updated 10/1/2004 12:45:25 PM ET 2004-10-01T16:45:25

Guests: John McCain, Wesley Clark, Karen Hughes, Joe Lockhart, Ralph Reed, Jon Meacham

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Governor Reagan, again, was against such a proposal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Governor?

RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  There you go again.

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

JIMMY CARTER, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I had a discussion with my daughter Amy the other day.

BERNARD SHAW, MODERATOR:  Governor, if Kitty Dukakis...

WILLIAM J. CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  In my state, when people lose their jobs, it‘s a good chance I know them by their names.

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

RONALD REAGAN:  Are you better off than you were four years ago? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Welcome back to MSNBC‘s nonstop, I should say, coverage of the first debate of the presidential campaign.  We are going to be here practically all night.  We are live from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, surrounded by the people who live, work, and, as you can see, study here.  These are all students here.

And our panel, of course, NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell, MSNBC political

analyst Ron Reagan, “Newsweek”s Jon Meacham—he‘s the editor, by the way

·         and the host of “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY” himself, a man who is extremely reasonable and honest tonight, more so than ever, my colleague—I say that with pride—Joe Scarborough. 

We‘re going to go right now to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and NBC Washington bureau chief and moderator of “Meet of Press,” Tim Russert. 

Gentlemen, Tom and Tim, did they do what they had to do, starting with John Kerry? 

TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR:  I think that John Kerry did do what he had to do. 

There were lots of doubts, as you know, even within his ranks about whether he was able to articulate clearly his position on Iraq and the war on terror and whether he would appear tonight both presidential and commanding, as in commander in chief. 

Now, I am sure the partisans on the other side would take issue with that, but from a Democratic point of view, one of the big concerns has been as the party had lost its energy that it had coming out of Boston, and my guess is that John Kerry kick-started that energy tonight, reenergized the base, and maybe even gave some of those undecided voters out there reason to vote for him. 

Having said that, I think you could say the same about George W. Bush, in terms of making a very strong appeal to his base and being very plainspoken about why he has the policy that he does in Iraq and why he has so many reservations about John Kerry leading this country in a war against terror.  And so he could have made that same kind of appeal to that big swing bloc that we have been talking about—Tim. 

TIM RUSSERT, NBC WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF:  Yes, Chris, I think that John Kerry tonight was the candidate that the Democrats thought they were nominating back in Iowa, that he was someone who would be a commander in chief, a Vietnam veteran who could go toe to toe with George Bush and put forward an alternative view and be seen as someone who could sit in that Oval Office. 

I also think that this is the kind of the debate the country has been yearning for.  We heard real differences of opinion on the war in Iraq, on the war on terror, on homeland security, on North Korea.  Let it be engaged.  Let people decide.  George Bush underscored that he is certain that his view on Iraq is correct.  John Kerry raised legitimate questions, and now each base is secure and anchored. 

Those swing independent voters have to decide, but they now have the information to make a decision. 

MATTHEWS:  In terms of the performance of the two candidates tonight, Tom and Tim, I was struck by the fact that the president almost chose—he elected to receive.  He elected to play defense.  I was surprised—Were you? -- that he did not take the fight more forcefully from the beginning to his opponent? 

BROKAW:  Yes, I think that, just objectively as someone who has watched these debates for a long time, that John Kerry kind of had his act together more, I suppose.  He had a clearer sense of where he wanted to go and how he wanted to get there. 

Now, he is doing that as a challenger against a president who is having to defend some very difficult decisions against a situation that is not plainly going well in Iraq at the moment.  And what the president is forced to say is that, we have to stay with this.  It is hard work, and we are going to get there.

But when you are dealing with this kind of a presidential campaign and day-to-day developments in Iraq and in the war on terror, it‘s easier in some fashion to be the challenger in saying, you are responsible for this, than it is for the incumbent to say, look, trust me, we are going to get our way out of this. 

MATTHEWS:  I was surprised—Were you? -- well, what did you think of Mike McCurry‘s response tonight?  We just had him on.

And his first spin, if you will, was to say, you saw tonight that the president would rather protect the tax breaks for the very wealthy against the tax increase, rather than provide adequate homeland security.  Why would a Democrat want to raise the issues of taxes after a good night for them, apparently? 

BROKAW:  Well, I thought that was a very good catch on your part, Chris. 

Suddenly, the taxes are going to homeland security, not to economic relief or health care or Medicare and so on.  That‘s a hard right turn for the Kerry campaign. 

RUSSERT:  Those are very fungible, those tax cuts.

(CROSSTALK) 

BROKAW:  He can take those tax cuts and spread them around.  We are going to use them to get some dinner after the debate here tonight, actually. 

RUSSERT:  But I thought that John Kerry, by using that card, playing that class card, if you will, that tax card, was trying to underscore another difference from the president. 

And he kept saying, you know, you and I, Mr. President, don‘t need this kind of tax cut.  Now, tomorrow, I think the newspaper writers, the editorial writers, Chris Matthews, Tom Brokaw, others will say, wait a minute, Senator, you have already spent that money from the tax cut on something else.  How are you now fighting homeland security?  But for the 55 million people, my sense is, for some of those swing undecided voters in the lower income bracket, it may have resonated. 

BROKAW:  You know, Chris, here‘s an interesting issue.  And this is what‘s being decided out there right now. 

Going into this debate—and no one knew this better than the Bush administration—they had a lot of negatives going.  The country does not like where the war is going in Iraq right now.  They don‘t like the direction of the economy right now.  They think the country is on a wrong track right now.  They want this administration to do things much differently in a second term, by a factor of, what, 58 percent or something like that.

But, at the same time, the president has been leading John Kerry on personal characteristics and leadership traits by as much as 17 or 18 points.  That‘s the gap that we have to watch, I think, coming out of this debate tonight.  Did John Kerry close that difference? 

RUSSERT:  Chris, the Republicans believe this is a referendum on John Kerry.  The Democrats believe it‘s a referendum on George Bush.  After tonight, what does those swing independent voters think? 

Leading into tonight, they thought it was a referendum on Kerry and his ability to be president.  Does this now balance those scales and make it just as much a referendum on George Bush and his policies?  My sense is that Kerry made some inroads. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you this. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I set a benchmark, Tom, before...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Go ahead.

BROKAW:  Go ahead.

MATTHEWS:  Go ahead.

I set a benchmark before we went on tonight.

BROKAW:  No, I was just going to say. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m dying here. 

Tom, you first. 

