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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 2/12/2016

Guests: Jonathan Allen, Nayyera Haq, Michelle Bernard, Michael Tomasky, Susan Page, Larry Sabato

Show: HARDBALL Date: February 12, 2016 Guest: Jonathan Allen, Nayyera Haq, Michelle Bernard, Michael Tomasky, Susan Page, Larry Sabato

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Stay classy, Charleston.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

With just eight days until South Carolina`s Republican primary, a poll finds Donald Trump well in the lead -- 36 percent of likely Republican voters back him, according to the "Augusta Chronicle" survey. Ted Cruz comes in second at 20 percent. Marco Rubio, as usual, comes in third at 15.

Well, last night, NBC pollster Peter Hart conducted a focus group of Republican voters in South Carolina, and here`s what they said about those three front-runners.




HART: Marco Rubio.


HART: Marco Rubio.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Strong politician.

HART: Marco Rubio.



HART: Marco Rubio.


HART: Marco Rubio.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Finish your term as senator first.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Needs experience.

HART: Ted Cruz.


HART: Give me a word or phrase for a feeling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Feeling? Divisive.







HART: Donald Trump -- go right around the room, so get ready. Everybody got their word? I want one word, I want it fast, I want it served up to me.












MATTHEWS: Now, that`s a focus group I can believe in. I actually think those people made sense. Peter Hart told NBC News, quote, "Donald Trump is the alpha candidate. He`s polarizing. He`s exasperating. He`s also mesmerizing. You can feel that even those people who are not voting for him in the primary, everyone seems to admit that he`s going to win."

Well, this explains why Cruz is out there getting nasty, as he did in Iowa. After Cruz released a pair of attack ads this week, Trump tweeted today, "How can Ted Cruz be an evangelical Christian when he lies to much and is so dishonest?" Well, this afternoon, Trump followed up with another tweet. Quote, "If Ted Cruz doesn`t clean up his act, stop cheating and doing negative ads, I have standing to sue him for not being a natural-born citizen."

NBC`s Hallie Jackson is in Greenville, South Carolina. Susan Page is Washington bureau chief for "USA Today" and Larry Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Thank you all.

Hallie, start with you. What -- what -- you`re covering the Cruz campaign. What are they doing to try to offset this big lead we`re seeing down there for Donald Trump?

HALLIE JACKSON, NBC CORRESPONDENT: A couple of things, Chris. First, in response to some of these Trump attacks that you`re talking about, the Cruz campaign is sort of blowing it off. They`re calling it yet another "Trumper-tantrum," this word that they`ve made up to sort of wrap together all of Trump`s attacks against Ted Cruz.

Cruz himself -- I just spoke with him a couple of minutes ago here in Greenville. He believes that Donald Trump is essentially out of options and that is why he`s turning to these sort of political insults.

As far as what he`s doing in South Carolina, what his strategy is, he`s, A, going after Trump on the airwaves, and B, trying to bring together the Christian conservative vote to try to topple Trump here in South Carolina. This something that Cruz was able to do in Iowa, and he`s looking to replicate that strategy here in South Carolina.

MATTHEWS: Well, as I said, the Cruz campaign has been hitting Trump with a number of negative ads, including this one it released yesterday.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Vera Coking`s (ph) home was all she had left.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But it stood in Donald Trump`s way.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And the limousine parking lot he wanted for his casino.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Trump bankrolled politicians to steamroll the little guy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A pattern of sleaze stretching back decades.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Worse, Trump still supports eminent domain today.


MATTHEWS: Well, another ad mocked Trump by questioning his values.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look, I got the Trump action figure!


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What does he do?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He pretends to be a Republican.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take down my house, Mr. Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That`s a lousy house. I`m going to take your house with eminent domain and park my limos there.

CHILDREN: Eminent domain!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We wouldn`t tolerate these values in our children. Why would we want them in a president?


MATTHEWS: Aren`t there child labor laws?

Anyway, Trump responded last night during a rally in Baton Rouge.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Cruz today took an ad that`s so false. It`s so false. And you know, it`s difficult because I`m a legitimate person. When I see these ads -- remember, these ads are paid for by the special interests, the lobbyists and the donors. They say anything! I just hope you don`t believe the crap because it`s all crap, OK?


TRUMP: They`re lies. I mean, they`re lies. They talk about eminent domain. Without eminent domain, you wouldn`t have a road! Without eminent domain, you wouldn`t have hospitals. You wouldn`t have anything!


MATTHEWS: Hallie, what about these robocalls down there? What is that all about? Has anybody admitted or pointed to the Cruz campaign there?

JACKSON: Right, these so-called push polls that are happening in South Carolina, reports that they`re coming out. The Cruz campaign, Chris, is denying any involvement -- any involvement at all, and Cruz...

MATTHEWS: Well, they would.

JACKSON: ... himself has said that his campaign -- well, sure, but Cruz himself has said that his campaign is not behind it, and the campaign is sort of pointing out that...


MATTHEWS: What about super-PACs? What about allied groups or super-PACs?

