier debates, we‘ve seen some of our friends in the Democratic Party just simply ignore those limits and go on and on and on, without the moderator bringing them back. 

If President Bush is going to comply with the rules, as I think he will, you know, he‘s very punctual.  I think we wanted to make sure that the Democrats did the same and didn‘t take advantage of the moderator or the audience.  It‘s just common sense.

MATTHEWS:  Wouldn‘t that be embarrassing, Governor, for a candidate for the presidency to be on national television with 70 million people watching with all kinds of light flashing because he was almost like a guy who ran a red light? 

OWENS:  I think there will be a premium on being very, very punctual, and on answering the question without digressing. 

This president is a very good debater.  I know that John Kerry is as well.  John Kerry is known to be an exceptional debater.  But I think President Bush is going to do very well on Thursday night. 

MATTHEWS:  Why were the Republicans, and Reverend, we‘ll start with the reverend.  Why do you think the Republicans were insistent that you couldn‘t leave your space?  Are they concerned that John Kerry will do what Al Gore did last time and go up?  Because I don‘t think Gore looked particularly good at that moment.  Confront the president almost like road rage there.  Why do you think they have agreements that they‘re not allowed to leave their boxes? 

SHARPTON:  I think two reason.  I think they wanted to make so many demands they were hoping the Kerry people wouldn‘t agree and they wouldn‘t have to debate at all.  When that didn‘t work, I think that they‘re trying to have the most scripted debate in history, because they know that if it is a real debate, he can‘t possibly win. 

MATTHEWS:  What happens, Reverend, let me start with the governor and both of you answer this question.  What happens if the newspapers the next day and all the focus groups, including ours and everybody else‘s, say Friday morning, the morning after the debate this week, it was a draw, no clear winner.  How can Kerry claim that as a good night for him?  Either one of you.

OWENS:  Well, Chris, I‘ll just say first of all, out here in the West, we always stay that good fences make good neighbors.  And I think that understanding the rules ahead of time in terms of whether you‘re able to walk over to the podium, whether you‘re able to do what Al Gore tried to do to Governor Bush four years ago, I think it makes a lot of sense to have some rules, and I think that both sides understood that. 

In terms of this debate being a draw, I think that John Kerry has to win.  He has to win big Thursday night.  All the polls show the president is doing very well.  John Kerry has to do something to change the momentum of this race, or he‘s going to be defeated on November 2. 

MATTHEWS:  Would it seem boring, Reverend Sharpton, if they tie? 

SHARPTON:  I think that the advantage he has is that the American people would be watching, no matter what the commentators say.  I know that for my own debates.  Many times what the newspapers wrote was not what the people saw.  And I think that would be the advantage John Kerry will have.  That he will have the American people watch for themselves.  And I think they will see the difference and will make the right choice. 

MATTHEWS:  I wish you were a ventriloquist on Thursday night, Reverend Sharpton.  It would be interesting, if you could get Al Gore to say your words why.  Why do I keep saying Al Gore?  John Kerry.  What is going on?  

OWENS:  I think you‘re prescient.  I think you‘re predicting something.

MATTHEWS:  Those guys (UNINTELLIGIBLE) same guy.  I am predicting disaster if that‘s what I‘m predicting, for the Democrats.  Any way, thank you, Al Sharpton, Reverend Al Sharpton. 

OWENS:  Thanks, Chris.

SHARPTON:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Thanks for coming on for John Kerry.  And Governor Bill Owens, thank you for coming on for President Bush. 

Up next, a look at the latest political ads in the “Battle for the White House.”  And later, comedian and commentator Bill Maher on Thursday‘s presidential debate.  And don‘t forget “The Horserace,” our round-up of all the week‘s electioneering.  Every Friday here on HARDBALL we‘ve been doing it.  We‘re going to keep doing it until the election.  You can visit “Horserace” on the Internet at horserace.msnbc.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Both the Kerry and the Bush campaigns are releasing new television commercials almost every day now.  HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster joins us now with the latest ads—David. 

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL ELECTION CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, the latest television ads reflect the campaign strategies on both sides down the stretch.  John Kerry wants voters to see President Bush as disconnected from the grim realities of Iraq.  President Bush wants voters to see John Kerry as somebody who doesn‘t have what it takes to keep America safe. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER (voice-over):  Just two days ahead of the presidential debate on foreign policy, it is a new ad from the Bush campaign that claims John Kerry‘s policies are not tough enough. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  History‘s lesson, strength builds peace.  Weakness invites those who would do us harm.  Unfortunately, after the first World Trade Center attack, John Kerry and congressional liberals tried to slash $6 billion from intelligence budgets and tried to cut or eliminate over 40 weapons now fighting the war on terror. 

