It's down to the wire in the US. Republican Mitt Romney has rattled the assumptions around an Obama second term, closing the gap during the presidential debates. So we go hold of one of the top political pundits stateside. Chris Matthews is the host of 'Hardball' daily on MSNBC and 'The Chris Matthews Show' each Sunday morning on NBC. I started by asking, just days from the election, who the smart money is on and what trends he's seeing.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, Hardball host
Well, right now, the president has had a good week. He's been working with the governor of New Jersey, a Republican, Chris Christie, to oversee and supervise the recovery efforts from this big tropical storm that just hit the north-east coast and did tremendous damage, especially to New Jersey. And so the president has looked on the job. He's been bipartisan. And so he's had his first really good week since that disastrous first debate with Governor Romney. And so I would say the two events of the last several weeks have been the first debate, which the president lost, and this hurricane coverage and response where he's done quite well. We have a poll in the Washington Post this morning that said four out of five people think he's done a good job in handling this emergency. And so I'd say the president has a bit of momentum going over this weekend. I always believe that Thursday before an election sets the projection for the election. Nothing generally happens between Thursday and the election. Whatever the numbers are Thursday, whatever the direction is Thursday tells you who's going to win.
GREG Chris, on the subject of Hurricane Sandy, is there a danger that because it's been such a big event, so many people affected, that the focus for many Americans, many voters, will be on that, rather than simply heading to a polling booth?
CHRIS No, I think that everyone knows about this election, and I think we'll have a very good turnout. There are some technical problems, geographic problems in New Jersey, but I think everyone's going to vote. I think the big change in topic, if you will, was all the static, from the right wing especially, about what happened to our very loved ambassador in Benghazi, in Libya, where he was killed, Christopher Stevens, and there was a lot of concern about the failure of the administrators to give a straight story on that. That story was buried by Sandy, and I think that's probably the most important thing - that Sandy killed the story about what happened in Libya to the president's benefit, and now the story is Sandy right through the weekend. So I think that's the big development.
GREG You've covered, what, six or seven elections. How pivotal is that first presidential debate been, in your opinion, to changing the face of this, changing the character of where this election could go?
CHRIS Well, if Governor Romney wins, and that's a possibility, if he wins this election, he will be the fourth challenger to the party in power to win the election because of the debates, and because of especially the first debate. Jack Kennedy in '60, Ronald Reagan, George W Bush in 2000, and now him. They were all challengers, they all were behind going into the debates. They all came out of the debates ahead and won, and so I think he would be the fourth. Debates are especially handy for challengers. They're the only people that have really exploited them. So you always want to have a debate if you're running as the representative of a party out of power, out of the White House.
GREG Let's talk about the president himself. Is there a sense that his first term has been an opportunity missed, he's not as good as people thought? Or are people willing to accept circumstances he's inherited from the previous administration have overwhelmed him and no one could have done much better?
CHRIS Well, the best case for him was made by former president Bill Clinton, who said that not even he, and that was a concession on his part, he said that not even he could have done better given the fact that if you look at the numbers, we were looking at a Dow Jones stock market that was cut in half. If you're looking at the employment numbers, it was shooting up past double digits, well above 10%. There was a great deal of fear out there. He came into office. Now the stock market has doubled. The unemployment rate has come down from over 10% to below 8%. So far, so good. You're right, it's how you look at it. Is the glass half full or half empty? Now, it's a fair judgement on both sides, I think. You could argue that the president shows the wrong fiscal policy. He believed in Keynesian economics, as most people on the liberal side do - big government spending to offset the failure of business and the consumer to spend. That's what he tried, almost a billion US dollars in stimulus the first year. That is problematic - did he spend enough? Did he spend too much? But I think that most people would say that it's been an under-exciting response, that he could have done better, he could have been luckier. But I think everybody recognises, including Mr Romney, that he came in with a very bad hand. Now, just to go back through US history, Franklin Roosevelt was lucky, in a way, because he came in after the great depression had hit bottom, more or less. It had really gone down under Herbert Hoover. Four years of depression. And so it was clear who had caused it. The trouble for President Obama is that he came in during the fall, and so the fall didn't reach its bottom until the end of his first year. So he takes some of the blame for what happened because he came in during it. And that is a problem for the voter to try and figure out, for the voter to sort out how much blame do they give to George W Bush, the predecessor, and how much do they give to President Obama. So a fair person can come out on either side on this one.
GREG Let's talk about the challenger, Mitt Romney. The perception right from the get go appeared to be he had too much money, he didn't have the common touch, he wasn't in touch with what most Americans voters need or want. Perhaps that wasn't helped by his 47% comment about so many Americans feeling a sense of entitlement. Has that perception changed? Has he managed to swing that perception?
CHRIS We haven't cottoned to self-made millionaires in this country. We tend to vote for people of moderate means or people who have inherited a lot of money, old money we call it here, and I think you call it the same. The Roosevelts, the Kennedys - they didn't do badly in our politics, even though they'd inherited a great deal of money. And people of moderate means, like General Eisenhower and Harry Truman and Bill Clinton. They did well too. But we don't seem to have room for the self-made millionaire. There's something about it, even though this is a country of rugged capitalism. We don't seem to like rugged capitalists for our politicians, for our presidents. And so, really, I think about this Mitt Romney, he made all that money himself as an equity capitalist, as an investment banker, if you will, and no one seems to be that impressed by it. They seem to resent him as someone who is living very well and doesn't know how most people live.
GREG The other key point, I guess, with Mitt Romney, aside from the money, is the religion side of who Mitt Romney is and what Mitt Romney is. How much of a factor is his Mormonism playing?
CHRIS No one's mentioned it. I think that's a big surprise, that it hasn't been exploited. I know of no underground campaign to exploit it. And one thing that makes it almost irrelevant is that the states where it would bother people, that he's a member of that church, are the southern states, where they're very evangelical, where they're very fundamentalist in their Christianity, and he's going to win those states rather handily. He's going to win Mississippi, Alabama. He's going to win those states, South Carolina, where you have a lot of Baptists, a lot of evangelicals, and they have nowhere else to go. So the great irony of this election is that the man who has the religion which is a minority religion will not be hurt by it. I don't think so. I don't think it's gonna show up.
GREG Where will you be looking? What should the rest of the world be looking out for, state-wise?
CHRIS Ohio will come in very early. Ohio will tell us if Obama's going to win. I think the way it looks now is Obama should win Ohio. If he doesn't, this is a very bad sign, because I think he will have a hard time winning Florida or Virginia. If he wins all three, we're looking at a wave, at a big win. If he wins two, a pretty sound victory for Obama. If he wins one, Ohio, it's going to be a very close race. That's how I'd do it. I'd look at those first three states that come in - Florida, Virginia and Ohio.
GREG Chris, I'm gonna put you on the spot. I guess you knew this was coming. Can you pick a winner at this stage?
CHRIS I better not, because we live in a global community, and I would have done so in Auckland and I would have done so in New York City, where I work. I do think- I'll say this. This has been a good week for the president. Had he not had this week, I would be pessimistic on his score. I think it's going to be very very close, and that's all I can say, very close.