Guests: Jon Meacham, Tucker Eskew, Tad Devine
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Welcome to MSNBC‘s special coverage of the first presidential debate. We‘re here, as you can hear, at the University of Miami where we‘re going to hold the debate tonight. We‘re surrounded by students and neighbors.
One hour from now, George Bush and John Kerry will enter the arena for what election after election has been the most dramatic moment in the campaign. The first moment during campaign as the two candidates confront each other in the same arena.
Take a look at the setting around me. We‘re surrounded by students divided just like the rest of the country. With just 33 days until the election and with national polls showing the race moving toward the president, the pressure tonight is on the challenger, John Kerry, who must convince voters he has what it takes to be president.
We‘ve got this debate covered with reports from NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, NBC Washington bureau chief and moderator of “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert. They‘ll be in the debate hall, they‘ll be joining us soon.
Covering the spin room, MSNBC‘s Chris Jansing.
NBC‘s Brian William heads up our fact check team. He‘s going to be reporting afterwards about how close the candidates came to telling the truth as best we can determine that.
And Ron Allen is going to be in the swing state of Ohio which remains the key state in this election with a focus group.
HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster is in Washington.
But let‘s first go to our primetime panel. Joining me now, heavyweight, MSNBC‘s Andrea Mitchell. MSNBC political analyst Ron Reagan. “Newsweek‘s” Jon Meacham. He‘s the editor of “Newsweek.” And the host of “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY,” and Floridian neighbor—native, Joe Scarborough. He‘s also the author of a hell of a book, “Rome Wasn‘t Burnt In a Day.”
There‘s a positive thought.
And as we get starting, I want you all to know that the London betting
odds right now, who‘s going to win the presidential election are,
Republicans 4-11. Look, it is getting tougher and tougher to make any
money on that bet. People in London think Bush is going to win at least 2-
Let me ask you all about this debate tonight. What is the worst thing that could happen tonight? Jon Meacham is staring at me of “Newsweek.” what‘s the worst thing that could happen tonight for John Kerry?
JON MEACHAM, NEWSWEEK: The worst that could happen for John Kerry is he speaks in long paragraphs, that he goes over the buzzer and the light and that he seems to be lecturing us, as opposed to telling us why we should hire...
MATTHEWS: Scolding us as well as the president.
MEACHAM: Right. He can‘t treat us like a seminar or a third grade class. He has to trust us. he has to say that we‘re at war. I‘m not saying we‘re going to lose. Because you‘re not going to win a presidential race by telling the American people their going to lose a war.
MATTHEWS: Ron, what does his ‘tude have to be? To use a street term. What does he have to seem like his attitude is toward his rival and the rivalry itself?
RON REAGAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I‘ve always thought people who are the challengers to a sitting president have to act as a presumptive president. He has to behave as if he is already the president and he is just letting you know it.
MATTHEWS: He‘ll be good at that.
MATTHEWS: Think he‘s got that one down. Joe, humility or confidence, what combination?
MEACHAM: I think, I think he really does have to show a lighter side to him. I don‘t think he needs, like you suggested, he doesn‘t need to go out there trying to be presidential. He needs to be likable. John Kerry is introduced to the American people by and large during the Democratic convention in Boston. Since that time, his poll numbers have plummeted.
He needs to use this as an opportunity to show the American people that they can trust him to be president, but also, that they can look at him on TV over the next four years.
For John Kerry tonight, style is just as important as substance.
Whether Paul Krugman and other scribes like it or not.
MATTHEWS: Should he say reporting for duty? You think?
Andrea Mitchell, what do you think? I mean, I really want to get it fastened down here before we start. Because we‘re going to judge the success of this afterwards. Mr. President is the appropriate title. Right? Not Mr. Bush. And he gets called Senator, that‘s the appropriate title, right?
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Style is important. But I was surprised to read the results of the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll which said that only 5 percent of those polled who are still undecided and still want some answers from this debate, want him to be more likable and more personable, 52 percent wanted John Kerry to have answers on important issues on domestic policy. Well, this is a foreign policy debate. But 27 percent and then 25 percent wanted him to have real answers on Iraq and defense and things like that.
So, I would go with—this is a real crisis to the world and to this country. Let‘s have some real answers. But explain them. Don‘t talk like a Senator.
MATTHEWS: I agree with you. I think he shouldn‘t try to be someone he‘s not. I would be happy if he came out tonight as a voter and say, to give a choice to the country. Come out there and say, I‘m a professional politician. I‘ve been doing this for 20 years. I know how to solve policy problems like we have in Iraq. I‘m good at this. Like Nixon did in 1968. You don‘t have to like me. You didn‘t like Humphrey. Just vote for me.
MITCHELL: But hire me. This is a job audition.
MEACHAM: I think Kerry would go a long way if he made his vice his virtue. The way George H.W. Bush did.
MATTHEWS: What‘s his vice?
MEACHAM: His vice is speaking in long, long paragraphs.
MATTHEWS: He can‘t do that tonight.
MEACHAM: No. He‘s sort of a New England Faulkner. He just goes on and on.
MATTHEWS: No commas.
MEACHAM: No commas, no punctuation. So, if he can figure out a way of saying, look, I don‘t speak in sound bites, but you govern in paragraphs. And that‘s what I‘m good at.
MATTHEWS: Do you think the American people would go for that line?
MEACHAM: I think it‘s the best chance he has got.
MITCHELL: Actually, we‘re at war. If he did what Ronald Reagan would do in this instance.
JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC ANCHOR: You know, I just threw my hands up a bit. It wasn‘t what boy wonder, Jon Meacham said that mad me do that. I know do you like that? I just found out that he is younger than me. It‘s amazing what he has accomplish in this short, short life.
