Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 3/4/2016

Guests:
Erin McPike, Dana Milbank, Michelle Bernard, Marc Fisher, Jeremy Peters, Matt Schlapp, Jay Newton-Small, John Feehery, Michael Tomasky
Transcript:

Show: HARDBALL
Date: March 4, 2016
Guest: Erin McPike, Dana Milbank, Michelle Bernard, Marc Fisher, Jeremy
Peters, Matt Schlapp, Jay Newton-Small, John Feehery, Michael Tomasky

STEVE KORNACKI, GUEST HOST: Republicans wage war.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

And good evening. I`m Steve Kornacki, in for Chris Matthews.

The Republican party forces aligned against Donald Trump continued to wage
a desperate effort today to deny him the nomination. One day after the
2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, eviscerated Trump, calling him a bully, calling
him a phony, calling him a fraud, Romney made the rounds on television to
continue his assault.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio said that Trump is scamming the American people and
that if he gets the nomination, it will, quote, “be the end of the modern
conservative movement.” Ted Cruz said that Trump would betray
conservatives. And Trump hit back at Rubio and Cruz.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know that in Florida, they
hate little Marco Rubio so much.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: If a guy like little Marco becomes president, which I think is
unlikely…

(BOOS)

TRUMP: I think is unlikely – look, when you are rated at 31 percent
likability in your own state, because he`s terrible, you`re going to have a
hard time being president.

So last night, he had a very, very bad night. According to the various
polls, he lost the debate badly, and – but he`s at 16, so he`s going to go
down. So it`s Trump at 49, little Marco Rubio at 16, Cruz, lying Ted Cruz
– lying Ted – that`s amazing. No matter what you say with Ted, he`ll
change it. He`ll do whatever he has to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Also today, Trump once again defended the size of his hands –
yes, you heard that right – and he rejected calls for him to be
presidential.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: When little Marco`s spews his crap about the size of my hands –
which are big, the size of my hands…

(BOOS)

TRUMP: No, he made a thing. He says, Well, Donald Trump has – uh, let`s
see, what can I say, what can I say. So I looked at him, I said, Marco…

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: No, I just wanted to – look at that. Those hands can hit a golf
ball 285 yards!

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Right? Those are good, strong – I`ve never been criticized about
the size of my hands before. I`m saying to myself, What – what`s going on
here?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And last night`s Republican debate quickly descended into a two-
on-one wrestling match, with Cruz and Rubio making the case that Trump is
unfit for the presidency.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are not going to turn
over the conservative movement or the party of Lincoln or Reagan, for
example, to someone whose positions are not conservative.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If we nominate Donald,
we`re going to spend the spring – the fall and the summer with the
Republican nominee facing a fraud trial.

TRUMP: Oh, stop it.

CRUZ: … that Hillary Clinton…

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: It`s a minor civil case!

CRUZ: Donald, learn not to interrupt.

TRUMP: There are many, many civil cases.

CRUZ: It`s not complicated. Count to 10, Donald.

RUBIO: He has spent a career of convincing Americans that he`s something
that he`s not, in exchange for their money. Now he`s trying to do the same
exchange for their country.

TRUMP: This little guy has lied so much…

RUBIO: Here we go!

TRUMP: … about my record.

RUBIO: Here we go!

(BOOS)

CRUZ: If, in fact, you went to Manhattan and said, I`m lying to the
American people, then the voters have a right to know!

TRUMP: No, no. You`re the lying…

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: You`re the lying guy up here. Excuse me. I`ve given my answer,
lying Ted. I`ve given my answer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: The Cruz and Rubio argument for most of that debate is that
Trump must be stopped in order to save the country and to save the
conservative movement. And yet at the end of that debate, both of those
candidates were asked if they would ultimately support Trump if he wins the
Republican nomination. And all three of his rivals said yes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER, FOX MODERATOR: Can you definitively say you will support the
Republican nominee even if that nominee is Donald J. Trump? Senator Rubio,
yes or no.

RUBIO: I`ll support the Republican nominee.

BAIER: Yes or no, you will support Donald Trump if he`s the nominee.

CRUZ: Yes because I gave my word that I would.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, I – but – and I
kind of think that before it`s all said and done, I`ll be the nominee.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And I`m joined now by John Feehery, a Republican strategist, Jay
Newton-Small, Washington correspondent for “Time” magazine, and Michael
Tomasky, a columnist for the DailyBeast.

John, let me start with you. Isn`t that the wrong answer from Cruz and
from Rubio and from Kasich, for that matter? Aren`t they supposed to stand
there and say, This is an emergency, Republicans, this guy will destroy the
party, this party won`t be worth voting for if he gets the nomination?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, not really, not if they want to
ultimately get the nomination and get the Trump voters to vote for them.
Now, that`s a tricky question, obviously, and they – you know, the
rhetoric has been kind of overheated on all sides. In many ways, I think
Donald Trump is like a Don Rickles routine. It`s all insults and no
policy.

But it`s – you know, it`s a tricky question because these guys want to
ultimately be the winner, and they know that they cannot win without the
Trump voters, and that`s their big problem.