JACKSON: Again, not from Cruz world, is what we`re being told.

MATTHEWS: Yes, well, we`ll see as that develops.

Let me go to Susan. This state has a history of pretty awful behavior going back to the 2000 race, when, as I said the other night, they accused -- oh, they had all kinds of stuff about Mrs. John McCain`s drug use. They went after his daughter, his adopted daughter who has a South Asian background, as his illegitimate daughter. They were throwing a lot of stuff around down there.

SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": And it worked.

MATTHEWS: And that`s the sad thing about dirty politics. Sometimes it does work.

PAGE: Well, South Carolina is not Iowa. You know, people in Iowa are pretty clean-living. And it`s not that people in South Carolina aren`t, but they`re accustomed to a rough-and-tumble politics. It`s a place where some of these negative ads can work in a way that Iowa and New Hampshire where they don`t work on retailing campaigning. It is a history, especially on the Republican side, of really tough political attacks.

MATTHEWS: How do you counter -- does Trump have to break his habit and spend some money to counter them? Does have he have go on the air and knock down each one every hour it goes up?

PAGE: Oh, I mean, that`s a dilemma for candidates. Of course, Trump`s in the lead, you know, so that gives him a certain advantage.

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s why he is being attacked by Cruz and his allies, probably.

PAGE: And you know, the other thing that`s happened with Trump in previous states is that he can be attacked, and it doesn`t seem to have much effect on him.

MATTHEWS: So far. Let me go to Larry Sabato, who`s a student of all this, and you teach this. What do you make of South Carolina as a place, as a culture of politics that goes back, you know, pretty far back to the bad days?

LARRY SABATO, UNIV. OF VA CENTER FOR POLITICS: Chris, we know a couple things about South Carolina Republicans. First, they are very, very conservative. Second, they are heavily, heavily Christian evangelical, even more so than Iowa. And so you know, this particular candidate bunch fits them quite well.

But remember, it`s a split field. And I know John Kasich is at, like, 2 percent, but his positive style seems to be selling among the piece of the electorate there that doesn`t like all of this negativism and hyper- conservatism.

MATTHEWS: Yes. So what, it goes back to Lee Atwater, of course, when you talk about people, you know, being on jumper cables, if somebody had had electroshock therapy. We know that whole story. It was pretty rotten down there.

But what is their -- do they have resistance of that, or they see somebody -- or somebody calls a robocall, whoever put it out -- Oh, well, that`s just politics, or they say, That`s below the belt? What do they say when they hear the really bad stuff down there? Because you say Iowa is resistant to it -- or Susan said that. Do the not resist it, or they just say, Well, that`s part of the jumble of politics down here?

SABATO: I think they`re more -- they`re more accepting than most, let`s put it that way. They think it`s just a part of the function of a campaign. And of course, they`re right. Even the, quote, "good guys," do it. I don`t want to define good guys, but let`s say, you know, the people that most campaign observers would call, you know, nice guys, positive- oriented, that kind of thing. They still do it.

MATTHEWS: Like you and me.

SABATO: You know, the Bushes, for example -- the Bushes have had participated in that dirty politics for some time. You mentioned Lee Atwater. You mentioned the dirty tricks against John McCain. They didn`t hold back anything.


SABATO: And I don`t think most people associate that with George W. Bush, who`s coming to campaign for his brother Monday in South Carolina. So I think we all need to be aware that something might happen.

MATTHEWS: I always thought that the WASPs were very well turned-out, but when it came to winning the race, they would whip the hell out of their horses.

Anyway, here`s Jeb Bush calling in reinforcements next week. His brother, W., the former president, will hit the trail, as you say, Larry, in South Carolina.

Here`s how Trump reacted to the news that the brother is coming to help the brother.


TRUMP: Now he`s bringing in his brother. I won`t say anything. I`m going to save that for after his brother makes a statement because there`s plenty to say about what happened, OK, especially that last three months, and especially getting us in that quicksand. You know, we got in quicksand. I was against the war in Iraq. We have to be given credit for vision. I was against the war in Iraq because I said, You`re going to totally destabilize the Middle East. And that`s exactly what happened. the Middle East was destabilized.


TRUMP: And that was a horrible call to go in.


MATTHEWS: You know, they call that in the South "the bloody shirt." I mean, the fact is -- or the North, actually, they call it the bloody shirt, reminding everybody of the last bad war, Iraq, that cost the lives of about 4,000 Americans and 100,000 people altogether because W. decided to do that, to attack a country that hadn`t attacked us.

PAGE: So if there is...

MATTHEWS: And got us in the worst trouble we`ve been in, the quicksand.

PAGE: If there`s a state where George W. Bush could be a help and not a problem, it would be South Carolina, I think, with its tradition. But this is real a calculated risk on the part of Jeb Bush. And it`s a sign he has to do better in South Carolina than he`s done anyplace else or he`s out of this race. This is do or die for Jeb Bush.

