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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 12/15/2015

Guests: Rep. Steve King, Michele Bachmann, Matt Schlapp, Sabrina Siddiqui

Show: HARDBALL Date: December 15, 2015 Guest: Rep. Steve King, Michele Bachmann, Matt Schlapp, Sabrina Siddiqui

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: The fight before Christmas.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Las Vegas for the last Republican presidential debate of 2015. It`s fight night in Vegas. Expect a hot one.

Donald Trump is towering on fear, towering on terror fears. He takes center stage tonight watched by a country on edge. As the candidates ready for battle tonight, authorities are searching more than 900 schools out in Los Angeles after a bomb threat from someone claiming to be an Islamic terrorist got the city to shut down their entire school system. It was later determined to be a hoax.

Trump is riding those fears, of course. He has amassed a commanding lead in another poll out today. Look at this. According to the latest figures from "The Washington Post" and ABC News, Trump laps the Republican field by 23 points. Look at that, 38 to 15 for Cruz, who`s supposedly doing great, Cruz at 15.

His appeal to the country, Trump`s, is about nationalism. It`s about connecting with Republican voters on what they care about. Look at this. Despite near universal condemnation by his rivals, a strong majority of Republican voters, 59 percent, three out of five, say they support Trump`s proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. So the Republican voters support what he`s talking about. And then there`s Ted Cruz. He`s rising, but still way back in the polls.

Last night, Trump fired up his troops and readied for tonight`s battle.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There`s so many people. And many of them don`t have a chance. You say, What are you doing? Just go home and relax.


TRUMP: Go home and relax. I`ll be honest, I think tomorrow night -- I think it`s going to be big.




TRUMP: Oh! And they`re all coming after me. I heard today -- I`m watching, I`m saying, Man, this is, like, crazy.

Well, we`re hearing all these announcers saying, Well, who`s going to take on Trump tonight? Who`s going to hit him hard? It -- and I`m saying to my...


TRUMP: Yes, I would say, bring `em on. Who cares? What difference...


MATTHEWS: NBC`s Katy Tur covers the Trump campaign. She joins me now. Katy, one of the real oddities of these debates, if there`s somebody attacks you personally, or the moderator in this case, Wolf Blitzer, says that was a personal shot at you, you get a reaction opportunity. Cruz could be reacting to every other rival out there tonight.

KATY TUR, NBC CORRESPONDENT: He certainly can. If he watched the undercard debate, the first 20 minutes of that debate was spent basically bashing Donald Trump for his Muslim ban. The only one that was defending him in any way was Rick Santorum, who said that it was more a criticism of this administration and how they aren`t able to handle these people that are coming into this country.

But we do believe there to be some attacks on Donald Trump tonight. I know the moderators are going to try and provoke an attack from Ted Cruz. Unclear, though, if Ted Cruz is going to take the bait on that attack. He`s a very disciplined candidate, and he so far has not gone out and publicly criticized Donald Trump because, frankly, they are going for the same base of support. And when Donald Trump either starts losing in the polls or drops out of this race, Ted Cruz is going to want to take that support into his camp.

Same thing for Donald Trump. If he is going head to head with Ted Cruz, he`s going to want to be able to woo his voters over to him. So the two of them, while they may personally or privately want to attack each other, have pretty much refrained so far.

In fact, last night at Donald Trump`s rally, he only mentioned Cruz once, and that was in reference to poll numbers. He did not go on the offensive against Cruz, and we do not expect to see that tonight, although they will be standing right next to each other.

So if one of them is provoked into saying something negative about the other, it will be interesting, at least visually, to see them talk directly at each other.

MATTHEWS: Well, Trump`s the big guy in that comparison. Physically, he`s 6-foot-3, he reminded me the other day, 6-foot-3, and the other guy`s 5-8. Do you think Trump can play tall guy to him and just say, Nice try, little guy, or do you think he`s going to punch back like a Frank Sinatra character?

Which personality are we going to get tonight, the tall, confident guy, or the Frank Sinatra who`s just met some guy in the men`s room and is going to duke it out with him?

TUR: I don`t know. I mean, you`d have to ask Donald Trump and what might suit him at the moment. He certainly has a physical advantage over Ted Cruz. He is much taller. He is much more imposing. But I think Donald Trump will decide what he needs to do in the moment that whatever attack may come.

I think that not a lot of things with Donald Trump are premeditated. I think he feels the room, he feels the mood, and then he goes on the offensive if he needs to. And so far, he`s been pretty successful at that. He`s very good, as I keep saying, at reading a room. He`s very good at reading his audience and knowing what will play and knowing what will work.


TUR: And it doesn`t necessarily play out in all of the debates, but he knows what his supporters around the country like and what will play well on a television.

MATTHEWS: Thank you so much, Katy Tur. One that I`m going to ask you -- can you read Donald Trump? Can you tell which direction he`s going? Do you want to try that now? Can you pick `em out, what night`s going to be hot, what night cool?

TUR: I think it`s going to be cool tonight. I mean, I might regret these words, but I think he`s going to be cool. I think he`s going to be calm. I think if he does attack, it`ll be one of the lower candidates, like John Kasich or Jeb Bush or Rand Paul, maybe Rubio. But I don`t think we`ll see the fireworks with Ted Cruz tonight. I think you`re going to see...


TUR: ... a nicer, gentler Donald Trump. But I could be wrong. You never know.

