updated 10/1/2004 12:35:19 PM ET 2004-10-01T16:35:19

Guests: Stephanie Cutter, Pedro Sevcec, Nicolle Devenish

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Until tonight, everything has been previewed. 

After tonight, everything will be rehashed.  Tonight is the night of the 2004 presidential campaign.  Can John Kerry prove himself?  The answer to those who want change.  Can President Bush show he can produce a second four-year term to meet the country‘s hopes?  Can either of these candidates prove himself as the man who in a dangerous world and a time of economic challenge to the American family, deliver us from evil?  let‘s play HARDBALL.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to MSNBC‘s all-night coverage of the first debate between George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry.  As I said, everything before tonight was preview.  Everything after tonight will be celebration and regret.  Tonight is the night.  And the seat of the action is here at the University of Miami. 

A short walk from where I sit, the man who wants to be president and the man who holds the job go face to face and say why he believes himself the better man to lead this country.  By every assessment, it is John Kerry, not Bush who has the most to gain, the most to lose.  If he cannot present himself as a credible alternative, Bush‘s support will remain firm, undecideds will be frustrated and even Kerry‘s own political base will begin to erode. 

For the president, the task is easier.  He must display the level of resolute conviction this rally, his supporters have made him the clear-cut winner in polls of who will best protect the country from terrorism and who will best prosecute the ongoing war in Iraq.  Bottom line, if John Kerry has something to show us, tonight is the night.  If he has something to say, he should get ready to say it now. 

To cover this political event, we‘ve assembled top journalists and political professionals to weigh the stakes and assess the strategies.  The anchor of “NBC NEWS” Tom Brokaw.

NBC Washington bureau chief and the moderator of “MEET THE PRESS” Tim Russert.

“NBC NEWS” reporters, Andrea Mitchell, David Gregory, Norah O‘Donnell and Ron Allen. 

Live reports from MSNBC‘s Chris Jansing in the spin room. 

And guests Senator Joe Biden, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Republican political veteran, Ben Ginsberg. 

But first our panel.  Tonight, NBC White House correspondent Norah O‘Donnell, MSNBC‘s Patrick J. Buchanan, NBC White House correspondent David Gregory and Telemundo anchor Pedro Sevcec. 

Norah, let‘s start with you.  You‘re smiling.  It‘s a big night here.  These kids are so excited that they get to host this thing.  Look at them all!

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

And it is.  In a very powerful sense, you can see here a major national event.  What are the stakes tonight? 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  It‘s a battle between two heavyweights, two men who have never lost a debate.  Bush is going to paint Kerry as inconsistent, sending mixed signals and therefore unfit to be commander-in-chief.  At the same time, the president is going to have to deal with the violence on the ground in Iraq today.  Thirty-five children killed in Iraq today.  That may not be steady progress being made on the ground.  I think you‘ll hear the president retool a little bit about describing the situation on the ground.  And certainly, Kerry will use the events on the ground in Iraq today to make the case that this president has led us into a quagmire and we need a change. 

MATTHEWS:  Who will be by your estimate, watching these two guys, campaign so vigorously lately, who will be aggressor tonight?  Can you tell yet? 

O‘DONNELL:  You would think that Kerry would be the aggressor, although I‘ve heard from Bush-Cheney campaign officials that they expect the president to be very aggressive.  In past debates, when he was running for governor, when he was running for president in 2000, he‘s been pretty steady, trying to make it through that he would be very aggressive because the goal is to cement in the minds of voters that John Kerry is unfit to be commander-in-chief. 

MATTHEWS:  Patrick, who will go for it tonight?  Both of them? 

PATRICK J. BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR:  Kerry will go after the president.  He has to.  The president will counterpunch him and continue to make his case.  But Chris, John Kerry not only has to win but he has a golden opportunity tonight.  I believe a majority of Americans are concerned about this war and they know the problems getting into it.  I think what Kerry has to do is this:  provide a credible exit strategy with honor for the United States which is clear, coherent, strong, don‘t worry too much about the past because this country wants to know what we‘re going to do to get out of Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  And you believe he will present an exit strategy tonight? 

BUCHANAN:  If I were he, I would get up there and make the case that here is what I will do.  It has to be more than these four points.  And present that exit strategy which is different. 

MATTHEWS:  David Gregory, we‘ll get to you in a second.  Let‘s go right now to a spokesperson for the Kerry campaign.  Right now, to Stephanie Cutter.  Thank you for taking the time tonight.  Your candidate, we‘ve been trying to figure out here.  Is he going on the attack tonight? 

STEPHANIE CUTTER, KERRY CAMPAIGN COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR:  It‘s not going on the attack or on the defense.  It is just having a real conversation about the real issues facing the American people.  We‘re very much looking forward to it.  This is the first time that you‘ll see both candidates side by side without the campaign clutter and spinmeisters, the commercials, and here‘s a discussion on the real issues.  We‘re looking forward to it. 

