updated 1/31/2005 2:00:30 PM ET 2005-01-31T19:00:30

Guests: Bernard Trainor, Wayne Downing, James Woolsey, David Kay, Howard Fineman, Judith Miller, Stephen Hayes

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Millions of Iraqi citizens stood up to the terrorists and turned out to vote in their country‘s first free election in a half century.  Tonight, Iraq votes.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  And this is a special edition of HARDBALL.

Millions of Iraqis decided it was worth risking their lives to vote in Iraq‘s first democratic elections in 50 years.  Securing the elections took the full complement of U.S. troops in Iraq, 150,000 men, along with Iraqi police and National Guardsmen. 

After the borders were sealed, curfews imposed, and civilian traffic banned, insurgents who had declared war on the polls managed to pull off nine suicide bombings, killing at least 35 people.  Polls were largely deserted in Sunni cities, but Iraqi officials said overall turnout appear higher than anticipated.  And President Bush hailed Iraq‘s elections as a resounding success. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Today the people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We begin tonight with HARDBALL‘s own David Shuster in Baghdad. 

David, tell us what happened today as you saw it. 

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, the security has been tight all day.  In fact, right now you can still hear some of the helicopters getting ready for their patrols.  But the polls opened at 7:00 in the morning.  It was a very quiet first hour. 

About an hour into the polls, we started hearing the explosions in the distance, a series of thuds.  Then there was a mortar attack.  Then we started getting reports about suicide bombers in Baghdad.

But one of the other reports that we also got is that even though voter turnout was very, very light at the beginning, it started to pick up.  It was almost as if once Iraqis saw that most of the polls were relatively safe, that the suicide bombers were actually not getting into the polls—and none of them did—that voter turnout started to pick up. 

As you mentioned, in the Sunni areas it was very light or simply nonexistent.  In fact, in some of the Sunni areas, the only voters they had were the Iraqi security forces who are assigned to guard those polling sites. 

In the Shiite areas, a totally different story.  Long lines even in the city, Chris, of Najaf, where U.S. forces had very tense battles with Shiite religious extremists over the summertime.  Long lines in Najaf to vote.

So if that sense the election went off pretty well.  It was not as much violence as the insurgents had claimed they would be inflicting on this day or as U.S. forces had feared might be the case—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it your sense that there was a lot of spinning going on today with regard to turnout? 

SHUSTER:  Chris, there was in the sense that initially the Iraq Election Commission, which is part of the interim government, which has every reason to cook the books, inflate the numbers, they originally said 72 percent turnout.  Then they backtracked and said 60 percent.  Then they finally acknowledged, “We don‘t really know.”

One of the reasons that they don‘t know is many of the election monitors, the international monitors who were supposed to come to Iraq and go to all these polling sites, they didn‘t show up at a lot of these locations primarily because of the violence the last couple of days because of the threats.  And as a result, at this moment nobody is really certain, there‘s no independent reporting about what the turnout really was. 

There‘s some anecdotal evidence that it was pretty strong in the Shiite areas, very light in Sunni areas, but nobody really knows.  But we should find that out, Chris, in perhaps the next 24 hours because tonight the ballots have now been moved to these 19 tabulation centers around the country. 

They should have a hard count on the turnout perhaps within the next 24 hours, and then the actual vote counting will begin.  The ballots will be brought here to Baghdad.  They should have final results, the apportionment of the assembly, perhaps within the next 10 days—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Give us a reading if you can on the mood of American officials.  Were they happy with the results as hay saw them come in today? 

SHUSTER:  Chris, they were very happy with the sense that they believe that the security mission that U.S. forces undertook the last couple of days, this tight security, the curfews, the roads being blocked, U.S.  forces extending the perimeters, that that worked.  That that essentially cut off the ability of the insurgents to cause mass chaos and confusion. 

There were, as you mentioned, perhaps some 40 people who were killed.  But all of the suicide bombers, they set off their bombs outside of the polling sites.  There was only one car bomb.  That happened at a security checkpoint.

And the officials are confident that U.S. forces, at least over the last couple of days, they had a mission in place and they carried it out and they gave the Iraqi some people confidence.  And as we saw today, by the time the late afternoon rolled around, the last couple of hours at the polls, that was the heaviest.  And they believe that because of the strong security presence, that gave the Iraqis confidence to show up at many of these polling locations.

MATTHEWS:  We interviewed General Richard Kramlich (ph) over there in Baghdad early last week around—it was Tuesday.  And he was absolutely confident that he could protect the voters once they got into line. 

Do you know what the trick was?  Why were we able to protect the voters?  Apparently there were no explosion at any actual voting booth today.   

SHUSTER:  Chris, one of the things that they did, they had U.S.  security—you had U.S. forces essentially distanced from the polling sites, but at some of the key intersections, some of the key junctions and roads.  Then you had Iraqi security forces right up against the polling sites.

You almost had essentially a series of concentric circles.  In order for voters to get near the polling sites, they had to get—you had to get past U.S. security checkpoints, they had to walk.  Then when they got up closer, there was another series of pat-downs, another series of efforts to try to make sure that the Iraqis weren‘t carrying anything, that they didn‘t have explosive devices and whatnot. 