(LAUGHTER)

BROKAW:  No, I am just intrigued by the fact that these two guys, both sons of privilege, both members of Skull and Bones, both in the same fraternity at Yale—Fred Smith, who is the head of FedEx, used to go flying in the afternoon with John Kerry and had George Bush as his pledge son, and now we see them on this stage. 

This great country, and we take these two people who really come from a relatively narrow background and have such divergent points of view.  It‘s a very healthy sign about the system. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Before we went on, I was thinking there was a reasonable benchmark to set for tonight, which was, if someone didn‘t watch the debate tonight and they asked you after you watched it, what did Kerry say about his position on Iraq, could you deliver that response in a sentence or two? 

Do you think, Tom and Tim, that you could do that now, say what Kerry said tonight about his position on Iraq? 

BROKAW:  Yes, greater international involvement, a wider alliance.  And probably the most devastating line that he had against the president was, your policy can be reduced to four words, more of the same.  And if you take that line and measure it against what‘s going on immediately, that‘s pretty tough on the president. 

The president, on the other hand was very effective when he said the American people have to decide whether they are going to have a president who is going to chase down these terrorists and catch them.  And you can‘t keep sending mixed messages or say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place, and we are going to stay the course. 

RUSSERT:  And he also said, Chris—I thought the president was effective by saying, does the world, does America, do the troops want to lead somebody who has been all over the board on Iraq? 

I really do believe both candidates made their case better on that issue tonight than they have in some time. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us.  See you in the next debate, Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert.

MSNBC Chris Jansing is in the so-called spin room right now with Ralph Reed of the Bush-Cheney campaign. 

Chris, take it away. 

CHRIS JANSING, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Thanks very much, Chris. 

Well, a colossal error in judgment is what John Kerry said about the decision to go to war in Iraq.  Let me ask you, Ralph Reed, did he make that case?  Did the president defend the decision well enough? 

RALPH REED, SOUTHEAST CHAIRMAN, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN:  Oh, I think the president did an outstanding job of defending it. 

First of all, he pointed out that when John Kerry gave his floor speech on October 9 of 2002, before he voted to authorize the military action, he called Saddam Hussein a grave threat to the United States of America.  That‘s what he said in the fall of 2002.  He voted for the war. 

JANSING:  He says he hasn‘t changed his position on that.  It was about how we went to war, not waiting long enough, not being patient enough, not getting a larger coalition. 

REED:  Well, the fact of the matter is, as the president made abundantly clear tonight, he exhausted every diplomatic avenue.  He went to the United Nations not once, but twice. 

Saddam Hussein was called upon by the U.N. to submit documentation of his weapons programs.  He submitted documentation that was laughable, that thumbed its nose at the international community and the world.  The president of the United States had a decision to make.  Should he trust a madman and a tyrant, the most dangerous man in the most dangerous region of the world, or should he act to protect the security of the United States? 

If you listened to the debate tonight, the president laid out his strategy for victory.  It was very clear.  Train Iraqi forces to defend their own country.  Have elections in January of next year, and those elections will take place.  And have U.S. forces there.

JANSING:  Some of the Iraqi forces that come are being attacked by the insurgents.  There are a lot of people who question whether or not it will be secure enough to hold elections in January, including members of the administration.  Is this a plan that is workable? 

(CROSSTALK)

REED:  Absolutely.

As Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said when he was here last week, we can hold elections in Iraq today in 15 out of 18 provinces.  And come January, we will have 30,000 polling locations across Iraq with 130,000 poll workers.  Now, while that is the president‘s policy, what did John Kerry said his strategy was tonight? 

He was, in fact, pressed by Jim Lehrer, what would you do differently than George W. Bush?  He only gave one answer.  He said, I am going to hold a summit. 

JANSING:  He said he has a four-point plan that he has laid out, that he has given specifics. 

REED:  The specifics that he has given are everything that we are doing now.  He said he is going to train Iraqi forces.  We are already doing it.  He said we‘re going to hold elections.  We are already doing it.  He has called into question whether or not they could have elections, so he has flip-flopped on that. 

Here‘s the problem.  The threshold question for John Kerry tonight was to resolve the internal contradictions of his own position on Iraq, for the war, then against it, for the $87 billion, but saying he was for it before he voted against it.  He didn‘t resolve those contradictions. 

JANSING:  Ralph Reed, who is chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in the Southeast, thanks very much.  Appreciate it. 

REED:  Thank you. 

JANSING:  Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you, Chris Jansing and thank you, Ralph Reed, once again.

NBC‘s Brian Williams now joins us to take a look at the accuracy of some of the candidates‘ lines tonight. 

Brian, you got a big job. 

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR:  Well, Chris, we watched the proceedings tonight here in Coral Gables in a relatively quiet room with some of the best and the brightest at NBC News.  We call them the truth squad.  They are the producers, very young, many of them, who are in charge of just following these issues.

And with their brains and the best resources, here is some of what we came up with.  One prominent fact from this evening, Chris, it‘s one Senator Kerry has used before, his claim about the cost of the war in Iraq so far. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Two hundred billion dollars, $200 billion that could have been used for health care, for schools, for construction, for prescription drugs for seniors, and it‘s in Iraq. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  Now, how does Senator Kerry arrive at that figure of $200 billion, since about $120 billion has been spent on the Iraq war and reconstruction so far?

The Congressional Budget Office put the total cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom at $93.7 billion, but that doesn‘t include the cost of security and reconstruction.  When you add in those costs to the total, it comes to $119 billion.  But Kerry adds another figure to get closer to his 200.  Here‘s where he takes some liberty.  The $25 billion emergency appropriation that Congress granted the president, that was back in August.  The caveat there is, that included money for Afghanistan and not all of it has been spent as of yet.

Another area of disagreement where facts are concerned concern the number of Iraqis who are trained to fight and ready to defend their own country.  On that score, here is what the president said tonight. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The best way for Iraq to be safe and secure is for Iraqi citizens to be trained, to do the job, and that‘s what we are doing.  We have got 100,000 trained now, 125,000 by the end of the year, over 200,000 by the end of next year.  That is the best way. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  So note those numbers. 

And now here is what the Iraqi interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, said in front of a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Congress just last week—quote—“The Iraqi government now commands almost 50,000 armed and combat- ready Iraqis.  By January, it will be some 145,000 and, by the end of next year, some 250,000 Iraqis”—so an obvious difference in numbers there. 

