updated 3/8/2005 1:51:41 PM ET 2005-03-08T18:51:41

Guest: Sugar Ray Leonard, Mark Burnett, Chuck Todd, Tony Blankley, Marie Cocco, Giampiero Gramaglia

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Why did U.S. soldiers open fire on the car carrying Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena?  Was the U.S. military in Iraq notified of the operation?  And, if so, did the information reach the soldiers at the checkpoint?  Or did the Italians keep the Americans in the dark, hoping to run the roadblock? 

Plus, a HARDBALL exclusive.  I‘m reporting tonight that the former Vice President Al Gore is out of the 2008 presidential race. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.  

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.

The 2008 presidential campaign will not include Al Gore.  I‘m reporting here tonight that the former vice president and 2000 presidential nominee will not run for president in 2008.  I‘ve been given this scoop from a perfect source, I must say, who informed me that the purpose of this disclosure at this time is to end speculation about a campaign that will never occur. 

So, now that Al Gore is out of the race, what does this mean for the likely battle 2008 between Hillary Clinton and John Kerry?  We‘ll have more on this significant political story later in our program. 

First, though, the Italian government today held a state funeral for an intelligence officer killed in Iraq by U.S. forces.  Nicola Calipari died from a bullet wound to the head while riding in a car with an Italian journalist freed just 35 minutes earlier by Iraqi insurgents.  The incident has fueled anti-American demonstrations in Rome. 

In Iraq, the U.S. military says U.S. troops fired on the Italians‘ car as it sped past the checkpoint near the Baghdad Airport and didn‘t heed warning signs to stop.  The Italian reporter who survived the shooting says there were no warning signs whatsoever. 

NBC News correspondent Tom Aspell joins us from Baghdad. 

Tom, what can you tell us?

TOM ASPELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, there‘s no evidence in Baghdad, according to the military, that the Italians tried to coordinate their journey at night on the most dangerous road in Baghdad. 

Had they called the coalition, they would have provided an escort for them.  And the Italian driver would have been looking for any kind of recognition signals from checkpoints.  So, I think we can count out the fact that they tried to coordinate their route. 

More than likely, they did it undercover, low-profile, and driving at night on that road is about as low-profile as you can get—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Why is President Berlusconi of Italy suggesting there‘s a need for an investigation, then, if the Italians never gave us the heads-up? 

ASPELL:  Well, he doesn‘t have the chief of his foreign intelligence to ask about it, because he‘s the one who was killed. 

And, secondly, I think he‘s very sensitive to anti-U.S., anti-war feeling in Italy right now.  Even the 3,000 Italian troops here are in an uproar about the incident.  Remember, it‘s the chief of foreign intelligence.  It‘s not just a bodyguard riding in the car with a reporter.  It is the chief of Italy‘s foreign intelligence fresh from negotiations, a month of negotiations with kidnappers. 

He has the liberated hostage in his car.  He‘s got a plane waiting at Baghdad Airport to go to Rome.  The Coliseum is lit up.  The television cameras are at the airport.  He wants to get to the airport.  It‘s 9:00 in the evening.  He is near the airport.  It is only seven miles from town.  He drives to the airport.  He misses the checkpoint.  And the tragedy results—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Can you give me a motive for why he would not notify the U.S. soldiers, who, according to the reporter herself who was freed, saturated the airport situation there?  They were all over the place. 

ASPELL:  There are two schools of thought on how you travel around Baghdad.  You either do it with a lot of overt force.  You do it with a lot of bodyguards, a lot of armored vehicles and you deter an attacker from attacking you.  Or you do it low-key.  You take an unmarked car, preferably armored, maybe not. 

You drive as slowly as you can and you be as unobtrusive—unobtrusive, rather, as possible.  That does not mean you don‘t heed warning signs.  Someone tells to you stop in this country, especially at night, your signal lights go on.  The interior light of your car goes on.  You stop the vehicle.  You put your hands in a position where they can be seen. 

Obviously, the car was traveling when it was hit.  The driver either didn‘t see the warning signals or he chose to ignore them—Chris.  

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about a quote that comes from Agence France-Presse this afternoon from Ms. Sgrena herself.  That‘s the woman who was freed from captivity.  This is what she said about the incident when she was fired upon at the checkpoint: “I immediately thought of what my kidnappers had told me.  They said they were committed to releasing me, but that I had to be careful—quote -- ‘because there are Americans who don‘t want you to go back.”

She basically set up a motive for our soldiers to shoot at her. 

ASPELL:  She‘s been in captivity a month.  She‘s being held by people.  She doesn‘t know her fate.  They‘ve told her that their key demand is to get foreign troops out of Iraq.  Otherwise, they‘re going to kill her.  She‘s just been liberated.  She‘s been freed for 35 minutes.  She‘s in a car going to the airport where a plane is waiting.  She‘s with three Italian intelligence agents. 

Of course, she‘s going to be thinking about the ride to the airport.  She‘s not going to be thinking about anything else until the moment when the fire strikes the car.  And then she is going to think to herself, uh-oh, they told me. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And here‘s another quote—here‘s another quote that might be revelatory here.  Here‘s from Giuliana Sgrena herself, again, in an article she wrote the other day after getting back to Italy.  She said—this is what she quotes the kidnappers as having told her: “We‘ll go with you, and don‘t show yourself.  If not, the Americans could stop you.”