MATTHEWS: Well, this week, Republicans made a campaign issue of Trump`s use of crass language, as we mentioned before here. Let`s watch.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Even in our political culture, I teach my kids to be respectful. There are certain words you don`t say. No matter what setting you`re in, act with dignity and -- and you know, act -- hold yourself up. And then you turn on the TV, you hear the leading presidential candidate saying profanity from a stage! Profanity from a stage!


RUBIO: I mean, all these things undermine what we teach our children.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think the voters are assessing who is prepared to be commander-in-chief. And I will say I`m not sure a lot of voters are excited about having a president who, when he gets rattled, when he gets upset, begins cursing and yelling vulgarities.


MATTHEWS: How pious those two are.

Anyway, Bloomberg Politics Mark Halperin asked a South Carolina focus group to respond to a video of some of Trump`s language. Let`s watch how they reacted.







HART: You all have a pretty strong reaction to this. Is it something that you consider disqualifying or just not your cup of tea?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It`s crass. It`s not...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It`s not professional. It`s just...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It`s not how you want your president of the United States to present.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is -- that`s a bad image.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is who`s going to be negotiating with other world leaders.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I mean, is that the guy you want to go speak at your kid`s high school?


MATTHEWS: Piety overkill. Anyway, last night, Trump swore off the naughty words.


TRUMP: I won`t use foul language. I`m just not going to do it.


TRUMP: I`m not going to. They`re all saying, Do it, do it. No, I`m not because they always have -- even if it`s not a bad word, if it`s a little bit off, they kill me, so I won`t do it.


MATTHEWS: Larry, what do you make of this? I think it`s a piety overkill myself because everybody in a barber shop or any -- you do hear these words. They`re not -- they`re not curse words. They don`t refer to the savior or the deity. They`re not about religion. They`re not really curses, they`re crass language, I guess you`d say, crude language.

What do people really think of that when a politician uses it?

SABATO: Yes, well, of course, people would really rather you not bleep them, Chris, because they have no idea what those curse words are.

MATTHEWS: I agree with that part.

SABATO: They`d never used them, and no friends of theirs have ever used them. Look, the truth is...

MATTHEWS: Your sarcasm is wonderful!

SABATO: Well, I`m sorry. I`m a faculty member.

As far as Trump is concerned, he`s not going to lose one of his supporters. You heard people in that crowd encouraging him to curse!

MATTHEWS: Yes, I know.

SABATO: They love it. They eat it up. But that`s his 35 percent. Notice, you know, he got, what, 35 in New Hampshire. He`s getting 35 in South Carolina. He was mid-20s in Iowa.

That`s his group of people. He`s going to keep them because they`re intense, but how`s he going to grow that coalition? Because even though people accept that kind of thing from time to time, as a couple of the people in your focus group said, they don`t want that in a president. They don`t want to think that that`s...

MATTHEWS: I agree.

SABATO: ... going to be coming from the Oval Office on a daily basis.

MATTHEWS: Well, personally, I`d rather see an occasional bad word than the dirty politics under the table, which I think some one of the other candidates is going to be guilty of and already is. Anyway, I won`t name him tonight. You know who he is.

Hallie Jackson, thank you so much. Susan Page, thank you. And Larry Sabato, Professor, thank you.

Coming up -- if you watched last night`s Democratic debate, you clearly saw Hillary Clinton`s new strategy against Bernie Sanders to full effect.



President Obama...

President Obama...

President Obama...

President Obama...

President Obama and I...

President Obama...

Then Senator Obama...

President Obama...

President Obama...

President Obama...

President Obama...


MATTHEWS: Well, Hillary Clinton`s clinging to President Obama last night was pretty tight in hopes that she can score with his supporters in South Carolina and force a real vision of distance between Bernie Sanders and Obama on ideology without having to say so.

Plus, much more on these dirty tricks on the campaign trail. It`s has happened before in South Carolina, and the campaigns are bracing for another season of dirty -- well, dirtball politics, especially by Cruz. Well, there, I said it.

And as the campaign shifts to south and west, the HARDBALL roundtable is here tonight to tell you something I don`t know.

Finally, "Let Me Finish" with Valentine`s Day and what it means to your family and mine.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.


MATTHEWS: Play HARDBALL with us all week long. Follow us @hardball on Twitter and Instagram and like HARDBALL on Facebook. You`ll find behind the scenes photos, videos and the show`s best moments and interviews whenever you want them.

HARDBALL`s back after this.



HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), FMR. SEC. OF STATE, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The kind of criticism that we`ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans. I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.



MATTHEWS: Well, that`s putting the shiv in. Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was Hillary Clinton, of course, getting at Bernie Sanders in last night`s Democratic debate for trimmin` (ph) President Obama. In other words, not sticking up for him. It wasn`t the only time Hillary Clinton came to the defense of the man who out-pointed her eight years ago, Barack Obama. Clinton clung to President Obama last night all night long, permitting no daylight between her and the man who ended up appointing her secretary of state.


CLINTON: Before it was called "Obama care," it was called "Hillary care."