KORNACKI: But doesn`t that – doesn`t that sort of illustrate the
essential problem they have here? I`ve seen this NeverTrump hashtag. It
seems like it`s NeverTrump with an asterisk, and the asterisk undercuts the
urgency of the whole thing in stopping him.

FEEHERY: Yes, right. It`s NeverTrump, but they still want the Trump
voters, and that`s all very tricky.

So yes, you know, I don`t know how this all ends up, Steve. I don`t know
how they beat Trump. I hope they do. I`m not a big Trump guy. I think
he`s – would be a problem for the country. But ultimately, if the
Republicans do want to unite and beat Hillary Clinton, they`ve got to
unite. And somehow – and that`s what that was about last night when those
guys said they would ultimately vote for him if they had to.

KORNACKI: So on this subject on the “TODAY” show this morning, Marco Rubio
was asked about that seeming contradiction. All debate long, he was
calling Trump a con man, but at the end, he said he`d support him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUBIO: We, as Republicans, feel that Hillary Clinton would be a disaster
to the country. That`s how bad she is. I would look at that as a
reflection of how bad she is, not how good Donald Trump is.

I don`t want us to have a nominee that people have to settle for or make
excuse for why they voted, and that`s what we`re trying to avoid here. And
the only way to do it is to unify around a campaign like mine because I can
bring this party together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Jay Newton-Small, let me ask you, what do you think of this
strategy? I mean, we`re at a point now where Cruz and Rubio, they`re all
but admitting – at least the people around them are all but admitting that
if they`re going to stop Trump, they got to take this thing to a
convention. They got to deny him the first ballot nomination.

They got to do things we have never seen before. This would be an
unprecedented situation right now to deny him the nomination. When they
say, yes, I`ll support him anyway, it sounds like they`re sending the
message, Oh, this is like any other election.

JAY NEWTON-SMALL, “TIME”: Well, I think John is right that they actually
have to appeal to his voters and to make sure that – you know, that those
voters see another path through them, through (INAUDIBLE) viable (ph) for
his voters. And he`s brought in millions of new voters into the system.

But also, if the entire Republican Party says, Dump Trump, we don`t want
Trump, and anybody but Trump, and then he actually gets more votes than
anybody else and gets the nomination, what`s to stop him from leaving the
party at any point and just going off and forming his own party.

And so there`s very delicate balance where you don`t want him to kind of go
running off and splitting the party. And they`re kind of – you know, the
party splits in so many different ways. Like, there`s all these different
paths where, like, the party is going to split if he does stay and becomes
the nominee. The party`s going to split if he isn`t the nominee.

And so you`re – they`re all trying to carefully cobble together a way for
the Republican Party to all stay together and form some sort of cohesion
around a nominee, whether it`s all (ph) Donald Trump or somebody else. And
that`s really delicate.

KORNACKI: Yes, and we`ve – for the a record, Donald Trump was also asked
last night, Would you support Rubio or Cruz or Kasich is they`re the
nominee? And he hemmed and hawed for a minute, but he did ultimately say
that he would. Take that for whatever it`s worth.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney – talking about those attacks on Donald Trump – he
continued them today, calling Trump unfit for office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Well, there`s no question
I`m going to do everything within the normal political bounds to make sure
that we don`t nominate Donald Trump. I think he would be terribly unfit
for office. I don`t think he has the temperament to be president. And so
I want to see one of the other three become the nominee.

Now, by the way, after March 15th, I think you`ll see it narrowed down to
one or two contenders opposing Donald Trump, and I intend to support one of
them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Matt Lauer asked if he would consider accepting the party`s
nomination himself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST: Under any circumstances, would you be a part of this
presidential race as a candidate?

ROMNEY: There are no circumstances I can foresee where that would possibly
happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Well, Michael Tomasky, I`m trying to figure this out. He waits
until Donald Trump wins 10 states. He comes out and he makes a statement.
The statement is, I`m not endorsing anyone There`s three good candidates.
There`s one bad one. Then he says, I think I`ll endorse one after March
15th. And everybody`s looking at March 15th and saying, This thing could
be over March 15th.

MICHAEL TOMASKY, DAILYBEAST: They`ve all left it a little late.

First, Steve, I want to really quickly get in my two cents on the previous
question on the table because I disagree with John and Jay. I think that,
certainly Kasich, who came third and had a clean shot – he should have
said, I will not support this guy. He would have had all the headlines
today if he had said that, distinguishing himself from Rubio and Cruz.

KORNACKI: Corner the market on – corner the market on that part of the
party, right?

TOMASKY: Exactly, exactly. I think it was a terrible mistake. I was
flabbergasted that he didn`t.

Now, back to Romney. I don`t think Romney really wants to have the
nomination. I know it`s a more fun and mischievous answer to say that he
does. But you know, he went through – it`s a brutal, grueling thing.
He`d like to be president, but I don`t think he again wants to do what you
have to do, and then contemplate running against Hillary Clinton and
looking at the electoral map, which will loom, you know, exactly as it
loomed for him in 2012 against Barack Obama.