But I‘m throwing my arms up in the air, because I‘m hearing Kerry‘s people in the past couple days. They‘re still delivering these muddled messages. They still cannot tell the American people, do I support the war? Am I against the war? And in fact, when I was watching that...
MATTHEWS: She‘s doing what she‘s told. She‘s doing her job. But her message was, it was the way we went to war. In other words, without French permission? I just don‘t get what that means to people.
SCARBOROUGH: They still don‘t have the message down. I‘ll tell you what, if they don‘t get it right tonight, it will be so hard for him to climb out of the hole. I personally don‘t see how he does it, if he doesn‘t get it right tonight.
MATTHEWS: Would you agree—I‘m ask you. If Kerry come out tonight and isn‘t warm. He‘s solid. He seem a bit to the left of the president, but he seems to know what he believe. In does he gain?
SCARBOROUGH: But sure he does. But that‘s John Kerry‘s problem.
MATTHEWS: Does he gain?
SCARBOROUGH: If he comes out and he‘s not warm and he‘s still flip-flopping, that‘s the worst of both worlds. You talked about Nixon. I mean Nixon in 1968, he said, hey, you know what, I‘m an S.O.B. You may not like me, but I know what I‘m doing, I know what I‘m talking about. And I‘m going to help us move forward in Vietnam.
The problem with John Kerry is, he may not be the most likable guy and he also still hasn‘t told the American people, this is who I am. First time I ran for Congress, I‘ve said it before, a lot of people said to me, Scarborough, I think you‘re crazy, but you know what you believe in. I‘m voting for you.
MATTHEWS: You know, guys, when you‘re in trouble. Maybe you‘re guilty of a crime or close enough to worry about it, you don‘t go to a lawyer who is nice. You go to a lawyer who is a S.O.B, because you want to win. You want them to hate him.
MEACHAM: You could also make a virtue, it seems to me, of the so-called flip-flopping. The greatest flip-flop in American history, is Lincoln. In his first inaugural, was not for emancipation. And then 2 years later, he was. Is that statesmanship, or is that a flip-flop?
MITCHELL: In our poll, a lot of people say what they want to hear from George Bush is that he is willing to change course. Because as we all know, they don‘t like the course, but they admire the way he leads. But at the same time, people think he is too stubborn. And he has to show that as he little more open-minded.
MATTHEWS: Too stubborn, why does every poll taken in the last week say he‘s the man on terrorism. He‘s the man on prosecuting the war in Iraq. They may say they prefer a little more feminine side, a little more collegial thinking, a little more nice—but what they seem to be choosing is tough.
REAGAN: Kerry hasn‘t given them a credible alternative yet. Nearly 20 percent of the public said that they still don‘t quite know Kerry. Which is a disadvantage, because he had an opportunity as well. He has a chance to once again introduce himself to a huge bunch of people.
SCARBOROUGH: Can you believe that? Ron brings this up. “Time” magazine poll that he‘s talking about, 20 percent of Americans still don‘t have an opinion on John Kerry? Again, it could be used to an advantage.
SCARBOROUGH: He‘s got to do it tonight.
That he says, this is what I believe in, if you like it, vote for me. If you don‘t like it, vote for the other guy. People would like that, if they heard it from John Kerry.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you all a question. This is a forced question. If this is a dull debate tonight, which I think is unlikely given the excitement everybody in the world seems to feel about it, is that a win for the president?
MEACHAM: No doubt about it. It doesn‘t change the dynamics. There‘s a guy ahead 65-35 in most polls when it come to the war on terror. You have got to knock out the champ.
MATTHEWS: That‘s good because we‘re not going into a combat tonight in the arena where we are counting on, because we know he has to do it the challenger to throw his Sunday punch.
MITCHELL: He has to shape it all up.
SCARBOROUGH: I don‘t know about you all. Everybody is so cynical. They say the conventions don‘t mean anything. These debates don‘t mean anything because they‘re so staged, so canned. I am so excited about tonight. I really am. I think this is going to be great. This is what American politics is about. I think it will be a great debate.
MITCHELL: This the Super Bowl. But the stakes...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Huge. Huge.
MATTHEWS: As (UNINTELLIGIBLE) would say, the agony of defeat, and the thrill of victory will be evident by 11:00 tonight. And even though we had this so-called spin room which is nonsense over here and Rudy will be out here saying how great Bush did if he can close it. I‘m sure Stephanie Cutter will be doing her job and Joe and the rest of (UNINTELLIGIBLE). But we‘ll be able to tell.
What I recommend to people watching right now is I want to you stay with us until midnight. I want to chew over this thing together. The best thing you can do tonight is quiet down and watch it for an hour and a half. Don‘t even talk about it. Just watch it. Citizenship I think begins tonight for this country. This is the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) casino. Because if you like the foreign policy of this president, keep him there. If you‘re looking for something else, watch tonight. Because the president will have to convince us he‘s on the right trail and the other guy has to convince us, he‘s going to do a better job of leading us, this is what Kerry doesn‘t want to say, some other direction. It‘s not just how, it‘s where he takes us. When we come back, a preview of tonight‘s debate from both campaigns. You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s coverage of the first presidential debate live from Miami, University of Miami.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back. We have great orchestra music. Tonight we have a live audience of young people here at the University of Miami right here at the site in this building of this amazing meeting tonight between two candidates, Bush and—well, John Kerry, I keep calling him the other fellow. MSNBC‘s Chris Jansing is in the spin room with Tucker Eskew with the Bush campaign. Chris Jansing, go ahead.
CHRIS JANSING, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Thanks very much. He was also director of global communications at the White House which means foreign policy adviser. So let‘s talk about Iraq. Deadly day there today. A lot of disturbing pictures coming out of Iraq. What does the president to have accomplish tonight to convince the American people, they should stay the course with him?
TUCKER ESKEW, BUSH-CHENEY ‘04 SR. ADVISER: They need to be reminded, he will remind people of his vision and why strong policies that‘s will win the war on terror mean overcoming what these terrorists want to do to us. They want to kill not just innocent Iraqis, they want to kill innocent Americans and innocent people around the globe. We have to fight them resolutely. This president has done it and by adjusting the conditions, facing to the tough facts on the ground that having a consistent vision is proving we can do it.
JANSING: Has he made enough adjustments? The one thing we heard in our “Wall Street Journal”/”NBC NEWS” poll, when asking people what do you want to hear tonight from the president? Number one, we want to know he is willing to make adjustments when they need to be made.
ESKEW: Of course, and you cannot beat the Taliban and run them out of Afghanistan without adjusting to conditions. You cannot get rid of a dictator like Saddam Hussein unless you adjust to conditions.
JANSING: And you know what the Democrats will say, where‘s Osama bin Laden?
ESKEW: They will say what they want. They will see a president who has led us to route ¾ of their leadership. We haven‘t heard a lot from Osama bin Laden in a while. He‘s either on the run or under a pile of rubble somewhere, thanks to a strong leader. President Bush will show that tonight. You‘ll see plenty of it.
JANSING: Did the United States make a mistake in going after Saddam Hussein when they didn‘t have bin Laden. That‘s the question they‘re being asked by the American people.
ESKEW: The president looks forward to another opportunity. As he said all over the great land...
JANSING: What is his strategy tonight? What does he need to accomplish?
ESKEW: The president needs to remind people of his record and his vision. We have a candidate running against us who flips and flops and really travels with the winds and with the headlines.
JANSING: You say he is fired up, he wants it?
ESKEW: He is. He is ready, he‘s very ready. He knows he‘s going up against a master debater who has been through prep school, debate schooling and Senate debate schooling and all of that. Yet, he knows where he stands...
JANSING: Trying to raise expectations on John Kerry. The president has not exactly done poorly at debates himself.
ESKEW: He hasn‘t. But I will say this. You will see, the American people will see a man who has kept his own values. He stayed the man he was four years ago. Even as the world has changed, he has held dear to those values and that determination to get things done for the American people while recognizing it is a different world after September 11. The challenges we face as a nation and our coalition partners around the world face, are ones he‘s embraced and is leading the world on.
JANSING: Huge, huge challenges. The war on Iraq, the war on terror. The American people have not heard these two guys going head to head before. We were talking, comparing resumes before, you‘ve been at this more than two decades, if it‘s OK that I say, have you been, have you been involved with, have you seen a debate where the stakes were quite so high?
ESKEW: Probably not. But I would say that we haven‘t been through an election where the stakes are this high either. We haven‘t been through an election in a war on terror. A new war in a new millennium. I think the American people will come away tonight knowing these two men, or knowing that they‘re almost impossible to know in the case of John Kerry.
JANSING: Tucker Eskew with Bush-Cheney ‘04. Thank you very much.
Chris, back to you.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, Chris Jansing. We‘re back. And thank you, Tucker Eskew. We‘re right back with our panel.
I want to ask everybody who is now ready to watch this incredible competition of wits and ideas and vision and guts tonight at 9:00 tonight, how long will it be afterwards as we begin to assess this? Not that we make the judgment here. But as the country through its media network, right wing, left wing, bloggers, network commentators, newspaper men and women, how long does it take to sift through and find a clear cut judgment? Andrea.
MITCHELL: Interestingly, in 1976, it took about 48 hours for America to focus on the fact that Gerald Ford had misspoken about Poland still being under communist domination.
MATTHEWS: We were a slow country.
MITCHELL: We were very slow.
MITCHELL: His staff knew...
MATTHEWS: There is no Iron Curtain?
MITCHELL: Dick Cheney knew right away, the chief of staff. But it took the rest of the country a long time to catch up.
Now with bloggers, with us, with talk shows, with nightly news, “The Today Show,” I think it will be a lot sooner. I really think it is important for voters, viewers to make up their minds and for us not to tell them what to think.
I think this is a slow process.
MATTHEWS: Could you tell when your dad did well? I hate to keep going back to your dad but he had such a close (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
REAGAN: Yes, I could tell when he did well and I could tell when he didn‘t do well. The first Mondale debate in 1984. You knew right away. And you knew before it was over that he wasn‘t doing well.
MATTHEWS: Did you know that the world would declare Mondale a relatively boring politician, the winner against Ronald Reagan, the great communicator?
REAGAN: Yes, i knew that night. Sure.
MITCHELL: I was in the hall. Everyone knew.
REAGAN: I think, Andrea‘s right, about 48 hours. By Monday, the opinion about tonight‘s debate will have crystallized.
MATTHEWS: But who decides?
Because the people who—I mean, this group here shows, these people with signs for Bush/Cheney aren‘t going to say our guy blew it tonight. The people equally as rabid on the other side. So how many people are open-minded enough to say, I‘ve got to admit my guy blew it.
REAGAN: A lot of it has to do with what we say. I know, we won‘t pick the winner, but this will have a tremendous impact. After the first Gore/Bush debate, focus groups showed that most people, by a narrow margin, thought Gore had won, but two days later, it had flipped over.