Well, there‘s a motive for her hiding in the car and for the car trying to ride by surreptitiously, right?

ASPELL:  Oh, absolutely.  Don‘t show yourself also means, on behalf of the kidnappers, don‘t show yourself or we get arrested for being your kidnappers, or worse, we get killed for having you in our car.  That‘s that. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you whether it is reasonable.  This is all about reasonable probability at this point.  We don‘t have the full facts.  Is it reasonable that our troopers, our soldiers at that checkpoint gave them an adequate warning? 

ASPELL:  Absolutely reasonable.  I‘ve seen warning shots fired on many occasions.

A warning shot does not mean through center of the windshield of the car.  A warning shot means front of the vehicle and if the vehicle continues to proceed, then the next shot goes through the windshield of the car.  I believe in warning shots. 

(CROSSTALK)

ASPELL:  And I believe that‘s what they did.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask you, is it reasonable to assume that her driver, the head of intelligence for Italy, knew the dangers or didn‘t know the dangers of driving down that road at night at 9:00 in the dark? 

ASPELL:  He should have known the dangers, if their intelligence agents working with the Italian military contingent and the Italian Embassy here.  Everybody uses that airport road from one time or another.  It leads to Camp Victory.  It leads to Baghdad Airport.  There are only two places to go inside Baghdad, your office or your embassy or your headquarters, and the airport when you‘re leaving. 

He would have known the road.  That‘s for sure.  The problem is, nobody uses that road at night.  And he chose to think that it was worth making the journey.  Look, every journey in Baghdad is a 50/50 risk.  You try and minimize the risk to yourself by listening to the advice of your security advisers or the relevant military. 

In the case of the Italians, they‘re members of the coalition.  One presumes they‘re permanently plugged into the military net.  It‘s a simple matter of the agents asking the embassy, tell our military liaison, we‘re going to be using that road.  I suspect they would have been told, don‘t use the road.  Wait until morning.  However, you have got a plane waiting there.  You got the prime minister in Italy.  You have got the Coliseum floodlit and people waiting to see you.  There‘s a reasonable assumption they decided to take a risk. 

(CROSSTALK)

ASPELL:  ... tragically wrong.

MATTHEWS:  Why are the Italians—why are the Italians soldiers over there, as you say, believing that we did something wrong, if all that‘s true?  Why are they of a mind-set that we‘re the bad guys in this situation? 

ASPELL:  Well, she‘s not the first Italian to be kidnapped, and two have already been killed.  The Italians, like every other member of the coalition, are particular targets.  They‘ve been car-bombed in their headquarters.  They‘ve been hit on the roads and they‘ve had their civilian citizens, including press, kidnapped before. 

It is reasonable to assume that they will continue to be targets as long as they keep troops in the country or as long as they continue to pay a ransom.  Now, we don‘t know for sure if they paid money, if they made some kind of promise, if they made any kind of deal with the kidnappers.  It is reasonable to assume that they didn‘t give her up for nothing. 

So, the Italians, of course, feel like targets as long as they‘re here.  And from what we understand here, public opinion back in Italy is overwhelmingly against Italian participation in the coalition.  However, the government sees it differently.  And we have 3,000 troops here.  That‘s to say that they‘re targets almost every day, as is every other coalition soldier in the country—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much for that report, Tom Aspell, in Baghdad. 

HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster has reported for us from Iraq.  And he knows the difficulties journalists face over there.  He‘s sitting right here.  And Giampiero—Giampiero Gramaglia is the North American bureau chief for the Italian news agency ANSA.  And he‘s based here in Washington.

Let me go to you, Giampiero, first of all.  What do you make of this, the politics of it, who shot first or why they shot, rather, why they didn‘t give more warning and they gave enough warning or why the Italians keep moving? 

GIAMPIERO GRAMAGLIA, NORTH AMERICAN BUREAU CHIEF, ANSA:  Well, I think this is up to the military authorities, American military authorities to clarify what happened.  We don‘t know—in Italy, we don‘t know what happened. 

We were asking for information, sure information.  The American president, Mr. Bush, offered the opening for a complete clarification of what happened to Mr. Berlusconi.  And he call Friday, Friday night, call of regrets, condolences, and opening for information.  

MATTHEWS:  Is Mr. Sgrena reliable, the captive who was released, who was in this terrible incident, this terrible snafu, horrid snafu?  is She reliable or is she a left-wing ideologue that will say what benefits her anti-American mentality? 

GRAMAGLIA:  Mrs. Sgrena is a highly estimated Italian journalist.  She is working for a well-established Italian journalist.  She is communist.  The Italian newspaper is a communist newspaper. 

MATTHEWS:  “Il Manifesto”

GRAMAGLIA:  “Il Manifesto.” 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Are they anti-American, “Il Manifesto”? 

GRAMAGLIA:  Well, there‘s a feeling, an anti-American feeling in “Il Manifesto.”  There is an anti-war feeling in “Il Manifesto,” as in a large part of Italian public opinion. 

It doesn‘t mean that Mrs. Sgrena is not reliable because she is communist or because her journalist—her newspaper is communist. 

(CROSSTALK)

GRAMAGLIA:  She is clearly under stress in this situation.  She spent one month in—being kidnapped.  She was just freed.  She is injured.  So, there are a lot of reasons.  Perhaps she is not in the best of her mind in this... 

(CROSSTALK)

GRAMAGLIA:  ... moment.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s get back and talk about a lot of things, because when we come back in a minute, I want to talk about the Italian climate, the troops.  Tom Aspell just said the Italian troops are mad at us.  They must be suspicious of our operations over there. 

I want to talk about the fact of why she would not have made a call to our authorities over there in Baghdad.  I want to talk to you about that.  If you‘re riding in the middle of the night, we‘ve been talking about it all afternoon, David—David and I, going—David Shuster—we‘re going through a situation where somebody is driving in a car, in a war zone in the middle of the night and doesn‘t know notify the authorities in charge of that war zone.  That seems pretty risky business. 

Let‘s come back and talk to David Shuster and Giampiero Gramaglia. 

Later on, coming up on HARDBALL, reaction to my exclusive report that Al Gore will not run for president in 2008.  He was in for a while.  It seems he is out. 

And next Monday, the HARDBALL college tour is back.  And it is bigger than ever, with special guest—you can‘t get much bigger—California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger from Stanford University.  That‘s going to be a big one on our tour.

Right now, right here on HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Much more on the shooting of an Italian intelligence officer at a checkpoint in Iraq.  Plus, a HARDBALL exclusive that changes the 2008 presidential race.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with David Shuster and Giampiero Gramaglia of the Italian news agency ANSA—A-N-S-A.  

David, you were over there in January on this very road where this Italian journalist barely got through on her—the chief of Italian intelligence was killed the other day. 

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, there are a series of checkpoints.

About a mile outside of the airport, there‘s the main checkpoint that everybody has to go through in order to get access to the terminal.  This actually happened outside of that.  And it wasn‘t a regular checkpoint.  There are three or four on that road over the course of three or four miles. 

Every night, when they enforce the curfew—and, remember, they had enforced the curfew this particular night—there‘s a group of the 3rd Infantry Division, a convoy that sets up a temporary roadblock. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What does it look like, the roadblock?  What is the complement of troops? 

SHUSTER:  You usually see a Bradley, which looks like a troop, which is—as Sgrena says, it looks like a tank was firing on her.  That was probably a Bradley.  You may have three or four other vehicles.  And they‘re usually sometimes off to the side of the road.  And, remember, it‘s at night.  The road is...

MATTHEWS:  How do you know to stop normally? 

SHUSTER:  You know because everybody in Baghdad is told, you‘re not supposed to get within 100 meters of these U.S. military convoys under any circumstances. 

And when you go to a checkpoint, you‘re told, you wait for them to signal you to approach the checkpoint. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I‘m driving at 50 miles an hour.  I‘m an Italian guy.  I have got this amazing captive I‘m taking back to the airport.  I‘m driving along.  What do I see?  I see guys waving? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Flashing lights?

SHUSTER:  You may see—you may see military vehicles off to the side of the road.  They may flash their lights at you as sort of a warning of, we‘re here.  You should stop. 

If you don‘t know what that is, if that‘s something on a part of road that you were not expecting and you keep going, then very quickly, you get yourself in trouble.  And the sequence of flashing lights, firing a warning shot and then shooting at the car, that can take all of five seconds or less.  It happens very quickly.

MATTHEWS:  So, the question here, there‘s reasonable probability as we‘re doing this with—Giampiero, the question is, was this vehicle adequately warned? 

SHUSTER:  Well, it might have been adequately warned. 

But, Chris, look, in her mind-set, they had passed one of the regular checkpoints to get on to this road and had had no problem.  So they‘re going along at 30, 40, 50 miles an hour, thinking we‘ve already cleared the first couple of checkpoints.  Maybe the military is communicating.  They know we‘re coming.  They see a military convoy off to the side of the road.

And they don‘t know that there‘s any cause for alarm. 

MATTHEWS:  Giampiero, the words of her—these are the words of the woman who got through, the captive who got out. 

Her captors, the Iraqis, said to her: “Don‘t show yourself.  If not, the Americans could stop us.”

That seems to me her own account of an order from the people who let her go, if you stop, the Americans, you‘re breaking the deal. 

GRAMAGLIA:  Well, it‘s possible that she had some strange indications from the kidnappers.  It‘s also possible that the kidnappers were trying to create the utmost fear that the Americans were the bad guys in this story.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GRAMAGLIA:  Sincerely, we don‘t know if those words are reliable or not, the words from the kidnappers. 

MATTHEWS:  But her mentality, according to her own report, is that she was thinking, my job is to get out of this country and my job right now is to avoid contact with Americans. 

GRAMAGLIA:  I think this is, this was in her mind at least the idea to leave Iraq, be back in Italy.

And it was the idea, also, for the escort of the man who was killed in the action, they were not—people not experimental.  They were the best of the Italian Secret Service working with Giuliana Sgrena. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, really smart people. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... smart thing.

GRAMAGLIA:  And they already succeeded in freeing two other Italian hostages with the same procedure, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, two... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Did they ever engage with the Americans after they released those captives?  Or did this they have a deal with the captors, don‘t let the Americans get any credit for this?

GRAMAGLIA:  Right. 

When they freed two Simonas, the two Italian women, they went back with no problems.  It was a daylight operation. 

MATTHEWS:  I see.

GRAMAGLIA:  It wasn‘t a night operation.  So, this is a difference. 

But there were no problems on the way back. 

When the flight left the airport, one of the women told that it was a moment of problems with the Americans, but perhaps it was a problem...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the fact that they let her out at night is a reasonable way to understand that they were trying to sneak her out? 

GRAMAGLIA:  No.  I think they were trying to leave the country as soon as they could. 

MATTHEWS:  I see.

SHUSTER:  But, Chris, everybody knows this is the most dangerous airport road in the world.  There are more bombs in this particular stretch of highway than anywhere else. 

Everybody, including her guards and the U.S. forces, who, by the way, had been there for a week, everybody knows how dangerous it is.

MATTHEWS:  You know, these kinds of murky situations are how wars start and how tricky situations get worse.  I hope we get to the bottom of this. 

Thank you very much, sir, very much, Giampiero—Giampiero Gramaglia. 

I‘m not that bad.

Still ahead—and, David, as always—a HARDBALL exclusive that will shake up the 2008 presidential race.  I‘m reporting tonight, as I have had already, Al Gore is not running for president.  I have got a perfect source on that.  He is not a candidate in 2008.  We‘ll get reaction from the “Hotline”‘s Chuck Todd, plus Tony Blankley of “The Washington Times” and columnist Marie Cocco.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Now a potentially big shakeup in the ‘08 race for president.

In a HARDBALL exclusive tonight, I reported that former Vice President Al Gore will not be a candidate for president in the year 2008. 

Chuck Todd is the editor in chief of “The Hotline,” called the Bible of politics and certainly the tom-tom drums of politics.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Chuck, Gore out, does that surprise you? 

CHUCK TODD, EDITOR IN CHIEF, “THE HOTLINE”:  It does a little bit.

I thought that he, considering what—how he won, in his mind, in 2000, and how John Kerry lost, and how John Kerry lost, some of this on the values stuff—Tipper Gore, she was talking about this in the ‘80s. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, about the bad words on radios.

TODD:  About moral values and the bad words. 

MATTHEWS:  Demonic words and all that stuff.

TODD:  It all felt like there was this whole sort of...

MATTHEWS:  She was ahead of her time. 

TODD:  ... Nixon-esque thing, the new Gore in ‘08.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

TODD:  Would have been—and when you—when you started thinking about anti-Hillary candidates and anti-Clinton candidates, really, there was only one guy you could think of that could be of her same equal.  And that was Al Gore. 

(CROSSTALK)   

MATTHEWS:  Especially when you know the heart of the Democratic Party is liberal, like the heart of the Republican Party is conservative.  You can say all you want about centrism and moving to the center.  What excites Democrats is the thought of taking on the big corporations, taking on whatever, the establishment, if you will.  And Gore ran a very populist campaign eight years ago—four years ago. 

TODD:  And there was this new base he was developing.  I think that he could have inherited some of the Howard Dean Internet base that would have gotten behind him, particularly as the establishment is already lining up behind Hillary Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.   

TODD:  There was room for this anti—and, in a weird way, even though he‘s such an establishment-looking figure, he was anti-establishment when it came to this field. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And he could have been the populist voice of the Democratic Party.  In other words, Hillary would be positioning herself in the center, a little bit blah, blah, blah, a little bit boring. 

TODD:  I hear you, but...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And he comes out sharp as a tack on the left. 

TODD:  The Democratic Party...

MATTHEWS:  But, still, it‘s hard to beat Hillary now, isn‘t it?

TODD:  It is.  And the Democratic Party—this would have been a bloody, ugly battle.  I mean, this would have been...

MATTHEWS:  It would have been personal. 

TODD:  It would have been personal.  That‘s exactly it, because Al Gore believes he lost the presidency for one reason, Bill Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  Bill Clinton blew it.

TODD:  Bill Clinton‘s libido, yes.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  I think—and I think—and, by the way, I think the Democratic Party, it‘s an objective fact, still suffers from the aftereffects of Bill Clinton‘s misbehavior in the White House.  It may not be fair.  And I don‘t care how liberal you are or how pro-Clinton you are.  It sits there.

TODD:  Al Gore was the first victim of this.  And...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Because every time George W. Bush put his hand in the air and said, when I take oath of office to be president of the United States, I will also promise to uphold to honor of the Oval Office everywhere he went, and everywhere he got applause.  It was about Bill. 

Let me ask you about the former President George Herbert Walker Bush, 41.  He said in an interview—I just read it in “Newsweek” on Sunday—that he doesn‘t think that Jeb, his son—in fact, he said Jeb is out, his other son. 

TODD:  Yes. 

And Jeb is telling everybody he is out.  He doesn‘t mince any words.  Look, he wants to run for his own term for president.  He doesn‘t want to run for his brother‘s third term.  We already know that the two brothers, sure, they get along and all this stuff, but they‘re not the same person.  Really, they have even different govern—differing governing philosophies. 

The sad thing for the Republicans is, the two-term governor of the most important state in presidential politics should be the heir apparent.  But because Jeb‘s last name is Bush, he is not the heir apparent.  And it actually gives the Republicans...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We sort of like the idea of a democracy in this country, right? 

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Do we?

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t really like the idea...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I think famous names always help.  But I think people do like the idea of, even if you‘re a big Republican, let‘s give it a rest, unless he is the only guy that can beat Hillary. 

TODD:  I think...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Well, and that is—you could see the only way out is if there was this draft-Jeb movement because...

MATTHEWS:  You know what?  Have you thought it through?  Have you thought it through?  What is Hillary‘s advantage over John Kerry and Al Gore?  She could carry Florida. 

TODD:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  All those New Yorkers that moved down there, all those snowbirds, all those women down there—by the way, people who survive are women generally.

TODD:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  They live older.  She might have a good shot.  And guess what?  Jeb could beat her in Florida. 

TODD:  See, we get the Clintons and the Bushes to agree to do this in ‘08.  Losing family leaves the country, right?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  No more table stakes. 

TODD:  No, it‘s all...

MATTHEWS:  Extreme competition.

TODD:  We‘re all into Texas hold ‘em now, right?  Both families go all in.  Hillary, Jeb, all the marbles.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, well, your bet right now, it is Hillary vs. who? 

TODD:  You know, I‘m going to go Hillary vs. George Allen, if I had to pick. 

MATTHEWS:  George Allen.  He‘s a good...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Yes, sort of a—sort of a...

MATTHEWS:  I go to football games to him.  He‘s a much—he‘s very charming. 

TODD:  I just don‘t think McCain runs.  And I don‘t think Rudy runs.

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t know if he has the juice to go up there and run like—it takes a certain amount of nuttiness to run for president, doesn‘t it?

TODD:  I hear you.  He has got the tobacco-chewing thing going.  That helps.  That‘s a little...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He‘s a Southern guy, anyway, son of a great man. 

TODD:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  A former Redskins coach. 

Anyway, thanks, Chuck. 

TODD:  You got it, Chuck.

MATTHEWS:  I wanted to get this to you first.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Still ahead, more reaction to the HARDBALL exclusive about Al Gore and what it means for other potential 2008 contenders and what it means for right now.

And, later, harsh reality.  An aspiring boxer commits suicide after competing in the new reality television show, which airs tonight, “The Contender.”  We‘ll talk to the show‘s creator, Mark Burnett, and famed boxer Sugar Ray Leonard about whether reality TV is too real.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Let‘s talk politics.  Marie Cocco is a syndicated columnist with “The Washington Post” Writers Group and Tony Blankley is the editorial page editor of “The Washington Times.” 

Marie, Al Gore is out of the race.  I reported that earlier.  He was going to, a lot of people thought, go to the left of Hillary.  The word was, Hillary will go to the center, become a centrist, if you believe it.  He would go to the old populist left that failed him in 2000, but he thought or some people around him thought would work in 2008.  What does it do left—is it now Kerry against Hillary? 

MARIE COCCO, “NEWSDAY”:  I think, right now, that‘s where it is.  But it is awfully early. 

And I just would take a little bit of issue with this idea that Hillary is somehow moving to the center.  I covered her Senate campaign in 2000.  And she‘s always been in the economic center, which is pretty much where her husband‘s administration was.  One of the big differences between Hillary Clinton and Al Gore is that she ran her campaign in 2000 on the Clinton economic record, and he did not. 

MATTHEWS:  Isn‘t that weird?

COCCO:  So that‘s sort of—that‘s one of the showdowns right there that you would have. 

MATTHEWS:  He ran on the Monica record, rather than the economic record, which is the dumbest thing in history.

(LAUGHTER)

COCCO:  So I think—I think, ultimately, this makes fundamentally very little difference in who the Democratic field is going to be.

MATTHEWS:  Nobody is going to her left, then?  Maybe Sharpton.  That‘s about it, right? 

COCCO:  Well, I don‘t think that there‘s a real left of Hillary Clinton, any more than I think she is she supposedly moving to the center. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  His grand eyebrows have risen a quarter of an inch here. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Tony, there‘s no one to the left of Hillary Clinton.  I‘m talking about the Hillary Clinton who will be presented to us. 

TONY BLANKLEY, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, “THE WASHINGTON TIMES”:  No.

I think Hillary has been moving to the right on immigration, tonally on abortion.  She went on the Armed Services Committee.  She‘s now supporting the war in Iraq. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  She backed the war from the beginning.

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  Yes, I know, but she is being optimistic in her rhetoric. 

So I think...

MATTHEWS:  Pre-positioning her conversion.

BLANKLEY:  I can‘t look into her soul. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

BLANKLEY:  My guess would be repositioning, but I don‘t want to prejudge. 

Look, but, on the other hand, all the energy in the Democratic Party is on the left.  And I can‘t imagine that there won‘t be a candidate, a relatively formidable candidate, who is going to try to run on the left side, because that‘s where the energy is.  Whether they can beat Hillary, I don‘t know.  I don‘t know who it is yet. 

MATTHEWS:  Explain to me those moments—we were talking boxing—or we are going to talk about boxing later in the show with Sugar Ray Leonard. 

There‘s always this moment we always talk about, men do.  It‘s like talking about “The Godfather” all the time.  Men always talk about that split-second where Muhammad Ali beat Sonny Liston.  The unbeatable guy, in one split-second, is knocked out forever, never really comes back. 

What happened to Al Gore?  He won the popular vote in 2000.  It was incredibly close in the Electoral College, decided ultimately by the Supreme Court over the Florida case.  And yet something happened to him.  Politicians come back from defeat after defeat.  Churchill lost, what, six elections. 

BLANKLEY:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  This guy couldn‘t come back or didn‘t want to come back. 

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  I think Al Gore showed psychological immaturity in the 2000 campaign.  He wouldn‘t—just because he was angry at Clinton, he wouldn‘t run on Clinton‘s economy. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

BLANKLEY:  Which was just foolish. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he didn‘t want to run on—yes, OK.