I don`t think he really wants to do it. I think he wants to try and have
influence and be some kind of party savior, which I don`t know if he can
be. I mean, he has to keep this – he can`t just do this for two days and
go away. Has to keep this up, you know, permanently, basically.

KORNACKI: Yes, when you take the kinds of shots at Donald Trump that Mitt
Romney`s taking, you are going to get Donald Trump returning fire. This is
what Trump said back to Romney today. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: This guy Romney came out yesterday.

(BOOS)

TRUMP: I mean, the hatred he has, the hatred, the jealousy, the hatred.
It`s hard to believe. I jokingly said that because I don`t like Romney. I
don`t like him. He thinks he`s hot stuff. And he think he`s – I hate
people that think they`re hot stuff and they`re nothing.

Romney`s a bitter man. He looks like a bitter man. He`s attacking really
your front-runner by a lot. And he wanted to run. And he was going to
run, and I put up with it long enough. And I said, Look, you can`t let him
run. He`s a joke artist. And he`s nasty. You know, he`s a nasty guy.
He`s like a spoiled brat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: You know, Michael, I`m listening to this, and I`m just – I`m
thinking back to Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush seemed like the perfect foil for
Donald Trump, the legacy candidate, the legacy politician. And Trump just
destroyed him. And Romney, you know, the son of a former governor, former
presidential – a lot of the same pedigree there, same kind of attack right
now.

TOMASKY: Yes. And you know, the problem with Jeb is that he didn`t look
like he was enjoying it. You know, he looked like he was at a funeral, his
own politically. But Romney, you know – Romney, you have to bring some
zest to this. You have to be ready to go toe to toe with the guy and trade
insults. I mean, Rubio`s been pretty good at it. It has really debased
our discourse in – in…

KORNACKI: Has Rubio gotten anything out of that, though? Has that been
worth anything to him?

TOMASKY: Doesn`t look like it so far.

(LAUGHTER)

KORNACKI: Yes. Meanwhile, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan writes in
“The Wall Street Journal” today that the Republican Party might be unable
to put itself back together.

Quote, “I think we are seeing a great political party shatter before our
eyes. I knew Tuesday night I was witnessing something great, something
bigger than 1976, bigger, too, than 1964, when Goldwater conservatism swept
the primaries and convention and lost the country. If party forces succeed
in finagling Trump out of the nomination, his supporters will bolt, which
will break the party. And it`s hard to see what kind of special sauce,
what enduring loyalty would make them come back in the future.”

John, I have to say, watching that debate last night, I started to get that
impression, too, that this a party that really – there`s a wedge going
right down the middle here, and either side is not going to want to accept
the results of this primary.

FEEHERY: You know, I disagree with that fundamentally. I think the
Republican Party`s actually very strong, especially at the state level. We
have 31 governorships. We have more legislative seats than ever.

It doesn`t look good at the presidential level, but Donald Trump is not
leading a movement. Donald Trump is a celebrity who`s leading a campaign
for himself.

KORNACKI: But isn`t it…

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: … a campaign for him, but isn`t it also a campaign against the
Republican Party and its establishment that we know?

FEEHERY: Well, listen, I think it`s a – not really, not at the state
level. I don`t think that`s happening at the state level. I think that if
you look at Congress, we got more seats in the Congress than we ever had
before. The Senate is in Republican hands. This is not going to break the
party, and I think that there`s a lot of hyperbole about it breaking the
party.

And I think that Trump – the one that`s (INAUDIBLE) happening is that –
you saw Lindsey Graham say that he could vote for Ted Cruz. In many ways,
Donald Trump is unifying the party against him. So listen, I think the
thoughts of the death of the Republican Party are very much exaggerated.

KORNACKI: Jay, we`re short on time. I`ll go quick to you, though. What
do you make of that?

NEWTON-SMALL: I think it`s – you know, this is the end of the Faustian
bargain that the Republican Party made several years ago when they decided
to harness all this anger that exists and this anti-establishment anger in
the country, and they`re riding a bull and that bull is equally as apt to
kill them as it is to kill the other side. And they are the establishment
and the bull is essentially bucking them and saying, No way. And it`s
going to be very, very hard to ride this beast (ph) out (ph) and not get
hurt.

KORNACKI: All right, John Feehery, Jay Newton-Small, Michael Tomasky,
thanks all for joining us. And we are going to have plenty more on the
2016 races coming up.

But next, we have, believe it or not, breaking news in the O.J. Simpson
case. Los Angeles police say they are running tests on a knife that was
found years ago on the Simpson estate.

Plus, Republican front-runner Donald Trump ditches his appearance at the
annual conservative CPAC conference, and that is not sitting well with the
hard right.

Also, inside the numbers on the battle for delegates, that all-important
fight. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich want to stop Trump from the
nomination and force a contested convention in Cleveland this summer. That
may be easier said than done. We will break that down for you.

