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MSNBC Hardball Transcript

Location: Unknown

February 19, 2004 Thursday

HEADLINE: HARDBALL For February 19, 2004

BYLINE: Chris Matthews

GUESTS: Al Sharpton; Dennis Kucinich; Ralph Reed; Sam Donaldson; Lesley Stahl

Will Sharpton and Kucinich bow out and leave the race to the top two contenders? Plus, a Bush-Cheney re-election strategist outlines the president's strategy. The AFL-CIO backs John Kerry.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Howard Dean bows out and leaves Kerry and Edwards to go at it. But will Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich stand back and let him do it?

Tonight we'll pop the question to them.

Plus legendary White House correspondent Leslie Stahl and Sam Donaldson.

Let's play HARDBALL.

I'm Chris Matthews. And coming up this hour, how can President Bush win re-election?

Long-time White House correspondents Sam Donaldson and Leslie tell us what the Bush White House is doing right and what it can do better.

But first four Democratic candidates remain in the field but, two of them have finished most primaries with less than 10 percent of the vote. The Reverend Al Sharpton and Congressman Dennis Kucinich are here.

Reverend Sharpton, let's look at what you told me in January about your strategy to win this election.


REV. AL SHARPTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is about picking up delegates. It is very possible, given the calendar I have just outlined, I will have as many or more delegates than the so-called frontrunner going into Super Tuesday.

We're running a strategic campaign. We know what we're doing, and we're going to do it well.

We can win in South Carolina. We can win in Virginia. There are many states we can win.


MATTHEWS: Out of 17 primaries and caucuses, the Reverend Sharpton has only won 16 delegates altogether.

Reverend Sharpton, welcome. What is your outlook for the campaign right now as you see it, looking at the numbers and the primaries coming up?

SHARPTON: Well, I think clearly that we're now coming into areas that we are stronger.

Certainly New York, California, Georgia and Connecticut and Maryland on Super Tuesday are where we have had bases for a long time. And I think that we will pick up delegates there.

You must remember, Chris, we have not even nearly finished the South. We've not dealt with Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, any number of places. So I think it is very premature to act like not only is the nomination over but that the majority of the party has even spoken.

I think the calendar was set in a way that I wanted to survive. We had hoped in some place to do better. Some places we did better than we thought.

But I think now we're coming into much more familiar terrain, which is very unfamiliar to the frontrunner and Mr. Edwards. And I think when they have to deal with an urban agenda, which neither of them have laid out, they're going to have a lot more difficulty than they have had thus far in being able to sell to the voters.

For example, Mr. Edwards is a co-sponsor of the Patriot Act. We have to explain that. I mean, there are a lot of issues that will change as we now go into suburb centers.

MATTHEWS: When we have presidential election debates in the fall, we had two guys, maybe three guys running in those debates, and it's pretty clear where they stand.

How can you get that kind of clarity when there's four people out there, two with a lot of delegates and two with not many delegates? How does that help the debate and pick a candidate?

SHARPTON: It helps the debate because clearly you can't win without all of the elements of the party coming in. And unless someone is going to write off urban centers and unless someone is going to write off a constituency that all of us represent, then I think that you have to ask yourself how do you do it and exclude them?

Let's face it. In Detroit, I on the on-day election, beat John Kerry. He won when the Internet vote was brought in.

In Washington, D.C.'s caucus last Saturday, I beat him 2-1 in the black wards. Is he willing to write all of that off and say, "I don't want these people heard from?" I don't think that's a smart thing to do strategically.

MATTHEWS: Well, I've never shut you down. I think you're a great candidate. We've had you on as often as we could get you. And I'm all for that.

But doesn't there come a time, Rev. Sharpton, where it gets past the debate and the issues being raised and the sharp points being raised by yourself and others, you've got to pick a candidate.

How can you have a debate with two guys fighting with each other when there's two other people in the way?

SHARPTON: Well, first of all, then we should throw the rules out the window.

