GWEN IFILL: And now to the shifting state of play in the Republican presidential campaign here.
Judy Woodruff has that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mitt Romney came out of the weekend hoping he’d at least partly rebounded from losses in three states last Tuesday with a pair of wins on Saturday.
MITT ROMNEY (R): I want to be your nominee. I want to be beat President Obama. I believe I can. I believe I’m the one person in this race who actually can beat the president.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The former Massachusetts governor pulled off a victory in the Maine caucuses, taking 39 percent of the vote. Texas Congressman Ron Paul placed second with 36 percent. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich finished far back.
Fewer than 5,600 people voted, and one county delayed its caucuses due to a forecast of snow. Romney also won Saturday’s straw poll of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, with 38 percent to 31 percent for Santorum.
But Sunday on CNN, Santorum cast doubt on how Romney won.
RICK SANTORUM (R): Well, you know, those straw polls at CPAC, as you know, for years, Ron Paul has won those because he just chucks in a lot of people, pays for their ticket, and they come in vote, and then they leave.
And we didn’t do that. We don’t do that. I don’t try to rig straw polls. I know that there was some . . .
CANDY CROWLEY, host, “State of the Union”: Do you think Gov. Romney rigged it?
RICK SANTORUM: . . . unhappiness at the announcement.
Well, you have to talk to the Romney campaign and how many tickets they have bought. We have heard all sorts of things.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney also faced renewed questions about his conservative credentials from Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.
SARAH PALIN (R), former Alaska governor: I am not convinced, and I don’t think that the majority of GOP and independent voters are convinced. And that is why you don’t see Romney get over that hump. He’s still in the 30 percentile mark when it comes to approval and primary wins and caucus wins.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But at the CPAC conference, others said the differences between the Republican contenders have been overblown.
Grover Norquist runs the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform.
GROVER NORQUIST, Americans for Tax Reform: All the candidates are in the same zone. And minor differences are picked at. And they go, ah, see, big difference.
What big difference? What are you talking about? They all want lower taxes. They all want less spending. They all want less regulation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Al Cardenas heads the American Conservative Union. He says Romney has been consistent and it’s the field that’s changed.
AL CARDENAS, American Conservative Union: In 2008, he was running against John McCain and Rudy Giuliani primarily, both perceived to be to his left. And so he was viewed as the conservative candidate. Now you have got a field of candidates, some of which are perceived to be to his right. That doesn’t make him a moderate. He’s as conservative as he’s always been, but the dynamics of each race have been very different.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The latest evidence of those shifting dynamics came today, as a new national poll by the Pew Research Center found Santorum slightly ahead of Romney, 30 to 28 percent.
And now to some analysis from Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today, and Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call newspaper.
Thank you both. It’s good to have you back with us.
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Thanks, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mitt Romney did make up some ground over the weekend, but, Stu, as Sarah Palin put it, why is he having such a hard time getting over this hump?
STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Right.
Well, this race really has been a lot about momentum, who won the last contest. And I just think he has a fundamental problem, in spite of his successes, in spite of his strengths. And he has plenty of assets. He just has not convinced a majority of the Republican Party that he is a true-blue conservative. They don’t believe it. He’s been saying how conservative he is, Judy, for months and months. They just don’t buy it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: If he’s been saying it, Susan, why aren’t they buying it?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, for one thing, he has a past that is more moderate, as we know, in Massachusetts.
You know, the irony is that these very conservative forces, the Tea Party movement supporters in the Republican Party have won the war. All the candidates have positions on the big issues that are very consistent with the Tea Party, very conservative, part of the party’s agenda.
And yet they lack trust in Romney and enthusiasm for Romney. It doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t support him if he was the nominee against Barack Obama. Barack Obama is going to be a great unifier for Republicans this year. But it’s not the candidate that they want in their heart.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But when he uses a term, Stu, like “severely conservative,” an adverb we hadn’t really . . .
STUART ROTHENBERG: An awkward — an awkward phrase . . .
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you explain that?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think he seems to talk a lot from talking points. And when he gets outside of that comfort zone, anything can happen.
I think he is so intent, Judy, on expressing his deep conservative convictions, that he’s searching for terms and words. And really I don’t think there’s anything he can say that can — will convince, can convince very conservative Republicans. We’re not talking about somewhat conservative Republicans. We’re talking about the most conservative element in the party.