And finally, on the eve of the super Saturday primaries and caucuses, the
HARDBALL roundtable will tell us something we don`t know about a very wild
campaign.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Some good news for the American economy today, 242,000 jobs were
added in the month of February. That`s a strong showing, unemployment
remaining at 4.9 percent. On the heels of that report, U.S. stocks made
gains today, the Dow closing up 63 points and passing 17,000 for the first
time since early January.

Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: And welcome back to HARDBALL. And we should tell you this is
not a tape you`re watching from 1995. There is tonight a potential new
development in the O.J. Simpson murder case, the Los Angeles Police
Department announcing today that a former police officer recently turned
over a knife that supposedly was found at the former Simpson estate.

Here`s LAPD spokesman Andy Neiman earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAPT. ANDY NEIMAN, LAPD: The off-duty or retired officers was working in
the area of the Rockingham estate. And he claimed that an individual who
claimed to be a construction worker provided him with this knife, claiming
that it was found on the property. So he held onto it until just recently,
when we discovered that he had it.

It`s been submitted to our lab. They are going to study it and examine it
for all forensics, including serology and DNA and hair samples.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And this afternoon, law enforcement officials telling NBC News
that the knife will be tested, but that it is not consistent with the
weapon used in the murder.

In June of 1994, Simpson`s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend,
Ron Goldman, were found murdered in the upscale Brentwood neighborhood of
Los Angeles.

O.J. Simpson was a Heisman trophy winner, a former pro football player and
a media star. He was charged with the double murder, and police allowed
Simpson to turn himself in, leading to a two-hour police chase of his Ford
Bronco that was carried live on national television as the NBA finals
played out. I remember watching that.

Simpson`s trial was closely followed. It took almost a year before he was
acquitted. As Neiman explained today, since no one has ever been found
guilty of the murders, it remains an active case.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAPT. ANDREW NEIMAN, LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT: The bottom line is
that with all cases that remain open, such as the O.J. Simpson and other
murder cases and robbery cases, unless there is an actual arrest or
conviction to prove that we have actually closed the case, the cases remain
open.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And joining me NBC News correspondent Kelly O`Donnell and “The
Washington Post”`s senior editor, Marc Fisher. Both of them covered the
Simpson trial more than 20 years ago.

So, Kelly, you`re probably having flashbacks. I think all of America is,
seeing this news.

Let me ask you, what is your take on this? Do you think this is sort of a
red herring that has been discovered here, or do you think maybe this case
is – we have learned something new and valuable today?

KELLY O`DONNELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT: It`s been such an open question for
all these years. What was the murder weapon? Where is it?

When I first heard it, it really seemed like a tantalizing possibility.
Now, as we hear that some of the characteristics don`t match what the
forensics showed with the two victims, it certainly would seem like an
unlikely possibility.

But it does reawaken a lot of curiosity, intrigue and mystery that
surrounded this case. I went back to look at my files, Steve, and I was
drawn back to some of the old newspaper clippings from the time that I
kept.

I have got the transcript of Simpson`s first interview with police. A lot
of things that took me back to that time. And it is so captivated the
nation on so many levels, that to have some new tidbit, some possibility
was really quite captivating today. There have been other times when there
were reports of a possible link to evidence and the case, for example, in
Chicago, where Simpson had flown on the night of the murders, took a flight
to Chicago and they looked at a potential sort of drainage ditch there with
a report of a knife.

So it has been something that has happened before. The fact that it was on
his personal property, and the home was sold in 1998, and then the owner,
not wanting all of that notoriety, all of that attention, knocked the house
down, and this apparently is where the construction site at the Simpson
property brings us to this development today.

To think that someone would have held on to a knife with a possible link
for all this time also adds to the drama. So it has been quite a journey
back in time. And to be reminded how some of the issues that were so
prevalent then, in terms of police conduct, issues of race and money and
power, all of that is in many ways still relevant today, Steve.

KORNACKI: Kelly, I love that you brought the newspapers too. I can see
the yellowing on it that you start to get after the years. But you`re
right. This was – there were nightly O.J. Simpson specials on television.
The trial, every day of it, everybody was watching it. I remember that so
well.

And then one of the things, Marc, that I remember, too, was the day of the
acquittal, October of 1995, I was in my high school art class. I remember
this. We had to convince the teacher to turn a radio on so we could heard
the verdict and the place just exploded when that announced that.

But I remember, as soon as that was over, O.J. and his team said, great,
now we can hunt for the real killers. And a lot of people made fun of it
because of course so many people thought he did it himself all along. But
20 years later, you get the sense the police really kind of never stopped
looking at him.

MARC FISHER, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: Well, certainly, there has been a
presumption among many police and prosecutors that he was guilty and that
he got off.

And obviously that`s what started this enormous racial rift over the O.J.
Simpson case, which plays out through today, as Kelly mentioned. But that
day, speaking of newspapers, that was the next to last time “The Washington
Post” printed a print extra edition in the middle of the day, because there
was such an enormous interest in this momentous verdict in this case.