You also heard the discussion perhaps of the Iran sanctions, the president saying those were in place before I reached the White House.  We looked it up tonight.  In fact, he is right.  Those came in, the first phase, under the Clinton years, renewed under the Bush years.  This will go on for some time, after all the talk is done here in Coral Gables, doing our part tonight to look for the prominent disagreements—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Brian Williams. 

Joe Lockhart is a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign, and MSNBC contributor Ben Ginsberg was a top lawyer in the Bush-Cheney election campaign until August.  They both join us now from the so-called spin room.

Joe Lockhart, your assessment of your candidate‘s performance tonight? 

JOE LOCKHART, KERRY CAMPAIGN ADVISER:  Very, very strong performance. 

I think he demonstrated an experience, a strength of character, judgment.  He basically did what most challengers have to do to become president, show the American people that, standing next to the incumbent president, that he could be president.  He could be commander in chief.  He got that done tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  I want to get one thing straight, if I can, from you, Joe.  Is the Kerry position we went to war with Iraq the wrong way at the wrong time, or is it the Kerry position we should not have gone to war with Iraq? 

LOCKHART:  I think it‘s the Kerry position that knowing what we know now, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that there was no imminent threat, that there were no connections with al Qaeda, the group that actually did attack us on September 11, then we shouldn‘t have gone to war under those circumstances.  Very simple. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me go to Mark—let me go to Ben right now. 

The president took a number of tough shots tonight.  I want to get to them in a minute.  But why do you, Ben, as a political strategist, believe the president chose to play defense tonight? 

BEN GINSBERG, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR:  Well, I am not sure he chose to play defense. 

I mean, I think Joe‘s answer really basically demonstrates why John Kerry still has a gap that he couldn‘t answer.  There is not a straight answer to what he would do on Iraq.  So the president, what he did, I think, was lay out the vision for where he would take the country in the next four years, gave a solid explanation of why he has done what he did in the past and why he is the person who can continue to lead this nation forcefully. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did the president not respond to the charge that Halliburton, the large American corporation recently run by Dick Cheney, has benefited unfairly from this war? 

GINSBERG:  Because it‘s a charge that‘s not relevant to this debate.  What Dick Cheney did when he was an executive has nothing to do with the role of the vice president or what the country needs to do to move forward in the future.  It wasn‘t relevant. 

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t the president—Ben, why didn‘t the president say that? 

GINSBERG:  Well, he had his own way of answering it.  And the point was, he got out his positive message for where he wants to lead this country, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Joe Lockhart, a few minutes before you came on tonight, Mike McCurry came on from your campaign, and he said one of the themes that‘s coming out of this campaign debate tonight is that the president chose to protect the tax cuts of the wealthy, at the expense of homeland security.  Do you really believe it‘s a smart thing to step on your success tonight, many of you are claiming, by going into the tax issue? 

LOCKHART:  Well, listen, we are going straight to the economy and domestic issues over the next few weeks, and the president gave us a huge opening. 

I think John Kerry laid out a very specific way that we can do better on protecting the homeland.  He did say it would cost money.  He did say that the way to pay for it is to roll back the tax cut to the wealthiest 2 percent of America.  And the president responded by saying, well, how are you going to pay for all that?  We can‘t afford it. 

It‘s an odd juxtaposition to listen to a strong defense of our homeland with, we don‘t think we can afford it.  I don‘t think that‘s a very sustainable position. 

MATTHEWS:  Is there enough money in that top 2 percent to pay for an adequate homeland security, as you estimate it?  Can you protect the ports?  Can you protect the cargo getting on our airplanes?  The whole agenda of homeland support that John Kerry mentioned tonight, can that be financed by revoking tax cut at the top 2 percent?  Have you done the math? 

LOCKHART:  We have done the math.  We think we can do that and we can do more.  That‘s enormous amount of money.  We are talking about $1 trillion when you look out over 10 years. 

So, listen, we can do this.  And the president tonight indicated that if pushed—if he was forced to make a choice, the tax cut was more important. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you agree with that, Ben?  Is that a smart political and a proper political tradeoff? 

(CROSSTALK)

GINSBERG:  Well, I think we are seeing the return of fuzzy math. 

The truth is, the president did put forward how he would lead this country as we go forward into the future.  And there is a way to do both the tax cut and to beef up the homeland security the way that we need to and the way he has already starting doing it, Chris. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But the way to do it is to raise the deficits, isn‘t it? 

Isn‘t that the solution, higher deficits? 

(CROSSTALK)

LOCKHART:  Well, it‘s higher deficits, and the president still hasn‘t put aside a nickel to do anything on our subways, on our bridges, on our tunnels. 

We had a proposal last year to double the number of container ships, containers that were checked, and it was going to be paid for by a slight rollback, $5,000 off the tax cut for the wealthiest Americans.  The president said no way.  He would veto it. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Ben, did the president do a great job tonight? 

GINSBERG:  He did.  He did, I think, a superb job of moving forward.  The great job is what the spin doctors, like Dr. Lockhart next to me, will try and convince you of.

But the fact of the matter is, the president did an excellent job, and John Kerry did not meet the test that he had to meet to be able to move this race at all. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, who was better tonight, the spin doctors for Kerry or Kerry? 

GINSBERG:  The spin doctors. 

Congratulations, Joe. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I guess that‘s a contribution to you, Joe. 

Well, let me ask you, Joe Lockhart, do you believe that John Kerry had a great night tonight? 

LOCKHART:  I think he did. 

Listen, Chris, you know, from presidential politics, the challenger also has to reach some intangible threshold.  And that is, does the public see him sitting in the Oval Office making the decisions of a commander in chief?  I think John Kerry did that tonight, and it‘s going to have an enormous impact on this race. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it fair enough for us to judge the success of John Kerry and the president by how the polls change in the next three days?  If John Kerry does not get a bump out of this, does that mean you are wrong in saying he won? 

LOCKHART:  I think, listen, the only poll that matters is the one on November 2.  This has been a structurally head-to-head tie race for many months now, but we think this was an important milestone in the race for John Kerry. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you, gentlemen.  Thank you, Ben.  Thank you, Joe Lockhart. 

Let‘s go back to our panel. 

Is that a fair question, Andrea, the polls?  I don‘t want to hear other assessments, because I am going to be objective on this damn thing.  And everybody likes to argue on both sides.  An objective assessment is that most polls are above 5 percent right now in terms of the campaign, and the president is winning.  He is winning on a lot of other accounts, internally, who will handle terrorism better, Iraq between.