BLANKLEY:  Which was just foolish.  Winning politicians swallow it and go ahead with what they have to do.  He‘s been self-indulgent.  I think...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, could it not be—is there a possibility that, beyond politics, there are people who are honestly indignant that the guy who they had that...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... eight years would screw it up by having this stupid thing with Monica that cost him the presidency? 

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  If you want a little psychobabble, I‘ll give it to you. 

MATTHEWS:  I like that.

BLANKLEY:  I think he was—he was a guy who, from the time he was born, was being groomed for president.  He was proper.  He combed his hair neatly.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

BLANKLEY:  He kept his weight down.  He did everything he was supposed to do.  And then he lost.  And then he lost it and he thought, I‘m going to be me.  And me is this kind of goofy left-wing guy calling the president a betrayer. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BLANKLEY:  And by his performance in 2004, he precluded being a serious candidate.

MATTHEWS:  What would you have done?  If you had won the presidency in the popular vote and lost it in the Electoral College, would you have been down or up psychologically?

BLANKLEY:  Well, I mean, you have—any time you lose a presidential election...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But if you knew more people voted for you.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me suggest something.

BLANKLEY:  It would be comforting.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  If George W. Bush had won the popular vote in 2000 and lost in the Electoral College after a Supreme Court decision, I contend he would have strutted across the country as the most popular guy in the country and he would have loved the adulation he would have gotten. 

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  I think he would have been—the right thing to do is be an understated barter, to let everybody—you were a—you know, a victim of the election, as it were, but do it with great calmness and coolness. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  I suggest you act debonair, enjoy yourself, say, the people like me.  I accept the system. 

Marie, what would George Bush have done if he had lost the electoral, but won the popular? 

(CROSSTALK)

COCCO:  He would have gone out and run like a winner.  He would have said, I‘m...

MATTHEWS:  Like Bill Clinton would have done.

COCCO:  Absolutely.  I‘m the winner.  I‘m out there.  We can make this right. 

MATTHEWS:  And run the next time.

COCCO:  You were wronged.  The message would have been, you were wrong in 2000.  We were robbed. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

COCCO:  Let‘s make it right.  I think that‘s exactly what George Bush would have done. 

MATTHEWS:  So, arrogance kills you. 

Let me ask you about AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons.  We all—none of us have probably gotten the check, the message yet.  I got it, which is, when you turn 50, you‘re in the group.  You practically just have to send in the card.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  I refused service. 

MATTHEWS:  Refused service.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  But let me ask you.  Let‘s take a look at what he said last Friday on the show, this spokesman for AARP. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID CERTNER, DIRECTOR OF FEDERAL AFFAIRS, AARP:  You cannot address that problem by starting by taking money out of the system. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s a debating point you‘re making.  Why can‘t you make that on the same television show as somebody like Jarvis on the other side? 

CERTNER:  As I said, we‘re happy to make this against any serious policy-makers.

MATTHEWS:  Would you like to debate the group USA Next on HARDBALL some night?

CERTNER:  We‘re happy to debate serious policy-makers. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, would you debate them? 

CERTNER:  I don‘t think they‘re serious. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What is this where you get to decide on an issues that is controversial, whether we have private accounts, personal accounts?  They say there‘s an AARP position and there‘s no other serious position to take. 

(CROSSTALK)

COCCO:  No, I don‘t think that‘s is what he was saying at all.

I think he was responding to your—I think he was responding to your specific inquiry about whether he would debate this partisan group that‘s doing ads, accusing the AARP of loving gays and supporting gay marriage and being against the soldiers. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  But their support...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... supports the president‘s position.

COCCO:  I think that if you asked—I think that, frankly, that if you asked the AARP if they would come on opposite somebody from, for example, the Bush Treasury Department...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

COCCO:  ... and debate the actual issue of should we take money out of the trust fund to do private accounts, see what they say. 

(CROSSTALK)

COCCO:  My guess is, they would do it.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it‘s OK for a group to say, I don‘t like the other side, so I‘m not going to debate it?

BLANKLEY:  Well, they can if they want to.

Look, I think AARP‘s strategy right now is fascinating.  Usually, they‘re very slow out of the gate.  They sound like they‘re reasonable.  They look at the issues.  And then, at the end of the day, they come down on their position.  This time, they have come out ferociously. 

MATTHEWS:  Against Bush. 

BLANKLEY:  Yes. 

And I think the reason—I think I know the reason is that they know that they‘ve got to kill this quickly, because they‘re not getting the boomer generation signing up, the way they did the previous generation.  So, if this doesn‘t die quickly, they‘re going to be hurt in the long term.

MATTHEWS:  So, this is a membership drive?

BLANKLEY:  This is related to their membership. 

COCCO:  It is very much related to their membership.  But here‘s also how it is related to their membership.

The AARP got burned when they came out and endorsed the Bush Medicare drug bill.  They had members marching on their headquarters, burning their AARP card.  And so, yes, Tony, you‘re right.  It is very much a membership organization.  And this is very much about the membership.  The membership doesn‘t want it. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  My prejudice is toward—towards any group that is willing to debate, prejudice against any group that won‘t debate on this show. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s turn to Iraq.  We‘re going to come right back and talk about this hot issue.  You could call it the Italian job.  But something is going on over there in terms of the spin coming out of that horrid snafu the other day, when one of the—their top intelligence person was killed by our troops after freeing that woman reporter from Italy.  How did this happen?  What‘s the politics?  And why are we getting blamed?