I am a staunch supporter of President Obama`s principal accomplishment, namely the Affordable Care Act.

What President Obama succeed in doing was to build on the health care system we have.

President Obama...

President Obama...

President Obama...

President Obama...

President Obama and I...

President Obama...

Then Senator Obama...

President Obama...

Senator Obama, when he ran against me, was against the war in Iraq. and yet when he won, he turned to me, trusting my judgment, my experience to become secretary of state.

President Obama...

President Obama...

I understand what President Obama inherited. I don`t think he gets the credit he deserves.


MATTHEWS: Sounds like Marco Rubio there the way she repeated herself, when she kept repeating that name of the president.

Kristen Welker is following Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. NBC`s Kasie Hunt is following Bernie Sanders. And Jonathan Allen is here with me. He`s the co-author of the book "HRC." He is what I would call, in all fairness, a Hillary biographer.

Let me go to Kristen, my friend.

Thank you, Kristen.

Give us a sense of the strategy. I thought one was to say I`m with him, he is African-American, I want the African-American supporters behind me, but also as a way of tagging, I think, tell me if I`m right or wrong, tagging Senator Sanders for being way over to the left from the president, without having to tag him for being to the left, which Hillary is afraid to do.

KRISTEN WELKER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I think that`s absolutely right, Chris, because she doesn`t want to alienate his supporters.

So the tactic to that point is to say, I stand with President Obama, and to take that to the next level, I`m the best person to carry on his legacy. And that`s why we heard her make that argument throughout the night.

I think she mentioned his name more than 20 times. I think that was the final count. And she talked about a whole host of issues. You played that clip there on health care. Guns is another big issue. Her argument, she is aligned with him on wanting stiffer gun control. She`s going to stand up to the NRA. And that`s actually one issue where she can make the point that she is further to the left than Senator Sanders on that issue that is very critical to a lot of African-Americans.

The question is, how will it be received? Chris, if you look at the poll numbers right now, she has about a 50-point lead among African-Americans in South Carolina. And President Obama is widely popular in South Carolina, particularly among African-Americans. So this is a strategy that could likely benefit her, and she doubled down on it today.

Of course, Senator Sanders said that she was being unfair and that it was essentially a low blow. She is not changing course. You can expect to hear a lot more on this point, as she hugs President Obama, Chris.

MATTHEWS: The most common picture last night, Kasie, was the candidate you`re following, Senator Sanders, waving his hand in the air kind of desperately. There was only two people up there and he was the only one not talking. So why he had to do this waving of his fingers all the time.

Like, where is the waiter? Waiter, over here, I need more water or something. I don`t know what he was doing. But the point is, I think she was getting to him. The tactic she used in that debate was like Senator Casey used against Santorum when he beat him in Pennsylvania, what Al Gore used against Ross Perot. Reduce the size of the ring, don`t let the other guy give big, long orations. Keep working at him, and working at him, so he can only talk in bites of desperation.

It takes away the other`s guy strong suit, which is oratory. Your thoughts?

KASIE HUNT, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, in fairness, to Senator Sanders, Chris, he did get from a couple of zingers, including one about the president, telling Hillary Clinton that he was the candidate -- she was the candidate who ran against him.

He wasn`t the candidate who ran against then Senator Obama. And it`s funny you mention the hand-raising. I was talking to somebody in the campaign who mentioned that he was told to do that in the first debate and has sort of kept it up as a habit.

If you noticed, ever since the first one, he has raised his hand when he has wanted to get in there with the moderators. You can see in his face he is looking at the people sitting at the table, and seems to sometimes get an acknowledgment from one or the other of them that he wants to speak.

And, of course, in a two-person debate, unlike on the Republican side, that`s a lot easier to do. But, you know, I do think that Senator Sanders and his campaign feel as though he has not been aggressively personally critical of the president, and that Secretary Clinton is overstating this to some degree.

But that said, they know they have a lot of work to do with the African- American community, and he actually was in Minneapolis today with a very diverse crowd, the most diverse crowd I have seen since covering him. Of course, we were in New Hampshire and Iowa, states that are predominantly white.

He is answering questions from a community organizing group organized by Keith Ellison, who is one of his few -- Congressman Keith Ellison, one of his few lawmakers, fellow lawmakers who have endorsed him, Ellison, in a very heavily African-American district in Minneapolis, Minnesota of course coming up on March 1.

There is discussion here on the ground that it`s possible Sanders could win, but he is starting to take steps farther into these communities where he knows he has to make inroads, and in particular, he needs to make inroads with young African-Americans. They feel like that`s an area where they can really do a lot of work and the crowd that Senator Sanders was speaking to today was made up largely of young people.

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s go to Jon.

Let me ask you this, Jon, about the candidate you have been covering, the woman have been covering, the public figure, Hillary Clinton. She has good nights and bad nights. There is an unevenness to it.

Sometimes -- I thought she was very good last night. I thought she was very good in the last debate. I thought there are times she`s been able to handle herself pretty well, but there are other times I get the feeling she doesn`t want to be there.