SHUSTER:  But in fact, Kerry has voted for large military increases.  And the weapons he tried to eliminate were also targeted by several Republicans, including Bush 41 Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. 

When it comes to intelligence, Kerry did propose a cut nine years ago. 

Although it equaled about 1 percent of the entire intelligence budget. 

The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, is trying to keep the focus on Iraq.  The latest opportunity came this week, when President Bush gave a television interview.  He was challenged about his landing last year on the USS Abraham Lincoln and the banner behind him during a speech that said, “mission accomplished.”  Asked if he would make that appearance again, the president said he would.  Since then, 900 soldiers have been killed in Iraq.  And the Kerry campaign‘s newest commercial frames the issue this way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There he goes again.  George Bush said Iraq was mission accomplished.  Sixteen months later, he still doesn‘t get it.  Today, over 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead.  Kidnappings, even beheadings of Americans.  Still, Bush has no plan what to do in Iraq.  How can you solve a problem when you can‘t see it? 

SHUSTER:  Meanwhile, a Democratic group called RealVoices.org has a new ad that simply features the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I imagined it would have hurt if one of my kids was killed, but I never thought it would hurt this bad.  How do you think we felt when we heard the Senate report that said there was no link between Iraq and 9/11? 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  By all accounts, it is a very powerful ad, but you run the risk, according to one expert, when you use or show somebody‘s grief for political purposes.  Because, Chris, the experts say that while viewers will sympathize, even empathize with somebody who is crying on camera, they may also get very angry at whoever would use that kind of grief in a television commercial, even though in this case, the organization, it‘s an organization started by five families who lost somebody over in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Sounds right to me.  Thank you very much, David Shuster. 

When we come back, Bill Maher will join us. 

And coming up on Sunday, join Tom Brokaw and me for an MSNBC special:

“Picking Our Presidents: Secrets of the Great Debates.”  We‘ll bring you the drama, the surprises, and the story behind those unforgettable political events.  Here is a preview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LLOYD BENTSEN (D), TEXAS:  Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy.  I knew Jack Kennedy.  Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine.  Senator, you‘re no Jack Kennedy. 

MATTHEWS:  The Bentsen people were ready, because they had heard him make this comparison before.  Apparently, in fact, I checked this out.  The Quayle people had warned him specifically, in fact in a later interview, Dan Quayle, to his credit, they told me not to do that.  I did it anyway. 

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS:  Immediately after the debate, Stu Spencer, who was a political operative from California... 

MATTHEWS:  Right, Republican. 

BROKAW:  And in my judgment, the best in the business, came on stage.  He was running the Quayle operation in those days.  Scowling at me.  And he said, you had to ask one more time, didn‘t you?  You had to ask one more time. 

But the idea that they weren‘t ready for that question still is mind-boggling to me, because that is the essential question that you‘re going to ask of somebody like that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You have got to watch it, political junkies.  That‘s “Picking Our Presidents: Secrets of the Great Debates.”  That‘s this Sunday, at 10:00 on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, political commentator and comedian Bill Maher previews Thursday‘s debate between President Bush and Senator John Kerry. 

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

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome to HARDBALL. 

Joining me right now is Bill Maher, host of HBO‘s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” which airs live Friday nights at 11:00. 

Bill, thanks for joining us.

Why do you think they‘ve agreed to this incredibly restricted debate format, no questions to the other guy, no moving out of your space, incredibly tight time limits?

BILL MAHER, HOST, “REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER”:  To go along with the rest of the campaign. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  Why should this be—why should this be different?  It‘s completely...

MATTHEWS:  Are they trying to make it boring or what?  I mean, it looks like a joint interview with Bill—or Jim Lehrer asking the candidates separate questions, where they can‘t even acknowledge each other‘s presence. 

MAHER:  You know, Chris, I‘ve never been a guy who was like, oh, come on, we have a terrible democracy.  But I really do think that now.  I really think our democracy needs an overhaul from top to bottom. 

I could list about five things that make this system of ours just screwed, blued, and tattooed.  And this is just one of them. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  The Democrats agreed to it.  They‘re the guys behind in the polls by seven points. 

MAHER:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And yet they agree to the most boring, most structured debate format possible. 

MAHER:  I know, a 32-page memorandum, right, that outlined... 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  It‘s a contract, Bill.  They signed a contract. 