We‘ll be right back with Tony and Marie.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up on HARDBALL, what went wrong at that checkpoint in Iraq where American troops opened fired and killed an Italian intelligence officer?

We‘ll be back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Tony Blankley and Marie Cocco. 

Marie, this issue is very hot in Europe right now, what happened at that checkpoint in Iraq between the escaping captive of the Iraqis and the Italian woman and the guy who was getting her out and how he got killed by our troops.

COCCO:  Well, the European press is very much focusing on what happened and why. 

You mentioned a checkpoint.  There‘s a dispute about whether in fact it was a checkpoint.  The journalist is saying there was no checkpoint.  It was just open road.  This was a patrol.  The Americans are saying, it was a temporary checkpoint or a makeshift checkpoint.  So, the very facts of whether there was even a checkpoint there or not is in dispute. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, the soldiers were there with their weapons and they shot at this car.  If there weren‘t at a checkpoint, what were they doing? 

COCCO:  That‘s an inquiry that the Europeans are trying to make.  It is something that the Italians want to find out. 

MATTHEWS:  So you think it‘s still—we ought investigate this further?

COCCO:  I think we shouldn‘t accept it on face value, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Tony.

BLANKLEY:  Look, we don‘t know the facts yet, but we know—I know what our military does and doesn‘t do. 

I don‘t believe our military is trained to assassinate people like that. 

MATTHEWS:  So there was no purposeful violence?

BLANKLEY:  So, I‘m 100 percent confident that it was not intentional. 

Now, the fact is that this is a communist writer writing for a communist newspaper called “The Manifesto,” for goodness sake, and they‘ve been harshly anti-American and anti-war before she got there.  And I know this plays well in Europe, but I don‘t think one in 50 Americans actually believes that we intended to do it.  Our troops are trained...

(CROSSTALK)

COCCO:  The question is not whether it‘s intentional.  The question is why...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t think anybody did it on purpose.

Tony Blankley, Marie Cocco, this is a hot issue.  It‘s going to continue.  Thank you very much for joining us tonight.

When we come back, the death of the amateur boxer from Philadelphia raises questions the dangers of reality TV.  “The Contender”‘s producer Mark Burnett and host Sugar Ray Leonard will be here when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

From “Survivor” to “The Apprentice,” Mark Burnett leads the reality TV pack.  And just when you think you‘ve seen it all, Mark is back with not one, but two shows, a new “Apprentice” starring the domestic diva herself, Martha Stewart, and “The Contender,” a gritty look at the world of boxing, which premiers tonight on NBC.

Mark Burnett joins us now, along with “The Contender”‘s host, boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard. 

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. 

Mark, you‘re in L.A. 

Sugar Ray, you‘re in New York.  Let‘s get this going.

I grew up—let me just start with this.  “Million Dollar Baby,” you guys see that movie? 

SUGAR RAY LEONARD, HOST, “THE CONTENDER”:  Yes. 

MARK BURNETT, PRODUCER, “THE CONTENDER”:  Great movie. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did it grab us?  Why did it grab us?  What is this about boxing?  We have got “Cinderella Man” coming up about Jimmy Braddock, the guy from the ‘30s in the heavyweight division.  What is grabbing us about boxing today? 

You first, Mark, and then Sugar Ray. 

BURNETT:  From my point of view, it‘s stories. 

“Million Dollar Baby” won the Oscar because you cared about the characters.  And in recent years with boxing, I can‘t even name the world champion, let alone care about them.  The last person I really cared about in boxing was Sugar Ray Leonard, and, before that, Ali.  You have to care about characters. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Sugar Ray, you are a legend.  What is it about—do you think is causing this comeback of interest in boxing? 

LEONARD:  I think it is like what Mark said.  It is about caring fans, because, back in the day, when I was fighting, during the Olympics in 1976, I was on network television all the time. 

In fact, they did vignettes of the fighters, so people knew that I had a son named little Ray.  And people—there was more of a vested interest.  So people knew you as a person than just a fighter. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this—this look of boxing. 

Mark, you were lucky enough—not lucky enough.  You were nice enough to let me watch the taping of the first one tonight.  I have got to tell you, it was a hell of a night.  It was great stuff, especially sitting next to Jimmy Connors, watching Sly Stallone and Sugar Ray.  It had it all.  And that guy with the hat that runs around the side of the ring, the trainer, what a character he is.  What is his name, by the way, the guy in the hat? 

BURNETT:  Tommy, Tommy Gallagher. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he is a piece of work.  He is a character. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Is he for real, Sugar Ray?  Is that guy a real trainer or what? 

LEONARD:  Tom is a real trainer.  Tommy is an amazing guy.  He knows boxing.  He lives boxing.  He eats boxing.  What you see in Tommy is Tommy Gallagher. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Tell me about this other poor fellow that took his life after being one of the contenders.  What did you know about him, Mark first, then Sugar Ray?  What do you know about that guy and his sort of psychological state that would lead him to take his life after performing in your series? 

BURNETT:  Well, first of all, I really, really liked him.  I‘m a street guy.  I came from a street family and connected with him. 