But that number, it‘s actually higher than 5 percent.  If that closes now to zero or down to 2 percent, does that mean Kerry won tonight, and if it doesn‘t, does that mean he didn‘t win? 

MITCHELL:  I think it‘s a fair test.  Assuming that a lot of people watched, that there was a big audience, so that you have the ability to move that, there would be a fair test.

I have been struck in the last couple of weeks, particularly this week, by how down the Democrats around John Kerry have been.  I have never seen a campaign...

MATTHEWS:  They‘re moping around. 

MITCHELL:  ... this early where people close in to John Kerry, not the original people with him, but some of the people who have come in, have been less than enthusiastic about his chances and less than enthusiastic about his ability to deliver.  He delivered. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean they‘ve looked like Ralph Reed tonight. 

(CROSSTALK)

MEACHAM:  Buyer‘s remorse.

MITCHELL:  But he delivered tonight I think better than his team, the people around him. 

And I thought one of the cleverest things he did—and it remains to be seen whether the American people believe he has met that commander in chief test.  I agree with Tim, frankly, and Tom, that he began to narrow that gap, and that‘s the important gap.  But he did something that was awfully smart when he talked about, again, the whole question of certainty can be wrong.  He said, certainty on the science of stem cells can be wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did he do that? 

MITCHELL:  That polled as one of the big hot-button issues. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Has he been saving that

(CROSSTALK)

RON REAGAN, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR:  Thank you for bringing that up. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, has he been holding that as his ace in the hole? 

MITCHELL:  This was a foreign policy debate.  He managed to sneak it in.  And I thought, you know, props to him for that. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... surprised that he has raised an issue which obviously benefits him means he‘s got a problem already.  Why did it take him so long to pull that rabbit out? 

MITCHELL:  Well, he should have done it long before. 

RON REAGAN:  Your question is very fair.  I mean, there‘s no substitute for victory, and victory means you are winning in the polls.

MATTHEWS:  The numbers have to go up. 

RON REAGAN:  The numbers have to go up.

MATTHEWS:  Is there any way they can claim tonight, Joe, that they won tonight, the Kerry people, if the numbers don‘t bounce? 

SCARBOROUGH:  The only number that—well, the main number they need to look at, because, again, I don‘t...

MATTHEWS:  Matchup. 

SCARBOROUGH:  ... think these national polls make a great difference. 

It‘s a state-by-state poll. 

MATTHEWS:  The Ohio number. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  But the Ohio number, the Pennsylvania number.

But, again, the key number inside these polls.  Who do you trust more to win the war on terror?  It was 65-35.  If that narrows significantly, then it‘s a big win for John Kerry.  If it doesn‘t, he is in big trouble. 

MEACHAM:  It‘s very interesting that the spin we are hearing now is about subways and container ships. 

Kerry has done a very deft job here of suddenly becoming Mr. Homeland Security.  And Bush is really running almost a meta-campaign.  It‘s, I am a leader.  It doesn‘t really matter where I am taking you, but I am a leader, and so we are going to go there.  And that‘s going to be a very interesting thing.  I think this race has been tight anyway.  But...

(LAUGHTER)

MEACHAM:  No, it‘s true. 

(CROSSTALK)

MEACHAM:  And this debates is going to do that.

SCARBOROUGH:  Subways and ports, they don‘t have a lot of those in, like, Missouri.  They don‘t have a lot of those in Ohio. 

(CROSSTALK)

RON REAGAN:  They understand bombs coming in, in cargo containers. 

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  You know what the union members hear when they hear that? 

SCARBOROUGH:  What?  

MATTHEWS:  Jobs.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You know what the mayors hear?  Money. 

(CROSSTALK)

MITCHELL:  Pork.

MATTHEWS:  So he is talking turkey to people on the ground with those words. 

MITCHELL:  And you know what the moms hear?  The moms hear that my kids are going to come home from school and not be blown up. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I may not be in Iraq, but I‘m going to be in Philadelphia

at the port.  And that may

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go right now—I‘m going to cut again once again to Chris Jansing.  She‘s in—I‘m going to call it the so-called spin room, because I don‘t think it has much value tonight. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  She‘s with Karen Hughes of the Bush-Cheney campaign. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I don‘t think it does either.

MATTHEWS:  There‘s Karen.  Look at her, getting a swig before she talks.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Hi, Karen.

KAREN HUGHES, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN ADVISER:  They haven‘t given me any water.  And they keep making me talk. 

JANSING:  We finally at MSNBC gave you something to drink. 

(LAUGHTER)

HUGHES:  Exactly. 

JANSING:  Nonalcoholic, guys.

HUGHES:  That‘s right. 

JANSING:  Did George Bush do what he needed to do tonight? 

HUGHES:  Absolutely. 

I think the American people were able to see his heart and his strength.  They were able to see in a very personal way what it‘s like to make these hard decisions of sending young men and women to fight in a war. 

JANSING:  They have also said they want to see that he can make adjustments, that he is willing to admit when there are problems. 

HUGHES:  And he talked about that tonight.  He talked about how our military commanders on the ground have flexibility to change the battle plan, to be able to do the most effective things to wage and win the war. 

He talked about that.  But what you can‘t have flexibility on is your core convictions.  You can‘t one day vote for the war and the next day, next, months later, vote against funding the war.  You can‘t one day say it‘s the right decision to remove Saddam Hussein and then suddenly decide it‘s the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Even tonight, Senator Kerry further contradicted himself.  In one sentence, he said it was a mistake to go into Iraq.  And then he said, no, it really wasn‘t a mistake.  Which is it?  He can‘t have it both ways. 

JANSING:  He says that he thought it was right to go after Saddam Hussein if we had an alliance in place.  And he said the president...

HUGHES:  And we did have an alliance in place.  

JANSING:  ... has left our alliances in tatters.

HUGHES:  Well, it‘s interesting, because we did have an alliance in place. 

We have 30 allies in Iraq.  And he continues to denigrate the contributions of those allies, yet on the other side of his mouth says that he is going to work with allies in Iraq.  Now, how is he going to do that when he criticizes the ones we already have with us? 

JANSING:  Now, both men seemed to have something a little bit to say nice about each other, certainly complimented each other‘s families.  What would you say John Kerry did tonight that helped his case? 

HUGHES:  Well, he listed long list of complaints about the president.

At one point, I thought that he was going to say the sun went down tonight and it was George Bush‘s fault. 