(CROSSTALK)

MAHER:  It reminded me of—in show business, we have what we call riders, which means, when you do an out-of-town gig, there‘s a contract that the venue that you‘re playing at has to agree to.  And this is where you get the famous, you know, Van Halen didn‘t want the brown M&Ms and so forth.  That‘s what it reminds me of. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  Bush said no M&Ms because he might choke on them when he‘s drunk.  And Kerry wanted...

MATTHEWS:  Oh, no.  Don‘t say that. 

MAHER:  And Kerry wanted two dressing rooms, one for each of his positions.  And I think that it‘s just more of the same that we‘re getting in this election. 

MATTHEWS:  Their dressing rooms, Bill, by the way, have, according to the contract, they have to have the same dimensions and quality.  They have to both be deluxe or whatever at the same level.  This is all written in the contract. 

What did you say—the president hasn‘t drank in years.  What are you talking about? 

MAHER:  It was a joke, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, OK.  Good.  Sometimes on our show, we say serious things and I just want to make sure what that was.  Let me ask you about the...

MAHER:  Oh, boy.  Zell Miller has really gotten to you. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  He‘s OK. 

MAHER:  What were you afraid of, that Dick Cheney was going to challenge to you a duel tomorrow? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  No, I have to be no comment on that. 

Let me ask you, do you think that John Kerry has to win Thursday night? 

MAHER:  Yes.  Absolutely he has to win, which is very difficult for him, because, of course, both camps have done their spin on it.  But Bush‘s spin, as usual with the Republicans, is more genius than the Democrats have. 

And their spin, of course, is that Bush is not really a good debater.  You know, I think it is amusing that these guys spend the entire campaign talking themselves up.  I‘m the good guy.  I‘m the good guy.  Then, when the debates come, you know, our guy is really an idiot.  Our guy really is a droning boor.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  Don‘t expect much from him. 

But I think Kerry does have to win, because he is behind in the polls.  He has not sealed the deal.  He is the challenger.  The challenger, just like in a boxing match, has to knock out the champ.  Remember Ken Norton?  Fought Muhammad Ali three times, really beat him three times, but he never got the title because he didn‘t knock him out.  He needs a knockout punch against George Bush.  But, from what I hear, Bush has been practicing for six months.  It is going to be awfully tough. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I like the fact that they said—said the president‘s people said, the president doesn‘t want to have the town meeting format.  But yet all I‘ve been watching on the news every day is the president out there doing town meetings getting ready for what he said he didn‘t want. 

MAHER:  Yes.  But his town meetings are a little different, Chris. 

They‘re only people there who have been vetted very carefully by the campaign.  Have you seen some of the questions that he‘s asked?  Sometimes it is just, you know, some farmer in Iowa who just called to say I love you.  That‘s the question.  Mr. Bush, I just want to say you‘re doing a fantastic job and you‘re the greatest president in history.  Good question. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think the president‘s people—I‘m sure it is always him—said they didn‘t want to have undecided voters in this town meeting.  That‘s the second debate they‘re having.  He wants to have—he wanted to have—I‘m sorry.  He didn‘t want to have undecided or somebody didn‘t.  They want to have soft Bush and soft Kerry voters. 

And that seemed to surprise—I don‘t know what—the president didn‘t like that.  He wanted to have undecideds.  What do you think that‘s about?

MAHER:  I think that is about not leaving anything up to chance. 

That‘s what they do.  They leave nothing up to chance. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think John Edwards agreed to a sit-down schmooze with Dick Cheney? 

MAHER:  That I did not know.  You mean they‘re going to sit down, the presidents? 

MATTHEWS:  Just like Lieberman did with Cheney, just sit down around a little drink table and like they‘re guys at the Metropolitan Club.  I mean, I don‘t get it, why they agreed to that. 

MAHER:  Why?  You think it would look better if they made Dick Cheney

stand, more likely

(CROSSTALK)  

MATTHEWS:  You got it, sweat it out for 90 minutes while the young guy

beat him up.  That would be a good show to watch.  This one is going to be

·         remember Lieberman and

(CROSSTALK)  

MATTHEWS:  ... told him a joke.  I wont make fun of your singing ability.

MAHER:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  And that was like the end of the debate right there. 

MAHER:  But it just shows you, the Democrats can‘t even win the rules for the debates.  How are they going to pull out the election?

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the polling.  The polling in today, there are three polls in today.  They‘re about seven or eight points, they average for the president.  He‘s leading, clearly. 