JONATHAN ALLEN, VOX: Yes, I think she has been struggling to find a message and last night she found it.

And it`s, surprise, surprise, Bill Clinton -- it is, I am Obama`s third term. It`s a good message for her in a Democratic primary. She has got some ammunition to use against Sanders on that.


MATTHEWS: She`s not going to be Bill Clinton`s third term.

ALLEN: That`s what she is saying. That`s got a bitter pill for both of them to swallow, that she`s riding the Obama coattail here.

MATTHEWS: But it`s a big development. Right?

ALLEN: It`s a huge development.

MATTHEWS: That`s what I think.

Anyway, it wasn`t the first time Bernie Sanders, the senator, got tagged for encouraging a primary challenger to President Obama in 2012. Here is Bernie Sanders back in 2011 on the Thom Hartmann radio program.


SANDERS: There are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president, who believe that with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate, and is doing something very much else as a president, who cannot believe how weak he has been, for whatever reason, in negotiating with Republicans.

And there`s deep disappointment. My suggestion is, I think one of the reasons the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him. And I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing.

QUESTION: Who out there would you suggest? Who are you talking to? Are you encouraging anyone?

SANDERS: At this point, I have not. But I am now giving thought to doing it.



Let me go to Kristen Welker.

This looks like great material for the Clinton campaign. There is no doubt then, in that case, he is trimming the guy. He is saying he is disappointed with him. He is saying he didn`t set out what he set out to do on Social Security. He`s betrayed people. It is pretty strong and pretty clear he`s knocking the president.

He is not his best friend in that video.

WELKER: It`s an incredibly strong piece of video, Chris.

You heard Secretary Clinton reference the moment last night. And I anticipate she`s going to do it again and again on the campaign trail. And I think that the challenge for Senator Sanders -- and Kasie can weigh in on it -- is that even in his talking points in this campaign, he is painting an incredibly dire picture of the economy.

And so it`s hard to walk that line between saying President Obama has done a good job. At the same time ,the economy is in such dire straits, some Democrats quietly saying is he starting to go too far and pick up some of the Republican talking points, in terms of how forceful he is being in his language?

I think that he is giving the Clinton campaign a real opening with that. And that piece of video certainly, I think, is something that they`re going to continue to seize upon, Chris.

MATTHEWS: OK. We got to go right now. Kasie, we will have more from you next time. I`m getting the call. Thank you, Kristen Welker. Thank you, Kasie Hunt. Great reporting, Kasie. You started all this with the right question. I`m sure you will remember that, because it was great reporting.

Jonathan Allen, sir, thank you. We will have more from you as you develop more on Hillary Clinton, who seems to be protean this campaign. She`s growing in new directions.

Up next, a hopeful sign in the civil war in Syria. And this could be another, really, a good success for John Kerry, who may be in the perfect job for him right now, secretary of state.

Anyway, later, dirty tricks in South Carolina, brace yourself for a nasty week of campaigning.

And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The Syrian civil war has been a major focus, of course, in the president`s foreign policy the last five years. It`s also driven the political debate for president on national security. Republican candidates have used it to attack the president and show their toughness.

Ted Cruz has promised to carpet-bomb the country and make the sand glow. The conflict has also taken a devastating toll, killing a quarter-million people. Real people, live people are now dead. Anyway, it has led to a worldwide refugee crisis with 4.5 million fleeing their homes.

There was a hopeful sign yesterday that the conflict could de-escalate, though it is still very tenuous. The United States and other world powers reached an agreement for a cessation of hostilities. That was the phrase, cessation of hostilities. The deal does not include an end to fighting ISIS, of course, and other terror groups.

And some skeptics out there wonder if Russia, Iran and the Assad government in Damascus will stick to the deal. Good question.

Nayyera Haq is a former State Department spokesperson.

Nayyera, thanks so much for joining us.

You know, we argue about this stuff politically, but we rarely get to talk about the substance. And here is something that looks good. What does it mean, the fact that there has been a cessation, there is going to be a cessation of hostilities?

NAYYERA HAQ, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: Well, if you look as the Rubik`s Cube of international problems that we haven`t been able to solve yet, we finally turned a corner, in that we have all the proxy groups, the U.S. on one side, Russia, Iran on the other, backing up the Assad regime, finally agree that there is a humanitarian challenge that needs to be addressed.

So, that`s first thing on the table, is a cease-fire within the next week that will allow humanitarian access to go to some of the hardest-hit areas.

MATTHEWS: What to do about the fact that we have to choose sides and certainly haven`t done it yet? We say we`re against the Assad regime. The neocons, the ideologues always want to knock out that regime for pretty good reasons.

And, also, on the troops -- the rest of us seem to be most focused on killing ISIS. Can we do both and how does this lead to doing both or should we focus on one of the two enemies?

HAQ: Well, I think it`s a combination of the two, right?

You have a leader who is bombing his own people. And that`s essentially what started this, as a civil war. Over the course of five years, the vacuum of power and the vacuum of stability led to growth by ISIS.