MATTHEWS:  If it is just a casual conversation, why has it taken weeks to agree to the rules? 

CUTTER:  Well, we were ready to agree on day one.  If you remember when the debate commission put the dates and locations out, we accepted it that day.  We were very happy to do it.  The American people deserve a real discussion. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do the candidates have to stand in lecterns with basically bells and whistles and flashing lights attached to the lecterns? 

CUTTER:  Chris, I agree with you.  All we want is a discussion here tonight.  Everything else is extraneous.  We just need to get to the issues. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  So you think that‘s extraneous, the idea of having time limits, punishable by loud noises and flashing lights? 

CUTTER:  We absolutely accept the rules and we‘ll play by them.  What we‘re looking forward to is getting into the real issues.  The president will be held accountable tonight for some of his failed policies.  That‘s something the American people need to hear. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me suggest to you a standard by which to judge John Kerry‘s performance.  I want to ask you if you think it is fair.  If someone doesn‘t watch the debate, and they ask a person who does watch, what did Kerry say?  Will the person who watched be able to say neatly and clearly what Kerry said about the war in Iraq? 

CUTTER:  Absolutely.  You‘re going to hear two very different visions about how to protect America tonight.  John Kerry is going to change the go it alone, arrogant foreign policy pursued by George Bush over the last four years and put America back on track.  He will restore our respect and credibility in the world.  You‘ll hear that from John Kerry. 

MATTHEWS:  Will we hear that John Kerry believes that Iraq was a blunder? 

CUTTER:  No.  You‘ll hear that John Kerry thinks that George Bush went to war the wrong way.  He believes there was a right way and a wrong way.  George Bush did it the wrong way.  He broke a series of promises he made about how we would go to war to the American people which was going to war as a last resort, preparing our troops for battle, having a plan to win the peace and go in with our allies.  He didn‘t do any of that.  That‘s the difference. 

MATTHEWS:  That doesn‘t sound like any more refined or clearer than anything the candidate has been saying for weeks now. 

CUTTER:  Well, Chris, you know that John Kerry gave a speech just a week ago in New York where he laid out a series of steps that George Bush could take to avoid failure in Iraq.  You‘ll hear those again tonight.  George Bush has yet to take those steps.  We‘re in Iraq.  We have to finish the job.  John Kerry laid out a plan for George Bush to do it, let‘s see if he accepts it.  He could have a debate night conversion.  George Bush could stand up there and say, you know what, I made a series of mistakes and blunders, but I hear you, John Kerry, we can do it the right way.  That would be a welcome news to the American people.  And probably welcome news to people over in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think there‘s any chance the president tonight will admit having made a mistake in going to Iraq? 

CUTTER:  Well, I don‘t see how he can‘t, Chris.  Here we are, a couple of years into the war.  We‘re no closer to finishing the mission.  Every day there‘s a new attack.  Every day there‘s a serious tragedy.  Just today, we had a serious car bombing.  It is off track.  Even his own advisers are saying, it is off track.  He has to stand up there and say, OK, time to change course.  They‘re going to push back on us and say, he‘s consistent, he has steady leadership.  But you know what I say to that, I say just because you have a firm grip on the wheel doesn‘t mean you have to drive off the cliff.  We have to avoid driving off that cliff. 

MATTHEWS:  Thanks for joining us.  We hope to hear from you later.  Stephanie Cutter who is a spokesperson for the “John Kerry for president” campaign. 

Let‘s go back to the panel.  David Gregory, the question on the table before we went to Stephanie was, what are the stakes tonight? 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  I think John Kerry has two fundamental problems.  One is that people like Bush better than him.  The other is that people don‘t believe he stands for anything.  And they don‘t see him as a commander-in-chief.  He has to address those. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s like saying he shouldn‘t be running for president. 

People don‘t like him and they don‘t know why he is running. 

GREGORY:  Those are the fundamental problems.  Aren‘t they?  That‘s what our polling suggests.  The issue, though, for Kerry is not necessarily to get bogged down in saying what he would do differently because truth is he wouldn‘t do that much differently from George Bush.  The issue is to put Bush on the defensive...

MATTHEWS:  What did you just think of Stephanie Cutter, when I said is it a blunder to go into Iraq, does your candidate believe that?  And she gave the same answer we‘ve been hearing for weeks.  He went to war the wrong way.  Is that something that has the lift of a driving dream?  Is that a trumpet call?  What does that say to the average person out there?  Most people out here are either for this war or against it.  How come John Kerry isn‘t like them, like the American people? 

GREGORY:  Well, the problem is the Bush people would say that he is like them, that he said that if he were elected president, we wouldn‘t be in Iraq today, and now he‘s saying, no, it‘s a matter of how we went about the war.

