Like an offensive-line blocking for their quarterback Chris Matthews and the rest of Wednesday night's "Hardball" panel game-planned to protect Barack Obama from what they saw as the coming "vicious" and "nasty" attacks from Republican sack artists in the fall.
On Wednesday night's "Hardball" Matthews, along with NBC's Norah O'Donnell and Newsweek's Howard Fineman continued to gripe about conservative talk show host Bill Cunningham's emphasis of Barack Obama's middle name of Hussein as Matthews worried: "Is this gonna be a vicious, almost ethnic fight, going after the guy because of his heritage, his name and saying, He's gonna sell us out.’ Is that what's coming?"
To which O'Donnell fearfully replied: "I think, unfortunately, that's gonna be one of the dirty storylines of this campaign." Fineman then predicted of the GOP general campaign tactics: "It's gonna be nasty and vicious."
The following exchanges occurred on the February 27 edition of "Hardball:"
CHRIS MATTHEWS: His vulnerability is as follows. This guy Cunningham, this character, this radio talk show, unfortunately he has the name Bill Cunningham, which is a nice name, unfortunately he has it. He attacks him the other day by saying his name is Hussein. He's trying to play off him as some sort of enemy of America, an Islamic terrorist, whatever he's trying to imply by the, there's millions of people in this world named Hussein, a lot of them on our side. And he's making it sound like that's his, "I caught him. He's got a middle name Hussein, I figured this thing out." Rush Limbaugh is playing this game of saying, "What's wrong with bringing up his middle name?" What's wrong with playing that name? And now we got the head of the Tennessee Republican Party going after him again, on that front. Is this gonna be a vicious, almost ethnic fight, going after the guy because of his heritage, his name and saying, "He's gonna sell us out." Is that what's coming?
NORAH O'DONNELL: There are some Republicans and some conservatives who want it to be that fight. Who will try and disparage Barack Obama, trying to paint him as a Muslim. He is not a Muslim he is a Christian and as someone who is anti-Israel. They are tying him to Louis Farrakhan today, that's what the Tennessee Republican Party is trying to do. But you've seen Barack Obama try and push back. I think, unfortunately, that's gonna be one of the dirty storylines of this campaign.
MATTHEWS: And magically or rather evilly it has begun at the very moment it looks like Barack Obama may, may, underline "may," may have won this fight for the nomination.
HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK: Two things. First of all John McCain promised not to do this kind of thing, McCain himself.
MATTHEWS: Again, today he did that.
FINEMAN: Yes, yes.
MATTHEWS: He will not use the guy's ethnic heritage against him.
FINEMAN: Yeah. He'll just, he'll just call him a traitor by saying he wants to surrender. So, McCain, McCain will take the high--
MATTHEWS: But he's a good American, he's a good American who wants to surrender.
FINEMAN: Yes, yeah. McCain will take the high road and say "surrender," and these other people--
MATTHEWS: The others say he's a foreigner.
FINEMAN: –and these other people will say he's a foreigner. That's where we're headed. And it's gonna be a classic, classic, and it's gonna be nasty and vicious. And it's gonna be up to Obama who says his key ability is the ability to bridge divides to do it again, to do it again.
MATTHEWS: It is, it is his challenge to be a leader and a great American leader...
FINEMAN: And it's a great challenge and a great reward.