MATTHEWS: What about those Olympic events where it is not clear. You didn‘t jump 8‘4” in the air. Well, I liked the way he put that camel together or something with figure skating. It is more like figure skating than high jumps.
MEACHAM: There are no French judges tonight.
MATTHEWS: OK, French judges.
MEACHAM: None of that. I think a lot of people react to what we say.
To take opposite view. If there‘s a kind of chattering class consensus.
MATTHEWS: The chattering class said George Bush lost the last debate with Al Gore. They agreed with him, it was his Goldilocks debate. Within a couple weeks or months, it was fairly clear that the combination of the three debates had been bad for—had been bad.
SCARBOROUGH: You know what happens though. What happens is people watch the debates. They watch us talk. They watch others talk. They go on the Internet. They gather all this information, and then go to work the day. They stand by the water cooler and they‘ll say, could you believe Al Gore was sighing? Could you believe that Al Gore in the second debate showed up acting like some happy goof ball? I mean, what happens is, people go to work.
They start talking about it. They really do discount what we say by and large unless we say something that really makes them angry. And they make up their minds. You know, it is like at the Democratic convention. We all gave John Edwards like a 4.5, and the next night we came back and said, boy, he sure did sort of blow that opportunity. It sets in after 24 hours. It‘s after we talk to our spouses and our friends. A national consensus, fairly quickly.
MEACHAM: It‘s why the stage craft is so important. What I remember most out of the third debate, perhaps I shouldn‘t admit this. I should remember the great policy debates. Was Gore almost socking Bush when he violated his personal space. Remember, Gore rushed him in a way. And Bush sort of—he went like that.
MATTHEWS: I think like your dad winning the debate with there you go again. He won with that look of complete dismissal.
MEACHAM: What are you doing?
MATTHEWS: No, good.
MEACHAM: That tells us a lot, because he‘s the guy...
MATTHEWS: I‘m going to a pro right now on the Kerry‘s side, Tad Devine, who‘s on the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He‘s a senior adviser is adviser to the Kerry/Edwards campaign. I want to thank you for coming on on a busy night, and thanks for coming on so close to the event.
Let me ask you the toughest question of the night. Will we know after this debate where John Kerry stands on Iraq?
TAD DEVINE, KERRY CAMPAIGN SR. ADVISER: Yes. John Kerry and George Bush are diametrically opposed on the Iraq. The president has led us into a mess in Iraq that today is costing this nation, $200 billion over a thousand American lives lost. Every day, Americans kidnapped and beheaded. John Kerry has a plan to straighten out George Bush‘s mess in Iraq, and tonight he‘s going to talk about it.
MATTHEWS: Why is there a dispute over these time limits and the way they‘re going to punish them?
DEVINE: Well, Chris, because in order to get three debates, presidential debates for the American people, the Bush campaign insisted on a whole set of procedures to do everything to obscure what the president was saying from the American people. They‘ve got ridiculous lights going off. It is like a “Gong Show” over there. They tried to do everything to stop the president from having to defend his defenseless policies for the last four years. Unfortunately, the American people are being deprived because George Bush needs to hide behind lights and bells and whistles and everything else.
MATTHEWS: Do you think that they‘re hoping that there will be a picture tomorrow morning‘s “USA Today,” some paper that has color photographs, of some sort of yellow light or orange light going off next to the face of John Kerry?
DEVINE: I think they‘re hoping for anything except the real discussion of the issues. I think, they‘re desperately trying to avoid the fact that this president has led this nation recklessly into a war that is costing us every day. That his economic policies are a catastrophe. That it costs America more than a million jobs that five million American have lost health care because he doesn‘t care about it. I think they‘re looking for every device to get between George Bush‘s record, and the American people. But I think the American people are desperate for the truth and want to know whether or not they have the possibility of going into a new direction. And that‘s what John Kerry will provide.
MATTHEWS: If you could imagine a headline tomorrow morning in the major newspapers across the country, what do hope it will be?
DEVINE: That Bush cannot defend his record.
How about that one?
MATTHEWS: Well, that doesn‘t sound like a headline.
DEVINE: How about this, Kerry strikes Bush and offers plan for America. There‘s one.
MATTHEWS: That sounds good.
What is the danger tonight -- what‘s the danger for your candidate tonight? Is there one?
DEVINE: Well, Chris, I feel it is an opportunity. I mean, listen, this is all going to be subjected to interpretation afterwards. It‘s all be subjected to the relentless spin machine on the other side. But I think the American people are so anxious to know whether or not they have a chance to go in a new direction. Whether or not we have to simply replay the last four years of failure, and John Kerry has got a tremendous opportunity tonight. And I think that he‘s going to take advantage of that opportunity.
MATTHEWS: Do you think that any partisan in the spin room or on the telephone is capable of shifting the American people‘s judgment tonight?
DEVINE: No. But I do think we can help to frame what comes out of this. You know, these debates are won and lost in the 90 minutes they stand there. But the amplification of it before and afterwards is very important. It does affect the water cooler discussion, I heard Joe Scarborough talking about a little while before that. That‘s an important factor.
So, we‘re going to go—and let me say, Chris, I worked four years ago and I don‘t think we did a good job helping Al Gore after the first debate. And hope tonight, and I know that we will, we‘re going to try really hard to do a much better job this time.
MATTHEWS: Do you think people are going to believe Rudolph Giuliani about who won tonight when he‘s such a partisan and he wants to be president next time?
Do you think they‘ll believe John McCain who‘s now becoming a regular Republican, and not a maverick? Do you think they are going to believe, when these guys have an agenda?
DEVINE: Chris, I think the only spin that works...
MATTHEWS: A political agenda to say Bush won, right?
DEVINE: I think the only...
MATTHEWS: Let me make my point, a little broader. Everybody in that spin room has an agenda to say my guy won.
Why does anybody even write down their words?
DEVINE: Chris, I think the only spin that works is the one that‘s grounded in reality. And I think if the other side goes out and tries to say the president was successful if he doesn‘t defend his record, if he doesn‘t talk about what we‘re doing in Iraq and how he intends to get us out, if he has no idea what to do in North Korea or Iran, if he continues to avoid the real issues of the day, they‘re going to have a hard time spinning that.
So, I think it has to be ground in the reality of the debate. And I think we‘ve got a great chance tonight to help the American people understand that they have an opportunity to go in a new direction in the next four years. That‘s what John Kerry‘s campaign is about and that‘s what he‘ll talk about tonight.
MATTHEWS: OK. It‘s great having you on. Thanks for coming on so close to the big contest tonight—Tad Devine.
DEVINE: Thank you Chris.
When we come back, we‘ll check with NBC‘s Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert.
And later, I‘ll be joined by Reverend Al Sharpton. He always has something something interesting to say. In fact, sometimes I wish he‘d be debating tonight. What a show he puts on.
We‘re also going to have Bush insider Ben Ginsberg.
And coming up on Sunday, join Tom Brokaw and myself for an MSNBC special. It‘s great. It is about his kids, it‘s about our history. It‘s about our country. It‘s about all the great debates, picking our country‘s secrets of the great debates.
We‘ll be back with you, with the drama, the surprises and the stories behind these unforgettable political events. Here‘s a preview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GERALD FORD, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don‘t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don‘t believe that the Polls consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.
MATTHEWS: Well, he‘s about 13 years ahead of time there, wasn‘t he?
TOM BROKAW, NBC: It was stunning to watch Max Frankel, because it‘s as if an alien has invaded the space somehow and said what Gerald Ford just said. If ever there was (UNINTELLIGIBLE) case for domination, it was what was going on in Eastern Europe at that time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GERALD FORD, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will put Medicare in an ironclad lock box.
RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am not going to exploit my opponent‘s youth and inexperience.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL‘s live coverage of the first presidential debate live from the University of Miami, the site of the debate.
Let‘s right now to go Tom Brokaw and NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert.
Tom and Tim, thanks for coming back.
It is only a half-hour now before they begin to debate. What is the measure of success for Senator Kerry, Tom?
TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR: I think the measure of the success is that he has to be demonstrably better than the president here tonight on two big counts.
He has to show that he can be the commander in chief, that he has a real plan for protecting this nation against terrorism, that he believes it is a very dangerous world, and he takes that assignment very seriously. And then he has to connect as well in a personal fashion. We were talking about this earlier tonight, Chris.
But getting to be president of the United States is also a matter of being empathetic with the American people and the American people feeling like you‘re the guy who is just across the back fence, who will come over and have a beer with you or have a barbecue with you, not the guy who grows the big hedge and sits in the back of the limousine with the tinted windows and drives down the streets.
MATTHEWS: Right, even though that‘s a fact.
TIM RUSSERT, NBC WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: The American people, they have to see, they have to imagine John Kerry in the Oval Office. They have to imagine watching John Kerry on TV every night.
But John Kerry also has another standard. He has to tell people that George Bush is responsible for the war in Iraq, that it was a distraction from the war on terror, and sell that idea, and all the while say that he has the solution to fix it, be aggressive and yet be a plausible president.
BROKAW: Chris, can I also say something?
We lead up to these things on this evening. And right after the debate is over, we‘ll be kicking it around here about who won, who lost, making judgments about the veracity of the statements that were made, the power of the presentation. But the American people, it‘s been my experience now after watching these for a long time, it will take a couple days to decide who won and who lost, who they‘re comfortable with.
They‘ll listen to us. They‘ll listen to the sound bites. They‘ll talk to their friends at the office tomorrow. They‘ll talk about it over breakfast again. They‘ll go to the office. They‘ll kick it around at the cooler. They‘ll be at the football games or the country club or hanging out somewhere on Saturday and they‘ll talk about it.
And about Sunday morning, we‘ll have a much better idea, I think, of who did well here, unless, of course, there‘s a big conspicuous gaffe of some kind, or a big conspicuous triumphant moment. Not many of those come along.
RUSSERT: And, Chris, the one thing we know about incumbents running for reelection, they either win big or lose big. There hasn‘t been a close incumbent‘s race for reelection since Wilson in the early 19th century. And that‘s something to watch.
The country seems to watch these events collectively and then break as a pack.
MATTHEWS: Let‘s talk about the president for just a moment, Tom and Tim. What is that it George W. Bush has to do tonight? Or does he have to do anything, really?
BROKAW: Oh, I think he has to do something. I think that he has to do the obvious. He has to be a commanding figure out there, presidential.
And I think he has to be very honest.
Janet Brown is talking in the background—I think that‘s Janet Brown
· about what we can expect here later tonight.
But I think that he has to level with the American people as well tonight. He can‘t just sell the idea that Iraq is going swimmingly. Right now, there‘s a major military operation under way to secure the city of Samarra. Just a week ago, the interim prime minister of Iraq was in America and Samarra was one of the cities that he said in those memorable series of appearances that was a secure place, that they had worked it out there. We don‘t have to worry about it anymore.
There‘s a big military operation going there tonight. We had a terrible day in Iraq today. And the president is going to have to deal with that in terms of not just today, but what he expects six months from now and one year from now. And we know from all the polls that the people who like him a lot still say we want to know what he is going to do in the second term. He hasn‘t told us enough.
