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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 3/29/2016

Guests: Charlie Sykes, Ann Coulter, Ruth Marcus, Cornell Belcher, Francesca Chambers, Scott Klug, John Nichols

Show: HARDBALL Date: March 29, 2016 Guest: Charlie Sykes, Ann Coulter, Ruth Marcus, Cornell Belcher, Francesca Chambers, Scott Klug, John Nichols

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Grabbing the news.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Green Bay, Wisconsin, here for an hour-long town hall with Donald Trump tomorrow night at 8:00 PM Eastern.

Well, the contest in both parties running here in Wisconsin are very close, with Trump and Cruz running head to head and Hillary Clinton slightly ahead of Bernie Sanders.

But the big news tonight is national. Interrupting the horse race on both sides is the news that Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowski was charged with simple battery today after turning himself into police in Jupiter, Florida, this morning.

The misdemeanor charge stems from a March 8th incident involving political reporter Michelle Fields, formerly with the conservative Web site Breitbart news. Fields said she was grabbed by Lewandowski when she was trying to ask Trump a question following a press conference at Trump National Golf Club.

Police in Jupiter today released an overhead surveillance video which police say parallels the story that Fields had told them. The Jupiter police also cite a bruise left on Fields`s forearm, which she posted to Twitter after the incident.

Trump is standing by his campaign manager. Here`s what he said moments ago at his rally in Janesville, Wisconsin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He`s is a good guy, Cory. And by the way, the easiest thing -- Cory, you`re fired. I can`t do that. Can`t do it.

So fortunately, I have a taping system -- you know, very -- I`m rich, so I have tapes all over. So this young woman, who complained, was -- oh, she was talking about being maybe thrown to the floor and all this -- I said, Oh, that`s -- and then we saw the tapes. Did anybody see the tape?

AUDIENCE: Yes!

TRUMP: What did you think, right? Nothing. Women are so -- what did you think? What did you...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You just kept walking. There was nothing wrong!

TRUMP: Pardon me? And she wasn`t -- like, her face stayed the same. If somebody squeezed your arm or did something really bad -- don`t forget, initially, she said thrown to the floor. But if somebody squeezed your arm or hurt you, wouldn`t you start screaming or something? Did you see any change in her face?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I reran it and reran it on a wide screen, and there was nothing.

TRUMP: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She is...

TRUMP: It`s -- same. It`s...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: It`s horrible. It`s horrible. It`s -- honestly, it`s horrible. And the best thing I could do is say -- but I can`t destroy a man`s -- (INAUDIBLE) got a beautiful wife and children. And I`m not going to destroy a man for that.

And you know, when I saw that at (ph) the tape -- at first, I said, Oh, this is terrible. Then I saw the tape. It`s my tape! Maybe he touched her a little bit. But I didn`t -- it was almost like he was trying to keep her off me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, meanwhile, a new national poll by NBC News has Trump approaching the 50 percent mark now among Republicans and those leaning Republican. Trump`s at 48, Cruz way back at 27, Kasich at 18. Three out of five Republicans, 57 percent, now believe that Trump should win the nomination if he leads in delegates, even if he`s short of the 1,237 majority.

Meanwhile, a big change in the Democratic fight. In one week, Vermont`s Bernie Sanders has cut Hillary Clinton`s national lead in half, from 12 percent down to 6 percent. He`s overtaken Hillary Clinton among male voters, with Sanders now getting 47 percent of the men and Hillary at 45 percent. A week ago, she led by 6 points among men.

I`m joined right now by NBC`s Katy Tur, who covers the Trump campaign, conservative radio host and author Charles Sykes of WTMJ here in Wisconsin and conservative author Ann Coulter, who supports Trump.

Katy, give us a sense, can you, of the weight of this infraction, this misdemeanor. How much weight does it have in the campaign? Can you tell?

KATY TUR, NBC CORRESPONDENT: You can tell by Donald Trump`s own actions. It does not have a lot of weight in terms of how Donald Trump is viewing Cory Lewandowski.

It does have a lot of weight in terms of public perception. That`s why you saw Donald Trump have an impromptu press conference on his own plane earlier today. That was not scheduled. That was something that was done to address these allegations head on, and for him to stand by Cory Lewandowski.

I think it`s pretty clear that he`s going to remain -- he`s going to keep Cory Lewandowski on his team. It doesn`t seem like there`s anything that can happen with the campaign manager, at least as of now, that would make Donald Trump reconsider his employment.

Take a -- take a -- consider Cory`s history with the Trump campaign. He started long before Donald Trump even announced, a few months before Donald Trump even announced. He wasn`t considered a heavyweight in terms of political operatives that were on campaigns previously. He doesn`t have a large campaign under his belt. He was sort of a lightweight campaign operative, working on what was deemed back then a campaign that was sure to go nowhere.

Right now, Donald Trump is on the verge of clinching the Republican nomination, and Cory Lewandowski is being credited with much of that by doing what so many campaign managers would not do, which is let Donald Trump be Donald Trump. All of the times that Donald Trump has said things would have sunk other candidates, Cory Lewandowski has stood by his candidate and said that this is just Donald Trump being Donald Trump, and this is who he is. He is going to speak honestly. He`s going to speak truthfully. He`s going to say what he thinks.