Look, I think John Kerry has to put Bush on the defensive and say, forget about me for a second, evaluate the commander in chief on how he conducted this war.  Do you want to reelect this man after a series of these actions?  Thirty-five children were killed in Iraq today.

MATTHEWS:  He wins if he does that tonight, I think.  If he can put the focus on the president, put him in the hot seat tonight, and have everybody judge Bush‘s performance, nobody is going to get an A in these times. 

GREGORY:  Let me just suggest one thing, we had 35 kids were killed in Iraq today, and the onus still appears to be on John Kerry to put it to George Bush.  It‘s a remarkable statement. 

MATTHEWS:  Pedro, your thoughts?  What‘s the stake tonight?

PEDRO SEVCEC, TELEMUNDO:  I think Kerry‘s in a situation, in the land of the Miami Dolphins, you have a problem with that fantastic defense and a very bad offensive.  You know?  He is going to have the weight on his shoulders of attacking but not making mistakes.  The Dolphin quarterbacks are being changed every week, because they make big mistakes when they have the ball. 

And the problem is, for example, when you say, this is the wrong way to go to war.  So he is not saying it was a mistake to go to war.  He is talking about the way that we went to war.  What is the right way to go to Iraq?  Through the United Nations, for example?  Will that change that today 35 children were killed, for example?  So for him, the way to...

MATTHEWS:  You mean if we had a global pass, if we had a permission slip from the French and the Germans, we would still be stuck in Iraq. 

SEVCEC:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) exactly the same.  Exactly the same.  And for the Hispanic community, we are going to be watching this, not looking for “vaya con dios,” patronizing things from each side, but something meaningful in terms of what they‘re going to do, in terms of immigration, health care, etc. 

O‘DONNELL:  I think in many ways, too, and it is hard for to us believe since we watch these candidates so closely, is that in our NBC-“Wall Street Journal” poll, 50 percent of those polled said they don‘t know what Kerry would do in a second term.  They don‘t know him.  And so this for many people is an opportunity to hear from him, what he would do in Iraq, what he would do as president. 

It is in many ways sort of a reintroduction of him.  Even though his first date was the—at his convention.  I mean, this is sort of the second date in a way to get (UNINTELLIGIBLE). 

MATTHEWS:  Pat, quickly.  I‘m sorry.

BUCHANAN:  He‘s got to avoid talking about the 35 killed, killed kids.  He has got to avoid talking about defeatism.  He has got to avoid opening himself up to the charge that you are undercutting the troops in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Because, as they used to say in the Italian army, defeatists will be shot. 

BUCHANAN:  Exactly.  If he comes off as a defeatist, the American people don‘t want to hear it. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  When we come back, MSNBC‘s Chris Jansing and Bush campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish will join us.  And later, we‘ll be joined by NBC‘s Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert.  You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s live coverage of the first presidential debate from the University of Miami.

(CHEERING)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL‘s live coverage.  It is very live right here at the University of Miami, of the first presidential debate tonight.  We‘re of course at the University of Miami, which is the scene of tonight‘s debate.  Let‘s go right now to Chris Jansing.  She‘s with Bush campaign communication director, Nicolle Devenish—Chris. 

CHRIS JANSING, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hi there, Chris.  And Nicolle was with the president today when he did his walk-through inside the debate hall.  Good to see you.  Thanks for joining us.

NICOLLE DEVENISH, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, BUSH CAMPAIGN:  Thanks for having me.

JANSING:  What does the president want to accomplish tonight?

DEVENISH:  I think what we‘ll see the president do tonight is what he does most days on the campaign trail.  He‘ll speak clearly and from the heart about why it is we have to fight this war on terror in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and he‘ll explain the fast forward.  He has an optimism that I think most Americans have embraced, and he has a vision that helps people understand that on days like today, on days where there‘s great tragedy on the battlefield in the war on terror, that he‘s (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with honor these losses to win this war on terror. 

JANSING:  A terrible day in Iraq, 35 children killed, among others.  Another American soldier was killed.  Does he also have to acknowledge that perhaps some mistakes have been made along the way?  Does he need to say more about Iraq than the American people have heard so far? 

DEVENISH:  Well, I think he has to continue to do what he always does.  And that is to speak clearly and from the heart and truthfully about what is happening there.  He does that every day.  And you know, here‘s a difference between John Kerry and President Bush.  John Kerry seems to believe that truth and optimism can‘t exist together.  But I think most Americans, when they go through something hard—this a state here in Florida that has seen great tragedy with the hurricanes that just hit—but most people in the state are optimistic that their homes will be rebuilt, that businesses will be rebuilt.

So the American mentality, the American psyche understands that on days like today, in a war, in all the wars in our history, there have been challenging days.  But the president‘s optimism is what will come through. 