MATTHEWS: You never know. Thanks. That`s why we`re watching tonight -- Katy Tur.

Well, some of the candidates are lining up their shots at Trump. Here`s what Rand Paul told reporters just today.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It might be time to go after Trump again. I think maybe -- people have not yet figured out that he would be a disaster for our country.

Bombast, stupid comments, idiotic comments are not enough to win an election. Ultimately, I think the election is still wide open. I think his support is soft. And I think, as you`ve seen with Ben Carson dropping 20 points, same can happen to Donald Trump, and not soon enough for me.


MATTHEWS: His support is soft, right there, Rand Paul.

Anyway, for more I`m joined right now in Las Vegas by the former Nevada -- Nevada -- that`s how you pronounce it, by the way -- GOP chair, Sue Lowden, who`s now a co-chair of the Carly Fiorina national campaign, former RNC chair, Michael Steele. And in New York, Chuck Todd is moderator of "MEET THE PRESS."

I got to start with Chuck, my colleague. Chuck, tonight, this is a hot one, and it`s the fight before Christmas, the last great saloon match before we go to the holidays. Your sense of it.

CHUCK TODD, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": Well, you just brought up a wild card here that I think could keep folks calm. Yes, it`s the last debate before the holidays. That also means maybe they don`t want to be too hot. Maybe that isn`t what you want to be remembered for.

So look, I think, you know, there`s every chance this is not nearly as heated as some people think because there is this aspect of you`re leaving your last impression before we`re in a joyful period in America. You know, the holiday breaks, for the most part, people want to be in an upbeat, good mood.

That said, look, I`m with Katy. I don`t think there`s going to be the fireworks between Trump and Cruz. I think tonight, if anything, they`ll collectively jump on Rubio. I mean, I think Rubio and Cruz is more likely to be the hot exchange of the night because it`s on the topic of the night, which is national security and protecting us here in the homeland.

And they differ very starkly on that issue when it comes to, for instance, you know, whose data, where should phone data be and all those things. It is a clear line of division between the two of them. So I think it`s going to be Cruz-Rubio is sort of the clash of the night.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me go to Sue Lowden out here. You`re the home team here. You`re representing Carly Fiorina tonight.


MATTHEWS: Your thinking about tonight?

LOWDEN: If I were Carly, I want to make a great presentation, as she always does, be articulate, be conservative. Talk about her stands. She`s very specific when she talks. She doesn`t talk about big, global, you know, I want to do all this, and don`t -- doesn`t give specifics. She actually gives specifics. I think she has to stay on her talking points, and just beat it over and over again.

Every time she`s on, more people get to know her. You know, when she started this race, no one even knew who she was. And then she went from the debate that`s on right -- you know, earlier, to the later debate because of her tenacity.

MATTHEWS: Is she running for VP now?

LOWDEN: You`re not going to hear that from her or from me. That`s for sure.

MATTHEWS: I just did.


MATTHEWS: Anyway, Michael -- Michael Steele -- I`m sorry. Michael Steele...


MATTHEWS: Michael Steele, let me ask you about the fight tonight. Chuck said it`s not going to be a Trump-Cruz match, but I don`t know because I think -- I think it is.

STEELE: You know, I kind of fall in the "I don`t think it is" camp. I agree with Chuck. I think, politically, there is no up side for either of them to do that, not just because of the holidays, but think about it this way. What is to be gained from a fight like that?

MATTHEWS: I`ll tell you what. Trump gets Iowa cheap. He`s not willing to spend the money on a bio ad, but he should.

STEELE: He`s not going to anyway. He doesn`t have to. Trump`s personality is already a part of the Iowa makeup. So any falling away from Trump right now in Iowa, I don`t think from the folks I`ve talked to, is not that concerning to them.

It gives them the sense that, yes, we`ve got to maybe do something as we get closer to ground time, but remember, we have another debate that the RNC just put on the table in January. So you`ve got a January 14th debate. That takes the pressure off of this one.

There is no real need to go toe to toe for this debate. The January debate, two weeks before the first vote in Iowa, that one is going to be the rodeo.

MATTHEWS: Well, I have this sort of Frank Sinatra sense of Trump, that if you attack him, he attacks you back.

Anyway, Trump called Cruz a maniac in the Senate, a maniac working in the Senate. Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and Sean Hannity are now all attacking Trump. Apparently, the right wing is -- the real right wing on radio is about 10 percent of the Republican Party at most, is all behind Cruz. He`s hugging that hard-right rail. Let`s watch them.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: He`s essentially put on his John McCain hat here, saying, I`m Donald (sic) McCain and I`m the guy that can cross the aisle and work the other side. Ted Cruz can`t.

MARK LEVIN, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: We`re dealing with the United States Senate, where there are alligators and sharks and snakes and slimeballs all over the place! You got a handful of guys, Cruz, Lee, Rand Paul -- a handful of guys who stand up to them! Oh, they`re not getting along. Exactly! We`re sick of these guys getting along! And you, of all people, should get it!

SEAN HANNITY, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST/FOX NEWS: Ted Cruz, when he did the filibuster in the Senate -- that was loved by conservatives. They were cheering Ted Cruz standing up against what he calls the Washington cartel. So I`m not so sure that that same strategy is going to be as efficient if he`s going up against a strong conservative in the field.