And by doing that, Donald Trump has really resonated with his supporters out on the campaign trail. I spoke to a number of them today and asked them about these allegations, about these now charges, these criminal charges, this criminal charge and how they feel about it, whether that would change their support.

I asked women and men. All of them said that this was basically just a distraction from the fact that Donald Trump is going to get into office, they hope, and change things in Washington, create jobs. They think this is a side issue, not a main stage issue for their support for Donald Trump. So it doesn`t waver them in any way.

But when it comes to the gravity of this situation, I think that it`s just -- you have to wait and see whether this plays out. Certainly, other campaigns, if their campaign manager was accused of putting his or her hands on a reporter, there would be some dire consequences. We`ve heard Ted Cruz say that. We`ve heard John Kasich say that. So far, with the Trump campaign, that does not seem to be the case, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me go -- hang in there, Katy. Let`s go to Charles Sykes out here. Mr. Sykes, give us a sense of how you think this is going to get into the bloodstream. I mean, let`s face it, the verdict on this incident, long before there`s a trial, if there is a trial, is going to be next Tuesday here in Wisconsin on the 5th, when you have a primary. If Trump loses it, a lot of people will say it`s because of this incident.

CHARLIE SYKES, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: No, it`s because of the narrative, and because of several things. I mean, this comes at a time when Donald Trump has a real problem with women. I think there`s a certain amount of denial about that. You have national polls showing as many as 70 percent of women disapproving of him. In the Milwaukee metropolitan area, he`s got a 25 percent approval rating among Republicans.

What`s driving that is conservative Republican women in Wisconsin who looking at Donald Trump and they`re repelled by the way that he treats women. So he`s got a problem with women. This fits into the narrative.

And you know, this is one of these incidents that could have gone away so easily, just have apologized. Apologize when it happens, be willing to admit that something was done wrong. This campaign just continues -- apparently, they`ve made that decision that their brand is they never say they`re wrong. They never apologize. And they think that that is weakness.

When I asked him the other day, was, look, Real men stand up and say you`re sorry. They`ve now backed themselves into a corner. This incident itself doesn`t tip the bounds, but it feeds into this negative. And Donald Trump, just trust me, has a problem with women in Wisconsin. I think you`re going to see that next Tuesday.

MATTHEWS: Are you for Cruz?

SYKES: I`ve come out in favor of Cruz because I`m a NeverTrump guy and...

MATTHEWS: Yes, OK, I just want to get that perspective.

SYKES: ... Ted Cruz is the only...

MATTHEWS: I just want to -- I think we have to identify that, yes.

Let me go to Ann Coulter on this, who`s for Trump. What do you make of this? There`s two things that Trump said today I think may be conflicting. One, he said it wasn`t that big a deal, that he just grabbed her, it wasn`t, like, a physical -- you know, the notion of an assault. He said it wasn`t appropriate here, shouldn`t have been charged. But then he says, I care about his family and his kids and his wife.

It would be one thing to take the latter position and say, I feel sorry for the guy, I`m going to be loyal to him. But he did seem to minimize the charge. Is that smart to minimize, Ann?

ANN COULTER, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: I think it deserves to be minimized! I mean, I feel like I`m living in the emperor`s new clothes. Everyone keeps talk about "it," and it happened. Anyone who sees the video can see what`s happening there, a reporter, who, by the way, didn`t ask questions when reporters were supposed to ask questions, rushes the front- runner presidential candidate in the middle of a Secret Service scrum.

The candidate`s campaign manager does what his job is, to stay with the candidate, brushes past her, and now conservatives are -- at least Cruz- supporting conservatives are all acting as if, you know, there are these conservative moonbats that we need a safe face for women`s reporters` shoulders.

The idea that if another campaign aide brushed shoulders with a female reporter, that, oh, he`d be knocked off, he`d be asked to go -- no, this is -- I`m sorry, there are a few things that when Trump -- I will criticize my guy for. In this case, he is the victim, not the victimizer.

MATTHEWS: Well, I can understand there`s going to be a lot of argument on what the videotape shows or doesn`t show. But what about the bruises on her arm that she showed right after the incident? If you had bruises like that...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... if I had bruises like that, I would know somebody manhandled me. Yes?

COULTER: Well, OK, but that could be anyone at that event. It could be someone right before the event. It could be someone right after the event. Would you accept this in any other case? I wouldn`t accept it against Bill Clinton!

MATTHEWS: You would -- you would -- you mean you think she`s lying.

COULTER: I think there are bruises there, but...

MATTHEWS: Ann, do you think she`s lying?

COULTER: ... but it`s quite clear she`s lying when she said that he grabbed her and nearly tried to forcefully pull her to the ground, that she lost her balance.

Trump is absolutely right, and it`s one of the first things I noticed, that her face is placid the entire time! Even if it were a justifiable touching, like in a subway, walking into a concert, in a bar -- and by the way, if that is a battery that we just saw on that screen, I`ve been thrown down and gang raped at bars and on the New York City subway!

But if that -- if that is such an egregious touching -- Trump`s right. He could bring a lawsuit against her. You would at least have some sort of -- you`d have her -- her face respond in some way. You don`t see that. You see their shoulders brushing past one another!

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s hear -- let`s hear Charles Sykes on this. Charles, what you do you think about the gravity of this thing, really? I know the politics are going to have to play itself out, as you mentioned. But what about the gravity of the assault? Can you -- can a civilian watching this from afar play jury in this?

SYKES: OK, guys, this is not the Zapruder film. And I think that was Donald Trump needs is he needs less enablers, Ann, and he needs more intervention. You know, you mentioned the other day that it was like bailing your 16-year-old out of prison all the time and getting frustrated. I compared him to a 12-year-old on the playground. We`re only apart by 12 -- you know, by 4 years.

Look, the problem is you need to see this in context. This is a guy who on a regular basis insults and demeans women. Look, I am a conservative. I don`t want to play the victim card. But the reality is this a man who wants to be president of the United States, and on multiple occasions, his contempt for women, his bullying of women, has become an issue.

And somebody in his life -- you know, some of the women in his life, Ivanka, Ann Coulter, needs to have an intervention, take the -- you know, take his cellphone away from him, get him away from Twitter, and tell him that, you know...

MATTHEWS: OK...

SYKES: ... every single time there`s an incident like this, you do not need to insult the woman. You don`t need to a smear the woman. You don`t need to go on off like this.

MATTHEWS: OK...

SYKES: Because again, you know, here is -- this is my real problem here. Donald Trump wants to be the president of the United States. I am a conservative. I don`t want to see Hillary Clinton president. But he is about to go into a general election, where conservatives like me who have spent the last what, 10 years saying, No...

MATTHEWS: Yes, but you`re against him...

SYKES: ... we`re not racist, we`re not sexist...

MATTHEWS: ... on principle. Let`s be honest here, Charles. You don`t agree -- you don`t agree with his politics. You don`t think he`s a true conservative. Apart from all this incident...

SYKES: Well, no, actually...

MATTHEWS: This just lays it on for you. You`re against him in principle.

SYKES: No. OK, Chris, I can tell you why I`m against him. And part of is this character...

MATTHEWS: Tell me.

SYKES: ... and the way he treats people. No, I mean, I -- I actually...

MATTHEWS: Is the reason -- is the principle...

(CROSSTALK)

SYKES: No, it`s also a character problem. It`s the kind of person he is. It`s the way he interacts with people. He`s the kind of person that, as a father and grandfather -- and I tried to talk to him about that. If you saw your child behaving this way, if you saw a young man, what would you say? Would you justify it? Would you mock people and do those kinds of things?

There is a certain majesty in the presidency that I respect, and I think that Donald Trump -- and I keep waiting for him to respect that office, but Donald Trump demeans the office and debases the political debate by the way that he behaves, regardless of the ideology or the politics.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me go back to Katy Tur on this. Katy, you know him better than anybody talking right now. You`ve been with him. You`ve had to deal with him. It`s not always pleasant. You`ve been a tough reporter. He`s been certainly tough back to you.

Does this fit with anything else he`s ever done before? This Lewandowski, defending his campaign manager -- does it fit with his attitude that you`ve seen expressed by his behavior and words towards women or not?

TUR: I don`t think I`m in a position to say whether or not this fits with a pattern of Donald Trump`s behavior towards women. I think what it does fit with is the pattern of the campaign in general, which is to never back down, no matter what.

I think you need to take a look at the progression of this incident and how the campaign has responded from the beginning up until now. At first, they were saying very adamantly that this did not happen. Cory Lewandowski himself went on Twitter, called Michelle Fields "delusional," said, I did not touch you. I have never met you.

Donald Trump told me repeatedly that this was not true, that if it was true, there would be video to support it. Now, today, there is video. The Trump campaign says that they gave this video to the police department down in Jupiter, so they clearly knew that video existed. The Jupiter Police Department has filed a charge of battery against Cory Lewandowski. That is a misdemeanor charge.

Today, instead of saying, There is video, he did touch her, but we don`t think it`s a big deal, Donald Trump is instead blaming Michelle Fields and saying that this is not something that was what she was describing in the first place.

In reality, Michelle Fields never said that she was pulled to the ground. She said she was almost pulled to the ground. She said that she managed to maintain her balance.

I do want to give you a little bit of background as to what kind of event we are at. I know Ms. Coulter just said a second ago that she rushed the candidate during a time that was not supposed to be a question time. The reality is, this was a press conference. It was a press conference at his golf course. Donald Trump finished his remarks, and then walked up the aisle and took a number of additional questions from the press along the aisle.

Michelle Fields was one of those members -- one of those reporters who was standing there walking alongside him, as a number of others were, asking him questions. This was not a campaign rally. This was not a public event. Donald Trump was in a room at his own property, who...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Ann, respond to that quickly, if you can.

TUR: ... members of the media -- members of the media -- let me finish. Hold on. Members of the media who had been vetted, who had been brought in through Secret Service, and who the campaign gave credentials to.

There might be a point where Donald Trump takes questions from the media, but the reality is, Donald Trump continued to take question from the media and stopped to talk to a number of reporters all along that line as he was exiting that room. He even stopped again after this incident and spoke to reporters in the hallway.

COULTER: As we know from...

MATTHEWS: Ann, last word.

COULTER: ... the Secret Service talking to "The Daily Mail" today, they had already told Michelle Fields to back off a couple of times. Yes, this was a press conference. She did not participate in the press conference. This was as Donald Trump was leaving the press conference, surrounded by Secret Service. He was generously taking questions as -- as politicians often do with their -- with the Secret Service moving people out of the way.

The Secret Service was blaming Michelle Fields here, and saying they told her twice to back off. She was touching the candidate, which she wasn`t supposed to do. And this is utter nonsense that he has any problem with women!

MATTHEWS: OK.

COULTER: So far, he`s been crushing with women voters! His women employees, his women friends, his women people who know him say he`s absolutely fabulous to women. And just because you`re hysterical doesn`t mean that he`s done anything wrong!

MATTHEWS: OK, thank you very much, Katy Tur. As always, great reporting. Thank you, Charlie Sykes. It`s great to meet you again. And Ann Coulter, thank you, as always.

Coming up -- convention chaos. Donald Trump is hinting he might break his loyalty pledge to the Republican Party after saying the party isn`t treating him properly already. He`s already promised riots if he has the most delegates but is denied the nomination. What leverage -- that`s a big word in business. What leverage does Donald Trump have if he doesn`t get the nomination, if he doesn`t win?

Plus, one week before the Wisconsin primary, the Democratic race is getting tighter. Hillary Clinton has the delegate lead, but can Bernie Sanders win back the momentum with a big win here in Wisconsin next week? It seems very possible.

And on the eve of a huge day here in politics with four presidential candidates appearing right here on MSNBC, the HARDBALL roundtable is here with a look ahead to what we can expect from our town hall with Donald Trump tomorrow night. A lot, I expect.

Finally, "Let Me Finish" this with the up-and-down Democratic race for president. And that`s what it`s become, up and down.

And this is HARDBALL, live from Green Bay, Wisconsin, today the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What`s going on in the Republican Party is a disgrace. I have so many more votes and so many more delegates. And, frankly, whoever -- at the end, whoever has the most votes and the most delegates should be the nominee.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was Donald Trump, of course, on Sunday this week, saying that the Republican who wins the most delegates should get the nomination at the convention this summer in Cleveland.

While Trump is almost sure to have more delegates than his opponents, the convention could vote to nominate another candidate if Trump is short of the majority 1,237 he`s supposed to have in delegates.

Well, back in September, Trump signed a pledge to support the Republican nominee, whoever it is, and rule out an independent bid. But now Trump is saying again that he is being mistreated by the Republican Party. Trump`s campaign is appealing to the RNC right now to challenge the delegate results, for example, from Louisiana, after Ted Cruz managed to secure additional unbound delegates in the state`s allocation process.

Here is what Trump said about that and his pledge to the party yesterday.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

TRUMP: I win Louisiana, and I was asking, I said, why am I getting less votes? I mean, give me a break. But this is the Republican primary politics. So, we will what happens.

And ,again, I signed a pledge to be a good, honorable guy, and maybe they`re not treating me honorably. We`re going to find out.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, today, Trumped tweeted: "I have millions more votes and hundreds more delegates than Cruz or Kasich and yet I`m not being treated properly by the Republican Party or the RNC."

The Trump campaign also announced today that they have hired veteran Republican operative Paul Manafort as their convention manager. Anyway, that`s happening.

I`m joined right now by former Congressman Scott Klug of Wisconsin, who is a Kasich supporter, as well as former chairman of the RNC Michael Steele.

Michael, we have got a new poll out today which certainly jumped at me. Four out of five Republicans or leaning-Republican people said they think Trump will be the nominee and three out of five, 57 percent, say he should be, even if he doesn`t get the requisite 1,237. In other words, if he leads in the numbers, he should be the nominee. That`s a pretty strong number.

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: It`s a strong number. But, unfortunately, it absolutely means nothing, because the rules are the rules.

And the reality of it is, when you go into that convention, it is presumed by the party that you will have done the necessary due diligence and homework and lay out the battle plan to capture the nomination. That`s what this primary process is about.

So, you know, the fact that Trump is now seeing himself losing delegates to Cruz in Louisiana, even though he won the popular vote in a big way, is not a matter for the RNC. It`s a matter of the state law, the state rules of the party, rather, that dictate how those delegates are allocated at a convention.

That`s why you have to get on your game, and it`s not just a matter of winning the primary. You have got to also win the process of getting those delegates in your camp.

MATTHEWS: Yes, it`s more like golf than it is football.

STEELE: It is.

MATTHEWS: Golf, you have to put the ball in the cup or you lose.

STEELE: It is.

MATTHEWS: Even if you`re 10 feet out and the other guy is 20 feet out, you have still got to put the ball in the hole.

STEELE: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this incident today. Is this incident today with the arrest, I guess, technically, arrest of Corey Lewandowski down in Florida, is this up there with like the 47 percent comment by Mitt Romney last time around?