There’s nothing that he can say. He has said everything already. They just have looked at his background, seen his multiple position on abortions. Stylistically, he’s just much more an establishment kind of guy. They’re not going to believe him.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Susan, what does that portend? You do have a lot of other primaries coming up. Just in the next few weeks, it’s Arizona, Michigan, Washington state.
SUSAN PAGE: And then you go to Super Tuesday, where we will have 10 states voting on one day.
Romney continues to be the candidate who has the best organization, has the most money, has the most discipline, as the guy who has been around the track before. So all those are advantages. But one consequence of the fight that he’s had against one alternative after another is that it’s really beaten him up. It’s beaten him up for the general election.
We see his favorable ratings among independent voters, the people he will be coming back to after winning the nomination, if he does, really falling, his standing against President Obama falling. In the Pew poll that you mentioned, he trails Obama nationwide by eight points now. They used to be competitive in that poll.
JUDY WOODRUFF: He’s flipped.
SUSAN PAGE: That reflects the bruises that he’s taking on as a result of this fight.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So — but can he go on to the nomination, Stu, if he doesn’t ever win over this conservative core, most conservative core of the Republican electorate?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think he can. But it’s obvious it’s a problem.
I think he can because what Susan said, the size and the weight of the campaign, the financial advantage, and as long as he has two conservative candidates dividing up that vote. And the longer we go through the process, the more delegates he will pick up. And Newt Gingrich will get some and Rick Santorum will get some.
But if – there’ll be a point at which Romney starts to really look like the inevitable candidate that he hoped by now he would look. And at that point, he may start to pick up steam. But it is going to be, over the next few weeks and maybe longer, quite a slog.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, Susan, Rick Santorum seems to be the beneficiary.
Does he have the kind of strengths that are going to give him the wins that he needs then to be considered a real contender for the nomination?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, it’s nice to be riding a wave, which is what Rick Santorum is doing now.
In the Gallup daily track, he moved up 14 points in 10 days. That’s the fastest, biggest surge in the history of this very volatile race. So that’s good for him. But the thing we have seen is, these candidates, they go up and they come down just about as fast. He’s going to have scrutiny that he’s not had before, for instance, his tax returns.
Tax returns for Mitt Romney turned out to be pretty troublesome. Rick Santorum says he will put out his tax returns. He hasn’t done that yet. At that point, there will be some stories about that. He’s also going to face an onslaught of negative ads against him by Mitt Romney’s campaign and by Restore Our Future, the super PAC that is supporting Mitt Romney.
And we saw, with Newt Gingrich, how hard it is to stand up against that, when you’ve got all these big states voting, lots of contest going on, to face an ad campaign like that.
STUART ROTHENBERG: And I would simply add, he has the same problem that Newt Gingrich has, that is, Washington.
He’s been in Congress. He was in Congress for years. He voted for earmarks. I think the Romney folks are going to go after him again as a Washington insider who supported a process that got this country into the substantial hole it is.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Two other quick subjects.
One is, Stu, the whole contraception controversy. The administration, the Obama administration tried to put an end to it. They gave ground at the end of last week — the Catholic hierarchy, Republicans not appeased. But for most people, have been they able to put this behind them?
STUART ROTHENBERG: I think for the moment, although I think we’re going to end up coming back to this in a different context of the role of government and government being bigger and getting involved in really controversial decisions.
I would point out this, Judy. For weeks, the president wasn’t in the — wasn’t the center of attention. It was all about the Republicans. And now we have seen within a matter of days, first with the contraception issue, with the religious freedom issue, and now with the budget, how it’s going to be back to Barack Obama. And his positions are going to be controversial.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And when it comes to that budget which was released today, Susan, what do we know about the president, how the president is thinking about election? Because these budgets are always seen as election — especially in election years, seen as political statements.
SUSAN PAGE: They’re always political statements, this one particularly so.
There’s no expectation by anyone in Washington that this is a blueprint for how the nation is going to proceed on its actual budget. It’s a blueprint for the debate we’re going to have this year. And, actually, it provides a pretty sharp contrast for Americans on what — what they want to spend their money on, the government’s money, how big a government they want, what role they want the government to play in the economy, in their lives in things like education and health care — so in that way, a helpful debate.
But in terms of, like, is this is the course the nation is going to go on, no. This is going to be the debate that we’re going to have for the next nine months.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan Page, Stu Rothenberg, thank you both.
SUSAN PAGE: Thank you, Judy.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks.