updated 10/29/2004 10:31:12 AM ET 2004-10-29T14:31:12

Guest: Stephen Kohn, Kenneth Blackwell, James Hoffa, Vaughn Ververs, Stephen Hayes, Frank Rich, Leonard Pitts

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  News late today that the FBI is investigating Vice President Cheney‘s former company, Halliburton.  And both campaigns barnstorm the battleground states.  President George Bush hits four rallies in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  And Bruce Springsteen stumps for John Kerry. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Five days left to the Election Day, and the FBI has opened an investigation into whether the Pentagon improperly awarded no-bid contracts to Halliburton, the company Vice President Cheney led before joining the White House.

Stephen Kohn is the attorney for Bunnatine Greenhouse, the Army Corps of Engineers chief contracting officer, who went public last weekend with allegations that her agency unfairly awarded a Halliburton subsidiary no-bid contracts in Iraq. 

Steve, thank you very much for joining us.  Tell us about the role your client plays in this whole matter. 

STEPHEN KOHN, BUNNATINE GREENHOUSE LAWYER:  Bunny Greenhouse is the highest ranking government, federal employee bureaucrat with final authority on contracts.  Or one of the highest ranking.  She‘s not political at all. 

MATTHEWS:  Now, what does she assert is being done wrongly here?  What was wrong about this contract that was led to Halliburton? 

KOHN:  Well, the allegations concerned the length of the contract, the fact that it was for five years.  It concerns the renewal of the contracts.  It concerns the integrity of the Army‘s contracting process. 

And let me tell you what was happening there.  Bunny‘s job was to make sure that small businesses and minority-owned businesses could compete for contracts.  When she would see problems in terms of the award of a contract, failure to follow regulations, things that may appear to be a bias or improprieties, it was her job to question it. 

She did that.  And she reported it on the contracting documents where she would raise her concerns.  She was ordered not to disclose that information on the contracting documents.  If she didn‘t put it on those contracting documents, as they went up the chain of command, no one would know about the problems. 

MATTHEWS:  Who gave her that order, Steve?  KOHN:  Pardon?

MATTHEWS:  Who gave her that order, Steve?  Who was it in the Defense Department?

KOHN:  Her supervisors—I don‘t want to mention names, but that was the supervision, said you are not to write on the contracting documents. 

MATTHEWS:  Was the person who gave her that order not to provide that information, which you believe relevant to the decision making by the Pentagon, was that person a political appointee? 

KOHN:  I can‘t answer that question. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, the defense of the administration with regard to Halliburton and these huge contracts that it gets led, is that the jobs are so big, they require such economies of scale, that it would be simply a process—it wouldn‘t serve any useful purpose to have a bidding procedure?  There‘s no other company as big as Halliburton that could actually compete with it.  What do you say to that?

KOHN:  Well, again, without responding on the merits, I will say that Bunny‘s job was to ensure that the regulations and rules were followed, and that there was fair competition.  And she made disclosures that they weren‘t being followed. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you believe the FBI...

KOHN:  And she was told not to document that. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you believe the FBI is acting on this allegation and beginning this investigation, right now, this week before the presidential election?  Why are they acting now?

KOHN:  I would certainly hope it is for the very reason why Bunny raised her concerns when she did.  It doesn‘t matter.  When you‘re a federal civil servant, you do your job.  If it‘s the day before the election or four years or three years before an election, that should not enter the equation at all.  You have a job to do, and you do it. 

MATTHEWS:  Speaking of that job to do, does the FBI office responsible for this investigation, were they operating—are they operating at this moment under the direction of the FBI director, Mr. Mueller?  Did they take this on their own? 

KOHN:  I have absolutely no idea.  Bunny Greenhouse, when she wrote to the secretary of the Army, asked for a full investigation to her allegations, and we welcome the involvement of the FBI.  We also think there should be a bipartisan congressional inquiry into this Army contracting and all the problems. 

It should be above board, open and aggressive.  And so we welcome this as a positive first step, but we don‘t think it should be something that is just done privately in a criminal investigation.  I think the American people have a right to know how their taxpayers‘ dollars are spent and how contracting has been done in critical places like the Balkans or Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you have any political interest in this matter? 

KOHN:  Absolutely not.  My—just so you know, when it was time to represent Linda Tripp, when her rights, as a Department of Defense employee were violated, when they went into her files illegally, we more than were glad and proud to represent her.  She was viewed as a partisan.  She was viewed as someone hurting a Democrat.  Did not matter.  Linda Tripp had a right...

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about...

KOHN:  And Bunny Greenhouse has rights. 

MATTHEWS:  ... does Bunny Greenhouse have any interest in the defeat of this president, President Bush? 

KOHN:  Absolutely not.  She is a federal civil servant.  She is not a political appointee.  Absolutely none. 

MATTHEWS:  Steve, you‘ve been familiar with this case for how many, how many weeks now?  When did you first come into this case as counsel to Bunny Greenhouse? 

KOHN:  A number of months ago. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘ve had time to think about it.  What is its public policy implications?  I mean, think big right now.  There is a lot of people watching right now and listening to your voice.  Explain to them why this is a significant matter for the country. 

KOHN:  It‘s a significant matter because you have a whistle-blower with the courage to step forward and give the American people information they need.  I hope that people put down their partisanship and say, thank you for giving us that information, and let everyone evaluate it how they will, investigate it how they will.  But whistle-blowers need protection. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Steve, you talked about renewal of contracts.  You talked about length of contracts.  The integrity of the Army Corps of Engineers contracting processing.  What does that mean to the average taxpayer? 

KOHN:  This is billions of dollars, but it is also, I think, an issue of ethics.  If you‘re a small business, you have the right to compete, and you have the right to know that in large contracts, that the Army or any other government agency is handing out, that your interests will be protected.  That was Bunny‘s—one of her main jobs. 

MATTHEWS:  Is she still employed, is she still the...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We have to go right now.  I‘m sorry, Steve. 

KOHN:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  Your client, Bunnatine Greenhouse, is she still the chief contracting officer of the Army Corps?

KOHN:  To the Army‘s credit, we asked that she not be removed during the pendency of this investigation.  And they‘ve agreed.  She still maintains that position, and we will do everything in our power to make sure that she does maintain that position, because if she is removed, the American people will never know the truth.  There will be a chilling effect.  No witness will come forward.  And the truth will never get out. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Stephen Kohn, who is counsel for the whistle-blower Bunnatine Greenhouse, who‘s chief contracting officer for the Army Corps of Engineers. 

We‘re going to come right back with HARDBALL. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Joining us now is Ohio‘s Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.  I do this for a living.  I‘m always trying to figure out who is going to win this election for president.  And I have focused like a laser beam on your state, Mr. Secretary, believing that John Kerry needs to carry Ohio just as the president needs to carry Florida.  Is that a fair assessment?  That Kerry can‘t win without Ohio? 

KENNETH BLACKWELL ®, OHIO SECRETARY OF STATE:  I think it is a fair assessment, Chris.  And I know it is an important assessment for the president‘s camp.  Because there hasn‘t been a Republican win or retain the White House without carrying Ohio.  Now, I would imagine that there are some scenarios that the Bush camp can put together with Iowa, Wisconsin, New Mexico, that would allow for a loss in Ohio.  But I would doubt that either camp is going to give up Ohio easily. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me give you the painful news and you can attack it.  You can dismiss it.  You can make war on it.  I‘ll keep bringing it back to your attention.  In September 2004, the unemployment rate in your state is 6 percent. 

BLACKWELL:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  In November 2001, it was 4.7 percent.  Why has it gone up? 

Why has the unemployment rate in Ohio grown? 

BLACKWELL:  Unfortunately, Chris, our tax rates are high.  Our state government spending is at a runaway pace.  And we are losing population and our tax climate is one that is anti-capital and you need capital for business formation and job formation.  And we lead the nation in the loss of 25 to 39-year-olds and they‘re leaving our state because they‘re chasing jobs, incomes and opportunities.  But I can tell you, I‘ve surveyed many households across our state.  And they‘re not sticking that on George W.  Bush.  They‘re looking at state government as being a major problem. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you‘ve got a Republican governor. 

BLACKWELL:  We have a Republican governor, a Republican-controlled legislature.  But part of the problem in Ohio is that we‘ve erased the line of distinction between the Republicans and Democrats on many fiscal issues.  And so that‘s a problem. 

MATTHEWS:  It sounds to me like despite your party allegiance, you‘re blaming the governor of your state rather than the president.  But the voters out there, all they see is Republican governor, Republican president.  And the latest numbers show it looks like there‘s a very good chance the Democrats can carry Ohio and perhaps win the presidency based on that.  What is your response? 

BLACKWELL:  My response is simple, Chris.  The president has the right formula.  He has cut taxes and that has stimulated economic growth and I think that we ought to do the same.  He has a winning prescription.  And so if this was, is coming down to just jobs, that might be problematic for the president and Republicans.  I think it is about national security.  I think it is about how we are prosecuting the war in Iraq or the war against terror. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think we went—what is the good reason right now for why we should have gone to war with Iraq?  What‘s the best reason for going to war with Iraq you can think of now? 

BLACKWELL:  Stability in the Middle East.  And that, one, that this was a resting nest for terrorists.  Terrorism, the ring runs on cooperation and resources.  And I don‘t that there‘s any doubt that there was contact.  That there was a resource feeding to the...

MATTHEWS:  Well, that doesn‘t sound like a strong reason to go to war, that there might have been contact.  Don‘t you have to have the WMD case and isn‘t that gone?  Isn‘t it clear now they don‘t have WMD?  And isn‘t that the reason we went there?  That‘s what the president told us.