Is this one of those colorful, unfortunately tragic, you could say, but mainly more colorful incidents that tells you a lot about a candidate in a way that hurts and becomes a large statement going down the road? Is it one of those, or is this an incident that will pass?

STEELE: Well, it has the -- it should pass in the overall scheme of things.

But I think, coupled with certainly the recent engagement on the wife issue with Ted Cruz, it is starting to create a narrative potential Donald Trump supporters that is causing them to hesitate, and even some hesitation among supporters who may not be as avid or rabid, as some would say, as some others.

But I think Donald Trump is doing right now to sort of hurt his improved opportunities certainly going into Wisconsin than otherwise helping. And I think this may feed that narrative that started about a week ago, and only he can stop this at this point. But it doesn`t seem like there is really much effort in that vein right now.

It will be interesting tomorrow night with your town hall with him whether or not he makes...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: It will be. I expect it will be very interesting tomorrow night, Michael.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: Because I think he needs to. I think he needs to. Yes.

MATTHEWS: OK.

Let me go to Scott Klug, who was a congressman down here for many years, and before that was a reporter back in Washington.

Scott, nice to see you again.

You`re with Kasich, and I understand that. But let`s talk politics for a second. Is this the kind of incident, metaphor for Trump that could hurt him in the long run?

SCOTT KLUG (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Well, let me turn it a different way, Chris.

I think Trump to some degree only has himself to blame for this. So, you can understand this. You`re a longtime political operative. There`s two parts of a campaign. There`s the air war. And nobody has done it better than Trump. But there`s the ground game.

And for the last three months, he has ignored it. He has finally reached out to somebody who actually was involved in the Reagan/Ford fight all the way back in the 1970s. So he has got a smart political operative in place now, and he is going to have to fight these sort of battleground by battleground.

And there`s a lot of delegates that are out there that were controlled by Rubio that are now up for grabs. There`s delegates out there in states which held primaries like Colorado. So he is smart to get involved with this right now to try to scoop those people up. I think the interesting question is why it took him so long to figure that out.

And in terms of this incident, I don`t really think it`s -- I don`t think it`s a game-changer.

MATTHEWS: But Kasich jumped -- your guy jumped on this today, so Kasich must think that this is a winning for him against Trump, this arrest for assault, simple assault.

Your guy says he is not going to run a negative campaign, and he has generally abided by that rule. But he is now pointing to Trump. He is exploiting this thing as of today. He is.

KLUG: Well, I personally don`t think it has legs. I`m supporting John for president. I don`t have to agree with him on everything. I think this is sort of a strange sideshow.

It is a misdemeanor charge. It really isn`t going to go anywhere. I find it hard to believe his campaign is going to resign over it. So, I think a week from now, it will be off the front page, if it lasts that long.

MATTHEWS: Interesting.

Let`s take a look now at what Kasich, your candidate, did say, Scott. Let`s take it here. Here`s John Kasich on the Trump situation with his campaign manager.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: First of all, I don`t know this guy. I don`t know exactly what happened. My understanding is that the report is that he grabbed somebody.

And that`s frankly totally and completely inappropriate. It could have been one of my daughters, for that matter. Look, I think I have said what I have to say, which is, if it was me, if I was in this circumstance, I would take some sort of action, either suspension or fire him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Michael, that was softly stated, but it was strong. Fire the guy, suspend the guy. If this was my daughter -- it`s bringing it home to the old family feuds we have been through the last week or so, once again bringing in family members, like Cruz brings in his two children.

STEELE: Right.

MATTHEWS: Everybody seems eager to make these family affair. And there is Kasich doing exactly what Cruz and Trump have been doing, bringing in the family issue.

I mean, fair enough, I guess, but it`s certainly -- it`s an interesting interplay going on right now. It`s in the bloodstream.

STEELE: Well, it is. And it goes back to what I was saying before about the whole narrative on the wives that has taken place over the last 10 days.

This now -- and Kasich has pivoted indirectly into that. In other words, you know, talking about in the accumulation of these things that are happening inside the Trump campaign, yes, this is something that, OK, I will suspend no fire.

And that`s to get people to start thinking about that in those terms. And it`s an interesting way to do it. I don`t know if it really will have as much legs as he hoped going into next week. But, again, it`s feeding a narrative that is beginning to bubble up about Trump that only Trump right now can stop.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let`s see if it shows up in the ads, in the ads run by Cruz and also the ads run by Kasich.

By the way, Scott Klug, you have shown an abnormal restraint on this one. I guess I have to congratulate you on that, because it`s so unusual, even if you`re wrong, and you might well be wrong.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Scott Klug. It`s nice to talk to you again.

And, Michael Steele, as always, great, great to have you on.

Up next: closer than ever. New numbers -- look at this -- show the race between Hillary Clinton now and Bernie Sanders tightening. These numbers are amazing, just ahead of the Wisconsin primary next Tuesday. Can Sanders pull off another upset? It`s not even quite an upset now. He could really win this thing, like he did in Michigan. Or is this state more like Ohio, Clinton country? We`re going to see.