So, clearly, this is from another era, and yet very much with us. If you
try to think of what are the things that could break our Donald Trump fever
these days, in this 24/7 concentration on him, well, O.J. Simpson was one
of the few things that could do that.

But that said, it doesn`t look like there is a whole lot here. Even if
they were to find O.J. Simpson`s DNA on this knife, he is not going to be
tried again because of double jeopardy. He has been acquitted of this
crime already and cannot be brought to trial again.

Technically, the case remains open, and that`s why the police are willing
to put in this effort. And, you know, if it does lead to the other killer,
the real killer, then perhaps it does move forward.

But other than that, it seems to be an awfully curious bit of timing with
the TV dramatization of O.J. trial going on even as we speak. So why now,
and where has the knife been all these years? There are big questions
about – there is no chain ever custody that could possibly be established
here. And the police department seemed rather upset with this officer for
not having come forward earlier with the knife.

KORNACKI: Yes, I`m wondering about that too. A former police officer, the
most famous murder case maybe in the last 50 years or something, finds
potentially at least evidence, and then says, what, I`m going to collect
this, add this to my personal collection.

And also you mentioned there is that FX series right now everybody is
talking about, about the O.J. trial, the O.J. case. Either one of you
watching that? I`m just curious.

O`DONNELL: Actually I have, yes.

FISHER: I have watched a number of the episodes. Yes, and it`s – you
know, it has its moments of bringing everything back alive to what it was.

But there is something odd going on. They cleverly use the news clips from
that time, and those are the moments when the series really comes alive.
And to see the transition back into the dramatization, it almost feels not
quite real, but those news clips from the – everything from the slow-
motion chase, to the interviews with the various lawyers, that`s just
riveting.

KORNACKI: Yes.

And, quickly, Kelly, I hear you watching it too. Watching it now, does it
give you any new perspective on what you witnessed back then?

O`DONNELL: Well, I think so many of the issues remain relevant.

And the FX series is a lot about the relationships between the lawyers,
which was less focused on at the time back when the trial was unfolding.
And it is intriguing and it`s entertainment.

I know the families, who I met and dealt with during covering the trial,
don`t like that this crime is a form of entertainment. And I think we can
all respect that they suffered a loss that even all these years later is
still very personal to them.

But there is this other dimension of the cultural impact of the O.J.
Simpson case and the fact that he remains a figure of curiosity. There are
these open questions about evidence in the case. And I am also struck by
the fact that the trial was watched really nonstop back then on cable
television, in a time before social media and a time before the Internet
affected all of our lives.

It was a collective experience for the country to watch the case, and all
of the issues from domestic violence to race relations, to the competence
of police, so many different things, the effect of powerful defendants.
This was the most famous person in America ever to be put on trial for
murder.

And so it was extraordinary. And so I think that seeing some of that
again, you find that a lot of these issues in their own way still are a
part of American life. And O.J. Simpson, for all of his fame and infamy,
is still a very curious character – Steve.

KORNACKI: Yes. I remember there were two groups of people back then.
There were the O.J. trial junkies and there were people that rolled their
eyes that said enough of this, enough of this.

But 20 years ago, I think a lot of people have a lot of memories of that
time.

Kelly O`Donnell, Marc Fisher, thank you both for joining us.

And up next: crunching the numbers. Can Donald Trump come away with a
clean win in the primaries, or is he going to be forced to play the
delegate game with Cruz and Rubio trying to deny him a first-ballot
majority at the convention?

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PAGE HOPKINS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Page Hopkins. Here`s what`s
happening.

Speaking at CPAC tonight, Ben Carson said he is leaving the campaign trail.
His exit from the race was expected. Earlier this week, he said he didn`t
see a political path forward after Super Tuesday.

And lead pipe removal got under way today at a home in Flint, Michigan.
The lead pipes are being replaced with copper ones. The city`s facing a
contaminated water crisis. Actually, Rachel Maddow will have another in-
depth look at the Flint water crisis tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern – and
now we`re going to take you back to HARDBALL.

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

In a move that has disappointed many conservative activists today, Donald
Trump has abruptly canceled his scheduled appearance at the Conservative
Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC. It`s an annual
gathering that has long been a go-to destination for conservatives,
especially those who are seeking the White House.

Trump was scheduled to address the conference Saturday morning, but his
campaign today explained in a press release that they have scheduled
another event instead – quote – “Trump will be in Wichita, Kansas, for a
major rally on Saturday. Because of this, he will not be able to speak at
CPAC.”

Now, in response, CPAC tweeted this – quote – “Very disappointed Donald
Trump has decided at the last minute to drop out of the CPAC. His choice
sends a clear message to conservatives.”

Ted Cruz didn`t miss the opportunity to slam Trump for his absence in
opening his remarks at CPAC today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So Donald Trump is skipping
CPAC.

(BOOING)

CRUZ: I think somebody told him Megyn Kelly was going to be here.

(LAUGHTER)

CRUZ: Or even worse, he was told there were conservatives that were going
to be here.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And I`m joined now by the perfect guest to bring in for this,
the chairman of the organization that hosts CPAC, Matt Schlapp, as well as
Jeremy Peters, reporter with “The New York Times.”