So a combination of U.S. security being very aggressive.  Also, you may finally be seeing now the training that these Iraqi security forces have been getting from U.S. forces as far as trying to figure out how do you find out if somebody is carrying a weapon, how do you try to stop them in case they have some sort of suicide vest. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, David Shuster. 

General Bernard Trainor is retired from the United States Marines.  We‘ll be joined by General Wayne Downing in Baghdad in a moment.  He commanded the Special Operations Taskforce during the firs Gulf War. 

General Trainor, let me ask you this, how is—what is your assessment as a military man, as a Marine, as to the relative success so far in the reports of this election process? 

GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (RET.), U.S. MARINES:  I think we should reasonably encouraged, Chris, if the official reports are, in fact, true.  And there‘s no reason why they should be doubted. 

I think it‘s no surprise that the Sunnis didn‘t turn out.  Even if they wanted to, they were risking their lives. 

It is encouraging that the—in the Shia and the Kurd area they turned out, and the numbers that are being cited.  But that is not a great surprise. 

But I think the real surprise is the effectiveness of the security that allowed people to go to the polls and to vote.  I think we all expected there was going to be a full court press on the part of the insurgents to cause trouble.  And I‘m sure that would have been the case if we didn‘t have a system that tended to shut them down and stop them. 

MATTHEWS:  General Downing, was it good defense on the part of U.S.  security and Iraqi security forces, or was there a failure of the opposition, the enemy of these elections to decide that this would be their big day? 

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING (RET.), U.S. ARMY:  Well, Chris, this security mission just didn‘t start today.  There‘s been very, very heavy operations for the last three weeks both day and night by the U.S., the coalition and the Iraqi security forces.  So, you know, this—this thing was done very well. 

It was a very good tactical battle.  They set the right kind of preparations.  They kept them away with these preparatory operations.  And then they had a damn good clamp on all the polling sites and the approaches to it today.  So it was a result of some very good planning and execution, I think, today, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you notice last Tuesday, five days ago, General Richard Kramlich (ph), who was over there commanding one of the operation there is in Iraq—in Baghdad, said that he was absolutely confident—those weren‘t his words, but certainly his message—that he could protect polling places?  What was the secret to that ability? 

DOWNING:  Well, it was pretty much what—what David Shuster just pointed out to you.  You had the outer ring with the Americans, you had another ring inside of that. 

And then I was watching the videos of the polling places, Chris, after they went through all these screens.  Then they did a physical pat-down with just one man.  I‘m talking about one security force man covered by another.  And, you know, some of the people that they lost were these guys who were patting down the suicide bombers with the vests on. 

I think there was only one vehicle bomb.  And they got that at a checkpoint before it ever got inside of the ring.  So it was just good tactical execution, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a hard estimate, but do the military men over there and women you‘ve talked to, do they say it was great defense, or that they are suspicious that, as in the case of many rebel forces or insurgent forces, they‘re going to pick their time?  Are the insurgents in the country waiting for some day, in a couple of days, when they‘ll kill everybody who has ink on their fingers from voting, or they‘ll start picking off the candidates who won?  Do we know what‘s coming? 

DOWNING:  Hey, Chris, this is absolutely a possibility.  You know, I think the forces over here, we ought to be very, very proud of what they have done.  They had a good day.  They had victory.  But this thing is not over. 

Al-Zarqawi and his jihadists, the other insurgent groups—and there is more of them, remember—they view this as a life and death struggle.  And, you know, this election going off was bad news to them.  They are going to come back, and they‘re going to come back at us hard. 

So we are not going to be able to relax.  We‘ve got a very, very tough campaign ahead of us.  This is one battle, one tactical success, and we ought to be very proud of it.  But we‘ve got a lot more to do, and this goes on.  This electoral process, Chris, remember, goes on for another about 12 months.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, General Trainor, does the United States Marines, do they as a core, do they as a corps, do they have experience in protecting individual political candidates who have won a transitional government post? 

TRAINOR:  Not—that‘s not part of the normal training, Chris.  But, once again, if that‘s part of the mission, they‘ll—they‘ll stand up to it. 

One of the reasons, I think, that they were able to control this thing today is that you were dealing with specific polling places.  And if you consider that as a bull‘s eye, we know what the range of the mortars are that they use, we know the range of the—the RPGs and all of their weapons. 

So you set up, as was described to you by David, these concentric circles that go outward, where you make sure that you are patrolled and you have snipers in place to cover the range of the weapons that they have.  And then you have active patrolling on the part of the Iraqi security forces for the—for any sort of suicide vehicle.  But with the prohibition of vehicles on the street, that made it pretty tough for the terrorists to cause any problems, because we had created a cordoned (UNINTELLIGIBLE) around each one of these voting places. 

MATTHEWS:  Can we do the same thing around the candidates who have won, create a cordoned (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and protect them in the next 12 months from assassination? 

TRAINOR:  Well, I think that‘s going to be a much tougher job. 

Obviously we‘re not out of the woods, and these people are going to react. 

There was no sense in them using all their energy against a target, the polling places, that were going to be difficult to get at.  But they will figure, all right, you won that round, but we conceded it to you.  And now we‘ll go back and we‘ll not only go after the candidates, but we‘ll go against anybody and any community that supported the free elections. 

So the danger is still there.  We just happen to have passed through the eye of the storm. 

MATTHEWS:  General Trainor, hold on for a second.  I want to go to General Downing.