JANSING:  Will he also be tough as well as optimistic?  Will he go after John Kerry?

DEVENISH:  Well, sure.  Look, John Kerry is not going to stand up there and attack this president on the one hand for advocating the wrong choices, when John Kerry has made the same choices.  John Kerry also is known for embracing policies that this president has already put in place, and they‘re already helping to protect Americans here at home.  So I think the president will be very clear and he‘ll stand up for the policies that are helping to keep us safe. 

JANSING:  You said he is over in this hotel.  His daughters flew in today.  Is he feeling confident? 

DEVENISH:  Yes, I think he is.  I think...

JANSING:  A little nervous? 

DEVENISH:  Well, look, we‘re nervous about debating one of the great debaters in United States politics today, and we certainly see our task is to really be able to hold our own against someone who is known as a formidable debater.  But you know, I think this president is going to appeal to Americans in his openness and in his clarity and in his vision. 

I think he said something in his convention speech that I think people will be reminded of tonight.  That you may not always agree with me, but you‘ll always know where I stand.  And I think that‘s coming—shaking out to be one of the big choices in this campaign. 

JANSING:  Nicolle Devenish, playing a little bit of the expectations game, thanks very much.  We appreciate it.  Chris, back to you. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you.  And we saw Nicolle there, you guys cover her.  Nicolle was trying the old game of, oh, we can never beat a man that brilliant.  Does that stuff still work? 

GREGORY:  I think that‘s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.  And I don‘t think anybody buys it.  In this day and age, these are two men who want to run the free world.  I think they‘re pretty good debaters, by this point.  If they‘re not, they shouldn‘t be running for the presidency.  So, I think they‘re both bringing their A game and people expect it.

MATTHEWS:  Why would you want to say you‘re a terrible debater when you have to go debate with Putin and Schroeder and all these world leaders.  Oh, I‘m terrible at that!

Let‘s go right now to Howard Fineman.  Howard, you‘re in the spin room.  What can we expect from over there later tonight? 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, I‘ve been being spun by the top insiders for both campaigns, Chris.  And John Kerry‘s challenge tonight is to be both presidential and a prosecutor.  His people tell me that he‘s not going to shy away from the prosecutor role.  That Kerry has studied Bush‘s record on Iraq and the war on terrorism as a prosecutor would and is going to come after him. 

This is the eighth round of a championship fight of 10 rounds.  Kerry has to be the aggressor.  And even though Kerry‘s favorable numbers are low, even though he is not well-liked by the American people, the Kerry people seem to feel they have no choice but to send their man out into the middle of the ring swinging. 

George Bush, on the other hand, is going to try to point out consistently what he thinks are inconsistencies in Kerry‘s record.  And they‘re going to try to say that this means that Kerry is not only an inconsistent fellow, but weak as well, and too weak in this time of crisis to lead. 

Interestingly, George Bush has been traveling around the country listening to audio tapes of John Kerry‘s recent speeches.  That‘s the kind of studying he‘s done.  John Kerry, on the other hand, has looked at the entire record in his typical, methodical way.  And even though there‘s a risk in being a prosecutor, I‘m told that Kerry is going to do that tonight.  Let‘s wait and see if he‘s able to do both things at the same time.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you Howard Fineman.  Coming up, we‘re going to take a look at some of the rules of the debate.  They are fascinating.  That‘s one of the big parts of the fight tonight: the rules.  Tom Brokaw is coming aboard, and Tim Russert.  And HARDBALL‘s coverage of the first presidential debate continues from the University of Miami on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  I love this place.  Welcome back to HARDBALL‘s live coverage of the first presidential debate, which is coming on fast.  The candidates in tonight‘s debate will be governed by some pretty strict rules, some interesting rules.   HARDBALL election correspondent, David Shuster, joins us now with more.

Davis, settle this.  What‘s going on with these rules?

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL ELECTION CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris here it is.  This is the 32-page rule book worked out by the campaigns, also known as the memorandum of understanding.  It includes more than 120 rules and stipulations.  Here are some highlights. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Now representatives of the candidates, and of all the radio and television networks have agreed on these rules. 

SHUSTER (voice-over):  Rule 6, section E: At no time during these debates shall either candidate move from their designated area behind the respective podiums.  In other words, the Al Gore move is forbidden. 

Rule 5, F: The candidates may not ask each other direct questions, but may ask rhetorical questions. 

So this is allowed. 

RONALD REAGAN, FRM. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Are you better off than you were four years ago? 

SHUSTER:  This is forbidden. 

WALTER MONDALE, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Now Mr. President, you said, there you go again.  Right?  Remember, the last time you said that? 

SHUSTER:  Rule 5, C, no props, notes, charts, diagrams or other writings or other tangible things may be brought into the debate by any candidate. 