MATTHEWS: What`s interesting here, Chuck, is when you listen to radio, these are guys of the hard-right 10 percent. They`re hardly interested in winning 51 percent of the general election. They`re sort of the Damon Runyon crowd...

TODD: Right.

MATTHEWS: ... a little surly, to put it lightly, especially Levin. Why are they in love with Cruz, or has Cruz basically wooed them?

TODD: I think it`s a mutual admiration society. And that`s why I did not understand why Trump went after Cruz for that. I thought Trump might go after Cruz for not -- you know, trying to make the case that he`s not a real reformer, not a guy that was going to go in there to shake things up.

But to call him a maniac, I thought, Wait a minute. You`re going to raise the ire -- I think I said it yesterday morning, and sure enough, I mean, that is what -- you know, what Rush, Levin and Hannity have liked about Trump, they love about Cruz in the Senate.

They see them as doing the same thing. Trump is making life miserable for the establishment and the media. Cruz is making life miserable for the establishment and the media. And so I thought Trump -- look, I thought he was going to try to turn him into a phony or go after the Goldman Sachs stuff. Trump misfired, and I bet you he pulls back tonight on Cruz because of this.

MATTHEWS: Well, he may try another shot tonight. Anyway, thank you. Thank you, Chuck Todd, as always, sir. Thank you, Michael Steele. Thank you, my friend, Sue Lowden out here, for welcoming us so beautifully.

And a reminder. Come back to HARDBALL at 11:00 Eastern tonight when the debate`s over. I think it`s going to be hot. I disagree with everybody else. We`re staying up late for two hours of reaction and analysis tonight.

By the way, coming up right now, the Trump phenomenon. He`s hitting new highs in the polls and his controversial message is resonating with many on the right. I mean, three out of five Republicans like what he`s saying. We`re going to ask Michele Bachmann and U.S. Congressman Steve King of Iowa why Trump is working them.

Plus, America on edge. Terrorism is now the top issue on the campaign trail. Forty percent say it`s their top issue, not the economy. What a turnaround.

LA schools were closed today, all 900 of them, after what was called a credible threat, according to authorities out there.

And Hillary Clinton detailed her plans for stopping ISIS today. Can she find the sweet spot between the aggression we`ve heard from the Republicans and the cool-headed response from her one-time boss, President Obama? Is there room in the middle?

And our focus group of voters tonight weighs in on what they want to hear heading into tonight`s debate. Well, they`ll tell us what they`re looking for from these Republican candidates.

Finally, the HARDBALL roundtable will be here with a special debate edition of "Tell Me Something I Don`t Know."

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.



SARAH PALIN (R-AK), FMR. GOV., FMR. VP NOMINEE: I`m not going to pick one right now, but what a nice problem to have, if it came down to Cruz and Trump. That`s a good (ph) problem for voters to have because we know that, as you say, they are both strong and very decisive and someone who would take the initiative. That is what we need today, and both candidates fit that bill.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL, live in Las Vegas for tonight`s Republican debate.

Well, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin can`t choose, apparently, between Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz. She likes them both too much.

But the latest "Washington Post"/ABC News poll shows there`s a clear favorite among Republicans, as I mentioned. Donald Trump now sits at 38 percent. Cruz is way down there at 15 percent, but rising. And it`s the second major national poll to show Trump soaring since he called for a ban on Muslims from coming to the United States.

Well, according to "The Post`s" poll, nearly 6 in 10 Republicans agree with Trump`s proposal -- 6 in 10. Furthermore, he`s the clear favorite among Republicans when it comes to two key issues -- no surprise here -- immigration and terrorism. Fifty percent of Republicans say they trust Trump best of all the candidates to handle these issues.

Meanwhile, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, issued this coded warning to his party this morning.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: It would be extremely helpful in holding the Senate to carry purple states, and all of you can draw your own conclusions about which candidates are most likely to carry purple states.


MATTHEWS: Well, Matt Schlapp`s the former political director for George W. Bush. Michele Bachmann is, of course, the former U.S. congresswoman from Minnesota. And Steve King is a congressman from Iowa. Thank you all for joining us.

What did you make of Mitch McConnell there, Congressman King, issuing kind of a warning? I don`t think it was coded. He seemed to be warning his party members about not to nominate certain people. What`s he up to?

REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: Well, you know, I`ve said this for some time, that we have -- we have -- the establishment wing of the party -- we all should be in the big Republican tent with the constitutional conservatives, but it`s always the establishment that drives the wedge. That is -- that is Mitch McConnell getting out the wedge and the hammer and hammering that in. And it separates the party. We shouldn`t have that, and I disagree with him.

MATTHEWS: Congresswoman Bachmann, why would anybody who wants to vote for somebody for president give a darn about how it affects Mitch McConnell`s majority or not? Wouldn`t they want to think about, since they only get one vote, picking the person they want to be the nominee? Isn`t that the way people usually vote, pick the one they like?

MICHELE BACHMANN (R), FMR. MINNESOTA CONGRESSWOMAN: That`s what they`re going to do again in 2016 because right now, what we`re seeing is Islamic terrorism 24/7. That issue has bubbled up to the surface. Everyone is concerned. There isn`t a day that goes by now that we aren`t confronted with some new story about Islamic terrorism.

And that`s why you see the American voter, Chris, turning toward candidates that they feel will be the most effective in doing something, in taking this issue on. They don`t see that President Obama is effectively dealing with this issue. They see Hillary Clinton is effectively irrelevant to this debate. So they`re looking for someone who will be strong on this issue.