You‘re in Baghdad.  I noticed today as we were watching throughout the day that as you vote, you had to put your—I think your index finger into some ink which is visible to eye.  Is that going to mark every voter in Iraq as a participant in this election process, which has been called the infidel election by its enemies, and subject them to possible harm? 

DOWNING:  It certainly is, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that that was in the thinking of the—of the voting organizers, that they would expose the voters to such an obvious sign of their participation? 

DOWNING:  Well, I think they must have thought about it.  Just like you, it‘s one of the first things that came to my mind.  You know, there‘s going to be no hiding the fact that you voted, but, you know, the people that came out and voted, they—they took a risk.  I mean, this is an incredible thing. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  I mean, it‘s going to be like...

DOWNING:  In fact, that they made that commitment. 

MATTHEWS:  ... it‘s going to be like Ash Wednesday.  General, it‘s going to be like Ash Wednesday.

DOWNING:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  You will know who the Catholics are.  I mean...

DOWNING:  Except Ash Wednesday—yes, it‘s like Ash Wednesday with an indelible laundry marker on your forehead that‘s not going to go away. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

DOWNING:  But sure.  But they have made this commitment. 

You know, Chris, this entire election is a tremendous—has tremendous psychological aspects.  Pulling this thing off, I mean, it‘s going to make the Iraqi people feel good, too. 

You know, this is a real commitment to them, to this process.  I think for the American forces here, they feel very good about what they have accomplished.  They know it‘s not over. 

And, you know, we as American people ought to feel good because it‘s a real statement to not only the Iraqis, but to the region and to the world that we‘re not here to occupy this country.  We‘re not here to keep this country. 

We‘re here to help it stand up and join its place as an able partner in the region and the world.  So I think it was a good operation. 

MATTHEWS:  Well said, General Downing.  Thank you very much for joining us. 

And thank you very much, General Bernard Trainor, also joining us tonight. 

And when we return, former CIA Director James Woolsey and former weapons inspector David Kay.  You‘re watching a special edition of HARDBALL, “Iraq Votes,” on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(WEATHER REPORT)  

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to a special edition of HARDBALL.

My next two guests are experienced in not only intelligence issue but in Iraq.  Former CIA Director James Woolsey was a proponent of the Iraq war.  David Kay signed on to search for weapons of mass destruction and didn‘t find them. 

Let‘s move beyond the technical natures of our being here and talk about what this day means, because you have been over there trying to figure out that country, and you‘ve tried to figure out the country.  What does today‘s voting tell you, Jim, about that country, about Iraq? 

JAMES WOOLSEY, FMR. CIA DIRECTOR:  Well, I think it‘s a triumph, even if, as we all admit, there is still a lot of hard slogging days to go.  If they—if the numbers eventually end up anything over 51 percent, it‘s a triumph.

MATTHEWS:  Of the registered voters. 

WOOLSEY:  Of the registered voters, because that was what we—the percentage of American registered voters who voted in 1996.  We generally are from like 51 to 61 percent over the last... 

MATTHEWS:  Of registered voters.

WOOLSEY:  Registered voters.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve asked this question.  I don‘t want to put—I‘m not raining on this parade, because it looks like a hell of a parade.  But why do you think a person would go to the trouble of registering to vote in this horrendous situation and not showing up? 

WOOLSEY:  I‘ve got to say that it‘s what Sharansky and President Bush say.  It‘s a universal human calling for freedom. 

MATTHEWS:  But why not show up?  Why only 50 percent of those registered? 

WOOLSEY:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  It‘s easy to register in this country.  Why would you register in Iraq and not vote? 

DAVID KAY, FMR. WMD ADVISER:  Well, changing perceptions of the security.  But Chris, I think you—look at the MSNBC splash page.  You have a picture of a father and mother with their child behind them walking to vote. 

That‘s an amazing act of determination and courage.  This is a day that really belongs to the Iraqi people for what they did. 

MATTHEWS:  I think it was amazing that part of the technology of an election—by the way, I am looking at this country.  Why don‘t we do it? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  No, that you vote, you have to put your finger in something to prove you can‘t like in Philadelphia, for example, ride around in a bus and vote at the next precinct, or the other big cities in America where this stuff goes on or could be going on.  Why don‘t—well, anyway, it seems like the very process of voting this year, you had to put your finger into an ink—an ink bottle, and you put it in and it comes out with a color on it, black, I guess.

WOOLSEY:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  So everybody, your mother, your father, your cousins, your brother-in-law who hates you, they all know you voted that day. 

WOOLSEY:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  So isn‘t that—it‘s almost Machiavelli.  You are forcing people to commit.

KAY:  But the Iraqis were on the street holding up their fingers as a sign of pride in having voted.  I think what we misunderstood here and misappreciated is the determination of the Iraqi people for after 50 years of a horrible regime, Saddam and actually the revolution against the monarchy, to stand up and take back the country for themselves. 

MATTHEWS:  And they believe this is self-determining.  They believe this is their election—Jim. 

WOOLSEY:  Chris, you know...

MATTHEWS:  It‘s the big question. 

WOOLSEY:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Because I thought going into this a lot of them would look at this as an American exercise, an externally forced process. 

WOOLSEY:  Well, look, they are grumpy, a lot of them, about us needing to be there.  I was over there a little less than a year ago, and everybody is arguing.  And then finally, at the end of the day, they say, well, don‘t let your military leave.  We don‘t want to say it, but we need you. 