RUSSERT: Chris, in fact, I‘m wondering if the president is not going to try inoculate himself at the very beginning of this debate by acknowledging what happened in Iraq today, the children who were killed, the major military operation that‘s going on, and saying he hope and prays for the success of that operation and for our troops, almost saying to John Kerry, there. I just acknowledged something. Come and get me.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Tom, just to follow up on what you said. You said it takes a couple days to sift through, to distill the impact on the American people of what they see tonight.
Does that mean the best estimate as to who wins is to look at the matchup polls a couple of days from now?
BROKAW: Yes, I really do believe that that‘s the case.
You remember when Jerry Ford made that gaffe that you‘ve shown very often here tonight. That took a couple of days to ferment, so to speak. And then it was about a week later that he was trying to undo the damage from that. He even repeated it, as you‘ll remember. I think you wrote about this, Chris, in your book.
And the day after Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter met, the Carter people really thought that they had nailed Reagan on the whole issue of Medicare and Social Security. And it was that answer in which Ronald Reagan said, there you go again, and that was the winning moment, it turns out.
So I do think it takes a little time. People read the papers. My experience with voters, before Election Day, five days before Election Day, I‘ll go talk to voters and they‘ll say, well, I‘m going to spend the weekend reading up. I‘m going to be watching a little more carefully now for the next three days. We begin to hyperventilate about it, but they in their infinite wisdom take it all in and decide collectively, in a way.
RUSSERT: The one thing I think that could happen tonight, Chris, is if John Kerry has a particularly effective night, if he is deliberate and poised and articulate and explains Iraq in a way that is understandable, and people in the press corps and throughout the country say, whoa, that‘s different than the John Kerry I had seen until September 30, I think he could get a very good buzz going immediately.
BROKAW: Yes. And that‘s their plan, Chris.
They really feel at this late stage in the campaign that this is an unparalleled opportunity for them to reintroduce their candidate to the American people. And in the universe in which we live, we say, well, we already know that John Kerry. But tonight, a lot of people are going to be tuning in who are not following it nearly as carefully as we are on a day-to-day basis.
MATTHEWS: OK, thank you very much, Tom and Tim.
We‘re going to check back with you after the debate.
The debate is just over 20 minutes away. And when we come back, two warriors for their parties, the Reverend Al Sharpton and longtime Bush election attorney Ben Ginsberg.
And don‘t forget, you can keep up with the presidential race on Hardblogger, our election blog Web site. Just go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL DUKAKIS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If he‘s serious about what he‘s saying, then the only place he can go to balance that budget is to raid the Social Security trust fund. He tried that in 1985. And I think he‘s going to try it again.
JIM LEHRER, MODERATOR: You have a minute to rebut.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Is this the time to unleash our one-liners? That answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor. Now let me...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL‘s live coverage of the first presidential debate here at the University of Miami.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MATTHEWS: We‘re joined right now—we‘re joined right now by the Reverend Al Sharpton, who sought the Democratic nomination for president and kept it very much alive for a long time there. We‘re also going to be joined right now by MSNBC contributor Ben Ginsberg, who was the top lawyer in the Bush-Cheney campaign until very recently.
Reverend Sharpton, thank you for joining us.
You,sir, are an expert at these sort of events, these debates. To what extent have you been helpful to the Kerry planning stages?
AL SHARPTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I‘ve just given advice. And I‘ve just said that I think Kerry needs to go bring the fight to the president tonight.
I think that the president has to be confronted in a dignified but firm way on why he should not be reelected. The first thing I would do tonight is tell them that we‘ve returned to the scene of the crime, Florida, where this happened in 2000.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the excitement level in this campaign.
I think we‘re going to know tonight, don‘t you, given how many people watch tonight, how much of a turnout we‘re going to have in November and how good it is going to be for the Democrats?
SHARPTON: I think a large viewership tonight will tell us that we can expect a high turnout. If people are not interested tonight, we‘re in trouble in 30 days.
So a lot of things will depend on the excitement level, the participation and who is watching, because, again, we‘re looking at not only swing voters, but new voters. And if they‘re watching tonight, it is likely they may come out and vote. And that could have a large effect on what happens in this election.
MATTHEWS: Ben Ginsberg, you‘re also with us right now.
Is that true, that the bigger the audience tonight, if it gets up to 70 million, perhaps, that is a sign of a big turnout, of over 110 million, come November 2?
BEN GINSBERG, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I‘m not sure.
It really depends how the candidates relate to all those people who are watching, and, again, what the motivation is like to go out on Election Day. There‘s a big difference between turning on the television set in the comfort of your home and making the commitment to vote.
MATTHEWS: Yes, but if you‘re going to spend an hour and a half watching a TV show, won‘t you spend 10 minutes voting?
GINSBERG: Yes, you would hope so, Chris, but there have been large audiences before in elections in which there were not particularly heavy turnouts.
And certainly the party committees, the candidates, the 527 groups are spending a lot of time contacting voters beyond the debates. There are a lot of phone calls, a lot of mail, a lot of people going door to door. So the debates themselves are an indicator, but aren‘t determinative.
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Reverend Sharpton.
You know, there were a lot of charges in the last election about—down here in Florida about voter suppression, not just the more obvious roadblocks or some of those stories we heard that turned out not to be substantiated, but the whole question of making it difficult to vote, you know, scrubbing lists, looking for felons, sometimes people who aren‘t felons getting knocked off the list, just making it boring. Do you think the Republicans would like to see a low turnout?
SHARPTON: Oh, yes. In fact, we‘re already hearing stories of suppression. We did a bus tour here about three weeks ago. We‘re hearing this in Orlando.