(LAUGHTER)

JANSING:  You didn‘t think he looked more presidential?  Did he make his case that he was someone who could be in the Oval Office? 

HUGHES:  I think he looked like a prosecutor who trying to prosecute a case, who was trying to assign blame for a lot of the things that he has been involved with on to the president. 

He has been in the Senate for 20 years. He talked about proliferation.  I don‘t see the result of his 20 years of work in the Senate on the proliferation.  I think the president was able to effectively talk about the results of his policies, three-quarters of al Qaeda‘s leadership brought to justice, making progress in the fight against proliferation of nuclear materials, making progress in the war on terror, and making progress on both Iraq and Afghanistan. 

JANSING:  You know George Bush just about as well as anybody.  You are close.  You have worked with him for a very long time.  What‘s going to be the difference in the final 32 days of this campaign? 

HUGHES:  That President Bush has the strength to wage and win the war against terror.  He has got the strength of conviction.  He knows we are doing the right thing. 

He is the leader who will keep all of our families safe and who will win this war and prevail.  Senator Kerry, how is he going to win a war that he doesn‘t believe in?  How is he going to bring allies to our side when he calls it a diversion?  How is he going to ask our troops to fight for the wrong war in the wrong place in the wrong time?  And I think as the American people begin to think about that, they are going to reelect President Bush. 

JANSING:  Karen Hughes, appreciate the time.  Thanks very much. 

HUGHES:  Thank you. 

JANSING:  Chris, we will send it back to you. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Karen Hughes.  And thank you, Chris Jansing.

You know, she is a wonderful spokesperson for this administration.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  She is.         

MATTHEWS:  Karen Hughes is a regular American lady who cares about her kids and her husband, who wanted to go back to Texas.  So she went home with him.

MITCHELL:  She‘s written a great book about that, in fact.

MATTHEWS:  And I also—there was an ebullience there and a happiness there that wasn‘t there on the stage tonight. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, and I was just thinking that.  That‘s the message George W. Bush should have carried over. 

It also got me thinking about something else.  What the Bush camp is probably going to do and it‘s certainly what I would do—I‘ve been giving all this advice for John Kerry.  Now it‘s for George W. Bush.  Find the part of the debate where John Kerry was inconsistent, because he was very inconsistent on allies, on the war, on all these things that George W. Bush brought up. 

And they are going to start hammering it into the commercials.  And they will probably start tomorrow morning, and they will run these 30-second ads that will take clips from this debate.  And if they are smart, they are will hammer it over the next three, four, five, six days, and they will start trying to give the impression that John Kerry was a flip-flopper again in the debate, that George W. Bush really wasn‘t as bad as he seemed to be, and that John Kerry wasn‘t—that‘s what they need to do, and they need to make Americans forget what happened tonight before the next debate. 

(CROSSTALK)

RON REAGAN:  That‘s what they‘ve been doing on

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  And it‘s worked very well. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I think Tim Russert said right before—in the hour before the debate, he said the one way you could win tonight, win, like we are talking Kerry won, if you want to get into that.  I haven‘t said it yet.  But if you want to do it, fine. 

MEACHAM:  I haven‘t said it.

MATTHEWS:  But if it later becomes clear that there‘s a contradiction

·         you were clear.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  A contradiction between what was said tonight and his record, not just the internal inconsistency perhaps of tonight, but if you can put together a flip-flop ad, you are right. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, no, there certainly were. 

Here‘s a guy that talks about building alliances.  And yet he was interviewed in an Australia newspaper saying that by Australians supporting the war in Iraq, they are opening themselves up to terror.  Of course, he attacked the Iraqi prime minister on U.S. soil.  That‘s the sort of ad you can put together, and you can say, John Kerry says he is going to build alliance.  And then you show clip of him during the debate.  But look at what he said on Australia.  Look at what he said to the Iraqi prime minister. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  John Kerry was in Australia?  No, what did he say about Australia? 

SCARBOROUGH:  No, no.

What he said—he was interviewed by an Australian newspaper.  They asked him, do you believe—Krauthammer wrote about it earlier this week.  Do you believe that the Australians supporting this war in Iraq, America‘s position in Iraq, opens them up to terror.  And John Kerry said, yes. 

MITCHELL:  They can do an ad that takes things out of context. 

SCARBOROUGH:  No, no, no, no, that‘s not out of context.  It‘s in quotation marks.  John Kerry said... 

(CROSSTALK)

RON REAGAN:  Well, they are more open to terrorism.

SCARBOROUGH:  Because they are supporting United States in Iraq. 

MITCHELL:  Joe...

SCARBOROUGH:  OK.  Some would suggest that‘s not the best way to build an alliance. 

RON REAGAN:  Well, but it‘s true.

SCARBOROUGH:  So if you are going to stand up and say, I am the guy that can build alliances and you go after the one country that has supported us in more wars over the past century than anybody else and, if you support America, you are opening yourself up to more terror, that‘s not how you build alliance. 

(CROSSTALK)

MEACHAM:  I just don‘t think this election is going to turn on the Australia factor.  I just have a hard time believing that that is going to happen.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  You know what, though?  It‘s about building alliances.  How in the world do you say I can build alliances—how can you build alliances by saying, support us and your people die?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I thought—I may be as enthusiastic about Kerry‘s performance, but I thought Kerry was smart to keep going back to the fact that 90 percent of that casualties are American, because above all the arguments about numbers and who else is in there, the American people do know it‘s our war, largely, and you can‘t B.S. them into—convince it‘s some big coalition.  It‘s mainly an American exposure. 

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  And it‘s American sacrifice. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And for the president to keep denying that I think is against—runs against national perceptions. 

Let me just go right now—we are doing something interesting tonight.  It is interesting.  We want you to know what—we want you to know—everybody has got a computer out there and is online—what you think about tonight‘s debate.  You can cast your vote on our Web site at HARDBALL.MSNBC.com. 

More than 200 -- here‘s a number -- 270,000 people have already voted on this Hardblogger line tonight.  And so far, 70 percent say Kerry won.  The vote will be up all night. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MATTHEWS:  And keep in mind, this is not—let me say this for history—not a scientific poll.  It has a lot to do with passion, participation, and who gets online tonight. 

Anyway, it‘s like a lot about an election.  If you show up, your vote counts. 

I want to thank Joe Scarborough and Ron Reagan.  They have to get ready for “AFTER HOURS”—I love that”—coming at midnight Eastern, appropriately at midnight.  And it‘s going to be neat tonight.  By the way, it‘s 9:00 in California.  A lot of people are going to be watching tonight to try to understand this debate. 