MATTHEWS:  Something more.  You don‘t vote unless you think the vote is going to count. 

WOOLSEY:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  They must think it‘s going to be a straight election. 

WOOLSEY:  Well, they think it‘s going to be...

MATTHEWS:  Straight.

WOOLSEY:  It‘s an interim government for them, but it‘s also a constitutional convention.  And they realize getting this constitution, permanent constitution drafted in this coming year is hugely important. 

Look, Chris, the world has gone from 20 democracies in 1945 to 118 today.  Nearly a 100 increase.  Most of that has not been by the force of arms.

But the president is right, this is a universal human longing.  And a lot of people who oppose this—not everybody—but a lot of people who opposed it, kept saying, oh, you know, Arabs, they are not going to be able to run a democracy, you know, not from northern Europe and all that.

Look, Mongolia and Mali are perfectly fine functioning democracies today.  It‘s a—it‘s a movement that is finally really starting to sweep the world.  And a lot of these Ba‘athists were standing in the face of it and they got walked over today. 

KAY:  But I also think that the Iraqis realized that this was the only exit off the freeway.  If they didn‘t vote, there was no hope.  And so that it was partly a vote and a way to get rid of us and the occupation...

WOOLSEY:  Right.

KAY:  ... take back the country.  There was no other alternative except the chaos and negativism and terror offered by the insurgents. 

MATTHEWS:  But I want to get back to the guts (ph), because I have heard these stories, you have Jim, both you and David, where people working for news organizations had to say they‘re all working for the Indians.  I mean, everybody is—nobody is working for the west, right?

Or the guys out there directing traffic, do they have ski masks on because they are afraid somebody is going to recognize them.  Their brother-in-law doesn‘t like them or somebody doesn‘t like them. 

Now they vote.  But the same people that are scared to admit they work for NBC, scared to say that they‘re part of the Iraqi security forces, are voting with their fingers marked. 

WOOLSEY:  But if you do it in large numbers, you stand up as a community.  And that‘s the important thing about voting.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll have more about the Iraqi election today, with some apparently very positive results with James Woolsey and David Kay.

“Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman, Judith Miller of “The New York Times,” and “The Weekly Standard‘s” Stephen Hayes. 

You‘re watching a special edition of HARDBALL, “Iraq Votes,” on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with former CIA Director James Woolsey and former weapons inspector David Kay. 

As I said to some of the earlier guests, there was so much spinning going on today.  I was listening to Fox this morning, 72 percent turnout, then I hear it was 65 percent turnout.

I don‘t think the numbers matter.  I think you‘re right, Jim.  I think 50 percent or anything that—in this country we can hardly brag about turnout.  But the fact is that people had the guts to go out there and walk in line, walk—and everybody—it‘s like on Saturday, you know if you‘re Jewish you‘re walking to services.

I mean, it‘s like they know where you‘re going.  You‘re going to church on Sunday, whatever.  You just see—spotted walking down the street, you know what‘s going on. 

So it looks like these guys were nervy enough to walk in public.  They had no cars.

WOOLSEY:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  So you had to stroll publicly to the polling place and say, “I‘m Spartacus.”  You know.

KAY:  “I‘m standing up for Iraq” is what they said. 

MATTHEWS:  And you were saying during the break that they could well be saying in a subtle or unsubtle fashion, we‘ve had it with this occupation, we know we can get it going.  We can take over our own country.  But the only way to do that and be nationalists is to vote. 

WOOLSEY:  To stand up and vote.  One thing that is really interesting here is that we‘re willing to leave.  We‘re not imperialists.  We are not there to take their oil and try and run things.  We‘d be delighted to go. 

WOOLSEY:  Yes, sure.  You know, whenever it‘s safe to do so. 

KAY:  That‘s going to be the real test over the next 12 months, is, in fact, showing to the Iraqis that that is true.  You know...

MATTHEWS:  OK, next game is—you‘re both experts on this.  Security, intelligence, weapons, game this.  What will Zarqawi—Zarqawi do now?  He‘s had a bad day.  He lost.  How will we come back? 

WOOLSEY:  He‘ll go after some of the winners.  He‘ll go after, once traffic starts up again, car bombs.  He‘ll do everything he possibly can to disrupt this. 

KAY:  There will be a wave of terrorism.  There is no doubt about that. 

MATTHEWS:  Will it be—will it be personal? 

KAY:  Oh, it will be personal. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean, they‘ll try to kill people. 

KAY:  Sure.

WOOLSEY:  Oh, sure.

KAY:  Absolutely.  Iraqis more than coalition members. 

WOOLSEY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that we can protect those people in their own country, or do we have to get them out while they put this government together? 

KAY:  Absolutely.  You cannot get them out. 

WOOLSEY:  You can‘t leave the country.  We‘ve got to do our very best to protect them.

MATTHEWS:  Well, how does a member of the new assembly, 235 members, men and women from all different groups over there, how do they go home at night and have dinner with their family, go to bed in their own home?  How can they do that without any security? 

KAY:  Well, just like people in the interim government have done.  And that‘s not been safe either.

They‘ve lost ministers, deputy ministers, commissioners and police.  But they will do it.  The Iraqis are a very determined people.  They believe that by standing up to it, they will win. 