Now you have the Russians who are backing up the Assad regime, who claim they`re fighting ISIS with their air support. However, from U.S. evidence and what we can see, they`re actually bombing civilians.

So, in this next week, the idea is that bombing against ISIS would continue from both sides, but there would be cessation of hostilities on civilians, allowing humanitarian access and hoping to stem the tide of the humanitarian challenge.

MATTHEWS: We stop bombing Assad`s regime and Assad`s regime stops bombing what we consider the good guys and the opposition, right?

HAQ: That`s the theory of the case.

Now, we weren`t talking directly with the Assad regime, so the two warring parties weren`t at the table. It`s U.S. and Russia and Iran. Now really it`s up to Russia and Iran to deliver on what they have promised.

MATTHEWS: Well, this is very much in the tradition I think of President Obama trying to work through difficult arrangements, even with people who could be hostile to us in most other circumstances. I think it`s great diplomacy, and I think John Kerry is doing the job.

Anyway, thank you, Nayyera Haq, who knows what she is talking about. And we need to know that.

It`s just every once in a while, we should remember the stakes of these presidential campaigns. It`s who gets to decide this stuff. That`s what we should remember. That`s about it, not who has the best speech, but who gets to decide these things.

Anyway, up next, South Carolina is known for its below-the-belt campaigning. Just a week out now, eight days from the Republican primary down there, are we about to see some dirty behavior?

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.


MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Milissa Rehberger. Here`s what`s happening.

New York Mets relief pitcher Jenrry Mejia has been permanently suspended from Major League Baseball after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs for the third time. Mejia is the first MLB player to ever receive a lifetime ban.

Daily commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba could begin by this fall. That`s thanks to an agreement between the two countries that is expected to be signed next Tuesday. Travel is still restricted to one of 12 permissible categories -- back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Republicans in South Carolina will head to the polls next Saturday, and dirty tactics are apparently already emerging in the Palmetto State.

According to "The Washington Post," a South Carolina schoolteacher recently got a robo-call asking her Republican she liked. Then -- quote -- "When she selected Senator Marco Rubio as one of her choices, she said nasty things -- things got nasty."

The teacher told "The Washington Post" that the caller said negative things about Rubio before taking shots at Donald Trump for being a supporter of eminent domain.

Well, Ted Cruz was asked if he or anyone connected to his campaign was behind the calls.


QUESTION: Do you know who is behind the robo-calls?

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have no idea. We had nothing do with it.

QUESTION: Do you denounce them?

CRUZ: I don`t know what they were. We had nothing to do with them, so I have read reports of what is being said, but somebody else is doing them. It`s not us.


MATTHEWS: Well, I didn`t hear an actual denial or -- well, I didn`t hear it quite there, because he never really said he didn`t like and he wanted to denounce them. He didn`t denounce them.

Anyway, Trump on top with a 16-point lead down there in a new South Carolina poll. The fight is on to try and topple him. Of course, he is king of the hill right now any way possible.

The HARDBALL roundtable tonight, Michael Tomasky is a columnist with "The Daily Beast", Michelle Bernard is president of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics, and Public Policy and Howard Fineman is global editor "The Huffington Post", and an MSNBC political analyst.

So, let`s take a look at this fight now. There was a little hint of the Cruz M.O. out in Iowa, word that they put out apparently that they denied it was done maliciously, but he did apologize for putting out the word that Dr. Ben Carson was out of the race. And then there was this official looking document that came out from the Cruz world, that basically scared people into voting whatever, and those were the intimations.

Now, we get the robocalls.

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Now, you get the calls and begins in South Carolina, which is like a landscape with gasoline all over it, ready to be lighted by any match. It`s the history of the state. It`s the way politics is conducted there. It`s the way presidential politics is conducted by a knife in the back, often racial, that`s been the history, given the history of the state.

There`s often that kind of tone. And also, very personal about people`s religion, about people`s family, that`s the way they play it down there. And I think it`s historical, because in South Carolina, politics has been a matter of life and death in very personal going back to the very beginning.

MATTHEWS: It could be directed from any source. Makes a phone call, super PAC, do this, you are power the guy. Dirt can be thrown from any direction.

MICHELLE BERNARD, BERNARD CENTER FOR WOMEN: From any direction whatsoever, and if you look for example, the woman who received this phone call, people will tell you that the voter sits on the telephone and they start thinking, well, who would do this. Who would be responsible for this? Could it have come from Rubio? Could it have from Trump? Which one of them has the personality to do something like this?

MATTHEWS: Attacking Trump and Rubio, so I would say somebody else, but.

BERNARD: It could be -- well, I just through Trump`s name out there. But it could be coming from anyone and also, this is not only an opportunity unfortunately on the Republican side, but on the Democratic side, you`re going to go into South Carolina and you`re going -- who knows what we`re going to see as we watch Hillary Clinton and Senator Sanders battle it out for the black vote.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, "Charleston Post and Courier" newspaper taking the motto "see something, say something" to a whole new level. It`s developed an app, and it is spot on its website where readers can report dirty campaign tactics.