Rule 9, B, time cues in the form colored lights will be given to the candidates and the moderator when there are 30 seconds remaining, 15 seconds remaining and 5 seconds remaining.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  One quick thing.  These are your rules.  We‘re way over the 3 and a half...

SHUSTER:  In the event a candidate runs over, there is rule 5, L  instructing the moderator to state, quote, “I am sorry.  Your time is up.”

Rule 9, V, There will be no TV cut-aways to any candidate who is not responding to a question while another question is answering a question.  But the networks plan to disregard that rule in order to capture moments like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  General Ridgeway has said the same thing.

SHUSTER:  Or this...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.  How has...

SHUSTER:  Or this. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  Chris, the irony is that despite the level of detail in these rules, there were some issues such as the timing lights that were left vague and subject to interpretation—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it seems like there will be a lot.  It‘s almost like going through a toll booth.  There‘s going to be lights flashing, alarms going, and it looks like John Kerry might well be the perp in this case. 

SHUSTER:  Chris, this is one of the things that the campaigns were arguing about today when they did the walk-through.  And I want to put up one of the rules.  This is from 9B section 6.  At least 7 days before the September 30 debate the Commission shall recommend a system of visible and audible time cues and placement subject to approval by both campaigns.

That the system shall be comprised of camera mounted timing lights placed in the line of sight of each candidate.  And additional timing lights that are clearly visible to both the debate audiences and television viewers.

Time cues in the form of colored lights will be given to the candidates and the moderator.

The Kerry campaign, when they did the walk-through today, they said look, we never agreed to the set-up, this is subject to our approval.  We didn‘t approve.  So at one point, they threatened to unscrew some of the lights, because they thought that having lights on the lectern visible to viewers at home and the candidate would be distracting, and make it look like a game show. 

The Bush camp said John Kerry simply doesn‘t want to have to worry about running over.  And they point out that the rules clearly state that such lights should be visible to the television audience, whether or not the Kerry campaign agreed or not.

In any case, the lights are going to be there—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s going to look like double Jeopardy, David.  Anyway, thank you David Shuster. 

When we come back, we‘ll check in with NBC‘s Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert.  Our coverage here on tonight‘s presidential debate continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

*

MATTHEWS:  It is going to look like “Double Jeopardy,” David.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, David Shuster.

When we come back, we‘ll check in with NBC‘s Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert. 

Our coverage here on tonight‘s presidential debate continues after this.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I will put Medicare in an ironclad lock box. 

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MATTHEWS:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) our staff throwing out those T-shirts. 

Welcome back to HARDBALL‘s coverage of the first presidential debate, the first meeting between Kerry and Bush, 90 minutes away now. 

Let‘s to go Tom Brokaw and NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert.

Tom and Tim, what does each candidate, let‘s start with Kerry, have to do tonight? 

TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR:  Well, let me ask you a question, Chris.  Is that a direct question or a rhetorical question that you‘re asking here?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a direct question permissible under NBC rules. 

(LAUGHTER)

BROKAW:  All right, we have to make sure that we‘re playing by the rules. 

TIM RUSSERT, NBC WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF:  Sorry.  Time is up. 

BROKAW:   Right. 

(LAUGHTER)

BROKAW:  Tim will now have 30 seconds to give his answer. 

I think it is pretty plain.  You reduce it down, he has to connect to the American people, not just politically, but personally.  In every poll that you see, he is trailing President Bush by as many as points on the likability and the leadership qualities.  And so what he has to do here tonight is to connect to them in a way that they‘re comfortable with him, not just as a commander in chief, but as somebody that they want to live with, as, effectively, the kind of father of the American family for the next four years. 

And that‘s a tall order of business, because you can‘t just get that in a briefing.  And you can‘t have a personality transplant on stage.  And it is a tricky thing to be able to do that and, at the same time, stay tough on the issues and lay out a plan for dealing with Iraq. 

RUSSERT:  Tom, I was reading a complete analysis of undecided voters today. 

And I kept rereading the same comments:  I don‘t want the vote to reelect Bush, but I can‘t vote for Kerry, because I don‘t know who he is.  He‘s too pompous.  He‘s too arrogant.  Kerry has to speak in English tonight.  He has to tell people who he is and what he would do differently than Bush on Iraq, on the economy.  It is not enough to say, I‘m not George Bush.  He has got to take it one step beyond that. 

BROKAW:  So, and the other thing I think, Chris, is that we all...

(CROSSTALK)

BROKAW:  Go ahead.

MATTHEWS:  No, what about the president?  I was going to move on to the president.               

BROKAW:  Well, I don‘t think he can just say we‘re going to stay the course in Iraq, especially after today, when you have all those children killed in the streets of Baghdad and then they have a military operation going tonight in Samarra.

Just last week, the interim Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, was here insisting that Samarra was now one of the secure cities that they had.  We have got a military operation going back in there.  President Musharraf of Pakistan told me last week that he believes that the American war in Iraq has made the situation much worse for the United States in his region. 