WOOLSEY:  I think it‘s extraordinary bravery for these people to run for office and assume these jobs.  I mean, it‘s an example to—you know, Americans who are registered, and all they have to do to vote is go into work a little bit—or get up a little bit early in the morning.  These people voted with the threat of being beheaded and blown up. 

MATTHEWS:  Nobody wants to run for office in this country because people call you bad names here.  But that‘s as bad as it gets.

WOOLSEY:  This is much worse.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  So you‘re optimistic now. 

WOOLSEY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  You think—have we reached what Walt Whitman Rostow once called take off?

WOOLSEY:  Well, I won‘t go quite that far yet.  It was a big day.  There‘s a—it‘s still a long, hard slog, as Don Rumsfeld said.  But—and there‘s going to be terrorism, there‘s going to be killings.

MATTHEWS:  Take off or not?

KAY:  Oh, it‘s not takeoff yet. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, not take off yet.

KAY:  Not quite. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re a hawk.  You‘re hopeful. 

KAY:  Good step.  Good step.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you, Jim Woolsey.  And, by the way, congratulations on being right.  They did turn out. 

David Kay—thank you both for joining us. 

When we come back, the Iraq elections and what it means politically for President Bush.  You‘re watching a special edition of HARDBALL, “Iraq Votes,” on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  HARDBALL‘s coverage of the Iraq election returns in a moment.  We will examine what today‘s vote means politically to President Bush.  “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman will be here, along with Judith Miller of “The New York Times,” and “The Weekly Standard‘s” Stephen Hayes. 

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

BILL FITZGERALD, MSNBC ANCHOR:  MSNBC keeps you up to the minute every 15 minutes.  I‘m Bill Fitzgerald, and here is the latest. 

Speaking from the White House earlier today, President Bush called the Iraqi elections a “resounding success.”  The results won‘t be known for some time, but officials believe voter turnout was higher than 57 percent.  This despite nine suicide bomb attacks that killed some 35 people across Iraq. 

At least 10 British soldiers were killed after their military C-130 transport plane crashed north of Baghdad.  Still no word on the cause of that crash.

Michael Jackson is condemning recent media leaks in his child molestation case, calling them “disgusting and false.”  The self-proclaimed king of pop says he will be acquitted and vindicated, he says, when the truth is told.  Jury selection begins in his trial tomorrow. 

And OPEC says oil production will remain steady.  Meeting in Cairo today, the oil cartel says prices are expected to hover near $50 a barrel through the spring. 

You‘re up to date.  Let‘s go back to a special edition of HARDBALL with Chris Matthews, “Iraq Votes.”

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Stephen Hayes is a staff writer with “The Weekly Standard” magazine.  “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman is an MSNBC news analyst, and Judith Miller is an investigative reporter for “The New York Times.”

Judy, thank you for joining us.  I want you to put this all together, what is looking like more and more today, or seems like it‘s holding up the good news of this morning, which is a strong turnout.  Whatever it turns out to be, we expect it to be at least half the registered eligible voters of Iraq, which is certainly meeting our standard in this country.  A good day for the policy. 

JUDITH MILLER, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  I think it‘s clearly—it has to be seen as a good day for President Bush.  I mean, he already came out to congratulate the Iraqi people.  Those people who said there were large sections of the country that wouldn‘t be able to vote or couldn‘t vote, that turned out to be not the case. 

This is not perhaps the beginning of democracy in Iraq, because I‘m not certain that that‘s going to be the natural progression of things in a country with a history as troubled as Iraq.  But it is certainly an amazing day in terms of the violence, the determination of the Iraqi people to come out and cast a ballot. 

Freedom is not democracy, but you can‘t have a democracy without freedom.  And today is the first day... 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you a tough question for a straight reporter who doesn‘t do opinion writing. 

MILLER:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Does this prove President Bush right, yes or no, about Iraq? 

MILLER:  I‘m not going to answer that question, Chris, because I think it‘s too early to tell. 

MATTHEWS:  I know somebody who will answer that question. 

Stephen Hayes, does this... 

STEPHEN HAYES, “THE WEEKLY STANDARD”:  Well, it depends, I think, of what you‘re talking about specifically.

MATTHEWS:  What are you, John Kerry?  Give an answer. 

HAYES:  It depends on what you‘re talking about specifically.  But...

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Here‘s the question: was he right to believe that we could sell democracy or have democracy take root in Iraq or any country?

HAYES:  Clearly.  Clearly.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  So the answer is yes.

HAYES:  I mean, look, this is going to be this jarring moment for the guy who‘s shoveling snow in Peoria, Illinois, and sort of keeps one eye on the news coming out of Iraq, because for months really we have seen very little other than reports about violence, things of that nature.  I mean, even—you know, I follow this pretty closely.

It got to the point where I would see an Iraqi on TV talking about his willingness to vote in the upcoming election, and I was heartened.  And I thought, well, good, there‘s one. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

HAYES:  And today we saw that there‘s 8.5, nine million perhaps.  And that‘s a huge number.

MATTHEWS:  So that guy or woman was not the exception, but the mean, the norm.

HAYES:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  And...

MATTHEWS:  And I‘m stunning myself.  I have to say—well, Howard, you are next.  What did you make of it today based upon previous reporting? 