BLACKWELL:  Chris, Chris, you know and I know because I was in the diplomatic service for three years.  I was in the Middle East.  And I know that Iraq was a force of instability.  Iraq was a force against human rights and the spread of democracy.  And so I think that with the potentiality for weapons of mass destruction, with the case that has been made by actual behavior on Saddam‘s part of actually using biological weapons, that the president was justified in going to war.  It would have been nice if the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction had materialized in weapons so that we could hold them up as trophies.  But there‘s no doubt that that capacity exists and it does not exist anymore.  And that‘s good. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you this.  What‘s the strongest case for President Bush‘s re-election in the state of Ohio?  The fact that he took to us war in Iraq or the fact that the economy is better than it was before? 

BLACKWELL:  I think it is the combination of both.  And it depends on where you are in Ohio.  You know Ohio almost as well as I do.  There are pockets of unemployment in Ohio where the economy will be the big deal.  There are other parts of Ohio where the economy is turning around and so the war against terrorism, the war in Iraq will be big issues.  And this basic notion that people, you know, want leadership that is clear-headed and firm and determined.  And I think the president has done a pretty good job in reflecting that.  And I think it is best seen in his ability to close the gap among women. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, we‘ll talk to you Tuesday night.  Right now the polling out there has Kerry up by a point.  But it is so close, too close to call.  Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us tonight.  We‘ll catch you election night.  Kenneth Blackwell, secretary of state of Ohio.

Up next, Teamsters‘ president James Hoffa on the importance of the labor vote for both campaigns.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Joining me now is Teamsters president James Hoffa.  Mr. Hoffa, thanks for joining us.  You know, I was talking the other day—I haven‘t seen a lot of union leader presence on television the last couple months.  What is that about? 

JAMES HOFFA, TEAMSTERS PRESIDENT:  I don‘t know.  They were all at the rally we had in Los Vegas.  We had a number of labor leaders there.  We had a big rally, 15,000 people.  You know, so it is important we get out and talk about the issues and talk about the middle class, talking about jobs, the United States, and talk about electing John Kerry president. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask but the Kerry issue.  Is he the kind of guy you can get your members revved up about? 

HOFFA:  Well, these guys are revved up for him right now.  They‘re getting ready to vote for him.  The overwhelming number of Teamsters here in Minneapolis, and I‘ve been all over that.  And I‘ve been over in 8 states in the last 8 days.  The sense is they‘re all voting for John Kerry, or the overwhelming number. 

MATTHEWS:  What will Kerry do that Bush hasn‘t for labor? 

HOFFA:  Well, he‘s going to fight for American jobs, No. 1.  He will make sure we stop exporting good jobs.  He‘s going to fight for the middle class. 

George Bush has forgotten the middle class.  He‘s not out fighting for us.  He‘s the one that‘s encouraging the exodus of good jobs out of America. 

Right now, I‘m at Supervalue.  We have got a 1,000 people working here, good paying jobs with healthcare and pension.  The kind of jobs we need in America.  John Kerry will fight for those job.  And on the other hand, George Bush wants to push those job out of the country, because he believes we‘ll make all that stuff go out.  And he has the guts to tell you that that is good for America. 

He has forgotten the middle class.  He has forgotten working people. 

And we‘ve got to turn this around.  John Kerry wins, I think.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about a fellow or woman who is making an average American income, say $30,000, $35,000 a year, maybe a little more or less,  they got a family, 2 or 3 kids.  They‘re thinking about taking a second overnight job working for $7 an hour, over night.  Going to work exhausted the next day.  That‘s the reality of a lot of people.  They‘re just working as hard and long as they can.  And if they get their hands on.  Tell me a year after Kerry is elected, how that will be different?  Or 2 years after he gets elected? 

HOFFA:  Well, No. 1, we‘re going to have a better economy, we‘re going to have more security, more job opportunities.  Maybe she can upgrade that job.  I know people like what you‘re talking about.  I know people like that in Iowa and Michigan that have their job, or have a job and are fighting to survive. 

What do you think the $2 gasoline is doing to her?  What do you want to think maybe her overtime is being taken away, because of George Bush taking overtime away from six million people?  The middle class is working harder and harder to get ahead.  And they‘re going backwards, because of the lack of healthcare, the lack of overtime and all the other attacks that we‘re having.  Right now, healthcare costs are going up by 15 percent.  Who can keep up with that?  And what if she has got co-pay? 

What I‘m talking about is, when we bring John Kerry in to the White House, and when he wins, he‘s going to have national healthcare.  He‘s going to be talking about protecting overtime.  He‘s going to be talking about all the things we need.  But most of all, we need new jobs in America.  Remember the era 10 years ago with Bill Clinton, when we had a booming economy.  We had people being hired.  That‘s important.