So the president is going to have to be able to parse those conflicting realities that exist on the ground out there.  And just like John Kerry, he, too, is going to have to lay out a specific plan for how he is going to deal with Iraq.  And my guess is that the American people are out there saying, OK, we want some markers now along the way.  Six months out, a year out, what can we expect then? 

RUSSERT:  He has to be presidential. 

BROKAW:  Yes. 

RUSSERT:  And being president helps in that. 

But you‘re exactly right, Tom.  He has to acknowledge some shortcomings, that he didn‘t read this thing perfectly.  If he tries to suggest everything is rosy, full speed ahead, people are going to say, I just watched “The Nightly News” at 6:30. 

BROKAW:  Right.  Right. 

RUSSERT:  That‘s not the way it is, Mr. President. 

BROKAW:  Right. 

RUSSERT:  Look for George Bush also try to tie John Kerry in knots over his previous positions on Iraq.  You‘re not ready because you‘re not a steady leader. 

John Kerry will counter, does steady mean bull-headed, Mr. President? 

I don‘t think so. 

BROKAW:  Yes. 

I think the other thing we‘ll hear from Kerry tonight is that I‘ve been accused of being a flip-flopper, Mr. President.  You told us we were going in there because we were going to find weapons of mass destruction, because it was a threat to the United States, because there was a connection on terrorism.  Who is the flip-flopper here? 

My guess is that you‘ll hear something like that from John Kerry as he goes after the president on the issue of Iraq, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, the expression of the fight game, in professional boxing, used to be, you have to beat the champ.  Is that still the rule tonight, Tom and Tim, that Kerry has to be the winner tonight or he‘ll be the loser? 

BROKAW:  Well, I think there‘s no question about that, especially because they‘re not going in here just in a dead heat.  Even the most ardent Kerry supporters acknowledge, the president, as one of them said to me the other day, really does have his act together. 

And he said that more in admiration than he did in sadness.  He was admiring what he was doing.  And they also know that John Kerry has not had his act together.  He is trailing in all of the national polls.  They‘re taking more and more battleground states off the table every day.  So this one is John Kerry‘s gap to close.  And closing it alone won‘t be enough.  He‘s going to have to move ahead. 

RUSSERT:  Yes. 

George Bush is ahead, Chris, in all these polls, in the battleground states.  He has the momentum.  The Kerry camp knows that John Kerry has to stop that momentum.  And you don‘t do that by getting a draw or a tie.  John Kerry has become the issue in this campaign, which is so ironic, because, normally, with an incumbent president, it is a referendum on the incumbent. 

And yet we‘ve been talking and debating about John Kerry and whether he is up to being president and whether or not he has a vision and a position on Iraq that is understandable. 

BROKAW:  You know, Chris, can I just say one more thing?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

BROKAW:  Yes, I was going to say, we all get involved in the speculation and all that and then—no one loves the exercise more than I do. 

But it does remind me a little about the weekend before the Super Bowl, when all the sportswriters are out there talking about what is going to happen, what the strengths are.  At 9:00 tonight, Jim Lehrer walks out there.  John Kerry and George Bush walks out there.  And everything that we said just goes by the boards.  And it is up to those two guys and Jim Lehrer as the moderator to drive this debate.  And the public on the other side of our screen will really make those decisions. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

I wanted to ask you, Tom and Tim.  I didn‘t think to ask this.  But since everyone is so serious tonight and the pressure is so high on John Kerry especially tonight to prove his mettle, do you think there will be any attempt at humor tonight or whimsy of any kind? 

BROKAW:  I think that‘s always a risk.  But I think it works well when you do it.  And it obviously has to be carried off, because it can be counterproductive very quickly if it doesn‘t work or if it comes off as mean or if it is awkward in some way.

I guess the moment that I remember—you and I were talking about this the other day—that I was involved in that worked very well was, Lloyd Bentsen had a gun loaded about John Kennedy when he was debating Vice President—or Senator Dan Quayle at the time about, I knew John Kennedy was a friend of mine.  You‘re no John Kennedy.  That moment worked. 

Ronald Reagan‘s moment worked when he said, there you go again and, are you better off now than you were four years ago?  But no one was more skilled than Ronald Reagan at those small, but very telling moments. 

RUSSERT:  And Reagan using the whole youth against Walter Mondale. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  

RUSSERT:  I thought Bush had a pretty good line in 2000 about Gore and the Internet, that you‘re also a calculator. 

BROKAW:  Right. 

RUSSERT:  I look for George Bush to try to be lighthearted and yet piercing about John Kerry‘s many positions on Iraq, Chris.  That‘s one of the things I think they‘re going try to unload tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much.  We‘ll be back with you in the next hour, Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert.  We‘ll check in again.