Mike Tomasky, do you think people will call? I just got a terrible -- I hope they do.

MICHAEL TOMASKY, THE DAILY BEAST: Sure. I think they will. But you know, here`s what is different this time. Donald Trump is what`s different this time. I think this stuff has always worked in the past, the episodes that Howard points to.

MATTHEWS: They worked against McCain.

TOMASKY: Yes, they worked against McCain, worked against Romney in the state, he lost the state to Gingrich. I don`t know if it`s going to work against Trump. Trump has been bullet proof so far.

MATTHEWS: OK. How do you think the response here? You hear, somebody comes up, his people, guess what they`re doing, they`re getting phone calls saying about your third wife or whatever --

TOMASKY: He gets up there and gives a speech and he decides it was Cruz, or whoever he decides it was, it doesn`t matter whether it`s true, he just decides who it was, and he denounces them and that`s that.

MATTHEWS: Something happens to my on or something happens I`ll act.

You don`t care how it happened.


MATTHEWS: You don`t care how it happens. If somebody hurts you, you act like it was -- any way, Donald Trump tweeted, ranted on tweet, about the calls, writing, "We are getting reports from many voters that the Cruz people are back to doing very sleazy and dishonest push polls on me. We`re watching and Cruz got caught in lie after denial of push polls, like lies with Ben Carson. How can he preach Christian values?"

BERNARD: This is the brilliance, again, in Donald Trump strategy, because not only is he denouncing the Cruz campaign and pointing the finger at doing it to him, but he`s protecting Ben Carson. Carson and Cruz have the same supporters, and to the extent that Donald Trump can give Ben Carson cover, allow him to stand under his skirt so to speak.

MATTHEWS: I like learning stuff here.

BERNARD: And Carson is protected.

MATTHEWS: Protecting Ben.

FINEMAN: He also, because of what happened in Iowa happened --


FINEMAN: -- to Ben Carson, Donald Trump can be the defender of virtue in campaigning, while simultaneously trying to wrap the piano wire around --


MATTHEWS: Let`s about this thing. I prefer -- I don`t mind mistaken language, crude language. I`ve been caught doing it myself and everybody I know I think does it occasionally. I don`t mean the Anglo Saxon words we`re not supposed to use. You know, they are not to me sins. But dirty politics, if you`re doing something in politics, there ought to be a name on it.

I paid for this commercial, I paid for this. Nobody ever owns up to dirty tricks.

FINEMAN: No, they don`t. That`s the whole part of the game. In South Carolina, as you say, it goes in so many directions, so many times, and even though the newspaper down there in Charleston is saying let`s call out these people, it`s a part of the culture there.

MATTHEWS: Why do they accept it?

FINEMAN: Well, I think they accept it, for the reason that I said. It`s always been that way. You go back to populous in the 19th century in South Carolina, there was a huge racial undertone do it. I think it has a lot to do with the history of race that the South Carolinians are bravely trying to overcome. But usually in the past, it was that person likes those people.


FINEMAN: And also, the civil war. Don`t forget, this was the home of secession. This is where it was a matter of life and death, and calling the Northerners the worst possible names you possibly could.

MATTHEWS: Remember the pepper trick down in Florida, where they got -- an African-American guy to shake his hand, "The Islander Sentinel" put the picture in the paper, and they killed the guy, because blacks couldn`t vote back then and the whites didn`t want the black votes.

Anyway, in December 2007, bogus Christmas cards were sent to South Carolina Republicans, claiming to be from then-GOP candidate Mitt Romney as you mentioned from "The Associated Press", quote, "The card contains messages that underscore some differences between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and those denominations that are prevalent in South Carolina."

TOMASKY: It also has something to do with where South Carolina falls in the calendar, I think which is a very important place in the calendar, because the field has been winnowing, and it`s going to winnow more after South Carolina and Nevada.

So, it`s just right at the point where it`s going to get down. It`s got to get down to three or four people.

FINEMAN: By the way, religion has been used as this tactic. Go back to the late `70s, there was a Jewish man who was a mayor of Greenville, who wanted to become a congressman. Push polls were born in that campaign.

MATTHEWS: Did you know that --

FINEMAN: No, would you think differently of this guy, Max Heller, if you knew that he didn`t believe in the divinity of Jesus? He lost the race to Carol Campbell, who was a client of the late Lee Atwater, the guy who began all this stuff.

BERNARD: And he was rewarded for doing so. Atwater did it against turnip seed in South Carolina.


MATTHEWS: Are you going to vote for a guy that was hooked up, jumper cable, an electroshock therapy.

BERNARD: Exactly. And then, you know, later on, the questions were, would you vote for John McCain, if you knew he fathered an illegitimate black daughter? They were --

MATTHEWS: Because just a straight in the record ad, he`s adopted daughter was from South Asia, and she was dark complexion, and they used that to say it was his illegitimate daughter.