And as you go on tonight, you have the privilege, Joe, of giving updates on the vote as it comes in from Hardblogger.

SCARBOROUGH:  That‘s exciting. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And that is going to be damned exciting. 

SCARBOROUGH:  That is going to be so exciting.  If you want to stay up until 2:00 a.m. with us, we will invite you on the show. 

MATTHEWS:  That is worth doing. 

And, anyway, get some apple pie and some milk and stay up night. 

I‘m joined right now by former presidential candidate Wesley Clark, who is supporting John Kerry‘s campaign. 

Wes Clark, General Clark, thank you for being in there. 

This debate tonight was all about Iraq.  It was all about whether we are winning or not, all about whether it was the right war for America.  How did you call it? 

WESLEY CLARK (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, I think John Kerry did a brilliant job tonight.  I think he really took the case to the American people. 

And I think the American people saw the difference between John Kerry, who is thoughtful, prepared, decisive in his conclusions, articulate, can explain, and lead, and a president, who despite all of his immersion in the detail, really hasn‘t talked through the issues and wasn‘t prepared to engage in the kind of interchange of ideas that would have been necessary. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that John Kerry‘s position on the war in Iraq is as crystal clear now as the president‘s? 

CLARK:  I lost him.  I lost him.  I lost him.  I have lost him.

That‘s too bad.  We lost the general.  We are going to try to come back to the general.  I really want to hear what General Wesley Clark has to say tonight. 

Andrea, do you think that‘s the case now, that both sides are clear? 

MITCHELL:  I think they are clearer, but I still think that John Kerry has a ways to go to properly define where he would take us.  What he has done is define where he wouldn‘t take us. 

And I think that was a big test.  But he hasn‘t quite closed that gap as to what he would do next that would be dramatically different, because the president is saying, he will build an alliance, a bigger alliance.  The one thing that Kerry does have an advantage now is just the facts on the ground.  You were talking about that a moment ago.  And the Republicans, frankly, were hoping that by this point in the fall, the situation on the ground would be a lot better. 

They were hoping the October surprise would be a movement towards election, towards democracy.  We have seen again today that there‘s not enough time left in the 32, 33 days left before Election Day for Iraq to stabilize, so they are not going to get the benefit of that.  They have to deal with the bad facts that they are dealt. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go back to General Wesley Clark. 

Sorry, General, for getting it lost there.

But what were you saying?  I‘m sorry.  We interrupted you. 

CLARK:  Well, what I was saying is, I think the American people saw the difference between a man who can be a great wartime commander in chief, John Kerry, and the man who made a historic strategic blunder, sending our country to war against Iraq.  And I think the differences are clear. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you hear from your fellow military people about the course of the war in Iraq?  I know that we have launched an advance on Samarra to try to relieve that.  Do you think there‘s going to be a lot of action between now, a lot of aggressive action on the ground between now and Election Day here, November 2? 

CLARK:  Certainly there will be, and it‘s necessary. 

But what the military guys at the bottom will tell you is they are doing everything they can, and that they are in fear, really, over there, and they know they are in real combat.  What the people at the higher levels will tell you is, they are doing everything they can.  They are as imaginative as possible, but that this probably is not enough to succeed, because, Chris, what you have got to have is real diplomacy in the region to persuade the Iranians and the Syrians and the Turks and the Kuwaitis that they want a stable, integral democratizing Iraq. 

The Bush administration has done the opposite.  What it‘s done is, it‘s set everybody in the Mideast on jitters that they are the next target as soon as we succeed in digesting Iraq.  And so we are actually serving to incentivize these countries to engage and interfere with us in Iraq.  We need diplomacy.  And our troops on the ground also need real political leadership from John Negroponte, who is there. 

Somebody has got to engage all of these Iraqi factions and persuade them they want to participate in the political process.  It‘s not enough just to kill people.  Troops are doing a great job.  They are doing everything the American people could ask and more.  It‘s the White House and the administration that‘s let down the troops in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Does the average service person out there, the enlisted men or the officers, the junior officers, do they appreciate having a very hotly contested debate over the war they are fighting? 

CLARK:  Well, some do.  Some don‘t.  Some get nervous about it, because when you are in a combat zone like that, you really are focused on the mission, and you are focused on the chain of command, and you really don‘t want to have to think—most of the troops there don‘t want to have to think about the bigger issues.

But they also know that they are fighting for democracy, and that‘s what this is about.  To suggest that because we are at war, we couldn‘t have a debate about it, couldn‘t have election, and yet you are in a war of indefinite duration is to surrender American democracy.  And that‘s, after all, what all these men and women signed up to defend. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you.  It‘s great having you.  Please come back again soon, General Wesley Clark. 

HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster joins us now with a look at the debate by the numbers—David.

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC ELECTION CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, that‘s right. 

Tonight, there were 17 questions asked during this debate.  Seven of them were on Iraq, four on homeland security, terror threats, al Qaeda, two on general foreign policy judgments and character, one on North Korea and Iran, one on Sudan, one on the priority on foreign policy, one on Vladimir Putin. 

But as we have talked about, Chris, leading into these debates, both candidates were prepared by given key words and phrases to go back to repeatedly.  So for example, here‘s President Bush.  Watch this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  A free Iraq will set a powerful example in the part of the world that is desperate for freedom.  A free Iraq will help secure Israel.  A free Iraq will enforce hopes and aspirations of reformers in places like Iran.  A free Iraq is essential for the security of this country. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Now, by the numbers, the president used the word free or freedom some 35 times tonight.  He used the word strong 12 times, hard work about seven or eight times.  He talked about the threat to the American people, protecting the American people in some fashion, 16 times.  He used the word progress five times.

And mixed message, Chris, the word that you picked up earlier tonight, we estimate he used it at least eight times. 

Now, John Kerry, he also had some key words and phrases.  Watch Senator Kerry. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY:  Now, he misled the American people in a speech when he said we will plan carefully.  They obviously didn‘t.  He misled the American people when he said we would go to war as a last resort.  We did not go as a last resort.  And most Americans know the difference. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Now, you heard John Kerry use the word mislead.  He used mislead, by our estimation, 11 times.  He used the word alliance or alliances 12 times. 

The biggest—the word most used most frequently tonight, Chris, was the word plan.  He talked about having plans or coming up with a plan 17 times.  He talked about America being safer five times and changing direction, changing course seven times. 