So, Matt, let me start with you.

Donald Trump is not coming. Here is the question everybody is asking. Is
there a price to be paid for a presidential candidate, the front-runner
right now, snubbing CPAC?

MATT SCHLAPP, FORMER WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Yes, it`s
a big mistake. I think it`s a risk.

He was committed to come here. He have been working with him and his team.
And I know that he has come to CPAC many times, has been well-received. I
know he wanted to be here. We treat all the candidates the same, Steve.
I`m unaligned in this presidential campaign. I haven`t made any
endorsements. The ACU hasn`t made any endorsements.

And we were very clear to each of these candidates. We wanted them to be
here, that they were going to have to speak about the same amount of time
and answer questions from conservatives. And I`m sorry that that became a
problem for him. I think they`re making a mistake. We still wish they
would come, but we won`t change our rules.

KORNACKI: All right, Matt, and I understand we have an issue here. We
have got to clear you in the next five seconds. So, I`m going to thank you
for putting your 2 cents in. Good luck with the event out there. Thanks a
lot, Matt Schlapp.

SCHLAPP: All right.

KORNACKI: And I will now bring in Jeremy Peters into the conversation
here.

So, Jeremy, let`s pick it up on what Matt was just saying. Donald Trump is
saying he is not going to CPAC because he wants to head out to Kansas.
Now, look, Kansas is voting on Saturday, caucuses. It`s a pretty big
event. The polling has been good for Trump in Kansas. He also has not
been in Kansas campaigning at all. His rivals have been out there.

Is that a legitimate excuse or do you think something else is going on
here?

JEREMY PETERS, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”: I think it is a good excuse, Steve.
Donald Trump is running for president of the United States. He is not
running to win the CPAC straw poll.

But I do think there is something else going on here, and that that`s Marco
Rubio has been noticing in his private polling that he is gaining in
Kansas. He upended his entire schedule over the last couple of days and
skipped campaigning in Louisiana and elsewhere to make three stops in
Kansas.

So he thinks that he has a very good shot at winning that, and Donald
Trump, I think, is probably a little nervous about that.

KORNACKI: Is it making a statement, though, do you think as well? There
have been so many sort of rules that we have all established through the
years, officials rules. If you`re running for the Republican nomination,
you have to do this, you can`t do that.

One of them is, you have got to go to CPAC, you have got to cater to that
crowd. Is this just another statement too of Donald Trump kind of making a
statement here that, hey, I`m not playing by the same rules as everybody
else?

PETERS: Yes, or I think maybe he didn`t donate as much money to CPAC this
year, and felt that he didn`t have the clout that he had last year to call
the shots.

Last year, the Trump Organization was a major donor to CPAC, with – if
there is a quid pro quo there, I`m not sure. I`m not saying that.

But I think that Donald Trump certainly, as you say, Steve, has made a
career so far of breaking convention, and he is going to do what he wants
to do.

KORNACKI: All right, well, we have Kansas this weekend, a few other
contests, but the upcoming winner-take-all contests that everybody is
talking about, Florida, Ohio, they`re on March 15. They`re crucial to
everyone who is hoping do hoping deny that first-ballot nomination at the
Republican Convention.

Here is what the delegate count might look like if Kasich wins Ohio that
day, if Rubio wins Florida, if the stop Trump takes care of business in
those states. Under those circumstances, Trump would then need to get 67
percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination outright.

So, Jeremy, when I look at this, I say, look, beating Trump in Ohio,
beating Trump in Florida, they`re essential if you want to stop him. But
even that threshold, 67 percent the rest of the way, they start to add up
fast after that. You get to states like New York, to Pennsylvania, to
California, a lot of delegates, a lot of blue states there. Even stopping
him in Florida or Ohio may not be enough.

PETERS: That`s right.

And don`t forget about New Jersey too. There are states that have a lot of
delegates that are up for grabs that Trump is poised to do well in. I do
think that the path gets increasingly narrow for Ted Cruz. That`s
something that the people who are urging Kasich to get out of the race,
Marco Rubio fans, will say is that you know, when you`re talking about
California, New Jersey, Delaware, these are places that are not exactly
friendly Ted Cruz territory.

So the math does get very less favorable to him as we go on here. Now, one
of the things I think nobody is really pointing out is in all of this talk
about how turnout has swelled, how you have 8.5 million who voted on Super
Tuesday, you know, that`s a big part because of Trump, no doubt about it.

But let`s not forget that a lot of those people are also turning out to
vote against Donald Trump. So as much as Donald Trump is inspiring this
new movement of voters to join him, he is inspiring a whole lot of people
who are voting to spite him.

KORNACKI: Right, you have got two blocs there. You have got a bloc that
wants to get out there and give him the nomination and another giant bloc
that doesn`t want to.

The question is, at the end of this, could they put them back together?
Also, if Trump does win Ohio and Florida, this is what would happen to the
delegate count. Look at that big difference from what we were just showing
you. Suddenly, he is more than 400 ahead of Rubio, Rubio drops back to
third, Kasich is barely a factor in there.