MATTHEWS:  What did you make of the president‘s campaign bringing in Arnold Schwarzenegger into their campaign in Ohio this week?  Do you think that‘s going to bring working guys, or working women into the Republican column? 

HOFFA:  Absolutely not.  I think Arnold Schwarzenegger is really a prop, and it really shows how desperate they are.  And I know they‘re going to lose Ohio.  They‘re going to carry, I believe, Minnesota very strongly.  There‘s a tremendous support up here in Minnesota for John Kerry. 

I don‘t think bringing a prop in is going to help a failed president who has been a disaster with regard to the economy, a disaster with regard to foreign policy.  I just don‘t see how you can sell 4 years of disaster in going backwards to the American people at this late date. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think a work in person is a traditional first on values?  Looks at things the way their parents did, their grandparent?  They want their kids to have the same values?  He‘s turned off on the issue of gay marriage, on issues like a guy for gun control, on abortion rights?  Do you think those help the Republicans against the working people‘s economic interests, perhaps? 

HOFFA:  Well, I think we all know those are wedge issues.  They‘re using those to try and cut into the solidarity of the middle class and working people.  They know that jobs are the most important thing.  Without a job, you don‘t have dignity in this country.  You cannot survive.  You can‘t take care of your family.  It is all about jobs.  Three issues, jobs, jobs, jobs. 

We have got to make sure we have opportunities in this country.  We keep good jobs here.  And we make sure that people invest in this country and make this country strong again. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  It‘s great having you on.  Thank you very much.  James Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union. 

Up next, a look at how the story about the missing explosives in Iraq grew over time.  And how it has played out big time in this campaign.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, Frank Rich of “The New York Times,” “The Hotline”‘s Vaughn Ververs and “The Weekly Standard”‘s Stephen Hayes on the FBI‘s investigation into Halliburton and the political battle over those missing explosives in Iraq. 

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

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The FBI has opened an investigation into whether the Pentagon improperly awarded no-bid contracts to Halliburton, the company that Vice President Cheney led before joining the White House. 

Frank Rich a “New York Times” columnist.  Stephen Hayes is a staff writer for “The Weekly Standard.”  And Vaughn Ververs is editor in chief for “The Hotline.”

Let me go to Vaughn first and then we‘re going to make the rounds here.

Who is winning this election? 

VAUGHN VERVERS, EDITOR, “THE HOTLINE”:  Right now, I think that Kerry has got the moment up going a little bit.  I think it has stalled over the last couple days.  I think the confusion over...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, which is it?  Is he stalled or does he have momentum?

VERVERS:  I think he is still on the edge of a little momentum, but it is stopping now.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Wait until he gets his hands on this little sugar plum from Halliburton. 

Let me go to Steve Hayes.

Who is winning this race right now?

STEPHEN HAYES, “THE WEEKLY STANDARD”:  I think Kerry had momentum for the first two days of this week.  And the Bush administration, the Bush campaign‘s strong response on the missing explosives story has stalled that momentum.  I think they‘re turning it around. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me go to Frank Rich.

Your sense of the campaign now in any words you choose to use. 

FRANK RICH, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  Well, I don‘t have a clue who is winning.  I‘m not sure anyone does. 

But this Halliburton story, I don‘t know how it could get much worse.  They did that commercial with all the wolves coming at us.  But it seems like the wolves are coming after them. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s talk about the wolves. 

The story just moved late this afternoon, this Thursday, which is a key—I always like to tell people that the Sunday paperer are put together largely on Thursday news.  And here we have it.  I want to ask you, Frank, about this and where this is going to fit in “The New York Times” on Friday through the weekend. 

The story is that the FBI is investigating whether the Pentagon improperly awarded no-bid contracts to Halliburton and they‘re seeking interviews on this subject.  Could something like this has begun without the approval of Robert Mueller, the head of the FBI?  And isn‘t he a political appointment of the president? 

RICH:  Of course it couldn‘t have begun without his approval.  So you have to wonder, is other information out there at news organizations—I don‘t know—that it is forcing them to get ahead of the train that‘s rushing at them?  And I guess there‘s a way to blame there on CBS and Dan Rather, but I don‘t think so. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me go to Steve.

I think a lot of politics—we‘ll talk about this news story and how it is being used now—is about trying to give people permission to vote the way they want them to vote, but they‘re being helicopter back.  A lot of people in this country, a large majority, believed in the war in Iraq, for example.  You can‘t win an election running against people who believed in the war, because most people did.  And they don‘t want to be told they were wrong. 

But what you do is you try to find that it was mismanaged or there‘s something hanky-panky going on.  And that way, they can say, yes, I‘m for the war.  I like the impulse to go after the bad guys, but I can‘t vote for those guys.  Now I can vote Democrat, which is what I wanted to do in the first place.  Is that what is going on here?