This happened six months after we finished taping the series. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BURNETT:  I knew he had some love issues in his life.  And I never walked in his shoes.  So, the double tragedy is not only did he lose his life and left behind a daughter.  He had a great chance on the show to achieve his dreams. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BURNETT:  And it all became too much for him with this whole love thing with his girlfriend.  I just feel bad for him. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Sugar Ray, did he have the qualities that you need in a champ? 

LEONARD:  Najai Turpin reminded me so much of myself.

As a young man, I was very shy, very introverted, very reserved, to myself a lot.  Najai Turpin was the same type of guy.  But, in the ring, Chris, in the ring, this young man showed so much heart and so much talent.  That‘s why it was such a puzzle to have heard about him taking his own life.  It was—it was—I was saddened by that. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you know?  It wasn‘t despondency over not making it?  What do you think?  No connection or—I mean, nobody knows what people are motivated by in life.  But was it despondency, perhaps? 

LEONARD:  This young man was so happy to be a part of “The Contender,” because “The Contender” was going to change his life. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

LEONARD:  It would change the life of his loved ones.  He was looking to win.  This young man had talent. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  OK.

Let me ask you, Mark, because I can‘t ask Sugar Ray, why does a guy like Sugar Ray keep his brains, keep his looks and win all those titles, and other guys look like—like, I remember Carmen Basilio.  I remember some of these guys from the past.  They look like they have every punch on their face. 

BURNETT:  Because nobody could hit Ray. 

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT:  Ray was too fast.  It is as much about not being hit as it is hitting other people. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but Muhammad Ali floated like a butterfly and he obviously is suffering now.  It has got to be related to all those punches he took later in his career, Mark. 

(CROSSTALK) 

LEONARD:  They say that Ali because of Parkinson‘s disease.  But women have Parkinson‘s disease, too.  So you can‘t really say that is totally the case. 

MATTHEWS:  But don‘t you think he got hit so many times, Sugar Ray, that it finally—how many concussions can you take?   

LEONARD:  I don‘t know, Chris.  I really don‘t know. 

That is—I think it is a medical mystery, although, you know, they think that, because Ali stayed in the ring too long.  But whatever the case may be, Chris, he‘s still a...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I think you‘re right about that, by the way.  That‘s common sense. 

LEONARD:  It is.

MATTHEWS:  He was looking good through most of his career.  And he was floating like a butterfly. 

LEONARD:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  But at some time in your life, your feet just don‘t move as fast as a butterfly. 

Let me ask you this about the public reaction‘s to tonight.  Mark, you‘re riding a winning streak.  You have a gift for understanding the public.  Will the public take the ultimate reality of two men going in a ring and trying to hurt each other so that they can win, are they going to take the real raw quality of a boxing match? 

BURNETT:  Well, based upon—you know, let‘s look at “Rocky,” for example, which is a movie about that, “Raging Bull,” totally successful.  “Million Dollar Baby” more recently. 

I think boxing is a great backdrop for drama.  And, as you know, Chris, you‘ve seen the series, the show.  You were there in person. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

BURNETT:  You were as excited as I‘ve ever seen you that night when you were there. 

This is my best work ever.  This is more like a feature film than a reality show. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BURNETT:  Everything from the cinematography, the music, for God‘s sake.  We have Hans Zimmer, who did the music for “Gladiator,” because I felt that these young men were like gladiators, living together, becoming friends and then fighting each other in the ring. 

This series has the most heart and soul of anything in my entire career. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BURNETT:  I think it‘s going to do really, really well.

MATTHEWS:  Sugar, Sugar Ray, do you think the public is going to be able to—I don‘t think they are going to appreciate it until they see it.  They ought to watch it tonight, because you have got to see it.  It is a real boxing match. 

Sugar Ray, do you think the American people in their living rooms are ready for that kind of dramatic, raw drama of two guys at each other? 

LEONARD:  They are going to appreciate it.  They are going to love—they are going to grab on to the emotional attachment of these boxers, because it is a journey, Chris.  It‘s a wonderful journey. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

OK, let me go and ask you, Mark, a question only you know about.  Martha Stewart, was this the greatest political move in the 21st century so far, for her to pull that Inchon landing and go to prison, not collect the $200, like in Monopoly, and come out even better off? 

BURNETT:  Well, I think Martha did what she could do the best for her employees.  You know, she actually was thinking a lot about thousands and thousands of people who are paying their mortgages, who are working for her company and making the furniture she makes. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BURNETT:  It really was a big ripple effect. 

And you know what?  She did the right thing.  She went to prison even though, on appeal, she could have stayed out.  I think she did the right thing.  And Americans appreciate those comeback stories.  And, quite frankly it is the same reason they are going to like “The Contender.”

All the greatest sports movies of all time, be it “Rocky,” “Rudy,” “Hoosiers,” “The Natural,” it is all about someone coming from behind.  Even “Seabiscuit,” it‘s the same kind of story.  And Martha will come from behind.  And if you see tonight on “The Contender,” you‘re going to see the real-life “Rocky” tonight on TV, absolutely incredible. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you, guys, very much for joining us.  Mark Burnett from L.A., good luck with the show tonight.  Sugar Ray, good luck with the show tonight.  And good luck with everything. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  “The Contender” debuts tonight on NBC. 

Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  And don‘t forget the HARDBALL college tour next Monday, a week from now, with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the whole hour from Stanford, where my wife went. 

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

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