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  Well, I think it shows once again that expectations are everything in politics.  And in an odd way, Zarqawi and the terrorists in the days and weeks leading up to the election helped everyone else in the administration...

FINEMAN:  No.

MATTHEWS:  You look very good tonight, Howard.  I just want to point that out.

FINEMAN:  No, it‘s the makeup—help them lower the bar.  And...

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you this, Howard.

FINEMAN:  Yes, before the election, by everybody who was saying, oh, 20, 30 percent.  Well, this was a heck of a turnout.  These people are brave, brave people, and the expectations had been so lowered that it looks even more dramatic than would otherwise be. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s do the math because it‘s a political program.  Judy, we had 25 million people estimated—we don‘t grade censuses over in that part of the world -- 25 million Iraqis, 14 million people eligible, 18 years old, citizens of Iraq and registered to vote.  So we had 14 million potential voters today. 

What is the estimate we‘re talking about?  Some people were saying up to 70 percent, then it was 60 percent.  But any way you look at it, almost 10 million voters today.  That is a success, right? 

MILLER:  Now, Chris, that is a success.  And there‘s something else. 

What is really interesting is I was recently given just a few hours ago some numbers from the State Department‘s own intelligence and research bureau that showed, in fact, that as of 10 or 15 days ago, the administration had done its own polling and expected very high turnout throughout the country.  Which may have been one reason why there were these belated and sudden outreaches to people whom the administration had heretofore spurned. 

MILLER:  Well, there were, for example, some very tense relations between Ahmed Chalabi and the administration after they had raided his home, after they had accused him of being an Iranian agent, of giving information to Iran. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

MILLER:  We now are told, according to my sources, that the administration has been reaching out to Mr. Chalabi to offer him expressions of cooperation and support.  And according to one report, he was even offered a chance to be an interior minister in the new government.  But I think one effect of this vote is going to be that the Iraqis themselves will decide who will hold...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Wait a minute.  When you say—Judy, when you say administration, do you mean the alliance party leadership or Allawi over there, the current prime minister?  Who are you talking about? 

MILLER:  We are talking about the administration officials who have been reaching out to...

MILLER:  ... Sistani‘s—yes, American officials who have been reaching out to Sistani‘s party.  Because Dr. Chalabi is on that list. 

MATTHEWS:  So where—so we have an election over there.  And the same day we‘re holding an election, the same week, we are plotting which ministries to give to Chalabi, the guy who talked us into the war in the first place. 

MILLER:  No, no.  There were expressions.  There was apparently an effort to determine whether or not he would be interested in assuming a certain portfolio. 

MATTHEWS:  Why are we in the business of deciding or even negotiating cabinet ministries in a foreign government? 

MILLER:  No.  Well, you know, Chris, first of all, this is just one report.  But I think what is very clear, according to people I talked to today, is that they have been attempting to mend fences with him.  Now understanding that as a tent (ph) on that Sistani list, the Shia list, he will be an important person in Iraq.  And I think that there will have to be a lot of rethinking on the part of the Americans with whom they want to deal. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll have to talk more about this in the coming days.  But the idea that the man who won his country back through the vice president‘s office, Ahmed Chalabi, finds his way now through all this electoral process to end up as oil minister or finance minister, as you say, interior minister—and I think he has higher ambitions than that—makes the electoral process come down to the guy who started the war, ends up winning the war, irregardless of how people vote over there. 

MILLER:  Well, you know, I think the interesting thing was the up and down, was the kind of rise and fall of Ahmed Chalabi in this administration.  On one hand, in the beginning, he was the person supported adamantly by the Defense Department.  He was opposed by the State Department and the CIA...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

MILLER:  ... who said he had no popular support in the country...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

MILLER:  ... and he wouldn‘t be able to hold a coalition together.  We‘ve now seen that, in fact, he played a pivotal role in putting together, helping to put together the list which we don‘t know yet, but it may very well have done extremely well, if not won the vote. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go back to these elections in terms of the president of the United States.  The president has had—we all read the polls.  He‘s had a hard time selling the war lately.  It‘s a bit below 50 percent.

Will this jack his numbers up, Stephen Hayes, above the 50 percent mark for the war effort from the beginning now? 

HAYES:  Yes, I suspect it probably will for the very reason that I cited to you before.  I think people who are sort of half paying attention all of a sudden are looking at their TV screens and seeing, you know, wall-to-wall coverage of this vote in Iraq and Iraqis dancing in the street.  And they‘re saying, wow, you know, maybe—maybe this could work. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll get that same feeling (UNINTELLIGIBLE) we got in the first days of the war. 

HAYES:  Yes, I think so.

(CROSSTALK)

HAYES:  And even if you watch the news coverage over the past couple of days, you see journalists who I think were somewhat skeptical...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

HAYES:  ... you know, almost gushing about the turnout and about what they have seen on the ground in Iraq.  I think that will sort of seep down.

MATTHEWS:  You were watching Fox obviously. 

HAYES:  I was watching MSNBC.  I was watching CNN. 

MATTHEWS:  I was watching—I was spinning the dial around to see how everybody was doing it. 

FINEMAN:  This isn‘t going to be a magic elixir for Bush‘s numbers or for the war‘s numbers.

MATTHEWS:  No.

FINEMAN:  Well, it‘s—it‘s a bullet dodged here for the president politically.  People were questioning his inaugural speech.  It made no sense, it was pie in the sky. 