The rules say that you don't have a nominee until you have 2,100 delegates. No one is anywhere near that.

The rules also say that we have to go every primaries and caucus with the candidates on the field. So are we now saying that we're going to go through some? If a guy looks like he's out ahead, then let's forget about the rest of the primaries and caucuses? Then why have the rules?

In '84 when Reverend Jackson ran, Mondale and Hart were way ahead. He debated all the way to the end. He ended up with, like, 384 delegates, nowhere near the 2,100. But can anyone say that the element he represented was not important to the party?

So are we changing the rules? Say we're changing it. And those which you're changing on would then have to decide whether they want to remain loyal to a game that you can change the rules when you get ready.

MATTHEWS: Good point. What about these rules that say you have to get 15 points to get into a debate?

SHARPTON: Who made those rules and who agreed to those rules? They said-According to what I understand, that you had to get 10 percent, which we have done.

In fact I got 20 percent in the Washington, D.C., caucus last Saturday. So what happens with that? I got delegates and 20 percent of the Washington, D.C., caucus. Thirty-four percent of the non-binding caucus. Ten percent in South Carolina.

So are they just going to keep doing numbers up and down until they can try to get two guys, because they want to exclude a lot of the party? They can do it, but I think it's to the danger of the party, turning off a constituency that it needs.

MATTHEWS: Let's listen to John Edwards on Tuesday night. He had something to say along these lines. Here's Senator John Edwards.


SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This whole process for me is about getting to the place where I have a head on head with Senator Kerry or one other person. It is Senator Kerry in this case, so we can debate head to head and people can see the clear differences between us.


MATTHEWS: Well, they want a head to head. Do you think he's wrong in demanding-or asking for a head to head?

SHARPTON: First of all, if he gets a head to head, the assumption is that he represents all the rest of the party. And that has been proven at the polls to be not true.

He has not done well at all in the Detroits and the Washington, D.C.'s of the world. So who is he head to head with? Are we then to assume that the rest of us don't matter?

I mean, Gary Hart said the same thing about Mondale. I think it's a little arrogant. But even more important, I think it abandons constituency bases in this party that we cannot afford to turn off when we need them turned on in November.

MATTHEWS: Have you got any calls from people like Terry McAuliffe saying, "Let's thin out the field? You should step back and let the two frontrunners go at it in TV debates"?

SHARPTON: Not at all. In fact, I think that we again have to look at the numbers where-you know, when John Edwards left South Carolina, a great victory. He was not able to duplicate that anywhere else in the South.

I mean, this thing has been volatile back and forward. Most of the Congressional Black Caucus supported Howard Dean, who bowed out yesterday. In fact, I got double his vote in South Carolina.

So who knows who's going to last? And I think to try to cut off the field this early in the game, it may end up cutting off a lot of support.

MATTHEWS: When-When should it come down to two guys? When should we have a runoff, in effect? You said this is early in the game. When will it be time in the game for two candidates who have a shot at winning this nomination going head to head? When will that time be?

SHARPTON: When somebody gets 2,100 votes and has the nomination or we should change the rules...

MATTHEWS: Then it's over.

SHARPTON: Well, then we should change the rules...

MATTHEWS: You just said...


MATTHEWS: You said don't have a debate until it doesn't matter.

SHARPTON: And that's when someone has won the nomination. Why have rules if you're not going to abide by them?

MATTHEWS: Well, why not have a runoff?

SHARPTON: Let's-Well, then someone ought to propose a runoff. We bring that to the rules committee. If we agreed to that, we'd do it.

But let's put it this way, Chris. If John Kerry or John Edwards can't get by Al Sharpton, they won't get by George Bush. If they get by us in the primaries, then it only makes them a better candidate for Bush.

You can't have it when you're going to stack the deck and hope you win with a stacked deck card game.

MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you. The Reverend Al Sharpton. Thank you for joining us on HARDBALL. You're always welcome here, Reverend.

Content and programming copyright 2004 MSNBC.

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