HAYES:  Yes, absolutely.  I think you‘re right. 

And I‘m surprised—had the Kerry campaign been as astute as you just were in that brief segment four months ago, I think they would be up right now.  They should have been talking about their allegations of mismanagement of this war throughout the summer.  But they weren‘t. 

They were talking about the war, because John Kerry has a very difficult time explaining why he did what he did, why he voted all these different ways, and why he warned about Saddam Hussein in 2000 -- I mean, in 1998 -- and he wasn‘t a threat in 2004. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But now we have a story that‘s classic in politics.  The classic question here is conflict of interest.  It is not guilt or innocence yet.  It is an investigation which puts a cloud over somebody, in this case, the vice president. 

According to the story that moved on Associated Press late this afternoon, about 4:30 Eastern time, was that the FBI is investigating whether Halliburton was improperly awarded a contract in a no-bid situation.  That‘s a classic old-time city hall question, not a big global question. 

VERVERS:  And it‘s focused around the most unpopular member of this administration, somebody who that has already been raised about in the past. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do we know he‘s the most unpopular of the two? 

VERVERS:  Oh, in the approval ratings, absolutely.  He‘s more unpopular than almost about in the administration.  John Ashcroft may be a close second. 

But Dick Cheney‘s unfavorable ratings, he‘s loved among the Republican base, but not among the swing voters and other parts of the electorate.  So it fits into that persona that we have of Cheney.  And you‘re right about Thursday nights.  I believe that it was about this time in 2000 that we got the DUI story on Bush dropped that played out through the weekend. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You mean the guy with the baseball hat up in Maine who just happened to discover some records from 20-some years ago that the guy was stopped for being a little bit tipsy. 

VERVERS:  This doesn‘t seem to have that kind of legs and power, but it certainly could have an impact.

MATTHEWS:  Well, it may have more relevance, though.

Frank Rich.

RICH:  Well, I think it has a lot of power.  I‘ll tell you why.

Whatever Kerry has done or not done as a candidate, and I certainly agree that he‘s not been the world‘s greatest candidate, Halliburton is a word that has been implanted in the American mind.  It has been a joke on late-night television for months.  It symbolizes privilege, conflict of interest, and it happens—and if Halliburton abused anything or is even accused of ripping us off, if you will, it fits into the Kerry closing message about protecting the middle class and not helping rich people. 

HAYES:  Yes, but, Chris, this is a stale charge.  It is given new relevance if the FBI is investigating it.  But this is a stale charge.  It‘s been investigated by media organizations.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  “It expands an earlier investigation into whether Halliburton overcharged taxpayers for fuel in Iraq and it elevates to a criminal matter the election-year question of whether the Bush administration showed favoritism to Vice President Cheney‘s former company.”  Now, this is the AP, usually pretty straight reporting. 

That does have a little bit of a spin to it, a little bit of an attitude.  But it is the kind of news that every small paper in America is going to have on the front page tomorrow.  AP is everywhere.

HAYES:  Look, I agree.  But in terms of its impact on the election, people have been hearing about Halliburton for three years now.  People have been making these charges ever since—basically since the vice president left the company. 

There hasn‘t been anything to it.  The FactCheck.org examination of it I think largely exonerated the vice president.  Nobody can show that there‘s a conflict of interest.

MATTHEWS:  There was one piece of paper that did cause concern. 

HAYES:  It was an anonymous e-mail, though.

MATTHEWS:  And I‘m with you.  I believe it‘s innocent until proven guilty, of course.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But there was a memo that showed that the Army Corps of Engineers had ran a contract issue past the vice president‘s office and they said we‘ve ran by the vice president‘s office. 

And the vice president and his office have said they‘ve never been involved in any of these contract decisions.  Well, then, why was it run by them? 

HAYES:  It was an e-mail of notification.  Nobody knows who sent it.  Nobody knows what the relevance of it is at all.  That hardly amounts to something upon which to base an FBI investigation on. 

(CROSSTALK)

RICH:  I think this is the wrong line of debate, if I may say so. 

The issue isn‘t whether Cheney is directly guilty or not of a conflict of interest.  Let‘s assume he is not.  What‘s salient here and what is harmful to this campaign is it implies cronyism.  Everyone knows he did work for Halliburton.  It is not the legality.  It‘s the fact that cronies are getting favors.  It brings up the whole sort of Enron miasma around this administration.  And it is not really about the crime.  It‘s about the image that these people helped their wealthy friends in all kinds of policy. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And let‘s be honest.  If we switched the deck around and it was a Democratic administration, there‘s no way in the world that Karl Rove or someone like him wouldn‘t be doing exactly what the Democrats will do later tonight and tomorrow, which is seize on an opportunity to show potential conflict of interest. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  This is old-time politics.

VERVERS:  Sure.