But Wisconsin is going to matter on the Democratic side, as well as the Republican side, next week.

And this is HARDBALL, out here in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

The Supreme Court deadlocked earlier in a case over fees that public employee unions charge nonmembers. The move leaves in place an appeals court ruling which upheld the charges.

Meanwhile, Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland met with Republican Senator Mark Kirk earlier. Kirk is the first Republican to meet with Garland. He is one of 15 GOP senators who say they`re open to speaking with him.

And Oscar-winning actress Patty Duke has passed away after suffering from an infection. She was 69 -- now back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

According to NBC News`s weekly election tracking poll, Bernie Sanders has cut Hillary Clinton`s lead in half. A week ago, she led the Vermonter 53- 41. That`s 12 points. Today, she is ahead by only 49-43, a six-point lead, cut in half.

Sanders for the first time leads among all male voters, a reversal from last week, when Clinton led Sanders by six points among men. Things are happening out there in the country on the Democratic side. Secretary Clinton is also losing support among all racial groups. Since last week, she dropped three points among white voters, four points among African- Americans, and five points among Latinos.

She retains her big lead among delegates, despite Sanders` victories last weekend in three state contests.

Joy Reid is national correspondent for MSNBC. And John Nichols is with "The Nation" and associate editor of "The Capital Times" here in Madison, Wisconsin.

John, I want to start with you. You`re local.

I get the feeling that Wisconsin is going to be very important. If Sanders wins here, he has not only lived off the land of having won this last weekend, those three big fights out in the West, Hawaii, Alaska and Washington State, but he`s heading into New York and the East Coast with some wind at his back, and he might just be taking her on now.

This is something that I thought was gone a couple of weeks ago. He is back.

JOHN NICHOLS, "THE NATION": Well, this is a roller-coaster race.

And I kind of sympathize with what you thought a couple of weeks ago. I think a lot of people did. But one thing that`s important is, this is a vibrant race. I have been watching it on the ground here in Wisconsin, and people really are excited about it.

So we shouldn`t be surprised that as a candidate posts a series of wins, which is what happened for Bernie Sanders last week, that people say, wow, OK, he is viable, he is looking like he is doing OK, and some folks move to him.

But you are really right about one core thing there, Chris. And that is that Wisconsin is pivotal. For Sanders at this point, he has to keep posting wins. He has got to, you know, have a steady pattern of victories, because that builds that narrative of momentum. And as long as he does, he is in good shape.

I think, in Wisconsin, he has got a real shot. As you get to some of those later states, as you well know, though, that`s a hard game.

MATTHEWS: I wonder -- I wonder, Joy, whether what`s also going on is the calculation voters are making.

Now, normally, Bernie Sanders would be too far left, too old, whatever, too -- you know, too much a backbencher all these years. But this year, voters may be thinking, especially younger voters, hey, anybody could beat Trump. If we get this guy the nomination, he could win the whole thing and become our next president. They may be thinking that now.

JOY REID, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Yes.

And I think that polls, the sort of national polling, which, by the way, is meaningless at this point -- but it doesn`t matter -- Bernie Sanders polls really well against Donald Trump in these theoretical matchups. And so I think you`re right.

I think the better that Trump does, the more that voters on the Democratic side say, you know what, we can take chances. But I think just to sort of revise a little bit of what you guys were just talking about a moment ago, those Western caucuses were really built for Bernie Sanders.

They were caucuses, first of all, the demographics.

MATTHEWS: I know.

REID: It was -- they were like 6, 7 percent turnout in some of the smaller ones. So, they`re smaller, more concentrated contests, where he has been doing really well the whole time.

So, he was supposed to win there. I think Wisconsin is important, because, demographically, it`s also a state that is built for Bernie. It`s got the right demographics for him. It`s about an 89 percent, 88 white population. You do non-Hispanic white, it`s like 82 percent, about a 6 percent African- American population.

And it`s got lots and lots of college campuses, which is where he tends to do really well because of his huge lead among young voters. So it`s a state he should win. So, what Bernie Sanders has to do is two things. He has to win where he is supposed to, right? He`s got to win states like Wisconsin, where he is supposed to, but then he`s got to surprise us somehow.

He`s got win in some states he is not supposed to, states with large minority populations and big primaries, not just caucuses. So, I think that Atlantic region swing is going to be even more important to his viability.

MATTHEWS: You know, John, we all know where Bernie Sanders is most strongest, and that`s college campuses. That`s caucuses. That`s in the more progressive states like Washington state, Oregon, states like that.

Is Wisconsin in that league, or is it a bit to the right of that cache of voters, a bit to the less progressive side? Or where would you put Wisconsin?

NICHOLS: Wisconsin Democrats -- and, remember, that`s a specific grouping -- are actually very progressive.

There is simply no doubt of that. This is the state that sent Russ Feingold to the Senate for three terms and that is very possibly going to send him back this year. And so I think that much of what Joy says is correct.

I would add one counsel, though. There`s a very interesting aspect of Wisconsin that I don`t think much of the national media is covering. Wisconsin is a very proud dairy state. So is Vermont. And it`s very interesting that Bernie Sanders, as he has come to Wisconsin, has ads up on TV with farmers talking about how Bernie Sanders is good for farmers.