But then they show you a gradually growing, now majority position, it was not worth going to Iraq.  Why can‘t Kerry exploit a growing disenchantment or anger about the war? 

MAHER:  Because he is a rotten candidate.  Exactly.  That‘s the question every Democrat is asking themselves every day.  How can you not—it reminds me of that skit that “Saturday Night Live” did in 1988, where Jon Lovitz played Dukakis.  And Bush I is saying, stay the course, wouldn‘t be prudent.  And then they got to Dukakis going, I can‘t believe I‘m losing to this guy. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  That‘s what it reminds me of.

MATTHEWS:  But look at the Democrats.  I get them mixed up.  I was saying tonight earlier in the show before you came on, I kept saying, Al Gore instead of John Kerry.  They‘re all morphing into—I‘m going to start saying Dukakis.  They‘re all morphing into the same candidate. 

MAHER:  Absolutely. 

John Kerry is like a Frankenstein of other Democratic candidates that they have pieced together. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  He is a droning bore, like Al Gore.  He is a Massachusetts liberal, like Dukakis.  He is a policy wonk, like Jimmy...

MATTHEWS:  Whose head did he get?  He‘s got Frankenstein‘s own head, I guess you could say.

MAHER:  Jimmy Carter.  Right.  And he is a sap, sapling tree like Gore.  They put all these together and made this one guy. 

And I think a lot of people are saying, is it too late to get Dean?  Remember Dean?  We kind of liked him.  Now, look, I don‘t want to give up on John Kerry now.  They keep saying that he is a come-from-behind kind of guy.  It‘s getting a little late, John.

But these are the debates.  This is the time when he could probably make this case.  People are so ready to go to another guy, if he would just give them a reason to do it.  They‘re not in love with Bush anymore.  And they do think, they sense in their hearts and minds that this Iraq fiasco is a disaster.  You hear even Republicans, when they‘re on the talk shows, they have to parse their language in that way.  It‘s not a disaster.  It is a fiasco.  And I want you to know that that‘s my...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I know; 89 percent, Bill, of the American people in a recent poll I saw this week want to see, if President Bush is reelected, 89 percent want to see a second term that‘s different than his first term. 

MAHER:  Yes.  I saw that.

MATTHEWS:  There‘s an opportunity, isn‘t there, for somebody to be in the change candidate?

MAHER:  Well, I think what Bush and his team are praying for in the last how many days is now left, 40 or something, is that people just don‘t wake up to the fact that Iraq can‘t be turned around and, B, it was not a good idea to begin with, because, you know, over the course of Iraq, we have been told, at different stages, it is going to get better. 

After the fall of Baghdad.  OK, we won the war.  It is going to get better.  It didn‘t get better.  Then we got Uday and Qusay.  Oh, it is going to get better now.  It didn‘t.  It got worse.  Then when we got Saddam, OK, now it is going to get better.  It didn‘t get better.  Then, when they transferred sovereignty, going to get better.  Got worse.

So why should we think when they have an election it is going to get better? 

MATTHEWS:  Money pit.  Anyway, thank you.

We‘ll be right with Bill Maher in just a moment.  Thanks for joining us, Bill.  We‘ll be back with you.

And don‘t forget, sign up for HARDBALL‘s daily e-mail briefing.  Just log on to our Web site, HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re coming back with HBO‘s Bill Maher when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Bill Maher, host of the HBO‘s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” which is 11:00 on HBO on Friday nights. 

Bill, have you noticed this new color of the candidate, the Democratic candidate, how he‘s changed his face? 

MAHER:  I don‘t know what you‘re talking about. 

MATTHEWS:  He has got some new orange look.  He‘s put something on his face the last couple days.

MAHER:  Who, Kerry? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MAHER:  You‘re not talking the old Al Gore rouge, are you? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  No, this is far more dramatic.  And it‘s apparently highly unusual coloring for anybody.  And, apparently, it is not very natural looking. 

MAHER:  You mean it is like the tan in the bottle? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, the stuff you buy at the drugstore. 

MAHER:  You know what?  He was probably in for his last Botox treatment and they said, you know what you would look fabulous with?  A tan in a bottle. 

MATTHEWS:  It is just one of those strange things. 

Let me ask you about some serious things.  I was putting together a list of things that I thought that John Kerry should try to do in these debates to show something that he hasn‘t shown before.  I‘m going to run them by you. 

Present a clear alternative on Iraq to President Bush‘s approach. 

MAHER:  OK. 

MATTHEWS:  Can he do that? 