I think that they would like a low turnout in some areas, which is why I think that‘s the Democrats must drive their vote out. Kerry must excite his base, while he appeals to the swing voters, because the only way you can stop any kind of suppression is to have such an overwhelming turnout that it is infective even if it is in place.
And I think that, clearly, in Ohio and Florida, we‘re hearing disturbing things, nothing tangible, but clearly a climate. The state troopers going into homes in Orlando is a little more tangible and very disturbing. And I think we have got to confront that now, rather than cry about it in late November.
MATTHEWS: I was talking to the Reverend Jesse Jackson the other night on the telephone. And he said this anybody-but-Bush thing is running thin. It‘s wearing thin. You need to have a positive case. You can‘t just say, I‘m not Bush.
SHARPTON: I think that‘s true.
I think that Kerry is not anybody but Bush. But he has to make that case, and he will. I think people know they don‘t want Bush. They have to know they do want Kerry. And I think we have got 30 days to sell it. And I think that the more Bush talks and the more Kerry comes forward, he can win. But he has got to come tonight and bring the fight to Bush. He has got to confront him. He has got to say, you brought to us war on bad evidence. I trusted you.
Bush can‘t say, you‘re a dummy, Kerry for believing me. He has got to be able to establish why he led this country where he did. But Bush has got to put that tail on the donkey.
MATTHEWS: You wish you were in there tonight, wouldn‘t you?
SHARPTON: Well, I will be in ringside. It‘s not like being in the ring, but I‘ll be screaming at ringside.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask Mark. Is that—Ben—is that true, that the Republicans want to see a lower turnout?
Look, the Republican Party has made an unprecedented commitment to registering people. The Republican National Committee has registered more than three million people in recent years to vote in this election. That‘s nonsense. The problem is, is that, all too often, the Democrats try and get out their base by yelling about voter suppression. Reverend Sharpton admitted there‘s no tangible evidence, because there‘s not.
Chris, election after election, the Democrats, unfortunately, yell voter suppression, because, as John Kerry has demonstrated here, there is no real policies that excite the communities. And so voter suppression is the best they‘ve got as a get-out-the-vote program.
MATTHEWS: What do you think, Reverend Sharpton. Ben says that the Republican Party has made a big effort to try to register voters by the big numbers and how can you accuse them of suppression if they‘re registering voters?
SHARPTON: Well, where have they registered them? They certainly have not registered them in African-American and Latino communities.
I would like to see the evidence of where that is. We saw a story in Sunday‘s “New York Times” where, in Florida, Ohio, some areas, there‘s a 250 percent increase in registration. Many of us have been involved in that. Those were Democrats. So I don‘t know where the Republicans are trying to register voters. I think that Ben might have projected that, but I‘ve not seen that.
I know that the Republican chairman was touring with Don King. And maybe in between fights, they registered one or two boxers. I don‘t know.
MATTHEWS: We‘re watching right now as the wives of the candidates, the potential first lady, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is coming into the hall, as well as the first lady herself, Laura Bush. And, of course, the crowd is welcoming those two first ladies, who are, in fact, probably the most emotionally committed of all the people in the hall tonight.
One first lady is coming. I can‘t see the camera. I‘m being directed here. There‘s Kristen Breitweiser, who of course is campaigning—she is one of the widows of 9/11. She‘s been campaigning for—and now I‘m looking at the camera here. There‘s Janet Brown, who is the head of the commission, the Debate Commission. She‘s addressing the crowd right now. She‘s the one that keeps this thing organized all these years now.
Of course, Debate Commissions are run by the two leaders or the former leaders of the party, Frank Fahrenkopf—and here we go back right now.
We‘re going to go back and talk to the Reverend Sharpton.
Sir, you are clear on your positions. You have that gift to state a position in stark terms. Do you think John Kerry can share that gift tonight?
SHARPTON: I have the unique position tonight of all of the people here. I debated John Kerry. John Kerry can be clear. He can be aggressive. He can be very good.
If he does tonight what I‘ve seen him do in some of the debates we had, George Bush will be upset tonight. If he does not, he will be helped. I think that John Kerry finishes late. He has to go in the homestretch and he‘ll do it.
MATTHEWS: We‘re watching Jim Lehrer, who has just been introduced.
Let me ask you about that. The issue of Iraq will be foremost tonight, because tonight‘s debate focus is foreign policy. Do you believe that we will have, an hour and a half from now, an hour and a half and 10 more minutes, an hour and 40 minutes from now, a clear choice facing the voters this fall between a candidate, the president of the United States, who took us to war in Iraq, and a candidate who believes that we should not have gone to war? Will it be that crystal clear an hour and 40 minutes from now?
SHARPTON: I think it will be clear that John Kerry will say, the only mistake I made in Iraq, George Bush, was believing you. Once I found out that you or your people were misleading us, I‘ve been making and sticking and standing by the right position ever since.
He has got to establish what they call flip-flopping was his believing in him. He did not come up with the angle of weapons of mass destruction. Bush did. He‘s got to say, my fault was believing you. When I found out you had less-than-credible information, I moved to where conscience dictated. You should have done the same thing. That‘s not flip-flopping. That‘s integrity.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MATTHEWS: Do you think that the president of the United States will try to use a bit of ridicule tonight on the Democratic candidate?
SHARPTON: Yes, I think that he‘ll try to belittle him. I think he‘ll try to, in his own way, act like Kerry takes different positions. That‘s why Kerry has to cut off the ring. Don‘t give him any room to dance. Cut the ring off, say, I believed you, say, we wanted to know who Dan Rather‘s sources were. Who were your sources, George Bush? Who told you there were weapons of mass destruction? Were they found? Were they—cut off the ring. Make him fight.