A huge difference. Jeremy, for all intents and purposes, it looks like if
Trump wins those two states, this thing could end on the spot. And we have
to say, the polling that we have seen so far says he is leading in those
two states.

PETERS: Yes, absolutely, he is. He has come up in Ohio lately, which is
really surprising, considering that John Kasich has thought for a while
that he was going to walk away with that.

I think that tit looks like the more likely scenario right now is he wins
one and doesn`t win the other. So, in that case, it`s also going to be
hard for Trump to get to 1,237, and it`s going to make for a very
interesting convention.

KORNACKI: Yes. It`s interesting to see how those home states are
factoring into this, Cruz in Texas, Kasich Ohio, Rubio Florida. We thought
the days of the favorite sons candidacies were over, but it looks like
that`s what we`re dealing with here.

Jeremy Peters from “The New York Times,” thanks for joining us.

PETERS: Thank you.

KORNACKI: And coming up, we`re going to turn to the Democratic side of the
aisle, as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders prepare to battle it out in
Michigan.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM WEBB (D), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: I`m not supporting anybody right now.

INTERVIEWER: Would you vote for Hillary Clinton?

WEBB: No, I would not vote for Hillary Clinton.

INTERVIEWER: Would you vote for Donald Trump?

WEBB: I`m not sure yet. I don`t know who I`m going to vote for.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE KORNACKI, GUEST HOST: And welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was former Virginia senator and Democratic presidential candidate Jim
Webb this morning on “MORNING JOE”, saying that he will not be voting for
Hillary Clinton.

But Clinton did receive some good news today when “The New York Times”
reported computer logs by an IT staffer showed no evidence of foreign
hacking. “The Times” said, quote, “The security logs bolster Mrs.
Clinton`s assertion that her use of a personal e-mail account to conduct
State Department business while she was the secretary of state did not put
American secrets into the hands of hackers or foreign governments.”

Clinton and her Democratic rival are turning their attention to Michigan.
Michigan going to hold their primary this coming Tuesday. Sanders was in
the state attack Clinton`s past positions on trade.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: She has supported
NAFTA. I opposed NAFTA.

She supported permanent normal trade relations with China. I vigorously
opposed PNTR with China.

She supported permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam. I opposed
that.

She supported that the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. I opposed that.

She supported the Korean Free Trade Agreement. I opposed that.

This is a criticism of Secretary Clinton`s trade policies, which have been
a disaster. All I can say is that she voiced a lot of support over the
years for the concept of the TTP. And she was very reluctant to come out
in opposition.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: But the polls in the Wolverine State not looking good for Bernie
Sanders. The newest one putting Hillary Clinton 28 points ahead of him.

Time now for the HARDBALL round table. Michelle Bernard is president of
Bernard Center, Dana Milbank is an opinion writer with “The Washington
Post”, and Erin McPike is a correspondent with “Reuters”.

So, let`s start withy you, Dana, on this news about Jim Webb. Look,
obviously, Jim Webb went nowhere as a Democratic presidential candidate.

But there is this theory out there, this idea out there I guess that if
Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, if Hillary Clinton is the nominee,
if there are voters on the Democratic side that Trump could maybe chip away
at, it`s rural, maybe blue collar, working class, the kinds of people that
maybe Jim Webb appealed to, whether it`s in western Virginia, whether it`s
in the Rust Belt, that she could put that he – excuse me – Trump could
places in play against Hillary Clinton, maybe that other Republicans
couldn`t.

What do you think of that?

DANA MILBANK, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, Steve, you point to a real
vulnerability that Hillary Clinton has with those kind of voters. However,
Jim Webb, I think the reaction has to be, who cares?

I mean, the guy could get together with Jim Gilmore and form the
irrelevancy party. He was a senator largely by accident because of George
Allen`s troubles there. And then he went absolutely nowhere in the debate.
So, I don`t think he speaks for anybody, or carries any votes with him, and
he is obviously not even considering doing that independent bid anymore.

But yes, it is a real weakness. It`s just somebody other than Jim Webb
would probably need to exploit that.

KORNACKI: You know, Michelle, it`s funny, I think we all thought we had it
figured out after the 2012 election, the idea that there`s this Democratic
coalition, there`s this Republican coalition, the cultural demographic
lines are very clear. Every said it`s simple. Look, if the Republicans
want to win back the White House in 2016, you`ve got to drive up the
numbers with Latinos, drive up the nonwhite numbers, do better with single
women.

We thought we had it figured out, but when I look at Donald Trump
potentially being the Republican nominee, I think there is the potential
here for sort of a realignment of a lot of these groups, both sides,
helping and hurting each party that we haven`t thought of before.

MICHELLE BERNARD, BERNARD CENTER FOR WOMEN: Absolutely. You know, I have
read a study recently where somebody was looking at demographics and Google
analytics who Donald Trump`s supporters are and where they come from all
over the country in a different way.