That`s a smart strategy. And the last guy I saw do that really well was a guy named Jimmy Carter back in 1976, when he pulled a surprise win in Wisconsin.

REID: And, Chris, if I can add to that one more sort of factor...

MATTHEWS: Ben and Jerry`s country comes to Wisconsin. Interesting, Ben and Jerry`s and cheese all coming together in the dairy state.

REID: Yes.

NICHOLS: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: Go ahead. Last word, Joy.

REID: Last word, really quickly.

I think one of the other things to watch is that Bernie Sanders up to now has gotten incredibly positive media coverage. To the extent that he gets coverage, it`s almost always about his big crowds, about a bird on his podium, and it`s always very sunny.

As the contest becomes a lot sharper and a lot more negative, including Sanders going a lot more negative on Hillary Clinton, it will be interesting to see how that plays with the Democratic electorate and whether that changes these sort of calculations of voters in the race.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I think Bernie can get very negative and get away with it. That`s the way I`m reading the press coverage of Bernie Sanders. He is getting a good ride.

Barack Obama got a very good ride, as we all know. I was probably part of it. I have to tell you, Bernie Sanders is going to enjoy a pretty good ride in the press for a long time. A couple of weeks from now, we will probably still be saying the same thing.

Joy Reid, it`s always great.

John Nichols, thanks for the inside view out here. You`re a national guy and also a Wisconsin guy, and it`s great to hear your thinking about the importance of this state out here, because it is very important.

Up next, the HARDBALL roundtable is coming here with a preview of my town hall tomorrow night with Donald Trump himself. Boy, what a hot time to be meeting Mr. Trump. And that will be at 8:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night here on MSNBC.

It`s part of a big lineup of candidates tomorrow night on this network, starting with the town hall with John Kasich at 7:00 p.m. tomorrow night. My town hall, as I said, with Trump at 8:00. Hillary Clinton is coming here on MSNBC at 9:00 and Bernie Sanders at 10:00. Wow. What a night.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: How do you like Paul Ryan? How do you like him? Do you like him? You don`t like him. All right.

Wow. I was told be nice to Paul Ryan, because, really. All right.

Well, he is the speaker. He is a nice guy. He called me the other day. He was very nice. But I`m a very surprised at this statement. Wow.

Are you all Republicans?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was Donald Trump, of course, speaking in Janesville, Wisconsin, the hometown of House Speaker Paul Ryan, though apparently there weren`t many Ryan fans in the crowd.

Well, last week, Ryan thinly veiled shot at Trump. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Our political discourse, the kind we see on TV, and the kind that we experience among each other, it did not used to be this bad. And it does not have to be this way. Politics can be a battle of ideas. Not a battle of insults.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, according to "Politico", the political news magazine, Trump decided to hold his rally in Janesville, shortly after you heard those words. He heard those words. Quote, "Trump has made a habit of holding rallies in his rival`s backyard and this one was announced hours after Ryan condemned Trump`s rhetoric." Wow.

Joining me now on the HARDBALL round table tonight is "Washington Post" columnist Ruth Marcus, Cornell Belcher, Democratic strategist and former pollster for President Obama, and Francesca Chambers is the White House correspondent for "The Daily Mail".

I want to start with Ruth, who I often agree with when I read her column. What do you think? How big a mega tonnage, how powerful a story will be in this campaign that Corey Lewandowski, the campaign manager for Donald Trump, was arrested for simple assault today in Florida? How big a story will that become at the Republican convention in Cleveland? Will it still be a big story?

RUTH MARCUS, THE WASHINGTON POST: No, I think it`s going to be a 2, but that`s just because there is so much in this campaign that has been so overwhelmingly bizarro world. And so, this is just -- I mean, I think that the Lewandowski story itself is, you know, I`m sticking with my two. But it`s a piece of a larger narrative about Trump, about violence at his rallies, whether his rhetoric condones the violence and things like that.

MATTHEWS: I hear it too. Francesca, I hear it, too. What`s your view of this thing? But I`m not sure it`s blown up bigger than I thought it was. On "Nightly news" on NBC tonight, it was the first six or seven minutes. It was huge. So, I don`t know how big it will play in the papers. I assume front page tomorrow. Your thoughts, Francesca.

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, THE DAILY MAIL: Well, as we`ve seen in the campaign, there are a lot of issues that have come and gone that you might have thought would have stuck around a little longer, but as Ruth was kind of alluding to, then the next day, there is something else bizarre going on in the campaign that makes front-page news and then that`s the big story. We have a long time before we get to the convention and there is a lot of things that could happen still. But of course, John Kasich stating today that it could have been his daughter trying to bring more attention. Again, trying to crack --

MATTHEWS: That`s raising the level. Making it a family issue.

CHAMBERS: Trying to crack the narrative about Donald Trump and his campaign.

MATTHEWS: What is the number out of ten, how important?

CHAMBERS: I would say it`s a four. A little bit more important than the two, but I would say --

MATTHEWS: Why.

CHAMBERS: Because of the narrative it plays into. Not the specific incident, but the narrative about Trump and his rallies.