MATTHEWS: I love the fight reference to cutting off the size of the ring. That‘s when you make the guy dance in a smaller space. I love that metaphor.
Anyway, thank you, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Ben Ginsberg as well.
We‘re just 10 minutes away from the start of tonight‘s debate. And it‘s getting hot here at the University of Miami. We‘re going to get some final predictions from the panel about what they expect from this encounter between the president and the challenger.
HARDBALL‘s live coverage of the presidential debate continues after this.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MATTHEWS: We‘re back at the University of Miami. Here we are in Miami and everybody‘s getting excited because right near us right now, the two presidential candidates, including the president of the United States and the man who wants to replace him, are about to face off. In fact, it is the first time they‘ve been face to face in this long election.
We‘re back with our panel right now.
I know this is tough and I am mean-spirited, but I am going to ask the question.
Joe Scarborough, you have got to do it. You have got to do it. Make a prediction. Give me a surprise prediction tonight, something that nobody expects will happens that you say will.
SCARBOROUGH: I think John Kerry is going to come out. I think he is going to do a good job. He has got an awful lot of ammunition to use.
He cannot only talk about Fallujah. He cannot only talk about the disastrous postwar policy. He can talk about Iran moving towards a nuclear capability. He can talk about nukes in North Korea. He can talk about botched diplomacy. He has so much to work from that, if John Kerry comes out and, for the first time in this campaign, hits it right and has the right tone and the right approach, then I think he‘ll do well.
I think he is going to do well. John Kerry always rises to the occasion. I‘m not spinning. I‘m telling you, he always rises to the occasion. And he‘s like a fighter who‘s always the most dangerous when he‘s hurt and in the corner. That‘s him tonight. I think he is going to come out. I think...
MATTHEWS: We think that‘s been true in Massachusetts. We‘ll see if it‘s true in the country tonight.
SCARBOROUGH: I think it could be.
MEACHAM: And there is the possibility that President Bush has peaked about a month too early, because we all need a narrative to change.
MATTHEWS: Is that your prediction?
MEACHAM: I think it‘s possible that we‘re going to be sitting around saying, well, you know Kerry really surprised us, because, in a way, the imperative is to change the story.
And all races get very tight toward the end. Remember, the Bush people will tell you they went to bed the day before the election in 2000 confident it was going to be a short night the night on election night, and it didn‘t turn out to be that way.
MATTHEWS: Ron Reagan?
RON REAGAN: Kerry might try a variation on the, are you better off than you were four years ago?
And it might go something like this. The last four years, has George W. Bush been honest with you about why we went into Iraq? Has he been honest with you about the cost? Did he have a plan for the aftermath? Does he have an exit strategy that he‘s told you about?
He might try something like that.
MATTHEWS: That also would have the added advantage of ticking off the president because I think people, when they are told they‘re dishonest, they‘re liars, tend to react viscerally.
RON REAGAN: Yes. This would be a rhetorical question, of course.
MATTHEWS: So, therefore, within the rules.
RON REAGAN: Yes.
MATTHEWS: Andrea Mitchell.
MITCHELL: Well, you know, the conventional wisdom is that a foreign policy debate plays to George Bush‘s strengths, because he has got this gap on foreign policy which the challenger.
But foreign policy could play to John Kerry, as the rest of the panel has said. And if Kerry comes out with a really strong, concise, deliberate rhetorical challenge to the president, he could score tonight and it would change the nature of the debate. And with so many people watching, it could change the election.
MATTHEWS: Who‘s most likely to choke tonight, choke, I mean, come out
there, be frozen, scared, of the competition
MITCHELL: They‘re both
MATTHEWS: They won‘t choke?
SCARBOROUGH: I think we‘ve got two professionals.
RON REAGAN: I think the two downsides could be that Bush, who believes he is on a mission to save the country and to save his countrymen, will get fractious and snippy if Kerry challenges him, and Kerry could just keep talking until about 4:00 a.m. So those are the two.
SCARBOROUGH: These guys are professionals, though. They‘re very good.
I always make fun of liberals underestimating George W. Bush. I do it. You know, and I always have to remind myself, wait a second, he took down Ann Richards in a debate. This guy is very good. You look at what John Kerry did against Weld, you have got two pros. Neither of these guys are going to choke. It‘s Sammy Sosa vs. Pedro Martinez. You‘ve got two pros.
MATTHEWS: Audacity is the president‘s greatest strength.
SCARBOROUGH: What‘s that?
SCARBOROUGH: Oh, yes.
MATTHEWS: He‘s willing to do almost anything and he has an almost fearlessness about it. Does that audacity work for him tonight or work against him?
SCARBOROUGH: Well, it does—there is this calming—there‘s this confidence about him. Ronald Reagan had it. Didn‘t really care what critics had to say about him. You know, both of them were called cowboys.
And I‘m not comparing the two, Ron. Don‘t worry about it.
SCARBOROUGH: But both were called—and I don‘t want to offend anybody out there. It has a lot to do with their faith. When you walk into a debate like George W. Bush and you think inside that God is on your side, you really don‘t care what the “New York Times” editorial page is going to say the next morning.
MATTHEWS: Let me offer a different view of that, which is that you‘re right, I think.
John Kerry—I have watched him over the years—he‘s physically fearless. That‘s an odd thing to say about any human being. The sports he chooses, the war he fought, the way he behaves, he‘s not afraid, like most people are, of life and other people. So, tonight, it will be a battle perhaps between the man who‘s the true believer and the fearless warrior. What a debate we got going.
The first presidential debate of the 2004 election is set to begin in just a moment.
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