MAHER:  Oh, you‘re asking me?  Sorry. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MAHER:  Well, that‘s...

MATTHEWS:  He hasn‘t done it yet. 

MAHER:  That‘s the main problem of his campaign, is that he hasn‘t presented a clear alternative. 

We had on Maureen Dowd Friday night on our show.  And I was quoting from her column.  I thought that she nailed it exactly right when she said that the problem with the Kerry campaign is that he keep saying, I would have done Iraq very differently, Instead of saying, I wouldn‘t have done Iraq. 

(CROSSTALK)

MAHER:  What is so hard about saying that?   And, of course, now he‘s boxed himself into a corner where if he changes his position again, it is going to become even more of a joke than it already is.  But that‘s really what he should have said from the beginning, is that this was the wrong war at the wrong time. 

MATTHEWS:  People never—when you ask a person about all the wars we‘ve had to fight in our history, some of them we can all disagree on.  But nobody ever comes back and says I would have fought that war differently.  I would have done it—no, it‘s, were you for the war or not?  I mean...

MAHER:  It‘s astounding the way they have muddied the issue to the point where people forget, we‘re fighting terrorism. 

Now, I looked recently.  There was a list the State Department I think made of countries involved with al Qaeda.  They made it in 2001, before the attacks.  There‘s a list of about 50 countries.  And Iraq is not on that list.  If you and I played a game called word association terrorism, and I said a certain country, you would have a—with a lot of countries, you would have an association with terrorism. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

MAHER:  If I said Iran, OK, Hezbollah taking our hostages.  If I said Lebanon, OK, the PLO was there in 1982.  If I said Syria, Hamas.  If I said Libya, Pan Am 102.  You know, you could name an association.  When you say Iraq, I draw a blank, before we created this hornet‘s nest. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Yes.  It is almost like if FDR after Pearl Harbor had attacked Australia. 

MAHER:  Exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  What the hell.  Let‘s kick their butts.

Let me ask you about the other challenge.  Can he raise the discomfort level with four more years of Bush?  He hasn‘t really gone out in the country and said, you know, we‘ve had this difficulty.  Guys are out there working for seven bucks an hour competing with their kids for the same jobs.  We have real tough economic circumstances that doesn‘t show up in the unemployment numbers.  We have got diseases out there, like Alzheimer‘s and Parkinson‘s and juvenile diabetes that will still be with us if we don‘t do this kind of public research that we need to do.  We‘ll have more enemies than we have now. 

It doesn‘t seem to me that John Kerry has laid out the cost of continuing with the Bush administration in a Democratic fashion. 

MAHER:  Or the idea that, for a president who says he is keeping us safe, is he keeping us safe from the right things, not just within the war on terror?  I think that case is not being made, that while we‘re distracted with Iraq, this country is still extremely vulnerable. 

Our vulnerability really lies here with the nuclear plants and the chemical plants.  Those are the things that keep me up at night.  That‘s what I worry about. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the warmth factor.  Do you have any advice for John Kerry, should he be listening, as to what he should do to try to warm up his connection to the American people? 

MAHER:  I don‘t think you can do that.  I don‘t think when a candidate tries—you mentioned his new tan look. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  Do you remember when Al Gore was advised in 2000 to change his colors?  Apparently, he was wearing a winter and he really was a spring or something like that. 

MATTHEWS:  He added new earth tones. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  He went to earth tones. 

It only—Wesley Clark I think in the primaries this year showed up with a sweater one day and that was big fodder for the media. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it worked with Dan Rather, I guess.  That was what they were trying to do, warm him up. 

MAHER:  Well, that‘s not Dan‘s biggest problem right now, is it? 

MATTHEWS:  No.

MAHER:  But I think, when you do that, because the media is so incredibly shallow and those are the things they want to talk about and that they want to cover, you will only lead yourself into a trap by doing that.  John Kerry for better or worse is who he is. 

And I keep saying this.  He only has to look to the past of John Kerry to find his hero.  If he would just look at the guy he was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, this guy was double brave.  Went to Vietnam—that was brave—then came back and talked against the war, which at that time was extremely brave.  He only has to find his inspiration and his own past.  It is almost a Shakespearian tragedy. 

MATTHEWS:  I just wish he would come on as a smart politician.  I

think that would be an upgrade from what he‘s

(CROSSTALK)  

MAHER:  Play to your base.  There has to be a base of intelligent, rational people, instead of trying to co-opt the other base.  I don‘t want to hear any more about people of faith for Kerry.  Yes, Bush has the people of faith.  How about the people of science for John Kerry? 