BERNARD: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, the round table staying with us. And up next, these people are going to tell me something I don`t know, although they`ve been doing that.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.


MATTHEWS: In a swing through California, President Obama stopped by the Ellen show, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show", and he recorded this Valentine`s Day greeting for first lady, Michelle Obama, with the help of Ellen DeGeneres.

Take a look.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Somebody call the Situation Room, because things are about to get hot. Michelle, this Valentine`s Day, I`m going to treat you right. I`m going to make you some zucchini bread, then I`ll spread out veggies on a plate, just like the way you look them.

Then, I`m going to give you a massage while you watch Ellen`s Design Challenge on HGTV. Because I love you so much. I Obamacare about you more than you even know. That`s right. Obama cares.

But, Michelle, I`ve made a lot of great decisions as president, the best decision was choosing you. Thanks for putting up with me. I love you.


MATTHEWS: Actually, she chose him as well. We`ll be right back.


MATTHEWS: We`re back with the HARDBALL roundtable.

So, Michael, tell me something I don`t know.

TOMASKY: Nevada is next on the Democrat side.

MATTHEWS: You pronounce it correctly. Cruz doesn`t. Not Nevada. It`s Nevada.

TOMASKY: That`s right. I`ve taken this to heart. Believe me.

It`s going to be interesting. Nevada releases new voter enrollment figures every four years and a year before a presidential election. Twice as many new voters in 2015 as in 2007 and 2011 combined, 92,000 new voters.

MATTHEWS: Of Bernie?

TOMASKY: I don`t know. If they`re young voters it helps Bernie. If they`re Latino, they help Clinton. But it`s going to be an interesting new electorate that`s unchartered.

BERNARD: Sharonda Jones, the case of this young woman exemplifies all the reasons why we are going to watch a contentious battle for the black vote in South Carolina and the vote of Latinos --

MATTHEWS: Who is she?

BERNARD: -- in Nevada.

She was sentenced to life without parole for essentially being a drug mule. She was -- after 18 years in prison, the only reason she got out is President Obama granted her a pardon. Bernie Sanders is pointing the finger at Hillary Clinton saying, what was your hand in all of this, the crime bill, and -- but he supported the same crime bill that Bill Clinton.

MATTHEWS: Who did, Bernie?

BERNARD: Bernie Sanders.

MATTHEWS: What was the president`s rationale reason for the pardon?

BERNARD: It was a non-violent crime.

MATTHEWS: Yes, a non-violent crime.


FINEMAN: In Nevada, again, Sheldon Adelson, the trillionaire who bought the newspaper --

MATTHEWS: Who`s gaining dollars every day --

FINEMAN: He used the paper to endorse Marco Rubio.

MATTHEWS: But they say he has nothing to do with it.

FINEMAN: Of course, right. And I have a casino in Macau to sell to you, if you believe that. But they`ve not endorsed on the Democratic side, between Bernie and Hillary, and they`re probably -- I think both campaigns are praying that the paper doesn`t endorse them because if you get endorsed by Sheldon Adelson in a Democratic primary, it`s not a good thing.

MATTHEWS: Is that like having Henry Kissinger as your foreign --

FINEMAN: It is not a good thing.

MATTHEWS: I love the way Bernie hit on that last night.

Thank you to the roundtable -- Michael Tomasky, Michelle Bernard, and Howard Fineman.

When we return, let me finish with Valentine`s Day and what it means to your family and our family.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.


MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this, Sunday`s Valentine`s Day. I offer this as a reminder, also warning to my fellow husbands to get it together.

Thirty-eight years ago, Kathleen Cunningham, aka "The Queen", was standing in the hallway at the Washington Hilton in the mishmash of TV news people and the afterglow of the radio and TV correspondents dinner. That was a black tie dinner that was such a big deal in the movie "Broadcast News" with Holly Hunter and William Hurt.

So, as I`ve done before on this occasion, I`ll talk about the family I`m happy to be part of it, all whom merit a Valentine`s card of their own. It all began back in the 1970s before a lot of our HARDBALL guests were even born.

Back to a certain Valentine`s Day those many years ago that Kathleen and I really got committed to each other. I sometimes not often enough think of all that`s happened since. As a friend of mine once said, it`s good to have the pictures so you can prove to yourself we really did have those days when we went out on dates, when we got married, when we had our trio of wonders, Michael, Thomas and Caroline, those names right off the New Testament shortlist.

Anyway, the list grew longer with addition on a beautiful day in Charleston, of Sarah Staveley-O`Carroll. And thanks to her, a little girl now four years old named Julia, or as I like to sing it, Julia.

And a few years later along came Brandon, a name my mom was going to give me. It being the patron saint of sailors, including the one she married. There`s been a lot of losses along the way, of course, like when Kathleen led the family at her World War II dad`s internment at Arlington National Cemetery. And through all the wondrous years, there`s been us.

So, have a nice weekend. Pull out your own pictures and happy Valentine`s Day to all and to all a good night.

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

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.