Chris, before the debate, we talked a lot about the ground rules, the

timing, whether or not the red light would interfere.  There was only one

moment tonight where the red light actually started flashing, signaling

that one candidates had gone over their time.  That was for President Bush,

and it only flashed twice CROSSFIRE

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s an amazing, amazing report.  I really appreciate that, David Shuster.

Let me go to our panel on this, because it‘s so rich with potential here. 

What it tells me is, these guys are briefed up to their eyeballs by their staff and their consultants. 

Joe, you have been in these debates.  These people are given like, you only got 50 words to use out there.  I‘m sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You have got to use everything over and over and over again or it won‘t... 

JOE TRIPPI, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR:  Yes, and go back to mislead, mislead, mislead, or—over and over, and sometimes, they overdo it. 

MATTHEWS:  If he says Israel, you better damn well say Israel, right?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  There‘s certain words that are mandatory. 

TRIPPI:  I will tell you what, though?  The Kerry campaign ought to carry one of those light boxes around with them from now on.  The senator, it seemed to make him actually get it down into short, type sound bites. 

MATTHEWS:  Mixed message did seem to be the fuzzy math of this time. 

And it‘s a good one. 

I still think—Andrea and I were talking—I still think it‘s a bullseye, right?  Is this a bullseye for Kerry right now, if you are a Republican, hit him on mixed message over and over and over again? 

(CROSSTALK)

MEACHAM:  Well, that‘s because the president—that‘s the one thing the president can keep saying and keep saying no matter what happens on the ground in Iraq, because he is saying, I am going to lead us through this, whatever it may be. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Is there anybody in this planet, on this planet, besides John Kerry, who doesn‘t think he has given us a mixed message on Iraq? 

MEACHAM:  Mrs. Kerry, probably.

MATTHEWS:  No, I don‘t think—she

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... when he gets home at night.  John, where do you stand on Iraq? 

Anyway, we are here at the University of Miami right now, as you can see all these great students around us right now.  And they‘re out there.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MATTHEWS:  Look at them all out there. 

And when we come back, we are going to check in with NBC‘s Ron Allen and his group of undecided voters.  They are still out there in Ohio. 

(CROSSTALK)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MATTHEWS:  HARDBALL‘s coverage of the first presidential debate live from the University of Miami continues on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL‘s very live coverage of the presidential debate tonight. 

NBC‘s Ron Allen joins us now.  He‘s with group of undecided voters in Stark County, Ohio.  Stark County has voted for every winning presidential candidate in nine of the last 10 elections. 

Ron, what do they think this year? 

RON ALLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  This year, they are undecided, Chris. 

We are here on the Massillon Public Library, a little bit more sedate than where you are. 

Jennifer Bowers (ph), a first-time voter, who is still undecided, remarkably, did the debate help you make up your mind? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I am leaning a little bit more towards Kerry, but I‘m not ready to make a decision just yet. 

ALLEN:  Just about everybody seemed to be leaning more towards Kerry tonight.  Is that fair?  Who thinks Bush had a better night than Kerry?  Who thinks Kerry had a better night than Bush? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes. 

ALLEN:  All of you. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Oh, yes.

ALLEN:  Phil Elim (ph), a small business owner, you voted for President Bush last time around. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, I did. 

ALLEN:  What are your—what are your just doubts this time? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t have any doubts with George Bush.  He just hasn‘t done what I thought he could do with the economy in this local area here.  John Kerry, I am confident that he can lead the country in homeland security and also foreign policy. 

ALLEN:  Julie (ph), you are a security mom, as we say this time around.  You voted for Al Gore last time around, right?  What do you think about the debate this time? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I think that John Kerry had control over the debate the whole time.  I think that President Bush looked squeamish.  I think he was uncomfortable with the questions. 

ALLEN:  Did that surprise you for an incumbent president? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It did.  It did.  I thought that President Bush was just going to absolutely take control of the debate, and I was so shocked. 

ALLEN:  Mary Dunlop (ph), you are a retired educator.  Was the debate a good give-and-take?  Was it spontaneous enough?  Did you really get a good feel for who these men are? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I really like Kerry‘s approach to foreign matters, the first time I have heard him in a debate.  And the things he said...

ALLEN:  But did you get a real feel for who they are this time? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  For Kerry, I did.  This is the first time I really felt as if I understood his platform and the plans that he had to move us forward. 

ALLEN:  Bob Phillips (ph), you are a Gulf War veteran.  Who had the better plan for Iraq? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It sounded like Kerry has a little bit better idea of trying to get everybody together, instead of trying to be the leader. 

ALLEN:  Is that the make-or-break issue for you? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  No, I think it‘s more than likely the jobs here in Ohio that are being lost. 

ALLEN:  That seems to be the issue for you too, Derek (ph).  You are a graduate student.  You are going to be looking for work soon. 

Is the debate on domestic issues more important than the foreign policy debate? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.  I feel like I need to feel good about what I am doing and how I feel about my job.  So...

ALLEN:  Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Before I can feel about anything else, I need to feel good about being able to provide for my family. 

ALLEN:  I think people would be surprised that you still can‘t make up your minds.  Why the indecision? 

Julie? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I think that being an undecided voter allows you to gather more information.  I think that a lot of people that are strictly compassionate about being a Democrat or a Republican went into this debate this evening more judgmental than we were.  We are way more open-minded because we still need to make a decision. 

ALLEN:  Jen (ph), are you still—you‘re genuinely still undecided. 

Why?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Yes, I am. 

I am surrounded by a lot of influences between work and school.  And as a first-time voter, I want to make sure that I have my arms around the issues and that I completely understand them before I go in and vote. 

ALLEN:  And you all are still undecided, remarkably. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes. 

ALLEN:  You must be 5 or 7 percent of the electorate.

But, Chris, it seems like it‘s a very strong night here for John Kerry, still a lot of undecided voters.  I think the domestic debate will be much more important here in Ohio, where so many jobs have been lost since President Bush took office.  That seems to be a much more important focus here than foreign policy for now—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, Ron Allen, who is out in Ohio. 

Well, that state has been right out nine out of 10 times, that county out there, Stark County. 

But I must say, Ron did a great job there.  It seems to me that there‘s definitely a swing going on tonight of some proportion.  I have noticed it in our blog site, which has some relevance, if it does correspond to other indicators.  Certainly, there was Ron Allen‘s report, and it was smart and spiffy.  And there‘s our own report here from our earlier panel.  I thought Ron Reagan was rather specific in his review. 