MATTHEWS: If you`d been head of the Los Angeles school system in California, in Los Angeles today, would you have closed the schools after getting that hoax call, that e-mail?

BACHMANN: If I would have closed the schools? You have to go for...

MATTHEWS: Would you have done it?

BACHMANN: And, of course, that`s what you have to -- that`s what you have to do.

If you get which -- something that you believe is a credible threat, then you need to close the schools. I was out in California about an hour away from the San Bernardino tragedy when it occurred. And when that happened, everything was under lockdown nearby, that you could hear police cars that were going for that area.

At this point, there`s very little information that you have to go on prior to the event. And you have to turn towards safety, especially when people don`t have confidence that anything is happening to prevent terrorists from coming into the United States, much less stop them here in the country. That`s the issue.

That`s why this issue has bubbled up to be number one and it`s why people are looking for a strong individual to occupy the Oval Office.

MATTHEWS: Well, former Governor Sarah Palin was asked about Trump`s proposal to ban Muslims. Here`s what she said.


SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: The reaction, though, from so many, right off the bat, knee-jerk reaction, was -- it`s typical of the media, not you necessarily, but the media -- it was to jump all over it, like it was such a negative.

And I wanted to say, not speaking for Trump, but I wanted to say, let him finish the conversation. Let him finish what his thought about what he`s talking about, a temporary ban, because we do have a very screwed-up system that is resulting in the bad guys coming on over.

It is common sense that, when we`re in such tumultuous times, as caused by, in a lot of respects, not knowing who it is coming over our porous borders, we need to -- we need to take a pause here and figure out what the system`s going to be.


MATTHEWS: Let`s look at this tsunami of support headed to Trump. It`s not going to anybody else, not like it is to Trump, up about 40 percent now.


MATTHEWS: He`s broken through all the thresholds, the glass ceilings, whatever you want to call it.

SCHLAPP: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: We thought it was 20 percent, 30 percent, now 40 percent. What`s changed? San Bernardino.

SCHLAPP: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: And Paris. Even though it`s a foreign city, I get the feeling that got to us.

SCHLAPP: Yes, absolutely.

Look, it`s about characteristics. It`s not necessarily about policies. We can talk about whether Muslims -- and what our policy is -- the fact is, is that Republican voters see Trump as strong, inflexible, and going to defend us. And they`re not actually looking for his policy papers. They see characteristics they like.

MATTHEWS: What about the other candidates? They don`t see it in them?

SCHLAPP: Well, no, I think what you have seen is a dramatic shift in these polls from Ben Carson to Ted Cruz.

Ted Cruz is a similar candidate to Donald Trump, with a little different story. That`s why I think tonight is very interesting.

MATTHEWS: Let`s not overdo the Cruz thing. He`s at 15. Trump is at 38.


SCHLAPP: OK, that`s -- but you`re a smart guy. That`s a national poll.


SCHLAPP: Don`t you care more about what`s happening in Iowa and New Hampshire?

MATTHEWS: No, because I don`t think Iowa -- well, let me go to Steve King.

Congressman King, do you think Iowa -- you know, they used to say, as goes Vermont, so goes the nation. Do you think Iowa is a leading indicator? It has its particular interests, wouldn`t you say?

KING: Iowa makes, of course, the first recommendation to the rest of the country. But here`s how -- what I think is the difference between the polls. Cruz is leading...

MATTHEWS: Huckabee, Santorum, Robertson, your pattern is not exactly a winning pattern.

KING: No, no, Chris, if we had nominated them, we don`t know that they would have been elected or not.


KING: And anybody that has won the Iowa straw poll and caucus and been a Republican has won the presidency since Reagan.

So, there`s a completely `nother side to that coin. But the Iowa polls that are there have Cruz head.

(CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Iowa caucuses -- well, you`re a little too fast for me. You`re a smart guy, but you just went too fast for me and our viewers.

KING: Oh, my. OK. I will mark that one down.


MATTHEWS: You said -- no, you said the Iowa straw poll. Let`s talk about the caucuses coming up February 1.

They have not been a leading indicator of who`s going to win the Republican nomination for president. They have not been.

KING: But, Chris, if we think about what this is, Santorum won by a handful of votes. Romney won the nomination. Romney didn`t win the presidency.

We can`t speculate that Santorum would have lost the presidency if the rest of the country would have followed Iowa`s recommendation with Santorum. You can say the same thing about Huckabee.


MATTHEWS: Are you betting on -- OK. Are you betting either on Santorum or Huckabee, your previous Iowa winners, in this year`s election?

KING: Of course not. But here`s what we need to be thinking about.

Iowa polls say Cruz. National polls say Trump. National polls are reflecting the national media that`s flooded with all Trump all the time.


KING: You have to adjust for that and recognize that Iowa and New Hampshire will be independent and South Carolina will listen to that recommendation. And I think that`s a thread that we need to watch throughout all of this.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you all. I want to start with -- let me start with Congresswoman Bachmann.

Why do you think Hannity and Levin and Rush Limbaugh seem to be so pro-Cruz? What`s that about?

BACHMANN: Well, I think you have to look at the issue sets that people are concerned about.

And the main issue set that`s driving all of this is the issue of America`s open borders and unmitigated immigration. Most people don`t realize that well over three million people a year are flooding into the into the United States, whether it`s legal or illegal immigration or whether it`s through the refugee program.