MATTHEWS:  Station wagons for John Kerry. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, we‘ll be right back with Bill Maher to give—I want his advice on how the president of the United States can romp Thursday night. 

And, by the way, if you want to up with the presidential race on HardBlogger, our election blog Web site, just go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Bill Maher. 

What do you think the president can do to appear more decisive than John Kerry? 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  I don‘t think that‘s his—show up.  Exist.  Breathe.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask you another one.  How does he show not—if he can‘t show that he‘s learned from his mistakes, because he doesn‘t want to admit mistakes—and I can understand why, because “The New York Times” will lead with, “Bush Admits Mistakes.”

But how does he show to people who wonder if he‘s learned anything from all this misinformation he‘s gotten, from the wars we‘ve been in, is he a better guy as a leader now, even by critics‘ lights, than he was four years ago?  How does he show that? 

MAHER:  Why does he need to show that?  Why...

MATTHEWS:  Well, because people want to see a change.  And most people think things could be better than they are right now.  And even if they vote for Bush, they want to know that he‘s learned on the job, that he is a stronger leader than he was four years ago.  He won‘t take advice from guys who give him bad information. 

MAHER:  No, I think you‘re thinking like somebody who is already voting for the other guy. 

Why would he do that?  This campaign is coming down to a choice between a resolute guy.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MAHER:  That‘s their whole campaign, is that Bush is resolute.  He knows one thing.  We don‘t know what it is yet, but he knows it. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MAHER:  And that he can protect you from Johnny jihad from driving a bomb into the car—to the mall of America.  That‘s what this election is coming down to, that John Kerry isn‘t sure what his stance is.  He is a flip-flopper.  He is all over the map.  So any backtracking on that is going to undercut Bush‘s main thrust of his campaign.  So that‘s...

MATTHEWS:  So all these people that tell the pollsters they want to see some change in the second Bush term are wrong, because they really all are willing to accept him as he is.

MAHER:  You know, it is like the old thing about, if there‘s a bear chasing two guys...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

MAHER:  You don‘t have to be faster than the bear.  You just have to be faster than the other guy. 

MATTHEWS:  I know.

MAHER:  That‘s what he‘s trying to do, is just be faster than John Kerry, just be ahead of him.  He doesn‘t care that 90 percent of the people want a change.  What he cares about is that enough people will say, you know what, I‘m just not sure enough about John Kerry.  And I‘m not crazy about Bush.  But when have I ever gone into a voting booth and been thrilled with my candidate?  People don‘t vote that way, which is why we should...

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think a lot of people on the other side from you I think voted for Reagan with that feeling.  I think they were happy with him.  Don‘t you? 

MAHER:  You know what?  In retrospect, it always looks that way. 

At the time, you know, yes, of course, there‘s always a base of people, especially Republicans, who are always thrilled with—there‘s a certain percentage of them who are absolutely thrilled with whoever you put up there, because that‘s their nature.  They‘re sentimentalists. 

MATTHEWS:  Weren‘t you giggling when you voted for Clinton a couple of times? 

MAHER:  Well, I voted for Clinton once.  And I liked him.  I still like him.  But I had a lot of problem with some of the things he was proposing and some of the things he did.  So, was I giggling?  No.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Last question, Bill.  Do you think there is going to be a lot of spin-meisters out there Thursday night after the debates?  John McCain is going to down to Florida.  Rudy Giuliani is going to down.  A lot of people out there on the blogging sites pushing stuff.

Do you have confidence in the American people that they can see through all that spin and truly decide which of these two candidates will give us the best future? 

MAHER:  No, of course, not. 

First of all, they‘re not even watching it like it is a debating society, where they‘re scoring points on substance.  They‘re watching to see who they‘re more comfortable with and who they feel good about.  Second of all, do you know that, in 2000, they did a poll after the debate, the first debate with Al Gore, where he was rouge-toned, and they found out that people who hadn‘t seen the debate at all were—Gore was losing support among them, because they just heard about it.

And so they were able to decide that he was a droning, lying, exaggerating bore just from what they had heard secondhand. 

MATTHEWS:  Word of mouth. 

Thank you, Bill Maher. 

Tomorrow night, we‘ll be at the University of Miami as we get ready for the first presidential debate.  Join us for HARDBALL at 7:00 Eastern and special coverage at 9:00.  And on Thursday, our coverage begins at 7:00 Eastern. 

Right now, it‘s time for the “COUNTDOWN” with Keith.

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

END   

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