MATTHEWS: Yes, let`s compare this. I`ll give you a break, Cornell. You don`t need a break, but you`re a statistician. You know all this stuff. I would a Mitt Romney, 47 percent of the country, not being worthy of any attention by him was probably a 9 or 10. What would you give this for a bad day?

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: I split down the middle. Three. This has been --

MARCUS: Typical pollster, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: How comfortable of you. What a comfortable for you to take.

BELCHER: No, I think it`s a three, because both of my colleagues have said. We`ve had a campaign season that`s defy conventional wisdom. And I think in a typical campaign season, this would be devastating. But today, it`s not.

MARCUS: I`m going to chime in in defense of my two.

MATTHEWS: Go ahead, Ruth.

MARCUS: This is not the principle. There has been so much stuff coming from the mouth of the candidate himself, the tweeting, the insults, the tweeting the photo, unflattering photo of somebody`s wife. I mean, what his campaign manager is kind of like in the other ring of the circus that`s going on here.

MATTHEWS: I keep going back to these incidents and these campaigns that don`t seem important, like when Tom Dewey, back in `48, I read about this on the history books, yelled at a railroad engineer about the guy being too stupid or something because he started the train by accident. I never know what sends signals about who you are. You`re always looking for insights into the candidate.

Anyway, Cruz called the charge a consequence of the culture of the Trump campaign. He`s talking about the arrest and said this when asked by NBC`s Hallie Jackson, whether Trump should fire his campaign manager. Here is Cruz jumping on this.

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SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is not complicated that physical assaulting a reporter is a fireable offense. That ought to be the case in any campaign that is maintaining a standard of integrity.

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MATTHEWS: Well, the round table is sticking with us.

And up next, these three great reporters, and they are that, will tell me something I don`t know.

This is HARDBALL, out here in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the place for politics.

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MATTHEWS: We`re back with the HARDBALL round table.

Here we go. Ruth, tell me something I don`t know.

MARCUS: Well, HBO has a movie coming out next month called "Confirmation". It`s about the Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill hearings. It`s happened how I met my husband and we got a chance to see an advance screening of it.

It`s a really interesting movie. It`s a reminder that no matter how crazy the Senate is going over now the Merrick Garland nomination, it pales in comparison to those hearings that transfixed the country. If you lived through them, it`s an amazing reminder of what you went through --

MATTHEWS: I`d like to watch it. I can learn more about that case.

MARCUS: Go watch, yes.

MATTHEWS: Thank you. We`ll watch.

Cornell, what can you tell me?

BELCHER: I can say that Black Lives Matter is no longer considered a marginal group in the African-American community. New polling out shows that 47 percent of plurality of black millennials now see Black Lives Matter as more representative and as a voice for them that traditional iconic civil rights organizations. They`re seeing the leadership baton passed.

MATTHEWS: Bigger than the NAACP now for young people?

BELCHER: Yes, sir, it is.

MATTHEWS: Francesca, your thoughts.

CHAMBERS: Well, the Sanders campaign, Chris, yesterday claiming that it will be mission impossible for Hillary Clinton or for Bernie Sanders to come into the Democratic convention with a majority of delegates based on just the pledge delegate count.

Now, looking at that, that seems to be true. Hillary Clinton would have to win almost all the remaining delegates except for 600 to be able to do that. So, that means even the Sanders campaign admitting the super delegates will come into play. That`s bad news for them as Hillary Clinton has more than half of them.

MATTHEWS: OK, thanks so much, Ruth Marcus, Cornell Belcher, and Francesca Chambers. We`ll be right back.

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MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this up and down Democratic race for president. It strikes me the country needs to take this extremely seriously and for no other reason than Donald Trump seems headed to be the alternative. We all know the brackets. Either Trump wins the Republican nomination and the primaries, or someone else shows up as the winner at the convention.

It`s either Hillary Clinton or it`s Bernie Sanders who goes up against the winner of that fight. And it`s getting close. Sanders ahead among men Democratic voters. He`s cut Hillary Clinton`s overall lead in half from 12 percent to 6 percent in just a week. And if this keeps up, he could be ahead of race a week from now.

This race is the old question. Is Clinton losing or is Sanders gaining? Well, the numbers show both are true. Hillary Clinton is losing numbers. Sanders is picking up numbers.

Why? There are some factors in the news. Sanders strong weekend performance winning a trio of victories out west, Hawaii, Alaska, and the state of Washington. Also, while it`s hard to quantify there`s been the latest stories about Hillary Clinton`s e-mails, stories that to me only add to the murkiness of the matter.

The far larger fact to hear is the lack of excitement in the Clinton campaign. As soon as she gets a lead, she seems to cease making the news. It`s as if winning is enough for Secretary Clinton, where for Sanders, the goal is getting voters engaged and excited.

It`s hard to say how this failure to excite will play if Hillary Clinton should become the nominee, posed against Donald Trump. With all the questions and concerns that Trump raises, her relative calm might turn out to be a plus and might well turn out to constitute the margin of victory for her.

Well, that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

Coming up next on MSNBC, "ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES".

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