Now there‘s some on-the-ground evidence that the theories he was talking about could work.  And even somebody like Ted Kennedy, there isn‘t anybody in Washington today who can‘t applaud these results. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  It will be interesting to see...

HAYES:  Ted Kennedy might. 

FINEMAN:  No, no, no.  The president needed some unified applause on something related to his effort. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  As a secular religion is, we believe in elections. 

FINEMAN:  Right.  Yes.  And these are brave people. 

MATTHEWS:  We believe in elections.

FINEMAN:  These are brave people.

MATTHEWS:  And elections are good, right? 

FINEMAN:  Yes, sir. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s pretty basic.  Some things are objectively true in this country.  Americans believe in elections.  We like having other people have elections. 

We‘ll be right back with Judy.  When we come back, more about Ahmed Chalabi and his latest comeback.  Just kidding, Judy.

And later, how will President Bush outline the Iraq mission in his coming State of the Union Address?  Is he going to tell us we‘re coming home or we‘re staying?

You‘re watching a special edition of HARDBALL, “Iraq Votes,” on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Howard Fineman, Judith Miller and Stephen Hayes. 

And this is an opinion question, but it‘s also a journalism question.  When you look at the American people and the way they are following this under the theory that all politics is local—and Americans are primarily interested in Americans—do you think one of the ironies of the president‘s success today in pulling off this election is the people now say we have done the job, let‘s come home, Stephen Hayes? 

HAYES:  I don‘t think so because the security situation, much as it wasn‘t as bad as it could have been earlier today, certainly is far from good.  I mean, we still had, we have to remember, 10 suicide attacks, nearly 40 people killed, I think, was the latest estimate. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

HAYES:  That‘s not a good day.  I mean, it‘s a good day given what we thought.

MATTHEWS:  Will it be obvious, Howard, that we need to stay to do the job? 

FINEMAN:  Yes.  I think George Bush‘s next job is to lower expectations again.  He‘s got to say this is just the beginning. 

MATTHEWS:  Or as Churchill said, “Just the end of the beginning.” 

FINEMAN:  Yes.  Well, he‘s privately breathing a sigh of relief. 

I talked to one of the administration people today.  They really are relieved.  I know they said they had big numbers.  They weren‘t sure of it at all.  You never know what Zarqawi could have pulled off. 

They are relieved, but they have to lower expectations again.  But now they can go back to the Hill and say, we need the money, give us another $80 billion. 

Look, you can‘t abandon the Iraqi people now.  These brave people with the purple dye on their fingers, you‘ve got to—you‘ve got to support them in their effort.  And that is how they‘re going to couch the next request for money for the war. 

MATTHEWS:  All right.

Judy Miller, the front page of “The New York Times” on Monday morning, will it be 10 million Iraqis vote or 30 killed? 

MILLER:  I don‘t know.  I haven‘t talked to my paper, and fortunately, Chris, I‘m on vacation in Florida.  No, but I do want to say...

MATTHEWS:  What is the bigger story tomorrow?  What is the bigger story tomorrow?  As a journalist, what is the bigger story...

MILLER:  Clearly—clearly...

MILLER:  No, the success of the election.  But Chris, this is one very good day.  As I think Howard and Stephen have both pointed out, this is a long and difficult road.  We don‘t know what Zarqawi will be doing tomorrow to try and deflect attention from this tremendous victory for the Iraqi people. 

And by the way, Chris, this isn‘t only one election that the president has had.  So far we have seen an election in Afghanistan, a free election in Palestine, and now a third Iraqi election.  So I think the Bush administration people are probably, as Howard said, feeling pretty good tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s do what journalists are not supposed to do.  Let‘s script the State of the Union Address.  Some people have been helping in that regard lately. 

MILLER:  I‘ll let Howard do that. 

FINEMAN:  No.  There‘s been no meetings at the White House.

MATTHEWS:  There is an interesting timing here.  Everybody likes to say the word “dynamic,” an overused term, but there is a dynamic here coming out of last week, coming out of everything we were talking about last week. 

I was at Camp Pendleton, as you all know, and certainly a lot of concern about today.  And now that the day turns out to be a good day for American policy and Bush policy, we have the state of the union Wednesday night.  A great opportunity for the president to do what Judy just started to do there, is to script it and say, look, you know, there is a pattern here.  Democracy is winning. 

FINEMAN:  Yes, I think that‘s what he‘s doing to do.  And I think he‘s going to use a lot more detail and perhaps a lot less flowered (ph) language than he used in the inaugural address, and he‘s going to present the particulars and he‘s going to say we have to pay for it.  Because the big thing on Capitol Hill this year is going to be about the money. 

MATTHEWS:  The $80 billion extra. 

FINEMAN:  The $80 billion and everything else, because we‘re broke, there is a big deficit.  You know, it‘s a mess up there in terms of money.  And had this gone badly today, the president would have gone up to Capitol Hill in the teeth of all the criticism and resentment that would have been unleashed by a bad day in Baghdad and in Iraq. 

It didn‘t happen.  Just the opposite happened.  That gives him a chance to say, look, we‘ve got to pay for this, freedom and democracy aren‘t cheap. 

MATTHEWS:  So, Stephen, on a larger agenda front here, does this help the president with regard to tax simplification, with regard to Social Security reform? 