You know, back to the point that you were discussing with Dana and to what
we`re talking about now, Donald Trump has Democratic support. The blue
collar high school educated, non-people of color that supported Hillary
Clinton in 2008 are the same people who are looking at Hillary Clinton and
looking at Donald Trump and being excited by Donald Trump`s candidacy. So
I don`t think Donald Trump needs Jim Webb or anybody else to –

KORNACKI: Michelle, I keep thinking back to 2008. I mean, it`s eight
years ago, but in the late days of that campaign, Clinton versus Obama, she
was rolling up huge numbers, whether it was Pennsylvania or West Virginia
or Kentucky – working class white voters. I remember reading them and
kind of getting confused.

It was, oh, Hillary Clinton has this bond with working class white voters.
I remember in the 1990s, when she was caricatured as this radical feminist,
you know, all of this stuff. I say, it was never about liking Hillary
Clinton for these working class, that sort of group of voters. It was more
about opposing Obama, wasn`t it?

BERNARD: Absolutely. If they had to pick between a black man and white
woman, Hillary Clinton was their woman. You know, back then – I`m sure
you`ll remember, Steve, then Senator Obama referred to the demographic as
people who cling to their guns and cling to religion and they loved Hillary
Clinton.

And I would say that right now, if they have to pick between Hillary
Clinton and Donald Trump, who literally ranges on, on a daily basis about
everything that is wrong with America, and including women, including
Mexicans, including the African-Americans that he says are going to vote
for him, they`ve got their man.

He is not going to have problems with Democrats or Republicans in that
demographic.

KORNACKI: Erin, I guess when people say there might be cross over between
Bernie Sanders voter and a potential Donald Trump voter in the fall, some
people look at that and say they couldn`t be more opposite. But the Bernie
Sanders supporters in a lot of cases, what we`re seeing here, working
class, lower income white voters, certainly we`ve seen that in the
primaries so far, could you see them being attracted to Donald Trump.

ERIN MCPIKE, REUTERS: Oh, absolutely. I`ve, in fact, talked to some in
Florida, specifically, who have looked at data, that`s just down in Florida
as they look at statewide races later this year and in 2018, saying there
are a number of voters who like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump and they`re
trying to figure out the right candidate in those statewide races to fit
the kind of voter whose like Donald Trump and like Bernie Sanders.

It`s a really tough thing. But you`re seeing a lot of the voters want an
outside the beltway, really independent kind of candidate. That`s what
this is showing. It is an outsider here as we all know.

KORNACKI: All right. Well, the round table is staying with us.

Up next, these three have the easiest assignment in the world. They`re
going to tell me something I don`t know.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Back now with the roundtable. They`re going to tell me
something I don`t know.

Michelle, Dana, Erin are with us.

Michelle, we`ll start with you. Tell me something I don`t know.

BERNARD: All right. So, Steve, brace yourself. Charles Evers, the older
brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, according to “The Daily
Caller”, has endorsed Donald Trump. Charles Evers, first African-American
mayor elected in the state of Mississippi since Reconstruction, is
supporting Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States.

He says that Donald Trump will be good for jobs and all of us have a bit of
racism in us, including himself. He became a Republican, endorsed Ronald
Reagan in 1980 and is one of those black people that Donald Trump says will
support him.

KORNACKI: Wow, that is going to be something I imagine we`ll hear an awful
lot about from Donald Trump.

Dana, something I don`t know. Go ahead.

MILBANK: Well, Steve, the e-mail servers is the least of the Clinton`s
legal troubles.

Up in Massachusetts, 100,000 Bernie Sanders supporters signed a petition
seeking to have Bill Clinton arrested and prosecuted and the primary re-
voted up there because Bill Clinton was seen hobnobbing in a polling place
on election day.

This is not what you would call losing gracefully.

KORNACKI: Wait a minute, I just – it`s interesting. In the last few
years, I heard all the Democrats telling me there`s no voting fraud or any
of that stuff doesn`t happen. Now, they want Clinton arrested.

MILBANK: They want him arrested for hobnobbing which is apparently a
third-degree felony.

KORNACKI: Hobnobbing, OK.

Erin McPike, something I don`t know. Go ahead.

MCPIKE: Well, Steve, Marco Rubio, who is, of course, the senator from
Florida who says he`s not running for re-election, is going to spend eight
days down in Florida skipping other states trying to win Florida. But the
Jeb Bush orbit thinks that Marco Rubio will reverse his decision and decide
to run for re-election to his current Senate seat.

KORNACKI: He seems so miserable in the Senate. I can`t help but think the
Jeb Bush people are having some mischievous motives there.

MCPIKE: Well, you might think. But that`s the rumor on the ground, that
that the Florida Republican Senate primary is such a mess that they need
Marco Rubio to step back in and save the seat.

KORNACKI: All right. Erin McPike, Dana Milbank, Michelle Bernard, thanks
to all of you for being with us.

We`re back with more after this. You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for
politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

Tune in tomorrow night when Chris Matthews will anchor special live
election coverage starting at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

And “ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES” starts right now.

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

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