And we‘re in the part of the game now where the details, the facts of the matter don‘t really matter as much as the perception, what is on the front pages.  We‘ve only got a few news cycles left.

MATTHEWS:  I think it is one more permission slip for people who supported the war to now vote against the president for management questions, which is what the Democrat—I think Kerry‘s problem is he doesn‘t know whether to come out against war, question it, pooh-pooh it, agree to it, because he‘s been confused about his various constituency groups, who don‘t all agree on it. 

(CROSSTALK)

HAYES:  Those are the qualities you want in a leader.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Well, you asked any group whether they supported going to war in the first place and the room will be split anywhere in America.  It isn‘t simple.

Anyway, we‘ll be back with Frank Rich of “The New York Times,” Stephen Hayes of “The Weekly Standard,” and Vaughn Ververs of “The Hotline” when we come back.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, “The New York Times”‘ Frank Rich,  “The Weekly Standard”‘s Stephen Hayes and “The Hotline”‘s Vaughn Ververs on the Halliburton investigation in the battle for White House.

HARDBALL is back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Frank Rich of “The New York Times,” Stephen Hayes of “The Weekly Standard,” and Vaughn Ververs of “The Hotline.”

You know, last night we had Evan Thomas on, one of the editors of “Newsweek” magazine who admitted—not admitted.  He said that a lot of this explosives issues over this last week has been driven by the desire to sort of balance out the coverage of the war, which was so heavily supported in the early months by the media.  Everybody said this is a patriotic cause.  We have got to be for WMD.  We got to catch these guys, bring down Saddam Hussein, who is somewhere worse than Stalin.

Frank Rich, do you buy that, that this is an equalization effort here? 

RICH:  No.  No.

I do agree that Evan is right that the coverage was pretty unanalytical and somewhat naive going into the war.  We all were fairly naive about it.  But I think that the stories we‘re seeing now, including the munitions story, the weapon story in Iraq, they are just good stories, not good news. 

MATTHEWS:  But is it that big a deal in a war where you have zillions of tons of TNT involved to find 380 tons and become—and make that the most important question facing the voter, Frank? 

RICH:  It isn‘t. 

However, it‘s been made that way by the campaigns.  It has been politicized and it has become, I think, a metaphor for a lot of questions like this Halliburton story about management of the war.  So it has become something bigger because it points to a fault line on what the administration has done.  In and of itself, of course it is not...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You mean a metaphor like Zell Miller, who said that John Kerry is going to fight the war with spitballs?  And I said, what do you mean by spitballs?  He said that is a metaphor.  And I said, yes, a metaphor for what?  And then he said, what, you don‘t know what the word metaphor means?

No.  You say it‘s a metaphor for mismanagement.

What do you say, Vaughn?

VERVERS:  Well, we don‘t live in the days of duels anymore, but “The New York Times” did in fact—they did apologize for their coverage in Iraq.  They basically came out and said, look, we were too soft on the administration.  We didn‘t ask the hard enough questions.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... did, too, which I was so glad to see.

VERVERS:  And a lot of other journalists have voiced that as well.  So, yes, I think there absolutely is a feeling among mainstream media.  And the big newspapers, the big networks said, we were real excited to go to this war.  We were excited to cover it on the field.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s get off the ideology for question and get on to a bilateral look at ideology. 

From my reading of your magazine, which I read every week attentively

·         it is a very important magazine, “Weekly Standard”—a lot of the concern about the war management from the right, neoconservative, whatever -- I guess neoconservative is the right word here—was that it wasn‘t fought heavily enough.  There wasn‘t enough troops put it.  This is John McCain‘s argument.  It‘s other people‘s, probably Rudy Giuliani‘s argument, that the war wasn‘t fought like under the Powell method, which is superior force. 

HAYES:  Well, I think there‘s no question that, to go back to Frank‘s point, the broader issue of whether there were enough troops, people—my magazine, other places on the conservative side, have long said that we should have had more troops to go in.

And, in fact, this may be a symptom of it.  But may be a symptom of it is different than is a symptom of it.  We don‘t report in metaphors.  We report facts.  We tell people what happened.  And what “The New York Times” did, I think what CBS was teeing up, is reporting based on speculation.  This was not based on facts.  And now you have seen that the campaigns, I think CBS had an advisory that they sent to their radio stations today where they were taking a step back from their earlier claims. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But they‘re going ahead with this story next Sunday night, right? 

RICH:  We have not retracted a single fact in this story.  It is not speculation. 

You can argue whether politicians including John Kerry have pushed speculation beyond what “The New York Times” reported.  And we reported the story separately from CBS.  So I can‘t speak for CBS. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, where did you place—Frank, “The Times,” speaking for “The Times,” do you place culpability on the commander in chief back here, the field commanders out there, or simply the fact that the explosives material may well have been moved before our troops arrived in-country there? 