MATTHEWS: Well, why not be for Trump? Why aren`t those guys for Trump?


BACHMANN: Well, remember, Donald Trump is the person who put the issue of immigration square in the middle of the table, an issue that no one was talking about.

MATTHEWS: Right. Well, why aren`t those radio guys for him?

Why are the radio voices, who tend to represent the most conservative voices in the country -- they`re not running for office -- they don`t need 51 percent. They need about 5 or 10 percent to be hugely successful on the air. Why are they all for Cruz, and not for Trump, when Trump`s way ahead in the polls?

BACHMANN: Well, none of the three that you mentioned, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, none of them have endorsed any candidate yet, but they have a pulse on where the electorate is at.

Remember, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton run as far left as left can get. That`s what Barack Obama continued to do from `08 to `12. Hillary is following that up. She`s more left on immigration than Barack Obama is. That`s not where the country is. Hillary Clinton is occupying a very unfavorable space.


MATTHEWS: OK. Everybody has to take their opportunity. I know why people come on television. I`m all for it, Congresswoman.

I want to ask you, Matt, why the differential?


MATTHEWS: Thirty-eight percent of the Republican Party says they like Trump. All of the right-wing radio says they`re for Cruz.

SCHLAPP: Right. Right.

MATTHEWS: Why? And they are saying it.

SCHLAPP: I think the difference that is going on here is that Cruz is consistent on his conservative philosophy, A to Z. Donald Trump is more of a vessel for a message. Ted Cruz is a guy who they agree with on all the policy.

MATTHEWS: I think Cruz has systemically hugged the hard-right rail, and it`s worked for him very well, on every issue.

SCHLAPP: We say conservative.

MATTHEWS: OK, hard conservative. We will agree on that, hard conservative.

Anyway, thank you, Matt Schlapp.

Thank you, former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. You`re always welcome.

U.S. Congressman Steve King, thank you.

Coming up -- although I don`t think Iowa`s typical.

Coming up: America on edge. More and more Americans are naming terrorism as their top issue for 2016, this as the threat in the Los Angeles public school system kept more than a half-million kids at home in California. My question to people, to Congresswoman Bachmann, what happens if the same people call tomorrow, the same people e-mail every day of the damn week? Do you always run, or do you hold?

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics, live from Las Vegas.


ERICA HILL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Erica Hill with breaking news at this hour.

A Southwest Airlines jet has rolled off a taxiway and gotten stuck at Nashville International Airport. You can see this picture here of the jet. It is Southwest Flight 31 going off the runway into a ditch. It appears the front landing gear of that Boeing 737 -- tough to see it -- there is some question as to whether or not it may have been damaged in the incident.

We can report there have been minor injuries. They are not believed to be serious. Police are responding.

We will keep you updated on any developments -- now back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome to HARDBALL live from Las Vegas for tonight`s Republican debate.

Well, authorities now say an e-mailed threat that closed more than 1,000 schools in Los Angeles was likely a hoax. But the e-mail promised the use of explosive devices. And, early today, it raised fears of another shooting attack like -- attack like the one in nearby San Bernardino.

L.A. School Superintendent Ramon Cortines said, after talking to law enforcement, he chose to keep all 650,000 students at home.


RAMON CORTINES, SUPERINTENDENT, LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT: They reviewed with me the information that had been shared with them. Based on past circumstances, I could not take the chance as it relates to one student or our staff.


MATTHEWS: Well, New York City officials also received a nearly identical threat promising a massacre. New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said they decided to keep the schools open today.


WILLIAM BRATTON, NEW YORK CITY POLICE COMMISSIONER: It`s not a credible threat. It is not something that we are concerned with. What we would be concerned with is overreacting to it. We will stay aware. We will stay involved. But, we, at all costs, cannot start overreacting to what will probably be a series of copycat types of initiatives.


MATTHEWS: Probably be a series of copycat initiatives.

Anyway, even before today`s threats, nerves were frayed, as a new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows that 71 percent of Americans now believe shootings and random acts of violence have become a permanent part of American life.

Joining me right now is "Washington Post" columnist Ruth Marcus, and MSNBC political analyst Steve Schmidt, top strategist on the 2004 Bush campaign, and a senior adviser to the 2008 McCain campaign.

I want to go to you, Steve Schmidt. What is the right way to respond to a threat?

STEVE SCHMIDT, FORMER MCCAIN CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: Stoically. Bill Bratton`s an exceptional leader, and I think you saw those exceptional leadership qualities play out today in his news conference. He`s exactly right. You can`t overreact to every situation.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you, Ruth, because it seems to me, now that we`re in Vegas, sometimes, it looks like you have to bet on red or black. Somebody makes a threat, it could be black, it could be red.


MATTHEWS: It could be an explosion, or it could be just nothing. And you have to bet, if you`re the school superintendent.

MARCUS: And the downside in Vegas is, you lose your money. And the downside in real life could be a lot bigger.

And, look, we`re entering a new phase, where we`re going to have to learn how to cope with hardening our -- terrorists` potential access to soft targets. And we`re not going to get the call right every time. So, maybe they didn`t get it right in Los Angeles.

MATTHEWS: What`s to stop some drunk in a bar right now, watching this, run off to the nearest cell phone or whatever, borrow a phone, whatever you do to cover yourself, and call up the local school superintendent and say, I`m going to bomb you tomorrow? What`s to stop them?