HAYES:  Well, I think it does.  I mean, it‘s accumulating political capital.  I mean, these are—these are arguments he made all along. 

I mean, this—it‘s important to remember that, you know, the discussions about democracy in the Middle East didn‘t start with his inaugural address.  I mean, these are things he was talking about back in 2002 with his national security strategy, his speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, at AEI.  He‘s been talking about this for quite a long time. 

MATTHEWS:  All right.  On a sad possibility here, Judy Miller, do you think this means that the real hawks around the country will say now we‘ve done in it Iraq, we‘ve done in it Afghanistan, we‘re going to do in it Iran next?  Do you think there might be a call to do once more over the top? 

MILLER:  Well, I know that there is a desire by some of the more conservative members of this administration to certainly make the Iranians think that that‘s what the United States is going to do.  But I think the truth is, the ground truth, as they say, is that the United States would be very hard pressed at the moment to take military action against Iran. 

MATTHEWS:  How about Syria in the hot pursuit of terrorist suppliers in that country? 

MILLER:  You know, where do the troops come from?  I mean, we—I think the United States is—has its hands full in Iraq, and I‘m not so sure that American soldiers will be coming out of Iraq anytime soon. 

Except, Chris, one thing that this election does allow, it does give the president the option of saying, we‘ve seen this great victory, we can begin to consider scaling down our forces there as the Iraqis become more and more certain about their own security.  That‘s the part we haven‘t seen.  You know, the second act. 

What will Zarqawi do?  Will this—these newly elected leaders be able to form the coalition that can actually stabilize Iraq? 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

MILLER:  All of these are unknowns.  This is very difficult territory. 

MATTHEWS:  And every day I think the president is a lot like Donald Trump.  He keeps winning. 

Anyway, we‘ll be right back with more from Howard Fineman, Judith Miller of “The Times,” and Stephen Hayes of “The Weekly Standard.”

And on Tuesday, veteran journalist Bob Schieffer will be here with us for a preview of the state of the union. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Howard Fineman, Judith Miller and Stephen Hayes. 

I think to remind people of the stakes today, I think we have to run

through a couple of possibilities that didn‘t occur.  The possibility that

seems to have occurred is a damn good turnout, damn little violence, and

tremendous guts on the part of the Iraqi people to display—in fact, to

manifest and to be Democratic voters, which is something nobody in the Arab

world has had a chance to be in decades, if it‘s even then, if you go back

and you wonder about those elections.  ‘

FINEMAN:  Well, it would have been chaos.  It would have been Zarqawi‘s successful attack on the polling places.  Don‘t forget Zarqawi told people the polling places will run as rivers of blood. 

MATTHEWS:  And he‘s the al Qaeda man...

FINEMAN:  He‘s Mr. al Qaeda in Iraq.  And he is being supplied, so we reported in “Newsweek” this week, with a lot of money that Saddam secreted over in Syria before the war ever started. 

MATTHEWS:  Judith Miller, what is the worst-case as you saw going into this election?  Even though you‘re on vacation, you must have harbored fears as to what might have happened today, as of 24 hours ago, what you were thinking? 

MILLER:  Exactly what Howard said, that scenario.  But, you know, there was an amazing development today, Chris. 

It wasn‘t only in Iraq that Iraqis were voting.  Syria was actually holding its first free election in decades. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, for dog catchers?  What kinds of jobs were up?  I don‘t think (UNINTELLIGIBLE) was up for reelection.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER:  It was an Iraqi—it was the Iraqis in Syria who were able to vote.

MILLER:  So it‘s just unfortunate that Syrians couldn‘t vote in this election. 

HAYES:  But that will—I have to say, that will not be lost on Syrians.

MILLER:  Exactly.

HAYES:  I mean, they will see that, I think.  You know, it was happening in Iran, it was happening elsewhere throughout the Middle East.  You have to believe that people in the region will stop and, you know, take...  

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK, guys.  I‘ve got to ask you all, put together in your own way what we all hope to be and believe to be an innate human need to participate in your own government.  And I think we all agree on that at some level, a republican form of government of some kind, against this religious zeal of people who are Shia who believe in many cases that women should wear masks when they walk around and they shouldn‘t be like men, and there are certain rules about gays or whatever. 

How do they put together, Judy?  How do they put together what is a manifest desire for a democracy with a manifest religious zeal when the day comes and they know what kind of government they want to define? 

MILLER:  Chris, I hate to contradict you, but not all Shia are—believe in that kind of theological government.  And, in fact, I think you saw the irony of the major list having very few clerics on it. 

Almost no one on that list believes in a theological government.  Most of the people, the overwhelming majority of the people participating in this election, you know, the 7,000 candidates, the 111 lists, are committed to secular government in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s hope that the Ayatollah Sistani stays on that secular course that you‘ve defined for him.

Anyway, good luck.  Thank you, Judy.  Enjoy your vacation. 

Howard Fineman, buddy, thank you. 

Stephen Hayes, “Weekly Standard,” you know what that means.

We‘re coming back with another hour of coverage of the Iraqi election today.  We‘ll get the latest from Baghdad.  And NBC “NIGHTLY NEWS” anchor Brian Williams is going to join us. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s coverage of the Iraq election.  A big day in Baghdad on MSNBC.

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

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