RICH:  I don‘t know.  But, as Donald Rumsfeld said, stuff happens. 

The fact is, this reminds everyone that there was a period of unstoppable looting throughout Iraq as we took over the country, everywhere except the Oil Ministry.  And this is hardly the only example of it.  Not all of them obviously involved weapons.

(CROSSTALK)

HAYES:  I agree with that. 

And I didn‘t mean to suggest that “The New York Times” had retracted parts of the story.  “The New York Times” hasn‘t told the entire story.  At 6:00 p.m. last night, ABC reported that the IAEA had both the numbers wrong on the original tonnage of this explosive material and that the IAEA suggested in an internal document had suggested that it would have been possible to remove the explosives without breaking the seal. 

Now, I had that in the middle of the night last night.  I had that in the middle of the evening last night, but it wasn‘t in my “New York Times” this morning.  Why not?

VERVERS:  Republicans get so upset...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll let Frank answer that.  I‘m sorry. 

Frank, why wasn‘t it?

RICH:  I can‘t explain why it did or didn‘t meet our deadline.  But we‘ve continued to have reporting on it today.  And we‘ll continue to have reporting on it.  And it is a moving story. 

Cheney has made some statements that have now been contradicted by the

U.N.

(CROSSTALK)

RICH:  We report the facts as we have them and verify them ourselves. 

We don‘t take other news organizations‘ facts and just repeat them.

MATTHEWS:  Human impact question for all three of you.  We went out to Walter Reed.  We saw the—everybody knows about it.  It is not just the 1,000 guys that have been killed over there, including some women, but it is horrible dismemberment of people, people losing two limbs at a time, brain damage.

Has any of this material, we‘re talking about this perhaps 380 tons of TNT or whatever it is, has any of this been used against us yet?  Do we know that for a fact? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you know, Frank?

RICH:  No, absolutely not, do not know. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, why, if it is a critical part of the argument here, the debate over competence, isn‘t it a reasonable question?  Has it been used against us?  And if not, where is it? 

(CROSSTALK)

RICH:  That‘s the question.  That‘s what people are trying to report. 

But we already now have the situation where Rudy Giuliani, as a surrogate for the president, went on morning television this morning and blamed it all on the troops. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, didn‘t Bill Gertz report today in “The Washington Times” it is all over in Syria? 

VERVERS:  He reported the Russians took it to Syria before the war in a big convoy.  And that‘s what the administration has been saying is possible, that it could have been all been removed.  Not even sure how much is there. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I have to ask the question to all of you before we go to break right now.  Is the war in Iraq being addressed indirectly now?  People don‘t want to ask yes-or-no questions.  They want to ask how questions and how not? 

(CROSSTALK)

HAYES:  Yes.  I think that‘s a fair assessment. 

(CROSSTALK)

VERVERS:  Yes, absolutely.  I think that the whole thing is a metaphor for what the mess of Iraq is. 

MATTHEWS:  But nobody wants it.  For some reason, we‘re afraid to look that right in the eye, aren‘t we Frank, yes or no, should we have gone.

RICH:  No. 

(CROSSTALK)

RICH:  And we are afraid to look at it. 

And that‘s the reason, too, why both candidates, Kerry and Bush, basically have the same very nebulous plan for what is going to happen after January 20, because no one wants to address this Mess-opotamia, as Jon Stewart calls it. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to take a sad song and make it better somehow. 

Anyway, thank you, Frank Rich.  Thank you, Stephen Hayes.  Thank you, Vaughn Ververs, for joining us.

Up next, “The Miami Herald”‘s Leonard Pitts on missing ballots in Florida.  Hmm, there we go again.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALTER MONDALE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I am confident that history will judge us honorably.  So, tonight, let us be determined to fight one.

GERALDINE FERRARO (D), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Campaigns, even if you lose them, do serve a purpose.  My candidacy has said the days of discrimination are numbered.  American women will never again be second-class citizens. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  “The Miami Herald” reports that 76,000 absentee ballots are being resent to voters in Broward County to replace those that somehow got lost in the mails, perhaps. 

Joining me is “Miami Herald” columnist Leonard Pitt Jr., who recently won the Pulitzer Price for commentary. 

So you‘re very good at commentary and explaining the big picture. 

LEONARD PITTS JR., COLUMNIST, “MIAMI HERALD”:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s wrong with the water in Florida? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Why are there 76,000 absentee ballot applications, or, actually, ballot forms—thank God they haven‘t been voted on yet—that have disappeared?

PITTS:  I‘ve seen the promo saying that Ohio is possibly the new Florida.  And I think Florida is, doggone it, no. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You want to hold on to that prize.

PITTS:  We‘re going to hold on to the title.  We‘re going to be new Florida this year. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that there‘s something down there?  Is there a failure—is there a lack of a tradition of public service, that people don‘t take government very seriously down there?  Or what is it?