MARCUS: Nothing stops them. And we`re going to get better as we get more used to this unpleasant, but sustainable new reality, in figuring out what threats to take seriously and what threats not to take seriously.

But I guarantee you, the first time we don`t take a threat seriously and it turns out to be a real one, there will be way more incriminations than there will be about Los Angeles overreacting maybe this time around.

MATTHEWS: Well, Hillary Clinton strongly made the case today that Republicans shouldn`t skip gun safety in an effort to combat domestic terrorism. Let`s listen.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They will say that guns are a totally separate issue, nothing to do with terrorism. Well, I have news for them. Terrorists use guns to kill Americans. And I think we should make it a lot harder for them to do that ever again.



MATTHEWS: You know, Steve Schmidt, Hillary Clinton, the former secretary, former senator, former first lady, has shown tremendous guts. I`m not sure she`s right.

But she has bet a lot of her chance of winning the presidency on gun safety as an issue. You know the dangers in states like Kentucky, even Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri. There`s so many states where you`re going to have a gun problem.

Is she smart to make that part of her anti-terrorism campaign?

SCHMIDT: Look, I think Americans have high anxiety about guns. We look after Newtown, you had 90 percent of the country, including many NRA members, supportive of background checks.

That`s not the issue here. The issue for Hillary Clinton is the chaos in the world, in the Middle East, that she was an architect of as secretary of state. We look at the president of the United States, with the emptiness of serial red lines drawn in Syria that have unleashed chaos, threatens to destroy the Islamic State, but the Islamic State is not destroyed, the Islamic State is on offense.

And so, tonight, across this country, you see the anxiety and you see the fear because the American people see an administration that has consistently underestimated the nature of the enemy and the threat. And the American people are on edge about it.

And that`s what`s driving this race right now, and it`s what`s driving the dynamic in the Republican primary with regard to Donald Trump`s rise.

MATTHEWS: Right. And the same argument could go back and say, the reason we have an Islamic State, that we have an ISIS is because George W. Bush, with his absolute lack of any geopolitical intelligence, broke up the state of Iraq, created the army which is now the army of ISIS.

SCHMIDT: And it could be, Chris, and it could be, Chris, that we could go back to 1979 and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini or to 1953 with the overthrow of Mosaddeq in Iran.


MATTHEWS: I was just making that point, Steve. I was making a point that you`re doing it. I know you`re doing it. But you started it.

SCHMIDT: Or we could go back to 1917.


MATTHEWS: But you started it. But, Steve, you started it right there.


SCHMIDT: We could go back to 1917.



SCHMIDT: The point is, the leadership of the country, Chris...


MATTHEWS: Steve, you`re making the point that you shouldn`t have been doing what you were doing.

Go ahead.


MATTHEWS: Go ahead.

SCHMIDT: The point -- the point, Chris, is the history of the Middle East is one of violence and chaos. And our leaders in both parties have consistently not understood the culture, not understood the religion, not understood the geopolitics of the region.


SCHMIDT: Hillary Clinton chief among them.

MATTHEWS: OK. The number one balloon head decision was to go in and break up Iraq.

Anyway, thank you. And everybody in the Republican Party agrees with that now.




SCHMIDT: In 2009, when Barack Obama took office, at great sacrifice and great cost, Iraq was pacified. MATTHEWS: OK, OK. Let`s go. OK. OK. Put that on the Republican platform next summer.

Thank you, Ruth Marcus. And thank you, Steve Schmidt, for bringing back the Iraq War.

Up next: Just what are voters thinking about the race headed into tonight`s debate? Steve Kornacki is coming here next with a focus group of 2016 voters. Actually, they`re undecided. Look at them, seven people actually undecided. Isn`t that something?