We‘re coming back with strategist Joe Trippi, who worked in the Howard Dean campaign, and Ben Ginsberg, who, until just a few weeks ago, was the top lawyer in the Bush campaign.  He knows everything.

You can keep up, by the way, with the presidential race on Hardblogger, our election blog Web site.  Just go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

Stay with us.  It‘s a great night, a big night.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN F. KENNEDY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same.  The question before us is: Which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mr. Nixon, would you like to comment on that statement?

RICHARD NIXON ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I have no comment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re at the University of Miami.  And we‘re coming back with our panel, our strategists, plus reports from the spin room, as we get ready for tonight‘s presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MATTHEWS:  Joe Trippi and Ben Ginsberg will be here with us in just a moment. 

But let‘s go right now to Howard Fineman, who is over in the spin room.

Howard, I have to ask you about this big fight.  I know it seems so inconsequential.  But if it were, why are the Kerry people fighting so much about it, the issue of these flashlight, these flashing lights, these buzzers that are going to go off the minute a candidate, presumably Kerry, exceeds the time limit? 

FINEMAN:  Well, I‘m amazed by it. 

But I think it is a sign of the frustration of the Kerry campaign that they haven‘t been able to grasp this whole campaign by the throat and make it theirs.  What those lights will do, they fear, is be a distraction.  And they think the whole George Bush campaign is a distraction from the points they want to make. 

The problem, of course, is that Kerry hasn‘t been making them himself.  When I talked to the top Kerry people in the last couple hours, I said, is John Kerry going to lay out the reasons why his view of the world—the war on terrorism in Iraq is fundamentally different from and better than George Bush?  And I was told, no, we‘re not going to think up obscure proposals just to differentiate ourselves from George Bush, that what John Kerry is going to do is be the prosecutor and show why George Bush has handled the war wrongly. 

That‘s their whole thing.  That‘s the issue they want to focus on.  I don‘t know if it‘s going to be enough.  And let‘s see if they actually do it.  They were talking very bravely about it to me in the last couple hours.  That‘s what they‘re supposedly going to do.  And they find things like the lights and the mechanics of the debate itself a distraction.  The Bush people came in and said that‘s where the lights are going to go.

There wasn‘t anybody from the Kerry campaign around to argue with them when they did it.  And to me, that was all too symbolic of the way the Kerry campaign has been run.  They haven‘t always paid attention to all of the minute details and all the mechanics and all of the blood sport that is politics. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, Howard.   

We‘re going to—I want to go to the panel here.  I want to ask you about the hazards.  But he makes a very good point there.  When you watched the Republican Convention, as opposed to the Democratic Convention, you could tell that it had been developed to the nth degree.  They figured out Fred Thompson would be the best guy to do the narration of the film, things like that, those wonderful details that give so much character to a convention. 

And you get a sense with the Democrats, it never occurred to them there was going to be flashing lights tonight and all these terrible—which they will be, distractions from an important night.  But they will be at the cost to John Kerry, not to George Bush. 

GREGORY:  Howard said something earlier tonight that I thought was important.  And that is that John Kerry wants to be a prosecutor tonight. 

Well, if you know a good prosecutor, they tell a good story.  And I don‘t think that John Kerry has a great story yet to tell about both the failures in Iraq and his alternative.  I think the strength of George Bush in this campaign right now is that he has got a story.  He has got a story about America‘s resurrection after 9/11 and a story in the war on terror in general.  And that‘s what he‘s sticking to. 

O‘DONNELL:  And in order to tell a story, you need a great deal of time to sort of tell the story.  And the two minutes and the 90 seconds doesn‘t allow you to do that.

And on the same point, when he‘s probably—maybe gearing up and about to make his punchline, people may be watching that amber light flash and then the red light flash. 

MATTHEWS:  Exactly. 

O‘DONNELL:  And it could be a distraction to people.  That is certainly the distraction of the Bush-Cheney campaign. 

It is remarkable that the Kerry campaign did not anticipate this. 

These two campaigns agreed with top lawyers to this. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, there‘s a mousetrap with a big piece of cheese.  He is going to try to go right up to the edge of the two-minute thing. 

Pedro, what do you think of these flashing lights?  I think it is a distraction.

SEVCEC:  It‘s ridiculous.

MATTHEWS:  But it is gamesmanship. 

SEVCEC:  It is ridiculous.

But you have Karl Rove on Bush‘s side.  You don‘t have the equivalent on Kerry‘s side.  There‘s not a master strategist.  So these little details that we‘re talking about are key, because this is not about substance.  This is about style.  This is about perception. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

SEVCEC:  And Kerry has a huge challenge, because he has to be now, I have a rhetorical question.  How do you make yourself likable in 1.5-minute bursts in front of a country where the flashing lights and all the stuff going on? 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe you laugh after you‘re caught. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to have to get Pat.  I‘ve got to get back to you. 