(LAUGHTER)

MITCHELL:  He can have an opinion.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You can‘t.  You can‘t. 

Ben, who won tonight? 

GINSBERG:  I think the president won. 

I thought he laid out the vision.  I thought John Kerry had a bar to cross.  He just never got there.  He was too inconsistent on too many positions.  He didn‘t grasp the leadership mantle that he had to.  I don‘t see anything there that flips the way the race is going around. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did Ralph Reed, who is usually so gung-ho, look so down tonight? 

GINSBERG:  Boy, first of all, I didn‘t see Ralph tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  Had you seen him, you would have seen that down                

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Because I know that guy has the altar boy look, but I‘ll tell you, he looked like he was a bad altar boy tonight. 

(LAUGHTER)

GINSBERG:  I‘ll tell you, it was interesting in the spin room tonight the desperation of the Democratic Kerry spinners.  The ferocity that they went out was striking in its almost quasi-desperation. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think Mike McCurry made a mistake by coming on this program right after the debate and saying, we are going to raise taxes of the rich people to pay for homeland security? 

GINSBERG:  Well, I would never say coming on this program was a mistake, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  No, but saying taxes.

GINSBERG:  But I think his message—I think his message of raising taxes was absolutely a mistake, but it shows that they were sort of so eager to spin this really hard that they got tied up in the rhetoric. 

MATTHEWS:  I sense the eerie presence of Fritz Mondale. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go right now to John McCain, Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican. 

Senator McCain.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  Hey, Chris.  How are you? 

MATTHEWS:  Give me your verdict, sir. 

MCCAIN:  How are you? 

MATTHEWS:  Can you offer us—as the chairman of the jury, can you give us a report on what happened tonight? 

MCCAIN:  Well, from my viewpoint, that it was a good debate. 

And I would have liked to have seen it perhaps broadened out into the war on drugs, some immigration issues, maybe some—particularly our hemisphere.  But it‘s obvious why Iraq would dominate this debate, because the young Americans are fighting and dying. 

I thought the president reinforced and reaffirmed his image with the American people of a man of strong convictions, of a firm inner core of beliefs and principles.  And I think that that was very helpful to him.  And I think John Kerry did not reconcile the contradictions of his positions on Iraq.  And I think they‘re—amongst—in the academic circles, there‘s going to be a lot of discussion about this advocacy of single-party talks with North Korea, something that in my memory no president has ever agreed to do. 

MATTHEWS:  Were you surprised at the president‘s preparation tonight?  He was prepared to meet all the points raised by the challenger, but it seemed to me he was waiting for the challenger to make the points.

MCCAIN:  No, I think the president was making his points. 

I think that he was—look, the great strength of this president isn‘t that he is a complicated individual.  The great strength of this president is that he has led the nation with moral clarity and strength and almost a single-mindedness in winning this war on terror, in his firm belief that victory in Afghanistan and Iraq will bring democracy and peace not only to those countries, but have a profound effect in the Middle East, and that that‘s why this is a noble cause. 

I thought his talking about the widow that he talked to who had a child, I was very moved by that. 

MATTHEWS:  Were you surprised that the president made almost an exclamatory response when Senator Kerry said, it was Osama bin Laden bin who attacked us on 9/11, not Saddam Hussein?  And after that, almost exasperated, the president said, I know it was Osama bin Laden who attacked us. 

Were you surprised at that reaction? 

MCCAIN:  Well, I think the president thought it was kind of an elementary statement, because we do know who it was that attacked. 

But as the president repeated over and over again, Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction.  And if he were still in power, he would be attempting to acquire them and eventually use them.  That‘s his history.  And that‘s the president‘s belief, and it is mine as well. 

MATTHEWS:  But two out of five Americans still believe that Iraq was involved directly to Saddam Hussein, was directly involved in the attack on us 9/11.  Why did the president throw away that card tonight, because it‘s reasonable to assume that those two in five people are supporting the president‘s position?  And certainly you would be for fighting a war with Iraq if you thought they attacked us 9/11.

Why is the president now, after all these months of leaving that won‘t murky, coming out and clearly saying, it was Osama bin Laden and not Saddam Hussein who attacked us? 

MCCAIN:  Well, I think that the president was trying to say that we

all know who it was that attacked on 9/11, but I think the president also

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Two out of five people don‘t know it. 

MCCAIN:  Yes, Chris, I don‘t think that the president has ever tried to deceive the American people on that. 

I think that people have made the connection because of the fact that Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction before and our belief that he would be acquiring them and using them.  And, as I have discussed with you many times on this program, there was—John Kerry and others are alleging that there was a status quo in Iraq.  My view—and I think it‘s substantiated by the facts—is, there was not a status quo in Iraq. 

There was a deteriorating situation in Iraq, in violations of the sanctions, in violation of U.N. mandates, a failure of him to comply.  Our allies were—so-called allies were falling off, and our planes were being shot at on a daily basis.  So that‘s sort of the crux of the issue as far as Iraq is concerned. 

Have we made—and I was very glad that the president repeated, this is tough.  This is hard.  This is very tough work we are in.  But I think he also talked about the vision of the future of the Middle East. 

MATTHEWS:  You said that well, Senator.  The president didn‘t say that. 

But let me ask you this.  Who won tonight? 

MCCAIN:  Oh, I think the president won, but I do think that Kerry did a good job.

But I also think it was a helpful exercise for the American people to hear their views.  And, frankly, when I saw there were 30 pages of debate rules, I was a little skeptical as to whether they would get that, and they got it. 

MATTHEWS:  You are so right. 

Thank you.  It‘s always great to have you, Senator John McCain of Arizona. 

I want to thank...

MCCAIN:  Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve got to do this—to thank the University of Miami, what a great institution, what a great school. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s worth every nickel, the tuition money you parents spent to send these great kids here. 

I also want to thank the NBC News team and MSNBC, who helped us tonight, all the people that put—all the crew that put together this amazing set tonight.  It‘s an amazing evening to come down and be at this. 

And, by the way, I want to thank the panel.

And I do think it was a great night for America.  I think it was a great debate, no cheap shots, serious business here, peace and war.  They took it seriously.  It was good for all of us. 

Anyway, next stop, Cleveland, the vice presidential debate. 

Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for THE HORSERACE, HARDBALL‘s roundup of all the week‘s electioneering.

And right now, stay tuned for “AFTER HOURS” with Ron Reagan and Joe Scarborough. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

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

END   

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