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics, live from Vegas.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL, live from Las Vegas, the site of the fifth Republican debate and the last one of this year. Voters across the country will be tuning in tonight to see how the candidates will measure up. Of course, my colleague, Steve Kornacki, is up in New York, where he`s assembled a group of Republican and Republican- leaning voters from the tri-state area who say they`re undecided. Steve, take it away. STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Chris, that`s right. We`ve got eight Republican-leaning independents here from the tri-state area. They`re going to be watching the debate with us tonight. We`re going to check in with them extensively after the debate to find out who they liked, who they didn`t like, what they liked, what they didn`t like. But first, I thought, we`ll take the temperature of the room now heading into the debate, to see what your expectations are, where you guys are before this thing begins. So, let me start with this question. It`s about the candidate everybody seems to talk about the most. Donald Trump. Let me ask you this. Raise your hands if you could see yourself potentially, at least, potentially, voting for Donald Trump for president? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Potentially. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Potentially. KORNACKI: That`s about half of you. Mary Beth, you`re hesitant. Why are you hesitating? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Very hesitant, Steve. He would probably be my last pick. I think we need someone who`s a little more serious and somebody whose dialogue is just a little bit more mature. But, in the end, if he were the nominee, I would vote for him. KORNACKI: And nominee, no for you? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I wouldn`t. I don`t feel that he is a candidate to give Hillary, who I`m expecting as the Democratic nominee, a big enough run for her money. And I don`t think he has the experience to be able to convert the other Republicans to back him. KORNACKI: So you`re making the electability argument. Glenn, you were raising your hand. What do you like about Trump? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn`t raise my hand. KORNACKI: Oh, I -- you can see I`m an amateur with this. What`s keeping you from voting for Trump? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He`s not the candidate -- I don`t think he has the experience to run the largest, most important country in the world, you know? It`s just -- I just don`t think he can handle the job. KORNACKI: All right. And, Tom? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, you said, you know, potentially, which would be, you know, up against Hillary. Yes, I think all Republicans and anybody else has to come together, if that`s the case, because you`ve got to put up, you`ve got to do something. But, yes, tonight, I`m really -- I`m going to watch Rubio. I want to see him, you know, what he brings to the table. I think he`s got some potential there, that I think could be interesting. And I would like to see how it comes out tonight, because it seems to be like a real pressure on him tonight, I think, because of everything that`s been in the news. KORNACKI: All right. And, Robert, who are you keeping your eye on the most tonight? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually, I agree with Tom. I think Rubio is the candidate to watch. I`m really looking forward to what he does tonight and see how he shows, certainly in the first few primaries. I like governors in general. I think that they have some of the experience we want as the president. KORNACKI: All right. And, Sheree (ph), what is the most important issue you want to see addressed tonight? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There are so many issues that are facing our country today, but I think security speaks in volumes at this time. So I would like to see their plan of action, to combat security here at home. KORNACKI: All right. Well, Chris, I might have to go check the tape on this, because obviously my eyes failed me at least once, but I counted four who could vote for Trump, four who weren`t so sure. Let`s measure that again after this debate, after they hear him for a couple of hours. But we`ll be with these guys after the debate to see what they made of it. MATTHEWS: OK, I think I recognize the guy from the last time you put a group together. That guy in the back row on the right, isn`t he back again? KORNACKI: He was your favorite! He had to bring him back. He got the Chris Matthews seal of approval. MATTHEWS: It`s random, and he just happened to show up again out of 350 million people. KORNACKI: You asked and we got him. MATTHEWS: Unbelievable. Anyway, thank you, Steve Kornacki and our favorite focus groupee. Anyway, we look forward to the focus group after they watch this tonight. Let me go back to our guest tonight, Robert Costa of "The Washington Post" is here, ands Sabrina Siddiqui of "The Guardian." Sabrina, this focus group here, you know, they say they`re undecided, but they were decided against Trump, at least half of them. SABRINA SIDDIQUI, THE GUARDIAN: They were. I think what you hear, though, from the majority of, you know, voters in Iowa, and even New Hampshire, where he`s surging to new highs, is that they really could see themselves go out to caucus or vote for Donald Trump in a primary, and he really has gained from this focus on national security simply by talking tough and by proposing, as we know, the furthest possible proposal that an alarming number of Republicans actually would support, banning Islamic immigrations. MATTHEWS: It is nice to know, isn`t it? SIDDIQUI: It`s nice to know but that`s the reality. MATTHEWS: I`m being sarcastic. This guy, I don`t know about this. I just don`t know about this focus group thing. Anyway. The guy said -- Kornacki`s smart, so maybe he has something figured out here. Here`s my question. They said they want someone with more experience. There`s only two guys contesting this with Trump, Two guys with less experience than doing anything with Trump. That`s the two little debaters. ROBERT COSTA, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right, the one-season hand in this race is Bush, but he`s -- MATTHEWS: Cruz and Rubio are debaters. They were high school debaters. That`s all they`ve ever done. And the other guys, building after building after building of -- at least they`ve done something. I want more executive experience. From these two guys? COSTA: Look, schools are closing in L.A. MATTHEWS: The boys stink. COSTA: Tonight, Rubio, Cruz, are going to try to make the case in this time of unrest they have experience. MATTHEWS: OK, I would ask them -- I`m not -- Wolf is quite able to handle this tonight, I would ask them, how do you decide whether to close the school? How would you make up your mind? You can`t go to experts, because one will say close, one will say open. You`ve got to make a judgment here and in your heart. You`ve got to be able to stick your neck out. (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Tomorrow night, a drunk will call or somebody just for having fun -- (CROSSTALK) SIDDIQUI: I think Chris Christie is actually one to watch. MATTHEWS: The governor? SIDDIQUI: Yes, New Jersey governor, who`s actually gained in New Hampshire, got the endorsement from the "New Hampshire Union Leader," especially because of his own renewed focus on -- MATTHEWS: Do you keep the bridge open or close the bridge, right? (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: He should know that one. He even said I closed the bridge down. SIDDIQUI: Yes. MATTHEWS: He can close the bridge down if he has to. Robert and Sabrina are coming with us, they`ll come back and talk about what they know. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTHEWS: We`re back in Las Vegas. By the way, the focus on tonight will be a lot about Trump and Cruz and the other runners-up. There are others out there like Chris Christie. There`s five other candidates in addition to that up on the stage tonight. They are desperately trying to get into this fight. Case in point: Jeb Bush, remember him, he suffered the most at the hands of Trump. A look back at Bush`s trajectory over the last six months says everything you need to know about his candidacy so far. He reached his high point in mid-July and it`s been largely downhill. Look at that, ever since. NBC News crunched the numbers and found that ad spending and TV spending on behalf of Jeb Bush far outpaces that of the other Republican candidates. But it`s done them no good. His campaign and super PACs have spent a total of $35 million on TV and radio, far more than the rest of the field. And now, NBC News reports that former President George W. Bush is calling top donors to make the pitch for his younger brother. We will see if it makes a difference. We`re back with Robert Costa and Sabrina. Let`s talk about the other guys, the also-ran. Who`s going to make the big effort to throw the ball tonight? COSTA: My prediction, Kasich. In politics, they always say you got to punch up. I think in this crowded race, you also have to punch to the side. They`re all fighting within their lane. If are you in that New Hampshire lane, if you are Kasich, battling Christie, battling Rubio, battling -- MATTHEWS: Did he look in control the last time out? COSTA: He was trying to be the anti-Trump. MATTHEWS: He seemed a little bit out of control. COSTA: I talked to his advisers a few minutes ago, they say he`s going to focus on New Hampshire, not so much Trump. MATTHEWS: What happens when Trump turns to him and said, Mr. 2 Percent, what are you here for? COSTA: He`s got to shrug it off. SIDDIQUI: I think that you`re actually going to hear a lot from Rand Paul as well. MATTHEWS: Rand Paul? SIDDIQUI: He`s been pretty aggressive toward Marco Rubio. He spent a lot of time attacking him over immigration, over surveillance. You have this big debate going on over whether or not to restore the Patriot Act in the wake of these terrorist attacks. Marco has been pushing that point along. MATTHEWS: Why has he been a nothing in this campaign? SIDDIQUI: Rand Paul? MATTHEWS: Yes. SIDDIQUI: I don`t think he`s been able to successfully find his coalition of supporters. He hasn`t made -- MATTHEWS: What happened to Paul, the Rand Paul coalition, 25 percent of the voters? (CROSSTALK) COSTA: He`s authentic. The Rand Paul people think Rand Paul is not - - (CROSSTALK) SIDDIQUI: Rand Paul was not prepared to defend his stance, for example, when it comes to voting, giving more aid to Israel. He wasn`t prepared to come out forcefully in favor of the Iran deal. COSTA: And this libertarian moment never arrived. Everyone said there`s going to be a libertarian moment in 2015. This age of fear, Paris, people are turning towards the hawks in this party, not toward libertarian. (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Libertarian, who are the libertarians anti-hawks? I think Trump thought Iraq was a terrible war. He says it all the time. COSTA: I wouldn`t say Trump is a dove. But he is a non- interventionist. He doesn`t want to say ground troops abroad. MATTHEWS: And Rand Paul, and who else is a non-interventionist? SIDDIQUI: Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz doesn`t want to commit the ground troops. MATTHEWS: Who are the biggest hawks? SIDDIQUI: Who are the biggest hawks? Marco Rubio, Chris Christie. COSTA: Lindsey Graham. MATTHEWS: Lindsey Graham doesn`t count. COSTA: Christie and Rubio I think are really trying to fight, and Bush as well. SIDDIQUI: Bush except more he has to kind of get rid of the cloud of his brother and foreign policy. COSTA: Yes, but he`s now embracing a full hawk. He`s bringing W. on, former President Bush to make the call, because if right now, if you`re Bush and you are stuck in the single digits, you got to get those hawks, those old school hawks. MATTHEWS: If you`re against abortion under any circumstances, rape and incest and all of that, any circumstance like Rubio and you are for an aggressive policy, going into the Middle East to get with troops, how can you possibly win the nomination? COSTA: A generational argument. They think beyond those conservative views, they can make the case if they`re a fresh new leader. That`s their argument. MATTHEWS: I think there`s a reason why Trump`s ahead. There`s a reason why Cruz is challenging at some point. I think there is a reason why people vote the way they voted. I`m going to wait to talk about this. I`m going to watch this focus group tonight. I want to see these people. COSTA: I want to see the guy on the top right. MATTHEWS: I think he`s going to have to make a call at some point. He can`t keep coming back. Anyway, he keeps come back until he has -- he has to pick anybody. When we come back, Robert and Sabrina will tell me something we don`t know. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTHEWS: We`re back in Vegas with Robert Costa and Sabrina Siddiqui. Sabrina, tell me something I don`t know. SIDDIQUI: Well, with this entire debate focused on national security, you`re going to have a host of candidates saying Obama is not out fighting ISIS, but not a single one of the candidates on that stage is done, is specified how many ground troops they would be willing to deploy as president in this fight against ISIS. Lindsey Graham is the only candidate that said we need to send 10,000 troops to Iraq. No one else is actually willing to commit to any number. MATTHEWS: You predict they won`t give us a number? SIDDIQUI: Nope. COSTA: I spoke to Trump hours ago. MATTHEWS: Donald Trump? COSTA: Donald Trump -- I said, what is your strategy, Mr. Trump for this debate? And he says, I don`t really have a specific strategy. I`m just going to be me. I`m just going to be me. I said, what does that mean? He says, look, I`ll take what comes at me. I`ll just handle it as it comes. I don`t think he`s coming here tonight to cut out Cruz or to go after Bush or Rubio. He`s going to be a reactive person, and that`s dangerous for some of his rivals. MATTHEWS: I think it`s going to be wild tonight. I think he will be reactive and he`ll get a lot of time because every time they take a shot at him, he gets 30 seconds to whack them. Robert Costa, Sabrina Siddiqui, don`t forget to join us again at 11:00 p.m. tonight Eastern. I`ll be back with two hours coverage with all the good stuff, all the low lights too, they`re pretty good stuff. And full analysis of the candidates` performances. Who is coming out tonight, the winner? "ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" right now. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END