BUCHANAN:  He has got to get—do more than be a prosecutor. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  The case has been made.  He has got to say why they should elect me.  That is what he has failed to do this campaign. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s right.  And he has to show who he is, that he‘s the guy. 

I want to thank the panel, Norah O‘Donnell, Pedro Sevcec, David Gregory, Patrick J. Buchanan and Howard Fineman. 

When we come back, we‘ll talk to Joe Trippi and Ben Ginsberg.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL‘s coverage of the first presidential debate, live from the University of Miami. 

And joining me right now is Joe Trippi, MSNBC analyst and former Howard Dean campaign manager, and Ben Ginsberg, MSNBC contributor as well, who was the top lawyer in the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. 

I want to follow one something we‘re all going to see at 9:00.  And that is a very strict observance of the time limits on what these candidates can do tonight.  It is almost like the NBA, the basketball league, where you have got what‘s called a shot clock.  In this case, it is going to be severely enforced to the embarrassment of any candidate who breaks the rules. 

Ben Ginsberg, give me a lawyer‘s view of this.  Who came up with the idea of a strict time limit to be punished with loud bells, whistles, flashing lights?  It‘s almost like you run a toll booth on the interstate. 

BEN GINSBERG, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR:  Well, the time limits have been in all the past agreements.  I think part of the reason for this one was, frankly, the knowledge that John Kerry has difficulty talking within two-minute segments.  And I think probably what you saw today with them trying to change the light rule at the last minute was a reaction to their debate prep.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask Joe Trippi. 

Your candidate, Howard Dean, debated John Kerry all those many time. 

Did he have a problem with crispness? 

JOE TRIPPI, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR:  He did at times.

But, generally, he followed the rules.  He didn‘t go over a lot, although I don‘t think the rules were this restrictive.  And we didn‘t have the bell and the whistles and the alarms going off.  Even Howard Dean would trail off at the end when his time was running out. 

So it‘s going to be—I do think this puts Kerry in more of a box, because he does tend to have longer answers and more nuanced answers that take more time.. 

MATTHEWS:  What does your sense tell you, that this is this an attempt to embarrass Kerry with a lot of noise and embarrassment that he failed to observe the time limits? 

TRIPPI:  I think it is kind of a last-minute psych-out thing, just to try to psych the guy out right before you go in.  It happens all the time.  I think Kerry will be fine. 

MATTHEWS:  Ben, a lot of people believe that during the Democratic Convention, in the acceptance speech given by John Kerry, that he raised through a lot of applause lines.  He spoke extremely rapidly because he tried to get a longer speech than he should have accepted into the time limits.  Do you believe Kerry will try deal with the time limits tonight by talking faster? 

GINSBERG:  Yes. 

I think that that is one reaction that he could have.  The problem that Kerry has got going into this is that he has got to be somebody other than himself, while George Bush can simply be himself. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that is an absolutely undeniable fact, that John Kerry can‘t be himself? 

GINSBERG:  Well, I think that that is a challenge that he‘s got, because the self that John Kerry has projected so far has been plummeting in the polls the more people have gotten to know him.  So he has got to do something. 

MATTHEWS:  So you believe, Ben, looking at it from a Republican perspective, if you say to John Kerry, just be yourself, that is a lethal proposal?

GINSBERG:  Well, I they think about it a lot.  And any time you have got to think about being yourself or not yourself, you‘ve already won what Joe accurately described as the head game. 

TRIPPI:  I think each of these candidates is themselves.  John Kerry can be himself.  Howard Dean was.  Howard Dean was himself more when he was in front of a big crowd than he necessarily was on television in a debate position. 

And Kerry has that same kind of thing, where his style doesn‘t take itself well, doesn‘t present itself to date.  But he can be himself and he can win this debate. 

MATTHEWS:  Ben, what is the biggest vulnerable for the president?  If you were coaching him tonight, what would you be most afraid of as a question from Jim Lehrer? 

GINSBERG:  I think that not achieving the clarity of his position that he has so far.

It‘s really a question of being able to articulate the future, which I believe he started to do at the Republican Convention and will continue tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  Joe? 

TRIPPI:  Yes, I think any question about the past for Kerry, anything that bogs down in Gulf War I or something else is bad.  Kerry needs to immediately turn and take that to the future, take to it what‘s going on in Iraq now and how do we get out.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Joe Trippi and Ben Ginsberg. 

We‘re just about right now an hour away, 60 minutes away from the start of the first meeting face to face in the same arena between Bush and Kerry. 

And coming up in this next hour, before the debate, Kerry campaign adviser Joe Lockhart, Republican Congressman David Dreier, here for the president.  Plus, NBC‘s Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert are coming back soon. 

Our live coverage from the University of Miami continues after this.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

END   

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