PITTS:  I think it is becoming increasingly obvious that there‘s a failure of oversight. 

But I was talking to someone about this the other day.  And what I‘m beginning to wonder is if it hasn‘t always been this way, except we‘re just now noticing—and I‘m talking about elections going back through time immemorial—except that we‘re just now noticing it because this past election, and this one promises to be so incredibly close.  I think that is what it is.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

Is this a holdover from the old days before air conditioning when Florida was sort of a quiet little place down there?  It was too hot most of the year.  And now it has become this hot, important part of the country with 27 electoral votes and hasn‘t stepped up yet to the modern reality.

(CROSSTALK)

PITTS:  There could be some of that.  There‘s a certain provincialism in Florida that could be contributing to what you‘re talking about or what you‘re seeing. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the fact that we‘re going to all be talking about Florida next Tuesday night.  And I expect early in the evening we‘ll be talking a lot about it, the balkanization of the various communities.

You have got Puerto Ricans down there, Dominicans.  You‘ve African-Americans.  You‘ve got Cuban Americans.  You‘ve got Jewish voters down there.  You have got sort of the—what do you call, the snowbirds on the West Coast that live over there in the other part of the state.  And you have got the Panhandle. 

PITTS:  Right, which is—the joke about South Florida that we say is that South Florida is the only place in the continental United States where you have to drive north to get to the south.  The Panhandle is the south.  South Florida itself is a whole different bird, as you... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s talk about that.  Obviously, relations with Israel play a big role in the Jewish community.  And relations Castro, negative relations, will play a big role with the Cuban community. 

PITTS:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  I would expect it.  Well, tell me about it.  You tell me. 

How is the Florida thing split up? 

PITTS:  Well, as you just said, with the Cuban community, most or much of what they‘re going to make the decision on is predicated upon what this candidate, whether it‘s President Bush or Senator Kerry, promises to do with the boycott of Castro.

And with the Jewish community, obviously, you‘re dealing with how is this going to play in Israel?  Then you have got—you mentioned the African-American community, that the division is actually even finer than that.  You‘ve got an African-American community.  You‘ve got then the African Caribbean community, which have completely separate issues that they‘re all dealing with. 

The African Caribbean community obviously is concerned with what is our relationship and our stance going to be toward particularly Haiti? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

PITTS:  Which is I believe the poorest nation in the hemisphere, if I‘m not mistaken. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Is there going to be any difference if Kerry wins about our sort of looking other way with regard to the poverty and the hell in Haiti? 

PITTS:  That I don‘t know.  I don‘t know that I‘m qualified to tell

you that.  I don‘t know that—of all the things Kerry has talked about, I

don‘t think that I‘ve heard Kerry talk about that.  I doubt that it can be

·         put it like this.  I doubt that any less attention is going to be paid. 

MATTHEWS:  How much street anger is there toward the president for having won the election last year (sic) because of the Supreme Court intervention?  How much does the African-American community feel that they were robbed? 

PITTS:  Oh, I don‘t know that there are numbers high enough to measure that.  There is a great anger.  And what has been interesting to me is that the anger has not subsided. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It stayed at the boiling level for four years.

PITTS:  It stayed at the boiling level.

MATTHEWS:  How do you explain that?  Most people move on. 

PITTS:  Well, I think what you are looking at—you have got to understand that it is within living memory that we were—that African-Americans were disenfranchised openly. 

And I think what a lot of people are seeing, fairly or unfairly, rightly or wrongly, is an echo of that in the events in Florida a few years ago. 

MATTHEWS:  Give me the hard evidence of that. 

PITTS:  The hard evidence of?

MATTHEWS:  Of disenfranchisement? 

PITTS:  Are we talking about from 30 years ago? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  No.  I‘m not talking about Jim Crow.

PITTS:  Oh.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m talking about the election of 2000.  When you hear people say that there were roadblocks set up in different counties, you hear all kinds of stories. 

PITTS:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  What have you been able to determine is factual? 

PITTS:  You have got stories of people saying that they were turned away, that they were told they were not on the voter rolls when in fact they were or they should have been. 

You‘ve got polling places, I believe, which opened late.  You‘ve got all kinds of stuff.  You have got, more recently, not the 2000 election, but, more recently, you have this state investigation—quote, unquote—into supposed irregularities in which you have state officers showing up at the African-American homes armed, strapped, supposedly to ask these questions. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Bottom line, will this stir more voter turnout or depress morale? 

PITTS:  I think it is going to stir incredible voter turnout.  I think that records are going to be set Tuesday. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is going to win Florida? 

PITTS:  Kerry. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you, Leonard Pitts.  You write for “The Miami Herald.” 

PITTS:  “Miami Herald.”

MATTHEWS:  What a great newspaper.

PITTS:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much for joining us.

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

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

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